Ghosts of Mars: Chapter 1

The First

The world outside the window is infinitely more exciting than the colony nursery.

Drones buzz around, carrying small crates. Astronauts bounce around the landing pad, making final checks for the incoming rocket. A dozen or so maintenance workers are cleaning solar panels, test-driving the rovers, and checking the water recycling and moisture vaporiser machines. Far off, a dust devil whirls across the surface of Mars, like a fiery tornado, throwing dust and rocks around.

I ping the elastic band on my wrist, and my mind is back in the room.

The sudden snap on the skin increases blood flow and improves alertness. Apparently.

And I need both right now – a room full of young Martians and Earthlings gaze up at me, sitting cross-legged in four rows, making the nursery feel tiny.

The room smells of spilt porridge and sweaty socks, only slightly masked by Mr Quark’s body odour. My nose wrinkles every time he walks past. The oxygenator isn’t recycling the air fast enough to remove the lingering stink.

Seriously, I’d rather scrub solar panels out there, than stand here.

‘Eva, tell us what it’s like to be famous?’ A kid, right at the front, a young Martianborn I recognise asks a question to break the silence. 

I should have started talking already. Mr Quark introduced me, as everyone always does: Eva Knight, the first Martianborn. As if he needed to. But I haven’t said any of the words I’d rehearsed with Dad last night. 

There’s a large image of me on the telescreen. Always images of me everywhere. This one from Halloween a few years, and I’d dressed up as a solar flare, my red hair styled up at an angle, like a fork of lightning. Warm reds and oranges in my little dress.

‘Have you ever been to Earth?’

‘What’s your favourite planet?’

‘Are you friends with Hercus Armstrong? I heard from my dad that she won the 2045 strongest person on Mars competition.’ A loud chorus of ‘wooooo’ comes from the kids. 

‘The Martian Olympics,’ I whisper.

Mr Quark moves to the front holding a finger to his lips. ‘Settle down, kids, let Eva speak.’ He smiles at me and nods. Probably trying to reassure me.

But I’ve never been less assured in my life. It’s like the kids are growing larger, or the room is getting smaller. They’re closing in on me.

I glance out the window, and it calms me enough to act.

‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this.’ I run out of the nursery, and bump into the last person I want to see right now.

‘And where do you think you’re going?’ Commander Darshi runs the base. Well, technically co-runs it with Dad, but she never acts like it, even though she’s only been here a few weeks.

I lower my head, wordless. Anything I say now will get me in even more trouble.

‘This is classic, Eva. You’re the biggest parasite on Mars,’ snarls commander Darshi. ‘You take and take and take and we all make sacrifices for you. And what do you give back? Nothing. You can’t even speak to the kids in the nursery when asked.’ She points through the window, and I see the kids’ eager faces, their questions still unanswered.

I still can’t find my voice, so I keep my head down and rub my sweaty palms together.

‘Eva, are you even listening to me?’

I look up and nod.

‘Good, now get back in there and watch the rocket land with them. The young Martianborn look up to you. They love talking to one of their own. Especially the first.’

Darshi marches away, and luckily my voice is still AWOL because I want to scream at her. I glance through the door again. A few small faces look up at me, their missing-tooth-smiles making me feel terrible for what I’m about to do next.

I run.

Far away from the nursery. In the opposite direction from the commander, back towards my apartment. Dad shouldn’t be there as he’ll be in the command centre for the landing.

I will be all alone. Well, almost.

I think you should go back, Eva.

‘Quiet, T.’ 

Trust Thunderchild to take Darshi’s side. I tap the tiny AI implant, in the tragus of my ear, to mute him…for the next five minutes anyway. I need time to myself – life up here is too much sometimes.

It’s not just Mars or being the most famous person in the Solar System, it’s the way people treat me. They either ogle me like the Martian microbes we study down the microscopes in science, or they’re like Darshi and wish I never existed.

Sometimes I wish that, too.

But there’s no escaping it – I am the first Martian. There’s reminders everywhere, and I hate it.

Or maybe I should say, the first human to be born on Mars. I mean, I’m not green or anything. But technically I’m an alien with human biology. But not all that biology works as well for me. I check my e-pancreas and sugars are in range.

As I move quickly through the corridors, I see the telescreens are already playing the welcome message for the new colonists that are due to arrive today.

Welcome to Mars

You are now a colonist on Mariner Base

Birthplace of the first Martian, Eva Knight

Please report to your duty commander as indicated on your space-pass

Amazing – another reminder. This is probably half the reason the new co-commander hates me so much. I ignore the photo-shopped image of me on the welcome message and hurry home.

The apartment is quiet – a different place to how it was this morning, during my argument with Dad.

‘You will NEVER be an astronaut. Never. No type 1 diabetic, let alone one born on Mars, would ever pass the medical exam. Your insulin would take up precious space needed for oxygen, water, and food. And your Martian-body wouldn’t stand up to the rigours of space travel. Please drop this absurd dream and take your responsibilities here, in this colony, more seriously,’ he said.

‘Mum would’ve let me take astronaut training.’

I winced at the memory – I knew it’d sting, bringing up Mum, but I did it anyway. 

‘Your mother would have agreed with me. Your path is here, on this colony, rising through the ranks, staying safe in command, or engineering, or food production, or whatever you have an interest in. Anything but out there.’ He pointed out of our little window.

Red rocks and tall dunes and an endless sea of lifeless desert. Well, on the surface.

‘I must go. We have many important supplies on that rocket, not least your new e-pancreas. That old one won’t last until the next supply rocket arrives.’ 

As he left, I grabbed a small Martian rock that he’d given me as a present when I was four and hurled it as hard as I could at the screen, as it flicked through a collage of old family photos.

The rock still lies there on the floor, going nowhere, just like me.

My bedroom light flashes on as I enter, and I top up the insulin supply on my e-pancreas. My diabetes used to be such a pain in the butt when I injected, but now this wee machine does it all automatically for me. Technology is great. I don’t want to be worrying about my glucose levels when I’m outside. 

I change from my formal, all-white uniform, into my skinsuit, which we’re all issued with to wear below spacesuits. Mine is barely worn, the orange sleeves and red core barely faded at all. Dad’s barely has any of the colour left.

Once I’m ready, I grab Dad’s spare multi-pass and head out again.

I will not be told what I can and cannot be.

I’ll show him, and everyone else, that I belong out there.

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