Ma’adim Vallis

Once they left Gusev, Wragg began overlapping his shifts with Grace, using the time to teach her more about the ship. Mostly, he had her alternate between the engineering and navigation stations. While monitoring engineering, she was surprised to learn how temperamental the ion engines were. Several times a day she would see via the display status that Hobbs was tweaking the magnetic fields.

She loved navigation—keeping Wragg apprised of their position within the Ma’adim Vallis. In turn, he taught her how to use navigational aids and how to plot a course.

“When I pilot,” Wragg said, “I like to keep three views open: the microwave rangefinder, the forward visible-light camera, and the triangulated readings from the surface relay network.”

Grace watched transfixed as displays showed the world around them, with the Scout at the center. The bridge was the heart of the ship and its crew, but now seemed like the hub of Mars itself.

As they worked, Wragg talked a lot about Mars, his lifelong home. Grace learned about terraforming, and the importance of water on this dry world. How it had accumulated in the northern hemisphere, where most of the people lived. Fewer than one percent of the Martian population ever ventured south of the equator, with Planum Australe explorers numbering in the dozens.

Mars intrigued Grace, with its dome settlements like cloisters, stitched together with advanced technology. She enjoyed the cultural discussions, and found herself sleeping less so they could talk longer. More than once, Wragg had forced her from the bridge to get some rest. Wired, she would then spin by the engine room to bother Hobbs and Mazz until her welcome was worn—it didn’t take long—then poke her head in on Raj and Anna and be the third wheel.

In the end, Grace would move on to her cabin. Sometimes Tim would be waiting, curled up on her bed or on the hideaway divan. Most of the time, though, he would be under the bed, glowing blue in the shadows, his eyes closed and his paws spasming like a dog chasing rabbits, locked in some AI dream. And usually, exasperated at Tim’s aloofness, Grace would lay down, fully dressed, and stare into Tim’s low blue light until she fell asleep, as ordered. A handful of hours later, she’d bounce back to the bridge.

Grace wondered, one night, if she were happy. True, she was content to be so busy, loved her time with the captain, and was delighted to be learning so much. But Tim’s introspection and Raj’s desire to be with Anna left Grace feeling isolated. As a former ranch hand and as a protector used to squad learning, she needed the companionship of a group. Especially on this strange world. But the disaster with Quint had left everyone buried in themselves. Grace wondered what it would take to dig them out.

The Scout moved swiftly through the massive cleave of the Ma’adim Vallis. In wider sections of the canyon, Wragg would drop the cruiser to the bottom and skim along the ancient bed. They were often so deep that they lost the sun, riding in an orange twilight between striated cliffs.

Corey OstmanMars Descent