2

The Arvidson Prize

Story by C.A. Fichtelman

 

Martian Landscape

 

The Arvidson Prize

The trial does not last long. In fact, it’s over in a matter of minutes.

“Good day, I am Philippe Renard. I am appointed by the United Nations, sponsor of the Arvidson Prize, and have jurisdiction over this matter. Under my authority, you are currently confined to the International Space Station and are charged under UN Penal Code Sections 1983.1 through 1983.5 with armed criminal action, possession of illegal weapons–specifically AK-47s, making terrorist threats, and intent to create mayhem and rebellion on the Colony of Mars, a U.N. Protectorate. How do you plead?”

Before my Canadian inquisitor barely finishes, my defender–Willem Rutte, a Niderlant executive who was aboard the ship orbiting Mars when the U.N. ordered a shuttle to land and arrest me–explodes at the screen. “These charges are ridiculous! I’ve reviewed your so-called evidence and it shows Doctor McNamara was defending herself, her comrades, her colony. It’s preposterous!” Willy shouts.

He’s standing above my chair, by my right shoulder. I shift. Trying to get comfortable. I feel unwieldy, a bit nauseous. Yet hungry as hell.

“You do not have to shout, Monsieur Rutte. I can hear you quite well,” Renard remarks. His pale face with its halo of honey hair is serious, yet his brilliant blue eyes dazzling from the wall screen look amused. “Yes, I am here in Canada, but please, Monsieur, treat me as if I am standing right there. You as well, Doctor.”

Brimming with umbrage, Willy ignores him. “It’s still a travesty! My client is innocent,” he yells. “This trial is a sham!”

Repressing a sigh, Renard taps his monitor and orders Willy to please proceed with my case as images of Masha and Bill appear at the bottom of the screen. “We have heard from Alpha Team Doctors Pavlenko and Anders stationed at the Mars Science Laboratory,” comments the Canadian. “Others, too, with knowledge of the incident. What have you to say, Doctor McNamara? Please enlighten me,” he beseeches with those baby blues and boyish face. “I want to gather all the facts in this matter. After all, I am charged with being impartial and fair.”

Impartial? Fair? I want to scream.

So why am I handcuffed to this chair? My swollen ankles shackled like a sheep ready for shearing? An armed guard directly behind me? I’m on the ISS, for chrissakes! Where am I going to run? Back to Mars?

#

Dusk is falling. The magenta sky streaked with indigo. Soon stars will litter the skyscape through the thin Martian atmosphere. I turn towards my companion, who is dusting off the solar panels, and ask my question once again. More urgent this time.

“Are you certain it will arrive, Ivan? Did you give Greta the correct coordinates?”

“Yes, Celia, I am certain,” his husky voice rumbles. “Our connections to Baikonur and the Kazakhs are good despite their revolution. You worry too much.”

“Well, I can’t help it,” I retort. “I still feel guilty about Masha and Bill. You know that.”

“Yes, I know. But why?” he rebuts. “We all knew the risks. Signed consent forms and waivers. It is not your fault what happened. Stop brooding,” he bullies. Like most medical doctors, Ivan has no bedside manners, brusque and straight to the point. No sugarcoating. Or perhaps it’s his Russianness that makes him that way?

“Okay, I’ll try,” I relent, surrendering to my superior. What’s the use of belaboring the point? Except… “Ivan? The supplies are coming soon, right?” I ask once again.

“You worry too much,” he chides. “As I said, supplies will be here. Everything you ordered: water, food, lab equipment, extra solar panels for generating electricity. Weapons, too.”

Did he say weapons?

From our vantage point atop the western rim of Endeavour Crater, we gaze across Meridiani Plain, our bodies cocooned in an oxygenated shell of Kwolek, a lightweight polymer fabric named after its female Polish-American inventor specifically designed to protect us against the harsh, hostile Martian environment. Despite being tested at the Mojave Desert training facility, the fabric can still experience on-site fatigue problems. But that doesn’t worry me. Ivan’s last words do, however.

“Weapons!?” I exclaim. “I didn’t order weapons. They’re not even on our basic equipment list. In fact, I don’t think any teams’ BEL allows armaments.”

“Yes, I know,” he snaps. “It’s my job.”

His job. As chief of Beta Team, Ivan signs off on everything at our Pillinger Point colony, plus performing his own research project and filing weekly reports with our sponsor, Niderlant Pharmaceuticals, a drug company based in Rotterdam. It recruited all six Beta Team members. With dual degrees in pharmacy and chemistry, I’m Niderlant’s biogeochemist, phytochemist and payload procurement officer. It found me at its sub-sidiary in St. Louis, working on a joint project with the Missouri Botanical Garden.

The other two teams–Alpha with its American, German, and Japanese university scientists at nearby Mars Science Laboratory and Chinese-mining-company- sponsored Gamma based along the Tharsis Bulge–and their colonists also have other duties in addition to their research projects. Research projects to capture the Arvidson Prize, named after an early Mars Rover scientist and funded by the United Nations, honoring the best colony. It’s worth billions! For sponsor and the team members.

So winning the Arvidson Prize weighs on my mind when I remark, “I know you’re in charge of colony security, Ivan, but weapons? Won’t the U.N. frown on that?

Anyway, we really don’t know how any of this happened,” I declare, referring to a recent spate of damage inflicted on our domed habitat and outbuildings. Minor damage, but Ivan finds it troubling.   He suspects nearby Alpha Team of sabotage.

“As you say, security,” Ivan huffs and gestures me to follow and help him inspect the rest of our dwellings.

As I track behind Ivan the rocky soil, however, I can’t help but dwell upon what’s happened since arriving on the Red Planet. Why Ivan doesn’t trust the other teams, especially Alpha. Also why I feel so guilty about what happened with Masha and Bill.

The mess all started in the Mojave Desert, the mission training venue. Since Niderlant wanted only mixed-sex couples, who either practiced medicine or worked in the pharma industry, they selected Ivan and Masha, Greta and Aboud, and finally Bill and myself. We still had to train alongside and cooperate with Alpha and Gamma Team members. And cooperation meant, according to U.N. rules, not only while on Earth but also once we landed on Mars.

After appointing Ivan, a former Russian Army major, as leader of Beta Team for our Pillinger Point colony, company execs selected Bill to be Alpha Team liaison. It made sense: Bill had earned his MD/PhD at Washington University in St. Louis, one of the academic institutions sponsoring Alpha Team members. However, Ivan vetoed the idea; he demanded someone more neutral, less connected to the Alphans. So the task fell to Masha, his Moscow-born-and-bred scientist wife. Greta van Gaal, our Dutch micro-biologist, was already appointed to be in charge of colony communications and her Nigerian-born partner, research and ob/gyn Doctor Aboud Nassif, the Gamma Team liaison. And because I was to be payload specialist once on Mars, Bill became colony domestic engineer. Our housekeeper.

Bill felt humiliated. And emasculated. “Christ, Celia,” he had grumped, “it’s bad enough that Russian is team leader, but being responsible for the minutia of running a household! Cooking and toilets and fresh water and air recycling! Scut work!”

“But, Bill, it’s important! You know that!” I had exclaimed with enthusiasm, trying to pump up his deflated male ego. “You’re essential to the team!”

“Yeah, sure, it’s important,” he had groused, “yet it’s still degrading.”

He kept bitching in private. What little private time they gave us. But I ignored it. After all, I was too busy training and preparing for the seven-month-long space flight. Too busy to notice how much time Bill and Masha–lovely, vivacious, flirty, redheaded Masha–spent together. My fault, I guess. I believed the two team members were just friends.   Stupid me! As they say, The wife is always the last one to know.

“You know, Celia,” declares Ivan, interrupting my bleak thoughts as we prepare to inspect my greenhouse, “it is much safer to obey than to rule. Yes?”

“Really? Who said that? Ivan Dmitrich Levin?” I reply, caustically.

He snickers at my sarcasm. “No, Thomas a Kempis. A German philosopher and clergyman. That’s why I added weapons to your list. Earth is very far away and someday we must cut the umbilical cord. The infant must breathe and eat and grow on its own. It might not be easy, but we must learn to protect ourselves.”

Naturally, he uses a baby analogy. He’s a pediatrician. Also trained as a surgeon after joining the Russian Army. Perhaps it’s his military background– the hatred for the enemy, traitors, defectors–that explains his animosity towards Alpha Team. Or maybe it’s just that historical Russian hatred for Germans. Yet he doesn’t seem to miss Masha. As for me missing Bill, well, it wasn’t exactly a love match. Niderlant specifically recruited me to be Bill’s partner for this mission…

“Back to dacha,” Ivan suddenly commands, interrupting our inspection. “A dust storm is coming. Quickly.”

Da,” I reply and obediently follow my leader back to Dom Snega: Russian for Snow House.

#

After stowing our safety suits in the enclosed entryway, we enter Dom Snega proper and go our separate ways. Ivan to take a nap. While I visit Greta and Aboud, before going back out to my greenhouse, once the dust storm abates.

It’s cozy. Like a lakeside cabin. A constant comfortable 20°C per Ivan’s fiat. Comprised of blocks and mortar made from gypsum, a mineral native to the Red Planet, our colony is coated on the outside with a thin veneer of liquid Kwolek, a high heat resistant material. In fact, the entire 1200 square feet–ground level space for research, labs, kitchenette, water closet; upper level with three bedrooms and a lounge area–is composed of lightweight snowy white gypsum blocks.

When we landed in 2050, over a year ago, Beta Team lived aboard the ship while laborers built our compound per Ivan’s instructions. Bill, as domestic engineer, also had a hand in construction. He helped install the device converting carbon dioxide into oxygen for our living quarters, build my greenhouse, had extra rocket fuel for future use stored in one of our storage sheds before Niderlant’s laborers shipped back to Earth.

I thought Bill was happy, or at least content. That is until he went with Masha, our Alpha liaison, for a visit there; they never returned. That was six months ago.

Of course, Ivan reported their defection to Niderlant and the UN, after first setting up a mediation at Alpha Colony. He wanted to give Masha and Bill the benefit of the doubt. When he had returned from that dark visit, he didn’t say much. Gloomy, morose, he only complained how the Alphans lived and worked in one large open area. It sounded to me akin to a Native American lodge: a logan.

“How can they live like that?” he had sputtered, gesturing to our three roomy sleeping pods on the second level, each separated by movable gypsum walls. “No privacy. They sleep together in one big mass. Like bears in a cave!”

Gazing now at Greta and Aboud working side-by-side at the lab table, I couldn’t agree more. This necessity for privacy. I certainly couldn’t copulate in public, even if it took place completely in the dark and under the covers. Maybe that’s why Beta Team is winning the race for the Arvidson Prize, despite our being two members down. Green-eyed, creamy-skinned Greta, her long blonde hair pulled back and clipped with a clamp; handsome, dark-skinned Aboud with his bushy black beard. They’re history makers.

What a pretty pair they make, I think, watching Aboud whisper something to Greta and she chortles in response, touching his face. Oblivious of my presence. Obviously they’ve forgotten I’m here. Suppressing feelings of jealousy, I loudly clear my throat and remark, “How’s it going, you two? Still nauseous, Greta?”

Baby bump protruding under her lab coat, she looks at me and grins. “I am fine. Perfect,” she trills.

“Of course, you are,” I agree. “The mother of the first baby to be born on Mars has to be a perfect specimen. You, too, Aboud,” I add with a smile, not meaning to overlook his contribution to Beta’s shot at capturing the Arvidson Prize.

“Thank you, Celia,” he beams, patting Greta’s belly. “As far as I know, Gamma Team is still barren, at least according to my last contact…”

“Wasn’t that weeks ago?” I interject with a worried frown. “Couldn’t there be a pregnancy by now?”

Shiny black brow puckering in concern, Aboud nods. “True, but I believe their liaison would shout it from the rafters, crowing like a bantam rooster if that were the case. As for Alpha, well, we all know how Ivan the Terrible feels about them.”

We fall silent for a moment. Aboud began referring to our team leader as Ivan the Terrible, a medieval Russian ruler with a reputation for cruelty, shortly after Bill and Masha defected. In Russian it is Tsar Ivan Grozn’i. But I’m learning the language and discover grozn’i means formidable, powerful, great.

Certainly our Ivan sometimes acts like tyrant, yet he’s kept our spirits from flagging, our eyes on the prize. Despite our sponsor’s directive, he still refuses to appoint another Alpha Team liaison, denying their liaison access to our premises, prohibiting all contact and communication with them. So it is possible someone there is with child…

“Well, Ivan has good reason to cease contact with Alpha Colony,” I assert, defending our chief. “Anyway, even if someone at Alpha is pregnant by now, you’re still the first, Greta. That’s still an accomplishment.”

Greta grins. “Yes, it is. And that means more points towards the Arvidson Prize. Plus the privilege of publishing the first paper.”

“Even more points,” says Aboud.

“Those Alpha academics will hate that,” I laugh. “You get the first paper and the baby. You both certainly deserve it.”

Emerald eyes glittering with gratitude, Greta kisses my cheek. “Thank you, Celia. Someday soon you, too, will have a child. Don’t forget our offer,” she murmurs.

Sneaking a peek at Aboud, deeply focused on his work and ignoring this part of the conversation, I reply, “Yes, I won’t forget. Maybe I won’t feel so useless, then.”

“How can you say that? You are a genius. Look at your plants!”

“I’ve been lucky. Now, you, get back to work. That’s an order!”

“Yes, Tsarina,” she giggles. “You’re worse than Ivan.”

#

Leaving my comrades deep in research, I amble into the kitchenette, grab some bottled water and a tin of protein and wait for the dust storm to abate before donning my safety suit and plunging back out into the Martian landscape. It’ll be nightfall soon. So I must see my babies–twice a day at least!–before Ivan’s strict curfew forces me back to the safe confines of Dom Snega.

Padding through the thick rust-colored dust, I reach the greenhouse and feel the fresh whoosh of oxygenated air from the CO2 converter as I take off my safety helmet and suit and lose myself in work. Focus on my flora. My medicinal plants and herbs.   Stooping over my beds of Digitalis purpurea, Lavandula angustifolia, Pyrola minor–foxglove, lavender, wintergreen–I lovingly care for my plants flourishing from the Martian soil. I’m growing life here. Indeed, I’ve discovered it is possible to grow life in this soil: a soil rich in iron-bearing smectite. And smectite happens to be a biomarker for an ancient wet environment. Water. There is water on Mars.

Maybe I’m not so useless after all…

Later, though, alone in my room, I’m not so sure. Things always seem worse at night. I begin brooding. About things. Wondering if I should take Greta and Aboud up on their offer. Worrying if Niderlant will replace me with another couple. Anxious if I’m doing enough to gain points for The Arvidson Prize.

Yes, I fixate too much, as Ivan says. So much so that sleep eludes me. Maybe I should take some of my medicinals? Some cannabis? Perhaps an infusion of Primula vulgaris? Primrose is a sedative known to induce relaxation, hence sleep.

Yet I’m paralyzed. Not sure what to do…

“May I enter?” rasps a deep voice just outside my bedroom door.

“What is it?” I demand, a bit abrupt as Ivan pokes his shaggy head into my room. “Is it Greta? Is she bleeding again?” I had been prescribing Ichemilla vulgaris—other- wise known as Lady’s Mantle—to stop her spotting, help prevent a miscarriage.

“Greta is fine,” he affirms. “The baby, too. May I?” he asks and lowers himself onto the edge of my bed and continues. “There is news from our sponsor.”

“Oh?” I murmur, sitting up crossed-legged on top of the covers clad only in a tee and boxer shorts. “I thought there’s a blackout. Solar flare or something, Greta said.”

Nyet,” he replies and continues po russkii until the blank look in my eyes forces him back to English. “Really, Celia, you must learn,” he admonishes, exasperated. “It is for your own good.”

“Yes, Ivan. The news?”

“A ship is arriving. Left three months ago. From Baikonur.”

“Good! And the supplies I ordered? All the baby stuff?” I fret, forgetting for the moment the weapons he added to my procurement list.

“You worry too much,” he scolds. “Supplies are coming. Also two more colonists. Botanist and chemist. That’s the big news,” he scowls.

So why is he scowling? Shouldn’t he be happy?

Then it hits like a meteor strike. Niderlant is kicking me out of Eden. l’ll have to abandon everything: plants, research, comrades, all those years of preparation. “Oh, I see,” I mutter, feeling like a complete failure. Bill’s perfidy seems like a minor blip in comparison. “So a botanist and chemist, you say…”

“Precisely. Of course, they will need this room.”

“Of course,” I agree, trying not to blubber. “But I don’t have to pack up right away, do I? I’ve still got four months before I have to leave, right?”

“Leave?” repeats Ivan. “No, Celia, you are not leaving,” he declares, his scowl softening. “You are moving into my room. If you wish. Do you wish?” he asks, almost pleading, a trace of tenderness in his gruff voice.  It isn’t romantic. Very practical, in fact. Besides, I’m not here for romance and we’ll be a team of six once again.

Da, Vanya,” I utter, using his nickname for the first time. “Ochen’ khorosho.”

“Brava,” he says, then bestows upon me the rarest of Russian gifts: a smile.

#

With the payload due any day, Dom Snega is a whirlwind of activity. Niderlant’s ship already is in orbit. However, because a U.N. official is secretly aboard taking reconnaissance photos of each colony’s external development, our cargo–human and nonhuman–will land via delivery capsule. So Beta Team is busy anticipating the arrival of our newest team members and with our usual tasks.

Ivan, in particular, is extremely busy. There’s Adam ibn Aboud van Gaal to care for; he’s writing a paper on the baby’s birth and development in low gravity; and, as team leader, preparing for the new colonists.  Right now, though, he’s lugging wastes from the WC through the tunnel connecting Dom Snega to my greenhouse, so I can fertilize my plants. A tunnel he designed and built. Less exposure and risk to radiation for me. Safer that way, he asserts.

“Tell me where to put this muck,” he grouses, holding up two buckets of manure, anxious to get back to his ever-multiplying duties.

“Right there. Perfect,” I proclaim as he plunks down both pails. “Now you can get back to work.”

But he doesn’t budge. “Put on your gloves. Your hat and goggles, too,” he insists, his muscular arms crossed against his chest, waiting while I obey his orders.

“There now. Happy?” I smile, properly attired.

Apparently not. He points to the unoxygenated portion of the greenhouse, my control section for research purposes, and exhorts, “Wear your oxygen mask. No more foolishness. Understand?”

He’s such a tyrant sometimes, yet he means well. Very protective. “Da, Vanya,” I sigh, giving his cheek a little pat as if indulging a petulant child. “Understood. Now go. Shoo! Back to work!”

But he’s not buying it. Clasping my wrists, he draws me closer. “I mean it, Celia. No risks. I cannot lose you. Or the baby.”

“Of course. We have the Arvidson Prize to consider.”

“Fuck the Arvidson Prize,” he grumbles, drawing me close despite my growing girth. “You are more important. Remember that.”

Flustered by his overt show of affection, I feel myself flush. “I love you, too, Vanya.”

“Well, enough,” he finally rasps and reluctantly releases me. “Back to work, as you say. I must check on Baby Adam, then prepare for the Italian and Spaniard,” he remarks, referencing our new team members; ever since receiving their dossiers, Ivan has been referring to them by their nationalities. “Let’s hope they’ve been briefed well,” he rumbles, a morose look crossing his bearded face.

“Who’s worrying now?” I gently reprimand. “I’m sure things’ll be fine.”

Three days later, our payload arrives: supplies and the new Betans. After some of the household items are unloaded into Dom Snega proper, I see to it the rest of the crated supplies are offloaded into the storage sheds. I’ll check off these items from my BEL over the next couple of days. First, per Ivan’s instructions, we are throwing a welcome-wagon party for the newbies.

“It’s very nice. Your Dom Snega,” comments the Italian, otherwise known as Doctor Alessandro Rimini. We’re on the livingroom floor, lounging on pillows and blankets. Relaxing. Getting acquainted. “Very cozy, too,” he beams, looking around.

“Very cozy, indeed,” agrees Ivan, cordial.

He’s being the hospitable Russian host, pouring vodka, passing around the zakuska plate piled high with hard cheeses, dried fruits, cured meats and crackers. Of course, I’m not ingesting liquor. Neither is Greta, a nursing mother. I’m drinking a lavender-pennyroyal concoction to ease my nausea, my gestational high blood pressure. Greta, per my advice, is downing fruit juice infused with chamomile and golden rod. To boost her energy and treat painful menstrual cramps.

“Cozy?” squawks the Spaniard, Doctor Arabela Ayala, a nut-brown bird of a woman sporting feathery raven-black, shoulder-length hair. “I’d say small. Very small,” she complains. “A pity. Alpha’s habitat is quite large. Very commodious, according to the pictures I’ve seen.”

“More vodka?” is Ivan’s amiable response.

However, I detect a suspicious squint in his gray eyes as he pours. Glancing at Greta and Aboud, I notice they’ve seen it, too. We know what that means. He’d been planning on appointing her Alpha liaison, finally conceding Niderlant’s demands, but she can kiss that position good-bye. Looks like the Italian botanist, a pale ghost of a man with wispy whiskers, is the new liaison. Leaving his chemist wife as our housekeeper. I have a feeling she’s going to go ballistic like Bill did.

Great, a prima donna

Ivan the Terrible, nevertheless, stays mellow. Ignoring the Spaniard’s gaffe for the time being, he hoists his glass skyward and toasts, “To Sasha and Belya! Zdorov’e!”

Zdorov’e!” we echo, clinking vodka glasses.

A minor crisis averted, the rest of the evening proceeds smoothly. Vodka is poured. Some wine is uncorked. We drink. We eat. We chatter.  Conversation ebbs and flows. We talk about everything and nothing. From the best meal on Earth, to the most beautiful spot in the galaxy.

When it’s Ivan’s turn, he surprises me. Normally, very taciturn and reserved, he’s quite loquacious, waxing poetic about Lake Baikal and his hometown of Irkutsk, located in the Russian region of Siberia. But then, he boasts about the best place of all; a place called Copper Harbor in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on the shores of Lake Superior.

“I was visiting friends in Chicago. They took me there for a long weekend,” he explains.

“Really?” I exclaim.

He never told me that. I used to spend summers west of there in Wisconsin, camping on Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. I’m ready to blurt this out when Greta returns, carrying her four-month-old son.   Of course, all eyes fixate on his smooth cocoa- colored skin, his shiny black curly hair.

“Ah, such a lovely child,” coos Alessandro. “Such milk cheeks! Wait? Didn’t I see baby food packed among the supplies? Let me find it for you!”

“No solid food. Not yet,” Ivan asserts, adding quite firmly, “Celia is our payload specialist, so it is her job to handle all supplies. Business tomorrow. Tonight, everyone just relax. That’s an order,” he commands, but with a grin.

“Of course. As you wish,” agrees Alessandro and turns his attention to me. “How are you feeling? Everything is going smoothly?” he asks, referring to my pregnancy.

Naturally, I’m flattered by his attention. So I begin blathering on and on about this and that, the herbal remedies I’m studying. However, when I observe Arabela’s glittering onyx orbs homing in on me like lasers, I realize she’s going to bombard me with questions. Unnecessary questions, my intuition tells me, because Niderlant executives failed to brief them properly.

“Celia, I do not understand,” she chirps. “Did you take Doctor Masha Pavlenko’s place? Wasn’t Doctor William Anders your partner? Very smart. I met him at a–”

“Doctor McNamara is an original Beta colonist. She is nobody’s replacement,” Ivan abruptly interjects, fixing a furious cold gray eye on her; he’s barely repressing his rage. “As for Pavlenko and Anders,” he continues, acerbic, “they are with Alpha Team now. The transfer was approved, eventually.”

“Transfers are allowed?” she twitters, dark ambition burning so bright in her eyes, she’s blind to Ivan’s simmering volcanic fury. “That is good news! And the points they earned for the Arvidson Prize? Transferable as well?”

I can see the words, Fuck the Arvidson Prize, forming on Ivan’s lips.

“Enough, Arabela,” her husband coaxes. “Ivan…I mean Doctor Levin…said business tomorrow. Yes? Tonight is for relaxation. For good cheer. Bonhomie.”

But it’s too late. The mood is spoiled. All of our levity evaporated, vanished in a whoosh like a burst balloon. Although the Italian and Spaniard still appear cheerful, a gloom settles over the rest of us. It doesn’t take long for our convivial host to revert to Ivan the Terrible. With an imperious sweep of his arm, he dictates lights out. Everyone to bed. Immediately!

So while Ivan dons his safety suit to make his nightly security rounds outside, we trudge upstairs. The Italian and Spaniard go first. Greta, carrying the baby, and Aboud next. I’m at the tail end of the flock, trailing just behind Aboud. Looking over his shoulder, he whispers to me, “It’s much safer to be feared than loved, don’t you think?”

Obviously, he’s referring to Ivan. “Who said that?” I snark, defensive. “Aboud Nassif the Great?”

“No. Machiavelli…”

#

Exhausted, I fall asleep immediately. Too tired to stew over Aboud’s words. Or fret about Arabela’s Alpha favoritism. Even worry to wait up for Ivan. It’s the pregnancy coupled with the acute social stimulation that’s fatiguing. So I’m deep in a slumber, dreaming of crimson lakes, sea-green mountains, saffron shifting sand dunes, when Ivan returns.

I don’t even hear or feel him until a whispering curse of, “Chyortovo!” rasps near my ear as the bedding shifts and a warm furry body glides next to mine.

“Ivan, are you okay?” I muffle, half-asleep.

“Yes, yes. Go back to sleep,” he mutters and slides his right arm protectively over my body. “You, too, little Katya,” he declares, patting my burgeoning belly. “Katyshka. Good night.”

Content, I sigh and start to drift off to sleep. Yet I can’t. Something’s bothering Ivan. I can tell. His breathing should be soft and shallow. His jaw relaxed, not clenched against my back rigid as a rock. “Vanya, what is it?” I demand. “What’s wrong?”

Silence. Then: “You worry too much. Go to sleep.”

“So why were you cursing,” I gently retort. “I know all your curse words. Is it Alpha Team?” I guess and tension tightens his jaw even more.

“Yes,” he rasps, exasperated, “and I must send the Italian…”

“So send the Italian,” I urge. “Make Niderlant and the U.N. happy. Okay?”

“Yes, I know. And that’s why I must go. Alone. I must confront them.”

“Why?” I sputter, suddenly afraid. “What happened, Ivan?”

Wrapping me tightly in his arms, he explains. “Because your greenhouse is destroyed, my darling. Enough of this shit. I must confront them tomorrow!”

Of course, Ivan confronts Alpha Team. Though Alpha trails by a slim margin– 109.5 to our 110.5 with Gamma at 105.3 points–according to UN preliminary data, the academics can’t help but resort to poaching, sabotage and dirty tricks to gain advantage. Why? If they exerted that energy for more positive outcomes, they could easily overtake Beta. Still. I do not understand it. Cannot fathom this depth of ambition that leads someone to lie or cheat or steal to win. Yet maybe I’m just too passive. Too ready to abide by the rules. So I obey Ivan and do not follow…

#

“Doctor McNamara?” a voice interrupts my thoughts. “Nothing to say? Add?”

Willy, buzzing around me like a pesky fly, urges silence. “Do not trust him.”

Why should I trust this Renard with his gleaming grin and golden visage? I do not trust anyone anymore. Greta and Aboud. The Italian or the Spaniard. The Chinese mining executive who informed me of Ivan’s imprisonment. All those scheming, cut-throat academics. So, I remain silent.

“You realize, Doctor McNamara,” Philippe Renard utters, “your silence will be interpreted as acquiescence. Silence means consent. You affirm these charges? Dispute or contradict any of the sworn testimony and depositions?”

“I affirm nothing,” I say, making Willy nervous. “Dispute or contradict nothing.”

Why should I? They all lied. Or recanted. Saved their hides to remain on Mars. Everyone testified against me. Except Ivan. And I haven’t seen or heard from him since I stormed into Alpha Colony and found him drugged and trussed up like an animal ready for slaughter. Rescued him and took him back to Dom Snega where I was arrested a short time later.

“Nothing at all?” Renard pushes, puzzled.

“Except this: Where is Ivan? Doctor Levin?” I demand with force.

“Somewhere safe,” assures Renard, a smile hovering over his full lips.

“What does that mean? Is he still on Mars?”

Renard grins as if he has a great big secret. “As I said, Doctor Levin is somewhere safe. Is there anything else? You are not curious about the status of the Arvidson Prize?”

I glance at Willy, before answering. “The Arvidson Prize? Fuck the Arvidson Prize.” Willy looks horrified.

My inquisitor, though, thinks this is funny. “Well, I understand your animosity,” he chuckles. “The point count, I am happy to say, is the same as when you left. Yet that might change, depending on the outcome of this investigation. Your greenhouse, for instance, damaged by a meteorite strike? If so, then points will be deducted–”

“What? That’s impossible,” I shout, almost jumping out of my chair, despite being shackled and huge as a boulder.

“Where is your evidence, Monsieur Renard?” demands Willy. “What other colonists have said? I demand physical proof. Not what some perjured Alphan claims; the very same colonists I accuse of destroying my client’s research.”

“And what if I tell you Doctor Levin is the source of such information?”

“I would say you are a–”

But I yank Willy by his elbow, disrupting his speech. Liar, he meant to yell. Instead, I whisper for Willy to request a recess. We must hash this out. Shaken, I must regain my composure in private, away from Renard’s prying eyes. Oh, I have no doubt my inquisitor is lying; this is some type of ploy to get me to speak. Yet…I must think this through…for all I can see or hear right now is Ivan asking me to be with him. Move into his room. Do you wish? I hear his plea.

So we recess. Making sure transmission is cut, that Renard cannot overhear our conferencing, Willy listens to me once more. I recall all that happened, from recruitment to training to landing on Mars, so to make certain I haven’t forgotten anything. We go over the day the Italian and Spaniard arrived. When Ivan discovered the damage to the greenhouse that very night and trekked to Alpha Colony the next day to confront them.

“Tell me once again, Celia, what Ivan said?” Willy asks. “What he saw?”

So I mention again the broken glass, shattered as if by hammer blows. Plants uprooted and trampled. “I saw it myself, Willy. Inspected the damage after Ivan had left. I told him to take the Italian, but he refused. So when he didn’t return and Alpha refused our transmissions, Greta contacted Gamma. Naturally, they’ve since recanted their testimony about Ivan being taken prisoner. Oh, no, he defected, they claimed. I know Ivan hates defectors. Traitors. Such a lie!”

“It is too bad Doctors Ayala and Rimini cannot back up your assertions,” Willy laments, adding, “They seemed like such good, honest people. We had dinner together before they left the Niderlant ship, Vermeer Prime, for Beta Colony. Just us four. Oh, and the U.N. official. Five, it was.”

“The U.N official?”

“Yes, the photographer compiling data for the Arvidson…”

Willy doesn’t finish his sentence. He doesn’t need to. We have discovered a source for evidence regarding the destruction of my greenhouse. Meteor strike my ass!

#

I’m standing on the northern shores of Lake Superior: Thunder Bay, Ontario, to be exact. It’s the Canadian side of the lake. Philippe Renard lives here. Rather, his vacation home is here. He also has a pied-à-terre in New York City near the U.N. We are gazing southward toward Isle Royale, and Philippe is instructing us what to do. Of course, Katya doesn’t care; she’s busy squirming like a puppy, wanting me to put her down so she can walk. Walk! And only ten-months-old at that!

“Take a fishing trawler and stay the night at Blake Point. Then in the morning proceed by ferry to Copper Harbor. No need to pay. I have taken care of everything,” he smiles as Katya and I depart.

Philippe is not so bad. In fact, he’s older, more likeable, in person. Anyway, he is my parole officer, so it’s better I obey him. Much safer that way. Willy was able to get all of the charges dismissed against me. Except possession of weapons. So I’ve been banned from Mars and put on probation. I’m supposed to check in with Philippe once a month. Oh, well. I never admitted to anything, yet I did besiege Alpha Colony with those Ak-47s.

The small inn at Blake Point is really a fishing shack. But it’s not so bad. The next day, though, I disembark at the dock by Copper Harbor Lighthouse, Katya clutched in my arms, and search for him. Where is he? He’s supposed to meet us here! So I place Katya, jabbering away in her Russo-Anglo patois, on terra firma and watch her speed away along the shoreline on those sturdy little legs, her straw-colored curls bouncing in the wind. I follow. Inhaling the damp fresh air. Laughing at the swooping shore birds. Enjoying my daughter pointing and squealing in delight at everything.

And there he is. Ivan. He’s dressed like a fisherman: cap and cable-knit sweater and scruffy trousers and boots. And the russet-colored beard is gone. I never realized how handsome he looked. As if she’s known him all her short life, Katya trundles straight for his legs and grabs him. He scoops her up, than embraces me.

“You are here, you are here,” he rumbles, squeezing us in a bear hug so tight we can’t breathe. I’ve never seen him so delirious with joy. Smothering Katya with kisses, she squeals and demands, Down, down, but in Russian. As she chases some birds, Ivan takes the travel satchel from me and wraps a muscular arm around my waist. “She is very lively, that one,” he comments as we stroll side-by-side. “Better in person, yes?”

Katya tended to be very shy when seeing and speaking with her father via the satellite hook-up. First, from Philippe’s Thunder Bay home, where he’d been staying since leaving Mars, and then from the Copper Harbor cabin. “Oh, you’ll be finding out soon enough,” I laugh. “Very demanding and forceful like her father.”

“And her mother,” he retorts. Then before I can get another word in edgewise, he gruffly chides, “I told you not to follow. Niderlant or the U.N would have seen to my rescue. Ochen’ glypii.” He admonishes, adding, “Very dangerous.”

“Yes, Vanya, I know what it means,” I answer and leave it at that.

After we settle into our lakeside cabin and father and daughter get better acquainted, I’ll have time to tell him what happened. How I didn’t believe he defected. How I searched for those damned weapons he ordered, finally finding them boxed in a crate bearing Cyrillic letters: КАЛАШНИКОВ ВОДА. Kalashnikov Water. AK-47s.

“You see, Vanya,” I’ll boast, “I know Russian quite well…”

END

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C.A. Fichtelman

C.A. Fichtelman is a legal editor whose short stories have appeared in print and online magazines, including Dream Fantasy International, The Wisconsin Review, Liternational.com, and Teleport Magazine. She is a member of the Missouri Writers Guild, Northern Colorado Writers, BroadUniverse, and the Writers-Editors Network and currently resides in St. Louis.

2 Comments

  1. Good story. Overlapping the different time sequences of the story really drew me in and added to the suspense. I was curious to learn more about this future society. I was hoping for more about the Alpha team’s motives. They were pretty rogue scientisrs.

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