Mars Uncovered

The Diaspora Group sent out ships to simultaneously colonize the twelve worlds of the solar system.

Rhea Silvia started as the Media Coordinator on Venus — in the floating cloud city Aphrodite — and now Mars presents a new challenge, and a new opportunity to make a name for herself that will span the solar system.

1

Mars. The planet of legend and mystery, Rhea’s chance to make a name for herself that spanned the solar system. Except that the man in front of her didn’t want her on what he obviously thought was his planet.

“Ms. Silvia,” he said again, with exaggerated politeness, as if repeating her name would somehow make it clear why she was being unreasonable.

Dr. Pascal Reis, chief administrator of Pohl Station, was a small man. His silver hair was immaculately cut, his clothes reflected a retro Victorian preference. His waistcoat was a dark burgundy silk with a dark cravat and a white shirt. A dark frock coat hung on a hook on the wall of his otherwise modern office, along with a dark bowler hat.

An interesting choice, to use his weight allowance to bring a wardrobe. Many of the people she knew might have brought one or two special items, but a bowler hat?

Still, it was something interesting to catch on her cam jewelry. She wore a choker of cam beads, as well as two small cam earrings. The life-logging beads might not have the coolness of spy-eyes and other tech, but they were unobtrusive and pretty. And smart enough to grab video when they picked up people talking, and to switch to still pics every 20 seconds otherwise. Add to that the higher resolution of her glasses, and she could record anything. If she got a chance to get out and see the world.

“I’m not asking anything unreasonable, Dr. Reis,” she said. “I want to go out with the teams exploring the surface. We have to show people what a beautiful and dynamic world this is.”

“Ms. Silvia, each expedition has limited space and resources. We can’t afford to use up that space on non-essentials.”

“Non-essentials?” Rhea stood up and leaned forward on his desk, a flimsy panel desk printed from local materials. “Terra Blackstone assigned me here with a job to do. She sent me on the first rapid transit solar sail to get here! Do you think she’d do all of that for something she considered non-essential?”

 

“Maybe non-essential is not the right word to convey my meaning,” Dr. Reis said. He steepled his fingers. “You have to see the bind that I’m in. If I grant you space in the expeditions, who gets left behind?”

Rhea decided to change tactics. “Dr. Reis, why do you wear that outfit? Why not wear the standard issue workalls provided by Diaspora?”

He blinked up at her. “I think that a leader should present one’s self well to those who follow. I have noted that Dr. Blackstone is always put together well when she addresses any audience. I’m simply following her example.”

Gotcha. “You’re right, absolutely. This is what we’re talking about. Look at how people have responded to Carys Rex’s daring aerial adventures on Venus! Or the footage coming out from Mercury, showing the new microwave array boosting the solar sails to speeds unimaginable before! Or what’s happening out at Europa! Heck, Ceres is getting better publicity than Mars right now.” Rhea took a breath. “This used to be the place of imagination and dreams. Then one robotic explorer after another made it look like a place that wasn’t worth visiting. We need to change that, which means getting me out there.”

Dr. Reis smiled. “I’ll concede your point about how Mars is presented, but I can’t ask researchers to give up their spots on vital research expeditions.” He raised his hand when she opened her mouth to object. “I will, however, authorize the creation of an effort to publicize our home. Use anyone you can recruit to help out, provided that it doesn’t interfere with the work being done.”

“You mean I get my own expeditions?”

“Yes, that is one aspect to what I am saying, Ms. Silvia. I’m not unreasonable.”

“Thank you. I also need cooperation from staff as far as interviews go.”

Dr. Reis shrugged. “I will encourage your efforts, although I will not force anyone to contribute an interview.”

She’d take it. It was a lot better than she had started with today. Once people saw that better publicity would mean more support, they’d appreciate what she was doing. Look what had happened on Venus? It had been her idea to recruit Carys Rex in the first place, and now Carys had taken over the media lead position on Aphrodite to free up Rhea to turn around the impressions of Mars.

“Thank you,” Rhea repeated. She smiled. “And, for the record, I think your outfit is fantastic.”

Dr. Reis blinked and smiled. “You’re welcome. Good luck, Ms. Silvia.”

Rhea escaped out into the main balcony area, overlooking the Pohl station dome set into the steep crater wall. The outer wall of the dome was open, providing a broad terraced area for growing plants within the dome, while much of the colony burrowed back into the expanded lava tubes exposed by the crater impact.

It wasn’t anything like the cloudscape on Venus. There had been a sameness to the view on Aphrodite. Here, right out there was a whole world of rocks and cliffs and the central peak of the crater rising up above. Dusty red cloth strips cut across a section of the crater on the left, the open cuts where they had mined ice for the colony, covered to keep any exposed ice protected and frozen.

An ice truck crawled along the rocky ground, kicking up a dust cloud. There wasn’t a road yet between the base and the ice excavations, but the trucks were wearing a track into the surface. The track wasn’t straight, but twisted and turned, avoiding the areas where subsurface ice or empty passages might make the surface unsteady.

Looking at the landscape, her eyes searched vainly for any trace of green, a withered bush, or a bird circling high above. None of that existed here.

Had it ever? That question still wasn’t answered. Microbes, certainly, that had been proven already, but nothing living had been found. And so far, no fossils indicating a more diverse biosphere. Although, up to this point, survival had taken virtually all of the colonist’s resources. It might be only a matter of time before a more significant discovery was made.

Still, there had to be something else that she could seize on to propel Mars into the public imagination again. Rhea leaned on the slated wall along the balcony, resting her arms on the top. From up here, as light as she felt on her feet, it was tempting to think that she could simply fly away. Human-powered flight might be a possibility, but after Carys Rex’s adventures on Venus, flying around inside of an enclosed dome would likely feel like an also ran.

No, there had to be something else. This was her home now. Especially since the Exodus had pulled out the remaining personnel and loved ones from Earth. None of the Diaspora colonists had anything to go back to on Earth. Any Earth-based assets were seized after the exodus. An exodus caused by the United States’, United Nations-approved, effort to seize the Diaspora Base on the Moon.

Even if she could go back to Earth now, she’d be arrested as soon as she landed. All of them were stuck, live or die. Her job was to make it look like they got the better end of the deal. And to make Mars a more inviting selection for all of the people uprooted in the exodus. Terra Blackstone wanted the people on Earth to see twelve thriving colonies, more later on, an entire system of worlds, each full of possibility.

Mars should shine as one of the Crown Jewels of the Diaspora effort. With all the legends, and stories, and history of exploration, it had to come to life. She needed to uncover Mars’ secrets, and expose the whole system to the wonder this world held.

Easier said than done. Rhea pushed away from the balcony wall. At least now she had permission to run her own expeditions. She just had to find people willing to work with her. Shouldn’t be too hard, how many of these scientists could resist the urge to get out and do some extra digging around?

Quite a lot, it seemed, three hours later when her screen went blank for the umpteenth time. Dr. Hobson couldn’t be bothered with frivolous expeditions. Frivolous! She resisted the urge to hit something.

She was in her office at the time. It literally was a hole in the ground, a five meter by five meter square cubicle cut right into the rock and then sealed with interlocking printed panels. The walls were dark, stone-looking, and almost marbled in appearance. Nice, sort of. The lighting strips in the roof panels produced a bright daylight glow that grew brighter toward midday and then dropped off toward evening to mimic a day night cycle.

The decor was limited to a flimsy printed desk, paler and more red-hued than the walls, attached to a pair of automatic adjustable legs. She kept it up at a standing height while the chair sat in the corner. A flat screen, imported, hung on the wall above the desk. Four planters occupied the corners of the room, and a long planter ran along the empty wall. Each overflowed with a selection of herbs and vegetable plants.

That, at least, was a nice touch. And part of the design of the place. They weren’t going to let those lights go to waste. They needed the plants to help clean their water for recycling, for producing food, and for processing the air in the base. As far as her briefing told her, the plants throughout the base were an integral part of their survival.

Rhea brushed her hand through the mint growing near her desk, remembering Bilbo, her fat cat from childhood. He had loved cat nip. She raised her fingers to her face, inhaling the invigorating mint smell.

There was a knock on the door, and it opened. There was a man, opening the door. He was taller than her, a bit at least, which almost made him short. Cute, with a scruffy chin and dark hair that fell forward into his face. He looked like someone more at home in a punk band than wearing a brown workall, pulling the cart that blocked the door behind him.

“Should I come back?” His eyes, blue, locked on hers. He smiled warmly.

Bold. And a nice smile. His shoulders filled out the workall pretty well too. It was hard to get a good sense of his build in the baggy outfit. Dr. Reis had a point about his choice in clothes. This man would look stunning in a similar outfit.

What had he asked? “Excuse me?”

He gestured at the plants in the corner. “Your plants? Should I come back, or do you mind if I check them now?”

“No, I don’t mind,” Rhea said. “I’m glad you’re here. I was afraid I’d be held responsible if the plants didn’t do well.”

He was pulling some very techy-looking devices out of his cart. “Oh, you will. They’ve thrown people outside without a suit for sampling the veggies.”

Rhea burst out laughing. He grinned back at her. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Rhea Silvia.”

His eyes widened. He took her hand, firm grip, not too hard, a bit rough. “Like the legends? For real?”

“I know, right? I was doomed to end up here. You could thank my mother for that but she’s still back on Luna.”

“Mark Clayton,” he said. “Your family too? They were part of the exodus?”

“Yes. Got to give Blackstone credit, she showed them all back on Earth, getting our families and everyone else out right before the lockdown.”

“I heard it nearly touched off a nuclear war,” Mark said. “Scared a lot of people with all of those simultaneous launches.”

Rhea nodded. “Blackstone is handling that herself. I’ve just got to make Mars more appealing. She’s counting on us showing everyone back on Earth what they’re missing out on, trying to turn the tide of public opinion back in our favor.”

She realized that they were still holding hands and she let go, blushing. It wasn’t often that someone got to her. She was the professional, all the time.

“How’s that going for you?” Mark asked, moving over to the planters. He stuck a probe in the planter’s soilless substrate. His fingers moved across the bright display.

“Not good.” Rhea gestured at the screen, which had cycled back to a map of Mars with pins indicating the few sites being investigated. “Dr. Reis doesn’t want me out disturbing researchers in the field. He’ll let me go out, run my own expeditions, but I can’t find anyone that wants to go with me. They all say they’re too busy.”

Mark moved his probe on to the next planter. “Folks are pretty busy. Between keeping this place running, and getting the second base established for the new exodus colonists, the researchers are carefully guarding their time to explore.”

“So I’ve seen.” Rhea gestured and brought back up the personnel list. There weren’t many names remaining.

While she studied the options, she also watched Mark moving around the room. He checked all the plants on the other side of the room, but then he had to come close to where she stood working. She could have moved but she stayed where he was, to see what he would do.

He couldn’t reach the remaining plants without reaching past her. She glanced back and he was looking at her. His eyes narrowed and he shook a finger.

“You’re doing that on purpose!”

Rhea laughed. “Sorry, I just wanted to see how you’d handle it.”

Mark moved closer, setting aside his equipment on the desk. He didn’t box her into the corner. He stood to the side, but close, so that she still had an open avenue to slip aside, if she wanted.

“Is that all you wanted?” Mark asked.

Her heart was beating faster, something that hadn’t happened in a long time. Not since she was back on Earth, before being selected to join the Diaspora group.

“I don’t suppose you’d like to go out on an expedition with me?”

He grinned. “I don’t think there’s much need for a botanist out there, do you?”

“We’ve found microbes.”

“Fossilized, and not really plants,” Mark said. “Not even multicellular.”

“But that was one spot! How much of this planet is still unexplored? We’ve barely scratched the surface, literally! Who knows what we’ll find!”

“True,” Mark said. He shrugged. “I’ll go out with you, if that’s what you’re doing? Are you asking me out?”

Rhea slipped to the side, giving him access to the plants and increasing the space between them before she did something foolish. “Would you like that? A chance to see outside the dome?”

Mark nodded. “I would. It sounds like fun. We’ve got a free weekend coming up tomorrow, if you want to get out there right away?”

“Tomorrow?”

“Sure, why not? I know a few others that would like to come along, if that’s okay? Make it a proper overnight expedition?” He grinned. “Or did you want it to be just the two of us?”

“As tempting as that is, no. I’m serious about this! If you’ve got some friends that can come along, that would be great! We have to show people having fun, exploring, an adventure.”

“Like that woman on Venus?”

“Carys Rex.”

“Did you know her?”

Rhea nodded. “A little, yes. I suggested that we invite her to Venus. She took over for me when Blackstone sent me here.”

Mark moved and Rhea stepped back. He picked up his equipment from the desk and she felt foolish. It wasn’t like he was just going to jump on her, which was sort of too bad. Except, no, she needed to focus on the task at hand. She had a job to do, and it didn’t involve falling for the botanist.

She crossed her arms and watched him checking the plants near her desk. He was careful in his work, methodical. His unassuming good looks would play well on the camera. Between her jewelry and glasses, she’d have plenty of footage. You never knew what you might use.

“If you can talk to your friends, I’ll go ahead and take care of making the arrangements for transportation,” Rhea said. “I’ve already got a list of sites that I would like to visit, but if you have any suggestions, I’m happy to hear them.”

Mark pulled his probe out of the last plant container and shook his head. “No, you go ahead and pick. I’m sure it’ll be interesting.”

Rhea held out her hand. “Thank you, so much.”

Mark laughed and shook her hand. “You’re welcome.”

He lifted his equipment. “I’d better go. I’ve got a lot more plants to check before the day is over! I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” Rhea said.

At first Rhea wasn’t sure that she would actually be able to pull together the equipment and supplies necessary for the expedition on such short notice, but Dr. Reis approved the request through and the equipment shop had a new caravan that they wanted to field test.

“Either grab it now,” Richard down at the shop said, “or I’ll have to send one of my guys out to test it. If you do it, I don’t have to give up anyone.”

Which was great. A big part of making Mars look appealing, was to get more volunteers from the Exodus population that was currently putting enormous pressures on the Diaspora Base on the Moon. Blackstone want to get those people assigned and on transport capsules on their way to new worlds.

And succeeding here, making Mars sexy again, would go a long way to establishing her reputation in the system. Twelve new worlds, and she wanted her name known throughout.

Diaspora was a chance at great success, or terrible failure if she couldn’t pull this off. With the labor shortage they couldn’t afford to let anyone not carry their weight. She could end up shuffled off to some bureaucratic position pushing virtual papers.

With really her whole future riding on the expedition, she arrived down at the shops early. She wore the standard Diaspora workall in green. The light garment wasn’t exactly tight on her, it still showed off her curves somewhat, but by and large it was a shapeless thing. It made her rethink again what she’d first thought about Dr. Reis’ choice in bringing clothes. Maybe if this didn’t work out, she could get a business going making off-work clothing for the colonists?

She was wearing her glasses, to record the expedition, and her cam jewelry. Plenty of recording capacity. Carys Rex had brought flying spy eyes to Venus, an expensive piece of tech Rhea envied. Unlike Carys, though, she didn’t plan on being the star of the expedition. She wanted to stay behind the camera. When people looked at her they saw the pretty pixie, the cute blond with the tiny nose and fine features. Being on camera distracted viewers from the real story. Her jewelry and glasses focused on the world she saw, not her.

She wasn’t the star. That was the other people. The scientists, the ones doing the research. She was here to tell their stories, not her story. No one wanted to know her story.

A big, broad-shouldered man, easily the largest and oldest man that she had seen yet since arriving in Pohl Station, came out from behind a cluster of workstations when she entered the shop. He work the standard black Diaspora workall with a Mariners baseball cap on his head.

Rhea tapped the side of her glasses to activate the recording, then smiled as she went over to meet him, extending her hand.

“Rhea Silvia, you’re Richard?”

His hand was enormous, engulfing hers in a brief, gentle grip.

“That’s right. You’re not going out there by yourself are you? I thought you’d have someone with you.”

“I do,” she said. “It’d be pretty boring if it was just me out there. They’ll be coming along any minute. I told them to meet me down here.”

Richard pulled off his baseball cap, revealing a shiny bald head. Pale skin caught the lights from the high ceiling above. He ran a hand across his head, then put the hat back on. He clucked his tongue.

“Okay then, I guess I can show you what we’ve got while we’re waiting.” He turned and pointed. “That’s her, over there by the lock. Got her all filled up and ready to go. Charge’ll last you up to a week.”

“We’re not planning on being out that long.”

The shop was a big chamber cut into the rock beneath Pohl Station, what had once been a network of lava tubes connected and joined to create a series of uneven chambers, with reinforced printed arches and hanging lights. The natural rock was still visible everywhere else. Some of the sections were full of shelving and storage crates, others dedicated to workbenches and equipment. The sections near the wide airlock doors looked like a parking garage.

The caravan Richard had pointed at looked like bastard child between a robotic rover and an RV. The big vehicle stood on six wheels, but the body was blocky and pale pink. It was printed from native materials, like most of the base, but resembled many of the old robotic explorers that had come to Mars, like Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity. Various equipment masts and armatures were folded up against the sides and top, and darkened windows stretched around the front.

“That’s amazing,” she said. “Is it hard to drive?”

Richard clucked his tongue again, shaking his head. “Hell, you don’t even have to drive it if you want. Probably better if you don’t. She’s smart enough to get where she’s going. Just tell her where you want to go, and let her do the rest. She knows more about the planet than you’ll know. Might not take the most direct route, but it’ll be the safest route.”

“That sounds good to me.” There were voices in the corridor outside. Rhea turned halfway. “Sounds like the others are coming.”

Mark came in first, followed by four others, all of them in brown workalls. Two men, and two women, very nicely paired from the look of it, which left her with Mark by implication. There was a lot of laughing from the two women. What had Mark told them about the expedition?

He came over to her, grinning widely. “Hey there! You actually did it, I’m impressed.”

She shook her head and gestured to Richard. “You can thank Richard, he’s the one that made the caravan available.”

Mark looked up, and gave Richard a nod. “Thanks, man.”

“Don’t mention it.” Richard looked at Rhea. “I’ve got the control cards over here, if you want to get them, you can be off?”

“Sure.” Rhea turned back to Mark. “I’ll be right back, and you can introduce me to your friends.”

“Okay. You’ll like them,” he said. “We’re all excited to get a chance to go out and explore. They’re eager to meet you.”

Rhea followed Richard over to the cluster of stations where he’d been working when she had come in. he picked up a thin digital control card from the counter and tapped the screen.

He entered a code on the translucent touch screen and handed it to her. “There you go.”

His eyes shifted, looking over his head at the group. “Are you sure you want to go out with these people?”

“Why? Do you know something about them?”

He shook his head. “No, they just don’t look like most of the groups I see go out of here.”

“What do you mean?”

“They look like tourists,” he said. “Wouldn’t a trained crew be better? Safer?”

He was concerned, she could hear it in his voice. It was sweet, in a fatherly sort of way. She smiled. “Thank you. I’ll be careful, but they’re all I got.” She glanced over at the group laughing. “And they look like fun. That’s important too. Part of my job is to make Mars look inviting.”

Richard shook his head. “This isn’t an inviting place. It’s a place that’ll kill you if you aren’t careful.”

Rhea touched his arm. “We’re only going overnight, and I’ll be careful. Promise.”

Richard scowled and picked up a tablet. “See that you do. I don’t want to be the one to explain to the powers that be what happened to the new caravan.”

“Of course,” she said. “We’ll see you tomorrow, okay? I’ll bring it back without a scratch on it.”

Richard grunted.

As sweet as it was that he was concerned, she had a job to do. She went back to the group, smiling at Mark as he came over.

“So? Are we good to go?” He asked.

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

“Great! Let me introduce you to the rest.” Mark turned and gestured at the others, as they gathered around.

“Everyone, this is Rhea Silvia, that I told you about. She’s the new PR director hired by Blackstone.”

Rhea smiled at the group and lifted her hand. “Hey. Thanks for coming out with me. Most of the scientists I talked to didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

One of the other women moved forward. She was pretty, solidly built, with purple hair hanging into her face. “That’s because they’re all trying to cover their butts. No one wants to believe that Mars is a bust. I’m Jessi, by the way.”

“Hi,” Rhea said. “It’s my job to make sure Mars isn’t a bust. It’s a whole world out there.”

One of the guys, standing behind Jessi, raised his hand. He was bearded and thin, with a hollowed-eye, lean look of a runner. “Ruben Flores. If they’d let us have a go at it, we could make this planet into something.”

Murmurs of agreement from all of those gathered. The other man, bulkier, with reddish hair spoke up. “Barry Powell. Ruben, for once is right. You’ve got Blackstone’s ear. Maybe you can get her to change direction on this?”

“On what?”

The other woman, lean and tall, with pale skin, black straight hair, and a flushed complexion, spoke, her tone harsh. “Letting us terraform. We’ve got a bunch of possible ways we could make Mars more habitable, but it won’t happen overnight. We need to get started, except that she won’t let us do anything outside of the domes and our simulations.”

Now things clicked into place. “You’re all terraformers?”

“Yes,” Mark said. He nodded at the tall woman. “That’s Gemma Brooks. We’re all bioengineers. We’ve done good work here on Pohl station, and even better work on the new base, but some of us want to see some of our other experiments happen.”

Ruben said, “Like using some of those solar sails as mirrors to heat up an area of subsurface volatiles. If we could get those out-gassing, build up the atmosphere and raise the temperature we might see some real changes happening! Maybe with enough work we could build up a feedback cycle.”

Gemma laughed. “There’s not enough there to do what you want, but we could capture cometary material and redirect it to Mars.”

Clearly they had ideas for the planet. And it made sense that they wanted to get out of the dome, if they’d been cooped up here.

She looked at Mark. “You didn’t tell me that you were a terraformer.”

He shrugged, grinning. “I’m a botanist. I do have some ideas for some engineered lichens that we could use to change the planet.”

Rhea looked at the group. “Well, I can’t promise that I’ll have any influence on Blackstone’s decision about this. I think she probably wants to know more about the planet the way it is before she starts changing it.”

“She’ll have to come around,” Jessi said. “When the exodus populations start arriving we’re going to be hard-pressed even with the second base. As time goes on, we’ll need the space. Population pressures alone will eventually cause us to terraform the planet.”

“Or restrict growth,” Barry said.

Barry reached over and squeezed Gemma’s buttock. She yelped and swatted at his hand.

“Stop it!”

“We should get going,” Rhea said. “It’ll take a while to get where we’re headed.”

“Where’s that?” Ruben said.

Rhea grinned. “Valles Marineris, one of the tributaries north of here, that is. It’s within range, and there’s a chance that we can see some pretty spectacular views from there.”

“Alright!” Jessi said. “Let’s go!”

They all picked up their bags and moved off through the chamber toward the caravan. Rhea waited, watching them go, laughing among themselves, recording everything. Mark saw her watching and came over to her side.

“You’re recording this, aren’t you?”

She glanced at him, then back to the group. “They know that, right? I mean, that was sort of the point of all of this. To go on an expedition, something to show folks about life on Mars.”

“We’re not exactly a typical research group,” Mark said. “I think they mostly want to blow off steam, you know? Get out of the dome.”

Rhea reached over and took his hand. “That’s fine! Good, even! All sorts of people are going to come here, Mark. Some of them will be happy living in the domes, but others are going to want to get out and see the sights. Let’s show them that Mars can be fun.”

He nodded. “Okay. If that’s what you want.”

She turned and met his eyes. He had clear blue eyes, deep like tropical pools. He leaned in close, too close for her glasses, but he wasn’t trying to get in frame. He was trying to kiss her.

The realization hit at the same time as his lips.

The kiss was as surprise. A pleasant one too. His lips were soft, gentle, caressing her lips with light touches. Mark drew back, smiling.

“We’re still good?”

Rhea nodded. “Oh, yeah. We’re good, but we better go before your friends leave without us!”

He took her hand – that was sweet – and hurried off. Rhea followed, feeling like a balloon bouncing along on a string behind him.

Inside the caravan felt bigger than it had looked on the outside. It really was like a big RV all equipped to explore the Mars. The airlock opened right behind the main cab at the front, four seats up there in the cockpit. An aisle ran down the center of the bus between seating, a kitchen area, an expandable section for sleeping bunks, six total, three to a side, and past that more compact expanding areas with laboratory equipment. Across from the airlock were racks with a half-dozen Mars suits, white with bright preschool colored stripes on the helmet and joints.

Ruben, Jessi and Barry were already in the cockpit. Ruben had taken the primary pilots’ seat. Gemma was back in the booth in the kitchen area.

Ruben twisted around as Mark moved back, carrying his bag.

“You ready to go?” Ruben asked.

Rhea climbed forward and took the fourth seat, behind Jessi on the right. Barry swiveled his seat around to the console on that side.

“Let’s go!” Barry said.

Rhea nodded. “I’m ready when you are. I’ll get the coordinates loaded.”

And she turned to the console on her side, just another touch interface, the key components imported along with the rest of the colonists, the rest printed and manufactured right here on Mars. Did they stamp it with a ‘Made on Mars’ sticker? It wouldn’t change the fact that the key components inside were still made in China. In time, sooner than expected given the exodus and Diaspora pulling out of Earth, they’d have to manufacture their own replacements.

Wealth. That was an angle she could use too. The mineral resources of an entire planet at their disposal. Her fingers navigated the interface, nothing too complicated, not that different from finding a local coffee place.

There. The steep walls of a river valley that in turn ran into the Valles Marineris, one of the biggest rift valleys in the solar system. A whole host of expeditions were planned to points on the system, but not to this tributary, not yet. And this was better. A scale that she could capture on film, without having the other side lost in the distance.

“Got it,” Ruben said. “Let’s roll!”

Rhea looked up, catching the view on her glasses and jewelry. This was what she wanted. Young people having fun, and cool technology. With a low hum, the caravan rolled forward through the grotto, toward a massive open airlock door. Ruben gripped a steering wheel in his hands.

“Should you be driving?” Rhea asked. “Richard said that we were better off letting the caravan drive itself.”

Ruben laughed. “Where’s the fun in that? We can take turns.”

“Yeah!” Barry said.

Mark leaned into the cockpit, his hands braced on either side of the door. Catching her looking, he grinned. Rhea refocused on the view forward with her glasses. The cam jewelry would catch his expressions as they went out, giving her 360 degrees of footage.

Despite the caravan’s size and the tight quarters, Ruben deftly managed to drive it into the airlock without hitting any of the sides. The caravan lurched to a stop before hitting the outer door. On the rearview screens the lights around the airlock door turned amber as the doors started sliding shut.

This was it! After traveling from Venus, surviving the harrowing descent down from orbit to land near Pohl station, she was getting back out there. The view from the landing capsule hadn’t been very good when they had transported her from the landing site to the station. From her strapped in position in the landing seat, she had only been able to see a slice of sky, quickly lost by reddish dust kicked up by the transport.

The rearview showed the doors closed. The lights changed to red and those forward turned amber. With a hiss of escaping airs, the outer doors slid apart, revealing a dark stone corridor that sloped upward, getting brighter as it went.

Ruben drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. From behind Gemma spoke up.

“Are we going to get out any time soon?”

Barry twisted around, talking past Mark. “We’re waiting for the doors to open!”

It only took a few moments and then the doors were open. Strange to think that the air pressure outside was far thinner than the atmosphere at the top of Mt. Everest, so thin that they’d need the pressure suits to go outside, just like in space.

Dust swirled around the opening ahead. Even with a thin atmosphere, there was still an atmosphere. Dust particles picked up by the wind were regularly deposited on any surface, including the station domes which had to be cleaned to let in as much sunlight as possible.

The caravan moved ahead, rolling smoothly until the front wheels dropped down to the stone floor. The sound changed, a hard, grinding sound.

“What’s that noise?” Jessi asked.

“The wheels,” Barry said. He leaned closer, raising his voice. “We’ve got these composite wheels rolling on rock. It isn’t going to be quiet!”

The big guy was right. The noise of the wheels grew when the other four rolled onto the stone, then it leveled off. Not so loud that it made conversation difficult but noticeable. Something that she could turn down in processing the audio, if she wanted. Let the audience get a taste for it and then turn it down so it wasn’t quite so distracting. It was sort of like listening to a dentist’s drill on teeth, amplified and all around them.

“That’s wretched,” Gemma complained in the back.

“Deal with it,” Ruben said. “Look at this!”

The caravan was climbing up out of the repurposed lava tube, the sunlight falling across the front, flooding in through the windows.

Rhea blinked and resisted the urge to hold up a hand to shield her eyes. She let the cameras drink in the light. They’d adapt, dealing with the glare to give her a clear picture.

And what a picture it was.

The caravan rolled up onto the rocky, dusty red plain to the side of the base. That meant that Pohl Station was on their right, rising up on the crater wall. A broad expanse of the dome with the cascading terraces of green plants inside. Smaller observation domes blistered out of the rock around the large front. The sunlight gleamed off the printed framework and glass.

Ahead and left, the crater floor, rocks, sand and dust hiding the subsurface water frozen in the ground. The crater was like a bowl, worn by age and half-filled with sand that covered the ground-water seep beneath. Water, as it had turned out, wasn’t exactly uncommon on Mars, it was hidden, buried beneath the surface, until erosion exposed it to the surface where it peeled off like a ghost exposed to sunlight. Which was why they covered the dig sites, to cut down on the loss rate of the exposed ice.

The caravan bumped and rolled across the crater, making a long arc as Ruben guided it around to the slump wall, where landslides had created a rough ramp up out of the crater. Portions of the map screen in front of Ruben flashed red, indicating areas where the crust was weakened and ready to break away beneath them. Ruben skirted those zones, sometimes closer than might be considered safe but the caravan kept rolling, so Rhea started breathing easier.

It wasn’t like he would try to get them stuck or dropped down in a subsurface crevasse.

“Let’s listen to some music!” Jessi said. Her fingers danced across her consoles beside Ruben and loud space-dance beats pounded out of the speakers. Jessi pumped her arms, swaying to the ethereal sounds.

Back on Earth space-dance was no doubt losing popularity in some circles since the exodus and the backlash against the Diaspora. On the other hand, it suited the moment perfectly as the caravan drove across the Martian surface to the side of the crater.

The broken slope, where the landslides had carried down rocks and material would have been impassable, if the colonists hadn’t pulverized a path up the slope, using sealant foam to stabilize the surface. In contrast to the crater floor, the ride suddenly became much smoother as Ruben drove the caravan up the sides.

Rhea stood, holding onto a grip above her station, to get a better look out the windows. From this angle she could see back down behind them. Pohl station was a shining green jewel sticking out of the crater wall, surrounded by several smaller jewels. Bubbles of life welling out of the Martian surface. Leaning farther, she could make out the long strips of the ice mines, and the crazy meandering trails.

“It looks so small from up here,” she said.

Mark leaned over, his hand on the small of her back. “Wow. I haven’t seen it from out here. Not in person, only the sims.”

The others were looking now and the caravan swerved when Ruben leaned over to look.

“Watch it!” Barry snapped, swatting at Ruben’s head.

“No hitting the driver,” Mark said. “We don’t want him driving us into a crater.”

The caravan reached the lip of the crater, the articulated legs letting each wheel move independently, first the front left dropping down, then the right, and so it went, lurching a bit as it dropped back down to the rough tracked Martian surface at the top of the ramp. No longer a smoothed surface, nothing but rock and sand chewed by each expedition before them.

The lines of those tracks spread out across the surface, meandering like a nest full of snakes spreading out in search of prey. Eventually the wind and dust would soften the tracks, blur the lines, but that would take a long time, at least until the next big blow up. The tracks here didn’t stay like those on the Moon, or Mercury, or the other airless bodies in the system.

Rhea watched as Ruben swerved the caravan away, following a group of tracks, one overlaying the next, that followed the crater rim off to the left. It was another chance, looking past Barry who was also watching, they were all watching out the windows now, as the caravan picked its way along. The view of the crater was fantastic, and Pohl Station impossible and beautiful.

Her throat constricted. There it was, another bubble of life and humanity, fragile against a harsh universe. Aphrodite was like that too, a soap bubble blown by greater than hurricane force winds around Venus.

One by one the other tracks dropped away as the caravan circled around to the north. Rhea was standing behind Ruben when he turned the wheel, and just like that they were driving across virgin ground untouched by any humans or their machines.

“No one has ever been here before,” she said. “We’re driving across untouched ground.”

“No worries,” Rubin said, tapping the screen. Clearly not understanding what she meant. “It’s all been mapped by the orbiters. We’ve got plenty of detail to keep us out of a hole.”

She let it go. Later, she could make her point for the audience, if she used the footage.

The dentist drill noise of the wheels against the ground continued, but it had already faded from importance. They were on their way.

Ruben scratched at his crotch. “I need a break. I’m going to put this on autopilot.”

A few touches later and the screen showed the autopilot indicators. Ruben stood, climbing out of the seat. He grinned at her. “Let’s drink!”

Drink. Shocking given their location, and yet entirely in character with what Rhea had seen from people. Creative people, all cooped up in an artificial habitat on a planet where you couldn’t step outside without a thick pressure suit. Not unless you wanted to cough up a lung and die a horrible death in the red dust.

Ruben went on into the back, Barry going with him, thumping him on the back. Mark pressed against the side of the aisle to make room for them. Jessi sighed and grinned at Rhea.

“I told them not to bring the stuff. It isn’t very good, not unless you want to degrease your guts.” She rose out of her seat. “Until we can get the grapes going, it’s going to be the best we’ve got. Ruben has plans for grapes in base two.”

Jessi slipped past, heading into the back. Rhea got up as well, but she went forward and took the pilot’s seat. Mark leaned in between the seats.

“You’re not drinking?”

Rhea shook her head, ignoring the faint flush of embarrassment that came from the question. Drink? She never had, and it made her a bit of a freak among many people she knew. Even some of the most sober people that she knew still enjoyed wine on occasion.

Not her. It wasn’t that she had some horrible story to tell about an alcoholic parent, quite the opposite. Her parents never drank either. It wasn’t for religious reasons, they weren’t religious at all. She’d never known anyone killed by a drunk driver, or anything like that.

She never saw the point. She smiled at Mark. “No thanks. I’d rather watch the view. This is the first time anyone has been here! I can’t get enough of it.”

“I’ll join you,” he said, moving up and slipping into the co-pilot’s seat that Jessi had vacated.

“You don’t have to do that,” she said.

Loud cheers and shouts came from the back. Rhea leaned around the seat and looked back. The other four were gathered around the small booth table. Tiny plastic bags full of some clear liquid, it could have been water, were piled in the middle of the table.

Ruben tilted his head back, squirting the contents of a bag into his mouth until it was gone. He let out a wolf-like howl and tossed the empty bag onto the table beside the others.

The others clapped and cheered. Jessi grimaced and picked up the next bag from the pile. She twisted and tore off the sealed spout and tipped her head back to squirt the contents down her throat to the cheering of her friends.

Rhea looked at Mark. “What is that made from anyway?”

“You don’t want to know.” He pointed out the window. “I thought you wanted to watch the view?”

She did. She looked out the windows and the landscape spread out in front of them. Hills rose above the horizon on the left, hazy in the distance. Nearer, a small crater, although one that could swallow the caravan, was on the right. And in between the rocking, sand and dust-covered desert.

There was beauty in the emptiness, but it was a soul-shrinking beauty. This was a place without breath. A place of deep history recorded in stone. The sort of place that might be home to a different sort of life, one of long endurance and patience. Life that would bloom only once every eon when conditions were right, flourishing in a joyous explosion only to sink back into a deep slumber again.

“What are you thinking?” Mark asked.

“We’ve brought life back to Mars. A new sort of life. Billions and billions of us, all of the bacteria we’ve brought with us, our plants and animals. Pohl Station and base two are like seeds planted here to take root. Do you think that can happen?”

The caravan bumped and lurched over a small crater. Laughter from the back. She was recording everything. Nothing was forgotten anymore.

“Yes.” Mark looked out at the Martian landscape. His dark hair hung down, shrouding his face, except the tip of his nose, the thrust of his chin. “It’ll happen whether or not we want it too.”

He turned, facing her, smiling and tilted his head back at the others. “We want to do something now, but the planet is already being terraformed.”

“What do you mean?”

“You said it. We’ve brought billions of organisms to Mars. To an environment with water. The station leaks, at small levels. It leaks energy, heating the surrounding area. That means liquid water extending out into the region around the base where some of those microbes can survive. They’re very adaptable and will keep pushing out further and further, and in the process they’ll change the surrounding environment just as we’re doing.”

“There’s a limit to how far they can go, isn’t there?”

Mark shrugged. “In the long run? Maybe, unless other factors change.”

“Wait. We know there was some life here before, we’ve found the fossils. They died off. Why would life from Earth survive under these conditions when the native organisms couldn’t?”

“Because they were adapted to conditions as they were, and when things changed for the worse they couldn’t adapt fast enough. That’s always the case. Maybe they would have adapted if they could, or maybe they did, and still exist in pockets around the planet.”

“You’re talking about the methane?” One of the continuing mysteries around Mars, was the periodic presence of methane in the atmosphere, showing some mechanism replenishing it as it was destroyed.

“Possibly. Or maybe whatever life there is doesn’t give us any sign like that.” Mark turned his head back to gazing outside. “We don’t know what’s out there. Not yet.”

Not yet. That was the key. More laughter from the rear of the caravan.

“Hey!” Barry shouted. “Aren’t you guys going to join us?”

Rhea and Mark both turned, catching each other’s eyes for a moment, then looking back into the caravan. Barry stood, legs braced wide, in the aisle. His workall was open down the front, revealing a broad chest cover in curly brown hair. His up thrust hand held two of the drink bags.

Barry beckoned. “Come on! Is good!”

Mark waved. “No thanks. Consider us your designated drivers!”

“More for us,” Gemma said.

Another glance back saw Gemma kissing her way up Barry’s hairy chest, as if looking for something there that she had lost.

Rhea exchanged another look with Mark. “If this goes on, there’s going to be an orgy back there.”

“In that case, we might want to see how far these seats recline.”

Blood rushed to Rhea’s face, but she had been the one to bring it up. Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t count on it.”

“Oh, I won’t.” Mark pointed out the window. “Look at that!”

A dark funnel danced across the plains on the right, kicking up dust and sand. A twister moving among the rocks like a ghost in ruins. It danced about and then without warning it broke apart and was gone, the dust kicked up settling back down. Far up ahead, another twister formed, dancing and weaving among the rocks.

In front of Rhea’s seat, on the bright consoles across the front of the vehicle, was a photo-realistic 3D view of the area around them, overlaid with a faint grid. A miniature caravan rolled across that barren landscape, following a faint green line that stretched away to the top of the screen. The line didn’t run straight, but twisted and curved, snaking around the largest obstacles.

A glance back showed the others paired up, Barry and Gemi, Ruben and Jessi. They weren’t exactly naked, but there was plenty of skin visible. Ruben had his head down, suckling at Jessi’s pert round breast. Another advantage of the lower gravity that Rhea had enjoyed since coming to Mars. No need of bras, given the lower gravity. Her skin tingled watching the others making out, and she turned her view back to the desert.

“What brought you here?” Mark asked.

Apparently they were both going to ignore his friends in the back.

“A chance to make my name, to do what I can for the Diaspora effort.” Rhea’s mouth quirked in a small smile. “That, and I always loved old movies about Mars, and Martians.”

“I never thought I’d get the chance,” Mark said. “Until Blackstone came along and basically showed everyone what was holding them back.”

“’Fear,’“ Rhea quoted. “’Only true explorers embrace the fear of the unknown.’“

Mark laughed. “Exactly. She showed that it was a lack of will that prevented us from colonizing space.”

“And she jumped in with everything she had.”

“That’s what gets to them,” Mark said, clearly meaning his friends. “They want to move forward and this time it feels like she’s holding us back.”

“Hardly! How many times has she fought for our rights to colonize these worlds? She’s had the COSPAR policy wonks in fits!”

Mark laughed. “They’re out of luck now. The Diaspora has reached twelve worlds. It won’t be long before we expand out to more, especially now with the exodus populations and the expansion of the beamed-powered solar sail network.”

“True.”

A burst of laughter from the back brought a smile to her lips. This wasn’t becoming the trip she had imagined, but it might be what was needed. A story about friends going out to explore on their own, on a hostile frontier.

Goosebumps rose on her arms and she shivered. It was someone stepping on her grave, that’s what her grandmother would have said. Nana had been young when men first walked on the Moon, and she had lived long enough to see the first Diaspora missions launched.

She remembered watching the launches with Nana. Back to back launches, like nothing the world had seen.

Nana had laughed and said, “Go, Rhea! You find a way, but you get out there! That’s where the future is happening, not here!”

That decided it. There was an excitement in the air, seeing what Terra Blackstone had accomplished, and fear, but mostly excitement at first. Gradually the fear had come back, as sure as the tide, but it came back in a great wave. Not just the tide coming in but a full-blown tidal wave that swept the United Nations, and the United States up into launching the Lincoln on a mission to seize the Diaspora Base on the Moon, the headquarters of the whole Diaspora operation.

Blackstone had stopped that too. The fear was still high, but it was starting to ebb back on Earth. Many people weren’t too happy about what had been done.

Maybe seeing the human side of all of this would do it.

Eventually the party in the back faded as the day wore on, and the exhausted, hung-over scientists fell asleep draped over one another in the booth. In the co-pilot’s seat, Mark dozed too, his feet up, head to the side in the chair, reclined as far back as it’d go.

Rhea stayed awake, mesmerized by the view outside. It changed as they drove closer to Valles Marineris. They were still better than a hundred miles from the main chasm, but the terrain had become rougher, more broken and uneven, with dunes drifting along the faults that ran like cracks along the track ahead.

The whole time the caravan performed faultlessly, picking its way closer and closer to the valles tributary that she had selected. Just as Richard had said, they didn’t need to do anything to keep the caravan going.

Later, when she cut the footage, she’d have to find the perfect music. Something that capture the majestic emptiness, the loneliness of this planet. It was almost as if, having lost the life that started here billions of years ago, Mars was waiting for them. Maybe Mark was right and the bases would be the seeds of a new biosphere, gradually growing outward, changing the planet.

It was a beautiful notion, that they might bring life back to the dead planet.

But what if it wasn’t dead? Rhea rubbed her hands on her workall legs. Suppose that hardy pockets of Martian life had survived? What would happen when conditions changed? Would the Martian organisms finally succumb, or spread out in a new bloom of activity? Was there risk to them?

All of that was unknowable right now. She wasn’t going to solve all those questions now, in her first trip out. This was just the beginning.

Rhea leaned her head back, surprised as a yawn forced her mouth open. She rubbed her eyes and looked at Mark. He looked peaceful. Looking in the back, Gemma was asleep, her head and hand on Barry’s bare chest, his workall down around his waist. Ruben was lying in the aisle, and Jessi was sleeping in the booth, her head on Gemma’s hip, purple hair spilling down around her face.

Why not nap? The caravan would alert them to any problems. When they got to the valles, she’d want to be rested.

Another yawn came over her. Rhea let her eyes close. Just for a few minutes. The cam jewelry would keep recording. She wouldn’t miss anything. Even the dentist-drill noise of the wheels on the rock was nothing more than white noise, and the rocking motion of the caravan was soothing.

Rhea slept.

A steady beeping brought her around. Rhea woke, realized she was awake and sat up in the pilot’s chair. Pressure in her bladder called for attention. Groans from the back suggested the others were waking, but it was the view that arrested her attention.

Night was falling, but there was enough light still to see that maybe a half-mile ahead the ground dropped way at a sharp edge. The ground between here and there was rough, uneven and showed several drops before that final edge. Far out, nearly lost in the darkening day, the cliffs on the other side of the valles were just visible.

Mark stirred, sat up, and leaned forward, studying the view. “We’re there?”

“We’re there.” Rhea stood up, climbing out of the pilot’s chair. “Looks like we made it safe and sound.”

In the back everyone was getting up, Ruben first. He rubbed at red eyes and smacked his lips. “Shit! What died in my mouth?”

“You better brush your teeth before you kiss me,” Jessie muttered, as she sat up. Her purple hair stuck out in different directions.

“It’s getting dark,” Rhea said. “We should settle in here, and then we can explore when it gets light tomorrow.”

Ruben pushed forward, edging past her. “No way! There’s still time to look around at least.”

“Ruben,” Rhea said, turning. “You’ve been drinking. It’s better that you sleep it off before we do anything else.”

Ruben hoped into the pilot’s seat. “Nope. I’m feeling great. That stuff is hang-over free. It’s metabolized quickly. And I already slept. We all did. I want to check this place out.”

Alarmingly, he deactivated the automatic pilot and brought up the drive systems. Rhea went over to the back of the seat. “What are you doing?”

“Driving closer.” Ruben gestured at the view out the windows. “You can’t even see anything this far away!”

Mark spoke up from the co-pilot’s station. “Hey, man, let’s do what Rhea was saying. It’s getting dark. We’ll explore tomorrow.”

Ruben shook his head. “Better buckle up, this might get bumpy.”

Rhea heard the others moving up. Barry crowded into the space, zipping up his workall. “Ruben, come on.”

“He won’t listen to you,” Jessi said. “Never listens to anyone.”

Ruben laughed. His sunken eyes gleamed from the light of the console, giving him an even more maniacal appearance. The caravan lurched forward, wheels chewing up the rock and sand. Rhea braced herself on the pilot’s seat.

“Ruben, you have to stop this. It isn’t safe!” She said, and indeed there were warnings flashing on the control screens, highlighted areas ahead of the miniature caravan. Places where orbital mapping showed the ground was unstable.

That was only the parts that the satellites could detect. Ruben swept his hand across the alerts, casting them aside in a flurry like wind-blown leaves.

“Man, you have to stop!” Mark insisted. “If you get this thing stuck we’re screwed.”

Ruben shook his head. “They’d send someone to get us out. And I’m not going to get. Us. Stuck.”

The caravan swerved, tilted and the wheels screamed in protest, and Ruben skirted the edge of a small, steep-walled crater. As the caravan tilted right, Rhea reached across to brace herself on Mark’s seat.

Beside her, Barry moved to take the seat behind Mark. “You’re going to get us killed.”

Ruben didn’t look away from the view or the screens.

Short of grabbing him and yanking him out of the seat, Rhea was out of answers. Instead she went to the fourth seat behind Ruben and sat down, fastening the straps. She turned and looked back, where Gemma and Jessi were still back in the booth.

“Can you strap in back there?”

Gemma shook her head. “There aren’t any straps.”

“Then hang on,” Rhea said. “I don’t know where he’s going.”

“Just getting closer,” Ruben said. “Keep your panties on. Or not, doesn’t bother me either way.”

The caravan rocked and lurched, but mostly stayed level thanks to the six independent wheels. Rhea mirrored the pilot’s console on her screen so that she could watch what Ruben was doing.

On screen, more details overlaid the satellite projections of the surface, as data from the caravan’s own sensors and cameras filled in the gap. Tiny craters, rocks, and cracks in the surface were all highlighted if they presented any sort of hazard, coded by intensity. More layers showed subsurface defects identified by orbital mapping.

Rhea spun the display and rotated it to a cut-away side view. Here it was clear that the ground was sloping downward at a gentle grade, except that every so often a section dropped downward, leaving a sheer edge. The first ones were only a few centimeters, but zooming closer to the chasm saw drops that were up to several meters and highlighted in intense red. Even the cliff edge that they’d seen out the window was nothing more than another drop, some five meters down. Past that was the real cliff, tumbling down into the rough chasm beyond, over 4,000 meters deep.

A yellow caution showed the next drop was a full meter down.

“Hang on!” Ruben shouted.

Rhea braced herself. The whole front of the cockpit dropped down at an angle. The wheels crashed down with a deafening noise. She half expected the caravan to stop, the front wheels broken, but it continued rolling forward undaunted. Two more large jolts, drawing a scream from one of the women in the back, and the caravan was down on the next level.

“That’s enough!” Rhea said. She unfastened her straps and stood, grabbing Ruben’s workall at the shoulder. “Stop!”

Ruben grinned and the caravan shuddered to a stop, kicking up dust which blew past the windows.

“There! We’re closer now, look at that view!”

She didn’t let go until he shut down the drive commands and stood. She let go then and moved back so that he could pass.

“I’m going to suit up,” he announced. “I feel like a walk. It’s getting stuffy in here.”

Rhea opened her mouth to protest, but Mark leaned over and touched her wrist, shaking his head. She closed her mouth. Ruben hung on the sides of the cockpit.

“Who’s with me? Jessi?”

“Sure, why the hell not?” Jessi slid out of the booth and slit open her workall.

It pooled down around her feet, revealing that she had nothing on underneath, except a tiny pair of black standard issue underwear, hugging broad hips. Not fat, curvy and sexy, in an unselfconscious way. Her breasts were large, and would have been pendulous on Earth, but here benefited from the lower gravity. Jessi grinned at them all, her hands on her hips.

“What? Not exactly a lot of places to suit up, is there?”

Ruben whistled. “That’s right!”

Jessi snapped her fingers. “Get me my suit, Ruben, or I’ll change my mind.”

Ruben went into the racks across from the airlock and came back with a suit marked in bright violet stripes. It didn’t quite match Jessi’s hair, but it was close.

She took it from him, the bulky suit looking like a boneless dance partner.

“I’ll help you,” Gemma said.

Their excitement was infectious. Rhea’s lips pulled back, smiling over their antics and Jessi’s brazen attitude. Maybe that’s what they needed?

“I’ll go too,” Rhea announced. She pulled open her workall, exposing her breasts to the cooler air. Shocking, not because it was so cold, but that she had dared to do something like that.

Her breasts didn’t have the size of Jessi’s, but they were high and firm, peaches and cream, Tommy Smith, had been fond of saying. Her small dark nipples strained in the open air as she pushed the workall down past her hips. Again, she lacked the luscious curves that Jessi had, but her hips weren’t exactly boyish either.

“In that case I’m going to,” Mark said. “I’ll get the suits.”

Barry ogled her. “Want help with that?”

“No, thanks,” Rhea said. Heat was flooding her cheeks.

“Excellent!” Jessi said, stepping into the back of her suit with Gemma’s help.

There were different sorts of suits in use around the solar system, Rhea knew from training. Each model specific to conditions where it would be used.

These suits were universal, self-adjusting pressure suits with a rear entry. Jessi went first, stepping into the back of the suit while Gemma held the top portion beneath the arms. Having another person there made it a lot easier. Then she ducked down, hands going together over her head as if diving into the suit. For an instant her arms, head and shoulders were in the suit, while her butt was still sticking out. It’d have been funnier if Rhea wasn’t going to have to do the same thing in a minute.

She was trying very hard not to think about the effect the cold air was having on her nipples. She pushed the workall the rest of the way off and picked it up, essentially naked, except for her panties.

Easy to think that they were all professionals and the nudity didn’t matter, but Barry was still staring while Mark was getting her suit. Ruben was stripping down himself. His body was as lean as his face, no fat visible. Not bulky, like Barry, or hairy. His chest was essentially bare, except for a few wispy hairs around his tiny nipples.

No who was staring?

Jessi grunted and straightened up, the arms of the suit filling as she shoved her hands in. Her purple hair appeared in the helmet, and she stood completely up. The magnetic catches on the back automatically fastened, sealing her in the suit. It came to life, rippling and moving to adjust itself to her body, tightening around her.

“Here you go,” Mark said, peering past the helmet of her suit. “I’ll hold it for you.”

The color markings on the suit were a bright red. A good color, her favorite in fact. He hadn’t seen her in red, so it was interesting that he’d picked that one. Did it mean anything?

“Thanks,” she said.

“If you need an extra hand, you know, getting anything in, let me know,” Barry said.

“You’re asking for trouble,” Gemma said, glaring at him as she moved away from Jessi.

Barry gave her a sloppy grin and tried to kiss her. She pushed him away.

There was a suit in front of Rhea, the back open. She had to focus, if she wanted to get out there. She reached up and pulled the cam earrings from her ears, not wanting them to catch on the inside of the suit. The cam choker beads would be fine, there was plenty of room for them. The ones in front might actually catch some footage. She also took off her glasses. Mostly she was going to have to rely on the built in camera systems in the suit.

“Just a sec.” Rhea stepped back into the cockpit, opened one of the small compartments in the back bulkhead and put the cam earrings and glasses inside. She came back.

“Okay. Thanks. I’m ready.”

The material of the suit inside was oily, except it didn’t leave anything on the skin. It was designed to avoid any spots that might create sores, rubbing on the skin. It was a wet, sexy feeling, sliding her legs deep down inside the suit. Maybe she was weird, thinking of it that way, but that’s what it felt like. The miracles of material science. One of the offshoots of the material was to use it in sex toys, and maybe that bit of trivia was part of what she felt as she slid into the suit.

With her legs in, she took a deep breath and copied Jessi, diving forward into the slit like a baby returning to the womb. She shoved her hands up along the slick insides, reaching up to find the arms that Mark held, the edges of the suit swallowing her head, twisting to get her shoulders in. Almost as if the back of the suit was a mouth, sucking her down.

The smell of the suit was faint, a plastic, medicinal sort of smell from whatever had been used to clean it. She twisted her head around in the dark, finding the light above coming through the suit’s visor and she stood, spreading her arms wide as they slid the rest of the way down. Her fingers found the fingers of the gloves. The back of the suit slipped over her bottom and the magnetic seals snapped shut as her head made it up into the helmet.

Around her the suit came to life, the material moving and constricting on her limbs, and that part was almost erotic, like an instant massage all over her body as the suit adapted to her build. When it finished the fit was perfect, a second, bulky skin to protect her.

The heads up displays were live around the edges of the helmet. The semi-transparent icons wiggled as her gaze passed over them, eager to respond to her gaze. She focused on the system status and a window unfurled in front of her eyes showing a schematic of the suit.

All systems were highlighted in green. The lack of a Freaking Heavy Environmental Unit, F.H.E.U., noted in amber, but the hip bottles of air would last an hour each with the built-in rebreather.

Another glance opened the communications systems. The suits were automatically connected, but she blinked through the selections and activated the recording features so that the suit would log everything that happened.

“Online and good to go,” she said. Her voice carried out of the suit, thanks to external speakers. Those would be less effective on Mars, given the thin atmosphere, but still useful if other connections were down.

Jessi waved a thick-gloved hand, banded in purple at the wrists and fingertips. “Just waiting on the guys! How’s that for a change?”

Another icon flashed up as Ruben’s suit sealed and came online.

“Hey honey,” he said. “You want to go for a walk?”

“I can’t wait!”

Rhea turned, to see how Mark was doing. He straightened up, his suit looking empty and clumsy before his head rose up into the helmet. Then his seals snapped shut and he joined the connection.

Barry put his arm around Gemma’s shoulders. He winked. “We’ll keep an eye on the place while you’re out.”

Gemma shrugged him off. “Don’t count on anything. We have to watch the feed from their cameras, and make sure they stay out of trouble. Or have you never read the protocols for something like this?”

“Whatever,” Ruben said. “Can we get out of here?”

“Yes,” Rhea said. It wasn’t her idea initially to do this now, but suited up, she couldn’t wait to get out. And it was her expedition. “Mark and I will go through first, then you and Jessi follow.”

“Why you?” Ruben said.

Rhea signaled the airlock to open. She didn’t look back. “Because we’re closest, and it’s tight quarters in here. Easier for us to go first and get out of the way.”

Mark chuckled.

It was very tight quarters in the small airlock. With the suits on, they were standing facing each other when the door closed. A message popped up on her display, Mark on a private channel.

“Hi there,” he said. “Thanks for putting up with them. It’s cabin fever. Getting out like this will make things a lot better when we get back.”

“Glad I could help,” she said. “And I think I’ve got some footage I can use. We just need that last thing to give it some punch.”

“You’ll get it.”

The lights on the outer door turned amber. This was it. Time to step outside.

When the door opened the view nearly took her breath away. The cliff edge looked so close! And the canyon beyond it, was like nothing she had seen from previous robotic missions. No one wanted to drive a rover into difficult terrain where it might get stuck, but that also meant that the footage sent back tended to be the same flat, uninteresting landscape. Like pictures of wheat fields. No matter how pretty, eventually it was dull. The eye wanted more interest.

Rhea moved out of the airlock first, jumping the short distance out to the ground. She picked her jump carefully and avoided the big boulder on her right sticking out of a dune. She landed lightly and took a few bouncing steps.

More gravity than the Moon, but so much less than Earth or Aphrodite on Venus.

She turned to watch Mark. The eye said he was too high, at least a meter off the ground, but he jumped out and landed easily.

“We’re out,” she said on the general connection. “Come on out.”

“Roger,” Ruben said. “We’re on our way.”

Mark came up beside her and he reached out, brushing their gloves together. It was sweet. He whistled.

“Look at that view!”

She didn’t need any encouragement, and had to admit to herself that Ruben was right. Seeing this now, as the sun was setting behind them, made it more fantastic. The rough ground ahead dropped away into darkness, while the sunlight still lit up the distant cliffs on the opposite side of the chasm.

“Let’s go closer,” she said.

“Watch your step,” Mark said. “We don’t want to fall down there!”

The thought twisted a knot in her gut. “No! We don’t.”

She went forward in slow, bouncing steps. Not too far. Just ahead the ground broke away along a sharp edge that extended off to the right for a long ways, and to the left a shorter distance. The ground on the other side was much lower.

This was the first time she had stood upon Mars. Really on Mars, out in the open rather than from within a vehicle, isolated from the world.

Beautiful. The world was on the tip of her tongue, held there by its own inadequacy. What would people on Earth see? Images of the Grand Canyon?

Ancient lands so far untouched by any human activity. Layers of rock recording the history of a planet, cut through by this broken rift, a tear right down through time. This was a window into the past.

There, right at the top of the rim, where the sun turned the reddish sand and rock a brighter red, that was now. Mark moved just ahead of her, taking careful slow steps to the edge of the next drop down. The sunlight lit up the back of his suit, but his face was visible through the visor. He was looking at the canyon with the wonder of a small child. His mouth hung open, eyes reflecting the lights of his displays.

Kneeling, down on one knee, Rhea ran her gloved hand through the sand at her feet. It was fine and trailed through her fingers, blowing only a little as it fell back to the ground.

“Are you okay?” Mark asked. A faint echo of his voice came from outside the helmet, the sound actually carrying through the air.

“Fine,” she said. “Just fine.”

Except for Earth she’d never really been on a planet, not like this. Venus was, beautiful, and terrifying. Living on a floating city in the clouds sounded romantic, but she had lived in fear that the city would one day plunge down into the searing depths below.

It’d taken Carys Rex to show what the possibilities were on Venus. Rhea had gotten credit for bringing her to Aphrodite, when the truth of it was Carys was her way out.

And this was her reward.

A real world of rock and stone that she could touch. The suit clung to her as a second, stiffer skin, hardened against the brutal cold and thin, poisonous atmosphere outside. It was enough to show what was possible, that people could live here. It was a landscape and landscapes compelled people. Vistas like this thrilled people, and encouraged them to go places.

This was what she needed to show of Mars. If she could travel around the planet, and visit places like this, she’d have more than enough people clamoring for a chance to come to the red planet. She just had to uncover the possibilities for them.

“What are you standing around for?” Ruben said, bouncing up between them. “Don’t you want to see what’s down there?”

Mark began. “We were —”

Ruben yelled and jumped forward.

“Ruben!” Jessi appeared at Rhea’s elbow, grabbing her shoulder.

Wind-milling his arms, Ruben sailed through the air over the drop off. Rhea pushed off the ground, bouncing up back into a standing position. She eased forward a step, wary of the drop.

Ruben dropped down and landed, knees bending, falling forward. He caught himself and bounced back up onto his feet laughing.

He turned, beckoning. “Come on! We’ve got to see this before it gets too dark!”

Jessi laughed. “You’re crazy!”

“You love it!” Ruben answered. He turned away and started loping across the sand.

It was bold. Beautiful footage. Rhea took another two steps forward, right to the edge of the drop off. It wasn’t too far, a bit over a meter maybe, but there was the lower gravity to consider. And she’d just seen Ruben simply jump over.

Why not?

She took the leap coming to Mars. Why not this one too?

She jumped. It was easy. She wasn’t even falling that fast, it seemed, when she landed. Jessi squealed as she jumped down. Mark managed the jump easily and moved ahead.

Ruben raced on ahead of all of them, and hopefully had sense not to go too fast to the edge. Or get too close. No telling how stable this was, the whole thing was gradually breaking away, tumbling down into the chasm. The small map on her heads up tracked each of their positions against the terrain. He was getting closer.

The third drop was much higher, at least two meters high. Ruben still didn’t hesitate. He went over it with hardly a pause.

Mark stopped at the edge. “You’re crazy! How’re you going to get back up?”

“Gravity, man,” came Ruben’s reply. “We can jump it, or walk down to a break to climb up. Come on!”

Rhea and Jessi caught up, beside Mark. Down below, Ruben moved through the shadows closer to the canyon edge. What had seemed light and inspiring, was taking on a darker tone. What was he doing going so close?

She didn’t want to record someone falling to their deaths, or getting injured.

Ruben stopped at the edge of the next drop off. His lights came on, stabbing down into the shadows. “It’s not that bad. I think we can do it.”

“Don’t,” Rhea said. “Come back Ruben. We’ve seen the canyon.”

“If you go over that edge, I’m not sleeping with you tonight,” Jessi said.

Down below, Ruben’s space-suited figure turned around. Bright lights flashed from his helmet across them. “Really? It’s just one more drop, and then we can go right to the edge!”

“Ruben, come back up. If you want to do this, let’s do it right, tomorrow. It’ll be light. We can see better. And we can have safety lines so you don’t go spilling over the cliff!”

Mark moved closer and his icon switched to a private channel. “He’s been frustrated, not getting to move forward on terraforming plans.”

“Maybe I can help with that,” Rhea said back, on the same channel. She blinked over to the public channel. “Ruben, come back up, and like Jessi said, we’ll explore more tomorrow. And this is just the beginning, you know, I’m going to be filming sights like this all over the planet.”

“Yeah? They’re going to let you do that?”

“Yes.”

She believed it. She could already see the first video. The group going on the outing, the view of the canyon. Whatever else they did tomorrow, and suggestions of the future.

“Okay,” Ruben said. “I’ve thought of a name for your expeditions.”

“Yes?” Rhea asked.

“Sexpeditions! Keep the caravan rocking!” He laughed and bounded back over to the break.

“Careful,” Jessi said. “You get yourself killed and there won’t be any sex!”

Ruben chuckled and crouched. “Watch this!”

He jumped. Rhea’s breath caught in her throat. It looked impossible, but he rose up high enough to reach out and catch the top of the drop. Mark was there, kneeling and grabbing onto Ruben’s arm. With Mark’s help, Ruben climbed up. Red dust drifted off his suit, expelled by the faint charge in the outer layer.

“See, no problem?” He bounced over to Jessi. “Let’s get back inside.”

Rhea lingered at the edge of the drop. It was going to work out. She had lots of material to work with. She’d get more tomorrow.

Whatever else they uncovered about Mars, whatever had lived and died here before, whether or not any Martian organisms still lived? There was life on Mars. Now. Right now.

That’s what she would show the people of the exodus, Terra Blackstone, the rest of the Diaspora and those left behind on Earth.

Mark was right. Life had come back to Mars and would change it, no matter what anyone wanted. She’d start now, showing Mars as it existed in this moment, but that was only the beginning. She could spend a lifetime documenting the changes, and the people that lived on Mars.

13,527 words

Author’s Note

This story marks the fourth weekly short story release, and the fourth Planetary Bodies story. I made a choice in writing these stories to start with the inner-most world and work my way out. In some ways this story seemed harder than some others because we’ve had so many successful missions now on Mars that it seems a much more familiar world.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the series links at the top of the page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story, Embracing Ceres is next and appropriate given that the Dawn mission is currently in orbit around Ceres giving us our first close look at the dwarf planet.

Author: Ryan M. Williams

Writer and artist, Ryan M. Williams, author of more than twenty novels, writes across a range of genres including fantasy, science fiction, romance, paranormal, and mystery. He holds a Master of Arts from Seton Hill University in writing popular fiction. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies from Pocket Books, WMG Publishing, and in On Spec Magazine. He currently attends San Jose State University, pursuing a Master of Information and Library Science degree.