Chapter 1 – Part 1

The Beginning

 

A breath of cold, fresh air awakened me as it wafted over my face, tickling my nose. I open my eyes, finding myself greeted by total darkness.

“Who turned out the lights?”, I thought, still feeling rather dazed.

My hands probed around for my alarm clock; I couldn’t seem to find it. Yawning through the lethargy that overwhelmed me, my vision still blurry, I let my other senses gauge the surroundings. Trying to move; a weighted feeling made me realize I had a space suit on,

“Wait, I’m not in my room?”.

Frightened, I sit upright, my thoughts coming to me slowly, like pieces of driftwood. “Anastasia!” I recalled, “, where is she?”. Worried for her safety, I surveyed the area and couldn’t find her anywhere, nor Rohith. My ears rang in revolt and made me wince; it sounded like a tuning fork jammed in there. I glanced at my gloved hand, helping my eyes adjust their focus, allowing for a better view of the environment. A stab of pain coursed through my body, as I examine my arms and legs, moving them through their range of motion. “At least nothing feels broken,” scowling, as the pain subsided.

A jagged boulder, wedged between the roof and the floor blocked the exit. The room illuminated by a faint blue light reflected in, allowed for some visibility. It took me some time to recognize where I was, but how did I get here? Where were the others?

Stomach rumbling, it reminded me of events that had transpired.

“This is no dream; I’m really here!”

The air being breathable which was a big surprise, smelt wonderful. My damaged helmet, allowed the sweet air to flow in. ISRO scientists had proclaimed that nothing could break through this material. Made of polycarbonate which was standard aerospace material, the helmet and suit used a new carbonate group making it much stronger than its prior iterations. The helmet visor had melted and in liberal terms didn’t break, so they were still right, I chuckled to myself.

Lunging to the side, I use my arms to push off the floor, trying to stand. The moment I was up, wooziness took hold and the ringing in my ears resumed. I placed my hand on the boulder to support myself and took long deep breaths. Nausea subsiding, I scanned the surroundings to find an alternate way of escape. My team was unconscious on the opposite side of the boulder, no wonder I couldn’t find them. If they can’t help me, I should at least, try to help them.

“This place looks so different from before?”, I thought

The silence in this place so eerie, my heartbeat audible loud and clear, without the need of a stethoscope. Accessing the controls present on my space suit, I toggled through the info panels on my HUD (Head Up Display). The damaged HUD displayed information on one corner, and I could see that the teams life signs were steady.

“Phew, that’s great to know,” I think to myself, relieved that Anastasia and Rohith were alive.

“Anastasia! Rohith!”, I called out, but my voice went unheard. They had their helmets on, so of course, they couldn’t hear me. Switching to comm mode (communicator) on my suit, I try to ping them, to get their attention. Knocked out, they ignored the pings. Opening the frequency to anyone close by or on the ship, I get no reply. No one seemed to want to communicate; Alexis was on the ship, and no response from her either. With a damaged helmet on and shaken up pretty bad, perturbed me. Thanks to the suit I didn’t have to tend to broken bones, and better, didn’t die.

The huge boulder wedged tight barely budged when I pushed at it, and pulling it towards me was a bad idea. Reasoning that I didn’t want to crush myself under it, I decide to wait for Anastasia and Rohith to help me. The chamber made of solid rock was smooth as a mirror. I could see my reflection on the glossy surface.

Getting back to the ship would be hazardous without a pressurized suit, and with my helmet damaged. The best task at hand is to safeguard my recorder if it hadn’t synced with the ship, as I had no way to communicate with ISRO. I don’t know how long the oxygen will last in here, so getting back to the ship was a priority.

My mind started racing, visuals of all the ways I would die a horrible death imagined. My legs trembled, and I began to gasp for air. “Get a hold of yourself!” I scolded and managed to calm down, taking in deep breaths. The rest of the team knew where we were and would rescue us if they were safe, which I doubt!

“Hope the others are not hurt,”

Everything happened so fast, how I ended up here is a mystery.

“Boy!, this is a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into Captain Arjun,” I muttered “who knew being a scientist would be so dangerous.”

“Captain Arjun, Terraforming specialist” I murmured.

I recollected a lecture I had given at IIT, with hundreds of students in attendance. I remember it like it was yesterday.

“Hi, my name is Arjun Menon. I’m a scientist. I handle Research on terraforming at ISRO, which are techniques/practices used to make areas/planets habitable again by gradually changing the base environment.

 Earth not being able to support the exponential population expansion is starting to break at the seams. Even though we have the technology to terraform we just have too many people living on the planet, and our natural resources are starting to dwindle. 

 We need to find an alternative, something to take its place to allow for a better life for everyone. That’s why we look upward and outward towards space, other planets. Mars to be exact.”

Who would have guessed, that one day strapped to a rocket, I would launch across the universe, to “dramatic pause” MARS. My lecture might have deterred any who had plans on joining ISRO, or none applied to my Department, terraforming being more theoretical. The time had come to put our theories to the test, as we are here on MARS. But an unexpected turn of events, trouble found us within the first few days of our arrival. We had not anticipated the events that occurred; it was vital we got our mission back on course.

Hope Anastasia and Rohith come for me soon; this place is so quiet it’s scary, and since I’m stuck here doesn’t calm me one bit. Though we are in the middle of nowhere, I still felt like I was being watched.

 

 

—Earth 2025—

As a boy, enamored with space, the stars, the planets, and everything astronomical, I aimed my sights for ISRO.

I majored in planetary engineering known as terraforming, where we take an uninhabitable planet and alter its atmosphere, to mimic the habitable environment of Earth. The logistics, economics, and the methodology to do so was exorbitant, but with the advent of new scientific breakthroughs has become imaginable. Countries of the world have united together to fund and support the initiative, as this will reduce the strain on earth, and making Mars habitable opens up newer avenues.

I joined the team at ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) that handles and researches all prospects for planetary engineering. ISRO became the first pick for any country looking to launch satellites. With multiple successful launches of both national and international satellites, ISRO has become part of the commercial launch market.

The MARS orbiter, called Mangalyaan, was the stepping stone which carved India’s name in the space scene. The Space Agency has its headquarters in Bengaluru, India, and that’s where I work. ISRO has research facilities all over India, but the construction and launch take place at Bengaluru and Sriharikota. Bengaluru our primary facility, where satellites Aryabhata, Bhaskara, APPLE, and IRS-1A were constructed, and where the IRS and INSAT satellite series are under development. Sriharikota, the main launch base for India’s sounding rockets, houses ISRO’s largest Solid Propellant Space Booster Plant (SPROB), and home to the Static Test and Evaluation Complex (STEX). A Second Vehicle Assembly Building (SVAB) at Sriharikota, realised as an additional integration facility, has suitable interfacing to a second launch pad.

Things were getting interesting at ISRO, personnel with the required skill sets and space training assembled for the Mars expedition interviews. With no other terraforming scientists available, and I was pretty famous in the scientific community, guaranteed my selection, unless they had someone hidden somewhere, I thought, beaming wide.

It was a beautiful day at ISRO, the scent of fresh cut grass filled the air. A gentle cool breeze caressing our face as it blew by. The sun was shining peeking off the horizon, painting the sky orange and pink.

“I love this place,” I thought, taking in a long deep breath. The trees helped keep the air in the facility clean and fresh, which kept our morale positive.

I parked my car and was on my way to visit the lab, as I do every morning. Picking up a cup of coffee and a bunch of papers from within, I made my way towards the main door. The security guard opened it for me with a warm greeting

“Good morning Mr. Arjun,” he said

“Good Morning” I replied as I walked in.

As I walked in towards the main hall, the receptionist looked up and waved at me.

I nodded back and mouthed a greeting, my hands being full.

“Mr. Malhotra’s looking for you,” she informed.

“Thank you. Did he say why?” I asked.

She shrugged.

“Today could be my lucky day!” I thought. I thank her and take her leave.

The facility had marble flooring and a high ceiling. The facility walls painted in cream with dark brown accents, looking pristine. Two stairwells flanked the central corridor allowing access to the upper floors.

I took the passage that led to the elevator, in the center. My lab was on the second floor; with the access restricted, you either needed a key card or unlocked it biometrically.

On the outside, the elevator was average. But It was huge and could hold 30 people, and you could wheel prototypes in and out with ease. Having the same cheesy music you find in most of them, It’s understandable they didn’t want you to stay in there for too long. No buttons to push, you accessed your floor using the keycard provided.

I shimmied towards the sensor and using my keycard, authorized access to the upper level.  Clipped to my belt the keycard was at the same height as the sensor, so I didn’t need to hold it. The elevator hummed to life and ascended.

On reaching my floor, I exited the elevator and walked to my lab. The door locked using a biometric panel, opened by placing my palm on the sensor. A daunting task as my hands were full, and I couldn’t use the keycard technique; as the sensor is installed much higher up. I tried various positions and in the end, held my cup with my mouth and placed my palm on the panel.

“I need to get a platform installed here,” I think.

“Ah! There you are!” a voice exclaimed.

Startled, I looked for the source of the sound and I notice a long bony finger pointed at me.

It was Mr. K.C.Malhotra the director at ISRO, “I have been waiting for you!” he bellowed.

My eyes opened wide; the cup still held between my teeth. Mr. Malhotra made a small gesture with his head toward the door and walked in.

He pulled a chair for himself at the central table and sat down.

“Come sit down!”, he said, as he waved a blue file at me and placed it on the table.

I released the cup from my mouth and followed him in. Once inside I set it on a workstation nearby, along with my papers.

I walk up to the table and pull an empty chair across him.

“You do know that the Mars expedition has been our priority for quite some time now?” Mr. Malhotra said.

“Yes,” I answered, and nodded.

“The rovers sent by NASA to Mars have located a suitable spot for landing. It has enough hydrated salts in the soil, and sunlight to sustain a life support unit.” he continued “Presence of hydrated salts suggests water availability, the life support system does have a water harvesting unit, which would provide the team with enough water for their use.” he added.

“The cargo units sent by NASA have landed on the surface, these contain life support materials, until you get the harvester up and running. Hydroponic growing systems included in another container should take care of food in the future. Adequate rations are available, until the next supply mission” he said,

“Now for the best part!” I thought and braced myself for the good news.

“Importantly, a team is being set up for the expedition, and we would like you to lead it!” he continued.

This was a blowback, I wanted a role in the mission, but didn’t expect to lead a team.

“Sir, are you sure you expect me to take charge of the team?” I asked.

“Of course, you have been at ISRO quite some time now, and we need the team to answer to someone with your; very skills. Giving you complete control over the mission keeps it under our control.

“Here are their details,” he said as he slid the blue file towards me “get to know them, as they will be working with you from now on.”

He got off his chair “And another thing, get ready to blast off in the next two months, if you have anything to take care of, finish it soon,  you and your team will transfer to a separate controlled facility until launch.”

 

Stunned, excited, but stunned. I tried to question him, but he walked out before I could say a word. Looking at the file lying there, it stared back at me with an ominous look. Picking the file up, I flipped through.

“Damn I’m in trouble,” I thought.

I exited the lab still unable to grab what had transpired, “Me! Handle a team?, I have never handled a team. I work alone!”, I thought. But this being a Mars mission, being alone on the red planet does not sound safe to me and made me shudder.

I ran in the general direction Mr. Malhotra had whisked away, trying to locate him. He was neither in any of the meeting rooms nor his room. There would be only one place left, where I would find him.

Exiting the building, I hurried along the path towards the hangars constructed a safe distance from the office. Blinded by the mid-day sun, I thought, “I need to get out more!”.

 

The clanging and hiss of the metal fabrication process were deafening, and the potent smell of smoke and hot metal filled the air. Metal heated to high temperatures had a distinct smell to it, I liked it, but it was an acquired taste. Working for ISRO the last 15 years, I designed my equipment with the help of the engineers. My terraforming equipment was unique, and fabricated exclusively at ISRO, no other in existence anywhere in the world.

 

Finding aeronautical parts strewn all over indicated I was getting close to the hangar.

The hangar was a large building where the initial fabrication of the spacecraft hull and body take place. It had enough space to house two Boeing 737’s, so we had enough room for anything. The current spacecraft, the “Mangala Vimana” aptly named as it was to traverse the depths of space all the way to Mars, they designed and fabricated here.

Mr. Malhotra spent most of his time in the engineering division being a hands on man. If any new development were underway he would practically live here and so did I when I was getting my equipment designed. As most of the initial development and fabrication of the Quantum engine was complete, he didn’t stay back much but did spend most of his time there. The launch dates were close, so he made sure to monitor every aspect of the space craft’s assembly. He didn’t want anything to go wrong on his watch. His eye for perfection is what brought back clients from all over the world. I walked towards the aeronautic engineering division and found him speaking to one of the engineers.

I walked up to him, “Mr. Malhotra!” I called, to get his attention. He was busy admiring his pride and joy, with a trance-like look on his face.

“It’s a thing of beauty, isn’t it,” He beamed, swelling with an air of pride.

It was a sight to behold; the craft looked like no other. It had no pointy nose, but rather designed in a cylindrical shape with a domed top. Before us was the main living quarters; the other modules had rather flat roofs. The living quarters, mounted above the other modules constituted the entire ship. The entire payload would travel to Mars, with no parts that disengaged on exiting the atmosphere.

“Sir!” I mumbled to get his attention.

He gave me a stern look as though going to skewer me on a tandoor, and he knew me well enough to know what I would say next.

I gulped, “Sir, I don’t think I can take up the task of commandeering the team.”

He looked annoyed, his face scrunching tight wrinkling everywhere.

“Sir if anyone else can commandeer, I would be happy to go in as just a team member” I managed to say gathering every bit of bravery I had.

He mellowed down and said, “You either commandeer the team or you don’t go.”

He was bluffing, with no terraformers available on short notice, especially at ISRO, he had no choice.

“If you don’t go, I will send Anand!” he threatened.

He had released his Brahmastra, my main weakness being the target, surprised he even considered that angle.

Anand was a trainee assigned to me, ever present trying to suck in as much information as he could. He was good, and the one I would consider knew most of the theories I had written. Like a vacuum cleaner he gathered info at the same rate, I was thinking it. Anand didn’t have the number of hours in space flight training making him unsuitable, but if Mr. Malhotra approves him, they could expedite the process.

“Sir, he’s a trainee!” I stammered.

“I already have Anand enrolled for flight training if you notice he has not been around you much lately,” he said.

That was true, so engrossed in my work that I didn’t observe Anand missing for near to a month now, no head sneaking a peek while I’m working. I was enjoying his absence and didn’t expect this angle of attack.

“I suggest you go through the file I’ve given you, as we don’t have much time left” he commanded.

I gathered the remaining pride I had off the floor and walked back to my lab dejected. Once I got there I plumped on a chair; This could be something good for me I thought. Maybe my life’s taking a turn for the better, and these are steps in the right direction. The next two months will be quite hectic, conditioned for space flight.

I went home for the day and called my uncle informing that ISRO had selected me to lead the Mars mission. He was ecstatic; he has been supporting me since my parents demise. Getting me through college, and aiding me in my plans to join ISRO, his role was pivotal to where I’m now.

“You have waited all your life for this. It will help build character. Lead the team and do your best, and most importantly keep safe.” he said, “You know, your parents will be proud of you” he added.

“Thank you,” I said. My uncle was right; this was time for a change, and I need to take the bull by the horns.

Later I find that Anand never bugged me all this month, as he was home, tending to his sick mother, and not at Flight Training.

 

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