1. We met on Mars.
You had been there for two years already; I was fresh out of rehabilitation. We already knew about each other, had read each other’s files. You were an expert in highly optimized tolerance. I had seen your picture, but I had never realized you were handsome until I saw you in person.
You weren’t clean-shaven, but neither did you have a beard. This is supposed to be the mark of a man who makes a good boyfriend but a bad husband.
Perfect, I told myself, because this is not love. It can’t be love. And yet I avoided you. I left rooms that you entered, and since you were robotics and I was botanical microbiology, we never had any shifts together except under the North Dome, where we tried to make things grow.
Seeds would sprout, but they would not take root. If a flower bloomed, it would die the next day. We both suspected it was the soil. But it could have been the air or the artificial light or the microbiome. There were supposed to be crops years ago; instead we had a field under a glass bubble where plants went to die. It was a shiny brown patch on red Mars. It was a failure visible from space.
In my lab, I could make anything grow. My lab was the only place on the whole base that smelled alive. It could smell like a forest or field or a swamp. I had a humidifier for the orchids and the carnivorous plants. The rest of the base smelled like chemicals. Once, you came to my lab. You wanted a cactus; you were willing to trade me a robot.
I gave you a miniature specimen from the Pilosocereus genus. It grew in a solitary, spiky stalk. You gave me a miniature dragonfly drone to fly around the room. It had iridescent wings. You said it would make my plants feel more at home to have a pollinator around. I pointed out that dragonflies weren’t pollinators, and so the next week you brought me a mechanical moth.
Your wife was not an astronaut. Astronauts never seem to marry each other. We marry civilians even though they could never know what it is like. We marry them even though that means being apart for years at a time. Astronauts get divorced a lot.
• • • •
2. In stasis, we slept together. And by together, I mean next to each other. For eight months. Other astronauts claimed not to dream at all in stasis, but I always did.
I did and didn’t want to dream of you. I dreamt of us in a forest under the dome. I dreamt of your lips on my collarbone and neck. I dreamt of us waking up again and again. Of our pods opening, of sitting up, standing up, looking at each other, finding each other.
I had dreams within dreams. Dreams I would wake up from, but not all the way. At one instant, I would dream deeply of your hand on my hip, at the next, I would dream less deeply of the tubes connected to my body, of the fluid that suspended me. I would dream of darkness, then I would direct my thoughts to a huge tree, trunk like a lighthouse, blue-green leaves.
I would imagine myself sitting under this giant tree. It was like the tree I had wanted to grow on Mars, specially engineered for the lower gravity, as giant as my ambitions.
The plan was to start small, with unicellular organisms. Then mosses, ferns, flowering plants. Then trees. Then one really big tree.
But nothing survived. And so I went home.
• • • •
3. When the pods opened, we did not sit up and look deeply into each other’s eyes. We were too weak and atrophied.
In physical therapy, we learned to walk again. You were strong, first to your feet. But you were also tall, high center of gravity, long limbs to balance. So you would wobble and then will yourself steady. I loved that about you.
I wanted to impress you with my recovery, but I was too slow. By the time I was walking, you were running. When I was running, you were doing handstands. You always beat me at ping-pong, but I was the better dancer.
• • • •
4. Post-recovery, you went back to your wife, to your research. I didn’t have a family to go back to, and I needed a break from my research.
So I summited mountains, I went to Antarctica. I dove in reefs and hiked in deserts. My guides were young men aged by the weather. Vagabonds, adrenaline junkies, and completely inappropriate for me while being the only people on Earth who seemed to understand me.
When I was ready to continue my research, I kept traveling. I studied the soil microbes in extreme environments, the tiny inhabitants of harsh ecosystems. I felt like a creature on a speck of dust studying a smaller creature on a smaller speck of dust. My companions on these expeditions were scientists, my peers. They were not prone to existential musings, but they understood my curiosity. Occasionally I liked one well enough to invite into my tent, my lab, but never into my bed. I wanted men who could reach past my exterior, past my fears, and find the very essence of me. If this happened, it happened for only a second. A second is better than not at all.
I still thought of you even though I had given up on you. I wondered about you. I worried about you.
You were back on Mars. Your wife had divorced you, but I wasn’t sure what to do about that.
• • • •
5. I wrote a series of papers that got some attention, about Azotobacter. It had been found on Mars. Mysteriously, several members of the genus had found a way to survive there. They had mutated, become a new thing. And then returned somehow. I found a colony of the organism we were calling Azotobacter martii 4 at the bottom of an Uruguayan salt marsh. They were astronauts, too.
A nitrogen-fixing bacteria had colonized a planet with almost no nitrogen in the atmosphere. Then it had survived the journey through space. It seemed impossible.
I would leave it to others to figure out how it happened. I wanted to know how this new creature could be of use to the larger goal of terraforming Mars.
My exposure to A. martii 4 warranted a three-week quarantine. The boredom and isolation were good for my writing. I wrote my most cited papers while locked in a plastic bubble.
When I was allowed back into my lab, I began to culture a soil sample based on the contaminated Martian regolith. I made things grow in my lab. I requested samples and analysis from the Rover labs, which meant exchanging the occasional transmission with you.
We mainly discussed technical matters, putting asides about life and art at the margins of our interactions. One transmission went:
WE NEVER SPOKE MUCH WHEN YOU WERE UP HERE AND THAT MEANT WHEN YOU DID TALK, I MADE SURE TO LISTEN. YOU ONCE SAID THAT THE HARDEST PART WOULD BE THE ENTRY POINT. THAT IF WE COULD GET ONE THING TO GROW IN THIS DIRT THAN WE COULD GET MANY THINGS. I THINK WE ARE CLOSE.
To which I responded:
I HAVE SINCE CHANGED MY MIND. THE CREATURES THAT MAKE UP THE A. MARTII 4 ECOSYSTEM ON MARS ARE MANY. IT IS NOT ABOUT GETTING JUST ONE THING TO SURVIVE, IT IS ABOUT GETTING LOTS OF DIFFERENT THINGS TO CULTURE AT THE SAME TIME. BUT YES, I AGREE, WE ARE CLOSE NOW. IT WILL HAPPEN SOON.
To which you responded:
YOU SHOULD COME BACK.
• • • •
6 and 7. I did go back. I wanted to try again.
In stasis, I dreamed of flowering vines crawling over my suspended form. I dreamed of moss completely enveloping me. Their life, my decay. I made a bargain with the plants that were strangling me. I would stay if they would grow. That’s how I knew I wasn’t ever going back to Earth, even if I survived the return to Mars.
I know it sounds like a nightmare, and it was scary but not terrifying. Nature is supposed to devour us. That’s how I knew there would be life on Mars eventually.
I never saw you during those dreams, but I felt your presence hovering. Like you were watching me, like you were in my peripheral vision, but right in my blind spot to prevent me from seeing you. You seemed concerned. I felt like it would disappoint you if I died in stasis, but some things can’t be helped.
I did not to expect to survive the journey to Mars given the content of my dreams. But I must have, because my pod opened. Civilians think we wake like Sleeping Beauties, but extraction is nothing like being kissed by your prince.
It does not feel at all like a rescue. It feels like an assault. In stasis, my body was comfortable, even if my mind was troubled. Everything was well regulated before in sleep, but now that gravity and consciousness had returned, I felt that all my organs were the wrong size, all of them enlarged and more spherical than they should be. My heart was like Mars, round and red, but also warm and alive. I could feel it in my chest, pushing and beating against desperate, too-round lungs that had forgotten how to breathe on their own. I coughed up something, then I vomited something else. I couldn’t see what or who rescued me. My eyesight wasn’t working. Neither was my hearing. Words were being spoken to me, and while I couldn’t hear what was said, I could feel the perturbances they were causing in the air around me. That’s how sensitive my newly exposed skin was.
You visited me in sick bay, something you did not do at my last arrival.
Lying in bed, I felt embarrassed at my weakness. All I ever wanted to do was impress you.
“It gets worse each time,” you said.
“I’m never doing that again,” I said.
“Me either.” You gave me a look that I didn’t understand. It suggested worry or acceptance. Sadness or relief. Joy or understanding. Perhaps all of those things plus others I don’t have names for.
That look confirmed my suspicions. Something had shifted between us. I was aware of my power despite my enervated body.
You avoided me after that. You waited until I was well enough to walk to visit me again. I impressed you with my handstand.
You helped me set up my lab. Together we unpacked boxes. I set up the lights, tested my dirt. I planted the seeds, and you watched. Green shoots pushed through. Corn, chamomile, and sugar cane. Apple, peach, and olive trees. You came to check on them every day. Their progress fascinated you. I gave you a dwarf fern to keep in your room. You came back the next day to tell me it was still alive. And the days after that. Still alive, still alive, still alive.
The day before the first transplanting, we walked out to the brown field under the dome. I told you what I wanted things to look like, where I wanted things to go. Crops first, then a forest. I wanted grasses and a pond. I wanted a wetland, I wanted birds. I’ve always been greedy.
You took my hand in yours and faced me so that you really looked at me. I looked away. This feeling felt like a promising thing, and promising things tended to wither after you brought them out to the dome.
That night, I regretted my hesitance, as one does. I could not sleep, so I messaged you. But you did not respond. I did not expect to see you at the planting the next morning, it was not your shift, but there you were.
“Good luck,” you said.
“I’ll need it.”
“I think it will be different this time.”
I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t sure.
“Is your fern still alive?” I asked.
“Yes,” you said. “I mean, I think so. I hope so. It might not be. You should come check on it.”
I took this as a sign to message you again that night, but earlier, before insomnia could strike. You responded to my message by appearing at my door. I invited you in. And finally, in defiance of Zeno, the distance between us shrank to nothing.
I want to know how it happened. What changed, and how did it manage to survive until the next day?
We are scientists, there must be reasons. There exist reasons behind reasons. The reasons extend down to our atoms and out to the Universe.
You told me things don’t need to make sense, they just need to work. Typical engineer.
You came to my room the next night and the night after. The transplants eventually died, but still you visited.
“They lasted longer this time, didn’t they?” you asked, one night as you lay in my bed.
“Yes, it was a slightly slower death, a slightly longer life.”
“It takes a while to get your bearings. Your plants will like it on Mars, eventually, they just don’t know it yet. Each transplant will last a little a longer than the last. And the longer they live, the more they will have to live for.”
I pulled you close and wondered: How did it happen? What changed? What can still change?
I wanted some of your certainty, so I kissed you on the mouth and willed myself to stop thinking and start believing: We will grow things on Mars. We will die on Mars. And then Nature will devour us.
Spread the word!