“Happy New Year!” Emma whispered.
“A toast to 2049!” Marius said it quite loudly as raised his right hand.
Emma giggled and gave him a high-five as each of the two conspirators took a tiny sip of home brew through the straw inside their biosuit helmet.
Even with the shed light on, a few flashing LED lights on the instrument banks around the two seated people could be seen. Emma’s eyes instinctively narrowed as she noticed them, though of course everything was really nominal here in MAIN 4.
Last night Marius had set those alarms to start flashing at 2314 hours today in order to give the two on-call techs an excuse for this maintenance run.
Actually the blinking red, orange and yellow lights looked rather festive, which was appropriate.
The helmet clock displays read 0010. It was just another Mars workday in the year L50 CT (Convention Time), but back on Earth mobs were filling Times Square and other places in wild celebration of a new Terran year.
“You don’t have to whisper,” Marius said with a big grin that went well with his Danish good looks. “They can’t hear us.”
“I know. It’s just…you know.”
Having alcohol was a 50-pointer. Using it on the job was a century, so they already had accumulated enough for banishment, but celebrating the Earth holiday put them up to 170, enough to take Commander’s Discretion out of the picture. And banishment from the Mars Metacolony was an automatic death sentence.
Emma reached over and switched off the shed light. MAIN 4’s work area was a little crowded with 2 people inside, but there was still room enough to stretch her legs and lean back to enjoy the colorful lights, flashing or steady, on the encircling instrument bank.
“Wow! That’s so pretty. So, what’s bothering you, Emma? Nothing happened last year.”
“Aw, you know me – always worrying about something.” She felt silly now. The alcohol was relaxing and gave her a nice little high.
Marius nodded. “Good thing, too. Remember that – whoa, it’s coming up on the half-hour. You or me?”
In a few seconds, they both pressed a white button on their wrist board. In addition, Marius flicked a switch on the instruments panel to his left and one of the flashing lights turned a steady green. Then he spoke, deepening his voice and speaking with careful precision.
“Control, Repair Team Gamma. Copy?”
“Roger, Repair Team Gamma.” It was one of the new settlers, a woman. Emma couldn’t remember her name but knew her face when it appeared on the heads-up display. “Progress report.”
“The problem still appears to be in R42, third level. We’re continuing to look around.”
The relay controlled a set of circuits that backed up a few side valves in the hydroponics sector. It was just about the least significant connection in the entire colony.
“Roger that, Gamma. How much longer, in your estimate?”
Marius sighed convincingly. “Hard to say, Control. I’m guessing another couple of hours anyway, but we’ll have a better idea at 0100.”
“Roger, Gamma. Control over and out.”
The woman hadn’t changed expression at all. These newbies were all so terribly serious and “by the book.”
“Over and out.”
He flicked the switch again and the flashing light reappeared.
Emma waited until he sent the test tone over the commo link and no feedback returned. Then she said, in a monotone, “Control over and out.”
Marius laughed at the sharp “t” sound at the end, just the way the woman at Control had said it.
“Newbies!” They both spoke at the same time, and then he said, “Happy New Year!”
“Many happy returns!” Emma replied, this time almost shouting it as she raised her gloved hand and took a sip.
After the requisite high-five, they both were quiet for several minutes enjoying the lights in the darkness. In the station, lights were on all the time. You could only shut them off during your sleep period and sometimes even then you had to just wear a sleep mask if your roomie was busy.
Emma broke the silence first.
“We were the same way.” She had been on the planet five years – one year longer than Marius.
“Yeah.” He sounded more reflective. “It’s so exciting at first…what I wouldn’t give to see real sunlight and a blue sky once more. Real stuff.”
“The sims just aren’t the same.”
“No, they’re not. And the hydroponics…” The young man paused for a sip of booze.
“I agree. Just not the same green. Lord, my eyes hunger for green!”
“I know. To think red used to be my favorite color!”
The conversation faded for a few minutes, and then Emma spoke up. Marius couldn’t see her ebony face, but the reflections of light on her helmet shield were beautiful.
“What’s her name? ” Emma asked him. “Margarita…Marguerite…?”
“Control? I don’t know her.” He thought for a bit and then said, “She came up with Luc Israel on the last flight,. Now that’s one great medic, Luc Israel. He’s got a great future ahead of him – might even get elected Commander one day.”
The woman wasn’t so sure. “His ratings aren’t so good with the TV audience back home.”
“Neither were Rufino’s, and he even got reelected.”
“None of us really liked Rufino at first. He was so stiff!”
Marius remembered. “Pretty ‘by the book,’ too, and he still is. He really mellowed after the meteorite strike, though. Remember that speech he gave?” Emma nodded as he went on. “Rufino looks at all sides of a problem before he makes his call.”
“It’s usually a good call, too. I can’t remember any…Hey, 0100 coming up.”
The man reached over and flipped two stitches, neither one having to do with communications. Then he smiled at Emma. “We’re making progress.”
“Yeah, they might get concerned otherwise. We still on R42?”
Marius nodded as they counted down the last minute to 0100 and then pressed the white wrist button simultaneously. He hit the commo switch.
“Control,” said Emma in a crisp, professional voice. “Repair team Gamma.”
The same woman answered. Emma resisted the impulse to ask her what her name was, as social conversation wasn’t allowed during scheduled communications, and instead went through the same conversation that Marius had had with her 30 minutes prior. They signed off and Marius once again successfully tested the closed link.
“HAP-py New Year!” he sang out and Emma laughed.
This time the two techs slapped both hands together and took two sips each. He now had 1 and Emma had 2 sips of their New Year’s “punch” left. Of course they had carefully measured out a safe amount ahead of time and wouldn’t get drunk, but Emma was feeling pretty good.
Content to look at the lights and wander through her own memories of Earth and thoughts of the past and present, she didn’t hear the man sigh but did notice his silence after a while. Though it was over a year since they had broken up as lovers, she knew him well and figured talking would be a good way to bring him out of this before he got gloomy.
“What do you miss most about Earth?” she asked him.
He shot her a look but said nothing, so Emma went on talking.
“I miss trees,” she said. All that green in the leaves along the roadside – how many different kinds of green there are when the sun shines through ’em.”
She waited. After a while, he spoke.
“There was a valley where we lived when I was a kid. And mountains, of course. We lived up in the mountains and the valley was up a little ways behind our house. You could go up there – only in summer, of course, but you could go up there. On a clear, bluebird kind of day, you could sit in the valley and look at the mountains and the white snow against the deep sky. The air was so clean and it was so quiet up there… .”
It was Emma’s turn to sigh. Sure, it was quiet on Mars, but the air was always full of rusty sand and the sunlight was never really bright enough. She’d like to go to the polar regions someday and see the snow, though. Just as she opened her mouth to tell her companion that, he spoke again.
“I get really tired of living this way,” Marius told her. She kept quiet, knowing he would now get whatever it was bothering him off his chest. “They’re always watching us on TV. Why can’t we talk back to them and celebrate the same holidays they do on Earth? Why is it a crime to celebrate New Year’s Day on Mars?”
“Because it’s not New Year’s Day on Mars. You know, like the poster says – ‘We Are The Martians’ and all that. We do things our own way here – we’re taking it to the stars, or at least the Solar System And we do celebrate Martian New Year’s.”
“Yeah and it feels pretty strange, doesn’t it. We’re not the Martians. We’re human beings. Millions of years of Earth’s history is in our DNA. We didn’t leave that behind.”
He always got like this after a little home brew, but this New Year’s Day, with its freshened memories of Earth’s life-giving warmth and water, and all its beauty, Emma just couldn’t think of any countering remark. She agreed with him up to a point. Earth was in your bones and tissues, and that was that. It just wouldn’t always be that way, as time went on. That’s what he didn’t understand.
“We should make New Year’s a holiday here,” he said.
Oh dear, she thought, his jaw is jutting out, which always signaled a temper tantrum. Marius gestured a little forcefully as he went on. “A personal one. You know, different cultures have different dates for it.”
” ‘Wot’s fair there is fair, ‘ere, laddy!’ ” She put a really broad Australian accent on it.
Marius looked at her in shock.
“Jeez, Emma. I’m not saying Ryder Ruatoka was right! That Remember Earth! movement of his almost tore this colony apart.”
“And that’s why Rufino banished him years ago. Marius, look, there’s a reason for every rule around here.”
She thought hard for a minute and then went on. “No. We’re not the Martians. Not yet, not even the new babies. But it won’t always be like that. Some day, we’ll really be part Martian, part Earthling, and when we’re ready, we’ll move on and become part something else. But right now we have to cut ourselves off from thinking about Earth. It’s like a kid growing up. We’ve got to stand up on our own right here, and look outward, at where we want to go, not back at where we first started off.”
After a while the man nodded thoughtfully. “I’d like to see Europa some day.”
This was something new to her. “I thought Titan was more your thing.”
“Well, yeah, hydrocarbon lakes. That would be cool! But the planet’s nothing but fog.” Marius snorted. “I’m so sick of Martian dust. I want something with a clear view.”
“Happy New Year!” Emma raised her hand.
He smiled wryly. “Nice one, Em. Happy New Year! Let’s drain the pot.”
She knew he was over it when he made a loud slurping sound with his last sip. With the home brew gone, they would soon close up here and start back to base.
“Have you changed your mind about having babies, Em?”
“Marius, I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Sorry.” He waited a couple of minutes, and then said, “I know a couple of old hands in Control. They say Ryder’s still out there, and at least one other.”
Marius nodded. “He was a tech. Sure. He could’ve worked something out. If anyone could do it, Ryder could. Supposedly outer commo links near the mountains south of here picked up some faint communication that was … .”
There was sudden heavy pounding on the outside door. Emma gasped. Her clock display read 0143. They’d never checked in!
The door crashed open just as Marius switched the commo link on again. Both of the techs were momentarily disoriented by the cascade of voices through their headsets and the sudden bright light. Days aren’t very bright on Mars, but the sunlight is brilliant to someone who has been sitting in the dark.
The by-the-book newbie had hit the panic button when they didn’t call in on time, dammit!
Things always come up when you’re in the field. That’s why anybody with a little experience would have waited until two consecutive checks were missed before calling out the cavalry.
Somebody said, “They’re okay. I think.”
“Sir, sir… .” Emma couldn’t think of anything to say.
Marius just stood there silently, his shoulders set grimly.
Their rescuers still hadn’t figured it out and were urging the techs to get on medic sleds that sat outside the door.
“What was it? Suit malfunction?” She didn’t know who the man was, but then she wasn’t thinking too well. There was a horrible coldness running along her spine, and her legs felt weak.
“No, no, it wasn’t that,” Emma managed to whisper.
“Sir, her blood alcohol level is through the roof.” Some medic at her side. She hadn’t even noticed the woman there.
“Same here.” The medic who had his arm on Marius sounded very grim.
The rescuer’s eyes widened. “Holy shit.”
The case never went to trial. TV ratings back on Earth broke records, though, during the hearing. Commander Rufino Niek, with tears in his eyes as he read out the sentence of banishment, almost yelled at them for accumulating so many offenses that Commander’s Discretion was revoked. If it was up to him, he said, he would have commuted it to a lifetime of hard labor.
The sentence was carried out immediately. Each allowed to take a single pack of supplies, tools and whatnot with them, as well as a survival shelter. Of course Marius and Emma mostly filled their packs with water and air, cramming what food bars would fit in just before sealing it up.
As the two convicts waited by the air lock for their rover escort, suited up but holding their helmets, Marius leaned over to Emma and whispered, “I commend Commander Rufino for his sense of mercy. A lifetime of hard labor would have been so preferable – I don’t think! Better to get it over quick than be a water miner for the next two or three decades.”
Emma’s face was expressionless and she said nothing. She was, in fact, thinking about the colors of green in tree leaves on a sunny day back home.
The escort arrived. They were armed, though neither Emma nor Marius put up any resistance to being loaded in and locked down on the frame.
Their eyes remained on the base’s outbuildings – including MAIN 4 – as the rover headed south, rolling and bouncing further and further out onto the wide red plain.
It was getting on toward evening and the base could hardly be seen at all when they reached some gully whose name Emma didn’t know and turned left. The rover and its grim crew went on up the stony bed until it reached sand drifts about a mile in. They they stopped.
The prisoners were released and their packs handed to them. The escort had their arms out now. Maybe they expected a scene. Maybe they were offering Marius and Emma the coup de grace over a lingering horror.
It was hard to say for sure.
In any event, both dishonored techs kept their dignity intact at the end, standing quietly, almost placidly as the obligate electronic paperwork was filled out and signed off. Marius had apparently changed his mind about wanting to get it over with quickly. He even saluted the leader before the escort returned to the rover. The salute was returned, though not a word was said by anybody.
The escort left.
Emma and Marius picked up their packs and then looked for and found the same thing in each other’s eyes – resolution to not allow any possibility that their bodies would be found and forever deep-filed as “Criminal” by their fellow human beings.
They turned their backs on the plains.
The gully wound up into the hills. Nobody really know what was in them. The setting sun had turned the western sky a bluish gray. Between that and the dim light, it was hard to tell how far they had to go – four, maybe five kilometers.
“Did your friends in Control say just where in the mountains Ryder might be?” Emma’s voice was strong, with just a little quaver.
Marius shook his head. “If he’s up there, we’ll find him. If he isn’t, we’ll do it ourselves.” It was a vow, not an answer to her question.
They turned and started trudging up the gully. After a while the man spoke again.
“So who’s the real Martians, Emma? Us and Ryder, if he’s up there, or Commander Rufino and all those righteous people back at base?”
She didn’t reply right away.
Then, about ten minutes later she said, “It’s all of us, Marius. We’re taking it all to the stars.”
Copyright © B. J. Deming 2014
All Rights Reserved