Monday, August 1, 2011

The Long Wait

Mandy was exhausted after her climb up the cliffs. Her physiology made this a rare condition for her. She felt free of the claustrophobia that had overtaken her on the canyon floor. She knew it was silly to have felt hemmed in. Valles Marineris, a tectonic tear in the Martian crust, made the Grand Canyon look like some homeowner’s backyard drainage ditch.  Even in her extended lifetime, whatever it might prove to be, she never would explore it all. Yet, walls were walls, even if one was over the horizon.
The view was spectacular. Even at this altitude, the farthest rim of the canyon was out of sight, but the canyon was decorated in between with towering mesas and vast chasms. The dust storm that had obscured so much for weeks had subsided, though dust devils still arose with unusual frequency. One suddenly appeared and raced past Mandy, pelting her with sand granules. It traveled another 100 meters and then ceased as quickly as it had begun. Mandy looked up at the sky.  Cassiopeia poised like a butterfly net ready to scoop the planet earth, a blue evening star close enough for the disk to be visible with the naked eye.
            In Mandy’s case, “naked eye” needed qualification. Her eyes were covered by tough transparent keratin forming protective goggles. She hadn’t been born with the feature, but they were biological, not mechanical. She had been reborn with them. Any scratches could be abraded out and the keratin would re-grow like fingernails.
            Mandy smiled, though an unmodified human might have trouble recognizing the expression. She remembered that in War of the Worlds, Martians looked longingly at earth. Here she was doing just that. Appropriately, Mandy’s skin was green. There were no Little Green Men, so humans had to invent them. The color was not cosmetic. Dermal chloroplasts were a major part of her energy equation. Photosynthesis also allowed her to breathe the air of Mars, producing on the spot the oxygen much of her body still needed. At mean ground the atmospheric pressure of Mars was 1% of the pressure at sea level on earth, but carbon dioxide made up 95% of the Martian air, as opposed to the earthly .04%. In consequence, Mars actually was richer in the gas.

In 1965 Mariner 4 demonstrated what nearly all planetary scientists already had suspected: Mars was inhospitable to earthly life. Science fiction writers reluctantly abandoned dreams of Barsoom. Instead they contemplated terraforming Mars to make it hospitable. The idea intrigued serious scientists and engineers as well. The problem was the scale of the project. Any effort able to make a dent would be titanic, and yet the likely results still would be limited. There was a more modest alternative:  areforming life to suit Mars.
As bio-engineers grew more capable, restrictions on what they could do grew more onerous. Old-fashioned class warfare was at the bottom of the fuss. Only the wealthy could afford to enhance their children; this was one advantage too many. Genetic modification of rich children still happened, of course, but it was done in secret.
 Some of the secret labs were operated by The Martian Society in Namibia. The handsome fees funded the development of life forms designed to live on Mars. This project also was kept secret. Only The Martian Society’s robotic explorations of the planet were public knowledge. A Chinese company won the contract to launch robotic payloads from a Namibian spaceport built and owned by the Society.
Mandy never learned how she had come to the attention of the Society. She was not a member. She knew next to nothing about it. Yet, whoever had chosen her had chosen well. She jumped at the offer to become the first sentient Martian. It was her only chance to do an extraordinary thing, and, more than anything else, to do an extraordinary thing was what she wanted.
Nanomachines did most of the work of restructuring Mandy’s DNA. Engineering an embryo from scratch would have been far simpler, but too much could go wrong to sabotage the project in the 20 years it would take for a Martian child to grow up. Mandy reformation took a little more than one year.  During the process, she felt as though she were being eaten from the inside out, and this wasn’t very far from the truth. There was more pain than the biologists had promised there would be, but it was bearable. It was worth it. At the end of it she would be able to walk and breathe in the open on Mars without and environment suit.
Mandy was the first, but a second volunteer already had begun transformation when Mandy’s flight to Mars was scheduled. He would launch at the next window in 18 months and would join her on the surface. There would be others to follow. The plan was to make the Martian colony a fait accompli before revealing it to the world. Opponents of genetic modification of humans wouldn’t be able to undo it.
Mandy slept through the trip to Mars. Suspended animation never had been made to work properly with unmodified humans, but Mandy’s new body was custom-designed for it.  The Chinese had no idea they had launched a manned craft, and one packed a variety of nonsentient engineered lifeforms.
The floor of Valles Marineris was chosen as the landing site in part because the exposed cliffs offered easier access to mineral resources. More importantly, there were spectrographic indications of frozen water ice.
Mandy woke up on schedule in Melas Chasma, the deepest part of the canyon. She sent back a brief coded message to let the Society know she was alive and well, and then shut off communication as planned.
Her initial misgivings lifted as Mandy grew sure that she could in fact breathe the air and withstand the temperatures of Mars. Her explorations proved that water ice was indeed accessible in the shadows and in clumps buried only centimeters beneath the surface. She also found caves in the cliff faces that could be adapted for shelters. She wasn’t sure of their origins, but, whether formed by ancient water flows, frozen carbon dioxide melts, or geological processes, they were useful.  Most of the tools at her disposal were low tech. She had solar reflector furnaces to melt tiny amounts of metals and to form glasses, but mostly, she relied on pick, shovel, and her own muscles.
She set to work as a Martian Janie Appleseed along the canyon floor. Modified lichen grabbed hold quickly wherever she placed it. She also planted eight larger species intended as crops. Genetically they were very diverse, but they were similar in appearance. All had thick leathery outer skin forming a tough insulation. The plants employed a photoelectric effect as well as photosynthesis. Mandy found the taste bland and chewy, but tolerable.
The time for the next landing came and went. Something had gone wrong. Mandy broke radio silence. She called Namibia. No answer came back – from anyone.
Not knowing what else to do, she continued to plant and to build. Years passed. She constructed cliff dwellings more than a little reminiscent of Chaco Canyon, and just as empty. On a regular basis she sent messages back to earth. In time, the radio failed. All the while, the adapted life forms self-propagated throughout the canyon.
Immortality had not been an intended feature of her Martian body, but it appeared to be an accidental one. As far as she could tell, she didn’t age at all in the two centuries following her arrival on the planet.

As Mandy stood atop the cliff, motion caught her attention overhead. One of the lights in the sky was not a star. It moved. It was in orbit. With all her speed and agility she descended the cliffs. She assumed her original landing site was where someone would look for her.  Mandy was ecstatic. Whatever the craft was, it was sure to spot the green in the canyon. People would investigate. Maybe not this year. Maybe not in ten. But they would come and they would see how well she had prepared for them. Her loneliness would end. She could wait.

In Ulan Bator the terminal operators gasped at the green flora in Valles Marineris. None was aware of The Martian Society’s secret labs, which had been an early casualty of The Long Night, the euphemism for the catastrophe humans had brought on themselves.  The Re-Emergence was still a fragile thing, in which the role of space exploration played a minor PR role.
“How could the old missions have missed it?” asked assistant mission director Chuluun.
“They couldn’t have,” answered Narantsetseg, one of the planetary scientists. “It wasn’t there before,” she said.
“The growth is just in the canyon. The old probes didn’t land in there,” Chuluun suggested.
“But Marineris was photographed from orbit, just like we’re doing now. There was no sign of any of this.”
“How do you explain it, then?”
“Perhaps the life was dormant for thousands of years or longer, and some subtle climate shift caused it to bloom,” she speculated.
“Regardless, this settles it,” stated a CN observer, masking her relief. “We can’t authorize any landings. We can’t interfere with established life. The Confederated Nations will never allow it. After what we’ve been through, they’ll never risk contamination of a fragile ecosystem we don’t understand. We’ll just have to leave Mars to the Martians.”
The CN politician knew her bosses would be pleased. The space program was far too expensive. Any reason to scale it back was a good reason.