June 17, 2019

Free Fiction Friday: The Hunt For Beagle Part 6

And here it is… our weekly offering of free and original fiction with chapter 6 of The Hunt For Beagle novelette. You can find lots more over at our Amazon author page!

Go here to start from Chapter 1.

The Hunt For Beagle

by

David Dickinson

Chapter 6

By Martian local noon, Andrea had begun to worry. Without communications, they only had T.I.N.A.’s internal navigation computer to go by, plus what her grandfather would call “stick-and-eyeball” reckoning. They should be near the Beagle 2 crash site, yet Andrea knew that due to their latest adventures, they weren’t even close. They had perhaps 60 more klicks to cover, and Zeke had noticed that their front axle was now slipping, no doubt due to their flight from the scavengers. “T.I.N.A. can’t repair her, not without her mobile unit,” Zeke explained. “I’ll probably have to crawl under and take a look when we stop.”

Andrea was fuming. Already, they were past their turnaround point time-wise, and she hadn’t factored in search time. What did you expect, it would be packaged with a bow and sitting on a pedestal? No imagined extra credit assignment was worth this.

“Just a bit farther…”

Another hour passed. There was an unspoken realization between them that they would not make it back to Saganopolis on time, and that they would both be in a world of hurt. Andrea was used to accepting consequences, but to Zeke, it represented a new and terrifying world.

Zeke pulled up to a final rock wall and shut the crawler’s engine down. The silence between them now seemed like a roar to Andrea.

“We’re turning back.” He said, visibly shaken.

“But…”

“No buts…my Dad’s gonna kill me.” Zeke started to don an excursion suit. “I’m gonna peek at the underside.”

Andrea stared idly out at the horizon as Zeke examined the crawler’s underbelly. She heard him use a few colorful expletives she knew would instantly bounce them both out of class, and knew the news could not be good.

Looking out at the horizon, she saw a thin dark line low to the east that divided the land from the sky. The air now had an undeniable yellowish tint. To anyone on Mars, that meant only one thing. Sandstorms… and they only had one broken crawler for shelter. They couldn’t outrun it, but they could weather it all right under the crawlers’ sand tarp.

Andrea began scanning around the general area with a hand held metal detector. “It’s now or never to find this thing,” she whispered to herself and over the comm.

“Don’t stray too far,” Zeke called back, not looking up. “Once I fix this, we’re rolling.”

Andrea squinted off to the south. Out in the open desert, it was dangerously easy to lose sense of perspective.  Far off objects could seem nearby, and vice versa. Andrea remembered how her grandfather had told her they used to use anaglyphs —early 3D glasses— to drive the first unmanned rovers. “The funny thing,” she heard him say, “is that those first colonists found they had to take up that trick again. That is, if they wanted to find their way back from the toilet-pod!”

The rocks and dunes continued to tease her. Was that a speck of white off in the distance? A glint of metal? A shard of a parachute? These things kept tugging at the corner of her eye, but refused to come into sharp focus. She trudged along, trying to stay in a straight line from the creeper, finding the low boulders making it nearly impossible to do so. She knew from her research that the Beagle 2 lander was tiny, and there was never a satisfactory explanation as to what had happened to it. Did it land intact or smash against the desert floor into a thousand pieces? She breathed harder as she worked along, sweeping the detector in front of her as she wore on. On foot, this began to seem like a losing battle…

She spied a low small hill. She judged they had about two hours of daylight left. I could just make it there and back…. She hoped she could briefly scan the surrounding terrain from its top. She radioed Zeke, but wasn’t sure if he got her call. A burst of static filled her headset.

This is where she truly thrived. Girl against Mars. Girl against the Solar Legion. Girl against the entire universe! She picked her way around the rocks towards the hill, which now seemed to be moving away in front of her. She was blithely unaware of her own mortality. She soon realized the creeper was out of sight. I’ll see it again from the hill… she thought, spurring herself on. At least I can follow my tracks back…

She summited the hill and collapsed. It took her much longer to reach the top than she had estimated, and the hill was more like an ancient, eroded mountain. Gathering her strength, she scanned the surrounding desert first for the lander, then the creeper. Nothing. She tapped up her visor magnification, and scanned again, still nothing.

“Baby Bird to Rooster, come in,” she called out on her comm.… not even static greeted her. Darn! That witch had to shoot off our dish! She could now hear the strong steady but persistent Ping! Ping! of sand particles striking her face plate. She knew these storms sometimes moved at twice the speed of sound on Mars. Being caught in the middle of one was no place to be exposed; she had heard a strong Martian sandstorm could strip a suit and flesh bare. She didn’t know if that was true or not, and decided not to find out.

She listened a bit…had the pings picked up? Could she hear a low faint hum through her feet transmitted through the ground? It was impossible to tell. Keep your head, girl, this is real. Again, she remembered her grandfather’s advice. “If you’re caught out in the open in a storm, girlie, take cover against the wind, but not in a hole or cave, or you’ll find yourself buried.” She quickly scanned around. None of the surrounding rocks seemed big enough. Farther down was a crevasse… she thought she just might make it. Already, the storm was swiftly erasing her tracks, and she thought better of heading back. Gotta pick a spot to hunker down quick and stick with it…

She found the crevasse was blocked from the wind and just high enough for her to fit into. She looked out to see streamers of sand now whipping by. Visibility was dropping fast. Was Zeke looking for her? Thinking methodically, she decided to inventory what she had:

The detector. Of course, it had yet to actually detect anything!

The stolen pistol. She liked the weight of it, strapped to her thigh. But it wasn’t as if there was anything to shoot out here.

Her suit. This was the thin layer between her and death. It had 8 hours of battery power left, but only 6 hours of air. Andrea wasn’t sure why they built them that way, as she couldn’t hold her breath for two hours. She saw she had maybe a cup full of water in her drink tube, and no food rations. She didn’t think she would be out here long enough to load any. She wondered again if Zeke was searching for her or was already pinned down… she flicked on her suit’s transponder. Now anyone, friend or foe, could locate her, although she doubted anyone was moving about in the gathering darkness. How long did she have? How would if feel to be buried and suffocated to death? Would anyone ever find her body? She tried to push these thoughts aside. She fought hard against an impulse to run straight out into the storm screaming, an action that would assure a quick death.

Gotta pull in, conserve energy… She had heard that sleeping conserved air. Of course, sleeping was the last thing she felt like doing right now, for fear of not waking up… Calmly she dialed through her suits’ settings on her heads-up display. She set an alarm to wake her when an hour’s worth of air remained. She then began to dial down her suit’s airflow in 10% increments once a minute. 90%, 80%, 70%… the heaviness of exhaustion began to set into her bones. Zeke will find me.  I won’t die out here… She had so much left to do: she hadn’t climbed Olympus Mons, hadn’t really been off world. She had a bright, shining future ahead of her as an interplanetary neuro-correspondent…a blurry 50% was the last thing she saw before she fell asleep.

 

Andrea’s mom, Alexi, got off the call. She breathed hard and sighed. “They say all of the Gliders are grounded,” She began to Andrea’s older sister Kara, who had just arrived. “They won’t be able to mount a search until the storm wave passes”

“That could be weeks!” Kara shot back, nearly spilling her tea. The Terran Legion doesn’t give a damn…”

“Just what’s got into that girl…” Alexi shook her head. She’d realized Andrea was gone when she talked to Kara this morning. A Grid call to Zoe, one of Andrea’s friends, confirmed this; Alexi knew she could trust Zoe to spill the beans…then a call from her friend Hanna had sealed the matter. She knew about the half-baked scheme to scour the desert for a “lost Terran lander.”

“She’s been this way ever since your father passed…”

“Don’t blame yourself, Mom…we all gave you hell if you’ll recall…”

“Not like this…” Alexi looked off into the dark Martian night. It was unfathomable to her that her youngest daughter might be out there, somewhere…She didn’t care to punish her, she’d already gotten past that. She just wanted Andrea to walk through that door, alive…

to be continued…

Read The Hunt For Beagle in its entirety.

 

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