This novel came about during the frantic NanoWrimo 2014. The story investigates how fantasy creatures might interact with modern and slightly post-modern technology, with several LGBT themes thrown in.
“Thank god for being part of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee, isn’t that right, Umiko?”
Raul flicked his eyes up and glared at Maia O’Neill as she wriggled into her pressure suit. Getting in and out of the suits deserved a medal in and of itself. They were made to ease motion and maneuverability in space, but they were a bitch to put on. She caught his eyes with a flash of teeth and rolled her hips and stomach to slide the torso of the suit over bare skin.
To his right, Eiji Umiko silently donned her own pressure suit. She didn’t grace Maia with a response as she efficiently slid her legs into the binding cloth of the suit that would protect them from an emergency evacuation of air during the short burst towards the planet.
“Yeah, thanks for pointing that out, you ass.” Aliyah Siskan always had the most trouble. She was in larger proportion around the chest area, and despite a custom suit built for each of them, she still struggled to fit and close the suit every time they worked and EVA or assignment. “Can we keep the bitty titty comments to ourselves, yeah? We are supposed to be professionals.”
“Professionals who are still refusing to drop their pants,” Maia said with a nod at Raul and the man standing slightly behind him. Maia straightened, rolling the suit on over her shoulders, and tugged the zipper up her sternum. “Scared, boss? It’s all right. We won’t judge. I know it’s cold in here.”
“Nothing you haven’t seen before,” Raul said. He snatched his own suit off the wall with a bit more force than necessary, and caused a slight drift that sent him into Umiko. She nudged him over without breaking pace, and zipped her own suit up to her chin. “Maybe I’m waiting to make sure you can do up the zippers before making a complete ass of myself.”
“Aw, I don’t think you need our help with that,” Maia said. She laughed, fully in her suit now, and slipped her feet free of the straps that had braced her against the floor. She drifted, in free fall, and yanked her unruly reddish-wheat coloured hair back into a ponytail.
Raul sighed and slid his feet into braces on the floor while he stripped methodically out of his uniform. Out of the corner of his eye, the fifth member of their team, Kesuk Massak, did the same. He said nothing about the exchange and, quite frightening lack of respect for a superior officer, but he had been with them for almost six months now. He understood how they worked by now. Raul didn’t miss the smirk tugging at his lips, though.
“Check their suits, Eiji,” Raul said. He tugged his own suit on with a ridiculous amount of effort, and did his best to reign in his strength so he didn’t put a hole in it like he had the first time he attempted to eel into a pressure suit. Umiko nodded, her straight, dark hair floating around her head as she moved.
She loosed her feet from their braces and drifted in front of Aliyah, who had finally managed to get the zip up on her suit. Umiko helped fit the suit’s helmet over the attached collar, and followed Aliyah’s fingers, checking as she sealed the helmet in place to the collar. One flick of a switch started the air flow into the helmet.
Kesuk, as always, managed to perform his task with speed and accuracy. He was in his suit before Raul had managed to fit one leg in, and Umiko drifted to him to help with his helmet. Maia got her hair under control and fit her helmet to her collar. After Umiko checked the fastenings, Maia helped Umiko with her own helmet. Getting into the suits had never been the most fun thing on the job, and doing it in free fall was even harder than in full gravity. Raul fumbled with the zipper until Umiko batted his hands away, did him up, and then helped seal his helmet to the collar of the suit.
They were ready to go.
“Radio check.” Raul thumbed a button on his collar that keyed the microphone in his suit.
One by one, he heard the voices of his team in his earpiece clearly. He nodded and held the button down. “I know I don’t have to remind you, but remember your training. This is an exciting moment for all of us, but we are damn professionals, and we are going to act like it no matter how much Maia wants to jump around squealing like a five year old.”
“Excuse you.” Maia’s voice crackled over the line. Raul ignored her.
“This is a routine touch down for us. Go by the book. We will get our excitement out of our systems later, I promise you. Are you ready?”
Raul hesitated. Everyone stared at him. He sighed. “You can be a little excited.”
“Yessir,” Maia said, a leer evident in her voice.
Raul rolled his eyes and pushed himself up towards where a window was cut into the wall. On the other side of the glass, two technicians sat waiting. He gave them a thumbs up and they both nodded. Raul pushed off the window and back down to his team. The door beneath their feet hissed open. Without a word, Umiko used Maia as a lever to drop down the chute. Raul followed, aided by Kesuk.
The chute led them to a small craft fitted with six seats. Umiko was already settling into one of the front chairs, and Raul dragged himself along the backs of the chairs until he could maneuver himself into the chair beside her. He was strapped in before he realised she wasn’t moving, and her eyes were fixed on the window in front of them, where a rust coloured planet hung, looming and majestic, in the view.
Raul’s heart skipped a beat or three, and he couldn’t resist reached across the console to Umiko. He gripped her hand hard in his, and she glanced at him, startled. He gave a reassuring smile, and she squeezed his fingers in return. The rest of their team filed in behind them, and strapped into their chairs. A reverent silence fell over them as they laid eyes on the planet that most of them had spent their entire lives dreaming about.
“Initiating undocking procedures,” Raul said. He hated to break the silence, but they were going to miss their window, and they hadn’t come this far just to burn up in the atmosphere so close to their goal.
“Roger that, pup. Closing the airlock in preparation for launch.” A voice crackled over the radio as the doors slid shut over them.
“Say farewell to our gracious hosts,” Raul said. Maia snorted behind him, and Umiko leaned forward over the console to begin her portion of the launch.
“It is a nice ship, for how old it is,” Maia said. “Could have done without all the poking and prodding along the way. And half the crew.”
“They can still send you back,” Raul said.
“That thought is actually worse than the thought of burning to a crisp once we hit atmo. So thanks for that, boss. I appreciate it.” Maia hummed thoughtfully. “Besides, you love me too much to let them take me.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Raul said. He spared a brief moment to clasp Umiko’s forearm before returning to the console in front of him. He pushed down the flicker of fear Maia’s words had ignited, and focused on the task at hand. Launch from the Wheel, hit the planet. Routine. Easy. They had done it a million times.
Raul released a steadying breath in one, long exhale and gripped the controls as the instructions to jettison came down the radio. He gave a short, sharp burst of impulse, and they were clear.
Maia leaned forward in her chair as they left the Wheel, straining to see out the window at the ship that had been their home for the last six months. The Wheel was just as it sounded- a huge, massive round wagon wheel with two levels connected to a centre launch cylinder. The outer lever of the ship rotated around the hub at a speed that allowed for a rotational force that simulated Earth standard gravity. The inner level of the ship was closer to the hub, and rotated at a speed that provided a fairly accurate representation of Mars standard gravity. Spokes connected the two levels and the hub, where jump shuttles entered and left.
The Wheel had been the transport ship between worlds for almost forty years now. It provided supplies and new colonists to Mars, and when the shuttles returned, they were full of [minerals and information] to return to Earth. Behind him, Maia sighed.
“It looks so much bigger out here,” she said.
Raul knew exactly what she meant. Inside, it seemed like the walls were closing in, and sometimes he got so claustrophobic he felt like clawing his own skin off for release. He saw everyone on the ship at least once a day, and there was very little privacy. Maia sat back in her chair, satisfied.
“Worth it,” was all she said. Mars gleamed, reflected on her visor. Raul had to agree, even as his tags dug into the skin of his chest under his suit. It would all be worth it.
“Check trajectory,” Raul said. Umiko nodded, fingers flying over the keyboard in her lap. Raul opened a channel with their ground contact under the frequency he had been provided. “This is Sally 152 to ground control. Do you copy?”
Raul heard nothing for a few, heart stopping moments, and then the radio connection snapped to life. “Hello! Colonel Simmons, I presume? Fantastic to hear your voice, sir.”
“You must be Jeremy,” Rail said, slightly off put by the informality. “How’s the weather down there?”
“Windy with chance of dust, just like always is,” Jeremy said. “I’m happy to guide down. How close are you to descent?”
“We hit atmo in t-minus five minutes,” Raul said. “Anything we should watch out for?”
“Nah. Pretty regular winds this time day,” Jeremy said. “I’ll be on line all way down. Can’t wait to meet you.”
“We will be there shortly.” Raul put the connection on hold. If things went as planned, he wouldn’t need it. Their flight path was programmed into the computer by people who had made the trip multiple times over to this exact drop zone. Routine. This was routine. He knew these controls like the back of his hand.
The first shock of the ship hitting atmo was jarring. The ship vibrated around them and their heat shields kicked in as the hull of the ship scraped over Mars’ thin atmosphere. The effect was not nearly as violent as an approach return to Earth, but it was startling no matter how many times Raul had done it. And he was not the only one affected by reentry. In the chair next to him, Umiko gripped the armrests like they could stop the shaking.
Once the initial burn was complete, the ship turned its nose down and started a controlled glide towards the landing zone. The jump shuttle was designed to mimic the old space shuttles, able to fly in space and in atmosphere, and create a soft landing for the crew inside. The landing zone was near the equator, where the planet’s gravity helped them make the jump down. And rising up on the horizon as they drew closer was Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the Solar System.
Raul didn’t have time to gawk at it, but he knew his crew strained in their chairs to catch a glimpse of it before they landed. Luckily, Umiko wanted to get them on the ground as quickly as possible, and was completely focused on her task as well. Raul sighted the landing strip, and radioed Jeremy to let him know they had visual contact.
“I see you. You’re doing great. Keep on.”
The wheels touched down with a screech and loud, frightening thunk. They all lurched in their seats, gravity claiming them with a vengeance after a few hours of free fall. Raul tried to ignore the sounds of Kesuk struggling to keep his lunch down as they rolled to a stop.
“Holy shit.” Maia breathed the words out, as if worried that if she spoke louder the planet around them would disappear. “Holy shit. We’re on Mars.”
“Let’s try to keep it that way,” Raul said. “Which means watch your mouth around the natives. Everyone in one piece? Kay, how are you doing back there?”
Kesuk, on Earth, had passed all of the marstronaut qualifications with flying colours. He moved in free fall like he was born for it, smoother than anyone Raul had ever seen, and was a brilliant addition to their team. However, as soon as they had docked with the Wheel, his space sickness became a constant disruption in their daily tasks. Raul watched Kesuk close his eyes behind the glass of his visor, visibly controlling himself despite the pallor that had overtaken his normally dark skin.
“Fine, sir,” Kesuk managed. His voice was steady enough, and Raul had to take him for his word. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologise for something you can’t control,” Raul said, not for the first time.
“We’re fine too, sir, if you care,” Maia said. Raul twisted to glare at her, and she waved at him with a grin splitting her lips.
Tapping struck up on the side of the ship, where the hatch sat facing their future, the surface of the planet they would spend the rest of their lives. Raul unstrapped himself and stood, wobbling for a moment on unsteady legs as his body readjusted itself to Martian standard gravity. When he felt confident, he moved to the hatch and let the door swing open.
Maia and Kesuk were out of their chairs instantly, directly behind him to get a first glance at the second planet humans had managed to eke a life off of. Raul felt his own breath catch as he laid eyes on the reddened landscape, perpetually caught under the red hue as if the sun was always low on the horizon. Despite having left Earth over six months ago, his brain still lurched at the sight of the horizon being much closer than his hind brain was used to. The disorientation left him swaying, and Kesuk rested a steadying hand on his arm to prevent him from completely toppling over onto the suited figure outside the ship.
“Greetings!” The suit half waved and half saluted, prompting an instinctive salute from Raul. “Welcome Mars!”
The suit stepped aside and Raul had to hold Maia back so that he could clamber down the steps and be the first to touch Martian soil. He was the commanding officer, it was his right. On the ground, he was immediately taken by how tall the suit was, standing beside him. Raul was not a short man, but the Martian stood almost a full foot taller than he, and Raul found himself craning his neck to look up at his visor.
“Jeremy Alton,” the suit said. Raul held out a hand and Jeremy clapped both of his over it briefly, just enough to acknowledge before letting go. Raul recalled somewhere from his training that was the evolved form of a handshake that had developed on Mars. “Have a rover waiting. To base camp, yeah?”
One by one, his team filed out of the jump shuttle and clambered into the rover Jeremy had mentioned. Jeremy took the wheel, waited until everyone was strapped in, and kicked the rover into motion. The landscape rolled by, rust coloured boulders and divots, rocks as far as the eye could see. The sun was a smaller white orb in the sky, illuminating the dust in the atmosphere to create an eerie fog like shroud over the horizon. Everything was so red.
“Like?” Jeremy leaned in his seat, towards Raul. Raul glanced at him, confused, and Jeremy gestured to Mars. To everything around them in the alien landscape.
“It’s more beautiful than I could ever have imagined,” Raul said. Jeremy made a noncommittal noise and shrugged.
“Get used to it. Start working, hardly notice,” Jeremy said.
Jeremy wasn’t a large man, exactly. He was built similarly to Raul, a bit thicker set but all of it muscle mass built up from years of military training. Behind the visor, he had pale skin, blonde hair, and a strong jawline. His mouth curled in an easy smile when he caught Raul looking.
Jeremy Alton was the sixth part of the six person team. He would be living with and spending time with Raul and the four others who had trained with him on Earth, and continuing into space, to finish the job Raul was given. Raul couldn’t predict how Jeremy would get along with the other members of his team, but he hoped the Martian would find his place. Tension on a mission as important as theirs would help exactly no one.
The landing strip was only about an hour out from the base camp Jeremy had mentioned, and the ride passed in relative silence as Raul’s team took in the planet around them. Despite what Jeremy said, Raul didn’t think he’d ever get used to how small the sun looked from here, or how solemn the sky appeared.
The edge of the city came into view a short time later, and Jeremy expertly drove them down a winding path into the small hovel the city was dug into. The rover ground to a halt outside of a massive habitat near the centre of the town, and Jeremy climbed out of the vehicle to let the building know they had arrived. Raul and his crew followed behind slightly slower, still unsure of their legs.
They all crammed into the small airlock leading into the habitat, and waited as the decompression process began. Jeremy gave them a quick run down while they waited.
“Stay in suits for now,” he said. “After debriefing, we go to home habitat. We change there, get comfortable. Helm docks are on wall beside door.” He gestured to the wall on his left, his hands flying as he talked. Raul realised he was seeing the second half of Martian communication. Martians had worked hand gestures into the evolution of their language, out of necessity because of the difficulty that came with speaking through helmets. Umiko had talked about it while they were on the Wheel, and Raul had definitely not been paying attention. Raul realised Jeremy had stopped talking. He looked up. “Copy?”
“Copy, sorry,” Raul said with a sharp nod. Jeremy received a signal of some sort, because the next moment he twisted the handle on the inner door and the pressure released with a hiss.
Jeremy led them out of the cramped decompression chamber and into a barely less cramped hallway. Raul disconnected his helmet and hooked it to one of the pegs on the wall Jeremy mentioned, and helped Umiko with her helmet. His first breath of Martian air almost knocked him off his feet.
Training prepares astronauts for most things, but it could never brace them for the sheer stench that accompanied space travel and living in cramped quarters for weeks and months on end. Just as he had when he first set foot in the Wheel, Raul found his stomach turning over with the various scents he picked up. He covered his mouth and nose with a grimace, turning into Umiko’s shoulder to try and get a grip on his sense of smell.
Umiko snapped the velcro on her glove and peeled the pressure suit back just enough to reveal the skin at her wrist. She held her wrist up and touched a light hand to the back of Raul’s neck, and he gratefully leaned into her scent, letting it wash out everything else until he could get his senses under control.
“Whew. That is rancid. Yay space!” Maia said from somewhere on his left. “Don’t worry, boss. You’ll get used to it.”
“I know,” Raul said. “It still reeks. No offense, Jeremy. It’s the same everywhere.”
Jeremy made a noise and offered a hand gesture that Raul didn’t understand. Umiko stiffened. She said, “That was impolite.”
He made the gesture that Raul understood as an apology, and Raul made a mental note to ask Umiko about it later when his head wasn’t threatening to split open. Raul straightened out of Umiko’s familiar scent, feeling a bit more grounded. He should have expected that one. It wasn’t like it hadn’t happened before. On the Wheel that first day he had been right next to Kesuk in the head, upending his lunch into the special space toilets.
When their helmets had been stored, Jeremy led the way through the compound, having to duck slightly as they moved. The ceilings were low, built for Earth colonists and their compressed bone structures. Humans born on Mars had started growing much taller with each passing generation, unhindered by Earth’s gravitational drag. The crossed a threshold into another section of the compound, one with a higher ceiling that let Jeremy walk with a straight back. The compound was an amalgam of several different habitats linked together by airtight halls to give the impression of a larger building overall.
Jeremy paused in front of a closed door and rapped his knuckles against it. Without waiting for a reply, he pushed the door open and gestured for Raul and his team to follow him into the room.
It was a small office, with one desk and no other chairs in the space, but it looked lived in and well worn. Behind the desk, an older gentleman with salt and pepper hair stood when they entered. He held out his hand, and Raul tried to mimic the hand clasp that Jeremy had given him. The man smiled. “Major General Richard O’Toole. Pleased meet you, son.”
“The pleasure is mine, sir.” Raul saluted, followed by his team behind him. The general waved off their salute with a universal gesture that meant ‘at ease’. That one Raul knew well.
“Debriefing. Fly well?” O’Toole asked. Raul nodded affirmative. “Good. Your team bunks on north cliffside. Nice place, new habitat. Few leaks.” He laughed, his hands flying to signify a joke. Raul blinked, trying to keep up with the hand movements. He was going to have to make Umiko run through the basic ones with his team. He hadn’t realised the gestures were so ingrained in Martian speech patterns. None of them but Umiko had really bothered with the hand movements, because they knew everyone spoke standard English on Mars, designated by the international agreement when the colonisation movement had started. “Jeremy take you on border EVA today, learn perimeter and water pathways. Leave tomorrow in Caterpillar for northern colonies. Jeremy has all contact information and coordinates for settlements en route. Questions?”
“When can we take a look at the dome materials?” Raul asked.
“Upon return from checking pipeline,” O’Toole said. “Should be complete by then. Watch the wolves up north.”
“Excuse me?” Raul asked. The hair at the back of his neck prickled. O’Toole leaned back in his chair and sighed.
“No offense,” O’Toole started. “They haven’t helped lots, recently. After Utopia’s flood, communication came once a month if ever. They plan something. Won’t end well. Obstinate. Belligerent. Up to me, leave them there.”
“You realise once the ocean plan has completed, those settlements will be under water,” Umiko said.
“Joke. Sorry.” His hand gestures indicated something in the future. With a bad connotation. “Know your files. Be careful.”
Raul gritted his teeth and saluted, clearly demonstrating an end to this particular conversation. At his side, Umiko did the same, and followed him out of the office with a swish of straight, black hair. Even Maia was quiet as they donned their helmets and escaped into the Martian atmosphere once more.
Jeremy led them without a word to the habitat that had been arranged to be theirs after they finished the dome project. It was on the north cliffside, not set into the cliff like some other habitats around them, but just on the outside of it, an individual unit, unattached to any of the other buildings.
Umiko made a quick circle around the building. If it had been vacant there was a chance the air had been turned off to conserve for other units. She completed her lap and stopped beside Raul. “Air is on and the filters are functioning. They look like they’ve just been replaced. Probably in preparation for our arrival.”
“All right. Let’s go home.” Raul bit into the last word, swallowing down hard on a wave of emotion welling up in him. This was his home now. This is where he would grow old and eventually die with his pack.
He twisted the door to the airlock and let everyone in. They waited in the decompression chamber for air pressure to adjust, and when the green light flickered on over their heads, Raul opened the door to their new home.
He flicked the power switch that illuminated the full roundness of their habitat. It was two floors, cylindrical in nature, and possessed a modest eight metre diameter, which looked like more than enough room compared to their bunks on the Wheel. The first floor had a living room and entertainment area, with sofas and cushions piled up on one end. A bookshelf pressed against one wall, and there was a small table just behind one of the couches. A bath with a standing shower sat next to the airlock.
Kesuk and Umiko immediately went to the bookshelf, investigating the titles shelved there. Raul led Maia and Alyiah up the short deck ladder to the second floor, where the kitchen and bedrooms were located.
They each had their own small bunk, about the size of what they had on the Wheel, but this time they weren’t sharing with anyone. A long dining table sat in the middle of the floor, and the kitchen stretched around a quarter of the room’s circumference. There was even a smart little attic which contained their water tank, protecting it from the chill of the Martian nights.
Maia was opening and closing all the bunk doors, and she grabbed the door fourth on the end. “Mine!”
“You are a literal four year old,” Aliyah said. She rolled her eyes and claimed the bunk furthest from Maia. “This is mine then. These walls are incredibly thin.”
Raul felt his face heat, and Maia just laughed and ducked into what she picked for her room. He wandered over to it, to see what hers looked like. He saw a nice, low slung bunk, and a desk that backed into the outer wall of the unit. Maia caught him snooping and grinned at him. “Less of a fall,” she mouthed.
“You’re terrible,” Raul said. He beat a hasty retreat and picked a bunk at random. Their packs had been unloaded from the jump shuttle and brought here already. He snatched his off the table and tossed it into his room. His bunk was higher off the ground- it appeared the bunk heights rotated for room optimisation- and started tugging his clothes out.
They weren’t allowed to bring much with them, just a few trinkets and what amounted to underwear. Whenever they were outside they would be in the suits, and the climate was controlled inside the units and the Caterpillar. He could hear Aliyah and Maia stripping out of their suits already, eager to be free of the restrictive clothing. They weren’t going anywhere, so they could relax a bit and get food ready for when Raul and Umiko returned. And Jeremy. Jeremy was part of them now.
“Ready?” Jeremy’s voice drifted up from the ladder hole in the floor, and Raul closed his door behind him and clambered down the ladder to the first floor. “We take ATVs. Get there quicker.”
Umiko tossed Raul’s helmet to him and clasped her own in place. When it was fixed, he checked her seal, and she checked his before checking Jeremy’s.
“Hey boss, the quicker you finish the quicker you get to see us naked.” Maia’s voice filtered over the radio in Raul’s ear. Jeremy flashed a horrified glance at him. Raul groaned.
“You are on an open channel, O’Neill. Please conduct yourself as such,” Raul said.
“Yeah sure, boss,” Maia said. “I’ve got your GPS on the map. You’re good to go. Drive safe and be home before dark!”
Raul shook his head as he and Umiko followed Jeremy into the decom chamber again and Kesuk closed the door behind them. Once they were outside, Jeremy showed them the ATV garage. He passed them the keys to a vehicle and swung himself up over one of his own.
“Umiko, you can ride with me,” Raul said. Umiko nodded and swung a leg over the ATV behind Raul, settling in behind him with her arms around his waist. There was no point in wasting fuel when they were perfectly comfortable riding tandem.
Jeremy struck out, leading them back up out of the small canyon and over top of the ridge that would provide the base for the dome. His long legs looked amusing tucked up against the ATV which was obviously not built for the taller Martian frame. Once they were atop the cliff ridge, Jeremy dismounted to view the city beneath them.
Raul and Umiko met him at the edge. It was a large settlement, relative to the ones they would be visiting over the next few weeks. But it was no New York City. The city had been built down, into a slight crater, to allow for the dome to cover the city and seal it. This was what Raul and his team had been hired to do. Seal the city, push breathable air through it, and ensure a steady flow of water to its people.
Umiko held her tablet in hand as she surveyed the ridge with sharp eyes. She displayed the tablet screen to Raul, and pointed to a spot on the diagram. “I see there was difficulty with the outer wall in sector B34.”
Raul glanced from the tablet to the physical object in front of him, and saw that she was correct. The built location did not represent what was planned on the diagram. Jeremy waved his hand in the gesture of apology. “Difficulty with ground stability. Adjust best we could. Want to see?”
“Yes please. That’s near the support for the dome. We’ll have to see if we need to make any adjustments,” Raul said.
They set off around the edge of the cliff, and Jeremy led them to another access point that led them down into the city once more, near the wall Umiko had pointed out. They spent the rest of the sunlight driving around the city edge, investigating the future support sites for the dome, and the water intake lines that were still in the process of being put down. They had a few weeks before they would be used, so it wasn’t exactly a time crunch just yet. It would be shortly.
Umiko leaned more heavily against him when they were finally ready to head back to their habitat. Her head bounced on his shoulder as he drove, and when they parked their ATVs, he rested a gentle hand at her waist in case she needed to lean on him. It was a lot to do in one day. Jump from orbit, debrief after a rover ride from the landing site, and then a thorough investigation of the dome site. And they weren’t even going to get the luxury of a shower. Possibly ever again.
Once they had pressurised and were inside their habitat, Umiko picked herself up and helped Raul peel his helmet and suit off while Jeremy stared, helmet in hand and mouth hanging open. It had been a very long while since Raul felt self-conscious about being naked in front of people, but Jeremy was making the feeling rise again.
“Help you?” Raul asked, fighting a flush. His tags swung against his chest, freed from the confines of the pressure suit. He had a little silver burn from them being pressed against bare skin for so long, but that would heal quickly enough.
“Uh-” Jeremy started helpfully, but got derailed when Umiko dropped her suit efficiently and stepped out of it. The silver antique key hooked to her tags swung as she bent and gathered up the suit. It’s blue gem glittered under LED lights as she straightened, and it settled between her breasts.
“Corporal!” Raul barked. Jeremy started, and quickly averted his eyes. “Is this going to be an issue?”
“No sir, sorry sir,” Jeremy said, surprised enough that he neglected the hand motion. Raul glared at him until he continued. “Strangers not usually… Naked,” he said, reluctantly. “And… Never seen wolf before.”
Well that was just fantastic. Raul sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He could feel a headache coming on. “Happy first wolf sighting day, kid. Can we be done with this? You realise all of the settlements up north are wolves, right?”
“Yessir,” Jeremy said. He quickly turned around and started to climb out of his pressure suit. Raul tipped his head at Umiko and followed her up the ladder to the living quarters.
“There they are!” Maia called out from where she stood at the small range. “Where’s Jeremy?”
“He got distracted,” Raul said as he ducked into his room and grabbed a pair of boxers. He hopped into them and yanked the waistband up while walking back into the living space. As he passed Kesuk, sitting at the table going over some notes, he ruffled his hair. Aliyah got a clap on the shoulder, and Maia, stirring a pot of something, got an arm around the waist. “What are you making?”
“Stuff and things,” Maia said. “Stuff and things that you will eat, because they are good for you. Go sit down, your arms are freezing.”
He didn’t feel cold, but sat down next to Umiko, who had donned an overlarge sleep shirt to hide her tags and panties. Her long, dark hair was pulled back in a messy bun as she bent over her own tablet with glasses perched on her nose, marking notes on the diagram of the city. Raul felt himself settle. He was with his pack.
Jeremy climbed up the ladder and joined them at the table, folding himself into a chair with an awkward sort of grace of one who was use to accommodating vertically challenged people. Maia dished out food to everyone and sat down on Raul’s other side while everyone ate. Raul didn’t miss the surreptitious looks Jeremy kept sneaking him during the meal. He tried to ignore them.
“You’re burned again,” Kesuk said, breaking a contemplative silence. Raul glanced up to find himself pinned under dark eyes, and then looked down at his own chest.
“It’s fine,” Raul said, with a shrug. Maia snorted and pushed her chair back. She went into her room and came back with a soft cloth. She dampened the cloth in her water glass and crouched in front of Raul. Raul protested. “I said it’s fine!”
“Shut up and let me,” Maia said, ignoring him. She brushed the dog tags aside and carefully touched the cloth to the stinging abrasions. They really were not bad, relatively speaking. He’d had much worse. But it did feel better after Maia had finished wiping silver off his skin. “You are so stubborn.”
“That’s why you like me,” Raul said, smirking when she smacked him with the cloth.
“Not at the dinner table, please,” Aliyah said around a mouthful of food. “I would like to keep my dinner down, thank you.”
“Don’t be jealous,” Maia said. She sat back down in her chair. “Maybe Jeremy can show you how they do it on Mars.”
Jeremy snorted, choking slightly on his food. Umiko patted him gingerly on the back until he had calmed down. Raul sighed. “Maia, tone it down. We don’t want to lose our sixth man before the mission even starts.”
“Sorry boss,” Maia said. “I will try to keep it in my pants.”
“You are going to get us all jettisoned,” Raul said, shaking his head as he went back to eating.
After dinner, they drifted to their rooms one by one until Umiko and Raul were left in the kitchen area, tablets out in front of them. When Raul heard the last of his crew’s breathing slip into the even cadence of sleep, he gently took the tablet from Umiko’s hand. She frowned at him and pursed her lips, annoyed.
“Tell me what you think about Jeremy,” Raul said, his voice low. Umiko lifted a finger to her ear and flicked it to point outwards, a quizzical look on her face. Raul shook his head. “They’re all asleep. Unless Martians have developed somnient comprehension, we’re fine.”
“There’s unrest here,” Umiko said. She leaned back in her chair and tugged at the elastic holding her hair back. It cascaded down over her shoulders in comforting, straight lines. In the light it almost looked navy blue. “I think he’s going to be a problem. The General was not helpful, not in any meaningful way. I think we’re going to have to find out more information from the werewolves up north. Maybe we can piece things together.”
“You think it’s that bad?” Raul asked. Umiko had incredible intuition for reading people, and she was rarely wrong when it came to situations like this. But he hadn’t expected such a dire report. “Are we in danger?”
She worried her lower lip. “Not right now, I think. Nothing immediate that we aren’t ready for, anyway. I just don’t know what’s going on here. I don’t like it.”
“Do you think you can handle Jeremy?” Raul asked. She nodded. “I want you to keep an eye on him on the way up. I think you’re the only one who can communicate with him in any meaningful way.”
“If you had read my reports on the language, then you’d be able to speak Martian too,” Umiko said, without malice. She smirked a little and made a hand gesture that Raul really didn’t understand.
“Okay, you told me so. I’ll work on it, okay?” Raul offered. She gestured ‘okay’ and pushed away from the table. She hesitated, a hand on the back of her chair.
“Is Maia expecting you?” she asked in a small voice. Raul shook his head negative. Umiko glanced to her bunk and then back at him. “Would you mind…”
Raul took a deep breath to try and calm his racing heart. “If that’s what you want, I would be more than happy to.”
“Just to sleep,” Umiko said, quickly. “I just- It feels strange here. It would help with someone familiar.”
“Sleep is fine,” Raul said. “It’ll help me sleep better, too.”
Umiko, unfortunately, had chosen a bunk with a high bed. She hopped up first, and Raul had to get a foot on the desk chair to climb up after her, his back to the sheer drop to her floor. She pressed as close to the wall as she could, and let him spread himself on the mattress, before rolling into him without hesitation. He gratefully wrapped his arms around her and pressed his face to her hair. Her cool, familiar scent surrounded him, easing some of the tension in his chest that he had carried since meeting the General that day. Exhaustion caught up with him and he dropped off almost instantly.
“Hey boss, time to get up.” Maia’s voice drifted through the closed door, followed up by a sharp rapping.
Raul groaned, rolling into cool skin at his side, and then froze. Sometime during the night, his hand had slipped under Umiko’s shirt. He jerked back, forgot he had no wall at his back, and toppled from the high bunk.
He crashed to the ground, dragging half the sheets with him, and Umiko’s stack of books from her desk. His head smashed into the floor with dizzying force, and he couldn’t stop the impressive stream of curses out of his mouth.
“Ah! Shimata-” Umiko leaned over the bunk, horror on her face. “Are you okay!?”
Raul blinked stars back from his vision and grimaced. “Yeah. Fine. I’m fine. I just need a sec-”
The door yanked open, and Maia took in the scene. Her commanding officer on the floor, and Umiko leaning over the edge of the bed with terror in her eyes. And the sheets draped over the edge of the bunk. She laughed so hard she had to go sit down, and Kesuk and Aliyah poked their heads into the room curiously.
“Do you have a concussion?” Aliyah asked.
“Nothing injured but my authority and dignity,” Raul said with a groan.
“Like you had either of those to start with.” Alyiah scoffed and went to go sit at the table.
Kesuk reached into the room and extended a hand to help Raul up like the good officer he was. Raul clapped Kesuk on the back and reached up to help Umiko down so she did not suffer the same fate. She offered one of her rare smiles as she thanked him, and brushed past Kesuk to start making herself breakfast. Raul had to take a breath to steady himself before leaving the stateroom. Between Umiko’s smile and the blow to his head, he was feeling a bit dizzy.
Breakfast was taken without incident, and they suited up for the first part of what they had come up here to do. Outside, the Martian dawn broke thin and wane over the horizon, and Raul was once again struck by just how alien this planet was.
Raul tapped the radio button on the outsie of his helmet. “O’Neill, are you in position?”
“One minute, boss. The gears had a bit of frost on them.” Maia’s end of the transmission fell silent briefly. “Okay. Aliyah and I are in position and the base post one.”
A laser sight went up from the centre of the city, and Raul saw Umiko note it on her tablet out of the corner of his eye. Across the edge of the cliffs, Raul watched two ATVs kick to life and begin their slow trek around the edge of the dug out pit. Behind them, they dragged the netting that would eventually lock together to become the dome.
Umiko tracked their progress on her tablet. Ten ATVs were formed in a caravan that would gradually, and slowly, move the netting across the opening of the dug out city, stretching over the entire city until it formed a seal. The netting would then be drilled into the ground to create an airtight seal.
Watching the ATVs slide around the edge of the canyon was agonising. Umiko and Jeremy were bent over her tablet, watching the netting for any signs of stress or tearing. The first two ATVs reached them about half an hour after the start of the entire project. Raul walked to meet them as they dismounted. Around the edge of the pit, the other ATVs rolled to a stop.
When the netting was drawn tight by the ATVs, several other workers under Raul’s instruction, stepped forward and started to pound the base into the dirt with compression drills. The netting was made of thin, polycarbon fibers linked together with carbon nanotubes to provided strength and flexibility against the stiff Martian winds that hadn’t died down yet despite the gradual warming of the planet’s surface.
“Eiji, how does the centre pivot look?” Raul asked, watching with sharp eyes as the men and women around the edge worked on the edge of the netting.
“Appears to be in position with a margin of error of approximately fifty centimetres,” she said, her eyes still on her tablet. “I believe the winds are stable to attempt docking.”
Raul keyed Maia’s frequency on his radio. “How does it look down there?”
“Fantastic,” Maia said. “Are we ready to lift the supports?”
“Go for the central support,” Raul said. After he said it, he watched as a long, dark spire started to unfold itself from the ground where he knew Maia and Aliyah were standing. The black support structure rose up above the city and Raul watched as it came in contact with a joint in the netting.
“Contact,” Umiko said. The entire netting shuddered as the tip of the spire locked into place and started to lift the netting upwards, towards the sky.
As the netting started to rise, the nanotubes began stiffening in place, as they were designed to do. The netting pushed upwards and started to solidify over the city. When the spire reached its full height, the netting formed a generous half circle, dome shape over the city.
“Expansion complete,” Umiko said. She tapped on her tablet. “Nanotubes locked and secured.”
“Lower the spire, O’Neill,” Raul said. The spire unlocked from the top of the dome with a click, and Raul watched the black tower shrink down to the ground, again. The dome held, and Raul let himself grin. He glanced at Umiko, and saw satisfaction in her eyes.
Together they approached the newly installed dome. Raul reached out and touched the substance. It gave slightly under his gloved hand, which was supposed to happen. When the winds blew across the Martian plains, the dome would give enough to remain rooted in the ground. The polycarbon material ensured that nothing flying across the plains would penetrate the dome. It was completely airtight and sealed against the elements.
“Good job everyone,” Raul said over the broadband radio frequency. He heard people yelling in glee, not over the radio but through helmet vibrations and the thin Martian atmosphere. “Let’s head back down.”
The dome complete, it was time to head north.
“Caterpillar ready in two hours,” Jeremy said when Raul entered the eating area of their hab. He stuffed a breakfast bar in his mouth. “Can start packing now.”
“Good. Everyone be ready to go in an hour. We’ll make the move and be ready to go as soon as the rover is,” Raul said. Everyone grunted acknowledgement as they went through their morning routines.
Maia combed washing powder through Umiko’s hair while Alyiah wrestled with Maia’s. Aliyah’s hair was closely cropped to her head to cut down on care time, which meant she spent all her free time helping Maia managing hers. And not of her own free will. Maia had a way of bending people to her will and she had insisted on keeping her hair longer. At least she didn’t have to wash it as frequently as Umiko and the rest of them.
Raul hopped down the ladder, followed by Kesuk, and they took turns in the small bathroom scrubbing their hair with washing powder, and using the facilities. When Raul had finished, he entered the living space to see Kesuk catching their bags as Maia threw them down the hatch. They’d have to get into the suits again for the short trip from their habitat to the Caterpillar.
They managed it this time without any crass comments from Maia, or blushing from Jeremy, and they each grabbed their bags and stepped out into Martian sunlight. In the full light of day, Mars looked like a dimly lit Western film. Dust, as far as the eye could see, even as walls rose up around them on the way to the rover that would be their mobile home for the next few weeks.
They approached it at a quick pace. There were a few suits wandering around the outside, doing last minute checks on the tire pressure and seals on the partitions. It was segmented into three pieces, a cockpit, a living space, and a sleeping space. Each section had two axles and four wheels, and they were connected with a flexible, air tight webbing that let the three partitions move independent of each other if they had to. Hence the name, Caterpillar. It looked quite like the tiny bug they had left behind.
Jeremy went up to one of the suits and gestured with his hands. Raul recognised the sign for ‘safe’, but not much else. He got a nod in return, and Jeremy waved them over to the pressure doors leading into the rover. Only three of them fit in the decom chamber of the rover, so Jeremy, Raul, and Umiko entered first.
When they finally stepped inside and removed their helmets, Raul sucked in a deep, purifying breath. The rover smelled fresh and clean, without any trace of other people being in it. Raul’s instincts flared, excited at the possibility of making this his own. His pack’s. It was theirs and nobody elses.
About ten minutes later, Aliyah, Kesuk, and Maia entered the vehicle and they stood in the living area, grinning like idiots at each other with the exception of Jeremy, who had wandered off somewhere. Maia couldn’t contain herself. She grabbed Umiko’s hand in both of hers. “We’re really here. We’re really doing this.”
“Professionally,” Raul reminded her. She completely ignored him and laughed as she bounced away towards the sleeping quarters.
“Calling my bunk first, losers!” She sang as she moved away. Raul heard her rummaging around in the sleeping area.
“Sir, controls?” Jeremy poked his head out of the partition between the cockpit and the living section.
Raul left the rest of his team to squeeze into one of the chairs in the cockpit. Jeremy flopped into the other, and Raul noted that it was designed with Martian physiology in mind. Jeremy wasn’t crunched into the chair. The front of the cockpit was glass. He would be able to see where he was going, and from his vantage point driving would not be a problem.
Raul touched Jeremy’s shoulder, unsure how much physical contact the man would allow, and said, “When we get the all clear, let me know. I’m going to assign shifts.”
Jeremy nodded, and Raul returned to the living quarters to find Kesuk and Umiko camped on the couch. Maia and Aliyah were at the cupboards, looking over their supplies for the week. Maia saw him out of the corner of her eye. “It’s about half freeze dried, half edible. We should be able to mix it up.”
“We’ll work in eight hour shifts of two. Aliyah, you’re with Maia. Kesuk with me. Umiko, you can go on up with Jeremy. You’ll take first shift since he knows the layout best around here. Once we are out of Solis Planum we’ll do some map work.” Raul jerked a thumb towards the cockpit. “Two hours, alternating, driving. Sleep for eight and a half hours, so that we’re constantly on the move. We should be able to make the first settlement by week’s end.”
“Sounds good,” Maia said.
“Kay and I will take the first overnight,” Raul said. “Did you leave a bunk for me?”
“You’ll love it, boss,” Maia said. “There’s a nest in the sleeping cabin!”
Raul blinked at her. “Wait, really?”
“Yeah, I guess they knew you were heading up the mission.” Maia grinned. She tipped her head, thick curls shifting around her shoulders. “It’s pretty comfy.”
“That was nice of them,” Raul said. He wasn’t sure what to say, except that he would definitely be using the nest. He grabbed his pack and made his way to the sleeping cabin. The ribbed walkway between the sleeping cabin and living cabin opened first into a shower/bath and washer/dryer in a short hall. The short hall led to six bunks, three sets of two stacked on top of each other.
Maia already staked her claim on the bottom bunk on the left, and Aliyah’s bag was settled on the one over hers. Umiko claimed the top bunk directly in front of him, so he tossed his on an open one to his right. And sure enough, there was a nest sunk into the floor. A small depression in the floor that had been fluffed with pillows and blankets. It was just enough space for a few people to sit in comfortably, or sleep. His heart stuck in his throat as he stared at it.
“It’s good, right?”
Raul glanced up and caught Umiko’s eyes as she leaned against the door. She had a soft smile on her face and Raul’s heart skipped a beat. Umiko stepped into the room and gestured at the nest. “It wasn’t originally in the plans, but I knew you’d be missing your pack. So I asked if they could include this. There were no additional resources needed to build it, so they agreed.”
“Thank you,” Raul said around the lump in his throat. That she would think to do this for him. For their crew. For the mission. “I don’t-”
She stepped closer to him and rested a hand on his arm, warm through the pressure suit. “You got us all here. We’re all in this together now. You don’t need to thank me.”
“Thank you anyway,” Raul said, sincerely. She couldn’t possibly know what it meant, to have this available to him. Even if he never used it, it was a symbol of their closeness as a unit. “It means a lot.”
“I know,” she said. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I should go up front. Jeremy says we’re almost ready to move out.”
She peeled her pressure suit off, slid into some comfortable sleep shorts and a cami, and left for her shift in the cockpit. Raul unzipped his own suit and started to eel out of it. Kesuk entered the sleeping cabin behind him, wiggling out of his own suit to get comfortable.
Raul bent to free his legs, and caught Kesuk eying him critically. Raul lifted an eyebrow, and Kesuk saw he was watching. “You’re burned again.”
Raul glanced down at his chest and saw that his tags had left some minor abrasions on his chest again. “Yeah. It happens whenever I put a suit on. The silver pressed against skin is irritating. I’ve gotten used to it. Do what you gotta do to get the job done, right?”
Kesuk stared at him, and Raul was reminded once again of the first time he ever met the man. Dark, intelligent eyes spoke of a calm, collected personality, always steady in the face of adversity and able to see through escalating issues to the root of the problem. He was quicker on his feet with technical problems than anyone Raul had ever seen before, and his steadying presence provided a soothing counterpart to Maia’s vibrant enthusiasm for life in general.
And he was suddenly in Raul’s personal space, a lot closer than would be comfortable for a human unused to him. Raul held his breath, not wanting to break the spell that had dragged Kesuk to him. He was the newest addition to their team, only hired on a few months previous to their boarding the Wheel. He was a sheer mystery to Raul in every way, except the presence he had taken up in their team. Raul wasn’t going to lie, he looked forward to getting to know Kesuk better.