Let Us Go Then, You and I
Captain Manny Wayward didn't like to feel useless. Nonetheless, he twiddled his thumbs and let the computer nudge The Valhalla into parking orbit about Mars. He scanned the tagalong readouts. All in-line. No corrections required.
More than adequate for a one-way, suicide mission.
"Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen." Manny unbuckled and half-turned in his acceleration chair. "We've achieved areo synchronous orbit 17,100 km above Mars. Resume your duties."
"Woot!" Doris Biggers pushed away from the copilot's console and hugged him.
Manny felt lost in her embrace. She had put on noticeable weight during the three month trip--low metabolism and infrequent exercise--but with all engines off, she pirouetted like a ballerina and sailed across the cabin.
"We're the first humans to reach Mars." Her grin was contagious.
"It's a long way to the surface, my dear." Manny pushed up from his chair. Didn't she remember that every step towards the surface was a step closer to death? "Don't celebrate until all six of us safely set foot on the ground."
Extending her arms, Doris slowed her spin at the hatchway bulkhead. When she reached the bulkhead, a wisp of gray streaked hair looped over her left eye. Her dry lips needed work, but her expression was warm, attractive, and playful.
"You old fossil. Grouch all you want. I'm making celebration cookies." She propelled herself through the hatch.
Manny frowned at her gibe. Fossil indeed. At a sensible sixty-seven years of age, he thought of himself as stable and reliable, not dour as Doris often described him. Nonetheless, she took every opportunity to kid him about his age because he was, after all, the youngest person on board.
"I've lost visual on the last tagalong." Mariette Henderson pushed away from the monitor.
Although his neck ached, Manny twisted his head towards her. He admired her lithe grace. At seventy--her latest birthday was two weeks ago--she was the oldest crew member, but she was still spry and shapely, with a face unmarred by time. Not a surprise: the first criteria for selection on the Mars mission was to be beyond retirement age, but the second was to appear youthful enough that the public would not consider this one-way trip to be euthanasia for the elderly.
Mariette hadn't impressed Manny during training, but he developed a crush on her over the three month trip. Unfortunately, she had partnered with Doctor Joe Wilson early in the voyage. Unlike Manny's on-and-off relationship with Doris, everyone treated Joe and Mariette as a couple. The remaining team members, Dwayne and Gloria, had boarded as the token married couple, together for thirty-seven years before the Mars mission came along.
"Manny," Mariette repeated, "I've lost visual on the last tagalong.
Despite his neck ache, Manny nodded, and winced. Ah well, Mariette seemed happy with Joe. Besides, he liked Joe, and he refused to let envy distort the social interactions among the six crewpersons.
He massaged his neck. Fatigue had crept up on him three hours before and never relented. "Joe, any word from Houston?"
Joe manned the communication console. "I pinged them ten minutes...wait, here we go. Houston confirms soft-landings for five tagalongs, but unit six hit hard. Damage unknown. Too early yet for Houston data on unit seven, but our telemetry indicates a bit high on its trajectory, easy to correct."
"Anything vital in number six?"
"Not sure yet." Joe ticked items on the onscreen manifest. "No oxygen, water, or hydroponics. Mostly kitchen equipment and furniture, crates of freeze dried food and some medical supplies. I'll cross-reference with the other modules for redundancy."
"Very well." Manny drooped in his chair. He flexed his shoulders to a rewarding pop.
"Manny, you look exhausted. No one else worked a double shift." Joe tapped the medical emblem on his sleeve. "Get some sleep, doctor's orders. Mariette and I can handle this."
"I'm fine." Manny pushed himself away from his chair. He hadn't expected weightlessness to be so tiring.
Joe shook his head. "Doris is an excellent pilot, but I want you both top-notch when our asses are on the line during descent tomorrow."
"Or what? You'll report me to mission control?"
"Houston can't control us," Joe said. "They lost that leverage when we left Earth orbit. After all the bad publicity about a suicide mission for senior citizens, they don't dare reprimand us."
"Then how will you force me to bed?" Feeling annoyed and combative stimulated Manny's adrenaline and perked him for a moment. Maybe some testosterone too. He liked the revival.
"You're a big guy, but I can wake Dwayne. The two of us can hold you while Mariette injects a sedative. Don't make me do it. We all bruise too easily."
"Don't argue, dear." Mariette hugged Manny's free arm and dragged him towards the sleeping quarters.
"You're almost mutinous." Manny half-grinned, but he couldn't resist the weightless tow, not with the warm comfort of Mariette's breasts against his arm. "I'll let the insubordination slide this time."
Once secure in his sleeper, Manny's mind raced. The ache from his neck spread to his shoulders. The arthritis hadn't shown in his pre-launch physical, else they might have refused to let him captain this expedition. Narrow minded of them. What real difference did a little arthritis make to a man his age, a man queued up for death? Wasn't that why they crewed the ship with elderly astronauts? Who else had less life left to lose?
Spinning the ship during the outbound trip had produced only miniscule gravity, but even a small amount of gravity ameliorated calcium loss. Despite the exercise and drugs, Joe said everyone onboard had significant calcium loss. Did that mean that everyone had osteoporosis? Would Manny's calcium loss brittle his bones against Martian gravity? He would weigh thirty-eight kilograms on Mars, but after the lost calcium, would he still be six feet tall? He hated the thought of being shorter more than being brittle.
Perhaps Doris was right when she called him a grouchy old fossil. He preferred to think of himself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but then why was he cataloging his problems instead of sleeping? Ridiculous to worry about tomorrow's landing. He had prepared to do the best job possible, and he wouldn’t allow himself any regrets. Now he worried about his worrying. What kind of worry is that? He checked the time, but he couldn't focus to read the digits. Did he need reading glasses? No optometrist on Mars. Great. How would blindness play out on the Red Planet?
Wind it down. Turn it off.
He exhaled heavily and focused on even breathing. He had been exuberant when they left earth, why this downturn? Establish the first Martian colony--what a lie to win public support. A one-way mission was more precise. Death waited at the end. He knew that going in. They all knew that when they signed on. Death might be difficult, but it was also inevitable. More important to Manny, could he maintain his composure and dignity when his time expired?
He was still counting his troubles when sleep came.
Once the landing module broke free of the Valhalla shell, no return to the orbiting vessel was possible. From the beginning, planners designed the mission to be cheap and technologically feasible, in other words, to be one-way. They simply couldn't build a ship with fuel and supplies sufficient for a return--not with current technology and not within the budgetary constraints.
Manny wondered why those thoughts paused his hand when he reached for the landing module release. Any hope of returning to earth expired forty days ago when they crossed the failsafe mark, so what difference did it make whether they could reconnect with the skeleton of this ship. Little fuel remained onboard, certainly not enough to take them home, although solar energy would continue to power the Valhalla to relay radio signals. All available supplies were already on Mars in the tagalongs, but even with recycling, the air and water would barely stretch for the next four months. The only choice was to descend to the surface.
He activated the release, and the computer ran through the sequence that separated the module from the husk of the Valhalla. The official ship name was Ares. Renaming the ship Valhalla while en route had been Doris's idea. She reasoned that the transport gave them an adventurous opportunity to die in the battle against the unknown rather than dwindle into oblivion in the company of age. Once the steering thrusters cleared the landing module from the Valhalla, the main engine slowed their orbital speed and directed their descent.
The atmosphere engaged, and the module rotated for better exposure of the heat shield. Unless a problem arose, Manny would leave adjustment details to Doris and the computer guidance system while he monitored overall progress and the ship's condition.
Soon, the glow from the heat shields reflected warm hues into the cabin ports, and the hull bumped from the turbulence and droned with the friction. The Martian atmosphere made aerodynamic flight difficult, but despite the thin air, the drag chutes deployed with a neck-wrenching jerk.
After several minutes of slowing the vessel, the chutes popped the primary rocket loose from its cradle. The chutes hauled the engine to the end of its tether so that the landing module swung below it like a giant pendulum.
"Trajectory?" Manny didn't glance at Doris. She knew her job.
"Nominal." She hummed a song under her breath, which Manny didn't recognize. Nice voice. She sang well. "We'll land within sight of all the tagalongs."
Explosive bolts popped the chutes loose, and the rocket fired. For the first time in three months, Manny felt heavy, very heavy. The panel displayed only one-point-three Gees, but Manny couldn't lift his arms--too many months in space. He glanced at Doris. Her eyes were closed and her head lolled as if she were unconscious. Damn. Why hadn't she kept up her exercises?
At the edge of his vision, a green status light flickered to red. Which one? Colors grayed out. The G-force crept upwards. He'd taken three times this before without a g-suit. What was wrong? Unable to fight the strain any longer, Manny sagged against his chair. He couldn't focus, and the panel darkened. Blackout. If the computer program failed, they would all die, and he could do nothing about it.
Perhaps the terminal aspect of the mission was about to commence. Manny closed his eyes. He accepted the inevitable, and his thoughts lost their cohesion.
Manny raised his glass. "A toast to my friends."
Despite the failure of a landing strut, they had tailed-down with little damage and no injuries. Luck was with them.
"A smile from Captain Grouchy Box." Doris winked at him. "If booze is all it takes to loosen him up, Joe should prescribe a daily dose. Carpe Diem . . . Ooh, that's a good name for this base, Camp Carpe Diem. So much better than Mars Base One."
"To our first week." Manny cocked his head and lifted his glass higher. "All the habitat modules are connected. Once they're fully inflated, we can move into roomier quarters. Maybe tomorrow?"
He glanced at Mariette, who confirmed his estimate with a nod.
"Here's more good news." Manny took a quick sip of the reconstituted champagne. "Houston announced a tentative launch schedule for the resupply drone. That means if all goes as planned, then our four months gets extended to a full twelve month mission."
"Ah, the Governor is on the phone with a reprieve but not a pardon." Joe clinked his glass against Mariette's. "Did they give a reason for the delay or an excuse for only one ship?"
"The delay is obvious." Manny stared into his drink. "Why should they waste money until they were sure we'd landed? With the launch window closing, they'll need extra fuel for a faster trajectory--so one ship towing tagalongs is all they could manage--but it should arrive before we exhaust critical supplies."
"I'm surprised they bothered," Joe said. "We need two years of supplies to make the next feasible launch window. Ah well, we're imminently expendable. I remember the wording on the contract."
"Strange." Mariette smiled at Joe. "You keep forgetting a lot of other stuff, my dear, like my birthday."
"One year is better than I expected," Doris said. "I'm surprised we survived the landing. Maybe if we are very productive with the hydroponics and recyclers, and we send lots more scientific data than they expect, then they'll cough up enough funds for a second supply ship. With that we could stretch it to two years. Hey, speaking of birthdays, we have another reason to celebrate. Today is our captain's sixty-eighth birthday. I baked a cake."
"Don't cut the cake before you wake up Dwayne and Gloria." Manny smiled broadly. "You know how Dwayne loves to party."
"It'll be a tight fit with all six of us in here." Doris squeezed past Manny and ran a light hand across his arm. "You keep on drinking, Manny dear. I want you very relaxed for the private present I've planned for later."
Manny took a long drink from his glass before he dared glance at Joe and Mariette. Mariette kept her lips pursed and stared at the ceiling.
However, Joe smirked. "Wouldn't it be nice if everyone got a private present on Manny's birthday?"
"Hush, Joe." Mariette's voice was stern, but a thin smile crossed her lips. "Let's talk about something else. When will the resupply ship launch, Manny?”
Manny started to answer her, but the look on Doris’ face when she returned interrupted him. "What's wrong, Doris?"
"Manny, please." She stood in the passageway. Her voice quavered. "Gloria can't wake Dwayne. I think he's dead."
Two weeks later after dinner, Manny drank hot coffee with Joe and watched the three women decorate the lounge. In the background, the energy pump purred and extracted heat from the ground to warm the shelter against the -100°C Martian night.
Gloria repositioned a small reproduction of David on the dining table. Mariette nodded her head in approval. Doris stopped, folded her arms across her chest, and displayed a smile worthy of the Mona Lisa.
"How many Michelangelo's did you bring?" Doris asked.
"I love Michelangelo Buonarroti." Gloria's lips were thin and her complexion pasty. "Great art on Mars was my goal, but two small replicas were all I could pack with my personal items."
"I recognize David." Mariette said. "The other is very familiar, but I don't remember its name."
"The Pieta." Gloria held up the hand-size version. "The original is in St. Peter's Basilica. I'll keep this one by my bed. I wanted to bring a replica of Moses, too, but Dwayne convinced me I didn't have the room, so I settled for an electronic encyclopedia of art. Fine for viewing, I suppose, but not very tactile."
"She's been a real trooper," Manny whispered to Joe.
"Gloria?" Joe used his coffee spoon to measure powdered creamer into his cup as if he measured out his life. "Yes, she has. We would still be without solar power except for her expertise, but she's not sleeping well. I give her a mild oral sedative each night, but it doesn't seem to work. I'm worried about her health."
Doris winked at Manny when she passed. She had lost none of her extra weight even with the hard work of setting up the base camp. When she squirmed into her pressure suit, it stretched to the limits. Still cute, though. Doris disappeared into the sleeping quarters module.
"Women cope with the death of a spouse better than men," Manny said.
"Statistically correct." Joe's lips narrowed, and his forehead wrinkled. "But statistics don't apply well to individuals."
Obviously hiding something more than just herself beneath her blouse, Doris returned. The low gravity introduced a bouncy, perkiness to her Rubenesque figure. With an enigmatic grin, she pranced to the center of the lounge and demanded attention by loudly clearing her throat.
"Gloria, I needed to analyze some soil samples," Doris said. "So I unpacked Dwayne's geological instruments this afternoon. That sly old geezer stashed an unauthorized item in his instrument crates."
Gloria looked puzzled. Mariette smiled as if she already knew the secret.
"Ta-da." Doris pulled a small statue from inside her blouse. "Your husband stowed away this copy of Michelangelo's Moses. He did it for you."
Tears glistened in Gloria's eyes and tracked her cheeks. She clasped her hands against her lips.
By the end of the following week, Gloria's secreted supply of accumulated sedatives was sufficient for her to take a fatal overdose.
Manny glanced out the window in the pressure lock.
Soon the sun would rise on the long, Martian summer day. Yestersol, the supply drone from Earth finally had arrived. Unfortunately, the tagalongs came in too fast and impacted far from the base--the closest tagalong at twelve kilometers east.
Nearby, Joe and Mariette prepared to take the Mars Buggy to salvage what they could from the wreckage.
Manny exchanged fuel cells for batteries and ran a final check on the Mars Buggy. With passengers in heated pressure suits, the insulated cab provided adequate protection against all but the worst cold. Joe and Marietta would need that protection because Manny wanted them in the Buggy and on the road before the sun was up. With fully charged batteries, the vehicle should be able to make a roundtrip under heavy load.
Liquid hydrogen reserves were low, so they had to conserve power usage from fuel cells. Already they had closed off half of Carpe Diem Base to conserve power and heat. Using solar panels to crack water into hydrogen and oxygen simply didn't produce enough hydrogen.
Joe had experimented with using heat and hydrogen to partially reduce the Martian ferric oxide soil into magnetite and water. The results looked promising, but required even more solar power to crack the water for oxygen and to free the hydrogen to recycle into the process.
For her part, Doris fine-tuned the hydroponic system to produce adequate oxygen for four people. Between that and the chemical scrubbers, oxygen wasn't as critical as the low hydrogen reserves.
While Joe finished putting on his pressure suit, Mariette pulled Manny aside.
"You need to talk with Doris while Joe and I are outside."
Manny firmed his lip. "Doris and I should be the ones going, not you and Joe."
"First, get rid of your anger." Mariette squeezed his arm. Manny hadn't realized she had such a strong grip. "Joe's memory is fine. He just needs a nudge now and then, and I know when to give it to him. Second, quit blaming Doris."
Manny gritted his teeth. "She can't get into her damn pressure suit."
"She can get into it, but it's far too tight. It's difficult for her to breathe, and she could get a blood clot. . . ."
"Then you and I should go."
"Oh, Manny. That's not an option for me." Mariette's face softened. "This trip could be dangerous, and I won't be widowed like Gloria, nor will I leave Joe to a similar fate."
"An hour and a half out, load what we can, and an hour and a half back. What could happen?"
"Anything. Everything." Mariette sighed. "I care about Joe. He needs me. If we live much longer, he'll need me even more. I'm committed to finishing this adventure with him, and that's why we must do the risky stuff together. I wish you would build that kind of contentment with Doris. Please don't argue with me anymore."
"I could order you." Manny couldn't meet her gaze.
"Yes, but you can't make me. Please, talk to Doris while we're gone. Our lives grow too short to keep up barriers."
Manny refused to answer.
"You idiot," she said. "Doris always has a smile for everyone, especially for you, but believe me, she's not happy. When's the last time you heard her sing? Can't you tell she's depressed? That's why she overeats, doesn't exercise, and sleeps so much."
"People have different ways to deal with impending death. I get depressed myself."
"She's depressed because you don't love her." Mariette snapped the last coupling on her head piece. "Joe's ready. I've got to go. Please. There's only the four of us on this whole world, and time is short. We all care for one another, but don't be a fool. Don't pass up something great because you daydream something else might be better. I guarantee it won't. Make Doris the most important person in your world, and make sure she knows."
Doris leaned over Manny's shoulder. Her eyes were red, her cheeks tear-stained. He didn't point out the obvious. She could read the monitor as well as he could. No signal from the Valhalla.
"Where the hell did that dust storm come from?" Manny pushed away from the console and stood. "Why didn't Houston warn us?"
He paced to the window. A dusty haze, a red fog that rubbed against the windowpane and left visibility under two meters.
"Sunspots." Doris put her hand on his shoulder. "The Valhalla relay has been iffy for weeks, Manny. The storm just made it worse. Joe and Mariette are smart. They'll take cover and ride this out. As soon as the storm passes, we'll get the signal back."
"The horizon's only three kilometers away. We can't do line of sight at twelve kilometers or bounce radio waves off the missing ionosphere. Without the Valhalla to relay, we can't talk to them. They can't follow the signal to safety."
"They've still got a gyroscopic compass," Doris said. "Please, Dear. Your face is red. Can I make you some coffee?"
"Plunge into a ditch a few times, hit a few hard bumps and the gyroscope can misalign." Manny paced to the far side of the room and clasped his hands behind his back. "Even with the re-breathers, they only had a fifteen hour air-supply."
"Always the pessimist. They have six hours of life support left, and I choose to believe the storm will let up soon."
"Martian dust storms can last a month, Doris. I've got to do something."
"Yes, Manny, perhaps that would be best. Something to keep you busy. How can I help?"
"If only we had another Mars Buggy—"
"We've got the two recumbent bicycles," Doris said. "They're still packed in tagalong seven, but without a beacon, you can't go far in this storm. Neither bicycle has a gyroscopic compass."
"No, but we've got a dozen radio repeaters still in the crate. They'll serve as beacons. We know the direction to the nearest crashed module relative to the shelter. I can drop them like the breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel. A repeater every two kilometers while I travel should do the trick."
"Great idea." Gloria started for the storage module. "I'll unpack the repeaters and mounting tripods while you check our suits. Will the bikes have room for oxygen canisters? We may need some spares."
"Not with the repeaters and tripods onboard." Manny firmed his jaw. Won't she take the hint? "I'll have to make do with eight hours of life support."
"Help me assemble the bicycles when you finish the suit check."
"Just one bicycle." Manny glared at Doris. Why wouldn't she admit the problem? "You aren't going."
Manny planted the fourth repeater atop the tripod and extended the height to the maximum of a meter and a half. He had no doubt that he could follow the beacons home, but how much zig-zag error had crept into his path?
He looked in the direction from which he had come, but the wide bicycle tracks were already blown away. In the last few minutes, the storm had lessened so that visibility was up to four meters.
Manny wiped a film of dust from his face plate. Joe and Mariette had about three and a half hours of oxygen left. This was his chance to make up some time.
With the recumbent bike headed into the wind, the forty-centimeter-wide tread allowed the low slung device to stand upright without extra support. Two repeaters and two tripods remained strapped to the bike. As he had done at the previous beacon sites, Manny activated one of the strapped beacons to broadcast before he mounted the bike.
He should be close now. Unless a substantial error had worked into his path, the errant tagalong should be less than five kilometers away. He hoped the moving signal from the onboard repeater would attract Mariette's attention, because without her response, he might pass within a hundred meters of the couple and never see them.
He gripped the handlebars and mounted the bike. With much of the fine surface dust airborne, the underlying, partially-packed Martian surface yielded to his efforts, and he plowed the bicycle ahead.
"Doris, please keep the channel clear for Mariette and Joe." Manny upped his pedal rate.
"Beacon 5 went on line. I wondered how you're doing. Your pulse rate is up."
"Visibility has improved, so I'm going faster." Why was he angry with her? She was just doing her job by monitoring him, but somehow it felt like an intrusion. He upped his pedal rate again. "I'm shooting for twelve kilometers per hour."
"Manny, that's too fast."
"You worry. . . ."
The front wheel caught in an unexpected erosion gulley, twisted sideways, and tore the handlebars from Manny's grip. In slow motion, the bike flipped up past the wedged wheel and catapulted Manny over the handlebars. Old reflexes from his days of diving competition on the three meter board surfaced, and he attempted to tuck into a summersault. He was too stiff and out of practice to control the rotation, and on landing, his left leg jammed into a large rock at an awkward angle. His nose slammed against his faceplate. The concussion left him breathless.
After he hit the ground, the dust didn't get a chance to settle--not with the storm blowing about. Strange. You expected the dust to settle. Tears filled his eyes from the pain in his nose. Why did his ears roar?
"Uh. . . ." Peculiar--his mouth wouldn't work properly.
Pain. Shouldn't move his leg. Really bad pain. "I think I . . . broke. . . ."
Damn. He wished she wouldn't scream just when he was passing out.
When Manny woke, he sat up and shifted his weight using his arms for support. A bloody nose imprint smudged his faceplate. His left leg throbbed, and his head felt fuzzy. He was cold. Night would soon fall--in what, an hour or two?--and with so little activity, his suit already had difficulty keeping him warm. He sipped water from the nipple inside his helmet.
Summer on Mars. Whoop-te-do.
With slow, steady pressure he pulled back until his leg cleared the rock. The pressure suit made palpating the leg difficult. Was that a clean break of the fibula above the ankle? Damned osteoporosis. He was brittle. Then the tibia could be cracked as well. His ankle felt stiff and swollen, even more painful than the leg.
Probably couldn’t walk far, but could he ride? He swiveled about and located the bike. The front wheel was a twisted wreck. No bike ride for him.
He checked the time. He had about four hours of life-support left. Mariette and Joe had only two. He used his good leg and arms to pull himself across the sand. He unbuckled a tripod, attached the already active repeater, and stood the assembly up. He hadn't quite made a kilometer much less two from the last beacon, but he didn't think he could go farther with his leg broken. Returning to base was equally impossible.
"Doris, honey." Manny worked to keep his voice even and matter-of-fact. "I've had an accident. I wrecked the bike, and my leg is broken. There's nothing you can do, baby. I'm so sorry."
"I'm on my . . . way."
"Doris, listen to me." Unbidden desperation crept into his voice. "Stay in the shelter. You can't help me. It would take a couple of hours to get here, and there's no way for you to carry me back."
"You are . . . clueless. I prepared . . . the other bike and my pressure suit . . . right after you left. . . . I started out when we . . . lost contact. I'm already passed beacon three. . . . Forty-five minutes to an hour . . . I'll be there. You hang on, Manny . . . because I will not live on Mars alone."
"But. . . ."
"Would you . . . shut up? I'm not in great . . . shape and pedaling this bike in . . . this tight suit is no picnic. . . . I can't talk now. "
Manny shut up. They were both going to die. God, what a crazy woman. What a wonderful, magnificent, crazy woman.
He choked back a sudden thickness in his throat, and unbuckled the last tripod from the bike. A little flimsy, but it would have to do. He opened the storage basket under the bicycle seat. Beneath the pliers, he found a roll of all-purpose tape. Now, if he could keep the ambient dust from gumming up the tape when he strapped the tripod to his leg, he might get a decent splint.
The boulder was less than a meter tall, but millennia of dust storms had worn it smooth. Clutching the last beacon, Manny pulled himself to the rock and rested against the leeward side to escape the worst of the wind. His ankle throbbed. He felt stiff and very cold but according to his suit, his core body temperature was just below 37°C. Not too bad. Not yet.
Visibility varied, reaching ten meters at times and then dropping to five during strong wind gusts. He hoped the storm subsided before the evening spread out across the heavens, so that he could have a last glimpse of the Martian butterscotch sky turning blue at sunset. Would that small dying request disturb the universe?
"Manny?" Doris sounded exhausted. "Manny, I'm at the fifth beacon. . . . I see your bike. Where are you?"
"Not far beyond my bike." Manny activated the last beacon. "Follow beacon six."
A few moments later pushing her bicycle, Doris trudged into view through the dust. When Manny waved, she let her bike fall and staggered to him. She dropped to her knees and wiped the dust from his face plate.
At first, Manny attempted a smile, but then, suddenly concerned, he wiped the dust from Doris's faceplate. Despite the refraction of light through the dust that tinted everything red, she looked very pale. Her lips were cracked. Dried blood crusted her nose.
"I'm sorry, Manny." She sagged against him. "I tried. I tried so very hard, but I haven't any strength left."
"Not your fault." Manny wrapped both arms around her and pulled her close. "No one could have done better."
He checked the monitor on her suit. Blood pressure way too high. Pulse racing and erratic. Nothing he could do but comfort her. Damned pressure suits. How he wanted to kiss her forehead.
"We've had a hell of an adventure, Old Girl," he said. "And there's no one else on this planet or the entire universe that I would rather have shared it with. Thank you."
"I love you, Manny." Her whisper as almost too faint to hear. "I'm sorry that I couldn't be the one you wanted."
"You pegged me right, Doris, I'm a stubborn, senile, old fossil. There are two important women in every man's life. The one he thought he wanted, and the one he thanks God he got. I love you, Doris, and I will cherish you for the rest of our lives."
Doris didn't answer. Manny pulled her face towards him.
"Doris. Doris? Did you hear me?"
"Yes, Love." Her eyes opened slowly. "I hear you. You'll cherish me . . . for the rest of our lives . . . not a big promise in our current situation, but I love you for saying so. I'm so cold, could. . . ."
She whimpered and her eyes fluttered shut.
Was this the way the world ends?
He checked her suit monitor. She was alive, pulse slowing slightly, blood pressure still too high. He sighed. Adjusting her head against his shoulder, he wrapped her in his arms and waited for the cold night to consume them.
The voices that drifted through the cold, red haze sounded familiar.
"You folks need a ride?"
"Joe, can't you see they're in trouble? Unload the junk from the rear seat so that we can get them onboard."
Mariette! Joe! Manny struggled against the mind-numbing cold. "How did you find us?"
His eyes refocused. Mariette leaned over him. Beyond her, Joe worked at unloading the Mars Buggy.
"Oxygen got too low, so we started back blind," she said. "Gyro malfunction. Got lost. Been wandering about for an hour. Luckily, we picked up your beacon. Do you know where we are?"
Manny checked Doris's monitor. "Doris's core temperature is below 36°C."
"She's not hypothermic yet," Joe said. He left the Buggy and took one of Doris's arm. "Mariette, help me get her inside the Buggy. We'll all be warmer inside."
Mariette took the other arm. Taking advantage of the light Martian gravity, she and Joe lifted Doris and dragged her to the Buggy. Manny could barely see them through a sudden swirl of dust. While they struggled to get her into the cab, Manny used his backrest rock to leverage himself to his feet. He tested his splinted leg and then settled his weight on his right foot.
Joe secured Doris inside the cab, and then climbed in after to check her vital signs.
"Don't you dare try to hop over here." Mariette pointed at Manny. "Wait until Joe can help you. Listen to me. Where are we?"
"About eight kilometers from base camp with beacons every two kilometers."
"Oh . . . I see. That would take an hour even with good visibility. Joe and I have only a half hour of oxygen left."
"Doris strapped two canisters of oxygen to her bike."
"I could kiss you." Instead, she ran to Doris's bike and busied herself un-loading the cylinders.
Joe exited the Buggy and approached Manny. At the invitation, Manny draped his left arm over the doctor's shoulders. Thus supported, Manny limped to the Buggy.
Once Manny settled next to Doris in the rear seats, Joe nodded towards her. "She's stable, but we need to get her to the base and warm her up. I'll help Mariette with the oxygen canisters. Looks like we've got a chance to survive this."
"Chance?" Manny said. "More than a chance. We'll survive, and after the storm we'll salvage the supplies from all the re-supply modules. I'll be damned if a little wind and dust will stop us."
Joe nodded and closed the cab door.
"Optimism, Manny?" Doris didn't open her eyes. Her voice was weak, but a faint smile flickered across her chapped lips.
"Doris, Sweetheart." Manny embraced her. Cuddly. Why had he thought of her as overweight? "How do you feel?"
"Terrible." She shivered in his arms. "But stay cheery, Love. I may be a fat lady, but I won't sing our swan song today. We've got too much to do, you and I."