“This is an historic moment, ladies and gentlemen. We are about to witness the first of what we expect will be many successful, manned landings to the surface of Mars. In one hour this team will have accomplished what no one would have believed..”
“Uh, sir?” A mousy voice squeaked up from a console. “We have an issue.”
Suddenly a hundred eyes swiveled on a frail-looking young woman in the first row. Five rows of tables held all manner of electronic screens in a semi-circle focused on the area where Commander Aryan Reynolds stood, backlit by a curved display wall showing ever-changing charts and readouts. Except now everyone, including a half-dozen TV crews, were focused on Melinda “Missy” Jennison, mission coordinator and second in command. She wasn't one to speak up, particularly when there were people looking, so the commander took time to growl, “yes ma’am? What is it?”
“Well sir, it seems the radiation calculation were incomplete. If they get outside the hab unit without full gear on, it could”
“Kill them, and they know that. These are trained professionals, Missy, not kids at space camp. Of course they have to get the hab there first. Which is why we’re all here, isn't it?” Reynolds switched the charm back on and faced the cameras.
“Actually sir it could alter their DNA in ways we can only partially predict.” Missy spat out quickly, then looked down.
“Well, we’ll pass that along. Thank you lieutenant. Now if you could all check out the video link that should be coming live in just a few moments…” the sensor readings spread out to make a frame, with only critical things like oxygen, sulfur, and radiation levels making a frame around a video feed from outside the ship, the Devos IX. Suddenly, a burst of static, and then a woman appeared with a smile and a wave.
“Hello, ground control!” She crowed. “Are we ready for this?”
“Good morning, Captain,” Reynolds replied, all smiles for the cameras himself. “We are ready here. What's the first thing you're going to do on Mars?”
“I'm going to Disney..no, wait,” the reporters chuckled on cue.
A red light started flashing on a panel behind the astronaut. “Is that important? Is something wrong?” a reporter pointed to the screen.
“I’m sure it’s just a proximity sensor, reminding me how close we are!” Captain Mariana Axelson still held a pasted-on smile. “But, that’s my cue. Got a ship to land!” She turned away then and disappeared, leaving the camera to watch the blinking light.
“Sir, that’s” Missy began, but was cut off by Reynolds.
“A proximity sensor, we all heard the captain.” Reynolds’ words were clipped. Then he spun to the cameras one more time: “Well folks, it’s about to get science-y in here; i’m afraid i have to ask you to wait in the press lounge while we get down to brass tacks. Interns, if you’d show them out..” He motioned to a pair of college students huddled in a corner. They promptly stood up and shooed the reporters away. The video feed clicked off and the large screen filled back in with all manner of data streams.
“Sir, that trouble on the console,” Missy started again.
“Is the goddamn o2 sensor, i know!” Reynolds snapped. “I didn’t start here yesterday. Dammit!” He slammed a hand down on the desk next to Missy. “OK Folks, listen up! We are about to land this capsule and deploy the Mars hab, and we do not get another pass. The team in the air knows the situation. The best thing you can do, right now, is your job. Focus, dial in, and get it right. If you miss, if you’re wrong, if you hesitate,” He growled the last word with disgust, “People die. Simple as that! Now, start landing approach sequence on my mark. And.. MARK.”
A flurry of keys clicked and clacked and the screen popped to life, moving and changing as various people added information. Soon the wall was covered in meter readings and status lights.
“Ops, Sitrep!” The captain barked for a situation report from his officer in charge of operations.
“Sensors show we will be in position for initial drop in twenty minutes. Fuel charge is full, life support reserves are minimal.” Missy replied.
“How long do we have once we land?”
“Assuming a perfect impact, we’ll have about an hour to get the hab deployed before they will be on suit reserve only. With the work they’ll be doing to situate the doors and get inside, factoring for increased respiration..” Missy tapped her screen, then her keyboard. She looked up at Reynolds. “It’s going to be close, sir. It could literally come down to a breath or two.”
He stared back. She almost looked away, but then she realized he was deep in thought. “Sir?” she dared to inquire.
“We need to hurry up the landing.” He turned back to the room and snapped, “Eyes up, people! I need ideas! Missy, capsule on the screen.” A 3D rendering of the mars lander appeared on the video wall. “You all know this ship, inside and out. we always intended to put it down gently, secure it, and then launch the hab unit, here,” he gestured toward a large hatch on the right side of the ship. “It's designed to eject sideways and inflate with a series of small explosions, which will also heat up the internal systems and start the life support running. Then the crew needs to step outside, secure the outer airlock, and make their way into their new home. This all takes about two hours. I need it in the next 45 minutes. I'm taking suggestions.”
For a long beat, the room was quiet. Even the pen-flicking and keyboard clacking inevitable in a room of engineers dialed back to a quiet hum. Someone cleared their throat.
“Mr. Moebus?” Reynolds asked. “You have something to share?”
“Yes sir. We are using standard downfiring shaped charges to expel the hab unit. Do we have individual control?” Erick Moebus, design engineer, called from the back row.
“We do,” another voice called.
“Can i have the screen?” Moebus asked. When his computer showed on the video wall he continued, “Thanks. If we brought the lander in parallel to the ground, hatch down, and fired the charges in a sequence like this..” he drew a half-circle from bottom to top on the side of the lander model, “You would get the rotation you need. The hab would expel and inflate, and if Mars' gravity would finish bringing the lander in as it rotated away. It’d be a hard landing but..” he trailed off.
“What’s our margin of error? Missy, run it!”
“Already loading, sir.” She pounded furiously at her console, then stopped abruptly. “Based on my simulations, our window for first firing is..” she looked up. “Two seconds.”
Reynolds scanned the room. “Anyone here play a lot of video games growing up? Unless we come up with something better in the next” he looked up at the clock, “eleven minutes, this is the plan.”
After those minutes passed, the ship’s captain reappeared on a side screen. She was focused on instruments and not really acknowledging her audience. “Three second burn on my mark. Mark!” A roar like white noise blared through the room for exactly three seconds, then stopped. "Final descent initiated."
“Captain,” Reynolds cut in, “We are going to do things differently. You've been sent a memo with the outline but there's no time to explain. We will take controls from here. Hang on, it might get bumpy.”
“This is madness!” The captain growled. “You'll never get it accu” the picture appeared to keep talking but the sound cut out.
“I don't need that kind of negativity. Moebus, are we ready?”
“Ready sir. Firing sequence queued. Charges armed and hatch equalized.”
“And our firing window?”
“Coming up quickly, sir.”
“Well, shut up and watch for it!”
All was deadly silent for the final minute. Then Moebus stood, his finger on a single key. “Three, Two, One, Mark.” He pressed the key with his last word. If it had been quiet before, one could hear a pin drop as they waited for the commands to be received by the lander.
They saw it happen when the captain started very clearly enunciating some very harsh words. That would be the lander going into a spin less than 20 meters from the ground. Suddenly the camera shook violently, then floated free in the cabin. The hatch had popped and the rapid inflators were enough to sharply change direction. They could see the next series of explosions only as shifts in the camera’s relative position in space. At what should have been the next-to-last blast, the camera hit a wall and went black.
Reynolds spun on Moebus. “Did it work?”
Moebus worked his keys furiously. All eyes in the room locked on as he continued squinting. Then, the screen lit up red. Every sensor, every reading, showed “Failure” and alarms beeped and buzzed all over the room.
“What the hell is going on? Ops! Sitrep! NOW!” Reynolds roared over the cacophony.
“We’ve lost comms, sir. All of them. No radio, no video, no data stream. Diagnostics running but everything looks OK on our end.”
“So we fucked it up. Good. perfect!”
“Not quite, sir,” Moebus interjected. He tapped a few buttons, and the alarms subsided, though the screen still glowed red. “We don’t know yet what happened. Our window for perfect launch was quite small, but there was another chance where we pretty much crash the lander but the hab still deploys. In that scenario, we tear the antennas off the lander and lose communication until the generators are running in the hab.”
“Chance of our people making to the hab?”
“One in..” he tapped at a calculator, “427, sir.”
“Fuck. they’re as good as dead.”
“We’ll know in about two hours, sir.”
---TWO HOURS LATER---
Reynolds drained the his coffee for the fifth time since the camera crews had left. Across the top of the main display, a countdown clock went to zero. “All right, that’s it folks. One more try to raise the hab. Win, lose, or draw, you’re a great crew, and you can walk out of here knowing you did the very best anyone could have. Under the circumstances” he was cut off by a collective gasp from the rest of the room. He spun to the screen, where multiple video feeds of the hab were now showing, with “Live” flashing in the lower-left corner of each.
“Patching through now,” Missy cut off the general before he could ask. “Hab one, this is Houston, do you copy?” static hissed through the overhead speakers. “Hab one, this is Houston, do you copy?” still no response.
“Where the hell are they? Any signs of life?”
“There are signs of disturbance in the food and supply areas, but no one is currently detected and no equipment has been removed from the airlock.”
“What does that mean? Did they make it or not?” The stress was starting to make Reynolds shake. The coffee probably wasn’t helping.
“They…” Missy paused for half a moment. “Did not. We don’t have any link to the lander, but we know it's dead on arrival. And here there’s nothing missing, nothing added. The air filter shows some activity, and as i noted some supplies were knocked loose, most likely on that nontraditional deployment. But no one is inside, and no one could be outside even as long as we’ve been connected without those suits.”
CLANK! Everyone gasped at the loud sound over the speakers. A quick scan revealed more cans being knocked off a shelf in the kitchen area.
“Activity on camera 3!” Missy brought up the feed of the still-shaking supplies. “Just some, eh, settling as the hab finishes inflating,” her quavering voice belied the confidence of her words.
A long moment passed. Everyone stared at camera 3’s feed, willing it to show some sign of life. But there was none.
“Well, no use standing around here. Night crew, your watch. Everyone else, debriefing at 0800 hours. Get some sleep, you're gonna need it.” With that, Reynolds spun on his heel and marched from the room.
In the parking lot outside Johnson Space Center, Missy pressed the button to unlock her dusty, green Camry. it was only a few years younger than she was, but the damn thing refused to die. She paused at the door to shuffle her purse, and Erick took the opportunity.
“I think I need a beer after that. Care to join me?”
she sighed and turned around. “Hey Erick. Hell of a day, huh?” she pushed her brown hair behind her ears. “I’m just glad I don’t have to call the families.”
“I definitely don’t envy that part of the commander’s job.”
“Some of the other parts, you do envy, though?”
Moebus kicked at the dirt. “I dunno. Some days I think it’d be nice to get a shot at my own mission, but then..” he looked over his shoulder at the building they had just exited. “I just don’t know. Let’s get that beer and figure it out, huh?”
Missy blew out slowly. “Not tonight, Erick. I just wanna go home, watch a crappy movie and fall asleep on my couch.”
“Ok. I thought a little shot of adrenaline might do you some good, but..”
She turned, raised an eyebrow. “You got it? I thought you were going to tell them you weren't on the crew!”
“I was going to do that, but…” he grinned “when someone offers you a ‘vette, you take it!” with that, he extended a hand and clicked a button. A few rows over, a cherry-red Corvette growled to life. Supposedly a gift to commanders and the actual crew, Moebus’ name somehow made it on the list, and he wasn’t about to correct that particular mistake. At least, not until he got to put the car through its paces. It settled to an expectant burble as Erick raised an eyebrow.
Missy tried not to smile, but mostly failed. “just a quick ride…”
“Oh I can guarantee it'll be quick!”
She laughed and followed him, settling into the passenger’s white leather bucket seat. “Hang on to something,” he grinned as he edged past the guard shack.
THREE YEARS LATER
BZZT! BZZT! BZZT!
Missy reached out to her bedside table, her flailing attempts failing to hit the snooze, and groaned. “Why do these things always start at 6 frickin AM?”
Moebus rolled over against her back, reached across and tapped her phone. “You can’t schedule the stars, babe.”
She moved onto her back and smiled at him. “Big day today, huh?”
He grunted back. “Here’s hoping this one goes better than the last time we did this.”
“It will! They have you now!” he looked unconvinced. “Seriously you’ve spend the last three years going over every possible scenario, every possible variable. I mean, god, you ran a simulation in case they encountered extraterrestrials mid-trip!”
He finally smiled at that. “Using Transformers was a nice touch.”
“I though you’d like that. Now, go get in the shower! You’ve got a lot to do!”
“I'm sure it's eerie for some of you, being back in this position.” Newly promoted Captain Moebus stood at the front of the same control room he’d been in during the crash. Some of the tech had been updated but the general layout was the same. Three rows of semicircle desks still faced toward the floor-to-ceiling screen wall. All eyes were focused on the 40-year-old man addressing them. “It’s been tough for me, leading the team to this point. You have all been excellent, and have proved at every step why you are here. After the last attempt..” he stopped, choked slightly and had to clear his throat to continue, “After our last mission ended in tragedy, the powers that be decided not to waste a perfectly good hab unit, and so scrambled this mission into existence. Now here we are, three years to the day, ready to try again. We’ve improved the lander, and chosen a site clear of any possibly debris. I imagine it will be tough to be up there, to see exactly what happened, so we need to be ready to help them focus on getting to the hab. Final approach is in one hour, so lets make sure they get to the ground the right way this time, shall we?” a murmur of assent went through the room. “Good! Ops, Sitrep!”
A familiar voice perked up from the front row. “All on schedule, Captain.” Missy smiled on that last word. “O2 levels good for at least 12 more hours in the lander. Fuel reserves for two attempts. All comms online and solid. The hab is fully online and ready to support life. Most video is offfline there but should be repairable within a few days.”
“Thanks, Missy. Ok, folks, from here on out we go live. Everything you say will be broadcast into space for any other intelligent life to hear. Screen?” at that, the screen split in half, with the left side covered in small gauges and the right going to a live feed out the “windshield” of the lander. “Hello, captain!”
“Good evening, Houston!” the baritone voice of Captain Leon Waltham broadcast over the room. Leon, along with Cassandra Smith and Roger Huang made up the crew of the Devos X. Cass and Roger were off camera, monitoring their specialties while their Captain grabbed the controls, and the glory. “Are we ready to do this, Mr. Moebus?”
“We’re ready here! And you should be almost ready to move into landing.”
“Right. Ok, coming into position now.. five second burn on my mark. 3...2..1…. mark!”
A loud hisss burst over the speakers and the image on screen shook for exactly five seconds. When it all cleared up, Mars was visible on the horizon and closing fast. “Ok, cap, it's all you driving us in!” Erick called out. “Do you see the site?”
“I see it. Two second burn adjusting approach in 3, 2, 1, mark!” Again the hissing erupted. “Ok, looks like we're dead on. I'm gonna try and let it ride until the final approach.”
“Well, you're driving.” Moebus smiled. This was already going better. That had been his error last time; he hadn't accounted for the signal delay between earth and the mars orbit. That few milliseconds had been the difference between life and death for the last crew, and he wouldn't let that happen again.
“Houston, are you seeing this?” Leon’s voice rang out. “Looks like someone made it into a suit, at least..” his voice cracked before he continued, “wait, no.. what?”
The top of an astronaut helmet drifted into the bottom of the camera view, black-streaked white fabric against the gold sun visor. “Why is that so dirty, if it's been hanging around..” his voice caught, his eyes locked on the helmet. “Dammit Erick, what did you get me into?”
The suit’s glove raised overhead and started smashing a rock into the window. When that didn't work, it crawled up and over and disappeared over the top of the ship. “Uh, Houston? This isn't in the manual.. a little help? Are we into evasive maneuvers or are we continuing to land? Houston? Erick?”
Erick stared at the screen. It was.. he couldn't comprehend. A variable he had failed to account for, a.. what WAS it, exactly? Not any of the people from the last mission. That was sure. A Martian in a borrowed suit? But why?
“Fuck, Erick, gimme something! It's trying to work the hatch!!”
“Evasive action! Barrel Roll!” Someone shouted. Leon took it and started spinning the capsule wildly. The hatch still rattled.
“Ok ok, fire flares and bring it in! You're running a little hot but you have enough fuel for a long burn.” Erick called out over the noise. “Mark!” The image stabilized but continued rocketing toward the surface. “Do it, cap! Burn now!” Nothing. Leon had frozen at the controls.
“LEON!!” Missy’s screech did the trick. Leon grabbed a lever and jammed it forward, causing the lander to spontaneously slow. The space suit, and whatever creature was driving it, launched off the roof and went spiraling toward the ground.
“Fuel level is now critical.” Missy read out. “Commence freefall. You're in the pull now, you're just going to have to hit the gas as you get close.”
“You're going to have to eyeball it,” Erick said immediately. “Go!”
The engines stopped burning. A few short bursts from the attitude adjusters leveled the horizon, and the lander started falling out of the sky toward mars. Leon’s forehead shone with sweat as he stared, intently, at his instruments, flickering his gaze out the window every few seconds. “Ok, this is it. And, mark!” Leon growled as he hammered the throttle one last time. A deafening roar blocked all other sound, even in the control room. Erick could only start helplessly as the crew in the lander braced for impact. The last few seconds lasted a year as the lander came down, down, CRUNCH. Miraculously it didn't bounce; it just slammed into the red dirt and stopped with about 6 inches of standards below the surface. The engines sputtered, a few last coughs as the fuel ran completely dry. Whatever happened next, there would be no return trip.
Cassandra, the first mate, came into view. “Well, that was less than pleasant,” she said. “Why can't we just land a damn ship, one time, on this godforsaken”
That was all she got out. The space suit had returned. With its previous hits, plus the impact of the landing, it was able to rip the hatch open and drop inside. The exposure to the Martian atmosphere would have killed them in minutes, but that wasn't enough for this creature. It grabbed Cassandra and threw her against a control panel hard enough for a control lever to pierce her rib cage. Blood dribbled from her mouth as she hung, crucified.
“No!” Erick screamed, watching helplessly from a million miles away. “No, dammit!” It heard him, and turned to the camera. It walked over, pulled the camera out of the wall mount.
“Say goodbye, Erick.” A thin, scratchy voice, like someone that had smoked a carton a day for a lifetime. But high and squealing.. Erick paused. It was impossible, but he knew that voice..
“This is how the adventure ends.” Leon just stared morosely. “But hey, we found life,” he motioned to the suit, “not sure I'd call it intelligent..” with that, two hands of dark, slimy skin slid into view, grabbed Leon’s head, and snapped his neck in a single swift motion.
“You left us, Reynolds,” the screeching continued, “cut off all comms. Video was useless. I tried to leave messages, to ask for help. But you just wanted the glory of a new mission. Congratulations, captain. This is your legacy.” Leon's body slumped away, still strapped to his seat. The hands reached up and grabbed the visor. As it slid up, Erick stepped back, back into the wall, and slid down.
“No, it.. I can't. That doesn't make sense!”
There was no one in the suit.