Red Desert

“In that open space, there,” she said, and indicated a clear space in the Martian dirt that was ringed by jagged stones. I pulled the crate into position, a heavy load that I would never have been able to manage on Earth but moved with ease in the low gravity.

“You want me to activate it, too?” I asked.

“Might as well,” she said, already turning to the next task at hand. I fumbled with the panel that protected the internal control mechanism, eventually releasing the hard catches. The bulky suits that the harsh environment forced us to wear made everything harder, but reduced efficiency was better than death. There had been enough of that already.

The controls hummed to life, turning like watch gears to expose a second internal panel, one with a series of four rubberized buttons arranged in a neat row. I punched in the security sequence, making certain that each button fully depressed before advancing. There was no tone, no lights to indicate success, which left me to wait while the box made up its mind whether to unfold or not. I surveyed the yellow-orange horizon.

In the distance the great spire of the Mars to Earth radio antenna rose from the dusty plain, gleaming like polished brass in the pale sunlight. I could make out the dead habitation pods, sprouting like barnacles from the antenna’s base. We had to abandon them shortly after arrival, as the automatons that set them up had neglected to insulate them properly, and a dozen colonists had frozen to death on their first Martian night. It was a good thing Earth sent so many of us, and that most of us were true pioneers who had understood the risks of the journey, otherwise such a catastrophe would have spelled doom for the expedition.

“We’ll be the foundation stones for the future of humanity on the red planet,” I said, repeating the words of Gherin Ming. The main financier and fundamental chief of the whole expedition, Gherin was one of Earth’s first trillionaires and, fortunately for science and human advancement, had been more interested than the fumbling governments in the adventure of space exploration. I had always known it would be a private enterprise that got us out here first, and there was something pleasant about planting a corporate flag everywhere rather than any national one. That hadn’t stopped some of the pioneers from raising their own country’s colors, but they had done so almost as jokes, or out of some inescapable attachment to tradition. I remember seeing one American flag hanging out of one of the frozen habitation modules and thinking how vain and useless a gesture it was. We were people of the Ming Enterprise now, the first true children of Mars.

The box finally shook, and rumbled itself open, its sides parting like the petals of a blooming flower. Four gossamer sheets of plastic shivered straight up on a telescopic frame, topped by a fifth that ballooned out as it inflated. I could see the thin layer of earth, of Earth earth, laying in the bottom of the tray. I had just deployed the first greenhouse and taken the first step toward sustainability. Despite the losses we had suffered, it was hard not to feel a little thrill of hope looking down at the rows of tiny green shoots.

Time would tell if they would grow.

2015.02.21 – 2023.09.17

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