The Mariner Valleys

Gemma watched Phobos trek across the large screen. It reminded her of nights spent outside, dew seeping into her clothing as she watched Earth’s moon travel across its sky. She missed the freedom to roam outside unprotected.

The shrill call of her beeper bought Gemma out of her reverie. She grabbed her coat and pressed the finger pad by the door. Once the door slid open, Gemma headed outside.

The corridor was large cavernous space with room for a transport pod to navigate. On each side doors were evenly spaced. Each door was an opening to someone’s life; Gemma wondered how others came to be isolated on this inhospitable planet. Would their stories match hers?

The transport arrived and Gemma boarded. The pod had single seats along both sides, for twenty passengers. Those aboard were female. No-one acknowledged Gemma as she walked to her designated seat. No-one spoke. Speakers above each seat were turned to full volume. They relayed the Realm’s message repeatedly. ‘Earth is prospering. The United Realm will look after your interests. Speaking against the Realm is a crime, and traitors will be dealt with.’ The message had changed little in her years at Valles Marineris, known as the Mariner Valleys to the inmates.

Gemma’s parents were leaders of the Great Revolt which began in 2023. They’d gathered forces determined to fight the United Realm, the governing force that for over a decade enforced policies leading to great hardships for those least able to endure them on Earth.

Island nations had disappeared under rising seas. Huge coastal populations had been forced inland. Many species of animals and flora had disappeared completely. Ultimately the Grand Plague had resolutely  reduced the human population of the planet. The United Realm kept the only cure a secret, believing a reduced population would make life on Earth sustainable; the Grand Plague was a way to achieve that goal.

The resistance fought for five years against the United Realm, but the complacency of the masses had beaten them. Remaining members of the resistance were betrayed by Icarus Bellby, in return for immunity from prosecution. Icarus Belby became the Judas of his time. Members of the resistance captured were immediately executed.

Originally built to house humanity’s elite when Earth could no longer sustain its population, the Mariner Valleys settlement now housed those sympathetic to the rebellion. Gemma was a teenager when she’d arrived at Mariner Valleys. She’d spent the last ten years trying to live in the spirit of her parents. Both had been executed after the Battle of the Ice Caps.

Her days on Mars while busy were isolated. She rose at the same time every day, once dressed she waited for transport to take her to the Halls. Each hall was assigned people of a similar age bracket. Gemma’s hall consisted of young women only, aged between twenty and thirty Earth years. Martian years, with 320 days more and seasons twice the length of Earth’s led to confusion amongst the inmates. Gemma thought that the Realm did this on purpose.

The inmates were segregated by age and sex. They only came into contact at the Great Rallies held every sixty-three Martian days in the winter and autumn months. This coincided with the arrival of a ship from Earth bringing supplies. Lower ranked members of the United Realm made the journey each time to examine the behaviour of inmates. Should an inmate prove their alliance to the United Realm, they were rewarded with a trip home. Only three people had ever left the planet.

Gemma realised her chances of leaving were low. The only daughter of two leaders of the revolt, should Gemma return she would be regarded as a symbol to any remaining hidden factions.

When the transport arrived at its destination, those aboard stood waiting to disembark, from a distance it would be hard to tell us apart thought Gemma. Everyone wore the same white knee-pants, white shoes, white shirt and jacket, and hair no longer than shoulder length. The only difference was the colour of the stripes on both shoulders. The first strip was coloured according to birth date. The second stripe signified the year of their arrival on Mars. The third stripe signalled their danger to the community. Gemma’s stripes told her age was twenty four, she had arrived ten Earth years ago, and she was considered dangerous to the United Realm.

As the young women filed out they were met by hundreds of inmates of various ages. Everyone assembled in two rows and followed black lines painted on the sterile grey floors; passing guards lining the taupe walls every metre. Somewhere Gemma remembered hearing that taupe was soothing. The Realm went to great measures to ensure Mars remained peaceful.

In the summer and spring months, inmates were confined in their living cocoons, and the respective halls. Each cocoon ran off one of the hallways and was cylindrical in shape. They were built this way because of the great dust storms that occurred in warmer months. The curved shaped buildings prevented dust accumulating and causing the structures to collapse.

The stadium was on the outer reaches of the Mariner Valleys and protected by a dome. The dome, the cocoons, halls, and interwoven transport corridors had been designed to protect against the outside temperature, -140%C in winter to 20%C in summer. The dome had a glass-like appearance, but was flexible, and stronger than glass. Two years earlier a space shuttle had careened off course in an unseasonable dust storm. It had ricocheted into the dome and bounced about the atmosphere before crash landing in the canyon Ma’adim Vallis. There were no survivors.

The accident alerted authorities that the settlement lacked resources and techniques for a rescue attempt. Now, on alternate days the inmates on Mars were trained to rescue anyone who found themselves beyond the protection of the dome.

Gemma followed the women into the stadium, and found herself a seat. The air outside the dome glowed with a soft pink wavering light. It was beautiful but deadly to anyone who tried to escape. There was no escape, and no hope. She saw it in the faces of the people. They were beaten and they accepted it.

The rally proceeded along carefully set guidelines. Repeatedly standing and sitting for each speaker. Much like the Catholic Church Gemma had attended on Earth. Even the cheering was regimented, as officials spoke of the Realm’s triumphs.

Once the rally finished the crowd was allowed for a prescribed time to mix. Perhaps the Realm felt that after the propaganda they’d been fed, there was little chance of the people feeling rebellious.

Gemma watched for Tobias. Tobias was her cousin, and this was the only time they managed to speak to each other. Tobias was in his twenties, a tall blond reminder of both their fathers, brothers both in family and in arms against the Realm. Both had given their lives to attempt to provide freedom for their families. Gemma felt her heart contract a little each time she saw him.

‘Gemma,’ Tobias walked toward her.

‘Hello Tobias, ever so handsome.’

‘Sweet Gemma, always ready with a compliment. It’s good to see you,’ Tobias smiled at her.

‘So what have they had you doing these past sixty-three days?’ she asked.

‘Same as ever. Assembling parts for the air system. I can’t be trusted with anything more important. Not with my parentage. What about you Gem?’

‘Cleaning duties, questionable parentage as well you know. I am the queen of dirt. Do you think we will ever get away from here? Will they ever let us go home?’

‘You know the odds, Gem. It doesn’t look good for us.’

Around them the loud speakers began to crackle. ‘Inmates to assemble at designated return points. Transports will arrive in five minutes.’

‘If only they would allow us more time,’ Gemma lightly touched Tobias’s arm.

‘Careful Gem, if they see us touching, we’ll both be in trouble.’

‘I know Tobias, but I miss that the most.’

‘Me too Gem. I’ll see you soon, sooner than you might think. But you must keep hoping, promise me Gem. Look for me in your mind, and I will take you away,’ Tobias turned and fell into line with the other male inmates. Gemma watched him leave, and wondered about his last words. As he disappeared amongst the other men Gemma’s heart ached.

Arriving at the accommodation pod Gemma felt a sense of loneliness bathe her body. It seeped into every pore. She longed for home, and the freedom to touch another human being. The isolation enforced upon her was the worst part of being here.

The walls of her cocoon closed around her. Gemma got ready for bed, changing out of her day clothes into white pyjamas with stripes on the shoulders. Even in bed you were classified she thought.

That night her dreams were full of Tobias. Gemma looked for him, as he had asked.

‘See Gem, I told you I’d find you if you looked. Are you ready, will you believe in me, and this?

‘Yes,’ she answered, and held his fingers tightly between hers. Running across green blades of grass until soft sand squished between their toes, laughing as they felt the cold white foam of the waves hitting their legs. Gemma felt the sun turn their pasty skin a tart pink. She could smell the yellow sunlight, feel the white clouds, and taste the salty wind.

‘Gem, isn’t this wonderful? To be back here where we belong,’ said Tobias.

‘I love it, but I don’t understand. This is a dream, isn’t it?’ she asked.

‘No Gem, it’s real, feel it, embrace it. Hope for it, and it will find you.’

‘Tobias, Tobias, where are you going? Gemma called to him as his back drew further and further away.

‘It’s okay Gem’ Tobias seemed to be saying, even though all Gemma could see was his back. ‘This is the way back home. The only way for us. Don’t be afraid, embrace it.’ Gemma watched Tobias as he dived into the sea, and floated over the waves. ‘Follow me Gem, follow me,’ he called.

‘Tobias, wait. I’m coming, don’t go without me,’ she yelled as she ran fearless to the sea. Diving into the blue ocean, she felt all the creatures of the world join her. They guided her as she struck out towards Tobias.

When Gemma didn’t rise the next morning to key in as usual, security arrived at her cocoon to check. Gemma lay pale against the white bedding. Immediately tests were ordered to discover the reason for her state. Gemma lay silent in the physical world, as she set about discovering the place she found herself inhabiting.

Not long after Gemma was discovered, security was called to the men’s cocoons. Tobias lay in a similar state. The staff were worried. They could give no plausible explanation for the state of the two inmates. This was not a situation the United Realm would understand. They would require facts, explanations and solutions. The staff had reason to be concerned. Without facts, explanations or solutions they were likely to become inmates themselves.

Gemma and Tobias floated through the sea. They played tag but found themselves unwilling to let go of each other, it had been so long since they were able to touch freely.

‘See Gem, what did I tell you.’

‘It’s wonderful. Tobias, can we really stay here?’

‘That’s up to you Gem. You just have let go of the physical, as long as you believe, it is what it is.’

‘How did you find it?’ Gemma asked.

‘It found me Gem. When I was ready to give up. To give up everything. That’s the great part. The United Realm will never find it; will never find us, because they’ll never give up what they already possess.’

‘Does that mean we’re safe?’

‘I think so Gem. I really think so.

There are two things I know for certain. One: Bert and Ernie are gay. Two: I want to hear your opinion.

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When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. – Lao Tzu


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