Her feet crunch into the red crust.
She hops tentatively, testing the feel of one-third gravity. Then a second hop,
higher and more playful. Nice. Looking back she sees her spacecraft resting in a
shallow depression. Squat and small, it looks like a toy. A shadow of anxiety crosses
her mind. With all the tradeoffs, cuts to NASA, the needs of national security,
it was this or nothing: a single person sent to Mars to bring back samples. A robotic
clone of her spacecraft stands ready for launch, but she knows the odds of a successful
rescue are long. She’s a hundred times farther from Earth than anyone in history.
Yet there is nowhere else she would
rather be. The geologist gets to work. Her trained eye scans the alluvial plain
and settles on one particular outcropping. She moves towards it in an awkward loping
motion. It’s difficult to judge distances through the thin atmosphere laced with
dust, where ochre rocks shade into an apricot sky. An hour later she is there, with
only the sound of her breathing for company. Along one slope of the outcropping,
a raised seam, split like a wound, exposing the layers below. Perfect.
She assembles the core sampler.
Soon its tiny drills are biting down into rock and minutes later she has extracted
four vertical feet of the Martian regolith, its layers neatly arranged. The geologist
attaches a miniature PCR assayer to the far end of the core. It dissolves samples
of the rock in its reaction chamber. The green light goes on. There is DNA there,
or something like it. Soon the display will light up with the colored patterns of
a nucleotide sequence. She watches intently.
So intently that she almost doesn’t
notice the pale, granular crystals higher in the sample, from a more recent layer.
They are literally seething with life.