At Bradbury Landing

31 08 2012


In years to come, pilgrims from every

Crowded corner of Sol’s system will journey

To this pale and dusty place.

From the rain-soaked fields of Earth

And Titan’s poisonous frozen plains;

From Europa’s cross-hatched canyons,

Mercury’s melting mountains

And Luna’s ash-grey mare they’ll come,

Their hands and faces stained

With the dirt of a dozen different worlds,

To stand at “Bradbury Landing”.

Here, where a rover – a century before

It was displayed in the Great Museum Of Mars –

Turned its mighty oil drum wheels for the first time,

Leaving behind tracks in the fines

That the wind swiftly blew away,

They’ll stand in silence, listening to the hissing

Of their helmet-heated air, staring in disbelief

At the summit of Mt Sharp, drenched in molten gold

Aeolian Glow by the rays of the setting Sun,

And whisper “Thank you” to the man

Who took Mankind to Mars.

At first, a simple ceremony:

Standing on the paprika and cinnamon sands,

As Martian tradition demands

Each will hold in his or her shaking hands

A copy of a book, The Book, His book,

Each one a gift from one of Terra’s sister worlds.

Not to lay on the ground in tribute,

Not to offer as space age Gold, Frankincense or Myrhh,

But to exchange with fellow travellers,

Each handover continuing the journey Bradbury began

When he first sat down and started to write his

Beloved Chronicles.

In the following years, the Landing will no

Doubt grow busier, attracting more and more

Skin-suited history and sci-fi junkies from far and wide,

Each standing there, wide-eyed, in front

Of the upturned goldfish bowl dome

That protects the rover’s chevron tracks.

Not the originals, of course – those will be long gone –

But faithful reproductions, lovingly sculpted

Out of the rocks and dirt and stone

By Mars Heritage volunteers desperate to honour both

Man and machine, recreating

The path of that first historic drive,

That martian Kitty Hawk first flight

When Curiosity began to rove and the New World

Opened up before us.

Later still, when snow-globe oases of green

And blue are starting to bloom on Mars,

Bradbury’s followers will climb Aeolis Mons

To stand on its star-scratching summit to see

The Book brought vividly to life.

Some will take the easy route: Walk 1,

The one that follows Curiosity’s own path

Towards and then across the moat of dunes,

Up to and through the foothills, twin moons

Shining down on them as they wend their way

Between the crumbling, rock-tumbling mesas

And buttes before heading up to where

The fork-dragged-through-mashed-potato

“Light Toned Unit” finally surrenders a view

Of the Real Peak. Others will seek

A bolder route. Walk 2; an ankle-twisting trek

Up older canyons, clambering over striped ochre outcrops

Until finally the peak rears up ahead.

Then all will slog their way up to the top,

To stand on the summit of Mt Sharp and gaze

Down at Gale, stretched out before them like

A pioneer’s quilt wonderland of ancient, epic stone.

And standing there they’ll see the most moving scenes

Of The Book brought vividly to life.

Plugged into MarsNet’s virtual reality

They’ll gaze up into the butterscotch sky and find

It full of Fifties-styled sleek-ringed rockets,

Silver locusts dropping to the ground for miles

And miles around, each one bringing another crowd

Of settlers from the next world in.

Over there – an American mid-West town,

Perfect in every way, white picket fences shining

Like bones, manicured lawns and parks glowing

Emerald green in the sunlight, impossible, but there –

–         and over there, shivering, cold in the shadow

Of Mt Sharp, the remains of a martian city.

Once elegant, with temples, halls and homes so starkly

Beautiful they made the dark martians weep with pride, its ruins

Would now make them hide their golden eyes behind their hands.

Time has left nothing standing taller than a tree.

The stumps of snow-white pillars jut from the ground

Like broken teeth; the canal that curled its way

Through the city’s jewelled heart, carrying cool, clear water

From the pole is bone dry now, an artery clogged with dust –

–         and over there, on the amber-hued plain that laps up against

The crater’s southern wall, a dozen martian sandships in a line,

Cobweb-fine sails billowing in the whispering wind,

Shining a hundred shades of sapphire, silver and gold

As they flow across the sands like wine,

Before vanishing like ghosts…

Back on the gritty floor of Gale,

One more thing to see, one last thing

For a Pilgrim to do before they can return home

To their outback hab or pressurised dome.

Out there, halfway between the crater’s

Arrakeen Shield Wall and the rock falls

At the once Bayer-camouflaged base of the Promised Land –

A narrow strip of shouldn’t-be-there blue,

A slashed sapphire wound in the rust-hued landscape

That, once glimpsed, pulls you relentlessly towards it

Like a siren; an event horizon of beauty

From which there can be no escape…

Bounding to it brings a reality-lurching surprise.

Suddenly you’re standing on the side of a canal,

An honest to God martian canal

Cut out of the ground, filled, impossibly,

With water, that slops and slaps sleepily against the sides.

A simple, hand-written sign stands beside it

Bearing the words: “Look in to see a martian…”

And as you do, leaning carefully over the edge,

You already know what you will see –

Your own reflection staring back at you.

© Stuart Atkinson 2012

Preparing To Drive

21 08 2012


Standing statue-still,

Her martian monster truck wheels yet to turn,

Her onboard oven yet to burn

Even a single gram of grit or dirt,

Curiosity considers her fate.


While Flashy NASA websites insist

The nuclear-powered geologist,

Was sent to Mars to hunt for signs

Of long-dead primitive martian life

She knows the truth:

She is a robot gladiator,

Taken from the brilliant sunlight

Of a Pasadenan summer

And transported to Barsoom;

A metal, glass and wire John Carter,

Abducted from a world of achingly-blue skies

And rain-fattened clouds to fall

Through alien-hued heavens painted

Not fifty but a thousand shades of orange and gold

Before dropping to the stone-strewn ground

On the end of a tether after those now-famous

“7 Minutes of Terror” to begin

A new life in exile on a world so far

From her Californian home it can only be seem

As a star, on the rare nights the smog will allow.


Her battlefield – the place where she is now fated

To live and die – is Gale, a crater that dwarfs

Any visited before. No swaying palm trees here;

No beaches of soft, warm sand.

This land is cold, colder than a comet’s heart,

And all but a ghostly whisper of its once-thick

Atmosphere has been sucked away by Time,

Leaving behind a desert drenched in dust,

Rust- and ochre rocks a’scattered everywhere,

From wheel shadow to horizon,

Where the crater’s jagged rim wrap around it

Like the Coliseum’s curving walls.


Unlike her sister, still roving half a world away,

She will not explore this bone dry wilderness,

Her goal is to survive it long enough

To discover something – beyond incredible.

Curiosity is more Katniss than Captain Cook;

Gale is her Arena, and each Sol Mars will send

A new Tribute to test her:

Dust storms will try to blind and weaken her;

Software faults will seek to stop her in her tracks.

Every dawn could be her last. And with no silvery

Chutes delivering aid from home she will be totally alone

As she roams the crater floor,

Driving where no robot has ever driven before.


But there can be no escape from here;

Tiers of ancient rock surround her on all sides,

So she must drive in towards the crater’s heart,

Through a Barsoomian Badlands of mesas, buttes and scarps

To where a mountain reaches up to scrape the

Butterscotch sky. Yes, a mountain! Not as sharp

As its (unofficial-but-beloved-by-many) name

Suggests, but still, the highest feature yet

To be seen from below by any roaming adventurer

From Earth, the chance to reach out with a robot arm

And touch its gateau layers of stone

Worth the astronomical cost alone –


–         but that is all to come.


Today she stands restless, flexing her muscles,

Waiting, waiting, hating being unable to roll forwards;

A bull crushed behind a rodeo gate,

Horns down, snorting at the stony ground,

Must-see driving destinations all around;

One rock already death ray zapped, millions more

Scattered as far as her sweeping Cylon ChemCam eye can see.

“Release me…” she demands, a trapped wolf growling

In the darkness, “set me free and you will see

What I can do…”


© Stuart Atkinson 2012

The Joy of Camping

21 08 2012




A steady procession of pastry-grey legs

Passes our TARDIS-blue tent.

Men’s fashion leather mules slap-slap on hairy feet

As they stride towards the showers, toiletries bags

Clutched self-consciously under their arms,

Crammed full of shower gels, moisturisers and creams

No self-respecting bloke would ever use.

The travel toothpaste, stubble-studded soap and comb

Are all he’ll need in the slick-floored toilet block,

Exchanging silent nods and sighs with the guy at the next sink

As they wash breakfast’s barbecue smoke from their hands

And face as they start another day.


Outside – the Pot Washing Line: crumpled t-shirted storm troopers

Jealously guard their sinks against all invaders;

Plates, pans and cups stacked Leaning Tower of Pisa high

On this side, cutlery on that, a modern day version of Mousetrap.

One wrong move will bring the whole lot crashing down,

Prompting celebratory Schaudenfraude clapping

From those standing behind waiting for their turn

To scrub their charred bean-coated plates clean again.


In the “Family Field” kids are already screaming

Like banshees, their cries so high pitched that for miles

Around dogs are wincing in pain;

Again and again they shriek, and I don’t get it, I just don’t.

When I was that age if I’d made an unearthly noise like that

I’d have been slapped so hard I’d have been the first

Child in space, I’d have flown so far and so high…

But today they’re left alone, to roam freely around

The tents, people’s homes for these precious few days

Away from offices, factories and Real Life,

Without any warning words from Mum and Dad

Sat in their straining canvas chairs over there,

Without a care in the world.


And scattered everywhere, like black orchids in a flowery field,

Sulky teens, dragged there under protest, torn away

From Playstations, YouTube and their digital world.

Wrenched away from concrete and glass, left stranded on the grass

Like fish gasping on a beach, drowning in “fresh air”,

Pulling out their hair because they can’t get on Facebook

At this godforsaken place, their faces wracked with angst

And pain as they try, again and again, to text

Their city-dwelling friends to tell them how horrendous it is,

How primitive it is. No MTV, just “sightseeing”

And endless visits to The Shop for stuff that they forgot

To bring from home. So they sit alone,

On mossy walls or barbecue tray-blackened tree stumps,

Looking lost, each one a little Neo cut off from the Matrix,

Itching to get back home, run up to their rooms,

Plug themselves back in and resume Real Life…


By lunchtime tribes of shrieking Scousers and bawdy Geordies

Are battling it out for the award for whose voices can be heard

The farthest from their barbecue-centred Base Camps,

Shouting at their bairns and bonnie lasses playing in the woods,

Their dirty-kneed Charlenes and tearaway Tyes

To GET BACK HERE NOW! hard to hear above their

Car stereos and Ibiza Hot cd’s…


Over there, staring out coldly at the world over the tops

Of hot, steaming cups of coffee, the Cyclists are ready

To head out for a day of touring the back roads and byways

Of this place, panniers straining under the weight

Of Pit Noodles, flasks and soon-to-melt Flakes;

Brakes oiled and eager to squeak their way through

The villages and towns scattered around the campsite.

When they return at dusk, thighs burning after their

Great Day Out, they’ll ignore the shouts ringing out

Across the field, retreating into their tents to spend

The evening reading “Morse”, Christie or James,

The wife waiting until her other half is snoring

Before retrieving her hidden copy

Of “50 Shades of Grey”…


And up there, in the tree-shaded Far Corner,

The Pluto of the campsite’s solar system,

Lying half in and half out of his one man bottle green bivvy,

The unshaven SAS wannabe is surveying the scene

With a mixture of contempt and pity, laughing

At the satsuma orange power leads connecting

Tents and mains, shaking his head at the vast array of

Halfords Special offer gas cookers and grills smoking

Behind his distant neighbours’ candy-coloured

Windbreaker walls. “That’s not camping,” he sneers,

Chewing on his beef jerky strip, sipping

His liquorice-thick tea, telling himself he

Could live on just squirrel meat and seeds if he had to,

If the Bomb dropped or the Zombie Apocalypse

Finally dawned – as long as his local

Go Outdoors was spared, of course…


Packing-up time:

Some just throw everything into the car,

Vowing to ‘sort it out later’, but knowing

They never will, that the next time they do this

It will all come spilling out in a tsunami of tent pegs

And carrier bags. Others are more organised,

Laying everything out in rows and lines,

Carefully folding, rolling, with almost military precision.

Another mini Desert Storm expedition comes to an end

With one final slam of the car boot and a final, final

CSI check for any pegs left embedded in the yellow square

They’re leaving behind in the grass, the only sign

Of their passing…


…but amidst all this, the little joys.

Seeing her yawning as she wakes,

Wrapped in a fluffy quilt like an ornament in bubble wrap;

The smell of sausages spitting in the pan; the pit-pat

Of rain on the tent roof in the middle of the night,

Feeling safe and smug inside; those midnight moments

When, suddenly, all is quiet – all the demon-possessed

Children are in bed, their parents too, and it’s just you,

Standing there alone under a star-spattered sky,

Telling yourself “This is why we came,

To get away from the world…”


© Stuart Atkinson 2012