Fifteen meters is a long way to fall, even in Martian gravity. It didn’t reduce his fear of falling, or the pain when he hit bottom. All it really did was stretch his descent into three eternal seconds of abject terror. Connor heard the rocks ping off his helmet, watched as the ground rushed up at him, felt the shock as his left leg twisted beneath him, then again as something struck his shoulder and pinned him down. And then, everything was still again.
He dreamed he was back on the upper Wolverine at Windham, skiing. It was a black diamond trail, and he wasn’t good enough to ski it, and there is a reason they call it “breakneck” speed. He went because Lexi was there, and Reggie. He didn’t want to disappoint them. Connor was trying too hard, and he lost control and started to tumble, and when he finally stopped he was off the trail and half buried in snow. The ski patrol was coming, and he thought he heard an ambulance.
Connor’s eyes popped open. A siren screamed in his ears, but it wasn’t an ambulance. There wouldn’t be any ski patrol to dig him out this time, or a nearby hospital to replace his shattered knee, and it was broken rock, not snow, in which he lay half buried. What was that noise?
His heads-up display was dark; there would be no details from the computer. A leak, he guessed, but not a really bad one or he wouldn’t be alive to think about it. His suit would have sealed it automatically. He found the alarm and silenced it.
He tested his limbs, finding pain in his left leg, his hip, and his right shoulder. A distant vertigo told him painkillers were already entering his bloodstream. Pain was good; broken bones were less expensive to fix than a spinal injury. Still, he wouldn’t be walking home. Connor keyed his transmitter.
“Lexi,” he called. “I’m not going to be able to climb out of this gorge. Can you come down to get me?”
Silence was his only answer.
Connor fought the urge to panic. The gorge might be blocking his signal, or maybe his transmitter wasn’t working. Either way, Lexi was a good woman, and smart. If she couldn’t reach him on the radio, she would come to get him. His secondary air gauge read ten to twelve hours remaining; Lexi should be down sooner than that. All he had to do was wait.
For the first time, he was glad to be on Mars. If they had taken a cruise, the way she suggested, Lexi would have been riding in a power chair instead of the waldo suit, and she wouldn’t have been able to rescue him. Then again, the Caribbean doesn’t have many volcanic gorges.
The gorge was too narrow for the lander. When Lexi came, she would need to drive down in the rover. He wondered how long it would take. The base on Phobos had robotic rescue vehicles, but they would take even longer to arrive.
Connor stared down at the broken rock beneath his helmet. That was why he came to Mars, 200 million kilometers just to look at some rocks. Obsidian in a basalt cliff, gleaming like black diamonds where no one expected them to be. Only they weren’t diamonds at all. Obsidian is a glass, not a crystal. The black diamond trail was a fake, this time.
Black diamonds. It was Windham all over again. He never should have come, he wasn’t good enough. Perhaps thirty years ago, when Reggie was alive and the three of them did everything together, it would have been okay. He could take foolish risks back then, knowing that Lexi would show up at the hospital for him, even though she was Reggie’s wife, not his.
His secondary gauge read two hours’ air remaining when Lexi arrived. His radio crackled to life as the rover emerged from a bend in the gorge. He wagged his left hand weakly at her.
“There you are,” she said. “It really was a freak accident you had. I’m glad you’re okay.”
He was most emphatically not okay, but you don’t argue with Lexi.
“I think my leg is broken, and maybe my hip, too.”
“Hang on, I’ll take a look.” Lexi climbed out of the rover, or rather, her waldo suit did—Lexi herself lay in the control box in the cargo area—and it knelt beside him as she examined his body. Connor noticed new pits and scratches on its bronze skin. Apparently he wasn’t the only one hurt by whatever it was that caused his fall.
“Quake?” he mumbled.
“Don’t be silly. Mars isn’t geologically active.”
She was right, of course. Mars didn’t have any active fault lines, and even if it did, Mars couldn’t be geologically active, because the prefix was wrong. Quakes would be ariological on Mars, but that’s not a real word. Lexi would never approve.
“Then what…?” he asked.
“Meteor. Big one, too. You should see the crater.”
“There was a leak in my suit earlier, but I think it’s fixed.”
“All the indicators are green. Can you move?” Without waiting for an answer, she squatted next to him and began to lift the rubble off his back and legs. It was strong, that waldo suit, and while it looked vaguely female, it wasn’t nearly as attractive as Lexi used to be. He wondered how she was holding up inside that coffin-shaped control box.
Connor tried to roll over. Pain lanced through his pelvis, and he cried out.
“Oh, you poor thing, let me help you.”
Well, he couldn’t exactly stop her.
Lexi worked her long robotic arms under his body. “This is going to hurt,” she said.
She was right, it hurt like hell, painkillers or no. Somewhere along the way, he forgot to breathe. When his brain came back into focus, he was lying face up in the back of the rover next to the control box. Both he and it were too long to close the liftgate, so she had left it open.
“Couldn’t you just call the ski patrol?” he gasped.
Lexi didn’t answer—she probably didn’t get the joke. Instead, she spread a spacesuit patch over the bulge of foam sealant on his thigh and swapped his air canister with a spare from the rover.
“That hole in your suit,” she said, “came from the inside.”
“The break in your leg is a compound fracture.”
Compound? Connor was impressed—those painkillers must be more effective than he thought. There were probably stimulants, too, since he was awake.
Through the back of his helmet, Connor could feel the electric motors whine as they started back up the gorge. Lexi talked an unbroken stream as she drove.
“One in a million,” she said, “having a meteor hit the planet’s surface so close to us. Imagine, that, and with Phobos out of range to send us a warning.”
More than one in a million, he thought, except it wasn’t. It’s one in a million before it happens, but once it has happened, it’s one in one. He came to Mars once, and that one time a meteor crashed nearby. One chance, one occurrence. One hundred percent. And even that wouldn’t have been so bad if he hadn’t been standing so close to the edge of the gorge.
Connor tried to wipe the dust off his helmet, but found that his right arm wasn’t working properly. He used the left one instead. If he tipped his head back, he could just see the top of the waldo suit as Lexi drove. Above him passed the butterscotch Martian sky, fading to twilight. A few brighter stars had begun to peek through, shifting from side to side as the rover bumped its way over the rocky surface.
It seemed ageless, that sky. Not like his body, which after sixty-five years of hard use was already starting to fail. The stars were born, grew old, and eventually died, but their lives were measured in billions of years, his in decades. The biggest stars would die well, supernovas hurling their mass across the galaxy to form new stars and new worlds.
Connor wasn’t a big star, though. He didn’t burn hot, and he left no children behind. Nothing he said really mattered. Nothing he did would change the world. He suddenly realized Lexi was still talking.
“When you get to Phobos, they’ll want to put your leg in traction,” she said. “We’ll have to cut our vacation short again.”
Yes, and it was his fault. Again. She didn’t say it, but he felt the accusation hang over his head like a thundercloud. He wasn’t even good enough to take a whole vacation.
“Don’t let me forget to have them do a CAT scan of your head. After a fall like that, you have a real risk of concussion.”
“They won’t find anything,” he joked. Again, Lexi didn’t laugh, or even acknowledge it.
“It should take me about an hour to drive out of this gorge,” she said. “I had to go all the way to the end to find a slope the rover could handle.”
“Did you call the base on Phobos?” he asked.
“They were still below the horizon when I entered the gorge,” she said. “I didn’t think you’d want me to wait.”
“You thought right.”
The rover continued on. Waiting was always the hardest part, especially waiting while other people worked. He should be driving the rover. Lexi hated to drive, but he couldn’t even sit up now. His body was old, and broken, and he wasn’t good enough to drive. And then he noticed that the rover had stopped moving, so he called out to her.
“I needed to rest,” she said. “I’ve been piloting the waldo suit all day, and you know how it tires me out.” She was even older than he, and much too old to be here.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Sorry I took you to Mars.” They were both too old, and they never should have gone. They never could have gone, except she owned the patent to gravitics, the one that made their vacation trip to Mars possible. Lexi the lovely, whose first husband had been the greatest scientific mind of the century.
Reggie was a man whose life burned hot and short. He had been a good friend, and generous even in death. He left behind his house, his fortune, and his wife. Connor had them all now, though he didn’t know why. Lexi had given Connor decades of joy, and all he ever gave her was an excuse to keep hosting those cocktail parties she loved out on the Cape.
“We can call for help,” she said, “once we get out of the gorge. Phobos should be over the horizon by then.”
“Why not take the lander? We both know you can fly it as well as I can.”
“The lander was damaged when the meteor hit. I don’t trust it.”
He hoped it was still airtight. It could take a few hours to fly a rescue shuttle down from Phobos, maybe longer if they didn’t have one with gravitics available. They would have to wait inside the damaged lander until then.
The air in his spacesuit had a strange metallic taste to it, and he remembered the factory where he and Reggie worked, beneath the yellow sodium lamps where the aircraft engines were built. The air had been foul in that factory.
Connor wondered what had kept Reggie in the factory for so many years. The most brilliant man on the planet, and they kept him sequestered in a tiny office in the back of a factory until he couldn’t take any more, until he and Connor hooked up with Jeannie Szymanski to start their own company.
Reggie had invented the whole science of gravitics—first the gravity projector, then the gravitic drive. How absurd was that, asking a man to tweak age-old turbine designs for efficiency when he could invent an engine that would power interplanetary spacecraft and might someday reach the stars. They must have been blind. Maybe that’s why Reggie had loved him, because he wasn’t blind.
On impulse, Connor glanced at his air gauge. It was lower than it ought to be, which probably meant he had another slow leak in his suit. Reaching across with his left arm, he banged on the waldo control box and called for Lexi to wake up.
“No time to rest, my dear. My air is low,” he said.
There was a pause while she came to the obvious conclusion, then the motors started up again.
The ground began to slope upward as they reached the end of the gorge. She was driving faster now, taking greater risks. Connor found himself sliding out the back of the rover. When he caught himself, pain shot through his chest. She must have heard him gasp, because the rover suddenly stopped. The waldo turned to face him.
“You’re not allowed to die on me,” she said. “I’ve done that one before, with Reggie.”
“Keep going,” he said.
“I’m serious about you not dying. I’m not strong enough to go through that again.”
“You’re stronger than me.”
“No I’m not, that’s why I’m living in this box. I can’t even walk by myself any more,” she said.
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”
The rover started up again. Some time during their trip the sun had set on the valley. They travelled in darkness. Lexi preferred the night vision setting on her waldo suit to the limited angle of the headlights on their rover. The sides of the darkened rover formed a black frame around the starry sky.
“We’re almost out,” she said.
“That’s good.” Connor thought silently for a while, trying to frame his words. “Lexi, if I don’t make it—”
“Don’t talk like that. You’re going to be fine.”
“Yes, but if I don’t, you know I love you?”
“Yes, and I love you too.”
It sounded wrong. Every time she said it, it sounded wrong. He didn’t deserve her love. He wasn’t good enough.
As they left the gorge, Connor could see Olympus Mons in the distance. The broken peak was in silhouette, framed by a million tiny stars. How far away—two hundred klicks? Two thousand? He had no frame of reference to gauge the second largest mountain in the solar system.
He didn’t belong there, anyway. Olympus was a home for the gods, for people like Reggie, and Szymanski, and Lexi. They were each geniuses in their own way. As an engineer or as a writer he was average at best. The most Connor could do was give them each a decent obituary—and not even that, if Lexi had to write his obituary instead.
Connor had begun to feel cold. He wondered how much blood he had lost from the fall. He decided not to tell her.
“I just spoke to Rivera on Phobos,” Lexi said. “He’s going to send a rescue shuttle.”
“That’s good. We can wait in the lander until they arrive.”
“Are you going to make it?” she asked.
“Didn’t you just tell me not to talk about that?”
“I did, but now I need you to tell me you’ll live.”
“I’ll be okay,” he lied. “Did Rivera say how long it would take?”
“I forgot to ask.”
Fast or slow, it didn’t really matter. Knowing wouldn’t make the rescue shuttle come any sooner.
“Connor?” she continued. “Am I getting old? I shouldn’t have forgotten to ask how long it would take.”
“Do you want me to lie to you again, or tell the truth?”
“I want the truth.”
“We’re both getting old, Lexi. It’s okay to forget.”
There was a long pause.
“When did you lie to me before?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You asked if I wanted you to lie to me again. When did you lie to me before?”
“I lied when you asked if I’d be okay,” he admitted. “I’m cold, and I’m running out of air, and I don’t think I’ll be alive when the rescue shuttle gets here.”
“I told you not to talk that way.”
“That’s why I lied.”
They were quiet for a long time, as the stars wheeled slowly overhead and the electric motors hummed. When he reached up to wipe the dust from his helmet again, he was surprised to see how much there was. His vision had dimmed so slowly that he hadn’t even noticed.
“Talk to me,” he said.
“Anything. You’re always talking. Why aren’t you talking now?”
“I was thinking,” she said.
“You’re a smart woman. I bet you can think and talk at the same time.”
“Better than most.”
“What were you thinking about?” he asked.
Lexi paused. “I was thinking about Reggie,” she said.
“You still miss him.” It was a statement of fact, not a question. “When I’m gone, will you miss me?”
“Of course I will.”
“But not as much as Reggie,” he said. He waited for her to deny it, but the words didn’t come. Connor wasn’t surprised.
Reggie was a bright star. When you looked at him, you couldn’t see anybody near him. And when he died, he scattered his life across the galaxy, giving it to the lesser stars. It wasn’t so bad being a lesser star.
“I think it was my fault we never had children,” she said.
“You and Reggie, or you and me?”
“Either of you. Both of you. Yes.”
“That’s okay.” It felt good to be the one forgiving her, for a change.
“Don’t you wish you had a son to carry on your legacy?”
“It would have been nice, but we couldn’t have come here with a child,” he said.
“We shouldn’t have come here at all.”
Connor glanced over at the black box beside him, wishing he could look into Lexi’s eyes and tell her it was all okay.
“Can you see the stars?” he asked.
“I can show them on my control screen.”
“It’s not the same.”
“No, I guess it isn’t. During the day, I can look right at the sun, and even count the sunspots if I want. And at night I can drive without headlights.”
“But you can’t see the stars.”
“I can see you,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Reggie was never any good with children, but he was unhappy that we never had any. You would have been a good father, but you’re content with none.”
“Would I really have been good enough?”
“You would have been the best. I’m sorry I never gave you the chance to find out.”
“I have you. That’s more than I deserve.”
Lexi didn’t answer, and after a while Connor closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he was floating in a brilliant white glow. As he squinted against the glare, Lexi’s face appeared. Her hair was loose, and floated about her head in a silver halo.
“Am I dead?” he asked.
Lexi smiled. “We’re in the hospital on Phobos.”
It made sense. Connor probably wasn’t good enough for heaven. “How long?” he asked.
“The doctors want to keep you in the zero-gee ward until your bones have a chance to set.”
Zero gee. The center of the moon. “Free fall must be a relief after that waldo suit,” he said.
“I had to leave it behind. With you on a stretcher and me stuck in that control box, we didn’t have room for the robot.”
Connor winced. “I’m sorry.”
“If we had, we couldn’t see this.” Lexi pulled a display into view. In it, Connor could see an image of Olympus Mons, its peak lit by the rising sun. Wispy clouds danced around it in the carbon dioxide breeze.
“It’s a video uplink from the waldo suit,” she said. “I moved it into position last night before we left.”
“That’s a pretty expensive holiday picture,” he said.
“You’re worth it.”
Connor thought about Olympus, about heaven. Reggie was there. But Lexi was here, and that was heaven enough for him.
David G. Turner
David G. Turner is a full-time computer geek and interstitial writer from upstate New York. After more than twenty years of married life, he is still a romantic at heart. His fiction has been published by Third Flatiron, and his mostly true anecdotes are available on his blog.