Essex City

Planar sealed the door. For a few moments, nothing seemed to happen. Anna noticed an alert on her visor. The display showed that her suit had stopped heating operations to conserve power. Then a familiar hiss of atmosphere penetrated their suits and the exit panel glowed green.

“You can remove your helmets,” he said.

Anna glanced at the display. Yes, she hadn’t been hallucinating. Standard atmosphere. She blinked through the menu and selected UNLOCK. Her helmet released from the collar ring and she pulled it off, tucking it under her arm. She took a deep lungful of air.

An image of her father’s bacteria farm flashed in her mind. Real air, dappled sunshine, and Earth grass. The image passed.

Anna took another deep breath of air with the appreciation of a woman long used to manufactured atmosphere.

“I understand why you’d need heat,” she said, “but why do you have breathable air?”

“Excellent air, at that,” Richard added.

“Will the carbon dioxide we’re all pumping into your dome cause any problem?” Raj asked.

“Please,” Planar said, raising one hand, “it is all very simple. Most of the equipment on the Essex was designed for a human standard atmosphere, including its citizens. We modified Essex life support in order to adapt it for its new home.”

Richard nodded. “What about the heat?”

“We divert enough from the geyser field to keep a constant temperature,” Planar said.

A message from Raj flashed on Anna’s ptenda: The life support isn’t just a holdover from the Essex. Did you notice Planar’s skin?

Anna fingered her ptenda: Yes. Metarm as a nano-mesh. Used for human surgery and only flexible around standard temperature and pressure.

Planar looked from Raj to Anna, but didn’t immediately speak. She watched his eyes. Almost human, she thought. She could have sworn she saw anxiety, or exasperation, cross his face.

“If you all would just be patient, I can tell you more, or, if not myself, find others who know more.”

The airlock opened. Anna stepped outside, blinking in the bright light, stronger than Martian noon. They stood inside a massive dome—not quite as large as Elysium, but nearly so—and it wasn’t transparent, but a brilliant blue. Like all of the pictures of Earth sky.

The group was silent, looking around. There were dozens of buildings in the dome. Most of them were cubical, though she saw other angular shapes, and a few that had more organic forms. The buildings were differing shades of orange, not dissimilar from the gravel where the Scout had landed. They were connected, not by a Cartesian grid, but by meandering pathways, as if following the contours of gentle hillsides where none were present.

But where was the infrastructure? Anna couldn’t see any signs of electrical distribution, nor any of the trappings of life support systems. If they weren’t using machines, she would have expected to see more green, like the vast plant-buildings of Elysium Planitia.

We were expecting a wrecked ship, she thought, not a newly minted civilization.

“It reminds me of adobe back home,” Raj said. He looked around. “Staggering.”

But where were the others? Planar had mentioned over a hundred robots, but she heard no movement, nor voices. There were no twofers in sight. The city seemed empty.

Planar continued. “Just, if you please, stay with me while in the city, at least until we meet—”

A sound. Like a wailing siren interrupted.

Planar’s eyes darted to his right.

“Uh, what was that?” Raj asked. The sound still reverberated under the dome.

“A twofer?” said Anna.

Planar shook his head. “No, we do not make such sounds. But perhaps the acoustics of the dome—”

“Shh!” Anna cocked her head. There it was again. This time it had the fullness of words.

“Somebody’s shouting!” exclaimed Raj.

“It came from there,” Mazz said, pointing at a cluster of buildings.

Anna watched Planar’s eyes drift in the same direction, linger, and then dart back to her. She clenched her jaw.

“Let’s go,” she said, walking briskly.

Corey OstmanMars Descent