An experiment to see if life on Mars is possible takes an unexpected and deadly turn.
| “Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests from around the world, generous donors, and staff,” the metallic, slightly echoing voice rang out across the small crowd. “Welcome to Project Mars 2030!” A small but enthusiastic cheer erupted from the group of people gathered in the Nevada desert. “I am Major General John R. Patton, and most of you know me. Fighting for the good of mankind has run in my family for many generations. Today, I do not lead men into battle against other men, but into a battle against odds. Today we join with our fellow man from around the world in an effort to do the impossible, to achieve the unachievable, to defy modern science.” More enthusiastic clapping. “Behind me you see the largest, most expensive, and most advanced structure ever assembled by mankind. Ten years of space shuttle transport has brought to Earth one hundred square miles of soil, rock, and ice from the planet Mars. The terrain has been reconstructed as exactly as possible inside this fully sealed bio-dome, and extends one hundred and fifty feet deep into the earth, which is lined with a durable plastic. Gravity enhancers have been installed to duplicate that of Mars, and temperature and humidity control devices installed throughout the dome will recreate the atmosphere. The six volunteers from each of the populated continents will attempt to live in this near-perfect replica of Mars for one year, to determine if the colonization of the Red Planet is indeed possible. So, without any further ado, are you ready to make history?” This time the applause was sustained, and the six soldier/scientists rose and approached the platform. After all the political charades were over, the six men made their way through the triple-sealed airlock, which was locked behind them.
The first month was filled with tasks of erecting living structures, setting up test equipment, releasing animals into the open landscape, and planting an experimental garden. The thick red soil was loaded with minerals, and the men hoped it could be turned into a high-producing fertile loam. Richard Brannon was the American scientist, and had a Masters degree in agriculture. The garden was his primary responsibility, and he took it very seriously. On Thursday of the fifth week, the six men sat in front of their shelter, eating a freeze-dried dinner.
“I hope that garden of yours begins producing soon, Richard,” said Geoff, the British geologist. “This bloody crap is really getting old.”
“It’s actually looking very promising,” said Richard. “The vegetables are coming along nicely. The big surprise though, is the trees. I planted several oak seeds, as well as a few pines and other rugged breeds. They have grown astonishingly fast, almost five years worth in just four weeks. I don’t know what to make of it.”
“Is it something in the soil, an over-abundant mineral or something?” asked Min. He was the atmospheric specialist and meteorologist of the crew, and represented Japan in the project. “That is an unprecedented growth rate.”
“If it is, it’s something we’ve never heard of, and the instruments don’t pick it up. I don’t really know what’s causing it.” Richard finished his bottle water and stood up. “The biggest tree is right beside the irrigation stream, which is fed by the mini-glacier. The water doesn’t show any unusually high deposits of anything, but I haven’t checked the ice that it’s coming from. I’m going to check that out and set up some sensors before dark.” He loaded some equipment in his pack and set off alone for the small hill of ice several miles in the distance.
The ever-present red dirt was noticeably less dusty lately. Their forced humidity and ice-melting idea was working very well. The oxygenated air had a much better taste to it now, and the formerly dry, cracked dirt now had a rich, moist texture. Instead of creating mini-dust devils with each step as before, the revitalized earth seemed to cling to his boots. Animal tracks were clear, leading to the water and the auto-feeder points. Richard was very proud of this accomplishment, and secretly prayed that the garden would follow the growth spurt of the trees. If it didn’t, that would mean he was wrong, and Richard hated being wrong. After nearly forty-five minutes of hiking across the rugged, red terrain, he finally arrived at the glacier, removed his pack, and sat down to rest. The men no longer needed oxygen tanks to breath, but the air was still very thin, and it would be a while before enough oxygen produced by the water and plants would have it up to the quality of Earth’s air.
After regaining his breath, Richard opened his pack and removed a small cordless drill. He attached a long bit, and began drilling a series of deep holes in the dirty ice. He inserted remote sensors into each of the holes, and set up a tripod and mounted the signal amplifier/sender unit on top of it, and finally activated the system. A computer back at base camp would receive and translate the hourly reports, notifying him of any changes in the constant readings. When he was finished, he reloaded his pack and sat down to take one more break before returning to camp.
As he sat there, Richard realized that the ground beneath his bare hand was warm. This was strange, because the air temperature was only forty-one degrees Fahrenheit, and he was within ten feet of the giant mound of ice. He rummaged in his pack and found his soil thermometer. After a few seconds in the soil it beeped, and read sixty degrees. “How very odd,” Richard muttered aloud to himself. He walked away a few feet and tried it again. The results were the same. He measured the temperature every few feet in a large circle, but it was exactly the same everywhere. “I wonder why none of the stationary sensors have reported this,” he said. Realizing that no one was around to answer, he returned to his pack, hoisted it onto his back, and returned to camp. He stopped along the way for more readings, and noticed that the farther he got from the glacier, the cooler the soil became. By the time he got back to the camp, the soil temperature was right where it was supposed to be, at thirty-six degrees.
“Hey Min, where’s Geoff?” he asked. “I have a phenomenon for him to explain.”
“He went to the latrine,” smiled Min. “I don’t think his dinner agreed with him.” Min sat at the card table with the other three scientists, playing poker. “He’ll be back in a minute. What did you find?”
“I’ll wait until he gets back, so I only have to go through it once,” said Richard, pulling up a chair. “Deal me in.”
When Geoff returned, they discussed the strange development into the night. No one had any explanations that made sense, so they made plans to investigate it further the next day.
Shortly after setting off the next morning, Richard began to sense that something was different, wrong. He studied his tracks from the day before as he trudged along, and it suddenly came to him. The landscape was different; it seemed to have changed overnight. There were rises in the topography where there had been none before. On these new rises, his footprints were unnaturally far apart, as if the ground had stretched itself upwards. He decided not to mention anything to the others yet, until he was positive. The reddish tint of the air had a way of distorting things, and there seemed to be no point in making a fool of himself. After all, they were supposed to be professionals, the best in their fields of study.
When another mile had gone by, Richard could no longer deny that something was happening. Hills and valleys had formed, with deep fissures splitting the ground like small canyons. A movement caught his eye, and he was startled to see a rabbit walking haltingly along the edge of a previously nonexistent pond. He turned to point this out to the others, but they were nowhere to be seen.
“Hey, where did you go?” he called out. His voice sounded flat, and the words seemed to fall muffled at his feet. He looked around, perplexed. “Guys?”
He turned around and walked back the way he had come, trying to remember that last time he had seen the others. They had been hiking in a staggered group, spread out from one another. He knew it had been at least ten minutes since he had talked to Min, who had asked him where the temperatures had begun increasing. A small breeze kicked up as he walked, but it didn’t immediately occur to him that wind inside the bio-dome was physically impossible. He walked slowly, feeling unusually fatigued as he searched for the lost group.
After an hour of fruitless searching, Richard began to feel the seed of panic sprouting in his gut. The wind had picked up, and he was lost. The trembling ground beneath his feet was continuing to mold and form itself, and he could see that a ring of red mountains was growing in a large perimeter around him. He found himself wondering if the ground itself was alive; if perhaps the very soil was the life on Mars that had been searched for but overlooked. His throat was raw and hoarse from calling, then screaming, but he had found no sign of them, not even a footprint. A sense of horrible urgency filled him, and he continued on frantically.
Three minutes remaining.
He ran through the windswept landscape, his eyes glistening with tears. His feet pounded the ground of red clay as he looked upward and asked the crimson sky how this could be happening. He found the air itself to be red, thick, and suffocating.
Though he ran alone, he could not escape the feeling that eyes were everywhere, watching his every movement: cracks and fissures on hillsides seemed to form the outlines of giants; great boulders looked like the faces of ancient sentinels surveying the land; an oak tree seemed to stretch a greedy arm toward him as he passed by. His breaths became shorter, his body felt heavier, and he began to slow.
It felt to him as though the Earth’s gravity had doubled—lifting his legs became nearly impossible. As he raised a foot, the sole of his shoe stuck to the ground and pulled it away, stretching the soil like thick chewing gum. As he set it back down, the ground reached up to meet it. Every movement of his body was carried out as though submerged in quicksand. From above, motionless birds dropped from the skies. Before him, rabbits and squirrels staggered forward in the most awful manner—no longer hopping or scurrying, but instead lifting one tiny paw after another with labored effort.
At the same time he and the other creatures slowed to a standstill, everything else set into motion: large slabs of rock righted themselves on-end; the ground swelled and bubbled, becoming more like liquid than solid; small rocks and pebbles bounced and scattered like swarms of bees; trees made deliberate and graceful movements, looking like conductors of a surreal orchestra.
The final minute.
He came to a halt. Gravity tugged forcibly on his body and his face began to sag heavily like a melting wax figure. The ground rose up around his feet and he felt himself begin to sink into it. Now paralyzed, he could only stare in horror at the trees freeing themselves from the ground and taking their first steps across the Earth, lurching forward with eerie grace. Boulders with twisted faces grinned wicked smiles at the fall of the living. The wind howled with the sound of a thousand trumpets declaring victory. As he became blinded by the blowing sand and dust, the red clay poured up his chest, over his neck, across his face, and into his mouth and nose. He heard muffled cries and heinous laughter as he was wholly consumed by the Earth.
The ‘final three minutes’ segment was written by as a part of his contest, "Invalid Item"