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A Passage to Nowhere

A Martian Mystery

By JPPublished 3 years ago 15 min read
A Passage to Nowhere
Photo by Daniele Colucci on Unsplash

Commander Dana West clutched the armrests of her chair as her space vehicle flew into the thin Martian atmosphere. An onboard AI system controlled the space vehicle, better known as the SPV. The SPV shook violently as it fell towards Mars at 15000 miles per hour. Dana kept her eyes closed and prayed that if the SPV did malfunction, that her death would be a quick one. She suddenly remembered that she had a silver locket her mother gave her. It was lodged in her flight suit pocket. Inside the locket was a tiny painting of Saint Christopher. It had always given her comfort. Dana offered up a short prayer.

Mission Control decided 24 hours ago that Dana would fly down to the Martian surface and see exactly what was happening with her fellow astronauts. Team Alpha, as it was called, landed on Mars almost 48 hours prior, but had gone offline the previous day. The last communication was with Captain Lang, the Chinese scientist and mission commander. They were about to explore a cave, which had been chosen to be the home for future missions. Since entering the cave, the four-person team had been incommunicado. Mission Control speculated that either the exploration team had gotten lost, or perhaps suffered from a calamitous series of equipment failures. To Dana, neither seemed possible. Captain Lang was no fool. If anything, she was overly cautious. Her second in command, Dr Brendon D’Arcy, was an engineering prodigy. Dana admitted to herself many times, that she was jealous of his abilities to work miracles while under pressure. Between Lang and D’Arcy, it was highly unlikely that human error was involved. Dana began lobbying Mission Control to let her travel to the Martian surface and get a first-hand account. Mission Control said, No. The pre-planned protocol was simple: In the cases of a catastrophic failure of the ground team, Dana would fly the Martian Command Ship back towards earth and the base station, Atlantis. Dana argued that they must break protocol. Leaving her comrades behind was unthinkable. Fuck protocol, she argued. For the next several hours a debate raged. Finally, her direct supervisor, General Clayton informed her that Mission Control came around to her thinking. Leaving her team behind would be a PR Disaster. She was to proceed via the SPV. But once there, Dana was to follow Mission Control’s orders explicitly.

The SPV stabilized and began to rapidly decelerate. Dana opened her eyes and looked at her control panel. She was still fifty thousand feet above ground. Dana looked at the monitor. The SPV was one hundred kilometers south of the Team Alpha’s position. All the SPV systems were at 100% operational. The tiny vehicle responded perfectly to the AI system’s controls. Within two minutes the SPV began an orbit above Team Alpha’s camp before finding a landing site fifty meters away from the main landing vehicle, or better known as the MLV. Dana checked her suit and helmet. The temperature outside was nearly 20 degrees below freezing. A light but steady easterly wind prevailed. Her environmental suit maintained a healthy air pressure and temperature. The CO2 level was in the safe zone. The SPV released her harness, and her main hatch opened. Dana spoke into her mic, “The SPV made a safe landing at Team Alpha’s camp at 2100 Zulu. All my telemetry data has been transmitted. I am now on my way to the MLV. Commander West, out.”

Dana stepped down the ladder and she became only the fifth person to walk on Mars. She turned a full 360 degrees and took in her surroundings. The MLV stood only fifty meters due south. But distant mountains surrounded the large valley which Alpha Team had landed. 400 meters due west stood a rocky hill. Dana could see the large entrance of the cave, which sat at the base of a hill. Dana looked up at the Sun, which appeared no larger than a large milky star. It lay behind a thin layer of haze. The ground was a combination of red powder and rocks. Rocks lay everywhere. Dana took in her breath. The one word that came to her mind was: Desolate. She never felt so alone in her life.

The walk to the MLV was taxing. It would take Dana time to acclimate to the Martian gravity after spending months near zero gravity. She felt a little sluggish, and her respiration increased. She was winded by the time she got to the MLV. Slowly, Dana climbed the steps, and punched in a code, which opened the outer hatch. The door closed behind her, and the chamber pressurized slowly. Five minutes later, the door to the interior opened. Automatically, the lights turned on. Dana could also hear the pumps of the air unit and heating system. Dana checked the cabin and pressure and temperature before removing her helmet and space suit.

The entire ship was immaculate. Captain Lang was a stickler about sanitation and order. It didn’t surprise Dana in the least bit that Team Alpha departed with their craft in spic and span order. Dana went to the flight deck, where Lang kept a copy of her flight logs. She sat down and read through them. Nothing unusual was noted, other than a couple of the crew members complaining of nightmares. Medical Doctor Fatima Hassan, and D’Arcy both reported dreams. Neither of them could remember the details, but their biometric data confirmed that they didn’t have a good night’s sleep. Their preparations to enter the cave were made a week before on the command craft, or mothership as it was called. The rover had been loaded with rations, scientific equipment, special communications equipment, medical supplies, and camping gear.

The mission for Team Alpha was to assess whether Cave 55A (as it was called) could sustain life. The sensing equipment would be set-up to measure radioactivity and atmospheric conditions. Alpha Team was commanded not to travel too deep into the cave. This was to be the first of many planning missions. Humans could not survive long term exposure to solar radiation on the surface. Mars had no magnetic field to protect it from solar radiation. And without a magnetic field, no atmosphere could take hold. For now, if humans were to live on Mars, it would be below ground. The only question was: Where?

Outside the MLV were six high-definition wireless cameras. Dana checked out footage, which showed the crew lowering the rover and then driving off to the cave. It was during their trek to the cave that Captain Lang sent her last update. The cams picked up nothing unusual. And the crew obviously was in good spirits. Dana adjusted the video feed and observed the close-up of the rover entering the cave and disappearing into its darkness.

Dana picked up the headphones from the flight deck’s main console. She punched in Mission Control’s number and gave she a brief update.

They were all warned how quick the sun sets on Mars. Dana was checking the system logs, when she looked up and saw that it was completely dark outside. However, the light of distant stars easily penetrated the Martian haze. She checked the outside cameras and sensors. The temperature fell quickly to -40 deg F. It would go much lower before sunrise. The cameras showed nothing but the dark Martian landscape. Dana went into the galley and ate her nutrient bar, and she drank her required amount of water. Mission Control acknowledged her report and ordered her to find a cot and get some rest.

Dana slept fitfully. She woke twice from dreams; dreams she could not quite remember. Visions of wheat and corn fields lingered in her mind. She also remembered a large white farmhouse and barn. Why would she dream of that? She was born and raised in San Diego. Dana remembered driving through the Great Plains with her ex-husband. That was 20 years ago, when they both had transferred to Norfolk Virginia. That was the only time she could remember seeing such sights. Mission Control contacted her and ordered her to take a mild sedative. Dana complied and took a magnesium pill. She didn’t wake again for 6 hours.

After breakfast, Dana made her preparations. Mission Control recommended she take the small land rover, instead of hiking to the cave. Dana didn’t argue. It would take weeks for her body to regain its muscle. The MLV had several pre-packed kits, which contained everything from rations, water, spare batteries, medical supplies, and tools. The rover was equipped with a communication device, which remained linked with a low orbiting satellite. Dana connected her blue-tooth earbuds and throat mic. She completed the checklist and communication tests. Everything was fine. She felt the locket in her flight suit pocket and smiled.

By mid-morning, Dana was again outside. She opened the exterior control box and punched in the commands to lower the small land rover. Like the previous day, the sun hid behind a thick layer of haze. The desolate landscape made Dana feel uneasy. Dana had always been a loner, but right now she missed her crewmembers. Looking at the distant, lifeless horizon finally hit home, just how alone she was. She needed to find her crewmates. But something at the back of her mind told her that they were gone. Two and a half days with no contact. Dana was pessimistic.

The rover started right up. All the systems checked out fine. She put her kit in the back and did a final comm check with the satellite link. Everything was 5 by 5.

Dana was surprised how well the suspension worked on the small rover. The ground was littered with rocks and stones. Where it was clear of rocks, the ground was full of potholes. Like the spacecraft, an onboard computer wired with sensors and controlled by AI did most of the driving. As they drove closer to the hill, the details came into place. Like everything else, the hill was made up of red sandstone. Dana spotted several places where meteors crashed into it. The hill was pockmarked with such craters. The rover changed direction to the south, where the cave opening came into view.

Something bothered Dana as she approached the cave opening. She looked to her left and right. Dana hit the brakes of the rover and got out. She was about 100 feet from the opening. She walked a wide circle around the rover, and then she looked at the ground in front of the cave opening. She shook her head, before speaking into her mic. “Mission Control, this is Commander West. I’ve stopped in front of the cave entrance. I’ve observed no tire tracks from the MLV’s large rover. I see no evidence that Team Alpha’s crew ever entered the cave. Please advise. Was there bad weather before I landed? Did a windstorm blow the tracks away?”

Dana got back into her rover and waited for a response. It would take 8 minutes for Mission Control to receive her message. And another 8 minutes for their response.

Twenty minutes later came a response. “Commander West, Mission Control. Don’t be alarmed by lack of tire tracks. Martian soil is very fine. Even a light wind will blow away the tire tracks. We both saw the video of Team Alpha entering the cave via the rover. Proceed as planned. Make sure you erect the wireless base station correctly before entering the cave. Do a comms check before proceeding.”

While Dana prepared for this mission, Mission Control added a change. To make sure Dana kept a constant link with the satellite, she would set-up the comms antenna before entering the cave. Team Alpha had entered the cave first, before erecting the antenna. The antenna served as a bridge with the rover’s comm system, as well as keeping a constant link with the orbiting satellite. Mission Control didn’t want a repeat of Team Alpha’s comm interruption.

Dana drove to the cave opening and removed the antenna assembly. She powered it up, and automatically the small satellite dish adjusted its position to the correct azimuth and elevation. The satellite was geostationary. The high-performance lithium battery had a 72-hour life span and a solar panel to charge it. After testing the link, she hopped back into her rover and started it. She turned-on the LCD lights, and slowly proceeded into the cave.

“Mission Control, Commander West. I’m entering the cave. I will proceed for 50 meters and then I’ll do a comms check.”

Three years ago, during mission surveying the Space Agency discovered this cave. An unmanned vehicle launched a drone inside and it spent two hours doing video and surveillance. It’s sensor also measured the cave caverns’ size, and depth. Alpha Team didn’t enter the cave blind. Like Dana now, they had all the cave’s dimension digitally recorded and available on their monitors in 3D. After 50 meters, Dana stopped the vehicle. She would proceed on foot until Mission Control replied. Like before, Dana didn’t spot any physical signs that Team Alpha was ever here. Unlike outside, there was no wind. She should have been able to spot not only the rover’s tire tracks, but her team’s individual footprints, as well. Dana returned to the Rover and waited. She made sure the spotlights were lit. She wanted Mission Control to see what she could see. Or better yet. What she couldn’t see. It was as if Team Alpha never ventured inside the cave.

Dana was about to unpack her kit, when she noticed she could no longer see outside the cave. As a matter of fact, she couldn’t see the cave entrance at all. “What the Hell?” She walked towards the entrance and stopped mid-stride. The reason she couldn’t see the entrance was because the cave opening was completely black. She resumed her walk and stopped at the opening. Instead of the late morning sunlight illuminating the Martian landscape, she literally saw nothing. The cave entrance opened to pitch blackness.

Dana ran back to her rover and checked her link to the satellite antenna she had set up before entering the cave. The display showed that the link was down. How could that be? Dana began to panic. She spoke into her mic, “Mission Control, Commander West. Please respond.” She returned to the cave’s entrance and raised her hand, as if to touch the blackness. For an unknown reason, she pulled her hand back. Dana checked the time. It had been 30 minutes since she transmitted her first communication to Mission Control. They were long overdue for a response. Dana returned to her rover and sat down, and she began to weep.

Whether it was the shock of her new situation of being trapped into the cave, exhaustion, or anxiety, Dana fell asleep. She dreamt again of fields of ripe wheat, corn fields and green meadows. She could hear a voice calling. An older woman’s voice.

Dana awoke abruptly. She checked her watch. She had been asleep for nearly 10 hours. She checked her oxygen supply. It was down to 50%. And the CO2 levels increased to 6000 parts per million. Shit. The CO2 should have registered no higher than 1000 ppm. The CO2 levels were halfway to 12000ppm. If it went up much higher beyond that, she would die.

Another problem Dana discovered was that the rover’s batteries were down to 35%. She had left the flood lights on for 10 hours while she slept. She checked her comm logs. No calls or messages from Mission Control. Dana got up and walked to the cave entrance. She felt groggy, and fatigued, despite her long nap. Was it the sudden surge of CO2 trapped inside her suit? She didn’t know. But one thing she realized was that she was going to die soon if she could not return to the MLV. Dana stopped at the cave’s entrance. As she investigated the darkness of the entrance (or was it an exit?), Dana wondered if she was looking at literally nothing? Is this what anti-matter looks like? She stood at the entrance as if hypnotized. What if she just walked into it? She was going to be dead soon, anyway. She looked behind at the rover and its fading flood lights, and then she stared at the darkness and walked into it.

The early morning sun beamed brightly into Mellissa’s bedroom window. Her mother shouted from downstairs, “Missy, wake-up! School starts in an hour, and your father has the truck! You will have to walk!”

Melissa opened her eyes. She felt exhausted. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and sat-up. The remains of a vivid dream rapidly dissolved into just a faint feeling. As Mellissa quickly dressed, she mouthed the name, Dana. Something about that name seemed oddly familiar. It had to do with her dream, which now seemed so remote. Melissa looked out her bedroom window and looked at the fields of wheat and corn, which surrounded their farm. She felt happy. The Sun continued to rise from the southeast sky, and a pleasant breeze blew through her window.

“Missy! I’m not going to tell you again. Get down her. Your eggs are getting cold!”

Melissa smiled, “I will be right down, Ma.” Missy picked up her schoolbooks. She had Algebra first hour, followed by English. From the living room radio, she could hear the local news reporter say something about the Battle of Monte Casino in Italy. The Republican Primary was over, and it looked like Dewy would be the winner.

She left her room and shut the door not noticing a silver locket sitting on her nightstand. It lay open to an image of St Christopher. A light coating of red dust covered it.

Sci Fi

About the Creator


I live and write somewhere in the US

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