“Sure is a long way down,” the tourist remarked, his voice slightly fuzzy over the radio.
Reeves shook his head in disagreement. “Only for cowards,” he quipped, tugging on his rope to be sure the stake was securely in the ground and then turning to the edge of the cliff. And tourists, he wanted to add, but didn’t: bad tour guide etiquette. “Don’t forget — the Valles Marineris Exploration Outpost, VMEO, is right below us. So we’re not too far from help.”
Despite his earlier words, even without looking down Reeves knew the tourist was right. It rather was a long way down, he thought as he swung himself over the edge (much to the tourists’ amusement and bewilderment). The ground was at least a few kilometers below him now, at most several; all that kept death at bay was the rope. A good, thick one it was, synthetic material — he’d forgotten what it was called, only remembered that in the low Martian gravity it was sufficiently safe, and thus he wasn’t afraid.
On Earth, Reeves weighed one hundred sixty pounds, wet. On Mars he weighed about fifty-five pounds. Big, big difference. Except the tourists never seemed to get it.
He sighed, shook his head again to no one in particular, and began rappelling down the cliff. In his peripheral vision he caught a glimpse of the tourists’ heads, poking out just over the edge to watch his progress; saw a few rapidly draw back in fear; said into his helmet’s radio, “Please don’t fall; even in a fourth the gravity of Earth’s the landing’ll hurt. And terminal velocity doesn’t change, either. Just sit tight and wait. You’ll get a nice, safe lift ride down when I’m at the bottom.”
The heads drew back. Almost grimly, Reeves grinned and continued his descent.
Step, crunch, slide, and the cycle restarted. He tried not to look down — he’d done it before, two Mars-years ago, when the Martian Visitors’ Colony had just started up, and nearly gotten sick in front of twenty wannabe Martian citizens. Not the best way to promote that moving to the Red Planet was “out of this world!”
So he concentrated wholly on the movement of the slides and where he placed his feet, perhaps a tad obsessively, but it helped keep him from thinking of the long, long drop beneath him.
This went on for a long time.
He came into sight of the VMEO and, according to his helmet’s HUD, one hundred meters from the ground when he finally slipped up.
It was a small mistake, as far as mistakes went, but Fate pounced on it. Reeves slipped, his gloves slipping off the slides, and began to fall; jerked back upward as the rope held. For a moment Reeves swung out over the abyss, his feet kicking in empty air; then he spun back around, slapping against the cliff with a clank! as his suit collided with Martian rock, right elbow first. He scrabbled for a grip, managed to steady himself, and grasped the slides, his hands clammy underneath his gloves.
For a minute he hung there, gasping, swearing under his breath.
That was close.
In the suffocating silence that followed, over his own madly beating heart, Reeves caught a faint hissssss...
He threw a quick glance at his HUD — saw the air pressure number slowly ticking down — swore again. He could feel a faint air current over his right elbow; raising it to his faceplate, he saw the edges of a small opening in his spacesuit fluttering in the small breeze.
Words floated through his head, that tourist’s: “Sure is a long way down...”
Slowly, trying not to let fear interrupt his careful movements, he moved his hands off the slides and onto the rope. Then, crunch by crunch, he moved down until the rope held him up.
Now was the tricky part. He took a step forward (or up?) and then leaned back, so that as he settled into a horizontal position with his face toward the pale red heavens, the rope holding him there. Then he reached into a waist pouch with his left hand, awkwardly grabbed an air patch (he wasn’t very good with gloves), and slowly, being sure not to make any sudden movements that could cause him to swing away from the cliff again, raised his right arm and placed the patch over the leak.
The suit was partially inflated, so the surface gave under Reeves’s pushing. He grunted. Gritting his teeth, he raised his right arm a little higher and managed to cover the rip with the patch. He couldn’t tell if the hissing had stopped; his heart’s frantic pounding still filled his ears, deafening.
So he glanced to the HUD to see the suit’s air pressure reading steady. Reeves took a deep breath, released it in a long, slow exhale. His heart was still beating a mile a minute as he pressed down on the patch once more and moved his hand from the makeshift seal.
Well, that was that.
“Sorry, folks, for the silence,” he said into his radio, resuming his climb; “I had some — uh — technical difficulties, but I’ll be down in a minute.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, he added mentally, is why I’m climbing down right above the VMEO. Long way down, indeed.
* * * * *
This was meant as nothing more than a quick writing exercise, mainly meant as practice for a more casual style of writing. I think it turned out well, though, granted, this doesn't tell a very important story.