It had taken forty five minutes for Liam Johnson, Tyler Williams and me, Alex Peters, to don our spacesuits, in preparation for our first walk on Mars. James Clark was to stay behind, ready to alert Ground Control of our progress. It was decided Tyler would be first to set foot upon this strange red planet, followed by Liam. I would follow at the rear.
I watched the two in front safely exit the ship before making my way through the hatch. After checking our umbilical cords were safely secured we moved tentatively from the security of the ship, and with school boy excitement moved forward. Tyler was aware his job was to get a message back to James, describing our first impressions – a message which would soon be winging its way around the world.
I saw Liam tap Ty on his shoulder and they both looked to where he was pointing. Something was lying on the ground a little way from us. They eased their way towards it and Liam bent down awkwardly to pick the object up.
“Is everything OK out there guys, or have you decided to make it your new home?”
James’ English accent fed into our earpieces.
“Yes, all well,” replied Tyler, “but hold any announcements James. We’re coming back in. We’ve found something that needs to be checked out.”
Slowly we made our way back to the safety of the ship.
“What’s the problem?” enquired James once we were all inside.
“It seems someone’s beaten us to it James. The Russians appear to have got here first – but why the hell didn’t we hear about it?”
Back in Washington the world was waiting for news, and the American President could give them none. This was supposed to be a great day for America. What on earth should he do? He looked at the worried faces seated around the table in the Oval office.
“We could just keep our mouths shut,” offered Vice President Bill Masters. “The Russians obviously didn’t want anyone to hear about their mission, so why not let them think their flag was never found? They’re unlikely to disagree; the last thing they’d want the world to know is that for some reason they failed.”
“But why Bill?” interrupted the President. “What happened up there they don’t want disclosed?”
Silence hung once more around the table, until Drew Andrews broke in.
“Whatever it was we need to know. They obviously landed in the same area. There must be some clue left to explain what went on there.”
The President nodded. “Looks like our boys could be looking for more than just rock samples this time.”
The Russian President was also looking for news of the American landing. He was eager to know what was happening up there and nervous no news had been broadcast. He knew the Americans would be first to blow their trumpets if the spacewalk had been a success. Why the silence?
“We need to know what’s happening. Get a message up to our man. If he’s still alive tell him to watch and wait and to report back only if there’s something we need to know – something to protect the Motherland.
Meanwhile back on board the spaceship:- “Guys we’ve been given the go ahead. President Saunders is going to tell the world we’ve just touched down and are preparing to take our first Mars walk. No one will be told of our find.”
“So the last walk was just a dress rehearsal, was it?” laughed Liam. “Strange to find that Russian flag though. I can’t think why they kept it quiet.”
“They must have had their reasons. Ours is not to wonder why …” I responded, “Let’s just get on with the job we’ve been sent up here to do.”
So the world cheered as we embarked upon our Mars-walk – not knowing we’d done one a few hours earlier.
The next time we went out we took James, while Liam stayed on board. We needed rock samples, so wandered a little further from the ship. When we’d been out for about seven hours Ty signalled to indicate we’d call it a day.
“Just one more.” James’s voice vibrated through the device in my helmet and I watched as he bent down to collect the last rock.
Suddenly WHAM! Something seemed to leap from the ground beneath the rock and rip into his gloved hand. It happened so fast I wondered if I’d really seen it. However, when Ty signalled to get him back to the ship quickly, I realised he’d seen it too. We knew if the glove was punctured James would be in real trouble.
We got him back on board as soon as possible but even then his thermal suit was losing heat.
“What the hell was it?” James was visibly shaken. “I must have snagged it on something.”
Ty looked across at me.
“These suits are designed to take enormous pressure, much more than we’re ever likely to put on them,” he whispered. “There’s no way that damage could have happened by a simple snag.”
I helped James out of his suit and looked at the red mark visible on his hand. It wasn’t long before he began to shake violently and then to vomit.
It had started.
I was prepared for such happenings but hadn’t believed it would begin so soon. I knew it unlikely James would last the night. I felt sorry; I’d grown to like this jovial Englishman. In order for the rest of us to survive I needed to get his body outside while he was still alive – if not we’d all become targets.
It had begun a year earlier. A Russian exploratory mission had taken on board insects – Tiger Beetles and Assassin Bugs – to see if they could withstand weightlessness. They’d been kept securely – but somehow managed to get out of their container, into the ship, and out into the atmosphere. No one thought they’d survive in space and the blunder would be kept secret. However, just to make sure, the ship landed briefly while a camera was set up to record what happened, just in case – and thinking the President would be pleased, a flag had been left behind.
You can imagine the astronaut’s horror when they discovered the insects not only survived, but the two species interbred and multiplied – and the ugly black bugs had grown to enormous size.
At home the insects were capable of severing limbs and body parts of other insects with their sharp mandibles. Their needle-like mouth could inject lethal saliva, liquidising their victim’s innards. Their new found strength meant they could now turn their attention to humans.
Not wanting the world aware of their mistake the Russian ship quickly departed, thinking no one need ever know. However, when it became known the Americans had a mission to land on Mars, I’d been trained to become an astronaut on that mission. My job, as a scientist, was to find and kill the giant insects and their larvae, by depositing specially developed serum, before they could cause any damage.
I readily agreed to take on this task. If the world found out about our mistake, the Motherland would become a laughing stock and that could never be endured.
The poison injected into James was from the venom of one of the larvae. They’d burrowed underground and had erupted from the red sand-like terrain to deliver their deadly sting. On Earth the insects inhabit dry regions – the conditions on Mars were ideal for them.
I waited with James until he’d become unconscious. I realised there was no way I could deal with him alone. If I was to get him outside I’d need help – so I told them my story.
“I’m prepared to pay for my countries wrong doing,” I concluded.
My words were met with silence. Eventually Ty spoke.
“You say the insects will attack?”
“Once the adults get the smell of dead meat they’ll be all over us.”
More silence. This time I broke it.
“It’s too late for James – and if we’re to stand any chance of getting home we need to get him outside. It’ll mean attaching him to the outside of ship. The beetles have hooks on their abdomens which they’ll anchor on to James. When they start to feed, we’ll let him go floating into space – and they’ll go with him.”
“Have we any other option?”
I shook my head.
“We need to get home – perhaps more so now,” Liam said gravely.
“When we do get home, what about you?” Ty asked.
“I hand myself in. I pay for my countries crime. It’s no more than any son would do for his mother.”
So it was decided.
James was all but dead by the time we put him out, certainly unconscious. He wouldn’t have felt a thing.
The giant beetles soon appeared in front of the ship, sensing food to be had. They were huge and shiny with black bulging eyes and thin spindly legs. Long tendrils of yellow pus-like saliva dripped from their mouths. This they injected into James. It would cause his innards to dissolve. In twenty minutes they’d take his whole body, cutting it up neatly with their long, curved mandibles.
Once they’d secured themselves on to James we had seen enough.
“Let go the ropes,” I said quietly – and we watched as James and his parasites floated off into space.
“Now for the larvae – we need to deposit serum around the area to make sure none will survive; then our job is done.”
Ty stayed inside while Liam and I set to work. I didn’t think the larvae would last long without their parents but I had to make sure.
It’s very quiet on board. I’d long decided neither Ty nor Liam could be allowed home to tell their story. I used the same serum I’d used on the larvae to kill them. I pushed them outside and watched them glide gently away.
Now it’s my turn. I’m not afraid. The world will think something went wrong with the American mission. No one will know what really happened. My countries honour will remain unharmed.
I, Alexei Petrov, will walk into space knowing I have served my people and I have made my Motherland proud.