Welcome to Mars! is a story told in three episodes, posted serially by me, your sponsor-endorsing host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Related reading: The Long Man, Plight of the Transformer
Our story of interplanetary conquest begins:
Every television on Earth was tuned to same channel.
The Internet groaned under the weight of the endlessly swapped video streams, the excited and sometimes vicious commentary, the shared experience of teleparties and the insatiable thirst of the commercial concerns to capitalize on the event with sales and contests, puzzles and games, spam and swindles. Each network had tailored its own theme music and inspiring graphics; each government agency stood on alert with a stack of speeches pre-written to cover any contingency.
Words painted in laser light were spread over the face of the Moon itself, proudly glowing letters dozens of kilometers wide: Pepsi Presents - Planetfall Mars.
Sixty million kilometers away the object of the world's scrutiny plummeted through an airless void, its flotsam-pitted nose pointed into the swelling maw of the red planet. The burnished globe cast bloody highlights on the ship's proud white hull, pristine save for streaks of grime painted backward from the odd seam, and the radial halos of advertisements clustered around the exterior cameras.
She was called Pinnacle, and her name was underlined by the flags of several of Earth's wealthiest nations.
The ship was a modified Orion with an extended service module to accommodate the descent-ascent vehicle. Twin solar panels extended from port and starboard, like moth wings. They had Pepsi logos on them. By way of further decoration one of the thruster housings had been signed by a thousand children dying of cancer. The thrusters within were now dark. Pinnacle was coasting. She was engaged in a long, slow fall.
Mars waited; Mars pulled.
In her wake Pinnacle left a sparse trail of debris, like discarded plastic food containers, compressed cubes of the unreclaimable faecal detritus, and the shrouded corpse of Mission Specialist Lillian Cheswick. Cheswick had taken her own life for reasons NASA's top psychologists were still struggling to understand, her frozen body destined to spin in space for centuries, an infinitesimal dollop of jetsam too small for even the keenest telescopes to see.
Whenever the interior cameras were live the crew wore black armbands, and assumed solemn expressions.
"Naturally, Lillian's passing is still heavy on our minds," Mission Commander Major Keith Nelly told CNN, "but every man and woman on this crew stands on a lifetime of duty, and I know every one of them is one hundred and ten percent focussed on the mission at hand." After a brief pause he added, "And there's nothing as refreshing as an ice cold can of Pepsi when there's important work, like this, to be done."
The interview concluded, and the red light over the dark camera lens faded. Major Nelly sighed and ran a wide hand through his golden locks. His wandering gaze unintentionally caught the eye of Captain Grimaux floating upsidown beside him. She cocked her head at him. "Subtle," she said, her dark hair fanning around her in a micro-gravity swirl.
"If it weren't for the sponsors," Nelly reminded her, "there'd be nobody on this old trip but robot fellers, and we'd all be sitting at home watching it happen on the TV."
"Spare me the folksy twang, Keith. Nobody's listening but us."
"I'm not even listening now," claimed Captain Lawrence Abrams, MD, as he drifted by with a smirk.
Nelly glowered at him. "We've all got to do our part, folks. Let's pull together as a team. I know what happened to Lillian is a cloud over us, but we've all got to work through it and put on a good face. The world is watching."
Abrams pursed his lips as he kicked off from the helm console, his arms working in a lazy front crawl. "Actually, Major, I think the world is watching a commercial."
Major Keith Nelly had turned to examining the pores on his nose critically with a palm-sized mirror. He was painfully aware that his image was being projected fifty feet high in stadiums around the world, and though he had not heretofore considered himself a vain man over the past months he found himself increasingly obsessed with his physical presentation. His nerves buzzed with the knowledge that in a matter of hours he would become the most famous person alive.
"You look fabulous," Abrams assured him, ricocheting gracefully off the bulkhead over the mission commander's head and sailing slowly back towards Grimaux like a human ping-pong ball.
Nelly flicked his eyes over to Abrams in the mirror. "You sound sarcastic."
"I'm never sarcastic."
"You're making fun of me," insisted Nelly petulantly.
"I'm not, I'm not," claimed Abrams. "If I were a teenage girl I'd have pictures of you tacked up over my bed so you could infect my dreams."
"Everyone is always making fun of me these days."
Grimaux raised one sharply arched brow. "Now why would we do that, Keith?"
"I don't know," mumbled Nelly, teasing out his sideburns with a practiced pinch of his manicured nails. "Maybe you're jealous."
"Of what?" asked Abrams, pushing off Grimaux's console and drifting back toward Nelly.
"You're being purposefully dense, Doc," grumbled Nelly. "You know exactly what's going to happen when I step out onto the surface: I'm going to be bigger than Neil Armstrong -- hell, I'll be bigger than Suri Cruise. It's going out hyper-definition three-sixty: top-notch historic TV. They'll be playing the clip for centuries."
Abrams considered this as he floated, his expression philosophical. "A man lands on Mars, sure, they put it on television," he said. "But when the first Jew lands on Mars -- that gets written down."
"Are you trying to be funny?"
"I'm completely serious."
Nelly sniffed. "Since when is print bigger than TV?"
Abrams spread his arms in a hapless shrug, but said nothing...
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