The first few attempts to reach the Phoenix failed miserably. The quiet comm channel belied the anxiety felt by everyone in the Control Room.
“Are you on the right channel?” Olivia asked Frederick as she stood behind him at one of the big monitors.
Frederick turned back toward her and looked aggravated, something the cool-headed astronaut rarely expressed. “Yes. I’ve confirmed it several times.” He returned his focus to the monitor.
Jane sighed in frustration. Sanjay had taken a seat at a console in the back of the small room and had remained uncharacteristically quiet.
“I don’t suppose anyone has a suggestion,” Jane said aloud.
“There’s been a lot of solar activity. Maybe that’s affecting our communication,” Sanjay said.
“How long has it been going on?” Jane asked.
“Since before we entered Mars’ atmosphere,” he replied.
Hope flashed across Jane’s face. “Maybe that’s it. It seems strange that we cannot communicate with anyone.”
“How much longer before it dies down?” Frederick asked Sanjay.
“It’s an unusual pattern of activity. I don’t know,” he replied.
As if on cue, static rattled across the comm channel. All four astronauts perked up immediately. Frederick took control of communication.
“Settler to Phoenix, come in Phoenix. Can you hear me?”
Static swelled on the channel and then steadily petered out. Never in the history of space travel had the disappearance of static deflated the expectations of astronauts so thoroughly. The entire room slumped in the soundless gap.
Then, “Settler, this is Phoenix, do you copy?” a strange voice said. The elated astronauts jumped up from their seats. Olivia whooped. Frederick tried to retain some composure to respond.
“This is Lieutenant Cummings with the WSA Settler. I hear you Phoenix! What is your position?”
“Nice to hear your voice Lieutenant. This is Captain Stone. We are preparing to enter Mars’ atmosphere.”
Smiles abounded around the Control Room. Frederick pumped his arm as Olivia hugged him. Sanjay smiled but remained reserved.
“Captain Stone, this is Captain Smith. We are so glad to hear your voice. We’ve been unable to communicate since we landed three sols ago.”
“Captain Smith, it’s great to hear from you. Your legend lives on. Congratulations on the successful landing. I hope we can follow your lead.”
Jane smiled wanly. The ghost of Wally floated in her mind. “Thank you, Captain. We look forward to seeing you.”
Frederick interjected, “Do you have a bead on our position?”
“We do. It’s coming through loud and clear. I’m glad we finally established voice contact. The radio has been dead for several days now. We have not been able to contact Mission Control. Have you had any luck?”
“No,” Jane replied. “We managed some initial contact, but the line was too broken to do much good.”
“We’ve had nothing. I hope everything is okay.”
“Me too,” Jane said looking at her colleagues who temporarily assumed a somber mood. Everyone thought of their loved ones on the transport ship and still on earth. “How’s the rest of the crew?”
“They’re doing fine. Excited to finally land this thing. Any advice on getting on the ground?” Stone asked.
“Keep it steady like they trained you and you’ll be fine,” Jane replied. The Settler’s landing seemed like an eternity ago. Jane could barely remember what it was like, and she momentarily worried that the atmosphere on Mars had affected her mind in some way. Everything felt fuzzy and indistinct. Even her memories of earth had lost some of their clarity.
“We’re locked for entry. See you on the other side,” Captain Stone said. His voice sounded compacted and firm.
Jane did not reply. She just watched the screen in front of her as the tense minutes ticked away loudly in her mind. None of the four astronauts in the Control Room said a word. The faint hum of the air system blanketed them, but the rhythmic vibrations did nothing to soothe them.
“I have it on radar,” Frederick announced breaking the deafening silence. Jane seemed almost relieved to hear his voice. She moved to look over his shoulder, and Olivia joined her. Only Sanjay stayed in his position.
The small blip on the screen slowly moved toward them. Hope and fear competed for space in their minds. The supply ship held the keys to their future on this planet, but landing a large, manned ship on the sandy surface had been a tricky proposition. Many missions had failed where Jane’s had succeeded, and even she wasn’t sure what made the difference for the Settler.
The tension almost overwhelmed the crew. Time slowed to a crawl. Every question and answer seemed to leak out one drop at a time. The blip on the screen moved in agonizing slow motion. Jane felt sick at one moment as the blip stalled and flickered on the screen.
“Sanjay, can you go establish visuals?” Jane asked.
The mercurial astronaut looked surprised and hesitant, but after a brief pause, he said, “Sure.”
Sanjay grabbed his helmet and secured it over his head. Without another word, he left the Control Room, and Jane could hear the hiss and whoosh of the door as he left the pressurized base. She waited patiently for Sanjay to report back.
A long time passed before he said anything. Finally, he said, “I can see the ship.” His matter-of-fact reporting annoyed Jane. Shouldn’t he be more excited?
“How’s it look?” she asked.
“I’m going to need more than that, Sanjay,” Jane replied.
“The angle of the ship is a little odd. That may be a problem.”
Jane turned to the screen a gestured for a different channel.
“Captain Stone, can you hear me?”
“Settler to Phoenix, come in, please.”
Some intermittent static filled the channel. Jane grimaced. “Damn it!”
“They’re coming in fast,” Sanjay reported.
“Too fast?” Jane asked. She looked at Frederick for confirmation. He shrugged.
“They’re going to have problems at that speed and angle,” Sanjay stated.
The tension in the control room rose. Olivia perched above Frederick’s shoulder watching the radar screen intensely. Frederick read some measurements aloud. Neither Jane nor Olivia said a word. He began a countdown to landing. Each number he uttered felt like a slap to Jane. The agony of uncertainty and the many lives that hung in the balance plagued her. That familiar twist in her stomach pulled her down.
“I’ve lost visuals,” Sanjay announced. Despite the tension of the moment, he sounded nonchalant.
“What happened?” Jane asked.
“The ship descended a little north of here. It disappeared behind the hills.”
“Did it land safely?” Olivia asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t see it. There’s no smoke or anything.”
“We have to get out to it. How far away is it?” Jane asked.
“It doesn’t look far. I can take the rover out,” Sanjay replied.
“Wait, take Frederick with you,” Jane ordered.
“Okay.” Sanjay sounded aggravated.
“Get out there and report back as soon as possible,” Jane ordered looking at Frederick.
Jane tried again to reach the Phoenix, but she received no response. Olivia watched her intently with a worried expression on her face.
“Maybe their radio was knocked out in the landing,” Olivia suggested.
Jane ignored her and tried again. Finally, she gave up and sat back in her chair anticipating a report from Frederick and Sanjay. The minutes trickled by as she waited with her co-pilot.