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The search for life on Mars is punishing and seemingly hopeless until one exciting day . . .

Mars, 2050.

“Just one more step. I can make it,” I told myself again and again as I walked down a seemingly endless dirt road on Mars. My space suit weighed fifty pounds on Earth, but it didn’t feel that heavy because the gravity of Mars was much weaker than that of Earth. But still, it got heavier every step I walked—though maybe this was all because I failed to make any progress. When I’d volunteered to help probe for life on this planet, I had expected the trail to be long, but not this long.

In the distance, all around me, giant volcanoes were a bold statement of the slowness of the time. In the pink sky, a meteor burned away like paper, bringing the promise of finding a trace of life slightly closer. I saw a light-blue object looming in front of me; it was the Rover-937 crater, found by a robot named Perseverance in the year 2021. It was as grand as an ocean and expanded forever through the rust-red soil. It stretched to the point where the reddish ground met the butterscotch sky. All around me, near and far, were scattered many tiny rocks and craters. Approximately thirty people trudged along around me.

The Fruit Bowl on the Ocean

However, there was no time to waste. We had to go to Boogia Volcano and search for life there, if there was any. The leader of the team urged us on—“Hurry up. We can make it”—as everyone walked and panted like dogs.

At ten o’clock, we arrived at Boogia Camp A, located on the shallow slopes of the majestic volcano. Instantly, the camp leader started talking. “Today, we will continue searching for organic matter!”

The crowd was silent. Every face was tired after a month of fruitless searching.

“Mark, Bob, Ben, Jack . . . Casey, John, Naomi, Gabe, and Jeremy. You will go to the already-dug hole over there.” He pointed into a hole so big that mammoths could play football in it. “And you will get saws and shovels to collect samples,” he continued. “Oh, and the rest of you”—he pointed to me and some other people—“will use spectrophotometers to scan the samples for life.”

Five minutes later, I inserted a sample into my Hyperboogie® life detector, as I had hundreds of times before. Instantly, the life detector started whirring and buzzing, and in five seconds, it announced “No life found” in a dull, robot voice. I tried another sample and the same boring message repeated. I could almost hear voices in my mind saying, Nobody will discover life. Why are you trying? Give up! I tried to ignore these.

For what felt like millions of times, I repeated this process. Sweat beaded down on my forehead. Many times I wanted to quit, but I thought of my lifelong dream—to find life on other planets—and kept myself from giving up.

Minutes grew into hours. Hours grew into days. The hole expanded slowly, just like my urge to give up. Soon the idea of quitting was as uncontrollable as a wild lion. I shouldn’t quit. We will do it, I told myself once again, but it was not very reassuring. Two hours later, I’d finally had enough.

After another monotonous “No life detected” message, I snorted and stormed out of the cabin. Anyway, there isn’t going to be any life in this dumb desert, I thought. I passed arid stretches of desert with the barren and gloomy peak of Boogia Volcano looming overhead. Finally, I reached the camp leader’s cabin, which looked like a worn-down pile of rocks.

Instantly, the life detector started whirring and buzzing, and in five seconds, it announced “No life found” in a dull, robotic voice.

The camp leader led me in and asked in a flat voice, “What is your concern?”

“I’ve had enough of this lifeless pla—I mean, I feel like I want to return to Earth and live a normal life,” I spat out. He replied unsurprisingly, “Fine. You are the thirteenth person who’s decided to quit this week. Sign this form, put it in a Hypermetal® bottle, and give it to a form-reception robot. There—the yellow ones with wheels.” He picked up a piece of paper and pointed to a corner.

I scribbled my personal information on the blank spaces on the pale-white paper and tossed it into a stupid-looking hypermetal bottle. Then I picked up the bottle, aimed it at a reception robot, and shot it out of my portable object launcher for a quicker delivery.

It turned out my aim was so poor that the bottle smashed into the wall. A second later, I heard a loud cheering sound. Had I broken something? I thought. But then I realized it was coming from a place outside.

I was drawn toward the source of the noise, which my portable iPhone 100 said was building 3B.

I was not alone. People jostled into building 3B to figure out what was inside.

It was a seemingly normal room. But on further inspection, I gasped out loud. I couldn’t believe my eyes. In the middle of the room, one of the three life detectors actually displayed the message “Life detected.”

I pinched myself again and again. This is a dream. This is a dream, I told myself. But it wasn’t. The room was  quiet for a moment before laughter and shouting exploded, so loud I bet people on Earth could hear us.

Then the leader of the camp, who had just walked in, pulled out a microscope and after a minute of observing, said, “This life form we found is a tetra-membrane prokaryote with two flagella and a disproportionately high amount of ammonium nitrate. We have never seen something like this before. In other words, WE FOUND LIFE!” I was too shocked to speak.

I ran back to my cabin. I heard a faint music and looked at my life detector. It also said “Life detected.” Never once in my life was I so thankful for my poor aim: I’d missed the robot but caught my dream.

That night, there was a huge party afterward. Later at my cabin, as I ate one slice of 100% healthy synthetic pizza, I couldn’t stop feeling proud of myself.

Eric Zhuang
Eric Zhuang, 10
Great Neck, NY

Leticia Cheng
Leticia Cheng, 9
San Jose, CA