I suppose it’s my grandmother’s story, more than mine.
I’m famous – because of something a young woman did a lifetime ago.
It’s my grandmother’s story, but it’s also mine, because without it I wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t be here, and you certainly wouldn’t be talking to me.
It’s my grandmother’s story. But she gave it to me. So it’s mine now, too.
You can’t call it re-entry, can you, if it’s the first time you’ve crashed through that particular planet’s atmosphere. That wasn’t really a question. I do wonder what that sensation is called – when the dull roar begins, and you feel it, rising through your bones, and it threatens to shake your landing capsule apart. When you see a planet swell and grow in front of you, and you feel so important – we are the first! – yet so infinitesimally small.
What do they call it, that feeling, when you know that somewhere, beneath you, waiting for you, lie the smashed lander and the wind-picked, sand-scoured bodies of the first crew?
What do they call that? Because, it seems to me that words like ‘dread’, or ‘terror’, or ‘gut-twisting-agony-mixed-with-excitement’ don’t quite make the grade. Like none of the words we have can really even come close to those types of feelings. What’s the word for that feeling you get when the voice of Master Control finally comes through, riddled by the static of having to cross two hundred and twenty five million kilometres, give or take a few, their voice pulled apart by the gulf of distance between you, delayed by twenty minutes? You manage to – eventually – process the fact that those men and women who left the safety of wide-open horizons and air that you can breathe and trees and other humans three months before you did are now gone, smashed to pieces and martyred on the surface of Mars?
What do you say to news like that?
In the official transcript, there are four asterisks beside my grandmother’s name. I think she said just about all that you could say to that news.
So they landed here, sombre-but-excited, at Zubrin Base. The earlier, robotic ships had done their thing, setting down the hab complexes and the drones – the dead bodies lay somewhere nearby.
There is always a hierarchy, always a schedule of events, and code words and authorities to respect – when you consider that NASA and the CNSA and the ISRO all had their roots in the Cold War of the Twentieth Century, it kind of makes sense. I guess they just hung on to their military roots. So while the Commander was making his now-famous call back to Earth (“Master Control Facility…this is Angaraka One…we have landed.” You know the rest – he almost-quoted Giordano Bruno: We have spread our confident wings to space…Everyone knows the rest.), the delegation of actual, necessary, tasks had begun.
This is all in the history books – they connected Zubrin Base to the dusted-over solar panels, and started refuelling the lander, setting the drones to reconfigure it, to draw out the embryonic launch vehicle that lay within it, potential waiting to be realised. They wanted to escape again.
There was debate, there, on the red planet’s surface. It is interesting to reflect on how human institutions and human concepts arrived on Mars – first there were probes, dumb landers that radioed back to Earth before dying, then more intelligent ones, chattering and taking selfies and pretending to be almost-people, singing to themselves “Happy Birthday” each year. Our proxies, imitating us. Then there actually were people – and our first political action on another planet was dictatorial, and in proper accordance with military hierarchy. Within minutes, it seemed to reach the pinnacle of human interaction: democracy and reasoned debate.
It quickly descended into an argument.
And then out came the gun.
Apparently, the sound a gunshot makes is thinner on Mars – I’ve never heard one, outside of a film. A red rose flowered on Pithasthana’s chest – she bucked, as the air leapt from her suit in a stream of silver, before she crumpled onto the sand. Jones, the token American had a pistol in his hand. They were going back to Earth, he said, once the drones had reconfigured the lander. That was what the Master Control Facility had said, all the way back in Hassan. And they, the first humans to walk on another planet, were going to sit, and wait, meekly following orders.
But they pick astronauts based on merit, not for cowardice.
They demurred to Jones’ face, and, together decided on something, decided on another plan.
Pao Weimin waited until Jones slept – it was a very long time, not only is the Martian day is forty minutes longer than the Terran one, but Jones was swallowing stim pills for three days. And those pills weren’t designed to help keep him calm. Pao got him with a shard of Puthasthana’s visor – it shattered when she fell – it was poetic justice, he always used to say.
The newspapers on Earth went crazy: Mutiny on Mars! It’s certainly a catchy headline. The Master Control threatened to hold off on launching another ship, or any more supplies – it was a PR nightmare from the start, and even more so once the papers got wind of what had actually happened, they started calling Jones the first Martian Murderer, a title Pao had held only a week beforehand.
My grandmother always used to say that you can tell a lot about a person once you’ve lived in a tiny hab module with them on half-rations for six months. I believe her – but it couldn’t have been all bad. There was a crop of babies, less than a year after the rebellion, or mutiny, or whatever you want to call it. We prefer to think of it as our Declaration of Independence. The gunshot heard across the void.
Of course I’m glossing over the troops landing, and finding their orders had been rescinded four months earlier, or that maybe they liked it on that red rock a little bit more than they thought they would. But that’s all part of the official history, not my grandmother’s story, which is now mine. Well, one of the troopers is in my grandmother’s story, and mine. Yéyé came down on that rocket ship, in silver scale armour, protected against the void.
And then the supply ships started to land, and more scientists began to arrive, and they tried to ship all the mothers with babes in arms off planet. That didn’t go down well either. But eventually Mission Control agreed, and stopped trying to make people do things they didn’t want to do – which is a much nicer way to organise a society, don’t you think?