Read People of Mars Online

Authors: Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli

Tags: #mars, #nasa, #space exploration, #mars colonization, #mars colonisation, #mars exploration, #astrobiology, #nasa astronaut, #antiheroine, #colonization of mars

People of Mars (10 page)

BOOK: People of Mars
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She would’ve given anything to push herself
further. Who knew what caused that radio transmission? Was it
really coming from Valles Marineris? To her regret, she realised
she hadn’t recorded it. If she could have analysed it with the
station computer, perhaps she would’ve found something more about
its origin. She would’ve liked to talk to someone about it straight
away, but she wasn’t certain she would be believed. They would
blame the solar wind or something else. Yet the MPS had located it
somewhere near the canyons. Or perhaps inside them. What was down
there? She resolved to check it out. Maybe it was an automatic
message from some old apparatus sent by NASA or the Chinese space
agency, from who knew how long earlier. Perhaps it was still
working and sending out environmental data. The scientist inside
her was looking for a plausible explanation for what she had seen
and
not
heard.

A gust of wind lifted
a little vortex before her eyes. For a moment, she thought she
could see an azure reflection in the tiny particles lifted by the
disturbance. Then the sunlight grew faint and the weak warmth on
her face faded with it. A shadow stretched in front of her. Turning
her head, she saw Hassan beside her. The discharge of adrenaline
made her slip on a side, and a second later she found herself
sitting on the ground. She had to apply all her self-control to
avoid losing her grip on the sampler. Confused, she shifted her
gaze to the corer, which had finally quietened, and then again to
the man, who seemed to be ignoring her completely. He had done that
on purpose, to frighten her; she had no doubt.

A beep informed her
that the sampling was complete. She raised her arm, which had grown
numb, she extracted the sample vial, and inserted it into the
collection box that was positioned by the edge of the crack. Then
she bent sideways to drag herself on her knees.

He hadn’t even tried
to help her. He had done nothing but walk around her.

“I’m done with the
corer. How far have you got with it?” While speaking, he kept his
head facing straight ahead, as if he was scrutinising an imprecise
point at the horizon. He surely was checking the data coming from
the apparatus, in his helmet’s augmented reality. He gestured, as
if he was dragging something. The corer motor could be heard in the
distance as it started moving towards them. Peeping out from the
small bay located on its back were four pipes with thin but very
resistant walls. Inside each of them there was a core containing a
record of the ground’s layering.

Without replying to
him, Anna closed the box. Her action was clear: she was done, too.
She looked at the riverbed, which stretched into the distance. She
was considering whether or not to proceed further, to collect more
samples where the crack was even wider.

She stood up, but
while doing so she suffered a slight dizziness. She had remained
too long in that uncomfortable position. As she had risen to her
feet too quickly, her blood pressure had dropped. The Martian
landscape became brighter, enhancing the wild beauty of the place.
The edges of the ancient torrent showed deep grooves, sign of a
runoff that had occurred in the remote past. They reflected an
intense light, which seemed even stronger, as it hit her dilated
pupils. She almost thought she could see the water, hear its sound.
Enchanted, Anna smiled. Her ears were buzzing, her eyes hurt. She
tried to place a hand on her head, but it bumped against her
helmet. She was staggering. Reluctantly, she leaned against
Hassan’s arm. Finally, he turned to look at her. The sunlight
reflected on his visor, preventing her from seeing his face. He
might have been anybody in a suit and helmet; there was nothing
familiar about him. That was more disquieting than the immense,
lethal desert where they were. But that sense of the unknown did
not frighten Anna; rather it let surface a distant emotion, the one
she’d felt many years earlier when watching science fiction films
at the movies. The difference now was that she was seeing for
real.

“Everything alright?”
She heard Hassan’s voice resounding in her earphones.

“Wouldn’t you like to
see what’s beyond the horizon?”

A sound similar to a
grunt reached Anna’s ears.

“I have the feeling
I’ve been here all my life, but at the same time I don’t know Mars
at all. I’d like to see Valles Marineris.”

He remained silent.
Better, she could pretend he was someone else, an unknown being
without a face.

Now that she was
standing, Anna could catch sight of the front of the rover. Who
knew what the distance to the canyons from their position was? They
were further south, in the opposite direction of Station Alpha.

“We aren’t here for
tourism.”

Anna snorted.
Obviously, he wouldn’t understand.

“But we’re explorers,”
she stated, resolute. “We should be able to venture further afield.
We linger on a tiny area, while maybe a bit up ahead there is
something wonderful waiting for us.”

“Like a kilometre-deep
cliff: really wonderful.”

“You are so devoid of
…” She stopped, searching the right word. “Poetic sensitivity.”

He laughed in his
irritating way.

“I’m talking
seriously. We could take the rover and go there.”

“It’d take almost a
day and then we wouldn’t have enough air for the return journey.”
He said so in a superior tone. It was evident he wasn’t taking her
seriously.

“The air would be
enough if I went alone,” she challenged him.

Silence.

Now she was a little
sorry she couldn’t see his expression. It would’ve been amusing, as
she wasn’t joking at all.

“The crack widens a
lot over there; it’ll be at least one metre.” He had changed the
subject. “Who knows how deep it may be?”

What was he getting
at?

Anna felt a sense of
oppression in the middle of her chest, like a bad presentiment. She
felt overrun by a sudden agitation as she recalled the one beside
her wasn’t an ordinary astronaut. It was Hassan.

“If you fell in there,
I couldn’t do anything to save you.”

Her heart accelerated. Her breath failed her.
Robert had accused the man of trying to kill him outside Station
Alpha, not twenty-four hours earlier. And now she was over one
hundred kilometres from their base,
alone
with him.

“Nobody could blame me
for your death.”

Anna backed off. The
helmet without a face, lit by the sun, was scrutinising her. She
stepped back and looked at the rover. She could get there in a few
seconds, but she had to climb on that steep terrain.

When she turned again
to Hassan, she found he was just a single step away. Without
further hesitation, she whirled and ran. Her movements were awkward
in the suit, she risked slipping any moment. It’d be sufficient for
her to reach the rover and lock the doors. Then she would be
safe.

She scrambled up the
slope, using her hands and feet. When she arrived at the top the
vehicle, her salvation, was a few paces from her. With a last
effort, she projected herself forward and extended her arms to
reach the side door. As she touched it with her fingers, she was
pushed from behind with some strength. Her helmet bumped against
the metal. Her head turned in an abrupt movement which, together
with her oxygen’s debit due to the run, disoriented her. She
turned, at the same time placing her arms in front of her for
defence, and waited.

But nothing
happened.

Breathless, she
lowered her hands and found herself face to face with Hassan. She
could see him well now. His expression was furious.

“What’s the fucking
matter with you?!” he inveighed against her. “You might have
fallen, ripped your suit apart.”

She watched him,
incredulous. Was it possible he was joking earlier?


What the fuck are you thinking of?” He was really
angry. “Why are you
scared
of me?”
he shouted, pronouncing each word distinctly.

Anna didn’t know what
to say. For a moment the surprised expression of her father
appeared to her. She was sticking the paper cutter in his abdomen,
their faces one in front of the other; his eyes staring at her. It
had been the only time in her life she had touched him. She had
previously erased all memory of the moment in which she had
assaulted him. She just remembered seizing the paper cutter. Then
there was blood on her gloves, whilst he was lying on his back on
the floor. But now that image rose from the ranks, springing before
her eyes by force.

She broke out in a
cold sweat and started shivering.

“Anna?” The sound of
Hassan’s voice fell on deaf ears. His menacing expression had
transformed to one of worry.

“Rover Two, Station
Alpha here, do you read me?” Michelle’s words reached her earphones
at an unusually high volume, and it shook her to her senses.

She pushed him with
both hands, making him back off a pace. “You’re a psychopath,” she
hissed.

He let an amused smile
escape.

“Hassan, please,
answer.” There was anguish in Michelle’s voice. “I need you.”

His face changed in a
jiffy, clouded. And he hastened to activate the transceiver.
“What’s happening? Is Dennis okay?”

Dennis?

“No, he had a
respiratory crisis …” A sigh was heard through the earphones. “I
believed he was about to die.”

“Michelle, calm down,
explain to me what happened.” Hassan tried to sound reassuring and
professional. In a brief moment he had returned to being a
physician, a role with which Anna had had little to do.

“I don’t know. I found
him seated on the floor. He was struggling to breath; he couldn’t
talk to me. I’ve administered him oxygen, in the infirmary. He is
there now. He says he feels a weight on his chest. He coughed up
blood.”

“Give him some
Xantolyn and continue with the oxygen. We’ll be there as soon as
possible.”

 

 

Ten minutes later,
they were in the rover travelling towards Station Alpha. They had
loaded all the equipment and left.

“What’s wrong with
Dennis?”

Hassan kept on driving
and seemed not to have heard her question. The fact he wasn’t
surprised about the sudden illness of the commander didn’t escape
Anna. Something was happening which she wasn’t aware of.

“I’ve asked a
question,” she insisted.

“He’s got cancer.”

Her blood froze at the
news.

“What kind of cancer?”
It was difficult for her to restrain herself from asking what was
closer to her heart. She had at least to inquire about the details.
“Lung cancer?”

“Liver. Six months
ago, I removed a small tumorous mass, and since then he’s been
undergoing chemotherapy. I did the latest check five days ago, and
it hadn’t metastasised.” He shook his head. “I don’t
understand.”

But Anna’s mind had
stopped at the beginning of his statement. “You operated on Dennis
six months ago?” she interrupted him, disbelieving.

“Exactly.” He said it
as if it was obvious, as if it happened every day.

“Have you informed
Houston?” Perhaps that was the right moment to ask.

Hassan emitted a sarcastic cry. “For a split
second I thought you were really worried about Dennis. But instead
you’re just afraid of the repercussions on the launch of the
Isis
2
.”

She did nothing but
make a face and wait.

“No, we decided to
keep it secret for avoiding consequences on the mission. It was his
first thought, too.”

It made sense. If those at Johnson Space Center
had known about Dennis’s illness for six months,
Isis 2
would be already dead and gone.
Public opinion would’ve have been scathing about it. Everybody knew
that the colonisers would die on Mars, but not so soon.

“You haven’t answered
my question.”

It took a moment for
Anna to get the sudden change of subject. “Which question?”

“You know what I
mean.”

“You remind me of my
father.”

Her reply puzzled him,
but it hushed him just for a few seconds.

“Your father, you mean
the man who scarpered when your mother was expecting you?” Tact
wasn’t perhaps one of his virtues, but Anna was sure he did it on
purpose. “I didn’t know you were in touch.”

“We’re not.”

“And so, I remind you
of him. Do we look alike?”

“Not at all, but it’s
the same. You’re all alike.”

Again that cry.


You?
Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately,
Miss Sweden?”

“I have nothing to do
with you all!” she shouted.

“You’re ridiculous, do
you know?” His icy tone could barely conceal his rage. “Instead of
coming here to Mars and dumping your frustrations on others, you’d
have been better off clarifying things with your father, once for
all.”


I’ve done it,’
she thought; it wasn’t what she said.
“I’ve killed him.” Those words exited her mouth as if they had a
will of their own. She regretted her statement a split second after
pronouncing it, but she also felt relieved. It was the first time
she revealed it to anyone. It was the first time she’d admitted it
even to herself.

The rover jerked. It
was the only perceivable reaction from Hassan. Or maybe it had been
just a stone on the ground. Difficult to say with any
certainty.

“I met him some days
before the launch and I stuck a paper cutter into his stomach.”

She stole a glance at
him to gauge the effect of that news. He was motionless, his eyes
fixed ahead, as if he was deciding what to do about it.

Anna felt powerful.
For a moment, she savoured again the pleasure she had felt in
stabbing her father. Even though the thought of what she had done
had tormented her since, she’d never felt guilty. That despicable
man had deserved her hatred, and even his own death. She prided
herself on having killed him, and she really believed it, for at
least five seconds.

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