The Martians by Demetrios Matsakis

The Martians
Demetrios Matsakis

It was Family Day at the Cape, which was overflowing with picnicking rocket-scientists, technicians, secretaries, and administrators. But such simple pleasures were of no concern to Kronos as he quietly gathered his work-group into the top-secret briefing room. With a Category 6 hurricane circulating to the southeast, and ocean surges coming ever closer, no one was surprised to be brought in.

Kronos was never subtle: “Folks, we need to leave this evening. Fortunately, we’ve completed every important item from our last review ahead of schedule, and the launch window from our original plan has not yet run out.” He flipped a switch on the LED video wall. It cleared, black fading away to display a 3d rendering of the solar system. He extracted a laser-pointer from his shirt pocket and activated it. “Since we sling-shot around Venus,” he stepped out of the way, then described a circle around the planet with the laser, “we will actually get there a little faster than with the straight path we had planned for next month, and that doesn’t hurt.” The laser-light hit a slight imperfection in the screen and shattered into a brief star-burst.

Rhea turned from the coffee pot in the back of the room, and took a breath, “I’m sure you’re right, and I know you can get us there safely. But why so urgent?” She took a sip of coffee, made a face, and dumped in a packet of sweetener. While stirring the coffee: “The hurricane will probably miss us. Do you seriously think they’re onto us?”

Kronos began pacing the room, “If they knew our plans, we wouldn’t be here now. But,” he stopped in front of a map hanging on the wall, “we’ve never had a Cat 6 hurricane before, and it scared the President.” He tapped his finger on the map, indicating where the hurricane was. “Of course not enough to admit he believes in the greenhouse effect, but he doesn’t want to lose his super-weapons.” He stopped tapping and turned to face the others, “Especially now that he’s alienated most of our allies.”

He stepped to a near-by table and picked up two neatly stapled sheets of paper. He paused briefly, his gaze scanning the words he’d already read too many times. “I got orders this morning,” he raised his head and looked around at the others, “to have the technicians fuel the rockets, and some of you saw that happening. Just now, the word came that we have to come to work tomorrow to supervise loading the nukes and the chemical weapons.” Looking directly at their eyes, “Once the techs start to install them they will find the extra food and seeds we have been smuggling into those areas. Is there anything we still need to do?”

Diana, a chemist, stood up. She ran long fingers through her cropped, brown hair. “I suppose not but I really wanted to do be able to run more survival simulations… we are landing on such a dry, barren planet.”

Gaia, also a chemist, shook her head at her colleague, “Let’s not worry too much. There are risks, of course, but I’ve found some archived high-resolution infrared data from near our landing spot, and I see spectra from even more minerals than we thought were there before. There’s always the unknown, but we should be able to extract them.”

Diana shrugged and dropped back into her seat. Know-it-all. Thinks she’s the only one that knows how to separate ytterbium from yttrium. “Whatever. We’ll just have to hope things go as good for us as it went for the astronaut in that movie.”

Kronos cleared his throat and looked pointedly at the two women. “Can we not argue, please? We have to be a team if we’re to succeed. Remember – today’s fiction may be tomorrow’s reality, but today’s friction can be something entirely different.” After a pause, he pulled up his clipboard, “Everything on our checklist, even the graphene-coated polymers, is already on board. Is there anything new to add?”

He scanned the room, made eye-contact with the others, watched heads shaking. They’re all looking to me, expecting I haven’t made any mistakes. I hope they’re right… but they have to be fully engaged. “As your department-head, it made sense for me to lead until the launch. But that’s here, now. I don’t want to evolve into a patriarchal dictator, however enlightened I might flatter myself to be. Once we’re in flight, others are more probably more qualified. I feel…

Rhea, who had moved to the front of the room by now, stepped in front of him. “No.” She shook her head. “You might be right, but it was you who, every step of the way, thought of contingencies none of us would have imagined. And it was you,” she ever-so-lightly tapped his chest with one finger, “who organized us and got us this far. You don’t get to escape that easily, we need you for the voyage too.” She finished the last of her coffee, and tossed the cup in a trashcan, then stepped out of the way.

Theia nodded her head, crescent moon earrings on silver chains bobbing back and forth against her cheeks. “We can set up a democracy when we land.”

The others exchanged glances, nodding towards Theia, and murmuring between themselves.

Kronos watched the group for several seconds, his heart sinking. Why am I not surprised. When we get there, I’m probably going to have to hide – or fake my death. “I hope you aren’t putting too much faith in me. Someday we might call it an adventure, a fantastic voyage, but all I see right now are dangers to be avoided” He gave an almost-imperceptible shrug of his shoulders. “Maybe I can get you there and land safely… I’ll do my best, and I appreciate your trust in me, but when our needs go from manipulating machines to building a civilization, we must have something better.”

Rhea said, “Ok then. We’ve planned, we’ve prepared, and we’ve got you. There is room to hide the kids in the observation buildings next to the launch site.”

Phoebe turned to Rhea, “What do we tell the guards if they see them?”

We can tell them we need to get an early start tomorrow preparing for the loading, and the President’s directive came too late to find babysitters,” said Kronos.

Rhea asked “How about I tell the guards about the kids now, and say the decision came from you?”

Kronos agreed “Good idea. And once we launch tonight, there is nothing they can do. But if for any reason my ship gets disabled, I appoint you, Rhea, second in command.”

***

After sunset, once the guards completed their first evening round, the faithful walked through the shadows into the seven large spaceships the President thought they were outfitting for war, and seven others that only carried extra fuel for reloading in space. The racially diverse group Kronos had assembled had two physicists, two chemists, two biologists, two psychologists, two doctors, two architects, two mathematicians, two computer experts, and two engineers. Half were male, and half were female. Only Kronos was over forty, and the children were many.

Since they had not been seen, there was time for one last high-speed internet scan for the latest postings of the most important journals, so their computers would have the most current collected scientific and medical knowledge of civilization. There was nothing of history because, by unanimous agreement, they hoped to avoid repeating it. For them, the countdown to launch was to be the countdown to the beginning of a new history.

#

Once launched into orbit, the fueling rockets transferred their remaining fuel to the passenger rockets, which then fired off towards Venus, fully fueled. Kronos sent a message to all ships. “Congratulations – we’re clear. By now they know what happened, but our biggest threat is the boredom. It’s a long flight. We need to keep to our routines.”

Rhea added her own spin, “The psychologists and doctors will monitor your exercise and sleep patterns, but it is really up to each of us to engage in whatever is happening. We must check and recheck our contingency plans, but we also need to participate fully in discussions about how to keep our new society stimulated and egalitarian.”

Janus, a psychologist on ship #7, had this to say: “We definitely need to involve the children in every aspect, and not just for them. If we can’t explain something to them, we might not be understanding it ourselves.”

Before turning off the voice com system, Kronos added “But we adults need to play too. I’m looking forward to taking Rhea’s art classes. Who needs paint when we have 3-D printers?”

Eight months later, as they rounded the Venusian cloud tops for the gravitational assist, Kronos again sent a voice message to all the ships. “Ok team, we’ve done well so far. Don’t be alarmed that what looks like such a beautiful orb from home is now just a rock covered by opaque swirling poisonous gases.” Should I say that Rhea would remind us that this is also art? No. “You can think of it as the unexplained puzzle it is – why DO the upper winds blow faster than the planet itself rotates?”

Athena, a teenager on ship #3, replied “It rotates retrograde, counter to its orbit, and the Coriolis force is weaker. Maybe that has something to do with it?”

Kronos thought, I wish she were my daughter, but he replied, “That’s very possible, and we have plenty of computer power if you want to play with the equations! We must also realize that our fleet can skirt so closely around this giant because our navigational sensors used the latest superconducting MEMS technology. Science will always have puzzles, but engineering can bring solutions. Now, in the next few months as we approach our target we need to start looking at all the new data from every instrument and sensor in every possible way.”

Rhea turned her voice comms control to broadcast and announced, “As second in command, it falls on me to be the coordinator. Each specialty can contribute something, and it is the duty of each of us to question every finding. You too, Athena!”

As landfall approached, Demeter’s data-analysis yielded a surprising result — there was a dipole magnetic field emanating from the planet! At first, Kronos refused to believe it, “How could such a magnetic field issue from a cold, rocky body?” he asked. “Sure, Jupiter and Saturn have far more powerful fields, but those gaseous giants had semi-fluid interiors of swirling electric charges”

Rhea replied, “I don’t know the physics but I can tell you the engineering. The magnetism will de-calibrate the navigation sensors. Without them, there’s no way to know when to deploy the ships’ parachutes for a soft landing.”

Diana thought, “So our brilliant Gaia didn’t think to check for Zeeman field-splitting in the archived records. That would have warned us about the field.”, but to the intercom she only said “We can open the parachutes early to be sure there is time, but that has risks too. And solutions that I could have simulated if I had had more time.

Maybe the planet will tell us how to proceed, thought Kronos when, following the tradition of all Captains throughout history, he trained his spyglass on it. He immediately turned on the comm system to announce “There’s a thin ring around the planet! Probably the remains of a small moon that spiraled in past the Roche limit and broke up a few million years ago.”

Icarus, an engineer on Ship #4 immediately switched his comm system off mute so he could say, “Without sensors, we can’t maneuver to avoid the ring, and if our parachutes are open they could get punctured by any of their myriads of pebble-sized rocks.”

Athena quickly responded “Too soon and we lose our parachutes, too late and they won’t help. Can we hedge our bets?”

Kronos made a decision, “Athena, you are right again – we have to minimize the risk of total failure. So ships one, two, and three will deploy parachutes immediately. The others will wait until they have, according to their best guess, passed through at least half the ring.”

The crews on the ships with the psychologists took the news better than the others, but the danger could not be kept from the young. As their crying started, Rhea sent a personal communication to Kronos, “It was good that you stipulated no two experts in the same field be on the same ship.” Kronos sent a personal reply to Rhea, “I wish we had brought along spiritualists.”

Then he decided to take a different kind of risk. “If our landing fails, what I will regret most is that we didn’t die in each other’s arms.”

Rhea immediately responded, “We will prevail. As settlers, as team-mates, and as life-mates.”

#

But love and courage were not enough. Large rocks destroyed two of the ships, while pebble-sized particles in the ringlets ripped through the parachutes of the others, and they crashed into the ground at full speed.

All sentient beings were lost.

#

Yet there were survivors — the bacteria on the ships. Some were able to adapt, and found nourishment from surface dust. And as they spread, their waste gases added carbon dioxide and oxygen to the thin atmosphere. The growing atmosphere trapped heat from the Sun, providing a warmer and more benign environment for the single-celled creatures. The denser atmosphere was also able to trap water from micro-comet impacts, which collected into oceans instead of evaporating back into space.

As the eons passed, the ring dissipated and larger life forms evolved. Some took to the oceans and swam. Others walked on two feet, grew large brains, and learned to work cooperatively. When they mastered language, they named their planet Earth. And after they developed space travel, they went to the rocky red planet they had named Mars

There they wondered why such a dry, barren world showed so much evidence of an aqueous past.

THE END

Author’s note:

  • The science fiction part of this story was inspired by the movie Martians, as well as many recent findings that Mars once had a large atmosphere and oceans

  • Mars likely still has considerable subsurface water.

  • Venus’s clouds are composed of sulfuric acid, and its upper atmosphere is undergoing super-rotation at an inexplicably high rate of over 200 miles per hour.

  • The Roche limit, about 11,000 miles for the Earth, is the height below which a planet’s gravity will overwhelm that of its moon and break it up. The lifetimes of ring systems depend on such things as the size of their particles, and could be from millions to as many as billions of years.

  • The Earth is the only one of the smaller rocky planets that has a strong magnetic field, because it is the only one with a molten interior.

  • Our atmosphere has varied in strength and composition over geologic time, and it has been considerably shaped by life itself. Human influence on climate and biology is so great that modern times are considered to be the start of the Anthropocene Epoch.

  • Currently, the maximum rating for hurricanes is Category 5, defined has having sustained wind speeds exceeding 156 mph. Most atmospheric models predict an increase in hurricane strength due to global warming, and meteorologists have informally classified several recent hurricanes as Category 6. While sea levels may rise a meter or three by the end of the century, surges due to storms will be even higher.

  • Rhea and Kronos were Titans, the parents of the gods, in Greco-Roman mythology.

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