“Parachute alpha deployed. Altitude seven miles, velocity nine hundred mph and falling.”
“Prepare stabilizers for coasting.”
“Velocity six hundred mph and falling.”
“Extend stabilizers on my mark. Shed payload casing.”
“Casing released, all green.”
“Velocity two hundred mph.”
“All green captain, ready for payload deployment.”
“Hold for one hundred altitude.”
“Velocity one hundred and ninety mph, green altitude in three, two, one.”
“Drop payload and cut chute. Hold, hold. Release payload, extend stabilizers.”
“Payload landed, velocity and altitude still falling.”
“Increase retro burn by two percent.”
“Velocity green, altitude still falling.”
“Increasing retros by four percent.”
“Belay that, hold.”
“Altitude steady. Steady. Altitude green, coasting speed achieved.”
Captain Hibbard sat back in his chair, letting the tension leak out of his shoulders. He felt the ship ‘Midas’ pulling further up from the landscape below, like a commercial airplane gaining altitude to rise above a storm. He could feel Midas trembling under him, or at least he told himself it was the ship and not his body rocking with adrenaline. He’d made it. They’d made it. They were flying above Mars. They were going to be the first Human beings to step onto another planet. His body could be forgiven for letting him down, but he would not accept it. He was calm, he was in control.
He glanced over at the pilot, Kendrick, who was busy tapping away at the controls, his eyes gleaming in the weak sunlight. He looked unusually absorbed in his task. Hibbard shifted in his seat and then flicked one of his monitors to the camera on their undercarriage. The desert rushed beneath them, inert and featureless. Scatterings of rocks of indeterminate size scurried past, each as unimportant as the last. If they had been flying over Nevada, then it would have been a particularly uninteresting patch of desert, but these weren’t ordinary rocks, this wasn’t an ordinary desert. This was Mars. Hibbard’s body tingled and he fought down an impromptu bubble of laughter.
“Captain,” said Kendrick, breaking the silence in the small cabin “you may want to switch to the starboard camera, you won’t want to miss this.”
Hibbard switched the view on his monitor. A large cone of rock stuck up from the flat desert like an Egyptian pyramid worn smooth by millennia of winds. Aeolis Mons, the central and only mountain in Gale crater. “Oh my God, its beautiful.” he muttered to himself, his eyes studying every bump and fissure, every crack and smooth face. He had seen thousands of photo’s, but none of them had given him the true sense of the scale of this lone mountain.
“Mount Sharp in all its glory,” Said Portillo from the back of the cramped cabin, “Home for the next eighteen months. I don’t think I’ll get tired of the view, though, just look at the contours, the strata…”
“Well enjoy it now, I can’t keep us cruising around up here the whole time. It’ll just look like Aberaeron Beach once we’ve landed.” said Kendrick, flicking a few switches and glancing up at the instruments above his large view screen, like a driver checking his rear view mirror. “It wouldn’t hurt to circle once more though, we’re still carrying a lot of velocity.”
“Roger that. Dancer, how’s the payload looking?”
“All Green, sir.” said Dancer her voice crackling over the intercom. She sounded a little distracted. She was the only one of the four crew members not stationed in the cockpit for landing, having to monitor the release and deployment of ‘Bertha’, their mobile laboratory, from the rear of the shuttle. Or, as Kendrick liked to put it, she was back there to act as ballast for the rest of them. “I think we missed the target drop by seven metres though sir, I’m still trying to confirm the exact position from the satellites.”
“Seven metres? Not bad at all. When will you start the unpacking procedure?”
“Already started, one minute after successful landing as planned. It would have been closer Sir, if Kendrick had kept us steady.”
“I’m sorry gal, did my piloting six billion pounds worth of equipment get in the way of you pressing a little button? Next time I’ll land on the spot, shall I, so you’ll have plenty of time to get your ruler out and…”
“Kendrick, how’s the velocity?” asked the Captain, still staring at the peak of Aeolis Mons as the shuttle skirted round the edge of Gale Crater. He was still struggling to comprehend its size. In reality, it was shorter than Mount Everest but there was something about it. It was more majestic, more proud, more daunting. His whole life had been building up to this moment, to be part of the first crew to step on to another world. To go down in History as the man who had led the team to the red planet to investigate Aeolis Mons and return conclusive proof that the ‘Sharp Giants’ were the product of an ancient civilisation. People would say his name in the same breath as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. He and his crew would be remembered until Sol winked out.
“Velocity green sir, permission to take her in to land.”
“Take us down Kendrick, brace for landing.”
The shuttle, with its stabilisers out and payload jettisoned, looked more like an underfed dragonfly than an aircraft, but Kendrick steered her descent down as if she were tied to a guide-wire.
To port were the towering cliffs of the crater wall, some eighty five kilometres away, encircling the bulk of the mountain like a curtain wall around a keep. They looked stark, almost unnatural. Back on Earth, cliffs were riddled with climbing plants, small patches of grass, and little trees. Birds swirled around them, calling to each other over the heads of scurrying mammals and lizards. But these Martian cliffs were empty, baron, and looked as if they had always been that way since the dawn of time. They unsettled Hibbard, a reminder of the desolate planet they were going to be exploring.
Midas’s landing gear barely touched the uneven ground as Kendrick brought her down. Outside the craft, the retro boosters blasted dust into the air and the taut fabric of the stabilizers quivered against the thin atmosphere, but inside everything was quiet. Kendrick’s hands moved expertly across the controls, flicking switches as if at random.
“Midas has touched rock.” Said Kendrick, not attempting to hide the smug satisfaction from his voice. “And now my friends, my job is over. I’ll be by the pool with a beer if anyone wants me.”
“Holiday season hasn’t started yet.” Said Hibbard, “Dancer, how far are we from the payload.”
“More than seven Metres, I can tell you that. At a rough estimate I’d say we are one kilometre west of where Bertha landed”
“Okay, nice job everyone. Portillo, start a survey for a campsite, as close to Mount Sharp’s mouth as you can, preferably with an easy enough route to roll Midas there. Dancer, want to take a look outside and retrieve your baby?”
“It’d be a pleasure Sir, I’m already getting suited.”
It took forty minutes for Captain Hibbard and Dancer to prepare for their expedition out onto the Martian plains, their excitement interrupting their efficient routine. Portillo stayed silent until he heard the hum of the airlock door at the rear of Midas closing.
“That could have been me, if I’d studied engineering instead of geology.” He muttered to his bank of display screens. He glanced over his shoulder at the hunched pilot. “You know they’ll be remembered as the first people on Mars. We’re just a couple of Michael Collins. The forgotten pioneers in the annals of History.”
“You remember him.”
“Yeah, but I’m a geek. I can’t stop myself remembering stuff like that. To everyone else we’re just going to be silhouettes behind Hibbard and Dancer.”
“The won’t see us at all if we’re behind Dancer.”
“No, they’re the ones that will be in all the headlines.” Said Portillo, turning back to his screens and tapping a couple of keys. “My only hope is if we find something. If the Giant’s turn out to be statues and not just random and unusual rock formations, then I might be able to do some headline worthy work. Get my name next to a discovery. Get my name on a paper. ‘Father of the Martians’, that sounds better than first man on Mars, doesn’t it?”
Kendrick let out a big sigh, still with his back to the geologist, apparently staring at his inert controls. He tapped a finger against the dashboard, the hollow sound echoing around the cabin. He got up and looked at Portillo. He stood curled forward, his back brushing against the ceiling of the cabin, blocking out a large part of the view screen behind him. To Portillo, it felt like Kendrick had grown to the size of a giant himself, standing at the entrance of a cave, trapping him inside.
“Look Portillo, I couldn’t give a damn if they called you the nursemaid of the Martians. What would it matter? If you wanted to be remembered so bad, you should have just asked me to crash Midas.” As he said this last, he stroked a hand down one of the support struts near the join of the nose cone, as if reassuring her that he would not have done it. “Who cares who remembers us? We are here, on another planet. I’ve landed a ship on an alien world. That’s why I’ve trained, that’s what it was all for. Not so I’d be remembered for doing it, but so I could actually do it. To feel it.
“So Hibbard and Dancer are the first to step outside, but you’ll still get to do it. You’ll still experience walking on another world. You’re going to get to study the Sharp Giants, possibly even discover if this world was inhabited by sentient species or not. If they do turn out to be carvings, if they are statues of the previous inhabitants of this planet…” Kendrick paused, slumping back into his seat. “I can’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be than sat in this seat, and I know, in your heart, that there is no place in the universe you want to be right now than under that mountain.”
Portillo stared at the screens before him. One showed the detailed topography of the area, relayed by an overhead satellite, while another spewed out numbers and coordinates of potential campsites. He could not explain to himself the empty feeling that sat within his stomach. Kendrick was right, this should have been the pinnacle of his career. He should be feeling awe, exhilaration, something. Yet, all that he felt was a numb sense of loss. He wished he had not mentioned anything. Trying to vocalise his frustration had only made him feel worse. Kendrick was filling the void within him full of guilt.
“I guess it’s different for you. You’re meant to be on this flight. I’m backup. I’m only here because Travis caught a cold.”
“And that’s a problem? I would have thought that was even more of a reason to enjoy yourself.” Kendrick let out a low sigh and his fingers toyed with a few of the buttons before him. Portillo studied the numbers in front of him. On Earth he would have barely had to look at the screens, but here he found it hard to concentrate on them. It did not help that Kendrick was being his usual self. He was always so relaxed, so calm. How was he finding it so easy to enjoy himself?
“Where do you want me to park this beauty?” Kendrick asked after a few moments, to Portillo’s relief. He just needed to focus on his work. the excitement would come. For now he needed to stop thinking about it and get his job done.
“I’ve got two possible sites. One’s two degrees East of here with a nice smooth path. The other is about a kilometre closer to Mount Sharp, but the terrain between us looks a little rougher.”
“Well, I don’t fancy listening to you lot complaining about that extra two kilometres a day travel for the next few months.”
“There really isn’t an easily plottable path to the second site. There is an outcrop of rocks, running along a channel of some sort. It might take days to circumvent. I suggest we head for the first site.”
“The Captain did say he wanted us as close as possible.” Said Kendrick, studying some of the readouts on his dashboard. “Have you heard of a bunny hop?”
The story continues in Part 2