Monday 17 September 2007

Welcome to Mars! - Part Two

Welcome to Mars! is a story told in three episodes, posted serially by me, your dutiful despoiler of virgin soils, Cheeseburger Brown.

Related reading: The Long Man, Plight of the Transformer

Our story of interplanetary conquest continues:


There were technical difficulties. Billions stood by.

The televisions in the taverns were tuned to test patterns. Some desperate networks showed endless replays of archival footage from the Florida launch, with slow-motion sweeps of the crowded beaches cut in for good measure. Pundits argued, and experts mumbled blandly over animated diagrams of Pinnacle, Midas, and Mars.

"Okay, so I've been a NASA dancer for three years, and like I think it's totally scary not knowing what's going on down there in Mars. I mean, are they even okay and everything? Holy!"

There were interviews with the planetfall astronauts' families, challenging them to consider the spectrum of possible feelings they might experience were it the case that their loved ones had burned up on the way down or been dashed to pieces in a field of rusty boulders. There were interviews with the astronauts in orbit around the red planet, too, who smiled and nodded and tried to be as good natured as they could manage while they were questioned about their astrological signs, the new spring fashions, and the antics of celebrity miscreants.

"I really don't know what to say," said Grimaux.

"We're all hoping to have the communications problem licked as quick as can be," Fisher repeated for the hundredth time, hearing with horror how he had fallen against his will to aping Major Nelly's faux-folksy drawl.

"Why the hell am I doing that?" he demanded when the broadcast was over. He drifted across the habitation module and ran a bony hand through his fine hair, then cast Grimaux a forlorn look. "I'm cracking up, right?"

"You're doing it to feel straight," she replied wearily, pulling off her black armband.

"How do you reckon? Damn it -- I can't stop."

Grimaux balled up the armband and kicked it lazily through the companionway to the lab module. "You're unconsciously imitating the most masculine example in your environment. Think about it, Frank."

"Aren't you the most masculine example in my environment?"

"I guess you're just more naturally attracted to Keith."

"You're teasing me."

"It's so easy."

Fisher made a sour face. "God this is awful."

"Let's go see what Lillian's up to."

"That's not funny."

A hundred kilometers below Mission Commander Major Keith Nelly concluded his meditatively slow conference with the NASA brass and toggled his microphone from private to local. "Houston wants us to go out there," he pronounced gravely.

"Thank God," said Abrams. "I could use some fresh air."

Nelly ignored him. "Balour, get the packs ready. Doc, I want continuous monitoring on all of us. Got that? We've got no idea what this thing can do."

"In the movie all the monolith did was broadcast a powerful radio signal."

"This isn't the movies."

"True," agreed Abrams, elbowing Anoush conspiratorially. "The special effects are much better. I feel like I'm really on Mars."

"You are really on Mars," said Anoush with a bleak smile.

"That explains that."

The hatch cycled. A bath of diffuse carbon dioxide laced with brassy dust steamed into the cabin, and they each felt the temperature drop sharply. The heads-up display inside Abrams' helmet marked the changes in pressure and the ambient radiation outside Midas. Nelly looked over at him inquiringly. "We should keep it under ninety minutes," said Abrams. "The cosmic rays are really sizzling this morning, and unfortunately I left my cure for cancer in my other pants."

Anoush nodded and tripped a switch on her chronometer. "Ninety minutes," she echoed.

Nelly put one leg outside. He leaned over to fish the rest of himself through the aperture and then began carefully stepping down the ladder to the surface. Anoush and Abrams saw their own helmets reflected in Nelly's faceplate as it sank out of view. "I'm proceeding down the ladder," he radioed importantly. "I'm on the final rung. I'm...about to step down, now."

Silence. A stray breeze brought another puff of dust into the cabin.

After a moment Abrams stuck his helmet out of the hatch and looked down at Nelly standing at the base of the ladder, his boots planted firmly on a bed of rusty gravel. "Aren't you going to say something historic?" prompted Abrams.

"No point," said Nelly, looking up and shaking his head. "Nobody's listening. I'm saving it for when the feeds are back up."

"It's that good a line?"

"It's a great line. It makes that whole 'one giant leap' business sound like pure doggerel."

Abrams whistled. "Wow," he said flatly. "I can't wait. The first moment of the first man to set foot on Mars! Meanwhile, can you move out of the way so I can get down the ladder?"

"You're trying to be funny again."

"Am I? The line between humour and morbid desperation is sometimes thin."

Nelly grimaced. "You know what, Lawrence? I look forward to getting back to Earth so I can knock you on your ass without risking a court martial."

"Yeah," agreed Abrams as he clambered down, boot over boot. "That'll be swell." He stepped off the ladder, his feet sinking slightly into the loose gravel. The sound of the pebbles scraping against one another was low and hollow, almost silent in the sparse atmosphere, like a bad recording.

Abrams straightened and looked out over the field of broken stone and dust into which Midas had set down: Dao Vallis, the dry bed of an ancient canal, with sheer, two kilometer high walls rising up in the distance. The sky at the horizon was a moody pink, an inky purple at the zenith. The sun looked naked and bald, a hard white disc in the east. Abrams' shadow was crisp.

He moved aside as Anoush descended from the lander. "It's beautiful," she said simply.

Abrams smiled. "That was perfect."

Anoush raised one eyebrow. "Only do it again, this time with more feeling?"

He chuckled darkly. "And would it kill you to show a little more skin?"

Nelly circled around the lander until he could see the monolith. His pace slowed, and he looked back at the others. Abrams and Anoush walked up the meet him, stumbling slightly until their sense of coordination caught up with the weak gravity. The stones at their feet knocked and rolled aside with meek, bass clunks.

Anoush stopped beside Nelly but Abrams strode right past them both, proceeding to close the ten meters to the object. It was a tall, thin rectangle like a featureless domino, its surface pitch black beneath a thin layer of bronze powder kicked up by the winds. The edges were sharp and very straight, unweathered. Abrams stretched out his glove...

PLEASE NOTE: This is a free preview only.
To read the complete novelette get it for Kindle!


SaintPeter said...

Another high quality line:
"Belay that refreshment, Commander!" barked Nelly.

I giggled!

Anonymous said...

That was some much-needed humor on the tail end of a rough Monday morning. The lemonade exchange in particular was a riot.

'Twill be interesting to see if Nelly gets his, etc.

How goes the novel?

Anonymous said...

Eh, what? How odd.

Simon said...

That was even awesomer than the first chapter. A little innured to the advertisements already, so that's a good thing.

Nelly has really cemented himself as little more than the figurehead by this point. He has to confer with Houston for every piddling detail that strays from protocol. Which, in this chapter, was everything. And he's relying on bestowed authority rather than any sort of leadership to get his crew to follow his orders. Nice.

I really got to like Abrams here too. Pity that it has to wrap up so quickly now.

NASA dancers are teh hawt!!

Some possible LOL Cats captions for this chapter:

"Im in UR Mars messin' with UR heads."

"Im on Mars drinkin UR lemonade."

(I had to search to confirm, but I KNEW that 'excurt' wasn't a word. Not in Nelly's sense, anyway. That guy just totally confirmed his poseur-ness.)

"pfeah" -- what I'd say if I saw a monolith on Mars.

Mark said...

Agreed, the lemonade scene (especially the "belay" line) was great. All the rest is working, too, to get me hooked.

Loved the touch with the dog. It makes the customs guy's presence on Mars seem utterly lackadaisical compared to Nelly's. "Me, oh, I'm just out walking my dog."

Bridget said...

"Relax, Major. Here, let me buy you a lemonade."

I snorted. Good stuff. :)

One proofreading thing: The use of present perfect "has pushed" is odd, since everything else is in past perfect:

"In spots the wind has pushed wide sawtooths into the trail but the overall direction was clear, ..."

Teddy said...

I've got this tough guy dirty-harry-esque picture in my head for Nelly. Possibly played by Robert DeNiro. So, the astronaut with the briefcase would be one of these two waiting in line at the customs and immigration office then?

Notably: Night Flight Mike was 20 chapters. It seems that as time has gone on, the stories have been shorter and shorter. I have to say, I'm perfectly fine not being instantly gratified - I don't need the story to wrap up within only a few episodes, because stories get formulaic that way. Please don't get formulaic! It takes the fun out of guessing!


Anonymous said...

The chapters in NFM are only a few paragraphs each.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Saint Peter,

Giggles are good.

Dear Sheik,

I've almost finished designing the spaceship that figures at the centre of the new novel's events. (I hate to keep calling it "the new novel" but I don't even have a working title yet, so there it is.)

Dear Codewright,

Unexpected, even.

Nelly's disposition could be seen as symptomatic of some of Earth's ills -- collaboration at the expense of self-reliance, quaking in fear of retribution from commercial demigods.

We may well see Dr. Abrams again.

Dear Bridget,

Snorting is also good. Thanks for the typo fix.

Dear Teddy,

If you go by word count, you'll see that if anything the stories have become longer and longer rather than shorter and shorter.

The stories that appear here average between 10,000 and 20,000 words, regardless of the number of chapters the text is divided into.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure the median size has been going up. Experimenting with different chapter-length delivery mechanisms I have found helpful for sussing out plot, so don't worry too much about it. It's all serving a purpose.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...


I forgot a "dear Simon" after "unexpected, even."

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

By the bye,

Official launch date for the hardcover, 2nd edition of Simon of Space:

Valentine's Day, 2008

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

Nice! Does it contain the rumoured deleted chapter where Jeremiah and Fortune get it on?

Simon said...

I'm not sure what it says about me, but as soon as I read your hardcover book announcement, CBB, the first thing that popped into my mind - courtesy of the release date - was the "heart shaped bush". (Or should that be heart shaved bush?)

Regardless, and not for the reason mentioned just above, I'm excited. Glad to hear it's finally coming together.

Anonymous said...

Heh... considering Jeremiah's comment about the sexual reproduction effort ("I myself have been very active in the program for years"), I wouldn't be at all surprised.

What a way to celebrate my son's first birthday.

Mark said...

Whoo-hoo! Go SoS!

My first comment got eaten, I guess.

I like this chapter. The lemonade scene definitely was worth a laugh or two, but I wondered if a can of soda bursts in my hot trunk, or my cold freezer, then how in the world (I mean, any world) can it survive inside a vending machine on Mars? That must be a seriously climate-controlled machine.

Anonymous said...

It was very special lemonade, Mark.

Very special.

Also, lemonade is not under pressure (no CO2 bubbles), so it's not as likely to cause problems in low-pressure environments... that, and I'm sure the vending machine was very, very special as well.

With a very special can.

Tolomea said...

I was just skimming some bits of Simon of Space and it occurred to me that it'd be mighty interesting to see the events from the perspective of the other executives, especially the Fortune present at the trial.

Simon said...

Sheik, I get the impression you're trying to say something without saying it. Whatever you're implying, I'm not infering. Is this in line with your Grand Unification Theory of the Burgerverse? (GUTB)

Anonymous said...


Actually, this is one of the few times that my CBB comment post is not fraught with meaning. I was being a trifle silly, whilst trying to maintain the mock-serious attitude that brought you such lines as "let me buy you a lemonade".

It's been several days, and yet the post count isn't even approaching SoS levels. Maybe people are actually *working*...?

Simon said...


Silliness, like chocolate, is its own reward. I don't know what this *work* this is of which you speak, but it gives me a frightful case of the shivers.

Here's to bumping up the comment count.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Hey, I'm still here, too.

I am, however, working. What a week I'm having!

Of course, it's not so bad that I haven't found time to shoe-horn in some progress on the story -- I have Chapter 3 in another window as I type here, with a really authentic-looking but entirely bogus graphic layout ready to leap to the foreground at a second's notice.

Man, simulating work is such hard work.

Cheeseburger Brown

Simon said...


The old faux-work to cover one's real intentions routine. I know it well. Me, I use a complicated-looking spreadsheet combined with a frown of concentration. Simulating work *can* be hard work indeed.

Simon said...

CBB et al.

For anyone interested, the topic of free writing on the web came up on another author's forum, which I frequent on the same unhealthy basis as I do this. (It's the forum for the authorised site of Guy Gavriel Kay, if that's of interest to anyone.)

Since the opportunity arose, I thought I'd pimp the burger a bit over there. The direct link to my forum post is here.

If anyone wants to take a look, or even add their own couple pennies, there is no membership required to post to forum threads. I wanted to keep it brief since, you know, the site is dedicated to another author whom I admire immensely, but the chance to sneak in a little bit o' burger was just right there for me.