Forgive me. This story’s a jumbled mess. I guess the drugs got the better of me. No idea where to start this, so I’ll start with the uniformed lady with a face like white dogshit.
“Miss Lynch. Why do you want to go to Mars?”
Why indeed? Nobody sane wants to go to Mars. All good. I’d practiced this line before, even drunk, even stoned, like I was right then. “I always dreamed of exploring the stars.”
“Your family, your loved ones, your friends, your colleagues? You’ll never hug them or shake their hands again. Only video chats with a three minute lag. You’ll miss birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Are you willing to make that sacrifice?”
I hoped the sunglasses covered my bloodshot eyes. I hoped my breath and armpits, reeking of Bombay Sapphire, didn’t carry. “Yes.”
“No more blue beaches, you’ll never feel the cool ocean swallow your toes in the warm sand, no more green forests full of fog and silence and rain so faint it tickles as it touches, no more snowy peaks that tower over the clouds and awe you to silence. You’ll never see anything but rusty red craters and white dry-icecaps. You really want that future?”
I never gave half a shit about the stars or the planets or anything like that, I wasn’t one of those kids with my neck craned skyward, those kids who ate up movies and stories about space, the final fucking frontier. Wonder was never a word in my world. “I’m an explorer at heart.”
“You’ll never run through an open field without a suit, and only hours at a time, lest the radiation bake you. You’ll never see a breathtaking pink or orange or red sunrise or sunset again, just a tiny gray smear on the Martian horizon. You’ll miss out on what it means to be human. Why do you want to go to Mars?”
Because dad had found me. “I love space, loved it since childhood.”
A window opened behind her. A rocket forty stories tall loomed on the launchpad and rolled my heart along a gravel path. She smiled. “You step aboard, goodbye Earth. Life flutters away forever. You’re really going to throw it all away?”
She wouldn’t stop me. If anyone’d stop me, it’d be me. A thousand people before me’d gotten weak-kneed at the sight of that rocket and turned back. I was about to too. What the hell was I doing?
Dad’d pinged my private email days ago. I’d read his brief words about wanting to reconnect and my chest clenched and my childhood came back and I cried. I recalled a warm summer day when I, bruises ringing my neck, crept to the garage and took one of dad’s rifles, the old breechloader he called the forty-five seventy, and placed the barrel in my mouth. It tasted cold on my tongue, it tasted of motor oil, it tasted bitter and burned a little, and it smelled of synthetic orange-citrus, that cleaning solvent I loved to sniff. The barrel was too long for my hand, so I braced the gun on the ground and stuck my big toe on the cold trigger. I laughed and wailed at the same time. It’d be so easy to stop the pain, but I couldn’t do it, as if an invisible, immovable hand clenched my big toe and stopped it from twitching a titch to throw my brains across the garage ceiling. I was eleven.
“I want to go to Mars.”
The lady with the white dogshit face nodded. “Very well. Sign here, and it’s all over.”
My hand hovered, pen ready. I was afraid that invisible hand would stop me again, stop me from signing the form, stop me from this long-overdue suicide. I thought about the beauty and ugliness Earth offered. I thought about my coffin-sized flat that gave me panic attacks, and thought about how much worse it’d be on Mars. I thought about all those bowls of kush and bottles of Bombay Sapphire and acid blotters that’d colored my life, drugs I’d never find on Mars. I thought about the times I’d escaped the social credit ratings, only to return to buy bread or be deemed “not a deviant” on the dating nets or to snag a bottom feeder job to earn a few dollars to dream with. I thought about how dad’d found me no matter how many times I tried to disappear from Earth.
I took a deep breath. I signed the waiver.
She inspected it. “Diamond Lynch. What a pretty name.”
Or a stripper’s name or a porn star’s name, if you asked my high school classmates, before I shattered one girl’s teeth on a water fountain and got sent to juvie.
“You’re late, so you’ll get one week of space training. You have till the last day to back out.”
I feared I might back out so I popped a different drug each day. I remember little. I threw up a lot during the ascent and reentry training, got vomit into their zero gravity pools, but they didn’t care. Nobody wants to go to Mars.
After the first scientists who truly wanted to see the stars went, nobody else did. The net went wider and wider till it snagged nobodies like me. Half the trainees backed out. They remembered something worth staying for, an estranged family member, a job, an ex, or maybe a quiet beach where the soft wind brushed your cheek as if to remind you Earth wasn’t all bad.
The morning of the launch. If I cracked now, I’d have to wait till next launch, and dad might find me during those two years and two months. The colonists gathered near the launchpad with their luggages, five kilos or less, and when they saw the rocket tower over them and blot out the sun like a funeral pyre, they buckled. Their eyes glazed over and they wept. I’d mixed ten grams of shrooms, about triple the normal dose for an experienced shroomer, into a Starbucks latte and I chugged it during our last march on Earth. It hit halfway through liftoff as three g’s of force pressed me against the rocket bed, and I remember little else, just glimpses, flashes of clarity amidst utter oblivion. My pants soaked with piss and people complaining, me laughing and crying over the bizarre zero-g vacuum toilet, the two dozen wet wipes that the security tossed into my bunkbed that smelled like cleaning solvent, that smelled like childhood.
The trip was a zero-g blur. Months trapped in that sardine can, it was cramped worse than my old flat, and air fresheners puffed a horrible synthetic smell to cover up the scent of rancid piss and body odor. The vacuum toilets clogged once a week and we drew straws to see which poor schmuck had to unblock it. We got fresh fruits and veggies and meat purée out of toothpaste tubes for the first week, then flavorless mush for the rest of the trip. We each got an hour a week in a tiny gym with a zero-g treadmill. Once every few weeks, the walls groaned when the engine burned, a nuclear monstrosity behind ten centimeters of rad shielding. No windows, just little screens for movies or television or simple games. Nobody talked much because those who could chatter and make friends had reasons to stay on Earth. I’d brought an ivory chess set, my only luggage, and I played some of the other passengers, but the pieces floated off when I looked away. I beat everyone else anyways. The only person who ever beat me was dad.
Once on the trip, I felt regret, because I remembered Lila. I’d met Lila at a yoga class, the only other person there who wasn’t a middle class woman that believed in the fundamental goodness of life, that believed life was looking out for them, that struggle was something that happened to other people.
Lila spoke little and an aura of contempt wrapped her, so we bonded quick. She’d worked as a janitor at juvie, she worked as a bank teller, she worked the counter of a convenience store, and made just enough to pay for her tiny flat. I taught her chess the way dad had taught me chess, and I stayed stoned every time we played. She wore a cross around her neck and had never touched even a lick of wine. I started her on kush, moved to tequila, hit coke, then shrooms, then acid, and for once in my life, I had someone who connected with me, who didn’t hate me for who I was. But she moved to harder drugs. Meth, then heroin, then angel dust, then drugs I’d never heard of, then drugs I couldn’t pronounce. Once I found her shouting into her bathtub for three days straight, long after her throat gave out. Another time she’d huddled up beside me, a blanket over her head, and whimpered that her gums were squeezing her teeth out her skull. I checked her into rehab, she got clean, she left rehab, and the next day I found her crouched in a dumpster, clawing at her arms until her skin peeled. She forgot who I was, even when sober. She couldn’t hold a conversation anymore, even when sober. She was a shell, even when sober. That was years ago. She was the only friend I’d ever had, and I’d destroyed her. After I lost her, I wished I still had dad’s breechloader.
We reached Mars, everyone alive, no one insane. Nobody had managed to smuggle drugs aboard, so I was cleaner than Jesus, long past withdrawal, into the gray sunshine once more. The nuclear monstrosity detached and flew home while the passenger module braked through the thin Martian air. Every few days the walls groaned and the tin can shook and everyone hugged themselves or prayed. Part of me wished the bulkhead would crack open and the flaming Martian air would hurtle in and put us all out of our misery. New engines roared beneath the floor and smashed us against our bunkbeds, three g’s again, and we yowled. But soon the noise stopped, and a granite third of a g pinned us to our beds. We’d landed, Mayflower to Plymouth Rock.
The colonists from the last dozen missions came inside the craft. They didn’t have enough atmo suits and rovers so they took us fifty at a time. I laid in the backseat of a dune buggy and watched the ground roil like red ocean waves as the rover bumped up and wafted down in the low gravity. The sun was a pasty blot, just a bright star in the beige sky, and Earth was nowhere to be seen.
Dad was nowhere to be seen.
I adapted to life on Mars. It was as promised, no breathtaking sunsets, no beaches, a coffin of a room, dried, tasteless space food, though if we were lucky we sometimes got a pear or apple or some lettuce from the fields, or honey on a tortilla. I got a job growing lettuce in a transparent biodome, and sometimes I nibbled on the juicy edges and blamed it on insects when my manager raised an eyebrow. I got meager pay, but once a month I saved up enough to share a rover ride across the rusty plains. At some points we’d disembark and bounce around in the red dust and laugh at how high we could jump. But beyond the job and the excursions, we were back in another tin can, just as cramped as the ship. At least they had showers, not just wet wipes. I played chess with the other colonists, and this time the pieces stayed on the board. Months passed, and I was content.
Erika, a brooding mastiff of a woman who’d farmed Mars since almost the first base camp, became my regular chess partner. She often held the chess pieces up to the sterile white lights.
“This is probably the only ivory on Mars. You’d win big if you sold it.”
“What would I buy? I got a bunk and I don’t need more food.”
“You could buy a bigger bunk, or a private room. Oh yes, you can do that. Didn’t take a genius to realize you could carve up a bit more space in the colony and sell it for a premium. Capitalism strikes again. Or you could buy booze. Someone at the Nilosyrtis base bought up most the apples, mashed them, and distilled them.”
Even far from Earth, booze. Humans never change. It’d been almost a year since I’d tasted the bitter burn of gin, the rusty rage of tequila, the sweet hum of rum, and the thought of it almost made me scoop the set and hop on the next rover to Nilosyrtis base. I salivated at phantom tastes.
“I can’t sell this. It’s dad’s.”
“He’s a hundred million klicks away. And besides, he’s the reason you left Earth. Had I your childhood, I woulda killed your dad like I killed my Brody.”
Brody was her husband. She never told me what he did. She caught a Mars shuttle, and being chatty, confident, and hardworking, got a ticket right quick. The cops found Brody’s body hours after she left atmo. They warned security but nobody did nothing because willing colonists were a priceless commodity, felon or not.
I didn’t argue with her. Anyone who speaks of murder that way is one grudge away from ending your life. I was always afraid of her, but I enjoyed her company so we still played, night after night, after the wan sun fell, after the manager sent us home.
The months slid by. In the Martian summer, the sun swelled in the sky, the soil got hot as tarmac in a Tucson July. Many of the plants wilted, so we switched to beans and squash. A brown dust storm coated the entire planet and blotted out the windows and grounded all rover trips for a month. In the Martian winter, the sun shrank to a pinprick and frost coated our plants, so we went back to lettuce and potatoes. I lost a lot of weight.
One cold winter day, my manager caught me nibbling a lettuce head, and he berated me with the voice.
I’ve never met a woman with the voice, and very few men have the voice. Dad is one of them. Anyone can howl with all their breath, like that lady I saw get stabbed to death at two a.m. on Pike and Second, her scream so shrill it cut my ears like broken glass and razor wire, a sound that still haunts me in the wee hours of the Martian night. That death scream turns your heart to an animal, and makes you swing your fists or kick your legs.
The voice, though. If the death scream causes fight or flight, the voice causes fright. You might call it a shout or a yell or a roar, but that does it no justice. The voice is hellish, a sonorous tone that reaches a black hand around your spine, about to snap you in half. It blots out all reason and shrivels you to ash. The voice is the way my childhood home became a funeral at five-thirty p.m. when dad came home from work. The voice turns you into a puppet and can march you barefoot across a thousand infected needles because of the invincible, infinite fear imbued in it.
Even now, many years later, writing this by the night light above my bunk, I’m sobbing when I think about the voice. It brings me to tears even though my manager is a memory. I’m quiet and calm as I watch the night workers come to bed, but then I think about the voice and suddenly my heart seizes and I’m clawing at my pillow and my throat is aflame and I can’t think, I can’t think,
I can’t think.
I hate the voice.
I don’t remember what the manager said. I just know Erika found me in a broken air duct, fetal position, so many tears she thought I’d run through the lettuce sprinklers. I couldn’t speak. She pried me out and hugged me until I regained my mind. When my manager saw us and approached with anger in his eyes, Erika shot a glare that sent him scurrying away. He’d heard rumors about her husband. I wish I had Erika’s strength.
That night over chess, Erika offered me a plastic baggy of apple cider. It tasted sweet and burned and for a moment, it took me back to every single drug I’d snorted, sniffed, smoked, chewed, and injected over the years, every rush, every trip, every high, every low, every upper, every downer. It tasted like nostalgia.
From then on, Erika always shared some cider during our chess games. She stayed close at the biodome and the manager never used the voice again. Sometimes I think Erika was the dad I should’ve had. Sometimes I see Lila in her, and it terrifies me to think I might lose her like I lost Lila. If Erika ever dipped too deep into the cider well, I’d intervene. I’d be strong, I’d steal her cider baggies if she every spiraled downwards, her murderous attitude be damned.
Late one night, both of us drunk on cider, Erika rented the seats to a rover and drove to an empty crater far from the colony. We chatted and joked until the sun rose. On Earth, the sunrise sets the sky aflame and sends every worthless poet from Michigan to Missouri scurrying to write their latest hackneyed piece about its beauty. But on Mars, the sunrises are meager. A pale blob peeks up and colors the sky from bland black to bland blue and lights the land dull red. Earth’s sunrise can be breathtaking, Mars’s sunrise reminds you of the shithole you’re stuck in. But it brought Erika to tears. She burbled about how beautiful it was. Except for that time, I never saw her cry.
I joked that she’d drunk too much, but that just annoyed her. A month later, she rented a rover and watched the sunrise without me.
Another ship launched from Earth, several hundred more lowlifes ready to join our colony. The builders and mechanics tore apart the old colony modules and made a new housing pod. For a few months, we had extra space. Some people played low-gravity basketball or football or soccer, and I even picked up a few bruises in a few games. The ship landed, we assimilated the fresh meat, and we took their beds and filled out the new housing. More workers, more spare parts, more food reserves, but life went on as before.
The seasons passed. A solar storm hit the planet and an bluish aurora appeared, sometimes visible even in daylight. I had to wear a space suit when I farmed in the biodome. The squash grew gnarly, inedible bulges that soon swallowed each fruit, and we threw out half the crop. My manager developed melanoma, and Erika was promoted to replace him. He wasted away for two months, then died.
I never visited his death bed, but I went to his funeral. They put him on a rover and rolled out to a crater a few klicks from the colony, where two dozen graves lay marked with plastic scraps carved to crosses. Nobody had anything to say about him. He had no loved ones, no friends in the colony, and nobody on Earth had missed him, so we dug a ditch three feet deep, tossed him in, covered him up, then rushed back before the solar storm gave us all cancer.
That night, Erika brought several cider baggies she’d saved, and we got drunker than we’d ever been since landing. We played drunken chess and laughed through every game.
After I beat Erika yet again, she threw a black pawn and shattered it. “How are you so damned good?”
“Whenever dad got drunk, he’d play chess with me. We played a thousand times, but I never beat him.”
“Why’d you play? Didn’t you get discouraged?”
“As long as he played with me, he’d keep drinking. Whenever dad drank, he was a nice man. Sober, he was a monster.”
Erika collected the ivory pieces. “It’s usually the other way around.”
“That’s what every therapist said. One accused me of making up stories, because my case didn’t fit her stereotypes. Or at least she did until I broke her nose. For a long time, I thought something was wrong with me, that if I didn’t fit the bill, that maybe everything dad did was my fault, or maybe I’d imagined it all, and I was the one who’d screwed up somewhere, somehow.”
Erika hugged me. “You should’ve broken more noses. You never screwed up anywhere, life just screwed you.”
I hugged her back. In all my life, nobody’d ever told me I wasn’t a fuckup, nobody’d ever tried to dispel that doubt that’d loomed in my mind ever since childhood, ever since all those fights in school, ever since juvie, ever since all those drug-binges. Nobody’d ever told me I was worth a damn until her. I didn’t know what to make of it. I stayed up all night, my face in her shoulder, weeping.
The solar storm faded. The seasons turned. The next summer, news rippled through the colony. A geologist had found an subsurface thorium deposit, seven hundred times more concentrated than any deposit on Earth, at some upland called Arabia Terra. The colonists tore down the newest housing pod and relocated hundreds of people to the uplands. Me and Erika stayed tending the farms, but now we had to load up the rovers every morning with fresh fruits and vegetables for the miners. The scientists who’d been on Mars from the beginning chattered in excited tones and scribbled equations and numbers on papers. We heard rumors the next colony ship would be a fleet, that China was preparing a fleet too, that the Martian population would soon boom, that this quiet life of cramped solitude was on its way out. In the coming years, Mars would grow more similar to Earth, and all those things we ran away from would follow us after all.
The scientists at Nilosyrtis base revealed they had a small rocket that could make it back to Earth. They’d kept it hidden this whole time, lest someone try for home. They loaded the rocket with thorium, hit the autopilot, and up it raced. I was in the biodome, and I caught a glimpse of the tiny star arcing towards heaven like a beacon that foretold a future few of us wanted.
That deception never sat well with the workers. Rumors of a second hidden rocket abound. Some said a third rocket even laid in wait. The colony grew on edge. Several people were promoted to security, and as it turned out, the scientists had many unused tasers for them.
A month later, another rocket went up, another glittering star leaving us for good. The rumors roiled. Some people said it had passengers on it, a homesick scientist, or perhaps a security guard had hijacked it, some crazed, deranged woman who wanted to see Saturn’s rings in person, so she stole the ship and charted a course for the impossible, her delta-v never high enough to come close. That last story still persists, even today as I write this. It makes for a good bedtime story, the insane ghost that haunts a ship lost in a solar orbit, always screaming, “Burn more! More! More!”
The thorium hit Earth, and it sent the blue planet drooling. The rumors about the next fleet swelled, and some said a million colonists were coming. Some said China forced people onto ships with a lottery. But worst of all, there was talk of law and order being imposed when the new fleet arrived. Real gestapo goons who wouldn’t tolerate our Wild West attitudes, people who’d turn this red planet blue.
After a third rocket shot up from Nilosyrtis base, me and Erika stayed in the biodome at night and watched the Milky Way spin ever so slow overhead.
Erika had lost her glow the last few months, and her face was always aimed at the stars nowadays. “I guess we couldn’t run forever.”
“I guess not.”
“Maybe there was something to the space ghost story. Maybe we should hijack a rocket and race to Saturn. We’d die alone in a tin can with nothing but void around us. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
Erika nibbled on a lettuce head. “What do you think they’ll do to me? Prison? Execution?”
“If you reveal what your husband did, maybe they’ll show sympathy.”
“No. Society doesn’t run on sympathy, especially not Earth’s.”
The bad news came days later. A fleet launched from Earth, eleven colony ships and four cargo ships. China had launched three ships too. That stupid thorium deposit had ruined Mars for us. Our little wisp of freedom wafted away.
I went to bed that night but Erika stayed up. Before dawn, she paid for a rover and never came back. The next morning, they tracked her to a crater rim in Arabia Terra, and found her leaning against a rock, face to the pale sun. She’d watched one last Martian sunrise, then taken off her helmet and asphyxiated.
I helped dig a spot for her in the little graveyard outside the colony. Her face was purple and spotted with red. We laid her in that shallow ditch and covered her with Martian regolith. She was never one to catch the wind.
I don’t cry for her. She wouldn’t have liked that. But I miss her. God damn it I miss her.
Months passed and the colony’s mood soured. We could do nothing but savor our fleeting freedom. The new ships landed, and we worked overtime to take in thousands of newcomers. We tore apart their ships to build new housing pods and new farming biodomes. The cargo ships came with new seeds, air purifiers, rovers, spare parts, a thorium reactor, food packets to last years. We worked for months to ensure our burgeoning colony supported everyone. And just as rumors had predicted, the new ships came with professional security, women and men with assault rifles, not just tasers anymore, and they took control of our commune. A dozen colonists were arrested for crimes they’d committed on Earth, and a jail was carved out of an old colony module. They found the distillery and taxed the cider until no one could afford it. Erika got out at the right time.
One cold winter day while I was hosing lettuce, I looked up and saw dad. I almost screamed.
He looked so different. His beard was gone, and in its place, a gray, emaciated face. Those eyes, always so full of sober rage, had deadened to dull gleams. He was short, shorter than me. I last saw him when I was a freshman in high school, right before I went to juvie, and back then he towered over me. I’d grown so much in juvie that he was a paper doll before me. But no matter how pathetic he looked, my heart still seized. I wanted to flee, but I was paralyzed.
“Diamond.” He smiled but I couldn’t read it. “It’s been so long.”
He tried to hug me but I jerked back and forced him into a handshake instead. I couldn’t look him in the eyes, no matter how hard I tried.
He chatted and I was polite and demure, just like he’d demanded when I was a kid. I remember little of what he said, just that he’d taken a job as a miner at the thorium pits, and I told him about what I’d been up to. Every time he spoke, I was afraid he’d use the voice, I saw visions of him lashing out and tearing me apart. But as the minutes ticked by, I found him harmless. It infuriated me. This man had destroyed my childhood and sent me down a path of ashes, and now here he was, talking like a gentleman who’d just found an old friend. I’d almost killed myself six times before I’d finished high school, all because of him, and he was now just a nice old man, happy, content, and eager to reconnect with his victims. Even now as I write this, it seems so unfair that a monster like him never got his comeuppance.
If Erika was here, she would’ve murdered him right there. I wanted to. But I couldn’t. The primal pathways of my brain had been shaped by years of his terror, and I’d never be able to raise a fist against him. I still wake sometimes, my pillow wet with tears, from dreams of childhood.
After an eternity of small talk, dad left. Erika had escaped her past but mine was back in the front row. I knew he’d be back. I knew in his mind he saw himself as a decent man, happy to see his daughter again, and nothing would ever convince him otherwise, especially not at his age.
That night, I thought of Erika and how quick she’d chosen suicide. I thought about Lila and how she’d dulled life’s pain with drugs until she was barely alive. I thought about my future, and wondered which way out would suit me best. I’d fled to Mars to escape dad and he’d followed.
The only place left to run was hell.
I laid in the biodome and watched the universe swim by. I remembered what Erika had told me, that I wasn’t the fuckup, that the world was the fuckup. It’d dealt me a shit hand, and I’d played it as best as I could, and I’d never folded.
I’d never folded.
The next morning before dawn, I invited dad to a game of chess. I brought the ivory set, nicks and all, even the black pawn that Erika had broken long ago.
He chuckled, a rumbling that hinted at the voice. “So that’s where that went. You stole it when you got shipped off to juvie.”
“How about this? Best me in one game, and I’ll give it back.”
He accepted. The thought of him beating me one more time hung heavy on my head. My palms sweat. He still played so aggressive, less like a tactician and more like a murderer cornering his victim, his actions not based on careful thought but on bullying his opponent into submission. But I was ready. My skills had grown savage from all those games with Erika, and I never let him cow me. His vicious attacks turned to dust, and as his shoulders drooped with each failure, I saw his soul. I saw a man who had no friends, a man estranged from any who knew him, an ex-wife who hated him, two sons who hated him, and nobody at all to call family except perhaps a daughter on Mars, so he’d chased her there, only to find she hated him too. I saw a man pushing seventy who’d never see his grandkids, a man who’d celebrate all his last Christmases and Thanksgivings alone, a man too old a start a new family, a man who’d caused all this himself, a man who’d have an empty funeral, a man whose death would bring no tears.
I annihilated him. He never asked for a second game. We both knew he couldn’t beat me anymore.
He made excuses about being rusty but I saw his eyes glaze over. His victory days were over, and he knew it. The last light in his future faded and only a slate path beckoned. He left for the Terra Arabia mines, and I never saw him again.
I gathered the chess set and rented out all the seats of a rover excursion. The sky was still dark when I drove the rover out to the little graveyard. I dug a tiny grave next to Erika’s and tossed every last ivory piece inside, then covered it with regolith and placed a little cross above it. I sat beside Erika and waited for the sun to peek above the horizon.
It rose as before, nothing inspiring about it. The sun warmed me and formed tiny dust eddies by my feet. It brought pale light to the land and sky. Its rise disappointed me as it always did. I thought no one would ever write a poem about something so meager.
And then I finally understood why Erika found the Martian sunrise so beautiful.