There are three things you should know about Cathy.
- She once thought she saw an alien.
- None of it was really her fault.
- She smells of stale butter.
Thing three might seem an unnecessary piece of information to have, but if you ever spend twenty months in a small space with someone then it’s an important thing to be aware of.
It had been six hours since the Sannleika capsule completed its final maneuver and touched down vertically at Guiana Space Centre. Onboard had been the first three humans to set foot on Mars, who were now partially recovered and sitting in a large comfortable debriefing room. They had a bank of computer monitors, coffee, and four other humans for company. Of the four others, a tall fat man named Jurgen had brought the best frown to his face. His three companions divided their time between nodding in agreement and displaying nonverbal contempt.
When Jurgen spoke, it was with a slow condescending tone.
‘A sustained large scale cold plasma discharge, the base seems to have acted as a type of lightning rod for it’
Cathy was looking out the window. After months of hard steel walls and barren red dust she was finding it impossible not to stare. A section of the jungle had been cleared and landscaped to make room for the launch pad and three other buildings. Everything was carefully designed to fit in with the tropical beauty surrounding the centre.
Jurgen watched the crew, a brief scowl of heightened irritation flashed as he registered that Cathy wasn’t listening.
‘We had to switch off your access to the sensors, and you’ll shortly see why’
He nodded to one of his colleagues, the lights dimmed, and the three astronauts were shown imagery from Mars. The pictures played for several minutes. Then Jurgen instructed his colleague to press pause.
‘Looks pretty scary huh?’
Jurgen tried to eyeball the crew for reaction. They looked unperturbed, especially Cathy. He continued his explanation.
‘It’s our instinct to assign form to these things. Which is why we remotely cut your access to the sensors. Those images terrified us when we first saw them, and we were one hundred and forty four million kilometers away.’
He looked again at Cathy, frowned, and continued talking.
‘Of course, it’s entirely benign, and purely coincidental that the shape it created resembles the stuff of nightmares.’
An awkward silence filled the room. Jurgens colleagues did their best to fill it with nods of disdain. They were met with blank resignation.
Jurgen fixed his gaze on Cathy.
‘I suppose we were fortunate none of you happened to see it at the time, it’s impossible to tell how any human would’ve reacted to something like that’.
Behind him was a frozen image of a slug towering over the Martian research base. In the place where it’s mouth should have been was an array of jagged protrusions. They glowed blue, and appeared to be about to slice open the building. Jurgen cleared his throat.
‘Now Catherine, maybe you can tell us more about this telepathic robot’
Sixty two Martian sol’s after it had landed, the Sannleika capsule left the surface and connected with it’s orbiter. The orbiter then began maneuvering to correct it’s trajectory for the hastily started return journey. Inside, the crew finished a series of health checks.
‘Humanity’s furthest expedition is on it’s way home’
‘That’s it, that’s what you wrote?’
Barney Collery was floating inside the control module. Catherine McGlinchey was gripping a handrail at the end of the connecting passage that joined the module to the crew quarters/ research area. Trevor Staunton was sitting in front of the communications console, having just transmitted a message to mission control. Barney was not happy with it’s content.
‘But you know it’s a lie’
‘It’s not a lie, it just doesn’t give the full picture’
‘It doesn’t give any picture, did ya not think to mention the launch’
‘I updated them on that earlier, I told them it was a success’
‘What? A success …we launched in fear of our lives, and every camera and sensor in the station stopped working. You’ve got a very special definition of success’
‘I didn’t lie, and I don’t like you saying I did’
‘Bollox Trevor, what happens when we land, huh, erm, sorry folks, when we said it was a success we forgot to qualify that by mentioning we lost all the research, oh and that was just because we thought we were about to be eaten by a giant slug. Huh, I’m sure they’d understand. Sure most people wouldn’t want to be bothered with details like that.’
‘I told them it was a success, and it was a success, and I’m the captain’
‘Right so captain, so what happened to the rare egg that used to be the word success?, did some invisible cosmic goblin stick a pin in it and suck the yolk of meaning out. Why didn’t you use some other word, huh, could you not have said the launch was a Comfiggle? …at least then if they asked what we meant by a Comfiggle we coulda said we’ll tell ye when we get back’
‘Don’t be smart’
‘those must be the words you live by Trevor’
‘I just gave them as much information as they needed to get, isn’t that right Catherine’
Cathy had been only half listening. The other half of her attention was peering past Barney and out of the sole window on the ship. The red glow of one final Martian sunrise couloured the view. Soon it would fade, and with it all trace of whatever it was that they had witnessed.
‘I, uh, I’m not happy about lying. I know it looks bad, and I know we have no evidence, but it doesn’t seem right to lie about it. We’re the first humans to live on another planet, I’ve always thought that above all else we owe it to everyone to be honest about what we experienced.’
‘Well, I’m the captain, I write the reports, and I’m telling ye we say nothing. How do ya think it’ll look if we say we ended the mission early because we thought an enormous slug was about to eat us, but somehow we didn’t manage to get so much as a photo?’
‘I realize it’ll sound crazy, but I don’t agree with what you’re doing’
‘Well, that’s how it is, and the two of ye’ve got another eight months to come round to my way of thinking’
Every so often one of the Sanneleika’s eight thrusters fired a course correction. Inside the capsule it’s crew were notified of this by an automated chime. It was early in the journey, and already these chimes had faded from conscious recognition.
The cruise phase of the voyage began when they left Mars orbit, and would continue until they entered Earth’s atmosphere. It was a remarkably busy time for the crew. Included into a daily battery of system checks were a long list of scientific experiments. In theory the bulk of these could be completed in silence, however theory was not being followed. Barney ceaselessly talked about the events leading up to the launch. Trevor, on the other hand, never mentioned them. Except to remind Barney that technically nothing happened.
Barney was not convinced.
‘He’s in there again Cathy’, he advised.
They were both monitoring the development of crops in the research area. Trevor had floated out the connecting passage and closed the hatch to the control module. Five minutes had passed since Cathy finished her daily podcast. She had asked to be left in peace to do her work. Five minutes was all she got.
‘Look, he’s closed the hatch again’
Cathy didn’t reply. Barney was not pointing out anything she could not know. They were in a cramped space and everything was visible. Except what Trevor wrote in his updates to Earth, which irritated Barney.
‘What’s he writing in there? why would that fella go and shut the hatch? Unless he’s got something to hide’
He had asked these questions repeatedly. Whenever Trevor closed the hatch they would start. It was driving Cathy mad.
‘Let it go Barney, who cares what he’s writing, he’s no Joyce, whatever it is will be a disappointment if ya ever find out’
‘It’s a narrative blaming us for the premature launch is what it is. Why d’ya think he insisted we say nothing about what happened, huh? So he can lay the blame squarely on our shoulders’
Cathy bit her lip. She had been dragged into speculating about the updates again. It was becoming a routine.
‘I doubt it’
‘You doubt that he wants to avoid being made responsible for one of the biggest fuck ups in human history, because?, because why?, come on Cath, ya know he’s a prick’
Barney got no reply. Cathy knew that it was unlikely Trevor was creating himself an eight month alibi for what happened. But, as the days passed, the relentless questions were beginning to erode her certainty. She turned her mind back to the task at hand. The daily tasks were something she could measure, quantify and classify. It put meaning on the day. It gave her something to talk about on the podcast, and it stopped her thinking about what they had seen on the planet.
Trevor opened the hatch and floated back in from the control module.
‘Wanker’, muttered Barney.
Cathy turned her gaze and thoughts up the connecting passage and out the control module window. The red planet was still clearly visible. What they had witnessed on it was probably the most important discovery in human history. A discovery masked by three inches of quartz glass, sixty million kilometers of space, and a lie. It just didn’t seem right.
The atmosphere on board the Sannleika was sour. The scrubbers worked to purify the air, but could do nothing to remove a bad feeling among the crew. The relentless work schedule meant life onboard had descended into one long mechanical routine.
Cathy blocked out the tension around her and began recording another podcast.
‘Hello again guys. We’ve been looking at plant growth this morning, and I’ve something really exciting to show you. But before I do I’d like to respond to a question that keeps coming up in the comments …lots of you have been asking how we avoid dry skin in the recycled air.’
Cathy winked, and beamed a smile. The window behind her opened up a unique view of the universe. Opposite the window, and out of view of the camera, Barney was waving furiously. Cathy ignored him.
‘…I know I’m not supposed to do this, but I want to pass on thanks to the folks in Connacht Creameries, not only does this stuff taste good, but it’s been keeping us looking good too’
She flashed a gold foil wrapped block before the camera. Barney wrote something on a small portable whiteboard and held it up. ‘I need to talk to you’, the message read. Cathy continued with the podcast, which mostly consisted of reading messages that had been transmitted from wellwishers back on Earth. Barney eventually gave up and left the control module.
It was several minutes later before he got to talk. Free time was rare on the journey, and Cathy did not appreciate being interrupted. The message was almost certainly something to do with the launch, and she was in no hurry to find what it was.
They were both in the research area. Trevor had once again floated out the connecting passage and closed the hatch to the control module. This time Barney did not comment on the closing of the hatch, or what message Trevor would send to mission control.
‘I know how we can prove the existence of the alien’
Cathy had not expected the statement, and immediately stopped what she was doing.
‘The external camera on the orbiter’
‘What about it?’
‘It records directly to the mission log, whatever shut down the sensors on the planet shouldn’t have affected it’
‘Good man Barney, you’re right’
‘I know I am, and somewhere in the log for day 218 will be a satellite record of alien contact’
‘You’re right, we should let Trevor know, he’ll have access to the images’
‘Ah Cath, why the fuck do ya think I waited till he was out of earshot, chances are that if he thought of it the record’s already been deleted’
Barney kept his eyes on the closed hatch to the control module.
‘That fella’s just spent the last six months denying anything happened, what’s he gonna say to mission control if evidence of life on the planet turns up …oh yeah, sorry lads, I forgot all about that’
‘So what should we do?’
‘We do nothing for now, I’ve got a plan’.
The Sanneleika reached a point in the journey where almost live communication with Earth was possible. It made for an even busier time onboard. The majority of the work was taking place in the control room.
When Trevor moved, he moved quickly. Faster than he had in eight months. It put him in a corner of the research area and staring behind an open panel on the wall/ceiling.
‘But there’s nothing wrong with the scrubber’
His brow furrowed. He read the readout again. Behind him Barney’s feet floated through the open hatch to the control module. Trevor closed the panel.
‘From now on leave the alarms to the monitoring system, Jesus I thought we were in trouble there’
He gripped a handrail to face Cathy.
‘Sorry, it was making a funny noise and I just panicked’
‘You didn’t spend years training to panic Catherine, if something is wrong, you fix it, okay?’
Cathy glanced at the control module before replying.
‘Yes, erm, whatever you say’
Trevor turned back to the control module. Cathy moved to distract him, but it was too late.
‘What the hell are you at Barney?’
Barney didn’t respond, his attention was on the communication console. Trevor launched himself towards the console. Cathy followed.
‘Did you know you caused us to abandon the research station Cathy?’
Barney kept his eyes on text displayed on the console screen.
‘I’d say it’s news to you, it was news to me that I was your accomplice, good job Trevor was able to set mission control straight on what happened, eh Trevor?’
Trevor was almost at the console.
‘Sign out of that now, you’ve no business reading it’
‘Sure, just as soon as I see the log for day 218’
‘Some of those logs became corrupt Barney, and can’t be accessed. It, uh, must’ve happened when we lost the surface sensors’
Barney looked at Cathy as he spoke.
‘That’s a very specific type of error Trevor. One that deletes the only entry containing evidence of what happened. One that made a record of you accessing and deleting it. It’s almost as probable as alien life’
Trevor reached for the console. He flicked a switch and the text display disappeared.
‘If you can’t prove something happened, it didn’t happen. Both of you should know that by now.’
Cathy shook with anger.
‘First you got us to lie about what happened before the launch, then you lied to mission control about us, and now you’ve just lied to us about the satellite footage …what kind of man are you Trevor?’
‘I’m a liar’
Barney had decided words would not fit the situation, and swung a wide right hand punch at Trevor. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for Trevor, zero gravity doesn’t lend itself to fistfighting. Barney floated sideways and his arm passed slowly in front of it’s target. Trevor was inspired to respond, with equal success.
‘Barney said you’d do something like this months ago, and I’ve been trying to ignore it since, but ya know something Trevor, two can play at that game …did ya forget that I talk to millions of people every day?
Trevor and Barney were now fully engaged in what looked like an angry freestyle dance. Trevor didn’t respond to Cathy’s question. She floated towards the communication console.
‘Fuck you Trevor, you didn’t just undermine your crew, you took away the credibility of the whole mission …but ya know what, two can play at that game, how credible woul the testimony of a captain who spends his days talking to an invisible robot be?, huh?, well guess what, you’re gonna find out’.’
Trevor still didn’t respond, he was watching Barney’s right foot make a slow and silent approach to his face.
Cathy stopped in front of the window, switched on the communication console, and began what would become the most popular update of her podcast.
‘Hi guys, as you know we will shortly be entering the Earth’s atmosphere’.
The remonstration was now in full swing. It was mostly out of view of the camera, but every so often a foot, arm, or elbow drifted into the shot. The sound of bickering was within range of the microphone.
‘There’s something I’ve been wanting to share with you folks, but I wanted to wait until we were close to the journey’s end, for reasons you’ll shortly understand’.
‘Get your smelly foot out of my face’
‘I’ll stick my foot wherever I want’
‘While I’ve been updating you with the scientific progress we’ve achieved over the last few months both myself and mission specialist Collery have been dealing with a potentially life threatening crisis onboard’
‘I’m the commander, and I’m ordering you to your quarters’
‘What the fuck?, ya want me to stand in the corner?’
‘For several months now our commander has been talking to an invisible robot. It became clear to myself and mission specialist Collery that he could no longer be relied on for rational thought’
Barney’s splayed and disgruntled body floated between Cathy and the camera.
‘He believes the robot has been telepathically stealing his thoughts. I’m making this information public as I think it is important for you to know the effect interplanetary travel can have on people’
Barney was now attempting to front crawl towards Trevor. His arms flailed. Trevor was trying to reach the communication console.
‘Turn that off now Catherine, that’s an order’
Cathy swung the camera full circle. The passage connecting the crew quarters appeared first. It was followed by a red faced and upside down Tevor. Barney’s arms came next, and were now flailing towards a supply locker. When the camera stopped a blue sphere was visible from out of the window. They were nearly home. A block of butter drifted by.
‘There ya go Trev, why don’t ya smear yourself in the butter …ya might slide into something close to humanity’
‘I’ll leave you shortly guys as we need to position the orbiter for reentry. I’ve enjoyed sharing my time on the mission with you. The next time I speak to you will hopefully be from the surface of the beautiful blue dot that we all call home.’
Cathy ended the podcast. Minutes later the remonstration ebbed to silence. Mostly because everyone was tired. Slightly because Trevor would shortly need to take over the computer to maneuver them towards the landing pad, and it was probably better if he was calm doing it.
The crew strapped themselves in. They recited a series of questions and answers, and advised mission control of this. The Sanneleika deployed its heat shield and began the descent onto the planet surface. Once inside the atmosphere two boosters slowed it’s return to the launch site. And then it was back.
There was a brief pause while the ground crew worked to open the capsule.
‘Sorry Catherine …and Barney. I don’t mind explaining. What’ll we say happened?’
Trevor got no reply. There was no point. Nobody would believe any of them ever again.
Which is a pity, as Cathy really does like butter.