Author’s Note: While writing TCOM 2 I became aware of the seemingly global enthusiasm for the exploration of Mars, with some efforts to be privately sponsored vice the usual national efforts. The ‘press’ was full of it. In keeping with the theme of ‘The Colonisation of Mars’, which takes place after the ‘Race to Mars’ is over and the surface of Mars is littered with successful and unsuccessful missions, the theme of this short story is the price one may have to pay. The story is also in TCOM2.
Common Name—Valles Marineris
Coprates Quadrangle MC-18
She patted the last shovelful down and leaned on the handle. Six now and that would be the last. There was room for millions but there would only be six. Should have been seven, could never be eight.
He had been a good husband, she thought, though her real mate had been dead for going on seven years. No, not a good husband, she corrected. A good person; a good companion; a good colonist. Intelligent, with a wry sense of humour.
Yes, resilient. An essential trait anywhere or anytime, and all the more so on Mars.
She pushed the marker down into the soil, working it back and forth until it struck something hard and stopped. It always did. She scraped the loose dirt into a pile and packed it down with firm steps, leaving the imprint of her boots in the fines. That should do.
It never does.
She walked over to Allan's marker, straightened it, and tamped the soil back into place. Allan, of soft voice and hands, of dear heart.
“Damn wind. Ruins everything,” she said to herself. She paused at her husband's marker. No regrets.
Tears are OK, though.
She wept for a short space.
It was not supposed to end like this. There were supposed to be more colonists. There were supposed to be machines capable of constructing new and larger habs. There were supposed to be acres of solar panels to provide power beyond their needs, power sufficient to support a growing, thriving colony.
Yes, there was so much that they could have been unhappy with.
So much potential for anger. For sadness.
They never came. The landers carrying the supplies never arrived. But then they were not supposed to be here at the bottom of Marineris either. Something had gone wrong, and they were lucky to be alive. They had survived since '23, some of them anyway, without assistance.
What was it now?
'49, twenty-six Earth years.
Yes, thanks to Allan, they had found themselves alive on Mars. Allan, who had taken over from that damned computer just moments before they were about to crash and had managed not too bad a job of landing.
It was just too bad they hadn't landed near the edge of the Valles. From the edge they would have been able to communicate with Earth, to tell them that they were alive, where they had landed, and that they were ready to begin. Instead they found themselves in a narrow steep sided gully, open to the north and south, seldom able to see Earth for more than a few hours.
That should have been enough, she had always thought, but then that form of communication was not her forte. No, certainly not her forte. She was the videographer and mission journalist, and not a lot of help in the end, but at least there was a record of their lives. Radios broke; heaters broke; batteries died; windows broke.
Others could learn things from them that would make life easier. How to wrest water from the stingy permafrost without machines to do the bull work. How to repair solar arrays, antennas, and cables crushed by the boulders that periodically tumbled down from the surrounding heights, especially during the spring thaw. How to protect your Hab against those boulders, too. How to keep warm when some simple yet completely necessary part failed. How to grow your own food without having the essentials for proper hydroponics. You used every damn inch of available space and sunlight.
Ha. You soon got used to the smell of human shit.
How to cope with the inevitable.
She hated that word. No regrets.
So they believed that Earth believed that they were dead. Follow-on missions, if they existed (though they could not be certain that there actually were any, given the uncertainties that surrounded their own departure), did not, in any event, seek them out. Not that there was any reason to do so.
Why look for the dead?
What's that? Yes, failure was always an option.
It had to be.
Had to be.
They were all volunteers. All committed explorers.
All expecting to live and die on Mars.
None of them felt any bitterness towards anyone, especially not towards each other. Well, they were here.
Yes. Where are you, Earthling?
No regrets. That was their motto. A source of endless discussion. They'd had lots of time for discussion.
So it didn't work out as planned.
When did it ever?
Of course they were going to die here sooner or later. Of course there were risks. They knew; they took them.
Things have come out against you.
Yes, but people died crossing the street, scuba diving, climbing mountains, while flossing their teeth. Some broke their necks falling out of bed.
They had discussed it endlessly.
It was the price of exploration.
Three to cancer, though. That was tough. Her husband, Tatiana, and now him.
That was tough.
It never got any easier. No hope of useful treatment. The progress of the disease had been mercifully swift. For all of them. Strange that. Mars.
She was lucky.
Yes. Lucky. She'd held him gently in her arms as he had taken his last breaths, as she had her husband. “You know you reach a point and all you want is the end.” They'd said that. All of them.
So you said your goodbyes, walked off into the sunset, or took the drugs. What is another day filled with agonizing pain worth really?
She wept for a while again.
One dead by a heart attack, they'd said.
That was Allan.
Two in a futile effort to place the long range comms pod on the peak of the rill. It had tumbled end over end, crushing them. They'd had to push the limits of themselves and their suits and had paid with their lives.
Damn crappy rover. Held together with that shitty tape. Piece of crap. But still, who knew?
Well, it had to be done.
They'd agreed. If only someone had known.
Success would have changed everything.
One had just walked away and never come back. That was eight years ago. They'd looked, but they'd had to turn back.
He had not. She hoped it was what he'd wanted. She hoped it was gentle, peaceful, fulfilling.
Others had come, finally, they knew. But not for them. There were those tracks she'd seen on her own long walk down into the Valles, when was it?
Something big, leaving distinctive marks in the soil, going west to God knew where.
A big machine.
Yes, it must have been. She had turned back because of that, hopeful, after a long drought without hope, after her husband's death.
They had taken her guesstimates and figured it at a minimum of two thousand kilograms.
Really big, and big implied success. A rover? A manned rover? With other colonists?
They never knew for sure, but had believed enough, had hoped enough, to erect a marker.
Rocky arms and head built large enough to be unmistakably artificial even from a mile away, even to non-human eyes, just in case. It had taken them to the limits of their suit reserves several times.
They had to try.
Yes. They arrived back at the Hab each day, O2 nearly exhausted, their heads ringing from excess CO2, on the very edge of death and had spent pain-filled days recovering. Headache. Ringing ears. Vertigo. She never really had. She turned along the well-beaten path back to the Hab. The domes were stark against the red-grey of the soil and the dust.
Damned dust. Gets into everything.
The RadMon flashed red. How had she not seen it?
She picked up her pace.
She leaned the spade against the dusty wall and climbed the steps to the airlock, there to commence one of the unavoidables of Mars: keeping clean. She brushed off her suit, stomped her feet, cycled through, washed down, and stripped. She passed on the jumpsuit and, quite naked, entered the living quarters. It was warm; hot in fact. She turned off the heater.
The air was fresh and smelled of life. They had thanked God endlessly for the small plants that sustained them with food and oxygen. They had no lack of oxygen from the processors nor much lack of water usually, but that produced by the plants filled out the air, moistened it and, more importantly, lifted their spirits. Green. Blessed green.
The RadMon showed a ring of red on the floor. She stepped inside and pulled a chair to the middle. She rested her face on the pink plastic egg. It was warm and hummed faintly.
Strange how comforting it was. Almost mystical. The circle pressed in, the hum increased, the circle moved out. She remembered them spending long hours and, one time, five whole days huddled around the egg, telling stories, playing board games, watching videos, the time interspersed with dashes to the toilet, to the kitchen, to the sleeping area to get blankets.
She dozed. When she awoke the event was over, a soft green ring bordered the outer wall. The egg was still and cool on her cheek. A flare.
Well, conserving food, water, and O2, anything, in fact, was not going to be an issue. Not anymore.
She had considered this day for some time, years actually, but more acutely after it became obvious that he was dying. They all had, she'd have wagered, at one time or another.
It was inevitable.
She was very possibly the last alive person on Mars. She could live another twenty years or she could die tomorrow. It mattered little. He was gone. Her husband was gone. They were all gone. There was no one to share it with. Sharing was important.
It is what humans do.
They had agreed on a plan for this day; this inevitable day.
This inescapable day.
A simple plan, it had been devised, not here on Mars but at the time when the final selections had just been made.
She remembered the occasion well. They had been in a bar near the Society's head office. Nothing fancy, just a bar full of tourists, actually. They'd been ignored, for the most part.
Once the more ridiculous alcohol-fueled plans had been tossed out they had agreed, eventually unanimously, that no time constraints were to be placed on the one. It had seemed absurd to even consider the possibility, but from the exercise 'No regrets' had been born. Regardless, she knew what she had to do and she set out to do it.
Preparations complete, she ran a bath, an indulgence certainly, but today beyond any criticism. She lay back. She pressed her hands and feet against the walls, forcing herself down, enjoying the feeling of being immersed. She bobbed up and dried her face.
She looked at the videos she had taped to the wall, a plastic wall encompassing the tub, cracked and brown with mould; of imagery of them here on Mars, all of them including herself, much younger of course, taken at happy times. They grinned, waved, and gaped down at her, faces celebrating holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, unions, and sometimes divisions. She blushed. Maybe it was the heat of the water.
She took the slim flat bottle in her hands and twisted off the screw-cap. 2018—a good year by all reports. They had pooled a portion of their weight allowances for personal effects to accommodate these twelve ounces of distilled liquor plus the glass container. It had sat on a shelf in the recreation area since their arrival, to be passed on to successive colonists. Mementos of family and friends had been left behind, willingly, in hope, in recognition.
Cheap obsessive bastards.
No. No regrets.
She took a long drink; a toast to them. The fiery liquid caused her to gag.
“Whew. Glad I don't do this every day.” She laughed at her small joke, tipped the bottle towards the pictures, took a sip, then took another. She took a handful of pills from a small container and downed them, draining the last of the bottle. “Ugh. Yuck. How could anyone—”
A chill passed through her. She lay back, ears submerged, hair floating about her head, listening to her breathing: in-out, in-out. Her heart raced; it slowed; it slowed again. With drowsy eyes she looked again at each of them, her eyes resting last on her husband's image. His hands reached towards her. She felt warm and was contented, was comforted.
“No regrets,” she whispered.
But in another Universe:
She settled deeper into the tub.
Water went up her nose, caused her to cough and suddenly sit up.
“Fuck that,” she said. She pushed herself out of the tub, barfed into the toilet and dried herself off.
Some words from a song came to mind:
'We won’t go in; we won’t go;
Why end it. Why end it.’
She put on one of those shapeless green jumpsuits, made herself a coffee, sat herself down in front of a computer, and started learning how to make a radio transceiver.
It's what humans do.