One Step on Mars, Part II

Continued from Part I, here.

Out in deep space…

The prove beeped. Its scan reported new activity.

Of course, it paused for a few nanoseconds for a second verification scan. After all, it was designed to avoid false positives. A hundred false negatives were better than a false positive, as they could always be corrected for at a later date.

But the second scan revealed the same presence. Sentients with the same subcomputational patterns were now present on a second planet within their star system.

The probe’s criteria for activation had been met.

Smoothly, operating with an ease that was unhindered by sitting dormant for many thousands of years, the probe performed its two functions:

First, it oriented itself towards the Galactic Core and transmitted the appropriate subnet signal. This process took approximately one-eighth of a second.

Second, it oriented itself towards the location of the newest subcomputational signals, calculating its course trajectory. Factoring in the deceleration factor, it would arrive in approximately eight hours.

The probe activated its primary thruster. Much of its external monitoring arrays disintegrated into atomized dust as the gravitational waves echoed out, but this was an acceptable loss.

The probe’s payload sped away, heading towards its destination at a considerable fraction of the speed of light.

Mark kept on waiting for something, anything, to go wrong.

But the next few hours went much as they’d rehearsed in the drills. The arenauts (from *ares,* meaning Mars, and *naut*, meaning voyager) climbed out of their landing craft and, in the sleekest spacesuits yet designed, crossed over to the main habitation that had been constructed.

“Let’s hope the key code they gave us works,” joked Lena, their botanist, as she punched the numbers into the access panel beside the airlock. “Otherwise, we’ll have a very awkward call back home.”

The door opened, fortunately, and they entered and took off their gear. Only then, it seemed to Mark, did the real weight of the occasion hit the others.

“Mars,” he murmured, the others nodding to him. “I can’t believe we’re here. The first humans to set foot on another planet. This is a huge step for us.”

“And the first words were about champagne,” groaned Lena. “Thanks, Chernov.”

“Hey, no one else seemed willing to say anything,” the Russian griped. “But yes, is very impactful. Kind of impact that should be recognized with a toast.”

“All we have is pure ethanol, and that’s for chemical experiments,” pointed out Hans, their chemist. “I’ll be monitoring its level, Chernov, so don’t you think about sneaking any pulls.”

Chernov stuck out his lower lip in a pout. “You Americans are all work and no fun.”

That had been part of the NASA agreement, although Legacy disagreed strongly with it and argued strenuously against the crew composition each time the topic arose. Although Legacy had been formed mainly out of American-based corporations, NASA was still loath to cut off ties to the international community. In the end, three of the six crew member slots were given to Americans, while the others went to a European (Lena, the botanist), a Russian (Chernov, the engineer), and a slender, quiet Chinese woman named Ling, who handled communications.

But Mark held the honor of command. Even now, he felt that mantle settling on his shoulders, a heavy weight that he had to bear.

There were a hundred projects for them. The automated sensors reported that the greenhouses, a dozen different structures scattered around the main base in various sheltered locations, were functioning normally – but they needed to be verified by Lena. Ling needed to check communications with the various rovers and other sensors that would help keep them safe. Hans needed to run tests on the soil, and their pilot, Casper, had to run inspections of the manned rovers that would help them scout the area around their landing site.

But even though he knew that he needed to get his sleep, Mark lay in his bunk with his eyes wide open, staring up at the bunk above him in the darkness. Lena slept above him, and he could hear the soft, repetitive snores drifting out from her ever so slightly crooked nose.

For Mark, however, sleep remained defiantly out of reach. Try as he might, he couldn’t let himself drift off to sleep.

And so, when the thump came from outside, he heard it clearly, not through the foggy filter of a dream.

He sat upright at the sound, frowning. Had his mind just been playing tricks on him? Had something blown over, maybe collapsed outside?

There wasn’t any wind outside to blow something over. And if something had broken, his mind pointed out, he ought to go check on it and figure out if it needed to be addressed immediately.

For another minute, Mark just lay there, gazing up at the dark underside of the bunk above him. As a kid, he’d sometimes been thought of as slow – but he just preferred to take his time, working through every angle before deciding on a course of action.

Finally, after another couple minutes, he swung his legs off the bunk and sat up.

“Mark?” His name, slightly lilted by her accent, drifted out from the far corner of the sleeping chamber. “What is it?”

Ling, it seemed, was also battling insomnia. “I heard a thump from outside,” Mark said. “I figured that it was worth checking out, in case something broke that we need to fix.” He considered for a second. “Want to give me a hand?”

In answer, the Chinese arenaut climbed off of her bunk, padding after Mark. She was slender and petite, not quite managing to reach five feet in height, but her eyes always sparkled with contemplative intelligence. Mark often found her watching the other crew members, not speaking but clearly paying attention to their actions and reactions.

He still wasn’t sure if she yet felt comfortable among the others. All her answers were impeccable, offering nothing to challenge, but she sometimes seemed to hesitate for a fraction of a second before speaking, as if thinking about whether her words were the right thing to say. He trusted her – they all did – but he still wondered, sometimes, what was going on inside her head.

Outside the sleeping chamber, Ling proceeded to her control station, waking up the device from sleep mode. “We can activate the lights and send one of the small rovers out to check on things,” she said, her small fingers flying adroitly over the controls. “That should be able to identify the source of the noise-”

Her voice trailed off, as both she and Mark stared at the display on the main screen.

“Malfunction,” Mark said hoarsely after a minute. “Or we’re looking at something from a weird angle. Where’s this camera?”

It took Ling a second to speak, to tear her eyes away from the view on the screen. “Rover three, parked near the front entrance,” she said, clicking a few keys. “Reports all stats are normal, battery is fully charged, no impediments to movement.”

“There might be a glitch.” The engineers had tried to test for everything, but Mark knew how that went. “Try and move around.”

Ling tapped a few more keys, and then guided the rover with the joystick. It seemed to move around fine, the shadowed outlines of the different habitat buildings moving relative to the rover’s shifting position.

But the strange object in the middle remained, even after they circled around a greenhouse and turned back to face it once again.

Finally, after several more seconds of staring, Mark snapped into action. “I’m going out there,” he announced, turning towards the suits and the airlock. “Wake the others, Ling.”

“Wait!” Mark hadn’t expected the outburst from Ling, but she jumped up from her seat, turning to him. Her large, almond eyes looked wider than he’d ever seen before. “Don’t we all need to be present to decide on this?”

He knew that she was right. “Fine,” he growled, “but I’m still getting changed. Wake them, get them out here.”

He turned to the suits as Ling did as commanded. The others took a bit of rousing, but they all came out from the sleeping area, looking in disbelief between Mark, now mostly clad in the external environment suit, and the screens still open on Ling’s control panel.

“What the hell is going on?” Chernov demanded. “What is that… thing?”

“We don’t know,” Mark answered to both questions. “I heard a thump outside, and this thing is appearing on the rover’s cams. I’m going to go out and take a look.”

Casper moved to the screens. “I don’t know,” he said, considering. “Hey Mark, you ever see that old film? 2001, I think it was called?”

“What, you think that’s a monolith?” Mark grinned back at Casper. “I promise not to touch it, okay? Deal?”

“Keep your helmet cam on,” Ling warned him, handing him his bubble helmet.

Mark nodded, strapped the helmet on, and stepped towards the airlock.

To be continued…

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