Short Story Contest Winner: Dead Places

By March 14, 2016 No Comments

Written by Irene Turner

Memories are futile here. We erase the past because it works better that way. New settlers are full of Earth gossip and trip stories and don’t understand why we nod politely, but don’t listen. We came to Mars for space.

I dreaded ship weeks, but I needed the money, even if it meant sixteen-hour shifts. There were other doctors, but they didn’t do arrivals for fear of disease or infection. Which meant I was the first face every passenger saw. Their nerves would unravel after all that confinement and they’d drag out their fears and dump them on me.

My feet ached as I hiked up the clinic stairs and punched into the sick bay and put my hair up in a bun. Grabbing a hit of the emergency O2, I sat for a moment to breathe. Six more slots, and I could return to my pharmaceuticals and solitude. The med panels chirped and beeped, expectant. Sweat dripped off my face. The geodome’s coolers couldn’t keep up with the sick heat of Mars summer, so it was pointless to call in and complain.

We’d already made it through eight days of freighters, which the mineworkers loaded with rich rock ore. Budget cuts had dropped us down to one passenger shuttle: fifty bewildered immigrants were being quarantined until their cultures came back clean. Only three more days  until Mars and Earth began to separate their orbits: the supply ships would disappear and I’d have peace for another eighteen months.

Checkmeter charged, I lined up my syringes, buzzed passenger 44 into the room.

“I’ve been watching them unload through the monitor,” he said. “So crazy busy.” Ricky Clement, my manifest read. Thin and cool and wan even for an Earther – thirty five and single, five-foot-eight. Anxious hands, but soft and supple. Sunken, olive eyes.

“They not feed you well on the way here?” I asked him.

“Synthesized food makes me queasy,” he said. “And the vitamin drip didn’t take.”

I ran the scanner over his leather jacket and jeans – impractical but typical for a non-colony vet. They all wanted to pretend Mars was the same only different. His clothes hung stiffly. A man’s leather jacket should groove to its owner. Become a piece of him.

He waited patiently while I checked the readout. “No radiation,” I said and punched in the electronic clearance.

“What would you do if you found some?”

“Send you home.”

“That’s okay, I’m returning on this shuttle.” Ricky didn’t smile, but he had to be kidding.

“Nobody does that,” I said. 6,000 people and 50 seats a shuttle. Hopeless to expect a priority return.

“I’ll make it happen,” he said, his voice oddly louder than it needed to be.

He was holding a steel box, sharp-edged and sterile, with the standard export seal. “Personal goods should have gone through clean check,” I told him, not sure if it registered.

He stared at the box, not moving. “I couldn’t let her be cargo,” he said. His fingers had smudged the shiny surface, left oily prints on the lid.

“That’s an urn?” I said. “Those are ashes?” It wouldn’t be the first time some rich Earther had grand ideas of a Mars burial or of spilling remains into space. He must have paid a fortune to bring it along – they had strict kilo allotments on food import and supplies. A cleaning cart rumbled by in the hallway, off to chase our omnipresent dust. Ricky shifted and nodded and I toyed with the com-line. The sanitary laws were strict even on incinerated matter. “I’m supposed to confiscate those,” I said.

He clutched it tighter. “Her last request was that I bring them to you.”

I knew who he must mean, though of course I denied it. “You’ve got the wrong Monica. I don’t have any more Earth friends.” I picked up and filled a syringe.

“Family,” he said and hefted the urn onto the counter, his pupils cloudy. “Your sister Mary’s dead.”

A sick, dark pleasure spread through my body, obscuring any twinge of regret.

“She’s only my half-sister,” I said and made him take off his jacket and roll up his sleeve for the injection. “And Mary’s not even her real name.” The inky vaccine coursed in.

“It’s the one I knew her by.” He pressed down the cotton I handed to him, soaking up a few drops of blood.

Mary, the saccharine Narcissus, two planets worth of trouble bundled up in a smile. Wasn’t surprising she’d been Ricky’s vial of sunshine – everyone liked her. At first.

I sat on my lab stool, smug but disbelieving. “You shipped in three months to tell me that and dump her ashes?” Not that I’d have paid for the bandwidth if he’d sent a message. Even at bereavement rates.

He flinched and stuck his spindly arms back into his leather jacket. “I thought someone must have let you  know.”

“But you came anyway,” I said. “So, you must have loved her.”

He slipped off the exam bed. “I had to.”

“I’m done with you,” I said.

# # #

I walked through the containment area’s jumbled corridors, stepped out and downstairs into the bright-black domed sky. The harsh sun was setting dull in the west, giving our prefab arrival zone a shadowed, forlorn glow. Ricky trailed after me with a vague, unspoken insistence. Shift change wouldn’t happen for an hour and the concrete alleys would stay empty until then.

I shivered and zipped up my thermal. “Resettlement should help you find temporary housing.” So leave me the fuck alone.

He cradled the urn and scuffed the battered concrete and snuck a glance at the horizon. “It’s odd,” he said. “The daytime and darkness.”

“They’re creating a good atmosphere, but we’ll never see it.” Another hundred years until the sky would look blue.

“Don’t you miss it?” he said and trailed me to the loading zone. His hiking boots clanked on the stairs. I shook my head. Oxygen and nitrogen would block our galaxy, milky and shimmering, Orion, the warrior, his sheathed-but-ready sword. The billion worlds gave most people vertigo and private telescopes were discouraged. But the stars’ regular arcs steadied me, gave me order. They reminded me of Isaiah – the only piece of Earth I hadn’t wanted to leave behind.

I stopped in at the dock to schedule my deliveries – drugs and food and not much else. “You miss anything?” Ricky asked, his shoulders hunched, while they set up an appointment for Monday.

“Rain,” I said. “But not much. Cloudy skies are bad for astronomy.”

Mesmerized, he stared at the sky. Finally, he shook himself. “We were going to get married.”

Bullshit, I thought. With no discernible morals, Mary never had time for the old traditions. Not as a kid or as an adult. But I couldn’t take it out on this sad-sack space traveller. “I’m-sorry-for-your-loss,” I said, with as much compassion as I could manage. But the words came out flat, anyway.

Ducking a pallet jack, I strode away, anxious, past the cement tree trunks with their filthy plastic leaves. Mars was a dead place and that’s why I liked it and I had no interest in bringing my sister back to life.

The quarantine guard logged Ricky’s ID bracelet as he gazed through the shack window and caught his first glimpse of the mishmash of fiberglass buildings and junk metal that made up our labyrinth Central Street. “Where are all the people?” he asked.

I kicked away a piece of tattered mesh. “They built it for ten thousand and only six thousand came.”

“That’s nothing,” he said. “You must know everyone.”

“Everyone knows me,” I said. The guard punched in a code and the wire gate creaked open at its normal regal pace.

Ricky stepped in front of me. “Where’s your house?”

“Resettlement should help you find temporary quarters.”

“They said it’s okay to go with you,” he said.

Too late to file a paperwork objection: my guest was a fait accompli.

Brian Corrigan drifted over from the far crew module: I had the feeling he’d been waiting on me. We’d slept together the last three times he made the Mars run. Rough and good-looking, even by Earth standards, his scruffy brown hair needed combing and his clothes were crumpled, too. He seemed to be two IQ points smarter than the other flyboys, but we hadn’t done much more than fuck.

“Why are you carrying?” I asked when I noticed the stunner, which he wore over his pilot vest. No real guns were allowed on the Colony – membrane leaks weren’t always fatal but they didn’t want us to take chances, and this was the most firepower they’d allow.

He laughed and patted his holster. “I had three claustrophobes freak out on the flight over. I guess I could get rid of it, now.”

He sized up Ricky and smiled at me, a shallow, cynical grin.

“I thought I’d come over tonight,” Brian said. “Unless you’re doing something better.”

I was acutely aware of Ricky’s urn and its unreported, illegal contents. “After ten,” I said.

# # #

The fuck was good, my sleep, less so. I tossed and turned and hated Brian for hogging the blanket and deciding to spend the night. Ricky slept next door, oblivious, the bigger problem. He’d confessed he’d forged his emigration permit, said I was his sponsor. There had to be a way to get him back to Earth sooner, not later. I refused to be responsible for him for the next 18 months.

At 3 a.m. I gave up on shuteye and threw on my robe, padded down the unlit hall. It was my home, there was no point being so secretive, except for the two men upstairs.

Doc Monica’s Rest Stop, patients called my clinic. Located on the outskirts of the dome near the membrane, it had been built as a small resort. The plaster walls helped it seem like an old school adobe which had been teleported out of historic Santa Fé. Some smart guy had expected to house rich tourists in the Mars equivalent of a motel.  He’d made a half-assed go of it until two shuttles exploded and the whole project went bust. I’d sold off the extra furniture to keep up with my payments, and it had a haunted air.

In the lab, grow lights cycled ice blue, cutting the shadows. Hydroponic pot didn’t sell for much given the pharma competition, but I liked its homegrown high.

I threaded my way past my workbench, where I’d ditched Ricky’s albatross urn. I unlocked my drug cabinet and rolled a joint. Enough to knock me out.

Stoned, I didn’t mind looking at Mary’s ashes in their shiny, blue-lit container. But as much as I tried to inhale forgetfulness, I couldn’t exhale my memories of Earth and Isaiah – and what we’d done to him.

Isaiah was kind and warm and almost a drifter – he moved every seven months or so. He had no problem finding work or grants, because everyone loved him. When he split without warning, they were sad to see him leave. I’d known him in grad school and admired his spirit and also his deep, brown eyes. We met again when I was ass-to-elbow in test tubes and complications. He didn’t have family, at least not that he knew of, and he wondered if his memory held a clue.

Too many people fretted and labored over the future: I was sure the key to everything would be found in the past. We all have a Frankenstein’s monster lurking within us: incubating in our brain, the memories haunt us or rot. My thesis research had been designed to unlock neural pathways: I was sure my new drug could bring dead hours back to life.

In my Earth days, I brewed it in back alley clinics and passed it out like candy, hoping to perfect its sweet-sour visions. Mary didn’t care much about my medical breakthrough, but she thought we could make some big bucks down the road. She handled the flirting for unofficial grants and gray-market resources, the selling of our scientific minds. She had ambition and an eye for business: I locked myself away.

I can see Isaiah sitting in the corner of our lab, hunched over his notebook, lost in some abstract, formless space. While I got dirty with chemicals, he chased patterns of solar flares and sunspots and the gravitational affects of exploding supernovas and the ancient light of dead stars. His presence shone brighter than the winter sun in the double-paned windows, insulating us from the St. Paul wind outside.

Most people inputted their stats and observations directly into the analyzer; Isaiah would always write things out. His spare, meticulous handwriting flowed across graph paper. I loved watching him scribble, old fashioned, tricking the answer out of his head

Scientists aren’t rigid. Not the good ones. They have to create patterns out of data points and spin a story out of repeatable elements. When Isaiah worked out a proof, his dark hands fluttered and shaped it, as if he could carve the constants and variables out of air. He could describe the universe without ever looking up from his paper and the mathematical concepts would sound solid and real.

I used to be like him, a star in my theoretical world. On Mars, I’ve let go of analytics and experiential calculations. I let PortaRx tell me what to do.

I was staring at the Pleiades through my patched-up telescope when Ricky appeared and startled me. His t-shirt smeared red and dirty, he must have let himself into the garden where my last coconut palm grew. “I thought a walk might help my space lag,” he said.

“Any luck?”

He shook his head. He sat on a high stool and toyed with the urn, ran his finger over the edge. “Why didn’t she come with you?” he asked me.

“Off colonies are for losers and pilgrims,” I said. “Mary was neither.”

“You don’t seem like a loser,” he said, though of course I was, my medical license had been pulled. But the tough conditions on Mars didn’t attract doctors, and I got away with practicing anyway.

Ricky sunk his head in his hands.

Why are you here? I wondered. What did Mary do to you? Was the sex that great, I wanted to ask him, but I knew the answer was yes. Mary’s fan boys used to fall all over themselves describing her electricity. The way she lasered in on their needs and fulfilled their wants until satiated, she disappeared again.

Ricky brought the urn closer. “She told me about memory meth,” he said.

So that’s why he’d come, looking to jack up on remembrance. But it didn’t explain why she was here, or rather her burnt offering, that steel container of a ghost.

I padlocked my drugs and leaned over the bench. “I won’t let you use,” I said. “The high’s not controllable.”

Ricky stood. “I need it.” Sweat had soaked through his shirt.

“You won’t be able to choose good or bad. It’ll all come back with a mess of detail.” An overload of repressed or forgotten information. And there was no guarantee you’d have a new or more mature perspective. The drug could only bring to the surface what you thought then or what you saw.

He shuffled over to me, an abused dog with his head hanging. “I have to know why she left me.”

“It’s not a truth serum,” I said. I should have been able to tell him I’d destroyed it after Isaiah’s bad trip. But the researcher in me had been unable to give up. The last bottle had been locked in my safe for years.

Ricky’s jaw was clenched, and his hands shook. “You don’t know what it is to miss someone so badly.” Yes, I did, I thought.

Angry, I picked up the urn and sliced its seal, dumped ashes all over the worktable. Ran my fingers through coarse grit and tiny fragments of bone. “This is how you should think of her,” I told him. He stared and cried noiselessly but couldn’t touch it and his sobs choked back all words.

His raw emotion made me feel guilty. I swept up the ashes in a pile. “Go to bed, Ricky,” I told him. Silent, he shuffled away.

Ash stuck in my fingernails. I grabbed the urn to scoop the contents back in.

There was a tiny plastic pouch taped to the inside bottom of the container.

It was as if I’d always known it would be there. I pulled it off and scrubbed and washed my hands and loitered, reluctant. Bits of gray water swirled down the drain.

Finally, I ripped open the pouch and unfolded a tiny note. It glowed hydroponic blue.

Coming in on the freighter Polaris via Mariner Canyon.

I need your help, so you know it must be bad.

There was only one person who could be so cryptic and so demanding.

My sister Mary wasn’t dead.

# # #

Brian sat up against the pillows, the sheet half-draped over him, the night light haloing his head.

I pushed the button and the door slid shut. “You still here?” I said.

“That creepy kid,” he said. “Chasing dead tail across the solar system.” I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Brian’s directness. Almost as much as his ass.

Dropping my robe, I slid in next to him. “You eavesdropped.”

“A little.” He grabbed my shoulders, pulled me closer. “I wanted you back in bed.”

I pulled the coverlet over us and filled him in on the note. His warm chest brought me back to the present.

He turned off the night light. “So, you both could have been rich and you screwed it for her.” I didn’t like the calculation in his voice.

“It wasn’t perfected,” I said. “It might never be.” The bad trips I’d seen had made me shut down testing. “I told her I’d never give her the formula, so she tried to recreate it, herself.”

“Did it work?” Brian asked, his breath regular and strong and his arms caressing my back.

“The batch wasn’t stable. Her first tester died.” I tried to sound neutral, but couldn’t pull it off.

“A friend?”

“A lover. Mine.”

The a/c buzzed on and filled the silence. Brian smoothed my hair. “That’s harsh,” he said. Shivering, I reached past him, flicked the cold air off.

“Why come here,” he said. “When your sister knows you must hate her?”

“She doesn’t do anything unless she smells money.” And she must be desperate, to have snuck in this way.

Brian wrapped his leg over mine, pinning me. “I’ve got a week off. I’ll take you to the Polaris.”

“You must smell money, too.”

He stared at the door, thoughtful. “This Ricky kid must be in on it.”  

It was so quiet I could hear him pacing next door. “I know how to test him,” I said.

# # #

Mars kicks the God out of most people. They either flee as soon as they can requisition a shuttle seat or stay and lose their faith. Which made the chapel a stubborn cesspool of missionaries: they weren’t my biggest fans.

Normally, I laughed at its federally-mandated non-denominational excess. The plastic mahogany, wax flowers and polyester runners spread tastefully on the altar. Buddha-cross-Koran-yarmulke. Brigham Young-Saint Francis-Tao.

But I’d brought the ashes because someone deserved mourning. Even if I didn’t know who.

Ricky walked in with me, his eyes red. “I wish they had a coffin.” I hadn’t told him about the cryptic note. These were the first words he’d spoken today.

“No gravesites here,” I said.

I’d arranged for a service partially to see who would come – other than the prophet-and-apocalypse freaks. Turned out, Ricky and I were the only other mourners – except for a few biddies who knitted through every religious function, because they had nothing better to do.

Ricky and I walked down the aisle to the roped-off Friends and Family. He still wore that damn leather jacket, and it looked particularly out of place here. In the pew, he knocked over a hymnal and wondered if that was bad luck.

I leaned back in the pew as nonchalantly as I could muster. “You never told me how she died.”

“A stupid, freak accident,” he said. Some helicrafter on a joyride made the wrong turn too quickly. Probably tweaking, he’d never heard on what.

“Did you identify the body?”

“I wish I had,” he said. “But they wouldn’t let me. The crash caved in her face.”

He clasped his hands and bowed his head. It seemed ridiculous to pray. Mary wasn’t religious and you couldn’t save her with dogma. Maybe he wanted to meet her in the afterlife. Be careful what you ask for, I thought.

The All Faiths Chaplain approached us and sputtered about sick hearts and soothing and the all-healing power of The Mysterious Beyond. I couldn’t take it any more.

I tapped Ricky’s shoulder. “We have to get going.” If Ricky were in on Mary’s machinations, he should stop me, remind me to grab the urn and scatter her ashes. But he let me leave the remains behind without a whimper.

I had to consider he’d come here on the level.

His tears for Mary were real.

# # #

Leaving the membrane makes everything more dangerous: somebody dies once a year on the north-south run. But Brian was a crack pilot when sober and his throttle-up in our light cruiser had been deft and smooth. He’d commandeered it from a lazy space jockey who was scheduled to deliver black market dry goods but would rather take the week off.

“What’d you tell your Squadron Captain?” I asked him.

“That I was chasing tail,” he said. He pushed us into the brittle blackness, smearing the stars overhead. Six hours south and we’d hit the mines, wait for the Polaris. The molten sun would rise soon and activate the energy panels, a quilted silver array, the force that kept the colony alive.

“Why are you here?” I asked Brian as he clicked into auto-direction.

“Main Colony is a stinkhole,” he said. Otherwise, all he had was six days of metallic-tasting faux vodka before taking off on the return trip, with a jaded crew of four and the elderly colonists who pulled priority emigration. It wasn’t much of a excuse, but I knew he liked action and if the odds were right he’d stay on my side.

Ricky conked out in the escape pod, sedated. He couldn’t sleep at all last night. I’d jarred him out of his listless melancholy by showing him Mary’s ashed communication. Instead of anger, he’d skipped right to hope. “She must have had a good reason,” he said. “I need to go with you.”

Which was fine by me. I had plans for him.

Now the forceful winds of Mariner Canyon tested the ship’s internal gyros, buffeted our exterior the way I was roiling inside. Brian sequenced the autopilot and kicked his feet up on the console. “How you holding up?” he said, dryly. “I know how much you loved your sister.”

I unclipped my launch belt and slouched beside him. “Ready to go after her.” I couldn’t figure out why I’d never flown with him before – I enjoyed having such a skilled chauffeur. Of course, I knew there’d be plenty of payback. He’d want more than a smile and a hand job.

Brian grabbed his dataminer. “I pulled a favor and a friend sent me her last Earth ID file,” he said and flipped through the images. “She doesn’t seem all that threatening.”

“Maybe you’re underestimating her.”

“Do you think she could be bought off with money?” he asked me.

“A smart person wouldn’t,” I said. “But maybe she’s slipping.” It sounded weak, even to me. Mary knew enough to get me deported if she shoved our secrets in the face of the authorities. And there was a warrant waiting for me on Earth.

“There has to be a way to take her out without getting arrested.”

I had some ideas, but I kept them to myself, while the control module rattled and hummed. “It’s Mars,” I said. “There’s surveillance everywhere.” At least, anywhere you could breathe.

We sliced through the wind as it spilled over the red mesas, kicking up gravel. Then sped over the solar fields, their panels angled in endless identical shimmer. The purple dawn disappeared.

Five hours until we touched down, twelve until I saw her. The last bottle of memory meth jangled its questions in my flight jacket. Maybe I should get it over with, just give it to her with my research and formulas. I wished I’d been able to sleep.

Instead, I lay awake and ran scenarios and tried to shut off what remained of my memories. Isaiah was on Earth and I was here and nothing brought him back like her.

Mary had always taken what she wanted and what she wanted was everything I had. Mostly I’d buckled under and been willing to give. But I’d needed Isaiah’s absent grip on my shoulder, guiding me back to the towers late at night. His t-shirts comforted me as they swirled in the Laundromat dryer every time I took in my clothes. I existed because of his laughable cooking, even if he seemed to exist mostly on air.

We’d spent our last week cocooned in a St. Paul winter, the wind bleak and cutting, but it couldn’t hurt me. He’d wandered into the lab that last Thursday full of rich nonchalance. “Colony Science needs a last minute replacement for the lunar observatory,” he said and sat on a lab stool, pushed a burner out of the way. He’d catch the moon shuttle in a month, maybe less.

“Let me go with you,” I said and rinsed and racked test tubes. Peeled off my gloves and sat across from him. I was sick of rats and mazes and statistical anomalies and correlating dose size to humans while I burned through hours in sterile, filtered air.

“Mary says you’re starting testing on humans,” he said, as if my offer had floated away.

“She wants to get it onto the street, but I won’t let her.”

“I need to remember my family,” he said. He’d been orphaned at three or maybe abandoned and the truth was nobody quite knew. But that many years of recall was way out of my parameters, the dose would be volatile and incredibly high. All I’d succeeded in so far was sharpening details for people who wanted to relive each moment of their wedding in January or etch in last weekend’s golden high.

I kicked at the lab table. “You don’t even know if there’s something to remember.”

“Family always comes back.”

I leaned my head in. He smelled of lavender. “You’ve been with her,” I said. In the moment, every theoretical construct seemed more real than the metal stools we perched on.

The refrigeration compressor kicked in but didn’t break the tension. “You owe me this,” he said.

I was clear in those days, and sharp-edged about principles. “It’s not ready, there’s nothing I can do.” We hadn’t done testing on that large a dose.

He stared at me with a mute accusation then ambled out of the room.

I should have destroyed my notes right there and torched my lab and walked away from the wreckage of my underground career. If I’d been willing to consider outcomes, I would have known what she’d do.

His details had drifted away each day I spent in space. I’d kept the last stable batch of memory meth, but didn’t dare use it: if I opened up my neural pathways and unblocked my memories of him, I was going to have to rewatch him die.

Now our ship hurtled through the buffeting winds. Brian pushed away from the radar and sucked down some electrolytes. “Maybe we should work with your sister,” he said. “Or at least pretend to.” His bland confidence gave nothing away.

I glanced at the escape pod, but Ricky still reclined, comatose. “You do want money,” I said. The cabin heated up, and I took off my jacket and perspiration meandered down my neck.

He checked the altimeter and adjusted the sunshade. “She’s screwed you over. Okay, let her make it up to you.”

I remembered his hands last night, his weight pressed over me, his warm lab-gin breath on my neck. “We’re barely in the air and you’ve fallen for her bullshit,” I told him.

He smiled and leaned back, complacent. You can’t trust him, I thought, don’t slip and forget.

# # #

Outpost Station Four was twenty loners piled on top of each other: triple stacked bunks, narrow hallways and a combination clinic-mess. Food was mostly synthesized micro-rations and they processed their water from fields of acid snow. The miners were taciturn and withdrawn when I gave them their yearly physicals. They kept their own counsel and expected the same of others. Mary had chosen our rendezvous place well.

Brian docked without incident and punched open the connector airlock. “I could never live here,” he said, “I’d kill three people in the first minute.”

“Some of these guys have done worse,” I said.

Ricky trailed after us, wearing that damn leather jacket. “Mary can’t be here yet,” he said. “I’d  feel it.” His eyes were still shrouded in sleep.

I nodded. “She makes her presence known.”

Most of the miners were on shift or asleep. I asked the watch duty when he expected the Polaris. “It’s breaking atmosphere now,” he said.

He pulled up the tracking telescope, and we watched a small blip plummet down through the sky. I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t want it to crash.

Ricky turned away hard. “I can’t watch this.”

“I could land that drunk,” Brian said.

Their touchdown was smooth for an older freighter, and we watched as they connected up.

I picked up my medic bag, slung it over my shoulder. “Time to get to work.”

Ricky brightened. “I’ll come with you.”

“Quarantine,” Brian said. “She has to go solo.” Spaceships could be worse than hospitals, with mold spores and bad air and constant grime and resistant viral strains. He ran his rough fingers over my collarbone. “If she shoots you, I’ll take your remains to the chaplain.”

“You’re only half a bastard,” I said.

# # #

The Polaris had spent too many years in service and its paint had flaked and its handrails were bent. I stripped and showered in its decontam, conscious that Brian could be watching via monitor, then flooded myself with the ultraviolet antibacterial light.

The crew of four waited in the entry chamber, but no one was with them. I recognized the broad-shouldered captain from his few visits to Main Station. “Nice landing, Luis,” I said.

Luis eyed me, arms crossed. “Is there a problem, Doc Monica?” he said. Normally, the skeleton crews self-injected their vaccines and disinfected their own interior.

I shook my head. “Bullshit new regulations making trouble for everyone.” An easy lie. The recirculating system spewed pallid oxygen overhead.

He shrugged. I pulled out my checkmeter and began to scan. “I hear you picked up an unofficial passenger.”  

“She’s in Bay B,” he said. “Pretty enough to get my boys fighting.” Vintage Mary. He rolled up his sleeve, anticipating my injection. “Let’s get this over with.”

It never would be. Not with her.

# # #

You want spaceships to be quiet, but they never are. Machinery hummed and chirped and footsteps echoed down the tight corridors of the Polaris. I wouldn’t take Mary unawares.

Curled on the bunk in her tiny quarters, she looked like a brooding cat. On first glance, I thought she’d only aged a little. The same peasant blouse little-girl-lost softness. Raven hair parted dead center. An ethereal fragility. Then I stepped in the pod, and she woke up and I saw her eyes had hardened and she couldn’t conceal the numbness in her face. Like a museum painting hung behind a velvet rope: beautiful and admirable from a distance. But if you got too close, you saw the brushstrokes and maybe a crack in the canvas. The work was the same, but the effect was lost.

She sat up, unsteady, leaned against the bunk wall. “My head hurts and I keep losing my balance.” Her arms hung limply in her sleeves. “I have these attacks. In the night. A shaking.”

“Bad dreams?”

“I think so. When I wake up, I can’t tell.” After three months of travel, arriving got to some people. A temporary vertigo until their minds caught up with their bodies. I was used to Mary’s mind being far ahead.

“Good to see you,” I said and meant it. This history, this connection, had to be severed. I was tired of fighting her in my head.

Gloves helped me fight my revulsion: then I didn’t have to touch her skin. I felt her pulse and did a quick blood test, shone the optic sensor in her eyes.

“Is it a virus?” she asked.

“You’re spacesick.” With her, it wasn’t guilt.

“Then why did you put gloves on?”

Because I hoped it was a virus, I thought.

I zipped open my drug tote and temptation hit: it would be so easy to fill her full of street legal poisons, end it with one overdosing needle prick. I told myself it was too soon, I didn’t know what her scam was. And anyone could be watching through the videoports. Brian would have something on me if he wanted to use it. A complicated rationalization for my unexpected fear.

The hypodermic drew up the last drop of liquid, but she pushed my hand away. “How long will it take to recover without medicine?”

“You should be fine in about eight hours.”

“Then I don’t want your drugs,” she said. I liked that she didn’t trust me. Paranoid people overthought everything and made bad decisions. Although that could be me, I thought.

The ducts blasted frigid air, and I shivered.

“How’s your research going?” she asked.

“I talk a good game with visiting scientists. But as far as my own stuff – that’s done.”

“I still have your old notebooks,” she said. “The ones about memory.” Not the most subtle hint.

Through the nav window I saw the dust swirl, obliterating the open pits in the red desert landscape. Rusted machinery sat idle, silhouetted in vast tracts of space. Earth would be a small dot, unblinking in the northeast, setting in an hour. I zipped my jacket. “I can’t give you the formula,” I said. It was too unpredictable, it could fracture psyches, we’d seen it happen. Past thoughts weren’t scientifically controllable. Not the ones dredged up with my meth.

She pulled on a sweater, and her head still hung heavy. However she’d been living, it was a hard road and hadn’t ended. “You’re going to have to,” she said. “Unless you want to get deported.”

I packed up my kit and straightened up into the doorway. “No more Isaiahs.”
She sat back, looked at me with dull eyes and ashy skin. “You could have stopped us.”

“He didn’t want me to,” I said.

“That’s a rationalization.” Probably, I thought. It was also the truth. The possibility of his lost family was more important than anything we’d shared. When I refused to help, he’d run to her.

I threw the rest of my gear into my lab case. Fingered the needle, again. “Maybe I wanted him to remember why he loved me.”

“I didn’t think you were sentimental.”

“About some things,” I said. “Like him.”

Muffled shouts meant Luis and his crew had begun loading, siphoning crushed ore into the hold. The ship shook as they lowered the ramp.

“I’m sorry,” she said, but I didn’t buy it.

“Save it for Ricky,” I said.

The first time I’d seen her control fail her. “I missed him,” she said. “I never expected to.” An unexpected pain filled her face.

“Yeah, I can see how much you cared for him – pretending to be dead and all.”

Her mask slid back on as she straightened her shoulders. “I faked my death to get rid of some obligations.” To people she couldn’t afford to owe. I was the last person she should come to, but she was desperate for cash and was out of options and had bartered her way onto this ship. “I need you for testing,” she said. “Where’s your lab setup?”

“Back at Main Station.”

“Then that’s where we’re going,” she said.

# # #

I followed Brian down the hall to our dock, arms loaded with black market supplies. We only had a few minutes before Mary would join us.

“So?” he said. “Spill it.”

“She’s blackmailing me,” I said. “And she’s coming back with us.” My sweater caught on a vent, and I flicked it off.

“Can you trust her for a share?” he said, his voice casual. “Or will she cut you out later?”

“If you do what she wants, she’s loyal,” I said. “Just don’t cross her.” Our footsteps pounded and clanked on the narrow walkway. I followed his strong shoulders and wondered again if he’d be loyal – and whether it would be to dollars or to me.

He slowed his steps, glanced behind us. “I saw you take out that hypodermic, I thought for sure you were going to waste her.” Above us, the ancient base speaker boomed out some unintelligible announcement.

My arms ached and I shifted my load. “I wanted to wait until we weren’t under surveillance.”

“You chickened out,” he said. He was right, but I couldn’t admit it. I’d never stood up to her, not loud and forceful. The best I’d ever managed was running away.

He slid in his ID and the hatch hissed open, pushing out foul, stale air.

Ricky stood waiting, shoulders hunched, nervous. “What did you do to her?” he said. The sleep hadn’t done him much good.

“She’s packing,” I said. “Sit down.” Obedient as ever, he walked over and took a seat in the crew space. I was tempted to buckle him in.

Brian threw a crate and cooler into the escape pod. “Fucking waste of space,” he said. I’d heard other pilots bitch about their cheap designs and placebo rescue instructions – if you were forced to eject, you’d better hope help was near.

Brian flipped on the air and cranked open the vents, and I stood by them to breathe in the fresh oxygen mix. “If she’s not back in a week,” he said, “Luis has to leave without her.”

“I’ll kill myself first,” I said.

# # #

Ricky saw Mary before she saw him. He forgave her before she asked. He grabbed her and held her because he needed to believe she had reasons and explanations: he teared up and sucked in the vague answers she gave.  

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But it was safer not to tell you.” Even for her she stayed icily cool. He scuffed his boots against the metal deck, but didn’t move away. Still ill, she wavered and he steadied her. “Let me take care of you,” he said. I turned away so he wouldn’t see me laugh.

Our space cruiser which had seemed spacious with three people became cramped and restricted when Brian tapped closed the airlock. The four of us were shut in.  

He swiveled in his command chair while waiting for clearance. “This is your sister?” he said. “Where’s her broomstick?” Mary was too smart to take offense.

“Monica has good reasons to hate me,” she said. “And she won’t let go of them.” That was Mary’s genius. She always argued from your side, then subtly undermined it. And then somehow your opinions weren’t your own.

Ricky helped her sit and smoothed her hair and wiped her forehead with his sleeve. The wind kicked up and made a red sandstorm of our window, while inside the ship’s oxygen system dribbled warm air.

A voice crackled from the command module. “LC 7, Main Colony signed off on your flight plan.”

“We’re out of here,” Brian said.

He rolled us back from the dock and punched the thrusters, and we lifted into the sky. The wind was still howling and we bumped and jostled through the swirling dust, all contact with land obscured. Six hours back to Main Station. I had decisions to make before then.

Brian signed off with flight control and dialed into autopilot. Unbuckled his webbing and stood. “You’ll never get back through international quarantine unless you have inside help.”

Mary smiled sweetly through her dizziness. “What makes you think I’ll have contraband?”

“Because Monica values her life more than some drug bullshit.”

“She always liked smart men,” Mary said. Outside, the sun had set and we hurtled in blackness, barely able to see faint starlit outlines of the deep, sheer canyons below.

My hand ached from clutching the memory meth bottle in my pocket. I’d expected Brian to make a play for Mary’s business, but I’d thought it would be when he had a chance to get her alone. As it was, I couldn’t do much except lean back and shrug.

Brian opened a refrig unit and perspiration dripped from six bottles. “How the hell did you get beer?” I said. Hard alcohol was much easier to cook up in a space still. Hops were impossible to grow.

“Your friend Luis was distilling on the way over,” Brian told me.

“Unbelievable.” My thoughts flooded over with the foam. Of Isaiah, of course, dying in the yellowing walls of my old lab near a hissing Bunsen burner, a forgotten, sickly-blue flame. I wasn’t there when he methed up; I’d walked out, refused to participate. Washed my hands of them both.

I remembered his face, so lively and warm, his strong, dark hands in mine. The stubborn shake of his head as he refused to leave with me. The full backpack he always carried with him, eighty percent of his life seemed to live there.

When the drug was too much and Isaiah sat on the floor, rocking his way into paralysis, Mary had called me, unsure what to do. The time I took to return to the lab could have been spent on ambulance transport and brain flush – something we never could have been prepared for in our underground lab.

I’d rushed in and saw Isaiah slumped in the corner, his eyes rolled back and legs drawn. The drug had stolen all his motor coordination. After a 911 call and an agonizing wait, I watched the first responders work their flaccid magic: his eyes opened briefly, but his mind refused to spark.

I’d never seen Mary scared until that moment. For once, not for herself, but for him.

She quickly gathered her emotions and started to control the damage, whispering in the medic’s frantic ear.

The scandal brightened a weeks worth of headlines. Cops and a freak out often do. Three would-be mothers stepped forward to claim Isaiah’s body. A fourth didn’t want it. That’s whom I gave it to. I drank for a week to blur the details, and bribed my way onto a Mars shuttle with the last of our joint cash.

Brian stepped off the flight deck and put his arm around my shoulder, took a swig of beer. “What’s the plan?” he said. “You want to kill her?”

“Not if I don’t have to.”

Mary laughed. “I like him.”

“You’ll have to,” he said. “We’re partners, now.”

It would be easy to knock her out, she wouldn’t expect it and Brian would back me up. But if I hurt her, there’d be electronic witnesses and with my Earth warrant, I didn’t stand a chance in court. I told myself I wouldn’t destroy myself working for Mary, and if I gave her the formula she’d destroy others. And I was a doctor with a goddamn Hippocratic conscience. First, do no harm, I thought.

I fumbled at the refrig unit and uncapped three beers, as our ship hurtled on through the blackening night. After giving Ricky his beer, I held out the other two for Mary to pick from. Instead, she grabbed his. “You’d never hurt him.”

“I would if it hurt you,” I said. She hadn’t relaxed and still didn’t trust me. Just like I knew she would.

Ricky took Mary’s beer and his face flushed, it was the first time I’d seen him with some color. He set it down and steadied himself on the rail.

I took a swig of my own beer and counted the seconds. “A toast to family,” I said. Ricky and Brian followed my example, but Mary didn’t touch hers.

The smart move was to forget, let her have the formula. Whatever happened, I’d be orbits away. But I threw my bottle in the holder and turned to Ricky. “It’s too bad, you’re going to be separated for so long.”

“I’m going back with her,” he said.

“You can’t, you came in on the official roster,” I said. “Luis wouldn’t dare stow you away.”

“Then I’ll go back on the same shuttle I came in on.”

“That wait list will take fucking forever,” Brian said. He leaned forward in his chair and checked coordinates, flipped a switch or two. The com box squawked lazy chatter from Main control over the hum of the instrument panel and the whine of the incessant a/c.

Mary’s face was the perfect picture of a stricken, beatific lie. “I didn’t know, Ricky. I’m so sorry.” She stroked his cheekbone with her delicate hands.

“We could be together, here,” he said.

“She’ll never stay,” I said. “She came her for blackmail. She’s only using you.”

He didn’t hesitate. “You’re a liar.” Which I should have expected. Anybody who would come to Mars to follow a deceased ex’s instructions would be too far gone for reason. Some people need to believe.

Mary ran her hand over his leather jacket, with her usual angelic warmth. “Don’t listen to her, she’d say anything to hurt me.”

Ricky smiled shyly and put his arms around her.

“Did you tell him about Isaiah?” I said.

Mary turned away and grabbed her untouched beer, tilted it back and swallowed hard. “I’m not afraid of my memories,” she said. She caught her reflection in the window and brushed back her hair. “It wasn’t about you – I wanted to help Isaiah. I couldn’t lead him where he didn’t want to go.”

“You called me before you called the ambulance.”

“Would their doctors have saved him?”

“We’ll never know,” I said.

“He remembered his parents,” she said with slow deliberation. “It was beautiful.”

And maybe that was the real reason I hated her, because that was the moment I’d missed. His cry of recognition, the peaceful exaltation, the life he saw he’d lived.

“I did love him,” she said and I finally believed it. Whether I wanted to or not.

“Not enough,” I said, “or you wouldn’t have made him your guinea pig.”

Ricky coughed but didn’t move forward. Eyes glazed, sweat ran down his forehead: I’d slipped memory meth in his beer, and the effects were kicking in. It was a low dose, but his hands still shook like a jittery rag doll and he clutched his armrest like a life raft. “I remember the last time I saw you,” he said to Mary, his head swaying. “When you said you were going out on the helicraft.” She’d been so adoring and helpful and they’d schemed for the future.

The drug opened up a high-def stop-motion past, the emotions slowed down, precise. Details you’d missed the first time became magnified – that splash of sunlight, the misplaced hair. It stripped away your past and rebuilt it without filters. I knew now he’d see things differently.

He scuffed his shoes on the aft bridge. “It’s all the same,” he said.

“Of course,” Mary said. “I haven’t changed. Look at me.”

“No, you haven’t,” he said, his voice frail and wispy. “You always look the same whether you’re telling the truth or lying.” Or when saying she cared for him while knowing she was going to walk away.

Her face shone with its usual soft incandescence. “You have to believe me.”

Agitated, he paced and mumbled, but his words were garbled: I couldn’t tell if he was going to attack her, hurt himself or blame us.

“Stay away from the deck,” Brian said and brought out his stun gun. He’d been trained to protect the flight controls at all costs and he’d never leave his post.

I backed away from Ricky toward Brian for protection. Six feet, seven, ten.

Mary edged toward the escape pod, tried to slam the door. Ricky lunged and shoved her in and slid inside and latched it himself.

“Why are you running?” we heard him say through the com line. “What are you afraid of?”

“Kiss me,” she said sharply and he complied, let go of her neck. Through the monitor, I saw him relax, breathe deeply, stare at Mary’s beatific smile.

She pressed sharply on his carotid artery. His feet slipped out from under him and he crumbled onto the deck. Blood pooled on the pod deck near his head, which must have hit the railing on the way down.

Her ethereal voice crackled through the com line. “I had 18 boring months to learn every control on those escape pods,” she said. “So don’t think you’ve got me cornered.”

She yanked the eject panel and cranked the handle. And jettisoned them both into space. I stumbled over my chair and Brian caught me and sat me down and pressed the last cold beer to my temple. The capsule shot out behind us, rocket fuel burning, and the propulsion stage dropped away.

Brian punched up the tracking radar. “We can catch them pretty easily.”

I flicked it off. “We don’t need to.”

“Those controls are shit,” he said, “but I’ll bet she can handle them.”

Her drink was spiked, too,” I said.

Brian paused, it was the first time I’d seen him get careful. “With memory meth?”

“The longer it works,” I said, “the less she’ll remember of the present.” Brian backed away. In fifteen minutes or so she wouldn’t be able to work the pod console. An hour and she’d have lost the last ten years.

Brian glanced at his flight contour hologram. “So, they should crash somewhere in Mariner Canyon.” I shrugged. She’d never make it back to the Polaris alive.

I pictured Mary shooting into the void, confident of victory, calculating a devious way to blame Ricky’s body on me. Until she forgot about Ricky and wondered who this corpse was and floated into her last memories on Earth.

The drug would send her back further and she’d be flooded with Isaiah: the chemistry and triumph, the death agony in his eyes. When it gave you the full past, it fried the present. I’d spent all my free time on Mars figuring out why that happened. Humans can’t handle that much unfiltered information: it had been the flaw in our thinking all those years.

Brian ignored the squawk of the console. “Lucky she drank from Ricky’s bottle.”

“Totally predictable,” I said. The Mary version of game theory. “If offered two choices, she’d always want the third one.”

The tiny white pod receded and dropped into the sparkling, haunted sky.

Brian dumped the beer bottles into the waste cache, fished in my jacket and grabbed out the empty pill container. “I was wrong,” he said. “This is finished.” His hands were as shaky as mine.

I nodded. “I’ll burn my journals.”

He looked out the porthole where the Milky Way blanketed us. “Some revenge,” he said. “She won’t remember what happened and won’t know that you killed her.”

“Mary’s my sister. We grew up together. Her last thoughts will be of me.”

I’d go back to giving shots and growing pot in my Mars motel-clinic, counting on time to rust my memories.

I still envied her, I thought.