A refection on how SiFi has changed in the last twenty years. This is one of my early SiFi shorts for a local New Year’s Day Competition (1500-2500 words). I added the challenge to include my word count in the title (2020)
Mars Mission 2020
Aran activated the Mars Orbiter call sign. After two repeats he settled back to wait the four and a half minutes for NASA’s response. After six months of dull routine, the next twelve hours were going to be very different. Coming into the influence of Mars gravity, they would need to swing into orbit around the Red planet. The communications LED alerted Aran to an incoming message.
The rustic tones of John Hurran filled Aran’s head phones. “NASA here, receiving you loud and clear. How are you Aran, I guess you are all looking forward to getting into Mars orbit.”
After a short pause came the distinct voice of Martin Ball, NASA’s flight director. “Hi, your change of course for Mars orbit should take place in approximately three and a quarter hours.” There followed a burst of static. “Look nothing to worry about, but there’s some meteorite dust, our present calculations put you out of its main path. However, it’s just possible there might be a few minor particles. A thousand, no a ten thousand to one chance, anyway you know the drill, just be prepared.”
John Hurran and Aran then exchanged their usual routine updates. The others were still sleeping, no need to wake them with the latest thought Aran. As the main technical support, there wasn’t much about the Mars Orbiter or the Mars Lander that Aran didn’t know. The MO carried enough supplies for the six-month each way journey and nearly a year in orbit. Apart from the living accommodation, there were specialised labs and a host of sophisticated electronics. The MO carried thirty-two probes, each was designed to explore a range of atmospheric conditions and gather ground samples. Attached to a purpose built docking bay was a specially designed shuttlecraft. The ML was a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle, with enough thrust to escape the Martian gravity.The rest of the crew awoke and settled themselves into a full systems check, making ready for the course change. Just forty-five minutes to go and Aran listened to the final instrument check list being read. A short burst from each of the three main thrusters completed the checks. They now all waited for the final NASA transmission.***
The countdown commenced. “Thirty seconds, Twenty-five seconds.” There came a sudden zip, zip sound then immediately after came a violent judder, then the lights and instrument LED’s went out. The crew were in total darkness for a couple of seconds. Then the emergency backup came on, only to dim just before the main lights blinked back on again.
“What the hell was that, and what’s happening to the damn lights,” Doug cried out from his forward position.
“I think we just got hit.” Ricardo said, checking life-support. “Pressures dropping, lost nearly two percent already.”
Aran joined Karen and Phil looking for the tell tale signs of a hull breach. Karen was first to spot one. She pushed off and floated herself across to secure it with a sealer. Aran traced the trail of ionised particles, looking like a laser guide. He quickly sealed the meteorites exit hole. A few seconds later the entry and exit points of the other breach was found and sealed.
They were back in their seats with less than half a minute having elapsed since the strikes. Doug gave a short warning to brace for acceleration, and then he fired up the main engines again. The twenty-second burst lasted less than two. There followed a hurried check across all instrument panels. Each member of the crew looking for signs of a malfunction. All stations reported back, except Aran’s. Being on communications, he was frantically sending a message out to NASA.
Doug reset and tried the main thrusters switch again. Something started to happen there was the sound of at least one engine firing up. Then every panel instrument simply died. The cabin lights went back to emergency standby. Doug’s voice sounded strained.
“Will somebody tell me what the hell is going on?”
Aran felt like giving an answer, but remained silent as did the rest of the crew. Thinking hard, Aran reached across and switched from main batteries to direct solar source. Almost immediately, some of his instruments started to light up. He called out to the others.
“Limited I know, but we do have some solar juice.”
A few minutes later, after some feedback, Doug had a better idea of their predicament. Following a short consultation with the crew, Doug instructed Aran to add a further bulletin to the recently sent distress signal. The analysis from NASA’s engineers wasn’t encouraging. The crew gathered round as Doug read through their reply.
“It’s not good. Without the power to restart all three engines, were on a collision course.” He left off saying with what. “We have a narrow window in which NASA says we either survive a bumpy landing, or take a long trip around the solar system.”
“We could all still make it. Surely all we need is the Mars Lander.” Ricardo suggested.
“I guess what they’re not saying is that landing is only part of our thousand to one chance of survival.” Doug replied. “Even if we get through it, all hope rests on enough of the Orbitor supplies being intact to live on until a rescue arrives. That means slowing its descent by all possible means. Right now NASA is preparing to upload details of some circuit changes. As soon as we have them, let’s get to work.”
Karen sat working at the main system desk with Doug. Aran, Ricardo and Phil worked on the wiring changes uploaded from the NASA engineers. As each of the circuit reroutes were completed, Doug and Karen ran the checks. Two and three quarters of an hour later, they were ready to try NASA’s changes and fire up the main thrusters.
The crew were at their various stations once more. Doug gave the countdown himself. This time one of the three thrusters fired and stayed firing. The ship moved into its new arc above the Red planet’s surface. They weren’t going on a trip around the solar system that was for sure. However, neither was there enough to maintain a continuing orbit. Their hope was a gradual descent that would minimise damage on landing. The next thing was to swing the Orbiter about and be ready to fire the one working rocket engine to break their descent. In that way they hoped to slow the rate to a few hundred feet per second before impact.
The Red planet was now rapidly filling their horizon. Doug in the time remaining instructed the crew to secure everything in any way they could. With forty minutes of orbit left, Doug ordered them all into the Mars Lander. Squeezing up through the access tunnel Phil went first to open the hatches.
The independent ML systems had not been affected by any of the Orbiter problems. However, Phil made a further check for any hull breaches before giving the all clear. The rest of the crew climbed up the narrow tunnel. Karen and Aran assisted Phil in removing his spacesuit as they prepared to make the best of their cramped conditions.
The Lander was designed for four. Doug and Karen sat in the forward positions, Lorain and Phil just behind. Ricardo and Aran were strapped into makeshift seats set on either side. Aran holding a communication tablet across his lap had the advantage of being next to a window.
The descent into the Martian atmosphere had begun, small licks of St Elmo’s fire darted about the outer skin of the ML and Orbiter. It lasted for perhaps five to eight minutes. Then the ML and MO started to shake violently. Doug fired the Orbiter’s one working thruster, their descent started to slow. They were still coming down too fast. Lorain put her hand on Aran’s and he gave her a nervous smile back. He accepted the probable outcome. The rest of the crew, he knew felt the same, this was a one-way trip.
Aran’s display linked to the ML’s main console showed the rate of descent. At twenty-thousand feet it was over three hundred miles per hour. It had taken a bit of reengineering, but now Doug deployed the parachutes from the six probes secured in the orbiters launch pods. Three parachutes per probe, it was hoped this would create the necessary drag. After the chutes were released, there was a noticeable decrease.
Aran from his window could see the ground rushing up. After months in zero gravity he felt heavy and lethargic, the weight of his body pulling him down. The speed of their descent was slowing, but the ground was still rushing up to meet them at an alarming rate. Karen was counting down their descent, her voice giving no hint of the oblivion they were about to face.
“Two thousand, eighteen hundred.”
“Separating ML from MO.” Doug’s voice called out. Aran could see the speed of descent, two hundred feet per second. One eighty, one forty, they were slowing, but was it going to be enough. Karen’s voice continued to call out the altitude.
“Fourteen hundred, twelve hundred.”
Aran looked out of the window watching as the Mars Obiter plough into the surface just seconds ahead of their own fateful descent. The six passengers of the ML were now bracing themselves for the final phase. Aran checked the rate they were coming down. It was slowing rapidly, but still more than a hundred miles an hour.
Doug up front in the pilot seat made his final checks. “Hold on everyone it’s going to be a bit rough.” Rough thought Aran, that was putting it mildly, at least he had the decency not to say good luck everybody. What did NASA say, a chance in a thousand, well what the heck it had been a good ride while it lasted.
“Eight hundred, Seven hundred.”
Aran checked the rate of descent again. It looked as if they would hit the deck at around eighty plus. The end would be quick he thought...
“Six eighty, Six fifty, Six thirty.”
Why not stop now they all knew what was coming, wouldn’t it be nice just to have silence. Aran took a last glance at the Orbiter, its wreckage was scattered across the Martian landscape, bits still moving and ploughing up furrows.
“Deploying crash bags now.” Doug was heard to say. There came the Womp, Womp sound as they released. Aran knew it was all over the second he felt the floor slam into him. He felt no real pain, and let the blackness reach out to engulf him.
Aran was looking into a tunnel of light. A voice was calling his name. A female voice, that wasn’t what he had expected. Then he realised it was Karen, she was holding a torch in his face. The lights to the cabin and controls desks were all out. God forbid had they somehow survived the landing.***
“You OK, you look like shit.” Karen said.
In truth, Aran’s head was throbbing. Leaning heavily on Karen for support, they made their way slowly towards the air lock. Looking ahead, it suddenly registered the door, in fact both doors were wide open. How were they still able to breathe? The Martian atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide. They should be dead, then the awful reality crashed in on him, of course they were dead, all dead. No one could have survived an impact at that speed. Karen continued helping to guide Aran as he stepped through the outer doorway.
“Say what day is it?” Aran asked.
“The first,” Karen replied.
“The first,” Aran repeated.
“Yes the first,” Karen said staring into Aran’s haggard face.
“Boy you must of had a skin full last night. You look as if you have just stepped out of a disaster movie? Its lucky for you I came by the simulator this morning.”
Laughing she left Aran leaning against the exit door and went on down the gantry steps. Halfway she stopped, turned and looked up.
“Oh! Happy New Year by the way.”