I’ve chosen to spotlight “The Martian American” as my favorite story from last year because of how much fun I had creating the world for it. I love getting into the gritty details of how thing work, and I was able to play with that to create a complete, interesting, and futuristic world to set this story and the commentary it includes in. I hope you enjoy it a second time, and have a safe and happy Halloween!
The Martian American
“Look, Ellen, you’re in the news!” Mom put her holo-pad in public viewing mode to show me the article, which proudly displayed my image with the caption, “Ellen Li: Earth’s Most Familiar Alien.”
Eyebrows raised, I scanned over the rest of the report.
Ellen Li was born on Mars on April 19, 2114 while her parents were present for the Residential Extraterrestrial Corporation’s failed civilian colony, Destiny. She is the first and only human to be born off of Earth. With such an illustrious beginning, Li naturally went on to a career as a mechanical engineer.
“Mechanical engineer? I’m a mechanic,” I groused, eyes flicking back to the door at the other end of the waiting room.
“It’ll still be at least half an hour, Ellen,” my mother reminded me, flipping through the news without putting her pad back on private-view. Articles about food shortages and celebrities flowed past indiscriminately; despite my mother’s calm exterior, she was nervous, too.
“It’s rude to keep that on public, Mom,” I reminded her, reaching for my own pad as a distraction. As soon as I opened it, my late night research on lung cancer popped up on the screen.
So much for that distraction.
Thirty-eight minutes later, they told us that Dad was recovering from his biopsy. He had done well, we’d get to see him once the anesthesia wore off, etc. This was no surprise. The important information would come in two to four business days.
Of course, Dad had wanted to get back to work right away, cancer diagnosis be damned. We’d managed to get him to take the day of the biopsy off, but he was right back in the shop with me the day after. I suppose he needed to take his mind off of things just as much as I did.
“Ellen,” he shouted across the garage, panting slightly. “Come over and take a look at this. Tell me what you think.”
I hopped up from the tire I was replacing and trotted over.
“This the one with the bad brakes?” I asked as I slid under the partially-disassembled car with him.
I turned my headlamp on and peered at the set-up for a second before jabbing my finger up at the car. “That’s a bad spot in the line.”
He nodded and smiled, teeth glinting in the light of our lamps. “Nicely done. How would you fix it?”
“We can just replace that spot, right? Save them some money.”
“But the rest of the line might be going, too.”
I turned my head away from the car and stared at him a second. “So replace it all?”
He shook his head. “Call them and ask. I’d recommend replacing it all, though, if they have the funds. Better safe than sorry.” He patted my shoulder and started slowly crawling out from under the car. “You do that while I catch my breath, okay?”
I slid out from under the car and wiped my hands on my overalls while walking to grab my holo-pad from the table. Right as I opened our client database to look up the number, someone called me.
“Ellen Li, at the Li Garage,” I answered.
“Hello, Ms. Li,” replied a man, deep voice ringing through my earpiece. “This is Dan Edwards from the Residential Extraterrestrial Corporation. We have an exciting opportunity for you over at REC, and I would love to discuss it with you in person. Are you available at 9:15 tomorrow morning?”
“Is this for an interview? I don’t do interviews.”
He laughed. “I promise it isn’t an interview. Unfortunately, I’ve told you all I can over the phone due to security. Will I see you tomorrow?”
“I guess.” I pulled up my calendar on my holo-pad before nodding, even though he couldn’t see me. “9:15 is fine.”
“Wonderful. Thank you, Ms. Li.” The earpiece went silent as he hung up.
“Who was that?” asked Dad, walking over, his brow furrowed.
“Edwards, from the REC.”
“What did he want?”
“To meet with me.” I shrugged. “Couldn’t say more than that because of security, apparently.”
“So, are you meeting with him?”
“Sure; not every day you get to have a “top-secret” conversation.” My hands shot up, fingers curling in the air to portray my skepticism. “I’m not gonna do what he wants, though.”
Dad nodded. “I’ll make that call. You get to work.”
I gave him a thumbs up and headed back to my tire replacement.
The next morning, I drove straight from my house to the REC Tower, feeling uncomfortable in my dark suit. Mom had insisted on it despite my own personal feelings about Edwards. To me, it was more than polite enough just to show up not covered in grease.
Surprisingly, I was not kept waiting when I arrived, even though I only got there one minute late.
I walked into the office and was greeted immediately with the pale, bearded face that was plastered across ten holo-boards in the greater Houston area: Dan Edwards, CEO of REC.
“Please, Ms. Li, have a seat.” He gestured to a straight-backed chair in front of his desk. I sat down.
“And how are you doing?” he asked.
“Busy.” I folded my arms in front of my chest. “You?”
“Busy as well.” He smiled, though it didn’t reach his eyes. “I feel like you would appreciate me getting straight to the point.” I nodded. “We have discovered a bacteria that will fix nitrogen for us in Mars soil.”
“Congratulations.” Despite myself, I was impressed. That would definitely help the food shortage.
“Thank you, Ms. Li. We hope to be sending civilians within the year.” He pulled a piece of paper from many of the many piles scattered about his desk and handed it to me. “I thought, actually, that you might appreciate having a head start.”
“What do you mean?” The paper was an application for civilians to be a part of the “second colonization of Mars.”
“Well, you could get back to Mars before the rush sets in. Find a spot to call home and all that. We have a ship leaving at the end of the month-” Shaking my head, I threw the application back onto his desk.
“I have a home. Here.” I stood up. “I’m not going to be another publicity stunt so you can cash in.”
He also stood, still smiling falsely. “We would give you an initial stipend that is more than appropriate, along with paying you salary as a mechanical engineer.”
“I said no,” I reiterated, teeth grit together as I turned to leave.
He walked with me and opened the door. “You have my contact information if you change your mind,” he said, voice mild. “Have a lovely day.” Back straight and shoulders up, I stormed away.
Going to Mars was off the table for twenty-eight hours. Then, Dad was officially diagnosed with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer. I had collapsed in the doctor’s office upon hearing that, watching my parents clutch each other desperately. We had six more months with him with traditional treatment, if we were lucky. The only thing that might save him was genetic modification of the cancer cells. It was very experimental, very dangerous, and, because the insurance company wouldn’t cover it, very expensive.
I called Dan Edwards back.
That evening, as I helped clean up after the weekly family dinner, I asked my dad if he would do the CRISPRMod treatment if money weren’t a problem.
“We can’t afford it, Ellen,” replied my mother, placing leftover noodles in the fridge.
“But if you could?” The plates clanked as I placed them in the dishwasher.
“It’d be worth a try,” Dad responded, sitting at the sink while rinsing glasses. “But what cannot be, cannot be.” He patted my shoulder gently. “I’m glad to have the time I do with you two.”
I turned to see Mom hiding her face in the fridge, her shoulders slumping. I probably had a similar posture as I worked.
“Ellen, are you good to help in the shop tomorrow?” I didn’t know who Dad was changing the subject for, but I was glad he did.
“I have something at 1:30, but I’m good otherwise,” I answered, loading the last glass.
“Sally, you want to help with the paperwork?”
“Sure,” she answered, not looking up from the fridge. My hands were shaking, and my vision was blurred with tears.
“I need to get home,” I announced. “I love you both.” Dropping kisses onto both of my parents’ heads, I rushed outside to privacy. To my surprise, Mom followed.
“Don’t go to Mars,” she whispered to me on the porch, tears dripping to the concrete. Her hand shot out to grab mine. “You can’t know this, but,” and she stopped speaking for a second, but her stare never wavered. “As a parent, six months with you will mean more to him than half a lifetime.”
I squeezed her hand before pulling free and fleeing to my car. I barely made it inside before I started crying.
The next afternoon, I waited in the REC Tower lobby, a hefty list of conditions for Edwards open on my holo-pad and the receptionist’s loud typing in my ears. I was just exploring my options, getting all the information.
The typing stopped.
“Yes sir, I’ll send her in,” chirped the receptionist, finger to his earpiece. “Ms. Li,” he called, swiveling his chair to face me, “Mr. Edwards will see you now.”
Holo-pad shaking in my grease-stained hands, I entered Dan Edwards’ office. Hours passed as we discussed payment plans, contracts, and departure dates. It was hard to come to agreements, and many of my conditions were compromised. At the end of the informational meeting, however, Edwards surprised me.
“Now, Ms. Li, I will need you to go ahead and commit.” He shoved the same application he had offered in our first meeting back at me. “Logistics and all that, you understand?”
My eyes narrowed, and I nodded mutely. As much as I’d liked to call his bluff, there was too much at stake.
“So, Ellen,” he continued, “are you going home?”