We’ve Come a Long Way
“We’ve come a long way,” Dr. Vannevar said, his beady, sunken eyes fixated on the untamed bringer of war just beyond the viewport.
Iris didn’t turn her head to look at him, but she could picture Vannevar stroking his little gray beard as he spoke. It was his way of breaking the silence between them, disrupting the descent as their five-person crew approached Mars.
Vannevar liked to hear himself talk, so he often made broad observations with an air of scientific inquiry and pretentiousness. Iris wondered if this was how Vannevar talked his way onto this mission, if his sweeping generalizations impressed the executives back home. He certainly hadn’t added anything to the crew since he had come aboard, and Iris wasn’t even sure of what he held a doctorate in.
As the finer details of Mars grew more pronounced, Iris searched its charmless surface. She wanted to size up the red menace, stare it down as fear settled into her stomach over what, if anything, they would find on the planet. Much like Vannevar’s pedigree, Mars was one giant question mark.
Members of the Demeter-6 mission were only the second group of scientists (read: “pioneers”) to colonize the planet. The first crew, Demeter-5, had been on Mars for two years now. As of the moment, Demeter-5’s mission status was unknown. Contact had not been made, nor had a signal of any kind been picked up on Demeter-6’s long voyage. For all the crew of Demeter-6 knew, the original colony could have vanished in Mars’ tumultuous desert storms.
“We’ve come a long way,” Vannevar repeated, this time louder. “From tribal warfare, cannibalism, disease… to this.”
Iris felt Vannevar’s eyes on her. His hunter’s gaze unsettled her, as if behind the aloof, broadstroke of a personality lie something sinister and predatory. A snake in the grass. Something wriggled beneath her skin, and she hurried to come up with a response that would satisfy Vannevar’s hungry, attention-seeking stare.
“Yes,” Iris said, tugging at the sleeves of her lab coat and hiding beneath loose strands of her wavy, brown hair.
Satiated by her response, Vannevar swiveled his head back toward the viewport. His mouth opened to speak again when a voice erupted through the ship’s intercom.
“We’ve picked up a signal. All crew report to the central command.”
“For all we know, it could be a ghost signal. Who knows how long it’s been repeating like this?” Captain Jaina said. Her slender figure leaned over the communications desk, hands balled into fists, burrowing into the mainframe. She was suited up already, squeezed into her second skin protective suit.
The crew’s horticulturist, Ludwig, stood next to her. He was a smallish man with a snow-white beard, perpetually green-stained fingers, and bloodshot eyes that matched the deep red of his flannel shirt. If sacrifices had to be made amongst the crew, Ludwig was the least expendable.
“I take it you want me to stay back, then?” Ludwig asked.
“Let the crew check out the damage and tend to the weeds before the gardener comes out,” Jaina replied.
Two forced smiles feigned appreciation over a bad joke.
Iris and Vannevar entered the small command chamber. It was situated above the ship, and its windowed, dome-like top filtered in the desolate radiance of the alien world around them. The light gave Iris’ pale skin a healthy glow and illuminated the blemishes Vannevar tried to hide with his patchy facial hair.
“You two,” Jaina said. “Suit up. The ship’s computer has already locked onto the colony’s beacon, and we should be landing presently.”
Dr. Vannevar opened his mouth to say something, but Jaina’s firm demeanor and unblinking blue eyes convinced him otherwise. Though she was the shortest member of the crew, this command wasn’t her first rodeo.
60 mph winds ripped through the landing bay as the ramp lowered onto Mars’ rocky surface. Iris clutched a metal bar attached to the landing bay walls and held on as the winds pulled around her, tugging her body toward the gaping maw of the Martian frontier. She had to be careful. If given the opportunity, the planet would devour them. It was nature, the order of all things both living and dead.
“The colony’s not too far from here,” Captain Jaina’s said over their suits’ comm systems. “We should be able to take the rover and be there in a handful of minutes.”
An eight-wheeled buggy lowered from the ceiling. It looked like a glass pod with spider legs, two wheels on either side of the front and two on either side of the back. When it touched the ground, Captain Jaina unclamped the cradle that lowered it and opened the hatch on top of the pod.
Iris squeezed into the back of the pod, among the four rear seats, and strapped herself in. Dr. Vannevar took the front passenger seat, and Jaina slid into the driver’s chair.
“Fair warning, it’s going to be a bumpy ride,” Jaina said.
As the rover bounced along Mars’ rugged terrain, Iris closed her eyes and whispered to herself, counting out each conscious and deliberate breath. She had had motion sickness ever since she was a child and learned to close herself off from the blurring swirls of color outside of car windows. Inside her helmet, each breath thundered into her ears, and each release took her mind further and further away from the final planet she would ever set foot upon.
Iris was home again, sitting in the backseat of her mother’s brown Cutlass as it dodged potholes on busy Chicago streets. She could hear the sounds of pop music and feel the rush of dirty city air wash over her little face. It was cool and humid, and she could smell the exhaust of cars and the sickly stench of the canal. But it was home, one teeming with life and promise and too many mouths to satiate. Everyday thousands of people honked at each other on the expressways, cursing a city “too crowded” with people. Iris felt that way once, that there was such a thing as too many people. It’s why she escaped to the stars, why she committed herself to Mars and the idea of being a pioneer.
There was no canal smell or car exhaust here, and the honking of horns had been traded out for every bump of the rover, every breath, and every howl of the wind. On a planet with no people, dreams were limitless.
A few moments later, the rover arrived at a huddling of shelters. Sandswept metal looked worn but intact. From the outside, there wasn’t much sign of life. A rover rested near one of the shelters, its windows glossed over with dirt and debris. Behind it, a wind generator spun, which in turn gave power to the few exterior lights that illuminated the entrances to the shelters.
“Don’t get out just yet,” Jaina said. She unholstered a small thermal pistol with one hand and brought a pair of binoculars up to her eyes with the other. “Everything looks intact, save for the furthest shelter from us. Its door is busted down. From the size of it, it’s too small to be our greenhouse though. Thank God.”
“Which one’s the greenhouse?” Vannevar asked.
“The biggest one.” Jaina unbuckled her harness and lowered the binoculars. “There’s a set of footprints leading into the greenhouse, so somebody’s home.”
Iris stood alone, back pinned against the greenhouse walls and front embracing the violent winds of Mars. Vannevar and Jaina had entered, weapons drawn, with Iris ordered to stay behind as lookout. She wouldn’t have wanted to go in there anyway. Not yet. Not until they knew what happened to the Demeter-5.
Years ago, the crew was sold the promise of a developing colony on Mars, one up and running by the time they had arrived. There would be food, housing, and a budding society with its own edicts. Though the air would be dangerous, colonizing Mars came with the promise of claiming open space and terraforming it to one day match the wilds of Earth. Elbow room, Iris thought, smiling. A space for her.
Her whole life, Iris had shared a bedroom with someone. Siblings. Roommates. Ailing family members. There wasn’t enough money to afford a bigger space, let alone groceries. But here? This unclaimed desert?
“Iris!” Jaina shouted through the comms. “Iris, do you read me?”
“Copy. I’m here.”
“Vannevar’s bringing a colonist out. I need you to help carry the colonist to the rover.”
Iris bit her lip. Was the colonist dead? Was her first experience on this planet going to be one where she carried a dead body back to command?
“Iris? Did you get that?”
“Yes. Understood,” Iris replied. The blood drizzling into her mouth was warm and salty and comforting in its own way, her long-standing habit of coping. Some cut; others desecrated their flesh with their teeth.
The door to the greenhouse slid open with a loud hum, and Vannevar stumbled out. A body, fully encased in an orange spacesuit, dangled over Vannevar’s left shoulder.
“Is it - is it… dead?” Iris asked.
“He’s quite alive. Just unconscious. We startled him, it seems.”
Iris slid her right shoulder under the colonist’s left arm and lifted. Together, they carried the man back to the rover and strapped him into the backseat. Vannevar slid in next to the unconscious man.
“When Captain Jaina gets back, you take the front seat. I want to keep an eye on this one.”
The ride back was quiet. The rover’s frame shuddered and its axles shrieked as the rocky terrain jostled it around. Jaina kept her eyes firmly ahead, fingers tightly gripping the steering wheel. Vannevar sat in the back, stoic, with an arm aiming a thermal pistol at the unconscious colonist.
“No other survivors?” Iris finally asked, her voice disrupting the silence. Each word felt loud and obtrusive, and she immediately regretted giving in to the curiosity gnawing at the forefront of her mind.
“None,” Jaina said sharply. She was resolute in her focus, not bothering to look over at Iris or in the rear mirrors at Dr. Vannevar. The quiet resumed the moment her lips closed, and it hung around until the rover made it back to the ship.
Iris helped Vannevar carry the colonist to the medical bay while Jaina had a private word with the crew’s attending physician, Dr. Chiang. Once the whispers stopped, silence befell the crew of Demeter-6. It appeared that they were alone on this planet afterall. The thought took a moment to sink in, and when it did, the weight they carried themselves with made it harder to stand upright.
The immaculate, white halls carried a tinge of gray and dust as Iris walked back to her bunk. The very real threat of death had wriggled in between the tiles and rooted deep within the ship. As she feared, the Angry Planet devoured the first settlers upon this soil. That promise of desolation became more real than she could have fathomed.
“For the record, state your name.”
“Lewis, Dr. David A.”
“What is your specification, Dr. Lewis?” Captain Jaina said calmly. She leaned back against a small chair that had been placed in front of the ship’s glass holding cell, her arms folded across her chest. A green and gray jumpsuit clung closely to her, a holstered thermal pistol clearly visible.
“Horticulturist,” Dr. Lewis said. He cradled his head in his hands, bloodshot eyes gazing beyond the floor of his holding cell. “I’m supposed to grow the food.”
“I know what a horticulturist is,” Jaina said. She leaned forward and reached for a datapad that was lying on the floor next to her chair. She thumbed through it for a minute before proceeding further.
“What happened to the rest of the crew? My log says there should be 7 other members of the Demeter-5.”
“They died.” Dr. Lewis’ words were as plain and unkempt as his appearance.
“Hunger. Starvation.” Dr. Lewis raised his head and made eye contact with his interrogator. Heavy bags sagged under his glassy eyes. “One of them killed two others.”
“And how did you manage to survive?” Captain Jaina looked up from her databad.
“I hid. I stole from what little rations we had, and I tucked myself away to where no one could find me. I listened to them… I listened to their—” Dr. Lewis’ hands balled up into fists. He slowly ground his knuckles into his forehead in a futile attempt to wash over the memories with physical pain.
Captain Jaina gave him a moment. She thumbed through the datapad until the sounds of Dr. Lewis’ sniveling quieted down. Once his mewling softened into murmurs, she looked back up at his huddled figure. “Where?”
“Does it matter?” Dr. Lewis snapped. He raised his head, eyes glowering with a coldness devoid of empathy. Jaina instinctively unholstered her pistol, one hand hovering above it.
“It’s a small camp,” Jaina said. “I’ll ask you again. Where did you hide?”
“In storage closets. I moved around when I could.”
“In the greenhouse? In the cabins? Where?” Jaina pressed.
Dr. Lewis’ quivering lips opened to reveal a row of clenched yellowed teeth. “At this point— what difference does it make? I lived. I survived.”
There was something about that predatory sneer that unsettled the captain. No matter how much she wanted to scream internally, she refused to look away, to let those dead eyes scare her off. Jaina choked the discomfort down and let it incinerate her insides.
“And what about the bodies?”
“What about them?”
“People don’t just vanish.” Jaina could see in David’s eyes that he was retreating. This emboldened her resolve. “How did you dispose of them?”
“I gave them all proper burials.”
The captain typed up some notes into her datapad. The clicking of buttons released some of the tension that hung in the air between them, and she could see the survivor start to relax. His body loosened, and his hands opened and rested upon his legs. She could see that Dr. Lewis’ dark skin was dry, cracked, and coarse. However long he had been surviving on this planet alone, it reflected upon his rough, weather-worn flesh.
“Tomorrow,” Jaina began, “would you walk us through the compound and tell us exactly what happened here?”
Dr. Lewis’ eyes dropped to her firearm and then back to her. She caught on and holstered it.
The captain stood, thanked the doctor for his time, and abruptly left the medbay. The door slid shut and locked behind her. Outside, Jaina exchanged grim expressions with Dr. Chiang.
“Keep him under close observation. Feed him, but unlock the doors for no one after that. We can’t take any risks until we know what kind of situation we’re dealing with here.”
Whispers of murder had wormed through the crew before the next day even began. On the ride out to the compound, Iris found herself thinking about the baggage humanity carries with it from place to place, about the diseases early explorers brought over to the Americas, and the death, enslavement, and pillaging that marked humanity’s expansions into unknown territories. Wherever they tread, pioneers couldn’t escape their past. It was part of them, their story, their DNA.
At the compound, Vannevar led Dr. Lewis out of the rover first. Iris and Jaina followed behind them as they walked up to the first building. Dr. Lewis slid his gloved hand through an opening near the door, and the door slid open.
A few lights flickered on overheard as the crew entered. It was the common area for the barracks, and judging from the overturned tables and chairs congregating near one of the walls, a fight had broken out here. Iris’ eyes were drawn to an axe wedged into the underside of one of the tables. She wasn’t alone in noticing it. Dr. Lewis’ eyes were also drawn to the axe, locked on to it but also a million miles away. He began to sway, slowly at first, until he found his rhythm and silently danced to some far-off tune nobody but him could hear.
Jaina and Vannevar exchanged looks, after which Vannevar put his hand on Dr. Lewis’ shoulder. The doctor broke from his trance and resumed a solemn tone.
“Do you remember what happened here?” Captain Jaina asked.
“I was… remembering… the first time we got this place up and running,” Dr. Lewis said. His eyes started to glass over as the tune wormed its way back to the forefront of his mind.
His distant, yearning voice caused a tremor to coil around Iris’ arm and send shockwaves up her body. She forced her eyes to look anywhere — everywhere — else as an intense dread overpowered her. She noticed small, black spheres in two of the corners of the ceiling. “There are cameras there and there,” Iris shouted out, pointing at each of the spheres.
Adrenaline filled Iris’ veins as Dr. Lewis’ dead eyes fell upon her face. She had seen these eyes before — in men. Her first boyfriend in college flashed her these eyes one night before unbuckling his belt and wrapping the leather around his knuckles. In her last week on Earth, Iris had rear-ended a businessman on his morning commute into the city. If the police hadn’t shown up shortly after the accident, the businessman’s eyes foretold another accident that would have happened.
“Where’s the control room located?” Vannevar asked. His voice conveyed a childlike curiosity and expressed that he had no clue what was going on.
“There’s a security hub a couple of buildings over. I’d like to have Dr. Lewis walk us through this building first, though. Give us his story,” Captain Jaina said. “Iris, do you think you could find the security hub and check those cameras?”
Dr. Lewis smiled at Iris. His fingers, hanging at the sides of his body, quietly drummed musical notes on unseen instruments.
Outside the barracks, Iris took a moment to bask in the sunlight that brought Mars’ atmosphere up to a sweltering -14 degrees Fahrenheit. Several halos formed around the sun, making it the pupil of a gigantic eye in the sky, looking down on this foreign invader on the Angry Planet’s dry, rocky soil. Iris felt akin to a microbe, to a pesky, insignificant nothing who would live out a life of little consequence here. The failure of Demeter-5 had proven their efforts fruitless already, and it would only be a matter of time before Iris, herself, would dissipate into the ravenous sandstorms that raged across Mars.
But there was space here. Elbow room. That’s just what the pioneers thought when they voyaged out on the Oregon Trail centuries ago. How many of them died of disease, starvation, and dysentery along the way?
She took one last look at that eye in the sky, and then the moment was over. Other shelters awaited behind the barracks. The most well-kept of the bunch was the greenhouse. Iris could see the clear glass ceiling soaking in the remaining sunlight. Behind the greenhouse was a generator, a massive piece of machinery the size of a shuttle.
Standing next to the generator was another shelter no bigger than a small cabin. Its door had been torn off, and dirt and debris had already blown into the dark entryway. Iris tapped the left shoulder plate of her suit as she approached, which powered on a personal flashlight. Broken video screens reflected back the light of her suit. They had been purposely smashed with some sort of bludgeon. A not-so-hidden mallet lying on the ground implicated the culprit.
Iris walked up to a mapping table in the middle of the room. She hovered her hand over it, which in any normal circumstance would have triggered it to light up and illuminate a map of the facility with various status indicators of vital machinery. A quick tracing of cables from the table revealed that it had been severed from its powersource.
Papers and debris littered the screen, pinned down by various tools. Iris flipped through what she could, looking for any direction on where she should look next. As her fingers scoured the random stacks of papers, she uncovered a datapad. A couple taps on the screen brought it to life. A map of the colony flashed before Iris’ eyes, giving her a read-out of various components and facilities. The greenhouse was in terrific condition. The rest of the camp, despite some physical signs of distress, were also in sufficient working order. The colony, at the very least, was salvageable. She thumbed through to the security settings. Some of the cameras were still operational, and she could see Dr. Lewis, Vannevar, and Jaina in the barracks.
Jaina had gone ahead, her thermal pistol on display as she carefully walked down a half-demolished corridor. Judging by the expression on her face, something had disturbed her. Through another camera, Iris could see that Vannevar was orating about something — arms opening in grand gestures, lips flapping, and his eyes staring off into space. Lewis wasn’t quite watching Vannevar. Instead, he was rubbing his hands together, his body swaying to that distant tune. Every few seconds, his head would twitch — once, twice, three times. Iris reached for her comm unit, so she could warn Vannevar. She hesitated. The two of them were so wrapped up in their own heads, and she wondered if she would cause alarm to an already unhinged Dr. Lewis by drawing Vannevar’s attention to him.
Iris flipped through a few different cameras, looking for a way to find out what had disturbed the captain so much. She stopped at the locker room, where Captain Jaina was now holding her thermal pistol with both hands, arms outstretched, as if ready to fire. Something disgusting came into view. A brown, congealed mass lay on the floor in the middle of the locker room. Jaina looked away and threw herself at the corner of the room. Iris’ stomach churned as she zoomed in.
Two arms jutted out of the mass of flesh. One arm was missing a hand. The rest of the body looked like it had been melted down together, with a few ribs jutting to the surface. Iris threw the datapad onto the mapping table and held on as her body involuntarily hunched over. A last-minute tap to the side of her helmet opened it up just in time for a stream of vomit to splatter out onto the floor.
She stayed like this for a while, holding onto the table as her insides twisted and cold shivers trembled up and down her spine. It felt like hours passed until she was able to stand upright again, wiping that last bit of bile off her mouth with the back of her glove.
Be brave, Iris. Be brave, she told herself. She picked up the datapad and identified the security camera ID for the locker room. There would be an archive connected to that camera.
“We’ve come a long way.” Iris heard the echoes of Vannevar’s musing from the other day as she searched the video archives. “From tribal warfare, cannibalism, disease.. to this.”
As Iris sped through the camera footage, that hunk of mass gained the rest of its missing limbs and its shape. It gained its humanity, growing and convulsing and sprouting into a human form. Each time a piece of it returned to the body, Dr. Lewis was there, surgically Frankensteining it bit by bit. He would leave, come back with another piece, attach it, and leave again. Looking at the timestamps, this body had been here for weeks, months.
Before she could resurrect the unnamed corpse, something pushed at Iris to slow the video. Dr. Lewis was huddled over the nearly fully formed body with a blowtorch. Iris zoomed in as far as she could and let the video play.
In one hand, Dr. Lewis carefully excised tissue from his crewmember. Then, he delicately held up the tissue to the blowtorch, rotating it slowly. This went on for minutes until the doctor felt the need to cautiously look over each shoulder. Satisfied that no one was there, he placed the tissue onto the tip of his tongue and quickly closed his mouth. Dr. Lewis stood up, stepped away from the body, and closed his eyes. His body began to sway, first in the hips, then all the way up to the head and neck. There was no audio in the feed, but that probably didn’t matter. The tune Dr. Lewis was swaying to played for an audience of one.
Iris set down the datapad, closed her helmet, and went outside. She felt a tear roll down her cheek, and she instinctively caught it with her tongue. She didn’t know why; she just did it. It was something she had always done.