Authors: Ian Sales
Tags: #Apollo Quartet
All the more reason for me to go down there, insists Elliott.
The rest watch impassively as he and Finley argue it out. The major may command the Goddard, but this is Elliott’s mission and he knows it. Elliott calls the shots.
Goddamnit, Finley snaps. Why? Going down there is dumb. If you can’t find the base, there’s no way back up.
We have to know what happened, Elliott says mulishly.
Is this why they picked you for this mission? Finley sneers.
That’s classified, Elliott says.
And that’s it: argument over. Finley has no comeback to that. Reluctantly, he agrees to Elliott’s plan. One of the flight engineers is sent to prep a Command Module for a descent. They will also load it with plenty of supplies.
Elliott returns to his compartment to dress in his spacesuit. He floats beside the sleeping bag attached to the wall. From his PPK, he pulls out a photograph of his wife and gazes at it. This is not the picture he took to Mars. A couple of years ago, he and Judy visited the Grand Canyon, and he snapped this photo in the car park by the Hopi House. He remembers telling Judy about Valles Marineris, and though he never visited the Martian canyon it struck him he’s as much an historical artefact as the Hopi House. He’s the only man on Earth who can talk about Mars and its scenery as someone who has visited there.
In the photograph, Judy is smiling, and it’s one of her rare unguarded smiles. He married her because of that smile—something during her childhood, she never told him what, made her wary and undemonstrative as an adult. But sometimes he surprised her in a display of real happiness, and he treasured those rare genuine smiles. He profoundly regrets he did not make her happy more often. During his darker days, and he has them like anyone else, he wonders if he would have sacrificed Mars for those smiles.
He’s not spoken to her for over a month, not since leaving the house for the Cape, and this photograph is the only one he has. When he went to Mars, they spoke regularly, and her voice kept him going during those 667 days travelling through emptiness. Later, she admitted she’d hated every minute she’d spent in the public eye, hated her own complicity in the media circus, hated herself for believing she was doing it out of loyalty to her husband, and to NASA. One night, she even confessed she’d believed she needed to be loyal to safeguard him during the mission. He has never told her about his long walk back to the MM after he broke the MRV, he has never said how close he came to dying on Mars. It was a poor reward for her loyalty, his dishonesty. But she’s not loyal now, she’s probably already packed up and left. Perhaps he deserves it.
He shoves some clothes into his kitbag and dresses quickly in his spacesuit. He returns to the rec area on the deck above, where Finley waits for him. The major leads him up to the docking adaptor at the top of the module, where the hatch to one of the Command Modules gapes wide. Elliott swims into the CM and brings himself to a halt on the bank of seats. Turning about, he sees Finley hovering in the open hatch.
You sure about this? the major asks.
Elliott nods. He pulls himself about and, holding onto the seat’s struts, pushes himself down until his rear touches canvas. It’s a struggle to get the harness fastened, and so Finley enters the CM to give him a hand. This involves the major putting a foot to Elliott’s chest and pressing him down and then clipping the harness together and tightening the straps. Elliott says nothing about the triangular cleat on Finley’s sole pressing into his sternum, though it’s painful. It feels like the pain is deserved.
Crossfield has loaded up the landing program, Finley says as he returns to the hatch; You shouldn’t have to do anything.
Thanks, says Elliott.
There’s also a radio with the food and water and oxygen in the Lower Equipment Bay. You’ll not want to wear your spacesuit down there, it’s pretty damn hot.
They told me to pack some light clothes, Elliott replies.
Finley laughs. Yeah, he says, Light clothes. He has reached the hatch. He exits, turns about and peers back in. If you want, he says, we can parachute you down an Atlas V. It’s no good to you without a launch pad but, hell, we got boosters to spare.
Elliott shakes his head. If I need one, he replies, I’ll let you know. Let me see what it’s like on the ground first.
Fair enough, Finley says. He pauses a moment, and then adds, Godspeed. If you find them, it could be one day I can say I met the first man to meet aliens.
Even if I don’t find them, says Elliott, you can still tell people that and it’ll be true.
In Moscow, the First Man on Mars meets the First Man on the Moon. They shake hands and exchange pleasantries through interpreters for the watching dignitaries and press. Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov is courteous but guarded. Later, over vodka and caviar, through an English-speaking comrade, Leonov confesses that the lunar landing instruments in his LK threw a persistent error.
I make manual landing, he tells Elliott.
Elliott wonders what would have happened if Leonov had aborted and Armstrong had not. An American would have been the First Man on the Moon.
He toasts the Soviet cosmonaut, and glances across the room at his wife. Judy is speaking to a handsome and well-dressed woman with carefully-coiffured brown hair. It is a moment before he identifies her as Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
And over there, Bob Walker is talking—via an interpreter—to Oleg Grigoryevich Makarov, the LOK pilot for the second Soviet lunar landing. Bob’s wife, Valerie, is by his side, one arm hooked through his.
This world tour has been hard, but it has been good for the Elliott marriage. The Ares programme almost killed it. Days smiling for the camera, pills every night or she could not sleep. She came so very close to walking away; she has made that abundantly clear to him.
But travelling about the world, parades in every major city, meeting important people, seeing the sights: it’s been… fun. The interminable receptions and banquets, the endless parade of self-important faces—perhaps not. But in the moments they’ve stolen from their busy schedule, they have rediscovered each other.
They have visited Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janiero, Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam, Oslo, West Berlin, London, Rome, Ankara, Kinshasa, and now Moscow. It has been hectic but at least they are travelling in style: the President has lent them one of his Boeing VC-137C airliners. Elliott refers to it jokingly as “Air Force One”, though it uses that callsign only if the President is aboard.
Elliott feels profoundly grateful, and not just to the President and NASA. He’s not only lucky to be here, he’s lucky to be alive— No, not luck. It wasn’t luck that got him back to the Mars Module after he broke the wheel on the MRV. He did it himself. He was on reserve air by the time he reached the MM, and he spent his last day on Mars too tired and in too much pain to do anything but lie in his hammock. Then there was the 537-day free-return trip to Earth—and once the high from reaching Mars had gone and the boredom set in, he and Walker carefully avoiding each other, trying to find a way to live together in such close confines during those long days drifting through the lifeless dark, conflicted by disappointment at the mission’s imminent end and a yearning for home and an end to this limitless night…
Re-entry. Splashdown. Lying in their seats unable to cope with Earth gravity. Weak and wasted from over two years in freefall. They had to lift the CM onto the deck of the recovery ship while he and Walker remained inside.
And as soon as they had recovered, off they were sent on this round-the-world press junket.
Afterwards, back in the US, Elliott returns to his military career. Given what he discovered on Mars, the government wants him out of the public eye. Although he’s the only human being to have set foot on an alien world, he is quietly asked to retire from NASA and go back to the Air Force. By 1983, Elliott is flying F-15s out of Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Judy loves Europe. She no longer likes being an Air Force wife, but she can’t get enough of the “old world” charm of nearby German towns like Saarbrücken, and she frequently visits further afield in Europe.
Elliott has imagined the space programme would gradually wind down now that NASA has met its objective. And so it does for a couple of years. There’s still the flyby simulator, now dubbed “Skylab”, still in orbit and continually manned. It even has a space telescope fitted to it. But then there’s a flurry of activity, more Saturn Vs ordered, North American and Grumman with full order books, and Skylab is moved out to one of the Earth-Moon Lagrangian points. It’s used as a staging post to a Near-Earth Asteroid, which is captured and returned to L5. Elliott makes quiet enquiries about returning to NASA—this stuff sounds real interesting and he wants to be involved—but he’s firmly rebuffed.
Each year, Elliott is visited by agents from the NSA, who remind him of the consequences should he discuss the Cydonia Codex, which is what they’re calling the disc with the alien writing on it. Five years after the mission, they tell him scientists working at Area 51 have had a breakthrough and Elliott has done his country a service it can never repay.
In 1988, the President reveals the US has a manned base on an exoplanet and has been making secret test flights to nearby stars for four years. A NSA agent confirms to Elliott the faster than light engine came out of Area 51 and was based on the maths on the photos of the disc Elliott brought back from Mars.
Elliott is deeply disappointed at what he has missed. His achievement, landing on Mars, the only man ever to do so, feels as though it has been trivialised, as though the giant step he made has been rendered foolish and of no consequence.
Perhaps Pete Conrad felt the same on the day Elliott stepped down from the MM.
The interstellar test flights announcement results in a fight with Judy. She leaves him, and it is a week before he learns she has gone to Paris. She rents a small apartment in the 20
arrondissement, and does not return for two months.
In 1989, Bob Walker dies of cancer after a long, protracted illness. His doctors are unanimous in blaming the flight to Mars as the cause. Though Elliott undergoes regular checks, his health remains good. Whatever stray cosmic ray triggered cancer in Walker, it missed Elliott.
In 1993, Elliot is promoted to brigadier general and given command of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB. He and Judy settle in California for what they imagine will be the twilight of Elliott’s career. Humanity has visited the stars—thanks to Elliott, though he received no credit for it—and found the universe wanting. More than a decade after the first interstellar flight, there is still only a single US scientific station on an exoplanet, a world orbiting the star Gliese 876 fifteen light years from Earth. The universe has been revealed as a pitiless and hellish place, too dangerous and expensive and difficult to exploit—at least for the time-being, given current American technology.
Elliott’s mission to Mars is all but forgotten, mentioned only on PBS science programmes, public access shows about UFOs and the Face on Mars, or in nostalgic sci-fi novels. He has almost forgotten it himself; he is a career military officer now, and feels as though he always has been. The 130 days he spent in space, hurtling between the Earth and Mars, the nine days on the Martian surface, the 537-day return flight—they might never have happened.
He loves flying, he has always loved flying; and as commander of the Flight Test Center he gets to fly whatever and whenever he wants. But some days he sits at his desk and hears another muffled roar as somewhere in the distance a F-5E or a B-52 takes off, and he remembers sitting atop a Saturn V as far below him five F-1 rocket engines ignite, their basso profondo roar, their infernal power pushing him faster and faster and faster. He remembers days spent in an Apollo Command Module and a hab module made out of a S-IVB, he recalls the descent to Cydonia in the MM. He wishes he had been allowed to stay an astronaut, to perhaps work on the interstellar spacecraft USAF now operates.
And then one day, the phone on his desk rings and a voice tells him General Sheldrake P Williams, commander of Air Force Space Command, would like to speak to him. And the first question the general asks him is:
How’d you like to go back into space again?
It has been nearly twenty years since Elliott last experienced splashdown, though strictly speaking this is not a “splashdown” as Earth Two possesses no surface water. He is briefly amused that his first, Ares 3, was as pilot of a crew of three; for Ares 9 he was commander of a crew of two; and now he is on his own in the CM. He ignores the empty seats to either side of him, and gazes at the control panel as if he’s actually in command of this flight.
It’s a fierce ride. The air is thicker here and the atmosphere deeper. G-forces press him into his seat, he thinks maybe eight or nine G, and it’s an effort to remain silent under the strain. He’s still a physically fit man, he needs to stay in shape to fly high-performance jets, but this is hard work. He only remembers one time before when everything has been such an effort, and that was during his nine days on Mars. Streaks of flame, yellow and red, stream past out the window, and then it’s all white-hot enveloping fire. He watches the altimeter and tries to remember the numbers Finley gave him just before he left the Goddard. It doesn’t matter much—the AGC has been programmed for Earth Two landings, he’s just a passenger.