The Strangest by Jack Morrison

The module touched down gently on Martian soil. Its legs folded outward with a slight hiss as hydraulic fluid shot through internal valves, pistons moved, and the craft nestled itself on the alien landscape gently like a small bird worming its way closer to the safe heat of its mother. Everything was still then, and remained still for just a few moments longer. Then, with another hiss of fluid, a hatch in the module opened up. A bulbous skull poked its way forward through the new hole. It turned left and turned right, surveying its surroundings through the darkened faceplate of a helmet. It ducked back into the craft and words were exchanged. Soon after, three figures stepped out of the foil womb onto the sanguinary surface of the planet Mars. They landed one by one, soft thuds created from boots suddenly lighter than they had ever been before. When all three of them were clear of the craft, they stood still and surveyed the alien landscape. For miles around, the Martian surface stretched on and on without end. They glanced at each other and then glanced away. There was something wrong with all of them. They were out of place, like sentient viruses from some larger host that had found their way to a new feeding ground. One of them shuddered. Neither of the others seemed to notice. Finally, with a raise of its hand to its face, one of the figures spoke.

“Houston, we have confirmed touchdown. There are boots on the ground. We—” His voice suddenly choked off. He swallowed dryly several times before he was able to continue. “We’ve done it.” He lowered his hand from the side of his head and hit one of the pressure-sensitive points on his suits. His visor cleared, revealing a pair of brown eyes gazing keenly out on the horizon. He turned to the other two figures.

“Visors can go down, guys. The sun won’t be as bad here because at least now there’s some type of atmosphere between us and it.” The communication lines in his helmet picked up his voice and transmitted it to the other two. “Check off, for the books. Anderson?”

“Here, sir,” came the reply. “Karla Anderson, Mission Specialist, checking in and ecstatic!” The last word was said with a gust of sudden energy. The visor of her helmet cleared and her blond hair showed, awkwardly mussed from being jammed in a bubble for so long. Suddenly and giddily she slammed her booted feet together and snapped a quick salute. “Ready to go!”

“Duly noted. At ease soldier,” the first speaker replied dryly. Karla sheepishly lowered her hand from her forehead and shuffled her feet a little.

“I’m sorry sir. It’s just— We’re just— We’re on— Wow…” Her voice faded to an awed whisper.

“I know, I feel it too. I just want to get through all the protocol and preparation so we can properly appreciate this place.”

“Yessir!” Karla’s voice had gone more serious.

“Good. Now, do we have Sorenson?”

The third figure looked back toward the group, his visor still darkened and his hand raised to ward off excess light so he could get a clear view of his surroundings. He moved very slightly to activate the trigger to clear the material on his visor. Dark eyes and dark hair gazed from the recess of the helmet calmly. In a neat, refined voice, he spoke.

“John Sorenson, Payload Commander, reporting in.” He turned back to the Martian landscape, his helmet visor clouding over as he did so. The first figure nodded slightly to himself.

“And this is Commander Terry Halloway. All crew are accounted for and all vital readouts appear stable and well within mission parameters. Houston, we did it. We did it!” He was momentarily disappointed when he couldn’t hear the returning cheers of his colleagues back on Earth. Mentally shaking himself, he just imagined it in his head. He turned to Karla and shot her a significant look. She let out a short whoop of pure joy and threw one of her hands into the air. Halloway smiled. Sorenson had fully turned from his post and had re-cleared his visor. On his face he wore the largest smile either of his companions had ever seen on him. He gently chuckled, then started noticeably laughing, and then doubled over as great gales of mirth overtook him.

“Hey, Terry, I think I left the water running back at Houston.” John gasped out. All of them laughed where they stood, letting the adrenaline and stress and nerves of their landing wash out through their mouths. Still giggling, Karla tried to hold a straight face as she spoke.

“Well, you better call them now. You know it takes something like fifteen minutes to get any message back there.” They all laughed again and moved closer together, resting arms on each other and forming a huddle. Halloway let the laughter slowly fade before speaking.

“Guys, I can barely believe it, but here we are! On Mars…” He searched for something else to say, shaking his head in frustration as nothing came. “Oh hell, here we are on Mars and I can’t say anything other than ‘welp, here we are!’ You’d think I was some danged tourist who had finally made his way to the hotel he was staying at. I’ve got nothing. Any of you?”

“Give me a second to think,” Sorenson replied. “I’m sure I’ll be able to come up with something really good. Maybe Bradbury, maybe Heinlein, Asimov, Wells, heck even Douglas Adams probably has something that will get endlessly parodied by popular culture if we say it here on another planet.”

“Speaking of which,” Karla jumped in, “there’s something I’ve wanted to try ever since I knew that humanity was going back to space.” With that, she shook off the arms of the other two astronauts and crouched down low. Gathering all of the force her legs could create below her, she sprang mightily into the air. For a brief moment, she hung above the chalky tan rocks of the Martian surface. Then gravity kicked in and she was brought back to the ground with a jolt. Grunting softly, she rolled to lighten the impact. She turned to face her bemused comrades, attempting to brush dull orange dust from her suit with her bloated, gloved hands.

“That wasn’t quite as high as I thought it would be. Those guys on the moon had it so much better.” Her voice had gained a false petulant tone. “You hear that, Commander? The planet that the Space Committee sold me is defective! I want a return!” Halloway grinned.

“Come on Anderson, give it a second to grow on you. Sure, the gravity is only a third of Earth’s instead of a sixth, but this place has a few key features that make it quite the getaway. I mean, look around! Do you see this place? It looks like a beach! Miles and miles of beach, with no screaming kids or elderly ladies in oddly risqué bathing suits! Of course there isn’t water yet, but hey, that’s what we’re here for. Speaking of, who wants to begin unpacking?”

Sorenson answered. “Well, I’m definitely not going to feel like doing it later. Let’s get to it.”

After several hours of labor, made longer by the alien feel and weight of everything on Mars, a base camp had been set up. A polymer tent stood in the middle of a relatively flat piece of ground. It was ringed with various other bits and pieces of technical equipment, instruments to measure atmospheric conditions and seismic activity. The astronauts stood in the midst of their temporary camp. Halloway was looking at a readout on his visor.

“It appears everything’s good to go. The tent’s pressurized, equipment’s online, and everything’s at least unpacked. All right people, we can stand at ease. After we finish putting everything away, we have ten hours R and R before we start with our mission’s objectives.” He deactivated the helmet readout and nodded toward the tent. “I want to get out of this monster of a suit. It feels like I’m boiling in a pot of salt water here.”

“Roger that,” Karla said. “I’d kill for a towel and a hot shower.”

Sorenson grinned sardonically. “Well, if you can just hold on about three weeks, we can leave this planet and get you back to the ship. Then it’s just a quick jaunt back to Earth and a shower.” Karla punched him in the shoulder playfully. The excess padding on both of their suits completely nullified the force of the hit but John pretended like he was hurt.

“Be careful; you might tear a hole in the suit!”

“Oh, come off it, John. You and I both know you’d tear in half before your suit would. The engineers back on Earth really know what they’re doing. I mean, we trusted them to plan the flight, so surely we can trust them to make some clothes.”

“Okay, okay, you win. Let’s go get these blasted suits off.”

With that, all three set off toward the tent. The rest of the daylight hours passed in a blur of activity. Rations were stored, seals were checked, and geological data was charted and processed preliminarily in an attempt to find something on Mars that wasn’t completely hostile to humanity. John was in charge of equipment safety and proper function, while Karla was in charge of logistics and schedules. Terry was the effective captain of the ship, acting as point man with the press and having the final say on mission critical decisions. The three of them had been picked for the lofty job by the Space Committee, the most able out of a pool of thousands upon thousands of applicants. Each knew their exact duties and each knew the hopes riding on them. They did not allow themselves to think of failure. The collective will of humanity to expand was riding on them.

Finally, all of the preparations had been completed.          The three astronauts sat down in their tent and looked at a chart of the Martian terrain. Terry started to point out different features and landmarks.

“Okay, so here we are. We’re only a few degrees north of the equator, which is good for us because the temperatures are much more reasonable here. Also, from what scientists have managed to gather, Martian weather is very predictable and tends to follow the same patterns every year. There hasn’t been a recorded dust storm any time within three months of this date for the past several years that scientists have been checking, which should help us stay safe and keep the equipment functioning. When a dust storm hits, it tends to hit the entire planet before too awful long. Anyway, we shouldn’t need to worry about the temperature either; our suits are designed to take the edge off of the conditions so that they’re survivable. That’s not to say that you won’t have some times of very uncomfortable temperatures, so I would suggest you get used to dealing with it.”

“No problem, sir,” Karla spoke up. “I’m an Ohio girl born and bred. I’m used to taking the weirdest conditions possible in stride.”

“Hopefully Lord Mars is as forgiving as Mother Earth. John, do you have anything to add?”

“Not that I can think of. For the record though, preliminary seismic readings show no notable activity. Tomorrow I think I’m going to try to set up the underground scanner, see if there’s anything interesting beneath the skin here.”

“Good, keep me posted if you find something. I think that’s all that needs talked about tonight. Does anyone else feel like going outside? I want to see the stars from this place.” The other two astronauts agreed, and suits were hastily put on. After a few minutes, the trio stepped out of the tent, through the airlock, and onto the Martian plain. They each found slight outcroppings of rock and lay down on their backs to gaze up at the alien night sky.

After a few moments Karla spoke. “What I would give for a fire right now. You aren’t supposed to be able to look at stars this clear without having a fire crackling by your side. It’s just like those camps back at home… The ones I went to when I was a little girl. I would finally be able to get out of the suburbs. I’d have trees to climb and places to run and rivers to explore; I’d lie on my back against rocks that still kept the warmth of the day’s sun and gaze up at the stars. Have either of you two ever been out to the Adirondacks?” Terry and John both indicated that they hadn’t. “Well, this is like a place I know from when I visited there, except there’s not a waterfall running by the rock that I’m lying on.” She laughed faintly. “Wow, I thought the walk to get there was long. We spent three days canoeing around a lake, stopping to camp on islands. Then we met up with another group, gave them our canoes, and started hiking. On the second day, after mile after mile of walking, we came to a slightly cleared out campsite. Our entire group got everything unpacked from our backpacks and got the tents standing and dinner cooked. Then we found a patch of river that was bordered by rocks so trees couldn’t grow. We lay down and looked up and saw more stars than most of us had ever seen before. Now here I am, one hundred million miles from home, lying down on a rock and staring at the stars.” There was silence for a long moment, then Sorenson spoke up.

“We are the strangest things in the universe.”

“What do you mean by that?” Terry asked.

“Out of everything that humanity has encountered, we three are the farthest from where we ‘should’ be. Nothing else even half as complex as we are has made any journey that’s even a thousandth as long as ours. We are, by definition, the strangest things in the universe.” Sorenson settled himself deeper into the rock he was stretched out on. “We made it.”

More quiet talk was exchanged among the group. The night sky stretched above them, the thin Martian air showing a tapestry of lights unrivaled by any terrestrial view. A meteor streaked across the void, surprisingly large and bright. At that point, each astronaut was completely silent. The moment stretched on, three heads thinking thoughts never before thought on Mars. Eventually, the cold of the night and the harshness of the rocks forced the trio inside their tent. Terry took one last look at the night sky just before he stepped into the tent.

“John wasn’t kidding,” he murmured under his breath. “We are the strangest things in the universe.”

The next day dawned, and the astronauts blearily stumbled about. Dehydrated coffee was re-hydrated, significantly perking up the sleepy faces in the tent. Suits were donned and the work of the day began. Sorenson was the first out the door, followed by Anderson. Halloway was struggling to get the bulky gloves to fit with the rest of the suit. Finally, he managed to get them on. He put on his helmet and noticed a notification from Houston on his heads up display. He laughed to himself, reflecting that even on Mars he couldn’t escape e-mail. Opening the message, he stood in the doorway and scanned it. Something about verification of landing reports being received and data being transferred. When he got to the last paragraph, he slowed down his pace and actually started reading closely. He grimaced and re-read it again. Shaking his head in vague disgust, he radioed out to the other two astronauts.

“Sorry to interrupt everything, but I just got a dispatch from Houston. It’s mostly pretty boring, but there’s one bit here at the end that you guys need to hear which I wouldn’t feel right telling you over coms. It shouldn’t take long, so let’s just get it over with. Halloway out.”

Fifteen minutes later the astronauts sat around a table in their temporary home. Karla and John both looked enquiringly at Terry. He still had a vaguely disgusted look on his face.

“So, as I said earlier, we got a message from planet side. I can’t think of a tactful way to bring this up, so I’m just going to repeat what I saw in the message. Apparently, our suits are fitted with a special mechanism that will kill us near painlessly if activated. Some sort of chemical delivery system patch. It requires a special voice override to activate, so you shouldn’t need to worry about setting it off accidentally.”

Anderson scowled and Sorenson vehemently spat out, “Why the hell do we have these things, and more importantly. why are we only finding out about them now?”

Terry replied immediately. “I’m just as angry as you guys are about this. Apparently, in the case of complete mission failure, the patch is a way of going out that’s supposed to be more humane than starvation or asphyxiation. It’s macabre, but I can see why they have it. As for the fact that they didn’t tell us till now, you can be certain that they will be hearing a lot about that from me very soon. Go ahead and get back to your duties. I’ll get a response out and we can continue like we didn’t even know this happened. Dismissed.”

The next couple of weeks passed relatively quickly. Everything on Mars was tested: the atmosphere, the soil composition, the weather patterns, the seismic activity; even the subsurface of the planet was roughly explored with a sonic device. Copious amounts of notes were taken and transmitted, observations recorded in audio logs for posterity. Finally, the three-week stay on the Martian surface was drawing to a close. Some of the more fragile equipment already had been packed in the take-off module to avoid damage. Three days remained in the mission before the return to Earth would begin. That night, sitting around the dinner table, the chatter had an excited tone to it. Three weeks of constant scientific rigor and constant work had worn on the astronauts, and they were ready to see home again.

“So what’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get back?” asked Terry. “Personally, I think I want to eat a steak. A nice big one that wasn’t freeze dried or dehydrated or had Lord-knows-what done to it.”

“I’m going straight back home as soon as I’m allowed. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to talk to my little sister. I’m already making up stories of aliens and conspiracy theories to tell her.” Karla said.

“You know, you could just read her a bit from The Martian Chronicles.” John replied. “That guy Bradbury knows how to spin a story about space. Plus, you can say we found Spender’s remains or something while we were here. I bet she would eat it up.”

Halloway laughed. “What about you, John? What’s the first thing you’re looking forward to doing?” John suddenly seemed to grow a little uncomfortable. “Oh, come on, you know for a fact you’re among friends here!”

“Well, there’s this one girl,” Sorenson started, “from my hometown. She went to high school with me and then we both happened to go to the same college. We’ve hung out a bit before, but I’ve never really said anything. I just hope the media doesn’t have a field day with it. I mean, it’ll look like I’m just using my status to get her and I don’t want her to think that at all because I really am—“ He had started talking faster and faster but Karla cut him off.

“I think it’s sweet. The media can go soak their heads. I’m sure you’d cut quite a gallant figure even without the mission pin on your chest.” John smiled and nodded, taking a deep breath to relax.

The chatter continued late into the night. Hopes and dreams shared, favorite childhood memories recalled, movies that would have come out while they were gone. Friends and family and humanity, loud and real again for the first time in so long. Eventually all that was to be said had been said, so the three of them went to bed. Before they did, however, each of them went outside alone. It was Sorenson’s idea. For fifteen minutes, each one prayed or sang or laughed or cried out into the great sandy plains that was Mars as the mood took them. As one would come back in, the next would go out. Nothing was said in the brief time that the two would share at the seal exit. Each knew it wouldn’t have felt right.

John was the last one. He knelt down on the tan dust and picked it up in his gloved hand. He rolled the texture of it, contemplating the granules. He then let it run through his hand. It dropped almost immediately back to the ground as no wind was wakened to stir it. He glanced up at the sky. Another meteor streaked by, one of the many they had seen in the past week. In the back of his mind he knew that there was a meteor shower in the area, and that Houston had told them about it before take-off. However, his only conscious thought was that right then, at that moment, he was the only human who would ever see that shower. Not even the Commander or Karla would know about those flying lights. He reached up with his hand and mentally grabbed the starlight. He drew it in to himself and smiled.

The night passed peacefully and quietly. Stars rotated above and the air barely moved. Inside the tent, three humans slept soundly. Roughly six hours after he had gone to sleep, Halloway received a message. His pocket communicator, linked to the same system as his heads up display, woke him. He groaned and sat up, blinking as the light of the screen stabbed into his eyes. He read the message slowly, all thoughts of sleep suddenly gone from his mind. Once finished, he powered down the device, put his face in his hands, and wept. Hot tears spilled from between his fingers, falling down to the bedspread he was sleeping on. He cried for about an hour, tearing himself apart mentally, trying to decide if he should wake the rest of the crew. He finally decided against it, instead letting them sleep. With the heaviest feeling in his heart that he had ever had, he nestled deeper into his sleeping roll.

When John and Karla woke up, Terry was already conscious. They could immediately tell from the look on his face and the stinging red tracks down his cheeks that something was very wrong. Neither of them said anything, waiting for their commander to speak.

“I have just received word from Houston that—” Terry’s voice broke off. He swallowed hard and tried again. “I have just received word that the orbiting craft responsible for getting us back to Earth, the craft that we were supposed to dock with the landing module once we’d cleared the atmosphere, has been destroyed. An asteroid struck it roughly three hours ago. Houston tried to save it, but the communication delay meant that when they knew something was wrong, the satellite had already shifted into too low an altitude. It was caught in the gravity well and smashed into the surface of the planet. We now have no way home and no hope of rescue. The provisions that landed with us are sufficient to keep us alive for roughly another three weeks with strict rationing, but beyond that there is no possibility of help.” He paused, tears shining fresh in his eyes. He choked back a sob. “I don’t know what to do.”

The other two sat there, stunned and silent. After several moments, Terry managed to find his voice again.

“In the message, they told us that we will be consigned to the deepest of deeps by a chaplain. Our souls will be laid to rest among the stars. They called it the ultimate form of a burial at sea. My wife has already been notified. Karla and John, your families have been as well. We are allowed to transmit messages to them if we so wish. I am so sorry. I— I think we should be alone. At least for a while. Once we have said our goodbyes, we can decide what we will do.”

Terry stood up and moved to the door. He struggled into his suit through a film of tears. When he got it on, he was outside and running. He ran from the tent, until he found an isolated spot. He switched off the communications channel in his helmet and howled at the Martian sky. He fell to his knees and wept bitterly once more. Finally, he wrung the grief out of his system. He started composing his message to his wife and family. Karla and John did much the same, mutely and separately working through their grief and trying to figure out how to say goodbye. After four long hours, John’s voice tentatively sounded through the communication channel again.

“I think we should meet. As long as everybody has sent their messages and everything, we need to consider how we are moving forward.” His voice faded out for a little, then he spoke again. “I don’t mean to be unfeeling, but we need to face this. Together. So finish your messages and get them sent. We can discuss our options soon.”

Terry was the last one to arrive back at the tent. The sun had fallen beneath the horizon line and the stars were starting to come out when he entered the seal. The other astronauts sat around the table grimly. He stepped heavily towards them.

“I’m sorry, crew. Has everyone done everything they wanted to?” John and Karla mutely nodded. “Okay. So as I see it, we have two options. We can try to stay alive as long as possible. Who knows, we may be able to find more scientifically useful information. Otherwise, we can kill ourselves.” As he said it, his lip turned up. “I don’t like to think of it any more than you do, but there it is and we need to consider it. Personally, while I was thinking during the past few hours, I decided to try to transmit data as long as supplies allow. I know we’ve got everything we came for, and I know the hope of getting something now that will make this sacrifice seem worth it are slim, but it is what I have decided to do. I want both of you to know that if you choose to die, it is in no way a poor reflection on you. All I am choosing is a slow, lingering death.” He stopped, gasping slightly from barely suppressed emotion. Karla spoke next.

“I’ve sent my messages. Houston managed to gather my family at the center. I talked to all of them; we waited for each message to get to the other through the signal delay. I’ve decided that I can’t handle a slow, creeping death. I talked about it with my parents. So, I am going to use the patch in the suit.” She broke down crying. “But I’m so scared,” she managed to wail through her tears. Terry reached over and took her hand. John was rubbing her shoulder. They sat there, at that moment, frozen in a still life of grief and isolation. Numbly, John and Terry watched Karla stand up and begin to put on her suit. She stepped outside of the tent. A few minutes later, the communications channel from her helmet opened.

“I’m so sorry to do this, but I can’t stand it. I am as much at peace now as I ever will be able to be. Terry, please use the extra time. Use my supplies, stay longer, see if you can find anything.” Her channel went quiet again for a moment. “I love both of you. Goodbye.”

John and Terry sat there, silent tears running from wracked bodies. They went outside and found Karla lying on her back on a rock, staring up at the sky. A shooting star streaked across the reflective surface of her helmet. They stood there, mutely. Finally, John managed to speak.

“If you’re okay with it, I have some words to say.” Halloway nodded. Sorenson moved over to Karla. He took her arms and put them at her sides, arranging her serenely on the rock above the Martian soil.

“During the Apollo Eleven mission, a speech was prepared in case the astronauts couldn’t get off the moon. With only a few words changed, this speech can apply directly to us. The mission succeeded, so the speech was never given, but it was written anyway. It was to be presented to the American public to let them know that their heroes had died. I have nothing else to give this woman save the words with which she will be remembered. It is a poor gift, but it is all I have.”

“Fate has ordained that the people who went to Mars to explore in peace will stay on Mars to rest in peace. These brave humans, Karla Anderson, Terry Halloway, and John Sorenson, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These explorers are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.” He turned his head to the sky, looking roughly in the direction of Earth.

“They will be mourned by their family and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send three of her children into the unknown. In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.” Tears were now actively running down his face, but his voice remained clear and strong.

“In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic kindred of flesh and blood. Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these explorers were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts. For every human being who looks up at the heavens in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.” His voice raised to a triumphant crescendo at the end, shouting defiance in the face of a massive, alien world that had bested him.

Terry moved forward and knelt beside Karla. He looked down into her passive face and saw that she was calm. He breathed heavily and stood up, turning to John.

“What are you intending to do?”

John turned around and studied Halloway and the scene around him for a while.

“First, I am going to help you dig Karla’s grave. And then I am going away. I will travel south until I can’t travel any farther. I will collapse to my knees and with the last of my strength I will take off my helmet. This planet will kill me to my face, and I will be the first human to breathe the air of Mars.”

Terry nodded, and both of them walked back to the tent. Shovels were retrieved, and a grave was dug. Karla was laid to rest in the Martian soil, and the red dust was spilled back on top of her. When it was over, John walked over to Terry and put his hand on his shoulder. He didn’t say anything, he just gently let the other man know that he was there. He then turned around and faced into the night, away from the camp. As he began walking away, he turned and addressed Terry one last time.

“Keep on living for as long as you can. You have the supplies from both Karla and I, the last gifts the dead can give to the not-yet-dead. And when they finally run out, we will be waiting for you on the other side. Goodbye, Commander.”

Terry stood and watched as John faded into the distance. When his figure was out of sight, Terry turned around and walked to Karla’s rock. He sat down on it, staring at the camp and the equipment  that he had unpacked. Then he slid down the surface and stared up at the stars. He saw the streak of a shooting star tear through the sky and did not weep any longer. He just sat there, contemplating the void dotted with so many lights.

He was the strangest thing in the whole universe.

 

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