Training for Mars: An Excerpt from Space Thriller
The tracks of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit near the planet's "Husband Hill."
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

S.J. Morden has won the Philip K. Dick Award and been a judge on the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He is trained as a rocket scientist with degrees in Geology and Planetary Geophysics. In his newest novel, "One Way," a group of prison inmates are sent on a one-way journey to build a base on Mars — but things turn deadly. You can read an interview here with Morden about the new book and see his hand-drawn maps of the training center, Mars base and landmarks.

Below is an excerpt from "One Way— the main character, taken out of prison to train for a one-way trip to Mars, finally gets to know one of the other potential colonists during training and begins to learn a critical skill for surviving on the Martian surface.

"One Way" (Orbit Books, 2018), by S.J. Morden
"One Way" (Orbit Books, 2018), by S.J. Morden
Credit: Orbit Books

From Chapter 4:

[Private diary of Bruno Tiller, entry under 11/26/2038, transcribed from paper-only copy]

If I hear of yet another robot failure, I swear to God I am going to send the engineers in their place.

Frank had been out on another run. It had hurt, and he was determined to show that it hadn't. In the shower, he'd cramped, and he'd struggled not to cry out in pain, in fear, in desperation. He'd bitten down on the fleshy lump on the back of his hand between thumb and forefinger, and he'd left marks.

And he'd barely turned off the flow of tepid water before he'd got his next instructions. He showered with his earpiece, he ate with his earpiece, he pissed with his earpiece. He was ragged, and felt every one of his fifty-one years. Apart from that one time at the training video, he was as isolated as he'd always been. Brack's intermittent appearances — and really, f--- that s--- — didn't count. He could turn from someone who was disdainful and condescending into a mean, vicious weasel in a second. Perhaps he thought it was motivating.

Instead, Frank felt like throwing in the towel. He could just call it quits and make it stop. He could break up his crew, and maybe throw them all in the Hole too.

Maybe he couldn't. He was still on the program. If Alice Shepherd could stay the course, then maybe so could he.

As told, he went to the room they watched their training videos in. And there was another person there — the black woman.

She was seated at one end — the far end, below the screen — of a long table, in the shadow cast by the dark-tinted windows dialed to almost opaque. Her hands, previously resting on the tabletop, withdrew like the tide and retreated to her lap.

Frank, with deliberate slowness, walked around the far side, and, with the windows at his back, sat down near — but not next — to her, on the diagonal. He made a fist, and held it out, thumb-side up. She looked at it, and him, then at his fist again. She curled her own right hand and lightly tapped it on Frank's.

"Hey," she said.

"Frank."

"Marcy."

"Everything's being recorded, right?"

"Yeah."

"OK." Frank leaned heavily on the desk. He blinked and realized that there was a bottle of water on the desk in front of him. He'd missed it in the gloom. He reached over and snagged it, twisted the top off, and offered it to Marcy first.

"Knock yourself out," she said.

He drank it all, the plastic bottle flexing and snapping as he sucked the last from its neck.

"I seem to be permanently thirsty these days." He hoped it wasn't a sign of some underlying medical problem that was going to get him canned.

"Dry air, I guess. Coming off the flats."

"Sure. That'll be it."

They risked a glance at each other.

"You doing OK?" asked Frank.

"Well enough. Enough to avoid the Hole for now."

"Me too."

"Son of a b---- never told me that when I signed," she said.

"Yeah. That. So let's not crap out."

"Why are we here? You and me. This room. Is this another test?"

Frank wiped his lips with his thumb. "Got to talk to each other sometime, right? And of course it's another test. If we show we can work together, then we're more likely to get on that ship."

"Guess so. What did you do outside?"

"Build s---. You?"

"Drive s---."

"OK. They need people on Mars who can build and can drive."

"But do they need us?"

Frank shrugged. "We're here. We just need to make them think it's easier to take us than can us."

"Like they've left us a choice."

He pushed the empty water bottle away from him, to stop himself from playing with it. "So what do we do now?"

"I don't know. Are we supposed to get to know each other, tell each other our life stories?" Marcy looked down into her lap. "I'm not comfortable with that."

"I don't think they care about that. But while I'm in here, I'm not running up that Mountain and the medics aren't draining my blood. I'm good with that."

"They cut you open?" She gestured to the deeper shadow between her breasts. Frank glanced up long enough to know what she was talking about, and not so long as to make it embarrassing.

"I still feel it, sometimes. At night, mainly. Just a tightness. It's not so bad."

They lapsed into silence, broken eventually by Frank.

"Look. I'm not good at this. I never was. Much rather do something with my hands than say something with my mouth. But we're not going to hurt each other, right? You seem like a nice lady, however it was you got here. That's done. We're astronauts now."

"I killed twenty-six people," she said. "You?"

"Just the one."

Twenty-six seemed a lot. Perhaps his expression gave that away.

"It was an accident. I f----- up." She clicked her tongue. "Seems so long ago now."

"Which is what I'm saying. No one's going to look out for us but us. These jokers don't much care if we stay or crap out: some greener will be along to replace us soon enough. But we have to care, right?"

She pursed her lips and nodded. "Right."

His earpiece buzzed. Hers too, by her quizzical look.

"Every crew member is required to teach their task to another," he heard. "Marcy Cole is lead driver. You will be her second. Acknowledge."

"So who's my second?" he asked.

"Acknowledge," repeated the voice. No change of inflection, no emotion at all. Just cold.

Marcy said into the space, "Acknowledged." She sighed. Her earpiece had been talking to her too.

Frank knew he had to follow suit. "Acknowledged."

They looked at each other, properly, for the first time. She had a fine face, brown skin with a sowing of darker freckles across her cheekbones and nose. Her hair, like his, had been shaved short. His was a flattened mop of black, but hers was growing out in cotton-wool twists. Age? She had at least a couple of decades on him. And she was strong, otherwise she wouldn't have got this far.

"We can do this," he said. "I can learn."

"Depends whether I can teach." She looked up at the ceiling, addressing it directly. "So when do we start?"

"Report outside immediately."

Both of them were so used to obeying, they stood up.

"Remember those times you could just lie in your tray, listen to some music, read a magazine?" Frank put his hands into the small of his back and pushed, waiting for the click before he stopped.

"No. I don't remember that at all."

"Me neither."

Outside, opposite Building Four, was a concrete pad the size of a football field. Probably some structure was going to go on it at some point, but, for now, there was a weird-ass looking vehicle sitting on it, and a stack of orange traffic cones.

And Brack.

"Ah, crap," muttered Marcy.

"Let's get this over with," said Frank, and picked his way over the loose cinders towards the platform. He climbed up, and took a closer look at the thing they were presumably meant to drive around Mars on.

"You break it, you pay for it, Kittridge," said Brack.

The chassis was rectangular, an open, almost lacy latticework of struts and crossbracing. The wheels were huge balloons, and the seat a simple plastic bucket bolted to the top of the frame. There was a roll bar over the top, which didn't look particularly sturdy, and a set of controls mounted in front of the seat.

Frank had seen more sophisticated Radio Flyers.

"And this is what we're taking to Mars?"

"You think you know better? 'cause it's not bright yellow and there's no backhoe? You want a ticket? You refusing an order? You want to get canned?" Brack cupped his hand around his ear. "What's that? Kittridge is on his way to the Hole?" Frank bit down on his lip until he knew he wasn't going to say anything.

"Don't care if you don't love me, Kittridge, as long you stay afraid of me. This is your Mars Rover, boy. You and it need to become intimately acquainted, and yes, if that means you have to take it up the tailpipe, you'll do just that and hold it close afterwards. You got your fuel cell slung underneath, you got your four-wheel-drive electric motors on the hubs, you got your rear-facing cameras and your one-fifty-foot winch and tow on the trunk. That two-wheeled caboose is your trailer. Lights on the front that'll turn night into day. Top speed of a mighty twenty miles an hour." Brack kicked the nearest tire. "Only difference between here and there is that there you'll be using adaptive metal wheels rather than pneumatics, as I am reliably informed they have the habit of exploding in a vacuum."

Marcy shook the frame, and crawled underneath to inspect the connections between the fuel cell and the hubs. "What's the range?"

"Well, that depends. You got one cell, and everything works off that. But under normal conditions, your suits will fail before this runs out of juice. So you'd better get it back to base before then." He giggled, but it wasn't funny. "You got your orders. You make this thing dance by the end of the week. By the week after, it'd better be turning backflips. The pair of you got that?"

"I got that," said Marcy from behind one of the tires.

"Kittridge?"

"Acknowledged," said Frank. He didn't mean anything by it, just the bland acceptance of an instruction, but of course Brack had to take it the wrong way.

"You think I'm some kind of computer, boy? Hell, I'll be the voice in your dreams, not just in your head." He leaned forward and drilled his finger into Frank's temple, and there was nothing that Frank could do but take it.

Brack stalked off, and Marcy pulled herself out from under the rover.

"What d'you think?"

"What do I think?" Frank scuffed the ground. "That the world would be a better place without him."

"Forget about him. I meant the buggy."

Frank dragged his attention back to the job in hand. "You're the professional. What do you think?"

"Strong, lightweight. Center of gravity is low enough to add stability, but it's got a decent enough ground clearance. Let's take it for a spin and see."

She climbed up. There wasn't a ladder, so she just grabbed the lowest strut and hauled herself up. Frank could do that too. They were all now so lean and strong that it was barely an effort. Marcy settled into the seat and for the want of anywhere else to put her feet, braced them on the struts either side of the controls. Almost exactly like a Radio Flyer.

"It's like a video game. Little steering wheel, gas on-off using triggers. Couple of buttons and a screen for stuff." She grinned down at him. "Seriously, come on up. We don't get many moments like this."

She drove it slowly and conservatively around the pan, finding the buttons that'd put it in reverse, work the lights and the winches. Frank hung off the roll bars behind the seat, mildly disconcerted at the concrete scudding by under his feet.

They swapped over, and Frank drove it forwards, then in reverse. It looked like a toy. It felt like a toy. Somehow far less than something they'd be driving around on another planet.

Then the lessons began. Marcy hopped off, set out some traffic cones around the rear of the buggy, and watched Frank drive forward out of the cordon.

"It came out of that space," she said. "All you have to do is back it in again."

Frank crushed three cones. He didn't hear them crumple, and Marcy let him keep on going until he thought he was back in the starting position. He climbed down and stood next to her to examine the debacle.

"Do I get to say it's not bad for a first attempt?"

"I've seen worse." She had her hands on her hips, judging him. "But I'm guessing if we're on Mars, running over a cone probably means we're all dead. What did you do, when you weren't killing people, that is?"

"I ran a construction company," said Frank. He tapped the big balloon wheel with the toe of his reinforced boot. "I hired people to do this for me."

"Not any more. It's me and you, now. Drive it out again, and I'll set it back up." Marcy picked up one of the cones and used her fist to take out some of the dings. "Now you know how difficult it is, you might just listen to me when I tell you how to do it."

"I would have listened to you anyway." Frank climbed up into the cab and swung himself into the seat. "I'm not going to be that guy, OK?"

Marcy dropped the cone back on the ground. It was more or less straight again. "In my experience, all the guys are that guy. Take it forward, thirty feet, and stop. We'll keep doing it until you can slot it in blindfold. Then I get to make it difficult for you."

He knew the basics. He could get it almost in the right place, almost every time. Almost, when he was a million miles away, wasn't going to cut it. The cameras helped when he was some way away. Less so when he was closer, as the cones had the tendency to disappear from view at exactly the wrong moment. Sure, Marcy could spot for him, but there'd be times when he'd just have to do it on his own: him taking ten attempts to get something into place when one should have done was a sure-fire way of burning off the better part of a shift. And he'd be in a spacesuit.

So this wasn't anything like the same conditions he'd be working under. But if he couldn't get it right here and now, he wouldn't be able to get it right then, when it mattered. A mistake could get them all killed, or stranded, or something else bad. He put his hand on the wheel and dabbed his finger on the gas pedal. Shouldn't call it the gas pedal if there was no gas, or a pedal.

He drove it forward a couple of lengths, and let go. There was a brake, but he didn't have to use it, because the motor provided enough resistance to bring the buggy to a stop.

He looked behind him at the space outlined by the cones. He imagined listening to the sound of his own breath loud in his ears, turning his head against the pull of a bulky, padded suit, inflated so that it was like wearing a tire. Marcy was right. He was going to have to be able to do this blind to stand any chance of doing this on Mars. He needed to look at the screens instead. Work out what he should be seeing if it was going right.

She climbed on up and hung off the back of his seat. "OK?"

He nodded.

"You look nervous."

"There's a lot riding on this."

"This is practice, OK? Don't you go freaking out on me. Slow. Dead slow. Barely moving slow. Faster you go, the less time you got to correct. Even if you got someone shouting at you, you play it cool, you keep it clean. They're not driving. You are. You get to decide. If you're not happy, you stop. This rig, this load, whatever it is, is your responsibility. It's up to you to put it in the right place, not anyone else. You got that?"

"I got that."

"You sure you got that? Because folk like us are used to following orders, and someone yelling at you to hurry it up, right in your ear, and you can't turn them off, that's somewhere between a distraction and a compulsion. You want to make them shut up. You want to show them you can do it faster. Don't you?"

Frank took another look behind him, past Marcy, at the corral of cones. Then he looked up at her. "No. I do this at my own pace, or not at all."

She punched her fist into his shoulder. "So let's show these a--holes some skills."

Physical contact. It was a little more than he could cope with at that moment, and he had to take a breath. She didn't seem to notice, which was just fine.

"OK," he said. "Dead slow. Tell me what I'm supposed to be watching."

There was a knack to it, a counter-intuitive way of turning the wheel and easing the gas that would put the back end right where it was needed. He wasn't a master at it — Marcy didn't take the controls once so as not to embarrass him — but with care, he became competent. He could throw the buggy around in loops and turns and still park it up in one maneuver.

By the time their earpieces told them to break it up, he was confident he could back the buggy up without driving through a building.

"I don't know when the next time is," said Marcy. "But when it is, we'll do it with a trailer. That's a thing."

"A difficult thing?"

"Enough to make grown men weep." She put her hand to her ear. "Acknowledged. Got to go." She kicked at the ground, looked as if she was going to say something more, then decided against it. She glanced once at the buggy and its guard of orange cones, then walked away towards the buildings just down the slope.

Frank waited for his next instruction, which didn't come. Marcy's dusty tracks settled, and left him alone, standing in the dry, cold dirt. He looked up at the mountain, at the bright blue sky, at the expanse of glittering salt pan to the east and the next, distant ridge quivering in the haze. That was the free world.

He narrowed his eyes. He had a machine strong enough to break through the double fence and rugged enough to get him over the crystalline desert. And almost subconsciously he brushed his fingers against his sternum, where the scar had nearly healed and the hard lump of the implant lodged against his bone.

They weren't stupid. Neither was he. The only way out was up.

"Report to Building Two. Acknowledge."

"Acknowledged."

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