Tomas wrenches the wheel hard left, his Crabber’s eight balanced wheels grinding beneath as the flexsteel grabs Martian shale.
“Five minutes,” says a voice in his headset. It’s Julie, already fading. He’s too far from the station.
“I’m three away.”
“Are you sure–“
“Are you kidding?” he shouts back into the comms.
Tomas winces. He did not mean to be short. But he knows this terrain. Knows every inch of the path. Endless months of preparation, computations, arguments, planning. He has to be right.
Five years old. Old enough to understand death, not old enough to accept it. Old enough to be frightened of infinity, not old enough to be inspired by it. “Why why WHY can’t he come back?”
His father rubs the back of his own neck, a tic Tomas would come to know–not anger, frustration. His father stumbled into this. A harmless news item, an innocent question about Mars, and boom, tears. Endless tears. But how to calm Tomas now? “He, ah, he had a job to do. And he did it very well, but we didn’t, um, think of a way to bring him back …”
“It’s not fair he’s ALLLOOONE.” The wail of absolute injustice. Racking sobs.
The Crabber sails over a dune, comes down hard. An alarm blares. Tomas sheared a hose somewhere. Typical Mars tech. Shiny and new, sent from Earth, torn to shreds by the Martian storms. The Martians joke about it. “Mars beats you up,” they mutter every night in the repair bays. “Nothing built on soft green Earth can cut it on Mars.”
Well, except for the First Martian.
His father’s hand on Tomas’ head, stroking his hair. “I talked to some friends and asked them about Him. And one of them explained that he’s waiting for us. That’s why he can’t come back.”
Tomas squints, suspicious. He is wary of adult excuses. He’s caught his parents softening the world, and he’ll have none of it. “He’s waiting? For who?”
“For all of us.” His father relaxes. He knows his son’s voice. He knows this is the still after the storm. “He’s like … Wall-E. Getting the planet ready for us. People can’t go live there. They will be stuck down here on Earth forever, if not for him.”
“When are we going?” Tomas asks. Already impatient. Testing. “I want us to go now.”
“Well, I don’t think I’ll ever get to go,” his father says. “But I bet you will.”
Tomas looks up at the wall of red thundering toward him. Sandstorm. A monstrous side effect of the primitive terraforming. Billions of tons of Martian soil in motion. If Tomas gets caught in that, it’ll be bad. But if he loses the First again, they’ll never find Him.
This is how they lost the First. They all landed, years ago, at Sagan Station, far from where the First was resting. Always meant to go find Him. But when the terraforming whipped up the sandstorms, they lost His signal. Then found, then lost. Buried, tumbled, shifted, buried again over years. And the First’s signal faded over time.
Tomas became concerned. Then obsessed. Plotted with others–there were others–who cared. Tracked vectors, computed possibilities. Realized with dread that the next sandstorm would be the one to finally bury the signal forever.
Tomas would not let that happen. He would not.
His eyes snap back to his screens. There. The signal. A call that once reached out across the stars and now can only weakly croak for help.
Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping ping ping pingpingping–drowned out by the roar of the sand, the deafening crash of glaciers calving and of avalanches and of collapsing mine shafts, all somehow moving, racing, slamming into him. His visibility drops to dead zero.
But the ping. The call. The First Martian is here.
Tomas is out of the Crabber, groping forward. His suit shreds around him. Alarm bells, hissing decompression, his glass face mask scrubbed white in an instant–he doesn’t care. Distantly he hears Julie screaming his name. He knows this is madness, this doesn’t make sense, but he keeps going, stretching outward, feeling–
–there. A hard edge. Tomas brings up his rivet gun, fires through the metal. Just in time. The dune shifts in the storm, already trying to tear the First away. But the rivet line goes taut. Tomas grabs onto the line too, both he and the First clinging to the anchor of the Crabber. He closes his eyes, digs in. No. They will not lose the First again.
When they ask, he gives all the right answers. “Exploration. Science. The betterment of humankind.” He knows what they want to hear before they send someone into space. Why? Why take a one-way trip to a red rock in the darkness? And most of him believes the answers even as he gives them. He is a man now. He’s left childish things behind. Tomas is going for all the right reasons.
But that night before he leaves, when his father hugs him …
“This is my fault. Filling your head with silly stories.”
“Dad, I have a degree in biophysics. I’ve been training for this since college. I want to go–“
“Find Him?” Tomas’ father rubs the back of his neck. Dry hands now, spotted neck. “That’s all you talked about, for years.”
“Years before my voice cracked. But sure,” Tomas says. “That’s why I’m going. To chase Him.” He pauses. What do you say? What do you say the last time you’ll look your father in the face, in person? “I’ll write, every week. Get bandwidth when I can.”
His father hands him something. Two wedding bands on a thin chain.
“Take these to Mars, Tomas,” his father says, joy and pride overcoming the fear. “Take me and Mama to Mars.”
Tomas wakes to the sound of Julie’s voice in his earpiece. “We’ve got tone, good tone. Nobody can believe you did it.”
He shifts, regolith pouring off him. Begins to dig with his hands. There are tools in the Crabber. He doesn’t care. “How angry is the commander?”
Julie laughs. Snort-laughs. God, he loves her. “She’s not mad at all. This is … having an effect on people. A weird effect.” A pause. “We’re coming.”
Tomas almost doesn’t answer. His tongue is swollen. His eyes filling. Red dust fine as baby powder flows away in rivulets, and the Panoramic Camera is free. The weird, headlike apparatus atop the gangly neck. Tomas digs faster. “Who’s coming?”
They home in on the Crabber’s signal. To a one, unbidden, they park or land or glide to a halt some distance away. Then they walk to where Tomas is digging. Pilgrims.
No one helps him dig, but that makes sense somehow. They just watch from a few meters away. Even Julie. He clears the solar panels. His hands trace drilling cables covered, he remembers, with steel from fallen icons of Earth. For some reason they all laugh when he reveals the wheels. All the comms are open, but no one’s speaking. He dimly registers Halima, singing softly.
As he plugs his tablet into the instrument panel, Tomas startles at the sound in his comms. Dozens of people gasping so loudly–he turns around for just a second. Julie was right. Everyone is here. Sagan Station must be empty. All the Martians have come.
All the Martians have come to see the First Martian.
Tomas’ fingers, fat in thick gloves, trace symbols on the tablet. Lights awaken. Gears whir. The camera head pivots. Tomas knows it’s not really looking at them, but for one second that’s what they all see. The First Martian wakes up and looks at all the other Martians.
As if to say, “About time.”
People are crying now. Their secret is out, one that some of them didn’t even know they carried. This moment, even undreamed, was some small part of what drove them to fly into the black, to become Martians, to lift humanity into infinity …
… Some tiny part of them was just chasing Opportunity.
Tomas lays the tablet on the rover’s body. The diagnostic is up and running. Batteries are recharging, software updates loading. All the technical bits of the job are done. He reaches into a sealed container in his waist pack. Places his gift to Opportunity around its neck.
Opportunity’s camera head swivels. Two wedding bands hanging on a chain sway gently beneath it.
Exhausted, Tomas trudges back to Julie.
Some argue they should put the First in a museum. But hotter heads, led by Tomas, prevail. They replace the batteries, repair the tires, upgrade the solar panels to nanotech photosynthesizers. They don’t kick the computers up by too much, just enough to run a virtual interface and make sure the First Martian can call the other Martians for help, if needed.
Then they turn Opportunity loose to roam across Mars–forever.
The rover will never be lost again. It becomes tradition to assign new techs the job of keeping tabs on Opportunity. Eventually, Martians come to think it’s good luck for newcomers to make a pilgrimage, sometime in their first month, to wherever Opportunity happens to be exploring. No matter the assignment, that leave is always granted. Each pilgrim, each new Martian, gently taps Opportunity twice and moves on.
Often people swear the elderly probe turns to look at them when they do so. Ridiculous story, of course.
But no one ever laughs.
Editor’s Note: Once upon a time a magazine editor asked Twitter what to do with a 5-year-old who was despondent over a Mars rover that could never come home. John Rogers responded: “Hang on a minute.” A couple of hours later, he sent this. Thanks, John. –Adam Rogers, Deputy Editor
Tales From an Uncertain Future