How We Survive
By Ali Abbas
I drop the heavy device onto the table with a clank. The young woman opposite gives me a blank look, her shoulder-length brown hair swaying gently. The others have all moved on to basic courtesies; this one, the name tag on her overalls reads Oksana, hasn’t offered me a word in all this time, let alone introduce herself.
“It’s a door servo,” I tell her.
Oksana hefts a twenty litre can of water onto the table in return. It’s my turn to give her a blank look. It took hours of sifting through debris to find the mechanism and cut it out of the wreckage, hours more to refurbish it. She shrugs and lifts another can onto the table.
That will have to do. I swing the cans carefully, constrained by my envirosuit. The water has less weight than on Earth but it still has mass and momentum. The dignity of my departure will be lost if I spin around like a top.
The Russian compound has a large open area inside the main airlock. Five doors lead off in different directions. I spy my brother Timur standing in a doorway to the residential section. A woman, maybe in her fifties, is with him. She’s dressed only in a robe. As I watch she pulls on the collar of his envirosuit to bring his lips down to hers. It’s an awkwardly long kiss. Eventually, Timur puts his hand over hers, releasing her grip and disengaging. The look the older woman gives him is probably meant to be sultry, from where I am she just looks constipated.
The woman reaches to one side of the door and hands Timur a net bag with a dozen protein packs. Timur colours as he sees me. It takes a moment for him to adjust, throw back his shoulders and stride confidently towards the airlock.
In silence, we go through the ritual of settling helmets and checking each other’s seals and bindings before going through the airlock cycle. I hate the way he earns a living. I hate it more than the way I earn mine. I think he hates it too, but his cocky, streetwise manner won’t let him admit it.
I strap this visit’s haul onto the power sled while he disconnects it from the charging point. We’ve agreed on an honour system with the Russians for the sleds: bring one, take one. They’re the same design after all, and they take hours to recharge. Even then, the sled will die a kilometre or so from our home and we’ll have to pull it the rest of the way.
There’s a well-worn path leading out of the Russian compound. The wreckage of failed first landings has been stripped for parts and pulled aside, offering a little shelter from the constant wind. The earliest labour we offered the Russians was to dig mass graves for the oligarchs and politicians that perished in those doomed early phases of the Exodus.
Timur and I bound along beside the sled, sure-footed on the loose, treacherous surface. With the right gait, you can build up speed quickly. The trick is learning how to stop or change course. On Earth, my people claimed we learned to ride before we learned to walk. On Mars, we like to believe we’re the best at running. Even unwelcome interlopers have their pride and besides, we have no cars.
‘That dark-haired one still freezing you?’ Timur probes after a while. I don’t answer. ‘Don’t worry Nurzhan, even if she hates you, and she probably does, her biological imperative will thaw her out.’
“And what’s the imperative for that fat old hag you were with?”
He shoulder barges me off the trail. I anticipated it, it only takes a few steps for me to lope back into position behind the sled. He doesn’t say anything else for a while.
“We all do what we have to in order to survive Nurzhan. Just remember that.”
We lapse back into silence. When the sled finally slows to a crawl we move ahead of it, yoke in with shoulder straps, and drag it like beasts of burden. So much for riding ponies across the steppe, on Mars we have to be them.
The Exodus plan was that all the Russian Mars landers of our launch phase would connect to form a decagon proximate to the earlier Russian launch phases. The decagon would be the foundation for a bio-dome in which the last Russian colonists to arrive would live.
Of course, we weren’t meant to be on Mars at all. In the final days of Earth my father, normally a mild-mannered surgeon, planned a last glorious ride for our once nomadic tribe. We found enough ponies for a dozen riders. The rest of us were in 4x4s and air cars. We swept down onto the launch site in our native Kazakhstan. That offended my father the most. They were leaving us to die from our own country.
He expected to be cut down, a hail of bullets would end us before the asteroid did. Better to die in the saddle than to keep living for its own sake, waiting for the sky to boil and blacken.
It turned out that the soldiers had all deserted. The only people left were demoted first wives and the intelligentsia that had made it all possible, waiting to board the last train to leave the station.
For a solitary moment my father channelled the age of the great Khans. He sifted out the male scientists and turned them away. My extended family and our close friends took their place. It made me sick to my stomach. I still boarded.
The other phases were still in flight when we launched. We were to learn, through the uneasy truce of our months-long traverse, of a chronic error in the landing algorithms all nations shared. Few survived. Inadvertently my father had dramatically skewed the gender balance of the last remaining Russians.
It could have been worse. The Australian landers collided on entry, their single Exodus phase scattered to the winds somewhere near the crater’s edge, ending their nation.
Informed by the telemetry of failed landings the later phases had more success. They hit their target zones, building homes in the midst of their dead, and with more material than they needed from the scattered cargo pods.
We Kazakhs lacked expert pilots, and I guess our Russian travelling companions chose to underplay the need. The autopilots on the landers we commandeered missed the target zone by over ten kilometres. Too far to reconnect with the Russians if either side had even wanted to. Instead, we hauled our landers and the few cargo pods we had claimed out of the deep scars they left in the landscape. It was a ramshackle colony connected by twisted umbilicals whose fragile fabric was reminiscent of tents we mythologised but had not lived in for untold generations.
Timur abandons me by the long line of turbines, just as the lumpy, irregular shape of our compound comes into view.
“Hey!” I shout as the load doubles. He gives me a wave and hikes off into the open plain.
“Something to do,” he says over the crackling near-field comm. If he says any more it’s lost as he steps out of range.
Cursing, I drag the sled for the last few hundred metres into the compound and unload. It’s poorly lit inside. We hoard power like misers. We hoard everything.
My elder sister, already ungainly in her pregnancy, pats me on the cheek like I’m a clever child and inventories the cargo. Alongside the water and protein packs are a few bits of salvage I picked up earlier. Fewer than I used to bring home. We’re nowhere near self-sufficient and soon we’ll have nothing left to trade.
That reminds me of Timur. Before I can mention him sloping off, he’s back, a dusty satchel over one shoulder. My sister refuses to make eye contact with him. He snorts and ducks into the residential pod.
I put Timur out of my mind and flip open my pad of calculations. There’s an answer to our problems but my calculations need to be perfect.
It’s late when I finally get back to the small bunk space I share with Timur. He’s out somewhere, probably regaling his friends with exaggerated tales of today’s conquest. As I drop into bed, I see the strap of the satchel he came back with poking from under his mattress. He didn’t have it in the Russian compound, which means he collected it when he left me with the sled.
Curiosity gets the better of me. Inside are slim canisters labelled MoS2. Handwritten. Molybdenum disulphide made here on Mars. It’s a lubricant, one of the few that work in the freezing, low-pressure environment of Mars. What would he need that for and who made it for him?
Pain explodes in my side, I’m launched back, away, into the wall. Impact forces the air from my lungs, spattering saliva on Timur’s livid face. He grabs my throat as I struggle to catch my breath.
“You should be tucked up in bed little brother.”
“What… what is this?” I gasp trying to shove him away. I can’t but he relents, pushing me roughly aside.
“The future. No more junk diving for you, no more sweating over a fat Khanshyk for me. We used force to get here, and we’ll use force to take what we need.”
Guns. My body turns to jelly. Bullets work well enough on Mars, they hold their own oxygen. But conventional grease jams in guns. Without the MoS2 you might start a war, but you’d quickly lose.
“Are you mad? Does father know?”
“He’s too busy salving his conscience by playing doctor to know anything.” If we had been outside on Earth Timur would have spit into the dust, scorn is writ large on his features.
“We can’t start the same feuds here that we had back at home. You’ve lost your mind.”
“How else are we going to survive? We’re at the margins and getting squeezed out.” He voice is gentler as if he wants to convince me. “You want your nephew to grow up sifting trash like you do? You think there’ll be any trash left to trade? And you can’t seriously want him following in my footsteps.”
“Give it time, they’ll get the alloy mills and hydrofarms up to scale soon.”
“Which we have none of. We’re finished without them, the only way is to take them. I’ve made contact with some others of like mind. They’ll hold off any reprisals from other nations.” He pats me on the cheek, mimicking our sister. “We’re almost ready. Find your courage kid. Dust storm is due in three days, we’ll go in behind it.”
I don’t sleep that night. No matter how high I turn up the thermo I feel frozen. This is meant to be a new start. Instead, we’re just starting again. We might have flown here on astonishing technology, but in truth we’ve ridden to Mars on the steppe horses of our ancestors and brought their warmongering with us.
I go out early, just as the sky is turning dusty red from deep indigo. There is a way to stop this. If I can make it back in time with the discovery I’ve been praying for I might be able to make a difference.
If I’m right I won’t be back that night, so I leave a note for my sister. I can’t do anything about Timur, either he’ll think I’ve turned coat and bring forward his plans, or he won’t.
The power sled is fully charged. I load it up with enough oxy tanks for the return trip, then add one more. It’s a long way, I don’t feel rested, but I don’t think I have a choice.
When the sled eventually grinds to a halt I take a break. I slide a food pack into a pocket of my envirosuit and suck the watery sludge up through a tube in my helmet. I’ve used three-quarters of an oxy tank. I drop off the part-used tank and a full one with a short-range beacon and build a little cairn of stones. The range is a little dicey, I don’t think they can pick it up from the compound, but I’ve also left a pretty obvious trail with the sled. I don’t mind being followed; I just don’t want to be stopped.
I yoke up and drag the sled, dropping tanks when they get to fifty-five per cent with a beacon and building a small cairn each time. The relentless grey-red landscape makes it easy to get turned around. There’s no point in taking chances.
With one full tank on and one full tank spare I abandon the sled. Even though I’ve spent full days out salvaging, and often worked deep into the chill of the night, the constant wind and the mass of the sled are taking its toll. I only make it another five kilometres, breathing hard, before I have to drop the tank and switch to my last one. So far there has been no sign of what I’m looking for. If I don’t find it soon, I’ll have to head back. To a war.
The purpling Martian night is closing in when I reach the top of a short rise and find the Australian debris field. My calculations and the maps I’ve studied til my eyes blurred led me to believe no one had got here ahead of me. The only passable route for a ground car is via our ramshackle compound. That’s a long way and too much like hard work when there has been easier salvage on everyone else’s doorstep. We don’t have that luxury, the Australian’s tragedy could be our salvation.
The debris stretches for a dozen kilometres. Somewhere there are bodies desiccated by the parched atmosphere. Moving slowly, I try not to think about that. Jagged edges, broken spars and cracked heat shielding lie all around. From the top of an outcrop I look across the wreckage. There’s smoke in the distance. Mars has too little free oxygen for anything to burn; it has to be something else. I take my bearings to head that way.
As I come down the slope I catch a hint of a movement from the corner of my eye. I jerk out of the way, lose my footing and go spiralling off to one side. I land off-balance, arms windmilling. Someone is coming towards me with a knife in one gloved hand. I push backwards, trusting that whatever lies behind me is less perilous than what’s before. If it’s Timur or one of this friends I don’t stand a chance.
The figure tries to follow but isn’t confident on the broken terrain. I recognize the pretty round face under the faceplate. She’s only ever given me cold glares as I traded scrap. I have no idea why she’s coming at me with such venom flashing in her eyes. I put out my hands in a mixed gesture that signals surrender and a plea that she should stop.
She comes on, her feet spread, arm unwavering. I back into a boulder, with nowhere else to go. She knows what she’s doing, I can tell from her grip, her stance and the intensity in her eyes. My only advantage is time spent out on the surface.
The knife flashes.
I jink as she over-reaches, swat her hand aside and twist her into a spin. The knife lands in a puff of dust. I push her back, bracing myself on the boulder. She lands a few meters away, kicking up a cloud of gravel.
“What the hell?” I yell over the near-field comm.
“You bloody savage. Swaggering about in my father’s suit like you can do as you please. I will end you here!” There’s a sob bubbling underneath her shouted words.
“Your father’s suit?” I blurt. I know her name is Oksana. The suit I wear had a badge: Orlov, Viktor.
“Oksana Orlov?” I ask. My ancestors would have feuded for centuries over less.
She glances about before nodding. “You killed him by taking his place.” She’s hunting for the knife. As she turns I see my mark on her oxy tank. She’s been using the half tanks I stashed along the way for my return journey. Anger replaces my shock. We were dead anyway, fighting just brings the end closer. I slump down against the boulder.
She scoops up the knife, takes a step towards me and pauses when I don’t move.
“You do not deny you killed my father?”
“The asteroid killed him.”
“He should have been here. He should be alive.”
“And who decided that? Who chose you, and not me? Where are the Uzbeks, the Thai, and the Vietnamese?” My anger boils over. Anger at the presumption of the rich, the helplessness of the poor. Anger at her short sighted vengeance that has doomed us both. “If I killed your father then so be it. He was willing to let all the others die, just like you. Their blood is on your hands.” With that my anger drains but the bitterness remains. I push slowly to my feet. Unthreatening but unafraid. “The joke is you don’t even realise how much more blood there will be on your hands. I could have stalled my people’s demise, or the price of trying to resist it.” I point to the debris field, watching as her attention follows my hand, then I tap my oxygen tank. “Well done, you’ve killed us both.”
It seems like the desire for revenge that has been holding her up bleeds out. She drops to her knees, and there’s only sobbing over the comm link. Perhaps the iron curtain of vengeance has veiled her own sense of guilt. I can’t bring myself to care.
“You’re wasting oxygen, head back while you can,” I say coldly. “Your people have transport, maybe you’ll get lucky with comm range. Or maybe you’ll die and the wind can have your bones.” My death is imminent; I have no sympathy to spare. I stride off towards the smoke I had seen earlier. She can kill me for my oxygen for the way back if she wants. Death waits for us all, here or back at the compounds.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to keep living until I die.” I don’t look around, her breath in the near-field comm and the skittering of gravel down the slope tell me she’s following.
Curiosity gets the better of me.
“How the hell did you find me anyway?”
She snorts. “All the suits have trackers. We know where you all are. If we had the satellite link we could even watch you inside that rabbit warren. I track you because of that suit.” She pauses. “Today I could not sleep. I saw you go off sensor range. The rest was just trigonometry.” She shrugs. “And we don’t let you share the good sleds. I rode most of the way until the power ran out.”
Trackers. They’d see Timur’s attack coming. My knees wobble again. Somehow I have to get back.
“Did you stash any oxy, or have you just been using mine?” I hope she doesn’t hear the fear in my question. Not the fear of death, but the fear I might need to kill her to live and save my people from annihilation.
She colours under the low helmet lighting. At least she’ll die embarrassed.
“I wanted revenge. When my spares ran out I just kept going.”
Revenge at the cost of her own life. I wonder if we’re distantly related. “Am I going to have to keep looking over my shoulder for the little time we have left?” I ask.
She shakes her head, drops the knife into the Martian dust and kicks it away.
“Truce?” she offers.
“Truce,” I reply.
Her oxygen is down to twenty minutes when we find the source of the smoke. It isn’t smoke at all. Heat rises from a small power plant. It pushes up a shimmery haze peppered with dust. The shielding looks intact and the control panel is canted up to the sky.
My stomach hollows out, tears prick my eyes. But for Oksana’s presence and my pride, I would collapse right there. The power plants are designed to run for years after landfall to support our fledgling society. I have no way to signal to my people that there is power to spare cooking a barren landscape.
To one side there’s a cargo pod, half-buried in rubble. It looks intact. I run my gloved hand over a panel. The Australian flag is etched and enamelled on to it. Bleak humour replaces my sense of failure. I give a single bitter laugh. There could be enough materiel in there to keep the remaining members of my tribe for months, possibly years, and perhaps find a way to save ourselves without starting a war.
There’s a keypad to open the hatch on the pod. I can get around it, but not in the minutes we have left.
Oksana’s hand comes past me and I flinch. She punches in a sequence. “Universal emergency access,” she says without looking at me. “Only mission leaders have the codes. My father taught me them.” An orange light blinks above the pad. “Right now it’s sending an alert that the emergency code has been used.” She looks around. “Except there’s no one to issue the countermand.”
We wait for a tense minute. Then the hatch strains and sucks itself into the wall of the pod. The second hatch barrels open smoothly. Our helmet lights lance across the dim interior. The chassis of a ground car is strapped to the floor, half-covered by a fallen rack of envirosuits, and crates of stores.
“Well?” I ask.
“Don’t look at me, I’m an anthropologist. Can you assemble it?” she replies, running a hand over the roll cage of the vehicle.
“I have a Masters in MechEng,” I reply, not sure why I want her to know. I overcorrect, “and I hotwired air cars as a teenager.” I start to undo the straps. There will be oxygen enough for both of us in the spare suits.
I should leave her to walk back, I think. She could shelter for the night in here. By the time she’s in comm range of the Russian compound tomorrow I’ll have made several trips, cleaning out the stores and bringing my people to recover the power plant.
I look her in the eye. Timur was wrong, it’s isn’t just about survival, it’s about how we survive.
“Can I give you a lift home?”
About the Author:
Ali Abbas is the author of “Like Clockwork” a steampunk mystery published by Transmundane Press. His shorter fiction has been published widely. A full list of published works and free-to-read stories can be found on his author page http://www.authoraliabbas.weebly.com. Ali also maintains a blog at http://www.aliabbasali.com. He sometimes remembers to promote his work on Instagram @aliabbasali and occasionally forgets to keep his opinions to himself on Twitter @ibblybob
Copyright remains with Ali Abbas