“Make all due haste through airless waste,” say Terrans who’ve not been.
“Work quickly with your regolith,” say Lunies in their bin.
But those who moil in blood-red soil to their own ends indulge
Oft meet their doom gasping vacuum crawling the Tharsis bulge.
Decompression, our last lesson how fragile man can be,
But first to find it left behind remains that you could see.
A gristly end, or our god-send in terms of food supply?
Biomass holds its weight in gold, but only if you die.
We didn’t want to feed his gaunt, dried corpse into the john.
The boss, he tried, when stopped he cried, “This simply can’t go on!
“We’re all of Earth, ‘till death, from birth. We’re all of the same host,
“So eat what came of his remains! It’s plants after compost.”
“Our Boss” we spoke, with a slight choke, “we’re yours while we have breath.
“But after then we’re not your men, and we don’t want this death”
Try as he might, a sol and night, he argued with us then.
But we were set to not be et. He could not move the men.
So we forgot when he did not except when we had meal.
Our meager dishes sparked our wishes. We forwent our zeal.
But after food, we passed our mood and started back to work
And on the rig, we had to dig, his words faded to murk.
The M-years passed, the domes outgassed, he called me up one sol.
As UV sleet through head and feet, I walked through red stone hall.
He grinned at me and I could see the scurvy took his teeth
Just like the rest. Even the best of us now mashed our feed.
“It’s nitrates, lad! We need them bad. And we are getting low.
“As N2 gas we lose en masse whenever tunnels blow.
“I try and try, and we get by, but new supply’s a must.
“We’ve quite a dearth, and years from Earth with ion’s whisper-thrust.”
I coughed up dust the shade of rust and looked with puffy eyes.
The fines in air got everywhere and cut right through his guise.
We’re on the edge, and he had dredged up everything he could.
A man obsessed. What he possessed, he’d use to give us food.
“Well boss,” I said, “It seems the red has given us a clue.
“See, I just got this nitrate salt and brought it up to you.
“Rover returned, pilot sunburned and crisp from solar flare.
“He’s all but dead, but round his tread was this stuff, from somewhere.”
The boss bounced high to ochre sky, his weight about one-third.
He whooped and climbed and took his time, with bones just like a bird.
“It’s time,” he called, “to end our pall,” as boots again touched ground.
“We’ll grab that car, and near or far, we’ll track those nitrates down!”
The colony came out to see us off into the eve,
Or all of those with suits that closed sufficiently to breathe.
My friends came by, took me aside, and told me to pay heed,
“We’re awful starved, but in that car is what we really need.”
“There’s myriad things we had that we don’t anymore.
“One more won’t kill us and nor will another blown-up store.
“We followed him, risked life and limb, and he’s the one we’d miss.
“It’s he who gave the stuff to brave the rarefied abyss.”
When we rolled out, there came a shout over the common band.
Sun-shield face plates looked at star-mates, two evening stars in hand.
The close one white and of them, bright. The second of them blue.
Through tattered dome, we saw a home that we no longer knew.
The rover drove itself. It hove on automatically.
Its path was found by turning round its old trajectory.
The dirt was red between its treads, the stars undulled by cloud.
The dawnward lights, aurora bright, set headsets crack’ling loud.
A rover’s master’s endless task is keeping the thing tight.
With caulk and smoke I prod and poke and try to make leaks right.
But one pin hole is quite a goal to dust or breathing gas
So O2 runs out by the ton and fines can freely pass.
So even with our NASA gift, a closed-loop air mock up
We’d lose our lungs, our breath expunged, if we did not stock up.
The farms, they needed lots to feed our ever shrinking mass
But they’d raised hands, and to a man, allotted us the gas.
Horizons rolled through lengths untold as rover’s treads crept on.
Such endless rusted chaos must have passed us, come and gone.
The night’s fine-storm erased the worming trail. The desert, bare.
A world of stone, made dust and blown through frozen, lifeless air.
Some two sols in, over the din of teflon against rock,
He turned to me, and “lad,” said he, “it’s time for us to talk.
“‘Ulterior’ is the word for my bringing you along.
“It’s killing me, the mercury. My blood test says I’m gone.
“I want to know you’ll make it so the colony survives.
“I know they love me, but above that need is their own lives
“And with each corpse, supply curve warps, the farms lose biomass.
“Some small nitrate will mitigate, but won’t get back lost gas.”
My thoughts went back to freeze-dried Jack, who lost the air we need.
The boss had tried to use his hide as fertilizer feed.
I flushed and choked and at length spoke, and hid my fear, almost.
I swayed and sat. “You’re saying that you want to be compost.”
Our rusted world on axis twirled one time before reply.
The sky flipped round before he sounded out, “You must know why.
“Of all the men, why did I then pick you to take the reins?
“Only I knew what happened to your lady love’s remains.”
Visions aflame unbidden came, descended like a cloud.
“She asked me to! What could I do?” I reeled, perhaps aloud.
Some sharp thing poked my mind and broke red mist behind my eyes
As I once more was judged and forced to witness her demise.
A storm had come while salvage from the domes was underway,
And our food tins trumped medicines when hunger had its say.
The nurse had come and sat there, dumb, without even a drop.
“She overdosed. She ate the most of this week’s toxic crop.”
This dead rock spun far from the sun, but if we’d just endure,
I could have forged a world and more if only I had her.
I’d seen friends die, but this was my own heart on death’s cold door
And all that mattered lay there, shattered, soon to breathe no more.
The hot steel hand of fate’s demand was closing on my heart.
With thoughts that seared, I wiped a tear and bade the nurse depart.
Long through the night, I saw her fight a toxic planet’s crop.
The world and I slipped into time-slip, when the clocks all stop.
When seconds froze, she then half-rose from bed to try to speak.
She talked through face of ruined grace, her mortal outlook bleak,
“My dear,” she choked, “I fear the folk out there will join me soon.
“There’s not enough of our foodstuff; I have to ask a boon.”
I knew what she would ask of me, and still I said, “Go on.”
With bitter slow, her voice down low, she said, “I don’t have long.
“Although the lot don’t like the thought, the men still have to eat.
“What I want most is for compost to be my final seat.”
Before I could argue the good of holding onto life,
A fever took hold; spasms shook and cut her like a knife.
I can’t recall whether at all I sobbed as our room swirled.
I held her but a corpse was what was left of my whole world.
That night was blurred as airlocks whirred and opened to the farm.
I hauled a sack atop my back and silenced the alarm.
My payload mix of organics, I shoved into the john.
Before too long, composters rung and all she was was gone.
I mourned for what seemed endless, but when contemplating sins,
Necessity was finding me and needing medicines.
Another person was to worsen, and the storm had gone.
Too occupied to stay alive was I to mourn for long.
I came around to hear the sound of rover’s treads on dirt.
The night had passed, the boss at last said “Sorry that that hurt.
“I realize that in your eyes the act was mortal sin,
“But one more grave, no food to save, and we’d have been done in.
“And that is why the next to die must publicly declare
“They want to feed the rest; to lead the rest to reclaim air.”
I stood and swore that I once more would do what I had done
And as I did, from Eastward slid the rising of the Sun.
It’s thrice-dim rays cut through the haze of UV-cloven screen,
Illuminated corrugated tracks of where we’d been.
But round the red, the path we’d led, the fines were sprinkled white,
And we knew then that nitrogen had found us overnight.
The boss forgot what awful lot of torture he’d caused me.
He whooped again and he said then, “We found the nitrate, see?”
“But not enough,” I said. “This stuff won’t feed us all for sure.
“The stuff wound round the treads we found was brighter and more pure.”
“What now?” he said, “The rover led us to a barer patch?
“If we press on, we’ll come upon the purer, better catch?”
“But then,” said I, “we lose our time to gather all the stuff.
“So either way, we go or stay, we might not get enough.”
But while we wracked our brains, we lacked the air to think too long.
The point-of-no-return approached, the vents would cease their song.
We had to choose and hope to lose the least amount of time.
“Well, let’s drive more. Our meager store won’t live on this small grime.”
Some three more sols and change was all that we had ‘ere we turn,
So mirth was far from both our hearts when wheels began to churn.
The purer goal, it had to roll beneath our treads, and soon.
But only hints of white were glimpsed outside in airless dune.
The Sun went round our rust-red mound of rock some three times more,
All while I damned the spectrogram for reading nitrate-poor.
The drive-back light blinked on to smite the last of hope we feel,
And wordlessly, he turned to me and motioned to the wheel.
On our drive back, he grew to lack some fundamental thing.
I tried to say “Boss, it’s ok! We now know what to bring!
“Just one more trip, and you’ll be sipping nutrients galore.”
But he had sunk to lethal funk, and could be moved no more.
If you ask me, the mercury was only part of it.
Our turn-round started broken heart, a wound that would not knit.
When he lay there, he didn’t care about his own demise.
The colony it was who he mourned through his tight closed eyes.
The trip went by; I strained to lie, to tell him we’d be fine.
But when I tried, my voice just died. He’d not swallow that line.
Before both moons circled our dunes, he’d breathed his final breath.
To my dismay, his body lay there just as cold in death.
Despite my place, I felt my face contort into a smile.
I went to reel to the rover’s wheel, to back-track mile by mile.
The O2 throttled down, their bottles slowly running dry,
The balance hung, but fewer lungs were taxing our supply.
With just one man, my range expanded by almost one-half.
For four more sols, the rover rolled on it’s old pilot’s path.
When teflon treads had left the red to crunch over pure white,
The red dust-clad computer had not lit the drive-back light.
I donned my suit and vacuum boots and braced against the air.
The airlock’s wind pulled at my limbs and I saw landscape bare.
I shoveled nitrates into night, though cold cut like a knife.
But slowly I gathered up my dear colony’s new life.