The uMEL slams into the Martian atmosphere at 21,000 mph. Speed is quickly translated into heat. Soon the pod’s protective thermal skin becomes as hot as the surface of the sun. Six miles above the landing site, a parachute deploys to soften the descent. Seconds before impact, multiple airbags inflate like giant white grapes. The pod is traveling at 12 mph. when it hits the surface, bounces to a halt, raising a dust trail that settles slowly in the thin air.
Inside, Commander Jack Zheng blinks, pleased to find himself alive. His eyes burn from holding them open during the treacherous descent. He takes a few moments to release the protective harness, shake the tension out of his arms, and then reaches forward, flips a switch. Radio signals convey the news of a successful landing. Many would call Zheng brave, although he would be the first to assert that his courage is nothing more than academic rigor.
In the adjoining seat, Bart Kaminski opens his eyes. Kaminski hails from a long line of Texas oilmen. Like his daddy and his granddaddy before him, he believes in sin and God and the value of putting in a good day’s work. He also sets store by something he calls “core,” a conviction that every living thing possesses a kernel of goodness.
Eleven minutes later in the Mohave Desert, a Deep Space Network receiver picks up a short radio burst and relays it to mission control in Houston where pandemonium breaks loose. Men and women hug, laughing and crying with relief and joy. The man at the monitor next to Isabel Ortega grabs her by the shoulders and kisses her on the lips. The uMEL has landed—the crew is safe.
Despite the rising sun, it is very cold in the Gusev Crater, 55 degrees below centigrade. Cold enough to freeze blood, cold enough to turn the silicon pod into a refrigerated morgue within hours, unless the men can activate the solar panels. Zheng retracts the protective aeroshell, and glittering, black dragonfly wings unfold to the sun. Sealed inside the pod, the men see neither the sun nor the fragile wings, but a green light on the control panel signals success. The batteries are charging. There will be no need to tap the emergency fuel reserves
Kaminski produces two cups and a thermos of bourbon he has smuggled on board with the help of a friend in mission control. “Cheers,” he says, handing a cup to Zheng.
“Cheers,” Zheng nods, swallows. “To a successful mission,” he offers, raising his drink.
“And safe return,” Kaminski drains his cup. When he refills it, bourbon splashes over his thumb. Kaminski’s face is flushed. He wants to propose a toast: To Laura, but wisely holds his tongue. His wife’s name is Shirley. They have been married eleven years, and he is convinced he knows her every crease and fold. He has not seen Laura since college, not since she walked out on him in a Motel Six on San Padre Island over spring break. For reasons he doesn’t understand, she has haunted him this trip, her face hovering at the edges of his consciousness, her turned-up nose peeling still after a day at the beach.
About 80 kilometers from the pod, an invisible solar wind kicks up a swirl of dust and sends it dancing across the crater’s floor. Heavier grains of sand sift to the ground, but the suspended particles travel farther, the wind lifting and flinging them in devilish funnels.
A surveillance orbiter circling the planet transmits a silent alarm to Ortega’s console in Houston, igniting yet another storm.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“There can’t be a storm. It’s not the season. The perihelion isn’t for months.”
“Screw the perihelion.”
“It’s a storm all right.”
Later, many people, although not Ortega, will be fired for not anticipating the impossible, but for now the scientists agree upon a plan of action. The pod is likely to endure, but the fragile solar panels will not. The dust will either coat them completely or scratch them beyond repair. Ortega transmits the command: Retract the solar panels.
Eleven minutes later, the bad news arrives, at which time the men encounter a second problem. A single, recalcitrant panel will not retract. A tiny particle of sand, unrelated to the approaching storm, so miniscule that it has appeared on no one’s screen, has fouled the mechanism. Zheng reboots the computer, repeats the retraction sequence without success.
“I guess I’d better take a look under the hood,” Kaminski says with a shrug. He assembles his tools, dons a space suit.
What can the men say to each other? That if Kaminski’s effort fails all is lost?
When Zheng looks at his partner all he sees is a cumbersome suit, but he knows Kaminski is inside like the pit of a plump peach. Kaminski, himself, would appreciate the metaphor, which reinforces his belief in core, but he is too buy reviewing procedures to philosophize.
Kaminski raises his hand and enters the airlock.
Zheng returns to the console to monitor his partner’s progress.
In Houston, despite the fact that they are looking into the past—that whatever they do now will make no difference—all eyes are fastened on the monitors.
The airlock opens and Kaminski ventures out. First one weighted boot, and then the other. His feet sink into the sandy surface. Suddenly, he is back on the beach at San Padre, feeling the waves wash over his toes. He looks up. The sky is a marvelous rosy pink. About fifty yards away, Laura beckons. The solar wind tangles her hair, and he waits for the gesture he loves, where she sweeps the flyaway strands away from her face and knots them at the base of her neck. The last time he saw it, her curls were stiff with salt.
In the pod Zheng’s sensors register the hesitation. Time is precious. What’s Kaminski waiting for? “Everything OK out there, Bart?” he radios.
Kaminski cannot move. He loves his wife, his country, his God, the future. But he loves this Laura, too, and he does not want to let her go. He tells himself this figure is a mirage; if he follows her, he’s a fool.
“Bart . . . Bart . . .” Zheng is barking in his ear.
Ahead, the sky is a glorious color, like the shimmering heart of a giant conch.