by Martin L. Shoemaker
Carver, Aames, and Smith have previously appeared in the pages of Analog in “Brigas Nunca Mais” (March 2015) and “Murder on the Aldrin Express” (September 2013).
1. Descent Stage
“Carver!” the captain shouted through the comm. Lander 2 bucked and dove in the Martian turbulence. A rumble like distant thunder sounded through the hull. “Pick that nose up. Fight that wind. Use some juice if you have to! I don’t want to scrape you all off of Mars.”
But it was Chief Maxwell who answered, safe in Control Bay 2 up on the Bradbury: “I’m on it.” I bounced against my seat and then up against my straps as the lander’s nose kicked upward. “Doppler says there’s a calm pocket behind this gust, we just have to slide over to it.”
The expedition had started fine. The eight-month trip on the Bradbury was routine for a crew of experienced spacers: maintenance, training, experiments, and briefings. Indoctrination sessions, really, but the brass were subtler than that. The System Initiative hired the best headshrinkers to make it subtle. That was all the fault of Masha Desney—my hero!—and Bennie Cooper.
I heard the captain’s sneer in his response. “Glad somebody is awake over there. Carver, open your damned eyes! Do you want another collision?”
That was unfair to Anson Carver—his Lieutenant Junior Grade bars still new—but “fair” doesn’t describe Captain Aames. He’ll push ’til he gets your best—or you break. Carver had had a collision during pilot training, and Aames brought it up when he wanted to push the man. Carver’s helmet monitor showed sweat on his dark brown forehead, but his eyes were focused and steely. Carver wouldn’t break, I was sure of that. He was doing great considering he had worries that Max didn’t. Our landers used the system invented by the First Bradbury crew: a pilot in a skinsuit on the lander paired with a copilot on the Bradbury, so they could share both views of the Martian approach. Carver hung from straps in the pilot pod, while Max did the same up in the ship; but though they used the same piloting gear, there was one key difference, an old bacon-and-eggs joke: The chicken is involved in breakfast, but the pig is committed. Carver played pig in the frying pan, and Maxwell was the chicken, wondering if we would fry.
Commander Cooper’s First team had devised this system to rescue Desney, his second-in-command, after she had violated mission rules and landed on Mars. They were supposed to teleoperate robots on the surface, preparing for future manned landings but with none approved for their mission; but the splintered crews on the First schemed to land on their own, all chasing national prestige and influence. Desney finally pulled it off, but she crashed in the landing. After Cooper united his crew to rescue her, the floodgates opened. They rewrote their mission plan, with multiple surface excursions and piles of samples and data returned.
The rumble outside continued. On Earth, wind whistles, but on Mars, the thin air only propagates long sound waves, and they don’t travel far. The deep sounds of wind were peaceful to terrestrial ears, but that was a deception. They could turn deadly in moments.
“All right there, Ensign Smith?” Lieutenant Gale called across the cabin.
“All right, Lieutenant.” I appreciated the concern, but not the tone: Poor girl, can you handle this stress? The whole flight, the British officer had been concerned with my welfare, and also with getting me into his bunk. Hah! If I were going to turn to men, it wouldn’t be for a snake like Horace Gale. He was a phony, a whole different person with the officers than with the enlisted. The Initiative chose him, and Captain Aames didn’t wash him out, so I trusted him. I even liked him, after a fashion: We were chosen for compatibility on a long mission, so even an asshole like Gale had good points. But I didn’t like him too far.
I smiled back at Shannon Lopez behind me, and she grinned. She had rebuffed Gale as well, and we had joked about it on occasions. Of course, she had rebuffed me, too. If she was involved with anyone, she was pretty discreet about it.
I rubbed my shoulder where the straps had caught me. There would be a bruise there, but it couldn’t wipe the grin from my face. We might die at any second, but I simply couldn’t believe it. After years of training and travel, I was going to land on Mars, just like the First!
I had watched reports from the First crew on the big screen in the Old Town. I had to know everything about them. The public on Earth and Luna couldn’t get enough of those brave explorers who conquered another planet. But it was a lousy career move. Behind the scenes there were shakeups across the national agencies. When those settled down, the administrators decided that the mission hadn’t been international enough. They formed the new System Initiative to manage joint exploration, and the Initiative hired a whole new crew.
The captain said, “Max, hold off on that clear pocket. We may need it for Lander 1. Weaver says that may be our only solution, and we don’t want you getting too close.” There were six of us on each lander, the ground teams who would gather data, run experiments, and build facilities on Mars. (On Mars! I still got a thrill from that.) Max, Weaver, Koertig, and Uribe remained on the Bradbury, running experiments, tending the hydroponics, and maintaining contact with Mission Control.
“Captain,” Carver answered, “A’s followed by two more. We can go with B or C, but C’s moving slower.” There was an implied question there, a lift in Carver’s voice. Bad mistake, Carver, I thought, never hesitate with him. With Captain Aames, it’s okay to not know, but say so! READ MORE
by C. Stuart Hardwick
It must have been a hell of a sight, our mighty Saturn V gleaming in the work lights, fumes waving like the Stars and Stripes thirty-six stories over the Cosmodrome. I never saw it myself. I only saw scissor-crossed shadows rolling past the gantry lift and a flash of twilight where the breeze fluffed the camo shrouds against the companionway.
And that’s about all I saw of the Soviet Union, outside the training center walls. The rest was jump seats, painted-out windows, and the inside of a sack that smelled like Yuri Gagarin’s underwear.
If that sounds like a kidnapping, it wasn’t, just Cold War paranoia rubbed raw by desperation. After all, we were launching from a bastion of deep Soviet secrets, and if we succeeded in saving the world, they might still be needed to put it back to the screw. It was all wasted on the two of us, though; what use are secrets to dead women?
I should back up, way up, all the way to 1963 and what might be the most important meeting ever conducted on the wing of a biplane.
I was in Corpus Christi, test flying for Covington Aero—a bunch of Texas wildcatters with oversize dreams. Their jets were just flying limos, but it beat dusting crops all to hell, and the smell of Jet-A on my hair cleared off randy flyboys faster than mange on a weasel.
I’d just finished a shakedown when Mazie stopped me at the front desk with a hand-scribbled telephone message.
Don’t eat, it said, I’m taking you to lunch. ETA 13:00.—Jerry.
I smiled, lost in memories till Mazie raised an eyebrow. My heart was pounding all right, but not for the reason she thought. The only “Jerry” I knew was Jerrie Cobb, and if she was coming all this way to see me, something big was up.
Jerrie had inaugurated Randy Lovelace’s Woman in Space program. He’d run her through the same tests as the Mercury astronauts and, when she passed with flying colors, sent her out to recruit the rest of us. Her dreams were up in orbit. I’d have been happy with a crack at Mach 1, but even that hope was too high. I washed out in the medical—ovarian cancer—but at least I got to keep on breathing.
Now here was Jerrie, back from the blue. A minute before one, she taxied up in a big yellow Stearman. We flew east and landed on a pipeline right-of-way overlooking Redfish Bay. With a basket pulled from the cockpit, we climbed up behind the engine and sat together on the upper wing where the shore breeze could reach us through the scrub oaks.
Jerrie’s blond locks still hung in a ponytail, framing her sun-hardened cheeks. She poured coffee from a thermos and spiked it from a silver flask.
“A toast,” she said.
“To getting into space if it kills us.”
Sandwiches followed. I peeled back wax paper, and she lit a cigarette, beaming with eager secrets.
“Did you hear Kennedy at the U.N. the other day?” She said.
She looked askance and leaned in close, the smile suddenly gone. “What I’m about to tell you is top-secret. An honest to God, no kidding around, you will be charged with treason if you blab, United States Government secret.”
“O . . . kay.”
Her eyes were cold and waiting. “Really.”
“I pinkie-swear, Jerrie, now spill.”
The smile flooded back.
“There’s an asteroid headed straight for us.”
She took a quick drag and blew her smoke skyward. “Well, not straight for us. It’ll pass by in eight years, but ninety years later it’ll be back and . . .” she held up her sandwich and threatened it with her fist. “Wham!”
“It’s going to hit us? Oh my god! Why are you so happy?”
“Because it’s not going to hit us,” she said. “We’re going to stop it, you and me.”
“We are. It’s called Asteroid 1956 KI, found by some Russian scientist looking for ways to track our missiles. He thought it was going to hit us in ’71, so he contacted a colleague at MIT—scientist to scientist you know. They had a new computer big enough to pin down the orbit, and it turned out to be a near miss, but the flyby will sling it onto a collision course.”
I looked up from my pastrami. “But there’s plenty of time, right? In ninety years we’ll have space cruisers and ray-guns—”
Jerrie shook her head. “It’ll be too late. There’s a mountain up there with our names on it. Even if we reach it and blow it to bits, all the bits will still orbit around and hit us. They worked out that the only safe bet is to go give it a shove, and the sooner the better.”
“They? So we’re in this with the Russians?”
“You’d think so. I mean, we could barely put a prized pumpkin in orbit back then. But the big boys are at loggerheads, so nothing doing. That’s why Kennedy called for the Moon landing, as cover for the biggest crash program since the Manhattan Project—no pun intended.”
Jerrie blew smoke to the breeze. “The only thing they agree on is not to tell the public. So ’56 KI is a shared state secret, but we’re each going after it alone. Only here we are, six years later, and the wheels are off the wagon.”
“I thought Project Mercury . . .” READ MORE