Short Story: Home

Resplendent beams of gold waved over the rusted horizon. The rays winked and glittered along frost-tinted ground, rebounded off it and back up into the atmosphere. The soil had long been deprived of life, or so the surveys had said. In its absence, only clumped balls of hard minerals remained. Every handful of dirt grabbed up, held against only until a slight pressure pulverized it to dust.

The gloved-hand of Mars-one’s Dr. Cameron Markinson did just that. She let the Red-Planet’s malnourished life-blood trickle through her fingers. It caught a north wind, whisked away and dispersed until invisible. Lead-weight steps of low-g boots deposited a figure in place beside her; Commander Mackenzie Williams, always an imposing figure, made one feel he was in their space even at a respectful distance away.

Today was no exception, but neither felt the usual awkwardness from it. It was a new day. One for the record books– the ages, so to speak. Both of them sensed it. The truth of it infected their every breath, each one that much softer, gentler. Something colored the space between them, made even Mac seem smaller, while their forms were dwarfed by the awe-inspiring humility of events around them.

“First sunrise on Mars,” Mac said.

Tears wavered beneath the awe on his tongue. Cameron sympathized. She felt her eyes welling up, preparing to rain behind her helmet with vain hopes of watering thirsty ground. The sharp pain in her chest was as much welcomed as embraced.

“Six million years of Evolution,” Cameron said. “Two-hundred and fifty-thousand years of Human existence, five thousand of recorded history, and we’re finally home.” Her voice stiffened a little, “It took us a less than a century to go from ground-confinement to exploring the solar system. Imagine what we’ll have in another century– or even a millennium.”

Behind his glass face-plate, Mac smiled. He patted a shoulder of her suit, “C’mon, we’ve got work to do.”

He turned for the shuttle, but she lingered a moment before following him.

Mars-One’s shuttle, Verne, looked for all the world like a streamlined city-bus with millions of dollars more investment to it. Its infinitely more complex systems didn’t hurt the image, and its 747-like cock-pit managed to contain twice as many instruments and systems as a the jumbo jet into even less space. Technology was like that; unrelenting, pervasive, even astronauts were just well-educated techies at heart.

Half the cock-pit was used to communicate and monitor Verne’s docking cradle alone. Orbiting the planet, it was a veritable hotel for cosmonauts, and the only way-point between Earth and Mars’ surface. It was the sole place capable of harboring life outside Earth’s orbit. Even the shuttle itself could only power their suits’ oxygen, and otherwise was merely an airtight coffin for anyone seeking refuge.

But coffins weren’t needed here. The International Cosmic Exploration Agency, or ICEA, had made sure of that. Even a total-systems failure on the shuttle had been compensated for. Excess resources and parts aboard the orbiter could be shot down like one of Heinlein’s bouncers, aimed by the pair of crew still aboard. The canister would reach the target area in less than ten minutes, and could be repeated almost ad nauseum to ensure any problems were repairable.

Cameron and Mac worked to roll out metal cases and tubular contraptions for the next hour, aligning a series of large cylinders and various-sizes of steel and aluminum parts into formations. By the time “tank change” came, the items were separated into several, individual piles, each with angled sheets of aluminum, steel cases, cylinders, hoses and nozzles, and a plethora of fasteners and tools. Once assembled, the seemingly innocuous conglomerate of spare parts would form a fleet of UAVs that would begin laying down high-level nutrient sprays.

In the fleet’s wake, the orbiter would launch specialized seed-pods into the sprayed soil. The hardy seeds, genetically engineered for the Martian atmosphere, would theoretically take root in days. A month from now, Cameron and Mackenzie would return to check the results of the growth. If the seeds had taken root, and truly appeared to be surviving the harsh-Martian climate, phase two of “Habitat Reformation” would begin. It had become Cameron’s sole, life pursuit.

A little less than a decade before, she’d broken ground in astrobiology. It was the only reason she was on Mars now, why she wouldn’t have let anyone go in her place: While analyzing Martian soil deposits from the first, return-probe, striking similarities appeared between impact craters on both Mars’ and Earth’s surfaces. Rigorous testing proved conclusively the two shared a cosmic connection.

That connection, Cameron soon concluded, was the impact of a sole asteroid on Mars’ surface. Ejected debris from the impact was launched through the skies, into space, and eventually into Earth’s atmosphere, carrying microbes formed from an unknown, primordial ooze on the Red Planet.

Another probe Cameron designed, tested, and launched, eventually proved what many in the scientific community had begun to suspect; Earth’s life was alien. More specifically, it wasn’t Earth’s life on Earth, it was Mars’ life. The revelation of life being “extraterrestrial” took the world by storm. Space-exploration was suddenly reinvigorated. The ICEA formed to compensate for the sudden cascade of researchers seeking funding for space or Mars-based experiments. An influx of private investors, millionaires and billionaires with passions for science, quickly helped fund them.

But Cameron’s vision was different. Eventually, it had taken her to Mars, to home. The primordial ooze that had formed life, she reasoned, could not be understood until “home” or its history was. With Mars’ life no longer theoretical, only one option appeared to remain open to her. Most of her learned colleagues agreed; they needed to return home, begin seeking answers in their true birth-place.

Mars’ life may have merely gone extinct, some said, unable to thrive in the harshness of multiple impact events. It was probable even, others added, that the same impact transferring the microbes from Mars to Earth, had eradicated what remained of them on Mars. Most agreed, the impact had effectively launched a time-capsule, that opened prematurely on Earth, and thrived in its complimentary conditions.

There was no confirmation of whether the asteroid was responsible for the extinction, nor if the life had continued thrive before dying off from something unrelated. As Cameron saw it, there would be no further confirmation of their place in the universe until Mars was made habitable. After all, it had taken hundreds of years and countless naturalists to piece together even an infinitesimal amount of understanding regarding life’s formation on Earth– or rather, its evolution after arriving on Earth. That wayward life, now searching for its origins, simply couldn’t do so properly until it once more inhabited its home.

Over the course of six hours, and several air-tanks, she and Mac constructed and scrutinized the UAVs. The drones had enough battery-life, solar-panels, and payload to work unaided for a week. As the harsh winds grew colder, and the skies dustier and pinker from particulates, the last of the UAVs was assembled and tested via comm-connections to the orbiter.

When all was green, they stepped back to watch. As if launched like rockets, the UAVs sprinted into the distance, gained altitude. They came about in formation, fanned out, and separated for pre-programmed zones. They sank toward the ground, disappeared against the red-orange with streaks of invisible hope on their tails. In a month, the two cosmonauts would return to find life thriving, or dying, then try again, or continue the search for their true history.

Mac patted Cameron’s shoulder again, then made for the shuttle. She lingered once more, her mind on only one thing; Humanity had returned home, and begun to lay down its roots.