I stare out through the window at the slow moving Martian landscape. The view is fuzzy and distorted with the constant scratching of red dust and fines over the diamond pane that forms the outer layer. It is a subtle new vista, evolved overnight by the steady three kph crawl of our base. I chew the last of my breakfast eager to get out.
Science rarely offers last chances. If you've searched in nine places and there is only one remaining, then experience tells you that the thing you are looking for will not be there. It has nothing to do with probability, just that's how it goes. We have one last site to prepare, one last science station to plant into the red soil. To be honest, while disappointing, this does not distract from what we have achieved. Being here, mapping, exploring, finding what a robot never can. Our footprints will be erased in the coming storm, but the fact of our being here will remain.
I turn back inwards, looking at the other three sat at the table with me. Wei, the eager, young Chinese geologist. Adoyo, our engineer, is bleary and irritated. He has been arguing with the boss again. The boss being sat opposite me, eyes fixed on the latest download package describing his business empire as he prepares his responses to be sent back in the evening reports. Maxwell Johnson, the richest man on Mars. That was the tagline they were using back on Earth. I don't know if they still do, or whether the sheer tedium of real exploration and science has been knocked off the news feeds. I haven't been keeping up.
The muffled noise of tires crackling over the regolith helps to clear my head as Wei races me to the horizon, the lip of an oversize crater. I follow his tracks, nipping at his heels occasionally, while checking that the delivery of breadcrumb transponders is active and tracing our way back. The metal tube we call home is out of sight, but it emits its own beacon, reflected on the display in my rear-view mirror. The breadcrumbs are in case that beacon stops working, which has happened twice in the months that we have been here.
We slow down after twenty k, waiting for the triangulation messages from the positioning satellites overhead to provide us with more resolution on our destination. Wei comes to a stop and I slide alongside him. Looking over he seems troubled. Unusual for him. He's been pretty positive all the way through, even despite the conflicts between Adoyo and Johnson.
"What you thinking?" I ask.
"Nothing. Just, you know. This is the last time."
"Yeah. But there's still plenty of work to do. And the data is going to keep us busy for years."
His fingers click at his equipment. He's just toying with it, switching things off and on again.
"Lal, do you think we're going to find anything now?"
I wonder how to answer that before choosing honest.
"No. We've given it a good try, but this is a puzzle that has been going on since the first ESA orbiter told us the methane was here. Even with confirmation of the Carbon-12 there's no guarantee we will find out where this life actually is, or if it's actually here. Looking back at the planning I did it seems hopelessly naïve now, faced with the reality of being here. Live is buried deep, it must be if its going to survive. The real science is going to be done over the years that these stations are here and working, not by us. Maybe that's not a bad thing."
"What do you mean?"
"For all that machines can tell us what we need to know, we needed to come here. And if we still have no answers then there's maybe a reason to come back. If we do find life then there's going to be so much opposition to colonisation it will probably stop any attempt. Whether it's from fear or a desire to preserve. There'll just be more robotic missions while it gets debated in the UN."
"I don't think that would stop my government. Or men like Johnson."
"That might be true." I reply. "But there still has to be a reason, a purpose for spending the money it would take for humans to live here. Having somewhere to dump surplus population is one thing, but there needs to be a way to support them, and there needs to be a way to make a profit. That's why Johnson is here. Sure he gets the kick out of being the big explorer but everything that man does is to make a profit."
Wei is quiet suddenly. Even his breathing is paused.
"You've never talked like this before."
"No. Because it doesn't matter. Look around us. We're here. Nothing else compares to that. We're the first people to land successfully on Mars. I don't even care if we get home at this point."
My comm beeps. The triangulation overlays on the map and I flick on the electric engine of my rover.
"Let's go." I shout, hitting my accelerator before Wei has even had chance to get started.