After months of travel, Anna Kubrin finally arrives on Mars for her new job as a geologist and de facto artist in residence--and already she feels she is losing the connection with her husband and baby at home on Earth.
In her room on the base, Anna finds a mysterious note, painted in her own hand, warning her not to trust the colony psychiatrist. A note she can't remember painting.
When she finds a footprint in a place that the colony AI claims has never been visited by humans, Anna begins to suspect that she is caught up in an elaborate corporate conspiracy. Or is she losing her grip on reality? Anna must find the truth, regardless of what horrors she might discover or what they might do to her mind.
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I am not on this beach. I see the waves and hear them smashing against the shore. I can even taste the salt on my lips and feel the grains of sand between my toes. I breathe in deep and for a few moments even believe that the crisp, fresh air is filling my lungs. I close my eyes and tilt my head back like a sunflower to the sky, letting the sun's heat soak into my skin and turn the darkness into the deep pink of my eyelids.
But I'm not choosing to do any of this. I'm just going through the motions now. And it's not enough.
There's the dog barking, right on cue, the sound of his panting getting louder as he closes in. The first time this happened, I thought Basalt was going to crash into me, but now I know he is racing past. As I open my eyes again I see him, all wet fur and exuberance as he plunges into the surf and barks. Stupid dog, I think affectionately yet again. But unlike the first time, when he stank the car out on the way home, I feel a terrible longing to be with him.
I turn to face my daughter, her chubby legs paddling in the shallows, arms stretched up so her little hands can hold on to her father's thumbs. "Are you paddling, Mia?"
I can't see her face beneath the ridiculous sun hat's frills. But I can see Charlie's face already going pink, despite the sun cream. His ginger hair is already bleached white-blond in places and the freckles across his nose are a deeper browny orange than they were a month ago. He's watching Mia, smiling at her staccato steps and the way her legs jerk up, forward and down, the walking too new to be smoothed into an easy gait.
"We should have come here before!" he says. "Mia loves it!"
I look away, seeking the horizon. We couldn't come before but I won't say it. And the reason we're here isn't as pure as he thinks it is. It's not for Mia. It's for me. Selfish as ever, I wanted to come to this beach and make the recording to capture something precious. Something to take with me.
Charlie looks at me and I smile like everything is fine. I can see him searching my face for any signs of brittleness. We are reduced to this; even when I smile, he worries.
"We should go," I say. "You're starting to burn."
"I'll put on my hat." He lifts Mia out of the surf and earns a squeal of delight as he swings her across the sand ahead of him while taking giant strides. I watch them go back to the towel and the remains of the picnic, and listen to the babbles that Mia makes as they go.
I crouch, scooping up a palmful of sand so I can examine the grains and tiny shells. It's easier than watching my family. I know the first time I did this I was wondering when to tell them. How Charlie would take the news that I was leaving. I was lining up the arguments, ready to fling back at his inevitable anger and distress. Those thoughts weren't recorded though. Just what I saw and smelled and touched and heard.
Using my lenses to zoom in on the sand grains, I study the tiny shapes and colors that only magnification can reveal. I let most of the sand fall through my fingers and zoom in again on the specks left stuck to my skin. They resolve into the calcified shells of organisms that once lived in the sea, chips of coral and a peach-colored fragment of shell. Minuscule lumps of olivine have been tumbled smooth by the violence of the ocean, along with a few specks of quartz.
Even as I studied the microscopic world in my palm, I knew I should have gone over to Mia and Charlie. But I tried recording them close up during the picnic and I kept wanting to cry. I don't want to spoil today. I've done that too many times. Did; I did that too many times. I didn't want to spoil that day on the beach. It was supposed to be perfect.
But it is not enough.
I brush the last grains of sand from my hands, just like all the other times, and look down the coastline. I cannot help but identify the different strata of rock exposed in the cliffs. It's impossible to ignore the booming sound of the sea in a nearby cave that's been carved out by so many thousand years of relentless energy from the waves. Farther down the coastline, I see a stack of rock left standing in the sea, now looking like it was never once part of the cliff. Shading my eyes, I stare at it, imagining the way the sea beat against its former connection to the headland, how it bludgeoned the softer rock and made it crumble. I picture a rugged hole between it and the rest of the cliff, a gaping wound where the sea has smashed space between the stack and its source, a thin bridge of rock all that's left joining it to the land. Then I imagine that last connection collapsing, the roar of the rock plummeting into the sea, the stack left stranded out on its own.
"Anna," Charlie calls. "Come and have a drink."
I look at him and Mia, the stretch of sand between us, and feel as if my legs are rooted in place. I simply cannot cross the distance between us. "I'm fine, thanks," I call and turn back to the ocean.
Like all mersives, even full-sensory memory recordings get stale. I have echoes of the feelings that flooded me when I recorded this day, triggered by the associated neural pathways being lit up by my chip's playback, but weaker than when I first came back and sank into this recording. Those pathways have been distorted by all the other emotions experienced in the months since-not just diluted, but fundamentally changed, like those chips of olivine. The playback of this day on the beach has been tumbled by the wash of my thoughts and emotions, its sharp edges smoothed, its original raw shape softened. And now there is a new emotion being added to the churn, one I am trying my best to ignore.
I am afraid.
As soon as I acknowledge the fear, I try to suppress it. In some bizarre way I am surprised nothing is altering the force of the sunlight here. If this were a dream, a thunderhead would be blooming in the sky behind me. Its shadow would stretch across the sand, swallowing my own, whipping the gentle breeze into squally gusts and adding white crests to the waves. Mia and Charlie would look up at the gathering storm; she would probably start to cry, and he would hurriedly pack away the picnic as the sand stings his legs. We would all know something terrible is coming, something destructive that will end this fragile warmth and shift this haven of natural beauty into something that wants to scrub us from its presence with waves and rain.
But the sky remains blue and the cloud is nothing but an echo in my imagination, reverberating through mental corridors to where I am now, a long way away from its cause. Yes, I am on this beach and the sun is shining and my family are safe and happy. All is well.
Perhaps I could just stay here. Forever. Knowing my family are just over there, happy, better off without my being right there. Yes, better that I am over here, the water just a few steps away.
The woman's voice makes me jolt. This isn't part of the recording!
"Dr. Kubrin, the connection has been made now. You need to end immersion and disembark."
Stupidly, I look around for the source of the voice. Connection? What is she talking about?
"You need to end immersion now, Dr. Kubrin, or I'll take steps to do that myself. It's time for you to disembark. You've arrived."
"Arrived?" I look around the beach. I've been here forever, haven't I?
"Yes, Dr. Kubrin. You're disoriented due to immersion, prolonged solitude from the trip and being in a low-g environment. There's nothing to worry about."
"Arrived where?" I ask.
There's a pause. "On Mars, Dr. Kubrin. You've arrived on Mars."
The waves pause, impossibly, and the sound of the sea ends with an awful, swift finality that feels frightening on a deep level. I go to turn around, to take one last look at Charlie and Mia before I leave the beach, but of course, I can't. This is a recording, not a fully rendered virtual environment.
There is a moment of total darkness, and then I see the interior of the craft that's been my home for the past six months. I look down at my body, encased in the flight suit I cannot wait to take off (and burn, if I had my way) instead of the blue summer dress from the mersive. I'm a stone lighter than I was when it was recorded, fitter than I've ever been in my life, even taking into account the inevitable decline caused by the journey here. I throw a glance at the door to the mini-centrifuge. I'd burn that whole section of the craft too, if I could.
It's nothing like the spacecraft in the mersives I played when my chip was first implanted, and even just calling it that seems wrong. There's no consideration of a pleasing aesthetic in the design, no smooth lines or sleek panels hiding all the tech behind them. Practically every inch is filled with equipment designed to keep me alive and, where possible, comfortable. There's just enough space for me to stretch out my entire body in the main section, positioned right behind the seat I'm in now, but that's it. The rest of the craft-little more than a glorified rocket-is filled with cargo and the pod that's designed to keep my body working properly on the journey over. I'm just the sort of cargo that has more demanding needs.
The large screen in front of me is filled with the communication between my rocket's AI and the Mars Principia base. I scan it, catching up on what's happened since I immersed, in an effort to convince my brain that I am actually in the cockpit of a rocket recently landed on Mars and not on a beach on Earth.
Most of the "conversation" between the two AIs relates to a problem with the connecting corridor between the base and my craft-the connection that woman mentioned-which has been resolved. I've got a green light to disembark. It's all I've wanted to do since I climbed into this bloody tin can, and now, strangely, I find myself reluctant. For a moment I consider looking through the external cams but decide against it. I've seen enough of Mars through a camera lens. The next time I look at it, I want it to be with my own eyes, with only the plasglass of my helmet between me and the view.
An icon flashes on the screen, indicating an incoming call. I'm confused by the lack of a corresponding ping from my neural chip's Artificial Personal Assistant before realizing I must have disabled that feature. I haven't needed it for months. I answer the call with a two-second-long stare at the icon and the screen shifts to show the face of a woman I recognize from my briefing. It's Dr. Arnolfi, neurophysiologist and psychiatrist. Her hair is a sandy brown, her large eyes blue with long lashes. She looks older than I expected though, in her early sixties at least and tired enough that her face borders on haggard. I wonder how long ago the picture of her included in the briefing files was taken. Probably before she went to Mars. That was only a year or so ago and she looks at least ten years older. Shit, is this what this assignment will do to my face? Perhaps she was too vain to have a more up-to-date picture taken.
She smiles and I force myself to return it. I'm out of practice. "Welcome to Mars, Dr. Kubrin. I'm very sorry about the delay. Some dust interfered with one of the instruments, giving us a false reading so the umbilical corridor wouldn't attach and form an airtight seal. It's been resolved now."
I nod. Then I remember I should reply straightaway. "I see. Good. Thank you."
"It's very common for new arrivals to feel a reluctance to disembark," Arnolfi says, "no matter how much they've looked forward to leaving the ship. Leaving a place that has become familiar in a time of upheaval can be difficult. It's perfectly normal to feel a variety of emotions that may seem contradictory."
I frown, bristling at the way she has decided how I feel and commented on it as if I asked for a diagnosis. Bloody psychiatrists. They're all the same. "I'll be out in a couple of minutes. I just want to check a couple of things first." I'll leave when I'm ready.
She nods, but I can tell she doesn't believe my excuse. "These will be a challenging few days for you, with a huge amount of new information to assimilate. We're all looking forward to meeting you properly and will do anything we can to make your stay here rewarding and comfortable." There's a sense of her managing me, a firmness to her suggestions, probably to challenge my inertia. Her confidence and professional manner are impressive but they don't make me warm to her.
"Thank you," I say.
I don't like her. I end the call and stare at the blank screen, trying to work out why I've made such a snap judgment. She seems friendly enough. Polite. I want to put it down to the fact that she's the first person I've interacted with in real time for six months, but I know the truth. It's because she's responsible for my mental health here. She'll have read my file. She knows me far better than I know her, and that sticks in my craw.
The hatch lock is displaying a green light for the first time since it was closed, indicating it is safe to unlock and open the door. I release the harness that holds me snugly in the seat and feel a small thrill at the fact that I don't immediately start to float off. My head aches and I'm already tired, even with the weaker Mars gravity. I dread to think what I'll feel like when I return to Earth and back to feeling gravity three times stronger. There's a doctor here though, and I'll be checked over right away. That, I'm not looking forward to.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
No zombies or monsters -- yeah! A psychological puzzle to solve on a Mars base financed by a billionaire oligarch. Nice futuristic tech but gadgets not overdone; characters more important here. Good for fans of Newman prior books Planetfall & After Atlas, but After Mars easily stands on its own with only a few ties to the previous books. Eagerly looking forward to Newman's next novel in this interesting future world.