For Chuck Lancaster, Captain of the GoldStarr Mining Company rocketship Isis, dinnertime in space was a dismal prospect, at best.
Oh, sure, food cubes made one’s belly feel full and provided all the necessary vitamins and nutrients a body needed for a lengthy outer space voyage, but every time he took a bite out of one, he found himself pining for the comforts of home that most Earthbound folks took for granted: a hot meal, a hot bath, his pipe, slippers and evening newspaper. Space travel was like being in the military, only far less luxurious.
And I should know, he thought. I’ve experienced both.
Still, he wasn’t one to complain, especially not in front of his crew. To do so would make him appear soft, and he simply couldn’t have that.
“I can’t wait to get back to Earth and chow down on a big greasy hamburger and wash it down with a chocolate malt,” said Rex Masterson, one of the youngest recruits Captain Lancaster had crossed paths with in awhile.
The kid had that hunger in his eyes, though. Drive. Some people twice his age didn’t have it, and that’s how Lancaster always knew right off the bat that they weren’t going to be able to hack it. He’d seen the biggest, burliest roughnecks one could imagine curled up in fetal positions and crying their eyes out less than three days into a mission. It happened enough times that corporate finally started giving him a say on crew selection, and he knew this Rex kid could go the distance, despite his age and scrawny appearance. And he had good reason to make it back alive: he had a girl at home. You always wanted somebody on your team with something to lose.
“I don’t wanna hear it, Masterson. When I was your age we had to spend all day digging tunnels under Russian snowbanks just so we’d have a safe place to sleep at night. Only thing we had to eat were MREs, and if we ran outta them, it was rats, skunks, badgers…whatever we could find.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Joe Sullivan, a man whom Lancaster had taken on several missions in the past, “we done heard it all before, my grandpa was in World War Three hisself. Never heard o’ no skunks in Soviet Russia, though. Didn’t think they got up that way.”
Lancaster didn’t care for Sullivan one bit as a human being, but he was a competent crew member with a strong back, so he’d forced himself to overlook the man’s odious character flaws in favor of what was best for the mission. He was beginning to regret that decision. People like Sullivan had nothing to lose.
“Clam up, Sullivan. Where’s your manners at, anyway? Leave ’em back on Earth? You know, that’s the one thing you can bring with you anywhere and not have it take up any space at all. Manners.”
Sullivan sniffed his cube, made a face, shrugged, and then broke off a piece of it and popped it into his mouth.
“What’re you gonna do? Fire me? This ain’t no dock job. You’re stuck with me for six whole months, Captain. Not like you can just eject me out into space.”
Lancaster raised an eyebrow. “You sure about that?”
“Well, maybe since we are all stuck out here together for such a long time, we oughta make the best of it,” Masterson interjected. “Y’know, try to get along.”
Sullivan coughed out a hoarse laugh and clapped the young man on his shoulder. “I like you, kid.”
Lancaster, his eyes still fixed on Sullivan, nodded. “Well I suppose that’s one thing we have in common.”
The days went by slow and the nights even slower as the Isis burned through the cold depths of space on its way to the Red Planet.
New Year’s Eve of 1974 turned to New Year’s Day of 1975 without much fanfare on board their humble little rocket. No one could muster up the enthusiasm to celebrate. They’d simply split the bottle of champagne Lancaster had snuck on board against regulations three ways and gotten drunk and pensive. Sullivan complained that it wasn’t bourbon, but he drank it anyway.
On the day they arrived at their destination, Lancaster had never been more ready to set foot on solid ground.
He had never been to Mars. Nobody had ever been to Mars and returned to tell the tale.
However, those four-eyed, egghead scientists with their high-tech radio telescopes had GoldStarr execs convinced that the mother lode of all mother lodes was located in Olympus Mons, and they were going to keep sending ship after ship until they got their hands on that gold. A regular Fort Knox, he’d heard. Risk was only one reason why the job was volunteer-only and paid so handsomely (ten percent of the total haul). The other reason was that there would be so much cheese to go around that even those stingy rats at the top of the food chain could afford to be more generous than they usually were.
With his take, Lancaster planned to retire from the space mining racket once and for all, and finally settle down with his wife in a nice house in the country someplace, do some gardening. Maybe get a dog. He had to make this mission a success. The stakes were everything, and the odds were stacked against him, but he was confident that he would triumph. He had to be.
“We’re in visual range of Mars, boys,” he called to the two sleeping men behind him. “Look alive!”
Sullivan didn’t get up. Within seconds, though, Masterson was next to him in the cockpit, his nose pressed to the glass of one of the portholes.
“Wow,” he said. “Look at it.”
Lancaster smiled. “Somethin’ innit?”
“It sure is,” the young man breathed. “It doesn’t look anything like it does in all those ol’ comic books I used to read when I was a kid.”
“Comic books!” Shouted Sullivan from the back, his morning cigarette dangling from his lips. “Boy you sure do like to pick ’em off the tree green, don’t ya Cap’n?”
“Quit playing around and suit up,” said Lancaster. “We land in ten minutes.”
Sullivan snorted, and little puffs of smoke came out of his nostrils. “Aye aye,” he said with a mock salute.
Mars more than lived up to its well-known designation as “the Red Planet.” It was both beautiful and terrifying, like the eye of a hungry jungle predator.
What was down there on that strange planet, wondered Lancaster, that was so dangerous that no who’d dared to find out had ever lived to tell the tale?
Only one way to find out.
“Sullivan! I need an experienced hand on the landing thrusters. Get up here. Masterson, take a seat and stay outta the way.”
“Yeah,” said Sullivan, elbowing his way into the cramped cockpit full of switches, buttons and blinking lights, “Stay outta the way. This is grownup business.”
“Shut up,” said Lancaster, never taking his eyes off the growing red sphere that hung motionless amongst the twinkling sea of stars.
They were soon close enough to see craters, mountains, and remnants of ancient Martian cities. At no point, even after breaking the atmosphere and gliding across the swirling dust clouds of the red Martian sky did they see any crashed Earth ships, or for that matter any evidence that Earthmen had ever been there at all.
With Sullivan’s admittedly skilled assistance, he guided the craft to the surface and touched down without incident.
Lancaster allowed his men a few moments of celebration before he began issuing commands.
“Alright, gold detectors, laser rifles and pistols, and canteens. That’s all we’re taking right now. We’re just going to take a look around before we start getting ahead of ourselves and setting up equipment.”
Within a half hour they were descending the ladder on the side of the rocket, the cold Martian winds whistling between the oxygen hoses of their suits.
There existed a certain solemnity between the three men as they stood for the first time with their feet touching Martian soil. They were all aware of the significance of what they were doing, and for that moment they ceased all juvenile banter and remained respectfully silent.
“Alright let’s go,” said Lancaster. “I want to check out that structure over there.”
He pointed in the direction of a metallic platform jutting out of the side of a nearby mountain. Rising from it were great shining towers that reached for the sky like flowers thirsting for the sun’s rays.
As they drew closer to it, their boots crunching the rocky red dust beneath them, Masterson let out a gasp.
“What is it, Captain?”
“Well,” said Lancaster, his voice muffled by the glass faceplate of his helmet, “if I had to guess, I’d say it’s some sort of mining facility. If so, we’re in the right place.”
“I don’t like it,” said Sullivan. Too easy. Something happened to them guys that came here before us, and it started out just like this.”
“For once I find myself in agreement with you, Sullivan,” said Lancaster. “That’s why we’re armed to the teeth and proceeding with caution. You see anything move, anything at all, blast it. I don’t care if it looks like a furry little bunny rabit. Shoot it.”
“My pa and I go rabbit hunting all the time,” said Masterson.
The other two men looked at each other, then back at Masterson. They both stared at him for a moment.
“Come on,” said Lancaster, trudging forward, his rifle slung over his shoulder.
“…rabbit huntin’ with muh paw,” mumbled Sullivan, snickering.
“Aw, shut your yap,” said Masterson.
Sullivan grinned. “There ya go, kid. Stick up for yourself. We’ll toughen you up yet.”
“Don’t do me any favors,” said Masterson.
Sullivan laughed. “Hey, you learn quick.”
The walked amongst the towers, which dwarfed them as if they were but tiny ants in a city built for giants. There were no signs of life, and no signs that there had been any life there for a significant amount of time.
“That cave over there,” said Lancaster, pointing. “That’s got to be the mine entrance. Keep your eyes peeled and follow me.”
Follow them they did, to the cave and inside of it. It was pitch black inside, so they activated the spotlights on their suits. There were lots of dusty old machines lying about, each with a complex-looking array of dials and knobs and symbols that none of them recognized. None appeared operational.
“There,” said Lancaster, his spotlight shining on the sand-blasted skeletal remains of what appeared to be a human being.”
“Poor devil,” said Sullivan.
They kept walking until they reached a wide open clearing, and everyone stopped talking and stood staring dumbstruck at what lay before them.
Everywhere a spotlight shined, it reflected gold. The walls, the rocks, the stalagmites, the stalactites, everything. It was all shimmering with big chunks of pure gold.
“Why, there’s enough right out in the open to load ten ships like ours with,” said Masterson.
“Yes,” said Lancaster. “Yes, there is. Question is, why is it still here? Why didn’t that man we found back there take it? What killed him?”
“I suggest we don’t wait around to find out,” said Sullivan. “Have a look at this.”
Two more skeletons, each scattered across the cave floor in multiple pieces.
“Agreed,” said Lancaster. “Let’s go back for the equipment we’ll need to get it out of here. Some laser chisels, the portable separator, and the antigravity sled should be enough.”
They departed, and returned within the hour, equipment in tow.
“What’re you gonna do with your share of all this, kid?” Lancaster asked Masterson.
“I’m gonna buy my girl an engagement ring with a diamond the size of her head.”
Lancaster laughed. “No heavier than that ball and chain around your ankle, I guess.”
They both laughed.
“While I hate spoiling y’all’s jovial mood, I’m afraid it’s time to say goodbye.”
Lancaster and Masterson turned around. Sullivan had his pistol trained on them.
“Sullivan! Put that down,” Lancaster ordered. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Why, taking your shares of the gold for myself, of course,” he said. “Oh, sure, GMC will have questions, but I’ll tell them we were attacked by Martians and that I was the only one who was able to escape with my life. I’ll be a hero, a pioneer. Think of the headlines: The first man to return from Mars!”
“Why you–” Masterson lunged towards him, and Sullivan squeezed the pistol’s trigger. A red-hot laser beam sizzled through the space between them and hit the younger man square in the chest, killing him instantly.
“You rat!” Cried Lancaster, running towards Sullivan, who fired his weapon above his head.
Lancaster stopped and held up his hands. “You’ll never get away with this. I knew I never should’ve trusted you with a mission like this. You’re just the type to be blinded by greed. A lifetime loser, that’s what you are. A class–A jerk.”
The ceiling of the cave began to rumble, and Sullivan looked up just in time to see the big gold nugget that was to strike him in the head and knock him to the ground.
Lancaster drew his own pistol and rushed over to the man, who was unconscious and gushing blood from an ugly wound on his temple. He checked his pulse. Alive, but not for long. He stood up and re-holstered his pistol. “I’m not wasting any time or risking my skin to save the likes of you,” he spat, with overt contempt in his voice. “Lie there and die. It’s what you deserve.”
Lancaster went to work, severing chunks of rock from the cave wall with his laser chisel and running them through the portable separator. He placed the gold ejected from it onto the anti-gravity sled with which he made eight trips back and forth between the mine and the ship.
He knew the ship was filled to capacity, but that calculation, he realized, was outdated, as it accounted for the weight of three men on the ship. He tried to remember their respective weights from the reports he’d read back on Earth. Masterson, God rest his soul, was 147. He recalled that immediately. Sullivan… Sullivan was… 194? Yeah, that sounded right, the more he thought about it.
He added 341 pounds to the sled and turned to leave, but not before going back and kicking Sullivan’s lifeless corpse in the ribs. “See you in Hell,” he said, standing over the dead man with a sneer of contempt on his face.
With the ship fully loaded, he prepared for takeoff, and was soon soaring high above the red Martian clouds.
He had just penetrated the exosphere when a red light on his console began blinking frantically.
“No,” he said, his heart racing. “No! You can do it, Isis old girl, you can do it!”
Isis put up a valiant struggle against the extra weight in gold that was dragging her down, but in the end she just wasn’t strong enough, and plummeted downward, back down towards the bodies of those two dead men Lancaster had left behind.
He closed his eyes and prayed. It was all over within seconds.
The charred, twisted wreckage of the Isis lay smoldering long after the flames died out.
After a time, two tall, lanky figures in space suits lumbered across the red sands of Mars and stood before it, speaking to each other in a language comprised of hums, whistles and clicks.
“They will never learn,” one of them said.
“Indeed,” replied the other. “They are their own worst enemy. Perhaps someday when they discover this truth for themselves, they will also let go of that trait which has plagued them since their inception.”
The other nodded. “Greed. Above all else, they seek the substance we use to power our underground cities, that which we need to live in this hostile climate, so that they might use it as currency to purchase luxuries. There is even a proverb in one of their ancient religious texts. It says ‘The love of money is the root of all evil.‘ And yet they do not heed their own words.”
“Look around you, Zorb,” replied the other. “We were once like them. We built great cities and coveted such trivialities as wealth and power, too, until we nearly destroyed ourselves and rendered the surface of our planet uninhabitable. We learned too late. I only hope they fare better than us.”
I lifted all the illustrations in the text from this book, with some sight alterations to fit my story. I haven’t read the story they came from, but the images, all except for the one of the towers, which is of unknown origin, are by Louis S Glanzman and from what I understand are in the public domain. The cover was done using this site, which is a lot of fun and actually inspired me to hammer out this story.