By Lissa Bryan
"You knew it was a one-way ticket."
That's what she told herself again and again as she stared out the tiny portal at the rust-brown desert that stretched as far as her eye could see.
Yes, she'd known. And she'd accepted those risks for the chance to be one of humanity's first off-world colonists. She'd known those risks and accepted them in a mature and thoughtful manner, at least enough to impress the half-dozen psychiatrists she'd been interviewed by during the long screening process. There would be no rescue. No re-supply. From the moment the ship left the Earth's atmosphere, they were on their own and would have to survive.
But nothing could have prepared her for this. For the reality of it. The stark, cold, and terrifying reality that she was millions of miles from home, and she was the only one left.
A soft chime echoed down the hallway. It should signal a shift change. Four colonists should now be taking over the twenty-four hour operation of the habitat, maintaining their hydroponic crops and the filtration systems for their air and water, and ensuring that the solar power operated properly. That chime sounded three times a day now to the empty pods.
The habitat had once seemed cramped, with every bit of space shared, used for work and the daily activities of life. They'd spent their last two years on earth living in an exact replica in the Arctic, the closest science could replicate the conditions they'd face, adjusting to the close quarters. Now, the habitat seemed cavernous, yawning and empty and Bella preferred to stay in her little room as much as possible, watching the videos she'd recorded of her fellow crew members on her tablet. Around the edges of the screen were video feeds of the exterior of the pods, the life support equipment, but Bella ignored those. Hours passed as she fed in the data sticks and re-watched her favorite clips. While they were playing, she could ignore the silence around her. She could ignore the loneliness.
"Gravity here on Mars is only 3/8ths what it is on Earth," Emmett told the audience back home. "That means when our resident klutz, Bella, falls down, she falls slooooower and it doesn't hurt quite as much. Isn't that right, Bella?"
Bella smiled, even as she wiped away tears. Emmett teased her relentlessly, but was the first one to notice when any crew member was feeling down and the kindest soul Bella had ever known.
In the video, Dr. Rosalie Hale lobbed a rolled up sock at him and it bonked Emmett on the side of the head. "It also means objects thrown at Emmett travel slower."
Bella touched the skip button and the clip moved forward until she slowed it again. Edward was in the kitchen, chopping onions, laughing as Dr. Hale and Emmett playfully bickered, pausing now and then to wipe his eyes. He looked up at the camera – at Bella who'd been operating it – and gave a little smile and shake of his head. It was only a few seconds of him onscreen, so Bella rewound it.
In those few seconds while she was backing up the clip, the silence rang in her ears. She could hear her own breathing, the sound of her heart, sounds she should not be conscious of, but had become the loudest things in her world. The habitat used to be a noisy, busy place, filled with laughter and chatter, the clang of metal parts as machinery was repaired and constructed, occasional curses as a tool was dropped, music from the speakers, the chime of a message arriving from NASA or the hum of the printer as text directions or schematics were transmitted to them. Emmett used to blast loud dubstep as he worked, to try to annoy Dr. Hale. "Don't tell him," Dr. Hale whispered to Bella once, "but I actually like it."
And now she heard only the swish of her breath. The hum of the air processors. The flow of the water in the pipes. She heard only the silence. The lonely silence that stretched on and on.
Bella pulled the blanket more tightly around herself and used a corner to wipe away a stray tear that escaped. Crying was pointless, she reminded herself — just as often as she reminded herself she'd known it was a one-way ticket. She picked up the controller and skipped to another video.
Jacob had broken up with Bella two months after she applied for the Mars One mission. He said he couldn't believe she'd be willing to leave him behind like that. He said it told him that fundamentally she wasn't totally committed to their relationship. Maybe he was right. But for Bella, the idea of being one of those first humans to make a home on a new world was more than a dream. Her life would be meaningful to all mankind. Surely, nothing could be more important than that.
"Are you really going?" Bella's mother, Renee, had asked. "Really? How can you leave … everything? And never come back? Bella, never coming back? Even the settlers who went to America in the early days had the knowledge they could return home if it became too bad, or envisioned being able to go home and visit, or their families might join them one day."
"What if one of you goes crazy out there?" Charlie asked. "What if someone decides to take over and make himself emperor of Mars?"
Bella had answers for these questions, because she'd already heard them from the media, and it had been part of their training to answer questions such as these. But it was harder to explain to her own mother how she could abandon her life here on earth, never to return, and head into such uncertainty.
She hadn't thought she'd be picked. Her skills were few, after all. She was a librarian. But they'd said they were looking for all types of people, not just scientists. She was young, only eighteen when she applied. She was healthy. She got along well with others, and had a quiet demeanor, something that would be important when working in tight proximity to others you couldn't escape. When she'd gotten the letter from the program, she'd been elated.
It hadn't been easy. She'd had to study intensively. It was like being back in college. There were interviews, not only with scientists, doctors, and psychologists, but also with the media. Like Jacob, most of them couldn't imagine severing their ties with earth completely.
Bella had been selected to serve as their archivist, and the principle filmmaker for the audience back home. She shot hundreds of hours of video with her head-mounted camera, and then edited portions to send to the television show producers back on earth. They occasionally sent her suggestions about the things the audience enjoyed seeing, such as Emmett's antics, Edward lounging around being handsome and charming. She shot hundreds of hours of that particular footage because she enjoyed Edward's company so much, his quiet humor, his brilliant smile, the sparkle in his moss-green eyes. She often forgot the camera was there when she was with him. But it was usually someone else who was making him laugh, or engaging him in conversation. Bella was tongue-tied whenever he was around.
Bella vacillated between feeling like a creepy lurker and a decorative statue. She was pretty sure Edward didn't even know she was alive. She didn't understand it. She'd never been like this before. In the past, when she liked someone, she was bold enough to tell them and see if they were interested in spending time together. But with Edward, all she could do was stare like a love-struck teenager.
Bella was still a librarian of sorts, tasked with being able to locate information needed to repair their equipment and replicate items they needed. She curated a collection of hundreds of hard drives that contained over a million books, as well as films for education and entertainment. She was also charged with documenting their mission for the official history. Every crew member had a diary, from which Bella culled portions to be added to the official history of their mission. It was a challenging job, because she had to guess what future historians would find interesting or relevant.
"Year One, day thirty-seven," she'd whispered as she hit the record button to activate the camera mounted to the side of her helmet. "The first funeral on Mars."
Bella turned her head slightly. Just an inch. Even as she did so, she pinched her eyelids tightly together, telling herself she wasn't going to look. But she opened them anyway.
Across a wide expanse of red dust and rocks, she could see a low ridge. In front of it lay a pile of helmets that marked the graves. At first, they'd buried the dead individually, with solemn honor. All of them — the ones who were well enough at that point, anyway — standing around outside in their specially designed surface suits, unable to wipe away the tears that streamed down their cheeks. Bella had turned off her com unit so she wouldn't have to hear the sobs. The head of each grave had been marked with the helmet of the fallen. First mounted on a pole, so it stood above the blowing dust, glimmering under the dim Mars sunlight. And then as they all became weaker and the burial crews became smaller, the helmets were placed on the ground atop the spot they were buried.
The last burial site was marked by a pyramid of helmets, representing all of those who had been put into a small depression. Bella set off an explosive charge on the ridge behind them so the landslide would bury the bodies because she was still too weak to do it any other way. There were no scavengers here on Mars, but she couldn't stand the idea of leaving them to lay exposed on that brown-red soil, abandoned under the yellow alien sky. She gave them the scant courtesies she could and then dragged herself back inside. To wait and see if she would join them on their journey into whatever came after this world — only her tomb would be this empty habitat.
The habitats were long, pill-shaped inflatable buildings. A narrow hall ran down the center of them, and on each side were little crescent-shaped bedrooms. Her bed lay against the wall, opposite the door. Shelving and storage used up the rest of the space. It reminded Bella of the bedroom she'd had in her father's camper as a child. Small, but adequate. She could stand up and turn around in this room, but not much more. If she felt the need for more space, she would go down the hall to the common room, which took up the middle of the capsule. One-piece padded seating occupied the center of the room, with computer desks along the side. In the other habitat pod, this area was an exercise room, which they were required to use every day to prevent bone loss in the lower gravity conditions.
But the common room had too many memories for her now and when she walked in there, she saw flashes of overturned cots, blood, and the sounds of gurgling coughs. Memories that hurt too much, memories she shoved away as quickly as possible.
Bella shifted on the bed and rubbed her cheek against the blanket. She had plenty of room. Each bed was designed to be wide enough for two occupants, though she slept alone. There had been some pairing off already, as was expected considering the people had been selected based on their compatibility. Dr. Hale and Emmet, Alice and Jasper, Carlisle and Esme… It was part of their job, after all, to make this a real, sustainable colony with population growth. Having babies wasn't possible for the first few years, the scientists had warned them. Their colony was designed to meet the needs of an exact number of humans, and babies presented a great deal of medical challenges they might not yet be prepared to meet. But for the time being, they could live, and laugh, and love, and dream of the world they would build in the future.
Her gaze drifted over the shelving along the walls. More shelves than she needed, actually. They had brought little in the way of personal possessions from earth, but as always, they thought of future expansion. Bella had her mother's wedding ring. And on one bare shelf, she had two rocks. One had come from earth, and the other one that sat on the shelf beside it had come from outside, the surface of Mars. She picked up that rock now and turned it in her hands. It was dark gray, indistinguishable from an earth rock in any way she could visually determine. But she'd paid her life to be able to hold this bit of an alien world in her hands. The alien world that was now killing them.
Dr. Hale had brought it back for Bella on one of the first surface walks because she knew how much Bella wanted to go and was disappointed she wasn't chosen to be part of the first excursion. She understood it, of course. They had to use their resources wisely, and they should only send out the essential personnel to get the life support systems in the other pods operational so they could be opened, but she was still disappointed none the less.
"Gotcha something, kid," Dr. Hale said, tapping on the door of Bella's room. She tossed her the rock and Bella caught it from the air. When she realized what she held in her hands, she stopped breathing for a moment, and looked up at Dr. Hale with tears in her eyes.
Dr. Hale smiled, though her own eyes seemed to dampen a bit. She'd ordered Bella to call her Rosalie, but Bella couldn't. She was in awe of Dr. Hale, one of the most brilliant scientific minds of their age, even before she met her. And once they had met, her esteem only increased, because Dr. Hale had a gentle, easy-going personality without a trace of arrogance. She took Bella under her wing and helped her study for the rigorous testing.
The crew… her friends. The group had bonded tightly over the years, become family. Together they had faced all of the struggles, bickered over chores, laughed together, cried together, huddled together under blankets when the heating failed in the Artic habitat, fanned one another when the air handling system became overwhelmed with moisture and the Mars One habitat started to feel like a jungle. Sick and disorientated, they had still tried to work together on the last challenge, a challenge still left undone.
The communications relay satellite orbiting the sun went down, which meant they had to rely on the one in geostationary orbit above the settlement. This meant they had a "dark" period of two hours every night after midnight in which they couldn't communicate because the planet itself was in the path of the signal.
The sickness, whatever it was, had struck Emmett during one of those blackout period. By the time they were able to communicate with earth again two hours later, he was dead. Dr. hale thought she was able to send one last message, but they weren't sure it had gotten through because there had been no confirmation from NASA. All that came through on the com was static and the occasional shred of noise that might have been a voice. They were still working on it when … when … Bella bit her lip and squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn't even finish the thought in her own mind.
It seemed to be related to ebola. The symptoms were similar, in any case. Bleeding from the eyes, vomiting, profuse sweating … and swift death.
Every member of the crew had medical training. Some of them, like Alice, had been physicians back on earth. She'd been a surgeon who'd worked with Doctors Without Borders for years, and she said she'd never seen anything like this. None of Bella's books were of help.
Three days now since Bella had awoke to find herself the last one alive. Three days since she buried the last of them, dragging their bodies to the rover, the only sounds her own gasping breaths echoing in her helmet. Her head pounded dully, and she only prayed she wouldn't vomit. She drove the transport rover, laden with her mournful cargo to the ridge they'd selected as their cemetery.
"There is something alive out there," Dr. Hale had said. Her eyes were the bleary, bloodshot red that came with the illness. She stared out the porthole into the red wasteland that surrounded them. "It's a bacteria, a very simple organism, really. No natural immunity. It must have been down in the subsoil we're mining, deeper than our probes had sampled, down in the soil where the sun's radiation can't kill it. Life is persistent, isn't it, Bella?"
Through all of it, Bella had kept filming. It had been an automatic action on her part. Her daily routine was to put on her headset before she stepped out of her room every morning and start recording. She could have watched those tapes, she supposed, and filled in those gaps she now had in her memory, the pieces her mind had decided to block out because the trauma was too much for her to handle. She preferred to watch the tapes of the happier times. The sound of their chatter and laughter blocking out the silence for a few minutes, allowing her to feel like they were still there.
But unwillingly, the memory returned of the last tape she'd tried to transit to Earth, after she woke up to find herself alone, the last survivor of Mars One. She'd sat down at the main communications terminal and turn the camera on, too distraught to worry about protocol.
"This is Bella Swan, Mars One, Year One, Day … I'm not sure. I've lost track. I'm – I'm the only one left." She'd had to pause for a moment to fight back tears. "I'm still here. Mars One is still — still active. I won't give up. I can't give up. I'll keep the mission going until … until I can't. Until my last breath."
She'd sent the video and waited twenty minutes, hoping for some response from NASA, but there was only static. She'd waited hours by that terminal, praying for a response. She slept there that night, curled up on a chair, jerking awake at every sound and turning wildly toward the terminal, hoping to see that red dot that indicate there was a message waiting. But there was nothing.
All she wanted was one word. A terse message that they were aware of her situation and were discussing options for moving the mission forward. Even a fragment of a voice through the static for her to know she'd been heard.
One word to break this horrible sense of being utterly alone in the universe.
She could survive. She could do this. If she just knew she wasn't alone in this struggle. If she could hear a friendly voice, it would not matter that it was a million miles away.
A distant part of her realized she was still in shock, just going through the motions of her day. She couldn't remember the last time she'd eaten, and she knew she needed a shower, but she found herself sitting here by the window staring out at the Red Planet, and the endless stretch of rock auburn soil, watching as the wind built up little dunes and swept them away again. There were so many things she needed to do, so many systems that needed to be maintained and monitored, but she was mesmerized by it. Her homeworld now.
Soon, she would return to life. Soon, she would re-shoulder the struggle to live on this hostile world. Soon, she would fight again. But right now, she watched in silence, and she —
There was a sound.
After three days of utter silence, it was like a physical blow to her system, a sound she had not created herself, or coming from the speakers.
It sounded like the door to the storage unit being opened.
Clack. And then the soft swoosh of the airlock.
A gasp tore from her throat, and her hand flew up to cover her lips.
There was a soft tap, a footstep against the polymer flooring.
And then another.
Bella heard a soft whine, a helpless, animalistic sound. She pressed the heel of her hand over her lips to try to hold it in.
The footsteps stopped outside her door. Bella's hand went up to cover her eyes, slipping in the tears she hadn't known she was shedding. She wouldn't look. She wouldn't look.
It couldn't be real. It had to be her mind creating fantasies to ease her horrible loneliness.
She heard breathing. Not her own.
She wished she had another set of hands to cover her ears as well. No. No.
Against her will, she dropped her hands and opened her eyes.
Edward stood in the doorway, still wearing the bloodstained shirt he'd died in. Rivulets of dried blood caked his cheeks beneath his eyes.
Her breath left her in a wheezing gasp. For a moment, she couldn't even find the strength to inhale, but when she did, she let it out in a scream, a ragged, high scream of terror as the apparition didn't vanish. Her hands pawed at her face wanting to cover her eyes, wanting to cover her ears, wanting to block out reality entirely until this horrible, hideous thing vanished entirely and she could block this from her memory and refuse to think of it ever again.
But still he stood there, and still she screamed.
"Bella," he said again.
Some of her scattered mind returned to her and she surged up from the bed to grasp the edge of the sliding door and slam it closed. A tiny lock was mounted on the edge, a plastic pivot that slipped down into a catch and she rammed it into place so hard it was a miracle it didn't snap off in her hand. As security, it was laughable. She knew that even as she did it. A firm tug would break it like a twig. It was meant for privacy, not for safety.
Bella scrambled back from the door, her head swiveling as she searched for something, anything, she could use to barricade the opening. She yanked her storage bin from the top shelf and dropped it down in front of the door, a pathetic barrier barely shin-high. Another whine escaped her and she looked about madly for anything that would move, anything she could break free, anything she could use. Her eye fell on her Mars rock and she picked it up, clutching it in her fist as she crammed herself back against the wall, flattening her spine to the curve, pushing with her heels against the mattress, trying to get as far away as she could.
A fragment of sense returned to her, and she reminded herself that the walls were a polymer fabric that could tear under enough pressure. She slumped back down against the mattress, pulling her knees up against her chest. A spasm shook through her, and a grating cry tore through her lips, almost as harsh as a cough. Another followed, and she realized she was crying, sobbing so hard she thought she might rupture something. She squeezed her arms around her body, as though to keep herself in one piece.
She heard a soft sound outside the door and then footsteps again, retreating down the hallway, heading toward the capsule that joined the habitats. There was the clack of the second habitat door opening and shutting.
A breath left her in a gasping sob and Bella's head fell forward onto her knees. She wept as she hadn't been able to do as her friends died, wailing sobs ripped from her throat, uncontrolled and raw with anguish. She let it out in a way that hadn't been possible before. Her numbness was torn away and the pain was too much for one human to bear.
She must have fallen asleep, because it was dark in her room when she woke. She didn't know what had jarred her from slumber until she heard it, a soft tap on her door.
"Who – who's –" She stopped herself. She ran a hand through her tangled hair as she sat up. Her voice wavered like a rope bridge in high wind as she spoke. "Go away. Whatever you are."
"Bella, it's me, it's Edward."
He was lying. It was lying.
"Edward is dead. I buried him."
"Bella, please. I'm not dead. I don't know what happened, or why you think I am. But I'm not. I'm here. I'm alive. Open the door. You can check my pulse."
"You're dead!" Bella's foot lashed out and stomped against the door with a loud bang. "Dead!"
She heard Edward – no, the thing in the hallway — give a sigh. Pain sliced through her, because it was his sigh, something she had heard a thousand times over the last decade as they trained beside one another, lived in the Arctic habitat, and traveled through space to land on this hostile planet.
"I saw you," she whispered. "You were choking. You gasped—" She couldn't finish because she remembered the helpless agony she'd felt, how his body jerked beneath her hands as he fought against it, the dots of sweat mixing with the blood that spattered his skin as he coughed. "You died. I was there. I don't know if you're a ghost, or a demon, or an alien wearing his skin, but you're not Edward. Or maybe my mind has broken under the strain and I'm imagining this whole thing, but YOU ARE NOT EDWARD!" She screamed the last four words with every ounce of her strength, and her ears rang in the piercing silence that followed.
He was quiet for so long, she started to hope the delusion had passed and she'd open the door to find the habitat empty.
"Bella," he said, shattering that hope.
"Bella, please." She heard a soft thump against the door, like the side of a fist being dropped against it in frustration. "I'm begging you, just listen to me."
Dear God, it sounded so much like him, and the pleading sound of his voice was enough to cause physical pain. She curled upon the bed as though to protect her aching heart. She pressed one ear against the bed and one hand over the other, but she could still hear him. It.
"I woke up in the storage compartment. I was in a bag, a burial bag. Trying to fight my way out of that is a memory I think will stay with me for the rest of my life, as much as I don't want it to. I—I realize what you must have thought —"
"There were no bodies left in the storage room. I buried everyone."
"You had to have missed me somehow. I was behind the work table, so maybe you overlooked me when you buried the others."
"That's not possible," Bella said, but the edge of her words was blunted by doubt. Could she have not noticed she left one of them behind? Still so sick and weak she was half-dead herself, she had hauled them all out to the vehicle one by one. Could she have missed someone, especially if he was laid on the opposite side off the table?
She shook her head sharply. The room wasn't that large. But maybe that was why the table had blocked her view … There wasn't much space on the other side where she would have been able to see the floor from a different angle. As she pictured it in her mind's eye, looking into the room, a large section of the floor was blocked from her view by the top of the work table. Maybe it was possible—
She shook her head again. This was ridiculous. She had carried out each body. She counted the graves in her mind. Four buried in the individual graves, and then … She ticked them off in her mind, which bodies she remembered picking up and putting into the depression in front of the ridge. She remembered the faces of those she'd had to zip into the bags, who'd been left laying where they died because there was no one left to do it. Their horrible, blood-caked faces ... She'd lined them up, she remembered.
But she couldn't see the line of bodies clearly in her mind either. Not clearly enough to count them.
She didn't remember burying Edward.
She must have blocked it, she decided. She must have blocked the memory of seeing his face devoid of life and color. She remembered his illness, the desperation she had felt, the agony of knowing she couldn't save him and there were so many things she'd never told him, but after that, a grey fog obscured her memories.
"Bella, please. Please. I'm right here. I know you. Ask me anything. You and I played cards last week, and you made me clean the showers for you in the hygiene unit when I lost. It's me. I'm real."
She was insane. That was the only explanation. The stress and pain of her situation had simply been too much for her, and she had conjured up this apparition in her mind. She had brought back her favorite colonist to be her companion in her eternal loneliness.
Or the alien life form that had killed them was now re-animating their bodies. If that was possible, was it a stretch to imagine they would have access to their host's memories?
She bit her lip. Was it really more reasonable to imagine he was some sort of alien zombie than to accept she may have overlooked him in the storage cupboard?
Her voice didn't sound like her own, a hoarse croak forced through a throat tight from suppressed tears. "If you're really there, how did you survive the sickness?"
"I don't know." He sounded exasperated. "How did you?" She blinked her burning eyes hard. A horrifying thought occurred to her. If Edward hadn't really been dead when he was put into his bag, was there a chance that the other colonists hadn't, either? Toward the end, things were so chaotic …
If they hadn't been dead in their bags inside the habitat, they certainly had been once Bella had taken them outside and there was no oxygen to breathe. Had she killed them by not checking each person to make sure they were really dead before transporting them outside?
It was a chilling thought, and she tried to push it away. She didn't need guilt on top of all of everything else. If she let her mind wander down that path, she really would go mad.
"I don't understand this."
He chuckled and the sound sent a shiver up her spine. "I don't either. Can you please open the door so we can talk?"
Bella stood up. Her knees shook so badly she had to sit back down for a moment and then try again. "Do you – do you still look …"
"I changed and took a shower. I'm sorry I scared you. I saw myself in the mirror and I know why you freaked out. I would have too."
"I'm freaking out because I'm pretty sure you're dead and I buried you," she said, and flipped the latch.
He was the one who slid the door open when she hesitated so long. One green eye appeared in the small opening he made. "You okay?"
"No. I'm pretty much the farthest thing possible from okay."
"At least you're talking to me." He slid the door the rest of the way open.
She stared at him for a long while. It was the same Edward she remembered. His eyes were still a little bloodshot, as hers were, and dark circles pooled below them. Auburn hair with bronze glints, freshly washed but still a wild mess. It looked like he had toweled it dry and let it stay as it was. Heavy scruff covered his sculpted jaw – at least three days since he'd shaved. He wore a gray t-shirt, just as she did, and a pair of matching pants, the drawstrings hanging negligently untied, drooping low on his hips.
"Why don't we go into the common room?" he suggested. "So we can talk."
"Talk," she repeated. What should one say to a hallucination? But she followed him down the hall, watching his bare feet flex against the flooring.
Bella took a seat on one of the red padded chairs. It was ingeniously bent in an S shape and could rock or bounce, comfortable and stackable. A memory came to her of the first few days they'd all spent in the habitat, unpacking the furniture, and Alice's excitement as she "decorated" the common area, arranging the furniture and tables according to the principles feng shui to harmonize their environment. Jasper had obediently dragged the pieces around as she directed and Bella had hanged a few potted plants. Edward had steadied her ladder, she remembered and it had made her cheeks warm to have his hands so near her legs …
It hurt, like all of those memories hurt, but she could smile a little as she remembered the sparkle in Alice's eyes. All of them had been so excited. To have it end so quickly —
Bella watched as Edward went over to the kitchen area and opened the cooling unit. "When was the last time you ate?"
She couldn't remember, actually. The last time she could remember for certain was the dinner before Emmett got sick. Kebi had cooked. She was from Ethiopia and seemed to have an endless cookbook of fabulous vegetarian dishes in her head. She'd made a stew while Emmett juggled cucumbers next to her and protested that he was helping with kitchen duty by keeping the cook entertained. It was probably for the best. Emmett had a habit of getting distracted in the kitchen by playing with the ingredients while the food burned. During the eight months of the voyage from Earth to Mars, Emmett had made cooking videos for children of his attempts to make "zero-gravity pancakes," experiments that had resulted in nothing edible.
The memory hurt and she backed away from it, but Kebi's stew was the last time she could really remember having a meal. But surely she'd eaten something in the last three days? She must have, she decided, during that time she was operating on autopilot, and it just hadn't made a delible mark on her memory.
She answered Edward with a shrug and watched as he drew out a container of Kebi's leftover stew. "I'll heat this up."
She didn't want him to. She knew it was ridiculous, but it was one of the last tangible links to her friend. Kebi with her bright, beautiful smile …
Edward poured the stew into a pot and set it on the stove. "Can you tell me what's been happening? Are we really the last ones left?"
She nodded. She knew it was a question he had to ask, though he'd undoubtedly noted the completely empty habitat. Empty and silent … But he still had to ask. Bella would have done the same.
He swore and rubbed a hand over his face. For a moment, she watched him struggle with his grief the way she had. They had bonded tightly, their little band of colonists. And he had lost friends that were practically family.
"What's the word from NASA?"
"There hasn't been any word. We lost communications the night Emmett died."
"I thought that was just the natural line-of-sight problem. It never came back?"
She shook her head. "Nothing. We're —I'm— not sure they're getting anything from us, either. I sent them video messages after Dr. Hale died, but I have no way of knowing what they've gotten."
"I can take a look at it and see if there's a wire out of place or some connectivity issues."
She didn't want to tell him they'd already tried that. On their end, everything seemed perfectly in operation. "Do you know much about transmitters?"
He gave her a smile, somewhat crooked, somewhat pained. "I'm an engineer. We can build anything. Didn't you know that?"
A memory came to her unbidden of Emmett joking, "I can make a radio out of an empty Pepsi can and a potato." If he hadn't died …
The timer beside the stove dinged and he poured the soup into two mugs. He brought one over to Bella and handed it to her. "Thank you."
"Welcome." He sat down across from her and took a sip. Bella traced her thumb over the handle of hers and stared down into the cup. She had to talk to him, had to try to figure out what was going on. But it was hard to look right at him. All she could think of was how much it had hurt to lose him without ever being able to say how much he'd meant to her. Her heart wanted to call it a miracle and tell her stupid brain to stop questioning it. The internal war, the pain, the hope and the longing churned within her mind until she felt dizzy from it.
"What's the last thing you remember?"
He took a sip of his soup and his eyes became distant. "Noise. There was a lot of noise."
Yes, with everyone sick, there had been. Moans, sobs, alarms. Dr. Hale had begged Emmett to stay with her, and the cry that tore from her throat when she realized he'd gone still would haunt Bella for the rest of her existence.
"Was there a siren? I thought I remembered hearing a siren or an alarm."
She nodded as she set her cup on the table in front of her. "The hydroponics system in pod two lost pressure. But there was nothing we could do about it at the moment."
His eyes sharpened. "The plants?"
Bella shook her head. She felt foolish now, but for a while, she'd been so numb that nothing seemed to matter. She ought to be grateful. Whatever he —it — was, his appearance had woken her from her stupor. "I'll check them."
"Check them? What are you going to do? Water them by hand?"
"If I have to. Edward, that's the colony's food."
"Half of it anyway. We don't need as much now." Edward's gaze flicked around at the empty common room, and came back to hers. "Did you really think you could keep all this going by yourself?"
"I had to try." Bella took a deep breath and sat up a little straighter. "I came to Mars to live here, not die here. And I'm not giving up. Not as long as I have breath. I can't give up. This … this all has to mean something. We gave up everything to come here. And we came here because we thought it meant something, not only for us, but for all of the human race. That's bigger than me, bigger than all of us as individuals. I won't give up. Never."
"Yes, it meant something," Edward said. One of his long fingers traced the rim of his mug. "And it always will."
"Most of it is automated," Bella pointed out. She didn't add that they'd had a lot of maintenance issues with that aspect, but if he was really Edward, he would know that. "In four years, they'll send the next stage of colonists. It won't be as much work getting ready for them, because we won't have to set up another habitat, or another greenhouse. They'll re-establish communications before the next batch arrives. I just have to hang on until that happens."
"I," he repeated.
She licked her lips. "We," she said, but it was weak.
"You still don't believe I'm really alive."
"Not entirely, no."
There was a long pause before he looked up at her. When his eyes met hers, it was tangible, like an electric jolt to her system. "Bella, you know I would never hurt you, right?"
"I know Edward wouldn't have."
"What can I do to prove I'm me? Look, I remember where we were introduced. Shakey's Bar and Grill. It was that deplorable barbecue place Emmett liked. We hadn't had any training sessions together yet, but Rose and Emmett were starting to hit it off. Rose brought Alice, and Alice was too shy to go unless you came along. Do you remember? You sang some awful Lana Del Rey song for karaoke."
"If you're a figment of my insane imagination, you'd be able to recite all of my memories."
He gave a frustrated growl and buried his fingers in his hair. "Is there any way of convincing you?"
"If someone else could see you, that would be a start." It would prove he was corporal, anyway, though it would eliminate her other hypothesis.
He gave a soft snort. "The only thing I can't provide at the moment."
"Maybe you can if we can get the communications working."
He smiled a little. "It's a start anyway. At least you're willing to entertain the idea I'm here and I'm real."
Bella looked down at the table in front of her and saw that it was empty. She blinked and leaned forward. Hadn't there been a mug of soup? She glanced over at Edward's seat but he wasn't there. He was in the kitchen at the sink. As if he felt her eyes on his back, he turned around and smiled. He folded the towel over the edge of the sink so it could dry.
A chill slithered down Bella's spine because she didn't remember eating the soup. But she had to have, didn't she? Edward would have commented on it if she hadn't eaten, but …
The silence of the habitat rang in Bella's ears again and threatened to overwhelm her. She heard Edward's footsteps as he came back to his seat and her breathing slowed. The rational side of her mind tried to assert itself and assure her that she'd undergone a tremendous trauma and it wasn't unusual to have short-term memory gaps in a situation like this, but it was frightening none the less.
Bella pulled her feet up on the chair beside her. She couldn't shake the feeling that something was fundamentally wrong. It was like a small headache, a lingering tinge of discomfort she couldn't shake.
"Okay, so we have one greenhouse down, and the communications system not working. Anything else?"
"One of the solar panels is dusted over. Not bad enough to keep it from working yet, but it needs attention."
He sat back and rubbed his hands over his face. "This place was designed to have twelve people keeping it operational. If we're going to survive—"
"Not if." Bella tilted her chin up.
He paused for a moment and then nodded. "To survive, we're going to have to do it all ourselves, just the two of us."
"We can do it."
"You seem quite confident."
"There's no alternative," Bella said. "Failure means we die and the colony fails. I can't accept that. We didn't give up earth, give up our families, give up everything for this to fail. This is humanity's hope, Edward. If our species if going to survive, we have to be able to spread out onto other worlds."
He looked at her and when his eyes met hers, it was a physical jolt to her system. His eyes were damp, but he smiled. "I'm so glad you're with me, Bella."
She tried to think of a response, but nothing seemed right.
He scooted forward on his chair. "I—There was something I always wanted —I never told you—"
A blaring alarm caused them both to jump and look around wildly. Bella ran over to the computer terminals along the wall and opened the main monitoring system. "We've got a water pressure leak in Habitat 2."
"How did that happen?"
She gave him an irritable glance as she darted for the hall. How should she know?
The air pressure gauge in the pod read normal, and so she opened the airlock door and went inside. The computer screen inside the terminal was flashing the alarm. She touched it and a schematic popped up, showing a red line where the leak was located. Bella trotted down the narrow hallway and stopped above the location. She heard Edward's steps right behind her and a rattle. She glanced over and saw he was carrying a tool kit.
She knelt down and lifted the flooring panel. Beneath the bundles of wire was a second subfloor panel. She moved the wiring aside and carefully pulled it up. Wordlessly, Edward tapped her on the shoulder and handed her a flashlight. She turned it on and directed the beam down into the space. A shimmering pool of water lay on the habitat shell, the inflatable skin that protected them from the elements outside. It was thin and light, woven of a super-dense synthetic fabric that could withstand the constant battering of the sand-laden winds and the occasional impact from a small meteorite, but in reality, it was a thin sheet, almost frighteningly thin, when you thought about it, a tiny barrier against the airless, cold desert outside.
She found the leaking pipe by following the trickling stream. The leak was at a joint, as usual. This wasn't the first time they'd encountered this problem. The pipes were beautifully fitted, a marvel of engineering, but the vibrations of the habitat on the stationary pipes could cause them to slowly disengage, to work apart because they didn't move with the structure.
"Want me to do it?" Edward asked.
Bella shook her head. "I'm smaller. I'll go." It was hard to work in the cramped conditions. It was usually best for the smallest person in the group to work on it. Alice had once been the one constantly elected for these jobs, which she groused about, but did with aplomb, since it got her out of dish duty that night.
Jasper had cried when they buried Alice. All of them had their com units turned off, but there was no way to not see how his shoulders shook with the force of his sobs, and how he fell to his knees at the foot of her grave—
Bella cut off that line of thought
Bella wormed down through the gap. Because of the position of the leak, she had to twist over onto her side, and balance on the edge of the plate that supported the pipes, inches above the fragile habitat shell. She could tell by the tension of Edward's shoulders he was thinking the same thing. If she fell, she'd rip through the fabric, de-inflate the habitat, and die in the airless exterior before Edward could help her.
"I can't reach the shutoff valve from here. Can you open the plate down by my feet?"
She heard him comply and then saw light down by her legs as he opened the secondary plate. His hand brushed by her calf and Bella was surprised by the tingle in her spine in response. Her breath caught as he touched her knee.
"Can you move your leg to he left?"
She did, and his wrist slipped up under her knee, pressing against the back of it for a moment. Her heart sped up and Bella bit the inside of her lip. She shouldn't be responding this way to such an innocent touch, she reminded herself. This isn't Edward. She knew it wasn't Edward, but every fiber of her being cried out that it was, and hungered for more of his body pressed against her own. She felt the absence of his touch as soon as he withdrew his arm.
She heard the clanks and rattle of the kit as he opened it and handed down a wrench. "It's off."
"Th-thanks," Bella mumbled. She used the wrench to loosen the pipe and was rewarded by a gush of lukewarm water that soaked her shirt. With a grimace, she refitted it, tightening it in its socket until it was firmly seated, and then tightened the adjacent joint until it was firm. She checked the others within reach while she was there and found a couple of others in need of tightening.
"All done," she called up to Edward.
"Okay, can you scoot down toward me?"
She did, and she felt his palms grip around her calves. "I've got you."
Yes, I think you do.
She hated that thought. She didn't want to have it. But it kept echoing in her mind as she pushed her way up. He reached down and gripped her shoulders to lift her out of the gap. She pushed up her hips until she was seated on the floor beside him, but he still didn't let go of her shoulders. His face was only inches away from hers. Edward. They were Edward's green eyes, the copper stubble on his jaw, the slope and curve of his smooth light mauve lips, lips she had memorized smiling and speaking and imagined pressed to her own.
"Bella," he whispered. His hands slid slowly down her arms and then back up. He moved them around to cup her shoulders and drew her forward that final inch until their lips were only a breath apart.
What was she doing? Bella pushed away and stumbled to her feet. Her breath came in small gasps. She really couldn't have almost kissed him … this entity she wasn't even sure was Edward. He was looking up at her, concern crumpling his brow. He stood with that same effortless grace Edward always had. Bella backed away with a shake of her head.
She quickly began to fumble with the panels, putting them back in place. Edward had to help her because her hands were shaking.
"Yeah, we need to get to work." He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry if I—"
She made a sharp motion with her hand. "Let's … Let's just not. Okay?"
"I'm going to go check the greenhouse."
He nodded. Bella scurried away. She went to her room first and changed her shirt, pulling on a clean tee and a hoodie. She didn't really feel cold, but she wanted the comfort of it.
Why had she almost kissed him? She bit the interior of her lip until it stung. It made no sense for her to act this way. Yes, she had always liked Edward. Theirs had been a friendship that had grown slowly over the years as they got to know one another in training, and then during the last few years on earth when they shared such tight quarters. She had grown to respect his quiet sense of humor, his optimism and good nature. And since they'd landed here on Mars, it had grown into something deeper. She wished now she'd had a chance to tell him, but the time never seemed right. And now … Now she wasn't sure who or what he was.
I buried him.
At least, she thought she had. The last week was so fuzzy in her memory and the memories were like an open wound in her mind. She didn't want to prod them, even though it might solve the burning questions. There might even be video she could review, but she instantly balked at that idea. Why? She wasn't sure. Maybe she didn't want the truth.
She squeezed her eyes shut. She was acting irrationally, her scientist side reminded her. No matter what, she should seek out the truth and face it. But she just couldn't. It was like a wall in her mind she couldn't breach or climb. It had a door she could open at any time, open it and step out into the searing light of the truth. But she just couldn't do it. Not yet.
Soon, she promised herself. When she was ready.
Maybe she never would be ready. That was her fear. Maybe she would rather accept fantasy and madness to the empty pain of reality.
What if— Her fingers brushed the knob.
Stop it. No.
Her mind backed away.
Bella had reached the greenhouse door. She checked the oxygen indicator on the dial beside the door to ensure it was safe before she turned the handle to open the door. Warm, humid air billowed over her as she stepped inside.
The panels above were a transparent, high-density plastic, polished on the exterior to discourage dust from adhering. Pill-shaped like the habitat, the greenhouse was designed with future expansion in mind and could be made longer to accommodate more crops at any time.
The humid air smelled green and verdant. Bella inhaled deeply of the scent. Inside the habitat, the air was so well-scrubbed by the filters that no scent lingered long. Bella touched a button on the panel and the sound of birdsong sweetened the air. Jasper's idea. He had programmed it in shortly before their arrival because he said the sound of the forest back home was what he missed the most. If she closed her eyes, Bella could believe she was sitting on the banks of a stream or pond, the sunlight gleaming on her skin.
The only thing missing was the damp, rich smell of soil itself. Each plant had its roots tucked into a hydroponic gel and had never felt earth beneath its roots. The sunlight on Mars wasn't strong enough to provide the plans with all they would need, so UV lights above supplemented. Between the lamps and the sunlight, it was warm and bright out here. All of the Mars One colonists tried to spend at least a couple of minutes per day out here. Humans needed light for their well-being, too.
The plants hung on multi-tiered racks, spaced as closely together as nature would allow. These plants were their lifeblood, producing the food and oxygen they needed to survive. At this job, the plants were almost too successful. When they'd first arrived, they'd had the problem of the plants producing too much oxygen and upsetting the balance in the habitat. It was also far too humid for comfort because the processors simply couldn't cope with the amount of moisture in the air.
Bella stepped over to the irrigation system regulation panel and almost laughed when she saw the problem immediately. One of the breakers had been tripped. She flipped up the switch and was immediately rewarded with the soft swish of water flowing through the pipes.
"No harm done," she murmured to herself, to the plants. None of them seemed worse the wear for the few days they had gone without the steady drip of the irrigation. Their nutrient gel must have retained enough moisture to keep them going.
She wound her way through the racks toward the outer wall of the greenhouse. She stepped past the last rack and she closed her eyes as she turned the corner. She opened them again, and as always, the view in front of her took her breath away. Mars lay beyond the glass wall, winds howling over the rock-and-dust landscape. Bella pressed her hands to the clear plastic panel.
The distant sun was setting and had set the sky on fire with a dusky pink color. It had always been Bella's favorite time of the day, and sometimes twilight seemed to last forever on Mars. The scientific side of her mind explained that the rosy glow of the fading sun lasted longer as it reflected from the dust particles in the atmosphere, but the romantic side of her gloried in the haunting magic of this place, the Red Planet with the sunsets that lasted hours.
During most of the day, the sky was amber, sometimes a creamy yellow with a blue tinge when the sun was high and shining through the wispy clouds. But in the evenings, Mars put on a fiery show. Once Edward — the real Edward — had come out here with her to watch it and they had sat in reverent silence, their eyes fixed on the far horizon, and she had known he loved it too.
The dark red soil rolled to the horizon, rocky and barren, an endless cold desert. But it still took her breath away every time she looked at it. The savage beauty of this place, stark and silent, beneath a vanilla sky. She loved it, though she knew it did not love her back. She could gaze upon it only from the safety of this capsule, or ensconced in a thick protective suit. She loved it, but she was locked away from it permanently, never to touch its soil with her bare hands or feel its winds upon her skin.
A child had asked her in one of Bella's interviews if she missed Earth, and she could honestly say she didn't. This was her home now. There were sensory experiences she missed. She craved a cheeseburger on occasion, and she did miss small things, like running barefoot through the grass. But her fate was here, tied to this red soil.
The sun had gone below the horizon. Bella gave the glass one last pat and went back inside the habitat.
He was looking better after a good night's sleep. Some of the darkness below his eyes had faded and his cheeks didn't have such a drawn look. "How is it?"
"Operational again. A breaker had been tripped."
"Did you find out what caused it?"
She shrugged. "I'm assuming someone simply bumped it during the chaos last week. Unless it trips again, I think we're fine."
Edward nodded, but the frown still tugged at his lips.
"Any luck with the communications?"
"I'm running a diagnostic on it now."
Bella nodded. She didn't tell him she'd already done that. Perhaps he would find something she hadn't.
"I'm going to go take a shower," she said, and it came out more awkwardly than she'd hoped. It seemed odd to announce such a thing, but even odder just to stroll out of the room without saying anything when he was the only one there.
But he just gave a brief nod. Bella went to her room and collected some clean clothes from her drawer and her toiletry bag.
In the bathroom area, she laid her bag down on the counter. The hygiene unit was equipped with two toilets, two shower stalls and two sinks, and sharing it among twelve people had led to some minor squabbles and a lot of jokes. But they had managed to work out a system for sharing that worked well, and they kept the area neat by insisting everyone keep their own toiletries in their room instead of scattered over the counters and stored in the cabinets.
Bella glanced into the small square mirror mounted above the sink and as startled by her own reflection. Her face was drawn, the cheeks hollow beneath her bloodshot eyes. Her lips were colorless and thin. She grimaced and wished they had cosmetics here simply so she wouldn't look so scary, even to herself. Maybe a hot shower would perk her up a bit.
Bella stepped into the shower cubicle and pulled the curtain for privacy. In the small changing area in front of the shower stall, she undressed and laid her clothes on the bench. Back on Earth, she would have turned the shower on already to warm it up, but here there was no wasting water. They had an instant hot water heater that was supposed to mean every shower was ready the instant it was turned on. In theory anyway — Bella had endured several cold showers already when the thing shorted out.
Bella reached into the shower to turn on the water. Her hand stopped in midair, hovering over the handle. Her fingers brushed the composite walls of the shower stall.
She grabbed her towel from the bench and wrapped it around herself before she pushed the curtain back. She gnawed on her lip as she slipped into the neighboring stall.
It was dry, too.
And there were no towels hanging on the rods mounted along the wall.
Bella spun around and padded back into her stall and closed the curtain again behind her. She had to remind herself to unclench her hands from the fabric. Her breathing sounded loud and ragged in the silent room. She sat down on the bench on top of her clothes and dropped her head into her hands. Her mind was spinning in sick, dizzying circles.
Maybe Edward had taken the time to dry the shower cubicle after he finished.
Maybe Edward was one of those rare men who put his towel in the hamper instead of hanging it on the rack, or as Emmett did, leaving it in a pile with his dirty clothes. But they were all trained to use a towel for at least a week before washing it. But maybe Edward decided to wash his in case it had lingering germs from their illness, or something.
She could think of a plausible explanation. So why did her hands shake so badly as she turned the water on?
When she emerged from the bathroom twenty minutes later, her hair brushed and dressed in fresh clothing, she felt much better. She stored her things away in her room, and by that time, her small panic attack in the bathroom seemed silly. Edward had obviously just cleaned up after himself. After all, his shower had been hours ago and the air processors were very efficient, especially in the bathroom area where moisture could be recovered from the air to recycle for drinking water.
Edward was still working at the communications desk when she came back into the common room. He smiled up at her briefly and she returned it. She wandered over to the portal and stared out at the darkness. Stars usually weren't visible because of the dust storms, but tonight, it seemed the heavens were gleaming like diamonds on black velvet. She was transfixed by it. She didn't know her constellations well enough to be able to tell if any of those twinkling lights was her old world, but it was somehow comforting to think that it was.
What were they thinking back on Earth? The media had to be in a frenzy, she was sure, re-broadcasting Dr. Hale's last video. They likely thought there were no survivors. Bella thought of her mother and father and she had to pull the blanket off the back of the chair again to wrap around herself. Knowing Renee, she had deferred her grief with anger, threatening to sue NASA and Mars One and every scientist involved with the project. Charlie would be trying to console her and calm her down, to talk her out of her wild threats. And eventually, Renee would break down into a storm of tears. They'd have a memorial service, perhaps bury an empty coffin so they'd have a grave site to visit.
God, if you're out there, please, just let me get one word to her. Just one word …
Her thoughts were interrupted by Edward's voice.
"I've been over it a dozen times now, Bella. There's nothing physically wrong with the equipment. I'm looking at the software to see if there's an error somewhere, but as of right now, I can't explain it. If there's a problem, it's not on our end. What was the last transmission you're certain went through?"
Bella rubbed her forehead. "Dr. Hale … She sent—she told them … I'm sorry. I can't right now. Just check the logs. You'll see it."
He nodded. "Okay." "You've still been broadcasting your videos?"
"Yeah. Maybe they're not getting them. Maybe they are. I have no way of knowing. But I send them out. Maybe someday, someone will pick them up."
"It's not broadcast, Bella."
"I know. But I have to feel like there's some hope. That someone, someday will hear it. Maybe I'm shouting out into darkness. Maybe I'm just talking to myself. But I've got to believe there's a way it will be heard someday, by someone."
Bella heard the click of the keyboard and then he leaned in to speak directly to the microphone.
"Mission Control this is Specialist Masen, Mars One, do you copy?" He sat back. "And now we wait. Eight minutes for the signal to reach earth, and eight minutes for their response to reach us."
She ground her teeth. He didn't need to hear her say the wait time was brutal.
"May I watch some of your videos while we wait?"
She nodded. "But I'm going to go over … go somewhere else. I don't want to see them again. I can't. Not yet. I mean, I know it's part of my job to sort them, and edit them, label them and archive them properly so they can be easily found by researchers, but right now, it's just too raw."
"I understand. I really do."
She went over and sat down at another terminal. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard because she didn't really want to do anything with it. She knew she wouldn't be able to read, or play a game. She got back up and went to lay down on one of the chairs. As she passed, she caught a glimpse of her own face on the monitor, pale and haggard, the eyes dark pits of desperation. Her stomach twisted. She curled up on one of the chairs and pulled the blanket over herself, not for warmth, but to hide.
She nibbled on her thumbnail. "I never realized before I came here how long sixteen minutes really is."
Edward watched her for a moment and then gave a brief nod. He got to his feet and strode over to the control panel. A moment later, music began to pour out of the speakers. Bella recognized the sweeping, haunting melody of a Lana del Rey song. Edward walked over to the chair where Bella was curled up and held out his hand. "Dance with me."
"What?" She stared up into his warm green eyes.
"Dance with me. You can't just sit here worrying and waiting. You're tearing yourself apart. You need something to distract you. And I know just the thing."
Bella ducked her head. She could feel her cheeks start to heat up. "I'm—I can't, I mean … I'm no good at dancing."
"Come on. It's a slow song. You just have to stand there and sway. You can do it. I promise."
She bit her lip. Then she reached out and took his hand, smooth and warm within her own. He drew her in close, his arm around her waist. Oh, the feeling of being held by him was a heaven she never expected to reach. Did he know? Did he know how much she yearned for his touch, the feeling of his body against her own?
"This way," he said, his soft breath fanning across her face. He smelled so good. She took in a deep breath and closed her eyes. She let her body sway with his, in rhythm, in sync, attuning to his in a primal, elementary way. It was as though he had absorbed her, captured her sweetly. She turned with him effortlessly across the floor.
Bella felt the rumble of his voice, the vibrations of it passing through her body and it was a moment before she registered it. "Hmm?"
"See, you're doing it."
Hush, she thought. This was magic. A soft, melodic hypnotism. Her arm snaked up to rap around his neck as she swayed with him, turned with him, breathed with him.
I love him.
The thought echoed through her and it should have been a shock, but somehow she accepted it as a statement of elemental truth, a fact like the solid ground beneath her, the principles of gravity. A simple reality, a law of nature she might not have known, but had been there all along, governing the spinning of the worlds they inhabited.
"Nothing scares me anymore …"
And she loved him so much that she held in her arms what might be only her imagination of him, or a strange facsimile. But oh, just to hold him, even if it wasn't real, it was heaven.
The song flowed into another, but time had ceased to matter.
"Take me to the finish line …"
Yes, take me there, Bella thought, and the words of the song seemed to speak directly to her bruised and bewildered heart.
Lost but now I am found
I can see but once I was blind
I was so confused as a little child
Tried to take what I could get
Scared that I couldn't find
All the answers, honey
Bella's fingers brushed over Edward's neck. He had a small mole at his hairline and she traced it with the tip of her finger and her breath skipped as she realized what she was doing. Her cheeks heated again and she ducked her head, but Edward didn't draw away. His hand at her waist brushed over her back and she let out the breath with a sigh.
"I'm sorry," Edward whispered, and the brush of his warm breath against her ear made her heart start pounding again.
"Sorry about what?"
"Sorry that we never did this before."
The song ended and they stilled. Bella felt tears sting her eyes and couldn't blink them back. They rolled onto her cheeks and she bit her lip again. Edward cupped her face in his hands and use his thumbs to brush them away. "Don't," he said, and his smile was so sweet it made her very soul ache.
"Bella," he whispered.
His lips were only a fraction of an inch from hers.
She felt him whisper her name again, so close that his lips brushed hers and her arms tightened around his neck, drawing him that final millimeter.
The taste of him, the scent of him … Her senses were overwhelmed in one crescendo of a moment. She made a soft sound in the back of her throat and he deepened the kiss, his hand s tangling in her hair. It was wild, it was sweet, it was everything she had ever dreamed.
If she had gone mad, let it continue.
They both froze at the sound of a loud buzz. Bella turned her head and saw something that made the breath whoosh from her lungs as through she'd been punched. A red dot on the terminal was flashing. A message!
NASA had responded.
An incoherent prayer of praise electrified her brain. Her knees wobbled and she might have fallen if it wasn't for Edward supporting her. He took her arm and they both ran over to the console. Edward slapped the button.
All that came from the speakers was static.
"No!" The word was almost a wail. Bella gripped the side of the screen and stared at that scarlet dot, her eyes roving over the keys again and again as if a solution would present itself.
Edward dropped to the floor and rolled beneath the desk. With a clatter, he pulled away the panel. He worked his arms up into the underbelly of the system.
There was a sharp blast of static and then two clear words: "Who went –"
Bella let out a short shriek. "There! Whatever you did-"
"I know," Edward growled. He jigged with the wires and a few more words spilled from the speakers disjointed. "I can't quite – My hand is too big to reach…"
"Get out of the way." Bella threw herself down and reached up inside the dark cavity.
"The breaker on the right. Can you feel? Attached to the wall, a large square with ridges. I'm thinking one of the wires must have a loose connection, even though we can't see it."
Bella swore as her finger was pinched by something sharp. "I need a light." Desperation was making her hands clumsy. Logically, she knew that she didn't have to hurry – the message would be recorded by the system, and they could play it back at any time. She knew it wasn't live, but she couldn't help this feeling of immediacy.
Above, she heard the printer whirr to life, but she was too busy with the audio to worry about that now. It was probably just a print version of the same message, or some schematics NASA had sent to try to fix the system. But if it was really as simple as a loose connection …
She must have gotten the wire crammed into the proper position, because suddenly, the audio was sharp and clear.
"… as we commend their souls to the deepest of the deep. We pray for them, we pray for their families, and we pray for those on earth whose hopes —"
Bella's hand fell away and the words cut off like they'd been severed by a knife. Edward had returned with the light but Bella was frozen in place, her eyes wide. "They're — Edward, they're burying us."
Edward said nothing. He handed her a piece of paper, what had been printing above them while she worked.
For a moment, she couldn't even look at it, couldn't force her eyes to open to read the words. For days, she had hoped for even a single vestige of communication, a single word from NASA, and now that she had it, it was too awful to face. Her hand shook so much she had to lower it to brace against her thigh to read the paper.
Fate has ordained that that the men and women who went to Mars to colonize a new world in peace will stay on that world to rest in peace.
These brave souls know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. They laid down their lives in furtherance of mankind's hope of creating a home on a new world.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the many nations from which they came; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send her sons and daughters into the unknown. In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic souls of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely and create a new home on a new world. Man's search will not be denied. But these were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the bright shining red light of Mars in the heavens in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
Behind her, Edward had slipped up under the console again and she heard fragments of the Lord's Prayer drifted through the speakers. As soon as it finished, the same message began again from the beginning. Bella recognized the president's voice. He had shaken her hand before they took off, wishing her and all of the Mars One colonists godspeed. And now he was reading their eulogy.
"It's the burial service. Our burial service." The words crackled through blasts of static, the blessings said over the bodies of the dead at a funeral. "They're cutting off communications."
"It's protocol." Edward leaned against the desk. The sloping lines of his shoulders did not shake. "We were told –"
"Yeah. We were told." If things went wrong, NASA would shut down the satellites. Neither NASA nor the TV producers wanted to face the possibility of pleading messages rebroadcast on the internet for morbid entertainment.
They were truly alone. NASA would not hear anything she sent them to try to correct their assumption there were no survivors. They had no way of turning the satellite back on from the base.
"No!" Bella screamed. She slapped her hand down on the computer desk and jabbed wildly at the keys. "We're here! We're still here! Please! Don't do this … We're not all dead! Please!"
"They can't hear you, Bella."
She knew it, but it was too hard to accept at the moment. She tried to speak again, but all that came out was a soft cry, the groan of a lost soul, of a stranded castaway watching a ship sail indifferently on without them.
Bella sobbed helplessly. Her knees weakened and she staggered the few paces to one of the padded seating units. She fell onto it, spent except for the sobs breaking through her like waves of an angry sea.
"Oh, Bella. Bella." She heard Edward's footsteps, just like she'd heard them in the hallway yesterday, but this time, they brought comfort instead of fear. "God, Bella." He sat down beside her on the sofa and she felt his hand tentatively touch her arm. When she didn't jerk away, he gave a soft sigh and pulled her into his arms. "Cry it out," he said.
As if she could do anything else. She sobbed against his chest, listening to the steady thump of his heart below her ear. Reminding her she was not alone. The feel of him in her arms … This was something she could hold onto. She had him at least. She kept telling herself that until her sobs had subsided into soft hiccups.
"Okay," she said, scrubbing a hand over her face. "Okay, okay … We just—We just have to hang on, that's all. They'll send the next group of colonists in four years. If we can make it four years—"
Edward drew back a bit to gaze down at her and his eyes were full of sorrow. "No, Bella, I don't think they will."
"There's a virus here, Bella. Or a bacteria. Or something we don't have a name for. Maybe Dr. Hale was right that it came from the sub-soil we were mining. Whatever it was, and however it got here, it's something incredibly deadly to humans. NASA won't send anyone else until they know exactly what it is and are sure the new colonists won't meet our same fate. That could be decades. Generations. Maybe never."
Bella took a deep breath, processing that. "Okay. Okay. We just … We go on. We keep fighting. Someday, they'll send a satellite, or a rover, and we can signal to it that we're still here and then —"
Edward shook his head.
Anger burned through her. "What? Say it! Are you just giving up? We keep the mission going, Edward. That's what we have to do."
"What do you suggest is the alternative? That we just let the mission fail? We let it … end?"
"It's already over," Edward said quietly. "You just won't accept it."
"You're damn right I won't accept it! I believe in this, Edward. I believe in this mission. I believe in it more than anything I've ever believed in my life. God, you of all people ought to understand that because you're here, too. You came for a reason. My reason was that I thought this was the most important possible thing I could do with my life, and it was an amazing honor to be even considered for one of the most important projects of all time. Actually being here? When I was a little girl, I used to look up at the stars and ream about other world. I was the kid who watched Star Wars obsessively, even though I would sit there and criticize how space travel was portrayed. I watched every video Chris Hadfield ever made about the International Space Station. And I dreamed, dreamed of what it would be like just to get the chance to see earth from orbit. I never thought I'd get a chance to see it, though because I'm not cut out to be an Air Force pilot or a physicist. I'm just an ordinary girl with dreams bigger than she is. When I heard about this project, I knew I had to apply, even though I thought there was never even a remote chance I'd make it. But it was everything I'd ever wanted. To be part of something bigger than myself, bigger than mankind, even. We got to live out the dreams of an entire species by coming here. The first humans to step foot on an alien world. The first humans on Mars. The first humans to colonize another planet.
"I knew the risks. Of course I knew the risks. People have been saying from the first day that Mars One was impossible. That we'd never get off the ground. And then once we started sending up the automated building systems, they said we'd never be able to launch the human missions, and even if we did, we'd all die. I read the blogs. The project told me not to, but I read them. I think we all did. There were a lot of people saying the science itself was flawed. We'd run out of oxygen or we'd have too much oxygen. We would run out of water, or we'd have far too much of it. We couldn't heat or cool the habitat properly. There were a thousand things they said would go wrong, and about that, they were sort of right, because you know how much we went through in the first few weeks getting everything operational. But we did it. We're here. I won't give up, Edward. I can't. Even if I were the last one left, I'd have to keep this mission going. Not just for myself, but for all those kids back there on Earth dreaming of what it would be like to slip the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of God."
Edward didn't say anything. He just watched her, and there was compassion in his gaze that only made her angrier. She wanted to throw something at him, to strike him, to shake him, or to kiss him senseless – she didn't know which.
"You're right I won't accept it's over. It can't be. Not while I can keep fighting for it."
She dropped the president's speech as she turned to leave the room, heading down the short hallway to her bedroom. She shut the door and flipped the latch before she sat down on the bed.
She had left the shade up in her porthole window. She pressed her hands to the wall as she leaned into it, gazing out at the red desert where the eternal winds swept rusty sands against the darkened rocks. A landscape that would be the same a thousand years from now, unchanged and indifferent to the fragile, alien creatures who dared to perch upon its surface in their tiny huts.
She dropped her forehead against the window. She had no tears left, it seemed.
It's not over. It can't be over. I can't leave.
The thought startled her for a moment. Why would she think of leaving? She couldn't go anywhere. It wasn't like they had a launchable ship outside the habitat. There wasn't a ride coming to pick her up. It was a one-way ticket, as she'd known from the beginning.
But her mind shied away from thinking about it, just like it did about watching the tapes or trying to push through the fog to her memories of the last week. She pushed the thought away and stared out at Mars. It was dark, but the light from the open windows of the habitat illuminated the red sands nearby, a landscape she had memorized in the past few days, but still mesmerized her. This was why she had come, after all. Her new home.
She must have fallen asleep because it was dark outside when the tap at her door woke her.
She sat up and pushed her tumbled hair back from her forehead. What time was it? It was still dark outside. But did it matter?
She opened her door for him.
Edward stood in the hall, his green eyes glimmering in the low light. "Are you al—"
She didn't even let him finish the question before she pulled him into her arms and silenced his words with a kiss.
There were no further words that night, no sounds but sighs and gasps, and the soft whisper of flesh sliding along flesh. His body fit hers as though it had been made especially for her, two halves of the same whole, two souls that had to travel millions of miles to find one another.
She fell asleep wrapped in his arms, and it was the soundest, sweetest sleep she'd had since this crisis began, possibly the best of her life. She was home, where she truly belonged.
She woke to lazy kisses in the warm circle of his arms. She cupped his sculpted jaw in her palm and smiles. The happiness she felt was mirrored in his gaze as he smiled back at her.
He moved in for a kiss and she froze as an alarm blared out.
"Ignore it," Edward murmured, his lips tracing over her cheek.
"I can't." Bella wriggled out of his arms and stood. Her discarded clothes were scattered on the floor beside her bed and she pulled them on with brisk movements.
Edward lay back against the pillows, his bare chest gleaming in the light that streamed through the porthole beside her bed. The sheet at his waist fell lower as he leaned up to open his arms to her. "Bella, come back to bed."
That was best invitation she had ever heard, but she gave him a brief smile. "Can't. We've got to check that. It sounds serious."
Edward sighed. He stood, pulling the sheet from the bed around his waist. "Bella, please listen to me."
She was surprised by the seriousness in his tone. But she shook her head as she tugged on her hoodie. "Later, okay? Let's check to see what this problem is."
"What if I told you it wasn't important?"
He couldn't know that. She gave him another smile as she shoved her feet into her shoes and opened the door. Combing her fingers through her hair as she walked, she found the panel that was buzzing. It was in the far supply pod. She hated those things. The cone-shaped pods were connected by small passageways that could only be crawled through. This pod was the one that contained the drill that mined resources such as nitrogen and water from the soil. Bella wormed her way through the passageway to read the screen, biting at her lip in concentration.
Edward stood on the other side of the small hallway. He bent down to peer through at her. "What is it?"
"Drill two has slipped a bit. It seems like it's just disconnected, not broken, but we won't know until we look at it."
"We'll have to go outside if we're going to fix it."
Bella didn't question the odd wording of that statement. Of course they'd fix it.
Ordinarily, Bella would be excited to have any reason to leave the habitat and go out onto the surface, but she felt a strange sense of foreboding. She worked her way back through the narrow hallway slowly, and then walked down the hallway, counting each step, listening to the sound of her shoes on the composite flooring, the sound of her breaths.
She reached the airlock door where their EHA — extra-habitat activity — equipment was stored and found Edward already inside, waiting for her. She tried to smile at him, but her lips were wobbly. Something … She felt the fog clearing and she wasn't sure she wanted it to.
Her suit was still covered in red dust, filthy from the last time she'd been outside, a time she didn't want to remember. Edward helped her put it on, and then she returned the favor with clumsy hands, crouching down to buckle the last clamps in place over his boots, fighting against the memory of the time she'd had to struggle into and out of her suit by herself when she had —
She cut off the memory, but she heard a clear voice in her mind as she did so. It was her own voice, a voice that rang with the clarity of truth.
This is what you're hiding from.
I know, Bella replied.
She took her helmet down off the shelf and turned to Edward's locker, but the shelf above the alcove where his suit was stored was empty. The blank space told a story she didn't want to hear, held a truth she didn't want to accept, but could no longer deny.
With a calm she did not feel, Bella said, "Edward, where's your helmet?"
Edward glanced around as if expecting to see it tucked away on another shelf. "I'm not sure."
But she was.
Bella had laid each of the bodies of the Mars One colonists in the back of the transport vehicle in a neat row and laid each colonist's helmet on top of their body bag so she would know who was inside the bag. It was important to her that the couples and close friends lie next to one another. And there had been no helmets left on the shelves when she finished distributing them, because she was wearing her own.
After she'd set off the charges to cover the bodies over, she had stacked the pyramid of helmets in a careful approximation of where each body lay in the pit. And when she returned, and struggled her way out of her suit, her helmet had been the only one on the shelf.
She turned to Edward slowly and she saw him watching her with an expression of compassion. He held out his hand and cupped her cheek. "My Bella."
"I did bury you."
He didn't answer. He didn't have to.
"Why?" The word was ragged as it left her throat.
"Because you refused to accept it. I stayed behind because I couldn't leave you here. Lonely, confused. I missed so much, Bella. So much we could have had. But I was never sure how you felt. I thought we had plenty of time. I guess people always do, until it's too late."
"No." But she knew the truth. In her heart, she had always known. The wound was exposed now, stinging in the air, but she could bear the pain of it now. The fog had cleared and she saw it all, everything that had happened, the horrors and grief she had experienced, the loss of her dream. But it hadn't been lost, really.
Bella shook her head and tried to back away but he caught her arms and pulled her into an embrace. How could this be true when he was warm in her arms and had that same delicious scent? She could feel him. How could this not be real?
"It is real," he said softly. The vibration of his voice rumbled against her body. "You know in your heart it is."
Or perhaps she was giving into madness. Either he was a ghost or she was insane. Either way, giving into it meant having him here in her arms, and she preferred that to emptiness and despair.
"I thought it would be better for you if you came to the realization gradually. And it gave me time to make up for my mistake. To show you that I love you, Bella. And I will always love you. This is not the end, I promise. It's just the beginning. There is another journey … when you're ready."
"Will I be happy?" It seemed like such a silly question, but it encompassed all of her fears and doubts.
He nodded. "Happy. And sad. And angry. And joyful. All of the things that are you will still remain."
"And will we be together?"
He gave her that smile she loved so much, that smile that was uniquely his. A little crooked, a little goofy, a little bashful, but full of life. "Forever, if that's what you want. I know it's what I want."
She turned her head to gaze out the window at the Red Planet, its harsh and terrible beauty beneath an amber sky. Her mission was over, but it hadn't failed. Tears spilled down her cheeks, because she would miss it, this cold and inhospitable world that had been her home for such a short while. But they had done it. They had made Mars One a reality. Perhaps one day, others would come here to the Red Planet and call it home. But her time here was done and it was time to move on to whatever world came next.
She slid her helmet back onto its shelf. "I'm ready."
Edward turned the wheel on the door and then took her into his arms. She heard the loud wail of the alarms and red lights flashed across her closed eyes, but all she concentrated on was the feel of his lips on hers, his hands tangling in her hair.
There was a loud hiss and a brilliant light appeared in the opening of the door, brighter than any she had ever encountered, far brighter than the sun, but without the heat. The scientist in her said that was impossible, but those rules no longer applied.
Their hands joined, they stepped into the light.
Story includes Lana Del Rey lyrics from "Summertime Sadness" and "Born to Die." Writer(s): Elizabeth Grant, Justin Parker Copyright: Sony/ATV Music Publishing (Uk) Limited, Emi