Charlotte H. Lee

Story image for Marciano by Charlotte H. Lee


> Dear Vader,

> Today started out kinda scary. The lights went out at breakfast because of all the mirrors that broke during yesterday’s dust-up. They didn’t turn off all of a sudden so much as slowly turn down to nothing. Dr. Davis was really mad at someone about it*—*something about the photo synthesizers not getting enough light so a bunch of keyotes (whatever those are) died.

> Mom says it’s rude to eavesdrop but the inside walls are too thin not to hear, especially when Dr. Davis really gets his dander up. He’s real loud, and his voice echoes off the outside walls. I’m glad he doesn’t have any kids, he scares me even from four units over. I can’t imagine how scary he must be if he was yelling at me. It makes me miss Earth cuz at least there we had a house with real walls and shouty neighbours weren’t so much of a bother.

> The only thing better about being on Mars is school. It’s nowhere near as boring as it was on Earth, and I don’t have to put up with dummies holding me back. Less homework!

> Love, Yvgenia

Orbit-sml ><

S carlene Yugolio tightened the straps of her air exchanger cap, making sure the seal was tight against the smooth, matte black surface of her cellskin. She squinted against the airlock’s overhead bio-luminescent lights, shining brighter than noon on a clear sol. Her energy level was already perking up. Another couple of hours like this and her thick second skin be closer to glossy silver than black. She didn’t understand why foreigners were so hung up on clothing, solar charging body mods just made sense and all that fabric got in the way. She sighed, not looking forward to the sidelong glances and rooms that went silent when she walked in.

Perhaps Ingmar was right: Earther contracts weren’t worth the hassle, however much they paid. As much as she loved her partner, on those rare occasions they argued his tendency to gloat when he was right sometimes made her think twice about going home after a project wrapped up. She could still turn around and hop back into her rover, leave this Earther pustule to burst or fade away on its own, and drive into the sunset that framed a distant Olympus Mons. Tempting as those thoughts were, though, the pay from this gig would keep her lab going for another two years. Perhaps long enough for her to nail down that new soil converter. Then she could laugh all the way to the bank—and the total freedom to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Become a woman of leisure. Fire every annoying client with problems she didn’t give two puffs about.

Bold red letters flashed on a panel next to the interior door, counting upward as the air pressure increased, tightening its grip on her with each tick. The computer’s voice, once soft and difficult to hear, grew uncomfortably loud. Scarlene adjusted her hearing for Earther atmo pressure, turning the volume down to almost zero. How did they put up with no control over their hearing? It was one of the first mods installed in Martian infants. No sense in disturbing everyone in the vicinity when you wanted to take the tunes loud. Or turn down the volume to keep from going crazy during a dust up. Or at night, when the business of Rhea Sylvia went to sleep and the caterwauling of someone’s offspring carried loud and clear.

The panel switched to a steady green at 101 kilo-pascals and the door slid aside smoothly. Scarlene stepped through into the station’s expansive, low-lit vestibule, pulling her battered but sturdy wheeled case along with her. Artifacts from early Martian history decorated walls, hung suspended, and rested on columns surrounding the central elevator’s housing, each basking in its own soft spotlight. Most of the artifacts were replicas, she knew, but irritation rippled through her when her gaze landed on Sojourner. Her government had been trying to wrest it from the US government for over 150 years. They’d so far refused on the basis that it had been funded by their programs. Not too many years more and the poor thing would oxidize away to nothing. They even refused to put it into an atmo controlled display case, claiming budgetary constraints. Another fine example of the cheap trogs showing no respect for Mars or its people.

The elevator’s opening doors drew her attention away from the prize and back to the matter at hand. Her welcoming committee, five squat Earthers, filed out and processed in her direction. A decade of interfacing with Earthers had made their slow movements, compensating for a gravity not much more than one third of their normal, less annoying than it used to be. That could be just her mellowing with age. Or maybe it was the distraction of feeling like she was being crushed by the very air. By this time tomorrow their languidness could once again be as annoying as school tours of her crop bubbles.

“Welcome to Terra Nova, Dr. Yugolio,” the leader of the group, said. “I am Dr. Kylorne Davis, Administrator of this enclave.” He reached out a hand and Scarlene squashed her distaste at having to touch him. She shook his hand, then surreptitiously wiped his oils off her palm on her bag. To her relief, the others contented themselves with answering nods and curious stares as they were introduced in turn.

“Thank you, Dr. Davis,” Scarlene said. She noted the winces her voice evoked, and lowered the volume of her augmented larynx. “I hope my help will benefit you. I understand you don’t feel the avian infection is Terran in origin?”

Davis gestured to the elevator, falling into step with her as she left Sojourner to the mercy of people who didn’t value it enough. “Yes. None of the birds have been in contact with any terrestrial supplies. It has to be something that either originated on Mars, or mutated from something the original birds already carried. I’m hoping it’s something you’ve seen in native stations. Luck willing, you’ll be able to whip up a treatment for us in short order.”

Scarlene stepped into the elevator, the entourage trailing her into the cage. She gritted her teeth against the press of too many people. No one else seemed to mind, though they left a hand-span’s space around her and Davis. She suspected it was out of deference to their boss rather than respect for her Martian sensibilities. Davis seemed determined to stay in her personal space, however.

“I assume you’ve already reviewed airlock decontamination logs?” Scarlene asked.

“Of course,” Davis said. He puffed out his chest, a self-satisfied smile dimpling his left cheek. “In doing so, I isolated the previously unidentified culprit that’s been attacking our lettuces. That one was a Martian native, but so close to Bremia lactucae that our decon procedure didn’t target it. My protocol update is now being implemented in all Earth enclaves on Mars.”

Scarlene nodded and said, “Not bad for an engineer. You should be proud.” She tried not to stare at the dimple but it kept drawing her eye like a rapidly approaching dust-up.

Davis already ruling out imported bacteria would make her job easier. Martian bacteria were just as complex as their Terran counterparts, but not yet as diverse. Identifying it and developing an antibacterial should be relatively quick.

The rest of the ride down to the central hub of the enclave passed in silence. The door slid back to reveal the standard Earther station layout. Davis gestured for her to precede him out, indicating a nondescript grey pressure door halfway around the ring. The rest of the party trailed along behind silently as they strode past the other spoke entries, Davis moving easier against the floor’s magnetic pull on his clothes. Not a wealthy station, then, she noted. Mag plates rather than the state-of-the art grav plates installed at the new station in Hellas Planitia.

The mock gravity pull dragged uncomfortably on Scarlene’s longer limbs. One more annoyance.

“I’ll have someone show you to your quarters, but I thought you’d like to see the lab first,” Davis said, palming open the target door. It rumbled aside, revealing standard issue hydroponic walls. This particular corridor seemed to be dedicated to dwarf varieties of rice and barley, with the occasional decorative flower popping out colour here and there to keep the bees coming by.

Scarlene hummed her assent. “That would be efficient, thank you. I can inventory what supplies are already available, then someone can gather the remaining materials while I settle in and attend to my water pressure.”

“Exactly what I was thinking. I’m sure our atmosphere can’t be comfortable for you until you make the necessary adjustments,” Davis said, his smile sagging as his gaze darted to her neck and its hidden exchanger. It wouldn’t take much for that smile to devolve into disdain and she was fully prepared to demolish his perceived superiority over homo remus.

After passing a number of doors, they finally came to a dimly lit lab, its security panel a bright green. Through the open hatch, Scarlene could see an assortment of equipment, forlorn in their dust sheathes. It was a sin to have this much equipment unused, waiting around for some use to be found. She stepped across the threshold, careful not to trip over the pressure door’s track, exhaling a thankful breath when the lights came up automatically. On the last Earther station all the lighting had been voice activated, each room requiring voice security imprinting. What a hassle that had been, and the bruises on her shins had taken sols to fade.

“Well, I will leave you to it,” Davis announced, drawing Scarlene’s eyes back to the administrator. He appointed one minion to remain behind with instructions to take her to her quarters after receiving her list, then left with as much pomp as any person could without performing an overt ceremony. Scarlene pulled open the nearest drawer and started inspecting its contents.

The minion cleared her throat. “Excuse me, Dr. Yugolio?”

“Yes?” Scarlene had already forgotten her name.

“We really appreciate you coming to help us. We’ve been at a loss on this, what with Dr. Etienne getting recalled and all.”

Scarlene shrugged. “The tender was attractive. I won the bid. We have a contract.” She turned back to digging through the drawer. “If that makes you feel good, then it was an easy win for me.” The woman stayed silent, but Scarlene felt disappointment radiating off her in waves.

A heavy silence settled over the lab and Scarlene glanced over her shoulder, catching the Earther in an unguarded expression of hurt. When the woman realized Scarlene was looking her way, her face cleared to polite attentiveness. A twinge of shame prompted Scarlene to try to ease the tension. “Was Dr. Etienne your only bacteriologist?”

“The only one well versed in Martian bacteria. Terra Nova is focused on testing low-g farming practises to be used elsewhere, not for here. After all, Mars already has their own farming figured out.” The minion offered up a tentative smile. “Most of our testing is in artificial atmospheres. For example, I’m developing a barley strain that can handle a three percent methane atmosphere.”

“Ah, for that impending colony effort to Grissom in Alpha Centauri?”

The botanist nodded. “Yes. It doesn’t make sense to have a colony ship, loaded to the gills with farming equipment, try to figure out how to get their crops to grow after they get there. Forty years is a long trip home if their food crops fail.”

“Indeed.” Scarlene forced herself not to react to the ‘gills’ comment, but the minion figured out her faux pas on her own. She flushed crimson and bit her lip, but at least she had the grace to not try to dig herself out of the mistake.

The lab door squeaking open distracted them both from the conversation, and a young girl of about ten came in. Her hair was pulled back into tight braids, but that was about the only thing tidy about her.

The woman crossed to the door, intercepting the mobile petri-dish. “Yvengia, what are you doing here? And why are you such a mess?”

“Patty said that there’s a Martian here and that you have to work with her.”

Scarlene waited to see how the woman responded to this intrusion. If she failed to handle it sensibly, then Scarlene would immediately ask for a replacement. There was nothing in her contract that mentioned providing entertainment for nosey children.

“That’s a rude thing to say, Yvgenia Lubov,” the woman said sternly. “It’s also rude for you to barge into a room without permission. You know better than this.” She looked up at Scarlene, trying to cover her embarrassment with a smile. “Please excuse me for a few minutes, Doctor. I’ll be right back after I get my daughter properly situated.”

Scarlene waved a hand in dismissal. “Take your time but, before you go, point me to something I can write a list on.”

The minion produced a tablet from a thigh pouch and offered it to Scarlene. “You can use my notepad until I can get one issued to you. Just use the guest log in—the password is ‘Welcome1’, capital double-u, digit one.” Her eyes crinkled in wry amusement. “Our IT people aren’t especially original.”

Scarlene accepted the offering wordlessly, not wanting to prolong the Earther child’s stay. She resumed her inspection of the drawer’s contents, turning her back on the retreating pair.

Orbit-sml ><


> Dear Vader,

> Lights went out again today so no school! Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me keep the flashlight after bedtime so I just stubbed my toe on my desk. It still hurts, but I don’t feel any blood so it can’t be that bad, I guess. I hope the solar mirrors get fixed fast. Being underground with no lights on isn’t scary after the first hour or so, it’s just dark and boring.

> If I’m allowed to go to back to school tomorrow, I’m going to ask the teacher why the mirrors broke. We’ve had dust storms before and they didn’t break. I asked at dinner, but Mom and Dad just looked at each other and told me to finish my plate. I’m never going to do that to my kids—I’m going to be a much, much better parent. You can hold me to it, Vader. I solemnly promise that.

> Love, Yvgenia

> PS. I hope Tommy Meisnecht missed me today.

Orbit-sml ><

S carlene pressed the doorbell icon on Administrator Davis’s suite panel. She heard the resulting chime through the door, the sour thought that it should sound like one of his dusty chickens flickering across her mind. She kept the thought to herself, though. No need to broadcast her disdain of the administrator, or his precious poultry, to the minion hovering behind her. The woman was so close her breath tickled Scarlene’s ear cap, though at least the thin coverall Scarlene now wore to block at least some of the brightness in this wretched station kept the Earther’s lung particles off the rest of her body. She had to firmly remind herself that a significant factor in her crankiness was because she’d been riding too close to her overcharge limit for too long. She always managed to forget that detail between contracts.

“Yes?” Davis’s voice asked sharply from the panel’s speaker.

“It is Dr. Yugolio. I need to speak with you.”

Seconds ticked past in silence. Just as Scarlene was considering whether to press the doorbell again or to turn on her heel and march out of this doomed hole in the ground, the door slid back. Davis stood there, an undyed woollen robe—identical to the one they had provided her—belted over prim pyjamas. Judging from the tousled hair and patchy shadow of growth on the lower half of his face, she had woken him.

“My apologies for calling you from your bed, Doctor,” Scarlene began, doing her best to use the title without sounding ironic. She had yet to understand why any mechanical engineer felt the need to obtain his doctorate, but his pointed correction of his title when she’d addressed him as ‘Administrator’ had made it crystal clear that the honorific meant a great deal to him. “I have made a discovery that you will need to take immediate action on. Every moment counts.”

Scarlene had only ever said words like that once before. The response then had been concern and anxiety. What she got from this Earther was something entirely different.

“I find that unlikely, Doctor,” Davis said, suspicion pulling his thick eyebrows together over the bridge of his pointy nose. “In my experience, careful and appropriate responses are best decided upon by those who are properly rested.” He sniffed. “However, you are here and I am up, so you may as well come in.” He held out a hand, angling his fingertips toward a drab grey sofa set under a holographic projection of a dock jutting out over an Earther lake, an arboreal forest dimly seen through a dawning morning.

Once Scarlene made it to the sofa, she sank down to the edge of the firm cushion, letting the abysmal gravity have its way with her. She waited for the administrator and his minion to take their own seats in the facing arm chairs before she spoke. “Thanks to the second system breakdown I have a new angle of approach. The organism attacking your avians is not, in fact, bacterial.” He nodded impatiently in response. “The virus is, after all, Earther in origin rather than Martian. It is also an aggressive one. The good news is that it isn’t interested in humans—either homo sapiens or homo remus*—*and it is unlikely that it will spread beyond this installation.”

She paused for effect. “It is, however, very interested not only in your chickens but in the prokaryote mats you use in your nitrogen conversion process. In fact, it’s more interested in those than the birds.”

The only response Davis gave was a raising of his eyebrows. Scarlene ploughed on. “So far, I’ve confirmed one of your mats in a secondary processor to be infected. Judging by my observation of the virus’s life cycle, that infection began sometime within the last forty-eight hours. Since then, the virus has nearly wiped out the processor.”

The administrator flicked a glance at the Earther. “Polina, which processor is she referring to?”

“The secondary back-up for cell A-15,” Polina said. The botanist’s voice gave away nothing of what she thought of Terra Nova’s predicament, which Scarlene admired her for.

“So, nothing of a critical nature by any means.” Davis turned his attention back to Scarlene. “Definitely nothing worth waking anyone up for.”

“Sir, I said it is the only one I have confirmed. I did not mean to imply that it is likely to be the only one infected. Given how quickly it took down the processor I checked, I believe it’s imperative you begin testing all your systems. Immediately.” She held the man’s eye for a long moment. When she was sure she had his full attention, however grudgingly, she went on, “I suspect it may already be too late for remediation, and you may have to begin evacuation procedures now.”

“Evacuation? Because one secondary processor in an out-of-the-way system has gone down? Based on a wild conclusion that there’s a connection? First I want proof that it’s related to whatever made the birds sick, and then I want it verified by my own people.” Davis snorted his contempt. “No, Doctor, evacuation is highly unlikely.”

He rose to his feet, folding his hands together in front of himself. “I thank you for responding to our call for help, but clearly you were not the person for the job.”

Scarlene stubbornly remained seated. “Dr. Davis, I think you aren’t taking this matter as seriously as you should be. If you wait any longer before you begin testing, you could be without circulating air in seventy-twohours.” She drew in a deep breath, and forced her body into stillness. “I have no cause to lie about this, or to exaggerate the situation. Please think of the personnel under your care.”

Davis’s bushy brows beetled down into a dark scowl. “I believe I am taking this as seriously as necessary, Dr. Yugolio. I also believe that you are being alarmist for reasons not yet known. There has never been a case recorded of a viral infection in processors. Not once in the over two hundred years since the first Earth enclave was built here. That’s a hundred years longer than your species has even existed. The odds of it happening are a million to one.”

“And still, sir, the virus has spread. It is attacking your air processing and power generation. You need to begin testing and remediation immediately, or you will endanger the lives of every living being in Terra Nova.” Scarlene glanced at Polina, who’d risen along with the administrator to stand awkwardly in front of her chair, hands gripped together so tightly the skin over her knuckles was as white as the early morning sun.

“That will be enough,” Davis bit out sharply, his voice rising above normal conversational levels. “You have brought your concerns forward. I have listened to them. I will consider them. And I will act as I consider appropriate.”

Scarlene opened her mouth to argue further but he cut her off again, this time more loudly than before, “I will not listen to any more of this nonsense. Your fear mongering is not welcome. Your services are no longer required. Consider this a formal request for you to be on your way.”

Scarlene closed her eyes and counted to three, struggling to hold onto her temper in the face of this idiot’s lunacy. “Doctor, I beg you, for the sake of all the lives you are responsible for, please listen to reason. I have nothing to gain—”

“I know all about you and your kind,” Davis boomed, his face flushing redder than a chicken’s comb. “Isolationist bigots, every jack one of you. You think you’re so evolved, but really you’re nothing but circus freaks.”

Scarlene snapped down the gain on her hearing, and shoved herself up to her feet, struggling against the pull of Earth gravity. That last inconvenience, minor though it was, was enough to fray away the final thread on her temper.

“Believe of me as you wish, Administrator. Unfortunately for you, though, not only are you behaving in a way that is going to get people pointlessly killed, but I will be suing Terra Nova Corp for breach of contract. I doubt your senior executive will look kindly on that.” Scarlene stretched her lips tight in a snarl. “If you’re very lucky, you’ll live to see me win enough in damages to never have to take another Earther contract ever again.”

With that she strode across the carpet, ignoring the incoherent sputtering coming from the arrogant trog. With all her attention on fighting to keep her balance, she didn’t realize her appointed shadow was right behind her until she felt cold air replace the woman’s grip on her elbow. They were halfway to the central hub before the door to the idiot’s quarters slid shut, only then cutting off the stream of abuse aimed at her back.

Scarlene let out a huff and sucked in a new breath. The taste of lavender, exuding from the pretty purple flowers dotting the hydroponics lines of the corridor, did nothing to soothe her agitation. She felt a pang of pity for the Earther trailing her. Polina Matvalta had a family—a husband and a young daughter—who could die because of that narcissistic fool. Scarlene may not like kids, but most people liked their own kids a great deal more than they liked anyone else.

Belatedly, Scarlene noticed that the botanist had been speaking. “—can understand how upset you must be,” Polina was saying. “Please, let me make some calls. I think I know who can get the Administrator’s order overridden. Dr. Yugolio, please believe me, I’m horrified by his behaviour. I can only imagine how you must be feeling right now.”

Scarlene slowed her steps. “I appreciate the effort, Polina. I have to admit, he got to me.”

“Will you come with me? It would be helpful if you presented your findings personally.”

The temptation to simply pass over her notes and accept Davis’s word on her dismissal was almost more than she could resist. What did she owe these rotten Earthers? Not a damned thing. She’d put up with enough micro-aggressions since she’d gotten here to last the rest of her lifetime.

The silent pleading in her assistant’s eyes, though, would need a tougher person than her to deny. She sighed in resignation and nodded, accepting the profusion of gratitude with as much grace as she could muster.

Orbit-sml ><


> Dear Vader,

> I think the Martians are lucky, being able to go outside. I’ve never been allowed outside before, and I think it would be extro. Besides, the idea of being made part dolphin is pretty art. I looked them up. They looked like super-dupe fun creatures, all shiny and sleek. And SO fast! I mean, having dolphin skin won’t make me fast, but wearing a shell made from a creature that’s practically extinct on Earth is absolutely mons.

> I’d miss Mom and Dad, but I could be OK with only seeing them on calls instead of in person. I’d do it even if Tommy didn’t. My heart would break into a gazillion tiny pieces and I’d never, ever love anyone else again, but I’d do it anyway. I mean, who wouldn’t?

> Signing off,

> Yvgenia

Orbit-sml ><

I t was interesting to watch the shades an Earther’s face could cycle through. When she’d first gotten up to speak, Davis’s usual florid face was on the pale side, almost grey. Now, when she glanced at him on her way back to her seat behind the auditorium’s podium, it was deepening from a deep red to what must be a life-threatening purple.

Clearly, hearing her speak to the assembled residents of Terra Nova of its impending catastrophic failure provoked something primal in him. She pointedly hadn’t said his name—or even his title—but, judging by the scowls directed his way, these Earthers were a bright enough lot to figure out what a dunk he was. Scarlene had no sympathy to spare, and she intended to carry on ignoring the trog. She could allow a grain of admiration for the self-control he must’ve been exerting to stay mute, though.

“Thank you, Dr. Yugolio,” Polina Matvalta said into the microphone, stepping forward to reclaim her place before the muttering crowd. She had to raise her voice to be heard over the mounting volume. “We’ve got maybe ten days before we’re at zero percent electricity generation. Our canned air will last us a bit longer, but there won’t be any power for the fans to circulate it. The biggest problem is where we can evacuate to. There simply isn’t enough room in the nearest stations to accommodate all of us without overloading their systems.”

“How did Davis screw this up so badly?” a man shouted. An argument erupted around him, but there were so many people yelling over each other that Scarlene couldn’t make out what any of the points were. It took every ounce of self-control she had not to look across the stage at him. There was no way she’d be able to keep her satisfaction at the contempt getting thrown at him off her face.

They quieted down to a dull roar when Polina tapped the microphone. “Please, let’s all try to stay calm. We can hash out who’s to blame after we’re all safe. Right now we have to focus on finding a solution.”

An older woman shot to her feet, levelling a finger at Scarlene. “It’s that Martian, she brought it here. She’s trying to wipe us all out. Genocide in action!” The accuser’s neighbour pulled the woman back down onto her seat using more effort than necessary, disgust plain on his face. The woman winced in pain and turned an angry scowl on him. Their argument melted into the general tumult.

“What about chemical generators?” a man asked from mid-section, raising his hand for attention. “Or shutting down the new grav plates?”

Polina turned the question over to the mechanical engineer who stood waiting on her right. Scarlene sighed in frustration. They could attempt to trouble-shoot as much as they liked, but the most they’d buy themselves would be a week or two. The station didn’t have enough gravity plating to tip the scales far enough to matter, even shutting down the mag plates wouldn’t give them more than a couple days beyond that. Neither would make a dent in the eight months they needed to accommodate the remaining thirty evacuees who had nowhere to go.

Thirty out of almost three hundred. If they didn’t come up with something by the end of the meeting, they may as well draw names at random for euthanization. Better that than dying of carbon dioxide poisoning, isolated and afraid. They needed to think about this from a different angle.

“There is another option no one has yet discussed,” Scarlene said, boosting her vocal gain to cut through the crosstalk. The mix of expressions directed at her was as varied as the opinions on who was to blame for the catastrophe. “There are thirty-eight prepubescent children here. It would be hard on them, but they are young enough to accept the treatments that would guarantee their survival.”

As she expected, the room erupted again, this time in shouted denials and exclamations of disgust—some of them bigoted, others accusing her of attempting to kidnap their children. Polina Matvalta stared at her, mouth agape.

Scarlene got to her feet and raised her hand for attention, upping her volume still further to be heard over the commotion. “The option is available. What would you rather do—allow thirty children to become Martian, or choose thirty among you to die? I hope you’re not so lost to reason as to voluntarily choose death for any of your number.”

All she got in reply were shouted imprecations. She turned down her audio. Once she could think again, she noticed that it was a minority of the crowd who were doing the yelling. Most of them sat silently, fear and hopelessness turning their faces into caricatured versions of the three wise monkeys. She sat still, letting the loudest ones continue taking more than their share of oxygen until they seemed to run out of fuel.

“Think it over carefully, parents.” Scarlene sent out a silent prayer that Ingmar wouldn’t lord what she was about to commit to over her for the rest of their lives. “I would be willing to sponsor the children, make sure the older ones find apprenticeships right away, and help you find the right foster homes for the younger ones.”

The room erupted afresh.

Orbit-sml ><


> Dear Vader,

> Mom and Dad are freaked. Everyone else’s parents are, too, we don’t know why. This is something way worse than the mirrors. The adults are acting so weird. People crying, and not telling why. At first it was just confusing, but now it’s scaring me bad. They’ve suspended school, but I got a message from a year ten’er that she couldn’t unlock my next math unit because she had to pack.

> I think that’s the freakiest part. I know for sure her dad isn’t supposed to finish his rotation for another half-year.

> Gotta go, Mom is calling. I’ll fill you in later.

> Yvgenia

Orbit-sml ><

T he soft chime of an admittance request interrupted Scarlene’s hastily thrown together dinner. Steeling herself as best she could against whatever this latest childless complainant felt she needed to hear, she called out, “Yes?”

Polina Matvalta’s voice came over the speaker. “Dr. Yugolio? Could we speak with you?”

Scarlene slumped in relief. At least these visitors weren’t likely to be treating her like she was some pied piper come to lead all their children away as punishment. “Come.”

The door slid back to reveal Matvalta, a man Scarlene assumed to be her husband, and their daughter. She’d forgotten the child’s name, but not her untidiness. Scarlene rose and slid her dinner plate into the fridge, then invited the family to sit, though she resisted the urge to offer refreshments. Ingmar would be horrified by that, but he wasn’t here and wouldn’t ever have to know of Scarlene’s less than perfect hospitality.

“I wasn’t expecting to see a child quite this soon. Has everyone decided?”

Polina shook her head. “No, I imagine they’re still arguing. Some of the others may have come to see reason, though. I expect they all will shortly, but only after they’ve exhausted every possibility. No matter how improbable. I imagine by morning you’ll have had all the parents in here.” She smiled tightly. “Everyone wants their children to live, but I can’t think of a single person who could point at someone and say they have to die because we don’t want our children to look any different.”

The man spoke for the first time, saying, “That’s not fair, Polina. You have to admit that our children can’t go home with us after they’re modified.” He sighed deeply, his pain evident in the droop of his lips. “This will be a permanent separation. You have to see that.”

Scarlene opened her mouth to reply, but Polina spoke quickly. “Yvgenia can absolutely go back to Earth with us. We aren’t making any changes except for the second skin and exchanger implants. If she keeps up with gravity training, she’ll be able to return to Earth anytime.” The woman glanced at Scarlene for support, who nodded agreement.

“Polina is correct. As long as the children don’t allow their bone densities to deteriorate, they could return to Earth permanently.” She carefully didn’t add her next thought, though they may not want to since Earthers are all a bunch of bigoted yotes and the children would lead difficult lives. She was pretty sure Yvgenia’s father had the same thought, but he kept it sealed behind lips pressed so tight they almost disappeared.

Between them, the child’s brown eyes were as wide as dinner plates. “Would I have to cut off all my hair? Be bald like you?”

Scarlene nodded. “We remove all your body hair before giving you the treatment. After the treatment your hair won’t grow anymore.”

The girl reached up to run her hand over sleek, charcoal-dark plaits. “Oh. That would be weird.”

“You would get used to it, I think. To me, it would be weird to have it.”

The girl’s face turned thoughtful, but she didn’t say anything else. Her mother put an arm around her and hugged her close. “Look at it this way, I won’t be nagging you to brush it anymore.”

The father cleared his throat, drawing Scarlene’s eyes back to him. “What exactly is involved?”

She went into lecture mode, focusing more on the father than the mother and sparing little attention to the child for the moment. “The first step is to do a stem-cell harvest. We’ll use that to grow the second skin, connective strands, and casings for the exchangers.” At the look of confusion on the man’s face, Scarlene explained, “They’re commonly referred to by Earthers as ‘gills’.” Her smile turned brittle when he nodded his understanding of the derogatory slang.

“There won’t be enough time before the enclave gets down to zero power to do more than those two alterations. But that’s only provided we make the call to Rhea Sylvia for the delphina scaffolding by tomorrow morning.

“The process itself is similar to an Earther skin graft, in that we mesh stitch the new skin to the surface of her body using the connective strands. After that, it becomes a waiting game for the solar cell materials to bond to the outer layer of the second skin. The solar cells are made from a fine alloy of silicon, gallium arsenide and…”

Scarlene continued, condensing as much of the hard bio-science as she could in the interest of time, knowing she was going to have to go over the whole thing again using simpler language for the girl. With each question answered, the stiffness in the husband’s shoulders eased. Tension bled out of Scarlene’s own shoulders in response and she let herself gradually relax back into her chair.

She glanced at the child, who sat huddled between her parents, looking like a lamb that’s just figured out its mother is nowhere to be seen.

“I imagine all that sounds pretty scary to you,” she said. When the child nodded wordlessly, Scarlene dug for a reassuring smile. “It won’t be easy and it won’t be comfortable, but it won’t hurt very much. You’ll be asleep for the procedures, and you won’t feel a thing while you’re sleeping. Your neck will be sore for a few days where the diverter gets inserted, and you’ll be tempted to scratch at the new cellskin. When babies get theirs we put mitts on them so they don’t damage it. I’m sure we’ll be able to scrounge up gloves so you can rub at the itches without causing any harm. We’ll also make sure to keep as many wet towels around as we can—it helps reduce the itch. Once the inner skin has bonded to the stitches and you’ve drawn some insulation water to act as your radiation barrier, the itching will go away.”

The child managed to pull up enough courage to ask, “How long will it itch for?”

“At your age, about two or three days. We can leave you asleep for the whole time you’re in the tank, but it would be better if you’re awake and practising with the exchanger.”

Yvgenia seemed to take solace in the promise, straightening up a little between her parents. “Is it hard to learn how to work it? The exchanger, I mean?”

“I was a baby when mine was implanted, so I don’t remember,” Scarlene answered. The girl visibly gulped and shrank halfway back into her hunch. Scarlene felt a twinge of pity. “For as long as I can remember I’ve never had to think about it any more than I have to think about blinking my eyes. You’re young, so I don’t think it will be hard. Not like it would be for someone as old as—” she caught herself before she said your parents and substituted a person who she guessed wasn’t as popular with children “—Administrator Davis.”

That seemed to hit the right note. The girl sniffed her disdain for the man and straightened back up, the fear on her face ebbing away to determination.

An awkward silence settled over them then, though Scarlene wasn’t sure if the child picked up on the tension. For the first time since the family’s arrival in her quarters she turned her full attention on the girl. Yvgenia met her stare. A shadow of fear lurked in the back of the child’s eyes but foremost was brave defiance, and the familiarity of it touched something in Scarlene’s core. When the father put his arm around his daughter to comfort her, she seemed to pull away from the embrace without actually moving.

The husband sighed at the reaction, nodded once in resignation, then got to his feet. Yvgenia shot up beside him, almost toppling over the occasional table into Scarlene’s lap. All three adults lunged to catch her fall, but the girl got her balance back before any of them could make contact. Scarlene pulled away quickly, almost as surprised by her reaction as the Matvaltas.

Polina cleared her throat. “Thank you so much for all you’re doing for our children, Doctor. I know it may not seem like it now, but I’m sure everyone will come around to realizing how much you’re sacrificing for our children.”

Scarlene blinked. She started to open her mouth to deny that she intended to take any ongoing responsibility for these soon-to-be quasi-orphans, but stopped. Instead she simply smiled and dropped her chin in a semi bow.

There was never—never—going to be an end to Ingmar’s gloating.

Orbit-sml ><


> Dear Vader,

> We got to go outside for the first time without pressure suits today. Even Dr. Yugolio was excited about it. She brought us some honey taffy*—*Ingmar made it special for us. He’s so nice, and he makes the doctor nicer when he’s around. She’s not really mean, she’s just not the kind of person who hugs you or tells you it’s going to be OK when you’re sad and missing your parents so much that it feels like your heart is going to break into a million zillion pieces.

> OK, I can’t hold back anymore, I gotta tell you this RIGHT NOW. Tommy held my hand today while we were walking! I almost died of happiness. He isn’t even any less cute now that we’re all fish-faced and scaly. I shouldn’t say that, ‘fish-faced’ is not a nice thing to say about a Martian, but I’m one now, too, so it’s fine, right? Anyway, I was in a sad spot while we were walking to the corn bubble. He was having trouble getting his body temp regulated, and I helped him figure it out. I’m not sure why it’s so easy for me, but I took to it like an armadillo takes to sand. Anyway, I was feeling pretty sad and really, really wanting a Mom-hug, just like when I was a little kid. Tommy asked me for help, and then we started walking again. We only took a couple of steps and he asked if he could hold my hand. OF COURSE I said yes. I’m not an idiot. We are now officially boyfriend/girlfriend, and everybody knows it.

> I must be a pretty good teacher because when we got inside the corn bubble, Tommy didn’t have too much trouble keeping his body temperature where it’s supposed to be. At first his face started to turn a little pink and I had to remind him to pull back his blood vessels. I think he’s getting the hang of it. Dr. Yugolio says the more we go in and out of the crop bubbles, the more natural it will become and we won’t even have to think about it anymore, our bodies will just do it for us like a reflex, the same way we got used to the exchangers and our privates flaps.

> Being in a crop bubble is kind of interesting. For like a minute. Until you realize it’s just like any other crop dome, only with less air-pressure. I’m not sure if I’m really smelling anything or if it’s just wishful thinking, but it did seem like it smelled green in there. The air is still way thinner in a bubble than what it was in Terra Nova, but I almost like it more. Farts and manure don’t smell anywhere near as bad as they used to. At least until we’re allowed to get our olfactory implants. But even then I’ll be able to turn down the gain any time I want.

> I used to think anyone was crazy to want to be a farmer, but now that turning down the volume of smells is an option maybe it’s not so bad. It’s kind of soothing to walk through rows of corn, checking to make sure there aren’t any wee beasties making a mess of them.

> Now that we’ve been to the one bubble, I’m sure we’ll be visiting lots of other ones. I can’t wait until we get to go to the sheep bubble! Dr. Yugolio says lambing season will start in a couple of weeks and I’m crazy excited to see all the new babies.

> Love,

> Yvgenia


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Charlotte H. Lee

Author image of Charlotte H. Lee Charlotte H. Lee spends her days pondering how best to smash all the boxes people want to keep the world in. It doesn’t matter whether it’s through telling stories to challenge others how we see life, or pushing herself to stretch her own brain in new ways. Her stories have appeared in Little Blue Marble, Metaphorosis, The Overcast, and others. You can find links to her published work at

© Charlotte H. Lee 2021 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using VQGAN+ seeded with a Creative Commons image by susnpics and the prompt phrase ‘Oil painting of a vast building on the surface of Mars’. A video of the VQGAN+ process can be seen here.

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