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First Morning on Mars

Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester; now she writes stories about sad astronauts and angry princesses. Her work also appears in Analog, Fireside, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and with Bennett North, she co-edits Translunar Travelers Lounge, a zine for fun and optimistic speculative fiction.

My first morning on Mars, I read the news from back home--the stuff the corporation let us read. Nothing about which side controlled the south side of the Saint Lawrence now, or the dysentery outbreak that had been raging in the Hennepin County camps right before we launched. Never any stories that might damage morale, of course. Instead I slurped a coffee pouch and perused an article about us.
The headline was "65 Astronauts Aboard the Prospect to Reach Mars Tomorrow." Technically, tomorrow was already today, but the truly glaring error was the number given. Most of us weren't astronauts. Being an astronaut required training, education. Opportunity. I guess "warm bodies" just didn't have the same eye-catching headline appeal. And "12 Astronauts and 53 Destitute Climate Refugees Willing To Sign Their Name to Anything for a Few Years of Secure Housing (Sure, Space Is Fine, Even, Whatever)" wouldn't have fit.
I slammed a protein bar, the honey-caramel kind that at least have enough sweetness to cover the flavor of the algae, and peeled myself out of my sleep-sack to use the head. A few of the others showed signs of life; Vasquez had pulled a sweater on over her worksuit and Higgins was groping around in his kit for a coffee pouch of his own.
"Look alive," I said, and poked Levvie in the side through their sleep-sack. We were both on construction detail and we needed to get the cafeteria module assembled. In ten or twelve days, we'd have real drip coffee to wake up to. That was a privilege even the astronauts watching us from orbit didn't get.
In a few days, the life support team would get the water reconstitution system running too, but on the first day the head was still just a giant tank of piss. I didn't linger before checking in with the comms guy who'd had the night radio shift. "Nothing new," he said, not looking up from the porn streaming on his handheld. Would've been nice to know how he got around the censor codes, but he wasn't sharing. "Seattle's still a go for day one as planned."
No one else had arrived at the suiting pod yet so I sat down and finished reading the article I'd started with my coffee. Unless you like spontaneous decompression, it's better to suit up with the EV team's help than try to blunder through it on your own. Better, and also a lot more mandatory.
The article itself improved on the headline--it didn't call us "astronauts" and it even broke us down by which regions we'd come from. It called us "the work crew," or where the writer wanted to invoke the Corporation, "Titan United's work crew." Good use of apostrophe. We did belong to them, more or less, for the duration, so bonus points for technical accuracy there. Titan United's indentured servants, maybe. That shoe fit, but I didn't like to wear it for long.
The article also didn't stumble into the other common pitfall, which was to refer to us as "colonists." Colonists come to stay. We were only there long enough to throw down the welcome mat and make the place presentable for its actual future inhabitants. The piece ended: By the time their term is up, the crew will have built habitat for two hundred thousand people. That's not enough to relieve the population pressures on the home front. But it's a start.
I noticed the writer hadn't called us "Martians" either, which was always offensive as hell and happened all too often anyway. We weren't aliens and anyway no one called the folks who were building the deep earth habs "mole men." Yet.
Levvie had pulled up by then, the other construction stragglers not far behind them, and Nique and Mar from EV too. Together we hauled the suits out of their lockers and forced ourselves inside the still-stiff fabric, shoved our feet into boots, checked all the seals twice and ran the prep checklist three times to make sure first-day nerves weren't going to get anyone out of their contract term five years and 364 days too early.
When we finally shuffled into the airlock, Levvie had woken up enough to have a grin plastered across their face. The joy of being able to lift 150-pound wall units like they were just a 50-pound climate camp rice bag wasn't going to wear off anytime soon for them. "You ready for this?"
"Sure." The lock popped and I stepped out under a blue sky, so much brighter than the gray scum that's currently wrapped around the earth. Levvie bounced off toward the material drop and the others trudged after.
This time I was the one lagging behind. I only weighed 50 pounds here, but I felt heavy. My boots scuffed the ground, and I looked down instead of up. Fine red soil, where a lot of boots had already made a mark. Mine included. I squinted at the patterns of tracks like it was supposed to mean something, and I realized that maybe it did. And maybe not to anyone else. Certainly not to any politicians or camp managers or reporters or anything. But one person was enough, as long as the one person was me.
I walked out around the side of the hab pod and lifted one toe. "Mackenzie Morales Just was here," I wrote, underneath where the floor slab would be unrolled, where no wind or foot would ever disturb it.
Then I went to join the others. Habitat doesn't build itself, after all.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 30th, 2020
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