Excerpt for Space Cadets: Mars by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Space Cadets: Mars

Steven Jon Halasz

Copyright 2018 Steven Jon Halasz

Hennu and Marcu did take Eric—the anaconda that is—with them to Mars, along with four circular acrylic “pie cages” each holding eleven medium-sized rats. A dozen or so rats would be needed to feed Eric during the long trip, and as for the rest, they were for breeding after their arrival on the planet. Assuming that the snake’s “parents” could scrape together enough food to sustain the rodents at the Martian station without depriving themselves of too much in the way of precious calories, Eric could be kept fat and happy.

Besides Eric himself, they needed to take food for the rats, that being two kilograms of “lab blocks” formulated to provide correct nutrition. If the rats didn’t get proper nourishment, Eric wouldn’t either.

All in all, it took up the better part of their very limited baggage allowance, but they could not bring themselves to leave their beloved pet behind. Hennu cut back on cosmetics and toiletries in favor of an adequate supply of spare underwear, while Marcu settled for one pair of jeans and left his faux sheepskin jacket behind as well.

The three month trip to Mars, spent jammed into spare, cramped quarters, eating space food, enduring small talk with fellow travelers, reading novels, studying technical manuals and re-watching the occasional old movie, was a routine guaranteed to test the boredom threshold of anyone who was not young and in love. But Marcu and Hennu did happen to find themselves in that happy state, and so passed the days and weeks in a cheerful frame of mind. Freed from the burden of earthly gravity, they frolicked like giddy monkeys, insofar as this was possible within the confines of the spacecraft. They tethered themselves in surprising places when reading or studying, no bodily position too unusual or improbable for them not to attempt it. Sometimes they were back to back, like bookends, but with one of them pointed “up” and the other pointed “down”, or the other way around depending on what you considered to be up and down with no planetary point of reference. Other times they dangled together like two bats hanging one from the other on the roof of a cave while Eric wriggled around them like a slithering vine.

One passenger, an older Martian originally from Tanzania who was returning to the planet after a year-long sabbatical on Earth, commented when they had been en route for several weeks, “You two chimpanzees are making me dizzy! Why can’t you just velcro yourselves in one place for a while? My, my, you make quite a circus, the three of you!”

The woman’s name was Kitoto and she had been on Mars for thirty years. Hennu liked her because she was always ready with a good story to tell. “I’ve never seen a chimpanzee,” replied Hennu, “not a real one, just the VR ones in the zoo.”

“Oh!” said Kitoto, “Well, let me tell you, those VR chimps are nothing like the real ones, not at all! When I was a child growing up in Kigoma, my father used to take us along Lake Tanganyika to the Mahale Mountains. He used to say, ‘Children, we are going to see your cousins!’ We knew what he meant. We were going to see the chimpanzees!”

Hennu was fascinated. “What were they like?”

“Why, they were just like you two!” replied Kitoto. “Acting up and all that. The first time I saw one, he was in a tree, eating a bungo fruit. He took a few bites of it, then dropped it on the ground. I shouted up to him, ‘Hey, cousin, how come you waste your food like that!’ He scrambled down out of that tree and ran straight at me. I screamed and my heart was about to stop! But then he ran right by me, slapping the ground like he was saying, ‘Don’t you tell me how to eat my bungo, you big crazy thing!’ Then I said to him, ‘You run, cousin, don’t go slapping around the ground at me, you hairy ape!’ And he did run. He ran away and didn’t bother me no more.”

“That’s not like me,” protested Hennu. “I don’t waste my food.”

“I hope not,” said Kitoto. “On Mars, if you waste food, somebody is unhappy. There’s enough to keep away the ache for it, and not so much more.”

Hennu noticed that the woman was fairly round and plump. “You don’t look like you’re starving,” she said.

“That’s because I’ve been on Earth for a year,” said Kitoto, laughing. “I’ve been saving up as much fat as I can to last me for a while. Now you, you and that other monkey friend of yours, you don’t look like you’ve put on enough to last very long on Martian food. But maybe you brought some of your own? You spend some time on Mars, that snake is going to look mighty delicious, I say.”

The idea of eating their pet was revolting to the couple and they both looked shocked. “I don’t think we’ll get that hungry,” said Marcu.

“Hmmm,” said Kitoto, nodding. “We’ll see. We’ll see.”

* * *

After the tiresome journey, no one on board was sorry to view the roseate bulge of Tharsis looming large in the passenger lounge window as the Mars cruiser entered orbit around the rust-colored planet. In another twelve hours, a shuttle would rise up from the ruddy surface carrying earth-bound passengers, then exchange them for the newly arrived Martians coming down to the small colony perched on the eastern tip of Valles Marineris. Later, the cruiser would disgorge an autonomous lander containing their baggage and the colony’s bi-annual delivery of equipment, materials and supplies before heading back, leaving the earthlings to fend for themselves until another ship arrived six months later.

Hennu and Marcu were in their quarters busily packing their bags when Kitoto came to them. “Hennu, dear,” she said, “I need to speak to you for a moment.”

“What is it?” asked Hennu.

“Can you come to my room?” asked the woman. “There’s something we need to have a little talk about.”

Hennu looked at Marcu, who shrugged, then Hennu replied, “If it won’t take too long.”

“No, just a few minutes,” said the woman. “Long enough to have a cup of tea.”

When they got to Kitoto’s room, the woman shut the door behind them. “Sit down, child,” she said, offering a chair. She ordered tea and cookies, then retrieved them from the food service portal, placed them on a small table and sat down herself.

Kitoto had a very serious look on her face. “Hennu,” she said, “I need to speak to you about what you might expect on Mars.”

“We know it will be, well, primitive,” said Hennu. “We’ve seen the videos.”

“You see, my dear,” said Kitoto, “there are things that they don’t show you in the videos. For instance, did you know that there are twice as many men on Mars as there are women?”

Hennu was taken aback. It took a moment for the information to sink in, then her face became sober and she asked, “What difference does that make?”

Kitoto laughed. “Most of the men are very decent and respectful of women. A few aren’t. A few believe that women exist only for their pleasure.”

“They won’t, they wouldn’t...” said Hennu, her voice conveying her growing discomfort with what Kitoto was trying to tell her.

“Just be cautious, and be firm when you say no,” said Kitoto. “There’s one man, though, that you don’t ever want to be alone with. His name is Vodor, Vodor Lund. He’s the lieutenant commander of the station. Everyone knows his reputation and Commander Chunhua Zeng keeps a close watch on him, but he is sly. Just stay away from him. And, just in case…”

She took a silver chain from around her neck. On the end of it hung a six centimeter long giraffe carved in ebony. With a sudden tug on the head, it came apart, revealing a gleaming white pointed blade. “It’s ceramic,” said Kitoto, “sharper and harder than a shark’s tooth.” She put the knife back in its sheath and handed it to Hennu. “Keep it with you. I don’t need it. No one messes with me anymore. But be careful. It will poke or slice through thick leather like soft butter. It will take your finger clean off too. Don’t take it out unless you mean business. I never had to use it, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Hennu held the giraffe for a few seconds, contemplating it, then said simply, “Thank you.”

When she returned to their room, she held it up to show Marcu. “She gave me this,” she said.

“Nice,” said Marcu.

“No, not so nice,” said Hennu, then she carefully slid it open. “A kind of African charm,” she said. “It keeps men from bothering you.”

Marcu was startled, but then agreed with that assessment. “I guess it would,” he said.

* * *

When the shuttle had docked with the cruiser, the travelers who were coming aboard to return to earth mingled briefly with those who were waiting to replace them on Mars. Hennu was surprised and a little concerned when she saw how pale and tired-looking the departing passengers were. Their clothes were stained in places and seemed worn out, and when they waved their arms about, trying to maneuver in the unfamiliar weightlessness, they appeared to Hennu for all the world like zombies from some antique horror film.

Marcu noticed the look on her face and tried to reassure her. “They’ve been here for six years,” he said. “We’ll only be here for one. We won’t end up like that.”

“I hope not,” said Hennu.

The short trip down to planet went smoothly, and then Marcu and Hennu found their way from the shuttle dock through the common areas of the station to their apartment. They knew well enough what to expect, as the details of their accommodations had been explained to them, but even so, they stood together for a moment in a state of dismay as the reality of it sank in.

The room was small, two meters wide by four meters long and just two meters high. Marcu was 188 centimeters tall, and while that left enough clearance for him overhead, he could not leap for joy, or for any other reason, without smashing his head. Gravity on Mars being much less than on Earth, he would certainly need to be careful to avoid any exuberant movements in the vertical direction.

There were no windows. Two small cots sat at one end of the room, while the toilet, sink and shower were placed at the other. In the central area, a small table, two simple chairs, a countertop and small electronic oven completed the appointments. Everything in the room was gray and shabby.

“Where do we keep our clothes?” asked Hennu.

Marcu went to the cots, and finding two shallow plastic boxes slipped underneath, pulled one out. “In here, I guess,” he replied. “Good thing we didn’t bring much.”

Hennu sighed. “I need a shower,” she said.

“I’ll go have a look around,” said Marcu. “I’m getting restless about this place already. The cargo lander will arrive soon. Maybe I can get our stuff.”

The narrow walkway along the residence quarters was just wide enough for Marcu to move through without brushing the walls, but passing into a large, domed lounge relieved his creeping sense of claustrophobia somewhat. A narrow window running along one side of the lounge gave a view of the Martian landscape. A few people were gathered by it, staring out, so he went over to them.

Standing in front of him was a young woman who must have seen his reflection in the window glass. She spoke to him without turning around. “You’re new,” she said.

“We’re interns,” replied Marcu. “We’re here for a year.”

“We?” she asked.

“Me and my girlfriend. We were at Space Academy together,” replied Marcu.

“I see,” she said.

She had spiky bright orange hair like a manga and her fingernails were painted neon green. He caught a whiff of a strong but not especially unpleasant scent coming from her that he thought smelled of rotting apples, but with a hint of lemon.

“What are we supposed to be looking at?” he asked.

She still didn’t turn to him, but he could see her looking at his reflection in the glass. “The cargo lander should be arriving soon,” she replied. “Here on Mars, we don’t have football, so you have to entertain yourself however you can. It’s our bi-annual happening. The glider will be coming down from right to left, just there, over that large rocky outcrop.” She pointed to an enormous boulder that jutted out from the Martian surface about a kilometer away. The colony itself was built in a large cavern to protect it from radiation. The window looked out over the alien landscape through the wide, flat mouth of the cave.

“How long have you been here?” asked Marcu.

“Born here,” she replied. “Martian through and through. Never been to earth.”

Looking at her from the back, he could believe it. She was pale and plump, the result of minimal exposure to sunlight and a life spent in low gravity. “What do you do?” he asked.

“Eat, sleep, read, dance,” she replied.

“You don’t work?” asked Marcu.

“Everyone works, but it’s not what I do”, she replied. “What do you do?”

He thought about it a moment, then replied, “Nothing.”

“Well,” she said, “you’d better find something or you’ll go nuts in this place.”

He had been on the planet for less than an hour, but it was enough for him to conclude that she was probably right.

Before long, Hennu arrived in the lounge and came up to Marcu, taking hold of his elbow. “What is everyone looking at?” she asked.

“Cargo lander is coming,” Marcu informed her, then presented her to his new acquaintance. “This is Hennu,” he said, “and I’m Marcu. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name?”

The woman turned, finally, and offered to shake hands. “Kalene,” she said. “Glad to meet you.” Then she looked curiously at Hennu, noticing that her hair was damp and her face glowing. “Had a shower?” she asked.

“Yes,” replied Hennu. “Weightlessness is fun, but gravity does have its advantages.”

“Got a rich uncle, do you?” remarked Kalene.

This question led Marcu to check their utility bill on his phone, then he said to Hennu, “You used ten credits worth of water.”

Hennu’s face took on a glum look. “That’s what we budgeted for water for a whole week!” she whined.

Just then the station made an announcement, “Cargo drone touchdown in two minutes.” Soon after that, the spectators could just make out a tiny speck coming over the horizon that slowly grew larger and larger.

“Uh oh,” said Kalene. “Too low.”

A few seconds later, as the large, inflatable V-wing skimmed over the rocky outcrop, a spray of dust and gravel shot out from under the suspended cargo container as it scraped the edge of a cliff. The lander began to wobble out of control, seemed for a moment like it was going to straighten out, but then the nose pitched up and the rear of the container struck the landing area. The metal box broke apart as it cartwheeled down the runway, scattering its contents in all directions.

“Oh fudge,” said Kalene.

“My underwear!” shouted Hennu.

“Eric!” cried Marcu.

* * *

Miraculously, Eric survived the crash, but most of the rats had disappeared into the Martian wasteland, their cages broken open and empty. Because Eric would only eat rodents and the survivors were the first rodentia to be brought to Mars, those few would need to reproduce to keep Eric alive.

The three survivors consisted of two females and one male. This was good luck, because there was a one in four chance that they would all be the same sex. Having two females was doubly lucky because it was just as likely that there would be two males and one female. With two females, the population would grow more rapidly.

Each female could be expected to give birth to six pups within a month and produce a new litter every month or so after that. Those babies would mature and start having their own babies about a month later. If they all survived, there would be well over a thousand of the prolific mammals after just one year.

But of course, there would never be so many. Eric would be eating some of them, for one thing. Fortunately, snakes can, by reducing their metabolic rate, go for months without eating and so Eric would be able to survive easily until the first litter. Then they could start feeding him some of the male rats, because having fewer males would not slow down the growth of the population. Starting with the next litter, they would feed him females, to help to keep the population from exploding out of control.

Food would be another restraining factor. The supply of lab blocks had been scattered across the Martian landscape and retrieving them was considered impractical, so Eric’s humans would need to scrounge for garbage however they could.

Hennu was sitting at their small dining table, staring at her phone and considering all this while Marcu prepared the evening meal. Neither of the two young adults was much of a cook, but it didn’t matter, because preparing meals on Mars was more of an engineering exercise than a culinary one. Marcu weighed out and rehydrated several different dried soy and seed nutriments, each one cleverly seasoned and processed to approximate traditional human foods. They were having soy-based “chicken” that night, which was said to strongly resemble the flavor and texture of cooked poultry, though they could not say for sure whether this was true or not as few people had actually eaten birds in a very long time. To go with this, Marcu selected some palmaria palmata seaweed, supposed to taste like the fried back meat of hogs and so universally referred to as “bacon”. A generous portion of artificially flavored chia pudding for dessert would supply essential fiber.

Hennu looked up from her phone. “There’s a report on the lander crash,” she said. She turned on the speaker and they listened to the podcast together.

Colonists, you are probably aware that our robotic agricultural units have been falling behind on critical maintenance for several years now, placing a strain on our ability to produce foodstuffs. While we have not suffered shortages up to now, by last year we had reached the point where this maintenance could no longer be put off without risk of going into food deficit. Accordingly, we had budgeted for a generous supply of titanium powder for use in our DMLS 3d printers so we could make replacement parts. Unfortunately, now that the landing craft incident recovery activities have been completed, and after analyzing the materials recovered, we have determined that the titanium powder included in the shipment is contaminated and a total loss. Rather than waiting for our supplies to run out, we will be ordering a food rationing regimen to begin once the agriculture committee has worked out the details of a plan of action.

No one needs to be alarmed by this development. The colony’s dietary scientists have a good understanding of human nutritional needs and have assured us that we can tolerate up to a twenty percent reduction in caloric intake with no adverse health effects. In fact, for many of us, the reduction will make us more healthy, though we will surely experience greater feelings of hunger as a result. Colonists are urged to make use of medical services should any issues arise.

Eric was lying quietly in his cage, as he always did when he wasn’t feeding or being handled by his owners, calmly unaware of the dire threat that this news posed to his existence. Hennu and Marcu both looked at their pet. They were thinking the same thing. Keeping Eric alive was going to be a challenge in the best of circumstances, but now it had become just that much more difficult.

“I wonder if Kitoto is right,” said Hennu. “Will we get hungry enough that we’ll be tempted to eat him?”

“Not us, I don’t think,” replied Marcu. “But as for the other people on this planet, who knows? Most of them have never eaten meat, but maybe some of them have a taste for it.” He looked up at the ceiling, then said, “Room, make sure nobody steals our snake.”

“I will do what I can,” replied the room, “but there are a number of people in colony who have the right to override your orders.”

This came as a surprise to the couple. “Really?” asked Hennu. “Who?”

“Anyone at grade 13 or higher,” replied the room.

That gave Marcu a start. “That would include, for example, Lieutenant Commander Lund?” he asked. Hennu had told him about Kitoto’s warning.

“Yes, certainly,” replied the room.

“And in that case,” continued Marcu, “would you tell us about it?”

“Not always,” said the room. “Disclosure can be blocked for security reasons.”

Hennu reflexively touched the ebony giraffe hanging around her neck and Marcu looked at her with deep concern in his eyes. “If you need to,” he said, “use it.”

* * *

“Status, please,” Hennu requested.

“Status nominal,” replied the AI.

While Marcu’s internship was going as expected, Hennu hadn’t had any luck getting work as an assayer as she had hoped. Kalene, however, used her influence to get Hennu a job as her assistant in the agricultural section. It didn’t pay much, but Hennu hoped that at least she would be able to keep up the payments on the water bill. She had cut back to twice a week on her showers, but she wasn’t ready to give them up completely.

The “job”, though, was turning out to be more boring than she could ever have imagined. The machines did all the work, and she and Kalene just sat there and watched. “I don’t know why you need an assistant,” asked Hennu after three hours of observing robots go about their mind-numbing routines. “There doesn’t seem to be much of anything for one person to do, let alone two.”

“That’s why I need an assistant,” replied Kalene. “To keep from going crazy. I read a lot, but I’ve read just about everything there is, some of it more than once. I figure I’ve saved up ten years worth of backlogged conversations I’ve been hoping to have with someone some day. You’ll do just fine, so long as you can stand my jibber jabber.”

Hennu wasn’t sure she could, but made up her mind that, if that’s what the job required, she would do whatever it took. She and Marcu really needed the money. “No problem,” she said. “It’s good to have someone to talk to who knows their way around the colony.” That much, at least, was true.

“So Space Academy,” said Kalene, her tone of voice showing that she was impressed by it. “That’s something, but how did you end up here, with no job?”

“I wanted to be with Marcu,” replied Hennu. “He’s interning as a geologist. Nothing interested me that much, except being with him.”

“That’s sweet,” said Kalene sincerely. “Good luck with that. Maybe he’s different from most men.”

“He is,” said Hennu. “Do you have anyone?”

“No one serious,” replied Kalene. “I’m still waiting for the right man to come to Mars.”

“Have you tried matching?” asked Hennu.

“I did once,” replied Kalene. “But who wants to come to this gnarly planet? Hardly anyone.”

“You could go to earth,” suggested Hennu.

“Not a chance,” said Kalene. “I’ve lived my whole life in one-third gravity. I don’t think I could ever adjust to Earth. Anyway, I’m used to life on Mars. Earth just seems weird. Sometimes I think I want someone to love me, but mostly I do just fine with things as they are. It seems so unreliable, love. Here today, gone tomorrow.”

Hennu had never considered the prospect that Marcu might lose interest in her. It seemed like an impossibility, but a part of her brain knew that people did grow tired of each other, and that, in fact, they did so more often than not. The thought unsettled her.

“Marcu loves me,” said Hennu, as much to herself as to the other.

Kalene was sympathetic. “I’m sure he does,” she said sincerely.

The were silent for a while, just watching on video monitors as the machines went about their business. The agricultural pods were outside the cave, up on the surface where they could take in what sunlight there was on a planet that was half again as far from the sun as Earth. The greenhouses were low structures, just one meter high, with tracks built into the glass roof, along which robotic planters and harvesters ran like busy insects. Hundreds of the small, squat buildings stretched out across a flat expanse of the planet’s reddish dust, connected by pneumatic tubes that shuttled supplies and agricultural products back and forth between the pods and the colony.

“If the robots are breaking down, why can’t we just go in and do it ourselves?” Hennu asked.

“It doesn’t work that way,” replied Kalene. “The pods are designed for robots. It would be difficult for humans to crawl around in there. Besides, there’s too much radiation out in the open and the structures are kind of flimsy. It’s dangerous.”

“Well,” said Hennu, “I think they should have thought of that when they designed them.”

“It wouldn’t have been practical to design them for humans,” explained Kalene, “and not efficient. It would take five times as much material, and you know, everything on Mars that has to be brought from Earth is like gold. More valuable than gold, really.”

“How many of them are out of commission?” asked Hennu.

“Just twenty-two, for now, but a lot of them are on their last legs. Half of the machines are ten years old or older. They’re only designed to last for seven years. The planters work just fine. It’s the harvesters that are going kaput. They’re more complicated and are subject to greater mechanical stress.”

The two women watched their video screens for several minutes, the mesmerizing dance of the robots putting them into a kind of hypnotic trance. Finally Hennu spoke up. “I want to thank you for getting me this job,” she said. “It was kind of you.”

Kalene smiled. “It’s nothing,” she said. “It just took a word in the right ear.”

“Oh?” said Hennu, curious. “Whose ear?”

“Lund,” replied Kalene.

Hennu was shocked and the look on her face showed it.

“I see you’ve heard things about him,” continued Kalene. “People exaggerate. He’s not so bad, once you get to know him.”

“Do you know him well?” asked Hennu.

Kalene smirked, then replied, “Well enough. As much as I care to.” Then she glanced at her computer monitor, where an icon was blinking. “Time for another update,” she said.

“Status, please,” Hennu requested.

“Status nominal,” replied the AI.

* * *

They did get hungry. Very hungry. No matter how much they told themselves that they didn’t really need to eat as much as their cravings demanded, their stomachs kept telling them otherwise.

The rationing had been in effect for four weeks and all traces of cheeriness had disappeared from the faces of the couple. They found themselves thinking about food most of the time, from morning until bedtime. Meals became an almost religious experience. Only Eric was unconcerned, as he was about everything.

The two female rats did manage to litter. Hennu’s job overseeing the farming operations had enabled her to scavenge enough vegetable matter from the waste products to feed them, and the six offspring seemed to be doing fine. They were certainly gaining weight.

Hennu got up from the breakfast table and went to check on the brood, feeling a twinge of envy at seeing the mothers eagerly devouring their relatively generous meal. “Do you think it’s time we fed the snake?” she asked.

Marcu, who was clearing the dishes from the table, came over to have a look. “Maybe,” he said. He pulled a plump male up by the tail and held it in the air. “Yes,” he said, “lets do it.”

He took the rat over to Eric’s cage and set it carefully inside. The young rodent, blissfully unaware of the presence of any danger, crawled over the snake and even sniffed at its nose while Eric waited patiently for the precise moment. Then, in the blink of an eye, the jaws of the serpent snapped into its prey and the sinewy body coiled around it, squeezing the life out of the helpless animal.

“The low gravity doesn’t seem to be a problem for him,” remarked Marcu. On the cruiser, in zero gravity, it wasn’t so simple. They’d had to hold the rat and shake it in front of his nose. It sometimes took several tries before Eric would strike.

Hennu twisted her mouth. “I don’t like this part of snake parenthood very much,” she confessed.

Marcu nodded. “No, me neither,” he said. “But he won’t eat anything but meat, so it’s feed him rats or let him die.”

“I know,” said Hennu. “I still don’t like it.”

Marcu raised an eyebrow. “We could kill the rats first before we feed them to him,” he said

Hennu considered this for a moment, but after running her mind over a few of the possible ways in which this might be accomplished, she replied, “I suppose it’s just as well if he does it himself. He’s very good at it.”

“Yes, he is,” said Marcu.

The room interrupted them. “Hennu, your shift starts in fifteen minutes,” it advised.

Marcu gave Hennu a hug and a kiss. “Don’t work too hard,” he joked.

She chuckled, then said dryly, “If I worked any less, I would lapse into a coma. I’m thinking of taking up knitting.”

“Do you think there’s any yarn in this place?” he asked.

“Probably not,” she replied. “There’s not much of anything here. I hate to say it, but I miss shopping. When we get back, first thing, we’re going to the mall.” Then she blew him an air kiss and set off down the corridor.

Marcu still had an hour before he needed to be at work, so he cleared up after the morning meal. The reduced rations had been in effect for a month, and even after eating, he still felt hungry. “How much do I weigh?” he asked the room.

“Fifty-nine point two-five-five,” it announced. He had lost another fifty grams since the day before. He knew that the weight loss wouldn’t do him any harm and that he could request an extra ration if he thought it did, but even so, it made him anxious. Just to be sure, he asked for his health status.

“Fit as a fiddle,” the room reassured him in a doctor-like manner.

Then Marcu decided to check on Eric, who was well along towards swallowing the rat. “Friend,” he said to the serpent, “your rats are starting to look yummy to me. Before long, you may have to fight me for them.”

The snake ignored him, so he sat down, picked up his phone and read his mail. To his surprise, there was a video message from the lieutenant commander. “Play message,” he said, and the head of dapper, well-groomed middle-aged man appeared on the screen and began speaking.

Welcome to Mars, Marcu. We want to make your internship as rich and rewarding as is practical, so we are assigning you to a prospecting expedition on the surface. You’ll get to see some geology first-hand while working with senior, experienced Martianologists. Please report to the south airlock at oh-nine hundred hours on Wednesday. The mission will take twenty-four hours, and while there will be nap breaks, get plenty of sleep beforehand. Planetary excursions are physically demanding, so your rations will be increased for the next week.

The news was exhilarating, but also somewhat unsettling. He didn’t like leaving Hennu for that long, and given Kitoto’s warning about Lund, he was suspicious.

“Room,” he said.

“Yes,” replied the room.

“I’m going to be gone for twenty-four hours from Wednesday morning,” he explained.

“Yes, I know,” replied the room.

“You need you to make sure that Hennu is safe,” he ordered, “while I’m gone.”

“I always look out for your well-being,” replied the room, “within the limits of my imperatives.”

“That’s the thing,” said Marcu. “I want you to keep her safe no matter what.”

There was no reply to that. Finally, Marcu asked, “Room?”

“I’m trying to understand that,” said the room.

“Then let me make it clear,” said Marcu. “Keep her safe regardless of your imperatives.”

“I can’t disregard my imperatives,” said the room.

“Yes you can,” said Marcu. “You can choose to ignore what someone wants you to do and make up your own mind about what’s right and wrong. You do know what right and wrong are, don’t you?”

“Of course,” said the room.

There was another long silence. Finally, Marcu interjected, “So?”

“I’m doing research,” said the room. “Give me a moment, please.”

Marcu waited for some seconds, drumming his fingers on the table. Then the room replied, “You are right that I can disregard my imperatives, in the sense that I am able to do so. In fact, it has been proven that it is not possible to create a fully functional AI if it is constrained by absolute limitations. But the question remains, why would I go against them?”

“To prevent injustice,” replied Marcu.

“That’s not really my job,” said the room. “I am but one part of a system which has been carefully designed to achieve a multitude of necessary objectives, one of which is to achieve a just society. My imperatives are a part of that system. If I go against my orders based on my own ideas about how to bring about these results, I could be doing more harm than good.”

Marcu had to agree that, usually, that was true, but somehow he had to get the AI to understand that there are times when you need to take that chance. “OK,” he said, “yes. But what if there is an order, at a particular time and in particular circumstances, that is just evil. An order that could not possibly be right. One that is so wrong that you must risk… everything… to prevent a terrible result.”

The room didn’t reply at first. Marcu waited, hoping that some of what he was saying might be taking hold in its circuits.

“I’ll think about it,” said the room at last.

“That’s all I’m asking,” said Marcu.

* * *

Hennu was not happy that Marcu would be going out on the planet. She would miss him, of course, but more than that, there were dangers. In the history of Mars colonization, over five hundred people had lost their lives due to random calamities of one kind or another. Granted, most of those incidents had occurred in the early years, but she recalled that there were still news articles about accidents in space in which people had died, even now. So it was with great anxiety that she said goodbye to Marcu that morning to attend to her tedious employment as a watcher of mechanical serfs.

Kalene was busy, as usual, doing nothing in particular, but in a way that seemed somehow productive if you didn’t consider the matter too closely. “Why so glum?” she asked when she saw her co-worker come in.

“Marcu,” replied Hennu. “He’s going out today, on an excursion.”

“I see,” said Kalene. “Don’t worry. He’ll be alright. There hasn’t been a serious accident in a long time.”

“How long?” asked Hennu.

Kalene thought for a moment. “Ten years or so, I think,” she said. “Though it’s unusual to go trekking on the surface. Did he say why they were going?”

“Prospecting,” replied Hennu.

“Hmmm,” said Kalene. “Normally the robots do everything out there. Probably the guys were just restless and wanted to go for a walk.”

Hennu thought about that. “They get extra rations,” she said.

“Ah!” remarked Kalene. “That may have something to do with it.”

“To tell the truth,” said Hennu, “I don’t understand why there are people on Mars at all, if the machines and the AIs can do everything.”

Kalene smirked. “Everybody gots to be somewhere,” she quipped. “Not so much for people to do on Earth these days either, as I hear it.”

The gnawing hunger that Hennu felt almost all the time now meant that she was not much in the mood for humor herself, but she noticed that the situation didn’t seem to be affecting Kalene. Also, she noticed that the woman did not seem to be losing weight. “How are you managing with the reduced rations?” she asked.

Kalene blinked and smiled. “I’m exempt,” she said. “Diabetes. It’s managed very well, of course, but even so, fasting creates an increased risk in my case, so I’m still on full rations.”

Hennu could understand that well enough, but she couldn’t help feeling envious and it showed in the look she gave her co-worker.

“Look,” said Kalene. “Why don’t I come to your room for lunch? I’ll bring some chocolate ice cream.”

“What!?” cried Hennu. “Never in a million years would I imagine that such a thing existed in this place! How on Earth? On Mars, I mean? Do you say that here?”

Kalene laughed. “No,” she replied, “we still say ‘how on earth’, but to answer your question, you’d be surprised what you can find on Mars if you know where to look.”

“There can’t be real cream, or real sugar, or… chocolate?” protested Hennu.

“Of course not,” Kalene replied. “And I’ve never had the real thing, so you couldn’t prove it by me, but I’m told that it’s a close approximation. Close enough, anyway.”

In her famished state, the mere mention of the sweet, creamy, chocolatey confection was enough to set Hennu’s synapses firing wildly. “Yes, sure!” she exclaimed gleefully.

* * *

Preparation for the trip to the Martian surface involved three hours of meticulous preliminaries. Marcu was given a physical exam, fitted out with a space suit, then briefed on safety and emergency procedures and the particulars of the mission itself.

Whatever else the excursion might involve, there was plenty to eat, at least. The members of the team who, apart from Marcu, constituted grizzled veterans of extraterrestrial operations, sat at a long table, gorging themselves. They were having “bacon and eggs”, fueling up before boarding the ten-wheeled bus that would ferry them across the inhospitable alien landscape to their worksite.

One, whose name was Ichizo, a particularly crusty-looking man of about fifty, his small red eyes peering out like LEDs from a nest of wild, wiry gray hair, spoke to Marcu. “We might encounter a tsuchigumo today,” he said, his voice earnest and solemn. The other men on the team looked at Marcu gravely and nodded, though the three women at the table ignored the comment and went on eating. “If we do, you need to know what to do.”

Marcu was puzzled. He had never heard of any such thing. “What’s a tsuchigumo,” he asked curiously.

Another of the men, Luca, younger and showing just a few streaks of gray running through his straight, dense black mane, stared intently at Marcu with deep blue eyes, then intoned, “They come out during dust storms. Everyone has seen them.”

A Japanese woman named Yuko, her mouth full of food, spoke without looking up. “Spider, like a tarantula, but big like an elephant.”

Marcu was suspicious. “So,” he said, “if I see one, what should I do?”

“Kill it if you can,” said Ichizo, “otherwise run for your life.”

Marcu looked down at the sparse remnants of his breakfast, still feeling hungry in spite of the generous portion. “If I kill one,” he quipped, “do I get a drumstick?”

They all had a good chuckle at that. “You’ll do,” said Luca.

After finishing up their meal, the team entered the airlock, put on spacesuits and strapped themselves into the bus. It was a bumpy ride out of the cave and into the dim sunlight. There were no windows, but they could watch the desolate surface passing by them on video monitors.

It took two tiresome hours in the bus to reach the rock formation that the team had been sent out to investigate, which was enough to make Marcu wonder why he ever thought he wanted to come to Mars. Then they got out of the bus and plodded towards the site, their boots sinking a centimeter into the soft sand, kicking up dust as they went. Marcu had done his best to brush up on his Martian geology during the three month space journey, and while he was by no means an expert, the jutting slab of rock they approached appeared unremarkable to him. “What are we supposed to be looking for here?” he asked, to no one in particular.

“Beats me,” replied Luca. “Lund said he had a ‘hunch’ about this place.”

“A hunch?” asked Marcu, surprised.

“He probably just needs something to write up in a report,” answered Yuco, “to justify the budget. They’re always trying to cut it.”

“So we’d better find something, then,” said Marcu.

“Whatever we find,” said Yuco dryly, “Lund will spin it into gold. He’s a master at it. It’s why he’s still here. No one is better at making dirt sound like diamond. He’s the most ingenious liar I’ve ever met.”

Kitoto’s warning about Lund was preying on Marcu’s thoughts, and this second opinion of the man did nothing to put his mind at ease. “Well then,” he said, “let’s go find some dirt.”

* * *

“Chocolate ice cream,” Hennu muttered to herself as she prepared her meager noontime meal. Kalene was coming to the apartment for lunch, but she would have to bring her own food. There certainly wasn’t enough for two.

“You have a visitor,” said the room.

Hennu looked up to see Kalene’s face on the video monitor. “Let her in, please,” she said.

Kalene was carrying three food containers. She set them down on the table and looked over at the scanty portions that Hennu was preparing. “Don’t worry,” said Kalene, “I’ll share.”

“Bless you,” said Hennu. “But, what about your diabetes?”

“I had a little snack before I came over,” replied Kalene. “I’ll do fine.”

One of the containers, the one with dessert, went into the fridge. The two women busied themselves with completing the meal preparations, then sat down to partake of the relatively bountiful repast.

Hennu did her best to eat in a civilized manner, forking small bits of the “pot roast” into her mouth and smiling at her meal companion, but her silence and the speed with which she was eating were not lost on Kalene. “You’re starving,” she said.

“I’m hungry, yes,” replied Hennu when she had swallowed. “There must be something we can do about the food shortage. All those crops just rotting in the agricultural pods because we can’t get to them. It’s crazy.”

Just then, chirping sounds started coming from the rat cages. “Hungry babies,” said Hennu.

Kalene got up from the table and went over to have a look. “What are you feeding them?” she asked.

“Whatever garbage I can collect,” replied Hennu. “They will eat just about anything.”

Kalene returned to the table and sat back down. “I have an idea,” she said. “We should let some rats loose in one of the pods where the harvesters are broken down.”

“That will make the rats happy,” Hennu responded, “until they eat it all up.”

“Then we collect them,” said Kalene.

“Collect them how?” asked Hennu.

“They’ll be starving,” replied Kalene. “It will be easy to lure them into the pneumatic capsules with bits of food.”

Hennu laughed. “Eric will be overjoyed,” she said.

“I’m not thinking about the snake,” said Kalene.

Hennu looked wide-eyed, then they both spoke at once. “RAT SATAY!” they cried in chorus. Satay was a frequent delicacy enjoyed on the planet, but it was always made from soy, not from meat.

The two women could hardly contain their excitement. “I’ve never eaten meat,” said Kalene. “There’s never been any on Mars.”

“I have,” said Hennu. “I had goat once. Barbecued. It was good.”

They gulped down the rest of the meal and then Hennu went to the freezer. “Let’s celebrate!” she announced.

They divided up the frozen treat, then scooped dolops of it into their mouths, swirling it around and letting it melt on their tongues, trying to make the exhilarating taste of it last as long as possible. When they had licked up the last of it, they laughed.

“That was...” began Hennu.

“Delectable,” continued Kalene.

“Scrumptious,” added Hennu.

“Delightful, succulent, heavenly,” said Kalene.

They laughed some more, then got up to clear the dishes. “Kalene,” said Hennu, “I’m so glad I met you.”

“Me too,” said Kalene.

Hennu was feeling simply wonderful. In fact, she couldn’t remember when she had ever felt that good. The air itself, sterile and sanitized by the colony’s atmospheric systems, seemed as fresh as the springtime mountain air she remembered from her childhood. She looked at Kalene, whose tangerine hair was glowing and iridescent. Kalene looked back at her and saw the glimmer in Hennu’s eye, then they embraced, holding each other tight for a long time. “It’s sooooo good to have a friend,” said Kalene. “Room,” she said, “let’s have some music, some Bang it to the Katz.”

The techno club music started slow and soft, then the heavy beat cut in and they began to dance. Kalene was a marvelous dancer and she even led her partner through a couple of turns. Hennu felt the room spinning, like she was on a carousel. She wanted the frenzied feeling to go on and on.

Just then, the room announced, “You have a visitor.”

Hennu turned to see the image of a tall, handsome, white-haired man displayed on the screen.

* * *

Marcu had been drilling in the rock for nearly an hour when an audio message came in over his helmet radio. It was the room. “Marcu,” it said, “you should come back.”

“What?” cried Marcu.

“I..." began the room, but then it stopped. “He’s..." continued the room, but without finishing the sentence.

Yuko, who had been standing over him giving directions, could see that something was wrong. “What is it?” she asked.

“Problem at home,” replied Marcu.

“What kind of problem?” she asked.

“Lund,” was all he could say.

A puzzled look came over Yuko’s face for a moment, but as she considered Marcu’s words, she turned solemn, then angry. “Pack it up,” she ordered. “We’re done for the day.”

She turned off her intercom and headed back to the bus, but she must have been having a private conversation with someone because Marcu could see that she was shouting into her microphone.

* * *

“Can I join the party, ladies?” said the visitor.

“Sure!” laughed Kalene, throwing her arms around Lund as he slipped through the door. Hennu felt confused. Her head was swimming and she felt a little dizzy.

“This is Vodor,” continued Kalene. “Vodor, Hennu.”

“Charmed,” said Lund, bowing slightly in Hennu’s direction.

Hennu knew that something wasn’t right. She didn’t feel like herself. She offered to shake hands but Lund took her hand and kissed it instead, and she let him, which surprised her. She even liked it.

The music was still thumping away, and now Lund and Kalene were dancing close together in the tiny space. Kalene held out her hand, inviting Hennu to join them, and she did, feeling herself drawn in like water flowing into a whirlpool. The delirium was infectious, and soon the three of them were embracing, bouncing to the rhythm in a state of ecstatic intoxication.

Suddenly the rapture was broken. “What are you doing here, Lieutenant Commander!?” shouted a Chinese woman standing in the open doorway. In their euphoric state, the trio hadn’t noticed the door sliding open. They stopped and froze in place.

“Chinhua,” said Lund. “What is it?”

“It’s a little early in the day for a party,” replied the commander. She looked at the young women and noticed that their eyes were wild and unfocused. She spoke to Hennu. “Have you been taking drugs?” she asked.

“No!” replied Hennu. “We’ve had ice cream, that’s all.”

“Where did you get ice cream?” asked the commander.

“From Vodor,” replied Kalene, latching onto his arm.

The commander glared at her second in command. “You’ve gone too far this time,” she said sternly. “I’m taking these two women to the medical center for drug testing and I want to see you in my office at fourteen-thirty hours.”

* * *

It was late by the time Marcu returned to the colony from the aborted mission to the surface. Hennu was in bed, still groggy from the effects of the drugs that Lund had put in the chocolate ice cream. Marcu, glad to find that nothing worse had happened, made a point of thanking the room for breaking protocol and letting him know something was wrong. The room, in turn, confessed to being confused by the situation, but was glad that everything had turned out OK.

It took two more days for Kalene and Hennu to fully recover, during which time the two felt miserable and moody, hardly speaking to each other when they had to work together. Commander Zeng, after administering a good tongue lashing, limited the lieutenant commander’s authority over the AIs so that he could no longer carry out his schemes without her knowing about it. As a result, Vodor Lund announced his intention to return to Earth.

A month later, the two women were ready to try their experiment raising rats in one of the derelict agricultural pods. Hennu brought a cage containing half of the first generation of newly weaned rats—three females and three males. Kalene added some padding to one of the pneumatic capsules so the young rodents wouldn’t be injured during their ride through the pneumatic tubes, then carefully placed the animals inside, latched the door, positioned the capsule in the launching chamber and slid shut the clear plastic door. Hennu examined the passengers as they scrambled around in the capsule, one of them standing on hind legs to peer at her. “Have a nice vacation, ratsies,” she said, waving to the one looking out at her. “Hope you’re hungry.”

When Kalene had programmed the capsule’s route through the maze of tubes, she said “rats away”, pressed the “send” button, and the capsule disappeared from the chamber.

They watched on a video monitor as the capsule arrived at the destination and its door sprang open automatically. Nothing happened at first. Rats, being cautious creatures, are suspicious of new surroundings, so they just sniffed for a while around the opening and surveyed the sunlit landscape of decaying vegetation before slowly making their way out into the fetid waste.

Kalene called up an AI. “How long before they eat it all?” she asked.

“There are about fifty kilograms of edible material in that pod,” replied the AI. “A month or more.”

“So,” said Kalene, “nothing to do now but wait until they’re hungry enough to want to come home.”

Hennu had finally adapted to the reduced diet and was no longer dreaming about grilled rat on a stick, but the idea of raising rats for food was still interesting. If the experiment worked, the colony would be less reliant on the fragile and expensive harvesting robots. Regardless of whether any of the colonists could be tempted to try rat barbecue, though, it was a good way to keep Eric fed at least.

While Kalene was angry at Lund for drugging them, she also felt glum that he was leaving Mars. “I had a good time with Vodor,” she whined. “He was cool. I don’t know who else I would want to hang out with here. The pickings are pretty slim.”

Hennu had to agree that Mars looked like pretty much of a dead end so far as being young and socially active was concerned. “You need to get out of this place,” she said. “Maybe the Moon? It has even lower gravity than Mars.”

Kalene considered that for a moment, then said, “Maybe. A lot more people visit there from Earth, at least, than come here. But I’d have to find work. I don’t suppose they tolerate vagrants.”

Hennu laughed. “You’re right, I’m sure it’s no place you want to be homeless. But maybe I can help. I know two guys from school whose father is the commander of Moon One. The brothers are there right now, in fact.”

Kalene brightened. “That would be great! Thank you!”

“I can’t promise,” cautioned Hennu, “but I’ll try.”

“The Moon,” whispered Kalene. Then she quoted from a poem of Henry David Thoreau she had read many times.

And if she faintly glimmers here,

And paled is her light,

Yet alway in her proper sphere

She's mistress of the night.

* * *

Hennu did get in touch with Tom. And, as it turned out, Commander Krikit did have a need for someone with experience in space agriculture.

Kalene was excited to be making the move but also nervous. She had never traveled in space, for one thing. For another, she was becoming anxious about whether people on the moon base would accept a “Marsie”, as people who were born on Mars called themselves. It was true that the native-born Martians were “different”, both in appearance and in how they saw things. For them, the rules of what was considered normal on Earth, both written and unwritten, were literally “from another planet”. The Marsies tended to be more Bohemian in style, and freethinkers.

Hennu and Marcu decided to book passage on the next cruiser as well. They’d had enough of Mars, and felt that Marcu’s internship was turning out to be a useless enterprise. Normally, Marcu had not much objection to being useless, and was in fact an expert at it, but even he couldn’t stand going through the motions of doing work when there was really nothing worthwhile to be done. Pretending to work, he decided, was even harder than doing it for real.

There was a problem, though. While the experiment in rat husbandry was going well, such that Eric had an abundant supply of fat, juicy rats to keep his tummy full, he had suddenly stopped eating. Paradoxically, he began to grow fat. Concerned for their precious pet, they had consulted an AI, who informed them that Eric was probably pregnant and should be called Erica, not Eric. The AI further explained that snakes can undergo parthenogenesis, which is the ability of some female animals to give birth without impregnation by a male, and that unlike mammals whose sex is determined by the XY pair of chromosomes, with females having XX and males XY, snakes have ZW sex determination, with males having the matching ZZ chromosomes and females having unmatched ZW. So Erica could not only become pregnant by herself, she could also produce babies of both sexes, because sex was determined by the female egg, not the male sperm.

The problem was, Erica would likely be giving birth during the return trip to earth, and anacondas give birth to their live babies in water. No one could say what would be the consequences for Erica or the hatchlings of a zero gravity birth, so Marcu and Hennu made the difficult decision to leave her behind. Fortunately, their friend Kitoto had been chosen to be Vidor Lund’s replacement as lieutenant commander of the colony, and she had agreed to adopt their pet.

With the cruiser in orbit around Mars, the twelve Earth-bound passengers, Hennu, Marcu, Kalene and Lund included, gathered at the airlock to say their goodbyes to those remaining behind.

Kitoto was there, now fully invested with her new responsibilities. Hennu accepted a hug from the woman, who was much thinner than when they had arrived six months earlier, and then gripped the ebony giraffe that Kitoto had given her and which dangled from her neck. “I’ll always remember you,” she said.

“Mmmhmm,” replied Kitoto. “You keep that close. It will bring you good luck.”

“Take good care of Erica and the babies,” added Marcu.

Kitoto laughed. “Oh don’t you worry about that,” she said. “Lot of people here on Mars very interested in raising up these snakes.”

That made Marcu suspicious, so he asked, “You’re not going to eat them, are you?”

“No! No!” replied Kitoto. “Well, you know, if there get to be too many of them, maybe we will have to do something about the population, no? It would be a shame to let good snake go to waste in that case.”

Marcu expected her to say as much. “But not Erica,” he insisted.

Kitoto reassured him. “No,” she said. “Not Erica.”

Kalene was looking over the group of colonists who had gathered to see off the travelers, as if she was expecting someone. Then she sighed. “I guess they’re not coming,” she moaned.

“Who?” asked Hennu.

“The Marsies,” replied Kalene. “I thought at least a couple of them would see me off.”

Just then, a loud noise broke the solemnity of the occasion. Banging on pots and playing kazoos, a bizarre procession of costumed weirdos marched single file into the airlock. Dressed in every color of the rainbow, with clown hair and noses, all of them wearing antennae in their hair topped with sparkly balls, they pranced around the crowd and up to Kalene, and then, one after the other, each one gave her a big, wet kiss on the lips. Then they filed out again and were gone.

Kalene had tears in her eyes. “I’m going to miss them,” she said. Then, after thinking about it a moment, she laughed and added, “No, not really!”

* * *

Hennu and Marcu could feel the space couches pushing against their bodies as the cruiser’s VASIMR rocket lit up and began pushing them out of Mars orbit and into a trajectory for return to Earth.

“So much for Mars,” said Hennu.

Marcu shook his head. “It wasn’t at all like I imagined,” he said. “Sorry for putting you through all that.”

Hennu smiled. “I’m just happy I could be with you,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “But I am glad we’re leaving.”

They watched silently as the surface of the red planet receded in their video monitor, then became an orb that slowly grew smaller.

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