The Mother of Dark Space
Dr. Rae Dahlia didn’t come to Mars to be one of the few women scientists, pampered and ogled like some exotic species; and she certainly didn’t come to waste her time testing ice core samples in post-doctoral hell, yet everyone keeps telling her that’s exactly where she belongs. Rae starts to believe it until she gets a strange invitation to run her own lab at Evermore Industries, the newest R&D company in the terradome. There’s a problem, its founder, Everett Evermore is an eccentric, disgraced by the scientific community, and he’s not being up-front about EI’s goals. Accepting his invitation may burn Rae’s connections and poison her budding career, but if she does nothing she may not achieve her dream of becoming a worlds-famous scientist.
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“Mom, Mom! Guess what? I got accepted to the doctorate program at the University of Mars! They’re even giving me a travel scholarship!”
Deborah’s face puckered as she tried to wrap her mind around the sourness of what Rae had said... or what she’d just heard, which could have been anything. Rae felt her chest ache and collapse inward, as if she had just presented some useless piece of paper and Deborah was crinkling it up to throw it away.
“Mars?” Deborah said. “I thought you wanted to work with animals.” She was referring to Rae’s first and long-abandoned interest in animal behavior. “Do they even have animals on Mars?”
“They do. Mostly livestock, but that’s not—”
“I don’t understand why you don’t want to stay here and work with livestock. The feedlots in Tennessee could really use someone with your talents.”
If I wait a minute, she’ll change the subject, Rae thought.
“You won’t make a big deal about coming home for Christmas, will you? You’re my only family left.”
“Deborah,” Rae said, still pissed from her initial reaction and now fuming as her mother wedged a crowbar of guilt between them, “it’s a three-month trip during opposition — the point when Mars is closest to us — and that only occurs every two years. Once I’m there, I’m staying there.”
“What about when you finish school?”
Rae imagined herself eventually working for Kander and Jansen Laboratories, but even if they wouldn’t take her, there were more research and development companies moving to Mars every opposition.
“Rachael Michelle Dahlia, are you telling me this is goodbye forever? You’re planing to go die on Mars and get buried in some little green sarcophagus?”
“No. Of course I’ll come back. I’m just not sure when.” Or what would ever entice me to.
Deborah was quiet for a long time, during which the grimace never left her face.
“Well, I hardly think ‘goodbye’ is even appropriate. More like, ‘see you soon,’ because I’m sure I’ll see you in a few months after you’ve been there and realize how much you hate it.”
That had been over two years ago. Rae wasn’t sure who had stopped calling whom, but between Deborah’s constant disapproval and the minutes of lag due to the sheer distance of the two planets, they hadn’t spoken for some time.
Dear Deborah, Rae thought, writing a text in her mind she was sure she’d never send. You were wrong about Mars. I love it here, in fact I can’t wait to return to Nili Fossae and the big city under the dome. I got that job at Kander and Jansen Labs I was telling you about. Nothing big, just as a research assistant, but it means I get to travel outside the terradome to an ancillary lab at the South Pole. I’m one of two microbiologists on the team, so I’m pretty important. Though the work is mostly looking through a microscope at frozen CO2 samples, the idea of maybe finding a Martian organism keeps things pretty exciting. It’s pretty tight quarters down here, but not as bad on as on the shuttle to Mars, and every three weeks they send me back to Nili Terradome for a week off.
Rae sat on the edge of her bed in her small white bunkroom and thought, God, wouldn’t it be nice to have a normal fucking conversation like that? Something real dry and boring where I’d get to lie about how shitty this job is, and then she’d tell me about what the neighbors are up to, and never even mention how lonely she is or how nice it must be to be breathing fresh air all the time.
A text chimed and drew her attention.
A.Manfield: Report to the rover room, there’s another blizzard approaching and we need your help monitoring it while we finish the mission.
R.Dahlia: On my way.
* * * * * *
What a bunch of tech jocks, Rae thought, shaking her head at the scientists gathered around the rover control station. Their eyes were glued to the screens as if they were watching some championship game, but the screens were boring: each displayed a different angle of a hollow drill slowly descending into frozen CO2. The real performance was watching Rockwell, the rover technician, who had just as much, if not more, experience in ballet as in robotics. His delicate body motions were watched by full-spectrum motion-capture cameras and communicated to the rover approximately two hundred meters away, and the rover fed back hundreds of data points of information to his elbow-length haptic gloves. Rockwell described the gloves as feeling like it was his actual hands plunging through the ice. When the drill felt pressure, he swore he could feel it in the bones of his arms.
Dr. Manfield, the principal researcher at Kander and Jansen Laboratories, and Rae’s boss, turned his head and caught her watching Rockwell. He walked over to her and loudly whispered, “Ms. Dahlia, you have been given the very simple yet very important task of monitoring that radar screen. We need to get the rover to safety before that blizzard hits or we risk damaging or destroying a very sensitive and very expensive piece of Dr. Kander’s property. Do you understand?”
“My name is Dr. Dahlia.”
“Excuse me? Never mind, just watch the radar.”
Once the storm hit the mouth of their canyon, Chasma Australe, the katabatic force would increase the wind speeds by hundreds of kilometers per hour and drop the temperature to somewhere around minus 80 degrees Celsius. The driving force of frozen carbon-dioxide flakes would entomb the rover, and the pressure drop would likely cause the sensitive ice core samples to explode.
“The storm is entering the Prometheus Basin,” she warned. “ETA ten minutes.”
Rockwell, barely moving his lips, said, “I only need five to get back to the hanger. I can’t rush this — the drill is under a lot of strain, but I can almost guarantee this is going to be a premium sample.”
The promise that it would be a good sample affected her as well. Maybe this will be the one. Maybe I’ll be the first person to discover life on Mars. Or more accurately, an intact chromosome from Martian haloarchaea. Rae’s mind started to swim with the possibilities that would open up for her with that kind of fame. Kander would certainly make her principal researcher, and she’d have the freedom to drive research in whatever direction she chose. Then she realized that running her own department would come with the added responsibility of managing a team, and the thought soured. I like the idea of assigning someone to run menial experiments, but having to manage their personalities and moods sounds terrible. And what if they don’t trust me?
“It’s not worth the risk,” Manfield declared. “Pull out.”
“Doctor, I’m almost there. Just one more minute,” Rockwell begged.
The geologist chimed in, “Manfield, think of the revenue this sample could generate for K&J Labs.” He looked at the radar screen in front of Rae. “Look at that. The storm is still a ways away. By my estimate, we’ve got half an hour at least!”
Rae shook her head. “You’re underestimating the katabatic force. Trust me, I’ve been watching—”
“Last I checked, you weren’t a meteorologist.”
Manfield placed his hand on Rae’s back, as if trying to shield her. The gesture made her feel vulnerable and unclean. With his other hand he made a dismissive gesture at the geologist, and to the technician he said, “Terminate the dig. Abandon the mission. Return to the hangar.”
Rockwell sighed. “Yes, of course, Dr. Manfield. Sorry.” And he began slowly — yet much faster than before — lifting his hands and the drill from the cold Martian ice. Once it had been fully extracted and tucked away in its travel position, the technician curled his hands as if around invisible joysticks, and to the movements of his wrists the rover responded by turning in place and trundling back toward the hangar.
Manfield pointed at the geologist and another scientist whom Rae had yet to be introduced to. “You two are the welcoming committee. Suit up and get to the hangar.”
Check the drill,” Rockwell called after them. “If we’re lucky, a piece of that sample broke off in the bit.”
Two minutes later the weather buoy in Prometheus Basin sent a red alert that popped up on Rae’s radar station. The blizzard was moving much faster than anticipated and was bearing down on Chasma Australe.
“It’s coming! Arrival in maybe three, maybe four minutes,” she called out, but Dr. Manfield had already left for the hangar, leaving her alone with Rockwell. Rae texted Manfield the alert and walked over to the screens. Two of the monitors showed the rover’s front-facing view. After it had traveled about a hundred meters, the first tiny flakes of frozen CO2 started to blow past the rover, creating the illusion that it had started to move backward. The third monitor watched the long canyon behind the rover vanish in a wave of white. Rockwell was visibly sweating, and his eyes were locked on the screens. “Don’t say it,” he said.
“Don’t say ‘drive faster.’”
“I wasn’t—” Rae began.
“Around this corner is a tight squeeze between two ice formations, and I can’t thread the needle at this speed.” Almost as soon had he finished the sentence, Rockwell drove the rover into a branch off the main canyon; the hangar came into view and so did the two pillars of ice. The geologist stood between them, hacking away with a hatchet, but his visor and suit were quickly being covered by CO2 frost.
“Drive faster,” Rae commanded as she dialed Dr. Manfield.
Rae interrupted him. “I heard, but if you slow down the Rover’s fucked 100 percent of the time; this way at least there’s a chance.”
“Miss Dahlia, unless this is—”
“Call your men back, the storm is here!” In the background she heard Manfield shouting through the geologist’s comm channel. On the screen she saw him stop chopping, turn and run in great leaping bounds. The doors to the hanger started to disappear behind the swirling curtain of snow that blew past the rover.
“Drive faster, damn it.”
“It’s too narrow,” the technician whined.
“Use the snowdrift on the left to tip it diagonally.”
“This is a scientific instrument, not a stunt car,” said Rockwell, but he had already made the decision to try.
“DAHLIA!” Manfield screamed through her forgotten receiver. “TELL ROCKWELL NOT TO BE A HERO.”
“Did you catch that?” Rae asked the technician.
“The gist, but something just occurred to me: the insurance. User error is covered. Negligence is not.”
The rover sped toward the choke point at thirteen meters per second until a proximity alert flashed, followed by an “unsafe speed” warning, which triggered an internal fail-safe that took control of the throttle, slowing the craft. The rover trudged up the frozen drift at a wholly unsatisfying pace and stalled as its front wheel slipped on the ice. Again the rover’s safety measures took control by giving priority to the back wheels, and the rover made it through despite its painfully slow speed. CO2 flurries were falling harder now, and it became impossible to see the terrain. Rockwell’s only guidance was the light of the hangar. He punched the throttle back up to full, but sixty meters later they were met with another obstacle: the hangar door.
Dr. Manfield stormed into the room. “Well, Mr. Rockwell, how badly have you managed to entangle my rover? Next time answer me when I call you.”
Rockwell released himself from gestural control and pushed his OmniView augmented-reality glasses up onto his forehead, “Sorry, Doctor,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. “I was focusing on getting the rover — and your precious ice core samples — to safety! Why’d you close the hangar doors?”
Manfield crossed his arms. “When it was clear that you wouldn’t fit, I recalled the team and sealed the hangar. Now answer my question.”
“Zero. Zero percent entangled. The rover is just outside the hangar door.”
Manfield looked shocked. “But... there’s no way... we need to—”
Suddenly Rae felt the pressure increase, and in a synchronistic choreography everyone on the team yawned to pop their ears. The rover popped up an alert: “Sample Storage Compartment compromised!”
Manfield shook his head in disappointment. “The ice core samples just shattered.
“This mission is over. Everyone is on personal time until further notice.”
Somewhere nearby a frost geyser shook the lab like a small earthquake, as if the storm, or Mars itself, was laughing at them.