Excerpt for The Martian Wave: 2017 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




THE MARTIAN WAVE

2017


Edited by J Alan Erwine



Published by Nomadic Delirium Press at Smashwords




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The Martian Wave is an annual publication of Nomadic Delirium Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including physical copying or recording or by any information storage and retrieval systems, without expressed written consent of the author and/or artists.


The stories and poems in The Martian Wave are works of science fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.




Cover: “Alas, Poor Yuri” by Laura Givens

Cover design by Laura Givens




First printing October 2017


Nomadic Delirium Press

Aurora, Colorado

http://www.nomadicdeliriumpress.com




Contents

The Hard Way Home by Mike Adamson

Archeological Expedition to Hellas Planitia by Lee Clark Zumpe

Traditions by Melanie Rees

The Rash by Andrew Muff

Mars Landing by John Grey

Neptune’s Run by Matthew Spence

Flying by Instinct by Lisa Timpf

Driftwood by WC Roberts

Mareboating by WC Roberts

Thaw by WC Roberts

Cosmic Aspirations by Tristan Fernie

Orcus Express-Derailed by Russell Hemmell

What Must Be Done by Lisa Timpf

All The World’s A Drake Equation by Alan Ira Gordon

The Worm David C. Kopaska-Merkel

Hell, It’s Just Food Poisoning by David C. Kopaska-Merkel

The Other Face of Medusa by Stephen S. Power

Colonial-1 Has Gone Silent by Samson Stormcrow Hayes

Moon Colony Massacre by Samson Stormcrow Hayes

Lunch Gone Wrong by Eddie D. Moore

Regolith by William Shaw

The Sour Dust of Mars by Angus Cervantes




The Hard Way Home

by Mike Adamson


Pegasus 4 was over the jungles of Brazil, the terminator of night just kissing the horizon a thousand miles out over the Atlantic, when Ground Control came through.

“Pegasus 4, this is Maldives Control, I have Flight Director Akram for you on secure. Switch to Channel zero-zero to go closed-loop.”

Pilot Gill Markham blinked in surprise and scanned the ergonomic instruments surrounding him in the cockpit of the Pegasus spaceplane. The silence of orbit was a calming cocoon as the sleek dart plunged on for the approaching night and the pilot saw the glitter of the ocean marking the Atlantic seaboard of South America.

“Ah, say again, Maldives. You want me to have a closed chat with the boss?”

“Pegasus 4, that is correct. Go zero-zero.”

Markham shrugged to himself in his signal-orange pressure suit, and punched up zero-zero on the com select panel.

“Sanjay, what have you got for me?”

The pause from the other end told him as much as the departure from radio procedure. Sanjay Akram, Flight Director for this mission of the New World Joint Space Venture Corporation, at the control center in Malé, capital of the Maldive Islands, took his time speaking. The soft Indian accent was usually a study in calm, a voice which elicited confidence, but now Markham picked up a distinct undercurrent.

“Gilly… I’m sorry to be the one to bring bad tidings, but I’m afraid there’s a problem.”

Markham felt nothing at first, then a cold thrill went through his insides. “A problem? What sort of … problem?” A cascade of thoughts tumbled through his mind--his wife, their families…?

“We were just contacted by one of our secondary contractors. A firm in Europe that makes elements of the heat shield.” The pause told Markham more than the words.

“All right, Sanjay,” he breathed with a pilot’s pragmatism, voice very level and strangely calm. “How bad is it?”

“We can’t be sure. Apparently, there was a manufacturing error in the ablation compound that skins your vehicle, and it was only just picked up. Where the failure in their quality-control lies has nothing to do with us, but we have to deal with the consequences.”

“The heat shield?” Markham shrugged with a vocal harumph. “The ablation coating passed inspections after the last flight, there were no problems. What are your sims telling you?”

“It’s … far from clear-cut. The defective compound does not fail at once, but repeated cycles of heating and cooling causes the molecular structure to break down and when a certain degree of dissociation is reached the compound will debond from the underlying metal.”

“The heat shield will literally peel away?” Now the pilot was silent for a few moments. “What’s the telemetry showing?”

“Nothing. No indications of a problem on any instrument we have. But the instruments are not monitoring molecular integrity. The point is, the heat shield may be on the brink of failure, and that means if you attempt re-entry you may not make it.”

“Well I don’t want to be a raincloud, here, but sooner or later this bird has to come home. What are the options?”

“I’m sorry, Gilly, there aren’t any.”

The pilot held silence for a few moments, then laughed into his faceplate. “Come on, Sanjay, what are you talking about?”

“We’ve run the possibilities and we’re simply not seeing any.”

The spaceplane glided into night as they spoke, the sun settling through the red haze of atmosphere astern. Marhkam’s temper began to shorten, though he tried to smooth it. “Don’t give me that! It’s like Grand Central Station up here, we’re constantly plotting to avoid the traffic. I know I don’t have the juice to make it back to the ISS, but there are six other space stations, I know two at least are in my altitude range.”

“The old Chinese Cloud Shadow station has been shut down for three years, it was decommissioned due to maintenance problems. It would use all your fuel to try for it, with no guarantee it would be habitable. The Nammu ocean observatory was recently changed to an orbit favoring high latitudes so although it’s lower than you, you haven’t the fuel to make so radical a course change.”

“Can’t reach up, nothing to go down to…” Markham was tapping the glowing displays before him. “Well, there’s no need to rush at the problem, I’ve plenty of life support up here. Okay, if I can’t get to a habitat, what about someone coming to me?”

“The same sort of problem applies. The Pegasus program is slotted into available orbits that go where the payloads take us. You released the new satellite for climatological research over the tropical oceans, that puts you in a low, narrow orbit over the tropics. The short-range shuttles and work pods carried by the stations are tied to their parent craft’s orbital parameters for reasons of fuel.”

“Okay, I get the picture. Sanjay, we planned for this. Get the two-seater Pegasus up here, I’ll ride home in the backseat.”

“That would be our first option, but the question arises of whether her heat shield will also fail. It was refreshed from the same batch of ablation compound as yours.” He heard Markham swear. “I know, my friend, this is the nightmare scenario, a potentially lethal situation and a rescue ship which is also affected.”

“The two-seater hasn’t flown since the refurbishment work. Four has flown once, and her shield held up fine. The odds favor the two-seater coming through without trouble.”

“If you’re a gambler, yes. But we’re trying not to look at it from that standpoint. The computers tell us the risk exists even on a first flight. Remember the temperature cycle at launch.”

“Okay, okay… So, get a Skylon up here, I’ll go EVA to cross over. Leave Pegasus in orbit, truck her home in a cargo bay to be refit at a later date, you’d have to do that if the other Pegasus came up anyway.”

“Again, it’s not that simple. The value of the spacecraft is considerable, yes, but against the cost of configuring a service pallet to receive her and two fresh heavy launches, one to bring you back and another for the ship…”

“An insurance write-off looks attractive?” Markham’s voice had taken on a hard edge. “I do hope I misunderstand.”

“Human life takes precedence in space, as always,” Akram returned quickly. “We’ve checked all available surface flights, there are only two Skylon-class vehicles on turnaround at this time, one has only just entered its maintenance cycle, the other is loaded for a launch in a few hours. It’s a deep space probe release mission and they must make their launch window. The other plane will not be ready to go for about three days.”

“That would put me on the edge of my life support,” Markham mused. “I’m starting to think about deep sleep to stretch the time.”

“There is that,” Akram’s voice said softly in his ears. Something in the way he said it made the pilot blink.

“That and … what else?”

“Gilly, do you remember when you came onto this project? Of course you do. It was not just a case of staying in space when your ticket with the big guys was up. You made a speech, you spoke about the need for manned spaceflight, not just machines.”

Markham closed his eyes and cast his mind back. “The New Delhi Convention that established the New World Venture. They all said robots were the way, that the risk of manned flight was simply too great. I said the human race is a spacefaring species or it’s nothing. If we are to claw back a habitable world to live on, much less make any other world attractive, then space has to be accessible to us, and we don’t do that by staying home and sending the robots.” He sighed. “I believed it then and I believe it now. Are you saying I may be up against that risk?”

“Of course. And more. If the validity of the idea is to be upheld then we need to find our own way out of this situation.”

“What are the odds, by the sims?”

“Eighty - twenty. The heat shield has parted in eight out of every ten runs.”

“So, I have a one in five chance of making it.” Markham shook his head, though only he would see it. “Not odds I’d take if I had the luxury of a choice.”

“There is an alternative,” Akram’s voice went on, very softly.

He let the pilot absorb the import for as long as he needed, they heard each other breathing on the open two-way, and at last Markham blew a noisy breath over his pickup. “You’re talking about the black pill.”

“Yes.”

“We’re nowhere near that point, I have loads of life support.”

“True, but the parameters of the problem are not changing. I’m asking you to consider it.”

“We pilots all did our soul-searching before we ever climbed into a hardsuit. It’s good to know we have the pill but no one has ever needed to use it in the history of manned spaceflight, and I don’t plan to be the first.”

“Not one ever plans for it, my friend, but sometimes we are not left alternatives.”

“Mine are not exhausted. They can’t be!” Markham snorted. “I sound like I’m in denial already. Let’s go over this again.”

“We can keep going over it as much as you need to, but the present data collation comes down to only one option. Go for re-entry and face a 20% chance of survival.”

“If it goes bad, what will the consequences be for the program?”

“A mission failure is a tragedy, it will involve a stand-down, intensive engineering work to correct the problem, most likely the prosecution of whomever is responsible for the manufacturing error. But none of this brings you back, my friend.”

“The idea is to avoid getting lost. Look, Sanjay, I want you to send me all the parameters you have for all conceivable options, even if the odds are bad, I want to run them myself. I know the sim team has already done so but you’ll excuse me if I’m not ready to give up on myself.”

“No one’s giving up, I promise you that, we’ll keep working on it to the last moment. I have calls out with other agencies and favors to collect… But I need you to be aware of the final option and, if it comes to it, plan for it in advance.”

“Okay,” was all Markham could say, very softly, realizing that he had crossed the expanse of Africa as they had spoken. “Okay…” But behind his friend’s words he sensed that, as things stood, the ground control team had already accepted the suicide pill as his best hope to avoid flying alive and aware into an incinerator.

*

Work absorbed him and time passed. The ship was flying sweetly, all systems in the green, and he saw the sun rise over the Caroline Islands in the Pacific before him as he worked through the data Akram had uploaded. The ship was locked into automatic, she was looking after herself as her pilot looked at one scenario after another.

Burn for the Cloud Shadow station: he would use all significant fuel reserves to get there, and that meant all his eggs were in that basket. If he had any difficulty getting through the airlock and activating the station’s reserve air system, he would be marooned next to a useless hulk and the bottom line once again became the black pill, unless someone on the ground could reach for him in time.

Launch Pegasus 2 to take him off: it was possible within the timeframe but the inherent risk was quadrupled, as both a second airframe and pilot were jeopardized, to save one pilot. If the compound failed they would lose a plane and two astronauts, leaving Pegasus 4 in orbit to be salvaged at further cost. Although the other pilots in the astronaut pool would not hesitate to fly the mission, and would even now be hammering on Akram’s desk, demanding to do so, Markham could see the logic. If re-entry with the suspect compound was to be attempted, it should be by the ship already in flight and at risk of only a single life. The black pill was his fallback.

Independent launch: he was astounded no other agency had a vehicle available to commit to a rescue flight, and found himself wondering to what degree politics were in play. Had New World Venture actually asked for help, or was the organization putting on a brave face? No matter what Akram had said, would he be asked to give his life not because saving it was actually impossible but because it would not reflect well on the organization, damaging customer confidence? Would he be sacrificed as a business move? Akram would not do that, but Akram was not the boss of this company, and his authority as Flight Director was not absolute. Bottom line: the black pill. Using the sleep drugs in the medical kit to extend his time in the hopes a ship could reach him came under the same heading; it all depended on whether a ship was coming at all.

As he worked through the latter Markham began to feel a thread of doubt. He worked for private enterprise now, not the official space service he had flown with for most of his career. In the service, there was no question of not attempting to bring a ship back and every pilot had every other’s back, the way it had always been. Now… In the past, he had never had reason to doubt, but the fact remained he was up here in trouble and no one was offering any options which did not involve an 80% chance of dying.

By the time he had run the figures and considered the options, he was far across the Pacific and the day was nearly done. The ocean hemisphere stretched on to infinity, the soft blue transition from the earth to the sky circled his horizon and night appeared ahead, now advanced across the South American continent by 22.5 degrees of longitude from his last pass. His eyes flicked across his instruments, saw the automatically updated sunrise/sunset/end of orbit times.

In the silence of space Markham balled a fist and thumped the side console in his frustration. Dammit, there’s nothing wrong with this ship! he thought. She’ll fly the vector true, she’ll get me home… Then he thought of dropping into that burning corridor, crossing the sky like a meteor, and the insidious image of the ablative compound separating from the metal made itself felt. The failure of the structural hull would take seconds, then a windstream like a cutting torch would sweep through the ship, and his suit would fail a few seconds after that.

His heart raced and he suddenly felt the cockpit constituted a coffin. I can’t just sit here and die, he thought desperately, knowing the Flight Surgeon would know from his elevated physiological responses he was entering a crisis. He could pop the hatch and step outside, but what would it achieve? He just could not believe that in all this crowded near-Earth space no one was in a position to assist him.

What lay ahead? A cycle of mental reactions, denial, grieving, bargaining with fate, and finally acceptance. He laughed bitterly as he shook his head. Rise above it, he told himself. You’re made of better stuff. You know the condition of your vehicle and the odds, in the end it’s just a choice to be made. Sit up here and let your life support run out, or try to make it home. Beyond that, they were waiting for the serendipitous intervention of some other agency.

Days were very short in space. As he pondered the problems he entered the flaming colors of long wavelengths as the sun set once more behind him and he streaked on into night.

Great timing, fate, he thought, disgusted. Had the news come in from the subcontractor even a few hours earlier he would still have been at the International Space Station and could have stayed there as long as necessary. Having delivered a module of supplies he had completed both major elements of his mission and was on his way home, using a large part of his remaining fuel in the transfer burn to low orbit. He had been engaged in remote photo surveying for a science client before setting up the de-orbit burn to bring him down at the landing field in Sri Lanka. The parameters were well understood, modern computers ran these figures and adjusted them in the blink of an eye. Astral navigation was not the problem.

Markham snorted in frustration and put up his faceplate to breathe cabin air, just to feel a slightly larger space around him. He wondered where he would be this time tomorrow… Sleeping, strapped in this seat, running down the clock to the moment his oxygen hit critical and he was obliged to make the choice--take the black pill, or face the flamethrower.

Why not both? he thought abstractly. If the ship was behaving perfectly he could fly a normal approach with the pill in his mouth. If the heat shield failed, he could bite down on it. The effects, they were assured, were instantaneous, consciousness at least was extinguished, faster and more certainly than with cyanide, though life functions may take a little longer to fade. It was a terrible, morbid thing to ponder, but it seemed like a fighting option.

Since the earliest days of space travel, astronauts had been supplied with a means to end their lives in extreme circumstances. It had been officially denied from day one, but it remained a fact, a secret all astronauts shared in trust. The irony was that when new, small space programs developed around the world with the coming of reusable launch vehicles in the hands of private industry, the problems faced by the founding fathers of spaceflight had to be dealt with all over again.

Markham reached into the medical kit on the bulkhead by his left shoulder and drew out the packaged selection of drugs. Analgesics, something for indigestion, remedies for stomach upsets, nothing out of the ordinary. One of the tiny plastic phials was unmarked, however, and contained a single black tablet. It was the unwritten rule, never spoken of but always there. It could not be taken by accident, the phial had to be broken to reach it, so even a pilot groggy, in pain, disoriented or otherwise subject to slowed mental faculties could not unintentionally terminate.

The beautiful white dart of the spaceplane cruised on through the blazing stars and as she raced over Africa Markham called Akram once more, silently pleased that all mission talkback was subverted to this issue. The last thing he wanted was distracting chatter, and knew the Ground Control Communications Officer, one of the astronaut corps, would have been confidentially briefed in the last hour.

“Pegasus 4 to Ground Control on zero-zero. Sanjay?”

After a few moments, the familiar voice was in his ears. “Here, Gilly.”


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