Seven years ago, two sovereign countries, the United States of America and Russia, embarked on a joint scientific project of research and development on the human colony on Mars.
Seven years ago, they had a singular purpose: to begin the terraforming of the red planet to make it habitable for humans.
Then, re-emerging sour relations between the two mighty powers cut their mission short. The project received no assistance from either country for seven years.
But that was seven years ago.
This is now.
The U.S. Homer, a space freighter the size of a skyscraper, approaches the red planet in a Hohmann ellipse, getting ready to fire its rockets one last time to engage the planet’s elliptical orbit.
‘It looks very big,’ the little girl said. Her name was Amelia Mae and she was in the common room on the main deck of the freighter, looking at the planet through a telescope.
‘It’s actually quite small,’ her friend, Dr. Roberts, remarked. He gazed at her awe and chuckled softly. ‘It actually has a radius less than half that of Earth’s.’
‘How come it’s red?’ she asked. It had been this way since they left Earth four and a half months ago, the constant questions. The doctor sighed; he was, by now, used to it and in fact had grown quite fond of her inquisitiveness. Besides, it could have been much worse: in the old days, before rocket engineering had been improved, this journey would have taken nearly twice as long.
‘It’s iron oxide, Mae,’ he said to her. ‘That’s what gives the planet its colour.’
‘Iron oxide,’ she said, reflectively.
Then before she had the chance to ask another question, for instance where this iron oxide had come from, he hurriedly excused himself and headed for the bridge.
Roberts was a man who looked fitter than his 50 years. He spoke into the intercom at the door. ‘It’s me,’ he said. ‘Can I come in?’
‘You may,’ a voice said. It was the captain of the ship.
Roberts was buzzed in. A click sounded and hydraulic hinges moved to open the steel door. Roberts walked in and stood behind the captain and his co-pilot, who were both concentrating on a console.
‘We’re on the correct trajectory now,’ the captain said to Roberts, without looking back.
‘That’s good to know,’ the doctor said from behind him.
‘We should be orbiting the planet in two days,’ the captain said. Roberts grunted. ‘This old girl has managed another Mars run again. I doubt that she’ll have another voyage in her after this.’
The captain patted the ship’s navigation console affectionately.
‘Have you been on many runs?’ Roberts asked. He had asked a question, but his mind was elsewhere. His eyes darted from one console to another, expertly taking in information.
‘I had been clipped twenty times before things with the States and Russia grew sore,’ the captain said. He thought out loud: ‘Twenty missions. Do you believe that?’
Roberts grunted again. He had stopped looking around just in time to see that the co-pilot was staring intently at him.
Roberts cleared his throat. ‘Do you anticipate any problems, captain?’ he said.
The captain looked up from the console for the first time. ‘I’ve been on enough of these missions, sir. You’d think they would have taken away my flight status, because my body has received more than the maximum dosage of radiation. But I don’t have any cancers yet, fingers crossed. You’re in the best of hands, doctor. So get on a treadmill or something – you know you should exercise regularly; the ship’s pseudo-gravity can deteriorate the bones in the long term.’
Roberts cleared his throat again. ‘I didn’t mean to question your competence, captain. I was just worried about security.’
‘Yes. I was led to understand that the last co-operative mission with the Russians did not go well.’
‘Well, isn’t there a Russian space station orbiting the planet?’
‘If I recall correctly, I think this is so….’
‘Captain, isn’t this station armed?’
‘The station is abandoned, doctor,’ the captain said. ‘The Russians left like we did when relations broke down. Don’t worry about it – we are safe. I should know.’
‘Still, I think it may be a good idea to avoid the station,’ Roberts said.
The captain stared at the doctor with unfeigned malice.
‘What exactly is your mission on the planet, doctor?’ the captain asked.
‘I’m just going to collect equipment,’ Roberts replied. ‘The last time we left, we were in a hurry and left our expensive tools behind.’
‘So why collect them now?’
‘Things are better with Russia now. We couldn’t have come back without their approval. Like I said, there is the issue of their space station.’
‘And they say it’s OK to come back now.’
‘Moscow does not oppose a freighter transporting American equipment back to Earth,’ Roberts replied with some irritation.
‘Then there is no problem,’ the captain said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
‘I know my job just as surely as you know yours, doctor, and I will get us into orbit safely. From then on, you can leave in a shuttle and go down to the surface for your business. I am a private operation and I only care that I get paid to do a job. I have been paid, sir, now let me complete my job.’
‘As you will, captain,’ Roberts said. He turned around and left.
The co-pilot said to the captain, after they were alone, ‘That man gives me the shivers.’
The captain shrugged and bent down to consult some digital charts. ‘He’s all right, I think,’ he said. ‘I just think he’s a little too sure of himself, but that’s a scientist for you.’
‘What kind is he?’ asked the co-pilot.
The captain thought about this for a little while, but he could not think of an answer. ‘Who cares?’ he said, finally. ‘Listen, we’re paid just to take him to orbit. Whatever he does afterwards is not our business.’
‘Still,’ the co-pilot said, with an uneasy shrug of his shoulders. But the captain had stopped listening.
‘He just gives me the shivers,’ the co-pilot continued, speaking to himself in a whisper.
Roberts entered the medical area, and went at once to see Dr. Chan.
‘Kate,’ he said to her.
She was sitting with her back to him, looking with a lens at a blood sample. She turned when he spoke.
‘What do you want, John?’ she asked. She took a roll of mints from her breast pocket, took one out and placed it on the tip of her tongue. She stared at him as she sucked on the mint.
His frustration pushed its way through, and a sigh escaped from his lips.
‘I asked what you wanted, John?’ she repeated, fully aware that the sound of her sucking was irritating him. She hated the cranky windbag, and could not wait until they left the freighter for the surface of Mars – at least she would have more space in the settlement scientist camps below, instead of being stuck here with him. His had been tedious company for these few months away from Earth.
‘I’d like to have a full med kit,’ he said to her.
She sucked purposefully on her mint. Finally, she said, ‘I don’t just give them to anyone who asks.’
‘Come on, Kate,’ he returned, ‘I’m a qualified doctor, just like you. I know my way about this room.’
‘Except you don’t have the keys to the medical supplies,’ she replied, sneering at him.
‘It’s no big deal,’ he said, not giving up.
‘I know it isn’t,’ she said with sudden passion. ‘Don’t talk down to me. I’m just as much a doctor as you, and I say no.’
‘Don’t be petty,’ he said.
She restrained herself from replying with some snide remark. She would only be confirming his analysis that she was being petty. She bent back down to her slides.
Roberts stared at her, then turned to leave.
‘What do you need the kit for anyway?’ she asked, still looking through a magnifying glass at her blood samples. There was no reply and she turned around to confront him, but he was no longer there.
Windbag, she thought. Now he had upset her. That man had something about him that spooked her.
She got up, unable to reengage in her former task.
She took out another mint and went through the same ritual. She sucked down hard. Then she went to the door, opened it and peered out. There was no one in the hallway. She shut the door and went to her desk. She opened a drawer and retrieved an FTL communications device. It was new – the latest technology – and it was secure; you would have to be an expert to decipher any of its encrypted messages.
Kate Chan pressed a button and a digital process started a line of communication with another secure number on Earth.
‘What is it?’ a stern voice asked. ‘You use this line a lot, and you’re not supposed to. Use some discretion, doctor.’
She ignored the jibe.
‘He makes me uncomfortable,’ she said. ‘He came in here asking for a medical kit.’
‘And?’ the voice said with marked irritation.
‘Well, should I give it to him?’ she asked.
After some hesitation, the voice answered, ‘Yes.’
‘Oh,’ said Chan. ‘May I ask why?’
‘No,’ the voice said.
‘Why is he on this mission anyway?’ she asked.
‘You have been given one task,’ the voice said to her, ‘and that is to ensure that you maintain your cover as the mother of the child.’
‘I am doing that,’ Chan said, feeling a little small at the rebuking voice. ‘No one suspects the child is not mine.’
‘And where is she now?’
‘Ah, she must be with the doctor,’ Chan said. ‘She took to him the moment we left Earth. It’s hard to play mother when she is hardly with me.’
‘You say no one questions you are its mother?’
Its? Chan thought.
‘No one has said anything to me,’ Chan said. ‘She is very inquisitive and they just let her walk around the ship by herself. Should I be more motherly or something?’
‘No, don’t do anything that doesn’t come naturally to you,’ the voice said.
‘Listen,’ Chan said, ‘I know I took this mission, but I’m a little worried about my role in this child’s life. Am I party to some form of kidnapping?’
‘All you need to know is your mission is important to national security. You are a patriot, Dr. Chan. Now give Dr. Roberts what he has asked for and don’t call again unless you have something really important to say.’
Chan hid the communications device and went to storage, obtaining a large medical kit. She took it to Roberts.
He answered the door after she had knocked twice.
‘Yes,’ he said with a forced smile when he saw her.
She handed the med kit to him.
‘What changed your mind?’ he asked.
‘I didn’t change my mind,’ Chan said. ‘I was always going to give it to you.’
‘Have you seen my daughter?’ she asked.
‘Last time I saw Mae, she was looking through a telescope at the planet,’ he replied, as he shut his door.
Inside his room, Roberts opened the med kit and rifled through its contents, checking to make sure that all items were accounted for. He put the contents back in their container and sat down on a chair behind his desk. He held his chin in his hand and thought; then he got up and headed out. He walked briskly to the main deck and went to the common room. He found Amelia Mae still looking through the telescope.
‘Your mother was looking for you earlier, Mae,’ he said to her.
She looked up from her planetary observation and ran to him, hugging him. Roberts shifted uncomfortably at this display of affection. As far as he was concerned, he had done nothing to encourage her favour. He pulled her arms away firmly.
‘Amelia, I think you should go and see your mother,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid she may be unhappy about how much time we spend together.’
‘But she’s always so busy,’ Amelia Mae said, pouting her lips sulkily. ‘She doesn’t have any time for me.’
‘Even so,’ Roberts said, ‘you should spend more time with her.’
‘But I don’t want to,’ Amelia Mae said angrily. She frowned and folded her 10-year-old arms stubbornly, stamping her foot in a rehearsed display of displeasure.
‘Mae,’ Roberts said, ‘I need to tell you something.’
Amelia Mae unfolded her arms slowly, looking with suspicion at the doctor.
‘Can you keep a secret?’ Roberts asked.
Amelia Mae smiled and hugged him again before he could stop her.
‘Sure, Dr. Roberts,’ she said to him, looking admiringly at him. ‘I’ll keep whatever secrets you have. I won’t tell a soul.’
‘Good,’ he said. Then he knelt down beside her and whispered: ‘You have to stay with your mother, but for whatever reason, if the ship is attacked, you should run immediately to my room.’
‘I don’t understand,’ she said.
‘Do you know where my room is?’ he asked.
‘Dr. Roberts, why would the ship be attacked?’ she asked, her inquisitive large brown eyes looking into his own.
‘Just get to my room whenever you are scared,’ he reiterated. He walked away, leaving her to ponder.
Two days later, they were closer to Mars. They would be orbiting in just a few hours. He looked at the planet from an observation unit – in actual fact, it wasn’t just the planet he was looking at. He magnified the screen again and looked at the orbiting space station in front of them. At this magnification, he could see the Russian lettering clearly on the ship’s hull.
Roberts turned off the computer and left the unit. He headed for his room. And there he waited.
Finally, he heard the sound that he had been expecting: the collision detection alarms blared through every room and hallway of the freighter. The imminent collision warning red lights came on just as suddenly – something was going to hit their ship.
Roberts opened the door of his room and poked his head out, expecting to see Amelia Mae running down the hallway to his room.
The hallway was empty.
The alarms continued to ring amidst the intrusive glare of the red lights.
‘Where is the child?’ the doctor thought. He had told her to come to his room once the attack started.
He found himself straying away from his room and walking toward the common room, where he knew she would most likely be.
He caught sight of Chan.
‘Where is Amelia?’ he shouted to her.
‘What’s happening?’ Chan asked. She was shaking like a leaf and looked like she would have a nervous breakdown at any moment.
‘Where is your daughter?’
‘No one is saying anything,’ she said, her voice shrill with panic. ‘I can’t get through to the captain. Where is the ship’s leadership?’
She was right, where was the ship’s leadership? But this was a transport freighter and not a military vessel – the leadership had probably scampered off the vessel and left them to their fate. He left the raving doctor and continued on his quest.
He found Amelia Mae looking through the telescope in the observation room.
‘Mae,’ he scolded, ‘what are you doing, child?’
She looked up at him with no expression on her face. Taken aback momentarily, he finally held out his hand to her, ‘I need to get you to my room. We can shelter there.’
Then he saw the ship’s captain.
‘Captain,’ he called, ‘what is going on?’
‘I’ve been prepping the lifeboats,’ he said. ‘The orbiting Russian station fired upon us. We’ll be hit in a few minutes.’
‘That isn’t a very good idea,’ Roberts said.
‘Listen, there’s no time to argue,’ the captain retorted. ‘You’ll be in those vessels if you want off. This ship has done her service. I can’t say it’s a fitting end, but–’
His words were cut short as they were hit with an almighty bang. They were all knocked off their feet.
‘That’s the first one,’ the captain called. His mouth was dripping blood. ‘There are two more.’
‘Do you have any evasive manoeuvres?’ Roberts called.
‘You’re not hearing me,’ the captain said. ‘We’re abandoning ship. My co-pilot’s ready to jettison us off my ship.’
‘You’ll die if you leave,’ Roberts said. But the captain was no longer listening. He got to his feet with great difficulty and headed for the lifeboats.
Roberts also got up and grabbed Amelia Mae. Her expression was still surprisingly deadpan – maybe she was in shock.
‘We have to get your mother,’ he said to her.
‘No,’ Amelia Mae replied, ‘we have to go to your room. That was a tactically correct call.’
‘What?’ he said – now anxious as to why she was behaving so strangely.
‘I detect another collision,’ Amelia Mae said. ‘We have to leave now. This freighter’s shield was not built to withstand missiles meant for terrain demolition.’
It was now her turn to lead him, and she did, moving quickly through the halls, while he thought that he was obviously missing something.
Then the second missile struck the freighter, taking out the ship’s anti-gravity systems – the centrifugal device that rotated the living and other core areas.
Gravity immediately became master again and they floated through the air. But it was mandatory for space travellers to undergo zero gravity training, even with those travelling in ships with gravity manipulators. Their training kicked in and they sailed over to Roberts’s room.
‘You have a secret compartment in your room,’ she said.
‘How did you know about that?’ he asked, with obvious surprise.
‘The compartment will be an uncertain haven, but it is our best defence. Where is it?’
He did not argue and hastened to get the secret compartment open. A hole in the ground appeared and they both climbed in. There was just enough room for one full-grown adult, but Amelia Mae was small enough and they both fit in, though rather uncomfortably. He pushed a button and sealed them inside the compartment. Together, they waited in the dark. Another missile struck them. They shook uncontrollably within the small space they were restricted in, as they felt the ship around them buckle.
They heard a loud noise as a segment of the ship broke off.
Their bodies shook violently as they entered Mars’s atmosphere and soon they began to sweat as the freighter’s body exploded in a sea of flames. The compartment they were in, though, protected them – it was shielded and had a space in its shell that was filled with a gel to absorb heat.
They were now within the planet’s upper atmosphere and were going to crash down on its surface.
@ Uzor Chinukwue 2011