Nina, one of the few descendants of human colony on Mars that was abandoned by Earth, is surprised to discover that she can breathe the toxic atmosphere of the Martian surface. The crew, thinking that their attempts at terraforming and breeding for Martian adaptability have finally payed off, rejoice at the prospect of a brighter future. But Nina's about to unlock the mystery of the disaster that stranded them on Mars… and nothing will ever be the same.
This short story was acquired for Tor.com by senior editor Calista Brill.
I have never seen the sky. Or the sun. Or the stars. Or the moons.
My great-great-great-great-grandparents along with the others on their crew came here on an exploratory colony mission, but they were left here long ago when Earth went silent. We will never get home. This is where we live. We have always lived on Mars.
I have never taken a breath of fresh air. There has been a storm raging for decades. There is a cloud cover that never goes away.
There are rules for living here. Recycle the water. Tend to the hydroponic plants. Breed the farm animals. Manage the air. Fix all parts of the habitats. Everyone follows the rules. Everyone works at living. Or else we all die.
We are few. We never number more than twenty-four. We cannot ever grow the colony to more than what we can fit into the habitats. Sometimes if there are too many of us, one of the older members of our community walks outside unsuited to make room. I have never seen them do it. They go at night, not long after a new babe is born and when almost everyone is asleep. We wake up and one of our members is missing and we know. I know that one day when I am old I might do it myself.
“We are the last humans, Nina,” my mother reminds me every time I put on the suit to go outside. The suit was not made for me, but it fits me perfectly. I must be built a lot like my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Lt. Commander Yu. According to our history, she was the tenth person to step on Mars.
“What’s the point?” I always ask. My mother just shakes her head. Everyone is all about survival of the species even though we cannot grow past what the colonists started with. But I feel differently. I hate this cramped life. This small space. This constant living on top of one another. I long to run. To be alone. To be away from these others clinging to the end of humanity. To not have to check my gear one million times before I step outside.
It would have been easier if more colonists had come. But they never did. I have learned about how my great-great-great-great-grandparents waited for the second wave of colonists and supply ships to come. But they never arrived. The storm came and everything about our world went dark. The radios only spout static now, although we are always listening. The sky is always covered with a never-ending haze.
“All systems go?” my mother asks.
“Yes,” I say, checking all the valves and the oxygen levels. I am good to go. My mother taps my helmet, giving me the all-clear signal. I step forward into the air lock along with Devon, my walking partner, and we wait for the depressurization and the sudden feeling of lightness. The suit never seems heavy when I step outside on my daily errands to check for any growth between the red rocks. We have been trying to infect the planet with life so that we can make it ours. But it is slow going. Sometimes there is moss.
I like to walk outside. I always keep my eyes out for scrap. Something that might be uncovered by the storm. Something that we missed that we can use. It was said that fifty years ago a rover rolled in. It had probably circled the whole planet. It wasn’t much, but it had samples and it had parts. The colony made good use of it. Once when we were young, a satellite fell near the habitat and there was something useful in it. If we find enough materials we might be able to build a new habitat and add six more people to our colony. We would finally be able to grow.
A few decades ago we expanded the habitat when we dismantled the tiny observatory that housed the telescope. I’m sure it was not an easy thing to do: we’d waited for so long for the sky to clear. But since the storm came, no one has seen the stars, and survival now is more important than looking up at some unknown future date. Now the telescope lays open to the elements.
I have seen pictures of the sky. I know that there are two moons that orbit our planet. I know that Earth would look like a little blue star in the sky. But I have never seen it. I never will.
We only go out during the day. At night it is too cold. This planet hates us.
“A planet cannot hate,” my father says. “It can only be.”
I disagree with him. Mars never wanted life. That’s why it never had it. Not even a single-celled organism. We try to live and thrive. But we are always near to failing.
At first, we tried to keep a sterile environment protocol, in order to not mess with any potential bacteria. But after Earth fell silent, my great-great-great-great-grandparents began to experiment, first inside the habitat. Now outside. We come from scientists after all. And even though most of the science is forgotten, we are survivors.
Devon and I shuffle along the ridge looking for any hint of green. The walking is also part of our necessary exercise to keep our bones strong. He heads toward a cluster of rocks. I head toward the telescope. I stroke it with my gloved hand as if it is one of the goats we keep. The telescope is useless and discarded. Already picked clean for parts. I wonder what it would be like to look through it.
I turn my head up toward the covered sky. I wish I could see what lies above those dirty clouds.
I head down the hill. The gravity is not the same as inside the habitat, or maybe it’s the suit that always makes me so clumsy and so I fall. As I do I seem to fly in the air. I love the feeling when I trip, like I can fly, but then I hear the sound. A rip. It’s my suit.
It was the rock I landed on that did it. I feel a rush and know that I am losing air. I am going to die. I look toward my walking partner, Devon. Devon drops his bucket and springs toward me. I can’t see his face due to the solar visor that he has pulled down. I can only see a reflection of me. I seem calm when I see myself lying on the ground. I know that he’s probably distressed at the situation. We train for rips. We train for emergencies. The suits we wear are so old and threadbare that it is bound to happen. It has happened before and no one has survived for longer than four minutes. I place my hand on the rip as I was taught, trying in vain to hold it closed. Hoping that somehow my oxygen won’t run out. I feel weak. My knees buckle. I watch as my tank hits zero. I start to pass out as I feel Devon’s arms hook under mine and drag me toward safety.
When I wake up inside the habitat there are five faces leaning over me. They are smiling. And then, when I cough, they begin to clap. I do not understand why I am not dead.
“It’s a miracle,” my mother says, pressing her hand on my forehead.
“It’s finally happened,” my father says. “A child has adapted to Mars. Our founders’ work on breeding is paying off.”
“We must do some tests,” Boaz, the oldest of our colony, says. He knows more about the science that has been passed down than anyone. He will never step outside to sacrifice himself.
All my physicals show nothing different than anyone else. My heart is good. My lungs are good. My bones are good. My DNA shows small mutations but nothing that has never been seen before.
“We must send her outside,” Boaz says.
It frightens me to try to step outside the habitat without a suit. But my father will go with me. And there will be precautions.
“What if I can’t breathe?” I ask.
“We’ll know in the first second,” he says. “And we’ll close the air lock and come back in.”
My father suits up and puts on his helmet. We sit in the air lock, waiting for the light to turn green and the outer door to open.
The light turns and the door opens.
I am struck by wind. My eyes close from the particles that fly about me. I take a big gulp of air. First, I smell things I’ve never smelled before. It makes me gag. I start to cough. I clutch at my throat. My father takes this to mean that I am dying so he slams on the button to shut the air lock.
The air we can breathe fills the room. When the alarm sounds he takes off his helmet and then grabs my face, looking at me to see if I’m okay. I am still coughing.
“Are you okay? Are you okay? We’ve made a mistake! She can’t breathe out there.”
The inner door swings open and the others rush in. I cough and cough but put my hand up.
“I’m fine,” I say. “I could breathe. It was the dust that startled me.”
Everyone heaves a collective sigh of relief.
“We’ll try again tomorrow, Nina,” Boaz says.
I must admit that I can’t wait.
The next day everyone gathers at the air lock to watch me go outside. I have covered my face with a cloth and my eyes with goggles.
The light turns green and I go outside.
I breathe in. I breathe out. There is no problem. The air is sweet. My lungs fill in a way that they have never been filled before. I feel clearheaded, as though my body is getting something essential into it, something that has been missing from the habitat. I turn back to my father, who is standing by the door, and give him the thumbs up. I begin to walk.
I have been told that, without the heavy boots or the artificial gravity that we have inside the habitat, walking will be strange. That I will be lighter and less grounded. But everything feels the same. I walk the circle of our habitat. I walk the yard I know so well. And then, light-headed from the crispness of the air, I make my way back inside.
That night there is a feast. There is excitement and joy.
I notice a change in everyone toward me. They stare at me. The little ones think I am magical. The adults look at me with envy.
I will be able to leave the crowded habitat and be alone with my thoughts. I will be able to walk farther than the two hours the oxygen tank allows for. I might be the beginning of the much dreamed-about expansion. They look at me like I am the future.
Boaz comes to visit me after dinner. He shoos my family out of our room and shuts the door so we can be alone.
We both sit on the corners of the bed. He has his hands folded in front of him.
“Being the eldest has its responsibilities and its secrets,” he says. “And being the first that can breathe without a suit has them as well. I have decided that you will be the next elder.”
“I am too young,” I say. “An elder should be old.”
“Yes, perhaps,” he says. “But you can answer questions that no one else can.”
I understand that to him, I am no longer a child. I nod.
“One question that has been asked by us all since we landed here is why did Earth go dark? It is the eternal question. Are we alone? The last gasp of a once-proud species? Have we been abandoned? Does life still exist on Earth?”
“It is hard to be alone,” I say. “I often do not know why we try so hard to survive.”
He puts his hand up to quiet me from saying things that I know nothing about.
“I have always had a question, and now it looks as though you will be able to answer it,” Boaz says. “Why did our founders lie about the amount of oxygen that a tank can hold? Why did they not want us to walk farther than two hours from here?”
“The tanks can hold more air?”
I am stunned.
“Yes,” he says. “That is one of the secrets that I keep.”
I shudder at the thought of what other things he might be holding back from us all. I am suddenly uncomfortable with the idea of becoming an elder.
“I cannot answer that question, Boaz.”
“But you can breathe outside without a suit. You can walk for more than two hours.”
I nod. I knew that I was free now, but in this moment it strikes me how free I am. The whole planet is mine to explore. Perhaps there are satellites that fell elsewhere. Perhaps the supply ships crashed on another part of the planet.
“I want you to go out and walk south for half of the day, and then I want you to return and tell me what you find.”
“I will find nothing,” I say.
“Most likely,” Boaz says.
We do not tell anyone of the plan. Boaz and I give each other knowing looks before I go out of the air lock. I have packed a bag filled with food. He has given me a compass. I will walk farther than anyone has ever walked. I must turn back in precisely five hours or I will surely be killed by the cold Martian night.
I walk. Two hours leads to the base of the large rocks. There is no change in the scenery. But I realize that we are situated in a valley. Tall rocks and small mountains surround us.
We are so wired to return before two hours and to never venture this far that I begin to worry about myself and feel as though my lungs will stop breathing. As though I will collapse. But the dust swirls. The clouds hang. The rocks are orange as they have always been. And I am tired, but fine.
I begin to climb. It is slow going. Perhaps I should have walked the other way? Perhaps I should have gone east, or west, or north. It takes me two more hours to get to the top. I head down the other side and that is when I see something strange cutting the orange landscape. It is a ribbon of black. I check my clock. I still have an hour before I must turn back. I head for the ribbon as my destination.
When I get there, it is different from anything I’ve ever seen before. It is almost unnatural. It cuts in a perfect line. Not behaving like the rocks I am so used to. I struggle to remember the ancient word for what it looks like.
There are cracks and buckles everywhere in it, but it goes along a path. I notice something farther down and hike toward it.
It is a piece of metal on a metal pole laying on the ground. That is lucky. I wonder how heavy it is and I lift it up to see if it’s possible to salvage for the habitat. When I lift it, I see them. The words. And in a sickening instant it hits me. And I know the truth. I know the answer to Boaz’s question.
Earth Planetary Society / Mars Research Habitat / UTAH
Off road site →
Grand Junction 160 Miles
We are on Earth. We have always lived on Earth.
“We Have Always Lived On Mars” Copyright © 2013 by Cecil Castellucci
Art copyright © 2013 by Carl Wiens