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Sat, 28 Mar 2009

Beta Sigma (Chapter 5, conclusion)

The two men and the Highlander reached the upper edge of the canyon wall without further catastrophe. The truck again fouled on rock steps a few more times, but Jiabao had been running the winch slower, and Fred took great care in freeing them from each snag. Mundi had placed the last anchor well beyond a nicely ramped section of the uppermost cliff edge, allowing the truck to pull itself smoothly around from the vertical wall and finish on level ground, neat as can be.

Jiabao mumbled a complaint about the cover being too far away and wondered if the TFB's SAR radar capability could resolve them at this range. But he didn't disguise his sigh of relief that accompanied his first steps on the firm, level rock surface of the Juventae Dorsa.

It had been nearly 20 earth standard hours since they departed, so camping to sleep and help avoid altitude sickness was a necessity for the men. Jiabao ordered Mundi and Fred to drag the truck behind a few big boulders, shielding it from any TFB radar scans, and then the men deployed the pressure bivouacs, called Gamows, that would be bunks for their "night".

"Before you lay your ass down, Shitma, pull those Segways out of the truck," demanded Jiabao as he locked his Gamow shut.

The concentration of oxygen at earth sea level is about 21%. In the deepest part of the Valles Marinaris, just behind the wall of the KSR dam, the O2 concentration is maintained at roughly this same earth normal fraction, and the barometric pressure is also stabilized near 1 Bar, earth normal. However, as one climbs up the gorge from the bottom, although the O2 concentration remains roughly the same, the number of oxygen molecules per breath is reduced in proportion to the drop in pressure.

At the extreme elevation of the Junetae Dorsa, where the men set up their bivouac, the barometric pressure is only 1/5 , so there were roughly 80% fewer oxygen molecules per breath. In order to properly oxygenate the body, one's breathing rate (even while at rest) has to increase to 5 times normal. This extra ventilation increases the oxygen content in the blood, but the effort of breathing so hard also requires even more oxygen. It's a losing battle as the body is slowly asphyxiated despite its best efforts to get the oxygen it needs to survive. In addition, lower air pressure causes fluid to leak from capillaries and build-up in both the lungs and the brain. If the asphyxiation doesn't kill you, then you drown in pulmonary edema. And if that doesn't get you, your brain bursts like an overripe tomato.

The only way to survive is to regularly return to higher pressures -- or somehow become one of the Highlanders who spend a lifetime perfecting the art of acclimatizing.

Mundi looked for a long time at the two Gamow chambers in which the two men lay so vulnerable, recovering from their exposure to low pressure. He looked, but did nothing. Eventually, following Jiabao's order, he moved to the truck and unloaded the Segways.

When originally invented back in the late 20th century on earth, the Segway was a self balancing, very compact, two-wheeled, one person, seatless electric vehicle. That made it mostly a novelty at a time in mankind's history dominated by 1500 Kg, gasoline powered, 4-wheeled automobiles.

But as fossil fuels ran out, the Segway company was able to leverage their name and experience by successfully selling small, practical electric vehicles, both two and four wheeled, into a chaotic market where all the establish auto makers were being torn apart by financial ruin and inability to adapt. Their big breakthrough came with the introduction of the "crash proof" Segway: a personal, two wheeled transporter with non-radiating situational sensors and a set of computer enforced dynamic rules designed in such a way that even at 200 KPH, on normal paved roads you simply could not hit anything, at least not hard enough to kill yourself, no matter how hard you tried. The passive sensors allowed thousands of these to crowd the roads without interference. It was the next transportation revolution. Driving drunk, falling asleep while driving, yakking away absent minded on your personal network terminal as you drove -- none of these were a serious problem any longer. By the time Segway's patents on the technology ran out, they were one of the largest corporations on Earth -- displacing all the old car makers, not to mention making auto insurance obsolete.

The crash proof X9 model also made a perfect vehicle for Mars. This wasn't particularly because of its collision avoidance in the usual Earth highway safety "saving lives" sense. Rather, it was how well they did in the unintended duty of avoiding collisions with the off-road trail hazards strewn all over the native Martian dorsa: boulders, sink holes, sand dunes, and all manner of man made junk. You just aimed the bloody things and they caromed along in that general direction reliably and without incident. They weren't very fast out of the box, and didn't last long, but after mounting off road wheels, supplemental oxygen supplies, and downloading some open source software mods (voiding the warranty) to tune the thing for the low G, they could take cheap, consumer Segways, like the X9, and squeeze 40-50 klicks out of them over unimproved terrain doing useful construction and mining work. They were also the vehicle of choice for TFB safaris, as they were quiet sonically and electromagnetically, and had a very low radar cross section. Their only negative was that they tended to get rather hot when driven hard.

It was moderately difficult work for Mundi to unload the Segways. They were stowed horizontally, deep in the hold, and therefore couldn't be activated under their own power till they were dragged completely out of the truck. In the thin air, the men would have taken hours to do this; the Highlander finished the heavy work quickly and easily, the labor warming him so that when it was done he was content to lay resting on a thin pad insulating him from the bare Martian ground, comfortable without additional shelter, waiting patiently for the men to emerge from their Gamows.

When they did emerge, about 6 hours later, the two men were cranky, complaining of headaches. They ate some trail meals, drank a lot of water, took several Diamox tablets along with Tylenol, and slowly began stowing their gear into the Segway cargo holds. This took a lot longer than Jiabao would have liked, putting him in an even more foul mood at the group being too far behind schedule when they eventually began moving in the machines, dodging along northward over the plain at a steady 40 KPH.

They rode without a break, pushing the pace as fast as they could stand. Their Segway heat sinks glowed red hot from the power. Despite the hyperbaric recovery and the supplemental O2 in the cabs of their Segways, both men continued to have splitting headaches. Hour after hour of this bone jarring, stomach flopping, Segway X9 anti-collision mode travel did nothing to improve this.

By some inner navigational instinct Mundi signaled that it was now time to stow the Segways and begin to travel on foot. Jiabao glanced at his electronic nav unit and saw that they were almost exactly 50 Km from their destination in the Ganges Catena. How did the bastard know?

"No, not here. If we cut west, we can hunker under this ridge and stay shadowed from TFB radar till we reach Amontillado crater," said Jiabao through the intercom, gesturing at the map on the display of the Segway nav unit. "That'll cut our walk down to only 5 klicks. As much as I hate this bumpy shit, I'd rather ride than walk, Shitma. Keep going."

"Rough trail west. Very slow riding. Many cul de sac. Rogue TFB. Little ice for water. Continue north on foot. Faster. Plenty water, no TFB till Catena." Mundi replied.

"Are you deaf as well as stupid? I said we cut west and keep riding," Jiabao snarled. After glaring over at Mundi for a few seconds, Jiabao turned his Segway sharply left without slowing. The wheels skidded sideways for almost 100 meters as the machine struggled to execute the ridiculous maneuver, kicking up a huge plume of dust.

"Watch with the dirt in the air, boss," said Fred.

Jiabao redirected his glare toward Fred. "Pick up the pace, both of you," he said, gunning his machine to nearly 50 KPH.

As Mundi warned, the terrain became increasingly difficult. Crater ejecta was everywhere blocking the direct path. Many times they were forced to backtrack several klicks when they were blocked by a dead end canyon. As hard as Jiabao pushed them, the Segways could make little aggregate progress westward. Both men were suffering badly, sweating buckets as they baked from the infrared heat of the overloaded Segways and increasingly nauseous from the low air pressure. Eventually they were forced to stop again and return to their Gamows for rest and recovery.

"TFB have IR sensor. See heat sinks on Segway," warned Mundi.

Jiabao walked over to the Segways, unzipped the fly of his suit, and pissed on the heatsinks, raising billowing clouds of steam. When his piss ran out, he dowsed them further with a container of water.

"Happy, shitma?" he asked. Mundi said nothing in response, and lay down on his pad, red eyes open to the sky. Jiabao grunted in disgust and entered his Gamow.

After only 4 hours sleep, Jiabao ordered them to move out again, but there was still no break in the impossible terrain and again they were forced to stop and recover from their increasing symptoms of altitude sickness. As soon as they were stopped, Fred staggered out of the Segway and vomited a thin mucus onto his own feet.

"You disgusting bastard. Can't hold your Marshine, eh?" Jiabao derided, secretly swallowing back his own gorge.

"This ain't fun, boss. I thought these hunts was supposed to be fun?" said Fred. "Doesn't the guide know a better way? With this vacuum for air and the heat from the Segways, I've been drinking water like a fish, whatever they are. But I can't hold the stuff down. Can't eat either."

"Shut the fuck up. We'll have fun enough when we get to the bots," said Jiabao, then turning to Mundi. "Hey Shitma, we're getting low on water. Where can we drill some?"

"Low water, but still enough. No water here. Amontillado Crater has water"

"Look at that red cut gully in the cliff to the north," said Jiabao indicating a ravine he could see on his nav unit topo display that was about 5 kilometers away. There's always water under an iron cut like that. Betcha we steer up that and we'll find water."

"No good for Segways in ravine."

"So we walk a little, Shitma. You wanted to walk. We'll walk," said Jiabao.

"Take pulse rifle. Rogue TFB here. See IR"

"I know they see IR, you bastard, and I hope they come. Good. We came to hunt," said Jiabao. Through the maze of ejecta the group reached the ravine in about 5 hours. Both men looked pretty bad. Pale, lethargic, both had obviously puked in their Segways, probably several times. Mundi's emotionless red eyes took in their deteriorating condition as they laboriously hooked the O2 lines from the Segways to their Gamows.

"One hour break, then we go up," gasped Jiabao, his usual command tone diminished a notch in his fatigue.

It was more like two hours before the men had the strength to emerge, now looking pinker and somewhat more alert, although now shivering from the cold. Soon enough they began to warm, as they began climbing the boulder choked ravine, the men staggered and scrambling on all fours while Mundi walked confidently upright with the heavy water-drill held in one hand. All three had their pulse rifles slung over their shoulders in case they spotted a TFB.

They had climbed only about 100 meters up the ravine away from the Segways when Jiabao commanded them to stop.

"Drill here," he said. "Look at that red sand. There's water here. Fred, you run the drill. I don't want that stupid Shitma fucking with it."

Mundi stopped. He said nothing and handed the drill to the other man. Fred grunted as he heaved the tool into position over a promising looking sandy spot between two boulders. He made some minor adjustments on the settings and turned it on. It hummed to life, cylinder laser punching down quickly through the soft sand. In about a minute they had their first kilo core of water ore sliding out of the ejector.

"See, I told you, Shitma. Plenty of water here. I've mined ten other men's fortunes out of this god forsaken rock. I can find water for myself. I don't need no stinkin' Shitma to guide me."

The events of the next minute were gone over again and again at the hearing. There's virtually no doubt about what transpired. It appeared to have gone exactly as Mundi reported, fully confirmed both by the Segway nav unit recorders, ballistic evidence, and decoded downloads of the rogue TFB control unit.

Fred had just extracted a third kilo of water ore when the two men saw Mundi suddenly reach over his shoulder for his pulse weapon, sling it into position, aim carefully, and fire down the ravine in the direction of the Segways. Mundi stood motionless, still aiming the rifle, as Jiabao began shouting at him, enraged. Mundi fired again toward the Segways. Jiabao and Fred thought the Hilander was engaging in some irresponsible target practice, and sprinted toward Mundi with the intent to wrestle the weapon from his grip, but just this brief exertion instantly had the two men staggering, almost fainting before they reached Mundi, both of them being so near hypoxic coma.

After almost a minute of gasping, bent over, hands on knees, they recovered their senses and Mundi pointed down toward the Segways to explain. The men now discerned what appeared to be the inert carcass of a rogue TFB that had latched to one of the Segways. If Mundi hadn't seen the bot and shot it, the robot scavenger would have quickly destroyed the Segways as it extracted and digested useful elements from the machines.

Without question, it was acknowledged at the hearing that Mundi's action, regardless of its eventual consequence, was clearly warranted, and probably intended to save everyone's lives. If the men had seen the TFB, they would have done the same. Had Mundi been an Earth born, the agency would have issued him a check, as there was a nice reward for the killing of a rabid TFB attacking active mining company equipment.

After Mundi shot the TFB, the men returned to their drilling for water ore. It took a couple more hours to gather all they could carry, which wasn't very much for the men. Mundi carried the bulk of it, along with the drill, as the men staggered with him down the ravine to the Segways and the remains of the TFB.

The TFB was a fine specimen and obviously quite dead. Shot clean through it's power generator, the valuable phase array radar was still intact. Jiabao grinned when he thought about the price that fine rack would bring back in Marinaris City.

But as Jiabao was admiring the clean kill, to his horror, Fred discovered where Mundi's first shot had strayed -- directly through both the Gamows that the men had left deployed. The thin walled hyperbaric chambers had been ripped wide open by the shot, there was no repairing them. Worse yet, all the O2 from the Segways had vented away through the tear.

They tried to make it back, and all the records indicate that Mundi did everything he could to keep the two men alive. He cooked down the water ore for them and made sure they drank what water they could. When the men eventually collapsed into unconsciousness, Mundi loaded them onto the cargo platform of his Segway. He injected them with Dex, and kept them covered in all the nanodown they had.

But without life sustaining oxygen, their fate was already sealed. Fred died before they reached the edge of the ejecta zone. Jiabao died just before Mundi reached the truck. Cerebral Edema is a slow, excruciating way to die. No doubt Mundi had no choice but to watch almost every instant of the horrible progress of their deaths.

When Mundi returned to the agency with the bloated, frozen bodies of the two Earth born men, he was immediately arrested. Fearing what might have happened, I had no choice but to lock him up pending the hearing.

When he testified, Mundi said that he was sorry he accidentally shot the hyperbaric chambers, but the swirling winds in the ravine were tricky. Who knows what steers the wind. He wished he hadn't missed the first time.

The panel of agency officials selected for judging the hearing were disconcerted, but the facts spoke for themselves. Cerebral edema was a horrible way to die just because some stupid Shitma couldn't shoot straight.

When he was released, I looked at the Highlander and convinced myself that I saw just the slightest change in his fierce, other worldly appearance -- maybe I could see the boy Beta Sigma again -- a boy with a mother and father and siblings. Maybe, also, I could see a thin smile of relief under that leathery countenance. And as I looked at him, something fractured in me that I had carried in my gut for too many years was now finally mended. I asked the Highlander what he would do now, but he did not reply in words. He just gestured toward the north and walked away. I haven't seen him since. I figure he went back home to his brothers in Juventae.

The Hellas Planitia Coffee Company people now are shipping an excellent Kona and I've gotten more adept at running it through the calcinating kiln without incinerating a single bean past double dark roast. With work I keep pretty busy. Although my UNASA division was recently re-tasked to an even more inconsequential mission, the paperwork still gives me ways to keep my mind occupied.

When I have idle moments to daydream, sometimes I think back to the story of the boy Beta Sigma, and the creature Mundi he became, and wonder what he would have done differently if that TFB hadn't wandered into the ravine.

Posted Mar 28, 2009 at 21:16 UTC, 3121 words,  [/danPermalink