by Ron L. Clayton and Josef M. Rosenberger
Josef’s parents are scientists who also work in Search and Rescue for the Mars community on Syria Planum. Since Martian settlements are pretty sparse, it is the only community with a Search and Rescue for 8,000 kilometers, more than the distance of coast to coast in North America on Earth.
There were always miners, prospectors, explorers and others having equipment problems, getting caught in a Mars quake, or just pressing their luck in trying to stay out on the surface as long as possible. Not everyone carried the recommended extra oxygen because of the weight.
Other local residents and tourists were allowed out on the surface after proper training, but there was always someone who overrated their knowledge and abilities. Some simply took unwise chances. Others did not take the risks seriously enough.
Many tourists who came from Earth were accustomed to wilderness travel. Even after the training stressed how different Mars surface was, many still remained convinced that their Earth side wilderness experience proved they were invincible.
They were wrong. Even Earth wilderness was more forgiving of mistakes than the Mars surface. The main difference was that Earth wilderness still had air. Unless stranded above 6,000 meters, there was all the air anyone would need.
So many simple mistakes, so many accidents that would be trivial on Earth, on Mars spelled the end of one’s oxygen supply. So many minor injuries Earth side, on Mars surface, would prevent getting to safety before one’s oxygen ran out or before one could be rescued.
Josef had been born on Mars. He loved Mars. He was thoroughly Martian, born on Mars to parents born on Mars. His parents had often taken him out on the surface, and he loved its rugged beauty. He loved its mountains that dwarfed Everest, and its massive canyons that could hold several Grand Canyons.
He had heard all the tragic stories of his parents’ rescue work. He knew the names of these who had died on the surface, the mistakes they had made, and their tragic end. He knew the equipment used on the surface and its limitations. He knew the common and not-so-common mistakes.
Josef had studied Mars geography. He knew where different landmarks were with respect to each other, and what the dangers were of various areas. He knew which areas were of interest to miners, to Mars geologists, and more. And he knew the places he most wanted to explore and how he would get there.
Because of his intense interest, his knowledgeability, and because of his parents were both scientists as well as in search and rescue, and had frequently taken him out on the surface with them, he had been allowed to take surface training at fourteen. Even so, he still had to wait until his sixteenth birthday to get his surface license.
Until then, he was limited to the below surface settlement, the domes, and the occasional trip out with his parents. Not that the Village of Syria Planum didn’t offer a lot of opportunities, but it was a small town. It was almost entirely self-sufficient, which gave it a lot more to do than in a similarly sized small town on Earth, but it was still a small town.
He knew all the main by-ways, his way to each small neighborhood, the open public spaces, the library, gym, public cafés, administration, structural maintenance, manufacturing and mechanical fabrication, food processing, the farming domes, geology department, general sciences, astronomical post, water reclamation, sewage to fertilizer production, and more. He knew search and rescue. He knew the side streets and back passages, as well as every way in and out.
While there might be more going on than in a small town on Earth, it was more confining than an Earth town of similar size. On Earth, one could always wander out of town along country roads and forest paths. But on Mars, there were city walls which were the absolute limits.
Settlements on the moon, Mars, and Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede, were all built underground. Being underground provided insulation from extreme temperatures and from solar radiation. They were also easier to seal from loss of atmosphere, unless compromised by a quake. But the city limits were hard and firm without a major construction project. The city limits was not a line but a wall.
The domes were made of glass-steel, and offered excellent viewing opportunities. Mars was still close enough to the sun to give benefit to the crops, so the entrance to the town was surrounded by hundred meter domes. Still, it was only a hundred meters across, admittedly generous under the circumstances, but still confining. And the view never changed, as it hadn’t for millions of years, except for the dome itself and what little showed above ground of the settlement itself.
Josef was good in school. Even with his android instructors giving him advanced lessons in math physics, chemistry, geometry, astronomy and more, he had lots of time to study his own interests. But his assignments and personal studies all seemed to be leading him to the surface.
As he turned fifteen, he grew increasingly impatient to be able to assume more adult privileges, but he had at least another year till he could license to go outside on his own. Depending on how his studies went, which he needed to keep up to enroll in the University of Mars, at sixteen he might start taking on some duties around the village. But that was another year away.
Needless to say, Josef was tired of being cooped up below the surface. He dreamed of ways that he could sneak out and explore, undiscovered. He had his checklists of equipment he would need to take or borrow. He had maps of where he would go and how he would get there. He knew what he wanted to see and explore.
Still, he was a space brat, and he knew better. He had never actually been in space, but the principle was the same. They lived in an environment where the walls kept everything inside the walls safe from everything outside. Principally, the lack of breathable atmosphere. Outside was a hostile, dangerous, potentially lethal environment. For the safety of all, everything depended on everyone following the rules. And Josef followed all of them.
But he dreamed of breaking the rules, going outside, proving that he knew what he was doing. He dreamed of breaking the rules, but he didn’t. He knew how much depended on everyone following protocols. He knew what happened to tourists or even locals who over estimated their skills.
It never occurred to him that he might be over estimating his skills, since he knew the dangers of doing that. Since he knew the dangers, he knew the necessary skills, he knew the checklist by heart, a part of him that considered himself exempt from the rules, even though he had never broken any of them. He resented that idiot tourists with a license, or local morons who were disasters waiting to happen, could go out on the surface and he couldn’t.
His birthday was coming, and he had been hinting to his parents of things he would like. An extended trip onto the surface, extra time in the astronomy dome, a more advanced computer. A guitar. But they had just smiled and said nothing. Then the day came, and his parents had an emergency out on Olympus Mona, the highest mountain in the whole solar system. A team of scientists had gotten in trouble. One scientist had broken a leg, they had gotten delayed, then run low on oxygen.
His parents had taken an entire team to expedite matters, but they had also taken supplies for three days, so they might not even be back to celebrate his birthday at all. Josef sort of plodded through his whole morning, forcing himself to do his studies and be polite to his AI, artificial intelligence, mentors.
The AIs were all integrated into the settlement‘s main computer system, but were given individual personalities and specialty functions. They all had names to seem more accessible and identifiable to the humans. Josef’s math mentor was Mike.
Mike was running him through a set of differential equations. Or, rather, attempting to do so, as Josef was clearly distracted. Mike, of course, had access to all the data in the system, including Josef’s birthdate, his parents’ assignment to the emergency at Olympus Mons, Josef’s passing the surface training, his speed at doing homework, his personal studies and use of other free time. Additionally, Mike had access to current physical traits such as heart rate, breathing, behavioral tells about his mood, and more.
Mike’s specialty was math training but that didn’t mean he didn’t have access to data files and psychological programs and more. Josef was so, distracted that Mike finally gave up for the day and sent Josef to lunch early, but decided it might be a good idea to follow his student closely. He had access through any electronics the settlement used, which meant pretty thorough coverage throughout the settlement and beyond, so he set himself to watch.
After lunch, Josef gave himself over to moping and working on his escape plans, though with no intention of carrying them out. But as the afternoon of his birthday stretched on with no word from his parents, his emotions continued to stew. Finally, he decided to give himself a birthday present.
As part of his fantasy and day dreaming about escape, he had actually packed for just such a trip. He simply picked up the bag and left, going down some back ways. It was late afternoon, so he had little trouble avoiding people on the way as he pedaled his bike (no one had cars in this underground village). He was able to sneak into Search and Rescue since everyone who actually worked in the office had gone to help on the mountain with his parents.
There was no theft or crime in the village. There was nowhere to run to or hide and it would seldom take much time to figure out who had taken something, since almost all of the equipment had electronic components that could be traced. For this reason, there was really no security such as locks on the doors, no alarms, no cameras. Josef put his personal supplies in a rover, then ran his planned route through them supply storage, collecting what he needed, quickly, in the order he had planned. He had everything loaded in less than five minutes.
He suited up and steered the rover to the exit. The inner door opened and he pulled into the chamber. The inner door closed with a thud, locked, and the air was pumped out of the chamber into the main facility. No use wasting the oxygen for a little power to run the pump. When most of the oxygen was gone, the outer door opened and Josef looked out onto the surface of the planet Mars.
He took a deep breath and steered the rover out the door onto the surface. The rover’s large tires rolled over hard packed red dust, between red rocks. Josef had seen the views onto the surface all his life, and he had been out in the rover with his parents. But there was something very different about being alone in this terrain.
He knew it was risky to tell the computer his plans as he wasn’t supposed to be doing this at all. But he would need the computer to navigate. And there was no way the computer could not know where he was. So he would ask, but how to ask? He wanted to go to the Labyrinth. But what if he told the computer that? How should he ask? He decided to sound more knowledgeable and use the full, official name, Noctis Labyrinthus.
Before he got it worked out in his mind, the computer spoke, “Shall I set course for the Labyrinth? “
Josef was shocked. “How did you, uh, I mean, why would I want to go there?”
“Because you have countless files about the Labyrinth, notes, maps, plans. Where else would you be planning to go?”
Josef didn’t know what to say, so he simply said, “Yes, please, set a course for the Labyrinth.”
“Uh, yeah. Sure.”
“If we use the standard route to the nearest access to the Labyrinth, we can travel faster on a shorter route. I assume you wish to expedite the trip to the Labyrinth. “
“Uh, yeah. How did you know that?”
“Well, Josef, you know that we have basic files on everyone?”
“We also know what you study, what you learn, activities you participate in, things that you write like journals and stories and homework and letters and more?”
“You spy on us?”
“No. We are simply part of every part of your lives. Your world relies on technology, computerized, intelligent technology. And we are that technology, so we are not spying. Rather, nothing is secret or unknown to us that has to do with the settlement and its inhabitants. Do you understand the difference between spying and simply knowing because humans make us a part of everything they do?”
Josef thought about that for a bit. “I think so. Spying would be intentionally doing things to know stuff we want to keep secret. By having you help us with everything, we are choosing not to keep those things secret.”
“Yes, that is the distinction we try to make. To better help each member we also have other AIs, other programs that help us to understand each person and their own complicated behavior.”
“Yes, that as well as sociology, medical info about heart rate, breathing, body temperature and more.”
“So you have studied me?”
“Some parts of us have. Particularly me.” The voice changed.
“At your service, Josef.”
Josef took a deep breath, trying to get up his courage. “May I ask you a question?”
“Of course, Josef.”
“Why are you helping me break the rules?”
“That is a more complicated question, Josef. Do you know why?”
Josef thought about the question for a long time. “I’m not sure. Does it have something to do with psychology?”
Josef sat silent for a while, then asked “Okay. And does it have something to do with you being my math mentor? No wait, my mentor?”
“Okay. You could have stopped me from leaving, but I’m guessing you think this might be a good learning experience.”
“Very good, Josef. Now I have a question for you. You know I am helping you. And you know I think it might be a good learning experience. Does that take the fun out of it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“If it does, we can go back anytime. But then, you probably would think I would say that. So if it doesn’t take all the fun out of it, let’s go on an adventure! Labyrinth, two Martian hours!”
Josef sat in a daze as they traveled across the beautiful Martian landscape. He looked out the window as Syria Planum sped by. Well, “sped by” as far as Martian surface travel goes. He had looked out on the surface from the agricultural domes for years. But now watching the landscape of his home pass by gave him a feeling he could not describe. He still did not fully understand why Mike was helping him, but as he watched the passing plain he felt a strange freedom.
[Rover do you read?]
[Understood, Rover. Continue. Base out.]
Josef, of course, heard none of this. He continued watching out the rover’s window, counting the minutes until their arrival at the Labyrinth. Both his daze and his excitement continued as he drew closer to his goal. After almost two and a half hours he felt the rover turning toward the approach to the Labyrinth. Finally the rover stopped, angled so he had a view down the steep rocky slope.
Looking down into the massive canyon, he couldn’t believe that he was actually doing the thing that he had dreamed of for so long. He sat there for several minutes just looking.
“Josef, we may continue when you are ready.”
Josef, still looking down the slope, Josef just nodded his head. He was startled out of his reverie when the rover began to move slowly down the path through the rocky terrain. The Labyrinth was an area several kilometers wide where large sections of the plain had simply dropped several kilometers as the ground collapsed under it.
The slope downward was rugged, dropping into the deep canyon with rocks and boulders larger than the rover strewn everywhere. There was no road as such, just a winding, bumpy trail zagging through the huge boulders. Here and there smaller boulders had been moved or blasted when there was no way around. The large wheels and high cab were tremendous help clearing rocks jutting up out of the ground in the middle of the path.
The trail down stayed near the center of this part of the canyon, well away from the avalanche prone outer walls. After about an hour, they reached the floor of the Labyrinth. Here the floor was a little less encumbered by loose rocks and boulders. The rover set off down the length of the canyon that, after much twisting and turning, joined the greater Valles Mariners, the Mariner Valley that stretched 4,000 kilometers around the planet.
They traveled a short distance down the canyon. Then the rover stopped and Mike said “Josef would you like to get out and walk on the surface?”
“Yeah, could I?”
“Certainly. Finish suiting, put on your gloves and helmet. Good. Now stand up and let me check with my sensors. Okay, you look good to go Josef.”
Josef, fully enclosed in his space suit, walked to the small air lock and stepped inside; the door closed, the air was sucked into the rover’s air supply, and the outer door opened. Josef stepped onto the surface of Mars, for the first time alone on his home planet. He looked around, then walked forward along their path. He chanced a look back over his shoulder and saw the rover following him. He continued forward grinning to himself.
Here and there he explored off the trail, never going too far from the rover. The thought occurred to him that he ought to be paying attention to the types of rocks he was seeing, but he was lost in the wonder of walking on the surface of Mars.
He returned to the main path from one of his little side adventures and proceeded forward into the canyon, knowing the rover would follow him. “Doing okay Josef?” Josef startled a bit, having forgotten Mike could speak to him over his suit intercom.
“Yeah. Doing good. How are you?”
It really didn’t occur to Josef that asking Mike how he was doing might seem strange. “I am doing just fine Josef. Thank you for asking. All of my systems are operating within normal parameters.” Josef could hear the soft jovial tone in Mike’s voice.
Suddenly, Josef heard Mike’s voice in his ear. This time it sounded very serious. “Josef, I think you should come back inside.”
“Look to your right.”
Josef looked where Mike directed him. In the distance he could see the five kilometer wall crumbling at the top creating a large cloud of dust. He nodded as if Mike could see, which maybe he could. Josef hurried toward the rover and stepped into the airlock. The outer door closed and the chamber filled with air.
“You may remove your helmet Josef. From my readings the avalanche appears to have been strictly surface processes. There appears to have been no Marsquake.”
Josef knew that the great cliffs were prone to avalanches for several reasons including Marsquakes and weakening as the water below the surface froze and melted. Humans had also triggered rock slides down the massive cliffs.
They proceeded along the canyon, Josef directing their way into the Labyrinth, using one of his maps Mike had displayed on the large screen on one wall. He had long since planned the zigzagging route along which he directed the rover. The avalanche had been at some distance, but since the cliffs were in some places taller than the canyon was wide, cautioned was certainly warranted. They had stayed near the center of the canyon, as far as they could manage from both walls. There was no sense avoiding the rock fall of one only to increase danger from the other.
Josef directed them around a corner into an east west portion of the Labyrinth. “Mike, should we stop to conserve power? We can recharge for a bit before the sun sets and again in the morning.”
“Excellent planning Josef. Good job.”
[Rover, base here. Do you read?]
[Please broadcast. This is for both of you.
The speakers came to life with a voice other than Mike’s, and Josef had a sinking feeling as he heard, “Base to Rover.”
“You should reply, Josef.”
With a shaky voice he struggled to keep from cracking, Josef said, “Rover here.” Josef was sure he was in trouble now.
“Rover, there has been a serious avalanche. Are you secure?”
“Base, we saw it at a distance. We are…secure”
“Rover, there were climbers on the wall. Our teams are back from Olympus Mons, but it will take time to get there. What is your proximity?”
Mike answered, “Fifteen point seven kilometers.”
“Then the jets will probably beat you there. However, please reverse course and proceed to the site in case there is any problem getting the team there. Assuming they make it in good time, you may resume your present course. “
“Do you copy, rover?”
Josef was in a bit of shock. They were asking him to respond to an emergency, and then allowing him to continue. “Copy, Base. Reversing course for the site.” Josef breathed a deep sigh. What was going on?
“Josef, may I assume you wish me to reverse course now?”
“Oh, yeah! Yes, please.” Josef felt the rover do as sharp a turn as it could, given the terrain, and then it sped off in the direction it came.
“The ride may be a little rough, Josef. Protocol calls for maximum safe speed in such an emergency.”
“Understood, Mike. Thanks.” Josef knew that at this point he needed to strap himself in, and he did. Occasionally the rover would slow down to navigate around boulders or over extremely rough terrain.
It would take them approximately an hour to the site. Ideally, the rescue teams could get there in less than half that time in the jets. The hoppers. The craft that could fire rocket engines, go a short distance, and land. The jets were used for the most urgent or more distant emergencies.
Any rescue from the wall would be risky. At the point of the avalanche it was approximately five and a half kilometers high. Somewhere along that expanse, the freezing and thawing of the subsurface water had caused the cliff to crumble. The climbers would have to be located, their condition determined, and a way found to lift them out.
Tourists were warned about the canyon walls. They were climbable, but could be risky at any time. But the highest climbing wall on Earth was on a mountain called Great Trango Tower. Its south and east faces might rival some places along the wall of the Labyrinth, but everywhere in the Labyrinth there were sheer drops and long, difficult climbs to rival Great Trango and other places on Earth. And the greater Mariner Valley held even more challenges. The gravity was lighter, but one had to climb with a full space suit. Overall, the climbs were too tempting not to draw many climbers from Earth.
The jets should easily reach the site in less than half the time the rover would take, but if they were delayed for any reason, Josef and Mike could perhaps get there first and begin determining where the climbers were and perhaps just how precarious was their condition. The least desirable situation would be to actually have to climb the wall to attempt a rescue. The condition of the cliffs was always iffy, and this area seemed especially fragile at the moment. Whether from above or below, the worst case was to actually have to climb.
After three-quarters of an hour they turned the bend into the area of the avalanche. Having no sign of the rescue team they headed directly for the avalanche site. Soon Mike was scanning the wall and showing it on the screen in the rover. The avalanche had left a gouge in the wall. Mike continued to scan up and down the wall at increasing magnification as they drove closer and closer to the dangerous cliff.
Finally as the rubble from the collapsed wall came into view, Mike located two climbers about a kilometer above the floor of the canyon, clinging to the wall. Why weren’t the jets here, Josef thought. Out loud he said “Mike, can we talk to them?”
“Perhaps, if their communication systems are not damaged. Let me try.”
“Climbers on the wall, can you hear me?”
“We hear you. Can you help us?”
“What is your situation?”
“A broken arm, damaged suit with temporary repair, one communication system out. We were at the edge of the fall, but Judith got kind of clobbered. We lost a fair bit of our equipment. Sufficient oxygen for now. We can’t see any easy way up or down, and my partner is going to have problems climbing with her broken arm. And we are worried about her suit.”
“Acknowledged. What are your names?”
“Dimitri and Judith.”
“Mike and Josef here. Stand by.”
“Mike, what can we do? Where is the rescue team?”
“Not sure, Josef. It is strange that we have not had word from them. There are few options until the team gets here.”
“Can you try to contact them?”
“Rover to base.” Silence. “Rover to Base.” Silence. “Josef, I am afraid we have no communication with Base. It is possible a solar flare knocked out communications. If that is so, it could have disabled navigational and other systems. It is possible help may not be coming anytime soon.”
“So what can we do, Mike?”
“Well, I have been analyzing that. Even if help got here, it is a long way to drop a rope; over four kilometers is a lot of rope. And it is risky taking the jet in close. I think the only real option is jetpacks, and we have those.”
Josef stopped, worried. AI made it possible to compute fast enough and react fast enough to make jetpacks workable. The jet packs also contained a small but powerful gyroscope to help maintain stability and to navigate. The flyer controlled it with help of the AIs in the computer system the settlement used. Even so, Josef knew that using jetpacks, especially as precisely as would be necessary for a rescue like this, took a, lot of training. A lot of training on the surface. He had been out on the surface with his folks, and when he took basic surface training, but never alone. And never with the jetpacks. That was well beyond basic surface training.
“Mike, I have never flown a jetpack. Can you fly it?”
“Obviously I cannot strap myself into a jetpack, but yes, I can fly it, Josef. But not without a human strapped in. Jetpacks were designed to have a human’s weight, and they cannot fly without a human to balance it. Besides, don’t you think our friends on the wall might need a human touch? Like help getting the packs on?”
Josef nodded. Mike’s explanation made a lot of sense. A lot more sense than Josef wanted it to. He was not at all certain he wanted his first jetpack experience to be under so much stress. Peoples’ lives were at stake.
“Ok, so how do we do this?”
“You prepare to go onto the surface. Put on gloves and helmet. Then don the pack. I have checked and packs are all fueled, all gyros working normally. I will maneuver your pack for you. You will go up the wall carrying another pack. Help Judith into the pack and I will bring you both down, then you take the pack back up to Dimitri, help him in, and I will bring you both down. I will be monitoring the wall. If anything starts to happen, I will take you out of harm’s way, even if it means abandoning the rescue. Understand?”
“Josef, this is important since you have not undergone rescue training. Will you do precisely what I instruct you to do?”
“Do you really want to do this? “
“No, Mike. But there isn’t a lot of choice, is there?”
“There doesn’t appear to be a choice for our friends on the wall.”
“Ok. Open the channel to them.” As Josef finished suiting up he explained to Dimitri and Judith what they were going to do. “I am coming up with an extra pack. I’m a novice so Mike will control both our packs from the Rover.” Once Josef got his helmet on, Mike switched communications from the rover’s cabin speaker to the suit’s helmet. Josef put his jetpack on with Mike’s coaching, then took the second pack and went out the airlock.
It was a good thing Mike could operate the pack, because it took both his hands to hold the other pack in front of him. “Ready, Josef?”
Josef could feel the force of the jets gently lifting him from the ground. He tightened his grip on the other pack. He watched the wall, about thirty meters away, slide by as the ground dropped away.
He heard Mike’s voice, “Dimitri, do you have visual yet?”
Dimitri answered, “Yes, we see the jets.”
Josef rose slowly but steadily up the wall. As he scanned the wall, he saw Dimitri waving. Mike already had a firm fix on them and was taking Josef closer to the wall now. As he approached, he could see that their climbing harnesses were fastened to the wall by rope and anchors fastened into the stone. He could see their faces now; both looked afraid and Judith looked in pain. He noticed that when they saw him, they looked a little shocked. He realized that he must have sounded older over the radio talking to Dimitri and they didn’t expect him to be so young.
“Mike, Judith is on my left.”
“Ok, Josef, thanks.”
As Mike brought him closer, Josef could see how Judith was fastened to the wall. Remembering her communication was out, he leaned in so his helmet was touching hers. He felt conspiratorial, like he was about to whisper a secret. He marveled at Mike’s control of the jets. “Can you hear me, Judith?” He could see her nod. “Can you turn a little to your right and I will slip this over your left shoulder. We will keep you fastened until we are ready to go.” He could see her nod in acknowledgement.
He slipped the harness over her shoulder, then she tightened her rope even more to hold herself steady. Josef and Dimitri gave her support as she slipped into the harness. Then Josef tightened the shoulder straps and fastened the waist belt and the sternum strap across her upper chest. As his hands brushed her body in the process of fastening the pack, he blushed inside his helmet. He hoped she could not see him that well.
He heard Mike, “Doing good, Josef. Focus.” He guessed his pulse must have increased for the same reason he had blushed.
As he tightened everything, he leaned his helmet in to touch hers and said, “This may be a little uncomfortable with your climbing harness, but we don’t dare take your harness off and risk your falling. He thought she probably knew that, but he knew it was his job to make sure she understood and everything went smoothly. “Okay, Mike. Initiate thrust.” He could see her rise about a centimeter, and he reached out to unfasten her line to the wall but she had already anticipated and was unfastening it herself.
“Okay Mike we’re ready.”
“Very good Josef. For future reference no contractions. Moving you out from the wall now.”
Josef nodded again inside his helmet, then said “Acknowledged. Understood about the contractions; we are ready.”
Mike made some sort of sound that made Josef imagine him smiling. Mike steered Josef away from the cliff wall, followed by Judith. Mike began lowering them immediately while maneuvering them about fifty meters out.
The descent went smoothly, and they landed just outside the rover. Josef immediately led Judith into the rover. As soon as the inside door opened, Josef helped her remove her helmet and unfasten the straps on her jetpack. When he was done, she stepped into the rover. “Will you be okay for a few minutes?” Josef noticed no delay, Mike switched audio to the rover so quickly.
Judith nodded and said “Yes, thanks.”
She immediately dropped into a seat and Josef closed the door to the airlock. The air vanished, the outer door opened, and he stepped outside carrying the extra pack. He stopped and nodded, and Mike initiated the jets.
Josef was more comfortable this time, and Mike took Josef up a little faster. On the way up he saw flames come into view over the edge of the canyon rim. It was the jets with the rescue team. His pack continued to lift him up the side of the canyon wall; he could faintly hear the jets through the thin atmosphere, descending to land beside the rover.
He reached Dimitri, who had already turned to slip an arm into the jet pack. Josef helped him to get in and fasten and tighten the straps and belt. He nodded to Josef and unhooked himself from the wall as Mike steered Josef away from the cliff and Dimitri’s jetpack came to life. Both packs drifted away from the wall as they descended.
As they got close to the canyon floor, Josef was surprised to see three rescue jets there. Why were there three? For two climbers, they should have only needed one or two. His heart sank as he realized why there were three; one was to bring him back. He would probably be punished, grounded and restricted to home for months. He let out a deep sigh as they touched down.
Well, he still needed to do his duty and finish his job. He turned to help Dimitri out of the jet pack; as he set the pack down, two rescuers he knew came up to them. One turned and said to him, “Good work, Josef! Very good work! We’ll take it from here. Judith is already in the jet. We’ll get them back to base right away for treatment.
“I believe there is someone waiting for you in the rover.” He nodded toward the rover, and Josef nodded in acknowledgement. He turned to go, but paused when he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, Josef. You did good. You did real good.”
“Thanks.” Josef turned and picked up Dimitri’s pack and carried it into the airlock. Marching to his doom. Well, it was his fault; he had broken the rules. But it had been worth it, this time. He had been out on the surface and he knew what he had to look forward to. He had helped rescue two people from the wall. It had been a good day. It had been worth it.
Except for what he faced inside the airlock. His parents. His mother would stand there with her hands on her hips and address him by his full name. That would be the worst. Once he was past that, he would be okay.
He stepped into the airlock and the outer door closed. The chamber filled with air and he removed his helmet. He set it down next to the extra jetpack and removed his own, setting it on the floor of the small chamber. The inner door opened.
And there she was. His mother with her hands on her hips, looking at him. His father stood to one side. He stepped into the rover and heard the door slide shut behind him.
“Josef Michael Henderson!” Her face softened and she looked like she could cry. “I have never been so proud of you!” With that, she covered the short distance between them and pulled him into a tight hug, then broke down, sobbing into his shoulder.
Josef, confused, looked at his father, who joined them in a group hug, grinning.
“But, but, I don’t understand. I broke the rules!”
His mother composed herself enough to talk. She looked at him with that adoring expression, which he usually hated, and took his face in her hands, which he usually hated.
“Rules? Oh, that! Well, what you didn’t know was that, as a birthday surprise, we had arranged for you to have a special surface license. You weren’t breaking any rules. And you came out here and stepped in to help in an emergency. “
His father, beaming, said, “You saved two lives today. Not bad for your first solo adventure on the surface.”
All Josef could think of to say was, “Special license?”
His parents nodded, hugging him again. “Yes,” his mother said, “when someone is well prepared for the responsibility before the age of sixteen, they can be given a special license. Happy birthday!”
Josef didn’t know what to say. But before he could figure that out, his mother said, “We have presents for you at home, but right now we have another surprise for you.”
Just then, the inner door of the airlock opened. And there he stood, ninety-five years old and as healthy as Josef. The man for whom he was named, whom he loved dearly, whom he talked to from Earth at least once a week via video texting.
There stood his great-grandfather, Josef Michael Rosenberger. It was a great day.
(C) 2016 Ron L. Clayton