Author: Bill Cox

They are everywhere and nowhere. The world passes beneath them, from the great, deep scar of the Valles Marineris, to the soaring, breathless heights of Olympus Mons. Time has lost its linear progression, yet they know that they have still to wait for the others to arrive.

Memories flash among them, delicious, aching moments that remind them of the lives that they have lived and lost.

The ship vibrating as it descends through the thin Martian atmosphere. No simulation could prepare them for the gamut of emotions they feel. Fear lurks, but is held at bay by well-rehearsed duties, by the joys of novelty and accomplishment. With the landing comes relief. Grins all round. They’ve made it. The first humans to land on Mars.

The work of building the first human outpost on the Red Planet begins. Knowing that this environment is harsh and unforgiving. A mistake here can kill. You have to be careful with everything. Check and double-check. Clean. Maintain. The orange dust gets everywhere, even inside your lungs.

Months pass, living off the land. Growing crops, processing minerals for fuel, building materials and oxygen. It’s hard physical work, even in the reduced Martian gravity.

When does it start, do you think? A sickness appearing from within. Its symptoms seem hard to pin down, at first. Perhaps just a hankering for the green and blue of home. Feeling fed up at the colour of the sky, at the ever-present orange dust. A longing to feel the sun and the wind on your bare skin.

Irritation and niggles build up. Minor ailments seem pervasive, you just can’t shake them off. Insomnia creeps in. Lethargy and dark moods seem the norm. Tempers fray. You all compare symptoms, jokingly call it the Mars Malaise.

Mission Control becomes concerned. Real-time conversation isn’t possible, so therapy sessions involve monologues and protracted waits for considered replies. Frustrations build.

Operating at below par in a hostile environment has the inevitable outcome. A serious decompression accident injures four of the crew. Things go downhill from there.

It’s MacLeod who has an epiphany about the Mars Malaise. He tries explaining it to a psychologist in a stilted conversation between worlds. When Mission Control order him confined to quarters and put on suicide watch, he knows that he failed to get his point across.

He has success with his fellow astronauts though. Their lived experience of Mars gives them understanding.

“They sent us here to colonise Mars, but we can’t do that, not as things stand. We’re all decaying, dying deaths by a thousand cuts.”

“We need to stop fighting it. This isn’t Earth. We’re on Mars, an empty world. We’ve no bones of our ancestors here, no spirit world to look after us. Our souls can’t exist here without these things, just as our bodies can’t exist without food and water.”

“Our role here isn’t to establish a colony. It’s to establish those things that will allow a colony to survive and thrive.”

“Our purpose here is to die, so that when the next mission arrives there’ll be a spirit world to commune with. Our ghosts will be here to protect the colonists, to give this world meaning.”

The first astronauts on Mars committed suicide en masse that evening, as a pale sun fell below a crimson horizon.

Memories fade, but understanding persists. Their spirits now claim this new world for humanity. They are everywhere and nowhere, patiently watching, waiting, for the inevitable arrival of more of Earth’s children. Then they will commence their role as guardians to the living, as the dead have always done.