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Short story: Sunset on Mars, by Gina Cole

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Short story: Sunset on Mars, by Gina Cole

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“Her wrist-pad read 20 May 2450, Tāmaki Makaurau”: sci-fi by Gina Cole

Viti sat with Captain Theodora and Sochetna, the thief.  Gazing through a viewscreen porthole, she contemplated the fiery white ball dropping in slow motion towards Mars horizon. The sky glowed light blue, washing her colleague’s faces as they gawped open-mouthed like blue-skinned children watching distant fireworks.

“Beautiful,” said Theo, pushing back her Captain’s hat.

Reconstituted chicken and wild rice lay cold and congealed on Viti’s abandoned plate. Replicator food sickened her. She craved her bubu’s dalo and palusami.

Sochetna’s rotund cheeks plumped out in profile. Red fuzzy hair smudged her face into the atmosphere as she stared at the blue light illuminating the lifepod interior. Mars’s dreamlike vista did nothing to relieve Viti’s claustrophobia. She detested her trapped existence inside the oppressive lifepod. Elliptical walls closed in on her, she had no escape. She tried to find respite whenever she left the lifepod’s close confines to take spacewalks for research or repair. She loved walking away from the lifepod into the red desert. At those times, the lifepod loomed from the barren Martian plains, a gigantic silvery egg-shaped structure sitting on four stout fold-out legs—propped up against the imposing backdrop of Olympus Mons. Lasertrips provided some relief although too short, and they took place in the living imaginary, the playtime netherworld. Viti tossed her plate into the trash conduit.

“This food is ash,” she said, curling her full lips.

“Such a waste,” said Sochetna, smirking.

Viti gazed into the indigo sunset. “You’re a fine one to talk about waste.”

Sochetna jumped from her chair, kicking it over. Hair bounced around her face with the sudden movement.

“I didn’t steal your stupid lasertime,” she said, eyes blazing.

Viti’s heartrate increased. She lifted her chin and rose from the seat, moving with cat-like stealth towards Sochetna, fists clenched.

“Let me take your next lasertrip then… to check,” she said, eyeing Sochetna, challenging her to refuse.

Sochetna backed away, blinking fast, and wishing she’d kept her big mouth shut. She threw her arms in the air, defeated.

“Fine. I have nothing to hide. And once you realize the truth you will owe me double lasertime in return,” said Sochetna.

Viti’s eyes narrowed as she considered Sochetna’s offer. Double lasertime, a big sacrifice. She just needed proof. This wager would put the whole saga to bed once and for all.

“Ok, double it is,” said Viti, circling Sochetna.

“You’ll be sorry,” said Sochetna, bobbing and blocking in case Viti reneged on the agreement and threw a punch. They hadn’t come to blows over this yet, but it might happen tonight.

Captain Theo jumped in between them, holding her hands up, fingers spread wide like the branches of a vesi tree. This ongoing conflict over lasertrips had inevitably boiled over. When physicists first discovered the mem-branes Viti’s grandmother had foreseen trouble.

“Those spacemen, they need to be very careful when they throw themselves into the music of the vā,” Bubu had warned. “There are many pathways in the great unknown, and they’re not always in harmony with each other.”

Nobody knew for sure what caused the branes or where they’d come from. Many people had disappeared in the beginning. The branes presented an unfathomable mystery. They’d become an amusement for the bored survivors living on the Moon and on Mars—with no other place to go. Viti heeded Bubu’s warnings and didn’t use the lasertrips—until after her death. And even then, she’d taken just one lasertrip back in time, to visit Bubu, so they could talk before she died. She didn’t think Bubu would’ve disagreed with such a trip.

“Break it up you two. I am sick of your bickering. We’re all stuck here, and this bad atmosphere doesn’t help,” said Captain Theo.

She hoped her intervention would calm the situation—at least for a while. Viti lowered her fists and took a long breath. Sochetna slumped, eyes alert.

“You’re my witness, Captain,” said Sochetna, scowling. “Viti agreed.”

“Yes, yes, she’ll owe you double time on the lasertrip. If you’re right,” said Theo, scraping her hands through wavy dark hair.

“Alright. I’ll program it for you,” said Sochetna, backing off into the dim blue light.

“Great,” said Viti. She moved to an oval porthole and gazed at the shifting red sands of Mars.

“You know, she’s not herself. Her research has come to a halt since your feud over the lasertrips started,” said Theo, slouching back into a cushioned rib chair.

“It’s no excuse for stealing my lasertime,” said Viti.

The sun had disappeared below the horizon, the sky turning dark blue with a collar of stars peeking out as true night began to fall.

“Have you double-checked the logs?”

Viti remained tight-lipped. She didn’t want to debate the issue with Theo. Sochetna appeared from the south corridor, arms held stiff at her sides.

“I’ve lined up the laserpod for you,” she said, pouting.

Viti eyed her. “I ran the logs. You’ve taken five of my sols?”

“Well, the logs are wrong,” said Sochetna, twisting her mouth. “Go and see for yourself. I’m telling you. You’ll regret this.”

Viti pushed past her, striding from the room. Sochetna and Captain Theo followed close behind. How Sochetna had done it, Viti didn’t know, but the computer logs proved it, clear as a sunny day on Earth.

The last time Viti had laserported she’d stayed overnight on Luna Base and then caught the lasertrip to Shadow Earth. She spent four wonderful Earth days in the summer of 2330 at Te Werahi beach with her wife Shell and their dog, a frisky Jack Russell named Haki who ran after the wind. They took long walks to the curve in the beach where Motuopao Island rose from the sea, and a lighthouse ruin lay on the headland in a rounded heap. They swam in the ocean, ate fish and chips, and talked into the night. On their final evening, the sky filled with glittering stars. They built a bonfire on the sand and huddled together under a blanket watching meteors fall into the horizon to the west of Cape Reinga. But, on their lasertrip home—via Luna Base—something yanked Viti out and laserported her to Mars lifepod, five sols early. She tried to laserport back to Shell and Haki, but the remaining five sols of their trip had disappeared from the pod logs. Sochetna took the next lasertrip out of Mars lifepod.  Somehow, she had tagged on five extra sols to her trip. Viti concluded Sochetna had stolen her last five sols with Shell and Haki, and she wanted to get them back.

One single-pod laserporter lay like a fat slug in the transport bay. A console flickered in the opposite corner. Viti stepped into the laserporter and lowered herself into the oval seat. Standing at the console, Sochetna sent the lasertrip coordinates for Luna Base into the pod. Captain Theo stood with arms folded—shaking her legs back and forth—forehead contorted into a frown.

“I’m not convinced this is going to change anything,” said Captain Theo. “The time passage to Shadow Earth is blocked. There are no more lasertrips left on Luna Base. They’ll be annoyed you even tried.”

The more Captain Theodora thought about it, the more nervous she became. The disharmony in this lasertrip seemed off balance with the vā, the great space. She had no stomach for the fighting between Viti and Sochetna, but she wished there was another way to resolve the impasse.

“I have a right to my five sols. They can’t stop me,” said Viti.

“You won’t get what you’re looking for,” said Sochetna.

“I’m going to see Shell and Haki. You talk in riddles,” said Viti, trying to slam the hatch door shut and failing when the hydraulics kicked in and the hatch closed in slow motion.

“See you in a minute,” said Captain Theo, smiling at Viti as the pod door closed.

Viti locked the interior latch and waved at Captain Theo through the porthole, her ears burning red. The laserpod instrument-panel blinked as she pushed the green ‘Go’ button and the lasertrip whisked her in a disorienting mind-transport to Sochetna’s pre-programmed destination inside the living imaginary.

“She’s holding steady, Captain,” said Sochetna, monitoring Viti’s vital signs from the console.

Sochetna brought up Viti’s holographic image above the instrument panel. Theo gave the command and watched Viti’s image elongate into the fourth dimension, before morphing into the fifth dimension, where it became a convex cylinder, and disappeared into a point.

*

Viti stumbled from the laserpod and fell onto a smooth floor.  She edged into a smoky haze that smelled like burnt leaves. A scraping noise echoed somewhere nearby.

“Hello?”

Groping along a wall, she discovered a door and stepped into a wide passageway where she found clean air. Why hadn’t she arrived in the lasertrip entry-bay at Luna Base? How did Sochetna bypass Luna Base and bring her here—wherever here was? Her wrist-pad read 20 May 2450, Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. She ran down the hallway trying to find a way out—opening and closing doors leading into small rooms—until she found a wooden staircase flowing down to an atrium with a door carved in ornate whorls. The door opened onto a yellow verandah and concrete steps leading onto a lawn and a tree-lined street. Dappled sunlight filtered through oak tree branches waving in the wind above a wrought iron fence. Viti took the steps in two bounds and turned to see a yellow three-storey house, with a grey roof.

“Finally. You took your time getting here.”

Viti recognized the mocking tone. She peered up at the porch where the voice had come from. At the end of the verandah sat Sochetna, rocking to and fro, on a swing seat. She held what appeared to be a glass of red wine.

“What the hell… Sochetna?”

“Yeah, it’s me. I’ve been trapped here for bloody ages. Help yourself to the grog and food in the fridge,” she said, raising her glass.

Viti took a breath and walked up the path onto the porch.

“But I just saw you in Mars lifepod. What are you doing here in my lasertrip? Where are we?” she asked, leaning on the wooden railing for support.

“Don’t ask me. After I got here, I somehow split in two. And I met myself, or a split off part of myself. Anyway, there are two of me now, and the other me, she stole my laserpod and took off, and left me here. Believe me, it’s her in Mars lifepod.”

“You’re kidding! There’s two of you?” asked Viti.

“Yep. But the me on Mars, is not me. It’s her,” said Sochetna.

“Well, which one is the real you?” asked Viti.

“We’re both real. We live on separate planes. I think I travelled through a brane at the exact instant she did. What are the odds? But I’m the one who lives in the Mars lifepod with you and she lives here. She did a switcheroo on me and I need to switch her right back.”

Viti’s head began to swim.

“So, you reckon we’re on a different plane?” she asked.

“Are you stupid. That’s what lasertripping is. Travel to a different plane,” said Sochetna.

“I know that you idiot. But we’ve only ever lasertripped to Shadow Earth. Where in the universe is this place?” asked Viti, throwing her hands up.

“I dunno,” said Sochetna, her eyes widening as the wind picked up.

“I’m supposed to be on Earth, not …here,” said Viti.

She now regretted taking this lasertrip and wanted to go home to Mars lifepod. She laughed to herself. So, Mars lifepod had become home now—how ironic.

“You’re nuts. How long is it till we can make a safe trip to Earth?” asked Sochetna.

“One hundred and ninety-six Earth years, give or take a few months. But we can lasertrip to Shadow Earth. You know that,” said Viti, crossing her arms.

“Ha! Well, forget about Earth. She’s a goner. And you can’t live on Shadow Earth. And Luna Base is full up. Mars lifepod is our home now,” said Sochetna.

Viti’s face brightened. “Wait a minute. Why did this lasertrip land here? Why aren’t we on Luna Base?”

“I’m not sure. Something to do with the black hole upstairs,” said Sochetna.

“The smoked-up room?”

Sochetna nodded. “Yep. That room has already taken the cat and the family I had—she had—in this plane.”

“You met other people here?”

“The hole sucked them all in,” said Sochetna.

This sounded too improbable for Viti.

“Why are you still here? How do I know you aren’t the phony Sochetna, and the real one is back on Mars?”

Sochetna jumped off the swing seat. The glass dropped from her hand spilling red wine down the front of her grey uniform and smashing on the deck as she grabbed at Viti’s jacket. Viti wrenched Sochetna’s wine-soaked hands from her clothing and retreated. She sure had the same bad temper.

“I’m the real Sochetna. You’ve got to believe me,” she said, her lower lip quivering as she spoke. She swiped tears off her cheeks and tried to hide her face.

“Ok. Tell me what we fight about on Mars lifepod,” said Viti.

Sochetna laughed through her tears. “Oh, too easy. Everything. Ok, we fight about the five sols you reckon I stole from your lasertrip to 2330. Well, I suppose I did steal them, but for a good reason.”

Viti slapped her hands on her thighs.

“So, you admit it!” she said.

Sochetna curled her arms over her head, trying to hide her face as words rushed from her mouth.

“I figured out how to reverse-program my laserpod to give me five sols from your account on Mars.”

“You laserlifted me from my holiday with my wife,” said Viti, tears welling.

“I’m sorry. I needed to get your attention. I knew you’d be pissed off and I hoped you’d come here to investigate. And here you are. It worked.”

They lapsed into silence, glaring at each other. The oak tree rustled in the wind, sending orange leaves to the lawn.

“I answered your question. Do you believe me now?” asked Sochetna.

“How did this happen?” asked Viti, planting her hands on her hips.

“Like I told you… the black hole,” said Sochetna, pointing up.

Viti sneered. “The black hole.”

Sochetna, paced the yellow porch. She’d had enough chit chat.

“This place is disintegrating. We’ve got to get out. I have a plan.”

She rushed past Viti, her amethyst perfume filling the air. Stopping at the front door she beckoned to Viti.

“Hurry.”

Viti checked her wrist-pad readings. The coordinates were still correct. She followed Sochetna’s shaky form into the house. As they made their way to the smoke-filled room the house creaked and swayed like a space barge. When Sochetna grabbed the doorknob it crackled and sparks flew. She fell to the floor screaming and cradling her hand. The door flew back and hit the wall behind, with a resounding “thwack!”

“What happened?” asked Viti, helping Sochetna to her feet.

“Electric plasma. The room’s increased its charge since you arrived,” said Sochetna, shaking her hand.

“I’ve never seen smoke like this in any other lasertrip,” said Viti, flapping her hands to sweep the haze away from her face.

“It’s the fraud’s fault. She took off in my laserpod just before you arrived. And it fired up the black hole. I only just managed to drag your pod out.”

“So, what next?” asked Viti.

“I reverse-programmed my laserpod to get your five sols. I’m thinking we do the same with your pod, reprogram it and laserjump from here to Mars via the black hole. I reckon the pretender figured it out.”

Viti raised her eyebrows. She had no better plan. Sochetna crouched on the floor and crawled on her belly into the misty room. Viti followed, sweeping her wrist-pad torchlight from side to side as white smoke engulfed them and they coughed until their lungs hurt.

“Be careful, it’s right in front of us,” said Sochetna.

The smoke began to evaporate and there it was, a black hole of swirling stars in the middle of the floor. Viti recoiled as a floorboard dislodged beneath her feet and sailed into the vortex.

“This is our way out. Help me with the pod,” said Sochetna, scrambling away into the smoke.

Viti followed her to the neighbouring room, and they dragged the pod close to the brink of the whirling black hole.

“Get in, quick,” said Sochetna.

Viti squeezed onto the seat and Sochetna lay her body to one side, balancing on the rim. Viti pulled the hatch shut. She entered the coordinates for Mars lifepod into the instrument-panel and hoped for the best. They waited, helpless, as the black hole widened. The floorboards creaked and broke apart, plank after plank, until the floor gave way beneath them and the laserpod whirled into the vortex.

“We’re moving,” said Viti.

“I feel sick,” said Sochetna.

“Can you see out the window?”

Sochetna lifted her head, trying to peek through the porthole.

“It’s all black. Wait, I can see curved white lines.”

Sochetna’s words slurred together, and she passed out. Her skull lolled on the headrest, and her tongue drooped from her mouth like a sleeping dog. The pod spun faster and faster. Viti saw the stars elongating into curved lines as Sochetna had observed. There were no steering discs to control the pod in the vortex. Viti stared into the vā, her mind blank. The pods were built for lasertrips into the living imaginary, not for controlled flight. Trapped in the tiny pod with no pilot control as it hurtled around the whirling vortex, Viti struggled with claustrophobia. Never had she remained conscious during a lasertrip, even though a usual transport lasted only a minute. At the five-minute mark, she fought the nausea assailing her as the pod rotated. She gritted her teeth, trying to stay alert. At the six-minute mark she passed out.

When Viti came to, smoke eddied outside the laserpod porthole. Sochetna moaned and flapped her arms.

“Wake up. We’ve stopped,” said Viti, holding her elbows up to protect herself from Sochetna’s flailing.

“Aarrrggh… let me outta here,” said Sochetna.

Viti tried to shove her away.

“The console’s gone dark.”

“We’re going to die,” said Sochetna, kicking at the roof.

“Calm down. We will die in here if you don’t pull it together,” said Viti, pushing Sochetna’s legs.

At that moment, someone—or something—unfastened the outside hatch clip. Viti unclipped the inner lock and the hatch door opened in a smoky puff. Sochetna lurched from the pod and jumped into the vapor. Viti heard Sochetna’s laugh as she stepped down from the laserpod. The fog cleared and there—across the room at the console—stood Captain Theo and Sochetna, staring—slack-jawed. Viti gasped. Next to her, a smirk on her face, stood another, identical Sochetna in a wine-stained uniform. Viti looked back and forth between wine-stained-Sochetna laughing next to her, and control-desk-Sochetna, gawping, and white-knuckling the console.

“Me. I am the one and only Sochetna,” said wine-stained Sochetna. “You, are an imposter.”

Control-desk-Sochetna shrank and began babbling.

“I’m not going back there,” she said.

*

Five sols later, Captain Theo sat gazing through the huge western porthole.

“Glorious… ” she said, her eyes fixated on the darkening cobalt sky.

She’d abandoned a plate of cold porridge and flopped into a canvas chair, her large bluish feet resting on a metal box, her strange hairy arms stretched over the table. Sochetna One—the ‘original’, as she liked to call herself—lazed in a metal chair, dipping her fingers into a bag filled with dehydrated carrot chips. She’d moved her seat to join the others, facing the blue Mars sundown. This had become their ritual every evening, to watch the radiant blue twilight play out its iridescent drama. This night was no different except for an incoming transmission from Luna Base.

“Come in, Mars lifepod.”

Viti dragged herself away from the dramatic azure nightfall to answer the transmission.

“Mars lifepod here,” said Viti, clicking open the receiver.

A hissing comfeed from Luna Base crackled into the peaceful atmosphere.

“Just checking on you. How’s the new arrival, Mars?”

Sochetna One laughed and threw her head back, almost falling off her chair.

“She’s settling in. We’ve decided not to put her into stasis. There’s enough room for everyone here in the lifepod,” said Viti. “Any news on the laserport malfunction?”

“We’re still working on it. All lasertrips remain suspended until further notice. Looks like your guest will be staying with you for the foreseeable future, Mars.”

“Copy that, Luna Base. Mars out,” said Viti.

The comfeed ended, leaving a metallic echo ringing in the silence as Sochetna Two—the visitor from the black hole—walked into their midst holding a packet of dehydrated apple slices. Her face flickered orange at the edges as she flumped into a chair next to Sochetna One. Viti often saw her profile smudging, disintegrating, like a faulty holograph. It always happened at sundown.  Viti had dismissed it as a trick of the blue light reflecting off the red Mars dust.

“Wow,” said Sochetna Two, gawking at the blue penumbra spreading out over the skyline.

Both Sochetnas looked to Viti, their faces serious.

“Sorry, I can’t give you back your five sols,” they said, in unison.

They turned to each other, open-mouthed. This kept happening—uttering the same phrase at the same time—and neither of them liked it.

“Guess I don’t owe you double lasertime,” said Viti, laughing.

Sochetna Two struggled to open the packet in her hands.

“Look at you, you idiot,” said Sochetna One, pointing with her chin at Sochetna Two, who snarled at her.

“Give it to me,” she said, ripping the bag from Sochetna Two’s hands.

“Look at the beautiful blue infinity,” said Captain Theo. Her edges blurred into an azure night sky.

Viti ignored her increasing unease as the Martian sunset bathed their faces in darkening blue wonder.

Next week’s short story is “False Detective” by Wellington writer Jordan Hamel

Short story: Sunset on Mars, by Gina Cole

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