After sleeping and eating a freeze-dried meal, Timmel and Jove descended into the caverns, going deeper than before. Chess and Lyle maintained the uplink to stream the remote Enviros telemetry real time as they continued their deeper explorations. Lyle sat back in his butterfly sling chair, taking a break from monitoring the data. “Hell of a life we got, hey?”
“It’s better than being just another number in the system back home.”
“That all depends on where you think home is. I haven’t called anywhere home for a while.”
“You got a point, I guess.”
“This is frontier living.”
“The Enviros have some grand plans for this place,” Chess commented. “And we’re their chauffeurs. At least we get to see it right?”
“I suppose. If we don’t decide to follow the frontier to the next hell hole.”
“Not me. I’m headin’ back home,” Chess revealed. “A research group needs a pilot.”
“For what planet?”
“Apparently, some rich guy has a crazy idea about terraforming Earth to fix all the environmental issues.”
Lyle shook his head. “How ironic is that?”
“Anyway, the pay’s better. Besides, I haven’t been to Earth since I was a little kid. My dad took me on one of those natural wonder package tours, places so beautiful they hurt my eyes.”
“Jove was telling me before the mission brief that they expect to begin construction of domed cities here within a few local years.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“Now, he thinks the discovery of a natural source of oxygen is very promising.”
“I hope they know what they’re doing.” Chess sighed, and then stood up, stretching before he started to check on Ave and Dar’s progress.
“Hang on,” Lyle said as he responded to a signal from the platform. “Lyle here.”
“Lyle, are you with Chess?”
“We’re right here, monitoring the data stream.”
“Is anyone else there?”
“Dar and Ave are setting up the power generator, about ten meters from us,” Chess said.
“The storm’s getting worse and its center is headed your way.”
“Do we need to scrub the mission?”
“If you try staying much longer, you’ll be stranded for a long while.”
“What’s a long while?” Lyle asked.
“This storm’s already going on four months, so, how the hell would I know?”
Chess looked at Lyle, receiving a shrug. “Okay then. So that settles is. We recall the Enviros, button this up and go back home.”
“It’s a shame. We’re receiving some really good data.”
“Look, I just carry the nerds to and from the rocks,” Chess said. “I’ve survived this long because when someone tells me to bug out, I listen.”
“We’re signaling Timmel and Jove, now. Pity we have to, the remote relays are working so well. You did a nice job setting things up, guys. We’re even receiving still pics, quite detailed.”
“We aim to please,” Lyle said.
“The wind is getting worse by the minute.”
“Looks like its beers in the bar tonight after all.” Lyle stood and began gathering his gear together to don his pressure suit again.
“I could use one right about now.”
“After that ride down, I could have used something a lot stronger. I swear if I wasn’t the best pilot in the service, we’d have bought it.”
“Hey, I made it here before you,” Chess countered, as he continued to suit up.
“Well I’ll allow that you’re the second best pilot in the service, but the storm got worse by the time I was coming through.”
“I see how it is,” Chess said with a laugh. “Punching through this mess ain’t going to be any better.”
“I hear that.”
Timmel and Jove had just reached a vast chamber and detected not only the sounds of water but also the evidence of increased humidity. They had just set up their instruments to detect a wider range of possible organic compounds when they received the abort signal. They signaled their individual acknowledgements of the recall order and quickly left their deployed sensors before beginning the climb.
“We found fresh water!” Timmel called up the telemetry pipeline, knowing the voice over data would be received at the command center on the orbital research platform.
“Are you two sure?” A voice came back through their internal communications link.
“Positive. Heard the echoes of dripping and sensors confirmed it.”
“Okay, yes we see that. Great job, Timmel and Jove. The mission wasn’t a complete failure after all. Sensors are showing a substantial amount of subsurface water, actually a lot of water, maybe a lake or river. Establishing temporary colonies in the caverns may be an option after all.”
Timmel smiled as he and Jove exchanged a gloved handshake.
“Wait!” Jove said as he consulted his right cuff that contained fifteen different life sign sensors.
“I don’t know, an echo, maybe. I’m picking up movement, though.”
“I got that a couple of times, too. Every time I did, it turned out to be nothing.”
“It’s nothing, I guess,” Jove decided. “Do you see the oxygen levels?”
“Yeah,” Timmel said. “Nearly breathable if it weren’t for the concentration of di-hydrogen sulfide.”
“So the place smells like a fart!”
“A killer one.”
“Store our data so they know who found it, and let’s get to the surface.”
“Yeah, why let the remote observers get all the credit.”
“We’re the ones who risked our lives,” Timmel said.
They ascended while Chess, Lyle, Ave and Dar were finishing making everything as stable and self-functioning as possible for any future missions.
“We found water and the levels of oxygen increased the deeper we went,” Jove told Chess and Lyle as he arrived.
“Weren’t you lookin’ for that?” Chess asked in response.
Lyle forced the issue nudging Jove off to the side. Chess took Timmel by his pressure suit’s sleeve. “I don’t think you understand the urgency of the recall.”
“The storm must have intensified and it’s coming this way.”
“Okay, maybe you do understand,” Chess said. “Lyle and I decided we’re bugging out!”
“It’s your call.”
“Well, we don’t have enough supplies and up top they don’t know how soon they can send anything to us.”
“Understood. Jove and I are ready. We answered a couple of the major questions, I think.”
“Let’s go, then.” Chess commanded.
By remote command the Pumas’ hatches opened, allowing them immediate entry. Once aboard, the hatches sealed and the occupants strapped in. “Purge!” both Chess and Lyle said simultaneously over the intercom.
“It’s urgent then,” Ave said while he watched as the interior air was blown out of the vehicle and replaced with fresh air from reserve tanks.
“The storm has grown,” Chess explained. “At its center it’s over two hundred knots gusting to two-fifty. Before we set out, they were thinking that was going to pass to the north of us, but now I guess it’s moving toward us.”
“The pod can’t handle that,” Ave warned.
“It was all I could do to land it in a hundred twenty knot winds.”
“So we’re screwed,” Ave said.
“Not if we can get out ahead of the storm,” Timmel said.
“The hover pod is designed to compensate for drift and external forces,” Chess pointed out.
“With all due respect for your piloting abilities, no one can control a pod in winds in excess of two hundred fifty knots. That far exceeds design limitations.”
“Well let’s hope I don’t have to be the first to disprove that,” Chess said.
“Talk to me, Chess,” Lyle said.
“This shit’s bad.”
“I see it.”
“Are we nuts for thinking we can get through this?”
“Weren’t you just telling me how good you are?”
“I’m the real deal, my man, but I’m no fool. I mean, the center of this storm hasn’t even arrived yet and it’s already making my Puma walk sideways.”
“It’s the same here. We don’t have a lot of time.”
“So, remind me again, why are we doing this?”
“‘Cause no one else can,” Chess replied.
“It’s more like no one else will.”
“We signed on to do this.”
“I used to take stupid dares when I was a kid. I guess I never outgrew that.”
“We both have that problem.”
“This is where we leave you, my friend,” Lyle said.
“Looks like I got the head start. Pod just ahead.”
“See you up top.”
“I’ll hold a seat for you at the bar.”
“We got our pod next to us, too. So, I guess it’s brews for two on you if you lose.”
“I’ll take that action,” Chess said.
Static was the reply.
“I can’t find him anymore,” Ave looked up from the screen. “Maybe he’s behind the mountains.”
“He’ll make it. All joking aside, he’s the best pilot I know. He always comes through.”
“What about us?” Ave asked.
“I’m better than the best, I guess.”
“Machismo aside, we are going to make it off this sandblasted rock, right?” Ave asked.
“Yeah, no problem. Just a bit of a storm we got to punch through.”
The Puma creaked and moaned. “At least the pod’s still here and chirping away. The way home is right there.” He pointed to the flashing dot on screen map for emphasis.
“Storm front is damned close,” Ave observed.
“Yeah, no time for the usual safety protocols, guys. We’re going to use the Chess modification to the checklist. We’ll leave this damned Puma running. I’ll remotely direct it away from our blast zone so there are no unexpected explosions during our lift off and ascent.”
“Good idea,” Ave said.
“We all exit through one hatch tethered together. We blow the pod’s outer hatch. We’ve only got twenty seconds to get inside. Once we purge, climb up and strap-in. We fire the main and it’s straight up, hopefully straight. There are no second chances.”
“Has this ever been tried?” Timmel asked.
“I don’t know. Anyone who’s failed obviously didn’t make it to the debrief.”
“How do you know it will work, then?”
“‘Cause it has to.”
“Alrighty, then,” Ave said, then drew a deep breath..
“It’s a good plan,” Chess said, as he pulled in as close as possible to the pod and prepared to open the hatch. “Hook up the safety line.”
“It’s pucker time.” Ave squirmed in his seat, preparing to disembark.
“Watch the blow out from the pod’s hatch, approach from the side. On three, out my hatch. Ready?”
“One, two, three!” Each of them in turn exited from the Puma through the pilot’s hatch.
Chess led them toward the pod’s hatch stepping aside as it blew outward, caught by its hydraulics it slowly started its twenty-second closing cycle.
“Get in!” Chess commanded and he clutched the door as if he could slow it from closing.
“Go, go, go!”
First Ave, and then Timmel scrambled through the hatch. Chess dove through the ever-narrowing opening. Moments later, the hatch sealed behind him. “Hold-on for the purge!”
Each of them gripped onto anything that they could cling to until the purge ceased. Chess was first to detach the tether that had secured him to the others. He ascended the ladder and upon reaching the flight controls he slid into his seat and strapped in for what he knew would an extreme ride against the odds.
“Strap in! There’s no countdown.” Chess remotely directed the Puma away. “If you two want to live, don’t say a word.”
“You got it, Chess.”
“We’re in your hands,” Timmel added.
“Don’t remind me!”
All thrusters fully charged and the reactor online, Chess fired the main engine, executing the emergency launch. The small pod shuttered as the g-forces combined with the wind turbulence diverting it from its preprogrammed trajectory. The pod buffeted as it push away from the surface. Chess compensated for the wind, glancing at radar and the anemometer. “Holy crap!”
Ave glanced at the reading, and then quickly looked away, “I hope Lyle’s in a better situation.”
“What does that mean?” Timmel asked.
“I thought I asked you to be quiet.”
“Well,” Ave said, “Wow!”
“Huge differential.” Chess’ hands trembled as he gripped the controls.
“Hull integrity forty-seven point five percent,” the onboard alarm warned.
“Can you kill that for me, Ave?”
“Hull integrity thirty-nine…”
“Sorry,” Ave apologized.
“We’re almost through it.” Chess checked the coordinates against positioning. “Damn, I’m good. Only thirty-four klicks down range.” He made some quick course adjustments.
“Ceiling in about five, four, three, two and…break,” the pod erupted from the clouds, emerging into the stratosphere of Pravda. Through the windows, they could see the sprawl of the intense storm below and its swirling pattern about the storm’s center.
“Chess, hull integrity is spotty, at twenty-two in some places,” Ave announced, concern in his voice as he stared at Chess to appraise the Chief’s reaction.
“Twenty-five is bare minimum for entering space,” Timmel warned. “A rupture might cause a reactor implosion. Of course, we’d be dead before that –”
“How’s seal integrity?” Chess interrupted to ask.
“Forward and aft at thirty-seven percent and thirty-five percent respectively. Starboard and port at…” Ave paused. “Chess, we’ll be pushing it if we commit.”
“What are the readings?”
“Twenty-five percent and twenty-four percent respectively.”
“The point’s moot. The hull is below minimum.”
“What are you suggesting we do, Timmel? Do you want us to go back down into that soup? Even if I could pull a miracle rabbit out of my ass and land this thing in three hundred knot winds. We’d not survive the night with this hull integrity.”
“I’m just informing you of the facts.”
“We have to go for it,” Ave defended Chess.
“Chess, Lyle here. I see you on the scope.”
“We both made it, Lyle.”
“Well we’re beat up pretty bad.”
“Hull integrity is twenty-two here.”
“Nineteen and a half here.”
“Wow!” Ave expressed.
“Yeah, it’s what it is. We’re reinforcing the weak spots, but all we have is duct tape and some rods to prop against the walls.”
“I hear ya,” Chess responded, checking his screen for the proximity readings.
“We’re unanimous to go for it. It’s not like there’s another option.”
“Good luck, my friend.”
“If I don’t make it…”
“Don’t tell me you’re reneging on our bet.”
“There are always margins of error, right?”
“Yeah, Lyle, we’ll both be fine.”
“I never fly by the damned book, anyway.”
Chess watched on the scope as his friend climbed out of the atmosphere, hoping for the best.
“They can’t make it,” Timmel said solemnly, as if pronouncing a death sentence. “Their hull is too thin now. We’ll not make it either.”
“Then we all die together right?” Ave shrugged.
“How about the seals?”
“In tact and holding, no further deterioration.”
Immediately ahead of them, there was a bright flash, the signature of a fusion reactor implosion.
Chess sat back. “Lyle!” he called over the radio, but he did not expect response. The others sat in sober silence contemplating the truth, that likely they would suffer the same fate.
“Raise the interior pressure.” Chess commanded.
“What good will that do?” Ave asked.
“I remember reading something about it artificially making the hull stronger.”
“It can, but only in a very narrow range of values,” Timmel admitted. “If it’s too high it will blow the seals.”
“The platform is in range.” Ave maneuvered a viewer closer to his eyes. “I got long range visual.”
“Holding at twenty-two percent. Interior pressure now at one-oh-five.”
“Raise it to one fifteen.”
“That’s dangerous, not just for the hull but our ears.” Timmel voiced his concerns.
“What’s to hear if we’re dead?” Chess asked rhetorically as they ascended beyond the last vestiges of atmosphere. “Today, we defy all odds, gents.”
“Hull holding, platform has a lock on us, switching to onboard guidance,” Ave reported, and then checked his harness, ensuring it was locked.
“Control, Seven Xray Bravo One requesting confirmation of visual.”
“Seven Xray Bravo One, we have you on long range.”
“Roger that, advising you our hull is weak. Request no tractor, repeat, no tractor.”
“Roger, Seven Xray Bravo One. Tractor is off. You call the ball, Chess.”
“I have a warning light,” Ave reached toward the panel and flicked his finger against it, hoping it was an error. “We have a leak in two of four seals.” He reported from the environmental control display.
“Control, Seven Xray Bravo One is coming in hot. Request emergency protocols. Seals and not in tact.”
“Roger, understood. Fire crews alerted. Will begin bay door close when you pass the outer marker. Maintain approach speed.”
“Roger, Control.” Chess turned to address the other two of the crew. “Get in the tub.”
“This is highly unusual and risky at best.”
“Do you want to fly this bitch, Timmel?”
“Then get in the damned tub and shut the fuck up!”
“Come on.” Ave unbuckled and climbed down into the protected escape tub. “Don’t complain about my body odor and bad breath. It’s a tight fit in there.”
As the pod continued on approach, Chess made a visual of the landing bay. “Control, Seven Xray Bravo One, I see the beacons. Platform’s just ahead,” Chess announced.
“Passing outer marker.”
“Roger, that. Call the ball.”
“Control, this is Seven Xray Bravo One, I have the ball, am I cleared for final?”
“Seven Xray Bravo One, it’s all yours.”
“Tail hook down!”
“Emergency Cables deployed and locked.”
“Welcome home, Chess.”
The pod passed the outer lock as the receiving bay doors were already closing. Chess dipped the stick, forcing the pod’s tail hook down, snagging one of four possible cables, throwing Chess forward in his seat. The restraints were tested as the pod slipped through foam intended to minimize sparks as it lost momentum and came to an abrupt halt.
This time, there was no fire. The emergency escape tub was not put to the test.
“Outer door sealed, bay pressure at sixty-five percent.” Ave read the external environment screen as he returned to his seat.
“Sorry for that back there, Chess.” Timmel apologized.
“Forget it. My nerves were frayed. We were all dealing with the pressure.”
“Thanks, Chess. That was some flying.”
“Making it to and from the rock is what I do. We made it one more time.”
“Making paradise from chaos is what I do.” Timmel gathered his gear together and prepared to exit.
“I guess we’ll see how that goes.”