43 hours since lift-off from Musk City on Mars. The rocket’s cameras revealed the desolation of the Serengeti Plain in Africa; the sensors displayed almost zero oxygen and a surface temperature of 67 degrees Centigrade. There was no sign of life.
‘Mythbuster’ C-well had returned to the planet that his ancestors had abandoned in the 21st Century, days before the apocalyptic finale of the nuclear war between China and the United States. All known animal forms of life on Earth’s surface were believed to have been eradicated. This was his last chance to prove life existed on his ancestral planet.
His Martian colleagues in the LifeForm Ministry had scorned his conviction that some forms of life had survived the radioactive blasts and heatwaves which scorched Earth for decades. However, his persistent searches of Earth images over time had detected some remnants of vegetation. It was this evidence that persuaded MarsGov to fund his exploration.
The transit vehicle went into Earth orbit at 300 kilometers and C-well (call sign MbC) entered his drone with his technician and co-pilot Vingers Verranti (VV2). Their destination was the junction of the Mlawula and Black Umbuluzi Rivers near the border between eSwatini and Mocambique.
Many years before MbC’s great grandfather Jaime had been an Ecologist and Game Warden in the region. He had left annotated journals of the animal, plant and insect life in the area. This was the reference material which was to guide their search.
Jaime had affectionately been called Malusa Timfene by the locals, – guardian of the baboons, because of his diligent protection of the ecology of the region.
They had sufficient oxygen and battery life in their suits for 36 hours, before they would be forced to leave or die.
The drone blew up a cloud of dust as they landed. They descended and stood in the shade under its wings. They would search a roughly square area sided by the Umbuluzi in the North and the Mlawula on the East and South. A dirt track formed the left boundary of the search area.
A few leafless trees seemed just alive in the river beds, which had some wispy grasses growing on the banks.
Every footfall raised a puff of dust, There were no animal tracks and no birds in the sky. MbC felt like weeping, having read of the abundance of wildlife in the area.
In the first 30 hours he must have traversed his section of the area over a thousand times without observing any vestige of life on his monitor gauges or through his magnified, wide angle spectacle visor.
He was growing despondent.
When he looked up he saw VV2 watching him, then breaking into a space age version of the sibhaca dancing they had seen on archive movies. That brought a grin and new energy. VV2 looked like a giant armoured insect capering about.
That brought something to mind from the old journal. Jaime had written in his journal of the plethora of insect life which inhabited the grasses and shrubs that grew in the middle of the dirt roads – known as the middlemannetjie – the little man in the middle.
He had described a life chain starting with the antelopes that slept in the roadways at night, marginally safer than the grasslands as predators could be detected and escape at speed was easier.
Their droppings had fostered a myriad of insect life from carpenter ants, millipedes, ant lions to dung beetles. Those patient, diligent, comic beasties that rolled dung into balls in which to lay their eggs.
He returned to the side track and increased the magnification of his visor to examine the dusty surface.
There were still a few brown grass blades emerging from tufts of stubble in the middle of the road. He gasped! There was a faint double line of dots in the sand – insect tracks! He whooped and VV2 came lumbering over to see what was the cause of his obvious glee.
They searched wider and found more tracks and near the river, bigger insect tracks, somewhat more erratic, leading to a stunted shrub.
Under a root they discerned a round ball – it was a dungball. It had apparently been cached by the female.
Dung meant animal life!
Such joy – MbC’s persistence was vindicated!
As resources were dwindling, they were forced to return to Mars. No further evidence had been found, but the dungball would justify larger expeditions and maybe the re-colonisation of Earth.
MbC’s thesis was published to great acclaim on Mars.
He had entitled it: Middelmannetjie Mania.
Story proposed by James Culverwell