As the ship moved into final approach to Mars, Captain Frank Marshall saw his first glimpse of the crimson world through the porthole, and a tear rolled down his cheek. Ted, the ship’s computer system, calibrated the final settings to move into orbit.
At 89 years old Frank had been a widow for nine years – most of them spent trying to get to this moment. He finally convinced billionaire Walter Robbins to finance the first “return mission” to Mars, with the hook being a reality show about a retired astronaut fulfilling a promise to his dead wife. The ratings increased daily as millions of viewers worldwide watched Frank’s every move, providing Robbins with more than a substantial return on his investment.
Many years before Frank and his wife had been chosen to be the first husband and wife astronauts sent on a “no return” mission to Mars, and the media called them the Martian Adam and Eve. Their assignment – to assemble modular dwellings before other settlers arrived; they could also be fruitful and multiply along the way. Despite taking precautions, she inexplicably became pregnant before their scheduled departure, thus nullifying their opportunity.
“Are you crying, Captain Marshall?” Ted spoke with an authoritative but trustworthy voice, programmed to sound like newsman Walter Cronkite, someone who became famous and died long before Frank was born. All Air & Space Force vessel computers were programmed to sound like him.
Cognizant of his audience, Frank looked up at the monitor. Ted appeared as a glowing blue light that pulsed on all the ship’s panels. “Yes, Ted, but it’s in happiness.”
“I do not comprehend that,” Ted said.
Frank stared down at the metallic urn held by arthritic fingers. “Well, it’s all about love.”
“I am programmed to understand love but admit it is a difficult concept.”
Frank thought about his overwhelming love for his wife and three grown children and seven grandchildren back on earth. “For humans it’s everything, or at least is should be.”
“Is this why you need to do this?”
“You mean deposit her ashes on Mars?”
“Yes. I must admit that it does not make much sense. You are interring them and returning to earth; you are even more separated?”
Frank chuckled. “These ashes are not my wife.”
“But are they not her cremains?”
“Yes, of course, but of her physical body. Her spirit is not within this urn; it’s in this cabin right now.”
“I cannot detect her presence.”
“Of course, not,” Frank spoke more wearily this time. “Sensors won’t show you anything tangible. Aphrodite Anastas, whom I always called Venus, is a spirit now. On the 510 days of our long journey I have seen her many times, looking just the way she did when I first met her, but you and our friends back home could not.”
“How can that be, sir?”
“I don’t know how, Ted. I just know that it is.”
“So please tell our audience what brought you to this moment.”
Frank knew that besides running the ship Ted functioned as host of the world’s most popular reality show. “It’s a long story, Ted.”
“Usually, we talk about human-machine matters and other humorous things, but in essence this is why we are here.”
“Well then, this is it – as my wife lay dying, her last wish was to be brought to Mars; I promised her I would do it, and here we are.”
“We are reaching launch window, sir.”
Frank stood up with difficulty, bringing the urn over to the small capsule inside the acrylic launching chute. He placed it inside with a single rose on a satin blanket, shut the door, and slid the capsule into position. “It is done,” he said as he flipped the switch to engage.
A loud noise followed by a severe jolt rocked the ship, almost causing Frank to fall down. “Captain, please return to your seat.”
Frank stared at the urn still locked in place. “What happened?”
“The launch unit ruptured,” Ted said.
“Unfortunately, sir, this malfunction can be only repaired externally.”
Frank leaned against the chute to keep his balance. “You’re talking about a spacewalk. I’ll suit up.”
“Sadly, sir, you are in no condition for such an endeavor; additionally, it would take too long and jeopardize our opportunity to jettison into course position for our return journey.”
Frank stared at the monitor. “Are you telling me that I came 36 million miles for nothing?”
“Well, sir, although you will be unable to inter your wife’s cremains on Mars, you have had the chance to see the planet in person as you always wished to do.”
Ted stared out the porthole. “Look at that beautiful elusive war-god. I’ve always longed to get my feet on its surface, my hands in its red dust. This was a compromise, but worth it only because I could fulfill my promise to Venus. Now, now there is nothing.”
“I do apologize, sir.”
Frank opened the chute, popped out the capsule that would have exploded and sent Venus’s ashes showering over the surface, and removed the urn. He struggled to walk back to his seat, and fell down clutching the urn to his chest. He looked at the monitor and said, “Sometimes the captain has to make the hardest decisions.”
“I do thank you for your understanding, Captain.”
Frank leaned forward and engaged the override lever, rendering Ted, Space Control, and the worldwide audience merely spectators. “As I said before, I’m doing this for love.”
“Sir, my first directive is to protect and maintain human life at all costs.”
Frank locked in the coordinates and increased engine speed to full power. “I’ve purposely set course for an area with no settlements. Your directive is fulfilled.”
“But this is a return mission, sir.”
“My mission, and yours, is ended.” He glanced at the monitor. “And the show is over, folks.” As the ship raced rapidly toward the surface, Frank held the urn lovingly as he braced for impact.
Photo credits: space.com, lovingmemorials.com, ntlworld.com
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