Excerpt from the draft #6 of my manuscript LOVED MARS, HATED THE FOOD. Feel free to leave comments below.
Earth calendar: 2039-09-02
Martian calendar: 45-11-582
I’m sure I’m a dead man.
I’m seated on a large red boulder next to my rover, overlooking the gaping crater spewing dense smoke that was once Futurum, the first permanent Mars Colony. The silence of Valles Marineris is broken by the sound of my heart pounding inside my chest and my heavy breathing. I realize I’m hyperventilating.
The Colony rubble spreads over a wide radius. The metal debris glitters against the red sand and rocks. My head spins and I’m sweating despite the intervention of my suit’s cooling system. I hope it’s an hallucination brought on by the weed-laced brownie.
Maybe I died in the explosion. Maybe I’m having an out of body experience.
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. With the Colony gone, and my source of food, water and oxygen gone, I don’t think I’ll be living on this planet much longer. Or anywhere else for that matter.
I stand up and yell at the top of my lungs, “IS ANYONE ELSE ALIVE?” and wince as my voice bounces off the inside of my helmet.
I try to focus. The quiet is interrupted by the sound of shifting rocks. As I turn in the direction of the sound, I notice two figures standing just beyond the Colony rubble. I spring to my feet. I’m not the only survivor.
I squint to make out who is there. Wait – it looks like they aren’t wearing spacesuits.
Are the drugs messing with me?
I climb into the rover and slowly approach them. The bouncy ride and the clouds of red dust kicked up by the tires make it difficult to identify my visitors. As I get closer, I make out some details. They are the size of preteens, although one is several inches taller than the other, each with two arms, two legs, and coppery wrinkled skin.
Whoa! Either I’m more messed up than I think, or these guys aren’t human. Are they Martians? According to every NASA scientists, there’s no life on Mars. I guess everyone scientist was wrong.
The taller Martian has larger feet and the shorter one has a sizeable, protruding belly. Both wear tunic tops and loose-fitting trousers made from a metallic material.
I stop about twenty feet away, not sure what to do next. The aliens step toward me. I’m convinced that they either intend to vaporize me with a ray gun or make me a slave. I wet my spacesuit.
Their large heads bobble as they shuffle. Their big, black, pupil-less eyes are fixed on me. A flat nose and no ears make them look both ugly and cute at the same time, like a Shar Pei. I get out of the rover, raise my right hand, and wave. They glance at each other. Mission training never covered communicating with Martians.
I raise my hand again to wave and shout, “Live long and prosper. Dif-tor heh smusma.”
Then I try the Vulcan salute, spreading my four main fingers into two sets of two to form a V. Though I’m positive they can’t tell because my hand is in the glove of my spacesuit. No reaction. This is going well.
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. Again, they look at each other.
A strange voice resonates in my head. Klaatu barada nikto, are you intact?
At first, I think I imagine it. I hear it again. Klaatu barada nikto. What transpired here?
I watch the two aliens closely, but they aren’t speaking.
Klaatu barada nikto, can you comprehend? says the voice.
“Yes,” I respond in a shrill voice. “Please…please, don’t kill me.”
Klaatu barada nikto, says the voice. We intend no harm.
“How am I hearing you?” I ask, pointing to my ears. “And I’m not Klaatu barada nikto. I’m Dixon Jenner.”
The two Martians amble over to the rover. The short one with the big belly places a hand on the side of the vehicle. Good wishes Dixon Jenner. I am Bleeker and this is my partner, Seepa. What then is Klaatu barada nikto?
“I have no clue. I thought maybe you aliens would know,” I shrug my shoulders. My attempt to amuse them falls flat. “How are you communicating with me?”
The voice in my head changes. “Through telepathy. How else would one communicate?” It must be the tall Martian, Seepa. She wears a 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. I do not comprehend the concept of English language.
“Whoa, I don’t like the idea of people reading my mind,” I say. I don’t know why but I laugh hysterically. It might be the influence of that brownie.
You can block your thoughts whenever you wish, says Seepa.
“Yeah, I’m going to have to work on that.”
We picked up shockwaves from the detonation, she continues. That is why we journeyed to the surface to investigate.
She was opposed to investigating, says Bleeker.
That is not accurate, she snaps. I did not want to interrupt my activities to probe what shook our dwelling.
It is constant negativity from you, says Bleeker.
Great, I travelled over hundred million miles to listen to a couple bicker.
We are not bickering, replies Seepa. We just have dissimilar perspectives.
She breaks into a smile. Well, I assume it’s a smile. The corners of her mouth move horizontally, but don’t curl up.
What type of structure was constructed here? asks Seepa, creeping closer to the edge of the crater.
“I came from Earth with twenty-three other people,” I explain. “We had constructed a large colony on this site.”
You are an Earth being? asks Bleeker, reaching out to touch my spacesuit. And why are you wearing that strange outfit?
“Yes, I’m from Earth. I would die outside this suit. The environment is too harsh for Earth beings…I mean Earthlings.”
Your community was precisely above our dwelling, says Bleeker. What happened to it? There is only this large depression.
My voice wavers, “I don’t even know where to start. I was part of a mission to establish a permanent colony on your planet. In Valles Marineris.”
Why Valles Marineris? asks Seepa.
“We were told the canyon walls would provide protection from the winds,” I say.
Looks like the winds should not have been your primary concern. And how permanent could this community have been, if it is gone? asks Bleeker.
I shake my head in frustration. “I don’t understand what went wrong. I was setting up this evening’s dinner and was having difficulty with the nuclear-powered oven.”
Nuclear power? chirps Bleeker. We are not acquainted with this.
“I don’t understand it either,” I respond. The buzz from the brownies makes it difficult to focus. I wish theses aliens would stop interrupting. “As I was saying, I needed our mission engineer to look at the equipment. She was out with a group collecting rock samples.”
That seems like a pointless endeavour, says Seepa. The surface is littered with rocks.
“The point I’m trying to make,” I say, frowning, “is that while I waited for them to get back, I hopped into this rover to kill some time.”
I don’t mention the part about getting high. I feel the two remaining brownies in my suit pressing against my ribcage.
“When Tammy radioed me to let me know she had returned to the Colony, I headed back,” I say. “Then I heard this explosion and when I got to the Colony, it was gone along with everyone else.”
I look back at the crater and a small sob escapes. I guess the NASA shrinks were right. I don’t have much in the way of feelings and that people who don’t give a shit about each other get along best.
How unfortunate, replies Bleeker, carefully waddling through the smouldering embers. Not that you survived, but that the other beings did not.
“I can’t survive out here alone,” I spurt out, clenching my fists, my voice quaking. “Can you help me?”
No need to be alarmed, says Bleeker, pointing in the direction of one of the canyon walls. You will come with us. We will assist in sustaining you.
Bleeker, be sensible, snaps Seepa, grabbing her partner by the arm. We cannot have this Earth-being reside with us. What will the other citizens say?
“Holy crap,” I say, jumping out of the rover and dropping to my knees. “You can’t just leave me here. Please help me.”
We cannot leave this unfortunate Earth-being to expire here, says Bleeker, patting her on the back. Do not be distressed, Seepa. I have formulated a strategy.
I get up. I let out a huge breath and then cut it off. “Wait—there’s more of you?”
They look at each other, smirking, with their heads bobbing from side to side. Yes, says Seepa. There are sixty million beings, under the surface.
Seepa, that is an antiquated tally. There are sixty-three million.
Do you have to be persistently correcting me?
I just want to ensure our visitor possesses the most current statistics. Stop being so sensitive.
I am not being sensitive.
Wonderful. I wave my arms in the air to get their attention. Then I look down at the oxygen indicator on my chest.
“I’m a little bit desperate,” I murmur with a shaky voice, even if the Martians can’t pick up the sound. “I’m not going to survive much longer in this suit. When I run out of oxygen, I’ll be dead too.”
Bleeker turns and hikes toward the closest canyon walls. We will resolve your immediate problem, your depleting supply of breathable air, he says. Follow us.
He stops and turns to his partner. That is, unless you have an objection.
No, says Seepa. I concur that we cannot leave this Earth-being alone on the surface. It would be cruel. Can we return to our dwelling? I detest the surface.
“Get into the rover and we can drive to where we’re going,” I say.
We do not have too far to travel, suggests Bleeker. We can easily walk there.
I abandon my rover and follow the two Martians on foot. Concerned about my oxygen level, I reluctantly leave a 3D printer in the vehicle, knowing it might come in handy. 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.
A few steps ahead of me, the bow-legged aliens waddle like a pair of penguins. I have difficulty keeping up in my suit and space boots. When I pick up my pace, I stumble over the rough terrain. On several occasions, I trip and fall onto my hands and knees. After we hike for several minutes, we reach the red cliff face. When Bleeker is about ten feet away from a wall of rock, he steps onto a black metallic mat. The ground around us shakes, accompanied by a low rumbling sound.
A part of the wall in front of us slowly slides down into the ground. The vibrations kick up dust and sand, causing the Martians to cover their eyes and mouths with their arms.
In less than a minute, a portal opens. I hadn’t noticed it because the closed portal was the same color and composition as the rock around it. It’s large enough for me to step through without stooping.
Bleeker motions to me with his hand. Earth-being, please descend these stairs with us.
“Um, okay,” I say, cautiously stepping forward. “And you can call me Dix.”
Once inside, I stop close to the edge of the stairs, hesitating to allow my eyes to adjust to the change in lighting. My gaze follows a long set of stairs made of polished black stone, leading underground. As much as I try, I can’t make out what’s at the bottom. Bleeker lumbers over to another metallic mat. When he steps on it, the portal entrance slowly closes.
As we approach the first step, my legs shake. I’m not accustomed to doing stairs in low gravity and I try to keep from stumbling forward. However, my dwindling oxygen supply keeps me pushing ahead.
I quickly realize this is no ordinary staircase. It is not a straight run of stairs. After every dozen steps, there is a landing and the staircase reverses direction as it winds down to the bottom of this cavernous space. There is no railing to hold onto. As we make our way down, I keep to the center of the stair to ensure I don’t lose my footing and fall off the side. It’s well lit, although I can’t make out where the lighting comes from. When we get to the bottom ten minutes later, the top of the staircase is no longer visible.
I’d imagined a dark cave-like setting, but I’m standing in an elaborate city that stretches as far as I can see. We stand on a red roadway made from a hard, rubbery material, not anything like asphalt. It has a lot of give when you step on it.
“What is the surface made from?” I ask, bending down to touch it.
Bleeker grabs my arm to get me to continue walking. The surface is made from Dismoul, he says. Do you not have it on Earth?
“No. Nothing here looks familiar.”
I follow the Martians down the road. Boxed-shaped polished stone buildings line both sides of the road, but other than that, there is no uniformity, as each one is a different size and color. They are anywhere from two to five stories tall, each with rows of windows that have no glass and are open to the outside. My reflection in the shiny stone surfaces follows us as we stroll past building after building.
The ceiling to this underground community is several hundred feet above the road surface.
“Where is the light coming from?” I ask, staring up at the ceiling.
The upper surface is constructed out of luminite, which radiates light, says Bleeker.
“Amaze-balls!” I say. I’m so busy looking around that I stumble over Bleeker’s feet, causing him to wince.
In the distance, I make out that the roadway we are traveling on intersects with other roads. The city view stretches endlessly in every direction. The streets are nearly deserted but for an occasional pedestrian eyeing us suspiciously. Vehicles silently hover high above the road surface.
“Where is everyone?” I ask. “There’s barely anyone around.”
Most citizens are now in restoration mode, says Seepa. It will be busy later in the day.
Bleeker stops and points at my suit. You can remove your protective clothing, he says. The atmosphere below the surface has a substantive quantity of oxygen. Besides, walking around in that will attract attention.
I hesitate. “Are you sure I’ll be okay?”
Our atmosphere is thirty percent oxygen. I hope you do not require more.
I unsnap my helmet and pull it off. The air is cool, but not cold like on the surface. I’m relieved that I can breathe normally.
Bleeker and Seepa watch me remove the rest of my suit and patiently wait as I fold it up. “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 it is too windy, says Seepa. We have no sandstorms here, and we can cultivate provisions because of the warmer temperatures and the presence of water.
“You have flying cars, so obviously you have advanced technology,” I say. “But why are there just stairs to the surface? It seems primitive.”
The government wishes to discourage citizens from venturing to the surface, says Bleeker. Therefore, the only means to reach the surface is by foot. I could take my own transporter up to the surface, but I do not want to incur any damage to it.
“You said you felt the shockwaves from the explosion. Won’t other Martians have also noticed them?”
Affirmative, it is probable, says Bleeker, but there is only unrecognizable rubble on the surface. They will likely conclude that an object from space crashed onto the surface.
After several more minutes, we stop in front of an aquamarine-colored stone building, perhaps two stories high, with what looks to be a flat stone roof. Its arched front door is made of the same polished stone as the building exterior, but in black. The door is high enough for the Martians, but not for me.
The door thickness is not much more than the width of my thumb and Seepa easily swings it open. We file in. I duck to make sure I don’t bump my head. This is our dwelling! She proclaims.
As I look around my new surroundings, I sense an annoying humming sound in my head. I can’t tell if it’s an actual sound or something telepathic. The two Martians give each other with worried looks.
A citizen is at the door, says Bleeker, biting his lip.