It was almost, he thought, like being on Earth, if you looked with the right perspective.
The curve of the valley stretched away to the horizon, where the humps of lonely ridges punctured the skyline. The surface of Mars was quiet this morning.
There’s a moment, as the sun breaks the horizon over the salt pans, when the Makadikadi and this spot are indistinguishable.
On the days when it raged and solar winds whipped turbulent tornados of rust coloured clouds into the air, it wasn’t safe to visit the lake.
Twisting his neck, he surveyed the crack at the top of his visor out of the corner of his eye. A strip of silver tape remained sentinel, tacky edges clotting with dust.
The sibilant hiss of escaping air was gone. The trilling of a low oxygen alarm remained, boring into his ear drums. It had been going off for long enough to become more aural ache than irritation. In moments of inaction, he found himself humming or swaying along to the rhythm.
When I crossed the pans as a graduate with my unit, I thought it was the most alien place on Earth. I can’t escape the irony that I came so far to be reminded so strongly of home.
I was going to write my memoir when I got home, he typed. The sealed silicone keys of the EVA-ready laptop were chunky to accommodate the tips of his gloves, the screen murky behind its protective shell. The last battery bar counted down.
Before the lava tube collapsed on the hab, they had teased him good naturedly about his obsession with New Windermere. Astronauts, they said, weren’t allowed to name things and anyway, New Michigan was a better name. But New Windermere had stuck and he had visited every day that surface conditions allowed. Sometimes Murray would come to collect rock samples.
He’d been at the lake when it happened.
He glanced over at the dead rover parked haphazardly on the shore. The driver’s side door stood erect, like the wing of an outraged swan. Someone, probably Davies, had painstakingly spelled out ‘Pequod’ in duct tape on the side of the vehicle, which had made him laugh at the time.
The alarm phased back into consciousness and he shook his head in irritation. I know, I know, he muttered, and the words reverberated around the inside of his helmet.
We found the ice. Mars is a water world. There are oceans waiting, dormant beneath the surface.
Beneath him, desiccated black mud rippled gently in peaks and dips, like miniature dunes. Or waves, he thought. Rich and packed with sulphates, their tests had revealed.
He hadn’t been able to see it at first. Murray had pointed out the signs patiently until one day it clicked. Now his eye could pick out the sloping curve of the waterline and in his mind he would fill in the missing water.
The humped back of a pebble broke the surface of the parched lakebed and he worked at it with his fingers until it popped free. He held it up to his visor, turning it over and over as he rubbed it clean. Smooth. Identical to the pebbles he had picked up and slipped into the pockets of his shorts as he wandered along the beach as a child.
The laptop screen dulled and a battery icon with a scarlet stripe through it popped up. He typed faster.
This is why I come to the lake. Murray told me weeks ago that the only way stone can be worn in this particular way is by water erosion. I would tell the others I was going paddling.
When the laptop screen finally faded to black, he carefully placed it back inside Pequod and sealed the door.
He tapped a long-winded override into the controls of his suit. The alarm fell silent. So too did the ambient whirring of life support and the sucking of the pumps. For the first time since leaving Earth, he experienced the blissful void of silence.
He released a long breath, misting the bowl of his helmet with water vapour which quickly dissipated.
He thought about the last lines he had typed. The team would have laughed. His mother would cry. NASA would find a way to put a positive spin in it, he was sure.
With his last breaths of air, he set off for a walk on the beach, slipping the pebble into the pouch hanging from his belt.