Sunday, July 26, 2009

Offworld - Chapter 1

Offworld

Bethany House (July 1, 2009)


Chapter 1


This Thing of Darkness
August 11, 2032
Right foot.

Left foot.

Right foot.

Left foot.

Stumble.

Red dirt filled Burke's field of view. Not that it was much of a change. Red dirt had been all he could see for hours. Even the bright pinkish tan of the planet's sky was washed away by the windstorm.

"Beech!" he called out, hoisting himself back to his feet as the wind spun him about. He carried a small black pack with a few meager supplies and some mission equipment inside. "I've got zero visibility! No orientation! I can't see anything!"

He stopped.

Burke's training fought against the fear creeping into his mind, against the rising panic as the wind fed more soil and dust into the crevices of his space suit.

Got to find my way ... dirt's building up ... soon I won't be able to move....

"Habitat, this is Burke!" he yelled over the storm. "I can't see anything, and I've lost contact with Beechum!"

No answer. A brutal gust surged around him like the gale force of a hurricane, threatening to pick him up off his feet. He crouched to center his weight, slung the pack over his back, and took a steadying breath.

"Houston?" he tried halfheartedly. There was little chance the relay satellite orbiting above would pick him up if the rest of his own team couldn't hear him from less than a hundred miles away. "Is anyone reading me?"

No reply, not even static. The earpiece inside his helmet was dead.

Okay, Chris. Think. You're in the middle of a dried-up riverbed that we've been studying for weeks. You know your way around this place. Think about landmarks. What's nearby?

The wind cleared just enough for him to catch a glimpse of a red boulder, directly ahead of his position. Burke crawled forward, on hands and knees, and stooped there in the shadow of the large rock to rest and think. Fighting the dust storm had required all of his strength, every muscle ready to crumple from the effort. He brushed aside the deep red dust on his right arm and uncovered an electronic readout on the underside.

It read 5:08 pm.

Which meant he had about four hours of oxygen remaining in his suit.

And worse, nightfall would come in less than an hour. Martian days were just thirty-nine minutes longer than days on Earth, so sunrise and sunset were virtually the same on the red planet as on the blue one.

So ... he thought. Lost on the surface of Mars, unable to reach the Habitat, unable to see, barely able to move, only four hours of air left, and it's about to get dark and lethally cold.

If Dad could see me now ...

The wind raged on, pressing Chris' full frame against the boulder, wave after wave of red dirt pounding into him so hard he could feel it through the thickness of the suit. He could even sense the temperature dropping around him, in spite of his suit's automatic climate control, as daylight began to slide ever so slowly into dusk.

Survival drills ran through his head ...

The horrible roar of the wind made it terribly hard to concentrate.

Water reserves running low, better save it.

Sweat ran down into his eyes, but he couldn't stop it, couldn't reach his face through the tinted visor....

His head rested against the large red rock behind him....

He passed out.

April 28, 2033
Eight Months Later
Ares Mission, Return Voyage
T-Minus 67 Days to Earth
All five hundred square feet of the Ares turned on a central axis as the ship raced for home at 75,000 miles per hour. It was little more than a long, sophisticated metal tube that could separate into segmented compartments. The compartment farthest from the main engine served as the command module and resembled a tiny space shuttle, with small wings on each side and a tail fin that looked proportionately too small. The Ares tumbled through space sideways to give the crew a semblance of gravity, spiraling her way back to Earth.

Christopher Burke awoke to the sound of his first officer pedaling a stationary bicycle at a steady clip, a baseball cap keeping her hair out of her face, and wires channeling music into her ears.

Trisha Merriday looked tired. She concealed it well, but he'd spent two and a half years with her and the other two crewmembers, and he knew them almost as well as they knew themselves.

"You doing okay today?" he tentatively asked. It was always a tightrope, asking how she was feeling, because he knew things about her that the others didn't. Things that she'd chosen to confide in him alone. Everyone has certain secrets that are best kept hidden, he reasoned, and he'd returned the favor by confessing to her his ongoing dreams that began after a near-disastrous incident on Mars.

NASA would have preferred that they maintained a disciplined, formal tone in everything they did, of course. But it was impossible to spend two and a half years of your life with only three other people for company, and maintain formalities.

Trisha made no verbal reply; she merely eyed him knowingly and nodded with an affirmative. He could see that she was putting on her usual stoic fa├žade.

She studied him as she pedaled and pedaled, her legs and feet churning the stirrups.

"Here," she said, pulling a bottle of water from a holder attached to the bike. She tossed it to him, and it took a second longer to reach him than it would have on Earth, the artificial gravity from the ship's spin only providing eighty percent of Earth's pull. "You look like you've already had your workout."

Chris nodded once, a quick thanks, and then took several long draughts from the bottle.

Trisha waited until he was done, trying not to be obvious about the fact that she was watching him, considering his appearance. But he could feel her eyes.

He stood from his bunk and stretched. Chris struck an imposing figure at his full height, which had lengthened even a bit more in the weightlessness of space. Blond, blue-eyed, handsome and strong, he'd always gotten more attention than he'd ever desired. But then, NASA couldn't let an unattractive man be the first person to walk on Mars, could they? It was a reality of the job that would have caused others to question themselves, but he had no such doubts about himself or his abilities. He'd been preparing to be an astronaut his entire life, and so insecurity rarely troubled him.

"Had the dream again, didn't you?" Trisha said softly, so her voice wouldn't carry. She continued her relentless pedaling, the nonstop, rhythmic sound threatening to lull him back to sleep. His brain was still stumbling into consciousness, tripping over memories that were weakly fighting to surface.

Chris nodded, not looking at her. He closed his eyes, straining to think back ...

"How far did you get this time?" she asked.

Chris rubbed his eyes; it did nothing to clear away the bleary lack of focus that was there. "Not much further than the sandstorm. I passed out somewhere along the way. I don't remember anything after that." His jaw clenched as he ground his teeth—a bad habit he'd acquired since the mission began. "There was one new detail that came back to me. I remember checking my air supply. There were only four hours left."

Trisha stopped pedaling and the small cabin fell silent. "Four hours? Are you sure?"

He nodded again, still not facing her.

"That can't be right. You were missing so much longer—you were out of radio contact for over eighteen hours before we found you."

He spun on her, frustrated. "I know that!"

Trisha frowned, surprised.

"Sorry," he mumbled. "I just ... can't make sense of it. Any of it."

Trisha studied him.

"I'm the first person to walk on Mars," Chris went on. "And there's an eighteen-hour window of my time there that I can't account for. NASA's expecting a full debrief as soon as we get home, and I can't even begin to explain what happened. I just can't remember."

They both knew how NASA felt about ambiguities—especially when it came to one of their astronauts. An unknown might as well be called a failure as far as the media was concerned.

Trisha was considering a response when a shout came from the command module, carrying all the way to their cabin, down near the main engine.

"Chris, you better get up here!" Terry called out, his voice betraying a hint of panic. "We've lost contact with Houston!"

Chris bolted for the command module as fast as he could, Trisha right behind with her exercise towel draped around her neck.

"What happened?" he said before he was fully in the cockpit.

"Ground Control's broken contact," Owen said calmly as if nothing were wrong. Owen Beechum, mission specialist on the team, rarely flinched.

That was less true of the crew's command module pilot, Terry Kessler, who paced the tiny five-by-five space at the back of the cabin like a caged cat.

Chris pushed past Terry and took his seat at the nose of the ship, examining his console. "We're still receiving telemetry."

"Telemetry, yeah," Terry replied, still pacing, "but nobody's talking."

Trisha joined Chris in her customary seat beside his. At his nod she leaned forward.

"Houston, this is Ares, respond please," she said with her finger on a control marked VOX. It was like a speakerphone for the command module, transmitting everything they said back to Houston. Her tone was all business.

No response.

"This is god of war calling Mount Olympus. Do you read?" Chris called. The Greek mythology references were an easy habit they'd fallen into less than a month into the mission.

A long moment of silence passed as the four of them listened and waited for a response that never came. Even Terry stopped pacing, crossing his arms anxiously.

"What about the ISS?" suggested Trisha, referring to the International Space Station.

"Nothing." Owen shook his head. "No transmissions of any kind are coming from the station."

Chris looked out at the stars but caught his own reflection in the glass. He could see the others: Trisha sitting next to him, Owen behind her, and Terry pacing again in the back. Chris looked past the reflection, far into the deepness of space, wondering about the communication breakdown. Was it the ship? Something on the ground?

"Try Tranquility," he said softly.

Owen's eyebrows shot up, but then he quickly nodded, conceding it was worth a shot. Though the Ares had no established procedure for contacting Tranquility Base directly, Owen was more than capable of working around such limitations.

Tranquility Base was the first—and so far only—permanent base on the surface of the moon. It resided in the Sea of Tranquility, the same site where Armstrong and Aldrin had first walked on the moon in 1969, and had been named in honor of Armstrong's famous announcement when their tiny craft landed there.

A few moments of fingers brushing lightly over keys and Owen nodded at Trisha that he was ready.

"Tranquility Base, this is Ares. Tranquility Base, Ares," Trisha said into the microphone. "Do you copy?"

The silence of static returned from the tiny speaker above the microphone. Trisha tried again, repeating her hail, but no reply came.

"Systems diagnostic," Chris said mechanically to Owen.

"Already done. By the numbers, all the way," he replied.

Chris glanced at Trisha and she looked back. An entire conversation passed between them in a single look.

Terry and Owen said nothing, waiting, and their silence lingered in the air along with an unspoken question.

"If there's nothing wrong with the ship, then the problem is on the ground," Chris concluded, rising from his chair. "Keep monitoring, let me know when they get it fixed. Until then, we'll proceed as normal. Hopefully, NASA can hear us even if we can't hear them."

With that, he disappeared down the corridor, the discussion officially over.

* * *

Trisha hesitated, not following Chris out of the command module. Something about the apprehension in Terry's eyes held her back.

"But ..." Terry stammered, "shouldn't we try something else?"

"Our options are very limited," Trisha pointed out. Like most of the ship's countless systems, the communications equipment was fragile, despite multiple redundancies, and not easily fixed if broken. Just one of the prices paid for attempting to visit another planet.

Owen looked up from his console, agreeing with Terry. "It doesn't add up, Trish. We should be picking up something, even if it's not NASA. Satellite feeds, military broadcasts, signals to or from ... something," he concluded, pushing his glasses up on his nose.

The two of them waited for Trisha to respond, but she was lost in thought. She was the consummate first officer, fiercely loyal to Chris, and grateful he almost always deserved it. His leadership instincts and decision-making were unlike anyone she'd ever worked with before. And this time was no different.

"Chris is right," she said. "If the radio is working on our end—and the diagnostic says it is—then the problem is back home. And if the problem is on our end, there's nothing we can do about it now," she said before exiting the command module.

Trisha didn't follow Chris to the rear of the craft, where her stationary bicycle waited. Instead, she detoured into the lavatory, which was located near the midsection of the ship, where gravity was weakest.

Inside, she locked the door and leaned back against it. Lingering there, the crook of her right arm found its way up to rest against her forehead. Her shoulders slumped, and she let out a very long breath.

Soon she had folded slowly to the floor, as if an enormous weight were bearing down on her back. She couldn't find the strength or the will to get back up.

But a knock at the door startled her into rising again.

"Trish, that you in there?" It was Terry.

"Yeah," she called out. "Be out in a second."

"Hurry, could ya?" he said back in a soft voice, as if trying to keep the others from hearing. "I'm gonna soak the carpet out here."

Trisha stepped forward to the flight medicine bin and retrieved a nondescript pill bottle. She popped the lid and dry-swallowed two capsules.

Collecting herself, she exited the lavatory, not bothering to watch as Terry rushed inside.

* * *

Alone in the command module, Owen continued trying to get a signal. Houston, Tranquility, the ISS, anything. But he received only silence in return.

What was going on?

Truthfully, Owen was unsurprised that something like this had happened. Aside from the mysterious eighteen hours when Chris had gone missing, the entire mission had been glitch-free. And space travel was never free from glitches. The technology was just too new, too untested. Though he never said it to the others, he'd been waiting for something to go wrong for months.

He thought of his wife and son waiting for him on Earth. Would he make it back to see them? Was this communications problem the beginning of something bigger?

His gut told him it was. He was the least experienced astronaut on the mission, but it didn't matter. He could feel it. There was more going on here than they could see.

July 4, 2033
Ares Mission, Return Voyage
T-Minus 0 days to Earth
Earth loomed large each time the tumbling ship's forward windows caught sight of it, and all eight eyes onboard the Ares were aimed straight ahead, marveling at the beauty of a place they hadn't seen in just shy of twenty-nine months.

"Houston, Ares," Chris intoned from his pilot seat up front, still going through the motions in case Mission Control was able to hear the crew, even if the crew couldn't hear Mission Control. If nothing else, the flight recorder would be taping this historic moment for later examination. "We are still receiving no transmissions from the ISS, so we are proceeding with manual landing protocol. Over."

NASA took no chances when it came to the design of the Ares. Redundancies were built into the ship to ensure the crew's survival, and unlike past spacecraft, the Ares had three separate options for returning safely to Earth.

The first and most ideal solution was for the ship to rendezvous with the International Space Station and dock there. The crew would then take a special shuttlecraft down to Earth, leaving the Ares to be dismantled or recycled in orbit. Should anything go wrong with the planned ISS docking, the second option allowed the command module of the Ares to detach and reenter Earth's atmosphere by itself. In a best-case scenario, the tiny crew-carrying module would use its small wings and retractable landing gear to glide down to the landing pad at Kennedy Space Center, much like the space shuttles did decades ago. In a worst-case scenario, the third option allowed for the Ares' command module to float on the open sea, after the ship had parachuted into the ocean, and to await retrieval there. Just like NASA's first astronauts had used successfully in the Gemini and Apollo missions.

With the ISS out of contact, procedure dictated that they go for the manual glide landing at Kennedy. Yet it wasn't ideal, and only added to the unspoken tension filling the tight spaces aboard the Ares. Per standard landing protocol, all four of them donned their fireproof pressure suits as a precaution for such a dangerous reentry.

No one said it, and no one had to; decorum was maintained just as it had been for the entire mission. In the two-plus months leading up to their arrival back to Earth, the crew still had been unable to reacquire vocal contact with Mission Control. Whatever the problem was, each passing day had made it more likely that it was on the ship, not in Houston. Regardless, the time for fixes had almost run out; it would just have to be sorted out on the ground. Their priority now was getting there.

"Final systems check is complete, Houston," Chris reported. "Preparing to engage manual reentry sequence. Fire stabilizers."

At these words, Terry flipped a switch from his seat just behind Chris. The young pilot's short, lean body was complemented by a black crew cut and eyes that were always bright.

Chris grabbed a pair of handles that moved like joysticks. His movements corresponded with tiny thrusters designed to expel just enough thrust to affect the ship's orientation. With practiced movements, he used the controls to null the rotation of the ship, angling its nose straight toward Earth. The blue planet filled the window.

The four of them took a moment to right themselves now that the gravity provided by the ship's turning was gone. It was notoriously hard to determine up or down in zero gravity, and the strange internal sensations it caused could wreak havoc on the human body's sense of balance, even for trained astronauts.

Trisha, in her seat beside Chris up front, moved to switch off the VOX button.

"No, leave it on," Burke ordered, wistfully cocking an eyebrow. "It's the last time we'll ever use it."

She didn't reply, returning to her console.

"You know, Trish ..." Terry called from his second-row seat, a little too loudly. They all knew this tone of voice; it was Terry's way of trying to relieve tension during an awkward silence. "If Paul didn't wait for you back home, I'll be happy to track him down and kick his—"

"I appreciate the sentiment, Terry," Trisha interrupted him. Her jaw had jutted out before he was halfway through with his sentence. This had always been her least favorite subject to discuss on the mission. "Right now, all I'm focused on is getting us home safely," she replied in a professional tone, her head lingering a little closer to the VOX control.

Terry leaned over to Owen, who was beside him in the ship's second row of seats. "I really don't think he waited," he whispered.

Owen's eyebrows lifted marginally as he considered the notion. The specialist's large frame was offset by unruffled African features, a dark bald head, prescription glasses that covered his eyes, and an even-keeled expression that rarely betrayed emotion. "Statistically speaking, it is improbable that a male of breeding age would suppress his hormonal drive for more than two years. But then, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, am I, Terry?"

Trisha snorted.

Terry ignored him, pressing on. "Tell us again, Trish, about how Paul asked you to marry him the night before we left for Mars, and you said ... what was it again?"

Trisha cleared her throat in a pointed sort of way, but Terry didn't seem to notice. "It was something like 'Not now' or 'Ask me again when I get back,' wasn't it? I love that story," he said with fondness.

"Terry ..." Chris began.

"No, seriously!" Terry defended himself. "It's romantic! Like an old movie. Like Gone With the Wind or Titanic."

"Weren't both of those about doomed romances?" Trisha asked without looking at him.

"Oh, sorry, yeah ..." Terry replied, his enthusiasm squashed. "What about you, Commander?" Terry piped up again while he checked over his own console. The title of commander was honorary; no one could remember if it had been started by the press or by the crew. All NASA astronauts were considered civilians, regardless of any past military experience, but it seemed fitting for such a historic mission. Even though Chris commanded the mission, he didn't encourage the title's use.

"Beech's got his wife and kid," Terry continued. "Trisha's future happiness is, well, pretty much dangling by a thread—sorry, Trish. And the various and sundry affections I'll be receiving go without saying." He smiled, relishing the thought. "But I don't remember you ever mentioning anything you're looking forward to getting back to, Chris."

Chris cast a momentary glance to Trisha at his side. She didn't return the look, too busy fussing over her controls, readying for reentry. He turned his gaze straight ahead, pushing all other thoughts aside.

"Mr. Beechum, prepare to uncouple the command module," said Burke authoritatively.

Owen had opened his mouth to respond an affirmative, when Terry pointed excitedly at the forward windows.

"Hey, what the—!" he shouted.

Everyone looked up to let their eyes gaze out the windows into ...

Nothing.

The entire view was black. No Earth, no stars, no anything.

Chris' breath caught in his throat. There, out beyond the nose of their ship, something seemed to be swirling, churning in the darkness.

"What ... what's going on?" stammered Terry.

Owen said nothing. Trisha sat with her mouth agape. Chris felt his mind go as empty and blank as the darkness into which he stared. He couldn't take his eyes from the windows. It was utterly void; the stars had vanished.

"Beech?" asked Chris, hoping for an opinion, an analysis, anything.

Owen hesitated, which in and of itself was alarming. "Well, I uh ... Commander, stars can't just disappear," he said slowly. "With the simplest answer most often being the right one—there must be a problem with the windows."

Terry didn't hesitate. "Right, so who threw a big space blanket over the ship, then?"

Chris was about to tell Terry to stow the jokes when the onboard lights flickered out and every monitor and console on the ship went dead. There was only darkness. Both within the ship and without. It was thick and stifling. There was a pregnant moment of stillness as everyone held their breath, waiting.

Waiting for what they knew all too well could come next. A bang. The ship spiraling off course. The sound of oxygen being sucked out into space.

"Helmets on!" barked Chris, his voice the only thing audible in the bottomless night. "Report!"

"All instrumentation is down," Trisha replied, and he could hear her flicking switches and pressing buttons like mad. "Navigation ... non-responsive. Going for full system restart!" she yelled, her fingers expertly clicking the controls in the dark.

"Internal lights," said Chris.

Their space suits had helmets equipped with bright internal lighting which, once lit, illuminated their faces so at least they could see one another. The suits operated off of their own energy source and so were unaffected by whatever had caused the ship to lose power. The glow the four helmets gave off was enough to give them a bit of orientation within the cabin.

"Try the emergency batteries, Beech. Terry, make sure the cabin's secure."

Terry looked up from his console and froze. "What?"

Even Trisha had stopped what she was doing and glanced at Chris.

There was no reason to assume the command module wouldn't be secure; it had been pressure-locked before the four of them fastened themselves into their seats. Standard procedure. But Chris didn't care. There was no reason to assume the stars might disappear from the sky either. The rule book had just been tossed out the window, and his military instincts were taking over now. Whatever was happening, they were fighting for their lives; ensuring their survival was his top priority.

"You heard me!" Chris shouted, his hands clenching the armrests of his chair. "Lock it down, double time!"

If the amazement and shock of seeing the entire planet and star field disappear hadn't clued in Burke's three teammates that things had just changed in a drastic and dire way, his tone of voice jolted them into remembering that this wasn't part of the mission. This wasn't part of any mission.

Terry didn't question him again. Instead, the youngest member of the crew deftly unbuckled the elaborate straps from his seat and floated to the back of the cabin. There, he checked the two hatches leading to the rest of the ship that were on both sides of the rear wall. Next he pushed off, drifting carefully in the dark over to his right, where the main exterior hatch was located.

As Terry worked, Chris leaned into the VOX control. "Houston, this is the Ares! We are declaring an emergency! Repeat, Houston, this is Ares declaring an emergency! And I really hope you can hear us down there! We have lost all power to the ship. We have a possible collision—"

Terry had just double-checked the main hatch when the Ares lurched sideways, groaned with a shudder, and then jolted forward. Without warning, they were moving at tremendous speed. It felt as if the ship had been launched from a slingshot; Chris, Owen, and Trisha were mashed into the backs of their seats while Terry went flying into the back wall.

Chris knew the sickening crunch he'd heard was the young pilot slamming against the bulkhead.

"Terry!" Trisha shouted over the roar. Along with the speed, the sounds both inside and outside of the ship were escalating—sounds of rattling hardware and the ship's turbulence hitting atmosphere. Chris' eyes darted to his right; Trisha was barely able to move her head far enough around to look behind, clenching her every muscle against the rising g-forces. "Terry, sound off!"

All was silent behind them.

Chris turned likewise in his seat to see the dark silhouette of the young pilot up against the back wall, still pinned there by the g-forces.

"Permission to leave my station—" Owen began, and Chris saw that Trisha had fingered the clasp of her seat belt already.

"Denied, both of you!" Chris shouted back over the noise of the out-of-control ship.

"He's hurt!" Trisha cried.

"Keep your seats, that's an order!" Chris thundered, uttering a phrase never heard among the informal chatter observed by astronauts. "You'll just end up pinned alongside him, and I need you both doing your jobs!"

Trisha glanced, just once, back at her teammate and then nodded, seeming to right herself internally. Chris was in charge. She faced forward again in her seat and focused on her station.

"If this is reentry, if that's what we're feeling ... then we're too steep!" Owen called out. His eyes were closed, deep in concentration, and Chris knew he was basing his assertion on nothing but the sensations they were feeling and what he could remember of their position and velocity before everything went dark. "Possibly severely."

Chris' visor light flickered and went out. He looked to his left and saw Trisha's do the same. Light was fully extinguished again, consumed by the black nothingness.

He fought to suppress his own rising fear, trying to concentrate on the mission, his people, his years of training. But this was a nightmare scenario, and there were no instincts to rely on. Not for this. It was like spontaneous blindness. He could still hear the terrible, nonstop roar of the ship ... still feel the increasing gravity pressing him into his seat ... still sense the unnatural vibrations of the Ares caused by its hurtling through space faster than it was ever designed to move.

And what about Terry? Was he unconscious? Dead?

As the ship continued to accelerate, the vibrations gave way to full-on shuddering. There was another sharp jerk, and the ship's bolts and panels and tiles rattled against the concussion. The noise level rose to an unbearable metallic monotone.

Something else caught Chris' attention amid the chaos, and he smelled it before he felt it. The scent of hot steel entered his nose at the same moment he realized his hair was wet and sticking to his head, his entire body covered in sweat. His suit's automatic temperature regulator would have compensated for any drastic change in climate had it been powered, but even still, it had insulation to protect against harsh environments. For this kind of heat to be reaching him this fast, coupled with the burning stench ...

Dim lights blinked to life around them.

"Emergency batteries are online!" shouted Owen over the din. It wasn't much, illuminating the cabin with something about as strong as candlelight. Chris looked back over his shoulder at his mission specialist. Surprisingly, Owen seemed to have maintained his ever-present calm in spite of their circumstances. He wasn't even sweating as much as Chris was. Chris stole a quick glance at Trisha, who seemed to be sweating even more, but she had already sprung to life, fighting the g-forces to pore over her console.

"Give me a full systems check!" Chris called out.

"It's running now," Owen replied, his voice magnified to reach out over the racket. "O2 at forty percent capacity. Power's down to twenty-two ..."

Owen continued to rattle off numbers, but Chris' mind drifted to the empty space straight ahead, beyond the windows. Because even though they were soaring at an incredible rate, even though the ship was about to shake itself apart, and even though the temperature was rising dangerously fast, it was what was outside of the ship that disturbed him most. Earth should've been there. Right there. Or millions of stars had the ship been knocked off course. Or ... something.

But there was nothing. Not even in the black of space between planets had he encountered such darkness. It was as if they'd been swallowed....

Then something flashed in the forward window.

Chris blinked.

It was murky, and only lasted a second. But it was right there, just past the nose of the ship. Something like nothing he had ever seen before. Enormous. Imposing. The darkest shade of blue imaginable. Moving, swirling, very slowly. Like smoke passing before his eyes in a blur.

Chris spun to look at Trisha, hoping she'd seen it too. But she was still focused on her console. A glance at Owen revealed he hadn't seen it either.

Owen was still reciting system readings when Chris interrupted him, shouting above the clamor, "What about outside? Are you able to pick up anything in space?"

A pause as Owen checked. He shook his head. "External scanners are not responding, Commander. Given this heat we're feeling, which hopefully is from the ship reentering Earth's atmosphere, it's possible that those sensors have melted off. We expected that to happen upon reentry, you know."

The ship unexpectedly lurched sideways as if it had been blindsided by a moving object. The sudden motion was powerful and jarring enough that Terry's unconscious form was slung against the left wall of the command module like a rag doll, and the others were pinched and squeezed painfully by their seats' safety belts. The lurch was accompanied by a profound crack that they could feel, a loud wrenching of metal, and finally an ear-piercing whine, which remained ongoing. The ship started spinning in response.

"What was that?!" Trisha screamed.

"Felt like we lost an engine bell," he shouted.

"Correction!" Owen called out behind them, and there was no mistaking the sharp tone of alarm in his voice, because neither of them had heard it before. "Commander, I think the entire rear half of the ship just came apart!"

"Say again?"

"I'm reading no oxygen, no power, life support, or anything else past the lavatory! I think everything on the other side of the bathroom is just gone!"

Chris didn't have time to absorb this, to think through options. He just acted. "Prepare to undock the command module! Let's jettison whatever's left back there before power goes out again!"

At that moment, they were plunged into deep blackness once more. Each of them knew without needing confirmation that it would be the last time the ship's interior would ever see light. The Ares continued to spin, faster and faster, rotating like a rotisserie chicken. Chris swallowed repeatedly to avoid vomiting in his helmet—a dangerous proposition since his helmet was sealed. He could feel blood rushing to his head, and he hoped the others were faring better.

But then, it didn't really matter at this point.

It was over. The mission. The ship. Their lives. All of it was dying, reaching the ultimate ending, and nothing would stop it. All they could do was try to hold on as long as possible.

The g-forces grew more powerful than ever, pressing Chris into his seat back, and threatening to thrust all three of them into unconsciousness. Chris felt a wave of weariness wash across him. It was a very inviting exhaustion, but he was too well trained to embrace it so easily.

He blinked the sweat back, holding tight to his armrests even as he realized the bolts and welds of his seat were slowly being shaken loose by the ship's catastrophic bucking, spinning, and trembling.

With the sound of the ship roaring around him, consoles about to melt, and his seat ready to rip free and send him flying, he called out, "Anybody still conscious?"

"Still with you" came Trisha's voice, though it was faint. He tried to look at her but couldn't escape the gravity enough to swivel his head. All he could do was stare forward into the blackness that still surrounded the ship.

Are we headed for home? Are we someplace else? Did something swallow us whole and that's why we can't see anything?

What is out there?

He felt heat radiating through the hands of his suit from where they touched the arms of his metal chair. He closed his eyes; the heat was making it hard to keep them open anyway.

Chris thought he should say something to his crew, but he didn't know what. Offer them some last gasp about "going down with the ship," or tell them what an honor it had been to serve with them? It had been an honor, but the words felt inadequate in his head.

And impossibly, even though he felt foolish for it, his thoughts were jumping so fast from thought to thought that he couldn't help arriving at how this disaster would forever tarnish the historic Mars mission, and NASA's reputation. He could hear the newscasters in his head: "The first manned mission to Mars ended in a horrific tragedy today, which throws into doubt the entire future of manned space flight...."

There wasn't time to waste on such thoughts. These were about to become the last minutes or seconds of his life. He should use them for something more important, more personal. Something for his crew. Above all others, he felt he should at least say something to Trisha. But he couldn't conjure up any words, with the ship spiraling so violently around him, the noise, the heat, the pressure, the pain of being pressed deep enough into his seat to feel the metal framework inside.

The high-pitched whine of the ship turned to a series of creaks and groans, and Chris knew that this was it. What was left of the Ares was ripping itself apart out from under them, from the tremendous stresses being placed upon it. The spiraling was so fast that consoles, tools, dials, and screws were shaken loose and went flying through the compartment in a mad cyclone. Any second a ferocious final surge would separate the command module around them, and they would be sucked out by the explosive oxygen decompression into space. Their bodies would be lost forever, unrecoverable by NASA, drifting forever out in the depths of the universe.

That is, if that really was space as he knew it out there in the black.

Either way, they would be dead in moments. Seconds. Maybe less.

So ends the noble Ares and her crew ...

The window suddenly cleared, and he saw that something was rushing straight at them. Or maybe they were rushing at it, faster than a bullet.

Chris opened his mouth and shouted at the top of his lungs, "Brace yourselves!"

The words had just left his mouth, seeming to hang with a hollowness in the air, when everything went black.

* * *

Chris coughed himself awake. He was sopping wet.

Smoke filled the cockpit, but the emergency floodlights had kicked in, warning alarms flashing, bathing everything in red. The windows were still completely blacked out.

The ship was no longer moving.

Trisha sat beside him, still buckled into her seat but unconscious, a trickle of blood evident near her left temple.

Behind them, Owen wheezed, a bubble pulsing in his nostril.

The heat inside the cockpit was almost unbearable. Chris felt as though he was being smothered by his heavy space suit.

"Terry ..." he whispered, trying to see the back of the cockpit through the haze and smoke and dim lights. He unstrapped himself from his seat and pulled off his helmet as Trisha and Owen slowly began to regain consciousness.

When he stood, a rush of vertigo overwhelmed him and he teetered but didn't fall. Chris wondered how much time had passed since the ship came to a stop. He was forced to move slowly, feeling his way through the command module in the relative darkness and smoke.

He almost stumbled over Terry, who was in a crumpled heap near the main hatch.

"How is he?" asked Owen.

"He's breathing, but he's pretty banged up," answered Chris.

"We have cabin pressure," Trisha said, springing to life, her gloved fingers sliding across her damaged console with practiced precision. "Backup power is up and running."

Chris turned Terry over and pulled the young pilot's helmet off. "Did the command module ever detach?"

"I can't tell," replied Owen.

Trisha spoke up again. "I think—I think we landed. I have a GLS light."

GLS stood for Ground Landing System, an automated program designed to take over the landing procedures for the crew should they be rendered incapacitated. It was housed and operated entirely from the ground, close to the runway at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"Hey," moaned Terry. "What ... ?"

"Take it easy," said Chris. Owen joined them and helped Terry up to a sitting position. Chris returned to the front.

"You're hurt," he said, unlatching Trisha's helmet as she continued to work. He dabbed at the gash on the side of her head with his fingers. It wasn't bad, although he could feel a sizable egg rising under the skin.

"Minor concussion at worst," he said. She didn't respond, focusing instead on her work.

"We have gravity," Terry offered, sounding a little more awake. "If the GLS kicked in ... then we're on the ground at Kennedy, right?"

Owen looked up. "If we're on the ground," he said, his brown eyes scanning the windows, "why is it still dark outside?"

"And why haven't they come for us?" asked Trisha. It was standard procedure after a space landing for the ship to be surrounded by rescue and cleanup personnel. Even though they couldn't see out, or communicate with anything beyond the ship, they should at least be able to hear something from outside. If nothing else, a NASA worker should have knocked on the hatch by now just to see if they could get a reply from the crew.

"If we're not on the ground ... we're on something," Chris concluded. He worked his way back to the hatch again, and despite Owen's protests, Terry pulled himself up to stand.

Trisha stood, satisfied that everything that could be done to secure the ship had been done. She quickly moved to a first-aid locker and retrieved a few supplies.

"The flight surgeon can patch us up," Terry said, refusing Trisha's help.

Chris squinted, trying to see through the tiny window in the hatch, though it was dark.

"What do you see?" Terry asked, massaging a bruise on his wrist.

Chris shook his head. "It's just dark." He turned. "Beech?"

Owen stepped over to his console and examined it. "I'm reading oxygen outside," he said with a heaviness in his voice as Trisha poured something onto a cut on the back of his neck. "Atmosphere is clear of chemical toxins."

Chris looked around, doubt coloring his features. Landing spacecraft were known to give off various dangerous chemicals immediately upon landing that couldn't be safely breathed. If the air was already clear of those contaminants, then the four of them had been unconscious for a few hours, at least. He waited until Trisha met his gaze, his unspoken question answered with a nod.

"We can't stay here," he concluded. "The ship is too hot, and this smoke isn't good for our lungs. I don't think we have anything to lose by opening the hatch. Agreed?"

There were nods all around.

Chris clutched the mechanism that released the hatch. A loud hiss pierced the air as the cabin depressurized to match the outside atmosphere, and he felt his ears pop. Just ahead was a second door, the outer door. He moved to it, unlatched and pushed the door downward until it opened....

He was immediately bathed in intensely bright light.

It was so bright that Terry, Trisha, and Owen put their hands up to block the light from their eyes.

Without a word, Chris stepped from the ship onto the outer hatch, which had folded down into a stepladder. The others soon joined him, standing on the steps just outside the ship.

They scanned the horizon in all directions.

The ship had come to rest on the long runway at Kennedy Space Center. But their arrival couldn't be called a landing.

Trisha was the first to turn back and examine the craft. The others followed her, and Chris' blood turned to ice. The Ares' command module was unrecognizable—charred and disfigured, her ceramic outer tiles and windows burned completely black, her two wings withered and torn. The tail fin was gone. All that was left of the mighty rocket ship that carried them to another planet was a tragic heap, an utterly ruined mass of black, burning metal.

Chris shook his head. "We shouldn't have survived that."

"We're alive, man," said Terry. "And we're home. That's enough for me."

Owen's eyebrows were furrowed as he scanned their surroundings. "Has anyone else noticed that 'home' is ... awfully quiet?"

The others examined the landscape. It was true. There was nothing moving, no people or rescue vehicles. In the distance, there were no cars driving along the roads of Kennedy Space Center. From the sun's position overhead, it was late morning, but it was as if no one on the planet had noticed a flaming rocket ship falling out of the sky.

Chris stood up straighter, blocking out the bright sunlight with his hand and squinting into the distance. "They should have sent the ferry to retrieve the ship," he said. "You think we're giving off too much radiation?"

"Maybe they didn't think there was anything left of the ship to retrieve," suggested Terry.

Trisha stopped winding a bandage around Chris' forearm, and looked up. "There's us," she said.

A long moment passed in silence as all eyes scanned the NASA complex surrounding them. For the first time in his life, Chris felt weak in the knees.

"Nothing," said Owen slowly, "is moving. At all."

Terry spun, looking in all directions. "Where is everybody?"

1 comment:

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

oh wow. I can't remember the last time a first chapter gripped me so well. I'm gonna have to get this book.