Vision, Part VI

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 final installment of a six part story that discusses some of those possibilities.
Start at the beginning


Over the next four days, while they labored to prepare the sleds and shove them out of the spacecraft, he wondered even more, just what the truth was. Apart from some minor bruises to the crew and some tremendous wind gusts blowing a few of the sleds off course, the balance of the drops went without a hitch. Each day, after the optimum window had passed, Paul and Mick were back in front of the viewing screens. Paul, the more video he watched, and the more stills he was able to observe, was almost convinced of artificial origins for several of the features on the Cydonian plain below them.

Brookings drove them from the screens early on the fourth night.

"We depart for that barren wasteland and gravity tomorrow at 0600. That means we'll be rousing everybody about 0500 just to make sure we get off on time. Get some sleep. You'll need it for tomorrow."

Paul left the bridge but sleep was long in coming.

The morning was a cacophony of excitement and anticipation. They were about to attempt a feat that humans had not even considered for over fifty years. Not since Apollo had mankind ventured to land a spacecraft with human occupants in it onto the surface of another world. And this world was dramatically different than the world Apollo had chosen. Earth's moon didn't have winds blowing with the force of hurricanes. Mars did.

This lander was more advanced than the LEM had been as well. The prerequisite heat shielding added more weight and thus required bigger engines and more fuel, each of those adding more weight as well. Finding the optimum engine design, fuel mixture, weight to thrust ratio had taken months of research and test runs. The lunar missions had entailed only a few days on the surface. This landing would place the astronauts on the surface of Mars for almost two months. All of these and other factors had gone into the design of the lander, though because of the unique scientific laboratory that was Mars, it had proved impossible to fully test those design innovations. Earth's gravity was far too strong. A trip to the Moon would have been too costly and its gravity was not near strong enough. All Paul and the remaining crew could do was once again place their faith in the engineers back on Earth and the piloting skills of Commander Brookings.

Brookings was ready to depart and not much for ceremony.

"If we don't make it, inform NASA immediately. Get the supplies off Beyond and move everybody back onto Vision. Head home as soon as the departure window opens up. One last thing. It has been a pleasure to serve with all of you thus far in this mission." He turned and crawled down the access passage to the lander.

Paul, Mick and the other crew members making the landing made their good-byes and followed him. This was what they had come all this way for; there was no turning back now.

"Ship's log, we have safe touchdown. Repeat. Magic Bus touchdown on Mars successful at 0720. No problems, all systems green," Brookings said into the commlink. "This place is incredible! Now, Houston, if you don't mind, I think we are going to get some rest. We will be back on line in four hours."

The ship had landed on a relatively flat plain a few hundred yards southwest of The Face. Paul and Mick were at the viewport observing the terrain of the Martian surface. The colors were amazing. They ranged from a light tan to a dark, russet brown stretching as far as they could see. Gravity, even the lighter gravity of Mars, made their movements cumbersome and fatiguing. They retired from the viewports to their sleeping bunks for some much needed rest. After that, the retrieval and set up of equipment would provide opportunity to at least get out and stretch their legs.

"All right. This is what we trained for; what we journeyed all these months and all these millions of miles for. We're here," Brookings said next morning. "I want to get the habitat installed and running and get that first Rover set up so we can start charging the batteries and retrieve the other one since it blew so far off course and bounced somewhere into next week on somebody's bright idea. Tomorrow, we go exploring."

Before opening the air lock, Brookings made a final speech.

"I don't have to tell you this is a hostile environment. You can die here in a matter of a few minutes from any of a hundred ways, none of them pleasant. A pressure leak in your suit will cause your body fluids to boil. An oxygen leak and you will suffocate. The dust on this world will infiltrate every joint, every crevice and every fitting on these suits. If it gets inside, well, trust me… that would not be at all pleasant.

A good number of our best scientist at home believe there may be human lethal compounds in this dust. Some of Myers' friends think there is the potential for dangerous and parasitic microorganisms present, so be careful. Keep an eye on your gauges and monitoring systems. Anything deviates even a fraction from the normal range, I need to know about it. Got it? Then let's go."

They exited the ship into the foreign, deadly environment of Mars. The sun was markedly too far away. The sky resembled a late November day in the Midwest on Earth: an unbroken gray expanse in every direction where a mile could equal thirty because depth perception and distinction have been obliterated by freezing rain or snow.

Brookings didn't give them much time to look around. He started issuing orders immediately, sending somebody off in all four directions to begin retrieving the widely scattered equipment and supplies. Several sleds, it appeared, had bounced for amazing distances before expending their kinetic energy and coming to rest.

Brookings could be heard muttering imprecations for hours against engineers and planetary landing experts and their stupid ideas and who didn't have to waste days of their time retrieving necessary supplies.

When he wasn't complaining, he was issuing orders. He assigned Mick to deploying the solar collectors on the habitat and the Rover and then to verify that its entire complement of electronics were functioning as expected.

"Tomorrow," he said, "I want you to take this buggy at first light and go retrieve the second Rover that got blown off course by the damn wind gusts on this cursed planet and then proceeded to bounce even further. Tow it back here so we can make sure it at least survived in functional order."

All told, they spent about four hours scurrying around on the surface the first day. The priorities were listed as: power and O2 for the bus, water recirc, Rover 1, science lab, easily reachable supply sleds, rest. They had accomplished all of those things, making a small dent in the overall list of things that had to be done when Brookings called a halt to the day's activities.

"All right, people. We've been without gravity for two months, and today, we just spent four hours working our asses off with gravity making every task more difficult. Head home here to our little bungalow. Let's get some food and some sleep."

Paul had been working on the water recirc and the science lab set up. Getting the recirculator to work was a matter of inspecting and adjusting a few fittings, and then testing the system. The science lab proved to be a bit more strenuous. It worked on the same principle as the slide out on his RV back home. You turned a hand crank which in turn rotated a series of pulleys and gears until the slider was fully extended. Except this was the first time he had ever attempted that in a fully pressurized environment suit and the restoration of gravity after two months without it. He was spent by the time Brookings made his call to come home. A quick diagnostic on the state of the lab indicated that all was as it should be for the moment. He returned to the main portion of the habitat and exited his suit. He found an empty cleaning pod—a combination sonic and liquid and vacuum chamber—and hung the suit inside. He ate something that was labeled as spaghetti and tasted like cardboard before crawling into his bunk. Tonight, sleep came quickly.


By the end of their third day on the planet, they had retrieved most of the supplies. Mick had brought the second Rover in the previous day. The science lab had been running automated experiments for the better part of a day and a half. They were running out of house keeping tasks and Paul was getting anxious to head out and do some digging.

He wanted to circumnavigate the mile long face, to observe the apparent dais that it rested on. He wanted to scale it, to stand on what appeared to be the nose and survey his surroundings. And, he wanted to test the materials that comprised it, looking for signs of artificiality. Of course, the actual pictures from the spacecraft overhead would make it easier to view the entire structure, but that method had already proven inadequate to make a satisfactory decision. No, boots on the ground were what was needed. His boots, and he was eager to get there.

But, tomorrow did not look as if it would be the day to begin his investigation either. Brookings was discussing assignments for the next day over supper.

"Myers, tomorrow, I want you to take one of the rovers, head northwest for ten minutes shy of half the battery charge. Try and track down any of our supplies that went missing in that direction.

"Welker, you and I are going to be working on the solar array. We need some more power so we're going to try refocusing the panels."

There were other instructions to other crew members, but Paul was no longer listening. It was going to be at least another day before they could get to The Face.

It was actually three. After a week on the surface, finally the day to start their experiments and investigation in earnest had arrived. Paul found his anticipation and excitement too large to contain.

The morning brought only a slight change of plans.

"Myers," Brookings said over coffee, "I know you wanted to be a part of the first expedition to that mesa over there, but Vision is reporting the transmitter signal from one of the sleds due north of here about an hour. I need you to go get it and haul it back. I promise, Welker and I will wait to scale the thing until you get back here. We'll just drive around the base and take pictures for you."

Thirty minutes later, Paul and Brookings were just beginning their trek around the base. They had exited the rover a couple of times to do some closer inspection and to get some core samples from the rock, but for the most part, this initial trip was designed to simply drive around the entire perimeter and observe. Paul had just exited to attempt another sample, while Brookings wandered around several yards from where they had stopped.

"Paul… suit… dust…" Mick's strained voice sounded in Paul's ears to be replaced with only white noise and crackling static.

Paul hollered for Brookings and together they went looking for Mick and the other Rover, each knowing they were already too late. They found him, lying on the ground beside his buggy, a grotesque splattering of dried blood and other things, including some of the fine, Martian dust on the inside of his helmet visor.

"Looks like multiple failures. Joint seal which accounts for the dust, and pressure failure which accounts for… everything else," Brookings said.

Paul's motor functions ceased. His thought processes were stymied. Here, lying in the dust of an alien world was his friend, dead of an horrible death, literally boiling away from the inside. He could hear Brookings' voice as if from a great distance, calling his name, feel him shaking him.

"We can take him back to the ship with us, but we have to bury him when we get there. We can't stick him somewhere on the ship just waiting until we return. We can't run the risk of bacteria and contamination, not to mention the potential disease from a decaying body lying around. Welker, can you hear me?"

They placed his body back in the rover he had been driving and hooked the tow cable to their own. They began the trip back to the camp, Paul deep in thought and in mourning.

Perhaps, he thought, the isolation here and the fact that we're forty million miles from home and that that could have happened to any of us is why this is so hard.

The brief service, presided over by Brookings and the building of the rock cairn were a blur to him. He participated in the rock gathering and placing, but he couldn't say how many rocks he carried or how long it took them.

"Goodbye, Mick. Safe travels, my friend," he said as the last rock was placed and Brookings final remarks were made.

"I think we should go up now," he said to Brookings a few minutes later. "Mick would have wanted it that way."

Brookings didn't answer immediately. He peered deep into Paul's eyes, reading the steel there, and perhaps sensing his determination to go right now, with or without help.

"Okay," he said. "Let's get our gear."

They loaded the climbing gear into the rover and drove from camp to that oddly symmetrical base of their objective in silence. Paul was certain the artificiality of the structure would be confirmed from the top—he had seen hints of something that he wanted a closer look at in the images he had been studying. He was hoping to pay a small tribute to his friend and credit him with the discovery, or at the very least, the impetus to get this far.

"Before we go up, there's a personal message waiting for you," Brookings said. "It came in last night and I thought you would appreciate it more if it waited until now. MSGPW001 on your keypad."

Paul flipped open the cover of his suitcom and keyed in the sequence. The tiny viewing screen flickered to life and his daughter's face filled the screen.

"Hi, Daddy," she said, all smiles. "Good news. I'm not sure how you did it, but, I just got a call from Cornell, well earlier today. They said I had been accepted there for transfer in January, and that I still qualified for a full scholarship. Isn't that great! The people at NASA were kind enough to come by and let me record this message to send to you. I'm so excited. I can't wait! I'll be almost a sophomore when you get back. Can you believe it? Gotta go, Daddy. They say this personal message is expensive air time. I'll bet you're glad you don't have to cover this cell phone bill! Bye, Daddy. I love you. Oh, and Mom says the tomatoes are wonderful! Bye again. Love you!"

The video window closed and the computer terminal once again displayed obscure mission information readouts.

"Cornell—that's a pretty good university for veterinary sciences, isn't it?"

Paul, still processing the information and the possible explanations merely grunted an affirmative. Brookings, however, was apparently interested in pursuing the conversation.

"You know, I love my job. Nothing seems impossible with the organization I work for. Some of the world's best and brightest, which is why you're here. Best in your field. Unequaled qualifications. They wanted to replace you because of your views, but I said 'no, we need him specifically for his views.'

"That's why I'm here, too. Best in my field of expertise. Office of Naval Intelligence, Distinguished Service Medal recipient. Of course, that's not part of my public service record, nor are the reasons for which I earned it. Let's just say I specialize in information dissemination.

"One thing old man Swenza never understood. Life is about dealing with uncertainties and facing the unknown. It's about possibilities and probabilities. I mean, what are the probabilities of a faulty pressure readout and a failed joint seal on a single space suit simultaneously? Must be astronomical."

Paul turned to stare at him, refusing to believe what he had just heard and the implications of those words.

"Your wife," Brookings continued, "as of several hours ago, received a shipment of tomatoes. Grown hydroponically aboard the stations. When transplanted to Earth they produce far superior fruit than any of their non-spacefaring cousins. She, like your daughter regarding her transfer, believes that to be your doing. Am I making sense to you?

"You are a smart man, Doctor. The world's current vision does not incorporate the confirmation of a human visage on a deceased planetary body forty million miles from Earth. So, let's tell 'em what it 'really' is, shall we?"

Brookings turned away without another word and began the climb upward. Paul was left no choice but to follow.

"I am standing here on the summit—if you can call it that—of The Face. In reality, it is a somewhat rounded hillock composed mostly of granite and quartz. Wind erosion over millions of years has sculpted this hill, gently rounding the edges, and scooping out depressions that resemble eyes when viewed from orbiting spacecraft. We have been all over this piece of ground these last few days, and I can tell you, that as an archaeologist and a 'Cydonian', I am extremely disappointed that The Face is… nothing more than a large, wind-eroded hill and its appearance as a face is indeed nothing more than a trick of light and shadow. But, as a geologist, I can tell you that I am equally excited to have the opportunity to explore this region of Mars and hopefully provide a bit of insight into the past of this continuously intriguing, long inhospitable neighbor of Earth."

Paul waited until Commander Brookings signaled that the camera was off, and began his descent from the ridge on which he was standing. He traversed the depression below trying not to notice the splotches of blue marble that showed through the inch deep brown dust covering the area. The unblinking eye, as it had done for countless millennia continued to stare into space, perhaps waiting only for someone to acknowledge its existence.

The preceding is an excerpt. If you caught this trip to Mars in the middle, you can find the beginning here: <<...Vision Part I

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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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author avatar Denise O
3rd Mar 2011 (#)

It did not end as I thought and I am glad. I really liked this journey and i have too say, mighty fine writing.
Thank you for the trip to mars.:)

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author avatar j.m. raymond
4th Mar 2011 (#)

Thank you, kindly, Denise! Glad you enjoyed the journey. I'm curious, though. How did you expect it to end?

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