Journey's End by Stuart Atkinson

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Through hushed halls they stalked - it seemed, for hours -
before reaching the place crudely
circled on his map. Padding past cases crammed
with Ratted, rust-hued stones; bone
-pale blades of evaporite; trays of slate-blue berries
by the score; a brain-sized metal meteorite
“Recovered”, said the sign, “from the edge of Endurance itself!”
until, at last, the Old One stood before his Grail.

“Is that it?” sighed the young martian,
face pressed against the glass,
staring past her own reflection
at the machine inside the case.
“It’s so small, it sounded bigger
in your stories, grandpa; you
made me think it was taller
than Tars Tarkas on his thoat!”

The old man simply smiled, and in
the silence of the darkened MER Museum
knelt down beside the sad-eyed girl
and told her: “Look again.
Spirit they christened her, and spirit
she had - more than many men I’ve known;
more than any gathering of gears and wire
had any right to have.”

The girl looked closer, shielding
her Sun-starved eyes from the spotlights’
glare, wondering how the rover’s
bird-frail, brittle body had not just survived
but thrived in Barsoom’s brutal cold;
if even half the Old One’s bedside tales were true
this rambler of rust and dust was more heroic
than Her Chieftain could ever dream to be…

Perhaps it had scaled mountains after all;
driven through dust devils’ dervish dances
to gaze down upon Great Gusev’s plain
and see Old Earth set with the Sun.
Maybe this fragile thing of rock-worn wheels
and dust-scratched glass had climbed boldly
onto Homeplate’s old, humped back and
rested there, reflecting Phobos’ frosty light..?

“I remember,” croaked the Old One, “how
we sat at our computers, click-a-clicking
through the night, watching picture after picture
come to life upon our screens;
We walked with her, every bone-dry weary mile;
when she went lame, dragging her leaden wheel behind
we would have picked her off the salt-choked ground
and carried her if we could - ”

But the girl could not hear; lured away
By more interesting, more glittery things in
Other rooms she’d skipped on, leaving
him alone to gaze through the glass with Nav- and
Pan-cam memories clutching at his heart;
how he’d cheered on Landing Day, clapped
as someone screamed “She’s bouncing!”;
wept when he read the long-dreaded “She’s dead”…

You should not be seen here caged so cruelly,
thought the Old One, frail fingers
brushing ‘gainst her glass imprisoning walls;
She should have seen you as I imagined you:
staring at the sunset, stood tall
beneath titanic titian skies;
dust skipping o’er and filling the tracks
of your wheels, the wind whispering your name -

“Oh come quick!” sang a sudden voice, high
and Sun-bright from a gallery off to one side.
“It’s the Beagle, you know, the one that got lost!”
The Old One groaned, stood up and sighed
Forgive her, she’s young, one day she’ll understand
what you meant to those watching on Earth.
Then, blinking back tears, walked away from his lost love.

© Stuart Atkinson 2006