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MARS FARTS

by Ben Bova




“A Catholic, a Jew, and a Moslem are stuck in the middle of Mars,” said Rashid Faiyum.

“That isn’t funny,” Jacob Bernstein replied, wearily.

Patrick O’Conner, the leader of the three-man team, shook his head inside the helmet of his pressure suit. “Laugh and the world laughs with you, Jake.”

None of them could see the faces of their companions through the tinting of their helmet visors. But they could hear the bleakness in Bernstein’s tone. “There’s not much to laugh about, is there?”

“Not much,” Faiyum agreed.

All around them stretched the barren, frozen rust-red sands of Utopia Planita. Their little hopper leaned lopsidedly on its three spindly legs in the middle of newly-churned pockmarks from the meteor shower that had struck the area overnight.

Off on the horizon stood the blocky form of the old Viking 2 lander, which had been there for more than a century. One of their mission objectives had been to retrieve parts of the Viking to return to Earth, for study and eventual sale to a museum. Like everything else about their mission, that objective had been sidelined by the meteor shower. Their goal now was survival.

The meteors in question were a barrage of tiny bits of stone, most of them no larger than dust motes. Once they had been part of an icy comet, but the ice had melted away after god-knows how many trips around the sun, and now only the stones were left when the remains of the comet happened to collide with the planet Mars.

One of the rare stones, almost the size of a pebble, had punctured the fuel cell that was the main electrical power source for the three-man hopper. Without the electrical power from that fuel cell, their rocket engine could not function. They were stranded in the middle of the frozen, arid plain.

In his gleaming silvery pressure suit, Faiyum reminded O’Connor of a knight in shining armor, except that he was bending into the bay that held the fuel cell, his helmeted head obscured by the bay’s upraised hatch. Bernstein, similarly suited, stood nervously beside him.

The hatch that had been punctured by what looked like a bullet hole. Faiyum was muttering, “Of all the meteoroids in all the solar system in all of Mars, this one’s got to smack our power cell.”

Bernstein asked, “How bad is it?”

Straightening up, Faiyum replied, “All the hydrogen drained out during the night. It’s dead as a doornail.”

“Then so are we,” Bernstein said.

“I’d better call Tithonium,” said O’Connor, and he headed for the ladder that led to the hopper’s cramped cockpit. “While the batteries are still good.”

“How long will they last?” asked Bernstein.

“Long enough to get help.”

It wasn’t that easy. The communications link back to Tithonium was relayed by a network of satellites in low orbit around Mars, and it would be another half hour before one of the commsats came over their horizon.

Faiyum and Bernstein followed O’Connor back into the cockpit, and suddenly the compact little space was uncomfortably crowded.

With nothing to do but wait, O’Connor said, “I’ll pressurize the cockpit so we can take off the helmets and have some breakfast.”

“I don’t think we should waste electrical power until we get confirmation from Tithonium that they’re sending a backup to us.”

“We’ve got to eat,” O’Connor said.

Sitting this close in the cramped cockpit, they could see each other’s faces even through the helmet visors’ tinting. Faiyum broke into a stubbly-chinned grin.

“Let’s pretend it’s Ramadan” he suggested, “and we have to fast from sunup to sundown.”

“Like you fast during Ramadan,” Bernstein sniped. O’Connor remembered one of their first days on Mars, when a clean-shaven Faiyum had jokingly asked which direction Mecca was. O’Connor had pointed up.

“Let’s not waste power,” Bernstein repeated.

“We have enough power during the day,” Faiyum pointed out. “The solar panels work fine.”

Thanks to Mars’ thin, nearly cloudless atmosphere, just about the same amount of sunshine fell upon the surface of Mars as upon Earth, despite Mars’ farther distance from the sun. Thank God for that, O’Connor thought. Otherwise we’d be dead in a few hours.

Then he realized that, also thanks to Mars’ thin atmosphere, those micrometeoroids had made it all the way down to the ground to strafe them like a spray of bullets, instead of burning up from atmospheric friction, as they would have on Earth. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, he told himself.

“Tithonium here,” a voice crackled through the speaker on the cockpit control panel. All three of them turned to the display screen, suddenly tight with expectation.

“What’s your situation, E-three?” asked the face in the screen. Ernie Roebuck, they recognized: chief communications engineer.

The main base for the exploration team was down at Tithonium Chasma, part of the immense Grand Canyon of Mars, more than three thousand kilometers from their Excursion Three site.

O’Connor was the team’s astronaut: a thoroughly competent Boston Irishman with a genial disposition who tolerated the bantering of Faiyum and Bernstein – both geologists – and tried to keep them from developing any real animosity. A Moslem from Peoria and a New York Jew: how in the world had the psychologists back Earthside ever put the two of them on the same team, he wondered.

In the clipped jargon of professional fliers, O’Connor reported on their dead fuel cell.

“No power output at all?” Roebuck looked incredulous.

“Zero,” said O’Connor. “Hydrogen all leaked out overnight.”

“How did you get through the night?”

“The vehicle automatically switched to battery power.”

“What’s the status of your battery system?”

O’Connor scanned the digital readouts on the control panel. “Down to one-third of nominal. The solar panels are recharging ‘em.”

A pause. Roebuck looked away and they could hear voices muttering in the background. “All right,” said the communicator at last. “We’re getting your telemetry. We’ll get back to you in an hour or so.”

“We need a lift out of here,” O’Connor said.

Another few moments of silence. “That might not be possible right away. We’ve got other problems, too. You guys weren’t the only ones hit by the meteor shower. We’ve taken some damage here. The garden’s been wiped out and E-one has two casualties.”

Excursion One was at the flank of Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system.

“Our first priority has to be to get those people from E-one back here for medical treatment.”

“Yeah. Of course.”

“Give us a couple of hours to sort things out. We’ll call you back at noon, our time. Sit tight.”

O’Connor glanced at the morose faces of his two teammates, then replied, “We’ll wait for your call.”

“What the hell else can we do?” Bernstein grumbled.

Clicking off the video link, O’Connor said, “We can get back to work.”

Faiyum tried to shrug inside his suit. “I like your first suggestion better. Let’s eat.”

With their helmets off, the faint traces of body odors became noticeable. Munching on an energy bar, Faiyum said, “A Catholic, a Moslem and a Jew were showering together in a YMCA...”

“You mean a YMHA,” said Bernstein.

“How would a Moslem get into either one?” O’Connor wondered.

“It’s in the States,” Faiyum explained. “They let anybody in.”

“Not women.”

“You guys have no sense of humor.” Faiyum popped the last morsel of the energy bar into his mouth.

“This,” Bernstein countered, “coming from a man who was named after a depression.”

“El-Faiyum is below sea level,” Faiyum admitted easily, “but it’s the garden spot of Egypt. Has been for more than three thousand years.”

“Maybe it was the garden of Eden,” O’Connor suggested.

“No, that was in Israel,” said Bernstein.

“Was it?”

“It certainly wasn’t here,” Faiyum said, gazing out the windshield at the bleak, cold Martian desert.

“It’s going to go down near a hundred below again tonight,” Bernstein said.

“The batteries will keep the heaters going,” said O’Connor.

“All night?”

“Long enough. Then we’ll recharge ‘em when the sun comes up.”

“That won’t work forever,” Bernstein muttered.

“We’ll be okay for a day or two.”

“Yeah, but the nights. A hundred below zero. The batteries will crap out pretty soon.”

Tightly, O’Connor repeated, “We’ll be okay for a day or two.”

“From your mouth to God’s ear,” Bernstein said fervently.

Faiyum looked at the control panel’s digital clock. “Another three hours before Tithonium calls.”

Reaching for his helmet, O’Connor said, “Well, we’d better go out and do what we came here to do.”

“Haul up the ice core,” said Bernstein, displeasure clear on his lean, harsh face.

“That’s why we’re here,” Faiyum said. He didn’t look any happier than Bernstein. “Slave labor.”

Putting on a false heartiness, O’Connor said, “Hey, you guys are the geologists. I thought you were happy to drill down that deep.”

“Overjoyed,” said Bernstein. “And here on Mars we’re doing areology, not geology.”

“What’s in a name?” Faiyum quoted. “A rose by any other name would still smell.”

“And so do you,” said Bernstein and O’Connor, in unison.

The major objective of the Excursion Three team had been to drill three hundred meters down into the permafrost that lay just beneath the surface of Utopia Planita. The frozen remains of what had been an ocean billions of years earlier, when Mars had been a warmer and wetter world, the permafrost ice held a record of the planet’s history, a record that geologists (or aerologists) keenly wanted to study.

Outside at the drill site, the three men began the laborious task of hauling up the ice core that their equipment had dug. They worked slowly, carefully, to make certain that the fragile, six-centimeter-wide core came out intact. Section by section they unjointed each individual segment as it came up, marked it carefully and stowed in the special storage racks built into the hopper’s side. “How old do you think the lowest layers of this core will be?” Bernstein asked as they watched the electric motor slowly, slowly lifting the slender metal tube that contained the precious ice.

“Couple billion years, at least,” Faiyum replied. “Maybe more.”

O’Connor, noting that the motor’s batteries were down to less than fifty percent of their normal capacity, asked, “Do you think there’ll be any living organisms in the ice?”

“Not hardly,” said Bernstein.

“I thought there were supposed to be bugs living down there,” O’Connor said.

“In the ice?” Bernstein was clearly skeptical.

Faiyum said, “You’re talking about methanogens, right?”

“Is that what you call them?”

“Nobody’s found anything like that,” said Bernstein.

“So far,” Faiyum said.

O’Connor said, “Back in training they told us about traces of methane that appear in the Martian atmosphere now and then.”

Faiyum chuckled. “And some of the biologists proposed that the methane comes from bacteria living deep underground. The bacteria are supposed to exist on the water melting from the bottom of the permafrost layer, deep underground, and they excrete methane gas.”

“Bug farts,” said Bernstein.

O’Connor nodded inside his helmet. “Yeah. That’s what they told us.”

“Totally unproven,” Bernstein said.

“So far,” Faiyum repeated.

Sounding slightly exasperated, Bernstein said, “Look, there’s a dozen abiological ways of generating the slight traces of methane that’ve been observed in the atmosphere.”

“But they appear seasonally,” Faiyum pointed out. “And the methane is quickly destroyed in the atmosphere. Solar ultraviolet breaks it down into carbon and hydrogen. That means that something is producing the stuff continuously.”

“But that doesn’t mean it’s being produced by biological processes,” Bernstein insisted.

“I think it’s bug farts,” Faiyum said. “It’s kind of poetic, you know.”

“You’re crazy.”

“You’re a sourpuss.”

Before O’Connor could break up their growing argument, their helmet earphones crackled, “Tithonium here.”

All three of them snapped to attention. It was a woman’s voice and they recognized whose it was: the mission commander, veteran astronaut Gloria Hazeltine, known to most of the men as Glory Hallelujah. The fact that Glory herself was calling them didn’t bode well, O’Connor thought. She’s got bad news to tell us.

“We’ve checked out the numbers,” said her disembodied radio voice. “The earliest we can get a rescue flight out to you will be in five days.”

“Five days?” O’Connor yipped.

“That’s the best we can do, Pat,” the mission commander said, her tone as hard as concrete. “You’ll have to make ends meet until then.”

“Our batteries will crap out on us, Gloria. You know that.”

“Conserve power. Your solar panels are okay, aren’t they?”

Nodding, O’Connor replied, “They weren’t touched, thank God.”

“So recharge your batteries by day and use minimum power at night. We’ll come and get you as soon as we possibly can.”

“Right.” O’Connor clicked off the radio connection.

“They’ll come and pick up our frozen bodies,” Bernstein grumbled.

Faiyum looked just as disappointed as Bernstein, but he put on a lopsided grin and said, “At least our bodies will be well preserved.”

“Frozen solid,” O’Connor agreed.

The three men stood there, out in the open, encased in their pressure suits and helmets, while the drill’s motor buzzed away as if nothing was wrong. In the thin Martian atmosphere, the drill’s drone was strangely high pitched: more of a whine than a hum.

Finally, Bernstein said, “Well, we might as well finish the job we came out here to do.”

“Yeah,” said Faiyum, without the slightest trace of enthusiasm.

The strangely small sun was nearing the horizon by the time they had stored all the segments of the ice core in the insulated racks on the hopper’s side.

“A record of nearly three billion years of Martian history,” said Bernstein, almost proudly.

“Only one and a half billion years,” Faiyum corrected. “The Martian year is twice as long as Earth years.”

“Six hundred eighty-seven Earth days,” Bernstein said. “That’s not quite twice a terrestrial year.”

“So sue me,” Faiyum countered, as he pulled an equipment kit from the hopper’s storage bay.

“What’re you doing?” O’Connor asked.

“Setting up the laser spectrometer,” Faiyum replied. “You know, the experiment the biologists want us to do.”

“Looking for bug farts,” Bernstein said.

“Yeah. Just because we’re going to freeze to death is no reason to stop working.”

O’Connor grunted. Rashid is right, he thought. Go through the motions. Stay busy.

With Bernstein’s obviously reluctant help, Faiyum set up the laser and trained it at the opening of their bore hole. Then they checked out the Rayleigh scattering receiver and plugged it into the radio that would automatically transmit its results back to Tithonium. The radio had its own battery to supply the microwatts of power it required.

“That ought to make the biologists happy,” Bernstein said, once they were finished.

“Better get back inside,” O’Connor said, looking toward the horizon where the sun was setting.

“It’s going to be a long night,” Bernstein muttered.

“Yeah.”

Once they were sealed into the cockpit and had removed their helmets, Faiyum said, “A biologist, a geologist, and Glory Hallelujah were locked in a hotel room in Bangkok.”

Bernstein moaned. O’Connor said, “You know that everything we say is being recorded for the mission log.”

Faiyum said, “Hell, we’re going to be dead by the time they get to us. What difference does it make?”

“No disrespect for the mission commander.”

Faiyum shrugged. “Okay. How about this one: a physicist, a mathematician and a lawyer are each asked, ‘How much is two and two?’”

“I heard this one,” Bernstein said.

Without paying his teammate the slightest attention,
Faiyum plowed ahead. “The mathematician says, ‘Two and two are four. Always four. Four point zero.’ The physicist thinks a minute and says, ‘It’s somewhere between three point eight and four point two.’”

O’Connor smiled. Yes, a physicist probably would put it that way, he thought.

“So what does the lawyer answer?”

With a big grin, Faiyum replied, “The lawyer says, ‘How much is two and two? How much do you want it to be?’”

Bernstein groaned, but O’Connor laughed. “Lawyers,” he said.

“We could use a lawyer here,” Bernstein said. “Sue the bastards.”

“Which bastards?”

Bernstein shrugged elaborately. “All of them,” he finally said.

The night was long. And dark. And cold. O’Connor set the cockpit’s thermostat to barely above freezing, and ordered the two geologists to switch off their suit heaters.

“We’ve got to preserve every watt of electrical power we can. Stretch out the battery life as much as possible,” he said firmly.

The two geologists nodded glumly.

“Better put our helmets back on,” said Bernstein.

Faiyum nodded. “Better piss now, before it gets frozen.”

The suits were well insulated, O’Connor knew. They’ll hold our body heat better than blankets, he told himself. He remembered camping in New England, when he’d been a kid. Got pretty cold there. Then a mocking voice in his mind answered, but not a hundred below.

They made it through the first night and woke up stiff and shuddering and miserable. The sun was up, as usual, and the solar panels were feeding electrical power to the cockpit’s heaters.

“That wasn’t too bad,” O’Connor said, as they munched on ration bars for breakfast.

Faiyum made a face. “Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

Bernstein pointed to the control panel’s displays. “Batteries damned near died overnight,” he said.

“The solar panels are recharging them,” O’Connor replied.

“They won’t come back a hundred percent,” said Bernstein. “You know that.”

O’Connor bit back the reply he wanted to make. He merely nodded and murmured, “I know.”

Faiyum peered at the display from the laser they had set up outside. “I’ll be damned.”

The other two hunched up closer to him.

“Look at that,” said Faiyum, pointing. “The spectrometer’s showing there actually is methane seeping out of our bore hole.”

“Methanogens?” mused Bernstein.

“Can’t be anything else,” Faiyum said. With a wide smile, he said, “We’ve discovered life on Mars! We could win the Nobel Prize for this!”

“Posthumously,” said Bernstein.

“We’ve got to get this data back to Tithonium,” said O’Connor. “Let the biologists take a look at it.”

“It’s being telemetered to Tithonium automatically,” Bernstein reminded him.

“Yeah, but I want to see what the biologists have to say.”

The biologists were disappointingly cautious. Yes, it was methane gas seeping up from the bore hole. Yes, it very well might be coming from methanogenic bacteria living deep underground. But they needed more conclusive evidence.

“Could you get samples from the bottom of your bore hole?” asked the lead biologist, an Hispanic American from California. In the video screen on the control panel, he looked as if he were trying hard not to get excited.

“We’ve got the ice core,” Faiyum replied immediately. “I’ll bet we’ve got samples of the bugs in the bottom layers.”

“Keep it well protected,” the biologist urged.

“It’s protected,” O’Connor assured him.

“We’ll examine it when you bring it in,” the biologist said, putting on a serious face.

Once the video link was disconnected, Bernstein said morosely, “They’ll be more interested in the damned ice core than in our frozen bodies.”

All day long they watched the spikes of the spectrometer’s flickering display. The gas issuing from their bore hole was mostly methane, and it was coming up continuously, a thin invisible breath issuing from deep below the surface.

“Those bugs are farting away down there,” Faiyum said happily. “Busy little bastards.”

“Suns’ going down,” said Bernstein.

O’Connor checked the batteries’ status. Even with the solar panels recharging them all day, they were barely up to seventy-five percent of their nominal capacity. He did some quick arithmetic in his head. If it takes Tithonium five days to get us, we’ll have frozen to death on the fourth night.

Like Shackleton at the South Pole, he thought. Froze to death, all of ‘em.

They made it through the second night, but O’Connor barely slept. He finally dozed off, listening to the soft breeze wafting by outside. When he awoke every joint in his body ached and it took nearly an hour for him to stop his uncontrollable trembling.

As they chewed on their nearly-frozen breakfast bars, Bernstein said, “We’re not going to make it.”

“I can put in a call to Tithonium, tell ‘em we’re in a bad way.”

“They can see our telemetry,” Faiyum said, unusually morose. “They know the batteries are draining away.”

“We can ask them for help.”

“Yeah,” said Bernstein. “When’s the last time Glory Hallelujah changed her mind about anything?”

O’Connor called anyway. In the video screen, Gloria Hazeltine’s chunky blonde face looked like an implacable goddess.

“We’re doing everything we can,” she said, her voice flat and final. “We’ll get to you as soon as we can. Conserve your power. Turn off everything you don’t need to keep yourselves alive.”

Once O’Connor broke the comm link, Bernstein grumbled, “Maybe we could hold our breaths for three-four days.”

But Faiyum was staring at the spectrometer readout. Methane gas was still coming out of the bore hole, a thin waft, but steady.

“Or maybe we could breathe bug farts,” he said.

“What?”

Looking out the windshield toward their bore hole, Faiyum said, “Methane contains hydrogen. If we can capture the methane those bug are emitting...”

“How do we get the hydrogen out of it?” O’Connor asked.

“Lase it. That’ll break it up into hydrogen and carbon. The carbon precipitates out, leaving the hydrogen for us to feed to the fuel cell.

Bernstein shook his head. “How’re we going to capture the methane in the first place? And the how are we going to repair the fuel cell’s damage?”

“We can weld a patch on the cell,” O’Connor said. “We’ve got the tools for that.”

“And we can attach a weather balloon to the bore hole. That’ll hold the methane coming out.”

“Yeah, but will it be enough to power up the fuel cell?”

“We’ll see.”

With Bernstein clearly doubtful, they broke into the equipment locker and pulled out the small, almost delicate, welding rod and supplies. Faiyum opened the bin that contained the weather balloons.

“The meteorologists aren’t going to like our using their stuff,” Bernstein said. “We’re supposed to be releasing these balloons twice a day.”

Before O’Connor could reply with a choice, Fuck the meteorologists, Faiyum snapped, “Let ‘em eat cake.”

They got to work. As team leader, O’Connor was glad of the excuse to be doing something. Even if this is a big flop, he thought, it’s better to be busy than to just lay around and wait to die.

As he stretched one of the weather balloons over the bore hole and fastened it in place, Faiyum kept up a steady stream of timeworn jokes. Bernstein groaned in the proper places and O’Connor sweated inside his suit while he laboriously welded the bullet-hole sized puncture of the fuel cell’s hydrogen tank.

By mid-afternoon the weather balloon was swelling nicely.

“How much hydrogen do you think we’ve got there?” Bernstein wondered.

“Not enough,” said Faiyum, serious for once. “We’ll need three, four balloons full. Maybe more.”

O’Connor looked westward, out across the bleak frozen plain. The sun would be setting in another couple of hours.

When they finished their day’s work and clambered back into the cockpit, O’Connor saw that the batteries were barely up to half their standard power level, even with the solar panels recharging them all day.

We’re not going to make it, he thought. But he said nothing. He could see that the other two stared at the battery readout. No one said a word, though.

The night was worse than ever. O’Connor couldn’t sleep. The cold hurt. He had turned off his suit radio, so he couldn’t tell if the other two had drifted off to sleep. He couldn’t. He knew that when a man froze to death, he fell asleep first. Not a bad way to die, he said to himself. As if there’s a good way.

He was surprised when the first rays of sunlight woke him. I fell asleep anyway. I didn’t die. Not yet.

Faiyum wasn’t in the cockpit, he saw. Looking blearily through the windshield he spotted the geologist in the early morning sun fixing a fresh balloon to the bore hole, with a big round yellow balloon bobbing from a rock he’d tied it to.

O’Connor saw Faiyum waving to him and gesturing to his left wrist, then remembered that he had turned his suit radio off. He clicked the control stud on his wrist.

“...damned near ready to burst,” Faiyum was saying. “Good thing I came out here in time.”

Bernstein was lying back in his cranked-down seat, either asleep or... O’Connor nudged his shoulder. No reaction. He shook the man harder.

“Wha...what’s going on?”

O’Connor let out a breath that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

“You okay?” he asked softly.

“I gotta take a crap.’

O’Connor giggled. He’s alright. We made it through the night. But then he turned to the control panel and saw that the batteries were down to zero.

Faiyum and Bernstein spent the day building a system of pipes that led from the balloon’s neck to the input valve of the repaired fuel cell’s hydrogen tank. As long as the sun was shining they had plenty of electricity to power the laser. Faiyum fastened the balloon’s neck to one of the hopper’s spidery little landing legs and connected it to the rickety-looking pipework. Damned contraption’s going to leak like a sieve, O’Conner thought. Hydrogen’s sneaky stuff.

As he worked he kept up his patter of inane jokes. “A Catholic, a Moslem and a Jew – ”

“How come the Jew is always last on your list?” Bernstein asked, from his post at the fuel cell. O’Connor saw that the hydrogen tank was starting to fill.

Faiyum launched into an elaborate joke from the ancient days of the old Soviet Union, in which Jews were turned away from everything from butcher’s shops to clothing stores.

“They weren’t even allowed to stand in line,” he explained as he held the bobbing balloon by its neck. “So when the guys who’ve been waiting in line at the butcher’s shop since sunrise are told that there’s no meat today, one of them turns to another and says, ‘See, the Jews get the best of everything!’”

“I don’t get it,” Bernstein complained.

“They didn’t have to stand in line all day.”

“Because they were discriminated against.”

Faiyum shook his head. “I thought you people were supposed to have a great sense of humor.”

“When we hear something funny.”

O’Connor suppressed a giggle. Bernstein understood the joke perfectly well, he thought, but he wasn’t going to let Faiyum know it.

By the time the sun touched the horizon again, the fuel cell’s hydrogen tank was half full and the hopper’s batteries were totally dead.

O’Connor called Tithonium. “We’re going to run on the fuel cell tonight.”

For the first time since he’d known her, Gloria Hazeltine looked surprised. “But I thought your fuel cell was dead.”

“We’ve resurrected it,” O’Connor said happily. “We’ve got enough hydrogen to run the heaters most of the night.”

“Where’d you get the hydrogen?” Glory Hallelujah was wide-eyed with curiosity.

“Bug farts,” shouted Faiyum, from over O’Connor’s shoulder.

They made it through the night almost comfortably and spent the next day filling balloons with methane, then breaking down the gas into its components and filling the fuel cell’s tank with hydrogen.

By the time the relief ship from Tithonium landed beside their hopper, O’Connor was almost ready to wave them off and return to the base on their own power.

Instead, though, he spent the day helping his teammates and the two-man crew of the relief ship attach the storage racks with their previous ice core onto the bigger vehicle.

As they took off for Tithonium, five men jammed into the ship’s command deck, O’Connor felt almost sad to be leaving their little hopper alone on the frigid plain. Almost. We’ll be back, he told himself. And we’ll salvage the Viking 2 lander when we return.

Faiyum showed no remorse about leaving at all. “A Jew, a Catholic and a Moslem walk into a bar.”

“Not another one,” Bernstein groused.

Undeterred, Faiyum plowed ahead. “The bartender takes one look at them and says, ‘What is this, a joke?’”

Even Bernstein laughed.



Copyright © 2013 by Ben Bova


Multiple award winner and SF master Ben Bova’s new novel, Mars, Inc. is at booksellers everywhere.