You and Me and Mars

I think of you, and like a jinn, you appear. Your voice, tinny and modulated as it curls out of my phone, returns me to the last minute I saw you and every minute before. You have an offer I can’t refuse. You’ve made our childhood dream a reality. If only I will agree to take the last vacant spot. The one you saved for me.

I do not believe this last part. Why didn’t you contact me before now, then? Maybe after you made your first billion. Or maybe you could have consulted me when you started to design the drones, considering that was my idea. I don’t say this aloud, don’t risk exposing bitterness. I listen. When you finish, breathless, proud, sure of my response, I don’t even bother to take the proffered weekend to think it over. I say yes.

I arrive. You show me the great dome, the assembly house, your office with the stacks of schematics. A yellowed and dirty sheet of wide-ruled notebook paper, covered in pencil drawings hangs on a wall. I recognize my handiwork. I look from the blueprints to the drawing and back. You chuckle when you see what I am looking at. I didn’t forget, you say, and a sting of nostalgia forces tears out. You even remembered the queen. Was it always the plan to bring me on board this late in the game? Your delicious smile falters. “No, but water under the bridge and all that. The important thing is that you are here now. Let me introduce you to the crew.”

I see our captain first, crippled by an immaculate white spacesuit and steadied by frogmen in a pool. You describe the engineering of the suit, its eternal integrity, one of your first patents. I ignore you because my captain has removed his helmet and flashed a bright smile. I see Lyr next, behind the drape of her black hair, calculating the synchronization of the drones. I hold out my hand and smile, but she greets me as if I’ve come to eat her children. Her smile is only for Hamon. I can see why. Hamon is brute and brilliance, a combination so rarely expressed together that he is doomed, to tempt fate so. His smile does not rise to the twin suns of his golden eyes. When I have you alone I ask why the crew is so hostile, and you tell me that they had a fourth, but it didn’t work out. “They’ll come to love you,” you say, and silence my questions by pressing play on the video and pulling me into your lap. I watch you on the screen, while your heart flutters against my back. I see my dream tapered into words that come from your mouth.

Your image says, “It isn’t just a dream, it’s a responsibility. We must preserve life. We must have a place to go, not if, but when, this world is too full. Water is the key to life, water is life. As it has been said, we reap what we sow, and what we must sow is water.”

The camera pans over your audience, lauding you with their upturned faces. A screen behind you illuminates a simulation of the drones firing their lasers at the red sphere. I turn away from what I already know, to the real you. You stand, and for the first time I see your signature black t-shirt as a mask. But when I remove it I am no closer to who you are.

The days pass in a blur. I ache in every part of my body. The others despise me, Hamon and Lyr and even the captain, a little bit. I am too far behind, too slow, too dumb. I ask questions that they had answered before the project began, as if they were born with the knowledge. My hands are too small to grip the interlocking carabiners during an emergency protocol. A siren sounds, signaling death, and we break from the drill. Your appearance from nowhere releases the tension and I squeeze my eyes into an accusing squint, but you smile and do not acknowledge blame. You and the captain peer at specs. Lyr joins in, and although she mentions that I will be the death of us she is also smiling. You look for me over the massive back of Hamon. It is good news; it is always good news with you. The engineers have worked out a particularly difficult problem. We will be able to leave at the first window of opportunity, instead of the second. “Two weeks,” you say.

“Instead of?”

You laugh. “The next window is next year.” My eyes won’t bring you into focus. I turn and see the captain pull a small religious icon from a chain on his chest. His lips part to form silent words. His eyes turn up a little. Toward Mars, I can only hope.

When I ask what I should pack the captain says that is the hardest part. Any one thing chosen denies a million others. Your engineers provide our clothing, silvery shapeless jumpsuits that regulate temperature and clean themselves. Nobody even laughs when I wonder which one of us will play the synthesized piano in our eighties rock band. I go home and survey my possessions. I cannot take the things I really want, the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal, the sounds of billions of living things living. I take only memories.

At liftoff we stare at each other, ghostly bubbles reflected in each other’s faceplates. I have a strange thought, strange only because I have not thought of it before. Are we the Adams and Eves of our new world? You will follow, you promise, with a contingent of pioneers, but that is so far in the future you haven’t even commissioned it yet.

We survive our extrication from earth’s hug and for a time are apt at avoiding each other. I pore over pictures of places I never visited, and now never will. Hamon, Lyr and the captain compute, compile and copulate around me. I am lonelier than them, the most isolated person in the universe, for at least they have each other. I feel a martyred satisfaction in my self-pity, until they corner me one morning. The captain says an unexpected EM storm has damaged the automatic release sensor. The drones have to be unlocked manually. Each of the others has a concomitant purpose so only I am left to do it. It isn’t the camaraderie I was hoping for. I argue my inexperience, request more practice. The captain tugs at his charm and Lyr says that the drones must be released now. Her hair splays up and out, a dank and meaty Medusa. I am small enough to navigate the outer shell. I think of my last transmission from you, your optimistic ‘see you soon’ sign off, and for the first time I doubt.

I cannot hoist my body, deadened by the bulky suit, up through the scaffolding. “Time, we have no time,” Lyr repeats, her voice a wasp in my helmet.

Hamon carries me like a doll and throws me into the great void. “Don’t lose your tether, Little Sister,” he says, and I almost do, as he is saying it. I attempt to swim back to him, gyrating from my futile scoops, until his laughter coincides with the carabineers engaging.

The drones are like great eggs, and they pulse with life when I press my body to them. I want to stay there, mesmerized by the juxtaposition of the vast cold emptiness and the warm buzz of potential life. But the captain and Lyr bark commands in that shorthand they’ve developed. I demand clarity, which makes them talk to me in exaggerated slowness, as if I am a four-year-old.

I do it though, and the clamp spreads its fingers. The drone floats in front of me until Lyr’s command tells it to fly. It snatches my tethered wrench as it goes. I’m so jubilant in my success that I almost don’t care, until my whole body snaps at the tether’s limit. I cry out, silencing the voices in my helmet, but I can hear breaths being held. “The drone is free,” I say, “but I dropped the tool.”

“Can you reach it?”

“No. It’s gone.”

I have further disappointment for them, but I wait until Hamon lowers me to the floor to tell them. “I can’t go back up, I just can’t,” meaning never.

The captain says, “Okay, then tomorrow, it will still work tomorrow, we can adjust the speed of the drones. It’s a programming issue .”

I smell disgust and disappointment oozing out with their sweat for the next twelve hours, and when I climb into Hamon’s arms it’s almost with a sense of relief. He gives me no advice this time. I squeeze through the first drone’s empty cradle and begin working on the second. It’s easier this time and I don’t even watch the drone’s escape, but immediately scoot across to the next.

By the time I get to the queen I am working with such desperate confidence that I don’t even wait for the crew’s instructions. The queen is big, over three times the size of the drones. The process is similar but I have to climb on her to get to the clamps. The metal hands turn palm-up with a series of pops and I relax, until I remember I had to tether to the queen. Voices curse in my helmet. I picture myself as the queen’s eternal satellite, arms stretched to perihelion and back. The queen hums in response to Lyr’s ministrations and something inside spins faster, setting sights. I kick off like a swimmer, backstroking to the ship. The hatch opens but it’s the captain, not Hamon, and he dives in a clean arc to the end of his own tether, throwing something long and flexible to me before his leash snaps taut. I reach and grab, pulling him and the ship to me. We squirt inside, and he pulls off his helmet. I fumble with mine and he grabs it and throws it aside and kisses me. In our suits we bump against each other like continents rubbing at fault lines. But we manage. I do not think of you. Lyr and Hamon climb halfway up the scaffolding and spray us with champagne. I love these people more than anything.

Boredom begets new territory. The captain strips my silvery uniform off under a window that always shows Mars. We sleep in its shadow, like Adam and Eve.

We become a satellite of our new world. Your voice is like an echo, and we four exchange puzzled looks because what you are saying is not right. Another voice says we are to return home. You have become unhinged, the voice says, the mission is done. There is no money, there is no support. If you drop you are on your own. Hamon says, “That’s it, then, we can’t go down.”

The captain rubs his chest. I think of you, and I remember your edict. A one way trip for us all. But we wouldn’t be alone; you’d be our guiding voice.

We talk. Then we argue. The captain sends messages, arguing our case. The answer that comes is worse than we fear. You are worn, haggard. You tell us that there has been a change, and all that you had is seized. You are a poor man, a prisoner. Your head turns just a centimeter to the left, where I am sitting, as if you knew where I’d be. “But you are not forsaken,” you say. “We will keep trying. We’ve got time to fix this.” The screen cuts off replacing you with emptiness.

We request updates, daily, hourly. We soar forward but keep looking back. It is always the same, and none of us can stand it. We must go back, we cannot go back, why create a world for four people? Why give up our life’s work? Your life’s work? I repeat your words to them. I still believe.

We are here but here is a liminal purgatory of indecision.

The captain, my captain, breaks the tension. He enters the communal under so much gear that he looks like a small mountain. “Everything goes,” he says, either as command or explanation. Impossible to tell which, and my heart won’t allow my brain the luxury of analysis. I help Lyr bubble wrap her machines for the belly dump. Hamon is there, and he shrugs and says, “All in,” and together we draw back the winches that release the entire contents of the ship to the new world. We follow on a simple sheeted slide, friction, coolant, spiral. Before it recedes from my sight, I cast one last look at the ship as I pass the point of no return. The queen will bring her down in time, but she’ll never fly again.

We begin to unwrap our bubbled buildings. It’s easy going at first. The suits are less trouble in the moderate gravity. The temporary shelter is first, and we huddle under its wrinkled canopy. I drink it all in, but when I close my eyes, I see you. I cry with my helmet tilted down and my tears muddy the silt of my skin on the faceplate. It is good, though, not to see the others. This moment cannot be shared.

We wake from mottled rest and begin the cascade that pops the first buildings into shape. Hamon coos over the tender shoots when we start with the greenhouse. We are alone, but we can live forever if the greenhouse propagates. It’s the weakest link in our chain, or so we think. The creation of our domicile is quick and a welcome relief after the cramped confines of the ship.

A violent storm slouches up to greet us, kicking massive pirouettes of silt so fine that even the filters on our suits can’t keep it all out. The captain shouts orders in my head, but the wind sings so loud that his words are punctuation to the planet’s horrible song. I can see him motioning, but he’s only a pillar of grey in red. Hamon pulls at the canopy and Lyr joins on the other side. When the first bungee snaps, a great swath of canvas flaps free and she is obscured. We work in furious bursts between gales, but when the wind comes from a different direction the world tips over. Exhausted, I pull the canopy over my head and drop into a fetal position. Something snaps, not loud, but so earthlike in the melee that it catches my attention. I spit onto my faceplate and blow so that I have a tiny blurred window. Hamon is dancing away from the canvas. I bounce over to him, my gait buoyed by the unfamiliar lightness. I help him up. He follows through but he is already dead. I see it in his eyes and by the way he doesn’t even bother to cover the hole in his suit, the one where his left arm should be. I don’t see Lyr but her scream serrates my eardrum and streams from Hamon’s suit.

Dust cascades around us like rough seas. Lyr’s keening is sharp enough to permeate my pores, and clangs about inside my head. I know that I won’t be able to hear the captain, but I can’t stand it. I mute the link. I pull Hamon to the shelter, and his feet follow my lead. I shove him through the portal and climb in after. The maelstrom stops, leaving only the sound of dripping and the generators. Hamon’s body gushes and I staunch the flow with my body. He gasps and I can hear Lyr’s screams coming through his helmet. I pull off his helmet. His sigh sounds like thank you.

The door rotates open and the captain, red and muddied by the welcome mat of our new world, climbs in, dragging Lyr. She does not look right, but I can’t immediately place how. She sees Hamon and wails anew. The captain drops upon us and begins pumping the dead man’s chest. This only serves to squeeze out leftover throbs of Hamon’s blood, useless to him now. The captain sees that it is so before I can speak and he lets his head fall upon Hamon’s chest.

When Lyr’s voice is nothing but a hoarse echo I think of you. We sit in silence in our little cell with death. What is your cell like? The captain pulls up his head and a maroon half-moon tattoos his face. “Lyr’s leg is broken,” he says. It’s bad. I don’t want to hear her scream, but I shake off a layer of dust and remove her helmet. She is in shock, silent. The captain gets the med kit and I remove her suit. Truer than Hamon’s, it has remained intact. We set and bind, which is easier than I expect.

She sleeps for days, I think, or maybe weeks, and when she wakes she asks where Hamon is. When the captain looks at me through his lashes, she throws her mushed potatoes at us. “I know he is dead,” she screams, “I haven’t lost my mind. But where is he? What did you do with him?”

The captain says, “You know how it works, Lyr. We add his body to the stores of organic mass.”

“So now what? We eat him?”

The captain squats down, puts a hand on her shoulder. “No. Just part of the cycle. Don’t think about it.”

Her eyes have sunk into her head and she seems to have developed an odd, pearlescent hue. “Don’t do it to me.”

“You know the rules, Lyr.”

“I don’t care. Don’t put me in the bins. Swear it.” She looks at me. Her voice is still hoarse but gets louder with each syllable.

I’ll do anything to stop the rising tide. “Okay,” I say.

The captain slides off his haunches, onto his butt, but he keeps his hand on Lyr. “Okay.” No one says anything else for a long time.

The captain and I unhook the spreaders and take a ride on the fast tractor. The helmet prevents me from feeling the wind in my hair but Springsteen fills my mind. We’re riding out tonight to case the Promised Land. Like ribbons of my memory, catching the wind, you ride along too, your first car and your last dream. We set up camp but we do not sleep in the tent. Instead we look for and find a drone in the clear, clear sky. It winks at us as it passes, waiting for the queen’s directive. On the way back we find a triangular piece of ancient metal protruding from a dune. It’s part of one of the original surveyors. It came here long ago and taught us that survival isn’t limited. It gave us the strength to push on. The captain hangs his head and I notice that his eyes are closed and his lips are moving. After a time he stops and looks up with damp eyes. “Shall we take it?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “We’ll have the queen send its location back to earth. Maybe it will remind them.”

The factory builds itself in stages, while the captain and I work on the details inside. Lyr refuses to stand, although her leg has healed. She claims the pain exists. We give her jobs that she can accomplish from her reclining position. Reading Hamon’s notes, cataloging the queen’s surveys, finding paths for our tractors. She refuses all tasks but one. She monitors communications every waking moment, and she composes ever more lengthy appeals to our rescuers. We do eventually hear from earth, but it is so unhelpful that I think Lyr must be playing some cruel joke. They say we must stop sending requests for rescue and instead send information. The captain wonders why the queen is not transmitting. “I’m holding her hostage,” says Lyr. She tilts her head up and sees the look the captain and I exchange and says, “When they come for me, I’ll give it all freely. Until then the queen is mute.”

I expect the captain to reprimand her but he returns to the tanks and begins his daily inspection of the extremophiles. When my shadow falls across him he says, “We have to watch her, when she starts walking again, because the queen is one thing, but this stuff cannot be replaced.”

“It’s bad enough we’re stranded. But we have to worry about sabotage?” I bang the flat of my hand on the tank under his nose.

He sighs. “She was the one who recruited me.” I have a realization. His love for Lyr, it is like loving you. It is love that transcends lovers, colleagues, family, friends. Time.

But Lyr is not our enemy.

I am optimistic for a time, and when I picture you, it’s the you that I believe would be here, if possibilities could ever be chosen. I remember a story about you as a young man and I think I am going to tell the captain about it, when I hear a metal scream and for a second the unfiltered sun is blotted out. A metal joist has failed and the unhinged wall is threatening to bring down everything with it. The secondary robot arm senses the wall amiss and grabs, so for the moment stability is restored. I breathe a sigh of relief and then I see the captain, outside. I start to jog, panic unhinging, but then I see that he is not outside, he is between. I pause and wince, trying to comprehend. He is wearing an oxygen mask. “Don’t open it,” he says, as if pushing me away from the door with his echo-y words. “It’s under pressure. I was setting it up when the secondary arm went crazy and pushed me in.”

I scowl at him. Explanations aren’t solutions. I say, “So? We’ve got to get you back in.” But he’s got the same look that Hamon had. Already dead.

“This is a gas-mixing chamber. If we open the door we lose it. You can’t terraform the planet without it.”

Again I say, “So.” I add that we don’t need to terraform the planet. “We just need to survive. We don’t need anything but each other. But we do need each other.” I reach out to open the door but he stops me. Not so much with his words but with the cracking desperation in which he intones them. “You have to finish without me.” He checks the gauge and then lays his body down. “I’ve got almost a day’s worth of oxygen, if I conserve. Stay with me and I’ll tell you what I know.”

But I do not stay with him, a fact that will haunt me later. I search for ways to get him out. Finding nothing, I roust Lyr from her mephitic bed and wheel her in a cart to the captain’s tomb. She must stand to see him through the plastic window and at first she refuses. But the captain’s voice calls to her and she struggles up, her bedsore-ridden back filling the room with its deathly attar. She cries but does not become hysterical and they say goodbye.

After I return Lyr to her cocoon I go back and lean against the window. He says, “I lied, there isn’t much time now. You will have to depress the gate so that the mixing can take place. After that you can take my body to the bins.”

“I can’t do it alone.”

“Lyr can help you.”

Frustration forces through my lips. “I wasn’t talking about your body. “

“Neither was I,” he says.

The captain talks for a little while longer, not long enough. I place my hand against the smudged and damp window. There is so much more to know. His voice is weak, as if there aren’t enough air molecules to carry his voice to me. “Make Lyr get up. If she doesn’t move she’ll die.”

I wait until the computers are reminding me every fifteen seconds that the propellants are ready for the mixing chamber to be engaged. I wipe off the window with my silvery sleeve and I focus on the captain’s face as I press the switch. The gears engage and the change in pressure ruffles his hair and presses against his cheek and with a small pop the mask slides away dragging a last smile from the slack jaw. I put on my suit and take the captain’s body to the recycler. No more Adam and Eve. I take his necklace. I fasten it around my neck, and as the great wheels add his flesh to the stores, I hold it as the captain once did, and I say the only prayer that I know: “Please please please please please please please.”

The factory rises above the horizon, and I follow the instructions. The queen takes my input and issues responses, but when I read them it is your voice I hear in my head. I drive the spreaders, sending out trillions of greedy heat-releasing bacteria. I stay away from Lyr and the camp for weeks at a time. Phobos and Deimos follow me. A light from your direction grows for a while then fades. I lie on the hills and rills and follow the paths of the drones in the sky. They are idle no longer, and if I squint long and hard enough I think I can see the pulses of their lasers as they fire. I sometimes imagine you are with me. I realize that this is how saints are made. You always agree, you know what I mean, and you never fail to laugh at my jokes.

When my tanks are empty I return and give a pep talk to the new batch. “Children, behave. Grow strong and fruitful.” But there’s no sign of the bacterial crust that signals transformation. I fill a basket with colicky lime-tomato hybrids and return to Lyr.

She is still in her favorite angle of repose but her head droops at an awkward angle. I nudge her but she is dead. The knowledge does not initially surprise me. Not even Eve and Eve. Soon, from some inner reach I wasn’t aware I possessed, a ferocious slobbery sob gushes out of me, and I grasp her body in a flopping, desperate hug. I kiss her hair and it moves in a silky sheet beneath my lips and coils like a serpent around my arm, as if it did not yet know.

Perhaps you would not understand that I do nothing with her body for many days. I can tell you that in a place where everything stinks and time is not measured in days but in eons, the disposal of Lyr loses some of its urgency. I am not as much at odds with what to do as you might think. I wrap Lyr in her grimy shroud and place it on the palette of the spreader. It looks odd there, shimmering in the twilight, like a bounty. I pack food and water for longer than my longest jaunt on the fast tractor. I do not want to leave her body where I might forget and stumble across it by accident. I release her body to a craggy slope. I press the captain’s icon through my suit, and pray for her, “please please, please please,” but for the moment I do not feel anything. The body is not Lyr, it is a bump on the featureless basin.

I walk along the crest, away from Lyr’s ossuary, and scan the horizon. A sheet of paleness across an open plane in the distance glints. A faint blush of thrush across my baby’s cheek. I stumble down to it, stirring up dusty billows in my wake, until I reach the prairie of fuzz. I gather samples for the queen, my gloved hands shaking with the effort not to crush the fragile vials. She will confirm, but I already know. It is the bacterial crust. The first true denizens of the future world.

Days pass. Weeks, years. Moments. The window of opportunity for a second mission arises, but the queen is silent on the matter. I send messages home, to you, to anyone, but the queen is silent on that matter, too.

A contamination occurs in the filtering of my drinking water. I become so sick that I can no longer differentiate sight from sound, sky from sea. I remind myself that there is no sea. I see you outside my sleeping bubble, and you tell me there is something I must see. I am too weak to follow. I am dehydrated and mutter it through cracked lips. “No water.”

I realize that I am walking. I say the prayer. “Please.” I am blind. More surprised that my legs can carry me than that my eyes have ceased to work. I swallow dust and the movement presses metal to my throat. It is my helmet, backwards. I am outside, walking, and my suit is on backwards. But I am still alive. I manage, painfully, agonizingly, to turn my helmet enough degrees around so that I can see. I do not recognize where I am. I walk, I think, or roll. In the distance there is a basin of moving light. I return to my camp. I drink the tainted water, but it no longer has the power to kill me. I live on, wondering where my delirium led me.

A single moment. Years. My greenhouse thrives, blooms. The things I eat have changed, have changed me.

I dive like a needle in and out in of the desolate landscape. The amino acid archive breaks and I spend months learning its components before I dare to remove and reproduce the broken part. I track the drones by intuition and I find myself riding in their path, just ahead of their pulses. I know they can’t really hurt me, but the first time the laser strikes my helmet and sputters down the arms of my suit I am caught by surprise and can’t sleep for several days. How did I forget the joy of an unexpected event? Muddy clouds form and twist into swirls and puffs. Sometimes the rosy dervishes overtake me and I feel their tender splats like something I remember, rain. But mostly I spread the bacterial chow, like a bored zookeeper, stuck in a loop that I can’t even define existentially.

Like on the day when I carried Lyr out to the dunes, I crest a hill and see something new. A rainbow rises over a red-lipped horizon. I pat the smudges on my suit and remember the little clouds. I step off of the tractor and walk toward it. A mirage arises in the distance: a glistening silver sea.

The mirage dissolves into reality. It has sound too, movement, sway. I come to the edge and kneel down, at a safe distance. I crawl closer, on my belly, until I can almost touch it. A battered, bemused and burned figure stares back at me. I poke it and recoil immediately. My reflection is replaced by ripples. I watch until it is smooth again. A breeze disturbs the surface a few meters away, and I hear the lap, lap, lap against the shore. In a singular motion I jump up and wade in, grabbing up paw-fuls in my guppy, cuppy hands, spreading the blackened nubs of my ancient gloves wide so that I can watch the rivulets stream through.

I paddle in an awkward oval. I slap the surface and I kick up foam and I duck down and let buoyancy carry me up and I discover that my suit is mostly sinkable but I don’t care and for the first time in years, I use my voice, to laugh, a low and fat sound, spilling out joy because I’ve done it, I did it, I am not Adam nor Eve, I am God . A sudden thirst crackles on my tongue and I want to rip off my helmet and drink, see if it is as clear and clean as it looks. Is it salty? Bitter? No, I cannot taste it, not yet. I have to ask the queen. I have to plant the seeds. An unborn world awaits awakening.

I assemble the amino acids. I mix bacteria and enzymes, following the recipe, line by line. I must look like a bizarre chef with my leaded apron coated in fine red flour. I blow decades of skin flakes off crates of seeds and shake out cans of dehydrated fish. In a frenzy I stir the primordial ooze. Once I cackle but it sounds so strange that I cover my mouth with my warty, liver spotted hand. But I can’t stop smiling, and I know you’d understand. A light grows in the night sky. I see it sometimes in my peripheral vision. I don’t dare ask the queen and anyway, she’s been a mute mother for too long. I have so much to do. My life is full, full. I scrub tanks and till the land and try and fail and try again.

I reap the rewards. Lush. Land. Life.

Decades, seconds.

One day I crest a hill and a gentle breeze moves me to pause and turn. My vantage point encompasses blue and green, and movement. I remove the helmet so that I can press the old charm to my lips. I still remember how to pray. “Please please please.” I take a deep breath, the first of this world’s offering, and exhale. I look skyward and I wait, for you, whoever you are, for all of you, for any of you, you, you, you, in this fertile paradise of my creation.