Distorte is a collection of stories written by Pierce Gleeson

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The Last Man on Mars

Mars, believe it or not.

The man we eventually sent to Mars was named Bernard Maxwell. It was to be a one-way mission, of course. For all our idealism in those easy days of relaxed speculation, the complexity and cost involved in landing a vessel on another planet that would be capable of breaking free again was astronomical, no pun intended. It was decided that to land and to exist, for a time, would be enough.

Bernard’s selection was based, at least in part, on a rare genetic neural disease that would kill him by his early forties. He was already a marked man, it felt a little less like we were signing his death-sentence. Public opinion divided sharply; many newspapers declared it a grand step forward in our collective attitude towards the value of humanity. The right to volunteer one’s life for the pursuit of knowledge rather than one’s country was a noble one, they argued. Most of the tabloids spent the three months before launch interviewing his mother.

And so Bernard sat in a tin can for nine months and exercised and read novels and watched films. And it would have been the beginning of a wonderful adventure, if only they hadn’t discovered life on Europa two months before he reached Mars.

Three hundred and forty-two million miles beyond his final destination, a small lander settled onto a thin area of ice at the base of a crater and rolled a smaller robot out onto the surface. The robot patiently worked its way down through half a kilometre of frozen water before dropping into the liquid sea directly above a venting fissure. And it was everywhere. Photographs radioed back to Earth showed plant-like fronds waving in the ocean current. Shells propelled themselves across the sandy mountainside much like our own clams. Eel-shaped creatures moving in a way that simply made no sense. And once, beyond the edges of our robot’s pool of light, a huge, black shape moved, scattering the fronded creatures we had taken for plants.

It was obvious, of course, said the scientists who’d been right all along. Look at Mars, they said. Now look at Europa. We can see Mars. It is desert, and not the like the living, breathing deserts of our own planet. It is a rock. Europa, on the other hand, is water. A whole moon covered with water. We are not very surprised, they said. We expected something.

This is what Bernard read in the articles beamed to him on his long voyage. He was delighted, really. Sent back his congratulations to the Europa team. He couldn’t figure out why everyone on the ground seemed to be offering half-consolations. It wasn’t until after he arrived on Mars that he began to get a sense of what they’d been saying.

The landing was eventful, and the days following. He’d first ventured outside his station to erect a tripod a few metres away. Walking was strange. He felt lighter, but only enough to make him stumble as he went. He set a camera filming the doorway, then walked back and waited for his cue from Earth-control. Stepping out, he delivered the line he’d been mentally preparing for years. It went beautifully, he thought. The next day he asked about the coverage back home. They seemed reluctant to send him the headlines. Toby, one of the audio technicians, later confided: I’m afraid the coverage just wasn’t that extensive yesterday. Bad timing, I guess. You see, they’ve seen another fish on Europa. It’s quite incredible, kind of two bodies, segmented. You wouldn’t believe the pictures.

After a couple of days Bernard had finished taking soil samples and inspecting rock formations in the local area. He assembled his motorised bike and rode it out to look for features on featureless plains. In the warm equatorial afternoons he did not even need a suit, and set off in overalls and gas tanks to explore the red desert.

And this is what it was, he accepted as his range increased. Desert. We have had satellite imagery and landings here for fifty years now, he told himself, trying to kill his disappointment. You knew what to expect, what not to expect. He would radio his results to the scientists every afternoon, finding it difficult to invent new ways of saying: geological formations, similar to Earth. No significant change in recent millennia. No indication of life, past or present. Little indication of water in any substantial quantity.

He grew increasingly dismayed by Earth-control as the weeks passed. After sending up questions he would wait the required twelve minutes for the signal delay in both directions, but often found himself sitting long beyond a reasonable response time. Occasionally hours went by before anybody got back to him and when they did the technicians often seemed distracted and over-stimulated. They spend precious communication telling of Europan developments instead of giving him something, anything to do for the next day. They were obsessed.

On the afternoon he found a rock sheet with fossil-like swirls through its sandstone surface he took detailed photographs and sent his report up with an air of optimism he’d almost forgotten. He did not receive a reply that day. The next morning a junior analyst radioed to say they would be looking at the photos within the next few weeks, and had he heard about the tentacles on Europa? With the teeth?

That night he got very drunk and sat staring out over the barren rocks. The months and years appeared ahead of him as an interminable ordeal with no purpose or value. He went into the kitchen and opened the medical cabinet. Inside, two suicide pills lay sealed beneath a code-activated touchpad. He put a call in to base, logged the required emergency numbers and a request for the code, then sat for twelve minutes that ran and ran. After they’d passed he sat a further four hours, staring at the console waiting for the dish to ping. It was Toby who eventually came online. He was drunk too. They all sounded drunk. Sorry Bernard, did you ask for something? We were having pizza and beer with the Europa crew down the hall. You won’t believe today, man. We have tissue samples. From the plant-things. It’s such an exciting time to be here. It feels like everything’s opening up. The whole universe, you know?

Written by Pierce Gleeson
Posted on the 23 Jul, 2008