"Taddino. Check in. Taddino. This is Commander Li. Check in. Come in, Taddino."
We were very worried. This is space. Its unforgiving, even on the surface of Mars. We were looking for a missing crew member. Dr Christopher Taddino is a geologist, or perhaps areologist might be better, and had wandered off. Or so it appeared.
He'd been working with Dr Diana Martinez, our other geologist. She was taking samples from an outcrop that appeared to be Hadean in age. Taddino said he wanted to see something. Martinez had warned him not to go out of sight and he'd said he wasn't. When Martinez had finished collecting her sample, she looked around and didn't see Taddino. She looked and called and couldn't find him. Whatever had happened to Taddino might happen to her, so, then, she went for help.
Winds, even with as thin as the Martian atmosphere had blown through by the time we had all arrived and while there were still traces of where Chris had gone, it wasn't very clear where he was now.
"Chris. This is Commander Rebecca Li. Do you hear me?"
We followed the trail. What there was of it, spread out and slowly and watching for what might have befallen Taddino. We rounded a low hill. And there was evidence of a landslide.
And, of course, Taddino's trackway went right up to it.
"Make like we have a purpose people. Taddino has four hours of air left."
Fortunately, Mars' gravity is lower, only about a third of Earth's, so that made it easier to remove rubble. The landslide had brought down both rock and regolith. We worked, quickly and carefully. Little was said. Even with the cooling systems of the space suits, even with the low gravity, this was a lot of work. Spade and rubble clearing work. Old fashioned dirty, manual labor.
Thompson was bringing up the bots to help. We'd make more progress then. When we did get them running and helping, we had them shore up the loose spray on materials to hold the slipping sand. We didn't have much, but it was intended to allow excavation into sand dunes. For which we'd already used a fair amount.
We kept digging and dreading. Would Taddino's suit be breached? Would his helmet have cracked? Would he be dead? We didn't need to worry about a dead astronaut. It'd cause no end of trouble and this was America's first Mars mission.
We...broke through. WTH?!
There was a cave.
"No need to shout, Taddino! Are you okay?"
"Yes, but you need to stop! You have to let the bots continue and you needs to go dunk your suits in 'bleach.'"
Bleach was the term for biodecontaminant. It was a nasty cocktail meant to kill any potential life, Earth or Martian, to prevent biocontamination. That he was saying that...
"Yes, Commander. There's a seep back here. Water coming up to the surface and evaporating. There's lots of perchlorates in here, but I noticed my sensors showing methane. That's why I came in, stupidly, yes. But I thought there might be a leak from serpentization below...but...no.
"But, just past where the direct light reaches, there's a slimy scum. I bet its photosynthetic and methanogenic. And....now life gets complicated: we've found Martians, Commander. The sort we thought we might find.
"Is Dr Cowing there? She's going to have the time of her life. Talk about first publication."
Whatever we might have thought Taddino's stunt might have been, NOW all hell was going to break loose.