The Last Man on Mars
Adam Pelegrina raked his fingernails through his beard. His previous attempt at shaving had reformatted the texture of his face, and he had smashed the razor with a hammer until only shards of it were left. He looked at the monitor again as if he expected the message to change. The screen blurred, the letters growing fuzzy in his vision.
A few days ago he had taped a pillowcase over the window. He couldn’t tolerate the sight of that barren landscape that once seemed so alien and beautiful. He did not liberate the pillowcase from its place on the wall, but he did peer behind it.
The sun was a narrow point of light on the horizon, burning coldly through a swath of blue. He strived to recall the sunsets of his past and failed. The best he could manage was a recollection of a photography book about the Texas sky. It was beautiful in its own way, a sea of rust extending to the limits of his vision. The uniformity was comforting and maddening at the same time.
Tonight he would try to find his home in the night sky again, to feel that brittle connection to everything he knew that might preserve his sanity another day.
He roused without realizing he’d been asleep, to the chiming sound of an incoming message. He stood and stretched, bending his arms at the elbows so they would not damage the overhead light. He traversed the length of the room in half a dozen steps and sat before the screen.
Mendax12: You awake?
Adam typed: Yes
He minimized the screen to view the one behind it. He had not received a message from NASA in three weeks. Instead, he was presented with line after line of his attempts to communicate, efforts that indicated the grip on his sanity was loosening. There had been a burst of static over the radio about ten days ago. It endured for a minute and Adam believed amid the hissing and popping, there were whispered voices.
COMMAND: The mission has not changed. The situation here is evolving. Stand by for further guidance.
Capt. Pelegrina: What situation? Why won’t you answer any of my questions? IS HE RIGHT?
Minutes passed in which Adam’s mind meandered in that gauzy netherworld between consciousness and sleep. The chime startled him.
Mendax12: This might be the last time we get to write. Ask me any questions you have and I will answer as best I can for as long as I can. I’m running the generator for electricity, but that might bring me unwanted attention. If things go bad just know how sorry I am for you. Then again, you might be the luckiest of us all… So, fire away.
Adam knew for some time that there were things NASA was not telling him. There were delays in transmissions that went unexplained. He noticed, as well, that the media was no longer allowed access to him. Though he was not the first person to set foot on Mars he was the first in a decade. The previous mission was a total loss. A series of malfunctions turned the Mars Lander into a manmade asteroid. NASA released a single image from the catastrophe, a picture taken by a Mars Orbiter of a human hand protruding from the Martian soil.
The backlash against NASA was swift. The budget was raided and the grandiose notion of colonizing Mars faded from the world’s collective psyche.
Unfortunately for me, the follow-up mission to the Lander disaster was already paid for and complete. NASA just had to wait for enough wars and scandals to occur to inspire people to dream again, to look toward the night with hope, not fear. And so now, here I am. I have enough food to last three more years and nuclear power that could last several lifetimes.
Adam closed out the conversation with Command. Did NASA even exist anymore? Perhaps Mendax12 would know.
Capt. Pelegrina: What’s the situation like now? Has anything changed? How many people are left?
He sent the message and then walked away from the monitor. Wind outside made his small but sturdy living quarters shudder. Adam was selected for the mission for many reasons. He had no immediate family and had passed the psychological battery with high marks. His task was to pick up where the earlier, doomed mission left off, preparing living facilities for a future colony. It was not the most romantic expedition, but necessary. He was an engineer by trade but dabbled in many other sciences.
He could not see his handiwork through the narrow window next to his bed, even if had not been obscured by his pillowcase. Three of the six modular facilities he was tasked to assemble were up and running. The fourth was missing components and he’d abandoned the attempt to salvage parts to save it. Adam had not begun to construct the remaining two buildings, as the revelations of Mendax12 made the effort seem unnecessary.
He recalled the first messages they exchanged.
Capt. Pelegrina: Hello? Who is this?
Mendax12: Hey! Wow, it’s really you. I wasn’t sure if it would work. Who I am doesn’t really matter. I don’t work for NASA, but I did find some “exploitable” areas within their system. That’s how I’m writing you now.
Capt. Pelegrina: I’m glad for the company, but this is a secure comm line. I am going to have to alert NASA.
Mendax12: Understood. Before you do that, just know that NASA isn’t telling you everything. They’re not telling you anything. I monitor your communications (don’t ask how or I will get all high tech on you) with them. The situation on our pale blue dot is…interesting right now. Let’s just say their attention has been diverted.
Captain Pelgrina had watched the monitor for nearly a half hour before responding. He composed a message to Command, but did not send it. Instead, he wrote Mendax12.
Capt. Pelegrina: What is the situation?
A delay of over an hour followed. Adam fell asleep at his chair, his chin resting in the palm of his hand while slaver oozed from the corner of his mouth, pooling next to the mouse. When the computer chimed he punched the air and fell onto the floor.
Mendax12: I’m going to share the text from a New York Times article:
“City officials claim it is the largest outbreak of influenza this century. The particular strain is resistant to vaccines and has resulted in unheard of death rates. Hospitals are now turning away patients between the ages of sixteen and fifty, preserving bed space for the young and elderly. The death toll in New York City is likely more than 20,000 as of this writing…”
That was three months ago. You could probably guess someone of my talents and interests might have access to privileged information. I “stumbled” across a series of emails between the CDC and a hospital administrator in New York.
Hospital Guy “We don’t need more fucking money. We need guns and men who know how to use them. How long do you think you can hide the truth? You don’t think people are dying in their homes and coming back to life? You haven’t seen any of the dozens of videos online of people eating other people? You shouldn’t be telling the public to take more Vitamin C and avoid contact with the afflicted. Tell them how to kill a person when he comes back from the dead. Tell them to cut the heads off and burn the body. Tell them if their loved one is sick, killing them is a mercy.”
I could write more, but I know you’re probably wondering why it’s taking so long to respond. NASA is running on a skeleton crew. My sources put the death toll in the U.S. at three million.
Mendax12 painted a grim picture of a country and world disintegrating into ashes. He described his first encounter with one of the infected.
Mendax12: I headed to the grocery store. I can’t suppress my instinct to horde as much food as possible. The National Guard is out in force, carrying weapons openly. I try not to make eye contact. When you make eye contact they ask questions. The grocery store is packed. There isn’t even anything on the shelves! Stockers bring out pallets and they’re raided before the merchandise can be unloaded.
I’m in the grocery store for six hours, most of it spent in line. I don’t buy that much food because I don’t want to make myself a target. I walk home, avoiding the heavy gaze of several men in uniform. There’s a bum that lives outside my apartment building. His name s Harlan I believe. He’s a wino and typically friendly when not suffering withdrawals.
Harlan is lying facedown beside the steps that lead into my building. There is a puddle of blood beneath him that is spreading, ever so slightly, over the concrete. I place my groceries on the sidewalk and give him a little nudge with my foot.
There’s a lot of blood. There’s a soldier running towards me. He starts waving his arms and shouting.
Harlan rolls onto his back. His chest is a gory cavern and the right arm, which had been hidden under his body, is a mess of tattered flesh and tendons. He looks at me and begins to rise. The soldier, now at a dead sprint, falls onto the ground in the prone position and presses his face into the butt of his rifle.
It seemed to happen at once. I leap towards the steps just as Harlan lunges at me, gnashing his gray teeth. As I land on the third step, Harlan’s head explodes. I suppose there must have been a gunshot but I cannot recall the sound of it.
Everyone is avoiding the word, but I don’t think there is another way to describe what is happening here. More later…
For another night, there is life on Mars. Adam stared out of his tiny window at the Martian sky. He checked his watch and began a count down in his mind.
The satellite passed by overhead a second sooner than he’d guessed, winking at him as if this was all a big joke. His somber eyes followed its trek towards the horizon.
He sighed and wiped away the tears resting atop his high cheekbones. He wondered what an advanced alien civilization would think upon discovering the remnants of man’s feeble attempt to break the shackles of his home planet. Would a Martian sandstorm bury the artifacts? How confusing a puzzle Earth would be! Evidence of technology, culture, and progress would be everywhere, as well images of the creators of the advanced world.
Instead of a civilized race the aliens would find half-dead corpses, or possibly nothing at all. Eventually, the supply of food would run out. Unless they learned to breed.
The thought that disturbed Adam more than his musings about the opinions of aliens, was the idea that mankind might die unheralded and unknown to anyone. No alien race visits the pale blue dot. Flash forward five billion years. The sun swells and consumes the solar system, incinerating man’s monuments, literature, mysteries, religion, triumphs, and tragedies. No Jesus Christ. No Great Pyramid. No wars or liberations. No mankind.
He did not hear the chime. His mind was lost on other worlds.
Mendax12: By the time you read this I will be dead. It is my sincere desire that I remain that way.
The generator was a bad idea. I can hear them outside my door as I type. I have a gun in my lap. When my door is breached I will end my life. Before I do that, though, I will send this message. It may get cut off, however.
Adam, I am sorry this happened. I am sorry we left you out there alone. But, hey, how funny would it be if the last man on Earth and the last man on Mars had a conv
Mendax12 pressed send.