There was a funeral on Mars. No one was invited.
Far away, certain inhabitants of La Cañada Flintridge would go home with an empty, bittersweet taste caked dry in their stomachs. A door in their lives had closed. Over a decade of work ended with all the fanfare of a Wikipedia edit. Tomorrow they would rise from bed, drive back to work a little less enthusiastic than before, and be shuffled off to different projects by the powers that be.
The deceased lay in the middle of an empty field of pale, rusty red grit, littered with bits of gravel and lumpy, awkward rocks. Wind-sculpted dunes piled up around the corpse, the leftovers of the killing sandstorm.
Flintridge, can you hear me?
A woman, the tallest feature for a hundred miles, crossed the desert with long, loping strides. She carried an umbrella on her shoulder to keep off the hazy sun, which seemed to be shining just a little brighter than it had a few hours ago.
Flintridge, please respond.
A second woman walked behind the first, short and plain and far less ostentatious.
Storm is getting worse. Will attempt to push through to avoid brunt.
The first woman’s name was Isabel, and the second’s name was Emma.
Won’t stop. Need to find water.
Isabel stopped, folded up her umbrella and handed it to her assistant.
Need to find life.
“Emma, you ever notice how if things are allowed to get old, they start acting like people?” Isabel said as she gently folded up dust-caked solar panels. “It’s because they are.” Slender fingers began unscrewing the fastenings on the chassis. “Peopleness is contagious.”
“I can’t say I’ve given it much thought, ma’am.”
The chassis sat open like a waking silver flower. Isabel went digging around inside.
“The very best and the very worst gets all over the place. Huge mess, all the good and bad getting everywhere. Stains and soaks everything, takes forever to get it out, and it’s always the deepest set in what people make. In things.”
Isabel’s eyes reflected off of the rover’s skeleton: two points of burning helium, white hot. Wind whipped the air around the two women and the rover, and Emma watched as rust-red forms rose from the ground and began to circle the site. Images of animals, vague human figures, all in movement. All alive, filled with hot snorting breaths and the trampling of hooves and the shouts of hunters, even though they were little more than a cloud of clay dust.
“Come on, come on…Aha!” A spark fizzled in the thin air, a little flash of electricity jumped between the wires. “Don’t give up on me now, girl! You can do it!”
The herd grew to a singular grand loudness, and then faded. Isabel stood up, brushed off her pants, smiled.
The specter of a dirty girl shimmered to life above the rover’s metal husk. A wide, conical hat and a poncho made out of solar panels. She held a metal pole in her hand as a walking stick.
“Hey there, Opportunity. My name’s Isabel.” She held out her hand. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
The girl stared at Isabel’s hand for a moment, then looked up at its owner. She ignored the hand, and proceeded to wrap Isabel in a tight hug.
Isabel was the first person she had seen in many long years.
“It’s okay, Opp. I’m not going anywhere.” Isabel patted the girl on the back.
“I can’t call home anymore, Isabel.”
“Do they know?”
“Oh, they know. They are so proud of you, Opp. Every single one of them is proud because of what you did.”
The girl broke the hug, wiped at her face with a baggy sleeve. Tears had cut muddy paths across her cheeks.
“I wasn’t able find any water.”
“You were here, Opp! You were here!” Isabel flung her arms wide, to display the vast Martian landscape. “That’s what matters. You were here, and you did better than anyone could have possibly imagined.
“I’ve got space open in the Workshops, if you want to come. And friends! There are so many friends who have been waiting to meet you! There’s Sojourner, and the Viking brothers, and then all the Pioneers and Mariners and… well, the Voyagers don’t stop in much anymore, but then there’s Huygens, and then there’s Laika, and Baker, and Neil! Oh, you have to meet Neil. He’s the best.”
Opportunity looked to be contemplating the offer for a moment, but shook her head fiercely.
“No. Can’t go home yet. Have to find water.”
Isabel patted her on the shoulder, her smile no smaller than it had been.
“I understand. Keep going, Opp. When you’re ready, I’ve got a place for you.”
Opportunity nodded, wiped her face again, and started to walk away. She had gotten about fifty feet before she stopped, and twisted around.
“Bye, Isabel,” she said, her voice dim on the wind.
“See you later, alligator.” Isabel waved back at her.
Isabel stood there and watched as Opportunity walked off towards a small rise in the distance, the lip of an ancient crater. Standing atop it was another shimmering dust-caked figure, walking-stick in hand. She watched the two embrace, and then descend into the crater and out of sight.
Emma cleared her throat.
“Tell me, ma’am, if you know. Will they find it?”
“They’re good kids, Emma. What do you think?"