Warren Hammond is known for his gritty, futuristic KOP series. “KOP Killer” won the 2012 Colorado Book Award in Mystery. His novel “Tides of Maritinia,” published in 2014, is a spy novel set in a science fictional world.
Joshua Viola is a Colorado Book Award finalist and the author of “The Bane of Yoto” and “Blackstar.” He edited the Denver Post best-selling anthologies, “Blood Business” and “Nightmares Unhinged,” and co-edited “Cyber World,” named one of the best science fiction anthologies of 2016 by Barnes & Noble.
The following is an excerpt from “Denver Moon: The Minds of Mars.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Science Fiction/Fantasy
He checked the clock.
Only thirty more minutes.
He pulled on his gloves and twisted the metal rings to lock them to the sleeves of his suit. He turned the helmet over in his hands and watched the clock, watched the seconds pass. He’d been trapped there so long, all alone. Years had gone by. He was sure of it. But how many? Five? Ten?
How long had it been since he first opened his eyes and found himself in that room with stone walls? How long had he been wondering who he was? How he’d gotten here?
He tried so hard to piece it together, but the clues were scarce. That first day, the giant blood-caked bump on his head told him he’d suffered a major blow that must’ve taken his memory. A search of the one-room, hole-in-the-ground facility yielded no radios or phones. He’d found no computers or books or notes of any kind.
A single enviro-suit hung on the wall, and a ladder led to a cramped airlock above. He put on the suit and made his way up. Outside, he found himself standing upon a vast field of dirt and rock stretching from horizon to horizon. All his colorblind eyes saw were gray tones splashed across the landscape, but he knew right away where he was.
But how? Why? Was he part of a research project? A colony? Where was everybody else? Were they coming for him? Or, Gods forbid, had he already missed a rendezvous he couldn’t remember?
The days stretched into weeks, and the weeks into months, and the months into a dismal tedium where time no longer mattered. His diet was an unappetizing menu of freeze-dried rations and canned protein paste.
He figured out how to maintain the solar panels on the surface that provided his tiny facility with heat and electricity. He mastered the skills of producing breathable air using scrubbers that pulled elements from the atmosphere and mixed it with oxygen provided by the electrolysis of water.
To produce that water, he did the backbreaking work of carrying buckets of topsoil down the ladder to the extractor that took up almost a quarter of his living space. An hour later, the extractor would do the job of heating the dirt and capturing the frozen water molecules trapped inside, and then he’d lift the spent dirt back up the ladder to replace it with more freshly shoveled soil from the surface.
He explored the area, walking as far as his oxygen tanks would allow. In every direction, nothing but the desolate desert of Mars. He was marooned, and destined to starve to death when his supply of rations ran out.
But one day, when he went to the surface for his daily chores, he spotted a small, white dot in what he knew was a sea of red. The color white was as unnatural to the Martian terrain as a palm tree in Siberia, so he marched toward the spot until he found a pallet of supplies with a white parachute attached.
They—whoever they were—knew he was there, and over the years, they never forgot to make regular air drops. But he never saw who brought them.
The delivery was always the same. Twenty boxes of rations. A pair of replacement panels for the solar array. Replacement parts for all his equipment. A new enviro-suit in case his became damaged.
That was it. No messages or communications. No word of who they were, who he was or why he was here, or how long he’d have to remain.
Yesterday’s delivery came with a note instead of supplies. The note consisted of three simple words. Pickup at noon.
Noon. Only fifteen minutes from now. He attached his helmet and climbed the ladder. He passed through the airlock and stepped outside for what he hoped would be his last time. He walked past the solar panels and found a spot to lay down on his back so he could see as much of the sky as possible.
It started as a tiny speck that reflected the sunlight, and quickly grew to the size of a firefly. He sat up. Could it be? Could it finally be over?
The craft continued to approach, coasting silently across the wasteland he called home, the only home he could remember. His heart pounded in his chest. He stood and waved his arms and jumped up and down. This was it. He was finally leaving this prison never to come back.
His vision blurred with tears as the craft began to descend. It was a small ship, perhaps big enough for three or four people, though he could only see one pilot behind the windshield. A man, he thought, but he couldn’t see more than that through the cloud of dust erupting all around him. The ship was right above him, a ladder descending from its belly. He hustled to get in position, his arms raised to grasp hold of the bottom rung.
The ladder came closer—one inch at a time—until it hovered just above his stretched hands.
With a loud clang, it changed direction and began to lift.
“Wait!” he shouted. “I’m not on!”
The ladder continued to rise. Rung by rung, it disappeared back inside the ship. He jumped for it, but even in Mars’ reduced gravity he couldn’t reach.
The hatch closed and the ship lifted upward. The nose of the craft turned around and it started back in the direction it came.
Despair forced him to his knees. He beat his helmet with his fists as he watched the craft shrink farther and farther away until it was gone.