Ice And Fire - Part I

Ice And Fire
by John Peace

Hawthorne, California, USA
March 2029

Like a terrier sniffing out rabbit holes, Isaac Dosanski moved to and fro in the VIP viewing gallery of the SpaceX Mars Mission Control centre. The control room was laid out sparsely, and its three high glass walls allowed the assembled viewers in the public seating area to watch the day's great event unfold on the wide screens. Most of them were off-duty SpaceX employees and their families. The enclosed VIP area took up part of the back wall.

Dosanski was barely over five feet three inches tall, with a slight build, but dressed in cotton slacks and tan aviation-style jacket he cut a figure. Sandy hair and finely wrinkled, hawkish features perfected the picture. He sauntered, apparently at complete ease, from the tall front windows which looked onto the control room itself to the side where Yuanna sat, alone in the room apart from him, at the media relations desk. His cellular earpiece was unobtrusive, and he spoke into thin air. He spoke quickly but clearly, like a salesman trying to close a deal.

"And you know, Greg, I was saying just this morning to our Board that people with vision and a sense of practical humanity are leading this particular charge. People like you, Greg. We gotta have more than the traditional bottom line in our sights these days, right? I know you know what I'm talking about. Net worth of the whole planet, and now not just one planet, but two. Yeah." He listened for a while. "We'll see, we'll see," he eventually replied. "I think it's too early to make forecasts, but we've already talked about the potentials. It's historic, totally historic." He glanced up at the main screen, showing the eight-minute-old panorama of part of the disc of Mars as seen from an external camera on the Red Dragon II spacecraft. The globe was noticeably flattened out, filling a great deal of the screen. Another screen showed a side view of the Smaug's cabin, with six suited figures reclining. "Look, I gotta go. You will be watching it all I'm sure, so sit back and enjoy the show. In a sense it's your show, yours and all the other visionaries. Bye. Yeah, no problem. Talk later."

With that, Dosanski turned and strode over to Yuanna, who rose to her feet. "Miss Green," he said with a huge smile, "it looks like show time. The monitor out there is showing eighteen minutes until entry. So there's no backing out for them now, huh?"

Yuanna Green-Lisulo, a Public Relations officer for the Mars Society, still felt out of place liaising between the Mars mission and Dosanski, but so far she had managed to keep up an assured manner. After all, she knew almost everyone in SpaceX management and was on first-name terms with all six of the crew. So: the half-smile which seemed to put people at ease. "That's right, Mr Dosanski. As I think you're aware, at this moment they are actually only ten minutes from the atmospheric braking maneuver, due to the eight light-minute distance from here to there. But since the Smaug is an automated vehicle, the crew members are sitting back and enjoying the view."

"Oh come now, ma'am, you know them pretty much as friends. Won't they be creaming their pants right now? They're only human, right?" Dosanski grinned at her and looked back at the screens in the control room, restless but self-possessed at the same time. Yuanna realised that his manner was more like incipient fatherhood than anything else, like a husband pacing up and down outside the maternity ward. He felt that this was his baby.

She chuckled. However much one could dislike what Isaac Dosanski represented, he was easy to get on with, and he could exude an inquisitive innocence when he wanted to. "Commander Sable is the most relaxed astronaut anyone has ever met, and probably the most competent," she said. "Just ask his ex-employers, NASA. Every person on that crew is at the peak of their profession. They were hand-picked."

"OK, I'm with you there. I had a hand in the selection process, remember? And it's just too bad that Musk is down with that condition. He had more to do with this day than anyone, and everyone knows that. They said he'd be conscious enough to watch on a monitor from his hospital room.

"I just mean – man, what a rush of adrenaline, what a realisation, to be there – the first humans to land on Mars! I wish I could be there too, in that seventh seat. But you're right. Sable is the man. I like his loyalty, too. Very level-headed, and he can see the sense in working with us, not breaking up into some kind of anarchic fantasy. He'll keep the rest of them on course, right?"

"They were all carefully trained to work as a team," replied Yuanna. "Possibly they are the most highly trained group of human beings on the – well, not on this planet, obviously, but you know what I mean." She felt a touch of a blush coming on after her slight slip of the tongue. It was nothing. Move on. "Now the ship is making minute adjustments to its heading, its trajectory, as it points itself towards the very narrow window in the atmosphere that –"

"Oh, right. The window."

"Metaphorically. We're aiming at a very precise angle to the atmosphere so that the Dragon won't hit too hard and burn up, or hit too shallow and basically bounce off into interplanetary space."

"Wait, I read about that. How precise does it have to be?"

Yuanna pursed her lips. "I don't have the exact figure, but it's a fraction of a degree. They're approaching Mars really at a terrific velocity. But what they do next is interesting."

"Okay… let's hold that thought," Dosanski said, and walked across the room taking another call. His tone was a mutter.

Yuanna rolled her eyes at his back and looked across the control room. She saw Emerson Devries, Mission Director for this auspicious day, walking from one console to another. Tall, wearing a bronze-on-black waistcoat and a pressed white shirt, and with a flop of burnished copper hair, he glowed with brilliance and competence. Yuanna knew how well he kept his bohemian eccentricities on a tight leash when on duty. He was conferring with all his controllers before the excruciatingly tense moments of the Dragon's entry and landing.

She admired his calm, but pitied him too: he had no real-time control over events, and yet any error or mishap could land in his lap. And everybody wanted to talk to him. On his arrival at SpaceX's Hawthorne control centre Dosanski had pestered Yuanna until she had managed to get him a minute with Devries. Devries had given him a terse few answers to some semi-technical questions before excusing himself.

Now his latest call was over, Dosanski approached Yuanna again. "Look, I'd like to get onto the floor. Get a close-up view. Some pics for the blog, y'know?"

Yuanna shook her head. "I'm sorry, Mr Dosanski, but that will have to wait until after operations have completed. The staff can't have any interruptions."

He waved her objection away and stepped over to the door leading from the VIP enclosure to the control room. "I'll be as quiet as the proverbial mouse, don't worry." Before she could reach him, he was through the door and walking slowly along the ends of the rows of desks, slowing to take photos with his phone of the mission control staff and their screens. Yuanna hurried behind. She had to catch up with him without making a disturbance. She noticed Anwar and Helen, two controllers she had talked to off-duty, throwing Dosanski the blank stares that spoke of brief irritation quickly smothered.

Devries noticed the VIP intruder and veered their way. But before he could open his mouth, Dosanski grinned up at him, saying in a subdued voice, "Hi, Emerson, great operation you got here. Look, I was wondering how soon after landing I can address the crew and congratulate them on behalf of SpaceX."Devries calmly began leading Dosanski back to the VIP enclosure. "When they're ready, Isaac, and not before. Until then…" Once both Yuanna and Dosanski were back behind the glass and the door was closed, Devries threw Yuanna a brief look of exasperation with just a dash of good humour, then he was off, back on his rounds.

Ice And Fire - Part Two

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