Red Desert: Point of No Return by Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli by Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli - Read Online

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Red Desert - Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli

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Book 1

Point of No Return

Original title: Deserto rosso - Punto di non ritorno

© 2012 Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli

Translation by: Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli (© 2014)

Translation revised by: Martina Munzittu, Richard J. Galloway, and Julia Gibbs

Cover: © 2014 Alberto Casu and Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli

Important note to the reader: This book is written in British English.

I closed the airlock door with a quiet thud and I locked it, knowing it might have been for the last time. Outside it was still dark, just before dawn. The instant the sun peeked out over the horizon its pale light would hit the plains, creating long shadows.

I stood for a moment looking at the stars through the glass, while the valves let out some air to equalise the pressure with the outside. My suit, which at first almost adhered to my body, was now expanding, giving me a clumsy look.

The pressure balance was reached and the exit door opened. Even though the suit was heated, I perceived a huge difference in temperature. It could rise well above ten degrees Celsius on a summer’s day, but it could drop to minus ninety at night. And the hours before dawn were always the coldest.

I switched on the torch and went out, moving with caution. I hoped nobody had seen me leave. Robert was lost in dreamland and had certainly no intention of getting up at dawn, but Hassan, in spite of all that had happened, carried on with the mission, especially now that he was in charge.

He kept repeating that in a few months more personnel and materials would arrive. I was not convinced. Yet another major failure was looming and, at the moment of need, those in Houston would come out with another excuse.

Despite the heavy load I was carrying, I walked with ease. With gravity a little more than one third of Earth, everything was lighter, and thanks to my experience over the years I was accustomed to moving with skill on a rough terrain, even when wearing that uncomfortable suit.

I opened the hatchback of a rover and loaded my provisions; then I climbed into the front of the vehicle and activated the pressurisation. The life support pumps pushed the gasses inside, creating the correct mixture for breathing. When the green light came up on the dashboard, indicating the process was complete, I removed my helmet and suit. I laid them in the back, settled myself in the driving seat and fastened the seatbelt. As soon as the engine started, an alarm would go off inside the station, alerting them to the unexpected activation of one of the two rovers.

There was still time to go back. I just had to don my suit again, return to my quarters and climb back into bed. Nobody would notice. But, even if my act might appear senseless, to me it seemed the most reasonable thing to do. There was nothing more for me in the station, beside pure survival. Perhaps not even that certainty.

I studied the data gathered the evening before on the on-board computer screen. It wasn’t much, but it was all I had. I took a deep breath, and then turned on the engine and put my foot down. I was moving towards another certainty: that of my death. But I had started doing that a long time earlier, when I accepted the invitation to join the mission.

Twenty-nine minutes to the point of no return.

The synthesised voice of the on-board computer sounds again inside the rover. In about half an hour I will pass the point of no return. The oxygen tank, together with the carbon dioxide filters, provides breathable air for one person for a maximum of fifty hours, and I’m about to pass the twenty-fifth, this means that I won’t have enough to come back to Station Alpha.

Not that I care, at this stage.

I try to figure out how to stop the alarm from beeping every minute, and wonder why rovers aren’t equipped with an oxygen production system like the one in the station. The chemical plant extracts this gas from the carbon dioxide-rich air of Mars, releasing carbon monoxide outside as waste gas. Why am I thinking this nonsense? Such an apparatus would occupy too much space, reducing that available inside the vehicle and making it even slower; it would also require excessive energy.

The main feature of these rovers is their agility, to the detriment of the operating range. On the one hand, fifty hours seemed a sufficient amount of time for any sortie we had to make in that first stage of our mission. But actually, they reduced our chances of extending the area of the planet we could explore. For people like us, with an average age of thirty-five, who had to spend the rest of their lives on Mars and who had nothing else with which to occupy their time, it was a huge limitation.

It’s true that Mars’s diameter is about half of the Earth’s, but the lack of oceans makes the explorable surface comparable to the sum of all lands above sea level of our planet. Hence plenty of places to visit, and even if at first sight they may seem monotonous with all that dark red, they hide countless wonders. And we chose to be the first colonisers of this new world to observe them in person.

In over one thousand days in the Lunae Planum, we scoured most of the area surrounding the station within a radius of a little more than three hundred kilometres. It’s quite impractical to go any further with a vehicle that can hardly reach twenty-five kilometres per hour, but most of time travels much slower, especially considering that each sortie requires at least two persons, for safety reasons. Since there wasn’t any particular hurry, NASA provided us with the minimum equipment needed to carry out a series of scientific investigations, which requires long periods of time and has brought rather inconclusive results. Beside the geological studies, our main mission is to find proof of a past life on the planet, though I’m referring to very simple forms, like bacteria, which would demonstrate that Earth isn’t unique in the solar system in this context.

In the first nine hundred and ninety-five days we were not lucky; we hoped to receive new material from NASA in order to perform more accurate studies and maybe push ourselves a bit further. Actually it should have already arrived three hundred days ago, but a series of technical, and most of all political, problems delayed its launch. Now we are