Mars & Back: A Science Fiction Story
13th October 2018

It wasn’t that he missed home. Life on Mars wasn’t much different. In fact, that was the problem. He’d left with the promise of more. As he caught his reflection in the window he was cleaning, it struck him that he was doing the exact same job he’d done back on Earth, and he wondered why he’d come at all.

In part, the colonisation had seemed exciting to him. A call to adventure in a land of opportunity. A chance to be a part of something bigger than himself. A chance to grow. Though if he was being honest with himself (which he wasn’t inclined to be), it wasn’t the adventure that called to him, more the perception of said adventure. If anyone asked what he was up to, he could tell them he’d moved to Mars. It would define him. Though if he was being really honest with himself, he was running away. Not from anything in particular. Just a general pressure. He thought Mars would give him a chance to breathe. A chance to be himself, free from the chains of expectation.

He told people that Earth had become boring. Though in reality he had become boring; stagnant; existing on a plateau while others around him climbed to higher ground before adulthood flooded the planes. Mars offered him a ladder. A stairway to contentment. Of course, he hadn’t realised all of this at the time, but now, with a few million miles for perspective, he saw it more clearly.

The journey itself took just over a month. He got a job cleaning the cabins of elite colonisers as a way to cheapen his fare. As he scrubbed and mopped he dreamt how once they touched down class distinctions would be abstracted — everyone would be equal: pioneers toiling to establish their place in the new world, deserving of the same respect as everyone else. He knew it was naive but it wasn’t until he stepped off the transport that he saw to what extent. The aristocracy were met by pristine rovers chauffeured off to their luxury accommodation and administerial positions while the rest of the Earthers waited for the sub-rail to take them to the city domes. As he waited he noted the faces of his competitors, for that’s what they were now — rivals in the quest for a better life; these exiles, economic refugees, lost souls; all here for the same reason; all seeking the Martian dream.

They weren’t true pioneers, terraforming the rock or founding settlements — those had been established generations before their arrival —  they were just bodies to fill the shiny, corporate fiefdoms which propped up the largely automated mining industry. But it was still an adventure to him. He looked out across the red rock to the distant outline of New Nestlé™ City and wondered what he’d find there.

Once he’d reached his temporary lodgings — a shared dorm on the outskirts of the city — he collapsed on his bunk, sleeping for the best part of a day. Then he set about starting his new life. He felt abnormally driven, fuelled by a mix of nerves and necessity. He needed to find a room and a job to pay his way. He had an advantage over some of the other new arrivals as he’d been raised with the customs common to Mars, and he spoke prime-tongue. He quickly found a modest residence-pod in the heart of the city and a job at a nearby nutrition dispensary. He was relieved to know he could support himself, but it was just a temporary commitment; something to keep him going until he’d truly settled.

He felt good, high on self-reliance. He’d proven to himself he could best a challenge if he set his mind to it. Over the next few months he shaped a simple, pleasant existence for himself. It was his and his alone.

Initially he was too caught up in the thrill of starting a new life to process his surroundings but gradually he took it all in. There was a lot to like about life on Mars. New Nestlé™ was different from the cities back home — functional; calm; a stark contrast to the chaotic clutter of Earth. It was meticulously planned, designed to make life easier and orderly in a way that made him feel safe. Not to mention there was more space, clean, filtered air, and a lot more greenery (go figure). The people were pleasant too. Everyone polite and friendly, always smiling, free from Earth’s malaise. He even earned a little more doing the same job he’d done on Earth. But what he valued most was the anonymity. He could be a new person here. Or not. He could be anyone he wanted. Or no one. There was no one from his old education collective he could bump into; no awkward chit-chat, no telling people what he was “up to”. In a sense his wishes were fulfilled, he was free here.

And so he’d achieved his goal of self sufficiency. He was an island. He’d carved out a living for himself with his own two hands. But… Was that it? As he settled further into his new life his urgent determination dissipated and soon he fell into a safe routine. A routine he knew too well. It was as though he’d scaled the garden wall, only to drop down the other side and find himself in another, very similar garden. Sure, some of the flowers were different, but it had the same neat lawn, the same washing-line running through it, the same exact layout. Maybe the grass was always greener… Or the dirt redder, or whatever. It didn’t help that socials had advanced to the point where you were constantly updated on your friends’ lives, even if you lived on another planet. He couldn’t escape their successes. He could still see everyone excelling while he stood still, albeit in a different place. It was hard to embrace his newfound anonymity when he was perpetually reminded of who he was — and who he wasn’t. He considered turning off his comms chip but he wasn’t ready to leave Earth behind for good. Then who would he be?

As the sheen began to wear off the Martian Dream, he started to see New Nestlé™ in a different light — less magic hour, more office fluorescence. The city’s functionality hindered its potential for spontaneous fun, its pristine design lacked personality, and he’d begun to sense there was nothing behind the people’s smiles — no deeper connection. He soon realised that even his precious anonymity was a double-edged sword, the other side of the blade severing his ties to the world, leaving him isolated. While he had made friendly acquaintances, he had no real supports; no connections to help him move up in the world; no bridges. He was an island; an outsider; he felt he would always be an Earther on Mars.

He recognised the anxieties from back home — baggage he’d unwittingly packed — and felt the general pressure descend anew. But he couldn’t blame his surroundings for his failings again. He had to consider that the problem wasn’t his location in the galaxy, but himself. He couldn’t run from it anymore.

The nerves were waiting for him on the transport, right where he’d left them. It was the same sense of plunging into the unknown, only the excitement he’d felt on emigrating had been replaced by a sense of dread. His head filled with what people would think of his retreat. His defeat. He wondered if he was making a mistake by returning — he’d never have another chance to start again. The doubts circled him like wolves: maybe if he’d tried harder, maybe if he’d stayed longer, maybe if he’d wanted it more. Maybe things were worse than he remembered back on Earth. Maybe the grass always being greener was just something he’d heard so much he’d begun to believe it. Maybe it was just an excuse people used so they could neglect their lawns. But there was no turning back now.

He cleaned cabins again on the journey back, his trip coming full circle. The work kept him busy during the day but at night he was haunted by hypotheticals, the “what ifs” and “if onlys” twisting his insides. Mostly he considered what his future held. He hoped it would be okay.

And then he was “home”; back where he’d started; the grand narrative complete. He wandered the city streets for a while. Everything felt the same, but different — unchanged in all the ways that made Earth, Earth: the thick smell of gasoline; the constant hum of the reactors; the weary masses shuffling by. But there were countless discrepancies too, things that challenged his memory, as if it were a puzzle and the pieces had been rearranged while he wasn’t looking — a new apartment block here, an old restaurant gone, a lone tree still standing — something for him to hold on to.

He observed that while the evolution of humanity’s creations was constant, so was the essence of Earth: eternal, rooted in millennia of hardship. He felt his bonds to the place grow stronger. But still he was lost. He knew he had to begin again, only he couldn’t find the starting line. He assessed his position in the galaxy once more — now that he’d been to Mars and back. The cliché of realising that what he’d been searching for was right in front of him all along didn’t quite apply; he hadn’t found himself . Though maybe he had, and was just a little disappointed with what he’d found — the same person he’d been before, incapable of change. Though maybe he had changed? He didn’t know. He felt the same. Maybe he’d changed so gradually that he hadn’t noticed… He must be different. Somehow. Mustn’t he?  

Amid his confusion one thing was clear. To continue his search for solace he would have to journey deep within. And not in the figurative sense. To get to the root of the matter he’d have to clone himself, shrink himself, then literally travel up his own nose, into his own brain, and find whatever was making him feel this way. Because this is a science fiction story.