Issue 183 – December 2021
6080 words, short story
That’s the thing you have to remember about Kobayashi drivetrains. They work until they don’t. Not like a Selenex or a Rostov unit. Those things tell you all the time how they’re feeling. Grumble grumble. You’re out there in your suit, putting on the spray lube, picking bits of regolith out of the intakes, every day it feels like. But the Kobayashis, they work flawlessly. Very fine engineering. But no warning at all when they fail. Just . . . bang. No more coupling.
That’s fine if you’re coming off shift, if you’re a tank or two away from a lock and some breathable. And the Kobayashi is a good unit—well made, affordable even with the lift premium, lots of spare parts in every depot from here to Gale Crater. I’d say we replace one of them every six months or so. The vehicle pool techs are pretty fast at it now.
But none of that helps me. Gunnar Kristjánsson, thermal drilling technician class 2, third generation Martian, and officially fucked. Because I’m a helvítis hálfviti, in the words of my grandfather, who is probably watching from his perch among the gods on the literal Mount Olympus and laughing through the cracked face shield that killed the old bastard.
No. Instead of being a quick bounce to a lock and a hot meal while the Jimmies jack up my rover and make it work again, I’m two hundred and nineteen kilometers out on a survey line, on my own, with only standard day rations, nine hours of breathable, and a drivetrain that’s popped every shackle.
It’s not like I wasn’t aware this might happen. I did a visual inspection with the Head Jimmy two days ago. Everything looked fine. A little stress around some of the retainer bands, maybe, but you get that on every unit, Kobayashi or not. I packed extra water. Fresh power cells for the SAR beacon. All of that stuff.
But it’s useless. Why? Damn swirls, that’s why.
Before humanity started grubbing around every little corner of Mars, we thought it was a quiet, cold, dusty place. Barely any pressure in the air. No surface water. Obviously no plant life. But it turns out there’s a lot going on under the surface in some places. Geothermal spikes. Magnetic anomalies. Subsurface ice that melted very fast once we really got going on the atmospheric processing. Hence the swirls.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still drier than my grandmother’s harðfiskur most of the time out here. But the activity under the ground, all the crater landforms, they create these persistent storms. Lots of trace metals in the dust. You get stuck in a swirl, you can be incommunicado for hours. Sometimes days. Especially if you have a busted drivetrain.
When I hear that horrible flat ping through the hull, I pull on the wheel locks and swear in every language I have access to. Suit on, depressurize, then clump outside to confirm. I needn’t have bothered. The sound of a drivetrain going is unmistakable. I waste a few minutes of my air supply standing in the swirling dust, cursing every moment and decision that led me here.
I retreat back inside, repressurize, and take off the suit. As always, the cleaning jets in the rear of my rover don’t quite get all the regolith off, so I sneeze a couple of times. It has a metallic tang, like growmeat seared on an open grill at a yearpass celebration. Permits for an open flame were so rare when I was a child, that particular smell has stayed with me. It’s a little strange, now I think about it, that the whole planet is made of dust and rock that smells like that. Something to do with the carbon, I guess.
My rover is pretty comfortable; it’s a long-range survey model, designed for several nights out, with consumable replenishment from cache stores. Bunk and personal gear on one side, survey table and seating in the center, then the entire right-hand side is all survey gear lockers and crates. Seismic monitors, wind speed capture kits, atmosphere samplers, scan drones, sub-mil lidar units, you name it, I’ve got it. What I don’t have is a spare drivetrain.
It’s not normally an issue. Even on a long survey run, I could pop up a satellite ping, even a handheld flare. I’d have a SAR unit or a diverted transport with me in an hour or two at most, and I’d get a lift back to the Valley. They’d send out a heavy lift bird or a tow team for the rover and everything would be airtight.
I’ve got nine hours of air in here, which was a great margin to get to the next cache, thirty kilometers ahead. And another four hours in the suit. More than enough for a survey line run, replacing busted sensors, taking measurements from the hard-line units down in this old crater, refilling from caches. But not enough to ride out a swirl if I can’t move.
I pull up my survey maps. My job is to investigate the areas closer to the Valley to help supply the growing population. And by investigating, I mean they’re sending surveyors like me out in one-man rovers to pre-dropped caches, mainly to update the subsurface mapping of the area. It’s been fifty years or more since anyone was out here regularly. I forget what that is in Earth terms. A lot. This part of the plains south of the Chasmus is studded with old lines. Most of them are long-since decommissioned, but there’s a few active ones still, reaching out from the Valley like the spokes on a wheel. We use them to monitor geothermal activity, weather patterns, the damn swirls. Most of the heavy-duty survey work is a long, long way from here. This part of Mars is well settled. I could probably walk six to eight hours in any direction and hit a transit line or a settlement power grid. Something to follow back to a hab of some kind. But my suit wouldn’t even get me out of the crater. And if you’re walking hard and fast to get out of trouble, cut all your consumable estimates by a third. It would be a race to see if dehydration or asphyxiation killed me first.
The map glows on the survey table, showing the curved walls of the crater, the distant glyphs of the closest active survey lines, the cluster of icons around the Wall Gates to the Valley. All too far.
I dip and swirl my fingers, rotating the map, looking for something I might have missed, something within my suit’s distance. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Just sand, dead cabling, test bore wells and rocks.
Something catches my eye. It’s a glyph I don’t recognize, a rounded three-dimensional rectangle, bobbing gently about three kilometers off the main route. It’s tiny and dim, indicating a decommissioned site. The icon is a sort of triangle shape with circles inside it. I look it up in my map legend.
Wow. It’s an old orbital transfer drop point. A hundred years ago or more, the big drop pods coming in from the Mars-Earth cyclers had designated landing spots along the rim of the Valley. But they also had backup points, out here, in case their primary landing site wasn’t clear. So there’s a ring of these places around the first few Wall Gates. Not much more than regolith melted into hard, round pads, a blockhouse for telemetry gear, hard links, a connecting road to the nearest survey line so the passengers could be picked up, sorry for the delay sir and ma’am. In the end, I heard they were hardly used; so many redundant and backup systems in the first cyclers they hardly ever needed them.
But I also remember they were uplinked. They had to be. If a dropship was going to land on basically hard-packed dust, it needed to be accurate. There was a chance, a small chance, that I might be able to power up that uplink, cut through the swirl and call in a SAR team.
I squint at the old drop point glyph, then run some calcs on the distance. It’s three klicks away, give or take a few hundred meters for the rolling terrain, rocks, all the little things that slow you down when you’re not in a rover. Going at a steady pace to conserve oxygen, I could walk there in a little over an hour. Hit the uplink, then an hour back. No problem.
Just a six kilometer walk without navigational aids in the middle of a magnetic sandstorm. Totally fine.
About five hundred meters out, I decide I’ve made a huge mistake. My suit is running a simple gyro monitor, so it will tell me if I change direction by more than a degree. If I don’t stick to the glowing arrow projected in my helmet display, I might be half a kilometer or more off target by the time I got near the old drop station. And that might as well be the other side of Mars, in a swirl as thick as this one.
Black, green, and brown chunks of rego smack against my faceplate. It’s the new, chunkier surface layer, now accumulating over the really fine dust we have around here. The ‘formers are doing their work, changing the whole planet. The red dust granulates into these light, crumbly chunks, full of cyanobacteria. It looks like dirty polystyrene balls, the kind you might use for insulation in a dome shelter.
But there’s still a lot of superfine regolith under that top layer and the swirls sure throw it about. I can see about three meters ahead. It’s mostly rocky underfoot and the arrow on my visor keeps changing color as I stumble forward, amber to red, back to green, red, amber, green, amber. I think it’s still staying green more than the other colors, meaning I’m mostly on course, but I’m tripping over my own feet so much I can’t really tell.
I wipe my faceplate and look down at the chronometer strapped to the arm of my suit. It has a big, chunky face with a glow dial, so I can see the time and my oxygen total even if the suit is on power conservation or the controller module is dead. Good old physical gauges. Our predecessors learned the hard way that you don’t want to have suits whose failure modes include “can’t get air to person inside.” The early settlers lost quite a few surveyors to solar storms. I’m beginning to understand how it must have felt to be one of those old-timers, in their heavy suits, clumping through the fine red dust, knowing all they had to breathe was what was in the suit already, tasting their own sweat, feeling the air grow more stale with every step. They’d have passed out eventually, crumpling to their knees out in the Red, suits coated with dust, to be found days or weeks or in some cases years later. A few of them were never found; they just . . . disappeared into the dust storms.
Shit. Focus, Gunnar. The arrow is blaring red again. I twist my body around left and right until I have green, then set off. I was a half degree off, maybe, not a lot. But these little errors add up. I check the chrono again. I’ve been walking for sixteen minutes, but it feels like a whole day. There’s sweat dripping down my back inside the suit. The coolant unit is struggling with the dust outside, puffing intermittently to keep its heat exchanger vents clear. I turn down the frequency. It only uses a little of my air each time, but I’d rather be a little cool or warm in the suit than run out of air.
For a little while, I try just watching my own feet and the arrow. I make it a game. Can I avoid the big rocks and cracks in the surface while keeping my arrow green? It feels like a virch, balance and speed and doing things in the right order. There’s a boulder, step over it. Okay, went to amber there, not great. Back to green though. This gulley in the desert surface is three meters wide. If I go straight down, I’ll break my leg. So I sidestep, turning my body to keep the arrow green. I slip and windmill my arms for a second, but then I’m down in the bottom of the gulley and the arrow is green again. I pick a spot on the other side and clamber out. Amber, red, green, amber, green.
Eventually, my suit chimes at me, and I check the chrono. I’ve been walking for fifty-six minutes. I’ve used a little over a quarter of my oxygen supply; that must be the extra puffs to keep my heat exchanger clear, plus the terrain being a little more rugged than I expected. I’m breathing a little hard, so I stop and do a full three sixty to calibrate everything.
The arrow thinks I’m fifty meters out, give or take. Visibility is five to ten meters max, so I set off slowly, eyes scanning for the shape of the drop point. I’ve seen a few of these places on survey runs. If you’re up high, you can see the wide circle of the sintered landing pad, but down at this level I’ll feel that under my boots before I see it.
Instead, I need to look for the blockhouse at the edge of the pad, a low, angular shelter with comms, maybe even rations and air. It might not have been stocked recently. But with any luck, the comms might work, if I can power them up.
I’m scanning, left and right, looking for any shapes emerging out of the swirl. It’s the middle of the Martian day, but in the swirl it seems like the middle of the night. There’s so much shit in the air from the granulated regolith and the magnetic flux that it feels like I might walk smack into the blockhouse wall.
There. A dark shape just off to my left. A low trapezoid, large enough for twenty or thirty people. I grin inside my helmet and turn toward it.
Then I trip over a rock because I’m too busy looking at my target. I’m already swearing as I crash forward into the dust, granules scattering everywhere. My gloved fingers punch through the top layer into the fine dust underneath and a cloud of it engulfs my helmet. I’m covered in the damn stuff, flat on my belly, the weight of my suit pack pushing me down. I struggle back onto my knees, still swearing.
Someone is watching me.
From this angle, knees sunk in the bacterial crust of the regolith, I can’t see the blockhouse anymore. But there is a person, half hidden by the billowing dust, in a suit, maybe ten meters away. They are roughly between me and the drop point, I think. The arrow blinks green as I tilt my body back, trying to get a clear view. I wipe sticky granules off my visor.
The suit power blinks out.
My orientation arrow is gone. All my readouts flicker and disappear. The whir of the suit pumps winds down to silence, so now all I can hear is the quiet hiss of the fail-safe regulator bleeding air into my suit and the hollow moan of the wind outside. The heating elements in my gloves turn off, and I can feel the creeping cold beginning to cut through the thick material a few seconds later. I struggle to my feet, heart hammering in my chest, eyes flicking down to my wrist gauge.
I stop, lower my arms, take a deep breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth. I have to get my heart rate down. Panic absolutely won’t help right now.
After a moment, I’m as calm as I think I’m going to get. I guess that I’m only a step or two away from where I saw the blockhouse. I see my own footprints in the crusty desert surface, so I walk back in them two or three steps, then stop and do a full three hundred and sixty degree turn, slow as I can, eyes scanning for a shape in the darkness.
While I’m turning, I’m wondering what shut off my suit. I’m guessing it was an overheat, the cooling system vents getting clogged with dust when I fell, maybe? No big deal, usually. But I can’t clear the vents from inside the suit without power. And I can’t clean them from the outside without being back in the rover.
Maybe I could follow my footprints all the way back to the rover. But then I’d be right back to square one, only with two hours less oxygen. I know that I’m within a stone’s throw of the blockhouse. If I can find it, maybe I can pressurize it, clean out the vents. Or maybe my locked-open oxygen supply will keep me alive long enough to get the comms working.
I turn again, slowly. No sign of the figure in the suit. Did I really see someone? Or was it just a momentary illusion, a Martian djinn of dust and wind? The early settlers were convinced they saw things, out where no people should be, figures and forms in the dark, lights bobbing on the plains kilometers from any settlement.
And, of course, you don’t import five thousand Icelandic geothermal engineers without bringing a few sagas and myths along at the same time.
I wipe some more of the clinging, superfine dust from my visor. It leaves dark smears of cyanobacteria behind. The little bugs are everywhere in the surface soil, churning away, doing the slow, slow work of making this a world we can live in without suits like this. But for now they’re mostly black, sticky slime that is a massive pain to get off your visor.
Which direction was the blockhouse? I look to my left and right, looking for any indication of which way I was facing before I fell over. There’s the trail of footprints coming in. Here’s the two holes my knees made when I tripped, and the powdery depression where I fell on my face.
I work back, until I’m pretty sure I’m standing exactly where I was when I saw the low angles of the blockhouse.
I’m torn. If I move from here, I might lose my own footprints. But if I don’t move, I might be standing thirty meters from the blockhouse for another hour and then set off in the wrong direction.
I swear again, this time dropping a few choice phrases from my grandmother. She was a farmer-turned-vulcanologist-turned-astro thermal-specialist from Seyðisfjörður, way out on the fringe, nestled down in one of the wider Eastfjords. She was twenty-six when she took the cycler to Mars. When I was growing up, she was one of the last Earthborn in our community, a half-meter shorter than most of us, still going out every morning in her patched-up old suit to wipe the solars and see the sunrise. She told me she never got tired of living so close to the Martian equator, no months of darkness like back home. She would show me photos of the Eastfjords. Her on a boat, pulling in nets with her father, or out on a rough-maned Icelandic horse, grinning, rosy cheeks above a chunky knitted jumper, hair in braids. Sometimes I would point out of the hab glass at the black-crusted hills and cliffs around the Valley, running with the effluent of our ‘forming. I’d ask her if one day it might look like where she had grown up, with rough grasses, black sand, ice, and snow. She would laugh and ruffle my hair. “Not in my lifetime, Væni minn, or yours. But your children’s children, perhaps, perhaps.”
Goddamn it. What am I doing? Thinking about my damn grandmother, fifteen years dead. I’m likely to join her if I don’t screw my head back on.
I blink a few times inside my helmet, take some more slow breaths. Why was my mind wandering like that? Are my CO2 levels rising? The scrubbers should work even without power, at least for a while. But if I keep standing here, I’m going to pass out or stagger off in a random direction when I get delirious from lack of oxygen.
I look down at the footprints. Pretty sure I’m facing the right direction. There’s where I turned, stepped forward, and fell. Right before that, I was looking at the blockhouse.
I take five steps forward, then I stop, make a mark right in front of me with my boot, and do another full three sixty. No sign yet. Another five steps, another mark. Where the hell is it?
My heart rate is increasing again, the skin prickling inside my suit. My breath is coming shorter and sharper, and I’m fighting the absolute certainty that I can taste the carbon dioxide building up in my helmet. I can’t, of course. It’s colorless, odorless, and flavorless. But I’m sure there’s a tang to the air that wasn’t there before.
Inside, I know that tang is my own fear. It’s sweat and pheromones, alarm bells ringing in my nervous system, telling me I’m in danger. That I’m alone, without help.
That I’m being hunted.
There. In the darkness and rippling clouds of dust ahead. A shape. But not the comforting bulk of the blockhouse. It’s the same figure as before.
They’re closer this time. I think they’re walking just ahead of me. The suit doesn’t look right, though. From the glimpses I catch through the dust, it’s too bulky, patched and frayed, one of the old multi-laminate models. The kind of thing no surveyor or ‘former or miner on Mars has used in decades. An antique.
Just like my grandmother’s suit.
“Hey!” I shout, then realize immediately that my suit’s radio is dead.
“Hey!” I shout again anyway. I forget about the careful turning, the marks. I go tumbling forward, boots scuffing through the black crust, breathing hard.
The figure keeps walking. It’s tall and thin, even inside the suit. Most Martians are, but the old-timers that wore those things were Earthborn usually, squat and muscular compared to us. Who the hell could it be? Why are they out here?
I trip, the toe of my boot catching in a crusty piece of hardened regolith. Sprawled forward again, this time onto something firm. There’s a light coating of the crumbly granules that’s on everything, but underneath that is a hard surface, not the usual dust. I stare down at my gloves and push experimentally with my fingers.
It’s aluminized regolith. These old pads were sinter-finished around the edges by later waves of colonists, but the pads were initially formed by the first landers, plumes of alum fired into the landing rockets. They flared out and coated the soft regolith for a dozen meters, creating instant, semisolid landing pads. It was an amazing technology, for the time, well proven in the lunar colonization of a century earlier.
I’m on the landing pad.
I crane my neck up, trying to see past the bulk of my own helmet. The figure is gone. I clamber to my feet again and look around. The swirl seems like it might be easing a little, because I can clearly see the artificial flatness of the pad, the edge curving away from me.
And there, right in front of me, barely a dozen meters away, is the blockhouse.
I gulp air and whoop inside my suit, relief coursing through me. I stagger toward it, glancing down at my chrono as I go. The momentary joy collapses back into stomach-twisting dread. Somehow, the oxygen indicator has dipped into the red. Then I remember that the power is out. Constant bleed from the cylinder in my pack combined with unpowered filtering means I’m burning air supply twice as fast as I normally would. I have to get inside.
The blockhouse is sealed down tight. It’s dense, locally-mixed regocrete, Martian dust and sand mixed with cement and water. Tough stuff. The early buildings and structural supports around the Wall Gates all look like this. Hugely overbuilt, before we had learned what you actually needed to live on Mars. Our buildings now are light, tall, and curved, taking advantage of the lower gravity and the reduced force of the Martian weather. This is an Earth structure, squatting here, brute, and ugly, built by Earth minds on a planet they saw as unrelenting and purely hostile.
Which means I have no way of getting in.
The viewports are cemented closed. And there’s a solid steel airlock, ribbed with cross-struts. Probably a pressure door salvaged from one of the first cyclers. Like a bank vault from one of Grandma’s old Earth movies, dumped here in the middle of the desert. I couldn’t get through this damn thing if I had thirty hours of air and a cutting torch. I’m screwed.
I walk around the blockhouse twice, just in case I’ve missed something. There’s a secondary lock, but it’s sealed as tightly as the first. Eventually I’m back at the main door, and I slump down into the black grit, my head swimming.
The chrono says I have maybe six minutes of air remaining. Ten if I breathe slowly. No way back to the rover now. It might as well be five hundred kilometers away, not three. I could try to run it, but that would just burn the air faster. At least if I stay here, the SAR team they eventually send might have a better chance of finding my body.
I stare into the swirl, smelling my own sweat and stale breath. My visor is fogging up with each breath, without temperature regulation. And now that I’ve stopped moving, the cold is cutting through. I shiver a little.
I think I get up then. It’s hazy. I hammer on the door. I shout and scream and feel the tears coursing down my cheeks, my beard damp inside my helmet. I don’t want to die, alone, out on some damn survey line. I hear the dull thuds of my gloved hands against the steel, the rattle of my own breathing. The edges of my vision are darkening. I see the Valley, my family’s dome, the pale sun rising, my grandmother standing out there looking at the covered vegetable frames, the greenhouse rows, waving as she came back in for skyr and coffee.
I scream, the last of my body heat fogging my visor. I feel my gloves pressed hard against the uncaring steel. Then there’s nothing.
The first thing I’m aware of is how much my throat hurts.
I cough, cough again, groan. My eyes feel like they’re cemented together. I try to blink them open but that’s not in the cards yet.
“Hey, he’s waking up,” I hear and goddamn that’s Sigrún from North Curve. SAR we call her, Sigrún And Rescue. She’s amazing. Pulled five miners out of a bad swirl last full turn.
Wait, how the fuck am I alive?
The surge of adrenaline is enough to pull my eyelids apart, and I blink. They’re crusty with dust and sand. The light is incredibly bright. I’m inside, somewhere. Is it a rover? A SAR spinner? No, the surface under me isn’t moving, and I’m still in my suit. Sigrún is kneeling beside me, her helmet open, a hydration pack in her hand. She puts her hand behind my head and offers me a sip.
“You’re very dehydrated, Gunnar. Small sips.”
The water is so clean and clear and cold that I groan as I take a sip. Now that I’m drinking, I can feel how cracked and dry my lips are.
“Where . . . ” I start, but my voice comes out as a dry, husky cough, only just above a whisper. I take another sip and try again. “Where am I?”
Sigrún smiles. “Old blockhouse out on the fourth line. Good job with the repressure.”
I blink, and I see that she’s right. We’re inside the blockhouse. It’s mostly empty, long-since stripped bare of everything but the absolute basics, a single large space. When it was built it would have had padded benches down either side and along the middle, a small kitchen area, racks for spare suits and ration packs, everything that a diverted crew and passenger complement might need for a few hours or even a day or two of waiting.
Now, it’s empty. Just a dusty comms console and a backup set of oxygen tanks and scrubbers. Enough to pressurize the space for a day or two, for a few people.
The lights overhead are ancient LEDs behind milky white plastic, so they’re not very bright really. My eyes are adjusting now. I sit up a little and Sigrún places a gentle but firm hand on my chest.
“Woah, Gunnar. Take it easy. You’re not—”
“How . . . ” I start to say. This place has been sealed up tight for decades, but there’s still dust in here. Brought in by the teams that change the filters and restock the oxygen once a year, or just the regocrete slowly degrading, flexing, and shifting as swirls come and go and marsquakes occasionally shake the ground, stirred by the return of moisture and heat to the planet. Either way, there’s a layer of it, perhaps a millimeter or two.
Enough to see the footprints.
I can see where Sigrún and her team came in, via the secondary, smaller airlock. That’s because the main airlock, where I apparently came in, has been hard-locked from the inside. The footprints lead, clear as day, from the main airlock over to the comms panel. There’s even a smear in the dust where a gloved hand slid down the console, mashing at buttons. More smears as the same gloved hand fumbled for the manual release valves on the emergency oxygen. Then a couple of stumbling footsteps, then my own feet.
How did I get inside?
“But, the airlock, it was—” I start, but Sigrún shushes me.
“Hard-locked. Yes, we know. Not sure why you did that. I suppose you wanted to ensure it wouldn’t leak when you repressed. But we got in the secondary with an override code once we realized.”
I manage to struggle my way into a sitting position. Sigrún shuffles back and stands up. The rest of her team are spread around the space, leaning against the old regocrete walls, all looking at me. Their helmets are open, so I can see how their eyes dart away from me, not quite lingering.
“How long since I . . . got in here?” I ask.
Kristján Magnússon, a giant bear of a man in a custom suit who is Sigrún’s right-hand man on the SAR team, steps forward. His beard looks dusty inside his helmet.
“About nine hours. We checked the logs on the distress beacon you activated. It was only an hour ago that the storm settled enough to get the message through. We got here as soon as we could.”
I cough. “That explains my headache. I . . . I don’t remember getting in here.”
“We did find footprints all the way around the blockhouse,” said Sigrún. “I think . . . maybe you were confused. Lack of oxygen perhaps? Did you forget about the primary door release?”
Suddenly I feel like a very small, very stupid child. Of course. I had been hammering on the door, scrabbling at the blank metal facings as though some benevolent creature inside might crack it open for me. Completely forgetting that all I had to do was reach up, flip open the panel above, and pull the large red handle that would pop the airlock. Starved of oxygen, vision tunneling, my training and experience had deserted me.
Except it hadn’t. Because I was inside.
“I’m not sure what happened,” I say. “I don’t . . . I don’t remember popping the airlock. I must have just managed it.”
Kristján frowns. “No, Gunnar. You must have been in here for a while. You had time to do that before you passed out.”
My neck prickles as he lifts one big bear paw and points, his gloved finger indicating the wall behind me. I clamber to my feet and turn around. When I lift my head to look, I feel my breath shorten.
Scratched into the reddish, crumbling surface of the century-old regocrete, there’s a symbol, perhaps half a meter across. It’s a simple drawing, an eight-pointed star made from intersecting lines, like a compass rose. The ends of each line are decorated with crosshatches, little forks, and short curves, like a child’s drawing of a bowl or a fork. But that’s not what they are. I would know this symbol anywhere.
“What is it?” asked Ralston. He’s dark-haired, with a thin, narrow face, shorter than the rest of us. He’s from the other side of the Valley, an Anglo, descended from the third or fourth wave, after the geothermal power was laid and the greenhouses were running. The original first-wave landnámsmenn of my grandparent’s generation call them the nýjir, the “new ones.” But they’ve been here forty years already. Not long enough to begin developing the different muscle tone and height of the rest of us, but he’s as Martian as we are.
The rest of the crew are all first wave descended. None of them need it to be explained.
I swallow. “It’s Vegvísir. It’s the wayfinding rune. It’s . . . supposed to help you find your way in storms and bad conditions.” My voice cracks. I hold my hand out and Sigrún hands me the hydration pack. I take another sip, feeling the cool water restoring me.
Sigrún steps closer and lowers her voice. “Did you . . . see anything? Before you got through the door?”
I swallow, then nod slowly. “I thought—I thought I saw somebody ahead of me in the storm. Then I remember being here and circling the blockhouse. Then I woke up with you here. I don’t remember doing that,” I say, pointing at the rune.
Sigrún looks at Kristján and the other first-wavers, her braided hair flipping out of her suit collar as she turns her head to look at each of them. Ralston is frowning.
“Someone gonna tell me why this is a big deal? Gunnar gets bored during a nine hour wait for SAR and carves some old-time symbol? So what?”
I swallow again. My mouth is full of red dust, the deep chill of Mars in my bones, the slow changes that are waking deep things, like the ice and volcanoes of the land I have never seen, but feel deep in every cell. We have come to Mars, and we have brought our stories with us. And with the stories come other things.
I cough and recite a verse from the Hávamál, in the Poetic Edda. I start in Icelandic, speaking softly.
“Ungur var ek forðum, fór ek einn saman, þá varð ek villur vega; auðigur þóttumst, er ek annan fann, maður er manns gaman.”
Ralston frowns again. “What does that mean?”
I smile, certain now. They’re here, with us. They came in the ships. They are out in the dust storms, in the hidden canyons, down in the deep cracks where the ice and water and heat waits. They’re guiding us, protecting. As long as we remember this planet is their home too, give it the care we should have given to Earth, they will help us.
“Seriously, what does it mean?” says Ralston. He’s young, and I can see he’s spooked, surrounded by the tall, taciturn first-wavers. I see the dusty old blockhouse from his viewpoint, the crew looming over him, lights flickering, a strange symbol on the wall.
I smile at him. “It’s a giving of thanks.”
“For what?” he says, smiling back, uncertain.
I recite the verse again, this time in English. “Young was I once, I walked alone, and bewildered seemed in the way; then I found me another and rich I thought me, for man is the joy of man.”
David would like to acknowledge the help of several members of the Iceland subreddit who volunteered to read an early draft of this story, particularly Jón F. Any remaining errors are his own.
David Goodman is a writer of speculative and thriller fiction, based in East Lothian, Scotland. He is a member of the Edinburgh SFF writing group and is currently querying his first novel, a near future thriller set in the aftermath of severe climate change.
This is his first published short story.
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