by Jim Janus
Against the black infinity of space, a rocket-ship floated like a blimp above a long and gradual curve of the Red Planet. The ship’s bulging hull, like a mirror, gathered what could be seen–the field of stars, the distant sun, the rust colored horizon–and reflected it all back.
Inside the rocket’s nose-cone, two figures in bulky spacesuits sat side by side, their white helmets facing the fore of the ship, their dark visors reflecting indicator lamps, and their thick-gloved fingers floating before an array of knobs and switches.
The silver ship slowed, nosed up, then began its descent to Mars. The rocket descended vertically, a reverse of its liftoff from Earth. Fire-columns thundered from nozzles at the ship’s bottom. The blaze of orange and yellow pushed against the Martian ground, stirring red sand into a billowing cloud through which the ship set down on the planet.
The engines quieted, and silence filled the ship. As the astronauts awaited their signal a speaker crackled with a voice, “This is Mission Control calling Vegas Station. Sandship One has landed.”
Beyond the upright rocket’s porthole the night sky glimmered with pinpoints of bright white, but one shone a brilliant blue. The captain didn’t notice, but Lieutenant Ellison did. He used a scope to magnify the object, and discovered that the brilliance came not from a star but from a faraway planet with oceans of blue brightened by a more distant sun. Ellison gazed in awe of Earth.
On Earth a small town slept as streetlamps shined orange onto tree-lined lanes. In the dark, dewy lawns lay in squares formed by sidewalks, and the walks leading to concrete stoops. Above each stoop, a single porch-light lit the front door of a brick home.
Atop a shingled roof towered an aluminum antenna. It gathered radio waves and routed them down to a cool basement, dim and unfinished. There an aging man in a thick sweater sat at a wooden table before a shortwave radio. From the metal console a cable curled up to a pair of large headphones cupped over his ears. Through the headset a voice crackled, “Mission Control to Vegas Station. We’ve delivered your astronauts. Captain Borges, you and the lieutenant get some sleep. At dawn we’ll commence the Mars walk.”
This transmission stirred the old man from his daydream, in which he saw the landing like those in the sci-fi movies of the nineteen thirties. Hearing the radio transmission assured him that now, men really would walk on Mars. He’d been waiting for it since he was a boy and wanted to be part of it. So he clicked a radio button and pulled forward a tall, chrome microphone and spoke, “This is Waukegan-One calling Sandship One.” Then he listened through the hiss and hum and squeal for a response, but the voice that came next came from behind him.
“Dad?” His middle-aged son in jeans and a t-shirt called from the bottom of the stairs. “Dad!”
The old man pulled off the headphones and swiveled around, his face feeling warm as he realized his son might have heard him. “You startled me. You’re back from the library already?”
“I’ve been back for a while. What are you doing?” The son rubbed his own arms. “It’s cold down here.”
The old man’s embarrassment went away. “Using this radio is my nighttime routine. Do you know it works as good now as when I built it fifty years ago?” The old man’s blue eyes became blank for a moment, then the spark returned. “How was the presentation?”
“It was fantastic! The author discussed his book about the Mars mission. Tomorrow he’s touring the control room in Nevada. It’s from there that Borges and Ellison operate the mechanical astronauts.”
Though the newspaper reported for months that the mission would be unmanned, the father rejected the idea. “Mechanical astronauts?” That’s no way to explore Mars! Man himself must take the ride, step off the ladder, feel his boot sink into the red dust. When life on Mars is discovered, Man must be there to look it in the eye!”
The son smiled, familiar with his father’s retro temperament. “Like in that vintage sci-fi poster over your desk?” The son continued, trying to be kind. “Dad, you know rockets don’t land backwards. And ladders don’t slide down from under their fins.” Then he shook his head, “And as for looking a Martian in the eye…there’s no life there. The probes and rovers confirmed that.”
The old man mocked, “The probes and rovers confirmed that.” Then he protested, “Technology has ruined it! The remote missions, the imaging, the Internet and its interactive globe of Mars. All this destroys our imagination, destroys the possibilities, destroys the wonder!”
The son appreciated his father’s sentimentality. “Dad, come upstairs. We can watch the mission together. This one is different. The mechanical astronauts let us see through their eyes.”
“Nah.” The old man dismissed the offer. “I won’t watch. But I’ll be up in a few minutes. First I need to write some notes about what the radio picked up tonight.”
The son’s steps on the wooden stairs echoed off the basement walls, and the old man turned to the console. He put the headphones on, reached for the dial, pulled forward the chrome microphone and whispered, “Sandship One, this is Waukegan Station. Confirm Martian sunrise.” Then he continued a little louder, “Captain Borges. Lieutenant Ellison. Time to commence the Mars walk!”
The old man’s mind resumed the movie. He imagined his message being converted into radio waves, sent up through the antenna into the still night sky, up into space where a planet shined red. On that world, rising above its rust colored horizon, the white sun silhouetted the standing rocket-ship. From it, a ladder slid down. Then an astronaut in a bulky spacesuit descended, and stepped back from the last rung onto the Martian powder. The figure turned from the ship and began to walk. It paused, knelt down, pulled off its glove, and plunged its hand into the soil. The astronaut brought up its cupped palm and let the red sand sift through its fingers.
“Dad!” The son called down from the living room. “It’s started. Ellison’s astronaut has stepped out of the lander.”
But the movie continued in the old man’s mind. The astronaut stood and removed his helmet, then his mouth shaped into a scream and his eyes grew wide, as he came face to face with a Martian.