Across The Dust
It’s been a very long time. My beard is long, my hair touches my shoulders in a tangled mess, and my body itches and stinks with retched uncleanliness.
But I do not care. I am beyond caring. That passed many months ago, as I realised what a shit-pit I now exist within.
Dawn breaks through the window. The early sun gleams and glints from the dust particles in the air, turning everything a deep shade of red. It is like this every morning – how long has it been now? Ten months? A year? More? It’s impossible to tell.
At the beginning I scratched the passing days onto the bare metal of the unit I live within, but soon, the days became lost, mingling with one another, until all I could measure time by, was the rising and the setting of the sun. Even that seems so inconsistent. A week seems like a day, and a day like a week. I have no point of reference, nothing to grasp hold of, nothing to direct me towards any type of goal.
I am a man, stuck in a metal box, on the surface of Mars – alone…
I pick up the radio transmitter on the desk in front of the window. I press it, and it beeps. “This is Nigel Warren of expedition Alpha 16. To anyone receiving, contact the European Space Agency, advising them that I am still alive within prototype habitat unit B3… Over and out…”
I let the radio crackle for a while, listening for anything, whilst knowing it serves no good purpose. Who was going to reply? The Martians living a few miles beneath the surface? The transmitter had nowhere near enough power to reach Earth. My only hope was that it would be intercepted by a passing probe or satellite – but that hope seemed impossibly slim, horribly unlikely. I am no engineer, I wouldn’t know how to relay it, how to make the signal stronger.
I suppose you could say I have given up hope, given up any chance of being rescued. Somewhere deep down – however, and whenever – I know I will come to die in this box. That my remains will decompose, leaving only my skeleton and a pile of clothes. Maybe I will never be seen by human eyes again, or maybe I will, in a hundred years when they re-discover my burial site. Though, by then, no one will know who I am, nobody will even care. I will become nothing more than a statistic, a trivial number for someone to scrawl on paper.
The radio crackles… it crackles… then a voice breaks through the static. A human voice that isn’t my own.
“Hello?” It says. “I’m receiving – out.”
I lunge across the room, and grab the microphone. “Hello…?” I shout. “This is Nigel Warren of expedition Alpha 16, are you receiving clearly? From where?”
“Receiving clearly,” it’s a womans voice. “This is Maggie Verdez of expedition Beta 1.”
“You’re currently stationed on Mars?” My voice croaks.
“Yes, on the South flank of Olympus Mons,” she says. “You say you’re from Alpha 16, wasn’t that mission scrubbed a year-and-a-half ago?”
Anxiety crushes into me.
“I’ve been here all this time…” I say, my voice deflated.
There’s a silence, only cut by the horrible static. “You’ve been here since then? Sorry, but I don’t fully understand,” the voice says.
“Our team, Alpha 16, we were instructed to move to a new location. We were the recon group for a potential permanent settlement – the first of its kind. The six others left in the rover… they never came back.”
“That can’t be right. Your Planet-to-Orbit-Module malfunctioned in the upper atmosphere shortly after takeoff. The debris burnt up, everyone died.”
“I can see our PTOM right now from the window, a couple hundred feet away. It’s been there ever since, operational, I suppose. I spent months trying to find a solution so it could to be piloted alone – but I never came up with anything. I was the Computer Systems expert. But after what happened six years ago, the autopilot and automation systems require two biological authentications. Not even I could mitigate it. It was built without a backdoor for a reason.”
“Alpha 16 never left Mars?” The voice asks.
“No, not as far as I’m aware. Not unless they reached one of the other stations.”
“Then, they’re still out there in the rover – long dead…” I say. “Do you have radio contact with Mission Control?”
“Make contact and advise them of my situation.”
And then, I think deeply for a moment, as a realisation slowly creeps into me, getting between the cracks in my lips, and the roughness of my nutrient deficient skin.
“You think…” I say. “Maybe they know I’m still here?” My hand shakes on the receiver.
“I don’t know, why would they do that?” She says.
“Maybe something happened to the rest of my crew, something that the ESA doesn’t want the world to know.”
“Would they really do that?”
“I’m sure of it.”
It hits me – I’m never getting out of here. I have spent what turns out to be more than a year on this dusty planet. At some point in the next few months what’s left of the meagre food supplies will run out. And that’s if all the life-support systems hold out until then. I don’t have the expertise nor the resources to fix them. If the Carbon Dioxide scrubbers fail, I’ll slowly asphyxiate. If water reclemation fails, I’ll die of thirst within a few days. If the pressure seals breach, the Martian atmosphere will kill me.
There is no situation in which I will be ok.
“How can I help?” The voice over the radio asks.
“It might be dangerous?” I say.
“Oh, I know. I knew that as soon as you said you were from Alpha 16. It’s not like I can leave you out… where are you-”
“Well, that’s far enough out from Olympus for the rover to not be viable…” she says. “Anyway, I couldn’t just comandeer it, and drive there.”
For a few minutes, a horrible, all-consuming silence occupies my metal unit. I am completely alone, for the first time, I truly feel it. I want my family, my friends, I want to go to the pub – get drunk, laugh… smile. These things crush me, with their incredible, immoveable weight finally bearing down on me after all this time.
Maybe it would have been better to not hear her voice… maybe then I could die without any hope of Earth. Because, I get the sense that an impossibly tiny amount of hope is worse than none at all.
“You still there?” I ask, pressing the broadcast button with my white hand.
“I’m still here,” she says. “I’m going to do everything I can. I’m the ranking official within my team, and the majority I’d trust with my life. I’ll figure something out. I promise.”
“Don’t leave,” I say, rather pathetically.
“I’m not going anywhere, Nigel” she says. “We’ll get through this – whatever that takes.”
“Thank you,” I mutter into the microphone.
“I suppose you’re in need of a normal conversation?”
“You could say that…”
“Alright then, what’s your favourite place to eat?” Maggie asks, a smile in her voice.
So, I tell her everything.