What happens after the first long term mission to Mars.
|“Ships log, Mars shuttle Foundation: 30, March, 2108, 15:30 hours, Colonel Mark Zazoula, commanding. We are currently three weeks out from earth, and I can find no reason why the on-board computer has brought me out of cryo-sleep two weeks ahead of schedule. I’ve activated the revival system on Commander Peregrine’s sleep chamber in hopes that together we can determine the problem.” Mark stared blankly down at the display screen with the log entry he had just begun on it. He twisted slightly in his command seat as he stretched and shifted his gaze. Now staring out the view port in front of him, he tried to collect his thoughts. Something is wrong, but what? How many times have I asked myself that question in the past six hours?
He thought about that. In order for him to have awakened six hours ago, the computer had to have been responding to something that happened six hours earlier. Twelve hours: the revival process took six hours, regardless of the situation; the procedure could not be rushed. This meant he had another hour to kill before his pilot was awake and could assist him.
It had only taken him an hour after he had awakened to realize that he would need help. He looked back out the forward view port. Something outside the ship looked wrong to him, but he could not place it.
“Computer, display all sensory and telemetry logs for the past twenty-four hours,” he sighed, resigned to the necessity of going through the records again.
* * * * *
When the sleep chamber containing commander Arielle Peregrine completed its revival cycle the sound of the warning alarm caught Mark off guard. He had moved down to the mid-deck area to get something to eat, and was floating near the hatch to the lower deck. Startled, he automatically leaned around the corner to look through the passageway. This slight movement caused him to tumble out of control, before he could stop. Regaining control, he floated over to the opening cryo-chamber, and waited.
Arielle sat up, slowly stretching in an almost catlike manner as she did so. Mark watched and realized how appropriate the catlike movements were for her. He had always likened his pilot, with her naturally aloof and graceful movements, to a Siamese cat.
She took the proffered headset and putting it on asked, “Problem Colonel?” Her rich voice had the faintest trace of a french accent to it.
“Not certain, mother woke me up about seven hours ago. Since then I’ve been trying to find out.”
“Nope, that’s why I woke you up. I need your help. We’re about three weeks from home. According to the preset schedules we shouldn’t be awake for another two weeks, unless there’s a problem.”
“Which there is, or, this conversation, we would not having it now, would we?” Arielle looked at him, slightly puzzled.
He smiled at that. After ten years of working together: eight on this mission, and two years training for it, she was still not sure of how to phrase some things.
“If you could not find the problem, why do you think I can?”
“I don’t, but I think that between the two of us, we can. C’mon, I’ll show you what I mean.” Mark helped Arielle out of her cryo-chamber and led the way to the flight deck.
When they entered the flight deck he went directly to the station he had been using, and indicated the displayed flight logs.
“Here, see what I mean, nothing. Also, I don’t know if it’s important, but the stars are wrong.”
Arielle grabbed the ceiling and came to a dead stop. “Wrong?”
Mark watched as her face went blank, but her eyes, they were a different story. He could see the astronavigator calculating all the possible ramifications of what he said.
“Right, let’s find out exactly where we are, and take it from there.” Arielle pulled herself into the pilot’s seat and handed the system checklists back to Mark. With that, Mark pulled himself into the command chair, next to her in the pilot’s seat.
Patiently he ran the appropriate checklist, while Arielle brought the laser satellite uplink online. When she was done with that she activated the star trackers in the nose of the shuttle.
“All green, ready to access the satellite link,” was her acknowledgement to his final item.
“All right commander, proceed.”
He watched as she tried to establish a link with the Hubble telescope. Mark was a good pilot in his own right; it was expected of him as mission commander. Arielle was different; she knew how to fly his ship better than he did. More importantly, she had his complete trust. He knew she could accurately calculate their position without the computer, if necessary. That had been one of the deciding factors when the decision was made to give him command of this mission over her. The other had been people skills; his were better than hers.
“I’m unable to establish contact,” Arielle said softly after several minutes.
“All right let’s double check everything inside, before going outside.”
Together they went through the entire communications systems checklist, as well as the back up systems checklist. Everything came back green.
“Well, we’ve got no choice, I’m going outside to check the array,” he said climbing from his seat.
“I’ll go if you’d rather.”
“No, Arielle, I need you here to fly the lady. Besides, I’ve logged more EVA hours than you have.”
“Understood, I’ll man the arm. Let me know when you are ready to go into the airlock,” she called after him.
* * * * *
Once on the mid-deck Mark unstowed his EVA suit and pulled it on. The whole procedure only took about fifteen minutes, but it seemed like forever. He could not help but wonder what kind of damage he was going to find once out side. The prospect of going outside always excited and terrified him at the same time. One wrong move and he could be lost forever, but the experience was always worth the risk. To him there was nothing quite like being in space all alone, with no ship, completely on your own. There was no room for mistakes once outside the shuttle. To him only one thing came close, skin diving, being alone in the ocean with just the fish.
He plugged himself into the ships intercom system one last time, before pulling on his helmet and entering the airlock. “I’m going into the airlock now Arielle. This’ll be it until I’m outside.”
“Roger, Colonel, I’ll get ready up here. Let me know when you are in the cargo bay.”
Mark exited into the cargo bay ten minutes later. The lights were already on, but the doors remained closed. He chuckled to himself. It was obvious that his pilot was taking no chances that he might leave the cargo bay without her knowledge for a small ‘air show’ prior to repairing the antennae array. He went over and secured himself in the MMU unit, stored along the front wall of the bay, to the left of the airlock.
I’m ready whenever you are, let’s head’em up and move’em out,” he called into the air, knowing his voice-activated radio would pick it up.
“Here you go then cowboy,” Arielle’s voice crackled back through the static on the headphones.
He stood there and watched. First the lights went out in the cargo bay. Then the doors slowly began to open, revealing a magnificent view of the distant stars. As he went out, over the open doors, he could see they were approaching an asteroid field.
He also noticed that Arielle was following him with the RMA. She kept one of its three cameras on him at all times.
“Can you see that asteroid field we’re coming up on?”
“Yes, but it does not show on any of the chart’s or in mother’s files.”
“Hm, well, keep an eye on it. I don’t want to get too close while I’m out here.”
“Do not worry Colonel, it is still pretty far away, but I will keep us clear.”
* * * * *
It took three hours of painstakingly meticulous work to replace the antenna array, and Arielle was looking over his shoulder the entire time. Occasionally it was annoying to be watched constantly, even though it was SOP. Anyway, he reminded himself, Arielle was not bad about it like some. She just kept quiet and let him work, without nitpicking.
“Anything on our position?” he asked as soon as he was out of the airlock, and back on the mid-deck.
“Just finishing up. I will have the answer by the time you are back up here.”
“Well,” was all he said as he floated onto the flight deck, moments later.
“We are in the right place, however something is missing.”
“Missing?” He was caught off guard by her statement. “Like what? The earth, the moon, maybe even the sun?”
“I don’t know. It is as you said earlier, something is not right.”
“It’s just the asteroid field, that’s all,” he replied, trying to make light of the situation.
“Now that you mention it, the field, it seems to have done a considerable amount of damage to the telescope.”
“Indeed, how reliable is it?” he asked, floating up behind her at the aft workstation.
“You can track the image you want, but there is no focus.”
“Can we work with it at least? I noticed while I was outside that we’re getting closer to the asteroid field.”
“It appears to be moving towards us, and away from the earth,” she replied, still trying to focus the image from the telescope. “See, it will not focus properly,” she sighed, indicating the monitor in front of her.
Mark looked at the monitor closely, from over her shoulder. He noticed that everything was in focus, except the moon. It appeared to be too small, like they were too far away.
A horrifying thought occurred to him. If he was right, the asteroids were what was left of the moon; and that one asteroid was all that was left in the original orbit. The field’s course trajectory was right for that, and it went right past earth. “Focus that thing on earth, now,” he ordered sharply.
It took Arielle a moment before she could comply with his order. That brief time was all Mark needed to see the shock and understanding in her eyes.
“Damn, look at that mess,” he swore softly, transfixed by the monitor.
They stared, dumbfounded, at the image of dust clouds swirling around the planet, completely engulfing it.
“I’d hoped I was wrong. It seems that what you were trying to focus on is all that is left of the moon.”
“You, you don’t expect me to…to land in that, do you Colonel?”
“I don’t think even you could land in that Arielle. Besides, there wouldn’t be any reason for us to land when we got there. Try to get some infrared readings with the telescope, also see if you read any radiation. I want to know if they destroyed themselves.” Weariness was beginning to creep into his voice. Suddenly he felt very old and tired, and he wasn’t even forty yet. The shock of spending eight years away from home, only to come home to this, was just too much right now. “I’m going below to get some rest. Do what you can Arielle.” With that he went through the hatch to the mid-deck.
* * * * *
Mark floated in his sleeping bag and tried to rest. As exhausted as he was, sleep eluded him. Every time he closed his eyes he could see the earth: lush, green and growing, suddenly encompassed in a fireball within a matter of seconds. Then slowly, over a period of hours, wrapped in the shroud of dust he now saw. A blackness so complete he felt buried alive just thinking about it. He knew that acid rain, or perhaps snow, was falling by now. An acid so corrosive it would destroy anything that had managed to survive. They were weeks too late to even think of rescuing anything. What the rain had not all ready eaten away; was buried three stories deep in a snow of nitrous and nitric acid crystals.
Mother Nature had decided to start over again. Now all he had to do was ensure the survival of the twenty-nine people entrusted to his care, but how? Earth could not sustain life for at least a millennia, and there was no guarantee it would be the same. The moon base, like the moon, was no longer there. That left the only one alternative, the base they had left six months ago on Mars. He would never get to show Arielle his hometown in Montana, like he had promised. With that thought he finally began to doze off.
* * * * *
“Colonel, Colonel,” a voice said softly in his ear.
“Huh, what is it? What’s wrong?” He awoke with a start, slowly realizing that it was
Arielle. Even more slowly he remembered what had happened earlier. “Right, sorry. What have you got?”
“You are not going to like it.”
“I already know that, tell me anyway,” he sighed.
“The average planetary temperature is minus one hundred degrees Celsius. There are no concentrated sources of heat, which might indicate life, and no radiation.”
“I thought as much.” He began climbing out of the bunk. “Any ideas how long ago this happened?”
“By my calculations, roughly eight weeks ago. Based on the condition of the earth, and the relative speed and disbursement of the asteroid field. It looks like a large meteorite impacted with the moon shattering it, sending the largest piece into the earth. Like a combination shot in billiards.”
“Hmph, with one helluva big difference. This combination shot pretty much destroyed a planet and a planetoid. I don’t know of any pool shots that can do that, do you?”
Something in the tone of her voice made Mark look more closely at her. Arielle’s all ready fair skin was even paler, making the dark circles under her eyes more noticeable. Exhaustion was etched in every line of her face. He had forgotten that she had stayed awake while he slept.
“You need some rest.”
“I wonder if they knew this was going to happen,” he mused aloud.
“Probably, unless the meteorite was a rogue.”
“Good point, look at our mission profile and crew. Thirty people, from as many different countries, and split evenly between the sexes. All of us thirty or under at the start, and considered the young turks in our fields. Most of them would be necessary to start a small colony, you and I are the only exceptions.”
“Not necessarily, without us they would not get there.”
“True, and between us we have close to a dozen degrees in engineering and fields other than the rest of the crew. There’s even those specimens, for the invitro experiments we never had time for. They make the genetic base that much broader. Mission control suspected this was coming all right.” Mark stopped and thought carefully, chewing on his upper lip. “Can you get us past these asteroids to earth, without using too much fuel?”
“It will be tricky, but it can be done. Why?”
“We’re going back to the base on Mars, and for that we’ll need a push, as big a push as you can make it.”
“That makes sense. The earth it is no condition to support life. You realize your plan calls for us to come back through the asteroids.”
“Can you calculate a course around them?”
“No, the orbital plane is too great. The asteroids they almost encircle the earth. The best we can hope for is to skim above or below them. I can calculate a Hohmann trajectory for us. It is the only way we will be able to make it back to Mars with enough fuel for corrections, and a safe landing when we arrive.”
“Could mother handle it alone?”
“It would be best if we stayed awake until we cleared the asteroid field and were heading back to Mars.”
“All right, I’ve picked your brain enough for now, I want you to get some rest. I’ll take care of the ship, and begin the calculations. You can double check them when you’re rested, and not before.” He shooed her towards an empty bunk, and turned to leave.
“One thing Colonel, why go back to Mars? Why not just wait here?” she called after him.
He stopped and looked at her a moment before speaking, he had never really put his reasons into so many words. He at least owed her some kind of explanation.
“So we all can start over again. The human race now, and the earth when it’s ready.”