Down to Mars

Ever since she was a little girl, Kammi had dreamed of going to the Red Planet. Be careful what you wish for.

Alexander Chee
Alexander Chee is the author of the novels "The Queen of the Night" and "Edinburgh." He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, an editor at large at VQR and Lit Hub, and a critic at large for The Los Angeles Times. He teaches creative writing as an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College.
Alexander Chee
22 min read

This is part of CNET's Technically Literate series, which presents original works of short fiction with unique perspectives on technology.

She had wanted to go to Mars for so long, it was hard to remember why.

On her family's first trip to New York, as she was dragged through Times Square, hypnotized by the sheets of electric color shooting into the night, she noticed an obelisk with MARS 2112 glowing on the next block like a dream. It was a theme restaurant, as she discovered, once inside. Expensive, silly, with actors costumed as bumpy-headed Martians, serving overpriced food. They had dinner in the "Crystal Crater" in a room decorated like a set from the first science fiction movies: colorful foam rocks and funny aliens, everything lit up by black lights and glowing. She couldn't remember what she ate that night, but she remembered the magic of feeling she had met a Martian. She was 8 years old.

The real Mars wasn't anything like that, of course. When she finally arrived, 25 years later, it looked a little like Arizona, or Utah. The tough parts. The parts you didn't want to break down in. She asked an engineer about the Crystal Crater shortly after her arrival, and he had looked at her, confused, until he said, "Do you mean... Gusev Crater? The silica fields?"

"Yes, that's it." She was lying, of course. And then she had to listen to his explanation, hiding her humiliation, and acting interested as he spoke of how the silica was a sign that life had possibly been sustained here, and so on, all of it drifting through the memories of her family and the dinner, and how happy she had been, a tiny fragment of what had once sustained her--that she would come and someday see those fields. Her family had even joked about possibly moving there together. The ships that could take them had not yet been built, but they had been dreamt of.

Someday maybe you'll lead a mission to Mars, her father had said.

It was important to her for some reason to try to remember what she had eaten that night. But she never could.

"Kammi. Kammi, will you fix my Paddle?" Kammi smiled at the girl who reminded her so much of herself, now standing in front of her, holding out her tablet. Maris Jones Venkatesan Lee. Age 10. Her single biggest responsibility on Mars.

"Sure, honey. What's going on?"

"It won't update, and I don't understand why, because we're connected."

"Well, on Mars, we are not always going to have signal as far back as Earth, remember? Do you remember why?"

"Sometimes the sun is in the way."

"That's right. And do you remember when that will be fixed?"

"Not until Dad sets up the connection."

"Yes. And until then we'll have our own local Mars signal."

"Well, he better work quick."

Kammi was lying to her. And Maris was pretending she believed her. Maris' device was on lock, something done at her parents' request. It was Kammi's job to tell her why, and she was working up to it.

"Let's go to the track," she said to Maris, as the reminder alerts glowed along the edges of her vision. "It's time to work out."

Daily exercise, never her friend on Earth, was mandatory and scheduled for every colonist. As they were the first generation, it wasn't entirely clear yet how a life lived in the gravity here would affect them, though studies had been done enough that they could guess. They would grow very tall. Their bones might thin. Return to Earth might eventually be impossible, or require robotic exoskeletons. A trainer had greeted them shortly after arrival with the news of how their muscles on Earth had functioned more to hold them up. Here it was a little the opposite. In the lighter gravity, their muscles kept them together. And then of course, the exercise helped fight depression.

Maris was a serious runner already, and though she was not immune to childlike leaps on the track, Kammi didn't have the heart to make more than a perfunctory correction of her each time. On one of their first track runs she had joked, "Down to earth, young lady!" to which Maris had said "Down to Mars!" and this had become a joke between them as they jumped together for a lap, like Amazons.

Today, their mutual decision, to ignore that Kammi was lying to Maris, and that Maris knew, gave their run a lonely feeling. They'd been a team for years. In the hour of exercise that passed, it came to seem to Kammi like this was just another of the ways of Earth they were leaving behind, and leaving, as they all had, by surprise.

The trouble had begun the week previous, at the track. As Kammi and Maris ran by the windows on their daily workout, they looked out and saw a cloud.


Maris jumped almost to the roof. "Yes! The first Martian cloud!" She high-fived Kammi when she came down. Until now the idea of a Martian cloud was just terraforming team dreams, but seeing it in person made other dreams, suppressed until now, all seem possible, all in an instant: Running outside, standing outside, wind in the hair--when had they last been outside of anything? The day then passed with little incident, except for a celebration that evening with the family, toasting the cloud--Maris' parents were all terraforming engineers. It was a family success. Kammi had nearly forgotten it until Jihyun summoned her several days later, unusual for her, to do their regular check-in face-to-face while Maris was in classes.

"So, we don't want to overreact, but we don't want to underreact."

This tone was entirely new and surprised Kammi. She had cared for Maris since birth, and with a peerless rating. She had never really been criticized by Jihyun before this, but she understood she was about to be this time.

"What is it?"

"We have a problem, one we didn't anticipate. And in retrospect, we should have." She paused. "Maris has been Gramming Mars."


An image came up between them, account name: @marsneedsmaris. Kammi stifled a laugh. There was the cloud, floating by, and she and Maris shouting, Kammi's own recorded voice saying, "Holy shit." She hadn't remembered saying that out loud. Then came their cheers, even speculation about how it meant they could go outside someday. She noticed the likes: ♥5,277,543.

"Holy shit indeed," Jihyun said.

Kammi nodded.

"I suppose I assumed the same as you, that she wasn't doing this." What had she assumed, Kammi wondered. "I've been so busy I haven't even checked or updated my own Gram, much less hers." Maris wasn't technically old enough to be on Gram, but Kammi did not think this was the time to remind Jihyun of this. Like most of the children in her old Santa Monica North neighborhood, Maris had an account set up by her parents. And like most of those accounts, the parental controls had been enabled, but clouds wouldn't be something the editorial bots would block.

"The problem we have here is that she's Gramming things that are classified," Jihyun said, switching to the grid view of Maris' posts.

"Like what?"

"The cloud?"

"The cloud is classified?"

"Well, Mars-only. We had issued a social media embargo on terraforming results, but we didn't tell the children. It's technically not...it's not legal yet."


Jihyun then explained at length the issues of an old treaty, still being worked out on Earth, governing the settlement of Mars. Mars was a cold planet geologically, no molten heart, no magnetic field, not like Earth. To create an atmosphere and hold it in place, the terraforming team had decided to imitate the way it had happened on Earth, seeding the planet with microbes. Like hugging someone with hypothermia to warm them up, but with trillions of microbes. Kammi listened carefully, but soon her own mixed anger and panic was pushing at her from the inside, making it hard to stay calm. She had always had so much respect for Jihyun, and by the end of the explanation, it was gone. The words 'quarantine' and 'alien microbes' landed, but all she could tell was that Jihyun was afraid, more than she was letting on, and that this operation Kammi had thought was proceeding with full legality was practically a renegade run.

All Kammi said was, "Well, Maris couldn't know that." Jihyun nodded, and looked away.

"We quite honestly forgot the kids would be using anything besides the Mars Academy app. Can you take some time to go through the comments, and delete anything disgusting?"

This was Jihyun's way of saying it was her own fault but she wasn't able to say so. And she wasn't going to try--it was Kammi's job to struggle with how to respond. "What is our best future outcome here?" Kammi asked, finally. Process, when all else failed.

Jihyun scrolled down to the comments--over 50,000 for this post--and paused at one. It's like seeing snapshots from the boat that is leaving everyone behind.

"I mean, I couldn't tell you. Ugh. This is not good. Stuff like that has to go. I know how crazy this sounds, but as the terraforming continues, results could be unpredictable. So, you need to be checking her feed, but also controlling what she posts. She'll have to approve every post with you."

By this standard, Kammi understood, it was practically impossible to know what was off-limits and what was not, but Kammi understood this--that was always the deal. Knowing where the line was when Jihyun didn't. "I'll box her device until we have an agreement," Kammi said. Jihyun nodded, smiling.

"You're so good at this," she said, with a tiny smile, and waved, her way to signal she was done. Kammi showed herself out.

She had always dreamed of Mars and now she was here, and it still felt like dreaming, as if she were in the last shallows of sleep before waking. She ran the passageways back to her own quarters in order to calm down, the feeling that felt so close to flight somehow reassuring, as if it meant she might still escape. The ships had been kits that turned into housing, or research, or communal spaces, after arrival, and sometimes she was sure she could tell which space had been the ship she'd come in.

The resulting buildings had the look of a high-tech food court somewhere in downtown Los Angeles--industrial, repurposed, designed and deliberate. Carefully coordinated to the life left behind, as everything outside would be alienating.

And careful was really the best way to describe it all. Or so it seemed. That's why Jihyun's confession had thrown her. Every bit of their waste was ruthlessly recycled or repurposed. Even the perspiration Kammi gave off during the day collected in the walls of the rooms she passed through, condensation that became new drinking water. There was no such thing as throwing anything away. Periodically she would remember the ways she had lived back on Earth, so recklessly wasteful it seemed sad. Living this way on Mars was necessary, but living this way on Earth should have been necessary also--it could have saved the planet's ecology and climate. It just wasn't done.

The gravity was still the hardest part to get used to, the lightness she felt all the time. This was easy to love during the day--the delight of skipping down steps three at a time with Maris, or even leaping a whole flight, down or up. In the gym, she was superhero strong. But at night, she felt as if she might drift up out of her bed--the lightness kept her awake. She had never thought once, the whole trip out, that she would miss the strapped-in sleep on the ship, which had felt like some awful adult swaddling, but now she did; the climate controls made the heavy blanket she might have asked for unnecessary.

She entered her rooms, turned off the windows and lights, and rolled herself into the corner between the bed and the wall, the sheets wound around her, hoping to sleep until it was time to get Maris from school. But instead she just looked at the dark until it filled with the squirming she had seen since a kid, a sense of the air like something thick with a grain.

Like microbes.

And she tried to understand why she had thought she should come. Why she had put her life in their hands.

Maris, if she suffered this way, or any other way, had not let on. Kammi and Maris had left on the third settler round. The first had included Maris' fathers, Raju and Tremaine--she called them Dad and Daddy respectively--and Maris' mother, Jihyun, her only Mom.

Kammi had no nickname, but she did have a title for the mission: "parenting tech." She had worked for them starting from just before Maris' birth. "You're family," they had said to her, when they first proposed she come with them. "We would never leave you behind." And this had startled her--some admission of an intimacy she didn't feel.

I already have a family, she didn't say. It doesn't feel like this. Instead she thanked them for the offer, and told them she had to think about it, which seemed to surprise them. But she knew she could never go. She was Kammi Bustos, 33, single, from a large, loving, Filipinx family, and while some part of her had been hoping they would ask her to come along--the relief she felt when she got the offer surprised her--she also felt despair. Her real family would never let her go.

But it was three years away, after all. She could decide at any point in between to not go and it would be OK. For a while, on Earth, her job felt like living with a cute little girl, in her parents' cliff-side Santa Monica home. The food came via delivery, the indoor gardens were cared for by gardeners, one of whom liked to chat her up and she liked him too--they flirted the whole three years. There was a pool. Most of the time, it was easy to forget where Maris' parents were. They had left a telescope set so she and Maris could find Mars anytime it appeared, and sometimes, on the clear nights, after rain, they could go outside briefly and see all the way to the red mark on the night sky that was their future home, all on their own. They talked about what they thought it would be like there. And at some point, during the three years, talking about it this way, Kammi decided she would go.

As a precaution, Kammi had prequalified for the mission. She had to pass a credit check, a social credit check, a background check, a precrime check, a physical and a fitness test both. Next was colonist training, and a surprise: She would not just be taking care of Maris, once she arrived. She would also be providing data to help in training AIs for childcare. All of her time with Maris would not only be monitored but recorded, for training purposes, so the AIs would learn in real time to model their behavior on her. It would be her program eventually. When Maris was old enough, her role would be expanded.

This was the oldest trick in the book, she knew--train your replacement, who will be much cheaper than you--but it still appealed to her. An army of AI Kammis, forming quietly in the dark out of sight.

She had not thought about her life there past caring for Maris, she understood then. This made her ashamed to realize. Maris wouldn't need her forever. But this only reminded her she hadn't told her own mom about her decision. Though she had a good reason.

The Mars Colony was by then being called the Two Planet Solution for humanity's survival. She had read the press about how the only people being approved for the trip were those who could afford it and those who worked for those who could afford it (these were not people who would go without staff). But her family couldn't afford to go. She was being offered something that was somewhere between a luxury, a lifeline, and a settler mission, and she couldn't take them with her. So, it was exile, too. When talking through the offer again, she expressed her concerns about leaving them behind, and Raju assured her he could help them. His brother and sister were lead scientists on the project to terraform humanity's home planet--the company was called Terrareform. He was happy to help get her family's resumes in front of them, he said.

"We of course want to save them too," Raju even added, though it was considered rude to admit that those left behind would likely die. At least if the terraforming failed, terraformers would last the longest. She understood the implicit bargain, also.

She could keep her family safe, but only if she went.

When she began the conversation with her parents, she tried saying the words Two Planet Solution. And had she even said to them, We're working to save you too?

She had.

She told them about the new ocean colonies, how the deepest parts of the ocean still hid living sea life--unlike the great desert most of the ocean had become--and about the traps that were bringing those residents real seafood.

"My love, this is your dream," her mother had said finally, sparing her any further explanations about Mars or dreams or the oceans. "We always knew. It isn't how we thought you'd get there but it isn't any less impressive. Who knows, maybe you'll be the first Filipinx on Mars! We have the blood of those damned explorers in us, after all. Why shouldn't you be one?" And then she laughed. This was one of her mom's favorite jokes.

You should go and live, was what she meant. "And yes, I would love dearly to taste real fish again," she said, reaching for her screen as Kammi began to cry. She then sent off her resume to Raju in front of her, which Kammi knew was done to reassure her. "Now we get ready for a despedida you may not survive."

But she did survive it. Not only that, she was happy to report to her mother that she wasn't even the only Filipinx on Mars, much less the first. There was even a slick atmosphere-tech brother who would give her the long eye sometimes, a startlingly handsome man named Matt who wore aviators and a white T-shirt the way some men rocked a suit. Her mom was now an ocean tech on Marine 9, stationed near what was left of the Philippines--a remaining island she referred to as "the Philippine" now--along with most of their family and extended family. Her mom's team was re-seeding life in the shallow and middle-deep waters, using methods that, if successful, would also be used to create life in an eventual ocean on Mars. She didn't tell Kammi much about it, mostly bragging about how fun deepwater Karaoke was. Or how there was a new fish balls vendor, or good taho.

And most days it felt like she could go home again, see them again. But when her most recent care package from her mom had flip-flops in it, she put them on and wore them to the showers, where she could cry about missing her family, and no one--not even the AIs--could see.

The Maris Gram cloud problem, the scope of it, developed more for Kammi over the course of the next day: Maris had effectively scooped the Mars mission's PR team. When Kammi finally got around to explaining the boxing to her, and the new controls, Maris responded at first by going very cold, very quiet. "I'm on Mars," Maris said. "Most of my friends aren't here. I don't even get to show off? What is the point of being here? I'm on Mars!" And when Kammi was unmoved, Maris added, "I have over 3 million followers!" As if that was explanation enough.

Kammi saw then that she hadn't really understood the size of the problem, and that Maris' parents didn't understand either--that maybe only Maris did. Maris had become a celebrity. On Earth.

"We know she'll rebel," Tremaine said that night when the parents met with Kammi and discussed whether they should just delete her account. "I would rather it was through social media than, say, her running out one of the airlocks."

One month previous, a particularly unhappy teen had in fact run, unshielded, for nearly a mile before succumbing, a combination of his youth, it was believed, and holding his breath, and the light gravity. The community was still in shock. There were rumors he'd gotten further than he was said to have gone, because there was now more of an atmosphere than they'd been led to believe.

And the cloud, when it appeared, had only made that seem true.

The cloud was to have been the subject of a careful rollout, an exclusive for the media back home after the Mars treaty had been dealt with. Critics of the settlement efforts feared the release of alien microbes, ancient alien threats too small to see. Or they feared horrible mutant microbes, Earth microbes changed by radiation and contact with the alien microbes. A carefully released photo of a cloud on Mars was meant to combat that. Instead, a Gram post had broken the news. And so it just looked like reckless, arrogant change. And a reminder that Earth wasn't in the position to dictate terms on Mars.

Kammi logged in and began looking over Maris' posts. Mostly there were snaps of her by the swim tank with Murray, her octobot; snaps of Murray swimming alone, taken by her; snaps of her taken by Murray; or selfies with Murray--octobots were the ultimate selfie stick. The cameras were in the tentacles. The pets were standard to each child colonist, equipped with the ability to both track and protect them, moving quickly across a variety of landscapes--an octopus liberated by Martian gravity from the need to be in water, and each animated by a different AI.

There were posts also with her classmates at Mars Academy: in class, on a field trip into one of the open tunnels, on the roof of the new town--a cave converted into an underground colony, with the tallest new Martian buildings, new Earth-style apartment buildings, 20 stories tall. Gradually she arrived at the first Mars post, a selfie with Maris wearing an "Earth Girls Are Easy" T-shirt--how did she get that?--taken from aboard the colony ship. A goodbye to her friends back home. This post's comments had the most anger in them, with thousands of abusive comments that she then began flagging or deleting. You are going to die there with all of them, you show-off bitch. Send us more posts then. Make sure you show us everything.

When the end-of-classes notification came, she closed up these windows and went off to wait for Maris by the entrance to Mars Academy. And when Maris didn't show up, she waited exactly 15 minutes before messaging Jihyun, the school's admin, and Maris' teacher. Maris had never been late to meet her, not once. When the teacher and admin told her Maris had left as usual, she turned on Maris' tracker and was relieved to see her signal showed her to be at the swim tank.

This relief lasted the minutes it took for Kammi to get there and find a tank full of children who were not Maris, swimming with their octobots.

She followed the signal to a disposal unit by the tank, fearing the worst until she noticed the bloody comms chip there on top of the unit, gleaming, still wet, where the signal had said Maris would be.

Murray, when she checked his location, was out by the newest colony buildings.

Jihyun's voice rang in her ear that instant. She'd been monitoring Kammi's feed. "Kammi, I've called the security teams. Come back to my office."

"Just hang on, though. Have you looked at Murray's camera or album?"


"You can hack into his camera to see her."

A pause.

"Murray is miked, also. I can..."

"Don't speak to her through Murray. She'll..."

"She'll what? Run away? She did that already."

"She'll never forgive you."

"Forgive me? She should hope she can be forgiven. She should hope she doesn't die. So should you. I need my daughter back, Kammi. I'll do what it takes. I can have Murray bring her back. I'll just institute an emergency override."

Kammi stood there for a moment, staring at the spot in her field of vision where Jihyun's voice seemed to have been.

"If we just drag her back, she's just going to run away again. Let me go to her."

Silence. By the time Jihyun's whispered "OK" sounded in her ears, she was running for the train.

Murray's AI was remotely located--an old precaution, from the first models, and never updated in the design as, quite frankly, the idea of an artificially intelligent octobot still threatened many people. He looked like a drawing of an octopus more than an octopus, and could change color to hide, or glow in the dark to light your way. He was also quite soft, and Maris had fallen into the habit of sleeping with him like a stuffed animal. Typically Kammi spoke to him via text--it made it less difficult somehow. And Murray always texted back right away.


Yes, Kammi, hi.

Murray, is she ok?


We need her back home. Her parents are terrified.

She really doesn't want that.

You've talked to her? Can you say what's wrong?

She has said I can tell you that no one cares that she is sad. Except for one friend.

Kammi ached. She had missed this somehow.

Why is she sad?

She wants to go back to Earth.

Is there anything else?

The Martians.

The other kids at the Academy?


Murray's AI couldn't lie, at least not yet, that she knew of.

Murray, what are you talking about?

The image appeared on her display. The pale face of a teenager, atop an astonishingly long body. A girl of about eight feet, dressed all in black.

Murray, is this a prank?

No. Face recognition matches no current Earth 2 colonist. I checked.

Did you run any telemetry for her?

Of course.

The readings appeared next.

Note: consistent for our predicted specs on a second or even third generation human born into and living under Martian gravity.

It was a prank, it had to be. How had she gotten Murray in on it? An elaborate prank to sabotage her parents, to punish them for taking away the world she knew. An earlier mission just wasn't possible, it had taken everything Earth had to get them here. The efforts of at least seven billionaire inventors, four major governments and several corporations. No one could have freelanced their way here.

This is impossible, Murray.

Maris has said her new friend spoke of a mission earlier than ours. Russian and Chinese, privately funded, top secret. They have occupied caves underground, deeper than our new ones. The building of our new town disturbed their settlement.

How deep?

Over a mile down.

Kammi knew where Murray's tracker said he was. The new cave city near the base of Arsia Mons, one of three enormous volcanoes all sited near the equator of the planet. All cold forever. There had long been a bet that any water on Mars was located near these volcanoes, which all showed signs of ancient volcanic ice, and this had been right. The mountain was almost six miles high, and she could see it from almost any window on the north side of the colony. She entered the bay for the underground train that would take her there.

Murray, why did you not tell us about her?

Are you on your way?

Yes. You know I am.

Murray hadn't answered as to why he'd been silent about Maris' new friend. Had she asked the question wrong? She rephrased.

Why did you say nothing, Murray?

They were sure we were never coming, you see. They thought human life on Earth was extinct.

Kammi stared in wonder out the windows of the car at the fronds of sand around the crater, oddly feathered by the wind. As if the volcano were the most enormous bird, huddled against the cold.

Of course they would be there, anyone looking for water on the planet knew to go there.

I said nothing because Maris was sure the company would see them as a threat instead of helping them. I agreed. I didn't want to endanger them.

The future here had been vague before this, all superpowered jumps, running outside someday, underground cities, food just like home. A ladder of somedays, each reaching to the next, but now slowly turning into something cold and lonely, and small.

The train came to a stop. But before arrival. The edge of the volcano waited.

"I'm sorry, I can't let you," Jihyun said, cutting in. This time through the speakers in the car.

"What do you mean."

"We can't...You can't go to her."

"What do you mean?"

"She's compromised, Kammi. If that friend is real, if they've been here for as long as they say, we could all be dead in days from whatever illnesses they might have."

When Kammi said nothing, Jihyun said, "We have to act like she's as good as dead, Kammi. Until we know more. And if you go to her, we have to treat you the same--"

It was a stupid thing Kammi did next. She knew it, even as her hands hit the manual override. But there was nothing else to do.

Her eyes adjusted as she stepped out, scanning the empty buildings at the station. She saw Murray first, spangling the dark air in front of her, nets of light roaming his skin. With a start she realized Maris was there already, not in the distance, but waiting for her at the station. On her face the expression she always had when she had made a new best friend.


From within the shadow next to Maris, a girl strung like a shadow, the faintest nervousness on her face. A tower of girl. Or a scarf of one.

They were sharing the same air inside this new and empty colonist city. Ducts were possibly taking the air back to the filters in the train car behind her, which would return automatically to base. She had come to bring Maris back and now she could not. You're compromised, she thought. I am also, her next thought, and then the next thought: All is compromised.

And yet this girl, her family, her people, they had likely already survived whatever Kammi feared now.

"This is Anja," Maris said. "Anja, this is Kammi." Impossibly, a long arm extended to shake her hand.

She looked at the hand, a long look. The slender fingers, the nails bitten down. She remembered: We are being welcomed. We are the ones they believed long lost. Blood of the explorers indeed.

None of what you think matters, matters in the end, she told herself. And then she reached out, and the slim hand enclosed her own.

Illustrations by Roman Muradov

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