Project Initium

Noelle Mertz-Bruce, Print

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Part I.

 

My grandmother had always been a very traditional woman.

She was horrible.

I never had a choice of the type of clothing, only in the color of the dress. My manners were held to her highest standards and if they were found to be anything less than perfect, I would be punished. Toys in my home were scarce, as she insisted that I focus on making myself into the perfect young woman. Everything was about becoming desirable for a good man to wed in the future. Anything “unrefined” that I brought into our house was rejected without hesitation. As far as she was concerned, my only interests should be how to cook, clean, have perfect penmanship, have good manners, and know how to sit up straight and look pretty.

To her, I had to be a lady.

With all that in mind, it shouldn’t be any shock that my grandmother was absolutely horrified the first time I came home from school with a science project. I had to build one of those stupid model volcanoes that spewed colored vinegar and baking soda. She tried to push me to let my father do it for me, that it was a man’s work and a girl shouldn’t soil her clothes like that. But it wasn’t enough to deter me. With a plastic apron over my lavender skirt and a toothy grin on my face, I built that volcano, all while grandma sat in the corner muttering to herself as she knit. The volcano erupted and my eyes sparkled. I was hooked, regardless of how hard my grandmother resisted it.

It only escalated from there.

As I grew older, my love for the sciences grew stronger. Before I knew it, I hit high school and the world of science opened up to me even further. I ditched the skirts and dresses for a more comfortable and lab-safe style, much to grandma’s dismay. My backpack began to increase in size by the year, making space for more and more textbooks. AP Calculus, CHS Chemistry, Environmental Science, Astronomy, and every advanced level of Physics that my school had to offer. I aced all of them and dried up the pool of science classes to choose from for my senior year. In that time lacking in the courses I loved, I filled the void with an internship after school at the planetarium two towns over. The drive every day was tough, and I sure as hell wasn’t getting paid for it, but it was worth it.

That’s how I ended up here.

The sudden whir of the machinery and sway of the ship woke me from my slumber.

 

****

 

Part II.

 

Living on this ship for months on end has been draining. Six and a half months, to be exact. Unfortunately, the science fiction idea of “hyper sleep” has yet to come to fruition. So, we have to deal with the journey head-on. With about a week or two left to go, I find my thoughts swirling with distant memories of my long dead grandmother. I have no idea why. She’s the one that told me I was an embarrassment to the women of our family. She’s the one who refused to come to my graduation ceremony. She’s the one who told me I’d never make it where I wanted to go. She’s the one who talked down on my dreams up until the day she died, continuing to spout that crap even on her deathbed. I hated that woman. Yet here she is, sitting on my shoulder as I’m drifting through the very space she told me I’d never reach. How painfully ironic.

I get dressed and check on the others. Everyone is getting ready for the landing. Despite having over a week until touchdown, the preparations have to begin now. It’s kind of a big deal being the first people to set foot on Mars. Or at least that’s what we plan to be, if everything goes smoothly. Nobody has ever done this before so we really don’t know what’s in store for us. Everyone is a bundle of nerves and excitement. This is a huge step for humanity and we’re grateful to be the ones taking it. Especially me. It’s been a lot of sacrifices and difficult training, and then to be named captain of Project Initium? It’s an amazing feeling. Almost makes me want to immediately go back to Earth afterwards just to invent a time machine and tell grandma she was wrong. I do wonder why she keeps coming up in my mind though. Of all the people to be thinking of, why is it the one person that did everything in her power to discourage me? Is it because I have this subconscious desire to rub my accomplishments in her face? That can’t be it. I’ve never been that kind of person, and I’d never want to see her face again for any reason, even if it would be to finally tell her off. I can’t shake the feeling that these memories are trying to tell me something important. Superstition, I suppose you could call it.

If there’s one thing that has stuck with me from childhood, it’s been my family’s stories and superstitions.

As the day comes to an end, I think about those times when I was just a girl. My grandmother was a harsh old hag but she wasn’t entirely bad. She used to take me on her lap in the evenings and tell me all sorts of stories. They would be tales of love and of bad omens, stories about magical fruits or the dangers of sweeping the house after the sun goes down. The most common stories and superstitions were about death. You would think they’d be scary ghost stories when you hear the words “superstition” and “death” in the same sentence, but I always found them fascinating. These stories are the reason I’ve always been curious about danger and the idea of death, never afraid of it. Sometimes I think this might be the reason I wasn’t scared to go on this mission. So in some ways, I guess grandma helped me out a little.

 

****

 

Part III.

 

Touchdown is finally happening today. After remembering those superstitions, my mind eased off the thought of my grandmother for a while. But with the landing only hours away, the stories have forced their way back into my head.

Houston talks to us for the first time in what feels like forever. There’s only so much they can tell us from so far away. That’s why we’ve been taught to be mostly self-sufficient while we’re out here. Of course that doesn’t mean they haven’t been watching us this whole time.

We’re told that there’s a minor problem with the landing gear. The tripod legs are a little stuck since they’ve been collecting space dust for so long, and forcing them out when we land could cause damage. I told them that this style of landing gear was a bad idea but it doesn’t matter much now. Someone needs to override the release from the outside to reset it. Since it needs to be done before we get too close to entering the Mars atmosphere, I decide to go as soon as I can. Simple procedure. Nothing risky.

The spacewalk should be a short one. I check my tether one more time before I shut the hatch behind me. The reset lever is easy to access, only about 20 feet below the hatch opening. As I pull myself along the outside of the ship, the image of my grandmother appears in my mind again. Only this time, it’s in her casket at the funeral home. This was one of the few times I pitied her. She always hated graveyards, so naturally I felt a little sorry that she was going to be buried in one. She avoided them at all costs for as long as she lived, though I can never remember why. I think it had to do with one of her superstitions about death. Holding your breath when you pass a cemetery? Never entering a graveyard at night? Bad luck in pointing at a funeral procession? I can’t seem to remember which one it was.

I open the security panel and tug on the reset lever. The legs of the ship slowly release a few inches and then retract back into their neutral positions. Everything is back on track for the landing.

I pull myself back to the hatch opening and get inside, taking off my suit as quickly as I can manage. The other crew members notify me that everything is in working order and landing should be in about five hours.

Those five hours pass like years.

Finally, the time has come to make our mark on history.

We sit down for dinner before the landing. There are four of us in total, so of course not all of us can be the first human being on Mars. I suggest drawing straws for the honor but the others look at each other and shake their heads. That’s when they tell me they decided unanimously before we left that I should be the one to take the first steps on the red planet. I’m shocked and humbled. Tears well up in my eyes and I give every one of my colleagues—no, friends—a big hug. I can’t believe they’ve given this honor to me, that little girl from a small town and quiet family that fought for her way up in the world. I’m in disbelief that I’m the captain of Project Initium and I’m going to be the first human being to set foot on Mars. I prepare to pep talk my crew for the landing and thank them for their service with me when the ship starts rumbling and red lights start flashing. We’ve entered the Mars atmosphere.

We all take our seats, buckle up, and watch the rust colored planet come closer and closer.

 

****

 

Part IV.

The landing is a little rough, but not too bad. We hit the ground and wait for the dust to clear. Nobody wants to set foot on a planet and not be able to see it through debris. Everyone is on edge. This is history we’re about to be a part of and nobody wants to screw it up somehow, even though the chances of that are low. The red dust is settled back on the ground and we all look out at the surface of this strange new world. Pictures from the rover had always been available, but they were nothing compared to this. Home seems so far away at this moment.

I snap everyone out of our shared daze of wonder and tell them it’s time to go for a walk.

We suit up, all of us taking a bit longer than usual. Part of me believes it’s due to nerves causing hands to fumble. The other part of me believes we’re simply taking our time and savoring this event. Whichever one it happens to be doesn’t matter anymore as the first hatch seal releases with a hiss. We step into the chamber. After the first hatch is sealed behind us, the one leading to outside releases, this time with no sound. We’re all used to the lack of noise in outer space, but this time it’s unsettling. Every other time has been doing something we were used to, spacewalks for repairs or for fun. This time, we’re stepping into the silence of the unknown.

I go first down the ladder. Hesitating on the bottom step, I hang on for dear life and look back at the others.

With a nod, I turn and face the surface of Mars.

I let go of the ladder and take a slight jump.

As my gloved fingers slip away from the side of the ladder, I remember why my grandmother avoided cemeteries. She always told me that you should never step on a grave. As the story went, if someone steps on a final resting place, the descendants of that individual would feel a shiver up their spine and be cursed with a bad omen.

My feet hit the ground.

 

In that instant, my crew and I all feel a shiver

 

as well as everyone else back on Earth.

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