Excerpt from the draft manuscript Loved Mars, Hated The Food. Feel free to leave comments below.
I am sure I’m a dead man.
I am seated on a large red boulder next to my rover, overlooking the gaping crater that was once Futurum, the first permanent Mars Colony. The silence of Valles Marineris is broken by my pounding chest and heavy breathing. I realize I am hyperventilating.
The Colony rubble is spread over a wide radius. The debris glitters against the red sand and rocks. As I gaze at this horrible scene, my head is spinning and I’m sweating despite the intervention of my EVA spacesuit’s cooling system. It could be the weed-laced brownie, I ate earlier, is making me hallucinate. Maybe, I died in the explosion and am having an out of body experience. No, I am pretty sure I’m still alive. But for how much longer?
What was I thinking when I signed up for this mission? I’m a thirty-two-year-old chef from Toms River, New Jersey. I don’t know anything about surviving on a barren planet. I just prepare meals. Without food, water and oxygen, I don’t think I’ll be living on this planet much longer. Or anywhere else for that matter.
“IS ANYONE ELSE ALIVE?” I wince as my voice bounces off the inside of my helmet. “SOMEBODY HELP ME!” I shout again. Still complete silence.
I try to focus and figure out what to do next when I have a strange feeling that I am being watched. I look around and notice two figures standing about 200 feet away. I spring to my feet ready to rush over to them. I’m thrilled to find out I’m not the only survivor. Then I realize they aren’t wearing spacesuits.
They don’t look like anyone from the Mars Colony. Who are they? Are they Martians? Are the drugs messing with my head?
I get back into the rover and slowly approach them. I notice they are thin and the size of an eight-year-old on Earth. They have two arms and legs, just like me. Their skin is copper color and wrinkled, like a ninety-year-old.
When I’m about fifty feet away, I stop, not sure what to do next. They begin to move towards me. At that moment, I’m convinced that intend on either vaporizing me with a ray gun or make me a slave. I’m shaking all over and notice that I’ve wet my spacesuit.
As they get closer, I can make out that their heads are large and round with two big black eyes, a flat nose, a mouth with no lips, and no ears. They are so ugly they are cute looking. Sort of like a Shar Pei. I get out of the rover, raise my right hand and wave. They both glance at each other but don’t react. Mission training never covered communicating with Martians. Come to think of it, I don’t remember them ever mentioning Martians.
I raise my right hand again to wave and shout, “Live long and prosper. Dif-tor heh smusma.”
With my raised hand, I try the Vulcan salute. Hey, why not? Though I’m sure they can’t tell because my hand is in the glove of my spacesuit. Still, no reaction. But, of course, they’re Martians, not Vulcans.
I try again. “Klaatu barada nikto.”
I remember the line from a twentieth century movie, The Day The Earth Stood Still. It’s the first thing that pops into my head, although I’m sure they can’t hear me through my helmet. Again, they look at each other but don’t react.
I hear this strange voice in my head. “Klaatu barada nikto, are you intact?” At first, I think I’m imagining it.
I hear it again. “Klaatu barada nikto, we heard the detonation. What transpired here?” I’m watching the two aliens closely but it doesn’t appear they are speaking.
“Klaatu barada nikto, can you comprehend?” says the voice.
“Yes,” I respond in a shrill voice. “Please…please, don’t harm me.”
“Klaatu barada nikto, we merely came to investigate,” says the voice. “We intend no harm.”
“How am I hearing you?” I ask. “How are you hearing me through this helmet? And I’m not Klaatu barada nikto. I’m Dixon Jenner.”
I hear one of the Martians respond. “Good wishes Dixon Jenner. I am Bleeker and this is my partner, Seepa. What is Klaatu barada nikto?”
“It’s just something I remembered from the past,” I say. “Nice to meet you both. So, how are you communicating with me?”
“Through telepathy. How else would one communicate?” The voice in my head changes. It must be the other Martian, Seepa. I guess she is one with the dozen bracelets up and down her arms.
“So, you understand the English language?” I ask.
“We transmit and receive thoughts from one being to another,” says Bleeker. “Thoughts are not in any language. It is only when you communicate through sounds that language becomes necessary.”
“Whoa, I’m not sure I like the idea of people reading my mind,” I say. “So, you can’t hear me speak?”
“I apologize that we are incapable of communicating using sounds,” says Seepa. “You can block your thoughts whenever you wish.”
“Yeah, I’m going to have to work on that,” I say.
“We picked up shockwaves from the detonation,” she continues. “That is why we journeyed to the surface to investigate.”
Bleeker cuts her off. “She actually did not wish to investigate.”
“That is not factual,” she says. “I did not want to interrupt my activities to probe what shook our dwelling.”
“It is constantly something with you,” Bleeker says.
Great, I travelled over 100 million miles to listen to a couple bicker. I wonder if they hear what I’m thinking?
“Yes, we can hear you and we are not bickering,” says Seepa. “We just have dissimilar perspectives.”
She breaks into a smile. Well, I assume it’s a smile.
“We picked up on the unusual community you assembled here,” says Bleeker. “It was precisely above our dwelling. What happened to it?”
I sit back down on a boulder. I find my voice wavering. “I’m from Earth, I explain. “I was part of a mission to establish a permanent colony on your planet. I’m trained as a chef and was selected for the mission to cook for the other twenty-three crew members. We’ve been on Mars for thirty-six days. Things were going well until today. I was setting up this evening’s dinner. I was having difficulty with the oven. Everything here was powered by nuclear energy.”
“Nuclear energy?” says Bleeker. “We are not acquainted with this form of energy.”
“I don’t really understand it either,” I respond. “I needed our mission engineer, Tammy, to look at the equipment. She was also the mission geologist and was out with a group collecting rock and soil samples.”
“Why does this Tammy being have a fascination with rocks?” asks Sleepa. “The planet surface is littered with rocks.”
“Um, I don’t really know, I respond. “As I was saying, while I waited for them to get back, I hopped into this rover to kill some time.”
I don’t mention the part about me getting high. What do Martians know about weed anyways?
“When Tammy radioed me to let me know she was back at the colony, I headed back,” I say. “Then I heard this explosion and when I got to the colony, it was gone.
“Where did your settlement go?” asks Bleeker. “And where are the other twenty-three beings?”
“Everything was destroyed in the explosion,” I respond. My eyes begin to well up. “The others are dead. I’m the lone survivor.”
“How unfortunate,” says Bleeker. “Not that you survived, but that the other beings did not.”
I nod. Then I remember my limited oxygen supply.
“I’m a little bit desperate,” I say. “I’m not going to survive much longer in this suit. When I run out of oxygen, I’ll be dead too.”
“No need to be alarmed,” says Bleeker. “You will come with us. We can assist in sustaining you. What are your thoughts, Seepa?”
“Bleeker, be sensible,” says Seepa. “We cannot have this Earth being reside with us. What will others say?”
“Holy crap,” I say. “You can’t just leave me here.”
“Of course, we cannot leave this unfortunate Earth being to expire here,” says Bleeker. “Do not be distressed Seepa, I have formulated a strategy.”
I let out a huge breath. “You have no idea how relieved I am to hear that,” I say. “So, there is life on Mars? Besides you two.”
They look at each other and I think they are laughing. “Of course,” says Seepa. “There are sixty million beings on our planet. More precisely, under the planet’s surface.”
I may be a little high, but I’m not hallucinating. I don’t understand how all those NASA missions never noticed that there was life on Mars. I guess no one bothered to look below the surface.
Bleeker interrupts her. “Seepa, that is old census data. At this time, there are sixty-three million.”
“Do you have to be persistently correcting me?” she asks.
“I just wanted to ensure our visitor possesses the most current statistics,” says Bleeker. “Stop being so sensitive.”
“I am not sensitive,” says Seepa.
Wonderful, I’d been rescued by an alien reproduction of the Bickersons.
“I hate to break up this discussion but I need help,” I say. “Would anyone on Mars happen to have a spaceship to get me back to Earth?”
They both shake their heads. “Our society is flawless,” says Bleeker. “So why leave?”
I remember the spaceship that brought us over is still here. It landed on the Mars surface and is designed to eventually travel back to Earth. I get back into the rover and drive to the site where the spaceship has been left. The two Martians follow me on foot.
Even before I reach the spaceship, it is obvious it will not be of any use to me. It has been knocked over by the blast and is covered with hundreds of little holes. I’m pretty sure the only thing it could be used for now is a sieve.
Bleeker walks up to the ship and looks it over. “You travelled in this spacecraft?” he says. “It does not appear to be very sturdy.”
I feel even more dispirited. It begins to sink in that I may be stuck on Mars for a long time. Maybe permanently. Will NASA launch a rescue mission? Rescue whom? They probably think I’m dead with the rest of the crew.
“I’m going to need a fresh supply of oxygen soon,” I say. “This spacesuit will run out at some point.”
Bleeker turns and walks in the direction of the closest canyon walls. “We will resolve your problem, he says. “Follow us.”
He stops and turns to his partner. “That is, unless you have an objection,” he says.
“Of course not, says Sleepa. “We cannot leave this Earth being alone on the surface. Personally, I detest coming to the surface. I wish to return to our dwelling as swiftly as possible.”
I have one of the rovers that is equipped with a solar-powered 3D printer. I know it might come in handy but abandon it along with the rover. As we walk, I looked up at the sky hoping to see Earth but the sky is hazy from big clouds of dust that blow well above the canyon floor.
I notice the Martian couple have an unusual gait. They are bow-legged, which causes them to waddle when they walk, much like a pair of penguins. After we walk for about thirty minutes, we stop in front of a cliff face where I notice a set of stairs leading underground.
Bleeker motions to me with his hand to follow. “Earth being,” he says. “Please descend these stairs with us.”
This is no ordinary staircase. It takes about ten minutes to descend. It is well lit, although I can’t make out where the lighting is coming from. When we get to the bottom, I can no longer see the opening at the top of the staircase.
I am astonished at what I see underground. As we walk down the stairs, I imagine we will be entering a cave-like setting. It is nothing like that. I am standing in what appears to be part of an elaborate town or city. The ceiling to this underground community is perhaps 200 feet above the road surface on which we are standing. It is bright but I can’t quite make out the light source.
“Where is the lighting coming from?” I ask.
“The upper surface is constructed out of material that radiates light,” says Bleeker. “How else would one provide lighting? Sunlight cannot reach us here.”
There are networks of roadways and building structures. The roadways are made of red material is durable but seem to have some give to them. The building exteriors are box-shaped and constructed from a polished stone. As we walk by buildings, I see my reflection in the stone surfaces.
There is no uniformity as each building was a different size, shape and color. The streets are nearly deserted. We encounter no one other than an occasional vehicle that drives by or I should say flies by. I notice the vehicles travel several feet above the road surface.
“You can remove your outfit,” says Bleeker. “I am certain you will discover the atmosphere below the surface to be well suited for you. As well, walking around in this outfit will attract unwanted attention.”
I unsnap my helmet and pull it off. I take one deep breath and notice that the air is cool much like on Earth. The temperature isn’t cold like on the surface. Bleeker helps me get out of the rest of my spacesuit.
“I don’t get it,” I say. “How are you able to breathe up on the surface and down below when clearly the conditions are different?”
“Our systems adapt to multiple environments,” says Bleeker. “There has been life underground on Mars for a very long time. Our civilization abandoned living on the surface because the conditions were too harsh.”
“It is too windy and sandy on the surface,” says Sleepa. “We have no sandstorms in our sheltered communities. And you can cultivate provisions because of the warmer temperatures and the presence of water.”
We walk several more minutes and stop in front of a building made of aquamarine stone. I would guess it’s thirty feet wide and thirty feet high with a flat roof. There is an arched front door made of the same polished stone as the rest of the building but in black. I notice the door is only five feet high, which is fine for Martians but I’m five feet, eleven inches.
Seepa swings open the door and we walk in. I duck to make sure I don’t bump my head. She proudly proclaims, “This is our dwelling!”