Copyright is held by the author.

WHEN THEY TOOK their first breath of Martian air, a change came over them. “The First Four” had been dubbed and knighted media sensations before their departure. Troy, Johnson, Volshek, and Michaels. Parties were thrown, champagne drunk, hangovers nursed. Pomp and fanfare preceded their takeoff. They stepped aboard and launched the rocket. Each had 23 hours to look at their planet from orbit before a 50-week nap was induced. Klaxons sounded and drugs were injected into their comatose systems. A pleasant, sexless voice was saying, “Good Morning Astronauts of Marslander One. It is six a.m. on Tuesday, the 16th of August, 2017. This vessel has just entered the gravitational sphere of the planet Mars.” The four men were groggy from their coma and the cryo-toxins were slowly leeched from their systems. They each showered and went about the duties assigned to them so long ago on Earth. Each had his own post and check lists to take care of before a landing could occur.

Michaels went immediately to the front cabin to check on the ships’ status in space and to make sure that all thrusters were operating normally. The landing was progressing on the proper timetable, one that he had worked out extensively with the men at NASA, and that had been approved by him personally. There was no room for error, and Michaels would brook none in his calculations or his crew.

Troy was navigator. His station was directly behind Michaels’. He swiveled his chair into the workstation so he could plot their course directly and run a diagnostic on the proposed landing area. Everything had been approved beforehand of course, but it was his duty to make sure nothing had changed since they had left. He had last call on the abort of the landing.

Johnson spent most of his early life in various prestigious colleges attaining degrees that no other on board had mastered. He was far from the lab now, but his fingers danced over the keyboard, running tests on the atmosphere gas levels, as well as to check the landing barge. It sat squat and powerful on six heavily-studded tires in the loading bay. Several steel bars screwed to the deck kept it stationary while the ships’ attitude changed. His instruments were strapped to the barge, loaded into heavy plastic cases and wedged tightly together beneath nylon netting. Any unnecessary jostling could cause some of the calibrations to be off, and that would be disaster to someone trying to analyze the information later.

Volshek went about his duties as security officer and head of the landing party. It was understood by all of the crew members that as soon as their feet touched Martian soil that he was in charge, and he took his job seriously. If any danger were to confront them upon landing, Volshek was expected to take care of the problem and/or signal the return to the craft. He followed Johnson around the rover, checking the power supply and coupling it to the sled it towed. Then he began unlocking the restraining bars around the barge as the ship went into its final descent.

The landing itself was flawless. Until the last minute Michaels held the controls in his hands, feeling as though he was doing something, even though he knew he wasn’t. The computer did all the work, Michaels’ hands resting lightly on the controls, feeling the movement of the craft, hoping and dreading that the manual override would have to be levered on. Marslander One gently touched the surface of the planet, a small puff of dust shooting from the surface around each of the landing feet.

The PACS hung from specially designed brackets in the walls, waiting like forgotten members of the exhibition. The Personal Atmospheric Compression Suits had been painstakingly designed and built at a lab on the campus of MIT, with a huge group of NASA’s scientists taking residence in the town until they were complete. Besides all of the regular safety precautions, a re-breather system had been designed at the college that would take in the Martian air and amplify the oxygen from a tank on the suit itself. This way the astronauts could spend almost double the time outside of the ship if they needed to, making longer expeditions on the Martian surface possible. No expense had been spared. The suits had been modified and re-modified, all thanks to the tax-payers, until every eventuality had been thought of and taken into account.

The door opened into the airlock and Michaels drove the rover inside with Johnson riding in the sled and glaring at him when he bumped lightly into the far wall. Volshek stood at the main hatch, waiting for the airlock door to close. Troy hit the buttons and they listened as the air slowly hissed out of the room. Michaels glanced once at Volshek and smiled nervously, Volshek did the same.

“You ready?”  he asked.

“As I’ll ever be…check my re-breather?” Michaels replied, and Volshek hit the buttons as Troy leaned in and made a final check of the system. With a thumbs up the outside hatch opened and the four men, two riding, two walking, took the first human steps on the Martian surface.

As they gazed at the landscape, they could hear the scrubbers on their re-breathers kick into gear. The brilliant MIT and NASA scientists could never have known that there was a bacterium in the Martian air. When the re-breathers pumped increased amounts of oxygen into the humid internal atmosphere of suits, the bacterium suddenly came alive. The researchers could not know that homo-sapiens had the perfect incubator in the form of their lungs for this bacterium to grow and thrive. Said bacteria rapidly spread through the lungs and through the blood stream into the brain. It then caused extremely quick deterioration of normal brain function.

So as these men took their first breath of the infused Martian air, Volshek calmly pulled a small pistol from a pocket in his PAC, then turned and shot Michaels in the head. The bullet crashed through the plastic facemask and the oxygen rushed out of the suit as Michaels fell backwards. Volshek turned to Troy, and Johnson swung at him with a rock hammer he had pulled from the sled, tearing through the fabric of his suit and causing Volshek to tumble off of the ramp and onto the Martian soil. The integrity of his suit compromised, Volshek clawed at the neck he could not reach until he suffocated. Johnson picked up the fallen pistol and was staring deep into the barrel when his thumb happened on the trigger and the shot took him directly in the facemask, killing him almost instantly. Troy was pulling at his helmet with obvious frustration. He finally figured out the screws and heaved the helmet as far as he could before collapsing near Michaels, clutching at himself with thick fingers.

The ship, loaded with impressive technology, recorded the entire ordeal from 10 different angles. When it had detected no movement from the outside of the ship for 24 hours, it went to the failsafe mode that had been programmed into it. Probes were sent out. Small robots took samples of the physical aspects of Mars. They picked at stones, clawing them into small compartments. They turned on small vacuums, taking air samples which were sealed for the trip home. Each of the animatrons returned to the ship within the hour. Marslander One called to the barge. It backed up, the electric motor whirring quietly. On the ramp it bumped into Michaels. The hugely studded tires rolled over him. Then the ship closed all hatches and pulled the ramp in, finally dropping Michaels. Recalculation of the return trip took seconds, and the stowage of the precious Martian samples, dirt and air, were safe. Marslander One launched and turned for Earth, just under one year in the future.

The four lay in the Martian dust.

One comment

  1. Nancy Boyce

    Brad, having read (and enjoyed!) your other two stories, I was waiting for the twist and you did not disappoint.

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