Chapter twenty of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
The media didn’t change its feelings about the PISA Mars mission until Bransen labs sent a monkey to Mars and back—alive. Now they could adjust the spin of their stories into an animal-rights arena, where clicks and visits sadly outnumbered the previous spin of children in danger. It didn’t matter that Bransen treated the first Earthling on Mars like a hero—and better than most zoos—because the question of the animal having a choice about the risks involved was still there. But even then, the interest didn’t start to peak until NASA admitted that PISA appeared to have beaten them at their own game. The naysayers no longer had a leg to stand on, and the spin started to right itself to what Bransen thought was the real issue at hand: A creature from Earth had finally visited another planet. If the Moon had been the bronze medal, then this was the silver, and the gold—visiting another planet in another solar system—was finally imaginable, with PISA pulling ahead.
Bransen shielded the team from most all media inquiries, so they could focus their minds on bigger and better pods. He took almost every interview and remained suitably vague on the intricacies of Circadia X, especially the secret ingredient of psilocybin. That particular detail would have certainly knocked the media back into a dangerous wobble. It not only involved a highly regulated drug, claimed by some to have a deeply religious application, but the necessity of it had been proved by sending a dog marked for death at the local pound on a round trip without the pool of psilocybin. Not even the kids knew about that unfortunately necessary experiment: They would have fallen in love with the aging golden retriever who still found enough energy to lavish licks and tail wags on anyone who came near, and they would have been horrified by the angry, confused shell of a dog that had returned and had to be put down.
Mouse had cried when he and Luci buried the animal.
Then Mouse proudly stepped into the largest pod he and John had assembled, locked and sealed his spacesuit and seat belts, gave the team a thumbs up, and smiled nervously. He had volunteered to go because, as he put it, “I have nothing to lose,” a comment which earned him a stern and slightly miffed look from Luci.
“Well, maybe my mind,” he admitted, and gave her a wink.
She stepped forward and knocked politely on the window, holding herself as she tried to smile bravely.
“Just kidding,” he said. “I already lost that.”
“How are the LETs?” Howard asked, his voice clear in Mouse’s headset.
“Right where they should be,” Mouse replied, tapping the console in front of him.
The LETs—laser-emitting targets—had been sent up ahead of Mouse to ensure they could lock Circadia X onto Mouse’s position, and so Mouse could confirm that he was being hurdled to the designated spot.
Not that he could have done anything to correct his course if that wasn’t the case.
The last piece of the puzzle that had to be in place before sending a man to Mars had been a RadialShade Communication Device, developed by Carlos and Howard for use in both the LETs (which emitted more than just light in the lasers) and the pods. The RS-CDs allowed for real-time communications with Earth, which was imperative to a successful mission, according to the PISA Mars Team—another of the intricacies Bransen refused to expound upon.
So the time came, and in front of a phalanx of media cameras, Circadia 1 was driven by Mouse into an eight-foot diameter beam of light and vanished instantly. The world would finally witness firsthand that the stories coming out of Bransen labs about travel at the speed of light and a manned mission to Mars were true.
Exactly fifteen seconds later, the RS-CD brought the crystal clear words of the first man on Mars to Earth: “Holy fucking hell.”
That was all the media needed—and the duly censored words were almost as quickly whipping around the planet—but NASA had required that Mouse bring back a lump of “verifiable Mars rock” to prove he had been there, and that it wasn’t all an elaborate trick to increase the value of Bransen’s stock, which is why they latched onto Mouse’s follow-up comment: “Christ, Howard, I don’t see any fucking rocks.”
At which point Howard slipped on his headset and began to speak privately with Mouse.
Unbeknownst to the media, Carlos Resua was absent from the farewell because he was already on the surface of Mars—at least in spirit. It was another of the intricacies the media didn’t know about, being an experiment to find out if a remote viewer really was where he said he was, if he could be physically seen by a non-remote viewer, and if the Mars the children saw in their dreams was inexplicably the same as the Mars we’d always known from satellites and rovers. After all, the LETs proved that the target was on Mars.
Within an hour of being the first man on another planet, Mouse was back at Bransen labs, a large chunk of Martian rock in a lunchbox-sized, airtight container, with a huge smile plastered across his face as he gazed at the media throng on the other side of the decontamination chamber.
In his interview, Mouse described the journey as “completely uneventful,” saying that once he’d driven over the event horizon of the beam (a phrase he’d learned from Howard), he saw a bright flash of white light, but by the time he’d raised his arm to cover his face, he was on the surface of Mars. Before Mouse could expound upon what he saw, Dr. Fobell interjected that it appeared Circadia X acted like a massive “conveyer belt of light,” and that they simply drove onto it and were whisked along to their destination at the speed of light.
The media opened fire:
“How did you stop at the other end without crashing?”
“Are you saying the laws of physics are wrong?”
“Why were you so… shocked by what you saw, Mr. Mouse?”
“Why did it take you so long to find a rock?”
“Do you have a headache?”
Mouse spent most of the interview downplaying his initial reactions (“It was another planet—I was blown away—I can’t begin to explain what it felt like”) and deferring to Dr. Fobell, who admitted he was unable to explain most of what had happened because they were in a “highly dynamic scientific setting that we aren’t currently equipped to explain in layman’s terms.”
“Imagine, if you will,” he finally summed up at the end of an admittedly frustrating press conference, “Johannes Kepler first trying to explain to the people of Linz, Austria in 1617 the laws of motion that we now find so basic. It was revolutionary, widely misunderstood, and required a population-wide shift in how we think about the world and our place in it. That is what you have just witnessed.
“All I can say,” Howard concluded humbly, “is that I have long believed that any equation based on a measure of time is inherently flawed, since time as a uniform measure does not exist, only our measure of time exists. If what we think we know about light is true, then light itself, being a particle, could not move at the speed of light, based on what we think we know about both.”
Dr. Angelo Moore hawked his usual wares and dismissed the whole thing as the “ravings of a bunch of crackpots and snake-oil salesmen,” peppering his talk with phrases like “absolutely impossible” and “flies in the face of” and “just can’t be true.” He also threw out the opinion that he suspected PISA had assembled “nothing more than a team of Antarctic explorers who retrieved a Martian meteor from the ice, and a team of actors and set designers who produced a play for the media.”
The scientific credentials of these “actors” he ignored, as he did the official certification from NASA that the federal government (at least) believed PISA had actually sent a man to Mars and that it was now “working closely with Bransen Labs to see how their technology may be of use to NASA, the world, and history.”
General Rauchbach and Admiral Thomas listened intently to everything and bickered often.