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There are a thousand shades of brown.
My scooter skimmed above the surface so fast the ground blurred, kicking up a wake of dust that hazed from the color of dried blood to beige, depending on the angle of light. Ahead, rust-colored hills made chocolate-colored shadows. The plains before the hills were tan, but in a few hours they’d be vivid, blush-colored, beautiful. Right now, the sun was low, a spike of light rising from the rocky horizon in the early morning. The sky above was pale cinnamon.
I had nothing to do today. Classes were over, I hadn’t started my internship at the astrodrome yet. So I went riding, just out, as far and as fast as I could. A track ran around the perimeter of the colony—a service road, really, but no official vehicles went out at this hour, so I had it to myself. Made one circuit, then headed to the open plain, avoiding weather stations, mining units, and other obstacles. I revved the engine, the battery did its job, and the lifts popped me half a meter into the air. Dust flew behind me, and I crouched over the handlebars, sucking air through my mask, blinking behind my goggles. The wind beating against me would be cold, but I was warm and safe inside my environment suit. I could ride around the whole planet like this.
“Polly? Are you there?” The voice of Charles, my twin brother, burst over the comm in my helmet. Of course it was Charles. Who else would want to ruin my perfect morning?
“What?” I grumbled. If I could turn off the helmet radio I would, but the safety default meant it stayed on.
“Mom wants to see us.”
“Would I have bothered calling you otherwise? Of course now. Get back here.”
“Why couldn’t she call me herself?”
“She’s a busy woman, Polly. Stop arguing.”
Charles and I were only nominally twins, in that we were uncorked at the same time and grew up together. But I’m really older because my embryo was frozen first. My unique collection of DNA has been in existence in the universe longer than his. Never mind that Mom decided later that she wanted a girl and a boy rather than just a girl, and that she then decided that it would be fun to have them together instead of one after the other. Or maybe she thought she’d save time that way, raising two babies at once. At any rate, I was frozen first, then Charles was. I’m older.
But as Charles always pointed out, we’ve been viable human beings for exactly the same amount of time. The seals on our placental canisters were popped at exactly the same moment, and we took our first breaths within seconds of each other. We watched the video twenty times to be sure. I didn’t even have the benefit of being five minutes older like a natural-born twin would. We were twins, exactly the same age. Charles was right. He was always right.
I would never admit that out loud.
“Okay. Fine.” I slowed the scooter, turning in a wide arc and heading for home. I’d gone farther than I’d thought. I couldn’t see the bunkers over the garages, air locks, and elevators leading down to the colony, but I knew which way to go and how to get there, and if I got off track, the homing beacon on the scooter would point the way. But I didn’t get lost.
* * *
I took my time cleaning up and putting things away, waiting in the air lock while vacuums sucked away every last speck of Martian dust from my suit, putting the scooter through the scrubber so not a particle of grit would get into the colony air system. Once everything was clean, I checked the scooter back into its bay and folded my suit and breather into my locker. I put the air tank in with a rack of empties for a technician to refill. I carefully double-checked everything, because you always double-checked everything when things like clean air and functional environment suits were involved, but no matter how long I took with the chores, it wouldn’t be long enough. I couldn’t put off talking to Mom forever. So I brushed the creases out of my jumpsuit and pulled my brown hair into a tail to try to make it look decent. Not that it helped.
The office of Supervisor Martha Newton, director of Colony One operations, was the brain of the entire settlement, overseeing the engineering and environmental workstations, computer banks, monitors, controls, and surveillance that kept everything running. The place bustled, various department heads and their people, all in Mars-brown uniforms, passing along the corridor, ducking into rooms, studying handheld terminals, speaking urgently. It was all critical and productive, which was exactly how Mom liked it. Supervisor Newton herself had a private room in the back of operations. Her office as well as her house, practically—she kept a fold-away cot there, and a stack of self-heating meal packets in one of the cupboards for when she worked late. Some days she didn’t come home. Usually, when she wasn’t sleeping or fixing casseroles, she kept the place clean, spotless, like a laboratory. Nothing cluttered her gray alloy desk except the computer screen tilted toward the chair. Two more chairs sat on the other side of the desk. The cot, her jacket, and emergency breather were tucked in a closet with a seamless door; her handheld and other office detritus remained hidden in a drawer. A window in back looked over the central atrium gardens. Anyone entering, seeing her sitting there, expression serene, would think she ran all of Colony One by telepathy. I wouldn’t put it past her.
When I finally arrived, sliding open the door, she was sitting just like that, back straight, her brown hair perfectly arranged in a bob, wearing neither a frown nor a smile. Her beige-and-brown uniform was clean, neatly pressed, buttoned at the collar—perfect.
Charles was already here, slouching in one of the extra chairs. My brother had grown ten centimeters in the last year, and his legs stuck out like he didn’t know what to do with them. I’d been taller than him before last year. Now he stared down at me and made jokes about my scalp.
They both looked at me, and I felt suddenly self-conscious. My jumpsuit was wrinkled, my hair was already coming loose, and I could feel the chill morning air still burning on my cheeks. I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t been out racing on the scooter for no reason at all. Maybe she wouldn’t ask.
“Polly, thank you for coming,” Mom said. As if I’d had a choice. As if I could find a place on the whole planet where she couldn’t find me. “Have a seat.”
I pulled up the other chair and sat; the three of us were at the points of an equilateral triangle. I wondered what Charles and I had done to get in trouble. This wasn’t about taking the scooter out, was it? I couldn’t think of anything else I’d done that she didn’t already know about. Charles was usually too smart to get caught when he did things like hack a mining rover or borrow gene-splicing lab equipment to engineer blue strawberries just to see if he could. I glanced at him, trying to get a hint, but he wouldn’t look at me.
We waited, expectant. Mom seemed to be studying us. The corners of her lips turned up, just a bit, which confused me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing at all,” she said. “Just the opposite, in fact. I’m sorry—I was just thinking about how quickly time passes. It seems like yesterday you were both still learning how to walk.”
This was starting to get weird. She usually talked about how much better she liked us once we started walking and talking and acting like actual people instead of needy babies. Mom wasn’t a fan of neediness.
She rearranged her hands, leaned forward, and even seemed excited. Happy, almost. “I’ve got some really good news. I’ve secured a wonderful opportunity for the both of you. You’re going to the Galileo Academy.”
Frowning, Charles straightened. I blinked at him, wondering what he knew that I didn’t. I said, “What’s that?” The way she said it made me think I should have heard of it.
“It’s on Earth,” Charles said flatly.
“You’re sending us to Earth?” I said, horrified.
Earth was old, grubby, crowded, archaic, backward, stifling—the whole point of being on Mars, at Colony One, was to get away from Earth. Why would she send us back there?
“This is a wonderful school, the best there is. Kids from all over the system go there, and you’ll get to learn and do so many things you’d never have a chance to if you stayed here.” She was eager, trying to sell us on the idea. Trying hard to make it sound like the best thing ever and not the disaster it was. This was clearly for her, not us. This was going to be good for her.
I wanted to get up and throw the chair into a wall, just to make noise. I wanted to either scream or cry—both options seemed reasonable.
But I only declared, “No. I don’t want to go.”
“It’s already settled,” Mom said. “You’re going.”
“But what about my internship? I’m supposed to start at the astrodrome next week. I’m supposed to start flying, really flying—” No more skimmers and scooters and suborbital shuttles, I was going to bust out of the atmosphere, get into pilot training and starships. I didn’t want to do anything else, much less go to school on Earth.
“The astrodrome will still be there when you’re finished,” she said.
“Finished when? How long is this going to take?”
“The program is three years.”
I had to do math in my head. “Their years or ours? How long is it really?”
“Polly, I thought you’d be excited about this,” she said, like it was my fault my life was falling apart before my eyes. “It’ll be your first interplanetary trip—you’re always talking about how you want to get into space—”
“As a pilot, not as baggage, just to end up dirtside on Earth. And you didn’t even ask! Why didn’t you ask if I wanted to go?”
Her frown hardened. The supervisor expression—she was right, everyone else was wrong. “Because I’m your mother, and I know what’s best.”
How was I supposed to argue with that?
I crossed my arms and glared. “I don’t want to go. You can’t make me.”
“I’ve already let the supervisors at your internships know that you won’t be participating. The next Earthbound passenger ship leaves in two weeks—you’re allowed five kilos of personal cargo. Most of your supplies, uniforms and the like, will be provided by the school, so you shouldn’t need to take much with you.”
“Five kilos on Mars or Earth?” Charles asked. He’d been scheduled to start an internship in colony operations. He’d run the planet within a decade. We both had plans.
“Mom, I’m not going,” I said.
“Yes, Polly, you are.”
Charles hadn’t moved, and he still wouldn’t look at me. Why wasn’t he saying anything? Why wasn’t he arguing with her? He didn’t actually want to go, did he?
If he wasn’t going to help, I’d have to do this myself, then. “I’ll submit a petition to the council. I’m old enough to declare emancipation, I can still get that internship—”
“Not without my approval—”
“If I declare emancipation I won’t need your approval!”
“—without my approval as director of operations,” she said.
That was a really dirty trick. That was pulling rank. And it wasn’t fair. Charles raised a brow, as if this had suddenly gotten interesting.
Mom took a breath, indicating that I’d riled her, which was a small comfort. “Polly, you need to plan long term here. If you finish at Galileo Academy, you’ll be able to pick your piloting program. You’ll qualify for a program on Earth. You’ll be captaining starships in half the time you would be if you went through the astrodrome program here.”
Right now my plan was interning at the astrodrome between semesters learning maintenance, traffic control, and support positions like navigation and communication. I’d have to finish school, then try for an apprenticeship while I applied for piloting-certification programs—and no one ever got into a program on the first try, the process was so competitive. I’d have to keep working, adding to my résumé until I finally made it, and then add on a couple of years for the program itself.
If what she said was true, this Galileo Academy was impressive enough that I could get into a piloting program on my first try. Which sounded too good to be true. She held this out as the shiniest lure she could find, and I was furious that I was ready to buy in to the scheme.
I’d had a plan. She could have at least warned me that she was plotting behind my back.
“But why does it have to be Earth?” My voice had gotten smaller, like now that the shouting was done I was going to have to start crying. I clamped down on the impulse.
“Because everything goes back to Earth eventually.” She looked at my brother. “Charles? Do you have anything you want to say?”
“No,” he said. “You’re right, it sounds like a wonderful opportunity.” I couldn’t tell if he was mocking her or not. He might have been serious and mocking at the same time.
Her smile was thin. “I’ll be home for supper tonight. We’ll talk more about it then.”
Dismissed, like a couple of her underlings. I stormed out of the office, Charles following more calmly, and the door slid closed behind us. We walked home. A straight corridor led to a another corridor, long and curving, that circled the entire colony. Plenty of time for stomping before we got to the residential section and our quarters. Not that Charles stomped. He seemed oddly calm.
“Why?” I asked him. “Why is she doing this to us?”
“You should look at it as an opportunity, not a prison sentence.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“My guess? She wants us to know what Earth is like. For real, not just in the propaganda.”
That actually made sense. “Okay. But why?”
He looked at me down his nose. The don’t-you-ever-think? look. “It’s where we’re from.”
“We’re from Mars,” I said.
“‘We’ as in humanity are from Earth. The dominant political, social, and economic structures that define us are still dependent on Earth.”
“So we’re just supposed to automatically think Earth is great.”
“It might not be so bad. It might even be interesting.”
“There’s got to be a way we can get out of it.”
We walked a few steps, and I thought he was thinking, coming up with a plan to get out of it. I was depending on him coming up with a plan.
“I don’t think I want to get out of it,” he said, and my heart sank.
“It’s only a few years. And you’ll get into a piloting program afterward. Why are you arguing?”
I was arguing because my world had been turned upside down and shaken in a way it never had before, and I didn’t much like it.
* * *
Two weeks at home before I had to leave for years. Years. Nobody left Mars. People came to Mars, because it was better, for the jobs and the wide-open spaces and the chance to be part of something new and great like the colonies. That was why our grandparents had come here. Mom was one of the first of the new generation born on Mars, and Charles and I were the second. Mars wasn’t a frontier anymore, it was home. People came here with the expectation that they would never leave. And why would they? Going back and forth was hard enough—expensive enough—that you couldn’t just pop in for a visit. If you came, if you left, it was for years, and that was that.
But people did leave, because a ship departed for Earth every two months. Mom must have known about this for a while to book me and Charles far enough in advance. She didn’t tell us about it because she knew we’d try to dodge. Or, I would try to dodge. She didn’t want to spend months arguing with me.
I lay on the grassy lawn in the middle of the colony’s main atrium. Partially sunk underground, a lensed dome let in and amplified the sun, feeding the lush plants, trees, flowers, and shrubs. The light above me was a filtered, golden glow, and beyond it lay pink sky. I wanted to memorize the scene.
My best friend, Beau, lay beside me. We held hands. I didn’t want to ever let go. I’d told him the news, and he’d taken it like Charles had—matter-of-fact, maybe even curious. “You’ll get to see the ship. Aren’t you even excited about that?” I was, but after all the carrying on I’d done, I wouldn’t admit that. The ship would be carrying me away from home, which put a damper on the whole experience.
“What if I pretended to be sick? If they think I have a cold or the flu or something they won’t let me on the ship.”
“They’ll test to see what you have and find out you don’t have anything.”
“I could catch something for real. There’s got to be some virus culture in the med lab.”
He glanced at me. “You try that, you’ll catch something worse than a cold.”
He was right. The lab mostly had cultures of bacteria collected from under the polar ice caps—Martian microfauna. It probably wouldn’t do anything to me. Or it’d kill me outright.
I sighed. “I’m supposed to want to go. Mom keeps telling me what a great opportunity this is. I think she’s just trying to get rid of me.”
“Then maybe you should look at it that way—you won’t have your mother looking over your shoulder every minute of the day anymore.”
I had to smile at that. Communications between Earth and Mars had a ten- to twenty-minute time lag. She’d never be able to interrogate me like she did here. She’d still keep an eye on me, sure, but the news she got would always be at least ten minutes old. That was something.
“Yeah, but she’ll just make Charles keep an eye on me.”
Beau reflexively looked around, an instinctive check to see if Charles was eavesdropping. I couldn’t have said whether my brother was or wasn’t. I couldn’t do anything about it one way or another—if I caught him at one trick, he’d find another—so I let it go. But Beau hadn’t grown up with him, so he wasn’t used to it. After a moment, he settled back down.
“Your brother’s kind of weird.”
“He’s just Charles,” I said.
We stayed silent for a long moment. A vent came on, and the leaves on the tallest tree fluttered. I listened to Beau breathe, soft and steady.
“I’m going to miss you,” he said.
I looked at him, tears stinging my eyes. I didn’t know what to say or do, so I rolled over, put my arm around him, and rested my head on his chest. He put his arms around me, and we stayed like that until we had to go home for supper.
Copyright © 2016 by Carrie Vaughn