First she felt it through her boots. Then, she heard it—a loud pop. Her heart skipped a beat and a cold finger ran down her spine—stopping her in her tracks. Time slowed to a crawl as a frenzy of fearful emotions and thoughts competed for attention.
One horrible thought in particular rose above all others. With eyes closed tight and fists clenched hard and hoping against all hope, she pleaded to herself that the analog her mind latched on to was not what was happening.
Please, not that! Please …
She wanted to run away from this place, but could not—fear-seized muscles held her as motionless as the nearby boulder she had been walking toward.
Then, urgently, an unexpected primal need pushed all other considerations aside. Breathe! Relenting to the biological necessity, she sucked in a fast, deep breath. It was the only motion she permitted herself.
The sudden intake of air broke the silence in her helmet—momentarily drawing her attention. Awareness then focused on the rapid pounding of her heart. Next, her face reacted to the foul taste in her mouth. She swallowed hard, and that too was heard loud within the protective confines of her headgear.
But dread quickly pulled awareness back from such distractions and mired her for a seeming eternity in emotions and thoughts battling for supremacy. Tears of fear and frustration came to eyes closed tight as emotional war raged in a conflicted mind.
Indecision crippled her into inaction. She dared not move, and she dared not stay! It was maddening!
Suddenly, self-anger spiked, flushing her whole body with its heat. She had finally had enough! Her mind returned to normal time and a decision was made!
With fists clenched even tighter and steeled for what had to come next, she snapped open wet eyes, tilted her head and looked down.
Her heart sank. The hope she’d clung to had been a fool’s hope.
Kathy triggered her emergency-beacon.
Like thin ice on a lake that will no longer support one’s weight, the ground under her boots cracked and parted. A dark abyss formed and the once solid ground she stood on started to collapse into the blackness below—taking her with it.
Her shriek was short and spontaneous. And once again, her world moved in slow motion—something with which she was all too familiar. But what she saw now was new to her experience.
For what seemed the longest time, she and the nearby massive boulder appeared to defy gravity, hovering in the planet's thin air with no clear means of support. If not for the horrible terror, it would actually be comical.
Kathy was not certain if what she experienced was the result of adrenaline, or low gravity, or a combination of the two. Either way, it was almost too much to accept. It was just all so surreal …
A familiar sensation in her gut rudely jarred her back into reality and normal time. The feeling was that which all humans learn to associate with falling.
The scream that filled her helmet hurt her ears.
Next, came the loud sound of rapid, shallow breathing. Her heart pounded and raced in her chest, and she feared it would explode from the effort!
Then, without warning, her mind shifted focus back to her falling. Uncontrolled arms and legs began to flail as her body accelerated into the gaping darkness below.
As her thrashing body rotated, she caught a glimpse of the nearby boulder. It seemed to be tumbling very slowly. Apparently, her world had returned to its slow-motion mode of operation.
In some small corner in the back of her mind, the small part that the rational Kathy had been delegated to, she knew the true reason for the apparent time dilation. It was adrenaline and the extreme fear that fueled it—together they altered and distorted her reality.
That same rational part now knew something more, something so important that it pushed its way to the forefront of conscious thought and momentarily displaced all fear. Her mathematician mind informed her that a deadly threshold had just been crossed.
The speed she had accelerated to was not survivable.
Without any doubt at all, Kathy now knew death awaited her in the darkness below.
Fear, depression, and regret filled her and brought forth sobs of deep sorrow.
No! No! No! Her mind cried out silently.
The shouted outburst hurt her ears and momentarily stopped her crying.
Why did this happen to me? Why did I stop? Why did I walk off the safe path? Why did I let that strange signal bring me here … to this … my death …
“Jason! Oh, Jason! I’m so sorry, my love …”
Chest aching sobs racked her body hard as full realization of the pain her death would bring stabbed immense sorrow into her heart.
No longer flailing hands pressed against her helmet visor in their reflexive effort to cover her face as she fell and cried.
The robot moved to better position itself. With attention focused on its target, it estimated the time remaining before action. Crouching down, it watched and waited.
When time came for action, the robot sprang rapidly up against the weak pull of gravity—launching itself into the thin air.
Naturally, its movements were quite precise, and its trajectory was on course to intercept the target.
Jason knew something was wrong by the quickness of Katherine’s entry to the room and the speed of her approach.
“What is it, Katherine? What is wrong?”
“Jason, it would seem that Kathy is in trouble.”
He stood up quickly and balled his fists, already feeling the heat of his anger.
“Yes, Jason, again.
“Transmission of her emergency-beacon was detected a moment ago. It transmitted over a span of a few seconds before the signal was lost.”
“She promised me!”
Jason Carter turned away from Katherine and grabbed his chair hard. With jaws clamped tight and his heart pounding in his chest, he breathed several deep breaths before easing his death-grip on the backrest of the innocent furniture. Forcing himself to calm down, he focused on what Katherine had to report.
“What else, Katherine?”
“Jason, telemetry data in the emergency-beacon transmission indicated Kathy was in free-fall.”
Turning back around rapidly, he stared at his AI companion as she continued to talk, what was left of his anger vanished.
“Additionally, there was a brief voice transmission coincident with the beacon activation. The voice-pattern matched that of Kathy’s voice.
“She was screaming, Jason.”
“Screaming? Free-fall? What have you done now? Oh, Kathy, what have you …”
His blood ran cold as fear and sorrow gripped his chest tight.
“What shall we do, Jason?”
Looking up at his robot, he was about to ask her to replay Kathy’s transmission but then thought better of it. He did not need, nor did he want Kathy’s scream to be the last thing he heard from his wife.
Fear asserted itself hard, and his mind rushed uncontrolled through a myriad of unpleasant scenarios and possible demises that may have snatched the one he loved from his life.
Unexpectedly, he felt light-headed and realized he was breathing fast, too fast. Forcing control, he calmed himself again and gathered his thoughts.
“Katherine, do you have a position-fix for Kathy?”
“Yes, Jason. I also have a position-fix for the ground-transport she was using. Both are located near one another and both are closer to us here at Science Annex Six than they are to the MRC.
“Jason, it is my recom—”
“Yes, Katherine! We will depart as soon as possible and search for Kathy ourselves.”
Three short, loud chirps emanated from his work station. Turning around and pushing aside his chair, he saw a live video feed of Tony Gremoli’s head and shoulders.
“Jason, I have some bad news.”
“I know that already, Tony. Katherine has filled me in.
“She and I are going to leave from here as soon as possible to search for Kathy.”
“That was going to be my suggestion too.
“I have ordered the Emergency Response Team to deploy as soon as possible to aid in her search and recovery.”
“So you know of her telemetry data too. Well, Tony, it’s not going to be a recovery. It’s going to be a rescue.
“She is still alive.
“I have to believe that … at least until we know otherwise.”
“Of course, I understand. I won’t keep you two any longer. Go now. Find her. And good luck.”
“Thanks. We will keep you apprised of our efforts.
Again he turned to face his AI companion.
“Katherine, grab the emergency kit and ready the ground-transport. I will join you top-side as soon as I get into my environment-suit.”
“Of course, Jason.”
The robot left the control room quickly.
“Kathy …” It was barely a whisper. “Oh, Kathy …
“No! This is not the time for those emotions!
“Damn it, wife, what have you gotten yourself into now?”
Following Katherine, Jason rapidly made his way from the control room.
I’m coming, Kathy. I’m coming for you, my love.
“Sakura, how much longer before the Emergency Response Team departs?” Tony asked.
“They should be on the surface and underway in less than five minutes. It will take them approximately an hour and a half to reach the incident site.”
“What? Hour and a half?
“Why are they traveling by ground? Isn’t their air-transport available?”
“No sir, it is down for scheduled maintenance. It won’t be ready for another four hours, give or take.
“Even if it were available they could not land near the incident site due to terrain issues.”
“What do you mean, terrain issues?”
Sakura nodded toward the main display in the Mars Research Colony control room. It showed a surface map. Centered on the map was a flashing dot indicating Kathy Carter’s last known position, and near to her position another flashing dot showed the location of her ground-transport.
“Oh, right. Got it.”
He had been so busy up to this point that he had not taken the time to familiarize himself with the exact location of the incident. Seeing it now, and knowing what he did about that area, he could make a reasonable guess about why Kathy’s telemetry data indicated she was falling.
“I hope this ends up being no worse than the other day,” Sakura said.
“You and me both.
“Two rescues in four days, and she has only been back on Mars for five days!
“I tell you, Sakura, if I don’t banish that woman from this place she will be the death of me!” He shook his head.
“Have you alerted Medical?” he asked, resigned to his fate of not knowing what has happened to his friend.
“Yes, sir. They have a trauma team standing by.”
“So now and once again … we wait.”
Kathy shrieked a weak shriek as something slammed into her body and knocked the air out of her lungs. The impact was hard enough to bounce her head off the back of her helmet. Even with the headpiece’s cushion padding the blow left her dizzy.
It was not the ground she hit. She was still alive.
In any event, it felt like she was no longer falling. And since her mind refused to accept that gravity no longer worked, there had to be some other explanation.
But wait! Maybe she was still falling …
Maybe death was still coming, just not as fast as before.
Not yet on the ground, but at the same time maybe no longer falling? How? How was that possible? What has happened?
Her mind shifted focus when once more that old familiar feeling in her stomach returned, or perhaps it just got stronger.
Kathy knew that she was indeed falling again … or still?
Confusion made her unsure if what she experienced was real or fear induced hallucination or insanity or who knows what!
It came to her suddenly. Something else was wrong. She couldn’t move her arms or legs! Both arms were pinned to her sides!
While struggling against the binding force, shock and horror of understanding dawned. It has to be! It’s the only thing that makes sense!
There’s something down here!
Something in this deep dark hole snatched me in mid-air! And now it has a hold of me, and I’m helpless in its grasp!
Her scream was primal as fear drove all sanity from her mind. In the close confines of the environment-suit, the scream hurt still sore ears, and it was that pain which pulled her back from total hysteria.
Then a noise entered her helmet—not unfamiliar. She tried to focus on it, but couldn’t. Fear that something alive in this hole had her in its grasp was too overwhelming! She began to scream again and struggled to get free.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, hard deceleration forces roughly forced air from her lungs—abruptly muting her screams. The pain that came with that sudden jarring centered her mind.
Kathy realized she was now back on the ground and standing upright. How? And why am I not dead?
Another fact made itself known. The thing that had grabbed her in the dark was no longer holding her.
These realizations had a tremendous calming effect. Then suddenly feeling dizzy and fatigued, she almost lost her balance and fell. Fear returned, but only momentarily.
Engulfed by a joyful sense of relief, she bent at the waist, placed both hands on her knees and took in deep breaths. Quickly, her breathing and heart rate returned to normal.
But now pain made itself known more intensely. Her body ached all over. She felt like she had been beaten.
Slowly, sorrow and regret displaced pain and fear. Tears filled closed eyes, and she began to shake and tremble uncontrollably—gripping her knees tighter to steady herself. Perspiration soaked clothes made her feel cold, and a shiver added to her trembling.
My death would have broken your heart, my husband. I am so sorry, Jason. I am so sorry I let this happen. You will be very angry with me—I know—and rightly so.
Kathy could not contain her sobs.
Thoughts transported her back to that day four months ago. The day she finally relented to Jason’s ongoing requests to return with him to Mars.
She hated this place because it was always trying to kill her, and he knew she hated it.
Still, he had pleaded time-and-again that he wanted her at his side—for both professional and personal reasons. When she had finally agreed to join him, he had been so happy he could not contain himself. He had pulled her into his arms and kissed her hard. Then, later that night, he had been so passionate.
Kathy had absolutely no doubt of his love or desire for her.
The warmth of that memory gave her comfort and strength. She felt a small smile come to her face. Tears stopped flowing. Crying, as it almost always did, helped. She was still sore, but also alive. Then a full smile came to her as thoughts and feelings again turned to him, but they were fleeting. Her current reality would not accommodate them long.
I know I have promised you this before, Jason, but I promise it again. I promise to be more careful in the future.
And after this day’s brush with death, she had every intention of redoubling efforts to honor that pledge.
Then a familiar annoyance intruded. The noise in her helmet was back, or maybe it had never left. Focusing on it, she heard spoken words.
“Kathy Carter, I am Rescue Robot One. You have nothing to fear. Do you hear and understand me?”
Straightening upright, she opened still wet eyes and blinked them clear. Immediately, attention was drawn to the tall humanoid figure standing in the light from her helmet’s illumination lamps. What is this?
The robot repeated the same sentences again and again. Her rational mind caught up and filled in the blanks. It all made sense now.
That robot was the thing that grabbed her in mid-air. It was the thing living in this dark hole that had so terrified her. It was also the reason she was here.
And it was the reason she almost died!
Anger flared hot, and its full force was directed at the damn machine standing before her!
That robot’s emergency-beacon was what had brought her here!
Anger did not last, though. Annoyingly, her rational mind was insistent that her actions were her responsibility.
Kathy closed tired eyes and breathed a deep, slow breath. Calm came but then began to fade as the repetition of the robot was quickly becoming unbearable.
“Yes! … Rescue Robot One, I do hear and understand you.”
“Kathy Carter, your bio-telemetry indicates elevated levels of stress hormones. Are you injured?”
Frustration instantly came from nowhere and caused her hands to ball into fists.
“What?” she shouted! Yes! Of course I’m stressed you damn idiot machine, she screamed silently, grinding her teeth!
Reluctantly, she had stifled her angry response to the infernal machine’s question because her frustrating rational self insisted on reminding her that this same machine had just saved her life.
Again, Kathy closed her eyes and took in a tension easing breath.
“Kathy Carter, your bio-telem—”
“No! Stop! Stop, robot!
“I am not injured. I am sore as hell, but I’m still alive and that is an unexpected surprise.
“Thank you, for saving my life.”
“Kathy Carter, you are welcome.
“Thank you, for responding to my emergency-beacon and coming to my rescue.”
“You are welcome, Rescue Robot One. But now it seems we are both trapped down here, so I would not quite call it a rescue.
“How did you get stuck down here in the first place?”
“Wait, stop. Sorry for interrupting, but from now on I am going to call you One, and I want you to call me Kathy. Okay?”
“Very well, Kathy.”
“Now, please go on and tell me how it is you ended up down here. Also, how long have you been down here? And what is this place?”
“Kathy, this place is a large lava tube.
“I have been within this lava tube for approximately eight months, twelve days, seventeen hours and thirty-three minutes.
“I came to be here during the execution of a rescue mission to save the life of a human by the name of Jason Carter.”
“Oh, yes, I remember! You were reported crushed by a large rock and written off as destroyed. Wow, you survived, incredible.
“I’m sorry, One, please continue.”
“Kathy, during the rescue mission that large boulder fell upon me.”
Turning to look in the direction the robot was pointing, she saw the boulder she had been walking towards just moments earlier.
“As I resisted it crushing me I was pushed through a weak spot on the ground and fell into this lava tube. Subsequently, that boulder became wedged in the surface and sealed me in this place.
“I have attempted many times to climb up to the ceiling, but the ancient lava does not hold my weight. Thus, I always end up back on the lava tube floor.
“Over the course of time, the ceiling near to where that bolder was embedded has fallen away. I assumed the weight of that rock would eventually cause the ceiling to collapse. So, I have waited for that to happen.
“Approximately seven hours and two minutes ago, a small section of the ceiling collapsed and provided an aperture to the surface. I positioned myself beneath that opening and activated my emergency-beacon.
“I assume it was my emergency-beacon that brought you here and that your body weight on the surface resulted in the collapse of the lava tube ceiling.
“When I detected a human, you, among the falling debris I acted to try to save your life, with the obvious outcome.
“That, is how I came to be here, Kathy.”
“Wow, that’s some story.
“And yes, One, your assumption is correct. I was, passing near to this place when I detected a weak emergency-beacon signal and foolishly walked off the safe-route path to investigate.
“I realize now that I should not have done that.”
“Kathy, you are correct. You should not have ventured off the designated safe-route—at least not without some immediate emergency requiring you to do so. Such an act can place you in jeopardy.
“For your safety, Kathy, please refrain from venturing off any safe-route in the future.”
Kathy chuckled at both the robot’s admonition and at its obvious statement about the unsafe nature of her action. Her chuckle was also a response of relief and an emotional release. It was a giddy nervous act of someone who just survived a close brush with death.
She looked up at One and realized that her laughter was of no consequence to the robot. The machine would take no offense as a human might to her laughing at his safety warning.
“Kathy, given that no person or robot has yet attempted to contact you, is it safe to assume you are traveling alone?”
“Yes, One. I am alone, but I triggered my emergency-beacon as soon as I realized I was in trouble. It should have been detected and help is almost certainly already on its way.
“I have some recent experience with this, so I am confident about that conclusion.
“We just need to wait for our rescuers to arrive.”
“Kathy, I agree with your conclusion. We must wait.
“As we wait, take care in your movements down here. The jagged lava rock could compromise your environment-suit.”
“Thank you, One, I will be careful. I promise.”
Why do those words sound so …?
Oh, of course! She could not hold back her laughter. It just felt so good to be alive.
Grateful to still be breathing, she sat down and waited with love in her heart for the man she knew would come for her.
Smiling and looking up at One, she thought, no doubt Katherine will be with him too.