Josephina Crane woke to absolute darkness. She always did. A stirring in the bunk above informed her that Sandrine Durand had roused to the alarm as well.
“Are you awake JoJo?” Sabine’s voice slurred, heavy with sleep and a thick French accent.
Jo took a moment to assess. As always, her foggy brain begged for just a few more minutes of oblivion. A propensity for bashing the snooze button had forced them to move the tiny alarm clock to Sabine’s bunk. After a few more seconds, the obnoxious digital trilling permeating their quarters overrode her desire for sleep. “Oui,” she muttered, and the trilling stopped.
Sabine’s feet hit the floor with a thud as Jo peeled off her eye mask. The compartment was flooded with daylight, exactly as it was twenty-four point three hours a sol. Early summer at the Martian South pole.
“A beautiful day in paradise,” Sabine said cheerfully, peering out of their porthole. The little window had a drawable shade but they never bothered to use it. The glass was one way and the shade failed miserably to block out the light, so they just slept in masks. Outside, the surface of the planet was quiet and serene. “Not too dusty today,” she said. “Merveilleuse.”
Sabine stripped off her skintight sleepshirt and stretched. Privacy was a myth at Research Station Scott, so they didn’t bother with that either.
“How does your skin stay so gorgeous?” Jo scowled for emphasis and Sabine laughed, shucking on a vest in which to carry out her ablutions in the little communal bathroom. Twenty-three hours a sol in compression gear and her coffee-coloured skin was still flawless. If Jo didn’t like her so much, it would be annoying.
Jo finally dragged herself off her bunk and they turned sideways to shuffle past each other in the narrow space between the bunk and the bulkhead housing shallow storage cupboards and a shared desk. She slid the wardrobe door open. On the left hung four black all-in-ones with a teal panel across the shoulders and chest, a Union Jack on the left bicep and a nametag reading ‘J. Crane’. On the right hung four identical black all-in-ones, also with teal panels across the shoulders and chest; Sabine’s suits sported a maple leaf on red and white stripes.
“Sometimes,” Jo announced to the empty compartment as she fished out one of the suits from the left, “it’s just so difficult to decide what to wear.”
One thing that research stations never have is space. Especially when every gram of weight on the two hundred and forty-five day journey from Earth to the red planet comes at a premium. The briefing room doubled as an emergency rally point, mess hall, rec room, movie theatre and the green for the weekly Martian sock golf championships. Plus, anything else the twelve-man team needed personal space for.
Jo and Sabine chatted in sketchy French until the other half of their crew thumped into chairs at the table.
“How’re the French lessons going?” Lian, the crew leader, asked, breaking open a packet of more packets with ‘MRE’ stamped in block letters across the front.
Sabine seesawed her hand. “Shit,” she said with a grin. “But no better than my poker lessons.”
“It’s not so much self-improvement,” Jo mused out loud, “as self-flagellation.” She didn’t have an ear for languages.
Each member of the team wore a university hoodie over their compression gear. It was unofficial mandatory equipment, along with the eye masks. The hoodies provided the individuality that the NASA-issued compression gear and EVA suits sorely lacked. Jo had on a grey pullover with ‘University of Oxford’ printed in faded letters on the front. By far the best hoodie on Research Station Scott belonged to Mike, the fourth member of their team. Mike’s mother had cut two garments in half and stitched them up the back, so he wore blue on one side from the ‘Univ o Colu’ and crimson on the other, from the ‘ersity f vard’.
Lian squeezed dubious looking peanut butter out of a plastic pouch onto a perfectly square slice of vac-packed cornbread and issued the instructions for their shift.
From the outside, the research station looked like a colossal multi-segmented centipede. Colourful modular bodies squatted on stubby metal legs.
Jo and Sabine left Mike clearing rust-coloured dust off the solar array with pressurised CO2 and trundled the short distance to the icecap in a rover. Someone had spelled out ‘Quest’ on the side of the vehicle in duct tape, in accordance with a tradition started fifty two years prior by the crew that confirmed Mars’ status as a frozen waterworld – a crew that never made it home.
The journey was so short that they didn’t bother to pressurise the interior of Quest & remove their helmets.
“I love the new models,” Sabine’s voice piped through Jo’s earpiece. She held out her arms to demonstrate the slimness of the EVA suit, as she did every other day, when it wasn’t her turn to drive. As the surface temperature rose, the suits became mercifully less and less bulky with each new incarnation.
“I think the top layers of ice are getting softer,” Sabine’s voice sounded in her ear and Jo paused in her examination of a rockpile to flash a smile at the figure crouching on the ice, patiently scraping samples into a beaker. Sabine might be the greatest optimist on the face of the planet, literally.
“Could be that your fingers are getting stronger,” said Jo and she saw the crouching figure bob up and down with laughter.
In an existence defined by repetition, where they wore the same clothes, ate the same food, followed the same routine and watched the same movies, repeating the same comments to each other day-in, day-out was oddly comforting.
“How are your rocks today?” Sabine’s voice was back in her ear.
“Today’s rocks are…” Jo paused to carry out a visual assessment on another rock, “definitively rocky.”
“Same as yesterday?” Sabine asked.
“And the day before,” Jo answered.
“And the day before that,” Sabine concluded. The French accent grew much thicker when she smiled, so Jo knew she was grinning without needing to see her face.
Jo paused for a moment and worked a thumbnail sized pebble out of the regolith; its sharp edges worn down smooth in the way only moving water can. And one day it would again. She spared a glance for the vast mirror array orbiting the pole, clearly visible in their alien sky. Jo dropped the pebble into her sample pouch, to be added to the collection cluttering their shared desk under her tremendously geeky ‘Geology Rocks’ poster. She moved on to the next rockpile.
It wasn’t until Jo failed to return a comment half an hour later, about appropriate toppings for chips (cheese curds vs gravy, an old argument), that Sabine registered something wrong with her colleague. When she saw Jo motionless, prone on the regolith, Sabine scrambled to her feet.
“JoJo?” Sabine left her sample box and tools where they sat and began to pick her way across ice, as quickly as she dared. A wobble crept into her voice. “JoJo, answer me now. Josephina, respond. Over.”
As panic set in, she opened the comms channel up to include the rest of their team. “Lian? There’s something wrong with Jo, I think we need help.” A voice rattled questions in her earpiece. “I don’t know,” she replied, “she’s not- wait, she’s getting up. Stand by.”
Sabine reached her as Jo scrambled up onto her hands and knees. She grabbed her shoulders, yanking her round to peer at her face. She pressed the curved surfaces of their helmets together; this close, she could see through the reflective sun shielding. Jo’s face was streaming with tears.
Sabine felt her chest lurch, unsure if it was relief or more panic. “Are your comms working?” she asked firmly and she saw Jo nodding inside her helmet. “Then tell me what’s wrong.”
In answer, Jo extended the arm of her suit and pointed, indicating a knee-high heap of rocks, piled in such a way as to create a small hollow. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about it.
“There’s nothing there,” Sabine said. Jo was tapping the slim spotlight attached to the side of her helmet. “Stand by Lian,” Sabine talked over the frantic voice in her ear and flipped on her spotlight. She shifted onto her hands and knees and peered into the hollow. She could feel Jo’s grip on her arm like a vice through the compact EVA suit.
When she saw what Jo had seen, she screamed.
The botany lab was the only module in the architectural conga line of the research station that had a plexiglass polymer ceiling, which spilled over and encompassed two thirds the height of the walls.
Several minutes before the scream, Lian Zhao moved among his plants, meticulously checking the pellet-shaped leaves of his genetically toughened ferns. When the orbital mirror had done enough of its work, heated the planet enough, released enough water vapour into the air, then it would be time for his ferns to go outside and start making oxygen.
Lian glanced up to take in the two hundred and seventy six mile wide mirror array orbiting above the research station. On the days Mike was in the lab running checks on the irrigation and UV systems, Lian refrained from talking to the plants.
“Lian?” A voice with a thick French accent came in over his earpiece. Sabine. She sounded panicked. “There’s something wrong with Jo, I think we need help.”
Across the lab, Mike had become motionless as well, one finger pressed to his earpiece, as if to make sure no words could escape.
Lian pushed down a jolt of fear and forced his voice to remain calm. “Tell me what’s happening Sabine?” As he spoke he crossed to a panel on the wall and hit the emergency button. He and Mike moved through the airlock into the next compartment, heading rapidly for the rally point. “What’s happened to Jo? Are you in danger?”
Sabine’s breathing was harsh in his ear. “I don’t know,” her voice piped, “she’s not- wait, she’s getting up. Stand by.”
Mike and Lian passed through the last airlock and entered the briefing room. It was packed with five of the remaining eight members of the research team, four of them in sleepwear. The expedition leader, Landry, a woman with neat grey hair tucked into a ponytail, was bent over a laptop with a headset on. She beckoned them as they entered. “Heart rates are elevated but vitals are otherwise both stable,” she said. “Walker is monitoring them from command, Jackson and Ivan are suiting up to take the second rover to the icecap.”
Lian felt a little of his panic recede.
Landry’s fingers moved over the keyboard of the command link. “Durand?” she addressed Sabine. “Help is on the way. Please tell me exactly what’s happening.” No response. “Sabine, I need you to tell me everything you can.”
Sabine’s disembodied voice piped out of the laptop speakers, mirroring the voice in Lian’s earpiece. Lian heard her voice say, “Are your comms working?” A pause. “Then tell me what’s wrong.”
Landry tried again. “I need someone to respond, now.”
“There’s nothing there,” said Sabine’s voice.
“Sit-rep Sabine,” Lian barked. “Tell us-”
Sabine’s voice cut over him. “Stand by Lian.”
The seven people crowded around the laptop exchanged worried glances. Ivan’s voice hissed briefly over the communications system that he and Jackson were preparing to depressurise the airlock and disembark.
Then the scream filled the briefing room. As one, the room surged to their feet. Multiple voices called for Sabine or Jo to respond. Two members of Charlie shift joined hands compulsively, knuckles squeezed white.
A word followed the scream. Shocked silence locked down the room.
“What?” Lian whispered. He exchanged a disbelieving glance with Landry. He felt Mike’s fingers find and squeeze his shoulder.
“Moss,” Sabine’s voice repeated, shaking hard. “JoJo found moss.”
The room drew in a collective breath. When Sabine screamed again, a high-pitched squeal of undiluted elation, eleven more voices joined her.
“As Mars warms, early settlers might wake up one morning and notice something like moss growing beneath their feet. If there is life on Mars that can be revitalized by warming, it could accelerate the adaptability of the planet to humans.”
-Stephen Petranek, How We’ll Live on Mars
From the moment she discovered the power of vanishing into the pages of a book as a child, Liz has been deeply in love with the written word. Her work is inspired by an abiding passion for Yorkshire, a fascination with Mars, and the mechanics of identity. Liz is currently working on a Masters in Creative Writing at York St John University and hopes to one day boldly go where no writer has gone before.