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Life on Mars

By J Darris Mitchell All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Scifi

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Marcus had seemed a little odd before his vacation to earth, but not dangerous. He looked dangerous now.

He stood at the top of the landing platform, in front of the entrance to the shuttle. His flight suit was covered in dirt, something that should have been impossible for a man who just traveled on a sterilized trans-planetary craft. Xavier suspected it was riddled with bacteria.  Marcus removed his helmet and his long hair blew to the side of his face in the Martian breeze. He had a grizzly beard, and a wild look in his blue eyes. He leaned on the frame of the airlock, one hand resting near the cargo hold release lever, his other hand cupped and extended in front of him, trembling. There was a little pile in it that Xavier could not make out. Marcus had said they were seeds.

“You're going to ruin the entire project,” Xavier feared the small handful of seeds was just the beginning.

“The project is already ruined Xavier, it's based on the wrong ideas,” his voice trembled, “It's bullshit!”

“We're doing good here, the atmosphere is beginning to stabilize, and everything is proceeding as scheduled. Mars will be fit for human life in a matter of years,” Xavier said.

Proceeding as scheduled,” Marcus jeered, “you sound like one of the robots.”

“We couldn't have got this far without the machines” Xavier shot back.

“I KNOW!”  Those two words drained Marcus of his strength and his madness, his voice returned, softer now, more like the man who left to earth, “but we've got to move forward. We've lost sight of our original goals. The principles should be based organic systems and creating an environment as we knew it on earth, not whatever it is we're doing here. There's too much control, too much power centralized in the hands of too few.”

“But control is our greatest strength here, and it’s our hands,” Xavier hesitated, not sure of if Marcus would let him continue. “We don't have to worry about drought, or pests destroying crops, or unwanted cross pollination, this bare planet and the machines give us all the control we need.”

“Control to what end?” Marcus sounded like an adult tired of hearing the same children's stories.

“Control of all ends! If one of the 4 is underperforming, if it isn't providing the erosion control or oxygen production we planned, we simply tell the machines to cease watering, fertilization and pollination practices. We collect the dead matter, recycle it into fertilizer, and replace it with something more suited to our purposes.”

“What purposes?”

“You drafted the proposal with me! The purpose of the project is to increase biomass on Mars until a sustainable level is reached, at which point we can begin allowing people to move in to our environment. To achieve this goal, we plan on using the highest levels of technology available to terraform...” Xavier trailed off. Marcus was making rough, gasping sounds. His whole body shook except for his hand, which only trembled slightly as it cradled the seeds. Xavier realized he was laughing. Marcus finally looked up, his blue eyes almost glowing as tears melted paths in the dirt on his face.

“Do you think everyone will follow the rules like you do? Do you think everyone will be comfortable with every aspect of their lives being controlled? Do you expect everyone to give their piss, their shit, their dead to us for processing?” Marcus' eyes glowed like hot blue fire now.

Xavier didn't like where this conversation was going. Marcus was sounding like the competing companies, the nonprofits, the public hearings. They had all said it was ludicrous to control an entire  planet. Only Marcus had stood beside him with the 4 perfect plants while Xavier touted his maintenance machines and explained how it would all work. The others said they shouldn't control a planet, they couldn't. Xavier knew it was the only way. He knew his system―their system, as Marcus designed those 4 plants that had brought Mars this far―made their argument moot.  They would see his machines water and fertilize the soil perfectly, pollinate precisely, care for the 4 plants that cared for the people. Food would come from the same 4 plants that were responsible for erosion control, the atmosphere, and everything else. Eventually a water cycle would establish itself, as the 4 plants released water into the atmosphere, but in the meantime, water had to be guarded and couldn't be wasted. If humans decided to waste their resources instead of do the logical thing―putting them safely back into the system―the machines would cease to give them water and fertilize their land. They would quickly realize how dependent they were. Besides, who wouldn't want crops free of pests, nutritionally perfect food, and an efficient use of waste materials? They had designed the whole system together, yet Marcus wanted to destroy it.

“I thought you would follow the rules. Through our technology we can create a better world, a perfectly ordered system.”

Marcus only laughed in that heaving, rasping way.

“And what happens when someone decides to add a little chaos to perfect order?”

Marcus slowly turned his cupped hand upside down. There really were seeds in it, not stones or food pellets, but seeds. There were dozens of kinds and each fell differently in the Martian air. Some fell straight down, still heavy despite the weak Martian gravity, some caught in the breeze and flew out above the green circular fields that dotted the rusty red landscape, some twirled slowly and beautifully to the ground, and some simply clung to Marcus' filthy suit and sweaty hands to be brushed off later.

Xavier sucked in a quick breath. This was dangerous, incredibly dangerous, but not disastrous, not yet. The plants could cause problems if they took root in the fields. They could fix nutrients or leave organic remains in the rusty, sterile soil that could ruin the careful calculations that went into fertilizing the 4 perfect plants. Still though, a few blades of grass here and there would probably be okay. But Xavier didn't think that Marcus came all the way from earth with only a handful of grass seed. He was worried about the cargo hold, there could be thousands, hundreds of thousands of seeds in there. But still, how many plants could survive without an ecosystem? Then an idea dawned on him, a big idea. A powerful idea. Marcus wouldn't, couldn't, could he? Xavier searched Marcus’s dirty face for answers to the hypothesis he had formed. It had already been done. The dirt was the answer. Marcus was taking control.

“You think a few seeds are going to stop the system from functioning?” Xavier fumed,” A few blades of grass can destroy all of my hardwork?” flecks of spittle sprayed as he spoke. A thought flickered through Xavier's head: that he was contaminating that perfectly sterile rusty Martian dirt with his saliva, but it hardly seemed to matter now. “Your disgusting space suit has likely released enough bacteria to damage the 4 plants anyway.”

Marcus pulled the lever for the cargo hold, and went back through the airlock, into the ship. Xavier looked from him to the hermetically sealed doors. They slowly whirred and clicked open. A crack formed between the two sliding panels, and Xavier saw the first piece of Marcus' grand plan of destruction.

A butterfly fluttered past Xavier, out towards the fields around the research station.  Xavier hadn't seen a butterfly in 7 years; he had forgotten the silly way they flit back and forth in the wind and their exquisite symmetry. The insect flew in loopy lines towards the fields of the 4 plants, driven by the flowers or the smells, or something.

At least the 4 plants have flowers, he thought bitterly. He turned back towards the cargo hold. The doors were wide open, and insects of every size and shape clamored to escape. There were bees, beetles of every size, flies, gnats, dragonflies, and roaches rushing to escape as a dozen different birds flew out and over him. The floor of the cargo hold pulsed with life as ants, centipedes, and spiders tumbled out of the tight room in all directions. Xavier managed a weak smile when a butterfly landed on his slumped shoulder. It warmed itself in the relatively weak Martian sun.

Xavier trudged towards the cargo hold. He saw Marcus inside, opening crates and kicking them over. Mice poured out of one, snakes another. One crate held toads, one frogs of every shape. He had expected to see the boxes of seed, of grass, fruits and vegetables, but it seemed that Marcus had forgot nothing. Marcus opened a crate marked Fungal Spores. Marcus had complained for 7 years that there were no mushrooms to eat on Mars. Now with a strong breeze and a little luck, he'd have them.

Xavier watched the parade of animals empty out of the hold. The room was littered with hundreds of dead insects, birds and mammals that hadn’t survived the freezing stasis chamber as well as feces of every type, and hundreds of pots of different types of flowers. Bees still hummed quietly throughout the ship, not ready to leave the flowers they had grown to know so well. A line of ants pulled a beetle off of the ship, already trying to introduce the organic compounds of the tiny corpse below the soil.

“I'm sorry Xavier, but if I didn't do it, someone would've. Our system was bound to grow more complex. You didn't account for that, I needed you to see it.”

Xavier nodded dumbly. Marcus continued, his voice wavering and thick with guilt,

“What if one person brought some tomato seeds? Or insects managed to survive in someone's luggage? The intercontinental exchange of life forms destroyed stability when humans were still stuck on earth. Now we can see what they'll do here, before people are wholly dependent on our system” Marcus sounded like he was pleading, Xavier only nodded, his eyes jumping around the cargo hold.

“But the 4 plants were your idea.”

“I know,” Marcus hung his head, “but I made a mistake. If the machines malfunctioned, or the plants mutated, or someone urinated in the fields, not knowing any better, all that perfection and order would come crashing down,” he gestured to the ants and bees that were still in the hold with them, “This way there are redundancies, at least people can be sure they can always grow their own food.”

“But the machines… you made them obsolete.”

“Naw,” Marcus said, then stepped out of the cargo hold and put a hand with grubby fingernails on Xavier's shoulder, “Mars still doesn't have a water cycle, or a proper atmosphere. Your robots are just as important as ever. Your half of the project was fine, mine was flawed. This way there's not so much pressure on us, if we mess up, the animals will take care of it. Come on, help me with this crate.”

The two lifted a crate that would've been too heavy for them on earth and dragged it over to the nearest research field. The machines moved in and out of the perfect concentric circles, testing a plant here or there, adding a few drops of water. Butterflies tentatively sipped at nectar that had previously gone unused. Xavier pushed the nearest robot over. It twitched, trying to right itself. He stepped on it gingerly and it snapped in half. He sighed. A couple school children could have ruined everything. Marcus was right.

He turned to see Marcus hide a smirk as he pried the lid off of the crate. It was full of earth worms. They squirmed and wriggled in that way unique to life. He grabbed a big sticky handful and smiled. His fingers were immediately covered in worm dung, the chemist in him knew fertilizer like this didn't need to spread as often, and the engineer knew the creators of it never needed maintenance. He dropped the fistful of worms to the ground and watched them wriggle away from the sunlight, into the Martian soil. He laughed.

“Life on Mars.”

END


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