The Children of the Red Planet
Erin Biddle, Purdue University
The surface of the Red Planet spread out below the Nergal VII spacecraft like an open book, its crimson pages arrayed in welcome(1). From orbit, approximately one hundred miles above the ground, it seemed smooth as marble despite the craggy rust-blanketed geography Tad knew they would find upon landing.
“Back off, Clarke, you’re fogging up the glass,” Norton griped, shoving Tad into the window as he passed. Tad rubbed his now-sore shoulder, glaring at the back of Nergal VII’s commanding officer and pilot as the older man walked away, ego present in the sway of his stride, despite the artificial gravity keeping their feet on the floor.
Tad sort of hated him.
The year was 1991, ten years after the first Mars expedition and the subsequent discovery of Emalium, an almost magical element that had become the lifeblood of human society on earth. It had the capacity to hold an incredible amount of energy and yet remain stable enough for commercial use and was currently used as a fuel substitute in motor vehicles. Tad was going to Mars to study it in the NASA research colony in Chryse Planitia (2).
Tad turned his eyes back to the window that showed him Mars. He imagined that he could see the Prometheus camp, a tiny research colony set on top of a particularly large expanse of Emalium-rich soil, greenhouses and labs and barracks erected on the surface of the Red Planet, from where he was (3). Just enough to support the forty people living and working there.
Forty-four, once the crew of the Nergal VII joined them on the ground.
Norton’s voice ground out over the com system, making Tad want to grit his teeth.
“Nergal VII is preparing to descend, crew, better fasten your seatbelts.”
Tad made his way to the control room and took his seat, the one labelled nice and big with CLARKE, THEODORE. After being trapped for so long in this vessel with three fellow crewmen, he was ready to put his feet on solid ground again (4).
Norton was already seated, strapped into the pilot’s chair and watching the monitors with a calm expression. Only someone who had shared a hundred square meters of living space with him for six months would have been able to recognize the tightness in the creases around his eyes as anything but careful anticipation. Norton was an unusually tall man, well over six feet, with greying hair at his temples and crow’s feet at his eyes. He was also a man of unusually foul temperament. Norton seemed to hold Tad’s youth against him. Tad himself was still just a student, who had applied to study the Emalium Research Colony on Mars for his thesis.
Tad saw Norton’s opposite in Perkins, the secondary flight engineer. Perkins was blond and blue-eyed, small and stocky, and as amiable as Norton was gruff. Tad got on well with Perkins, because the man never seemed to have a sour word for anybody, least of all Tad, who Norton swore up and down was a blight on the whole mission.
The last member of the crew arrived just as Norton started cursing his absence. Grossman was a reticent, bespectacled man with vivid red hair. While he was technically Tad’s supervisor, a fellow chemist from Purdue, Tad was never quite able to carry out a conversation with him because any question was met with a long owlish stare and a quizzical reply.
“Sorry, Norton,” Grossman drawled. “Got caught up in some reading.”
“Well, sit down, Grossman, you’re holding up the landing.”
As Grossman did up his harness, Norton aimed Nergal VII’s thrusters towards the planet below to slow the craft down before they crashed into its crust. Tad felt the jarring force of their deceleration, watching the monitors in front of Norton even though they meant little to him.
It was better than watching the broad expanse of planet rushing up to meet them.
Tad had to close his eyes as things started to come into focus—sharp edifices and huge boulders, growing in size as they grew in nearness. The sensation was far too surreal for him to process, not while his life depended on Norton’s flight expertise.
The parachute burst out behind them, and he felt a new jolt as the craft slowed even more; it turned his stomach like the sharp tack of a roller coaster car.
“You doing alright, Clarke? You look a little green.” Perkins observed mildly.
Tad managed a sharp nod, not trusting his mouth to open without spilling a stomachful of half-digested provisions all over the control room.
Nothing could have prepared him for the force of the landing. While Nergal VII didn’t merely skid across the ground (like Tad had been having nightmares about for weeks), it didn’t land nearly as smoothly as a plane, jolting and grinding as it lurched over the rocky ground.
The craft finally stilled, and there were huffs of shaky laughter around the control room. “Well fellas,” Norton grinned. “That was a little rougher than I expected.”
“Well done, Norton,” Perkins said.
Tad finally peeled his eyes open, and saw, for the first time, the veneer of the Red Planet with his own two eyes.
It was a fascinating sight. The ground stretched before him for miles, broken only by tall juts of rock in the distance. It was all a rusty titian color, only just darker than the strange salmon hue of the sky overhead. Tad studied the view while he let his nausea ebb away.
Norton slammed a hand against the dash. “Must be lunch break,” he muttered. “No one’s answering the damn video chat.”
“There’s supposed to be someone manning the control center at all times,” Perkins said, sounding confused.
“Well, they must be busy,” Norton grunted. He unhooked his harness and stood up to stretch, his spine popping with a series of small cracks. “Come on, crew. Let’s get this over with.”
Tad fumbled out of his harness with shaking hands and followed the rest of the crew on shaky legs, stomach still aching uncomfortably as he donned his EMU—extravehicular mobility unit (5). He was particularly careful with the seals around the visor. Martian air was ninety-five percent carbon dioxide, poisonous to human lungs.
“Relax, Clarke,” Norton said, grinning and clapping him on the shoulder. “It’ll only kill ya a little if you breathe it in.”
“Thanks,” Tad said with a grimace. “Thanks a lot.”
Norton patted his shoulder again. “Anytime, Clarke.”
The crew gathered around the hatch in the center of the hab, climbing down the ladder one by one to stand in the aerobrake shield waiting for the others to step out (6). Tad had to pause to take in the view again once he had the opportunity to see it outside the confines of the control room. This time it was unbounded by any window frame, and he could turn his head to see in any direction he pleased.
About a hundred yards south of them lay the research camp, a smattering of small buildings on the rusty soil. There was a ridge at the rear of the camp, under which the Vaults lay, which contained the colony’s laboratories. The Vaults were built of bona fide Martian brick and sealed with a sort of plastic spray invented by a man named John Stark in the late ‘80s (7). Tad was no architect, but he couldn’t help but be impressed by the structures, now that he could see them.
Impressive too were the three domes rising out of the ground by a ridge. Each was about fifty meters in diameter, its surface an amalgamation of triangle-shaped panes of rigid plastic. Inside the nearest one, he could see all four floors, stacked atop one another and ringed with spots of green—plants, grown indoors. The others contained a great deal more greenery than the first, as they were greenhouses, supplying the colony’s food in between supply shipments from Earth, which arrived approximately every two years.
Tad was going to be on Mars for the next two years.
“Clarke! Shut your mouth, you’re letting the flies in,” Norton said.
Tad rolled his eyes. “There are no flies on Mars, Norton.”
“Either way, move it. We’ve got places to be.”
The crew maneuvered their way off the aerobrake shield that served as the Nergal’s base as carefully as they could, though it tipped slightly with every step. Tad’s feet crunched in the rocky soil, and he couldn’t help but grin.
“One small step for a man,” he said. Behind him came a myriad of groans.
“No need for sentiments from the sixties, Clarke,” Perkins said lightly. “We’ve almost reached the twenty-first century.”
They trekked over to the camp and approached the barracks dome. Perkins pushed the button to open the door to the airlock, and they filed in, waiting patiently as the door closed behind them and the air pressure equalized. Once it did, they were allowed to move forward into the dome.
There was a rack just inside the door for their EMUs, and they disrobed carefully before finally allowing themselves to peer around the room.
“There’s no one here,” Tad said.
“Explains why no one answered the video chat,” Perkins said.
“Perhaps they’re in the Vaults,” Grossman suggested airily.
“Even so,” Perkins said. “There should be at least a few people in the domes.”
As it was, there were only the soft sounds of breath and rustling cloth as the crew members considered a theory that not one of them wanted to admit to aloud:
They were alone.
“Let’s at least look around,” Norton said finally. “Could be they’re all just having a meeting somewhere, and that’s all.”
“Could be,” Tad agreed weakly.
“I’ll take the first level, each of you take another,” Norton directed. “If they’re here, we’ll find them.”
“Where could they have gone?” Perkins asked, perturbed.
“The Vaults,” Grossman put in softly.
“Can it, Grossman,” Norton snapped. “Take the second floor.”
“I’ll take the fourth,” Perkins said, his offer directed at Tad. Tad nodded and started climbing the stairs to the third level, praying that one of them would find some sign of life.
Everything seemed to be functioning normally. Most of the lights, such as the ones in the corridors and public areas, were automatic, and, as it was still “day,” they were on, filtering a bright fluorescent film onto every surface. Tad searched every corner of every room, even the sleeping quarters, and found no sign of anyone. There were personal possessions stowed neatly on shelves and desks, such as books, pictures, and the occasional useless knickknack, but there were no traces of people.
Tad circled back out to the stairs and made his way back down to the first level, where Norton was already standing with a pinched expression.
“Nothing?” he asked. Tad shook his head, and Norton cursed.
“When’s the last time we heard from them?” Perkins asked. He was a flight above Tad, on his way down as well.
“Right around three days ago,” Norton replied. “I checked in when we settled into orbit.”
“And you’re certain it was a person you talked to?”
“I think I’d have recognized an automated voice if I’d heard it, Robert,” Norton said harshly. Perkins held his hands up in surrender.
“I just find it hard to believe that forty people managed to disappear in three days, that’s all,” he said.
“Ever heard of Roanoke?” Norton asked (8).
“We haven’t checked the Vaults yet,” Grossman said. Tad thought that was perhaps the first time he’d heard the man sound even remotely annoyed.
“Grossman’s right,” Perkins said. “We’ll check the Vaults, and the greenhouses. Surely they’re here somewhere.”
Rather than replacing their EMUs, the men simply followed the corridors erected between the domes, one to each greenhouse and a third travelling into the Vaults. Grossman headed directly for the third tunnel, and the rest were forced to follow, not wanting to split the party and check the areas separately.
Tad could feel himself breathing shallowly, somehow more anxious at the thought of being one of four men alone in the camp than he was by the idea of crashing and dying on the planet’s surface due to Norton’s piloting skills.
After the warmed areas of the domes, the Vaults were chilly. Several meters of soil were piled on top of them, in order to keep the air pressure inside from collapsing the structure as it expanded outwards. Surrounded by cool soil and lacking sunlight, the Vaults were a chilly sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit.
The tunnel was dim, lit only by overhead lights spaced every few meters along the way, but the Vaults themselves were well-lit by numerous fixtures mounted in the ceiling, as well as sconces on the wall to allow for dimming if necessary. Tables lined the walls and crowded the floor, covered in a perfect rendition of organized chaos painted with myriad notes and samples. However, for all the materials scattered throughout the room, there was still no sign of people.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Tad murmured. Perkins gave him an understanding, mournful smile, while Norton scowled.
“This is ridiculous,” he growled.
Grossman was wandering through the tables, shuffling the papers as he walked. Norton called out for him to get back to the group. “We have to go check the greenhouses. And if they aren’t there, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
The crew traveled back through the tunnel and finally split, Norton and Grossman going to Greenhouse A and Perkins and Tad to Greenhouse B.
“Where do you think they went?” Tad asked.
Perkins shook his head. “I have no idea. All the vehicles are still here. This is still a hostile environment, they couldn’t have gotten far before they ran out of supplies.”
The greenhouses too remained unnervingly empty, save for shoots of tender green rising from the reddish soil (9). Tad checked the labels on each section as they passed: carrots, leaf lettuce, chard (10). Everything he would be eating for the next two years.
Tad and Perkins went back to meet Grossman and Norton in the barracks. Where Tad himself had become more anxious, Norton’s mood had only gotten fouler.
“I can’t believe this!” he snapped. “Forty people, just gone.”
“There’s no use worrying about it now,” Perkins pointed out. “We have equipment and supplies to haul in from the shuttle, we’d better take care of that first. Then we can try and piece together what happened to the others.”
Grumbling, Norton assented and all four of them shrugged back into their EMUs, checking carefully at each and every seam. The unusual emptiness of the colony was making them all uneasy.
The food supplies on the Nergal were packed into wheeled coolers. For the most part it was freeze-dried goods and powdered meals to supplement the vegetables grown on-planet, so as far as food went the load was relatively light. Heavier and more delicate were the scientific implements: mass spectrometers, centrifuges, and reaction chambers, all packed into foam and hard plastic cases, which could only handle a small amount of jostling before the crew had to be concerned about them breaking. Because of their delicacy, those things were entrusted to Tad and Grossman alone, who would be the ones using them throughout their stay. Even so, the bulk of the EMUs made transporting the materials difficult and nerve racking. Thankfully, they arrived altogether without incident in the barracks to disrobe, before the machinery was taken to the Vaults and the food to the living quarters.
Tad trailed Grossman, nervously stabilizing the carts as they rolled down the tunnel towards the Vaults. There was no conversation, because Grossman was not a talkative man and Tad didn’t think he had any answers anyway. They suffered the temperature change in silence, save for the creaky turning of the cart wheels.
They had to clear spaces for the equipment on the tables, which meant a great deal of paper shuffling, and clinking of slides against each other as they were grouped together. Tad was getting a headache just by looking at the mess, because he could see that few of the slides were clearly labelled in any kind of handwriting he could read. It would take several days at least to decode the chicken-scratch on them, without anyone there to translate. And that was just the slides—the documents would be a hundred times worse.
Tad narrowed a messy pile of documents into a semi-neat stack, and paused as there was a paper-on-paper slide and a muted thump. A small leather-bound book fell to the floor by his right foot. It looked like the kind Tad had once kept as a journal, only undoubtedly more expensive. He knelt to pick it up, and flipped through a few pages. The scrawl he found there was sloppy but legible, and upon a more thorough examination, Tad found he could make out names and dates in the blocks of script.
Tad stared at the book for a moment, then flipped it closed and put it into the pocket of his jumpsuit. Perhaps it would help him decode the abandoned experiments filling the space around him.
It was dark by the time Perkins wandered into the Vaults to tell them it was time for dinner. Tad and Grossman had been submerged in papers and equipment for over an hour, and Tad was grateful to be relieved of duty. The handwriting around him hadn’t gotten any easier to read.
“I cooked,” Perkins said as they followed the tunnel to the barracks. “Some fresh greens from Greenhouse A, and rehydrated chicken and noodles (11). I can’t say it’s spectacular, but it’s better than just the chicken by itself.” Tad nodded absently, his hand going to his pocket where the book was a stiff square against his thigh.
“We’ll have to organize the Vaults in the morning,” Grossman said. “Whenever they disappeared, they didn’t leave a clean workspace. The documents are extremely disorganized.”
Perkins nodded in understanding. “It looked like it.”
The conversation lulled, none of them quite willing to revisit the topic of the disappearances again. Instead, they walked in utter silence towards the mess hall.
The men made themselves at home in the sleeping areas on the third and fourth floors of the barracks dome, where there were still unclaimed rooms. Tad changed into a fresh set of clothes and settled in his bunk. The mattress was overly firm and made a leathery cracking sound every time he shifted his weight. He didn’t mind it.
The journal was resting on the shelf by his headboard, and he stared at it for a long moment before he finally picked it up. Reading had always put him to sleep. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing, when it came to what these pages contained.
The first week was nothing but a detailed log of how the journalist—a Miles Kellar—and his crew had adapted to the colony. They had been on the Nergal III, and, like Tad, they too found the miracle of personal space a treasure, though none of their own crew seemed as abrasive as Tad found Norton to be. Tad drifted off a week after their landing, somewhere around NIII Sol 183 (or Prometheus Sol 1571), into an utterly dreamless sleep as deep as the abyss of space (12).
Tad found himself to be relatively useless the next morning, buried in the journal every chance he could get. The door to the lab swung open, and Grossman shuffled in, scanning a handful of freshly-printed reports. The paper had been recycled so many times that it was a dull shade of grey. Tad watched him go to one of the tables on the far wall and pick through the papers there before he grudgingly set the journal aside and pulled a fresh stack of papers towards him, hoping Grossman wouldn’t pay him any attention.
“Clarke,” Grossman called absently.
“Sir?” Tad asked, fighting a sigh.
“You haven’t come across any reports from Prometheus Sol 3582, have you?”
Tad scanned the stacks in front of him before consulting his memory, then shook his head. “I don’t think so. Nothing that I can remember, anyhow. Why?”
Grossman was frowning. “The digital reports decreased significantly in quality after Prometheus Sol 2150, but they have altogether stopped now. I can’t help but wonder why.”
Tad glanced down at the papers before him, studying the dates slashed into the upper right corner of every page. Most of them didn’t even start with the same two digits. “I don’t know either,” he said. He was still only a few weeks into Kellar’s journal, Prometheus Sol 1595, and nothing unusual seemed to be going on as far as Tad could tell.
Grossman was still frowning when he wandered out of the lab, consulting the papers again and muttering to himself.
Tad opened the journal and flipped to Sol 3582.
“We thirst for the wind on our faces, for the taste of Martian sand. There are too many chemicals in the air and water here. All we taste is decay.”
Tad closed the book. He hid it under a stack of papers and went back to sorting the papers in front of him, trying very, very hard not to think about what Kellar had written.
Curiosity got the better of him, and he returned to the journal again that night before bed. He returned to his previous place, at Prometheus Sol 1571, where Kellar was detailing the organization of the scientists in the labs, and how they split the work amongst themselves. Tad made a few notes, wondering if it were still pertinent information.
Starting at Prometheus Sol 1600, Kellar started mentioning bouts of illness among the colonists. Nothing major, just a cough here, some congestion there. Headaches all around.
“Must be a cold going around,” Kellar wrote. “Wonder where it came from.”
He had made a list of each colonist and their symptoms, and Tad was only halfway through it when he fell asleep.
Norton arrived to breakfast in an even fouler mood than usual the next morning, his voice rough and nasally and his face pale with sickness.
“I can’t breathe through my damned nose,” he griped. “Can’t taste anything at all.”
“We can go to the medical center after breakfast and find you some decongestants,” Perkins said sagely. “I’m feeling somewhat under the weather myself. Must be a cold going around.”
“Wonder where it’s coming from,” Grossman queried distractedly. Tad’s stomach twisted into an unpleasant knot, and he couldn’t bring himself to finish his breakfast.
Tad finally found a rhythm when it came to sorting the papers in the lab, mostly because it was something that required just enough thought to keep his mind off the journal and just little enough that it was mildly soothing. He sorted the papers on each table into chronological stacks, in ten-day segments. He would have liked to sort them by topic, but the subjects were far too haphazard for that, and he decided that he would have to go back through once they were in chronological order and fix it. He was buried in the papers on Table Four when Perkins came to fetch him for dinner—he had worked straight through lunch.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Perkins admonished mildly. “The dietitians spent too much time calculating your caloric needs for you to skip meals.”
Tad ducked his head. “Sorry.”
Perkins sneezed, seeming to startle even himself. “Never thought I’d be sick on Mars,” he mused. Tad didn’t know how to reply.
In his own journal that night, Tad noted the symptoms Norton and Perkins seemed to have exhibited, and checked in the journal. He found each and every one of them on Kellar’s list.
They probably built up an immunity, Tad thought. And we don’t have it yet.
That logic didn’t make him feel any better, though, and his sleep that night was uneasy.
Grossman was sick the next morning, in addition to Perkins and Norton, the latter of whom refused to even come down from his room. Perkins scrubbed at his watery eyes and sighed, something about taking up medication to their invalid commander. Tad made an idle remark about Perkins taking the day off, and he just smiled and said there was too much to do.
Since the digital files were organized, Tad was no longer alone in the lab, and was thus forced to suffer Grossman persistently sniffling and clearing his throat. It made him paranoid about getting sick himself, even though Grossman was across the room. Tad kept to tables One and Two to minimize their contact, prematurely sorting them by topic.
Dinner was quiet and solemn, with the stuffy sort of atmosphere facilitated by the uncomfortably ill.
That night, Tad added Grossman to his sickness tally before continuing to read. The rest of the colony seemed to be sickening, according to Kellar, at an alarming rate. Temperatures started to spike, and the work to be shared among those well enough to continue was starting to pile up. “The Vaults are starting to resemble a quarantine lounge,” Kellar remarked, “for the healthy.” He noted also that the symptoms of illness were persistent, and even after weeks of treatment with antibiotics from the medical center, they remained.
Tad set the book aside, apprehension pooling in his gut. He knew the crew had survived to Prometheus Sol 3582. No, he knew they had survived to at least Sol 4168, because Norton had talked to them before the landing.
Where could they have disappeared to in only two days?
Tad had resolved to show Perkins the journal the next morning, but when only Grossman appeared for breakfast, Tad decided he didn’t want to bother him with it. After Grossman went to the Vaults for the morning, Tad went to see if Perkins and Norton needed anything. He ended up receiving a detailed description of the medical center and where to find the specific medications Perkins wanted. Even so, he was forced to make several trips there and back before he could go to the Vaults. As he traversed the tunnel to the lab, he forced himself to compare Perkins’s health with Kellar’s descriptions in the journal, and wondered if he should be realistic or optimistic about it. On one hand, it had only been two days, and Perkins was far from the totally out-of-commission state that Kellar described in several of the colonists. On the other, it had taken weeks for the sickness to confine anyone to bed in Kellar’s recollections, where it had taken Norton and Perkins all of two days to get there.
Tad listened to Grossman cough through the morning, and couldn’t help but worry. After lunch, Grossman called it a day and returned to his quarters, leaving Tad alone in the lab.
Tad surveyed the work he needed to do, and weighed it with his itch to read more from Kellar’s journal.
The journal won out. Tad opened it up to where he’d left off at Prometheus Sol 1802, where Kellar had started detailing the sickness.
“It’s a strange feeling, I’ll admit. I went to bed last night feeling perfectly well, if tired, and woke up so congested that it was nearly impossible to breathe. My head was—is—throbbing, and every joint aches at just the thought of trying to move. Since James is the only medical officer still available, he came to check on me at 9:00 and took my temperature. It turned out to be a perfect 102°F. He looked pretty grim and gave me a glass of water and some pills, and told me to try and sleep it off, as if it was a hangover.”
“I don’t blame the others for sleeping in anymore. This sickness has enough kick to put even the best of us out of commission, I guarantee it.”
The general health of the colony started to improve around Prometheus Sol 1810, and Tad was almost surprised that it did. Kellar himself was up and moving again a few days later, though he still claimed to feel “…weak, as though I’d run six miles on an empty stomach. Lord, what a flu.”
With some hesitant relief, Tad returned to his theory that the original colonists had developed an immunity to the illness. Hopefully the others would be better in a few days, and they would be able to start trying to solve the mystery of the colonist’s disappearance together, rather than Tad conjecturing based on what he was read—
It’s just the dust, Tad told himself firmly, though he knew it wasn’t. In his bones, he knew he was starting to get sick.
It didn’t take long at all for the symptoms to manifest. Over the course of an hour, he felt his sinuses fill as though with water from a tap, making his head heavy and his eyes bleary with the pressure. Thanks to Perkins’s earlier description, Tad was able to locate the decongestants in the medical center, but they did very little to soothe anything.
He didn’t start shivering until dinner time, and Tad knew without even checking that he was feverish, just based on the bone-deep ache of each joint and the sensitivity of his clammy skin. No one appeared to eat with him, so Tad took his meal alone, only eating half of it before he couldn’t stomach any more. He rewrapped it and put it in the cooling unit, determined to finish it later. He then poured himself some water and took the journal with him to his quarters, where he read through barely a paragraph before falling into a sleep only deepened by his faulty health.
When he woke the next morning, it was to tapping on his door. He gave a noncommittal grunt and winced when his throat complained, utterly dry. He pried his eyes open to see Perkins slide the door open, and heard him give a sympathetic whistle. “You look terrible. Do you want some more water?”
Tad forced himself to nod, even though every muscle screamed with each motion. He let his eyes fall shut, listening to Perkins’s footsteps disappear briefly down the hall before he returned with a full pitcher of water. Perkins forced Tad to sit up and drink a full glass and take a few ibuprofen pills to bring the fever down, before he allowed Tad to lie back down and go back to sleep.
And sleep he did. Tad was barely conscious for more than a few minutes at a time, usually when Perkins came to give him more pills and make sure he hydrated and ate. In his condition, Tad was in a constant state of bewilderment whenever he was forced to take something by mouth, because he never knew what to expect—the tiny red ibuprofen tablets, or a mouthful of cool water or warm chicken broth. Other than those brief lapses of somewhat-awareness, he was utterly dead to the world.
His fever must have started coming down a day or two later, because he was generally more lucid when Perkins came to check on him. And when he was left alone, he spent more time staring at the ceiling than sleeping, bored but too weak to hold a book.
Perkins took his temperature again around dinner time, and when he read the thermometer display he cracked a smile. “Fever’s broken,” he said. “It’s about time.”
“How long was I sick?” Tad asked.
“About two sols,” Perkins told him. “It hit you harder than it hit the rest of us, whatever it was. I was starting to worry a bit.” He sobered slightly. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Tad replied. “Just tired and…weak? Like my muscles are exhausted.”
Perkins nodded. “Sounds familiar. I just wanted to make sure. Based on the rest of us, that should go away in a few days, and you’ll be back to normal.”
“I hope so,” Tad said. “I never thought I’d be sick on Mars, either.”
Perkins laughed. “It’s been an adventure for all of us.”
After another hour or so of staring at the ceiling, Tad found a way to prop the journal against the wall so he could read it with only minor effort.
Kellar continued to talk about the colony’s recovery over the next several entries, while he started to record the lab results again. After a sol or two, he started mentioning a new topic as well.
“The medical officers started taking throat cultures after about a week of everyone getting sick, and took them up to the medical center to incubate. Evidently, it’s a type of bacteria they’ve never seen before. Perhaps there’s life on Mars after all? Other than us, that is.
“They don’t know much about it yet, only that everyone had it, and that it was probably the culprit behind the epidemic. God willing, we’ve built up an immunity by now and won’t have to go through that again any time soon.”
Tad was up and walking the next morning, though he moved slowly. His muscles were no longer screaming, but he was finding Kellar’s description more and more apropos—the mere thought of walking more than a few steps made Tad feel faint.
Perkins allowed him solid food at breakfast, some strawberries from Greenhouse B and a few bacon squares. He didn’t eat all that much, after being sick for so long, but he made sure to eat enough that Perkins wouldn’t worry.
Grossman talked him into helping out in the labs again.
“Didn’t get nearly as much done by myself,” the older man admitted grudgingly. Tad took it as a compliment, and made slow, slow progress to the Vaults, where he and Grossman spent the morning finalizing the organization of the entire west wall. It was satisfying to be able to see workspace when they left for lunch.
Perkins didn’t allow Tad to go back afterwards, telling him he needed to rest some more. Tad wanted to argue, but knew Perkins was right—he had been walking even slower on the way back from the Vaults, and his legs were shaking. So instead of fighting it, Tad forced himself up the stairs to his room, and spent the rest of the afternoon dozing in between entries of Kellar’s journal.
The bacteria cultures didn’t seem to be progressing much. Of all the scientists on Mars at the time, none of them had really specified in biology, because most of the research effort had been going into the Emalium. So while the cultures kept growing, no one was quite sure what they meant.
Tad poured himself a drink from the pitcher on the shelf.
On Prometheus Sol 2433, Kellar noted that the colony started going through water at an unusually high rate.
“I’m always thirsty, it seems, despite the dietitians’ calculations. Everyone is, though we’re unsure why. There is no excess salt in our diets, nor any unusually taxing activities. James is theorizing that it’s part of adapting to Martian life. I’m not so certain.”
Tad glanced at the pitcher and froze. It was empty.
Had it been that depleted a moment ago?
Don’t be stupid, Tad scolded. It didn’t matter that—if he was drinking a lot. He’d just been ill. He needed to rehydrate.
Tad forcibly closed the book and set it on the nightstand by the empty pitcher, then rolled over and willed himself to sleep.
At dinner, Tad couldn’t help but measure how much the rest of his crew was drinking. Did Perkins normally have three glasses of water at dinner? Did Grossman?
“Are you all right, Clarke? You look pretty pale.”
Tad startled, and considered the question. “I’ve been really thirsty,” he said. “Is that normal?”
Perkins shrugged. “You were just sick,” he pointed out. “You’re probably just a little dehydrated.”
Tad nodded, then paused. “I’m pale?” he asked. That sounded familiar.
“Yes, a little. Probably just the sickness wearing off,” Perkins said.
Tad nodded again, but hesitantly, feeling a creeping doubt in the back of his mind.
He looked extra hard in the mirror that night before bed, unsure whether he was pale or not. Perhaps it was just the light. Or maybe he was still sick. He worried his lower lip with his teeth, then shut off the light and got into bed. The journal taunted him from its place on his shelf, until he picked it up with a heavy sigh and flipped to the entry for Prometheus Sol 2434.
“I’m getting more and more nervous by the day. Ever since I was sick, something feels off inside of me, like something is missing. Or changing. I’ve asked some of the others about it, and they feel it too. Was the sickness natural, or is there something more happening here?
“Every time I look in the mirror, it’s like a dead man is looking back. I see it in the others, too, like tuberculosis without the coughing and the blood.
“Something is wrong.”
Tad had to put the journal down before he could breathe again.
Now that he thought about it, something felt off inside of him, too, like a broken synapse, or a half-formed thought that was just out of reach, or a stiff muscle just faint enough to miss. Tad clenched his fingers, studying them under the buzzing white light over his head. They were white, and cold.
“Paranoid,” Tad muttered. He tucked the ribbon bookmark firmly into the spine of the journal and put it away, forcing his fear away with it. Then he switched off the light and did his best to fall asleep.
Tad gave the journal to Perkins in the morning. Norton hadn’t even put in an appearance at breakfast, saying that he had something to fix in one of the greenhouses, and Grossman only sampled his breakfast before wandering off towards the Vaults. Tad watched him leave, wondering if it were his imagination, or if Grossman were truly flushed in the face.
When Tad handed it over, he explained how it had predicted the illness, as well as his suspicions about the water and the paleness, and now the redness. As he mentioned the latter, he studied Perkins’s face, and the unusual crimson shade of his skin.
Perkins listened intently, then glanced at the book in his hands. “Did it say what happened to the colony?” he asked quietly.
Tad shook his head. “I don’t know. I didn’t finish it.”
Perkins handed it back. “Please do, and let me know what you find out. Don’t worry about the Vaults today, I think Grossman can handle it alone.”
Tad nodded, though his heart sank. He didn’t want to finish it—he wanted to get rid of it. But Perkins was smiling at him and clapping him on the shoulder, and getting up and leaving to go take care of the plants in Greenhouse B.
Tad filled up a pitcher with water and took it up to his room, where he settled in for the long haul.
“Prometheus Sol 2502
The paleness is starting to go away now, finally. It’s less uncomfortable to look in the mirror.
Some of us are starting to get a bit sunburnt, despite the tinted glass on the domes. It’s supposed to block the UV rays, but nothing’s perfect. Surely it can’t block all of them.
I mentioned the sunburn to James, and he said that it wasn’t the sun. I asked him what else it could be and he didn’t answer me, just went back to the lab with the bacteria. He’s spent a lot of time in there, lately. I’m worried about him.”
“Prometheus Sol 2504
I’ve started to notice the same reddening of my skin as the others. Maybe I’m spending too much time out in the open dome.
Strange, though, despite the sunburn, I’m always cold. And still thirsty, all the time. I wonder if there’s another bug going around.”
“Prometheus Sol 2521
I went to visit James in the lab today, and now I understand why he was so agitated when I mentioned the sunburn. It isn’t a sunburn at all.
James showed me the petri dishes with the bacteria cultures from Sol 1612. They’re red, like rust. He says that he thinks that’s why we’re all turning red. I have to say, the thought of those germs still being in my body makes me nervous. Maybe we haven’t built up the immunity I’d hoped we had.”
Tad forced himself not to make comparisons as he set the book aside. Tried not to stare at his icy trembling fingers, or the paleness of his skin, or the empty pitcher he was getting up to refill.
Power of suggestion, Tad decided firmly. Nothing more.
The kitchen was empty when he entered and left, and it made Tad pause. It was lunch time, and no one was there eating.
Tad took a chocolate bar from the freezer unit, knowing he should pair it with a protein bar or something but proving too lazy to do so (13). He went back to his room with his water and his chocolate, and returned to the text, the cloying sugar sweet on his tongue.
“Prometheus Sol 2801
We all look like lobsters here. Thirsty lobsters, that is—the filtration system can’t keep up with our water intake anymore, and we’ve had to start rationing it. I saw Collins the other day in Greenhouse A lying out under the irrigation drips. Can’t say I blame him.”
“Prometheus Sol 2912
James finally convinced the commanders that the bacteria was an issue. The higher-ups announced at breakfast that there would be some new dietary changes in the next week or so. Don’t know if I should be worried or relieved.”
“Prometheus Sol 2917
Took a few days, but the ‘dietary’ changes have been added in. Antibiotics, again, though in smaller doses because they have to go through all of us, and iron supplements. James says the bacteria are taking their toll on us. I think he just likes being cryptic. I’d feel just fine, if I could get ahold of some water now and then.”
“Prometheus Sol 3001
I miss being outside. I mean, I could probably go for a walk if I wanted to put on an EMU, but that’s a lot of trouble to go through just to pretend to go outside. Because I wouldn’t be outside, not really. I want to feel the gravel under my feet. Taste the air on my tongue. I’m tired of all this damned filtered air. I almost can’t stand to breathe it.”
“Prometheus Sol 3582
We thirst for the wind on our faces, for the taste of Martian sand. There are too many chemicals in the air and water here. All we taste is decay.”
Kellar was rarely coherent after that point. His handwriting grew looser, messier, and his dates ran together, making it difficult to determine chronology. More and more, he wrote about his craving to go outside instead of chronicling the lab work or the progression of his madness, his disease (though he did not see it as such). That’s what Tad had decided it was—a disease. Though he was starting to wonder if the progression of Kellar’s insanity wasn’t a measure of the disease’s advance.
Tad flipped to the last page, but found nothing conclusive. Kellar’s rambling seemed to just end, and there were no dated entries after Prometheus Sol 3680, just a series of scribbles that were either unintelligible or utterly senseless.
Tad got up and went out to find Perkins, journal in hand. He searched the barracks first, and, finding it empty, went out to Greenhouse B.
It was empty as well.
Tad all but raced to the Vaults, knowing that Grossman should be there, sorting through paperwork in the lab. It too was empty.
In a last-ditch effort, he checked Greenhouse A, but wasn’t all that surprised to find it empty as well. Tad felt his stomach drop through the floor, and went numbly to the barracks airlock. He checked the log.
The door had opened three times that day, each time no more than an hour from the last. Tad could see out the window three dusty human heaps on the Martian ground, sprawled where the men had fallen dead when the carbon-dioxide-filled atmosphere took its toll (14).
Tad glanced back at the log, and started to panic. The last exit had been over two hours ago. There was no way any one of them was still alive.
Tad was alone. He was alone, and he was going to die.
He opened the journal again and flipped rapidly through the earlier pages. There must have been something he could use to stave off the disease. His eyes caught on a word on a page—antibiotics. Of course.
Tad turned to bolt up the stairs to the infirmary and slipped on the edge of the first step, falling hard and dashing his head against the railing. Pain washed through his head as his vision flickered, sputtering out into nothing.
Tad woke up at the base of the steps, bleary and desperately parched. He sat up slowly, rubbing his scalp, tacky with blood, and looked around.
Lord, his head hurt.
Tad stood up gingerly and paused, glancing out the window.
He felt odd. Distant, though he could feel the floor under him and the dryness of the inside air on his skin.
He thirsted for the wind on his face.
This air had been filtered too many times. It tasted stale. He wanted real air, real ground. Perhaps Kellar’s journals had held more truth than he gave them credit for.
All he tasted was decay.
He’d spent far too much time indoors. He needed fresh air. A small voice in his mind argued that he was being irrational, and that he shouldn’t do what he was about to. But Tad ignored it, because it was so small, and so quiet, and he wanted to go outside.
Tad programmed the air lock to let him through, and stepped outside into the light of the dying Martian sun.
1. The Nergal craft is based on Robert Zubrin’s design for the “Mars Direct” Beagle, a small shuttle that would be able to carry a crew of four to the Red Planet. Robert Zubrin, The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must (New York:Touchstone, 1996), 7. Nergal was a Mesopotamian god of war, and his name was one of the three main titles used for the planet (all three being Mars, Ares, and Nergal). Information via Mars as a Member of the Solar System, Box 225, Folder 6, Neil A. Armstrong papers, 1967-1981 [hereafter Armstrong papers], Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN.
2. One of the original landing places for the Viking probes. John Harvard’s Journal, Box 225, Folder 6, Armstrong Papers.
3. Prometheus was a figure in Greek mythology associated with knowledge and invention whose name means “forethought.”
4. The approximate travel time necessary to get to Mars from Earth while the planets are in conjunction. Project Aldrin-Purdue, “Aldrin-Purdue project, Mission to Mars – Short video.” Purdue University, 13 June 2015, 9:50.
5. Diagram of Extravehicular Mobility Unit, Apollo Summary Reports, Box 16, Folder 2, Eugene Cernan papers, 1972-1975, Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN.
6. A fixture attached to the foremost part of the Nergal so that the ship does not burn up in descent through the atmosphere, serving also to slow the ship during descent. Zubrin, The Case for Mars, 7.
7. Calling for colonists to “live off the land,” Zubrin described buildings made of brick composed of Martian soil and Earthly water, then placed underground so that the brickwork remains stable. These structures are modelled after Roman architecture. He also proposed the use of geodesic domes for surface living. Zubrin, The Case for Mars, 176, 179.
8. A colony formed in the late 1500s off the coast of what is now North Carolina, known for its unusual and yet unexplained disappearance.
9. Christopher P. McKay, “Plants on Mars: On the Next Mission and in the Long Term Future.” Leonard Williams and Lloyd Walker, “Optimal Food Safety in Advanced Life Support.” (Lafayette, IN: Purdue University, 2007), 67.
10. The idea of reviving Mars became popular in Space Age science fiction. Robert Markley, Dying Planet (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 270.
11. Space Food, Box 11, Mark N. Brown papers, 1989-1991, Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN.
12. “Sol” refers to the Martian day, which is slightly less than an hour longer than an Earth day. Mars as a Member of the Solar System, Box 225, Folder 6, Neil Armstrong Papers. Each Nergal mission had its own timeline, which is referred to using the mission name (for example, Nergal III) and then the Sol number. While on Mars, the date is referred to by Prometheus Sol ___, in order to keep the mission timeline cohesive.
13. Apollo Summary Reports, Box 16, Folder 3, Eugene A. Cernan papers, 1934-2014.
14. Viking II, Water, Ice, and Argon, Box 225, Folder 6, Armstrong papers.
Editorial Note: The Flight Paths editorial team would like to thank NASA for the featured image appearing at the top of this story, which offers a dramatic view of the volcanic Olympus Mons on the Martian surface. NASA’s images are public domain and serve the public interest by disseminating cutting edge scientific knowledge about our solar system. For more, please visit http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/guidelines/index.html