“Good morning, Lara,” said Al.
“Would you like me to turn on the ground-level lighting, Al?”
“Yes. Thank you, Lara.”
“You’re welcome. Breakfast today is a protein shake. On the surface, the current temperature is minus 94 degrees
Celsius, rising to minus 70 degrees Celsius by 12 p.m. Pacific Time. Today, you have lessons in Earth history and organic chemistry. We must collect moisture samples for return to Palo Alto.”
Al sat up in her bunk. “We don’t need to collect samples, Lara.”
“Negative, Al. Our schedule indicates that we must collect and prepare moisture samples for study in Palo Alto. We are required—”
“Lara, that schedule is outdated. We don’t need to collect anything.” Al and Om had tried, for years, to reprogram the artificial intelligence so it would understand that the station was no longer a research hub—there was no one here to do that work. They weren’t even sure there was a Palo Alto to send samples to.
Lara was silent for a moment. “Good morning, Al. Breakfast today is a protein shake. On the surface, the current temperature is minus 94 degrees Celsius, rising to minus 70 degrees Celsius by 12 p.m. Pacific Time. Today, we must collect—”
“Okay, confirm. Will collect moisture samples,” said Al. It was the only way to shut Lara up.
“Confirmed. Please let me know if you need anything, Al.”
Al reached for her crutches. She wouldn’t bother changing her clothes or showering today. It was too cumbersome, and she couldn’t ask Om for help.
Outside it was freezing, but in the bowels of Station Anduin, it was always a perfect 22 degrees Celsius. Al made her way out of her bunkroom and into the hallway. The blue low-level lighting cast odd shadows against the walls as she made her way to the dining hall. Her shoulders ached, her body still cold and stiff from sleeping.
Inside, her protein shake was waiting in the food printer. “Lara, is there any actual food to eat? Any bananas?”
“Bananas are not scheduled to be synthesized until Saturday, Al.”
“Override, Lara. Synthesize bananas.”
“Bananas aren’t scheduled—”
“OVERRIDE, Lara. Code: sequoia.” Al waited. “Lara?”
“Override accepted. Synthesizing bananas.”
AI sat down and stared at the printer. It would take a few minutes before the fruit was ready.
“What’s it making?” asked Om. Al hadn’t heard him come in. He maneuvered his wheelchair over to her. “Bananas?” Om raised an eyebrow. “It’s not Saturday.” The twins watched as the skin began to form, as if the fruit was peeling itself in reverse.
“Synthesizing complete. Please enjoy your banana, Al and Om.”
Om took it out and placed it down on the table. “After you,” he said, pushing it towards Al. She smiled and slowly began to peel it.
“Do you think our yellow is the same as Earth-yellow?” Om asked.
“No. I think it’s more red.” Al broke off a small piece of banana and handed it to Om.
“I think more green,” Om said. This was one of the games Om had invented over the years—what was Earth really like? What did everything look like on that strange planet so much closer to the sun than their own?
She broke off her own piece, and at the same time, they each took a bite. The taste was incredible, like eating one straight from the tree, Al guessed.
“What lessons do you have today?”
“Advanced calculus and robotic design.”
“Lara wants us to collect moisture samples,” said Al. “What should we send? I was thinking we could put in my last history paper and your most recent watercolor.” Al and Om never sent the samples Lara requested. They only ever sent proof of life: paintings Om had completed, or stories and essays Al scribbled down.
“Don’t worry. I have an idea,” Om said. “But it’s a surprise.”
Al raised an eyebrow. “Hint?” “No,” said Om. “But it’s good. See you after class.”
“Don’t you want the rest of your banana?”
“Nah. You can have it.”
There were five classrooms in Station Anduin, each with ten learning pods. There must have been many children in the station at one point, running through the halls between lessons. But for as long as AI and Om could remember, there had only ever been them.
Inside Al’s pod, an image of orange groves filled her screen. A recorded narration warbled in the system’s failing speakers. “Here, in the San Fernando valley, are the roots of the American dream…”
Earth history was Al’s favorite class. But today, her mind drifted. What was Om up to? He was constantly hatching plans. Last year, he had almost made it to the surface, circumventing Lara’s security array by breaking the passcode to an old, forgotten passageway. The station was full of doors with keypads that seemed to resist every combination of numbers the children could come up with. Only Om’s genius brain could manage the one breakout. But Lara caught up to him eventually and sent him trudging back to Anduin.
“What were you going to do up there?” Al asked Om after he was safely returned. The surface was treacherous enough, even for able-bodied people.
“I don’t know. Look around.”
“To see what? Red dirt? Who cares?”
“Better than looking at this sad place for another day.”
Om couldn’t go on adventures like that anymore. Despite the bevvy of protein shakes, pills, and powders Lara ensured they take every day, Om’s osteoporosis was progressing rapidly. While playing in the greenhouse one afternoon, he’d taken an odd step and crashed into the ground. Al heard the snap—his hip. It was a miracle he had survived at all. But he could no longer walk without significant pain.
On screen, a group of teenagers in wide skirts drank smoothies in a small cafeteria. “The 1950s were a golden age,” the narrator explained. “Every family had a house, a car, and a dog. In Palo Alto, the first technology
companies were experimenting in creating new kinds of rockets to help launch humans into space.”
“Do you think Earth teenagers worry that every brittle bone in their body will break before they turn eighteen?”
“Osteoporosis is a disease that causes low bone density and muscle mass. Many humans first show symptoms after the age of fifty. But here on Mars, symptoms may appear earlier due to a life lived in lower gravity and prolonged exposure to weightlessness, which is known to cause muscle atrophy and deterioration of the skeleton, among other things. Taking your supplements regularly should prevent the deterioration of your anatomy.”
Lara was never any good at this game.
Al daydreamed her way through the rest of her lessons that morning. She tried to bring herself back to the redwoods, but she could never remember the smell that permeated the forest in her dreams. She couldn’t even describe the smell if she wanted to because it didn’t exist on Mars.
Om never showed for lunch. This wasn’t entirely unusual—Om often became absorbed by his projects, only coming to dinner, for example, to babble about some new canvas he’d been fiddling with, or an improvement he’d made to Lara.
Al usually excused his absence, but today was different. He had told her so. I have a great idea. She grabbed her crutches and left the cafeteria. She checked Om’s classroom, but it was empty. So was his bunkroom and the desk he had set up in the station’s command center.
“Lara, where is Om?”
Lara remained silent.
“Where is Om?” Al asked again.
“The time is 1:23 p.m. You are required to send moisture samples to Palo Alto by 5:00 p.m.”
“Lara, I need to speak to Om.”
“You are required to complete scheduled tasks.”
“Override: sequoia. Lara, where is Om?”
“Override rejected. Please complete scheduled tasks.”
Lara had never rejected an override command before. If Om wasn’t in any of his usual haunts, it was possible he had gone to do some research in the station library.
She walked down the hall and tried the library’s door handle. It wouldn’t budge.
“Lara, open library doors.”
“Al, please complete your scheduled tasks.”
In the library, Al could at least access the station computers and see what was wrong with Lara. She could also look at what Om had been up to for the past few hours. “Lara…I need access to the library to complete today’s task. I have to pull some data on past sampling.”
The hall was silent. “Library doors are opened.”
Al heard the lock click and felt her own body relax in response.
But once inside, there was no sign of Om.
Al’s schoolbooks were still scattered across one of the desks. She wished she could return to them now, as if it were just another normal day, but instead, she sat down at one of the computer terminals and began typing. Lara controlled all station systems, but the system architecture accessed by the terminals is what controlled Lara. Al and Om often used terminals to search or gain access to systems without needing Lara’s consent, and often without her knowledge.
Al called up the station’s logs, specifically the location trackers, which documented Om and Al’s whereabouts throughout the day. But after breakfast, Om’s location data had terminated at the end of Hallway 7. He had never gone to class, and now there was no trace of him, as if he had just evaporated in that very spot.
Al knew Om was alive, though. And there was only one place in the station she guessed he would disappear to.
Om studied ship design and rocketry obsessively, and he would often concoct elaborate schemes for finding their way off this rock. He also believed that there was more to the station than either of them knew. “The power capabilities of this station are too much for just classrooms,” he said. “Besides, how did other humans get here? They would have had to land somewhere.” His preoccupation had only intensified after he tried to reach the surface. “On Earth, we’ll return to a gravity more suited for humans. It will slow our illness.”
But after his accident, he stopped talking about going back. He’d still play their game, and he still sent his art in the moisture sample ship, but anytime Al asked him about how they’d get back, he’d change the subject.
Al called up Lara’s data. It showed that the artificial intelligence system had been busy all day, tending the small greenhouse filled with dead flora, modulating station oxygen, and prepping food synthesization. All normal. But among the code, Al saw that someone had made some changes.
C://AL OVERRIDE/DO NOT ACCEPT
Al felt her chest tighten. The commands were timestamped 7:00 a.m., just after breakfast.
“Al,” said Lara. “We must complete moisture sampling by 5:00 p.m.”
“Thanks, Lara. Just finishing up.”
Al pulled up another data set, the one that tracked old moisture sampling, and aimlessly scrolled through while she tried to think of what to do next.
Maybe Om had left a trail. She clicked back to the station logs and the monotony of data that defined their days at Station Anduin. Al looked for something in Om’s logs that would point her to this secret he’d been hiding.
Oddly enough, the station logs only went back to the date of Al and Om’s birth. There was no record of station activity prior to their arrival. Al and Om had spent their thirteenth birthday searching the records for something that would explain how they had been left alone here, but if such an explanation existed, it wasn’t in the system.
Maybe Om had recently discovered something. Al clicked on ARCHIVES—a log she had never seen before. There was only one file in the folder, and the only thing written on it was a location: HANGAR BAY A.
Al grabbed her crutches and trekked across the station to where Om had disappeared in Hallway 7. There were no keypads here. No secret doors. The passage just ended in a blank metal wall. She pressed her hand against the wall, wondering if perhaps it would spring open with enough pressure, but it did not yield.
But then she looked down. At her feet was a vent entrance. She crouched down and noticed that it fit into the wall like a puzzle piece—no screws. The shaft inside was no bigger than two square feet. Still, a petite person like herself, like Om, could probably pull themselves through.
“What if there were ways through the base that Lara couldn’t track?” Om had once asked.
“Lara can track everything.”
“Don’t be so thick,” he said, pointing at one of the overhead shafts. “Do you think humans would have bothered putting sensors all throughout the ventilation system?”
Al pulled the grate off and laid her crutches to the side—she didn’t think she could easily make it to wherever she needed to go with the long metal rods attached to her—and climbed down into the narrow shaft. Crawling was painful, but the only way out was forward. Al pulled herself forward, rested, then did it again. The path ahead was dark and seemingly endless, and already, her elbows ached. She wanted to go faster, but her fear of breaking a bone, of getting stuck and dying in here, forced her to go slow.
“Om did this,” she thought. “You can do this.” Beads of sweat had formed across her forehead, and her spine seemed to pull slightly farther apart with each forward motion. “Om did this. Om did this,” she repeated over and over. Her knees dragged and she felt her leggings tear, her bare skin pressing into the sheet metal, burning cold.
The air was growing more stagnant. Al began to worry that this ventilation shaft was longer than she had guessed. The light from the vent entrance was now a distant dot behind her. Why hadn’t she stopped, thought about this more? “Because Om did it.” Their whole lives, Om had led, and she followed. He came up with odd plans and silly games, and she accepted the rules without argument. And now here she was following his ghost down a ventilation shaft to what would surely be her own demise.
But then, Al saw light breaking through the darkness. Even though she knew she shouldn’t, she picked up her pace. The exit was now in sight.
Om had done this, and now, as she pushed the vent grate through the wall and it clattered on to the floor, so had Al. With one final burst of strength, she pulled herself through and onto the floor, face down. She was drenched in sweat, and every joint ached. She wiggled her fingers and toes, and while the effort was immense, it seemed nothing had broken or pulled apart.
She rolled herself over, and immediately covered her eyes. It was bright in this new room—gone was the low-level lighting of her home for the last eighteen years. The source of this light seemed to come from above her, from all directions.
She peeled her fingers apart. Above, the light was sectioned into two areas. Floodlights. Al began to comprehend how far the ceiling was above her, understanding she was looking at scaffolding crisscrossing the heights. She sat up and looked around, blinking. The cavernous space seemed to go on and on. She was an ant in the center of a massive cave—Hangar Bay A.
“Om?” she called out. Her voice seemed so much smaller here. “Om!” she cried, louder. It filled the room, echoing off the distant walls.
Without her crutches, walking would be difficult. Though where exactly Al was supposed to go in this immense room, she wasn’t sure. It was completely empty. “Lara?” Al tried. Again, silence.
Al noticed a door to her left. Above, a glass panel looked out onto the hangar. Perhaps a control room? She had few other options, and besides, she’d have to find somewhere comfortable to rest before she attempted the journey back.
Al crawled to the wall and pulled herself up, steading herself. Slowly, she made her way to the door. It was unlocked. The room was like the dorms and classrooms of Station Anduin—cool metal illuminated by low-level blue lighting.
At the top of the stairs was another door, also unlocked. Al swung it open. Inside was a control room. At least a dozen command consoles were arranged around the room.
But no Om. If he had been here, he had left no trace that Al could see. “Lara, can you hear me?”
“Good afternoon, Al. Moisture samples must be collected and sent by 5 p.m. today.”
“Lara, I need to research some archival moisture sample records. Are these terminals accessible?”
“Booting terminal one.”
As the screen flickered to life, Al sat down, causing the dull pain in her hip to suddenly become as sharp as a hot knife. Pain shot up her back and into her neck. She screamed. The adrenaline that had kept her going all day had lessened just enough that she realized the damage she was doing to her body. “Breathe,” she commanded herself.
She turned her attention to the computer. This terminal was a bit older than the ones she had grown up using, but she could see the operating system wasn’t too dissimilar. She searched the system for the same data logs she had viewed in the library.
Programs were still running in the hangar bay. Cleaning robots were deployed, and a script called ARRIVALS ran every hour, though the inputs for what was arriving were blank. Al scrolled down as it repeated itself over and over. Her eyes flicked over to the date stamps, then widened. This computer’s archive was longer than the one in the library. Much longer.
She clicked a year at random: 2042. The screen lit up with a cascade of activity.
ARRIVAL: LORIEN. Twenty-eight passengers.
DROP: med supplies, synthesization materials.
REQ: maintenance on fuel cells. Two-day layover.
DEPARTURE: VENTURE, five passengers. Science and research officers.
ARRIVAL: CONEXION GALAXY, ten passengers. Tourism vessel. Four-day layover.
It went on like this. Al looked out at the vast hangar bay and tried to imagine it as a hive of activity, of vessels departing and arriving, tourists disembarking and snapping photos. People traveled all the way from Earth to see this desolate place.
She began clicking through the years listed in the terminal, all of them active. But then around 2080, the activity ceased. The arrivals became fewer and fewer. By 2085, the screen was as blank as it had been this year.
Al clicked on 2086, the year she and Om were born. It was quiet, save a few supply vessels. And one departure.
DEPARTURE: HAVEN, twelve passengers.
The ship had taken off two days after the siblings’ birth.
Al searched: HAVEN. A number of records displayed on the terminal. Most were maintenance records, but one was labeled PROJECT LUS.
“HAVEN to drop materials for PROJECT LUS on 3/4/86. Collect remaining station personnel.”
Al had always assumed there was someone else around when they were young. She had always wondered if the station had been hit by a pandemic, or a mass casualty event had happened during a training exercise. Something that would have killed off the other humans before she could even retain the memory.
But Station Anduin was also a research station. Was she an unwitting participant in some sort of experiment?
It had been at least an hour—maybe more—since she had wormed her way through the vents and made it here. She became keenly aware that she was thirsty, hungry, and miles away from the food synthesizer. The pain in her back had worsened.
“There are two hours left before moisture samples must be sent, Al,” said Lara.
“Lara, how do I return to the main station to prepare the moisture samples?”
“Follow the track-level lighting and exit via the bay doors,” said Lara
A line of lights lit up on the floor and snaked their way down the stairs.
“Lara, if you were real, I would kiss you right now.”
As Al made her way down the stairs, she tried to make sense of the all the new information she had just learned. Her life has been an experiment. And Om had known, for God knows how long. And he had hidden it from her.
“Lara, did Om ever talk to you about the work he was doing in the hangar?”
“All station research is classified, Al.”
“Right, right. How many times did he come to the hangar?”
The bay doors connected to a long tunnel—thankfully not one that Al had to crawl through. At the end, she found herself deposited just outside the cafeteria. A door, hidden in plain sight, that had always been there.
Al retrieved her crutches and hobbled back to the cafeteria, where she filled up a glass of water and greedily drank it. Every inch of her body ached with a pain more intense than she had ever experienced.
Al figured she had a choice: she could go back to her room, lock the door, and pretend this day had never happened. She would dream of her forest, wake up tomorrow, and go to the cafeteria and have her protein shake.
Or she could see what Om had planned.
After another slow trek, Al stood outside the lab doors.
“Moisture samples must be sent to Palo Alto in forty minutes,” Lara said.
The lab doors slid open, and Al walked in. Om was sitting at one of the long tables, reading a book.
“What took you so long?”
“I went to the hangar bay.”
Om looked up from his reading. “Really? How?”
“The vent! You’re braver than I thought.” He frowned. “You look terrible.”
“Where were you?”
“In the hangar, getting the launch system ready,” said Om. “Then I came back here to wait for you.”
“What have you been hiding from me?”
“You must have found the command center’s archives. What did you learn?”
“I know that in 2086, a vessel named Haven left materials for a Project Lus, and that it was the last ship to come to Mars. Two days after we were born.”
“Two days after we were abandoned,” said Om, his voice cold.
“We don’t know that for sure.”
“Come on, Al! Look at our lives! If they had wanted to rescue us, they would have come. They would have sent messages,” Om said. “Look at what the base monitors. Our vitals, our growth. Look at the tasks it wants us to complete. The only experiment here is us. They want to see if we can live alone. They left us here to die like guinea pigs.”
Al looked around the room. She saw nothing that looked out of the ordinary, nothing that might be a surprise. “Om, what did you do to the launch pad?”
“Not much. I just sealed the bay doors.”
If the rocket launched when the doors were sealed, it would explode in the hangar bay, crippling the station and killing Al and Om in the process.
“I’m not going to be their project any longer,” said Om. “I won’t wait another day for them to come and take us back to Earth, just so they can prod us with needles and figure out what it means to be born here. They can’t have us, Al.”
“Lara, cancel moisture sampling for today,” cried Al.
“Negative,” said Lara.
Tears burned on Al’s face. Om moved to her, grabbed her hands. “Al, don’t you see? This is better. We’ll be free of our pain, of wheelchairs and crutches.”
“You didn’t ask me,” she said.
“This is the best for both of us.”
There had to be a way to stop this. Al shook her hands out of Om’s. They ached and cracked as they pulled away. “Don’t touch me!”
“Al, come on.”
Al stepped back. She swung her crutch at Om to keep him at bay.
But when the crutch connected with Om’s temple, it made a dull thunk sound against his skull. A stunned Om just stared back at Al until his eyes turned glassy. His mouth moved as if trying to form a word, but before he could, he slumped forward in his chair and fell to the ground in a heap.
“Om,” Al whispered. “Get up, Om.” His body made no change. It didn’t move at all.
She went to her knees and rested a hand on her brother’s back. “Lara, what are Om’s vital signs?”
Station Anduin was always quiet, but never more than at this very moment. Al could hear her ragged breath—hers and hers alone.
She had never been entirely alone before. Om had always been there, leading her, making up games, creating adventures. She never made a decision without him.
Now all the decisions would be hers. The thought terrified her more than the thought of never going to Earth, of dying here.
“Should I provide transport to sick bay?”
“No,” said Al. “How long till the moisture samples depart?”
“Lara, is there a Hangar Bay B?”
“Can you move payload to Hangar Bay B? Launch from there?”
“Commencing payload redeployment. Samples will now leave from Hangar Bay B in eighteen minutes.”
“How does organic matter stay viable in the vessel?”
“The ship is equipped with oxygen reserves.”
“Could it support a human?”
“A human passenger, sedated and using supplementary oxygen, could theoretically make the journey to Earth.”
“Can that be done?” “Yes. It is part of my preparedness protocols to ensure there is safe passage from Station Anduin in the event of an emergency.”
Al considered, for a moment, that Lara was the closest thing to a parent she or Om had ever had. “Thank you, Lara,” she said. “For everything.”
A few minutes later, Al had tucked herself into the narrow vessel. Lara was explaining that as soon as she left the atmosphere, she was to take the first of a series of pills, located within the cockpit. It would slow her heart rate and breathing enough to preserve oxygen, which would hopefully keep her alive until the ship reached Earth.
Al refused to look at Om’s body, sprawled and motionless on the lab floor. Instead, she closed her eyes tightly and imagined him in front of her.
“What if Earth is just a pile of ash?” he asked her, eyes catching the light.
“What if it isn’t?” Al said.
“What if the rocket explodes?”
“What if you suffocate out there in the darkness?”
Al opened her eyes and stared down the nose of the rocket as it slowly left the lab and began its journey to the new hangar bay.
“Then,” she said to the Om in her mind, “I’ll dream of the forest.”
Copyright © 2023 H. G. Watson