By Jeff Ammons
James was the strongest and healthiest person she had ever known. He was a complete vegetarian even before they left earth. He exercised religiously. She assumed he would live forever.
Early in their second year on Mars there came a morning when she was surprised to find that she was up before James. In all their time together that had never happened. She felt a bit smug as she sat sipping what passed for coffee flavored with what passed for milk. For about an hour she planned how she would goad him when he awoke.
After an hour her smug glee began to erode to be replaced by darkening misgivings. Half an hour later she knocked hesitantly on his door. When he didn’t answer, she opened the door and was thunderstruck.
His body was strong, very strong. It took nearly a week before dehydration weakened it sufficiently that it gave up. It wasn’t fair that he, the doctor, should be stricken and she, the geologist, should have to be his care-giver. Lengthy consultations with doctors on earth led to the conclusion that he had suffered a ruptured aneurysm in his sleep and that no power on earth or Mars could have saved him. His brain was severely damaged by the hydraulic pressure of blood filling his cranium from the breached artery. Blood is water and water does not yield; brain tissue has no choice but to yield.
Their trip had been one-way. They had known they would die on Mars. She had known from day one that statistically speaking it was very likely she would outlive him; she had just never dreamed it would be so soon.
Round trips to Mars were unlikely to occur for at least 50 years. The cost of escaping the gravity wells of two planets was just too great. Until fuel could be mass-produced on Mars, all trips would be one-way.
For the past six months she had literally been the last person on the planet. Her only companions were robotic.
Sarah had never been an overly sentimental person, but as she made her way up the ancient riverbed she couldn’t help but feel longings for earth and human contact. The Chinese Taikonauts were scheduled to arrive in a year if all went well, but until then she would remain the sole person on Mars.
The sight of the rover flooded her with relief. She could not wait to get out of the suit and collapse in the rover’s bunk. Once she filed a quick report to let earth know what had happened and that she was OK, she would sleep and sleep hard.
The sight of the second suit docked to the rover’s access platform spawned a sharp pang of loneliness, but the empty port next to it beckoned to her. She stepped onto the platform and gripped the hand-rails. A quick spin in place followed by backing into the port would initiate the automatic docking and open the access door in the back of her suit allowing her to climb out and directly into the rover without the need for an airlock. She had performed this maneuver hundreds of times both on earth and Mars.
Sarah relaxed as she backed into the port. Instead of the expected sounds of docking, she heard harsh grinding and scraping sounds followed by a klaxon sound in her helmet.
Boiling tears burned her cheeks and she involuntarily tried to wipe them with a gloved hand. Completely futile gesture in a spacesuit, and she cursed herself for trying.
“It’s not fair, Seven,” Sarah said as she snuffled back the tears. “We made it. We made it all the way to the rover.”
Now out of the riverbed, she could see away across the wide open plain strewn with rocks. To the west the sky was losing its yellowish hue and faint tinges of blue appeared as the smallish sun crept towards the horizon. Dusk brought the closest analog of the blue skies of earth she would ever see. Sarah stared deeply into the approaching sunset, her eyes hungry for the color blue that meant home and warmth and breathable air.
Of course they had practiced this scenario. They had even practiced it when she was tired. And when it was bitterly cold. Never had they practiced it with the actual air pressure of Mars. Her only hope was to do something supremely dangerous.
Sarah had to blow the hatch on the back of the suit, climb out wearing nothing but fancy long-underwear, get herself into the de-pressurized rover, then suck air from a mask while the rover re-pressurized.
The air pressure was so low that the water in her skin would boil. The temperature was so low that her skin would be frozen very quickly. She wanted desperately to lie down for a few minutes, but she knew she could not.
The temperature was a balmy -20 degrees C. That would be the day’s high. The low would come after sunset and would be low enough to flash-freeze her if she waited. Now was her only chance.
She looked at Seven and wondered if he was going to see her die.
“Like Hell,” she thought.
She set to work prepping the rover for emergency ingress. Air whooshed out of vents in the roof when she gave the appropriate commands and overrides. The emergency hatch opened itself and air hoses with masks dropped from the ceiling.
She wondered at the necessity of the flashing red light inside the rover. Anyone involved in this operation would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that an emergency was taking place.
Sarah took one last, longing look at the blue skies to the west and entered the commands to blow the back off her suit.
The bursting of her eardrums was her first real sensation other than the cold. She exhaled forcefully as she blew the hatch to keep her lungs from exploding. She gasped in her first taste of actual Martian atmosphere. It was far too thin to do her any good.
As quickly as she could she wriggled free of the suit. Her knee gave way, and she collapsed to the red dirt. It clung to her skin. She groped her way back to her feet and into the rover. Her head spun with lack of oxygen and her skin felt as if it were swelling and burning as she pulled a mask over her mouth and breathed deeply. Oxygen rich air tasted sweet in her lungs.
Her hands, free of the suit were swollen and aching from the cold and lack of air pressure. She swung her hand like a dead thing to hit the oversized button that triggered the door to close and the air to begin repressurizing.
She collapsed on the floor. She hurt and hurt badly, but she was alive and would stay that way for the time being. She managed to reach the first aid kit and injected herself with morphine. Multitudes of screaming nerve endings faded to grumbles and murmurs.
There would be time to report to earth after some sleep. Not one person on that beautiful, blue planet could help her, but some sleep would do wonders. She pulled herself up onto the bunk and shivered under blankets until the universe faded to black.