As promised, here is the first installment of a science fiction short story inspired by space shuttle Discovery's final launch.
IMP 1, the first magnetoplasma propulsion spacecraft, landed in swirls of red dust. It looks like the cornfields back home, Albert Simmons thought, except there is no corn or water or trees or houses, but the dirt is about the same. He leaned toward the portscreen, watching the robotic astronauts repair damage caused by entry into the Martian atmosphere.
He looked up. Somewhere up there, their engine, with its hydrogen cells and nuclear reactors, orbited the planet at 1.4 kilometers per second, manned by a fleet of robonauts and two crew members, one whose vice for nervous eating wasn’t discovered until two days past the International Space Station.
He stretched and imagined standing on dirt again. Four weeks in a tube with the same six people got old. Not that he didn’t care about them. He knew Omar, the mission’s doctor, from MIT; the others he met at MASA, the Multinational Aeronautics and Space Association. MASA dropped them in the Sahara and stranded them in a blizzard 60 miles west of Moscow as part of their emergency landing preparation. Katya joked about tanning in Egypt, commented on the fine weather when snow whipped into Albert’s eyes and cut his lips, but now she monitored the reactors and overate. The stress got to them all.
The robonauts removed sheets and coils, and patched tears in solar wings, acting autonomously for the routine repairs. MASA selected Albert to design robonauts capable of creating and maintaining a station on Mars without direct oversight, a goal that taunted him with its nearness. He watched Robonaut GM secure a panel. GM worked faster than the others, his motions more articulate, his feedback more detailed. Albert partnered with GM in more space walks and dangerous situations than any other crewmember, except Katya; when he talked about the robot, he spoke the name more like “Jim.”
Jim packed his tools and nodded to Albert. A green light flickered on his temple, and his report uploaded to Albert’s computer for analysis. Albert met Jim in the robot bay and examined him as he vacuumed the dust, creating a cayenne tornado in the hose. “You did well today,” he said and vacuumed behind Jim’s ear. Jim dipped his chin and shrugged his shoulders. “We can escape this tuna can sooner thanks to you.”
“Praising your bipedal can openers again?” Bill said, leaning out of the cockpit.
“Don’t listen to him,” Albert said to Jim. “His entry caused the damage.”
The green light on Jim’s temple flashed. “Thank you,” appeared in the data feed.
“You’re welcome,” Albert said. “You’re learning fast, Jim.” Fast enough for a report to MASA and a commendation for me.
Jim and three other robonauts assisted four crewmembers into space suits and helmets, making them resemble the robonauts more than themselves. They assembled at the hatch. “To the mission,” Albert crowed. “To returning safely,” Omar said. Albert’s hands shook as he touched the hatch release. Commander Bill Hart became the first man on Mars, but he didn’t wave for the camera or monologue or hit a golf ball; he walked straight ahead. Albert waved and grinned like a lunatic behind his visor. They’d be written up in textbooks, ones his brother would teach to his fourth graders; he’d smile and say, That’s my little brother right there in that picture.
Probe photographs did not capture churning clouds, shadows hiding in expanses of powdery dust, or the haze that made the colors brighter, not dimmer. Albert wanted to absorb every detail, see over every rise on the horizon, and most of all, not be left alone out there. Jim walked to Albert’s right, and he was glad for the company. On Earth, Jim walked slower, but there, where suits and tanks and gravity slowed the humans, he matched Albert’s step. Jim scanned the horizon, and Albert wondered what went through his processor.
They stopped less than twenty yards from the pod, and Albert observed the robonauts traversing the rocks and taking soil samples. Jim knelt, lifted a rock, turned it in his human-like hand, and scraped a sample from its underside.
“Bill,” Albert said. “Bill, did you see that?”
“Real special,” Bill said, his voice flat in the headset.
Albert turned on him, but a glint in the sky over Bill’s shoulder caught his eye. Bill followed Albert’s gaze, and his voice cut into their earbuds, “Omar, patch us through to Katya.”
Katya’s voice crackled in their headsets, “You bastards did it, didn’t you? You’re out there.”
“We’re here,” Bill said.
“How ya feeling, Kat?” Albert spoke over Bill.
“Peckish,” she said and chuckled, the same nervous chuckle she used when Albert caught her shivering one Russian morning. “I observed a shift in the pressure of one reactor. Nothing’s out of normal levels yet, but I radioed MASA and I’m waiting for a response.” Waiting. They were always waiting; communication with Earth lagged, ten-minute intervals stretching between answer and response.
Bill left the communication link open with all the headsets as he and Katya went over the vitals. Everything was higher, but still in the normal range. Albert muted his mouthpiece and flipped on an audiorecorder to dictate his thoughts on Jim’s movements. “Mobility is better than expected; dexterity, exceptional. The upgraded processor seems to be handling well, and Jim exhibited curiosity and independent problem solving….”
Katya’s voice interrupted his thoughts, “MASA instructed us to increase altitude.” She paused. “The engine’s sustained propulsion is inoperative. We cannot change altitude. And pressure is rising.”
I'd appreciate feedback. If you're interested, please email me at fantasticspatula.kristi (at) gmail (dot) com. Thank you.