Vision, Part II

j.m. raymond By j.m. raymond, 11th Feb 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Short Stories

On July 25, 1976, the Viking I spacecraft snapped a picture of the surface of Mars that has spawned years of speculation, an untold number of conspiracy theories of cover-ups and countless discussions of who and how and what. This is the second installment of a longer piece that discusses some of those possibilities. You can find the beginning to this story in Part I.

Altitude

"Ready for the circus?" Brookings asked.

Paul nodded and followed the other man down a series of corridors, through a door labeled Armstrong Presentation Room and onto the waiting stage. The press conference got underway, the astronauts were introduced and then a short animation of the major mission parameters was presented. The floor was then opened for questions.

It took all of three minutes for someone to ask about the origins and the nature of The Face. Paul caught Brookings glaring a warning at him not to spark any controversy and ignored him. He didn't need the warning.

"Well, that's what we're going to find out with this mission," Paul said. "We're going to go do what the remote sensors and the high resolution cameras can't. We're going to look at it with human eyes, and walk on it with human feet and probe it with human hands on the instruments. Other than the space suits we'll be wearing, it will be just like geological assessments here on earth. When we're done, we'll be able to tell you how old it is, what it's made of and whether or not it's a natural formation."

"Which I'm certain it is," added Brookings, usurping control of the press conference and trying to cast Paul's answer in the realm of the ludicrously absurd.

Paul was furious and informed Brookings of his anger after the conference.

"What the hell was that?" Paul demanded. "Next time you step on one of my answers, Commander, especially in my field of expertise, I will expose you as a military hack whose only job is to follow the orders of his leash holders. Now, that may not be true, but, I have enough friends in the right places to make that stick in the minds of the public as I'm sure you're aware. It could get you booted from this mission."

"You left the question too open."

"Because it is open!" Paul responded angrily. "If it weren't open, there would be no need whatsoever for you and I to be participating in this little multi-million mile jaunt and to be spending two billion dollars of tax payer's money." He turned and strode to the viewing room to watch the launch of Beyond.

After the launch, the balance of the afternoon was spent getting to know some of his fellow astronauts and in depth discussions of the mission details. He discovered that he liked Mick Myers, the Australian, the best after these initial meetings. Mick was forthright and brutally honest. The name Walkabout had been Mick's suggestion. Paul guessed that his ready wit and sharp and barbed tongue may have been contributing factors in NASA's decision to ignore what, in actuality, was the perfect name.

"In my country," Mick said, "when one goes on a journey of discovery, it is called walkabout. Isn't that what we're doing here? We're going to land astronauts on Mars and go on one hell of a walkabout. I don't know how those morons can say no to that name."

The next twelve months were a blur to Paul. He could remember nothing more than frequent trips to Houston for space flight training. Unending hours in the simulators melded into briefings, charts, emergency planning, contingency planning and more hours in the simulators. He remembered flying home the afternoon of Jaynie's high school graduation and having Julie nudge him in the ribs to wake him up barely in time to see Jaynie receive her diploma. He was on a flight back to Houston the next morning.

Jaynie was going on to college; she wanted to be a vet. She had hoped to get into Cornell University, but the low number of admissions they allowed into the Veterinary Medicine program every year, plus the discharging of favors to alumni had combined to prevent her from gaining a berth. She had decided on her second choice, the University of Florida for the same program. The greenhouse plans had been finalized and Julie would handle the balance of the details for its construction and eventual stocking while he was outbound. What had been an interminable, tedious time suddenly had passed prematurely.

Two weeks before the initial liftoff from Kennedy Space Center and the half day journey to LEO II, Paul and the others were back in Houston. It had been a rigorous day of repeatedly simulating the parking maneuver placing Vision alongside Beyond and then tethering the two ships together for ease of passage of both crew and necessities between them. Paul had blown his assignment three of the final of four tries. That hadn't happened for over six months. According to the simulators, six of the ten crew members had died, himself included, and the return trip to Earth had a seventy-five percent probability of failure. Paul took little comfort in the fact that the mission planners gave them a forty percent probability of failure even operating within expected parameters and that Vegas odds were already heavily slanted against a safe return.

Brookings poked his head into Paul's sleeping quarters in the training facility. The two men had developed at least a working respect for each other over the last several months.

"I'm making arrangements to grant the entire crew four days leave commencing tomorrow at 0800," he said. "You've earned it. Go home. Take your dog hunting. Kiss your daughter before she goes away to school. Make love to your wife before you go away to Mars. Back here before 1700 hours on Friday."

Paul couldn't remember ever telling Brookings about his dog, or his daughter for that matter, but he guessed the Commander had probably read the information in a bio on him somewhere.

Over the course of the next four days, Julie made certain that he forgot all about Brookings and Mission Control Training Facility simulators.

****

The liftoff from Kennedy was the most exhilarating, most astonishingly terrifying day of Paul's life. He was convinced the spacecraft was simultaneously traveling in every direction possible. He knew a deviation of more than a few degrees off the planned trajectory could be disastrous and hoped that it was only his imagination telling him the rocket was tilting drastically sideways. Paul could feel the craft pogoing up and down as the tremendous thrust wrested he and the rocket away from gravity's grip and was more than relieved when the multiple motion sensation gave way to that of simply rushing forward. When even that disappeared, he knew they had reached the speed necessary to counteract the gravitational pull of Earth and would be arriving at the station soon.

They had a week to spend on the orbital platform before boarding Vision and beginning the trek to Mars in earnest. Paul and Mick found themselves with not much to do outside of play checkers or cards—both interesting experiments in a zero gravity environment—and exercise in the low g conditioning room, or discuss the upcoming voyage.

Mick was an astrobiologist. It would be his primary task to retrieve and test in situ, hundreds of soil and ice samples looking for indications of life either long expired or still extant. Although he had been often quoted as saying if this mission demonstrated that The Face was an artificial construct and not a natural formation, his presence on this voyage would quickly become superficial.

"I believe it's real," he told Paul over checkers one afternoon. "If it were just rocks, why are the majority of the images that we've seen stretched or flipped or completely distorted? And beyond that, if it were just rocks, why would NASA have hundreds if not thousands of images of this single rock formation? Doesn't make any sense to me."

Brookings, who, unknown to both men, had stopped in the doorway, said "That's exactly why we keep throwing time and material at it. Because the general public, who doesn't know any better likes to speculate, and because scientists, like yourselves, who should know better continue to speculate after we've already shown it is nothing but an unremarkable mesa that has been subjected to the natural erosion processes of any other hill stuck out on the surface of a dead planet. So, I guess you could say, 'here we go again,' hmmm?"

"You have to admit, Commander," Paul said, "that some of the images appear to have been tampered with at length, and a great number of them have been shown upside down or backwards from the aspect of the two original shots taken by Viking. Those facts alone strike me as more than a little curious. In addition…"

"You know anything at all about rocket science and celestial mechanics, Welker?" Brookings asked. "Do you know how…"

"I know a great deal about orbital photography, Commander," Paul interrupted. "Both formally and from hundreds of hours spent poring over pictures from Apollo and any other space mission I could get the catalog for.

"I also know a little bit about proof and psychology. If you're trying to convince somebody something is not what they think it is, you put forth your absolute best evidence on the matter. You use all reasonable arguments to refute their claim. Repeatedly showing a picture upside down and backwards from the expected perspective is suspiciously not a good foundation to establish credibility on.

"Scientists like us continue to speculate, because contrary to your pronouncement a few moments ago, NASA has not demonstrated in any manner that it is nothing more than… what did you call it? 'An unremarkable mesa that has been subjected to the natural erosion processes of any other hill stuck out on the surface of a dead planet.' Mick's point has some validity to it. If it is as you proclaim, why all the attention paid to it? Because the general public wants to know? How often has what the general public wants to know ever had an affect on what NASA does? So, yes, to borrow your words, 'Here we go again'"

"Fucking imbeciles!" Brookings muttered as he pushed off the door frame and surged down the passage.

On their final day before heading out, Mick and Paul were sitting in the Veranda—a tiny observation cubicle built with large windows overlooking Earth. The view was beautiful beyond description.

"Do you really think they will let you tell the world it's real?" Mick asked.

"Why wouldn't they?"

"They're afraid, Paul. Scared of what that would mean to the religious factions, the political factions and the social divisions of that little world of ours below. Not everybody is as open-minded as you and me down there. Hell, not everybody is as open-minded as you and me up here."

Paul knew that was a jibe at Commander Brookings, and allowed it to pass.

"I think," he said, "if it is an artificial construct, I think we will survive that knowledge. It may engender some troubled times briefly, but we would get through it. I imagine, Mick, that whatever we discover, whether or not The Face is real, there may be other more pressingly urgent and mind boggling discoveries in our future. We survived learning that little world of ours down there was not flat. And that it was not nearly as important in the great scheme of things as we once thought. That little world will survive knowing that The Face is real, if it turns out to be so."

"Oh, it's real, all right. I'm certain of it."

Both men fell silent, ensconced in their own thoughts and staring, possibly for the last time, at the azure blue wonder of Earth hanging in the windows before them. Later, Paul decided to send one last message home, and then make an attempt at sleep; tomorrow was scheduled to comprise a full complement of duties.

He wavered between sentimental and silly as the tone of his message, and opted to split the difference. Julie would have believed neither if he had swung too far to either perspective.

Julie,

We leave tomorrow, but you already know that. For this one moment, I wish I was not making this trip. The dangers are great; the possibility of not being able to return is substantial, yet I believe in my heart that we will, and a year from now, you and I will be sleeping in the same bed once again. Well, maybe not sleeping, exactly…

I love you; you know that, too, but this is an occasion where it bears repeating. I have not yet left, and I cannot wait to return. So, until that day

All my love,

— Paul

PS After a year in zero to just a small fraction of normal gravity, you may have to carry me over the threshold this time.

He awoke to the haunting lyrics and thoughtful melody of "Time" by The Alan Parsons Project, piped in from Mission Control and sixty years ago. Before heading out for breakfast, he checked his personal gear one final time. Departure time was scheduled for 11:00 a.m.

"Checkout time at the Hyatt Regency Orbital hotel," he said to the empty room and went in search of Mick.

He found him, in the mess hall engaged in yet another debate with Commander Brookings about the possibility of life on Mars.

"Look, Commander. On Earth, liquid water is considered the prime ingredient necessary for life. For both sustaining it and its primary genesis. NASA has repeatedly demonstrated the presence of liquid water on portions of the surface of Mars. Why is it so impossible for you to accept the concept that even marginally similar environmental conditions can produce similar results?"

"That's just my point," answered Brookings. "There is nothing similar between the two worlds. You are an enamored romantic, Myers. I'm afraid, you're going to be hugely disappointed with the results of any experiments you may run. You keep saying if this thing is real, your presence will be superficial. I can tell you, I think your presence is superficial as it is and you are taking a spot that should have been given to someone more valuable on this initial trip. Another systems engineer would do nicely. Hell, at this point, I'd settle for a damn automotive mechanic. But, NASA says an astrobiologist is a requirement on this trip and I have no choice but to have you along for the ride.

"Mars is dead. It has been that way for eons. If, and that's a big if, there ever was life of any kind there, it has long since succumbed to that barren, inhospitable world. As for intelligent life, I'm telling you no how, no way. Not ever."

Paul grabbed a juice packet and a foil wrapped cereal bar before joining them at the small table. The table and chairs, though not needed in their weightless environment, had been included in the spacecraft design to lend an air of familiarity to the room. It was used infrequently by most of the regulars, but appeared to be a favored gathering spot of most of the visitors and newly arrived crew members.

"Gentlemen, isn't that what we're going to find out? Do we have to have this argument again? Today of all days?"

Brookings stood up and launched himself away from the table without a word. He hooked the doorway with his foot, stopping his momentum so that he could issue an order.

"Report to the ship at 0930," and he disappeared down the corridor, heading in the direction of the docked and waiting spacecraft.



The preceding is an excerpt.

The links below should help to navigate through the entire story.
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Image credit - http://www.public-domain-image.com/space-public-domain-images-pictures/mars-planet-of-the-solar-system.jpg.html

Tags

Face On Mars, Mars, Mission To Mars, Space Travel, Viking I, Viking Spacecraft

Meet the author

author avatar j.m. raymond
Satire, humor and fiction are my primary interests, although occasionally, I make forays into the worlds of technology and small business management.
You can also find me on twitter: @rentedfingers , my website at micha...(more)

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Comments

author avatar Denise O
3rd Mar 2011 (#)

Still got me, heading towards part 3. Thank you for sharing.:)

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