21 September 2012
DYING ON MARS
By Curtis C. Chen
I wake up when the rover jolts to a stop at the edge of Robinson Crater. Its front wheels are caught on a ridge of shattered basalt. Geologists believe this plain was created by a volcanic lava flow, the same one which also buried the ancient Martian city.
No human has ever been this close. I'm not supposed to be here, either. I'm supposed to be back in the colony hab, waiting for NASA to send more medical supplies.
Like hell. I know I'm dying. Nothing can stop that now.
There's no clear path from here to the city. I line myself up with the least rocky slope I can see leading to the nearest exposed metal spire, sit down, and slide off the ridge.
The uneven surface rattles my teeth as I scrape my way down into the crater. I drop over an outcropping and fall a good three meters, landing on a small boulder. Something tears in my right knee. I start tumbling. The world becomes a blur of red dirt and a cacophony of scraping noises until a loud crack stops everything.
Now I'm lying on my side, my helmet impacted against the silver spire. Oxygen hisses through the fractures. I can't feel my legs.
I don't have much time.
I twist off my helmet. Cold Martian air rushes in, and fine Martian dust tickles my skin. I open my mouth to exhale. My saliva boils in the thin atmosphere. No human being has ever felt this before.
My father's penknife is the only personal item I brought with me to Mars. I had the blade cleaned and sharpened before launch. My gloved fingers are too bulky to reach into my pressure suit's pockets. I yank off the gloves and pull out the knife. Capillaries burst beneath my skin, the blood inside overheated by naked sunlight.
I hold the knife with both hands, steady myself, and slash the blade against the ancient Martian spire.
The shimmering silver surface remains completely smooth, unmarred by either the molten rock which congealed around it millennia ago or the asteroid impact that unearthed it or my feeble attempt to vandalize it just now.
The knife falls to the ground. I can't hear myself laugh, though I feel my chest shaking. Stupid idea. My right hand makes a fist, but I think better of it before throwing the punch, and instead smack my palm against the spire.
The metal feels warm.
Is it my imagination, or does this thing feel like it's moving—vibrating?
If the atmosphere was thicker, would I hear noise? Music?
My eyes are watering from all the dust in the air. The poisonous atmosphere burns my lungs. My right arm starts going numb at the shoulder. Something aches at the base of my skull.
None of that matters.
I put both of my bare hands on the spire, feel its quivering warmth in my bones, and smile.
The sun is setting, and its golden reflection off the spire blinds me. I close my eyes.
Image: Dissecting the Scene of Sky Crane Crash by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona, September, 2012