The soft pink of the sky washed the day in an ethereal haze. It wasn’t sunset, not even close, but the sky was pink. A cheery cherry pink, that reminded me of blush on cheeks and raspberry lip gloss. I stared at it through thick alumino-silicate glass that let in just pinkish-gold light to give my bedroom a warm, soothing glow. I refused to close my blinds, because being so far from home, the comfort the light provided was almost familiar. The air I breathed tasted stale and filtered and left a dry taste on my tongue. I was unable to stand the loud hum of the generators (so loud I could feel it in my fingertips) nor the eerie quiet whenever they weren’t running, so gentle music played into my headphones while I watched the sky.
Red clouds like rose petals bloomed in the atmosphere, drenching it in a saturated scarlet. They weren’t actual clouds, those needed water, but I lacked the word for the fraying petals floating in the desert sky. Lis told me they were made of dust.
We found ice right away. We followed dried riverbeds to the remnants of subterranean lake, long frozen. Not frozen in the way winter could sometimes be beautiful, but frozen in an abandoned, lifeless way. Cold and dead. A pale white sheet laid over the floor of a cavern. We scratched at it, Lis scraping samples into glass vials for me to stick under a microscope, but there was nothing to be found.
“It’ll be warm out tomorrow,” Lis said, joining me next to the window.
“Negative 30, Fahrenheit.”
It was going to be warm tomorrow. One of the warmest days we’ve had in several sols. Here, warm just meant survivable. Lis (with her PhD in atmospheric sciences) informed me during the night, the temperature crept to negative 200. She had meant it as a fun factoid, but it only succeeded in solidifying my fear that nothing else was out here. We couldn’t survive ourselves without a pressurized lab, inch thick glass, and oxygen filters.
“We can check the lake again,” I said, slightly hopeful.
“Check quickly though, you know what warm weather means.”
Storms. Violent ones where red sand swirled against the windows and grinded into the foundation. There was always a long day of cleanup and inventory after one of them.
“Aren’t going to come?” I asked.
“Take Costello, I’ve got a conference call with the homeland tomorrow.”
One thing about our station, they loved their conference calls, somehow not catching on that we’d call them if we discovered something worth sharing.
“If I see anything, you’ll be the first to know,” I said.
“Please do, I’m running out of ways to say, ‘we’ve found nothing’.”
As night settled over the planet, we were flashed with a quick blue sunset, and plunged into darkness. There were a million points of light in the sky, and one of them was Earth. To anyone looking up at the night, I stood atop a red star, a hundred million miles away. I waved, not to anyone in particular. Eventually, frost crept up the windows, crystal fingers inching up the sides of the facility, blocking my view of the celestial sky.
I visited the lake the next day, ducking excitedly into the cavern, hoping the warmer temperatures would miraculously sprout life from the sheet of ice. Our rover, Costello, joined me. He rolled over the red sand, dust settling deep into the gears and mechanics I’d have to clean later.
The day was spent looking for cool rocks, breaking off chunks of ice, and staring at the sky through my visor. It was red again today, with wisps of a violent storm on the horizon.
On the way back, Costello clicked and hummed, and I gave him a gentle tap with my boot.
“C’mon,” I encouraged.
His motors hummed and sputtered, but eventually died. I sighed, and stretched his solar panels out, tilting them up to the sky. I hoped to god they absorbed the last drops of sunlight before the sol was over.
“Sydney? Your GPS says you’ve stopped, everything alright?”
I pressed my radio, “Costello decided to take a break, just waiting for power.”
“Get back quickly, leave him if you have to.”
“In the storm?”
My radio prickled with silence, “don’t take too long. Storm’s incoming. A rover can be replaced, you can’t.”
With the night came the frost, which creeped up the airlock, sealing the gap and freezing the hinges in place. Even before I tried to open it, I knew it would be a fruitless effort.
“Lis,” I said, rubbing off the window’s frost so I could peer into the facility, “I’ve got a problem.”
“I see that,” she said, looking at me through the window.
“Any suggestions?” I asked, not quite ready to panic. I could see her talk to Pete through the smudgy frost handprint I smeared away from the glass.
“Can you use the external heaters to warm the door?” Pete said, taking the radio from Lis. She sighed and took it back from him.
“Don’t do that, it will take too long. It’s only getting colder, and we’ve got bad weather incoming. She needs to get somewhere safe.”
“Like inside.” Pete remarked, and crossed his arms. Lis just shook her head. “Listen to me, Sydney,” he continued, “you cannot spend the night out there.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
I could hear Lis’ hesitation through the radio, “go back to the lake, it’s sheltered. Take a heater with you. That way, at least you’ll be safe from exposure… can you get there in under 25 minutes?”
25 Minutes? “Is that all the time I have?”
Lis nodded, “25 minutes and counting, can you make it?”
I nodded, hastily grabbing what I could in terms of supplies. The external heater, flashlights, and enough oxygen to make it through the night.
“You ready Costello?” I asked, kicking his treads with my boot and hastily dumping all the supplies I could on him. It was his damn fault we were stuck out here to begin with, he could at least do some of the heavy lifting.
Frost crunched under my boots, and I could feel the wind picking up as we walked. The sky that I spent so much time admiring looked eerie, wisps of sand in the air looking like pale ghosts on a hauntingly empty planet. Even the thin atmosphere could brew violent storms.
We followed the riverbed until it ducked under the terrain, my flashlight illuminating the still surface of the frozen reservoir. Stepping into the space was a transformative experience, the quick winds of a fermenting storm instantly silenced by the protection of the cavern.
Even though Costello was a rover, I was grateful for his company. I didn’t have my music to distract myself from the silence and prepared to fall asleep next to the soft hum of his internal generator. Maybe it’s just me, but there is something completely terrifying about silence.
A static emitted from my radio, making me jump. “Sydney,” Lis’ voice sounded, “did you make it?”
“Safe and sound,” I replied.
“The storm’s almost here, it’s going to block our communications.”
“I’m good, Lis. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow.”
I awoke to a noise. A truly chilling thing if you’re completely alone.
It was a deep echoing, vibrating, and the crackling of electricity. I had set the lamp in the middle of the frozen lagoon, counting on the ice to reflect the light. It had been so unforgivingly solid, I never imagined it could melt. Yet, the ice cracked, collapsing in on itself, and I looked in awe. Liquid water. Beneath the ice of mars was liquid water.
I pulled the lamp from the ice water and peered over the hole it had made. I held my breath, not sure what I saw was completely real. This changed everything. I couldn’t see very far down, not without the proper equipment, but Lis could bring that over in a heartbeat. Movement in the water gave me hope. Perhaps we weren’t really all alone out here, perhaps, under the ice of mars, there was a marine ecosystem.
A cold-water reef. Foreign fish. Icy coral. Frozen ecosystems. Life. A thousand ideas flooded my mind and I wanted to explore all of them.
“Pete, Lis,” I said, radioing the station, “I’ve got something for you to show the homeland.” And I laughed. The water reflected the first rays of the blue sunrise peeking over the horizon.
Breanna Coe is an art student currently living in California.