Mars 1, by Arthur M. Doweyko

Gilbert spat out words like he had a mouthful of marbles. “Shay, you better not freakin’ screw this up.”

Shay looked back to the coffin-like stasis pods, which glowed green and hummed just as they had the entire trip—the first manned expedition to Mars. He knew his three crewmates were asleep, but that didn’t stop the voices.

Something had gone wrong. He was awoken three months out—way too early—a long time to be conscious and alone. Earth comm was iffy at best and mostly fouled up with solar static for the moment. If it wasn’t for the voices, he might have gone insane.

Dayson whimpered. “I don’t trust him, man. He’ll crash for sure.”

Shay shrugged. “Shut the hell up. I need to concentrate.” The crew never answered him, but it made him feel better to vent.

Fran said, “Give the guy a break. He’ll be fine.”

Shay liked Fran. He thought he might be falling in love with her. Every once in a while he sat astride her pod, gazing at her long, wavy blonde hair and those pouty lips. The clear gel made everything look fresh.

The console beeped a warning. Shay scanned the readouts. A graphic displayed his trajectory—the final approach. He sank into his seat, rubbing his palms against his legs. All he had to do was to watch.

A curved blue line grew closer to an orange one. Orbit entry was seconds away. He bit into a breakfast munchy, and reached up to brighten the display. Of a sudden, he heard a ping followed by a deafening claxon. The screen went blank.

“What was that?” said Gilbert.

Dayson screamed, “We’re doomed!”

Shay felt the blood drain from his face. The crumbly remains of the munchy floated out over the console. It was a breach. Air was escaping. He reached for his helmet, but the clamp held nothing.

“Goddamn. Damn it. Damn it.”

He unbuckled and floated out over the pods, glancing down at each as he bumped his way to the rear.

“You’ll get us all killed.”

Gilbert was so damn negative.

Hissing erupted from a far corner of the pod bay, where his helmet twittered in place. It was trying to plug the escaping air. A closer look revealed a shattered face shield. Whatever skewered the ship left him without a working helmet.

He pushed off and headed back. Each pod had a suit perched over it, complete with a custom made helmet. Breathing became a shore, and Shay thought he might be turning purple. His suit had a two-hour air supply, but it was useless without a helmet.

Shay paused.

“Not mine, you don’t,” said Gilbert.

Too small.

Dayson was next.

“Son-of-a-bitch. Are you trying to kill me?”

A perfect fit.

“Put it back, you self-centered ass!”

Shay felt a bit heady as he filled his lungs. Those two always had something to jaw about. When he drifted over Fran’s pod, her face stared up at him, placid and unperturbed. Her eyes were open. He grabbed hold of a crossbeam and looked again. Her eyes were closed. Lack of oxygen could play tricks.

The ship had turned off the air supply the moment the breach occurred—a great example of engineering by committee. Obviously someone forgot to bring up a damaged helmet in the discussion.

Shay turned off the muted alarm and the monitor flickered back on. He focused on the blue line now intersecting the orange. The impact had delayed the automated entry and the window for orbit insertion had passed. Shay fiddled with the controls. That’s when he remembered the other hole—a hole about the size of a dime gaped down at him. It went through the heart of the computer system. The blue line rotated to an alarming angle. They were headed to the surface.

“Freakin’ dumbass at the controls. We’re screwed,” said Gilbert.

Shay fired off a series of small attitude rockets, and turned the ship’s stern toward the descent. The screen went dark red. The Sun’s penumbra covered half the display. Beyond the shadow lay a curved horizon, brick red and streaked with blue meteoritic ejecta. His fingers hovered over the retro control. Deciding when and how long to fire that rocket was like being in a falling elevator and trying to jump up just before crashing

“You fool! Look what you’ve done. We’re all going to die.”

Gilbert and his frantic squeals only added fuel to the mounting chaos inside Shay’s head.

“You’ll be fine, Shay. I trust you,” said Fran.

“Thanks, Fran. Whatever happens, know that I love you.”

He surprised himself with that.

With eyes glued to the altimeter, he punched the retro controls. His body whipped back into his seat. The Martian horizon spun. The ship spiraled and at once his stomach rose up against his throat. His outstretched hand wavered over the console. A fingertip caught the chute deployment toggle just before he retched.

He felt the lurch. Wet munchy chunks stuck to his visor, obscuring his view of the console. He closed his eyes trying to ignore the stench, and held his breath.

“Now you’ve done it. Puked all over yourself. You’re a disgrace.”

He could always count on Gilbert.

The landing came too soon. Shay flew out of his seat and smashed into a wall. His last waking thought centered on the screams of tearing metal and popping rivets.

* * *

When Shay awoke, he lay on the floor. His arms and legs were still attached. A pink glow suffused the cockpit. He turned to find its source—the rocky terrain of Mars greeted him through jagged edges of torn metal. The ship was a wreck, cracked in half, but he had landed and he was alive.

“Hey. Everybody okay?”

Silence.

“Gilbert, you cranky asshole. How do you like that landing, heh? What about you, Dayson? Still worried?”

He walked back into the shadows. The pods were split open. Gel had turned into bubbling foam. Gilbert and Dayson, what was left of them, were splayed across the pod bay. His eyes darted to Fran’s pod.

“I knew you could do it.”

Fran sat atop a fallen crossbeam. She wore only a tee and shorts, the same as she wore the whole trip.

“How?”

She raised a finger to her lips. “I guess I’m just lucky. We’re both lucky.”

Shay felt the weight of cold air against his back. “But, but you don’t have a suit on. You’ll freeze. And how can you breathe?”

“As you can see, the air here is fine.” Fran turned to look out onto the shimmering landscape. “Isn’t it beautiful? Shay, won’t you take that awful helmet off and join me for a stroll?”

The half-light illumined her rosy cheeks which dimpled as she threw him another smile. First man and first woman on Mars, that’s what they were. Thank God she survived.

Fran paused at the opening. “Shall we?”

He thought about what he could say—something the folks back on Earth would repeat forever afterwards—but then, who would hear his words?

“I would, honey.”

What seemed like an impossible decision evaporated with those words. Shay beamed at her and unscrewed his helmet.

~~~

As a scientist, I have written and published over 100 scientific articles and several book chapters. My novel, Algorithm, won a 2010 Royal Palm Literary Award and will be published in 2014. I’ve also published a number of short stories, many of which have been named Finalists in the Royal Palm Literary Competitions. Several recently garnered Honorable Mentions in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. Harry and Harry and P’sall Senji placed first in the 2012 and 2013 Preditors & Editors Readers Poll of best science fiction and fantasy short stories.

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Posted on October 9, 2014, in Issue 15: Elves & Spacerockets and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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