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The King of Mars

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In three days, six astronauts would launch Camelot 1, the first manned mission to the planet Mars.

The crew members had trained together almost every day for the last two years in preparation for the dangerous and monumental endeavor they would soon begin. Hundreds of hours spent discovering the strengths and weaknesses of each teammate, honing their communication skills, and learning to read one another’s moods had bonded the individual crew members into a well-oiled unit. As a team, they were prepared to handle any eventuality. They understood one another. And they respected one another. Each member of the Camelot 1 crew would be willing to lay down their life for any of their crewmates— not simply out of duty or chivalry, but because they had come to care for one another and held each of their teammates in the highest esteem.

“Shut up, Arthur! You’re an idiot! You have no idea what you’re talking about!”

Flight surgeon, Merlin Emrys, sounded more amused than annoyed as he pronounced the foolishness of Camelot 1’s engineer and botanist, Arthur Pendragon. Before their argument started, they had been enjoying a pre-launch party with some colleagues at the home of their commander, Morgana Pendragon.

“Merlin, Merlin, Merlin.” Arthur pursed his lips and shook his head. “When will you learn? You don’t question me on early space program history. I spent my childhood building very detailed and accurate models of all the early spacecraft. One of the walls in my room was practically a visual timeline of the space race of the 1950s and 60s between the US and Russia. Another wall was lined with autographed photos of astronauts and cosmonauts including both John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. And I even had—“

“Oh big deal!” Merlin interjected. “So the spoiled little rich boy had daddy buy him a giant pile of space memorabilia! So flippin’ what!”

Arthur couldn’t help snorting out a laugh at Merlin’s sanctimonious tone and the way he tilted his head back and forth to emphasize his last words.

“Just because you consider yourself an expert on all things space-related doesn’t qualify you to judge the emotional impact of every space film ever made.” Merlin waved his beer bottle in Arthur’s face. “I don’t care if it is riddled with scientific and historical inaccuracies, if you don’t put The Right Stuff in your top ten most epic space films of all time, you, sir, are obviously heartless.”

Arthur raised his eyebrows, amused at the amount of passion Merlin had summoned for a movie he considered overly long and somewhat self-indulgent, filled with stilted dialogue and cheesy one-liners.

He shrugged. “It had a nice soundtrack, I suppose. How about I make it my first runner-up?”

Biting back a laugh at Merlin’s betrayed jaw-drop, Arthur plopped onto the couch. Their flight director, Percy Fisher, and mission pilot, Elyan Smith were nit-picking the scientific errors in Mars Awaits, the movie that had started Merlin and Arthur on their doomed conversation about epic space films.

Merlin scowled at the back of Arthur’s head for a moment before heading to the kitchen to join Lance and his fiancée, Gwen.

“Did I just hear you arguing with Arthur again?” Gwen smirked at Merlin, and he rolled his eyes in response.

“He started it.”

Gwen laughed, shaking her head. “I worry about you two. I hope you don’t cause some sort of space catastrophe by bickering about the ideal temperature for the kitchen on the Excalibur or something.”

Merlin started to defend himself, but Lance spoke up instead.

“They actually seem to follow very particular rules with their bickering. I have never once seen them act in an unprofessional manner during our training exercises.” He raised his eyebrows at Merlin. “Somehow they manage to save all their disagreements for social settings.”

Lance Du Lac was their systems operator and reactor technician, but despite his extensive background in programming, he did not fit any of the stereotypes for computer nerds. He was outgoing with a keen ability to read others’ emotions. Lance was actually the first member of the crew Merlin had formed a friendship with when they started training three years ago.

“In fact,” Lance’s eyes took on a mischievous gleam that made Merlin nervous, “I think their particular form of uh… let’s call it banter…” Gwen snorted, tossing Merlin an amused grin as Lance continued, “I think it actually improves their ability to read each other’s nonverbal cues. Sometimes I could swear they were reading each other’s minds.”

Gwen gasped. “Is that one of your powers, Merlin? Can you actually read Arthur’s mind?”

Shaking his head, Merlin explained, “No, because Arthur isn’t a sorcerer himself. Occasionally powerful sorcerers are able to communicate without speaking, but it has to be deliberate. Do you know Mordred Orkney? He’s an aerospace engineer, too, although he works on the Excalibur Simulator.”

“Oh yeah, I know Mordred,” Gwen said with a smile. “He works for Barrios, too. He’s in Building 16, but we’ve crossed paths every now and then.”

Gwen Smith was employed by a contractor for NASA in the Environmental Control and Life Support Systems group. For Camelot 1, she would be one of the engineers manning the ECLSS station in Mission Control. Basically, she was responsible for keeping the astronauts alive on their months-long journey to Mars. They all trusted her to dedicate her all to this task, partly because Gwen was brilliant and compassionate and would never give less than 100%, but also because she had a greater than average interest in bringing the team home safely, since both her fiancé, Lance, and her brother, Elyan, would be on board.

“Well,” Merlin continued, “Since Mordred is a sorcerer like me— as in, our powers manifested at a very young age—we can communicate with one another across a short distance without speech, but it’s almost like talking via radio. We sort of have to push the thought to the other person. But just like I couldn’t hear a person holding a radio unless they’re squeezing the push-to-talk button, I can’t hear Mordred’s thoughts unless he actually sends them to me.”

Gwen nodded thoughtfully. “Gotcha. What about Morgana? Can the two of you communicate nonverbally?”

“No, I wish we could! It would come in handy sometimes. Commander Pendragon is a powerful sorceress, but her powers didn’t manifest until she was an adult, and for some reason it’s only certain types of sorcerers who have that ability.”

Gwen and Lance nodded, accepting Merlin’s explanation. Over the last seven years, since the existence of magic had been exposed to the world, Merlin had happily taken the time to explain how magic worked to those who, like Gwen and Lance, were eager to learn. Of course, he had also had his fair share of run-ins with those who feared magic or thought it unnatural. Conversations with those folks were a bit more one-sided and mostly consisted of them hurling expletives at Merlin.

When the International Council of Wizards had announced that they were contemplating taking magic to the public, Merlin was excited. He knew there would be some resistance and that many in the world would not be ready to accept sorcerers or allow them to practice magic openly, but he could see all the possibilities of combining magic with science. As he trained to be a doctor, Merlin imagined being able to use the spells he knew in combination with the medical techniques he was learning to facilitate healing. He hoped that even those who initially feared magic would come to see the immense benefits of allowing sorcerers to use their magic publicly.

He had never believed the resistance and legal battles would stretch on for ten whole years, but slowly progress was being made.

“So, my original point stands,” Lance said. “You and Arthur sometimes appear to read each other’s minds because you are so much alike!”

Merlin had to laugh. “Either that or Arthur is such a simpleton, his way of thinking is just obvious.”

Gwen smiled at Merlin, but held her tongue as he pulled a soda from the fridge and left the kitchen to join Morgana and Elena Godwyn, the mission’s chemist and astrophysicist, at the dining room table. Gwen turned to her fiancé. “So we’re totally in agreement… there’s definitely gonna be a Merlin/Arthur space hook-up, right?”

Lance chuckled and pulled her into a hug. “Oh, I’m going to miss you, Gwen”

Her own laughter died in her throat as she reached her arms around Lance’s waist and tugged him close, but before any traitorous tears could form in her eyes, she shoved him away. “No sad tonight, remember? This is a celebration of all your hard work and of what you’re about to accomplish. We’re allowed to be sad tomorrow for our last night together for two years, but not tonight.”

His eyes twinkled beautifully as he gave her a mock salute and said firmly, “Yes, ma’am.”

With a satisfied nod, Gwen motioned for him to follow her back into the living room. Together, the two of them plopped onto the floor at Gwen’s brother’s feet to watch the end of whatever space movie they were griping about tonight.

“See, right there! Salt and pepper shakers!” Elyan pointed furiously at the screen. “They’re just walking off and leaving them on the table, and they are definitely not fastened down. I told you this movie paid no attention to the laws of gravity.” He jabbed Percy in the ribs.

Percy rubbed his side. “First of all, ow.” Everyone laughed. “And secondly, they’ve already established that this section of the ship has artificial gravity.”

“Yeah, but even so,” Arthur pointed out. “You never leave anything unattended if it’s not fastened down. If the artificial gravity failed, those salt and pepper shakers could become deadly projectiles. If any of us ever did that, Morgana would throw a hissy fit.”

Morgana cleared her throat from the doorway. “Excuse me?”

Arthur threw his arms out. “What? You would!”

Morgana simply stared at him, waiting for him to revise his statement.

Finally, Arthur rolled his entire head along with his eyes, groaning like an exasperated teenager. “Fine. If any of us ever did that, Commander Pendragon would throw a hissy fit.” He gave her a pointed look. “Happy?”

Morgana narrowed her eyes at her little brother. It was Arthur’s sexist language that bothered her rather than his omission of her title, but she let it slide just this once. In two days, she and Arthur and the rest of the crew would be flying to Florida to begin the final preparations for their momentous mission, and she knew every member of her team was feeling on edge, even if they were doing their best to hide their apprehension.

Her own stomach had been tied in knots night and day for the last week. Morgana knew they were prepared. Her team excelled at overcoming any obstacle. Additionally, the members of the support team at NASA were exceptionally talented and dedicated. But still… in a few days this crew would be strapping themselves into a rocket, launching into lower orbit to board Excalibur, which would then use magically enhanced nuclear power to shoot them deep into space. There they would meet up with a relatively tiny spacecraft currently floating in orbit above Mars. The six of them would climb aboard that craft, plunge through the Martian atmosphere and land on the totally unprepared rocky surface. As commander, she would be the first to step out of the safety of their vehicle, and then she, Morgana Pendragon, would become the first human being in history to walk on the surface of another planet.

Morgana savored the chills that ran down her spine at that thought and took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly. She looked around the room at the faces of her crew and the support team and loved ones they would soon leave behind for months in space and on Mars.

Gwen’s eyes shone as she looked back and forth between her fiancé and her beloved older brother, her expression alternating between pride and heartache. Percy chuckled in his usual reserved manner at one of Elyan’s jokes, but his lips quickly settled back into a pinched smile, a deep crease appearing on his forehead. Before a mission, Percy had a habit of reviewing launch procedures in his head.

Merlin and Elena had followed Morgana into the living room, along with Elena’s husband, Ewan, a history teacher at a local middle school. They stood against the wall chatting animatedly, both Merlin and Elena using more hand gestures than usual to accentuate their stories. Ewan’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes as his hands never left his wife, stroking her back and her arm and sometimes even her hair.

The credits started to roll on the movie, so Morgana decided to wind the party to a close. She clinked a spoon against her glass to get everyone’s attention.

“I just wanted to say a few words of thanks to everyone for your hard work and discipline over the last few years. Training with you has been an absolute pleasure.” She cut her eyes toward Arthur who mocked zipping his lips as the others chuckled lightly. “I didn’t say every moment was pleasant, but the experience as a whole has— I think we can all agree— produced the greatest team ever to set foot on Mars.”

Everyone laughed, and the tension in the room eased. Morgana took a deep breath and gave her crew a rare smile.

“In four days we set off on a journey unlike any other. We will leave our home planet behind with the hope of being the first to touch another world.” She paused briefly. “But we six do not do this alone. We carry with us the hopes and dreams and sweat and tears of all those who made this journey possible. As we reach for the stars, we remember those on whose shoulders we stand. Every scientist. Every dreamer. Every explorer who looked out at the horizon and wondered what lay beyond.

“We begin this grand journey because we must. Carl Sagan said it best… Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.”

A lump formed in Morgana’s throat as she met the eyes of each member of her team individually, pride and expectation filling their gazes. She saved her brother for last, and she wasn’t surprised to find his eyes shining as he gave her an encouraging nod. She raised her glass and the others followed suit.

“To exploration,” she said simply.

And the room echoed, “To exploration.”

Houston Chronicle
Friday, June 29, 2040

Dragon X lifts off for Excalibur

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – At dusk yesterday, NASA’s transport rocket, Dragon X, launched the crew of Camelot 1 to meet up with the orbiting Excalibur, the magic-powered spacecraft which will transport the first humans to Mars. After two days of delays due to bad weather, the crew boarded the Dragon X at 5:25pm as an international audience watched via live broadcast.

The Camelot 1 mission is the culmination of years of international cooperation to put humans on another planet, but the mission would not be possible without cooperation from the magical community as well. The crew is led by Commander Morgana Pendragon, a British citizen who has lived and trained in the US for the last ten years. Commander Pendragon, a powerful sorceress, was one of the first astronauts to openly use her magic in the space program. Two other members of the crew are also British citizens: Arthur Pendragon, Commander Pendragon’s younger brother, and Merlin Emrys, mission physician and the only other member of the crew with magical powers. Crew members Lance Du Lac and Elena Godwyn both trained originally with the European Space Agency in France. The only American on the crew is the pilot, Captain Elyan Smith, a former member of the US Air Force who grew up in South Los Angeles.

In seven days, Dragon X will dock with the Excalibur and the crew will begin their four month journey to Mars.

Houston Chronicle
Wednesday, November 7, 2040

First Humans Touch Mars

“The first footprints made in this red dirt belong not to one woman, but to every person who has looked to the horizon and wondered what lies beyond.”

Echoing the sentiment of Neil Armstrong’s first words from the moon, Commander Morgana Pendragon spoke these words as she stepped from the Mars Descent Vehicle and became the first human to touch the surface of another planet.

The crew of Camelot 1 landed on Mars in a plain formerly known as Acidalia Planitia, however, in keeping with the magical nomenclature of this historic mission, the area has been renamed Avalon. In Arthurian legend, Avalon, best known as the location where King Arthur was taken to recover after the Battle at Camlann, was sometimes called The Fortunate Isle, and the crew certainly hopes the plain lives up to that reputation.

NASA’s plan to send a manned mission to Mars accelerated greatly after the revelation of magic seven years ago. Previously known as the Orion Missions, trips to Mars would have required a stopover at the Deep Space Gateway space station, built in the 2020s in a lunar orbit, but the Gateway was abandoned once the first magic-enhanced spacecraft were built.

The Camelot 1 crew is comprised of both sorcerers and non-magical experts in the fields of engineering, chemistry, botany, medicine and geology, signifying the cooperation between the fields of magic and science that has enabled this journey.

While on Mars, the crew will study the weather patterns and the geological history of the Avalonian Plain, as the topography of the area suggests there may have once been an ocean or possibly even glaciers in that location.

The crew will live in a habitat on Mars for 30 days, and the world will be watching as these six pioneers, Commander Morgana Pendragon, Lance Du Lac, Merlin Emrys, Elena Godwyn, Arthur Pendragon and Elyan Smith, explore the surface of Mars and send back to Earth reports of the first discoveries of humans living on another planet.

Houston Chronicle
Tuesday, November 13, 2040

Arthur Pendragon, Camelot 1 Astronaut, dies on Mars

Camelot 1, the long-awaited first manned mission to Mars, was cut short yesterday as a severe windstorm threatened to overturn the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). Commander Morgana Pendragon gave the order to abort the mission, but as the astronauts walked through the storm from their habitat to the MAV, a piece of flying debris hit mission engineer and botanist, Arthur Pendragon, brother of the mission’s commander. He was knocked into a gully and his space suit was compromised. Captain Elyan Smith, the mission’s pilot, was already on board the MAV to prepare the vehicle for its flight to transport the crew to the Excalibur spacecraft floating in orbit above Mars. Captain Smith informed Commander Pendragon that, according to Arthur’s bio-sensors, he had died almost instantly after being struck by the debris, so Commander Pendragon made the difficult decision to leave behind the body of her brother in order to save the remaining members of the crew.

Arthur Pendragon, aged 33, was born in Newbury, England, the son of Uther and Igraine Pendragon. His mother died during childbirth, so he was raised by his father. As a child, Arthur was fascinated by space travel, deciding he wanted to be an astronaut at the age of six. He studied Electrical Engineering at the University of Southampton and then moved to the US to pursue a Master’s of Science degree in Plant Biology from Michigan State University. Arthur worked at the Johnson Space Center in Houston as a researcher while he trained to apply for the astronaut program. Before being accepted to the Camelot 1 mission, Arthur spent almost 26 months on the International Space Station over a total of three trips.

NASA will honor the life and achievements of Arthur Pendragon during a memorial service at 10 a.m. CST on Saturday, November 17 at the Johnson Space Center. A tree dedication ceremony at the Memorial Tree Grove will follow the ceremony.