Authors: Ian Sales
Tags: #Apollo Quartet
Weber ignores him, and stands, a hand to each controller, her expression set, gazing out of the commander’s window. It’s obvious there’s no love lost between the civilian crew of Space Station Freedom and the military crew of the Goddard, and he wonders that such rivalries should exist out here, hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth. He gives a shrug, grabs his kitbag with his free hand and then jumps up towards the docking hatch.
“Up” suddenly becomes “along” and now he’s flying toward a hatch on the wall ahead of him. He chucks his kitbag through, grabs the coaming and pulls himself into the docking adaptor. It’s a small cubical chamber, and Finley has already moved through another hatch and into what appears to be a much larger space, and is waiting for Elliott to join him.
He does, and once again Elliott’s perception shifts: he’s now at the top of a wide and deep cylinder with a metal floor composed of triangular gridwork some ten feet below him. Visible through that are another two such floors. He smiles—it looks just like Ares 9, they had that dumb gridwork system too, though they stopped using it less than a week after leaving LEO. Finley drops to the deck, twists one foot then the other, and sticks to the floor. Elliott waits in the hatch and looks around. Up here by the entry hatch, the wall is a ring of lockers. There are more lockers on the top deck, a block of them on the floor to Elliott’s left. There is an opening in the centre of the deck giving access to the floor below. It all looks reassuringly familiar.
Elliott pushes himself down to Finley, who reaches out and grabs his arm with a hand about one bicep. He can’t feel the major’s grip through the layers of his spacesuit. He draws Elliott down until their heads are level.
We’ll get you some shoes, Finley tells him.
At that moment, a dull boom shakes the cylinder. Elliott jerks his head up, but Finley appears unconcerned. It is a moment before Elliott realises the noise must have been Weber undocking her LM for the return trip to Space Station Freedom.
Finley leads Elliott down a deck and into a tunnel giving access to the one of the other cylinders. As they pull themselves along, using a rope strung the length of the tunnel, Elliott remarks: Weber told me the Serpo engine is on the other side of the asteroid.
Finley glances at him and says, Yeah, in a sealed chamber.
What does it look like? he asks.
Elliott has only the vaguest understanding of how the Serpo engine works—the details are, of course, classified—and he does not recall ever seeing a photograph of it.
No idea, Finley says.
You don’t need to maintain it or anything?
Finley gives an amused snort. Us? he says. No, we don’t get to do that. Some secret types out of Area 51, they do it. They never take their helmets off and they never lift up their sun visors. None of us has ever seen a single goddamn face of one of them.
They enter the next cylinder and Finley leads the way up to the top deck. This one does not have a hatch in the ceiling, instead there is a cupola, with a window in its top and in each of its six sides. One arc of the module’s wall is covered with control panels, and before them two seats are secured to the deck. One of the seats is occupied. A young man, same blue Space Command CWG as Finley, buzz-cut hair, the silver bar of a first lieutenant on his shoulder, glances back as Finley and Elliott appear, but his face does not change expression.
From his briefing back in Houston, Elliott knows the Goddard has a crew of thirteen, organised in three watches: a pilot, flight engineer, navigator and systems engineer on each watch, and the CO.
Finley turns to Elliott and asks, Is it true what they say about the Serpo?
What do they say? Elliott replies.
You command the Flight Test Center at Edwards, right? They say a UFO landed there in ‘57. Gordo Cooper—you know, one of the Mercury guys—he was there, he saw it. You ever meet Cooper?
Elliott shakes his head. He left NASA three years before I joined, he says.
I heard they pushed him out because of the UFO thing.
Elliott does not immediately reply. What is it with all this flying saucer stuff? True, the Goddard travels faster than the speed of light; but does that mean it has to be little green men? And that the US
faster than light travel from them?
Cooper, he explains, got into a pissing contest with the Astronaut’s Office and lost. I heard the scuttlebutt but, you know, it was all kind of academic after Apollo 13.
I heard Cooper had a thing for UFOs, Finley says.
Elliott shrugs. Maybe he did, he replies. I never knew him. They say he was a natural stick and rudder man, best in the programme.
No UFOs then, says Finley. He sounds disappointed.
No UFOs, confirms Elliott; and then he adds, Isn’t this science fiction enough for you?
And he swings out an arm to take in the Goddard’s command centre and, outside its walls, the asteroid 1862 Apollo and the Earth 250,000 miles away.
Elliott has not moved since the MM landed. He is too busy staring out the window. He has landed due north of the D&M Pyramid and he is staring at an oval-shaped mesa about a mile and half long and half a mile wide, and the same colour as the surrounding landscape. Its side is a sandy slope that looks to have slid and slipped many times. About halfway up the mesa the sand becomes a rocky cliff, weathered and cracked and scoured by dust storms over millions, perhaps billions, of years. But the top of the mesa appears strangely smooth, and smoothly undulating, clear of any outcrops but for a set of sinuous ridges and, in the centre of the mesa’s top, a triangular promontory with a long ramp on one side to its peak…
It looks like a face; even from three miles away it looks like a goddamned face.
That pyramid with the ramp is a nose, and just south of that a pair of curved ridges like lips. North of it there’s a deep col like an eyesocket. The Viking 1 photos did not lie. The pencil-necks said it’s pareidolia, an accident of lighting and landscape. That isn’t really a face on image #35A72. It can’t be. There’s no intelligent life on Mars, it could never exist there. Mars is a dead world, like the Moon.
Pariedolia or not, the Face was enough to pick Cydonia as the landing site for Ares 9.
He can’t see the D&M Pyramid and its mysterious crater since they’re behind the MM. But north-west of him he can just make out the region of broken terrain they’ve nicknamed the “City”. It doesn’t much resemble ruins from this distance, it’s just fractured hills and tumbled rocks and a few dunes and craters.
He may have nine days on Mars but every single moment has been plotted and planned and filled with tasks—though he suspects the view out the window has just made that schedule obsolete. He wants to tell someone what he can see, but there’s a protocol for just this contingency: use the code-word to alert Houston, don’t mention any of the weird shit, stick to the new mission plan as if it were the original plan and pretend everything is normal.
Sorry about that, Endeavour. You should see the scenery down here. Magnificent!
Great! I heard you all the way down. Going to be a while before Houston gets the message.
Yeah. Let’s get this thing safed. I’m going to be here a while, right?
You’re good to stay, Discovery.
Let me just find the page on the checklist… Okay, Master Arm on, DPS vent… fire. Master Arm off. Descent Reg 1 closed…
Next page is circuit breakers—
Yeah, I got it, Bob. Mission Timer open… MGC DSKY open… S-Band antenna open…
Verify cabin pressure… Yup. Cabin Repress on auto. And now I can get this goddamn goldfish bowl off my head.
[laughter] You got your first message from Houston scheduled at MET 3124:20:00. That gives you about ten minutes.
This thing’s safe as it’ll ever be. I think I’ll take a rest. Speak to you soon.
The surface gravity here is just over a third of Earth’s, but after 130 days in weightlessness it feels like so much more. He unclips his restraint harness and steps back from the commander’s position. Just behind him is the box covering the MM’s APS. He carefully sits on this, puts his gloved hands on his knees. He wonders about his biosensor telemetry, it’s going to look bad to the docs in the MCC. Perhaps they’ll put the elevated heartbeat down to excitement, but he bets their consoles won’t show how bone-tired he feels. His legs ache, the soles of his feet hurt, he can barely lift his arms and he no longer has the strength to make a fist in his IV gloves. He lets out a long, slow breath and he knows he needs to find some energy from somewhere. He’s got to sound chipper, keen, a
astronaut, when he speaks to Houston; he’s got to be confident, the living embodiment of the Right Stuff, for Judy. And he’s got his first scheduled EVA straight after that. At least with the delay, he’ll have time to get his responses just right.
He looks up at the Mission Timer, sees Houston’s first contact is about due to arrive, and he wonders where the time went. He’s still wearing his helmet, he doesn’t think he can remove it right now, and he’d only have to put it back on for the EVA. He’s got his microphone set to push-to-talk, so he waits for Capcom’s words to cross the Solar System to him…
Discovery, this is Houston. You got a room full of people cheering here. How does it feel to be the first man on Mars? Over.
It feels great, Houston. You know, I landed here, but it won’t count for me until I get to put my boot on the surface, and maybe leave a print like Buzz did on the Moon. It won’t last as long here, though—a dust storm will wipe it away in week or two. Over.
And now another twenty-seven minutes for his words to cross interplanetary space to Earth, and Houston’s reply to fly back. But at least he mentioned Buzz Aldrin, at least he let Houston know that the Face is real.
So what’s it like on Mars, Discovery? Everybody here wants to know. I got all the guys, I got the press, I got the guys in the back room, they all want to know. Over.
Okay, I’m looking out the window. In front of the MM the ground is kind of flat and sandy, with small scattered rocks. It’s orangey-red, not the sort of colour you see back on Earth. I look up to the horizon and I can see a mesa about three miles away. And off to my right—that’s pretty much due north of my position—I can see another mesa. The sky is pale, a sort of pinkish colour at the horizon, probably from the dust, but it turns black real quick as you lift your eyes up.
He steps back and sits down on the APS. He knows he’s not doing the landscape justice. Its desolation, the rocks steeped in loneliness, the distant banded hills, the ridges and chaotic terrain… He knows the terminology but he’s all too aware they’re insufficient, just jargon, incapable of communicating the
of the Martian surface.
You be careful there, Discovery. You’re a long way from home. We really want to see Mars for ourselves, so take lots of photographs. And we got someone here wants to speak to you. Over.
Copy that. We’ve completed the Surface Checklist, so I’m about to get ready for my first EVA. Over.
It isn’t going to take him half an hour to get ready for EVA—he already has his spacesuit on, though it isn’t pressurised. He needs only to put on his EVA gloves and MEVA, clip his PLSS to his back, and then swap connectors from the MM’s air supply to the backpack’s. But he waits because he wants to hear from Judy before he exits the MM. He raises a gloved finger to the picture of her on the control panel and presses it gently against the photographic paper. He thinks about how he’s going to handle the EVA. At least he doesn’t have to worry about television—they don’t have the bandwidth to send live pictures back, so he has only a Hasselblad 500 EL and a Maurer 16mm DAC.
Hi, Bradley. Everyone here is really excited you landed on Mars safely. I’m excited too. I know you’ve trained for this so long, and I know you’re going to make us all proud. Be careful for me, darling, and come home safely. Over.
Judy [pause] Judy, I’ll be fine here. You keep safe for me. Don’t let anyone make you do something if you don’t want to do it. I’ll be thinking of you all the time here. On Mars. I’ll speak to you again after my first EVA. Over.
Elliott switches the O
from cabin to off, unplugs the connectors from the front of his spacesuit, and then plugs in the hoses from the PLSS. He backs into the PLSS, manages to get the straps over his shoulder and snaps the buckles into place. He fits the MEVA to his helmet, and then pulls on and locks his EVA gloves. After dumping the air in the cabin, he bends over and rotates the latch handle. The hatch pops off its seal and swings open. Turning about, he struggles down onto his knees and then crawls backwards out onto the MM’s porch. He can’t bend his knees much in the A7LB, the Martian atmosphere is only 0.087 psi but it might as well be vacuum. He shuffles back until his boots hang over the ladder fixed to the forward landing gear strut. He’s practiced this move a dozen times back on Earth, on a full-mock-up of the MM and in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, but he’s glad it’s only 0.376 G here on Mars. Firmly gripping the railing to either side, he hops back onto the first rung of the ladder.