Chris lay on his back within the cavern and dreamt of a place called Earth.
~ * ~
“I have to tell you, this has been the longest seven months of my life,” Austin Miller said as he looked out a smudged window. The twenty-five year old astronaut had spent countless hours dreaming of home, dreaming of his wife, Christine and his new son Sebastian, who wasn’t yet forty-eight hours old. He sighed as he realized that it would be yet another seven, nearly eight months, before he would see the blue and white marble hanging in space called Earth. “But you wouldn’t have traded places with anyone,” Mission Commander Mike Clark said as he placed a hand on one of Austin’s shoulders. Austin glanced at him and grinned. “What a story to tell your son someday.”
My son. God I wonder what he looks like, Austin thought.
“He probably looks a lot like you,” Susan Mathews said as if reading Austin’s mind. Lieutenant Susan Mathews was the mission communications specialist. She was also the only female member of the four member crew. She looked out a window. “It looks close enough to reach out and touch it.” “After another twelve hours in orbit, we will be able to touch it,” a young Chinese member of the crew named Shawn said as he spun away from a control panel and stood. I can’t believe it’s finally going to happen, he thought as he walked to a window and looked out. “She’s a beautiful sight.” “That she is,” Clark agreed. A hundred miles below them the planet Mars, with its rolling white ice clouds and swirling orange dust storms, rotated slowly. “I hope it welcomes the human race warmly,” Austin said. “And not with a grudge for all the junk we’ve sent her way over the years.” “Looks like a proud planet ready to host some guests,” Clark said. “We come in peace.” He went to a console and sat. “Well, guys, we’ve got work to do.” The other three crew members looked at Clark. Reluctantly they moved away from the windows and took up their positions within the crew cabin of the interplanetary spaceship Intrepid. Intrepid. NASA, embodied with bold new goals set for the awakening decade, believed its first manned vessel to Mars should bear a bold name, a personification of the resolute fearlessness of the four-member crew. The voyage to the red planet had taken just over seven months. Two months prior to the Earth orbit launch of Intrepid a supply probe was launched from Cape Kennedy on a programmed course for Mars orbit. Intrepid rendezvoused with the probe in Mars orbit, linking up with it and taking on needed supplies, including a return supply of fuel. The designated landing site on the planet would be near the Valles Marineris canyon system. Intrepid would use an air braking system and a drogue parachute to slow its descent to the planet’s surface during its braking ellipses. Once on the planet the astronauts would feel the effects of gravity for the first time in seven plus months, even though the gravity would be weak and they would feel only thirty-eight percent of their body weight.
~ * ~
Aboard Intrepid, sitting on the Martian surface, Mission Commander Clark spoke in an informal manor to the communications expert. “Keep trying to patch through to Houston, Susan.” “There seems to be something jamming the signal,” Lieutenant Susan Mathews said calmly, frowning in frustration. This doesn’t even seem possible, she thought. She was the second person selected for the mission from the astronaut pool. Her background in computer operations and communications expertise had given her high marks. “It could be the atmospheric conditions of the planet that’s fouling communications,” she suggested. Her hands seemed to move in broken spasms as they went back and forth between switches and dials. “I’ll get it back. Count on it.” I have to get it back. I knew something would happen. “They pretty much covered all the possible scenarios in training.” “What’d they tell you to do in this situation?” Clark asked. In the moment he wished that he would have spent more than a single day of observation in the communications training center. “Everything they taught, I’ve tried,” Mathews muttered, sounding even more frustrated. “I’ve gone through the trouble shooting manual cover to cover and can’t come up with anything. Something’s not right here. There’s no logical reason why communication was lost. Everything, every dial setting, every switch and gauge is just as they should be.” Clark felt Mathews’ frustration and knew well how she felt in the moment. As an Air Force communications satellite specialist he worked through his share of satellite down time, working hard to bring communication satellites back on line. Frustrating work at best, trying to troubleshoot problems located two hundred miles above the Earth. Often times the one thing that kept him and his team focused was a simple joke blurted out that cut through the tension. “Hey, did I tell you the one about the cowboy that walks into a saloon and sees a horse standing next to the bar?” Clark asked, trying his old tension breaker. Mathews looked up at him and grinned. “Yes, once or twice,” she said. “The ending is cute.” “Thought a joke would help,” Clark said. Mathews smiled. “Okay, I might be a bit tense,” she admitted. “I always find lightning up helps,” Clark said. “I’ll try it,” Mathews said. How can he even think of anything funny right now? “I have to tell you though; I’d have to say some outside interference is blocking our signal.” Clark’s face twisted into a confused look. “What kind of outside interference?” he questioned. “Are you talking atmospheric interference?” “I wouldn’t rule it out,” Mathews said, shrugging her shoulders. “But I’d say it’s more like something intentionally blocking our signals.” “How could that be?” Clark asked. He leaned against the communications console. “Something would have to be alive out there for that to be the case. We’re the only ones alive around here.” “I’m just saying that’s the way it seems,” Mathews stated. “I’ve checked and rechecked everything. There doesn’t seem to be anything abnormal with our equipment. We should be talking clearly with Mission Control.” Clark straightened. “See if you can pin something down,” he said, tapping her reassuringly on a shoulder. “And don’t let frustration get to you.” Mathews looked up at her commander and nodded. Clark looked to Austin Miller. He was selected to be the first human to set foot on the red planet, something he was eager to commence with. The butterflies in the young man’s stomach were slowly turning into eagles. The kid looks nervous. Hell, why shouldn’t he be? “What readings do you have, Austin?” Clark asked, taking up a position behind Miller. Austin Miller was a longtime acquaintance of Clark’s. He was a civilian, chosen for the mission because of his university astronomical studies, not to mention his near genius I.Q. He applied to NASA and was selected to join the training team almost immediately. He was just over six feet tall, broad shouldered and lean. His coal-black hair seemed to reflect light. His glittering blue eyes brightened in light, growing deeper in hue. He had a photogenic smile that, had he been a model, would have brought a fortune to him. As it was it complimented his bright personality. The announcement that Miller would be the first person down the short ladder to the Martian surface baffled him. There had been no indication that such an historic honor would befall him. At first the impact of the upcoming moment and how it would be recorded in history sailed past him. Then, after a day of thought, he began to think about what he would say as his foot touched the surface of the planet. Would his words be recorded, as were the words of the first man stepping on the moon? How would he handle, indeed would he be able to handle, the intense scrutiny of the press for years to come? For a week following the announcement he was plagued by sleepless nights. Thinking of those first steps on Mars kept him awake, caused him to pace around a temporarily rented apartment in Florida, caused him to think about his representing mankind during the first human visit to another planet. His wife Christine had come to Florida from their home in Wisconsin to be with her husband the final week before the launch. A secretary at a law firm, she had taken a leave with her boss’s blessing. In the darkened hours of night, as Austin sat on the edge of the bed unable to sleep, Christine would kneel behind him and massage his shoulders. When there wasn’t silence between them, Austin would tell her of his reservations as to whether he’d made the right decision to reach for his dream of being an astronaut. Each mention of it brought a kiss from his wife and a reassurance that was well needed by the unsure astronaut. She was the most supportive person in his life, but unknown to him, had her own reservations. There was always present danger being an astronaut. Space flight was not, and most likely would never be, without great risk. An unsure science at best. A black wall memorial bore the names of killed astronauts. It could not be said that Christine did not fear that one day the name of her husband would be placed upon the wall. She dreaded the possibility, but through all of her uncertainty she kept her feelings to herself. She did not wish to sway his thinking in any way as to his choosing the life of an astronaut. She was proud of him, proud of his courage, proud that he believed he was doing what was best for all mankind. If only she could feel more secure about his future, indeed his very life itself. It was the night before the launch, as he was kept apart from her in an isolation chamber, that she spoke into a telephone the words she hoped would get him through the months ahead. “I’m pregnant,” Christine said. She looked through the thick glass panels of the isolation chamber and could see his eyes grow wider than she had ever seen them. And then came an explosion of glee as Austin dropped the phone and bounced around the chamber hugging the other members of the Intrepid crew, telling each of the news. For a few minutes he’d forgotten about his wife as he was engulfed with joy. It was Clark who grabbed him and pointed to Austin’s wife, still holding the phone. He raced back to the phone. Those memories had sustained him through the long voyage to Mars. “Temperature is minus twenty degrees, nominal winds. Atmospheric readings of carbon dioxide, argon, oxygen, nitrogen and water vapor. There’s nothing beyond what we had expected, Mike,” Austin reported. “It’s going to be a long twelve hours before I climb down the ladder.” An eternity, he thought. The wait would surely kill him. The eagles in his stomach would surely take flight. For seven months he thought mostly of two things, his wife and then just recently his newborn son, and his first steps upon Mars. He juggled the thoughts, finding it hard to sleep at times. He thought of names, since Christine and he had decided he would name the child while in space. He hashed about the words he would use when taking that first step upon Mars. Then, just as Intrepid eased into orbit around Mars, came word from Earth that Austin was the proud father of a son. With congratulations concluded he settled back to choose a name. All that remained was choosing his words for his historic first step. “We’ll do some status checks and get some rest, Austin,” Clark said. “History will wait for you.” He could feel Austin’s tenseness, could feel his anxiety, and knew from talking with him how afraid he actually was. No one knew what to expect when foot meets Martian soil. The unmanned probes couldn’t feel, couldn’t react. For a while Austin would be alone beyond the security of Intrepid; a whole world to himself.
~ * ~
Austin’s foot touched the Martian soil. Communication with Earth was still down, but cameras fixed to the craft recorded the historic moment. Austin drew in a deep breath and spoke. “With this step I bring the future of my new son, Sebastian, and of all mankind to a new frontier.” The remaining three astronauts aboard Intrepid clapped. One of them even made sure Austin’s exact words were written down. History in the making. Back on Earth, a child had been given a name. Imagine being able to say he got his name while his father stood on Mars. A hundred yards from Intrepid, Austin turned and looked back at his ship. In the sunlight the ship looked like a huge silver bowl. He had the feeling as if he were a pup looking at its mother. There was an emotional bond, an unseen umbilical cord. “Intrepid looks beautiful from out here,” Austin radioed. My God, this is fantastic. He found it difficult to walk wearing the bulky space suit with its built in heating system, which would allow the astronauts to continue their excursion after dark when the temperature reaches minus 60 degrees. “I bet it does, Austin,” Clark radioed back. “Your medical monitors are registering high blood pressure and a rapid heart beat. Austin, try to relax. You’re out there, guy. You made the history books. All the pressure is gone. Relax and enjoy it. Shawn will be joining you shortly.” I can’t wait for his first one liner from out there. Shaiming Zhang, Shawn as the crew members called him, was the twenty-two year old Chinese representative aboard Intrepid. He was a bright, cheerful intellectual who, during much of the long venture to Mars, kept everyone often in stitches, as there seemed to be no end to his vault of jokes. “Austin, I love the name you gave your son,” Susan Mathews radioed, as she looked out a window at the lone figure standing at a distance waving back at the gleaming faces looking out from Intrepid. She wiped away a single tear as it escaped from the corner of an eye. I can talk to him, but why the hell can’t I talk to Earth? “As soon as I get communications restored, I’ll pass along your words to mother Earth.” “There’s probably a bunch of people ready to turn blue back home,” Clark said. “Roger that. It’s pretty lonely being the only human out here,” Austin joked. A one man club... “that I don’t really want to be the only member.” “Only member of what, Austin?” Clark asked.
Damn! “Ah, nothing, Mike, I was thinking out loud.”
Don’t go hallucinating on me, Austin. “We’re all with you. Settle in and relax,” Clark radioed. “Shawn is just about suited up.” “I guarantee you there’s plenty of room for more than two of us out here,” Austin said. “There doesn’t seem to be any neighbors.” In a way Austin felt somewhat vulnerable. His mind conjured up a half dozen negative thoughts about his falling victim to unforeseen dangers: everything from unseen microscopic organisms attacking his body to unknown pools of quicksand. The latter thought brought with it still cautious footsteps, as with each step he checked the footing’s solidness before committing his full weight. Clark chuckled. “Sorry, Austin, just two of us at any given time,” Clark radioed. He looked again at Mathews. “Susan, any luck with reaching Houston?” “Negative,” Mathews replied. “I get nothing but static.” “Then how come we can communicate with Austin?” Mathews shrugged her shoulders. Damn if I know. “No explanation,” she said. “I still feel there’s something jamming our long-range signal.” There’s got to be something jamming us. The possibility raced around her mind, bouncing around, rephrasing itself a hundred times. There wasn’t a logical explanation why they could talk to Austin and not Houston. Maybe it’s the distance. The only possibility, she thought, trying to convince herself. There came a sudden, violent vibration within Intrepid. Anything that wasn’t securely fastened down began rattling or shaking, sending items toppling to the floor. It became impossible for any of the astronauts to stand. Shawn laid on his back on the floor, hoping not to tear a hole in his space suit. The ship’s interior air was growing warm and thick, almost to the point that it was difficult to breathe. “What the hell?” Clark said as he grabbed a support beam to keep from falling over. What the hell’s going on? “Get your suits on. Hurry.” Suddenly, swiftly, the Martian skies turned violent. A cloudbank swept overhead, rising a thousand feet in an anvil shaped mass. An angry reddish hue tinted the ominous looking clouds. Bolts of lightning pummeled the area near Intrepid. Winds kicked up with such force it was difficult for Austin to stand upright. “What the devil? The probes never registered storms like this,” Clark said excitedly. “Austin, get back in here,” he radioed. He pressed against a window and looked out toward his friend. During the long journey through space the window had been pitted by tiny particles of dust that struck against the glass at several thousand miles per hour. Along with the pitting, a thick veil of dust made it almost impossible to see the white suited man now less than fifty yards away. “I can hardly move,” Austin shouted over his radio. Fear, panic, surged through him. His muscles strained to move his legs in the direction of Intrepid. He fought as if struggling against a hundred mile an hour wind. His wide eyes were fixed on the ship like the needle of a compass stuck on a northerly direction. His medical monitors were leaping, registering a blood pressure that indicated a circulatory system ready to burst and a heart pounding fast enough to hammer its way through his aching chest. Within minutes the temperature in Intrepid had grown so hot that it was almost impossible to touch any metal. Enclosed in his bulky space suit Shawn struggled to stand as the heat of the metal floor stung his back even through the thick fabric layers of the suit. A blinding flash of lightning-like energy stung Austin’s eyes. Even through his thick suit he could feel an intense surge of heat. In that instant he closed his eyes and shielded them with an arm. After a few seconds, he slowly lowered the arm and looked to Intrepid. A smoldering pile of ash took the place of Intrepid. Disintegrated beyond any recognition, the proud vessel ceased to exist instantaneously. No trace of mankind, neither metal nor flesh remained. The sight froze Austin in his tracks. “No!” Austin gasped. His heart nearly stopped in that instant. A second bolt of lightning struck the ground between where Austin stood and what was left of Intrepid. A gaping fissure opened in the Martian ground. The jagged crack moved toward Austin. He exhaled all the air within him as he turned and began to run as best he could wearing the bulky spacesuit. He tried to run forward, but fell flat against the sandy Martian surface. The ground heaved as the fissure split into a fork. With a thunderous snapping noise the two fissures raced past the prone man on either side of him. He thought in the moment that his life was about to end. A giant piece of ground rose under Austin as if suddenly thrust upward by the force the two fissures had produced. The section rose swiftly twenty feet and stopped so suddenly that Austin was flung from atop it. Even with the lessened gravity he landed with a bone jarring impact. A third blinding bolt of energy charged down from clouds that only a sadistic artist could have painted a kaleidoscope of bright hues. Unlike lightning on Earth, there was no accompanying thunder. The lightning struck near Austin. Energy surged through the stunned man, causing his muscles to react in unrestrained spasms. The complicated micro electrical circuits of his space suit overloaded. His life support system shut down. Breathing became choked gasps. There came an unconscious darkness into which Austin Miller drifted.