Defying Mars (The Saving Mars Series) - By Cidney Swanson

1

HAUNTED

An image haunted Jessamyn Jaarda as she journeyed home to Mars. She saw her hand, pressed flat against the viewing portal while Earth rocketed from view: first a blur of cloud and ash, then a convex globe of land and water, and finally a child’s bauble, inky-blue swirled through with white.

Mars called her homeward, but in her bones she felt the pull of Earth. It was not gravity which tugged at her as she fled. Rather, she woke nightly from nightmares where those she’d left behind called out to her: First Officer, turn the ship about; come back, daughter; sister, where are you? From these dark dreams she woke shouting aloud, her heart pounding in the darkness of her small quarters, no Harpreet to ask from the bunk below if she were well.

No Harpreet. No Ethan. No captain. No survivors at all from their sister ship, the Red Dawn.

Of the ten Mars Raiders who’d departed Mars less than a Terran month earlier, only two raced homeward in the Red Galleon with the ration bars that would keep the human settlement on Mars Colonial from starving. Only two. Jessamyn heard the words as if they were repeated by unseen whisperers while she sat alone on her bunk.

She unclenched a frozen jaw, relaxed taut fists, and rose, making her way to the bridge. There would be no more sleep after the dream. There never was.

Seating herself at the ship’s helm, she gazed upon the ice-cold beauty of a million stars. They murmured to her of infinities. They brought to mind her own small size and the vastness of the universe. That she could travel millions of kilometers while the stars remained much the same was mocking proof of how close the two worlds lay and how desperately small Jess and her craft were. Jessamyn felt sometimes as if her ship hovered in space—caught between the pull of Earth and the pull of Mars, neither advancing nor receding.

A comfortless parallel to the tug-of-war that raged within her.

She shivered and pulled up a navigational reading, which told her the watery Terran world lay nine million kilometers behind her already. Seventy-four million to go. Somewhere, upon that alien planet, Pavel Brezhnaya-Bouchard wandered with her brother. She had to believe her Terran friend Pavel had found Ethan, as he’d vowed to do. She considered writing to Pavel, a practice she’d begun their second day out from Earth, but she had nothing to say that she hadn’t already written half a dozen times over. Are you well? Are you safe? Take care of my brother. Tell him I will return. The letters were foolish—she had no way of delivering them. No, her only task now was to get the ration bars home.

Jess forced herself to focus on the ship’s navigational controls. Her heading was true, her speed excellent. In another few days, she might need to make a small burn to correct their course, but the ship needed nothing from her today. The screen appeared exactly as it had since their departure: Earth behind the Galleon, Mars before her.

Mars. Jessamyn took in a shaky breath, her heart throbbing with dull pain as she thought of home. She yearned for it. Longed for her mother’s arms around her, her father’s soft voice telling her everything would be alright. But how could things ever be right again? How could home be home without her brother there? Her breath hitched.

Think about the Galleon, she told herself. Calculate something.

She pulled up the time remaining for her journey. No surprise there: sixteen and a half days until her craft intersected the path of the Red Planet. Sixteen and a half days until she could begin the process of petitioning for a mission aimed at the rescue of her brother, Harpreet, and the captain.

“I just want things to be the way they were,” she murmured to the ship. “That’s all.” Involuntarily, her head turned to Ethan’s station beside hers. Where was he now? How was he adjusting to his re-body? Was he afraid? Anxious? Humming in the monotone that indicated a retreat into the dark corners of his mind?

A shuffling noise in the hall behind her told Jessamyn that Crusty was approaching, and she pulled her gaze from her brother’s empty chair.

“You’re up early, kid,” said the mechanic.

Jess shrugged. She hadn’t admitted to Crusty that sleep came with difficulty if it came at all. “It’s a big day,” she said.

That much was true. Today she and Crusty would transmit to Mars Colonial Command the

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