Kara’s Ares

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Kara didn’t need to turn to know whose steps halted behind her, their sound a discord against the soothing thrum of the ship’s rotating gravity cylinder. Their destination, still a dull red disc, glowed at the corner of Lightwell‘s tiny, transparent observation bulb.

“Take a good look.” Salat crouched behind her, his whisper pointless aboard the empty ship. “I will one day walk beneath the Martian sky. You won’t.”

She squinted in consideration of his words. This mission had barely begun. Why speculate on a follow up? A question died on her lips as he spoke in answer.

“Without my recommendation, you’ll never see Mars but through this glass.”

“I’m sorry,” Kara said, distracted by thirty-year-old memories of Mars lost. “Can you repeat the question?”

The writer sitting across from her, a man named Derrys and at least twenty years Kara’s junior, said, “Did you find it unfair when Cdr. Salat withheld his recommendation of you for the next Valor mission?”

Steam drifted from their two mugs to the table-side window, clouding the pane and the falling snow behind it. The drifts accumulating on the pines surrounding Kara’s property sagged their boughs like shrouded white priests.

“I respected the board’s decision,” she said.

“They denied you Mars.” Derrys pushed his small recorder across the table. Its single LED burned red. “Salat returned. Was one of the first humans to set foot on the planet. Even after your several appeals, why do you think he was against your selection for Valor Two?”

Kara brushed wisps of her straight hair back over her ears. Gray crept up her scalp while lone white strands mingled against auburn ones. Watching the young man, she wondered if she should have dyed it before their meeting.

“This ought to be quite the book you’re writing,” she said. “Most interviews deal with such scandalous issues as our freeze-dried cuisine aboard Lightwell.”

“Much of history mentions Valor One as a mere footnote. Prologue to the several landings that followed.”

“That they do. No one cared much for our mission, which amounted to little more than a cargo drop. Not after humans walked on Mars.”

“So why was Salat against your return?”

“Because,” she said, “after being forced to share Valor One with me, he would never share Mars.”

“My voyage aboard Lightwell will provide valuable data to the colonists who one day make this same trip,” Kara said into her tablet’s camera. “I’m thrilled to have such an opportunity while contributing to the future through this noble endeavor. Thank you for your question.” Despite being limited to canned responses approved by an Earthbound mission control, dealing with the numerous pre-recorded questions blasted at them from Earth was a pleasant part of Kara’s duties. She keyed the comm icon on her tablet. “Salat, I have a bundle of interviews ready for transmission.”

The voice of the only other crew member aboard flooded the tiny mess space from the intercom. “Understood. Take a look at these while you’re at it.”

On her screen, Salat’s messages settled in like unwelcome guests in place of Kara’s own.

She looked up at the camera’s black dome mounted on the ceiling, where Salat could see her from his perch in the cockpit. “Those are yours. Answer them yourself.”

“You’re better suited for them. They’ll benefit from your . . . perspective.”

She tabbed open a batch. Kindergartners and elementary school kids; their letters in the hundreds.

“Dammit, Salat. You can handle some of these, you know.” The dome camera’s red light dimmed, switched off along with the intercom. It wasn’t until a week later, when sifting through their daily message traffic, that she read the published interviews.

“You changed my answers?” Kara’s balled fists shook. “Those were my interviews.”

“They lacked professionalism,” he said. “We’re on a mission, not out shopping. They must have told you that during your selection.” Salat finished his drink and set his mug on the table. “Take that to the dishwasher.” He departed the mess space.

She was halfway to the automatic dishwasher’s chute when she stopped and stared at the mug in her hand. Was it Salat or her own instant assent to his bidding that warmed her face with anger? Kara’s knuckles went white as she resisted flinging the mug into the bulkhead. Instead, mindful of the several sensors monitoring and recording her physiological responses, she placed it in the dishwasher.

“Mind if I refill this?” Derrys motioned with his empty mug to Kara’s kitchen.

She nodded. “Help yourself.”

“Thanks.” The red light glowed on his recorder. “The decision to crew Lightwell during Valor One was made rather late.” He poured his tea. “Crew selection was equally hurried.”

“The original mission was to bring supplies for future trips,” Kara said. “The habitats and a lander. Nothing more.” She looked at the piling snow outside. “This was before the Global Space Agency. Back then, nations vied for prestige through underfunded space programs.” She looked back at him. “But once the joint Russian/Chinese mission was disclosed at the time, and NASA learned it included manned orbits of Mars, well, they decided to include us for the ride.”

“Space missions of the day didn’t usually handle crew selection so casually.”

She shrugged. “I was young, fit, and already established as part of the team because of my work on the lander. They wanted a civilian to accompany Salat. I fit the profile.”

He returned to his seat. “There was . . . concern, with your selection, since you’d never trained in the space program. Do you think more qualified personnel were deserving of a place on that mission?”

“Sending engineers to space wasn’t unheard of, you know.”

“So you disagree with those who criticized your selection?”

“The eventual colonists weren’t astronauts. There were valid questions at the time as to how such people, without extensive training, would respond to long-duration space flight.”

“Your vitals came under increased scrutiny during the mission. Signs of stress and anger emerged aboard Lightwell. How did conditions affect your performance during the mission?”

She was beginning to discern his technique. Far from the vanilla softballs lobbed underhand to her by interviewers over the years, he baited his questions like traps, slamming them shut when she defended herself. She took a deep breath before answering.

“My performance was unaffected.”

“Only two people on an entirely automated ship. It’s like mission control was encouraging strife.”

“Valor One’s primary mission was our payload. Salat and I were just passengers.”

“You locked the cargo bay again,” Kara said, crossing the threshold into Lightwell’s darkened control center. Salat was a ghostly silhouette against the dull glow of LEDs and monitors. “Release the door, please. I need to make some checks.”

“No, you don’t,” he said without looking from his screen. “There isn’t a single thing you can accomplish by toying with the shell sealing the lander. Why not straighten up the mess deck?”

She flung the dimmer switch to max, the brightness sending Salat wincing.

“Release the locks, please.”

“You spend hours of your off time with the payload,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Do you want to damage it?”

“Off time? This whole mission is off time. Five pages of codes are required to alter Lightwell’s course. The ship is piloting itself, no matter how much you pretend to aid it by hiding in here. And damage the payload? We’re going to cast it down to the Martian surface. I’m pretty sure it will endure my reading a book atop the hatch.”

“You seem agitated.” His voice was level; had been during the entire exchange. Had hers?

“I’m fine.” She resisted grinding her teeth.

“Have you transmitted your logs for the day?”

“They’re not due for hours.”

“Then why waste time reading in the cargo bay?”

“Please release the locks, Salat.”

He turned his chair to face her. “Must have been quite the surprise when they selected you for this mission.”

“Not this again.” Kara rubbed her temples.

His voice remained even. “The people that trained with me spent years in anticipation of this trip. But I imagine the politicians didn’t consider them when they gave you the job.”

“And who will the colonists eventually be?” she said. “Subsequent voyages won’t all be crew-cut soldiers. Shocking as it sounds, they might actually send farmers to grow food on Mars instead of pilots.” She balled her fists in a failed attempt to steady her shaking hands. “They need to see how regular people will adapt out here. Did you sleep through that part of the briefing?”

“It must have been like hitting the lottery.” He shrugged. “Go do some token engineering work on our payload and get a ride to Mars.”

After so many months she knew to resist his baiting, but continued. “Tell me, Salat. Did you have so much as a summer job before Daddy the admiral got you into the Naval Academy? Or have all your paychecks been signed by Uncle Sam?”

He turned away and flipped a switch on the console. “The locks to the cargo bay are released.”

And he was through. A simple sabotage to tweak her vitals before the daily transmission Earthward. Stress, anger; a host of negative indicators revealed to mission control. And he hadn’t even raised his voice.

“Salat claims you were under no more stress than what any Mars mission would entail.” Derrys said. “He argues that the records of your vitals don’t lie.”

“Only during the very beginning. Upon the final approaches to Mars, my records reflect no such issues.”

“What was so interesting about the cargo bay?”

Kara halted her scrutiny of the dregs in her empty mug. “I’m sorry?”

“The cargo bay. You mentioned spending a lot of time there. The mission logs confirm it.”

He had the same, friendly smile. She discerned nothing different in his tone, yet feared the question’s hidden snare.

“It was a private place.”

“You had all of Lightwell to yourselves. I’ve toured the museum where it now sits. Seems there would be plenty of places for privacy.”

She shrugged, unwilling to meet his gaze. “I just liked it down there.”

Each encounter set Kara on edge. While the majority were benign, Salat reserved one per day to rile her vitals past the numerous thresholds that caused mission control and the flight surgeons back home to fret. Her response to his bullying didn’t matter. Whether argument or avoidance, mockery or insult, he met her every fusillade with indifference and calm, until the mere sound of his footsteps brought her to a trembling knife—edge balancing upon rage or retreat.

It was Ares that rescued her. Tucked away knees-to-chin in Lightwell’s cramped observation bulb, at the forward end of the narrow, cylindrical ship, her salvation became clear. If she were at war with Salat, though the casus belli remained unclear, perhaps Ares offered aid. It leeched away her crimson-tinged rage, replacing it with an iron oxidized plan to free her from Salat while propelling her to a place of peace as well as a spot in history. With a thankful nod toward the ancient god of war, she departed to search out a parts list.

Later, at the table in the mess space, she tabbed through a monstrous 1,000 page file. Fortunately, as an engineer, she’d not only slogged through such tomes before, but had even been known to contribute a hundred or so pages on occasion. Such was her skill that she navigated with a deft hand until she located the shipboard system that contained the first component her scheme demanded.

Was all that she required on board? For if so, surely providence guided Kara toward her destiny. Her searching revealed one vital component after another. The more she located, the greater her fear that the entire, crazed scheme would be undone by the lack of a single, key item. Yet there they were. Spares tucked away in lockers, primaries and backups waiting to be cannibalized, they all awaited her.

A single item remained. She flung pages aside. System after system; diagrams by the dozen flashed by in her search. Her breath slowed as the longer she looked, the more the absence of the final part demonstrated the madness of her pursuit. Had Ares taken her this far, only to illustrate, at the precipice, how twisted was her plot? She lowered the tablet to her lap.

“What are you doing?” Salat’s voice, even as ever, set a twitch to her eye.

“I was just—” she stopped, for the tablet page had shifted. Her finger, dragged across the screen in fallen despair at his approach, had flipped the page, revealing another schematic. Before her, in unremarkable black and white, was displayed the final piece.

She stood with a smile, flipping the tablet beneath her arm like a schoolgirl carrying a text.

“Just studying up on the lander,” she said. “It is, as you’re fond of saying, a mission that we’re on. Never hurts to be prepared.” She departed with a lightness long absent in her step.

The first theft was the hardest. Beneath Lightwell’s deckplates, with pipes snaking around her like a bed of serpents, Kara located the required part. A green light, curiously bright in the dark space, illuminated the component’s connection to the system. Fingers wrapped around it, she paused.

What was she doing? This first fraud was step one in the biggest theft in all of human endeavor. Is that what she desired?

Footsteps vibrated through the deckplates against the comforting motion of the gravity cylinder. Kara closed her eyes. She was discovered. A sob rose in her throat. Such was her tormentor’s gift that she accepted her failure without pause. Had she truly believed escape so easy? Her trembling hand was all the answer she needed.

Only now, there was light. Opening her eyes, she saw red. Crimson bathed the dark space, drowning the feeble LEDs from other systems in its fury. Alone, buried beneath the endless pipework where none could see, a welling tear trickled its course down her cheek. Ares, once more, lit her purpose with its ancient, martial glow.

Her trembling hand had disrupted the small module from its socket, filling the space with red light indicating a broken connection. Behind it, feeble green, lost in the red, indicated the backup coming to life.

The footsteps above faded, carrying away her vile counterpart. Ares had not abandoned her. Palming the small module into a pocket, she slithered her way out of the piping.

Over the final weeks of their approach, as Mars turned, Ares crept ever closer, and Kara’s collection grew. Ensuring her work went unnoticed, she bypassed and rerouted what she removed from the ship’s systems, while she plundered the rest from storage lockers. Smuggling them in ones and twos to her hiding spot, she tucked them away beside their growing compatriots. Silent conspirators in her cabal.

Kara made sure to read for at least an hour in the cargo bay before moving. She tucked the yellowed paperback, a gift from her father, into a pocket of her coveralls and rolled over the bulbous hatch covering the lander. The size of an SUV back home, it took her two full turns to roll to the other side out of the monitoring camera’s view. Nervous moments passed, waiting for Salat’s voice over the speaker indicating he’d noticed her. There was only silence.

Kara unzipped her coveralls past her chest and reached inside. The component, wrapped in cloth, fit inside her hand. She removed a panel on the bulkhead beside the lander and placed the piece with the others. She replaced the panel, removed her book, and rolled back to within the camera’s field of view to continue reading.

“Some say it was your behavior during Valor One that resulted in your being passed over for a surface mission. Were you angry when your appeals were denied?”

Kara brushed strands of her hair out of her eyes and behind her ear. “Valor One was crucial to those follow up missions. We laid the groundwork for all subsequent landings.”

“No one doubts that. But you didn’t answer the question. Were you angry about not being picked up to return to Mars?”

She thought a moment before responding. The seconds dragged out in the muffled winter silence within her house and outside. “I came to accept the panel’s decision regarding my return to Mars.”

“You could have been one of the first humans to set foot on the planet.”

“Yes,” she said in a quiet voice. “I could have.”

“If you can complete these final orbits without cracking, we might succeed on this mission.” Salat was across from her in the mess, breakfast being the only time they now communicated by anything but intercom.

Another component of her revenge, its sharp, metal corners biting through her coveralls into her flesh, sat in her pocket. She took to carrying them, like totems, before depositing them inside her hidden vault. Salat’s bane, as she’d come to think of the near-completed device waiting in her hidden place. Awaiting the moment when it would hurl Salat to his end, leaving nothing, not even his career or reputation intact.

“Worry about the one time you’re actually needed to monitor the flight plan,” Kara said. “I’m just a civilian, remember?”

“I don’t know what you’ve been doing in the cargo bay. But don’t you foul up the lander deployment.”

She didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. After this day, as Mars passed beneath them, neither Salat nor any other human, would trouble her ever again.

Derrys placed the item on the table without a word. Kara sat still, hiding behind the mug raised to her mouth.

“Do you recognize this?” he asked.

“No.”

“It’s a transformer of sorts. Allowing power supplies of differing voltages to interact without frying whatever is connected. Do you know where I found it?”

“A hardware store?”

Derrys smiled. She was still unsure what he was after. Even with the component accusing her from across thirty years, she couldn’t read his smile.

“I found it in Lightwell’s cargo bay. Tucked away in a service panel with several other items. Seems someone was trying to assemble something from spare parts.”

“As if the museum would let some . . . writer poke around the exhibit.”

“Trust me,” he said. “They were happy someone had even taken an interest in their exhibit.”

“What is it you want?”

“To find out what happened during Valor One. What almost happened.”

“We went to Mars,” she said. “Completed our orbits. Deployed the habs and the lander to the surface. Then returned home safely, proving it could be done. What else is there to know?”

“I think you wanted to be the first person on Mars.” His recorder’s red LED was accusatory.

“Who wouldn’t?” She shrugged.

“I think you were going to ride the lander down.”

“Salt Mars with my ashes?” Her laugh was more desperate than dismissive. “I would have burned to a cinder. I was never suicidal.”

“Not if you cracked the lander,” he said.

“Impossible. It was sealed to reduce contamination.”

“The habitats weren’t. It wouldn’t have taken much to pry one of the containers open. They’re large enough for a person. And shielded to allow the inflatable structures to survive the descent unscathed.”

“There were alarms,” she whispered.

“Low priority on the hab modules. Easily bypassed.”

“Please.” Her hands trembled. “Why are you doing this?”

“What were you planning?” he said.

She closed her eyes. “Nothing. We deployed the habitats with success. Subsequent missions utilized them upon arrival. Hab-One remains a museum. Right where it landed.”

Derrys stood and walked to the window in the adjoining living room. The wind had fallen, the snow descending lazily in its absence.

“No one at the Lightwell museum bothered with those items,” he said, still looking outside. “Everyone I asked assumed they were just stored in the empty bay after the lander was deployed.” He looked at her. “Do you know what they would have been if assembled?”

“Of course.”

“The habs were just empty shells. Husks for the later missions when they’d be supplied with oxygen to be made livable.” He returned to the table and tapped the component. “With this, and the others, you could have altered the lander’s cooling systems. Creating an O2 exhaust just rich enough to replenish a spacesuit. At least for a while.” Derrys clicked off his recorder. Would have made for quite the revenge,” he said. “After pulling off something like that right under Salat’s nose, I doubt he would have been given another spot on the next Valor Mission.”

“People like him don’t grow out of their bullying,” she said. “They just grow into it.”

“Salat has no idea,” Derrys said. “You could have ruined him. Instead, you allowed him his first place on Mars.”

“I guess I did.”

“The first human on Mars,” Derrys said. “Would have been quite the honor.”

“I would have survived for days.” She stared at him, determined not to look away. “Possibly a week.”

He cocked his head. “To do what, exactly? Study the surface? Observe the effects on a human? There wasn’t much you could have added to the body of knowledge prior to the subsequent landings.”

She smiled. “Nothing so grand. I would have read. Sifted the dirt with my fingers. Slept while the Martian soil filtered my dreams.”

He watched her without speaking, the falling snow outside a blessing in its silence.

“Will this go in the book?” she said.

“Are you kidding? This is it. These chances don’t come along to someone in my field very often.”

“The chance I had with Mars will never come again to anyone.”

“There are very few firsts these days,” he said. “Yours would have been unassailable.” He shook his head. “You were going down there to die.”

She shrugged. “The first to sleep. The first to dream. The first to wake. The first to witness Mars pristine. And the last. I imagine I would have lived more in that week than most humans have in a long time.”

“So why didn’t you?”

Kara’s shoulders slumped. “I guess stealing Mars for myself would have been no more noble than when Salat took it from me.”

Kara stepped from the steaming shower and streaked her hand across the fogged mirror. She’d taken her time in hopes of missing Derrys for his final visit. Somehow she doubted he would be deterred so easily. He arrived an hour later.

“I suppose the news crews will be here shortly,” she said. They sat in her living room, her on the sofa, he on the matching chair across the low coffee table. Sunlight streaked in shafts through the thick gray clouds outside.

“Sorry to disappoint. Only me today.” Derrys removed a hardback book from his bag and placed it on the table. “Yours was the last part I needed. I’d had the rest edited for months before I stumbled on that hatch and its contents in Lightwell’s cargo bay. While there still needs to be a final check with my editor, I 3Ded this off last night. I figured I’d run it by you before I submit it.”

Kara picked it up. In the Red: The Story of the First Manned Mission to Mars was written in raised, crimson gloss on the top. A photo of the Martian North Pole covered the lower half of the cover.

“This isn’t the story everyone already knows,” Derrys said, and smiled. Kara saw now that nothing hid behind that smile. “This tells a different story. A story of a woman who almost changed history.”

She saw now there was more to the cover. In the star field above the Martian Pole, hidden in some 3D printed trickery, when the light touched the book at a certain angle, was a face. Her face.

“You haven’t told anyone?” she asked.

“I figured I’d let you read it first.”

“They’ll all know I was crazy. That I cracked just like Salat claimed I did.”

He waved his hand. “Maybe. But they’ll also remember Valor One. That mission that was forgotten after the landing and settlements and gardens, will once again receive the place in history it deserves.” He looked out her window. “Maybe the hero doesn’t depart for space. Maybe she comes back as one.” He looked at Kara and smiled. “Or they’ll just think you’re crazy.”

He stood. “You’ve got a week. I’m only so noble. We’re about to be famous, you know. No more scrounging reviews at a dollar a pop.” There was a wickedness to his smile now that was not without kindness. “Can’t wait for my first interview.” He picked up his bag and headed for the door.

“I assume you’ve heard of the theory about alternate realities,” she said while looking out of the window.

“I did have to learn a little about science to be a science writer.”

“I like to think about her up there. Some other Kara West. Perhaps, when the other missions arrived, they found her beside a journal full of notes. A smile on her face. The first recorded dreams of Mars written in her own words. I like to think they buried her with respect. Maybe even built her a little monument.”

“Hey, that’s good stuff. Stop holding out on me. Though in subsequent editions . . .”

She put the book down. “What if I don’t want this story told?”

He cocked his head and shrugged. “You gave up your big shot. I don’t think I’m going to do the same.”

She nodded. “I guess I’ll talk to you in a week.”

end article

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Clint Spivey

About Clint Spivey

Clint Spivey teaches English as a Foreign Language in Tokyo. His research focus is on fluency development in an EFL setting. His work has appeared in The Lorelei Signal, Bastion, Electric Spec, Perihelion, and the Pop Seagull Anthology: Love, Time, Space, Magic.