Opportunity

 

She’s the Indiana Jones of Mars.

The brave one, the bold one, the one

That knows no fear. She landed on Mars

With a jazz hands “Ta DAAH!!!”

Like a movie star at a film premier

Posing for the paparazzi, tossing back her hair

In the flashbulbs’ glare.

Then off she sped on her whirlwind tour of landmarks,

Hopscotching between fascinating places,

Her eagle eyes spotting meteorites here, there

And everywhere; driving into craters with

All the glee of Lara Croft dropping through a long-lost temple’s roof,

Eager to see the treasures hidden inside.

When Spirit died there was no time for mourning.

Each new steel-blue dawn was a gift and she grabbed it,

Racing across the Great Meridiani dust sea

To climb triumphantly up onto Cape York’s stony beach

On the edge of Endeavour, the crater

The “experts” said she’d never reach.

 

And there she is today, more than a marathon away

From El Capitan’s parchment-thin layers,

And the martian bunny the Net’s tin foil hat-wearing nutters

Spotted hiding beneath her cocoa powder-stained airbags.

14 long years after landing (in YOUR face Mark Whatney!)

She’s still going strong. Winds whistling up Perseverance Valley

Have swept the dust from her back leaving her showroom clean

And keener than ever to explore. When she grows bored

Of Endeavour’s clay-rich charms, the towering cliffs of Iazu

Await to the south, just one more impossible drive away…

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2018

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Spirit

 

Spirit landed first, leading her twin

By 21 days, and straight from Sol 1 she was

The more troublesome of the two.

The Problem Child, the Drama Queen,

The Tortured Teen who left her parents

Shaking their heads and pulling out their hair

As her memory failed; her computer tripped and fell;

Her RAT’s diamond teeth wore down to stumps

And her spectrometer’s eyesight dimmed,

But she roved on, driving across Mars to a soundtrack

Of Nirvana and Eminem, crossing the desert

And climbing hills until, after exploring Home Plate,

She fell into one of Mars’ fiendish traps

And died there, long before her time was through,

With so much more to see and do.

Before we truly knew her.

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2018

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Sojourner

 

Before Curiosity landed in the shadow of Aeolis Mons,

Lowered to the ground by the “Are you INSANE???” Skycrane;

Before Opportunity rolled across Meridiani

To drop into Eagle Crater in that “cosmic hole in one”;

Before Spirit bounced and boinged across Gusev’s dusty floor,

Scaring us all half to death before finally phoning home,

There was Sojourner.

Ah, Sojourner. Some of us knew you before that spud-munching

Castaway dug you up (in totally the wrong place)

Then brought you back to life like Young Frankstein.

You were the queen of the first Internet Age,

When AOL was Emperor of Cyberspace

And living rooms and dens all around the world

Echoed to the chirps and cheeps of dial-up connections,

And “Stop buffering!” screams…

No HD live streaming in those days;

No Flat Earth YouTube channels to subscribe to;

No data-flogging Facebook full of photographs

Of cats and “Look what I had for breakfast!”;

No basement-dwelling Twitter trolls fat-shaming film stars

Or 4am Trump rants threatening nuclear war.

Most heard you’d landed the old fashioned way,

“on The News”, and only a few of us could get online

To see the images you returned.

Back then, “having the Internet” was like owning a TV

After World War II. I was still years away

From my first toe-dip into that pixelated sea.

A kind friend of mine printed off your images for me

And pushed them through my door.

And those pictures… so much more perfect than they had a right to be

With that time’s tech.

I remember gasping at the sight of snub-nosed Yogi, encrusted with dust;

Barnacle Bill, pitted and pocked; Scooby Doo and Bamm Bamm

Almost close enough to touch.

And you, looking like an unwanted toy discarded on a quarry floor,

Dwarfed by Half Dome and Shark and all the other tombstone boulders

Swept down Ares Valles by ancient, angry floods…

But you didn’t care! You just rolled around them,

Or clambered over them if you could, as curious and carefree

As a cat, your spiky little wheels pointing this way and that…

 

Your descendants will stay on Mars forever,

Too big to send home, but I hope they find a way

To bring you back to Earth one day,

Then everyone will see that you were so much more

Than Matt Damon’s robot dog.

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2018

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Vikings

 

A thousand years after Norse hordes first invaded England,

Swords flashing, bashing down church doors

And setting villages aflame, a second Viking invasion took place

On a world 200 million miles away.

No armada this time; no lines of longboats

Bringing hairy, helmeted warriors to rape, pillage and slaughter

Infants in their beds. Instead, a pair of snow-white robots

Fell like stones from the salmon pink sky,

Slowed at first by parachutes before firing rockets

To break their fall and land with a grand entrance WHUMPF.

They took only photographs; their treasure, priceless measurements

Of wind speed, temperature and dust;

Their battle cries the whirring and whining of motors and gears

As their arms scooped up dirt to test for signs of life.

They gave humanity its first view of the surface

Of Barsoom: a landscape covered with millions of rocks and stones

Encrusted with cinnamon-hued fines; boulders, like Big Joe,

Half-buried beneath drifts of wind-blown dust the colour of powdered rust;

The Sun reduced to a blurred bronze coin,

Dropping through a twilight as purple as a bruise.

 

These Vikings came not to snuff out life

But to hunt for it, tasting the bitter grit with the tips

Of their electronic tongues; feeding the dust a Terran chef’s

Special broth to see if anything with an appetite slurped it down;

Raking up the ground to see if any Sun-shy bugs

Or germs lurked beneath the hoarfrost-painted crust…

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2018

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How Mariner 9 Murdered Mars

 

Mariner 4 stuck the knife in first.

Racing past Mars in 64 its box brownie camera

Saw no traces of Lowell’s canals. Instead,

The 634kb of data it sent back to Earth

Showed only craters and barren rock,

So the Arizonan’s doomed Barsoom was replaced

With a Moon-like wasteland of a world.

“But maybe,” the true believers insisted, “the probe

Only saw the worst neighbourhoods? Perhaps,

Around the other side, there are signs of life?”

 

Two years later Mariner 9 murdered Mars, or at least

The old Mars, the Mars we so desperately wanted to be

Our neighbour. 9 arrived to find Mars cloaked with choking dust,

Its surface hidden from view (it looked like Titan long before

We even knew what that enigmatic moon looked like).

Slowly, slowly, the rolling storm lost its rage

And the blizzard of swirling fines settled, like rust red snowflakes

Fluttering from the sky. High above, 9 peered down

As the ground finally came into view…

Back on Earth buzz-cut professors leaned towards

Their flickering computer screens nodding

As a huge crater emerged from the clouds.

“Just like Mariner 4,” they thought, “no surprises there…”

But then their jaws began to drop as that crater was revealed

To be the caldera of a volcano, mightiest on all the Nine Worlds:

Olympus Mons, rising up out of a sea of cloud

Like a whale coming up for air.

Another shock followed – a vast chasm appeared out of the haze.

Valles Marineris, the Solar System’s Grand Canyon,

Long enough to span the stormy Atlantic;

An axe wound hewn from the very crust of the planet.

Days passed, and frame after frame after frame

Reached JPL, each one hammering another nail

Into the coffin of a living Mars.

No canals, none anywhere, no oases either;

No cities, no martians begging “Water, please!”

Mars was… Mars.

Magnificent Mars; desolate Mars;

Mars of empty rivers and the ghosts of oceans;

Mars of dust devil haunted deserts;

Mars of whispering winds wailing through canyons

Bathed in the light of two strange, bone-white moons.

An epic world deserving of its name.

And any Space Age Dorothy whisked away from Kansas

Would walk across it in ruby EVA boots with Toto at her side

And whisper “Volcanoes, canyons and craters, oh my…!”

 

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2018

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The Martian Chronicles

Everyone remembers the first time they read it,

How helpless they felt as they watched Captain Wilder

Chasing Spender through the crumbling city ruins;

How they laughed heartlessly at the image of Genevieve

In her wedding dress, stuffing her sticky face with chocolate;

How their heart sank as they watched Earth die in Mars’ purple twilight…

 

“Dark they were, and golden-eyed”… That single line

Got inside my head like an eel larva from Ceti Alpha 5,

Burrowed into my brain and I was never the same.

Burroughs’ John Carter had taken me to a Narnian Mars,

With flashing swords, sultry princesses and monsters

All teeth and claw, but the Chronicles gave me more:

Rockets landing in reverse, a generation before Musk was even born;

A genuinely alien alien firing furious bees from a gun;

Impossibly-beautiful ships racing over Mars’ cinnamon sands…

Every time I hold it in my hands I’m on Mars.

On Mars.

On Mars.

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2018

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War Of The Worlds

 

It all made perfect sense at the time.

If Mars – farther from the Sun and therefore colder and more barren than Earth –

Had life (and Lowell’s elegant maps criss-crossed by canals

Suggested strongly that it did) then it was only common sense

To believe its people would envy us our sopping-wet world,

And plot and scheme to take it from us.

If roles were reversed, if it was us gazing longingly through telescopes

At a lush, living planet while our own died a lingering death

Wouldn’t we have built mighty war machines

And cannons to hurl them across the gulf of space

To invade our less-deserving neighbour?

If our oceans had dried; if our rivers and streams had been reduced

To troughs of dusty rocks, surely we would have drawn up plans

To save our children from dying on the frozen sands

And stop our species from being erased?

No wonder Wells’ epic tale struck such a chord.

After all, we had done it ourselves before,

Sweeping across Africa like a plague,

Filling the blood- and shit-stained holds of ships

With rows of shackled slaves dragged sobbing

From their families and homes;

Didn’t we “settle” the New World with flashing swords

And booming guns, running the ‘savages’ out of their lands

Without any hint of mercy or pang of guilt?

Hadn’t we rolled across Australia like a tidal wave,

In a tsunami of cold, cruel civilisation?

Why wouldn’t martians do the same?

Why shouldn’t they?

Don’t they say “All’s fair in love and war”?

And isn’t every war a War between Worlds?

 

© Stuart Atkinson 2018

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