Accepting the job was an easy decision. I have always wanted to visit the red planet, but never have gotten a good reason to. It’s not that expensive, but for some reason I have never been much into tourism as such. Seems silly to travel such distances for only to stare at random objects and take some snapshots to show off to your friends. Why? Nobody cares about those. And even if they did, they could just as well view many much better ones on the internet...
But this... This is different. Now I have a reason to go there and actually immerse myself in the environment. Two weeks is not a particularly long time, but still much better than just a single day trip to do some shopping and testing out the camera on some silly statues. Do they even have statues there? Hah, I never bothered to even do any background research before going. I’ll probably end up sitting the whole time in my hotel room watching videos from internet instead of going out and getting to know the city.
“Sir, could I see your ticket please,” a friendly yet stern voice interrupts my train of thought. It’s the conductor, a good looking lady in her late twenties - brown eyes, dark brown hair in a carefully set haircut where each and every strand knows it’s place. She is wearing a blue costume with some golden and black lines adding contrast and an official looking small hat that seems to be fixed in place by some unknown force. “Ticket?” I ask before I manage to gather my thoughts. “Ah yes, where did I put it...” She waits patiently while I am going through my pockets and then finally finding it buried in my backpack under some random junk I bought from the station while waiting for the train. She takes a brief look at the ticket, mutters thanks, and continues down the aisle.
I look out of the window. It’s too dark outside, I notice some lights in the far distance and some unidentifiable flashes zooming past once in a while. But what I see the most is my own reflection in the window. So... I am going to Mars. The thought still amuses me. Just a few decades ago it was big mysterious planet way too far to reach. Now it’s just another Earth colony with many people living their usual lives, working, having fun and doing whatever else people normally do. It still feels a bit special to visit this place. Small wonders of the modern world, the moments when I can really feel we have reached the time I can call the future.
I can now make out the glow in the sky ahead where we are going. Looking at the clock, it seems to be about right. It’s the Frankfurt Interplanetary Spaceport, one of the three larger ports in Europe providing shuttles to Mars and to the nearest gates. Other options for me would have been to travel to Moscow Spaceport, but as I have already been there several times before the Frankfurt one seemed a bit more exciting. Plus it was cheaper, whoever knows for which reason. I have never understood how the pricing of transit tickets works. One day the ticket from Tallinn to Frankfurt costs mere thirty euros, another day it’s over one hundred.
The lights in the distance are definitely Frankfurt Spaceport, I can see the bright white lines drawing up from horizon going up in the clouds - the constant traffic of shuttles coming and going. As it draws closer I am awed how big all this is. It just keeps growing and growing. The plasma trails which were on the horizon just few seconds ago seem to surround me now. I can see large buildings lit up in various lights, shuttles being taxied while others land or take off. Tons of ground vehicles driving around assisting the shuttles, carrying baggage and unloading cargo ships.
For a few brief seconds after going through the port we enter the train station. Everything goes dark for a second when we hit the tunnel, and then we grind to a sudden halt at the boarding platform. I realize I am staring at the “Welcome to Frankfurt Interplanetary Spaceport” sign with a silly look on my face, mouth still slightly ajar of the first shock of the spaceports colourful visuals. Some people are standing on the white marble paved platform. Walls just as white bare information tablets and a massive amount of advertisements for products I don’t care about.
I grab my bag and get in the line behind the other people to exit the train.
I still have a few hours until the shuttle starts boarding, so I decide to look around the port. First I must find a window, I want to take another look at this massive flat ground filled with thousands upon thousands of little and big moving things. The glimpse I got on the train for just some seconds was definitely not enough, I need to see more!
After scaling what seems several hundred escalators I end up on ground level. Thousands of people are running in every direction. Amongst them are serious businessmen with fine suits, tourists with cameras and extremely annoying groups of loud children - obviously being taken to a field trip. Also some loners like me with their faces blank, dressed casually, not revealing a hint of their agenda or feelings. Okay, maybe my face reveals some feelings right now, a feeling of frustration at least. I am trying to find a single damn window and I don’t seem to be able to. What I seem to be able to find are lots of shops selling more useless junk and some information attendants asking me if I need help once every few minutes. Do I look like I need any help? Oh... Maybe I do indeed!
I see another information girl approaching me. Looking very similar to the lady on the train with blue clothes, except with a slightly different cut and decorations. “Hello, do you need any assistance” she asks gleefully. Instead of waving her away with a frown on my face as I usually do, I try to remind myself how smiling works and ask politely: “Yes. Could you please point me to the nearest window facing the port?” Expression on her face shifts from happy to somewhat concerned: “Oh, I am sorry, but we don’t have any windows here. Due to the health regulations. The plasma trails can cause eye damage. But you can visit the observation lounge that way,” she points to a big sign that says “Observation Lounge - 300 meters”. “We have big screens displaying takeoffs and landings plus personal displays with user selectable programme, if you want to explore the station further.” she says with hopeful tone in her voice.
If I wanted to watch it from the screen, I could just as well staid at home and watched videos from internet. Well, to be honest, that’s what I do most of the time anyway, why not now then. Well I am quite sure those big screens are quite impressive anyway. But just in case, I ask her again: “You are completely sure there are no windows anywhere? I mean why not just use some form of shaded glass or something?” She shakes her head: “No, the shaded glass would make everything other than the trails too dark to see.” She looks around cautiously as if trying to make sure nobody is overhearing our conversation and continues: “...Well, there are actually some windows in service corridors. You don’t need an access card to enter from here,” she says while pointing to plain unmarked door. “When somebody asks, just say you were looking for bathroom or something.” I thank her, she smiles and runs off to probably suggest some more illegal things to do to unsuspecting passengers. Regardless, I carefully make my way to the corridor practicing the line of “Oh, sorry, I was just looking for a bathroom” in my head.
I enter the corridor and instantly notice line of windows on the far wall. I approach them and take a look outside. Yup. I am still in Frankfurt Interplanetary Spaceport, no doubt about it. There is no shading on the glass, but they are covered with a little bit of dust outside. I can still clearly see all of the spaceport. The plasma trails sure are bright, but not as bright to blind me or hurt my eyes. Specially after going through the super brightly lit spaceport customer areas, white walls, white floors, and huge lights above it all making them all even a bit more whiter. I fail to understand the problem with the plasma trails, but oh well, I guess I am not built to understand everything.
I stare out of the window for some minutes, but the first feelings of awe I got in the train never fully return. I don’t know if it is the dirty windows, my emotions about the overprotective lawmaking or I have already come to terms with the size and craziness of the spaceport. I leave the hallway without having to perform my “oh where was that toilet again” routine and spend rest of my free time in the observation lounge drinking coffee and chatting with my friends on my laptop.
I look at the clock and realize I have only ten minutes or so until the boarding starts. I stuff my laptop back to my bag and rush out the lounge to find my boarding gate. I curse myself for not finding out the correct gate beforehand and panic a little before noticing the signs which clearly point the direction and distance I need to go. I guess it’s pretty much impossible to get lost in here, regardless of it’s size. I start walking towards the direction the signs lead me, occasionally accelerating myself a bit on those moving walkways they have set up in the hallways to make it a bit faster to travel around the massive compound with hundreds of boarding gates.
I notice everyone else has already boarded. The attendant is waiting for me and takes my ticket with a smile. “Sorry, I forgot myself in the observatory...” I utter while trying to catch some breath. “Don’t worry, we still have a good...” she looks at her watch, “... good three minutes until takeoff. She smiles and hands me back the ticket. “Welcome aboard!””
I go through the gate and enter the shuttle. I feel slightly guilty for being the last passenger on board, I can feel the eyes of other passengers staring me blaming me for the late takeoff. Or is it just a feeling? When I look around, everybody seems to be preoccupied with their own things and don’t seem to be noticing me at all. I walk through the aisle trying to find my seat. To realize it’s quite in the front of the shuttle. I must have been quite excited about the trip to be one of the first people to book the flight.
I sit down next to well groomed businessman in his mid fifties. His finely combed hair mostly gray, wearing a white shirt checked in alternating shades of green, old fashioned reading glasses on his nose, through which he is reading a german magazine. I place my backpack under the seat in front of me as advised on the personal screen and sit with hands in my lap. Can’t say I am feeling most comfortable, the seat is bit tight and there isn’t much leg room, but I comfort myself with the thought that the trip doesn’t take too long. As Mars doesn’t have an orbital gate, the travel is always direct, which means the travel time depends solely on the relative position of Mars to Earth. At this time Mars is quite close to Earth so the travel takes mere hours. At the furthest position the travel can take up to two days.
I stare at the screen as the shuttle taxis to the runway. The screen displays various statistics about the flight, live feeds of various outside cameras and some other random nonsense I can’t really be bothered with. It’s not my first spaceflight, but I can’t help to still be a bit scared as the shuttle starts to accelerate on the runway. The numbers on the screen are flickering with the speed value increasing at a horrifying rate. There is a slight vibration going through the whole vessel while we are still on the runway, but as soon as the wheels lift off the ground the vibration ceases.
This bliss only lasts for few minutes while we maneuver into position. I see a big fat blue message appearing on the screen warning that the atmospheric exit is about to begin. The windows turn black, everything goes silent, and then I feel a strong jolt going through my body. A few more seconds of silence, and then the normal people resume their discussions and familiar crowd buzz returns. That’s it... People in the spaceport observe another bright white line appearing towards the clouds. I am observing the spaceport with the rest of the planet as a shrinking blue disc on my screen.
The rest of the trip is rather uneventful. I am constantly fighting to find a comfortable position without my legs going numb, and browse through the entertainment the personal screen has to offer until the screens report our imminent arrival at Mars Northern Station 3. With as much ceremony as the takeoff the landing takes place. After atmospheric entry, the shuttle lands just outside the station and taxis into the stations spaceport hanger. We have arrived.
I wake up when my phone starts screaming the song I have set as an alarm. I used to love this tune, but now I can’t think of a song I hate more than this one. Every morning, way too early, it interrupts my dreams at the most exciting point. I drag myself out of the bed feeling quite tired regardless of going to bed quite early the night before. I tried to watch some videos, but Mars has blocked all the video sites again. Apparently one of the communication gates has gone out again and they are trying to conserve the traffic. I am sure people here can’t wait until they finish the proper orbital gate to allow a fast internet connection as well as travel without needing to go through half of the entire damn solar system at the worst of seasons.
I open the curtains to take a first proper look at the city where I am based for the next two weeks. Unfortunately only thing I see is the wall of another building. Facing my hotel. Aww, come on. Why did I get room with such a bad view. Oh well, I guess I have plenty of time for sightseeing later. I shower, dress and go downstairs for breakfast.
At least the restaurant has a better view. Although it’s on the first floor it has glass walls both facing the untamed reddish brown dunes outside the city perimeter and the streets inside the protective shield. One side of wild desolate planetside which regardless of the ongoing efforts of terraforming would kill a man in seconds and other side of busy streets filled with people and vehicles, traffic lights and even a nice green park gleaming behind the corner.
I take my breakfast to the table, sit down and eat it it slowly savoring every bite of this otherwise standard hotel meal. It’s just this moment I have been waiting for since starting off from Tallinn. Just trying to get the most of it before heading off to the business. I get some more juice from the buffet after finishing my meal to just sit down for few more minutes and to stare at the mounds of martian regolith outside the hotel window. Once so mysterious and exciting. Now just a handreach away from me. Me, a random computer programmer from Estonia!
Oh well... Better get to work. I grab my backpack, take the dishes away and head out the streets of what on the first look could just as well be any small town in Europe, except it is just over 80 million kilometers away from the closest of them.