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Mars Explorer Story Series Installment 1: Not Alone
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First part of the story. Mostly flashback.
Submitted By Picard on 09/11/15
Mars Fan Fiction Site, picard, Documents 
This Document originally posted in the "Mars Fan Fiction Site" Group

MARS EXPLORER

The not so distant future:

"Graviton cloud reads stable."

"Wings test out fine."

"Power level at maximum."

"Buggies 1 through 3, you are cleared for launch. Good luck."

"Acknowledged Control. Flynn, Spitfire, we are off into the wild red yonder."

As the three buggies soared down to the planet, Aubrey Falconer's eyes were wide open, straining for a glimpse of their landing site. There! The blue sparkle of the graviton cloud was visible, right next to the remains of the first outpost. Closing his eyes, Aubrey thought back to the message that started this whole mission.

1 Year earlier...

"We made an interesting discovery today, Aubrey. An active volcano, a sea of lava, and a few plants! Scattered all around the area, not green, but still! And the sea, at least a mile deep, and it continues for at least a mile!" Excitement was evident in Expedition Leader Thompson's voice. 

"Really," was Aubrey's Falconer's tired response/ The diagrams for a new vehicle were visible on a side window of his computer. On the conference screen, Thompson's smile faded somewhat, into a more sympathetic expression. "You've been overworking again. Already planning for the next mission?"

"Yes. Almost have approval for the next mission. With the scans you sent back of that ocean, I decided to pull up one of Olim's older designs. At first we thought we'd save it for the Europa mission in 20 years, but now, it might prove useful...who was it who fell in again?"

"It was Lauren. She and Miguel decided to have a laser practice, she flew too low, and, well, not everyday you sink into an active caldera. The buggies are easily able to stand up under high heat and pressure, but if that lava flare hadn't happened, I don't know how we would have gotten her out. I would kill for that new graviton cable that Flynn and Orion are working on back home. What was it Andre's calling it...a tractor beam?"

"Yeah, it's a Star Trek thing. Now, this heat reading here on chart 24 B, any idea what that cold spot is, about 300 feet below sea level?"

"We don't know. I tried to dive deep enough to get a visual, but at 200 below I hit a flare and got rocketed back up to the surface." Thompson's expression was serious now. "Aubrey, strange things are happening around here. Radar ghosts, that cold spot, system malfunctions, all inexplicable. We had a glitch in the life support system and heating cut for 15 minutes. I talked to Flynn, and he doesn't think it was a system error. About the same time the heat cut out, we had picked up a short range signal. *Kshhhh*...not sure what *Kshhh*...said, but I  don*Kshhh*... think we're alo...*Kshhh*..." Just before static completely consumed the signal, an alarm could be heard over the link. Aubrey was wide awake now. His hand was on the intercom in 2 seconds. "All senior staff, meet at the Mission Control Center in 10 minutes. We have a problem." 

***

 

"Mars Outpost Alpha, do you read? Come in, Mars Outpost Alpha, this is Mission Control! Please, respond!"

Silence greeted the ears of the senior staff. Nothing but silence, for over 2 hours. No news of the outpost, at least, not from the comm station.

"Aubrey! We have a visual on the outpost."

The entire team crowded around the main monitor. The sight it displayed was horrifying. "My God..." A blackened crater was all the remained of the base. No one needed to be told what had happened: They all knew what a reactor breach looked like. The outpost's silence was no longer a mystery. 

A moment of silence began. It was ended by the sounds of resigned work. As with the control teams of Challenger and Columbia before them, the Explorer team began to gather the data needed to piece together the grim puzzle of this disaster.

***

2 Weeks later…

An inquiry to determine cause, discuss options, and assign blame had been convened only a week before. The cause was known, and the only reasonable option was to combine the retrieval of the outpost’s black box with the future mission (which would also be undergoing major reevaluation), leaving only the blame, and the crushing effect it would have on the scapegoat’s career. As with all of these disasters, the designers and builders took the brunt of the derision. The head of the board of inquiry cleared his throat. “After much examination,” she began, “there can be no doubt that the cause of Outpost Alpha’s destruction was reactor failure. This board finds that the explosion, along with the lives of 20 brave astronauts, was due to mechanical failure. To confirm or disprove these findings, the board recommends retrieval of the outpost’s black box to be one of the main objectives of the upcoming mission.” Despite the diplomacy and tact with which it was read, the statement’s meaning was obvious: the mechanics and engineers would be blamed. The gavel banged thrice, and the hearing was concluded.  

 ***

The Next Day…

Orion Wilson all but stormed into the cafeteria and flung the latest newspaper onto the table. “We always get the blame,” he fumed. In bold 60 font letters, on the front page, it read: MARS OUTPOST DESTRUCTION PINNED TO MECHANICAL FAILURE. COURT MARTIAL OF ENGINEERING STAFF EXPECTED. 

Flynn Clubaire took a moment to swallow bite of pie before speaking. “Orion, I spent all of last night going over the reactor diagrams. As long as the outpost staff set them up right, there should have been no problem.” 

“But a court-martial could end the entire project.” Orion paused briefly to grab a roll from the platter on the table. “We almost had approval for a second full scale mission, and now that might be reduced to a recovery team. They’re tampering with the entire space program if the court-martial us.” 

“They’re won’t be a court-martial.” Thomas Babage, the science officer for the team, sat down next to them. His computer hummed quietly in front of him. “Something was nagging me about the blast pattern of the base, and I just figured out what it is.” Opening the lid of the computer, he called up a topographical map of the explosion site. “If you look at the blast patterns, you see that they have this small hill, directly between the two reactors?” Wilson and Clubaire saw it. “That hill would only be there if both reactors,” began Flynn…

“Exploded at the same time,” finished Orion. “But with all the failsafes built into the reactor systems, the odds of that happening by accident are in the billions against!”

Two of those words stood out to all present: By accident. None of them wanted to believe it, but it was obvious. The outpost had been intentionally destroyed.

 

***

The simulator room was in use as Wilson, Clubaire, and Babage entered. The disorientation that they felt, having stepped from a corridor to the dusty surface of Mars, was easily explainable. They had tried to page the person they sought, but communications were blocked in the soundproofed sim-room. It took only a moment to spot the simulator currently in use. Babage walked to the control panel and keyed the microphone to broadcast to only that simulator. “Andre, we’re sorry to bother you, but we really need to speak with you,” It took only a moment for the simulator to shut down and the door to open. Andre Picard stepped out, a grin on his face. “It’s no bother at all. What is it you wanted to see me about?” As the trio concisely explained their findings (verified by no less than 15 simulations and 2 scale models), Andre’s grin consistently lessened. Motioning for them to follow, the Executive Officer walked out of the simulator room and turned on the intercom. “Senior staff meeting in the conference room in 20 minutes.” 

***

After hearing of this new discover, the staff unanimously decided to inform the board of inquiry. The board was reconvened due to extenuating circumstances. Babage presented his findings, and the team kept their fingers crossed as the board took a short recess to discuss. Upon their return, the members of the board announced their new finding: the cause of the reactor failure was undetermined. The mission was saved, and work continued at a faster pace. But still, Aubrey Falconer was haunted for the following years by John Thompson's last broadcast words: "I don't think we're alone here." 

***

End of Part 1

This isn't the entire installment just yet. Still writing bits and pieces of it, and posting it here.

Sincerely,

Picard

PS: The music is something of a gimmick I'm trying, courtesy of Macdane. I remix MIDI files in Garageband and add them to my posts.

 

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