Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Red is Our Country

Red.

Our country is red. Crimson, scarlet, carmine, red.

Name it: RED is our country.

• • • •

After the incident with Grey, you have three hours of air left and the only possibility of resupply is two hours in the wrong direction. Burke has found references to an old terraformers’ cache—emergency water and oxygen and who knows what else—and now she’s acting like it’s foresight rather than blind luck. Like she can even be sure the supplies are still there.

“We’ll find it. We’ll resupply. We’ll ascend the far side of the plateau, reach the goddamn eye and make it back to base camp in plenty of time. Clear?”

She still thinks you can activate the beacon in time. Still thinks the three of you will return to Mars Central the explorer-heroes who conquered the dead zone. Well—she’ll be the hero. You and Wills might get a footnote. A survivors’ commendation. And Grey? Grey makes do in a russet grave.

Wills’ faceplate bears the marks of the windswept sand that stalks the dead zone. He’s working on the rover. Hydraulics? There’s a dozen items of maintenance and at most half an hour of quieter skies, but Wills pauses, spends precious minutes composing a reply.

It’s hard to tell what you’re thinking, sometimes, but I’ve been watching long enough to guess. Of course I have—did you think we wouldn’t care, when your expedition crossed the borders into our country? You haven’t seen my drones, but they’ve been following you faithfully ever since you entered the dead zone, and they caught it all on camera. I know why Wills hesitates. I saw how Grey, less competent than you, failed to secure the valve properly. I saw the faint trail the oxygen left in the rover’s wake. I remember the dent Burke’s rage put in Grey’s chestplate when you noticed the leak, and I can see you remembering it, too, the flat tone in which Burke affirmed the damage had nothing to do with the failure of Grey’s suit two hours later. You’d agreed, because it was easier to absolve her than to spend too much time looking at Grey’s body.

“I don’t trust my equipment anymore.” Wills speaks slowly. You’ve known survival to be your goal since you left Central. Wills is a newer convert, still tempted by the illusion of success. “It should be fine even in this weather, but it’s been—”

“Are you the navigator or not? Navigate!

Burke is the former soldier. She has command. Wills ducks his head, looks to you. It’s an open comms channel. You turn back to your task, clearing abrasive vermilion streaks from the rover’s treads. I know how it is. I know that the air in your helmet feels dusty again. It’s not: the seals are holding. But when dust hangs suspended like rain before the storm, it’s impossible not to feel it. It lingers. You can’t escape that orange haze, not even in your suit.

On the horizon, the dead zone bares its teeth.

• • • •

I think you would be surprised by how much I know. You’ve heard the stories about how we came to the planet you call Mars. You’ve heard how we failed. Even if you believe we still live—and I think you might—you must think us primitive, clinging to what life our centuries-old technology allows us. You would be wrong. We have learnt to live in our country. We have written software to see through the dust, cobbled together hardware to hear through it. We know what you think of us.

Our predecessors meant us to be the first self-sustaining colony anywhere in the solar system. You think they failed, and in every detail of their vision, they did. But in the one way that counts, they succeeded. We are their descendants. And we are still here.

• • • •

Wild winds batter the rover with grains the colour of sienna. Wills is driving, Burke is leading, you’re in the back, surviving. The cache is either five minutes ahead or somewhere else entirely. Forty-five minutes remain.

“Visibility below fifty metres.”

That’s been a problem. Dust is always a problem on Mars, of course, but I imagine you’re used to the harmless storms outside, no more likely to knock you over than a sneeze. Within the massive dome of the dead zone—within the thicker, tainted atmosphere of that ancient, futile attempt at terraforming—the storms live up to their names.

The thought must have occurred to you that Wills’ instruments might be useless, that the blinking dot on his screen is no more indicative of your location than the flurry outside is indicative of what lies beyond. It’s hard to imagine yourself in a place when there’s no place to see.

“Keep going. We’re almost there.”

Are you? The cache will be at the base of a cliff. Is that a wall, looming in the distance to your left? It is. I know, because that’s where I’m watching from. Do you see it? A glint in the storm, figures in the dust—not the cliff, no, but one of my drones. Ah, perhaps you missed it. No matter. You’ll learn in time.

Wills has seen the cliff. He’s bringing the rover about. Carnelian rock rises in front of you, too fast. Wills swears and throws the rover into a turn, throwing up gouts of dust to join the storm. The vehicle goes up on two wheels, suspended in a moment of perfect balance, then crashes back down to four. The wind outside still sings. Inside, hazy silence.

The eruption: “We lose this rover, we’re fucking dead, Wills!”

You’re used to the squabbling. I can tell by the way you ignore them and fix your attention on the windscreen. It’s how I’d know you’re not Earthborn, even if your profile wasn’t in the news reports out of Central. You always focus on what needs to be done. You understand that, outside Earth, the solar system has no patience for humans. If you’re not paying attention, you die.

The rover’s headlights glance obliquely off mica in the rock, a constellation of light upon the cliff, leading your gaze to—

“There.”

You don’t speak very often, do you? It attracts the others’ attention. You point, and when they still do not understand, you unbuckle your restraints, wrestle the door open, and step out into the storm.

I know how this feels. It’s like being greeted by a boisterous friend. No matter how well you brace, the contact nearly knocks you off your feet. You’re the rover in miniature, caught between falling and stepping, but you’ve been here before. You don’t panic. Your boot comes down. Red dust flows around it like liquid. Up again. Down. Your breath tastes of stale exertion but you’re walking. The storm is another kind of air. Nothing more. It yields if you understand it.

The gap in the rock face would be difficult to see even in clear weather. In the wind, you can’t be sure it’s really there until you test what might be rock with your hand and discover empty space instead. In the tunnel beyond, noise ends. When was it last so quiet? When were you last so lovingly isolated? Central? Before that, in transit from whatever outer-system moon you called home? You sink into ruddy darkness.

Until Burke crows triumph. The tunnel opens into a chamber, ten metres by ten metres, and the flash-flood of Burke’s helmet lights illuminates the logos of old terraforming companies, stamped on oxygen tanks, water splitters, storage lockers. “Wills!” she barks. “Inventory.”

You make a circuit of the room while Wills reports. Food rations long gone or decomposed, oxygen enough for twelve hours each. It’s not what Burke promised, but it’s better than you’d hoped. Twelve hours makes the detour worth it.

You stop in front of the water tank. What are you noticing? What assumptions are you making? It’s about half full. The oxygen tanks next to it, less than that. That fact slices under your skin. Left unattended, the water splitter would run until either the water is gone or the oxygen tanks full. The explanation seems obvious to me, but I refilled my own oxygen from those tanks not six hours ago. Perhaps it’s easier to assume malfunction than to question the word unattended.

“Get the oxygen refilled.” Burke is pointing at you. Of course—the two of them are Earthborn. Decades worth of valve standards, compatibility adaptors, square pegs in round holes: that’s the knowledge they brought you along for.

You unhook the oxygen reservoir from your back and get to work. It goes easily. Burke and Wills chose well when they hired you. While you prolong their survival, they argue.

“What about the water?”

“The terraformers turned a million square kilometres of Mars into haunted wasteland and you trust their water supply?”

“We’re trusting the oxygen—”

“Oxygen is oxygen. Who knows what’s in the water? There’s a reason it’s called the fucking dead zone. We’ll make do with our water reserves. Understood?”

Wills understands. Burke doesn’t even think to ask you, not until you say, “It’s not haunted.” Two pockmarked helmets turn in your direction. “People live here.”

Ah! You came to the right conclusion about the water splitter after all. Or perhaps you’ve always been a believer—perhaps you’re one of those people who was drawn to the expedition because you’d heard tales of the dead zone and its inhabitants. I wonder which stories you like most. The dragon? The bunyip? I wonder if they remind you of home. Space is full of dragons, in the end.

“I don’t have time for fucking myths—”

“They do. There are signs. The first Martians aren’t all dead.”

A bold claim. All the history books dispute it. Burke recounts that history for you, just in case. She details every impossibility the terraformers failed to overcome, every consequence they failed to anticipate. The words slide right off. She’s Earthborn. What have the Earthborn ever understood about terraforming?

Oxygen flows into the reservoir, replenishing the breath Burke is wasting. Once she thinks you sufficiently cowed, she takes Wills and returns to the rover. They have important work to do. Triumphant paths to plot. All you have to do is sit and watch the oxygen.

On your way out, you stop in front of the water tank. The water level has dropped. That ought to eliminate the possibility of a malfunction, if you’re observant enough to notice, and I think you are. What will you do with that information? Tell Burke? I doubt it. She doesn’t want to hear about Martians.

But perhaps there’s a better question: how thirsty are you?

• • • •

This is a story we tell our children.

There was once a young girl who got lost outside in a storm. Her family searched and searched, but her helmet was damaged and she couldn’t hear them. Soon their oxygen reserves ran low and they had no choice but to leave her there.

The girl understood that she was alone, but she also understood that didn’t mean she was forgotten. She listened for the dragon’s breath. When she found it, she followed it at a respectful distance, head bowed, feet dwarfed by its prints, until her family returned with more oxygen and rescued her.

This is our country. It looks after us, if we let it.

• • • •

By the time you reach your goal, six hours remain.

The ascent took longer than it should have. Wills did his best, but your rover is an ungainly thing even on flat terrain, which this is not. I wonder if Burke is starting to regret putting base camp where she did. Safe and sheltered in the lee of the cliff, yes, but it’s meant this long detour around to the other side of the plateau, to slopes more suited to the rover. It’s too late now, of course, and I expect she would sooner vent her oxygen than admit regret.

The skeletal remains of a dome rise dozens of metres above the featureless plain like the egg of a giant bird. I remember my first sight of that building, hazy, its edges vague enough that a child’s mind filled in the rest, imagined all the beasts it must have birthed. I think you feel some of that, too. You’re not a child, but your mind is open to the unknown. It has to be. There was a line, oft-repeated in criticisms of your expedition, that less was known about Earth’s oceans than about space. You and I know better than that.

The rover approaches, slows, stops in a cloud of dust. The egg isn’t an egg at all but the torn, drooping remnants of a geodesic dome, a miniature version of the vast structure that forms the dead zone’s sky. It was the centre of our ancestors’ doomed attempt at terraforming. It is, still, the centre of our world.

“The eye.”

The hunger in Burke’s voice is plain, even when filtered through my equipment. I find it’s different now, with the three of you so close. More personal. My family is down there, fewer than a hundred metres below your feet, and for what? Why are you here? To say you have done what no one else has? From above, a kilometre’s radius around the dome is painted in clearer, purer red against the umber of the storm: the eye, the dome its pupil. It is a sight I have never seen myself but can imagine perfectly, because I know my country. I know its pieces, the way they fit together. You explorers are something else. You force yourselves into spaces not shaped for you.

Dry, cold Mars is knocking at the door. You answer, step out into weather that would be almost bearable without a suit. No monsters here. Timeworn metal pierces the surface a dozen paces away. Your attention is caught by the streaks of ochre painting one surface. You step away from the rover, run your gloved fingertips along the roughly textured pigment. It is reassuringly real. What keeps it in place, you wonder, why has it not been scoured away? How fresh is it?

A noise breaks your reverie, sharp and sudden, then again, and again. Sound echoes oddly in the dead zone and it takes you a moment to identify them as gunshots, but then you’re running, back to the rover, and—

“Saw something,” Burke says.

She is wholly unconcerned. The gun, blocky and outsized for use with pressurised gloves, is still in her hands. I can picture what it’s like in your suit, heavy breathing and clenched fists. Or maybe I’m deluding myself. Maybe you aren’t as bothered as I am. Maybe you’d shoot at the unknown, too. Maybe the lack of a sidearm on your belt is more Burke’s paranoia than your choice. It’s not your home Burke is shooting up, after all. I don’t know why you’d care, except that I’d care, and it’s reassuring to have a point of solidarity, to imagine that you, at least, aren’t so different.

“Metallic,” she continues. “Drone, probably. Spies. Or saboteurs. There’s half a dozen cowards who’d sooner see us fail than admit they didn’t have the guts to try themselves.”

Well. She’s right about the drone, but it’s not what she saw. I think I know what it was. I hope she doesn’t provoke it again.

Burke holsters her gun and yells for the beacon. I wonder if you share her jubilation. You’ve made it, haven’t you? Against all your own misgivings you’ve made it. Wills wrestles the beacon, a tall thing like a flagpole with no flag, out of the rover. He hands it off to Burke and in moments your signal will be punching through the storm, confirming your location to Central, and everyone will know of your success. Behind you something screeches metal-voiced. Burke plants the beacon in the shadows of the dome and the dragon takes your rover clean through the front windshield.

Reinforced glass shatters. Hours of oxygen puff away like mist. The dragon does not pause but pushes off, the rover crumpling like a toy beneath it, a hammerstroke of metal claws rending and crushing and reaching for the beacon, and Burke barely gets out of the way in time. The beacon sparks blue surrender and goes out. Burke is raising her gun, as if something so small could stand against a thing ten times her size, and her bullets glance off the metal cylinders rising like wings above its back.

You turn away and stumble toward the rover—and Wills, where’s Wills? No, the oxygen is gone, the rover holds nothing for you, away, away, only which way is away? You glance over your shoulder. Sound and sight carry poorly: the dragon is a blurred sketch of wing and claw and tail, its screech muted by thin atmosphere, and it’s no wonder the thing had snuck up on you. A crack, like wood hitting wood. You stumble. Burke is still shooting. A spark—a gout of flame—has she slain it?

No. My drone, shot clean through, glances off dome support struts and hits the ground five metres away in a puff of dust. Everything goes red.

• • • •

We don’t want our country marred by needless violence. In the best-case scenario, you unwanted explorers would have reached the eye, gone about your business, and returned to Central, never once suspecting we were here.

The best-case scenario did not involve Burke shooting at the dragon. The best-case scenario did not involve your beacon operating on the same frequency as the old lures did, the ones the terraformers used to lead the dragons where they wanted them to go. Malice and ignorance rarely coexist well.

This situation is new to me. The most I’ve had to do is keep an eye on tourists, thrill seekers, and they never dared venture much past the limits of the outer dome. This is new territory for me as much as it is for you.

Burke destroyed my drone. I’m sending another one.

• • • •

You come back into focus hours and kilometres away, near the edge of the plateau. It’s taken you longer than I expected. Perhaps you wandered for a time before finding purpose again.

Inventory: Oxygen—three hours remain. Water—plentiful. Food—irrelevant. You’ll suffocate long before you’ll starve. Distance to base camp and the support team waiting for your return—ah, that’s the question.

The cold must be getting to you by now. You don’t think about it, when you’re snug in the rover, when you spend at most half an hour outside in the storm—but it’s cold. Every step you take is pushing through half-melted ice. Every shiver, every goosebump is made malevolent by the knowledge of monsters. The landscape is trying to kill you. That’s what you think, isn’t it? And—oh, you’re stopping, you’ve seen another ochre sign emblazoned on a piece of metal, in the lee of a small rock formation. You see the letters in the landscape. Do you see the readers? Do you feel my presence?

I should help. I should. But that part of me that wants you to be like me, to understand, holds me back. It’s our custom to stay hidden until the very last moment, and we’re not there yet. Not yet.

Base camp, then. An hour and a half away. Due west. Between you and it: the two-kilometre cliff you’d spent six hours ascending, from the east, where the slopes are gradual. And that was with the rover. Distances multiply when you’re on foot, like a map increased to its maximum magnification, the smallest tick-marks on the scale expanding to swallow the horizon.

But there are things you can do that the rover could not. Paths you can follow. You’re getting there, ochre sign by ochre sign, leaning into the wind, the sharp italic-I of you traversing an endless page of redspace. You’ll reach the edge of the cliff and you’ll see that final ochre mark and you’ll make a choice, to trust or not to trust. Do you trust yourself to have read correctly? Do you trust us to have written safety into the landscape? You’ll ask yourself what’s worse—death by falling or by suffocation. You’ll weigh the risk of both, of lying broken in the sand, too hurt to unseal your helmet and speed the end along.

And then, if I have judged you right, you’ll jump.

• • • •

I’m proud of you.

And I’m sorry, too. While I waited for my drone to find you again, I watched base camp. I watched them argue over their own dwindling oxygen reserves. Before you’d left camp, Burke told them to turn back if the beacon wasn’t up within eighteen hours. Less full of bravado, Wills had quietly made it twenty-four.

They waited thirty. They waited as long as they could, and then they left, half an hour before your helmet radio came within range.

I wish you’d never come. I wish I could believe that your people were wise, that exploration would not be followed by expansion.

But I am sorry.

• • • •

From the bottom of the cliff, it’s a straight dash to your base camp. Forty-five minutes at most. You spent longer than you might have navigating the safe path down, the short falls and ropes and climbs, but you’re on schedule. The air is almost still in the lee of the cliff. An easy hike. You’re going to make it. You are.

When you do, Burke and the dragon are there. Everything else is not.

Burke sits. The dragon circles. Burke has her sidearm laid across her lap like a talisman, and that is keeping it at bay. It’s a beast, after all, even if a mechanical one. It’s torn between preservation of self and preservation of others.

“Wills?”

“Gone.”

Burke’s voice is a fine razor pulled over textured rock. It challenges you to ask what happened, to wonder at the oxygen level in her suit, at Wills’ navigation tablet lying discarded at her feet. You do none of these things. “The others?”

“Gone.”

You sit down next to her. You’ve been on your feet for hours and you nearly topple forwards, body instinctively pushing back against a wind that no longer blows. Once you are not uncomfortable, you let that single word unpack itself. The traces have already been smoothed away. Only the deep divots left by the habitat’s legs remain, tucked in the protective shade of the wave of rock below which you’d set up base. The two other rovers, the supplies, the comms equipment, the people—all gone.

“One hour.” Burke laughs, harsh and bitter. “We missed them by one hour. They left a message. One fucking hour!” She takes the tablet at her feet and flings it away. It hits the edge of the wave rock, splinters into steel-blue shards among the red.

You lie back. Raise your fingers. Your arm is covered in a fine down of dust. When did you last see the shiny silver-blue of your suit? Perhaps you miss lands that do not feel the need to imprint themselves on you. Perhaps you cry. It’s hard to tell. Your faceplate is opaque.

“We made it.” Time has passed. Burke’s voice is weak. “We succeeded. We made it.”

It takes you three tries to speak past the enormity of your situation. “The beacon wasn’t active long enough.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Burke snaps. She stands, stumbles, folds in on herself. Her breath comes in gasps. It’s only fitting that she runs out of air first; she’s wasted more than her share. You watch her struggling in the dust and do not have the strength to help. She was born on Earth. She does not know how to die with grace. She makes it hard, the sounds of her not breathing echoing in the confines of your helmet.

Sense leaves her. Her fingers scrabble at her helmet seal and she dies facing the planet that killed her, the statement of her success writ upon her lips like a flag claiming a country that does not recognise flags.

You are left.

Emboldened, the dragon approaches. It rounds the rock formation; you do not turn to look. Its shadow falls upon you in stages: first the head, then the front manipulator limbs, then the rest of its body. I can see your arms trembling as it settles its metal bulk beside you. The dragon is a rugged thing, streaked with decades of dust, the hydraulics in its back limbs whining with effort, but it has been here longer than either of us.

Still you do not look. Perhaps you think one death is much like another.

Now the question. You have seen the red country. You have made it this far on your own. You understand, at least a little. Enough to trust our water; enough to trust us to guide you down the cliff. Can you make the final leap? Do you know the nature of the dragon?

Time is passing. You do not move. Your breathing evens, gutters, threatens to go out. Ah. You have chosen to die with dignity. Show Burke how it’s done. One final victory. You have not understood the most important thing. Burke’s words have told at last, her obsession with success outweighing the reality of survival. She has blinded you to my presence, watching from above. She has blinded you to the salvation within arm’s reach, the oxygen spilling from the dragon’s maw, the gas-tank wings upon its back, its faithful, futile devotion to the terraforming dream.

Our country is Red. We embrace it. Dwell in it. Rejoice in it. Survive in it. You could not, in the end, have been expected to understand in it.

That’s all right.

I’ll help.

Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko

Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko is a Slovenian-born writer and translator. He grew up in Slovenia, Ireland, Australia, and the UK, and currently resides just outside Portland, Maine. He understands that his name is a bit confusing and would like you to know that “Drnovšek Zorko” is the surname. He attended Clarion West in 2019, and his work has previously appeared in Clarkesworld, Escape Pod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and elsewhere. In his spare time he is a keen quizzer—British readers may recognise him from that one time he was on University Challenge. Follow him on Twitter @filiphdz.