Chapter 1:


The Home(less)sick Astronaut’s Best-of-Three

Mars. A land of mystique and wonder. Vast, huge, and brimming with untapped secrets waiting to be unearthed. A planet that stands as an astronomical milestone that would bring the phrase “reach for the stars” from a metaphor to a possibility.

On it, a high-stakes game of blackjack is brewing between four astronauts; two playing, two spectating.

One of the spectators was Damian, a Malay astronaut fresh off his internship at the Malaysian Lunar Colony and now nearing his third month in the Mars Expedition, "Remind me why we're doing this?"

Damian stood behind his Chinese senior, Chong, a veteran in his field who's spent more of his life in zero gravity than with his feet on the ground, sat cross-legged on the Martian soil, holding a pair of heavyset, magnetic playing cards in his skin-tight, haptic gloves, "Twice, you've asked that already."

“You’ve never given me a straight answer.”

Chong let out a static-infused sigh from his helmet’s intercom, “Like I said, what month is it?”

“As I told you, February,” Damian was incredulous, “But what’s that got to do with blackjack?”

Chong shook his head, “You don’t get it now, you wouldn’t understand.”

Damian brought up his forearm where his suit control panel sat. He temporarily disabled his intercom to let out a soft, “Jackass.”

Chong noticed the lack of Damian’s usual rebuttal, “You said something?”

“I said the ESA probably got a good hand,” the Malay astronaut reengaged his intercom and pointed toward the two astronauts sitting opposite them.

The aforementioned astronauts belonged to the ESA (European Space Agency), an establishment with a dozen successful Martian missions under their belt, as opposed to MYSA (Malaysian Space Agency) which both Chong and Damian represent. Compared to the ESA’s decade-long history on the fourth rock from the Sun, MYSA is still operating under their maiden voyage on the Red Planet.

The ESA astronauts were staring at their own cards, exchanging looks towards one another. Their helmets may be tinted, but Damian could tell what kind of expressions the Europeans held behind their polycarbonate viewports.

One of the ESA astronauts looked toward Chong and nudged their heads. Chong responded with a thumbs-up. He looked down to the dust-caked ground where a stack of thick, metallic cards sat. The cards were invented by a NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) engineer some decades ago. She got sick of the flimsy quality of regular Earth-bound playing cards and decided to make a set for herself. The cards were constructed with magnetic frames with the faces fabricated out of cheap one-way fibreglass displays. It was an expensive alternative, but it served its purpose.

“Don’t worry, it’s a best-of-three,” Damian crouched down to pat Chong on the back as Chong detached a card from the stack, “You won the first round anyway-”

Chong ducked to the side, growling, “Don’t touch me.”

Damian retracted his hand back up and asked, “Why?”

“You don’t pat backs while playing cards,” Chong snorted, “It’s bad luck.”

“Don’t think your luck could get any worse,” Damian pointed towards the card in Chong’s hand.

Unbeknownst to Chong, he accidentally flipped his new card around as he ducked. His hand wasn’t pretty at the start; a Queen and a five. His already terrible luck then turned into a bust when he hit himself with a King.

Chong looked toward the ESA astronauts and showed them his losing deck. They did the same, though instead of a bust they had a soft nineteen; an eight and an Ace. Chong drew both his index fingers to the ESA astronauts. They nodded, and returned the cards to the deck. Chong did the same. Chong picked up the deck from the Martian soil and shook it as hard as he could under reduced gravity. The motion prompted the display to shuffle its faces. Shuffling traditionally wouldn’t work for cards as bulky as these.

Damian chimed in as Chong dealt the cards face-down for each representing agency, “Why won’t you let me play?”

“You’re born in the year of the Dog, son,” Chong picked up his cards and checked them, “You’ve got the worst luck this year.”

“Sure, why not wear a garlic necklace or burn some incense or whatever you Chinese uncles do to get your luck,” Damian was dismissive.

“Garlic’s for the western vampires, and I don’t have incense with me,” Chong pointed to his crotch as he placed his cards face-down onto the red ground, “I am wearing red underneath, though.”

“Why so superstitious? You’re literally in space,” Damian questioned his geriatric senior, “God’s the least of your worries now.”

“It’s not just religion,” Chong watched as the ESA astronauts hit themselves with their second card, “It’s something to bind you back home.”

Damian shrugged, “What’s that mean?”

The ESA astronauts turned to Chong and gave an OK sign. Chong nodded and hit himself with a card, though he refused to see it, opting to hide it between his gloves.

“It’s a desert wasteland out here, son,” Chong said as he rubbed the card between his hands, “It’s exciting at first, but the view gets old quick. All you see is just rocks and dust. It’s unhealthy. We’re supposed to see green and blue. Now brown’s my new black; yellow my white; orange my grey.”

“You’re just homesick, Chong,” Damian snorted, “It’s not some elderly-exclusive phenomenon.”

Chong stopped rubbing the card in his palm and picked up the ones he left on the ground, “You know those postcards HQ sends us with their biannual supply shuttles? The ones with pictures of the forests and beaches?”

Damian nodded, “Yeah, why?”

“I looked at them for a while last night,” Chong counted the cards across his deck, “The pictures; they looked alien to me. Like another planet,”

“I think you’re just homesick, Chong.”

“Then it’s ironic, isn't it? A homesick astronaut who can’t recognize his home.”

For once, Damian didn’t have his trademark snarky rebuttal.

“Trust me. These practices keep me sane. It’s all I have left to remind me of home,” Chong laid his cards bare on the Martian ground, showing them to the ESA astronauts, “Stand. Blackjack”

Both ESA astronauts glanced down to the ground to see a deck composed of a nine, a two, and a Joker.

The two ESA astronauts looked at one another for a moment, speaking to one another at their own frequency, and turned back towards Chong. One of them extended a palm towards him.

As Chong reciprocated, shaking the ESA astronaut’s hand, he turned towards Damian, “See? The red, it works.”

Damian dismissed his notion, “You just lucked out.”

It was Chong’s turn to be snarky, “That’s the point.”

The two ESA astronauts bid their farewells and left, taking bouncing strides under Mars’ lightened gravity back towards their rover, parked several meters behind them. To the layman’s eyes, it would look like a sleek white wedge with some outrageous, oversized wheels fitted beneath it. It was, in fact, one of the most technologically advanced offerings the Europeans produced to the field of space exploration, complete from a hydropneumatic suspension independent of each wheel to a nuclear-fission-powered engine. Refuelling and maintenance and the like may prove to be an arduous hassle but considering the European rover can cover a fifth’s trip across the Red planet’s surface to and back in a single tank, they are but minor, insignificant inconveniences.

“Alright, son,” Chong ordered Damian as he watched the two ESA astronauts climb up their rover from a discreet entrance beneath the machine, “Go get the flag. HQ would be thrilled to see this.”

Damian obliged. The astronaut turned to his back and made quick strides towards where he last parked their very own MYSA-sponsored rover, which can be aptly described as a hexagonal chicken coop on wheels. In more professional terms, it’s a revised design of the Lunar Roving Vehicle; the same rover that sent the first Americans to the moon almost a century and a half ago. Aside from some upgrades such as a weight-balancing roll cage, a retractable tarp in case of spontaneous sandstorms, a solar-powered, horsepower-heavy electric motor, and an improved obverse and reverse four-linkage, this rover was not much different from its previous iteration. Compared to the ESA astronauts, who were already riding away in their galactic silver chariot, Damian and Chong had to work with prehistoric leftovers. It wasn’t all that bad, though. Recharging the rover was as easy as leaving it under the sun, and since the rover’s design was rudimentary, they could maintain the machine with just about any spare parts they could find lying around their storage. Plus, the nippy rover had served them well for years already. It even had a name, lovingly coined by Chong himself.

“Hurry up, I didn’t park Kancil that far,” Chong turned back to check on Damian.

Damian came jogging back from Kancil holding a shiny steel pole with a pair of horizontal prongs sticking out from the top half of said pole, “Shouldn’t old uncles like you be patient?”

“It’s because I’m old that I’m impatient,” Chong snatched the pole from Damian’s hands, “I don’t have as many years left as you, son. Now get the camera ready.”

Damian made a series of specific, rhythmic taps on the side of his helmet before raising his wrist. A holographic panel appeared around his forearm, displaying icons within faint, glowing frames. Damian then crouched down with one hand over the holographic panel and his head jutting frontwards from his shoulders, his sight aiming at Chong.

“Camera’s ready,” the Malay astronaut announced.

“Good,” Chong planted the steel pole down onto the earth, whereby the prongs responded by flaring up the Malaysian flag in a holographic, “Make sure you can see the crater too.”

Behind Chong was the reason why both he and Damian ventured out onto the red desert in the first place. A small-impact crater around the width of an office block. By all accounts, Mars had small-impact craters in spades, but this isn’t just any crater. No, it was a fresh one. When the base camp’s satellite detected a foreign object flying in range at scorching speeds, the crew chalked it up to a mistaken resupply launch from headquarters sent four months ahead of schedule; it had happened more times than they thought. However, when the foreign object flew ways off course and carried traces of radiation with it, they knew it was something that demanded attention. Sure enough, it was a C-type asteroid, probably a residual from the main asteroid belt. Judging from the crater it made, the asteroid-turned-meteorite must’ve been ten to fifteen metres in diameter.

In layman’s terms, it was a find big enough to deem a spontaneous expedition.

The crater itself still held traces of soot as the smell of smoking dirt permeated the air. Even with their suit’s filtering capabilities, the scent still managed to seep through their systems. The foundations of the crater had been reduced to smouldering heaps of burning mud, melted down by the sheer heat generated from the impact. As for the meteorite itself, it had already broken up into hundred miniature pieces, ready to be collected in samples. They were still too hot to be retrieved and thus had to be left behind until temperatures were suitable for collection. If there were any foreign agencies around looking to claim the discovery for their own, the planted, holographic Malaysian flag was there to act as a deterrent. Breaching Interplanetary Discovery Laws could be considered social low blows for anyone’s career in the field of astrology.

Though to flip the coin against MYSA, had the ESA astronauts arrived a moment earlier, Chong and Damian would’ve been on the other side of the fence. In fact, the last thirty minutes; from the game of blackjack to the ESA astronauts’ departure, had been nothing but serendipity. The ESA had their feet on Mars long before MYSA. To the ESA, small-impact craters were appetizers compared to the full-course menu that was their backlog of discoveries. If anything, the ESA’s arrival at the crater was a courtesy. In direct contrast to them, MYSA was hungry for anything new. They only had foreign minerals show off among their ASEAN peers. Introducing a small-impact crater in their catalogue would be a new milestone to propel them into the international scene.

By chance, the MYSA and ESA rovers met on the scene of the crater as they arrived at the same time. In truth, the ESA could just let the MYSA take the credit, but they couldn’t just hand the discovery to the underdogs so easily.

Had it not been for the deck of cards Chong brought with him, things would’ve gotten complicated and worse, bureaucratic.

As Lady Luck had it, Chong did bring the aforementioned cards, and the rest were recent history.

“Did you take the picture yet,” Chong struggled to hold his leaning pose against the flag pole, “I’m burning from behind there.”

Damian let out a snicker as he aimed his head sideways towards Chong, his hand still hovering over the holographic panel on his forearm, “Just a few more, heh.”

“Screw you,” Chong realised and walked off straight towards their rover.

“Come on,” Damian couldn’t help but let out a few more chuckles, “I could’ve gotten a good angle there.”

“You keep joking like that I’m gonna start finding a good angle to punch your chin from.”

“Right, right, I’m sorry,” Damian tapped against his helmet again as the holographic panel on his forearm disengaged, “Thought of a name yet?”

Chong climbed into the rover, setting himself comfortably against the bucket seat, “For what?”

“For the giant hole on the ground we just found,” Damian climbed in from the other side.

Chong thought for a while as he gazed into a distance in his seat, “Rumah.”

Damian fell silent for a while before letting out an incredulous, “Are you serious?”

Chong began fiddling with the ignition, “Why, you got a better idea?”

It was Damian’s turn to sit in silent thought.

As Damian ran his mental factory, Chong kept turning the keys on the engine. Aside from several seconds’ worth of noisy whirring, nothing else came to fruition. He gave another dangerous growl and twisted the key once more. His frustration wasn’t rewarded, leading to more churned steam in the old uncle.

“I thought we fixed the stator yesterday,” Chong yelled at the dead speedometer, “What’s going on?! Did the coils fry?”

Amidst Chong’s rage, Damian hit a eureka, “I got it!”

Chong, for a split second, had a tone of relief in his voice, “What? What? What’s wrong with it?”

Damian, with glee in his voice, blurted out, “Kampung Lama.”

Chong replied in incredulous silence.

“You know how Kampung Baru in Kuala Lumpur has ‘new’ in the name but the whole town’s a backwards village,” Damian explained with feverish enthusiasm, “Why not flip it? Call this Kampung Lama, but the location is the furthest frontier in exploration. What do you think?”

Chong had nothing to say. He could only shoot an obscured glare on his coworker from behind the tinted visor of his helmet.

Damian took this as a sign, sighed, and waited for another one of Chong’s scathing, geriatric remarks.

“Heh,” Chong snickered, “I get it.”

It was Damian’s turn to fall quiet, this time from a pleasant surprise.

From beneath his visor, the Malay astronaut cracked open a grin, “Finally, something we can agree on.”

“No, it’s a stupid name. How’d they let you graduate from the academy, God only knows,” Chong went back to fiddling with the ignition, “Good joke though.”

Damian was content nonetheless. A subject he and Chong could agree on, even by a fraction, was akin to winning two lotteries in a day.

Still, with Damian being Damian, he couldn’t help murmuring, “And you wonder why everything’s looking alien…”

Chong raised an eyebrow, “What is that?”

“Have you tried testing out the current?”

“How can you test currents in an electric engi-” Chong was stunned for a moment, “Ah, oh, I see the problem.”

Damian glanced towards him from the side, “Hm?”

“Navin was using the engine to run his hydroponics,” Chong sighed as he took out the key from the ignition, “He must’ve forgotten to charge it.”

“Hydroponics?” Damian’s expression bore perplexity, “What for?”

“Potatoes,” Chong sank back into his seat in defeat, “He’s trying to make flour so he could make Roti.”

“Bread? I thought we already had bread?”

“No, not that roti. It’s a type flatcake,” Chong drew a circle with his fingers, “You know, the kind you find at those open-air stalls, or cheap corner shop lots.”

Damian’s face only grew more confused.

“Indian cuisine? Staple of our country’s identity?”

Any more bewildered, Damian’s helmet would’ve begun cringing inverse.

“Huh,” Chong was subject to a moment of sudden revelation “Guess I am getting old.”

“Only now you realise,” Damian looked away to the side, staring off into the red landscape, “Now what?”

“Now we let it charge from solar.”

“And how long would that take?”

“Enough charge to take us back? Three hours. Maybe five. Or ten. A day. Give or take,” Chong’s estimation only seemed to get worse, “We might even have to make camp if it gets dark before then.”

A silence persisted between the two colleagues for a moment. It wasn’t one of despair or desperation. It was the kind of quiet one would catch on a slow day at the office, or during the routine hum-dum of a construction site. The low whirr of a hundred computers running thousands of spreadsheets, or the cacophony of tens of jackhammers punching the soil into a fine foundation. A professional silence, if bestowed a term. Damian and Chong’s professional silence is that of minute pieces of rock and dust clicking against glass and metal; the sound when electronics fail in the red wasteland.

It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. Back on the blue marble of life, the mechanic’s a phone call away. On the red rock, you need at least enough certification to open a hardware store to board the ship. When all else fails; when the problem requires more than just wrenches and screwdrivers, all that’s left is time. Time for silence. Time for professional silence.

“Like I said,” Damian sighed, “Now what.”

Then Damian felt a tap from behind. He looked to his back.

Chong was holding his deck of magnetic cars just inches away from Damian’s visor.

“Do you know how to play poker?”

“No,” Damian cracked a grin as he got off the rover, “But I do know blackjack.”

Chong leaked out a devastating chuckle as he followed suit, “Your funeral."

Taylor Victoria