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 (5 page)

BOOK: People of Mars
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“Oh God, another
sample? It’s so late. You really wanna drive in the dark, don’t
you?”

“What d’you want to
do?” Anna’s look threw daggers at him. “Complain or finish
sooner?”

 

 

Michelle’s silvery
laughter resounded in the corridor, just as Anna and Robert were
entering it. They had returned after nine o’clock and were
starving, but they had at least to take the samples to the
laboratory. And maybe take a good shower. After a day spent in the
confined spaces of the rover and of their pressurised suits,
although they were designed to give the best comfort, you would
inevitably feel sticky.

When they heard the seductive tone in Michelle’s
voice, they looked at each other, amused. Robert was dragging the
trolley with the pipes containing regolith cores, followed on his
heels by Anna, who was carrying the kit with some smaller samples
and the leftovers of their packed lunch. The gym door was ajar,
projecting a strip of light on the floor in the semi-darkness of
the corridor. They already envisaged finding the woman with her
husband, occupied in something
private
, convinced that nobody would pass by at that very moment.
Disturbing them seemed such an amusing idea.

Anna was still wearing
a mischievous smile on her face, when she caught sight of Robert’s
dismayed expression, as they came by the door. He turned his gaze
to her and then he made a sign of denial with his hand, while
walking away, as if he meant he didn’t want to know any more about
the situation. His reaction paralysed her, erasing even the
slightest hint of the good mood she’d had. She knew what she would
see, if she turned around. She knew she wouldn’t like it at all.
But she couldn’t help but look.

They were there,
beside the treadmill. Michelle was leaning with her back against
the wall, relaxed, her gaze conspiratorial, her right hand’s
fingers placed on her mouth, while she was listening with attention
to what was being whispered in her ear. She was so absorbed that
she hadn’t heard the noise of the trolley, or realised there was an
onlooker. Hassan was in front of her. He was holding his T-shirt
soaked with sweat and was standing there, as if nothing particular
was going on, with his bare chest at about ten inches from the
commander’s wife, his friend’s wife. His other hand was resting on
the wall, brushing against her hair. His head tilted, while he
whispered something to her.

The air was impregnated by an evident sexual
tension, a complicity Anna had already seen many times between the
two of them during the journey on the
Isis
and then during the many months of their stay on
the planet. When she had talked about it with Robert, he had told
her she could see intrigues everywhere and made fun of her.
Michelle was used to getting very close to both men and women, even
more so since they lived within a small community, which had become
family over time. But now, faced with such a blatant situation, not
even he could deny the obvious.

Michelle laughed
again, placed a hand on her head and started rolling a lock of hair
with her fingers. Hassan moved away a bit to look her in the eye.
It was her turn to speak. He was the one listening to her with
attention now; he almost hung on her words. Anna was unable to hear
what they were saying. They were using a very low tone and were in
the other side of the room. But, despite that, she could not stop
watching them, while little by little she was assailed by a mix of
rage and sadness, which prevented her thinking in a lucid way. She
couldn’t decide whether to interrupt them or just walk away. She
didn’t know which of the two would have hurt her less.

In the end it wasn’t
her business. Who cared? Yet she cared.

All at once, as if he
knew she was there, Hassan raised his gaze. He didn’t seem
perturbed to see her. There wasn’t the least astonishment on his
face. He kept on listening to Michelle and brushing against her
hair with his fingers. But he looked at Anna, with a
half-smile.

Feeling caught out she
lowered her head, guilty, and ran away.

 

 

“Why are you still
here? Aren’t you hungry?”

Robert had appeared at
the laboratory door, but Anna almost didn’t react to his words. Her
stomach was closed and the last thing she wanted was to spend her
time staring at the kitchen wall, while chewing some insipid food.
And thinking. So she had returned to her domain, she had donned her
white coat and had started to work on the samples right away. She
wasn’t required to leave the station tomorrow, so she could stay up
until late that evening.

She was preparing a
tiny portion on the sample taken from the crack, to observe it
under the microscope, located inside a Plexiglas sterile unit that
had a similar internal atmosphere to the Martian one. Handling
glassware by means of the rubber gloves protruding into that big
transparent box wasn’t an easy task and required a huge amount of
concentration. The risk of altering the material with the air in
the station, or contaminating it with the bacteria they’d brought
from Earth on their bodies was high; therefore before she could
watch it closely and touch it with her own hands, she wanted to
analyse all its properties in an environment not too different from
where she had collected it.

While moving it under
the artificial light, the azure reflections had started dancing
before her eyes. It was an optical effect of extraordinary beauty.
Those points were so small, scattered on the surface of the stone.
According to the analyser, it was a crystal containing beryllium,
whose azure colour was due to a high concentration of iron. In
short, it was common aquamarine. What made it peculiar were the
tiny dimensions of the crystals and their arrangement that formed
separated, round stains of various size, which sometimes merged.
They reminded her of something she knew well, but the theory did
not fit the context where they took the sample.

“Can you hear me?”

“I can hear you,” Anna
murmured, trying not to perform abrupt movements, while placing the
slide under the lens. “I’m busy now.”

“Look, those stones
were out there for millions of years, they won’t get offended if
you let them wait for another half an hour.”

“I’m not hungry.”
Right now, she just wasn’t in the mood for playing around.

“Come on, Sister, at
least keep me company. Don’t send me there alone. What if I meet
them? I guess I wouldn’t be able to hold back the laughter. At
least, if I am with you, I can pretend I’m laughing at you!”

And, goodbye
concentration. Anna raised her frowning look at Robert, hoping that
this way he would understand she didn’t really fancy joking
about.

“Perhaps we
misunderstood, after all they were just talking,” he continued in
full flow. “Truth be told, I’m not even quite sure of what I
saw.”


I am,” she replied, curt, while slipping her hands
out of the gloves. Then she activated the wide screen installed on
the wall in front of her. At first, the image of the sample was as
it appeared visible to the naked eye. By moving a finger on
her
folio
, Anna put
one of the small, azure crystals in the middle of the field and
zoomed in. As the image entered the crystal, the latter seemed to
break up in smaller, separated pieces. “What the …”

“What are we looking
at?” Robert came closer to her, intrigued.


One of those
glitters
on the rock sample taken from the crack.” She ensured she
was recording all that was displayed on the screen. “From the
analyser it turned out this is what you commonly call aquamarine …
but it’s strange. I thought each of them was a single crystal,
maybe small, but single. But it isn’t the case.”

“They’re a lot of
pieces, so tiny.”

“Correct.” She kept on
zooming in gradually. “They aren’t just tiny, they are
microscopic.” She moved to one of the microcrystals and zoomed up
to the maximum optical magnification. As it became bigger, that
mineral formation acquired an even more elongated shape.

“Oh, Christ …” was his
comment.

Anna, instead, stared
at the screen, incredulous, wondering whether she was dreaming. The
image before her was a rod-shaped structure, inside of which were
many small, azure microcrystals arranged in a uniform way.

“Hey, guys, you were
late.” Michelle burst into the room, drawing their attention on
her. “Have you found something in—” Her words trailed off as she
saw the screen.

“Michelle, do you see
what I see? Or am I hallucinating?” Anna asked, as she resumed
watching the subject of her study. She wasn’t really in the mood to
look at her face in that moment, but it was also true that her
scientific expertise could come in handy.

“Where did you take
it?” The geologist, or better areologist, as she liked to define
herself, moved as close as possible to the screen. “Which
magnification is it?” she asked after some seconds of silence,
during which she had stared open-mouthed at the image.

“That thing is ten
micron long. And those points you see inside it are microcrystals
of beryllium and iron.” Although she tried to hide it, Anna’s voice
betrayed a certain amount of excitement.

“Wait, Anna, let’s not
jump to hasty conclusions now.” Michelle turned to her colleague
with a grave tone. Their eyes met just for a moment. Anna was the
first one to look away.

Robert let a chuckle
escape, which he hastened to transform into coughing, thus earning
a nasty look from his friend. Both had linked that statement to
something else.

The other woman
observed them with curiosity then, with a professional attitude,
resumed examining the enlarged image. “At first glance, it would
actually seem to be a fossil bacterium, but how have beryllium
crystals ended up inside it?” She turned to Anna again, with a
slight smile, in which the latter couldn’t help but glimpse
arrogance. “It is surely a mineral formation that resembles
something else, that’s all … sure, the fact that the crystals are
so dispersed, instead of being aggregated together, is odd and
deserves a careful study.”

She had much to say
for someone who didn’t wish to jump to hasty conclusions. It almost
seemed she wanted to close that business as soon as possible, even
though her words meant the exact opposite.

Without replying, Anna
zoomed out one-step at a time, thus showing the many rod-shaped
structures that grouped together to form a big azure stain, located
beside other stains of various sizes. “Yet this arrangement
strongly reminds me of the colonial growth of bacteria.” It was far
too evident and Michelle could not deny it.

The silence was at
once interrupted by the sound of broken glass, which made the two
women turn.


Holy Christ!” Robert exclaimed. At his feet was
one of the sealed vials, drawn by means of the sampler from inside
the crack, and it had shattered in a thousand pieces. Many tiny
stones had scattered on the floor, projected by their fall, whilst
a thin film of red dust was settling and forming a wide patch.
“Sorry, Sister, I was so absorbed looking at that
colonial
stuff
, or whatever the
hell it is, that I bumped the counter.” He crouched down. “I’ll
clean up, don’t worry.”

Michelle started
laughing.

“Rob, let it go,” Anna
said. “I’ll take care of it later.” Luckily, they had extracted a
one-metre core from the ground, so nothing important had been
lost.

“Ah.” Robert pulled
back his hand. “Goddamned glass.”

“I told you to let it
go.”


You’re right,
Mom
,” he replied, imitating a childish voice.

But some blood was
copiously dripping from his fingers, while he was standing up. “Let
me see,” Michelle stepped in, getting closer to him. “You’ve cut
yourself, wash it under the tap.” And she headed for the
laboratory’s emergency kit.

“Sister, you sure I
won’t get landed with tetanus or something like that in this dust?”
He was sniggering, while letting water flow on his hand. He was
playing the fool, as usual.


At least of this, yes, I’m sure,” Anna said with a
fake reproachful tone. “Whatever that stuff we’ve found is, if it
ever was alive, that happened million years ago. And it surely
isn’t
Clostridium tetani
.”

“Let me see.” Michelle
was back with a swab soaked in disinfectant and had unceremoniously
grabbed Robert’s hand, to check his wound.

“Ouch!”

“It’s a deep cut. It’s
better that I take you to Hassan to let him put in some stitches.”
She wrapped up his finger with a gauze bandage. “Press here. Let’s
go.” And she dragged him towards the door.

Robert turned to Anna
a moment before they left. “She takes me to Hassan.” And he winked
at her.

Once she was alone,
Anna’s smile disappeared.

 

 

One of the things he
couldn’t stand about Mars was the utter darkness during the night.
When the external lights of Station Alpha were turned off and
everybody went to sleep, just a single, immense gloominess remained
out there. Yes, you could see thousands of stars from your window,
especially if you stayed long enough to allow your pupils to dilate
at their maximum to gather that little light coming from the sky.
But it was not sufficient. Deimos almost mingled with them. Phobos,
instead, when over the horizon, moved too much in a rush. It looked
like a foreign, artificial object.

He was missing the
Moon. He was even missing light pollution. Who would’ve thought it?
The dark oppressed him, disoriented him. That entire world, which
all looked the same, didn’t give any reference even during the day.
He didn’t even know in which direction he should pray. In the
beginning he had used the position of Earth, but in the end it
seemed nonsense to him. So he had pretended to be still there and
had oriented eastward. Then, without realising it, he started
skipping some prayers. He had vowed to himself to respect Ramadan
and he had done that, until he had completely lost the sense of the
Earth time. After one thousand sols on Mars, you get used to months
with the name of constellations, double-lasting years and seasons.
Inexorably you realise that certain conventions lose their meaning
and in the end, what remains without them?

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