Red Flag

This is the first short story I wrote in the series 'New World Rising'.

Red Flag
by John Peace

Mars Transfer Orbit

"What was that banging noise?" murmured Don Luther, as if to himself. He was securing his feet in the floor restraints so he could concentrate on the e-reader without floating across the MTV lounge and colliding with one of the crew.

He thought that by this time he should have been past the stage of novice astronaut's nerves, but if anything his anxieties were getting close to blocking off his normal thought processes at times. Even by glancing at the wall of the spacecraft he could set himself thinking of a training session they'd had on the subject of vibration fatigue analysis, and then he'd remember the higher than expected shaking they'd received during the atmospheric ascent phase of the launch, at about that moment the engineers called 'Max Q'. Even now, a voice whispered, those microscopic cracks are surely spreading, and beyond that wall is a thirsty vacuum.

Or it could start as he drew another breath, and he would survey in his mind's eye the innards of the carbon dioxide scrubbers, the fans, the humidifier, the microorganism and particulate filters, the partial pressure monitors and all the rest: he knew it so well, the ECLSS. They had trained hard to know exactly what could go wrong with each component, and what they could do to 'resolve the issue', as their instructor had so blandly put it.

Yes, we know exactly what to do in almost any conceivable situation, he thought. So why am I constantly so nervous at odd sounds?

Anastasiya Vladimirovna Komarova turned from the tiny view port and scowled. "This is Marco dancing around hamster wheel. Perhaps a samba."

"No," Don replied, burying himself in the new research paper on hydrated salt remote imaging that he'd just received from UCSC. "It was from the other direction." He enjoyed disputing planetary science or astrophysics with the Mars crew's chief pilot. He invariably won, which was why she was so reluctant to be drawn in. On almost any other topic Asya could pound him to weary pieces by the strength of being 100% obstinate Russian woman. And that day her tone of voice seemed especially nasal and irritating.

"And which direction this is coming from?" she continued, plucking something from the air with distaste and waving it at him.

Asya's half-fluent, half-faulty English still grated on Don's sense of rightness, even after twelve months of intensive training and team building and the fifteen days since lifting off from Satish Dhawan Space Centre. There was no escape now. "What's that?" he asked, distracted already from his paper and feeling his irritation morphing into a fouler shape.

"It is one of the millions of your charts!" she said. Her tone made it clear that she was restraining her scorn with heroic effort. "Sticky-tac dry up in this air. Useless. Please keep your views on the Martian climate to yourself." And she flicked the sheet across the lounge. Air resistance slowed it almost to a stop.

He finally grabbed it and tucked it away. "It wouldn't get like this if we'd done the tethered rotation design." It came out as a loud grumble, rather than an under-the-breath note-to-self, and he knew Asya wouldn't drop it.

Komarova didn't glare at him. Instead she wound herself into a balletic spin, stretching out her arms then hugging them in to vary her rate of rotation. "You know that tethering was ruled to be impractical. It is a pity, but totally true, with the project budget people. Such misers. I am grateful for radiation shields, especially since last week's solar outburst. How can you possibly shield a spinning tin can shape from solar radiation and keep within the mass limits they dictate to us? And still we bring all our gear with us, and your – pah! – experiments and instruments." In all fields related to space vehicles her English would spike up a couple of proficiency levels.

Don knew she had a point. "It would be better if we were not limited to the Hohmann, though. A quick seventy-day transfer –" And he was still on her turf.

"No!" came Asya's loud retort. "You chew over the old gum one more time. With rocket motor, even with powerful Russian rocket motor, we do not get enough specific impulse for your dream trip unless we build a NASA Battlestar, or we wait for a power supply big enough for that magical ion engine, or we dream of a warp drive. Hah! All with price tags we cannot pay. At least we get a refuelling tanker like Musk. And the safety of free-return trajectory: Surely, Professor, even you can see the wisdom. As you say, orbital mechanics one-oh-one, no?"

Just as Don was assembling a robust reply, Annika emerged from the crew quarters with that tousled, bleary look which he secretly adored. "Hey, guys, keep the noise down," she said with a weak grin. "Asya, do you know what's up with the CO2 scrubber? The air's getting a little… I dunno… sweaty in here." He liked her soft Afro-Canadian lilt, too.

Asya caught hold of a grip to stop her spin and shook her head. Don could see that she was restraining the focussed hunter’s stare she used on him. "You know the routine. I check it every day, two times." She was wary, tensing for an argument.

"Hmm… It's not so bad in here," Annika went on, sniffing the air, "but in my cabin – eugh! I almost wish Abdul Qawi were here. He'd get it – " She caught herself and glanced at Asya. "I mean, he'd love the chance to tinker with it."

Don didn't expect Asya to launch one of her mock-offended tirades which would often defuse a tense atmosphere. It was too late for that. She glared at Annika and seemed to consider some cutting, ironic response. The two women's temperaments were like night and day; storm and sun; they had avoided fights so far only by bottling up resentments or spilling them to other members of the crew.

But instead she tapped her chin with a forefinger and said, quietly, "That is strange, now you mention it. Did we find out why they send him away four days before our launch? I never say goodbye." She frowned to herself. "Although, perhaps this is no loss of mine."

Marco's Latin-accented voice echoed through the hatch that led to the medical lab and gym. "I will miss Abdu. He is the Arabian Renaissance Man. You remember he write a musical play in the French, about the poor car mechanics who build an EM-drive taxi to Mars?" He laughed, seemingly carefree, and emerged head-first into the lounge. His slightly lopsided, cheerful features glowed pink after his workout. All of them had swollen faces from zero-G, but Marco had it in spades.

Don chuckled. "Abdul Qawi is a dreamer – as well as an engineer, a soldier, a poet and a survivalist. The last debate I had with him, he insisted that within ten years there could be four settlements of more than a thousand people each. They would go for full independence and form a trading alliance by that time. All powered by EM drives, asteroid mining and the greatest concentration of intellect in the Known Universe."

"Is nonsense!" scoffed Asya. "Is all comic-book stories for boys! The world cannot even fix the climate, the wars, the refugees. Is all too busy with crisis. You all three listen to that madman and forget to study your flight procedures. And now look! I stand behind your shoulder at every watch because you forget!"

She huffed and her mood settled down to somewhere between grim and depressed. "No, I think we are lonely on Mars. Mars population will be four. Maybe ten or eleven if our competitors launch again in two years from now. The first valiant SpaceX crew: who knows what became of them."

Annika rarely frowned, but this clearly disturbed her. "I am sure we will find the Smaug, and her crew, and the whole New Space scene will get its moxy back on. You hear it all the time: markets go up as well as down. Look, the world's always been messed up. Statistically, things are actually improving."

With a slow nod, Marco backed her up. "We begin our research, then we answer the big question: if there is life. That will get the people's attention."

Asya snorted. "Most likely is not life, except for our own bugs hitch-hiking on meteorites and NASA rovers. A dead Mars makes bad journalism, as the Professor knows very well, right, Professor? You hope to publish how many papers each week?"

There was so much about her retort that outraged Don's scientific senses, but for the first time he had no desire to argue. Let her stew in her ignorance. "So tell us again why you signed up for this at all, Commander Komarova," was what came out of his mouth. “Why not stay at home?” And he didn't care how it sounded. He was glad that she flinched at the words.

But she just looked back at him, as silent as the hungry vacuum outside. Don knew her, and in a rush he feared that she would crack this time. She was breathing harder and faster, and her nostrils were quivering. It hadn't happened so far – none of them had fallen apart – they had been so busy, so tired, and so exalted – the post-launch checks, the trans-Mars insertion burn, then getting into the details of the cruise rhythm. Whenever doubts or exhaustion or anger had threatened Don, he had simply basked in a golden thought: We're really doing it! They were finally doing what they had prepared to do. Grudges had to be swallowed if they were to survive.

But now? The glamour had worn off, and if everyone was as tired as he was, the team was about to implode.

"Why I come?" whispered Asya. "Why I waste my life with you people?”

Annika tried to patch things up, stammering conciliations. That was her job. Marco chuckled at them and started to make for his cabin.

Asya raised her voice: a serrated blade. "You know my namesake, Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, first woman in space. I met her, when I was a child. I never tell you this. She make all of Russia proud. You never understand. Perhaps I am the last Russian in space, the last cosmonaut, and the first to land on Mars." Her voice grew even more acidic now. "So, Professor, I will do with my life something even greater. For science, for history. I baby-sit you children who cannot even climb into your own MKS, cannot calibrate the star tracker, cannot go to sleep in space. That is why –"

Don had never thought, before that moment, that 'seeing red' might have a literal meaning. It was as though a film of blood pulsed over his vision, his furious pulse drumming out a war dance. "You're just the taxi driver!" he burst out. "Don't talk to me about science – you have no idea what we're doing all this for. You wouldn't know a methanogen from a phyllosilicate!”

Asya’s eyes burned at him “I hate you!” she yelled, just as Annika shouted, "Shut up, both of you!"

They all three hung there, staring at each other and at nothing. Marco's muffled, surprised, "Hey, man," from just outside the lounge, only heightened the tension. To Don it was as if the referee had just blown a deafening whistle, and they had all been caught in an embarrassing foul. A single thought crystallised: that he had doomed himself to spending decades of his life with these stupid people.

A series of loud thumps from the direction of the cabin section interrupted the silence. They all looked that way.

Don spoke first. "That sounds like the water pump."

"Don't be stupid," Asya shot back, "water pumps in other direction."

"Come on, we find out," said the voice of Marco, who was almost there.

They tracked down the continuing thumps to one of the large storage lockers. The lockers also provided some sound-proofing for the cabins, which lay beyond. Inside they found a cocooned figure, writhing to be free of a reeking jungle of tubes, bags of fluid and padding. "Allah! Allah!" came a distressed voice from within the cocoon. More muffled Arabic followed.

They were all speechless, breathless, clueless for a long moment. Then they were all pulling him out, untangling him and laughing and crying. "Abdul Qawi! What do you think you're doing here?" was all Don could say. He found he was grinning at Asya, who was examining the medical apparatus that had been attached to their friend.

"He is crazy!" she cried. "He is lunatic! He test-drive an induced-coma device and smuggle himself onto spaceship!" She slapped Abdul Qawi, hard, around the ears. "You have no brains!" Her victim looked sheepish, but as mischievous as ever. She took a long look at Don. "If anyone find the life on Mars, it is this lunatic. You are lucky man, Professor!"

Life on Mars? Don just wanted to talk science with someone. And here was the very man.

Suddenly the long trip to the Red Planet looked like it might work out. It might actually be a great time.

But then he realised just where Abdul Qawi had chosen to build his stowaway's nest. "Abdu!" he croaked, a hoarse whisper, "Where are the UV spectrometers and the imagers? And the - Half the science gear is missing!"

His supposed friend's eyes focussed on him. You could tell when his razor-sharp mind was operating when he got that look. And his pronunciation was crystal-clear. "Ah, yes. Professor, I am so sorry. Please submit your lost baggage claim to the administration and we will make suitable arrangements. Thank you for choosing Emirates and have a nice flight." Then he grinned, not a hopeful or entreating grin, but a victor's self-congratulation.

Maybe it wouldn't be such a holiday after all.

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