The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself (Apollo Quartet) (8 page)

BOOK: The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself (Apollo Quartet)
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The CM rolls over 180 degrees on schedule and he knows he won’t be bounced off the atmosphere. The Gs start to drop and a great weight lifts from his chest. He pulls in a grateful breath. The spacecraft rolls this way and that, lining itself up for the landing. It’s freefalling now, and he glances at the Mission Timer and waits for the 16½-feet diameter drogue chutes to be released. A thump, and there they go. The CM jerks and slows and steadies. A long anticipatory moment of silence. Now the main chutes deploy with a bang, and the CM seems to slow until, slow seconds later, the reef lines are cut and the main chutes open to their full diameter of 83½ feet and it feels like he’s hit a brick wall. Elliott bites off a cry of pain. The spacecraft is still dropping, but slowly, and swinging ponderously from side to side.

Ten feet above the ground, the retro-engines—added for landings on the waterless exoplanet—fire and the CM settles with a roar and a thump on the surface of Earth Two. Elliott remains in his seat. He’s feeling weak from almost three weeks in zero gravity, and the G forces he experienced on the way down have near drained him.

After ten minutes, he feels recovered enough to attempt an exit. He unlocks and removes his helmet and then his IV gloves. He unbuckles his harness and pushes the straps from his torso. He’s lying on his back at about a thirty degree angle, so he hitches his rear back until he is sitting upright. Getting from there down into the Lower Equipment Bay without banging arms or knees on struts or lockers or control panel takes care. He nearly does it, but by the time he’s got his breathing mask on, and an oxygen bottle on a sling about his neck, he’s nursing a bruise on one shin. He clambers across to the hatch and yanks down the pump handle. There’s a hiss as gas is forced from the bottles, the gears grind, and the hatch pops open and swings wide.

Despite the mask, a smell of burnt earth and hot metal immediately fills the CM. Elliott finds himself short of breath and it takes an effort of will to slow and deepen his breathing. He scrambles out of the hatch and he’s standing on the surface of Earth Two and—

This is not Earth and it’s not Mars. He is in the middle of a plain of dark rocky soil. It looks almost purple. The sky is red, fading to black at the zenith, and the only light is a dim crimson that washes like blood over everything. On the horizon, he can make out a low range of hills, looking almost pink in the distance. The horizon itself strangely seems to curve slightly upwards.

After fetching his kit from inside the CM, Elliott strips off his spacesuit and dresses in suitable clothing: sturdy trousers, hiking boots, thin shirt. It’s very warm, almost tropical but for the dryness. It reminds him of a trip into the Arizona desert, back when he was training for Ares 9. He can feel the skin of his forearms puckering from heat and the lack of moisture in the air.

The CM has landed due south of Phaeton Base. The surrounding landscape is empty and dead, entirely desolate, but there’s a ridge to the north, forming the upcurved horizon, and the base ought to be in that direction. It’s difficult to judge distance here, but the ridge looks to be about three miles away. An hour’s walk, perhaps more given the gravity is about half again what he’s used to. He settles his rucksack on his back and sets off.

Elliott stands atop the ridge and looks down into the valley where Phaeton Base should have stood. He sees a gently-sloped declivity, red like everything in this infernal landscape, an expanse of the same powdery soil that is beneath his boots. There is no sign of the base, of its dozen buildings, the great shed that was the rocket assembly building, not even any scorched ground where once the launching pad had been.

He starts forward, walking slowly down the hill. Has the base been removed? Its buildings were on stilts, but he can’t even see any disturbed soil. He’s not precisely sure where in this valley Phateon Base was located, but it’s somewhere around here. He spots something on the ground ahead, a hole perhaps, and increases his pace. But it’s only a small dark rock, half-buried in the soil.

Thirty minutes later, he’s explored the ground on which Phaeton Base stood, but has found no evidence it ever existed. The soil is completely undisturbed.

He takes off his rucksack, and pulls out the radio from a side-pocket. It’s pre-set to the frequency used by the Goddard and, according to his watch—the same Omega Speedmaster he took to Mars—the spacecraft should be overhead. He plugs the radio into the mike jack on his mask, and reports in. Finley answers:

 

 

Reading you loud and clear, sir. What have you found?

Nothing. If it was ever here, there’s no evidence I can find.

You’re in the right place?

To prove it, Elliott pulls a flare from his rucksack, lights it and then sticks it upright in the ground. It burns fiercely, too bright to look at even in this dim redness.

Yeah, we got you on the remote telescope. The coordinates match. It’s definitely gone then?

Like it was never here.

No aliens?

[laughter] No
life
.

I guess that’s it then.

How long are you going to hang around for?

Another week, maybe. You got about a month’s worth of supplies, right? It’s a damn shame it had to be one-way—

I knew what I was doing. You can rest easy on that score. I knew I’d be stuck down here.

Yeah, well. It was an honour to meet you, sir.

They sent Elliott to Earth Two because he is the only astronaut who knows for a cold hard fact there is life elsewhere in the universe. He is the only man to have seen the evidence. It was just a disc covered in alien writing and it was billions of years old, but he knows it was real because it gave the US the Serpo engine. He wouldn’t be here now on an exoplanet orbiting Gliese 876 if it hadn’t been real.

But he doesn’t think aliens have done this, he doesn’t think the disappearance of Phaeton Base was caused by aliens.

Brigadier General Bradley Elliott, USAF, lifts a hand to his brow and gazes toward the setting sun. As Gliese 876 falls on the hills lining the horizon, streaks of blood-red spread out across the bottoms of clouds, and he can’t help thinking it may be an omen. The light creates a bowl of hues across the sky, mauve above the horizon, through carmine, crimson, ruby, amaranth and magenta. The topmost layer, a pale coral colour, fades away to black. The temperature has dropped but it’s still very warm. He’s not going to freeze tonight. Or any night.

It’s dark now, the profound darkness that exists only in deserts far from light pollution. Some stars have appeared and their light is enough to see by. They sparkle like diamonds, flashing and blinking,
scintillating
. It’s a weird effect, an
alien
effect. Elliott unrolls his sleeping bag and lays it on the ground. This world is dead, there is nothing that can do him injury while he sleeps. He has more than enough oxygen in his bottle, and a spare in the rucksack should it run out. Despite the discomfort of the mask, he falls asleep quickly, and only wakes when red sunlight creeps across the land. He is hungry and very thirsty.

After a chocolate bar and plenty of water, he packs up his sleeping bag, shrugs his rucksack onto his back, and returns to the CM. Once he has loaded himself up with supplies, he will start walking. Any direction is as good as another. He has enough food and water and oxygen to last him a while yet. He turns and scans the crimson sky, trying to figure out where Earth is. At fifteen light years’ distance, the Sun is just another star. When he thinks he’s looking in the right direction, he mouths a silent farewell to Judy.

This time, he is not going home.

 

GLOSSARY

Apollo 1
Intended to be the first manned Apollo mission, it never left the launch-pad when a fire in the Command Module during a plugs-out test resulted in the deaths of all three crew. Crew: Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom (CDR), Edward H White (senior pilot) and Roger Chaffee (pilot).

 

Apollo 4 to 6
These three launches were unmanned tests of the hardware: the Saturn V launch vehicle, Lunar Module and Command Module.

 

Apollo 7
This was the first manned Apollo mission, although it used a Saturn IB as a launch vehicle rather than the Saturn V needed for missions to lunar orbit. The crew spent eleven days in LEO. Crew: Walter M Schirra (CDR), Walter Cunningham (LMP) and Donn Eisele (CMP). Command Module no callsign (CM-101). Launched 11 October 1968.

 

Apollo 8
Rumours of a possible Soviet attempt to send a cosmonaut round the Moon, and the delay of a Lunar Module for testing in LEO, prompted NASA to re-task Apollo 8 and send it to orbit the Moon. This made its crew the first human beings to leave Earth orbit. Crew: Frank Borman (CDR), William Anders (LMP) and James Lovell (CMP). Command Module no callsign (CM-103). Launched 21 December 1968.

 

Apollo 9
The first Apollo mission with a Lunar Module, and so tasked with testing rendezvous and docking procedures between the two spacecraft in LEO. Crew: James McDivitt (CDR), Russell ‘Rusty’ Schweickart (LMP) and David Scott (CMP). Callsigns: Command Module
Gumdrop
(CM-104), Lunar Module
Spider
(LM-3). Launched 3 March 1969.

 

Apollo 10
A “dry run” mission for the first lunar landing, Apollo 10 flew to the Moon and its Lunar Module descended to within ten miles of the lunar surface but did not land. Crew: Thomas P Stafford (CDR), Eugene Cernan (LMP) and John Young (CMP). Callsigns: Command Module
Charlie Brown
(CM-106), Lunar Module
Snoopy
(LM-4). Launched 18 May 1969.

 

Apollo 11
Despite losing the race to the Soviets, NASA continued with its plan to put two men on the Moon. Apollo 11, the third lunar mission, was intended to make the first landing, but a repeating 1202 error during the descent in the Lunar Module forced Armstrong to abort three hundred feet above the lunar surface. The LM returned to the Command Module and, after a further day in lunar orbit, the spacecraft returned to Earth. Crew: Neil A Armstrong (CDR), Edwin E ‘Buzz’ Aldrin (LMP) and Michael Collins (CMP). Callsigns: Command Module
Columbia
(CM-107), Lunar Module
Eagle
(LM-5). Launched 16 July 1969.

 

Apollo 12
The fourth lunar mission and the first American spacecraft to land on the Moon, at Oceanus Procellarum. Crew: Charles ‘Pete’ Conrad (CDR), Alan L Bean (LMP) and Richard F Gordon (CMP). Callsigns: Command Module
Yankee Clipper
(CM-108), Lunar Module
Intrepid
(LM-6). Launched 14 November 1969, landed on Moon 19 November 1969. Duration on lunar surface 31h 31m 12s.

 

Apollo 13
This mission failed to complete after an explosion in an oxygen tank in the Service Module. The Lunar Module was successfully used as a lifeboat, and returned the crew to Earth. As a result of the disaster, further trips to the Moon were shelved, and NASA began working on a mission to Mars. Crew: James A Lovell (CDR), Fred W Haise (LMP) and John ‘Jack’ Swigert (CMP). Callsigns: Command Module
Odyssey
(CM-109), Lunar Module
Aquarius
(LM-7). Launched 11 April 1970.

 

Area 51
A military base in southern Nevada some eighty miles north-west of Las Vegas. It was originally built for the development and testing of the Lockheed U-2 spy plane during the 1950s, expanded during the 1960s for the Lockheed A-12/SR-71 Blackbird programmes, and thereafter associated solely with highly-classified military aviation projects. It has been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories involving Unidentified Flying Objects and reverse-engineered alien technology, none of which have ever been officially confirmed. Other names for the base include Dreamland, Paradise Ranch and Groom Lake.

 

Ares 1
After the cancellation of Apollo, the remaining seven Saturn V launch vehicles were transferred across to the Ares programme. Existing hardware was quickly re-engineered and by early 1974, Ares 1 was ready to launch. It put into LEO a S-IVB which had been modified into a “dry workshop” as per a design drawn up ten years earlier. This flyby spacecraft simulator, later known as the “Orbital Workshop”, would remain a base for the Ares programme throughout the next five years before eventually being re-purposed and renamed “Skylab”. Crew: John Young (CDR), T Kenneth Mattingly (pilot) and Charles Duke (science pilot). Launched 3 May 1974.

 

Ares 2
This mission put a CSM and LM in orbit in order to test docking and rendezvous procedures with the flyby spacecraft simulator. Crew: Eugene Cernan (CDR), Ronald E Evans (pilot) and Robert F Walker (science pilot). Launched 18 September 1974.

 

Ares 3
The first of two missions to test the habitability of the flyby spacecraft simulator. The three crew spent a total of 84 days in orbit and performed a number of valuable experiments on Closed Environmental Life Support Systems. Crew: Charles ‘Pete’ Conrad (CDR), Bradley E Elliott (pilot) and Joseph P Kerwin (science pilot). Launched 31 January 1975.

BOOK: The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself (Apollo Quartet)
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