It all starts with John B. Olson and Randall Ingermanson's Oxygen, when four astronauts set out on a mission to Mars. After a shaky launch, some of the exterior equipment is damaged. During a spacewalk to check out the damage more closely and hopefully repair it, a bomb is detected under the canvas of solar panels. When it is detonated, the lifelong dream of a trip to Mars suddenly becomes a nightmarish race against time. Think Apollo 13. Only instead of a failed mission to the moon, the astronauts on the Aries 10 are more than halfway to Mars. They cannot turn around and come home; there is barely enough oxygen to make it to the desolate planet where oxygen tanks and other equipment await their arrival.
NASA security had been tight before the launch; only a limited number of personnel had access to the ship—six people, to be exact: the crewmembers and Nate Harrington, the Mars Mission Director. Some seem to have a reason for wanting the mission to fail, some seem to have mysterious or buried pasts, and others seem too eager and determined. One thing is for sure: no one trusts anyone, and that is no way to run an intergalactic mission. Blind faith becomes their only hope for survival.
Olson and Ingermanson have written a worthy sequel. The Fifth Man picks up where Oxygen left off. The crew has been on Mars for many months, and things finally seem to be in order. The crew consists of geologist Alexis Ohta; flight engineer Bob Kaganovski; commander Kennedy Hampoton; and Doctor Valkerie Jansen. Together they are working to grow crops in a special greenhouse, and to live in an alien environment.
Things get knocked out of whack when Valkerie and Alexis discover halobacteria—filmy pink layers in a salt compound of Martian DNA -- the discovery of life on another planet. Soon after, the astronauts realize there is no time for celebration. A terrible Martian virus is making them sick, delirious, delusional. And it doesn't seem possible, but could there be someone or something else with them on this desolate wasteland of a planet? Valkerie and Kennedy are convinced something is out there. Valkerie has seen something large moving out the window of the habitation module. And Kennedy is certain that something is trying to kill him, knocking on the door, trying to get in. Equipment gets damaged, fuel is lost, and the water and food supply is tampered with and depleted. Their only hope is to cut the mission short and get off the planet right away—or risk not having enough fuel to launch at a later date, stranding them forever on the Mars.
Mars Mission Director Nate Harrington and Flight Director Josh Bennett are faced with serious issues. If they bring the crew back to earth, might they be risking billions of lives with back-contamination? This would occur if the crew introduced to earth the alien virus. The only other option is to leave the crew stranded on Mars. No matter it's looked at, the crew risks spending the rest of their lives, regardless of how long or short that might be, on Mars. None of this is good enough for Bennett. He and a young engineer, Cathe Wilson, work double time to come up with a way to save the mission. But someone at NASA is working to sabotage what's left of the mission. Why?
The Fifth Man is an exciting treat for mystery, horror and science fiction fans. It moves with rocket-speed from beginning to end, layered with one extreme, life-threatening scene after another. Don't be surprised to find yourself holding your breath chapter after chapter. The action comes fast and furious; the characters are real, lifelike. The dialogue is crisp. The factual aspects are eerily plausible. With no bad language, no sex and minimal violence, and like Oxygen, The Fifth Man is amazingly enjoyable and appropriate for any and all readers.