13 March 2009

"Martian Standard Time"

By Curtis C. Chen

Sean O'Reilly was the first human on Mars. He got to enjoy it for about three seconds.

"Well, here I am." Those were his last words, transmitted by radio to the whole world.

The three of us still inside the lander saw him stumble. We didn't know what was happening until he fell down, and his feet kicked up some dust. Then we saw the laser beams crisscrossing his body.

I wish I could have thought of something better to say than "Houston, we have a problem."

The sandstorm hit two minutes later, while Brian and I were wrapping Karen's pressure suit in reflective foil to protect her from the lasers. The storm lasted over forty hours. After it passed, Sean's body was nowhere in sight.

Once Mission Control gave us the all clear, Karen ventured outside in her silvered suit. She found three dead laser mounts bolted to nearby rocks. Two had been smashed open by storm debris, and the third had lost its power supply. She brought everything inside for a closer inspection.

"These are our lasers," Brian said. "The same kind we're carrying. This is exactly like our equipment."

"That's impossible," I said. "Our hardware is custom-made for each mission. Nobody else has this equipment."

Karen went into the cargo bay and brought back a large metal case. Inside were four cutting lasers identical to the three she'd recovered from outside. She picked up the least damaged Martian laser and compared it to each of the four in the case.

"What are you looking for?" Brian asked.

"Something else that's impossible," she said. "Serial numbers."

She put both lasers down and turned them for us to see. They had the same sixteen-digit serial numbers etched into their casings.

"This has to be a mistake," Brian said.

"We don't need to figure this out," I said. "We take pictures, send all the data back to Houston, and they can puzzle it out. We still have a mission to complete."

Brian squinted at the damaged laser. "There's something else etched on here. Looks like letters... 'seanor.'"

"What?" I said.

"That was Sean's username," Karen said.

"Below that there's a row of gibberish. And then a row of numbers." Brian frowned. "These are coordinates. Martian latitude and longitude."

"Let me see that." I examined the gibberish. It looked like a random sequence of letters, numbers, and punctuation.

"Son of a bitch," I said. "Sean could memorize anything. He always used randomly generated passwords. Said they were harder to guess, more secure."

I turned to a computer console, brought up a terminal window, and entered Sean's username, followed by the gibberish characters.

The computer logged me in and showed me Sean's private files.

"Son of a bitch," Karen said.

I held up the casing and pointed at the numbers. "What's at these coordinates?"

Brian switched the tabletop display to a map of Mars. "Unnamed crater, Arcadia Planitia. It's not on our list of sites to explore."

"It is now," I said. "Let's suit up and get out there."


Audio: "Martian Standard Time"


Music: Guitar 1 Stem from "The Future Soon" by Jonathan Coulton, licensed under Creative Commons.

Why do I have so much trouble doing female voices? I don't know. I'm working on it.

I played with some post-production audio effects in this week's mix: there's a bit of reverb on the intro/outro music, and I used an "old time radio" filter for the historic dialogue at the beginning of the story (which Firefly fans might recognize as the last words spoken in the last episode of the show).


You Can't Copyright a Title

As Cory Doctorow and the adult film industry both know. Q.E.D. (Here's a detailed explanation from Google Answers.)

The point being, I could have titled this week's story "Martian Time-Slip," but I don't feel that my work has the same mojo as the Philip K. Dick novel, so I decided it would be better to avoid comparisons and/or confusion.

Except I've just told you all about it, so I guess it's really pointless now.

I suspect that every science fiction writer has, at some point in his or her life, written a story about Mars. Some of those stories involve blimps. Some have even been turned into epic trilogies.