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Not The Only One On This Planet

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Captain William D. Stanaforth took his first step on the red Martian dust, and looked around him in awe. He had finally reached his destination after a long, long journey on extremely minimal nourishment. As he walked through the landscape of Mars in his large white and black surface suit, he looked through his visor to see if he had landed where he needed to be.

While looking, Stanaforth climbed up a slight ascent which led to a cliff, and he was rewarded with the most amazing view he had seen in his entire life, not one you would find on Earth. His mouth opened agape, but he quickly closed it and formed it into a small smile. It was finally starting to sink in: He was the first human in the history of… well, history, to step on a different planet (the moon didn’t count). The first person to be alone on an entire planet, all by himself.

To others, that thought would have been eerie, disturbing even. But to Stanaforth, it was the most calming thing to think about. To him, loneliness was more like a gift rather than a curse. Being alone meant there was no one else to judge you, no one else to taunt or patronize you. There were so many more.

Of course there were the downsides of being lonely. No one to talk to, socialize to, and touch starvation was apparently a thing. But Stanaforth had been alone as long as he could remember. His family died when he was young, and he divorced with his wife more than ten years back. He was never good with people.

Stanaforth could see plumages of red in the orange-grey backdrop that was the sky. Small dust devils dissipated as fast as they appeared on the Martian landscape due to the lack of any real atmosphere. William could hear nothing but his breath as he walked further.

Stanaforth clambered along the side of the cliff, traversing the red ground to see where he had landed and whether his home was close by. Sure enough, there was a small white dot in the distance. It couldn’t have been more than five kilometres away, Stanaforth thought. That was a walkable distance, even in a bulky suit like his. And so, he set off into the distance.

When he reached his habitat, there was a large van-like rover waiting next to the deflated dome that would be his home for the rest of his life. But he didn’t mind. He went to set up his habitat before peering off to see a few dozen boxes lying in a heap with deflated balloons scattered around the red soil. There was some strewn-up dirt around the area, indicating it had crash-landed on the surface.

“That must be my supplies.” Stanaforth said to no one in particular.

He inflated his habitat with an atmosphere of breathable air first with an air pump of expendable air already attached and made sure it was secure, which it was, before heading off to gather the containers full of food, gear, and most importantly, NASA’s experimental Water Reclaimer. He would definitely be needing it as his dirt-to-water machine had failed during the trip to Mars. Perhaps he could salvage it from the Zephyr and fix it with his newly acquired equipment, but it was unlikely.

Stanaforth dragged all the boxes back and inside his habitat eventually, which barely fitted through the airlock door. He unboxed all of the containers which all held various things like back-up radios, a space suit, a crap-ton of food, reserve water, furniture, toiletries and bedding, you name it. He was set for life, literally.

The next order of business would be to set up the Water Reclaimer, the Air Regulator and the Oxygenator. He was trained to set these three vital life support systems up back on Earth. Step one was to fill the Hab with canned air which was already on the surface and ready to be emptied. Step two, once the Hab was filled with air, was to bring the three vitals inside and turn them on. Step three was essentially reign checking things which would spell boring.

After everything was unpacked and not necessarily placed in the correct spot, the three vital systems assembled and activated with no problems whatsoever, Stanaforth took off his large surface suit and sighed, relaxing on a chair. After a mental debate on whether he should just sit there some more or tell NASA he had made it to Mars, he took the second option.

Setting up a comm, he turned a camera on and pressed record.

“Hello, this is Captain William Stanaforth. I have, against all odds, reached Mars and have set up base camp at the desired area. I am sending this to you to inform you that I will be continuing to conduct this mission and in no way let emotion cloud my judgement like last time.

“My sincerest apologies for disobeying your orders and re-adjusting the Zephyr to fly to Mars: that was emotion clouding my judgement, and like I said before I will not let that happen again. From this moment on, I will take orders from you, not me.
“I hope you understand that turning the Zephyr around was for the greater good of the human race, and it had paid off well. If you are wondering how I survived without my water machine, I used water collected from the air ventilation as my supply. Unfortunately, I had to sacrifice the plants due to lack of H2O. I miraculously survived on minimal nourishment and managed to land safely without any injuries.

“I have inflated and set up my habitat, with no faults whatsoever. Same with the rover, the Oxygenator, the Water Reclaimer, the Air Regulator and the comm systems. I have all the supplies you have sent here and is in my custody.

“For now, things are looking swell. I will report to you when necessary. I hope you understand why couldn’t go back to Earth. Stanaforth out.”

. . .

Louis ‘Skinny’ Skinner was sitting at one of the large comm desks at Flight Control, Houston. It was two thirty AM and the night shift was killing him. Even after four months he couldn’t shake off the grief he had for his friend William, who had essentially suicided by going against NASA’s orders and flying off into space without any guidance or telemetry, aiming for Mars. They had lost contact with his ship shortly after.

After that incident with the Zephyr, NASA had effectively cancelled the one-manned missions to Mars. Originally, they were intending to send thousands of people up there, but after Maddox had to fly her ship back to Earth due to a faulty gyro and Stanaforth’s seemingly insane decision, NASA decided that at this point in time, Mars missions alone were too risky and they needed at least five years of research to get it back up and running again.

Skinner sat back in his chair. There was nothing to monitor apart from satellites orbiting Mars and Venus. That was until he got a blip from the surface of the red planet.

It was from the Zephyr. According to Skinner’s readings, it had landed on Mars. But that couldn’t be right, how could it?

Suddenly, an ‘incoming transmission’ information signal had popped up on the large screen in front of everyone at Flight Control. At the bottom of the message had a video file and its coordinates from where it came from.

Skinner quickly typed the coordinates in his computer, and some satellite images from Mars presented itself on the screen. He knitted his brow in confusion as he zoomed in on the set coordinates. When he viewed the final image, his eyes widened.

“Christ…” He whispered.

It was Stanaforth. He had reached Mars.

He needed to get with the director of Mars missions.

. . .

Venkat Kapoor was woken by the sound of his phone ringing from his desk, and woke up with a start.

He jolted upright in his chair, where he had dozed off earlier. Rubbing his eyes, he took his phone from the desk and squinted to read the time. It was two thirty AM. He checked the caller, who was from mission control. It was Louis Skinner.

He answered the call, and a somewhat frantic voice of a middle-aged man came through.

“Joshua, thank god, you’ve gotta come here as quick as possible.” The voice blurted out, as though he was in panic.

Venkat furrowed his brow, “Joshua? Oh, this isn’t the director of Mars missions, he’s in Pasadena right now. I’m Venkat Kapoor, vice director.

“Oh, well I apologise for wronging you. But you have to come to Flight Control Centre right away.” Skinner spewed.

“What sorta time is this?” Venkat croaked in response. “What the hell is it this time?”

“We’ve received a relayed video-response from the Zephyr. We lost contact with it when Stanaforth turned the ship around. It relayed a message from Stanaforth’s habitat, with him in the video! He’s made it to Mars!”

“He- h-hang on, what?” As Venkat’s eyes widened, he quickly jumped off his chair, his tiredness replaced with adrenaline as thoughts rushed through his head. He swiftly grabbed his coat and headed out his office door.

Once Venkat had managed to run across Houston to the Flight Control Centre, he took off his coat and rushed to Skinner’s desk, panting.

“What’s the video message?” He asked.

“It’s from Stanaforth himself,” Skinner replied. “We haven’t played it yet. Hang on…”

With a few keystrokes, the video message from Stanaforth was put up on the large screen and played. The video had William sitting in a white chair inside his Hab, his suit not too far away. Stanaforth then proceeded to describe how he reached Mars and why he chose to disobey NASA’s orders and proceed in the mission despite the odds of reaching his destination.

When the video ended, the whole of Flight Control were speechless, staring at the large screen of a frozen image of Stanaforth’s face after the video ended. Venkat narrowed his eyes and nodded while smiling, having an ‘I’m impressed’ look on his face as well as ‘that sneaky son of a bitch’.

Skinner turned towards Venkat, “Sir?”

“Patch up a video feed right away. I want to personally congratulate him on his achievement and… inform him, on a couple of things.” Kapoor responded, without taking his eyes off the screen.

Venkat sat down at one of the comms and one of the SatCon staff members who happened to accompany him along to the Flight Control Centre patched up a feed. A camera buzzed to life in front of Venkat’s face, and he started talking.

“Greetings from Earth, Captain Stanaforth. My name is Venkat Kapoor, vice director for Mars Missions at NASA. I have personally sent this message to congratulate you on your mostly successful arrival to Mars. A lot has changed in nearly a year, and you’ll probably be wanting to hear a few things.

“For starters, in the wake of Commander Maddox’s failure of her ship and unaccomplished mission, and your violation of orders has ultimately caused the single-manned persons to Mars mission has been dropped. We have decided we need more research and improved technology we can only gain with time and more resources. Don’t worry, Mars missions will still happen, only with multiple people on a mission and possibly a return trip included.

“Secondly, we shut down all contact with your habitat excluding the main comm systems and vitals, and pointed all satellites away from your area since you turned the Zephyr around, as we had originally thought you’d lost your mind and blindly shot out into space with no hope of rescue. We’re working to re-establish a link, but at the moment Mars and Earth aren’t very ideal in terms of where they are in relation to each other at the moment.

“And lastly, I apologise to inform you that your ex-wife died two months ago. She had Leukaemia, and passed away quietly. I just thought you’d probably needed to know.

“NASA understands your motives for being the first person on Mars, and even to disobey a direct order given to you for a Mission abort. If you were on Earth, you would probably get court martialled, but hey, Mars doesn’t do us any favours. You’re off the hook. On the behalf of NASA and planet Earth, we hope you have an amazing life on Mars, and you will be remembered as one of the bravest human beings on this planet, or the next. Kapoor out.”

The camera made a buzzing sound of approval to notion that the video had stopped recording. Skinner’s fingers raced through his keyboard and a small ‘ping’ indicated the message had been sent and was on its way.

“The video’s sent, sir.” Skinner replied.

Venkat sighed and leant back in his chair. After staying in that position for a few moments, he got up and reached for his coat.

“It may be three AM, but the director needs to know about this. And the media relations director. And the president. And basically everyone on the planet. If you need me, I’ll be at my desk getting no sleep whatsoever and sending emails to anyone I deem necessary. Good night… to some of you.”