Communication with Earth failed on day four. Dr. Sperling-Pierce glued herself to the comms cube for six hours straight, flipping switches and muttering to herself.
I was just happy she wasn’t talking to me for a change.
From all the way on the other side of the MarsAlpha 300 Habitat Module (we called it the Hab for short), I sensed her attention shift toward the physical maintenance pod, where I was doing half-hearted leg lifts. I usually know when something bad is about to happen, though never with never detail to prevent it. Not that I mentioned any of this during the hundreds of hours of psych evals leading up to this mission. “Don’t give them everything,” my Nana warned me when I got accepted into the MarsAlpha program. “Keep some part of you for yourself.”
Nothing tingled over losing contact with Earth. So that was a good sign. We were here to survive, and we would, so long as the life-sustaining machines continued to function.
Earth kept adjusting the parameters of the mission, tweaking it slightly here and there. They’d had us run so many emergency drills in the first three days; my cortisol levels needed to recover. Now I could focus on my pre-planned responsibilities without having to endure a change in the meal rotation because some over-caffeinated human behaviorist had a midnight revelation. Our diets were a big concern for Earth. Most recently, our benevolent handlers decided that since most of our food was liquified, none of us were doing enough chewing.
Phase One: Invulnerability
“Dr. Lux?” Sperling-Pierce’s footsteps ricocheted in the corridor. I considered hiding behind the elliptical machine. “Oh, there you are.” Her eyes darted to my legs. “Working hard, huh?”
“Something I can help you with?”
Dr. Sperling-Pierce had wild, wavy hair that danced around her face, which was
objectively charming, but her face was always squished in worry. I got worried just looking at her, so I tried not to.
“You may have noticed that I’m the only one here trying to reach Earth. I need a bio-
break. Can you take over for a while or are you too busy?” She arched one eyebrow at the
wrinkled papers clutched in my left hand. The mission shrinks had our friends and family
handwrite letters. These were supposed to help us get through the isolation and keep us mentally and emotionally fit.
“My job is making sure everything works, including the gym equipment. I don’t have to tell you that the Hab is a finely tuned organism. Every piece is a sum of the whole.” I didn’t like Dr. Sperling-Pierce enough to share how I really felt: that it was a poor design to connect all the life-sustaining machines through the main computer.
“Then surely part of your job would be to fix the communications system, wouldn’t you say?”
“I already checked out our side. You were looming over me, remember? It’s a ‘them
problem’ and I’m sure Earth is working on it. What more can we do?”
“We are first-rate, top-of-our-fields engineers and scientists, Dr. Lux, but we are not
gods. We will need extensive support for this mission. Now I’m wondering if you’re taking this seriously enough.”
I gestured to the space around us, which, in the immediate vicinity, at least, was just a cube of thin but sturdy walls. But I meant to include everything with my hand waving, the whole dangerous planet that loomed outside. “I’m taking this deadly seriously.”
Dr. Daniels and Mission Commander Ng refused to sit on comms for her either, since I found them in the Hab’s Cafe, disputing optimal growing layouts for the greenhouse. The
Commander has knife-like cheekbones and long lashes that don’t require makeup to be full and dark, giving off an unintentionally seductive quality that I would guess she’s been fighting against her whole life. Daniels is Canadian. He doesn’t take up too much space, I’ll give him that. They both nodded at me in a friendly way as I bounced in. Nonetheless, I chose the other consumption bay to wolf down my FDURB—a flattened and dehydrated, then unflattened and rehydrated banana. I ate quickly to avoid another run in with Dr. Sperling-Pierce, but she didn’t show up for the meal break.
A Dutch firm, GLG-Garx Lingles Group, designed the Hab, though they were better
known for designing velodromes than for keeping humans contained and alive for almost a year on an inhospitable planet. Every hard edge was curved and rounded down to protect us from ourselves. There was genuine worry that one of us might use a hard edge to break open our skull on day 145 because we were missing our Nana’s 90th birthday, for example. To reach my personal chamber, I had to pass the GLG digital day counter—a rectangular box with rounded corners, white, six-inch numbers flipping over on a black screen, some kind of serif font. To announce the arrival of a new day, the counter clicked and whistled, then made the sound of a card deck being shuffled very skillfully. The Counter said it was only day five. My break in mental health was a while off yet.
Phase Two: Coping
The bed, as imagined by the sadists at GLG, was essentially a sleeping bag encased inside a rigid coffin-sized carton and hanging, hammock-style, near the roof of the habitat to save space. From an inert, strapped-in position, my nose was an inch below the ceiling. For the first couple nights, I’d tried the prescribed virtual reality headset, which sent me down a swirling, hypnotic journey through tunnels of color and pulsing rhythm. It made me queasy. I preferred to glue my eyes closed and follow my own thoughts away from the claustrophobic reality of my canvas chrysalis. Tonight, my imagination ferried me 126 million miles away, back to Utah.
Heck, Bran, the whole town is so freaking proud of you. They even put your name on the sign outside the carpet store off the highway. Every time I drive by, I see, “Congratulations, Dr. Brandi Lux. MarsAlpha 300!” And I’m proud of you too. And, for what it’s worth, I’m really sorry how things went down with your sister.
And at the bottom of the letter, a squiggle that might have been a heart followed by the letter G. I’d bet a hundred FDURBs that my Nana made Geoff write it. I’d read the looping handwriting slanting down the wrinkled, unlined page until I’d memorized it. This letter would keep me sane for the next two hundred and ninety-five days.
“Dr. Lux?” Commander Ng whispered from right below my head. “Are you presently
Curiosity won out over pretending to be asleep already. “Yeah. What’s up?”
“Dr. Daniels has suggested that since the communications remain down and therefore, we are unlikely to receive Earth assignments during this time, we might consider logging one of the more extracurricular experiments, specifically, the proposed engagement in physical intimacy.”
“Yeah, okay, good thinking.” I flexed my neck and cracked it on both sides. “All of us?”
“For the time being, I recommend limiting this experiment to three. Dr. Sperling-Pierce is currently preoccupied.”
“Agreed. Great. Where are we doing this?”
“My personal chamber is the most spacious. Are you available to convene there in five minutes?”
“Yep. Roger. See you then.” I had to wait for her to leave to extract myself from the
sleeping pod. The Hab’s lighting system was programmed to mimic the circadian rhythms of Earth, so the corridor was pleasantly dim, like the high-end spa that I went to for my cousin’s bridal shower.
Earth, our great overseers, had asked us during initiation—albeit in a tactful, roundabout way—to stretch the parameters of the mission to the fullest. They wanted to better understand the effects of long-duration space exploration. Don’t be afraid to really get to know each other, the MarsAlpha handlers had said, barely succeeding at not winking. Our mission was an early step in setting up a permanent settlement on Mars. The mission shrinks wanted us to perform many of the activities that humans do on Earth: table tennis, passive-aggressivity, genetically modifying tomatoes, and of course, sex.
I’m an engineer, so naturally I’ve been to my share of orgies. This one ranked highly in my experience. Commander Ng and Dr. Daniels, like me, had been screened for optimal physical stamina to join this mission. I can always tell when someone is excited about something that I’m doing, and I’ll leave it at that. Since this isn’t the official logbook, I’m not going to get into all the sexy details. Suffice it to say that I won’t be making unnecessary eye contact with Commander Ng for several days at least.
I don’t think any of us were actively keeping the group experiment from Dr. Sperling-
Pierce, but no one came out and told her what had happened. She must have picked up on the slight change in atmosphere in the Hab or investigated the mission logs, because she stomped into the Cafe on day six looking like someone heavy had sat on her dog.
“Good morning, team.” She stepped on the last word and rubbed her shoe into it. “Is
everyone still recuperating from their fuckfest?”
Commander Ng stood up, a little wobbly from the gravity boosters, but defiant. “Dr.
Sperling-Pierce, as a valued member of this crew, I’m sure you can appreciate that I take the safety and security of this team paramount to all else. While the three of us were otherwise occupied with an Earth-recommended scientific experiment, I deemed, as the commander of this mission, that one member of the team must remain alert at all times. No one doubts your commitment to this mission, doctor. I thank you.”
Dr. Sperling-Pierce looked nonplussed at this stiff speech, but she didn’t argue.
“Whatever. I was just coming to let everyone know that there has been a breakthrough with comms. I think Earth ‘blipped’ at us for a second and then I heard another, longer beep. Does anyone know Morse Code?”
Dr. Daniels raised the hand still gripping his morning FDURB. “Yeah, I learned it in the Canadian Navy.” Daniels reminds us that he’s Canadian at least once a day. It’s so boring. No one cares. This is still an American Mars mission.
“Good. Come with me.” Dr. Sperling-Pierce didn’t wait for him to follow. Daniels
looked at me and the Commander and shrugged.
Continue to Part 2 of “Containment” on July 19, 2023.
About the Author
D.S.G. Burke (she/her) lives and writes in New York City with her fiancé and a cat named Android. Her writing has appeared in The Seattle Times, The Opiate Magazine, Thereafter Magazine, and the 3Elements Literary Review. Find her at www.dsgburke.com or on Threads/Twitter @dsgburke—where she’s usually hyping up composting.