/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space

Martian Valkyrie

G. Nordley

Sometimes having to do things on a tight budget just might have an advantage or two.

G. David Nordley

Martian Valkyrie

I, Enrico Lopez, am the first man to set foot on Mars and come back alive. But there are moments when I feel a heroic death, like that of Robert Falcon Scott, would have suited me far better. Better than what I must live with, and what I must live without.

Back in Bergen, old man Halvorsen must still be laughing. Yes, he is still alive and intends to live forever. Any day now, the genetic engineers have been saying. Good for him. He does not dare die, I think, for where he is going they will not be so gentle.

Let him laugh, part of me says. Despite our problems, we got much more scientific data, core samples, measurements, and everything. Our rovers roved, our balloons floated, and our scientists have enough data for a million graduate theses. So, in the long view of things, I suppose it matters not one bit who was first on Mars or how we got back.

Except to me, and to history.

Four days out from Earth on our very carefully planned trajectory, things had settled into a nominal routine. The United Nations’s official expedition was a four-ship orbital armada, with forty carefully chosen and politically representative scientists and astronauts and the latest hardware, including nuclear thermal rockets and power-assisted hard suits. With a trillion dollars spent in planning, programming, research and development before the first cargo ships left low Earth orbit, we had all the requirements covered. As its commander, I would be on the first shuttle down and first on the surface. I had my speech memorized.

I remember the moment everything changed with vivid clarity. I was in my double-sized cabin on our flagship, the Zhang-Diaz, and had just strapped myself into my bunk and ordered the lights down. I had just started to dream about my wife, Linda, and other women I have known, when two loud tones signaled an event important enough to perturb my sleep schedule. I mention it because, even at the expense of my dignity, I cannot resist this irony. For those who believe in signs, there it is.

A voice followed the chimes. “Enrico, this is Mustaffa.” Ahmed Mustaffa was the spacecraft’s master and my second for the expedition.

“I am awake. What is it?”

“We just downloaded a message from Thor Halvorsen. That Norwegian lunar expedition—it’s departed and it doesn’t look like it’s going to the Moon.”

“Where else would it go?” I asked. The Norwegians’ tiny, stubbornly independent space exploration effort had just assembled two lunar spacecraft in low orbit. Had they had another accident? Two years ago, they had lost the supplies for a Norwegian lunar base camp when their cargo ships had failed to do the lunar orbit insertion burn. Cut-rate space programs are the most expensive kind, I told myself. Would we have to rescue them and sacrifice some or all of our own mission? “What is the message, Mustaffa?”

“All the message said was, ‘Norway mission headed toward Mars— Halvorsen.’ But there’s a press release appended. The file’s under ‘Halvorsen ’ ”

I suddenly felt cold. It was no accident. Had it been anyone else, I would have taken this as a historical joke, but, a generation ago, Halvorsen had found the buried glacier in the rim of Amundsen Crater near the lunar south pole—with a tenth the usual budget. He took his nation s history of exploration very seriously, and he had all the daring and competence of his forbears.

My cabin featured a small desk next to my bunk, and over the desk was my vid, a mosaic of sixteen flat high-resolution panels joined seamlessly in a commander-sized interface display. A perk of office, but I had to get out of bed to look at it. I resealed and adjusted my tight suit, undid the velcro restraints, and swung myself out of the bunk so I floated in front of it. The sterile circulating air chilled me—our vents did their job so efficiently that they took even the smell of my body away before it could reach my nose.

“Display the Halvorsen file,” I said. Text and a diagram filled the vid.

I stared at the report in disbelief. They had launched themselves on an eighty-eight day trajectory with a chemical rocket, obviously intending to use the Martian atmosphere in an aerocapture maneuver.

Many studies going back to the 1980s showed that was a terrible idea. It was too hard, they said, to design a big interplanetary spaceship that would fit behind an aeroshield. They said the density of the Martian atmosphere was too variable to plan a precise thirteen-kilometer-per-second aerobraking maneuver. Without it, they said the mission called for some thirty kilometers per second of total delta-V, and this required development of the nuclear-thermal rockets.

Halvorsen had laughed at them then, and now, apparently, had launched his own expedition.

“Mustaffa, one of three things will happen:

“First, and most likely, the Norwegians will kill themselves. They will either burn up or fail to be captured.” Perhaps, for a fleeting moment, before good Christian conscience took charge of my thoughts, I even hoped that they would.

“Two,” I continued, “if mainly by luck, they manage to reach Martian orbit, we will probably have to rescue them. There is no way a ship that small could carry enough fuel for a landing and return, even using aero-braking. They are counting on our supplies and our good hearts to steal a share of our glory.” We would, of course, perform the rescue. Ungraciously.

“But, if all that is somehow wrong, the third possibility is that Halvorsen will make us look like idiots.” Perhaps I feared that the most. He had been on the original planning committee, but as the expedition had gotten bigger, more complex, more expensive, more politically influenced by the member nations, and more compromised, he’d become more and more obstinate. As one of those experts, I’d had words with him. Finally, he had stormed out of a meeting and not returned.

Now he was saying, in effect, that he’d been right all along and that we’d spent a trillion dollars that could have been spent better elsewhere. I shuddered. If true, the media would dance on the graves of our reputations for years to come. That was the worst case I could imagine.

Imagination, however, was never one of my strong points.

“It will be as Allah wills,” Mustaffa said. “But I, for one, will try to avoid doing idiotic things.”

Sí. Zhang-D, put a telescope on the Moon.” We were already three million kilometers from Luna, but in a second, Mare Orientale filled the screen— three half rings bisected by the shadow line. It would be full Moon back home.

“Center it left of the Farside limb, and give me maximum magnification.” Once the sunlit side of the Moon was off-screen, the video intensity readjusted, and I could almost see the shadowed lunar limb in silhouette against the star clouds of Sagittarius. Tiny specks of light flecked the farside of Luna now, explorers and settlements now almost a decade old. There was nothing moving, and for a moment I had hope that Halvorsen’s announcement was a joke—Halvorsen paraphrasing what Amundsen sent to Scott a century and a quarter ago.

Then I saw them emerge from our Moon’s shadow Two spots of light, brighter than any nearby stars. They seemed to be moving slowly relative to each other as well as against the background.

A line flashed between the spots of light. What? Of course. It was the specular glint as a cable caught the Sun just right. Halvorsen, of course, would have used tethers for artificial gravity, after all our committees and systems analysts had decided they were more problems than they were worth.

“Put a dish on them and listen. Contact Mission Control. I’ll be up to ops in a minute.”

I slipped into my coveralls. We should have been informed. I would talk to Dr. Worthing, man-to-man, from the dignity of my command deck at the front of our ship.

But only three or four seconds had passed before, “Mission control wants to talk to you.”

Of course. I shook my head hard to stimulate myself, pushed the door at the end of my cabin open and emerged from my cell at the aft end of the octagonal common room like a new bee into a hive. My hatch thunked shut and “Blue shift” crew members glanced at me from each of the four “floors” spaced at equal intervals around the hull. I tried to appear unhurried, and nodded to each of them.

There was a pole down the center of this to guide passers-by, but, in a display of the zero-gravity competence expected of a commander, I jumped for the ops hatch directly from my cabin door.

Command ops occupied the forward end of the cylinder, some nine meters away, and I prided myself on my ability to jump the distance without using the pole, shoot through the opening without touching its sides, and catch myself with my toes.

My little maneuver went unwatched above. Mustaffa was alone, twirling his moustache, his dark eyes intent on the command video display as Dr. Worthing of the U.N. International Space Authority gave their version of events. They, he said, “welcomed all space exploration efforts” but “were concerned about the possible complications of another mission, and in particular, one formulated with so many differences in basic philosophy.” This went on for a few minutes, then the ISA signed off.

“Nobody on the back line for me?” Mustaffa turned toward me and shrugged. “What bureaucrat has the patience for a time lag between speeches? We have a half-megabyte download of instructions on how to handle press questions from the ISA. It’s GMT midnight at Earthport—the public relations people are asleep.”

“The press! Public relations! Caramba! What do we do about Halvorsen’s mission?”

Mustaffa shrugged. “It appears we arc to continue for now as if nothing has happened”

“But what if they… Get a ground line. I’ll talk to Halvorsen myself!”

“Enrico, it is after midnight in Norway and he must be eighty—”

“Wake the old fart up!” I pursed my lips. Halvorsen, for all his obstreperousness, was a legend of space exploration. It wouldn’t do to display my anger to the crew. “I’ll take it in my cabin.”

I’d worked for the U.S. NASA for twenty-three years, but I was dark-complexioned, had straight black hair, and had retained my Argentine citizenship. This had made me politically acceptable as the U.N. expedition commander—and a target for some of Halvorsen’s criticism. So, if he succeeded in beating us to Mars, he would get back at me and prove me not only wrong, but unnecessary.

It took twenty minutes, but Mars Mission Control made the connection and I saw the old, straight-backed, craggy-faced, iron-haired descendent of Viking barbarians, dressed in a night robe, frowning at me in what seemed to be a living room. At least the backdrop was a great stone hearth strewn with models of rockets and Moon rocks.

I started by asserting my authority as leader of Earth’s official expedition and taking an attitude of outrage. “What do you think you are doing? Over.”

Forty seconds of light-speed delay gives one time to question one’s wording with no opportunity for recall. I was talking to a man many years my senior and an acknowledged legend. This was not a pleasant way to converse.

“Well,” he said, pronouncing his “W” as if it were a “V.” “I am sitting in my home listening to Grieg. Per and Ingrid are going to Mars. Over.”

The same crew that had gone to the Moon with him. Per Nordli was a cool, tall, diffident, brown-haired man. He had no cojones, but was otherwise respectable. But his wife looked and acted like someone more comfortable in a bikini than a spacesuit. Make that half a bikini.

“You sent that bimbo Karinsdatter!” I shut my eyes to regain my composure. I needed to interface with his technical staff on flight plans, to prepare contingencies, before we got too far away for comfortable discussion.

“Where are your people, your mission control center? I was told you are heading a mission control operation. Over.”

While I waited for his response, I shuddered to think of the problem Karinsdatter represented. Our Mars expedition was full of men from developing Islamic, Oriental, and Hispanic cultures—and the sponsoring nations thought the first mission would be hard enough without sexual complications. We had carefully negotiated a decision not to include women on the first mission. Now Halvorsen, on his own, had decided otherwise. Bad enough—but for him to send Dr. Ingrid Bodil Karinsdatter, however theoretically qualified, to Mars was an unforgivable insult.

Yes, for some it would be insulting just because she was a woman. But the problem was more because of the kind of woman she was. After she had become famous, she spoke up for population control efforts in opposition to many of the religious leaders of Earth. She used a non-traditional feminist surname. She had posed for a magazine. I and many other NASA astronauts—especially the women—had publicly blasted her for that. In return, she had made comments about American prudery.

Was Ingrid Karinsdatter someone to dangle before forty men fifty million miles from Earth? Ten of my crew were from conservative Islamic countries. Now, in the Norwegians, I faced a culture whose ideals of womanhood were ski champions, marathon runners, Valkyrie warriors, prime ministers, or Viking queens with names like Aud the Deep Thinker. To that, add the crazy license with which all these modern European women display themselves now that the fear of AIDS has gone.

I stared, tight-lipped, at the large, but simple and spare living room behind Halvorsen, waiting for transmissions to go there and back. Finally he shrugged, almost as a Frenchman would.

“I recruited Per and Ingrid who were with me on the Amundsen Crater expedition. Their children are old enough to leave alone now and I am too old and too blind to do anything but think and talk. But I still do that not too bad, nei? Ja, I know how you talk of Ingrid. But that is your problem. As for mission control, this is it such as it is. I use my house computer and my videophone.”

So their standing army was this old half-blind man standing in front of me. Who did he think he was? Goddard? Korolev? Von Braun?

“Oslo University,” he continued, “is giving me time on their radio telescope and some volunteer help. That is all. We only have a two person expedition, assembled from standard modules. Over.”

I frowned. The Norwegians had bought their way into space with oil money and a cut-rate single-stage shuttle design that NASA had smothered to death. It had a payload of five tonnes to a five-hundred kilometer orbit at best. And they’d hardly changed a thing since their Moon escapade. There was no way they could reasonably hope to get a round trip out of that, I thought. They were planning on using us—they had to be—and that made me angry.

“This isn’t fair, Halvorsen. Our lives may be put at risk. Now will you tell Per Nordli to follow our lead; to do just what we say? So we can get him and his wife back safely? Over”

I waited. Halvorsen’s expression changed to ice when he got my transmission. “Nei! We plan that they get back by themselves! As for putting lives at risk, you do things so stupid and complex it is you that may all die. That is why I walked out of your meetings. Uf dah! Bureaucrats, empire builders, and egomaniacs. Bah!” Across six million kilometers and through two sets of communications electronics, this craggy gray old Viking speared me with the contempt in his nearly sightless eyes. “It is too late to be talking such nonsense. Halvorsen out!”

The image dissolved to a UN link operator who told me that Halvorsen had hung up, not waiting for my sign-off. In retrospect, I may have been too peremptory myself, but still, the insult stung.

I called a staff meeting to decide how to deal with the Norwegian expedition. It would take us four days to rendezvous with our Deimos supply depot, refuel, deploy our landers, and be ready to mount any kind of an operation, we reasoned. The Norwegians would most likely have trouble during aerobraking, so it would be best if we were in place before they got there.

Nobody wanted to call it a race, but we examined our trajectory margins to see if we could get to Mars earlier. But the trajectory people told us the time to have done that was in low Earth orbit. Now, it would eat into our reaction mass budget more than mission rules would allow. The Norwegians, it seemed, would get to Mars orbit before us. Dead or alive, but first.

Not if I had my way. We had plenty of fuel margin—there ought to be some way of stealing a little of that to shave some days off our trajectory. There was a planned midcourse burn only forty hours away. If it was just a little bigger… I knew my way around mission planning bureaucracies—I called the man in charge of trajectory analysis and asked him if he could run some contingency cases that had looked good to us. Strictly hypothetical? I grinned at the planner and he grinned back. He wanted to win, too.

It looked good.

Two days later, I was smiling and it was Halvorsen who was angry.

“We plan so our ships will be out of your way. Now we all get there at once bam-bam and will all be so busy that no one will have time to help anyone! And you use up your fuel margin! Over!”

“You are mistaken in your exaggerations, Dr. Halvorsen,” I answered, calmly. Dr. Obote, our ground orbit analyst, also exaggerated when he’d called to upbraid me for my non-nomi-nal burn. But after a few Swahili expletives, he acquiesced to the fait accompli and participated in the “discretionary-modification-well-within-mission-parameters” official cover.

“My fuel margin,” I continued to Halvorsen, “is not used up and we will arrive in Mars orbit well ahead of you.

For which you should be profoundly thankful if we have to rescue your people. Now that possibility is an unplanned complexity and need for coordination. Over”

I relaxed and contemplated our trajectory display with a smile. The arrival time difference was up to five hours, now—in our favor.

Finally, Halvorsen frowned and opened his mouth. “We have sufficient redundancies and do not require or plan on your help. You have enough problems just executing all you have planned. I ask you now to forget we are there and concentrate on your task. Over.”

I prayed for equanimity in the face of such arrogance, and my prayer was answered—-with the Lord s help, I did not lose my temper, but instead answered in measured tones. “I’m verv sorry you feel that way. But we can’t let past disagreements stand in the way. When we … I mean, if it may be necessary for me to rescue your people, I will need your cooperation. Over.”

I waited a minute to hear him snort and shout, “Halvorsen out!” Touchy hombre, Halvorsen.

We watched the Norwegians on our telescopes as it approached time for their course correction. Our ships were getting closer every day, on paths that would arrive at Mars separated only by hours, and within the last week had gotten close enough so that our twenty-meter baseline synthetic-aperture optics could see the details of their ship’s construction. Each Norwegian ship appeared to be a bundle of four squat cylinders sitting on their ends in a saucer-shaped heat shield. Range and apparent angle told me the cylinders were each about four meters tall and two meters wide. The cylinders were capped by transparent domes, through which we could occasionally make out one or both of the crew members. There were four holes in the heat shield, one under each cylinder, apparently for the rocket exhaust.

The ships were tied “nose”-to-“nose” by a tether almost half a kilometer long, rotating every fifty seconds; at high magnification, it was like watching the second hand of a clock move. We expected to see that clock stop and watch the Norwegians dock, untether, undock, do their burns, rendezvous, redock, re-tether and, in what should be one of the dicier maneuvers in astronautics, reestablish their tethered rotation. I looked at the clock—they were seriously behind schedule if they were going to meet their window. Had something gone wrong already?

Suddenly, one of the ships spouted fire for a couple of seconds. The acceleration was apparently much less than their centrifugal weight, because there was no sign of slack or vibration in the cable. Twenty-five seconds later the other ship also fired when its engines were pointed in the same direction as those of the first ship when it had fired. This went on for five cycles. Nothing wobbled, nothing broke. Mustaffa, as dumbfounded as I was, looked from the bridge video to me, and back again.

I shook my head. I had no idea of how complex their internal procedures and checks were, but the operation viewed from outside was simple to the point of elegance—yet our engineers had justified management s position of not trying spin gravity by citing the complexity and uncertainty of doing such maneuvers. It was something that had never been done before with a manned spacecraft.

Well, now it had—and that tight spot in my stomach that had materialized as soon as I heard of Halvorsen’s mission grew a little tighter. We were up against someone who did not live by the rules of managers, politicians, and tame engineers. He did not respect the zonas intangibles. He and his people could do things we could not. It wasn’t fair. I thought about Ingrid Karinsdatter. It was most definitely not fair.

Midway to Mars, I was forced to hold a disciplinary hearing. Planetologist Kadir Ibn Muhunnad caught Sajag Kedar, our biotechnician, examining the Norwegian ships at maximum magnification, something that would have attracted no adverse notice except for the data he saved.

I must explain. The Norwegian ships were still somewhat sunward of us and the Sun was in the plane of rotation of the tethered ships, plunging their domes into shadow for about ten seconds each revolution. During this time, glare vanished and one could see inside. The Norwegians seemed to use the dome for relaxation—as a Sun deck mostly—there were plants and acceleration couches, but almost no visible equipment.

Whether Dr. Karinsdatter was aware of our surveillance, or whether she would have dressed more modestly even if she had been aware of it, is a matter of conjecture. Our telescopes were larger than those the Norwegians carried and I doubted that either of them had thought that we could observe them; we must have been just four very bright stars from their point of view But Halvorsen, who sent them to plague us? He might have thought of it. Oh, he might have.

In one of Sajag’s five-second clips, Dr. Karinsdatter, alone on her couch, chanced to look through her bubble, across the megameter of space between us, through the optics and the electronics, from the view plate, and right into my eyes. It was obvious from what she was doing that she had no idea that anyone was looking back at her at such high resolution. Still, I felt taunted—and much more.

“In my country, she could be shot for this,” Kadir told me—as he viewed the video evidence just as compulsively as everyone else. “It is her responsibility not to be seen in such a way.”

Sajag was removed from the telescope schedule, but I am sure he was just the one who was careless enough to be caught. We all had access, and we all had times when we were the only ones awake on the ship. Several of us had valid reasons to be studying the Norwegian ships. We edited the logs after the hearing; common sense decrees that not everything be saved for posterity. Not only that, but we did not want to give Halvorsen the satisfaction of knowing what he’d done to us.

The Norwegians gradually passed below us and drew away. Their midcourse maneuver had put them slightly ahead for now, and my hopes for getting permission for an autonomous catch-up burn were about nil. But I was sure I could slip a few more meters per second into the next scheduled one.

Another month had passed. Mars became a small, reddish moon to our eyes, and in our telescope, we seemed to fly over its surface. The communications time lag was approaching its maximum of six and a half minutes. Soon Earth would pass sunward of us as we coasted uphill to our destination.

We watched each other, we and the Norwegians. Officially, we pretended they did not exist. Unofficially, forty men envied Per Nordli more and more, and praised our mission plan less and less. We had a few heated arguments, and a broken nose in the Leonov.

The Norwegians made no attempt to talk to us either. But time had not solved anything, and I had put off making my contingency plans too long. Our final midcourse maneuver was scheduled in two days and things would be too busy then, and too locked in concrete, to coordinate any trajectory changes with the Norwegians. I called Halvorsen.

With almost six minutes between sender and receiver, one doesn’t wait for greetings before proceeding to business. After my testy preliminaries, I asked, “Can you at least tell me what kind of parking orbit they are going to try to achieve? We may be able to match inclinations. Over.”

Hopefully time and a little conciliation would put the conversation on a professional basis. We needed to make plans and the communications round trip was eating up time.

His eyebrows went up and a hint of a smile crossed his face. “Commander Lopez, I provided all of this data to Dr. Worthing and your mission control two months ago. Per and Ingrid are not going into a parking orbit. They plan to proceed directly to the surface. Parking orbit is a backup. Over.”

“What?” With Halvorsen, I should not have made assumptions. He stared out of the screen at me as, somewhere deep inside me, a sense of doom started to form. I was dealing with a different kind of human being, a leader who dealt with the laws of nature directly, instead of through intermediaries. Everyone’s mission plans went to parking orbit—everyone’s except Halvorsen’s.

History assaulted my mind when I saw his craggy, ancient face. Some recent—Halvorsen’s own incredible lunar south pole mission twenty years ago. But in the mists there were Amundsen, Nansen, and, of course, Leif Eriksson. As to why Dr. Worthing had not told us? He presumably feared what I might do to make up the time. He feared right.

“Did you receive?” Halvorsen asked. “You are silent too long.”

I had forgotten to say “over” and wasted six minutes. I shrugged my shoulders, and struggled for internal peace. I was not an inexperienced astronaut; I led explorations of several major lunar features and was second in command on the mission to the asteroid Eros, the trial for this mission. I’d had all the resources of the United Nations behind me. There was no reason for me to be flustered. But I sat there in front of the screen pickup open-mouthed.

“Well,” he continued, “the whole thing I will run through while you figure out what you say. Ja, ten years ago I left the ISA Mars conference. We have already discussed why. Then I talked to our prime minister who nod-ded his head to some things and shook it to others. Our space program is a matter of national pride, ja, but it has to be a not-so-expensive program.

“So, officially, I had the go-ahead to do a small Moon base. The Italians have one, the Tysker, the Nederlanders, even the Svensker!” Halvorsen scowled at this, and it was my turn to smile. If you look at the Scandinavian peninsula, you see not golden fields of Nordic brotherhood, but a line of tall mountains down its middle.

“So our little single-stage-to-orbit Norgedraken flew ten missions and twice docked four payloads to big composite disks. Then we sent them both toward the Moon. You remember?”

Very well, I remembered. It had been a fiasco. Both their seven-million-kroner base modules failed to make nominal Lunar Orbit Insertion burns and had whipped by the Moon out into interplanetary space. It had been such a loss to the minuscule Norwegian space program that observers thought that it would pretty much end the thing. But their parliamentary committee had met in closed session and voted more of their oil money for a second attempt.

The old man’s face broke into the grin I would expect to see on the face of Satan himself when he acquires Halvorsen’s soul. “Well, our real plan that was not, nei, nor did anyone notice where the so-called Moon base modules went after they picked up a couple of kilometers per second rounding the Moon.” Halvorsen raised his eyebrows and I got a sinking feeling as I remembered that the date of the Norwegian Moon base “failure” was within a month of our own Mars supply staging mission.

Halvorsen continued. “Everyone said Halvorsen screwed up. Ikke sandt? Not so? Well, we let them think that. Now I will put on the animation of our mission.” Halvorsen’s face was replaced by a cartoon of the “Moon” mission as he narrated. “The big disk was not just a docking structure, it was an aerobraking heat shield, which is how one should go to Mars. I say this to you ten years ago, but all your big rocket companies and everyone who wants to work for one someday say, ‘no, no, too risky.’ So you then buy lots of big rockets, ja? Well—”

As the trajectory lines on the animation bent past Luna toward Mars, I forgot myself. I yelled at him despite the fact he hadn’t finished talking. “Halvorsen, damn you, we only bought five ARIES heavy-lift launch vehicles!” He wouldn’t hear that until I was well into regretting I said it, of course.

“… Our ships have a mass ratio of seven and an exhaust velocity of three kilometers per second. That gets us to Mars fast, easy. We do some phasing pair burns to make sure we hit things right. Then we go right into the Martian atmosphere like the American Apollo returned to Earth, except we use negative lift to hold us down if there is not so much atmosphere where we come by. So, if air is thin, we skim the mountain tops and get at least capture, then hit our target on second pass, but if average, or more dense, we can land first pass. No matter. After we reach terminal velocity, we use rockets for the last half kilometer per second. The computers they need for this simple stuff weigh only a hundred grams now, so we take five each.

“The supply ships were the trial run for the crew ship. They left two tiny satellites in egg-shaped half-Mars-day orbit with their high points at that latitude, good for communications relay and reconnaissance. Then they left four full fuel tanks in low orbit and landed on Mars to make more fuel for our return from carbon dioxide with their solar cells. This is not very efficient, but, with two years to do it, the ground base tanks are now full. This is simple, ja? Now Ingrid and Per will go to the bottom of Chryse, as you do, ikke sandt? But they will go straight down. Now—”

My outburst about the heavy lift vehicles arrived then; I could hear my voice in the background. He frowned, then grinned. “Ja, well those big companies with the jobs, what did they build next?” He shook his head in exaggerated sympathy. “Back to Ingrid and Per. They can get themselves there and back with plenty of redundancies and no need for you to be concerned. Our ships we can park in Earth orbit and use again in two years. It is your super-complicated one-time mission about which you need be concerned. Over.”

There was too much for me to digest, and no point in discussing things until I had.

“I copy. Thank you for the information, Mr. Halvorsen. Over and out.”

I signed off with mixed feelings. My Padre taught me to “not tempt the Lord by putting yourself where only He can rescue you.” Good advice in the cold scrublands of Patagonia, and good advice here. Despite Halvorsen’s contempt for conventional political and moral authority, the concepts of forethought, at least, were not foreign to him. “Plenty of redundancies,” he’d said. I would hope.

In concept it was simple. Elegant. The ISA called it MSR, for Mars Surface Rendezvous, and dismissed it as too risky. At first, my mind boggled at a Mars surface refueling operation. But with everything tied down by Martian gravity, I realized it might actually be less tricky than a tank-module swap on Deimos. As I reviewed Halvorsen’s video, I realized the large spider legs on their supply modules placed the tanks higher than on the Amundsen and Fram, allowing a passive gravity feed. The compactness of their deceptively simple design impressed me— the same piece of mass often performed two or three functions.

Their base was not too far from where we planned to land, so a rescue contingency would not perturb our mission plan very much. There were only two of them, and they already had their own supplies down. In fact, and this was the first time I remembered thinking in these terms, while their expedition was minuscule compared to ours, they had a lot of stuff for only two people.

Halvorsen’s sign-off arrived as I was thinking it through. “Commander. What is now done is done, Mars will be a hard enough opponent, without false pride to fight as well. I tell this to Ingrid too. You should know she is in charge overall. She is the older, and has the broader education, and is a better English talker. Per is the best pilot and likes to do orbits and numbers mostly, though he can do the other too in a pinch. No matter. They do the job. If you meet my people, you will find Ingrid not so hard to work with.”

I stared at the screen speechless, not believing what I’d heard. Halvorsen’s commitment to women’s equality was well known, and it was one of the many issues over which he had pulled out of the UN project. He felt an all male expedition, especially a large and long one, could become too restive, too grumbly, too combative. But third world politics had gone against him, and he had stomped out. Now he was having his revenge by decreeing that I would have to treat this woman, whose mores and deportment I had publicly criticized, as an equal.

Not likely. It was far easier to simply ignore them, which is what we did for the next month, as we approached the Red Planet.

Mars loomed bright and full as we rose toward it from the Sun. Our nuclear reactor shadow shields did double duty as we rode out a minor solar flare. In fact, it turned out that for the entire mission, the lowest total radiation dose was in the cabins right next to the reactor shield—because it stopped half the cosmic rays as well.

We learned later that the Norwegian ships had superconducting magnetic loops that channeled the proton influx harmlessly into their heat shield, behind their propellant tanks. Another “unproven” technology, but not only did it protect the Norwegians, but they actually gained a few centimeters per second push from the interaction of the charged particle storm with their magnetic field.

Little good would that do them! Doing midcourse maneuvers with our fleet is not trivial, but I found need for another one. I was a demon: I sold it to Dr. Worthing and pushed the planning through with two sets of books—the vector I intended to use would get us there a little earlier.

Four countdowns had to go perfectly, everything forty people have spread around had to be stowed, four computers needed to agree on everything—it takes days of planning. But under my leadership it went perfectly, and it added just enough delta-V to get us back ahead of the Norwegians without creating big political problems for Mission Control.

The “race,” of course, had assumed David and Goliath proportions in the Earth media, and guess who was cast as Goliath? I was obliged to do interviews in which I decried any competition and said conciliatory things about “my colleague, Dr. Karinsdatter.”

When, as a result of our “nominal” and “planned” maneuver, we gradually pulled away from the Norwegians, the media cried foul. However, by that time, they could do nothing but throw words at us.

Not so Halvorsen. I was in my cabin ten days before our Mars orbit injection when the Norwegians threw us yet another twist. We watched it on the telescope, recorded it, and I’m still not sure I believe it: the Norwegian ships separated without despinning! The one on the approaching leg of its rotation just let go of its tether, and its rotational velocity instantly became additional velocity toward Mars! It was like a stone released from an ancient sling, headed right toward my heart.

I stared for five minutes, then played the file back again. “Give me the revised arrival times,” I finally told the computer.

It was as bad as I feared. The lead ship, the Amundsen, had gained only about thirty meters per second, which would still leave it still more than a day behind us when we got to Mars. The trouble was that they were planning to go right down if they could, and we were going to do parking orbits, surveys, transfer to landers and so on, before actually going down. If all went right with both our plans, our first landings would take place within hours of each other—theirs first.

I stared at the screen and composed my thoughts for the next call. It would not be my place to educate the ISA leaders under whose authority I commanded this expedition, but the experienced astronaut within me was saying that the Norwegians had a chance.

I needed to break the news gently.

At least, if their landing was successful, it would minimize the perturbations of our extremely complex and interrelated mission plan.

But on the other hand, our expedition would not be first, and I would not be the first man to set foot on Mars. Once more, I reviewed our mission plans, the Martian weather, where our landers were and so on. There was still a chance, if the lead Norwegian ship didn’t touch down on the first pass. That, I thought, would depend on Per Nordli’s skill and nerve.

Not exactly, as things turned out.

The simultaneous deep space restart of our nuclear rockets was ten times as complicated as the chemical midcourse maneuvers. But we did it without incident, silencing many critics. One after another, our ships turned their damping drums and their reactors went critical. A trickle of hydrogen flowed into the particle beds to cool them and run the turbines. The computers did a million cross checks. Deviations were within nominal limits.

We passed the orbit of Deimos— twenty thousand kilometers out—in good form. We would meet the moon itself, with our supply depot, after our main engine burn at periapsis put us in an elliptical transfer orbit. At Deimos, we’d do a short circularization burn with our chemical auxiliary propulsion and “land” on the tiny moon to take on propellant before sending landers to Mars. That was the plan.

Our Phobos camera sent a picture of our four ships with the volcanoes of Tharsis in the background; it was a spectacular picture. I felt a moment of triumph. Our majestic convoy, the symbol of Earth’s pioneering spirit, was headed in to mankind’s new planet!

This impressive close formation approach, however, had been another “discretionary” part of the mission plan. Originally, the ships were going to come in at one day intervals. But that would have meant another day before I reached the surface.

My moment of triumph was shortlived. Hours before, the Amundsen had made a final course correction— an expected maneuver given the chancy aerobraking ahead of it. But the trajectory report indicated that the Amundsen had actually done a major burn toward the planet! The burn had cut hours off its trajectory, but it would hit the Martian atmosphere at a slightly higher velocity, just an hour before our burn. So the Norwegians weren’t racing? I thought about negative lift and velocity-squared aerodynamic effects and could guess that something besides the race might have led them to this suicidal dive into the Martian atmosphere, but it wasn’t very convincing. No, I decided, Per Nordli was taking this risk so Halvorsen wouldn’t lose his diabolical little race.

¡Madre diablo! Given the way he managed all the other news about the expedition, couldn’t Dr. Worthing have held that announcement back from us until we were safely in orbit?

But no. As we approached our eight-hundred kilometer periapsis, the Amundsen went past us, rounding the rim of the planet. We watched its entry on images from the robot telescopes on Deimos—a long trail of fire covering almost a quarter the circumference of the planet, which then winked out.

Had the Amundsen crashed? Had it burned up before reaching the surface? I both feared, and—forgive me— hoped that might be the case.

But no. We saw the landing pictures taken by an automated camera on the Norwegian supply ships and relayed from Earth just as we prepared for our insertion burn. Then there was that historic video from the cabin of the Amundsen.

When Halvorsen has a point to make, he doesn’t go half way. Despite his talk of Per being better with piloting and trajectories, the first person to land on Mars with the Norwegian and United Nations flags on the side of her ship was Dr. Ingrid Bodil Karinsdatter.

“May their malfunctioning toilets line their vacuum tents with their own dung,” Mustaffa muttered. But other than that, there were just stony looks all through operations.

We were demoralized. We’d lost a race we hadn’t known we were in until it was too late, and we’d lost it to someone we regarded as a bimbo. If you are European, perhaps you say, “So what? That’s a juvenile attitude. Professional astronauts shouldn’t be fazed by that.” But most of my men were not from your culture; their pride had been wounded and their values insulted—and we still had a great many very complex things to do.

Spacecraft had to be prepared for thrust after four months of no gravity. Countless things were stowed. Chairs were moved to the aft bulkhead. A myriad of checklists were executed. Finally, the count reached zero.

On the Zhang-Diaz a gentle thrumming vibration took hold, and a sense of down returned. There were disturbing clatters and crashes as things forgotten fell aft, but the thrust ramped up smoothly. The other ships kept pace and formation. I crossed my fingers and hoped the blow to our morale would have no effect, at least not now.

Perhaps it would have made no difference, but perhaps if the crew of the Leonov had been mentally and emotionally sharp, they would not have missed some things and a water bulb would not have fallen from the sill of a viewport and broken on a relay box that should have been closed, soaking its contents as thrust increased.

And the pilot would not have switched circuits to their backups in exactly the wrong order, causing the Leonov’s lander to separate when deceleration built up to half a gee.

And the lander would not have continued forward to strike the decelerating Calypso.

And the suddenly lighter Leonov would not have moved backward relative to the Clarke and into the exhaust of the latter’s nuclear rocket.

And the radiation level monitors aboard the Leonov would not have shut down their reactor before they had braked into the proper orbit, forcing them to complete the burn with what remained of their maneuvering fuel.

And the Clarke’s computer would not have shut down its engine to avoid endangering the Leonov when it found the latter spacecraft in its exhaust cone.

Caramba! Perhaps something like that would have all happened anyway, as Halvorsen anticipated, because of the complexity. But I think it was because we were on edge, unhappy at losing the “race,” and already dreaming about getting home.

The Calypso’s chemical propellant tanks ruptured, but they somehow retained attitude control by gimbaling the main engine, avoided hitting the Martian atmosphere, and limped into a high equatorial orbit. Mustaffa cut our burn short manually to follow them and, using prodigious quantities of our maneuvering fuel, we managed a rendezvous.

Pierre Ramon and Mustaffa went out in vacuum suits, and managed to bring the six survivors over before their leaking hull finally gave way.

So the rescue was an epic of astronautics, but it left the Calypso ruined and the Zhang-Diaz in a too-large eccentric orbit with almost no chemical propellant left. Rendezvous with the supply depot was now impossible.

The Clarke’s maneuver had been stopped short of capture and they now had to take the emergency return trajectory back to Earth. The name of the ship’s commander was Roger Moses—another irony.

But the Leonov did manage its rendezvous with Deimos and the supply depot-one out of four. By the time Mission Control and my staff had straightened everything out, we had lost two days of schedule time, two spacecraft, and three landers, including both wheeled surface vehicles.

And where was Per Nordli? He was ten hours behind in the other Norwegian ship, the Fram. Halvorsen had told me they had their own redundancies and were not relying on us. I had not thought that through, but now it made sense that the better pilot come in second, in case a rescue was needed. He demonstrated his mastery by declining a one-shot landing; he skipped out into a long elliptical orbit that matched ours, and offered assistance. But Mission Control determined that there was nothing his little ship could do.

Meanwhile, some of the Leonov’s crew reported exceeding their radiation limits and the doctors recommended that they go to the surface or return now They voted to stay.

Perhaps we should have aborted the mission entirely, but I railed against this. To come so far…

No! I was a whirlwind of orders. We would fight back from disaster. We launched all our automated probes, balloons, and teleoperated rovers at once. They sped toward Mars well ahead of us, and data started streaming in as we passed the atmosphere-grazing periapsis of our orbit. Good news started to displace bad news.

Dr. Worthing sent out press releases that emphasized the redundancy built into the mission and the superior technical equipment in the United Nations landers versus those of the Norwegians. We expressed great sadness for our casualties, but dedicated the remaining mission to them.

I took risks. The Zhang-Diaz was trapped in an unusable orbit, but had a usable lander. My staff came up with a brilliant improvisation: The Zhang-Diaz lander could do an atmosphere-assisted orbit change to rendezvous with Deimos and the Leonov.

Once at Deimos, the lander could take on fuel and that would at least give us the option of a landing. Since there was no point any longer in pretending that such maneuvers were too uncertain for manned spacecraft, Mission Control quietly acceded—just in time for us to follow our fleet of drones into the atmosphere on that first periapsis.

Within twenty-four hours, we had a fueled lander ready to go. But Mission Control still objected to a one-lander surface mission in such circumstances.

So I went up to the political level to postpone a negative decision—no need to admit failure yet. A good face was put on everything as I worked furiously to get myself and some volunteers down to the planet. Of course, there were some minor drawbacks that never made the press releases. All that superior equipment was not on that one lander. The one that survived had an aircraft instead of a rover; so once we got there, we would have to walk where we couldn’t fly.

Thirty hours after her landing, we watched Dr. Karinsdatter step off an Amundsen landing pad to gather samples. This told us that the Norwegian expedition had succeeded to that point, and put the final nail in the coffin of any remaining hopes for us—no one from our expedition would be the first person to set foot on Mars. A woman, instead, would join Gagarin and Armstrong in the history of space. My country once had such a woman as its presidente. It was not a successful experiment.

Boris Yakov, the Leonov’s commander salvaged some glory for us. He went outside and left a footprint on Deimos.

Meanwhile, Dr. Karinsdatter roamed around her camp on the Martian surface in a pedal-powered, wirewheeled tricycle, collected multitudinous samples, released some mini-balloons and transmitted a fair amount of surface data to that radio telescope north of Oslo herself.

Never mind the dollars per bit; our army of robot floaters and crawlers got far more data in absolute terms, and that is still coming in. We won in what counted.

We learned that one of the Norwegian supply landers had fallen into a sinkhole, and we made much of this with offers of assistance to Halvorsen. The answer came back that he thought no assistance was needed, but that we should talk directly to the people on the scene.

Finally, two days after we braked into orbit I declared the remaining lander ready for the descent. We were determined to make one quick strike for the goal. The public, the politicians, and ourselves would feel like failures if we didn’t.

Five of us went down instead of the seven the mission plan called for. We said we had to do this to leave room for the Norwegians whom we might have to rescue—but in reality, four of the seven Leonov personnel with ground training asked to not be included in a one-lander mission. Despite their radiation exposure levels, they felt the protection of the Martian atmosphere was not worth the additional risk. Mission control did not dispute this.

At last I called Dr. Karinsdatter on the surface. Her base computer answered and the view from its comm camera filled my screen. It was a late Martian summer evening and I could see rolling hills and the dusty red horizon through their transparent inflated dome. For a moment, all the problems went away. This was why I had come.

“Commander Lopez?” Her voice came from off camera.

“Sí. I was admiring the view. We are going to descend in six hours, at local dawn. Is there anything you need?”

She walked up to the comset with a Martian rock in her hands. She had apparently just come in from sample gathering. Her hair, matted and disheveled, was still tied behind her head in a pony tail that fell to her shoulder blades and she was wearing only the thin body stocking the Norwegians used under their tight vacuum suits. It both covered her completely and revealed everything—and she seemed utterly oblivious to what effect this might have on us.

Mixed feelings ran through me, and eventually resolved themselves into anger. I saw a brief frown of puzzlement go across her face as she reacted to my expression.

“Cover yourself,” I demanded. “This circuit is open to my crew, who have not seen a woman in over six months.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “That is not my fault.” There was little soundproofing in our ships and I heard the men’s reaction. “Perhaps they would enjoy seeing me then, Commander. But very well.” The picture disappeared and I lost both Venus and Mars in one instant of self-inflicted pain.

“At any rate, Commander,” she continued, voice only, “this is an independent and self-sufficient expedition and we will get along better if you do not try to give me orders.”

I ignored this challenge and went to business. “We will come in from the west, from over Kasei Vallis.”

Ja,” she answered, seriously. “Beware—the ground here is crusty with cavities beneath. We had one supply lander tilt because of that. You may wish to land south of our position— we have traversed the area several times and the ground … it is mostly solid there.”

I was irritated and unthinking. “We will make our own evaluation. If you continue to insist that you are in no need of our assistance, then I see little point in continuing contacts which would only be uncomfortable for both of us, I assure you.”

She ignored the taunt. “Per and the Fram will be arriving in four hours— you have the vector?”

“Yes.” Halvorsen and Worthing had buried some hatchets, and information was flowing now. “Give Per Nordli my regards … and my sympathies.”

“Commander, I regret any affront I’ve given you. Please, when you land, we will welcome you. I take no offense. Is this understood?”

Somewhere in the back of my mind, warning bells began to ring. Best not burn bridges. Christ allowed such a woman to wash His feet, I remembered belatedly. But that woman was repentant.

“Very well.” In the end, Thy will, not mine, be done. “I shall do what I need to do to bring back as many of us and as much data as I can. Rest assured of that… Dr. Karinsdatter. Lopez out.”

“Lykke til, commander. Luck to you.”

We would have to do all our ground exploring by foot, I thought. I did not want to take Norwegian leftovers, so we would have to traverse new ground. That way we would gain unique data and perhaps, hope against hope, find something which they had not found.

I put it that way to Mission Control. They told me no, land where the people on the ground say.

Did they take me for a child? I appealed to the political level again and got my way. I had not yet learned humility. That came five hours later.

We came in north of the Norwegians, in an uncratered area that was free of their tracks. Our computer gave us a textbook, fuzzy-logic-smooth landing, and I congratulated myself for not having to touch anything. It was not so bad, I told myself. Eriksson had been five hundred years ahead of Columbus, Amundsen a month ahead of Scott, but we had closed the gap to a couple of days.

Then a patch of thin crust gave in under the weight of our plus-zed land-ing leg and our fuel-laden lander tilted, stopping sharply when the unsupported leg hit the permafrost under the dust crust. A strut bent upward under redline stress, snapped, and impaled an oxidizer tank with its upper ten centimeters. Red fuming nitric acid flowed onto the already well-oxidized Martian soil and reacted in a way that produced more smoke than heat. But it looked spectacular.

Without pressure in the tank to hold it against the lander cabin’s Earth-normal atmosphere, the lander floor bent down, and cracked. Our escaping air vibrated the sides of the crack like a monster oboe reed as it escaped, to be replaced by nitric acid fumes. It sounded, felt, and smelled like hell.

With the fortune of prudent and well-rehearsed planning, we were wearing our spacesuits so we were not immediately harmed. I blew the lock doors and led the crew out onto the red soil away from the lander, in case there was an explosion. But no, the oxidizer just ran out and fizzled as we watched.

“Enrico,” Mustaffa said later, in an unfortunate attempt to lighten my mood, “at least this makes you the first man to set foot on Mars.”

The spacecraft shuddered and settled again. We watched helplessly as our two-man aircraft pulled free of its upper latch and pivoted down, breaking its back when its nose slammed into the ocher soil.

My look must have been as cold as the permafrost outside.

“My apologies, commander,” he said quickly, after he saw my face.

Unfortunately, since the lander used the oxidizer to fuel its generator and the battery leads were cut when the floor buckled, our power was gone. Our communications plan did not call for spacesuit-to-orbit communications. The plan was to relay communications through the lander, which had triply redundant transmitters. In the impossible event of a triple failure on one lander, the backup was to relay through another lander—the one that was now on its way back to Earth in the Clarke.

Per Nordli’s Fram came in overhead as we milled around our stricken lander. We could actually hear the ticks of his sonic boom—reminding us that we were on a planet with some atmosphere. We waved up at him like mad monkeys, but he was gone in a moment, over our horizon, far ahead of his shock wave. So now there were three manned spacecraft on Mars. Even in those circumstances, I took time to wonder at what we had been allowed to accomplish, and give thanks.

It was into the early afternoon before we gave up on trying to revive any of the lander’s systems. We had suit battery power for about three more hours. We could walk in the suits without power for a little longer than that, straining against the air pressure in a kind of penguin shuffle. Our air could last a little longer than the batteries but not much.

The only choice we had was to try to trek to the Norwegian base. They couldn’t see our problem, because, of course, we had taken pains to land ourselves just below their horizon. We couldn’t radio them. No matter—our digital suit radios were encrypted for privacy. I briefly considered trying to telegraph some kind of primitive code by cycling my transponder— but I didn’t know one.

It was a long walk, even in four-tenths of a gravity. Our suits were heavy, and we had to be very sparing of the power assist. We were all tired, scruffy, and unwashed. A few were injured. Some of us exceeded the capacity of the waste management systems built into some of our suits. I shall not try to describe the way we smelled. We didn’t know if anyone else in the Universe knew we were still alive.

The historical parallels are endless, and great fun, I know. I led the bigger, more expensive, and more technologically advanced expedition, but I ended up seeing just what Scott saw. I think I understood the mixed feelings Scott must have felt as he approached the South Pole a century and a decade ago, when I saw the white-bordered blue cross on a red field painted high on the side of one of the Frames tanks.

That flag had signified both the failure to be número uno, and the success of gaining his goal to Scott as well. It was in such a mental state that I approached the inflated plastic dome of the Norwegian base as the frigid Martian night began to descend on us. Our power was giving out, cold was seeping in, pride was gone, and there was only the business of survival.

The Norwegian base was half a kilometer from their ships, and it was a mess. Pieces of the partly disassembled supply landers lay strewn about. There were hoses going this way and that. Empty containers lay where they had been unpacked. They seemed to have put little time into being tidy. On the other hand, there may have been a pragmatic purposefulness about the seeming clutter—anything important was in plain view and could be reached directly from their dome’s air lock.

The transparent dome was doublewalled, and within that was a small white tent which seemed to be under positive pressure. It was also moving gently back and forth—clearly, we were not expected.

But we were running out of air, and there was nothing to do but bang very hard on the outer airlock door. A trillion dollars, twenty nations, thirty-two men, and eleven months in space had come down to this moment of low comedy as our group of five desperate beggars shuffled like arthritic penguins up to someone else’s door. I did not quite appreciate it then—I was freezing and tired.

The Norwegians thought that something was wrong with their equipment and responded to the noise immediately in hurriedly donned pressure gear, helmets in hand. Dr. Karinsdatter came out of the tent first. She clearly wasn’t expecting to see us and the power assisted hard suits look somewhat alien at first glance. It must have taken her a minute to close her mouth and open the outer air lock door.

I came through last, as was my privilege. Strangely, I did not start shaking uncontrollably until I was out of the frigid suit and into the warm air of the Norwegian base. But what keeps going through my mind is not the low comedy, but the sad, haunting melody I heard as I came in from their airlock to safety Grieg, of course. Solvejg’s song, which will always be Ingrid s song, to me. It matched my mood of remorse and humiliation.

By midnight, we had rigged emergency sleep sacks for my men from mylar blankets glued edge to edge, and settled them just inside the west perimeter of the dome. We ate a meal of reconstituted pasta and meat sauce that tasted extraordinarily good, as any meal will under such circumstances. I took a stimulant, notified our surprised colleagues in orbit that I was still alive, and began to analyze the situation and to evolve a course of action—but the next thing I knew, I was turning over under a blanket and it was morning. Dr. Karinsdatter was hovering over me with a communicator.

I found my embarrassment at begging shelter in the Norwegian s love nest was nothing compared to what happened on Earth while I was asleep. Dr. Worthing’s initial effort to have the UN take over command of Halvorsen’s mission was resolved when Secretary-General Ryskoff secured Dr. Worthing’s resignation and put Halvorsen in charge of both missions. Halvorsen found out which department heads could still fit into engineering hats and put them to work with their people to get us back safely. The others stood aside and watched.

Per thought that he had enough tools to fix our lander, if we could get fuel to it. But they were using carbon monoxide and liquid oxygen, while we were using hydrazine and nitric acid.

To find out that this had been a consideration of Halvorsen’s from the start was another suitable lesson in humility for me. He had designed the Amundsen and the Fram, as much as anything else, as a lifeboats for us, in anticipation of our failure. So much for one problem.

But once back in Mars orbit, we would have face the fact that we had, essentially, two and a half UN crews and two UN ships, one stuck out in an unuseful orbit almost out of maneuvering fuel. While Dr. Karinsdatter was seeing to my crew, I spoke to Per.

“My plan had been to take the lander back to the Zhang-Diaz and transship propellant from our supply depot. But that lander will not fly again. Can the Amundsen ferry fuel?”

“Nei. To go out to Deimos, circularize, then go back towing a large mass so we cannot aerobrake, and then burn back to Earth? We do not have enough fuel for that. The Zhang-Diaz has its nuclear engine; why not use that?”

“The design is for only two more restarts, maybe three in a crunch. It’s a thermal cycling limit—after six or seven cycles the inner frit starts to crack. It was a trade that let them make the engines lighter and more powerful— they only needed four burns. So a main orbit transfer maneuver would need two more restarts which would likely lead to an engine failure during the Earth arrival maneuver.”

Ja.” Per smiled at me, this man whose only passion seemed to be this kind of technical problem, and that passion a mild one. “But you still have the reactor on the Leonov, powerful enough, I think, to get you all back. And you have the fuel and crew modules on the Zhang-Diaz. So, how do we now put all these pieces together?”

We spent the day with computers, drawing screens, and styli, and came up with a plan to send to Halvorsen. We left it with the Norwegian’s computer to send, then turned in.

Halvorsen then called me in the middle of the Martian night on one of the spare comm units the Norwegians had given me. The man could do a clinic on revenge, I think. I got some minor satisfaction by getting Per up to hear it, too.

“OK,” he began once I was coherent. “Your Zhang-Diaz uses its main engines to push itself and the Leonov to almost rendezvous with the supply cache, then separates the reactor module. Then you complete the docking with chemical rockets. You fuel both ships, then you depart using the Leonov’s nuclear engine. Over.”

Per joined me, as blurry-eyed as I. The inside of the dome was warm with bodies, overloading the Norwegian’s small recycler—I smelled not only my own body but everyone else’s.

We were all down to shorts.

“Sí.” I told Halvorsen. “Its engine can get both spacecraft to Earth if it can use the fuel left in the Zhang-Diaz as well as its own.” This much Per and I had discussed.

“But, Dr. Halvorsen, to make this work, the fuel remaining in the Zhang-Diaz has to be pumped into the Leonov and we can’t pump under zero gravity. We must use the reaction control thrusters, or the weak gravity of Deimos to settle the propellant first. Once under thrust, the pumps work. But now we don’t have enough reaction control fuel to sustain that much pumping time. Over.” Minutes passed as I regretted using up my extra margin in the vain effort to get to Mars first.

Finally, Halvorsen’s answer arrived: Ja. Your technicians said that was the only way to pump fuel. But then they said it can’t be done under main engine thrust because of where the thrust vector would have to be with the ships tied together. You have to gimbal the Leonov’s engine hard right, to put the thrust line through the center of mass, but the pump will shut down if the gimbal is more than five degrees, no? A safety measure.”

I remember those cold blue eyes staring at me from the screen.

Uflaks. So you have to think harder. I think you know now well enough to look beyond what things were designed to do to see what they can do. And I think you know now well enough to learn from others, without it hurting your manhood. We are all tied together now, nei? It would be most helpful for you to solve this problem yourself for your self-respect and that of your crew Their morale is tied to yours. So now you think and you think hard. Tomorrow, you tell me what you think. Halvorsen out.”

“Uf. I think better morning,” Per said, “good nights.”

Learn from others, Halvorsen said. Tied together. Think hard. I inflated my mattress, removed everything but my shorts, and crawled into my bag without remembering that I had done so.

I thought. The Norwegians used tethers to give themselves gravity during the mission coast phase. Fuel transfer required acceleration—which was not necessarily thrust. Our ships were not built for rotating around each other on tethers. Where would one attach them? Impossible.

I did what I have done since a child to clear my mind. I prayed. Lord deliver me. Some call it a retreat to a fantasy world, a land of childhood Faith in tooth fairies and Easter bunnies. If so, why is it still so strong in me, as other illusions have dropped away? That I do not know. But I do know the absence from here and now settles my mind.

An image came to my mind almost unbidden. I remembered watching the ships being hoisted up to their stations on top of the heavy lift vehicle. There were hard points in the noses where one could attach cables. Tethers. Just a little rotation would do for the fuel transfer, and, I thought, the system might be strong enough to give my crew some artificial gravity on the way back. I rolled out of the sack and headed for the terminals on the other side of the dome.

I found Ingrid still working, under red night-vision lighting, packing samples for the morning’s departure at a flimsy looking bench opposite their tent. She wore shorts and a thin, dusty T-shirt. Not really understanding what was happening to me, I explained my idea with a breathlessness that had little to do with the mental effort.

“Not so difficult.” She smiled. “We have spare tethers and hosing which we no longer need here.”

The smile did it. She was lean, smooth, intense, glowing with health. She put a hand lightly on my arm. “Are you all right? You have been under much strain, I think.”

God help me, I just put my arms around her, my head on her shoulder, and moaned. If I had done that at NASA, I would have been reported. But she made no objection. After a minute, she gave a slight low laugh, returned my hug, and rocked me back and forth like a child. Urgency overcame me. My hands found their way down her back and beneath the elastic of her shorts.

“Are you trying to seduce me?” She asked, in a voice that neither invited nor condemned, but seemed more in the tone of curiosity.

My men were wrapped in emergency blankets sleeping on the other side of the dome. Per was asleep in the tent. She could have yelled and destroyed me, humiliating me even beyond anything that had happened so far, I was that far out of line—and I could not help myself, not even for a moment.

But instead of acting offended, she stroked me gently, “I do not mind.” she murmured. “Per is sometimes too polite.” She knelt to the floor and I followed. Her kisses were light and motherly at first, then more and more passionate. And so we two responsible adults made love, then and there, as if we were teenagers in the back seat of a car.

All through it, she smiled at me as if I were a child she was indulging with a minor treat. And when it was over, I turned my head so that she would not see my tears. But she pressed my head to herself and held me again, as a mother would a child.

“This is nothing wrong,” she murmured as my sobs turned into deep breaths. “We both needed it, so do not hate yourself for it. But now we must work on getting people back to Earth, yes?”

Six sleepless hours of calls to Mission Control later, our engineers had conceded that the remaining crews could have some gravity on the way back—with the Leonov and the Zbang-Diaz tethered nose to nose. Fortunately, the UN ships were launched as fuel tanks with their interiors fitted afterwards—they could be rearranged for spin gravity from inside and that would give their crews something to do. The thermal control people griped, the communications people griped, the propulsion people smiled.

And the numbers worked out, just. We would have to put everyone on the Leonov before the final Earth orbit capture burn, and discard the Zhang-Diaz, but my ship would have served its purpose as lifeboat and fuel tank by that time.

But the Amundsen and Fram were designed to go directly to Earth, on a faster trajectory. The easiest thing to do was to not try for a rendezvous, but rather for those of us on the surface to stay with the Norwegians. I relinquished my diminished command to Boris Yakov on Leonov and watched the ticklish tether and departure operations from the surface. This was my penance for my pride.

Three of my men lifted on the Amundsen with Ingrid while I and another lifted with Per on the Fram. We passed Phobos on the way out—the inner Martian moon would have to wait.

We tethered together without incident after trans-Earth insertion in an operation that turned out to be surprisingly simple. Per went outside and hooked the ships together while they were nosed up to each other. Each ship then translated to its own right while the line played out, and when the cable was mostly out, did a small burn at right angles to the tether to induce the rotation. Any swinging motions were damped with attitude control thrusters.

Despite six men and one woman, there were no struggles between people on the return mission. Its commander and her understanding first mate saw to that. The Norwegians had a little battery-powered tether runner that gripped the line like a set of tram wheels and pulled you from one ship to another. Ingrid made the trip once a week. We all had frequent times alone with her—and it was not necessarily for sex. People are made to come in pairs, I think, and there are times when it is comforting to be with a woman even if you do nothing but look at the stars, not even talk.

One night three weeks out from Mars, we found ourselves in the dome alone. Per and Mustaffa were asleep below. We sat side by side on one of the acceleration couches, touching comfortably—and uncomfortably. I was fighting a war with myself inside, and losing, again.

“Could you care for me, really?” I asked, meaning could you be the wife of a man who would protect you, who would not let you sleep with others, who would lead you instead of follow? “I think, at times, that I would undo everything to have you, and accept what fate that would bring.”

To take another man’s wife? To steal in the bed a share of the glory I could not win among the stars? No man with self-respect would do that, but events had stripped me to my essential needs. I could summon little sympathy for Per either; he seemed far too careless with his property.

Ingrid touched my lips with her fingers. “It could not be the same with you as with Per. He gives me the space I need and, in my way, I am unbreakably loyal to him. I enjoy doing things for people I care for, but not for life. I cannot be owned by anyone, and I think you want to own me.”

Wanting what I cannot have is a way of life for me. It does not stop me from trying. I looked up at the Amundsen, far overhead on the other end of the tether. “Does it have a telescope?” I asked.

“Of course it does,” she answered, “do you think they watch us now?” She smiled and waved at the distant ship. “Should we put on a show?”

I shook my head. “Ingrid, God forgive me, I want to love you, but to prove it you ask me to abandon my culture, my concepts of right and wrong that lie more deeply in my soul than any other. I am ashamed of myself.”

“I am not ashamed of what I do not think is wrong.” She smiled and added, “But I would not embarrass you. We can always turn out the lights, Enrico, so no one can see through the reflection.”

I stared at her. “You knew.”

“I know many things—like how to win a race to Mars, and how to run a happy ship.”

“The maneuvers, the surprise separation. That wasn’t Halvorsen’s doing?”

“Was Halvorsen on this ship? Was it Halvorsen who had a personal stake in being first—oh, he had point to make, but, nei, it was not a point that required his being first. If anything he is somewhat upset with me.” Her laugh was a throaty burble of delight. “No, that dear old man did not beat you to Mars. I did. I wanted to be first because I am a woman and I wanted to do something no one would ever forget, or put in second place. So I did it.”

The look of complete shock on my face must have troubled even her. Good men had died—but did they die because of what she did, or because of what I did in response? And if she had not responded and it had happened anyway—I and five more would be dead.

“You must get used to this, I think.” She caressed my chest and murmured, “It is not so hard to understand, is it? That no one owns me, that I, too, pursue my own goals and my own happiness?”

But it was hard. My mind was elsewhere, so lost in the maze of contingency that the only way out was to step out of the maze entirely through a greater dimension—that of providcnce. What happened, happened. It was not my fate to be first in anything—on Mars, or in the heart of the woman I must love, and hate, more than any other. Finally I took solace in how far from being last in all these things I was.

“I should die for this,” I said before my lips met hers for what I vowed would be the last time. “Or you. I am not sure who.”

I did not gain the reward of death during the aerocapture maneuver when the Amundsen reached Earth, and I had to endure the purgatory of weeks and months of impoliteness from the insatiable vampires of the media. I fled to southernmost Argentina. Per and Ingrid went to Mars twice more, and settled there in 2043.

I have not been into space again— no one has asked for me, and I have not tried. I will not tempt Providence again. Linda and I settled on a rancho near Rio Gallegos. It is a cold, bitter land but suitable for cattle, horses, and grandchildren.

Over the years, with agonizing slowness, this sleazy badgering of the press has dribbled down to the point that I almost miss it, as one might miss the pain of an aching joint that becomes so familiar as to be part of one’s personality. The fact of my being part of that first group to go to Mars has assumed more importance and the circumstances less and less.

And, in the bottom of a desk drawer among things my late wife never saw, I keep an old picture of Ingrid, clipped from one of those magazines whose photographers had caught Ingrid on the Riviera so many years ago. In shame, I look at it and remember. I look at it and wonder, is she our future? There are many like her in space these days, and some who see a biological aspect to these things point out that the mindset best for managing a spacecraft is very close to that of keeping a home.

I dare think now that my male-oriented values, my ideas of a paternal God, my beliefs of what men and women should be, may not fit out there as well as hers. Such beliefs may be of no more lasting consequence than those of the people who built the pyramids or crossed the Bering Strait. Save for these past few primitive centuries, Ingrid Karinsdatter’s way of loving and living may be what most of eternity thinks of as typically human. Still, the pyramids are there. I salute their builders.

Looking back, the wonder may be not that a big, complicated, political, hierarchal UN/ISA mission was beaten to Mars by a woman, but that there was one at all.

Forgive me; but when I look on Ingrid, I still long for something. But it is not a body or a moment of illicit joy that time can never return that I covet as I contemplate the possibilities of eternity. No, it is not her that I covet. Not her so much as her freedom.