Escape Pod 356: Three-Quarters Martian
By C.R. Hodges
The first man to walk on the moon was a hero to five generations. The first woman to walk on Mars was forgotten even before her boots plunked into the red dust.
“Hey,” a husky voice said in the dark.
I ignored her: the Swedish hockey team was calling to me from the sauna.
“Anna-Jing.” Same voice. A large hand grasped my shoulder.
I was losing my battle to recapture the fading dream.
“Wake up,” commanded a new voice in a rich brogue, “now.”
I took a deep breath, tasting the dust in the cool air, then slowly opened my eyes. Pulling the threadbare blanket around me, I sat up in my hammock.
Kaiza, the first and likely last aboriginal Australian to teach planetary astrophysics at Stanford, gently removed her hand from my shoulder. “Trouble in Florida.”
“The launch isn’t today.” I said, still groggy. Our resupply rocket was scheduled to lift off from Cape Lee in a week. We needed this one—the last launch, from Kazakhstan, had crashed in West Korea.
“There won’t be a fecking launch,” said Mick, our mission commander. He gestured at the wall screen, which snapped to life. Grainy footage showed a giant rocket lying on its side like a beached whale, next to a familiar gantry. A dozen old pickups were parked beyond the shattered nosecone. Scores of horses and four oxen grazed nearby, a web of cables and ropes leading back to the rocket. A horde of men and women in shorts and tank tops, flip-flops and baseball caps, were prying metal panels from the side of the rocket. Hundreds more lay dead on the ground, interspersed with the bodies of gray vested soldiers.
“Where are the pitchforks and torches?” I asked. No reply.
A helicopter arrived, ten commandos zip lining to the ground just meters from the camera crew. Seventy looters went down in the first minute, but then flight after flight of arrows from unseen archers decimated the commandos.
“Goodbye freeze-dried steak and potatoes,” said Mick.
“Goodbye replacement mini reactor.” I pointed at the four oxen dragging a sledge with a brightly marked container the size of a large desk.
“Gotta crank the thermostat down again,” said Mick. He lumbered off to make it so.
The last image we witnessed before a sword crashed down on the camera lens was a line of children siphoning kerosene from the rocket’s fuel tank into buckets. Goodbye civilization.
Carrying a basket of mushrooms three times my size, I trudged back to the main module from the redhouse. As I passed the Gagarin, I searched for those first boot prints—my boot prints—but they were covered in dust. I should’ve at least gotten a shoe contract.
The crew was waiting for me just inside the airlock. The mushrooms, the one food item that we could grow in near native conditions, added flavor to endless soy based meals despite being red and gritty. They were not, however, tasty enough to warrant an all hands greeting.
“The Chinese sent the offer,” said Gabriel before I had my helmet off. He was our geologist and physician.
“And what is the emperor proposing?” I asked. It had been three weeks of frustrating negotiations. We desperately needed provisions; they had the only rockets left.
Mick shrugged and tossed me the tablet. “My Mandarin is limited to ordering up pints and whores.”
“He’d pay more for a pint,” said Olga, my copilot and Mick’s former hammock buddy. Her quirky sense of humor had helped us through numerous rough patches over the years, but it was getting old.
I scrolled through the long winded missive until I got to the crux of the deal. I looked up. Really up—the rest of the crew dwarfed me. Even Gabriel had fifteen centimeters on me, and he could have been a jockey. “They’re offering to send us a rocket full of supplies.”
“In return for?” asked Kaiza.
“Planting their flag on Olympus Mons.”
“Fecking ‘ell. We’re trading a planet for rice and dehydrated chicken.”
Six weeks later, with a dust storm raging outside, we huddled before the wall-screen awaiting the remote broadcast of the Chinese resupply launch. Two hundred million kilometers remote. The Chinese had proven to be impossible to work with once the agreement had been published. They had said “trust us” and refused to broadcast it. Trust was out of fashion. My cousin, a former optical engineer from former Taiwan, had built the uplink from salvaged parts she found in a burned out factory. She agreed to send us a view of the launch from her son’s trawler.
We had tapped our still for the occasion, all of us a little drunk. The mushroom vodka, which we dubbed O’Mick’s, was red, murky and as strong as an Irish ogre, just like him. He was our only Augment, his strength, endurance and agility increased to herculean levels. The rest of us had been scheduled to receive the nano-robot injections, but the California secession had cut off our supply.
With the help of Susan, our AI construct, I servoed the main antenna on the orbiting Collins to lock onto the feeble transmission. I had become skilled at such precision manipulations even while bundled in gloves and a blue and gold hoodie over my coveralls. The video feed from the antique camcorder was ghosting badly, the image rising and falling with the swell. The launch tower on the distant Wenzhou coast was difficult to make out.
“Looks a little short,” said Olga, followed by her irritating giggle.
Unlike the rest of us she had not lost the height she had gained in space, a human hockey stick. Not quite: while my breasts had emaciated back to preadolescent dimensions, hers had merely downsized from buxom to pert. Sometimes I loathed her. For the height, not the tits. But I ignored her dig—the gantry did look tiny in the distance, the rocket itself only a few pixels wide.
“Maybe the Swedes built half,” she added, with another giggle, glancing my way.
I laughed politely, fooling nobody, perhaps because I had inadvertently extended both of my middle fingers.
Olga, a smirk on her long face, had readied another dig but Mick cut her off. The Irish in him could never allow a damsel to go unrescued. “I’ve got a thousand NewConfederacy i-bucks that says the rocket disintegrates over the Pacific.”
“I’m thinking it’s a wooden mockup,” responded Gabriel, his hand raking his short hair, tinged slightly red like everything else in the base from the ubiquitous dust fines. “I’ll put up a thousand Federal Republic of North Swabia marks.”
“Ladies, you want in?” asked Gabriel.
Kaiza stared down at me, her arms folded across her huge chest, dark skin hanging loose over what had once had been sculpted biceps. She had lost the most body mass of all of us, although she was still thrice my size and the strongest crew member save for Mick. “You still backing Gabriel?” she asked.
“Yup, I’m in bed with him on this.” Double entendre intended. Kaiza and I had broken up last year, and I had shared Gabriel’s hammock ever since. Musical hammocks was a popular Martian sport. I gave him a pathetic version of an intimate smile just to tick her off. Nothing said sexy like malnutrition and a glam buzz cut.
Kaiza tossed an incomprehensible aboriginal curse at me. It must be useful to speak a language known to only three hundred other people.
Susan and I had been running numbers clandestinely for a week. The sixth member of the crew, Susan had originally been programmed as a shrink as well as functioning as our navigation and environmental control computer. Mick and I had disabled her psychobabble circuits years ago; now she was now just my numbers bitch. But she was good at it and the numbers didn’t lie. This was our last chance.
A huge plume obscured the launch pad and we conserved a few precious liters of oxygen. Gabriel discreetly crossed himself. Mick noticed and did likewise, awkwardly. I hedged my bets, alternating between my mother’s Buddhist chants and Papa’s “Our Father,” in Swedish.
“Is prayer subject to speed of light delays?” asked Olga. She received her answer as the Shuguang streaked toward the heavens, on her way to Mars, to us. Now all we had to do was breathe dusty air, drink recycled pee and eat red tinged soy patties for two hundred and thirty-eight days.
Two hundred and thirty-eight days was a long time.
On Earth, five hundred and twenty-seven new countries were formed, forty-one were conquered or obliterated and the last television transmitter went off the air. No more Battlestar Galactica reruns for us. Kaiza’s telescopic measurements of the Earth’s night side illumination, a decent proxy for the level of civilization, fell by half, not counting the transient illumination of the three nuclear explosions. Civilization was fracturing.
On Mars, our numbers dwindled from six to three and three-quarters. Mick, Olga and I were expanding the redhouse two months before the Shuguang’s scheduled arrival. Mick’s augmented strength was our undoing—he triggered a rock slide as he assaulted the cliff face with an oversized pickax. The rocks buried Olga and Mick completely. I managed to keep my torso above the onslaught, but my legs were pinned.
“Mayday,” I screamed into the com link, as I scanned the rock bed for any signs of life. “Bring the back hoe.”
Kaiza rogered, but it would take her a quarter of an hour to reach us. I managed to free my right leg, but my left was sandwiched between two boulders. I could hear the air leaking out of my punctured marssuit.
To my right a boulder suddenly started to roll down, followed by a second. I curled up, screaming, as they bounced over my head.
“What happened?” asked Gabriel. “We’re two minutes out.”
“Another rock slide… helvete.” Another rock tumbled my way, glancing off my helmet. I looked upslope. A battered helmet was visible. “I see someone.” It was Mick, casting boulders off himself, rising out of the rocks like a titan. He leaped to his feet, looking my way.
I responded with a thumbs up, and then pointed toward where I had last seen Olga.
He bounded five meters to his left and dove into the rock bed head first, his arms rototilling through the rubble.
Kaiza and Gabriel arrived in the rover. Kaiza operated the back hoe, helping Mick dig, while Gabriel tended my leg. There was not much to tend. He tied a tourniquet and amputated it halfway up the femur.
Gabriel and Mick located Olga’s body three hours past nightfall. We buried her and my left leg on the west flank of Pavonis Mons. Tears streaming down into his recycler, Mick sang a Gaelic dirge at the grave site. Kaiza carved an epitaph in the Martian sandstone: “Here lies the first Martian.”
Susan was the other casualty. The fine Martian dust was her undoing, shorting out her o-chips a week later. She received no burial; we salvaged her parts to upgrade the still.
On D-Day I took control of the unmanned Shuguang via our com link. Controlling her descent was difficult, and I missed the landing zone entirely, putting her down behind a rise. Mick raised an eyebrow— I had placed all the previous resupply landings within centimeters of the center of the landing zone. I shrugged. “My bad.”
All three of my crewmates took the rover out to start unloading. “Anna-Jing, the rocket… it’s small,” said Gabriel over the com link.
“Ha ha,” I said, my voice hopefully dripping with sarcasm.
“Not joking,” said Kaiza. “It’s a tenth the size of the last one.”
My implant buzzed. “Mick,” I yelled, “We have a cyber intrusion.”
“Hang on, I have to work this manually.” Susan would have processed this in a microsecond. “Shuguang injected a worm into our operating system. I’ve quarantined it but we lost control for—”
Kaiza cursed. I checked the rover’s cam—a flagpole had deployed from Shuguang, hoisting the red flag of the Chinese Empire.
We were all experts at aboriginal profanity by nightfall: the cargo hold was the size of an ice chest and contained exactly one bag of rice and a frozen chicken.
The next day we took a timeout from panicking and designed a Martian flag. We cannibalized the Chinese red silk as the base material, dying the top third black using soot from the Shuguang’s heat shields. The two white moons were cut from the Gagarin’s original landing parachute. Mars was our planet again.
“Stuff it. I’m executing macros,” I said as Gabriel asked me for the twenty-seventh time how soon we could depart. He could be such a grandmother.
“I’ve got the ag numbers for you, Anna-Jing.” Mick had run back from the hydroponic greenhouse. “The soy harvest in two weeks will yield nine thousand kilojoules, and the mushrooms a thousand more. If we take the zebra mussels from the hydroponics tank we get another thousand.” Several ugghs followed: zebra mussels tasted like, well, zebra mussels.
“So we leave in two weeks or wait another eleven for the next soy harvest,” said Gabriel, a statement, not a question.
“The efficiency of our oxygen recycler is plunging without replacement filters,” I added. “We’re well into the danger zone.”
“Well into the ripe zone.” Gabriel wrinkled his Latin nose in an exaggerated fashion. He had been trying to fill the laugh track void since Olga died. He wasn’t very funny but he was correct—our air was beyond foul.
I was still manipulating the multisheet. “Fuel?” asked Mick.
“How much were we able to salvage from Shuguang?” My phantom left foot was tapping to a Strauss movement.
“Nine,” said Kaiza, panting, as she emerged from the airlock.
“Excellent. Nine metric tonnes.” I edited the multisheet with a two-fingered swipe.
“No Anna-Jing. Nine kilograms…”
“Fan och hans moster.” A curse my papa’s papa taught me. The devil and his aunt. Makes more sense in Swedish.
It was two days before I spoke again. No sleep, no food, although that was something we had grown accustomed to. Mick had ordered rations reduced again the day Shuguang had landed.
Kaiza massaged my shoulders as I sat before the wall-screen. I shrugged her off as I burrowed deeper into the calculations. “No worries,” she whispered. Yes worries, I thought.
Finally I said, “Get Mick.” I laid out the numbers as unemotionally as I could. “The math sucks. We have food for three hundred and twenty-nine days at quarter fucking rations, assuming we depart immediately after the next soy harvest. We have—”
“We cannot survive on that.” Gabriel, the physician.
“We’ll have to.” Mick, the commander.
“No, I mean we cannot.” Gabriel, slower and louder. “Every one of us is suffering from malnutrition as is.”
“It gets fucking—” I noticed Gabriel fidgeting back and forth between his left and right legs. Jealousy supplanted desperation for an instant. I locked my knees, one real and one phantom, and bit my lip until it bled. “It gets worse.”
All eyes focused on me. Blessedly, Gabriel stopped fidgeting.
“We have oxygen for two hundred and ninety days, and with our available fuel the return trip will take…” I tapped out a few more calculations while my crewmates saved another liter of dust and air, “Four hundred and thirty-one days.” Our outbound trip had taken half that.
Mick reacted in seconds. “Then we’d better stop blathering and make those numbers a wee bit better.” His Irish brogue intensified when he was stressed. “Anna-Jing, work up an aero-braking algorithm. That way we don’t have to reserve as much fuel for deceleration.”
“Aero-braking is a brilliant idea,” I said, “Except for one shitty little detail—no one has actually ever done it. All we have to do is fly straight at the Earth, reenter the atmosphere to slow down, pull up and wham-o, we’re in orbit. Miss by a few millimeters and we obliterate a village, er, country, in a fireball as we crash.”
“Run the numbers. I gotta strip old Yuri.” He ducked through the hatch to the lander carrying a huge crowbar.
“It’s not the numbers,” I said to the hatch, “it’s the flying part. “Do you have any idea how tricky this will be? It’s never been done.” The hatch was mute, save for the deafening banging within.
“Anna-Jing,” said Gabriel, “no one had ever landed on Mars before you did it.”
“I had Susan, who is now controlling the still.”
“Who you turned off during landing,” said Mick, returning through the hatch, pulling out Olga’s acceleration couch like a boy dragging a stuffed bear.
Truth. She had been babbling on about how fabulous I was doing.
The aero-braking numbers said I could use more fuel for acceleration. Gabriel made me take out my miniscule safety margin. Three hundred and sixty-seven days. Too long still.
That night I napped at my workstation, lulled to sleep by the rasp of Mick’s hacksaw. My dreams were more macabre: the ice in the rink was red; the players were gasping for air. In the darkness I awoke to find a cold hand on my shoulder. Groggy, I reached up, expecting to feel Kaiza’s soft cheek, only to find Mick’s stubble. “Run the numbers with three.”
“I have terminal cancer. I’ll stay behind, lighten the load. Run the fecking numbers with three.”
I stared in disbelief up at his shadowed face. “Cancer? You went through the same med screens we all did.”
“That was years ago, and I can lie something fierce.”
“Damn right he can lie,” said Gabriel, who had silently joined us.”He doesn’t have cancer; he has hero-itis.”
“What, you think when you pee in a cup each month I just empty it into your still?”
I ran numbers the rest of the night. Kaiza joined us, and they all stood vigil as I typed, gestured and cursed in Mandarin and Swedish. Gabriel checked my numbers as the faint sun peeked over Tharsis Montes.
“Mick is…” I squinted hard, willing back tears. “He’s right. The numbers work for three.”
I had expected abject silence, but instead pandemonium ensued. Gabriel yelled at me. Kaiza screamed at Gabriel. Mick, however, leapt out of his seat, bounding to the galley with augmented speed. A minute later he returned, three used drinking straws in assorted colors held in his once meaty hand. Malnutrition had impacted him more than the rest of us—the nano-robots leached nutrition.
“You’re the pilot,” said Kaiza before I could question the number. “Our copilot is lying under a rock cairn.”
“You’re certified.” My left foot stomped on the floor, invisibly. “I’ll be a cripple in Earth’s gravity. I’ll stay.”
“Took me three tries to get my certs,” said Kaiza. “I burned up on reentry every time in sims, and lost a heat tile on my one real reentry, with you sitting right seat and Susan whispering in my implant.”
“No one but you can handle the aero-braking maneuver,” said Mick. “Three straws.”
“We need your strength.”
“The Collins is not your Uncle Olaf’s longship,” he said in an Irish imitation of a Swedish accent. “We should look for other ways.”
“No time. Every day we deplete rations and oxygen.” Gabriel.
“We need you.” Kaiza.
With Mick holding the three straws, Kaiza drew first, her dark hand deftly plucking a long gray straw like a crow snatching a worm from a robin. She started to cry, one arm wrapped around my chest like a python. Gabriel stared into Mick’s hazel eyes, right hand hovering over the two remaining straws, one that once been red and one a pale green. His hand twitched toward one or the other several times. His fingers darted toward red, reversed, grabbed the green one and yanked.
The communications center was as silent as deep space. Gabriel crossed himself before looking down at the straw—long. Mick smiled grimly then headed for the still. I struggled free of Kaiza’s grip and tried more calculations, but to no avail. Four didn’t work. Three worked.
We drained the still that evening. Mick had insisted that we have a wake beforehand, his brogue growing richer as the night progressed. Gabriel eventually broke down. “Mick cheated,” he sobbed. “I looked him in the eye as I went for that straw and he blinked. He blinked wrong.”
“I haven’t slept in a donkey’s year. ‘Course I blinked. How could I be blinking wrong?”
With our lights off, Mick entered the airlock in his marssuit, the hissing of the pressure lock unforgettable as it cycled. He walked into the night as we three watched from a porthole, the pale red moonlight from Phobos and Deimos the only illumination. With a casual salute to our flag, he lay down on the dark sand and removed his helmet. He died looking up at the waning moons. He died a Martian.
The next morning we buried him next to Olga and my leg, harvested the soy crop early and lifted off in the Gagarin. I allowed us one extra orbit to say goodbye before vectoring Collins toward Earth. Three hundred and fifty-nine days to go.
About the Author
C.R. Hodges writes all manner of speculative fiction, from ghost stories to urban fantasy to science fiction. Twenty of his short stories have been published in markets such as Cicada and Escape Pod (EP356: “Three-Quarters Martian”), and he is a first prize winner of the 2016 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. When he is not writing or playing the euphonium, he runs a product design company in Colorado, where he lives with his wife, dog, and no ghosts that he knows of.
About the Narrator
Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and sometime-host of Escape Pod.
She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Scribe Awards. In the past decade she has been the co-founder/co-editor of PseudoPod, founding editor of Mothership Zeta, and the editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).
She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.
Mur won the 2013 Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award), and the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Fancast for Ditch Diggers. She’s been nominated for numerous other awards and is always doing new things, so check her website for the latest.