They plan to leave the next day along with the first rays of sunlight, after spending most of yesterday getting ready for the journey. Packing the chariot with enough supplies to last them a week if need be. In case the weather turns against them and they can’t recharge the solar batteries. The plan is always to not spend more than one night in the chariot – because it’s uncomfortable and not meant to be a camper - but on each of their last two trips, unexpected challenges came up and one night had turned into two.
So Maureen is prepared for it to happen this time too.
She observes Don as he does a final exterior check on the vehicle.
“She good to go?”
“Better than good. Try not to shave off the front bumper this time, would ya?”
Maureen chuckles. “Talk to John about that.”
“Talk to John about what?” Her husband arrives in the garage carrying the last two of their packs.
“About taking better care of this beauty.”
John grins. “Brought her back didn’t I?”
“Bring her back in one piece and with fuel this time, would ya?”
Maureen exhales and stares at the freshly cleaned chariot and the trailer they’ve attached to it. “That’s the plan.”
They do this once every two weeks. Take the chariot out as far as possible to a new region in the hopes of finding a fuel source – solid or liquid – to mix with the oxygen and give them enough thrust to travel a lengthy distance away from here. Possibly to a planetary system closer to Alpha Centauri from which they might be able to pick up the signal that led their children to the colony. To signal them back in return and eventually make their own way there. Or better yet, get rescued.
All of it was such a long shot.
But it was possible. They’ve done crazier things since getting stranded in space the first time. Even used animal waste to launch their ships.
They haven’t seen any signs of animal life on this planet yet, not even microbial ones. But Maureen is still optimistic that among the mountains and rocky outcrops that surround their frozen valley they’ll find something else. Hopefully an ammonium or a potassium compound.
“We good?” John asks her.
“Don…you’ll monitor my baby, right?”
“I’ll climb on the roof and give her a peck and a polish every morning after breakfast.”
Her ‘baby’ is a giant antenna of sorts that Maureen set up five months ago on the roof of the Jupiter, assembled using a host of scrap parts and Don and John’s brute strength. Her husband wasn’t convinced it was worth the effort but he did it anyway. It’s huge and ugly and Maureen knows it isn’t effective enough to try and send a signal as far as Alpha Centauri but she wants to believe it’s possible to send a signal to a nearby Jupiter. They may have lost contact with the other colonists from the Resolute, but most of them were in the same boat as they were. They were piloting Jupiter spaceships with limited fuel. Some of them had to be nearby. Or at least close enough to hear something from their giant antenna-contraption.
But after four months of transmitting a steady stream of signals, there has been nothing but silence in response.
“Just keep it in one piece, okay? Make sure the winds don’t knock it down again.”
“Don’t I always?”
“Yeah, you do,” she acknowledges.
“All right, guys, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Maureen gives him a hug. “So everything’s fair game then.”
“Hey…” Don pretends he’s offended but he laughs and hugs her back. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Course you will,” John adds. “It’ll kill you not to talk to anyone for the next 48 hours.”
“Are you still here?”
Maureen grins as she steps into the chariot. “We’ll miss you too.”
“No, we won’t,” John adds, but of course he’s lying. The two of them have become as close as brothers. Don is able to stay in radio contact for the first ten hours or so, after which they’ll be too far out of range for the chariot. Not that it matters. If they do get stranded or if anything happens, there’s not much that Don can do. There’s no fuel to pilot the Jupiter to rescue them and no other vehicle to come get them. He can’t walk a hundred kilometres to get to them. So he’ll only stay in touch to let them know that he’s okay. And because he’ll be bored.
Their bi-weekly road trips with the chariot are a dangerous, unpredictable plunge into the unknown. One where there’s no help or back up if anything happens.
Which is why we need to make sure nothing happens, Maureen thinks as she slides into the passenger seat and shuts the door.
They wait until Don’s out of the garage and has sealed the top half of the ship before they open the ramp into the uninhabitable outside world. They should wear their suits inside the chariot even though they’ll maintain constant, adequate oxygen levels. Just in case there’s an accident and one of the vehicle’s seals breaks. However, they don’t. The suits are too uncomfortable for long range travel in their cramped environment. So they compromise and keep them in the back seats, within arm’s reach, knowing they can survive the toxic atmosphere at least a minute, give or take, without their suits.
A sudden wall of snow blocks their vision as they drive away from the Jupiter and it makes Maureen uneasy. The weather patterns indicated a high possibility of clear skies today but they’re so damn unpredictable. If they can’t recharge the solar cells while on the go, they’ll have to stay put until the sun comes out. Because they can’t risk letting the oxygen run too low.
“Reminds me of driving through a sand storm in Kuwait,” John mumbles as the wall of white blankets them. They don’t need their eyes to keep the chariot on its preprogrammed itinerary, but it’s disconcerting to not be able to see where they’re going.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t last.”
“Don’t think it will,” John replies. He has a better sense about these things than she does. A survival instinct that seems to kick in whenever they’re out in the elements, whereas she mainly relies on the readings from their instruments and hopes to hell that they’re accurate.
His hand moves on to her thigh. “Don’t worry. I got this.”
“I know.” She trusts him. With her life. But she doesn’t allow herself to relax until the worst of it passes and they regain a fair portion of their visibility, even though its still snowing. If that’s what you could call the small frozen particles that are raining down on them.
They’ve been through this portion of the valley before, so there’s no need to concentrate on the element scanner they have on board to identify the gases, liquids and solids around them. At least the ones similar to those found on Earth, the ones the instruments were designed to detect. It’ll be another two hours or so before they’re in new territory. That’s when they’ll swap places and she’ll drive. Every two hours they switch, to make sure they retain their focus.
But for now, the steady movement of the chariot and the hypnotic vision of the grey-white particles falling on the windows begin lulling her to sleep. Maureen fights it, because it’s wrong. To nap at the very start of their excursion. It doesn’t matter that she’s exhausted because she’s already been up for hours.
They’re a team. They both need to be alert.
She feels a hand squeeze her leg and his familiar voice bringing her back into awareness.
She also notices that her passenger seat has been lowered and that she’s looking up at her husband.
“Thought you might wanna know that we’re in uncharted territory now.”
Maureen blinks herself awake and pushes the lever on the side of her seat to bring it back up. “We are?”
“Don radioed twenty minutes ago. He says safe travels and bring back souvenirs.”
Maureen yawns and then chuckles. “Of course he did.” She must’ve dozed off and John let her sleep. She also notices that he turned off her comm unit so she wouldn’t hear the radio call. That’s when she sees the time on the console in front of her and does a double take. “Three hours, John? You let me sleep for three hours? Are you crazy?”
“Figured you needed it.”
“We said we’d switch drivers every two hours. This terrain is demanding…and you need to keep an eye on the geological instruments, the gaseous element readers…”
John slows down the chariot and brings it to a stop. “I’ve driven ATVs all-day long over worse terrain than this. And you…you’ve barely been sleeping lately.”
“I’ve had three kids, John! I can function on little sleep.”
“I know you can. Doesn’t mean you have to.” There’s still snow of sorts swirling around them, but now they can see the outline of mountain ranges in the distance. “Besides…I woke you as soon as we got into new territory so you focus on all your attention on the scanners.”
“What if you hadn’t seen something and ended up crashing the chariot because you were lacking an extra pair of eyes?” If the chariot breaks down there’s no way for them to get back to the Jupiter. It’s the kind of needless risk they didn’t have to take.
“We didn’t crash.”
“But you could have and…”
John shoots her look, letting her know that he’s not having it. “Are we really going to have an argument because I let you nap?”
Maureen exhales and feels her cheeks flush. It does sound absurd when he says it like that. “It’s just…it was an unnecessary risk.”
“We take a risk every time we leave the Jupiter with this thing. We don’t know what’s out here or if we’ll make it back. You’re the one who keeps insisting it’s worth it.”
“I know…” She is being ridiculous. She knows it. And truth is, she was exhausted and feels so much more alert now. In fact, letting her sleep for a couple of hours was the smart thing to do for both their sakes.
Not that she’s ready to admit that either.
“Let’s switch….” Is what she says instead.
She takes over the driver’s seat and they continue along the route they’ve mapped, her focus on the terrain while his are on the instruments that scan their environment. They’ve never been here before but everything looks exactly like it did on all their other exploration trips. Wide, Tundra-like valleys, devoid of vegetation, surrounded by impressive, snow-capped mountains. It’s no longer snowing but neither of the planet’s two small suns are able to push through the cloud cover. If it remains that way for the rest of the day, they’ll need to stop and stay in place to conserve power until their solar cells recharge.
“Maureen…” John’s voice stirs her from her thoughts.
“Hmm?” She eyes him in her peripheral vision. He’s snacking on one of their peanut protein bars and it reminds her that she’s getting hungry too. But she’ll hold off. She’s always hesitant to consume the food they bring along on these trips, because they never know how long it has to last. “Anything pop up yet?”
“No. But tell me…are you back to doing this?”
She turns sideways to look at him this time, wondering if she missed something. “Doing what?”
“You not talking to me after we have an argument.”
Maureen’s the one who slows down the chariot now. Stares out at the wide expanse of snow and endless tundra-like terrain in front of them before turning to her husband. Taking a moment to really look at him. They’re both dressed in the base layer of their space suits, and she’s wearing gloves to drive with as well, because they keep the temperature inside the chariot as low as possible. But John unzippered the front of his jacket, because he’s always been more hot-blooded, and hot tempered, than her.
His blue eyes don’t quite know what to make of her direct gaze.
“No…” she says softly. She never wants to go back there. To their seemingly endless months of estrangement, where they didn’t talk. First because he wasn’t there and then because she no longer wanted to. Because she was too angry for conversations.
“Maureen? Are we okay?”
Her lips curl into a rueful smile. Maybe it’s a little flirty too, because she’s still crazy abut him, her anger from those days long gone. “We’re okay.”
His expression lets her know he doesn’t quite believe it, and maybe he’s right not to. Because at the moment there are some things she can't discuss. No matter how much she loves him. No matter how much she never wants to go back to the way things were.
She takes off a glove and slides her cool hand over his, rough and warm. And in response he drapes his other hand over hers too.
“You’re freezing. Let’s turn up the temperature.”
“No,” she shakes her head. They can’t. Not with the weather being what it is. They need to conserve every bit of power as long as the sunlight keeps holding back. But John always lets practicality fly out the window when it comes to her. “You’re warm enough.”
That finally elicits a smile from him too. “Is that so?”
It gives her a thrill to think of the other ways he might keep her warm tonight. Sure, their space is a little cramped, even with the rear seats pushed down, but at least out here they don’t have to worry about how loud they might be. For a change there’s no one sleeping – or worse, not sleeping - two doors down the hall from them. In fact, there’s a good chance that there’s no one else sleeping on this entire planet.
When she’s restarted the chariot and he’s finished warming her hand, John offers her half of his peanut protein bar. She takes it, reluctantly. They’ll need the energy for their inevitable walk outside as they near the mountain range. That’s when she’ll expect the instruments to start lighting up.
“You think Penny’s written another novel by now?” John wonders, out of the blue.
Maureen’s heart beats faster at the mention of her daughter’s name.
What if Penny can’t write another novel because she never made it to Alpha Centauri? What if their children are desperately waiting for their parents to find them?
Maureen can feel the rush of blood from her head. It’s an unfamiliar sense of panic and it takes her a moment until she trusts her voice to answer. To change the topic.
“Is the geo-scanner giving us anything yet?”
John sighs. “No…not yet.”
“I expect it will any moment,” she tells him as she steers the chariot straight towards a massive trio of mountains. “I wanna be sure we don’t miss anything.”
“Right…” John mumbles and she can hear the disappointment in his voice.
So they plunge back into silence.