Reentry window, p.1
Reentry Window, p.1Eric Tozzi
Copyright 2014 Eric Tozzi
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, agencies, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Eric Tozzi
“I can’t believe what I’m about to say—can’t believe this is really happening. Something’s landed here on Mars. Just a half mile from my current position. I watched it decelerate, so I’m certain it’s not a meteor. It looked like a parachute deployed, and a piece of it fell away—maybe a heat shield. I don’t know what to make of this. There were no other flights scheduled but ours. No way it’s from Earth. No way.”
Brett Lockwood angled his gloved hand toward the glass of his helmet to read the touch screen on his wrist. His suit had three hours of life support left. Enough time to investigate the strange object. Enough time to make it back to his lander. But after that? He’d have to engage the Mars Ascent Engine, leave the surface, and rendezvous in orbit with his crew in Epoch 1. Once systems checked out, they could start recalculating a trip back to Earth. They’d have to leave now, ahead of schedule. It was too dangerous out here. But based on the orbits of Earth and Mars, getting back home at this point might be impossible.
It was in that moment that Brett felt it sink in, an injection of resignation bleeding into his stomach, possessing his whole body, staking out a stronghold in his mind. The window’s closed, Brett. There’s no going home. The thought came loudly. But he muscled past it. No. No, there’s still a chance! With a carefully planned gravity assist, they could build enough velocity and make it back to Earth safely.
Brett swept his display to make sure that audio was live, still recording his every word. It was. A tiny waveform at the bottom right of the screen pulsed in time with the sound of his voice.
“Still recording,” he said, as if to remind himself to keep talking. He found it to be a comfort—the sound of his voice in that helmet. He’d been waiting for a response from his friend Martin Locke, flight navigator on Epoch 1, or from any of the rest of his crew: Debra Stone, William Chu, Howard Black, Kate Wallace. He could imagine hearing them as clearly as he had on any one of the two hundred days they’d spent together on the flight to Mars, each with their own distinct voice, like instruments in an orchestra. Singing now in his memory. But that’s all they were. A memory. They weren’t responding to his calls. As if… as if the anomaly had done something to them. Yes, the anomaly—it’s why they came here to Mars in the first place.
Fifteen years earlier, the planetary exploration program had been pronounced dead. Prior to that, there had been plans for a robotic sample return mission, and even a manned mission to set up a permanent habitat on the surface of Mars. But over time, economies tanked, political will failed, people lost interest—and space exploration, whether manned or robotic, was buried and forgotten. One by one, deep-space missions were truncated and spacecraft abandoned, left to die in the uncharitable coldness of the solar system.
It was the Mars atmospheric anomaly that resurrected the planetary and deep-space exploration programs from the ashes of oblivion.
Initially described as a peculiar opening, or window, in the top of the Martian atmosphere, the anomaly soon became the primary target of investigation of the MAVEN Orbiting Spacecraft. MAVEN, or Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, had been sent to Mars for a routine study of the upper atmosphere; scientists were hoping to learn why the red planet had lost most of its atmosphere over the last several billion years. But MAVEN discovered much more. On a routine orbit, it detected a strong inflow of solar particles moving toward a focal point in the atmosphere—a point that was generating a massive quantum gravity field spike. The phenomenon, as a whole, resembled some sort of vortex.
Readings from the throat of the anomaly were off the charts—a flood of data that no one could interpret. No one knew for sure what it was they were seeing. No one could explain how it got there.
And then, on a subsequent orbital pass, MAVEN vanished.
This wasn’t a situation in which a spacecraft encounters a malfunction and drops into safe mode. MAVEN simply ceased to occupy its space in Mars orbit. The phone call from JPL to Washington, DC was brief.
“What’s happened to MAVEN?”
“Sounds like a software issue. It’s probably in safe mode, and just needs an update—”
“No, sir, it’s not a software issue or a hardware issue or a malfunction of any kind. The spacecraft is gone.”
Within a few hours, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Global Surveyor were redirected into new orbits that would keep them at a theoretical safe distance from the anomaly.
Finally, after much debate, the plans for a manned mission to the Red Planet were given the green light, and the ship Epoch 1 was quickly developed and built. The mission was multi-purpose, which made it appealing to those in Congress who finally agreed to pay for it. The flight would satisfy three primary objectives: from a safe orbital distance, it would study the anomaly and catalogue its findings; it would send a lander to the surface of Mars to achieve the first human steps on the Red Planet; and, finally, it would collect soil and rock samples for return to Earth. Three missions wrapped up in one flight. Everyone agreed it was a bargain. Everyone was happy.
A week before launch, Brett and his crew spent an evening at the beach house at Cape Canaveral, just a half mile from the Apollo launch pad. Brett and Martin stood at the edge of the water, looking out over the causeway, watching a full moon rise above the horizon like a looming eye of God. William and the others were taking a short walk along the sandy shore, leaving the two friends alone.
“Crazy, isn’t it? Armstrong, Aldrin, stood here eighty years ago and saw that same moon,” Martin said.
Brett chuckled. “Is that what we are? Modern day Armstrongs?”
“We’re going to be the first people to set foot on Mars,” Martin answered. “Well, you at least. Dream come true, huh?”
Brett’s gaze floated away from the shore, toward the treeline that rimmed the waterfront. Beyond it stood the Vertical Integration Facility, a fifteen-story steel edifice built to house the new Atlas Heavy launch vehicle that would carry them into space, emancipating them from the bond of Earth’s gravity.
“I haven’t dreamed in years.”
Without looking at his friend, Martin said, “She’d be proud of you, Brett. She would.”
“Maybe,” Brett replied. “Anyway,” he added, quickly brushing the moisture from the rims of his eyes, “I guess it takes something like this.”
“The Mars anomaly… I guess it takes something this bizarre to drive us back out into space. As if our solar system doesn’t have enough wonders we could be exploring. Still can’t believe we haven’t touched the surface of Europa, or Enceladus for that matter. Can you imagine how far we’d be if this anomaly had occurred when we landed Vikings 1 and 2 back in the seventies? If the cameras had turned on and they’d seen fossils or footprints?”
Martin said, “Guess that’s why we only made six lunar landings, and Apollo 17 was the end of it. People began to see the moon as something unremarkable.”
“And Mars… Curiosity worked for twenty-three years,” Brett quipped, “and then—nothing. Like it never happened. Just more rocks and dirt to look at. A dead-end road.” He grew somber as the others, bathed now in soft, magnesium moonlight, drifted back toward them.
“Maybe we’re the ones that’ll reignite this whole thing, Martin. Maybe we’ll give the world a chance to believe again.”
Reentry Window by Eric Tozzi / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on20 votes