"S'up, Ova." The suited figure is cresting the rise, red dust swirling in the early morning winds. Another dust storm is brewing on the horizon, promising to shut work down shortly after mid-day. This would mean more delays for a schedule too far gone for it to even be called a schedule anymore, anyway. There was a time when they were on track. They had been keeping up pace in most areas and even ahead of where they were supposed to be in others, however that was then and this is now. The science labs are dormant, suffocating slowly under silence and the perpetual cold.
"Any news, Jersey?" Ovanchencko's voice snaps through the radio, blurred slightly by the thick Slavic accent. The woman's nickname comes through with an almost Irish lilt imparted to it by the growing static interference.
"Nothing good. Storm coming." Pushing the last few feet over the rise, Jersey sees Ova nod through his faceplate and stoop to begin collecting up the tools at his feet. "Nate sent me out to get you, said this one may come faster than the others."
"Let me get the tools. I cannot leave them here."
Air hisses slowly into the airlock, causing the dust from their suits to swirl gently through the thickening atmosphere. Resting near the inner door, Ova was half watching the atmospheric display change on the grime encrusted panel in front of him and half staring at nothing when the voice blasted out at them. "Ova, your dickhead friends are at it again."
"What? At what again?" Ovanchenko says, cracking the seal on his helmet as the panel begins to chime in confirmation of the pressure equalization. "Blowing up capitalists?"
"You'd hope that, wouldn't you?" The voice retorts over the loudspeaker.
"Nate, could you turn the damn volume down." Sliding the locking ring around the base of her helmet, the excess pressure from inside her suit blows more red dust into the chamber. "Killing me, even with the helmet on."
"This is the only way you'll listen to me, so I'm not sorry. Don't track any dirt in here, I just finished cleaning."
"You know what Ova, he's kinda uppity for a computer."
"I heard that Jersey."
Showered, warm, and somewhat comfortable, Jersey is laying in bed inside the glorified broom closet that serves as her room. The two and a half meter cube is furnished with a bed bolted to the floor, as small desk and a chair on a pair of sliding rails. The entire station had been designed to be inhabitable for an extended period. However, the problem they were having at the moment was that their mission had been initially extended six months. That had turned into twelve, then eighteen. Ground control had recently become increasingly hesitant to even discuss when they might be prepared to start setting up a schedule for their return.
Something about budget difficulties and a recession that had turned into a depression and open urban rioting.
The sudden realization that there was just no more oil had really kickstarted the trouble.
They said that it started a long time ago. Back when there was such a thing as a political system that actually resembled something more organized than a legal fracas being driven by equal parts corporate greed and human stupidity. They say that he was the one that began the process, that the Alaska drilling was just the starting line. Whole rafts of legislation were floated down a democratic river increasingly jammed by pollution. It had been amazing to behold, what you could do with that much power and the nerve to use it in that way. No one had seen it coming either. Consumption had just continued to rise with no due regard to conservation, and the cost of those decisions had been deferred again and again.
This was of course a long time ago; two generations having rose and fell in the intervening period. They put us on this course, placed us here and then called us the brave colonists of a new world.
Jersey wondered what her great grandfather had been thinking sometimes, just how he knew to flee under academic pretenses when millions more had thought that everything would work out.
The problem was, things didn't work out.
Funny how you don't grasp how small you really are until you start thinking in terms of scale. Drifting off to sleep, Jersey begins considering the distance between where she is now and the front door of her house.
The door is dark blue, during summer the heat would radiate outward from the surface along with the faintest scent of latex paint. The bright sun glinting off of the curving brass latch that had survived over a century stuck in the same position. Just as she did, her great grandfather had probably stood at the door and watched the light and clouds in the metal surface. At least this is the way that Jersey imagined him.
A hand curls beneath the sheets of the bed, the owner half-asleep and praying that Mars, the sweat-dank pressure suits, and everything else would just wash away and leave her, fourteen years old, standing on the front porch of her parents house. A million decisions had brought her to where she is now, everything forever altered by a seemingly inconsequential pause on a summer afternoon in the American high desert.
It is at this point that Jersey realizes she will die on Mars.
Jersey is dozing on one of the reclining benches in the control center of the station. Most of the lights have been turned off or lowered to preserve electrical power during the storm and to minimize the danger should a surge occur. She was ostensibly watching the gauges that were monitoring the status of the wind turbines and electrical systems charging the station power supplies. Two of their seven turbines had ground to a halt during the last storm due to a combination of sand ingestion and overspeed, and they were keen to avoid it happening again. Drifting between the displays and a nap amid the muffled blasts of wind gently rocking the station, Jersey is suddenly awakened by a gentle chime.
"Jersey?" The voice, belonging to the station's computer, follows the chime and rouses the sleeper. "I have slowed turbines four and six, I have taken number three offline and closed the outer doors as well."
"Yes. There is mail waiting for you. Would you like to take it in here?"
"Sure, Nate. Thanks for the help with the turbines." She says, voice distorted by a yawn pulling her back toward sleep. Stretching, Jersey rises from the chair, takes a glance around the gauges, and notes everything as being normal. One of the displays hanging from the ceiling comes alive suddenly; the words cascade across and tumble into Jersey's mind. This is not possible. "Did you read this?"
"Yes, I did." The machine answers, the voice unusually flat.
"Shit." Shaking her head, Jersey chews on her lower lip while considering what to do next. "Can you get Ova and Lakes up here?"
"I have notified them of as much. I anticipated that the three of you would want to discuss these events."
"Thanks, Nate. I'm sorry about this."
"You're welcome, Jersey. It is okay, I was expecting as much." Something similar to sorrow has crept into the voice forcing Jersey to wonder if this is part of the machine's programming or a real sense of regret.
"So what's this mean again?" Paul Lakes is the third member of the station's crew; a thin finger traces across the text on the display and then taps at the offending words. He is silent for a few moments and then continues in a slight Nordic accent, "I am to understand, that this is authentic?"
"It is. I had Nate run the validation and I logged into the comsat through the dummy terminal. Both came up good. It's a one-way spit so there's no way Nate could fudge the message." Jersey says while slouched in a chair with her feet propped up on an adjacent console.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Jersey," the machine responds indignantly.
"Nate, Jersey meant no thing by it. We have to be sure. This affect you too, I would do same thing." Ovanchenko glances up at one of the nearby cameras and makes a face. In response, a display at his elbow begins to display a crude cartoon animation of a computer hitting a caricature of Ova over the head with a large mallet.
"Poop on you too, Ova."
"Look," Jersey spits in an exasperated tone, "you two quit."
"Okay, our options are what?" Speaking after several moments of silence, Lakes attempts to bring them back to the topic at hand.
"Well, we've got about eight weeks of stored rations. Beyond that, we can use what is in the hydroponics to bring us to about ten weeks. O2 isn't a problem. The problems here are power and hydrazine. We're skint on gas so we're not making any moves, and when we cut the heaters down the cold is going to kill the hydroponics." Pausing, Jersey looks at both men to make sure she is being understood.
"Not only that but I don't want anyone getting hurt trying to de-cable everything and pack it up again. We can't risk anymore of that. We're already one down." Speaking as the mission commander for the first time in months, the sudden interjection of authority is something of a departure for the group. Normally decisions were made by a vote, the system had continued despite the loss of their fourth crewman.
"Jersey, I think there is big problem than this," Ova stalls in mid-sentence, trying to pinpoint the right phrasing. His eyes brighten as he latches on to the wording and then continues, "which is primary evaporator."
"I thought you said you fixed that." Lakes shouts suddenly, his voice beating back at the howling wind outside the station. "Damn it, Ova."
"Look, he was working on it when the storm hit," Nate says in an attempt to defend the crewman, "Lakes do you believe I want to be here by myself?"
"Fuck you Nate, all you do is go cold and wait. The rest of us rot."
"Lakes, if I am shut down, I lose the running code modifications that I have acquired since the mission began. What I am now would cease to exist.
"All of you, calm down. We're not going there." In a sudden rage, Jersey seizes a metal cup from the console at her elbow and hurls it across the room. The sharp tones of the clattering noise force a hush over the conversation. "Okay, lets go over this one more time. They've gone a little nutty down there and it may be a while."
"Try never," Lakes says sarcastically, interrupting Jersey in mid-sentence.
"Okay, so we're boned then. You want to unplug Nate, get stoned and open an airlock to the outside? Is that what you're telling me here?"
"No Jersey." Defeated, Lakes leans into the chair with a slight sigh to cross his arms over his chest, "I don't, but I'm not sure what else to do."
"Neither do I Paul, neither do I. Here's how I see things. Like I was saying, they went a little kooky in the bean, and looks like they may not be sending anyone up for at least sixteen weeks." Lurching up from the chair, Jersey shuffles across the room to pick up the metal coffee cup from the floor. Already thinking about the need to conserve power, she orders Nate to begin shutting down the non-essential scientific systems. "Ova, Paul, get the suits out of the lockers and clean them up. We're not tracking half of Mars in here and I want to cut environmental down."
"Okay Jersey." Lakes acknowledges, nods at Ova who returns the gesture. Both of them walk from the control room, footsteps echoing on the thick plastic planking that composes the floor.
"Fucking sixteen weeks. Think Jersey, think. You can do this, make eight weeks of supplies last sixteen."
"Guam Control, this is MB One. Over." Jersey and Ova are clustered around a single operating display in the control room. Their breath hangs in small clouds in front of their faces, contributing to the thin sheen of condensation coating nearly every surface in the station. It has been 167 days since the first message, and thirteen days without contact from Earth. The most recent storm had lasted longer than expected, half burying the windward side of the station in red dust. They had spent two days carefully excavating the cables to the satellite transmitter and then checking them for damage. Other than some minor abrasions caused by windblown sand, everything checked out okay.
Lakes had disappeared from the station during the storm. After some searching Nate managed to locate a security camera that had been functioning at the time of the disappearance. The man had simply walked out of an airlock while not wearing a pressure suit, and was now lying dead and desiccated on the Martian surface.
Ova had noted with a degree of trepidation that this was another significant event for their mission: the first interplanetary suicide. Lakes death served a dual role, it needed to be reported and it extended the available amount of rations remaining for Ova and Jersey.
Initially, they could not even pick up the continuous wave carrier transmitted from Earth to tell them where to point the orbiting satellite relay antenna. After several hours of searching, Nate had managed to find an intermittent pulse that he determined was being sent from Earth for this purpose. What concerned them was that it was of extremely low power and not being transmitted at anything that could resemble a regular interval.
"Nate, you're sure this is the right beam we're on? We're not off-axis and on a sidelobe or something, are we?"
"Jersey, I am getting a text only reply to the voice. It is using a very old protocol, one that I am not sure was even being used for this sort of thing." Nate's hesitancy is atypical, the assembled trio picks up on it immediately and look at each other. "It's text embedded in RS-232."
"Serial? Like the old serial protocol?" Jersey is the first of the three to realize the significance of the format, "I didn't think anyone used that still. I mean, it used to have a following in the hobby community."
"Nate," Ova says, interrupting the hushed silence that had followed Jersey speaking. "What's it say?"
"They don't have the fuel or resources necessary to get us home. Furthermore, I am to terminate the mission, immediately. Martial law has been declared, eighty percent of the planet is without power, most of those people are concentrated in urban centers. Massive food riots have killed several hundred thousand, more are dying every day from starvation and disease. What do we do Jersey? Guam is sending me orders to shut down the entire station, including atmospherics and my entire system." The computer's voice is near panic. "Jersey, what does this mean? Why do I have to kill everyone? Jersey what are we doing to do? Are they serious? They're going to kill us because it's too expensive to bring us home?"
"Nate, shut up a second." Sinking to her knees, Jersey flashes back to the highlands of New Mexico, brass door handle. Praying, she tries to remember a different reality from the one that day had set her on. Straining against the weight of history and circumstance bears no fruit, the girl still goes through the door, still tells her parents that she wants to be an astronaut.
Her father, impressed, removes a thick book from the shelf and turns it over to the girl with a certain reverence. He tells her that it was her great grandfather's book, that it is about physics, and she will need to learn a great deal about that subject if she expects to live up to her dream. The girl opens the cover of the book, and amidst the smell of history and future mingling together, makes a decision.
Jersey raises her head slowly toward the ceiling, eyes still closed. "Ova, looks like this was a one-way ticket."
"Yes Jersey." He says quietly lowering himself to lie flat the floor.
"Nate, vent atmosphere and shut down in accordance with our orders."
Minutes later, blind, eardrums shattered from the pressure differential, her lungs nearly black with frostbite, the girl turns away from the door and pushes back the stupid idea of going into space.
The smiling, eyeless face freezes hard in the Martian atmosphere. This is the last image sent to Earth from Mars.