Star of Fire

火星

Mars - Space People

太空人

By Dennis Carlyle Kenney

email: kenneydennis@hotmail.com

© All rights reserved, September 2005

Last Updated November 15, 2008

Star of Fire, a sci-fi novel, is a fictional or alternate history of man’s exploration of Mars. The Mandarin characters for fire and star represent the fourth planet in our solar system, Mars. NASA’s approach of a quicker, faster and cheaper expedition to Mars outsources the manufacture, integration and testing of its Earth return vehicle to the Chinese and the launch and heavy-lift launch vehicle to the Russians. The American-led international effort to colonize Mars includes two married American couples, aggressive US military personnel, two rogue Russian pilots and mysterious Chinese women. Corporate partners who are more interested in their bottom line than in scientific exploration aggravate tensions between the astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts. Support for the Mars expedition is endangered by conflict, corporate scandal and political corruption on Earth compounded by natural disasters and terrorist activity.

Dedication

Dedicated to my mother Rose, who scared us kids into going to bed with threats of Martian bogeymen.

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank Arnie, Arthur, Ben and Kevin who proofread and checked various drafts of this novel for technical content. I’m still waiting for feedback from Bruce and Brian. I did the good parts – any remaining errors are Arnie, Arthur, Ben and Kevin’s fault.


Kids’ dreams are the business plans of tomorrow. – Burt Rutan, designer of SpaceShipOne, winner of the $10,000,000 Ansari X Prize.

The Road Runner, November 2014

The crew of the Mars-bound Road Runner habitat/laboratory had been picked for psychological stability and compatibility; nevertheless, there had been signs of tension during the four months of crew training in Antarctica. The Commander, Marine Colonel Elton Hollis, had commanded a squadron of F-18 Hornets during Iraqi Freedom before being selected for astronaut training. He was less comfortable with a command that was half female and 100% family. Hollis had been grumpy since the aborted launch a week earlier.

The Pentagon Rule established five as being the optimal number of members for a small isolated crew. Church groups weighed in with a second criterion, advocating sending only married men on missionary missions. Under the influence of these recommendations, two married couples, the Lawrences and the Bradleys, were selected to become Hollis’ crew. To Hollis the members of his command were zoomies or blue suits (Air Force). The women retained their maiden names so as not to be confused with their husbands, who had the same military rank.

Bucky Lawrence and his wife Aggie were the first couple selected and were glamorized by the press as the first family to go to Mars. Aggie became the focal point of the group because of her extroverted personality and natural good looks. Aggie’s husband Bucky, on the other hand, was taciturn except when he was surrounded by his pilot friends. Reggie Bradley and his wife Sonia were ordinary by comparison with the Lawrences, an in-flight tanker jock and a family doctor from the Midwest. The couples formed the crew and the commander became an aloof outsider, isolated from social obligations and bound ever tightly to the male warrior caste. He attended the naval aviator Tail Hook Association conferences without his Air Force crew.

Peregrine

“the starry sky above and the moral law within”. – Immanuel Kant

The backup crew scheduled for the next habitat was a mixture of male test pilot/astronauts from all of the military services. Air Force Colonel Robert Leavitt had settled for the position of backup commander, because of politics, he thought. Backup crew to a Jarhead commander, Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful, and a tanker toad and his midwife. Navy Captain “Sam” Watanabe, from San Francisco, was selected to be the pilot. Marine Major “Arthur” Chriskus, Air Force Major Dieter “Chico” Thiessen and Army Captain Francis “Fran” Belanger filled out the five-man crew. The backup crew and other astronauts would function as Capcoms (Capsule Communicators, a term from the Apollo era), supporting the Road Runner mission to Mars. Commander Bob Leavitt served as the Capcom during the launch of the Road Runner. Bob was all smiles and conciliation during the launch – the press had blown up the rivalry between the crews to the extent that it was eclipsing the significance of the flight.

Reports from Kazakhstan that the Chinese were preparing a manned launch to Mars were met by skepticism at NASA. After all, the Chinese had no prepositioned assets on Mars. Russian assistance could make a Chinese flight possible – the threat of a real space race could not be dismissed and added urgency to the mission. It would be just like the Chinese to launch a crew to Mars without a means of returning them to the Earth, thought Colonel Leavitt.

What a ridiculous name – Road Runner. A Road Runner flew about as well as the Spruce Goose. My habitat will have a proper name – the Peregrine [Falcon]. Now that’s a name worthy of flying in space. The Chinese will have a harder time pronouncing the name than they had with the Road Runner’s. Reportedly, the Chinese were calling their habitat the Penguin! The damn thing probably ran on free Red Flag Linux software.

The crew of the Road Runner ate their last meal of steak and eggs, except for Bucky, who only drank three bottles of juice. The three men ran over to the 205-foot altitude urinal before entering the Road Runner while the two women would have to suffer through the two-hour prelaunch count-down or wet their MAGs (diapers). With five crewmembers and more room, the availability of enough time to potty wasn’t as critical as it had been with the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo or Soyuz capsules. It was only later in space that the women in the flight crew would dwell on the lack of fairness in the assignment of urinary nozzles. Pulse rates and blood pressure started creeping up, on the spacecraft and among the spectators.

The view of the highways surrounding the launch site from the gantry was spectacular, a continuous line of headlights bringing the spectators to their viewing sites. Over half of the spectators in the approaching cars wouldn’t make it to the launch area in time and would have to view the launch from the highway. NASA had prepared a bleacher area for 30,000 VIPs including 5,000 reporters, only three miles from the gleaming, white Ares V. The VIPs were joined by about a hundred turkey buzzards, which appeared to be looking hungrily at the Ares V launch vehicle as it sat on the newly refurbished Pad 39A, glowing in the spray from brilliant, white lights. The crew was sitting on the equivalent of an atomic bomb, which, if it exploded, would destroy both the 39A and 39B launch pads. The nearby blister-shaped blockhouses were windowless.

Reverend Adolph Valencia commanded 100,000 protesters among the two million civilians surrounding the Cape. There were millions of starving people on the Earth and only a few hungry corporations. Two and a half billion Earthlings watched the liftoff of the Ares/Road Runner real-time on television.

Public Affairs Officer: The target for the Road Runner astronauts, Mars. Mars is presently 45 million miles from Kennedy Space Center.

Launch Control: This is Ares-Road Runner Launch Control. All report they are GO for the mission. We’re minus 6 minutes, 25 seconds and counting.

KSC Public Affairs Officer: LIFT OFF. We have lift-off, 12 minutes past the hour. Lift-off for the Road Runner.

Kennedy Launch Control: Tower clear.

Johnson Space Center in Houston took control of the Ares as it left pad 39A in accordance with a political decision made during the 60s.

Capcom Bob Leavitt: Road Runner, Thrust is GO all engines. You are looking good.

Hollis: Roger. Hear you loud and clear, Houston. All engines GO.

Capcom: This is Houston, you are GO for staging.

Hollis: Houston. Solid rocket booster separation.

Capcom: SRB separation confirmed.

Public Affairs Officer: Commander Hollis confirming solid rocket booster separation.

The Road Runner-Ares discarded its first stage like a Bostonian discards an empty Styrofoam coffee cup. The Centaur II placed the Road Runner in an elliptical orbit with a 200-mile apogee (nearest point to Earth).

Hollis: Centaur inboard cutoff.

Capcom: Centaur inboard cutoff confirmed. Road Runner is cleared to discard the escape rocket into the Atlantic.

Hollis: Escape rocket jettison activated.

The Road Runner crew checked out the spacecraft systems for two Earth days. They could return to Kennedy or have the Atlantis shuttle provide some essential part while they were in orbit; they would be on their own except for communication with Houston once they left orbit. There was little time for final farewells to family and friends and for television reports to the American public.

Public Affairs Officer: The Road Runner is cleared to depart to Mars.

Capcom: You are cleared for Centaur transorbital burn.

Hollis: Roger, cleared for Centaur transorbital burn.

PAO: Centaur final burn complete.

The Centaur II performed its final task of inserting the spacecraft into a transitional orbit to Mars and was also discarded.

Hollis: Centaur TMI separation.

Capcom: Centaur TMI separation confirmed.

Public Affairs Officer: Commander Hollis has confirmed Centaur separation.

Hollis: Goodbye Earth. See ya all later.

The Road Runner drifted towards Mars.


The first trillionaires will be made in space. – Dr. Patrick, professor of economics at Aziba University in Japan.

Operation Enduring Liberty

The Exalted Overseer for Existence of Machias for Life decided that a preventive strike on the Mufad power plant on Cruces would establish a new balance of power or stalemate in the Melvinn Octant. The first attack on the sentry sensors would have to achieve tactical surprise or the main force might be destroyed in detail as it converged on the target. The Mufads were rumored to have agents among the primitive beings on one of the planets orbiting the initial point reference star that could give the alarm even though the planet’s primitive technology was still limited to the speed of light. The electromagnetic sensor being monitored by the agents of Mufad would have to be destroyed.

Peti 6 and Gerant 13 turned on the dislocator beam, which would slowly weaken the structure of the antenna by randomizing its crystalline structure. It seemed that the process was taking forever, but Peti and Gerant had been selected for their abilities of stealth and patience. Covert Watzan warriors are the part of history that is never written.

A West Virginian named John, unobserved by the operatives, went to a specialized room beneath the antenna to eliminate some processed nutritives from his system. John interrupted the ritual when the antenna collapsed and ran directly to the position where Peti and Gerant were concealed. Peti and Gerant were vaporized from the ship before they could be discovered and the flitter departed the planet’s surface without looking back. Peti and Gerant were glorified as the first casualties of the disastrous Operation Enduring Liberty.

The antenna was replaced by a newer model, which was the largest moveable structure on land on the planet when it was constructed. Everybody soon forgot the old antenna except John, who worked with the new antenna. John will almost go into a rage any time somebody suggests that little green men had destroyed his antenna.

Gnasa, Eighth Eon

La terre est platte. – Mary Robichaud

Gnasa looked at his children. Oronons were allowed two children and he had selected a boy and a girl; his estranged wife Pemaquid had wanted two girls because of their greater value to society. Pema was a medical doctor but preferred the study of Oronon society as well as abnormal psychology. Gnasa knew his wife considered him to be a deviant because of his illegal experiments which could lead to the creation of new universes – how else could he test his cosmological theories? Pema reported him and his experiments to the other members of the Cosmos Council. Theoretically a created universe would be in another space, but how could that be proven when only one universe could be known with eighth eon science?

The universe was two billion light years across - an Oronon probe had flown across the finite known universe and returned generations ago resolving the dilemma caused by gravitational lensing. Oronons rarely traveled beyond the strand of the three closest local galaxies. Gnasa had been to twenty as part of his doctoral thesis on galaxy evolution. Now Gnasa was focused on the first nanoseconds of the universe, an interest triggered by his study of the Byron II binary black holes. His friends at NIT laughed at his theory of bipolar branes. Space seemed to be coming from the diverging neutral points between the Byron II isogons. The intense gravitational field in the area appeared to seed the creation of space - a zero point with the usual amount of primordial radiation, relativistic matter and dark energy, inertial matter and antimatter. Gnasa wanted to try to magnify the Adam Effect by causing a graviton reactor to go critical, an experiment that wouldn’t be approved by the chicken-livered Cosmos Council. The ancient crystals proscribed galaxy creation although the reckless Nays were rumored to have generated embryonic galaxies.

Gnasa loaded the reactor and his children in his vacation van and flew to Byron II. He set the controls on the graviton reactor to critical and ejected it towards the larger Byron II black hole. The reactor fell below the event horizon, descending to the point where captured matter returned to primordial light. The van got caught in the expanding shockwave caused by the ensuing graviton tsunami from the star quake.

The ensuing universe was huge and strange. Millions of years later Gnasa could see that his new universe was developing structure. Time was faster than in the old universe and its stars. Now he had to modify one of the points of light into a suitable home for his family. Sometimes he wondered if his wife and Orono still existed.

The Great American Blackout of 2003

Jerry Littlefield, a dropout engineering student and industrialist wannabe, stood on the roof next to the large telescopes of the Boston University Astronomy Department looking at the half moon sailing through the autumn sky above Boston. The BU graduate students were using small portable telescopes for their weekly open house. Overcast skies and rain had characterized the Boston weather and there had been no traditional astronomy Wednesday open house for weeks. Tonight, there was only a light cloud cover and Jerry hoped to see Mars, which was about two weeks from opposition.

The International Space Station came overhead on schedule. A female graduate student named Melissa informed the visitors that because of the lack of funding the ISS only had two tenants at the present time. The ISS life support systems and environmental sensors were only working marginally. Many congressmen were suggesting that the astronauts be brought home and the lights on the ISS turned off because of the risk to the astronauts. Later in the year, Michael Foule became the commander of the ISS and was accompanied by the Russian cosmonaut, Alexander Kaleri. Mike and Alex wished the gravity-bound inhabitants of the Earth a Merry Christmas on Christmas Eve, 2003.

The major reference stars Vega and Sirius shined through the light-polluted skies of Boston, allowing the calibration of the automatic positioning systems of the telescopes. Jerry viewed the Ring Nebula, the Dumbbell Nebula, the half moon and various double and triple stars through the telescopes. The Milky Way was invisible to the naked eye. Sadly there would be no observation of Mars tonight – Mars was low on the horizon in the direction of the Green Monster, Fenway Park. The brilliant field lights told the ever-wishful baseball fans of Boston that the (Red) Sox were in town. Jerry would be able to see Mars at his house in Maine, but he had hoped to see its red face smiling through a telescope. [The lights at the rest stop entering West Texas near the Guadalupe National Park are so bright that I could only see a Lone Star, which is where the expression comes from.] He wished that the lights would go out…, if only for a little while.

Two weeks later, the city folks of the eastern seaboard and Times Square in particular looked up at the sky that Jerry saw every clear night at his home in Trenton, Maine. They gazed at man’s lost legacy – the Milky Way, Polaris, the Big Dipper, O’Ryan, hundreds of billions of billions of stars forming billions of galaxies and of course, the Red Planet.



Part 0. Near Space

Houston, we have a problem. – Passenger on the NASA Historic Mission Control Room tour tram in Houston, when the tram engine couldn’t be started after a stop at Missile Park, 2004.

International Space Station (ISS)

The jokes on talk radio and television had been going on for weeks that at least two of the three men on the International Space Station were going to become cannibals. The Russian Progress supply vessel aborted on the launch pad, causing the Americans to press the space shuttle Discovery into a supply mission. Safety concerns slowed down the launch of the Discovery while an alternate plan, using a Proton II booster to launch the partially equipped Canary habitat as a supply warehouse to the International Space Station, was considered. The Americans had flown the Canary habitat/laboratory twice suborbitally, using its own rocket engines, before the science lab and environmental control equipment had been installed. Now it was too heavy to fly on Earth with only its own engines.

Politics trumps science, jobs and space exploration. The so-called Phase 1 of the ISS program, putting NASA astronauts on Mir, was a political initiative to improve Russian-American relations through a barely disguised foreign aid project, an unsuccessful attempt to discourage the sale of Russian nuclear technology to India. America sold the nuclear technology to India in 2006 when it suited the administration’s purposes and anyway, India was on our side now. The stated rationale for international cooperation in space was that the high cost of the new space station prompted the United States to seek out international partners to spread the cost. America’s old adversary Russia became its primary partner in space. We will be dependent on the Russians for resupply and crew rotation on the ISS after the shuttle is retired.

The actual cost of the partnership with Russia is hard to estimate. The higher inclination orbit required to accommodate the Russian launch site in Kazakhstan reduced the payload of the shuttle requiring more shuttle launches to build the International Space Station.

The Canary Habitat

Gravity sucks. - Astronaut pilot Scott Horowitz commenting on the barrier to space exploration presented by the high cost of getting a payload into low earth orbit (LEO), MIT seminar, 2003.

Commander Al Hollis confirmed the orbital parameters with Mission Control and the crew checked out the health of the habitat. Robert Leavitt, the Canary pilot, was the favorite candidate for commander of the first mission to Mars - if he didn’t die of old age before the mission flew. Dieter “Chico” Thiessen was the mission specialist on the life support systems – on a Douglas DC-3 Gooney Bird he’d have been called a crew chief, in spite of his degrees. The afternoon liftoff from Kalkonur, Kazakhstan powered by a Russian Proton II gave the flight crew a weeklong shakedown cruise to get their sea legs and feel out the habitat in space. Space sickness was an old friend to Bob, Al and Chico but they would be adjusted to space by the time they were ready to dock with the International Space Station (ISS).

Commander Al Hollis eased the Canary habitat/laboratory in behind the ISS. The habitat vehicle was about 6 kilometers from the ISS and the crews on both platforms got their video equipment ready to record the docking maneuvers. Hollis flew around the ISS on his approach, finally approaching the Docking and Storage Module attached to the Russian-built Zarya, at the position normally occupied by the Soyuz life-raft spacecraft. The American-owned and Russian-built Zarya Control Module had also been mated to a Proton and launched from Kazakhstan. A week of free flight in orbit and 3 months in the habitat, docked to the ISS, would give the astronauts real, in space experience, with the life support and science equipment on the habitat.

The habitat docking was routine, the last routine part of their stay at the ISS. Anything that could break on the Canary did, decimating the extra spare equipment that had been thought to be unnecessary. The medical/biological equipment was a disaster but should work better in the partial-earth gravity of Mars. Some of the systems, such as the parachutes, couldn’t be tested in space. The presence of fuel is always hazardous; the argument over whether to include fuel was resolved, maxing out the lift capability of the Proton II, by partially filling the liquid methane tanks and fully loading the liquid oxygen tanks – the oxygen could eventually be used on the ISS anyway. The methane would be needed if somebody wanted to perform space maneuvers, move the habitat, or boost the ISS’s continually decaying orbit.

The Engineering Change Notices (ECNs) flowed into the NASA design group and the fabrication facility in Shanghai. Commander Hollis could just imagine the sorry crew that would have taken the habitat to Mars without his crew wringing out its systems.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis

The crew of the space shuttle Atlantis could see their destination, the International Space Station, as a bright star above the horizon. At first Commander Aggi Worthley thought that there were lights on the ISS, but she soon realized that it was just the normal reflection of light from the station’s solar panels. Aggie docked the STS on the American-made Destiny science module. The entire Atlantis crew would stay on the International Space Station for three weeks before returning the old crew of the habitat and ISS to Earth. The new occupants of the ISS/habitat were to be in space, like the old crew, for six months. Don’t even mention that the average stay on the ISS (or the late Mir space station for that matter) was usually extended, an omen of what would happen on Mars. The station would be crowded but Commander Aggie Worthley knew almost everyone at the station. Major Tim Perry, the Atlantis pilot, was flying his second mission as pilot and was looking forward to a few weeks on the ISS. Tim was developing a short timer’s attitude. He was more interested in photography and video than he was with space science and medicine.

Tim wasn’t very good at politics and he had been too outspoken in the interviews he gave at the local TV station in his hometown of Lawton, Oklahoma. He wasn’t a team player and usually had a dissenting opinion. Tim’s baby for this mission was a 3D IMAX high-resolution camera. The camera would be left on the ISS, but Tim would have the camera all to himself for the duration of his stay on the ISS. Let the suckups play with the habitat to improve their position in the queue of those hoping to go to Mars. His commander, Major Aggi Worthley tried to get him involved with her crew, but he dwelt on past slights from his fellow astronauts and NASA. Tim often had the storage room (nicknamed the attic even though it usually pointed down) all to himself. There was an unexplained throne, a toilet rack in the storage room; the attic would be the garage, on the ERV variant. The attic had the best view port, called the nadir window when the ISS was gravitationally pointed, for watching the Earth. There was a preinstalled mount near the view port for the large IMAX camera and its companion, an editing video camera. Aggie admired Tim’s intimacy with the equipment and developed a crush on him. Aggie would join Tim for lunch, using the excuse of delivering a hot meal to him. The photographers engaged in a quickie while photographing the Alps.

I like this spacecraft, Tim thought, in spite of myself. Tim knew the equipment intimately – the equipment had been his specialty in astronaut training. Tim had an unusual mental intensity when he was concentrating; a Trekkie friend of Tim’s described it as a mind meld with his plane or equipment. A former girl friend commented that he exhibited the same intensity while playing music or during sex. Like Tim, the Canary was plain, dependable and functional. The installed equipment on the Canary would reach the reliability of the basic spacecraft after about a year or two of use and refinement. Less admirable to the other astronauts was Tim’s compulsion to take equipment apart and improve the customization of the habitat’s laptops. He always seemed to be making electronic or educational toys, or playing with robotic gismos. Tim reflected that his RV with all its recording and video equipment was more complicated than the Canary. Tim was the first person called when something on the habitat started to display personality.

Less well known to NASA was Tim’s double life as leader of the Rock-a-Billy group, Scotched Earth. The turnover in lead singers wasn’t all that bad and provided Tim with sexual maintenance. The girls moved on as soon as they became professional or commercially successful and Tim would select another candidate from his groupies. It was rumored that Tim had fathered a child with one of his lead singers, a rumor being as damaging at NASA as being proven guilty. Tim only seemed to know the words to three songs – Show me a Man was his favorite. A duet with his girl friend du jour with Dust on the Bible had worked for him in Austin.

Territorial Delimitation

The inverters for the Canary solar panels were acting up again. Commander Hollis demanded to know where Major Perry was, since he was supposed to be the equipment specialist on habitats. Tim, of course, was in the attic with Major Worthley taking pictures of the Earth. The sun would be at an ideal angle during this pass to catch the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains. The commander flew through the portal, dropping unannounced into the attic. He snarled at Major Worthley, “Could you let me talk to Tim in private?” Aggie nodded her head and glanced at Tim. Slowly she left the two men in the attic.

“I need you upstairs working on the systems. Our first priority is getting the habitat shipshape and we have a long way to go. I can’t have you fooling around, acting like a Sundance Festival film director.” Commander Hollis was technically the senior man on the station, even if Tim didn’t work for him. Tim was getting a little fed up with macho super-patriots, regardless of which country they were from. It wasn’t just that they proclaimed themselves to be wolves, but that they thought everybody else were sheep.

Tim pushed his feet firmly into the floor constraints and wondered how the commander’s body was going to react to being decked in zero gravity. This situation is one on one, with no witnesses. Tim mused that he wished he could get the commander’s trajectory on film. I don’t suppose that the commander would take a break while I set up the cameras.

“Al, I think you’re full of shit and I wished that they’d put you jarheads through deprogramming before they let you deal with other human beings,” he said.

Both men rose on their weightless feet and glared into each other’s eyes. The thought that the physics of a fistfight in space was different and that he might be the first to explore the consequences passed through the commander’s mind.

The commander laughed and pulled his feet out of the foot constraints. “Make sure you get some good shots of the Okies down there,” he said. “Come upstairs and work on the inverters when the pass is over.” This asshole is okay, he thought. He laid his finger on the side of his nose and with a light push off floated up to the airlock. The thought that he had dodged a bullet flitted again through the commander’s consciousness and was quickly dismissed.

Major Worthley drifted down from the airlock to Tim’s side after the commander had left. She didn’t ask Tim what the commander had wanted as they prepared the cameras for the daylight pass. Two of the best astronauts in the business and they’d be useless on the same mission. MEN!



Book 1

Part 1. The Road Runner

For long-duration space flights such as Mars, the crews would be confined inside their spacecrafts for nearly a year. With so much time on their hands, they’d react like…other normal human beings; they’d want sexual diversion. It is therefore unrealistic to plan future flights without coming to grips with the problem of women. Naturally the women would be fully operational crewmembers…not only there for sex. - NASA Administrator, Charles Berry, M.D.

America was like the proverbial donkey stuck between two haystacks; design a heavy-lift vehicle required for a direct throw of the habitat to Mars or perfect the next-generation nuclear drive vehicle which promised a shorter transition to Mars and the capability to go to the asteroids and beyond. Both of these technologies had been developed in the 60s by NASA, which terminated the programs and dispersed the expertise. The first manned habitat launch was supposed to be based on using a nuclear propulsion vehicle during the transition to Mars; when the nuclear propulsion vehicle’s schedule slipped, there was a belated attempt to develop a heavy-lift vehicle using the Shuttle engines and the Shuttle external tank (the original Ares design). NASA’s new administrator, Michael Griffin, entertained the use of Earth and lunar/Mars orbital rendezvous approaches for lunar and Martian exploration. Two years after the scheduled launch the Ares heavy-lift stack was used to launch the Road Runner habitat direct to Mars.

The Russians had launched two of the prepositioned assets on Mars, the Mars ascent vehicle (MAV) at Mars Site 1 and an Earth return vehicle (ERV) at Yellowstone – Mars Site 2. The first stage of the Russian heavy-lift Energia used older, low-tech components. The Americans had launched the habitat at Mars Site I direct from Canaveral. Kerosene and liquid oxygen powered the Energia heavy-lift vehicle’s first-stage rocket engines. Hydrogen would have been better but liquid hydrogen has its own problems. Hydrogen is less dense (needs more storage space per pound) and is a hard cryogenic liquid fuel – needs to be chilled much cooler than methane or oxygen. Call hydrogen the Houdini fuel. Hydrogen, like liquid helium, will seep out of any cell, pipe or fitting. And finally, hydrogen is highly explosive in any atmosphere supporting human beings.

The Road Runner, November 2012

Because of the delays in the launch of the Road Runner habitat to Mars, the Road Runner crew had been together for five years before their trip to Mars had even left the surface of the Earth. All five knew the remaining four more than they had ever wanted to know anybody else. First names were used during training since that would be the procedure used off world. NASA had delayed the launch of Road Runner for one Martian year (one Martian year = 686 Earth days), time that was well spent improving the Road Runner and the launch booster/secondary stage stack.

The interplanetary nuclear propulsion unit still wasn’t ready so a modified Ares/Centaur heavy-lift stack launched the Road Runner direct to Mars. Training with the Chinese Cheng Ho No Wings trainer, aka the Grasshopper, had put some reality into their simulator training. Additional training flights in a stripped down ERV had shown that their simulator training would be adequate. The two command pilots and one of the military pilots each had ten low-altitude ERV launches and landings as pilot-in-command (PIC), with 2 flights as PIC for the JAFOs (just another observer), the mission scientists, in Jiuquan, China. Before the launch to Mars, all five crewmembers had had two to 5 months in the weightlessness of the International Space Station. Let’s not forget that the two commanders and Major Worthley had been commanders on the resurrected shuttle.

Space people live and think in inertial space, cold micro gravity and lack of atmosphere, not aerospace. The newest class of astronauts felt they were better trained and had better equipment than the Apollo astronauts. The launch of the Road Runner from Cape Canaveral had been spectacular and flawless – not even the usual delays to settle the nerves of some system engineer had occurred. An ERV for returning the astronauts from Mars and a habitat had landed successfully on Mars. A second ERV had been launched from Kazakhstan two weeks before the Road Runner on a slower and more efficient orbital transfer ellipse. The 2nd ERV would be inserted into low Martian orbit several weeks after the Road Runner landed, allowing a last minute selection of the landing site. A site selected on the ground should be better than one picked from orbit. Moving a site that was found to be unsatisfactory would be time-consuming and difficult.

The Road Runner was predominantly an American project with the exception of a few European and Japanese research-oriented packages. The ERV design was totally American. The feel-good international cooperation in the International Space Station had soured during NASA’s efforts with the cash-strapped Russians. Seemingly by chance, this crew was lily-white; this would be the new AMERICAN frontier, in capital letters. [Possession of a common cultural heritage was one of the flight crew selection criteria.] There were six flags on the moon and every one was Old Glory. Yes, the first flag on Mars would have 50 stars. Hoo rah.



Chapter 1. Commander Elton “Al” Hollis

Vertigo, 1975

Lieutenant Al Hollis entered the Aviation Medicine building behind the dispensary for his first training in the physiology of flight. Al was two months into primary flight training at Pensacola Naval Air Station in the Florida panhandle. Fifteen of the air cadets milled around two technicians standing laterally to a chair that looked like it came right out of a barber’s shop, except for the Disneyland-style large arm rests extending and curling towards each other near the front of the chair.

The cadets were told not to stand up after the chair stopped spinning. Al sat in the chair with his head resting on his legs facing to his left. The technicians spun the chair around several times and abruptly stopped its rotation. Al was told to sit up. His face went blank and his eyes twitched from left to right. Al’s mind left the premises – classical vertigo symptoms. As Al tried to stand up he reacted to a sensation of falling backwards, overcorrected and fell forward. The technicians caught Al as he lurched forward; they’d been through this scenario before. As Al watched the other cadets take their turn he hated the experience. Loosing control of one’s mind and aircraft just hadn’t been something that he had thought could happen to him. The other physiological compromise that threatens aviators is more insidious – hypoxia.

Altitude Chamber

Al cast a weary eye at the cylindrical chamber designed to expose potential aviators to reduced atmospheric pressure and explosive decompression. Ten of the aviators entered the chamber with five acting as spotters, keeping their oxygen masks on, while the other five were subjected to pencil and paper tests as the pressure altitude of the chamber was increased [air pressure decreased]. Some cadets were giggling in the euphoria of hypoxia, observing their blue fingernails and the occasional tremor of their hand and fingers. The cadets could see, after donning their oxygen masks, that they had failed their pencil and paper maze-tests miserably – without even realizing it while under physiological compromise. Explosive decompression can cause the bends, the diver’s disease, releasing dissolved nitrogen into the blood. The bubbles of nitrogen can cause permanent capillary and nerve damage as well as the well-known pain in the joints.

The thrust of the Ares heavy-lift booster had been the limiting factor in the weight of the Mars habitat. Even after all the hours spent in conferences by psychiatrists, psychologists and medical doctors, thousands of emails and hours of talk radio, the fairing measured 25 feet in width by 3 stories – ergo 5 crewmembers. Commander Hollis knew how far off some of the FBI-generated criminal profiles had been in the past; now he was living within a NASA political consensus – the crew would consist of a strong commander with two married couples. Odd man out, he was more of a bachelor than a warrior often separated from his family. He had got his acceptance into astronaut training before the bomb dropped – the remaining four astronauts of the primary crew would be married couples. Damn, damn the politicians, experts, psychologists and psychiatrists. The candidate pool had shrunk considerably. How many qualified astronauts had spouses that were worth their fare to Mars?

His wife had been reasonable enough not to divorce him before he got this assignment. Maybe she thought there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Bitch that she is, she probably thought I’d be messing around with little green women. A military career is hard on any marriage, but some couples just click. He and Melinda had never adjusted to each other, even though the sexual attraction had always been there. Hollis believed that if thoughts and prayer could kill, his wife would have snuffed him a long time ago. The arrival of the kids removed all thoughts of divorce and he and Melinda tolerated each other. If this tin can just got him to Mars, he would be the leader of the first mission to Mars. There’s only a fifty/fifty chance that I’ll come back from this mission. The next notch in his pistol, by command prerogative, would make him the first man to leave his footprints on Mars.

Screw the academic elitists. Hollis’ world was black and white with no room for moonbeams. Political decisions were above his pay grade. Apply firepower and maneuver to close with and destroy the enemy. Occupy the dirt you have captured and await further orders. He knew he had been the second choice for this command; Commander Leitershofer had turned down the job because his kids were in Little League. Well, his oldest boy Fred was in Little League too and his daughter would probably make the state finals in gymnastics. So what? One by one, he passed the weaker troops on the pyramid. Now he was babysitting two couples that spent their whole time burning up his food and oxygen, by exercising, practicing extravehicular activities inside the spacecraft and screwing. His crew did more docking maneuvers in a week than all the astronauts in the world had performed before this flight. What a fall this was from commanding a flight of Marine F-18s in Kuwait. Semper Fi. Was there any chance of there being some giant bugs or dragons to fight on Mars?

Backup Crew

Commander [Colonel] Leavitt was the biggest suck up and Bubba of the bunch. Hollis knew that Leavitt was involved in getting the Lawrences and Bradleys assigned to him instead of a real crew. He loved calling Leavitt his backup. The only immediate joy Hollis got from his crew was the certain knowledge of the agony and frustration (Dare he say rage?) that the selection of his crew as the primary crew over Leavitt’s second-rate crew had produced in the backup crew. Leavitt’s crew was NEXT to the best; my crew is the best.

Chapter 2. Launch

Being a habitat vehicle, the Road Runner’s job as a spacecraft would be finished when it touched down on Mars. Fuel would have to be transferred from the Mars ascent vehicle (MAV) to enable a stripped-down habitat flight into Martian orbit, a contingency plan that wasn’t likely to be implemented. The vehicle prepositioned on the Plymouth landing site, a MAV, was rarely called by either its official name or the corresponding NASA acronym by the crew. An ERV was capable of landing on and taking off from Mars; rendezvousing in Martian orbit would be unnecessary. The MAV vehicle would be named later. It had nothing to do with superstition – why provoke Fate? Returning to Earth seemed to be an afterthought, something far in the future. The MAV in the landing area had refueled itself, creating methane and oxygen from reactant hydrogen transported from the Earth and carbon dioxide from Mars. The second vehicle, an ERV, had touched down about 90 kilometers from the first at a site that would later be called Yellowstone Caverns, after the American national park where extreme microbes had been found to exist in its hot springs. The cameras of the Caidin orbiter caught the image of a strange cloud – it could only be a venting of water. Mission Control, wanting to believe that it was the periodic eruption of a Martian geyser, called the occurrence, which was never seen again, Old Faithful. The Road Runner crew would determine if the next group of astronauts and the Sparrow habitat would land at the Yellowstone site.

The Road Runner wasn’t pretty. The two command pilots thought a vehicle should be elegant, something a spacecraft usually isn’t. Road Runner was as pretty as a midwestern water tower and just as functional. The astronauts were well aware that the Russian technicians at Kaikonur, Kazakhstan called the Road Runner a honey wagon. That Russian description upstaged the German magazine, Der Spiegel, which called the Road Runner a large garbage can.

Chapter 3. Trans-Mars Injection (TMI)

Communication in Earth orbit is easy, one ground station after another. Soon after leaving Earth orbit, the Runner would be dependent on the three giant deep space network dishes, spaced approximately 120 degrees apart around the Earth. The Gladstone dish, located in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles, was the closest deep space dish to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The astronomers at the Green Bank [Telescope] antenna in West Virginia would use their superior technology to upstage the three dishes any time that they could.

The single stage TMI expendable hydrogen/oxygen Centaur vehicle inserted the habitat into its outbound trajectory to Mars with a second burn. Nuclear thermal propulsion would be available for later missions and would speed up the interplanetary leg, but that scenario had retreated into the future. The best use of the nuclear propulsion units would be to refuel them and park them in space rather than using them as expendables. Rendezvousing with orbital vehicles such as the nuclear propulsion modules presents its own problems.

Hollis: Centaur TMI separation.

Public Affairs Officer: TMI separation confirmed.

Hollis: Goodbye Earth. See ya all later.

Public Affairs Officer: The Road Runner is on its way to Mars.

The Road Runner escaped the grizzley-bear hug/embrace of the home planet, coasting out of the Earth’s gravitational influence. The Earth and its moon shrunk to points, two of many points of light on the celestial sphere dominated by the sun.

Chapter 4. The Rock Doc

What was it about Major (Doctor) Wesley “Bucky” Lawrence? wondered Colonel Arnold Stahlman, Major Lawrence’s commanding officer. There were no traffic violations or disorderly conduct reprimands in his personnel folder. It wasn’t his flying ability – he had been first in his class in primary flight training. He was in perfect shape and had been captain of his wrestling team during high school in Thousand Oaks, California. Something like a fat lip or black eye didn’t bother him in the least. He had commented in his last promotion interview that he often won his high school wrestling matches because he was in better shape, not because he was the better wrestler. What did his living with a Chinese classmate at Boston University medical school for two years say about the tin man? The girl had been whisked away by her parents soon after graduation and she had interned in Toronto. That was the end of that story.

Wesley’s father had been the commanding officer for the 334th Flight Refueling Wing of the California Air National Guard based out of March Air Force Base. Wesley enlisted as an avionics technician on the C-141B transport, when his father was a squadron commander at the 445th Transport Wing at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix. Wesley went to basic training at Black Lac, Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, finishing off the summer milling around the maintenance hanger at Sky Harbor in Phoenix, taking flights wherever he could. He finished one semester at Arizona State University before he got his orders for avionics technician school with a specialty in inertial navigation systems and flight controls. The avionics school had been just a good refresher course for him since he had already completed his father’s Air Force avionics correspondence courses for high school projects. After returning to Arizona State a chance attendance at a paleontology seminar changed his major from geology to geopaleontology during his junior year. A course in planetary geology caused him to consider the stars and space.

There was a freeze on applications for pilot training in the Air National Guard as Wesley prepared for graduation and he couldn’t find any other commissioned slots in any Air National Guard or Air Reserve unit that he was qualified for. Wesley applied to some medical schools as well as for an Air Force scholarship for medical school. The interviewers from the medical school admission boards were very skeptical about his career goals. He was most likely the only applicant for medical school in the world pursuing a degree in geopaleontology. (Wesley would not be the first geologist/astronaut – PhD Jack Schmidt of Apollo 17 had already picked up rocks on the moon – “Oh, what a lovely day… there’s not a cloud in the sky.”) Finally, he got a tentative Air Force flight surgeon scholarship (which probably turned the tide on his admission application to medical schools) and he was admitted to Boston University medical school in the People’s Republic of Beantown (Boston). So screw the UC medical schools and Stanford. Returning to Phoenix (Luke Air Force Base) after interning at Boston City Hospital, he tried to squeeze into flight training at his advanced age of 27. Okay, it was his father’s connections that got him in.

Craig Air Force Base

When Wesley reported for primary flight training his younger classmates critically watched his every move. The doctor had had a free ride in medical school from the Air Force. Now the old fart expected a free ride in flight school. The resentment was especially strong among the Old Boys’ Net from the Air Force Academy. They had had to earn their admission into the Air Force Academy and then into primary flight training. Now Captain Lawrence was their flight leader because of his seniority.

The first few weeks cured all misgivings from the kids. Captain Lawrence was competitive but didn’t have an observable ego. He was a better athlete than most of the Academy jocks and seemed to run just for the fun of it. He acted like he had been brought up on an airport, which he had. His father’s unit of F-4 Phantoms was posted in Germany for his father’s single active duty tour in the Air Force. It became obvious to the other pilot trainees that it wasn’t just his father’s connections but his nurturing as well – Captain Lawrence had been only four years old when his father’s German friends at Lage Lechfeld, near Augsburg, Bavaria, had requested his father’s and his assistance in aligning the wheels of a Luftwaffe Tornado fighter/bomber.

Lawrence went to kindergarten in Germany. German children start school a year earlier than American kids, so Wesley was usually the youngest kid in his classes when he returned to the real world. He lost a year completing his undergraduate studies for his premed requirements and his training in the Arizona Air National Guard. The experiences in Germany had broadened his view of the world.

Something was missing – a killer instinct, the charisma of leadership, responsibility – he was a technician plain and simple. And don’t trust anybody that doesn’t drink. [Wesley didn’t drink on religious grounds.] Lawrence’s obligatory beer at Happy Hour or at a promotion party didn’t fool him. Lawrence collected degrees and honors, not friends. Now he had to recommend him for astronaut training.

The letters of recommendation from two active duty Air Force generals and Senator McCain were negatives for Colonel Stahlman. Well, good luck. Pilots and especially astronauts hate doctors.

Chapter 5. Queen of Mars

Major Agatha “Aggi” Worthley was an American citizen because her mother was American. Her mother Mary met her Australian father Warren when he was surfing in California via Hawaii. Mary made fun of his stories of 10-meter waves on the north side of Oahu and she conned him into taking a surfing trip to Monterey Peninsula. Mary thought dodging in and out of the spikes of rock in Monterey Bay was a blast and soon Warren, against his better judgment was doing the same. Instant companions for life. Against all odds, the Homo sapiens couple lived long enough to reproduce.

Aggi was raised at her father’s ranch in southern Australia but went to live with her mother’s brother in Santa Cruz to increase her chances of getting into an American university. She got into Stanford, Harvard and the Air Force Academy. Against all her best friends’ advice she went to the Academy. After all, Colorado Springs, Colorado was close to all the best skiing. And flying machines.

Major Wentworth, as a member of the Academy admissions committee, went to see Aggi’s high school team play beach volleyball in the California State Finals during his screening process. Her report card and letters of recommendation indicated that he was dealing with a nerd that would be better off at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Caltech. A 6-foot Amazon roller-bladed into the court wearing a halter and what might pass for a bikini. Fortunately she put on a shirt and shorts before the matches began. Aggie attacked the ball as if she was involved in a personal vendetta with it. Now this is what the Academy needs. Wentworth’s recommendation was high in superlatives, even for an Air Force Academy recommendation.

Major/Doctor Lawrence looked at the possibilities. Being single was now a negative, as far as becoming an astronaut going to Mars was concerned. Of the six female pilots, two were married and two weren’t astronaut material. That left the Australian and the Patsy Cline look-alike from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He’d start at the top of the list. The Australian was a good-time girl – what would she see in him? Dr. Lawrence kept reminding himself that his uncle Ket always said faint heart never won fair maiden. He would have preferred the approach of some of the pre-historic cavemen that he had studied at the dig in Ethiopia – boink her on the head and then drag her by the hair to his cave. The major began stalking his prey.

Initial Moves

The good doctor spotted Aggi (How had he become so familiar with a colleague?) three times in the cafeteria, but she was never alone and always seemed to be in a hurry. It would have to be at the Officers’ Club. Aggie walked into the room like she owned the place – not a brisk walk, an aggressive feline walk, a body-language expression of confidence. She wore her curly, almost kinky hair in a pigtail. Her face projected at you, not peeking out past curls or strands of hair. Major Hanson was sitting with two of the female pilots. “Now’s as good a time to as any make an idiot of yourself,” he mumbled to himself. Oh no, one of the men was walking over to the table. Major Lawrence did a right hand turn as the obstructive pilot snapped a one-liner to the table and kept on a heading to the men’s room. Major Lawrence did a left turn and turned on final for a straight-in approach to the table. Reduce power and adjust approach speed. He cleaned up his flaps and spoilers at the table.

Never one for small talk he said, “Major Hanson, could I have a word with you?”

“Is it about my physical, Dr. Lawrence?” asked Aggie.

So this is how she thinks of me, thought Bucky. [Bucky had not functioned as a medical doctor during his flight training and was functioning as a fighter pilot full time with medical duties gratis to the Air Force.]

As she stood up, Major Lawrence was barely looking down into her eyes. Brown Raggedy Ann freckles on both cheeks. Freckles on her neckline. Freckles on her … The good doctor caged his eyeballs with a great show of willpower and his eyes remained glued on her bright blue peepers. He only had a one-inch advantage on Aggie and had never been this close to her.

“No,” he said, “it’s something else.” He motioned her to an empty table in the back of the room. They sat down at the table and he started his elevator spiel.

“I’ve got a small ranch in Prescott, Arizona and should make a good living when I work full time as a doctor. I would like to marry you, since it would make it easier for us to become astronauts.” A frown came to Aggi’s face – did she think she was too good for him?

“We wouldn’t have to have sex or anything, just stay together enough to make it appear that we’re married,” he blurted out.

It occurred to Major Hanson that she was having a joke pulled on her so she glanced back at her friends. Her comrades lowered their eyes to their beers. Finding her voice, Aggi asked, “Shouldn’t you be on your knees or something?”

Major Lawrence dropped to one knee and the words came out of a raspy, dry throat, “Major Hansen, will you marry me?”

The bar of the Officers’ Club became quiet except for two tables near the windows whose occupants wouldn’t have been distracted by a daisy-cutter bomb. Major Hansen felt a tinge of vertigo and grabbed for her wits. She asked, “Will you give me your Harley?”

Major Lawrence mulled this over for what seemed to Major Hansen to be minutes. His answer was barely audible. “What was that?” squeaked out of Major Hansen, who had caught the dry throat thing.

“Yes, take the bike.”

Aggi answered formally, “I’ll have to think about it.”

“Please do,” said Major Lawrence, seemingly oblivious to everything around him.

He stood up and walked by the table, heading for the exit. Aggi returned to the table where her two friends were looking up at her for an explanation. Aggi needed and took a drink of her Foster’s Ale.

What’s a girl to do? Two proposals (pronounce that propositions) in as many days. She might just have to hire a secretary to screen and schedule these guys. Back home in Australia it would be a straight forward “let’s spend the night together.” Boys and their toys. Mars and/or Motherhood?

Somewhere inside Major Hansen a constellation of neurons was telling her what her mother had on every opportune moment, your biological clock is running. Major Lawrence was only mildly interesting to her and probably couldn’t dance worth a shit. But first and foremost, you don’t mess around at the office.

Hawg Heaven

Major Lawrence had to wait 12 days for an answer to his proposal. Major Aggi Hansen kept the email quite terse to avoid any misinterpretation of its meaning.

Dear Major Lawrence,

If you could bring my Harley to the Female Bachelor Officers Quarters at 17:00 Friday, we could discuss your proposal. You may use the left saddlebag for your personal effects. Later.

Major Hansen

Major Lawrence parsed the message carefully. They would be going somewhere requiring extra underwear. He had the left saddle bag so he would be pilot-in-command. She was going to let him drive under supervision, but he had the advantage. He would have Aggi on the Harley where lack of physical contact wouldn’t be possible. A little crank of the throttle and she’d either be glued to him or sitting with her pretty butt on the highway. [Aggie, an experienced hunter, was giving the major enough bait to hook himself on, the Tender Trap.] The possibilities were exothermic and infinite.

The ride from Nellis Air Force Base south through Vegas relaxed Aggi and she leaned her head on Bucky’s back. The purr of the Harley was soothing. She could feel Bucky’s hard abdominal muscles even in their relaxed state. The desert sun was at right angles to the highway running south to Laughlin. Aggie realized that her presence was distracting Bucky and found his attempts at self-control amusing. [Deleted some hanky-panky on the motorcycle that couldn’t get by my editors – astronauts don’t engage in such behavior in reputable novels or in real life.]

The couple continued south with their personal world changed. Mother Nature, in her mysterious way had created a solid bond between the two. Although Major Hansen told herself that the screening tests would continue, she had made her decision.

Laughlin

Aggi had reserved two motel rooms in Bullhead City, Arizona across the Colorado River and time zone delimitation from Laughlin, Nevada. The motel was seedy looking, but the ground level rooms were open to the parking lot – the Harley could be parked inside Bucky’s room. After checking into their rooms, they ran across the street during a small break in the traffic. There was an excellent Mexican restaurant across the street with a patio facing the Colorado River and the casinos across the river/state line. The El Indio restaurant had an especial of a grande shredded beef chimachanga.

Their waiter responded to Aggi’s question about ale, “A la verdad, we have Foster’s. Porque no?

They caught a river ferry after dinner and went to a show featuring impersonations of the singing stars of the 50s. Back at the motel, they went straight to Bucky’s room. There had been no discussion about the reasonableness of their sleeping together.

Aggi was snoring gently as Bucky glanced out the window at the moon over the neon lights of Laughton. He had been a fool, seeing Aggi almost every day and doing nothing about it. A man meets women every day that he’d like to spend the night with. He even meets several that he’d be willing to marry in a marriage of convenience but Aggie was the one. Aggie would be his mate even if he had to give up flying and get a real job. Life really knew how to throw curve balls.

Honeymoon Down Under

The aborigine shaman abruptly stopped his hypnotic low-frequency chant. He moved close to Aggi and grabbed her hand. He looked into Aggie’s eyes with a start. The shaman’s chant was almost inaudible.

“There will be a girl with snake eyes. You are the mother/protector of snake eyes. You are crowned the Queen of the Blood World. You are the Mother of the Blood World. Be careful while near water – it can be dangerous. There is a light girl who runs, climbs and speaks in tongues. That is as far as there is light.” The shaman moved to her husband and continued his droning.

Two photographs appeared in the National Enquirer the next day. The first was a frontal picture of the couple, nude to the waist, painted in aborigine ceremonial designs. Major Hansen’s bare breasts were sanitized by an airbrush. [The original photograph was posted at many sites on the Web, including the Enquirer space page.] The second photo showed the couples’ backs. Bucky’s back had a stylized Mars symbol – a circle with a spear. The spear was shaped like a trident – three barbs and had a broader and longer shaft than was usually depicted. Aggi’s back was painted with the corresponding Venus symbol – a mirror. The circle was replaced by an ellipse with its major axis 30° to the horizontal.

Aggie got pregnant as launch time approached – it was obvious that the Road Runner wouldn’t be ready. The backup astronauts polished their acceptance speeches for the delayed launch, twenty-six months in the future. NASA put its best spin in their press releases describing the pregnancy of the second-in-command of their primary flight crew to Mars. Leitershofer, Aggie, Hollis and Leavitt were the original short list of potential commanders for the initial Mars mission.

Aggie dedicated a scrapbook to articles and cartoons concerning her pregnancy – her favorite was a baby floating freely in amniotic fluid holding its umbilical cord in one hand, surrounded by the torso of a pregnant astronaut floating in space holding an umbilical to an Apollo-era space capsule.

Aggie’s schedule was cut back and she was surprised by Commander Hollis’ support, even though her pregnancy would most likely cost their crew the flight to Mars. Hollis got into a fistfight with astrophysicist Fran Belanger of the backup crew, when Fran made a remark about having a baby crying for its midnight feeding on the Road Runner.

Chapter 6. Transit

Mars the desert planet. The Road Runner fell upwards, coasting from the Earth to Mars. The blue-and-white (and brown) marble of Earth faded to a blue point as the rusty marble Mars grew to a disk. Mars, the god of war, seemed to be warmly greeting the five earthlings to their new home. Two married couples and the commander, all American. Was Mars a flame beckoning a space moth to its doom, the Road Runner destined to become one more piece of Earth junk to be added to the international debris field on the far side of the planet? Three mid-course corrections were accomplished, tweaking their ascent. NASA Mission Control informed the Road Runner that the Chinese manned flight to Mars had been cancelled for this opposition. The Road Runner was in the lead of the race to Mars.

Major Bradley was looking at the red spot that was Mars when he spotted something that looked like a comet. It was moving too fast to be a distant object and he called Commander Hollis over to the port. The object looked like a blend of Northern Lights and the silk veils of a belly dancer. The reflected (?) light shimmered like real Northern Lights in a life-like manner, reminding Hollis of a flimsy Portuguese man-of-war (jellyfish). It was impossible to judge the object’s distance, velocity or size as it passed into the blind spot of the habitat, out of sight. Reggie remembered the ribbing that his flight crew had endured after they had reported a formation of foo fighters (lights) off the coast of Salvador, Brazil. The lighting phenomenon was duly recorded but has never been satisfactorily explained.

Chapter 7. The Bradley Family – Sonia Hughes

Sonia was the youngest of four girls born to Wichita farmer/aerospace engineer Harold Hughes and his wife Annette. Harold migrated to Wichita after receiving a degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Iowa in Iowa City via Rockwell-Collins in Cedar Rapids. He was doing well financially with his GI Bill money from Uncle Sam and flight pay from flying Thuds (F-105 Thunderchiefs) with the Kansas Air National Guard. He had flown F-4D Phantoms during his 6-year active duty tour. The farm mortgage had been paid off for years and Sonia and her older sister Cynthia acquired an adjacent farm. The farms didn’t always make money and Harold’s overtime bonuses varied with the ups and downs of the aerospace industry. Boeing-Wichita understood that the harvest came first and that aviation was a day job to its farmer/employees. The engineers transferred from Seattle rarely stayed in Wichita much longer than the year required to qualify for their resettlement bonuses.

Sonia was a tomboy who learned to dance from her mother and three older sisters, all of whom had earned considerable wages as dancers, even when they were students. Sonia was a natural gymnast and had the long legs of a classical dancer. Gymnastics fell by the wayside when her breasts began hitting the horizontal bar.

Sonia’s next oldest sister, Cynthia, got pregnant with her high school boy friend when she was twenty. Motherhood put an end to her professional dancing career but she managed to finish her junior year at Wichita State. She moved into the baby Hughes farm with her new husband, an avionics engineer at Boeing.

Tornado Alley

Sonia jump-started her dancing career while still a junior in high school with the help of Cynthia’s driver’s license. Sonia’s mother and her sisters rarely used make-up except for a hint of lipstick. She went to her employment interview dressed in one of Cynthia’s dresses and wearing one of Cynthia’s wigs. Her make-up was excessive and she talked like a girl from the San Fernando Valley. When the owner examined her face with a suspicious look after a scan of her license, Sonia pulled off her wig revealing her short brown hair. There were two shifts of dancers on Friday, because of the noon lunch and happy hour, something that usually resulted in a shortage of dancers. Rosebud, the owner, looked over her customers – young engineers from Boeing and enlisted men from McConnell Air Force Base, pointed to the dressing room and said, “No time like the present. I’ll give you a tryout right now.” Sonia became a regular dancer at the Alley for the next three years, through her last two years in high school and one year at Wichita State.

Transferring to the University of Kansas with a major in pre-med forced her to transfer to a new bar called the Galaxy in Kansas City. Sonia could only dance at the Alley during summer vacations. A third personality evolved - that of a serious medical student. Sonia was expanding her horizon to the frontier of her flat mid-continent state.

Eye Candy

Captain Bradley brought his technicians to the Tornado Alley lounge to celebrate their being awarded a unit citation for their performance in the Operational Readiness Evaluation during the Reforger winter maneuvers in Germany. The crew was sitting at the best seats in the house, the chairs ringing the stage. The major had been to girlie shows all over the world but the Alley fit his sensibilities the best. Youth and nudity couldn’t top dancing talent in his book. Sergeant Valentine insisted that he had to see Cynthia, his favorite. Valentine was right as usual – Cynthia mimed the words of her accompanying music and seemed to direct her gestures right at Captain Bradley when she danced. He and Sergeant Valentine became Friday afternoon regulars at the Alley. Valentine called Cynthia over to their table about a month after they had become regulars and introduced her to Reggie. Reggie thought he was in love, lust or something in between.

Reggie finally got up enough nerve to ask Cynthia for a date and she flatly told him that she didn’t date customers. Reggie’s reply was that he’d have to stop being a customer brought a smile. Next month, after another non-serious request for a date, she said that she was going to a Boeing engineering union social and he could come, if he wanted to. He wanted to.

Reggie agreed to follow her van with his Ford F-150 pickup to the union hall in Derby. Reggie could see her dressing in the darkness of her van. Finally Reggie heard the engine of her van start up and he followed her south from the lounge. They turned into an unpaved parking lot in front of a non-descript building. The parking lot was almost full. Reggie walked over to Cynthia’s van and a strange woman jumped out of the van. The war paint (makeup) was gone. Could this be the evil twin sister of soapy fame? Was Cynthia’s body in the van wrapped in a body bag?

This girl had short brown hair, no false eyelashes and was wearing a tractor jacket and a denim dress that covered her kneecaps. She ignored his look of disbelief and grabbed his hand. She stopped dragging him after about twenty feet and turned to face him, “Oh, and the name’s Sonia.” What happened to the San Fernando Valley girl? They walked into a cavernous meeting room and sat at one of the large tables. Reggie noticed a lot of white shirts and Boeing/union pocket protectors filled with two rows of pens.

An elderly couple entered with a woman who was obviously their daughter. The man walked over to Sonia and greeted her. “Evening, Sonia. Whom do we have here?” he asked.

“Dad, this is Reggie Bradley. Reggie’s at McConnell. My father, Harold. Dad works at Boeing.”

Harold glanced at Reggie’s chronometer (watch) and asked, “What do you fly?”

“KC-10s. Did you fly?” replied Reggie.

“I still do, but they won’t let me fly the fighters anymore at the Kansas Air National Guard. They made me a maintenance officer. The last real aircraft that I flew were Thuds (Thunderchiefs, F-105s). Now I have to make do with our JetStars. I’m working on an update to the B-52s at Boeing. Are you familiar with the update?”

“Vaguely, but I’d be happier with a new bomber, instead of another update,” answered Reggie.

Harold introduced the rest of his family as his wife and daughter walked over. “My wife Annette and my daughter Cynthia,” said Harold.

Reggie glanced at Sonia and said, “Glad to meet you folks. I’m Reggie Bradley.” They sat down and the family and town gossip began. Reggie was included as much as possible. Annette studied her daughter and Reggie.

“Are you a doctor?” asked Mrs. Hughes. “Sonia’s going to be a great doctor when she gets out of school.”

“No Ma’am, I’m a pilot. Doctor?”

“I’m a medical student at the University of Kansas,” explained Sonia. Facades faded as Sonia and Reggie’s eyes locked. Reggie fell in love with the Cynthia persona.

Chapter 8. Reginald Melvin Bradley

Reggie had always wanted to fly. The first real plane that he saw as a boy was a crop duster powdering a field on his way to school. A demonstration ride and fifteen minutes at the controls in a military C-47 Gooney Bird with his father’s friends reinforced his ambition. Reggie liked planes with a crew to talk to and a spare engine or two or three. His sixteen-page paper on cockpit resource management was well received by the multiple-member crews of the Air Force even though it became the butt of many disparaging jokes from the fighter jocks. Reggie advocated zero tolerance of rogue pilot behavior. Some pilots even cracked caustic jokes contending that the suck up paper had been instrumental in his selection as an astronaut.

Reggie had enjoyed his short stint flying B-1s but got out as soon as he could by volunteering for a reduction-in-force cutback in B-1 pilots. B-1s never flew anywhere interesting and transports provided more flying time. Reggie had no other ambition but to retire from the Air Force before he got a desk job, get a slot in the Air National Guard or reserve flying C-141B transports or tankers and fly full-time as an airline pilot. After that he would retire to his maple tree farm in West Virginia and work as a volunteer at the Green Bank Telescope. One uniform was as good as another as long as he was flying. His acceptance into the astronaut corps surprised him more than it did the bypassed aviators.

The Grotto, San Luis Obispo

Reggie dropped his suitcase and the couple engaged in a long deep kiss and embrace. Reggie opened the door and a blue hue escaped from the dark room. Reggie picked Sonia up and carried her across the threshold of the special honeymoon suite. The music was a recording made by the musician formerly known as Prince.

A dancing cage hung from a high, mirrored ceiling; a canopied bed and a transparent bar with a silver champagne cooler completed the room’s furnishing. The walls were all stone with no windows. Sonia guessed that she was going to have to sing for her supper.

Chapter 9. Orbiting Mars

Three days out from Mars a short burst from the habitat’s rocket engines inserted the Road Runner into a minimum energy orbital capture path. Commander Hollis manually fired up the main thrusters to perform the insertion into a low orbit. The elliptical insertion orbit allowed the thin atmosphere of Mars to slow the Road Runner to orbital speed using a minimum amount of fuel. The flight crew settled into the programmed orbital-braking routine. Each time the spacecraft passed close to Mars, dipping into the denser atmosphere, slowed the habitat’s velocity in its elliptical orbit until the orbit became nearly circular. The atmosphere glowed with the passage of the spacecraft through its denser parts. The Apollo astronauts had described the corresponding phenomenon in the Earth’s atmosphere as “flying in a neon tube.”

Various checklists were completed including the stowing of gear in preparation for the landing. The time between aero braking events gave the crew a lot of time to take in the scenery of their new home. The Red Planet had raised a veil of red dust over its face. The crew was stranded in orbit until the dust storms abetted - so near yet so far.

Public Affairs Officer: Low Mars orbital insertion accomplished. The crew will have to wait for the dust storm to subside.

The barely visible cones of the massive volcanoes slowly penetrated the dust clouds and the other features of Mars revealed themselves. The top of the dust cloud slowly dropped into Valles Marineris. Two weeks later Houston cleared the Road Runner to commit to a landing.

Public Affairs Officer: The Road runner has been cleared to deorbit.

Chapter 10. the ice, 2010

The turbulent Southern Ocean surrounds the frozen continent of Antarctica. Antarctica is twice the size of Australia, terribly beautiful with two thirds of the world’s fresh water frozen in its ice cap. Half of the land in Antarctica is above 6500 feet and remains relatively untouched by man. Antarctica is so inhospitable that the majority of scientists and tourists visit Antarctica during the austral summer, winter in Europe.

The polar regions of Mars can be compared to those of the Earth, with careful regard to where the analogy fails. With days of comparable length and a similar offset of its rotational axis on the ecliptic plane, we would expect similar growing and melting cycles of the polar caps as on the Earth. Mars’ mean orbit is about 1.52 times that of the Earth making the Martian year a little more than twice the length of an Earth year. The greater distance from the sun makes Mars much colder than the Earth. The surface pressure of the Martian atmosphere at the Martian surface is less than 1% of that of the Earth, probably the result of its smaller size. The atmosphere is predominately carbon dioxide and its environment is harsh by earthly standards, even Antarctica.

A habitat mockup was transported to McMurdoc Sound on the Antarctic Peninsula by a cargo freighter from Huntsville. The astronauts would take baby steps towards living on Mars by spending four months on the ice, the Antarctic veterans’ description for Antarctica. A portable fish hut protected the crew while they were on the surface from the elements while providing a pair of the astronauts safe access to the silent, icy waters beneath the surface ice. There would be time to scuba recreationally beneath the ice as well as simulating the procedures of operating in the hostile environment of Mars, everything that is, except social isolation. The scientists and workers on McMurdo Sound socialized with a vengeance, given their small number.

The flight crew trained intensely for about two months before Commander Hollis flew to the main base at McMurdo Sound. His friend, Colonel Jonathan “Jon” Harris had a company of Marines training in the mountains near the base and the commander started spending his weekends at their camp.

The CH-63 Sea Stallion helicopter flew in late in the afternoon. It was obvious that the two pilots and Commander Hollis had been drinking in the chopper, the commander to excess. The trio went to the cafeteria for coffee while the crew chief and two gunnies unloaded the helicopter’s cargo.

The Bradleys and the Lawrences were sitting in the back of the cafeteria when the boisterous trio came in and ordered coffee. Commander Hollis stumbled over and greeted them. He spilled some of the contents of the cup of coffee he had ordered on his overcoat and he scowled at the stain. Sonia stood up to steady him and the commander shrugged loose of her hand. “I’m okay. I don’t need any help from any of you, specifically I don’t need any help from any Mickey Mouse doctor,” he said and turned to leave.

Reggie was standing in his way. “Do I hear an apology, Sir?” he asked.

“No, and hell no,” was the commander’s response.

Major Bradley’s right hand started to rise and Hollis saw the right side of Major Bradley’s hip start to rotate. As Hollis ducked to his right, Bradley’s left came out of nowhere, a body blow to the chest. The commander collapsed like a sack of potatoes. Major Bradley wasn’t mad or even pissed off. True to the Iceman handle that he had acquired when he was a young lieutenant, his pulse rate remained flat. The commander simply had insulted the flight crew and his wife, and that required a response. He opened his fly and urinated on his prostrate commander. Piss on the desert planet. Commander Hollis was in no hurry to get up.

The two Sea Stallion pilots started backing up, deserting their fallen comrade, and bumped into Aggie, who was blocking the door. She was three inches taller than either of the pilots. “I want you to check into the guest house for the night,” she directed. “If I see either of you near the chopper tonight, you’ll never fly for the military again. Understood, gentlemen?”

The pilots nodded and retreated hastily into the cold night. “Did you see the size of that broad?” asked Sam, the pilot.

“Yuh, they were magnificent,” answered Alfred Galante, the copilot.

David slapped Alfred on the back of the head. “You’re hopeless.”

Alfred chuckled, pleased with himself for the response his joke had elicited from his senior pilot. Aggie watched the men from the windows in the lounge, wondering what they were talking about.

Chapter 11. The ERV Inspection

Commander Al Hollis accompanied General Zhou of the Chinese PLAAF up the temporary stairs into the second flight-qualified ERV. The ERV was flanked by two engineering prototypes, which didn’t have rockets or fuel tanks. The systems on the prototypes were run by base power but the soon to be launched ERV had four operational high-temperature fuel cell-based power systems. The consumables and reactant hydrogen would be loaded in Russia, just prior to launch. Zhou applied power to the spacecraft flight deck and engineering stations. The ERV would be biologically sanitized and sealed before shipment to the launch site in Russia. Hollis didn’t say so, but he knew that there wasn’t a chance that the Road Runner habitat would be ready to launch. The nuclear propulsion system slated to drive the habitat from Earth orbit to Mars orbit was falling behind schedule. Still, having two space vehicles on Mars with a successful ERV landing on Mars would help the weakening support for the whole expensive program.

Commander Hollis and Major Reggie Bradley were discussing the second ERV made for the Americans by the Chinese. “We’re missing something here,” said Reggie. How were the Chinese doing so much better on their ERV variant than the Americans were with their habitat? In spite of some major glitches with the first MAV sitting on Mars, it was operating well, partially filled with fuel. How did the Chinese know that the rear windows of the rover would fail during thermal stress just by driving the rover around the parking lot? A trip to the environmental testing facility at Eglin Air Force Base had produced the failure immediately. The fuel generation on Mars Site 1 was stopped when it was obvious the generation would be successful, selecting a just-in-time procedure since the generated cryofuel would just bake off and be lost. All in all, the outsourcing of the spacecraft shells and the ERVs to the Chinese seemed to be working out. Zhou’s pilots and engineers had created more than three times the number of engineering change requests (ECRs) than both the NASA and Boeing engineers.

“Sure, we ended up paying extra for implementation of the changes, but any engineer would agree that several of the large changes were needed and added substantially to crew safety and the likelihood of mission completion,” said Reggie.

“I’d just feel better if I knew it was an American-built ERV bringing me back home,” said Commander Hollis but even he had to admit that the Chinese seemed to know the ERV as well as the American astronauts. “Outsourcing certainly carries ‘built by the lowest bidder’ to a new low,” said Reggie.

“Zhou must have an astrologer, he’s so sure and adamant about certain changes,” said the commander, “and those ETs are unnerving. Do you think that they’re religious fanatics?”

Reggie answered, “They just appear to be Chinese teenagers that have been trained extensively in engineering. They seem to have had minimal jet training and the Grasshopper just runs on kerosene and liquid oxygen. Their pilot training doesn’t match ours or even the taikonauts.” The men agreed that all of the crew should get as much training in the Grasshopper as they could get funding for before they returned to Houston to train on the Road Runner simulators.

Zhou recommended putting an extra nuclear electrical generator or more solar panels and an electrolysis plant in the ERV in spite of the theoretical difficulty of extracting water from the permafrost on Mars. Illogically, given the unlikelihood of the Road Runner’s launch during the next launch window, Zhou’s recommendation for additional quantities of food stores to be loaded onto the ERV was granted. Somebody had apparently concluded that the automated systems of the ERV would need a little help and oversight from the humans of the Road Runner and that the astronauts would be spending a lot of time monitoring the processes going on in the ERV. Delivery of the nuclear propulsion stage for transiting from Earth orbit to Martian orbit slipped and the American astronauts went back to their simulator training for another area or Martian year.

Chapter 12. Touchdown

The term Mission Control was a misnomer for a Mars mission; Houston, Texas was a world away. Life and death decisions would be made in real-time on the Road Runner. First Olympus Mons and then the other mountains peeked out at the astronauts. After what seemed to be months of waiting and simulated landings the crew finally got concurrence from Houston to descend. Hollis directed another blast from the small boosters and the Road Runner was committed to a landing. Commander Hollis described the progress of the spacecraft as it flew in, mindful that his words would take 14 minutes to reach Mission Control in Houston, and then only if Mars wasn’t in the way. Atmospheric drag continued to decelerate the spacecraft and another short blast from the trimmer rockets selected the area of possible landing sites. The glow from reentry could now be seen, even in the light of the Martian day. The homing beacon had been turned on from Earth several hours ago; the terrain map on the navigation display showed the landing site, Plymouth – Mars Site 1, as a warm, glowing bull’s eye. The shaking seemed to go on forever. When the vibration quieted down enough so that the crew started to sense hopeful signs that they might make it to the surface, Commander Hollis deployed the panels that acted as air brakes. The brown and yellow terra firma (whatever) slowed down its approach and the terrain started to look familiar. The vibrations became even more intense. The pop of the parachutes was the final torment to the crew. They knew that they hadn’t made it.

The commander jettisoned the parachutes manually and things quickly became hectic. Commander Hollis selected a manual landing (what astronaut wouldn’t?) when he saw the roughness of the terrain. A manual landing made the telling of the story more interesting and would allow for embellishments. He slipped the Road Runner to the left and up to line up with the landing site. He thought the terrain looked a little too rough and then he saw the MAV. Lights surrounded the landing area with a large X in the middle. The uncoupled flight director computer was putting them right on the X. Hollis thought he saw a Chinese character beyond the X from the perspective of the Road Runner’s approach path. He headed for the X and landed just 25 meters away. Dust shot away from the flames of the Road Runner rocket engines and the surface became a blur.

Aggi: Contact Light.

Hollis: Right, engine stop. Descent engine command override off. Engine arm off.

 

Hollis: Houston, Mars here. The Road Runner has landed.

Sonia: Commander, there are people on the landing site.

Hollis: Close the video feed to Mission Control. Break all communication. Activate a secure channel with Capcom.

Public Affairs Officer: We have temporarily loss the video signal from Mars. Commander Hollis is maintaining contact by communication radio. Telemetry indicates a perfect landing with no equipment failures.

Public Affairs Officer: Commander Hollis has requested a rest period at this time for the crew after the Road Runner is shut down. Mission Control has approved the rest period for the astronauts.


Part 2. The Commies (preemptively) strike back

Medical and psychological investigations have long shown that women are better than men at withstanding pain, heat, cold, loneliness and monotony. – Dr. Randy Lovelace, Lovelace Clinic, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Chapter 13. Japanese

The Japanese response to the Common Shell/ERV Request for Proposal was only slightly gold-plated. The Japanese design added a patio airlock that could be built into the top of the vehicle, something useful for space EVAs but less than functional on the surface of a planet. The patio or crow’s nest provided a third exit, which would only be practical, using pressure suits, if the vehicle had collapsed on its side. Zubrin’s Mars Direct spirit of simplicity and using the resources on Mars was followed, with extras that a purist might consider violations of the less is more principle. The Russian aerospace firm, Energia, submitted a belated proposal to construct the spacecraft shells and the basic equipment, which was lacking in substance, and summarily dismissed by the Americans. The Japanese were buying in – they would be subsidizing the ERV for its overall contribution to Japan’s aerospace and space industry. The Chinese proposal was priced 20% below the Japanese bid and promised the use of the Chinese launch sites to supplement the use of the Russian site in Kazakhstan. The loss of the contract to the Chinese really pissed off the Japanese. They continued the development of the ERV and its systems. Especially frustrating to the Japanese was not having a payload for their heavy-lift H2 rocket booster, which would have made the cost of the booster more acceptable to Japanese taxpayers. The Japanese Mars probe, Nozomi (Hope), became hopeless after running low on fuel five years and two passes past Mars. Hayabusa has done better, inadvertently landing on the Itokawa comet. The Itokawa comet is named after Hideo Itokawa, the Japanese father of rocketry. The Chinese were also looking at competing with the Japanese and Italians for participation in the fabrication of the new Boeing 787 airliner. Was Japan only going to be known as the Island Kingdom of sushi, sake and anime?

Chapter 14. Third in Space

It had been a bad month for the Chinese and their fledging space program. The first manned launch of the Shenzhou (Divine Vessel) ended up in the Pacific. Not the first death in China’s Long March into space and certainly not its last. General Zhou controlled the testing and fabrication of the American-designed spacecraft, which made him a competitor to the Chinese space program. The Shenzhou failure had not affected Zhou personally. If anything, his stature had been enhanced with the failure of the manned Shenzhou (a Chinese-style Soyuz capsule). His project was to make the vehicles for missions to the moon and hopefully Mars. The Chinese wanted to pay for lunar exploration by mining helium-3 (astrofuel), the ideal fusion fuel, from lunar sand - strip mining on the moon. The Sea of Tranquility is at the top of the list of locations for the mining of astrofuel. This light isotope of helium has been captured from the solar wind for billions of years by the lunar regolith (dirt). Helium-3 from the moon and deuterium from Mars or the Earth – now that was the winning cocktail (considered the cleanest albeit an advanced fusion reaction). The worker bees in the trenches in China and America didn’t have to believe the rationalization for space travel coming out of Beijing and Washington, DC respectively.

The Japanese and their lesser partners wanted to use a deuterium-tritium (DT) reaction with a breeder reaction to replenish the tritium by neutron activation of lithium. An astrofuel reactor would be easier to implement after the Japanese, Europeans and Americans solved the fusion reactor problems with the DT reactor in the next thirty years (if astrofuel becomes available and life-cycle considerations overcome the high cost of mining the astrofuel on the lunar surface). The DT (or higher temperature DD) fusion reaction produces neutrons and neutron activation of the elements in the tokomak [magnetic plasma containment reactor] producing similar radioactive contamination to that which occurs in a fission reactor. Heat is produced in the tokamak blanket by the spare high-energy neutron left over from the helium production. Fusion reactor technology has been thirty years off for the last fifty years.

Taikonauts

Two taikonauts (English nickname for Chinese astronauts, a combination of the Chinese characters for space or cosmos and the Greek suffix naut), had completed training with the Russian cosmonauts at Star City Space Center outside of Moscow and the Chinese, in an abrupt change of policy, were anxious to work with the Americans on the International Space Station. China’s continuing designs on Taiwan set the baseline for China’s space program – China wanted America’s space surveillance capabilities and the ability to nullify America’s space advantage. China had built three launch sites to support their ambitions – in Jiuquan, Xiching and Taiguan.

Newspapers in China reported that more than a dozen military jet pilots had been selected to become taikonauts. A photo was published which allowed one of the taikonauts to be identified as Chen Long. Very few westerners were allowed to visit the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing, which eventually controlled the successful launch of China’s first taikonaut [yuhangyuan], Lt. Col. Yang Liwei, into orbit with Shenzhou 5 on October 15, 2003. A Long March 2F booster launched the Shenzhou 5 from the Jiuquan launch site.  Two Chinese taikonauts, Fei Junlog and Nie Haisheng, were launched into space in Shenzhou 6 on October 12, 2005 from the Jiuquan Space Center, a more advanced flight reminiscent of the American Gemini missions.

Chapter 15. Beach Bum

Ken Zhou Xim lived near Hilo on the big island of Hawaii as a child. He adopted the haole (Hawaiian for Caucasian) name of Ken, a common procedure among the Asian Americans in Hawaii. Zhou especially liked his first name of Xim – the Haoles couldn’t hear the name much less pronounce it. Years of stepping through the looking glass between China and America and his earning a PhD in Engineering Physics at the University of Hawaii made him feel like a foreigner everywhere. His main qualification for command in the Chinese space program had nothing to do with his knowledge of the Americans or physics.

As a young boy, Ken was an avid surfer, swimmer, and Hawaiian outrigger canoeist. Fate picked him out when he attended a reception for local Chinese entrepreneurs at the Chinese consulate in Honolulu with his parents. His parents were staying at the family plantation and had flown over to visit Honolulu while Ken finished his dissertation. The bronzed doctoral student stood out, radiant and confident among the anemic looking businessmen from the mainland. Amanda Xing Xioulung, the daughter of the CTO of Shanghai Aviation Services Ltd, thought he looked like some mythical Hawaiian god, maybe the master of a volcano or whatever other gods the ancient Hawaiians had. She arranged an introduction through her chauffeur/bodyguard and the trio began dating. The courtship went on for weeks after Zhou’s graduation.

Finally, in desperation, Ken arranged for his friend Ken Hing Ching to be walking down the beach at Waikiki with a surfboard while the three were watching the surfers in the lumber yard from the sparse pile of sand that passed for a beach at Waikiki. Ken stepped into the surf with the surfboard and Xioulung followed him. Ken had her lie down on the board as he showed her how to paddle. Then he knelt above her and started paddling. Bye, bye chaperone. Ken taught Xioulung how to body surf, Xioulung lying down on the surfboard with Ken kneeling above her for about an hour, just barely in sight of the beach. The sun, coral, and sea air worked their magic and the couple made love in the water. Their families made the wedding arrangements six months later.

Area 51

The part of the military base in Shanghai controlled by General Zhou was called Area 51, Dreamland, or Roswell by the taikonauts, references to the restricted areas in America that are home to secret aircraft and according to conspiracy theories, extraterrestrials providing technology transfer to the American Air Force. The truth was more interesting than ETs, involving the oddly dressed young girls that flew General Zhou’s rocket planes. The girls wore body suits, hoods and goggles that concealed their identities.

Flight Simulator

Captain Wu of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was showing a USAF married couple, the American astronauts, Majors Sonia and Reggie Bradley, around the computer center. Cost reduction had forced General Zhou to depend on computer-based system training as opposed to a greater amount of teacher-led instruction. Eight of the strangely attired young girls were paired up on PC-based simulators equipped with two flat-panel monitors and some flimsy plastic flight controls. Reggie asked the PLAAF officer if they could get a closer look at the instruction. Wu agreed and the trio approached one of the workstations occupied by two student pilots.

Reggie could see that the two girls were using the Microsoft® Flight Simulator with a Boeing 767 add-on from Wilco Publishing and customized local scenery. Reggie recognized the control tower at Logan International in Boston (BOS), at one time the highest control tower in the world. After watching as the girls performed the pre-flight checklist, Reggie asked if he could try flying the simulator. The girls nodded and slid their chairs back to give him some room. Reggie put on the earphones that had an attached boom mike.

Reggie held his position on taxiway 03L until he was cleared onto the runway [an add-on module simulates interaction with the tower and ground control]. When cleared, he increased the throttle settings on the twin engines and taxied out onto the runway. He turned left and headed for Boston Harbor. The girls looked at each other and one of the girls said, “You’re going the wrong way.”

“I’m taking a short-cut,” was Reggie’s reply as the airliner descended a bank and turned right in Boston Bay. Reggie increased the thrust to 100% as he lined up with the John Hancock building. The Boeing 767 accelerated to takeoff speed, ignoring the high-rises directly ahead of the jumbo jet.

Reggie banked to the left as he flew over the locks that made the Charles River a small lake for windsurfers and sailing boats. “That’s the capital building for Massachusetts, that building with the golden dome,” said Reggie.

The flight continued up the Charles, gaining altitude as it flew past the Prudential Building. Reggie noticed that the new Boston landmark, the Leonard Zakim Bridge, had not been inserted into the scenery software. Reggie continued to narrate a tourist guide’s description of Boston as he banked to join a standard instrument departure (SID) segment from Logan. The girls had the impression that he had done this comic routine before.

The Kobioshi Maru Scenario

Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise had cheated on the no-solution scenario; Kirk didn’t like to lose or fail. Lin and Qi had never heard of Kobioshi. The simulated flight plan was a simple Sedona (SEZ) to Flagstaff (FLG)-Meteor Crater flight. Flagstaff and Sedona would be high altitude takeoffs and landings. The simulated scenery did justice to the original and the girls threw themselves into a routine training flight. As expected, the takeoff roll was long, the result of the high temperature as well as the high altitude. They flew over Walnut Canyon, the deserted home of the Sinagua (without water) cliff-dwelling Indians. The flight continued up to Meteor Crater, parallel to Interstate 40. The upraised rim of the crater could be seen from fifteen miles away. Lin had the controls as the Cessna 182 flew over the crater caused by a meteor impact some 50,000 years ago.

Lin dropped into the crater and flew the required two circuits at less than cruise speed. She anticipated flying out of the crater in a westerly direction but the aircraft wouldn’t climb. They couldn’t climb out even at full power. Lin had three choices: (1) burn off fuel and hope that the plane would eventually be light enough to climb over the rim, (2) throw Qi out the door, or (3) pick a point and perform a controlled crash.

Tania, a senior pilot, walked over and saved the two girls the agony of the hours of flying before running out of avgas that two airline pilots had been subjected to, before the pair had crashed in Meteor Crater. Their aircraft is still in the crater with the wing and horizontal stabilizer clearly visible from the observation decks. Flying on the Colorado Plateau was different from flying in Kansas or Shanghai.

The Grasshopper

The Grasshopper’s lack of performance was due to its being oversize for its engines. This lack of power made the Grasshopper only acceptable as a trainer. The Grasshopper looked like a bus with an aerodynamic front end and rockets sticking out of its rear end. The small windows looking forward would be covered during the initial ascent phase and during reentry. Small window/ports were scattered over the less critical areas of the fuselage; metal gates covered the portals during critical phases of flight as well. Most of the viewing during the critical phases of the flight would be via video cameras and the large flat panel displays distributed throughout the cockpit and interior of the spacecraft.

The Americans were used to the concealing apparel of the Chinese flight crew. The pilots introduced themselves as “Janice” Chan Jiang Li, Grasshopper captain or pilot, and “Jane” Chen Shu Teng, copilot. Commander Hollis sat behind the pilots’ seats in the commander’s chair. The Bradley husband and wife team sat behind the two strangely dressed Grasshopper pilots close to two more similarly dressed women sitting behind them monitoring the vehicle’s systems. Without any fanfare or safety briefing the pilot in command closed the hatch while the copilot checked that the passengers were strapped in. The pilot taxied out to a concrete pad and asked if everybody was ready. There was a chorus of agreement and the pilot rotated the Grasshopper into a vertical position.

The pilots glanced back at the passengers for a final status check and Commander Hollis came unglued. “Where the hell was the preflight and checklist?” he demanded.

“We’ve done all of that already,” was the reply from the captain, Janice Chan.

“Let me out of here,” was the commander’s response. “I’ve never seen such a screwed up outfit in my life.”

The pilots looked at each other, then at the two other American astronauts. Then they rotated the Grasshopper back onto its wheels. The commander had already released his restraining straps and umbilical cord and was heading for the egress port. The pilot released the airlock/stairs and Commander Hollis rushed past her, helmet in hand, to get outside. He walked at a brisk rate towards the airport lounge. When he was about half way to the terminal a golf cart approached him with two of the small alien girls. The girls were hurriedly getting into launch-and-entry suits (LESs). The driver yelled to Hollis that he’d be back for him and drove to the waiting Grasshopper. The girls were giggling and ecstatic about the change in plans. The driver helped the girls up the stairs and they disappeared into the aircraft. The stairs were retracted and after a few minutes the Grasshopper rotated into its launch position. The rocket engines fired for about a minute and then full thrust was applied. The aero brakes were retracted as the aircraft left the ground; the aero brakes provided mechanical support and lifting power during rotation on the ground. The Grasshopper slowly climbed into the clear sky.

The acceleration was a mild two Earth gravities increasing another half of a g as the fuel burned off. The silence of space returned as the engines were shut off and weightlessness reigned. The young girls were euphoric about their first flight in the Grasshopper as the flight crew concentrated on their procedures. One of the flight engineers helped the young girls to unstrap and all three floated in space, tethered to umbilical cords. After about three minutes the girls were herded into their seats and strapped in. As the deceleration built up the view ports were closed. The incandescent plasma was beautiful over the monitors, even in the bright daylight. The vibration built up and decreased until the aero brakes were activated provoking a loud roar from the surrounding air. The parachutes jolted the Grasshopper when they were deployed as the Earth rushed up to meet the falling aircraft.

A gentle blast from the rocket engines and the Grasshopper thudded to a landing. The parachutes were jettisoned, the rocket engines were shut down, and the landing checklist was completed as light streamed through the reopened ports and fresh air rushed into the interior of the vehicle. Finally, the Grasshopper rotated to a horizontal position and the display screens showed a properly oriented world. The pilots looked at the Bradleys somewhat like kids expecting words of approval for a well-caught baseball. The Bradleys gushed their thanks and approval as they removed their helmets, disconnected their umbilical cords, and loosened their restraints. The fresh air felt good on their faces as the copilot drove the Grasshopper towards the hanger.

After the American astronauts had left the Grasshopper, Jane looked at Janice and said in her best Austrian accent, “I’ll be back.” Both women giggled/laughed.

Chapter 16. Gemini

Shanghai, 1986

Colonel Zhou looked over his new troops, twenty young girls wearing masks and sun goggles and covered head to toe in body gloves. Fate had determined that they would hide their appearance from human eyes. They all had simple nametags, displaying their choice of their Chinese family name or the Christian or western first names Zhou had given them. The girls had been raised in a commune and were four to eight years old. Were these girls the next human race or would they be feared, hunted, and killed by Homo sapiens? Zhou thought that his rivals had dumped the girls on him to scuttle any chance that he had for advancement in the military hierarchy. There had been talk about the mysterious Dragon Lady arranging for his assignment. Zhou didn’t resent the hand that Fate had dealt him. He trained his troops, especially the girls, to be military leaders, his secret weapon. The girls had been bred from a set of identical Chinese twin girls who had been subject to medical experiments by the Japanese to develop immunity to Asian diseases. Miraculously the twins had survived the intense radiation of the American nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and were repatriated by the Americans to Nanking. Further breeding to eliminate deleterious genes, and enhancing intelligence and endurance resulted in golden skin and hair and reptilian-like eyes. Zhou didn’t know if DNA from the radiation-resistant microbes of American nuclear power plants had been inserted into their genome, nor did he care. No male embryos had survived.

Mong was the leader of the group. By Zhou’s design, she had trained two replacements for herself. Charon, one of the youngest girls became a team leader in Mong’s small group of five. Charon had shown a flair for system design and organization. She touched and felt mechanical things like boys do. General Zhou thought of the two young women as two beautiful beans from a single sweet coffee cherry. Sadly, squads of workers would never pamper them into sweet mellow Kona coffee. The Chinese astronauts, the taikonauts, were the traditional green tea. Zhou trusted common people – the taikonauts were a bunch of preppies - well-connected elitist bookworms. The colonists on Mars couldn’t initially support a privileged class. Zhou was old school and attached no stigma to the term girl, even though he was aware of the term’s political incorrectness in the not so mysterious West. Zhou’s people were down in the Chinese space pecking order, but he had more astronauts (people who had flown above the 100-kilometer von Kármán delineation for space), more rocket launches and more landings. Let the taikonauts fly in their air-conditioned simulators.

Adding to his problems was defending the politically unreliable engineers and scientists he had gotten temporarily released from prisons. Women drifted into his command starting rumors that he was running a private harem or even worse, a whorehouse. Many of the older villagers in the surrounding area believed the women were extraterrestrials or demons looking for souls to snag. To Zhou they were where it all began.

Beijing, 1995

The young Chinese medical student in labor, Liang, was a surrogate mother; she had been told that she was bearing a child for the wife of a high-ranking official who was unable to retain a child through gestation. Her compensation was payment of her remaining boarding fees and tuition at the Beijing Ching Wai Medical School.

The delivery was routine with only a local anesthetic, with a sudden silence interrupted by swearing from the attending obstetrician. The crying baby was bundled and carried away, the nurses indifferent to the request from the surrogate mother to see her child. Liang was only told that the baby was a perfectly healthy girl. The atmosphere in the delivery room was chilling, words of congratulations delivered by rote. Liang’s return to classes after a 4-month leave for a crisis in her family didn’t relieve her unease as she threw herself back into her studies. Was her daughter well and would her new parents treat her kindly?

Names and Gender

The Earth is female, a mother to all of mankind and life as we know it. Mars is masculine, aloof and to be feared more than loved – some would say like a father, especially if life on Earth had gotten a jump-start from microbes drifting in from Mars on meteors or alien tourists. Mysterious and smoldering Venus is most definitely a woman, perhaps of the type that young men pursue because their mothers have warned them about such women.

Pluto’s companion, Charon, discovered by James Christy up the hill from the Lowell Observatory at the Naval Observatory, is a faithful female companion, vulnerable and loyal. General Zhou gave the little girl who always stood distant from the others, observing everything, the western name of Charon. Charon soon orbited Mong and the binary planets stabilized. Stable as a rock, no nonsense Mong. Zhou wasn’t sure if Pluto had captured Charon or Charon had adopted Pluto. [The discovery of two additional though small satellites of Pluto suggests a creation of the moons by a collision mechanism similar to that, which created our own moon.]

The potato-shaped moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, Fear and Panic, were the hellions, Janice and Jane. Individually they would have tied up any parents; together, well, they were a handful. Janice and Jane were his prime suspects of being the perp(etrator)s in the incident when he had been hit by water balloons during his formal inspection of an elevator shaft in the dormitory. Payback is a bitch and he would pay the two back after they had suffered the fear of retribution and thought that they had escaped, even if they weren’t guilty. Such an act of revenge would please the girls. Phobos and Deimos also happened to be the best students of martial arts in the group; should this surprise him?

Zhou made the four oldest girls squad leaders. The squad leaders had red nametags; the remaining girls had been divided into two layers of skill levels by screening and had yellow and green tags. Zhou wanted the girls to gravitate to a natural order where a yellow-tagged girl would pair up with a green-tagged girl to form a team. A squad leader would acquire two pairs of girls. The organization was hierarchical, fluid and military. He had reserved the base swimming pool the whole evening for his private use during his initial face-to-face meeting with the girls. Security at the pool was increased and the girls replaced their uniforms and goggles with bathing suits.

Water is life

Zhou had a belief that water and the ocean was the mother of life and mankind. A whole person was at peace with water and did not fear even its dangerous nature; man could not breath its oxygen and its mass could crush man’s frail body. Rightly or wrongly, he believed that scuba diving was a good screening test for astronauts planning to go into the hostile environment of space. Water is a prerequisite for life.

The children milled around quietly and Zhou could sense their apprehension of him. They were wearing one-piece bathing suits, as varied in color as his supply people could acquire. Zhou entered the hall wearing a Hawaiian robe over his bathing suit. Five women, who were also wearing robes and bathing suits, accompanied him. Susan Quian Mong, the oldest girl, called the girls to attention. Zhou walked through the girls, looking everywhere, left and right, at the fronts and backs of the girls. Fresh meat, he thought, cannon fodder. He walked to the edge of the pool and faced the girls. “At ease,” he commanded and he watched the girls relaxing and fixing their attention on what he would be saying.

The general smiled and dove backwards into the pool. He was smiling as his face broke through the surface. He stood up and the water barely came to his chest. He gestured with both hands to the girls to come into the water. The women quietly slipped into the water, followed by a few of the braver girls. The rest of the girls followed more cautiously. Zhou walked around with his five women, pulling the girls who were floundering to their feet. He ended up holding one girl for a few minutes that had swallowed some water. Soon he was facing twenty alert pairs of alien eyes.

Zhou dropped forward and floated face down for a few minutes until he felt a gentle hand under his chin. He saw that it was the girl he had named Mong, looking at his face with concern. Little Charon Li Shioohua, stood guard to Mong’s right and rear, by heredity or temperament a wingman, protecting her point man. Zhou returned to his feet and motioned to Mong to approach him. Zhou suspended Mong on the surface of the water in a horizontal position, slowly walking around while gliding her through the water. Then he set her on her feet and glancing into her golden eyes, took a deep breath and dropped beneath the water. Mong took a deep breath and Zhou saw her gazing back at him under water. She broke through the surface slightly after Zhou. Zhou walked over to Charon and repeated the procedure. Then he told Mong to repeat his procedure with one of the girls. Mong lead one of the girls through the ritual and soon the girls were giggling and playing in the water.

Zhou made the girls exit the pool without using the stairs, using only their arms to get up to floor level. Then he had them jump back into the water with life preservers. Zhou didn’t want to pressure the girls too much during their first swimming lesson – that would come later. Little Charon discovered the technique of squirting water from her mouth at the other girls, and this knowledge traveled like wildfire. Things were going good. Nobody seemed to have a natural fear of the water. It was like flying or surfing – fear could be seen immediately by anyone who was observant. Zhou could see that there wouldn’t be any attrition from this test/lesson. A commotion erupted when Janice sat on Jane as Jane attempted to swim between her legs.

The girls all had full Chinese names but would never learn who their surrogate mothers were. Zhou now had twenty more daughters to add to his natural daughter, Alicia. His new daughters would live harder and see more than Alicia. He would have to harden his heart with these girls, as any commander must with his boots. These girls sure would make beautiful surfers.

Jiaotong Quadrangle

The girls studied biology, mathematics, automotive mechanics, machine shop, physics, and computer science. A considerable amount of the girls’ time was expended in performing chores, growing vegetables, and caring for food and experimental animals. English, the Chinese classics and art, geography, and music rounded out their curriculum. Sports were part of their military training and each girl could also pursue individual interests.

Zhou’s group was a solution without a problem. They gravitated towards biological and chemical warfare; they would become the first responders during a terrorist biochemical attack. Environmental systems became second nature to the girls as did polluted water environments. Zhou tried to develop a no-tomorrow attitude with the girls because he believed that would be their fate – an untimely and probably meaningless death. That doesn’t mean that rogue pilots would be allowed – the pilots and equipment were too valuable. Four balls or no balls – was he training personal initiative out of his girls? It is folk wisdom that the United States Air Force with its Safe Flying philosophy and standoff rocket-launching platforms were hammered by the Soviet MiGs and their bomber-busting cannons in Korea. Now as the space vehicles became a greater part of his responsibilities he realized the advantage his girls had in a radiation-intense space environment. The greatest peril for interplanetary travelers is radiation. Cancer and cataracts pale in the minds of mission planners alongside the danger of a solar flare, which could incapacitate the astronauts. The mission (whatever it may be) would be compromised. Cold but necessary calculations.

Funding was always problematic, especially in China’s hard financial times. The young girls trained with ATVs, and powered parachutes and ultra lights, much to the amusement of the PLA Air Force personnel in other units. Zhou obtained some light 2-seated aerobatic aircraft and two American Hueys (utility helicopters) abandoned by the U.S. Army in Viet Nam. With great difficulty and continuous spending of political capital he obtained some obsolete jet trainer aircraft and fuel. Fortunately Zhou’s superiors required the military mechanics of the jets to accompany their aircraft and they were drafted into becoming trainers. Paul Allen donated two XCOR EZ-Rocket planes to Zhou’s rocket units when the aircraft became obsolete after being replaced by Velocities with larger rocket engines. His air cadets had to maintain and repair their own vehicles and aircraft. All of his pilots were aircraft mechanics, certified in airframe, power plant, and avionics repair. Zhou’s pilots were not the equivalent of military pilots but they acquired private, instrument, flight instructor and commercial ratings for light and rotary aircraft.  He thought that he should have morale problems but he couldn’t see it when he interacted with his people. Had he got too old and lost touch with his people?

The children were expected to know the constellations of the Chinese and European zodiacs by now, as well as the stories associated with them. Tonight they were studying the features of a half moon from the flat roof of the dormitory. Charon had read a story about a queen who lived on the moon and wanted to produce a play based on the story.

Charon asked Mong, “Do you think people will ever go to the stars?”

“The Americans went to the moon,” answered Mong. “And that was forty years ago.”

Charon and Mong alternated positions, sharing time at the telescope and holding the lunar chart. Looking upwards, Charon asked Mong, “How high is the sky?”

Mong answered, without removing her attention from the eyepiece of the telescope, “It’s as high as you want it to be.”

Bioprotection uniforms were turned into space suits and biological decontamination vehicles into space rovers through the cleverness of his supply and maintenance people. He replaced one of the engines in a jet trainer with a rocket engine and began space pilot training. A hostile environment was basically a systems problem – if you can’t keep your systems running, you die. Besides, the problems of space were more amenable than Man’s problems on Earth and Chinese politics.

The Robin

General Ken Zhou Xim contemplated the red ball setting over the Huang Shan Mountains. His ultimate challenge was to fly and land an unmanned spacecraft on Mars with a full complement of flight instrumentation and flight controls, loaded with six tons of hydrogen and several nuclear devices. Obviously the Russian heavy-lift vehicle wasn’t man-rated. [NASA has also proposed using carbon monoxide and oxygen as fuels that wouldn’t require hydrogen as a reactant.]  How would Admiral Cheng Ho, the ancient Chinese supporter of exploration and trade during the Ming Empire, handle this ridiculous conundrum?

The first vehicle would be unmanned and two thirds of the autonomous vehicles to Mars had been lost. The American plan was to use the hydrogen feedstock as a reactant to generate methane and oxygen for the vehicle’s return trip. The alternate scenario of using a spacecraft carrying cryogenic fuel for the return trip required larger tanks and a bigger booster – the equivalent of landing a bomb gently on the Martian surface. The paradox is that a manned spacecraft is more adaptive but humans need heavy life-support systems and power. Unfortunately, most men want two-way tickets, BUT, three of his favorite science fiction writers had described separate missions going and returning, Congress willing, with the astronauts returning to Earth on a later mission.

General Zhou had negotiated a success-oriented payment strategy with the Americans. The Russians would be paid for their part of the launch as soon as the interplanetary insertion to Mars was accomplished and the MAV was on its way. China had received about half of its money for the MAV as Zhou’s group made construction and integration objectives. The landing on Mars and generation of fuel were milestones that would trigger further progress payments and get the program, as far as the Chinese were concerned, out of the red (no pun intended). There were too many unknowns and contingencies that could not be anticipated or tested. He would have to hedge his bet. The choice would have to be Mong and Charon, his favorite and best team. The Russians had achieved a propaganda victory by sending Valentina Tereshkonov, a female civilian parachutist with no flying experience, into space. His women were trained for space, but not to the level of the astronauts, cosmonauts or taikonauts. He felt that they were trained better than either Gagarin or Tereshkonov had been, when they made their historic flights. He got command authority, but as expected, he would be on his own. Deniability and lack of responsibility from above reigned.

American pressure on Zhou’s production partners for launch readiness was intensified by a rumor of a pending Government Accounting Office investigation of four “areas of noncompliance with NASA safety requirements.” The noise level of the equipment in space had never satisfied OSHA requirements.

Physical training for Mong and Charon was intensified; exercise seemed to be the only available solution to the deleterious effects of weightlessness. The loss of bone mass in micro gravity is thought to be linear – one half of Earth’s gravity would produce one half of the one percent annual bone loss experienced in zero gravity. Experience with weightlessness on the Russian Mir and the International Space Station allowed the dismissal of dangerous or expensive artificial gravity schemes. The first humans to return from Mars might be American but the first footprints on Mars would be Chinese.

>There of course, wasn’t any extant life on Mars. Microbes had reduced the primeval carbon dioxide atmosphere on the ancient Earth to oxygen, using photosynthesis. Life decreases entropy; the Martian atmosphere was in a state of maximum-entropy equilibrium. Most of Mars’ water was frozen in the permafrost and polar caps. There were no carbonate residuals of life on Mars such as the White Cliffs of Dover visible from the sensors of orbiting spacecrafts. The metallic core of Mars had solidified eons ago terminating the polar magnetic field and removing any protection that the field had given the atmosphere and surface from solar flares and cosmic particles. Any microbes living on Mars or dropped in from space would be sterilized by the intense ultraviolet radiation on the surface as soon as they tried to leave dormancy and reproduce. Venus and Mars have carbon dioxide atmospheres – ergo, no life.

Zhou therefore concluded that since Mars had never evolved to an environment amenable to oxygen-breathing organisms and since there was no surface vegetation, life had not evolved >normally on Mars. And anyway, if life had evolved it would be too different to interact with life from the Earth. After all the precautions and the quarantining of the Apollo astronauts, there had been no lunar germs. Repeating the obvious: there is no extant life on Mars.

Chapter 17. Mars or Bust

Mong and Charon hid in the biologically sealed MAV as it was shipped by rail to Kazakhstan and mated to the Energia. Integration, testing, and preparation for the launch took more than a month. Mong and Charon could only exercise at night when the Russians were not working. Two standalone CO2 scrubbers were expended when the air became stale. The women put up with the isolation and darkness, waiting for the freedom of space after the launch.

Launch

Commander Al Hollis led the American astronauts to the VIP bleachers at Kalkonur Cosmodome. Hollis was the primary commander for the Mars mission, which should follow the Robin Mars ascent vehicle (MAV) at the next launch opportunity in 26 months. Shuttle pilots Aggi Worthley, Bill Leavitt, and Tim Perry sat with Hollis and several senators from west coast states. Russian cosmonaut Alexia Kogbadov sat with taikonaut Chen Long. General Zhou and his wife were among the Chinese dignitaries. Surprisingly to General Zhou, his wife seemed to be as interested in the launch of the Robin as in schmoozing.

The air was brisk but calm – perfect launching weather. The first launch date of the Robin had been missed because of communications problems with the MAV. The problem had more to do with the Russian transceivers; communications with the American ground and deep space communication links shouldn’t be a problem. The Energia heavy-lift launch vehicle spit flames and smoke and slowly rose off the launch pad, a controlled mini-Krakatau (usually misspelled Krakatoa). A shock wave and wall of noise hit the bleachers seconds later; Major Perry felt that tingle in his balls that gazing into a deep chasm elicits. Aggi felt like she was in the MAV with the Energia pushing her butt all the way into orbit. Don’t stop. Keep going. That’s right, Baby. Up and away. She drove the ship upward with the power of her will.

The rocket became a flame in the air, then a point of light heading southeast. Some of the Russian dignitaries stood up as the Energia shed its first stage. Mong kept the Robin’s viewports closed until the Robin was well on its way to orbit. The second stage fired and the MAV settled into orbit. Charon started to feel nauseated and reached to open her faceplate. She vomited into her helmet and needed to have Mong help her open the faceplate. Mong removed Charon’s helmet and Charon grabbed the helmet and used it as a sink. Mong removed her helmet and continued the chain reaction that Charon had started. Space welcomed and initiated the Chinese women into the brotherhood of spacefarers.

Trans-Mars Injection (TMI)

The TMI Centaur stage propelled the Robin from low-earth orbit (LEO) to a transmartian trajectory. A hydrogen/oxygen Centaur was used because of delays in the development of the nuclear thermal propulsion system. The best use of the nuclear propulsion units would be to refuel and park them in space rather than using them as expendables. A giant thud shook the Robin as the noise of the insertion burn ceased; the warning lights indicated an explosive decompression in the garage and the floor by the data storage unit collapsed aft. Mong and Charon connected their environmental carry-ons and put on their helmets. The floor seemed to be stable but Mong pointed Charon towards the capsule port. They entered the capsule, connecting their umbilical cords to the capsule’s internal systems. Mong isolated the capsule from the Robin’s main systems and the two women waited for disaster. They floated quietly in free fall with nothing else happening. Their real space suits were in the laboratory as was most of the food and nearly everything else. The pressure remained stable in the laboratory. Charon disconnected herself from the capsule’s system and connected her umbilical connector into the carry-on life support system. She opened the port and pushed her upper body into the laboratory. Then she entered the laboratory and flew to the buckled floor. The garage temperature and pressure were stabilizing to that of space. Charon scanned the external monitors but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary on the outside of the spacecraft. The monitor by the rover showed that the floor had collapsed onto the rover – the laboratory floor was now the pressure vessel wall between the laboratory and the unpressurized garage. She shut down the systems in the garage and focused on the laboratory systems. The damage wasn’t fatal.

Houston

The Robin had been struck by a meteor or, more likely, space-debris, with loss of the integrity of the garage. The coldness of space would cause the equipment in the garage to take themselves offline (shut themselves down). The environmental control equipment was designed to be heated or cooled by ambient air – a workaround using only the internal heaters and cooling tubes would have to be developed. One of the two hydrogen tanks had vented into space. The loss of the hydrogen would chop the amount of fuel available for exploration and the return to Martian orbit in half. An ERV with half of its hydrogen gone would not be able to return to Earth orbit. Not an auspicious beginning.

Space Repair

Charon attached a tether to her environmental backpack. First she pushed her upper body into space and turned her head outward to adjust to the feeling of being isolated in space. She didn’t experience the sensation of falling, fear, or disorientation that some astronauts have experienced. She took some video of the external surface of the Robin, just to accomplish a real space task. The surface appeared unblemished. Charon didn’t feel that she needed a rest, so Mong agreed that she could examine the bow of the spacecraft. There were more handholds near the capsule and the forward port was near the capsule. The Robin was no shuttle; it had no Canadian Remote Manipulator (arm) System or Manned Maneuvering Unit. The rapid exhaustion of astronauts engaged in EVAs outside of the shuttle bay or without the use of the RMS was well known. Charon had the advantage over previous space walkers of spending hours in a pressure suit, maneuvering inside the Robin. Mong turned on the nose camera and turned it to face towards the edge of the spacecraft, where Charon could be expected to approach the camera. Charon continued her first external space walk, gazing over the edge, trying to see the camera. The camera was embedded in fixtures but Mong could see Charon coming over the edge. Charon circled the camera, maneuvering around the edge. Charon pulled her body onto the bulbous part of the capsule and slowly moved around the circumference examining the external surface of the spacecraft. She could see a piece of sheet metal, space junk, penetrating the hull. Mong could see the offending fairing through Charon’s head camera – the hole must be large, considering how fast the penetration had caused the explosive decompression. The object would have to be removed and the pressure hull repaired before entry into the Martian atmosphere. Charon repositioned her tether anchor and completed navigating the circumference of the capsule, as Mong followed her progress with the nose camera. She returned to the portal and shut the port. Charon’s first EVA had been routine.

Charon’s entry to the garage the next day revealed that the damage was behind the bioreactor – removal of the fairing and repair of the pressure vessel would be a convoluted operation. Zhou told the women to slow down and for Mong to become proficient at EVAs and for Charon to learn the Capcom or lifeline skills. After all, they had eight months to fix the breach before they got to Mars, and the MAV would have to last for years after they got to Mars. In fact, the removal of the equipment took Mong and Charon several weeks before the offending debris was loosened and finally pushed away from the spacecraft with an oxygen bottle. The fairing drifted slowly away from the Robin over a period of days.

Southern Sky

Just about everything that a person can see with the naked eye from the surface of the Earth is in our galaxy, the Milky Way, with a few obvious exceptions, such as the Magellan Clouds in the southern hemisphere and the Andromeda Nebula (Galaxy) in Andromeda. The women were no longer limited to seeing only the constellations of the northern hemisphere. They quickly learned the southern constellations, which they had only seen with planetarium software and presentations at the Shanghai Planetarium. The Magellan Clouds and Southern Cross caught their attention at first, followed by Alpha and Beta Centauri and the Cruz Australis (Southern Cross) constellation.

Mars Orbit Insertion

Some fuel was used for course corrections and orbital insertion but most of the deceleration would be accomplished by atmospheric braking in the thin Martian atmosphere. Mong overrode one burst command when the spacecraft’s attitude differed from the flight computer’s computed attitude. Examination of the code by the chief programmer, “Mace” Gellately, revealed that a case statement was missing break punctuation. The code was patched, Houston recycled the navigation computer and the next burst fired flawlessly. Mace couldn’t figure out the cause of the glitch so he went to confession the next night, lighting two candles. There aren’t any atheists in space.

Deorbiting and Landing

Some of the precious rocket fuel was used to slow down the Robin MAV, dropping the MAV into the denser atmosphere. The aero brakes, triple parachutes, and rocket engines would decelerate the MAV to a soft landing. The sensors in orbit had predicted that the landing site would be as smooth as a baby’s bottom. That was true in the large scale, but the MAV was heading for a peninsula of rock outcroppings in the smooth area. Mong jettisoned the parachutes and made a rocket-only landing in a small clearing. The terrain was much rougher than the Mars exploration robotic landers had experienced.

Houston

The Robin had prematurely jettisoned its parachutes and the flight computer had taken a long time recomputing its engine commands. The spacecraft must have experienced some extreme wind shear, as the flight computer path had been irregular and not smooth. Telemetry indicated a touchdown – the continued reception of telemetry was a good sign by itself. Finally the dual video cameras came alive by their own program, returning a scene of jagged rocks. Capcom Bill Leavitt released his breath and uncrossed his fingers. He didn’t have anybody to talk to on this mission. Looking at the video returns, he wondered if they had landed in Arizona.

Shanghai

Confirmation to Shanghai that the women had made a safe landing was encoded into the less significant bits of the interior flight deck temperatures. Video would have been better, but the Chinese accomplishment couldn’t be acknowledged for now. The cheering in Shanghai was sincere but subdued, as the camera selected by the NASA channel panned some large nearby peaks and the distant horizon from the landing site.

 Chapter 18. Exploring Mars

After a few days, Mong and Charon got over the lethargy and weakness that they had felt when they first touched down on Mars. The simple tests for life on the local Martian soil out gassed oxygen but didn’t detect any organic compounds; no microbes could be detected on the ultraviolet ray drenched regolith with the limited equipment on the Robin. Free water could not be found but there were some minerals that contained bound water; water could be extracted thermally and chemically from Martian soil and rocks.

Spider

The Spider rover functioned semi-autonomously. Its sole function was to deploy the nuclear reactor a safe distance from the Robin. The ramp deployed so that one corner was on a rock. The viewers of the still pictures from the frame grabbers for the stereoscopic video cameras were oblivious to the perilous descent from the garage and commanded the Spider rover to a position beyond the ramp. The Spider’s right wheels went off the ramp when the ramp tilted and the tractor was stuck. All attempts during the remainder of the sol to move the tractor failed so the control group regrouped to discuss the suggested procedures coming in from around the world to dislodge the rover. That night Mong and Charon wrestled the tractor with the nuclear generator off the ramp. The next sol Houston observed that the rover’s autonomous routines had miraculously managed to move the rover off the ramp.

Mars Observer Laser Altimeter (MOLA)

The Apollo astronauts had extensive maps of the lunar landing sites. Their maps had been prepared with the aid of NASA observers at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The first spacefarers to Mars had even better digital maps, thanks to the MOLA maps generated by the laser altimeter on the Mars Global Surveyor, which were being enhanced by the updates from the Mars Reconnaissance Observer telescope. Mong and Charon explored the local area on the simulator and would fill in local details with a laser scanner as they systematically surveyed the terrain beyond the landing site. The surveying data, which was forwarded to Shanghai, would only become really useful when it could be integrated into the international maps of Mars. Mong and Charon explored more of Mars inn their first week of ambulatory exploration than both of the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, had during their highly successful lifetimes.

Cold Soak

Fuel generation was in progress, so simple survival became the priority. The stored food was plentiful if boring. They explored the local area on foot – nothing exciting to report home. A four-kilometer round trip was as far as they could walk in the pressure suits.

Mong and Charon transferred liquid methane and oxygen to the pressurized rover. The pressurized rover had the same standard six-wheeled undercarriage as the Spider, which would allow the Spider to be cannibalized for spare parts. The moon’s surface is igneous rock pulverized [gardened] by meteors. Mars has the effects of erosion imposed with sedimentary rock deposited by the flow of water or wind. They drove to a hill about five kilometers from the landing site and collected a few rock samples and soil. The peaks were basaltic, obviously dikes that had been exposed by erosion. Their surveying matrix slowly expanded around the landing site. The fractured rock samples collected from the mountain were volcanic, not sedimentary as they had hoped. The Martian surface was not alive like the Earth’s; Mars was seismically as dead as the moon. Staying on the open plain they drove a radius varying five to eight kilometers from the base camp, returning to the backside of the landing site. They found and recovered the parachutes; waste not, want not. They would explore the local area until they were more confident of the rover and their equipment. The women slowly got used to the rugged beauty of the rusty terrain.

The rover wouldn’t start by itself when its internal temperature was allowed to go below minus thirty degrees Centigrade. The umbilical would have to remain connected to the vehicle to pre-condition the vehicle before any travel was possible. It would be too much trouble putting the rover in the garage every night and too expensive in terms of energy to keep the garage at a higher temperature. As far as Houston knew, the integrity of the garage had been compromised and the Americans would figure out sooner or later that they had been too lucky. The normal procedure was to allow the Martian sun to warm the rover, aided by power from the Robin’s solar panel.

Mong and Charon had planned to test the communications and navigation system of the rover. Charon was sitting in the rover in her pressure suit. Communications would be through the intercom, which used wires in the rover’s umbilical cord to the MAV. The rover’s computer communicated with the MAV’s master cluster of computers. The engine start had been uneventful and the storage batteries were fully charged. Charon pressurized the rover to four psi, feeling the increased pressure in the rover as a relaxation in the stiffness of her pressure suit. Mong told Charon to increase the pressure to eight psi to test the pressurization system. As the pressure stabilized at double the normal operating pressure, the rear side window popped out and flew about five meters from the rover, resulting in a mild explosive decompression. The workmanship was Chinese, but the design and prescribed gaskets were American. Not a very good sign at the start of exploration further away from their home base.

The popped window was glued in with superglue and both rear windows were covered with one half-inch Plexiglas and caulked in. At first, the women wore their space suits on all of the excursions and rarely even removed their helmets. Later, as their confidence in the integrity of the rover increased, they drove without wearing their helmets and gloves.

The Caverns

The women drove up the ancient water shed to the cliffs where the water in the ancient arroyo should have come from. A recent paper had speculated that dry flowing of material could cause the observed gullies. Some planetologists had speculated that the mudslides of rain-saturated gravel in Southern California could be analogous to the melting of water or carbon dioxide permafrost on Mars. The debris at the bottom of the cliffs indicated that a sheet of rock had collapsed off the wall and then had been eroded by running water. The debris was a confusing mixture of smooth and jagged slabs of rock. All the speculation about these terrain features would have to be done by experts based on the samples they were collecting and videotapes of the terrain. They looked up at the dozens of holes or caves in the cliff. These caves were about ninety kilometers from Mars Site 1.

Rubble in the center of the cliff had accumulated up to one of the openings. The women climbed up the boulders to a cave, which was accessible from the rubble pile. After switching on their shoulder lamps, they entered the darkness of the cave from the outside brilliance. The gas chromatograph detected minute traces of methane, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. They walked slowly into the cave, letting their eyes adapt to the darkness. Several hundred meters into the cave, the beams from their shoulder lamps started to scatter off a foggy haze. The dead stalagmites showed that the cave had been alive in ancient times. The cave opened to a frozen waterfall of ice. Lacking the proper equipment for a climb, they only got about twenty feet above the bottom or floor level of the cave. Collecting and preserving samples for biological evaluation is especially difficult since bugs are sensitive to small variations in temperature. Earth air and light would most likely be lethal to most Martian microbes. Antarctic ice had long been considered to be sterile until scientists started to handle their specimens more carefully. They retrieved two five-kilogram samples and sealed them and a few rock samples in their sample case. They had found some unbound water. WATER. Man could survive on Dune. The chemically bound hydrogen was a bonus.

God’s First Domain

Back in the Robin, Mong removed a small portion of the ice sample and placed it in a beaker. Long filaments could be seen in the melted ice under the microscope. Mong wondered, Could these structures be microbial life? The density of the organisms was about 50,000 per cm3 or milliliter (ml). The second sample had a population of 45,000 per ml. Next Mong filtered the large particles from the water and separated the remainder into five fractions, which would separate the possible microbes by size. The carbon-based chemistry of Martian life could be compared to Earth microbes – perhaps cross-contamination had occurred between Mars and the Earth in the past. Maybe the microbes on Mars would be found to fit into the lower part of the earthly Tree of Life, the Dark Life archaea, part of the third domain of life like the bugs from Lechuguilla Caverns. The other two domains of life, also predominately microbial, are eucaryotes and bacteria. Nanobacteria, by definition bacteria smaller than a micron are found almost anywhere in the biosphere that microbiologists look. Dark Life, nanobacteria found in extreme environments devoid of sunlight or oxygen would be the primary focus. The fractions were lysed and amplified by PCR. Each fraction had numerous peaks on the chromatograph and high performance capillary electrophoresis. The ssrRNA results would have to be analyzed in Beijing. Viable but nonculturable (VNC) – alive until we got hold of them, was the expected classification of the bugs but, hopefully, time and persistence would change that. The data and low-resolution photographs were transmitted to the Earth. They would send the high-resolution images to Shanghai over the coming weeks.

The microorganisms had a symbiotic relationship which didn’t allow the cultivation of a single species into a colony. In any case, the growth of the colonies was excruciatingly slow compared to the bacteria that they had grown in China.

The microorganisms had a symbiotic relationship which didn’t allow the cultivation of just one species into a colony. In any case, the growth of the colonies was excruciatingly slow compared to the bacteria that they had grown in China.

Bugs

The tactical red light came on with the buzzer. The alert level shown by the alert and warning lights was only yellow – a non-critical equipment failure. Charon

 beat Mong to the support system console and shut off the buzzer. Mong glanced at the fuel generation gauges after reading the five warning messages listed on the flat panel display. The temperature for the CO2 intake chamber hadn’t dropped to the outside ambient temperature – the intake filters must be clogged. Mong looked at the readings. Could dust, the bane of equipment on Mars, be the culprit? The system had worked flawlessly for four months.

Charon wanted to trouble-shoot the system so Mong told her to get into her pressure suit. Mong wheeled her chair over to the security/surveillance system monitors. The infrared and low-light intensity cameras showed that there was nothing out of the ordinary outside. She turned on the daytime video camera and switched on the burglar light near the intake port of the methane fuel generator. She saw the flutter of a swarm of small insects. The yellow lights went out. She told Charon to stop dressing. Charon put her pressure suit on a bench and pushed a chair over to the console. Mong told Charon to turn on the video recorder for the intake video camera and then she turned on the light. Nothing.

“Cancel the recording,” she said.

Mong turned off the floodlights and scanned the infrared (IR) and low-light intensity (LLI) video screens. Then she told Charon to select the camera next to the greenhouse on the video recorder. Mong turned on the video camera and the greenhouse lights. A swarm swirled around inside the greenhouse then disappeared. A cloud rose and then dissipated outside the greenhouse. They played with the cameras and lights but couldn’t see anything else. Mong decided not to go outside the MAV until daylight. That night Mong left the security light near the CO2 intake on. The next morning they found several clumps of dead bugs in the intake filters. LIFE. Multicellular LIFE on Mars.

The bugs looked very frail and were practically just wings. Mong photographed the bugs by camera and microscope. The color of the wings under magnification was as beautiful as a peacock tail. Charon prepared RNA and DNA samples and ran the mush through the chromatograph. Let the people in Beijing compare the RNA sequences to earthly genomes to see if Martian life had a common ancestry, genes and metabolic pathways.

Tar Pits

Mong and Charon drove around a sharp protruding rock about 325 meters high and came onto a comparably open area which reminded them of the salt flats that they had seen in pictures from the American space program. The rock-strewn plain went all the way to a distant ridge and looked rather boring. They decided to go about 30 kilometers into the open area and then return home. As they were turning Charon spotted a darkened area on her side of the rover. Mong drove over to the area and stopped about 30 meters from the black 200 meter-wide pool. Charon picked up rock samples from the surrounding area as Mong chipped out a large sample of the material. Sand Dunes covered parts of the flat area. Tests back at the Robin revealed that the pool was asphalt – tar. Was this some counterpart of fossil-derived petroleum on Earth or did it come from organic compounds formed in deep space or produced by nanobacteria? The tar would provide a useful raw material, which could probably be used to synthesize products needed by the colonists when they got to Mars.

The tar was brought to room temperature in the hood and while the tar softened, it was still solid. A wide spectrum of hydrocarbons and organic molecules was present. The sample turned to goo when left overnight. Microbes had cracked the large molecules to simpler, smaller molecules. Mong lacked the skills needed to culture the microbes and ended up just sending the DNA and rRNA spectra to the experts at the Beijing Ching Wai Medical School.

Veggies

Only a few plants thrived in the Martian soil of the greenhouse. The peanuts and potatoes were doing well. Mong and Charon experimented with potato dishes but craved some plain old rice. Mong acquired a taste for (microwave) baked potatoes stuffed with the plentiful frozen vegetables. Most of the leafy plants, at least, survived. They would attempt to grow some tomatoes and beans for a second time.

Aquifer

The ground penetrating radar signal detected water beneath the road at a depth of about 220 meters. The women mapped the underground stream where it crossed their trail to the caverns. The water was much nearer to the surface than the consensus opinion of planetary scientists on Earth thought possible because of the postulated thick permafrost layer. The aquifer was about two kilometers wide at this point.

Leisure Class

Zhou seemed to make fewer and fewer demands on Mong and Charon; in truth, his people thought that isolated people became depressed and despondent if too many demands were made on them. Whatever the reason, the women now had free time for the first time in their life. Mong started maintaining a journal and Charon started reading travel books. Charon liked a writer named Michener who had written about the surfers of Hawaii. Zhou’s ancestors had practically been slaves when they arrived in Hawaii but had worked themselves up to a status just under the rich Haoles whose ancestors had come to Hawaii as missionaries and traders. And Europe had hot water baths, saturated with healing minerals. Abruptly, the demands from Shanghai for surveying and exploration of the caverns became strident. Minerals and ores were extensively searched for; an excellent landing site was found near the caverns. Water was the essential differentiator at the caverns site. They were to set up small explosive charges in one of the smaller caves and evaluate the result. The results of the explosions and their evaluations were sent back to Shanghai. Silence followed.

Six weeks later the simple, explicit orders came – set all the remaining charges in the ice falls of one of the large caves and set them off at 5:31, Mars Local Solar Time. The Chinese authorities had decided that they wanted to entice the Americans into sending the ERV to the caverns. The Americans had indicated that they were starting to think that a common landing site was safer than multiple, distributed sites. A release of water vapor as the Caidin Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter flew over might tempt the Americans; at least that was the plan. The astronomers advising Zhou thought that the prescribed time was their best guess for the water venting to be seen during the day with a proper shadow by the Caidin orbiter.

Mong and Charon packed the equipment and survival gear in the rover. They decided to go to the caves early, place the charges, and then explore the surrounding network of caves. They would be getting home after dark. They used the easiest direct route to the caves to guarantee that they wouldn’t get lost and have to spend the night in the rover. Their improvements to the road were making the trip shorter and faster. Charon drove on the outbound leg.

Mong and Charon inspected the cave where they had set the charges two months ago. There was some sort of shiny material on the sand and rocks about thirty meters below the cave. Mong collected a sample of the material and the sand and rock it was on. Otherwise, there didn’t seem to be anything new to observe. They started unpacking and carrying their equipment up the cut bank to the main cave. They had fabricated four sections of steel pipe that could be connected by quick-release flanges. Wires for the electrical heaters and detonators would be attached by mating plugs. Connecting the first section to the appliance cord, they held it as horizontal as they could while it melted its length into the ice. After the initial section had penetrated about four and a half feet into the ice, they disconnected the appliance cord. The section was pointing slightly upward. Mong attached the next section by connecting the plug and then screwing the fast-connect to the next metal pipe while Charon kept it aligned. Then Charon connected the appliance cord and the insertion procedure was repeated. It had taken ninety Earth minutes to embed the two sections. The procedure was repeated for the third section and then the whole pipe was pulled out of the ice leaving a long cylindrical hole. The headpiece was removed from the first section and a fourth section with explosives was attached. Mong didn’t like the fact at all that even this section had to be heated with explosives in it. The pipes slowly slide into the hole and Mong turned off the heaters with a silent sigh of relief. Mong disconnected the appliance cord and they left the cave. At least with no more explosives, they wouldn’t be required to do that procedure again.

They were relieved to move the rover away from the cliff; a large eruption of water might collapse the cliff onto the rover, stranding them away from home. They drove to the hills ten miles from the caverns and found a beautiful location for a monastery or possibly an observation or laser relay post facing in the direction of Mars Site 1.

The rover video camera was set to show a wide area of the cliffs and timed to begin recording 15 minutes before the detonation of the explosives. Mong left the rover about 500 meters from the cliffs and walked over carrying the timing electronics for igniting the explosives. The pipe was firmly frozen in the ice but the explosives were still at the desired room temperature. Setting the timer was completed and the women left the darkness of the main cave. They worked their way about 100 meters to the left of the main cave and sat down on some rocks to watch the show. The explosion seemed to be disproportionately large. A volume of water gushed out of the cave and a section sheared off of the cliff and fell/flowed. The water flew into the atmosphere and snowy ice crystals fell and danced in the atmospheric currents. The cliff started to collapse in their direction so they started to retreat ahead of the falling rocks. Charon got caught in a slurry of mud from the cliff and slide with the mess to the plain below. Mong could see her lying in the rubble ten meters below. She got to her friend as fast as she could and saw that Charon’s pressure suit had a leak. She packed mud on the suit and it froze in place. Mong gave little thought to the danger of frostbitten fingers that her wet gloves presented.

Charon was stunned from the fall and not sitting up by herself. Mong ran to the rover and drove it next to Charon. Mong replaced Charon’s nearly depleted oxygen tank. Placing Charon in the rover, she pressurized the interior, and removed Charon’s helmet. The pressure vessel had better hold, was Mong’s only thought. She turned off the video cameras. The interior of the rover heated up to operating temperature and Charon was asking for water, a good sign. Mong took off Charon’s gloves and helmet and rubbed her face. Charon’s eyes opened and Mong’s face slowly came into focus.

“I dreamt that I was surfing with a large fish in Hawaii,” she said. “The fish looked at me with warm eyes. The fish looked like a strange eel.”

You missed your chance, not having a surfboard, thought Mong. What would Zhou’s relatives in Hawaii make of Charon’s vision?

“You always did like the water,” said Mong. And don’t ever scare me like that again, she thought. Mong drove the rover slowly home, turning the video equipment back on as the sun was setting. Zhou always liked sunsets.

The sun set and the Earth rose, although the Earth initially was too low to be seen in the dusty atmosphere of Mars. Charon was sleeping gently. Twenty kilometers from Mars Site I, Mong saw a glow on one of the hills. She stopped the rover and turned off the headlights. Mong videoed the hills with the low light intensity camera, but doubted if the luminescent effect would be visible in the recording. She let Charon sleep.

Xuen Haiming at the Jet Propulsion Lab examined the Caidin MRO images from the area around the caverns for the venting that he had been told to look for, but could only see slight smudges to indicate that a cloud of ice crystals had escaped from the surface. The evidence that he had been told to look for wasn’t good enough for a paper but he soon had others looking at the images. Only rumors about the evidence for water escaped to the public but NASA studied the terrain around the cliffs with new interest (of course, only Zhou and the people privy to his information knew about the caves). Some analysts thought they saw evidence of a collapsed cliff that had exposed an aquifer. The second vehicle of the 2007 opposition, an ERV, would go to this nearby site, now called Yellowstone.

One sol at a time

The relative time of a martial day or sol depends on where you are on the Earth and what Martian times zone you are monitoring. It is preferable that the support people on Earth adapt to a Martian schedule, but, of course, the Marsnauts had to keep track of what time zone the people that they had to communicate with were in.

Waiting for the Tide to come in

As the first year on Mars passed, Mong and Charon’s thoughts started to drift to events on Earth and to wonder about which people would arrive after the next opposition. As the blue gem grew in brilliance, Mong started thinking of the Earth as a woman being impregnated by Mars, with people arriving on Mars after gestation. The reports from Zhou suggested that an unmanned American habitat would land at Mars Site 1. An ERV, per schedule, would be coming with their friends, landing at the caverns, instead of being parked in orbit. Charon started talking about fresh air and perhaps a trip to Zhou’s family farm in Hawaii. Mong wondered if Charon had forgotten who they were, lost souls on Earth, as free as it gets on Mars. They had only been free of their hoods and goggles for two years. Charon commented to Mong that she missed the din of the dormitory in Shanghai.

The Americans launched the unmanned habitat direct from The Cape. Without a second ERV in Martian orbit, the only available vehicle for the return trip to Earth for the American astronauts would be the anticipated ERV, which would land 90 miles away from Plymouth at Yellowstone. The American-launched habitat would land at Plymouth.

Yo Ken

Charon had been reading Apollo astronaut Al Bean’s Apollo (a book of Bean’s paintings depicting the astronauts on the moon). Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, had thought of writing a message to his daughter Tracy in the moon dust on a large moon rock, after he had left the moon. Alan Bean had painted this imagined rock, Tracy’s Boulder, which had a message to Tracy written in the lunar sand. Charon wasn’t on the moon, but almost as good, she was on Mars. She would send such a photograph to Tracy as soon as their existence on Mars was disclosed.

Several months later Charon found “General Zhou’s Rock.” Mong vetoed the message “Yo Ken.” The message written on the Martian sand, clearly legible, said “Yo Zhou.” The photograph rippled across China’s space community like a residual tsunami from a Japanese earthquake hitting Honolulu. General Zhou was pleased.

Precious Chinese resources were diverted to space research and development. The Martian dust storm season started.



Part 3. Robin

“[von] Kármán [at Caltech] can take the Buck Rogers [rocketry] job.” – Jerome Hunsaker, head of the aeronautics department at MIT

Chapter 19. Brown Gold

Phillip Beaudette couldn’t believe how much things could change in a week. He had spent months in Viet Nam making contacts with politicians, coffee producers and wholesalers. His business plan was simple – sell coffee to the billion tea-drinking Chinese.

He had considerable success selling Vietnamese coffee and tea in France and Quebec after becoming involved in looking for MIAs from America’s intervention in Viet Nam and the discovery of the graves of French soldiers from the disastrous demise of French Indochina as a French colony. Now, fully six months after the submittal of his proposal, he had an invitation from the office of the Governor of Shanghai to visit the Shanghai Technology Promotion Center. The Chinese hadn’t even acknowledged his proposal.

Phillip hastily ordered a box of specialty coffee from Southeast Asia. After checking in the coffee and his fresh suit, all he had to do was clear customs and enjoy the short flight to China. He didn’t like the body language of the customs official as the officer examined his face, carry-on and passport. The customs official signaled a nearby policeman.

The police officer motioned Phillip to follow him. As Phillip turned to retrieve his carry-on the officer grabbed his arm and hustled him through a door and down a drab hallway. He barely caught his balance after being pushed through a doorway into a small cell. The door closed loudly behind him and the bolt on the door slammed shut. The room was furnished with a desk and several sturdy chairs. Silence followed. He would miss his flight to Shanghai.

Triage

The cardboard box with the large “Coffee” label had been removed from the x-ray scanning conveyor belt when the screeners observed that it was packed with rectangular packages – obviously about 10 kilograms of contraband. Customs Inspector Ng cut the top of the box in the centerline and along its edge. Removing a piece of cardboard revealed a calendar showing scenes of Vietnamese rural landscapes for the Cleret Roasting Company. He examined the triplicate shipping form. Very nice touch of distraction. It listed numerous packages of coffee and tea. Merde. Ng removed a package near the center of the box. He deftly slashed the bag with his cardboard cutter. Coffee beans spilled out onto the floor. Damn. He removed the package beneath the one he had opened. He tore the top of the bag open with his teeth and gently opened the tear. Some unroasted coffee beans. Next he placed the entire lop level of bags on the table, shaking each one next to his right ear. Then he picked up the cardboard box and emptied it on the table. He shook one more bag. The same old sickening rattle. Sergeant Ng scurried to the wall phone.

Inspector Nuygen thumbed through the thin dossier of the French Canadian. Born in Coaticook, Quebec, the youngest of twelve children, a wandering and errant Catholic, devout at home. Speeding tickets, a busted nose during a riot at a hockey game in Quebec City, a note for having been in possession of an untaxed bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon. Hum, likes prostitutes in nursing whites and French maid outfits. There was a special seal from the Governor of Shanghai’s Biotech Development Board on his visa. Was this man a player? Could he be an agent of our comrades to the north? The phone rang. He took the call and pressed on one of the buttons near the desk phone to call his assistant.

Phillip stood up as he heard the door being unlocked. An athletic female officer entered, carrying his small carry-on. She brushed something off his shoulder and handed him his case. Smiling, she stated that his small difficulty had been cleared up. She wheeled around, stepped through the open doorway and waited for him to emerge into the land of those who would live. They walked together, exchanging pleasantries, just as if they were old high school friends. He retrieved his passport from the now smiling customs official. The officer commented that he hoped that he would enjoy his coffee and stay in China. Phillip’s day wasn’t starting out all that well.

His plane was waiting for him. What the hell?

People’s Republic of China (PRC)

A young woman in a People’s Liberation Army Air Force summer uniform was scanning the emerging passengers, holding a sign displaying his name. By habit, Phillip examined the frowning officer before emerging from the anonymity of the crowd. He approached her saying, “I’m Phillip. Are you looking for me?”

“Yes,” she said, introducing herself. “I’m Captain Wu. Do you have any luggage?”

“Just my carry-on,” he replied. “I had some coffee beans but I think I lost them in Viet Nam.”

“Never mind the coffee,” she said. “Let’s get away from this mob.”

Phillip observed her long legs as she walked ahead of him. Maybe the orient had a lower glass ceiling than he thought. A soft-spoken sergeant who looked like he had been on the Long March drove the unmarked ten-year old Chevrolet liaison vehicle. Phillip had been to Beijing twice before for industry promotional conferences. He had only been to Shanghai once but preferred that rowdy, less formal city to Beijing.

The leisurely automobile trip took about an hour. The conversation wandered from his experiences in the orient to his tour of duty with the Canadian Air Force. Wu noticed that Phillip had the strange habit of repeating their conversation to himself several times until another interchange occurred. She soon insisted that Phillip call her Liang in private. She slapped his leg as she enjoyed one of his clever observations about Chinese airports and her hand lingered on his thigh until gravity slowly slid it away.

Captain Wu had her driver stop the vehicle at a roadside stand. “I love the shrimp bouillabaisse here,” she said.

“Bouillabaisse, bouillabaisse here?” exclaimed Phillip.

“Yes, I’ve been eating shrimp bouillabaisse noodles at this roadside stand ever since I was a kid.” Liang ordered three bowls of bouillabaisse and took the first bowl she received to her driver. Liang and Phillip each grabbed a bowl and walked to a shaded table. Phillip tentatively sipped the broth from the shrimp noodles.

“This is very good. Good, but it isn’t real bouillabaisse.” He continued to eat the noodles commenting about how much he missed real bouillabaisse. The snack perked up the group and Liang pulled away from the table to make a quick call on her cellular. It was turning into a rather pleasant afternoon. Back in the car, Liang continued the conversation with her hand resting on Phillip’s leg. Damn, he’d been on the road too long.

The Chevy turned into what was obviously a military base. The sign at the turnoff read Dachang Air Base in English. Captain Wu handed Phillip’s passport to the enlisted guard who was backed up by an army lieutenant standing in a reverse fig leaf stance. The officer wore a side arm. After the enlisted guard examined the document given him by Captain Wu, he passed it back to her. Phillip wasn’t asked anything and he didn’t volunteer anything, just standing in place silently observing the Chinese version of a common worldwide ritual.

Back in the car they continued a few hundred meters to a plain looking building. The buildings reminded Phillip of the old World War II barracks at the University of Maine which had been reborn as student dormitories when the soldiers returned home to go to school after the war to end all wars. The class of ’44 had prospered; the three preceding classes received gold bars for their uniforms, a gun and travel arrangements to exotic locations. The sergeant parked the car in an empty parking space. The other three parking spaces were empty. A rocket about 12 feet long was displayed on its launcher in front of the building. The rocket was probably quite old since its paint was faded and chipped in a few spots. Phillip didn’t have a clue to what it was or why it was being displayed here.

Captain Wu led the way into the building. The interior of the building was as austere as its exterior with enlisted soldiers and civilians chatting at the tables in a large dining room. They walked to a large table occupied by an older man and two officers from the PLA Air Force. The older man in civilian clothes signaled for Phillip to sit on a chair across the table from him. Captain Wu sat down next to Phillip. The older man seemed to be speeding up his conversation. He laughed and slapped one of the officers on the back. The two officers laughed, glanced at the Canadian and then at Captain Wu. One of the men collected a pile of papers and stuffed them into his attaché case. Then they were gone.

The old man stood up and extended his hand as Phillip jumped to his feet. The old man introduced himself, “Ken Zhou Xim, General Zhou.” The men shook hands. Zhou turned to Captain Wu and smiled while instructing her in Chinese with a glance towards the wall to his left. Phillip could only tell that the directions involved cups.

Captain Wu acknowledged the order and went to the cupboards on the wall. She returned with a tray populated with a set of cups, a liter-sized stainless steel cream dispenser and a large thermos dispenser. The tea ceremony had really taken a turn for the worst in the new millennium in modern China, thought Phillip. Captain Wu poured Phillip a cup of the brown liquid and passed it to him. Next she placed the cafeteria cream dispenser on Phillip’s side of the table. The two Chinese sat down and looked at Phillip with anticipation.

Phillip sat down, warming his hands on the small cup. Phillip brought the cup near his face. Very aromatic coffee. He sipped a little of the liquid deep into his mouth, his eyes still concentrating on the coffee’s mellow brown color. Was this some kind of a test?

“Is this Kona coffee?” he asked looking towards the Chinese officers.

Captain Wu clapped her hands with delight and the general just smiled and poured some coffee into the two remaining cups. General Zhou pushed the cream closer to Phillip and drank his coffee black. Phillip added more cream to his coffee than the average American would and asked Captain Wu with an inquisitive frown if she used cream. She answered with an affirmative nod but Phillip had barely lightened her coffee before she raised her hand to stop his pour. Phillip’s mind was operating at full thrust. What a turn of events. The coffee dispenser had a silver-colored advertising sticker – “Apollo Coffee.”

Apollo Tea, Coffee and Cocoa

Phillip asked General Zhou, “Do you own the Apollo Coffee Company?”

The general nodded in the affirmative, “My family does.”

Phillip then asked the general, “Did you name the company after the American Apollo space program?’

The general laughed. “No, that’s what I tell my superiors. I named it after the boxing champion that Rocky fought in Rocky I. It would have been too easy to name the company after the Grecian god of the sun. [General Zhou is later forced by political and marketing considerations to change the name of his company to Shady Coffee.] Back to my problem - my only customers are the Air Force cafeterias. I need a greater variety of green coffee beans since we’re getting more foreign visitors all the time at the base.”

Phillip had to ask, “Where did you get your Kona coffee?”

“I get it from my family farm on the Big Island of Hawaii,” answered the general. “They own a ten-acre plantation and I buy all of their harvest.”

Phillip placed the slight Pidgin English accent of the Hawaiian Islands. His mind drifted to the Philippino beauty he had chased to the University of Hawaii in Hilo. She was a graduate student in marine biology. She gave him a tour of the Big Island including the Mauna Kea volcano and its by-product, the mineral-enriched soil that coffee trees love. The hot spot creating the Hawaiian Islands had continued moving east but the volcanoes on Hawaii were still active. As beautiful as the stars were from the active volcano, Phillip was interested in a different set of mountains. Unfortunately, it soon became obvious that there wasn’t going to be a long-term relationship.

“Have you been to the islands?” the general was asking.

“Yes, a long time ago, when I was young. Did you learn English in Hawaii?” Phillip continued.

“Yes, my parents were in Hawaii when I was born, but we returned to China when I was ten years old. I used to travel to the islands a lot before my work with the Air Force made it impractical.”

The trio slowly drank their coffee. Captain Wu had never been outside of China. General Zhou passed Phillip a stuffed plain manila envelope saying, “I hope that this will cover your expenses. I’m especially interested in African coffee. You of course know that Starbuck’s has done very well in China, competing against a large Chinese chain of coffee shops?” asked Zhou.

Phillip replied, “China is more open to foreign ideas than North America and there are still a lot of Chinese that will become coffee drinkers. After all, the annual production of coffee in China is only about 15,000 tons.” Phillip spared the general the common Western wisdom that marketing with heavy references to the yin and yang could penetrate the Chinese market.

General Zhou took a technical specification out of his brief case. “If you visit your family and have the time to go to New England, I’m interested in this portable water hydrolysis unit that is manufactured in Maine. Are you familiar with Bar Harbor?”

Phillip answered that he was, but that his family preferred the sandy beaches of southwestern Maine [the Canadian French Riviera]. The general closed by saying that he didn’t need the ruggedized, harsh environment version. “Let me know what you need for expenses, both for the coffee and the machine.” No contract, just a handshake.

“Captain Wu can show you back to your hotel and will see that you get some good Chinese food.” Sex is like a bribe, thought General Zhou, it lubricates the machinery of industry and government.

Phillip thought that this affair might get a little sticky. I’ll have to cover my ass with this business deal. There were twenty fifty-dollar bills in the white envelope.

General Zhou cursed his superiors for their lack of funding. He needed the electrolysis machines and couldn’t afford to buy space-tested units from Boeing or Lockheed Martin. There was even the possibility that the Americans would classify their machines as critical technology, which couldn’t be exported. Ideally he would become a partner in the company in Maine or buy it outright, something that would be a simple task if he were an average Chinese businessman, given the present Chinese policy of the acquisition of American intellectual property. Telling the Americans that the six tons of hydrogen reactant was unnecessary would show his most important card – the presence of free water on Mars. One more successful spacecraft delivery for the Americans would improve his status with the Chinese leadership and give him more money that he would control. His engineers had destroyed one hydrolysis unit trying to reverse engineer its fabrication and had ruggedized the remaining unit enough to make it useful on Mars. Now it appeared that his fate was in Captain Wu’s hands.

Friendly Interrogation

Captain Wu Liang took Phillip to his hotel and dismissed her driver. Her assignment was simple enough – find out if the Frenchman was as stupid as he appeared to be and insure that he’d want a return bout, anytime he could get it. The room was large and had a balcony looking down on the Yangtze River. There was a large bottle of Pinot Noir in a silver ice bucket near the door to the bedroom. Phillip glanced into the bedroom, which was, pardon my French, wallpapered in whorehouse red. Liang leaned back against Phillip and he grabbed her around the waist. She turned her head and they kissed. Then she turned without breaking their lip lock as they continued to kiss. Liang moved away and pointed to a bench, which would have been a footrest in Europe. Phillip walked to the bench and sat down. He waited passively for Liang to serve him a glass of wine.

Liang served Phillip a glass of the wine turning so that he had an advantageous view of her receding buttocks. Liang got herself a glass of wine and sat down on the bench so that their thighs touched.

“Say, this wine is really good. Is it from China?” asked Phillip.

“Yes, it’s from Shandong,” answered Liang.

They sipped their wine with small intervening kisses. Liang sat on his lap and they continued their casual kissing, pillow talk and wine sipping. Liang ended up straddling his legs on her knees and he put down his glass to grab her buttocks with both hands. Then he removed her dress blouse and started to kiss her neck and breasts. Liang put down her glass and cupped his head in her hands. Phillip paused. “What’s that smell?” he asked.

His left hand dropped from her right buttock so that he could turn his head. “Why, it’s shell fish stew,” she answered.

“Bouillabaisse?” he wanted to know. By now Liang was half sitting on the bench.

“Why, yes,” she said.

Phillip got up as Liang fell back on the bench and followed his nose to the large silver pot on the table. A canned alcohol-fed wick heated the pot’s contents. Phillip lifted the lid and stared at the shellfish swimming in their own broth. “Bouillabaisse, bouillabaisse, oh bouillabaisse,” he sang.

Phillip grabbed a bowl and filled it to the brim. No chopsticks this time – he went with a large spoon. Boy, are you one smart girl, Liang thought to herself. Maybe now she’d never find out if the stories were true about Frenchmen.

The truth (serum) shall set you free

Liang decided to try some of the shellfish stew so that the evening wouldn’t be a complete loss. She found that the bouillabaisse was delicious and sipped some more wine after eating several oysters and mollusks. The center of her body warmed up and she noticed that Phillip had a similar reaction, even as he finished off a lobster tail. Make a note of this, she thought, for when you have to teach a seminar in enlightened interrogation. Now Phillip was ready for dessert. Phillip picked Liang up and walked to the canopied bed. They made love without even messing up the bedding.

Liang retrieved the wine, adding a little aphrodisiac truth serum to Phillip’s glass. Phillip had finally taken off his stockings before inserting himself between the sheets. Liang sat on Phillip’s stomach and started to talk to him about the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Phillip started to talk in a monotone and she felt him coming to life. She interrogated him as they made love. He wouldn’t remember the details tomorrow. Phillip was just what he appeared to be – a businessman, nothing more, nothing less. And he had long eyelashes and a firm moustache.

Beantown

Phillip flew into Logan International in Boston with anticipation. Boston was one of his favorite cities and he prided himself with his knowledge of the local hot spots. He took the local public transportation, the MBTA train, to get his sea legs back. He would have preferred to ride the discontinued water ferry so that he could see what changes had been made to the bay area where he had sailed as a boy. Logan had possessed the title of the airport with the highest control tower until the French had absconded with the title. The Americans shouldn’t try to sit on their laurels.

Phillip walked up Newbury Street but wasn’t ready to eat. Food tasted better when it was free, at a conference or art gallery reception. Maybe there’d be some free wine and cheese at the Boston Architectural Center. He caught a flash of red wine in a crystal wine glass approaching and touching the lips of a dark-haired beauty that he would later learn was from Rio. Mayan Weavers, whatever that was, was having an opening reception. Bueno. Phillip climbed the stairs to the elevated gallery.

The CTO and founder of Puffin Engineering, Jerry Littlefield, went to The City, Boston, at least twice a year. His last visit was for the Embedded Systems Conference at the Hynes Convention Center. Jerry needed the stimulation of the scientific community in the greater Boston area but hated the waves of humanity and the discourtesy of city people. His isolation in Maine had caused him to approach the design of his electrolytic cells in a way known to not work by his friends at Boston University, a fluke unlikely to be repeated. His friend, Alan Frichtmann, had published two papers on the subject, which he could easily refute if he had been willing to reveal his trade secrets. This week Jerry was attending the Material Research Society Conference, also at the Hynes, so Phillip got a reservation at the local Hilton, which was a short walk to the Hynes. Phillip would be attending the receptions and vendor hospitality suites at the conference and didn’t want to compete with the local drivers in Boston after drinking or run the gauntlet of policemen across the Charles River in Cambridge.

The speaker at the Plenary Session, Mildred Dresselhaus of MIT, presented a more optimistic view of the availability of oil than he had, a view closer to that of the Bush administration. Jerry felt that the down slope of the oil availability curve would result in periodic manipulated oil shortages, warfare and chokepoints vulnerable to sabotage or state and terrorist attacks. Jerry thought that there was a tipping point, the oil break point, on the downhill slope of the oil availability curve given the handful of significant oil suppliers. The tipping point for fish yields had been passed a generation ago. Mildred had been involved in three major studies of the coming oil crisis and the over-the-horizon hydrogen economy. Other sessions covered the evolution of the other major silver bullet for man’s survival – the short-wavelength (blue) light-emitting diodes. [Us tree huggers would say that conservation and just lighting up the areas we need to see and not the heavens would produce the same result.] None of the surface effects or catalyst papers presented seemed to touch on the trade secrets of Jerry’s electrolysis machines.

Phillip realized that this was not a casual assignment; General Zhou really needed the hydrolysis units. Zhou had purchased two units from Puffin Engineering four years ago and wanted several more units. Puffin’s patents were unrelated to the embedded digital signal processors in the active portion of the unit. Puffin’s production techniques allowed the construction of a unit with a surprisingly long life. The metallic catalyst could be poisoned so one had to be careful of impurities, but the effective film area was so large and the ablation so gradual that the inevitable contamination of the catalyst look a long time. The faceted shape of the catalyst’s nanoparticles slowed down the annealing of the particles and the resulting decrease in surface area. The most surprising thing was the placement on the expensive palladium catalyst, which had been only deposited on the permeable electrolytic membrane (PEM) where the reactions would actually take place. The technique of depositing the catalyst and nanoparticles of gold was very parsimonious in the use of the catalyst, an important raw material cost factor and secondarily kept the unit light and less dangerous to the environment when its usefulness was over. The Doppelganger of the device, a fuel cell, had proven to be an intractable problem for Jerry, his contract engineers and his production technician, Norm Garrett. Phillip wanted to get a feel for the device, but more important was the financial instability of Puffin Engineering. Puffin Engineering qualified as a NASA Research Partnership Center partner but Jerry felt that by the time he got approved for a NASA grant that he wouldn’t need it. Phillip noticed with approval the puffin in the company logo.

Jerry had lain off his engineers and technicians and was personally running his gas station full time as well as teaching pipefitting and electrician extension classes at the Central Maine Community College in Bangor part-time. Jerry considered his now unemployed production technician irreplaceable. Things just get done when Norm’s around.

Jerry liked hiking in the radio- (and cellular) quiet area around the Green Bank [Radio] Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia. Deimos, Mars’ highest moon, occluded the light from the star TYC 121-01027-lu on February 20, 2006 in a swath across the American Southwest. Jerry joined the rowdy Gerome bikers, Arizona State University’s Alpha Phi sorority and seven Arcosanti ceramicists dancing in the shadow of Deimos.

Communication satellites are the low-hanging fruits in the exploitation of space. Any country that wants to be a player in space has to develop the ability to launch communications and remote sensing satellites into low orbit; only the big boys graduate to the capability of producing heavy-lift launchers and ICBMs. Testacles float in a disconcerting fashion in micro g.

Chapter 20. Russian Cowboys

The two highly instrumented MiG-31s approached the Austrian border, accompanied by the electronic emissions-monitoring SU-17s. The exercise was simple – rush the border, activate the defensive radar systems across the border and see what radar signatures arose from the interceptors checkmating the Russians. Major Anatoly Malenko cruised [sauntered] along at a speed which would be considered dangerously slow in a combat situation but which conserved his fuel supply. Yuri Gorbunov, his weapons officer, had been with him in Chechnya and the pair trusted each other with their lives. Maybe this would be their final Kamikaze mission. The major and his wingman, Captain Sergei Markachev, separated from the monitoring SU-17 fighters and flew parallel to the border, slowly drifting towards Austria. Ivan Andreyev, the weapons officer in the second MiG monitored his data display and weapons stores. The data feeds to the threat display showed commercial activity but not the telltale high-speed formations of two or four fighter aircraft. The Italian Boeing KC-767 airborne refueler was beyond their radar and infrared sensors, about 320 miles away, working its way towards the Middle East. Airborne refuelers and transports were considered non-combatant and allowed to transit through Austrian airspace. This refueler aircraft was the type of target that the MiG-31 had been designed for - soft support targets deep behind the frontal danger zone. The ill-equipped Austrian Air Force tried to monitor the American flights over their territory, but was subjected to continuous violations enabled by the various blatant dodges used by the Americans.

Anatoly spoke on his intercom, “Yuri, do you see that Lufthansa 747 above us?”

Yuri answered, “So, it’s time to go?”

In answer Anatoly radioed his wingman, “Tiger 2, I’m having an electrical problem. Drop back to the other two fighters while I troubleshoot the system. Out.”

The response came back, “Negative, Tiger 1, I never leave a point man or a wing man alone. If you’re going on a fox hunt, I’ll cover your ass… Besides I wouldn’t want to miss this. Out.” Life had been boring lately.

Anatoly increased the thrust from the big engines and pointed the MiG almost vertical. He slowly rolled 360° scanning the horizon, dropping in behind the big Lufthansa B-747 airliner. Captain Markachev tucked in behind him. The commercial navigation database said that this airway would place them 110 kilometers behind the refueler, 1000 feet above the airway the refueler was assigned. Anatoly didn’t need to see any of the symbology on the navigation displays to know the combat situation – he had flown this mission dozens of times in his day and nocturnal dreams. Adrenalin cleared Anatoly’s vision and mind. The traffic was heavier in Austria and they couldn’t avoid being seen by civilian radar or visually by other pilots when they left the anonymity of being in the big Boeing 747’s wake.

Tally-ho

Anatoly started a descending turn, which would overshoot the intersecting airway a little resulting in a flight path parallel to the airway a kilometer away from the airway centerline. Anatoly feed his anticipated flight path into the flight director, but flew the fighter manually, without engaging the autopilot. The two fighters flew about 100 meters too high for the flight level. Pushing closer to the sound barrier than the jumbo jets could cruise, the fighters passed twelve airliners before seeing the American tanker. The Americans were up to their old tricks – the tanker was refueling two large aircraft at a lower level in the open space between the airways.

“Tiger 2, I hate to be a killjoy but maybe you can avoid some of the blame if I take all the shots. You look out for the Austrians.”

Anatoly switched his radar from passive to active and obtained a targeting lock-on to the last American aircraft. His weapons weren’t armed but the lock-on would raise hell with the American aircrafts’ electronic warfare sensors. A billion dollar bingo! The aircraft were Northrop B-2 stealth bombers. Unofficially named the Spirit, the Voron (Raven in Russian) had no official name. The second B-2 pilot pulled out of the formation and rolled to the right, diving for the deck. The first B-2 was still connected to the refueler taking a little drink of jet fuel. Anatoly locked onto the second B-2 with his gun cameras still rolling. The pilot of the remaining B-2 was oblivious to the MiGs as the pilot of the first B-2 came over the international emergency frequency in the clear, “Fox 1, bandits, decouple and break away.” By then Anatoly was alongside the second billion-dollar stealth bomber. When the B-2 First Officer looked sideward towards the MiG, Anatoly gave him a tip of the cap two-finger salute. The B-2 pilot had probably had his last coffee in Missouri and was functioning by chemical propulsion.

“Tiger 2, tuck in above me in a trailing, inverted position. I want the pictures to be good.”

And the photos were excellent. The boom operator or boomer in the tanker was snapping pictures as fast as she could, ignoring the fact that she should have decoupled the fuel probe. The Russian fighters flew ahead of the Americans, increasing their speed from the slow refueling speed of the Americans. Returning to a normal combat formation, the MiGs stepped up a few flight levels on the airways as the airwaves came alive with reports of UFOs and renegade American fighters. If the Russians broke for extreme altitude it would confirm that they were fighters. The Russians slowed down a little to let an Airbus A320 nearing the airway intersection pass in front of them; then they tucked in behind the airliner. The MiGs returned to polish airspace without further incident.

Anatoly adjusted the frequency on his transceiver and paged the Su-29s, “Dragon 1, this is Tiger 1. Where are you guys? Out.”

“Hello Tiger 1, Dragon 1 here,” was the response from the first SU-17.

The two MiGs popped up to 50,000 feet and headed towards the Su-29s. “Dragon 1, Tiger 1, nothing to report. Do you have any activity? Out.” They had been out of contact for an hour.

“Dragon 1, Italy beat Argentina in the soccer game this afternoon,” came back the sarcastic reply. “We’re breaking off to return to our base. See you in hell. Dragon 1, out,” was the final transmission.

As Anatoly walked into Operations to complete his paperwork the Officer of the Day told him that General Kravenko wanted to see him. He reported immediately to his old friend and boss. “Stand at ease, Anatoly. Can you explain to me what you’ve been up to?” asked the general.

Anatoly stated the obvious arguments that he was upset by the failure of the new fighter to be funded and that he wanted to dramatize the need for new Russian aircraft with the Duma. A large explosion shook the building. “What the hell was that?” asked Anatoly.

The general quietly said, “Your aircraft blowing up.”

Anatoly stood up. “You blew up my MiG?” he stammered.

“Oh sit down, my friend,” said the general, thinking about how much Russia would need Anatoly in a conflict with the West. “I blew up the pieces of Miki’s MiG that we trucked back from the Ukraine. But you’re still dead. You, my best pilot, had a mental breakdown caused by your combat experiences and the loss of your friends over the years. After your attempt to shoot down some American aircraft we had to shoot you down when you threatened to bomb the Kremlin. I’ll shoot you myself if the orders come down to execute you just to save you the humiliation of a firing squad. Off the record, I think the Americans and our politicians need a kick in the ass. For now, you’re confined to my apartment on the twelfth floor. Dismissed.”

Anatoly snapped to attention, saluted, performed an about face and left the room. Anatoly thought, I probably won’t get a reprimand for not completing the paperwork for my last mission.

The weeks went by without a summons to General Kravenko’s office. Finally, a sergeant from Space Command appeared with orders for a Captain Sevenkov to report to Kaikonur, Kazakhstan for duty as a Supply Officer. I’d have been better off facing a firing squad. Anatoly followed his orders to obtain new uniforms and boarded an Ilusyin-76 to fly into exile.

Anatoly threw himself into the task of being a supply officer at Russia’s launch site at the Kaikonur Cosmodrome. The trivia of the job was mind-bending – rifles, uniforms, helmets, food, fabrication fixtures and space gear. The occasional launch was the only break in routine. The Progress supply ships and Soyuz were the most interesting spacecrafts. As an insignificant officer, Anatoly quickly tapped into the rumor mill at the various drinking places.

The foreign passengers were a strange and diverse lot. Anatoly got to know most of the Russian cosmonauts and flight engineers personally. His old pilot friends weren’t the only people dreaming of the glory days of the Cold War – the Russian space program had seen better days.

Star City, Moscow 1996

Star City, Zvezdograd, is the village northwest of Moscow where the Russian cosmonauts live. Star City contains the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training center (GCTC), which employs about 10,000 people. The escort policeman from the political commissar’s office knocked on the door of General Kravenko’s office. Anatoly wondered how his old boss would receive him. The door swung open and the general jumped through it, smothering Anatoly with a (Russian) bear hug. “My dear friend, it’s so good to see you,” was his initial greeting.

The general turned and walked Anatoly back into his office, his arm around Anatoly’s shoulder. Secretary Vasily Litrokin of Military Security was standing at the general’s desk, a large drinking glass full of vodka buried in his enormous fist. Vasi seemed somewhat amused and wasn’t in character – security people never smiled outside of their own circle.

“Vasi, this is my friend Anatoly, whom I’ve told you about. Anatoly, Secretary Litrokin.” Vasi offered his hand and Anatoly accepted it.

“Pleased to meet you, General Secretary,” he replied, a little insecure with somebody of the secretary’s rank and from military security to boot.

“Please, call me Vasi. We’re all on the same side here,” said Litrokin.

Nikolai pulled a frosted water glass out of his miniature refrigerator and poured Anatoly a glass of vodka from his two-liter bottle. Nicolai raised his glass and toasted, “To the Americans.”

All three drank a deep draught and their eyes met again, now a little bit more glazed. Nikolai and Vasi were in good humor and had obviously started drinking without him.

Nicolai jumped right to the purpose of the meeting. “You’re still a non-person but I managed to promote you and restore your pay and privileges. How would you like to fly again for the glory of Russia?”

Anatoly looked at his old commander trying to see if this was a cruel joke. The general smiled even more at his friend’s discomfit. “I’ve seen the movie. Do I go to Dreamland or Mars to get this aircraft?”

Vasi gasped a laugh, which launched some of his unswallowed drink into the open air. Nicolai and Vasi were laughing so hard that they had to support each other. “Anatoly, my dear friend, I’m so glad I didn’t have to shoot you. Maybe someday I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren this story,” said the general as he sat down.

Vasi refilled his tumbler and sat down. Nicolai signaled Anatoly to join them, handing him a full tumbler of vodka. The men continued to make small talk. Vasi obviously wanted to know the details of the Austrian incursion, straight from the horse’s mouth. There were no further details on his tentative new assignment. Anatoly was told to quietly enjoy Moscow but not to return to his home or his old base and its watering holes. He would be flown to the Black Sea with his mother who would have to promise not to tell anybody that she had seen her son. He was to relax, exercise and report to work in two weeks. Vasi gave Anatoly a small paper bag that was folded shut. Anatoly could see that the bag was from the gift shop at the NASA museum in Houston. Vasi told Anatoly to open it when he had the time. Somehow Anatoly had passed Vasi’s evaluation.

Nikolai looked at the clock and chugged his drink. Putting the vodka bottle away in the refrigerator Nikolai said, “Drink up, gentlemen. Happy Hour.” He went to retrieve his dress military jacket as Vasi and Anatoly emptied their glasses. The party of three went to the elevator, which slowly filled up with secretaries, officers and politicians as it ascended to the heavens. The group emerged into a large well-lit room where everybody was drinking and laughing.

The bartender was beautiful and fit but as prim as a soldier preparing for a formal inspection. The three men ended up at a window after getting some vodka at the open bar. The tempo of the schmoozing increased. Newcomers were introduced to both Vasi and Anatoly. Vasi became the center of attraction because of his rank and Nicolai relished his role as Vasi’s host. Feeling left out, Anatoly drifted to a chair facing a window, which looked down on Moscow. He was only sitting for minutes when Vasi came over to him with his boss, Senator Sitrov. Anatoly jumped to his feet and almost threw up from the senator’s vodka breath. The polar bear-sized senator embraced Anatoly with a fatherly hug. Sitrov was squeezing Anatoly so hard that Anatoly couldn’t breathe. The senator stepped back looking like a father admiring his favorite son before his first day at school. He winked at Anatoly. “We’re depending on you. If you have any personal problems at all, call Vasi for help. You have the full support of my office so that you can concentrate on our little trip,” he said with a double wink.

Vasi was holding up his boss. The senator grabbed Anatoly’s hand and pumped it until Vasi tore him away from Anatoly. Vasi retreated to a private room with his boss. Still feeling out of his element, Anatoly sat down quietly in a chair as the street lights started to twinkle along the boulevards of Moscow. He opened up the paper bag that Vasi had given him. The bag contained three cheap windshield stickers, two of the American B-2s and one of an American KC-767 refueler. The young bartender from the bar walked up to him.

“Penny for your thoughts,” she said, as she poured some of the vodka from her full glass until both glasses were about two thirds full.

“Have a seat,” he said absent-mindedly.

“Are you a friend of the senator,” she asked.

“No, I work for him,” said Anatoly.

She smiled her approval, offering her hand. “Natoshi Menalov. I work in state security.”

Perfect, he thought with sarcasm, young, beautiful, intelligent and patriotic. With considerable effort, Anatoly shrugged off his weariness and turned on the smile he had almost forgotten that he had. Maybe I’ll get another decal for my MiG, he thought. A pessimist by nature, he dared to entertain the thought that things might be getting better.

Kaikonur, Kazakhstan 1999

Captain Sergei Markachev was waiting for him at the terminal in Kaikonur. “What the hell are you doing here?” was all Anatoly could come up with to greet his old pilot friend.

“I came here to see you, my dear friend,” replied Sergei.

 “Have you been exiled here, too?” Anatoly hugged Sergei. “I thought you’d be dead or in Siberia by now.”

“Why should I be?” asked Sergei. “I got a medal for shooting you down in Moscow.”

Catching the Americans red-handed had embarrassed the Austrians (as well as the Americans) and the whole affair had been swept under the diplomatic rug. The Americans, for their part, didn’t want to be distracted from their war on terrorism by the usual Russian shenanigans. Anatoly become a hero to the Russian (and American) fighter pilot underground. One version of the legend had the intercept occurring over Strasbourg, France, involving French Mirages.

“Okay, but what are you – what are we doing here?” asked Anatoly.

“We can’t talk here. I’m your backup for some space research project at Star City. Get your clothes. I have a jeep in the parking lot.” Sergei didn’t know much more about their assignment than Anatoly did.

“Will we be able to fly our MiGs?” asked Anatoly.

“No, I think we’ve seen our last MiG,” answered Sergei. This was disappointing news that tempered Anatoly’s euphoria in joining Sergei. “And our last vodka as well,” added Sergei.

Would sex be banned next?

Pravda

Sergei and Anatoly were isolated in a mobile command vehicle in a large equipment parking area. The interior had been outfitted with computers, communication equipment including amateur radio gear and life support equipment. The trailer could simulate isolation on a Mars-like environment and they trained alone, endlessly, on the equipment. Trainers came and went, as did the supply trucks. Food was plentiful but vodka was absent.

Hot food was brought to the trailer late in the afternoon. Sergei realized that it was Friday and they would be left alone again for the weekend. He finally managed to get the driver to sell them a few bottles of vodka. The two men ate the hot meal and drank the vodka in silence. Sergei got the chess board out. The parking lot was deserted with only a few security lights on. They could see a building with flashing lights less than a kilometer distant from the perimeter chain link fence. General Kravenko would expect his men to show some initiative.

Sergei and Anatoly put on their light summer jackets and boots, flimsy protection against the rapidly dropping outside temperature. Releasing the parking brake on the trailer, they pushed the trailer back against the chain link fence. Climbing the ladder on the side of the vehicle they quickly accessed the antenna-laden roof of the trailer. It was easy to see from the roof of the trailer that the distant building was a restaurant or bar. Time to attack. Sergei jumped first and sunk to his knees in the heavy snow. Anatoly made a bad landing after clearing the fence but scrambled quickly to his feet. The men started their tedious trip towards the lights, one step after another.

The flashing neon sign revealed that the restaurant was the Pravda, obviously an oasis for unsuccessfully desocialized communists. They cautiously entered the military bar and Anatoly’s former buddies in the supply corps yelled to him. Anatoly and Sergei were about two hours late for the party but they did their best to catch up. Anatoly’s former colleagues didn’t ask about his sudden departure – they felt they were good judges of character and Anatoly was a member of their group. Sergei was welcome as Anatoly’s friend.

Alley Oop

Sergei woke Anatoly up when the bar was closing. Anatoly had nodded off – obviously he was out of shape, as far as drinking vodka was concerned. The perimeter road came within 50 meters of the chain link fence surrounding the training compound. His comrades stopped their van and the group sludged their way through the snow to the fence, drinking vodka. They were about 500 meters from the command vehicle but most of the parking area inside the fence was plowed. The men grabbed Sergei and after a few swings to coordinate their cadence Sergei was launched over the fence to land in the snow pushed up against the far side of the fence. Sergei slid down the bank and one of the men threw two unopened bottles of vodka to him. Anatoly impacted the barbed wire along the top of the fence and thudded back to the ground on the near side of the fence. He had a cut on his forehead and one on his palm. The men grabbed him again and he cleared the fence by a full eighteen inches on the second attempt. Sergei grabbed Anatoly’s feet and pulled him down the snow bank. Anatoly slowly got to his feet and waved to his friends to show them that he was okay. Their friends started wading towards the road and their van as Anatoly and Sergei headed for the warmth of the trailer.

Chapter 21. Made in America

Zhou was impressed with the improvements to the new pressurized rover that would be included in the latest version of the ERV. He hoped the Americans hadn’t recorded the mileage on the odometer; he wanted to have his people get some experience with it, being careful not to break anything in the comparatively high gravity on the Earth’s surface. There were many improvements beyond those suggested by his engineers and the crewmembers on Mars. The terrain on Mars was rougher than had been hoped for and Mars was still largely unexplored. The large pressurized rover would allow longer overnight expeditions. The two electrolyzing units bought with Phillip’s help had been integrated with the ERV’s power systems and would allow replacing most of the six tons of reactant hydrogen with other equipment including biotechnical instrumentation and a large inflatable greenhouse. The Russians would have to be fooled into believing that they were helping the Chinese to top off six tons of liquid hydrogen. Technically he was complying with the requirement to provide six tons of hydrogen on Mars. The cages for the fish, mice, rabbits and chickens were heavy but necessary. Fresh food for everybody was a necessity for his flight crews.

Zhou wanted to include a young girl with the two older girls. The American astronauts would be ready for retirement after a few years on Mars. The longer his people stayed on Mars the better. And why waste over a year of weightlessness? He wanted the weightlessness and EVA training to be improved. Hibernation for six months both ways was unthinkable and wasteful. Near space and lunar exploration and exploitation was still the official Chinese position. More problematic was the sparse communication with his people on Mars. A larger antenna would increase the rate that the information being accumulated on Mars could be transferred to Shanghai. The data would be invaluable if it could be evaluated on Earth.

Now the Russians wanted to receive some training in the Grasshopper for two of their cosmonauts. He didn’t see where the additional Russian funding would be worth interrupting his own training. He considered four of the older girls and two of the younger girls as ready for space. The pressure suits for the younger girls were not as mature and reliable as he wanted. The suits could not be tailor-made since the girls were growing. The inflated suits were fatiguing to wear compared to the jointed adult solid-shell suits. Giving the extended workload he was scheduling for Mars and transit, he would have to provide an extra suit for the new crewmembers as well as Mong and Charon. There were inflatable suits for the women but they would only be used for backup. Weightlessness and EVAs would, as usual, have to be on-the-job training.

America’s Deep Space Network

America’s tracking and data relay system (TDRS) for worldwide communication with the space shuttles followed Arthur C. Clarke’s concept of geosynchronous satellites spaced roughly at 120˚. Problems at launch and technical difficulties delayed implementation of the constellation, which eventually were placed with two for each station for redundancy.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s control room runs America’s Deep Space Network (DSN). Three large radar dishes are located in Goldstone, California; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia. The Very Large Array (VLA) near Magdalena, New Mexico could double the data received from deep space probes. Data from the new dishes scattered around the United States and the world, could be added to the VLA data by supercomputers.

China had established a Telemetry, Tracking and Command (TT&C) network to support its near-Earth programs. Unfortunately for the Chinese flight crew on Mars, the emphasis had been on military capabilities and in revenue-producing commercial satellite ventures. Any upgrades to improve communications with his people on Mars would be years in coming. Zhou would be happy when China had its own independent constellation of navigation satellites – dependence on the American GPS and Russian GLONASS or even the partially launched European Galileo constellation would be unacceptable during hostilities.

Talk, Talk, Fight

General Zhou knew that the Russian demand to allow a Russian cosmonaut on the Blue Jay would have to be complied with or they would sabotage the Chinese arrangement with the Americans. It became a deal of negotiating with the Russians to get a technology transfer of some of the space technologies that the Chinese needed. The Chinese hadn’t been able to get American or Russian rocket engines because of their dual use in missiles. His people also needed access to Russian expertise and assets in space communications. The Soviets had abruptly terminated the thirty-year New Defense Technical Accord in August 1960 because of Mao’s saber rattling, ending the transfer of Russian rocket and nuclear technology. The arrogance of the Bush II administration eventually encouraged the Chinese and Russians to have joint military maneuvers. Zhou reflected that the present regime couldn’t control mentioning their Dongfeng ICBMs every time the Americans pressured them on human rights, floating their currency or Taiwan. Premier Hu Jintao shot down a dormant satellite for shits and giggles.

Zhou thought that he could expect to get some better rocket engines for his Grasshoppers, which would be considered to be trainers by the Americans, as well as access to superior Russian communications. Perhaps he could obtain a closed life support system or one of the turbine auxiliary power units. More problematic, the lack of communications with his people on Mars had diminished the usefulness of the data from Mars. He would have to share some of his information with the Russians. He did have some cards to play – as the Russians knew, his people had walked on Mars.

Gladiator Status

The American astronauts became celebrities and achieved the status of heroes as soon as they were selected; the Russian cosmonauts only became known to the public after they had been in space. Anatoly was allowed a week to visit his mother and his mentor, General Kravenko. Anatoly wondered if Natoshi would be upstairs at the bar. Of course, she was – thanks to General Kravenko.

Anatoly was ordered to spend 5 days relaxing with his mother at the Socha resort spa on the Black Sea.

Chapter 22. The Birds and the Bees

General Zhou called Captain Wu to discuss what to do about a man being on the Blue Jay. He wanted her to call a meeting of twenty of his top female officers to discuss the problem. The more people who knew about Mars the more the likelihood that the information would get out. Should the six-year old Qian still be included if the crew included a man who was a foreigner to boot? He would address the women, introduce the three women involved in the flight and then leave. Zhou demanded a written recommendation in three days. He also had to find out what Sharon and Vivian thought, but didn’t think they really had much to say in this decision, except to refuse to go. The way he had trained his people, it was his obligation to protect them – peer pressure and their intense motivation hardly gave them a choice. Now what was the name of the American commander who had turned down the Mars mission because of his children?

The meeting and discussions were loud and resulted in no consensus.

Dad meets Suitor

General Zhou took Anatoly to a spacious, non-descript office which had a large Martian globe prominently placed in its open area. Small desks, chairs and tables were scattered around the room, which boasted two picture windows. The room was Spartan and worn, reflecting a complete lack of vanity. There was one PC in the room on a corner desk. The PC had a 17-inch flat-panel monitor as well as a 46-inch high-definition monitor and high-fidelity speakers, a desktop laser printer and toy flight controls. The back wall consisted of built-in bookcases, completely filled with books. Anatoly noticed a small table just inside the door covered with about thirty technical books.

Zhou pulled two chairs in front of his desk and indicated to Anatoly that he sit on one. Then he walked over to a bookcase, retrieved another chair and placed it next to the empty chair. Zhou had spent hours with Anatoly’s papers – a MiG fighter jock, no interest in politics, unmarried with a widowed mother. What a cardboard figure! What had the Russian’s superiors seen that he couldn’t see? The Russians had accepted the condition that his women would have command authority. How well would this agreement hold up in deep space?

Reaching into his side drawer he pulled out a tumbler made of Mexican crystal for Anatoly and a large European lead crystal wine glass for himself. Then he opened the German mini-refrigerator by his desk and removed a liter bottle of vodka for Sergei and a liter bottle of white French wine for himself. Ah, thought Anatoly, the inscrutable general finds me inscrutable. The situation looked like the start of a lengthy interrogation to Anatoly. Anybody else would be a pussycat after General Kravensky. Zhou joked about misplacing his cork-remover. He found the cork-remover in his top drawer, opened the wine bottle and poured a full glass of wine. Only then did Anatoly open the bottle of vodka, smell its aroma and pour himself a full glass of vodka. When in Rome, thought Anatoly. The use of a glass just produced one more dirty glass. Glasses were for rich people who didn’t need to worry about running out of money or vodka. The two raised their glasses and Zhou toasted the Americans. Sergei wondered what the Americans could possibly be doing to deserve all the booze being consumed in their honor in Russia and China.

The general wanted to know about Anatoly’s father, who had been killed during a training flight when Anatoly was only fourteen. Then Zhou started discussing his conquests as a surfing instructor in Hawaii. In truth, Anatoly was his mother’s son, a prude – in spite of all the Russian women who threw themselves at any officer wearing a Russian military uniform. He felt uncomfortable with the conversation but tried to make light of the subject. Questions about working with women added to Anatoly’s unease. In fact, he had rarely had a female co-worker much less a female superior. When Anatoly had some difficulty expressing himself in English as the conversation continued, Zhou dropped the personal questions and retrieved a model of the Grasshopper from a glass cabinet.

Now this is a mistress that I’d be interested in, thought Anatoly, as he turned the model over, looking at the bottom of the vehicle and then at the aero brakes. Anatoly asked Zhou if Russian engineers had helped to design the Grasshopper, a compliment that General Zhou accepted graciously. Zhou was getting nowhere in his decision-making. He pushed one of the buttons on his desk as the men continued discussing the Grasshopper. Captain Wu entered the room without knocking about five minutes later. Zhou wondered if this character would require Captain Wu’s special skills. Captain Wu looked at her boss and thought that he looked tired.

Zhou pulled another crystal wine glass out of his desk and poured Captain Wu about a half of a glass of wine from the nearly empty wine bottle.

“Captain Wu Liang,” was Zhou’s introduction. “Major Anatoly Malenko.”

Anatoly examined the female officer with professional interest – she was a slightly older Chinese version of Natoshi. Women in uniforms really did turn him on. The alcohol started loosening up the men, as did the presence of Captain Wu. Anatoly stopped worrying about where this interrogation was going and relaxed. Captain Wu asked him about his mother, what he remembered about his father and even about his friend Sergei. Captain Wu looked into Anatoly’s eyes as she casually laid her hand on his leg and just as casually removed it. General Zhou decided that he would need Captain Wu’s evaluation. A general’s best units always took the highest casualties.

Decisions, Decisions

Captain Wu reported to General Zhou that Anatoly was a gentle lover and gave him her approval.

Zhou felt that he was losing his ability to command. The best-kept secret in the Chinese space program was that Zhou had never flown in a rocket, the Grasshopper or any of his other trainers. He would have taken a train to Hawaii if that had been possible. He knew how sausage was made and didn’t want to earn a position of honor among the photographs at Poncho’s bar in the Mojave Desert. [Poncho’s cantina, the Happy Bottom Riding Club, had been destroyed in a mysterious fire after its notoriety had embarrassed the fledgling United States Air Force at Edwards Air Force Base.]

“How do I get my picture on the wall?” the green test pilots would ask Pancho.

“You have to die,” she would answer.

Freudulent

General Zhou looked at the young psychiatrist sitting in front of him. Dr. “Richard” Chu Wen was handsome enough in a masculine sort of way, but lacked charisma and confidence. To Chu, an unexpected call to the general’s office could only be bad news, a reprimand or worst. The general was wearing a sidearm; the general was rarely in uniform and never wore a pistol.

“Good morning, Doctor,” greeted Zhou.

Chu returned the greeting. “Good morning, General.”

“Sorry that I’m late. How are you today?”

“Good, and you?” responded Chu.

“I’m fine.”

Zhou felt himself getting into a bad temper. I hate going through my annual weapon qualification test, thought Zhou. I hate things that make noise. Zhou liked Sargent Ang at the rifle range – his stated philosophy was that he didn’t care if they hit anything as long as they all returned home to their families intact.

“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked Chu.

“That would be nice,” Chu agreed and was about to ask for some coffee, when the general walked over to his sideboard and prepared some green tea. Chu took this as confirmation that bad news was coming.

The two drank the green tea in silence and Zhou felt himself mellowing. Banish the thought, he thought, that I, Apollo Coffee, should have to cut back on my caffeine.

“What do you think about the sexual naiveté of our pilots?” Zhou asked.

“It comes from their isolation and general lack of contact with outsiders, men in particular,” answered the psychiatrist. “They’re not being trained to be mothers, if they are fertile, or even members of society,” he continued. “What’s the basis of your present concern?”

“The oldest girls are eighteen years old, past adolescence. Did you have an interest in the opposite sex when you were eighteen?” asked the general.

“Well yes, but I was too busy trying to get into medical school to worry about it,” Chu said, flushing slightly.

Oh damn, thought Zhou. “How old were you when you got laid for the first time?” he asked.

Chu turned red. “You’ve never got laid?” demanded the general.

Chu shook his head. The general had an image of the psychiatrist and everybody involved with his hiring and training lined up before a firing squad. He straight-fingered the button on his desk so hard that the panel became disconnected and fell to the floor. The two sat in silence for about five minutes until Captain Wu entered the room without knocking. She felt the tension immediately and walked up to the desk, concentrating her attention on Zhou.

“I’ve been discussing sex and the human race with Dr. Chu, and I thought you might be able to contribute something to our philosophical conversation,” said Zhou. “Please sit down Captain; this is going to take some time.”

Zhou gazed into his tea for moments as the two PLAAF captains waited for the pent-up volcano to explode. Zhou chuckled to himself, remembering when he had bought a red-covered copy of the Kama Sutra from an amused old Japanese vendor on Hotel Street in downtown Honolulu when he was twelve. This treasure chest was locked in his secure wall safe as a souvenir. Zhou looked at the large grandfather clock near his desk. It was only two in the afternoon. “Feierabend,” he said, as if to an empty room.

Zhou returned from his wall refrigerator with three one-liter, frosted German beer mugs. He retrieved a huge aluminum keg with a spigot on a second trip. Distributing the mugs on the desk, he pushed the Hofbrau Haus keg near the edge of the desk so that the spigot extended beyond its edge. The Bavarian Biermeister, Oberst Dieter Machachek, who had taught him German drinking songs, had said that different beers required different spigots. He poured a mug slowly keeping the head small. He gave the first mug to Captain Wu. Captain Chu looked at Captain Wu who didn’t return his gaze. Zhou poured another mug and gave it to Dr. Chu. After the slow procedure of pouring the third mug, he passed the mug under his nose and inspected its color. The two officers held their mugs at present arms while the general touched his mug to each of theirs in turn. “Prost,” he said.

“Cheers,” said Chu and Captain Wu added, “Long life.”

Zhou took a deep drink of the helles Bier and he seemed to be on a distant continent, long, long ago. The three drank their beer in silence. Zhou finished his beer and stood up, facing Wu. “Captain Wu, I want you to assist Captain Chu with his preparations for the Blue Jay flight crew and the backup pilots. Captain Wu will have command authority. This assignment is of the utmost importance for a successful mission. Thank you both.”

General Zhou turned and retreated into his private restroom, leaving the two officers to finish the keg.

Venus meets the Kama Sutra

George Yu looked at the purchase order from a Dr. Wu at Beijing Medical School for 50 copies of the English version of the Kama Sutra. 50 legal copies of the Kama Sutra in China! He would have to order the books from England, since the book was now blacklisted in Hong Kong. Several dozen English medical books were also included in the order; the old science tutorials written by Isaac Asimov were out of print and would probably not be available.

Zhou wanted a progress report on Dr. Chu. Chu refused to subject himself to training by prostitutes, so Captain Wu was forced to seduce him. Chu defended his virtue to the end.

The new sex and reproduction classes for the flight crews and an introductory class for the younger girls stroked the rumor mill. Some of Zhou’s non-flight crew officers feared that Zhou might be entertaining the thought of bringing in some revenue by prostituting his women. Captain Wu tried to assuage these fears without addressing the questions directly, questions which nobody dared to ask in public. Courses in embryology and microbiology were added to the already busy schedule of his pilots.

Captain Wu and Dr. Chu walked into the recreation room where a dozen of the women were watching a large screen TV. Vivian was curled up on the floor in a ball with her arms and legs intertwined. The other women were giggling/laughing.

“Vivian, what are you doing?” Captain Wu asked.

“Practicing my acrobatics,” was her reply to an uproar of laughter from the other women.

Dr. Chu blushed, recognizing the phrase from the Kama Sutra – but this is approaching the acrobatic and only learned through practice.

“I think I’m running out of arms and legs for this exercise,” Vivian added, with strain in her voice. The little red book dropped from her hand to the floor, eliciting another wave of laughter.

Captain Wu displayed a rare grin of glee. When did I loose my joy of innocence? Wu wondered.

The effect of the training on the girls was difficult to evaluate. The good psychiatrist, Dr. Chu, seemed to be the chief beneficiary, his confidence and demeanor improving, with an increased commitment to the flight and psychological aspects of the training. Chu requested and received two orientation flights in the Grasshopper with the backup flight crew, Janice Chan Jiang Li and Jane Chen Shu Teng. Venus transited the sun June 8, 2004, unobserved by the hikers on foggy Mount Desert Island.

Sanity Check

General Zhou watched Captain Wu as she bent over and gently held the plastic tube on the cream dispenser with her slender index finger, keeping the tube out of her coffee as the tube squirted an allotment of cream. Zhou dismissed his staff and asked Captain Wu to remain behind. “Could I talk to you after the meeting,” he asked. Captain Wu understood that this wasn’t a simple conference.  The air around the girls had been saturated with pheromones for days.

“Certainly, if you promise to give me a challenge,” she answered as she modestly averted Zhou’s eyes by looking down.

Zhou thought back to Honolulu and his student days at the University of Hawaii. The recently-divorced women that he taught surfing to were busy spending their divorce settlement and burying their old life style. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll try,” was his answer.

The General Returns

General Zhou woke up with the hot China sun on his face, anticipating an interruption by the surfing companions of his youth. He quickly sketched out a list representing the best-case solution to how he would proceed. There was no optimum path, only a set of least-risk choices. Given the short period involved he would have to make quick decisions and see what options fell out of the mix.

The launch preparations for the Americans had brought in a little hard cash and allowed the manufacture of many spacecraft components for small incremental cost. Zhou used computerized production equipment to manufacture prototype ERV components using the methods of the American aviation pioneer Bill Lear. This allowed the Chinese to manufacture more ERV components for a small incremental production cost. Zhou also believed in the Glenn Curtis technique of making an extra copy of every deliverable. The gamble was, would the excess components (besides those committed to the Americans) be used before they were obsolete or corroded? The loose money had been spent and the sickly world economy seemed to guarantee that the prophets of no colonies on Mars and no fully functional low-earth orbit International Space Station becoming practical during the next generation would be self-fulfilling. The common wisdom was that the technology just wasn’t there yet; it would be the next generation of humanity that would go to Mars.

Chapter 23. Boy meets Girls

Zhou pushed another button on his desk as Captain Wu walked over and got another chair, placing it alongside Zhou’s desk facing Anatoly. They continued talking and Anatoly heard the door behind him open. Turning his head he saw that it was two of the Chinese female cosmonauts. They entered the room and quietly sat in the two chairs to the right of Anatoly. General Zhou stood up and walked behind the two women.

“I know you have your duties and responsibilities, Major Malenko,” said the general, “but I have to ask you not to talk about this meeting beyond those obligations. Can you agree to these conditions?”

Anatoly thought for a few minutes and said, “Da, sure I can.”

“Sharon, could you take off your gloves and hood?” instructed Captain Wu. Sharon took off her gloves, goggles and hood, revealing her golden complexion and reptilian eyes. Anatoly just stared into the eyes of the beautiful girl standing in front of him. He had never seen such a beautiful, exotic creature. Anatoly resisted an impulse to touch her golden hair to see if she was real.

Sharon approached Anatoly, offering her hand, and introduced herself, “Lieutenant ‘Sharon’ Sun Mei of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.”

Her handshake was warm and firm. Sharon sat back in her chair. General Zhou had walked back behind his desk.

“Vivian, could you remove your gloves and hood?” instructed Captain Wu.

Vivian removed her gloves and hood and placed them on her chair. She turned to look directly into Anatoly’s eyes. “Lieutenant ‘Vivian’ Wang Li No of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force,” replied the second golden woman.

She offered Anatoly her hand, giving him a firm squeeze that he instinctively responded to, before she released her grip. Vivian smiled and sat down.

General Zhou almost saw sparks flying between Vivian and Anatoly. He wisecracked, “Vivian, could you refrain from damaging our Russian friend until our flight is over?”

Vivian and Sharon smiled at each other. Would this be a viable flight crew? There must be some other compatibility rule that we could break, General Zhou thought to himself.

“You three are the primary team for the Mars mission,” announced the general.

Anatoly had never been so confused in his life. “These are just girls,” he said.

“Glad you noticed,” said the general as the girls giggled.

General Zhou reached into his bottomless side drawer and pulled out two normal-sized wine glasses. He poured about an ounce into each glass and handed the glasses to the young women. “To Mong and Charon on Mars,” toasted the general as he and Anatoly emptied their glasses.

The girls looked at Captain Wu who slowly sipped some of her wine. The girls followed her example, drinking their first wine. Formalities aside, everybody sat down.

Vivian wanted to get the program going, “Well, Major, what do you think about the Grasshopper?”

Anatoly had to smile. “I’m used to jets and wings,” was his lame reply.

Baby Sister

Anatoly sat behind Vivian and Sharon in the third or commander’s seat of the Grasshopper. A small girl was sitting at the Flight Engineer’s console.

“And who’s the kid?” he asked.

“She’s the commander,” said Vivian.

“Yah, I’m the boss,” said the girl called Qian.

“I suppose you’re the comic relief around here,” remarked Anatoly.

“Hay,” was Qian’s retort. “This ain’t rocket science.”

It would have been difficult for the Russian psychiatrist Valery Bogevsky not to notice Anatoly’s attachment to his mother. In a strange way Qian reminded Anatoly of his mother. Dr. Bogevsky recommended an additional young girl for the mission, Captain Wu agreed, and Zhou added Qian’s teammate, Mi, to the flight roster.

Read the Reference Material

Lieutenant Tang Peilin had completed a postdoc at Stanford six months earlier and needed a textbook on partial differential equations. His friends told him to ask Captain Wu at General Zhou’s library if he could borrow one. The door to Captain Wu’s office was open and the room was empty. The signs on the bookshelves made it obvious that the stacked books were medical and biotechnical texts. The lieutenant peered through the open door of the adjacent room and could see that its only occupant was an old man wearing a Hawaiian shirt. General Zhou was examining a copy of the [highly-illustrated] red-covered Cosmo Kama Sutra that somebody had left on his favorite table. He looked around for the potential prankster but he was alone.

Tang cautiously stepped into the room and could see that the shelved books covered engineering subjects. The old man looked up quizzically as the young lieutenant approached his table.

“My name’s Peilin,” he explained.

The old man rose to his feet. “Just call me Ken. Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for a text on partial differential equations for engineers.”

Zhou walked over to the math section of his library and pulled out the old textbook he had used as an undergraduate. “This book is especially good if you’re tutoring yourself.”

Tang accepted the book and looked inside the cover. “Wow. This is awesome. Zhou’s name is inside the cover.” He fanned the well-used book. “I can’t wait until I show the other guys this book.” Then he asked Zhou, “Have you been around here for a while?”

“Yes, for a few years. Why do you ask?”

“Why does General Zhou have to use a library for an office?” Tang asked.

Zhou answered, “This is General Zhou’s private library. His adjutant loans out his books without his knowledge. The general’s office is through that door.”

“I have to check this book out with Captain Wu?” asked Tang.

“She’s out of the office. I can check it out for you. Just return it to the table in Captain Wu’s library when you’re through with it.”

They walked out to the public part of Wu’s office and Zhou picked up the laboratory notebook on the table, entering the book’s title and the date on the first empty line. “Could you put your name and cellular phone number in the book so that Captain Wu can get the book back if the general needs it?” asked the general.

“Sure, thanks a lot Ken,” he replied as he filled out the entries. General Zhou smiled and walked back into the library. Tang speculated that Ken wouldn’t survive the next Cultural Revolution if he persisted in wearing Hawaiian shirts.

Launch of the Blue Jay, 2010

Major Chico Thiessen, Major Mike Jervis and Major Tim Perry sat with the Russian cosmonauts, Major Ivan Bolkov and Captain Mikail Sorenev. The Americans wondered if the next time that they’d be seeing the vehicle would be when it was on Mars. Sergei stood by a chain link fence, wishing his friend a safe voyage.

The Blue Jay rose with a roar into the twilight of the setting sun. The darkening clouds produced a somber mood. The Blue Jay punched a hole in the clouds leaving only a diminishing afterglow.

Marooned

The surface of Mars was buried in a seasonal dust storm. The five astronauts waited out the weather, with the women on the radio every daytime comm pass over Plymouth, Mars Site 1. Anatoly finally had his boyhood dream fulfilled – he was the only man on the planet. Curse or not, his adolescent wish had been fulfilled.

Blue Jay

The Blue Jay landed on the rock-covered channel near the Yellowstone riverbed.

Yellowstone Caverns

Mong started calling the caves and their surroundings Yellowstone Caverns, expanding the unofficial American name. The name stuck. The caverns were dead; they had been alive for millions of years but no new carbonates had precipitated for eons. Yellowstone didn’t have any geysers or hot pools.

Peacock

The Peacock habitat launched by the Americans landed near the point where Mong had placed the landing beacon, about 500 meters from the point surveyed (and selected remotely with the help of the miniature rover). The MAV surveillance cameras had been disabled to the extent that the cameras only panned the area of the landing site, reducing the problems Mong and Charon had with remaining unobserved by Mission Control in Houston. Mission Control in Houston couldn’t observe the relocated and partially buried MAV and the greenhouse. The surveillance cameras of the Peacock would fail in the near future so that the habitat could be integrated with the MAV.

Caveman

Vivian and Sharon worried about Anatoly’s obsession with the cave. He had graded a ramp to the entrance so that he could bring the tractor into the cave. The volume of oxygen that would be required to fill the cave to a breathable pressure would take decades of solar power. There would be carbon dioxide out-gassing from the cave walls; the cave door would have to be massive enough to withstand the high differential pressure. Hopefully Anatoly would return to normal when his friend Sergei arrived. In hindsight, Anatoly was the first of the Martian tribe called the Cave Dwellers, the people who forsake the surface and called the caverns and grottos their home. A few individuals chose to remain on the surface in spite of the dangers of radiation.

Mustang Sally

Charon loved the power of the new rover. At speed, she could make the rover jump for long distances, getting air before the rover finally thudded onto Mars. Mong had to limit Charon’s maneuvers in the new rover, restricting her to hot rodding the small, unpressurized all-terrain vehicle. They could survive the loss of the ATV but not the loss of one of the rovers.

Water Witch

Charon and Mong had detected liquid water less than seven meters from the icefalls that they had blown up. Anatoly had three lengths of 10-meter long aluminum pipes that he could connect together, all with heating elements. These pipes had been fabricated in Star City for this specific task. The inside diameter of the pipes was only 12 centimeters, barely enough to push his video camera through. The small tractor wouldn’t amount to much with a lot of force, but a lot of pressure should be manageable with this test probe. Anatoly and three of the four Chinese women watched the slow progress of the aluminum pipes melting their way into the wall of ice. Mong was alone in the rover, monitoring the engine and generator. The near end of the pipe had a large mechanical valve and a large 50-liter receptacle to receive the water. It would be problematic if the force from the reservoir were greater than the weight of the tractor loaded with large stones. The pipe broke out of the ice at 12 meters. The valve on the close end was closed and Anatoly looked at Vivian and Sharon with a smile.

Peep Show

Anatoly pushed the video camera up against the remote value of the pipe and then backed it off so that the valve could be opened. Sharon was monitoring the image in the rover and she could see the axle of the valve. The remote value was slowly opened and the sound of inflowing water could be heard. The water was murky and only shadows could be seen through the video. Vivian shut off the light and shadows could be seen through the background glow emanating from inside the reservoir.  The water pressure was three atmospheres with a water temperature of 20 degrees Celsius. Any member of the polar bears (winter swimmers) in Moscow could handle this temperature easily. Installing large pipes would be a major undertaking. The sound of inflowing water stopped. All the connections to the receptacle were checked and Vivian slowly turned the large valve near the tank. Liquid could be heard entering the large receptacle. Vivian shut the valve to the receptacle and pushed the tank’s bleed valve. The pressurized gas whistled as it escaped. The receptacle was filled until its internal gauge showed that it was three fourths full. The remote valve was closed and some of the water in the pipe was allowed to top off the tank. Vivian closed the value on the water receptacle as Anatoly closed the value on the pipe. Freezing of the pipe and its valve would be a continuous problem that would need to be worked out to make.

Anatoly and Vivian loaded the heavy water tank on the tractor and Vivian jumped into the driver’s seat. The intensity of the light from the spotlight and headlights on the tractor diminished as Vivian maneuvered the vehicle towards the daylight. Anatoly’s mind was racing forward into the future. He would make Mars livable for his family.

The water from the underground lake often contained strange eyeless fish, which looked like large zebra fish with a pair of dark-colored sensors, definitely not light receptors. The sensor seemed to be an auditory and olfactory combination. Anatoly kept the fish in a tank and feed them peas. There were two other spined species, which disappeared shortly after the zebra fish was put into the tank. The zebra fish must be eating them as well.

Yuma Crossing

The nearby Yuma Crater contained a flat area surrounded by the corona of the crater. The outflow created by the ancient lake responsible for the flatness of the crater’s center had carved an opening about 500 meters wide. At one point near the western end an arch or what had probably been a bridge had formed. Anatoly wanted to survey the crater since it was an obviously ideal landing place, easy to spot from the sky. Mong was driving the pressurized rover, with Charon sitting in her usual position in the external bumper seat on the front of the rover. Mong dodged the larger rocks in the arroyo with minor directions from Charon. The entrance to the crater had a funny berm across the breadth of the entrance, like a speed bump that extended to the arch. The spectrometer on the remote arm sent back readings of various metals, mostly aluminum. Mong put on her gloves and helmet and depressurized the rover.

Anatoly and Sharon pulled up behind them and followed them to the curved surface. Anatoly kicked the non-existent dirt – the berm was solid. Anatoly retrieved a rock hammer from the exterior tool chest and stuck the surface. The glare of metal shined in the gouge. Pure metal. Anatoly’s initial evaluation was that the soft metal was aluminum. Later analysis confirmed that the metal was aluminum with smaller percentages of copper, lead, silver, iron, nickel, gold, calcium and sodium. The ring of metal continued across the entrance laterally to both sides of the pass. Sharon guessed that the metal ring had formed when a meteor created the crater and that the ring followed the crater wall around the impact area. Let the astrophysicists in Beijing and Moscow figure out the mechanism of the ring’s formation. Anatoly dug out a long curling of metal but they would need better tools to get larger samples. Anatoly hoped that the metal would solve his need for something to build doors and structural supports for his cave. Anatoly and Mei returned the next week to grade the rise to the berm to conceal the metal with a layer of concrete.

Citadel

Sergei surveyed the site. A series of switchbacks would have to be plowed at the lower levels; the large flat sandy area between the peaks would make construction of buildings and green houses comparably easy.

Olympus Mons

Sergei wanted to see if they could at least attempt a long-distance probe towards Olympus Mons, everyone included, using both rovers. First they’d effect an expedition towards the base of Pavonis Mons, blazing a trail and exploring at least that far. Anatoly wanted to visit the property that he had brought on the slopes of Pavonis Mons five years ago from the Ukrainian Galactic Embassy. It would be a perfect place for a space elevator if a non-intervention treaty could be penned with Deimos.


Part 4. The Sparrow

We’ll only fly when we’re ready. – Bob Gilruth, NASA Manned Spacecraft Center6

Chapter 24. Family ERV

Zhou considered the crew of the second ERV – Commander “Janice” Chan Jiang Li, Pilot “Jane” Chen Shu Teng, “Grace” Xiao Hong, “Jodie” Chang Kuen and Major Sergei Markachev. The Americans were all tied up with the preparations for their Road Runner habitat launch. Captain Wu was also very busy, entertaining the five American astronauts who would go to Mars in 2014. The Americans finally agreed with Zhou’s proposal to train the next generation of American astronauts going to Mars extensively with the Grasshoppers and an unequipped (stripped) ERV in China.

Zhou’s superiors were starting to demand that he bring some rocks, biological samples and data/videodisks home. The Blue Jay/ERV was sitting on Mars, refueled and ready to return to Earth and the Robin ascent vehicle was capable of rendezvousing in orbit with the next-generation Einstein nuclear tug; the return of an ERV would cause a serious reduction in working and living space for those remaining on Mars. Zhou knew that there was a limit to how long the Chinese astronauts could be expected to rough it and everyone wanted to keep the astronauts on Mars as long as possible. How the Americans would react to all the people on Mars was an open question. Zhou planned to only reveal the presence of Mong and Charon at Mars Site 1; the preparation and development of Mars Site I by Mong and Charon would be impossible to hide anyway.

Major Markachev had gone back to flying MiGs after the 2010 launch of the first ERV. Good luck to Anatoly and the Chinese girls but that was the end of that. Now it was his turn to go and he was playing catch up with space flight. Sergei only had four months to bond with the Chinese flight crew. Only Anatoly’s perceived performance on Mars and the need for secrecy (and military control) kept a real cosmonaut from replacing him. A military cosmonaut might be more acceptable to the Americans since the souring of their relationship with RSC-Energia. There was always the first time but Anatoly had always been Sergei’s lucky teddy bear. It was doubtful that the Chinese would go along with a 600-day vodka ration for an average Russian MiG pilot. Sergei didn’t have to wonder what the last minute meeting with General Zhou and Captain Wu was all about. Anatoly had clued him in to what he could expect from his Chinese hosts as launch time approached. Nobody flew with Zhou’s women without Captain Wu’s approval. Anatoly had probably ruined the surprise but he theorized that Sergei wouldn’t give up his womanizing for a years-long exile to a desert planet – desert meaning lack of women not water. There was no backup for Sergei.

Astro-Politics

The term astro-politics was coined to describe the self-promotion and backstabbing [also termed maneuvering] among the original seven American astronauts exemplified by astronauts Al Shepard and John Glenn. The meaning has been extended to include all the participants in the astronaut selection process, implying perceived inequities in the process. Secretary Lee Hong informed Zhou that pressure was being exerted on him to supplement Zhou’s people with a taikonaut and a young medical doctor. Ho would send the two candidates over for Zhou to interview. There seemed to be no command directive in what he was to do, but he rejected the idea on the spot. Zhou wanted to send two women and two children, a crowd by any standard with the compulsory Russian. At least the taikonauts had finally got one of their people into orbit and brought him back to Earth in one piece. China had its own space hero after Lang Liwei’s twenty-one hours in orbit. The success of the taikonaut added weight to the demands on Zhou but failure would have had more dire consequences for him and his spacecraft. Captain Wu coordinated the interview of the new candidates.

Captain Wu walked the taikonaut, Captain Yao and Dr. Heng into the room and sat them at a desk with a model of a Grasshopper on its center. Captain Yao, having been briefed and prepped for the interview responded to Captain Wu’s offer of drinks with a request for coffee, easy on the cream; Dr. Heng chose green tea. As Captain Wu got the drinks, General Zhou came into the room. The two interviewees rose smartly to their feet. Zhou introduced himself and reintroduced Captain Wu. Captain Yao looked at Dr. Heng and she introduced herself, “Dr. Heng Fen, from the Beijing Ching Wai Medical School.”

The general returned her bow and turned his gaze to the taikonaut. Captain Yao stood at attention and reported, “Captain Ben Yao Peng, People’s Liberation Army Air Force.” General Zhou offered his hand and the men shook hands.

“Please sit down,” said Zhou as he sat down.

“Is this a Grasshopper?” asked Captain Yao, knowing full well the answer.

“Yes, it is,” replied Zhou. “It’s my basic training vehicle. All my pilots become proficient in it.”

Your only vehicle, thought the taikonaut. Zhou saw the fight for the mind and soul of this young taikonaut would be all uphill.

“What do you think you can do on Mars?” he asked Dr. Heng.

“I believe that there is potential intellectual property in the life on Mars. The more patents China can tie up and the more pertinent papers that we can publish, the better China can defend its intellectual property in the war for the world’s pharmaceutical market. I could also function as a medical doctor for the crew.” So the secret of life on Mars was oozing up through the Chinese bureaucracy.

“The Americans will be putting two medical doctors on Mars,” added Dr. Heng.

“Would you be able to do this work on Mars by yourself?” Zhou asked.

“With the proper communications I could get all the support I need from my medical school. Your women could help me with sample preparation and documentation.”

Dr. Heng would use my women as research assistants. Zhou nodded and turned to Captain Yao.

“What do you see as your role on the mission?” he asked the confident captain.

“Our people on Mars need a leader. Your pilots have done a commendable job, but it’s time for the mission to get organized and more productive,” answered Yao. So Captain Yao saw himself as the commander of the habitat and his people on Mars. He would have little command presence around Anatoly and Sergei. 

Women had always done the greater part of the menial work that keeps society going – child rearing, procuring water, food preparation, cleaning and raising crops. There would be plenty of that on Mars but his people would be doing the chores for themselves, not as serfs. “I’ve made arrangements for both of you to have a flight in the Grasshopper before lunch,” said Zhou. “Captain Wu will be your point of contact with me. Thank you both for your time and welcome aboard.” Zhou excused himself and left.

Captain Wu directed Dr. Heng to review the medical and biological data from Mars and develop a plan for Martian life science research. Zhou had Yao and Heng train with the backup crew on the medical habitat.

Chapter 25. Tourist Class

One of the uncompleted ERVs was modified to convert the garage into a medical laboratory and the shell was put through the basic flight profiles before the extra weight of the mission equipment made flying on Earth too dangerous. The rover was removed, as was everything that was only required for the return trip such as the large fuel tanks. A bathtub and an improved toilet were installed. Zhou considered naming the spacecraft the United Nations because of its diversity (why not Babylon?), but settled for the name of Penguin. Decals for Red Flag Linux quickly appeared in several prominent locations in the spacecraft. Zhou made a mental note to put extra toilettes in the community center that he had planned for Mars – a privy and bath might be in greater demand than Apollo coffee.

The Chinese government started serious negotiations with the Russians for launching the second laboratory/habitat, with a Chinese/Russian crew. If the immediate return of the flight crew and ERV weren’t required, a lot more room would be available for living and working space. The new configuration for the habitat with a medical research facility would be better for exobiological research. Zhou knew that he couldn’t buck his superiors by refusing to fly with Captain Yao and Dr. Heng.

Early Launch

General Zhou ordered Sergei and his flight crew to Kazakhstan, where the Sparrow was being mated to the Energia launch vehicle. The second young girl, Grace’s teammate, Jodie had only been on the team for six weeks. A second Energia was being prepared for launching the Penguin laboratory/habitat during the current launch window. If the frequency of Energia flights could be increased, the per flight costs would begin to be comparable with the old Proton launch vehicles.

Launch of the Sparrow

Zhou told Sergei to launch at the earliest possible opportunity in the present launch window. The Energia was ready and the crew was ready, so the Americans were informed of the need for an early launch. America’s attention was entirely on the Road Runner, but with Zhou’s insistence, the entire American backup crew for the next habitat launch attended the launch. Senator Ken Hing Ching of Hawaii was prominent among the five American senators and some European dignitaries. Every cosmonaut that could get to the launch was in attendance, reflecting the new Russian interest in space exploration.

Tranquilizers

With the two kids constantly playing and flying around the Sparrow, it took the combined efforts of Janice and Jane to keep Sergei mellowed out. Maybe they could send the kids outside to play when they got to Mars.

>Chapter 26. Mars Race

The Americans received information that a habitat was being prepared for a launch to Mars in Kazakhstan and most likely would be manned. The information was met by skepticism by the rank-and-file workers at NASA, but not by the Road Runner astronauts. The Chinese had the ERV design and had come a long way in the last few years.

The busy launch schedule was improving Energia’s heavy-launch capabilities steadily, morale increasing steadily with the improvement of living conditions in Kazakhstan for the new launch technicians. Kazakhstan, along with the rest of the Caspian area was acquiring a boomtown mentality with the free world’s aggressive land grab of the undeveloped petroleum and natural gas reserves in the area. The China National Petroleum Corporation scooped the gringos and India with their $4.18 billion dollar bid for PetroKazakhstan.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Dr. Heng and Captain Wu had organized the biological data from Mars and developed an itemized plan for pursuing the research on Mars when the Penguin got there. Dr. Heng surprised Captain Wu by asking if she could work with her at the volunteer clinic. She confessed that she had worked as a prostitute in her village before being accepted into medical school. Dr. Heng was oblivious to the fact that the shape of her hips was what is called voluptuous in the western world and would turn any male’s head when she entered the room. Compounding the problem, Dr. Heng’s body exuded an aroma that the male subconscious senses as that of a female ready for impregnation. Captain Wu considered Heng’s request for several weeks before consulting with General Zhou. Zhou thought that Captain Wu needed an assistant and that she should consider using Dr. Heng, if she wanted to. Zhou had overlooked the fact that he didn’t have a replacement for Captain Wu. The rest of his organization was a defense in depth, with everybody training his or her replacement. Zhou considered Wu irreplaceable. Wu wondered, what had Dr. Heng heard about her in the rumor mill or from her superiors?

Delays, Holds

General Zhou woke up in a cold sweat; he was starting to get a bad feeling about the Penguin. Not only were there too many cooks in the kitchen, there were too many chefs. The integration of the Penguin hadn’t been completed and checked out in China and the Russians seemed to be rushing the testing of the Energia.

Sergei had been the first to see that the Russians would only concentrate on preparing the Penguin launch vehicle after the Blue Jay had been launched. His intelligence-gathering visit to the Pravda, the bar frequented by Anatoly’s old launch crew, highlighted the problems. Alex, a cryogenic fuels transfer specialist, said with a wink that he knew where Anatoly was and where Sergei was going. Alex promised that they would check out his bird personally but implied that a successful launch of the Penguin vehicle, the dodo, was another story. Sergei passed this information along to General Kravensky, who received the intelligence without comment. Zhou and Captain Wu stayed in Kazahkstan after the Sparrow launch to coordinate the launch preparation for the Penguin with the Russians.

The life support system in the Penguin needed to be replaced since the system had been a training unit and was showing wear and tear. The Russians revealed that the escape rocket was a refurbished unit that had been test-fired thirty times. Launchitis prevailed. Zhou communicated his concerns with Anatoly on Mars and Sergei in transit to Mars.

Zhou decided to postpone the Penguin launch until 2014, personally assuming the responsibility for the delay. His superiors in Beijing found the two-year delay and the unrecoverable deposit penalty unacceptable. Their solution was to put more people to work on preparing the Penguin and approving supplemental funding to the Russians to allow for overtime work. Zhou tried to have his crew replaced with taikonauts, but even the taikonaut leadership admitted that they weren’t ready to fly the Penguin with any degree of confidence.

Intervention from above

Anatoly immediately confirmed to General Kravenko that Zhou wasn’t a person to lose his nerve; if Zhou said NOGO, it should be a NOGO. General Kravenko ordered one of his pilots to park a trainer on the taxiway entrance of taxiway B on runway 03 East pointing west. The pilot knew the drill. As the countdown continued, the sensed winds slowly creep up to the 25-knot limitation. The pilot varied the thrust on his engine to simulate a wind shear condition. The launch commander aborted the launch due to the high winds impinging on the remote anemometer. The Chinese observers were disappointed but philosophical about the delay. The fuel requirements for a launch continued to rise until it became obvious that the Penguin habitat mission would need to be scrubbed until the next launch opportunity to Mars. Bad weather finally eliminated all hope of launching in the current window.

The lack of readiness among the taikonauts had become obvious. Zhou received reports that the taikonauts were demanding training, like the Americans received, from his people. Taikonaut Yao Peng told the Penguin Evaluation Committee that it was time to admit that the taikonauts were playing catch-up with the Mars mission. Yao said that he had no problem with the training he had received from his mother and would be happy to be helped by Zhou’s taikonauts. Some of Yao’s friends openly commented that they were afraid that he’d gone native, having been around Zhou’s people too long.

Zhou received additional funding and engineers; Zhou’s old friend, the cosmologist/poet, Sheng Zhi was released from house arrest. Sheng’s pitch-black hair had become a motley gray and he had changed from being an optimist to a pessimist, full of predictions of doom and gloom.

The launch crews discovered after demating the Penguin that one set of the explosive bolts for separating the Penguin from the Mars-transition stage was miswired. The miswiring was corrected but the miswiring information was not passed on to the Chinese or Americans. The Russians discarded the old solid-state strap on rockets – their fuel was too old to be reliable.

Sparrow

The Sparrow ERV arrived in Martian orbit two months after the Road Runner because of its slower, low-energy transfer orbit. Logically, the Sparrow should land wherever the Road Runner landed, providing the primary vehicle for the astronauts to return to Earth.


Part 5. First Blood

Son, you gotta understand, the crews won’t be happy until the last psychologist has been strangled on the entrails of the last flight surgeon. – Skylab astronaut Joe Kerwin to NASA psychologist Al Holland.6

Aggi: Contact Light.

Hollis: Right, engine stop. Descent engine command override off. Engine arm off.

Hollis: Houston, Mars here. The Road Runner has landed.

Sonia: Commander, there are people on the landing site.

Hollis: Close the video feed to Mission Control. Break all communication. Activate a secure channel with Capcom.

Chapter 27. Spin Doctors

Hollis switched the voice channel to secure. He transmitted the information that people were on Mars and that he would await further instructions. Worried that he had hurt his back during the landing, Hollis fought off exhaustion and sleep. His crew would have to rest and recuperate, regaining their strength. Now, they’d also have to post security.

“Aggie, find out who in hell those people are,” commanded Hollis.

Aggie reported that they were Chinese, members of General Zhou’s group.

“They’re maintaining the Mars ascent vehicle (MAV) and habitat,” said Aggie.

“Tell them that we have to complete our procedures and that we’ll get back to them later,” said Hollis.

Feeling slightly dejected and confused Mong and Charon retreated to the Robin. The flight crew performed the post-landing checklist ignoring the people outside. Mission Control ordered the Road Runner to maintain a communications blackout, except for the secure channel until the administration sorted out what to do. Basically the crew of the Road Runner ate and slept for a week.

Three days after the landing Commander Hollis and Reggie suited up and exited the Road Runner. Reggie performed the duties of a cameraman. Hollis walked down the ramp of the garage and strolled about 25 meters from the habitat. The unexpected presence of the Chinese women confused how the event was to be presented or spun.

“We walk on this new planet in peace and unity with all the people on Earth,” Hollis recited. “I wish to thank God and all of the people on the Earth who made this mission possible.” Pushback on religion in government had forced Hollis to mellow the religious tone of his speech.

 

Hollis placed one foot on a large rock and raised himself to full height. The rock tilted and Hollis fell on his face. Reggie had been videoing the walk from the garage and he descended the ramp and walked rapidly to his fallen commander. Commander Hollis rolled over and Reggie helped him to his feet. Like MacArthur’s return to the Philippines, America’s first steps on Mars would require more than one take. The two astronauts returned to the garage and performed a rerun of America’s first steps on Mars.

Blue Jay Status

Commander Hollis thought that Aggi and Bucky should visit the Chinese in the MAV, to find out the status of the MAV and habitat. Hollis concurred with the rest of the crew that they should go unarmed. Aggi radioed the Chinese women and agreed to come over in about an hour. Communications, power and data feeds would have to be installed between the MAV/habitat complex and the more recently arrived Road Runner habitat vehicle.

Aggi and Bucky walked across the no man’s land to the MAV and entered the MAV by the ramp to the garage. They stuffed themselves and their massive pressure suits into the airlock and closed the external access. The small chamber filled with air and the pair vacuumed their suits. The portal to the science laboratory opened. Charon helped Aggie into the interior and then she pulled Bucky in. The Chinese women were dressed in their ET garb. Bucky reached over to help Aggi remove her helmet. Charon helped Bucky with his helmet and the three walked over to the small drop down table next to a workbench. There was a large steaming container of hot water near the view port – a tub. The Americans removed their bulky exterior suits and stood in their long johns.

“My name is Mong and this is Charon,” said Mong. We were in Shanghai when you visited our facility.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Bucky. “Just call me Bucky.”

“And just call me Aggie,” added Aggie.

Mong gave the Americans some Chinese silk robes, which were hopelessly too small for the Americans. Aggi and Bucky tried to make do with the robes and sat at the table. Charon brought over a tea service and joined Mong and the Americans at the table. Bucky found the green tea very refreshing and complimented the women on the tea.

The four walked over to the tub and Aggi glanced at Bucky after seeing the power cord going to the water in the tub. Charon laughed at the interchange of looks and walked over to the tub to pull the heating element and power cord out of the water. Aggi had been dreaming about a bath in a hot tub for six months – Bucky would let her go first. If your wife is happy, you’re happy. If your wife is unhappy, you’re going to be miserable.

Mong, Charon and Bucky returned to the table giving Aggi a semblance of privacy – the tub was practically in direct view of the table. Aggi removed her long johns and tested the water with her big toe. The water was very hot. Aggie thought, I might look like a lobster after this bath, but that’ll be a small price to pay.

Mong and Charon took Bucky to the flight deck to give him a cursory status report. Mong told him that they had stowed away on the Robin after having been involved in the integration and testing of the vehicle.

“Where did you get the water from?” Bucky had to ask.

“We found free water about 130 kilometers away and even insects and some kind of fish.”

Bucky turned to look at the workbench, his glance taking in the rock samples. “Oh, for sure. There’s lots of rocks on Mars,” said Charon.

Bucky smiled, accepting the joke for the friendly comment that it was. Bucky decided that he would recommend organizing Mong and Charon’s research efforts before the Americans tried doing anything on their own.

Chapter 28. Stalemate

The world stood still. The United States government and NASA negotiated with the Chinese and the information about the two Chinese girls being on Mars was classified. The Chinese women retained control of the Blue Jay, while the Americans started using the attached Cardinal habitat as well as the Road Runner that they had arrived in. The Chinese women gave the Americans a jump-start on exploring Mars. Mong and Charon worked with Sonia on the bioreactor and Sonia added some grains to the garden. The trio patiently waited for the new buds of life to emerge. Aggie and Bucky eventually moved their living quarters to the Cardinal and the Robin habitat became the Biocenter. Local surveying data was released to NASA and academia.

Sonia’s primary task became the experimental bioreactor life support system. The secondary unit already was scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air, producing oxygen and an increasing mass of algae. NASA hoped that the bioreactors would become an essential part of the life support system or at least a backup system as well as produce useful research on its own. Bioreactors were dual use – the research bioreactors could be converted to life support bioreactors if necessary. Sonia had to change her mindset from micro gravity to Martian gravity with both the research and life support bioreactor configurations.

The women engaged in the subversive practice of dancing when the men were away on long-range explorations. Sonia taught the women line dancing and the two-step. The women would have to wait for bumps and grinds, which are advanced subjects.

Web Hits

Commander Hollis walked over to the main habitat table where the Bradleys were eating breakfast. They were planning an expedition to Yellowstone, which might involve sleeping over several nights in the rover.

“Have you seen the front page of the National Inquirer?” he asked the Bradleys, passing them an eight by eleven sheet of printer output.

The headline read, “Strip to Mars.”

“The article claims that this is a picture of Cynthia Hughes, an alias for an underage Sonia Hughes. Have you ever seen such tabloid crap? I think you should sue that piece of shit rag.”

Reggie tilted the page so that Sonia could see the photo better. The Bradleys looked at each other and smiled. Bucky walked over to the table and looked over Reggie’s shoulder.

Looking at Reggie, he said, “Looks like a faked picture of Tornado Alley.”

Bucky looked with a knowing look at Reggie and said, “My crew took me over to see Cynthia, too.”

The two laughed. Commander Hollis looked more critically at the photograph. No, this wasn’t possible – he knew the Bradleys. “This is just a titty-bar. How can you joke about this Photoshop fabrication?”

The photo showed Sonia doing a mid-air split while whirling around the brass pole at the Alley. “Is there something that I should know about here?” he asked the table.

Sonia said, “Not a very good picture, makes my butt look big. They could have used my good side.”

The Bradleys and Bucky laughed again. Commander Hollis looked around the table and then slowly walked over to his command chair. Reggie looked at Bucky. “You knew all along?” Reggie asked Bucky.

“I’d have become a regular fan but too many people know me to allow me to hang around girlie shows,” answered Bucky. “And besides, my Gentlemen’s Club etiquette from Houston would get me thrown out.” The three laughed again, adding to the commander’s irritation.

I can’t wait until the Brass calls me on the horn, thought the commander. People are no fucking good.

Chapter 29. Vatican Roulette

Aggi walked over to the table where her husband was working on a report. She placed a cup of lightly creamed coffee shaken, not stirred in front of him and sat down. “Honey, I’ve got something to tell you,” she said.

Oh, oh, he thought. Aggi never called him Honey in public; it was always Major. The report was his planning for long-range exploration expeditions. Major Lawrence couldn’t understand the rush for extensive surveys when there was so much being discovered locally. Mission Control wanted them to find a geothermal energy and water source; Yellowstone would have to be surveyed and tested.

“Yuh Aggi, what is it?” he asked. Bucky always referred to Aggi as Aggi, even in bed.

“Do you think we’ll ever have another baby?” was the seemingly irrelevant, rhetorical question.

The hairs went up on Bucky’s neck just like they always did when a fifth sense detected danger. “I think one kid’s enough for now and anyway we probably won’t be back on Earth for 4, 6, 8, or 10 years.”

Boy, are you a stupid bastard, he thought as he looked at his wife. She had that calmness that he had only seen one time before. Damn, might as well get the good/bad news. “Are you trying to tell me something?” he asked.

“Yes,” she answered.

“When?” was all he needed to know.

“October,” was the clap of thunder following the tiny flash of lightning.

>Damn the dust storm. They had been using the rhythm method because of contraindications of Aggie’s birth control pills with the osteoporosis-mitigating micro gravity medication that they were taking. That meant that conception had occurred during the first human sex in Martian orbit [not really – the commies could claim that first] – proof that the Bradleys hadn’t won the bet. Maybe I should call up Reggie and collect my five dollars. It didn’t seem that all the radiation he had received in transit had damaged any swimmers.


Chapter 30. The Solitude of Command

Commander Hollis’ consultations with his pregnant second-in-command, Major Aggie Worthley-Lawrence, had been much less than satisfactory. Aggie felt that the Chinese women should be allowed to remain in possession of the MAV and that both groups should cooperate. He had ended up only being able to confide in Major Reggie Bradley. He was what he was – he couldn’t accept a female second-in-command seriously, especially one that got pregnant whenever her husband looked at her. It was a time for hard decisions – decisions that could hardly be left to homemakers.

Call to Arms

The monitor in front of the command console displayed an image of Mong working in the garden. The Chinese women were talking in Chinese over their radios. There seemed to be some excitement about a couple of the ripening vegetables. Reggie helped Commander Hollis into his pressure suit. Hollis went through the pressure lock into the garage where the rover had been stowed. Aggie could hear the commander humming Waltzing Mitilda as he went about his tasks. Hollis went to his private locker and unlocked it using its touch pad. The locker contained a weapons cache. Hollis selected an M-16 automatic rifle with a grenade launcher and an M-60 light machine gun. He loaded both weapons, throwing extra ammo into a canvas tote bag. He walked down the garage ramp, which was facing away from the MAV. He set up the machine gun in a shadow under the habitat’s rocket engines with a field of fire covering the MAV. Mong was leaving the greenhouse.

First Blood

Commander Hollis stood up, steadying the M-16 on the habitat landing gear. The shot hit Mong’s helmet ring and her helmet flew into the air. Mong fell forward, dead, with a chunk of her neck blown away. All I have to do is wait for the kid to run to Mong’s rescue and that will be the end of the Chinese problem.

Charon, Vivian and Anatoly heard the thud of the round over the voice link before the static of an open link took over. Mong could be seen on the monitor lying face down without her helmet. Anatoly helped Vivian put on her pressure suit. Charon pulled two American light antiarmor weapons (LAWs) from the weapons locker. Anatoly hoped the Americans didn’t have any LAWs but knew that this was a false hope – humanity had gone to Mars ready for hostile locals. His weapons were in the rover, which he had concealed over the ridge on the hill overlooking the landing site.

Charon, Vivian and Anatoly checked each other’s pressure suits and went to the airlock on the command floor. Charon climbed down to the ground first and Anatoly lowered the tote bag with the LAWs and two 9-millimeter pistols. Anatoly and Vivian quickly joined Charon on the ground. The integrity of the habitat would be seriously reduced if they used these anti-tank weapons, thought Anatoly. This little skirmish could make survival impossible for everyone at Mars Site1.

Aggi ordered everybody to suit up. The Bradleys were to take their assault weapons and get as far away from the habitat in the rover as they could. She and Bucky would try to sort out what was happening at the habitat. Had the commander flipped out?

Aggie looked out the side window and could see that Charon had several light anti-armor weapons (LAWs). She told the others that Charon had some bazookas. The Bradleys started the pressurized rover and drove straight out, masked by the habitat from direct fire from the MAV/habitat complex. Charon had unfolded the optical aiming sight of the LAW and scanned the area behind the Road Runner habitat through its range finder.

Commander Hollis heard the American rover drive away and started to realize that he wasn’t going to have an easy kill here. He inserted a round into the M-60 machine gun’s chamber and worked the bipod into the sand. Riddling the MAV with its huge amount of stored fuel didn’t seem to be a good option but that was the worst-case scenario. There was, after all, an ERV at Yellowstone.

Anatoly left Vivian in the rover and retrieved an AK-47 and an American 20-millimeter M-79 grenade launcher from the rear of the rover. Returning to the landing site, he saw a shadow with a rifle under the habitat and then he saw the protrusion of the barrel of a light machine gun. Earth weapons aren’t designed to be fired by a man in a pressure suit with a bubble helmet. The modified weapons hadn’t been originally designed for use on Mars at all. The shot to the habitat was at the limit of his ability as a marksman, so he’d have to riddle the area after he fired a few shots for effect. The shadow didn’t provide a reasonable target. The barrel of the light machine gun lined up on the MAV. Anatoly grabbed the grenade launcher and fired it towards the space under the habitat. The explosion blew the shadow out into the sunlight and the form fell on the ground. The sniper performed a few frantic movements of his limbs and then fell silent. Anatoly guessed that it was one of the men. Should he target one of the habitat windows? He saw the other rover turn behind some rocks on the hill behind the habitat. He and Charon might be outflanked and outgunned.

Aggi and Bucky left the habitat and walked down the garage ramp. Aggi tied a towel to her M-45 assault rifle. The habitat had become a coffin with the heavy weapons being deployed against them. Separation seemed a good tactic to prevent one shot from the LAW killing them both. Bucky covered Aggie as she waved the towel, calling for a truce. The commander’s body looked lifeless; he was most likely dead.

Charon’s voice came over the voice link, “You killed Mong.”

Aggie could hear sobs over the radio link. “Why did you kill Mong?” came the bereaved voice.

Somebody was speaking in Chinese. “Our commander killed Mong and he’s dead. We’ve got to talk this out. If we keep fighting, nobody will survive. Let me look at our commander and Mong.”

Aggie looked over at the stranger speaking Chinese near the other side of the habitat. Anatoly held his fire even though he had a reasonable shot at Aggi. The situation was confused and he didn’t want to give away his position or even his presence.

Charon thought that this was all too strange to consider. She couldn’t see Anatoly so she moved to a position covered by his field of fire. If this were treachery, she would take the Chinese-speaking American with her. “Okay, but no weapons,” answered Charon in Chinese.

Bucky walked over to Aggie, placing his assault rifle on the ramp. “I’m going over there. We don’t want to fail and die like this,” he said.

Aggie didn’t ask about his knowledge of Chinese. “There’s two of us and one of her, and the Bradleys have the high ground. She might think hitting us would help her odds,” said Aggie.

 “She’s just a kid. She’ll talk to me,” said Bucky.

“We just killed her friend!” retorted Aggie.

“A firefight will destroy both spacecraft,” he continued.

“Okay,” said Aggi without adding the superfluous Be careful clause.

Bucky scanned the terrain one last time. He climbed under the habitat and looked out at the open terrain beyond the habitat. The commander was dead, blood staining the front of his white pressure suit. He pulled Hollis under the habitat, close to the main engine. Aggi looked at the body and back to her husband.

Bucky’s legs took over and transported his body and mind into the open no-man’s land. He sensed another set of eyes on him but didn’t look around, walking straight to Mong’s body. He focused his attention on Charon as he walked, approaching Mong. Bucky gently rolled Mong’s body over, taking in the strange desiccated face of a person who was joyfully laughing just short minutes ago. Death wasn’t pretty on Mars.

Bucky picked up Mong’s body and carried her up the ramp to the garage of the MAV. He placed the body on a large workbench and could sense Charon behind him. Charon looked at her friend and her helmet fell on Bucky’s shoulder, sobbing silently. Bucky wasn’t that good at comforting people. He was holding the same kid that had been pointing a large anti-tank missile at the habitat less than 10 minutes ago. Bucky couldn’t wipe the tears off the girl’s golden cheeks when she was inside her spacesuit. The girl’s skin was golden! Peaceful cooperation didn’t seem to be man’s strategy for colonizing Mars.

Anatoly was running low on oxygen and he would have to retreat to the rover and return home with Vivian to Yellowstone. Charon was on her own but he promised himself that he’d destroy the MAV and both habitats regardless of the consequences if Charon came to any harm. The Americans didn’t know it yet but the odds were going to be eleven to four against them.

Chapter 31. Reality Television

The new commander couldn’t understand the reasoning behind what was happening, but she wasn’t going to have any part of these Earth politics. Why had man gone to Mars unless it was to do better than he had done on Earth? She certainly wasn’t to be the first sheriff on Mars to evict somebody.

The transmission began with a standup shot of Major Worthley holding a mike. “Good morning, Mission Control, Major Worthley. An explosion in the habitat, downstairs, near the rocket engines, killed Commander Hollis. I have assumed command of the landing site. First I want to transmit some tapes of the landing of the Road Runner habitat on Mars, three months ago.”

The video was telecast in the clear, without waiting for any response, using both the Road Runner habitat and the older MAV systems to insure that more satellites than those controlled by Mission Control would receive the transmissions. The video showed the scenery around the MAV, the nuclear reactor tractor and the garden, as well as scans around the landing area. The screen cut to a pinpoint of light in the Martian sky that grew into the exhaust plume of the Road Runner. The Road Runner hovered over the site and sat down near the X that marked the position of the homing beacon. The dust slowly settled around the spacecraft. The camera remained centered on the habitat as two individuals in space suits approached the habitat. Shutdown and after flight checks usually took about 30 minutes. The video clip terminated and the telecast returned to the new commander. The commander’s husband was sitting behind her alongside a strange-looking young woman.

Aggie continued her commentary, “I’d like to introduce my husband Major Lawrence and the latest addition to our family, Charon.”

The reception of the news of a Chinese stowaway was mixed at NASA. The information about the presence of the Chinese on Mars had to be declassified. A complete rewrite of the screenplay, NASA on Mars, would be required. The initial public Chinese reaction was one of surprise and relief that their teenager had been found and was in good health. In a way NASA officials were relieved that the information had been made public. It limited the range of the decisions that the administration could make.

Zhou told Captain Wu to order the flight crew of the habitat in Mars orbit to decouple any commands from the Americans and to anticipate instructions for a landing at the Yellowstone Caverns site. Later Zhou decided to land the Sparrow in Yuma Crater, concealing some of his people from the Americans. The presence of the ERV flight crew at Yellowstone would be discovered when the Americans inspected the ERV at the Yellowstone site.

The Golden Girls

General Zhou snuck up on his daughter, Alicia. Sensing somebody in the room, Alicia turned to see who it was. Zhou flinched at the sight of the snake eyes looking back at him. “Oh Dad, all the kids are wearing them,” Alicia explained as Zhou regained his composure. Alicia was wearing contact lenses that made her eyes look like those of his special women.

Coming Out Party

General Zhou watched the television rebroadcast. Charon was being called the Golden Girl. He went to his wife’s bedroom and gently woke her. No, she didn’t want to help him at the base this early in the morning. He went to Alicia’s room and asked her if she wanted to go to the base. Alicia was eager for some excitement; she rarely got to go to the base. Zhou told her to make sure she brought her alien contact lenses. He called Captain Wu to see if she knew what was happening. Zhou started to feel the rush of surfing the big waves fed by the winds out of the north on Hawaii.

Zhou told Captain Wu, “Bring all of the girls to the base cafeteria without their goggles and hoods.” (Pause)

 “Yes, in summer flight work uniforms,” he answered.

CNN and two local TV crews had their cameras set up and were videotaping the cafeteria, the golden girls and curious PLA Air Force personnel as Zhou came into the cafeteria. Alicia had inserted her alien contacts. The camera in the center of the room went live as she stared directly into the camera’s lens. Zhou pulled her away from the camera and she went to sit at the little people’s table. The young girls weren’t sure about how to handle their sudden incursion into the outside world. General Zhou walked over to the table and sat next to Alicia. The reporter interviewed him about the girls and moved on to Alicia. Then she interviewed the other children in English as the local reporters followed, translating into Chinese for their local audience. The reporter didn’t seem to believe that the kids had flown in rockets at their young age. The reporters gravitated to the vivacious kid called Lin who had a calming influence on the shyer girls.

“And what’s your name?” she asked Lin.

“Lynn Chang Lin,” answered Lin.

“What do you think about going to Mars?” asked the reporter.

“No problem. We are the rocket men. I fly rockets.”

Zhou hoped that this publicity would protect his command. Now it would be hard for the golden girls to disappear into thin air. Lin and her friend Lian walked over to Zhou and Alicia. Lin climbed onto Zhou’s lap, breaking the formality of Zhou’s relationship with his girls and causing a tinge of jealousy in Alicia. Alicia’s relationship with her father had always been quite formal, and she controlled her dismay. The Beijing reporter and her cameraman focused on Zhou’s table.

Lin seemed oblivious to her breach of protocol as she asked Zhou, “Well General, when are we going to Mars?”

“Mars is for the young; I’m too old for all that adventure. I’m ready to retire and grow bananas and coffee. Are you ready for your own Grasshopper, little girl?” he asked, playing to the cameras.

“Give Lian and me the keys and we’ll punch a few holes in the sky,” was her answer. “Do you want to go with us?” Lian silently nodded her agreement. Zhou placed his arm around Alicia trying to hide his misty eyes. He had been truly blessed in his life.

Zhou was terribly upset by his first loss, Mong, and it weakened his will to risk more of his people. They had accomplished more than could be expected – let the taikonauts pick up the baton. He didn’t dare to admit to himself that the trails of his women might have just begun. Mong’s work was done. How would Charon react to being alone, a leader instead of a follower, and independent instead of dependent? Zhou retreated to a small table and sat alone outside of the turmoil of the gathering. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to look up. It was his wife, Xiaolung. She was dressed in a brightly colored feminine business suit. Xiaolung sat down next to him and put her hand on his leg. “I thought you might want some company this morning,” she said.

“I’m glad you could make it,” he said, placing his hand on her arm. The couple sat there quietly observing the chaos. Zhou tried to remember the last time they had enjoyed being together.

The serenity only lasted a few minutes. Alicia, seeing her mother, ran over to the table pulling Lin. “Mother, I want you to meet my new friend, Lin. She’s one of Daddy’s rocket girls.”

Chapter 32. Non-compliance

The Americans interpreted the presence of the two Chinese stowaways as a breach of contract – the spacecraft had not been biologically sterilized. The Chinese countered that their contract allowed them to perform actions deemed necessary for the success of the flight without obtaining prior approval for each individual action from the Americans. Number 1, the Chinese never acknowledged that they had known about the stowaways, and second, Zhou didn’t argue that the flight would have failed without workarounds by the women. The American position was that the Chinese were in non-compliance and wouldn’t get any more progress payments for the Sparrow ERV; the Chinese called into effect the clause that non-payment of progress payments would result in confiscation of the Sparrow. The Americans took this as an empty threat and closed the negotiations. Zhou left the door to the Americans open and felt he held all the cards. The Americans could bet that he’d charge them for storage and maintenance when they came to their senses and returned to the bargaining table. He broke off the American communications and control of the Sparrow. It was time for some shuttle diplomacy with the Russians, Europeans, Brazilians and American corporations. What would be the going price for a functional ERV with a trained crew, one of the only two spacecraft on Mars capable of returning to Earth?

Sparrow

The landing site prepared for the Sparrow was close to the ancient arroyo that provided a break in the Yuma Crater’s corona. The rovers entered the crater through the gap. Anatoly, Sharon and Charon were waiting in Yuma Crater to receive the crew of the Sparrow before it descended. Vivian had to stay with Qian and Mi at home. Janice and Jane landed the habitat in Yuma Crater. Anatoly greeted Sergei and cautiously examined his new little sisters. Charon returned home before the Americans missed her. She wouldn’t have missed the landing for all the tea in China. The Americans assumed that the Sparrow had been lost while orbiting in Martian orbit. The new Martians gathered their strength rapidly and were anxious to see their new home.

Chapter 33. Plymouth Dispensary

The biology and medical procedures at Plymouth were going to have to be more extensive than planned by NASA. Additional medical equipment wouldn’t be available until the next habitat landed.

Martian Princess

Aggi was starting to look big at six months. Sonia would be the attending physician but she knew that Dr./Major Lawrence, the expectant father, would be looking over her shoulder. What couldn’t the men just go outside and smoke a few cigars like normal farmers from Kansas? Reggie put Bucky’s rock hammer in his medicine bag.

Delivery

Aggie was giving birth a month early. Sonia thought that the delivery might have to be Caesarian; the women had abnormal musculature for females. The delivery of Aggie’s first son had been mildly difficult. Sonia gave Aggie a mild sedative as the birthing pains continued. Aggie unleashed a stream of swearing and blasphemy that a merchant marine would be proud of.

“You selfish bastard. You needed your little nookie to ‘keep an even keel.’ Just like the rest of the men, always thinking of yourself.”

The baby girl was named Robin. Robin would have a habitat (re)named after her.

Mid-continent Baby

Reggie had been the odd man out with Aggi’s baby. He would be happy when the baby prettied up and stopped looking like a prune. He had a very bad feeling about Sonia’s increased sex drive after the delivery - like a jet redlining at 130 percent. His world had spun out of control – one of those flat spins that required stepping outside of the office, writing off the aircraft. Two months later Sonia announced that she was with child.

Emergency Room

Aggie and Sonia were preparing their weekly report to Earth, double-checking that they had responded to all of the requests that had been relayed from Mission Control. Aggie was surprised to see a rover drive over to the Blue Jay MAV. The men had left only a half an hour earlier – what were they doing coming back so soon? Then she noticed some minor differences in the rover and realized that it was a different rover. She switched through the communication channels but couldn’t hear anything. Charon came out of the MAV in her pressure suit about ten minutes later. Aggie worried about Charon’s isolating herself for days, without communicating with them. Charon looked at the Road Runner habitat and then walked over to the rover. Aggie found Charon’s communication band and heard a conversation in Chinese. Charon walked over to the Road Runner and directed the rover to back in close to the access tunnel to the greenhouse. Aggie broke into the channel and said she’d be right out.

Aggie suited up and had Sonia check out her suit. She opened the pressure port to the tunnel and disconnected the tunnel at the greenhouse end. After Aggie had stepped back into the habitat Charon connected the tunnel to the rover. Aggie waited for the occupants of the rover to disembark. Sharon and a very pregnant Vivian stumbled up the tunnel into the habitat. Charon waited patiently and then she walked up the garage ramp to the garage access port. She vented and opened the port, folding herself into the small space, before closing the external port. Sonia opened the port on the habitat interior side and helped Charon inside. The two American women thought it was nice to have a visit from the neighbors but where in hell had the neighbors come from? And where was Daddy?

The Bradley Bunch

Sonia was very pregnant - her sonogram showed two individual embryos – twins. Sonia figured that she was carrying one potential Tornado Alley dancer and possibly a flight controls engineer for Boeing-Wichita or Beech-Raytheon.

Two’s company, three’s an orgy

Aggie and Charon were going to visit Yellowstone Caverns because Aggie wanted to survey the tar pits. Charon was a coauthor of the original paper detailing the cracking of the resins by Martian microbes. Charon had a conversation with Vivian and Sharon while Aggie and Anatoly went to place a new beacon and laser target on the site of Anatoly’s dream castle. Charon wanted to negotiate with Vivian and Sharon for sexual services from Anatoly. Why should she be the only non-frigging virgin on the frigging planet?

Chapter 34. The Seven Sages of Bamboo Grove

Cosmonaut Day - Yuri Gagarin First Flight Anniversary

April 12th (1961) is the anniversary of Lieutenant Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space. Yuri rode Vostok I for 108 minutes before ejecting from his capsule below 23,000 feet and descending by parachute to Mother Russia. Gagarin died in a crash in 1968 during a MiG-15 training flight. Sergei insisted that the stories alleging that Yuri was drunk when he had his fatal crash were false and mean-spirited.

Get drunk fast

Reggie had learned at Star City that the Russians don’t warm to or work with anybody that hasn’t got knockdown drunk with them.

Anatoly invited Bucky and Reggie over for the Yuri Gagarin anniversary party. Charon came along and would be visiting at Yellowstone Caverns for a while. The trip over was uneventful except for an hour spent measuring the width of the apparent aquifer with the ground radar forty kilometers from Yellowstone. Parking near the ramp to the garage, they could see the inhabitants waving to them through the windows of the flight deck. Charon already had her pressure suit on and she helped the two men to get into their suits. A final check of the suits and Bucky depressurized the rover. Throwing open the large rover door, they walked up the ramp to the garage. They got into the airlock one at a time and entered the laboratory room of the Blue Jay. Anatoly et al were preparing a traditional Russian meal for them, complete with vodka.

The Americans’ attention was drawn to the 60-liter aquarium in the dining area. Some strange fish were transiting the glass pane in front and disappearing into the shadows of some equally strange bulbous seaweed. The fish seemed to smolder red-hot like magma. Bucky walked over to the container, followed by Reggie and Anatoly.

“This is where I get my caviar,” Anatoly joked. Anatoly had inadvertently caught the eye-less fish while fetching water from the caves. Two rats had survived eating pieces of the fish without any obvious adverse effects. Given the many poisonous plants and animals on Earth, Anatoly guessed that Martian life would be even more hazardous to eat. Anatoly switched on an ultraviolet lamp and the fish and seaweed came alive with exotic, fluorescent colors. Some organisms that had been too small to be seen before under the ambient light appeared as glowing dots.

There were several hours of daylight left, allowing time for the Americans to inspect the Yellowstone Caverns. One of the rubble piles allowed the men to drive the rover close to the entrance of a large cave. Anatoly said that he was going to build a living area in one of the small caves, a long-term project since it would take a lot of energy to produce enough oxygen to fill the cave. He thought the cave was stable since there didn’t seem to be any frozen water that could melt and cause a flash flood. Reggie took a lot of photographs and video to document the caverns, including the frozen waterfall where Anatoly got his water. Plumbing into the liquid behind the ice, especially piping the water to the habitat was also a future Anatoly project.

Vodka Party

Anatoly’s still was jerry-rigged from repair materials for the life support systems. The plentiful, undesirable potatoes could finally be utilized.

Sunday morning, coming down

Anatoly wanted to show the Americans the location where he was going to build a castle. The location had a road that the rover could negotiate and a large flat area overlooking the valley leading up to the landing site at Yellowstone Caverns.

The Americans were reluctant to leave and promised to reciprocate the party at Plymouth. There was a lot of data to exchange, especially video, with the Earth using the large dish on the Road Runner. They would be arriving home in the dark. Traveling at night was something that they had avoided, but the road was pretty clear through night goggles if they drove the rover at a reasonable speed. The sunset passed and Phobos became visible. Reggie was looking out his side window while Bucky drove so he saw the glow first. He told Bucky to stop and turn off the headlights. The hills on both sides of the road glowed with a green bioluminescence. Bucky turned on the video recorder and scanned the area with the delicate video control stick.

Now the glow was on both sides of the rover and Bucky said, “Time to get out of Dodge.” It was too late. As Bucky turned the rover around the glow had them surrounded. Reggie called Anatoly to inform him of their difficulty. The glow came closer and a few glowing spots appeared on the hood and windshield of the rover. Bucky kept driving and ignored the caution light indicating a blockage of the intake filters to the engine. The engine started to overheat, but Bucky kept going. He finally stopped when the temperature gauge redlined. The windshield was a solid screen of illuminescent green. They were stranded. Anatoly radioed that he had called their wives who would be on the way and that he would most likely get there first. Bucky described the situation and warned everybody not to get in the middle of whatever was happening.

The two approaching rovers saw the green stream and stayed at a safe distance. The night went slowly, everybody taking turns napping and guarding. The sky started to get light as Venus and Jupiter glowed together. Anatoly and Mei got to Reggie and Bucky first – the men were still sleeping. There were some strange worms or shell-less snails stuffed into the intake grill of their rover.  Reggie and Bucky had got caught in some sort of a snail migration. This was, most likely, the phenomenon Charon had seen the previous year.

Chapter 35. The Bee Hive

The later renaming of the Road Runner to the Bee Hive by the public wasn’t the result of a worldwide contest among high school students but came out of talk radio and press editorials. The French said they would be sending a nursery to help their friends out of their predicament at the next opposition. The Brazilian diva, Monica Salmaso put out a hit record, Problema Dupla [Double Trouble], on the dangers of space travel to female astronauts. The refrain contained phrases about double the moons, double the trouble, double the ecstasy and double the lunacy.

Aggie and Sonia lamented that there were no babysitters on Mars – there were at least four who could be hired as soon as their presence on Mars became known.

Survival Cache

A month before the 2014 opposition an unmanned supply ship, the Alabama, was sent to Yuma Crater, 30 miles north of Yellowstone Caverns, using a cluster of the USAF RJ-86 heavy-lift vehicles. The supply vessel was the pathfinder for the 2014 opposition. The spacecraft flew direct to the Martian surface and landed at night on the smooth volcano caldera. Sergei was doing astronomical observations of Phobos when the braking maneuver of the vessel lit up the night. The cargo on the spacecraft consisted of two nuclear 250-kilowatt power sources, solar panels, communication dishes, heavy weapons, life-support systems, a large inflatable greenhouse, food and medical supplies and a heavy transport truck.

Anatoly and Sergei located the American supply ship two weeks later as part of a survey of the crater prompted in part by the appearance of the vessel. Sergei and Anatoly stripped the spacecraft and stashed the equipment in the caverns. The oversize shell of the American supply ship was dragged to Sergei’s habitat and placed in a small canyon where it could be partially surrounded by dirt for protection against radiation. They would have to construct a passageway to the supply ship so that suiting up wouldn’t be needed every time somebody needed to visit the supply ship, renamed the wine cellar. The supply ship ended up being an extra bedroom/living room, freeing up a guest room in the habitat. The whole habitat complex was camouflaged to reduce the possibility that the habitat would be discovered by whoever came to recover the ship’s cargo. NASA might wake up and perform a census on Mars; their coach didn’t have a clue who was on the opposing team.

Truck

Sergei and Anatoly inspected the mechanism on the front of the cargo vehicle. The front of the truck had a lift mechanism similar to the one on the latest American rover, which functioned as a forklift with the addition of blades. The secret to the rover design became obvious when two unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), Junkyard Dogs to the grunts in Iraq, were examined. The armed version of the Talon robot was designed to be a remotely radio-controlled platform for quadruple light anti-armor weapons (LAWs), a six-barreled 40mm grenade launcher, and several small arms with mounts for a standard 5.56mm rifle, a 7.56mm rifle, and a .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifle. The Talon could be radio-controlled from the truck or tethered to a short fiber optic cable. The Talon could also be used on the rover as the mount on the rover showed. An operator removed from the truck could use the weapons by the use of a ruggedized computer. The lithium batteries for the fire-control computer had about nine-hours of duty between charges. The weapons were standard weapons (modified for use in the vacuum of space and combatants wearing gloves) that could be used conventionally by a person or mounted on the Talon. The Americans had seriously escalated the level of weaponry on Mars.

Sergei and Anatoly awaited the arrival of the latest American habitat, the Peregrine, with its all-male crew with foreboding. The arrival of the weaponry aboard the Alabama seemed to indicate a change to a more aggressive American policy on Mars.


Book Two

Part 6. Gold Rush

Large balloon-satellites, of diameter 40 m or more, are unrivalled for boosting public interest in space: the cost of launch is trivial by comparison with a Shuttle launch – which often leaves nothing in orbit. Yet none has been launched for twenty-five years: I tried to have Black Arrow used for this purpose, but in vain. Why the reluctance? My answer to this conundrum is that too cheap a project, offering no substantial profits for industrial companies, does not generate the lobbying that impresses administrators. They prefer an expensive project strongly supported by industrial lobbyists and also having the merit (for them) of needing a substantial administrative framework. The same problem has bedeviled orbit analysis: the body of scientific knowledge is enriched but nobody else is, so no one of consequence lobbies for it – only ivory-tower scientists. – Desmond King-Hele, Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, England13

The first century of the 3rd millennium (Aquarius) will be the coming of age of biology – life. Not your grandfather’s biology, which produced large meaty chickens and pineapples that fit in a standard can, but a systems or computational biology integrating insights from genetics, computer science, paleontology and extreme forms of life on the Earth and Mars. Ninety-nine percent of the microbes on Earth haven’t been studied, but when studied, continue to give us insights into processes that occur in complex organisms such as fish, rabbits and man. Decoding of individual genomes and the production of therapeutic stem cells with personal chromosomes, enhanced or not, would allow for personalized medicine. One of the new extreme biologists dreamed of traveling from Lechuguilla Caverns near Carlsbad, New Mexico to Wytapitlock Caverns on Mars.

Chapter 36. The Americans

Boeing

It had been a bad couple of years for Boeing in spite of being selected as the prime contractor in partnership with Lockheed Martin for the Mars mission. Boeing also had several billion dollars in contracts on the International Space Station (ISS). Airbus had sold more airliners than the Big B for three years before overextending itself with the behemoth A-380 jumbo jet. Management upheaval at the top and procurement scandals threatened Boeing’s hope for emphasizing space and military products over their less lucrative commercial offerings. The ERV contract had got into a bidding war that all the PAC money in America couldn’t fix. The big money was in the habitat contract - illogically the American habitat was being designed and tested to higher standards than the MAV and ERV versions. Mars wasn’t a one-way trip for the astronauts but there was a financial and political incentive to keep them on Mars as long as possible. Most of the Martian science would have to be done on Earth because the majority of the experts weren’t going to leave terra firma.

The older generation of astronauts had the Boeing perspective – Mars was an altitude record, just footprints and flags. Test pilots and traders not romantics would explore the stars. History will probably treat the original five American astronauts that went to Mars with disbelief. The backup team for the Road Runner considered themselves to be the real team. Actually, NASA would send two identical habitats during the 2012 opposition, direct to Mars from Cape Canaveral. Two more teams had been selected, one of which would go to Mars this opposition. All three teams had been trained extensively on the new Grasshoppers and the stripped ERVs. Furthermore, all 15 astronauts had spent 3 to 6 months on the ISS habitat. The habitat training on the ISS now included extensive space maneuvers and docking exercises with the Einstein and ISS. Four Chinese had completed a tour on the ISS, two of Zhou’s pilots and two taikonauts.

Roustabout

The revolt had started simply enough. Manual labor was repugnant to the flyboys and triple PhD mission specialists that NASA was nurturing. Engineers make airplanes, pilots break them and mechanics fix them. Mars needs farmers, mechanics and construction workers. The major corporations want their investments to further their industries and their bottom line. Heroes, flags, footprints and publications were not enough. Zhou had recognized this simple truth before the Americans and Europeans. Now General Percival Stratton had to find candidates suitable to several deep-pocketed corporations. He also needed to think about making some real money for himself after military retirement.

Major “Gene” Giovanni Salatino congratulated himself and his lucky stars while examining the personnel file his search had unearthed. General Stratton had asked him to search through all of the military personnel records for military people with experience in drilling, not limited to petroleum, preferably in a harsh environment like Alaska. Sergeant Timothy Mooney, a Russian linguist stationed in Augsburg, Germany had a degree in Chemical Engineering with a minor in petrochemistry, having worked his way through college working in the Texan oil fields and offshore rigs (during Texan summers). His application for flight training had been rejected during screening on the grounds that he claimed to have received 300 hours of flight time in the C-130 Hercules. Sergeant Mooney had received excellent grades in college and the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California as well as excellent performance reports from his commander at Gablingen Field Station in Bavaria. Gene’s proficiency in German was improving steadily, thanks to his German girl friend, Elena, and chemical enhancers at the local German Gasthaüser (family-styled restaurants).

Sergeant Mooney was planning to return to Texas to continue his studies in Chemical Engineering courtesy of Uncle Sugar’s GI Bill. With his skill in (Mexican) Spanish and French, maybe he should consider getting a master in European languages and working for the National Security Agency. It didn’t take a genius to realize that an Arabic or Caspian Sea linguist would have a long career. The upside was an 18-month paid vacation on Monterey Peninsula at the Defense Language Institute; the downside was continuous deployments to garden spots like Iraq and Afghanistan.

General Stratton was pleased with Major Salatino’s work and told him to examine Mooney’s clearance application and talk to his commanding officer and other superiors at Gablingen. Mooney only had six months left to his enlistment. The bombshell from the interviews was that Mooney had flown fire-fighting C-130 Hercules as a civilian during the western firestorms of 2003. Major Salatino was on a flight to Germany within a week.

There was considerable resistance (stone-walling) to General Stratton’s wish to have Sergeant Mooney considered for astronaut training. NASA let the general know that NASA was not in the travel (tourist) business. Astronaut candidates were getting older and more qualified, both in the air and academically. The abbreviated shuttle schedule meant that some of the previous classes of astronauts might never fly in space. Two years of advanced astronaut training was considered a bare minimum for these already highly qualified candidates, several of whom had medical degrees and multiple doctorates. General Stratton couldn’t even get Sergeant Mooney through primary flight training in the time remaining before the launch. In a highly irregular set of orders, Sergeant Mooney’s two-year old application for Officers Candidate Training was approved without any further service obligation. If Mooney couldn’t make the grade, then all bets were off. When, not if, in the general’s mind, Mooney was commissioned, he’d have to get creative again. What a way to fight a war!

Chapter 37. Chinese

General Zhou looked at his flight-ready ERVs and habitats. He had never enjoyed gambling at Vegas, or the adrenalin-rush of politics or the stock market. Now he was playing a game for the bigger stakes of disgrace or Chinese fortune, a more dangerous game than he had foreseen. He would be the patsy if anything went wrong. He couldn’t cover all bets, but he had each habitat equipped with a large inflatable greenhouse, twenty empty 1-ton liquid hydrogen cryogenic containers and ten empty containers which could be used for either liquid oxygen or methane. The garage had been redesigned to enable it to be permanent living space once the rover and some equipment had been removed. Sheets of photovoltaic cells would have to run his large electrolysis plants – the nuclear electrical and heat systems were only capable of powering the life-support systems and the specification fuel generators. Nuclear-based electrical and heater units were only available from Earth. He needed a little more help from Mars. [Mars was just waiting for the right earthlings to come to Mars.]

>What would be the going price for liquid hydrogen or fresh vegetables on Mars? Should he put his ERVs on eBay?

Grasshoppers in Space

The addition of the Russian rocket engines to the Grasshoppers would allow the Grasshoppers to return to the Earth from Earth orbit. The Grasshopper’s designers had never intended to add additional stages to the Grasshopper. Zhou’s engineers and production workers started making the Grasshopper’s structure, parachutes and aero brakes stronger to make such a mission possible, given the proper booster. The Grasshopper was several times larger than the Russian Soyuz. Zhou’s engineers reconfigured and updated the Grasshopper’s flight deck to make it more compatible with the American spacecraft. The Russian engineer and cosmonaut coordinating the Russian efforts in updating the Grasshoppers insisted that the Grasshoppers be cold hardened and tested. Zhou had to consider and eventually complied with the Russian requests – the Russians were investing a lot of their scarce rubles in the project and had extensive experience with cold weather operations. The taikonauts were already checking out his progress with the upgraded Grasshoppers.

Captain Wu asked Zhou for permission to go with the pilots to Brazil and in her words, the South Pole. Zhou gazed into Wu’s stare – his friend was getting too big for the confinement of Shanghai. Zhou answered that this decision was too important to consider without consultation. He was sure that Lin’s assignment to the team had precipitated Wu’s request. He instructed Wu to prepare Dr. Heng to assume some of her duties. Zhou would have to find replacements for both of these valuable women. They were ready for bigger things and deserved a real, boring life after this little adventure.

Grasshopper on the ice

Captain Wu led the contingent of two senior pilots, Maddie and Joan, and two junior pilots, Lin and Qi, to Brazil. The latest cold-hardened Grasshopper was shipped to Brazil and flew extensively with the Brazilians, Argentineans and other visiting pilot trainees. Some problems were noted with corrosion and mildew, requiring small changes in materials to minimize these effects. Later models would use still better materials, reflecting the experience in Brazil and Antarctica. The Brazilians had developed materials and sealants that were resistant to biological agents. One of the Grasshopper’s younger siblings, still being assembled, would be going to Mars if the present series of tests were successful.

After the completion of the trails in Brazil, the Grasshopper was hopped twice down the South American continent to Argentina and shipped to Antarctica. The logic was that if the Grasshopper (and its crew) couldn’t survive a winter in Antarctica, there was no point in sending it to Mars.

Sitting on the dock

Nancy and Chang Lu attended the Materials Research Society’s conference in San Francisco. Nancy found that there weren’t as many biomaterials sessions as she had hoped for. Their main objective was to see what the vacuum and cryo equipment vendors had to offer as well as what new microscopy techniques, especially those concerned with electron microscopy was available. Nancy had used a scanning electron microscope to study materials but living nanomicrobes was a whole new problem. Nanobacteria are smaller than the wavelength of light while the electron microscope required its specimens to be in a near vacuum. The Carl Zeiss people were very helpful and arranged for two postdocs at UC Berkeley to train them on their latest offering, which should allow the examination of wet (frozen) archaeabacteria.

With these, who needs brains?

Sarah Kelleher looked forward to the climb into Lechuguilla Cave, mainly because the Lech cavers had become a family, with insiders and outsiders. Weighing ninety pounds, Kelly was built like Mick Jagger and possessed a pixie face. Kelly is an exobiologist by title but the cavers were her community with the periodic incursion of the transient NASA astrobiologists being just a distraction. Just the same, the two new members of the team sounded interesting – female potential Martian biologists. Hopefully, the women would be examining Martian rocks on Mars. That should quiet the nay Sayers about microbial fossils on the Martian meteorite ALH 84001. They would be cavers on Mars!

The nanolife taxonomy problem was simple but complex in detail. The overuse of nano like the term artificial intelligence would have to be avoided in her papers. Calling them quantum bugs and implying the uncertain mystical world of quantum physics was equally a bit of a stretch.

God’s First Domain

Bioutopians would relegate disease and death to extinction by eliminating bugs in human software. First they would understand in a general way the data – DNA, which is the blueprint for life but doesn’t have standards and manufacturing processes. DNA can be considered to be the embedded database of the life computer.  Now that the genomes for many organisms were complete, geneticists realize that they had just completed the first draft of life. Now it was time to start working. Learning how the operating and the application software worked is where the greater discoveries would come even though a few of the low hanging fruit like EPO and stents will keep biotech going and have made a lot of multimillionaires. Kelly just wanted to generate a bush in the third domain of life, the archaea. Exobiologists had speculated that a single pool in a cave, if completely described, might produce branches as big as either of the other two domains. She would rapidly accomplish the description of an archaic bug with her scanning electron microscope and place it on one end of a taxon (twig) by sequencing its short subunit rRNA 16-S sequence using high-throughput assembly line techniques.

Green Eggs and Ham, 2014

The Penguin was the first manned launch of the of the 2014 opposition. The only change in the crew manifest was the addition of two young girls, Linda Chang Lu and Alice Peng Lian. They would join the children’s habitat on Mars, the international nursery habitat, complete with a Swiss nanny, being launched by the Europeans from French Guyana. The European habitat was named after the pen name of Ted Giesel, Dr. Seuss. The parents on Mars decided in the first parent’s meeting on Mars that their children were not going to be subjected to any intrusive procedures, regardless of the good intentions of the Europeans.

Two Russian cosmonauts, Major Ivan Bolkov and Captain Mikhail Sorenev, joined the two taikonauts on a customized ERV/large production quality methane/hydrogen plant, the Dallas. Requinto Petroleum was working with Russia to insure themselves a piece of the Caspian oil. Two mission specialists, Australian biotechnologists, were added to the crew with Requinto financing the plant. The crew of the Dallas was technically working for Requinto Petroleum, the flight crew on a contingency, contract basis. An additional Requinto habitat would carry a drilling, hydrology and petroleum-processing laboratory.

Zhou had already done the first product placement ad on Mars with a large can of his family’s Apollo coffee prominently displayed on Charon’s desk during her first press conference from Mars.

Chapter 38. The Russians

The Russians had both medium boosters and the heavy boosters needed for putting large satellites into high geosynchronous orbits or manned interplanetary orbits. Russian participation in Mars exploration became limited to the commercially lucrative heavy-launch to Earth and Mars orbit business, with the exception of the contracted pilots for the Dallas. The twin launch towers in Kazakhstan had launches lined up back-to-back for the complete 2014 launch window.

Russia considers itself the world leader in long-term space psychology. Their experience (and crises) on Mir supports this viewpoint, including experiences in solving problems in space. Russia’s experience with the extremophiles deep within the Antarctic ice sheet over Lake Vostok (the coldest station of the Cold War) put Russia in the lead technically in the search for shutdown bacteria in the Polar Regions of Mars and on the icy Galilean [Jupiter] moon of Europa. The Americans had adapted a policy (and mindset) during the shuttle period of returning to Earth when there were system failures. Running home to mother wouldn’t be an option for the new Martians.

The Americans think that equipment should be proved to be safe; the Russians will stop using equipment that has been proved to be unsafe. The Russian approach to aerospace engineering emphasizes the reliability of the system as a whole; the Americans emphasize unit test and integration. Of course, all generalizations are false, including this one. Many of the circuits in spacecraft and the ISS in particular still would fail because of electrical discharges if the circuits were in a near vacuum or its equivalent – the atmosphere of Mars. The Americans are indoctrinated with their beliefs; the members of the former Soviet Republic are acculturated to theirs. The 50-year Mexican standoff with nukes during the Cold war is baseline data. It’s impossible for outsiders to evaluate the effects of this socialization and predict how effective the two groups will and are performing in joint missions in space.

It depends on who is telling the story, thought Anatoly. The Russians claimed a 4 to 1 kill ratio in the first jet-to-jet combat between the Russian MiG-15s and the American Sabrejet F-86s during the Korean Conflict; the Americans claimed a 10 to 1 advantage. The Russians claimed that the introduction of the MiG-17 tipped the advantage to the Russians; the Americans claimed that their sidewinder air-to-air missile gave them the winning advantage. The MiGs had the advantage in performance while the Sabrejets were technically superior. The arguments continue with the pilots’ right hands chasing their left hands in Officers’ Clubs around the world as the Russians release their records and Russian pilots write their memoirs. Historians contend that the unsatisfactory conclusion of the Korean War was the result of a stalemate, both on the ground and in the air. The Soviets were only able to produce the MiG-15 after obtaining British jet engines. So much for the loyalties of the Merchants of War and British politics.

Chapter 39. The United States of America

Jerry looked at the working class commuters rushing to work, bumping into each other like marching army ants. The security people were right off the boat, the very same people Jerry wanted protection from. Three screeners were speaking some language from darkest Africa, treating the passengers like inanimate objects while talking loud enough to converse with their distant countrymen. The airport security at Logan had people with the same time of acculturation in America, many who had forged their citizenship papers to qualify for the airport security jobs. Logan was the airport of origin for two of the September 11 Boeing 767s. The first thing that the responsible officials at Logan did after 9/11 was to obtain publicly funded personal liability insurance. Some workers with problematic papers were fired but no heads rolled at the higher levels.

Nuclear Systems Initiative – Project Prometheus

Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to man, the start of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Orion project of the 50s for a 4000-ton vehicle powered by 2600 nuclear weapons has been relegated to history along with von Braun’s Mars fleet. The successful detonation of hydrogen bombs resulted in an optimism that fusion reactors would be available in the near future as well as cheap clean fusion bombs (for propulsion). Hundreds of nuclear devices were tested in the atmosphere so there was no concern about launching a nuclear (including plutonium-based) propulsion device from the Earth in those days.

Nuclear power reactors on Mars will provide the large amounts of reliable power and heat needed by the colonists. Mars is the limit for manned exploration of the solar system using chemical rockets and the distances to the gas giants takes years even for unmanned probes. Nuclear propulsion will extend man’s reach beyond Mars and speed up the trip between the Earth and Mars.

Homeward Bound

The Einstein pushed the Grasshopper to low Martian orbit. The Grasshopper would remain on Mars, while the Einstein could function as a standalone spacecraft or tug. The return trip of the Einstein would fly close to Venus using Venus’ gravity to boost the speed of the returning Einstein and Maverick (MAV). The solar flare season was four years off so that the risk of a solar flare was considered to be minimal.

Ironically, Charon would return Commander Hollis’ body to Earth as well as accompany the biosafety level 4 biological specimens from Mars. Scientists on Earth waited impatiently for the samples and data from their respective disciplines. The Grasshopper was supposed to function as a transport vessel for transferring people and supplies to and from low Martian orbit - instead it became a pacifier for the pilots stranded on Mars.

The Men with the Long Eyes

The Tribal Council of the Tohono O’odhan [formerly called the Papago Indians by the round eyes] Nation allowed the National Science Foundation astronomers to use 200 acres of their second most sacred mountain, Kitt Peak, for astronomical sites. Kitt Peak has about twenty-five telescopes, mainly optical, including the McMath-Pierce Telescope Facility for monitoring solar activity.

Eight to Five Astronomy

The optical astronomers call the solar astronomers the one-star astronomers, or the astronomers who study a star with their one remaining good eye. Solar astronomers refer to themselves as day viewers. The plasma astronomers using the space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory are more interested in millions of degrees Kelvin than the thousands of degrees, which only generate visible light from the sun. To be fair, with a high-speed optical internet, all astronomy is around the clock and an astronomer can search the globe for an available device with clear sky (actually obtain a session and hope for a clear day).

Day Sleepers – Quiet Please

“What is the main thing that astronomers are looking for?” asked Chuck, a volunteer at the Kitt Peak public night observation session. Life was the expected answer.

“A job?” answered one of the female visitors.

It’s all done with mirrors. Objects in the mirror are further away than they appear.

Chapter 40. Space Travel

Venus Fry-by

Bucky, Kay, Reggie and Tim flew Charon, Roswell (“My mother is an alien.”) and Mike back to the Einstein. The cargo was limited by the size of the Grasshopper. Captain Dickson waited patiently in orbit, babysitting the Einstein’s systems. The Einstein crew wanted to have the surface of Mars entered in their logbooks as a destination. Bucky, Kay, Reggie and Tim returned with Captain Dickson to Yellowstone after the departure of the Einstein.

Mission Control warned the Einstein crew that a large sunspot had just rotated out of sight. Mike opted to accelerate the Einstein to speed up the transition close to the sun. The flare intensity was very high. Hard particles, which fly slower than x-ray radiation, would be arriving soon. The flare was large enough to expose the crew to high levels of radiation, but had a short duration. The American astronauts and Charon took megavitamin supplements of vitamins A and C. Charon decided that she wouldn’t inject herself with any atropine. The solar flashes increased. [Cosmic rays and solar particles cause the sensation of flashes and rays in spacefarers when the energetic particles penetrate the visual cortex of the brain.] Mike sent Charon to the storm shelter and Roswell joined her for half an hour, before relieving Mike. Roswell and Charon made love in the airlock.

Roswell returned to the flight deck as the astronauts took turns at the controls. They administered atropine to each other and hoped for the best. Mike never got to the shelter. Charon waited for an hour and decided to return to the flight deck. The flare was over and both astronauts were in their seats. Mike was dead and Roswell was slumped over his controls. The Einstein was flying on autopilot. Charon reduced the thrust and commanded the navigation computer to recalculate the flight plan to Earth.

Charon unstrapped Mike and secured his body to the bench in the kitchen. She carried Roswell to the storm shelter and secured him to the ladder. As Charon strapped herself in, she could hear Mission Control in the earphones hung on the center console. She put the communication link on the speaker.

Charon: Einstein here, Charon Li. Commander Jervis is dead from radiation exposure. Captain Valenzuela is very sick and is in the storm shelter. I am alone at the controls flying coupled to an economy flight plan to Earth. The ship seems okay. My radiation exposure level meter reads 1,270 milliSieverts (mSvs) since we left Mars, over.

Mission Control: Houston, Roger that, uh, Charon. Proceed at your discretion. Please maintain communications. How do you feel? Over.

Charon: Feeling a little exhausted but otherwise I’m okay. I don’t believe my capacity to perform has been compromised. I feel well enough to fly. I was in the shelter during the worst part of the solar flare. I will inform you if my condition deteriorates. Over.

Charon waited for the response from Mission Control.

Phobos

The Russians started looking at Phobos after their Grasshopper flights like teenagers eyeing a homecoming queen. They didn’t want anything permanent, just a one-night stand sort of conquest. Venus had been nice to the Russian space probes; Mars had rejected Mother Russia’s advances. Two thirds of all space probes fail, as had the two Russian probes to Phobos. Mars would become the breadbasket for the colonies beyond Earth orbit with Phobos becoming a low escape velocity source of (hopefully) water and minerals, a convenience store in Martian orbit. The nocturnal flirtation of Phobos, which had twice rejected the approaches of Russian space probes, made her all the more enticing to Anatoly and Sergei. Would Phobos want to go for three out of five?

Sergei had brought updated versions of the remote-sensing instruments, which the Russians had tried and failed to place on Phobos on his flight. Janice and Jane wanted to be included on the flight. Now all he and Anatoly had to do was talk the Chinese and Americans out of the newest Grasshopper.

All of the astronaut pilots were like fish out of water, once the initial excitement of being on Mars had waned. Pilots flew airplanes, rockets flew astronauts. An airplane was assembled at an airport, taxied to a runway, accelerated down the runway to flying speed and flew from point A to point B, under the control of a pilot. In a rocket, things happened too fast for an astronaut to control manually and things happened too fast and the situation was too complex for the astronaut to monitor and troubleshoot all of the systems. Pilots were used to periodic fixes of adrenalin, flying on the edge in control of their aircraft. As automated as its systems were, the Grasshopper was flown. Pilots aren’t explorers or wet-bench technicians. The intense interest of the pilots in the Grasshopper hadn’t been anticipated. This oversight by NASA is hard to explain, given the nature of the astronauts’ training and the large part flying has in their self-image. The training schedule set up by the astronauts came up with additional missions like rescue training and supply flights from Yellowstone Caverns to Plymouth.

Another Grasshopper would be needed just to give the astronauts their periodic need for flight time. The use of liquid hydrocarbons for fuel would be simpler than cryogenic methane or propane – for the rovers as well as the rocket engines. Grasshopper training degenerated into low cost and low risk flights between Plymouth and Yellowstone.

You can’t go home again.

The movement started with a small group of anti-government activists in Bremenhafen. What had started as a protest opposing Germany’s participation in NATO’s missile shield expanded into a platform protesting Mars exploration and the return of disease or Martian biologically contaminated imports from Mars. The Golden Girls became the symbol of their campaign to make Mars a one-way trip for the Marsnauts. The protesters of Frankenfood – genetically modified food, now protested the Frankengirls. Frankensex was considered politically incorrect.

Planetary Protection

>“First, do no harm…” Hippocrates warned medical practitioners not to harm the patients they were treating. Other disciplines should have similar oaths to err on the side of caution, avoiding unintended consequences.

John Rummel’s job of NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer involves insuring that organisms from the Earth do not contaminate Mars and more importantly that there is no back-contamination from Mars. John is involved in designing the biocontainment facilities for any samples brought back from Mars.

Astronauts and cosmonauts are quarantined before flights to prevent them from being exposed to communicable diseases that might be debilitating during their flights. The Apollo astronauts were quarantined on their return from the moon to insure that they wouldn’t bring any microscopic life back to Earth from the moon. A bioprotected crew IVA’d (internal vehicular activity) to the Einstein docked to the International Space Station and removed its precious cargo. Captain Roswell Valenzuela and Charon were told that they would be quarantined in the Einstein docked to the International Space Station for six months. Captain Valenzuela’s health had improved slightly although treatment on Earth would have been better. Charon thought that Roswell’s continued exposure to radiation in orbit was a bad decision. As Fate would have it, the Earth was struck by two major solar eruptions during Charon and Roswell’s quarantine. So near to Shanghai, yet so far.

Three months after their arrival at the ISS, Roswell and Charon were allowed to leave the Einstein and work in the science stations and habitat. The Einstein was decontaminated and commandeered for another unnamed mission, rumored to be a flyby of Jupiter with transits through the asteroid belt. The view ports of the Canary allowed spectacular views of the Earth and Roswell often joined Charon at a dining table with a large view port.

The Americans wanted to return Roswell to Earth before Charon but feared that the stress of landing might be fatal to Roswell. Charon was allowed to return to the Earth’s surface with the sole limitation that she couldn’t donate blood for a year. Why would anybody who’s been in space willingly give blood later on in life?

Roswell died of infectious pneumonia three months after he returned to Houston. The horrific flu pandemic that ravaged the North American continent and southeastern Asia during the winter of 2014 was referred to in the popular press as the Martian Flu. Jet-setting Chinese businessmen, epidemiologists studying the disease and H1B biotech workers were heavily implicated in spreading the flu around the world.

Chapter 41. The Biopirates

Angin wanted to partner with the Swiss pharma Novella to send a biomedical habitat to the Yellowstone Caverns complex. The biotech giants would license petrochemical technologies from Requinto Petroleum. Now Requinto wanted a bigger piece of the biotech action and the Dallas habitat was added to the mission. Four of Zhou’s people would deliver the habitat and crew to Mars and to serve as advisers until the two Angin bioprospectors, a Swiss microbiologist and a Canadian metallurgist, felt comfortable living on Mars. Zhou’s people would remain on retainer to perform minor maintenance to the Dallas and Phoenix habitats. The habitats had evolved to facilities designed for work on Mars, sacrificing their deep space capabilities. As usual, the Russians were subcontracted for the heavy-lift portion of the launch. Personnel and mission got confused as Requinto Petroleum and the biotech firms negotiated what they were trying to do on Mars. Kelly was cut from the team.

Being cut from the Phoenix/Dallas team was shattering but Kelly felt she didn’t need to go to Mars to study nanolife. She took out an equity loan on the house/motel complex she had inherited from her parents. She financed the best electron microscopy/informatics databases optimized for studying archaeabacteria that she could afford. Kelly was already one of the best EM specimen preparers in the world; specimen preparation is considered to be mundane, something that old fogies did several generations ago before biology got sexy. Kelly’s notoriety, earned by her acceptance and later removal from the Marsnauts, resulted in a steady stream of highly documented specimens and visitors. Speaking engagements brought in some hard cash and well-deserved publicity. She would have to increase the number and amenities of the units at her motel. The professional and amateur astrobiologists of the world seemed to want to help finance her company by staying at her motel and paying for micropictures of the bugs on their rocks.

Kelly retained the adult size teeter, swing and slide that came with the motel, adding a cable slide-for-life and a 10-meter tall jungle gym. The cliff and crevices of the boulder behind her outside cabaña had to be placed off limits an hour into happy hour after one rock climber fell, breaking his ankle. The 8-meter horizontal ladder from the jungle gym to the boulder was only installed on special occasions.

Owners of meteors for sale have to authenticate their rights to ownership. Bioprospectors have the burden of proof in proving ownership of bugs and their genetic information if it results in any valuable intellectual property. Registration of a bug at the Bright Life [Institute] Motel and Café was a cheap way of joining the bioprospectors of the world, sort of like finding and naming a comet. Kelly selected a search for Frye on the Bright Life Institute website. The page popped up with a three by five picture of an outhouse with the snow-covered flooded, frozen swamp that had risen almost to the doorknob. The outhouse door was ajar enough to permit an average sized man to enter by turning sideward. A large white mountain seemed ready to engulf the outhouse and any possible occupants thereof. Nine thumb nail micrographs expanded to display a plethora of bacterial and nanobacterial life. The two-botton right micrographs were locator shots of the specimens. The lymphoma-fighting Frye bug had come from this outhouse whose running water came from the swamp with an embedded 200-foot high sawdust pile. A mythical swamp monster had claimed the sawmill generations ago.

Kelly began to wonder whether the bugs were as benign as everyone assumed – should she be concerned about biocontainment? What bugs had the cavers been drinking all these years in the Renegade drink that they made with Lecheguilla cave water? The Hot Springs, Arkansas water had been considered to be sterile and now the common consensus is that since the bacteria did not co-evolve with humanity they cannot be pathogenic to man. Most of her bugs were bright life bugs – more closely related to humans. After all, before the avian flu crises it had been common wisdom that pathogens do not jump between species. The HIV virus evolved from SIM in primates which man was susceptible to. Was the HIV/AIDS pandemic the result of a pathogen that had escaped from a medical laboratory or even worse, was it a non-lethal weapon to thin out Blacks and homosexuals?

 

Jerry Littlefield jogged through the neighborhood behind his motel onto a small hill overlooking Highway 101, the old Camino Real or Royal Highway in California. The Borg cubes of Angin offices and laboratories continued their march up the golden hills of Camarillo, an assault that had begun when Jerry first started coming to Malibu. Jerry had even seen one of the cubes with a green skirt in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a part of the Alpha Quadrant. Angin was one of the most successful biotechnology companies in the world and was still independent of the voracious sharks that are the big pharmaceutical companies. Angin was becoming a baby pharma itself, gobbling up some of the smaller fish in biotech.

Now Angin was interested in buying ten of his electrolysis machines. Puffin Engineering was in the black because Jerry refused to spend more money than he had coming in. He couldn’t keep getting premium prices for the hand-made units and would have to transition to commodity units with mass production techniques. Jerry, cautious as ever in self-defense and preservation of his company, limited his expenditures on cutting-edge manufacturing machines. Jerry would need Norm, his production technician, back to fill the order. The hydrogen economy is still in the distant future, just disinformation at the present time from the large energy corporations to obtain federal research subsidies and tax credits. Was it time to sell his company, grab the money and run? And why would a biotech company want to produce its own hydrogen?

Craig Venter, formerly of Celera, was trying to design a microbe to manufacture hydrogen from water, carbon dioxide and sunlight using his own money.

Anime

Doyle Laughton looked around at the biggest bunch of geeks and nerds he had ever seen in one location. He had been attending the Friday night Anime Club meetings at MIT regularly, all semester, because of his interest in the graphics and sound tracks of the anime films. Doyle preferred the German productions, but as a musician he was fascinated by the lyrics based on Japanese folklore and fantasy. Doyle organized and led a Blues band whose name had evolved from White Trash to White Noise. The oriental harmonics, tempos and emphasis were different from western music. He would have to attend one of the Japanimation Society meetings above the Harvest Coop at Central Square.

Doyle attended Boston Latin and Rindge in Cambridge and played on the school’s baseball team. Doyle hadn’t inherited his musical skills from his biological father, Tim Perry – he was a much better musician.

Groupies and drugs

Doyle and his date Mona Sabine were invited to a party with the other members of Doyle’s band after attending a concert at Harvard Stadium. Both teenagers were too young to be drinking alcohol. Doyle had drunk some bourbon and Mona had taken some Ecstasy with her red wine. Doyle had making out, not drugs or jamming on his mind. The apartment was on the third story of a standalone house on Broadway between the Swiss Technical Consulate and Harvard. Doyle had maneuvered Monica out a window and up to the crow’s nest of the building on the pretence of looking for Saturn. They had managed to avoid the bust when the apartment was raided but had to avoid the forensic technicians in the apartment by climbing down a fire escape on the opposite end of the building. Doyle and Monica were not home free. An informant reported that they were in the apartment the night of the sweep.

Busted

Doyle was brought in for questioning but refused to incriminate himself or Monica. Monica, as the daughter of a prominent judge, was off the hook without the presence of any substantial evidence. Doyle was just too prominent a radical at the school to avoid the glare of scrutiny and the need for a lawyer. Tim went to Doyle’s lawyer’s office, to see how much trouble Doyle was in.

The Melody lingers on

Tim looked at Leona, Doyle’s mother – she had to be the most beautiful woman in the world and he would have married her in a minute. Tim was below Leona’s class; she married one of the Mayflower Laughtons. Tim had a small amount of Cherokee blood; obviously the Cherokee tribe was around way before the Mayflower had even set sail. The class differential wouldn’t disappear even if Tim were in charge of a planet. Leona married the well-scrubbed William Cabot Laughton, a professor of philosophy at Harvard specializing in Ethics and Comparative Fundamental Religions. Leona quickly banished the irresponsible thought that sex had been more satisfying on the wild side. She had thought that sex would be as good with any man, as it had been with her first – Tim.

There was no hard evidence on Doyle but the consensus was that a cooling off period out of town would be best for everyone concerned. He could finish the school term online and would be legally under his biological father’s control. Tim had mixed feelings about the arrangement but hoped he could get to know his biological son on a day-to-day basis. Doyle pretended to go along with his punishment with considerable reluctance – he couldn’t believe his good luck. He was going to be around real musicians (and astronauts) (and groupies). Don’t throw me into the briar patch.

Chapter 42. Presidents, Kings, Entertainers and Holy People

Charon spent a whirlwind year of speaking engagements, fancy hotels and easy money. Three monarchs, an ayatollah and three prime ministers feted Charon during one nine-day stretch in the Middle East. Zhou finally put a stop to her extensive traveling. He wasn’t going to have Charon killed in a plane crash after surviving Mars, the sun and interplanetary space. After all, four American astronauts had died in T-38 jet trainers while traveling on trips for public relations. Russia had lost Gagarin and Komarov. Zhou wanted Charon to discover her own world and desires. He felt that Charon had done her share of public service for humanity and China.

The mysterious Dragon Lady raised her head again. Charon and the other women who were in space would be allowed to keep the earnings from their speaking engagements tax-free. Considering that the American astronauts could demand millions of dollars a year, for as long as they stayed on Mars, this was the least that the Chinese government could do. The American astronauts were paid multiples of the Russian salaries and the original seven American astronauts had done very well financially. The Russians weren’t sure how they would handle the offers to Anatoly and Sergei. Russian public opinion was that the proceeds from Sergei’s writings should belong to him. While none of the Russian cosmonauts had got rich in space, it had become customary in the new Russia to negotiate space contracts down to individual tasks – any effort beyond the contracted minimum should be compensated. Anatoly and Sergei, of course, only had their military contracts. Nobody in Russia had anticipated the need for a statement of work and the appropriate compensation for a landing on Phobos.

China

What does a person do after she’s walked on Mars? Go to Europe? Charon could travel, study to become a teacher and raise kids (?) and perhaps coffee. She had done the space thing and space’s siren call had receded. Zhou didn’t even want her to climb up on a chair without help; flying was out of the question.

An adult size bed was installed in the large sleeping room of the small children in the dormitory. Tables also appeared starting speculation about what was happening. Captain Wu made an appearance with five food handlers and the food was arranged (and guarded). Nine o’clock was lights-out and the children milled around, prepared for bed with the food untouched. General Zhou and Charon walked into the hall at exactly 9. The children surrounded Charon as she sat on the bed and bounced a little to test the firmness of the bed. Zhou started pouring the drinks and the braver kids approached the table, helping themselves to the food.

When Captain Wu put on her medical doctor’s cap she could see that Charon was recovering from the abuses her body had been subjected to in space – her bone structure and musculature were back within normal limits – but psychologically the spark was not there. The young Charon would vault every railing to the ground whereas this Charon walked down stairs with one hand on the railing. Old age and caution had set in too early. The immortality of youth had been banished too early for the mortality and caution (fear?) of old age. Captain Wu worried about Charon and the rest of the women and girls. Her conversation four months earlier with Zhou over whether they should actively try to select boy friends for the women had never been resolved.

Captain Wu brought Charon a plate and a drink. Little play-actor Charon, she thought. The only person of the original mission to return from Mars, sleeping in her own childhood dormitory. This night will become part of the legend.

A group photo was taken later during the evening and Charon personally signed a copy for each of the individuals present in the photograph, including the food servers.

A courting we will go

Dr. Chu, Zhou now called him Wen in private, had requested an appointment. Zhou couldn’t imagine what this breach in his open door policy meant and his curiosity peaked.

Chu knocked on the sill of the open door at the agreed-upon time.

“Come on in,” greeted Zhou. “Have a seat.”

“Thanks,” responded Chu as he walked to the chair facing Zhou.

“And what can I do for you today?” asked Zhou.

“I’m asking for permission to court your daughter,” said Dr. Chu.

“Are you kidding? She’s only twelve years old,” said the general.

“General Zhou, I meant Charon,” answered Dr. Chu.

How much this young man had grown in the last six years, thought Zhou. But Chu hadn’t married; he and Major Wu had failed in this part of their mentoring. If Chu couldn’t find love, he should a least have kids.

Hawaii, 2015

General Zhou and Charon were driven in Senator Hing’s limo to Waikiki Beach. Several Hawaiian state troopers on motorcycles guarded another white limo. The senator stood on the sidewalk with his thirteen-year old daughter, Lisa. The Hings waved as the limo pulled into the no parking space bordering the beach sidewalk. Four surfboards were standing up, impaled in the sparse sand of Waikiki.

General Zhou took off his suit to reveal his brilliant Hawaiian bathing trunks. Lisa had already undressed and was jumping up and down near the boards in anticipation of going surfing. Senator Hing ceremoniously undressed, displaying his blue senatorial trunks. The four walked on the beach, everyone but Charon grabbing a surfboard. The Hings jumped on their surfboards as Zhou and Charon navigated the breaking waves.

Zhou gave Charon about thirty minutes of tutorials and then Hing and he went out to challenge the monstrous three-foot waves. Charon, accompanied by Lisa, caught the waves with increasing facility. When the surfing traffic started getting too heavy for beginners, the women called it a day. One of Hing’s drivers gave them beach towels to dry off with. The women dressed in the back of the limo and then left the vehicles, walking up the street for a shopping binge. The men continued to talk and surf.

Brazil

A committee of men had designed Lieutenant Nancy Vargas full of bounty and goodness; long legs that went up to her shoulder blades, fabulous breasts, beautiful hazel brown eyes and jet-black, shiny hair. Nancy was a postdoc in the Materials Science department at the São Paulo Politécnico Instituicão, potentially a mission specialist. Nancy’s specialty was biologically resistant materials.

Nancy got Charon a spot on the Salvadorian Carneval float, right below her platform. The turquoise background, as well as her mask and dress clashed with Charon’s golden skin and hair. Charon got into the mood of the Jezebels on the float and soon her greeting wave was attracting as many admirers and photographers as Nancy did with her surgically enhanced breasts. Her golden skin and hair were recognized as great innovations – there would be scores of golden girls in next year’s Carneval.

The Brazilian space program had got off to a bad start with an explosion of Brazil’s Veiculo Lancador de Satellites (VLS) rocket on the launch pad at the Alcantara base near Marenhao, Brazil killing twenty one of Brazil’s space elite at the equatorial launch site. Now the base was being developed to reach out to rich tourists and young students. The site included a hotel/casino complex, a playground built around a habitat and a space museum. Nancy’s university installed an extension school, heavy with ecological and biomaterial subjects. China’s contribution would be three Grasshoppers, a stripped ERV, simulators and space medical facilities. The interest of African and the Hispanic nations in training astronauts without the countries having the money for a space program amazed Nancy and Charon.

Charon’s childhood friends, Maddie and Joan, were in the pilot chairs with Charon in the commander’s seat. Four Brazilian astronaut candidates, including Nancy, sat in the four JAFO seats.

The right auxiliary rocket engine shut itself down at thirty-five miles of altitude and the Grasshopper tumbled in its ascent. The caution light panel and flight instrument panels lit up like an American Christmas tree as the alarms claxed. Maddie shut down the left auxiliary rocket engine and then throttled down the main engine to idle. Joan shut off the alarms. “Do you want the stick?” Maddie asked Charon.

“No, you got it,” was Charon’s answer. Charon hadn’t piloted a Grasshopper for seven years.

The Grasshopper coasted up into the dark black sky of space. Maddie slowed down the rotation and was enjoying the ride. Joan completed the emergency checklist and the pilots began the auxiliary engine shutdown checklist. Charon smiled to the Brazilians with a gesture of “that’s space travel for you.”

Maddie said to the flight deck, “I will deploy the small drogue chute now.”

Joan said, “I concur.”

Charon added, “I agree.” I’m actually reducing the effectiveness of the crew by my presence.

The small drogue chute would have little effect until the Grasshopper was biting into thicker air. Experience had shown that the danger of the small drogue becoming entangled was minimal. The rotation slowed and the drogue chute streamlined the Grasshopper. They were 3 kilometers lateral to the preplanned flight path. Joan was communicating with the ground.

“Grasshopper here, Joan. We’ve lost our auxiliary engines so we’re landing at the airport instead of near the VIP bleachers. Grasshopper requesting a fire truck at the end of runway 06 Left. We don’t anticipate any further problems. Please repeat.” Major General Moreiros of the Brazilian Air Force repeated the instructions.

First Lieutenant Meireles was borrowing a second barf bag. His empty gastrointestinal system continued trying to reject his lunch long after it was gone.

Maddie said, “I’m going to use the main parachutes for the landing.” Joan and Charon concurred in turn. The colorful triple parachute deployed to gasps from the VIP bleachers. An uncorrected descent would place the Grasshopper in the grass beyond the extension to the runway. Maddie increased the thrust from the main engine. Brazil rose to meet the Grasshopper. A final blast of loose dust and the Grasshopper caressed the Earth. Joan jettisoned the parachutes. Maddie monitored and acknowledged Joan as she performed the after landing checklist and rotated the Grasshopper to its bus orientation. The military fire engine and tug truck arrived with a spectacular display of lights and sirens.

“Grasshopper here, Como vai? We don’t need the fire truck anymore. Agradecida!

Charon signaled to Nancy to come forward. “Tell the tug truck to escort us back to the bleachers,” she directed.

Certamente, Major,” said Nancy as she put on Charon’s helmet.

The Grasshopper followed the tug back to the VIP bleachers. Charon annotated the flight logs of both pilots, “Landed two kilometers from preplanned landing at Alcantara, Brazil August, 28, 2013, Charon.”

Meireles went back to flying fighters, quitting the Brazilian space program.

Amazon

Commander Tim came out of the woods screaming that he was dying. Nancy grabbed him and threw him to the ground. “What’s wrong, commander?” she asked.

“A rattler bit me. I’m dead.” He answered. There are no rattlesnakes in the Amazon.

“Where were you bitten?” she asked.

Tim pointed to his inner thigh as Nancy grabbed his belt buckle. A quick pull later and Tim’s fly was opened. Nancy pulled the belt from Tim’s pants and rapped it around his upper thigh, using it as a tourniquet. That’s the fastest anybody’s got into my pants that I can remember, thought Tim. Jeeesus, where did that knife come from? Nancy was cutting Xs on the swelling fang puncture marks and then she sucked the cuts, spitting out blood as she sucked the wounds. Tim focused his thoughts on his mother, grandmother and Madeleine Albright; it didn’t work, even with Nancy’s withdrawal of some blood. He folded his hands over his crotch.

There was only room enough for two evacuees on the medical helicopter so Nancy accompanied Tim to the medical hospital. Tim felt tired, probably a side effect of the anti-venom drug he had been given. Tim was examined by the resident internist and assigned to an intensive care ward. The electrodes attached to his body were minimal by NASA standards. The doctor and nurse left, nodding to Nancy, who was holding Tim’s hand.

“Are the lights fading?” Tim asked Nancy.

“No, of course not,” she answered.

“Would you give a dying man his last request?” Tim asked.

“No way, you old fart. You’re not dying,” she replied.

“I’m fading fast,” said Tim, holding the back of his hand on his forehead. “The room’s spinning.”

Might as well start my astronaut collection, thought Nancy. “Stop whining and let me check your cuts for inflammation,” she said as she pulled the sheet back to check out the stitches on his wound. Tim pulled her forward and she fell heavily on Tim. Time to show the gringo that this tiger fights back and who’s the boss around here.

Nancy grabbed Tim’s wrists and pinned Tim to the bed. I’ve never seen such a strong girl, thought Tim. Tim arched his back and started to roll by reflex, but Nancy was obviously in control. Resistance is futile, might as well accept the inevitable! His hands moved to Nancy’s firm buttocks. Another question of his from junior high was answered. The Amazon legend is true.

[This episode will perpetuate currently wrong folk wisdom about the treatment of snakebites. Cutting Xs in a snakebite is likely to only increase the bleeding above that encouraged by the anticoagulant properties of the snake venom. Sucking of the wound is said to be ineffective and the normal use of a tourniquet is said to cause more damage than lack of treatment. Most nonmedical treatments are useless and only encourage the victim to delay obtaining the only useful treatment, which is the use of the correct antivenom. Identification of the offending snake is helpful since the antivenom selected may not contain the proper antivenom for the snakebite.]

Red Stars, the novel

Out of all of the autobiographies and documentaries that came out of the original five missions to Mars only Sergei’s autobiography Red Star on a Red Planet became a blockbuster best seller. Red Star was probably the most complete and truthful description of the early years that has been published. The Red Star description of the difficulties at Mars Site I was disputed by the United States and China while the official Russian response was a shrug of the shoulders. Sergei had been forced to conceal the names of the actual participants in the incident. Sergei settled into life on Mars with his extended family and completed his autobiography only for the upfront million American dollars. Sergei had a classical Russian author locked up inside, struggling to be free. Part poet, part Apollo astronaut/artist Alan Bean, Sergei transmitted the adventure that was Mars to the tax-paying couch potatoes on Earth. All of the new Martians became millionaires many times over during the bidding wars for their services after their obligatory terms of service were over. The new millionaires found that it was hard to eat Earth money on Mars.

Red Stars, the movie

The German producer, Gunter Wildenbach, threw away his old screenplay. He had spent 11 million euros to get the best (practically only) stock footage of Martian scenery and interviews with the people on Mars. He had acquired kilometers of space film including views of all the latest space platforms. Acquiring the screen rights to Red Star should have been the final brick in the wall. Something was missing. What had he overlooked? Gunter looked at the first takes of the scene where Vivian tells Sergei that she is pregnant. Marsha Kostov absolutely glowed in the role of Sergei’s golden wife. Maybe he could get Charon to act as an expert (used as much as and in the same manner as other space experts have been used by Hollywood). Maybe I can get Charon to make a cameo appearance.

It would cost him more to break his contract with Marsha Kostov than it had cost Boston University to stiff ex-NASA chief, Daniel Golden, for its position of BU president. Golden parachutes were costing more than divorces in Beantown. Charon had proved to be photogenic and naturally comfortable in front of a camera in her cursory screen test. The Russian heartthrob, Alex Solonov, threw tantrums until he was given the leading role in the movie based on Sergei’s book. Charon would play Vivian, the mother of Anatoly’s child. Alex and Charon’s fling only lasted through filming. Alex married 4 times in his short life, but the image he had making love until he died was the fluttering golden eyelashes on Charon’s partially shut reptilian eyes.

Moscow Planetfest

Discovery Shuttle commander Eileen Collins, Air Force call sign “Mom”, commanded the return to flight of the space transport system on July 26, 2005. The shuttle fleet had been grounded for thirty-two months because of the Columbia disaster. Eileen used a trailer to introduce Charon. The trailer included the explosion at Yellowstone Caverns with a barely visible Charon being hurled down the slope by a torrent of water. A shot of Charon surfing one of the small waves at Waikiki was spliced in, followed by the main scene in Red Star.

Charon’s presentation was a simple slide and description show, the Martian landscape and man’s presence on Mars being a story not needing any hype or embellishment.

During the question period, Bob Hebert of the Kansas City Republican asked, “Are American or Russian men better in space?” The room went silent as Charon theatrically entertained the ambiguous question.

“I’d have to say Russian,” was her answer to a roar of laughter from the Russians crowd, followed by the crowd standing up and applauding. That should help ticket sales in Russia, she thought.

Hilo

Charon called the office in Shanghai and got Captain Wu. Zhou would return her call when he got back from his meeting. Charon told Zhou that she was tired and wanted to come home. Zhou approved but asked Charon to stop in at his family plantation in Hawaii to visit his family. Charon was on a red-eye flight to Hilo that night.

Hilo and the Apollo plantation were in a festive mood, anticipating the harvesting of the coffee crop. Bloody Mary showed Charon some Hawaiian dances, which she might never have the chance to show her old friends on Mars. Charon’s mind and body healed with the help of human (family?) companionship, Hawaiian fruits and vegetables and the sun and sea. Charon and her borrowed bicycle became a common sight on the roads and pathways navigating the hills of the big island.

Charon was awakened by the sound of commotion in the street outside of her room. The children were all boarding a school bus with lunch baskets. The picking of the coffee would begin today. Charon raced her borrowed bicycle down the dark streets, overtaking the bus as it turned into the coffee fields. The children in the back of the bus yelled to their aunt, encouraging the intercept.

The women and children picked the majority of the Apollo Coffee cherries by hand. The ancient harvesting machine could pick only about a fifth of the bushes in the rough volcanic terrain.

Charon was healthily exhausted, as she entered the old yellow school bus with the children for the final trip home of the season. Four of the children had adopted her and would sit as close to her on the bus as they could. Community and Family. The crop was in, life’s cycle completed. The work on the coffee had just begun, but the children could return to school and leave the rest of the processing and marketing to the adults. Bloody Mary drew a portrait of Charon, morphing Charon into the girl standing next to a coffee bush on the Apollo label. There was smoke rising from the volcano in the background that looked like Olympus Mons in spite of the blue sky. Apollo Coffee copyrighted the image of the Apollo girl in the United States to prevent its use by homesteading competitors.


Part 007. The Phoenix

The weight of bureaucracy is a heavy weight indeed. – Chris Kraft, the First NASA Flight Director

When the authority is taken by Washington bureaucrats, instead of being granted to the people doing the work, it adds years to the schedule and billions to the budgets. – Chris Kraft

The administration of Mission Control was transferred to Washington from Houston after the Columbia accident.

Chapter 43. the ice

Three-chord Hell, Frozen Over

Major Tim Perry submitted his paper work for resigning from the Air Force and obtained a tentative contract with Lockheed Martin to winter over in Antarctica to test Lockheed Martin’s new life-support systems and several science modules from Lockheed subcontractors. Tim didn’t know that Commander Hollis, Commander Leavitt and Colonel Aggi Hansen-Lawrence had all recommended/requested that he be transferred to Mars. Tim joined the Peregrine flight team who would be leaving after the summer. Tim’s sole companion during the winter would be his bass player, Ray Scott from Scotched Earth, who planned to write some music with Tim’s help. Ray had left his tractor truck with his brother, Albert, who had just been laid off by Honeywell. Ray felt that they could have used Albert’s help, but strangely, Albert preferred living in Tempe, Arizona to hanging out with Tim and Ray in Antarctica. Ray had reminded Albert by email how hot Phoenix could be in the summer. No loss anyway - Albert’s singing and lead guitar sucked and his jokes were worse.

The new equipment on the habitat included an oxygen-breathing version of the Mars pressurized rover and two ski mobiles. The biology equipment would probably not be tested very well, given the skill-set and interests of the two musicians. Battles rarely go according to plan.

An offer you can’t refuse

Tim stared at the manila envelope from Requinto Petroleum. The return address was from the Vice President of Processing, Marvin Penterglas, in Houston. Tim pulled the Bowie knife that he used for a letter opener from his desk drawer and sliced an end of the envelope. He removed the letter, unfolded the top third and peeked at the first paragraph. The offer was simple: 10 million dollars as a sign-up bonus at launch, two million for each year he was away from home, to be the Commander of the Phoenix. He could pick his own crew. Considering the cost of the expedition, Requinto Petroleum wouldn’t want him to skimp on the salaries for the crew or their equipment. The expenses would have to be approved by Requinto, but everything being equal, approval should be a rubber stamp. Who did Requinto think he was? Like Chuck Yeager, he worked for the United States Air Force – at least for now.

The offer was good until three months before the opposition launch window. It certainly was nice to have a backup position. Requinto’s backup plan would be to use Zhou’s people for the flight crew. Bill read the contract further. What a dickhead! There was an additional, supplemental recording contract – a $500,000 advance for two LPs at Big Time Slacker (recording studio). How had that daughter of a bitch Butch got involved in this? So much for early retirement.

Antarctic Snow Birds

Ninety-day wonder Lieutenant Tim Mooney walked over to the habitat from the Marine chopper. What the hell am I doing in Antarctica in civvies with only two months left in my service obligation? The voice from the speaker told him to get into the airlock with his bags. The airlock pressurized and depressurized. Following the instructions of the solitary sign in the airlock, Tim subjected his boots to a cursory blast of air from the vacuum dust removers. When the inner portal opened, Tim found himself looking at an unshaven man wearing a heavy southwestern cotton shirt and jeans. A large bullhead belt buckle with embedded turquoise eyes and teeth made of real silver stared back at him. Tim didn’t know it yet but his handle had changed to Lieutenant. There could only be one Tim in a habitat.

Two US Navy helicopters unloaded two large cryogenic containers, which were labeled by their contents as liquid oxygen and liquid methane. The Grasshopper was dropped in by a Sea Stallion helicopter a few weeks later, with Wu, Tania, Kay, Nancy, Qi and Lin following a few hours later on another navy helicopter. Nancy looked out the window of the CH-63 helicopter and gave out a comical scream of despair. The laughter was muted given the barrenness surrounding the landing area.

Breaching the Great Wall of China

Captain Wu was sitting near the large window, concentrating on her progress report to Zhou as Tania and Lin came into the cafeteria. Tania ordered a large Ethiopian coffee and Lin ordered her favorite, Chok, a German, very rich, hot chocolate milk. Lin grabbed Tania’s arm as she headed towards Wu’s table. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Wu’s scary.”

“Don’t be silly. We’re not at the dormitory any more.”

“She watches me. I don’t think she likes me,” said Lin.

“She has to take care of everybody, even trouble-makers like you,” replied Tania.

Lin slapped Tania’s arm and followed her to Wu’s table. Wu greeted Tania and Lin and waved them to the empty chairs. Tania asked Wu, “What did you think about the scuba diving yesterday beneath the ice?”

Wu answered, “It was beautiful, a different world.” The blue of the ice was like Commander Tim’s eyes. “Lin, did you enjoy your time under the ice?”

“Yes, this land is so beautiful. A person can hear herself think. I love the sky and the mountains,” she answered. “All these beautiful penguins, they take care of their children.”

“Most animals take care of their offspring,” observed Tania.

“Our mothers didn’t,” retorted Lin.

“Things are more complicated with humans,” said Wu.

Tania asked, “Were we left on the stairs of the dormitory?”

“Your mothers had different reasons for mothering their children. Usually it was a combination of compassion and patriotism.”

Lin said, “My mother was probably glad to get rid of me. She probably wanted a boy. I bet she didn’t waste another thought on me.”

Wu said, “I think most of the mothers worried about their children for the rest of their lives. That’s how mothers are.”

Tania asked, “Will we ever have children?”

“We’re not sure, but Vivian has a healthy boy,” answered Wu. She didn’t add, a normal, non-golden boy.

“I won’t give my children away,” said Lin. “My kids will know who I am.”

Wu bite her lip, realizing the extent of the open wounds in her people. What could she do for them, Lin in particular? She didn’t want her people to be like the walking wounded that returned from the border and rural conflicts. How would the public receive the news of Vivian’s boy?

Dream Team

The team was starting to look rather boring, given that Tim could pick anybody in the world. The lieutenant was okay for a keyboardist, even if his thing was gospel rock – nobody’s perfect. Egotistically, he felt he was too young for [the Christian Las Vegas] Branson, Missouri. He would accept Wu’s two pilots. It’s too bad Captain Wu wasn’t part of the deal but one has to make sacrifices. How had Zhou come up with two flight-qualified classical musicians? I really wanted Cheryl, but what the heck? Tim was changing without his even realizing it, his exposure to classical and oriental music retuning his ear. Music wasn’t Tim’s only challenge. The Chinese girls didn’t look half as skinny to Tim as they had when they first arrived. Hopefully, the lieutenant shared and wouldn’t make a pig of himself with the pilots.

It was obvious to Wu that Tania had a crush on Tiny Tim. Wu was wondering about losing perspective as a military leader, chaperone and housemother. The girls were pairing up in so unChinese a fashion. After all, they aren’t American teenyboppers.

Lieutenant Tim’s mission, should you accept, would be to run the drill mounted on a motorized rig on Mars. The rig was stabilized by heavy stands, which could be slammed into the ground to produce seismic vibrations. Two Requinto engineers/drillers trained him in its use, starting with drilling holes in the lake large enough for a small submersible and progressing to rock drilling. Laser reflectors were surveyed enabling the rover to function autonomously. Requinto Petroleum hadn’t looked beyond exploiting the tar pits on Mars, but the presence of water and caverns on Mars opened up new possibilities. The rig was modified to allow some horizontal drilling capability. Tim named the motorized rig Javelina. No The, just Javelina. Any full-service station on Mars would have to have a convenience store, water, liquid methane, hydrogen and oxygen. Astronaut training for Tiny Tim would be on-the-job training. “A piece of cake,” said Big Tim.

More difficult and undefined would be the processing of the asphalt. The crew would have less than a year on Mars to determine what processes and equipment would be needed to make the extraction of hydrocarbon products practical on Mars and order a processing plant from Requinto. The mission of the biotech personnel was undefined publicly. Tim had his lawyer negotiate his and the lieutenant’s contracts with the Air Force and Requinto. This wasn’t Tim’s first rodeo.

Pilot Candidate

Major Eric Lancing had experienced a fall from grace. Eric was clean from the amphetamine addiction he had acquired on his long B-2 bombing missions, but not from bourbon. He never shook the memory of a misprogrammed smart bomb that his crew delivered to a walk-in emergency clinic in Basrah. His wife moved away from base housing, alleging physical abuse, embarrassing Eric and according to him, curtaining his shuttle flights. Eric had spent three weeks on the ISS as part of his Shuttle flight. He had been removed from the astronaut program after an incident of breaking and entering and assault on his estranged wife. Eric’s wife said that he was mean when he was drinking and that he was always drinking. In effect, Eric was forced out of the Air Force and was working for a regional airline. Melvin Penterglas thought Eric was a good resource that was being wasted and recommended that he be considered for the Dallas flight crew. I need somebody on board who is loyal to me. Eric moved into base housing at McMurdoc and started interacting with the Dallas flight crew and learning the Grasshopper and habitat systems.

Eric told Tania that he wanted to show her some video clips on his personal computer. As Tania bent over to view the screen of the laptop, Eric moved behind her, his body contacting Tania’s and his arms encircling her waist. Tania broke away and started to protest Eric’s behavior. Eric backhanded her across the mouth and she fell back on the bed, rolling to the other side of the bed in one motion. Eric feinted as Tania started to run around the bed in an attempt to get to the door. Tania returned to a position behind the bed as Eric dove to grab her. Tania’s right cross broke Eric’s nose and resulted in a gusher of blood. Tania grabbed the hand holding her sweater, and stepping over the arm, deposited her full weight on Eric’s shoulder. Eric’s upper arm was dislocated from its shoulder socket. Tania ran to the door and passed Tim in the laboratory, her fists in a defensive position. Tim entered the sleeping quarters and saw Eric sitting on the bed, holding his nose with his good hand. Tim called the emergency medical dispatcher on his remote phone.

“The bitch attacked me,” Eric said to Tim, as Tim talked to the medics.

“Shut the fuck up, or you’re going to be eating soup for the rest of your sorry life,” was Tim’s reply.

Captain Wu rushed through the door with murder in her eyes. Tim’s chest made contact with Wu’s breasts as he blocked her passage. She felt Tim’s arousal and retreated, deciding to bide her time. He slowly backed her away from the bed as her resolve dampened.

The marine medic stopped the bleeding and immobilized Eric’s arm. Eric was evacuated to McMurdoc Sound. Tim could see that it was a case of he said, she said, but he would see that Eric would never see space again.

Casanova 2014

“Look at it this way, the mate of the Black Widow goes out in a blaze of pleasure and glory,” argued Tim. Tim’s sense of humor had the opposite effect from what he had intended. Young Tim maintained a buffer zone from Tania, when he had to be around her at all. Big Tim knew what Young Tim was in for and wished Tim happy hunting. Selfishly he wished he were young again. Big Tim asked himself the eternal question: Why is youth wasted on the young?

Whisker Burn

Captain Wu’s face looked like she had run into an automotive wax buffer. Her red eyes emitted small sparkles of pain – Tim’s truth serum was Jack Daniels. Tim had a self-satisfied glow – he had finally seduced a real woman, not the usual bimbo trying to get on Opry.

Captain Wu had never run into a man like Tim. When he was with a woman, she was the only thing around. Tim was either harmonizing or playing a counter-melody, an accompanying musician who didn’t try to steal the show or bury his partner. He loved women more than sex – sex was just another means of communication, second to music. Wu had let herself go, surrendering control, letting Tim lead. With Tim, his contribution was important but not as important as the music.

Never to young to learn

Young Tim walked past Lin, as she was studying at a table in the cafeteria. Lin was reading a children’s book of Russian fairy tales. She was wearing a headset and mispronouncing Russian words. Tim picked up a large glass of orange juice and returned to Lin’s table.

“Hay, kid. Okay if I sit down?” he asked, imitating Lin’s style of conversation. Lin had warmed to Tim’s easy-going manner.

“Sure, if nobody else will give you a seat,” she answered.

“Why are you studying Russian?” Tim asked Lin.

“I’m going to be China’s first ambassador to Mars,” was Lin’s answer. That was a good enough answer for Tim as Lin picked up her first mentor in Antarctica.

Matchmaker

Tim had found a small deck of illustrated cards, which he had used at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey to learn Russian aeronautical terms. As he entered the cafeteria for Lin’s scheduled Russian lesson, he could see that Tania was sitting at Lin’s table. He would join them; after all he wasn’t scared of Tania. Tania looked surprised as Tim sat opposite her at the table.

“Hello, Tania. Are you studying to join the diplomatic corps, too?” he asked.

Tania answered, “No, I’m helping Lin with her geography. Lin?”

“Us diplomats have to know many things and deal with numerous difficult people and situations,” was her diplomatic and noncommittal answer. “At the present time I’m trying to resolve a territorial dispute.”

She grabbed Tim and Tania’s hands, putting Tim’s hand on Tania’s and holding the resisting hands tightly together. “With the power invested in me by Commander Tim, I pronounce you friends.”

“What power?” Tania wanted to know.

Tim defended Lin, “The commander has the power of maritime law behind him.”

Lin consulted the wall clock, saying “Oh no, it’s time for my cooking class.”

Lin grabbed her coat and headed for the door. Captain Wu Liang watched the scene from her vantage point in the kitchen. What a brat! She beamed with maternal pride. Kay pulled out her drawing pad and sketched her mentor as she had done numerous times before.

No tikki, no laundee

Commander Tim was trying to iron his lucky performance pants. The coin-fed driers at the cafeteria had baked wrinkles into the pants. He released a stream of curses as he burnt his fingers testing the temperature of the iron. Qi walked over to the ironing board, sprinkled the water from Tim’s coffee cup with her fingers on the pants and started ironing. Without starch, this was the best she could do with the pants. Then she pressed Tim’s ornate western shirt.

Tim examined the neatly pressed pants and shirt. “Okay kid, want to make five bucks?” he asked Qi.

“Bucks?” questioned Qi.

“Five dollars,” explained Tim. Tim walked over to his desk and pulled out a ten-dollar roll of quarters.

“What do I have to do?” asked Qi.

“Four quarters for the laundry, four for the soap and four for the drier. Use more if the clothes aren’t dry. Then all you have to do is iron the shirts.”

Tim walked to his desk and retrieved a package of fabric softener. “Put one of these in the drier,” he said as he threw the package into the laundry bag with the dirty shirts. Qi went to find Lin and the two left for the cafeteria.

Wu was working in the kitchen with Kay as the two children burst through the cafeteria doors and started casing the laundry machines. She walked over to the kids, drying her hands with a towel. “And what are you two up to today?” she asked.

“Your Tim wants us to do a laundry,” said Lin. If only it were true that Tim was mine, thought Wu. Qi headed to the soap dispensers with a frown on her face, as she inspected the unfamiliar change box with a card insertion slot.

“Wait a minute,” Wu said as she signaled Qi to follow her.

She walked over to the community lockers and said, “Number 39, 35 right, 15 left, 42,” to Qi. Qi opened the large locker and Wu pulled out a very large box of soap.

Wu and Qi walked back to Lin and Wu said, “Use this soap, one measure per load.”

“Oh, I see, this will save Tim a dollar,” said Qi.

“No, it’ll save you a dollar,” said Wu.

“Is that honest?” asked Qi.

“That’s business,” said Wu. The girls smiled at each other with avarice. Wu signaled them to follow her. She went directly to the cafeteria manager’s office, knocking gently on the door.

“Come in,” barked a voice from the interior. Wu sheparded the girls into the office. Cedric Melanson, an overweight, balding man, smiled and jumped to his feet.

“And who are these lovely ladies?” he asked, as if he didn’t know.

“My assistants, Lin and Qi,” answered Wu. “They wish to get a vending card for the laundromat. They have clients that require laundry services.” Lin looked at Qi and back to Cedric.

“I can only give them an employee discount,” he said to Wu.

“We can always renegotiate later,” Wu said to the girls. “Good, Cedric, thanks a lot,” she nodded to Cedric.

Cedric pulled two unprogrammed vending cards from his desk saying, “35 percent,” which was 10% above the normal employee discount. Wu nodded again and funneled the girls out of the office.

Wu gave the girls their final lesson for the day as she prepared the vending cards: “Qi set up the deal and you both will do the work. Money takes half. In this case Qi should receive two thirds and Lin should get one third of the profit. Do you both understand?”

They didn’t but both of the girls nodded anyway. This business idea is sort of neat and will require further study, both girls thought in their own way. The children had no idea how much this knowledge would help them on Mars. Kay sketched Captain Wu and the children on her small pad.

The Abominable Snowman

The commander and Lieutenant Tim drove the snow machines into the parking lot by the commissary. Wu, Tania and Kay walked over to greet the men as the commander pulled off the hood of his Air Force-issue fur-lined overcoat. Wu brushed the icicles off Big Tim’s scrubby beard. Young Tim was giddy from the helicopter trip to the observatory at Mount Erebus, an active volcano. Giant samples of ice from the ice towers generated by the volcanic vents were collected on the off chance that extreme microbes would be found. Kay’s watercolor of the wild-eyed commander, given to Wu for her personal use, became the cover image for the Iced album.

Honky Tonk Women

Big Tim had shaved even though this was just an unpublicized dress practice in the cafeteria. He would tape the session to give Tania experience with the video cameras. Lin and Qi were given tambourines and told not to sing. It was like telling the Amazon not to flow.

Space Music

The kids had messed up his song, The Clear Water of Lawton. He couldn’t tell if it was Kay or Tania harmonizing with him on the Left Too Long on the Mound recording. Wasn’t anything sacred anymore? There wasn’t a honky-tonk in Oklahoma that would play his songs. Tiny Tim would get a whack on the pee pee for this.

Butch said she had released the songs to a few stations and they had been well received. No, not country and western stations - commercial radio stations. Butch said if the records didn’t grow on him she would record covers for him. He could record covers on his own records! “Things are becoming modern too fast,” Tim complained and Ray wrote the statement in his lyrics book. Tim’s comment would become a full-blown song in six weeks. The Iced album only sold 50,000 copies the first year but Lawton and Mound were downloaded as singles more than a million times each, at 99 cents a copy on Apple’s iTunes Music Store. One Way Ticket to Mars, an instrumental featuring Tania and Kay boasted over 500,000 paid downloads, over 100,000 in Eastern Europe.  Spaced was the first album written and recorded on Mars. Tim recorded Ray’s Space Fever on Mars and it was the only cut on both albums to make it to the C&W charts. Tim gave up all hope of ever being invited to join the Outlaws.

The Lovelace Torture Chambers

Big Tim encouraged Tiny Tim to take the series of tests that were used to select astronauts at the Lovelace Foundation and Clinic in Albuquerque. Supposedly the tests would be private, paid for by Requinto Petroleum, but Commander Tim knew that the files would be available to NASA and the United States government, given their cozy relationship to the private clinic. “The Mercury 13 women did it, U-2 pilots did it and the astronauts did it, so you should do it,” said the commander. Big Tim was anticipating a backlash from the American astronauts left behind by a lieutenant whose golden bars weren’t old enough to be tarnished. “It’ll help you learn the medical terminology of space and you’ll learn something about yourself.” Only after the tests were completed did Tiny Tim wonder if he had pissed the commander off. [NASA has brought astronaut selection back to the military and government/civilian hospitals from Lovelace.] Now the commander was trying to get him access to the centrifuge and the other stressing simulators used in America’s space medicine facilities at Wright Aeronautical Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio and on the Florida panhandle at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

It was only later that Lieutenant Tim came to believe that the travails that the astronauts had endured in the name of testing and space medicine, as exemplified by Al Shepard’s ear surgery to get back on flight status, was the result of the stressing and medical procedures that they had been subjected to. After all, robotic flight gear was kept pristine during testing while sibling equipment was subjected to stress and developmental tests.

Field Team

Doyle spent two days at the Udvar/Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Aviation Museum located on Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, DC, three more at both of the NASA museums in Huntsville and Houston, a week of music and beer at Mardi Gras, two days at Carlsbad Caverns and a day at Roswell before heading to Albuquerque. He barely made it to Lovelace in time for his flight physical. Having read everything he could find about Lovelace and its tests, he thought the examination was cool and wrote the experience up, heavy with dropped names, for a term paper. After the initial survivor’s euphoria from not getting caught in the sweep, the kids at Boston Latin were starting to develop a healthy dislike for their errant schoolmate. Doyle’s composition, Bipolar Disorder [North and South Poles], written during dinner after 6 hours of sensory deprivation, replaced the heavily maligned Stairway to Heaven as the first tune learned by aspiring rock guitarists throughout the world.

Chapter 44. Pink Granite

The pink granite of Acadia National Park contrasts with the red rocks of the west. The pink color in granite is due to the natural pink tint of feldspar. [Maine should be called the Granite State instead of New Hampshire – the mica in New Hampshire granite makes it difficult to polish.] The second type of volcanic surface structure, a dome, produces granite. Igneous rock such as granite forms deep in the Earth with the grains of quartz, feldspar and other minerals being smaller, the faster the rock cools. Enough said about black flies, mosquitoes and overzealous temporary park rangers at Acadia National Park.

Volcanic flows produce cones, about half a dozen of which disappear annually in Arizona as their red cinders are distributed on the desert lawns of the Southwest and among the bushes at the Boston Sheraton.

Glaciers flow like molasses, a viscous liquid, in geological time. The ice masses accumulate as precipitation is dumped in the Polar Regions and ground mountains down as they drift toward the equator, dumping their debris as they melt. Glaciers melt from the bottom up, heated from the interior of the planet. Glaciers accumulate meteorites as well as dust and microbes. These meteorites are collected annually in the glaciers of Antarctica that are barricaded from the ocean by mountainous features.

Erosion is the easiest process to understand – a stream pushes rocks and sand towards the ocean, a hill cleaved to level new roads starts falling apart after the first winter and wind etches patterns in sandstone. Look at any rock cliff made by cutting through a rock ledge – the erosion from the water freezing in the cracks in the rocks are evident after only a few winters in northern America.

The alliance between China, Inc and the big box stores made pre-cut polished granite sink tops and marble available for hundreds instead of thousands of dollars at Home Depot, eliminating the need for stone artisans. India jumped into the decorative stone business, competing with China solely on cost.

Mount Desert Island Rusticator

Doyle drove his mother’s van to Bar Harbor, Maine and paid for a week of RV camping at the Blackwoods Campground in Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island. The French explorer Samuel de Champlain explored Acadia naming the area containing bald (desert) granite mountains bald mountain island in French. MDI has the highest mountain on the east coast – Mt. Cadillac standing tall at 1500 feet above sea level. Glacial activity and erosion wore the overburden of the volcanic dome down to the pink granite rock, which forms a lasting impression on all visitors to the park. Doyle slept in his van in a rain-soaked campground lot at Blackwoods. Nature woke him up periodically, punishment for all the orange juice he had been drinking all day. The trees in the lot hid most of the sky, exposing only the sky directly overhead. Deneb, the head of the swan, Cygnus, was visible. Doyle searched for the remaining stars of the Cygnus constellation as Vega, the brightest star in the area appeared, dominating the small patch of stars.

Doyle would dive with Norm Garrett for shellfish during the day, scuba training for the dark, cold caves of Mars. Norm had been cleared by Jerry Littlefield to train Tim and Doyle under a non-disclosure agreement on the electrolysis machines. Doyle saw the most highly defined rainbow he had ever seen, in the aftermath of a shower.

Twinkle, twinkle

Astronomers describe how uniform the atmosphere is to viewing the stars as the quality of seeing. Even when atmospheric dust or water droplets are minimal, or we should say when light pollution bouncing off these particles is minimal, turbulence in the lower or upper atmosphere such as the jet stream distort the light from the distant stars. Doyle stood on Cadillac Mountain buffeted by the winds after the unenforced midnight closing of the peak. The clear, dark sky was like an abstract painting, the constellations so blurred as to be unrecognizable. The stars looked like distant headlights through a rain-soaked windshield.

Solo

Norm spent his belated Puffin Engineering paycheck for $1500 by buying a block of flight instruction for a Cessna 182 at the Bar Harbor Airport. Only one prepaid hour of instruction remained after he was lucky enough for the weather to clear enough for his instructor to allow him to solo. He’d have to spend some time this weekend diving for shellfish to buy another block of flying to consolidate what he’d already learned. There were whole worlds to be conquered outside of mid-coastal Maine.

Norm liked guns – not collector items but guns that were made to be fired cheaply and often. If it moves, shoot it, make love to it, or both. Arise, shoot, eat. Norm got his deer every year, more for food than for sport. Norm thought that deer were the most beautiful animals that live on land. He found it impossible to declare an underwater favorite.

Norm had acquired his forearm tattoos on his trip to Southern California. He had a job excavating for swimming pools in the San Fernando Valley but was released because he was spending all his time looking for gemstones and minerals during work. Norm had accumulated enough credits to barely be considered a college junior, a low B scholar at that. Doyle recommended that Norm be hired to go to Mars as a technician and diver. The recommendation prompted a visit by Lieutenant Tim, Tania and Kay, who flew in for some Maine seafood, diving, camping and hiking. Doyle moved in with Norm who lived on Bar Island, swimming home when the incoming tide covered the bar to the island. Doyle also learned to mix drinks and schmooze customers for tips as the scheduled week on the central Maine coast grew into a month. Then it rained, and rained, and rained.

Iridium Flares

The park ranger and her backup had the group of forty neophyte star gazers rolling like grunion on the shell-laced sand of Sand Beach, looking up at one constellation after another, sequencing from one cardinal point of the compass to another. Most of the people had brought beach blankets; Norm considered it down country-like to use a blanket. Norm periodically jumped into the 50-degree water during the presentation. Enough of this, thought Norm. This water is frigging cold and I’ve show these wimps who’s boss.  Kay wandered into the water slowly, walking up next to Norm with her eyes never leaving the star-lit sky. [A rough translation of the old Chinese proverb that Kay was repeating mentally is, a man has got to do, what a man has got to do.]

Norm thought that his feelings could be attributed to following Kay up too many flesh-colored granite faces in Acadia National Park. Their hands joined without their eyes leaving the sky. Kay swam to Bar Island that night with Norm and Doyle. Later in the morning, Norm concluded that Kay was a keeper.

Working for Wages

Tiny Tim wanted Norm and Doyle to become his drilling assistants and Norm was invited to vacation with pay on the ice after taking his first class medical physical at Lovelace. In later renditions of the incident Norm swore that he heard the Japanese-American physician whisper “Bonzai” under his breath during the examination of his prostate gland. The physician also told him that he had a potential hernia to which Norm replied, “I didn’t before I had this examination.”

Commander Tim asked Norm, “So you just soloed a few weeks ago?”

Norm answered, “Yes. It was beautiful flying without all the screaming coming at me from the right seat. The plane took off like a rocket without my fat ass instructor sitting next to me.”

Nobody forgets the first time he soloed including Tim. Tim had forgot to come to a full stop on his first solo flight around the traffic pattern when he got distracted by his flight instructor jumping up and down, apparently in a rage. Tim had quickly settled down to perform the next two patterns correctly. “Screaming” Biladeau explained that he was freezing his ass off and was doing jumping jacks to keep warm.

Norm knew that it was his diving skills and work ethic that Tim was interested in – all of Tim’s friends had hundreds of hours in jets and months in space. When his friends asked Tim what Norm Garrett’s skills were, Tim said with a straight face that Norm was a bartender.

Tim told Norm that he could offer him $400,000 a year, room and board, with a signup bonus of $200K to get his affairs in order. Norm looked back in disbelief, saying “What?”

Tim replied with a smile, “$500,000 a year, and that’s my last offer.” Norm sat down in a daze. Maybe I can get by without bartending on the side.

Norm and Kay were sent to Moffett Field to NASA’s Mars exhibition with only a month for Norm to consider Tim’s offer. Mar’s red face smiled with irony when Norm wondered if there’d be any bartending for him to do on Mars. Mars roared when Norm wondered if there’d be any fishing for him to do. To the casual observer, Valles Marineris still made Mars have an unhappy face :(

300 Degrees of Freedom

Liang sat with Qi and Lin in the sauna. Qi and Lin were dressed in one-piece bathing suits and hiking boots while Liang was wearing a robe. The other twelve people were dressed in sneakers and smiles. Martin Venskus, an astronomer babysitting a small array interferometer during the austral winter, was the only person standing. He paced back and forth in the small room, anxious to get with the program. The program was running around the ceremonial South Pole in the minus 100-degree weather. The remaining members of the group seemed happy just to enjoy the heat, savoring the moment. Mark scanned the group when the red light came on indicating an internal temperature of 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Everybody turned his or her attention to Martin who was waving everybody towards the door. He grabbed Professor “Doc” Dieter Kammerer, who was wearing a camera, and dragged him towards the door. The two disappeared out the door leaving the sound of the thudding door in their wake. Norm and Kay left next followed by Qi and Lin. Qi stopped outside the door and started to remove her bathing suit. She looked at Lin.

What are you doing?” Lin asked Qi.

In response, Qi asked Lin, “Are you going to be the only person with clothes on?”

“We’re going to get in trouble,” Lin answered as she peeled off her bathing suit.

Qi and Lin sped after Norm and Kay, who had stopped to wait for them. The quartet ran to the South Pole. Doc was taking a picture of Martin who was concealing his manliness behind the narrow pole. Martin would use this photograph, conceptually oriented (upside-down) to a South Pole orientation, in all of his presentations back at Socorro. Doc lined up behind the pole for his picture lifting up the sphere that rested on the South Pole. Being in possession of the camera he was obligated to photograph the next four runners singly and in various combinations as well as the next eight stragglers. In spite of some serious tongue teasing, nobody got his tongue stuck on the pole and sphere. Qi and Lin stopped to put their bathing suits on before returning to the building without realizing that Liang had watched their run.

Actually it wasn’t the professor’s ass that was freezing. This unusual case of frostbite was published in the JAMA proceedings and posted, complete with photographs, on the NRAO Website.

Oracle

Colonel Perry, Major Wu and Doyle went to see Zhou to obtain his blessing for a family wedding. Zhou approved but wanted the marriage to be kept secret. Zhou agreed to give the bride away and approved of Lin and Qi’s presence as flower girls.

Zhou requested a briefing, which also included other Dallas and Phoenix flight crewmembers – Major Mikhail Sorenev, Dr Peter Eisendorf and Tsai Hen. Zhou entered the room with his old friend, the defrocked priest, Sheng Zhi. Wu had explained Sheng’s difficulties with the Chinese government in Hong Kong and his fringe, rejected apocalyptic views of present-day civilization to Tim and Doyle.

Sheng’s twenty-minute presentation predicted political instability and a collapse of the economies on Earth. Oil production, the source of the industrial world’s energy, had passed its peak production in 2002, and it was all down hill with gas and coal from here. Sheng finished his presentation, disconnected his laptop and left the room without allowing a question period. Zhou took over and described the defensive position that the three crews would assume, just in case there were difficulties while the crews were on Mars. Green houses would be expanded with tools and devices for manufacturing and repairing equipment on Mars. There was no opposition to this approach, even though the Russian and German astronauts seemed to be dismissing Sheng as a crackpot. Wu seemed even more reserved than usual. Zhou knew that the colonists on Mars would not be self-sufficient even after the flights of this opposition. He added three tons of freeze dehydrated fruit and vegetables to the Phoenix manifest.

The Russians launched the Dallas and the Phoenix within two weeks of each other during the 2016 opposition. The Dallas had an improved, larger rover, almost a motor home. The Phoenix lacked a garage and rover because of its extended passenger list and equipment.

Charon, her pregnancy barely showing, attended the launches with her fiancé, the Hawaiian-born Chinese philosopher, Hsi Wang. Charon would find out that raising children was more difficult than going to Mars.


Part 8. Dark World

If the president wants to go ahead with this insane plan to send people to Mars, it makes sense to appoint a politician or a former astronaut. But if, as many of us believe should be the case, he wants to expand our knowledge of the universe, it would make sense to appoint someone with a scientific background. - Robert Park, president of the United States Physical Society, reacting to the pending resignation of the current NASA Administrator, Sean O’Keefe, December 2004.

Chapter 45. Westgate

Sergei and Anatoly constructed a water lock to allow human access to the water in the cavern from their small, pressurized laboratory. The lock was expanded so that there was breathable air above the water’s surface and room enough for three people to move around in the room, even if they were wearing scuba equipment. They discovered that there was a pocket of gas above the water’s surface in the cave on the first dive. The bioluminescence in the cave was so slight that complete dark-adaption was required to see each other. Some of the fishes were luminescent. Normally the divers used shoulder lamps. The ceiling of the cave and any pinnacles above the water were covered with black slime (snottites). The women analyzed the microbial blanket but Anatoly and Sergei didn’t have any interest in the results. For better or worse, the question of fraternizing with the microbes on Mars had been answered.

The gas pocket above the water had a pressure of about 600 millibars. Although the mixture of gases was different from the external atmosphere it was still unbreathable. The bowels of Mars were proving to be more hospitable than its surface. Nancy was as at home in the caverns as she had been on the beaches of Salvador or in the Amazon Basin, while Norm spent his time learning a completely new group of shellfish.

The village of Westlake grew slowly around the airlock at the westerly end of the local cave system. The first airlock for floor trucks was expanded to one large enough to admit a rover. The laboratory structure outside of the lock slowly grew to 600 square feet, divided into three separate rooms. Divers could enter the water directly from the lab without going through airlocks. Construction of three windows enabled the observation of the area near the airlock. An underwater speaker allowed communication with the divers, improving safety. Norm was permitted to clean, ice and store his fish in an isolated room near the frontal airlock.

Village Smithy

Sergei and Anatoly did their best to try to purify their Yuma Crater metal etchings using a low temperature process utilizing metallic hydrates. Sergei made a ceramic mold to manufacture bolts. The first bolts were mixtures of metals, but soon the Russians had made comparatively pure bolts of aluminum, iron, silver and gold, allowing the hydrates to separate by gravity and centrifuging. Gold was only present in trace quantities so aluminum became the material of choice. Anatoly noticed that the metals corroded when exposed to a Martian or an earthly atmosphere. Data tables were accumulated which documented the mixtures of the alloys precipitated out versus the percentage of the hydrates in the liquid phase. Progress on making a forge as part of the need to produce large aluminum castings was discouragingly slow.

Anatoly’s mother would have another heart attack if she knew that her son was entertaining thoughts from the Dark Side of Capitalism. They would have to make a gold vacuum-proof bottle to send a sample of their Martian vodka to General Kravenko, not a simple task. Their final product was overkill, the bottle being overweight and terribly impressive. As a final touch, Sergei painted the embossed star a garish Soviet red.

A solid gold rivet and a solid silver rivet were used as paperweights on Sergei’s desk.

Brat Pack

The lieutenant and Norm became the leaders of the Children of Mars, never far from Tania, Kay and Nancy. Doyle, Hong, Jin and Robin became a subgroup with their groupies, Lin and Qi. The pack all became informal employees of Norm’s Tavern and Fish House. Fräulein Heidi considered herself to be their housemother, her main duties being the supervision of their diet and the cleanliness of their clothes. Heidi concentrated her efforts on the small children and Major Chriskus.

Mimic

Heidi grew irritated and then concerned that Robin was imitating her accent. “Why are you speaking with a German accent?” she asked Robin.

Lin answered, “She speaks English to us with a Shanghai accent.” Robin smiled in silence.

Heidi had the class go to the computers for self-study with German and European history. She listened intently while Robin repeated a dialog in what appeared to be a Berlin accent. Then she repeated a French dialog with the Quebec accent of the recording teacher. How strange, Heidi thought. I will have to spend some extra time with this little girl. Later Heidi noticed that Robin duplicated Commander Tim’s mannerisms when she sang Show me a Man. Robin’s imitation of Tina Turner’s Rolling on the River was nearly perfect.

The Loyal Secret Fraternity of Tub

Norm announced the forthcoming meeting at his cave to Tim and the lieutenant. He had finally got his home brew to mature properly, an accomplishment allowing him to suggest the need for the men on Mars to form a secret society, complete with traditions and a bar. He modestly suggested that the tavern be called Norm’s Tavern. Almost every rover on Mars and a truck were parked outside of Norm’s modest cave for the occasion.

Norm and the lieutenant had invited Tim, Reggie, Anatoly, Sergei, Doyle and the Prussian microbiologist, Dr. Eisendorf to the meeting. Tim, anticipating the subject to be discussed, brought taikonaut Tsai Hen along. Tsai’s father distributed beer and fine wines in Hunan province. The event could be considered the boys’ first night out on Mars and the meeting lasted all night. Captain Wu was hired as the outside caterer, the food being Norm and Tim’s contribution to the event.

The surprise guest for the evening was hidden behind some Chinese room-dividers. After the guests had settled down at the large table, Norm removed the dividers, unveiling his latest achievement. The home brew was unbottled, still in the special bathtub Anatoly had made for Norm. Smiles appeared around the table along with a few frowns from those individuals unable to make the leap of faith required by the presence on booze in quantity on Mars. Doyle helped Norm distribute the limited-edition steins Anatoly and Sergei had manufactured under commission from Norm. The Russians got two with red stars, solving the mystery for them concerning the strange order. The Russians liked dealing with Norm because he negotiated a fair price with them instead getting the best price that he could get. Doyle walked to the tub signaling the others to follow him. He filled his stein by dipping it into the contents of the tub. The cheering crowd followed and soon the men were standing around the tub with full steins.

Norm proposed a toast to dear old (University of) Maine and the group sang Rudy Valley’s version of the Maine Stein Song along with Norm’s karaoke CD-player as well as they could. Seufert. The Tub Fraternity was established on Mars.

Sergei announced that an inflatable greenhouse had fallen off a truck near his habitat. Tim and Anatoly rolled their eyes as the others feinted looking away or scanning for spies that might be listening. It was just as well since UPS didn’t deliver to Yellowstone yet. The hills above Yellowstone would be out of sight and near water and the eventual consumers. Anatoly and Sergei volunteered to bring a truckload of bat shit to Yellowstone, the ultimate sacrifice. Young Tim and Norm volunteered to help. Their commitment to duty was toasted.

The brotherhood would have to grow wheat, potatoes and sugar beets. The use of fertilizer was the secret to agriculture on Mars. Tsai had to get in his little joke saying, “I motion that we use a small portion of the greenhouse for food.” There was silence until Commander Tim laughed, saving his friend from further embarrassment, as the others joined in laughing. Tsai smiled and the motion was rejected.

Tsai insisted that archaeological data proved that the Chinese drank fermented beer and wine around 7000 BC – way before the people of the Middle East [and several millennia before the world was created]. The booze disappeared and the public countenances of the men faded. Two large bowls of mountain oysters were consumed with the usual jokes. Some of the men were unknowingly consuming their first Martian fish.

Zinc boosts Lust

Greasy Norm’s Tavern had the common Maine restaurant greeting Warm Beer and Lousy Food posted on its roadside sign. A smaller sign advertised Dirty Restrooms and a yet smaller sign stated New Tators. The sign in the restroom advised Customers must wash their Hands. Nobody read or heeded the Stand back from the Urinal before Flushing sign. There were three signs in the stockroom which would be installed in the future: No Private Restrooms, Beware of Dogs and Post No Signs. The community bulletin board was installed in the locker room in the entrance airlock of the restaurant. The Children of Mars preferred the Fancy Dinin Room. Norm eventually became the richest man on Mars. The usual special on the menu and the most popular item was something called Martian lobsta tail. The normal Tuesday night hors d’oevres was porcupine balls. Phillip would have approved of Liang’s Hunan shrimp noodles.

The explosion of war babies started before Norm’s restaurant was opened, as the female libido on Mars seemed to kick in with the start of the consumption of Martian fish. The dark multicellular life on Mars used minerals in different proportions from the earthly branches of the tree of life.

Fräulein Heidi sat at the bar of Norm’s and ordered a Mass of the house beer. This was where the remaining eligible men, as sorry a lot as they were, could be found. A swift radio call from Liang brought Kay quickly to the bar. Kay joined Heidi at the bar and a flood of conversation poured between the pair. Liang brought over a pitcher and the three women retreated to a nearby table, which had high chairs or optional standing space. The table was designed to be a gathering location.

Norm had instructed Doyle very early in his training to make everybody’s first drink extra strong. The bar started to fill up with the men, who wondered about the invasion of their turf by the women. Norm entered the bar through the stock room and quickly sized up the situation. He walked over to Doyle.

“Why are the women paying for their drinks on a Wednesday?” he asked Doyle.

Doyle, confused, answered, “It’s Tuesday.”

“Whatever, Fat Tuesday,” said Norm. “Tuesday is Ladies’ Night. Drinks are free for women on Tuesdays.” He hurriedly poured a pitcher of beer and brought it to Liang’s table. Tsai bravely moved his drink to the table and was soon joined by Dieter Thiessen. Dieter and Heidi met formally and started talking about the nightclubs in Sachsenhausen.

The boys were out of town so Aggie and Sonia raced over to the bar after a call from Kay. Aggie, Sonia, Kay and Liang performed the first Achy Breaky Heart line dance on Mars. The Platters’ cover of Achy Breaky was used to accompany the dancers.

An exhausted Norm had to signal last call by playing Goodnight, Irene, the start of a new tradition on Mars. The men soon noticed a tendency on the part of the women to schedule their expeditions so that they included Tuesday overnights in the field for the men.

Shellfish of Mong Cave

Kay examined the meticulous descriptions and colored photographs of the shellfish that Norm had accumulated. The technical data for the fish that Norm had assembled was harder to organize than the photographs and required several weeks of work. Kay carried a hard copy of the compilation to Commander Tim for his evaluation. Tim volunteered to write an introduction. Colonel Bucky was just as enthusiastic and he helped Tim to edit the text. Norm was a little surprised by Tim and Bucky’s technical questions about the shellfish, but didn’t suspect any subterfuge.

Kay found a photograph of Norm standing behind two large bowls of mountain oysters with his arms spread in greeting. Kay’s drawing based on the photo became the cover image for the book. Liang sent a low-resolution version of the book to General Zhou who showed it to his wife.

Zhou asked Xioulung, “Do you know a publisher who’d be interested in this book?”

“Of course, I know a publisher,” she answered.

[There were thousands of suitable publishers in China. Zioulung just had to find the right one.] The book was published simultaneously in Chinese and English six months later. Norm found out about the publication of his notes in an email from his mother from her house in Mattawaumkeag. Her bookstore in Bangor had sent her their first copy. The American Association of Scientists quickly requested that Norm present his results virtually at their annual San Diego meeting.

Chapter 46. Conflict

Tim didn’t like the idea of the gates on Yellowstone Road. Melvin said it was just business, controlling Requinto’s concession. The tree huggers just don’t understand that you can only make money when you’re pumping oil. Requinto Petroleum intended to pump oil until Jesus came. Tim felt that they would alienate their customers including the NASA astronauts. Melvin boasted to Tim and Tim that he was the highest paid person on Mars. Melvin stiffed Sergei and Anatoly for part of the purchase price of the gate components, promising to make up the difference with future purchases.

Fences make good neighbors

Commander Bob Leavitt was looking forward to a few days at Yellowstone. It appeared that the Earth’s attention had focused away from Plymouth and the tar pits towards the exploration of the water caverns. He could see the Requinto habitats at the tar pit from about three kilometers away. There was a gate across the road to Yellowstone. The sign read “Private Property, Requinto Petroleum Corporation.” Bob stopped the rover in front of the frail barrier blocking the road. The counter-balanced arm looked like it was made out of tin or something about as strong. A box covered with solar panels and probably containing a storage battery, flanked the post with the arm. The post sported a surveillance camera and a home-sized phone. Bob drove the rover forward, making contact with, and bending the arm until it popped out of its slot on the post. Bob increased the speed of the rover until he saw another gate about a mile from the first gate. This gate received the same consideration as the first gate. Would this range soon be barb-wired?

Commons

Charon and Aggi were in the trailing rover going to obtain resin from the tar pit. They would have to process the asphalt both biologically and chemically. Using the nuclear generating units for processing was clumsy and dangerous. The kerosene being promised by Requinto would be a safer and more convenient fuel. Anatoly and Sergei drove to the shore of the pit. The Requinto rover had drilled and mapped in its autonomous telerobotic mode an array of exploration cores covering the entire lake and select points on the shore. The drill had embedded Schlumberger sensors in its shaft, a technique called log while drilling. Anatoly and Sergei suited up and depressurized their rover. They could see that the seismic sensors that they had set up to pirate data from the Requinto explosions had been vandalized. Looking across the dark surface of the tar pit they could see men standing by the Requinto drilling tower looking in their direction. One man was pointing an M-72 20mm grenade launcher in their direction. The grenade exploded on the beach about 75 meters from the lead rover. Aggie started driving her rover around the lake towards the Requinto habitats. Another grenade burst about 50 meters in front of her rover. She stopped and drove back around the lake. Everyone agreed that they should regroup and discuss the turn of events.

Highwaymen

Marvin Penterglas drove the rover up the Van Horn grade toward Yellowstone. There was a rover coming down the grade. The approaching rover slowed down and stopped. Penterglas armed the grenade launcher built into his rover and approached the rover blocking the one-lane road. As the rover slowed to a stop, a rocket-propelled grenade struck the rear window of Penterglas’ rover. The rover decompressed and Penterglas died as he turned his head towards the exploding window. Then the shooter cautiously approached the rear of the rover and looked in the driver’s side of the rover. The shooter opened the rear door and entered the rover, tossing Penterglas’ body to the rear of the rover. Both rovers disappeared up the grade.

Tim became concerned when Penterglas didn’t return to the complex before nightfall, but didn’t inquire about his whereabouts until the next day. The rover had simply disappeared. When Tim reported Penterglas’ absence, his Capcon at Requinto told him to keep developing the concession. Tim reminded the Requinto Capcom that he worked for the Air Force and considered Requinto’s homesteading illegal. This gig was starting to go sour.

The Williams submersible

The submersible would be difficult to use in the caverns. The submersible was an off-the-shelf Japanese design, built with lighter materials for transport to Mars. The engineers responsible for the retrofit had assumed that the crewmember would be isolated from the water environment, an impossibility for extensive use. The new Martians modified the submersible, steadily improving its usability. A pressure of four atmospheres could crush its shell, making it basically a near-surface vehicle.

Lieutenant Tim, Norm, Nancy and Tania were in the water, in scuba gear, ready to inspect the Williams as Aggie checked out the ballast system. The water visibility was about a hundred feet. Big Tim was in the laboratory reading off the checklist to Aggie. Aggie monitored the pressure in the compressed air tank as she pressurized the ballast tank. The ballast tank blew out, ejecting the submersible forward and out of the tube. Tania watched in horror as the vessel went by, heading nose-down towards the bottom. Aggie deployed the control fins and leveled the submersible off, heading away from the laboratory. Immediately, Aggie started a shallow turn to head back towards the laboratory as the sub impacted the mucky sand on the bottom. The impact had reduced her visibility to practically zero outside the sub. The sub was stuck on the bottom.

Tim and Tania couldn’t see the sub because of the stirred up silt. The Williams only had about 120 minutes of oxygen. Tania explained the situation as well as she could to Big Tim as the lieutenant and Nancy grabbed a lifeline and swam into the murky water. It would be impossible to find the sub, which might be hundreds of feet away and even worse, in a deeper part of the cavern, away from the shoals near the laboratory and the gas pocket.

The water cleared a little and Aggie could see fishes swimming by and the shimmering of the long, sedate seaweed organisms. Aggie selected maximum reverse power to the propellers and nothing happened; she was stuck. She could see shadows through the haze as a primal fear took over her body. Her mind separated from her body and she examined her fear objectively, something happening to someone else. She thought back to staring into chasms, loosing an engine in a speed-killing turn at low altitude and the death of a deer that she had observed on a snow-covered highway in Utah – this was a new experience. It reminded her of the isolation tank at Wright-Patterson, with confusing visual clues.

It is out of my hands. They’ll find me, dead or alive. She turned on all the external lights and the searchlight. The light reduced her visibility further. Minutes went by. Aggie shut off all of the systems except the running lights. She would conserve the power available to the sub’s motor. Aggie didn’t think that bailing out of the minisub with an oxygen bottle was much of an option. Aggie saw some new species of fish and eels and turned on the video recorder to record the images and her comments. She dictated a message to Bucky that she loved him and demanded that he find another wife and mother for their children. She knew the others would be frantically searching for her. Aggie relaxed and imagined the southern sky of Australia. She started humming a nursery rhyme from her childhood.

Young Tim and Tania swam together holding a line to attach to the submerged platform. The murk wasn’t settling – it would be difficult to find the sub. Bucky and Reggie arrived, but Tim wouldn’t allow them into the water with only the emergency breathers. The clock moved slower and slower, then faster and faster. Aggie had most likely run out of oxygen thirty minutes ago.

A serpentine eel, longer than the miniature sub, swam by, coiled around the sub and then leaned part of its body against the sub. Aggie watched the creature with detachment, noticing a hole at one end that could be a mouth. She greeted her visitor with a wave and it paused, assuming an attentive pose. The eel reared its end with the aperture back and hit the release panel for the sub’s flotation device. The floatation device popped as its bladder inflated and the creature backed off. The sub tilted a little. Aggie tried the propulsion unit again and the sub broke loose in a cloud of turbidity. The sub rose slowly and broke through the surface.

Tiny Tim was at the side of the sub in minutes, slapping the canopy to signal Aggie that everything was under control. Tim pushed the sub to the nearest slimy rocks and threw a line to Nancy who attached the line to a rock close to the shore. Tania broke through the surface carrying an extra breathing device. Aggie would have to put the mask on and clear it after Tim opened the canopy. She gave Tim the chocks out signal and released her restraints.

It took Tim about ten minutes of sliding on the rocks and stromatolites to straddle the sub close enough to the midsection to raise the canopy. Tim’s hands were covered with slime and he was only able to raise the canopy with Aggie’s help. Aggie put on and cleared the breathing device and breathed a few breaths of the dry, cold oxygen. She closed the canopy and jumped into the water. They swam about seventy-five meters to the wall before swimming under water to the staging around the tunnel. Norm was on the staging with additional scuba gear, equipment that wouldn’t be needed now. Tania and Aggie entered the tunnel first, hurrying because of the small capacity of Aggie’s breathing gear. Bucky was waiting impatiently in the laboratory and he pulled Aggie and Tania out of the water lock.

Examination of the submersible revealed that the ballast tank venting-valve was miswired in spite of a successful delivery test in Kyoto and no discovered deficiency before the failure. Several of the astronauts felt that Aggie was somehow partially responsible for the mishap. Even Aggie’s description of the eel and its behavior were questioned by two members of the Peregrine crew. The forward-looking cameras had caught a shadowy form but light can play games with perception in muddy water.

Aggie had survived because of her inaction; the men would have tried this and tried that until they had passed out. Nobody could understand why an outstanding stick and rudder pilot like Aggie would respond with inaction, except that she was female. The fact that the men would probably be dead had nothing to do with it; principle was involved. Aggie started to wonder, Is somebody trying to kill me?

Pavonis Mons

The two rovers slowly advanced through the boring expanse of sand and boulders on the longest excursion ever attempted from Yellowstone. John Harrison of the Planetary Institute in Tucson had advised them to go to a gorge on the northern edge of the volcano but they had ignored his advice.

The first rover contained the Peregrine crew; the members of the second rover were Anatoly, Sergei, Tania, Janice and Mee. Only well-planned stretches of road had been cleared of rock by their primitive plow. Three of the rover wheels had failed. The fourth wheel broke when its aluminum rim fractured along a spoke and a thirty-centimeter length of its circumference. Exploring the rock-strewn planitiae of Mars was costly in terms of wheels and time.

There were no more spares on Anatoly’s rover. They were still ninety kilometers from the edge of Pavonis Mons. The Peregrine rover had two spares and the crew wanted to continue the expedition. The rover crews swapped equipment for fuel and the Peregrine crew promised to return in three sols. Leika, the Sparrow rover, would stay in place, functioning as a communications relay. The relay rover would replenish Anatoly’s party with fuel and consumables before the Peregrine rover returned.

Anatoly tack-welded the broken segment into the rim and ran an iron strap around the circumference of the wheel. Anatoly and Sergei would have to manufacture replacement wheels for the rovers. A whole planet to explore without a manufacturing base to support it, thought Anatoly. This modified wheel, cast in a heavier and stronger configuration, reinforced with the iron strap, became the standard rover wheel.

Olympus Mons had been rejected as a destination because it was known to have steep cliffs and, anyway, it was on the other side of the Tharsis dome. The cliffs of Pavonis Mons hadn’t been expected. The Peregrine crew wouldn’t admit that this was as far as they could go. Fran Belanger and Sam Watanabe unloaded the ATVs from topside and started working the machines up the steep cliff. A stream bed offered a possible route upwards but five miles later a solid lava bed presented a final barrier. Fran chipped a chuck of the lava and they admitted that this was as far as they would be able to go this trip.

Finally the shortage of food and fuel forced the termination of the expedition and the rovers crawled back to Yellowstone. The lava flow was dated as being 400,000 years old. John Harrison included the lava’s age in a comprehension study of the Tharsis bulge and this ignited an academic free for all that ignored the remainder of his paper. The Stanford dogma was that Mars was dead, long dead.

There is no Easter Bunny

Jerry hiked from the Tarn via the Ladder Trail over Dorr Mountain before buying a bottle of lemonade at the gift shop on the summit of Mount Cadillac. Jerry’s t-shirt, bought by his brother John’s oldest boy, proclaimed that he was a “Wimpy Scumbag Liberal.” John explained that there wasn’t enough room on the t-shirt for Atheist or Godless. An exhausted Pennsylvanian woman on the trail told Jerry that there certainly were a lot of rocks on the trail. A helicopter flew low around Acadia, irritating the hikers. Blueberries were plentiful in spite of the large number of young hikers. Cathy, a Ridge Runner from Colorado, hiked by offering bottles of water to the climbers on the trail during the hot, humid day. Jerry observed the Gazelle helicopter again flying too low sightseeing around Champlain Mountain, Dorr Mountain and Frenchman’s Bay. Professional pilots fly helicopters of this class but the Bozo piloting the Gazelle obviously didn’t need his ticket to earn a living. Kathy called in his tail (boom) number. There had already been a lot of complaints and the park personnel were trying to identify the chopper as the aircraft flew down the glacial water-created gorge between Cadillac and Dorr Mountains. Jerry returned to his truck by reversing his morning route.

Jerry got a coffee at the gift shop at Jorden House, drinking it on the second floor patio overlooking Jorden Pond. As Jerry returned to the summit of Cadillac Mountain by truck it was mobbed with tourists and summer people waiting for the sunset. Jerry looked for and once again didn’t see the green flash from the sun as it sunk below the mountains in the west. Some would hang around to watch the early-rising full moon. Jerry talked with a naval aviator who piloted A4s and later Harrier VTOL jets. His young son talked about his time in Germany while his friend described himself as a boat driver. Jerry knew that he didn’t mean PTs or 27-foot Catalinas. The trio was from Georgia.

The mob shifted their positions to the eastern side of the summit after the sun set to watch the early rising full moon. An elderly woman opined to Jerry that the moon was beautiful but that the money spent in space would be better off spent on the Earth. The moon was streaked with clouds. Jerry tried to observe the stellar constellations in spite of the full moon and the light from Bar Harbor, cars and flashlights. A light breeze kept the mosquitoes and black flies at bay as the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia became identifiable.

Amnesty

Aggie and Anatoly were the prime suspects for the Penterglas disappearance. Aggie’s executive order for amnesty to obtain the return of the Requinto rover, rubber-stamped by the council, would, therefore, always be suspect. The Texas homicide defense, he needed killing, didn’t work as well with Texans if the victim was Texan (Penterglas was born in Ohio) and the perps could be foreigners. The appearance of the rover on the Van Horn grade at least confirmed that Melvin hadn’t eloped with a Martian maiden or a mermaid from the caverns. The rover was undamaged [the window had been replaced] and showed no signs of foul play. Tim accepted the rover with thanksgiving – his crew needed the vehicle not Penterglas. A copy of the Robin flight crew’s official report was the primary response to Requinto’s demand for an investigation. Basically, everybody was accounted for so there were no suspects. Scandals at Requinto in Libya diverted Requinto’s attention and focus on the tar pits and the Penterglas case grew cold. The Requinto employees on Mars had to sue to obtain portions of their salaries. Eventually, Aggie awarded the Martian assets of Requinto to Tim and Lieutenant Tim in compliance with their contracts. The new owners negotiated Requinto’s obligation to the former employees of Requinto on Mars, even though it wasn’t legally their problem. Tims, Inc. felt responsible for the crews and their predicament; there weren’t that many salaried jobs on Mars.

Chapter 47. The green, green grass of Home

Aggi was tired; she wanted to go home. Bucky didn’t want to go home and Robin wished to stay on Mars with her father. Aggie would be commander of the MAV and began simulator training using the capability built into the MAV with the Einstein crew for the sub orbital insertion part of the flight home. It’s good to be in the pilot’s seat again.

MAVerick, 2014

The MAV ascent module was hoisted onto a rocky ledge after being separated from the Blue Jay. Physical separation would prevent damage to the habitable areas of the Blue Jay during the launch of the MAV. The fuel tanks of the MAV were filled with only enough fuel to allow firing and testing of the engines and other systems. The systems of the MAV, now called the Maverick, were tested and retested. The Maverick and the Einstein nuclear tug, circling above in orbit, could accommodate as many as five people and the cargo returning to the Earth. Who would want to leave or if there were more than five, how would those allowed to leave be selected? The MAV would remain in orbit after docking with the Einstein in the hope that the MAV might be salvageable in the future or be useful for practicing docking maneuvers. The MAV would function as a remote sensor for a few weeks until it was shut down to conserve fuel.

Launch of the Maverick

The MAV accelerated rapidly. An alert light came announcing a yellow caution light on the overhead caution and alert panel. The yellow over temperature caution light was for the left auxiliary engine; then the red alarm with its audio alarm, Red Alert, came on. Aggie reduced the thrust on the auxiliary engines as the left nozzle exploded. Aggie shut down the left engine and its fuel pump, followed by a reduction in the thrust on the right auxiliary engine. The main engine nozzle adjusted the direction of its thrust to compensate for the Maverick’s yaw. They weren’t going anywhere today, thought Aggie. The Maverick was heavy with fuel.

Aggie elected to shut down the right auxiliary engine and the Einstein pilots agreed. The Maverick slowed down and started to descend. Aggie stabilized the porpoising of the Maverick and descended to ten kilometers above the ground. They would burn off the majority of their fuel before attempting a landing. There was no landing gear – the Maverick would land on its hold-down supports and engines. Joe was communicating with the ground about their intention to land in the prairie area, beyond the outcroppings.

Aggie reduced the thrust from the main engine, deploying the chutes as their descent speed built up. Flaring with the engine, she chopped the engine as the contact light came on. Aggie jettisoned the chute before the Maverick settled into the sand. The Maverick crunched into Mars and fell on its side with a hop caused by a surge from the left auxiliary engine. Aggie cut loose with a catcall. What a rush!

The crew minus Aggie and their cargo were transferred to the Grasshopper after a few days of rest for the crew to recover from the aborted flight. The Grasshopper transported the Einstein crew and Charon to the Einstein and returned to Yellowstone Caverns.

The Maverick was put in mothballs and preserved in Beaver Caverns. It was rediscovered four generations of Martians later and a museum was build to display it.

Home, the late great Planet Earth

Bucky and Robin didn’t return to Earth with Aggie in 2016 as Bucky had promised. The Lawrence family, including a new addition, Glen, returned to Earth in 2018 using the Sparrow ERV vehicle. They found a downsized Earth when they returned. Boeing was cut back to 20% of its personnel level in 2010. The Caspian Oil War reduced the Kazakhstan launch site to an enclave, besieged by combatants and civilians alike. India’s war with China and Pakistan deteriorated into artillery and sniper duels in the Himalayan Mountains. A Greek Cypriot assassinated the Turkish president of the European Union while he was addressing the World Trade Organization.

The official leadership of Mars fell on Tim’s shoulders after the departure of the Lawrences. His wife Liang assumed the duties of administration. General Zhou, Dr. Heng and a large number of Zhou’s support people were stranded in Hawaii after the Honolulu PlanetFest during the Xinjiang insurrection by Uighur separists. The Hunan avian flu pandemic isolated China but not the pandemic. Only three members of Zhou’s party returned to China. Dr. Heng mothered two girls with General Zhou.


Part 9. Beyond the Neighborhood

I am Yahweh, and there is no other,

I form the light and I create the darkness,

I make well being, and I create disaster,

I, Yahweh, do all these things. – Isaiah 46:7

The only major discovery on Mars since Mong and Charon’s first explorations was the exploration of the water or slime world of Yellowstone Caverns. The Pavonis Mons expedition had mainly produced surveying data and broken equipment. It was time for man to visit the grander features of Mars.

Chapter 48. Palace Coup Attempt

Leavitt parked his rover at a town hall roverport and his men removed their helmets and gloves. Leavitt and two of his men, Chriskus and Thiessen, came into Tim’s office still wearing their side arms. They wanted access to a second rover and supplies for extensive exploring. Wu, Lu and Lian were in the room and realized that a confrontation was imminent. The girls shifted into defensive positions and Wu edged up to Tim at his desk.

Leavitt claimed, “My operational orders gave me a right to the vehicles and supplies.”

Tim pointed out, “the vehicles are all dedicated to individuals and the two Requinto Petroleum vehicles are my personal property and not part of the mix.”

Tim realized that any vehicle given to Leavitt would be hard to get back. He would try a compromise.

“You can have the Plymouth rover. That’s all we can spare.”

Leavitt answered, “That’s unacceptable. We need two of the newer rovers and standby control of the Fire Star for resupply”.

“No way,” answered Tim. “The Council and I will never agree to that. The Fire Star will only be available to you for emergencies.”

“Then we’ll just have to commandeer the vehicles,” replied Leavitt.

Tim wanted to see how serious Leavitt was in his demands. He opened his desk drawer and pulled out his Bowie knife, sticking it into his desk.

“Could you clarify what you have in mind?” Tim asked.

The two Chinese girls tensed and shifted their positions slightly. Tim put his left hand on Wu’s forearm.

 “We’ll just take them,” was Leavitt’s answer.

Tim reached into his side drawer and pulled out a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun. The whole weapon was only ten inches long. I’d hate to have to ruin a perfectly good space suit, thought Tim.

“This conversation is over, and don’t even think about coming back into town armed,” said Tim.

Tim cocked one of the shotgun’s hammers for effect. The stare down lasted twenty seconds and then Leavitt turned and left. Wu walked around to the front of the desk. She looked into Tim’s eyes.

“I think you should know that an unmanned supply ship landed in Yuma Crater a few months ago with a lot of heavy weapons. Leavitt will not be able to find it.”

Tim asked, “Is there anything else that I should know?”

Wu smiled. “Nothing that I can think of at the moment.”

Good, Tim thought, maybe I don’t want to know where the weapons are. Obviously there was a lot going on Mars that he didn’t know about.

I’ve had enough of this bullshit, thought Leavitt. He decided that it was time to bring out the heavy artillery. He’d go to the Alabama and move the equipment to his compound. Leavitt wondered what their superiors on Earth actually had in mind, supplying him with weapons and training his crew in small unit tactics.

Leavitt’s crew drove the two rovers through the gap into Yuma Crater. He could see that there had been a lot of traffic into the crater in the past. Leavitt’s crew did an extensive survey of Yuma Crater and the data was integrated into NASA’s maps. The Alabama, of course, couldn’t be found, and Leavitt went into a subdued, withdrawn state. He decided to go on a small expedition to clear his head. Perhaps Mars would surprise him.

Chapter 49. Chaotic Region

The two-rover expedition approached the chaotic region near the Clinton lava flows. It was believed that the chaotic regions were formed when aquifers or lava caves collapsed. The slow progress was nerve-wracking until a region of flat sandstone, windswept with sand, promised a reprieve from the rock-strewn sand dunes. The convoy increased its speed and covered ten miles at cruising speed. Commander Leavitt was driving the lead rover with Major Chico Thiessen navigating. The rover dropped headfirst into a sinkhole and the two men died instantaneously when the rover decompressed explosively on impact. Major Fran Belanger stopped the second rover when the first rover disappeared. Fran and his navigator, Sam Watanabe, suited up.

The rear of the rover could be seen about 15 meters below the shaft entrance; it wasn’t apparent that the crew was already dead. The survivors couldn’t wait until the next Caidin Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter over flight to report their status to Plymouth. Sam lowered himself slowly down to the rover and opened the rear door. The rover had fallen into a large cave. He could see that a rock spike had penetrated through the windshield, deeply into the vehicle. Commander Leavitt had been crushed against his seat. Both men were dead and the rover was firmly stuck on rocks in the shaft. All the surviving men could do was recover the bodies and secure the rover. The news of the tragedy was relayed to Plymouth.

Inspection of the boots and suits of the returning astronauts showed that the stinky substance on them was organic waste, guano from some long-dead organisms. The material could be used for fertilizer in the greenhouses.

 

The organic fertilizer proved to be problematic – it was infested with ticks that were difficult to remove from the body, clothing and equipment. The fertilizer had to be deloused by crushing and spraying it into the Martian atmosphere. Then the fertilizer had to be laid in thin layers under the intense ultraviolet radiation on the surface. Tick-free fertilizer was later found in the Carter Caves.

Chapter 50. Valles Marineris

The aborted coup by the flight crew of the Peregrine effectively ostracized them from the rest of the colony. The surviving members were in a no man’s land. Their role on Mars was restricted to pleading for funds and resources to perform long-range explorations. The evolving hierarchy on Mars became less and less a question of who had flown the most combat missions in fighters and more on who liked who. Tim designed the Valles Marineris mission to bring the Peregrine crew back into the colony as well as to give them some recognition back on Earth.

Major Chriskus drove the rover to the edge of the rim overlooking a large valley of Valles Marineris. He could see an area on the floor of the canyon below the overview about two kilometers down and twenty kilometers away. Examination of the MOLA charts showed that there probably was a traversable route for a rover to the site that would be about 300 miles long. The flight crew would be dependent on the other Grasshopper for a rescue mission. A safety crew could observe and document the landing of the Grasshopper from their vantage point on the rim when the vehicle flew into the canyon. Chriskus named the overview Seven Angels’ Point after his sisters. Chriskus and Belanger installed a relay antenna at the Seven Angels’ Point overview that would keep the new landing site in continual contact with Plymouth. They surveyed the area to update the landmarks on the baseline map generated by the Caidin Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE telescope.

The camp on Seven Angels’ Point grew to three rovers and an inflatable structure for eating and sleeping. There didn’t seem to be any easy path to the canyon’s bottom in the immediate vicinity. The mission plan called for the Grasshopper to stay in the canyon for a week to explore the local inlets to the canyon. Major Chriskus flew the Grasshopper from Yellowstone direct to the landing site. The Chinese women were excluded from the Grasshopper crew by design.

Reggie and Tsai Hen watched the flight from when the Grasshopper appeared from behind the Shenzou Ridges until it landed in Marineris. The landing was uneventful and the jubilant crew exchanged congratulations with the observers on the rim.

There were signs of ancient water activity everywhere in the gullies and polished rocks.

Arthur named the site Athens. Athens would become the wine capital of Mars, the breadbasket for the outer solar system.

Chriskus’ Burning Bush

Sam Watanabe was riding the tractor bumper seat when Arthur observed a strange sight further up the gulch. At first Arthur thought it was some kind of mirage as he turned towards the red flames. Sam looked forward as Arthur told him to turn on his shoulder video camera. The flames morphed into a red-leaved tree billowing in the wind. A flock of frail bird-like creatures swarmed around the tree in a frenzy.

The birds flew away as the tractor approached. As they approached the tree they could see that the tree had large, red fruit. Insects were after the fruit and the birds were apparently after the insects. The solitary tree looked out of place in the barren terrain. Marineris had life in the shade and lower altitude of the Valles. Arthur decided that they couldn’t go back as scheduled. Maybe there’s an orchard or forest in the next gully.

Arthur returned to the Grasshopper and relayed his video back to Yellowstone with a request for Tim to send the Fire Star with additional supplies so that the mission could be extended. Tim ordered Arthur to return to Yellowstone with the samples he had already taken.

Arthur didn’t return. Marineris is what NASA had hoped to find when it went to Mars, thought Arthur. Arthur broke off communications with the relay crew on the rim after sending a final text message repeating his request for more supplies. Arthur rationed his supplies to extend his stay two more days.

Reggie said, “What do you want to do with our bad boys?

Tim said. “Let them starve until they came back on their own.”

Reggie was more conciliatory. “They’re just trying to do their job. Haven’t you ever got orders that you thought were wrong?”

Tim knew that Reggie would be more effective negotiating with Arthur than he would.

“You handle it. They already think that I’m an unreasonable bastard.”

Reggie asked Tim, “Do you want me to shoot the son of a bitch?”

“No, we’ll all be going back home someday. I’m not shooting anybody unless I absolutely have to. Anyway, I like Chriskus. He’s just seen his last mission as a mission commander for a while.”

Tim told Reggie to prepare the Fire Star but not to cut any corners preparing for the launch. Arthur was creating a potential emergency and putting people at risk. It would be another day before the Fire Star would be ready and Reggie sent a text message to Chriskus to that effect. One of the rovers on Seven Angels’ Point returned to Yellowstone for the night, returning the next day to relieve the other rover’s crew.

The Fire Star flew directly to the Athens landing site, Reggie carrying Tim’s message that Chriskus would be demoted to Captain and, if necessary forcibly returned to Yellowstone in three days. The report on the exploration would be Chriskus’ as would be the credit for the discoveries.

Chriskus led Reggie up to the tree and Reggie focused on the tree’s white trunk. Reggie pulled out a knife and scrapped the bark of the tree. The white substance looked like pigment – paint, to Reggie.

“This looks like the way that we paint trunks to keep the worms and snails out of our fruit trees. Something strange is going on here.”

Chriskus agreed, “Yuh, I’ve seen that in a lot of places on Earth.” “Maybe we can make something alcoholic from the fruit.” The fruit turned out to be poisonous to humans.

 

Nothing of the magnitude of the tree was discovered deeper in the Valles and the first Grasshopper in the expedition returned with Chriskus’ crew. The Grasshopper flew directly back to Yellowstone with its rock and plant samples since there was no problem with fuel. Chriskus would be allowed to return with the Fire Star three days later. A semi-permanent presence would be needed in Valles Marineris to explore even a small portion of the Valles.

As Reggie prepared to leave with the Fire Star Chriskus asked to be allowed to remain behind with the remaining supplies and the tractor. Reggie ordered Chriskis into the Fire Star and he refused.

Reggie commanded, “I’m giving you a direct order to get into the Fire Star.”

The two men were nose to nose as Chriskus took a swing at Reggie.

Reggie bobbed to the left and stared back at Chriskus.

“You’re relieved of command. Now get your ass into the fucking Fire Star or I’m going to kick the living shit out of you.”

Chriskus came to his senses and got into the Fire Star. The flight back to Yellowstone was uneventful.

The Seven Angels’ Point encampment disappeared except for the cache in the inflatable greenhouse. Reflecting on the past events, Chriskus speculated that the valley might as well be on Phobos.

Submarine Races

Heidi spotted Chriskus sitting by himself drinking his usual ethanol-enriched reconstituted orange juice. She walked behind him placing her hand on his shoulder. He turned to see Heidi and smiled as he pulled off his earphones. He guided her by the hand to the stool next to him as Heidi studied the relaxation of his recently hardened features. Heidi felt she was helpless in dealing with Arthur. Arthur was quite handsome but Heidi started perceiving him as a patient or client. She knew that he was depressed and possibly suicidal. She saw the way he looked at other people, the look of someone who felt people were talking about him. She had seen this facial expression before with people who were no longer with us. Norm brought over her usual vitamin-fortified Shirley, a weak mixture of wine and carbonated fruit drink.

Arthur Chriskus thought that everything about Heidi was soft and soothing – the color of her skin and hair, her breasts, her voice and her psychology of a Krankenschwester (nurse). She is always looking out for others, he thought. She would make a great mother and be comforting in one’s old age. Heidi leaned over next to Arthur. Arthur wanted to talk about his tree and life on Mars.

Their date was to picnic on the rim during sunset. The road to the overlook was well traveled and slightly improved. Arthur drove slowly as the conversation turned to Mediterranean cuisine and philosophy – Plato versus Nietzsche. Heidi had prepared a lunch heavy on fresh vegetables, something that was a real treat on Mars. Arthur uncorked the last bottle of wine on Mars as the sun set behind the mountain peaks near the Shreveport overview. Heidi’s leg was firmly pressed against his, but the serenity of the moment, shared with a beautiful woman was to be savored and maintained as long as possible. Arthur poured a glass of wine for Heidi looking into her eyes as he passed her the glass. Returning his attention to the sun’s afterglow, he poured a glass for himself. Arthur returned his gaze to Heidi’s eyes and the pair touched glasses before sipping the wine. Their focus returned to the darkening horizon.

Arthur descended into Heidi’s softness. His lovemaking had a tinge of desperation to it and Heidi knew that she had lost him.

Chapter 51. Moonlight to Music

The Russians at Star City had planned the mission to Phobos from Yellowstone. Anatoly and Sergei were trying to get the Fire Star ready for the flight. The administration and NASA approved of the plans after putting their fingerprints all over them as long as the commander was American. Tim knew that Reggie was the best man to be the commander so he subtly stroked Reggie’s interest in the flight. Reggie volunteered and became the loudest advocate for the mission. Reggie’s Russian and his tolerance for vodka improved steadily as the training for the mission progressed. The American and Russian camps as well as the Chinese reviewed the evolving plans. The crew trained on the old Grasshopper while the newest Grasshopper, which had been christened the Cricket and then rechristened the Fire Star, was prepared for the launch.

Phobos and Deimos are too small to be spherical and are most likely captured asteroids. The discovery of additional Martian satellites brought a hypothesis of a Moon-type collision genesis into vogue. Phobos is so low that its orbital period is less than eight hours, about a third of the orbital rotation period of Mars. Thus we have the well-known phenomena of Phobos rising in the west, instead of the normal rising of a satellite, the sun or stars due to the rotation of the viewing planet.

Phobos

Sergei gazed up at Mars. They had selected a landing site close to the center of Phobos’ face towards Mars, on a high spot near the sub-Mars point. The selection site would limit the usefulness of the sensors for astronomical observations – its purpose was to study Martian resources. The cosmonauts kept an open mind on whether the moons of Mars were captured asteroids or the debris from a massive collision like the Earth-Moon system. The results from their boring would add fuel to the debate soon enough.

They hopped the Fire Star using the auxiliary thrusters into the nearby Stickney Crater to collect rock samples and examine the deepest visible areas of Phobos. Twenty five-foot cores of ice and rock were obtained using the small Requinto borer. The spectrometers on the drill were blocked by organic material so the chemical logging function was lost. The crew continued to collect the cores without the instantaneous monitoring of the chemical layers. Reggie would have liked to have the complete Requinto drilling rig on Phobos.

The excursion was limited to two days by their supplies and the weight of the borer. The borer was left on Phobos to maximize the weight of the cores that could be brought back to Yellowstone. The essays found a larger proportion of organic materials than had been anticipated. It was impossible to determine if the dark life found on the spectrometers was contamination from Mars or from Phobos. Bucky Lawrence had missed the publication of his geological life.

The guests at the celebration of the success of the Phobos mission toasted the icy moons of Jupiter as the Marsnauts looked outward, away from the Earth and the sun. The Einstein nuclear tug would make a manned tour of the outer moons of Jupiter outside of Jupiter’s radiation belts possible.

Art Chriskus drove the rover to the Shreveport Overview for the tenth time. He climbed down the path he had prepared to the bajada in the valley below. He was sure that he could drive a tractor down the bajada to the level area below. Arthur installed ladders and spikes at critical points on the descent. He built up a cache of food and oxygen on a ledge 100 meters below the rim.

Eden

Arthur drove the rover to the Shreveport Overview. The cliff was about 175 meters from the bajada below. He had prepositioned a cache on a ledge about 100 meters from the rim, which he would use to replace his exhausted stores. Arthur lowered the tractor to the ground from its stowed position on the front of the rover. He had welded a hundred-meter reel of cable to the tractor. He attached the rover to the cable and unreeled the cable inland from the rim. Arthur returned to the tractor and moved it so that it hung over the rim. He returned to the rover and drove it to the bitter end of the cable. He returned to the tractor and pushed it over the edge. He returned to the rover and lowered the tractor to the largest extent possible with of the first cable. Then he engaged the reel and lowered the tractor until the line went slack. He reeled an additional ten meters to allow him to detach the cable from the tractor and secure the cable. Arthur secured the parking brake and attached the portable environment attaché case to supplement the oxygen and power in his suit. This whole trip would have been easier with help, but none of his friends wanted to be involved in an unauthorized expedition with commandeered community assets.

The climb down to the bajada was difficult but well charted. His climb carrying cinema equipment at Villa Luz had been harder. He reached the ledge and discarded the spent attaché case. He continued his descent after a fifteen-minute rest, locating the tractor resting facedown on the bajada. He tugged on the front of the tractor until it crashed to the bajada, resting on its wheels. He retrieved an attaché case from the tractor and discarded his spent case. The trip down the bajada was tedious but unmarred by any problems or mechanical failures. Arthur drove out of the small valley descending into the main channel of Valles Marineris. He was now beyond the radio relay capabilities of the rover. Then he passed the point of safe return with the supplies he had brought with him. His valley was only ten miles away.

Arthur could see the source of the methane and dark blue-green coloration seen on the satellite photographs – trees and ground cover. The forest was only twenty kilometers from the solitary red tree found during the first Valles Marineris expedition. The only thing that was missing was a stream or lake.  I’m right, he confirmed to himself, and everybody else was wrong.

Arthur walked over to a tree and by habit he leaned close to a blossom as if to smell its fragrance. I wonder what happened to that beautiful girl that I saw at the Blaue Gans in Salzburg. She had gazed deeply into his eyes for moments, intimacy in public, and then had left without a smile. Insects and birds flew around the blossoms. Arthur noticed a bed of yellow flowers breaking up the expanse of the blue-green undercover foliage. Arthur set his portable environment case on the ground and sat on a rock. Had his father escaped his earthly demons in heaven? Arthur gazed up the valley. He couldn’t bring himself to pick a single blossom or flower. Did Dimitri, a chef and the husband of his first love, appreciate Alicia? The sun set and the stars came out. Will any of us get back to Earth? The four bright stars of his stellar kite popped up first. The two upper right stars were Betelgeuse and Rigel in Orion the Hunter, his old friend. The other two stars in the kite were Sirius and nearby Procyon. Aldebaran or Adhara could be tails on his kite. I’ve had a full life. Arthur felt himself drifting above his body, bathed in light from a tunnel on the horizon. He tried to locate home and its beautiful twin star, the Moon, as his oxygen ran out.

The Fire Star landed on the level valley below where Arthur had parked the rover. Tania and Kay unloaded the tractor and drove it into the narrow canyon. Arthur’ tractor was immersed in the forest but the women immediately knew that this was where Arthur was. Kay drove up the middle of the canyon and they soon saw the tractor. Arthur had been dead for two days.

The women moved Arthur to the rear of the tractor and then Kay reported to the Fire Star that they would be returning with Arthur’s body. Arthur’s tractor still had fuel so Tania transferred her tote bags and spare oxygen bottles to the tractor and the pair returned to the Fire Star.

Reggie and Norm retrieved the discarded environmental cases at the ledge and at Arthur’s launch point at the top of the bajada. The cables were rewound and stowed in the rover used by Arthur and the small caravan returned to Yellowstone.

Arthur’s latest promotion photograph joined the photographs of Mong, Hollis, Leavitt and Thiessen displayed on the Mars wall at Rolfo’s Cantina at the Southwest Regional Spaceport in Upham, New Mexico.

Arsia Mons

Vivian awoke with a start but couldn’t identify the cause of her unease. The low rumble from the ground had returned. She slipped into her sweat suit and walked to the portal. Everything looked normal outside except for some strange clouds on the western horizon. Sergei came out of his workshop in a space suit, looked around, and then walked around the south end of the garage surveying the west. He focused on the strange clouds on the horizon. The communicator flashed. It was Wu.

“Did you feel the earthquake?” she wanted to know.

“I think so, I was sleeping,” Vivian responded.

“We think that it’s an earthquake, part of the rumbling that we’ve been hearing for weeks. What does Sergei think?”

“He’s outside looking at some strange clouds in the west. Can you see them?” Vivian asked.

“No. Something really strange is happening. I’ll call Houston and see what they have to say.”

The something as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was Arsia Mons erupting. The intense barrage of emails and video conferences that followed contributed to climate change on Earth as the planetologists woke up the next day. What would they have to do with the eruption?

Tim had an orbital photograph of the eruption by the end of the day and knew immediately what had to be done. He had the other Tim prepare the three best rovers for long-range travel. The Grasshoppers were put on stand-by with all training flights cancelled. Tim decided to drive the rover with the plow down the Pavonis Mons road as far as he could with the simple task of clearing the road. Wu was put in charge of the office. A feeling of purpose descended on the explorers as the photographs started to accumulate and emails for interviews started to come in. Mars was back on the evening news.

Tim emailed John Harrison at the University of Arizona Planetary Science Institute.

Dear John,

Still sorry about the reception our time dates with the Pavonis Mons lava and recent water erosion caused you. We’ve got some lava here that is solidifying so we’ll send you a time date to the hour and minute when it solidifies. Hopefully that’ll satisfy Stanford, but I doubt it.

We’re going to Arsia Mons so I need your advice on how and where to go. This is not official yet. I hate to press you but are there a few things that you’d like us to look at for you? We’ll try to use the Pavonis road as much as possible.

Don’t schedule any vacations.

Your out of this world friend,

Tim

A detailed trip route, stamped preliminary, full of potential sites to visit was returned that night. John described a general path that would lead into the northeast valley system which was an erosional pathway to a breach in the caldera wall on the northeast side of Arsia Mons. The southeast approach would also have been interesting because of its collapse structures. John wished for the millionth time that he could be on Mars.

Tim reported back at the end of the second day that they were 412 kilometers from Hollis and that they could use some fuel and food. The second rover was dispatched the next morning, reaching the first rover at the Las Cruces Arroyo. Both rovers stopped for dinner amid congratulation for the road improvements. The clouds from the eruption were larger but the summit was still very far away. The rovers continued westward to Burro’s Back where they stopped for the night. The plume looked purple that night before sunrise. The plow departed after breakfast but the second rover delayed their departure home until after lunch. The crew used the hang time to explore the local area, ticking off two of John’s points of interest. The tremors were even stronger here even though the volcano was still very far away. They stopped to converse with the crew of the third rover on the road, returning to Hollis after dark. The plow reported steady progress with just one wheel loosing a segment. Sergei Energia would have to get a commendation for its new wheels.

The second rover would stock the cache at Burro’s Back, without reaching the plow unless some emergency occurred. Their mission was easily accomplished and they stayed overnight hoping to see some fireworks. The clouds over the volcano glowed occasionally but nothing spectacular happened and the rover returned home after assurances from the plow that they were GO. Tim reported home that the distant part of the Pavonis road had been improved so little that they would follow the best route direct to Arsia Mons avoiding the river channel systems draining into Valles Marineris. Tim told Wu to communicate to the Russians that they needed a truck with repair capability. Wu didn’t ask him about his sources of intelligence but she agreed. Tim told Wu to tell Sergei to work with Norm to put a camper with a kitchen on his truck.

“I think we’ll be roughing it for awhile,” he added.

A major tremor and eruption hit that night, lighting up the sky around the two rovers nearest to the volcano. Rain fell from the dark clouds over Arsia Mons. Hailstones joined the thunder and lightning coming from the clouds. NASA sent Tim a heads up email informing him that they would have a committee in place by next Friday to study the Arsia eruption. Their plan would most likely call for a comparative study of the Olympus, Arsia, Pavonis and Ascraeus Montes.

Instructions from Earth

Twenty days had gone by since the initial tremor. Sergei’s truck had been converted to Norm’s Roach Coach and was sitting on the summit of a small volcanic cinder cone recently christened Cerberus’ Couch. They were seventy kilometers from the cliffs of Arsia on an island in the main outflow from Arsia – an excellent site for photographing the volcanic plume even though the caldera was over the horizon. Several photographs of the eruptions were being cleaned up to send to Earth.

The plow had cut a road to the cliffs of Arsia Mons but further advance by rover in the riverbed would be difficult.

NASA administrator Hans Hubschrauber came over the video link to announce that they had a plan to go to Arsia Mons to get some better data and to implant some sensors. The video stream was unidirectional by nature.

“Greetings, Captain, I hope you’re fine. We’ve come up with a scenario to go to Arsia Mons and want to get the approval of your husband and the people on site.”

“Good day, Hans,” answered Captain Wu without pausing for Hans to answer “Colonel Perry is reconning the Pavonis road.”

The administrator kept talking. “We’re having problems with the Russian premier so it would be better not to include any Russians in the Arsia mission. Some photographs from the ground would be nice. Do you have enough data for a video conference to Earth? Some newscasters are saying that we’re covering up something like a nuclear test or accident on Mars so we have to give them more than orbital photographs.”

Sonia started the transfer of their best photographs of the eruption with a shake of her head towards the administrator. She turned the video back on after the transmission was complete. The text-based plan for Arsia Mons exploration started scrolling on her monitor screen.

“Still receiving you 5-by,” answered Wu. “The commander anticipated such a plan and will review it when he gets back with our people. This eruption has kept us busy. What does NASA think the risk to the crews approaching the volcano is?”

Sonja injected, “Does NASA agree that photographs from the Grasshopper will be too far away to be useful? We have dropped all other exploration anticipating NASA’s interest in the eruption. Awaiting your answer.”

Hans rambled on until he caught Sonja’s reply and he thanked her for the photographs.

“Very impressive. Is it snowing or raining over the eruption? We seem to be detecting a lot of ice in the atmosphere. Oh, and maybe we could have a video conference on Thursday. Will you have anything by then?”

Wu answered, “It’s better to give out some firm answers and not just some pretty pictures.” Sonja knew that this wasn’t the way Washington or Houston operated.

Hans continued unabated, “The president would like to have a few words with you. Are you ready, Mr. President?”

Sonia grimaced as President Alphonse Dumaine started to speak.

“How’s it going, little lady. I have to congratulate your crew for the excellent work that you’re doing on Mars and with Arso.”

Wu clicked the mike and said, “Arsia Mons,” without thinking.

 “I’m sure that getting a few people up on the volcano will be accomplished as well. Anything to get the damn press off our backs.”

Sonja thought that this was the hardest part of the job. Just like Tim and Reggie to wimp out of the office.

“Let me know if there’s anything else that you folks need,” the president said in closing.

Sure, thought Sonja. Cut the negative thoughts.

After what seemed to be hours but was only fifteen minutes, the former senator from Louisiana was finished, having promised among other things some of his Mere-mere’s seafood and sausage gumbo. Sonja broke the video connection with relief, laughing with gusto and slapping a surprised Wu on the back. Wu joined in with the laughter without knowing why. She still didn’t understand the Americans. She started to understand when she saw how the two video streams were edited for use by news commentators and by the bloggers on the Web.

Fire and Ice

The average temperature of Mars slowly increased over a period of ten years. Mars’ axis achieved a tilt of twenty-five degrees and a mantle plume of magma declared Arsia Mons as it. Magma accumulated under the caldera softening and then melting the water trapped in the caldera sediment. Steam and carbon dioxide vented periodically from faults but the vapor pressure continued to build. One day Arsia Mons popped and the vapor broke loose throwing rock and ash into the Martian sky. Boiling water built up along the caldera wall and saturated the soil above the northeast outflow.

Big Sur, the Sequel

Reggie and Sergei took samples from the riverbed, its banks and fifteen layers of lava exposed by erosion. He wasn’t going to play the unidentified sample source game any more. He watched the stream of subliming water in the riverbed without comprehension and then experience kicked in.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” he yelled. “Everybody in the rover, NOW.”

Janice radioed back, “I haven’t connected the power to the seismometers yet.”

Reggie told Sergei to drag her back to the rover and he did. The rover took off downstream as fast as Reggie dared to drive in the riverbed. The steaming water increased to a torrent as Reggie drove higher up the bank. A wall of water appeared upstream. Reggie spotted a ramp off the riverbed and he drove the rover up the slope, bouncing of rocks until the rover slide to a stop with two wheels spinning in the air. The river of water flew by followed by a slurry of mud. The mud slide went by steadily increasing in depth as it approached the rover. Reggie punched the blue emergence stores release button and heard the assembly slide down the side of the rover. Reggie told Heidi to take the child, Peng Lian, and to run up the slope.

“This is everyman for himself,” he said. “Anybody that wants to bail had better do it at this time.”

Reggie looked into each person’s eyes as they held their positions transfixed.

“I’m serious,” he said.

Sergei slowly walked to the ramp door, closing and securing the door as he watched the approaching mud. Reggie was on the radio.

Heidi told Lian to grab two environmental units off the rover as she dragged the pod up the hill. Lian was taking photographs of the mud licking up against the rear of the rover as it started to turn. The rover spun out into the mainstream and its rear turned skyward as the front end dropped into the mud. Lian continued to photograph the rover as it went around a bend in the river.

A wall of water rushed by Anatoly’s volcanic cone. Anatoly was glued to the eyepiece of the sighting scope as he caught sight of the approaching mud. The mud approached his position but seemed to be slowing down. The mudslide ran out of steam and he could see the rover’s rear end about five miles upstream. He called the second rover to advise the crew of the situation. He thought that he could see a person climbing out of the ramp door. It would be dark in a few hours.

Heidi dragged the fluorescent orange pod to a sheltered depression. Securing the pod took Heidi and Lian about a half an hour. They could see that the mud slide was slowing down. Help would be a long time coming.

The wind picked up as the sky darkened. The pod was made for a single man but they fit in it nicely. The pod’s photovoltaics wouldn’t produce any power until morning; they were stuck with the power from the pod’s batteries. Heidi activated the heat packs and plugged her suit and Lian’s into the pod’s batteries to conserve their environmental batteries. Lian fell asleep looking out the plastic window.

Lian

Lian woke up chilled but thankful to be alive. Her battery low light was on so she knew she was in trouble. The river was quiet and solid looking. Heidi was lying down so she went over to wake her up. Heidi was immobile – dead. The terrible truth hit Lian as she removed Heidi’s battery and used it to replace her own. Heidi’s oxygen was only half used. She arranged Heidi in a sitting position and snapped a few pictures. She slung the unused environmental unit and Heidi’s over her shoulder and headed out on the firm mud. Lian had two days of food and water but she would be out of oxygen by nightfall.

Tim could see one of the kids walking down the wash, carrying her environmental case. The figure started snapping photographs as the rover approached. The rest of the crew of the second rover was already on their way to Hollis. Now only Heidi was unaccounted for. Tim had no way of knowing that Heidi’s sacrifice had allowed Lian to survive. The joy of finding Lian was tempered as the mission turned into a recovery mission of Heidi’s body.

Arsia Mons would become Heidi’s volcano to the Europeans. The Gemini constellation (the Twins) became the Lovers in pidgin Martian. The lovers were Arthur and Heidi.

Access to the caldera and most of Arsia Mons was out of reach. Some surveying and sensor placement was accomplished but the crews were overextended. The third rover and Anatoly would have to clean up the scientific details as Tim decided it was time to go home. The colony had expended a lot of its resources and the long Martian winter was just around the corner.

Springtime on Mars

Anatoly awakened and sleepily looked out the portal at the bright, white clouds. The clouds were no longer ominous, filled with rain, thunder and lightning. Vivian was sleeping fitfully. Her head and arm moved spasmodically.

Bad dreams, my love, he thought. Mars was not as benign as we thought. Dead planet, my ass.

He got up, performed ten squats, seven pushups and ten sit-ups. His nominal finger exercises on the guitar would have to wait until Vivian and the crew got up. He prepared some hot drinks and oatmeal for Vivian and himself. He had learned that a hot drink in the morning evoked a magnificent smile from Vivian. Maybe the worst is past.

A purple haze hung over the gorge. The water and mud flow had stopped, at least for now, but Arsia rumbled on.

Purple?

“What the hell?” he exclaimed.

Vivian’s eyes opened and she smiled at him.

“And what’s my husband up to this morning?” she asked.

Anatoly was staring with awe out the portal. He turned to her saying, “Shut your eyes. I have a surprise for you.”

Vivian heard Anatoly going to the stove and pouring drinks. She felt the warmth of the cup even before Anatoly pressed it against her hand. She continued the ritual, taking a sip and rewarding Anatoly with a smile. Anatoly pulled her to her feet and walked her to the large window.

“This had better not be any of your doing. Did you do this?” he asked.

Vivian opened her eyes. Her mouth slowly opened. She turned and hugged Anatoly.

“This is simply wonderful,” she said.

The gorge and riverbed were covered with splotches of yellow and magenta flowers.

NASA Arsia Mons Conference at Moffett Field

Tim told John Harrison that he had better get his wife a dress good enough for a White House reception and to polish up his PowerPoint presentation. John ordered his wife to purchase the dress. She protested about the expense and not knowing what was going on, purchased a modestly-priced cocktail outfit.

John set up a three by four foot canvas as he looked at the photograph of Arsia Gorge. No, that wouldn’t do. He went to the back garage and pulled out a ten by twelve foot canvas. Unable to control himself, he exaggerated the size of the plume and volcanic eruption. Sarah found him in the morning sitting on the garage couch facing a massive Alpine scene. John was spending too many nights alone at the Kitt Peak telescopes.

John was told that his paper was being embargoed until the meeting in California next Thursday. Professor Elroy Bennington of Stanford would be chairing the conference/press releases. No, he wouldn’t be presenting but his paper would be published in the proceedings. John mentioned his chagrin to Tim during their nightly email exchange and Tim was enraged. He didn’t even know who Bennington was. Anyway, the embargoed photograph of Arsia Gorge belonged to Sergei. All right. This time it’s going to be different. Game time.

Premier Andrei Kupperek’s Dacha, Black Sea

Prime Minister Kupperek woke up feeling great. The hot spas and a new mistress had pulled the vodka poisons out of his rotund body. He felt like having a good day sailing or lying in the sun as soon as General Kravenko briefed him on the Mars expedition. The Americans were getting more cantankerous every day about supporting the Russian space program. Where would they be without Russian or even Chinese help? America was getting to be more and more like an assortment of militia warlords, each group not knowing or caring what the other groups were doing or were up to with their own personal quest for personal power and wealth. Democracy!

The informal briefing started with Kravenko mentioning that Sergei’s friend in America was being cheated out of the credit for his assistance in the Arsia expedition. This brought a smile to Andrei’s bulldog features.

“Give me the details, Nickolai, my old friend,” Andrei encouraged. “You know what I want to know. Should we send him up to the International Space Station?”

“No, nothing that dramatic is called for, but that was a good idea. I think that a few medals for Sergei, Anatoly and the American will be enough.” He filled in details including how the unbidded Protorover contract for the next generation of rovers was going to President Dumaine’s constituency (contributors) in Louisiana and Southern California. Bennington had recently been appointed to the Board of Directors of Protorover. Now Andrei didn’t understand frozen aquifers and magmas but he hated it when somebody else besides him abused his power, especially against the powerless. Life is good. Andrei ordered a large breakfast, heavy on the caviar, for two.

Andrei invited John and his wife to the Russian Mars Conference which just happened to meet three days before the American press conference. The arrangements were made by noon and John received a joint invitation from Tim and Sergei to attend the Moscow Mars Conference with his wife and kids. A special diplomatic military transport, based in Havana, was required to transport John’s painting with the surprised couple and their NASA watchdog. The giddy NASA director was needed to expedite the visa approvals. John politically renamed his painting Sergei’s Gorge. There seemed to be a lot of equipment racks full of electronic gear in the aircraft. They were covered by black satin sheets.

The clouds over Arsia Mons thinned out during the day exposing the flowers to the sun and they quickly dried out. The eruptions at Arsia Mons tapered off, the newscasters moved on to the crystal factory accident in Monterrey and Sergei and Anatoly went back to working on their RV. The riverbed returned to normal after the first dust storm. Man was not around when Arsia Mons last bloomed, …

Smile – the end of the world is near.

The even-greater recession of 2014 started like a dead man walking – the populace condemned to misery but ever faithful and hopeful. It was the perfect storm unmitigated by economic dark energy – the genetic engineering, nanotech and energy bubbles burst at the same time, three galaxies colliding and disappearing into a megasol black hole spitting out debris in all directions. The middle class watched their retirement funds disappear with the corporate bankruptcies and the housing collapse. Hurricane Jordan hit Houston and Galveston, devastating the refineries on shore and inland as well as damaging NASA’s Houston facilities. The Muslim jihad continued using manufactured improvised rocket-assisted explosive devices for terrorist attacks in Europe, China and the Americas. The Wall Street Journal characterized this recession, as it had previous recessions, as a business downturn. The Wall Street Journal described the depth of the recession as a no-growth recovery.  Sheng speculated aloud whether his data really predicted the French and Russian Revolutions or if he was fitting his data to his curves. The curve predicted a world-wide nexus in 2020.

There was an outbreak of ticks at the Goddard Space Center, which DNA tests proved were of Martian origin. Four Soviet tactical nuclear warheads, designed to be used on torpedoes, disappeared during the confusion of the Bay of Pigs invasion. One of the devices was installed on an ocean bottom-crawling tractor in Lake Mead and detonated at the base of Hoover Dam. An embedded PC-104 board feed random security codes into the nuclear device until it got lucky, circumventing the primitive fail-safe access device on the weapon. The neon lights of Vegas and Tinsel Town blinked out.

By 2044, children outnumbered adults on Mars. In California, the kilodeath Ventura suicide by arroyo flooding signaled the peak of the Rapture of the Singularity, by surpassing the hundreds of suicides by brush fire in the Malibu Hills. China successfully landed a habitat in Hellas Planitia but its crew didn’t survive their first Martian winter. Climate change reduced the Euphrates River to a stream allowing a yellow horde of migrant farmers and soldiers to surge west. Two of the ERVs returned to Earth but no additional manned spacecraft went to Mars from the Earth until 2113. Plymouth became known as Tornado Alley because of the mountain winds that descended to the rocky planitia. The large underground structure at Plymouth was called Tornado Shelter, only partially in jest.

The Old Man

The large cave was full of the chatter of little children. Tim had 46 grandchildren, 42 whom were still alive. Tim couldn’t tell who belonged to who, which ones were his grandchildren (three were adopted) and who were their friends. It didn’t matter to Tim and he couldn’t keep track of the names anyway. The situation in Kansas with Sonia’s sisters was even more complex and convoluted. Doyle was three times a grandfather himself. Tim tuned up his acoustic guitar, which had been made on Earth. Liang was known as just Grammy or Nanny now and sat in her rocking chair with one of the children on her lap. Most of the kids had real or improvised musical instruments. They all knew the words to the first song, Show me a Man.

Blue Mars

The golden women disappeared from the human race except for one natural birth in San Francisco in 2158. Cities developed in the large cavern systems and large structures were built on the surface of Mars.

Microbes had converted the carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere to oxygen. The colonist eventually had large caves filled with breathable air, but it was not until the mining of astrofuel on the moon and the development of fusion reactors that Mars started being transformed to another Earth. The polar caps slowly melted, water filled small depressions and the carbon dioxide boiled from the caves was reduced to oxygen.

The Way of Doyle, FC-784

His father was of the warrior caste that was the first to travel off world. Doyle was one of the first holy poets of musical wisdom on Otter [Mars]. Doyle wished that all the people be allowed to speak and be heard, from the oldest grandmother to the smallest baby. The people of Otter spoke in many programs and had varied instruments for vibration. Doyle’s synthesizer [guitar] spoke clearly in discourse, but he desired conversion of all of the voices. Different voices had to be integrated with varying degrees of concord – all were pleasant to Doyle as were all programs. Breath was not possible on the surface and Doyle’s people lived in the underground darkness, unwarmed by Mut [the sun]. Doyle and his disciples, Hong, Jin, and Robin created the Way, stone by stone, to remind his people of the huegots [stellar constellations] and to bring water into the light. – Book of Doyle, FC-784.

The springhouse had been enclosed with panes of transparent silene and one could sit on stone benches and watch the spring or look outside at the daytime sky or the bright stars of night. The tunnel up to the first level had been the hardest for the teenagers to construct and the last kilometer to the springhouse was strenuous since the work had to be done in spacesuits. The young people carried the heavy stones with only a small tractor and its manipulator. Occasionally volunteers helped the kids, especially if the obstacle was substantial – Anatoly provided metal ladders and rungs. Later, a cave with an elevator reached all the way to the springhouse and services were held during astronomical events.

Much later, two children climbed the stairs towards a blue sky. They had been told that teenagers had made the trail without machines and in space suits to ward off the cold and poisonous gases. Once a year all the youngsters of Hollis were required by custom to help the younger children in a project, following the example of Doyle, Hong, Jin and Robin.

Bath [God] had made Megantic [Earth] but the Transposers had made Otter Rube [Mars].

待续


Epilog

The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all. - General George Washington, Wednesday, August 7, 1782, Headquarters, Newburg.

Major General Reggie Bradley was the featured speaker at the opening of the Aldrin Mars Center at MIT. The general described the plaques that he and his crew had been awarded in abstentia by the Tailhook Association for going down with their ship. Little Peng Lian had been awarded an even bigger plaque for being smart enough to bail out of the rover. The award meeting had actually been a commemoration for the anniversary of Heidi’s death before aviator dark humor took over. Reggie also described the Russian expedition to Phobos that he had commanded. Then he told how the Russians had installed improved versions of the remote sensors and communication equipment, equipment that the Russians had previously tried to install robotically on Phobos.

Over the years, the general admired the community outreach at MIT, and had taken advantage of the usual MIT policy of being open to the public whenever he was in Cambridge. Reggie was appalled that the Space department had restricted the opening of the Mars Center to the MIT community and invited guests. Perhaps it was a feeling of inferiority, because the Space department could never even hope to compete with the other departments at MIT for Nobels (Nobel Laureates). The secret of life, strings and cosmology are sexier than studies on deicing and levels of automation.

Reggie and his wife had been talking with graduate students from the Space Department (the t-shirts now said SPACE instead of the familiar (to Reggie) AERO of the distant past). Mrs. Hollis and her son, Freddie entered the room and joined the line at one of the two free open bars in the MIT President’s Garden. Newly commissioned Lieutenant Hollis turned to check his six and Reggie saw recognition slowly creep into his face. The general wondered (and knew) if he had aged that much. Freddie had been one of the kids running around at the base parties, but he wouldn’t have recognized the young man if he hadn’t been with his mother.

“Good afternoon, son,” was Reggie’s greeting. “Can I buy you and your mother a drink?”

 “Reggie, you old space dog. So nice to see you. How is your family?” said Mrs. Hollis.

“Fine, Andy and Sybil are in their junior year of high school. And how have you been?” said Reggie.

“Just fine, but I just had to get out of Sarasota for the summer. You remember my son Fred?”

“Glad to meet you formally, lieutenant,” said the general offering his hand. “Have you received an assignment yet?”

Fred accepted the handshake. “Yes, sir, General Bradley, I’ve been attached to a rapid deployment wingless assault battalion as a platoon leader.”

“Angels have wings, right?” said Reggie, an oblique reference to the Marine wingless assault spacecraft [extraction by land].

Commander Hollis’ grin appeared on the young lieutenant’s face. The general saw a ghost from the past, that of a fallen comrade, and felt his own mortality. Hopefully the commander had gone to Marine heaven – bugle at 5, exercise and 2 miles of running before a 5-minute breakfast, an all-day obstacle course oozing with primordial mud and cheap beer and dancing bimbos at night. Reggie ordered a Corona beer, Freddie got the same and Mrs. Hollis opted for a glass of California Chablis.

Redemption

Social obligations had to be satisfied but eventually Major General Bradley and Lieutenant Hollis were alone. Bradley let Lieutenant Hollis bide his time talking about trivial things until he worked up the courage to ask an important question from his youth.

“Sir, I’ve got to know. Did you piss on my father after a fight?” asked the young officer defensively. There was a pause that covered decades.

“Yes I did. We were friends and he went over the line.”

Al, Jr mulled the information over and did a head bob of acknowledgement.

In a more serious note the general said, “Son, we’ve got to talk.” “Follow me,” he said as he walked towards the infinite corridor, the main hallway of MIT’s main building(s). The men just barely missed the rush [foot] traffic entering building 8 after the 4 o’clock classes. Two grinning Chinese students bobbed in and out of the approaching pedestrians to pass slower foot traffic while talking on their satellite phones.

The conversation digressed to small talk about the Dibner Institute’s handling of the history of military weaponry on the walk pass the Dreyfus chemistry building to MIT’s Muddy Charles pub.

“General, should we have left our weapons on Earth?”

“Please call me Reggie, son. We went to Mars armed for hostiles. I don’t think about it.”

The pair entered the Charles by cutting through the Walker Dining Hall. General Bradley ordered a pitcher of Boston Ale as Fred grabbed two flimsy plastic glasses off the bar. The general lead the formation of two to a large table near a window overlooking the Charles River. The window framed the Boston skyline around the Prudential Center and the Kirin Stadium.

The general filled the two glasses with ale, swapped a silent toast with Fred and starting speaking without preamble, “Son, your family has been subjected to a great injustice and I’ve let it go on far too long.”

“Ma said you helped her and us kids even before you returned from Mars…” interrupted young Fred. Fred’s application to VMI had included a recommendation from Reggie.

The old general held up his hand, “Give me some space to maneuver in.” Fred seemed to slouch a little, like a young boy would, when in the presence of a master storyteller.

“I can’t tell you everything, but you deserve to know more than you do. Your father died in combat, America’s first casualty on Mars. He didn’t tell me, but I’m sure his orders came from the White House, most likely the president. Your father took the political flak from the incident while the politicians covered their fat asses. That’s about all I can tell you until the cordite settles from our next skirmish. Visit me next year if you can, after the smoke clears, and I’ll give you some more details. Some are good, some are bad.”

The general reached for one of the single-sheet daily Muddy Charles’ menus and placed it, printed side down, on the table. He wrote silently on the menu for about five minutes. Then he shoved the sheet across the table. Freddie read the words in silence.

July 23, 2033

Gentlepeople of Earth,

I am writing this letter in an attempt to ameliorate the injustices that the family of Colonel Elton “Al” Hollis has endured, caused by the actions and inaction of the bureaucrats of the government of the United States of America following the incident at the Mars I landing site on April 20, 2010. I swear that Colonel Hollis was killed by hostile action while on a mission authorized at the highest level of our government. Commander Hollis’ family should be given all the privileges and benefits due the family members of a fallen soldier, regardless of the political sensitivity of the incident, an incident that has been denied by the military and political bureaucrats. Any shadow over the reputation of my former commander and friend should be removed from his personnel file and the public record. The first step should be a speedy resolution of his survivors’ five-year old petition for Commander Hollis to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery instead of the Fort Bliss National Cemetery in Texas. I beg for forgiveness from the Hollis family for my complicity and tardiness in setting the record straight.

Yours truly,

Major General Reginald M. Bradley, retired

Space Command

“Thank you, General,” replied the young officer as he folded the sheet and placed it in his shirt pocket. “Do you know that Dad’s mission was authorized by the president?” asked young Fred.

“No, but nobody except you and I know that I don’t know,” answered the general. “And they know where to find me.”

Mrs. Hollis and Mrs. Bradley found the two men, an hour later, after a frantic call to the campus police. The two men were engaged in an animated discussion about space rations. They had been joined in their discussion by two postdocs from the Space Department, a Sloan School of Management graduate student and 5 cadets – three female, from the MIT Army Reserve Officers Training Corps.

Commander Hollis received his proper military burial at Arlington within six months. Commander Hollis was awarded the Medal of Honor retroactive to 2010, the third Medal of Honor recipient buried at the Fort Bliss National Cemetery. Commander Hollis had been buried close to three Germans from Roswell, New Mexico and five Chinese Air Force cadets. An arbitration committee consisting of flag level officers from all of the military branches convened in closed session to determine monetary compensation, if any, to the Hollis family. The files on the incident at Mars Base I remained classified at the time of Major General Bradley’s death.

The first permanent American settlement on Mars near the Olympus Mons borax mine was named after Commander Hollis. Hollis later become the first capitol of Mars. The Chinese colony near the Yellowstone Caverns was called Mong after the first human to leave her footprints and blood on Mars. The first teahouse on Mars, the Shangri-La, had a prominent oil painting of Mong with the title “First in Our Hearts, First on Mars” in Chinese. Smaller portraits of Admiral Cheng Ho, Tsien Tsue-shen, General Zhou, Yang Liwei and Charon flanked Mong’s painting.

Had Mars been worth it? Was the Earth any better off? Had Apollo been worth it? Would the time, effort, blood and money have been spent better on Earth?

“The road not taken”

It was a damn weather balloon. – Mr. Edwards at the Cowboy Restaurant in Roswell, October 2004.

Ken Zhou Xim awoke from a deep sleep. The knocking on the door was persistent.

“Wake up you bone head. We’re going to miss the best waves.”

It was his best friend Ken Hing Ching. What a vivid dream. And those lovely yellow/golden girls with the reptilian alien eyes. The warm Hawaiian sun warmed his face. Zhou was as satisfied as he imagined that a person could be. He had everything that he needed on the Big Island of Hawaii. He thought about his acceptance at the University of Hawaii in the physics department. Why bother? Most likely he would inherit the coffee plantation.

Neither of the young men went to Honolulu to attend the University of Hawaii on Oahu. Ken Hing Ching gave up his interest in law, preferring to write poetry about waves and volcanoes. During the various coffee crises, Zhou refused to grow genetically modified coffee and got premium money from the independent coffee houses on the mainland.

Zhou married his high school girl friend, Luann, who was a native Hawaiian dancer. He steadily increased the size of the family plantation to sixty acres. Luann’s administrative and business skills helped the Zhou family coffee to become the best-known brand on the Kona Coast. The dancer featured on the label of his coffee bags had golden alien eyes that reminded some people of Zhou’s wife when she weighed ninety pounds. Zhou’s wife blessed him with seven children. Later in life he worried most about Brian, his youngest child. Brian was a practical joker and the class clown. More worrisome than his classroom antics was the fact that Brian would spend long hours alone in the dark, looking up at the stars.

The first Mars ascent vehicle launched by the Japanese for the American space program lost radio contact with Mission Control during insertion into orbit around Mars. NASA’s budget was cut to a maintenance level because of the mounting costs of the conflict in South Asia.

Pisces had his time; long live the Age of Aquarius.

Author Biography

Dennis Kenney was raised and went to high school in Mexico, a small town in the western mountains of Maine. Como ‘sta? He received a B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Pre-Med and a B.S. in Engineering Physics with minors in Chemistry and Electrical Engineering from the University of Maine in Orono. He served for seven years in the National Guard and reserve after receiving his draft notification before volunteering for the army in order to visit Germany as a German linguist. He is presently pursuing his interest in biotech, embedded systems, energy management and astronomy and is designing a homebuilt aircraft.