Part One: Curiosity
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral
Time and Date: November 26, 2011, at 15:02 UTC
Landing Site: Aeolis Palus
Time and Date: August 6, 2012, 05:17 UTC
“If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely.”
― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Looks like it’ll be even tougher to find a date to the prom...
Staring at the superficial bump in the reflection, I examined the tip of my nose in the mirror on the wall in the exercise room. Frowning, I leaned in closer to examine the blemish that no one else in the complex probably even noticed. My hand reached up to cover my nose and shield the slight bulge from sight.
Glancing at the slim, charcoal bracelet dangling around my wrist, I saw that my shift of cleaning equipment had officially come to an end. After lowering my hand that had been blocking the front of my face, I waved at the girl in the mirror who then winked in return.
“I still think that you’re a catch,” I offered up to the figure standing alone amongst the equipment in the otherwise empty fitness room.
The reflection batted her eyelids and then gave a slight curtsy in the sleek, black standard issued one-piece uniform issued to colonists here.
Turning aside from the mirror, I tossed the microfiber towel in the hamper next to the stationary bikes and raised two hands in triumph after making the shot. Walking away from the long mirror that ran the length of the wall, I headed towards the exit of the exercise room. The door swished open as it retracted and I stepped into the sunlight filling the connector on the other side.
Beams of light glistened in the passageway on a perfect Mars day. The round, adjacent tunnel was lined with thick, tinted windows that provided maximum UV protection but still allowed the brightness of the sun to fill the corridor. These connecting tubes twisted throughout the complex and linked the rectangular units housing all of the colonists living in Pangaea III.
The soft soles of my thin boots matching my uni made almost no noise. I made my way down the connector towards my family’s dormitory, glad to be done with my chores for the day. From the opposite direction, a tall woman with the tightly cropped, blonde hair marched down the middle of the long tube. As she neared me, the pale geologist wearing dark glasses nodded stiffly and I returned the favor.
“Good afternoon Diya,” she offered without so much as a smile as she kept a brisk pace.
“Good to see you Vivian,” I politely replied while also staying on the move.
Neither of us paused as we both continued on our separate ways. Like most of the colonists, she wasn’t exactly a social butterfly and she of course wanted little to do with me. I was the only teen within fifty-five million miles, leaving me alone with the most boring adults ever to be assembled on a planet.
“Any kid will do. Just please send another one…” I muttered to myself. Staring out at the waves of dunes as I walked, I thought about the upcoming Arrival that would touch down near the complex six weeks from now.
I turned to watch Vivian’s back pass through the door into the exercise room without so much as giving a glance backwards towards me. Although a few weeks ago I would have found it hard to believe that the scientists surrounding me here could be any stiffer, lately though the inhabitants here were actually becoming more stilted by the day. Things had become tense since Francois’s disappearance. The entire colony appeared to be more certain that there could only be one outcome: that Francois had succumbed to the madness that many feared would possess some of the colonists on this mission as he set off into the Martian desert alone. And it had been a while since the colony had lost someone. Not since Yuri’s heart attack.
Looking outside at the beautiful, but unforgiving landscape that stretched out in a sea of undulating, orange waves I felt a chill pass through me. None of us were supposed to know that he had left and had vanished, but it was difficult to keep secrets in such tight quarters around here. In that way, this place wasn’t that much different from my old middle school. By now, everyone knew that the skiff was missing and that Francois had stolen several cans of paint. Although he had also taken extra oxygen with him, he had long passed the time that he could have survived on his own. At this point, it was a certainty that Francois, for whatever reason, had driven one of the skiffs off the grid and into the expanse of desert away from the safety of our complex, leaving most colonists here on edge.
Staring out the giant, curved windows, I shuddered at the thought of dying in the outlands alone. It was a different existence here that my parents chose for me when we packed up to move to the middle of nowhere in this galaxy, leaving everything and everyone I had ever known behind on Earth. I still wasn’t sure if it was more precarious given the things that happened to people back home, but life here definitely had a large set of challenges. The worst of which was that I was growing tired of being alone among the adults.
The corridor came to an end and I passed through the air lock as the exit swished open. Three closed metal doors greeted me inside the unit in a small alcove without windows. I placed my hand on the identification pad and then passed through the door on the left as it retracted to enter our living space. The space beyond was a rectangular room with little more than cabinet storage, a few portholes serving as windows, and three beds. Ours was the smallest of the dorm areas, but it was nonetheless, ours and ours alone. That fact that we didn’t have to share with anyone else helped me keep my own sanity as our stay, which was drawing closer to its scheduled endpoint.
“Home sweet home,” I offered to the metallic unit knowing that the whole thing was about the size of the bedroom I used to have back in Ohio.
Our living space was created to be so small to ensure that the other colonists weren’t jealous of our area. Up until this point, it seemed to work because my family had not really been much of a topic of conversation in the nearly two years that we had been here. Luckily, not many people wanted to talk about the cramped quarters in which our family lived or even about the only child in the colony of Pangaea III. And when someone did occasionally grumble about me being another mouth to feed, I wasn’t quiet in my response— making offenders think twice about bringing up their concerns about me again.
Our ten by twelve grid was one part of a larger unit that linked to join other boxlike building blocks forming our outpost in the desert. The outside of this unit and the other main sections of the complex looked like a collection of white shoeboxes scattered throughout the sands connected by snake-like transparent tubes.
Today, I was the first to arrive home from afternoon shift, which was often the case. And this plain, silver space was definitely home to me now, even if I knew that we wouldn’t be here forever. Surveying the mostly bare room, I put my hands on my hips. If my parents weren’t back in another fifteen minutes because they were working late, I would head off to dinner alone.
On the far end of the room, three grey platforms were organized in a column with a steel ladder at one end linking them together. I crawled up the rungs onto the top bunk and opened the panel built into the wall where I stored all of my possessions in this world. The contents nearly burst out when I opened the long, oval cubby. I grabbed my journal and a pen from amidst the odds and ends piled up in the cache. I then kissed my fingertips and gently placed the kiss on both my mom and my dad in the photo at the Grand Canyon that was taped to the inside of the panel before shoving everything back into the storage space. I had always done this ritual for luck and being that my parents continued to come home safe and sound every night, I continued the tradition.
I pushed the oblong panel with the silver knob closed. Spreading out on the thin, microfiber grey sheets over the foam mattress, I opened up my notebook and turned to a blank, white page. Slowly, I began to draw using the black ballpoint pen. This morning, I had been out in a skiff and seen a new section of the planet in Sector IV as part of the task assigned to my unit. This quadrant provided a tremendous view of two tremendous hills of sand bordering the rim of a giant crater. Each patch of red, each pattern in the dunes, each shadow on a hill, each clump of rocks… all were unique in some way. Although Home Base was content with the video feeds and pics, I often liked to come home and capture images in my notebook before losing the picture in my mind. The black pen was not as great for shading as a pencil would be, but this was all I had for now. I’d have to beg Liu later to sneak me another pencil from Pablo, who was meticulous and tyrannical in his administration of supplies as the boss around here. Our Commander confirmed that jerks were not just relegated to Earth in this galaxy.
My pen made broad strokes to capture the contour of the hills. I then worked to add the detail down to the specifics of the array of rocks scattered before me. Holding my work up when finished, I was satisfied that today’s entry made the standard.
The whoosh of the door sounded and I turned to see my mom enter. Donning her one-piece, black work suit, my mom crossed the small room, her long, dark hair tied up in back.
“What do we have here?” She reached up to the top bunk and gave me a hug with her long, then arms as I leaned over to greet her. She then surveyed the drawing in my hands. “Very well done. I certainly don’t know where you received such a talent… certainly not from me or your father.” My mother made her way to her storage next to her bed and pulled out a sweatshirt and complex suit from her cubby. She slipped through the doorway into the bathroom to change.
Satisfied with my work, I returned the book of drawings to its hiding place. I appreciated my mom and dad’s interest in what most of the others in the colony regarded as a useless skill. More than once, Pablo had sarcastically referred to my drawings as a waste of time and resources. For that reason and many others, I often drew in the confines of our room in private.
“Ready for dinner?” She exited the bathroom as she strode over towards my bed. Her dark mane was out and free now that the work suit was gone.
“Dad’s late again.”
My mom frowned and a few tan wrinkles formed on the edges of her downturned lips, “You know that Pablo has him working overtime on the crystal samples from Sector III right now.”
I rolled my own dark brown eyes that mirrored my mother’s, “Pablo would like to have everyone work overtime if Home Base allowed it.” I melodramatically flopped backwards onto my bed.
“Just keep the sharp tongue for here. Do you remember the last time that Pablo heard you criticize his leadership?”
“Fine, but they might be listening in here anyway. It would be just like them to be that creepy...”
“You know that the law prevents them from invading our privacy like that,” she responded.
“Like they’ve let a law stop them before…” I muttered as my mom chose to ignore me.
I slid my long, lanky legs over the edge and then climbed down the metal rungs of the ladder to the soft foam matt covering the floor.
“Let’s go get some dinner,” she reached out with open arms and then wrapped them around me tightly for a last hug.
The two of us broke apart and then headed out the door, through the air lock, into the connector that led towards the galley. As we walked, we showed no signs of affection, an approach we decided on when we had first arrived.
Only thirteen more Earth months left of me appearing to be just another emotionless data recorder. Thirteen long months…
Keeping pace alongside my mother, I shook my head and wondered if the skills learned here among the scientists would actually help me once we returned home and I went back to the routines from my life before. Lately, some of those memories from Earth were becoming duller around the edges, leaving me at the bottom of a pool looking out trying to make out the dark shapes against the light of life before the colony.
Despite the challenges faced on Earth, I was ready to return. It had been years since the Pan and life for most people had stabilized from those days of the plague that my parents seldom spoke about into a routine that I knew. The thought of having to endure several additional years alone here if the spacecraft weren’t ready by next year’s arrival date seemed unbearable.
In the meantime, I can only hope that I don’t become one of them...
I trailed behind her as we continued down the tube towards the exit. An image of myself sitting rigid and mechanical in a research pod came to mind and I cringed at the picture of the robot me that I would eventually become if trapped here without another teen around for much longer.
Stepped out the opposite end, we arrived at the dining area. We entered the large white room with portholes scattered along the walls and took a seat at an empty, rectangular, grey table in the back. We then headed for the long white counter where the dishes were set out for dinner. Food was uncovered here, leaving the scents of the stew to waft and fill the space. And we didn’t have to constantly wear gloves and masks as we gathered to eat leaving me feeling somewhat freer, so there were some advantages here on Mars that I did appreciate.
“Hello Roy,” my mom nodded as a large, pale man in his black suit holding a tray full of food passed by.
“Hello Anika,” Roy nodded his red head in my mother’s direction and then turned slightly to me as he continued walking. Little red spikes of shadow dotted his cheeks as well as the top of his head. “Hello Diya.”
“Good evening Roy,” I made sure to smile as he made his way past us and towards his seat. “Alwasys soooooo good to see you,” I whispered under my breath after he was out of earshot.
“Diya…” my mother frowned as she approached the counter full of bins of rolls and stew to stand next to me. Tonight was vegetable stew and my mom scooped herself a cup and set it on her tray.
“What? Can’t someone be friendly around here?” I emphatically rolled my eyes as I scooped up my own serving and poured it in my plain, white cup— all of the generic dinnerware was generated by the 3-D printer in the galley. Utility was prized over design for all items here. I looked down into the pot and saw some of the peppers from one of the greenhouses floating on top of the tomato broth.
“You know that he is the last person you want on your bad side.”
“Oh no, he won’t want to sign my yearbook…”
“It’s best to let sleeping dogs lie,” she scolded me as she picked up her tray. She then made her way to her seat at the dining table.
“A fitting comparison,” I whispered as I trailed behind.
Knowing that my mom was right, I followed and took a seat on the white bench alongside her at the table. With our return trip pending, which would be the first round-trip journey from Earth to Mars and back in history, it was best not to irritate the man who was the Communications Link too much during the remainder of our term here.
“Sorry,” I offered and then scooped a spoonful of broth with bits of carrots.
“It’s just best not to provoke him any more than absolutely necessary.”
Keeping our voices low and our movements pedestrian, the two of us ate dinner without much conversation amid the tables of diners. Upon finishing my meal, I turned to my mom with my arms locked in symmetrical bent positions.
“I have consumed my intake of nutrition for the day,” I uttered in what I thought to be an awesome mechanical voice.
She turned her head and raised a dark, black eyebrow, struggling to suppress her smirk.
I pivoted the top half of my body back around and powered down my arms. “What? I was just sharing with you about my lovely meal...”
“Let’s head back to our room and perhaps your father can meet up with us later.”
“Does not compute,” I muttered robotically to myself. Slowly, I lowered my head and closed my eyes as though shutting down. Looking back up, I saw that my mother couldn’t help but smile.
“It seems like we need to get you home before you shut down for the evening,” she stood up and grabbed her tray firmly with both hands.
I picked up my tray and we returned them to the end of the main counter in the large, white basin used for washing. Luckily, we weren’t on dish duty tonight. Just as we were about to reach the exit, the intercom system crackled to live.
“Tomorrow, there will be a meeting for all colonists at 0700. Work schedules will be adjusted appropriately and posted in the morning to accommodate our meeting. Please report to the galley at that time,” the voice of Pablo cut through the air.
I looked up at my mom who chewed on her lip set against her beautiful, deep brown skin.
“A meeting for the whole complex? We’ve never had to do that before.” I looked around at some of the other colonists who had quit eating and now were engrossed in whispered conversations at their tables.
“There hasn’t been one since we arrived.” Her face looked somber. “There hasn’t been a colony wide meeting since Cycle Three as far as I know.
“Do you think it’s about Francois?”
My mother hesitated before answering quietly. “I don’t know...”
I remembered hearing about the events of Cycle Three and a cold shiver went up my spine as we headed out of the galley that had grown much quieter. Following my mother through the connector, we headed back to our room.
If what Pablo needed to share with the colonists was anything like Cycle Three, then the colony was about to receive some very bad news.