“So this is it. One year and one month travelling two hundred and fifty million miles to land on some Godforsaken barren wasteland.”
“You said it, Clementson! If I wanted to see enormous red rocks, I’d take a hot bath.”
“Leave it out, Viney. You? Take a bath? I’d like to see that!”
“So the rumours are true, eh, Clementson?”
“Knock it off, you two! Let’s get this hatch open.” Commander MacCartney turned the locking wheel slowly, almost with reverence, until at last, a snakelike hiss was heard, quickly followed by a vacuum-releasing pop like someone removing the lid of a pickle jar. “Ginsberg – you and Viney follow me. Clementson, you stay here and radio back to Earth. Tell them we’ve arrived safely, the equipment checks out okay and that the three of us have gone to scout around.” He spoke quietly, but with authority, then, with only the faintest trace of apprehension in his voice, added: “’Right men. Here we go!”
Commander MacCartney manoeuvred his six foot, space-suited frame deftly through the small hatchway and down the narrow ladder, stopping on the final rung. “Careful, sir. Remember these pictures are being shown live – albeit twenty minutes late – to potentially seven billion people back home. We don’t want their lasting memory to be that of you lying face down in the Martian dust!”
“Thanks for that, Viney. I’ll bear it in mind,” replied MacCartney, before leaping the final two feet onto the surface, sending a cloud of talcum-fine powder billowing into the clear, still atmosphere.
The Commander looked around him at the rock-strewn landscape, the milky pink sky and distant lilac hills, then as if snapped back to reality from a daydream, took a long slow breath and exclaimed: “We claim this planet not for the glory of one nation, but for the future of all mankind.”
“Beautifully said, sir,” whispered Ginsberg over the radio microphone as he descended the ladder.
MacCartney allowed himself a half smile.
“No, sorry, sir. Hair in the gate. You’ll have to go again,” laughed Viney as he too, dropped from the ladder into the rich red dust.
“You’re sailing close to the wind, Mr Viney. Very close,” said the Commander. “Now let’s get this flag up for the cameras, then we can start that initial survey.”
“Yes, sir,” they replied.
“What was that you said?” asked MacCartney.
“Yes, sir,” they repeated.
“No, after that,”
“Nothing, sir,” they said.
MacCartney tapped the microphone on the side of his visor. “Strange. I could have sworn I heard a voice,” he said.
A fierce, biting, eroding wind blew that night, swirling, encircling and enwrapping the Martian landing vehicle in which the four men now slept. It whistled around the rungs of the ladder, moaned through the struts of the landing gear and made the instrument antennae whine and hum as they vibrated madly in its unrelenting blast. Inside, Commander MacCartney turned fitfully in his sleeping compartment unable to quieten his mind as successfully as the others seemingly had done.
“Elliott,” a voice called softly. “Elliott MacCartney.”
The Commander turned again, then muttered, still half-dozing, “Eh, what? Who’s there? Viney?”
“No, I’m not the one you call, Viney,” said the voice, then demanded gently. “Come now, Elliott, wake up.”
Rapidly, MacCartney came to his senses and sat bolt upright in bed. He peered through the semi darkness and could see by the diffuse glow of the nightlights that his fellow crew members were still asleep in their bunks.
“Hello, Elliott. Welcome to our planet.”
The lander shook.
“Who’s there? Who is that? Show your face.” MacCartney demanded as fear iced his spine.
“Sorry Elliott, I can’t. I don’t have one,” said the voice.
MacCartney felt the icy grip tighten. “Wh-What do you mean, you don’t have one? Who are you? How do you know my name?”
“I know all your names and why you’re here,” the voice answered. “Over there is Hal Clementson, next to him is Nicholas Viney and over here is Michael Ginsberg. You’re a survey team looking for suitable sites to explode your atomic weapons in the search for water. More of you will follow until you’ve mapped the entire planet. As for my name, I did have one once, but have no need of it now.”
“You haven’t a name and you haven’t a face! What are you then?”
“A spirit, a ghost, a phantom. You have many names for me and my kind. In truth, we are the soul, the very essence of life.”
“Whose spirit? Whose soul?”
“Mankind’s, Elliott, mankind’s.”
The lander shuddered in another hammering gust.
MacCartney’s head began to reel. “I don’t understand. What are you saying?”
“We are your future, Elliott,” the voice continued, still calm, still soft. “Aeons of growing, adapting, evolving have brought us to this point. The ultimate form of being. Human consciousness in its purest state.”
The Commander felt the ice around his spine thaw a little. “Human? At least you’re not alien!” he said and tried to force a weak smile.
“We share the same origins, Elliott, but we are as alien as anything you could imagine.”
MacCartney swallowed hard. “You say ‘we’,” his eyes darted about the cabin. “How many of you are there?”
“Enough,” answered the voice calmly, “but don’t look to see us. We have no shape, no physical presence, nothing that could ever be seen.”
The lander gibbered wildly in the buffeting winds.