The spaceship Astarte was, more or less, a spinning, titanium can with a nuclear bomb affixed to one end. It was visible from the Earth on clear nights, shining brighter than Venus as it completed its low orbits. The ship was a supreme monument, an icon symbolizing the exceptionalism of her builder— the People’s Republic of Gaiastan. Her purpose was to put people on Mars and bring them home again… if possible. The Mars Mission was the deemed to be the grand achievement of the Age.
All great cultures have their grand achievements. The Egyptians, for instance, were renowned for stacking stones really high. The Romans, Mongols and Nazis were incomparably skilled at mass murder. The Mayans made extraordinary calendars. In this regard, the People’s Republic of Gaiastan suffered from an historical inferiority complex. Her contributions to humankind were intangible and nebulous. She needed her own symbol of exceptionalism, her own grand achievement that future generations could point to. Putting a man on the moon had already been achieved so they decided to put people on Mars, instead. What the Gaians lacked in imagination, they made up for in ambition.
Altogether, the Astarte spacecraft took seventeen years to complete. Just clearing the bureaucratic and legal obstacles erected in the wake of the full scale, global-thermo-nuclear-police-action took seven years, alone. The last thing anyone wanted was for more nuclear bombs to be made, but the technology of the day meant that only a fission powered ship could get a human crew there and back before their DNA was ripped to shreds by radiation.
The previous six manned Mars missions had all failed, disastrously, and this was a source of epic national embarrassment. Mars One, the first attempt, lacked the necessary shielding. The crew members were cooked alive by three weeks in. The second, Mars Two, suffered a catastrophic core meltdown the instant after it fired its fission thrusters. Mars Three miscalculated its trajectory and crashed into the moon. Mars Four made it to Mars but couldn’t achieve optimal deceleration on its approach and is currently half way to the Oort Cloud. Mars Five was destroyed by a collision with a field of space sand travelling two hundred thousand kilometers per hour. Lastly, there was Mars Six whose crew was lost en route to the Astarte when the heat shielding of their shuttle was irreparably damaged by a flock of wayward geese.
With these failures, the efficacy of an entire Revolution was being called into question by a disheartened and increasingly disillusioned populace. Mars had to be conquered, so the regulatory hurdles were cleared, the funding spigots were opened, and the engineering limitations were ignored. Finally, at great cost, cost that included seven hundred payload missions, 99 mortalities, and about a quadrillion dianars, the Astarte was completed and readied for launch. Her auxiliary rockets fired. Her orbital velocity accelerated. She was slung outwards into the void where her fission reactor was successfully ignited.
Mr. Theus P. Indigo, Grade 4 Astronaut/Specialist and 13th Degree Overman, was a crewmember aboard that nuclear powered, titanium can bound for Mars. He spent a great deal of time thinking. Eighteen months trapped in a can affords one a great deal of time to contemplate things. Indigo performed his contemplations while gazing out his portal watching the endless, upwards rain of stars caused by the ship’s ceaseless rotation. This spinning generated the equivalent of 30% earth gravity… just enough ‘gravity’ to prevent the crew’s calcium from leaching out of their bones.
Indigo found himself at that portal for hours and hours at a stretch. He thought about things like immortality, the blue skies of Earth, and how he was going to renovate his 100 square foot habitation cube upon return. At one point, some forty million kilometers from earth, for some unknown reason, he contemplated the mind of savage man.
What mystical wonder Stone Aged men must have felt huddled by a campfire, gazing upwards into the heaven’s black dome adorned with her billion shimmering specks of light. “What are those points of light?” Many a savage had undoubtedly asked. Indigo deduced that those pre-humans were every bit as intelligent as any undermen of the Third Century GE. They just lacked the benefit of four thousand generations of accumulated knowledge regarding things like agriculture and physics and electromagnetic mind transference. Those poor, mortal bastards had it rough, Indigo thought. Surely one of them, somewhere, at some point in pre-history, pondered those thousand points of light in the pristine night and correctly deduced that they were distant suns not unlike our own. Probability ensured the likelihood that one of those pre-humans, somewhere, after stuffing his face with wild berries and fire roasted flank of gazelle, presented his radical, cosmological hypothesis to his fellow cavemen gathered around the campfire. And there was little doubt that this unorthodox idea was greeted with hostile ridicule. Such an unconventional explanation of the universe was certainly incongruous with the dominant tribal mysticism of their time.
“Heretic!” would go their rebuke, in their own caveman dialect of course. “Don’t you know that the stars are the frozen tears of the giant, omniscient, flying turtle goddess that forever weeps in despair over man’s selfish unrighteousness? Huh? Don’t you?” The threat of being bound up into a wicker effigy and burned alive would suppress any further suggestion of such radical blasphemy. Cosmology would thus languish in superstition for another hundred thousand years.
But, Indigo thought as he squeezed the last of the contents of his tofu ration tube into his mouth, wouldn’t it be a spectacular thing to go backwards in time and meet one of those paleo-Gallileos, pull him aside— once a suitable method of translation was devised, of course— and congratulate him on being right in that the stars are not, in fact, glittering turtle tears, or gleaming beacons of long dead souls, or pinholes of heavenly light puncturing the sheath of our mortal dimension. It would be simply fascinating to travel in time and meet one of those pre-human intellectuals, he thought. Indigo imagined patting him on the back and assuring him that he was correct in that the stars were, in fact, distant suns just as he had suggested; some were so unimaginably far away that their light had begun its journey while the earth was still inhabited by dinosaurs.
“What’s a dinosaur?” the caveman would ask with a perplexed look… if he could actually formulate the word for it.
“Oh, never mind,” Indigo would answer with a sigh. “It’s probably best to forget about those crazy ideas before the others tie you up and toss you into a tar pit. Here, let me have some of that gazelle meat.”
Indigo’s deep thought was interrupted by an alarm in the cabin. Bursts of green flashed in the portal as ionized particles interacted with the plasma enveloping the ship. Indigo looked around to discover that he was the only one awake. The long journey required lots of sleep time so as to conserve rations, energy, and sanity. He sat still and just waited for something to happen.
The Astarte was well-equipped with adroit and sophisticated quantum computers embedded with virtual copies of the most competent, most educated, highest-ranking human consciousnesses available. They were monitoring the situation and making adjustments as needed. The ship was basically on auto pilot and Theus P. Indigo was, more or less, just along for the ride. Thankfully, the alarms stopped, the green auroras enveloping the ship disappeared. Indigo traveled back in time, again.
Of Indigo’s wakeful hours, five were spent each week with a Mr. Vesuvius Staley, Grade 5 Astronaut/Technician, and also a 13th Degree Overman. Staley was a living breathing human which was supposed to be good for Indigo as it was determined that even the most sociable of embeds (which was what computers uploaded with human consciousness were known as) could not fool the human mind into thinking there was any real interpersonal interaction taking place. The mind knows the difference between an algorithm and a living being. In addition, it’s well known to sociologists that isolation from human contact fuels paranoia, distemper, cynicism, and other undesirable and unpredictable crewmember traits. These neuroses are most unproductive when they manifest, especially during an eighteen-month space mission.
Staley and Indigo became good friends on the journey from the launch pad. In the initial months, their mood was bright and hopeful. In fact, the entire crew developed a wonderful esprit de corp, joyfully completing their mundane assignments and the compulsory therapeutic sexual release sessions.
Eventually, however, things soured with a series of unexpected system failures. Despite the mandatory human interaction, Indigo and Staley eventually ceased speaking to one another. Staley spent their overlapping moments of wakefulness double and triple and quadruple checking the readings on the Birkelund Plasma Inducers while Indigo reverted to staring out into infinity contemplating being a time-traveler contemplating cavemen who were contemplating the mysteries of the universe. In the final stages of the mission, Staley’s mood darkened to suicidally grim whenever his busy-work was finished. By that point, there really wasn’t anything for Indigo and Staley to talk about except the end of their glorious mission… a mission that had not gone according to plan.
A tiny pale blue dot, identified by augmented reality on the portal glass as “Gaia” grew fractionally brighter with each passing week. The Astarte’s fission engine was soon extinguished. Her fuel rods were jettisoned into infinity. The retro rockets fired and the ship gradually decelerated into Earth orbit. The surviving crew moved into the splashdown capsule.
Their re-entry was supposed to be a jubilant time and it certainly was that back on Earth where the people of Gaiastan anxiously awaited the return of their national heroes. The Overmen, the elite upper caste who lived primarily on the east coast, stared out across the ocean and up into the deep blue evening sky. Finally, a bright star appeared unto them— the brilliant Astarte— reflecting the sun and illuminated by 50,000 degree plasma. She fell from the heavens into the sea with a cosmic roar. Naval hovercraft rapidly converged upon her and the blackened and pulverized titanium space can was hoisted onto the deck of a floating retrieval ship.
Her doors were frantically pried open with crowbars. Indigo was extracted first and did the best he could to help with a physiology that had forgotten how to overcome full gravity. The strain caused him to almost immediately lose consciousness. He was poured onto a gurney and hauled away. Staley made no effort to leave the Astarte’s womb at all. They pulled him out clumsily, breech style and face down. It was not immediately known if he had survived re-entry.
There were originally seven crew members aboard the Astarte.
 Dianar: A unit of Gaiastan currency
 Undermen: The lowest caste of Homo Sapiens considered “human”.
 GE: In the Gaian Era. All calendars were reset to year 1 following the revolution. Dates prior to year 1 are known as BGE or Before the Gaian Era.
 Birkelund Plasma Inducer: A device that generates an electromagnetic field designed to protect spacecraft from cosmic radiation.
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