Chapter VI: The Last Trial
by Rich Reifsnyder
"Blake," said Cynthia at MC, "by our calculations, this will be the last transmission you receive before you encounter atmospheric effects. We’ll be monitoring your progress, but you’re on your own. Remember to look at the flight plan at all times and be ready for manual corrections if an engine fails."
"Thanks, Control. Blake out."
The 0.05-G light came on as the vessel hit the upper atmosphere. Blake heard rattling; he heard the thin metal groan and creak as the ship warmed up. His teeth jarred and rattled until he thought his skull would shatter. He was sweating bullets as the cabin temperature reached 30 degrees Centigrade. His arms felt flimsy as deceleration reached three gravities.
Numbers flashed on his screen: altitude and velocity figures. The capsule had deployed three solid-fueled beacon landers a month earlier; only one had survived the descent.
Explosive bolts fired; the heat shield fell away. The landing legs stretched and locked into place. He was still pressed into his seat by air drag. He couldn’t see a thing: a dust storm had kicked in and his visibility was zero. All he had were the flashing green numbers on his screen. He waited for the engines to fire.
At twenty kilometers he heard a pop. The engines had fired, but instantly died. He panicked. Had the engines failed? He was plummeting to the surface!
He flipped the manual engine-firing switches. Only one of the six engines had failed; the rest were at full throttle.
But now the graphic of the landing profile had switched off. The ship was no longer flying on automatic. Somehow he had to land the capsule manually, using the flight plan.
Shivering from stress, he flipped through the flight book to the landing profile for five engines. Beside the illustration was a long list of tiny figures for the ideal position and velocity every fifteen seconds; his gaze darted between this list and the beacon transmissions. One hand gripped the steering column with enough pressure to rupture his veins as he nudged the stick up to fire the maneuvering thrusters.
Another engine cut off; he flipped through to find the revised flight plan in case of engine cutoff in mid-flight. At five hundred meters up, his fuel reserves were less than ten percent.
He glanced at the radar map compiled by the beacon during its descent. Directly beneath him he saw an unusual shadow. Was it a boulder? It looked big enough to overturn even his large capsule. It was directly beneath him; he was now firing thrusters vertically. His aching teeth were now chattering from fear.
He decided he couldn’t risk landing on top of that thing. He nudged the stick to one side, tilting the capsule ten degrees and accelerating it to one side. In a slow, fluid S-motion he tilted the capsule back, then straightened it out. Once again, the craft was vertical.
At an altitude of ten meters the fuel ran out and the engines sputtered and died. Blake’s frail vessel plummeted and struck the sandy surface at fifteen meters per second. Blake’s neck twisted uncomfortably and he acquired a splitting headache. The sound of the crash echoed endlessly in his head.
His vision blurring, his heart fluttering, he looked around. Through the windshield was a deep pink sky clouded with dust. He tried to sit up but his arms turned to jelly; he had to wrap his hands around the ceiling handgrips and lift himself to a sitting position. The storm already seemed to be clearing up, and he could see a plain of reddish sand dotted with large rocks. In the distance was the dark silhouette of a rocky outcropping.
His eyes flooded with tears. After three years of dreaming and planning and six months of mind-numbing isolation and cold, bleak, infinite space, he had finally touched down on another world and lived to tell about it.
He got himself to his feet, supporting himself on the cabin walls the whole way. He wasn’t just weak in the knees due to six months of weightlessness; he was thrilled to the point of fainting. Immediately he donned his spacesuit, depressurized the cabin, and stepped outside.
He looked down at his boot in front of him, pressed into the regolith. He knew that this would be his home, all of it, and he would have the rest of his life to enjoy it. He would never return to Earth, and he didn’t know whether he would survive for many decades on the resources of Mars or die within a year, but it wouldn’t matter. It would be a life he would never regret.
He sank to his knees, lowered his head to the ground, and wept with joy.