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 (7 page)

BOOK: People of Mars
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Then he lost his
grip.

But at the very last
moment he felt his arm being grabbed.

 

 

“Pressure equalised,”
the inexpressive voice of the AI enunciated inside the airlock.

His hands still
trembling, Robert tried to unfasten the safety lock of his helmet,
but his fingers kept on slipping on the mechanism. Hassan, who had
already removed his own, reached out towards him.

“Don’t you fucking
touch me!” Robert said, pushing him away.

“Hey, calm down. I
just want to help you.”

“You’ve already done
enough for today.” His voice was broken by adrenaline, which still
flowed in his body. Finally, a click was heard and the helmet’s
base detached from its seat.

“You are in shock. Sit
down for a moment and breathe.”

“Where the fuck have
you gotten to?!”

Hassan looked at him,
puzzled.

“I’ve been calling you
for at least five minutes!” Robert continued. Now he was trying to
take off the remainder of his suit, but he didn’t appear to be
making any progress.

“I didn’t hear you.
Are you sure you haven’t turned off your transceiver?”

As he heard the
calmness of the other man’s voice, Robert lost his temper and
lunged at him, grabbing his neck. “Fuck you, you tried to kill
me!”

But Hassan didn’t seem
at all perturbed by the accusation. His gaze expressed a composure
barely tinged by annoyance.

“Rob, get your hands
off me.” He articulated those words one by one. “I have no
intention of hurting you, now. But if you don’t back off, I will be
forced to.”

Robert stared straight
at his eyes for some moments. Hassan was bigger and stronger than
he was. With a tug, he pushed his colleague against the wall and
took a step back.

“You unhooked my
safety rope.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement.

“I beg your pardon?”
There was an air of superiority in Hassan’s tone. How it got on
Robert’s nerves when he used it.

“Don’t pretend you
don’t understand!”

“I was twenty metres
away.”

“No.” Robert shook his
head. That wasn’t what he meant. He felt confused. “I mean … you
didn’t fasten it as you should have on purpose.”

Hassan let a chuckle
escape. “You’re out of your mind. I bet you smoked a joint before
breakfast … or worse. Lately I’ve noticed some inconsistencies in
the medicine inventory …” He stopped abruptly and tilted his head.
“What’s on your neck?” And he tried to get closer to him. “It looks
like a big bruise.”

Robert instinctively
touched the spot pointed by the other guy and, as he did so, it
hurt a bit. But he didn’t want to offer him an opportunity to
change the subject.

“It’s very strange.
Let me have a look at it.”

“I said don’t touch
me!” His voice exited his throat with a higher tonality than the
one he’d have wanted. “You fastened my safety rope. I trusted you!”
Robert pointed his finger at him.

“I’ve fastened it
perfectly. You were there, too.” Hassan picked up the snap-link and
started examining it. “Here it is, I knew it, look, it’s bent. The
latch doesn’t match completely and the rope passed through it,
while you were struggling.”

“You bent it!” Robert
realised he was sounding like a broken record, but he couldn’t
stop.

“Oh, yes, now I can
bend steel with the power of my thoughts,” Hassan mocked. “It’s
your responsibility to check all your equipment before any external
activity.” His tone became grave. “Don’t get mad at me because
you’ve become inattentive and you’re sloppy when doing your tasks.
They should’ve never selected you for this mission.”

“You’d have liked
that, wouldn’t you?”

 

 

Why didn’t Michelle
answer?

She had sent her the
data and pictures more than half an hour earlier. She needed to
talk with her. The more time went on, the more frequently she swung
between the sensations of great discovery and great blunder. But
no, it couldn’t be a simple artefact. She felt it was
important.

The sudden and abrupt
opening of the door, as she was immersed in her thoughts, made her
start.

“What the …
Robert!”

He had stormed into
the laboratory in a flash. But why was he still wearing the
external activity suit?

“I don’t wanna be
caught in the middle.” He was speaking and shaking his head. He
looked upset.

“What happened?” She
was worried. She had never seen him like that.

But he ignored her
question. “Hassan is your fucking obsession. I don’t wanna be
caught in your crossfire. Enough. I’m outta here.” He moved his
arms as a sign of surrender.

“Tell me, what
happened?” She got closer to him, taking his face in her hands. It
was soaked and cold.

He didn’t stop her,
but remained rigid. He appeared to be out of his senses. “He tried
to kill me out there,” he shouted, pointing to an undefined spot on
his right. He almost whined.

“Rob, Rob,” Anna
called him, forcing him to look her in the eye. “You’re safe now.
Breathe. Tell me everything.”

“He sabotaged my
equipment.” He was panting.

“Think, why would he
do that? It’s absurd.”

Robert appeared to
calm down. He watched her in silence for a moment. “You tell me
why.” His voice’s tone was quiet now, sharp.

Anna held her breath.
What was he talking about? How could he know?

“Do you think I’m
completely blind? Or just stupid?”

“You’re fucking
paranoid, Green,” Hassan started off, while he entered the room.
Unlike Robert, he wasn’t wearing his suit anymore.

The latter pushed back
Anna’s hands brutally and hurled himself at him. But Hassan blocked
his arms.


If I wanted to kill you …” he hissed. “We wouldn’t
be having this conversation, because you’d
already
be dead.”

Robert tried to free
himself, pointlessly.

“And anyway I do know
more creative and reliable ways to succeed, without having to rely
upon your ineptitude.”

Unable to utter a
word, she watched them terrified. She had never seen so much hatred
and verbal violence since the beginning of the mission. She was
afraid that, whatever she did, she might make the situation
worse.

Then Hassan let him
go.

“Fuck you,” Robert
inveighed against him and, without losing eye contact with the
other man, backed off with an awkward pace towards the door. And he
went out as quickly as he had entered.

“You are a bastard.”
Anna regretted the words the very moment Hassan turned to her,
fixing his furious gaze on her.


If I’m a bastard, what are
you
?”

She felt as if she had
been stabbed by that unexpected statement, by the maliciousness
with which it had been expressed; she was unable to answer back
even when he walked on and stopped in front of her. Then, as if to
react to an imminent threat, she raised her hand to slap him.

But he blocked it mid air. “Let me understand.
I’ve really become the subject of all your
outbursts
, haven’t I?”

Caught by surprise,
she didn’t dare reply.

“This entire situation
is your fault, you know?”

What the hell was he
talking about?

“You play the bosom
buddy with him, for years. All that cuddling and massaging … but
you won’t put out. And then he loses his head.” He grinned,
sarcastic. He seemed pleased by the sound of his own voice.


Who says you’re the only subject of my outbursts?”
Why the hell didn’t she shut up? She was
alone
with him, he was blocking her, holding her arm,
and she continued to provoke him. She was really asking for
it.

Hassan appeared to
consider her statement for some long seconds, maybe undecided on
the best way to punish her. Then all of a sudden he started
laughing out loud.

All useless. He hadn’t
believed her.


You and
brother
Rob?” And he laughed again, but without releasing his grip
on her. “Sometimes you can be really witty, little
Anna.”

She tried to take
advantage of his hilarity to free herself, but with no result.

“You’re hurting
me.”

Hassan stopped
laughing and resumed studying her with his dark, inscrutable eyes.
His fingers relaxed so that she wouldn’t feel any pain, but not
enough to let her go.

“There’s one thing you
should know well. Among all of you there’s only one person I would
never intentionally hurt … you.”

Anna stopped
struggling and decided to look at him again. Every part of him
expressed a sense of menace. But not his eyes. They seemed
sincere.

“Anna, here I am, are
you still there?” Michelle’s voice resounded from the
loudspeakers.

“I have to answer.”
She said that, indicating her wrist, which was still imprisoned in
Hassan’s grip, with her eyes.

Finally he opened his
fingers.

Removing her gaze from
his, Anna went back to the counter and activated the main screen in
the laboratory, where Michelle’s face appeared. She was on the
passenger’s seat inside the rover. From the picture, it was evident
that the vehicle was moving. The woman smiled.

“We’re just finished
loading the equipment and we are returning to the station. I’m so
looking forward to telling you everything.”

“So, what do you
think?” Anna interrupted her, without a big preamble, and turned on
the microscope’s screen. She wasn’t interested at all about the
outcome of the sortie.

“What’s this?” Hassan
stepped in, behind her.

Michelle’s puzzled
gaze turned to him. “Ah, you’re there, too …” She wasn’t smiling
anymore now. In fact, she looked annoyed.

Anna turned to him, but he seemed not to notice
her gesture and kept on watching the same screen, with a worried
expression. Therefore she placed a finger on her
folio
, still in
operation on the counter, and in doing so a pointer appeared on the
picture.

“This is a colony of
environmental bacteria. There are so many of them on the laboratory
floor, they come from the greenhouse.” With a circular movement of
the pointer she highlighted an azure stain. “I’ve found several of
them.”

“And why are we
looking at some banal environmental bacteria?” Hassan had now come
closer to the microscope, just beside her.

“Yesterday Robert
broke a vial containing a sample of regolith, which we’d collected
during our latest sortie.”

He let an ironic snort
escape. “That’s why I had to put three stitches in his hand. What
an idiot.”

Unwittingly, Anna
found herself almost smiling at that comment, but she tried not to
let it show and resumed talking. “I believed I’d cleaned everything
from the floor, but some of it was still down there.” She pointed
to an imprecise spot near the counter. “Along with some blood
drops, which the bacteria appreciated.”

“Interesting.” It was
evident from the tone of his voice that he thought the exact
opposite.


Wait,” she cut in, irritated, while searching for
something in her
folio
. Anna had
now put aside any personal competitions and identified again with
her scientific role, and she wouldn’t accept anyone not taking her
seriously. Eventually she found what she was looking for and
expressed it with a pleased smile, while placing the previous
image, reddish with solid azure stains, side by side with a new
picture of the vial containing the intact rocky sample. The latter
looked like ordinary regolith, but, as light hit that from
different direction, it caused weird azure reflections.

Hassan’s gaze lit up, but before he could say
anything Anna enlarged the first image, showing that the phenomenon
was in fact due to the presence of many tiny, azure spots randomly
arranged within each single stain on the surface of the Martian
substrate.

“They are crystals of
beryllium, exactly aquamarine, but they are microscopic.”

“The bacteria have
subsumed the crystals.”


All
the crystals,” Anna specified, showing an enlarged
image with some azure-dotted bacteria, whilst the space around them
let the white light of the microscope freely pass
through.

“You can’t say that
with absolute certainty, without checking the whole sample,”
Michelle stepped in. Her cautious attitude annoyed Anna.

“It’d take a lifetime
to check it all.” She didn’t like when someone contradicted her.
She had spent the entire day on that wad of dust and, when she
worked, she did so with extreme care and professionalism. “But I
have checked enough of it to be reasonably certain I’m not
wrong.”

Michelle didn’t look
convinced at all. “Curb your enthusiasm.”

“I think Anna is
right.” Hassan had just spoken. His unusual statement hushed both
women.

“That’s a good one!
You agreeing with Anna about something.” Michelle’s voice tone was
sarcastic, but he ignored her.


As far as I know, there’s no reason why bacteria
should selectively absorb some microcrystals of beryllium, so much
as to concentrate them in their cytoplasm. It would be strange even
if they just contained the double the amount compared to the
outside.”

“They may have been
bound to organic particles already available on the floor, which
the bacteria have then taken via phagocytosis.” Was Michelle just
playing the devil’s advocate in that situation, to avoid easy
enthusiasms, or was there something else she couldn’t stand?

He grumbled. “Anything
may have happened to this sample. It remained in a damp, highly
contaminated place for many hours. But this is still a bizarre
phenomenon.”

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