The way that Carter looked at Mars was similar to the way in which a doctor would examine fungal spores on a man’s foot. An extraordinarily unpleasant layer of dust and rocky debris on top of something infinitely more fascinating. Another world. A new sphere of cool rock, shaped like the Earth by vulcanicity and weather, yet unhampered by the additions or waste of man. At least, not to the extent Earth was. Carter sighed as the module in which he and three others were travelling, passed directly over the Communications Centre established at the end of the First Mars Mission; a silver cylindrical tower, rotating satellite dish and solar panels. A grey reminder of the grey landscape that was forthcoming.
But as the module touched down safely inside the two-mile landing zone, Carter reached the conclusion that Mars was simply there for the modernising. The landscape, though still new and fascinating, was all orange dust and hunks of colourless rock with seemingly no purpose or personality to speak of. It was what Carter imagined Hell to be like. A land where nothing currently present in it could possibly be redeemed by any means, not even divine intervention. The sky was a featureless grey; light with the fire of the sun, but with no other defining characteristics. No blue. No clouds. Nothing. It seemed that water really was the bringer of life, and not just to human beings. To planets. At the moment, Mars was a dead place; a graveyard for itself.
And their race; their own people, wanted to do their living on it. Carter found that he couldn’t understand that. What was the point in them abandoning the Earth when they had the necessary technology to save it from collapse? It was perfect for them in every way; the place where their species had managed to evolve, with enough natural resource, water and the optimum conditions and climate and atmosphere to allow life to flourish, develop and, it seemed, cook up hair-brained schemes to planet-hop.
“633 report. What is your status, over?”
“All systems go, Commander. Engaging landing sequence and artificial gravity…”
The module was state of the art; nothing like the junk used in the Apollo missions and following moon landings. It was about twice the size, with heavier, thicker armour-panelling, digitised consoles and navigational auto-controls accurate to the very millimetre, with self-adjusting capabilities. It was another fifteen minutes before it was jolted out of its descent by the opening of parachutes, and began to drift back towards the Communications Centre and the designated landing spot. New propellers on the base of the module allowed it to automatically influence the direction of its descent, and soon its steel legs extended and the craft thudded down onto the dead dust.
“Systems check, Commander. Landing clean, atmosphere stable, timers set… crew confirm, over.”
“Blue 91 standing by.”
“Blue 23 standing by.”
“Blue 48 standing by.”
“Copy Mars 2, you are prep for dispersal. Put the kettle on.”
“Roger… Blue 48, lets go, over.”
Carter stepped forwards, tapped a four-digit code into a panel, and the door hissed open. There was no apparent change to the temperature as he did this, as their body heat was regulated by their suits. He descended the short ladder to the surface of the Red Planet, closely followed by the three others, the same door sealing behind them. Once they were all a safe distance from the module, it shuddered slightly, before lifting off once more to collect the second team. NASA had been especially boastful about their recycling of space modules; preparing for more than the usual lunar pursuits, even if they did spend sixty billion dollars perfecting them.
“We’re down, Commander, copy…”
It was Blue 23 who had spoken; an engineer by the name of Bradshaw. She had been something of a pain throughout much of the six-month flight, particularly when she opened her mouth, which was often. Carter imagined that she was pretty awestruck by the whole experience; the call-up to so prestigious a crew, the endless flight through space, the new technology, and finally, the chance to step onto another planet; something hundreds of layabouts back on the rock could only dream about. The other guy, Williams or something he had been called, had been similarly wide-eyed, and he and Bradshaw had feigned laughter and pretended to walk slow and examine featureless rocks like they were dinosaur fossils. Carter did well not to throw up in his helmet, and not just as a result of the gravity change. He and Major Alexander shared a look, which told him that command was also pretty embarrassed.
“Cut it out, you two. You can rant and rave later. We have a job to do. Do you copy?”
“Yeah… whatever,” Williams answered, reluctantly, his breath crackling slightly through the radio.
“Ben, come look at this!”
Bradshaw was some way off, looking out over a vast canyon. It’s sheer edges were streaked with the strata of ferrous iron oxide, which dyed the dusty rock its reddish-brown colour. She was crouching rather too close to the lip of the canyon for Alexander’s liking, peering over the edge like a child examining a mouse-hole. He shouted out, and Bradshaw jumped back from the canyon in shock, as his voice echoed through her headset.
“Hey, I could’ve fallen! What’s the big idea?!”
“Wouldn’t that be a loss…”
“No-one asked your opinion, Carter! Seriously, that was like, really scary. Please don’t.”
But Alexander wasn’t paying attention. His eye had been caught by the Communications Centre; a silver streak about a kilometre from the landing zone, unmissable in such a place. Williams joined him, and followed his gaze.
“Blue 91, would you say that that satellite dish was still moving?” Williams looked at him, before turning his eyes back to the silver building, raising a hand to shield them from the dull glare of the sun. The dish atop the giant cylindrical structure was fairly clear, through the slight dust haze, and appeared to be motionless.
“I’d say that it wasn’t, Red 6. What should we do?”
Major Alexander thought for a moment. He hadn’t got to where he was without many individual moments spent stopping and thinking before acting.
“Right,” he said, “Blue 23, you do what you have to do. Get back to the landing zone and set up the portable comms link. The second team is going to need it; to zero in on. Blue 91 and Blue 48, you will accompany me to the Communications Centre. Something is wrong here. We need to get that satellite dish working again, and fast. Without it, none of the longwave frequency signals will reach us from base, and nothing in there will work. Meaning we may as well pack up and leave now.” Carter nodded, and set off without waiting for the others. Time was of the essence.
Alexander looked at Williams.
“Any ideas, Ben?”
“Could be dust, Red 6, from the sandstorms we saw on the climate monitor yesterday. I thought they looked pretty severe. This old place is only a prototype after all, and it has been here a while. Shouldn’t be impossible to fix though.” Williams set off after Carter, and Major Alexander followed.
He knew how serious this was. He had known it from the moment he suspected that the dish had ceased rotating. This whole place was run by special signals relayed from Houston through the Spacecraft Epitaph, and then down to the Martian surface. If the dish was down, they were in trouble. They would not be able to get on the console and contact Houston, prepare any food, generate any heat. Hell, forget that, they wouldn’t even be able to get through the doors!
Carter knew this as well as Alexander. He was, after all, the second in command, and would be the next in line when Alexander decided to retire, or was killed in action. It felt to him like he was the heir to a fortune that some rich bastard was determined to hold on to until he, Carter, was too old himself to know what to do with it. But that was life. This was his job, to assist his captain. He understood what ambition was, but he had no jealousy, no beef with Alexander whatsoever. The man was a skilled operator, and had plentiful experience; more indeed than Carter. He was more than happy to wait, to bide his time. And anyway, this was not the time for mutinous thinking. The damage to the dish could be a critical factor in whether he remained with the Space Programme to achieve that promotion. He knew this as well as the others.
He reached the Communications Centre as Williams joined him and, shrugging, proceeded to tap in the code for the door, knowing that it wouldn’t open. It fulfilled this expectation by remaining inanimate. Williams aimed a kick at it, which left a red scuff on the white carbon-fibre shell of the building, and resonated as a hollow echo across the barren planet.
“Is there anything we can do. I have to get back to Commander Roberts with a report…”
“As I said, dust the most likely culprit. We have to get into that shed and check the manual controls.” Williams pointed in the direction of a white hut; part of a cluster of buildings that encircled the Communications Centre. Alexander nodded and signalled the two astronauts to see to it, while he contacted the Commander.
Carter took one look at the reinforced door to the control shed, a quick glance at his foot, and swiftly made a decision.
“Explosive,” he said, turning so that Williams could extract the munitions from the back of Carter’s suit. He unzipped a compartment below Carter’s right shoulder-blade, pulled out a dark, malleable package, and closed it again. The putty-like explosive was glynitroceteline-based, and would likely blow out the door and much of the wall of the shed. Williams proceeded to connect a wire fuse to a remote detonator, complaining as he worked.
“I mean, what actually is the point of putting the manual override somewhere that requires an automatic signal to open?! What were Mars 1 thinking, exactly?! Its almost as if its some sort of practical joke, and they’re making things deliberately difficult for the next suckers to come along…”
“It does seem strange,” Carter agreed, squashing the explosive down around the edges of the door, and taking the end of the fuse handed to him by Williams, before sticking it deep into the blobby end of the putty.
“I mean, it couldn’t have been in their orders; NASA wouldn’t authorise this! But at the end of the day, they were the only ones up here, who could’ve thought this up…”
“We’re done, Blue 91, lets get back to the Major at the doors.” Carter trudged away, trailing the fuse from the detonator to his right, in order to stop Williams, on his left, from treading on it and breaking the connection. Williams quickly caught up in order to finish his rant.
“Enough, Blue 91.”
Carter stood to attention, “Sir?”
“We have received a communication from NASA that no equipment from the Mars 1 programme is to be damaged, as a testament to the crew and their discoveries and achievements…” Major Alexander trailed off slightly, and the two astronauts could hear the distaste in his voice, “Incidentally, Blue 48, that looks very much like a detonator in your hand.”
“No other way in, Red 6.”
“Is that right? How unfortunate. It looks like all this has been for nothing…” Alexander grinned without humour, and spoke into his radio, “Blue 23, confirm your position, over.”
“Er, didn’t catch that, sir, could you say again…”
“Kitty, where are you standing? Right now?”
“Oh… landing zone, sir. Second team on their way down now, sir, they took off a few minutes ago, now, sir. Over.”
“Thank you, Blue 23. Hold position, please, out.”
Alexander rolled his eyes as if to indicate that there were better things he could be doing right now than this, which more than likely involved a golf course and a cool drink.
“No other way in, Red 6.” Carter repeated, as if reminding Alexander where he was and what he needed to do.
“Indeed. Hurry up and blow the thing then, Blue 48. I’m starving.”
“Affirmative. Stand clear; weapon armed. Weapon primed to activate on my mark. Three, two, one… mark.”
A sheet of red flame punctuated by the light of the burning chemicals tore upwards from where the shed had been, trailing brown, dirty, smoky fumes. As the light dimmed after about a minute, and the haze cleared, it became clear that the shed was still standing, but much of one section had been reduced to jagged carbon fibre edges and blackened steel.
“We shall have to make a note of this in the damages column of our report…” Alexander muttered, absent-mindedly kicking aside some wreckage, and turning off his radio to shut out the angry chatter from the second team, who were clearly shocked at what they had just seen.
“Was this such a good idea?” Williams asked, tentatively, regarding the remains of the small building critically, as he might the work of a cowboy-builder on his holiday home. Mechanics were his forté, and he hated to see damage to their contents and components.
“Yes,” Carter replied, “Take a look…” He stepped aside to allow Williams and Alexander to see what he was looking at. Someone had attached a metal plate to the back of the door they had just blown in. It’s edges had been scorched by the blast, but it was easy to make out the word ‘SUCKERS’ etched on its surface.