‘Five minutes to go. You’re still OK, Harper?’ said a man through the intercom.
Her voice was too dry to reply, so she gave a thumbs up at the camera on the wall and closed her eyes once more, trying hard to focus on the historical moment ahead. Suddenly, memories of her childhood flowed into her. Why now? At such an important moment in her life? She didn’t know.
A scene took shape in her mind: it was a warm summer day, and she was walking with her father amidst the green hills of the English southwest. Large rugged boulders - sarsen stones as they were known - littered the undulating landscape as if they had been dropped from the sky. Climbing such oversized stones had always filled her with great satisfaction, if only to watch the proud look on her father’s face whenever she reached their tops.
And now, he was gone.
More childhood memories with her father emerged: together, they investigated crop circles etched in golden fields of wheat, they played hide and seek behind haystacks, they lay in the endless green fields and observed white clouds billowing far above. Moments of pure happiness that had been etched forever in her soul.
But that had been ten months ago already. And now, he was gone.
Her vision was blurring as she felt a heaviness in the chest. It was clear to her that he had needed her in the last stages of his life, just as she had needed him in the first stages of hers. And to think that he died alone, in an emergency room worlds away.
Why did she leave him? That question was now consuming all her thoughts.
She clenched her jaw. I can’t do this, she said to herself. I just can’t. I have to abort.
Another childhood memory made its appearance, clearer and more intense than the others. She was outside on a blisteringly cold winter’s day; the chilly wind stung her cheeks. She saw herself walking hand in hand with her father on the Ridgeway, the ancient trackway spanning the south of England as well as the millenniums.
‘Imagine.’ Her father had said. ‘Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people have used this track since the dawn of time.’
‘So many? What were they doing?’ she had asked.
‘Hunting, foraging, scouting.’
‘Scouting?' she had frowned.
‘A brave person had to make the first step on this track a long, long time ago; to open the path for others to follow.’
‘Who was this person?’ She had replied.
‘We will never know. But, one thing is for sure.’
‘The person was an explorer, Harper.’
‘I want to be an explorer too!’
‘You will, Harper. One day, you will go out there and make me proud!’ he had said, squeezing her hand tight through the gloves.
‘One minute. Harper, we need a go or no-go.’
Startled by the disruption, she opened her eyes and took in a deep breath.
‘I am-’ She cleared her throat. ‘Go! I am good to go!’
‘Acknowledged, Harper. Decompression of the airlock complete. The hatch door is now unlocked. Everything is nominal. Thirty-five seconds to go.’
She pushed her chest upwards and looked at the body metrics displayed in her helmet. Her name was listed above: Harper Stark.
‘I am an explorer,’ the words came out of her mouth, to her surprise.
‘What? Can you repeat?’ the man on the intercom said.
‘No, no. Disregard,’ she quickly replied.
‘Acknowledged. Alright, Harper. You’re good to go. Godspeed.’
She moved towards the hatch door and opened it. A red-coloured plain stretched before her eyes, tall volcanoes pierced the horizon. She took a few seconds to enjoy the view, then stepped out of the airlock and placed a foot on the dusty Martian surface.
The first person to do so.