Life on Mars

Another story I wrote for our group, genre: Mystery. Not sure if it really fits, but it was the best I could come up with.

The broadcast came on, despite the numerous attempts to stop it. There were the familiar scenes, the steel corridors lined with decorations of the inhabitants, the bedrooms outfitted to reflect the personalities and needs of those who occupied them. The kitchen, with its four ergonomically rounded chairs around a small economical table, and the expansive counters where the colonists could prepare their meals.

Jack Darling, the tech in charge of the feeds, scanned the screens in front of him. He picked at the skin of a fingernail nervously, looking for signs of anything wrong. His boss, Ethan, slid into the chair next to him, his face thoughtful.

‘No word?’ Jack asked.

‘There’s word,’ Ethan replied. ‘We keep the feed on, no matter what.’

‘After yesterday? I thought they’d pull us for sure.’

Ethan shrugged. ‘Ratings have never been higher. Turns out nothing gets the public’s attention like an on-air murder.’

‘So AMAD is going to let the whole world watch a murderer wipe out our first off-world colony?’ Jack said, switching fingernails as the one he was working on started to bleed.

‘Seems like it.’ Ethan replied. ‘I wouldn’t worry too much. Our job is to make sure the feed stays on, and cut it when we’re told to. Nothing more.’

‘But… someone died up there.’

‘And it made damn good TV. I can’t wait to see what they do next.’

‘Someone died.

‘And what do you plan to do about it? Mars is 249 million miles away.’

Jack fell silent, as a colonist drifted onto one of the monitors. This was Ellen, the twenty-eight-year-old Capricorn who loved cats and wrote a thesis on eighteenth century Ghanian politics. Jack knew Ellen’s blood type, her mother’s maiden name, and that she had cried for two days after Jonathan Teller had rejected her in third grade. The entire world knew Ellen’s life story, and the stories of all four of the Mars One colonists. Or they thought they did.

‘Who do you think it was?’ Ethan asked, pulling out a Twix and shoving half of the bar into his mouth. ‘My bet’s on Nathanial.’

‘Nathanial? Really?’ Nathanial was forty-three, reserved, and often spent time alone instead of interacting with the other colonists. ‘I guess I could see it,’ Jack admitted.

‘Who else would it be? I would’ve bet on Greg, but he’s got a knife in his belly.’

‘I’m not going to bet on people’s lives,’ Jack said, watching Ellen scramble some eggs.

‘It could be Casey,’ Ethan continued, stuffing the rest of the Twix down his throat. ‘He’s far too cheerful. No one who has to spend the rest of their lives on that hell of a planet should be that cheerful.’

Jack shot Ethan a glance, and wasn’t surprised to see his boss watching the screens with a contented look on his face. The world loved the Mars One feed, more so now after the murder. They seemed to have forgotten that real people were out there, that a real person had died.

Movement on the screens in front of him made Jack look back up. Casey, the cheery former lawyer, had joined Ellen in the kitchen. He gave her a happy wave, making Jack wonder if he really was the murderer. How could he still be smiling, locked in a compound 249 million miles away from home, with a deranged killer? Unless he was the killer…

An explosion from the monitors answered Jack’s question for him. Casey, the long-time fan favourite, lay in pieces on the floor. Jack watched the medical robots examine what was left of Casey’s body, while the cleaning crew wheeled out to scrape up the blood and guts.

Ellen stood against the wall, her eyes wide and mouth hanging open. She watched the robots for a moment, before running to a garbage can and hurling up her scrambled eggs.

And so all the eyes in the world turned to Nathaniel, the remaining colonist, the murderer. He was creeping down the hall, a frown etched on his face and a kitchen knife gripped tightly in his left hand. Nathanial paused outside the kitchen, and then backtracked, positioning himself around the corner where Ellen would eventually have to walk.

Jack’s eyes flicked back to the kitchen. The hyper-efficient robots had almost finished with Casey’s body, and Ellen headed to the door. She disappeared from the kitchen monitor and reappeared in the hallway, the screen where humanity’s first off-world murderer had stood not moments before.

Jack wanted to scream, to shout at Ellen and warn her about the monster lurking around the corner. He closed his eyes as she walked forward, but opened them again immediately, unable to stop watching the drama in front of him. He wanted to believe that the feed was just a TV show, that it was staged, that the blood and the bits the world had seen after Greg’s and Casey’s deaths had all been really good special effects and makeup.

But it wasn’t, it was real. It was happening millions of miles away, but it was real, and Jack couldn’t stop it. All he could do was watch with the rest of the world in twisted fascination as the young woman rounded the corner to face her waiting death.

It was over in a few seconds. There was a short scuffle, and then a third body lay on an alien planet. Nathanial smiled before cleaning his knife and walking back to his room, humming a jaunty tune. It was only then that the call came down to cut the feed, and Jack was finally able to turn off those terrible screens.

Jack sat in the control room two days later, idly flipping through a copy of Time magazine. The screens in front of him were still on, though they weren’t being broadcast. Nathanial moved around the compound, seemingly enjoying his triumph and his solitude.

Something wasn’t right. Jack couldn’t decide what exactly was bothering him, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the colonists, about each of the murders he and the rest of the world had watched. His eyes scanned an ad about a diamond store, where a young man proposed to a girl, whose eyes were wide with surprise and delight. Jack froze. Surprise. That was the key.

He spun his chair around and opened the recordings from the day of the explosion. There was Ellen, cooking the eggs. Jack brought up the video from Nathanial’s private quarters. The colonist was reading a book, his feet propped on a chair, looking the like the picture of relaxation. Then there was the bang, the crash of the kitchen exploding. Jack kept his eyes on Nathanial, who jumped in surprise, before rummaging in his mattress for the knife and stalking out of the room.

Jack flipped to the video from the kitchen, this time watching Ellen. She was eating her eggs, seemingly uninterested in Casey’s cheery greeting, but her eyes kept flicking up at him. She shifted, sliding lower in the chair, putting as much of her body under the table as possible. It was subtle, but it was there. She was preparing for the explosion, for the explosion she knew was coming, because she had set it up.

Jack paused the video, his hand shaking. Ellen had known about the explosion, and Nathanial had not. Ellen had killed Casey, but Nathanial had killed Ellen. So who had killed Greg? Ellen, or Nathanial?

‘Have you seen the news?’ Ethan said, walking into the control room. ‘They’ve announced Mars Two, and are looking for applicants. With a much refined screening process, of course. The show had the highest viewership of any program in history. Sponsors are coming in from all over to make sure there’s a round two.’

‘They planned it,’ Jack whispered, not taking his eyes from the screens.

‘What?’

‘They planned everything. Mars One. AMAD. They knew. They knew they were sending murderers out there, and they didn’t care, because it would get them ratings, and ratings would get them money.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Ethan replied, peering over Jack’s shoulder. ‘This mission was a disaster.’

‘Nathanial didn’t kill Casey, Ellen did. And neither one killed Greg, that was Casey. My guess is all four of them were killers of some sort, and Mars One was hoping for some kind of battle royale up there, to get just this kind of publicity. Didn’t you say they already have sponsors for the next mission?’

Ethan put a hand on Jack’s shoulder, ‘Go home, Jack. It’s been a long week.’

‘It’s true,’ Jack insisted. ‘Watch the videos, you’ll know.’

Ethan steered Jack out of the chair and pushed him towards the door. ‘Go home. Get some rest.’

‘Watch the videos,’ Jack repeated. He grabbed his coat and walked out of the room, glad to leave those screens behind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s