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...
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