Part Nine: Mission to Mars II
The characters in this book are fictitious.
Any similarity to real persons is coincidental and not intended by the author.
2011 – 2016^©^ by Vincent Pet
All Rights Reserved.
No parts of this book may be reproduced without express written permission of the publisher.
“I don’t know. I mean, why couldn’t Bobby come with us? What’s so important that he had to leave for New York when we had this day planned out for weeks?”
“I’m sure there’s a good reason.”
Brad listened to the two girls’ animated voices as they lay under the umbrella. His attention was focused elsewhere, a fair distance away from where he stood. Two Presidential security guards were calmly explaining to an imposing man that he couldn’t come to this side of the beach. The stranger didn’t seem to take it well and was becoming quite agitated. A child, a little younger than Sarah, stood at his side.
“This time there’s no justification! In a few weeks the mission blasts off to Mars and as far as I’m concerned, he can stay there and… and find himself a Martian gal! Brad? You hear that? Don’t bring him back! Leave him behind!”
Sarah crouched at Brad’s feet. She tightly clutched in her hand the pretty sea shell she’d just uncovered. She suddenly straightened up and slapped him on his thigh. She pointed to the group in the near distant.
“Daddy, why is that man angry?”
Brad turned his torso slightly towards the umbrella.
“Are you listening, Brad?”
“Your friend… Bobby, remember him? What’s he doing in New York? Who is it now? That model in that suntan commercial? He can’t stop talking about her!”
“What do you mean – which girl in the suntan commercial?”
Sarah was tugging his hand. “Daddy, let’s go see!”
The beach volleyball that his sons were tossing around flew over the umbrellas.
“Come on, Brad. Don’t play dumb on me!”
“Hmm? Play dumb? Jess, I…”
“Come on, daddy!” Sarah urged.
Dora stepped in. “Does he have a new girl, Brad? That’s what Jessica wants to know!”
Brad glanced at Dora. She seemed a little miffed at that moment as she took her best friend’s side. She lifted herself slightly up on her elbows and dropped her shades an inch. Her blue eyes were simply mesmerizing and his heart skipped a beat.
“Why are you always protecting him, Brad?”
“Dora, you too? I’m not protecting Bobby!”
Brad turned around as Sarah let go of him and started dashing towards the group. Brad hesitated, about to follow Sarah, before glancing back at Jessica.
“Trust me, Jess. He’ll be back by tonight. Isn’t he bringing you to that high end, fancy diner where all those famous stars go to? He’s been planning this evening for weeks! I know how important tonight is for him. He’ll be back.”
“I don’t want to go anymore! Not with him! Anyway, I just met someone last week who seems very intriguing. I’ll call him up and take up his offer to go out with him.”
“Oh, you never told me this! Who is he?” interjected Dora, flashing her curiosity.
“He’s a high level, finance executive. Wall Street gang. Can’t remember his last name, but it’s Allan something.”
“Allan…” muttered Brad under his breath. “Never liked that name.”
He sighed. What could he tell her? That Bobby had flown to New York to buy her an engagement ring? That Bobby was about to propose tonight? At the restaurant? Truth be said, Brad couldn’t believe it either. Bobby was finally tying the knot with Jessica. Whoever would have thought?
The two girls continued to chat as Brad finally started to follow Sarah.
“And you want to know what else? He’s always bringing up this Samantha Mikado when we’re together. He just can’t stop talking about her! If it’s not one, it’s the other! How can I trust him?”
Jessica made a sharp comment which Brad missed as their giggles reached his ears.
Dora tried to be reassuring, but it seemed more like a smug remark meant for him. In fact, his wife’s tone was one notch higher just so that he couldn’t miss hearing her words.
“Brad will captain the mission to Mars. He’ll keep an eye on the two. I’ll write it in his daily checklist. If something happens, no more apple pies… anyways, he needs to lose a couple of pounds.”
Their words were soon lost as they ebbed out between the sounds of the waves and the steady, salty wind blowing strong over his body. His wife’s voice faded away with every step he took.
Sarah had already reached the group and was staring at the boy. Brad assumed the child was the man’s son. She held out her bright seashell and he inched forward, peering at it with intensity. His eyes widened in wonder and Sarah’s lips spread into a big, sunny smile.
“That’s way cool!” the boy exclaimed. “Where did you find it?”
Sarah pointed behind her. “There!”
The Presidential bodyguards greeted Brad as he reached them. The stranger noticed Brad approaching and turned towards him. He was a burly man – hard set eyes with an unpleasant smirk on his face. He held a badge in his hand. He had been flaunting it at the two secret service agents. Brad recognized the FBI crest on the badge.
“May I help you?” Brad asked, briefly flicking his eyes on Sarah who had instinctively grabbed the boy’s hand.
The man rudely waved his credentials under Brad’s eyes.
“FBI! Tell your men to let me through!”
“Sir, as we explained, you have to go back and take the first trail leading up. After a few hundred yards, you’ll find a dirt road looping over…”
The man sneered. “I know all that! I’ve been coming here for years! I don’t know why I have to walk fifteen more minutes to get to my car! This is public property and you have no right to block this beach! No right at all!”
Brad was about to speak, but the guard continued to spar with the man. Brad’s attention turned to the two children who had wandered a few feet away. The boy was admiring the sea shell as Sarah held it up over his head.
“I’ll ask my dad to take a picture,” Sarah told the boy. “Do you like sea shells?”
The boy eagerly nodded.
“You do know that we are protecting the President of the United States of America, right?”
Brad turned his gaze back on the men standing next to him.
“Of course I know who these people are!” the stranger snarled back.
By the way he spoke, Brad deduced that the FBI agent was not a fan of his wife.
“You voted for the other candidate?” Brad innocently asked, not meaning to incite, even if the stranger took it as a provocation.
“Of course I did!” the man snapped with an arrogant tone.
Brad turned to the guards.
“Shall we detain him, sir?”
The shocked man’s face turned livid and white at once.
“In front of my son? But… but, I’m FBI!”
Brad placed a hand on the man’s shoulders in a friendly gesture. He could tell that the individual was extremely proud to be part of the government and didn’t intend to make his request sound as if he was asking for a privilege even if it could be misinterpreted as such.
“The agent’s right,” Brad acknowledged as he turned to the two bodyguards.
“Let him through. The beach is for everyone.”
The sun is for everyone. The ocean is for everyone. The world is for everyone.
The stranger was momentarily surprised, but relieved. He nodded at Brad and extended his arm.
“Walter Bonk is my name.”
Brad shook his hand, appreciating the gesture.
At that moment, Sarah ran gleefully up to Brad with the boy devotedly following on her heels.
“Daddy! Can Andrew come home with us? He’s never been on a helicopter!”
Brad smiled. Walter took his son by the hand and started to walk ahead with one of the secret service agents accompanying him a step behind. Brad grabbed his daughter and wrapped her around his broad shoulders. She bounced on him, excited, as she held her sea shell towards the sky. Then she grabbed his hair with her free hand and hunched down over him.
“Daddy, how did you meet mommy?”
Now where did that question pop from?
There was another moment of silence.
“I like Andrew. A lot, daddy.”
“I’m glad you do, princess,” Brad answered as he lazily strolled back towards the couple of oversized umbrellas.
Brad reached the nearest umbrella and dropped Sarah down. She ran off to join her brothers. He found Dora reading a book while Jessica was taking a dip in the ocean.
“What was that about?” Dora asked.
Brad shrugged. “Nothing, really. Some guy who didn’t vote for you. That’s all.”
She stopped reading. “That’s all? Did you ask him why?”
Brad amusingly looked down at her. “Maybe we should invite him over and let him taste that famous apple pie of yours. That might change his mind. Sarah would sure like that too. She seems to have struck up quite a liking with his boy. Furthermore, didn’t you tell me I had to lose a few pounds?”
Dora sighed and slightly shook her head and turned her attention back to her novel. Then, out of nowhere, she suddenly shut her book hard. It made quite a whacking sound.
Brad jumped. “What…!”
Dora was looking directly at her husband. Her tone wavered. “Brad… promise me something.”
Brad was surprised at the warm hue of her voice as it wrapped his mind. Her warm, beautiful eyes momentarily made his knees go weak. They sparkled with the rare intensity of special moments.
“Promise me…,” Dora said, her words barely audible, “that you’ll be careful on Mars. I need you.”
There was a desperate plea in them that brought sharp goose bumps over his skin. Brad hunched over and on one knee, gently reached out and caressed his wife’s cheek.
“Going to Mars has always been my childhood’s dream.”
“It’s why I became an astronaut in the first place. But…”
Brad paused and hesitated as he searched for the exact words to relay his vague frame of mind. His quest was in vain as he simply found himself translating his nebulous feelings with whatever phrase came to mind.
“But… I think this will be my last trip in space.”
Dora was slightly taken aback and didn’t say a word.
“It’s over,” Brad stiffly concluded, after a few seconds of silence, as if disappointed with his own decision.
Then he noticed Dora’s eyes grow wider and her face become pale. She was stunned, actually. She frowned and blinked, her mind frozen, as if he had unexpectedly and suddenly blindsided her.
“Brad? This is a first. You’re not… excited? The opportunity of being the first man to land on another planet…”
Then, Brad saw her face become a little rigid and her passionate eyes taint over with disbelief. He glanced back out at the sea, dropping his wrists over the inside of his thighs as he lay squatted at her side, listening to her.
“Brad, I’m your wife, but I’m also the President. You know very well that I’ll strongly recommend having you removed from the mission if I have any doubts that you might put other people’s lives at risk. Bobby can captain the mission just as well as you and there are five back-up astronauts who have trained and can replace a crew member in case of necessity.”
“Brad?” she called out as he failed to reply to her comment. He finally turned and eyed her with half melancholic eyes. “You are OK? Right?”
Brad’s lips broke into an easy, relaxed smile as he discerned a mounting angst and concern in Dora’s voice. Dora searched his face as she tried to alleviate her fear that Brad was having second thoughts only weeks away from lift-off.
“I know that you will if it came down to that,” he replied, ignoring her questions about his wellbeing. “You always do the right thing and Bobby would make a fine commander … but you don’t have to worry about making that choice. I am totally committed to the mission. I am perfectly aware of the moment and of my responsibility.”
Dora arched her eyebrow, as if still somewhat skeptical, but Brad could tell that his wife was feeling a bit better than a few seconds ago. He elaborated his feelings further.
“I am ecstatic, Dora. I really am. It’s my childhood’s dream. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s just that I’ve been doing much thinking lately. We keep finding planets by the dozens. Every passing month it seems that we’ve discovered a new planet in a habitable zone of a star – but we still haven’t found a planet like Earth, have we?”
Brad could tell that Dora was trying to follow him as she kept quiet and let him continue.
“No intelligent signal from the sky either. No evidence of intelligent life has reached us despite the universe having a thirteen billion head start on Earth. You’d figure that given that much time – and it took modern man less than two hundred thousand years of evolution – that a head start of thirteen billion years is sufficient time for any species to evolve and build a technological civilization capable of sending signals to the stars less alone travel to one. It’s starting to look like we’re alone in the universe – or maybe that there’s not as much life out there as we once hoped there was.”
“I’m not following you, Brad,” Dora finally replied, trying to find a connection between his words and his desire to abandon space travel. She couldn’t find it. She was trying to be sensitive to her husband’s opinion. In many ways, she was starting to feel irritated and wondered if Brad had something on his mind which he wasn’t telling her. That could explain his sudden, stress like behavior. Perhaps, something had happened on the other side of the beach minutes ago?
Then, like it or not, Brad had brought up a situation that needed to be dealt with. Dora knew that they were on a well-deserved weekend holiday and that she should disassociate her Presidential duties from her private life – especially since they were having a supposedly normal conversation between husband and wife – but the matter did involve national interest.
The mission to Mars might well become one of the defining moments of the history of the United States, if not world civilization. Humanity was about to embark on the conquest of the solar system, which was the stepping stone to the stars. It might be ridiculous to think so today, pretentious even, on a sunny beach under a wonderful, blue sky, but every reality had a beginning and this was the start of that journey. If the mission was unsuccessful, the reality where humans lived on other planets might never get off the ground – and that could be disastrous for the long term viability of the human race.
He turned his gaze on her.
“Some would say,” Dora said, “that when an athlete thinks of retiring, that athlete is already half retired. On the eve of one of the most important ambitions of my administration, you are thinking about existential questions – questions which are getting in the way of your mission, or at the very least, taking away from your concentration. Brad, you’re not making this easy on me. Do you understand what your words imply?”
Dora sighed as her husband assumed that far away, meditative look in his eyes. He remained silent.
“I can never understand you, love,” she uttered in a very thoughtful tone while his eyes wandered towards the horizon of the clear blue, endless sky above them. “You have quite an impressive curriculum. You are accomplished, witty, caring – a terrific husband, father, and yet, often times, you’re just… just so restless, Brad. It’s as if you’re constantly searching for something that doesn’t exist. Why? Why can’t you just settle with who you are and be fulfilled with what you have been blessed with? Why, Brad?”
Brad heard Dora’s questioning ache in her tone of voice, took a deep breath and exhaled with force – as if trying to toss the weight of the world off his shoulders. He knew that his wife was right about searching for something that didn’t exist. As for the mission to Mars, she was equally justified in her observations – but he couldn’t disclose this to her.
True, he was excited. He knew his place in history and what the extraordinary moment meant for mankind. He would never envision pulling out of the mission, especially after the efforts and sacrifices that had went into preparing the three astronauts to land on Mars. However, there was a disconcerting voice inside his head that was troubling him and which he couldn’t ignore. It warned him of impending danger. This is not going to go the way everyone thinks. We can plan it a million times for the next one million years and it’s never going to go according to plan.
“I don’t feel real at times,” he suddenly said as he broke his silence. He still didn’t quite understand where his thoughts were leading him to. “At times I feel as if, despite all that I know, I might very well know nothing. This frightens me. I’m not complaining, though. It’s perfectly fine to be ignorant and happy in our own little bubble. But this mission to Mars is making me think outside our world – about the big picture.”
Dora was further confused. “Brad, it’s hard to follow you today.”
She sighed, looking down at her book before turning her eyes back on her husband. “What big picture?”
Brad grimaced. “About life. Alien life, I mean, and us. I just don’t want another species to tell us that we’re not worth much, not intelligent enough, that we’re just a little more aware of our surroundings than the animals we share our world with. As a human being, it would… it would break me inside to have an alien tell me that our civilization and all that we’ve achieved is just a footnote. I don’t want aliens to exist, but I’m afraid that they must – and that perhaps they’re hiding from us in a way that we can’t understand.”
Brad seemed to gather enthusiasm as his words came gushing out.
“Mars makes me think about these things – more so now that we’re about to land on the planet. You’ve seen the news. We’re in the twenty-first century and even if we know that no civilization exists on Mars, some still speculate if we’ll find relics from a past civilization that disappeared millions of years ago! It’s incredible. The power of suggestion that Mars has on men transcends the generations. For a long time, man even thought that there were canals on Mars. The Italian astronomer Schiaparelli observed what he thought were canal like shapes and named them canali in 1877. The American astronomer, Lowell, thought that these were used for irrigation and built by intelligent life, and soon thereafter, this whole fantasy about aliens living on Mars took hold of our literary imagination.”
It took Dora a few seconds to attempt to rationalize and synthesis Brad’s disjointed thoughts together.
“Don’t tell me that you’re feeling disappointed because we can’t find aliens, but at the same time relieved that they don’t exist?” she asked, not understanding how the conversation had steered to this, and quite frankly, a little vexed at her husband at that moment.
“That’s just it, Dora. I’m starting to realize that it’s best for us if aliens don’t exist. I’ve always had my hopes high that I would live to see the day that man made contact with extra-terrestrial life, but I’m starting to feel that it will be a big disappointment if we do – a disappointment that we will regret. Perhaps, instead of looking for signs of life on other planets, we should start to concentrate at preserving what we have on this planet before Earth becomes as arid and inhospitable to life as the planets we’re discovering. Perhaps, we should forget about the stars, forget about the planets, and forget about alien civilizations. Something tells me that humanity would be much better off.”
Dora stared at the serious expression on her husband’s face and tried her best to keep a neutral expression. Frankly, she did not quite know what to make of Brad’s opinions at that moment. She heard the children screaming and turned her head slightly the other way.
“Careful!” she cried out to her younger son as Sarah was bumped down.
She turned her attention back to Brad.
“Well, if that’s all that’s bothering you, Brad… aliens.”
She paused and took a deep breath. “You know what I think? I think that you miss talking to Bobby more than Jessica misses him! Let me put this in perspective. You want to retire and quit space exploration, because you’re afraid we’ll meet hostile aliens? Are you serious, Brad?”
Brad turned his head towards the ocean, in Jessica’s direction.
“Hmm! I never saw it like that.”
He felt like a fool at that moment as he considered his wife’s words. Why was he even talking to her about these things? She was right. He missed Bobby – especially when he was feeling in a retrospective mood. Dora, well, she was very practical. Bobby was the only guy who’d listen to his theories on extra-terrestrial life. Poor Bobby – he even listened to his theories about time travel! Good thing he had never discussed those with Dora. Well, he did once – she had more or less the same reaction as she did with aliens.
“It’s not that aliens are bothering me…” he tried to justify. “But…”
“Brad,” Dora briskly interrupted, “…as interesting as this rambling conversation might be for you, I’m trying to relax. We’re having a terrific family day on an incredible, hot, sunny, summer day and this is definitely not the place to have such a pessimistic vision of life. You’re making me depressed, Brad! I’ve never seen you so serious about… about aliens!”
Brad got the hint. Dora turned back to her book. He gazed out at sea. Jessica was coming out between the gentle, rolling waves. His eyes lingered on her appealing body as she started to walk slowly towards them. His heart warmed up. There was something so wholesome about her that… and he couldn’t explain that either.
What he did know was that he was immensely pleased that Bobby was committing. He should have done it years ago. Jessica had been unfortunate in love, and Brad deeply cared that she found sentimental comfort in her life. She was a warm and attractive woman. She was a woman that he found…
Brad sighed once more as he let his eyes fully settle on Jessica. Dora glimpsed up at him, probably wondering what had led to his heavy sigh and continuing misplaced angst. Perhaps, she wanted to express a thought and was waiting for him to make eye contact, but he remained quiet and let the seconds slip by, admiring the sea spreading out in front of him as Jessica approached.
What else could he say? He’d tried explaining his state of mind to Dora, but he didn’t blame her for not understanding what he meant. After all, he couldn’t quite grasp his own thoughts either. There was a bitter sweet, existential throbbing inside of him, and for the life of him, he couldn’t quite understand how it came about.
It was as if he suddenly felt misplaced in the world – as if he had done his time and the future would be much better off without him. He felt as if something was missing… or maybe nothing was missing. He felt complete, satisfied… yet fragile. There was a contrast playing between his mind and heart which baffled him.
Yes, something lingered in his mind which he didn’t fully grasp. Everything around him appeared serene, but he feared that something was amiss. It was as if he had just woken up from a heavy night’s slumber, opened wide the shutters of his window on a splendid sunny morning, which, as it progressed, was starting to leave him with a creeping doubt of having slept through the most terrifying and frightening storm of the century.
Brad cleared his throat.
“You know, I’m thinking about writing a book on the trip to Mars. I’ve always wanted to write one. Never could find the time, though…”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Dora agreed while absorbed in her book. “About what exactly?”
“I’m not too sure, or better yet, I know what I would like to write, but I don’t quite know how to approach the subject. I don’t want it to be comical even if the risk is there… I want it to be a serious essay.”
Brad probably expected Dora to say something at that moment, but Dora continued to read her novel. A few seconds slipped by before Brad continued with his thoughts.
“I’m just wondering… what if aliens exist and they come? How do we communicate with them? How can we let them know that we will not harm them, or if need be, that we don’t want them on our planet? How can we communicate this peacefully? I mean, just because we contact aliens, doesn’t necessarily mean that we want to be allies, does it? We might find them completely impossible to get along with. Then what do we do?”
Dora exaggeratedly exhaled as she dropped her book on her lap. She peered up at her husband.
“Brad, can I ask you something?”
Brad shrugged. “Sure.”
“Don’t you have anything else better to do today? Rest and relaxation is definitely not your cup of tea, is it?”
Brad’s lips spread into a weary grin. “Guess not.”
“What are you two smiling about?” Jessica asked as she reached them. She grabbed her towel and lazily patted herself dry. Jessica’s eyes acquired a provocative allure as her smoldering eyes leveled Brad.
“Never seen me in a bikini before, Brad? You’ve been gawking at me from the moment I came out of the sea! It’s a good thing I didn’t decide to go topless!”
Brad never blushed, but he must have turned a shade of lobster red as both girls laughed. He looked away, not bothering to justify himself. Anyway, Jessica was right. He had been caught like a young school boy gaping at the prom beauty queen. Dora might even whisper a word about it later that night – and he wouldn’t blame her if she did.
His eyes wandered towards the sun as the girls continued their lazy chatter – that big ball of controlled, raging fire that kept Earth alive. He moved a few yards away from the two women and lay on his back under the full rays of the sun. He closed his eyes. In a few weeks he would be lifting off to Mars with his best friend Bobby.
Brad couldn’t wait to come back home to Earth.
“So, who’s leading?” Bobby asked.
Samantha glanced at her notepad.
“Brad seven hundred and forty six, Bobby six hundred and ninety three.”
She chuckled. “I guess you lost, Bobby. Brad’s stepping down first.”
“Hey… it’s not over until the fat lady sings.”
“There’s no fat lady around, Bobby,” quipped back Samantha.
“Exactly!” Bobby replied. “So it isn’t over yet!”
Brad listened to the light back and forth sparring of his two colleagues. The red planet lay directly below his eyes and he couldn’t help but be magnetized by its unique radiance and its completely alien characteristics.
He had always thought that Earth and Mars were similar – at least that’s what the popular impression was back home, but now that the planer loomed before him, he couldn’t help but shiver at the apparent pure austerity that its stark surface portrayed from that close distance.
He shivered. Mars was very different from Earth. The planet was barren and lonely, like desolation beckoning for companionship, or a warning for travellers to stay away. Perhaps, Mars didn’t want life and if life dared defy it once again like it did millions of years before, when shallow river streams gurgled over its surface and vast oceans stretched majestically under its liveable atmosphere, it would once again take sadistic pleasure in stripping away its vitality. The planet smelled of death. It had betrayed its promise to the young and hopeful life that certainly once had attempted to lay its fruit on its surface.
Brad turned to his fellow astronauts. Bobby was not giving up, even if protocol had made it clear that he would be the first one to plant his foot on Mars.
“Shall we roll the dice one more time, old friend? Let’s say winner takes all this time?”
Brad shook his head as Bobby stretched his arm before him, holding the plastic cube that contained the dice. He rattled it and thumped the cube on the magnetic pad. The die instantly got pulled down on the pad as it magnetized. Six.
“Hah!” exclaimed Bobby. “Try to beat that!”
“What?” Samantha shot back. “No way! Game’s over. I didn’t keep count through all these months to have you negate my work and remind me how I wasted my R&R time contenting you in this childish game of yours. You lost Bobby! Brad’s stepping down first! As if there was ever a doubt!”
Bobby grinned and looked up at his best friend.
“This is not the way it played out in the tree cabin!”
Brad shrugged. “We were much younger back then, Bobby. We kind of grew too big to step down together. Maybe you should have told the boys to design a hatch large enough for the two of us!”
Bobby simply shook his head and had a good chuckle.
Brad took a quick look at the telemetry. All was functioning perfectly. In fact, it had been a flawless, textbook flight from Earth. Not one glitch. Brad’s voice turned serious and professional.
“Let’s catch our last few hours of sleep before engaging landing protocol, shall we?” he suggested.
Samantha nodded and proceeded to signal back to Earth the flight status.
For the first time since lift-off, Brad felt a fluttering case of butterflies in the pit of his stomach as he observed Bobby gleefully looking outside at the red planet. They were really in their old space ship at that moment – their beloved tree cabin.
“Can’t believe we made it, Brad…” Bobby softly whispered. “It’s, it’s…. just the odds of us two being here together at this moment – it’s incredible!”
Brad was too emotional to respond. He clasped his best friend’s shoulder. Bobby straightened up.
“Well, we did this a thousand of times before when we were kids,” Bobby quipped. “We’ve got plenty of practice. One more time shouldn’t be that bad!”
Brad chuckled at Bobby’s remark, and wrapped his arm around Bobby’s shoulders.
Brad eyes sprang open. He was breathing with force. The clock above his head told him that he had been asleep for nearly two hours. For a moment, he couldn’t remember who he was or where he was.
Images flashed in his head. Strange images. Images of being inside a tight box, of people scattering and yelling around him. Panic. Yes, lots of panic. Wherever he was, it was a war zone. It was semi-dark, but he knew that the place should have been fully lighted. There were explosions. They were being attacked. He heard… strange sounds in the background. Sounds not of this world. Lights were flickering. There were men around him, escorting him. They were extremely nervous, on the edge of panicking, despite their rigid training. There was a man screaming – no not screaming. He was talking rapidly, telling him, preparing him…
“It’s going to be tricky, Brad. You won’t have many memories left, but you should have enough to remember what you need to do. You’ll be going back to a time…”
The whole compound vibrated under him and Brad was surprised. How could the walls shake like that if they were underground? It seemed almost as if Area 51 was being pulled out of the ground! Brad turned towards Ron. He couldn’t exactly remember what Ron had been saying and replied with the first thought that came to mind.
“I know that, Ron, but it’s the only chance we have to avert this massacre, to prevent our race’s extinction…”
There was an ugly, wide ripping explosion over their heads. It came from the surface. He heard more fearful voices as the lights nearly completely faded away.
Someone shouted: “The aliens have made a breech! They’re in! Area 51 is compromised!”
They reached their destination. The commands to the door weren’t working properly. The door and frame were mangled. The door budged a few inches and stopped, well short of the space needed to slip inside. The men escorting them pulled and twisted it open with their bare hands. They were bleeding. Brad pressed through the narrow opening, cutting a deep gash across his chest. It didn’t matter. All their wounds were irrelevant. They would soon be dead. All of them.
Ron followed right on his heels. Ron was still talking. Brad wasn’t really listening anymore, but Ron’s voice was soothing and it reassured him. He saw the contraption in front of him and the two started to run towards it. They had so little time left. Brad tasted his own tears. He was crying. Dora was dead. In front of him lay his time machine – his cursed time machine which was the center of endless time wars at the expense of humanity. He had to stop himself from ever inventing it.
He needed to… he needed to…
Brad felt a searing white bolt of lacerating pain in his head and blanked out.
“Gentlemen, I’m pleased to make your acquaintances.”
The two men in uniform took a seat in front of her as she beckoned them in. President Dora proceeded to turn the pages of the slim file which had been handed to her moments before by a staff member. She withdrew the one page executive summary of the forty page document and briefly scanned it with her eyes before affixing her signature on it.
She couldn’t help but find it amusing, but she fought the urge to smile and struggled to keep a neutral face in front of the two quite serious individuals facing her. Dr. Ron Height, from the National Central Research Agency, and General Barker from the Pentagon, nodded appreciatively as Dora authorized the file.
Brad’s theories about time travel had a scientific basis. Whoever would have thought that his playful hobby would one day be taken so seriously? Forty million dollars were to be put aside to start up the research. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
“We need a place,” General Barker said. “It has to be a secret area where access is extremely limited and where no one, outside of the few involved, is aware of the type of research being conducted.”
Dora hadn’t thought of it. Actually, she had so many pressing matters to attend to that she hadn’t given the file much consideration. She had relied on her staff to adjourn her. Perhaps, she hadn’t given it much time, because first, it was Brad’s little hobby which she thought was just theoretical fun, and second, being not only the President but his wife, she didn’t want to interfere with the process and make it seem as a conflict of interest.
“A place like that is best secured when the point of entry is limited and controlled… therefore not to close to a populated area,” Dora finally replied as she meditated further. “The desert?”
The General approved of Dora’s reasoning. “It’s exactly what we were thinking. There’s a stretch of land in the Nevada desert that might be perfect. We’re thinking of giving it an inconspicuous, general name that will not attract too much curiosity or attention if it’s ever discovered by the general populace, other branches of government or foreign entities… like area something…”
“Area 51, actually,” Dr. Height specified. “Area is a common enough term and is used to denote almost anything – like a docking space for trucks or a holding sector for goods. The word area is not necessarily associated to a government agency like the words file, code or project could be. The numeration of 51 would lead one to believe that there are many other locations involved, therefore nothing special or unique about it. Even if the name was ever to be inadvertently revealed by error, it would not necessarily raise suspicion.”
Dora approved of their reasoning even if it seemed too excessive for a minor project.
“Gentlemen, it seems to me that you two have put a great deal of thought into this,” Dora noted as she couldn’t help but wonder why they insisted on complete secrecy. Ron Height had inferred that the file should be kept secret from other branches of government – why? The fact that the funds were requested directly from the high level security homeland budget where congressional approval was not required had been puzzling when she first heard of it the day before.
A questioning doubt crept in her voice as she exposed out her concerns. “I commend your attentiveness to details, but the security measures you are envisioning to apply will be costly and might well end up running over budget. I must make very clear that there will be no more funds allocated to this project than those approved for a full twelve months.”
Dora frowned as she considered another aspect. The type of secrecy that the two men wished to impose on the project would eventually involve the CIA and FBI. She looked directly at them, her sharp gaze concurring with her tone.
“I find your security measures excessive, and considering that my husband plays a major role in this research, I don’t want this file to bite back or bring embarrassment to my administration. I don’t want to be accused of favoritism or misuse of public money. Some might see it as the President assuring her husband a pay check on a dubious research project. I hope that you both understand my position, so even if I just approved your project in its present form, I strongly suggest that you manage your resources well, and where need be, reconsider the security requirements.”
The two men crossed glances and there was a short, awkward silence before the General took the lead.
“Mrs. President, can you imagine the implications if this research delivers the end product?”
“Being?” asked Dora without much thought, still feeling somewhat stunned that Brad’s pastime had reached her desk. To be candid, at that moment she was much more concerned with a potential conflict of interest, seeing that Brad was her husband, than any practical implication the project, or better, Area 51, as the two gentlemen wanted to name it, could produce.
“Time travel, of course!” enthusiastically clarified Dr. Height as he jumped in. “It’s the ultimate goal, the Holy Grail, so to speak. It would make nuclear weapons obsolete!”
Dora blinked. What? She couldn’t help but recall the surreal conversation she had with Brad nearly six months back at the beach when he fantasized about aliens. Time travel was also on the border of the unreal. Had she just signed something that she would be ridiculed for by her Presidential successors? She might as well have given Brad a budget to search for aliens!
For a few seconds, she couldn’t help but feel like uncomfortable. The urge to rip up the Area 51 file under her gaze was very present as she peered at it. Nevertheless, Dora did her utmost best to remain calm and serious as the two men spoke – and she succeeded. Although, it was a good thing that Brad was approaching Mars at that moment, because she didn’t know how she would’ve reacted if he was in that office with her.
“It’s the ultimate weapon,” the General repeated as he continued Dr. Height’s thought. “Time travel leaves no trace behind. It erases everything, including itself. It can even erase an enemy from ever existing. You kill it in its egg, even before it hatches – so to speak!”
Dr. Height gave the General a troubled look, as if he either didn’t approve of the General’s choice of words or was troubled by the possibility.
Dora’s mind vacillated for a few brief seconds as her ire suddenly ceased. A doubt crept into her mind as she attentively scrutinized the two faces in front of her. One was practical and resolute; the other was an academic and dreamer. Even if their approaches were different, they were both very serious. These were not men who were simply looking to immerse themselves into a government project for the next year, but men who were planning ahead to bring the research to fruition. It was clear that both were not only very conscious of the potential, but also of the high element of risk attached to Area 51. Brad would enjoy working with them – of this she was certain.
Dora did something she rarely did and fidgeted. She was beginning to understand a little more their demand for secrecy. Could it be true? Time travel? Had she been too hasty in signing the document? Had Brad really thought the implications through? Did he consider it would reach this far?
Brad had simply wished for a modest university type budget, nothing more, with minimal funds to start a small lab. Dora was certain that the money allotted was much more than he estimated. Certainly, Brad’s file had moved quickly along a certain pillar of the government and a committee must have studied the file to find it interesting enough to open a high level security dossier. This was clear. She reopened the file under her and looked at the credentials of the two men presenting the project and realized, just by a glance, that they were both decorated in their established fields.
These two were not men that one would associate with a low priority project that had little chance of success. They were able men who undoubtedly would build a very competitive team. Did Brad think that this would be just a harmless hobby to spend some time on once his space days were through? Or did he know perfectly well what his research implied and had downplayed the possibility of time travel? Brad was a very modest man, almost to the point that his trait was many times mistaken for arrogance and aloofness.
Then a smile came to her lips. It was pointless to get carried away at that moment. Like most high risk R&D projects, it would probably never receive a second grant. With all their good intentions, Dora didn’t expect the project to last more than a year – a year and a half at the most. There would be time to stop it if she had misgivings or thought that National Security was at risk. Furthermore, she was really excited for Brad – and proud of him.
“Well then,” Dora concluded as she rose from her chair and extended her hand. “Get to work, gentlemen, and draw me your final plans, including the definite location of Area 51.”
When they left, Dora took a few minutes for herself. She was thrilled for Brad. His mission to Mars was the crowning achievement of his career and he had made it clear that it would be his last trip in space. His biggest fear was that he would eventually become an old, stuffy university professor in a prestigious university recounting his glory days over and over again until he dropped dead.
Now, he had an interest to pursue – an impossible dream, but nevertheless with an objective. At least, it should keep him occupied for a little while. She couldn’t see him in a lab coat for many years, though. He was a man that quickly lost interest. Then again, the man she married was continually surprising her. Determined, yet restless; controlled, yet unpredictable; satisfied, yet rebellious – as if, there was always something missing from his life. In fact, she recalled that she did tell him that, on that day at the beach, six months ago. She couldn’t remember his reply. Actually, she couldn’t even remember the book she read. All that she remembered was his monologue about aliens!
Dora’s eyes darted to a smallish picture in the extreme, upper left corner of a large metal frame that she proudly exhibited on her desk. It contained a collage of pics depicting special moments with Brad and the children. The picture her eyes fell on was the oldest in the picture frame. It was her first photo with Brad. It had been taken just a few days after she’d run away from home following her dad’s death. She had ran into the arms of an older boy that she had fallen in love with through a simple, magical glance while she gloomily sat in her dad’s car during an awful vacation with her cheating step mother.
If one could go back in time…
Dora Keen frowned. Time travel. She didn’t actually believe it was possible, did she? Brad’s half scribbled formulas… they were just… physics and applied math that at best might lead to a theoretical discovery that would increase man’s knowledge of the universe, but that most likely would never lead to any real application.
Yes, that was it. Nothing more than knowledge…
Dora stopped breathing. Her chest tightened. An irrational fear suddenly gripped her. She summoned for a staff member, her tone strained as she held her breath. What was happening? Was she getting a panic attack?
“Mars mission status?” she half-snapped, not even giving the aide time to shut the door behind her.
“Final preparations are under way, Mrs. President.”
“Call me 15 minutes before the lander touches down.”
“Yes,” the aide replied, a little perplexed. “It’s already noted in your day’s schedule. Mrs. President.”
“Thank you,” Dora answered back, recomposing herself. She knew that she would be assisting live the descent, but she just wanted to reassure herself that the mission was proceeding on schedule without any last minute glitches.
“Bring in the United Nations delegation on human rights,” she instructed as she glanced at the next file on her agenda. Her heart was still beating rapidly. Her emotional state continued to be uneven. It dawned on her that she felt an imminent sense of loss which had no reason to exist. None whatsoever.
She wanted to cry, and she certainly would have if she were at home.
Brad opened his eyes on the first beep and instantly focused on the display less than a foot away from his eyes. The final day had arrived. Twelve hours. That was all the time that remained on Mars until the booster fired and sent the small capsule back to the orbiter where Samantha awaited.
The two weeks mission on Mars was practically over.
“Well?” Brad cheerfully asked as he stared into his best friend’s glassy, morose eyes. “Is Scorpion ready?”
Bobby didn’t answer.
“Is Scorpion ready?” Brad asked anew as he saw Bobby’s glum face pierce him. His eyes suddenly became fiery.
“Brad,” Bobby wisped as a tight knot formed in his throat. “You can’t do this. I won’t allow it.”
Brad had a half poignant smile on his face.
“You know why, Bobby. Did you get confirmation?”
Bobby didn’t need to say anything. By the expression on his face, Brad knew he did.
Everything that he had dreamed before the descent was true.
Dora was startled. Shocked. Dismayed. Everything was slipping away. She needed to get control back.
“What’s… what’s the meaning of this?” she asked, a little too harshly.
General Barker, Doctor Height, and the Mars Mission Base Commander, Doctor Holland, had no answers to offer President Keen.
Her face was white as she tore her eyes from the simple sheet of paper which had just been handed to her.
“How did Brad know? Who told him?”
Dora showed restraint, for the time being, but her heart was pounding desperately as she struggled to understand.
General Barker remained immobile.
“I don’t really know what this is all about…” Doctor Holland said with a rather perplexed tone. “We received this message from Samantha asking us to confirm with either General Barker or Dr. Height that Area 51 was a GO and that President Keen approved the project in the presence of Dr. Height and General Barker at exactly 10:46 am on the day of the Mars landing.”
Dora’s lips were trembling. She turned her accusing eyes at General Barker and Dr. Height.
“Which one of you told him?”
She knew she was jumping to conclusions and sounded stressed, but Height and Barker seemed no better off. She wanted quick answers and didn’t want to bother thinking too much at that point.
“No one,” General Barker briskly replied. “We did not reveal the information to anyone. We are currently studying the feasibility of building the base at the location we discussed, but our drafts do not yet contain the name that might be linked to it. Purposefully so. We don’t want Area 51 known outside of those that will be directly implicated with the project. We haven’t picked anyone yet.”`
“So we were the only three that knew?” Dora asked, as the impossibility of the situation slowly solidified I her mind.
“About the name we wish to give to the project? Yes,” the General answered back. “Only we three know the code name Area 51. There is a committee that is involved with the project, but even among this committee, only a handful is aware of what the final objective is.”
Dora glanced back at Dr. Holland, her mind frantically trying to piece the information into a logical, plausible scenario that could satisfy her.
“Did you respond to Samantha?” she asked.
“Yes I did, but not with a direct response…” Dr. Holland said as he took a quick glance at Height who seemed the most shaken up by the events.
“I… I inadvertently told Dr. Holland to discover how they knew that information,” a subdued Height said, fully realizing the error.
“And that is the exact message I sent them… how do you know about Area 51? On a secure line, of course. No possibility of the message being intercepted. I can assure you of that, Mrs. President.”
Dora swallowed hard.
“How do you know of Area 51?” she repeated as if in a daze. “Your reply indirectly confirmed that it’s true.”
“It was a mistake on my part,” Height admitted. “I should have asked, what is Area 51? Or, could you repeat because we do not understand what you mean by those words.”
Ron was shaking – Dora didn’t know if from fear or awe.
“If we consider the matter logically,” he said, “there exists only one way that they would’ve not only known about Area 51, but of the particulars that occurred in this room.”
Dora glanced at the Mars Mission Base Commander.
“Could you please leave us, Dr. Holland?” she requested. “This is very sensitive information. National security can be at risk.”
Dora talked mechanically. Dr. Holland nodded, and even if he didn’t understand what was transpiring, he sensed the gravity of the situation.
“I hope,” he added as he considered the mission, “that this situation can be solved and doesn’t put into peril our mission.”
He suddenly stopped in mid stride as he was leaving and turned back towards the President. He had one more pressing question.
“Does the matter necessitate a delay in lift-off, Mrs. President? The lander is scheduled to rendez-vous with the orbiter this evening.”
Dora shook her head. “Not for the moment, Dr. Holland. Continue as scheduled and not one word of this to anyone. I will convene an emergency meeting in one hour and instruct accordingly.”
Dr. Holland nodded as he acknowledged the President’s directives and left the office.
This was unprecedented. They had a situation on their hands, but it was a situation that was not credible, and would not only be extremely difficult to explain, but also to foresee the consequences. Then, they couldn’t very well reveal the time travel project – to whom? Who could she trust?
Further compounding the problem was that there was a whole mission control center that had heard the request from the Mars mission and was left puzzled and grasping for answers after the unusual communiqué. She already had many top officials asking for clarification, including members of the house and senate.
Dora glanced at Dr. Height.
“So what is your conclusion? How could they have known?” she whispered with a slight tremor in her voice. She knew that she should have been more resolute, more Presidential in her manner and approach, but this involved Brad and she was utterly incapable of separating her emotions from her mind.
She looked hopefully at Dr. Height, hoping that he would offer an alternative conclusion to the one that had formed in her mind, but unfortunately he confirmed her fears.
“The time travel project has succeeded,” Height answered, and as he did so, he couldn’t quite believe the words that came out of his mouth. “The only way any of those astronauts would know about Area 51 is if they had knowledge of what transpired in this office two weeks ago. That knowledge had to come from the future. In all probability, Robert and Samantha will never know of Area 51. The knowledge must come through Brad even if Samantha is the messenger.”
Dora’s hand was shaking as she clutched her pen. She took a deep breath as she steadied her nerves and looked at the two men standing in front of her. There were too many loose ends, too many hypotheses to consider. So many questions to ask. They were stabbing in the dark.
“Are any of the astronauts in danger? Admitting that one or all three are aware of Area 51, why now, at lift-off? Why ask for confirmation? What have they found on Mars? Has someone from the future gone back in time and left a message on Mars to relay to us? Is someone from the future there at the moment we speak? Or, have they found evidence of a future mission and were seeking confirmation? Why would anyone from the future leave such specific information that happened in this office two weeks ago? For what purpose? And now that we’ve confirmed that Area 51 is in fact to become a real place, what will the astronauts do with this information?”
What was Brad hiding from her? Dora felt a stab in her heart and instantly regretted her assumption that he was working against her. If Brad was involved, he must have had a very good reason to use this historic mission for what seemed another purpose. If it was him, he was taking an enormous gamble to seek confirmation that he surely knew was time travel related. He was the captain of the mission to Mars, and somewhere in her mind, Dora was disappointed. Brad had failed history. Somehow, he had taken what should have been humanity’s crowning achievement and made it a crisis.
Height was speaking, but Dora’s mind was no longer focused on him.
“How do you know about Area 51 does not confirm anything. Mission Control didn’t say yes or no.”
Brad removed an envelope from a compartment next to him. He took a deep breath and looked at his best friend. He extended his arm.
“It’s been a great ride, Bobby.”
Bobby’s face faltered with emotion.
“Don’t say that Brad. We’re off to Jupiter next. You’d like that. I’ll show you a good time around Jupiter! Lots of cool moons to explore.”
Brad shook his head and laughed – a deep warm laugh.
“Our tree cabin missions always went to Mars,” he calmly noted as he held the precious envelope between his hands. “We’ve done it, Bobby. We’ve made our childhood dream come true. We’re on Mars.”
Brad pushed the envelope further towards Bobby. “There’s a USB key inside. Give it to Dora in case I don’t come back & then tell her to destroy it afterwards. In it, I tell all.”
Bobby reluctantly took the envelope in his hands. Brad’s voice broke slightly as tried to remain in control of his emotions.
“You take good care of Dora and my family, Bobby.”
“There must be another way,” Bobby lashed out with anger and pain as he Brad started to prepare to go outside. “This is simply unreal. It just doesn’t seem true. It’s absurd!”
Bobby was at loss for words. A few days after landing on Mars, Brad had started telling him things that made little sense. At first, he thought that Brad had experienced hallucinations or a state of confusion due to some unknown medical condition the trip had He had an idea. “You know I can relieve you of command it I need to, right? I know the code!”
A big grin spread across Brad’s face as he shook his head. “So they told you the code? I thought only mission control knew that!”
“I could say that you’ve gone crazy and that I’m taking over command of the mission!” Bobby said, hoping that Brad would hear his desperation and stop what he had in mind.
“Yeah, you can always say I’ve gone crazy, but then, if I’m crazy I wouldn’t necessarily be listening to orders, would I?”
Bobby snorted. “I didn’t think of that!”
The two remained silent, letting a few seconds slip by, as each in their way tried coming to grip with the absurd reality. Brad finally placed his hand on Bobby’s shoulder. He was ready to leave the Mars landing module.
“Remember, if I’m not back in forty eight hours, you have to lift off without me.”
“I just can’t leave you here, Brad…” Bobby said as his tone broke.
“You have to think of Samantha, Bobby. She has to get back home and will need your support. Even without me, the mission will be a success. There’s a lot of stuff we’ve collected that you have to bring back home.”
Forty minutes later, Brad had not only the spare which he would need during the voyage, but also the second vehicular oxygen pack, the one belonging to Bobby, tightly packed on the Mars buggy, Scorpion. He didn’t want Bobby having second thoughts and attempting something crazy to try to reach him in case he wasn’t coming back.
True, without the six wheeler Scorpion, Bobby would never reach him in time, but Bobby always had a way out of a tight situation, a way of making the improbable come true. This time, Brad was not going to give his best friend an opportunity to pull a miracle out of the hat.
The drive was going to be a long one. A sudden sandstorm during landing procedures had changed their plans and prevented them from touching down at their primary site. They had to set down much further away from their intended target, which had been a real letdown. Since childhood, they’d both been dreaming of a rendezvous with Curiosity. Brad was the first man to set foot on Mars and Bobby would have been the one to visit the site.
Brad smiled as a poignant emotion overtook him. Come to think of it, Bobby had received the raw part of the deal. Brad would do the two things on Mars that Bobby had dreamed too – the first to step on the red planet and the first to greet Curiosity. There was one other thing that Brad would be the first – and hopefully the last human being – to do.
But that, no one would ever know about.
It was a long drive, as Brad kept on course. Hours and hours went by. He took a two hour nap and then restarted his journey. The terrain was breathtaking – and harsh. Lonely. Perhaps, Brad should have appreciated his surroundings more, but he missed Earth too much to feel any affinity for that alien landscape. He dearly wished he would be driving back in a few hours, but he knew the probability that he was wrong was slim to none.
“What do you mean, Brad took Scorpion and left while you were… sleeping?”
“No, not sleeping,” Bobby replied in a calm, painful voice. “My head is killing me. He must have knocked me out while I was sleeping.”
There was a silence between them that not even Bobby could define.
“I can’t believe this…” she said, grasping to keep her composure. “Where is he? Where did he go? Did he leave a note?”
Bobby remained calm. He knew he needed to for Samantha’s sake.
“Negative. I can tell you, though, that wherever he’s going to, it’s not within walking distance. Scorpion is no longer visible. His backpack, mine, and the surplus oxygen pack are gone. I couldn’t even go outside if I wanted to.”
Again, there was an incredulous silence on the communication line.
Samantha was at a loss of word. “I… I… but…. We have five hours left until lift-off!”
“I know,” Bobby replied. “That’s why we need to remain calm and in control, Samantha.”
“Calm? Bobby, how can you be so calm at a moment like this?” Samantha shot back with a hint of panic in her tone. “Bobby, he’s your best friend! He’s the President’s husband! He’s the mission commander!”
Bobby swallowed and set his chin. He felt like crying even if he really didn’t know what tears were. He never cried.
“I know, but remember our training. We knew that situations like these could have occurred on this type of mission. It’s possible, I would say highly probable, that Brad is hallucinating.”
Which, he thought, despite what Brad had told him, could very well be the case.
“Have you tried to get in contact with him?”
“Yes,” affirmed Bobby. Brad had told him to send out regular emergency signals as if he really had left and disappeared to make the situation sound as realistic as possible. The astronauts would be debriefed once home and all the communications on Mars would be analyzed for years if not decades. Brad, of course, would not respond, unless he came back. In that case, he would make it seem as if he had really lost his mind for forty eight hours.
“Calculating position of Scorpion,” Samantha replied as she regained some of her spirits and took action. Bobby heard a nervous sigh.
“Unable to locate. He has turned off the tracking system. I have to go visual, but calculating Scorpion’s top speed and the distance he might have traveled, I will only pass over the area in about nine hours. I…”
Then she stopped as a thought came to mind. “Bobby, he had three oxygen pack units. That’s about fifty-five hours of air. He plans to take a long trip.”
“Assuming he’s rational,” Bobby reminded her, playing the card that Brad had told him to. He detested telling falsities and keeping information from Samantha, but neither he nor Brad wanted to compromise her career if mission control ever became aware that he had schemed with Brad.
“Let’s make the assumption that he still has some lucidity left and that he’s not driving randomly,” she replied. “The only possible target of interest is Curiosity. That’s about a twenty to twenty two hour drive from the lander.”
“You’re right” Bobby conceded. “I didn’t consider that.”
There was another pause.
“So what do we do, Bobby? You’re in command now. What do we say to mission control?”
“We can’t reveal much to mission control with the whole world listening in,” Bobby observed. “There is a risk even on the secure line that our message will be intercepted. As soon as we open contact with Mission Control, I will relay a code that will disclose that we have a command issue and that I have taken control of the mission.”
Samantha was puzzled. “What code are you talking about?”
“It’s a code that only a handful of us possess and that indirectly communicates back to Mission Control that Brad is no longer in command. Its purpose is to prevent the press and general public from knowing that the captain of the mission is no longer able of psychologically carrying forward his assigned tasks. I’m sure Brad had a code for each of us, if not a handful of other secret codes to communicate averse and sensitive situations.”
Samantha pondered Bobby’s words for a few seconds. “It makes sense. Then what?”
Bobby knew that whatever they did to justify a delay, there would be questions. If for whatever reason, he had to leave Mars without Brad… he didn’t even want to imagine what would happen back on Earth.
“We have a list of back-up projects, right – those experiments that are not necessarily scheduled, but would be nice to complete if given the time?”
Bobby could hear Samantha’s skeptical voice. “Don’t tell me that you want to justify a delay of this magnitude because you want to convince the press that you want to conduct high school research projects?”
“It won’t be up to us to convince the media, but Mission Control’s prerogative to convince the general populace in order to buy us time.”
Samantha didn’t like it. “And what happens if Brad doesn’t return?”
Bobby’s voice was tight. “Then we have to say that Brad took Scorpion out for a ride and we lost contact. Mission control will then have to give the order to come back home and leave Brad behind. Only once we’re back on Earth can we tell the truth.”
Or, thought Bobby, the truth that could be told.
“This is Robert Ross calling Scorpion. Captain Walsh, do you hear me? You are encouraged to respond. Please provide status, including location and your vital signs. You are ordered to turn on tracking system and return to lander. Take-off is scheduled in twenty seven hours. Over.”
It was good to hear Bobby’s voice in this bleak, red wilderness.
“This is Bobby calling Scorpion. Brad, please respond.”
Brad had a strong urge to turn around at that instant, but kept his focus. He had just discarded his remaining oxygen pack onto the Martian soil and continued his trek across the hostile landscape. Curiosity should be appearing at any moment now and he shouldn’t have more than an hour and a half of breathable air left. If, after visiting Curiosity, he were to turn back, it would be enough to reach the oxygen pack he had just dumped and start the journey back to the lander where Bobby waited.
He glanced up into the thin Martian atmosphere and saw the gleaming dot high over the far horizon. The orbiter was about to disappear from view. Samantha had surely been following him visually this last hour with the high power telescope, helpless to do anything but watch from above and wonder what was happening to him.
Then Brad saw it. At first, a half shiny spec, then a clear and crisp outline even if he was still a fair distance away. He pointed at it and kept on the accelerator, looking for the specific details that would reveal alien intervention.
He found it. Some pieces were missing and others were disassembled and neatly lined up to the side of Curiosity. He stopped his vehicle right in front of the rover. This was the time node where the two timelines met. One was without the time machine. One was with the time machine. He would decide which one would survive.
His mind had always been made up, probably since he was a child and unaware of what waited for him in the future. As Ron used to say, time does not like to be tampered with… déjà vu – ghost memories of the past, those of the future, slipping in and out of our dreams and consciousness. Did anyone really know how many times aliens had tampered with time because of his invention?
Not anymore. He wasn’t going back. Mars would be his final destination. The planet he had always dreamed of would become his tomb – at least for a little while. He hoped that one day a new mission would bring his body back to Earth.
Despite that he knew the end was near, Brad found himself incredibly calm. He observed the Oasis orbiter slip over the horizon. He counted down the time. He expected one more visitor. Just a few more minutes… when it was a mathematical certainty that he wouldn’t be able to reach the lander in time, the stranded alien appeared before Brad.
Brad smiled. What are you going to do now, he asked in his mind, revelling the moment. You can’t very well kill me, can you now? You need me alive to survive, don’t you? You will wait and wait and hope that someone back on Earth will develop the time machine, even if you know very well that without me the odds are nearly impossible.
Brad Walsh was the alien’s only chance to get off the planet.
I will give you everything you want if you return to Earth, the alien replied. I can show you things that you have never imagined.
I already have everything I want, Brad said, struggling for breath as the oxygen started running out. I have Earth. I pity you.
And then he closed his eyes and imagined. He imagined Bobby at the controls next to him and knew that nothing could ever go wrong if they just stuck together. He looked at Bobby. Bobby looked at him. They were eight years old again. They were full of confidence. Death was just a meaningless word reserved for old people – nothing else.
Where to then? Bobby asked with his swaggering tone.
Home, Bobby. Home.
A few years later
President Holloway extended his arm towards former President Dora Keen Walsh and invited her to sit down.
The red, hollow eyes attested to the strong, stressful emotions that she had been living through these last few months, and especially during the last few days.
“Thank you, Mr. President, for bringing my husband back home.”
The President solemnly nodded. “If there’s anything I can personally do for you, I will be here.”
A small smile flickered on Dora’s face. “Thank you. You have already done so much and the support I’ve had through these years has been heartwarming.”
The President observed the frail, tired woman in front of him. She was very different from the person she had been years ago when in office. The last year of her Presidency had been very trying and although she had brought to term her mandate, it had not been an easy year. It was whispered that many decisions had been made by the Vice President.
Dora smiled tightly as she rose from the chair. She really had little else to say and knew that every moment of the Presidency was precious. The Oval Office was not a place to linger. She bit her lip. She had destroyed the USB key a few days after receiving it from Bobby. She didn’t want to go mad seeing the clips of Brad speaking about incomprehensible things like time travel, aliens, conspiracies, cataclysms, end of the world, extinction of the human species and another species calling Earth home far in the future. A timeline from which Brad insisted that he came from, or better, that would have existed if he had not gone back in time to the exact moment he was about to land on Mars.
“I have one last request.”
President Holloway likewise rose from his chair. “Please. As I said, if there’s anything I can do…”
“Did the astronauts take a picture of Curiosity?”
President Holloway frowned at the strange request.
“A picture? I’m sure they did. Why?”
“I want to see the pictures,” Dora stated.
The President was a little taken aback and Dora read his baffled eyes.
“Well, yes. They are classified, but I don’t think access would be denied to a former President.”
Dora’s face flickered again with a quick, quirky smile. Holloway was beginning to realize that the subtle voices about her state of mind were not merely rumors. She basically shunned public life and for all practical purposes, lived as a recluse, far removed from the circle of acquaintances and friends that had so much adored her. He felt tremendous sadness for her at that moment.
“Good. Can I see them right now?” she asked in a blunt voice which was rather unexpected.
“Now?” the President asked. “Here right now?”
He glanced at his watch and then back at her. He felt tempted to tell her that he had a busy schedule lined up, but she deserved more than that. He called a staff member and voiced her request.
There was an awkward silence between the two as they waited. Dora’s eyes were unfocused, looking away, as if she was reminiscing of another time. President Holloway looked down at his laptop, impatiently waiting for the information while trying to keep from appearing rude. He would have liked to offer a few more words of comfort, but what could one say to a wife who had waited nearly two decades to get the body of her husband back – a man who had, in many ways, embarrassed the space program and nullified the sacrifices and hard work of so many people?
Thank God the other two astronauts returned safely home and were not affected by any rash decision the commander might have taken. He shuddered to think what could have happened on the orbiter during the long journey home, given the undiagnosed mental conditions of the commander. Brad Walsh could easily have sent the spacecraft off target while the other two astronauts slept, sending the spacecraft off into the void of space – forever.
“Here they are,” he said, relieved, that the photos had finally arrived. He clicked on the link. “There are quite a few of them. Hundreds.”
His phone rang. He quickly responded.
“Yes, I know, John. I’ll be there in exactly five minutes.”
He shut off the line and his eyes darted back to his guest. He turned his laptop around, towards her, so that they could both see. She needed to leave.
“Is there any particular one that you are interested in? I can get one of my aides to assist you if you need more time?”
Dora leaned forward, not paying the President more attention than was necessary, as she stared at the first picture on the screen. Her eyes were burning.
“This one will do.”
The President was momentarily confused as the woman in front changed expression. He observed her sharp, clear eyes as she focused on the picture. Her composed face suddenly became very Presidential. This was the look of the woman of the pictures and clips he had seen when she brilliantly led the country. He face sparkled, and even if she had aged, she was still a very beautiful woman. She was considered, after all, one of the most attractive and engaging woman of her generation – one with not only a remarkable intelligence, but a seductive personality as well.
Holloway turned to observe the picture. It was just one of the many land rovers that NASA had sent, Curiosity. He had thought that Dora perhaps wanted to look at a picture of her dead husband who had been found sitting on his vehicle, Scorpion, looking straight at Curiosity.
Dora held her gaze a moment longer on the picture. Curiosity was intact. It was not disassembled. There were no pieces neatly lined up beside the vehicle. Brad had done it. His real mission was complete.
She gazed into the questioning eyes of President Holloway.
“We’ve won,” she whispered, and bit her trembling lip.
“We’ve won,” she repeated with a stronger voice, her pride clearly shining through her eyes. Brad was right. Bobby was right. They did the right thing. Brad did not go mad. He completed his mission – his true mission.
Dora wiped a tear from her cheek as she rose and extended her hand.
“Thank you, President Holloway,” she said as she reached and firmly shook the uncertain hand he held out. “In every decision you make, always remember the people, our country and our beautiful planet. Keep us safe, Mr. President.”
President’s Holloway’s grin was rather shallow as he speechlessly nodded.
He stared at her back as she left the Oval Office. He turned his laptop around and intently scanned the picture she had been gazing at. We’ve won.
The phone rang. President Holloway sighed and closed his laptop.
The nine part series, Area 51, is based on the original short story 10. Area 51, published in 2011.
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Area 51 is a 9 Part Series
Part One: Mission To Mars
Part Two: Revelation
Part Three: Contact
Part Four: Conflict
Part Five: Apocalypse
Part Six: Pendulum
Part Seven: Alliance
Part Eight: Rebirth
Part Nine: Mission To Mars II
Brad's childhood dream is about to come true. In a few weeks, he is about to lift off to Mars along with his best friend, Bobby, for the historic mission. He is ecstatic, but at the same time, Brad cannot wait to come back home. Dora questions his ability to lead the mission since Brad has decided that this would be his last mission into space. The voyage to Mars goes well, but what happens on Mars might well validate Dora's point of view.