Three Graves on Mars

Ursula was standing in a pit up to her waist. It was about three feet across and about six feet long. She stuck her trowel in the red sand, and scooped a meager amount onto the pile to her right. On her next attempt, the trowel nearly fell out of her stiff gloved hand when she hit rock. This would be as deep as they got. Not the full 6 feet they deserved, but rock is rock, and Ursula had no way of getting through it.

She was using a small trowel because nobody had anticipated a need for a larger shovel when they were outfitting the expedition. Like for so many other things, the planning was inadequate. A full decade and nobody thought of this one simple thing. Or maybe they did, but they decided there would be time before it would be needed.

Before the mission the four of them had pulled names from a hat to see who would be the first. Paul, then Ursula, then Jenny, then Lee. They had joked that Lee would be the only one without a grave, that they would die in that order as well. They knew that they would be the first people to set foot on another planet, but also that they would be the first to die there.

Except they weren’t. Not for three of them.

Because radiation shielding is expensive. Not the material, the material can be almost anything, but it needs to have mass, and mass is expensive when it’s being accelerated to several times the speed of sound, and then decelerated at the other end.

So they shielded the entire capsule only enough to protect from normal levels of solar radiation. The background radiation. Still deadly over those time scales, but easily manageable. If there was a solar flare though, they would need to hide in their cabins until it passed. And that was supposed to be enough. Because solar flares were supposed to be predictable. At least the way that earthquakes are predictable. There should have been signs. They should have had time.

They took rotating sleep schedules, always at least two people awake to monitor any situations that arose, and to tend to the various experiments they were tasked with.

Ursula was the only one in her cabin when the flare hit. She woke to a siren and a locked door. She tried the comms: “Everything under control?” Nobody answered, they were too busy racing through corridors to respond.

Radiation doesn’t kill quickly. Not at those doses. Not enough direct damage to the cells. There’s time before the cells that replicate quickly start replicating poorly.

Ursula had time to spend with her crewmates as they were dying. Dying in space. The furthest from Earth that any person had ever been dying.

There were ways they could have died more quickly. Nothing put there for that purpose, no one was willing to be that fatalistic, but there are always ways. Dying is easy in its way.

But there was always hope. They didn’t have the equipment to do a proper diagnostic. They didn’t know if their dose had been fatal. And they were getting better. For a time. While their cells healed, and before the damage to their DNA could cause its problems.

For the better part of two months, Ursula lived with their corpses, frozen in storage where she had broken the heating system. And she did alone all the work that was meant for four.

She became frayed around the edges, she got sick, even in her sterile environment. She put on her suit occasionally, and sat with them. Talked to them. She fell asleep with them once, and woke so cold that she wasn’t shivering.

But then she arrived. She strapped herself into her chair, and after all the rockets had been fired, and she was firmly on the ground, Ursula put on her suit, got out her trowel and started digging. When she finished, she would try to set up the habitat by herself. And she would try to do the experiments by herself, as many as she could, and she would live by herself, and, eventually, she would die by herself.

But first, she dug the first three graves on Mars.

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