New Columbia

Martian colonies are always on the prowl for new veins they can tap and sell to Earth. It’s what keeps our economy going. That was where I come in. I am a prospector. I search out the ores they want and bring back proof. In exchange I get a tiny fraction of the earnings of the strike. A lot of people try to get into this line of work. If you hit a rich vein you can be set for life. Most of those that try though end up starving and give it up after a few years. A few are killed. Mars can be a very unforgiving place. One or two hit the jackpot and retire. Most of those of us in the field are like me. We get by. We don’t get rich but we get enough to eat, for equipment repairs, and new leads. The work is not for everyone.You have to have a quick mind, have an intuitive feel for when things are getting too hairy and you need to back away. Most importantly, you must like to work alone for months on end. Fortunately all three describe me so I’m in the perfect line of work.

Oh I probably should introduce myself. They call me Mbiki. My parents came to Mars from Earth to escape the plagues and petty wars as part of the Second Great Migration. I was born here, went to school here. I graduated from Tharsis University with a degree in Mining Engineering and I’ve been prospecting for about 5 years now. Oh, that’s 5 Mars Years, roughly 10 Earth Years.

I had wanted to explore the area northeast of Arsia Mons for a while. It looked interesting and with evidence of old volcanics I thought their might be some good veins in the area. There was also something I wanted to check out. You see, back at the beginning of the 20th century they’d photographed what they called a black hole. It was this circular pit just like a million other small craters on Mars. The thing was, that it had no bottom. Even at local noon it just was this empty black pit. The speculation was that it was an opening into either a huge lava tube or a karst cave. This was just one of the many thousands of odd things they photographed from orbit that were mostly forgotten. They had so much trouble getting the first colonies established that even now nobody had yet explored the area, let alone gone down into whatever was below. I’d run across the picture in college and I figured that at least it would give me a window into the deeper crust and if it was a lava tube I might find some good hydrothermal veins down there.

I arrived at the edge of the hole around noon. My crawler had pinged the subsurface so I knew it wasn’t a thin crust that would collapse under me. I went into the back store room in the cab and got out my HoverPack. I’d paid a bunch for it, everything I got from my first big strike, but it had paid for itself many times over. At heart it was the descendant of the old hydrogen peroxide jetpacks they came up with way back in the 20th century. However it was much better in a couple of ways. With new technology and hyper-gyroscopes it’s vastly more stable and easy to fly than the crude early versions, and the flight time is about an hour rather than the two minutes of the original. I regularly used it to cruise up sheer cliffs looking for rich beds. Beats the hell out of rappelling down like some ancient extreme athlete or trying to prospect with binoculars.

Once I was suited up and the HoverPack was strapped to my back I climbed out of the crawler and walked to the edge of the pit. Even standing this close it was like a hole filled with ink. I tossed a rock in and watched it for several seconds before it faded away in the darkness. Of course with the thin air I wouldn’t hear it land so I just hit the power switch on the HoverPack and smoothly rose into the air. I transitioned over to the middle of the hole, switched on my headlamp and the landing lights and then started a slow decent into the depths.

At first I saw nothing. The circle of light got smaller above me but to either side not even shapes appeared in my lights. The altimeter said the bottom was a few hundred meters below but at first it wasn’t visible. Slowly I began to pick out shapes and then rocks. Finally I settled on the bottom and turned off the jets. I slipped out of the HoverPack and left it setting where I landed. It wasn’t like anybody was going to make off with it. I looked around and all I could see was dark basalt rock. The ground had a lot of large rocks and boulders, i guess from the collapsed roof. I made my way through them toward the wall about s hundred meters away. Suddenly I stopped in my tracks. Ahead of me on the ground was the absolute last thing I expected to find: A mummy.

The figure was sitting on the ground facing toward the hole, leaning against a boulder. The dry thin martian air had sucked every bit of moisture out of the tissues. The cheeks and lips had shrunk to expose the teeth, shockingly white amongst the beef jerky coloured skin and black rocks. He was dressed in tattered overalls. Leather boots were on his feet and a cowboy hat on top of his head. One thought though kept spinning through my mind, Where the hell was his space suit? I mean you can’t live outside on Mars without a space suit. Early on one of the colonies even used “Shove Them Out An Air Lock” as a form of capitol punishment. It’s a simple rule, go outside naked and you die. So given that, what the hell was this guy doing here dressed like a farmer?

As I walked around the body I found that it was setting on the edge of a gravel path. The edges were marked by two lines of small stones that headed off into the darkness. Also laying next to the body was a pile of cordage, the remains of a rope ladder and a block and tackle. Further away in my headlights I made out the wreckage of steel guarders and cables. This was getting weirder and weirder. Not only was this guy somewhere he could not possibly be, but he was surrounded by ancient technology and it was starting to look to me like he could not have been here alone.

I set off down the trail. It was smooth and well graded. Gravel crunched underfoot as it went up over small hills and swerved to avoid larger boulders. Finally after a couple hundred meters the path ended in a town. At least that’s what I took it for. A cluster of single story structures of carved stone with paths between them. In the middle was a large open space, a courtyard or town square. In the middle of the square was a platform, presumably for a speaker to address a crowd and next to it was an old fashioned well complete with a wooden bucket and windless to raise and lower it. I was stunned. This was just too much. A town where there couldn’t be one, populated by people that cold not possibly survive but obviously did. And from what I’d seen so far, not just any people. People from a point in time before space travel had even been imagined, let alone attempted. It was all too much.

I walked to the largest building. It seemed like the logical place to start. On the door was a sign that read New Columbia Town Hall. Inside I found a classic turn of the century town. Turn of the 20th century that is. Old fashioned gunpowder rifles were in a rack on the wall. In one office was a wooden desk with an actual pencil and pen. In the corner on a pole was a flag. The name on the desk read Mayor. In another room was a couple of jail cells and another desk with steel handcuffs and a revolver on top. A third office was marked Doctor. Inside I found an examination room with a small desk, a table, cabinets containing bottles of herbs and potions, and a set of shelves with everything from scalpels to gauze to glass and chrome syringes on them. For it’s day, this was a well stocked office. I began to feel dizzy and sat down.

My O2 was fine. The suit could keep me breathing for 72 hours so that wan’t it. It was just all so bizarre. It felt like I’d wandered onto a strange movie set. A set that had been used and then abandoned. It couldn’t be real but the desiccated corpse up the path made it clear that it was real. Terribly, tragically, bizarrely real. I had to figure out how this was possible. I’d seem some really strange things in my travels but nothing came even close to this.

I got up. I noticed a small bookcase just to the left of the door. It was full of medical texts. I pulled out a few and looked inside. The paper was brittle and cracked as I opened them. Most were from the late 1800s, the latest was 1905. Then I saw what was on the bottom shelf. There were five volumes marked Journal. I pulled one out and opened it up. Jackpot. It was a record of the town written by a Dr. Clavius Potterfield. I guessed this had been his office. I pulled out the journals and carried them out of the Town Hall up the path, past the mummy and back to where my HoverBelt sat. Once it was strapped on I ascended back into the Mars that I knew. The Mars that I’d grown up with. The dry Mars with dunes and dust where none of what I’d just seen was possible. Within half an hour I was back onboard my crawler. My suit was in the closet, the Journals were on the table. I had a stiff drink my hand and was starting to feel a bit better.

I got something to eat and checked systems and the hyperweb news, more to reassure myself that normalcy did exist. That this freaky TwilightZone world was just an aberration. Then I turned my attention to the journals. They were thick books, the first couple were bound in leather, but the later versions were cloth bound and the last one was just tied together with a couple pieces of sheet metal for covers. Clearly, this was a story of increasing deprivation, and a colony that failed, but I’d kinda’ figured that out already. “Well,” I said to myself, “Might as well start at the beginning.”

September 15, 1908
We have landed. It is the greatest excitement that we disembarked from our vessel. I won’t bore you with the details of how we got to Mars. By the time you read this, the particulars of the mechanism will be well known and in common use. Suffice it to say we were the first of five ships to depart the Earth. We departed on the morning of June 30 and such was the speed and violence of our flight that we arrived on Mars in just two and a half months. The 300 souls arrived safely to begin our new life in New Columbia.

We chose to leave the Earth for the same reason that the Puritans left England. We are the Sandemanians, an ancient group of Christians out of Scotland. The Anglicans and Catholics never understood us so we as a congregation decided to leave. We closed our branches in America and elsewhere in 1890 and consolidated our efforts in England. After much research we chose a site in northern Siberia near the Tunguska River to build our camp for assembling the ships and launching them into the ether. It was isolated and we could build what we needed there without interference from anyone. Even the Tsar wouldn’t know about what we were doing. It took two years, but finally the ships were done and ready for launch, with over a week to spare before the date when the celestial spheres were in perfect alignment. We loaded our supplies and equipment, then the 300 of us chosen to be in the first ship took our places in the vessel and the remainder of the congregation evenly distributed among the other four. All were fuelled and made ready. At the appointed hour the touch paper was lit and we were off to be followed at one minute intervals by the other ships.

The shock of the launch was more severe than we expected, and rendered all of us senseless. I awoke an hour after our departure to find a few others floating about the ship checking on the rest. Most took much longer to recover, the next day in many cases and there were two that remained in a stupor for a week or more. Finally though, all had recovered and we journeyed through the ether between the planets without vibration or even any sense of speed. Of the trip there is not much to say. This was not like a sailing ship that required steering. No, its path was determined by our velocity and the gravity of the sun and the planets. We whiled away our time playing games, we had laid in a supply of cards, chess, checkers, and such all with magnets affixed to keep the pieces from floating away. We sang and talked, and the women knitted and sewed. A few of the men even tried smoking cigars but with nowhere to go the smoke quickly became an annoyance and the experiment was not tried again. There would be plenty of time to smoke once we were on our new home.

Then finally our day of arrival came. We took our places again and soon we felt the ship start to contact the top of the martian atmosphere. A combination of parachutes and extendable legs with springs brought us safely, albeit with a bump or two to the surface of Mars. We arose and disembarked, all had come through our landing in far better shape than we had our departure,. We had arrived in our promised land.

September 30, 1908
We cannot for the life of us understand why the other ships did not arrive. We had scheduled our departures so that we should have landed in the same area of the planet. Yet we have seen no sign of the arrival of the remaining ships. They were all fuelled and ready to go on the launch platform. They just needed to ignite the powerful engines at the appointed time. It is a great mystery to us why we have seen no sign of them.

Fortunately as we had most of the equipment in addition to the supplies for our own needs we have had no trouble setting up our town. New Columbia is the name we have given it. Initially we tried to build on the surface. The continual wind made that quite uncomfortable. Then a week after our arrival one of the scouting parties found an immense cavern a mile away. It is entered through a perfectly circular hole, but below it opens up into a very large space, several hundred yards wide and miles long. We have started to construct our town out of the native black stone near to where a natural spring comes out of the rock. It is some distance from the opening but not so far as to make the walk bothersome.

We have erected an elevator on the edge of the hole using metal beams from the ship and ropes from our supplies. There was some concern voiced that by dismantling the ship we would not be able to return to Earth. These were dismissed by the combined decision of the leaders and the enthusiastic concurrence of the people. We were New Columbians now and we had no interest in returning to our former homes.

I flipped some pages ahead.

January 1, 1909
We have been ever so busy the last few months. We have the core of the town built. Within a few weeks the last of the colonists living in tents will have proper roofs over their heads. I have my medical clinic set up and see a stream of patients each day. So far their have been few serious cases. Mostly cuts, and other minor injuries, a couple broken bones and one of the women is with child. It looks like all signs are for our little colony to grow and prosper.

Mars itself is much as Lowell and Schiaparelli predicted. The air is thin and dry but breathable. Much like the high plains of Mongolia or Arizona where the natives live with no problem. The temperatures are cold but nothing a good leather jacket, hat, and gloves cannot handle. The native plants are very useful. We harvest them in large quantities. They are used for food directly, the women have come up with an amazing variety of ways to prepare them. We also feed them to our livestock and they seem to be thriving. We have milk and eggs, though they are in short supply as of yet. As our herd and flocks grow we will even be able to return to enjoying meat once again, though that likely won’t be for at least a year and then only occasionally. I believe that within five years or so our diet will return to what we were accustomed to on Earth.

You may be wondering how we can live underground. Isn’t it dark and damp? Well, dear reader once again the native plants come to the rescue. We found one that was very rich in oil and so initially our labours were lit by small lamps. Once we got more established we extracted a boiler and generator from the remains of the ship. That has provided electricity that by the wonderful invention of Mr. Edison keeps our town illuminated as if it were noon in a piazza in Rome. Feeding the boiler to provide steam for the generator does require a great deal of vegetation but we brought several steam powered horseless carriages with us. They pull large wagons behind them making the collection of fuel a simple matter. Three men keep the furnaces fed and our little town lit. As an added benefit we had the foresight to run a copper coil through the furnace. In the town square there are two taps, one dispensing cold water from the spring, and a second producing boiling hot water suitable for tea or coffee, or, when mixed with the former, bathing. New Columbia is becoming a veritable spa.

Perhaps I should describe the vegetation that has been such a godsend to our community. They grow in large areas from patches a few hundred feet across to vast prairies that reach over the horizon. The basic form can best be described as a thornless cactus. A simple pleated cylinder rising out of the ground about two feet tall. It has no stems or leaves but the surface is green to provide for photosynthesis. They grow so densely packed that it is difficult to force ones way through them. Though superficially similar in appearance, we have found several varieties within this martian prairie. One is a simple starchy form suitable for animal fodder. Both cattle as well as the chickens seem to thrive on this. The second is the oil rich version, it is softer and slightly more purplish than the first one. The last is a thinner form that tastes like squash when mature and the tenderest veil when young. This and the first variety which reminds me of turnips, form the bulk of our diet. Harvest could not be simpler as well. Two men with a scythe and a couple of pitchforks can fill a wagon in a quarter hour with no difficulty. And because the edge of the nearest field is only a few hundred yards away from the entrance to our underground shelter it is a simple matter to gather enough for animal fodder, food for us, and to feed the furnaces in just four or five trips over a couple of hours. This leaves the rest of the day free for other activities.

I put the first book down and selected the second. Opening it to the middle I started to read.

April 12, 1910
We’ve abandoned the experiment of leaving the cattle on the surface to graze. The vegetation is getting to be a fair distance from the hole and they are spending so much exertion in getting to the feeding grounds that they actually lose weight rather than fattening up. It seems to be better to keep them in corrals underground near the town and bring them fodder. Not that this is by any means easy. The trip to and from where we are harvesting is getting longer and longer. I’ve seen no evidence of the plants regrowing in the areas we’ve already harvested. Now that the trips take so long we need a team of 10 pulling five wagons making one trip a day to bring in enough vegetation to feed the generator, the livestock, and us. Fortunately we’ve had several times this many births in the last year. These young citizens are the first true generation of Martians. Mr. Wells wrote of horrible monsters living on Mars and attacking the Earth. Oh how he would be delighted to know that the real Martians were smiling children with pink cheeks and bright eyes that laugh at the red dust blowing through the wheels of the wagons.

One sad thing has come to light. Mr. Harper an engineer was looking at the remains of our ship. Near the back he found a piece of metal embedded in the hull. Upon examination it appears to be a fragment of the hull of one of the other ships. He is theorizing that out launch was of such violence that it triggered an explosion in the other ships. As terrible as that is to contemplate it would explain why the other four never followed. We gathered in the square for a memorial. The Leader said that our brethren were in a better place now and that God must have had a reason to take them from us. I found some comfort in those words, though from some mumbling I heard not all of the others, especially those with friends on the other ships, are in agreement. One especially, went so far as to say out loud that it was not Gods doing, rather the blame should be on the Head Engineer. He was then reminded that the Head Engineer and family had been on the third ship he went pale, left the square, and returned to his apartment.

June 3, 1910
I have been examining the structure of the vegetation we’ve been harvesting. I see no evidence of seeds or spoors. They may be rhizomes that send up several different types of shoots from a rootstock underground. I’ve instructed our collectors to stop digging up the woody roots of the plants and only harvest the part above ground. I hope this allows the plants to re-sprout in harvested areas. The trip to and from the harvested area is getting to be quite long. Interestingly though we’ve passed through a Martian Spring and saw a good deal of regrowth in other areas, the space where we harvested has remained dead. This is very disturbing.

I flipped toward the back of the book

October 31, 1910
Huzzah! We have used the last of the material from the ship. That along with a good strong cloth we made from native plants has allowed us to build an airship based on the ideas of Count Zeppelin. Though we have no hydrogen to provide buoyancy, we have been able to burn the native vegetation to lift it with the principles of a hot air balloon. One of the smaller steam engines driving two propellors are able to push it at a good speed. We can now reconnoiter long distances easily, and if we are careful to stay over vegetated areas, we can pick up more fuel at any time. The only drawback is that because the Martian air is so thin we cannot fly very far above the surface. A few thousand feet is absolute maximum. Even then the pilot returns with a severe headache, bleeding from the nose, and all the other symptoms of hypoxia reported by high altitude mountaineers. It is clear that unlike our Earth, the atmosphere on Mars does not extend very far above the surface. Using this airship we’ve been able to supplement the increasingly arduous treks overland to harvest native plant life with aerial resupply. However due to the difficulty we have limited the number of lights allowed in the town to reduce the amount going to feed the generator.

I stopped reading and sat back in my chair. This was a town in trouble and they were not seeing it. I moved on to the third volume and began to read.

July 9, 1911
There is grumbling in the ranks.
We are all worried but the leadership keeps telling us to persevere, that God is testing us but we must have faith. There are those that wonder if we need to try something more drastic. Some have even spoken openly about moving New Columbia to somewhere that still has vegetation. We have sent several expeditions out in the zeppelin but they have returned without finding a cavern like the one we have here. I wonder if, like the story of Noah and the ark, if we keep sending out searchers they will eventually return with good news. The Leader though has told us that this is God’s way of letting us know that we are in our place in this new world.

I flipped later in the book.

November 13, 1911
Open revolt has broken out. The Leader was on the town hall steps telling us once again how we needed to persevere when a rock was thrown. It struck him in the temple and he crumpled to the ground. I rushed to his side but he was already breathing his last. While I was doing this the populace had started to argue among itself. Soon fists were thrown and worse. One side thought we should stay and the other thought we should go. Some thought we should stop having children to make the resources we had last longer, others wanted to have more children so we could have more workers. Some wanted an American style democracy, others wanted to keep following the church elders. Soon even petty grudges were acted upon and settled with violence. Fists, and stones, and whatever tools came to hand were used. I ended up working through the night treating the harm that man can inflict on his fellow man when madness rules. The final tally was 150 with varying degrees of woulds and 12 killed outright including our leader. I had a teacher that was a doctor in the American Civil War. His stories of the wounded flowing into his tent in Gettysburg and Vicksburg were the stuff of nightmares. In some ways this is worse however. These wounds were made by people the victims had known for years. We have all struggled through hardship and overcome everything the planet has thrown at us. Now to be felled by each others hand is horrible beyond comprehension. I am exhausted. I am off to bed. Maybe things will seem brighter in the new day.

November 14, 1911
They’re gone. About a third of the people in the town have left in the night. They took a number of the horseless carriages and wagons and left. We know not where they have gone but I fear for them. They are out on the surface without shelter or livestock, or even tools. It is some hours to the nearest verdant plains and they will undoubtedly want to not stop at the edge. They may have acted rashly and violently but the Christian in me still thinks of them as our brothers and sisters. I fear for them.

I sat back and stared out the window. It was not the first time nor will it be the last when people turn on each other in times of hardship. I sighed. Unfortunately that is one of the eternal truths of mankind. I picked up the fourth volume.

May 20, 1912
I have confirmed it. My worst fears have come to pass. I have now watched the native plants for nearly two full martian years now and it is clear that what we harvest does not grow back in the spring. Other regions do green up but once they have been harvested, they’re gone. Worse yet, though it was hard to confirm at first, I have discovered that the healthy plants near where we have harvested sicken and die even if we take no further actions in that area. I believe that my rhizome theory is correct but with a turn that is unique to the Martian forms. Where rhizomes on Earth are, once they get established, fully self sufficient plants, the Martian ones are quite different. Apparently they are all one plant, the different species I identified were actually just different leaves or fruits on the same giant underground tree. Just as the whole is harmed when you pick a branch off of a tree, the whole plant, encompassing much of the surface of Mars is injured when we harvested the vegetation. We have to find a way to collect what we need without killing the plant, or we shall starve.

We’ve had several deaths in the last several weeks. The victims all were pale and bluish and died while working. Several others have complained that they were short of breath much of the time as well but so far this just seems to be among those that smoked. I’m not sure what it means but I too have noticed less energy than usual. Maybe it’s the dust. There seems to be more dust in the air in recent weeks.

I flipped to the last page

October 12, 1912
We’ve sent the Zeppelin out to search for those that left us last year. We expect it to be gone several weeks as the rebels left swearing that they would go to the opposite side of the planet. We have not seen or heard from them in eleven months and even though they were rebellious and resorted to violence they are our brethren and to forgive is the Christian thing to do. I prey every night for their safe return. Not only to see them welcomed back into the fold, but because we could use the help. In the last three months we’ve lost a large number of our companions to this malaise. When the ship landed we numbered some 300. Births increased that number, if not the actual working hands to 350 by last year. Then came the schism when about a hundred left like the Israelites from Pharaoh’s Egypt leaving us with about 215. Then the recent deaths from the miasma and now New Columbia has a population of only 147. This has put a severe strain on our little town. Plus the creeping fatigue has hit the rest of us making our daily tasks much harder. Add to that the extra effort to bury those that have died and life has become a walking nightmare. Every man who can and even as many of the women that can be spared from caring for the children are out making the long journey to gather martian plants or processing them for food, fodder, and fuel. Then we all take turns each day spending several hours burying those that have passed on deep within the dark recesses of the cavern about a mile downstream from the town. We rise early, and then collapse back in bed far later than is healthy only to awaken after an abbreviated slumber and do it again the next day. We worked hard when we first landed but this is a much greater toil. What oh what has brought this upon us? Why have we been dealt such a setback. I’ve been looking for the cause, as of right now I suspect some naturally occurring Martian germ that has afflicted us. Our only hope is that either I will find a source, such as Dr. Snow did with Cholera and the municipal water pump. Failing that maybe we will finally develop a natural resistance to the infection. Whatever the cause it would be a godsend if the rebels returned and could lend us their strong backs.

I closed the fourth volume, got up and made myself some lunch. I felt a sudden pang of guilt. Here I was in a comfortable crawler, eating good food. What I considered hard labour would be a day off by the standards of Dr. Potterfield. What I’d seen down in the tunnel, the stone houses, the buildings, all of this was made by hand by men with hammers and knives, and chisels. The question remained: How the hell did they live on Mars when the air is far far too thin and there’s no free oxygen? I sat back down and opened the last volume.

January 3, 1913
Oh calamity! Oh the horrors!
The sole survivor of the zeppelin expedition has returned. What they found is far worse than we could have imagined.
He said that after departing New Columbia they flew due west for some fifteen days. At first they traveled over the barren lands we had harvested. Then they crossed over a thousand miles of green vegetation. This looked to be very lush and they had no trouble landing every few days to lay in fuel for the steam engine. After that they came upon a black region. When they landed to investigate the cause there was no question. Everything spoke of a terrible fire. Much as the huge horrific fires in the American prairie that chase the inhabitants into any nearby river or lake only then to boil them alive such is the heat of the conflagration, this was a huge fire that consumed all in its path for untold mile after mile. The expedition laid in a quantity of the natural charcoal to feed their propellors and continued westward. At the far end of their journey they discovered the cause of the fire, and the fate of our companions. All became clear when they landed to examine the scene.

It was the site of a terrible end of the caravan. The horseless carriages and wagons had made it this far when the lead one had crashed and flipped over. It was difficult to tell but it may have broken an axil, though this may have been the result of rather than the cause of the crash. The steam engine was smashed and the contents of the firebox dumped out on the ground. It being fall the plants were dry, with stores of oil to feed themselves over the winter. In an instant the vegetation caught fire. The flames must have moved astonishingly quickly and been intensely hot. The fire consumed most of the carriages and wagons leaving only the boiler and firebox, metal bolts and straps that had tied wooden planking together, and the remains of our companions. Even the wooden wheels and hard rubber tires had been completely consumed. Our brethren were found burned to cinders, some in the act of fleeing, most though still in the wagons where they had ridden. The fire then moved outward and downwind to cover an area nearly 2000 miles across. We have no idea how far to the north or south the burned area may extend but it was clearly a vast desolation.

It was with crushing sadness that we received the news of the horrible sacrifice of our brethren. All I cold think was what a horrible way to die, burned to death, beyond any hope of rescue or help, unforgiven and unrepentant, on another planet, in a stolen wagon, all alone. However, there was more bad news to follow from the zeppelin expedition. After leaving our dead companions they continued on to the west for another few hundred miles until they reached the edge of the unburned area. There they landed and resupplied themselves with fuel, food, and water. The prevailing wind at this time of year would have made it hard for them to return to New Columbia by the direct route. They decided to continue downwind and complete the circumnavigation of the planet. This would also give them a better idea of the lands we could expect to see in a few years when the town began to grow again and we spread out to colonize other areas. They departed the next day and made good progress, about 300 miles each day.

When they landed the first day after leaving our dead companions they noticed that the plants were not healthy. Everywhere was browning with drooping trunks. At first they had assumed that this was due to their proximity to the fire. However as they travelled the discovered that this was a widespread sickness. Even those not trained in botany, or that had not grown up on a farm, could tell that the plants were not doing well. Even larger areas were clearly dead, with grey naked stems sticking out of the ground. At one such spot they stopped and dug to get at the roots. As expected they were dry and brittle. These plants would not re-sprout in the spring. And it was not in isolated spots either. Large areas were dead and the rest sick. Something was very wrong.

They were about three quarters of the way around Mars when they noticed that the zeppelin was not flying well either. It could not lift as much fuel as when they set out so they had to stop more often. It also was not able to fly as high as before so they were obliged to detour around mountains and ridges rather than flying over them. Though this was very inconvenient, the crew might have been obliged to do this anyway. It was about then that they were struck by the same infection that those of us in the village had. They found breathing difficult and were fatigued much of the time. These symptoms were made much worse when they attempted to fly the zeppelin very far above the ground. Finally when one attempt was made to crest a smallish ridge of only a few hundred meters one of the crew, Mr. Oldham fell over dead. Though he had a weak heart, it was agreed that from then on that every effort would be made to stay at as low an altitude as possible.

Over then next several days two more of the crew dropped dead and a great fear engulfed the remaining three crew members. They were in a terrible spot. If they kept flying they would quite possibly die, but they were far too far away to walk home, so they pressed on. In addition the zeppelin became more and more difficult to handle. Where it had been docile and easy to manage at all but the very highest altitudes, now it was sluggish and prone to falling off course even only a few feet above the ground. The remainder of the crew was perplexed to the cause of the ships behaviour. Also they had started to see evidence for large dust storms. With much of the vegetation dead or dying the winds are beginning to pick up the soil and lift it high into the atmosphere. If they were to get caught in such a storm it’s likely all would be lost.

At last with only some fifty miles separating the zeppelin from New Columbia the inevitable happened. They were working their way along a canyon when a crosswind caught the hapless ship. The propellors seemed to bite nothing and the rudders might as well have been mounted on a cloud. Nothing could stop the zeppelin from its destiny. The wind slammed the ship into the side of the canyon. Jagged rocks ripped the gas bag open and, now deprived of lift it tumbled to the canyon floor, a crumpled ball of metal and fabric. One man, Mr. McDougall, jumped clear before the boiler exploded and all was consumed by the flames. Nothing recognizable or salvageable was left so he then finished his circumnavigation of Mars on foot. He was found, emaciated, dehydrated, and almost delirious by one of the wagons going out to collect plants. They brought him to me. I did my best to tend to his wounds but after another three days he died of pneumonia and the miasma. However, before he went on to his reward I attempted to get as much of the story of his ill fated expedition recorded here as I could. His fever and fatigue made this more difficult but I hope that I have gotten enough to make the sacrifices of him, the rest of the crew, and the zeppelin worth it.

February 9, 1913
We number only about 90 souls now. Most of the children have succumbed, their small frail bodies not being able to withstand the fatigue or malnutrition. We have stopped running the generator completely. The plants that we can bring in are needed for food. In the worst cataclysm, we’ve lost our livestock. They have been hit by the same miasma as the people. First the hens stopped laying eggs. Then we started finding them dead. Chickens, cows, and pigs, just dead where they sat or stood. In a cruel irony this seemed to temporarily help the rest of us. For the first time since leaving the Earth we had a good portion of meat in our diets and we seemed to perk up and gain strength. However we knew this is only a temporary succour. After the last of the livestock succumbed we were totally dependant on the native plant life for our sustenance.

February 23, 1913
We number only 75 souls now. We don’t even have the energy to bury the last few that died. We’ve just taken to dragging them to the cemetery in the cavern and leaving them on the ground. They do not become the bloated corpses familiar from plague areas. Rather they just dry out. Those that we left on the surface a month ago are now well on the way to becoming mummified like a noble from Egypt. Oh what will happen to the last of us?

March 6, 2013 (I think, I cannot remember if 1913 is a leap year)
It is the air. I find myself panting even when I sit and physical work is excruciating. The flame in my lamp is thin and gives off a feeble light and I have a throbbing headache like mountaineers report at altitude. The air is getting thinner and contains less oxygen. My companions, we now number only 46, are all walking skeletons. I found myself wondering if we would make good mummies as there is already no flesh on our bones. It is all we can do to drag the dead down the tunnel. Mr. Smithson and Mr. Stone tried to climb to the surface but such was the state of disrepair of the elevator that as soon as they put any strain on it the the elevator, the remaining horseless carriage and wagon and a piece of the roof collapsed into the cavern leaving nothing outside on the surface. The two of them were killed and I find myself wondering if their fate was the more merciful. To die instantly, crushed by a ton of steel or to slowly expire of want in this black pit. And yes it is black. We now have no way to return to the surface and are rationing out the oil for our lamps. Not that we need much. We are all sleeping fourteen to sixteen hours a night, though we wake as exhausted as when we lay down. Because we have no fuel left we all just huddle in the great room at night to share body heat. During the day we gather by the crushed remains of the elevator so daylight can reach us through the hole. As we have no way of escaping the cavern we have no vegetation to gather, no livestock or equipment to tend, We just sit by the spring in the little light that filters down. There is little conversation. There is only one subject on everyone’s mind and no one wants to speak it out loud.

March 15, 2013
The ides of March. Oh if only the Bard could have known how cruel the coincidence of that date wold be for us. We number just 19 now. We are out of food and the well has dried up. It is as if the thin air is sucking the moisture out of everything. Our lips are dry and cracked and tongues seem to stick to the inside of our mouths. Worst yet hunger drove one of us, Mrs. … no I don’t think I will mention her name. She was a good women. She was just driven mad by the fate that has befallen us. It is up to God to judge her for her actions and I do not want her memory besmirched by this moment of weakness. We awoke this morning to find her, oh I cannot even write the words without my hands shaking, husband dead and she was eating the flesh off of his arm. Snarling like an animal she snapped at us and growled like a wolf protecting its kill. We finally got her subdued and bound her to a chair. Those of us remaining discussed what we should do while she kept snarling and howling. We all went outside to discuss our options. Our hope was that perhaps the dark and quiet would calm her nerves, however when we returned some 30 minutes later we found that she had expired. There was no dissent as we carried her tiny corpse and lay it next to her husband among her compatriots. It was an unspoken agreement that what she had done, to violate that most basic commandment; thou shalt not eat thy brethren, was not her fault. Madness precludes guilt. I just hope that I may be allowed to keep my sanity until the end. Her passing also marks another dreadful milepost. She was the last of the fair gender among us. Now only men remain so even if we somehow are saved from this cruel fate, New Columbia is doomed.

March 20, 1913
There are only two of us left. Myself and a Welshman named Craddock. He is holding up well, possibly better than I. Prior to this I did not know him well, just a passing acquaintance, but he is a solid fellow and if anyone could figure a way to save himself, and me as well, it would be him. He spent the last few days, that is outside of helping me drag the last of our companions to the cemetery, trying to figure out a way to get a rope to the surface. At first he tried throwing a strand of the lightest rope with a hammer tied to the end. That fell far short. Then he tried using a bit of fabric filled with hot air as a balloon to lift a rope ladder up to the edge. That failed as the fire was not hot enough and he had little fuel to feed it. Now he is trying to find a way to climb out though I fail to see how this would be possible as the roof is horizontal for some distance from the wall to the edge of the hole. I have a feeling that this will not end well.

March 25, 1913
Mr. Craddock is dead. Though we both felt the strength sapped from our limbs by the fatigue, he wanted to try once more ‘for king and country’ to ‘escape this damned pit’. I watched him from the ground while he climbed the wall and then to the roof. He started out onto the overhanging part when his hand slipped. To his credit he did not scream as he fell. Just a mighty bellow of “Look Out Below” and then he hit with a thump. He was a credit to his Welsh miner countrymen. I pulled myself to my feet and, taking his lifeless body by one hand drug it toward the cemetery. I only made it a hundred yards before I gave up. The dreadful fatigue had sapped all my strength. The air was so poor now that I had great difficulty in keeping a candle lit at all. I just drug him as far as I could then pushed him off of the path. I returned to the hole and spent a sleepless night wrapped in a blanket.

April 1, 1913
My last entry. It is as if there is no air. I inhale but the vital oxygen is lacking. The air is much thinner too, I do not feel it flowing through my mouth and nose. It is like being on the highest mountain only far worse. I know not what has caused this terrible change but I cannot help but wonder if it is us. Did we upset some delicate balance? Was our presence what tipped this planet toward this dry, lifeless, airless state? Were the plants we harvested keeping Mars from becoming a lifeless orb like the moon? There is a dust storm passing over the hole right now. I cannot remember seeing such a storm in the five years we have lived here. All are dead now. All is lost now. May god have mercy on our souls. I am going to leave this volume in the bookcase in my office and then go back to the hole to await the end. Maybe I will see sunlight one last time.

The rest of the book was blank.

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