The only way left to go is forward
rating: +23+x

In front of me, the shadow of Olympus Mons turns the already lichen-blackened clay a much deeper black — almost velvety, like a clear night sky. In the distance, the lights of Station 00 (also known as "Carl Sagan Station," or, more colloquially, "Clean Slate Station,") are slowly turning off as the sunlight reaches them. Behind me, the sun slowly rises over the mountain. Above me, the sky is slowly turning from violet twilight to its distinctive rust-red. Beneath me, the engine of the buggy rumbles, keeping it warm. I'll have to explain the extra engine hours, but some irrational part of my brain tells me it's worth it.

I'm happy I found this spot — good view, good lichen outcrops for sampling (my go-to cover story for these outings), but not too far from the Station. I'm settled in, so it's time to get down to business. I unzip the bag hanging at my right thigh and pull out the packaged black-and-cherry-red filter cartridge, 7 centimeters across and maybe one centimeter thick. Big blocky letters warn that "NICOTINE MAY CAUSE ADDICTION," while slightly smaller letters advertise the Earth-based corporation whose executives are making a killing off dupes like me. I tear the package open, take a deep breath, close the valve at the mouthpiece of my mask, pop the mouthpiece off, pop the filter into place, pop the mouthpiece back, reopen the valve, and exhale. The process takes maybe four seconds but it always feels like forever.

As I inhale the "black cherry" flavored mist, I notice a set of lights roll away from the eastern airlock of the station. Probably sampling crews getting an early start. I put it at the back of my mind and let my thoughts drift.

The sampling crews set me on a train of thought about the colony. Station 00. Carl Sagan Station. Clean Slate Station. Part of a massive international effort, and no small portion of the Earthside scientists and engineers were Foundation. Founded in 2348 on what was essentially the corpse of the failed Elon Musk/NASA attempt of the 2030s, it had two official names: Carl Sagan Station was the International Standard name, while Station 00 was the name adopted by the Church. "Clean Slate" was made up by the colonists sometime in the early 2350s, 30-some odd years ago, because that's what the slowly-terraforming planet was supposed to be: a clean slate for humanity. And for the colonists themselves. Colonists like me.

Even though I'm focusing on my breathing so I don't waste oxygen, I laugh at that last thought. Clean slate, my ass. By now the term's become one of semi-affectionate sarcasm for me. My slate on the Red Planet was no more clean than the one I left on Earth. I ran away with a girl I thought I loved to be some sort of space cadet, leaving behind a bunch of shit I thought was just baggage. I think back to Thomas; I wonder if he can see me, even with all the millions of miles between here and Earth. I hope that kid's doing ok, wherever he is.

My thoughts drift back, like they always do these days, to Ophelia. What the hell went wrong? We went up through training together — we were in the cadet program with the Foundation since before uni, and we were dating pretty steady until the trip here. I thought we were gonna last forever, but I guess forever only counts where the air doesn't have to be manufactured or farted out by lichens and algae farms.

Just as I'm losing myself in my thoughts, a gust of cold wind chills me through my isolation suit and brings me back to reality. The nicotine's mostly numbed my mouth and nose and I'm almost positive I got a bit of the local soil in my mouth when I had the mask open. The sun's risen over the colony and it won't be too long before the sunlight reaches here. The headlights I'd seen earlier didn't roll off to one of the more geologically or biologically interesting sites; they were rolling right towards me. No idea who'd come looking for me, but I guess I'll know in just a few minutes.

As the new buggy rolls up, I get off the hood of mine and dust myself off. Not that anyone's gonna care about a little dust on a spacesuit, but it always feels better for me to be doing something other than sitting on my ass when I get caught fucking around. The buggy pulls up a few meters next to mine before the lights turn off, followed by the engine.

"Freeman, that you?" The respirator mask covers most of Quentin's face, but I was able to tell it was him by the way he dismounted the buggy, even if I hadn't recognized his voice over the radio.

"Yeah, Storms, it's me." I try to sound friendly but I know I probably sound bitey. I feel bitey.

"What the hell are you doing out here? I've been looking all over for you." He sounds frustrated, but legitimately concerned. I probably couldn't ask for a better boss.

I hold up the package from the vape filter and say, "Just feeding my inner demons someplace quiet, sir."

He nods in understanding briefly, then asks, "How many is that this week?"

"Five. Ophelia quit, so she lets me have her ration."

Another short nod, awkward in the isolation suit. "You know those things will kill you, right?" His voice has the slightest hint of friendly sarcasm.

"No faster than the radiation or the dust storms or the little green men." I can't help but crack a smile at my own shitty joke, even if Quentin can't see it. But from the look of his eyes through the mask, he chuckled a bit, too.

"Something eating at you?" The same almost-big-sibling frustrated concern.

"Yeah." No point in lying.

"Wanna talk about it?" At least he seems sincere.

"Nope." No point in lying.

"What's the cover story?"

I point around us. "Lichen samples."

"All right. You brought bags, right?"

"Yeah." I point to the small storage compartment at the back of the buggy.

"All right, let's get to it."

He goes back to his buggy, where he presumably has his own equipment. I go back to mine, where the familiar sealed-and-sterilized toolsets and unopened sample bags wait for me, turning off the engine while I'm at it.. We're done after about an hour and a half, so we hop in the buggies and head back West.

As we're driving, I hear him say over the radio, "When I was a kid, back on Earth, my grandpa used to take me hiking. And a lot of times, we'd hit rough patches in the trail but there was no real way to turn around. And he always used to tell me, 'When you can't go back, the only way you've got is forward, no matter how rough it gets. Just grit your teeth and hold on tight, you'll get through and find your way home.' Not sure if that means anything here, for whatever it is you're going through, but it's something to think about."

I nod for a moment before remembering that he has no way to see it. "Yeah, thanks. I'll try to remember that." It isn't too much later that we reach Clean Slate Station and I have to tell myself, "One step at a time. Just keep moving forward."


That wasn't the last time I went to that spot, but it turned out to be the last for a real a long time.

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