Come In, Mars Rover
by Terry Sanville

Binx sat before his monitor and nibbled a magic brownie, too early in the day even for a veteran doper. But on that frenetic morning he needed help managing his nerves and the multitude of images and data flashing across his screen. He worked for Space-Z Corporation, hired right out of Caltech as one of their brightest to help staff the Mars Colonization Project.

“What is Condor’s current position?” Rodger McCormick, the team leader, asked.

Binx adjusted his microphone. “It’s two minutes 32 seconds from entering orbit, will pass to the dark side in 12 minutes.”

The room full of technicians located somewhere outside of Bakersfield quieted as the Condor made its final approach, day 162 of its mission.

“Orbit acquired,” Binx announced and a roar went up from the crowd.

The unmanned rover skimmed the surface of the planet, just beyond Mars’ thin atmosphere. After completing a single 100-minute orbit, Space-Z technicians initiated Condor’s descent, with a targeted landing zone near the South Pole. The spacecraft passed behind the planet’s far side but never came back.

While loss of radio contact was expected, it should have resumed within a half hour or less. As the minutes flicked by, panic then gloom settled in at Condor Control.

“Dammit, I knew we were moving too fast,” Ackley muttered.

Binx leaned close to his fellow technician’s screen. “What, the descent speed of the Condor?”

“No, man, this whole thing. So the boss wants to beat NASA and the Chinese, so he goes for a landing first time out. I get it.”

“Well at least our rockets have cooler names.” Binx grinned and passed a chunk of magic brownie to Ackley.

“Do you know how many failed Mars missions there’ve been…and billions wasted? We should’ve taken it slower, sent up an orbiter first before trying to land a rover.”

Binx yawned. “Yeah, the boss may have taken a few shortcuts. How many missions have failed anyway?”

“Between Russia, the US and China, over twenty.”

Binx scoffed. “But those were government jobs. The private sector can do better than those bozos.”

“Don’t believe the hype. Making business deals is a lot different than science…or politics for that matter.”

The two friends stared at their glowing monitors and talked about what would happen next. Space-Z Corp would take a major PR hit that would impact the company’s stock prices. Binx and Ackley might be out of jobs, looking for teaching gigs or, space forbid, working on civil engineering projects.

But the company kept Binx on, monitoring the radio waves just in case some sort of signal got through. With great pay and permission to set up house at the command center, Binx had it good. Ackley found a cheap apartment in Oildale and taught freshman physics at the local college. One night the friends drank beer and watched TV at Casa de Binx. A blue light blinked on the monitor.

“Probably just some atmospheric noise.” Binx got up to check the system. He stared at the screen. His mouth dropped open. “Hey, Ack, come look at this.”

“What? I’m watchin’ The Big Bang.”

“It’s a rerun. Come here. This could be something.”

The two stared at the screen as Binx’s fingers flew over the keyboard. As minutes passed, their excitement grew. “Hey, this signal looks legit. Could the Condor have crashed and been laying there all this time?”

“It’s possible. Maybe its solar panels improperly deployed and its batteries drained.”

“Well, why would it start communicating now?”

Ackley grinned. “Hey, maybe it managed to deploy a single panel. How the hell should I know?”

“Let’s try and power up the camera,” Binx said.

“Do you know how to do that? Maybe we should call…”

“We’ll call Rodger when we’ve got somethin’ to report.”

The two technicians huddled around the workstation.

“I got it,” Binx said. “I’ll transmit image data from Condor to the Mars Orbiter. It could take some time before it’s in position. But after that, only a few minutes, assuming the Goldstone Antenna is available to receive it.”

Ackley grinned. “Man, being stuck in the desert near Barstow would be worse than this place. You got any more brownies? I’m so frickin’ hyped I’m about to blast off.”

The two geeky friends talked about how they would report their findings to their bosses. In a little over an hour, video data began transmitting from Goldstone. They stared at the monitor, grinning stupidly. The screen showed a close-up patch of red and tan stone, looking like some type of sedimentary rock.

“Can you adjust the camera to get a panoramic?” Ackley asked.

“I’m trying. Give me a break here.”

Binx worked all afternoon, sending a multitude of commands to Condor. But nothing seemed to work. The battery levels stayed down, the camera wouldn’t shift position, and the rover wouldn’t budge.

Days passed with no change. Ackley went back to his teaching gig and Binx stared at the monitors, trying new strategies for awakening the rover from its catatonic state. On a blistering July day, he rose from bed, clicked on his workstation, and stared at the image. He jumped from his seat and let out a shout. The image remained the same, except for a shadow in one corner that hadn’t been there before.

He texted Ackley, who didn’t respond until after lunch, then showed up at the center. They studied the images of the patch of Martian ground taken over an eight-hour period. The shadow appeared and disappeared.

“What do you think that is?” Binx asked.

Ackley shrugged. “Can’t tell. Maybe the wind dislodged a rock or something.”

“Nah, the winds on Mars aren’t that strong.”

“Maybe the shadow comes from a cloud.”

“That’s possible. But look how hard-edged it is, almost looks like something flying.”

“I don’t suppose anybody else has sent up a lander?”

“Nah, that’d be a long shot. Besides, Congress is arguing about NASA’s miniscule budget and the Chinese and Russians are diddling with their lunar projects.”

Ackley leaned back and swiveled his chair to face Binx. “I…I think it’s time to call in the team. If this really is something, Space-Z can get a big boost and maybe the project can resume.”

“Yeah, I’ve tried everything to unfreeze the camera. But I’m not the expert.”

Over the next week, Condor Center filled with technicians and Space-Z moguls sipping white wine. They stared at the Mars images and guessed what the shadow portrayed – with wild speculation running from a glitch in the camera’s filters to Martian pterodactyls.

Rodger McCormick quickly took over operations. By the end of the week, they had some success. The camera sent images of a blurred Martian landscape with the colors distorted, the sky looking way too blue. More days were spent trying to correct the focus and color. The images reminded Binx and Ackley of the unfocused pictures first sent back by the Hubble Telescope.

Meanwhile, Space-Z’s corporate office madly prepared press releases for all media platforms extolling the virtues of the company’s space program and its ability to pull a major failure out of the fire. The bosses waited for the right moment to release the news. Finally on a Friday afternoon, Eddie, the chief technician, announced that he would attempt several command sequences that might correct the camera’s focus. The crowded room fell silent, company officials and employees collectively held their breaths.

“This better work or I’m back teaching physics,” Ackley grumbled.

Binx sighed and surreptitiously nibbled a brownie. “At least you got something to go to.”

All eyes focused on the drop-down screen covering one wall. A broad panoramic image began to appear. The crowd gasped. The still-blurry picture showed an uneven red landscape cut by channels with rocky ridgelines in the distance.

“Eddie, can you focus the damn thing?” Rodger shouted, his patience having evaporated.

“Hang on, hang on, I’ve got more tricks to try.”

The only sound came from Eddie’s fingers tapping his keyboard. After a few tense minutes, the image on the screen cleared. More gasps filled the room. At the far edge of the picture rested a rectilinear object.

“What the hell is that?” Rodger bellowed.

“Give me a minute, I’ll zoom in.”

The room filled with the hubbub of people predicting what the object might be, with the most frequent guess being some piece of spacecraft left by a failed Mars mission. The red planet had followed Earth’s example and now had its own Kuiper Belt of space junk with pieces periodically crashing to its surface.

The picture on the screen blurred as Eddie worked his magic and zoomed in on the mystery object. When the image cleared, silence filled the room. The object was a sign that read “Angels Landing – 16 miles.”

In the days that followed, the company shuttered the command center. Space-Z’s press corps released a report stating that the Condor mission had been abandoned after a valiant attempt to establish communications. Meanwhile, in the remote Utah desert, an unmarked helicopter, with its lone passenger nibbling a brownie, lowered the wayward rover onto a flatbed to be covered and trucked away.

Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and two plump cats (his in-house critics). His short stories have been accepted more than 400 times by journals, magazines, and anthologies. Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist.