By Steven Lombardi
Louis’s hearing returned in waves. As his ears sharpened, the chamber’s alarms intensified until his skull thrummed. His eyes snapped open and saw nothing. He searched desperately for the light above his head, which shouldn’t have gone off, not unless something had gone wrong, and slowly the bleary orb came into view, as if unraveled from a woolen cocoon. Testing his touch, he found the chilly surface of his engineering kit between his legs.
He had been worried about the deep sleep. It required that he forfeit all sense of control for seven months while the systems kept his body carefully preserved, if not a bit achy from the stillness, en route to Mars. He realized he was right to worry as he forced the stubborn cryo-chamber door open. The pervading darkness in his gray room made him suspect that his vision was still faded, unless the auxiliary lights had failed.
“Typical,” he muttered, watching his white breath fill his blue-white hands. There were always bugs, even with these twelve-figure projects. But lighting and humidity control were mere nuisances. He prayed the other Cadillacs hadn’t experienced any serious errors, most of all the one that carried his wife and daughter.
Louis pushed off the chamber and glided along the walls, orienting himself on the red bars that lined his dormitory. Per the guidelines drafted by the Western Alliance Space Program, he donned his spacesuit, pulling on the tight black underlining and securing the outer shell and cape. Even in the dark, the orange shell emitted a sheen, proudly displaying his status as an engineer. He secured his helmet, then approached the door, which failed to open.
“Computer, troubleshoot the electrical systems in dormitory 018,” he said, drumming his fingers tetchily on the door.
“Diagnostics complete,” said the computer in its smooth mid-Atlantic accent. “All systems appear to be functional.”
“This door is clearly not functional,” Louis said.
“As per our Energy Saver protocol, the ship’s automated systems will be triggered thirty minutes before initiation of the landing sequence.”
“Wait, what did you say?” Louis pulled himself to the dormitory’s porthole and watched the other Cadillacs in the caravan drift through the darkness of space. From this angle, he saw no planet in his view. “Computer, how long until we initiate the landing sequence?”
“When are we initiating the landing sequence?” he asked again, an edge creeping into his voice.
The computer responded, “Unable to determine.”
He punched the release button and pried the doors opened. Beyond, the twilight-lit communal area appeared darker than he remembered. The varying shades of gray bled into each other, the red accents of essential equipment giving off the hue of dried blood. A chilling sense of stillness hung in the air, sending quivers down Louis’s back. Soft classical music complemented the dreary ambiance, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
That feeling of uncertainty and loneliness returned, just as it had when he lay in his chamber. He thought of his family for the courage to act.
Their Cadillac Lightark disembarked a week before his own, and he kicked himself for missing the grand procession into the ships. He would have given anything to watch his daughter Lillian board the ship with her ear to ear grin, to kiss his beautiful wife Maria, the networks and netwar genius. But as Chief Engineer, his attention was needed elsewhere. A country depended on his work.
“Computer, provide an update on the first caravan,” he said.
Silence. Louis sucked in oxygen as a cramp spread across his chest.
“I’m sorry, but I’m unable to connect with their networks.”
He pulled himself along the bars, navigating the circumference of the orb-shaped area, past the hydroponics farm and towards the bridge. Within the bridge he could find the telecommunications array and main control, which would hopefully be more helpful than the Computer. And if they weren’t, by God, he’d reengineer them right on the spot to check-in with his family.
The door to the bridge failed and Louis’s cold muscles nearly tore trying to pull it open. He retrieved his screwdriver from his kit, jamming it in and jimmying the door as his tool bent from the strain. Cursing, he pried it open enough to kick his foot in, then his arm, then his head and he was through, floating before the unusually dim bridge and its red blinking lights.
Louis breathed a sigh of relief when he looked beyond the primary window, which stretched across the spherical orbiter. Mars was close, so close he could see the grains and scars on its surface, along with the gleaming metal boring machines that had awoken long before he fell into deep sleep. From this distance, he’d guess they were an hour off from initiating the landing sequence. The others will wake up soon, if the systems could be trusted. Why he woke early, he couldn’t begin to understand.
No time to think about that. He pulled himself along the red bars towards the telecommunications array, a smaller room to the left of the main control. From the dark room came a blue hue, and the closer Louis floated, the clearer he could hear the voices within.
“… can’t understand how this happened.” Louis recognized the woman’s voice, Captain Mira Zembasi, though her usual confidence betrayed her. “The SRP predictions couldn’t have been that far off.”
“Predictions?” A man’s voice, one Louis had never heard before. “Our calculations weren’t forecasts; they’re an exact science. Hell, we landed the boring machines flawlessly, and their flow fields are far more complicated!”
Why the hell are they talking about supersonic retropropulsion systems? It was the landing method that had been fine-tuned and perfected for decades, allowing the ships to maneuver in the atmosphere and land jets-down on the Martian soil. If the calculations were off, then the ships would fold into the red surface in a ball of fire.
Louis climbed towards the voices.
“The science is perfect,” said another male. “I suspect foul play.”
“Who has the motivation or capability to do something like this?” asked Zembasi.
“Open your eyes. It’s pretty obvious. If these messages are transmitting to Ground Control, I want to hear what they say.”
“What do you mean if? If there’s foul play, we don’t have time to wait,” said Zembasi.
“We don’t know what’s happening.”
Louis turned the corner to find the Captain standing before two men projected in towering holographs. One was older, with hair on the halo of his head, while the other was stout, barely fitting in his blue suit that was reserved for the commanding ranks. The regalia hanging from their belts was impressive—the three of them were possibly the most senior officers in the caravan.
“Who the hell is that?” asked stout captain.
Zembasi twirled around in zero gravity, pushing the hair from her face. “Sanders?” she said. “He’s my Chief Engineer. How did you get out of your cryochamber?”
“Captain, I’m not sure. I assumed the ship had initiated the landing sequence.”
“That makes four of us,” said the stout captain.
“And it furthers my suspicions,” said the older captain. “Our systems are being hacked. All of our calculations are being altered and basic systems are performing at random.”
“What about the redundancy measures?” Louis asked.
“Nothing’s working properly,” the old captain answered. “Those responsible know what they’re doing.”
“We need proof that this is a hack and not some malfunction,” said Zembasi.
“Eighty-three percent of our ships crashed into Mars! The other two ships could be void of all oxygen, for all we know! What more proof do you need?”
“What did you say?” Louis asked. His heart caught in his chest.
“We need to disconnect from the networks. Reset all of our systems except for life support and make an unassisted landing,” said the old captain. “That’s it.”
“Captain, I need to contact Mars,” Louis said.
“Nobody’s contacting anyone, Chief Engineer. We kill our transmissions and go black,” said the old captain.
“Maybe we should wait to hear from Ground Control,” said the stout captain.
“It’s been seven minutes. That means our transmissions aren’t reaching Ground Control. I doubt they know what happened to the first caravan.”
“I need to know if my family made it!” Louis protested.
“Listen, Sanders, you have my condolences, really,” the old captain grumbled. “But I need you—all of you—to stop. Think. These attacks are happening at a rapid rate. It’s not coming from Earth.”
“We don’t know that,” the stout captain objected.
“And by God, it’s not coming from Mars. Who else has people on midspace stations? Who benefits from seeing us fail? They’re probably watching us this very second, satisfied with themselves. Zembasi, Kotler, I’m sending an emergency ping to the other ships. Hopefully that’ll wake the other captains. Then I’m taking my ship off-line and I suggest you do the same.”
The large holograph of the old captain faded, leaving the room a bit darker.
“If the other captains wake from stasis, we can discuss next steps,” Kotler muttered.
“Can we afford waiting that long”? asked Zembasi.
“I… I’m not sure.”
“It’s your ship, Kotler. You need to make the call,” Zembasi said. “Good luck.”
The holograph fizzled at the touch of a button, leaving Louis and Zembasi alone. The panic set in Louis’s bones. He could hardly keep his fingers from trembling.
“Please, Captain. Can I contact Mars? At this range the call will be instantaneous. It’ll take seconds.”
“I’m taking us off the network.”
“I need you to be focused,” she snapped. “Run diagnostics on our SRP technology. If you notice anything off, tell me right away. I’ll disconnect us from the grid.”
Louis remained still, paralyzed by emotion.
“Sanders, that was an order.”
Louis shook his head. Tears lifted off his eyes and floated in his helmet, splashing against his golden visor and turning the system’s red lights into star bursts. He couldn’t keep his tears from coming or wipe the drippings from his nose.
Zembasi grabbed him by the arm. Her face looked worn and aged, the red light revealing new cracks in its surface.
“Louis, listen to me. We all know people who were part of the first caravan.”
He shook his head. These weren’t people. This was family. A family he was too busy to say goodbye to.
“Right now our priority is preventing more deaths and landing on Mars.” She looked out of the primary window, shaking her head. “Who benefits from us failing?”
Louis didn’t need to answer. He’d been briefed on the marketing materials and press releases, the many campaigns that professed how this moment marked the Return of American Greatness. It’s what the brass called a strategic competition against a handful of countries, the genesis of galactic domination, and until now, it had claimed no lives.
“Think about Maria, what she would do in your place,” Zembasi said. “Think about your country.”
If Maria and Lillian were gone, all Louis had left was his country. They could still be alive, but was it cruel to be optimistic? If one-in-six crafts made, there was a Russian roulette chance of hope. It wasn’t much, but perhaps it was enough.
“I want to thank you in advance, Lou,” the Captain said. “For holding it together.”
“Right,” he said.
He wrenched himself up the red bars towards the main control, using the solar sails lining his cape to orient himself in the center of the large bridge. A majority of the systems were asleep, and all the monitors were black but for the reflection of the blinking red sensors. He reached for the stabilizer bars and pressed his heels into the floor clips until he felt the satisfying snap run up his calves.
With the wave of a hand he awoke the systems, which projected their operating systems in a sheet of holographic data. He placed sway-keys onto his hand and flexed his fingers, testing that the keyboard was connected. Writing and gesturing with his hand, he made the data bend and dance before his visor.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Lillian had sacrificed her childhood to train for this trip and she did it with such enthusiasm and fervor. She wasn’t meant to sacrifice her life, too. She was only eleven, damnit! She was the seed of the future.
Louis’s body involuntarily shuddered, entering invalid commands into the system.
“Sanders, how are we looking?” the Captain called.
With a listless motion of his hand, he summoned the source code. Lines and lines of figures appeared, all blurred by tears, but all seemingly normal. Except for one thing.
“Captain, the total weight for the payload concentrated mass is wrong.” The difference was difficult to spot. The weight had to be precise to the tenth decimal point, though consecutive numbers had been switched. There were too many errors to be an amateur mistake, and so buried in the figure that some might have overlooked it. “I’m adjusting the data.”
“Wait for me to completely disconnect,” Zembasi called from the telecommunications array, but Louis was already in edit mode. He had done it mindlessly, almost in an outer body state.
The flashing cursor went yellow, and words appeared without him moving his sway-keys. They said, I don’t have long. They hacked the entire system. You have to— then the words vanished.
“Okay, we’re offline,” Zembasi called. “Do you remember the correct inputs?”
“Uh… yes,” Louis said, motioning his sway-keys in search of that mysterious message. It had mentioned hackers, but who had access to this information and terminal, if not another hacker?
“Enter them into the system.”
“Captain, something strange just happened,” though as he spoke, the cursor flashed purple. A new message appeared, one that Louis didn’t understand: 您的航天器现在处于人民太空旅行联盟的控制之下。
The Captain floated with grace despite not wearing a cape, and took hold of Louis’s shoulder to steady herself. When she saw the purple words, she cursed.
“Do you understand it?” Louis asked.
“No, but I know what it means. The hackers still have access to the ship. Can you update the payload mass?”
Louis tried, but the number reset to a random value each time he entered the correct amount.
“Crap,” Zembasi hissed. “Reset all systems. Bring it all back to factory settings.”
“I can’t reset the life support systems,” Louis said.
“Reset all except that,” Zembasi confirmed.
“What if the malware is embedded in the life support systems?”
“I… I don’t fucking know!”
Louis waved in the commands, but instead of accessing the application window, the foreign message appeared again. Louis cursed and tried again, only his cursor froze into a hard purple line. He gestured the sway-keys in all directions to no avail.
“I’m locked out.”
“How?” Zemebsi exclaimed.
He stopped moving the sway-keys when a voice transmission came in. It was a woman, speaking in English, painfully familiar, though sounding too robotic and distorted to truly recognize. As suddenly as it came, it disappeared in a piercing burst of static.
“I thought you took us off the network,” Louis said.
“I did. We’re in a closed loop.”
“That transmission didn’t come from the ship.” Not that the Captain couldn’t discern that for herself. If the hackers had peeled away their control over the ship, the message could have come from anywhere. Even Mars.
“We can’t do this alone. We need to wake the others,” Zembasi said.
“That’d have to be done manually.” If it can be done at all.
“Right. I’ll start at the western hemisphere. You take the east.” The Captain kicked off the main control and floated into the darkness, her figure momentarily lit by the blinking light. Louis followed, gingerly guiding himself along the bars until the Captain disappeared down the dark gray tunnel leading to the dormitories.
He would wake up his crewmates. Just not yet. Not until he tried something. The Cadillacs each housed three shuttles, which ran on closed loops and independent networks. From a cyberterrorism standpoint, they were their own digital fortresses, since they didn’t rely on their connectivity to be operable. If he could establish a closed loop with Mars, in theory, he’d make contact without giving the hackers a backdoor. He had to do it. Though his country always provided for him, he’d personally burn it to the ground for a chance to speak with Maria and Lillian once more.
The three shuttles slept in darkness in the rear hangar, just before the long shank of the ship that was packed with canned goods and water. Louis approached the rear-most shuttle and entered his Service ID onto the door panel. The piercing white lights that spotted the dark gray jet awoken immediately, shocking his eyes. He hurried to get in, if only to dim the lights and hide his tracks but zero-gravity made his movements awkward.
The systems powered on, the engines humming idly, as Louis’s fingers touched the display with the grace of a concert pianist. First the source menu, then the networks array, then a limited search by distance with a minimum and maximum radius to exclude the surrounding ships but reach the surface of Mars and no further. He transmitted a ping and waited for any available relay to respond.
One minute turned to three, turned to five. He sent more pings that went unanswered. It didn’t seem right. Someone should have been manning the comms station, even if the caravan had suffered heavy casualties.
“Please,” he prayed. “Maria, answer me.”
He sent one last ping, then counted to twenty. He knew he needed to return to the eastern hemisphere to start waking his colleagues, but the uncertainty of his family’s fate was too gnawing. So instead he decided he’d chance connecting the shuttle to the network to get flight data from the first caravan.
He searched for the status of Maria’s ship, named the Bismarck, and the returned results said it was offline. He checked the other ships in the caravan. The Doria was offline, along with the Fitzgerald and Concordia. The Argo’s status was destroyed, which added an extra layer of complexity. Were the terms offline and destroyed synonymous? When he searched the Hutton, he saw that it was online. Had it been the only one to make it?
The dashboard warbled with purple lights that moved with the fluidity of sound waves, as if someone were talking through the console. Louis increased the volume and heard a scratchiness overcome the ever-present classical music. There were voices in the static, ghosts yearning to be heard.
Louis typed a response: I can’t understand you. Could you write to me? I’m searching for two passengers who were on the Bismarck.
The voices became more distinct, enough so that Louis could determine there were several males. They tried to shout through the static, at times laughing like drunken college boys. Putting his head near the console, Louis realized they weren’t speaking English. It was some kind of Eastern European, if he had to guess, maybe Russian.
A text message came in on the dashboard: ( •̀ᴗ•́ )و ̑̑
“The hell?” Louis muttered.
The lights in the Cadillac snapped on briefly before darkening to red alert. The classical music played louder until Louis was pressing his hands against his helmet. The dashboard laughter clamored over the music, and the words that followed were crystal clear: Hasta la vista, baby.
There was a sudden silence that made Louis’s stomach drop. The red emergency lights flashed blue, signaling a massive pressure drop. Before Louis could wonder how the cabin could depressurize, the ceiling bent inwards, as if it were melting, and then the metal tore as the nose of another Cadillac descended into the hangar. The massive ship came down on the first shuttle, crushing it completely, then collided with the floor, sending a tremor through his own shuttle. From the control panel, he quickly released the linkage that held the shuttle to the floor before watching bits of the hangar float off into space.
Bodies, cracked cryochambers, loose supplies. It all floated beside the renegade Cadillac. A gaping hole that stared into the other ship’s bridge was proof enough that everyone inside was dead, same as everyone in his own ship. And without a Cadillac, his odds of landing on Mars safely were drastically decreased. If I can make it out of here in one piece. The further down the Cadillac traveled, the closer its tanks filled with liquid methane and liquid oxygen came to crashing, triggering an explosion.
He frantically touched the display, attempting to bring up the controls. For all his training, he had never actually flown a shuttle. Hell, he had only driven a car once, and it had belonged to his grandfather, who steered it with a wheel and analog controls. Though the theory behind flying a shuttle seemed simple enough — engines spun on a 3D plane to propel the craft more nimbly in space while also giving it the ability to land and take off without a runway on the Martian planet. But the flight menu might as well have been ancient code or hieroglyphics.
“Listen.” The voice came through the dashboard, a reminder that those damned cyberterrorists still had an eye, ear and hand on the shuttle technology. Only this voice was vaguely familiar, the same robotic voice he heard in the bridge. “Hit S4r for flight menu.” A static wind drowned out the voice. “Pound symbol, then hit alpha to summon the controls.”
Louis followed the instructions and watched a rendering of the engines appear on his display. To the left, a touch throttle bar, to the right, a controller to adjust the engines’ position. He aimed the engines at the rouge Cadillac and opened the throttle to full blast, propelling his body into the shuttle’s ceiling. As the pressure subsided, he managed to drift back to the controls and snap his feet into the floor. Now in open space with the Cadillacs overhead, he looked out the window and his brain stuttered and body paused. Of the twelve Cadillacs in the caravan that traveled in two rows, six had turned starboard and collided with their neighbors.
He watched one by one as the fuel tanks collided with metal and erupted, spewing flames that feasted on the liquid oxygen and turned the ships momentarily red, like the slumbering planet before him. When his own Cadillac exploded above him, the resulting fires jolted his small shuttle and sent vicious vibrations that jarred his head. The entire fleet had been demolished.
But he had survived. Him and him alone. He quickly disconnected his shuttle from the network and sat in silent awe. Everyone he had trained with; everyone he had met during the processions that preceded takeoff. They were all gone. Somewhere, the heads of state in one or more countries cheered. Astronauts in midspace stations drank Russo-Baltique Vodka.
Louis returned to the moment when he saw the debris heading his way. Chunks of metal and technology reflected the red planet, along with bits of containers that spewed precious food throughout space. He guided the shuttle sideways, closer to the planet, to avoid the large pieces of metal, yet still he got caught by silent pellets that rattled his ship and threatened to tear its hull.
Alone, defeated, he wondered. Was it worth clinging to life knowing that the odds had taken his family from him? That even slimmer odds had spared his own life, was this a sign to carry on? Yet every path before him led to certain death. His suit had only enough oxygen to complete the landing sequence—about an hours’ worth—and the shuttle would require a skilled pilot to navigate the atmosphere without burning up.
“Maria,” he said, as if to summon her to his side. What would you do, my love? She had a seemingly supernatural ability to understand technology. He could imagine her standing where he was, swinging the engines with sure swipes and bringing the shuttle belly before initiating the SRP system.
The SRP system.
Louis brought up the source code and reviewed the numbers. Unlike in the Cadillac, the payload mass and SRP equation had not been tampered with, though the values didn’t support interplanetary landings. He tested the editor and saw that he was able to adjust and save new figures.
“I can do this,” he muttered. He might not know how to fly, but few people were stronger mathematicians. He brought up a digital display and entered new equations from memory. The shuttle fed him information from its sensors, the cold temperature, low pressure, the altitude from the surface. The shuttle still had data on the Hutton’s location which he entered into the autopilot. “I can do this.”
He saved the new figures into the shuttle system and checked his wrist for his remaining oxygen. Thirty minutes’ worth. It would be enough to descend and deplane, but not much else, so with urgency he spun the engines and brought the shuttle into the atmosphere. The shuttle’s current speed was 5,500 m/s, and in the span of seven minutes, he needed it to decelerate to just 1.3 m/s. He deployed the parachute and watched the engines tilt on his display, obeying the laws of his formula. The heat shields turned bronze, then red, spitting waves of red air against the windshields, jolting Louis inside his suit.
Ultra-violent vibration blurred the display completely. It flashed red with urgency, the rumbling sound waves and intense heat penetrating the shuttle as Louis tensed his muscles and prayed. The shuttle, sensing the danger, produced a seat from the floor and metallic tendrils secured Louis in place. He was still blind to the heads-up display, could no longer tell where the flames started and the red planet began. All he could make out were four flashing stats, then three. That’s when he realized it was the speed—he had only now slowed under 999 m/s.
He was dropping like an anvil and completely helpless to interfere with the sequence. Sweat, tears, spit, it all coated his face. His skin was on fire. He was told at times like these that his life would flash before his eyes, and he welcomed it, if only to see Maria and Lillian one last time. Though all he saw was red.
Then an explosion deafened him. A seismic shock rocked the shuttle with enough force to dislocate his shoulder. He screamed against the pain, then tensed his muscles in an attempt to remain conscious against the massive G-force.
Then the ringing in his ears subsided along with the tremors and blistering heat.
The circulated air felt like cool water hitting the back of his throat. As the world snapped back into focus, he could plainly see the figures on his dashboard. The speed of the shuttle was under 400 m/s.
He gripped the armrest, watching the Sun peek through windshield as the shuttle leaned back. Above the painful ringing in his ears, the engines roared, taking the ship to 300 m/s. 200 m/s. 100 m/s.
The engine’s denouement emitted a shockwave that stirred the red soil, causing the fine minerals to explode into the air and rain down on the windshield. Then with a gentle rocking, the shuttle had landed.
Louis allowed himself a moment to collect his wits. He still couldn’t hear, and the adrenaline numbed his body, masking the injuries that would soon awaken in his shoulder. He would have rested longer had his wrist not flashed with a warning that only 5 minutes of oxygen remained.
The thrill of stepping foot on Mars despite every attempt on his life was gone. Though new life filled Louis at the sight of something more spectacular. Standing beside the boring station, under which a web of burrows were built to protect the Martians from radiation, were eleven Cadillacs. Figures appeared from the station and stood as Louis sprinted toward them.
The Captains were wrong. More ships had landed. They can be safe! He sprinted toward the people, stumbling awkwardly in the weak gravity. He laughed, cried, let the tears stream down his face. And then he gasped. His lungs burned for air as the oxygen levels on his wrist flashed red. His knees lurched, despite his lighter mass, and he clawed at his throat and said his wife’s name, and then the world went black.
Just as it had when he entered the deep sleep.
The first sense to return to Louis was his hearing. The steady beeps of a heart monitor reminded that there was motion in his chest, a warmth that flowed into his nose and out of his mouth. His eyes snapped open and saw everything that mattered to him.
Maria stood with her red curls loose at her shoulders, while Lillian hid behind, growing more courageous as Louis’s eyes opened wider. He couldn’t help but laugh, even if it did hurt his shoulder and neck, and the laughter turned to tears.
“I thought I’d never see you again,” he said.
“Mom said you weren’t allowed to die.”
That drew a smile from Maria, albeit a sad one. “I’m happy I woke you when I did,” she said. “If only I could have woken up everyone…”
Louis tested his touch, first feeling his wife’s cheek and then the firm press of her lips against his own. The oxygen supply be damned, she could take his breath away whenever she pleased.
“The third caravan?” he said.
“The hackers tried to remote access them, like they did yours. We couldn’t work fast enough to save the second fleet.” Her green eyes fell to the floor. “But we can keep the third caravan safe as long as we remain vigilant. We finally reestablished a connection with Ground Control and briefed them on the situation. The world knows that we landed on Mars, and the trials we faced to be here.”
The mission had turned infinitely more difficult and the threat of war now loomed, but the feel of his wife’s and daughter’s hands in his own reminded him of the power and awe of human connection. And in the moment, he brimmed with optimism.
About the Author: Steven Lombardi is an award-winning short story writer and copywriter living in New York City. His fiction has appeared in various outlets, most of which have been catalogued at stevenlombardi.nyc. When not writing, he can be found spending time with his wife and daughter, jogging the streets and forests of Staten Island, leaving liquor out to appease the spirits and tweeting from his handle @_sl_.
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