A Bradbury University rover rattles over a ridge, carrying students and a professor from a geological expedition site back toward the domed settlement of Cartertown. Among the students is Amalie Plantagenet, daughter of Martian multimillionaire Lawrence Plantagenet. The rover’s AI driver calmly reports: “Thirty seconds until squall intersects with the vehicle.”
Amalie, her fellow students, and Professor Newman Detweiler, all turn to look at the sandstorm boiling behind them in clouds that are thousands of feet high.
“We’re not going to make it,” Amalie says.
“Send another emergency alert to Cartertown!” the professor yells at the ceiling.
“Done,” the AI replies. “I have also taken the liberty of activating the homing beacon.”
Amalie watches the storm as it seems to lurch toward them with grabby tendrils of sand and wind. “Let’s hope we all end up somewhere close to the beacon,” she whispers.
And then all becomes chaos and cacophony, before darkness.
As the storm begins to die down some time later, shuttle flight MPF-132 departs from a small research station in Icaria Planum, bound for the city dome of Olympus Mons. Aboard the Martian shuttle is Senator Corris, one of the Martian representatives to the Stellar Consortium Council.
Leaning back in his chair, datapad in hand, Corris reads over a report of the research activities at the outpost at Icaria. Eyes glazed over, he eventually finds himself pressing the button to go to the next page, but not reading anything. Eventually, he snaps out of it when the shuttle shakes from the turbulence.
The shuttle pilot looks back, “Sorry about that, Senator. Some rough patches left over from the tail end of that storm. We’ll be through in no time.”
Corris nods, looks out the port window at the barren world he calls home.
Before he can ponder any further, he hears an alert come from the pilot’s console. “What is it, lieutenant?” he asks, glancing over.
“Looks like an emergency transponder beacon. Faint. Somewhere down there.” The lieutenant looks over the controls, trying to pin down the location of the beacon. “I have a general area. Not many ships in the zone though so soon after the storm. I’m slowing the ship and taking us down. Buckle up, Senator.”
Sighing, Corris is already strapped into his seat. He doesn’t trust these blasted ships. Not like a belt would help if they went down at this speed or altitude.
“This is Martian Private Flight One Three Two. Unknown contact, we have your transponder, please respond. Having issues picking up your location. Please identify and provide coordinates. Are you in need of assistance?” the lieutenant says into the comm, as the shuttle jerks slightly during the descent.
No response from the lost rover, but the coordinates of the homing transponder remain steady.
After several minutes of radio silence, and circling the general area of the beacon, the lieutenant sighs. “Their short range communications might be damaged.” He looks over the sensor readouts and points at a location on the map. “Somewhere in here.. I think.”
“You think?” Corris replies, tilting his head over to see if he can view what the pilot is pointing at.
“Yeah.. Pretty sure. Hard to get a firm reading.” He replies, as he leans back into the cockpit chair. He presses a few buttons on the communication grid, “Flight MPF-132 to Olympus Mons, requesting assistance. Possible ship down at current location. Send assistance. Taking the transport down, beginning search and rescue operations. VIP onboard. Need assistance. Over.” As the lieutenant finishes the transmission, the transport jerks again as it heads down further towards the surface. “Once we land, we might have to go out there. Sorry, sir, but I’ll need your help. We have environmental suits and medical kits in holding.”
The Martian councillor sighs. “Wonderful. Just wonderful.”
In the cockpit, the comm system flashes the signal for an incoming message.
The lieutenant continues his slow decline towards the surface where he thinks the signal is coming from. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees an incoming transmission. Tapping the comm with his left hand, he says, “Flight MPF-132, descending towards the surface of Mars. Please identify. “
The Councillor remains quiet, his eyes closed, as he can feel the force of the ship going faster towards the surface on his body. “Why did I get out of bed this morning.” He says to himself.
“This is Lawrence Plantagenet,” says the voice over the comms. “My daughter Amalie was on a college trip before that massive storm hit. I want her rescued. If anything happens to her, someone’s going to pay.”
“Uh, sir… This channel is for official business only. We are conducting search operations in our area. Please stay off the channel and wait for someone to contact you.” The lieutenant says, shaking his head as he flips the comm off.
A few minutes later, the shuttle lands in a relatively safe location not far from where the emergency beacon is going off. The lieutenant, copilot and several others aboard (including the Martian Councillor) get into the environmental suits and depart the transport.
Holding a scanning device outside the transport, the lieutenant points in a direction away from the ship. “It’s not far that way.” He says, as he leads the others (and the cowardly Corris) towards the site of the signal.
The team arrives before too long at the site where a chunk of the rover – the back quarter, including three of the wheels – rests in a small crater, drifted on one side by sand. The beacon is affixed to the undercarriage. A red telltale blinks as the device pulses its signal.
“Well, looks like mystery solved.” Corris says, looking at the wreckage. Typical politician.
The lieutenant sighs, and drops down next to the blinking device. As the lieutenant inspects it, the co-pilot and several other civilians survey the back quarter for clues, bodies or survivors.
No signs of survivors amidst this part of the wreckage, although there are a few scattered cases of equipment and supplies. However, it is obvious that a good three-fourths of the vehicle is still missing.
Several of the civilians with the group begin to scavenge through the supplies and equipment. Corris, the politician that he is, stands watch to ‘manage’ the group.
“Command, we have only part of a rover down here. Requesting air support for a wider search radius. They couldn’t of gone far.” The lieutenant says, looking back at the Councillor.
Corris sees the gaze of the lieutenant, and walks over. “Are we going after them? Or leave it to the professionals?” He asks.
“We will continue to search. Let’s get back to the transport, I’ve marked these coordinates, someone will be along shortly.” The lieutenant says, prompting the others to return to the transport. He looks around before leaving, trying to determine which way the rest of the rover may have went.
It may occur to the lieutenant that the rest of the rover isn’t what went anywhere – that this piece may have originated somewhere else, got picked up by the storm, and landed here. The larger portion of the vehicle may be hundreds of yards or several miles away depending on the violence of the maelstrom.
As the group gets back into the transport, the lieutenant takes his seat. Corris sits in the seat behind him as the others get settled.
“We’re going to do a low level pass of the area, everyone look out your view ports and see if you can see the other part of the rover. It can’t be far.” The lieutenant says as he fires up the engines and lifts off. The transport begins a slow, circular search pattern around the back end of the rover.
“I trust we won’t be here much longer?” The councillor asks, but is ignored.
“If anyone sees anything, just shout.” The co-pilot says as he adjusts his sensors to see if it can pickup the metal from the main part of the rover.
Within 20 minutes, the pilots make visual contact with the larger piece – and several people, apparently survivors of the incident. Some are injured.
“Over there!” The co-pilot shouts as he points to a clearing off to the port. The transport jerks as it turns hard and begins to head towards the site of the rover.
The lieutenant shouts back, “Get the med-kits out. We likely have injured.” As the transport comes down to the ground, the pilot calls in their location.
Corris unstraps, again and gets up. He puts on the helmet to the environmental suit and exits the transport behind several others. The group makes their way towards the rover and beings to check on the various people, their injuries and condition of their transport.
Professor Detweiler is among the survivors, his arm in a makeshift sling crafted from a rover seat belt. Several of the atmosphere suits are patched with tangler paste and tape. He gets to his feet as the rescuers arrive. “Thank god you found us! Did Amalie get to you?”
“Who?” Corris asks as the others check the other survivors. “Our transport detected your emergency beacon and we’ve been searching for some time. Honestly, I thought you all were dead. We need to get you out of here.”
“Amalie Plantagenet,” the professor replies, the surprised look on his face indicating that it should be less of a mystery. “She left with Travis Hart with a comms transmitter to find high ground.”
The councillor sighs, shaking his head. “Why would they do that? No, wait.. I don’t want to know. Which way did they go?” He asks, motioning for the lieutenant and several others to come over.
“I argued with her,” the professor insists. “Travis said it was to ensure line of sight to the nearest receiver towers in case the homing beacon failed. Amalie refused to let him leave on his own.”
The lieutenant approaches and listens. “And you thought it was good for them to leave?” He shakes his head and points towards the ridge line. “Let’s head that way.” He says, as he radios in a request for air support to assist.
The group, let by the lieutenant, and under the watchful eye of the martian councillor, begin their trek towards the ridge.
Detwiler shrugs. “I’m down an arm,” he replies, gently waving the makeshift sling. “Couldn’t exactly tackle them to the ground.” He nods politely toward Corris. “I recognize you from the news vids. Councillor Cordwood, right? Thanks for helping us. We’ll all sure remember that come election day.”
The councillor grins, “Jeffrey Corris.. but… close enough.” He shakes his head, and heads towards the lieutenant. The ridge is some ways away.
The search party finds Travis Hart on a ridge overlooking one of the ancient Martian canal beds. His oxygen supply is exhausted. He died, it seems, of asphyxiation. The comms equipment is nowhere to be found. No sign of Amalie, either.