“Houston? We have an anomaly. Houston? This is Mars Base, Syrtis Major. Come in, please. We have a major anomaly!”
Finally the console crackled a little, and the voice of the flight controller fifty-five million miles away on Earth filled the room. Calhoun let out a long breath and leaned back in his creaking chair.
“Mars Base, this is Houston. We are receiving you…”
“Receiving us, hell!” Calhoun fumed. “The ship is leaving orbit, Danielle. What the hell is going on? What’s gone wrong up there? Have the trip computers got some kind of virus?”
“Virus?” Danielle’s voice came back, after the five minute delay. It had seemed so cumbersome at first. Then they’d gotten used to it, and hardly noticed. He’d made coffee while he waited. But now it seemed to take forever.
“It was a joke, Danielle,” Calhoun said bitterly. “What are you doing? Is there some kind of solar storm or something? Are you changing the orbit for some reason?”
Five minutes. Eternities it seemed like.
“No, Francis. It’s not a solar storm. Your first guess – well, we’re bringing the ship back to Earth. We have to.”
“To Earth?” Calhoun shouted. Or was it a shout? He felt like he was shouting, but it sounded like a whisper. “But – but Danielle. Are you crazy? That means another six months up here for us! Why are you doing this?”
And then the pause. And then the beginning of something that would never end for him.
“Francis, just listen to me. And don’t interrupt. Don’t say anything. Record this – I’m sure you are anyway, but make sure you are this time. You’ll have to tell the others when I’m done. But just listen to me, now. Okay? Answer me on that, before I start.”
“Yes, Danielle,” he said softly, rubbing the back of his hand across his forehead. The humidity in the dome was constant, but his skin was clammy. What in God’s name had happened?
The long minutes passed, and then Danielle was back, her voice coming in loud and clear, all the way from the Houston Space Center.
“This situation has been brewing since shortly after you left, Francis. CDC only told us what they thought about six weeks ago, and we decided to sit on it, until we were sure. And I apologize, but we’ve kept you out of the loop. It’s some kind of super flu, Francis. We thought the epidemic was leveling off at first, if you can call half of Africa and a quarter of Asia gone leveling off.
“Washington decided to make sure no news of this could reach you, Francis. Hell! We’re the only one’s who have a radio that can transmit across 88 million klicks. When you get it, it’s just like a cold, and then your immune system – well, it goes to shit. Very quickly. The drugs aren’t helping at all. And nobody realized, Francis. Nobody!”
Danielle’s voice went silent, and Calhoun was getting ready to say something when she started up again.
“It’s infected the whole world, Francis,” she said then, and his heart nearly stopped.
“No one knew. Until it was too late. Way too late. Even the natural immunes have got it now. Everyone is testing positive. We thought the crew of the ship might be okay. But they weren’t, so we had to bring the ship back. We have over two billion deaths already. It’s the end of humanity, Francis.
“So we’re awfully glad you guys are up there.”
Calhoun was completely at a loss. Words were so inadequate, his mouth just opened and something came out by itself.
“I – I love you, Danielle,” he told her. “I never had time to say anything. I thought when we came back – ”
It seemed like years later when her sweet voice came back across the gulf to him, and he could hear the tears.
“I know, Francis,” she said. “I know. I love you, too. And I’m glad you’re up there. Safe. It’s so good that your farming and your oxygen making are going so well. You’re self-sustaining now.”
“But goddamn it!” he yelled into the microphone. “That wasn’t the idea! We can’t be all that’s left. We can’t be! What will I tell them?”
“Tell them the truth,” she said. “When we see how long this is going to take to burn itself out and disappear, we’re going to program a ship to come back for you. It may be ten years before it’s safe. It may be a hundred, Francis. But we’re going to send it back.”
Francis was crying now, too. Softly, though. He was too traumatized for great, wracking sobs.
“How could this happen?” he asked her, his voice sailing out over the great sanitizing gulf of airless space – the ultimate quarantine curtain.
“It was always mutating,” her voice came back. “But no one thought it could change this much.
“Funny thing,” she went on after a moment, her voice softer, a little quizzical. “There’s a large neo-pagan faction, growing very quickly, actually. They’re saying that Gaia is doing this purposely. They’re saying the Goddess has decided to get rid of us, Francis.”
He could hear the ambivalence in her voice, the touch of ridicule, the hint of seriousness.
“What do you think?” he asked her, and then he waited.
“Well, women do change their minds,” she came back, refusing him a straight answer.
“Men do, too,” he answered. Then he cleared his throat. “I’m going to have to talk to my people. But I want to talk to you more. God! A lot more! Danielle, if only – ”
Her voice came back to him five minutes later, soft, reassuring, loving.
“We’ll talk a lot, Francis. No regrets. If you hadn’t gone up there, if you hadn’t pushed and pushed for this, and put every ounce of energy and every waking hour into it, all our eggs would be in one basket. You have a thousand people up there now. And a very diverse group. It should be enough. The Mars colony will be the savior of humanity.”
He wanted to give her a smart comeback for that, but his voice was cracking.
“Okay, Danielle,” he finally managed. “Keep me informed. And we will talk, a lot. Goodbye for now. I love you!”
“Good night, Francis,” her sweet voice caressed him. “I love you, too. Call back soon.”
Calhoun cut the circuit and sat back in his chair. How in God’s name could he tell his people this? He tried to formulate words, but he couldn’t find anywhere to begin. So he got up and walked to the wide Plexiglas window overlooking the ruddy landscape the rovers had tracked up decades earlier. The blowing sand had etched the clarity of the outlook a little, softening the view. Or was it something in his eye, he asked himself wryly. What could he tell them? His nose itched, and he rubbed it, and then he felt a sneeze building…