A Mars story

Here’s a short piece occurring on the way to Mars. It seems even more appropriate than when it was published, several years ago.

Mars Ride Along
EJ Shumak

I wake and have no idea where I am. I always wake to confusion. They said we would get used to the environment. That was as much crap as everything else about this mission.
“Мне все равно”, Great. It was the Russians arguing again that woke me. Well, I suppose it’s better than sleeping and dreaming. This last time I woke up thinking there was still a NASA and the US led the world in the solar system. I guess my dreams are even older than I am.
I didn’t want anything to do with the Russians, I don’t understand why they were even on this mission. Granted we needed the Japanese, or we weren’t getting anywhere. Wow, I really am arrogant, Like WE need the Japanese, Hell yeah; problem is they don’t need us. Kinda neat all I have to do is change “us” to “US” and I go from personal to prewar political. If I thought us/US was arrogant, the Russians give the team nothing but arrogance and grief.
They couldn’t even get along together; one of them claimed to be Ukrainian, even though there was no Ukraine. I didn’t even know how or why that happened. First there was a Ukraine, then there wasn’t then there was again, then us/US got involved and all hell broke loose.
They taught us that no one believed Putin was crazy enough to loose his nukes — destroyed nearly a quarter of Earth, The orders to launch are obeyed and then, just two weeks later, Putin is slaughtered by his own cabinet. I definitely don’t understand Russians. The Ukrainians no longer had a country and us/US was just a shade better than third world.
Now I’m headin’ for Mars with Russians under Nihon command and we speak American English. Three more months, and personally I don’t believe there is a station there anymore. I got no use for Japanese command either. I still believe in American superiority, only a memory now.
“Duerr, I need the Davidavich relieved.”
“Right Lieutenant Commander.” I get two points for that one. I didn’t call him Captain, but referred to his rank, Sato hated that but couldn’t bring himself to complain because I was still accurate as to rank if not command status. I also didn’t mention his “the Davidavich” slip. But Daichi knew he messed up. He always knew. I couldn’t wait to tell Yasue. She’d make him feel even more worthless than I could. I smiled.
Kicking off my bunk rail, I sailed through the comm station up to navigation. I slammed into Davidavich, using the back of his crash couch for a brake.
“пошел на хуй”
“Hey, be nice comrade, I’m here to relieve you, not just wake you up. Watch the language too pal, we don’t have a problem now, but I’m open if you are.” He just glared at me, unbuckled and pushed off back down the core. Again, I smiled. It seemed to be my only defense, my only pleasure and my only option.
My buddy Davidavich left shift after doing absolutely nothing. No tracings, no positioning, hell we could be headed for Venus instead of Mars for all that lazy shit knew. I scrunched down into the cushions, trying to give myself an illusion of gravity or at least G-force by jerkin’ the crash straps tight.
We had so little to do on this mission, I’m amazed anybody could avoid work. I was happy as a clam in dogshit to have something to take my mind off home. Not to mention why I volunteered for a multi-year mission that I believed was at best a waste and at worst a suicide run. Just enough of my mind is absorbed into these calculations and sensor checks to allow myself to really think.
Maybe I can figure out what the damn dreams mean. Not the regular ones, not the ones about me still being with Sharon. I just can’t shake those memories, not even this far away. I thought I could escape, but no, I just get these new even weirder dreams, just as we passed through the mars belt. A hallucination or two if I admit it.
I’m falling and there’s a hand, no a tentacle no – I just can’t focus on it. Where the hell? I pop back into the navcomp, just like I never left. Crap. I was just gone forty-five minutes arguing with some something that wanted to pull me up and save me. Yeah right – save me I’m sure.
Mindless important crap has always been the way I can turn inward and look at my life. When I was a kid I used handload ammunition to zone out. If I made a mistake, I was likely to blow myself up. That kept the analytic part of my mind busy, while my emotional mind went nuts (almost literally) with the freedom to consider everything. And I’m still here. Our progressive government no longer allows such socially evil activities, so handloading would be out even if I was home. But they still let me sit console and run numbers, simulations, and cross-checks. Kinda’ the same thing, ‘cept I can’t step outside for some air, or lack thereof. And I’m not so good at avoiding these visits from my tentacle friends.
Nine hours go by and I’m just caught up. I wonder if I’m the only one who actually does the Nav work. I actually had Davidavich tell me “Я не делаю математику” (I don’t do math) or close. The Russian is just simply that I can make most of it out. I acted like I didn’t understand. I don’t want the commies to think I can translate their insults. The vicious profane insults. Even they figure stuff like that transcends language barriers.
Lieutenant JG Ishikawa is scooting down the Core towards my station. I smell her long before I can see or hear her. This recycled air is another gift of our need to survive out here where we probably don’t belong. But, unlike the cabbage smelling Boris crew, Yasue’s olfactory announced presence is more than welcome.
“Have a good rest with computer games, Captain?”
This is rich. I’m a senior tech with the nominal rank of Captain, IE I wear railroad tracks on the uniform, but the Nihon Navy calls that a Lieutenant, ‘course us/US did/does too. The Captain’s sled is calling me Captain. “Yasue, it is always a pleasure to see you. Games are all finished now. Hey, you gonna’ relieve me?”
“Unfortunately no. You must remember I have essential science duties to perform. I am only here as messenger. Perhaps we will someday develop another means of more efficient communication, oops –well”
“Ok I know you are much more important member of this mission, but I can still get us all real lost, real quick. Don’t think that the Borises can save you.”
“Though you terrify me, I will still tell you of your good fortune. You have been bestowed the privilege of monitoring the other Greg on a repair excursion at the core base.”
“You have only thirty minutes to contemplate your great fortune. 2240 at the aft deck plate.”
“You are stunningly beautiful even when you are mean.” And she was. Too bad the real Captain was riding that sled.
“I accept the compliment and ignore the insult. I am genetically incapable of being mean. It is in my culture, Sempai.”
“Who’s my relief?”
“And where is Ensign Abe?”
“Just behind me. Fear not, you will not be late for your repair work. Unless I cannot trust you alone with her.”
“Again, you wound me Lieutenant.” She smiled and kicked hard of the back of my crash couch. “You’re gonna’ hurt yourself one-day Yasue.” At least Ensign Abe wasn’t doubling up with anyone in the sleep tubes. At least that I could determine. She did take another five minutes to show up though.
“I’ve got your back, Lieutenant. I hope you left me with something to do.”
“Not for another hour or so, when new scans are complete.” Her name, Hitome suited her. She did have beautiful eyes. Damn, I have to keep that part of my brain in check. “I’ll transfer to you now if you don’t mind. I have repair monitor duty in about twenty minutes, aft. And please call me Greg.”
“That is difficult for me, Sempai. I do not know you so well. Besides, how could I tell you from Ensign Carlson?”
I smiled, “True, we are so much alike. Heck, we’re both Americans.” All I got back was a return smile and those sparkling eyes. I grabbed the core rail and shoved myself aft towards the lockers to tool up. Hell, from here everything was aft.

Carlson was waiting for me when I got to the aft access panel. “Greg”
“Sorry if I’m late.”
“I don’t think it’s anything anyway. Our fearless leader has been acting even weirder than normal lately. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice. You two being so close. You being his first officer and all.”
“Honestly I didn’t. He’s so damn creepy anyway. I just keep tryin’ to irritate him and stay out of actionable shit.” Wow, did the only other American on board think I was tight with Somber Sato? “Ya know Ensign, my friend; He has never given me any reason to suspect that I am first officer. I think he would have to die for the Borises to realize it.”
“Well, I know who should have been commanding this mission.”
“Hell, is your nose brown – what do you know that I don’t?”
“I know I am having the weirdest and most disturbing dreams of my life. I know you’re having them too because the screams I hear are in clear US English.”
“Hell, I’m screaming in my damn sleep?”
“Yes Sir. And the screams are freaking me out.” Nobody else bitched about it? Maybe they think it’s all me.”
“Anyway, what are we lookin’ for?”
“The Captain says there is leakage in the thermo-couplings that cross water recycling and heat.”
“And he knows this how?”
“I don’t ask. That’s the first officer’s job.”
“Thanks. OK get down in the tunnel. Ya know I’m too damn fat to get in there.”
“Hey, just because you’re “Big Greg” doesn’t mean I should suffer.”
“No, you’re right. That is unfair – wait, you suffer because you are both a Tech and an Ensign.”
“OK OK, I’m crawling boss.”
As I lean against the bulkhead, I start to remember stuff. Thoughts that are somehow commands, and I reject them. As if I know they’re just plain wrong – and too damn weird too. Were those dreams? Was I screaming? Hell if I know. But the Russians and Sato have been subdued lately. Even Davidavich let my threat go unanswered this afternoon. I didn’t think anything of it then, I guess I just thought I was a big, tough American first officer. But that would just antagonize any of the Borises even more. “What ya got, Carlson?”
“Nothing yet. No moisture visible, no moisture on the instruments, Water system is optimal as is the heat pump.”
“Screw it. Get back up here. If Daichi couldn’t give you specifics, then we’re done.”
“You call him that?”
“Hell, not to his face. Tried it with Yasue once and got slapped for my trouble. I can just imagine what Sato would do. The Borises said he has ceremonial edged weapons in his locker. I’d be the crew’s fresh meat for sure. You hungry for that kinda fresh meat?”
“Not yet sir. I’ll let you know, or let Sato know.”
“OK wise ass. Crawl on outta there. If you weighed anything or if I could tell up from down without a sign, I’d help ya outa there”
“I do not believe you for one-second Lieutenant.”
I jammed myself into the bulkhead corner near the hatchway to stabilize myself. I still kinda freaked when I just float away. “Talk to me a bit more on these dreams.”
“One Nihon is having them too. I think it’s Ishikawa, based on the minimal accent and female voice.”
“Anybody else? I asked.”
“I don’t think so. Not that I heard.”
“You were born in the twenties right, after Putin?”
“Yeah, you too.”
“Obviously I know that. But Ishikawa’s parents were living in the US during Putin. She was born on US soil after the nukes. I think she’s the only foreign US first born that survived”
“No damn kidding Shit. The corpsman’s worthless. Don’t talk to him. I’ll look into it – I don’t know what the hell I’m looking into or why, but I will. A lot of stuff has happened to firstborns after Putin. I mean we hardly get sick and we’re supposed to be a bit stronger. But that makes sense. I mean 90% of us died before birth. And we got three of the remaining four thousand here on this mission. But we’re different. I never consider anything coincidental with after Putin firstborns”
“Yes Sir.”
“Write up your report and give it to Sato. I’ll talk to ya later.”
“Sir”, Carlson said as I left him there cleaning up. I was headed to the only private space I had. My sleep tube. I was overdue for downtime as it was.
I slipped into my tube and keyed up main comm. Arkady had the duty, “Yes sir Lieutenant.”
“I’m off shift and down. Will notify when back on deck, Don’t buzz me for less than the Captain or a class two.”
“Acknowledged and logged, sir. comm out.”
I fall off right away.
Suddenly I am back in Appleton. The ground is swimming with these curved pieces of meat, at least that’s what it looks like to me. Hell, it’s my dream, I guess it’s exactly what I say it is. The meat wigglers are much deeper now, past my knees and I’m wading through ‘em. Redish, with some kind of mouth, searching and biting. I kick up as many as I can and they seem agitated, at least they are moving faster and jumping higher. There’s a shelf about one-quarter click forward. I run for it, or rather slosh towards it, the Reds biting at me, my legs have started to ache and I fall forward into the pool of warm red slime that surrounds me.
Suddenly I’m calm, voices lots of voices singing to me in soft lullaby. My Grandmother is there, beckoning me down, deeper into the red. I look at her. The one human being that completely and unconditionally loved me looks back with not grayish blue eyes, but with short tentacles pulsing and angling from the sockets. This time I know I awake screaming. I lay quietly – I do not sleep.
The last mission started having innocuous communications and reports just before they reached Mars station. One week later Mars station went silent. Timing wise, we went through the same general area of the asteroid belt that Mars Seventeen traversed. We are Mars eighteen.
I realize now that I was completely lax in any first officer duties reasonably expected of me. I followed Sato’s orders even if they were bullshit because I knew that’s what he wanted. I flirted with his girlfriend and did all the Borises work and thought I was this great selfless leader. I failed to notice that the rest of the crew was just one step up from zombies. Damn, I hate that word, but I don’t know how else to describe it. The Russians don’t even argue anymore. Everybody does the minimum. No more bitchin’. No more nothing.
I have the dreams, but they stay in the background. They definitely want control. I know I know, how the hell do I know what the dreams want – but I do know.
I pass Yasue in the core. I grab her, hard. “Look I don’t know if you’re still in there, but if you get in your tube and stay there until after we dock. I’ll come get you then.” She glares at me but doesn’t answer. And she sure as hell doesn’t slap me.
I head to the armory and punch in my override codes. I just hope Sato is too far gone to notice or realize what I’m doing. I pull out three antiquated 1911’s. Damn near 150 years old, but they’ll work. And a laser cutting tool. I look even fatter floating down (yeah right down) towards my sleep tube. I slip in with my collection and wait.
The jostling of positional jets followed by a loud clank and whirring noises inform me all I need to know. We’re docked and locked. Shadows keep passing my tube, I have it tinted 85%. I can barely see anything but no one can see in. That’s so much more important. I figure four minutes for the crew to clear and at least three more to figure out some of us are missing.
I pop outta my tube and key in the emergency seal code. The three sectional bulkheads slam shut and the seals reengage at the forward docking collar. No alarms like in the movies – thank heavens. All I need now are alarms.
I belt in at the helm and jerk us off station. Carlson is coming up behind me and my firing of the positioning jets slam his head against the core.
“Thanks, ass hole”
“No problem, You can thank me again later. Get up here and grab a 1911. Just make sure you only hit SOFT targets. We can’t hole the ship.”
“Hey, I’m not an idiot just because we got the same name.”
“Hopefully you won’t find anyone, except maybe Yasue.”
A voice echoes from further aft in the core, “I’ll even let you guys call me that now. Save me one of those Colts.”

I couldn’t be happier. Well, I guess I could, but under the circumstances at least it was three for home. And only 27 hours to the next communications window. I think I’ll let the science expert handle that duty.

Links are for the print verssions with lots of other great stuff.

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