The Orthogonal Galaxy

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Chapter 4

For Garrison O’Ryan, it was the experience of a lifetime. As the most common route taken on nearly all manned space missions these days, astronauts call it “the interstate” of space travel. As a 26-year old astronaut, Garrison was making his first journey along this well-beaten path. NASA engineers are quick to point that this interstate is actually safer than the one frequented during the morning commute. There had never been any incident along this well-traveled corridor, and Garrison was confident that he wouldn’t be the first, even though he was a bit nervous about having to fly solo.

As it turns out, there are actually two legs to “the interstate.” The first leg is a relatively short 250,000-mile two-day trip from Kennedy Space Center on the Florida coastline to the “rest stop” at Camp Moon. Garrison will stop here and take a day to get several hours of rest. From there, he will leave his rocket-intensive Moon Shuttle behind for the more cramped but speedy design of the Mars Shuttle, on which he will travel the second leg of “the interstate” all the way to Mars. Due to its weaker gravitational field, the Moon makes a more desirable location for launching a vehicle towards Mars. Once in flight, the shuttle will transport Garrison to Mars in just over a month of travel. While NASA always plans this second leg to be as short as possible—that is, when the Earth and Mars are relatively close to each other—this part of the trip will still take Garrison an additional 60 million miles away from his home. Astronauts claim that you feel every one of those miles too, because while the Mars Shuttle was designed for speed, comfort ranked pretty low on the list of design constraints.

On the first leg, Garrison was overwhelmed at how massive the Earth appears when viewed from several thousand miles above sea level. The vastness of his home and the space surrounding him diminished his own sense of worth in the universe in which he lived. As he orbited the moon to prepare for landing, he was amazed to see the incredible detail of the deep, shadow-laden craters. He was astounded at how much effort it took to walk on the Moon, especially considering that he only weighed thirty-three pounds there. He also noted how Camp Moon felt like a well-preserved ghost town, particularly because he was the only person present on the ten-acre site of buildings and hangars. He was not, however, surprised at how little he was able to sleep. With the anxiety of the long trip ahead of him, he only nodded off for a couple of hours, and found himself in a confused state when he awoke, wondering if all of this was nothing more than a dream.

Walking from his dorm to the hangar where the Mars Shuttle waited for him, he observed a crescent Earth that hung precariously over the horizon. He ate his breakfast consisting of a protein bar and pomegranate energy drink, both scientifically calculated to minimize the amount of waste he’d incur on his flight to Mars. Then he suited up, left his pressurized room, and made his way out to the runway, where his Mars Shuttle waited.

The Mars Shuttle was designed for horizontal takeoff and landing, both easier propositions for a solo pilot. It sat at the beginning of a relatively short runway indicating its readiness for service and its ability to accelerate into space very quickly.

Garrison knew how small the space craft was, for he had already become familiar with the cockpit in several prototypes. What amazed Garrison, however, was the comparatively massive solid rocket boosters bolted underneath each wing. The boosters were so large that the bottom of the vehicle was twenty feet off the ground, meaning that the boosters had to have landing gear of their own in order to propel the shuttle down the runway. Garrison knew that the boosters were necessary. In order to obtain high velocity, the shuttle requires a massive volume of rocket fuel to obtain the required speed, even in this low-gravity environment. Once jettisoned, the boosters would be able to return to Camp Moon via automated computer navigation. The same landing gear would be used to touch down on the satellite and then taxi off of the runway for future use.

Looking up at his tiny home for the next month, Garrison paused momentarily, wondering whether he really wanted to be confined to this miniscule capsule for a month. But, he knew that he had not spent years preparing himself for this moment, only to turn around and abort the mission now. Climbing the ladder structure to the top of the rocket booster and then walking the length of the booster to his cockpit, O’Ryan paused just a moment to admire the Earth and wondered if his wife was looking up at him at the same moment.

Throwing his body down into the cockpit, he sealed the hatch above him, and listened as a rush of air pressurized his environment, allowing him to stow his helmet in a compartment under his seat. Running through a checklist, he inspected gauges and monitor readouts to ensure that all systems were prepared for launch.

“Mission Control, this is Captain O’Ryan, prepared for takeoff in the Mars Shuttle Iowa” Garrison announced formally to NASA engineers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

“Iowa,” responded a mission control specialist, “this is Mission Control. We’re going over the last set of data from the vehicle to make sure we are a go for launch in T minus 32 minutes. We’ll confirm system check in twenty minutes, Captain.”

“All systems checked from visual inspection of the vehicle, Mission Control”, Garrison confirmed confidently.

“How ya’ feeling, Garrison?” asked another specialist more casually.

“Certainly not as comfortable as you, Halton.” Garrison recognized the voice of his astronaut mentor, Halton Cooke. Cooke had recently retired from the astronaut program, but still served as a mission advisor to NASA on retainer.

“D’ya sleep well?” Halton knew that the chit chat would help keep Garrison’s mind occupied during the pre-launch routine.

“What do you think?” Garrison answered the question with one of his own.

“Yeah, I copy you on that, O’Ryan.” Halton couldn’t help but smile as he leaned back with his hands behind his head, making sure not to pull off his headset. “After your third or fourth trip, you’ll be sleeping like a baby in that bed on the moon.”

“Sleeping like a baby?” quipped Garrison. “You don’t know the O’Ryan baby apparently. That little tike didn’t sleep until he was two years old it seemed.”

“Then, you’ll get to know how he felt,” volleyed Halton quickly. “By the time you get to Mars, you’re going to feel like you’ve gone two years without any sleep.”

“And that’s supposed to make me feel better?” asked Garrison.

“No,” admitted Halton. “It’s supposed to make you feel prepared. This is going to be a long trip, Garrison. I hope you’re ready for it.”

“Of course, I’m ready,” lied Garrison. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“My prediction is that you will certainly miss the world before you come home a couple of years from now.” The brutal honesty of Halton did not escape his friend. He was used to it, and it was that ability to say things exactly as he saw them for which O’Ryan had always admired his mentor. However, while Garrison had known that he’d be gone for nearly two years, the realization of this was just starting to settle in. He thought even more profoundly than previously how Timmer would be six years old by then. He wondered if he would even be able to remember his father after that much time.

All astronauts served a twenty-two month rotation on Camp Mars. A pair of astronauts was stationed there at all times. Garrison was hitting the early part of the window where Earth and Mars are sufficiently close to make the trip. He would relieve an astronaut, who would return in the Mars Shuttle back to Camp Moon shortly after he landed. Then in a month, another exchange would occur, relieving Garrison’s companion of his duties in a similar manner. After that, the Earth and Moon would continue to diverge, as Earth raced around its orbit at twice the rate of Mars. After one year, the Earth would be back in the same position it was today, but Mars would’ve only traveled one half of its orbit, placing it on the other side of the Sun from Earth. Both planets would need to travel another nine months around their orbit in order for their positions to be close enough for Garrison to be relieved of his duties on the red planet.

“Iowa,” interrupted the mission control specialist from Garrison’s nostalgia. “All systems check. You’re good for launch in T minus six minutes.”

Halton announced to Garrison that it was time to resume business as the last several steps of launch preparation would need to be completed. Upon hearing the commotion from mission specialists on Earth, images and thoughts rushed through his head like they did back in Florida just a couple of days ago. And then in a flash, it happened.

“10… 9… Iowa, you have horizontal acceleration. Rockets are engaged at 100%... 4... 3... 2… 1… Mars Shuttle Iowa has lifted off from the runway. Second leg mission clock has commenced at four hours, twelve minutes, and seven seconds GMT.”

Even though Garrison had already seen Earth and the Moon from the sweeping view of space, Garrison was even more stunned as he stared out of his shuttle down onto the surface of Mars. While orbiting the red planet, he was able to identify some of the most prevalent features that he’d become so familiar with.

He easily noticed the massive scar-like canyon, Valles Marineris. The deepest, widest, and longest canyon in the solar system, even from several hundred miles above, Garrison was stunned at its massive structure. On Earth, Marineris would stretch from Los Angeles to New York City, with depths up to 25000 feet, and would span a distance of 125 miles wide. By comparison, the Grand Canyon would look like a small ditch. He observed massively fractured canyons jutting off of both sides of the main canyon walls, until Marineris narrowed tightly into a maze of slot canyons, called Noctis Labyrinthus.

The Labyrinth of the Night was Garrison’s favorite feature of Mars. He was thrilled to discover that part of his mission on Mars would entail a visit to this feature, along with a significant investigation of the geological—or, because it was Mars, and not the Earth, areological—forces of this region. With his mouth open in surprise, he attempted to gain a perspective a the massive sand dunes he saw swirling up onto the canyon walls. He imagined that these structures might rival anything found in the Sahara Desert, since the canyon walls were as tall as 10,000 feet.

The shuttle whisked him away from the Labyrinth quicker than he would hope, and in craning his neck to see the last of it, he hadn’t realized that he was directly over the Tharsis Region mountain peaks: Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Ascraeus Mons. Ranging from fifty to sixty thousand feet in elevation, these three mountains arranged in a straight line were easily identifiable.

The jaw dropping experience of the Tharsis Mountains had dazed the young astronaut, but he quickly recovered to remember exactly where to locate another impressive feature. The aptly named Olympus Mons—Mount Olympus—sat on the western edge of the Tharsis region. While no longer active, the solar system’s largest volcano grew to its stature over a period of about 100 million years. Every astronaut will attest that nothing can prepare you for awesome sight of Olympus Mons from the ground. Towering at nearly 90000 feet or 17 miles above the mean level surface of Mars, you would have to stack three Mount Everests on top of each other to understand the degree of reverence this behemoth commands. As he passed just to the south of the mountain, Garrison stared down into the 60-mile wide caldera. Seeing the six impact craters at the top, Garrison could understand just how difficult it would be for a meteor to actually miss the top of this mountain. It just looked like a magnet the way it leapt off of the plains surrounding it.

On a second orbit of the planet, Iowa entered Mars’ thin atmosphere with hardly any indication. The shuttle began a sharp decent and leveled off directly over a feature that Garrison had missed earlier. The Hellas Impact Basin impressed Garrison greatly as he was only about thirty miles above Mar’s largest impact crater. He shuttered to think about the violence required for an impact to leave a hole 1500 miles wide and over five miles deep. In fact, seeing the landscape peppered with hundreds of thousands of craters-within-a-crater caused Garrison to shudder with concern for his own safety at Camp Mars. However, he had to remind himself that this landscape did not occur overnight, and that his odds of being hit by a meteor on Mars was only a little better than being hit by lightning on Earth.

As he left the Hellas basin, Iowa started issuing a series of lights and buzzers that reminded Garrison it was time to get down to the business of touching down on the runway of Camp Mars, just moments away.

Compared to all of the massive features that he’d been experiencing, it was a good thing that the computer navigational system knew where to pinpoint the relatively tiny three-mile wide crater that was home to Camp Mars. The landscape was littered with craters. As he strained to find his crater, he couldn’t help wondering whether he would be able to spot such an inauspicious feature. Fortunately for Garrison, the crater glowed with artificial lighting. The greens and oranges of the lighting towers focused his sight to the camp, and eventually to the red ground lights lining the two-mile long runway. His approach and landing was incredibly smooth, a point which he would first mention proudly to the pair of astronauts eager to make introductions with their replacement.

“Did you see that landing?” Garrison asked as he made his decent from the shuttle onto Martian soil. “I should’ve become a commercial airline pilot.”

“Well, Stud,” interrupted one of the astronaut companions. “Before you pat yourself too hard on the back, just remember that you’re in a much thinner atmosphere here… there’s not as much turbulence and wind, at least not here near the equator.”

“Oh, yeah. Good point” Garrison’s bubble had burst. “Gentlemen, I’m Garrison O’Ryan reporting for duty. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“No,” answered the other astronaut with a Russian accent. “The pleasure is ours. We are glad to see the first replacement. It has been much privilege come to Mars, but I am eager to see family again. Come, we show you the barrack now. You must be exhausted.”

“Am I ever!” Garrison yawned and stretched, and as he took his first step, he faltered. While the cockpit of every Mars Shuttle was equipped with exercise mechanisms needed to keep limbs from freezing up. It had been over a month since he had actually used his limbs in any meaningful fashion.

“Oh,” said one of the Martian veterans. “I’m so sorry. I forgot that it’s nearly impossible to walk upon touchdown here. Let us help you.”

With that, each astronaut flanked O’Ryan and assisted him into the barracks, where he was able to strip out of his spacesuit and collapse in a heap on a bed wearing only his long underwear.

After a few hours of rest—it seemed more like a couple of minutes to him—Garrison’s two colleagues woke him up from a deep slumber.

“Rise and shine, Sleepy Head,” called out one astronaut.

With an achy head and blurry eyes, Garrison responded, “What time is it?”

Looking at his watch, the other astronaut offered, “Well, it’s 2:30 PM, Tharsis Standard Time.”

“Ok,” nodded Garrison. “Thanks, but why did I even ask that question? Let me try again. How long have I been sleeping?”

“Well, you arrived this morning at precisely 9:17 AM, so it’s been a little over five hours.”

“Really?” Garrison sat up in his bed and looked around now that his eyes were beginning to focus.

“How are you feeling, Garrison?” The first astronaut held out a hand for Garrison.

“Ayman!” Grasping his hand firmly and joyously, Garrison recognized his astronaut fellow from some training sessions they had performed together a few years ago at Kennedy. “I’m fine… a little tired, but that’s nothing that a few days of sleep won’t solve.”

“Well, I’d love to grant it to you, but I need to depart for Camp Moon before the sun sets. We have just a couple of hours to give you the grand tour here before I head back home.” Then, turning to the third astronaut, he said, “Garrison O’Ryan, I’d like you to meet a great friend of mine who has served marvelously at my side these last couple of years. This is Dmitri Boronov. He will be your companion here for the next couple of months until his replacement arrives.”

“Ah, yes,” Garrison warmly bowed and grasped the hand of his new companion, “We met earlier, but I was a bit out of it. By the way, I didn’t get a chance to thank you for helping me walk into the barracks earlier.”

“You should be slow to stand now,” counseled Dmitri. “It will take few minutes to use legs.”

Heeding his advice, Garrison stood slowly from his bed and while steadying himself on the wall next to it, took just a few experimental steps. “I must agree with you, Comrade.”

“We will give you a few minutes to adjust and dress, Garrison,” said Ayman. “To encourage you, there will be a hot bowl of soup, fresh-baked bread and juice waiting for you in the dining room.”

Garrison didn’t realize how hungry he was until he heard this discussion of food. “That sounds great!” admitted Garrison. “I’ll be there as quick as I can… um, where is the dining room, anyway?”

“As you leave the room, turn left and proceed to the end of the hallway. The door is right at the end. See you there soon.”

Garrison thanked the pair as they left his room, where he stretched his limbs and began learning how to walk all over again. He found a sweat suit in his closet, exactly like those being worn by Ayman and Dmitri, with the name “O’Ryan” embroidered on the left chest pocket. The door to a private bathroom was open, so he stepped in. After splashing water on his face and hair, he washed his hands and felt much better. He would’ve liked to take a shower, but his appetite and time constraints gave way to the temptation. Toweling himself off with a large white towel, which also had the name “O’Ryan” embroidered on it, he ventured back into the bedroom to dress.

As if his legs might still give out under him, he walked slowly and cautiously out of the bedroom and into the hallway. He peered down both ends. So far, the barracks had a more homey impression than he might otherwise have expected. The cream-colored plush carpet led down towards the dining room at one end and the foyer at the other end. Framed pictures and artwork, depicting some of the impressive features of Mars lined both walls. Towards the foyer, he could see all of the typical NASA-produced hypergraphs of each Martian-based astronaut lining either side of the hallway.

The door to the dining room was open, and he could hear the soft din of a casual discussion taking place between Ayman and Dmitri as he approached. He could only make out the occasional word or phrase: “Home”, “your family”, “what an adventure.”

Ayman and Dmitri quickly stood up as Garrison appeared, as if needing to help him to a seat.

“I’m fine,” He waved them off. “I’m actually adjusting rather quickly. I suspect that it’s because of the lighter gravity that my legs are feeling back to normal so quickly.”

“True,” admitted Ayman. “Keep in mind, however that the adjustment will not be so sudden when you return to Earth. Part of our daily regimen is an exercised routine prescribed by NASA trainers to ensure that we do not lose muscle tone in our arms, back and legs. This is because the gravity here is so much less than it is on Earth that muscle atrophy would cause a serious impediment to an adjustment to Earth life.”

At this, Ayman noticed that Garrison was bracing himself on a chair, and realized that he was still laboring a little bit to get his full strength back.

“I’m sorry, Garrison… please, have a seat.” Ayman gestured to the chair. He sat down to a place setting as Dmitri walked over to a counter. From under a heat lamp, he grabbed a steaming bowl and a plate with all of the contents as promised. Garrison noticed that the remains of the other astronauts’ lunches remained on the table.

“Cheese steak sandwiches and potato salad?” asked Garrison curiously. He was famished and thought that he should be able to partake in the more wholesome fare of his colleagues.

“Sorry, Garrison.” Ayman hung his head in apology. “For the first few days, NASA has ordered a strict diet of soft foods for you. You’ve been so unaccustomed to eating ‘real’ food that it will take some time for your digestive system to adjust.”

“No worries, Ayman.” Garrison understood his predicament. “After a month of those cardboard bars and watered-down powder, this chicken soup and bread look more like a steak and lobster meal to me.”

With that, Garrison commenced to devour his supper while Ayman briefed him on the duties of the afternoon.

“As soon as you’re done there, Garrison, we’ll need to show you around. We’ll start with the central facilities, including the barracks here, and the workshop and bunker just outside. Then, we’ll drive the Mars Terrain Vehicle to the outer portions of the crater to show you all of the support structures which make life and work possible for us here at Camp Mars.

“Dmitri and I have already taxied the Iowa into the hanger and have fueled up and positioned the Nevada for my trip back to the Moon, so we’ll finish the tour at the runway, so I can take off while there’s still some sunlight. NASA always prefers us to have the best visual conditions as possible when landing or launching from the crater.”

Dmitri interjected an important item which Ayman had omitted from the agenda. “We must remember to get new headset at SAR pad. It should be there now.”

“Thank you, Dmitri,” said Ayman. “I almost forgot that my communication headset has been flaky the last couple of days. I certainly want to make sure that I depart with a set that I know will work on the trip back to Mars. It would be awful to lose communication from Mission Control.”

After he had finished his meal, Garrison felt adequately refreshed and strengthened for the tour. They began, logically enough, with the barracks. Comprising four bedrooms, each with a private bath, the barracks were sufficiently appointed for comfort and peace. Each bedroom had a full-sized bed with unaesthetic, yet comfortable, bedding. Each bed had a wall-mounted light bright enough for reading. Next to the bed was a nightstand with a lamp. The lamp was designed to provide soft lighting, and certainly wasn’t sufficient to read by. It was, however, adequate to extract any personal items off from the drawer of the nightstand or make a trip to the bathroom. There was also a large wardrobe, consisting of underwear, sweat suits, and spacesuits for outside activities.

The dining room and kitchenette were cozy, yet adequate. A round kitchen table was could seat four astronauts, since there were rarely anymore than this on Camp Mars at any given time. In the kitchen area, there was a sink, microwave oven, and a small refrigerator. Garrison opened the fridge to reveal that it was only stocked with beverages and condiments. Cupboards revealed dishes, glasses, mugs, utensils, and spices for meals as each astronaut may desire. There was also a stock of snacks—pretzels, popcorn, chips, and candy bars—available to the astronauts as desired.

In the middle of the hallway was an exercise room

A trip down to the other end of the hall revealed a small foyer with some plush seating and tables with magazines and newspapers. Two rooms extended off of each side of the foyer. The first revealed a study with plenty of books for reading—fiction and non-fiction were equally represented, and there was a sufficient amount of light reading and some that looked calculated to help an astronaut endure an evening of insomnia. There were two reading stations, which consisted of an overstuffed recliner, a throw blanket, pillow, and an audio station with wireless headphones. A side table was within reach of each chair, allowing the astronaut to store his current book of interest and any beverage or snack that he might be enjoying at the time.

The second room on the opposite side of the foyer was a room that Garrison was frankly surprised to see. He had not been told about the entertainment room, and this proved to be a significant perk. By far the largest room in the barracks, this room consisted of two plush theater-style rocker-recliner chairs that sat in front of a coffee table directed towards a bare eight foot wall. On the ceiling behind the chairs was a high-definition digital projector, whose image covered the top half of the wall, for a full eight-foot wide image. A media center between the chairs came equipped with a high-quality Holographic Video Disk player and sizable library of HVDs. The latest audio technology was included in the form of a 540-degree surround sound system. Developers used the term “540-degree”, because it provides a more immersive audio experience than the 360-degree system. At 360 degrees, there is a full wall-length speaker on each of the walls in the room, so that sound can come from all angles. The 540-degree effect comes in from the set of four speakers mounted on the ceiling as well, to give a more dome-like effect to the audio. A video game console was also connected into the projector, and a few titles were available, but this was not as popular a piece of equipment for many of the astronauts. Either way, Garrison thought he was sure to give it a try, since he would have plenty of time ahead of him for the next couple of years. Behind the chairs was a fully equipped mahogany pool table with a billiard lamp and two bar stools.

“This is amazing!” Garrison admitted. “Why hadn’t I heard about this.”

“It’s actually a well-guarded secret,” smiled Ayman. “After enduring the long journey, all Mars astronauts have agreed that this little fringe benefit really makes their day.”

“Or in our case,” Boronov interjected, “it makes our two years. It is, as the American say, icing on cake, I think?”

“Icing on the cake?” Garrison reacted. “This is the whole darn bakery, Dmitri.”

“Come,” Ayman put his hand on Garrison’s shoulder. “You’ll have plenty of time to enjoy this room. First, we need to show you the rest of the compound.”

They exited the foyer and wandered back down the hallway. They opened a door, previously unexplored by Garrison, and turned on a light inside. This was not a room but instead a staircase which led down to a tunnel under the ground. The tunnel was lit by fluorescent lights mounted to the concrete ceiling. The walls and floor were also concrete and were sealed to maintain the pressure and oxygen needed by the astronauts. After walking for about thirty feet, a staircase took them back up to another closed door, which Ayman, leading the way, opened up for the three astronauts.

As Garrison emerged from the door, he found that he was in a very large open room, clearly a workshop. There were tools and electronic devices of all different types. Workbenches complete with electrostatic discharge mats allowed the astronauts the ability to work on all types of electronics. A twenty-foot tall roll-up door was visible at the end of the building. Just inside the door was a vehicle which looked like a jeep but had four axles underneath the chassis. Each axle had two wheels on a side for a total of sixteen wheels. This was the Mars Terrain Vehicle or MTV. He recognized it instantly, as he had practiced driving prototypes through obstacle courses at the China Lake Naval Weapon Center just outside of Death Valley, California. He knew how this little vehicle could climb over boulders, and almost vertically up the sides of canyon walls, a useful ability, considering the vast number of cratered walls that would have to be encountered and handled on Mars.

After a brief introduction to some of the equipment and safety procedures of the workshop, Ayman confessed that there would be much about this building that Garrison would have to become familiar with due time. Dmitri would provide him with full training on all of the facilities within the next month. During the three or so months of transition, there would be no scientific missions or planetary explorations in order to allow the new astronauts a full briefing of the camp.

The group returned back down the stairway and then proceeded into a different corridor that Garrison did not notice during his first trip down the tunnel. It led to a bunker 150 feet below ground. The bunker was a huge cavern about 300 yards wide by 500 yards long. Despite its size, it was well-lit with a regular array of fluorescent lighting along the ceiling and walls. There were racks full of emergency supplies. Should anything go wrong on Camp Mars, the astronauts would be able to survive in the bunker for three months—long enough for a rescue mission to arrive and return the astronauts safely back to Earth.

The most likely and devastating scenario for such an emergency was a meteor impact. Mars was situated very close to the asteroid belt, which made it particularly vulnerable to meteor impacts. Fortunately, the thin atmosphere was still sufficient to mitigate the threat of constant meteoric bombardment, so the odds of a meteor landing in the vicinity of Camp Mars were very remote. While the possibility of this event was certainly weighed by NASA early on in the planning of the Camp Mars project, there was still good reason to justify the 120 billion dollars that the mission has cost NASA since its beginning a couple of decades earlier.

Ayman was proving to be an excellent tour guide, effectively showing Garrison the most important aspects of Martian living and working. They now returned to the workshop and suited up to go outside. Garrison was surprised at how quickly his fellow astronauts were able to fully suit up, and while he was finishing this laborious activity, the others had already rolled up the large garage door, fired up the MTV and drove it into the decompression garage.

After Garrison joined them in this new room, Dmitri pressed a button on a control panel to close the garage door behind them. Then, pressing another button, a loud hissing sound indicated that the room was losing most of its precious oxygen. Once the valves and gauges of the pressurization system had detected nearly equivalent pressures inside and outside of the garage, a second roll-up door slowly elevated.

A dull brown sunlight began to splash into the garage, and it was the first time that Garrison realized that he had not seen sunlight since he arrived on Mars. He’d forgotten that due to pressurization differences between the inside and outside of the buildings, windows were features that could not be added. Instead, solid concrete and rock walls, five feet thick were needed to ensure a safe, pressurized environment in which the astronauts could live.

Ayman climbed into the driver’s seat of the MTV, and Dmitri gestured for Garrison to take the passenger’s seat. The MTV was really built just for two passengers, since that was the typical operating procedure. However, a flat and uncomfortable platform in the back of the vehicle served as seating for additional passengers.

“No,” said Garrison to his senior companion. “You should sit up front, Dmitri.”

“It is not so,” Dmitri responded quietly. “Ayman will show you much about the compound. It will be better learning for you in front seat.”

Garrison yielded reluctantly to this logic, and with all three astronauts configured in the vehicle, Ayman nudged the accelerator, and the MTV lunged for the paved driveway outside of the garage. Garrison lowered his sunshield over his helmet. While the Sun is not quite as bright on Mars, it was still brighter than inside. Further, there was a dusty glare through the atmosphere that made it even more difficult to see.

With jaw dropped, he surveyed the landscape for the first time. Upon his arrival, he had been too exhausted to notice anything. He looked down at the rust-colored dirt off to the side of the black asphalt. He could see lava rocks protruding from the layer of fine-grained Martian sand. He looked up to the rim of the crater. With a quick 360-degree examination, he could see that he was in the center of the crater with steeply-sloped walls that rose hundreds of feet above the ground. With only one exception, the camp was completely surrounded by cliffs. After vast deliberation and somewhat heated arguments at NASA headquarters, it was the exception which Garrison was now observing that compelled NASA to select this crater as the site of the camp.

Camp Mars was located in a crater that was very similar to most of the impact craters originally. However, a lava flow from Arsia Mons surrounded this particular crater and eventually broke through one of its walls, flooding it with lava. As a result, this crater was an extremely desirable location. At three-miles wide, it was just the right size. It had walls to protect the camp from high winds and dust storms. It had a natural opening that gave easy access into and out of the crater. And unlike most craters which are significantly deep because of the impact, this crater had been filled in, such that it was at the same exact elevation on the inside of the crater as it was on the outside of it.

High up on one cliff, he saw large American and Russian flags perched next to each other, but noticed the discoloration caused by the Martian atmosphere. The American flag appeared to have brown and yellow stripes and yellow stars set on a background of purple waved in a gentle breeze while a smaller-than-expected sun shown in the tawny sky above. Garrison and Dmitri remained quiet as they allowed the surrealistic nature of O’Ryan’s new home to settle in.

Due to the electric engine and smooth suspension of the MTV, Garrison didn’t realize that they had just made their first stop. He was still enraptured with his new surroundings.

“Garrison,” Ayman stated in grandiose fashion. “This is the SAR pad.”

Garrison snapped out of his amazement and returned to the task at hand. He saw a huge building about a half-mile long and five stories tall. It was by far the largest and most dominating of any building in the crater. However, its design was similar to the other buildings around camp, so there was nothing particularly aesthetic about it. Four concrete walls and a flat steel-reinforced concrete ceiling did not give Garrison anything to write home about. However, this building, he knew to be one of the most significant and well-used facilities on the premises. Indeed, the SAR pad was absolutely essential to life on Mars.

Sub-atomic replication was an earth-shattering invention that occurred just before Garrison was born. A team of physicists under contract with the U.S. government worked on a project so secretive that it rivaled the efforts of the Manhattan Project which brought the world into the nuclear age way back in the twentieth century. Their efforts landed themselves a Nobel Prize in physics for their invention.

The concept of sub-atomic replication is simple enough. Everything that has mass is made up of atoms. These atoms have sub-atomic building blocks—neutrons, protons, and electrons. The theory for years had been that if you could take an atom and reconfigure the number and relationship of these sub-atomic particles then you could literally turn any atom into a completely different atom. For this reason, the project was dubbed the Midas Project, with the thought in mind that if the project succeeded, then it would literally be possible that anything could be turned to gold.

Once the physicists were able to demonstrate the successful reconfiguration of an atom, they could then turn their alchemistic efforts to the molecular level. The problem which hampered the scientists for so long was how they could reconfigure an object of significant complexity. The usefulness of the solution was very limiting, because they were only able to demonstrate sub-atomic replication to the most basic of materials. Such would be of little use to the government.

A significant breakthrough occurred when a particular electrochemical reaction was discovered that facilitated the stripping away of layers of complex objects, but there were still two problems that remained. First, the massive amount of computation and data storage that was required to understand the object’s exact sub-atomic ingredients and relationships were daunting. Second, because layers were literally stripped away one at a time, only solid materials could effectively be replicated. Liquids and gasses would escape their container as they were stripped away sub-atomically. For example, if the SAR machine were to strip away the layers of glass, there would be no glass to hold the water. Thus, before the layers representing the water could be reached, the contents of the glass became a mere puddle on the floor, making it impossible to reconstruct its original state inside the glass.

To solve the first problem, the team worked long and hard on an algorithm using photonic computing. Photonic computers utilize a different approach to calculation than do classic computers. While the latter relies on bits which can take on one of two binary states—0 or 1—the former relies on colored photons of light that race around nano-optic cables. Each photon conveys 32 bits of data that represents a unique signature of the color and its brightness. The fact that they travel at the speed of light makes it even faster to move data around. In order to solve the second problem, the team used magnetic refrigerators in order to produce temperatures near absolute zero. At sufficiently cold temperatures, all matter freezes. Once frozen, it is then possible to strip away the layers to compose a full chemical map of the object. It turned out that magnetic refrigeration made the entire process more robust. Because of the lack of heat, the state of the sub-atomic particles showed very little variance during the process of decomposition, and as a result, the map was less likely to be in error when the object was replicated. This, then, was the silver lining that paid out gold for the Midas Project.

The project proved to be a tremendous success, and talk of “teleportation” became a household standard. Yet, because of the manner in which the problem was solved, sub-atomic replication only applied to non-living material. Scientists would have to go back to the drawing board if they ever wanted to teleport people seamlessly from point A to point B. Once the myth was dispelled that NASA had no astronauts that could bark the command, “Beam me up, Scotty,” interest among the lay person diminished.

But as time went by that interest was rekindled in the business sector. Entrepreneurs began to realize the potential of sub-atomic replication. Imagine the money that could be saved in the transportation industry if long-haul truck drivers could be replaced with regional SAR pads. Manufacturers salivated at the thought of producing a map of one superior product which could be cloned by throwing a bunch of sand into a machine. At one point, Coca-Cola was known to request licensing the technology for a one-time fee of $600 billion, because they recognized how quickly they could recover the price when they would only need to come up with massive quantities of very low-price raw materials—dirt, rocks, garbage—that they could be fed into a SAR generator and thereby crank out bottle after bottle of refreshing carbonated beverages. When the U.S. government promptly shut down discussions, Coca-Cola renegotiated based on a potentially more lucrative royalty-based proposal. It would offer the U.S. an opportunity to reap the profits directly from the manufacturer instead of through the tax structure. While such a proposal had many on Capitol Hill scouring calculations about what such a proposal might do to release the U.S. of an ever-blossoming budget deficit, many experts were quick to point out the socio-economic devastation that might result.

Fears were justified just months after the second Coca-Cola proposal was nixed. A ring of NASA scientists were scandalized for unauthorized usage of the SAR pad. They had crafted a way to bypass certain security mechanisms such that there was no record of their entry. However, federal agents investigating a counterfeit money scheme eventually discovered the operation. After convictions and sentences were issued to the participants, NASA tightened security at each earth-based SAR pad to prevent further corruption. In the meantime, progress on Camp Mars was hampered such that the project completed two years behind schedule and caused great public outcry for its budget overruns.

Now recognizing the potential problems that such a technology would cast onto a fragile international economy, the U.S. government thought it wise to treat sub-atomic replication as secret as nuclear technology. Further, the number of sub-atomic facilities had been limited to just five. These were located at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Johnson Space Center in Texas, Camp Moon, and Camp Mars. Each was equipped to decompose or replicate any object from encrypted data which was transmitted to its receiver from any other site via satellite.

It is impossible to argue against the fact that SAR technology was absolutely required for sustained life on Mars. Through the technology, astronauts obtain everything from chisels to cheese-steak sandwiches to the very chemicals and supplies needed to run the SAR pad. From a constant supply of mass acquired through waste materials, astronauts are able to restock everything they need to sustain life.

The only additional requirement to make life on Camp Mars possible is the constant demand on energy to make all of the chemical transitions. Fortunately, the sun is a constant source of energy on Mars, for which the astronauts can tap into without any atmospheric obstructions making solar energy a very reliable source of power.

As the crew staggered towards the massive building in the awkward gravity of Mars, Dmitri was the first to reach the steel door. He released the latch mechanism and slowly swung the door open with some effort. Garrison peered into utter darkness while Ayman crossed the threshold and flipped a large circuit breaker. The room flooded with a bright light that caused Garrison to squint at first. He walked inside to see a cavernous concrete box. Very little adorned this wide-open building, but upon close scrutiny, Garrison did notice that the back wall was lined with tall chemical canisters and pipes running out of them in a chaotic looking manner. They ran this way and that up the wall and into the ceiling. There were tiny darkened windows about twelve inches square all the way around the interior about half way up each wall. There was a room in one corner of the building that had a large window about 15 feet off of the floor. Through the window, Garrison could see a series of control panels with yellow and green lights sparsely spread across each panel. Garrison’s attention was then drawn to the center of the room. He peered intensely and noticed that there was a tiny object adorning the floor of the room a couple of hundred yards away.

“What’s that?” Garrison asked, gesturing to the object?

“Ah,” exclaimed Ayman. “That would be my new headset. I’ll just go pick it up and meet you two in the control room.”

Ayman then hopped onto an electric scooter and proceeded to drive to the headset a couple of hundred yards away. Dmitri led Garrison to the control room, first entering the decompression chamber. With the door to the SAR pad sealed, Garrison heard the now familiar sound of air filling the chamber. The two proceeded through another door and proceeded up a stairwell into the control room. After removing their helmets, Garrison looked out of the window to see Ayman driving the scooter back in the direction of the control room. Within a minute he had joined them.

“NASA has asked us to send them the faulty headset so that they can assess the problem,” Ayman informed Garrison as he swapped the faulty set out of his helmet for the good one.

Ayman returned to the center of the room on the scooter and set the faulty set down. After returning, he handed Garrison a pair of dark goggles. Noticing that Dmitri had already put a pair of goggles on himself, he followed the lead of his colleagues.

“I show you the SAR controls,” Dmitri gestured at the main control panel. “First, we decompose the headset. Because it is such small object, this will only take few seconds.”

The first button that Dmitri pushed extinguished the lights from the main room. Then, he dimmed the white lights from the control room, leaving a faint glow of red lighting that shined directly onto the control panel.

“Now, we replenish environment with correct chemical vapor level,” Dmitri depressed another button, which initiated a whistling sound that persisted for a couple of minutes.

“Environment sensors in room inform computer how to correct vapor levels. Once correct levels are reached, this light here will turn on.”

When the team of astronauts saw the square green light with the words “Environment Stable” on it, decomposition could begin. Dmitri slowly turning a knob clockwise, and while doing so, Garrison could see a green glow develop in the main room. He could see a slight haze from the chemicals which had recently been injected as well. In a flash, he saw a steady stream of lasers scanning the room from the windows along the walls. Green, red, and white lasers splashed throughout the room for about six seconds, and then a sudden darkness and quiet enveloped the whole of the SAR pad.

Pushing one last button, the lights were turned on in full and the three astronauts removed their goggles. Garrison looked out into the room and noticed that the headset which sat on the floor was now gone. Decomposed into a fine dust which he could not see due to the distance, the headset became nothing more than a stream of 0s and 1s rushing up to one of the four satellites orbiting Mars. Within fifteen minutes, the data would arrive on Earth, allowing technicians there to replicate and study the headset to determine the source of failure and improve the design in the future.

“And that’s all there is to it, Garrison.” Ayman said grabbing O’Ryan on the shoulder. “One of the most technologically complicated inventions of the millennium boiled down to the push of a few buttons.

While Ayman and Dmitri were the first to place their helmets on their heads, Garrison’s head continued to shake his head in awe of the scene he had just witnessed.

The team of astronauts left the SAR pad and continued on their tour, first stopping at the well house on the Southern end of the crater. Before studying the underground world of Mars, NASA knew that the SAR pad could be used for delivering water to the astronauts. A 55-gallon barrel of ice could easily be decomposed and sent once to the camp. That formula could then be saved into the computer, allowing the astronauts to create as many barrels as were needed. However, after sufficient investigation, areologists were quick to conclude that there likely were large reservoirs of water underneath the surface. After drilling in several locations on the crater, a reservoir had indeed been found several thousand feet below the crater floor. While there was no cycle of precipitation to replenish the reservoir, experts had calculated that the reservoir that had been tapped into should last for a few decades of use in the camp.

The road from the well passed along a couple of smaller craters, evidence of impact since the main crater had been established. O’Ryan was tempted to ask whether his colleagues worried about meteor impacts. An impact was the one thing that Garrison feared the most during his time on Mars. Remembering the lesson that his trainers had engrained in him memory, he shook his head and said to himself, “Stop it, O’Ryan! You’re much more likely to be killed by lightning on earth, than to be killed by a meteor impact on Mars.”

On the west side of the crater, Ayman pointed out the communication towers to Garrison as the team stopped briefly in front of an array of ten large satellite receivers and various radio transmitters all pointed in different directions. After Ayman enumerated the uses and functions of each tower, the team drove on, passing by two large fuel tanks used to store the propellant needed by departing shuttles. Here, the road parallels the two-mile long airstrip. Garrison could see a Mars Shuttle down the runway just outside of the hangar. He knew that this was Ayman’s aircraft, and that soon, the crew on Mars would consist of just himself and the Russian.

Now at the north end of the crater, Ayman parked the vehicle at an electric sub-station on the other side of the crater. The station tied into a vast field of solar panels that filled in the entire crater north of the airstrip. Because of the distance from the sun, solar electricity was less efficient than it was on Earth, and that meant that the power needs of the camp would require a two square mile area of solar panels collecting as much sunlight as possible. Ayman led Garrison on a tour of the sub-station and the solar field. As they returned back towards the vehicle, the sun was getting lower on the horizon.

“Well, gentlemen,” announced Ayman. “I will be leaving you here. I need to get that thing off the ground before the Sun sets.”

“Thanks for the tour, Ayman.” Garrison was appreciative of the hospitality but also felt tentative of his departure. While Dmitri was certainly a capable host, talk had been intermittent, since he deferred much of the orientation to his American companion.

“You’re welcome, O’Ryan. And good luck with your mission here.” Ayman saluted Garrison, since handshakes were not feasible in the spacesuits. He turned and saluted Dmitri as well. “Mr. Boronov, it has been a pleasure serving here with you for the last two years. I’ll look forward to seeing you at our joint press conference and debriefing in a couple of months.”

Dmitri bowed and saluted. “It has been much pleasure of mine to work with you here on Mars.”

With the farewell complete, Ayman turned on his heels and walked towards the shuttle. Garrison and Dmitri watched as their fellow astronaut climbed the ladder into the cockpit and heard over the common channel that Mission Control had cleared him for takeoff as soon as he was ready. Garrison could see the burn of the engine just before the sound reached his ear. And then, in a flash, the shuttle was down the runway, in the air, and soon out of sight.

“Looks like he’s gone,” Garrison turned to his companion. “What do we do now?”

“Well, friend,” Dmitri began. “We have instructions to repair valve gauge on fuel tank number one. When we fueled the Nevada shuttle, we noticed a malfunction on gauge. NASA gave instruction for fixing it.”

“Ok, then,” accepted Garrison. “Let’s go do it.”

“Boronov to Mission Control. The Nevada has successfully taken off and we are heading to fuel tank number one for pressure gauge malfunction assessment and repair.”

After this brief announcement, the pair walked back to the MTV where Dmitri took over the controls. As he began to back away from the solar field, he stopped abruptly. “Oh. I forget to grab toolbox. We will need to go back to bunker for tools.”

Arriving back at the workshop garage, the two astronauts exited the MTV and stopped abruptly on either side. Turning quickly to his colleague, Garrison exclaimed, “What was that?! I just felt something odd.”

Dmitri turned slowly to face his partner. “I do not know. Did it feel like… like…” Dmitri grasped for words in English to describe the sensation.

“Almost like a breeze passing through my spacesuit from behind.” Garrison turned around, almost expecting to find the source of the mysterious sensation, but all he saw was the massive SAR building on the east end of the crater. No wind. Nothing out of place.

“Yes,” panted Dmitri. “I feel same thing too, but it went as quick as it came.”

Garrison had a bad feeling about what had just happened. He couldn’t explain why, but the concern gave him the sensation of goose bumps on his arms, and a tingling of hair on his neck. He knew that it wasn’t just his imagination, since Boronov also felt it. Worse still for O’Ryan was the fact that his companion didn’t seem to recollect ever observing the sensation before. Silence fell over the pair, as they grasped to make sense of the matter. A breeze? Inside their space suits? Impossible!

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