If you missed the story’s beginning, start reading here.
Spaceport America’s main terminal squatted like a huge horseshoe crab shoved into New Mexico’s desert floor. Dry mountains rose in the distance and roads crisscrossed a sandy plain to launch pads, past low scrubby trees raising gray-green leaves to the blue sky. It was the end of the rainy season and birds flitted across the landscape, searching for ripening seeds.
The reception party was canceled after Ingra’s death, but a banner still hung at their arrival gate: Welcome Colony Mars Settler 3 Explorers. Colony Mars ground support teams met them, accompanied by spaceport officials. They’d spend two nights in the spaceport’s elegant hotel before shuttling out to the launch site.
Emma carried two duffle bags to her room. Settlers took few personal possessions with them and she dropped the small bag on the closet floor. The second bag held what she’d need for her time at the spaceport. She’d leave it behind.
The room was huge. The bed alone was larger than her room on Mars would be, where she’d have a bunk in one of the repurposed ship modules. Kamp’s dormitory bay wouldn’t be built for years.
She activated her link and made a voice contact.
“Hi Mom. I’m at the spaceport.”
Her mother had vacillated between congratulations and tears throughout Emma’s training. Today it was tears.
“I can’t believe you’re really going,” she said with a sniffle. “Living on Mars! It doesn’t seem real. What are you going to do every day?”
“Mom, didn’t you read the Colony Mars mission site?” She’d tried to explain a dozen times. Her mother never listened.
“Yes. Well, some of it. What’s this about you eating worms? Sounds dreadful.”
“It’s practical. The first two missions have been living on space rations while they build the basic settlement bays. There’s room to plant gardens now and – yes – raise mealworms for protein. Fish, too, if that sounds better to you. But the exciting part is the exploration gear – we’re taking the rovers and walkabout suits I designed at Dad’s company.”
Her father’s early business ventures had all failed, according to her mother. But the robotics company he started about the time she was born took off. Her mother wasn’t interested in robotics or business and Emma couldn’t remember a time when her father wasn’t working long hours. It was no surprise that her parents divorced shortly after she started college.
It was her father who got Emma interested in Mars. After she finished her engineering degree, he gave her a job on his contracts with the colony. All his talk about humanity’s destiny in space inspired her to apply. That, and the chance to personally test the robots on the Martian surface. Emma’s enthusiasm bubbled up as she talked about the walkabouts.
“The adjustable seals on the walkabouts were a real challenge. I had to…”
“It sounds very interesting, dear. I’m sure your father’s thrilled, though I haven’t heard from him lately.”
Emma sighed. She should know better – Mom could only listen to technical talk for so long.
“I’ve arrived at the gallery opening, so I’ve got to go. I’m going to miss you so much,” her mother smiled through tears. “I’m proud of you and so happy you’re following your dream.”
Emma flopped across the coral and turquoise bedspread as the link closed. Her mother never shared her zeal for engineering – Emma was her father’s child in that way. He’d encouraged her, though mostly from a distance. She’d treasured every message he sent her and saved them all. Sometimes it was hard to tell where her father’s passion stopped and hers began. Emma hoped she was following her dream.
Emma expected to have the next morning to herself, but as she dressed her link beeped, summoning her to a meeting, immediately. She’d already pulled on a tee-shirt and old jeans – comfortable old jeans she’d leave behind. She decided not to change and headed for the room noted in the message, trying to ignore her growling stomach.
The room was a top floor suite and, as she lifted her hand to knock, the door opened. She didn’t recognize the man who tipped his head politely, but he was dressed in khakis and a Colony Mars blue-striped ground-support shirt.
“Please come in. Your crewmates will be here shortly.” He waved her inside.
Emma stepped into a large sitting room and looked past the upholstered chairs to a splendid breakfast buffet set next to a round table across the room.
“Please, help yourself.”
She was starting on a plate of fluffy scrambled eggs when her crewmates arrived and happily filled plates for themselves.
“I don’t know what this meeting’s about,” James said, spearing a perfect strawberry and holding it up. “But I approve.”
The doorman bustled around, pouring coffee for each of them and offering a carafe of warm cream.
“Mademoiselle.” He turned, holding the coffee pot balanced against a crisp white napkin.
A slight, elderly lady in a formal business suit quietly entered from the suite’s next room.
“Mademoiselle Lambert, may I present Claude Krueger, Liz Brown, James Moore, and Emma Winters.” He nodded at each of them in turn. “Ladies and gentlemen, Mademoiselle Amelia Lambert.”
Claude leaped to his feet and the others followed. Mlle Lambert was Colony Mars’ benefactor, a wealthy reclusive patron whom no one, as far as Emma knew, ever met.
She stepped forward and shook Claude’s outstretched hand, shook hands with Liz and James, and turned to Emma.
“I’ve looked forward to meeting you, Doctor Winters. I’ve known your father for many years.”
“My pleasure,” Emma said uncertainly.
Damn, she thought. Does everyone know my father?
“Jason, champagne for my guests, please. Then take something for yourself and relax.”
The doorman pulled an ice bucket and bottle from under the buffet tablecloth and popped the cork. He conjured crystal flutes and served Mlle Lambert, then Emma and the other settlers before retreating out of sight. Emma didn’t think he relaxed.
“I might inquire how you like your rooms,” Mlle Lambert said after a sip. “But I imagine you are more interested in why I asked you here.”
“Why, yes, mademoiselle,” Claude said. He had recovered his manners faster than the others. “It’s a great honor…”
“Rather a great surprise, don’t you think?” Mlle Lambert’s eyes sparkled over a mischievous smile. “I have a special request. I thought I’d deliver it in person.
“You probably know the settlers at Kamp have cut off their live video feeds. The colony’s artificial intelligence system is recording everything, but the settlers have voted to limit the feed to Earth. Right now, we have access to one imager in the plaza bay, the most public portion of the nederzetting.”
“It’s understandable, isn’t it?” Liz asked. “They want privacy after Ingra’s death.”
Mlle Lambert pulled a pad from her pocket, laid it flat on the table, and called up Earth Scan’s 3-D image. A miniature sphere glowed and spun above the pad.
“Understandable, oui. But it does not help us enlist public support. It does not help with fundraising.” She tapped the pad again and a bar chart, like a handful of pencils, floated in mid-air.
“Here are donations, here’s time.” She ran a finger along each axis. “People are frustrated when they can’t see the settlers, can’t hear their reactions. They lose interest and that reduces donations.
“Colony Mars plans to keep sending settler missions forever, but in practice, we can only send missions as long as we have funding. My people use Kamp’s feeds to produce weekly infotainments. Access to live feeds is a perk for our premium subscribers.
“I can fund Colony Mars for a time. Sale of my Tuscan estate, for example, bought your transport ship. But it’s my hope that Colony Mars will continue to send settlers long after I am gone.” She closed the chart display.
“I am a determined woman. All the women in my family are willful. When we choose to accomplish something, we succeed, and that is the attitude needed to colonize Mars. Technology may keep you alive, but attitude will allow you to thrive.”
“Perhaps you understand the situation,” Mlle Lambert said. “Once you join Kamp Kans on Mars, you will favor the video feeds.”
Liz and James were nodding and Claude looked determined. The little speech reminded Emma of her father, but she didn’t need more inspiration.
“I don’t think the first thing I want to do is start an argument with the other settlers,” Emma said.
“Very wise. Keep in mind the colony is not yet self-sustaining. We will launch ships through mission seven, one every twenty-five months – then we must skip a few years, so ships don’t arrive at the height of Mars’ storm season. After that… we shall see. By then, perhaps there will be enough resources on Mars for the colony to survive without us.”
“Mission seven. We’ll have twenty-eight settlers on Mars by then,” Claude said.
“Twenty-seven.” Liz corrected him tightly.
Mlle Lambert sipped her champagne for a moment. “Twenty-seven are not enough settlers to satisfy the experts, as you know. But, with luck, perhaps enough for humanity to have a permanent home on Mars.” She rose from her chair.
“Of course you must do what you feel is right.”
Jason appeared and opened the door behind her.
“Please enjoy your breakfast,” she said. “A human foothold on Mars has been my lifelong dream, and you are making it come true. You have my gratitude.”
She gave them each a nod, turning to Emma last.
“Your father never mentioned me, did he?”
“I’m afraid I don’t remember…”
“Quite right. Good luck Doctor Winters.” Mlle Lambert stepped through the door and Jason followed her. There was the soft click of a lock turning.
“Well, I’ll be…” Claude continued to stare at the closed door.
“She seems to like you,” James said to Emma. “What do you think of this business with the vid feeds?”
“It’s close to eight months before we enter Mars orbit. Maybe things will sort themselves out,” Emma said. She walked back to the buffet and picked up a wedge of watermelon.
“It’s seedless, Liz.”
“Too bad. We don’t have any watermelon seeds with us.”
That evening, Emma dressed for the farewell event in a standard settler’s uniform: a rust and blue striped rugby shirt over khaki cargo pants. The version she’d wear on the spaceship and at Kamp Kans were stain-free, self-cleaning fabrics knit from fibers infused with a slippery film.
At least I won’t be doing laundry for years to come, she thought, and sadly rubbed the soft cotton shirt between her fingers.
Emma didn’t usually worry about how she looked. In robotics labs, fashion consisted of colorful frames on safety glasses. Outside the lab, Colony Mars had been dressing her for a couple years. But she had cropped her dark hair very short for the journey to Mars and the severe cut didn’t enhance her square, pale face. Tonight was a party, so she tried to fluff her hair out around her ears but didn’t bother with makeup – there’d be none on Mars.
There was just one last duty before the farewell party, a final press conference in the convention wing of the hotel.
She was walking down the hall with the rest of the crew when her link beeped.
“Huh, it’s Dad,” she said to Liz. “I’ll be along in a minute.”
Her father’s face appeared over the link. He usually wore a solemn expression, but tonight he looked grim.
“I’ve kept your old job in robotics open,” he said. “If you’d like to come back.”
Emma stopped dead in the hallway.
“What? You encouraged me to go. What about all those speeches you made about mankind’s destiny? What about having a member of our team to operate the walkabouts?”
“I’ve got more Mars contracts right here at home you can work on.” He took a deep breath. “I’ll miss you, hon.”
“We never see each other anyway.” Emma waved her hands in exasperation. “We can trade messages – just like always, every couple months.” She felt inexplicably angry.
“We have dinner sometimes, when I’m in town.” He sounded hurt.
“You want me to give up a dream for dinner once a year?”
Liz glanced over a shoulder at her. Emma took a deep breath and forced the shrillness from her voice.
“Look, Dad. I’m going. And nothing changes between us.”
She hurried to catch up with the crew and whispered to Liz what her father said.
“His wavering is natural,” Liz said. “It’s hard to say goodbye. But we’re lucky. We’ll have contact with our families and all our favorite book and picture files. That’s more than most immigrants had throughout history.”
“Does it give you second thoughts? Saying goodbye, I mean?”
“I’ve cried, but – no. Mars or bust.” Liz shook her fist with a thumbs-up.
“What about Ingra? You have medic training – do you think someone else will go crazy?”
Liz shook her head. “It’s worth the risk. Expanding the spiral of creation is the purpose of life.”
Emma retreated to her own thoughts. Liz was a member of SolSeed, dedicated to seeing life take root among the stars, as she’d often said. Mars was humanity’s first step and Liz wasn’t worried about personal deprivations. Emma didn’t have a cosmic purpose to comfort her.
In the small conference room, Colony Mars functionaries ushered the crew to seats at a long table. Logo-festooned banners hung from the table and two staff psychologists were already seated. A dozen folding chairs faced the table, all empty. Emma was used to these internet press meetings. As each journalist was tapped by the coordinator, their hologram would pop up in a seat and a question would read into her ear in English, usually out of synch with the lip movements of whatever language the questioner spoke.
Most questions tonight were about Ingra’s suicide and Emma was happy the psychologists answered those. They offered assurance that the colony would survive – serious answers tinged with optimism. Finally there was a familiar question, one asked all the time.
“Why go to Mars? You’ll be the most isolated humans who ever lived. Why, especially, do you want to live the rest of your lives there?” The image of a pale slender man blinked on to their left and the crew turned their heads. It was easier to be engaging if they pretended he was really there.
James was their spokesman.
“Half a millennium ago, Europeans set out to conquer the Earth for gold, glory, and god. Well, Claude wants to study Martian rocks – that’s our gold. And Liz is called to carry life to a barren world, a sacred obligation to god. But me and Emma…” Here she smiled at him on cue. “We’re in it for the glory. The pure, glorious idiocy of the challenge.”
Emma smiled out at the room’s cameras, ignoring the tension in her body. It was a relief when the conference ended.
They walked straight down the carpeted hall to a large ballroom. Emma paused at the door to look around. There were spaceport officials and Colony Mars executives glad-handing significant donors. The ground support team members were milling around quietly, easy to pick out in shirts striped with two shades of blue instead of the settlers’ blue and rusty red.
A Colony Mars official gestured the crew to join him, grabbed a microphone, and the crowd quieted. After a short eulogy to Ingra, he called for a minute of silence.
When the minute passed, he raised his fist defiantly.
“Ingra’s sacrifice is not in vain. On to Mars.”
“On to Mars!” The crowd shouted back to him and the party began.
Someone pushed a flute of champagne into Emma’s hand. She abandoned her usual restraint, had a second glass of champagne, and switched to tangy margaritas when waiters carried around platters of cheese-stuffed jalapenos.
“Settlers, we need you at the front of the room.” The climax of the evening was coming. An officious looking man in a suit waved his hand solemnly and the crowd parted. Emma walked to the front of the room with her crewmates.
“These are the final Colony Mars contracts,” the man said. For an oddly archaic effect he held long paper pages over his head. Liz pushed forward to sign first and the rest of the crew queued up behind her. Emma had already read the contracts and scribbled her name awkwardly with a pen. She understood there was no chance of returning from Mars, understood her survival was not guaranteed, and relinquished her right to sue Colony Mars for any reason.
“Okay everyone. Gather round.” The support team lead hopped up on a chair and swayed precariously. “It’s time for the electronics swap.”
Unexpectedly, Emma felt a wave of panic battle the tequila in her bloodstream. She’d had pads and tablets, games and links for as long as she could remember. But batteries were a luxury on Mars, used only for necessary applications. All her earthly devices would be left behind.
One by one, with laughing and back-slapping, the crew of Settler Three relinquished their devices. Contact lenses were popped out and snapped into cases, earpieces and pads dropped into a box.
“We don’t leave our intrepid settlers out of touch,” the support lead shouted over the crowd. He passed Emma a hand-sized pad. With a cord. An electric power cord. And then he handed her an extension cord.
Emma stared at them. Of course, she used corded pads in training, but the permanence of surrendering her own devices hit home. She wandered towards the edge of the crowd, to the ballroom wall, and plugged into an outlet.
Her pad powered up immediately and, already set to Emma’s account, popped open a message.
“Hey! I’ve got a message from Kamp,” she called out. People nearby turned towards her and the room quieted when they saw her puzzled face.
“They want a cat.”
“What?” The support lead tumbled off his chair in confusion.
“They want us to bring them a cat.” Emma held up the pad, hitting the end of the power cord.
“You mean a pet-bot?” someone asked.
“No. A real, live cat. They say they’ve arranged for a kitten to be delivered to our ship from Lunar Base.”
Fuzzy with margaritas, Emma was perplexed. Maybe the settlers on Mars were going crazy. But somewhere in the crowd, she was sure Liz was smiling.
Emma slipped out of the party and wandered down the hall to a hotel coffee shop. Real coffee with real cream was something she’d miss and she didn’t trust the stuff they’d brew at the launch facility. This could be her last cup.
She chose a small table in the far corner of the room. As she nursed her cup, Claude Krueger came in. She wasn’t sure she wanted any company and certainly not another settler. But he spotted her, carried his coffee with exaggerated care, and sat at her table.
“Hi, Claude.” Emma forced a smile. “Enjoying your last night?”
“They’re all so damn happy in there.” He gestured vaguely towards the hall. “They’re not going to Mars. You and me. James and Liz. We’re going. I don’t even know most of those people.”
“The party’s not really for us – it’s a Colony Mars event. Didn’t you take your vacation last month with family?”
He didn’t seem to hear her.
“Wanna see a picture of my wife?” He fumbled in his pocket and laid out his pad, then swore. “I forgot. This thing needs to be plugged in.”
Emma leaned forward, realizing she’d been wrong – she did want to talk.
“Do you ever have second thoughts? Regrets?”
“Second thoughts, no. Regrets…” He slurped at his coffee and wiped a hand across his mouth. “I’ve had regrets since I filled out my application. I was happy, had a good job, good life.” He fingered the pad.
“So why did you apply?”
“For a chance to go to Mars!” He sat back in the chair and spread his hands out helplessly. “How could anyone ignore the opportunity? I’ve taught classes on Martian lithology, designed experiments to determine its mineralogy. If I had the chance and passed it up, how could I live with myself?”
“I helped develop the rovers and walkabouts we’re taking,” Emma said. “That’s what gives our mission its name – the Explorers. That’s what I’m going for.”
Claude waved his hand dismissively.
“Tools. Just fancy versions of my rock hammer. It’s the rocks. The damn, blasted rocks, that are important.”
“Claude, you’re drunk. You should go to bed.”
Without another word, he snapped the lid on his cup, pocketed the pad, and tottered out of the shop.
He’s right, Emma thought. Who could pass up the chance to go to Mars? She felt a tingle in her gut, maybe thrill or maybe fear.
I’ve got grit, she thought as she watched the barista serving another late-night customer. It’s my best feature. When I say I’m gonna do something, I do it. I got top grades in school because I’ve got grit and that made Mom and Dad proud of me. I got my PhD because I’ve got grit, and my advisor was impressed. Now I’m going to Mars for the rest of my life because I’ve got grit. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.
She stared at the coffee counter. Next to the pad where people tapped their links to pay was a jar with a few coins.
Whenever she dithered over a decision, her mother told her to flip a coin. You’ll be relieved at the result or disappointed, she’d say, and either way that tells you how you really feel.
“I’m borrowing a coin,” she said to the barista. “Just for a minute.”
She tipped the jar, fished out the largest coin, set its edge against the counter, and gave it a spin. As the spin turned to a wobble, she whispered.
“Heads for Mars, tails for Earth.”
The coin fell and she knew. The tightness inside her vanished. Emma was going to Mars. Continue reading…