The Surface of Mars

It’s a world full of holes, Mick thinks—as though a child has taken the scissors to it. Real, but full of dark spots. Shit happens in such indefinite terrain.

He doffs the 3-D glasses and the surface of Mars flattens out into picture. Three hours before the press conference. He can feel his throat beginning to clog over. 

Pushing back in his chair, he rubs his eyes and studies the rover. A converted dune buggy with solar panels on its back, it is marooned a couple of million miles away. Errored-out, it has refused a command and shut itself off. In the Lab commons behind him, engineers and rover scientists are crowded into cubicles, theorizing. And in just a few hours, there’s the Today Show, a live interview with Savannah Guthrie, then a news conference. The LA Times, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, CNN.

He has no idea how he’s going to explain.  

He stares at the screen, at the pockmarked planet on which the rover seems stuck. A previously unknown plain in the Martian landscape. He notes that on the legal pad before him. Maybe he’ll say, planning is difficult, moving ahead more so. The closest Earth will ever be to Mars is 33.9 million miles and that hasn’t happened yet. We are scientists, not miracleworkers. 

Although probably he won’t get that line past Lab PR.  

By the light of the video terminal, he obliterates the notes and gulps the last of the vending machine coffee. On the screen, his face wobbles, gray and white—haggard at 30, he thinks. After living on Martian time for what seems like several years’ worth of intergalactic travel, he is desperate for uninterrupted sleep.  

“Greetings!” he scrawls across a fresh sheet of the legal pad. “I’m Dr. Mick Delaney.” He pauses, wads the paper, sights the trash can and throws, winging it off the rim. He has the dreaded suspicion that making it through a press conference about a multi-million-dollar space dysfunction will be a lot like bad virtual reality, like stumbling around in a too-tight helmet that purports to show you Mars.  

A dozen sheets of legal pad later, he is shooting pencils into ceiling insulation, contemplating alternate careers when Cato arrives with the donuts. The oldest man on the team, Cato is 35, pony-tailed, and wearing his lucky Star Trek t-shirt with original cast and crew. He pulls off his ancient Walkman. “How’s our boy?” 

Mick gestures to the rover, freeze-framed by a landing camera just before night fell on Mars. “Our boy is taking a breather.” He thinks he can hear it whine and sigh, hear it cycle through old, erroneous commands and discard them. Its wheels seem to shift in the dust, like a child sleeping fitfully. 

Cato rolls a chair up to the 3-D workstation, exchanging donuts for cold pizza. He glances at the legal pad, titled TODAY SHOW COMMENTS. At the blank space underneath. “Well, Savannah,” he intones, “the rover has bounded onto the planet just as we hoped, cushioned by the air bags specifically designed for this mission.”  

“Helpful, thanks.” Mick has already received, to general amusement in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, a cheerful memo from Pasadena PR, complimenting him on his earlier use of the word ‘bounded’ in a press conference. Effective communication of this sort ensures public understanding and support. He bites into a messy chocolate old-fashioned. “What’s going on out there?”

“Minerology guys vs. optics. But the rover crew is working on an alternative strategy.” 

“Should we just—describe the scene? The excitement of being this far at all?” Cato has done Good Morning, America twice from Houston. 

At the far edge of the screen, they can see the rover’s target, a medium-size chunk of andesite, set upright on the surface by what was probably once the rushing of a Martian tide. Approximately three feet by three feet by four feet high, it is roughly the size of a giant beach ball—not the largest rock they have surveyed, but interesting for the vesicles that appear to dot its surface. And for its color, which is rosy red in a sea of red-orange planet. Possibly icelandite, they think. Volcanic, and worth investigating.  

Wake up, Mick thinks, telepathically, to the rover. Places to go, things to do, rocks to see. He sighs. “What is the Today Show really going to want?”

“Personal stuff,” Cato mumbles, through apple fritter. “Your first reaction. How you got interested in Mars in the first place. That kind of thing.”

Mick gives him a look, alarmed, and amused. “What did you say?” 

“I’m a volcano guy,” Cato laughs, “and Mars has big ones.” He pulls on 3-D glasses. “You’re an engineer. Mars has interesting problems to solve?”

“Right,” Mick says. He actually knows the answer to the question, though he has no intention of admitting it.

She had transferred into his combined second-third grade class the year they studied the planets, wearing a nametag that read, “GREETINGS! I’m Julie Findlay!” He watched her blow up a small balloon, watched her plaster it with strips of newspaper painted a mysterious red-black. Then set it in the sun to dry, a blood-red globe, and lacquer it until it shone. Other students, he remembers, competed to make Saturn and Jupiter, the large and flashy planets, while he produced a skillful, faint-gray Pluto. When the students exhibited their finished products, she held hers up to momentary consternation in the classroom. “It’s Mars,” he said in wonder, admiring the rusty orb balanced on her upturned hand, and she shot him a look that said, “You’re the smartest boy in the combined second-third grade class at John F. Kennedy Elementary, Mick Delaney.” 

He remembers their rocket, a small blue Andromeda with tapered fins and an internal parachute, a tricky design the two of them altered—science partners by the fifth grade. At the end of the Apollo space unit that year, the classes of all the fifth and sixth graders assembled in a vacant field on the outskirts of town to launch their rockets, an elaborate field trip involving multiple buses, parental chaperones, and ice cream bars melting in the San Fernando Valley heat.  Kids stood around, shoving each other into the weeds and waiting to launch. Their rocket—his and Julie’s—had been the only one to take off sideways at an incredible velocity, just over the heads of the teachers and directly into a field, where it started a major grass fire responded to by trucks from several nearby counties. He can still remember rolling on the floor of the bus, laughing his guts out, while Julie snickered and peeked out the windows, counting fire engines.

No danger of that here, he thinks. The mission has already been pronounced a technical, scientific, and economic success by both NASA and the New York Times. He will simply explain this glitch while focusing on the leaner, meaner aspects of the project: doing more with less, the thrill of discovery. Boldly going as far as Radio Shack components and our Ph.D.’s will take us.  This will work, he is sure of it. 

Moving up to the hard stuff, he bites into a crueller. “So how was the launch? What was Houston like?” 

“Nice,” Cato sits back. “Nice arc, then it hung a left and angled off toward Mars right across the face of an almost-full moon. Quite nice. You should go out there sometime.”

“I should,” Mick says. He is living in the vast suburban wasteland of the San Fernando Valley, renting a non-descript apartment where he covers the windows with foil so he can sleep the Mars night, work the hours of a Mars day. His neighbors probably think he’s wasted on drugs, another white boy running through his trust fund in the Valley. After one gave him a suspicious look when they met putting out the trash, he briefly took to wearing a pocket protector and NASA windbreaker to announce his engineer status but it didn’t seem to help. Now, he realizes, they probably think I’m running a meth lab and have checked their homeowners’ insurance for protection from explosions. I should move.

The murmur of voices in the outer room rouses him and he snaps back to caffeinated alertness. I should do a lot of things, he thinks. I should figure out what the hell I’m going to say.

He reviews the mission. Day One, the rover dusted itself off, tested the solar panels on its back, and began noodling its way across the Martian landscape. Small and determined, under a winter sky. Not the reddish dust storm they expected, but a blue sky empty of clouds, a bright cold day in the galaxy. Something so entirely new that dozens of people in the control room fall silent and watch. The pictures, printed in Scientific American, are anti-climactic. Impossible to convey visually what we thought we knew, what we know now.

“This mission is ground-breaking, is it not, Dr. Delaney?” one reporter asks, feeding him the line.

“Very. Um, exciting,” he babbled.

“The entire country seems excited as well,” the guy said, and Mick didn’t know what to say to that.

Days Two and Three, the rover busts its way out of a small sand pit, arrives at and samples a number of different rocks. “The information we are receiving indicates that these rocks were swept down from the Highlands in some sort of flood, perhaps billions of years ago,” he told the press conference.  Having learned his lesson, he had read from a prepared statement.

“Well, that’s really amazing, Dr. Delaney. Can you explain the significance of that for the benefit of our viewers?”

Floods, he tried to say, meant water—vast quantities of it rushing into the void, carving a canyon 300 times the length of the Grand Canyon. Water meant geologic youth, the beginning of time. And water meant life, life that might have existed in the past. 

The thought of that almost overwhelmed him.

“And where is all that water now, Dr. Delaney?”

“Not known,” he jabbered. “Not known, not known.” The answer to so many things these days. He recovered and segued into safer terrain—the economy of the mission, the new NASA, the public value of possible discoveries.  

And here they were at Day Four: the rover given instructions from Cato to cross a gully of reddish dust, traverse a vast plain of pebbles and debris, and arrive at the curious rock on the far side of the screen. It was told, once it arrives, to extend its spectrometer, clasp the rock, and relay information. It is a simple program: go, reach, connect, and report.  

But something has spooked it.

Mick slips the 3-D glasses back on and steps onto the planet. He walks around the rover, looking in each direction. There are grey spots, things the camera can’t see—but the path in front of the rover seems clear, except for the shadow of a rock. Could the rover take the shadow for the rock itself and refuse to run into it?  

“How can the rover refuse a command, Dr. Delaney?”

“Well, Savannah,” he thinks, rehearsing to himself, “the rover has artificial intelligence of its own. Like a guide dog for the blind, it can refuse to go if it’s given a command that might high-end itself, or which, um, it perceives as injurious.”

He tests that out. Then what they’ll want to know is the solution to the failed connection. It’ll be like the interviews for the Westinghouse Prize, Mick thinks—always a follow-up question to trip you just when you think you’re home free, the best in the show. He wants to know the solution too but the team outside cannot work faster than humanly possible.  

He chews, uneasy, and nods at the screen. “So we are going to need a name for this rock.” He gestures to their target.

“I’m on it,” Cato says. He breaks away from scrawling an equation, pushes his 3-D glasses up, and peers into the landscape. He is widely acknowledged as mission specialist in this area, having watched more cartoons as a child than anyone else in the Lab. They have persisted with cartoon names despite criticism from an inordinately crabby BBC interviewer who accused them of “infantilizing” the planet.  

“Like they think the public will be interested in numerical coordinates?” Cato said. The public holds the purse strings, determines whether or not they launch. The public must not only be informed; the public must be engaged and amused. Any time now, the glitch will be solved, new commands will be ready, the planets will literally line up, and the rover will start to move, up the side of the gully and onto the rocky plains toward the rocky target.

“Hm, possibilities,” Cato says. “We could use Boris or Mr. Magoo. Or Tweety Bird.”

None of these seem to fit the target rock which, unlike the others they’ve sampled, looks light and spherical, with a crusty surface. Like papier mache hiding a balloon. It looks as though the slightest breeze might set it bounding across the dusty red beach into a primeval Martian sea. 

Cato takes a closer look. “Spaceghost? Or Caspar? Although the ghost angle might not be best for a rock. A ghost is amorphous.” He gestures with his hands, trying to shape the indeterminate. “This rock is more definitive. And it has a shadow too.”

“True.” Mick fiddles with his pen. He finds the shadow familiar. It looks ridiculously like Julie’s profile, the way he’d always seen it: from behind, at an angle—one aisle over, one desk up. Her face was all rounded planes, it sloped away as she turned her head, and the shape was echoed by the precise angle of her knee where her leg met her extensive collection of knee socks. He had spent a lot of time contemplating both. She had a tiny scar where she’d cut her knee on a canning jar lid at the school fair, in a booth where you paid to fish for jar lids with a magnet on a string. Certain lids were worth certain prizes and when she snagged a particularly big one, she jerked it out of the water, swung it around, and slashed herself on the knee. He could still remember the way she looked at him, her eyes wide, as if she’d survived this amazing feat—a direct hit, a clean slice, and the bright red blood. The thrill of discovery indeed, he thought.

Cato is humming to himself, making a list on the pad. “You’ve got Johnny Quest,” he mumbles, “which is more like a name for the rover itself. You’ve got Road Runner or Coyote, although the rock isn’t speedy, so that’s out…which pretty much leaves you with Underdog and Boo-Boo.”

“I doubt,” Mick says, “that Mission Control wants the word ‘Boo-Boo’ used in relation to this project.”

“Agreed,” Cato helps himself to a third donut. “So it’s Underdog, is it? That’s pretty apt for this mission: ‘There’s no need to fear; Underdog is here!'”

“Maybe,” Mick pushes his 3-D glasses up and walks out into the landscape.  

He’d been out in a tent on his backyard lawn the night Julie Findlay last came over. He was just lying in the tent, training the flashlight on one spot in the corner, flicking it on, flicking it off. He had with him a Hardy Boys mystery and the telescope, both new. His mother had bought them. He was listening to nothing, to what was perhaps leaves in the grass, when Julie had shown up. He never knew how she’d learned that his father had left and his mother had bought him a telescope. “Can you show me Draco?” she said, and he had.  

And then somehow he was going on to junior high, and high school, they were always a year apart by then, always one orbit off, and by the time Julie arrived, they had different circles of friends and she was seeing a guy who not only started on the water polo team, but who was president of the Chess Club. Mick’s own chess skills had always been surprisingly marginal for a future engineer.

He grabs a slice of cold pizza. “Weren’t there ever any female cartoon characters?” 

“Sure,” Cato gives him a sideways glance. “Let me think.”

Mick remembers dating a girl who had skipped two grades and was always reading Hesse, then the small parade through his life of fellow engineering students. There’d been one lively geographer, with whom he’d been certain, for an entire year, that he was in love, and then there was Annika, who also worked at the Lab. Their relationship had been exactly like the Mars project itself—cobbled together of available parts, with modest hopes of outcome, expressly designed with room for each to maneuver. 

“We’re sort of together for the interim, aren’t we?” she once said, and he hadn’t disagreed.  She’d moved on to MIT six months ago by mutual agreement.

“What’s with you?” Cato asks.

“Nothing,” Mick says.

Since this mission started some 18 months ago, he has sometimes found himself dead tired, slumped on his rental couch, staring at a frozen dinner, pushing things around in their separate compartments and feeling moments of time conflate, actually move together as though there haven’t been years in between. He’s had a lot of these moments lately, weird blips in the surface of time.

He’d be running an errand at the Lab, from one nameless building to another, and find himself looking for his hall pass, as though a security guard will ask him to produce it. He’d be pulling into the parking lot for a night shift, the last bits of sun sifting through the trees, and find himself flashing to the way light flickered past the windows of a school bus, past Julie Findlay’s hair. Or he’d be sitting in a late-night conference and feel he is back in chemistry class and all the equations are balancing out, he is seeing their equivalence for the very first time. 

He has twice dreamed about Phobos, the small potato-like moon that orbits Mars, and in his dream, he was telling Katie Couric about using it to launch spacecraft, to keep cargo out of dust storms. For temporary storage of nuclear waste. At the very least for parking. He kept raising and lowering a set of cargo bay doors, saying, “You don’t want to leave your rover out in the solar wind.” 

He had not told Annika any of this before her departure; she was an extremely practical woman who had left him a spice rack because, she said, spices and oils didn’t travel well.

He tries to focus on his interview. Translating Mars for millions of viewers, he has found, requires wardrobe, and his has been made over after the “Talking to the Press” seminar at the Lab. Out with t-shirts, jeans and Tevas, in with khakis, a new tie, a blue shirt. Rolling the cuffs shows you’re casual, but busy working. Putting your hands in khaki pockets is good—it’s approachable and it keeps you from holding a pen, which can make you look like a schoolteacher instructing the audience. He has made a note: look directly into the camera and pretend you can see them.  

Trying to figure out what to say is the harder part. What you actually did say, what you wanted to say were two different things. No jargon, no technical terms. Try to remember what you said before graduate school, before you knew what you know. It was like driving the rover—slow, tentative, sometimes completely stuck. All the while what flowed through your head was like talking to Julie, took very little planning. He’d suffer through interviews all day long and then head down the arroyo towards home, the lights of L.A. spread out before him, and the words in his head would begin to come effortlessly, like falling through space, no atmosphere to slow him, like touching down in a new world where everything was understood.

“Well, there’s not much to work with on the woman-front,” Cato is saying. “Here’s what I can come up with: Betty and Veronica, both dumb. And Natasha, but she was an evil character.”

“Dudley Do-right had a girlfriend,” Mick says. “I specifically remember that. She was always tied to a train track.”

“Ah, that would be Nell,” says Cato. “‘We’ll save you, Miss Nell!'”

“And didn’t Underdog have a girlfriend?”

“That’s a harder one.” Cato scratches at the paper. He draws some ellipses and starts to rock in his chair. “That’s a harder one.” 

Mick tips up his 3-D glasses and re-enters the landscape. On the night he graduated, the school set up chairs on the football field under the lights, and the stands were packed with parents and siblings, screaming and cheering as the assistant principal intoned student names into the mike. He’d seen Julie. He had not really talked to her in several years except to smile and wave, and now he saw her sitting with the band, her expression—when they made eye contact—difficult to read. 

Students were striding across risers to the podium and as he crossed, Mick looked down again at the band below the stage to see Julie slumped to one side of her chair, sobbing over her clarinet, while her standmate soldiered on through “Pomp and Circumstance,” and the band director pumped his arms through the air as if to say, “Pay no attention to the sobbing girl behind the curtain.”  

And Mick was stricken with something inarticulable, the sensation of things disappearing into black holes where everything went dark. He entered a blur of motion, a black-gowned sea that bled across the fields in the waning light and poured into the gym where everyone was dispersing, and all he could think of was dropping whatever was in his hands and beginning to run back towards the stadium.  

In the darkest part of the field, he found her, stumbling towards him, still crying; he had caught her and kissed her, the clarinet case crushed between them, he had kissed her as though, through sheer weight, they could resist the gravitational pull of whipping past each others’ lives in different directions. They stood on the field for what seemed like hours until they heard the sounds of other people in the dark, and it seemed extremely important, for reasons he now knew to be thoroughly ridiculous, for them not to be found. And he had let her go, had handed her her clarinet. It was the last time he had ever seen her. 

He stares at the rock on the screen, frozen in the dusty pink Martian light. In 3-D he can walk over and touch it. “Penelope,” he says to Cato. “Underdog’s girlfriend was named Penelope.”

Cato stops rocking and looks over. “I don’t think that’s right,” he scratches his chin, “but it has a ring. Let’s go with that.”

“Let’s,” Mick says, sitting back.  

He does not want to say: on one or two occasions, after Annika left, he has looked for her, for Julie Findlay. There were 734 “Julie” or initial ‘J’ Findlays listed in the internet White Pages, though none in the San Fernando Valley. He no longer knew anyone from high school and didn’t know who she might have married, where she might have gone. He did not find a likely candidate on LinkedIn or Facebook. He imagined himself calling Davenport, Iowa, or Dallas, waking someone in the night to ask whether a woman with an old and extensive knee sock collection and a knowledge of jet fuel lived there. He hadn’t done it.

He checks his watch and concentrates on his notes. For the first time, he wonders who watches the Today Show, exactly. “Crucial end notes?” he says to Cato.

Cato quits fiddling with his recalcitrant Walkman, spins the cartooned legal pad back to Mick, and smiles. Last month a reporter from Buzzfeed asked him about the possibility of terraforming Mars—melting its polar ice caps, filling the air with CFCs to alter its atmosphere, manipulating it on a global scale into habitability. Technically feasible, the reporter said, and isn’t that exciting?

“Like we’re doing so well with the small blue planet we have?” Cato had wise-cracked.  He had bounced himself as an official mission spokesperson after that. 

“Start with what you absolutely have to say,” Cato leans back in his chair.

Mick nods. “Shit happens—but we’re back on track.” 

“And then add what you want to say.”

“Something,” Mick says. “Something. . .”  

He remembers his first science textbook, when nothing was certain, only artists’ renditions of what they guessed was to come. Mars, a wasted planet, they were told, angry and rusting. And yet, he thinks, from Phobos, you see not the Caledonian face, the canals and monuments of ancient civilizations, but back to the beginning of worlds—the runoff and outflow channels, primeval valleys, the escarpments of cratered plateaus, studded with fractures, washed with lava tides. The highest volcanoes in the solar system, their edges fading into the rubble of the white-gold Chryse plains. An early world, he wants to say, one that glows orange-red, rust-pink, depending on the season, where dust storms obliterate bedrock, where snow can fall in the quiet of a still-empty planet or clear to show the stars. Julie Findlay, he wants to say, you should be here. The surface of Mars is so much more beautiful than we had ever supposed.

JC Ross
Noyo Review Pieces

JC Ross is an award-winning author of stories published in The Dalhousie Review, Antietam Review, The Brownstone Review, and Alabama Literary Review, as well as in an anthology with Vanderbilt University Press. Her work has been awarded both Best Novel and Best Mystery at the Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference. She is also a journalist who has worked for a major metro daily and The Associated Press, and published in outlets such as Architectural Record, Environment Writer, and Cycle California. With a PhD in Philosophy and MA in English, she has taught at universities such as UC Santa Cruz, the University of Southern California, and the American University in Bulgaria. She currently lives in Blagoevgrad, beside the Bistritsa River.