The Long Return

After the euphoria of the successful touchdown, the three flawlessly executed space walks and the textbook perfect redock with the main module, there was no excuse for what happened.

We were on top of the World, or more accurately, on top of Mars. The Red Planet was conquered, the flags of the many nations involved in this vastly expensive and historic enterprise firmly planted in Martian sand.

We were heading home. The red LED display above the centre console counted down the days, the hours, the minutes the seconds. This was the 460th day of our mission and within a month we would be close enough to Earth to re-establish radio communication.

There were long discussions in the cramped galley of the main module about the first words we would say. I mean, how could you top Armstrong’s ‘giant leap for mankind’? In 460 days of solitude and boredom, none of us had come up with anything better than the saccharine official-speak put together on our behalf by the PR department of the European Space Agency.

We had brooded on the issue for days, an unnatural thing for us. In orbit around Mars, in fact for the entirety of the outward journey, our minds were constantly occupied with the primary objective – safely landing on Mars.

Endless rehearsals occupied our moments awake, Sukhrob running his simulations, reading instructions from the manual in his deep, insisting growl.

He was a relic of the old Russian space agency, a world of highly secretive military projects that huge teams worked on beneath the icy peaks of the Urals. He was rumoured to have ties into the FSB and Putin’s camp. That is why we was here. At 54, he was considered extremely old for a mission of this length.

Now he sat back, his boots up on the console, his manual stowed in its metal rack on the shelf, running his fingers endlessly across his stubbly chin as he stared at his reflection in the forward porthole, superimposed on the inky blackness of space beyond.

The rest of us had fallen into our own malaise, cutting ourselves off from each other behind veils of velcro blackout blankets and eye shades, drowning all external sounds with Sennheiser earphones that blasted our eardrums with the digital music of our choice. On the way out, we played the music on the speakers, ribbing Wang about his penchant for Chinese pop, speeding up Sukhrob’s peasant folk songs. We’d clean the modules, performed our computer exercises, to the throbbing pulses of Diego’s Italian techno.

The silence on the return then was in sharp contrast to this, which is why I literally fell out of my bunk, my tablet clattering to the cabin floor after me, when I heard the high-pitched scream from the landing module and the racket that followed as Romain stormed along the bridge and into the cabin.

He stood panting, his dark features scrunched together, looking at me on the floor. I looked up speechless, my hands clasped to my knee which had connected with the metal bar supporting the main cabin table as I tumbled to the floor.

Wang and Diego appeared at the other cabin door, worried looking.

“What is it now?” Asked Diego sharply.

“Who has it?” Romain responded.

“Calm down man,” I said from the floor. “What are you on about?”

Romain stepped over me, the heal of his boot connecting squarely with my tablet, sending the screen into mottled spasms as the display flexed and broke.

“Hey!” I screamed, my anger stoked by the burning pain in my knee.

Romain, seemed not to hear or care – he was already at the other side of the cabin, pushing past Wang and Diego. I heard a commotion in the adjoining passageway, then the familiar hiss as the air lock door to the landing module shut.

“Let me in,” screamed Romain, his french accent disappearing as his rage gave his voice a guttural tone none of us recognised.

He was kicking the air lock door, jamming his finger down repeatedly on the release panel, which refused to respond to his command to open the door. Hobbling into the room behind him, my hand on Wang’s shoulder for support. I soon understood why.

Sukhrob was in the landing module, visible through the small porthole. He looked back at Romain grinning, taunting him. Then he held up what Romain was looking for. Sukhrob pressed the photograph to the porthole for all of us to see. I instantly recognised the girl. She was a medical intern from the institute. Russian, maybe 22 or 23, pretty and flirtatious. There she was in Romain’s photo, completely naked, lying on the familiar institute dorm bed, her lower limbs apart, showing everything.

Romain hammered on the airlock door.

“Open the door!” He screamed.

Sukhrob giggled, then licked the photo. He stuck it to the porthole, his saliva keeping the photo in place. Romain stepped back from the airlock door, Sukhrob’s muffled laughter seeping into the cabin.

Romain turned and retreated out of the cabin. Diego looked at me, then at Wang.

“What should we do?”

“leave him,” I said. “He’ll get over it.”

Wang was gently knocking on the airlock door, trying to get Sukhrob’s attention. Then we heard a hiss from the other end of the module. We looked at each other all at once.

“He wouldn’t,” I said.

Then we were all running, through the cabin and into the module to see Romain with his hand on the rear airlock.

“No Romain!” shouted Diego.

The Frenchman looked at us, anger burning in his eyes. Then he looked past us at Sukhrob, who stood behind us, grinning.

“Fuck you,” said Romain and opened the airlock.

Bright light flooded the module, then the cool flow of fresh air as Romain stepped out into the Moscow carpark. We followed him out, one by one, silently, our boots crunching on gravel as ESA technicians approached us, Urbina, in his usual white lab coat stood in the carpark, his hands on his head, horrified looking.

Romain walked past him and into the training building, slamming the door behind him.

The starting off point…

This was an exercise from a 3-day creative writing class I took at Victoria University. The class, led by novellist Susan Pearce was an excellent experience. The story was inspired by a New Scientist piece which checked in on the scientists in Moscow simulating a manned mission to Mars. They are, as of writing, still there, still holding it together as they make history and advance the science of confined spaces and human interaction in confined quarters… I hope they finish their mission successfully.

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