A funny thing happens when you suddenly approach consciousness, 20 kilometers above Mars, with a jetpack strapped to your back and no memory of where you came from or how you got there.
First response is visceral, instinctive. Everything comes into focus as epinephrine streamlines your central nervous system. Time grinds to stop motion. Events seem to stretch out, extending themselves just long enough to help you get a grip.
I'm flailing my arms, trying to catch the upper atmosphere.
The Canyon stretches out below: a violent gash torn across the surface of the planet in some ancient war against tectonics. Opened wide, ready to devour its first meat meal since the Tharsis Rebellion.
Memory fragments. Worlds at war. Me, a prisoner of war. Captives like live mice, blinded by visions. Forced into simulated worlds generated by an enemy known for tinkering with reality. Now I'm tumbling towards the rift at terminal velocity, in a spacesuit/wingsuit hybrid system comprised of a backpack equipped with wings spanning the length of my arms, powered by four tiny jet engines that won't power up fast enough.
Sol breaks over the horizon. A distant, red globe painting the ragged surface every color of magenta that's perceptible to the naked eye. Too real to be real yet... there, in the omnipresent free space. It rises over my would-be tomb, illuminating the ancient grave as my breathing quickens with my heart rate. Inhale.
Condensation on the helmet's visor. Little droplets turning incident rays into a light show across my face. Too real. Inhale.
Exhale as the jets whine to life.
Feels like my entire GI tract is 20 feet behind me, with no chance of ever catching up. I'm soaring over foglogged chasmata, steep depressions that empty out in chaotic terrain. Acceleration peaks out over Candor chasma and I can feel the g-forces tugging at my jump boots. With one-third the earth's gravity, Candor chasma expands unhurriedly, giving me some hangtime. Some time to think.
"If you are captured," A gaunt, battle-weary face jogs my memory. The face is an afterimage, jutting out from the backdrop of a blacked-out cognitive map. A partial recall. "Do NOT let 'em probe your memories for the location of the Homeworld."
Homeworld. Terra. Memories are flooding back. Memories triggered by the traumatic scene unfolding around me. Engine thrust has sent me hurtling over a deep, dark part of the canyon system. I struggle to orient myself in the cold martian sky as if seeing the chasm for the first time. Everything's rattling: helmet, wings, teeth, skull, brain. Wind-buffeted raw. I approach the dense fog of the canyon in free fall, jet fuel depleted after 10 minutes of incoherent flight.
Still thinking about Terra. Wishing myself home. I'd tap my heels together if the airflow weren't doing it for me.
Something's in my head. I feel it as I plummet into the fog. Like flashbacks of Terra are being siphoned off, one engram at a time. Getting harder to retrieve the images; to remember the oceans, the continents, the cities, my home, my family, her face...
A day with our daughter. Laughing over the din of the crowd; the ocean waves. Sol hanging over the beach, sand glittering like little mirrors. The clear deep blue sky. Her playing with the autodog. Small footprints in the sand...
All melting into a thick still haze. Still and silent.
The fog's impenetrable. It restricts my gaze on all sides to a few meters and I can't tell if I'm rising or falling. So maybe the wings have caught me, between Mars and the stars. Maybe I'm already dead and this is someone else's final moments. Falling below the horizon; beneath the reach of light.
Beneath the ground.
Craning my neck to gaze skyward. The red surface hangs overhead. "What the–?" my voice rebounds inside the flight helmet. From this angle the ground, an otherwise solid state of matter, seems to dissolve into innumerable specks of dust. Like a cloud, no more solid than the static fog.
And I fall through non-space into the void, watching terrain maps of the Canyon recede towards a vanishing point. Then they vanish, together with my memory maps of home.