Today's Reading

The first thing I'm supposed to do on waking is check my blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. If there are any complications, my body could go south quickly. Me? I'm more concerned with the adult diaper wrapped around my waist and the squishy gunk it's absorbed over the months in transit. When I said I felt like shit, I wasn't kidding. Medical checks can wait.

Su-shun stirs in one of the other compartments. Unlike the movies, we don't get designer sleeping pods with fancy readouts and smooth Ferrari-like curves. There's nothing glamorous about our deep sleep quarters. A metal coffin would be more luxurious and far more comfortable. The compartments are little more than stowage space in the floor of the craft.

I grab a bunch of wet wipes and carefully pry off the diaper, cleaning as I go. This wasn't in the travel brochures. If there's one bonus to being weightless, it's that you can contort your body into any shape you want without falling over. I'm so busy dealing with a thin crust of I-don't-want-to-know on the inside of my thigh, I barely realize I'm tumbling in a slow-motion somersault. After cleaning up and stuffing the waste in a disposal bag, I slip on my track pants and change into a fresh shirt.

I'm cold. When I initially woke, I felt strangely warm, but for the past nine months, my body has hovered between fifty and sixty degrees Fahrenheit. In science fiction, it's called suspended animation. Technically, it's controlled hypothermia.

Us astronauts call it torture.

On departing Mars orbit, we were placed into medically induced comas. Our blood was pumped out and briefly replaced with a saline solution to drop our core body temperature so fast that within five minutes, we'd cooled to a point of cellular hibernation. Our blood was circulated at a cooled temperature after being oxygenated and cleaned by a machine so our internal organs could rest. The military developed the technique to treat battlefield trauma and sustain life when soldiers go into shock from blood loss. The concept is similar to kidney dialysis.

I don't know how bears deal with hibernation, but I'm damn sure it's a lot less painful for them.

The brain is the key. Cool the brain. Don't let warm blood get to it and you can extend the survivability of a corpse for hours instead of minutes, and these days up to a year. In essence, it's like falling through the ice. It's the only way to survive long-term in space with limited resources. Without such a process, the amount of food, water, and energy we'd need would make the Mars transit nigh on impossible. Without this process, the Herschel could only transport one or two people at a time. Using sleep pods, we can take up to sixteen. On this trip, though, there's only three in use.

I blink, and for that brief moment, I'm back on Mars. Red dust kicks up beneath my boots. Brittle rocks line an ancient riverbed, meandering for miles through a vast network of desiccated canyons. Debris lies scattered at the base of the cliffs on either side of us, having crumbled long before our species emerged from Africa. An overcast, brooding sky beckons us to take flight. We walk toward the ascent vehicle, just the three of us—Wen and Su-shun representing the Chinese team, and me from the U.S. contingent. The Russians refused to recall anyone.

We all dreamed of this moment—returning to Earth after living beneath Mars for a couple of years—only, in our dreams we returned as heroes, bringing with us research samples that could reveal the greatest scientific discovery in human history—the possibility of life arising independently on another world. But in reality, there's resignation, defeat. Our colony is in ruins. Instead of exploring, we've been struggling to survive, and now three of us have been called back to Earth to give an account of what went wrong.

Why us three specifically, though? I'm a research collection specialist. Hardly an essential skill back at base when at the moment, simply producing enough air, water, and food to make it through the day is the biggest challenge. One less mouth won't be missed.

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