The food tastes no different to the flash-frozen irradiated crap I’ve been eating for the last twelve months. I don’t know what I expected; it’s not as if they were going to give me a special treat or anything. That would just have shaved from the bottom line.
I’ve got about half an hour, the mission doctor said. It’s almost funny; he used the exact same dead-pan serious tone the brain specialist back home used when he told me I had two years. Almost two years ago. I thought I’d be more scared the closer I got, but it doesn’t work that way. At least, it hasn’t for me.
I start to suit up for the last time, and at the same time I start counting off seconds. I’m almost ready to put the helmet on when Doctor Morton’s voice comes over the link. Ten minutes forty-three – he spoke as soon as he saw me move for the suit, allowing for the round trip of the laser carrier.
“Er – what are you doing with the suit, Rogers?”
“Thought I’d wear it out on the surface one last time, doc,” I say. “We’ve become pretty close, me and this suit. Can’t think of a better friend to be with at a time like this. Well, none that are near enough. Might be nice to have you here, but I guess that’s out of the question, right?”
I’ve got another ten minutes before he can reply, and the last twelve months have shown they’re too professional to discuss me with the line open, let alone harangue me without waiting for my replies. They can see me on video in sync with my voice, though, so they know what I’m doing. I fix the helmet to my suit and perform the checklists, then I cycle myself through the little pod’s airlock one last time.
It’s coming up for sunset; the sun’s burning faint and red just above the mountains on the horizon, and there’s very little dust. Pretty good weather, all things considered. I make my way in bounding steps to the edge of the cliff, and I sit myself on the roughly square block of umber rock that I have taken to referring to – in the privacy of my own skull, and purely facetiously – as my throne.
Mike Rogers – First King Of Mars.
It’s not much of a kingdom, to be fair. Mars is like a long holiday in a foreign country; everything’s thrilling and new for the first few weeks, but after a few months you become as accustomed to the routine as you would back home.
Still, no regrets. I’ve not lost any time I would have had otherwise – that lump in my brain is due to make an end of me real soon. I’ve made my mark on history; the Neil Armstrong of my generation. And I know Kathy and Emma will be provided for for the rest of their lives, because that was my condition for coming – the one bit of the contract I got to stipulate.
My count reaches ten forty-two for a second time, and here comes Morton’s passionless voice again.
“The contract says twelve months before cessation, Rogers. You gain nothing by going outside. We saw you eat the food; just relax and let the toxin do its work.”
I laugh. “Contract tells me when I have to die, doc, but it doesn’t say anything about where. I should know, I’ve read the damned thing through enough times. Now shut up and let a man die in peace, will you?”
It’s feeling even less scary the nearer I get. Maybe that’s the toxin working, I’m not sure. I am starting to feel a little sleepy, but then it’s near to my scheduled time for lights-out anyway, so that could just be the conditioning. The valley stretches away in front of me, its walls layered with grades and shades and levels of colour, like the terracotta swatch card Kathy got for the kitchen in our first apartment. And it reminds me of Arizona, that time we went when I was little. So many reds, so much dust. Arizona was much hotter than this, though, wasn’t it Mom?
“God bless you, Rogers,” comes Mom’s voice. No, not Mom, the doc. Morton’s voice. Musta dropped the count there. Damned theist doctor.
Sun’s going down. Like the mountains are burning; looks real pretty.
Guess it’s bedtime now.
[ * Apologies to Jason Stoddard for the title. Space-news geeks may well guess that this story was inspired by the Lone Eagle Mars mission idea; and yes, I’m aware that the plan doesn’t call for the guy to die alone, but I thought I could make a story out of a situation where it did. ]