Whoever came up with the idiom you can never go home again had grown up somewhere very far from Mars.
No matter how long she was away, whenever she came back, the place was just as she’d left it. Sure, sometimes there were different crops growing in the fields where she’d spent her youth, or the striders in the barn broke down and were replaced by marginally newer models, or there was a different family making a go of it on the rocky soil two farms over. But every time she went home there was that familiar chill in the air, and that familiar grit in the back of her throat, and the knowledge that the stars were above her and she’d get up to them sometime soon.
The terraforming of Mars had been humanity’s most ambitious engineering project, right up until the species ran into the Coalition and learned how to travel faster than light. All of a sudden, migrating to earthlike worlds in other solar systems had seemed far more appealing than continuing the backbreaking work of turning Mars into humanity’s second home planet. Martian air was breathable, and Martian soil could produce crops with some coaxing, but it was nothing more than a convenient spot to produce the food that overcrowded Earth needed to survive.
And they’d need it more than ever now, with the growing season disrupted by the bombing. Nyx had kept an eye on the news as they’d approached the Sol system. They’d missed the first skirmishes, ships clashing in the vast expanse of space between humanity’s home and Epsilon Eridani. Neither side seemed interested in negotiating just yet.
Sera set the Benevolence down on a field that was lying fallow, waiting for a fresh bout of fertilizing. The firing chemical thrusters kicked up a flurry of red dust as the ship settled into place. Nyx was the first to step off, before the cloud had drifted back down. She bounced on the soles of her feet, adjusting to the lighter Martian gravity, then set off for the house two fields over.
The rest of the crew straggled out behind her. Nyx paused on top of a gentle rise to watch them getting their bearings. Jianyu and Mirelle were unsteady on their feet, still adjusting to bodies that weighed far less on Mars. Sera strode confidently in low gravity. Weyland and Flowers moved cautiously but competently over unfamiliar terrain, and Xrrt scuttled along with more than her usual care, digging her claws deep in the soil. If they had uniforms now they’d look like a real Coalition crew on a mission. Nyx didn’t bother suppressing a smile at that thought. Even in uniform, they were going to be a strange lot.
The house she’d grown up in had a fresh coat of paint. White, yet again. Her parents had always had more hope than common sense. They were both standing in the front yard to greet her, Mom with her usual grimy bandanna tied around her neck, Mama in a freshly washed blue dress. Nyx jogged the last few steps to them, kicking up little puffs of dry soil, and was enveloped in a hug by both women at the same time.
Martians aged slowly. The planet had a tendency of creating a strange sort of stasis: the low gravity, the simple vegetable-rich diets, the robust radiation protection of the carefully engineered atmosphere. Nyx hadn’t been back in over two years, but it still felt like she’d only just returned from a trip to the city.
The crew was coming into the yard. Nyx introduced them, and each got a nod from Mom and a warm hug from Mama. Xrrt’s anatomy gave Mama some trouble, as it always did, but she put her arms around the Centaurian’s thorax anyway, and Xrrt rested her more delicate foreclaws on Mama’s shoulder. “Are you keeping her out of trouble?” Mama asked.
“I am following her when she makes trouble,” Xrrt said, after some mandible clicking. Mama laughed and patted her on her carapace.
The farmhouse was big enough to fit the whole crew for a meal, although they’d be sleeping in the ship. Nyx gave instructions for the days ahead: Jianyu would handle picking up some surplus uniforms in Uchronia City if he felt up to it, Sera would modify the Benevolence’s dilapidated paint job to make the old ship look a little more like a Coalition vessel, and the rest of the crew would help load the food they were taking to earth. Weyland, to her surprise, raised his hand and asked if he could have time off to visit a friend. Nyx gave him permission. He’d never mentioned having a friend on Mars; he’d never discussed having any life outside his work on the Benevolence. She supposed a little leave was the least she could do for him.
The message she’d sent home had only preceded the ship by a few days, and her parents’ noncommittal reply had only come back as the Benevolence was coming out of its faster-than-light run. While the crew served themselves seconds, her parents took her outside for the final stages of the negotiation.
“It’s not that I’m against sending food to Earth,” Mom said as they leaned against the fence and looked out over the fields. Harvest season was coming to an end, and bare red dirt showed through the long stretches of ground that had held genetically engineered wheat and corn. “The price you’re offering is fair. I just don’t understand where you’re getting the money.”
“I’ve got a client. Someone who wants to help out,” said Nyx.
Mama put a hand on her back, warm despite the air’s chill. “But all this with the uniforms, and your ship? It’s strange. Why can’t this client let you do some good on your own, just being who you really are?”
This is who I really am. It was why she left the planet over and over, rising out of a cloud of Martian dust to the cold, clean expanse of open space. It was why she stuck with a ship that was probably worth more as scrap than it was whole. It was why she’d taken this job even though she knew there was something suspicious about it, that someone was playing a game with rules she didn’t know yet. She wanted to be a Coalition captain again. In her heart, she’d never stopped being one.
“I don’t know. It’s a good excuse to come home for a bit, isn’t it?” she said, and that seemed to satisfy them.
Jianyu missed the first sight of Uchronia City because he had his eyes closed. Even on the sealed high-speed train, the air was painfully dry. He’d spent most of the ride breathing carefully through his nose, with his hands clamped over his gills so he wouldn’t accidentally get that gritty Martian dust in the wrong part of his respiratory system.
Weyland rode in with him, but slipped away in the crowd at the station. Jianyu pulled up directions on his com screen and found a bus that would take him to a warehouse out in the city’s sprawl. Martians didn’t suffer from overcrowding; they built out rather than up, letting the city creep over miles of ground.
Jianyu had been wondering what a warehouse full of Coalition surplus gear was doing in the city, but he understood when he stepped out of the bus and saw that his destination was right next to a massive landing zone for ships. It must have been used by the Coalition once. The doorways in the fences around the airfield were built to accommodate a ten-foot Eridani comfortably, and the checkpoint stalls near the gates had that clean, curving, polished look the Coalition had favored. Martian dust had streaked the glass windows and dulled the gleam of the metal, but the aesthetic was unmistakable.
The ships in the field now weren’t part of any Coalition fleet, though. Jianyu stopped beside a fence, staring at their black hulls and sharp lines. They didn’t look like human ships at all. He was pretty sure they were Falacerian, and they weren’t civilian vessels either.
He found the warehouse and negotiated the sale of uniforms that would more or less fit the Benevolence’s crew, plus a few spare translator parts for Xrrt. There weren’t any uniforms that would fit him, but there were some shirts just a few sizes too large that could be tailored. He was pretty sure he overpaid on the delivery fees, but he didn’t want to lug everyone’s stuff all the way back to the farm by himself.
On his way back to the bus stop, he passed the airfield again and noticed a Falacerian coming through the gate. To him, every Falacerian looked about the same, with green skin and dark hair–but this one was a face he thought he recognized, a little older and more dignified than the usual fresh-faced youthfulness they liked to project into the minds of other species. He straightened his back without thinking about it.
“Jianyu,” said the Falacerian. “I thought I sensed you nearby.”
“Senior off–uh, Livia,” he said, finally recognizing her face. Livia had been his superior on the Benevolence once, and old habits were hard to break. He wasn’t quite sure what her rank was now. The four silver cords on the sleeve of her uniform jacket were threaded together in a complex knot.
“What are you doing here? Are you still on the Benevolence?” She took his arm and led him a little ways away from the fence, to a spot where an old storage building would block the view of the airfield.
Jianyu let her pull him along. “I’m just picking up a few things from a warehouse nearby. We’re staying at Captain Dysart’s family farm, picking up some supplies for the relief effort on Earth.”
Livia looked at the warehouse in question. She pressed her lips into a thin, disapproving line. It was all an illusion, a rough approximation of her actual expression. Falacerians had hardly any lips at all, just enough grey skin to cover their sharp teeth. “And what are you picking up on Nyx’s behalf?”
“Just a few things the ship needs.”
There weren’t any old ship parts in that warehouse. Anything valuable had been sold off years ago; no one needed old uniforms, and so they’d been left in storage. Jianyu was pretty sure Livia already knew that, and if she didn’t, she must be picking up on the low-level guilt he felt about evading the question. “And what does the Benevolence need from that particular warehouse?”
“It’s for a new client. You should send Captain Dysart a message, I’m sure she’d love to tell you more.” Jianyu shook off Livia’s hand. “I’ve got to catch my bus, but maybe I’ll see you on the farm?”
“I don’t think that would be wise,” said Livia. Jianyu wasn’t sure if she was talking about visiting Captain Dysart, or if she was referring more generally to whatever she thought was going on with the Benevolence. “It was good to see you, though. I’m glad you’re–I can’t exactly say you’re well, can I?”
She reached up and brushed his forehead with her fingers. It was a stretch for her, and she was tall for a Falacerian. Jianyu felt a wave of dizziness building, cresting into nausea, and receding. She pulled her hand away, and with it, the pressure of her mind against his faded too.
“It’s a mess in there, isn’t it?” she said, with a soft smile.
“It’s been a hard year,” Jianyu told her.
“I suppose it has been.” Livia’s features wavered, flickering through eyes and noses pulled from his memories, before settling back into the face he was familiar with. “Go, catch your bus.”
Nyx was helping Sera spray a circle of paint onto the curving side of the Benevolence when she heard a whistle from the ground below. She took her finger off the trigger of the spray device, stopping the flow of paint, and looked down over the ship’s side. She couldn’t quite see who was making the noise. Sera was below her, dangling from a harness to reach the circle’s lowest curve. She shut off her own paint, braced herself with her legs against the ship’s smooth hull, and said, “It’s your mother.”
That wasn’t quite specific enough, but Mama couldn’t whistle, so it was obvious who was calling for her even before Mom yelled up, “I thought I could help with the painting, and then maybe your mechanic could take a look at the striders.”
After some more shouted negotiations, she ended up clipped to the side of the ship too, spraying a fresh coat of silver over the circles Sera had stenciled. She didn’t accept a respirator from Nyx, just pulled her bandanna up over her face and said it would do well enough. It wasn’t regulation, but maybe it was a smart move. Nyx kept having to pull her own respirator off so she could knock red dust, lightly flecked with silver paint, out of the air intake.
When they’d finished all five circles, they pulled themselves up the side of the ship and went back in through the access hatch on the top. “Let’s see those striders,” Sera said, scratching the line the respirator had indented into her cheek. “Oh, let me know the model numbers first, I want to make sure I have the right tools.”
There was a clatter from the cargo hold. Mom cocked her head. “Sounds like the dolly’s anti-gravity field shut down again,” she said. “I’ll get it restarted. Nyx, could you show her out to the barn?”
She hooked a thumb at Sera, who grinned and brushed dust off her hands. They left the ship and headed across the field to the barn, where Sera surveyed the collection of half-broken machines. They were built for function, not looks, with saddles molded into their bodies. Each of their four legs was articulated like a dog’s, the elbows built to bend inwards, the tiny feet made of thick rubber for better traction on uneven ground. They might have looked like animals if they had heads; Nyx had spent much of her childhood riding them around the farm, pretending they were horses or more exotic beasts.
Sera stuck her finger into one of the elbow joints and dislodged a trickle of red sand. “Is anyone cleaning these out?”
“I don’t think so,” said Nyx. “The manuals never said you had to.”
“Yeah, the manuals are always written for earthlike conditions,” Sera said. She sat down on the ground, pulled a screwdriver out of her pocket, and wedged it into the joint’s rubber seal. She rolled it away and showed Nyx the accumulation of dirt inside. “See, it’s already wearing the metal away.”
Nyx crouched beside her, accepted a can of compressed air, and followed her instructions to clean out each joint after Sera had popped off the seal. “I didn’t know your talents extended to farm equipment repair.”
“They don’t,” said Sera. “I’ve never been on a farm before. But I know about dust. You’re lucky this isn’t lunar dust, it’s much more corrosive. I’ll put some sealant on these when I’m done, it’ll stop the worst of it from getting in, but they should be cleaned regularly.”
“You never did tell me where you learned all this,” Nyx said, moving on to the next joint. She’d never worked on a machine in her life, apart from a few high-stakes repairs or bomb defusals during her Coalition days, and then she’d had a mechanic on the other end of her com screen coaching her through the technical part of the process. She supposed there could be something relaxing about this sort of unhurried maintenance work.
“I learned the basics as a kid. My mom had all sorts of things lying around. She had sort of a side business,” said Sera, in the tone of voice she usually used when she meant the activity she was discussing was illegal. “And then when I was training with the Coalition, I used to hang out with the junior mechanics. I, um, didn’t exactly make myself popular with the other pilots.”
“I noticed you have some fresh new ideas about how turbulent a landing should be,” Nyx said.
Sera laughed. “I know the Benevolence looks like a scrap heap to you, but the truth is, the parts of her the Coalition built were over-engineered. She doesn’t need half the safety features she has, and she can go way past the stress limits in the manual. I wasn’t shy about telling the instructors that, or complaining when they got it wrong in the simulations. It crazy, but–I used to have this idea that if I could work my way up to senior pilot, really show everyone what I was capable of, maybe I’d find a captain who’d trust me enough to let me put Coalition hardware to the test.”
“Well, I certainly have no idea what you’re doing to my ship,” said Nyx. “I’ll just have to trust that you know what you’re doing.”
“Living the dream,” said Sera. She slid over to a different slider and popped open a panel on its underbelly. “So, I didn’t know you grew up on a farm. Your moms seem cool.”
“I guess I never thought of them as cool. I thought they were the most boring people in the whole galaxy when I was a kid. I couldn’t wait to go off and have some real adventures. But I guess everyone thinks of their parents that way.” Nyx sprayed another blast of air into a joint. The dust puffed away in a fine red spray.
“Not my mom,” said Sera as she tugged on a dangling wire. “She’s not boring, I’ll give her that. But yeah, I guess I was ready for some adventures, somewhere very far away from her.”
She did something complicated to the wire she’d pulled loose, then closed the panel and moved on to the next strider. Nyx followed, shaking her little can of air. Sera said, “Hey, I bet these things can go pretty fast if you modify them.”
“If we finish before sundown, I’ll show you how to race them,” said Nyx. When Sera looked over at her, mouth slack with astonishment, she said, “Bored kids have to make their own entertainment out here.”
Jianyu was almost back at the train station when another wave of nausea hit him, leaving him gasping and fighting back the urge to vomit. When he gulped down air, his throat burned with the dust and that made his queasy feeling worse. His nose felt full and wet. When he wiped his hand under it, his skin came away smeared with red. Maybe it was just a normal nosebleed. The air here was certainly dry enough.
He’d been getting better, but he’d also been taking it easy on the Benevolence. The bus stopped, and he wobbled off it, feeling the ground spinning under him. Maybe he shouldn’t have told the captain he was in good enough shape to go on this trip alone. He’d felt fine until Livia tried to get too deep into his mind.
He pulled out his com screen and searched for a doctor. The text on the screen was difficult to read, the letters blurring and shifting in his vision, but there was a walk-in clinic not too far away. He wobbled over, and only had to pause to throw up once.
Everyone else in the waiting room was human. He got a few stares as he tried to use the screen at the front desk to describe his symptoms. At least it took his credit chip without a problem and gave him a number. He squeezed himself into the largest chair he could find and waited with his head between his knees.
He ought to send a message to the captain to let her know that he’d be coming back to the farm late. Or maybe he should let Weyland know he was having problems again–but Weyland wasn’t with the rest of the crew, he was visiting a friend, wasn’t he? His nose was leaking again, and when he pulled out his com screen, he dripped blood onto its surface. Someone handed him a wad of tissues.
His number was called. Jianyu raised his head and stared, confused. The doctor was standing in the doorway, and it was Weyland. But there were two of him.
“Uh,” he said. “I think I’m seeing double.”
The Weylands stared at him, then turned their heads to stare at each other. One shrugged. The other inclined his head slightly. They both turned back to him. “That can be a symptom of brain trauma,” one of them said. “I’ll get you back to a room and take a look.”
Jianyu managed, after some difficulty, to get out of his chair and into an examination room. Weyland closed the door behind them. “How many of me do you see now?” he asked.
“Just one,” said Jianyu. He closed one eye, then the other. “Definitely just one.”
“That’s good,” said Weyland. “That’s a good sign, because there’s definitely just one of me.”
He took Jianyu through the usual diagnostics. While Jianyu was sitting on the floor, recovering from the effects of the neurological testing, Weyland said, “When did you notice your symptoms were getting worse?”
“I think a Falacerian tried to get into my brain. You met her once, her name’s Livia.” Jianyu pulled his knees up and leaned forward so he could rest his head on them. At least his nose had finally stopped bleeding.
“I remember her. Someone tried to kill her,” said Weyland. “Keep talking so I know you have the ability to speak coherently.”
“She’s in the military. They… do that, sometimes. I don’t really understand it, but it’s how they work. If you kill your superior officer, there’s a space for you to move up, I guess. Only it’s a little more complicated, or else everyone would be dead.” He felt lightheaded, but at least he was pretty sure the words he was saying were English. “She used to be really nice, when she was on the Benevolence. A lot of the other junior officers in the operations team were afraid of her, but she was nice to me. They’re like that, you know, Falacerians. If you’re a nice person, they’ll want to be nice to you. It’s funny to think about her killing people. No, it’s not funny at all. I’d rather not think about it.”
“That’s enough,” said Weyland. “You’re not losing your ability to speak, and your readouts are stabilizing, so I’m going to give you an injection to manage the nausea and send you back to the farm. Tell the captain I’ve increased your restrictions and you’re off duty for now.”
He opened the door and left the room, but then ducked back around the frame and stared and Jianyu. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“What?” Jianyu rested his chin on his knees and looked up at him. Weyland’s expression was always difficult to read, but now his forehead was furrowed as if he was concentrating on a problem he didn’t know how to solve.
“It’s wasteful,” said Weyland. “Killing members of your own military. It’s a waste of resources. I don’t understand why they do it.”
“Maybe the power is worth it,” said Jianyu, although it didn’t seem worth it to him.
“It’s not.” Weyland spoke with conviction. “Following the command structure is important. If every soldier tried to seize power for himself, it would be chaos.”
“Yeah,” said Jianyu, cautiously. He wasn’t sure where this conversation was going and he wished Weyland would go get him those anti-nausea drugs instead of sticking around to chat.
“That’s why humanity is the superior species,” said Weyland. His creased brow smoothed out, as if he’d found the solution to the problem. “We appreciate the command structure.”
Before Jianyu could come up with a response to that, Weyland looked over his shoulder, then ducked out of sight. A moment later, he reappeared with a capped syringe in his hand. He pulled on the door so hard it slammed behind him.
“What did you just say about humanity?” Jianyu asked him.
“I didn’t say anything,” said Weyland. “I was getting your medication.”
“We were talking,” said Jianyu. “You said something weird about humanity being a superior species.”
Weyland pulled out his com screen and made a note. “Auditory hallucinations.” He held up his finger. “Are you seeing two of anything in this room again?”
“No, there’s just one of you.” Jianyu glanced at the door. It had seemed so real at the time, but then again, Weyland hadn’t sounded quite like himself. It probably had been a hallucination. “Why are you working here? Shouldn’t you be with the rest of the crew?”
“I’m just visiting a friend. I thought I ought to do some work while I’m around.” Weyland uncapped the syringe. “And it’s lucky I’m here, isn’t it?”
“It’s too bad there aren’t two of you,” said Jianyu, to distract himself from the sting of the needle going into the vein near his gills. “That would convenient. You could get twice as much work done.”
“I think that would create more problems than it would solve.” Weyland pulled the needle out. “I’m glad there’s only one of me.”