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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Sci-fi · #2171017
We have landed on Mars! What we find could explain the origins of the human race...

Return From Mars Adam.R.Crump

Return From Mars - Part 3

A Garbled Message


The Deep Space Network (DSN - for short) is the system that all space agencies use to send signals into space and communicate with space missions of one kind or another. This same network was used for the Mars Mission.

The DSN has dish antennas in Spain, Australia and California. The reason for this is that as the Earth rotates, at least one part of the network will have any part of space in its view at all times. This allowed us to communicate freely with the astronauts when we needed to.

However there is a time delay, and the further that you get from Earth, the longer it is. By the time the crew reached Mars, there was twenty minutes between each transmission. That meant forty minutes of waiting for a response of any type. In forty minutes, things can go wrong.

The astronauts had been on Mars for a month and the information they had gathered had not only been invaluable to scientists, but also for the 'Atlas' company who funded the majority of this trip. They had also been trialling the new portable life station, and it had worked. This had been the company's greatest success.

N.A.S.A had provided some funding, but with most governments pulling out of the space race in the late 2020's due to food shortages and overpopulation; space exploration had fallen mainly to private enterprise. This had given Atlas the opportunity to make its money. First with trips into the upper atmosphere, then to the Mir Space Station which had been turned into an orbital hotel, and finally the moon where the first moon city 'Helios' had been established.

The mining of Energium now funded the majority of all space exploration.

With the information gathered, the 'Atlas' company had decided to give the go-ahead for planet colonisation. Large quantities of Energium had been found beneath the Martian surface, which would provide 'Atlas' with the money it would need to colonise the planet. With the successful trial of the new 'portable life station' colonisation of Mars was now considered possible. 'Atlas' had billions of dollars invested in the trip.

It was on the last day of the mission that things went wrong. A surface walk into a canyon adjacent to the life station had been planned, with instruments picking up signs of a large frozen water reservoir at the bottom of the canyon. It was to be the astronaut's job to go to the bottom of the canyon and see how much water was there. If a large supply of water could be found colonisation would be made much easier.

The trip was planned, the astronauts went, but it wasn't water they found. It was something much much worse...

Return_From_Mars___Part_3_html_m631dc311

...Mission Control Centre! Helios, May 18th 2057...

It all started with a garbled message. Everyone in the Central Command Centre heard it, but none of us could believe it, especially me. The message was a video feed, but it came in short bursts, with static in between.

...Helios, we have a problem here over...

The voice belonged to Captain Abigail Price; her anxious face filled the screen, covered in sweat.

...secondary protocol failed...

Secondary protocol? What nonsense was this?

...we have one astronaut confirmed dead, Chris is KIA over...

She sounded worried and jittery, and was continually looking over her shoulder.

...Dylan and Josh are comatose but stable over...

We could see the bodies were lying on the ground beside the communication station.

...we found the water source...

I looked over at Colonel Armistad of the United States Army, he also looked worried.

...but there was something else over...

And that definitely wasn't a good sign.

...request permission for an emergency return to Earth, awaiting further instructions over and out...

I looked to Armistad, and the Colonel shook his head.

"We cannot let them come home!" the gruff Colonel stated.

I raised my eyebrows.

"Those are my astronauts Colonel. I will not leave them on Mars!"

"And I will not risk something getting back to Earth. I am under strict orders not breach the security of Earth and I take my orders very seriously James."

"Do you know something I don't Colonel? What was she talking about when she mentioned secondary protocol? What could be so dangerous as to make a call not to bring our people home?"

The Colonel narrowed his eyes.

"There are some questions you don't want to know the answers to James. This is one of those questions."

That statement threw me. What was the Colonel keeping from me? Our communication had always been open, but the look he was giving me now, suggested that the time for sharing had past.

"That message was sent twenty minutes ago." I stressed. "Who knows what could have happened in that time. They could be perfectly fine."

Apart from Chris, I thought quietly to myself; because Chris was dead already.

"Or they could be compromised; this is not a democracy James. I will not endanger Earth's security. This is not your call; you knew the risks, and so did they."

I watched in horror as the U.S Army Colonel depressed the communication button.

"Captain Price, your orders are to remain on Mars, and await further instructions. You will not return to Earth. I repeat, you will not return to Earth."

Return_From_Mars___Part_3_html_m631dc311

Before you judge the Colonel too harshly, you have to know the facts.

Once the Colonel finished giving his orders he walked from the room. The look on his face suggested that he didn't want to talk, but the 'company' had left me in charge of this operation, and god dammit I wanted answers.

I caught up with him in the hallway leading from mission control.

"Colonel..."

He kept walking. I knew he could hear me; this was his subtle way of trying to tell me that our conversation was not going to happen, but I always was persistent.

"Colonel, we have to talk..."

Still nothing! Still the same upright march he had been doing since leaving the control room.

"Colonel, damn you...I have a right to know, those are my astronauts up there."

Armistad stopped at this. I am not sure why, maybe he had had enough of my whining. Maybe he felt something akin to understanding - he had lead men into battle in his younger days. Whatever it was, it changed his mind. He turned and barked...

"Come with me Celtigar!"

He led me to his office. A rather plush, comfortable room. With leather furniture and an old fashioned wooden desk which looked like it had been passed down through his family for generations. It was this desk that he sat behind now, putting his feet up on a worn corner that looked like it had seen the edge of his boot many different times.

"I know what it is like to be responsible for the lives of others James, and this is the only reason I am now going to share this information with you, but I warn you this information cannot be unlearned.

I am under very strict orders here and while you don't have classification to know this information, you do have a right to know. Before I begin I have one condition. Nothing that I share with you now is to leave the room; this information has been classified above 'Top Secret.' There are only a small handful of people that know this, and things have been done to make sure that it stays that way. Do we have an understanding?"

The words masked the unsaid threat. 'If you tell anyone, we have ways of making you disappear.' I nodded, wondering quietly what I had got myself into.

The Colonel began...

"You asked me before what secondary protocol was...in 2010 a Mars Rover, sponsored by the European Space Agency landed on Mars. The Rover spent a week roaming the surface of Mars until it came to canyon. The Rover's instruments picked up a large water supply at the bottom of the canyon, and was sent down to do some tests, where the signal was lost. The official statement was that the Rover had suffered a mechanical failure, but that wasn't quite right.

In the seconds before the Rover went offline, it sent a signal to the Odyssey, a satellite that was orbiting Mars. The signal showed a shape emerging from the water it was running tests on. The shape had no defining features, but it had some form of arms and those arms had smashed the Rover to pieces."

The Colonel studied me intensely, watching for my reaction. It came seconds later when I put the facts together.

"That was the same canyon we set up our base beside wasn't it?"

Armistad nodded.

"That was why we were so adamant that you set up the Mars base in its current position. When the Europeans reviewed the tape, they realised that nothing like what they had seen on the tape had happened before, so they called in N.A.S.A specialists. As soon as N.A.S.A saw what the video contained, they immediately showed our department. After our department viewed it, we took measures to make sure that no one else saw, or could share the information."

I narrowed my eyes.

"The car crash that killed the Mars Rover team in 2010? That was you?"

The Colonel stared, he didn't offer any answer and I didn't push for anything else, but I could tell by the look in his eyes that his department had had a hand in the deaths. After a short uneasy silence he continued.

"My department came to the conclusion that whatever had been at the bottom of that canyon was not friendly, and could in fact pose a threat to humans landing on the planet, so we set up an action plan in case of contact. When 'Atlas' made it clear that they wanted to get to Mars and establish a base we managed through N.A.S.A to kindly offer our own astronauts to fly to Mars and establish the base. Your company jumped at the chance..."

Armistad was right, 'Atlas' had jumped at the chance. N.A.S.A astronauts were some of the finest on the planet and with their extensive training were perfect for the mission we were attempting. The offer had been generous of N.A.S.A who in the past had declined any invitation for the use of its astronauts in private enterprise. I had been worried about there being a catch to the deal, and had made noises with the company management, but when the astronauts did everything they were asked to our fears settled like silt on an ocean bed, and eventually they were forgotten about.

Armistads deep voice broke through my thoughts and once more I absorbed the story he was giving me.

"...what your company didn't know was that the astronauts that N.A.S.A had trained also had a secondary protocol. Once they had finished their primary mission, Captain Price and her fire-team (a specially trained team of Space Combat Soldiers) were under strict military orders to find out what had happened to that rover. Today they initiated secondary protocol. They were to scout the area, identify any threats, and if hostile, destroy them."

I stared at him unbelieving. I couldn't believe what I was hearing!

"What happened to them Colonel?" I asked.

The Colonel didn't mince his words.

"They failed..." However at this stage of my story we were unaware how just how catastrophically they had failed.



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