Across Meridiani by Stuart Atkinson
(For the Mars rover "Opportunity")
I woke - cold and cramped
After half a year of silent, foetal sleep
To feel grit sting my startled face.
Unfolding, unfurling my silicon wings,
A bright metal butterfly, newborn on the New World
I ached to see the Sun -
Yet of that blessed Sun: no sign.
Instead I stared, aghast, at a rearing wall
Of ochre dust and ruddy rock.
Surrounding me, confining me.
Imprisoned in an Eagle's nest I watched
The exiled sky and cried.
That sky, shrunk to a porthole,
Brightened, darkened, brightened again for
Endless day after endless day.
No summer or sunset, merely shades
Of purple, pink and plum that waxed
And waned then waxed pale again.
But in my sunken prison - wonders:
Layer upon lapping layer of ancient, crumbling stone
Stared back at me from The Walls; berries by the billion
Glinted around me, here gathered in a hollow, there hissing
And rolling towards me in a torrent as I turned
My unblinking eyes towards the sky and saw - the stars!
An eternity passed, or so I thought,
Before I left that place; my tortured soul
For myriad tormented sols screamed to be
Set free, to leave El Capitan behind and climb
Up to touch the shining sky again!
To feel the sun- and star- and Earthlight on my face...
At last, at last - the Overworld!
In all directions: the horizon, an alien world revealed
In all its ochre, dune-decorated glory!
Above me a sky magnificent and monstrous loomed,
Dwarfing all; a cloak of shimmering light
Embroidered with sequin stars throughout Mars' frigid night...
Laughing, away from my imprisoning eyrie fled I!
Commanded by The Makers to trek
O'er the dusty dune sea of old Meridiani
To Endurance, my first Abyss.
A soft-hued sapphire lantern shining in the sunset glow,
Earth guided me, comforted me
As sol after sol I slogged between the rippled banks
Of dirt until, one sunrise, a jagged edge drew near.
Looking down - more dunes, far, far below
Time-sculpted waves of tan and tawny fines;
To one side: cliffs of crumbling, slumbering stone
On all others, grim mineral gargoyles leered mischievously...
Then, In, a plunge into the Abyss, the New world
Tilting round as I tiptoed down the rocky ramp
That led into Endurance's dusty cellar
To roam, for a hundred sols or more, past spires
Of stone already old when Earth was young;
Past Wopmay, some ancient martian monster's
Fossilised, discarded brain, to stand
Beside the wind-whipped dunes and watch them
Glint like diamond dust as the sky frothed with stars above.
And yet, e'en surrounded by such wonders still
I yearned for the freedom of the open sky
And the eternal Earth to steer me Homewards by...
At last I climbed, so slow, so slow until finally my
Beloved sky returned; my wheels kissed solid, steady rock
Once more and I left my first Abyss behind,
Fleeing south into the even wider, even deeper dusty sea
That stood between me and The Makers' grail:
Sols blurred together now; Time's very ticking stalled
As I pushed on into the sea, its waves turning and twisting
Around and across my path so wickedly
I screamed and cursed their birth,
Whilst above me the Sun shone peacefully, endlessly,
Watching my journey unfold - watching coldly as,
For a tortured time I was entrapped.
My wheels, entombed in dust like flies in seeping, sucking amber
Froze and I could move no more than I could fly.
Imprisoned again, this time in a cruel Purgatory I
Could only watch the season shift around me,
As becalmed as a ship on a silent, sullen sea.
Then free, and surging south again,
Savouring, relishing once more the feel
Of the dust beneath my wheels hissing and swishing away!
Before me now, the final challenge,
A window into this poor world's pummelled past:
Victoria. My third - my last - Abyss.
The Makers hearts beat fast at the thought of it,
Imagining, dreaming of the images I will take
From its vertiginous, ancient edge.
But will I have the strength to see such wonders?
None will say. All know, as do I,
I should not be here today; each sunset could be my last.
I know I may die here, alone Between Places,
Victoria's heart never seen.
No monument for me on the crater's sharp edge,
Nor statue bearing my name; just my carcass
Picked-clean by Meridiani's vulture winds,
A rusted scrap-pile at the end of meandering tracks.
But am I frightened? Afraid? No. My heart is at peace;
My life should have been over by now.
Many things I have seen were not meant to be seen -
Not by me, not this time, anyhow.
Nor am I lonely; I am never alone
As I stride to Victoria's edge;
A million souls walk with me,
Their names etched onto my unbeating heart
Telling me stories to make Time fly faster,
They tell me of things I can never have seen;
Sharing with me their memories of their lush, living world,
Lets me picture how Mars might have been.
Her volcanoes rising from sun-dappled oceans,
Cotton wool clouds at their peaks;
Mighty Marineris - Sol System's Grand Canyon -
A slender lake bordered by green
All sheltering beneath a towering sky
As blue as a kingfisher's wing...
I ache that I came here 3 billion years late
To see such beautiful things.
But that past is a mirage, a melancholy memory,
The future is what I must face.
Ahead of me - Victoria, two bumps on the skyline,
Distant sirens singing my name.
Had robots gods I would pray to mine now:
Let me reach her before I die!
Let me stand on the edge of my final abyss,
Gaze down at the dunes far below;
Let me read from those pages of ancient Mars' history,
Sheaves of Time-wearied, star-hardened stone
And show The Makers the secrets They yearn for -
Let me find what They sent me to seek.
Let me answer Their questions, solve Their mysteries -
Let The Makers be proud of me...
But don't send me to die there, down in the dust
Exiled from the sun and the stars.
I have travelled so far, done all They have asked,
When my wheels turn their last, and my dusty eyes dim,
Let me take my last breath standing tall
With the distant horizon calling to me -
Not another imprisoning wall.
(c) S Atkinson 2006