Mission to Mars

by Kelsea Lilliefors

A discovery was made long before I was born: icecaps on the planet Mars. Evidence that at one time this planet may have had the ability to support life. Scientists began to investigate, finding that and much more. They found resources that are valuable to Earth…ones that we, as a human race, had depleted over the thousands of years of existence. But the major theory at hand was whether the ice on Mars could be harvested to be used as water on Earth. It was this theory that sprung NASA into action, creating the build programs and flight crews to begin construction.

In 2012, construction began when crews were launched with several hundred tons of steel, glass, wood, and the tools needed to create a small metropolis. Buildings and homes were erected, along with a railway system, electricity and heating, and a water filtration system. The filtration system itself is a large piece of work, becoming the epicenter of the metropolis, central headquarters to the bigwigs that wanted the discovery. It melts, distills, bottles, and packages the water created from the icecaps. Pure water. No debris or organisms.

Earth was always considered an endless supply of resources and materials. But it was only a matter of time before the fresh water began to disappear. The Great Lakes were nearly tapped out because of the bottling companies, and global warming was melting our own icecaps, killing off many species that were considered endangered. Needless to say, the world was in a crisis. NASA saw a solution.

It took nearly one hundred years to create, but when it was finally completed there was worldwide celebration. NASA had saved the world, with the help of other space exploration companies in other countries. Mars was now the property of Earth, Martians be damned if they existed. And everything that existed on Mars was there for Earth to take and use for its own advancement in the universe. Technology had become available to make an arid wasteland into a livable space. Climate controlled environment, artificial air supply, “natural” lighting inside triple paned glass windows. The days were longer; the nights were frigid; and with an atmosphere that has no o-zone layer, the glass was filtered to battle the direct sunlight. Damn was it pretty though when it set. The rays reflected off the terracotta colored dirt, making everything tinged orange and hues of red. I thought it was beautiful. My wife though…

She wouldn’t answer me again. I keep trying to get her to talk to me, but she ignores everything I say. It’s as if she can’t get over the fact that this is what I’ve always wanted to do. She hates that I sold the house in Kentucky in preparation of moving our whole lives to this desert land, away from all her friends and normal living society. Maybe it was just me, but I was glad to be rid of it. Not that Mars was all that great a place to live, but it beat going through the same routines with the same faces…same places. It got old for me. Apparently, not for her. She’d never forgive me, thus the silent treatment day after day.

She was one of those high class women that fell in love with a lower middle class man trying to earn his way and somehow manage to feed himself, let alone two people because she’d never worked a day in her life. But I was the fool, in love with the girl I gave a towel to every time she got out of the pool. Then as I got older and moved into technical university to get my training, she followed. I still can’t tell if she was rebelling against her family – her parents hate my guts – or if she truly thought she loved me.

That love had waned a long time ago. Maybe it happened when I entered the Mars Ice Mining Industry, maybe when I had to kill her dog for biting all the neighbor kids ‘cause they kept sticking their fingers through the fence and teasing him, or maybe it was when her father decided he wasn’t dealing with me anymore and cut us off from the money. I had to get a second job; she actually had to start her first. We could barely afford our two bedroom home, let alone think about starting a family. Then when I was presented with the opportunity to join the mining team on Mars, I was ecstatic. Everything would be paid for, and I’d get paid to work in the mines.

She didn’t care for it. In this way, I knew she had stopped caring about a lot of things besides our marriage. When I sold our home to the bank to release our debt, she stopped talking to me, gathered her bags, and walked away. I didn’t go after her…what would be the point? I found out a week later that she was at her parents’ home talking to divorce lawyers. It’s just as well. My going to Mars wasn’t going to do anything for our failed lives together.

I turned off the video set and finished my cup of coffee. My lunch pail was next to my respirator pack, which I promptly strapped on before walking out the door of my apartment. Since cars wouldn’t cut it in this environment, the electric railway dominated the streets, stopping at every building to gather workers for the next shift. All of the miners lived in the apartment buildings closest to the site, making it that much easier to keep our heads down and do as we’re told.

The railcar came to a silent stop and the doors opened. Several people stepped out before I got on. I sat on a bench, checking the gauges and pressure of airflow through my mask. I tended to ignore the people who weren’t on my crew. As long as I kept myself busy, they wouldn’t talk to me and I didn’t have to talk to them. There were never any new faces, just the same tired old men and women.

Two more stops let the rest of the people out and the rest of my crew stepped on, fresh faced from a long night’s rest, chatting and bickering about who lost the baseball game back on Earth. On my task force, there was no difference in gender. Everyone did the same work, same pay, same life. We had all trained in simulation together, becoming the eighteenth mining battalion for the Mars mission. In the tunnels, we called it Mimi. There’s nothing like a woman to bring you down to your level, make you work like a dog and give you nothing but stale bread and old cheese for dinner. Yeah, Mimi was a bitch.

Despite there being no differences in gender treatment by the company, you could tell that there were problems. Women still got raped or beaten because us men perceive them as doing less work for the same wage. It seemed that no matter how strong a woman was, she was still vulnerable to attacks. The women in my company did their best to act like one of the guys, but it was easier to survive if you attached yourself to one of the stronger males in the group. Gosh…we sounded like a pack of wolves.

A partner of mine sat down next to me, clapping his hand on my shoulder. “Charlie! You ready for this? Another day in the Dome?” He laughed maniacally. Lawrence had always been a little on the crazy side. Some say thrill seeker, I say self-destructive. He flexed his other hand, made out of metals and wires, protected by alkaline plating, replacing the one he ground in the icemaker. Ruined an entire shipment of water.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied, stretching my back and cracking my neck side to side. He laughed again and rocked a little while in his seat before standing again. Yeah…just a little on the crazy side.

A voice over announced our arrival at the hatch. The entrance to the Dome was completely air tight so that dust particles couldn’t invade the perfect clean of our metropolis. The Dome, as we called it, was the mining site. The dome itself was raised almost thirty stories and a mile in diameter to cover the spot we had chosen to drill into, triple paned filtered glass to protect us from the direct sunlight. I immediately began to sweat. It was like working in an oven. The railcar stopped at the platform and I strapped on my respirator before stepping out.

I surveyed the icecap we had drilled into, a giant dent where over 600 million gallons have been broken down, bottled, and shipped back. I always marveled at Earth’s achievements in science. Who knew that this could actually happen? We didn’t dare use explosives in this place for fear that the entire dome would explode. The artificial environment was made of mostly oxygen, pumped in by the gallons to produce a workable place. The respirators made it easier to handle.

I followed my crew down a tunnel, following the line of what was probably the water table that had fed the rest of the planet. Our hammers and picks were right where we left them. I took a deep breath, glad for the cold air on my face that the rest of my body envied. I made sure the mask was tight on my face before picking up my sledge. I worked on the tunnel wall with a butch female, one who really was one of the guys. She hit on the women as much as the rest of us, often gaining respect rather than disgust. Samantha had been her name back on Earth. Here I called her Sammy.

Sammy rubbed my head before picking up her own sledge. “For luck,” she said, sounding muffled by her own mask. I laughed a little and rubbed my own head. No hair was easier to maintain than lots of it.  We struck, again and again. I released so much anger and frustration in the tunnel. I set my sledge down and grabbed the pick, wedging the wide flat head into the ice and ripping out chunks. Inhale, whack, exhale. Everything moved with such fluidity it was crazy. Lawrence ducked around us to pick off the chunks, tossing them into large containers that Ben and Willis pushed back up the tunnel to dump in the icemaker. Every few hours we switched. When I pushed carts up the tunnel with Lawrence, I kept my eye on him. Today, he was rather quiet, but I didn’t think anything of it. It was a splendid change to his mutterings.

We walked back up the tunnel to eat lunch. It was the only time I ever took my respirator off, taking a few moments to get used to the oxygen content. Sammy laughed as she drank from her water can. “You look like dirt cake Charlie,” she chided. I looked at her dirty arms and huffed a little.

“You look like a terracotta pot.” She laughed again and stuffed a sandwich into her face. I did the same, biting into an over ripe tomato that left a trail down my chin. I went to wipe it off with a dirty hand and paused. This was where napkins came in handy. I used the rag stuffed in my back pocket and continued eating. I looked around the group and knitted my eyebrows in confusion. As I was thinking it, Ben said it.

“Where’s Lawrence?” We all looked around us. It wasn’t normal for him to disappear like this. I set my sandwich back in the pail and stood, heading back toward the tunnel. I thought he had come with us…but he had been abnormally quiet all morning.

I walked back down the tunnel to find him sitting on the ground with his back to me, rocking slightly. I made sure my steps were loud enough that he knew someone was approaching. He looked over his shoulder at me and smiled widely. He jumped to his feet and walked up to me, grin still plastered on his face. “I had an idea,” he whispered. My eyes widened a little. This was not going to be good. “I’m going to blow up the tunnel.” Now I knew he was crazy.

“There aren’t any explosives on this entire planet. How the hell do you plan on doing that?” Lawrence laughed and went back to his lunch pail and brought me a block of C-4, a primer cord, and a book of matches.

“It’s gonna go boom! And there won’t have to be any more digging. No more aching back. We’ll just blow it up!” I was horrified. Where the hell did he find all this stuff? I was about to ask when he snatched the box back and began packing a hole he had been digging since we left.

“Lawrence, this is crazy talk. You’ll blow up the Dome if you do it!” Got to love flammable gases.

“It won’t though. That’s the beauty of it! The oxygen is so spread out that it’ll react just like on Earth. Just a cloud of dust and it’s all over.” I felt a touch on my side that told me the others had arrived. We were going to have to restrain him and get him to the hospital. I didn’t feel like dying today.

His back was turned as he set everything up, giving us a chance to surround him. Something had gotten to him. Was it the isolation? The work stress? His head never was screwed on right, and we had all been waiting for this moment, as harsh as it sounds. We knew Lawrence would crack at some point. We just didn’t know how or when. This was quite the surprise in the turn of events. I had to find out where he got that stuff from. “Say Lawrence…where’d you get that stuff anyhow?” Sammy asked. Damn could she read my mind. He didn’t even turn as we closed in.

“I found it in a storage space in my building. My guess is that’s where they stored all the devices they used to build the metropolis. This is going to be a fantastic show!” He stood and spread his arms wide in a “ta-da” fashion, and we were on him.

Ben and Sammy grabbed him by the arms, Willis wrapped around his legs, and I wrestled the matchbook from his fingers. He screamed and cried out as I got it from his fingers. “You have to let me do it!” We carried him out of the tunnel, listening to his protests and cries of agony. As we walked back to the platform, other battalions stopped to watch our procession. It was a painful sight to behold. Another person gone crazy from this wonderful place. I couldn’t understand it.

Our site captain saw us coming and grabbed a couple military officials to take over. I explained the situation while the other three worked on getting cuffs and restraints onto Lawrence’s bucking body. It was so exciting that I felt high. I knew it was just the air flow, but I wasn’t all there. That was when I realized that I had left my respirator at the site. The captain told us to head back to our duties, allowing today to be a smaller quota until they assign someone new to our mining team.

As we resumed work, taking moments to fill the carts as we went, it felt strange without the crazy kid there. I began to wonder if that would happen to me, if my routine would become too much for me. Inhale, whack, exhale. Would I go crazy? Would I try to blow up the Dome? I shook my head against it as I dropped chunks of ice into the carts for Ben and Sammy to push up. I liked it here. I wanted to be here.

When it was my turn again to pick up my sledge, I saw the C-4 still packed into the hole Lawrence had made in the wall. What if the world would be better without this Dome? But I knew that answer was not “yes.” We were doing a service to our homeland by mining the bricks of frozen water in these tunnels. The oxygen in the Dome was fairly sparse, though. I twisted the sledge in my hands. All I had to do was hit it, and it would all blow up. Just this space. “Charlie?” It was Sammy.

“Yeah?” I turned, dropping the head of the sledge to the floor. There was concern on her face, but it relieved a little when I dropped the hammer.

“Are you okay?” I shook myself a little and breathed in sharply through my nose.

“Yeah, yeah I’m good. Just a little light headed still from the whole…thing…” She nodded and came to my shoulder, seeing what I had been staring at.

“I know. It’s tempting. But there are too many people that live here to want to destroy the greatest discovery of mankind.” She sighed and glanced at me. “Let’s pull it out and hand it over.” I nodded and helped her pull the pieces apart, snatching the book of matches from the floor and followed her back up the tunnel.

She saved me, again and again. If only she weren’t into women. I was glad to have her on my team. She seemed to keep everyone sane, and that was more than what I could ask for in this total isolation.

Eastern Michigan University's English Department senior student literary journal