Raphaella Chang woke up with an advertisement tattooed on her face. She remembered orbiting the pop-up booth on the high street, taunting her friends, the promise of free painkillers. She dragged herself to the bathroom, and knew she wasn’t going in to work today. The advertisement was for a new model of smartphone. Her eyes were icons, her nose a scroll wheel, her mouth a start menu. Her friends were not real friends. Everyone had let her down.
The cheque, she’d done it for the cheque. She fumbled for her own smartphone, accessed her bank account. She didn’t have to go to work. Ever again. Sod the NHS.
She was supine on the bathroom floor, reaching for the Vicodin she’d taped under the sink, when reality encroached. The fee from the smartphone company, although large, was finite. Everything was finite. She rolled onto her back. Her brain felt like a mouth that had bitten off too large a chunk of an ice lolly. The clawed feet of the bath, scaled with greenish rust, bloated, knotty, looked like the roots of a chestnut tree. She got up on her knees and vomited into the toilet.
She used some of the money to get into London, where the news< had said they were holding auditions for the Mars First expedition. The BBC had treated it like a joke, and she did see a few people in Star Trek uniforms, but most of the hopefuls looked normal, and there were thousands of them queueing outside the Gherkin in the sticky heat. Thousands. So sod the BBC. If they had any idea what reality was like, they wouldn’t be surprised that so many people were competing to sign up for a one-way trip to Mars.
A sleek blonde with a European accent took one look at Raphaella and said, “Ms. Chang, are you depressed?”
“Me? What, you kidding? I just broke up with my boyfriend. That’s why I got this done, to celebrate, innit. Plus I’ve quit my job. Wiping the arses of old dears on the vegetable ward, waiting for them to shuffle off. I went into nursing because I love people, I really do, but it gets you down. I mean, by the time they’re in terminal care, they’re not people any more, are they?” She added, self-indulgently, “Maybe I am depressed.”
But the blonde was no longer listening. “Ms. Chang, did you say you are a registered nurse?”
In her evaluation file it said: Outgoing, bubbly, adventurous. Opportunity for product placement deal with Samsung???
Already by the third round of auditions, the Mars First YouTube channel topped the global rankings, and each live-streamed episode of the show (lightly edited for verisimilitude) attracted a global audience of millions. Advertising revenue was exceeding targets, and this mattered, because advertising was an important source of mission funding, second only to the contributions of the Russian philanthropist who had founded Mars First. “Whatever the government can do, the private sector can do better, faster, and cheaper,” he had said. “Of course safety will be our top concern.”
This was no mere slogan. The short-listed candidates endured months of training in an undisclosed location in the Gobi desert. In addition to hab maintenance, systems diagnosis, and self-treatment in the event of a radiation overdose, they learnt to put on an EVA suit in twenty seconds flat, right a flipped rover, and find a pinhole leak in 2.5 kilometres of hydroponic irrigation tubing. They had to memorize a series of lengthy checklists known collectively as ‘The Script.’ The point was to reduce the future Martians to appendages of the onboard computer. Human error was to be eliminated by depriving the humans of scope for independent action. Their role was to react, and look hot doing it.
The American government had announced the previous year that it planned to put a man on Mars by 2032, using the once-cancelled, now-resurrected Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This had provoked roars of mirth around the globe from the fraternity of billionaires and wonks who drove the conversation about manned spaceflight. However, the president’s declaration seemed to trip a switch in the zeitgeist. It was suddenly acceptable to throw money at what had been seen as a fringe obsession. Within a few months, no fewer than three other governments and eight independent consortia had announced technically serious, intellectually heterodox plans to put a man … or a woman … or several of each … on the Red Planet.
Only the Mars First Project eschewed professional qualifications, selecting its ‘pioneers’ on fuzzier criteria. None of the crew ever did find out exactly what those criteria were. “At the end of the day,” Raphaella said, “everyone’s fumbling in the dark, aren’t they? Give us that joint, Deet.”
Deet, real name Dieter Arnaldson, was an improbably short Swede. A compulsive student of risk, he explained to the others that their ship, the Roquentin, was basically a gigantic flying bomb. All but two of the rivalrous Mars missions relied on the same nuclear propulsion technology pioneered by NASA in the 1950s. The proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world had broken the taboo on the development of fission engines, throwing open the route of least resistance to the solar system. Limited availability of plutonium-238 had set off a scramble for supplies, in which Mars First’s philanthropic Russian founder held a murky edge. So they had their fuel. But so did the Chinese, and so did the Mormons.
“Obviously we’ve got to beat the Chinese,” Raphaella said. She extended one leg straight out in a yoga pose that only looked easy. She had abs now, and her brain was no longer populated by lemming-hordes of panicky thoughts about dying alone. The doctor had told her she had a problem with her cortisol, and given her adrenal support meds. Just like that, what she had always thought of as her demons had vanished. She breathed in, breathed out, smelling the smell of socks that permeated even the most advanced Russian facilities.
Off-camera, the producer mentioned the fact that Raphaella’s own surname was Chinese.
“Yeah, but I never met the cunt. Did a runner before I was born. My mother’s maiden name was Winston. She never divorced him. She was punishing him, see?”
After that episode went live, Raphaella got a Facebook message with the subject line Hello! Raphaella! From Your Real Brother Ha ha! This Is Francis! She deleted it unread.
The day before launch, her mother telephoned the facility and begged to speak to her. Raphaella relented.
“All right, Mum. Everything’s going to be fine, you’ll see.”
Her mother wept about their estrangement and how sorry she was that she’d “let Raphaella go.”
Raphella felt her self-control melting. “You didn’t let me go. I went. Even you can see the difference, I expect. I’ve got to go, Mum, I’m being paged, but let’s Skype when we get there.” She laughed wildly. “We’re going to be connected, of course we are, wouldn’t be much of a reality show otherwise, would it?”
She was not being paged. It was just Deet, lumbering into the room with a new laminated pass around his neck. He announced that he had been named Field Producer, meaning that he would be responsible for organizing their video feeds from Mars. Raphaella congratulated him. She wouldn’t have wanted that job, but Deet saw it as an honor. More power to him.
The Roquentin took off on a fiery palm tree of exhaust. A conventional two-stage launch rocket carried the ship into orbit. The crew filmed themselves ping-ponging weightlessly around the cabin. Raphaella gawked at the famous sight of Earth floating in the darkness like a soap bubble. Then they had to strap in again. The fission engine’s computer-controlled ignition countdown had begun. A message flashed up on Raphaella’s goggles from Sanjiv Kapoor, the former Bollywood stuntman and cut-up of the crew: This is your captain speaking. All electronic devices must now be switched off …
They laughed on the Roquentin. They laughed on Earth. They laughed all the way to Mars. The joke, of course, was that they had no captain.
INT. HAB 1—DAY.
We PAN over grey inflatable couches littered with tools and crumpled ration packs. Imagine the office of a social media start-up, crammed into the galley of an Aeroflot 747. A large MONITOR is propped on stacks of computer equipment.
ON MONITOR— A pinkish sky bends to meet an icy brown plain, which is devoid of topographical interest, except for one low rise on the horizon. The sun is a pale blob a thumb’s width above this feature. In the foreground stands the Roquentin, its silver radiation shielding badly abraded. Further away, a rover with an earthmover attachment stands idle beside a shallow scrape. Fastened to the rover by tow ropes, a mass of silver foil like a crumpled parachute rises and falls on the Martian wind. It is HAB 2, the twin of this one, in its deflated state.
So, the towing idea didn’t work. Sanjiv and Mary will just have to stay here with us. But I think the problem is they have ripped Hab 2. Later I will try to reinflate. Anyway, they could not detach tow ropes from Rover 2, so they stole Rover 1. They have taken it towards Little Big Hill. Raphaella is checking now did they steal anything else.
The door unzips and Raphaella FALLS into the hab, catching herself on her hands and inadvertently somersaulting. She bangs her tailbone on the low table.
We ZOOM IN on Raphaella’s bosom as she wobbles to her feet. The logo of the Mars First mission is stamped across the chest of her EVA innersuit, which looks like a skin-tight leotard. We FOCUS on each nipple in turn and then hurriedly ZOOM back out. The frame STEADIES. Deet has put the camera down. He limps into the frame. Like Raphaella, he is puffy-faced but thin, suffering from both emaciation and subcutaneous edema. His beard is flecked with bits of dry skin.
I love Martian gravity, have I mentioned?
Did you check the reactor? The water extractor? The nitrogen trap?
I’ll have to cut those tow ropes. The knots Sanjiv tied are absolute cunts.
You look like something’s missing.
They took the HGAS.
Fuck! They what? That’s not possible!
Go and look for yourself if you don’t believe me. They took the fucker right off its brackets. Sanjiv must’ve climbed up the outside of the ship while Mary was crapping on at me about her unenduuurable paaain.
All right. OK. This is a disaster.
It’s only a radio. Everything else is there.
No, no, I mean … I’m worried about them. If they didn’t take any food or water, how can they survive?
They’ll come back, of course.
I am not sure. Sanjiv was very angry.
Well, I understand his point of view, to be honest. You’ve been acting like you’re in charge or something ever since we got here, and I’m sick of it, too, since you ask.
It’s not for me to make such a big decision. I also have pain, but I’m not complaining!
I’m going back out.
No! You’ve already reached your EVA limit today!
Someone’s got to dig, and it’s obviously not going to be you, is it?
She slithers out of the airlock, her feet waving in the air like a diver’s flippers.
DEET (to camera):
I can’t believe Sanjiv took the High Gain Antenna System!
Deet paces. The cramped dimensions of the hab allow him to take a maximum of two steps in any direction. His gait is stooped, hobbling.
I know why he took it, of course. He is a Chinese spy. He’s probably gone to them now. We know they landed safely, same window as we did, although we were first. This crap about operating on Mary is only a cover story. He will lie and say Raphaella and I are dead. But we are not dead, not even in trouble. Nuclear power is OK, water mining is OK, oxygen conversion is OK, farm is OK, all according to the Script! So what, we lose radios? Only Mr. KGB will lose his millions from selling my films to worldwide audience. Fuck him.
Deet halts and rubs his kidneys. He grimaces in pain.
Everything is OK.
— CUT —
Clumsy in her EVA suit, Raphaella climbed up the ribbed hose that led from the airlock of Hab 1 to the surface. It was blowing a gale of 120mph. Dust storms hazed the distant edge of the plateau. She experienced the wind as a light breeze, thanks to the low density of the atmosphere, but she knew that its apparent gentleness was deceptive. She might as well have been standing in a storm of ground glass.
Her loping stride belying her haste, she bounced to the rover. Crouching in the lee of the vehicle, she dusted off the solar array. That blur on the horizon looked too weak to charge an iPad, let alone a Mars rover, but the battery indicators were solidly in the green.She settled into the cockpit and started the engine.
It had been known for more than a decade that the polar plateaus of Mars held high concentrations of water ice. The microwave-powered water extractors in the Roquentin and Hab 1 worked perfectly, condensing up to 50 litres of water a day from the frozen soil. Nitrogen traps provided the other component of their air. The main bottleneck was the water extractors’ need to be fed several tonnes of soil per day. The rovers, with their vibrating digger blades, were crucial for this task.
Raphaella now calculated the effect on their water and air supplies if Sanjiv and Mary didn’t come back. The loss of Rover 1 (bad) had to be balanced against the loss of Mary (good). The American woman had clung to the wasteful habit of washing. “She was even stealing water from the farm for her beeyootee routine,” Raphaella murmured to herself. “I’m sure of it.”
She dwelled for a while on all the things she hated, make that absolutely fucking loathed, about Mary, while she trundled to and fro between her dig and the hopper that stuck up from the dirt above Hab 1. The rover lurched over the hollows of past digs she’d filled in again with dry, used-up soil. Fantails of dust spurted from the treads. She’d come all the way to Mars just to end up driving a JCB for ten hours a day …
Getting back to her calculations, she settled that the non-reappearance of Sanjiv and Mary would give herself and Deet a better chance of survival. If the dust storms didn’t get any worse. If the reactor didn’t crap out. If Mission Control didn’t somehow manage to feed the computer new instructions that would close her sanity loophole. There were so many different variables. But for the first time since they landed, she felt cautiously optimistic
The Mars First mission planners had got a lot of things right. The Roquentin had touched down smack in the middle of the designated landing zone, without breaking so much as an antenna, thanks to hitherto-untested aerobraking technology that worked like a dream. The ship had then shifted into ‘supply mode.’ Two months into the homesteading phase of the mission, the solid-state fission engine was cranking out more power than four people could ever use. Periodical discharges of electricity sparked lightning storms over the settlement. Another reason to bury the habs. That had been anticipated. So had the radiation. Two meters of Martian dirt now sheltered Deet in his nerd cave from bombardment with heavy ions.
Unfortunately, the mission planners had not reckoned sufficiently with the best-known challenge to human health resulting from microgravity: the loss of calcium from bones, and its consquent excretion via the kidneys, where it caused agonizing kidney stones. Mary had gone down with the ailment first, during their 90-day voyage from Earth. Magnesium citrate supplementation had been prescribed for all of them. It turned out that Mary had not been taking her pills because they gave her the runs. Surgery judged too risky, the only treatment prescribed was to wait until she passed the kidney stones, and in the meantime hold her down and make her take her pills—a duty that Raphaella, as medic, performed with perhaps-excessive zeal.
Poor Mary, however, remained in so much pain that she could not help the others to perform the hundred and one daily tasks ordained for them by The Script.
Moved by pity for the pretty, blonde geologist, Sanjiv had begun to talk about taking her to the Chinese in Gale Crater, nine thousand kilometres to the south. He was sure that they would operate on her, whereas Raphaella would not or could not.
The truth was that Raphaella had declined to attempt the operation for two reasons, one good and one bad. The good reason was that kidney stone surgery was basically unnecessary. First do no harm. The bad reason was that she was afraid of fucking up on television.
For this reason, among others, she did not share Deet’s distress at the loss of the HGAS. Without the radio she already felt freer, able to bask in the vastness of Mars without worrying about her public image. The pressure to perform had come to feel like low-grade mental nausea. Now it was gone.
Finished digging, she pedalled on the stationary bike while the Roquentin’s water extractor farted away. She wasn’t risking muscular atrophy. Deet hadn’t been exercising; he’d be sorry. She then wrapped weights around her legs and did pull-ups. The cabin of the Roquentin was pressurized and spacious, compared to the hab. Beneath her feet, LED growlights shone bluey-white. The farm occupied most of what had been the aft bulkhead while they were in transit, and was now the floor: a mass of mini-polytunnels jammed into the available space like intestines in an abdominal cavity. Raphaella gloated over the plants beneath the plastic. If you’d told her a year ago that the thought of crisp alfalfa sprouts would make her mouth water, she’d have laughed.
The top of each pull-up brought the external monitors into her field of vision. On her sixty-seventh rep, she saw a fleck of dirt on the central monitor. Next rep, it had vanished. Thirty seconds later it was back in a slightly different place.
She orangutaned across the cabin to the camera controls, applied maximum magnification. No room for doubt. It was Rover 1, with Sanjiv and Mary in it. Popping in and out of view, traversing the aeolian undulations that wrinkled the apparently featureless polar plateau.
But were they returning, or going further away?
She hung in front of the monitors, biting her fingernails.
Going further away.
The rover vanished again, and failed to reappear.
Without warning, a cloud burst from the skyline. It looked like an explosion on telly. Higher and higher it mounted until it obscured the sun.
“Oh fuck,” Raphaella said.
She watched the monitors a little longer. Replayed the video, confirming what she had seen.
Then she swung over to the comms console. It was still a bit early. She took her time dialing into the relay frequency.
At twelve minutes before Martian noon, the moon Phobos rose, and the Roquentin’s radio came alive. “Yo. Raphaella. You copy?”
“Loud and clear, Zeke,” she said. “You’re not going to believe what just happened.”
This was Raphaella’s sanity loophole. The Roquentin was equipped with a UHF antenna in addition to the HGAS, intended for communicating with the rovers. Without a relay satellite, it could not transmit to Earth. But while Phobos was above the horizon, Raphaella could talk to Zeke and his colleagues on the little potato-shaped moon where the Mormon-funded expedition had set up camp. They could even patch her through to the Chinese in Gale Crater. Sanjiv hadn’t had a clue about that.
She told Zeke what she’d just seen. “Sanjiv and Mary tried to drive down the scarp. I think they triggered an avalanche.”
“Yeah. They probably didn’t survive. But we can’t be sure, can we? And I can’t go looking for them. We’ve only got the one rover left. So what I was thinking is, we should ask the Chinese to send out a search party.”
“They’re a long way away from you, Raphaella. I’m not sure they’ve got the logistical capacity.”
“You mean, they’re not very fucking helpful at the best of times, and it wouldn’t be any skin off their noses if Sanjiv and Mary died just because they couldn’t get off their arses for the sake of a fellow fucking human being.”
“You’re under a lot of stress, Raphaella. Remember, you’re not in charge. Mars is in charge,” cautioned Zeke, who was a professional astronaut.
“Don’t make me come up there and kick you in your holy underwear.”
“How do you know about that?”
“You think I’m uneducated or something? Nah, I saw it in The Book of Mormon. Remember that show?”
“I’m not a Mormon, actually,” Zeke said. “I’m a Baptist. Equal opportunity hiring. Sit tight, I’m putting you through to Francis.”
She kicked her legs, watching her big feet swim through the thin air.
“Francis? Yeah, it’s Raphaella.”
The Chinese radio operator’s name wasn’t really Francis Chang. Or maybe it was. Who knew? He was the one who’d Facebooked her before their launch, inspired, he had explained, by the coincidence of their shared surname. His prank had amused the hell out of the whole Chinese expedition, allegedly. Even now, sitting in a Martian crater, he had a puckish sense of humor.
“It’s better for you if they are dead. That solves your water problem, no?”
“We don’t have a water problem.”
“You will soon. We ran the numbers while you are talking to Zeke. You can’t dig enough with only one rover. Plus there are abrasion issues. That big dust storm degraded the environmental tolerances of your EVA suits as well as the rover. We have the same problem.”
“I’ve got it under control.”
“If the other guy—Deet?—helps you, maybe you can dig more. But he doesn’t help, does he?”
Raphaella regretted having vented her gripes about Deet to this unseen, unknown Chinese man. She changed the subject. “So what you’re saying is you’re not going to send anyone to look for Sanjiv and Mary.”
“Oh, I’ll tell General Zhou what has happened. But I am not in charge.”
“Then tell him that there’s a rover and two EVA suits there for the taking, see if that changes his mind.”
“I want those suits. Do you hear me?”
She had spoken over him. He was talking. “… the HGAS. If you can’t recover it, maybe you can use our bandwidth.”
Maybe she imagined the reluctance in his voice. “To send back more films.”
She ferociously clicked the talk button. “I want the truth. Are we being set up here? Is this a fucking snuff film? Do they want to watch us die, one by one, to boost the ratings?”
“Don’t be stupid. It is too expensive to kill people on Mars. They can send them to the Netherlands for much cheaper. It’s financial, Raphaella. If they don’t get films, they don’t get money. Then maybe they cannot send the second ship.”
“Mars First is on, what’s the expression, a razor string? Shoe string. It’s crazy. We are all surprised and admire. But honestly, Raphaella—” he was talking faster now, his English breaking up— “they got really crazy thinking. They choose polar plateau for landing site. They want you spending all winter there. Such typical Russians! Psychological risks is insane. We and Salt Lake II think not ethical to giving such advice. I don’t even suppose tell you—”
The radio squelched and went silent.
Raphaella took her headphones off. “He’s full of crap. Don’t fret, my babies,” she said to the plants under the LED lights. “You’ll have all the water you need, now Our Lady of the Kidney Stones is gone.”
She smiled, thinking that that would be a good line to use on camera. Then she remembered that Mary was probably dead. Then she remembered that they had lost the HGAS, anyway.
While she completed the rest of her maintenance tasks, she thought about Francis’s offer of bandwidth. If she took him up on it, she’d have to tell Deet that she had been in touch with the Chinese all along, and not said a word about it to Sanjiv or Mary, even when they were about to set off on their dangerous journey towards Gale Crater.
Sod Francis, she decided. And sod Mission Control.
The whole reality show business was not only stupid but dangerous. Sanjiv and Deet wouldn’t have escalated their feud to the point of no return if they had not, both consciously and unconsciously, been performing for an audience.
“I’m sick of Deet pointing his camera at my tits all the time, anyway. Fucking perv,” she murmured.
A soft arpeggio rang through the cabin. An alert from the reactor that it was about to discharge excess power. “OK,” Raphaella said to it, comforted by the reminder of its presence. It was like having a mother in the next room, one who didn’t nag or criticize, but just kept you warm.
Six months passed. Mars continued its journey around the sun, moving further from Earth. Meanwhile, the planet’s axial tilt plunged the north polar plateau into night.
Back on Earth, the Russian philanthropist and his chief scientist bowed to public pressure and held a press conference. It was mobbed. Reporters, like everyone else, enjoy hearing bad news in person.
That the news would be bad no one doubted. The months-long silence from the crew of Mars First had already been construed as proof that disaster had befallen them. Still, a respectful hush greeted the chief scientist’s confession that all four “pioneers” were presumed dead.
Stumbling over his words, the wretched scientist went on to explain what was believed to have happened. After Sanjiv and Mary’s disappearance, arithmetical efficiency losses had doomed the remaining pair to a slow death from thirst and oxygen deprivation. Crucial factors included greater-than-expected abrasion to key equipment (he meant the EVA suits), a malfunction of the nitrogen trap due to software updates incompletely transmitted, and of course, the pioneers’ own exhaustion and physical malaise …
The audience grew restive.
“Isn’t it true that corners were cut?” demanded the New York Times. “Didn’t you send four people, literally plucked off the street, inexperienced, untrained, into a situation where they could not hope to survive?”
“They were not untrained,” the chief scientist said indignantly. “And as for experience—what does experience mean, on a world where no human being has ever set foot before? You try to find out what will work.”
“So they were guinea pigs!”
The chief scientist tried to walk his statement back, but the damage was done. By the end of the scheduled Q&A time, most of the journalists had left to file their stories.
Those remaining sat up when the philanthropist himself stepped to the microphone. He was a trim man in Savile Row suiting with the cracked hands of a mechanic. “If you want to know more than we have told you, you should ask our Chinese and American friends. They tell us that our brave pioneers are dead. We have no contact with them ourselves. All we know is what the Chinese and the Americans want us to know. We, ourselves, believe Raphaella and Deet are still alive. Yes, alive! I believe—” those working-man’s paws grasped at the air— “I believe in the strength of the human spirit! You Westerners are weak. You need your hands held, you think the soul is as easily wounded as the skin. You are wrong! The soul endures. I struggled for twenty-three years before I succeeded in business! I have no university degree, no qualifications! I’ve been in jail, I’ve been persecuted by all kinds of people, and now I am number seventeen on the Forbes rich list!”
He was led off the stage, arguing plaintively with his press secretary.
INT. HAB 1—NIGHT.
The couches are folded down into their bed configurations. Raphaella and Deet lie side by side, separated by a gulf that is almost entirely filled with the debris of emergency ration packs. A dim orange nightlight, intended to entrain circadian rhythms in the absence of natural light, glows on the ceiling. Both humans wear OXYGEN MASKS. They lift the masks away from their faces to speak.
The camera’s on.
Yes, I want to start filming again, so someone someday will find out what happened to us.
Oh for fuck’s sake.
She turns her face towards the camera. She is shockingly gaunt. Most of her curly black hair has fallen out, leaving her skull visible through the remaining strands.
All right, for the record, we are about to abandon this settlement. It’s been ten days since the rover crapped out. We’ve been living on our reserves since then, and there’s only one way for that to end. I depressurized the Roquentin, abandoned the farm, but I can’t dig enough by hand out there. It’s a hundred and twenty-five below zero and my suit’s abraded to shit. So we’re leaving. I reckon we can carry the hab’s water extraction apparatus. Leave the hopper, take the oxygen converter and the business end of the nitrogen trap. We’ll haul the lot on one of these couches, like a sled. It’s completely doable. But if we don’t go now, we’ll be too weak to try.
We can’t carry enough food. It’s nine thousand kilometres. We can’t walk that far.
We don’t have to walk nine thousand kilometres. Only about three hundred.
What do your Chinese friends say?
They’ve built a computer model. It gives us an eighty percent chance of making it to the Vastitis Borealis plain. Once we get that far, they’ll come and pick us up. The thing is their rovers run on solar power only, so they can’t come north of the polar night terminus.
We won’t even reach the plain if our other rover is not there, and the suits.
It has to be there. I saw them go over the edge. You’ve seen the recording, too.
Perhaps that was just a dust-cloud caused by a normal descent.
Come on, Deet. They’re down there. The reason Phobos can’t see them is because they’re buried in dirt. We’ll find them with the metal detector. Get their suits, cannibalize ‘em for parts. Ditto the rover. Maybe we can even get it working.
Forget it. Just go without me. Leave me here. Go to your Chinese brother, what’s his name? Francis? I’m sure he wants to see you.
Raphaella sits up in a fluid low-grav motion. She leans across the gap between their couches and plants her left hand beside Deet’s head, gazing down at him.
Did I ever tell you what I did before I applied to Mars First?
Deet stares up at her expressionlessly. His skull is bald, his features sharp. He looks as fragile as a baby bird behind his oxygen mask. A month ago he fractured his left leg, tripping over the computer in the dark. It is still in a cast, which gives his body an odd lumpy shape inside the sleeping cocoon.
You were a nurse.
I worked on the terminal care ward. I looked after dying people. I’m saying people but they were just vegetables with a pulse, really.
She sits on the edge of his bed. He jerks over to the bed’s far edge to give her room.
Their families never came to visit. Couldn’t blame ‘em. ‘That’s not Grandma, it’s just a burden, it eats and drinks and that’s all.’ So with those families in mind, what I did once or twice, well, a few times, I was doing them a favor really … I’d just very quietly put a pillow over their faces. It never took long.
Raphaella leans over Deet, supporting herself on her left arm. She draws back her right hand and strokes his fluffy fuzz of hair.
I was wrong, Deet. Life is worth living no matter how shit it is.
She flops back down on her own bed as if exhausted.
DEET (very softly):
You aren’t going to kill me?
Francis isn’t my brother. He’s just some Chinese bloke. You’re my real brother, and I won’t leave you here to die.
Deet sits up. Reaching over to Raphaella, he gently removes her oxygen mask and touches the keypad tatttooed over her mouth and chin, pretending to dial a number.
Raphaella, phone home.
Sorry. I had to make that joke sometime.
— CUT —
Raphaella had not told Deet everything about the plan that the Chinese and the Mormons had jointly come up with. Specifically, she had not told him that they had instructed her to leave him behind.
They had reasoned that to save one of the Mars First survivors was better than to save neither. But Raphaella believed she and Deet could both make it.
She loaded the equipment onto the couches, which she had lashed together and fitted into a set of spare rover treads (lesson learned from Sanjiv and Mary’s futile attempt to tow Hab 2 away with them: inflatables popped easily). Pulling side by side, they set out into the polar night.
This was the first time Deet had set foot on Martian soil in thirteen months. He kept his faceplate pointed squarely at the pebble-littered, frost-patched circle of dust in the light of his headlamp. Three hundred yards from the settlement, he collapsed.
Raphaella had been expecting this. They’d had to remove his cast so that he could get his EVA suit on, and the leg was still weak. The rest of him wasn’t much stronger. She put him on the sled, on top of the water extractor’s dehoused guts, and started pulling again. The Martian gravity made the absurd tower of equipment towable by one woman. It was just a matter of avoiding the bigger boulders.
She chatted over the radio to Deet to distract herself from the monotony.
“What did you want to be when you were in school?”
“An astronaut. I wanted to be an astronaut since I can remember.”
That confession was almost too painful to hear. “Deet, I’m sorry if this is something you don’t want to talk about, but I have to ask. What d’you think went wrong?”
Long silence. At last the mannikin perched on the sled responded.
“I think it’s like soldiers. You never know until you’re under fire how you will react …” A weak burst of rage. “I was fine in the spaceship. Fine!”
“Well, we were in touch with Earth all the time.”
“Yes. Maybe it has something to do with losing the comms. Maybe I am the kind of person who needs communication.”
“That’s funny, because I think I’m the opposite. Back home, I was addicted to painkillers and all sorts. Now I think my problem was too much communication. I made up a word for it: finity …”
“You didn’t make that up. It’s a real word.”
“Well, there you go then. Of course if you asked Zeke, he’d say we’ve got the life everlasting to look forward to, and Francis probably believes in reincarnation or something. But I don’t believe in any of that. So I was stuck with finity. Until I came here.”
“I thought they gave you meds for your issues.”
“I haven’t taken my meds since we launched. They didn’t combine well with the magnesium tablets.”
She walked with her eyes on the stars. The one compensation of the polar night, these shone steadily, innumerable, guilty of nothing, more beautiful than anything on Earth. Time vanished.
Suddenly, a ruddy flickering light threw the sled’s shadow over her. The Roquentin was putting on one of its periodic fireworks displays, as if bidding them farewell.
Raphaella stopped walking. The sled whanged into her calves. Her knees—turned to jelly by hours of strain—threatened to buckle. She clung to the sled. “Deet?”
No answer. He was lying on his back on the equipment, head hanging off the edge.
“S … sorry. I was … was asleep …”
She turned his oxygen regulator up to full flow. At that rate he’d burn through his tank in a few hours, but hopefully it wouldn’t matter.
Inch by inch, she got the sled turned around. They’d come about ten kilometres, she estimated by her wrist pedometer. She started to haul the sled back towards the lights of the Roquentin.
“They were right,” she muttered to herself. “He can’t make it. But that’s OK. We’ll just go back to the ship and wait. It won’t be long.”
Left foot. Right foot. Left. Right.
“They’ll come and get us. They will.”
Lightning in the Martian night. A beacon that the Chinese would see from kilometers away. A working nuclear power plant. They’d want it. They’d come get it.
Hopefully, before Raphaella and Deet died.
“We’re human, aren’t we? All brothers and sisters, aren’t we? They’ll come.”
Finity Copyright © 2014 by Felicity Savage. All Rights Reserved.
Illustrations Copyright © 2014 by Duncan Long. All Rights Reserved.