Mars Planetary Outpost No. 23

Colonization of Mars was doomed to failure the first few times. There just wasn’t enough knowledge about living on a planet that wasn’t Earth and too much belief in the ability of scientists without the aid of creatives to survive. Smaller groups didn’t fare well because of interpersonal dynamics that were either ignored or cropped up after a year living alone together. When two people out of six start bickering and sides are drawn in a place with limited oxygen, there just isn’t any good way to go outside and take a breather.

Attempts at terraforming the planet failed because corporations couldn’t work together. Their sciences contradicted each other, and their methods either canceled the other out or combined in ways that made Mars more toxic. Since no one was in charge of colonization, there wasn’t anyone to blame or lay claim against for compensation.

Still, humans are stubborn and capable of solving any problem when they figure out what the problem is. People kept signing up to colonize Mars, and private and public organizations kept sending them into space. Some of the poor bastards never made it out of orbit. Many died on the way to Mars, and many died on entry into the Martian atmosphere or upon landing. In the early days, there were even a couple of companies that conned money out of people, got them off Earth, and that was it. The space vehicles and their passengers were never heard from again. There are no police in space, and there are no coffins.

MPO #23 was being established as part of a multiple planetary outpost construction plan. MPOs #21 and 22 were built and populated at the same time with a small crew of 100 each, who were to build the domes and places where the next team to arrive would live. MPO 22 was situated on an unstable landmass and lost in a sinkhole. There were no survivors. MPO 21 was successfully completed and had sent out six people to handle the preliminary building of MPO 23. It was all lightweight, modular construction and should be relatively easy for the six to handle.

MPO 21 and 23 were distant enough from one another to provide a refuge in case of localized disasters or emergencies but close enough that individuals could go from one outpost to the other when the need arose. Communication was hazy at the best of times and impossible when the dust storms kicked up, but the knowledge that there was someplace else to go was enough to ease most colonists’ minds. No one felt like a trapped animal.

“MPO 21, this is MPO 23.” Mitchell sat at the ham radio the outposts used to contact each other. “MPO 21, this is MPO 23.” The static on the other end was usual. While regulations said that there should be someone at the radio at all times, MPO 21 wasn’t known for its military precision. “MPO 21, this is MPO 23. Do you copy?” MPO 21’s emergency beacon had sent a disturbing video to the network that connected the outposts. “MPO 21, this is MPO 23. Please respond.” Mitchell kept trying to raise the other outpost. They had been trying for a couple of hours. The commander was going to have to send out a team.

Mitchell kept the line open and waited. He looked up to the screen in front of him. It played the loop of one of the scientists screaming frantically at the video camera. There was no sound. The lights behind the scientist flickered on and off as they rocked back and forth on their wires. Sparks flew as a light bulb popped and the transmission went dead. Mitchell and Shane, the other person in the room, tried to read lips, but without context other than fear, nothing really made sense.

“MPO 21, this is MPO 23. Is there anyone there?”

“Report, soldier.” Commander Thaun arrived unexpectedly behind Mitchell. Thaun was a no-nonsense commander. She didn’t like speech longer than it had to be. The successful soldier understood that. Other soldiers transferred when they could or suffered her silent glare fearing that she may have to reprimand them. It was never pretty.

“Commander, no response. I’ll keep trying.”

Thaun nodded her approval.

“MPO 21, this is MPO 23. Are you listening?”

Mitchell kept up his call as Thaun moved farther into the room.

“Analysis?” Thaun looked at Shane who was working the instrument panel.

“Um…” Shane looked up. “Nothing definite, commander.”

“Explain.”

Shane scratched his head. “The readings don’t make sense with the visual data. If MPO 21 would answer our call, I would guarantee that the electronics are on the fritz. There’s just so much sand here, and truthfully, we weren’t outfitted with the best equipment to begin…” Shane saw the commander glaring at him and stopped his critique.

“Suppose the readings are correct, Shane, and the visual data is false. Then what?”

Shane rubbed the lower half of his face. He knew that if he told the commander that such a thing was impossible, he would find himself in the brig. Without more data, he didn’t really want to suppose anything. He wanted to be sure. The electronic sensors had picked something up, but he had no idea what it meant.

“If the sensors are right and the visual data is wrong, there were multiple breaches in the tube system that caused the domes to get sealed off. The main dome’s doors failed to shut all the way exposing everyone there to the Martian atmosphere, and the oxygen scrubbers couldn’t keep up with the loss. The same happened in five of the other domes, only dome number four appears intact. That is where we would find survivors.”

“Why do you doubt the sensor readings, Shane?”

“You couldn’t have that many breaches. It doesn’t make sense. A meteor shower wouldn’t damage the tubes, and if it had, it would have also damaged the domes. Instead, you have the tubes being severely damaged and door failures in four sectors. Even with shoddy equipment, it isn’t very likely that so many doors would fail at the same time.”

“Mitchell, can you raise MPO 21’s Dome Four?”

“No, commander, that dome is a storage dome with extra supplies and no dwellings. If someone is in there, they would possibly have the supplies to build a radio, but they would need more time.”

“Shane, pack up the communications and sensor gear. Mitchell, contact Thomas and Jones. Tell them to gear up. We’re going outside.”

Shane grimaced at the commander’s announcement. He didn’t want to go outside, but he didn’t see a way out of it. He got out of his chair, gathered the supplies that were at hand and headed out of the room.

“Meet at the departure way in 10 minutes, Shane.”

He turned to face the commander, saluted and left.

“Thomas and Jones have been notified and will meet you at the designated exit,” said Mitchell.

“Great. Mitchell, remain on coms. We’ll do a check before we leave the tube.” Commander Thaun left the room.

Mitchell continued his attempts to raise MPO 21.

#

“Mitchell, do you read us?” Commander Thaun said through the microphone.

“Mic check, please,” came Mitchell’s reply. “Shane?”

“Check.”

“Thomas?”

“Check,” Thomas’ deep voice was unmistakable.

“Jones?” Mitchell waited. There was some static. “Jones, respond, please.”

There was a click. “Check, check, MPO 23, this is Jones.”

“Yes, Jones, we hear you.” Mitchell sighed. “Please maintain radio protocol to preserve battery life.”

“Copy, copy, MPO 23, Jones will maintain radio protocol as requested.”

Thaun had forgotten how much Jones liked to talk. It wouldn’t do any good to scold him now.

“Coms all online, commander. Science Officer Jacobs, they are awaiting your green light,” said Mitchell.

Jacobs sat in the room with Mitchell looking over the signals. “Life signs within parameters. Weather patterns clear. Air lock functioning. Locator beacons working. Commander, you are a go when you are ready.”

“Team lower your visors. Check your suits. We go in 10… 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…” The commander looked at her team, each one held a thumb up. She hit the airlock button. The door behind them slid into place. The oxygen removed, the door to the outside was opened. A fierce wind buffeted the team as they walked to the hangar where their rover was kept. It wouldn’t move very quickly, but it was better than walking.

“Thomas, take the wheel and fire her up. Jones and Shane in the back,” said Thaun.

“Copy, copy, Jones sitting in the back.”

The rover powered on, and Thomas eased it out of the hangar. He avoided revving the engine and speeding out because he didn’t want to kick up any more of the red dust than he had to, especially this close to the outpost. As they moved along, Thaun had the crew do a check of supplies in the rover. There was extra water, extra food, a portable shelter for overnight and other supplies should they need to stop for any reason. There were also spare parts.

With the check done, there was nothing to do but watch the vast expanse of the Martian desert pass by. The dust plume behind the rover got bigger as Thomas opened up the throttle, but the wind blew crosswise, so they wouldn’t have to worry about the dust ruining anything. Even with the throttle at full the Rover moved smoothly along the uneven ground. It really wasn’t that fast of a machine, but in eight standard hours, they should arrive at MPO 21.

#

Mitchell kept trying to raise MPO 21, but it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong. In spite of the odds as laid out by Shane, the doors had failed, and the tubes had been pierced by something. If it wasn’t meteorites, there just were not many alternatives. Watching the film of MPO 21, Mitchell tried to come up with alternative solutions.

“Mass hysteria?” Mitchell said.

“What?” asked Jacobs.

“Could it be mass hysteria? Shane said that a sensor malfunction would be the most obvious cause of the problem but look at the video.” Jacobs and Mitchell watched it again. “Does that look like the face of someone facing a sensor problem? The light in the background wouldn’t be doing that either.”

“There could have been a power surge…” suggested Jacobs.

“But would a power surge cause that type of fear?” Mitchell paused the video showing the scientist’s face contorted with fear and shouting. “A power surge may cause the sensors to malfunction, but the fail safes should have allowed all the doors to close. Let’s look at the data again.” Mitchell flipped the radio receiver over from headphones to the room’s speaker system. They still had a while before Commander Thaun would reach MPO 21.

“Sure. What do you want to see?” asked Jacobs.

“If I knew what we were looking for, I could zero in on what I wanted to see. How could we find out if it was mass hysteria?”

Jacobs rubbed her chin with her hand. “Historically, mass hysteria was caused by a hallucinogenic compound found in wheat or barley. Sometimes, mass hypnosis could be the cause as well. Some psychologists still think that the only real ingredients needed are stress and anxiety.” She shrugged her shoulders.

“So, we can’t rule out mass hysteria based on what you’ve told me, and it could be some psychological problem. Is there anything else that could cause these tube and door failures?”

“If you’re not happy with meteorites, we could look at a windstorm.”

“We ruled that out, Jacobs, because there was no extreme weather detected at the time of the incident.”

“Well, let’s just go through the sensor data piece by piece.”

They sifted through the data that they had. All of the visual spectrum recorded from infra-red to ultra-violet were normal. The vibrational data showed a steady rising of Martian tremors, like a small earthquake whose epicenter moved and centered on MPO 21. It could have been a strong storm. Those were not uncommon. No one had experienced a Marsquake though. When the tubes were damaged, the humidity in the tube dried up. The air would’ve become unbreathable in a short amount of time. The tremors died down shortly after the doors malfunctioned and then the data link was terminated.

“It all seems ordinary,” said Jacobs.

“The storm isn’t ordinary. It must have been some duster to trigger the vibration sensors.”

“We have had those. None have gone through the center of one of our outposts.”

“But there was no extreme weather detected,” said Mitchell.

“Maybe, the weather sensor was the malfunctioning one. An extreme duster could scare the living daylights out of anyone and possibly do the damage that data is showing, including the malfunctioning doors and punctured tubes.”

“I’m not convinced. We’re missing something. I just don’t know what it is.”

“That may be, but right now, the weather sensor malfunction is our best theory.”

Mitchell sighed. “I just don’t like it.”

#

Thomas tapped the commander on her shoulder and pointed in front of them. They turned on their coms, and Thomas stopped the rover. “MPO 23, this is rover.”

The sound crackled through their helmets as each person on the team opened up his or her coms.

“Rover, MPO 23 is listening.”

“We have a storm moving toward us.” Thomas had heard about the Martian storms, but what he was seeing didn’t look like anything he had been told about.

“Rover, negative. Your weather sensors aren’t detecting any undue activity. You should be clear.”

“MPO 23, I’m looking right at it. It’s a huge storm or a lot of large dust devils. Whatever it is, it is kicking up an amazing amount of dust.”

“Rover, there’s nothing on the sensors.”

“Mitchell, this is Thaun. I don’t care what’s on the sensors. We are all seeing the dust being kicked up in front of us, and it’s no small matter. The weather sensor on the Rover must not be working.”

“Yes, commander. What are you proposing to do? You are still 5 miles out from MPO 21.”

“We’ll have to go through,” said Thaun.

“That would be inadvisable. The rover and your suits may not survive the beating of a Martian dust storm,” said Mitchell.

Thaun looked out at the storm. “It’s headed right for us. There are hundreds of rising columns of dust. We can’t outrun it. Suggestions?”

“Commander Thaun, Thaun, we could set up the portable shelter.”

“Jones, look at the storm. Look at the dust. Is that lightning?” Commander Thaun couldn’t believe what she was seeing. It looked like sparks were jumping from cloud to cloud at the ground level.

“Commander, did you say ‘lightning?’” Mitchell came over the com.

“MPO 23, there is definitely something sparking between the clouds at ground level. It looks like lightning.” The ground started to rumble beneath them. “Jones and Shane, get off the rover and set up the shelter next to it. Thomas turn the rover perpendicular to those clouds. Move, soldiers!”

“Rover, your sensors are detecting a Marsquake heading in your direction.” Mitchell on the coms again.

“That’s the storm,” shouted Thaun. “It’s huge. I can’t even estimate how wide it is. Lightning is definitely moving between the clouds but only at ground level. The ground is shaking harder.”

Thomas had the rover in position.

“There’s no lightning on Mars,” said Shane. He was looking right at it. “It can’t be lightning.” He kept staring at the storm. “It doesn’t look right for a wind storm, and it wouldn’t cause the ground to shake. The shaking was getting rougher, and there was a rumble coming from the direction of the storm.

Jones had the shelter set up and attached to the Rover.

“Get in, everyone, get in now!” Thaun pushed her men into the shelter and huddled down with them. “Stay low to the ground. Let’s not get hit by one of those lightning bolts.” They kept as close to the rover as they could and closed the shelter up to prevent dust from getting in.

“Rover, it looks like the epicenter of the Marsquake is almost on you. Hold tight.” The rumble got louder as the Marsquake rode by their makeshift encampment. The coms went dead. Something hit the Rover hard. Electricity flashed through the shelter and over their heads. Every single hair on their bodies and head stood up. The rumble was like the launching of a rocket. It shook them to their cores. Then it passed, and there was silence.

#

“Rover, this MPO 23. Rover, this is MPO 23.” Mitchell threw his headset down in frustration and set the coms to sound in the room. There was nothing coming in.

“The coms and sensors went down when the vibrations passed over their location,” said Jacobs.

“Vibrations? They said ‘storm, large storm.’ Why wouldn’t the weather sensor pick that up?”

“We only have sensor data for the vibrations, sir,” said Jacobs.

“I am not the ‘sir’ here. Commander Thaun is still out there,” said Mitchell.

“Thaun is unavailable. For the time being, you are in command.”

Mitchell glared at Jacobs. It wasn’t her fault. “We have got to get them back.”

“We aren’t equipped to do that anymore, sir. That rover was the only one here. The others are back at MPO 21.”

“Damn it! What’s our bigger problem here? The storm that isn’t a storm or trying to reach the commander? Calm down, Mitchell. Think it through… Ground level lightning shorted their electronics. It may have electrocuted them as well.” Mitchell was talking to himself.

“Sir, if I may…” Jacobs interrupted. “We can’t do anything until they come back online. We need to prepare for the surprise weather.”

“What does that mean, Jacobs? How are we going to prepare?”

“Let’s shut down all of our electronics for starters. If this lightning storm causes an EMP that fries the circuitry, we’ll have saved our systems. If it just melts them, we won’t be any worse off.”

“Shut down all non-essential systems, now. Keep sensors up and let me know the minute we start to register tremors.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll go grab our suits.”

Mitchell ran to the locker room and grabbed the Mars climate suits that would allow him and Jacobs to survive without any systems online. He headed back to the control room.

#

Commander Thaun tried her com. She could only hear her voice. She grabbed each of the others to wake them up. Jones’ mask had been burned through. He wouldn’t be making the rest of the trip. Shane was dazed, and Thomas was out of the tent working on the rover. The oxygen respiration system in her suit was fried, and she could taste the air becoming stale.

She got out of the shelter and walked to the spare oxygen tanks on the cart. There would be enough for them to change out their supplies. She waved at Thomas and motioned him to come over. She turned him around and changed his oxygen. He gave her the thumbs up and changed her oxygen. The air immediately tasted better. Shane was finally out of the shelter and trying to collapse it. She had to go over with the new oxygen to get him to stop what he was doing. Once he had a new cannister, he went back to trying to collapse the shelter.

She gave him the ‘X’ sign with her arms and shook her head. There would be no point in dragging the shelter with them. She looked up at Thomas and pointed to the rover. He shook his head. Just as she thought, they would need to walk to MPO 21. A five-mile hike across Mars shouldn’t be too difficult. She looked around. The scenery all looked the same. She would just have to hope that the storm and quake hadn’t changed the position of the Rover.

#

“Sir, I am detecting tremors.”

“Let’s see if we can get a visual.” Mitchell punched up the cameras that were facing the direction of the tremors and zoomed them as far out as he could. He could just make out clouds of dust rising from the dry Martian soil. “Get your suit on, Jacobs. This is going to be a real dustup.”

They both pulled on the coveralls, but waited to put down the mask. They might as well use the oxygen in the dome for as long as they could. The dust clouds were getting closer. They looked like dust devils all following the same general path. It was a huge storm, but not like what Mitchell was used to.

“Those look like individual storms coalescing,” said Jacobs. “It’s not one storm but hundreds of them.”

“Hundreds of large dust devils forming a storm?”

“That’s what it looks like, and look there.” Jacobs pointed at the center of the screen. “There seems to be a couple of leaders in the front. They must be faster storms. Maybe they are pulling the others with them. Creating a low-pressure system behind that drags the storms with it.”

“And there’s the lightning! It’s so close to the ground. We’re recording this right?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mitchell rubbed his forehead. His palms were sweaty. “The tremors are getting closer. Shut everything down.” Jacobs and he went through the protocols for a total shutdown of the MPO. The airlock doors were all closed. “Put on your mask. It’s coming.”

The dome began to shake. There were multiple loud crashes beyond the door of the dome. Lightning shot through the dome. The suit coms went out. Mitchell motioned for Jacobs to get down. They both stayed close to floor as the quake rumbled past and through. Sparks from the places where the lightning hit danced into the dome and floated up. The door shook violently as something from the outside hit it. The roar of the storm was deafening. Mitchell couldn’t imagine anyone surviving in something like this. He was glad to be inside.

The ground trembled less, and the quake receded. Mitchell waited a few moments listening to the rush of blood in his ears. He stood up and tried his coms. They weren’t working. He looked at his oxygen monitor. It wasn’t working. Why hadn’t they brought in replacement canisters?

Jacobs stood up and tried to turn on the monitors. Nothing worked. She gave Mitchell the ‘X’ sign. Mitchell pointed at the door. They were going to have to get more oxygen. The only way was through the doors. The door wouldn’t open electronically. He had to do it manually. He pulled the panel off the wall and started pumping on the crank. It was heavy work. His breathing was getting harder. The oxygen was beginning to taste metallic.

Jacobs tapped him on the shoulder and took over. The door came off the ground just enough for them to roll under. The damage to the tube on the other side was even worse than Mitchell thought it would be. The ribs of the tube were exposed, and the orange Martian sky blazed with all its brilliance. Mitchell was feeling dizzy. He was feeling light-headed. It was getting harder for him to understand what he was doing or why. He couldn’t breathe.

Jacobs pushed him forward. He went to the next door. They would have to open it by hand as well. Jacobs pulled the panel, and Mitchell pumped the handle. The air smelled bad. His breaths were coming short and quick. Jacobs took over for him. The door came up, and they rolled under again. Jacobs didn’t get up from her roll. Mitchell knew he was going to pass out. He had to warn the next crew that would get here. But what could he say? He pulled off his suit sleeve and found a pen. He wrote one word on the locker in front of him and then collapsed.

#

Thaun knew that five miles should have taken them no longer than a standard two hours. It was more than enough time even with a suit that hindered movement. It had been four hours since they left the rover. Shane tapped her on the shoulder. She could see something in the distance. She smiled and gave a thumbs-up. They would be at the outpost shortly.

Thomas started running ahead of them and gesticulating wildly. His hands went to his helmet. He shook his fists in the air. Thaun was worried he had lost his mind. Then she realized what was in the distance – the rover. They had gone in a circle.

When Shane and Thaun caught up with Thomas, he was violently kicking the Rover. Thaun grabbed him by the shoulder. Thomas pointed at each of them, himself included and made the ‘X’ sign. There wasn’t enough oxygen to make a second attempt to get MPO 21. Thaun convinced him that they needed to try anyway. Shane just sat down in the dust. He knew the calculations. He removed his helmet. Thaun and Thomas walked into the Martian desert again.

#

The MPO follow-up team landed at the location of MPO 21 and found it had not been built to completion. The tubes had been destroyed. The domes had been abandoned and left to the elements. Only Dome Four was intact, which was somewhat of a relief because it contained needed supplies. It still needed some repair work to get the oxygen scrubbers working again. The people that were supposed to be there had disappeared. No one knew what it meant. Unfortunately, the Martian climate had made the data from the earlier team unreadable.

The follow-up team sent a group out to MPO 23. Its 2 domes were open, and its tube was destroyed. The hangar looked like it had been crushed. The only sign of the former team at this outpost was a hastily scribbled word on the lockers: “Croatoan.”