Incident in Philly
Mars Year 7, Week 18, Day 176
(Earth Date 02.05.2086)
“You can’t keep doing this, Selena,” Gwen said, her face disapproving. “It will cause problems, big ones, between you and Stan, John, hell, even Toya.”
Selena looked away, unable to meet Gwen’s eyes. Her friend was trying to help, but she didn’t understand, not at all, and Selena chose silence rather than pointless arguing. She had met Gwen during orientation and training, the six-week program that had tested and trained them all on what to expect when they arrived at the red planet. The two had instantly bonded, which was shocking when Selena realized that, apart from the occasional childhood friend, she had had no female friends in over a decade. When was there time, after all? She had gotten pregnant with Toya while she and Stan were still in college. And then there had been the fines, imposed on any unauthorized pregnancies in New York, along with the outrageously expensive rent on their tiny, three-hundred-square-foot efficiency apartment in the massive high rise in Queens. Between both of them working full-time jobs, commuting, Selena trying to take the occasional class in order to get a degree in a few more years, and the additional early-education classes for Toya, there had been no time for friends, no time for much of anything, really.
That had all changed when Stan had sent in the application for Mars citizenship. They had the perfect combination, it seemed, his engineering skills and, inexplicably unless you had met her, Toya. At nearly five years of age, she could already speak five languages fluently, could read and write in three, and had apparently inherited her father’s mad engineering skills. Selena had been superfluous, really. Even if she were smarter than the average citizen, she didn’t have the off-the-charts I.Q. that her husband, much less her daughter, had. She had felt lucky, resentful, nervous, and intimidated all rolled into one the day she had met Gwen.
Gwen, who had suffered from early childhood cancer and rendered barren by the cancer treatments, had instantly brought Selena into her inner circle. She adored Toya, and Selena felt as if she had suddenly gained a sister, something she had longed for, raised in a family with two brothers, one older and one younger.
Gwen had been in Cryo, along with Stan and Toya, on the long journey from Earth to Mars, whilst Selena had been awake. It was the one way that the Antes family could avoid having to pay a significant fee for the emigration to their new world, since Selena didn’t have any of the higher-level skills that would benefit the Mars colony. Instead, she had worked under the Juniper’s Maintenance Manager, helped clean, prepare meals, and, in case of illness, was a backup to the ship’s Medical Officer. Basically, she was a girl Friday. It wasn’t a sexy job, but someone had to do it, and it meant that, once they arrived on the red planet, they would have a full Family Hab, one that comprised nearly four times the space they had in New York, with the potential for more add-ons if they ended up with more children. And on Mars, children were welcomed, not discouraged. This was a pleasant departure from the culturally and financially enforced One Child Act that the Reformed United States, Canada, and independent city states Alaska, Texas, and Hawaii had all implemented in recent years to alleviate the burgeoning population explosion.
It wasn’t how Selena had envisioned her life going. In college, she had dreamed of a career in the medical field, specifically, the field of life extension, which was on the cusp of ensuring that humans could live forever. It was a field of study fraught with controversy, especially in their currently overpopulated world, which was one reason she wasn’t particularly interested in having children, at least not right away. Some part of her had thought it would happen eventually, perhaps in her mid-to-late thirties. Not when she was still in college with years to go until she earned her degree.
But she had met Stan, and one thing had led to another. A few days between prescription refills and, surprise, she was pregnant. It had been Stan who had wanted Toya, arguing that he would hold down three jobs and go to school at the same time if that was what it took for Selena to keep the baby growing inside of her. Selena had agreed, although many times since wished she had gotten those promises in writing. Stan had quickly reneged on them, citing the need to finish his schooling rather than hold down so many jobs. That had meant that she ended up dropping out of college, and she had also had to work, right up until she felt labor pains at eight and a half months into her pregnancy. Stan had been smitten with Toya, so much so that Selena often wondered if he loved her half as much as he did their daughter.
All of those feelings, all the sacrifices and struggle, and trying to afford the special classes Stan insisted that Toya needed in order to “fulfill her potential” had weighed on Selena until it felt as if her back would break. The chance at a better life, even if it meant living in domes and never stepping foot outside in the thin, unforgiving Martian atmosphere, had been the only escape she could see to a lifetime of drudgery, of being second, no, third class, and so she had gone along with it.
But in those quiet hours and days of the space flight to Mars, which then stretched into weeks and months, Selena struggled with it. Alone, without her husband or daughter, who were quietly and comfortably snoozing for the six months it took to make the journey while Selena worked at menial shit jobs all so she could earn a more comfortable place for them at their destination. It had grated on her. What about her dreams?
Perhaps that was why she had allowed herself the dalliance. Not once had she looked at another man, not once in nearly six years. But John Snelling, who spent his days preparing unique experiments in zero-grav, had taken an interest in her. First, he had asked her when she would work out in the exercise cube, which wasn’t a cube so much as a large wheel, not dissimilar from a massive, human-sized hamster wheel. A requirement of one hour per day for every crew member on duty, it had helped belay the effects of the zero-gravity on board the USS Juniper.
Later he had asked her point blank to come back to his bunk with him. The bunks were narrow for one person, nearly impossible for two, but they had made it work, the dark curtains down on all sides, and he had made her scream with pleasure. It was something that had embarrassed her later, knowing any of John’s nearest bunkmates could hear them going at it like rabbits. And go after it like rabbits they did, for weeks and weeks, until Mars grew larger in the viewscreen.
Reality set in. She had a husband and a child. This was no time to end a marriage, especially if she didn’t want to end up on a return journey, scrubbing the toilets and returning to an even smaller apartment. They made them small, little more than a bed and a strip of floor 60 centimeters wide. Alone.
“We have to stop this,” she had told John one day while he hunched over his projects, absorbed in the science. And he had just shrugged and turned back to his experiments.
And a week later, after they had arrived on Mars, she had run into him in the hallway, near an empty set of Habs that were ready for two couples currently planning their commitment ceremonies. He had said nothing, just grabbed her arm and pulled her into an unlocked Hab, locked the door, pushed her up against a wall, and fucked her senseless. When they had finished, he had said nothing, and neither had she. The memory of it, however, had haunted her. It led her to seek Gwen, spilling the details of the affair in a great, gushing flood of guilt. As she watched Gwen’s reaction, Selena regretted saying anything about the affair.
Selena felt a sharp betrayal at Gwen’s response, defensive too. “I didn’t mean for it to happen, Gwen, it just…did. And John, well, he does things that Stan would never do.” She shook her head. “Stan isn’t, he just isn’t capable of it. Being with John is raw, animalistic, and being with Stan, well, it’s as if he’s mechanical, just going through the motions of sex.”
She wanted Gwen to understand, even sympathize, but her friend did not waver in her disapproval.
“Selena, this is wrong. This colony,” she said as she fluttered her fingers, “is too small for this shit. Whether or not you recognize it, we are living in a life-or-death situation, and we cannot, absolutely cannot have a situation where people are at odds with each other. The charter is clear on this.”
“The charter?” Selena asked, feeling as if Gwen had just waved a relic like the Constitution of the United States at her. They had lost the original in the nuke and accompanying firestorm that had consumed most of Washington, D.C. during the Second American Civil War. Selena had read through the Mars charter, which had caused her eyes to cross with boredom on more than one occasion. She learned enough to regurgitate the answers back up in a quiz on the subject as part of the application process, and then promptly forgot about it. Legalese, it was, with a bunch of “heretofore” thrown in for good measure. Did anyone actually remember those things?
From the shocked concern on Gwen’s face, Selena was looking at someone who definitely had.
“Selena, what you have done is a removable offense. The charter clearly states that they do not tolerate this kind of behavior, that in the event of a divorce, all parties must re-qualify for citizenship. If Stan finds out, which he will if you continue this irrational and irresponsible affair, you face being shipped back to Earth, and the accompanying fines could follow your children’s children into adulthood…if you could even afford to have any more. End this, Selena, end it now.”
She stood up then, hugged Selena, and whispered, “You don’t know how lucky you have it, Selena. Stan is wonderful, and Toya is beautiful and so amazingly bright. Don’t throw it all away.”
If only it could have been that easy. God, she had tried to be good, she really had. And she had been good. For months afterward. She thought of that conversation several weeks later as she stared at the parts of a re-breather, parts scattered all over the floor.
“Antonia Legares Antes, what in the world are you doing?” she had asked, her sharp voice snapping Toya out of her focused examination of the re-breather. The contraption was in pieces on the floor, dozens of tiny parts haphazardly rolling about on the floor.
Toya jumped, dropping a gasket. It bounced and disappeared under the bed.
“I was looking at the CO mix, Mama. I think I could torque it so that...”
Selena sighed. “We’ve talked about this. I specifically asked you to stop disassembling expensive electronics. The microwave still doesn’t work properly thanks to your tender mercies.”
“Mama, we aren’t even using the re-breathers yet,” Toya protested. “And this isn’t even an electronic.”
“And we won’t be using it now, will we?” Selena barked in frustration. She strode forward and snatched a piece of re-breather out of Toya’s small hand. “What’s next, the life support? You take curiosity too far, girl!”
Stan leaned in through the doorway. “Here, here, what’s all this?”
“Your daughter has destroyed the re-breather prototype that the Hong Kong Hab has been refining for the Eden Hab.”
“I didn’t destroy it…I took it apart!” Toya cried, her lower lip trembling. “I can put it back together, I promise.”
“Like the microwave?” Selena snapped back.
“I found the extra part. It had rolled under the couch. If you just let me fix it...”
“Enough. You’ll probably rewire it wrong and cause the damn thing to explode,” Selena interrupted, her lip curling into a sneer.
“Selena, enough.” Stan was calm, his voice firm. Selena stared daggers at him.
“I didn’t mean to break the microwave,” Toya cried, edging away from Selena and running to hide behind Stan.
Stan reached out, a warm hand on her shoulder. “I know you didn’t, sweetheart.”
“Why must you always take her side?” Selena turned on her husband, her body rigid with anger. “She blew the circuits in the bathroom yesterday right after you suggested she learn more about polarities! Which meant I was late for my shift, and you know Stryker is already riding my ass about those past-due reports on the atmospheric changes!”
Stan backed up and Selena followed, leaving Toya's bedroom behind her. Their fight wasn’t the worst they had had. They hid away in their own room, away from Toya, hissing accusations. Stan, who was normally the one who backed down from conflict, cut her to the bone with an offhanded comment about the worth of her work. As if she had wanted to drop out of college and have a child, instead of being pressured and lied to, in order for him to have his precious child. She had stomped out, slamming the door behind her, angered even more when it closed with a quiet snick. What she wouldn’t give for a door that slammed properly! On Mars, however, there was no such thing. No cheap, thin doors here. The Habs were built to last decades, if not centuries. Simple in design, unremarkable, and very long-lasting.
Twenty minutes later, at the far end of the Philadelphia Hab, in a supply closet that locked, Selena slowly released the grip her bare legs had on John Snelling’s waist. Their breaths came fast, sweat glistening on their bodies.
She let out a sigh. “Thanks, I needed that.”
Selena reached for her clothes and John leaned against the shelving and watched her, making no attempt to return to a clothed state.
“What’s your hurry?” he asked.
Avoiding his eyes, Selena fastened her bra and reached for her shirt. John’s hand closed over hers.
“I have to go. It’s time to start dinner and he’ll be expecting me back.”
John pulled her close, capturing her mouth with his. His tongue explored her mouth and Selena moaned against him. She fought the storm of need that rose to the surface, pushed him away, and met his eyes.
“What are you doing?” she asked, her voice tense.
“It’s the end of shift. Come back to my place.” He reached out, his thumb tracing her line of her jaw to where her mouth waited.
“Come back to your place? What if someone saw us?”
His other hand slid up her half-open shirt, and his eyes met hers. “And what if they did?”
She should have pulled away.
Then again, I shouldn’t even be here now.
His hands moved over her, roaming her skin, possessive. He did it as if it were his right. Stan had never touched her like that.
“Being together violates the Mars Charter, remember?”
“Fuck the charter. They won’t toss me out; the director of my department says I’m in like Flynn.” He leaned down and took hold of her nipple. A wave of anger washed over her. He was safe, just as Stan and Toya were safe, but if she broke the damn charter, they would ship her back in a heartbeat. Just two more years and she could have had her Bachelor’s and entered the Master’s program. She pushed him away, but he ignored her and pinned her hands behind her back.
“Come back to my place,” he repeated, leaning in close, his mouth exploring her neck. Selena felt a wave of desire crest over her.
“Can’t? Or won’t?” He pulled away. “I’m tired of screwing you in supply closets and service elevators, Selena. I’m done creeping around.”
“I’m married, John.”
He pulled his pants up, fastening them without a glance in her direction. “Uh, huh? Okay.” He slid back into his shirt. His muscled arms made the tattoo dragon draped down each of them twist and roll as his shoulders straightened.
He turned away and put his hand on the door latch, unlocking it. “You let me know when you grow tired of pretending to be the happily married wife.”
He turned back and smiled at her. “Already did that.” The door closed behind him before she could think of a snappy comeback.
The man was infuriating.
Alone in the closet, Selena snarled in frustration. She straightened her shirt and bent down to slip on her socks and shoes. Her fingers slowed.
Toya and Stan are brilliant. Two peas in pod, those two. And me? I’m the asshole who feels stupid and lacking.
She slid down onto the floor and lost herself in memories. Toya had been smart since the beginning. No telegraphic speech for that kid, oh no. Full sentences at eighteen months, reading at two. And the languages. Hell, Stan only counted them when Toya was fluent, but their daughter had a working knowledge of at least twenty now. She had downloaded a Mandarin dictionary onto her tablet last week. No wonder that damned teacher didn’t know what to do with her!
And the constant tinkering. Selena closed her eyes.
Why can’t I be the bigger person? Why can’t I encourage my child and be more selfless?
Toya was brilliant. Selena could remember Stan whispering about her in their darkened room in New York. Whispering so their precocious four-year-old couldn’t hear him through the paper-thin walls of their apartment. He had never told Selena that she was brilliant or that she could change the world, but the sun rose and set over Toya. It was because of Stan’s genius in engineering that they had the opportunity to move to Mars. But the colony board had asked them plenty of details about Toya, enough that Selena was sure her brilliant daughter had been the deciding factor in their application being approved.
Some opportunity. To live and die in these man-made Habs where Mars dust crept into everything.
Sometimes she was sure she could taste the dust, like grit in her food, despite Stan telling her it was just her imagination.
Selena had been ambivalent about the change of scenery. She wasn’t much of a walk in the woods or hike up the mountain gal. Selena had grown up within New York, making excursions to the uncrowded beyond a handful of times, usually on school field trips. The trees and grass had made her sneeze. The trip out to Mars had startled her only in her willingness to have an affair. It was as if boarding the ship had changed all the rules and she was free to be reckless, impulsive, and sexy.
Sexy. Stan never made me feel that way.
Sex had been their connector. Animal need, the feel of the hunt, or the one being hunted, had consumed them both. John was single, with no attachments, and he had not indicated that he even wanted attachments.
What was she doing with John, anyway?
Stan’s position had garnered them the full twelve hundred feet of living space that most people dreamed of. And here, if they had more children, there were no penalties, zero, and they had additional spokes they could add to the Family Hab to create a room for each child.
“Imagine, Selena, we could make more brilliant babies, a little brother or sister for Toya!” Stan had practically gushed. Wasn’t that supposed to be something she would say?
As if he had to do anything more than come in me. I’d be doing all of my work plus that of growing another child.
And they hadn’t exactly discussed it, but having a child who was born on Mars meant consigning them to Mars forever. Toya was young enough that she could return. A few rounds of intensive physical therapy and she would be fine. But a fetus developing entirely in one-third gee? That child could never leave this planet. And this planet wouldn’t be habitable for centuries. What kind of life was that?
Selena closed her eyes. She was trapped. She had filled out the paperwork right alongside her husband, signing her future away on a hundred different lines, over dozens of pages, without once even having the discussion. Stan was blissfully unaware of her angst. After all, his dream had always been to live here and–with his own high IQ and Toya’s brilliant future–he couldn’t imagine any other future.
He can’t even conceptualize that I might have dreams of my own. But then, really, did I? Did I even have dreams?
It had been such a long time since she had even had a wish independent of the here and now.
I dreamed of having a husband and family. And I got one. I dreamed of having a home with room to breathe, and I got one, even if it is on another planet.
The problem was, she didn’t really know what she wanted. All she knew was that it wasn’t this life. And now here she was. Selena covered her face with her hands. She could smell John on them. A musky smell. It brought the memory back of the first time she had sought him out on Mars, a full month after their wordless encounter and shortly after a fight with Stan.
Well, not a fight per se, since Stan never really fought. He would simply react in that oh so hurt way of his, which always seems to point to what a fuckup I am.
She had left the Family Hab and instead of turning right to go to the greenhouse, she had turned left, heading for the electrical engineering lab where John worked. He had been there alone and hadn’t seemed at all surprised when she marched in, grabbed his hand, and pulled him into the supply closet.
The sex had been phenomenal. Animalistic, raw, almost violent. Sex unlike anything she had ever encountered before.
With John, there was this storm of need. And with Stan? It was more like a pleasant stroll. Something you got used to, something you took for granted. And now John wanted more. This was unexpected yet...exciting.
Selena stood up, adjusted her shirt, and left the confines of the supply closet. She knew what she wanted, and she didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. The door clicked shut behind her as she headed towards the Singles Hab section.
Hours later, it was the alarms blaring that woke Selena first, with John a close second. They lay tangled together in his sheets, the room's night lighting strips turned from white to red.
ALL HANDS REPORT TO EMERGENCY STATIONS
The colony’s artificial intelligence, NARA, was normally a calm, modulated female voice. Combined with the raucous blare of the alarm, however, her neutral tone took on a sharper edge, conveying an additional level of urgency.
Most of the colony remained on a diurnal schedule, with a skeleton crew handling evening tasks and monitoring of the station. For an emergency, however, all colonists responded. Any children were collected and deposited in the education lab section of the Hab, and all able-bodied adults knew their assigned places.
“Christ, we had a drill last week,” John griped, reaching for his shirt.
Selena pulled her long hair back and clipped it in place. Something in her gut told her it wasn’t a drill. Her feet bare, she wrenched on her shirt and pants and ran for the door.
“Shit, Selena, wait!” John’s voice cut off as the door slipped shut behind her. She ignored Bob Levitz and his surprised leer in the hallway as she sped past him and cut to the right, towards the family wing. She didn’t get far.
Placed at regular intervals throughout each of the Mars Habs were emergency airlocks. Redundancy on top of redundancy, they served as the last line of protection. If a section of the Hab experienced a malfunction, fire, or emergency that would damage or destroy the rest of the Hab, the emergency airlocks immediately locked.
Selena saw the red light and, skidding to a stop too late, slammed painfully into the closed doors.
“Selena, Christ!” Gwen, part of the medical team, called to her, out of breath from running. “Wait, why you are out here and not...”
“Not what? Not what, Gwen?” Selena reached for the doors. Her fingers scrabbled to reach the override controls as her arms were grabbed from behind. “Let me go!”
Others held her fast. Selena was lifted out of the way as two fully suited figures appeared around the bend, med kits and emergency oxygen equipment in hand. Selena struggled in Gwen’s grasp and felt another body join the fray, pushing her down and against the wall.
The suits reached for the keypad, entering the override codes necessary to open the first set of doors. They passed through and the doors slid shut behind them. Seconds later, they moved through the second set and disappeared from view.
“Let me go!”
“Selena, Christ, stop fighting us. They are suited up and going in now. Just stop,” Gwen said, her voice steely and hard at the edges.
“What the hell is going on?” John’s voice cut through the scuffle.
“The O2 levels hit rock bottom in the southwest spoke of the Family Habs,” one of the team barked. “A recovery team is going in now.”
Recovery team. Selena screamed wordlessly. She understood what it meant.
More people were arriving, including a second team of medics. Gwen tried to soothe Selena, to calm her down, but Selena squirmed and thrashed, desperate to get through the airlock. She would hold her breath, she knew she could. Just a few hundred feet to reach Stan and Toya and then to return.
A syringe flashed. “Hold her still, damn it.” Selena's bare feet scrabbled for purchase against the slick, cold floor of the hallway. The blast of air from the airlock had felt wrong, empty, and a painful throb had begun behind her eyes. She felt the needle slide into her skin.
Toya and Stan need me.
The effects of the sedative were immediate, a warm lassitude spreading through her, and she could feel her body turn to rubber. Her feet were heavy, her arms and legs useless, her mind full of sludge.
Gwen watched her friend go limp, a look of fury spreading across her face. After all this time, Selena hadn’t listened after all. She had been screwing John Snelling behind Stan’s back. Gentle, kind Stan, who didn’t deserve that kind of betrayal. John was standing over Selena, his face twisted with guilt as he looked at her, at Gwen, and then quickly away. Gwen bit back the words of recrimination crawling up her throat and instead said, “You’d better go with her to the infirmary; she’s going to need someone there when she wakes up.” She turned away before she acted on the impulse to punch the bastard in the face.
The recovery team was just that–they aimed to recover. The sensors told the story all too clearly. The chance that the two spokes had anything but the dead occupying the two Family Habs was false hope.
The recovery team, by a stroke of luck, entered the Antes Family Hab first. And there, at the kitchen table, was the body of Stan Antes, slumped over, a screwdriver on the floor just inches from his limp hand. Toya was just a few feet away, crumpled on her side, turned away from the door.
One man leaned over and checked Stan. His body was already cooling. “He’s gone.”
His partner Jack knelt by Toya’s side and gently turned her on her back. As he did, a re-breather, partially over her mouth, slid off and clattered to the floor. He reached for her. She was limp but still warm, her pulse stuttering, her lips blue.
“Oh shit, she’s still alive! I’ve got a pulse, barely there, but she’s alive!” He fitted the emergency oxygen mask over her tiny face and activated it. Toya’s face was slack, unmoving, her eyes closed.
“Take her out through the airlock, stat!”
Jack lifted the girl up and raced outside of the Family Hab to the airlock. Seconds later, he had her through both sets of doors and into the arms of a medic.
“When I picked her up, one of the prototype re-breathers fell from her face,” he explained as they loaded her onto a gurney and headed for the infirmary. “It wasn’t completely covering her mouth, but she had a pulse!”
Moments later, his partner emerged from the airlock. He shook his head. “The rest are dead. I’ve replaced the malfunctioning sensor and the oxygen levels will be back to normal soon. We have four dead. All three from the Boyers family and Stan Antes.”
They would determine later that this tiny advantage, a machine that was only functioning at a fractional capacity at the moment that the O2 levels had fallen to such dangerous levels, was the only thing that had kept the girl from dying with the rest. Just the tiniest amount of air had saved the little girl’s life. It wasn’t enough to prevent significant brain damage brought on by the oxygen deprivation, but it had been enough to keep her alive.
The investigation took less than a week. A malfunctioning sensor had failed to send error codes on lowered oxygen levels in the Family Habs. This had led to a cascade of errors in which the O2 levels went up and then down precipitously in the evening hours. It was what had caused the headaches in the Antes family, and most likely the Boyers as well, which they would have experienced off and on for weeks.
“What I don’t understand is how the daily reports showed these failures, and yet no one noticed them,” Myra Stryker asked. As one of the senior colonists on staff, she served as the Investigational Committee’s chairperson.
Two of the night techs had immediately confessed. They were new, off the latest shuttle, and therefore at the bottom of the pecking order for optimal shifts. After weeks and then months of smooth sailing, they had become inattentive, and they had not reviewed the evening reports.
The backup sensor had worked intermittently, a tiny failure point in the connection providing correct readings most of the time, but failing more often in the evenings, after dinner, or even later, after most were in bed. Keyed to the environmental system’s check that ran at 2200 hours each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, it flittered off and then on again.
Anyone looking at the board or reading the weekly reports would have seen it. But as with all incidents such as these–and what a lovely understatement it was for the catastrophe they now faced–it was one that follows inattention. The neglect, the departure from scheduled reviews of reports, had spawned from the newness of an affair consummated in the dark corners of the Control Room. They were a skeleton crew of junior techs low on the totem pole whose newness earned them the unpopular shifts. Here they had endured weeks and months of incident-free nights, and with it no small level of boredom.
It had bred no indifference, but a level of presumption, that their tiny, fragile world would continue to perform without hiccup or failure.
And while two techs, bored with the monotony of quiet halls and repetitious reports, had momentarily deserted their posts for a quick bump and grind, two families would forever pay the price.
In retrospect, Selena felt like an idiot for not having reported her headaches, sweating, and occasional confusion. Stan had said nothing about his, although she was sure he must have experienced them, but she remembered Toya out of breath and wheezing the morning before the incident. Textbook symptoms of hypoxia. She had written it off as a play for attention or even an escape from school.
Stan Antes, along with all three members of the Boyers family, were dead. And Toya, a brilliant child with her entire future in front of her, had spent more than a week recovering in the infirmary. Her brain had been permanently damaged. Selena’s brilliant daughter was no longer brilliant.
If Gwen was surprised to see Selena in the examination room a few weeks later, she didn’t show it. She walked in and made eye contact with Selena briefly. The quick shift to focusing on her tablet sent an obvious message. They weren’t friends anymore. Selena felt a stab of hurt but kept her expression neutral. It wouldn’t do any good to appeal to the friendship that she and Gwen had shared, not considering how things had turned out.
Gwen was all business, her attention focused on her tablet, her voice professional yet aloof.
“Good morning, Selena, what brings you here today?”
Selena struggled to keep her voice even. “I need verification of a pregnancy test.”
Gwen raised her eyes from her tablet and stared at Selena. “I see.” She set down the tablet and stood silent, her lips compressed in a thin line that Selena had seen when Gwen was most troubled or fighting to maintain her composure. “Well then, you need nothing from me. I’ll send in Annie to get the verification you require.” She turned to go and said, “Congratulations. I’m sure Stan would have been delighted.” Her voice was icy, brittle.
Selena’s voice cracked. “It isn’t Stan’s, Gwen. And you know it. That’s why I came here to you. I need an Exception.”
A Pregnancy Exception, especially one that would keep a colonist on the planet and ensure that any children born to them were permanent Mars citizens, had been invoked only once before. Selena had broken the colony’s charter, but an Exception would keep her on Mars.
Gwen’s eyes betrayed her fury, while her voice remained calm. “And is the father of the child prepared to take responsibility?”
“Once a DNA scan verifies paternity, I hope so. If not, well, that’s what the Exception is for.” Selena’s voice quavered only slightly in the face of her former friend’s wrath. The only chance she had at a decent life, one that didn’t include living out the rest of her life in an efficiency apartment the size of a closet where she could hear her neighbors breathing above, below, and on three sides of her, was in forcing John Snelling’s hand. Toya wasn’t just damaged, her future had been stripped from her, and if she returned to Earth, it would take time and money for her body to recover from living at this half-gravity, both things that Selena would struggle to provide for her child. Staying on Mars was the best thing for Selena, Toya, and this child growing inside her.
“Fine, well, let’s get on with it.” Gwen motioned to the exam table.
Selena climbed up and laid back, moving her shirt away from her pants and slipping the waistband of her pants down to expose her tiny pooch. The baby was still tiny, perhaps only a kidney bean in size, but it was her ticket to staying on Mars, something she had not even wanted three months ago. How things had changed!
Gwen removed a device from the cabinet on the far side of the narrow room. “The sensor will enter via a tiny needle into the uterus, test the fetus, and give us a full DNA sample to compare with the records we have for both you and Mr. Snelling. Before we begin, please be aware that this procedure has a .01% chance of causing a miscarriage. Do you consent?”
She said it impersonally, and Selena felt her heart plummet. Of all the people she valued, Gwen, and Gwen’s opinion of her, mattered. She was the first woman friend Selena had since adulthood, and the only friend she had here on Mars. Since the incident, the rest of the colony had retreated, and she had rarely seen anyone, except at work. She was a pariah now.
“Yes.” She forced it out and did her best to hide the tears welling up in her eyes. Gwen had been clear, and she hadn’t listened, and now she had to live with the situation she had caused.
Thirty minutes later, she knocked on John’s door in the west singles corridor. He came to the door, his hair tousled. He liked to sleep in on his days off, sometimes until noon. She handed him the scan results.
“Come in.” He opened the door wider.
“They have issued me an Exception, so I can stay on Mars. There’s nothing for me back on Earth,” she said, taking a seat on his bunk.
“Unnecessary,” he said, forcing a smile on his face. “I’ll marry you and acknowledge the child.”
“It’s a boy,” she pointed out. The genetic details of their future child were clear. “He will have your brown eyes and brown hair and probably be taller than me by his mid-teens. There’s also a 78% chance he will be left-handed.”
John chuckled. “A boy. I want to call him Leonard, after my dad, maybe Lenny, for short."
She didn’t love him, and he didn’t love her. That was crystal clear. This would keep them in a Family Hab, the same one where Stan had died. A future here on Mars. It was, after all, the best she could hope for.
John put a hand on her belly and stared at it. “I never planned on being a father. But I’ll do the best I can, Selena. For you and for him.” He didn’t mention Toya, and her heart ached with sadness, a cloud of guilt thick inside her. Toya had been asking for Stan, and she couldn’t bear to tell her daughter the truth yet. She was still hoping that Toya would recover, come back from the blank, uncomprehending look she had on her face as she struggled to re-learn how to walk, talk, and more. The memories were still there, but all the foreign languages the girl had known, her keen sense of curiosity and wizardry with mechanical objects, that was all gone too. Possibly forever, her mind damaged beyond repair, thanks to the eleven minutes of little or no oxygen.
It would take six weeks for Toya to learn how to walk again, and another three months before she learned other simple tasks.
By that time, Selena had remarried. Her belly had grown and, while she was still kept at arm’s length by most, marrying John had helped return her status to one of quasi-legitimacy. Gwen had insisted on farming out her prenatal care to Annie, obviously unwilling to interact with her until there was no other option.
Selena sat herself down on the couch and patted the cushion next to her. “Toya, it’s time to practice reading.”
Toya slowly sat down next to her. Every limb in Toya’s body looked stiff and miserable. She stared up at Selena, her lip quivering. “It’s hard. Why is it so hard, Mama?”
Selena reached out and stroked her daughter’s hair. “It will get better, Toya.”
Toya stared at Selena’s belly, now full and round. “I’m stupid now.”
“You aren’t stupid.”
“The baby is going to be smarter than me.”
Selena sighed. “I love you, Toya. Somehow, it’s going to get better. I promise.”
God help me, somehow, it's easier to love her now that she's simpler.
Selena opened the tablet to Rebecca the Raccoon Saves the White House. “Come on, sweetheart, I’ll read the page on the left and you read the page on the right.”
“Okay, I guess.” Toya leaned against her, tucking herself against Selena, something she hadn’t done since she was tiny.
“Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States of America. He and his wife, Grace, and their two sons lived in a large mansion called the White House...”
Read the rest of G581: Mars by clicking on the links below!
©2021 by Christine Shuck - Author, Artist, and General Malcontent. Proudly created with Wix.com