Authenticity Soup

Alison Wilgus


Backpacking Mars had recommended getting comfortable with your survival gear before a hike, and Olivine had followed that advice with dogged, dogmatic enthusiasm. She had gone for short hikes with Hadid before, when they’d first started dating a year or so back and were eager to seem active and interesting. But she’d never gone camping like this, and she’d wanted to be prepared. She’d set up and broken down this entire tent at least a half-dozen times in her back yard, kneeling on pebbles between the aloe and yucca. She’d even timed herself, and then built that time into the schedule with a 200% margin for error.

She had not put the tent together outside the pressurized dome of the city. And she had not been wearing a surface suit. Or gloves. Sunset had come and gone more than a half-hour ago, and Olivine hadn’t managed to get the first zipper of the tent’s outer shell to catch.

“Where’d you even find this thing?” Hadid asked. He crouched beside her in the cold dust. Lamps shone from either side of his face plate, illuminating coated orange nylon and black zipper teeth. “I haven’t seen anything like this outside a museum since I cleaned out my grandparents’ locker.”

“I borrowed it,” said Olivine.

“From?”

“The museum.”

Hadid pressed his gloved hands to his face plate, the closest he could get out here to exasperated temple-rubbing. “Ollie, my sister has at least four tents she could’ve loaned to us. That aren’t older than you.”

Olivine gave the zipper pull a yank. It popped right out from between her gloved fingertips. “They didn’t have push-button auto-inflating tents in the Colonial Era. It wouldn’t be—”

“Authentic. Yes. I know.” Hadid rose from his crouch and checked the status screen on his forearm. “All right, I’m calling it. We have to get inside or we’ll start having problems with authentic carbon dioxide poisoning.”

“I am aware! I’m trying. Maybe if you would help instead of commentating—”

“There’s an emergency shelter a half a kilometer back down the trail. Leave this stuff here, it’ll be fine until morning.”

“I almost have it,” said Olivine. Her hands were beginning to shake from the cold.

“All you ‘almost’ have is frostbite,” said Hadid. “Come on, you did your best. I’ll tell everyone I made you give up.”

“Just wait!” said Olivine as the zipper pull snapped in two.

“I’m going to physically carry you. I’m serious.”

Olivine stared down at the broken zipper. The raw metal edge gleamed in the crossroads of their helmet lamps. “They’re going to fire me,” she said.

“They’ll have to fire your dead body if you don’t come with me back to the—”

“Yes! Yes, fine!” Olivine crammed the zipper pull into a sample pouch on her leg and shoved herself to her feet, so hard that she almost toppled over backward. Her toes had gone numb. “I didn’t see a shelter. Where are you even trying to go?”

A small red light illuminated Hadid’s face inside his helmet. He looked sinister and befuddled at once, although the former wasn’t really his fault. “We passed it right before we came up over the edge of this crater. It’s maybe five meters back from the rim.”

“I didn’t see anything.”

“Mom always pointed them out when she took us hiking,” he said. He smiled at her. “Come on, let’s go! I can’t feel my butt.”

Hadid began to walk back the way they had come, the impacts of his boots inaudible in the thin Martian air. Olivine followed, but every step away from the tent felt like a surrender. “I’m supposed to be experiencing the Martian wilderness like an early colonist would have,” she said. “I’m supposed to be on a twenty-first century sample collection scouting mission.”

“And you will be,” said Hadid. “Inside an emergency shelter.”

“They didn’t build those shelters until after the park system was in place. That’s a full century out of context.”

“Ollie, I know you wanted to do this ‘right,’ but I really don’t think it’s that big of a deal. I’ve slept in lots of tents on the regolith; they’re all pretty much the same. I’ll tell you all about it while we’re breathing oxygen in the shelter.”

The walk back to and over the crater rim felt much longer in the dark. Their lamps projected rusty paths of pebbles and dust ahead of them, the landscape to either side lost in shadow. She couldn’t see the stars or either of the moons. Just the desert rising up to meet her, hostile and disapproving.

“So did you camp at all as a kid?” Hadid believed in making conversation. “Must’ve been so much easier. You could just, you know, throw a sleeping bag under a tree and you’d be fine.”

“Not really.”

“Well, you wouldn’t die.”

Olivine pointed at a boxy shadow just beyond the spill of lamplight. “Is that it?”

“No, that’s a rock. So you’re in charge of this exhibit, right?”

“Yes.”

“And this…” He made a gesture that encompassed their entire situation. “Part of the job?”

“Yes.”

“Seems kind of unfair of them to pick someone who didn’t grow up here. You’ve had to learn how to do everything over again from scratch.”

“I requested the position,” said Olivine. She bit off every word, her fists tight inside her gloves. “I think early colonial history is important. I think that children should understand what the first settlers were up against. I think this is the first time modern humans have colonized a ‘New World’ that’s actually new, without displacing native peoples, and I think that unique moment deserves to be remembered and celebrated. I think the Colonial Experience exhibit is vital to the process of education, and that rigorous first-hand research is key to making it a success. And I felt more strongly about all of those things than the Martians on staff, so here I am. All right? Here I am.” Olivine thumped her upper arms through her suit, trying to restore circulation. “I can’t see it yet. Why can’t I see it? We’re over the ridge.”

Hadid pointed into the dark. “Right there.”

“Where?”

“The squarish bit.”

Olivine swept the ground with her lamps, furious, until she found a sort of low cement bunker. It stuck up about six centimeters above the regolith. “How…how could you possibly have noticed that?”

“You get a sort of instinct for it, I guess,” he said, and trudged over to it on cold-stiffened legs.

Hadid found the door after kicking a few rocks out of the way. The two of them descended into the shelter through a hatch that reminded her of the storm doors back home—raised very slightly, with an outer door that swung up and to one side, spilling regolith onto the ground. A second hatch was at the bottom of a steep set of stairs. It stood vertically, and swung away from them and into the shelter once Hadid had cranked open the latch. Banks of LED lights on the ceiling blinked on automatically.

“Looks like someone’s been here pretty recently,” said Hadid. He walked across the tiny concrete room—close to square, barely two meters on its long side—and crouched in front of a locker that stood against the opposite wall. “Go ahead and close that last door behind you.”

Olivine closed it. “There’s no latch on this side.”

“The air pressure keeps it shut. Hang on…” Hadid pawed through the contents of the locker, setting boxes and vacuum-sealed packets aside. “Okay, good, there’s another thing of chem heaters in here. We can stay.”

“There was a chance we couldn’t?”

“Well…maybe more like, there was a chance we’d have to sleep in our suits so we didn’t freeze.”

Olivine noticed a control panel beside the hatch, its buttons tactile and oversized into glove-friendliness. One featured a pictogram of a human figure in a space suit, the helmet removed. “O2” was written in the air beside the figure’s head. She felt reluctant to press it without asking Hadid, then frowned at her own hesitation. She had a Ph.D. She could recognize a pressurization control when she saw one.

She pressed the button, and felt something mechanical catch under her finger. Across the room, Hadid tore open chemical heat packs and tossed them into a little metal radiator he’d placed in the center of the floor. The sound of ripping plastic rose to audibleness as air poured out of a vent above her head. She could see it swirl down over them, distorting the light that passed through it.

A green light blinked on over the door. Olivine unlatched her helmet, lifted it up over her head, and took an experimental breath. The air was cold and tasted metallic. She set her helmet down on the floor and shrugged off her backpack.

“We’ll be fine with food and air, but the last person in here only left the gross kind of protein bars.” Hadid’s voice sounded strange after a full day of listening to it through a speaker.

“I brought food,” she said.

“Oh hey, great! I thought maybe you’d left it with the tent.”

“I didn’t.” She unlocked her gloves, yanked them off and shoved them into the elastic pockets on her shins. “How long can we stay here?”

Hadid glanced at the line of gauges on the wall, just above the control panel. The numbers and dials, like the buttons, were oversized. “We’re fine for a couple of days, if we need it. But the C02 filters in these suits regenerate after about five hours. We’ll be set to hike back to the truck by morning.”

Olivine paused in taking off her suit, the torso and empty arms bunched around her waist. She looked at Hadid. “You didn’t call anyone, did you?”

“I sent a text to the closest ranger station,” he said.

She groaned and shoved the suit down over her knees.

“What?”

“This is humiliating. I am humiliated.”

Hadid frowned. “I would’ve checked in with them either way, Ollie. It’s just common sense.”

“Fine.” Olivine dropped her loosely folded suit in the corner, then crouched down in front of her pack.

Hadid sat cross-legged in front of the radiator, warming his bare hands. “So what’s for dinner?”

“Soup.”

“Sounds great.”

Olivine lifted a rectangular plastic box out of her pack. Its surface was marred with small scratches, and the door that covered a slot on its narrow side didn’t sit entirely flush. She set it on the floor and returned to the pack, digging around for a power cord.

“What is that?”

Olivine glanced up at Hadid. He was frowning. She found the cord, and plugged one end into the box. “It’s a hydrator oven.”

“I’ve been camping for a long time, and I’ve never seen a hydrator oven that looks anything like that.”

Olivine flipped the cover off the electrical outlet on the wall. “It works perfectly fine. I tested it at home.”

“That thing must be older than the tent.”

“These machines were built to withstand hard use for unknown amounts of time. You shouldn’t underestimate…” She trailed off, cord in hand, staring at the outlet. “Shit.”

“What?”

“This is a four-pronged plug.”

“Are you serious?”

“It was supposed to run off the tent’s battery.”

“Did you bring an adaptor?”

“I didn’t think that we’d—”

“Olivine!” Hadid shoved his fingers back through his hair, his palms against his temples. “You dragged that huge oven all the way out here and you can’t even use it?”

“Isn’t there one in the shelter?”

“No! No, there isn’t. We’ve got disgusting protein bars and stale water, that’s it. This is a survival shelter. It’s only meant to keep you alive.”

Olivine wrapped the cord around her forearm, staring at a seam in the concrete floor. She couldn’t look at the oven, or at Hadid. “Then we’re fine.”

“Because we got really fucking lucky!”

Olivine flinched. “You said it was fine. You told me everything was fine.”

“What else was I going to say?”

“Are we in danger, then? Is that what this is?”

“Ollie, we’ve been in danger since we left the dome!”

Olivine shoved the cord back into her pack. “I know. That’s not what I—”

“No, I don’t think you do.” Hadid pointed at the oven, inert on the floor between them. “You know what happened all the time in the Colonial Era? People died. Bringing antique survival gear out on the surface isn’t authentic, it’s suicidal.”

Olivine grabbed the oven with both hands and plunged it into the pack. It wouldn’t fit properly and stuck out of the top. She had devised a packing order that allowed her to snap the bag closed again, but she was too upset to remember it now and too embarrassed to look for her list. “Why didn’t you say—”

“You’re a smart woman. You’ve been planning this trip for months. I trusted you to know what you were doing.”

“You shouldn’t have.”

Hadid rubbed his eyes. He looked tired. “All right, give me the soup packets. We’ll just rehydrate them with some of our drinking water.”

“It’s freezing in here. We’re not eating cold soup. We’re not eating protein bars.”

“Ollie—”

“Just wait.” Olivine yanked open another pocket of her bag and unearthed her mess kit, four soup packets, a handful of sample bags and a bottle of potable water. “Did you use all of the chemical heaters?”

“No…”

“I need two of them.” Hadid tossed a couple of the little packages to her, and they sat in silence as she carefully read the fine print on the packaging. “It should be fine. Give me your mess kit.”

Her hands were very cold, now. It took her several minutes to rip open the heat packs, activate them, and seal them in doubled-up sample bags. She lay one of these bundles in the bottom of each of their bowls, poured water up to just below their rims, then lay a plate face-down over each. “I practiced everything,” she said. “For weeks.”

“What, this?”

“Everything else.”

“I remember,” said Hadid. “The neighbors kept asking me what you were up to.”

“The documentation for older equipment is awful,” she said. “They used checklists for everything back then. But those procedures are based on infrastructure and systems that don’t exist anymore.”

“Sure.” Hadid’s voice was quieter, now.

“I practiced.” She lay her hand on one of the plates. It was almost too hot to touch. She picked them up by their edges and set them to one side, then plucked the heaters out of the water with a spoon and tossed them into the radiator with the others. “Obviously it wasn’t enough.” She divided the contents of the soup packets between the bowls, stirred until all the little bits were softened, and handed one of them to Hadid. He took it without comment, still frowning.

They had eaten lunch nearly seven hours earlier. Neither of them spoke again until their bowls were mostly empty.

Hadid leaned back against the wall. “Did you practice this, too?”

“What?”

“The thing with the soup.”

“No.”

“So you just came up with that whole process while we were sitting here.”

“If you had a better way of doing it, you should have said.”

Hadid chuckled. “I’m impressed.”

“I don’t think sarcasm is going to make this situation any easier.”

“Ollie!” Hadid held up his bowl, pointing at it with his spoon. “I just ate a hot meal because of you.”

“I wouldn’t have had to scramble if I’d done things properly to begin with.”

“Maybe.” Hadid lifted the bowl to his mouth and drank, steam rising up from it to cloud his face. When he lowered it, he looked serious. “You’d have made an excellent colonist,” he said.

Olivine snorted as she set her empty bowl on the floor. “I couldn’t use any of the equipment. Not in the field. We’d be dead if we were actual colonists.”

“Have you read the logs from back then?”

“Of course.”

“Nothing ever worked. Tents froze in storage. Re-hydrators broke. ISRU plants choked on the dust.”

“None of my equipment was broken,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared. I should have left everything to you. I moved here as an adult; I don’t have any of the right instincts.” She shook her head. “I’m a curator. A tourist.”

“The only touristy thing you’ve done is thinking that a tent and a stove would tell you anything about the ‘colonial experience.’”

She looked up at him with wide, stung eyes.

“You know what the colonists did?” Hadid smiled. “They figured out how to heat up their soup when the hydrator oven broke down.”

Olivine leaned over to grab her suit and pulled it into her lap. She searched the pockets until she found the broken piece of zipper, cold and sharp and rigid between her fingertips. She held it up in front of her, turning it in the flat blue light of the LED strips on the ceiling. “This is terrible,” she said.

Hadid sighed. “I’m sure the museum will—”

“No. This zipper.” She handed it to him, dropping it into his open palm. “It’s made of steel. Steel is notoriously brittle in low temperatures.”

“That’s…true.”

“They sent this to Mars,” she said. “It’s survival equipment.”

Hadid poked the little black shard. “Yeah, I’d say we had a pretty authentic colonial expedition. Except we didn’t freeze and suffocate.”

“You were right to insist on modern pressure suits.”

“I was absolutely right.” Hadid laughed and handed back the zipper. She tucked it into the breast pocket of her shirt.

They wiped out their mess kits and packed them away. Hadid found a couple of thin futons in the locker, and they unrolled them on the floor beneath their sleeping bags, the radiator down by their feet.

The lights in the shelter wouldn’t shut off entirely, presumably for safety reasons. They lay on their backs, tucked up close to one another, and stared at scuff marks on the gray concrete ceiling.

“We should do this again,” said Hadid.

“Don’t tease me.”

“I’m not!”

Olivine’s sleeping bag rustled as she turned her head to look at him. “What part of this do you want to do again?”

Hadid slipped an arm out of his bag, shifted to lie on his shoulder facing her, reached up to touch her cheek. It felt cool against her skin. “The part where we’re here,” he said. “Out in the world together.”

Olivine looked straight into his eyes, searching for a hint of mischief.

“I was born here,” he said. “You came to Mars because you wanted to.”

“I did want to,” she said.

“You’re not a Martian. You’re a colonist.”

She felt her face warm. “Hardly.”

“This is a new world for you,” he said. “I’d like to explore it together.”

Olivine smiled and covered his hand with her own.

“But I’m choosing the equipment next time,” he said.

“That’s fair,” she said.


 
Alison Wilgus has worked in comics and animation for over a decade, and is currently writing non-fiction graphic novels with First Second Books. Alison’s prose publications include the two previous Sockdolager anthologies, VICE's Terraform, and an upcoming issue of Strange Horizons. She lives in Brooklyn, and you can find her online at alisonwilgus.com.