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The last Martians clung desperately to life, knowing their situation was hopeless. They practiced a truth known throughout the universe: life is precious. The underground cities they inhabited were littered with corpses. Their scientists had predicted this turn of events, but none believed it true until it was too late.
The atmosphere of the planet began to thin, but since they inhabited the planet‟s core and manufactured their own atmosphere, the population worried little. As long as they had their magnificent oceans on the surface, the source of the life-giving power they required to exist, the declining atmosphere was of little concern.
The scientists tried to explain the impact of the loss of the atmosphere. One prominent scientist addressed the supreme council, “We are safe in our cities, we control most of the aspects of our life – the atmosphere, food production – but we do not control the oceans on
which our lives depend.
“Our atmosphere is slowly changing, escaping into space. A thousand years from now, our planet will be much different. The atmosphere will be too thin to support life, but you say, „we make our own atmosphere‟, that is correct but we cannot duplicate the surface water that gives us life.
“Our oceans will disappear. With little atmosphere, much of the water will sublime into space. What water remains will freeze. No longer will the streams of life filter from the surface to fill our lakes. We may be able to farm the ice, but we will never be able to supply the vast amount our society requires. Understand, we can manufacture water, but it will not be the same life-giving water contained on the surface.”
A thousand years passed; the scientist‟s prophecy came to fruition. The oceans began to disappear. The planet cooled, the atmosphere thinned and what remained of the oceans froze. Where once the deafening roar from the oceans above filling the lakes below echoed through the interior, there was silence.
Rationing began, but an estimate of one hundred years was given for the society‟s existence. As the years passed, the lakes grew smaller and smaller. Eventually, they became ponds of mud, and then parched ground.
The last Martians huddled near what water remained. No one had the strength to venture to the surface to gather ice. They grieved for their magnificent cities, now vast wastelands filled with rotting bodies. All hope for their civilization was lost.
* * *
Jeff Granger and Tom Nariba, mission specialists and the first men chosen to walk on Mars, waved to the cheering crowd as they approached the spacecraft that would take them on their journey. Behind them came Bill Griss and Donald Summers, copilot and mission commander for the Mars mission. They would remain in orbit around the red planet, mapping and performing scientific studies while relaying communications to and from Earth to the team on Mars‟ surface. The astronauts craned their necks, taking in the massive rocket. The vehicle would take them on a sojourn that would last eighteen months. The rocket was half the size of the Saturn V used for the lunar missions. Composed of two stages, the first stage would launch them and the second stage would take them to the International Space Station where it would be refueled for their journey to the red planet. The fact that the booster could refuel at the International Space Station made the trip possible. Once refueled, the booster would take them to Mars, and then orbit the planet while their exploratory module descended to the planet‟s
Jeff turned to Tom and said, “I still find it hard to believe we are going to Mars. We will answer major questions man has had about the red planet. Was there ever life on Mars? Does life, in some form, exist there now?”
Jeff and Tom were in their thirties and entered the astronaut program ten years ago. Both had extensive training in space travel. They were excellent physical specimens, practically guaranteed to remain disease free for the length of the mission. Jeff, with his short-cropped blond hair, startling blue eyes, and athletic build, would not look out of place on a California beach. Tom topped Jeff‟s six-foot frame by two inches. His black hair and swarthy complexion hinted at his Arab roots.
In addition to age and experience, the two men had common family backgrounds. Both were only children of parents now dead. Both had never been married. Extensive psychological tests conducted for extended space missions indicated that the fewer relationships a man was tied to on Earth, the better the chance that he would have no problems during the lonely months on the planet‟s surface doing research. That they had reached this age without any significant relationships spoke of the fact that they were both loners, comfortable with the isolation this mission would involve.
The psychological profiles of Bill Griss and Donald Summers, mission commander, were nearly opposite that of the men going to the planet‟s surface. Where Jeff and Tom fit the caricature of the isolated scientist, Bill and Donald were test pilots – flyers. The little science
they knew had been spoon-fed to them in preparation for this mission. Their ability to make split second decisions under adverse circumstances was why they were important to the crew. They were also family men with wives and children they would miss during the lengthy mission. While the two crewmembers were on the planet, they would be working in close proximity on various scientific projects. They were more gregarious – would find the isolating work on the
planet‟s surface distasteful. This also made for a good mix of personalities on the long journey to Mars and back.
The module, which would take them to the Martian surface, was already waiting at the space station, along with a vehicle for extended ground exploration. Both would be attached to the booster after it was refueled. The launch from Earth, on their epic voyage, was uneventful and on time. Each man experienced a twinge of sadness knowing they would not set foot on Earth for eighteen months. But these feelings faded rapidly, replaced by the excitement of the adventure ahead. Donald Summers surveyed his crew as the bone-jarring launch made communication impossible and thought, We must prove that machines lack the flexibility that the
human mind can provide, that man can digest data to answer questions that cannot be anticipated by robotic sensors. So much depends on the answers we provide.
Docking with the space station went smoothly. They would spend two days there with the space station crew before they made their final leap to Mars. The Mars module had to be thoroughly inspected while their booster was being refueled. Jeff and Tom had practiced checking and preparing the module countless times, yet after all the training sessions, this time the procedure felt different. This time it was real.
With all the supplies loaded, they released from the space station and the booster, along with its human cargo, slowly drifted away. With small positioning thrusts, the booster‟s orbit
decelerated. Before long the distance between it and the space station was more than one hundred miles. The booster fired, signaling the beginning of the longest space journey man had ever undertaken. Bill Griss was the first to speak as the Earth grew smaller and details blurred, “We‟re leaving our comfortable planet to explore a dead world. I wonder what we will find and if we will answer the ultimate question, has Mars ever harbored life?”
The astronauts were kept busy on their trip by a host of experiments to accomplish and observations to make. Their spacecraft contained a refractor telescope for visual observations and an infrared telescope. Once free of the Earth‟s atmosphere, their jobs would make time fly during the seven month long journey to Mars and their return flight home.
On Mars, Jeff and Tom would spend four months exploring the red planet, looking for life, and confirming the presence of water detected by unmanned probes, along with geological observations before their return flight. Each had unique specialties. Jeff was a geologist. His mission was to explore a series of rock formations identified by previous unmanned missions. Tom was a biologist. His task was to explore for water, try to determine the amount contained on the surface, and to examine the water for signs of life – bacteria or viruses. With Jeff‟s help,
he would also drill into geologic formations that might harbor secrets of the planet‟s past.
One day, when they were half way to the red planet, Jeff asked Tom, “Since I was a kid,
I‟ve heard about little green men. My favorite movie was „War of the Worlds‟. Now I‟m going there and I still can‟t believe it. The closer we get, the more anxious I am to know if some form of life could be waiting there for us.”
Tom answered, “I‟ve been thinking about the prospect of finding life too. It will be a great discovery if we do. But it will also signal the end of our civilization‟s conviction that it holds a unique place in the universe. I hope we find some sign of Martian life. But at the same time, I sometimes fear the consequences such a discovery may involve.”
The four men were surprised how fast time passed on their journey. While they were conducting their assigned experiments, Mars went from a distant point of light to a discernable disc to a moon-sized sphere, and finally to a new world.
With the help of the onboard computer, the booster inserted itself into orbit around the red planet, an orbit that would take the craft over a previously discovered ice field. Jeff and Tom prepared to make their momentous journey to the surface. They separated their module from the booster and headed toward Mars. Their module resembled the lunar craft used long ago, but on a much larger scale. When time came for them to return to the booster, the lower part of the module would remain behind with instrumentation that would continue to monitor the planet‟s surface. Their living quarters would rejoin the booster and reattach for the voyage back to Earth.
The touchdown on the Martian surface set both their hearts racing. Each had wondered about the feelings this moment would produce. In the end, pure awe was the product. They viewed the pale orange landscape out their portal, contrasted against a pure ebony sky. Jeff said to Tom, “I know it‟s against regulations, but I think we should both take the first steps on the surface together.” Tom happily agreed.
An hour later, they were suited up and ready to leave the module. As they stepped on the Martian surface, they said the lines they had practiced for the audience back on Earth. “We bring the presence of mankind to our sister planet Mars. Fiction has dealt with the prospect that this red planet harbors life. We have journeyed to seek the truth behind the fiction.” Once the
excitement of their first steps wore off, both men settled down to complete their assigned tasks.
The module had landed on the intended ice field. Tom took core samples and made seismic tests to determine the depth of the ice. He found the depth to vary between thirty and fifty feet deep. He already knew the dimensions of the field from orbiting observations; it was over ten thousand square miles. This would supply an abundant amount of water for future explorations and make possible the establishment of colonies that would serve as a stepping-stone for future space exploration.
Tom examined the Martian ice for signs of life by gently melting a quantity of water, then passing the solution through two filter sizes. The first filter would trap any bacteria present. These filters were subjected to various growth media to see if any colonies would form. He centrifuged some of the water to concentrate any bacteria present to observe microscopically. However, no pellet formed – no vast amounts of bacteria were present. The second filter would be used to detect viruses. Samples from the surface of the filters were injected into eggs to see if viruses could be made to proliferate. During these studies Tom wore a special bio-suit to protect him from any life form present. Samples of water would also make the return trip to Earth for further study. Tom ran test after test, knowing his research might take weeks to yield results, hoping something would be revealed before they departed for Earth.
Jeff spent days roaming the Martian landscape while Tom remained in the spacecraft. He drove the exploration vehicle to distant geologic formations, taking samples and making measurements. He had never felt such deep peace knowing he was alone, studying, charting and sampling the alien landscape. In formations containing minerals that might support life, all the
tests were negative. He could not believe the universe was sterile, with the exception of the Earth.
The time to journey back to Earth rapidly approached. The astronauts had spent over three months working extremely hard in their quest to discover life. Jeff had obtained samples from various rock formations and found no evidence of fossils. Tom had not been able either to observe or grow any bacteria; all tests for viruses were negative too.
Days before their voyage home the crew orbiting Mars ran into their first major problem. The fuel cells‟ mechanism used to manufacture water on the orbiter broke down. They would still be able to process their urine into potable water but their bodies used water. They would never be able to survive the seven-month journey home on the dwindling water their urine yielded.
Mission control was notified. Jeff and Tom had fuel cells on their surface module to manufacture water while they were on the planet‟s surface. But the part of the craft that contained the fuel cells would remain behind. They could not manufacture enough water to last the return trip. The solution was obvious, a solution the astronauts had already decided upon but waited to be confirmed. The voice from mission control said, “You are sitting on a vast amount of water. Fill your storage tanks with filtered water; filtered twice, it will be free of bacteria and viruses – sterile. That, along with your processed urine should provide enough water for you to return home.”
The Martian water‟s pH level was tested and found to be nearly neutral; water on Earth
was slightly acidic due to dissolved carbon dioxide. Atomic absorption analysis was also run to discover if there were any dissolved minerals present. The water contained fewer trace minerals than water found on Earth. Later, as a mission control scientist studied the analysis he commented, “The Martian water is purer than what comes out of my faucet. Probably tastes
better too.” Tom spent the last days melting and filtering water, then filling all the storage tanks to the brim.
The time came to depart from Mars. As the two men watched the orange surface recede into a red disc, they felt a twinge of regret. Their capsule coupled with the orbiter that would take them home. As they departed Mars‟ orbit Donald Summers said to his crew, “We did not discover the signs of life we had hoped for. We still have an enormous amount of data to review and the soil and water samples we‟re returning to Earth may still yield some indication that life once existed on Mars.” Jeff and Tom agreed with Summers that their samples might still yield some clues of life on the red planet. But each crewmember secretly harbored the fear that Mars was a sterile world. Perhaps mankind was a unique product of fortunate circumstances in an otherwise sterile infinity.
Four months into their return flight they found it necessary to begin consumption of the Martian water. Tom was first to sample the Martian water. “Bottoms up,” he said. He took a long drink then said, “This water does taste great, but, is it my imagination, or does it have a
strange aftertaste?” Bill responded, “You‟re right. But I can tolerate the aftertaste for three
months if the alternative is dying of thirst.” The four men learned to ignore the strange taste,
knowing the water was pure, and looked forward to returning home.
Jeff was the first to notice the beginning of the change. His thick blond hair had begun to thin; in fact, all the hair on his body began to disappear. He took to wearing a baseball cap to hide his change of appearance. One day Tom saw him without his cap and asked, “What the hell is happening to you?” His questions ceased when he found clumps of his own hair in the sink.
Soon all four of the astronauts suffered the same malady, complete loss of all hair.
Bill and Donald both had families, which lead them to experience more anxiety than the two single astronauts. Bill said to Donald, “I have no idea what is happening to us. I try to think of my family but I‟m beginning to forget them.” With a weary look Donald responded, “I am too. I don‟t know what‟s going on.”
In addition, they experienced a decrease in the musculature of their arms and legs. Their arms and legs lengthened and became exceedingly thin while the little fingers of their hands withered and were lost. Fear of all the changes they had undergone was short lived for their brains were changing as well.
Five months into their journey home all communications with mission control ceased. The minds of the astronauts were confused, not able to focus. They found the words communicated to them alien, but were able to read the thoughts behind the words. Their thoughts remained confused until they crossed the boundary from human to Martian. They were now at peace knowing the mission they were sent to fulfill. The four beings sat perfectly still and studied one another with their huge black eyes. They felt no alarm as their skin turned a grayish hue and their skulls enlarged to become huge cranial domes.
Back on Earth, Emma Griss and Rhonda Summers, wives of the two astronauts, talked often. During one call, Rhonda told Emma, “It‟s been so long since we‟ve had any word from
the capsule. I‟m sure there must be some kind of telemetry being received from the spacecraft. I wish mission control would give us more information.” The two women continued to call each other on a regular basis but their mutual hope was rapidly replaced by fear.
* * *
The space capsule separated from its booster and began its fiery descent to the Pacific Ocean. A fleet of naval ships was on hand for retrieval. The parachutes deployed and the craft landed precisely where intended. The computers had functioned flawlessly. Divers from a hovering helicopter jumped into the water to attach a cable to the capsule that delivered it to a nearby aircraft carrier. A specially trained technician opened the capsule‟s hatch. With no word
from the crew for so long he feared all he would discover upon opening the capsule would be four corpses. The sight that greeted him repulsed him. He immediately shouted for aid to remove the four.
* * *
A week after the four astronauts returned to Earth, after the most important space voyage ever accomplished by mankind, the world still was deprived of greeting the heroes. The press clamored for information. Speculation ran rampant about the outcome of the expedition. There
were theories that they had remained on the surface of Mars, or that they had not survived the trip.
George Fredrick, head of NASA, arranged a meeting in the building housing the astronauts with members of the media to end all conjecture.
The small auditorium was packed with international press. A remote feed to a larger room in another building held the overflow. The tension was palpable as the NASA head approached the podium.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the press, I have called this meeting to end all speculation on the outcome of our Martian expedition and to introduce you to our gallant astronauts.
“Before I present them, I would like to say something about the conclusions formed from
the information Jeff and Tom obtained from their exploration of the surface of Mars. Although no signs of life were found, there is an extremely strong possibility that civilizations have existed there in the past.”
George Fredrick waited for the uproar of the audience to die down.
“In a sense, from what we can determine, there may never have been true Martians. Mars, silently awaiting visitors, transforms them according to its own design.
“As you all know, the one major problem experienced on this mission was the breakdown
of our water-making capabilities. Because of this, our astronauts were forced to drink filtered, sterilized Martian water. We know now that even though this water was sterile, it was not pure.
“After our astronauts returned, the water was further analyzed. One method used was
western blot technology to determine if there were any foreign proteins present. It was found that indeed there were. What we discovered in the Martian water was the presence of prions. These bits of protein although not alive, have the ability to alter living beings. On this planet, prions cause „mad cow disease‟ and its human counterpart Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. On Earth,
all prion-related diseases are fatal.”
Fredrick next showed a slide of the Martian prion protein structure.
“These prions can apparently function as some sort of super virus. By a manner not yet understood these prions have the ability to take over the biochemistry of whatever creature consumes them and convert that creature into what can only be called a Martian. This finding was truly unexpected. The reason I say that Mars may have harbored life in the past is because, in the study of nature, we know that nature does not expend energy without a plan. These prions are there for a purpose. They harbor the unique property of creating Martians from any being that ingests them. They possess the total consciousness of the planet. Our voyage to the red planet may have been the first time it had been visited, but I find that doubtful. The discovery of these prions demonstrates there are forces at work in the universe that we can only begin to comprehend.
“One aspect of our astronauts' return trip was puzzling. Why did they not contact mission control when they noticed the first physical changes? On Earth, prions affect only the brain. It is only conjecture, but we feel that long before any physical manifestations occurred, the brain was first affected. Once they had all ingested the prions, the brain was immediately