The bar on the HUD turned yellow as it ticked below fifty percent. Tash ignored it and continued brushing away dirt from what looked like a piece of jewelry. Jackson was doing the same thing a few feet away with something she couldn’t see. They both wore rust colored pressure suits to hide the stains from digging in the Martian dirt all day.
“…be damned,” she heard him say over the radio.
Tash pressed a button on the side of her mask, “Jackson, you’re on VOX again.”
He looked up, “…know. I like to keep my hands free. Come look at this, Tash. It’s…interesting.”
“I’m busy,” she said, “Just tell me what it is.” She gently brushed clean a brilliant red jewel that was the centerpiece of what looked more and more like a pendant, possibly a brooch. She wanted to get it out of the ground before they left the dig site in an hour.
“…think it’s a safe.”
“A safe?” She looked up and pressed her radio button, “Did you say a safe?”
“…h, I think so. It’s got a door, and this looks like some kind of control pad or a display maybe? Come look at it.”
She put her brush in her belt and pulled out small knife, “Give me a minute.” She slipped the edge of the knife under the edge of the pendant and carefully began to pry it loose.
“…ously, Tashi. You’ll want to see this. It doesn’t look like anything else we’ve found out here.”
“One minute,” she said. The pendant came free of the dirt. She put her knife away and picked up the pendant. The stone had to be at least fifty carats, and it was surrounded by dozens of smaller stones set in what looked like silver. She had been working on Mars long enough to be able to guess what something would look like in indoor lighting, but she also knew you could never completely trust your eyes in Martian light. Some of the smaller stones were missing, but it still looked beautiful in any light.
“Coming,” she said as she stood up.
Jackson looked up as she walked over to where he was working, “…owza.”
“Still on VOX, Jackson.”
“…ight. Sorry,” he said, “What do you make of this panel?”
She tucked the pendant into a small bag on her belt and knelt down to look at the artifact. Only one side of it was exposed, but luckily it appeared to be the front. It was about eighteen inches on each side and made of metal. About an inch inside the rounded edges she could clearly make out the seam of a door and in the center of the door was some kind of glass panel. It looked electronic, but there was no way they would ever get it to work again. It had been shattered.
“…do you think?”
“What?” She looked up.
“…said what do you think?” he repeated.
“I think,” Tash stood up, “there’s no way we’re getting it out of the ground in an hour so help me with the tarp, and we can dig it out in the morning.”
“…re thing, boss,” Jackson stood up and stretched his back.
They spread a tarp over their work site and weighted the edges with decent sized rocks to protect their work from any Martian storms that might pop up overnight. It wouldn’t rain. I might snow a little overnight, but it never rained on Mars, not yet anyway. The rare clouds that appeared near Olympus Mons were invariably thin and wispy. Martian storms consisted of massive walls of windblown dust. They could ruin an archaeological dig and kill anyone dumb enough to not seek shelter.
As Jackson set down the last rock, Tash walked over to their rover. She pressed the button next to the airlock door. A second later the door made a clunking noise and swung open. She grabbed the tote with the day’s finds, stepped up into the airlock, and waited for Jackson to join her. Once he climbed into the airlock, she hit the button by the inner door. The outer door clunked closed, air whooshed into the airlock, and the inner door clunked open. They pulled off their masks and hoods as they stepped into the interior of the rover, and the lights flickered on. They helped each other remove their rebreathers, and stowed them in the rack by the rear door.
Tash pulled the pouch from her belt and carefully laid it on a small workbench, “You want to drive while I check out this pendant?” She took off her utility belt and hung it on the wall behind her.
“No problem,” Jackson said, “I can’t wait to get home and take a piss.”
“Why won’t you ever piss in your suit?” Tash asked even though she already knew the answer.
“Call me old-fashioned,” he said as he climbed into the cab of the rover, “but I don’t like pissing myself.”
“I’ll call you a prude. It isn’t pissing yourself. There’s a receptacle.” She removed the pendant from the pouch and held it up to the light. A big, red ruby held in place by a silver setting covered in sapphires and diamonds. It was a beautiful piece, but the ruby had a fairly major flaw. No, not a flaw. There was an etching inside it.
“Beautiful,” she said to herself as she waggled the pendant side to side to get a better look at the etching, “Why wouldn’t this be in the safe?”
“It still feels like you’re pissing yourself,” Jackson said from the cab.
“Never mind,” he replied, and the rover lurched to a start, “We forgot to remove the chalk again.”
Late that night another rover drove up to the dig site. A few minutes later, two men stepped out of the back wearing dark red camouflage over their pressure suits with their visors set on night vision. Coal miners by day, amateur archaeologists by night, they worked in silence tossing the rocks away from the edge of the tarp. They surveyed the hole for a minute before one of the men went to retrieve a couple of shovels. They dug out the safe as quickly as they could and hauled it back to their rover without saying a word. They climbed in, and a moment later the rover took off silently into the night. The whole affair had taken less than half an hour.
The driver motioned toward the back of the rover, “That thing kind of looks like a safe. I wonder what’s in it.”
“Who knows? Check out what I found while you were getting the shovels,” the man in the passenger seat of the cab said, “It’s a coin. It looks like it’s got writing on it even. Eplusoom. Wonder what that means.”
The driver glanced over and held out his hand. “Let me see that,” he said. The passenger looked at him distrustfully.
“I’m not gonna steal it, asshole,” the driver reached his hand out further for emphasis, “Just give it here a sec.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the passenger said as he put the coin in his hand.
The driver inspected both sides of the coin, “Thought so.”
“It says E Pluribus Unum.” He flipped the coin at his passenger who caught it awkwardly. “It’s an old American coin. The letters should have tipped you off. It’s probably worth about five bucks.”
The passenger stuck the coin in his jacket pocket. “Shit.”
The driver laughed, “Yeah, shit.”
Suddenly he screamed, “Oh, shit!” A proximity alarm sounded in the rover. He jerked the wheel to the right and hit the brakes, but it was too late. He had been driving too fast in the dark trying to put distance between the dig site and themselves, and he had been paying too much attention to his idiot partner and his worthless coin.
The rear wheels broke free, and the whole rig slid sideways over the edge of an ancient river bank. It flipped and rolled down the steep slope. The back of the rover struck a boulder. That stopped them from rolling, but it caused them to slide upside down, head first, into another boulder.
The air inside the rover vacated in an instant. The boulder crushed the driver’s skull, killing him instantly. The passenger scrambled to reach the rebreathers in the back of the rover. His face burned with the pain of a thousand exploding capillaries. His eyes bulged, and one of them popped out of its socket. His lungs screamed, but he didn’t dare try to breathe until he could get to a mask.
He reached one of the rebreathers without a second to spare. He held a mask to his face and activated the rebreather. He tried to take a breath, but his dangling eyeball kept him from getting a good seal on the mask. He tucked his eye inside the mask and tried again. Air. He tightened the straps behind his head and passed out.
When he woke up several hours later, the sun was coming up. He activated the other rebreather and disconnected the hose from the tank. Then he switched his own hose over as quickly as his pain addled body would allow. He tried to pick up the safe, but a sudden shock of excruciating pain made him realize he had broken several ribs in the crash.
He dragged his broken body out of the broken rover and to the top of the bank, and then he began the long walk towards the only road within twenty kilometers. The first time he fell he was able to get back on his feet. The second time he fell, a big rock hit him right in his injured ribs, and he passed out. The low air alarm from the rebreather woke him just in time to suffocate. He died unaware the road was just over the next hill.