Red Planet Card
by Anastasia Shalunkova
Have you ever been to Mars?
Of course, you haven’t. You think the life on Mars is a goddamn sci-fi show. “Stay where no man has stayed before”. Pretty domes in the red valley and happy people around.
The first disappointment all the newbies have: you don’t live under the domes. You live sixteen feet under the ground. You don’t see the sun; you don’t see the stars unless you go outside. You will have to live with us for another dozen years before we let you out.
The second disappointment: the skies aren’t red. They are blue like on Earth. Dust makes them reddish. The winds blow strong, they deafen you even in a space suit. Mars is cold and dry. No water, no life. As we all know.
That’s what I knew when I came to Mars.
Rangers tell stories. About pyramids of the Ophir Chasma and shrieks of the Noctis Labyrinth. About the giant bones found in the Eberswalde Crater. About the Mars Mission Zero sent by USSR back in the seventies.
We are a decent social group with legends and superstitions. Don’t leave your sleeping capsule open. Smell a coffee stick before you go out. Knock the hatch three times before you go in.
Say again your name. Agatha? My granddaughter’s name is Agatha. She is on the Moon with her mother. They are earthbound, both of them. Not like me.
So, you’ve won the Red Planet Card? In my time, only the best of the human race could go to space. The smartest. The strongest. The bravest. Nowadays, you just type your name and wait for the lucky number.
You say you’ve passed the tests? A permission to take part in the lottery? If you are good, you don’t need to roll the dice. If you are a useless little wanker, we don’t need you here.
I am Irma Tillman and before I came here I had served in the military for twenty years. I worked on the ISS when it was a real space station, not a hotel for rich kids. I lived on the Moon in the time of the Second Moon Race. I built the first facilities on Mars. I didn’t ask for a permission to come. I was invited.
One more drink for the newbie. Say again your name…Like my granddaughter’s, yes. I will remember.
Tell me how the things are going back on Earth. Do they make you choose a specialization at the age of fourteen? Thirteen? Do you start your career plan at the age of five? Who are you, Agatha, back on Earth?
Narrow specialization of a narrow specialization, uh?
We don’t need dentists who professionally cure one tooth or programmers who know only one computer language. We are multitools, Swiss knives with a hundred razors.
Otherwise, the Red Planet kills you and another pretty girl gets your card.
The wind will deafen you. The silence will make you hollow. You will hear voices inside your head. You will see things that aren’t there. Our brains get crazy on an alien planet. Who could even think we are so connected to the Earth?
You have been to space before, haven’t you?
Let me guess, a space hotel. The deviation they created out of the ISS. “Try space and zero gravity”. Is that how they advertise? Look at the Earth through the Cupola, pretend to be a real space explorer.
The ISS is not space. It is home.
Space begins when you don’t see the Earth. When it becomes a small blue dot in the alien skies. Because this moment your reptilian brain gets afraid.
Have you ever seen a storm?
Of course, you haven’t because you have never been to Mars. Earth blizzards are a little breeze compared to the great Martian storms.
You work outside in a nice space suit. Korolevgrad transmits “Major Tom coming home”. The blue skies are quiet and clear. The temperature is above zero and sun shines straight into your face. What a lovely summer day in the Marineris Canyons.
Then, you turn your head and you see the storm.
The black wall moves towards you. The skies turn grey, then brown, then black. The sun becomes a small white dot like a hole in the roof. You can hear nothing because of radio interference. Winds blow, they blow. The space suit strangles you and the reptilian brain yells “Run! Run!”
You don’t know where you are. Right, left, south, north. You don’t see your legs and you fall.
It is thirty Fahrenheit. It is minus four Fahrenheit. It is minus forty Fahrenheit.
You stand up and fall again.
You see nothing.
You hear nothing.
No smell, no taste in a sterile space suit.
You want to remove the helmet for your brain believes it is a root of the problem. Your face itches of sweat.
Radio interference drives you crazy. The white noise grows stronger and stronger and you know it is only the beginning.
Because you still can stand.
You fell onto the ground and dig your fingers into the reddish sand.
You lie there. In the sterile darkness with no light, no taste and no smell.
How much time has passed? Hours? Days?
The radio falls silent.
The only thing you hear is your hard breathing and the heart pounding. You want to yell but you can’t. You want to move but you can’t.
The storm blows with new strength and an invisible fist hits your back.
The suit damage detected. The suit damage detected a robotic male voice repeats and repeats straight into your ear. The suit damage, the suit damage, Irma, the suit damage detected.
The sound of your own name makes you vigilant. The space suits are personalized. Different voices, different attitude. The voice of someone you take seriously. The appeal you can’t ignore. I guess, my daughter’s space suit yells at her with my voice.
Oxygen leak detected. Oxygen leak detected. Approximate time 55 minutes 40 seconds. Oxygen leak detected, Irma. Breathe slowly. Breathe slowly.
The suprarenal glands have thrown adrenaline into your blood. Fight or flight response. Ancient as the life itself.
40 minutes left
Have fourteen minutes already passed? Or have you simply wasted too much oxygen?
You haven’t turned around, have you? What were you looking at?
You remember the sun, so small, so white, not like on Earth.
You look up as if you can see something ahead in this primal darkness. If there is west, the east is behind you. If you are wrong, you will crawl even further.
You crawl. The ancient thing in your reptilian brain squirms like a lizard. RunRunRunRunRunRunRunRun.
4 minutes 10 seconds.
Male voice sounds softer, even fatherly. What is the point to yell at a dying person?
You make the last effort and stand up on your knees. You expect the wind to knock you down but it is not as strong as it was.
You look up and see the dark brown skies and the white dot of sun shining over the bluish horizon.
2 minute 41 second left.
You suffocate. You hold your hands around the neck ring. Take it off, take it off.
And suffocating, you see the shadow in the haze.
It moves slowly, as if this shadow was moving in cold waters. Taller than man. Thinner than man. It passes you by, a few feet away.
The shadow stops and waves its hand as if it can hear with it. Did it hear you? Did it see you? Did it smell you?
The shadow straightens and you see its limbs. They are more like vines, long and dark. It turns its head and the last thing you see is the big black hole on what you could call the face.
But here I am, right? Alive and kicking. Went through without brain damage.
It’s been obvious since the first rovers drove through the red deserts. No life on Mars. Terra Nullius, nobody’s land.
I tell you what, newbie. People disappear on the Red planet. Three went to the Noctis Labyrinth and no one returned. We haven’t found bodies. Only one broken helmet half-buried in the red sand.
Strange, isn’t it? When you suffocate, you try to put the helmet off. The reptilian brain does not understand the conception of an alien world.
At least you are safe inside, under the domes, right? They are bulletproof. Stormproof. They protect you from storms, from radiation. Sixteen feet under the ground. Whatever lurks outside, it is not about you.
But one night, you will wake up. You won’t understand why. You will turn the lights inside the capsule and you will hear distant sounds in the narrow halls. You will stay all night frozen with long-forgotten childish fear that a monster hides inside the closet.
Do we all have hallucinations? Do our minds go crazy when we are so far away from home? I don’t know.
But I know one thing for sure and you won’t like it, newbie.
Shadows lurk in the red haze and I have seen one with my own eyes.
So, young lady, are you ready to come to Mars?