Editor’s Note: We are proud to present this science fiction short story from Kraig Farkash, a Center for Science and the Imagination collaborator based in Arizona. Kraig’s haunting story carries echoes of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. It was inspired by a BEYOND Center lecture at Arizona State University, “Mars on a one-way ticket,” hosted by Paul Davies in November 2013.
So…won’t you join us on Mars?
The wiry old man stood in the Martian cave, sipping his coffee. Yuri’s rock-embedded display stretched across the cavern. The print from his mug reflected off the panel’s glass, “NASA MVC: Class of 2049.” He moved closer to it and touched the incoming spaceship’s blinking icon.
Yuri’s main screen displayed the orbiting ship’s details while two adjacent panels jumped to life. One monitored the pilot’s health and showed his bio-token, a shimmering green symbol shaped like a human body. The other was a live video feed. Yuri saw the elderly pilot’s face, which was alight with joy.
“Commander Murphy,” Yuri yelped, “welcome to Mars! Well, almost. You’re so close your bio-token’s read is seamless. I can almost smell you down here.”
Meanwhile, inside the spaceship, Alan Murphy reached for the expansive array that surrounded him. He swiped a gloved finger at the curved console. From it, a silver hue emerged, flooding the dim cockpit with light. Several data-stuffed rectangles crawled up from its depths. Alan found the one with Yuri’s face in it and touched it.
“Data Specialist Legume, permission to land?” Alan said through a toothy grin. “It’s at least an hour before descent.” He nodded at the camera. “I’ll be touching down right around dinnertime.”
“Dinner?” Yuri teased, smoothing back a dangling lock of grey hair. “They’re letting you have solids already?”
“Oh yeah,” said Alan, crossing his arms. “I had steak right after they printed and installed my new ticker. I was back in uniform in minutes, not hours.” He was still jealous that Yuri’s health had allowed him to land on Mars first. Months before, back on Earth, Alan mentioned this to Yuri while being prepped for his heart replacement. They both laughed. As Yuri left, they spoke of meeting again, but when they did, it would be on Mars.
“I’m sure you were. And I hope you enjoyed that meal…” Yuri peered into the screen and winked. “It’s the last beef you’ll ever eat.”
“I won’t miss it. Pass me a plate of those Martian veggies and keep ‘em comin’!” He frowned and tapped intently at the console, “Okay, Yuri. I’ll see you soon. I need to plot my descent and ready the landing gear.” He stopped to put on his helmet and looked into Yuri’s flickering face. “Buddy, I can’t tell you how excited I am.” He pumped a victory-fist into the air. “Finally! Mars!”
“I know, Alan. It’s everything you ever thought it would be, and more.” Awkwardly, Yuri’s smile contorted. He dropped his mug and gawked at his display in disbelief. “Wait. What? That…that can’t….” Alan’s bio-token had started to pulsate. A red hue abruptly burst from its chest and infected the whole. It faded to brown, then black. The bio-token disappeared.
Yuri stared ruefully at the dark panel. He was dumbstruck.
“You have five seconds to complete a sentence. I’m busy up here!” Alan was gleeful, but distracted. He suddenly felt warm. Sweat began to bead under his nose. He tugged at his spacesuit’s collar, a helmet attachment ring that haloed his neck. “Huh,” he thought aloud, “maybe the cabin pressure needs a tweak.”
“Commander Murphy! It’s your bio-token.” Yuri caught his breath. “Alan…your body’s failing.”
“I know that. All of ours are.” Alan was short of breath. He pulled at his neck ring again. “That’s what it means to be Martian.”
“No!” Yuri paused, a lump growing in his throat, his voice a melted sigh. “Alan. You’re dead.”
Yuri’s vivid model of the solar system brought him taunts from peers and adoration from mentors. Just after unveiling the starry behemoth, he had won the Science Fair. He had shaped each planetary sphere meticulously. The distance between them was to scale. It held accurate breakout depictions of their atmospheres. Earth birthed its clouds by way of millions of watery droplets. Saturn’s sixty moons made an appearance on the heads of sixty pins, which protruded from its ringed center. Mars was the proper shade of crimson, replete with all of its fifty-four mountains.
“Wait. Fifty-four mountains? Dang it!” Yuri mouthed silently. His instructor noticed.
The science teacher beamed with pride as he approached the young astronomer. Yuri’s hazel eyes moved to the floor. “I’m sorry, Mr. Nye.” His head slowly dropped. “I forgot a mountain. I think its Peraea Mons.”
Mr. Nye met Yuri’s gaze. “That’s what’s great about science. It demands precision.” His tone was encouraging. Leaning in, he smiled and gently nudged Yuri. “But, you know, sometimes scientists get in its way.”
Yuri returned the smile as Mr. Nye continued. “Oh, and your model is fantastic. This year the trophy case will hold the Science Fair’s winning piece. It’s quite an honor.” The cabinet was usually reserved for plaques and golden figurines celebrating athletic achievement. This year was different, thanks to tireless lobbying by Mr. Nye. He stood up, plucked the corners of his bow tie, and gave the First Prize ribbon to its new owner. “Congratulations, Yuri. You’ve earned it.”
Early the next morning, Yuri installed his diorama into the overcrowded case. Mr. Nye assisted. He started by carefully pushing aside its contents. The glass cabinet loomed over the school’s entrance, with its endless rows of lockers. It was impossible to miss when entering New Concord High School. It forced passersby to navigate around it like a boulder splitting a river into streams.
Immersed in joy, teacher and student relished their task. After thoughtfully rebuilding the solar system, they stood back and reveled in its splendor.
“That’s awesome,” Mr. Nye said plainly. He placed his arm around Yuri’s shoulders, “Every student and teacher will see this. You know, you’re going to make a fine scientist someday. In many ways, you already are one.” While Yuri basked in the praise of his mentor, he let himself dream. His eyes danced across the Styrofoam planets and he imagined trekking through the wilderness of space.
If only he had looked over the top of Olympus Mons, past the back of the glass case, he would have seen the scowl of a vengeful footballer.
After school, Yuri took his usual path home through the trashcan-lined alleyway. With a skip in his step, he tenderly held his First Place ribbon. He barely noticed the sound of footsteps approaching rapidly from behind. Before he could turn, a blow to his body had thrust him into the air. His crude landing gashed his forehead. Looking to his side, he saw a foot grinding his ribbon into the dirt.
“Your stupid planets suck. You do, too. Wow! You’re a freshman and a nerd? I’m gonna enjoy beating on you…a lot.” Kenny sneered. “Let’s do this every day.”
Yuri looked up at the scrawny but toned youth. Kenny was a sophomore, older than Yuri, and a kicker on their high school’s football team. He was lanky, short, and painfully stupid. Kenny had hated Yuri since the eighth grade. His teacher had asked Yuri to tutor him in math. It disgusted Kenny’s father to know that he needed help at all, much less from a seventh grader. Kenny would never forgive Yuri for accepting. Yuri had wounded him.
Today, Kenny’s hatred for Yuri was afire. That trophy case held the last bits of his father’s pride. It was Kenny’s domain. Yuri had just taken it from him.
“Get up, space boy!” Kenny growled, pulling Yuri up by the shirt. Its threads tore at the seams. The blood from his head wound dripped into his eyes, blurring his vision. He could barely see Kenny’s clenched fist rising in the air as it doubled back and hurtled toward his face.
Yuri slit open an eye and tried to gauge the menacing fist’s trajectory. He braced for an impact that did not come. To his amazement, towering behind Kenny was a creature of startling height and girth.
He must be an upperclassman.
“Let him go!” Alan issued his demand after capturing Kenny’s fist in mid-flight, crushing it. As he spoke his red hair shrouded grim blue eyes. “Don’t you ever touch him again,” Alan boomed, “or I’ll break your toes – one at a time.”
Kenny nodded sheepishly and dropped Yuri. Then, without a word, he ran away, leaving dust in his wake.
Alan picked up the remnants of the ribbon and brushed the dirt off. He spoke while handing the tattered remains to Yuri. “I saw your science project in the hallway. It’s cool, but I thought you should know, you forgot Peraea Mons. Next year maybe just do Mars? I can help if you want.” He extended an open palm.
They both grinned wide while Yuri shook Alan’s hand.
Alan gaped at the video feed in shock. “I’m dead?”
In that instant, his biofabricated heart betrayed him. Before he could respond to Yuri, the organ attacked him, stopped beating, and died. The physical agony was excruciating, but knowing he would never have Mars hurt him even more.
Alan thrust his trembling hands toward the window. With Mars only miles away, he lovingly cupped its silhouette between them. The contents of his gloves liquefied. His involuntary sigh was stillborn because his lungs were no longer capable of oxygen transport. They were no longer lungs. He choked on his last breath. “My Mars.”
Alan looked down and tasted blood. It poured into his mouth from the splitting fissures in his face. He saw the contours of his body dissolve. His orange spacesuit rippled and moved as if a hundred trapped mice moved inside of it, violently clamoring for escape.
“Alan,” Yuri said miserably, “there’s not much time left. Your consciousness is ending. It probably already has. Alan? Alan, if you’re there…engage the ship’s autopilot. Now!”
Yuri watched helplessly while his friend burst from the inside out. “I’ll find you, Alan!” He was openly bawling. “Wherever the ship lands, I will find you and bring you home.”
The embedded nanovalve clutched at Alan’s brain stem.
That action booted Alan’s skeletal robotic network. It hailed Alan’s ship and sent it a coded message. His ship automatically accepted the communications uplink and surrendered its flight controls. The ship proceeded to conspire with the thousands of tiny robots teeming within Alan’s body.
The ship’s orbit collapsed. A course correction was required and the nanobots responded immediately, animating Alan’s carcass like hidden puppeteers yanking at a meat marionette. The bloodied stubs of Alan’s arms abruptly jerked forward. They flopped onto the ship’s yoke and tried to steady its course. The nanobots’ intent was to save the ship and its cargo, but without a pilot or enabled autopilot, the vessel was doomed.
Alan was aware of it all, but that was impossible. The MVC psyche dies before its remains become fodder for the Martian harvests. It was protocol. Yet, inexplicably, he was conscious. Alan tried to move his lips, to let Yuri know his mind was intact, that something had gone wrong, but he could not – his lower jaw was missing.
Yuri trembled at the horrors. His visceral reaction was to flee madly into the caves, but he stayed. He had to be strong for Alan, and for Mars. Still, Yuri’s mental state was deteriorating.
To try to cope, Yuri recalled the MVCs’ core mission: to colonize Mars. The surgical installation of robotics and recombinant DNA occurred early in their careers. Cybernetics controlled their bodies after physical death – briefly. Since life on Mars was so treacherous, sudden death was likely. The cybernetics assisted by gifting these pioneers precious additional seconds. For example, the unexpectedly dead could park a surface rover that they happened to be driving, or untether themselves from living colleagues during an expedition.
Mars missions were one-way. Astronauts deliver supplies and skilled personnel. After landing, they cannibalize their ships – and in time each other. Due to infrequent supply drops, protocol directed these noble astronauts to reap their dead. Postmortem they became growing, bioengineered foodstuffs. Decades of training conditioned them for that contingency. In this way, there was no waste of material, no energy mislaid. This was how the initial settlers survived. If even one ship failed to land, it could jeopardize the lives of all the current inhabitants, and thus the human expansion of Mars for decades to come.
A chunk of Alan had hit the video camera with a splat. It slid downward and left streaks of gore on the lens. Yuri was startled, stumbled backward, but found his footing. His anguished mind defended itself with a fond memory: when he first met Alan’s father.
It was more than ten thousand days and millions of miles ago. Yuri and Alan were fresh from NASA’s Astronaut Corps. By then they were beyond friendship, closer than brothers. Yet, between them, there was one mystery. Out of all the planets, Yuri knew that Alan pined for Mars, but he didn’t know why.
“Mr. Murphy, I’ve asked him before, but he never tells me. With Alan, why is it always Mars?”
“Oh!” Mr. Murphy snapped his fingers. “That’s an easy one.” He reached across the table and grabbed a tattered blue box. Gold-flaked sigils adorned its lid. He flipped the latch and creaked it open. Reaching in, he produced a yellowed document and explained that he was an astrologer. “Look! See,” he said, pointing at the timeworn piece of paper, “Mars dreamt of Alan on the day that he was born, and here’s the proof. Right there. This is Alan’s birth chart, his horoscope. I designed it myself – right when Alan was crowning!”
“Come on, Dad.” Alan was embarrassed, but not because of the explicit detail. He was mortified that his father relied on the occult instead of science. Alan’s timbre proclaimed his shame. “You know how I feel about that stuff.”
“Well…” Alan’s father relented, gingerly folded the chart, and spoke softly, “even at an early age, Alan had an insatiable yearning for the red planet. Earth was just a place to begin, a rock to lose, and Mars was his home.” His smile faded as he turned to look at Alan. “At least my boy and I can agree on that!”
Alan held his father’s gaze and shrugged.
Unfazed, Mr. Murphy kept talking. “So, you’ve both joined NASA’s Martian Volunteer Core, the MVCs. Doesn’t that mean one of you will eventually eat the other?”
Alan lit up. “Only after our brains shut down and our bodies mutate.” He furrowed his brow. “How would you say it, Dad? Umm…the soul dies, but the body blossoms and lives on. Okay? Anyway, who cares? By then we’ll be on Mars.”
“But you’ll have to live in the caves. If you don’t, the solar flares will cook you crispy.” Mr. Murphy was pensive. He stroked his neck fur. “If that’s not bad enough, from what I’ve read, you’re not getting near Mars for another forty years. It takes NASA that long just to augment your body, much less train you. I guess that fits since they won’t bring you home. They want you to be old when you go.” His voice cracked with concern. “At most you’ll have two years on the surface before it kills you!” He looked down and slid a finger across the frame’s edge. It sat on the table and held a photo of Alan as a toddler. He focused on it reflectively. “You’ll die out there.”
“Dad. It’s worth it.”
Those were the thoughts that crossed Yuri’s mind as he saw his friend reach for, and miss, the autopilot icon. Alan chose to sever the communications uplink between his corpse and his ship.
At the back of Alan’s skull, the nested nanovalve let go.
Yuri suited up for salvage duty. Exiting the cave, he was awed by its nanocarbon-braced entryway. The smooth silver lip was thin, contrasting with the red soil of the mountain it held back from collapse. It always humbled him to be such a tiny figure passing through those colossal arches. This was just one of many gaping maws that exposed the planet’s cavities.
Searchingly, he turned his gaze toward the blue sunset of Mars juxtaposed against her scarlet horizon. Soon he found the crashing ship’s contrail. It was a swelling scar upon the planet’s beatific face.
I’m coming, my friend.
Yuri made his way to the parking lot that flanked the cave’s door. He entered one of the surface rovers. After its cabin pressurized, Yuri removed his helmet and dried his tears. He spoke to the rover, “Find locater beacon.” It swiftly found the downed ship’s distress signal, lurched forward, and rolled toward the shipwreck.
Yuri took in miles of lifeless crust, rock, and wind-borne sands along the way. When he arrived, he saw the crash site covered in rust-red dust. A trail of mangled metals led to the smoldering fuselage. The ship’s core rested beside its set of broken wings.
Another astronaut can strip it later.
Yuri guessed that the ship’s precious cargo was probably safe. Protocol demanded that he be sure. He had seen full-blown mutation before. Despite his MVC training, he knew he was unprepared for this. He took a deep breath and entered the hull, bravely. The sight that greeted him in the moist, smoke filled cockpit was hideous.
Ripped pieces of Alan’s spacesuit peppered the cockpit like confetti. His dented helmet rested nearby, barely recognizable. Nothing was left of his body, save a shucked ribcage. At its center sat his final form: a man-sized potato.
Membranous lenticels protruded from its trunk. They had ravaged Alan’s body and torn him apart. These long white growths were still squirming. They resembled jutting tentacles from a cramped pit of octopuses.
Yuri gathered the bloated, spudded remains of his lifelong friend. He gently laid them onto the rover’s perforated flatbed. Upon arrival at Arsia Mons, Yuri refused offers of assistance from the other astronauts. Alone, he somberly brought Alan to the hallowed Greenhouse 1 for planting. His fellow Martians followed him. They had come to honor the fallen. It was their custom and mandated policy. Yuri fought the desire to push them away.
After Alan’s funeral, Yuri did not sleep. It had been days since he was able to rest his fretful mind. Since Alan’s potting, nothing had felt right to him, except when he was at the crypt. Lately, he had spent a lot of time in Greenhouse 1. He liked to be there late in the solar day when the base was dark and quiet. Today was no different, but by chance, he had left his room at dusk. The base would be abuzz with activity. On his way, he passed some mining androids. Their electric smiles seemed menacing. So did the leering gazes of his colleagues. So did the lovely face of Mars.
When Yuri arrived at Alan’s plot, he saw a new growth. He tenderly pinched the lenticel’s leaf between gloved fingers. To his surprise, the lenticel reacted. At first, it recoiled and stood erect. Then it relaxed, snapped backward, and waved. He cautiously extended his hand. The stem glided toward him, slithered around his palm, contracted its grip, and shook his hand.
Yuri fearfully untethered himself from the root. Panic fogged the inside of his helmet. His distress was obvious. A nearby astronaut came to comfort him, but it was too late. Yuri finally knew what had been haunting him.
Alan wanted to crash.
Yuri grabbed the sides of the other’s helmet and leaned forward, headfirst. Their visor plates ground together. His voice was like tempered thunder. “Alan’s awake. They all are. Their brains are supposed to be dead!”
Yuri knew he was going to faint. He pushed against his helper and forced himself to peer into the cave’s shadowy recesses. He gazed in dread at the dozens of squared mounds, which dotted the tubular structure. Each had a gravestone inlaid at its center. Inscribed upon them was an astronaut’s name with their eventual vegetable form.
The creatures concealed beneath those makeshift gardens were sentient produce. From them, like organic statues, hundreds of elongated sprouts pierced the soil. They had grown tall over the years. To kindly astronauts, it seemed as if they reached upward toward the stars.
All of a sudden, and all at once, they bent down.
They reached for Yuri.
“We’ve buried them alive…and they know.”
Contact Kraig about this story and his other work at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS