This is it. I’m going to die here alone. With no human touch to lead me into the next life. If there even is one. These red sands enveloped me whole without halt. The granules moved into my pores and suffocated whatever dribble of life was left.
“Sakura, wake up.”
Yoko’s soothing voice stirs me out of a hazy fog. I am now awake. The machinery of the room stares back at me like some nonplussed animal questioning my presence. Their gentle whirring is reminiscent of some distant vortex spinning without purpose.
I step out of my bed, slip into my slippers and walk to my bathroom to wash my face. The water slides out of the faucet into my cupped hands. I’ve always admired how water persisted. Moving from one place to another, changing form but always keeping its content the same. Its adaptability is endearing.
After clearing my nostrils and scrubbing the sweat from my skin, I dress and head into the main lobby to brief with Yoko. It’s been three weeks since discovering that Yoko’s been tracking some form of life on this planet. We still can’t seem to find any source of their existence since I arrived.
“Good morning,” Yoko says as I slip into the captain’s chair behind the mainframe.
“Morning,” I mutter.
“Did you sleep well?”
I glare at her hologram. She knows everything about me. She follows me implanted in my helmet even when I’m outside collecting soil samples. She has never left my side since I’ve arrived here. This pixelated faux-woman can surmise exactly the quality of my sleep based on biochemical readings. Why is she asking me this if she already knows my anxiety levels?
I decide to stay silent. I’m stubborn at times.
“Sakura, you must talk to me about your mental state. I cannot let you wither away from lack of motivation,” Yoko says in her calm voice.
My glare melts away in response to her compassion.
I take a drawn-out breath. “I know. I’m stuck in this feedback loop because we’re stagnant. I feel bad, and then I start to feel bad about feeling bad. This cycle follows me into my sleep.”
“I understand. There aren’t many out there that could have made it as far as you have. These feelings are probably new.”
I smile. She always knows how to truly listen to me.
I shake my head.
“So, let’s review again what we have so far.”
“Right,” Yoko says. The hologram disappears and the main screen lights up with data.
“The day you arrived we lost all trace of this species.”
I raise my hand, palm open. I’ve heard this briefing every day since Yoko first revealed to me the presence of intelligent life. And still, nothing has come of it.
Why do I feel stuck? Is this yet another feedback loop?
“We know that they concealed their presence since I’ve arrived. We’ve known that for weeks now. How can we dig deeper into this?”
“Do we know that they did it on purpose?”
I pause. “Are you saying it could have been accidental?”
“Then what are you saying?”
“I’m merely considering the possibilities. Who’s to say that they went missing exactly when you landed because of you. Maybe it was a coincidence.”
I bite my tongue. In my internal tug-of-war, I hadn’t been able to reach such a simple analysis. No wonder Anshin stranded me out here.
“That’s a good thought, Yoko. Us landing here could be completely unrelated or had some chain reaction with something else to erase their trace from our scans. So…let’s take a look at the data you collected before I arrived. We’ll compare the homeostasis of the atmosphere from then and now. Even one lone human being can disturb the harmony.”
“Bringing it up now,” Yoko replies with a hint of satisfaction in her voice. I suspected she took pleasure in my newfound energy.
The screen flashed with temperature readings, atmospheric levels of all the necessary elements, and weather patterns.
“My analysis shows no major disruptions in the atmosphere since you arrived,” Yoko says.
I scratch my bald head. Doing this relaxes me. Suddenly, an idea floats to my mind like an obsidian plank rising to the surface of a lake.
“I’m taking the Hummer out to the volcano we found activity on last week.”
“You mean Mount Musk? There was a small, infinitesimal change in the heat there, but that’s it.”
“Exactly. We must work with what we have, no? Maybe it was stray solar energy from the sun, or some activity by this lifeform they were unable to conceal.”
“Are you thinking they’ll react to you if you put yourself out there?”
“It’s our only option. Plus, waiting here is only ‘withering me away,’ right?”
“I see…Well, I am not detecting any storms for another day or so out there.”
“Perfect. I’ll leave in ten minutes.”
* * *
The trip took about twelve hours in the Hummer. Yoko had monitored the solar batteries on the vehicles and other portable equipment before anyone arrived making sure they stored as much sunlight as possible from Mars’ 24 hour 40 minute days. I was able to travel to Mount Musk and back to base camp and still not use half of the Hummer’s battery capacity. How grateful I am for Tesla’s foray into the electrical car industry so many years ago! But still, while everyone on Earth was being carried to their destination safely and comfortably in the self-driving cars Tesla revolutionized, I am out here driving across barren rock too hostile for any type of life. Or maybe not.
During these twelve hours, while sucking on my liquid sustenance and listening to Damian Marley, I reflected on my time on Mars so far.
Only one month or so since I was abandoned by my team and yet it felt like an eternity. After countless hours of questioning my sanity, there are still no promising leads on whether there is a form of life here. Maybe my team and the rest of my colleagues at Anshin understood something my optimism blinded me of: that this trip is a complete waste of time and investment.
Will any of this serve future colonists?
No one is coming for you.
The latter thought slid into my mind like red curtains at a play abruptly halting an arresting performance because of some malfunction backstage.
You are alone.
“We’re going to make it…” Damian sang with his ragged, yet sultry voice from the binaural speakers. The Rastafarians always managed to stay sunny in the face of adversity.
I have no choice but to face my circumstances. Accept the reality and move on.
* * *
I stepped out onto the red earth and jump-walked to the base of Mars’ first and largest volcano – what we used to call Olympus Mons. If you stacked Mount Fuji on top of itself five or so times, you might come close to Mount Musk’s height.
Luckily, the boosters on my suit would allow me to scale it in approximately an Earth hour.
Standing before the massive volcano, I closed my eyes and inhaled. It felt like the bright sun hitting the surface of this red rock moved through the thick protective mass of my helmet. The crimson sand below my boots shifted subtly. The utter silence of an unknown world rang out incessantly.
You are alone. And you are going to make it.
“Boosters are ready,” Yoko rang out inside my helmet.
“Time to see if we’re truly alone.”
To be continued…