One Way Ticket To Mars

I recently entered a short story writing competition and used the planned Mars settlement as a backdrop. It didn't win but maybe News 24 readers might enjoy reading it. I look forward to your critique.


It’s said that truth is stranger than fiction. Well, it seems my life story fits that notion. The most fertile of imaginations couldn’t have sprouted the tale of a life lived like mine yet I’m actually still living it. Fully lucid in my surreal environment that continues to enthrall, I’m penning this summary of my memoirs.

An open invitation spread via a popular social media platform a couple of decades ago. ‘Apply for Your One-Way Ticket to Mars!’ At first I thought it was an elaborate hoax but there was actually an advanced plan to populate our red planet permanently. The idea was to begin with a colony of ten individuals, carefully selected from across the globe, and have their offspring grow the population indefinitely. Fresh recruits could follow if the initial phases were successful. As with most human endeavors, a good business model was behind this venture - the ultimate reality TV show. A satellite orbiting Mars streaming live video footage of all the goings-on from the colony onto billions of multimedia devices would enable voyeuristic earthlings to be entertained and advertisers to sell their wares, twenty four seven. Not a completely original business plan but admittedly a wildly fresh execution of a tried and tested one.

‘One-Way’ meant our old age and death on Mars was always going to be part of the deal. Apparently the high cost of returning us to Earth made the whole plan financially unfeasible. So who in their right mind would apply? Well, people like me did. People with not much to lose but plenty to offer a pioneering colony tasked to survive with extremely limited resources. People driven by their need to be the first. Yes, legacy is what really matters in the end, doesn’t it? One can be healthy and prosperous one’s whole life, but so what? After exhaling one’s last breath, can there be anything of enduring value to stem from one’s own nominal existence? Only the status of one’s offspring and their memory of you, I would confidently argue!

 I was two years old when someone found me wandering alone around the backstreets of Moscow and handed me over to the authorities. I’d been abandoned and was subsequently placed in the care of a state-run children’s home. My childhood was grim and without love, but not knowing who my parents were is what troubled me the most. The majority in the home had experienced at least several brushed encounters with their parents and, therefore, had faces to blame, to hate or to forgive. They belonged to a family even if theirs shamed them. I was a nobody.

My features resemble those of any typical fair Slavic female but my eyes slant more than usual; perhaps a trace of Mongolic? How would I know? I was named after the woman responsible for establishing the children’s home, unimaginatively given to me by someone I do not remember. ‘Yana Zhdanov’. I hated her home; I hated her and the world too. Even so, I’ve never felt sorry for myself. I’ve always been very smart you see. Growing up, I gained my self-respect through academic achievements, eventually earning a place to study genetic engineering at a top Moscow University. In time, I was officially recognised by the Russian Science Institute for developing new strains of wheat and potatoes that could grow in the permafrost of Siberia. This achievement, coupled with my general doggedness as a person, is what compelled the reality TV Company to finally select me from the thousands of aspiring misfit applicants. I was chosen to head up food security and, once placed on the mostly frozen planet, I’d be responsible for developing strains of staple crops to cultivate with only half the levels of Earth’s sunlight for photosynthesis.

Our pioneering group spent four years in training before launch-date. Although the use of specialist equipment designed to assemble and operate our Mars-station formed the bulk of the exercises, preparing to produce offspring was also an integral facet of our mission. The expectation to be fruitful meant finding a mate, naturally. Compelled to choose from the five males available, at a height of six-foot three-inches, one stood quite literally head and shoulders above the rest. After performing a physically intensive mock-assembly of a transparent wall in full spacesuit, Dr. Bongani Dlamini had stripped down to his underwear to cool down. His pectoral muscles resembled chiseled slabs of stone and flawless skin freshly lacquered teak glistening in the midday sun. Prominent columns of abdominal muscles rippled neatly down towards a show of impressive promise. Yes, I found him sexually attractive; however, I was actually more interested in his genetic potential for my progeny. Dr. Dlamini had reportedly passed his medical studies within the top two percentile at some ivy-league American university; thus not just brawn but very much brains too. If he’d sprouted in my tray of human seedlings I would’ve unhesitatingly transplanted him into a generously sized pot and thrown the remainder into the compost maker. It was precisely at that moment that a scheme germinated in my mind. A scheme so bold, so genius in its simplicity, it still makes my stomach flip when I think about it. Hence, feeling strangely awkward, I proposed. In his deep pseudo-American accent he responded with a “Yeah, why not?” accompanied by the flashing of perfect teeth and gums.

Preceded by sustained international media attention, launch-day eventually arrived. Waving our final goodbyes to a sea of cameras and the planet of our births, we took our positions in the spacecraft for the hundredth time, except this time it wasn’t a trial. Since being a spectacle was the salient purpose of our new existence, I was never to escape prying cameras for the rest of my days. This fact bothered me and I nearly quit several times because of it; however, as my own vision of the future unfolded into certainty in my mind’s eye, I became more determined than ever to persevere.

I intently considered each of my fellow voyagers in the final moments before lift-off, leaving me with a permanent memory of them all. Sandra the chemical engineer, Maria the photo-journalist, Hiro the electronics engineer, Gerhard the mechanical engineer, Adele the chemical engineer, Dr. Goldstein the psychologist, John the artisan, Frank the astronomer and Dr. Dlamini, as well as some chickens and goats. ‘You’ll soon be dead!’ I’d thought secretly, humans included.

Our spacecraft landed safely on Mars after a voyage of five months. Next, we located all the materials required to build the station, which had been delivered prior to our arrival, and within a few weeks we’d constructed a comfortable air-tight compound covering five-thousand square metres fit for human habitation. Half the area was allocated for cultivating crops, producing vital oxygen in the process. As fortune would have it, the many tons of rich top-soil brought from Dr. Dlamini’s homeland proved to be as fertile as he was. Somewhere along the voyage I’d fallen pregnant.

Maria and Hiro had swiftly erected cameras everywhere to enable audiences on Earth to witness our every move. The collective achievement was a technical marvel and everything worked out according to the Company’s plans. The birth of my twins was successfully transmitted onto billions of screens around the world securing record-breaking advertising revenues (a welcome bonus, no doubt). Feeling acutely humiliated by the experience, I still managed to follow the producer’s directives like a veteran actress.

Thankfully, the perfect opportunity to execute my carefully harboured strategy arrived only three months later. Everyone had headed out several miles away from the compound to mine ice; a full day’s work. I remained behind to care for my babies. Now left to my own devices, I nonchalantly cut the power to the main computer and waited for a reaction. A voice soon came over the PA system. “Check power to the main computer”. Of course there was a backup to the power. There was a backup to the backup too. Happily there was only one scenario that they couldn’t fully prepare for, though... Sabotage!

My entire body quivered from the sudden release of pent-up anticipation. Ignoring the directive, I moved to the small dark battery room where there were no cameras. The terminals disconnected easily and so, from this point onward all feeds from Mars were permanently severed. Finally free to do as I pleased, I grasped a crow-bar and shattered computers and cameras into tiny pieces; thereby removing any possibility of restoring contact with Earth. A special safe-chamber designed to shelter the colony from serious prolonged threats was my next point of focus. Constructed from a double-layered hardened steel shell with integrated power supply, it was impenetrable once sealed from the inside. Running against time, I briskly stacked our full supply of freeze-dried food into the cramped space, carefully followed by my complete assortment of plants and seedlings. Most chickens’ necks were twisted and carcasses thrown into the compost-maker. Pausing to thoroughly check that I hadn’t left anything behind that could possibly aid the others to survive after sealing ourselves in, I finally collected my sleeping infants, the few remaining chickens and goats and entered the chamber pulling the door firmly shut behind me. After punching a combination into a keypad the lock engaged. I was done.

The first bang on the exterior wall jolted me, as if lightning had struck nearby. My babies instinctively sensed my unease and, in our dimly lit box, they began to wail inconsolably. I could just about make out some of the words being shouted from outside. “What the hell is going on Yana!” and “You better open up or else we’re coming in!” were clearly audible. Ignoring verbal abuse was easy and when the threats switched to begging and pleading, my heart did not soften – except when it came from Dr. Dlamini. Involving him in my plot was always an option but, regrettably, it soon become apparent that he was too weak to be complicit in it. Besides, he’d taken the Hippocratic Oath. I would’ve preferred it if he hadn’t perished with the rest because he was the father to my children and deserved to be part of their lives. So, sitting on a bag of protein-whey for a cushion and a baby nursing off each breast, I wept for the first time since I was a little child.

The banging and shouting persisted and became increasingly desperate until, one day, everything fell silent. It had been ten days and nights since the first day of execution and I was puzzled. Why would it stop? Had they given up? Had they died? A human can survive forty days without food but only ten days without water and I knew they had enough water. Suspecting a trick to lure me out, I decided to stay put. Five days on, my suspicion proved valid because the banging, verbal abuse and pleading returned with more intensity than ever before. It was a total of forty days and forty nights that the banging rained down on our small box until silence finally fell. I was certain this was the end but decided to remain locked inside for a few more days, just to be sure.

Upon exit, I found the emaciated remains of the colony scattered about. Dr. Dlamini was not far outside the station lying in the red dust without a space-helmet. A deliberate move to end his life, evidently. With only a third of Earth’s gravitational force, I effortlessly picked up his corps and carried it to a nearby cave for burial. This is still sacred ground down to this day. As for the rest, they contributed to the most nutrient-rich compost I’ve ever used!

As I sit writing in my favourite chair, I’m gazing at the most beautiful bright blue star in the early night sky. It’s not a star; of course, it’s Earth, the planet I left seventeen years ago for this place I now call home. Still, Mars is more than a home. I’m also its supreme ruler, albeit with a total population of three. The twins are busy finishing their chores and will be coming through for evening lessons shortly. Thanks to my skill and their hard work, our five centimetre tall lichen forest is rapidly spreading over the nutrient-poor Martian dirt outside - a welcome source of fuel and fibres. The odds that the three of us would be left alone after losing contact with Earth was always stacked in our favour. The reality TV Company was heavily capitalised and needed at least five years of uninterrupted broadcasting just to break even. When the screens went blank, they possibly reassured their shareholders that everything was under control for a few weeks until, inevitably, the first nervous sponsor blinked, triggering a mass-exodus of vital financial support. Following the pioneering concept’s spectacular flop, investor confidence towards pursuing a copy-cat venture must’ve been next to zero. The reality is such - there’s no compelling reason for Earth to send more people to this dead, mineral-poor planet. Even so, if Earthlings do turn up for whatever reason, our strategy is to initially embrace our newcomers and show them the sweetest hospitality manageable. Following that, we’ll sedate them and swiftly snuff them out at the first convenient opportunity. Besides, our compost maker could seriously do with the added nutrients.

Ah, my butterscotch-skinned progeny have just entered the chamber. They’re approaching sexual maturity so I’ll arrange their wedding soon. If I’m to maintain my dominion then we need headcount and fast! There’s just no other way to secure it except through organic growth. If done right, my offspring could total at least fifty before I die and the ever expanding tribe will become a formidable force, overpowering any newcomers and remain unvanquished. The name Yana Zhdanov will become legendary on Mars and notorious on Earth for centuries to come.

Some may read my story and label me a psychopath, but that would be a misunderstanding. Isn’t life a gamble after all? Considering the weak hand dealt to me at birth, I argue that I’ve simply done the best that I can with each opportunity that came my way. Progressively, I’ve turned my original hand into a royal flush! Securing the best possible future for ones offspring is the only thing that actually matters in the end. Yet, typically, parents are content to just leave a house and some money as an inheritance. I’ve succeeded in giving mine their own planet... I win!

“Come here Adam. Come over to me Eva.” I’ve just requested that the twins settle down in front of me so that I can unveil my plans for their impending marriage. Perhaps the apple orchard would make the perfect venue?  Actually, come to think of it, my life’s story does resemble a book that I once read? 

Wait! What’s that rumbling noise? It’s getting louder. I can also see lights in the distance. They’re coming this way, damn it!