First Words, by Mark J. Howard

NEARLY HALF AN HOUR passed before the panic died down, although to the casual observer the word ‘panic’ would hardly seem to apply. The four astronauts spent that time gabbling at one another in a controlled and even manner, running through checklists and reading out numbers from various screens. Eventually, it was ascertained that the damage was not as bad as had been initially feared and their thoughts returned to the continuation of the mission. Forty minutes after this, Commander Trent Hooper, snug inside a bulky environment suit, opened the outer hatch and looked out over the Martian landscape for the first time.

It was a stunning sight. More astounding even than he’d imagined, and he couldn’t help letting out a tiny whistle of awe. On the horizon, miles away under a butterscotch sky, an uneven mountain range ran for as far as he could see and, above it, a ruddy smear in the sky was the retreating dust storm that had so nearly killed them all. It looked so incongruous now and Hooper might not have seen it at all if he hadn’t known it was there. Without speaking, he bade the storm good riddance and offered up a brief prayer to the God of Astronauts to never see another. He could have spent longer drinking in the Martian view, letting his eyes wander with relish over every rock and stone, every gully and mound, every dune and hollow, but he knew that he had to get going.

Forcing himself to look away, the commander turned himself around and backed out of the hatch, placing his right foot on the topmost rung of the ladder and testing it cautiously. It bore his weight.

“The ladder seems okay,” he reported over the intercom. “It’s solid, anyway, and in one piece. I’m beginning my descent.”

He descended another rung and then paused to swing the hatch shut behind him. He heard it lock into place with a dull thud even from inside his bulky helmet and the sound was oddly final. With the hatch closed, Hooper could now see more of Mars, but now an endless, sandy plain strewn with small rocks and the occasional boulder. Just for a moment, his hands gripped the ladder tightly and a feeling of immense terror loomed within him. How many millions of miles was he from home? The oceans of empty blackness between Mars and Earth seemed like an infinite chasm now, a vast, uncaring eternity devoid of anything remotely friendly or helpful. That chasm, it seemed, was looking at him, an infinitesimal and fragile speck, and laughing at his predicament. He swallowed hard and forced his mind back into focus.

To his left, Hooper could make out a part of the inflatable habitat, which had arrived on the planet eight months earlier. Upon landing, it had immediately deployed itself; inflating its’ walls, deploying solar panels, leeching oxygen and water from the atmosphere and soil, activating self-drilling guy ropes to secure itself against the Martian weather and even unfolding a small, experimental greenhouse. Scattered around the landscape in no particular order were the canisters of supplies and equipment that had been dispatched before the habitat, mostly covered in sand and dust now, but inviolate and waiting patiently for retrieval. These things were an immensely comforting sight and Hooper allowed the terror to evaporate.

“There’s no sign of the parachute,” he said as he stepped down to the third rung. His companions inside the ship expressed dismay. On the long journey here they’d come up with the idea of retrieving the parachute and returning it to earth with them when they left next year, there to have the material turned into blazers for their ‘First People on Mars Club.’ Still, they were going to be in the neighbourhood for many months, almost a full Martian year, so there’d be plenty of time to look for it and the supply pods each had parachutes as well, but somehow that wasn’t the same.

They’d come up with many ideas like that during the many months of the flight. It had been a long and boring trip, and exceptionally uneventful. Of all the terrible scenarios they’d been trained to deal with, and all the unknowns that might have savaged them, the only problem they’d had was a malfunctioning microwave oven and even that fixed itself after just a couple of weeks’ worth of misbehaviour. As they’d approached Mars, the crew had begun to feel that things had been going rather too well and that disaster had to be nearby. The descent through the Martian atmosphere had threatened to provide that disaster.

After an initially smooth entry, the Lander had hit an unexpected dust cloud that had clogged two of the descent rockets, causing them to fail to ignite. It had been designed to land with two or three motors disabled, but the landing had nevertheless been brutally hard and quite terrifying for all aboard and, Hooper presumed, for Mission Control and most of the viewing public on Earth. Hooper descended to the fourth rung and then the fifth, until he could see underneath the Lander.

Three of the landing struts, including the one to which the ladder was attached, had buckled under the force of the landing and several of the shock absorbers had broken or sheared away completely. It was lucky that none of the damaged parts would be needed again and that the Lander, which would also ferry them back into orbit to dock with the return stage that would take them home, had survived unscathed. He reported what he saw to the crew and heard the relief in their terse acknowledgements. It seemed that they’d dodged the bullet.

Hooper placed his foot on the sixth rung and began to think about what he was going to say. He was acutely aware that billions of people were watching his every move, or would be in about ten minutes’ time when the video signals reached the Earth. He’d agonised long and hard over what he should say upon setting foot in the Martian soil. People had not been short on suggestions, but nothing had seemed momentous enough.

He’d thought about keeping it short and simple and saying, ‘well, we made it.’ He’d researched countless quotations, poems and websites full of suggestions. For the longest time, it seemed that ‘that’s another small step for a man, and another giant leap for mankind’ would be not only adequate but also the continuation, or inception of, a hopefully long-running tradition. But then he got to thinking about how it might, in a century or so, become ‘and here’s yet another small step for yet another man and yet another leap, not so giant this time, for mankind’ as some poor sap set foot for the first time on Ganymede or Titan and had to come up with a way of saying the same thing in a different way without sounding silly. No, Hooper had decided that he had to be original and, after literally years of pondering the problem, had come up with the perfect sentence to speak to the world as his became the first foot to touch the red soil of another planet. It was short. It was pithy. Above all, it encapsulated everything about the human spirit and the massive achievement that reaching Mars represented.

As he placed his foot on the seventh rung of the ladder and spied the Martian soil mere inches below him, he ran over the words one last time in his head, making sure he could remember them exactly, and cleared his throat in preparation for his big and historic moment. Suddenly, the seventh rung snapped and Hooper fell heavily onto his bottom and then fell over backwards into the ruddy sand.

“Oh bollocks!” he said.


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