A colony on Mars, an alien creature, and a Marine who wants to stay alive.
NASA Space X Launch Facility, Kennedy Space Center
Cape Canaveral, Florida
You can't hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. Or do they know? Staring through the glass of my helmet a debate wages in my mind. It may be true. A scream may be silent in the vacuum of space. But is that silence only outside the screamers mouth. Is that same scream deafening inside the screamers head. Does the sound taken from the scream in the vacuum of space take away the fear or does it make the fear worse.
In the back of my mind an image keeps replaying. My mouth is open wide. My whole head is shaking in an attempt to scream. In front of me a certain death is closing the gap to where I am. The vacuum silencing my scream is sucking the air from my lungs. I keep trying harder to make any sound come from my aching throat thinking that will save me. Desperation grips me like a closing vice. I feel my breath running out. I know when the scream stops, I will be dead.
A chime on the four monitors mounted above the command module reassures me that all systems are nominal. My eyes scan over the life support readings at the bottom third of the screen furthest to my right. I think again of my scream being sucked from my vocal cords. I think of the fear and panic rushing through my body as the vacuum of space steals the sound.
Breaking the thought, I look back at the bank of monitors. Three months ago, each one would have been completely foreign to me. Filling my lungs with a breath meant to calm my chirping nerves, I ask a familiar question. How did I get here? The answer comes easy, unlike the debate over whether my screams would be heard in the vacuum of space. I am a Gung Ho Marine ready for anything my country needs. It is an answer I have given many times. Before every mission, every deployment, every moment of anticipatory fear. But for the first time the answer feels like a lie. I am not a Gung Ho Marine, not for this. I am not ready. My team is not ready. No one, not even a battle-hardened Marine could be ready for this.
A large part of me is ringing with alarm bells. The rest of me is living in denial to the fact that I am truly scared. Not scared in the familiar I'm going into battle kind of way, but scared in the horror movie, alien creature I've never seen before waiting in a settlement facility on the surface of Mars kind of way.
I have been scared before. Being scared is a part of a Marine's job. Nerves, fear they are something you learn to overcome as a combat soldier. This though, this is different. This is a new kind of fear. This is a fear of the utter unknown. There are no preparations, no trainings, no prior mission reports to prepare for this.
No Marine, no human, except for the Astronauts of Mars 1, who are all now dead as confirmed by the internal life monitoring systems imbedded in their suits, has ever faced. Aliens are a completely new landscape. Sweat beads on my forehead before running down the skin beside my ears giving me a slight tickle as each drop traces a path to the bottom of my helmet. Returning my eyes back to the first screen I check the pressure, temperature, Oxygen, and Carbon dioxide levels. Seeing the correct readings for each one does nothing to calm the storm of unease inside me. My eyes move to the other screens. One by one I take in the readings that monitor the different systems of the Starship that will take me to Mars.
The thrusters are acting as they should. All systems are nominal with zero alarms registering. I should be confident. Everything is going exactly the way the instructors who have trained me to fly this rocket have said they should. But nothing feels right. Everything feels wrong. In my mind I hear Captain Heather Rodgers speaking in the front of us in the classroom next to the training module. You can't hear a scream in the vacuum of space. Her words repeat themselves. Panic rises up one more time from the center of my chest and suddenly I want to scream. I want to get out of the rocket surrounding me. I want to forget I ever heard of the SpaceX SN59 Starship. I want to forget what I heard on the last transmissions from the Mars 1 team. I want to go back in time and never agree to be a part of the Mars 2 team.
The image of my mouth stretched open in a scream that produces no sound flashes again in my mind. I close my eyes and try to clear my head. Instead of creating an empty blank slate I think of the settlement a hundred and forty million miles away. The final resting place for the Mars 1 astronauts. Screams in the vacuum of space may not be able to be heard, but the screams from inside the Colony 1 Mars Settlement Facility were not silent. They were louder than anything I ever want to hear again. Those last communications. The last transmissions of the Mars 1 team are seared into my brain.
Even here in this chair waiting to be launched into space I can still hear their loud piercing cries of terror. But their screams weren't the worst part. What came after their screams was worse. The low guttural sound coming from the throat of an alien creature. The sound of claws scrapping across metal flooring. The sound of things being thrown, of things being crashed into. The sound of growls from an alien chest. And the sound of something I wish I could forget. Something I have tried everything to forget. The sound of what I can only describe as human flesh being ripped apart.
I have been haunted by what I heard on the Mars 1 transmissions since the very first time the communications were played for me. I haven't fully slept in two months. Every time I close my eyes, I see Captain Rodgers pressing play on the digital recorder inside the Top-Secret Briefing room. I wake up hearing their screams, hearing their lives end. I go to bed thinking of their fate, thinking of what my fate will be. I have heard death before. But I have never heard anything like what happened to the Mars 1 team.
What came from those transmissions, the astronaut's screams, the growls of an alien creature, they are the reason a team of Marsoc Raiders from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune were trained to fly a SpaceX Starship SN59 back to the Red Planet and not another team of Astronauts. The creature that attacked the Mars 1 Colony Facility will and should be met with a team of the nation's best soldiers. The government has decided that this return mission is not a scientific or exploratory one. This is a kill mission. If we fail. If we die. The next Starship the government sends to Mars will be carrying a nuclear payload.
The voice of Mission control sounds in my ear- "T-minus 30 seconds." The three Raptor engines below are already combusting a mixture of liquid Methane and liquid Oxygen. There is no time left. There is no place to go. Even if I released the safety harness strapping me to the seat the doors of Starship won't open again until we land on the Red Planet's surface. I am going to Mars. I am going to face what the Astronauts that comprised the Mars 1 team faced. The instinctual voice that everyone has within them is shouting loudly inside my mind that I will not live to see Earth again. Deep down I know, none of the thirteen soldiers with me or the scientist they insisted on sending with us will ever make it back from Mars.
Heat rises up from the Raptor engines as they fire to life filtering all the way through the vertically staged Starship and into my suit warming my skin. The heat reminds me of the Saturday afternoon that sealed my fate. Pushing open the glass doors of the Gold's Gym where I made my second home. The rays of the hot North Carolina sun spreading across my shoulders. My legs moving like rubber underneath me. The memory of endless sets of hack squats and deadlifts still fresh in my mind. Stepping away from the sidewalk and onto the pavement of the parking lot I move toward my truck. A plain looking sedan the kind you can tell right away is government, sitting with its engine running catches my eye.
Three men are inside the car. I observe their dress uniforms before they even open their doors to get out. The fact that they're wearing Space Force uniforms surprises me. It's the first time I've seen one in person. It's also the first time I've seen three uniforms standing together with stars above their shoulders.
I move to walk past them thinking they're here for someone else. But as I move to go around them, they step in unison into my path. I stop the movement of my feet, half in disbelief, half in realization. There's no mistaking it. They're here for me. A smile I can't help makes it halfway across my face before I can squash it and silence the slight chuckle already forming in my throat. There's no stopping the thought that the situation I've just walked into is a bit amusing and inside I give that smile I pushed from my lips. Of all the things I thought I would do in the Marines I never thought any of it would involve Space Force. Somebody has to be playing a trick on me, the words pop into my head with all the fanfare of an ah-hah moment. I almost convince myself their true when the officer in the middle steps forward and asks.
"Master Seargent Raymond Williams?" I met his eyes with my own.
"Marine, we need you to come with us. We need to speak about a sensitive matter that cannot be discussed in the open." That was it, my life was forever changed. I got in the back of the sedan with them and was on my way to a SCIF on base to be given a top-secret briefing. An hour later I was packing my bags for the Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas to learn how to pilot a SpaceX SN59 Starship before I would head to the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to make final preparations before I would sit in the seat where I am now waiting to be launched into space from launch pad 39 at the Kennedy Space Center.
I'd heard about the Mars 1 mission. Everyone had heard about the mission to send Astronauts to live on the surface of Mars. Every newspaper, every news channel had run stories about the mission almost every day. You couldn't scroll through social media without coming across it. You couldn't watch Late Nite TV without the host making a bad joke about it.
"Astronauts are going to be the first ones to live in space. And not in a space station floating in orbit. They're actually going to live on another planet's surface. Mars can you believe it." The host pauses. "And you know Donald Trump is rolling over in his grave just to take credit for the mission and blame democrats for not making it happen sooner".... then comes the host's inevitable impression of the former President "It's going to be great. It should've been great a long time ago, but It's going to be great now. No other President could have done it. But now we're going to live in Space. It's going to be fantastic. The Democrats don't want you to live in space, but I do". The end of the impression as always is drowned out by laughter and applause.
The Mars 1 team left Earth on July 2, 2047, two days before Independence Day. The entire world stopped to watch their ascent into the heavens when it happened. Every broadcast, cable, and streaming channel carried the launch live. The collective thought of the anchors and pundits filling the air waves was that we were moving into an exciting new chapter of our history. A landmark in the story of the Human Race.
Their story. The story of the Mars 1 team didn't begin with the launch from The SpaceX NASA launch facility at the Kennedy Space Center. The beginning of their journey began twenty-seven years before when MRP or the Mars Rover Perseverance landed on the red planet in the hopes of finding signs of life or the possibility for humans to live there.
For years NASA's Mars Exploration Program studied the images and videos delivered from Perseverance closely even posted them on their website and tweeted them out for the whole world to see. But after years of the rover delivering only images of rocks and not finding any signs of life or the possibility for Humans to live on the planet the part of the Mars Exploration Program responsible for the rover was relocated to a storage building in the back lot of the NASA Ames Research Center in California and largely forgotten. Until an intern assigned to sit at the only desk in a building filled with two decades worth of images stored in boxes received a new image from the antique rover that changed everything.
The computer resting on the grainy surface of the desk made a buzzing noise and the monitor above it came to life marking the start of a new image. The intern, an undergrad student from the University of Houston named Ryan, barely noticed. He despised every minute he spent at the desk he and his fellow interns had not so affectionately dubbed mission control. He knew he probably wasn't going to be here when the time the image finished downloading. Brian the intern from Stanford, who actually thought this job mattered would be.
Even if the image did finally make it fully onto the screen and the icon showing the image was ready for printing, popped up he was still going leave it for Brian. Brian loved having "important" work to do. Reclining back, he took a bite of the sub he had brought in with him and cracked open one of the beers, he'd have to remember to get rid of before Brian came in. Turning up the music coming from his Air Pods, he let himself forget about the slow-moving image.
The internal program inside the Perseverance that sent images from the rover back to Earth had started to glitch a decade ago and now a single image could take as much as a day to fully appear on the screen. Finishing the sub, he wadded the paper it came in into a ball and tossed it with the all the form of an NBA jump shot toward a waste basket standing at the side of the desk. He felt a twinge of disappointment when the paper bounced off the edge of the basket and landed on the floor. Picking up the beer he gulped down the last of the liquid and decided to open another reminding himself again to get rid of the cans and start chewing gum at least a half hour before Brian would arrive. Dropping the empty beer can in the waste basket he leaned forward in the chair and picked the wadded sub paper off the floor. As he straightened back up, he looked at monitor screen on the desk to check the progress of the image almost as an afterthought. A moment later he was picking himself up off the floor after falling back out of the chair. Standing he put his hands on the front of the desk to steady himself. On the screen coming in pixel by pixel was the clear blue image of a large body of water on the surface of Mars.
"T-minus 15". I hate the voice. I never hated it when I was in training, but I hate it now. I would give anything to get it out of my head. But strapped into the captain's chair waiting for lift off there's no stopping the voice from erupting into my ear. I wish I had ripped the speaker from the side of my helmet before I put it on. I wish that fucking rover Perseverance hadn't found any water. "T-minus 14." I brace myself. It's time to steady for the mission. "Fear is for before you get off whatever takes you there. Once your boot hits the ground its go time, Marine!". That was the favorite saying of my Gunnery Seargent Hank Rollins, when I went through the Individual Training Course for Marsoc. It was true every time Seargent said it and it's still true now, I tell myself.
I make a final decision to push away the fear. It's time to get my mind right. The rumble from the Raptor engines reverberates all the way through my body. "T-minus 13" I think of Rebecca and the shoreline of Virginia Beach. I think of the night we spent laying on the sand listening to the waves break against the shore. I think of my home in Pennsylvania, of growing up between rows of corn. I think of the sound of my grandpa's tractor and the smell of the barn after a day of bailing hay. I think of late-night bonfires. Of beers with friends. I think of my Parents watching me from the stands at Camp Lejeune at my graduation. I think of the taste of Rebecca's lips. Of how her skin feels against mine.
"T-minus 9". My body tenses. I take in a deep breath and slowly force my body to relax. I take hold of the fear accepting it, living inside it. "T-minus 8". I think of the other thought. The inevitable thought. Rebecca is gone. I ate lunch in a mess hall while she lay dying in the back of an ambulance. A truck driver missed a stop sign never slowing down before he slammed into her car. She took her last breaths on a gurney surrounded by strangers, and I ate two chicken breasts with white rice. "4" I come back to reality and focus, its go time "3". The rumble coming from below is deafening. " 2" An image of the Space Shuttle Challenger flashes into my mind "1". The entire Earth starts to shake below me. "Liftoff!"
My body slams back against the seat. The force of the G's pinning me to my seat are incredible. In my mind I hear Space Commander Tom Roberts at The Johnson Space Center asking me "If I liked getting squashed by the Gorilla?" every time I stepped from the SpaceX NAV9 Launch Training Module. In my mind I give myself the same answer I gave Commander Roberts every time. "Love it sir, would love some more."
About the Creator
The Invisible Writer
"Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words."
Writing is a gift we give ourselves to share with the world.
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