George P. Saunders

     You know it’s gonna be a shitbird kinda day when your MDV (Mars Descent Vehicle) hits some micro-meteorites in the upper atmosphere on what should be a picture-perfect landing approach.
     Yep, I’m logging this as I fight entry at 40 kilometers an hour. I’ve lost any kind of retro control, don’t know what the Sam-hell happened to backup hydraulics – I’m kinda in a free fall toward Mother Mars. Parachute should deploy in 20 seconds but with my luck of late, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Elsie the Cow that came out of the hatch instead of the umbrella. My panel is fried, no communication with other drop shuttles from the Mayflower 2 – I’ll bet NASA a day without pissing blood after this – that I hit ground and hit it hard. I’ll roll, of course. Design function and all, but it ain’t gonna be fun. I’m off course by 6 kilometers, but should still impact around the base of Olympus Mons.
     All for now. Wish me luck.
     Ben Teller, Commander, over and out.
* * *
     Teller’s MDV was nicknamed “Puff” – an homage to the Dragon, a reusable descent vehicle, design by Space Exploration Technologies a long time ago for cargo drops. The meteorite strikes had not breached the main cabin area, the size of which Teller often complained to NASA, was too damned small for any human being – but the damage was still sufficient to have compromised vital navigational and steering components. The thrusters worked marginally well so that he would not spiral in at a thousand miles an hour and disintegrate upon impact, but he was still coming in too damned fast.
     He prayed the parachutes would open at 45,000 feet, per protocol. If not – major anal sex on a cosmic level.
     Jesus Christ. This shouldn’t be happening, he thought in frosty annoyance.
     NASA had envisioned, planned for such scenarios as sub-orbital meteorite hits – every contingency had been scrutinized, analyzed and solved; there were always options, Plan B’s, workable solutions to the seemingly insoluble - every eventuality micro-studied and particle-picked for solution.
     This was not one of the eventualities.
     He fought Puff like a bucking bronco. His atmospheric gauges at least told him he was tumbling into some pretty nasty cross-winds – an added bonus to current horror. God knows what would happen if he wrangled with one of Mars’ legendary dust tornadoes with wind velocities exceeding 140 kilometers. Then the dick-factor would rocket exponentially.
     The altimeter still worked. His 45K altitude mark was approaching. Showtime. He hit his log recorder switch.
     “Pucker time, folks,” he muttered and closed his eyes, praying to a God he was not sure truly existed.
     Puff suddenly jolted. Once. Twice. Then a third time that snapped Teller’s head back, causing him to cry out.
     “Son of a bitch!” he screamed.
     But the news was good. The jolts signified that the deploy parachutes had opened, and he could viscerally tell that the MDV was decelerating. Not at a speed recommended, mind you, but it was nominal enough for him to adduce he would not hit Martian pay-dirt and be pulverized to dust.
     There were no windows in Puff so Teller was literally flying on instruments – those that remained operational, that is. He tried his retros once more – but somehow the hydraulic issue had rendered them non-functional. So, it was the thrusters and they were only really good to go near touchdown. But at this rate of descent, there would be no controlled touchdown. It would be a crash n’ roll, which, again, NASA had planned for in case of emergencies. Which is why the Puff was designed as a near perfect sphere with water-ski appendages. Those would break off on impact and the roll would last a grizzly minute or two before stopping and Teller would be tossed around inside like marbles in a bean bag in the hands of an eight-year old malcontent.
     “Okay, no way to put this nicely, but here comes the shitty hard-part,” he grunted again into his log recorder.
     He took a breath. Any second now. Soon. Continents rise, fall. He glanced at the altimeter. 100 feet. 50 feet. 10 …
     The world reeled around him and Teller’s entire body experienced momentary agony from the force of impact.
     “Christ!” he groaned as Puff did the funky-chicken, rolling, rolling, rolling forever.
* * *
     Finally, the shit storm came to a halt.
     Teller didn’t move for a full minute – an eternity for an astronaut whose primary function was one of non-stop activity necessitated for survival in either a vacuum or under alien (and possibly hostile) conditions.
     “Okay, okay, okay,” he said three times, wiping some spit from his mouth and snot streaming from his nose. “Still here,” he said aloud, nodding to himself. For this relief much thanks.
     He turned on the public mic so that billions of souls on Earth and in his ship above could hear the historic words to come. He was now live, as they say, and ready to make some history.
     He looked to the array of blinking and non-blinking lights on his control panel then made a cursory scan of instrumentation that would tell him if his vehicle had suffered a hull breach. There was no indication of such external or internal violation so the next decision was easy.
     He would get out of Puff and say a few words for posterity, the likes of which would make Neil Armstrong blush with pride.
     The other MDVs would be coming down soon … that is, after he re-established communication with the primary carrier, The Mayflower 2. How he would accomplish that, he did not immediately know, but he realized that his descent was tracked not only by his mother ship, but also the one hundred or so Mars satellites already positioned in geosynchronous orbit above, allowing the ship and NASA back at home to track his every movement. In other words, he was far from lost or marooned. Eyes were on him, those of the Mayflower 2 and of Earth. Probably a billion or so souls watching intently to see what he would do next.
     No worries, no pressures, he thought to himself with sudden wry amusement.
     “Okay, here goes,” he said, then turned and punched a few buttons. A latch disengaged behind him and the entry-exit hatch steamed open. “Heading out now, Houston.”
     Mars temperature at roughly 1pm in the afternoon was far from balmy, even in the summer. Outside numbers were well below 70 degrees centigrade. Inside his environmental suit, it was a toasty 70 degrees and unless some catastrophic event happened, like the hand of God tearing through the suit with celestial scissors, he would not feel the sub-freezing environment that was the nature of the Martian climate.
     “Alright,” he muttered to himself, then spoke in what in retrospect he considered to be an overly formal tone of voice. “I am about to descend the hatch ladder to the Martian surface.”
     He took a step onto the first step. Then he descended to the second step.
     The third step collapsed and Teller lost his purchase on the ladder railing.
     He fell fifteen feet and hit the Martian surface. Hard.
     Pain coursed through his entire body.
     And then the historic words of the first Man on Mars echoed across the vast emptiness of space for all who had the ears to listen and to hear.

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