It ended with two bodies on Mars. Their bleached flesh was sucked stiff against their bones. Eyeless sockets stared through matching glass helmets.
Many years of consumption had brought us to this point – the day we would discover why our kind was doomed to be alone. We knew this fact from birth, as a child knows to eat, knows to seek its parent for comfort and protection. We knew about children, of course, though we weren’t sure if we had a similar life stage. If we did, like the past, it was yet to come.
By consuming atoms, we can catch a glimpse of what brought them to their current state. Every reaction. Every mutation. Every decay. We can experience their existence as they do. This is how we entertain ourselves.
As far as we knew, we were the only beings that operated this way. We start at our end and must find our beginning. And so, we knew we were doomed to be alone.
But why? That was the insatiable drive of our species. Always, always, wondering, searching, longing…
In our travels, we saw millions of species fail to develop the ability to leave their home planet or even acknowledge lifeforms beyond themselves. Others came close but failed, barely lifting off the crust of their home worlds. There was nobody to meet us. We feared the two bodies on Mars were the same.
We sampled the bodies. Digesting what was mostly carbon atoms, our collective cerebrum projected an image. Desiccation reversing. Skin moistening. Colour and features returning. Eyes. Blood. Breath. Two humans, Finn and Aubrey Secor. Through the reversal of their atoms we saw their thoughts, feelings, the chemical reactions in their bodies, and learnt their language. We quickly came to know how they’d laid down on the dusty ground. They’d touched hands because their gloves were chunky, and it was difficult to lock their fingers together. They knew they were going to die. Their oxygen was going to run out. They wanted to drift off looking at the stars.
Impatiently, we shifted the vision further into the past. Finn and Aubrey got up, walked backwards to the Mars Ascent Vehicle, Orca. A white head fixed to a blue body with four thin legs, it contrasted the red dusty landscape on which it stood. A craft not of this world. Finn and Aubrey had come from a nearby planet named Earth. Their race were explorers just as we were.
We halted the vision as Finn and Aubrey climbed the ladder into the Orca. We were humming with anticipation and fear. It was always exciting to see the forward existence but the answers the vision might provide were terrifying. These humans, who ventured so far from their watery world, who battled conditions not made for them, who could only be a race of determination and cunning – why had they given up? Why were we left to wander idly past in the wrong direction when our paths had almost crossed? Why we both so alone?
We resumed the vision. The forward existence began to unfold. Sat in the Orca, Finn and Aubrey buckled their harnesses and prepared for take-off.
“Let’s get out of here before the Martians find out we gate-crashed their home.”
“On my mark.” Finn said, “Three, two, one. Mark!”
Aubrey hit the switch. The Orca shook and a warning light blinked on. An alarm sounded. “Thruster failure. There’s a fault with engine R!”
“Checking it now.” Finn unbuckled his harness.
We pushed on. There was a fault. They didn’t have enough propellant to make it into orbit. Somewhere there was a leak. They were stranded.
Finn reached and touched Aubrey’s hand. He’d proposed to her minutes before, live in front of all humanity. A big romantic display, just as their sponsor requested. The marketable Martian couple. Romance of the future. Never mind they’d been married five years already.
“We should tell them.” Aubrey said after a moment.
Nodding, Finn picked up the mike. “Houston, this is Finn. We’ve noticed a fault with engine R. Can you verify? Over.”
We didn’t understand why there was a forty-minute delay in their communication, when we could send messages to our brethren across the stars in less than a millisecond.
“Orca, this is Houston. We can verify that the ascent engine has taken some damage and sprung a leak, possibly during landing. We’re going to put our heads together and find something to help you out. Over.”
“There might be more fuel at the old Mars base.” He said.
“We have forty minutes of oxygen. It takes sixty minutes to get there.”
Finn smiled. “Shouldn’t have wasted our time with that proposal.”
“It was a nice proposal, almost as good as the first one.” She breathed slowly, her nerves on fire. “We should record our goodbyes.”
Finn didn’t say anything for a moment. “I’ll wait outside.” He unbuckled his harness and stood. The weight of his spacesuit made him sway. He collided with the wall and Aubrey caught his arm to stop him toppling to the floor. They held each other, letting a few of their last seconds tick away, before Aubrey nodded and let him go.
Finn climbed out of the Orca. He didn’t go far, just a few steps that he could barely feel. The thick Martian atmosphere felt more suffocating now than ever. He switched off his COM and screamed.
After Aubrey recorded her goodbyes, they exchanged places so Finn could record his. Messages to family members, old friends and colleagues. Broken pieces left behind.
They had twelve minutes of oxygen left.
After ten minutes, they knew Mission Control would not talk to them.
Abandoning the Orca, Finn and Aubrey lay down on the sand. They talked of other worlds, of making contact. Their optimism sent ripples of despair and anger through us. They believed, just as they had come to Mars, that humanity would ascend beyond and meet new intelligent life. They hadn’t the curse of foresight. Both our races died alone. Could it be that the death of Finn and Aubrey terrified humanity to remain on Earth forevermore?
As the vision ended, the answer seemed clear. Humanity’s determination was fickle, as vulnerable as their flesh and bone, and they had doomed us.
We stood beside what remained of Finn and Aubrey, clinging to the sample of atoms we took from them like a child in poverty clings to a ragdoll.
We should move on. No, remain. Ourselves divided.
Time moved, we remained.
Life returned to the bodies. Finally, we came to the point where Finn and Aubrey were alive and sitting in the Orca.
“Orca, this is Houston. We can verify that the ascent engine has taken some damage, possibly during landing. We’re going to put our heads together and find something to help you folks out. Over.”
We called out to them. We’re here. We can help you.
They did not respond.
“Houston, we’ve noticed a fault with engine R. Can you verify? Over.”
We were running out of time. We would tumble further into their past while they marched to their destruction. We tried again. We are with you. We understand you. We have come to make first contact. Please hear us.
Finn and Aubrey did not notice our presence. Soon, they were back outside and completing their mission. A two-hour Martian walk, reporting everything they were seeing and feeling back to the people on Earth. Further and further we spiralled into their past.
Can’t you hear us?
We couldn’t communicate. Were the humans too early in development? If they continued to grow, would they one day be able to see us as we saw them? If today marked the end of humanity’s reach into the stars, it would never happen.
Humanity could not give up. We had to keep their faith intact. We had to change their future. We had to save Finn and Aubrey.
There was another craft waiting for them in Mars’ orbit, the Earth Return Vehicle Horizon. Orca was meant to meet with it, so the astronauts could continue their journey back to Earth. We need only get the Orca into orbit and Finn and Aubrey would be saved.
The propellant. It had leaked. If we found that moment and changed it…
CAP-COM talked them through their sponsor’s requirements for their televised proposal. Finn and Aubrey were engrossed in their duties, listening, checking systems. The alert for the dropping propellant level was a small, innocuous thing tucked over Aubrey’s left shoulder. CAP-COM was speaking over it. Then it was a rush to be on air in time…that little innocuous alert unnoticed until the final moment.
We could have told them, but they wouldn’t have heard. We sat beside then, they did not see us, did not feel our brush against their skin. They could not perceive us. That was when we realised the truth. We ran parallel to their reality. To them, it was as if we did not exist. We would never truly meet, never speak or share our experiences, learn to understand or empathise. We were incomprehensible.
For a moment, for a single terrible moment, ourselves were united with one bitter thought. Let them die.
If we must wander this reality alone, then so should they.
Except we’d lived this moment with them already. In our vision, through our consumption, we felt their love for each other, their fear, their excitement, as raw and painful as if it were our own. We couldn’t move away when the vision ended, and we couldn’t move away now. Perhaps it wasn’t us they were destined to meet, but some other race, out there, and just as unspeakably alone as us. A race that humankind would be able to perceive.
Backwards through time we tumbled. The puncture happened on the landing. A sharp rock. A structural weakness in engine R. That’s all it took.
But we could manipulate atoms.
We had the raw material already, sampled from two bodies on Mars. Mostly carbon, easily to manipulate. Transform. That, with a tiny sample taken from the engine, we matched the composite perfectly. Re-enforced the engine. We don’t know how much changed as a result, if we changed anything at all. The future was our past and it felt now like a dream, dissolving with distance, changing with each recollection.
Backwards, onwards, we tumbled. Forwards, onwards, tumbled Finn and Aubrey. Into the future, uncertain but hopeful.