The first manned mission to Mars experiences a catastrophic setback.
| The endless vacuum around the spacecraft boxed in the crew of the small, dark capsule. Through the windows lay an unfathomable gulf of nothing. Deep within a field of stars twinkled, so far as to give a much more literal meaning to the idle captain's thousand light-year stare. Panels blinked, loose objects drifted about, and the mechanical hum of various systems ran in the background.
The flight engineer flickered to life and looked at the controls before him. His pale skin glistening thinly with a sheen of sweat. He paused his work to vomit into a plastic bag, hitting the vacuum seal before letting it float towards the back with a small push of his hand. From beside him on the flight seat came a small towel to wipe the mucus from his face. He tucked it back under his harness and again focused his attention to the glowing panel.
The Red Planet had grown steadily in their view for months now. Beginning as a small point in the distance, what looked the same as every other star in the backdrop, soon took form to the scarred and rusted face before them. Out the right window lay the closest planetary visage ever to be viewed by the naked eye of man, save for of the Earth itself. Yet the engineer seemed to prefer his screen, the pilot the white of the table in front of her, the doctor a vacant stare of nothing, and the captain his endless but still focused stare into the void.
The surface appeared zoomed up on the screen before the engineer. He touched the display and entered in a set of coordinates, checking them visually with a small point which appeared on the imaging. Pilot Asbury looked at the display. It did the planet too much justice, she thought. The body moving below them did not seem to have the same optimistic glow given it on the rendering.
All she saw below was a giant tomb. Dried, withered, rusted. Dead.
The flight engineer filled another bag with the sticky mucous and woozed. Pilot Asbury looked on with morbid fascination as his body went limp in zero-G.
The captain rose from his window and floated over with a bag of water. Three spheres squeezed from the bag wiggled and jiggled and hung in the space between the two men. Lights played off the vibrating crystal-like spheres. The captain directed them onto the engineers face and wiped it softly with a clean towel.
He went back to his window as the pair of bloodshot eyes opened once more and pulled weakly against the restraints of the flight chair. "Jettison the main fuel tanks." The captain said. All of them, please." A typed command went into the panel and a small shudder went through the craft. An explosive click sent two tanks floating off, appearing to remain still as the capsule itself continued.
Dr. Read wiped tears from his eyes, and flicked them out. They tumbled towards the center of the capsule. His eyes followed but saw nothing.
"Final approach to begin." The words came out pained from the flight chair.
The captain had little regard. "Begin the orbital stall. You know..."
Engineer Quentin nodded and hit some buttons. A display came up on his screen that showed a rendering of the outside of the capsule. Loose garbage drifted towards the fore end as retro rockets fired silently.
Dr. Read stirred. He rose to peer out the window.
He babbled a stream of some nonsense. Asbury finally caught, "Fire and brimstone. Like hell."
This he turned over a few times, chewing on the words like a foreign taffy.
"We're already dead."
The captain glanced over, "Read..." He was cut off as the man ripped off his harness and shot out of the chair, hitting the top of the capsule to pivot towards the fore end.
He screamed, throwing himself towards Quentin's panel. "End it! End it, we've lost!" A pained whimper escaped the doctor as he wrapped his arms around the flight engineer, reaching over him for the panel. "They've won! It's over just end it!"
The captain slammed into the doctor from the side. The two collided like mud balls colliding in the air, slapping together into one. The mass rotated off towards the back. A stream of curses escaped from the grapple as the doctor clawed and struggled to find a hold.
"It's over! Over!" They floated faster to the back of the cabin. The captain held the older man in a stranglehold, squeezing and drifting about awkwardly, trying to hook himself onto something for stability.
Asbury reflected on the rich comedic material of a zero-G fight, almost flashing a smile before the sound of Quentins wheezing stopped her.
The captain let go of the doctor, stuffing him roughly into a sleeping bag, and wrapping the top off.
"We have about one more half-orbit until we buffer." Quentin managed to call from the front.
The captain panted as he made his way back. "Do it manually, damn it. If we can't manage without the software we shouldn't do it." He stuck a thumb towards the back behind him. "Give the doc a chance at getting his way."
Quentin's skin went a shade paler, but he nodded.
"Beginning firing sequence." Quentin tapped away and leaned over, his eyes rolling back as the craft wobbled its way down through the atmosphere. He went limp again.
The captain moved him aside and got to the panel. "Burn thrusters. Yes a little more, that's it. Velocity good." Asbury watched the surface growing out the window. A giant chasm grew below, preparing to swallow the craft. They were entering at a steeper angle than she had expected, but not too quickly. More than half of her wanted to end up breaking up to streak across the sky. They would die a series of shooting stars. Martian shooting stars.
"Drogues. Main chute. Landing." The bag stuck to the top of the craft stirred and Dr. Read poked his head out, disappointed. Asbury felt a little similarly. They had made it, and smoothly.
With ease the craft slowed its descent and Martian gravity took over. Read thrashed about to get out of his bag while rapidly falling towards the bottom of the capsule.
The captain rose away from the panel and went to a locker. He set a helmet down. Martian gravity now had permanent hold. He stumbled on his feet awkwardly as the capsule rocked below the shoots.
Asbury watched him like an entomologist preparing a display in a lab. The captain another specimen in front of her, dipped in alcohol and pinned to the board.
In the back Dr. Read spilled out of his bag. "Captain Kimball, space mountaineer!"
The crew flinched as he tripped into the thin wall of the capsule.
"Get a hold of yourself!" Quentin said, unbuckling himself. He fell out of the chair, the effort sending him into a savage cough fit.
Through the window Asbury found her eyes fixed on the great chasm that they sunk into. The very face of the planet had been ripped open into an awesome gouge beneath them that could devour several hundred Grand Canyons. They sunk further and further, before distant ranges began to match their height. Then slowly the edges of the valley. Before long the horizon stretched itself out beyond them in all directions, the plain below lost in the monstrosity of the canyon network. The bounds of the extra-terrestrial surface locked them into its embrace, interminable to the fuelless capsule and its human crew.
"Just ignore him." The captain muttered, placing a cartridge into the helmet. He grabbed a sample bag and filled it with packs of food and water.
The capsule settled at last with a small shudder. The chutes detached and drifted down, off to the side. Asbury watched a dust devil. Reds and oranges, spinning up harmlessly near the capsule.
Captain Kimball dumped a box of the small cartridges into his makeshift bag. "Alright Read. We're here and you failed to kill us all. Can you please administer Quentin the medication now?"
Quentin nodded from his bent position. "Please, doc?"
"I don't know how."
The captain dropped his bag and went for him. "Look at him Read! Stop playing games and administer the medication." Kimball held him by the front of his suit and stared hard. Lucidity sparked in the older man's eyes and he fled the gaze, looking down at the ground. Kimball let him go.
The captain turned on Asbury next. She felt the familiar control in the way he faced her. He had returned to business. A helmet snapped down where her eyes were fixed to the table. Flat and even, like he were a salesman trying an unfamiliar pitch, "Pilot Asbury, I'd very much appreciate it if you accompanied me on the mission."
The pilot ran a hand through her hair. A longing gripped her to feel once more the straight, lengthy strands she used to have.
She could feel them running down her back again. Her daughter sitting up behind her on the couch as they watched the launches on TV, her little hands braiding and playing with the brown locks. James would call her on his weekend, annoyed that she refused to go to the barbershop. Several times he called on his weekend with her throwing a fit, insisting on growing a "lion's mane" like mommys. Only when Asbury began training and had to get it cropped short for the mission did the little girl finally relent. James didn't approve of the astronaut cut for their infant daughter, either, but with small things like that the strong-willed girl always got her way.
"Ella wanted to see the flag waving on Mars so badly." Outside another dust devil spun. Red and orange Martian dust lifted high into the bizarre sepia sky. "When I told her that here it would ripple in the wind, unlike the moon where it always sat still..."
Dr. Read knelt down beside the engineer and wiped a spot on his clammy arm with a small sterilizing pad. Out of a kit he pulled an IV bag of clear liquid and attached the end to a needle.
"I don't know what to say to that, Asbury, other than that we are here now. I think we both know things are well beyond our control. I'm not trying to pretend we're doing something magical or that it matters. But we're here. We might as well pretend for a little while longer."
She nodded and rose, fighting the pull of gravity for the first time in months. The monologue had been characteristically lame of Kimball, but deep down she felt carrying through was the only thing to do.
Quentin passed out as the IV bag drained itself slowly into his body. The doctor's face looked on, softened. An air of sincerity and control returned to him for a moment as he administered the radiation medicine to the bleached flight engineer. Neither of the two wanted to disturb the return of sanity.
Asbury let the image save itself in her mind. May it bring some comfort soon while dying on the Martian surface. Asphyxiating from lack of oxygen. Or dying from ingesting industrial chemicals. Not the last one, she decided. Another image was already burned in her head from that. Two bodies and frothing blood floating about an exercise module. She shuddered.
"What's the situation?" For a moment the crew felt as if they were back to business as usual, or at least what would have been usual for the first manned trip to another planet.
"Between the 4 of us, we have about 300 hours of life support for travel. We still have plenty of food and water, obviously since we don't have to worry about getting back. And we're down two..." He floated the last sentence as if it were an afterthought, mentally tallying the supplies.
Dr. Read glanced up from his patient. "There is oxygen in the capsule for a few days, as well."
"That's true. But, what do you mean?" Kimball asked.
Dr. Read let out a queer whistle and smeared white cream on the engineer's chest. "He won't be going anywhere. And neither will I."
The captain nodded. "That will give us all much more time."
"I'll probably only need a half-day's worth for travel."
The captain nodded again. Asbury looked up.
The vacant look returned to the man's face as he looked out the window into the vast red horizon. "I will go out there before my times up. Someone should take care of Mr. Quentin who will not be able to make the trip, but I will make my way out there eventually. The oxygen in here will be fine for a while."
Quentin's eyes opened. "Doc how long do you think I have? I want to help as long as I can," Asbury had forgotten how young the poor kid was, but for a moment his youth shone through. "I don't want to die yet, doc..."
Dr. Read brushed a small bit of cream on the engineers nose with his finger. "I'll keep you around as long as I can."
"Alright then, Read. Stay with Quentin and we will maintain communications. We'll leave you a canister." The captain tapped something into his tablet. "I have the coordinates here. It shouldn't take more than three days to get to the sample site."
Quentin nodded from the floor. "We'll keep the fire lit for you two."
Asbury popped a cartridge into her helmet. She took a long drink before sealing the clear dome in place over her head. She forgot herself in the Martian gravity, letting the bag go to plop down onto the capsule floor.
"It's early morning right now. We'll need to bring some thermals for the night. And the power cells. Luckily nothing weighs as much here."
The captain hooked the bag over his shoulder and tossed her the mats of solar cells. He saw her look.
They patrolled the cabin for anything else of use while the doctor finished his job on Quentin. When the two finally stood at the airlock he sat in the flight chair looking over the screen of the planet. The engineer lay curled up on the floor around his IV. He looked more comfortable than he had, and the wheezing sound had subsided itself slightly from his breathing.
The captain focused on the doctor. "Read. Take good care of him."
The doctor nodded.
"Try and stay off the mic if it isn't necessary."
The doctor grinned and avoided eye contact. Then straightened himself out and nodded again.
Kimball went flat. He looked out the window of the airlock and said, "please don't try and contact them."
"Affirmative." Read went dead staring at the screen.
Kimball glanced around once more. More than anything he hated the feeling of forgetting something he may need. "Ready, Pilot?" He finally said.
Asbury nodded. Not waiting she hit the panel and walked into the airlock. The captain followed. He faced out towards the waiting outer door. The capsule became shut off behind them, and fine mechanical noises hummed. A panel displayed the status of the lock. It only took a few moments, but Asbury felt every second through the uncertain fluttering in her chest.
The door slid open to reveal a surreal scene. Boulders lay strewn across the vast barren landscape stretching before them.
Both marvelled the sight. The entire surface lay as it had for thousands of years. So far away, and completely untouched.
In another reality there would have been grand ceremony to mark the occasion. 225 million km away the attention of billions of human beings would be captured in front of their screens. They would hang onto every word from a mission control that would have tried their level best to be professional, and keep the sound of popping champagne bottles out of public transmission. Every visual streamed from the helmets of the explorers that came relayed across the new communication network would
The instant was forever lost when that first step would inspire a species. A world's greatest investment had been bought, paid for, and perfectly executed. But no one would see.
Instead, there only came a small shove. A gentle, unexpected push from behind that sent her off the edge of the capsule to step lightly onto the sand. She stared down at her foot on the Martian surface.
"Pilot Rebecca Asbury, of the UN scientific union expedition to Mars." He paused for a dramatic breath. "I hereby recognize you as the first human being to ever set foot on an extraterrestrial planet. We shall all rejoice at your accomplishment, and may it forever be known that the Martian land prior referred to as 'E140 Marineris Plain will be now be known as the 'Asburian Cradle'."
The pilot laughed through the moisture that clouded her vision. "You're forever surprising me, Kimball."
"Oh, you thought I would claim the title for myself?"
"You are the captain of the mission." She stepped off fully onto the surface.
He shrugged and came down next to her. "From Mitochondrial Eve to Pilot Asbury. Womankind has scored two planetary colonizations for the Homo Sapien Sapien."
"I think her job came a bit easier, though."
He shrugged in his suit. "Certainly with less travel."
They stood on sandy ground and looked on. An almost imaginary breeze spun up the particles in the air and blew them across the shifting dunes. The moment felt right somehow, despite it all. Martian gravity felt curious to the Earthen muscles. Movement came with less physical labor, though the trade off was that it was also very clumsy to the unaccustomed. Asbury felt at all times as if she were in a mid fall, and getting traction off the ground proved difficult even with the suits specialized for the very purpose. Each push off the loose sand felt like walking on some sort of newly designed novel mattress. Aside from the strange coloring of everything the visage in front of her looked almost Earth-like. At least as Earth like as the most barren desert one could find there.
The display in Asbury's helmet indicated that they were gaining elevation. Before long they would come to the beginnings of hills that would take them to the sampling site of the slopes. She looked back at the capsule, small in the distance. It sat amongst the boulders eerily, a truly alien sight on the desolate landscape.
More desert passed by. More silence. The sky shifted color slowly along with the local clock displayed on their helmet screens. The time in Seattle read 12AM. Her daughter would be fast asleep.
"You know, we'll be able to see Earth in the night sky here."
"Hmm." Asbury hummed back over the speakers.
"Well, given it's a clear night, at least."
"The day that is an issue here we will be long gone."
Asbury nodded back at him.
The slopes they travelled about the mountain ridges were in a very carefully selected exploration zone, a small area that lay in the much larger valley network that gouged itself for some 4000km across the Martian surface. In some places the valley ran 7km deep, though the spot they moved towards was only about 2.5 km below the surface. They paused on a slope with a ridge looking out.
"We should stop here and roll out those panels for a bit. It'd be bad form to freeze to death the first night." Asbury nodded and turned her mic on.
"Dr. Read. Come in."
"Yeah I'm right here. Been waiting all day," he flashed in front of their displays, leaning onto his hands.
Kimball turned his on as well. "How's Quentin doing?" Kimball kneeled and began spreading out the mat.
"He's out right now. Check in again tomorrow morning."
"Affirmative. Any news?"
"Well. Yeah but I'll let him tell you about it tomorrow. It's not important right now anyway."
"Uh... Alright, doc. We're setting up camp and will check in again at 5AM local."
The doctor clicked off his receiver. Kimball listened for a few moments to the other end before doing the same.
"Now I'll be wondering all night." Asbury said while lying down on top of the thermal.
"Yeah. Not too worried about it." Kimball aligned himself before pulling the mesh together over himself. Air permeated into the space around the captain, circulating through solar powered fibers. He popped his helmet off and rolled over. "I'm glad I had a chance to try one of these out. Usually it would mean you're probably living the worst day of your life, but now it's only like the 8th."
Asbury rolled away and looking out at the sky. Stars began to shine through the dusky atmosphere. Soon the band of the Milky Way would stretch out above them, with two bright points shining inconspicuously among the vast field. She looked for them, despite herself.
5AM came too quickly. Even the first morning on a new planet, committing to rising proved difficult. She reached over for her helmet and pulled it on, waiting a moment for the suit to soak up the thermal bags oxygen before splitting the clear mesh over her. She saw the captain had already risen. He sat perched on the ridge looking off to a small white sunrise.
She sat down next to him. "It's definitely something."
Kimball snorted. "Yeah. To think people would go through so much to deny the world of it..."
For a moment she was caught off guard. It was the most directly she had heard him address it.
"I know. Is it bad that Dr. Read is making a lot of sense to me?"
"None of it makes sense. But the ramblings of a insane person is probably one of the most rational at this point so I think you're alright."
Kimball handed her his tablet. "Yeah I'm getting curious what Quentin wanted to tell us."
The line opened with a beep on their side. A long, flat tone sounded and they could see the inside of the capsule. Quentin's face bobbed up on her display and he smiled at them.
"How's it going FE Quentin?"
"Good. I've been watching you on the monitor since I woke up. Hope you don't mind," came back the engineer's response.
"Glad to hear it. What's the word?"
"Right. So I've been pretty idle here and have been doing a little research. Where we are is part of a pretty popular international area of interest"
Asbury shrugged and yawned in her helmet. The captain rolled the solar cells up into a mat.
"Well, two things," Quentin began speaking quickly as he usually did when he got excited. "One, as I'm sure you know the LogiSpace mission for supply landing was carried out with sighting around there," he choked on the last words and a muffled, wet cough came over the speakers.
"Which was..." Kimball started before the engineer cut him back off.
"Which was a failure when communication was lost upon landing, yes. But, I found the mission manifest, and from what it sounds like they thought some of the equipment may have survived the impact after the rockets cut."
"Oh, so we can get a few more days of air and a couple twinkies, then," Kimball said.
"No you might find a fully functional exploration vehicle that survived a certain infamous failure by the largest space exploration company in the known galaxy.
Kimball stepped back from the thermal panels. "A vehicle." He glanced over at Asbury. "I could definitely use that. And I know a pretty good pilot."
"A vehicle with an airlock. That you can travel at the steady clip of 3km/h, and roll onto any side and be able to flip it back over."
Kimball made a clicking sound. "Alright Quentin you have me juicing out here."
"How likely is it to be intact?" Asbury asked.
"Well that's the thing. It sounds promising but I can't say with confidence."
"Quentin's just being an engineer. I read the report and it seems pretty likely," the doctor's face popped on the screen next to Quentin. Kimball walked about the ridge and tapped away at his tablet.
"It's 2 kilometers out of the way of where we're going."
"You'll make up any time you'll lose from having the rover, and you won't need to walk in your suits."
Kimball kicked a rock down the ridge."I'm on board. It's just if I get there and find a smashed up pile of half buried wreckage I'm going to be a little disappointed."
Asbury shook her head and latched the thermal onto her back. "I'm on my way there now. What else is there to do?"
Kimball turned and fell in line behind his pilot. "Alright I'm hoping the second thing is as promising as the first."
"Possibly more so."
Asbury and Kimball stole a glance as they came up over the slope.
"I've been checking the files they dumped on us during the last few days. Among some of the more important data was some information slipped from a series of missions to the water flows during the last two years. Secret missions from the SPSX." The excitement caught up to Quentin who paused to lean off screen and sputter. The two waited for the fit to end.
"And it turns out they found an ancient Martian spaceship that can take us anywhere in the galaxy!" Read chuckled to himself.
"No-" Quentin cut him off, wiping his face. He took a deep breath. "It turns out that one of their rovers went silent near that testing site after coming back with what looked like positive data."
For a long moment the planet lay silent again. Not a sound could be heard across the barren waste beyond the shifting of its sterile dust. Asbury filled the vacuum first.
"What kind of positive reading?"
"The good kind." More silence. Then a bit of wheezing.
Kimball let out a slow whistle. "Where is it at?"
"The last data taken had the rover coming from the canyon of the site to a better transmission location. From there the satellites lost it." The two explorers left deep prints in the martian sand as they trekked on.
Quentin went on about the articles he had combed up about the SPSX mission. Asbury and Kimball half listened as he went on about a collaboration freeze and how they had launched multiple missions to the flows.
As the engineer went on, getting carried away and having to pause to breathe periodically, the two explorers dared not hope too much. The vehicle by itself seemed much more luck than they deserved.
But it was there. They spotted the scattered ruin of the spacecraft across the plain on the edges of an impact crater. As they got closer it began to take form, until the capsule was there laying before them. The foiling had broken apart and the exploration vehicle lay on its side among the wreckage.
Quentin could hardly hide his excitement watching from the screen.
"Pull the foiling away and get in! It should have power."
Kimball and Asbury looked on more skeptically. Up close none of that sounded as easy as Quentin led on. Kimball went for it anyway. The foiling took some bashing, and the pilot almost had her helmet broken while smacking away at an explosive bolt, but eventually they managed to peel away the framing.
The rover was about the size of an Escalade, but shaped like a riot control vehicle. Asbury half expected a turret to be mounted to the top. Instead all she saw were the hydraulic plates that would extend to flip the machine in the event of a roll. Or a sudden fall from hundreds of feet above the surface.
"There's hatches on three sides, like a school bus. You should be able to get in."
Asbury clambered into the small space of the airlock and sealed herself in. The hatch opened and Asbury climbed into the dark vehicle.
"You're looking for a..." The sound of a mechanical whine and then an ignition starting filled the transmission.
"Sounds like a fine machine." Kimball said from the outside. The plate on the side extended like a wing.
"Oops, wrong one," she said. The sound of metal grinding sounded and the vehicle began tilting up onto its wheels. It reached its tipping point and rocked over onto its wheels.
"We're in business now." Kimball popped the hatch and joined Asbury inside. They both settled in and popped off the helmets.
Asbury touched the screen display. A thin window ran around the cabin, but to be seen inside was digital.
"Now it's almost like we're in the same room." Dr. Read waved through the window-like screen that linked them to the capsule.
"Sure does." Kimball sounded less enthusiastic.
The machine rolled like it appeared. Slow and threatening like a machine of war. In it Kimball and Asbury felt like conquerors come to the Red Planet to lay claim to its shifting sands. When night came, the autopilot kept them moving.
Another day and they rolled on. Less and less Quentin showed himself at the monitor. When he did they would talk until he grew weary, before he had fell back asleep. As the site came closer they kept their eyes out for the resting place of the SPSX rover. The morning they came upon it the doctor had put the flight engineer to his sleeping bag.
Asbury wondered for a while before if he would return before he appeared back in front of their displays, smiling weakly and asking about the canyon.
"I can see how it would be hard to get a signal from here. Even with our updated systems connection is a bit weaker than I'd like."
Within an hour the rover rolled behind the crawling EV. A cable pulled it slowly with Kimball perched on top, keeping the machine from rolling.
The slopes ran steep with briny minerals. They climbed to reach the test site . Any signs that the rover had been there to test were long gone. The site was boxed in pretty thinly by the steep slopes of the canyon around.
The machine knew it's business. It relayed the old data to the EV computer. The sample had corrupted, but something promising had sent the rover looking for a signal. The drill dropped back into the Martian sand and tunnelled into the hydrated run.
"I'd say the drill will go down about two/three meters for a sample. The spectrometer needs a large sample to have any kind of certainty.
Kimball and Asbury leaned up next to each other in the cabin. Packages of dehydrated food littered the cabin in small piles and they kept eating.
Asbury put the lid back on the freeze-dried ice cream and pushed it away. "How could security become so lax that the Axis could just hack our systems like that?"
She looked to the captain to check his expression. His face stayed level. "No telling. But it changes everything. The momentum we had is gone. Who only knows how long it will take to get back."
A long silence stretched between them.
"Do you think we would we do the same thing to them?"
He kept his eyes straight. "I think exactly what I said. War is war. Scientific discovery suffers when humanity suffers."
"But to ruin a chance for us to confirm life on another planet?" Asbury grabbed the captain and matched his eyes. " We could get it back to the SPSX and they could become tied up in everything."
"And if they do?" He pushed passed her and stood up.
Asbury turned to the panel and looked at the data being fed from outside. "There's no other choice. We have a duty"
"I agree. But I think we should at least stop and consider the implications."
He didn't respond. His eyes were fixed to the window. Kimball turned to the panel and looked at the data being displayed on the screen. A program opened by itself to process the data, and an interface loaded. The chemical tests came back with the results. The rover outside ceased moving and stood at attention like an attack dog.
"There we have it."
Asbury clasped her hands behind her head and leaned back. She kept her eyes shut tight, but tears squeezed through.
"Rebecca..." The captain pulled up a full window of the capsule video feed.
For the final day in a row they wondered if Quentins face could be any thinner or paler. A boundless energy had possessed him, and he and Dr. Read were toasting bags of water and chugging them, laughing.
"Quent, can we can splice to that network." The captain did not let himself go yet.
"You think I've been idle here? Come on now, its uploading right now."
The captain looked over the screen. His face split into a boyish grin and he looked down at the ground. "My, my. Pilot Asbury we did it."
Asbury thought about her daughter. She would see the headlines soon. The whole world would.
In her heart she knew that to be bigger than herself, or any war.
The robot sat still on top of the small hole it had drilled. Somewhere in its components were the fossilized remains of an organic life. An entirely separate line of evolution, unrecognizable with that of Earthlings. The thought of her daughter, and a billion others growing up in a world with that knowledge made tears vision blurry. The agencies and private industry would survive the blow with that data. The mission could not be ruined by one act of hacking.
With a short amen to the Milky Way outside the EV window she sat down into the chair.
"I just love her so much. And I'll never see her again." Tears flowed unrestricted down the pilot's face.
The captain didn't say anything, but grabbed his crewmates hand.
Quentin did not make it much longer. The final stages of radiation poisoning broke through the resistance that kept him alive. In the end the assassination took approximately 10 days from the time of the event. The rest of them would not make it much longer.
The doctor said nothing as he wrapped the boy up. Asbury and the captain said what they could but nothing reached the man. He suited up and carried the body out the airlock, nodding slightly to the display before shutting off his transceiver.
There were two. They set the autopilot and watched through the window as landscape shifted slowly around them. The rover climbed.
It took an entire day before a response came through to the EV. The two explorers crowded the screen and made their way through the text.
'Crew members of the UNITY Mission to Valles Marineris on Mars. On behalf of the people of the world, we reach out in hopes that anyone is alive to receive this message. On this date at approximately 1200 Central Time we released information uploaded to our servers from a piece of equipment we believed to be lost.
Word has since travelled to every corner of the globe as media is overwhelmed with news of Martian life. As we speak appearances are being all over the world to communicate the details and significance of the discovery.
Without exception every space agency, international institution, and private space company has release statements of complete support for the discovery and condemn the act of direct war against science and the UN. This discovery is credited by us as a collaboration between our North American and European brethren, and we stand by the prosecution of any political entity that launches aggression towards UN scientific institutions. As a species we pledge to bring justice to any of those who will declare war on the very discovery of our all the world's people. We thank you for your service and toast to you a beautiful sunrise, here and on our celestial neighbor.
They read through the message for what seemed like an eternity. Not a sound could be heard across the surface of the planet. Over and over they typed up responses and waited. Finally they decided on something simple and final.
"That is an affirmative. Tell my family I love them. Tell them all that we loved them. Everything that happened up here was for our loved ones. Ella, I did it all for you. Signing off, Pilot Rebecca Asbury and Captain Jason R. Kimball, Scout crew."
The two watched it upload as more landscape creeped by. The rolling craft steered wide along the sides of loose ridges that offered an occasional vista of the valleys below and above them. Asbury pictured the scene with young trees and a blue sky. Thin white clouds streaking above as people bounded about the surface.
Air ran toxic in the cabin. Asbury and the captain lay in their suits or rolled up in the mesh of the thermals and ran out their canisters. That bought them another two days of travel. On the final night they stopped the EV on a ridge that looked over a high plateau. An ancient sea had flattened the plain and all that marked it beyond the valley's end were the raised ridges of impact craters. Warnings flashed as CO2 built in the suits and the EV. A field of stars more intense than the Martian sun filled the sky from horizon to horizon with a milky band holding the center. Carbon dioxide accumulated and intoxicated the two explorers who felt their time coming.
As Asbury and Kimball slowed into a deep sleep they looked out at two points side by side in the Martian sky. Small specks daring to shine among the sea of worlds at the outer edge of one arm of the spiral galaxy.