Defying Mars (The Saving Mars Series)
Author:Cidney Swanson

chapter 6

A PLANETARY TREASURE

The first Marsian dwellings had been round. Not for reasons to do with fashions in architecture or the whimsy of the inhabitants. The

round form was dictated, rather, by necessity. Unable in the early years to manufacture building materials upon the planet, the first

colonists brought their houses with them in rockets that were, for considerations aerodynamic, universally round.

“Go round or go ground,” early settlers advised those who lamented the limitations of the cylindrical domiciles. Digging into the

frozen surface of Mars was the other popular way to construct a dwelling. But many, even those with no previous history of

claustrophobia, found the underground dwellings unpalatable. Once a burgeoning plastics market erupted on Mars, enterprising

manufacturers of home furnishings designed objects that would fit in homes with curved walls. Thus, even after it was possible to

construct homes with four square walls, Marsians stuck to the round shape of their first homes and the pie-slice-shaped couches,

tables, and desks to fill them.

Round houses were just one of the many things Jess couldn’t wait to set eyes upon again. Over a month had passed since the

Raiders had last seen home, with its scattering of circular dwellings. At last Mars began to grow visibly larger and brighter. From a

small reddish smudge on the pilot’s view screen, the planet swelled to a faintly glowing globe of orange, and became at last the

world-sized tan and golden planet Jessamyn yearned to see. Upon the thirty-ninth Marsian-length day since their departure from

Mars, Crusty and Jessamyn donned spacesuits and clipped into harnesses for the touchdown.

Mars had never looked more beautiful to Jessamyn. Clouds dotted the thin layer of atmosphere that was growing with every passing

annum. Jess saw nary a dust storm in the planet’s northern hemisphere—the one enjoying Marsian summer. Her heart swelled.

Summer was her favorite season. She recalled her promise to try to see Mars with Pavel’s eyes.

What would you see? she wondered silently. A world warm and inviting? Cold and forbidding? Mars was both. But she remembered

Pavel’s love of his planet’s desert spaces and felt hopeful Pavel would look with a gentle eye upon her home.

Now that they had drawn close, Crusty was able to initiate radio contact with MCC.

“We’ve got quite a welcoming committee here for you, Raiders,” said the voice of the Secretary General. “The citizens of Mars

Colonial are deeply proud of your courage and accomplishments, as am I.”

Mei Lo’s voice sounded like home—like yellow skies and reddish dirt and the scent of peroxide. In the place of the anger she’d

been feeling toward the Secretary, Jess felt a rush of gratitude that Mei Lo had given her the opportunity to serve as a Mars Raider,

bringing food to last the next generation and beyond.

“We weren’t expecting this large a turnout,” said Mei Lo.

Jess felt an odd flutter in her belly. She didn’t need a large welcoming party. She didn’t need anyone but her own parents. Her mom’

s arms around her, her dad’s whisper that he knew she’d done everything she could—these were the things Jess craved. Not some

big party. She vowed to sneak away as soon as possible after touchdown.

Bringing the ship in a sweep along the Valles Marineris, Jessamyn marveled with Earth-attuned eyes at the deep chasm. The

Galleon seemed to lean forward, to feel the call of the world that had launched her.

“That’s my girl,” said Jess softly. “Almost home.”

The moment of landing, shuddering and noisy, felt to Jessamyn like an embrace, a longed-for rest, a smile upon the face of a friend.

She noticed a thrill running along her forearms as she hailed ground control.

“Mars Colonial Command, this is First Officer Jessamyn Jaarda. We request permission to disembark.”

There was no immediate answer on the comm, which Jess found odd. She’d begun unclipping herself from her harness when she

heard what at first reminded her of the bleating of Wallace’s goats, but within seconds Jess recognized it as the clamoring of

hundreds of voices.

She turned to Crusty, tapping her helmet with a resigned expression upon her face. “You hearing what I’m hearing?”

“Reckon they’re glad to see us,” said Crusty, shrugging off the last of his own harness.

Jessamyn stood and experienced a momentary disorientation—her body had reassumed its Mars weight. She felt as if she were

literally floating.

“Hmmph,” grunted Crusty, responding to his body’s lack of weight as he stood. “Guess we could’ve stood a few more adjustments

to ship’s gravity.”

Jess giggled to see the bounce in Crusty’s step. “You’re walking like a little child.”

“You were young a whole lot more recently than I was, kid,” replied the mechanic.

The buoyancy of her stride matched perfectly the buzzing sort of anticipation she felt thinking of her parents waiting for her just

outside. Holy Ares, she’d missed them.

Making no attempt to regulate her own bouncing stride, Jess followed Crusty down into the bowels of the ship, from which they

emerged onto the Marsian plain minutes later. Jess’s first thought was how dimly lit her world appeared in comparison to Earth. Her

second was that she had underestimated the number of people who had been cheering over the comm. It looked to her as if half of

New Houston had suited up for the occasion—several thousand helmeted heads were raised to greet the returning Mars Raiders.

The noise outside thundered and Jess had to adjust the volume on her helmet receiver. Forcing herself to hold her gloved hands

down at her sides, Jess resisted a momentary urge to tear off her helmet and run in the opposite direction. Like all Mars-children,

she’d read about crazy settlers who had done just that early in Mars’s colonization. She couldn’t remember what got them first—the

lack of human-friendly air pressure or the lack of breathable air. Shuddering, she made herself stand still and smile at the gathered

crowd.

Just look for Mom and Dad, she told herself.

Many of the gathered throng had placed three blue marks upon their helmets, just above their eyes. Jess only had a moment to ask

herself what it might signify before she noticed Mei Lo’s diminutive form before her. The Secretary General and CEO of Mars

Colonial held out a glove-protected hand, and Jess reached to grasp it in a clumsy handshake. A spattering of flashes marked the

moment and Jess heard Crusty’s grunt of annoyance—the two were still connected by ship’s comm. An interruptive beep-beep

informed her of the Secretary’s incoming voice over her comm.

“Welcome home, Pilot Jaarda, Payload Specialist Crustegard,” said Mars’s leader.

“It’s good to be back, Madam Secretary,” replied Crusty.

Jessamyn gave a moment’s attention to the Secretary, but then returned to her search for her parents. They had to be here. Why

hadn’t they been allowed up front where she could find them?

“Be nice if the crowd could keep it down already,” mumbled Crusty. “They’re givin’ me a headache the size of Olympus Mons.”

Jess smiled at her cranky crewmate’s remark, causing another series of flashes.

“Ain’t gonna get your face with all that light bouncing off of your helmet,” Crusty grunted. “Guess we’d best get used to it, though.”

A tall woman approached the Secretary, Jess, and Crusty and began angling the three into posed stances.

“Crusty and Jessamyn,” said Mei Lo, “I’d like you to meet my new events coordinator, Nessa Niedermaier.”

Another helmet beep-beep. “If I could just have the two of you stand to either side of the Secretary?” asked the events coordinator.

And so, rather than the homecoming Jessamyn had imagined where she rushed into the arms of her mom and dad, she found

herself being pushed, pulled, and tugged into half-an-hour’s worth of staged photographs, punctuated by Crusty’s salient grousing.

During this time, Mei Lo spoke a few brief words to the crowd in praise of the raiders and then encouraged everyone to return

home, as the crew of the Galleon would be entering Mars Colonial Command for debriefing and a health check.

“And as much as I’d love to invite all of you inside,” said Mei Lo, “I’m afraid the building would explode. We’ll have announcements

for the week’s festivities on the evening news brief.”

Jessamyn, still craning her head for any sign of her parents, heard the Secretary’s quiet sigh as she switched to communicate to the

raiders in private. “I think that went well. We certainly didn’t anticipate this kind of turnout, though. A harbinger for the days to come, I

suppose. If you’ll both follow me.”

“Madam Secretary,” said Jessamyn, “I was hoping to—that is, um …” She felt her face coloring. How did a Mars Raider tell the

planet’s CEO that she just wanted a minute with her mom and dad? “Do you know where I can find my parents?”

Mei Lo’s brow creased, but the expression was replaced almost instantly by a strained smile. “They chose to, ah, watch your arrival

from home.”

“Oh,” said Jess. Her voice sounded hollow in her helmet. She felt a tug in the space where her heart lay, a skip of its beat, a moment

of lost as if she were a child whose parents had forgotten to pick her up after school. “Okay.”

Crusty and the others had removed their helmets, and Jess realized they’d passed through the building airlock without her having

noticed. Hastily, she unlatched her own helmet and took a deep breath.

Home at last, she told herself.

Her nose twitched. The air didn’t smell right. It smelled … stale. And too dry. And breathing felt … odd, as well. Inhaling itched,

somehow. It made her feel strangely protective of her lungs, too aware of each arid breath.

Breathing wasn’t something you should have to think about.

“Get over it, Jaarda,” she murmured to herself. Of course things smelled different here than they had aboard the ship. Ship air was

notoriously poor after a couple of weeks. This air was good for her, was normal. Get over it.

During the minutes walking through MCC to the briefing room, Nessa Niedermaier kept up a steady stream of talking, addressed to

Crusty and Jess. Fortunately, she seemed to require no response.

“We’ll be taking formal portraits following the briefing with the Mars Colonial Board of Directors. Then you’ll have a ten-minute

rations break followed by a brief appearance on the evening news. Tomorrow’s schedule has already been sent to your homes, but I

’ll just mention the highlights …”

Jessamyn found herself unable to entirely ignore Nessa’s chatter. The events coordinator had a full five days of activities planned for

them, including their appearance at a memorial to honor the lost crew members, multiple photo sessions at locations around the

planet, and concluding with a special worldwide festival day.

Jess felt a tightening in her chest. She hadn’t considered the possibility that her time would not be her own during the following

week. She had plans. Plans that definitely didn’t involve flying around the world posing for hero-portraits. One thing at a time, she

told herself.

Mars Colonial Command Headquarters, which had previously seemed a sprawling complex, now struck Jessamyn as squat and

small. And drab, she added to herself, remembering the statuary and baskets of flowers which had adorned the edifices of

Budapest. She shook her head to clear the unwelcome judgments. This is home, she told herself as she slipped into the War Room.

Inside, Crusty and Jessamyn found themselves subjected to a standing ovation which the gruff mechanic put an end to with a rather

loud, “That’s enough of that. We’re just a couple of tired astronauts.”

A nervous titter scuttled about the room and Jess realized Crusty was right. She felt more tired than she could remember feeling for

a long time. And hungry. And very, very thirsty. “Any chance of a wet ration?” she murmured to the Secretary General.

“Of course,” replied Mei Lo.

Jess didn’t like the strained look still present in the Secretary’s smile, but her thoughts were soon elsewhere. During the mission

debriefing, Jess and Crusty were questioned, while being simultaneously examined by physicians whose obsequious attentions

included providing three wet rations apiece to the raiders as well as a series of injections.

Jessamyn tried to answer the questions truthfully. Yes, she had been the one who indicated to her captain that Ethan’s mental health

was sufficient for the task before him—the task which had ended in the capture of three raiders. No, once her brother had been

captured, she had not been able to communicate with him prior to his being rendered unconscious. No, she had no way of knowing

if the captain was alive or dead. She did not try to hide the fact that she had attempted to rescue her brother. And she admitted to

having been the inadvertent cause of Terran casualties as she’d fled Budapest on her desperate run back to the Galleon.

She felt, however, a certain reluctance to go into the details of her last half-hour upon Terran soil. Even Crusty knew only some of

what had transpired inside Wallace’s cottage—how the Terran Chancellor had believed Jess to be a terrorist, how Jess had

escaped with the assistance of Pavel and Brian Wallace.

The debriefing brought sharp emotions to the surface of Jessamyn’s thoughts once more. Her loss of family and friends seemed

fresh again, a raw and scraping pain as if she’d inhaled Mars-sand. A look at Crusty’s downcast eyes and tight-drawn brows told

her he shared her feelings. She was certain Crusty felt as relieved as she did when the debriefing was declared at an end.

But she was surprised and touched when Crusty turned to the Secretary, saying, “We ain’t doing no more pictures tonight. The kid

needs to see her mom and dad. Tell the news folks they can use what they already got.”

Mei Lo nodded and held a hand up to silence Nessa’s spluttering response. “That will be all for today, Nessa,” the Secretary said in

a firm voice. “Crusty, I believe your father is eagerly awaiting a visit,” she added, smiling.

“I’m sure he is,” muttered Crusty. “But first I’d like to know who you had in mind for giving the Galleon a thorough look-over.”

The Secretary smiled, and Jess was relieved to see it was a genuine smile this time.

“I take it you’d like the position?” asked Mei Lo, conspiratorially. “They’ve got your name down for a promotion to a desk job.”

Crusty laughter, low and gruff, was all the answer the Secretary needed.

“I’ll inform MCC that I’m appointing you to the Galleon instead,” she said. “Jessamyn, if I might have a word?”

Jess reached out a hand to grasp Crusty’s forearm before he left. Her face, turned from the Secretary, shot Crusty a wide-eyed

farewell.

He reached his large arms around her narrow shoulders and whispered into Jessamyn’s ear. “Don’t you fret, kid. Things’ll be back

to normal in no time.”

But Jess felt very, very alone as she watched her last remaining crewmate disappear around a corner. She was home, and she

loved her planet, but it no longer felt the same to her. What if her parents had stayed away because they didn’t want to see her?

Didn’t want the reminder of the loss of their son? She felt suddenly afraid to go home.

“You held a few things back in there,” said Mei Lo in a soft voice, bringing Jessamyn back to the present.

Jess nodded, her eyes meeting those of the Secretary without flinching.

“I want you to consider carefully the possible consequences of either telling me more or keeping it from me,” said Mei Lo. “Right

now, you need to get home, see your family, and get some sleep. Tomorrow, you and I have things to discuss. Agreed?”

Jessamyn nodded.

“I’ll send my driver for you at 09:00.”

Jess flushed. “That won’t be necessary.”

The Secretary smiled. “I’m afraid it will be. You’re a planetary treasure now, Jessamyn. There’s a driver expecting you at the front

desk as we speak. Your life will be more complex now, but I’m confident you’ll rise to the occasion.” Mei Lo gave Jess a brief hug

and turned down the hall, leaving Jessamyn nothing to do but find the chauffeur appointed for her conveyance.

On the short drive home, Jess noticed details she hadn’t paid any attention to since she was a child. She was struck by the soft glow

of New Houston, at how she could squint her eyes ‘til they were nearly shut and make the city lights flicker, candle-like. Mars’s sky

seemed to her by night a thing immensely comforting, a dark blanket draped over her form like someone tucking her into bed for the

night. Home-yearnings brought a sharp prickling to her eyes. She would not think of tomorrow or the day after. She would welcome

only this present moment, this homecoming.

The Secretary must have contacted her parents; Jess saw the familiar suited form of her father waiting beside the drive outside her

home. Automatically, she checked her own helmet—the simple action came back easily. Would it be as simple to step back inside

her family? Her heart seemed to leap its way into her throat as she made out her dad’s features.

“This is good,” she said to the driver, half-rising from her seat as the vehicle slowed and halted. “Thanks,” she cried over her

shoulder, swinging the door open. And then she was bounding, bouncing, half-flying toward to the arms of one who loved her best in

all the world, ready for that which looked and smelled and sounded and felt familiar—ready for home.

Their helmets smacked as father and daughter collided. No words were spoken, and if Jess or perhaps her father wasted the water

of a spilled tear or two, the Marsian sky, quiet and sheltering, kept the secret.

Eventually, the pair made their way through the front airlock and into the familiar round house.

“Your mother …” Jessamyn’s father broke off. “It’s been hard for her since we got the news about Ethan. She didn’t feel like she

could face the crowds at touchdown today.”

“It’s okay,” said Jess. She hadn’t enjoyed the crowds, either.

“And then, well, she fell asleep waiting for you to get home and I didn’t have the heart to wake her—”

“It’s okay,” Jessamyn heard herself repeating. It felt anything but okay that her own mom wasn’t awake to give her a hug. “I’ll see her

in the morning.”

“Jess,” said her father, frowning and looking toward the room her mother slept in.

“It’s okay, Dad. Really. I’m tired.”

Father and daughter stared at one another, unable to find words that felt as if they were the right size or shape or color.

Finally her father spoke. “It’s good to have you home, Jessie.”

The answer Jess knew she should give stuck in her throat. She couldn’t say it was good to be home when so many things felt awful

and wrong.