"WARNING: TEMPERATURES REACHING THERMAL RESISTANCE LIMIT"
Mihir Thakkar came to groggily, with the robotic male voice irritating his ears and red lights in his eyes. Everything was a blur of red when he tried to move his head. There was a huge continuous rumbling from nowhere and the alarm sounded continuously, straining his already sensitized senses, making him nauseous. He was sweating. Too much. The cabin was so hot, it was as if he was inside his oven back on Earth, being slowly cooked like a giant shawarma.
He resumed panicking as soon as his body regained the ability to. The 'Mumbai Local', as they'd very aptly agreed to name the spacecraft after the ancient Indian transport system, for it's tendency to make a whistling noise whenever switching the auxiliary and main engines back and forth, was hurtling towards the Earth at 72 km/second at 119 kms above it. It could burn up and be turned to space dust any moment now.
"NO!", thought Mihir, "I can't let that happen. The package MUST reach Earth no matter WHAT" was his 2nd thought, the first being "What the heck knocked me out?"
4 MONTHS AGO:
The weather was so perfect, It was almost a dream. Mihir hadn't thought that they'd be able to launch the Roman VII type manned capsule anytime soon. But here he was, weeping from joy, excitement and from leaving his loved ones behind, sitting in the cockpit of the "Mumbai Local". He always had a fascination with one of the most efficient and busiest train services in the world, which used to operate in Mumbai Technological City and the whole Indian Supercontinent centuries before he was even born, and this was all he had dreamt about for the last 9 years.
The date was 29th September, 2319, which would probably be displayed in history BookLEDs and classrooms around the world, and be talked about by space geeky students like him. For this was the first of many more to come endeavours of mankind, to literally seek the solutions of their problems from outer space.
Mankind's worst fear had finally come true. The Earth's atmosphere was too polluted for humans to breath safely for too long. It was normal to have some kind of breathing problem/infection by the time you were 12. People with TB lived till the age of 45-50, if you were careful enough. Babies were born with Tuberculosis bacteria in them, but the vaccine had long been developed. This did not mean that they were protected from it for life. People usually developed resistances by the time they were teens. It was for this reason that massive advanced air filters had been installed in malls, homes, streets, worship places, mountain tops and virtually as many places as possible. This had been possible due to the discovery of Wingardium, one of the rarest metals on Earth, after Vibranium.
Wingardium's density was so high that it did not allow anything other than air to pass between it's molecules. This is why it was literally used as a very effective air sieve. The filters used fans to pass polluted air towards the membrane of Wingardium. The dust particles and bacteria were decontaminated and vapourized immediately inside the machine from extreme temperatures. This had been the way of Mankind the last 150 years. But apparently, the only permanent entities on Earth were humans, because around 15 years ago, a joint survey by IASA (International Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the World Council had declared that Earth would run out of even Wingardium by 2330, judging from the reserves and the rate at which it was being mined.
It was at this time that IASA's latest rover in the legendary lineup of the 'Curiosity' series, the Curiosity Optimus, discovered huge Wingardium reserves on Mars. This was a break-through for scientists all around the world, and R&D had started immediately to facilitate the transportation of Wingardium to Earth. Getting to Mars was fairly common, but bringing back hundreds of tons of uber-dense material was another challenge. The last 10 years had been spent in developing anti-gravity containers, huge metal boxes which used reversed magnetic fields to make anything stored inside them lighter. A man weighing 100 kgs outside it would weigh around 45 kgs while inside this container. Science had advanced to unimaginable heights very quickly.
Mihir had a pilot background, so it wasn't uncommon for him to become an aeronautical scientist at IASA. He was chosen because of the unrelenting passion and determination he had put into this project for the last 9 years. But, he was actually driven by emotion.
It was 11 years ago, when he had lost his mom to a TB coughing fit. He had been unable to replace the Wingardium filters in her home due to a period of excessive shortage going on everywhere. Millions of people had died in a span of a month. She passed away in his arms, coughing blood and making the most bloodcurdling noises from her throat. He could do nothing but stare at her helplessly as her life slipped away. He had never felt so vulnerable and weak, and he had been resenting and blaming himself for her death since that day, the anger driving him into graduating as an Aeronautical Engineer from Punjab AeroScience and Nautics University, vowing to put a stop to this scarcity. He abandoned all his responsibilities, without even thinking of getting married or doing anything else but working on Mission "Last Straw", the grapevine name given to the mission by the people working on it.
Now just barely 35, he left behind his old father with his elder sister and his pet labrador, Festus (Latin for 'Happy'), whom he had raised since a cub, to finally fulfill what he considered his destiny-Bringing back several decades worth of Wingardium from Mars, and saving millions of lives, come what may!
"Perfect cloud cover and visibility. Wind speed 34 kmph. Temperature 24 degrees celsius. You are very lucky Mihir", squeaked the speaker on the console in front of him, or technically above him, since he was facing towards the sky in his seat in the 'Mumbai Local'.
"Ahaha what can I say. I've been praying", relayed Mihir in his cheerful voice but with a noticeable edge of nervousness in it. The mission commander, Ravi Jindal, who was speaking through the intercom, noticed it.
"Don't worry. Everything has been planned to the T. Nothing is left to chance. This mission is going to be successful. Nobody can change that",he assured.
"Yes", replied Mihir, determined. "This mission will be successful."
"Launch in T minus 30 seconds" said a ratty extremely robotic male voice which Mihir immediately disliked.
"If this voice is the only company I'm going to have for the next 3 months, shouldn't they make it more pleasant?" he mused.
The main engines ignited 6 seconds before lift off, shaking Mihir to the teeth, along with the whole capsule.
"Give Festus a pat from me will you?"
Mihir barely felt his tears as the Liftoff pressure knocked him out.
A glance above him, to the lowered handle of the observatory lens, gave him the answer. He HAD pointed it out to Shirish, one of the designers of the craft, about the possibility of this happening due to Mihir's more than average height.
"Arey Sir, don't worry. I have everything planned out perfectly. I have made many spaceships. You just see now what I do" had been the reply, accentuated by a heavy South Indian accent. Mihir liked the Dravidians. Nice people. Clearly this one was an exception.
Grumbling, sweating and cursing, his ears ringing with the noise everywhere, Mihir managed to stumble to his feet, dodging the pool of sweat he had created in a few seconds, among the continuous shaking of the whole ship. It was as if there were potholes in space. Only this time, it was something much worse. It was the worst speed bumper you'd want to encounter. It was the Earth's 480km thick atmosphere.
3 MONTHS AGO:
Mihir still couldn't quite shake off the liftoff experience. Agreed, he had been nervous, but the experience shook him. He couldn't quite forget the massive kick in the back that the solid rocket boosters gave him when they ignited, the spine-tingling scream of the slipstream when they passed the "Maximum dynamic pressure" milestone, the panic inducing claustrophobia and the continuous pressure of the entire atmosphere weighing down on your little chest. It had made him feel small and helpless against the entire world. Just like that day.
He snapped out of it.
There was no use reminscing. He had to focus on his mission at hand. Make up for his follies.
It was a lot of work to be alone in space, even though the living area of the craft was small. The rest was just a huge empty chamber meant to hold the Wingardium. Mihir had first of all clipped a picture of his family on the main console to do list board. His mother, father, sister and dog all smiled at him as soon as he woke up everyday. It kept his spirits as alive as forever, reminding him why he was here in the first place.
Pressures and meters had to be checked. Waste water had to be disposed. Food had to be eaten. Batteries had to be recharged. Messages and reports had to be sent.Being an astronaut didn't give you much free time, but it gave you enough. Even though modern tech had reduced the time to get to Mars considerably, time could pass very slowly when it wanted to. Mihir busied himself with taking and relaying pictures of Earth and various stars, planets and celestial bodies which he passed on his way as per what Mission Control required. He even got to talk to his Dad a few days ago, and told him all about how he was scheduled to land on Mars in about 2 weeks. His dad sounded very happy. Mihir almost broke down. It felt so good to hear Festus bark again.
Those few seconds of blackout might have costed him the whole mission. It was yet to be seen. His legs carried him as quickly as they could to the main console, towards which he had been walking before the interception. It was a scary sight outside. Being in a meteorized metal box surrounded by flames isn't everyone's idea of a space trip.
Without hesitation, he flicked open the plastic casing under which 'The Button' was protected.
1 MONTH AGO:
HE DID IT!
He was a hero. He had fulfilled his destiny partly.
He had spent a month on the Red Planet, gathering Wingardium and loading it into the Mumbai Local's cargo with the help of 4 giant mechanical claws attached to his back that he could control with his mind, called Neuro-Claws. They were so advanced they could pick up 50 Earth tons of Wingardium each at a time using advanced hydraulics and taking advantage of the less gravity on Mars. But Mihir had to get many tons. Many many tons. He didn't have time to get used to the atmosphere, or explore at all. His mission was specific. Get the Wingardium in the given time-frame.
And he had done it. And he was on his way home. At long last! Everything was going to be amazing!
Everything was amazing, except his health, which had taken a toll during his Mars stay. He had severe migraine due to continuous use of the Neuro-Claws, which used electrical signals from the brain. His back ached too, as repercussive damage to his spinal cord.He hadn't expected the pain to be this bad even after training for so many months.
But it was very less pain for the gain he had got. He would save millions of lives. Of his generation, and many more to come. The sole purpose of selecting only one person for the mission was to get maximum Wingardium on board without exerting the engines.
He was jubilant. There would be more Wingardium than expected.
HALF AN HOUR AGO:
"You'll be entering the atmosphere in 25 minutes approx."
Mihir was nervous. A lot of things could go wrong during re-entry, but science had made them almost impossible to happen. No re-entry mishaps had occured in the past 200 years of interplanetary journeys.
"Excited?", asked Mr.Jindal
"Very", came the reply.
"That's weird. You have touched 17500mph typical re entry speed. The cabin might be getting a bit hotter."
"Yeah well it's nothing unbearable but what's weird about that?", said Mihir, comfortably strapped into his seat.
"Well, you aren't supposed to hit that speed for another 5 minutes or so. Let me check."
"That shouldn't be a big-", said Mihir before the sirens interrupted him.
It also hit him that it was slowly getting even hotter than it should.
"What is wrong?", he shouted over the alarms.
"For some reason, you are travelling at a much higher speed than usual at this phase. We are trying to determine why that is hold on!"
Mihir somehow knew the answer.
"I have a confession"
"For heaven's sake this is a wrong time to be confessing sins Mihir!"
"NO it's not that. I may just have added a few tons of extra Wingardium"
"WHAT THE HECK? WHY DID YOU DO THAT MIHIR?"
"SIR I THOUGHT A FEW EXTRA TONS WOULDN'T MAKE A DIFFERENCE!"
It was getting too difficult to shout now. He was sweating too much and the ship was shaking as if in a huge earthquake
"DON'T WORRY SIR. I WILL FIX THIS", he replied as he unbuckled himself and fell to his knees.
"MIHIR GET BACK TO YOUR SEAT RIGHT NOW!"
But Mihir knew from his training that it was of no use. Either he would survive at this point, or the cargo would. Anything travelling at this speed for too long in the atmosphere would burn up, even super dense Wingardium. He had to eject the cargo so it could safely get to Earth.
He tried to balance himself, and pushed himself up quickly into standing position, when the ship jerked and he something hard hit his head.
The floor roared up to meet him and everything went black.
"MIHIR ARE YOU OKAY?"
He was not. He was sobbing uncontrollably. His family picture had caught his eye on the main console above the "Detach Cargo Compartment" button.
But he was happy. He would die knowing he fulfilled his destiny. He would die knowing that no son in the world would go through what he had for a long, long time. This was one dream he would die for.
"Would you please give Festus a pat from me?", he said among gasps of breath, his tears mixing with his sweat.
Ravi Jindal knew Mihir enough to understand him. He had seen him work sleeplessly and commit everything to the mission. And he knew that Mihir would do anything in his power to make it successful.
"Yes, Mihir, I will"
Mihir knew what he had to do.