Read People of Mars Online

Authors: Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli

Tags: #mars, #nasa, #space exploration, #mars colonization, #mars colonisation, #mars exploration, #astrobiology, #nasa astronaut, #antiheroine, #colonization of mars

People of Mars (3 page)

BOOK: People of Mars
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I get closer to it. It
has got a simple handle, but I can’t move it. It must be an
emergency opening mechanism, to be used only when the electricity
is out. Beside the jamb is a touch panel. Some climate data are on
it: temperature, pressure, humidity, oxygen and carbon dioxide
concentration. They would be quite normal values, if I were on
Earth. I try to see through the window, but the glass is matted and
it’s dark on the other side. I brush against the display, which
comes to life.

‘Open door’ appears on
it. I tap the icon and then I hear a mechanical click, but the door
remains closed. In the same instant, I see through the glass that
there are lights turning on. Almost without thinking, I pull the
handle and the panel starts sliding into the wall.

The sight opening up
before my eyes is at the same time unbelievable and stupendous. The
lighting reveals the outlines of a huge plastic bubble, which
encapsulates a luxuriant garden. Inside, precisely separated, are
plants of various sizes, from creepers to proper trees. With my
mouth still wide open, I descend the steps one by one and I put my
feet on the ground. Yes, it is ground, not a floor. I stoop to pick
up a handful of it. It’s dark reddish in colour, but damp, like in
my greenhouse. The air is tepid and pleasant to breath. Overhead I
hear life support fans buzzing, which prevent the accumulation of
the carbon dioxide produced by the plants in the dark hours.

The ground trembles
again for a moment. A spade slides along the wall and falls. The
puff repeats. This time it is loud. Soon after, I hear that
wonderful noise. Since arriving on Mars, I have dreamt of it so
many times, in the morning before waking up. I’ve opened my eyes
and looked towards the window, hoping to see the glass beaded from
the outside by small raindrops, only to remember where I was. But
I’m not dreaming now.

Regardless of the
strain to which my body is prey, I rush to the origin of the noise.
I pass the fruit trees and a dense cloud hits me, warm, humid. The
vapour, which condensates as soon as it touches my skin, mixes with
the tears of joy now rolling down on my face, while I let myself
fall to the ground and I remain there, admiring that wonder.

“Who are you?”

A child’s voice behind
me makes me flinch. When I turn around, I see a girl; she must be
no more than seven, her face is round, framed by long wavy hair,
her eyes are wide, bright. She’s wearing a white top, so long that
it could be a gown, or a nightdress, judging from her sleepy
expression. In her hands is a wooden object, a toy. She looks at me
with suspicion, but she doesn’t seem fearful.

 

3

 

“Champagne!” Dennis
shouted as he popped the cork.

The others welcomed his gesture, beating their PVC
cups on the table. The euphoria reached its maximum. They had
entered Station Alpha a little less than half an hour before and
they already felt at home. After the long months spent in the
confined spaces of the
Isis
,
that place, in comparison, seemed like a royal palace. They had
trained for years to live in a perfect replica of that habitat, so
they already knew where to go and what to do. In the coming days
they’d have to settle in, check that all equipment worked as
expected, and start planning their life on Mars. But there was no
hurry now. The sole fact they were there, safe and sound, was a
success. They had arrived where no other human being
could.

“We’ve gone down in
history!” Robert exclaimed, and gulped the contents of his cup.
After an abstinence that seemed never-ending to him, that little
bit of alcohol went straight to his brain and he started shouting
for joy.

The rest of the crew
replied in a chorus with a loud, “Yeah!”

But then he gestured
them to be quiet. He hadn’t finished with his speech. “Brothers and
sisters, let’s enjoy this wonder, because it’s the last time we can
drink it in our lives!”

A general boo welcomed
those last words.

“Well,” Anna stepped
in. “Unfortunately we won’t for sure be able to plant vineyards on
this planet. At least not for the next … two hundred years.”

Another joking
boo.

“But!” she continued,
hushing them. “We’ve got some beautiful potato tubers, which are
destined for the greenhouse. And we could use a part of the harvest
for something different other than simple nutrition.”

“Vodka!” This time
Michelle was the one who spoke.

“I love you, Sister,”
Robert exclaimed, putting both hands on his chest in a theatrical
gesture addressed to Anna.

“I love you too,
Brother!”

Rock music was heard
coming out from the loudspeakers in the meeting room, followed by
Hassan’s serious voice. “I’d like to inform you that for the last
two minutes we’ve been transmitting in real time a video to the
guys in Houston.” Then his mouth stretched in a smile. “With a
little luck, they’ll be already drunk, when they receive us.” He
laughed. “I’ve heard they keep aside a lot of strong stuff for
these occasions at mission control, so we can let loose.” Right
after that he increased the volume.

Michelle knocked her
cup back, threw it away, and rushed to the middle of the room,
following the rhythm of the music. With a sensual gesture she
motioned for her husband to get closer, but Dennis shook his hands
to decline the invitation. That made Robert laugh out loud. Their
commander was shy around others. But she didn’t get discouraged and
turned her attention to Hassan, who didn’t need to be asked twice.
He grabbed her hand and made her spin around. Then he seized her
before she fell to the floor, simulating an awkward dip.

Robert watched them,
amused. The blonde geologist and the young surgeon were perhaps the
worst matched pair in the history of ballroom, but in that very
moment they showed such joy and harmony; it was a pleasure to see
them having fun.

“You do know,
sweetheart, that I’ll be able to blackmail you for life with this
video,” Dennis joked. “If you don’t do whatever I order you, I
swear I’ll send it to your parents.”

She laughed loudly,
but kept on dancing with her partner.

The only one who
appeared to have at once stopped having fun was Anna. Her gaze
fixed on the two dancers. Robert scrutinised her expression, a mix
of annoyance and sadness.

“Wanna dance with me,
Sister?”

She started and turned
to him, surprised. Maybe she hadn’t heard him approaching because
of the loud music. But when their eyes met, she smiled again.

There was a kind of comradeship between him and
the other guys, while there was respect and a deep, mutual trust,
even affection, with Michelle; Anna was something different. They
understood each other with a glance. They covered each other. They
were accomplices. He’d wanted them to be something more, but he had
soon become her confidant, ending up in the so-called
friend
zone
, and he’d never had
the courage to make a pass at her, as he knew she still loved
another man. Maybe, with the passing of time, things would change.
In the end they had an entire lifetime to spend in that place. He
took comfort from that thought, which little by little became
stronger in his mind.

But there was a sullen
sensation in the bottom of his heart, which bothered him. Something
that her previous expression had aroused.

 

 

“How can it be they
haven’t confirmed the launch date yet?”

Anna’s voice was
muffled by anguish. As days, months, many months passed, a snaky
sensation of powerlessness had materialised in her thoughts,
transforming into something real and oppressive. The dejected gazes
of the others seated around the table, mechanically swallowing the
umpteenth breakfast, demonstrated she wasn’t the only one to feel
like that. Only Dennis tried to keep a semblance of optimism, but
over time his acting capabilities had worsened, to say the
least.

“Please, refrain from
your usual drama,” he implored her.

“Drama?” She stood up.
Her appetite was gone. “It’s exactly what they said the last time.
Then the launch window closed and we remained here, empty-handed,
and with the prospect of waiting another Martian year, before
getting to know whether next time they would sent us the equipment
we need.” She looked at her colleagues, one by one, before stopping
at the commander. “Maybe you haven’t realised that, but we are
stuck here. We keep on doing the same things and we find nothing.
We must be able to go farther.”

“Anna, you’re being
unfair now,” Michelle stepped in, promptly siding with her husband,
in her usual protective manner. “We knew full well since the
beginning that the chances they’d let another mission be launched
after only two years were low, but the political situation has
changed now—”

“I don’t give a damn
about the political situation!” Anna had always believed what the
officials from NASA used to say, or at least she had forced herself
to do that, to avoid admitting she had made the wrong choice, when
she decided to leave Earth to start that adventure. But her
enthusiasm had lessened by now, and the lack of new incentives had
increased her sense that they had been abandoned. “We’ve been in
this fucking desert for a thousand days now.”


Nine hundred and ninety-five
sols
,” Hassan pointed out distractedly with a full
mouth, looking everywhere but at her. He was the only one who
didn’t seem perturbed by her scene. As usual, in front of the
others, he pretended she didn’t exist at all.

Anna went on with what
she was saying. She had learned to ignore him as well. She’d had
enough and wasn’t going to let that man humiliate her. “We are sick
and tired of listening to the same excuses again and again. We need
new equipment, and rovers with a wider range. Other habs need to be
put into operation, we need more people joining us to start a real
colonisation. If only the five of us remain, do you know what will
happen? We’ll end up killing each other. That’s what will
happen!”

Dennis snorted.

Robert stood, moved
close to his friend and placed a hand gently on her arm. “Come on,
Sister, we all understand how you feel. We’ve gotten the same
concerns, but shouting at each other does no good. We’re family, do
you remember?”

Touched by his words,
Anna turned to him. Robert used to be the one who understood her,
who knew how to treat her, but this time even he couldn’t make her
calm down. She felt trapped. She had built herself a prison with
her own hands and left the keys with some people hundreds of
million kilometres away. Yet at the beginning the idea of living on
the Red Planet had seemed perfect to her. What could she want more
than an entire planet to explore, fantastic discoveries to make?
But now they were stuck in such a small area, where apparently
there was nothing at all. She’d journeyed this far in search of
even just a hint that Mars had hosted life in the remote past. She
wanted some concrete proof there was life outside of Earth,
something to confirm her many years of studies. And maybe that
proof was there somewhere, but she couldn’t reach it; perhaps it
was just one kilometre beyond the maximum distance she could
travel.


Anyway it isn’t like the other time at all,”
Dennis continued. “There’s a definite project now. The
Isis 2
mission is ready. The allocated
money has been spent, there’s no reason why NASA should postpone it
anymore. You’ll see that in thirty, sixty days at most, we’ll have
a launch date, unless anything unexpected happens.”


Unexpected …” There was sarcasm in Anna’s voice,
while she pronounced that single word, but at that point she didn’t
have any strength to discuss it. She sat, following Robert’s
invitation; he had never stopped holding her arm. She put her right
hand on his and looked him in the eye.
‘I’m alright, don’t
worry.’

“So.” Hassan resumed
speaking, as if nothing had happened, after Anna’s outburst. “We
were discussing the sortie schedule for the next days.” He sipped
some coffee. “Today Michelle and I should go back to sector H to
make another drilling attempt.”

“Again?” Anna
exclaimed, irritated, but Hassan did nothing but raise his voice to
outdo hers.

“Yesterday, on our way
back, we passed over an area that gave possible positive responses
to the instrumentation, but it was too late to stop then.” He
activated the wall screen, on which a topographic map appeared
depicting an area of the planum thirty kilometres east of Station
Alpha. “Here it is.” A bright pointer was indicating a specific
zone on the chart. “There is no doubt; at a depth of seventy
metres, the terrain has a different density. It’s worth finding out
what it is.”

Hassan’s annoying
professional tone became almost imperceptible once Anna left the
room, letting the door close behind her.

 

 

She stalked across the
laboratory in a fury, feeling breathless. She opened the greenhouse
door and a moment later, she found herself among her plants. She
closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The smell of the leaves
pervaded her nostrils, giving her the illusion of standing in open
country. That was enough to allow her to calm down at last. She
knew that little corner of paradise inch by inch. She had planted,
nurtured and coddled every single plant, as if it was a child. She
felt at home there.

An insect buzzed
before her nose, making her shake her head to shoo it away and
forcing her to open her eyes. Together with the seeds and some
small plants, they had brought sacks full of humus rich soil from
Earth, to ensure they had the necessary nutrients to make them
develop as well as the bacteria to trigger the decomposition
process, essential for the recycling of nutritious elements.
Unfortunately, the eggs of insects and spiders came along for the
ride. They were a bit less useful, but helped make the illusion of
home more real.

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