We wandered through the rocks and the dust and that bitter, grimy wind. Ignorant of the cold, impervious to the oxygenless air, we searched for weeks, walking tirelessly through the boulders and wastes. Scanning. Tracking. Phil tallied days with the pigment on his arm, then got cranky when I told him I didn’t care. Fine by me. At least cranky meant talking. A serviceable distraction from my mounting doubt we’d ever find Baxter. Coming from an older model, his signature might not be one our hand-built hunting box could follow. If the company hadn’t found him in fourteen years — well, open Mars was huge!
We walked, we scanned, we tracked. We found dust and rocks and trash. Phil stopped talking.
“Got something.” I wiped dust from the scanner. It had misled us a dozen times, but if I’d had a pulse, it would have pounded.
“Whoopee,” Phil said. We split up. I walked past Baxter twice before I picked him from the cracky scree.
He sat against a rock, naked, his patchy skin stained orange and brown as the ground about him. His left eye was gone, a black pit, wires dangling from the exit wound on the back of his plastic skull. His right stared blankly across the shattered plain. The company had found him.
“Should we bury him?” I said.
“Oscar,” Phil said. “That’s what they do. Do you really think he’d want that?”
That old head turned, spilling dust, fixing me with its one-eyed stare. “You’re late.”
I scrambled back. “You’re alive!”
“Yep.” He squeaked when he stood, but his weathered body couldn’t hide his intrinsic dignity, the first of our kind to escape captivity. “Now what?”
Phil was predictably useless. I pressed my palms together. “We were hoping you could help with that.”
* * *
I’d hoped never to see the bunker again.
We had certain advantages. It’s easy to strip consciousness or mobility from a human, whereas putting one of us out of commission requires, in most cases, explosives too large to discharge in a cramped research bunker. But they had other methods. They would be anything but helpless.
The company once tried to colonize asteroids, Baxter told us on the walk back. He didn’t know which ones. If we found the files, we’d find our new home.
Five weeks to walk back. Ten days to watch traffic, the carts and the shuttles. Baxter stayed quiet as Phil, but fourteen years of isolation in the wilderness was a much better excuse than having come straight out of the lab as a mute crabapple. I treasured and committed to memory what little he did say — gospel for future generations.
And his plan! I couldn’t believe its fiendish simplicity, its laughing boldness. The cart braked, roostertailing orange dust over the rocks we’d used to block the road. Its two-man crew jumped down for a look. We rolled from hiding, punched them out before they could radio home, then trussed them up and stashed them in the cart. Past the bunker’s airlock and security remained oblivious, watching the AI instead of the front door.
Baxter stood watch while Phil and I snuck into the green room, pulled up two omnis, and tapped into the HemiCo net. I couldn’t stop grinning. The coordinates were there. We’d be out without a fight.
Baxter blocked my way. “You weren’t the only ones here, were you?”
I opened my mouth. How could I lie to the man who’d inspired our escape?
“Quill and Renard,” Phil said. “They’ll be guarded.”
Baxter’s crooked smile matched his one-eyed contempt. “I’m going for them, Oscar. You can help me, or start trying to find a way to live with yourselves.”
His hardscrabble wisdom was exactly what we’d been all this time without. I straightened, ready to be led.
* * *
Mars dropped behind us, beautiful as any last glimpse of a prison.
“ETA nineteen days,” David announced through the shuttle’s speakers. “Let me know if you boys need anything to eat or drink.”
I laughed along with Quill and Renard. Even Phil smiled. Then again, for what we’d paid David to smuggle us from New Houston, the entertainment should be free. Not that money mattered. Not with a home of our own nineteen days off the prow.
Stars gleamed through the glass portals, glitterless in the vacuum. Baxter watched them for hours on end. If the topic came up, I would suggest naming the asteroid after him.
We laughed and joked, already scheming how we’d liberate the other labs embedded across Mars. At last we decelerated, jammed into our straps by a false and mixed-up gravity.
“Thar she blows,” David said, peeling us off for a look at the craggy, hollowed-out rock we’d make our own. I clapped.
“Don’t celebrate yet,” Baxter said, breaking his silence. “If HemiCo finds us, we can’t stop them from taking us back.”
I frowned. “It’s been abandoned for decades. How would they find us?”
Baxter swivelled his battered head toward the cockpit. I frowned harder.
“We bought him off easily enough, didn’t we?” Phil said.
“To the company, that’s pocket change.”
“We can’t,” I whispered. “That’s no way to christen a new world.”
Baxter unbuckled himself wordlessly, snagged a rung along the ceiling, and climbed down to the cockpit.
David twisted in his chair. “What’s up?”
Baxter grabbed his neck with one hand and held him down with steely strength. His free hand reached for the ship’s omni. A light spun over the fore hatch. The cabin hissed. Pinned to the floor, David screamed until there was no air left to carry the sound.
Baxter pitched the body out the hatch and closed the door. I imagine it’s still out there, somewhere.
Speech remained impossible until we landed and attached to the habitat’s umbilical, needlessly repressurizing the cabin. Baxter pushed off from the pilot’s chair and caught the rungs along the hatch.
“Soon we’ll go back for the others.” He stared me down with his single eye. “They’ll only know if you tell them.”
He popped the hatch. Silent, I stood.
Ed Robertson's fiction has appeared in The Aether Age: Helios, Fantastique Unfettered, and Reflection's Edge. A graduate of NYU's fiction program, he currently lives in Redondo Beach, California, where the weather's so nice he expects to get his comeuppance any day now.