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Red Ball

Flying to Mars is easy. Landing there safely is a different story!

By Eric WolfPublished 2 years ago 6 min read
Red Ball
Photo by Nicolas Lobos on Unsplash

I don’t like my hand-me-down spacesuit. I don’t expect the Organization to tailor work clothes to employees' tastes, but at least they could have issued one that fits me. My predecessor is taller than I am, and somewhat skinny; these suits are adjustable, but it still takes a bit of elbow grease to yank the sleeves down and let out the waistline a tad. I’m difficult to satisfy — a sure sign of high intelligence, I believe.

I just hope my colleague enjoys the ever-present (but miniscule) possibility of melting to death, should she find herself crashing her bird. I mean, it’s Venus, after all, Earth’s infernal sister, the original “Morning Star”, where lead itself liquefies, on the surface; where the temperatures average four hundred sixty-four degrees Celsius!

Sounds nothing like Oklahoma, to me, but hell, if Jenn’s happy — and, hey, why wouldn’t she be? My problems are a literal world away from hers. I’m the one who remembers home, the aforementioned Sooner State, with every drop I do, every landing I stick, down on the Red Ball… and not because of the air; no one can breathe it and live. It’s more the wide-open spaces thing, if that helps you, and plus, nobody melts on such a chilly plain (as in minus sixty degrees Celsius). So, yeah: don’t crash, Jenny

I’m kidding, of course. She’ll never crash; she’s just that good. Almost as good a joystick jock as I am, if we’re being candid, which I am doing. My handle is Marjolaine, but everyone saves time by making it Marj. It’s a handle that fits me in a way my new spacesuit still doesn’t: “one letter different”, you know? For this Pawnee girl, the Red Road leads to other planets.

I asked my new colleague to “lend me a hand”, before we flew together that first time, and fortunately for me, an ass, he was not. Pilots don’t come more relaxed than Patrick Mwange. I like to ask him, when he’s studying the instrument board, if he’s asleep, and it makes him laugh. He’s had twenty-nine birthdays, six fewer than I’ve racked up, but even if our ages were reversed, I would call him kid, because he seems young, exuberant. I won’t look up to him, even though he’s a good 185.4 centimeters in height to my “mere" 141, unless I need to get his attention. I’m his “big sis”, and we work well together when he remembers that.

I hope that seeing Patrick in action — if you can see something so slow-moving — rubs off on our passenger. Daniel Zilberschlag has made it this far on what, I can only guess, must be sheer nerve, because he doesn’t seem too pleased to have to strap into his tube. I’ll try to see if I can figure out how he works, so if he’s the type to freak out, we can restrain him now, before we make landfall, but so far, I gather he's like these seasoned professionals; he’s behaving like one. It’s the reason he’s here — his profession, I mean. “I looked up your name, Doc, and it means ‘silver strike’ — is that what you’re hoping to find, down there, a thick vein of silver?”

“Better still, my friend,” he says, brightening up. “Water. You’ve got this Korolev Crater — that’s in Mare Boreum, ever been there? Eighty klicks, from side to side?”

“Sure have,” I tell him. “Got more water in that hole than they got up in the Great Bear Lake. That’s in the Northwest Territories. In Canada, I mean. Been there, too — for survival training, in case we have to set down some place, unexpectedly.” I must admit, his involuntary swallow is kind of cute. “Don’t really see that happening today,” I find it decent to add, because come on, he’s going to find out soon enough just how much fun this is.

We help Water Man into his landing tube, and he’s talking a blue streak all the while: “My thesis advisor, Doctor Morgenstern? I’m glad he’s lived long enough to see this day. He once bet me I’d never even leave the Earth, on account of how I’m not much for inconvenience, have to have my office and my routine just so. It’s going to be a wild day of discovery for him, too — and he’s not even here.”

Patrick’s already starting his pre-flight check at the starboard chair, but I can’t resist teasing Zilberschlag as I run my own systems check. “Might want to shut the upper casing on your tube, Doc. Ride could get a bit bumpy, if we hit some chop in the upper atmosphere.” I type in Morgenstern, during a gap in the fuel loading procedure, and I’m marveling at the definition my sleeve console offers — no lie, it means Morning Star! So, maybe his old professor, given this handle, would rather see him at Venus, with Jennifer? Well, tough luck, old dude; the Red Ball and I got him.

We cut all power feeds from Orbital Platform Two. Patrick gives just a brief burst of the maneuvering thrusters, and away we fly. The SBH-3 excursion module is a rough ride, for the uninitiated; it’s built for speed, as they say, not for comfort. The rusty horizon curves beneath our viewscreen; the darkness above it offers no comment, unless it’s something like, “I’m everywhere, and I’m in no hurry.” To starboard, a lump of rock we call Deimos edges out of the darkness, but our interest lies below our vehicle, not above it.

Then the SBH-3 encounters chop, and it’s an experience, people. Patrick is on top of it, no surprise there, explaining to the doc, “We’re entering the first loss of onboard signal now. We won’t be able to talk with Bradbury Settlement for about three, maybe four minutes.” Our ride’s aeroshell begins to glow, blazing from the intense heat. “Marjie,” he barks, “what’s our airspeed?”

I glance at the velocity gauge: pegging our descending airspeed at 19,443.2 kilometers per hour, I report, we’re doing our best meteor impersonation. I give Zilberschlag a grin. “I wonder if this is how it looked to the old-timers, back in 1833 — The year the stars fell, we call it in our oral tradition. Maybe my ancestors saw spaceships instead of Leonid meteors, who knows?”

The ship starts vibrating, as it picks up a spin. As the ship tries to rattle us all to pieces, the hydrologist, Zilberschlag, I got to hand it to him, gets off a real good line: “I-I-I’d lo-o-ove to b-b-be ab-b-ble t-t-to g-g-go b-b-a-ack a-a-and as-s-sk th-th-em.” Last I see of his face, he’s squeezing his eyes shut, mumbling what I guess is either a prayer, or a lot of swearing. Patrick and me? We’re having fun, trying to wrestle this beast into some sort of shape to come in for a smooth landing.

And then, it levels off, the rattling stops, consoles light up, with the chatter from a Bradbury ground crew, and the glow from our aeroshell fades out. A few more minutes later and we’re coming in, almost lazily, for the landing strip. I turn to face the doctor. “Hey, doc, the Pawnee have got some good stories. Did I ever tell you one about The Woman Who Became a Horse?”

His face lights up with genuine curiosity. “No, but I think, Marj, we’ve got the time, if you’re not too busy?” Now I know I like him. “Does the story end well?”

“It sure does,” I tell him, as my pinky finger hovers over the airbag release button. “As soon as she’s old enough, she becomes a pilot — working for the Global Space Organization. And she just does this,” and I punch that sucker. The airbags, all sixteen or so of them, deploy around the SBH-3, and we rush in, towards that sand, which should be reddish, but if you ask me, looks more like butterscotch at the moment. We hit the surface, we bounce into the air, we hit, we bounce, and so forth, until we roll to a stop. No dying, no reunion with Tirawa, Creator of all men, today, boys!

“Welcome to Mars, Doctor,” Patrick offers our relieved passenger.

“I want to kiss the ground, now that we’re on it,” Zilberschlag says.

This makes me smile, of course. I’m looking at both of them, and reveling that I get to do this for a living, bringing people to the Red Ball. I offer the doctor a helping hand and ask with a gleam in my eye, “So, Doc — when would you like to do this again? I think Wednesday’s free for me…”

© 2021 Eric Wolf.

[Join the Global Space Organization:]


About the Creator

Eric Wolf

Ink-slinger. Photo-grapher. Earth-ling. These are Stories of the Fantastic and the Mundane. Space, time, superheroes and shapeshifters. 'Wolf' thumbnail:

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