"Even now Mars, the god of war,
is still sending men to their graves..."
APPROACHING MARS - TWO HOURS FROM ORBIT
"Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?"
Captain Patrick Ross pulled his gaze reluctantly away from the viewport and turned toward the speaker. It was hard not to smile at the sight of Dr. Anne Sampas as she leaned forward over her control console, her green eyes filled with childlike wonder below the heavy waves of her deep auburn hair. "No," he said honestly. "I don't think I have."
When she didn't say anything else, he spun his chair until he again faced the heavy glass, felt himself once again get lost in the scene in front of him:
The planet looked like a huge red marble suspended against a backdrop of sparkling black velvet. Slashed by canyons and painted with shadows that ran from orange to dark red to utterly black, in his mind Ross knew the Martin surface was cold and lifeless, but right now it looked anything but. It looked... hot and very much alive, as though any moment might bring an eruption from one of the dormant volcanoes that spotted its surface. Ascreus Mons or Pavonis Mons perhaps, which were silent, murky spots on the Martian surface to the west through the viewing portal.
"Control, this is Excursion. We have OMS cut-off, over." The deep voice made Ross jump, then look to his left where the flight navigator, Dennis Gamble, was already deftly flipping switches on his control panel.
There was a static-filled blast of noise from the capsule's communicator, then the whine of an unidentifiable voice. "Excursion, this is Control. Please advise when ET umbilical doors are open, over."
"Roger that." Dennis's dark gaze caught and held Patrick. "Time to start suiting up." There was a pause, then Gamble added, "You got two hours, Patrick."
Ross nodded and squelched the urge to swallow, afraid Dennis or Anne would see the movement and know he was nervous. Not afraid, just a little... jittery. No big deal, he'd done this a half dozen times. Walking in space or on the moon was commonplace; walking on Mars... now this was something. The first time, and he was going to get to do it. God, sometimes he felt like the luckiest man alive.
Ross made his way carefully toward the back of the ship, his thoughts divided between his mental checklist for the upcoming mission and wondering what his dad was doing back home on Earth. Watching the mission at NASA, of course, but what was he doing? Standing proud and tall in the Mission Control Room next to Melissa, Patrick's girlfriend, with his six foot five frame towering over everyone? Or sitting on someone's chair so it wouldn't be obvious that he might have had a belt or two of Old Grandad?
Shaking away the thought, Ross slipped out of his in-flight suit, then meticulously began setting out the components of his EVA spacesuit-- his life depended on nothing being missed, but he was too familiar with the routine to be concerned about forgetting something. Besides the oft-repeated spacewalks he'd performed, the practice sessions at NASA were too numerous to count. He could, simply put, don the EVA in his sleep. Besides, Anne Sampas, the flight's M.I.T. mission scientist, would do everything but look at his suit-up job under a microscope before she'd let him strap down in the landing module. A final vision check and then, pulse heightening, Ross took a deep breath and stepped into the absorbent underwear to begin the final steps of suiting up.
"Mission Control," Dennis Gamble said clearly into the microphone. "We have module at gimme five seven gimme." After a few seconds a confirmation message came back and Dennis flipped more switches on the console, his fingers a blur of efficiency. "Disengaged," he barked into the transmitter. A few breathless seconds, then he grinned at Anne. "Hope he's holding onto his hair. He's gonna feel a little bump--"
To punctuate his words, there was a faraway clanking sound and a slight vibration ran through the floor.
Eyes wide, they both leaned forward to peer out at the void of space through the viewport.
The landing module shuddered and gave a short, metallic groan as the hold-downs to the Excursion were released, then it tilted slightly. A fleeting sensation of giddiness sank into Ross's stomach as the craft spun gently, bringing the main vessel into view. For a moment, all he could do was gawk at the Excursion's size, let himself feel like a fly buzzing around the hide of a huge horse. Then the realization that now it was just him suddenly hit home. I've been orphaned, Ross thought, and somehow the idea that this was Mars, Mars for God's sake, just made it all the worse. The moon versus Mars... the difference was like being separated from home by the width of a town or the stretch of a continent.
He felt weightless and lost, temporarily out of control as Dennis steered the landing module back around, giving him a full shot of the parent spacecraft in all her glory. It was hard not to feel small and abandoned as he watched the gleaming alloy ship slide past; it seemed to go on and on, moving silently from burnished silver to a grand, panoramic view of the patriotic red, white and blue painted on the hull. Ending, of course, with the requisite colorful logos of the corporate sponsors which had so generously pumped money into the National Space Exploratory Group and made the mission possible.
Abruptly the loneliness was gone and Ross wondered if his two partners were smirking as their video playback gave them the same scene. Or was he the only one who found it amusing to see the traditional red and white logo of Classic Coca-Cola, the famous Golden Arches of McDonald's and the simple black and white Nike swipe emblazoned across the side of the massive spaceship?
The module lurched and picked up speed, the cockpit rattling around him with enough noise bleed-through to make him feel like a piece of popcorn in a microwave. He ground his teeth and found the radio switch. "Dennis, ease up on those thrusters, would you? Bring turbo alignment to negative seven, over."
"Roger that." Dennis's voice came back, sounding grainy and already far away. "ETA twenty-eight minutes, seventeen seconds." A beat of silence, then Dennis spoke again. "Make that fifteen, no wait. Fourteen."
Patrick grinned and ignored him, feeling the module's movement smooth out under the navigator's capable hand. Never a doubt, obviously-- he knew no one else in the world who could do a better job of this than Dennis Gamble. The black man was the best and could steer a missile ship into a landing bay with the door half-closed, his good eye taped shut and only one finger free. And Ross's opinion had nothing to do with the fact that Dennis Gamble was his best friend, either.
He'd thought the next half hour would pass slowly, each torturous minute trudging along while he fidgeted beneath the straps-- he hated these tiny cockpits with a vengeance-- and Dennis did all the work back on the mother ship. Anne, too, was likely buried in last-minute calculations and notes, that overly-intelligent mind of hers no doubt cranking out another two dozen experiments to conduct on the soil samples he would bring back. Patrick had pictured himself sitting bored and impatient in the module while he performed his routine checks, another matter-of-fact landing well on its way to completion.
The half hour was gone-- zip-- seemingly before Patrick could blink, the slice of time utterly erased by the sight of the sprawling Martian landscape that filled the screen of his console. His training still carried him through the flight routines but had he not been tied into his chair he would've jumped in surprise at the voice crackling over the communications line from Mission Control. "Copy that," he said instantly, his gaze tracking the numbers on the instrument panels. "Descent target zero one niner. Synchronous orbit phase cycle is a go. We are on the mark."
"Turbo alignment is two seven Cavalier. Descend, defend, watch your rear end."
Patrick chuckled but before he could respond, Anne's voice came over the transmitter. "And don't forget to watch out for little green men."
This time he did laugh. "If there were any little men here, I'm fairly certain they'd be the color of rust. Don't worry, Annie. I'll be fine."
"Of course you will," Dennis shot back. "You're Patrick Ross, all-American hero, remember?"
"Aren't I supposed to have a cape?"
"Forget it. It gets tangled with the EVA suit."
Patrick laughed again, then grew serious and frowned at his instruments. "Hey, shouldn't I be--?"
"You are," Dennis said smoothly as the module lurched to one side, then the other...
...and settled itself on the bleak red rubble of Martian soil.
Inside the Excursion, Dennis Gamble and Dr. Anne Sampas slammed their palms together in a high-five that neither would admit was painful. "Yee-ha!" Anne whooped. "We made it, Dennis!"
Her partner gave a wide grin, then turned back to the console. "Mission Control," he announced loudly. "We have surface interface. I repeat, we have surface interface. IMU alignment is complete. We show two eight degrees, three six minutes. Over." He paused, then spoke again. "Patrick, do you copy?"
"Loud and clear."
Damn, Dennis thought as his smile widened along with Anne's. If I get any happier, my face is going to split in two. "Congratulations, brother," he said into the microphone. "You just became the first man on Mars. Set your digital readout. You got one hour till party time. Make yourself useful until then and bring back some souvenirs for our scientist friend here."
"I can handle that."
Anne brushed pushed her hair behind her ears and leaned over the console. "Is everything functional down there?" Her voice had gone from jovial to strictly professional. "No problems to report?"
"Not a one," Patrick came back immediately. "You see me on the video screen?"
"Got it," Dennis said. "Clear as Monday night football."
They heard Patrick snicker, then saw him reach for an LED display and start the counter. Every now and then, a white line of solar interference would cut across the display, but that was to be expected, and they still saw the bright numbers start counting up from 0:00 as the astronaut in the module adjusted an array of telemetry switches. "Annie, I think things are just about ready for you on my end. If you're connection is clear, we can go on and fire up your toys."
Anne Sampas nodded, her eyes glittering emerald green with excitement in the glow of the instrument panels. "I'm going to switch on an external camera," she said. "Right... now." She gave a flick of her forefinger and there it was in full color, red and orange and rusted brown, so completely spectacular that it nearly took her breath away.
"Man," Dennis said from his seat. "Is that unbelievable or what?"
"God, yes. And Patrick-- he's down there, right on the surface. He's going to walk on it in just an hour." She shook her head but her gaze never left the display. "Can you imagine how completely, utterly tiny he must feel?"
"I heard that, Annie. You forgot to toggle off the transmitter."
She blinked and looked at Dennis guiltily, but he only gave her an it's-too-late-now shrug. "Sorry, Patrick, It was just a foolish thought--"
But the first video display showed their comrade down on the surface as he waved a hand in dismissal. "Aw, I'm just kidding. And anyway, you're right. It's a pretty damned lonely feeling-- but I know I've got you guys looking out for me." On the vaguely grainy display, Dennis and Laura could see one corner of his mouth lift.
"You bet," Dennis cut in. "Annie, let's get those Land Rovers going. We need to bring 'em out and at least start collecting our samples before Patrick hits the ground. Can't have him doing all the work."
She nodded and settled herself at the console. "I'm set. Patrick, are you ready to synchronize?"
"Ready when you are."
"Great. One, two, three, mark." On the dual cue, a small hatch in one side of Patrick's landing module flipped down with a precise movement of hydraulics. "I've got the camera carrier," Anne said, her voice shaking with exhilaration. You're in charge of the drill."
"I knew it," Dennis quipped. "The man comes all this way and gets stuck digging in the dirt."
"Always did like making mud pies." Patrick's voice was enthusiastic, his face set with concentration despite his easy words, his fingers light on the remote controls in the landing module as he worked his Rover around the rock obstacles on the surface.
"I'm afraid for those that you'll need water," the doctor said absently. She was piloting her camera-armed Rover close to where Patrick's mechanism had stopped on the near side of a dark colored, three-foot long rock and was slowly working a drill into the barren soil. "Not enough of that on Mars."
"There's considerable evidence of subsurface ice," Dennis commented.
"True," Anne agreed. "But liquid water can't exist on the planet's surface at the present time. I'm afraid Patrick's mud pies would have had to be made in the first third of the planet's life-- the last of the Noachian Period, or perhaps the first part of the Hesperian Period."
"More?" Patrick asked, breaking into the discussion. On screen they saw him point toward the Rovers and the small pile of red material it had gouged free of the Martian landscape.
"Yes, please. There are three canisters in the storage hatch. Ultimately you'll need enough samples to fill all of them, and from different depths and areas, too. You might as well get started before you go out so you have more time to explore the terrain. Besides, the less time you're in proximity to the drilling mechanism, the happier we'll be."
Patrick nodded and bent back to his task, then looked up and smiled. "Go on, Anne. Take your Rover out for a ride. Mine is positioned so that I can see well enough using the module's external camera, and we'll want as much film as we can get. Staring at the same spot on the ground is no fun."
The doctor's face lit up. "Wonderful!" She bent closer to the screen, nose nearly touching the surface as she focused on piloting her miniature Land Rover in a tight arc around the base of the landing module. "God, look at this. Wouldn't it be great if we had one of those ships they're always flying in those science fiction shows? Then we could just zoom around wherever we want, see what's really in the deeper regions of the Valles Marineris canyon system, the Hebes Chasma." Her words were starting to come so fast they were running together. "Or the Olympic Mons-- can you imagine going down into the crater of a volcano that rises over fifty thousand feet high?"
"I wouldn't go," Dennis said, more to slow her down than anything else. Not just an observer, he was continually monitoring and adjusting the position of the Excursion relative to the landing module down on the Martian surface. "What if the volcano erupted?"
"Oh, there's no indication of current volcanic activity," Anne responded. "Face it, this place is empty."
Dennis glanced at her. "I distinctly remember a media blitz a few years back about microbes discovered in a Martian meteorite--"
Anne raised an eyebrow at him. "Dead microbes are a long way from the kind of life needed to make mud pies, Mr. Gamble. There's nothing out there now but wind and oxidized dust."
Patrick's voice interrupted them. "Afraid I'm going to have to side with Annie on this one, buddy." A pause, then, "What do you say? Are we ready for me to go out and start the in-person collection process?"
Dennis chewed his lower lip nervously and checked the digital readout-- 1:00:37. Jesus, where had the time gone? Finally, he nodded. "Ready when you are."
For a few moments, the radio remained silent. At last Patrick's determined voice spilled from the multiple speakers in the control panel at the same time they saw his image on the screen reach for the spacesuit helmet. When it was in place and locked down, Patrick said one more thing over the solo feed to the mother ship to make sure the audio connection was working:
"All right, Mars. Say hello to the human race."
Patrick Ross stepped off the landing module's ladder and onto Martian soil at about ten after eleven on what was a perfect Saturday morning back on his home planet. If he could've seen the celebrations across the United States, he would've been embarrassed at all the fuss; he wasn't quite sure how he'd become an all-American hero, and the truth was, all this attention just made him flustered. He couldn't show that, of course-- he'd been raised to speak clearly and proudly in public and to do right by the image of his father, Senator Judson Ross. There was the memory of his mother to consider, too-- if he didn't always agree with his father, he was determined to do right by her. Sweet, patient, and taken from the family way too soon, without getting too Freudian, Patrick saw some of the same character qualities in his lovely girlfriend, Melissa. She didn't know it yet, but someday she'd be the wife of an American astronaut and the mother of his children.
He felt the life support system on his EVA suit register the swift drop in external temperature and adjust the body temperature control unit to accommodate it. Numbers flashed across the small optical display at slightly above eye level on the inside of his helmet, and one of those told Patrick it was slightly under one hundred and eighty degrees Kelvin on the Martian surface-- a staggering one hundred thirty-five degrees below zero Fahrenheit. After all these years and all the moon- and spacewalks he'd done, it still amazed Patrick that he, or any man or woman, could actually be walking around in a environment that brutal.
He stopped and just... stood there for a few moments, drinking in the sight of the Martian landscape in a close-up way that no one else in history had ever experienced-- the terrain filled with dark, porous rocks, the rusty red, sandy-textured soil, a sky painted the color of salmon from atmospheric dust. The view stretched across his vision and beyond for as far as he could see with a stark, unrelenting beauty that was almost mesmerizing.
Patrick broke the spell himself, knowing that if he didn't move forward soon the radio would cut into the silence around him and ruin it. With graceless movement he turned and punched in the code to unlock the exterior storage compartment; when the hatch dropped open he lifted out a small folded package and the rack containing Anne's trio of bright orange canisters. Five halting steps took him far enough away from the landing module to give the mother ship a view on the video screen that was unmarred by any man-made object but the one he painstakingly unfolded. He snapped open the metal rod at one end, then pushed it deep into the dry, blood-colored soil. When Patrick spoke, he knew the transmission would fill his words with static from atmospheric interference, so he said them slowly and as clearly as he could as the cold Martian wind straightened the folds of the American flag:
"Not for one nation, one people, or one creed, but for all humankind."
Mankind had finally conquered Mars.
BACK HOME ON EARTH
Millions of people across the nation raised their voices in celebration, hoisting everything from beers to coffee cups to cans of soda. Fixed before their television sets at home, in bars, in health clubs and during reluctant Saturday work sessions at the office, they all listened, exhilarated by the success of the Mars mission and captivated by the voice of Peter Jennings.
In a world beset by violence, hunger and strife, there are still occasions when mankind surpasses the petty struggles of daily existence.
No where, however, was the elation more intense than at Mission Control in Houston, Texas.
Of the three huge screens that dominated the room, two of them showed a live feed from the landing. The massive room was alive with applause and yelling, workers and technicians at a hundred and ninety-seven work stations slapping each other on the back with glee and spinning foolishly in chairs before their consoles to celebrate the culmination of years of work. In a glass-paneled viewing room behind the main control area, a smaller but no less than elated group laughed and raised glasses of champagne to toast each other and the space-suited figure on the screen as newscaster Peter Jennings supplied them with the media viewpoint via a small television set off to the side:
The Excursion voyage to Mars is one of these occasions. Today, America is proud!
Impeccably dressed in a deep blue suit, every silver hair in perfect place, Senator Judson Ross put his arm around Melissa Evans and gave her a gigantic, fatherly hug. "He did it, Missy!" He let go of her and began shaking hands with the NSEG officials milling happily around the room, his mouth stretched in a beaming smile. Excitement made his words slip into the slight southern drawl that he'd worked to shed, but right now that was okay. This was his grand moment, the day that brought the United States success in the Mars space program that he himself had pioneered, the red planet conquered by none other than his own son Patrick. "Look at him up there," he exclaimed. "He's on Mars!"
"Your son's a hero, Senator Ross," an NSEG official whose name he couldn't recall told him. "A true blue hero-- congratulations!"
Senator Ross nodded, delighted at the response, relieved that Patrick seemed to be up there and doing okay, safe as you please; he would've never told anyone how scared he'd been at the prospect of his boy traveling over thirty-five million miles-- a distance nearly inconceivable to him-- and stepping out of his spacecraft. But it was okay, he was there and safe, and everything was fine. Thank God.
The smile plastered to his face, he made his way around the room again and downed a glass of Dom Perignon on the way.
The Garberville Psychiatric Institute in Maryland was lovely, a top of the line facility reserved for special people thrust into "special" situations. From the outside the institute looked like a New England mansion: quaint red brick, shutters painted bright white around lightly tinted windows, petunia-filled flower boxes even adorned the window sills above the neatly shaped hedges. A long, curving drive flanked by marigolds led to a locked-- discreetly, of course-- double front door next to which was a small brass doorbell and an inconspicuous sign that read Visitors By Appointment Only. The grounds were quiet and peaceful, intentionally inviting.
Inside the environment did an about-face.
Beyond the scrupulously decorated and maintained entry foyer, reception area and receiving offices, the walls were pitted and cracked, both from age and the force of blows thrown by residents for one reason or another. Well hidden behind the exterior's solar tint on the windows was a layer of steel mesh embedded on the inside of the glass. Furniture was sparse and strictly functional: hard-cushions on the couches and chairs that couldn't be used to smother a fellow inmate, steel legs and arms that couldn't be broken off and used as a club. The Institute was old enough so that the bare tiles on the floors were asbestos-based, but the directors and heavy-armed orderlies didn't care. They had enough to worry about just trying to keep the residents' behavior at a level vaguely approximating acceptable control.
In the game room-- checkers and cards only, no sharp objects allowed-- the television mounted high at the juncture of the wall and the eight foot ceiling was turned on. Only a few of the ten or twelve men and women in the room were paying any attention to the running report of the Mars space landing; many were tranquilized to keep them quiet and to ensure the safety of their fellow residents. The television was, quite simply, something with movement and noise on which they could focus beyond the misery surrounding them. One of the orderlies-- Joey-- had tried unsuccessfully to find a sports game, but the Mars landing was on all the main channels and the Institute wasn't about to spend good money on cable television.
One of the residents, a guy named Herman Cromwell, had pulled a chair to a position directly in front of the television, at a spot exactly where so he could focus completely on the screen without having the view obstructed by any of the others in the room. Joey watched him suspiciously, but he seemed okay, doing nothing other than listening intently to that Peter Jennings guy on the tube--
Patrick Ross. Son of a senator, football star at Yale, and now the first man on Mars. Intelligent, dependable, caring-- a perfect hero for these imperfect times.
Cromwell leaned forward on his seat, his face straining toward the screen. It was chilly in the game room-- it was chilly everywhere at the Institute-- but perspiration gleamed on his shaved head. His eyes, a disturbingly intense cobalt blue, were wide and anything but vacant. When he spoke, it was with such conviction that every one in the room, drugged-out or not, turned to stare at him.
"I told them not to go!"
Aw, Christ, Joey thought as he saw Cromwell's fingers dig into the armrests of the chair.
Here we go again.
ON THE SURFACE OF MARS
"How's it going out there?" Anne Sampas asked. Beneath the radio headset, her gaze was fixed on the video feed, watching the diamond-tipped mechanism on the Land Rover plow into the sandy red surface of Mars. The picture had deteriorated, then straightened out again, going back and forth as it fought against unseen pulses of solar interference. Right now it looked pretty good and she could see Patrick using a small scoop to fill the second of the three sample canisters. At the navigator's console a few feet away, Dennis was keeping his usual close eye on the Excursion's orbit position relative to the location of the landing module on the planet's surface.
"Not bad," Patrick answered. "The soil is loose but the drill is still showing signs of wear and tear."
"One more area," she noted. "Sector one twelve. It looks like it might've been a canal bed."
Dennis looked over from the control chair and smiled. "Signs of water?"
"That's what we hope to find out."
Patrick's voice came over the radio again, fuzzy at the edges but understandable. "Eight years of training and I'm a Martian ditch-digger."
Dennis pressed the audio button on his own headset so he could join the conversation. "Quit complaining. I thought you said you liked making mud pies."
"Like Anne said," Patrick came back. "There's no water."
Anne smiled. "Sorry, pal. Mining is part of the job description."
Dennis glanced over at the LED display that was synchronized with the one in Patrick's landing module: 4:27:38 and counting. "You got about an hour and a half of surface time left, Patrick."
"Don't push it, Patrick. You need to be off surface well before Martian nightfall. If you think it's cold now, try dropping to a hundred and thirty degrees Kelvin."
"For the temperature challenged like you," Dennis interrupted with a smirk, "that's two hundred and twenty-five below zero."
"Gee," Patrick responded. "Thanks so much for your help. I couldn't function without you."
"Look at him down there," Dennis said an hour later. He and Anne studied the wide-angle video feed from the landing module, which showed Patrick taking halting steps across the rock-strewn surface, moving carefully around the jagged edges of large, dark stones. "He's just like a speck of... I don't know. Dust or something on the planet." He followed his friend's movement with his forefinger against the screen. "See? A little dot moving across the horizon line."
Anne leaned toward the display. "Wait-- what's he doing? Why did he stop?"
Dennis thumbed his voice feed. "Patrick?"
The barely recognizable form on the screen paused for a long moment. Finally, Patrick spoke. "Did you know that Mars got its name from the Roman god of war?" he asked. "But I can't figure out why-- I've never felt such peace. It's like I'm here with God."
Anne smiled. "Perhaps you feel that way because the Roman god Mars was not always so destructive. He was originally the god of spring vegetation, Mars Sylvanus. Among other things, Mars was also known to be the lover of Venus."
"Patrick," Dennis broke in, "I'm afraid it's time for you to leave your gods behind. Shake your legs and head on back to the module. ET until module lift-off is thirty-five minutes and counting."
On the display, Patrick gave them a choppy-looking salute. "Copy that, Dennis. I'm on my way."
An hour and ten minutes, no more--
And Dennis Gamble and Anne Sampas turned to stare as the airlock door to the docking bay slid open. Patrick Ross grinned at his cohorts but didn't say anything, and for a long moment, neither did they.
Then they all started whooping and hugging at once.
"You are the man!" Dennis shouted. He whirled a laughing Patrick around the small control area, then gave him a push that sent him toward Anne.
She caught him in an amiable hug, then ruffled his dark hair like a schoolboy's. "Great job, Patrick. You've done us proud, young man!"
"Aw, knock it off, you two," Patrick said. "It was no big deal, not really." He took a step back to the docking bay door and retrieved the rack of sample canisters, then snapped it into its holder on the rear wall.
"No big deal, huh?" Dennis rolled his eyes. "If that's so, then why is the President of the United States waiting to talk to you?"
"Oh boy-- why the heck didn't you say so!" Patrick hurried over to the command chair and fumbled on the headset, pushing the switches to bring up the audio and video feeds. "Commander Patrick Ross here, Mr. President," Patrick said respectfully. "I apologize for keeping you waiting."
A few beats, then the President's smooth, practiced voice rolled into the Excursion's cockpit, and the three astronauts could tell from his words that the rest of the world was hearing him at the same time. "Captain Ross, this is a tremendous achievement that once again proves to the world that if we rise above partisan politics, American can climb to the heavens."
Patrick smiled at the clearly rehearsed speech, pleased nonetheless. "Thank you, Mr. President. But the credit should go to my crew. I couldn't be up here without them."
"The three of you definitely make an excellent team. Please accept my invitation to be my guests at the White House."
"We'd be honored, sir," Patrick replied. He glanced at his two partners, an impish grin tugging at his mouth. "But I'm afraid you won't change my mind. I'm still a Democrat."
Rich laughter filtered over their headsets. "Come home safe, Commander Ross. Our prayers are with you."
"Thank you, sir."
Dennis his the cut-off switch and turned to his companions. "Ready to head home?"
For a moment, neither spoke. Then Anne exhaled. "Wow, I can't believe it's over. All those years to prepare, and now-- already it's just a memory."
Patrick chuckled. "Then let the memories begin. We've got a lot of those to go through when we hit home, not to mention the flight time back to Earth."
"Yeah, but the actual Mars walk--"
"Oh, quit your griping," Dennis said lightly. "We'll walk with the Martians again sometime. You'll see."
Anne smiled. "Little green men?"
"I thought you said they'd be red."
Patrick snickered and bent to his work. "Knock it off, you two. Let's get down to business."
Unnoticed against the aft wall, bright beads of condensation had begun a slow drip down the outside of the last of the sample canisters.
Thirty minutes later, the three astronauts had finished their final checks and were strapped into the harnesses of the cockpit chairs. Dennis's expression had slipped into his standard mask of concentration, a sure sign that what was uppermost in his mind was getting the Excursion free of the Mars orbit and on her way home. His gaze tracked the readouts on the system monitors, his fingers ran confidently over the switch panels. "Control, this Excursion," He said briskly. "All systems are go. Request update on the ETD."
The response was nearly instantaneous. "Excursion, this is Control. You are a go for de-orbit burn. Activate main thruster panel, over."
Thank you, Control. De-orbit burn sequence completed... now." Dennis snapped the final toggle switch to the Go position. "We are homeward bound."
"Roger that, Excursion. Starting propulsion engine countdown. Twenty, nineteen, eighteen..."
Dennis looked over at Patrick and Anne. "We're in the money, folks."
He grinned and stretched a hand toward Patrick, who slapped it, the grabbed it in a homeboy shake.
"Sixteen, fifteen, fourteen..."
Beneath them, around them, the engines began to pulse with power. Anne gave the other two a thumbs up, knowing that the low, throaty hum would effectively wipe out all conversation until the Excursion had pulled them out of orbit and set itself into a steady cruising speed. As the ship began to vibrate, she turned her attention to the mainframe computer, intent on entering the final log notations for the trip. Only a few feet behind her chair and despite the perfectly monitored low-humidity air of the small control center, water was now dripping freely off the third orange canister and forming a small puddle on the metal floor.
"Thirteen, twelve, eleven..."
Hunched over their tasks and momentarily deafened by the increasing roar of the thruster engines, none of the crew heard or saw the metal band cinching the edges of the sweating sample canister release with a snap, nor did they notice the still tightly sealed lid as it began to bulge.
"Ten, nine, eight, seven..."
Eyes locked on the LED countdown display, forehead creased, Dennis deliberately began flicking the first of a long sequence of switches on the control console.
"Six, five, four..."
Suspended on the rear wall, a fracture grew between the canister's lid and body, a break in the regulation quarantine seal. A thin line of slime the same rusty red color as Martian soil squeezed out, then slid down the side of the orange metal, dripping and melding with the water already beneath it.
As the astronaut team counted down its final seconds in the Martian orbit, the spot of sludge on the floor began to bubble and expand--
--doubling, then tripling its size.
As Dennis Gamble opened his mouth to tell Mission Control that the Excursion's thruster engines had fired, the mass of cellular muck twisted and reshaped itself into three separate segments--
--which leapt toward the crew of the Excursion with a ghastly chittering wail.
BACK HOME ON EARTH
With the successful firing of the thruster engines, the Excursion was on its way home and the back-patting and celebrating began anew. When the two direct feed video screens went blank but the status screen kept relaying data, for a moment, one--
--no one breathed. Then the communications specialist slammed his hand on a button on his keyboard and his speaker-driven voice cut through the merriment and ground it all to a halt.
"Sir, I have LOS radio blackout. We have lost contact."
The grim announcement sent technicians and specialists vaulting back to their stations. Thomas Duncan, the Flight Director for the Excursion Mars Landing Project, strode across the room and stopped before the terrified-looking communications technician. Normally confident, Duncan's lean face was ghost-white beneath the pale blond of his crewcut, his eyes as wide as those of the young man awaiting his orders. A muscle ticked in one side of his jaw as he scanned the tech's screen but found nothing there to answer the thousands of questions suddenly jumbling in his mind.
"Activate the emergency satellite network," Duncan said between clenched teeth.
"Yes, sir." Young, capable, impeccably trained, the specialist's fingers were a blur on the keyboard. A final jab at the Enter key hard enough to make the keyboard jump, and he said, "You have an open line, sir."
Duncan glanced over his shoulder and saw the people in the viewing room-- Senator Ross and all the other family members, not to mention a significant number of NSEG officials-- crowded against the glass, their frightened faces grim testimony to the seriousness of this situation.
Duncan snatched at the headset the technician offered him and slipped it on. "Excursion, this is Mission Control," he barked. "We are on emergency satellite frequency. Do you read?" A pause, longer and longer. "Do you read, Excursion?"
With a growl Duncan yanked off the headset and flung it at the technician, who barely noticed it as he frantically began typing emergency check commands into the keyboard, desperately trying to troubleshoot the communications problem.
Around him, dozens of people did the same, rapid-firing orders into headsets and over telephones as their Flight Director paced the aisles between the consoles like a panicked lion. "Open O-2 pumps," he snapped at one technician. "Mobile auto-pilot thrusters," he ordered another. "Bounce the communications beam off the retro-satellite. Do it now!" Beneath a red-bordered sign bearing a cigarette beneath the standard circle and slash, Duncan fumbled a cigarette from a pack of Pall Malls in his shirt pocket, then lit it. "Holy Christ," he muttered. His gaze cut to the viewing room and he sucked in a lungful of smoke in dismay.
Senator Ross had already thrown open the door and was on his way down the stairs. The babble of voices in the Control Room did nothing to drown out the Senator's strong voice. "What's going on?" he bellowed. "That my boy up there!"
Close behind him came the girl-- what was her name? Melissa something-or-the-other, Patrick Ross's girlfriend. She had her hand to her throat in a classic display of southern feminine dismay and her greenish-brown eyes had gone huge; Duncan thought he saw her mouth form a single word all the way from where he stood across the Control Room floor...
In a pleasantly disguised psychiatric ward across the country, Herman Cromwell heard the words of Peter Jennings--
For the past three minutes, every attempt to communicate with the Excursion has failed. Let us say a prayer for the safety of the astronauts and the safe return to Earth of this spaceship and its fine, brave crew.
--and went ballistic.
He had an orderly on either side of him, both big men with brawny arms and short tempers.
They couldn't hold him.
"I told them!" he screamed. "I told them not to go to Mars!" He lunged forward, then back, and forward again, a bucking motion that suddenly set him free. Before the closest orderly could grab for him, Cromwell hefted the metal-framed chair in which he'd been sitting only moments before and hurled it at the television set. The screen imploded and hundreds of shards of dark glass sailed over the heads of the residents and orderlies amid the crackle of an electrical short and the hot smell of ozone and sizzling electrical components. One of the other residents began screaming, a high-pitched sound that could've been a cat on fire.
The orderly named Joey tackled Cromwell before he could find anything else to throw. "Tranq him, damn it!" he hollered as he and Cromwell hit the floor, followed quickly by his coworker. Two more orderlies barrelled into the room and flung themselves at the still-struggling Cromwell; in the midst of all the flailing arms and legs, there was a flash of a hypodermic needle sinking into flesh.
Five seconds later, Herman Cromwell sagged, not quite unconscious, to the floor.
Defeated, the communications specialist looked up at Thomas Duncan. "Still no contact, sir. It's been seven minutes-- she's drifting off course and we can't explain why the remote pilot functions have been disabled. Without something from the crew, we can't bring her in."
Duncan ground his third cigarette butt out against the technician's counsel, then turned and snapped at a black-suited woman hovering nearby. "Get me General Metzger."
She started to acknowledge the order, then blanched at something she saw over her shoulder and backstepped instead. Duncan scowled and turned, then gasped as the lapels of his jacket were crushed in the fists of a red-faced Senator Judson Ross. "You are not giving up on my boy," he hissed into Duncan's face. Ross towered over him and his strength was fueled by fury and fear for his son's life. There was no escaping his grip as he shook Duncan to emphasize his words. "Do you hear me? You are not giving up!"
"Senator, please!" Melissa Evans tried to put her hand on Senator Ross's arm, but he ignored her and shook Duncan again. Trapped, the flight director's teeth rattled together with the movement.
"You get my boy back, damn you!"
"Sir, I have LOS blackout lift!" the communications specialist a few feet away suddenly shouted. "Repeat-- I have LOS blackout lift!" The last word was nearly a shriek of excitement.
Duncan didn't even notice when Ross released him, just found himself crowding around the technician with everyone else, leaning forward over the man as the tech rapid-fired commands into his keyboard and reinstated Mission Control's connection to the Excursion. The huge room was silent as the moments ticked past; finally first one, then the other of the viewing screens flickered and stabilized, at last showing the serene face of Commander Patrick Ross.
"Mission Control, this is the Excursion. We have experienced a system malfunction, total blackout of telemetry, communications, and life support operations."
Still paralyzed with fear, Senator Ross and Melissa stared at the screen, unsure if Patrick and his crew were all right or not.
"I was able to repair the communications connection and reboot the life support systems. Sorry for the scare."
As a cheer went up in the Mission Control Center, and indeed, around the world, Senator Judson Ross and Melissa Evans bowed their heads in thankful prayer...
...While straight-jacketed in a cold and solitary padded cell at the Garberville Psychiatric Institute, a heavily sedated Herman Cromwell still heard the final transmission on the television from the day nurses' station around the corner--
"Excursion crew is fine. Headed on de-orbit burn for Big Blue. It's gonna be good to get home. Over and out."
--and felt a single, lonely tear slip down his cheek. His whispered words were slurred by the drugs but still came from his heart:
"May God have pity on us all..."
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Author's Rant, er, Comments: You've just been treated to the entire UNEDITED Prologue of Species II. In a rush project such as this-- an entire book written and completely published in only four months (!!)-- there are bound to be snafus. Unfortunately, this manuscript was the object of some, uh, less-than-skillful line editing (hey, maybe it was done by an alien!) by a television exec who thought (emphasize that word, please) she was a writer. Despite my railings, it was published with a bunch of mistakes and clunky rearrangements that were completely unnecessary. Things smoothed out midway through the manuscript when the exec-turned-wannabe-writer ran into that famous publishing wall called a "deadline", but you might be jarred a time or two by a typo, a wayword word, or-- and my sincerest apologies-- a truly awkward sentence. I swear to everyone that, like the poor astronauts on the Excursion, I was just the victim here!Cover art, page background, and Species II logo are copyright ©1998-2004 by Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Inc. All text copyright © 1998-2003 by Yvonne Navarro. Don't be naughty-- no reprinting or use in any form whatsoever without prior written permission of the starving author. We mean it. We know lots of lawyers. And we ain't afraid to use them.