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3:10 to Ganymede

A chapter in the book The Hitchbury Zone

The Hitchbury Zone Chapter 1

by Thomas Blanks


Hitchbury Zone – Chapter One – 3:10 to Ganymede

2058, C.E.

A rocky object called Quaoar, 1,100 miles (1,800km) across, bumped into two asteroids among the multitude in the Oort Cloud beyond Pluto. It began to tumble toward the Sun. Pluto, named for the lord of the underworld, and its moon Charon, the ferryman to Hades, spun around each other like a pair of figure skaters. The lord of the underworld was right in the path of cosmic destruction. As Quaoar blasted into Pluto, Charon was flung out of Pluto’s hold like a discus thrown by Hercules toward the Sun.

Usually, the gas giant planets protect their four rocky neighbors from such invaders. However, Jupiter and Saturn were on the other side of the Sun, completing their long orbital journeys, twelve years for Jupiter and twenty-nine for Saturn. So, Charon had a clear shot at Mars, coming in at a seventeen-degree angle, it would squeak by the asteroid belt, but NASA scientists didn’t know that yet.

Earth, Ten Years Earlier, 2048 C.E.

“The northern and southern hemispheres of Mars are vastly different from one another,” the NASA planetary geologist explained to a group. “Separated by a ridge of mountains around the planet’s middle. The highest peak is more than twice as high as Mount Everest. The Martian topography is the most critical factor in selecting a site for colonization, and there are three criteria.” He had a presentation on the wall that set out the criteria:

PRACTICAL: The spot must have a sustainable water supply and allow for efficient energy generation.

SAFE: The spot has to be safe to land and protected from planet-wide dust storms.

FUNCTIONAL: The spot has to be scientifically interesting for an extended mission.

“Based on the criteria you see on the screen, the computer chose the top three potential landing sites: 1) The outer edge of Mars’ North polar ice cap, which has plenty of water. 2) The deep canyon of Valles Marineris, as long as the United States with a frozen underground lake. 3) Martian glaciers in the Hellas Impact Basin, the lowest area on Mars.”

Scientists couldn’t decide between numbers two and three, so six-person colony domes went up at both locations - after nineteen years of designing and building the habitat structures, ferrying workers to and from Mars, and constructing solar arrays large enough to meet the power needs with wind turbine backup for periods of sand storms, inserting heated probes into ice to tap water supplies and establishing oxygen generators that broke down atmospheric CO2 into carbon and oxygen. Most of the oxygen would be for breathing, but by combining some with nitrogen, they could make fertilizer for the hydroponic growing system for fruits and vegetables. Finally, NASA had to recruit and train the crew.

April 1, 2068, C. E. Ten years after the destruction of Pluto

The colonists had been in the two domes less than a year when NASA informed them of the slight possibility that Pluto’s moon might hit Mars.

“If that is an April fool’s joke, Houston, it’s not funny,” said Mission Commander Kevin Styles, the leader at Dome One, located in the Hellas Impact Basin.

“No, joke, Kevin,” Paul Livingston, Mission Control Executive, said. “We have been watching Charon since Pluto’s destruction ten years ago and expected it to either go into solar orbit or perhaps hit the Sun. We never expected it to have a near impact situation with Mars, but now it looks like that’s what will happen.”

“How near?”

“It might cause quakes or slow the rotation of the planet.”

“Holy crap! That’s close, Houston! Are you 100% sure it won’t hit us?”

“We are 99.8% sure.”

“That is not good enough,” Commander Styles said.

“We have two months. Let us work on it.”

“That’s not enough time to get us out of here, Houston.”

“We know that. We’ll let you know when we are sure it won’t hit you.”

#

Two months later, Charon went past Mars within 3,000 miles (4,830 km), obliterating the small moon Phobos, only fourteen miles across. Pluto’s rouge moon had passed in the opposite direction of Mars’ rotation, acting as a gravitational brake, slowing the red planet’s rotation to almost nothing.

With the rotational momentum lost forever, Martian days got longer, lasting two hundred hours instead of twenty-four. This alone created havoc, but some crew members believed strange things bored themselves out of the Martian crust onto the surface in this new extended darkness.

“I think you two have lost your minds,” Kevin Styles said. “If you tell Houston you think subterranean mole-Martians are creeping around in the dark, they’ll pick you up in a padded shuttle for a Section Eight discharge!”

“I saw something moving out there and found footprints the next day,” Mike Malone said. He was short, five foot six, with blond hair and a beard.

“Did you photograph them?”

“By the time I got back with a camera, the wind had obliterated them.”

“Mike, that sounds like ‘the dog ate my homework.’”

“I know it does.”

“I saw them too, Kevin. Something is moving around when it’s dark,” said Malek Coleman, a tall, thin, thirty-year-old African-American engineer.

“Why weren’t they out there before?” Kevin asked.

“The days used to be a little over twenty-four hours, like Earth. Now they are eight times longer with the slower rotation. Those things, whatever they are, can stay ahead of the daylight now. They don’t have to live underground anymore,” Malone said.

“I’ve done some calculations. The rotation is getting slower, so slow that tidal locking is inevitable soon.” Malek said.

“How soon?” Styles asked.

“Within a month.”

“The big question is will we end up on the sunny side or the dark side?” Styles said.

“Are you saying Mars is going to be like the Moon?” Malone asked, “rotating only once each time it orbits the Earth, having one side always dark?” 

“Yes, we just don't know where the line of darkness will be yet. Our dome is 70 degrees east, and the other is 75 degrees west of the Martian prime meridian. In other words, they're 145 degrees apart. Half the planet is 180 degrees, meaning that both domes could end up on the dark side of Mars, both on the Sun side, or one on each side. It's a massive game of roulette.”

In the end, the red planetary roulette wheel that humankind watched came up double zero, and twenty years of work and billions of dollars went down the drain. When Mars stopped rotating, both domes were on the dark side of Mars, with the creatures lurking in the darkness. Attempts to study them resulted in slaughtered scientists – the entire team from Dome Two dead.

#

“We have to abandon the dome, or they’re going to kill us as well,” Malek said.

“All we have is a shuttle designed to go to Phobos, which isn’t even there anymore!” Malone said.

“The sunny side of Mars is there,” Malek said.

“What about air? Or heat? How long can we survive without the dome?” Malone asked.

“At least those little beasties won’t get us, and they’ll be swarming the dome any day now,” Styles said. “I agree with Malek. We should go.”

“We’ll die!”

“The ship from Earth is on the way,” Styles said.

“Eleven, fucking months, man! We’re screwed!”

“Stand down, Malone. That’s an order!” Styles said.

“Commander, I’m getting a message from a ship,” Linh Ton said, sticking her head through the doorway.

“Not the ship from Earth?” Styles said.

“No, Ganymede.”

“Ganymede? Who do we have on Ganymede?” Styles asked no one in particular.

“Beats me,” Malek said.

“The Marines, Sir!” Linh said, “and they’re waiting to talk to you.”

“Coming.” Styles maneuvered the passage expertly in the increased gravity and sat beside Linh. “Am I on?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“This is Commander Styles Martian Colony Project. Who am I speaking with, please?”

“A pleasure Commander Styles. My name is Colonel Diamond, Special Missions Battalion, United States Marine Corp.”

“We have a special mission on Ganymede?”

“No comment.”

“Are you offering us a ride?”

“With one condition.”

“I’m listening.”

“We want one of those things,” Colonel Diamond said. Styles signaled to Linh to cut off the sound, and she did.

“He wants us to capture one of the dark crawlies to buy a ride. What do you say? Can we do it?”

“Well, that’s a hell of a better deal than freezing to death or asphyxiating on the other side of Mars,” Malone said.

“I have to agree, Sir,” Malek said.

“Linh?

“I’m not going hunting for a crawly, so I’m not voting!” she said.

“Open the line,” Styles said. Linh signaled him.

“Okay, Diamond, you have a deal. What is your ETA?”

“Tomorrow. Diamond-out.”

“Linh, where are Barrett and Horton?” Styles asked.

“They went out to see why the wind turbines were not working.”

“Just the two of them? How long ago?” Styles was aggravated.

“Less than an hour, more than half an hour.”

“Malek!”

“I’m suiting up.”

“How long will the batteries last without the turbines turning?” Styles asked. As if to answer him, all the lights and computers went dead. It was pitch black. In one swift move, the commander raked his Zippo across the top of his thigh, at once flipping the cap open and turning the flint-striker wheel to ignite a steady flame.

“I’m coming with you, Malek,” Styles said.

“Where are the flashlights?” Malone asked.

“Storage bin A up there,” Linh said. Malone reached them, and Styles closed his lighter.

“You smoke?” Linh asked as if it were worse than torturing puppies.

“Not recently.” He went to get his space suit and the emergency sealer for dome punctures.

#

Outside, it was a short walk to the wind turbines. The problem with the first one was immediately apparent as it was lying on the ground. The other turbine had something inside it. As Styles and Malek approached, they saw the bodies of Barrett and Horton with their environmental suits shredded. Determined not to be distracted, Styles kept his eyes on the second turbine, a metal cylinder with screw-shaped blades to catch the wind. He was sure there was something inside it. Perhaps this is how it ambushed Barrett and Horton. Styles raised the caulking gun-like dome sealer, pointing the jet nozzle at the turbine. In the darkness, he could only see as far as the light on his suit illuminated. “CRAUGHH!” It was ugly! It had teeth! Styles fired the gun and held the trigger.

Dome sealer was the stickiest substance known to man. In an emergency, you could plug a hole the size of a softball by coating the bottom of a lunch tray and sticking it over the hole. The stuff stuck to whatever it touched. The more the crawly struggled, the more entangled it became. Soon all four of its limbs were stuck in a ball with only the head free. Styles wrapped the goo in mylar to contain the stickiness, making sure to avoid the teeth.

Malek got the turbine moving, then set the other one back up. As he walked toward the dome, he activated his radio.

“Commander, you’re not taking that thing inside the dome, are you?”

“What do you suggest we do with it until tomorrow?”

“Put it in the shuttle – in the cargo hold?”

“You might have an idea there, Malek.” Styles turned and headed for the shuttle with his mylar-wrapped package. The crawly weighed eighty pounds (36 kg) on Earth, and also now on Mars with the increased gravity due to no rotation. After placing the crawly, he turned on the intercom in the hold to listen for trouble.

#

“All we have to do now is live until Colonel Diamond arrives,” Styles said.

“I hope it will be okay in there until tomorrow without food or water,” Malek said.

“I don’t know what it eats; water would freeze.”

“Are we doing the right thing, Commander?”

“I don’t know. If we don’t give Diamond the thing in the shuttle, we will be stuck here and die. We don’t have a choice if we want to get off this planet.”

“It won’t go well for that crawly being in the hands of the military.”

“I know,” Styles said. “They probably want to make an army of stealth soldiers who can see in the dark.”

“If the crawlies have any intelligence, they will attack when we move from the dome to the shuttle. I think they are watching and waiting for their chance, like with Barrett and Horton,” Malek said.

“Why didn’t NASA let us bring weapons?” Malone said.

“Nine out of ten times, the crew would use them on each other,” Styles said.

#

Not that you could tell by anything but numbers on a computer screen, but a day had passed.

“When is that Colonel Diamond going to call us back?” Malone asked. “I feel like the fox at the Billsdale Hunt.”

“Commander,” Linh said. “Colonel Diamond is hailing.”

“Put it on the speaker, please.”

“Okay, ready.”

“Colonel Diamond, Commander Styles here.”

“Greetings, I suggest we rendezvous at Deimos.”

“Should we take off now?”

“I think so.”

“We’re on our way.”

“Diamond-out.”

“Suit up, people!”

#

As four space-suited figures bounce-walked toward the shuttle, three crawlies executed a coordinated attack, hitting the trailing human simultaneously, one high, one low, and the other ripping off the life support unit from the back of the suit. Linh never had a chance to press her talk button.

When the other three reached the shuttle, Styles realized Linh was gone and started back. A hand grabbed his arm.

“She’s gone, Sir. We need to go,” Malek said. He had opened the shuttle door.

“You and Malone go in first.” They looked at Malone precisely when crawlies pulled him down, ripping his suit.

“Get inside!” Styles yelled. Malek didn’t hesitate, and the commander followed. Before Malek hit the button that closed the door, a crawly grabbed the opening, pulled itself up, and held the door at bay. The black demon screamed at Malek when he tried to kick it loose, biting at his boot. Malek retreated, the crawly slipped inside, and the door slammed shut. Instead of attacking, it turned, went to the cargo hold door, and listened.

“Wauh nog gin satopa wentu,” it said.

“They talk?” Malek said.

“It’s talking to the one in the hold,” Styles said. “Open the door.”

Malek walked to the control panel and opened the door for the crawly. It went inside, and Malek reclosed the door.

“Take off and pressurize the ship,” Malek said. “I’ll get the oxygen flowing.”

#

Styles landed the shuttle on Deimos and walked back to the cargo hold. He was surprised to find Malek inside talking with the sticky balled-up crawly.

“Commander, you aren’t going to believe this.”

“Try me.”

“You turned on the intercom for a day in the cargo hold to ensure there was no trouble. The crawly could hear everything we said, and he even learned some English.”

“No way.”

“Yes,” the crawly said. Styles was stunned.

“Talk to me,” Styles said.

“I no more attack,” it said.

“Name? My name is Styles. What is your name?” The crawly didn’t seem to know the word. “Me-Styles,” he pointed to himself. “You?” he pointed at the crawly.

“Zingi.”

“Why Zingi no attack?”

“I want go Diamond.”

“Malek, Parlez vous Francais?” (Do you speak French?)

“Oui.” (Yes.)

“Il est mauvais.” (He is evil.)

“Je suis d’accord.” (I agree.)

“Okay, Zingi. How can you live on Mars?”

“Mars?”

“No good air,” Styles said.

“You…” he drew a six in the air.

“Six,” Malek said.

“Me…” he drew a fourteen.

“Fourteen. Six and fourteen? Carbon and silicon on the periodic table are six and fourteen,” Malek said.

“Silicon-based life. That would explain why they can survive in harsh conditions,” Styles said. “Mais pas dans le vide.” (But not in a vacuum.)

“Compris, mais il est notre billet.” (Understood, but he is our ticket.)

“Nous attendons.” (We wait.)

“Code,” Zingi said.

Commander Styles walked to the cockpit.

“Martian Colony Shuttle, Commander Styles to Houston,” he said.

“This is Houston. We read you."

“Shuttle is on Deimos awaiting pickup by Special Missions Battalion, United States Marine Corp Colonel Diamond. We have lost four more crew to attack from hostile lifeforms on the planet. Someone with authority to do it needs to declare Mars off limits – a full quarantine to prevent someone from taking one of the little black beasts that kill silently in the dark.”

“Roger Mars Shuttle. What will be your destination after pickup?”

“Ganymede.”

“Did you say Ganymede?”

“Yeah, I didn’t know we had anything there either. Mars Shuttle out.” Styles could see the Marine ship approaching.

“I guess that’s our ride,” Malek said.

“Yeah. Now, we must get to Ganymede and find a way to flush those two crawlies out of an airlock and not get killed.”

“Salvation and martyrdom are equally possible outcomes,” Malek said.

“Sometimes they’re the same thing.” Styles said. “I wish I had a cigarette.”

“Colonel Diamond to Mars Shuttle.”

“Styles here, Diamond, go ahead.”

“I am just above you. Bring it on up and dock.”

“Roger that.” Styles tapped the thrusters, and they rose from the moon, maneuvering using the fuselage cameras. The docking was uneventful. The clock on the cockpit control panel read 3:10.

“All aboard for the 3:10 to Ganymede!” Styles said.




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