Emma Newman is an author and a professional audiobook narrator, narrating short stories and novels in all genres. She also cowrites and hosts a Hugo nominated podcast. She is a keen role-player, gamer and designer-dressmaker.
In Newman's mind-bending newest book, "Before Mars" (Ace, 2018), the geologist and artist Anna Kubrin arrives ready to do research and paint at a privately-owned base on the Red Planet. But the base may not be what it seems, and soon she doesn't know whom to trust — or if she can even trust her own memory. "Before Mars" takes place in the same universe as "Planetfall" (Ace, 2015), but the books can be read in any order.
Below is an excerpt from the novel, as Anna gets to know the small crew of the Mars base, including Banks, a science communicator with a popular video show about exploring Mars who seems to have taken an instant dislike to her. [Read a Q&A with Newman about "Before Mars" here.]
There's no kitchen in the base, just food and drink printers in various rooms, and no dining room either. However, the large central hub room has enough space for everyone to sit around one of the tables that's been cleared for dinner. While I'm nervous about Banks, I'm actually looking forward to this. It's been months since I ate in company. Simply seeing everyone gathering around the table with their trays of food makes me feel like I really have arrived.
I watch them as my meal is printed. They're all so comfortable with each other. There are two conversations running in parallel. One is between Banks and Petranek, talking about the maintenance trip they went on earlier to check on one of the nearby weather stations. The other, between Elvan and Arnolfi, is harder to hear; they're sitting close together, voices lowered. I worry that they are talking about me, seeing as both of them have been more involved in my arrival, but then quash that narcissistic impulse. They probably have dozens of things to discuss. [How Virtual Reality Could Aid Mars Astronauts]
A chair has been set aside for me and everyone breaks their conversations as I arrive.
"What are you having?" Petranek asks, peering at my tray. "Is that some kind of curry?"
"Beef bourguignon," I reply.
"With rice?" Banks raises an eyebrow.
With a shrug, I take my place between Petranek and Arnolfi. "I prefer it with rice."
"Soaks up the sauce." Petranek nods, grinning. "Though top tip for you: use the printer outside the gym to print meals with a high meat content. It reproduces it better than the one in here."
Banks rolls his eyes. "Take no notice," he says, nudging Petranek with his elbow good-naturedly. "They're all the same model and print with exactly the same base ingredients."
"Come on, Elvan, back me up!" Petranek appeals.
Elvan holds up his hands, knife and fork pinched between his fingers. "I can't offer any data. I only use the one in here," he says and Petranek groans.
"Coward," ze declares and looks back at me. "The one in here does desserts better." That earns another jab in the ribs from Banks and ze laughs. "Whatever. So, how are you settling in?"
I take a sip of orange juice — appreciating for a moment just how good the printer is at tricking me into thinking this liquid has come from an orange — and set the glass down again. "Fine."
"I do have one ... " I pause, trying to decide if it's a stupid one. "Do you all call each other by your surnames, like, all the time?"
Petranek grins. "Yeah, it's a habit we got into when there were three Johanns here at one point."
"It worked great until we had two Chans," Elvan says. "But it usually works. When I went home the last time, I couldn't get used to being Asil again. Even my brothers started calling me Elvan."
"You'll get used to it, Kubrin. I don't even know what your first name is anymore," Petranek says to Banks, earning another jab in the ribs. Ze laughs. "Have you apologized yet?" ze says to him. Banks frowns to himself. "Come on."
"I am sorry for earlier," he says. "It won't happen again."
The way he says it is so familiar. I say things like that too, when I'm trying to remind myself of a boundary I need to draw inside myself, closing off a set of thoughts from ever being publicly expressed. He'll still feel the same way about me. He's just committing to not showing it again.
"You were right about some of it," I say, eager to smooth the waters. I'm not quite ready to let go of the fantasy of becoming his friend. At least, friends with the man I thought he was. "I am only here because Gabor insisted upon it. But I really am a geologist above anything else." My husband would agree, even above being a wife and a good mother.
"In the briefing we got about you," Elvan says, in an effort to distract me from Banks's glower, "It said you're an artist and that we need to support your trips outside. What kind of things should we expect to help you with, other than getting to grips with the suit and safety protocols?"
"I want to go outside as much as possible in the first few weeks. I need to collect samples and make observations."
"Is that for the art or for the geology?" Banks asks with a slight sneer.
"Both," I reply, ignoring it.
"Were you briefed on why the need for a team geologist was downgraded?" he asks.
"Banks ... " Petranek frowns at him.
"I'm not being a d--- about it," Banks says and looks back at me. "It's a genuine question."
"I actually spoke to the last one posted here," I reply, "shortly after she got back to Earth. She said there was still such a lot to be done and couldn't understand why the decision had been made."
"She didn't mention the fact that we've discovered enough water deposits to sustain the base for over thirty years?"
"Is that all you think a geologist is good for? Finding water?" I'm trying so hard to not sound annoyed, but having had the same argument with the managers at varying levels between Drew and Gabor, it's difficult. "There's so much left to understand here. So much history. And if there are any plans to extend the human footprint on Mars, we need to understand so much more."
"So little of that actually improves the bottom line though," Banks says, stabbing his fork into what looks like mashed potatoes.
"Oh, JeeMuh, we're not seriously going to have an argument about whether scientific discovery only has merit if it increases corporate profits, are we? Because believe me, I've spent my entire career arguing with people about different forms of merit and I thought I'd left all that bulls--- behind on Earth."
Banks's eyes flash with something akin to excitement. "Oh, I can assure you that some of that bulls--- has landed on Mars too. I can smell it right now."
"What is your problem?"
"I just want you to be honest, for f---- sake!" He slams his cutlery down. "I want you to stop pretending you're here for any reason other than making Gabor even more f------ rich!"