Mars Descent Excerpt

Grace Donner woke to the crackle of static and the raspy sound of the captain’s voice.

“Good evening, folks. I hope you had a pleasant sleep. This is Captain LaSalle. Approach Control has just granted us permission to land at Elysium Planitia. Local time is seventeen hundred hours. There’s a sandstorm heading in from the south, but I anticipate being inside the dome before it arrives. Please follow the directions of the crew as we prepare to descend. Enjoy the landing.”

Grace’s ptenda had rebooted, its screen cluttered with winking symbols. One priority message from Italitech-Bransen. She wondered if she had been fired yet. A fistful of messages from her dad, mostly time stamped the first few days after her ship had left Earth. Had Dad guessed where she was?

Time enough for those later. Grace looked up, blinking to clear her vision. The passenger bay ghosted with blue lights and slowly moving people. She could make out the still form of Raj in the next pod, his dark curls like blue serpents.

She stretched carefully, testing the muscles in her arms and legs. She felt cold, but there was not as much atrophy as she’d expected. Good.

Tim Trouncer also stirred from where he had nestled beside her. The PodPooch’s mimic surface shimmered before resolving into glossy black fur. His ears flopped. Now he looked like a terrier instead of an illegal AI.

Tim raised his head, blinking luminous mechanical eyes at her.

“If you’re awake,” he said, “does that mean I lose my pillow?”

“Shhh!” she warned. A crewman was walking toward them.

The crewman nodded affably. “Feeling all right?” he asked.

“Like a cold slab of ribs.”

“Ha. Get used to that. Mars standard temperature for the domes,” he said as he reached for Tim.

“Hey–!” Grace swatted the crewman away and hugged the PodPooch. She willed her groggy eyes into a full glare.

“Please, Miss,” the crewman said, then checked the credentials transmitting from her ptenda. “Protector Donner. We’ll have to stow it. The mob would tear your mechanical dog apart.”

“What mob?”

The crewman fidgeted. “There’s some kind of widespread robot malfunction, and folks are scared and mad at the extra work.” He glanced at the PodPooch. “Your toy is going to end up a piñata.”

Grace shook her head. “But we’ve rented a transport. We’re planning on departing directly for Albor Dome tonight.”

“Your PodPooch will be delivered to your transport along with the rest of your gear.”

Grace looked at Tim and then back at the crewman.

She sighed. “Will you personally put him in the delivery locker with our duffels?”

“You have my word.”

Grace reluctantly handed Tim to the crewman. The pooch tilted his head and stuck out a blue tongue as he was carried away.

“Stay sharp, Grace,” Tim said. His voice came from the dermal dot behind her left ear. “Keep Raj out of trouble. I won’t be able to LEMP anyone for you, but I’ll get into the dome system and monitor the situation.”

“You can do that?”

Tim snorted. “Can you fire a gun?”

“Ugh. It’s gotten worse,” came Raj’s voice in the pod next to her.

Grace turned. Her old friend was leaning over his ptenda, squinting despite the enhancement grafts to his eyes and brain. She smiled. No matter how much metarm Raj Chanho added to his body, he couldn’t shake his humanity.

“What’s gotten worse?” she asked.

“Mars. We’ll be landing under planetary martial law.”

“The crewman said it was only a robot malfunction.”

“It is,” said Raj. “But you have to understand, machines are far more important here than back home. On Earth, they’re luxuries. You can easily live in your tech-free cloisters without robots. Here the environment is far more hostile. Martian robots have been doing most of the manual work for generations, especially outside the domes.”

“What made them malfunction?”

Raj looked back at his ptenda. “The report coming out of Martian Interdome Authority hasn’t changed much. Robots have malfunctioned and are leaving the domes or being forced out.” He paused. “That just sounds odd. Why aren’t they trying to fix the robots? You don’t just throw out masses of electrical equipment.”

Grace shrugged. Being cloister-bred, she didn’t have Raj’s instincts about technology.

“A layover on Mars. Whose great idea was that? Remind me.”

“It’s still a great idea,” said Raj. “A robot meltdown? They’ll need me here.”

“With martial law and mobs, it sounds more like they’ll need my expertise.”

“Like I said, great idea.”

Grace smirked. “Just as long as this great idea has some bacon ready when we’re on the surface. I’m starving.”

She shifted in her seat, stretching her back and relishing the soothing pops moving up her spine. But as she twisted her neck, she felt the skin pull.

Grace frowned. Had her suit snagged on something? She reached around to the back of her neck, just above the pressure suit ring.

“What is this?” she asked aloud, probing a cold metal disc with her fingers.

“It’s a sleep squeeze,” Raj said, not looking up from his ptenda.

“Why do I have one?”

“Crew must have dropped us into cold sleep when the robot thing happened. They probably weren’t sure they could land.”

“Can I get it off?”

“Here,” Raj said, leaning over. “I’ll do it. And you get mine. Just pinch and twist a little.”

The squeeze came off with a popping sound. Grace turned to help Raj.

“How long has it been?” Grace asked. Dad’s messages. How long had she been gone?

Raj flipped her sleep squeeze and checked the settings. “Three weeks, according to this.”

Grace felt her stomach knot. She had experienced a lot since she’d registered as a protector–since she’d left the technology-limited cloister and its simple ways. It angered her that the crew could casually remove her life for weeks without her knowledge or consent.

Ptendas flashed again, followed by bright cabin lights and groans from the other five passengers. The forward screens went yellow and buzzed a cabin-wide audio message.

“Sorry, folks, this is Captain LaSalle again. Just an update. In five minutes you may feel a bump or two. Don’t be alarmed. That’ll be your combined payload and passenger section separating from my long hauler. You’ll descend to the surface, pass through the airlock, and be on the pad at the promenade in about fifteen minutes.”

“Welcome to Mars,” Grace muttered to no one.

She felt the ship begin to shake.

“We’re entering the atmosphere now,” Raj said.

Grace noticed Raj tighten his restraints.

“Worried?”

He shook his head. “No, just–”

“Want your helmet?”

“Don’t be silly. I just don’t like jostling around.”

The viewscreens in the cabin flashed the company logo, then changed to an exterior view.

Below, Grace saw a gentle slope that curved higher and higher until it reached a large, flattened peak.

“What is that, Raj?”

“Elysium Mons.”

They were approaching from the east. The evening sun backlit the extinct volcano. They were skimming along the surface of Mars in its shadow, and the gentle orange slope of Elysium Mons was a pillar marking the edge of a vast plain, stretching toward the too-near horizon. The occasional white escarpment flashed like a row of teeth. It reminded Grace of the high deserts back home in Cloister 11, but there were no trees or shrubs. Just a sea of rusty sand.

“It’s beautiful, Raj.”

They sped south over Elysium Planitia. Something ahead glinted in the light, breaking the gentle rise and fall of the land.

“Is that our destination?” she asked.

Raj nodded. “Elysium.”

“It doesn’t look very big.”

“The perspective is off, with that huge volcano nearby. The dome is a hundred meters high at its center, and there’s also fifty meters subsurface.”

“They live underground, too?” Grace asked.

“Yeah.”

Grace looked at the rapidly approaching city, its pale green spires visible beneath the dome. She wondered what it would be like to live in a world with wide-open spaces, yet be confined to an artificial bubble. Were mobs common here?

The cruiser banked, circling the dome. Grace looked down and could see details inside one of the railway spokes radiating out from the dome. The platforms were crowded with people, but Grace didn’t see any other cruisers.

She leaned in close to Raj. “When we stop, I want to exit quickly. Best to get a tactical read right away.”

“Uh–what?” His eyes widened. “Why? What’s wrong?”

Passenger ptendas winked as the cruiser separated from the lander. The shudder of separation was more muted than Grace expected. Soon the lander rumbled along the tracks. They were on Mars.

“Captain LaSalle here again. I see you made it fine. Just so you know, the port’s operating on a skeleton crew. There may be delays once you disembark. I’d just like to remind the passengers of Form Eleven-Seventy-Two, the death and damage waiver. Each of you signed it, and we’ve gotten you here safely. That’s all that counts. Oh, and welcome to Elysium.”

The cruiser lurched to a stop and the forward doors hissed as latches unsealed and cabin pressure equalized. Grace reached above her pod and unstrapped two helmets, handing one to Raj. The helmets were light gray, with a translucent brown visor. Spherical, yet squashed to conform more closely with the human head than the space helmets in the vids. Grace tipped the helmet and peered inside. The display on the interior of the visor was blank, but she knew it would activate if she put it on. Grace clipped the helmet to the back of her suit and nodded at Raj. They unstrapped from their pods.

There was a deep thud as the forward doors latched into their open position.

“Quick, Raj. Before anyone leaves the cruiser.”

She tugged her friend out of his seat and moved down the aisle, her first steps wobbly in the reduced gravity. In the bulkhead doorway, she looked down the ramp, through the masses of people, and pointed toward an isolated spot near the engines.

“What’s the rush? Only five other passengers.” Raj stopped as she yanked harder. “Hold on, Grace. Don’t pull!”

“Tactical, Raj,” Grace said as she hustled him down the ramp and into the crowd. She zigzagged forward, forging a path of least resistance toward the wall. Raj trotted behind.

“See them?” She pointed to a loosely organized crew. “It’s a security force, but none of their uniforms even match. They have weapons, but no holsters.”

“Phasewaves must be new to them,” Raj said.

Grace grabbed Raj by the arm and brought him in close, still scanning the area. “Exactly why I want out of their way. They probably don’t know how to work the safeties.” She let go. “I’m not anxious to get scrambled today. Let’s stay close to the dome wall. There’s too many people here.”

Grace moved along the dome wall, past steelbacks fitted with cannons and officers with red stripes painted unevenly on their shoulders. From behind came screams as another lander rolled into the crowd on the tracks.

“It’s crazy out here,” Raj said breathlessly. “Do you think the dome’s in danger? Should we wear our helmets?”

Grace shook her head.

“Keep it off, Raj. No one else is wearing one. We look conspicuous enough as it is.”

Grace stumbled again and glowered down at her feet. She leaned against the wall for a moment, fighting a wave of agoraphobia. The way she walked in this gravity made her feel like a target, obvious and foreign to everyone around her. The press of the mob made her nervous, with its makeshift militia and overabundance of firepower. During their final descent, she had marveled at the peaceful vistas of Mars. But there were no orange volcanoes here, sloping down to sweeping plains. Every square meter teemed with cybernetically-enhanced dockworkers and deep space drillers, all angry and shouting at once, extending far into the broad old dome, humanity’s first settlement on the Red Planet.

Small six-man transports were everywhere now. Pilots were landing in an unorganized mess, crashing onto the rails and one another. The smell of ozone, dust, and sweat lingered in the air. Behind them, the lander Grace and Raj had just left was on its side, surrounded by people.

Grace fingered her ptenda, looking for directions to their cruiser. She hoped that their rental was in a hanger somewhere away from these tracks. Had Tim made it aboard, as the crewman promised?

“Tim?” she signaled through her dermal dot.

No answer.

“I can’t get Tim,” Grace shouted over the din.

“Probably too many conflicting signals,” Raj said. “Give him a chance to integrate.”

“I hope he’ll be all right,” she said.

“Don’t worry, Grace,” Raj put a hand on her shoulder. “Tim’s twice as smart, twice as resourceful as we are. Not to mention he’s got LEMP. He’ll be fine.”

Raj jumped as a small explosion reverberated.

“What the–? Let’s get inside somewhere, Grace.”

“We are inside, Raj.”

“You know what I mean. More inside. This inside is like outside, and I want to be more inside.”

Grace looked toward the central areas, away from the wall, and shook her head. It was a sea of movement. The street noise was maddening. An emergency siren blared, unchecked, in the distance. And the security! Grace was used to assemblies of well-trained soldiers. What she saw now was a throng of frightened, terribly enhanced children, dressed in poorly-fitting battle suits that ranged in age from modern to archaic.

“I think we’re better off near the wall, Raj.”

“Let’s just keep going,” Raj said.

Grace nodded. They had begun heading toward the rail exit when a movement caught her attention.

Just ahead, at the end of the rail, a transport hatch opened and a military officer emerged. Unlike the haphazard militia, he had the bearing of a trained soldier, with no unwieldy upgrades except for slashes of facial cicatrix. He stood at parade rest and squinted at the crowd amid a scatter of cheers. The mood in the crowd shifted from ugly to expectant.

“Hmm. Wonder what he wants?” she murmured.

“Local authority?” Raj asked.

Grace nodded. “Or regional. He’s going to start organizing the crowd.”

Sure enough, the man started barking orders. A squad of militia began righting one of the overturned landers. Another squad unloaded a transport behind it. Grace admired the speed with which the captain took command. A capable commander can get people to do just about anything, if they are scared or mad enough. More so if they’re both, she mused.

As the crowd began to organize, a soldier noticed them and approached.

“This isn’t good,” said Raj. She could tell he wanted to disappear.

“It’s just a flunky to round up the stragglers,” explained Grace. “Don’t worry. I’ll handle it.”

This soldier was also professional, his uniform crisp and his lines straight, with the epaulette of a lieutenant. Grace regarded him calmly as she waited for him to reach her.

“Citizens,” he began, “you are conscripted for duty, by order of the government of Elysium Planitia. Thank you in advance for your mandatory compliance.” He was rushing through the words as he read from his ptenda. “We have been ordered to enlist every citizen capable of bearing weapons.” The soldier looked at their civilian pressure suits. “Battle suits will be provided for you.”

Which ones? Those antique battle suits? Grace laughed. Maybe this is like cloister, after all.

The lieutenant’s already stern expression clicked several notches graver. He turned and barked for two soldiers nearby.

Grace swallowed her mirth immediately. “Sir, we’re alien,” she said, gesturing to Raj. “Neither of us is from Mars. We’ve just arrived from Earth.”

As she spoke, one of the soldiers put a hand on Raj’s shoulder. He squirmed out of reach, moving closer to her.

“Look,” said Grace, “I’m a registered protector, and this man is a surgeon. We would be happy to help, but conscription is unnecessary.”

“Save yourself the trouble, Protector. There was a planetary ban on spacecraft landings for a reason. As your craft so blatantly defied our orders, you and the other passengers will simply have to deal with the situation. While you are breathing dome air, you are under the jurisdiction of Elysium Planitia Dome Authority. You are hereby enlisted and you will follow Platoon F to barracks.” The man turned to Raj. “That goes for you, too.”

Grace straightened her back and stared at the lieutenant, who was some five centimeters shorter than she.

His eyes darted back to Grace. “Don’t you get it? All the twofers are gone. No mechanical support. We can’t just live out on the plains.”

“And if we refuse?” Raj asked.

The lieutenant smiled. “Refuse? Nonsense. You said you wanted to help, didn’t you? All you have to do is lift your feet and let the crowd carry you forward.”

Raj looked at Grace. His lips didn’t move, but his voice sounded in her dot. “We can’t be conscripted, right? The Compstate-Mars treaties forbid it, don’t they? These people don’t have the jurisdiction to–”

Her glare stopped Raj. She didn’t have a graft like he did, but he knew her expressions.

“We’d be happy to help,” Grace told the soldier.

He nodded. They had no choice, but he’d kept it civil. Grace and Raj followed the lieutenant to a group of people, none of them dressed the same, many acting nervous. They all looked up as a low rumble spread across the dome.

“What was that?” Raj asked.

“Sandstorm. It shifted toward us a half hour ago,” the lieutenant said, turning his head toward the horizon outside the dome. “It will be here soon.”

Another rumble. Grace felt as well as heard it. At the head of the unit, the captain cocked his head as though listening to the sound, but he may have been getting instructions through his dermal. He pointed across the dome.

“Move out!”

“You heard the captain! Move out!” shouted the lieutenant, running to the front of the platoon.

Grace and Raj had to jog. The crush of untrained conscripts was overpowering, and it was far less painful to keep pace than to stop or resist. Running was difficult for Grace and Raj, whose instincts were at war with Martian gravity. They eventually managed a kind of awkward skip-bounce.

“That’s where we’re headed,” Grace said to Raj. She pointed to a squat building, into which the soldiers and conscripts streamed without queues. Raj swallowed and nodded to her. She saw his fear. He was no soldier.

And he wouldn’t have to be. Halfway to the barracks, Grace put one hand behind Raj’s shoulder, as if to buddy-hug him.

“What are you doing!” Raj blurted, right before Grace slung her other arm under his knees.

“Physics 101, Raj. Are you sure you’re a scientist?”

Grace leaped. She flew in the opposite direction of the throng of soldiers. At least a meter above the heads of the tallest, she cleared the ranks and landed near an abandoned shop, ducking inside.

She held her breath for a moment, but the sounds of the soldiers receded. Grace panted, laughing to herself.

“That was easy,” she said.

“Put me down Grace, umm, or marry me,” Raj said, stuttering from the shock.

Another rumble, this time accompanied by a shower of shards falling from the top of the dome, some hundred meters above. Red pressure spheres raced toward the apex while klaxons signaled a leak. Grace put Raj down and they watched, crouched beneath the shop window.

The repair spheres disappeared near the top of the dome in a flash of light. An explosion, followed by a wave of dust. The concussion hit them, sending Grace and Raj to the ground, tangled in broken window plastic. In the distance, she heard the officers screaming orders.

Grace scrambled over Raj. She grabbed his helmet and snapped it onto his head. Then she fastened hers. Through the visor, she watched the pandemonium, muffled now, and distant. Most of the troops had moved away from their area.

“Raj, can you hear me?” she said into the helmet. Grace watched for acknowledgement.

He nodded.

“Most of them are gone or distracted. Now’s our chance to run.”

“Where?”

She scanned the horizon. Bright yellow and blue flames licked the exit nearest to them. The other side of the dome looked better, but she didn’t relish running out in the open.

“We’ll move away from the fire, but stay along the dome wall again, ok?”

“Why the wall? Is it safer?”

Grace shrugged. “No, but at least we’ll have a frame of reference. Bounce!”

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