Eliza exits the Jeep and inhales, pulling hot air in through the respirator filters. The sound is amplified inside the face-piece secured to her head by a tight band. Sweat trickles from her forehead and down a tendril of blonde hair, loose and hanging outside the hood of her chemical resistant suit.
The temperature spiked to 38 °C during the bumpy drive through the desert. Now, Eliza’s back aches, but her eagerness masks the pain.
She exhales. The breath comes out in a muffled, almost mechanical tone.
She glances at her husband, Dr. Owen DeBrunner, similarly dressed in a mask and white coveralls. He carries a specimen collection container and speaks animatedly with their military escort.
As their team of six scientists walks further into the desert, Eliza strains to hear her husband’s conversation with Abel.
A tall, lean man, the escort appears to be carved from ebony wood. Unlike the researchers, he wears no mask or protective suit over his khaki pants and T-shirt. The AK-47 slung over one shoulder is a stark contrast to the ballet-like grace with which he moves.
“I used to be a soldier,” Abel says, his voice deep and rhythmic. “Now I mostly recruit volunteers for the Ethiopian National Defense Force.” He motions at the group. “As well as escort tourists here.”
Owen says something muffled by his respirator. However, Abel nods, his dark eyes sad.
“That is true,” he says. “The rebel groups in this region of Afar are known to recruit by force, often targeting children.”
“How terrible.” Eliza drifts closer to Owen.
Her husband’s bright blue eyes regard her from behind the respirator's eyepiece.
“We’re safe with Abel,” he replies.
“And why do you come here?” their escort asks. “To the Gateway to Hell?”
“Bacteria.” Excitement elevates Owen’s voice from behind the respirator. “The Danakil Depression hot springs are teeming with life. We hope to study how the bacteria survive in such extreme environmental conditions.”
Owen pauses dramatically.
“I’m confident our research here will one day assist humans in space colonization.”
Five years prior, Eliza sits with Owen at a sushi bar in Melbourne, Florida. The place is packed on a Thursday night in late spring. Warm and humid salt-tinged air blows through the open patio.
Eliza had never set foot on a beach before her graduate acceptance at Florida Tech. The now-familiar briny scent brings with it a sense of belonging.
Tucking a strand of hair behind one ear, Eliza runs her tongue over her bottom lip. Across the small booth, Owen spouts off his most recent list of rambling ideas, gesturing enthusiastically with his hands.
A Florida native, Owen’s skin is tanned, and his unruly mop of dark hair shot through with natural sun highlights. He’d approached Eliza during her first week on campus, recognizing her from several of their shared astrobiology classes.
His startling blue eyes struck Eliza first, the exact shade of a robin’s egg. There’d been a bird’s nest in the tree outside her childhood bedroom window, and every year, Eliza associated spring with her first glimpse of sky-colored eggs tucked safely inside.
But it was Owen’s energy that hit her like a wave and pulled her in. He asked her out for coffee and they spent hours on a bench, just outside a quaint café overlooking the water. Holding cups of coffee dregs gone cold, they’d discussed the possibility of life on other planets, and watched seabirds dive into the choppy ocean.
This night is a continuation of the same discussion.
“The Danakil Depression?” Eliza says, holding up a chopstick, a signal for him to slow down.
Owen smiles and takes a swig of draft beer. “Yes, it’s located about 100 meters below sea level, in a remote northwest region of Ethiopia. The landscape is fascinating. Beyond the desert are acidic hot springs, salt formations, and geometric patterns etched into the sulfuric crust, all in these dazzling, overlapping colors. It’s incredible and alien, like something on another planet.”
“Sounds romantic,” Eliza teases.
Owen smirks and snags a piece of sashimi from her plate.
“Isn’t that near where Lucy was found?”
Pleasure blossoms on Owen’s face. “Yes, in the Afar triangle, what some refer to as the cradle of humankind.”
“Pieces of bone fossil,” Eliza recalls an undergraduate lecture years before. “Several hundred pieces, around 3 million years old, I think.”
“3.2 million,” Owen says. His eidetic memory never fails to amaze her. “The partial skeletal remains of a female hominin Australopithecus afarensis.”
“You want to go there,” Eliza says. “To the origins of our evolution.”
“Not just our evolution.” Owen looks out the open patio, toward the night-draped ocean. “The evolution of all life on Earth.”
Eliza takes another bite of sushi.
“You know, sometimes,” she says, “I don’t think time can be confined to a single flat line.”
Owen regards her with much interest.
The couple sits quietly for a few moments, surrounded by the chatter of other bar patrons.
“They named Lucy after that Beatles song,” Owen says suddenly. “It’s a pretty name for a little girl, don’t you think? How do you feel about having children?”
Eliza nearly chokes on her wine.
“I’d like to be married first.”
“Good to know,” he replies, blue eyes glittering. “Will you marry me?”
Pools of bright yellow water bubble around Eliza like an evil witch’s brew. Rock and mineral formations rise in bulky pillars or spiral outward in a flourish of shape and color, the result of hot magma reacting with the coastal seawater.
The array of colors—red, blue, green, and orange—superimposed on this harsh and alien backdrop, makes Eliza dizzy. A thin, salty crust pops and hisses beneath her every cautious step. Geysers spurt acid on either side of their path, and Eliza stays close behind her husband, awestruck.
Abel goes no further than the ridge above the hot springs. There are no signs of living animals or birds. The air here is toxic. Even with their respirators, the team must work quickly.
Owen stops, removes small glass vials from the specimen collection container, and then fills each carefully with water from the surrounding hot springs. Before returning the last vial to the container, Owen holds it up to the sunlight, refracting a broken rainbow pattern over his respirator.
He doesn’t need to say anything. Eliza knows what is running through his brilliant mind.
Overheated and exhausted as much with excitement as from the journey, Eliza, Owen, and their colleagues trek out of the hot springs, nearing the ridge where Abel waits.
A man seems to materialize out of nowhere, thin to the point of starvation, skin stretched so tightly over bone Eliza is reminded of a mummified body she’d seen in a museum as a child. His eyes roll wildly, and he shouts unintelligibly, brandishing an automatic rifle.
In her shock, Eliza’s feet stay rooted to the ground. Owen drops the specimen collection container and pushes her out of the way. Landing on her backside, she watches as the man—no, she realizes the attacker is only slightly older than a child—raises the rifle and fires.
Bullets tear through her husband’s white coveralls, striking his chest.
There is more shouting, from her colleagues, the attacker, and Eliza herself. Abel runs swiftly to their aid, bringing the butt of his gun down on the back of the attacker’s head. The man crumples to the ground.
Eliza crawls through the red dirt toward Owen, the ground turning a darker shade as his blood spills out and is absorbed by the desert.
The extremophile microbes collected from her latest expedition to the Danakil Depression squirm on the glass slide, magnified at 400X. Eliza pulls her face away from the microscope’s eyepiece, blinking several times. Sometimes, the last five years felt like mere days, other times, decades.
Time, she thinks, cannot be confined to a single, flat line.
She’d gone back to Ethiopia nearly a dozen times, each trip more difficult than the last, but Eliza carried on.
Her lab is quiet in the late afternoon. A slant of sunshine cuts through the polished, tidy space and lands on a clear cube next to the microscope. Suspended inside is the head of a red rose, taken from her wedding bouquet.
She’d preserved it herself, pouring epoxy resin into a mold until it was halfway full, and then placing the rose inside, the petals positioned in a half-open bloom. Once she finished filling the mold, the resin set, and Eliza popped it out, inspecting the floating rose with delight.
A moment, the most important moment of her life, frozen in time.
She picks up the cube and runs a gentle finger over its edges.
“Dr. DeBrunner?” A young research assistant pokes her head into the lab.
Eliza sets down the cube.
“I have the DNA results from your last sampling.” The brunette holds up a stack of papers. “You’re going to want to look at this.”
Decades pass, or maybe only days. Eliza dreams endlessly under induced hibernation, tucked inside a small egg-like chamber aboard the first long-duration human spaceflight to Mars. Images appear in random succession, preserved in clear cubes, from the deepest recesses of her subconscious.
Pieces of bone and diving seabirds. Owen humming “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” as he cooks scrambled eggs. Bubbling lakes of acid in brilliant Technicolor. An empty bird nest outside her bedroom window. A rolling, red ocean, crashing waves exploding into rose petals on the shore. Broken blue eggshells. A desert made of salt. Ebony trees and the mummified husk of a long-dead body.
After waking from hibernation, the dream of Mars is now a reality. Eliza stands on the surface of the red planet, desolate and beautiful and terrifying all at once, much like the Danakil Depression. It had taken her team years to select this site for colonization, countless man-hours analyzing data, developing a plan, and building technology.
Eliza kneels, the motion being jerky and awkward in her spacesuit. With a gloved hand, she places her preserved rose on the rocky, cracked ground.
“What are you doing?” Owen asks.
She looks up at her husband, idly standing next to her Martian desert.
“Starting my own cradle of humankind,” Eliza says, rising, and Owen smiles. He looks much as he did when they first met, tanned and windswept, wearing loose-fitting beach clothes.
“Is it everything you hoped it would be?” he asks.
Eliza glances at the alien landscape, the crimson horizon extending out in front of them to an infinite point beyond sight, and then back at Owen.
“Everything and more,” she says.
Text copyright © 2020 by Heather Santo. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Heather Santo (@heather52384 / Facebook) is a development chemist living in Pittsburgh, PA with her husband, daughter, two dogs, two cats, and a tarantula named Cinderella. Her educational background is in biochemistry, forensic science, and law, but she is equal parts analytical and creative. In addition to writing, she enjoys photography, oil painting, and collecting skeleton keys.