Excerpt: Missed Connections
Evergreen by Cari Z.
The International Space Agency (ISA) welcomes you to your new position as a candidate for Project Evergreen, the next stage in humanity’s cooperative exploration of our closest planetary neighbor, Mars. Congratulations on everything you have accomplished in order to make it to our advanced training program. Now that you’re an official candidate, we recommend you assess your commitment to the end goal of Project Evergreen, which is permanent residency for all crew members at Martian Base One (MB1). If this is incompatible with your goals in life, please remove yourself from the candidate pool before we continue to invest in your training. We want only the most motivated candidates available. Remember, for every one of you who reaches this stage of training, ten thousand others are vying for your place. –ISA Project Evergreen Handbook
Cyril’s first week in the space program wasn’t at all what he’d expected.
He had anticipated plenty of tests, naturally; the governments and corporate sponsors in charge of the program only accepted the best of the best, and that meant you didn’t stand a chance of getting in unless you knew your specialty inside and out. Competition in the private sector was stiff, but competition within the military was insane, which was why Cyril was glad he’d spent the past three years not just boning up on aerospace propulsion engineering, but going all out on his fitness as well. All those agonizing 5:00 a.m. runs felt a lot more gratifying now that he was the only person still standing after the two-mile sprint.
“You call that running?” Sergeant Malloy shouted from her place on the side of the track as she watched the last of the brand-new military recruits stagger toward the finish line. “I’ve seen better times out of eight-year-olds! You are supposed to be the best, the brightest, the most motherfucking capable that six different nations have to offer! And this is what you give me? China, nine minutes? Really?” She stood over one of the gasping men and glowered at him. “What’s your name, soldier?”
“Commander Lee Xiao, ma’am.”
“At least you can get it out without vomiting, unlike Captain America over here.” She gestured to the American soldier who was bent over retching in the aftermath of his run. “Or maybe that’s just because it took you nine fucking minutes to run two miles! Honest to god, I am embarrassed for your home countries, soldiers.
“And here comes Australia and India, joining the class at last,” the sergeant yelled sarcastically as they stumbled in. “Ten goddamn minutes, which is two minutes too long as far as I’m concerned. No, don’t lie down!” she added as both the soldiers dropped to the ground. “You don’t get to lie down and take a break for getting the worst times in the group! Did you think I’d go easy on you because you’re a woman, Flight-Lieutenant Brown? Both of you, take another lap.”
The sergeant cast her eyes to the sky. “This is what we’re manning missions to Mars with now? Sad. Just sad. You all better make the most of your ability to suck wind while you can, because breathable air’s gonna be in short supply once you get to MB1. You’ll have to work, you’ll have to think, you’ll have to fucking live with the constant threat of running low on oxygen, so I want you to remember that when you’re cursing me for being a hard-ass about this. You’re soldiers, not civilian scientists. You don’t get to play by their rules. If there’s a sacrifice to be made, you’ll be the ones at the front of the line, which means you have to be ready! You have to be better! You have to be the best!” Sergeant Malloy crossed her arms. “And as of right now I see only one person who I would even marginally qualify as acceptable. Russia! Come here!”
“Yes, ma’am.” Cyril stepped forward, very aware of his fellow recruits’ attention. He squared his shoulders and looked straight at the sergeant. He didn’t care what they thought of him. They could hate him, he could handle that. He was never going to do less than his best for anything.
“Lieutenant Commander Konstantin, correct?” Sergeant Malloy asked.
“Well, whatever that stick up your ass is made of, boy, don’t pull it out just yet. It might be all that’s holding you up.”
Stick… what? Cyril had split his time evenly between the US and Russia as a child, but he hadn’t heard that particular expression before. It had to be old. He heard the man referred to as ‘Captain America’ snicker, and forced himself not to react. “Ma’am,” Cyril said evenly.
“Exactly.” Sergeant Malloy cast her gaze at the two stragglers who were just now finishing their extra lap. “I think it’s time for a nice, long hike. Get your packs out of the shuttle and meet me at the foot of Flagstaff Mountain in five.” She waited for a second for it to sink in, then yelled, “Now, soldiers!”
The ones on the ground hauled themselves, groaning, to their feet, except for the American, who looked over at Cyril and held up a hand. “Help a mate out?” American, with a British accent. It shouldn’t have been surprising, everyone here had multiple nationalities—it was one of the major requirements for every member of the fourth mission to Mars—but for some reason that accent made Cyril start. He stared blankly at the man.
“I know I’m pretty, but there’s no need to stare, now,” he said cheekily. “You’ll get plenty of chances to ogle me later, luv. Gimme a hand before our little reprieve is up?”
Savior by Mina MacLeod
The sound of trumpets catapults Clef from a deep sleep to confounded panic. He sits up on his pallet, his heart in his throat. He glances around his small room, looking for some sort of explanation. Outside, the trumpets are still sounding. As the camp wakes, the pandemonium of war-torn confusion joins the high-pitched notes.
We’re under attack, he thinks, pulse racing. He scrambles out of bed, his bones protesting all those nights upon the hard, wooden pallet. The evening chill makes his bare skin pimple with gooseflesh. At least, he wants to believe the cold is the cause. Under attack… but how? How did they get so close? This is a question to which he has no answer; for now, he must live with the consequences.
Clef scrambles for his clothes. His breeches and robes are white slashed through with crimson, marking him as an Elder Brother of the Crescent. Despite his best efforts, they are stained with dirt and blood. Next he dons his belt, sturdy leather dyed a shade of dark red. Hanging from it are accouterments of his trade: phials, pouches, and charms. More supplies are stored in the satchel he grabs next, pulling its strap over his opposite shoulder. Finally, Clef gropes for his silver diadem. The crescent moon in its center is encircling a blood-red ruby—yet another identifier for his status. His prematurely silver hair is getting unruly; the band helps keep it in check.
It’s not taken him two minutes to get dressed, but it feels like an eternity has passed. The screams get louder, but are not as overwhelming as the clash of steel against steel. Clef runs out of his room, nearly bowling over one of his subordinates in the process. He recognizes Julia, one of the Order’s novices. He’s pleased to note she has donned her robes as well, the white opal in her diadem gleaming in the candlelight.
“Brother,” she gasps, still twisting her long dark braid into a bun. “The alarm. How—?”
“I don’t know,” he replies, leading her to the main room. “I’d been informed our perimeter was secure. If the Tendovians have breached our defenses…” he trails off, leaving the implications where they fall. Julia doesn’t reply, but Clef can feel the anxiety radiating off her in waves. He understands; it mirrors his own.
The clinic in Baron Falls is small, and already crowded to capacity with wounded soldiers. Those with minor injuries are sleeping two to a bed—some even on the floor. Most are almond-skinned natives of the Embergrass Prairies, like Clef and Julia, but many are paler or darker with Northern and Southern blood. Not for the first time, Clef’s heart aches. His homeland is a veritable symbol of the good that can come of harmony, but once again it is merely a pawn in a Unification War.
“Baron Falls is a stronghold,” Julia says, babbling nervously at Clef’s heels. “Our backs are to mountains, and our river runs through fertile land. Tendoves knows the strategic advantages here. If they’re attacking, they must be—” she stops herself, but Clef knows what she had been about to say. Confident. Their Southern enemies wouldn’t have risked an assault unless they were certain of victory. The notion is not a comforting one.
“Forget that,” Clef says, using his most authoritative tone. “Organize the others. Gather supplies. Ask Cerie to help me check on the patients. We may need to start moving people.”
“Move them where?” Julia asks, sounding hopeless. “We’re cornered.”
He reaches out to grab her shoulders, shaking the fear out of her. “Not yet, we aren’t. Not yet.” He tries to pour as much bravery into his voice as possible—as much for his own sake as for hers. “You can only be defeated if you stop fighting. Now go!” Once he releases her, Julia scampers off to do as he’s asked. She’s still frightened, but she isn’t giving up.