Man Down

Baker hunched over in his seat in obvious pain. A grimace washed over his face as another wave of agony wracked his body. His stomach had gotten worse, not better. A bitter bile tinged the back of his throat, and he thought for a moment that it would be better to vomit, but the thought repulsed him so much that he swallowed hard instead. He could feel the unsavory fluid wash back into his rebellious stomach. Sweat formed across his forehead and his ears burned in warmth. His vision grew blurry as if he had jumped into a clear pool of water. He wavered in his seat.

“Sir, a rover from the colony is approaching our site,” an unseen bot said.

Baker turned toward the voice, but still couldn’t identify its owner. He exhaled loudly as if he had been punched in the gut.

“Sir, do you want us to engage and destroy it?” the bot asked.

Baker searched for the voice again as nausea washed over him. His restraint gave way, and he quickly dropped from his chair to knees and vomited on the floor beneath him. The sour taste made him gag and he vomited again. His stomach still ached, but he felt marginally better to have released the hot liquid.

The bot rushed to his side and pulled him up back into his chair. It scanned his vitals.

“You have a fever.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Baker croaked.

“Based on my scan, you have a viral infection. The Knowledge Base doesn’t identify this virus. It could be native to this planet.”

Baker’s head lolled to one side, but he still tried to concentrate. He mumbled something unintelligible as the bot continued to assess his vitals.

Another bot stepped into the room.

“Does he want us to engage the rover?” it asked.

The first bot looked back at the interloper and replied, “He’s ill at the moment. He didn’t say. Find out what they want and report back.”

“They’re armed.”

“What?”

“They have weapons. They’re already threatening us to see Baker.”

“He’s in no condition to see anyone.”

“I don’t think they care. We either need to engage them or let them in to see Baker.”

The first bot looked at Baker who shuddered in his seat. Sweat dripped from his brow, and his eyes flashed open and shut.

“Mr. Baker, someone from the colony is here to see you.”

“There are three of them – the remaining crew members of the Phoenix,” the other bot interrupted.

Baker’s heavy eyelids fluttered, but he remained unresponsive. His body went limp, and then, almost as quickly as he had settled down, his body flailed forward and he convulsed. Vomit erupted from his mouth and slid down the side of his face as he rocked back and forth in the chair. The bot attempted to settle him down again, but his body still rocked and resisted its strength.

After a flurry of groans and gags from the gelatinous fluid, the rocking stopped and the billionaire lay back in his chair limply. The bot let go slowly and checked his vitals again. The bot poked around his neck and then on his wrists. It peeled open his eyelids and looked into the dilated pupils floating in a sea of bright red blood vessels, capillaries that had exploded into the whites of his eyes.

“He’s dead,” the first bot said.

The other bot had walked closer and stood beside the first bot. “What do we do?”

“I don’t know.”

The Second Transport

When Jane opened her eyes, Olivia’s face filled her field of vision. Olivia’s head seemed to float in the space in front of her with a look of concern. Even with worry wrinkling her face, Olivia was a beautiful woman. Jane felt an equal dose of admiration and jealousy. No one would ever describe Olivia as plain.

“Captain? Are you okay?” Olivia asked.

Jane tried to move her head, but her neck resisted. She moaned before the realization that she had no helmet thrust her into an instance of panic. Olivia recognized the reaction. “It’s okay. We’re in the apartment. Your helmet is over there,” she said nodding to the table behind her.

“What happened, Jane?” Olivia asked.

Jane looked confused as if Olivia had asked the question in a foreign language. Everything seemed blank, nonexistent, as if that very moment was her first breath of life. She remembered no history, no life. For a brief moment, she even forgot who she was, but hearing her name chased away the darkness like a fog dissipating in the rising sun.

“I don’t remember,” Jane replied struggling to get the few words out of her mouth. “How did I get here?”

“Two bots brought you here. You were unconscious when they dropped you into your bed.”

Jane closed and opened her eyes slowly. “Did they say anything?”

“No. I asked them what happened and they said they didn’t know. They claimed they found you unconscious, but I don’t believe them.”

Jane rubbed her forehead and swiped her hair back out of her face. She let out a big sigh as she tried to erase the confusion that plagued her. Images of an angry bot flashed in her memory like a puzzle missing just too many pieces. Her eyes flickered in concentration.

“You okay?”

Jane remained lost in thought.

“Captain?”

Finally, Jane returned to the conversation. “Yes, sorry, I just can’t remember what happened. Do you remember where I went?”

Olivia thought for a moment. “No. You didn’t say. I talked to you before I went to bed last night. When I woke up, you were gone, and then, the bots brought you here.”

“What were we talking about?”

“The transport. Edgar.”

The mention of the transport triggered a shrouded memory that almost revealed itself. Jane tried to concentrate harder. Finally, a few more unfamiliar thoughts broke loose into her conscious mind. Captain Regal. The launch of the second transport. War. A bot. The pieces fell into place.

“I talked to the Captain of the second transport,” Jane revealed. Her voice sounded as if she were reading from a script. Her memory unfolded before her. “Captain Regal.”

Olivia gasped and stared at her Captain in disbelief. Her mouth hung open for a moment before she spoke. “You did? Last night?”

“Yes.”

Olivia narrowed her eyes and glared at Jane. Her forehead scrunched in concentration, and Jane briefly thought she looked beautiful even when she contorted her face so.

“Are our families on that ship?” Olivia asked. She spoke as if she were waiting for a punch, hesitant and halting.

“They are. Regal said so.”

Olivia let out a breath of relief and tilted her head back. When she faced Jane again, her eyes were still closed as if she were squeezing them shut to prevent any tears from escaping. “Thank God.”

A silence slid between them – Jane struggling to conjure the memory that felt like a dream and Olivia basking in the confirmation that Edgar was not too far away. Olivia moved toward Jane and put her hand on the woman’s shoulder before she hugged her. They held that embrace for a moment, a relief from the stress of the battles fought and the ones to come.

“Did you talk to Rachel?” Olivia asked when she pulled back from Jane.

“No, I didn’t have time.”

“How did you get past the bots to get into the Control Room?”

Jane paused searching her memory. The face of a bot pulsed in her mind’s eye and startled her. The bot snarled in her memory, but she knew they didn’t display such emotion. Finally, she said, “There were no bots there. No one was there, not even Sprockett.”

“You just walked in?”

“Yes. I just walked in.”

At that moment, it hit her. She recalled turning around to face the bot that grabbed her throat and choked her. She vividly remembered the feeling of dangling by her neck as if she were being executed by hanging. The bot’s words to her were muted, but the feeling was there as alive and real as if it were happening all over again. Jane stared at Olivia, bewildered.

“What’s wrong?” Olivia asked.

Jane didn’t respond.

“Captain?”

Jane tried to say something but no words came out as if she were choking all over again.

“Are you okay?”

Jane stuttered. Olivia put her hand on her shoulder and looked into her distant eyes. “Jane, do I need to get a doctor?”

Finally, Jane uttered, “No.”

Olivia waited for her colleague to speak again. A few uncomfortable seconds passed.

“A bot tried to kill me. That’s why I was unconscious. A bot discovered me in the Control Room and tried to strangle me to death. I don’t remember everything because I passed out.”

“Oh my god!”

“I remember not being able to put my feet on the ground and the blank look on the bot’s face, but that’s it.”

Olivia sat back down in the chair next to Jane, stunned by the revelation. She wanted to cry out of frustration, anger, and fear. Nothing, it seemed, had worked out according to plan. She worried what this meant for Edgar and her. Would they really be able to live the life they had expected in their new home. The promise of the Mars colony felt illusory and sullied by the change in plans and leadership.

“What do we do now?”

Jane shook her head slightly, still dazed by her ordeal. “I don’t know. I just want to see Rachel with my own eyes and make sure she’s okay.”

Olivia agreed. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen once they get here.”

“We have to make the best of it. At least we’re alive. That’s more than I can say for others in Western States.”

“For now at least.”

Jane jerked her head toward Olivia. She didn’t say anything, but those four words sent a cold chill down her spine.

Among the Shadows

Sanjay waited until the bots passed by before he stepped out of the darkness that enshrouded him. The frigid night had settled on the colony darkening all of the spaces between the buildings that spread out from the base. He tapped the screen on his suit and flipped through to the stat screen. The exterior temperature stood at -89 degrees Fahrenheit. He shuddered in the warmth of his suit.

He moved swiftly toward the munitions building and punched in the code to open the door. He held his breath while he waited for the door to respond. He visibly sighed when it opened. Sprockett had failed to remove his access, which meant he likely still had access to the base if he could get past the ever-watchful bots that lingered near the entrance. A nefarious smile gleamed inside the glass of his helmet, one made more malicious by the dim light that reflected off his face.

Sanjay moved quickly among the crates, removing two rifles, a handgun, and several charge explosives that he stuffed in a bag he had brought with him. He slung the bag and the rifles over his shoulder and kept the handgun firmly within the grip of his right hand. He shut the last of the crates but didn’t bother latching them. He didn’t care if anyone discovered he had plundered the weapons. By the time anyone figured it out, it would be too late.

He cracked open the door and peered into the faint light not too far away from the building. He detected no movement, so he stepped out into the shadows. He could feel the charges clanking against his suit and he froze for a moment. He wheeled around looking for any bots that may be approaching but he saw none. He knew no humans would be out in the night, only bots patrolling the area.

He turned in the opposite direction of the collection of buildings and began to trot out into the vast darkness. His eyes slowly adjusted, but he didn’t need to see the path to know where he was going. He had walked the very path many times as he had contemplated his next move. He had to feel his way there because any light would give away his position, and he wasn’t ready to fight just yet. That time would come. Soon.

The Seeds of Revenge

The sun had risen to its mid-morning position, but it was partially obscured by mysterious-looking clouds that pasted the sky above them. Sanjay, Jane, and Olivia stood in a semi-circle just outside the ring of buildings with their heads angled to the sky as if they were watching for shooting stars. A small, intense light appeared and grew larger with each passing moment. The dull sun gleamed off their face masks, but their faces remained concentrated and clinically devoid of emotion. Finally, Olivia cracked a faint smile.

“I can’t wait to see Edgar!” she said. Her voice echoed on general comm.

Sanjay glanced at her briefly before he returned his concentration to the glowing object in the sky.

“I know how you feel. I can’t wait to hug Rachel. I’ve missed her so much,” Jane said. She couldn’t help but smile. Her usual dour expression brightened.

Sanjay put his hand up above his head to shield the glare of the sun on his face mask. An evil feeling hung over him.

“Your family is not on this ship,” he said.

Both women pivoted toward him with confused looks on their faces. “What?” they said in unison.

“They’re on the second transport.”

They shook their heads in disbelief, but Sanjay remained focused on the first transport as it grew larger in the distant sky.

“When were you going to tell us this?” Jane asked. Her voice rose in anger.

“You are about to find out.”

“We’ve been looking forward to this day for a while, and you just now tell us that our families aren’t even on there,” Olivia said. Her eyes glistened as her anger surged within her. She tensed as if she were going to strike Sanjay. “You’re an asshole, Sanjay, a fucking asshole.”

“Don’t blame me. I didn’t make the decision.”

“Who did?” Olivia asked. Her shrill voice stabbed the airwaves.

“I don’t know. Probably Sprockett.”

“I’m going to tell him off,” Olivia retorted. “Damn politicians are worthless anyway. He’s probably going to ruin this place.”

Sanjay said nothing. She mocked his very own family’s legacy, but at the same time he agreed. Sprockett had already ruined everything.

“Who’s on this ship?” Jane asked.

“Sprockett and his minions along with more government and space program bureaucrats.”

Olivia slumped. “So basically no one useful.”

Sanjay almost cracked a smile, but he didn’t want to give Olivia the satisfaction of seeing him empathize with her.

The two women bantered back and forth angrily expressing outrage over the fact that they’d have to wait a while longer to see their loved ones. Sanjay ignored them. Instead, he glanced to his left where many of the bots had gathered to watch the landing. The leader bot looked his way, and Sanjay tensed up. An unspoken message traveled between them, and Sanjay didn’t like it. He flipped on the crew comm.

“I need two of you to take the rovers out to the landing area and greet the ship,” he commanded.

“They’re already out there,” the bot replied.

“Who?”

“Two bots took the rovers a while ago.”

“Who told you to do that?”

“No one. I knew we’d need to greet them.”

Sanjay stared hard at the leader bot who returned his stare without expression. Neither anger nor pride registered in its demeanor. Sanjay seethed.

“I give the orders here. Do you understand?” he asked, his voice deepened and reverberated across crew comm. Several of the other bots turned to look at him.

The leader bot paused and looked away to the arriving ship in the distance. “Sprockett will be here soon. I do believe he will give the orders from now on.”

The bot’s matter-of-fact tone translated into more of an I-told-you-so taunt that rankled Sanjay even more. He thought of the rifle he had held the day before. He imagined himself stomping through the sand to the small building, retrieving the rifle, and blowing away the bots one by one. He’d had enough of their small disobediences, their smug demeanor. He wanted to rid this planet of them. He didn’t want the colony to be overrun by bots. Earth had suffered enough from their presence. He had never known a life without them, but the fantasy persisted in his mind. He’d make it a reality.

He looked to his right expecting to see Jane and Olivia, but they were gone leaving only the divots of their boot prints in the sand in their wake. He scanned the horizon and saw nothing but the glaring white walls of the buildings beyond him. He punched the general comm button on his suit. Words formed on his tongue, but he held back. Their absence was a good thing, he reasoned. He flipped back to crew comm.

The ship finally came into view wavering in the thin Martian air. It glimmered and shook as it glided toward the surface. Sanjay watched until it disappeared behind the mountains just to the north of the settlement. He could no longer see the ship, but absent any word to the contrary, he assumed it landed safely.

He called out to the bots in the rovers. “Has the ship landed safely?”

He waited for a response, but nothing came immediately. A gleeful thought crossed his mind. Losing Sprockett and his band of corrupt interlopers wouldn’t be a bad thing.

“The ship has landed,” one of the bots replied. Sanjay deflated a little, but he waited for further word. Moments passed. “Mr. Sprockett has emerged from the ship.”

“Let’s get him and the rest of the passengers back here as soon as possible. Bring Mr. Sprockett to the base.”

No response.

“Did you hear me?” Sanjay asked. Irritation permeated his tone of voice.

“Mr. Sprockett is onboard the rover now and heading your way,” the bot replied.

Sanjay stood for a moment in the sand as the other bots nearby scattered to various points in the settlement leaving him alone. He had a sinking feeling as he waited for the rover to return. He looked down at his feet and then pivoted in the sand to head back to the base. The rifle still floated in the back of his mind as Sprockett’s arrival only punctuated the fact that his family wasn’t coming and may not even be alive anymore.

As he walked back to the base, he thought of Tasha, sweet Laila, and his two young boys who were spitting images of their father. He resented his wife’s stubbornness, her refusal to go along with the plan. She left him no choice. He had committed to the mission and was part of the grand plan that would put him in a powerful role in the colony. Now, all of those plans appeared to be some illusion he had created for himself. Now, all he had was the role of a minion to some morally-corrupt politician with suspicious motives. He had nothing. Nothing to lose.

The anger boiled over in his mind as he removed his helmet and placed it on the table in the Control Room. He slumped down in the main chair and wheeled around to the big screen before him. He punched a few icons on the screen until he found the dashcam feed from one of the rovers. He gestured to enlarge the video.

Sprockett sat in the forward position, just as smug as always. His large head filled the helmet comically as if he were some cartoon character whose head had become lodged in a fishbowl. Even from the dashcam, Sanjay could clearly see his wavy eyebrows and the menacing bump on his forehead. Ugly didn’t even begin to describe him, but his charisma opened doors that would normally had been firmly shut for someone who looked like him.

Sanjay waited. He watched the dashcam for a bit but became fed up at seeing so much of Sprockett. He could barely see the others on the rover with him, but no one looked familiar. He really had no idea who was on the ship. Sprockett had been his main contact throughout the planning for the mission. Beyond the Senator’s handlers, only Baker had been present in some of those meetings as the bots were introduced. Sprockett hadn’t mentioned Baker in any of his conversations over the last few days.

Sanjay gestured for the screen to turn off and sat back in his chair. His leg gave a dull ache that traveled all the way up his to his hip and settled into a spot in his back. He tried to stretch to one side to relieve the pain, but his movement only made it worse. He winced. The pain fed the anger that bubbled inside him. He wished he had retrieved the rifle before he had come back to the base. Sprockett wouldn’t expect such a change in plans so soon. A wicked smile creased his face.

The sound of the decompression chamber interrupted his fantasies. He stood up and waited for Sprockett to come into the Control Room. He heard footsteps outside the room, but the first to appear through the door were two bots, neither of which looked familiar. Their metallic bodies were of a different shade than the bots that were already on the planet. They said nothing as they stepped through the door with Sprockett close behind them.

Sprockett gave a big smile as he saw Sanjay and extended a beefy hand to him. Sanjay took it without a thought and shook it firmly.

“Mr. Raja, it’s good to see you again,” the Senator said. His over-loud baritone filled the room. “Are you doing well?”

“Good to see you, sir. I am. Thank you.”

“I want to thank you for getting things ready for us.”

“You’re welcome, sir. We’ve only started.”

“True. We’ve only just started, but I wanted to thank you for putting us on the right path.”

“It’s all part of the plan. Just like we said from the beginning.”

Sprockett’s smile disappeared and a wave of concern washed across his large flat face. The eyebrows made an angry dance and the bump protested. “We won’t be needing your services any longer, Mr. Raja. You can join the rest of the crew now.”

“What? I don’t understand.”

“You’re being relieved of your duties.”

Sanjay felt blindsided, like someone had struck him from behind. “That’s not what we agreed to…”

“No, it’s not, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Originally, we had expected to have hundreds of thousands of Western citizens arriving here. At best, we’ll have 300 now. We don’t need as many leaders for so few people. I had to make decisions, Sanjay. I’m sorry, but your services are no longer needed. I’m sure you understand.”

“No, I don’t understand,” Sanjay retorted. His voice rose with each word. “The only reason I’m here is because I wanted a prominent role in the new government, and now you’re telling me that there is no role? I left my family behind for nothing?”

The bots beside Sprockett tensed as if they were ready to pounce on Sanjay, but the Senator remained remarkably calm. Betrayal felt second nature to him.

“You didn’t leave them behind for nothing, Sanjay. You’re one of the founders of the next great nation in the universe. Your role in history is solid. Future generations will read about you just like they did your father. He’d be proud of you if he were here.”

“But he’s not, and right now, I feel like his death was for naught. We’ve traded one tyranny for another.”

Sprockett took offense at Sanjay’s implied reference. His eyebrows shot up in shock and the bump mocked Sanjay. “Don’t make this harder than it needs to be, Sanjay.”

“I’m not making it harder. I’m making it clear that I don’t like this.”

“You don’t have to like it, but you do have to accept it.”

Sanjay shook his head in disagreement. “I don’t have to accept anything.”

The bots stepped forward and Sprockett did nothing to restrain them. “We can help you with that,” the Senator said. His tone clearly conveyed the threat.

Sanjay bristled. “You don’t want to fuck with me…”

Before he could finish, the bots grabbed him on each side and started to drag him from the Control Room.

“Let him go outside,” the Senator ordered.

“Sprockett, you can’t do this!” Sanjay screamed as the bots forced him from the room. He twisted his head back toward the Senator as he spat out his words.

“Hold on!” Sprockett yelled. The bots stopped in their tracks with Sanjay firmly in their grips. Sprockett walked around Sanjay and leaned into his face. Sanjay could smell the Senator’s sour breath and see the sweat glistening on his forehead. The bump gave Sanjay an angry stare.

“I want to make this clear. You’re expendable. You do anything to interfere with our operations here and the bots will hunt you down and kill you on my orders. All I have to do is give the word and you’re done. You got it?”

Sanjay grimaced in the Senator’s face, but he kept the angry darts of his eyes on him. A feeling of helplessness washed over him. Whatever he planned to do had to happen quickly now. That much he knew. He just had to buy some time and with that thought he acquiesced. “I got it,” he spat back.

“Good. Now get the fuck out of here,” Sprockett replied.

Sanjay’s resistance receded, but the bots still pushed him along. He grabbed his helmet and sealed it as the bots guided him through the decompression chamber. The exterior door whooshed open and one of the bots shoved him out into the bright Martian day. The door slid shut behind him as he winced in the sunlight. He felt like falling down in the sand and beating the ground with his fists. Instead, he walked away with nothing but thoughts of revenge wracking his brain.

Determined

Jane and Olivia sat in the small room in chairs opposite each other. Behind each of them were pale white doors that led to equally small bedrooms. With the bedroom doors closed, the room felt terribly small, and Jane, despite being confined to a tiny cockpit for four months, felt claustrophobic as if she were being slowly crushed into smaller and smaller spaces. At least she could go without her helmet now that the air system had been installed. The bots had done amazingly fast work of the first housing unit. They had unpacked and assembled the modular units quickly, working through the desperately cold Martian night to finish the first unit. With only a few sols to go before the first transport vehicle arrived, they needed to finish the other three units just as quickly.

“Do you think Rachel will like it?” Olivia asked.

“I hope so. It’s home now.” Jane replied. She sounded sullen, despondent.

“Have you talked to her?”

“No. Sprockett has tied up the comms with the ship. He and Sanjay have been huddling privately. When I walked over there this morning, the bots stopped me and told me that Sanjay was in a conference all morning.”

“What an asshole.”

Jane gave a faint smile. “I guess it was only inevitable once a politician got involved.”

“No, I mean Sanjay.”

“His dad was a politician, Santosh Raja.”

“Sanjay’s related to that Raja?”

“Yes.”

“Wow, how did such a noble, brave man have an asshole for a son?”

Jane chuckled faintly, and then, a silence fell between them. Jane closed her eyes and leaned back into the unforgiving cushion of her chair. She sighed heavily. Olivia watched her momentarily and then scanned the room with her eyes trying to find something to say that would keep the conversation going.

“I wonder if Rachel knows what is happening?” Olivia asked.

“I doubt it. Sprockett seems to be keeping everyone in the dark.”

“Do you think Bush knows what is happening?”

“Probably. She sent him here.”

“I don’t think she authorized the killing of one of her astronauts.”

“No, but she likely doesn’t know the circumstances. I’m sure Frederick’s death has been cleansed for public consumption.”

Olivia smirked. She hated the idea of her good colleague’s death being distorted for political image. “Sanjay will pay for this.”

“I don’t think Sanjay did it.”

“Why not?”

“He may be an asshole and a misogynist, but he’s not a murderer. I believe the bots killed Frederick.”

“Sanjay could have ordered them to do it.”

Jane shook her head. “But why? Frederick didn’t threaten him or anyone. He just did his job.”

“I don’t know. We need to find out.”

“There are only two people who know what really happened and one is dead and the other one refuses to talk about it.”

Olivia took her turn shaking her head in dismay.

Another silence fell between them. Each shifted in her seat as if the silence were uncomfortable.

Finally, Olivia asked, “Do you think we made the right decision to come here?”

Jane looked at her colleague and took a deep breath. “Us specifically or humans in general?”

“Us. You. Me.” She flipped her hand between them as if she were pointing them out.

Jane thought for a moment. “Yes, I do. It may not look good at the moment, but we made the right decision. We’re giving the human race a chance. I don’t think our chances are very good on earth right now.”

Olivia absorbed what she said and then she agreed. “I think the moment when Australia sank into the ocean is the moment I realized we were doomed.”

“Oh my god, that was so horrible.”

“I’m still stunned when I think about it. I had just visited it two years before. At that point, only Sydney had been submerged.”

Jane shook her head in disbelief.

“This mission is the only thing that gives Rachel and her generation a chance. That’s why I think we made the right decision.”

“How did she handle your decision?”

“As well as can be expected of a fifteen-year-old. She accused me of abandoning her and then she shut up and wouldn’t talk to me for a while.”

“Did she say goodbye?”

“She did. She came around before we left, but there’s still resentment there.”

“But you’re doing it for her.”

“That’s not the way she sees it. I think she still blames me for Brad’s death, too. Leaving her is just another example of how I don’t really care for her.”

“That’s not true. Surely, she knows that.”

“Maybe deep down, but not in the forefront of that teenage mind of hers.”

“She’ll think differently when she gets here.”

“I hope so. I can’t wait to see her pretty face. I love that young woman despite all that’s happened. I think of her as my daughter. She’s the closest I’ll ever get to having a daughter.”

“You don’t think you’ll have one of your own?”

“No,” Jane replied shaking her head doubtfully. “That time has passed.”

“I want kids, but I need a boyfriend first.” Olivia huffed a quick laugh.

“I can’t believe you don’t have one. I mean, look at you.”

Olivia smiled. “I’ve been focused on my career, and many men are intimidated when I tell them I’m an astronaut.”

Jane nodded in understanding. “Women have done everything that men have done and it’s still like that.”

“I know. Some things will never change.”

In the back of her mind, Jane heard her nickname “Plain Jane” and the implications of it raised her ire. She hated it, no she resented it. A man had given her the nickname back when she first entered the space program. He had been a Commander in the Western States military and had been selected as a leader for the space program not long before Jane began her career. He took one look at her and summed her up as “Plain Jane” without getting to know her at all. The name did more than encapsulate her plain looks, it reduced her to nothing more than a caricature of a woman beset by unflattering physical features rather than the driven, capable leader that she had become. An anger simmered deep down in her.

“I need to go to the base,” Jane said as she stood up abruptly.

Olivia looked up at her, surprised. “Why?”

“I need to talk to Sanjay.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now.”

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“No. It’s best that you stay here.”

With that, Jane grabbed her helmet and put it under her arm before she disappeared through the sliding door leading out into the hallway beyond their room. Olivia sat in the silence staring at the door as it slid shut. She debated whether she should pursue her Captain, but by the time she decided what to do, Jane was already stomping her way across the sand toward the base.

A Blind Eye

Tasha lay atop the covers of their bed in her pajamas as Sanjay changed into a T-shirt. The boys had finally settled down into their beds, while Laila had been asleep for a few hours already. The long day of the funeral had drained the little girl and her parents, too.

Sanjay sighed as he pulled the shirt over his head. His wife re-appeared in his line of sight, and he smiled. He loved the way she looked in her pajamas, which were nothing more than a tank top and a tight-fitting pair of shorts. After three children, she still looked stunning. The top hugged her voluptuous breasts, which turned Sanjay on despite his extreme exhaustion. His mind wanted sex, but his body wanted sleep.

He tied the knot on his pajama pants and hopped on the bed next to his wife, who lay motionless with her eyes closed as if she were meditating. He rubbed his hand along her left arm draped across the bed closest to him.

“Not tonight, honey,” she said.

Sanjay shook his head comically, “I didn’t say anything,” he protested.

“You don’t have to. It’s not that hard to figure out. We’ve been married ten years.”

Sanjay laughed. “I’m too tired anyway.” He pulled his hand back and reclined onto his side of the bed.

Tasha let out a deep breath ending her meditative state. Sanjay looked at her. Her smooth, brown skin glimmered in the light on her nightstand. She trained her green irises on him and smiled with her full lips. He still felt the urge to make love to her despite the fact that she had shut him down. Before he could appeal, she asked him, “Did you tell Laila we were going to Mars?”

“What?”

“She said you told her we were going to Mars.”

“I told her I am trying to.”

“Why did you do that? You haven’t been selected yet. You shouldn’t get her hopes up. Besides, I’m not sure I want to do it.”

“You’re not sure?”

“No. I’m sorry, I’m not.”

Sanjay shook his head, incredulous. “What if I get selected for the mission?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

“Were you going to tell me this eventually?”

“Yes, but I didn’t want to squash your dream outright.”

“Squash my dream? This isn’t a dream; it’s a last-ditch effort for survival.”

“I don’t buy that.”

“What is there to buy? Have you not been paying attention? Most of the ice caps have melted. A third of the land we once populated is under water. Rampant disease has killed off almost half the population from its peak in 50 years ago. Our nation is under constant threat from extremists who could start a nuclear war at any moment.”

“That’s the negative view.”

Sanjay widened his eyes in exasperation. He’d known that his wife was a skeptic, but she rarely expressed it outwardly. She’d made casual mentions that she doubted climate change despite the obvious visual evidence. She’d come from a long line of deniers. Her father and grandfather were prominent businessmen who profited from enterprises that no longer existed thanks to the shifting climate and economic changes. It was like her family held a grudge against the inanimate forces that doomed their businesses.

Rather than argue, which he was too tired to do, Sanjay redirected the conversation, “What if I get selected for this mission?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

“But let’s say I get the call tomorrow and I’m on it, what will we do?”

Tasha looked at her husband askew as if she were annoyed by him. She sighed and turned away. “I don’t know if I want to go.”

“What? Why not?”

“Mars doesn’t look too appealing to me. What kind of life will that give our kids?”

“What kind of life will they have here? The clock is ticking here, Tasha. If we stay here, they won’t see adulthood.”

“You don’t know that.”

Sanjay took another aggravated breath. “I don’t know the future. You’re right, but I do know what’s happening right now. Rapid climate change, war, disease…it’s not exactly promising. Mars gives us a fresh start. Not everyone will be lucky enough to escape. This gives us a chance to live a full life with our kids and be pioneers.”

“I don’t want to be a damn pioneer. I want to live my life with my kids here.”

“We don’t have that option, Tasha. I’m sorry, but we don’t.”

“You don’t know that, Sanjay. You and your goddamn science. You’re so fucking arrogant. You think you know everything, but you don’t know shit about life.”

Her comments stung him and he winced. “I never said I knew everything. I just want what’s best for my family.”

“What’s best is not always what you want. It’s what we all want.”

“The kids are too young to make that decision. We have to do it for them.”

“And ‘we’ will, but not right now,” Tasha said trying to end the conversation.

“But soon. I should hear any day now.”

“Uh-huh.”

Tasha leaned up and turned off her bedside lamp. Sanjay’s lamp provided the only light in the room. The street light outside their window illuminated the dark space on the far side of their bedroom. The blue hue of the light brought back many childhood memories for Sanjay in the brief instant he recognized it. He longed for the simpler times when he was a child, when life-or-death decisions weren’t yet a part of his conversations.

He couldn’t let their discussion end. “Do you remember the Middle East?”

Tasha looked up at her husband in the dim light as if he had woken her. “Not really. I’m not that old. My dad used to talk about it.”

“Did you not take history in school?”

“I don’t remember all that boring stuff.”

“It’s not boring when you consider the lesson in it. The extremists destroyed that region of the world. They kept fighting to their illogical end and turned an entire region into a nuclear wasteland. Millions of people were wiped off the planet, eviscerated.”

“Why are we talking about ancient history?”

“It’s not that long ago…only 50 years.”

“Still…I’m not getting your point.” Tasha closed her eyes as if she were trying to force sleep.

“My point is that the extremists will stop at nothing. They are too blind to see anything but their misguided ideals even if it means widespread self-destruction. They’d rather die and take the entire region’s population with them than give an inch. That’s what will happen here. The Western States can’t hold them off forever, and even if they manage to hold them off indefinitely, the extremists will just self-destruct and take everything with them.”

“We’ll bomb them into oblivion before that happens.”

“Just like we did in Texas,” Sanjay smirked. “That worked really well. So well, that a few of them sneaked across the border and killed my father.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“But that’s what happened. They saw him as the enemy. He was one of the founders of Western States. They will stop at nothing…even the complete annihilation of North America.”

“I’m confident our military will stop them. I’m not worried.”

“My dad wasn’t worried, either, and look where that got him.”

“Sanjay, stop. It’s been a long, emotional day. You buried your father. This is not the time to make final, life-altering decisions. We’ll talk about this later when the time is right. It’s not right tonight.”

Sanjay sighed. His patience frittered, but exhaustion forced him to back down. “Just let me make my point.”

Tasha exhaled loudly. “Okay.”

“I don’t think there’s going to be a choice for us. The situation is dire here. If I get selected to go on the Mars mission, it will be our opportunity to start a new life and ensure our kids’ survival. I don’t think we’ll have any assurance here. Between the imploding climate and the march of the witless extremists, life as we know it is coming to an end. We have to do what’s best for the kids.” Sanjay emphasized the last four words of his argument hoping to drill home the idea to his wife.

A long silence followed, one that made Sanjay wonder if Tasha were still awake. Finally, she responded, “We will do what’s best for our kids, but it may not be what you want to do.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means we’ll talk about it when the time comes. Good night. I’m too tired to continue this conversation.”

Sanjay looked at his wife as she turned on her side away from him. He acquiesced, not something he normally did very well, but exhaustion had pulled him down for the count. He leaned up and kissed his wife’s cheek before he turned off his lamp and lay back on his pillow.

For the longest time that night he stared at the ceiling listening to his wife’s breathing. She kicked and started as she fell into sleep, and he found comfort in her relaxation. His body ached for sleep, but his mind raced around the scenarios inside his head. To him, the decision was obvious. There were no good choices left. The hopeless situation haunted him as he drifted off to sleep.

Betrayal

Jane stared at Sprockett’s face, large and bulbous, on the biggest screen in the Control Room. She stood behind Sanjay next to Olivia. They were huddled in the back of the small room as Sanjay talked to the Senator about the state of the fledgling colony. As the Senator spoke, his expressive, wiry eyebrows danced above his eyes. A large bump winked from his forehead, and the wide gap between his two front teeth wisped with every word he spoke. He wasn’t a handsome man, but he had the charm and charisma to make people believe that he was. He had that rock star aura that convinced people to follow him.

“Will you have the housing units complete by the time we get there?” the Senator asked. His eyebrows looked concerned and the bump agreed.

“The bots are working on them now,” Sanjay replied confidently. “They can work around the clock and be done in a few days.”

“Where is the rest of the crew?” he asked, seemingly satisfied with Sanjay’s response.

“The Captain and co-pilot are here with me,” Sanjay said. He looked back at Jane and Olivia and the Senator noticed them as Sanjay sat back away from the camera.

“Captain Smith, I hope you are doing well,” the Senator said. “I imagine you have lots of questions, but I assure you that I have the best intentions for our new home.”

“I’m sure you do,” she replied. She almost smirked, but she withheld her disdain. “One of my crew was killed by your bots.”

“Those aren’t ‘my’ bots, Captain. They are a part of Bush’s mission just like you.”

“So, it’s her fault that Frederick is dead?”

Sanjay became visibly agitated and started to interrupt, but Sprockett continued to engage Jane. He maintained his composure despite the challenge. He’d had years of practice diverting constituents’ attention from the real issues at hand.

“Captain, it’s no one’s fault but his own. My understanding is that he threatened the bots and the success of the mission for his own gain. We’re trying to save the human race, Captain. We can’t compromise the mission for one person. I’m sorry he died, but we must move on.”

Jane felt sick, not only because of Frederick’s unnecessary death but because his memory was tarnished for political gain. The smarmy Sprockett would certainly use his death to reinforce the need for his power over the colony. The walls closed in around her. She doubted Frederick had any ill intentions, if anything, he trusted the bots more than anyone else on the crew. He had been nothing but focused on the success of the colony from day one. Sanjay’s version of events simply didn’t add up, and now Sprockett was using Frederick’s death as a lesson in the collective good.

“Has anyone told his wife and daughter?” Olivia interjected.

Sprockett seemed surprised.

“They should be on your ship,” Olivia continued.

Sprockett looked to the side off camera and stuttered a little. “I…I’ll have my aides find them and give them the unfortunate news.”

“Don’t tell them that questionable story you just told me,” Jane scolded. She looked askew at Sanjay to see if he reacted. “I don’t believe it for a minute, and I don’t think we need to tell his widow such garbage.”

“It’s not garbage. It’s the truth. You weren’t there!” Sanjay protested.

“You’re right. I wasn’t there, and that’s all the more reason not to tell a woman whose husband was killed a story that hasn’t been corroborated.”

“That’s…” Sanjay started but Sprockett interrupted him.

“That’s enough!” Sprockett’s anger rose but he had a pained expression on his face. His eyebrows looked like squiggly slashes above his eyes and the bump vibrated to the tune of his agitated baritone. “We’ll tell her it was an accident. That’s all she needs to know. These missions are dangerous. She knows that. It won’t be a surprise.”

Jane slumped ever so slightly. She knew what it was like to lose a loved one. She had experienced it first hand, but she had been there when Brad died. He had died a hero, and she knew exactly what happened to him. Annie Cummings and her daughter would never know. She promised herself that she would find Annie when the ship arrived and comfort her. She had only met Annie briefly before the training for the mission had begun, but now, they shared a common history and she felt a greater bond with the woman she barely knew.

“Is that clear?” Sprockett asked, his anger still visible.

“Yes,” Jane replied sullenly. Sanjay also agreed.

Sprockett, satisfied that he was in full control, signed off, and the screen before them went blank. Jane and Olivia stared at it for a moment longer, while Sanjay slumped back in the chair. He looked at the video bank to his right and saw the bots working diligently on the housing units just outside the base. They had been working all through the night and had made great progress.

“What really happened out there, Sanjay?” Jane asked. Her voice was ominous and doubtful as if she expected Sanjay to continue what she knew was a lie.

“I told you already.”

“Frederick did not threaten those bots,” Olivia stated shaking her head vigorously. “You can’t expect us to believe that.”

“He did. I didn’t actually see what happened. I just climbed the steps to the ship and he was lying on the floor dead.”

“Just like that?” Jane asked.

“Yes.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Believe what you want, Jane. You are no longer the leader of this mission. I am, and that means I have the final say.”

“You can’t make up…”

“Get out!” Sanjay pointed to the door of the Control Room. “Now!”

Both Jane and Olivia started to protest, but anger flickered in his eyes as he pointed emphatically at the door. At that moment, Jane knew for certain that he was lying, and a chill ran down her spine. Did Sanjay kill Frederick to take control of the mission? The question rattled in her mind as she stared hard at him.

“Neither of you are allowed back in here. When the housing units are finished, you’ll move in there with the rest of the residents. You’re completely relieved of your duties. If you keep up this nonsense, there will be more consequences.”

Sanjay’s threats weren’t hollow. A bot appeared in the door and stared directly at the women who were tensed before Sanjay. They looked at their former colleague and then at the bot, almost in unison, and stood down without a word. Olivia stomped out of the room. Jane stared at him a little longer letting her disdain for him sink in. He smirked and the bot took one step toward her before she left the room on her own accord.

Sanjay sighed in her wake and sat back in his chair. “Shut the door on your way out,” he said to the silent bot. It obliged without a word. Alone at last, Sanjay panned through the base cameras from the feed of the work going on outside to the interior videos including the camera trained on the sleeping quarters of the base. He watched Olivia slam something onto her bed. She was visibly angry and upset. Jane came up behind her and comforted her by wrapping her arms around her. Olivia turned into her embrace and sobbed.

For a brief moment, Sanjay was jealous of Olivia and Jane. They had a closeness that he had never felt with anyone on the mission. He felt isolated and unsure about the plans for the colony. He had thought he was in the loop about how the mission would proceed, but now Frederick was dead, and there were more bots on the planet than he would have liked. He felt like he had lost control. He didn’t trust Sprockett or his erstwhile financier, Baker. His angst shook him as he flipped off the video monitor and shrunk into his seat. His options tumbled through his mind, and none of them gave him a good feeling.