Saturday, 16 October 2010

Returning Home

Copyright © 2003

This story was inspired by a real event in the Apollo 12 mission led by Peter Conrad. A camera lens recovered from the Moon was found to be contaminated with a streptococcal bacterium that had survived in the harshness of space. What could happen if it did more than survive...?

Part One

‘Five seconds to initial impact...four...three...two...one...Impact! The Beagle has bounced! Accelerometer readings are within acceptable range. Second impact in two...one...zero...zero plus one... Impact! I think we’ve strayed over the edge of a crater or something. Accelerometers OK. Second bounce did not occur. Beagle IV is rolling... Accelerometers show sudden lateral deceleration... We’ve hit something! Beagle IV is stationary. Something’s gone wrong: I’m getting no signal here, just static.’

Save for the hum of cooling fans and the monotonous bleeping of monitoring systems, the control centre of the International Space Agency fell silent. Everyone held his breath, forgetting for the moment that, because of the great distance involved, everything they were witnessing had taken place some nine minutes earlier. Everyone waited...

‘Signal is back. Boot sequence is in progress. Beagle’s first back-up processor has kicked in.’

The room sighed, and a low murmur broke out. Rational, level-headed scientists crossed fingers and touched wood. Engineers, who had planned for every eventuality and built Beagle IV with enough redundancy to survive whatever they considered a likely cause of damage, abandoned reality and reached out with their minds, willing their baby to live.

‘Boot sequence complete, and everything looks normal from here. Snoopy’s barking!’ The control centre erupted with cheering and shouts of joy; eyes became moist, and some overflowed. ‘Impact cushion has deflated. Traction system is deploying... correcting attitude... locked and ready to roll! Solar panels and comms antennae deploying... Power is up... Main antenna aligning... Locked... Video stream is on line.’ All eyes turned to the large screen that dominated the room and on which static danced and flickered. A test pattern appeared and, again, the room erupted. The controller’s voice resumed, ‘Video channel AOK. Camera deploying...’

Another voice cut in, ‘Damage report: We’ve lost one processor board; looks like a fractured joint. All other systems check out, processor three is marginal.’ Engineers either shook their heads and frowned or nodded and smiled.

The controller coolly announced what everyone could already see for themselves from the vista that had burst onto the screen, ‘Camera locked and on line.’

Corks popped and glasses clinked, small explosive charges launched paper streamers into the air, men hugged and slapped each other’s backs, as men always do, and kissed their female colleagues on both cheeks. Some of the ladies enjoyed the attention, others endured it, depending on who was doing the kissing… Beagle IV slowly rotated its binocular imaging system atop its pylon, taking in and transmitting to Earth the vast, red, inhospitable panorama of the world which was now its home. ‘Here comes Demos!’ someone shouted, and everyone stopped partying and watched the Martian moon climb into the Martian sky and disappear above Snoopy’s field of vision. Gasps and cries of delight ushered in the resumption of the celebrations, and immense data banks logged every scrap of information sent across the vacuum of space from the solitary machine so far from home...

Part Two

I

‘This is Beagle XII, do you copy?’

‘We copy, Beagle XII.’

‘Final approach sequence initiated, braking manoeuvre in fifteen seconds.’

‘Roger that. Everything looks good from here.’

Pete Marshall moved his hands over the control panel before him, tweaking and nudging at sliders and knobs, keeping every parameter right on the line. This would be a copybook landing. A hundred times he had done this: this was the first time it was for real. His face showed no emotion or tension; hundreds of hours in the simulator had smoothed out the nerves. Everything was as it should be. Hans Kruger brushed a bead of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand; it was cold sweat, freshly secreted. The two men, thinner and paler from the six-month journey they had endured, turned and smiled at each other. Hans wondered how Pete kept his cool. It was not every day that men landed on Mars; in fact, this was the first day it had ever been done.

‘Braking initiated,’ Pete’s voice.

‘Roger.’ Hans’s heart quickened at the hissing of the braking-jets that altered their trajectory to one that would eventually intersect the surface of the planet. He felt so very, very far from home. Strange that he should feel it so strongly now, since, in terms of distance, he would be no further away than he was one week earlier when the ship entered orbit. There was something unsettlingly final about the descent—getting home from orbit was a snip; getting into orbit from the surface of the planet was less straightforward…

The ground that swept by below them gradually changed its appearance. It reminded Hans of his first ever flight as a young boy going on holiday to Greece. Then, he had been fascinated by the little white houses that grew larger and larger from the red-brown earth as the plane circled the island and approached the runway. The features of the Martian landscape took on more distinct form as their descent progressed: escarpments and craters took the place of houses, albeit without the distinction of colour, and, for a while, he was distracted from the immensity of what was happening and of his part in it. Back on Earth, millions of people around the globe watched the historic images that were relayed via the mother ship to Mission Control and then back into space and through satellites into their living rooms. Hans was jolted back to reality by a high-pitched whirring that permeated the cabin.

‘Wings deploying,’ Pete’s ice-cool voice again.

Hans looked through the cabin window and watched the Mylar sheeting unfurl and stretch taught over the titanium structure that extended ever wider from the sides of the craft. The mother ship switched the camera angle to show the earthbound audience a similar view. Eventually, the whirring stopped and a loud click signified that the wings were locked in place. The huge wings were designed to make as much use of the meagre Martian atmosphere as possible and yet be so light as to waste the minimum of the mission’s payload. Hans would have been happier were he gambling his continued existence on a much more robust structure.

‘Wings locked down, glide path within parameters. Beginning test manoeuvres.’ Pete put the craft through a sequence of banking curves designed to check that the wind-tunnel tests on Earth had been realistic enough. Hans exhaled sharply, shifting his focus back to reality, and tightening his grip on the edge of his seat. This is the last chance to abort the landing, he thought to himself. Failure at this point would result in the wings being jettisoned and the main motor igniting and pushing them back into orbit to rendezvous with the mother ship, ‘Snoopy’s Kennel’.

‘Curse you, Red Baron!’ Pete mumbled through a smile as he guided Beagle XII through the final curve, then aloud, for the benefit of the mother ship, ‘A slight flutter on the outer segment of the starboard trailing edge. Nothing to worry about.’

Hans worried. He looked out over the wing but could not detect any movement where Pete had indicated. He swallowed hard. ‘Recommend we proceed with landing,’ he said, breaking his silence.

‘Roger,’ came the reply from the mother ship, ‘Proceed as planned.’

Pete turned to Hans and grinned with all the excitement of a child on a rollercoaster. Hans smiled back, swallowed hard again, and waved at his pilot. He hoped he was a good actor. Fortunately, the churning in his stomach could not be heard.

The whistling of the thickening Martian atmosphere through the ship’s rigging grew louder as they descended towards the uninviting surface. Hans and Pete ran through the prescribed cockpit checks and deployed the landing skid, which also acted as an atmospheric brake. ‘One-fifty k to landing zone,’ said Pete. Hans thought he detected a slight tremor in Pete’s voice, and was glad of it. He flicked a switch on the console and the restraint system tightened them into their seats to give them a better chance of survival in the event of a crash. Hans thought this to be the most pointless piece of engineering he had ever come across. Apart from the weight of the mechanism, he considered that surviving a crash, only to die six days later from asphyxiation because you were stranded on Mars with a limited air supply and no hope of rescue, an experience he would rather avoid. The engineers, when questioned, had pointed out that, if they survived, enough instruments may also survive to make the mission still worthwhile. Hans had wondered what they would feel was worthwhile if they were in his seat right now and not in the secure, relative comfort of Mission Control.

‘Landing zone in sight,’ said Pete, ‘Velocity relative to ground, 120 knots.’ Hans wished he could brace himself but the restraint system restrained him from doing so. Rocks and crater rims and other features raced by them. ‘Braking,’ said Pete, and the braking-jets fired ahead of them, slowing them, whilst the wings rotated along their axis to increase lift.

In the event, the landing was surprisingly gentle, softer, Hans thought, than his first arrival in Greece had been. The restraint system had done him more damage than the landing, and he expected to discover his shoulders to be bruised on removing his suit once back in the Kennel. The sooner the better, he thought. With Pete’s job done, Hans took the craft through its shut-down procedure as quickly as possible to eliminate the risks inherent in the huge reservoir of liquid propellant behind them.

One hundred metres beyond the port wing, on the crest of a low rise, a binocular imaging system atop its pylon sent images of the grounded craft to the planet from which they both came. For effect, Pete waved. The Earth gasped in amazement.

II

‘Commander Kruger?’

‘Elspeth.’

‘Are you OK?’

‘I’m fine. Why?’

‘Your bio-signs were a little high during some of the landing…’

‘Well, I’ve never done this before. It was a little stressful. But we’re down, and safe. Pete did a good job.’

Pete smiled and winked at Hans, and addressed his colleague in the Kennel, ‘Was I OK, Doc?’

‘Sure you were,’ said Elspeth Jones, the ship’s medic, ‘not a flicker.’

Hans felt mild irritation at the news and hoped it did not show up in his bio-signs. ‘Am I OK now?’ he asked her.

‘Looks that way,’ she said.

Pete spoke up again, ‘Time for walkies.’

Hans felt faint and was conscious of his heart beating faster.

‘You OK, Hans? Only–’

Hans cut her off short, ‘I’m fine, Elspeth. Put yourself in my shoes, will you? I’m just about to be the first man ever to walk on the surface of Mars. Neil Armstrong would be nervous, and he’s done first-footing before. So if you don’t mind–’

‘OK, OK. I’m just doing my job!’

The two men donned their helmets and went through their sequence of checks. Once they were satisfied that all was working and in order, they stepped into the airlock and closed the inner door behind them. Hans pressed a button to initiate cleansing. A tone in their earphones prompted the men to lower the visors on their helmets. The chamber was flooded with intense ultra violet light and ozone to kill off anything that might contaminate the Martian atmosphere. Another tone indicated that the decontamination process was over and they raised the visors so they could see once more. The air in the airlock was sucked into the cabin, and scrubbed of ozone as it went, until a high vacuum was achieved. Then the Martian atmosphere was slowly bled into the chamber. Hans turned to look at the small, red light that blinked above the miniature camera over the outside door. He waved and smiled for the folks back home, and Pete copied suit. As soon as the pressures inside and out were the same, the outer door slid open. Hans took a step towards the door and stopped at the threshold. His heart raced but, this time, from excitement rather than fear. His mind went blank. He had spent the whole trip pondering what to say as he stepped out onto the planet, trying desperately to avoid plagiarism of Armstrong’s famous words, and now he could remember not one word of what he had decided on. The Earth strained its ears to catch the sound bite. Some thought he said, ‘Scheisse’ but a burst of static made a timely intervention. ‘Well,’ they eventually heard him say, ‘since we’re here, let’s take a look.’ The media thought that ‘Scheisse’ was better, and that is what made the morning papers.

The cold, weak Sun was low in the early-morning Martian sky as the two explorers left the safety of their craft and stepped onto the surface, their every move followed and transmitted home by the watchful eyes of Beagle IV from its vantage point at the top of the rise. It watched them approach, and the home world was enthralled as the figures of Hans and Pete grew in its vision. Soon, only their knees were visible. The two men parted company, one to each side, and, once again, Beagle XII lay in view. Mission Control switched to the view shown from the craft, and the world saw Kruger and Marshall lift Beagle IV from the ground and carry it back towards its younger cousin.

Over the next four days, the men set up a boring-rig and gathered samples of Martian rock from deeper below the surface than any unmanned probe had been able. They set up an automatic weather station and equipment to monitor the solar wind and atmospheric composition. A lab-pack was unloaded and set up under a protective shield.

Their final task, on the fifth day, was to repair Beagle IV and modify it so that it could collect deep samples and insert them into the lab-pack for analysis. Beagle IV was in a reasonable state despite having roamed the hostile surface of Mars for the past sixteen years. Four of its six processor boards had failed, including the one that failed on landing, and one of the caterpillar tracks had developed a nasty habit of sticking, limiting its range in recent months. It had outlived Beagle V, the navigation system of which had failed on its way to Mars causing it to miss the planet completely, Beagle VI, which crashed out of control into a crater wall on landing, and Beagle VII, which, although successful for a good long time, had been buried in a sandstorm. Beagle VIII had been destroyed when its launcher blew up on the launch pad, and Beagle IX had crashed into the Martian surface. Beagles X and XI, robotic precursors to the manned expedition planned for Beagle XII, had functioned perfectly but had affected no landings.

Pete did the overhaul, fixing the track and replacing all the processor boards with newer, faster, more energy-efficient ones, while Hans made the modifications for sample collection. The job took longer than anticipated because of an unexpected degree of corrosion inflicted by the harsh atmosphere, and the Sun, although weak, having climbed high into the sky had Pete sweating in his efforts.

Work done, the men returned to the airlock, Pete carrying the old components from Beagle IV; back on the mother ship, they would analyse them for defects. As soon as the airlock was cleansed and purged, Pete removed his helmet and, with his gloved hand, wiped away the perspiration that was running into his eyes.

It was time to return to the Kennel and replenish the lander’s stocks before the next mission to the surface. Hans was not sorry to be leaving, nor particularly sorry that he would not be back for the next two excursions, other members of the crew taking their turn. He was looking forward to seeing Elspeth; he wished she felt the same…

Taking off proved a disappointingly straightforward affair to Pete. Simulator training had underestimated the wind and, consequently, the lift that the wings would generate. Once they had climbed high enough and coaxed the lander up to speed, the wings were retracted and the main motor kicked them up to the Kennel’s orbit. Hans sweated his way through the docking manoeuvre, as Pete matched trajectory and axial alignment, and synchronised rotation, relaxing only when the capture bolts locked and the transfer tube was sealed against the Kennel’s hatch collar.

III

The reunited crew sat around the table in the recreation and dining area, eating fresh vegetables from the hydroponics garden and congratulating each other on a successful first mission. Elspeth made mild fun of Hans’s bio-signs, and he tolerated the good-natured baiting when the rest of the crew joined in. ‘Strange that the rectal probe didn’t register more…’ she posed.

Pete rubbed his eye and offered, ‘Good job he was in a closed environment,’ meaning his spacesuit, ‘There’s no telling what he damage he might have done to the Martian environment.’

‘Scheisse!’ Elspeth jibed, ‘That’s one for the history books – the first word spoken by a human being from the surface of Mars, and it’s “Scheisse”!’

Hans grinned and retorted, ‘OK, OK, I was a little anxious. Who would not be—except someone like Pete who has no sensitivity?’ He punched Pete hard on the shoulder and evoked no response whatsoever. ‘There,’ said Hans, ‘that proves it! No sense, no feeling!’ Pete grinned back and sent Hans sprawling across the table with a manly slap on the back, then rubbed his eye again.

‘You OK, Pete?’ Elspeth asked, noticing his action not for the first time.

‘Sure,’ he replied, ‘Must have got some grit in my eye. It’s nothing.’

‘Let me see,’ she said, standing and walking to his side of the table. He turned around to face her and she took his head in her hands and tipped it back into the light. He steadied himself against falling backwards by taking a firm grip on her hips with both hands. Hans crumbled inside and wished he had something in his eye. ‘Where’s it sore?’ she asked, ‘Top or bottom?’

‘Bottom, mostly, but top too.’

‘Look up,’ she said, pulling down his lower lid with a gentle, slender finger. She moved the traction to his upper lid and told him to look down. ‘Hmm. It looks a little red but I can’t see any foreign objects. He blinked and looked her in the eyes, their noses almost touching. He was aware how close her lips were to his. Her eyes locked with his and he pulled her towards him. She resisted the motion but smiled at him.

Hans cleared his throat and stood to his feet. ‘We should get the lander prepared for the next outing,’ he said to the others, who grunted as one and left in the direction of the Engineering section.

Elspeth maintained her attention on Pete. ‘I think you may well have got some dust in there and it’s scratched the sclera,’ she opined, ‘Wash it out and get some sleep. You should be OK by morning.’ She put her hands on his shoulders and pushed herself away, still smiling, still holding his gaze. Hans swallowed hard and set off in pursuit of the others and a means of distracting himself. Two hours later, the ship was in darkness and the crew settling down to sleep.

The ship, in keeping with Mission Control, ran on Central European Time, and, at 4 a.m., Elspeth heard the door of her sleep-cabin being lifted. ‘Elspeth,’ Pete whispered, ‘are you awake?’

‘Pete, this is not a good idea,’ she said, misreading his intentions.

‘What? It’s my eye, I’m in agony. Will you take another look?’

She reached out and touched the switch above her head. The light in the compartment grew until she could see his face peering in through the doorway. ‘Oh my—Pete, what’s the matter with your eye?’ She slipped from under her covers, wearing nothing but vest and shorts and pulled on her overall that had been folded in the locker below her couch. ‘You’d better come to sickbay.’

In the light of the Medical Room, Elspeth examined Pete’s half-closed eye. He cried out at the sharp pain as she pealed back the inflamed and swollen eyelid. ‘Where did you get that from?’ she said, ‘That’s a nasty infection.’ She took a swab for analysis then applied some antibiotic ointment that stung his tender tissues and he winced. ‘Sorry,’ she said, touching him gently on the cheek, soothing away the pain. ‘That should help to clear it up.’ She gave him paracetamol and sent him back to bed. ‘I’ll check it out again in the morning.’ Before she went back to bed herself, she took the swab through to the sterile room and wiped it over the gel in a set of Petri dishes that had been intended for testing material from the planet.

Back in her compartment, she lay on her couch and found herself unable to sleep. No-one else on board had had anything like this since long before launch. They had all been together in quarantine for three months beforehand to make sure that no-one had any last-minute illnesses that might have jeopardised the mission. She went back to sickbay, switched on a computer monitor, and spent the rest of the night reviewing medical records for all the crew, only to confirm what she already knew.

At around seven, the other members of the crew began to stir and make their way towards breakfast. Pete did not show. Elspeth and Hans found him, still in his compartment, semi-conscious and delirious in a high fever. His infected eye was completely closed and bright red, with pus seeping from between the swollen lids. His other eye was beginning to show signs of infection, and there was a reddening of the tissues inside his nostrils. Elspeth forced his mouth open and shone a pencil-beam of light from her torch down the back of his throat. Large white bacterial plaques stood out in stark contrast to the inflamed red tissue that surrounded them. ‘He’s having great difficulty breathing,’ she said to Hans, ‘Help me move him to the couch in sick bay. But I think we should get you some gloves and a mask before you touch him.’

Pete groaned as he writhed on the sickbay couch. Elspeth gave him a shot to reduce the fever and fitted him with an oxygen mask to help his breathing. ‘Thanks for the help,’ she said to Hans, ‘but I think you’d better stay clear of him now. Shower, and scrub yourself clean. Then confine yourself to sickbay. We can’t afford this to spread.’

‘Are you putting me in quarantine?’

‘I am. Myself too. We’ve both had close contact with him and I’m not taking any chances.’

Hans wondered how close she had been. ‘But the mission. We can’t carry it out with one of us missing from the Control Room, and with Pete incapacitated like this…’

‘Then we can’t carry it out.’ She saw the anger beginning to rise in him. ‘This is a medical emergency,’ she said, ‘I will not jeopardise the crew.’

He bit his lip. He knew she was right, and if the whole crew became ill they could not do the job anyway. ‘Furchtbar! Scheisse!’ He walked to the intercom and told the others what was happening and to inform Mission Control of the situation.

‘His breathing’s getting worse,’ he heard Elspeth say, ‘I’m gonna have to put a tube down.’ He watched her intubate Pete and his breathing become easier. ‘Trouble is,’ she said, ‘this also pushes the infection down his airway. I’ll have to find a treatment.’

She disappeared into the sterile room with samples from the limited range of antibiotics she stocked. Having been quarantined for three months before leaving the Earth, and in isolation for six-and-a-half months in space, the mission planners had believed that only minimal medical supplies would be necessary, any bugs the crew carried having had chance to die out or to raise antibodies in each of them. She had with her only what was thought necessary to cope with gut flora and fauna getting out of balance because of the unnatural diet they were constrained to adopt. She was amazed at what she saw in the Petri dishes. She had never seen bacterial colonies grow so quickly. She dipped a separate swab in a preparation of each antibiotic and wiped each one over a separate Petri dish.

Back in sickbay, Elspeth took another swab from Pete’s eye and applied it to a microscope slide.

‘What can you see?’ Hans asked.

‘What I expected to see,’ she replied, peering down the instrument, ‘A streptococcal bacterium. The question is,’ she mused, ‘where did he get it from?’

‘D’you think it came from the planet?’

‘We haven’t been anywhere else, and we didn’t bring it with us…’

‘Das ist unmöglich!’

‘Well, maybe it isn’t…’

IV

Elspeth put her time in quarantine to good use in analysing the organism that had invaded Pete’s body. The lab in sickbay was set up for DNA and RNA sequencing, since one of the main objectives of the mission was to investigate the possibility of life on Mars. The results of the lab work were transmitted to Mission Control for further processing and cross-referencing with a data base of terrestrial life-forms. What they found was a near-exact match, with only a couple of apparently minor differences, to a streptococcal bacterium that was very common on Earth.

‘So we did bring it with us,’ Hans asserted.

‘Well,’ Elspeth responded, ‘no we didn’t. We know we weren’t infected when we left and this particular strain is not found on Earth.’

‘You can’t seriously be telling me this is Martian in origin?’

‘I’ve no other explanation at the moment. So, yes, my working hypothesis is that the bug is extra-terrestrial. The fact that it’s so similar to a terrestrial species is interesting but, since life in its many forms shows many similarities, not all that surprising. For example, there’s very little difference between human and bonobo chimp DNA.’

‘So it should respond to our antibiotics then?’

‘So far, it hasn’t responded to the limited range we have aboard. It doesn’t look promising.’

‘So what about Pete? What will happen to him?’

‘I don’t know. Actually, I’m very worried. I can’t cure him and his condition is serious. Even if the simulation on Earth finds an antibiotic that works, we don’t have it here. Meanwhile, all I can do is provide basic life-support and hope he makes it.’

‘OK. I’ll notify Mission Control. If he doesn’t pull through soon, we’ll have to abort the mission. We can’t do the mission properly without Pete, even if you decide that I’m in the clear. We need both pilots for the lander. Stuart can’t do it all. And we can’t wait indefinitely for Pete to recover.’

Hans made the call while, down on the surface of the planet, the rejuvenated Beagle IV shovelled its payload into the hopper of the lab-pack set up by Hans and Pete.

Three hours later, Mission Control called back, with a message for Hans. He passed on its content to the rest of the crew. ‘They’re working up a flight plan for an unscheduled return now. Stuart, as soon as they’ve uploaded it, run the diagnostics and prepare the ship for the home run, just in case.’

‘Roger that.’

‘And we’ve got something interesting going on. The lab-pack on the surface is transmitting the same signature that Elspeth sent home for the bug. It looks like Pete managed to contaminate Beagle IV when he rebuilt it.’

Elspeth cut in, ‘I don’t think so. We didn’t bring the bug with us. I’d bet my life that it was already here before we arrived.’

‘The bacteriologists back home wouldn’t agree with you. They’re telling us it’s too earth-like to be extra-terrestrial. They’ve given me an update on their preliminary report, if you’re interested.’

‘Go ahead,’ said Elspeth.

‘The early analysis and simulation shows three deviations from the bug’s terrestrial cousin. First of all, it’s extremely virulent, given the right conditions.’

‘Like Pete’s body?’

‘Exactly. Secondly, it’s remarkably resistant to extremes of environmental factors, which is why it could survive on the Martian surface and through the airlock purge.’

‘And thirdly?’

‘Well, that’s the bad news, I’m afraid. The bacteriologists have run simulations for every type of antibiotic they have down there and, so far, nothing combats it. There’s one group that holds out some promise, and they’re running simulations on members of the group now.’

‘But surely that’s good news?’ Stuart interjected.

‘Yes and no. It may be that they find an antidote but there’s nothing certain about it.’

‘But there’s hope?’

‘There’s a slim chance.’

Elspeth took control of the conversation again. ‘And the really bad news is that, the group that holds out that hope, we don’t have it on the ship. My tests have all proven negative.’

‘That’s correct,’ Hans agreed.

‘So we have to wait until we get back to Earth and hope they’ve found something.’

‘That’s also correct.’

‘And hope Pete lives long enough…’ She was cut off by an alarm going off in sickbay. ‘I have to go check on Pete,’ she said, and dashed away.

The face of Martin Dunnock, the ship’s engineer, appeared on the video screen. ‘Hans, there’s something very strange about these boards…’ He had been checking the circuit boards taken from Beagle IV. He was curious why so many of them had failed during the rover’s long time on the planet. It was not totally unexpected that some would fail—after all, that was why so many redundant systems had been included in the first place—but investigation would hopefully provide ideas for protecting future systems against the rigours of interplanetary travel and exploration. ‘One and three were damaged on landing, as we always suspected. Two and five have gone down with what looks like corrosion. And, actually, four and six also show signs of corrosion, but nothing critical has been affected yet.’

‘Well,’ said Hans, ‘that’s not that strange, is it?’

‘No, except that it’s not corrosion. Like I said, it looks like corrosion but, actually, it’s more like…well…more like something has been eating them…’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Exactly what I say. The processor board is a kind of sandwich construction – no pun intended – with the electronic components built onto an inert plastic coating on each side, separated by an insulating substrate. Parts of the substrate on all of the boards have just disappeared. And it’s not just breakdown of the material, which you might expect to be fairly evenly spread. It’s like something has started eating at the edge and has worked its way in. The substrate is pretty uniform stuff, and the boundaries of the erosion form almost perfect semicircles. It’s like the boundaries are the ever expanding edge of a fairy-ring.’

‘Fairy ring?’

‘Yes. In Europe, at least, there’s a fungus that starts its life at one point and eats its way ever outwards from that point. It pushes up toadstools each year. They form a circle. The circle is bigger each year because the fungus has eaten its way further out.’

‘Yeah? I guess there are no toadstools on the boards.’ A dreadful thought occurred to Hans: most of the circuit boards on the ship were built on a similar substrate. After a pause, he said, ‘Look. Put all but one of those boards away in a sealed bag. Bring the isolated board down here right away. Stow the rest in an airtight locker. Don’t delegate this. You do it. And don’t stop to talk. And don’t touch anything you don’t have to.’ Martin’s face creased itself into a puzzled expression. ‘Don’t ask, just do it.’

Elspeth reappeared as Martin turned away and set off to obey his orders. Her face was drained of colour and tears were poised ready to tumble down over her cheeks. ‘It’s Pete,’ she whispered, ‘he’s…’ The floodgates opened... Hans stood to his feet and took her in his arms and she sobbed into his shoulder. She pushed away and looked Hans in the eyes. ‘Pete’s gone,’ she cried, ‘He’s gone.’

Martin appeared at the door. ‘Wait there, Martin,’ said Hans, ‘We’ve just had some bad news.’ Elspeth pulled herself together. ‘Martin,’ she said, alarm in her voice, ‘You shouldn’t be in here.’

‘It’s OK,’ Hans said, calmly, as if to soothe her panic, ‘I told him to come here. I think you may need to do some tests.’ He explained to Elspeth what Martin had told him. ‘So I think you should check Martin out, and test a sample from the edge of an eroded zone on the board.’

‘The tests take a couple of hours, Martin. You’d best sit over there,’ she said, indicating a bench on the far side of sickbay. She took swabs from him and scraped a sample of material from the board he had brought with him. She told him to stay exactly where he was and went off to the lab to conduct the tests.

When she had finished, she went into the side room where Pete had been isolated. She found Hans sitting at his side looking at his tormented death mask; Pete had not died easily. Together, Hans and Elspeth zipped Pete into a body bag and moved his corpse into a refrigerated compartment. They sat in silence for the next two hours. Elspeth examined the test tubes containing the samples from Martin and the board and returned glumly to report her findings. ‘You were right, Hans. The board is contaminated with the same bacterium that killed Pete.’ She turned to Martin and looked emptily at him, not knowing how to phrase her other finding. She looked away.

‘No,’ said Martin, ‘You’re not serious!’

‘I’m sorry, Martin…’

Hans dropped his face into his hands and groaned from frustration and despair.

‘No…There must be something you can do,’ said Martin. Elspeth just looked at him. Her silence said it all…

Hans regained control of himself and walked over to the comms desk. ‘Stuart, Svetlana, drop whatever you’re doing and get to a screen.’ Several minutes later, the pair appeared on the monitor, both dishevelled and Svetlana blushing. Hans told them about Pete’s death and Martin’s contamination. ‘We have to assume that Elspeth and I are similarly contaminated, since we have had close contact with Pete for the last week. This mission is formally aborted. Stuart, let Mission Control know what’s happening, then get us under way. And then, you and Svetlana are to stay away from sick bay until further notice.’ The two made to voice their objections. ‘No, you must keep out of the way. I don’t want you two to catch this thing and you’ll have enough to do between you in flying this tub home. You’ll have to manage without us until we’re certain that Elspeth and I are in the clear.’ The screen went blank and the two went to the flight deck to initiate the return to Earth.

After thirty minutes, Beagle XII left orbit and begun its long return homeward. Stuart and Svetlana left the flight deck and returned to crew quarters. Being in forced isolation was not the worst thing they could imagine…

V

‘Hans, there’s an incoming message from Mission Control.’

‘Patch it through, Stuart.’ The screen where Hans sat showed a severe-looking mission controller. Hans deduced from what he saw that what he was about to hear was not good news. What do you have for us? he wondered

‘We have the results from Biosciences. Before I get into that, we’re sorry about Pete, and understand the situation in regard to Martin and having to abort the mission. It’s all you can do in the circumstances.’ The controller grimaced and said nothing for a while. Hans waited for him to resume in his own time; not that he could do much prompting with a nine-minute transmission delay in each direction.

‘Biosciences have run the simulations and, I’m sorry Hans, but you’ve nothing aboard that can combat the bug…’

‘And…’ Hans said to himself, prompted by the controller’s tone.

‘And we’ve nothing down here either. I’m afraid there’s no cure as yet. They’re still working on it, though.’

But we shouldn’t hold our breath.

‘That’s about the measure of it.’ The controller shrugged as he said, ‘Sorry.’

So what do we do? We’re on our way home. Will we find a welcome? Or are we persona non grata? Hans’s pulse began to race in response to the flat silence and dead-pan expression of the controller.

The controller continued, ‘Hans, do you understand the import of what I said? We’ve no defence against this. Biosciences are scared, even. They predict a high rate of infection if this bug gets to Earth. It could reach pandemic proportions in a matter of weeks.’

Hans began to boil. ‘So what are we to do?’ he shouted, banging both clenched fists hard down on the console, ‘Are you just writing us off?’

‘We’re making preparations for your return,’ the controller resumed, ‘but it’s important that you understand the situation. We’re beefing up the quarantine facility and you’re to rendezvous with the old station on arrival here. We’ll make sure it’s fully stocked and ready for you. Once we’re happy that no-one is carrying the bug, we’ll have you ferried down and quarantined on the planet, then we’ll see what can be done to salvage the ship and the station. We’ll make you as comfortable as we can.’

Hans suddenly knew what it felt like to be a mediaeval leper. ‘You don’t sound as though you’ll be pleased to see us,’ he said to the controller, who could not hear him.

The controller continued, ‘You must understand, Hans, the only defence we have is isolation. This thing must never be allowed to come back home.’ The controller’s eyes flicked briefly away from the screen. Something told Hans that they would never again set foot on Earth...

What do you mean, “back home”?

‘We think the bug originated here. In fact, we’re 99.9 percent sure of it. Something similar happened on the Apollo 12 mission led by Peter Conrad. D’you remember? Streptococcal bacteria survived inside a Surveyor probe camera for three years on the Moon and Conrad brought it back. That one was harmless.

‘Your bug, we think, must have been hiding inside Beagle IV. It’s been there a long time and has mutated. We’ve no idea what kept it alive but all the studies we’ve done predict a phenomenal growth rate in the right conditions, such as inside the body of a human host, especially if the immune system is weakened or the metabolic rate is elevated. All of you will have depressed immune systems because you’ve been living in a sterile environment for around nine months. We’ve looked again at Pete’s medical status and it looks like his would probably have been less resilient than everyone else’s. So that, coupled with his exertions down on the surface could explain why the bug took hold of him so quickly.

‘Please confirm you got this message. Good luck.’

Hans switched to transmit, and acknowledged the message. ‘I think I can tell you how the bug survived…’ He told Mission Control about the processor boards.

Hans, whom Elspeth had pronounced free of infection one week after Pete’s death, watched his crew mates succumb, one by one, to the ravages of the bacterium. Martin had taken a week to reach the end stages of the infection, and Elspeth, who, as medical officer, had taken on most of his care, contracted the disease from him, despite her precautions. Hans, with his limited medical skills, could to do little for her, and she had refused any physical contact with him, insisting that he took all possible precautions to protect himself, dreading the prospect of passing the deadly germ on. Her death had been painful, with a long-drawn period of delirium and fever before she slipped away. Grief-stricken, Hans retired to his sleep-cabin after her passing and lay crying in the dark for hours.

Stuart and Svetlana moved Elspeth’s body to the fridge, leaving Hans to cope with his grief. Despite Hans’s warnings, Stuart became infected and, inevitably, passed the disease to Svetlana. Now, with the last two in the sickbay and about to die, he too had succumbed. He knew that the bug must not be allowed to reach Earth. He would die from his infection long before entering orbit. There would be a salvage mission, if not by the ISA then by some stupid Independent… It must not happen.

Hans stood before the comms screen and pressed ‘Transmit’. ‘This is my last transmission. After I have made it, I am switching off comms and will make no further contact. I have acted to ensure the bug that wiped out my entire crew does not reach Earth.

‘As you know, the ship was equipped with only sufficient fuel for our mission but, since the mission was aborted, there was more aboard than planned for the return trip. I hoped to use the extra fuel to divert the ship and its deadly payload off into space but my calculations showed me I could not place the ship beyond the reach of would-be salvagers. The best I could achieve was to plunge the ship into Earth’s atmosphere. I have therefore expended the fuel to ensure the ship cannot enter orbit. Unfortunately, this measure alone does not guarantee the bug will be burnt out of existence; we all know of smaller vessels that have made the plunge and parts of them have still reached the surface.

‘The seismic charges intended for probing the Martian surface were never used. These I have distributed around the ship and wired together. I intend to blast the ship to pieces small enough to be totally destroyed by the heat of re-entry. It is the best I can do. I hope it is enough.

‘I wish I could return home to be with you all but that is not possible. Thank you for everything. I would like to say "Auf wiedersehen" but it will have to be "Goodbye." Please tell my brother that I love him.’

He flicked a switch and the comms system died.

Unable to bring himself to kill, he delayed detonation until after his remaining colleagues died. They were the last human beings he would ever see. He cherished them. They wept at his devotion. He kept them as comfortable as he could until they breathed their last struggling breaths.

He wrestled with the mode of his own demise. He could set a timer to detonate the charges long after the time he expected to live but, if he did that, and if the timer failed, the Earth would remain at risk. He had no desire to die at his own hand, even in the full knowledge of the suffering that lay ahead of him. His first thought was to wait as long as he could, holding onto life, but then he could only guess how few days he had left; and if he delayed, would he wait too long, would he have the strength to act? His only option was to trigger the explosion himself while he was well enough. He balanced his brief and pitiful remaining span of life against the billions on the planet fast approaching. In an urgent moment, Hans hoped that God would understand and forgive him his suicide, and touched together the two bared wires in his hands…

Part Three

Only once before had the engineer felt this way, and it was an occasion he would rather have forgotten but such things tend to stick very readily in the mind. The cause of his earlier experience of the sensation was very different and rather more conventional; then, it had been the consumption of excessive quantities of alcohol in the form of vodka and red wine, the latter with complicity, the former without his knowledge, at the Academy Graduation Ball. He remembered the sequence of events: loss of coordination, then of the contents of his stomach, then of consciousness, then, on awakening, the acquisition of the worst headache in the history of humanity.

He tumbled on uncontrollably and the scene before his eyes shifted with clockwork precision: the planet far below with huge cloud systems spiralling their way over blue seas and green land-masses, the vast blackness of space shot through with myriad diamonds, the space station with its solar panels and countless antennae protruding at unrelated directions, the blackness of space, the planet…

His most disconcerting observation was that the station grew visibly smaller with each rotation and that the two star fields were blending into one expanse with the station becoming just one more diamond. He was falling rapidly towards the planet.

He hoped he would not vomit as he had in the remembered event since, with his head encased in an airtight helmet, the consequences would be unpleasant. He glanced at the small instrument panel and reassured himself that his beacon was operating and was transmitting ‘Man Overboard’ as a result of the severing of his umbilical line. An unlikely scene in the control room emerged in his imagination, with people going about their business as though nothing had happened to him. Had anyone noticed the alarm? His level of anxiety rose sharply and he threw up. It came as a great relief that his rotation resulted in the offensive emission finding its way to the top of his helmet rather than floating about in front of his face. The stench was overpowering.

The rescue team, he reassured himself, would be ready to leave at any second now. They would have sat in readiness, as always when someone worked outside, suits on, and helmets at hand. They may even be on their way already but they were too small and too far away to resolve against the complex backdrop of the space station, especially at the rate he turned.

The planet came around again and he thought of Sylvia. She hated his work, with its long months away from home and its dreadful risks; she never found it a problem to spend the danger money, though. At least she was well provided for, if the rescue attempt failed. The mortgage was paid off—he had managed to do something useful with some of the money, and the death benefit was quadrupled if an astronaut died in space on active duty. Did burning up in the atmosphere count as dying in space? Suddenly, his stomach knotted and he longed to see her, to hold her in his arms and tell her how much he loved her. The pain inside him became unbearable and he cried out loud, great tears tracking off to join the partially digested meal above his head. For the first time, the possibility of his not surviving became real to him. ‘If I get out of this,’ he swore to Sylvia as she passed by below him, ‘I promise I’ll make you happy. Things will be different. I’ll transfer to ground crew. I don’t want to be without you ever again.’

He screamed at the searing pain that struck deep into his left shoulder. A thousand points of light flashed invisibly against the daylight of the planet below. He shook his head to clear it and tried to focus on the station. Where was it? Whatever had hit him, either a meteor or a piece of space junk, had hit him hard. Now instead of tumbling backwards head-over-heals, he additionally spun about his vertical axis, thanks to the momentum imparted by the projectile. He checked his instruments and was horrified to see that his suit was losing pressure. He reached across his chest to try and assess the damage by touch, his field of view being restricted by his helmet. He thought he could feel a tear in his suit and that something was embedded in his shoulder. He probed at it and almost passed out at the renewed agony that ensued. The station? Where was the station? It passed once again before his eyes but from an unaccustomed direction. He thought he saw some movement. He waited for the next rotation to bring the station back into view and strained hard to see, and twisted and contorted his body to get the longest view possible before the station disappeared once again. He thought he could just make out the rescue sledge. Each rotation confirmed what he saw, and he was relieved that it grew perceptibly. Rescue was on its way. All would be well.

He noticed the strange angle that his arm made with his body, and threw up again. This time, his motion was less helpful in segregating his face from the loose contents of his helmet. He blew at the instruments to clear away the detritus. The pressure was falling rapidly. Soon, he was gasping what air he could down into his lungs, forcing himself to strain each breath through clenched teeth. Desperation growing, and his air all but gone, he held his breath as long as he could. He fought against his body’s urge to breathe again. He recalled his fear of drowning and thought that this is what it must be like… Then he felt himself drifting off to sleep. He tried to fight it but it pulled him inexorably towards itself. Asphyxiation, he thought to himself, what a way to go… The Earth passed by again. ‘Sylvia,’ he mouthed airlessly, or at least he thought he attempted to, and the diamonds all went out…

The sledge pilot edged his craft towards the tumbling body. ‘He’s out cold, by the looks of things. People usually try to watch us coming in. Get ready with the net.’

The co-pilot worked at the panel in front of him for a few seconds and then announced, ‘Net ready.’

The pilot got in as close as he dared without risking damage to either his craft or his quarry. ‘There’s a nasty gash in his suit.’

‘Don’t like the look of this.’

‘Ready when you are.’

The co-pilot pressed a button and three projectiles were thrown out towards the spinning astronaut and enveloped him in the netting that they dragged behind them. The netting entangled the limp form and gently arrested its spin. The co-pilot hit another button and the net was drawn back towards the sledge. Two medics pulled the tangled body aboard and began working furiously to cut away the netting and tend to their hapless shipmate, hoping that he still had need of their efforts. Once he was clear, one connected an umbilical cable to the damaged suit while the other slapped a large rubber patch over the gash at the shoulder, rubbing the edges down hard to create a useful seal.

Essentialities dealt with, they began to examine their patient. ‘Good grief, he’s puked,’ said one. ‘Pressure’s up,’ said the other, ‘but his heart’s stopped and he’s not breathing. Let’s get him in the lung.’ They manhandled his body into the iron lung with which the sledge was equipped for such eventualities. The technology was old but had found a new lease of life in open space where the necessary spacesuit made it impossible to apply more usual resuscitation methods. The sledge’s automatic defibrillator shocked the patient, delivering the charge through the umbilical line to electrodes built into the suit. ‘Sinous rhythm established,’ someone said, and the iron lung moved air in and out of the quiescent body within.

The rescue sledge docked in the airlock leading directly to sickbay, and the team wasted no time providing proper medical attention. From his vantage point somewhere near the ceiling, he watched the entire process: the cutting off of his suit and the removal of his helmet, the setting up of drips and the establishment of a clear airway. Someone shouted, ‘He’s in cardiac arrest again,’ but he already knew that. He watched them apply the defibrillator paddles to his chest and discharge the device. He convulsed in agony as the energy surged through him, ripping him apart from the inside. He felt himself falling, tumbling, spinning towards the table, and then nothing. ‘We’ve got him,’ a voice said, ‘Sinous rhythm again.’

Another voice, ‘He’s making efforts to breath.’

‘OK. Extubate slowly.’

The tube providing his airway was withdrawn and he gagged as the end tickled the back of his throat. He opened his eyes and saw faces, blurred faces, swimming about in a mist. Mouths were moving and noises were being made but all he heard was the rhythmic buzzing of overloaded nerve-endings. The noises resolved into voices as his senses regained their powers. ‘You’re back on the station. You’re going to be OK,’ he was told.

His shoulder insisted itself on his consciousness with a heavy, throbbing, burning sensation. Medics, now happy that he would live, were glad to tend to his shoulder and see if they could repair the damage. One pumped morphine into his arm and another, a pretty one, he noticed, held his damaged arm while a third probed the wound for the offending projectile. He looked at his shoulder and saw the pulverised flesh and the protruding ends of his shattered humerus. ‘I don’t think you’ll be playing the piano for a while,’ the medic said as he pulled something from the wreckage, ‘Space junk. Looks like part of a printed circuit board.’ He waved the splintered object about for all to see and ordered an x-ray to make sure that no other fragments were left in the wound.

The station commander was given leave to talk to him and he stepped up to where he could be seen. ‘That was a close thing, buddy, we thought we’d lost you. You shouldn’t have been out there anyway with that huge cloud of space junk about to pass by. That’s why it took us so long to get the sledge away. You were almost out of range by the time it reached you… Can you remember what happened?’

He responded through the stupefying fog of the morphine, ‘Dunno, sir, I had the wrench on full torque and, the next thing I know, it gave way, and I’m flying through space.’

‘Well, there’ll have to be an enquiry in due course but, for now, just get some rest. You’ll be returning home in a couple of hours on the next shuttle.’

He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. The streptococcal infection in his wound went unnoticed…

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