Chapter 39: Surprise!
Daria and Tom were standing about 10 meters (33 feet) from the Soyuz looking back at their ride. It was scorched from the heat of reentry. Still it symbolized the end of their time in space and on Mars.
"It is so strange, Tom," Daria said.
"What is so strange?"
"Standing here with our helmets off breathing the air in the outdoors. Fresh air that has not been scrubbed or recirculated. I can smell the grasses of the steppe! The level of the humidity in the air is different than either in our habitats on Mars or on the space station. I think I can detect life just by breathing the air!"
A man in a Russian military uniform walked up to Daria and Tom and said in heavily accented English, "Please to come over to helicopter. You need to go so you can be checked by doctors."
"Of course," Daria said. She and Tom walked over and got into the helicopter. Clearly this was a VIP model. The seats were quite cosmonauts were already seated. As soon as Daria and Tom had buckled their seatbelts the pilot started the rotors.
The flight wasn't long, but it gave Daria the chance to see the beauty of the open steppe. She could see the grasses blowing in the wind. Until they reached Baikonur it really looked like there was no humanity out there at all. Daria found that oddly compelling.
The session with the doctors was nothing particularly special. They had their temperatures taken, heart rate and blood pressure checked, and were given an EKG. Other than that and looking down their throats there was not much to it.
As she put on a fresh flight suit provided by the cosmodrome Daria said to the doctor, "Thank you for the checkup. I was expecting something much more intrusive!"
The doctor looked at Daria. He replied, "You are returning diplomat not experimental lab rat like cosmonauts. I only need to determine you are basically healthy. With them we need compare all of their physical state and blood work to what we have before they left the Earth. That will take some time. My advice is go and get some sleep. I think you need it. Otherwise, what is it your American doctors say? Oh yes. Take two aspirin and call me in the morning if you have problems." With that he turned and walked out the door.
Tom and Daria met in the central lobby of the medical facility. As they walked out together Daria said to Tom in total deadpan, "So, did they determine that you are still alive?"
"Apparently I am both alive and have not had a heart attack. At least not one visible in an EKG."
Tom nodded, "Well that is good to know."
Daria asked, "Now where are we going?"
Tom looked down at a piece of paper that had been handed to him. "It says here we need to go to Building 54 Room 271. According to the map on the back we should turn right and it will be the third building on the left."
"Sounds good," Daria replied. "I would treat anything we say in that room the same as we did on the space station."
"Roger that. We can't be too careful."
It didn't take long to find the building. Daria and Tom walked up and showed the paper to the guard at the door. Daria just hoped he wasn't too angry that they interrupted his nap! He looked the paper over. Looked at them. Then he hit the buzzer that unlocked the door allowing them to enter. The guard said nothing, handed them a key, returned the piece of paper, and then seemed to go back to his nap. The elevator and stairs were right across from the entrance.
"Let's use the stairs," Daria said. "I've been cooped up in enough cans for one lifetime."
Tom sighed, "I couldn't agree more. At least there is no chance of getting stuck on the stairs. Tired as I am I would rather avoid any possibility for disaster!"
Because the lobby area of the building had a high ceiling, there were extra stairs to climb to get to their floor. Coming off the stairs Daria took a look at the room numbers and commented, "Well, it seems they numbered the rooms sequentially and not with odd numbers on one side and even on the other. It looks like the numbers increase as you go left."
Tom and Daria were exhausted by the time they reached the door to their room. It had been a long day. They had endured multiple g's during atmospheric reentry. They had been poked and prodded at the clinic. They had walked with their luggage and then climbed up 2 flights of stairs - all under the fullness of Earth's gravity. Now they just looked forward to getting into their room and going to bed.
Tom inserted the key and was thankful when it turned. The door swung open to reveal their accommodation for the night. They were greeted by a slightly antiseptic smell. Daria turned on the light, which revealed a room with 2 twin beds - one on either side of the room. There was a small desk at the end of each bed with a desk chair. Next to each desk was a small wardrobe. Daria looked in the bathroom and it appeared clean and neat.
Daria set her small bag down on one of the the desks and in total deadpan commented, "It's not exactly the Ritz, but it looks clean. Hopefully the beds are comfortable."
"I wonder how much this place has changed since Soviet days. It is certainly the style. Simple and functional." Smiling at Daria he added, "And not exactly conducive to hanky-panky."
Daria grimaced and retorted, "Anybody thinking about hanky-panky tonight is asking for a knuckle sandwich! I may prefer a king sized bed for the two of us, but for tonight this is fine. I want sleep. Period. Right dear?"
Tom nodded and answered, "Me too. Choose whichever bed you like."
Getting ready for bed didn't take much time. Daria pulled her toothbrush and toothpaste out of her bag. She had a nightgown and a few changes of underwear in there as well. A few items of jewelry and her identification rounded out the contents. Otherwise, interplanetary travel was the epitome of traveling light!
First things first. Dinner consisted of a granola bar and bottle of water they were each given at the clinic. Those were consumed standing up so that they wouldn't fall asleep while eating! Finally, with teeth brushed, Tom kissed Daria goodnight and they got under the covers of their respective beds. Instantly they were asleep.
Daria had been dreaming about floating in space when the harsh sound of knocking dragged her out of a sound sleep. It took her a moment to gather her thoughts and remember where she was. She called out, "Shto eto?" or 'What is it?' in Russian.
The person on the opposite side of the door said loudly, "zavtrak" or 'breakfast.'
Daria responded, "sposibo!" or "thank you." 'Thank goodness,' she thought, that Anton had taught her some basic Russian. Her next move was to check the time on her phone. It was 6:00 am. Falling back on her pillow Daria looked at the ceiling. How in the world could anyone be up this early. Checking on her own self, she realized that just about every joint she had hurt and so did every spot on her spine. She knew there was no way for her to get back to sleep, So, she might as well get up, take something for the pain, and wait until Tom was up. Clearly he was stirring after all that yelling. Maybe he was really just playing possum!
Daria walked out of the bathroom after showering to get fresh underwear and socks. Tom was lying there with his pillow over his face. She said, "Having trouble getting up?"
"Whatever gave you that idea," Tom replied. "What time is it?"
"At the sound of the tone it will be 0630. Bong. Now get up, shave, shower, and get dressed. I left some painkillers out for you. Breakfast is available downstairs and I for one am hungry, dear."
"Yes Daria," Tom replied as he swung his feet onto the floor. "I'm beginning to remember what arthritis feels like," he remarked as he stood up and headed into the bathroom.
At exactly 0715 Daria and Tom exited their room wearing the fresh flight suits which had been provided. They proceeded down the stairs to the breakfast room just off of the lobby. There they found scrambled eggs, sausage, black Russian bread, butter, jams, and several cheeses on a buffet table. There was also tea, coffee, and milk.
Daria took a plate and put some eggs, bread, butter, and cheese on it. She had to admit that she was anxious to try the Russian bread. Anton had always raved about it. In one of their last conversations he even told her again that she had to have Russian bread as soon as she arrived back on Earth. She poured herself some hot tea from a samovar into a traditional glass sitting in a metal base. Together she and Tom walked over to a table, sat down and started eating.
While they ate Daria looked at Tom and stated, "Anton was right. This Russian bread is the best! I think I could live just eating this for the rest of my life."
"You're right," Tom responded. "This is really great. Maybe we should make ourselves a couple of sandwiches to go! Who knows what kind of food service there will be on the flight to Moscow. I assume they will have good food on the flight to New York. It is a 9 or 10 hour flight. Still, I will be pretty hungry again before that flight."
"No kidding," Daria said. "I think it is like 4 or 5 hours from here to Moscow plus the layover."
Just as Daria was finishing her sentence a very well dressed man walked up to their table. His dark blue suit was clearly quite expensive, as were his shoes, and perfectly tied red necktie.
"Good morning Ambassador," he said. Turning to Tom he addressed him, "Mr. Sloane." Looking back at Daria he continued, "I am Mr. Mandeep Singh. I am a special project manager for the Secretary General and I am here to bring you two back to New York with me."
Daria wiped her hands on her napkin, stood up, shook hands, and said, "Very nice to meet you Mr. Singh."
Tom did likewise.
Waiving her hand at one of the two spare chairs at their table Daria stated, "Please sit down Mr. Singh."
"Thank you Ambassador. However, we do need to be going right away. We have a flight plan for leaving at 0830 and we need to be certain we leave at that time."
Tom finished his coffee and said, "I thought we were leaving on the 10:30 am flight to Moscow."
Mr. Singh's eyes widened a bit. He replied, "I'm sorry. I guess I didn't make the situation clear. The Secretary General has sent his personal plane to bring you back to New York. On the itinerary is first a stop in Moscow. There we will be having a press conference. Next we will fly on to Reykjavik for refueling and then on to New York. We have arranged an apartment for you in the Delegations Apartment Complex. There is also an office ready for you, Ambassador. So, if you would gather your things from your room, then we can go to the plane. Should you still be hungry we have food and drinks aboard the plane."
"Wow," was all that Daria said. "OK. Tom, let's get our things and head for that plane!" Looking at Mr. Singh she added, "Can we meet down in the lobby in 20 minutes?"
"That will be fine, Ambassador. I will see you then." Mr. Singh got up and left the room.
"Come on Tom," Daria said. "Let's get going, though I am going to grab a few slices of that bread!"
"You know you are one classy dame," Tom replied.
Daria found that her leg was just a bit too short to kick Tom under the table.
Descending the steps down into the lobby Daria and Tom could see Mr. Singh waiting for them.
"I am glad to see you again Ambassador, Mr. Sloane," he said. "Please follow me. I have a car waiting."
Daria almost dropped her bag when she turned the corner to go through the door to the building. In front of her sat a black Russian limousine with a UN flag flying on one front fender and a Martian flag on the other.
"Please, this way," Mr. Singh intoned.
The driver took Daria and Tom's bags and placed them in the trunk. He then opened and held the door for Daria. Being an ambassador Daria went first. As she settled into the supple white leather seat the driver closed her door and went to the other side to open the door for Tom. Mr. Singh opened the front passenger door and seated himself. Within 3 minutes of Daria and Tom setting foot in the lobby they drove off.
"I feel underdressed just wearing a flight suit!" Daria exclaimed.
Mr. Singh turned around in the front seat and looked at Daria, "Please do not feel self-conscious about your attire Ambassador. The flight suit shows that you just came to us from space. You are the first ambassador from another world! You could wear a silver suit with black boots and no one would say anything."
"Thank you Mr. Singh. Tom and I will certainly need to go shopping once we get to New York."
"Do not worry Ambassador. We will take care of everything for you. I realize that you cannot bring much with you traveling through space." Mr. Singh turned around and made a quick phone call. The Russian vocabulary he was using was beyond the small amount Daria had learned from Anton. He was clearly not ordering portions of bread, beer, or borscht!
It was only a few minutes before the limousine pulled up in front of a gate with a guard. The young enlisted man came to attention, saluted, and opened the gate. The driver drove through and Daria could see they were on the tarmac. Moments later Daria could see that they were driving toward a medium sized aircraft with an extremely pointed nose, swept wings and twin engines nestled under the wing. On the sharklike tail and under the wings was painted the United Nations emblem."
They pulled up to the stairway leading to the cabin door and Daria remarked, "Oh my goodness!"
Tom leaned over and whispered, "Some ride, huh?"
The driver once again opened Daria's door and offered her his hand in assistance getting out. She took it and just looked at the plane. Daria had to be honest with herself. She was one of the first humans to travel faster than the speed of light. So why did this airplane seem to impress her? It was nowhere near as fast and certainly did not go into space or even have anti-gravity capability. Still, its lines were beautiful.
An attractive young man and woman - both impeccably dressed - were standing at the base of the stairs. As Daria and Tom walked up the young man stepped forward.
"Welcome Ambassador and Mr. Sloane. Would you please do us the kindness of letting us take your measurements?"
"Certainly," Daria and Tom said nearly in unison.
It took only moments for the two to take the set of measurements. Tom had noticed that Mr. Singh was entering the information into his phone as the two called out what he was certain were numbers in Russian.
"Thank you," the young man said. "By the way, we are your flight attendants today. My name is Sergei and this is Marina. Please go ahead and board the plane. We will be right behind you. Our pilot will greet you at the door."
"What about our bags?"
"We will take care of them for you," Sergei said.
Daria and Tom walked up the stairs and at the door were met by the pilot. He introduced himself as Captain Johnson and his co-pilot at Commander Gianelli. Looking around Daria thought the cabin was quite spacious. There were six rows of first class style seats and then a bulkhead. Daria could see what looked like a conference table and chairs behind the bulkhead. Captain Johnson escorted the two of them to the frontmost seats.
"Now if you will excuse me," Captain Johnson said. "We have just completed the pre-flight checklist and are ready to start the engines. Once we take off our flying time to Moscow will be 87 minutes. I hope that the flight meets your expectations. Mr. Singh and the flight attendants will certainly be able to help you with anything you need." With that he withdrew into the cockpit.
Mr Singh came in the cabin door just as Captain Johnson closed the cockpit door. He stood in front of Tom and Daria and was extracting some things from an envelope.
"So, Ambassador. Mr. Sloane. I have a number of things here for you. First, here are your American passports. They are just run of the mill passports, though we got your State Department to make an exception and use pictures from a video call you made to Earth last month." He handed Tom and Daria the documents, which they each placed in pockets of their flight suits. "Second, here are your United Nations passports. We have used the same pictures. Note that these are diplomatic passports. Since Mars has not yet issued passports, the Secretary General has ordered that you be issued U.N. diplomatic passports."
Daria looked at the document and just said, "Thank you."
Mr. Singh nodded and went on, "Now let me go over our schedule for today. First we are flying to Moscow. We will be landing at Vnukovo Airport. There we will be met first by U.N. staff members. They will be bringing business attire for both of you. There will be three suits, three shirts, undergarments and two pairs of shoes for each of you. You will have time to change before the press conference. This will be held outdoors on the tarmac near our parking spot. We have allotted 30 minutes for this while the plane is refueled and provisioned for the next leg of the trip. As soon as the press conference is over we will get back on the plane and head for Reykjavik, Iceland. That will be a 4 hour flight. We do not need to leave the plane while they are refueling it and giving us provisions. Then it is on to New York. At JFK we will pull into the United Nations hangar and you will be taken by limousine to your apartment a block from U.N. headquarters."
"And once we arrive at the apartment we drop over in a seemingly lifeless pile," Daria commented in total deadpan. "That is quite an agenda."
Mr. Singh smiled. "No need for you to be completely exhausted. This plane has a full bedroom suite with a king sized bed in the back. There is a private lavatory and shower in the suite. We have conventional airplane seating in the front, but in the middle there is a conference table which doubles as dining space. Behind the conference room are 4 office spaces. There are computers at each station with full communications facilities. Your bedroom suite is behind the offices. The crew and passenger lavatories are up front."
Tom asked, "Why this routing and not directly to New York? Or at least directly from Moscow to New York?"
Looking at Tom, Mr. Singh replied, "It is a compromise between fuel and politics. This routing has us landing only in countries that have extended recognition to Mars and voted in favor of your observer status - until we get to New York. Once we land in New York, even though the United States does not recognize Mars, your status is covered by the U.N. Treaty."
Tom nodded and stated, "It looks like the lawyers have been all over this."
Mr. Singh smiled and chuckled, "You have no idea."
Daria piped in with, "Thank you for all your work, Mr. Singh."
"You are most welcome, but it is not just me. Many of us truly want to see Mars succeed as an independent state and eventually become a full U.N. member. Now one more thing I need to point out. As long as you are in New York City you have full diplomatic status under the U.N. Status Treaty of 2046. While in New York be sure to keep your U.N. identification cards with you so that there is no doubt about your status with any of the authorities. Outside of New York, however, you are simple American citizens and subject to all American laws, etc. If you travel outside of the United States on official business use your U.N. passports. Exit and enter the United States through New York. If you travel on personal business or leisure, then use your American passports."
Together Tom and Daria stated, "Understood."
Tom cleared his throat and asked, "Now being an accountant I have to ask: What about taxes?"
Mr. Singh nodded, "Any income you receive from Mars, the U.N. or anything provided to you by Mars or the U.N. is tax free so long as it is received in New York. As assigned diplomatic personnel you will have personal checking accounts, as well as accounts for your office, with UNBank. Well, I should get seated and buckle in."
As Mr. Singh was taking his seat, Sergei went through the flight safety talk and showed them where to find the emergency exits and life vests in case of a water landing. He also went on to note that the plane would fly Mach 2 at 50,000 feet (~16,250 m). Thus, they would reach Moscow much quicker than on any commercial flight! Because of the plane's advanced design no one on the ground would hear. sonic boom.
Daria watched out the window as the plane started down the runway. She could feel the power of the jet engines as they rolled along. It was only a few seconds before the pilot rotated the aircraft and they were on their way. Daria did notice that the angle was a bit steeper than regular passenger aircraft and that the ground was dropping away quickly. She barely got a glimpse of the cosmodrome's launch pads. As they climbed it was only another few moments before sleep once again caught up to Daria.