“Life gobs you up, chews on you, and spits you out dead. It’s up to you to fight in its mouth and come out alive. That’s how it is for everyone, sonny, and I’m not about to make it any easier by handing you special treatment.” – Captain Newton to Ryker Fortwall, 6 years prior.
I once heard that you should stay away from those who don’t like you. There isn’t enough time in the world to make them change their mind, and it takes too much effort, anyway. But it’s not like I have a choice.
The sound of my seatbelt locking is somewhat reassuring. That’s really the only safety I can expect today. I grip the rover’s safety bars with all my strength while holding myself back from cursing at Jonah.
“The mission must be successful. The mission must be successful,” I repeat in my head.
Sunshine invades the cabin, a harsh light that blinds me, making my positive thinking turn to mush. Jonah speeds us out of New Horizon, and it takes a while before my eyes stop burning. The windshield offers no protection from the sun, forcing me to turn my head to the left. I refuse to look at Jonah, which leaves me one recourse. I force my eyes open to look at the ugly sky that’s a mesh of yellow and brown, a color that means wonder to most but only screams poison to me.
The engine roars as the wheels grapple with the harsh terrain. The rover hammers forward to the Martian wasteland, and Jonah cranks up the speed. My body jerks up, and my hands squeeze the safety rubber grips even harder.
“You need to slow down.” I do try to keep my voice calm.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” he snaps.
I curl my toes inside my rubber boots, and the air in the cabin feels denser all of a sudden. I should’ve kept my mouth shut.
My eyes scan the horizon, but it’s not easy to spot hazards as everything seems to be just one color: brownish red. I shoot a glance to my left, only to see Jonah tapping on the steering control, bobbing his head while he watches the view from his side window. This jerk will get us both killed.
We hit something hard, making me clench my teeth, instantly killing the torrent of curses my brain conjured up. The back of the rover goes up high. I feel air being pulled from my stomach, creating a void inside of me. Jonah brakes hard, the seat belt compresses my chest, and the rover crashes back down.
“You see what happened?” My voice rises, adrenaline overriding any desire to keep the peace. “You trying to kill us?”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Ryker,” Jonah says as he stops the rover. “You should’ve stayed inside the base if you’re scared of some action.”
My eyes concentrate on his small snout of a mouth before moving below his thick neck. Our navy-blue expedition jackets are identical, but his flails slightly on the arms.
“I go where Storson tells me to go, like all of us,” I say, looking as further away from him as possible.
“Except the rest of us didn’t get here because of their daddy,” Jonah says.
My head turns back toward him, as if of its own accord. Oblivious to the effect his words had on me, Jonah works away on the rover’s on-board computer. His brown hair falls to the side, blocking his eyes.
“The great George Fortwall, the highly decorated commander,” he starts.
“Who died so bravely on the red planet.”
“I told you to stop!”
“Tell me, Ryker, what’s so brave about dying in a routine mission?”
My head gets too hot. I rip out the seat belt, leap out of my seat, and grab the collar of his exploration suit.
“You don’t know anything about my father!” I shout through gritted teeth.
Jonah’s dark eyes furiously try to evade my own, something that I make impossible for his body to do. My grip on his collar is tight. As tight as I held the safety bar, in fact.
It doesn’t take long for him to give up struggling. He closes his eyes, his head moves away from mine, and his body goes limp. My anger seeps away without the pushback, and I decide to let go.
“Let’s just get through this.” I throw myself back to my seat, and as I settle in, I mentally reprimand myself for what I did. It’s not like I haven’t heard other recruits say I only got selected to come to Mars because of my father. But it’s the lie that made something in my brain snap. My father didn’t just die in a routine mission. Somebody killed him and made it look like an accident. But right now, the important thing is to keep my cool until I figure out who knows about it, and most importantly, who did it.
“Something got damaged, I can’t start the rover,” Jonah says impatiently as he presses buttons on the rover’s screen.
“Can I help?” I ask calmy. What I really want to do is bash his head onto the screen, but I take a deep breath instead.
He shoots a look at me, then takes his hands off the digital screen. The interface is operational, but the system blocks my commands. The safe mode must be active to prevent any possible damage. I force-reboot the entire system, and when it’s back up, I input a sequence code that makes the motor re-start.
The screen indicates that the rover is ready to drive again, but Jonah stays silent. Not so much as a thank-you.
I buckle my seatbelt and we finally resume the journey. This time Jonah stays within a safe speed, which allows me to lay my head against the soft headrest and focus on the view. Big and small rocks sprout from the dull red earth forever into the hazy horizon. Mars, the red planet. More like Mars, the wasteland. Sure, the air is breathable, but we don’t even know where the air comes from yet.
There’s no need for the on-board computer to let us know we arrive at our destination. Just a few meters away lies the biggest crater I’ve seen on the planet. So big, I would have to crouch down on the edge to see the bottom.
I activate the instrument that will canvass the area with a specialized tool which will look for biological material that may lead us to the source of oxygen in the planet. It’s a long process, which gives me time to get fresh air. We’re usually forbidden from exiting the rover, but I’m not staying here with Jonah one minute longer than I need. Not today.
The horizon is clear, no orange clouds in the sky, no signs of sandstorms coming our way. I waste no time, push the door open, and jump out in a swift motion. Martian earth crunches under my feet, and a cool breeze hits my face. The air is rich with the smell of sulfur.
I unzip the top of my exploration suit, as it’s getting too tight around my shoulders. A good side effect of all the exercises to minimize the effects of Martian gravity. I lean against the rover, feeling its metal on my back, but as soon as I close my eyes, a door creaks open.
“You don’t have permission to be out there,” Jonah barks.
“You mention it to anyone and I’ll tell them you almost killed us.” The next thing I hear is the door slamming shut.
I exhale, free to go back to enjoying the fresh air. The temperature is nice since it’s summer and because we’re stationed near the equator of the planet. I focus on the freshness of the wind and try to clear my thoughts. The feeling of the sun touching my skin is nice, even though it’s just as faint as winter’s sun on Earth.
I close my eyes, listen to my breathing, but my mind won’t turn off. Storson’s arctic blue eyes pop in my head. Then his red hair, followed by his face twisted in anger. If he found out I’m outside of the rover without permission, he’d take me off rover missions indefinitely. Yet, that’s nothing compared to what he would do if he found out what Selena and I have been doing inside the base. I just hope I find what I need before anything bad happens.
The wind picks up and pebbles rain on the body of the rover, making a tuck-tuck-tuck sound. Almost like a cue for the rover’s door to open. “It’s done.” Jonah shouts. “We have to go.”
My rare moment alone is over. I could stay a bit longer, but that will only anger Jonah. Besides, the wind is increasing. On the other side of the giant crater, a dust devil swirls up from the ground, which is not a good sign.
I turn toward the rover’s door, but something on the horizon catches my eye. A cloud of light-brown dust rises in the north and gradually lifts into the sky. It has to be a dust storm, in which case I must hurry back inside the rover, but I don’t. My eyes follow the blast-up, and I know it can’t be a dust storm. It’s too contained to be one.
“You should come see this,” I shout.
Jonah sticks his head out of the door, his fine brows pressed together. “What do you want now?”
I point north, past the giant crater in front of us. His eyes follow an imaginary trajectory and then grow big. “Is that a storm?”
“Looks like an explosion to me,” I say. “Are there any other expeditions out right now?”
“You think there was an accident with a rover?” His head now switches frantically between the blast and me.
“It has to be something bigger,” I say. “We gotta report it.”
“You gotta report it. I’ll be busy getting your butt back to base pronto,” he says and slouches back into the rover.
I climb inside but don’t take my eyes off the northern sky. The black smoke swirls are already dying when we leave the area, but they fill my thoughts on the way to the base. Not just because I’m worried about what might have happened, but also because it reminds me of the first time I heard my father died in a rover accident. A six-year-old believes anything you tell them.
When Jonah parks the rover, my legs are itching to move. I climb out, planting my feet firmly on the smooth ground of the hangar. This hangar is several times as big as airships hangars back on Earth. White light from the far-away ceiling hits the countless dark-green giant rovers, making them shine. People in black, navy, and camouflage clothes dash this and that way, but I don’t recognize half of them. Nor do I have any idea what projects they each work on. We all follow orders, and we all are supposed to keep out of each other’s business, especially when it concerns the doings of our superiors. Not me, of course.
I hurry to meet Selena at the central lab, where she works analyzing biological material. It’s the only place we can hack the base’s files, the sort of activity that could get us court-martialed, imprisoned for life, or even killed by death squad on Earth. I don’t necessarily remember the exact punishment, nor do I want to. When I discover what happened to my father, and expose who was behind it, I’m sure no one will care about the laws we broke.
The wide and white hallways of the base are quieter than usual. There are usually droves of scientists everywhere, and by now someone would have stopped me either to chit-chat or to lecture me about some punctuation error on a report. As if I ever have that kind of time to waste.
The opaque doors of the lab slide open to reveal rows of razor-thin computer screens, but they’re all turned off. No sign of Selena or anyone else. She must have been released early, which actually isn’t unheard of. But why wouldn’t she just wait for me? She knew I was coming after the mission. I get an itch to walk over to a computer and start working… but since I promised I’d always have her watch my back when I hack the systems, I decide against it. I start to trace my steps back and out, when whispers catch my attention.
A group of white-coats are huddled in a corner, men and women almost undistinguishable from each other. No matter their gender, their neck-high, ghost-white lab coats hug their bodies just the same. My first instict is to turn and run before they have a chance to assail me with questions about today’s mission. Yet, against my better judgment, I approach them. The whispers die as soon as they notice my presence, their eyes grow big, and they glance awkwardly at one another. This is weird even for scientists who lack the best of social skills.
“Where’s everybody?” I ask.
Dr. Diels, the base’s chief scientist, who I actually like, steps forward. The wrinkles around his eyes twitch, something that usually precedes bad news.
“Ryker, I don’t know how to tell you this.” He places a gentle hand on my shoulder and leads me away.
“It’s just that, well… how can I say this… They took her.”
“What do you mean they took her? They who?”
“Two men I had never seen before, which is very odd, you see. I thought I knew everyone on this base.”
Panic sprouts in my chest. “Where did they take her?”
“The orders must have come from commander Storson, naturally.” His shoulders raise, and his face turn even more wrinkly. “She must have done something wrong. That just isn’t normal procedure. What has she done, Ryker?”
Everything feels frozen in place. Selena wouldn’t have tried to hack the system on her own, would she? We always do it together.
The other scientists start to approach us, their brows raised, hands straightening their coats—all signs of an impending avalanche of questions. On an ordinary day I’d fake patience and interest, but that isn’t happening today. I don’t have one second to lose.
“I have to go.” I run out the door without so much as another glance in their direction.
Selena will face a court-martial. I will never see her again, and all because of me. I shouldn’t have told her I was hacking the systems, but she knew something was off with me, didn’t she? She always knows, and she forced me to tell her. And how could I have kept it from her? Storson lied about Carter’s death last month. A similar accident killed my own father over a decade ago. I just couldn’t let it go.
OK, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, maybe Storson needed to check a problem with her regular research. Maybe she did something wrong on a soil analysis and they took her to straighten something out. That’s it. Maybe nothing’s really wrong.
I arrive at the security station outside Storson’s office, which is always staffed with two guards. They have a standard New Horizon moss-green guard uniform, and both have glacial expressions that are impossible to read.
Cold white light from the ceiling projects my shadow onto the floor as I approach them. My steps slow, I glance over one shoulder, suddenly too aware that I’m on my own. People don’t usually come to this part of the base unless Storson summons them.
“The commander is waiting for you,” one of the guards says.
I close my lips firmly and notice how heavy my stomach feels.
The stares from the guards force me to walk away. I can’t go back now, but I already knew that when I hacked the base’s systems for the first time. My mistake was to think I was smart enough not to get caught.
My hands go up, ready to knock on the metal door, but I halt. Storson could be watching me through the camera above his door. His office is the only place inside the base that has one. I haven’t liked Storson since the first time I saw him. And back then I didn’t even suspect that he could’ve been capable of sending my father to his death just to take his position. After all, my father was the commander of this base until the moment he died. Isaac Storson immediately took over in time to sign the report that states that my father died in an accident during a routing mission. The report of the accident that killed Carter last month repeats word for word, and is signed by the same man.
I hear movement on the other side of the door, as heavy feet approach.
He already knows I’m here.
I take a few steps back, in time for Storson to sling open the door. Wind rushes on me, and for an instant I don’t dare move. I’m tall enough, but I still need to look slightly up at him. His dull red hair is brushed back on his head, making his forehead look longer than usual.
“Mr. Fortwall,” Storson says, as if announcing my arrival. His voice sounds neutral enough, but there’s something in his eyes I don’t like.
“Come sit down.” He turns around and moves back in the room. He’s dressed in all black, which is unusual for him. He usually wears plain army green clothes.
I sit on a chair, but make sure not to rest my back on it. A small spear sculpture points at me from Storson’s desk. The color and texture are identical to that of a rough diamond.
“I came back from the expedition—
“You obviously did, or else you wouldn’t be here,” he says, cutting me off. “I have the report.” His eyes switch to the electronic screens that lay flat on his desk.
Above his head, the wall displays a framed picture of Curiosity, a miniature rover from centuries ago. “Conquer” is written in bold letters, right above the tiny robot.
My tongue feels tied inside my mouth. I move my jaw around, warming up for my next words. “I hope—“
“Whatever you hope, your mission was another failure,” He says without looking up.
“I see here you reported an explosion.”
“Yes… sir, north from our location today,” I say.
“That does sound dangerous, doesn’t it?” Storson finally looks up at me, half-amused. “I’m glad you came back unharmed. We wouldn’t want to repeat history, would we?”
My body stiffens. What does he mean by “repeat history”?
“But I’m sure you didn’t come here to discuss the expedition.”
“I didn’t, sir.” I straighten my posture as much as I can. “I came from the lab, I… I was told Selena was taken by two men and I was worried that—
“Oh yes, that,” Storson says matter-of-factly. “It seems that your friend accessed my computers without authorization, read secret files, and even stole a copy.”
My brain seems suddenly frozen. Storson found out. That means Selena is finished. She will go to jail because of me. I can’t let that happen. I must come clean; she can’t take the fall for me.
“Sir, whatever she did, it wasn’t her fault,” I blurt out. “I asked her to look into something for me. I… I… wanted some answers. If anyone should be punished, it’s me.”
Storson closes his eyes, and when they open again, only ice blue is visible.
“I appreciate your confession.” His mouth curves, but the smile doesn’t reach his eyes.
There’s movement behind me. I turn around, in time to see two men moving in my direction. Two men dressed in black, just like Storson.
I turn back toward him. He’s standing now, his eyes are big this time, and locked on me. “They’ll take you somewhere safe from explosions. Somewhere safe from my computers.”
The men haul me by the arms and lead me towards the door. I pull away as hard as I can, but it’s no use.
Storson watches me until I’m out of the room; his hard expression frozen, his eyes focused on me. I make an effort to rotate my head, to look at the guards’ station. The men look down at their desk, as if they don’t know what’s happening.
My feet drag on the ground, already far down the hallway, but I can still feel Storson’s eyes following me.