I think, when we got into the rover to go over to Building 29 to look for Charlotte's parents, we all knew that we were going to find out that they were dead. I knew, and I could tell from the way that everyone avoided looking at Charlotte, that they were at least thinking it might turn out that way. Charlotte got into the rover and then just stared down, at the space between her feet, with no emotion on her face, like she was trying not to think about what was coming. Only Olivia was talking, trying to act normal, keeping us all focused on what we were doing. But the rest of us were probably all thinking about when our own parents had died, and what it was probably like for Charlotte right at that moment.
Well, except for those of us whose parents just left the planet, instead of dying. But that was a minority; well under half. Most of us had our parents die on us in the last few months, instead of seeing them leave us for Earth, and it just about seemed inevitable that Charlotte's parents would die soon as well. But this also meant that we were alone now. No adults; not now, and probably not ever, since at that point most of us were starting to believe we would never get the chance to grow up into adults ourselves.
It's no joke taking the rover anywhere, it's big enough to hold like 50 people, and we hadn't ever done this without an adult, so Olivia was reminding us (or maybe herself) about everything that Charlotte's parents had taught us about how to operate it. Making sure the doors have sealed properly, so we don't lose air (which we were already in danger of running short of), make sure the batteries are fully charged, make sure we have our suits ready in case we have to get out of the rover Outside, making sure we have the mechanic toolkit with us in case we needed to make a repair.
Not that we knew how to repair anything anyway. Really, neither did Charlotte's parents. If the rover broke, we were just out of luck, I guess.
We hadn't really done much Outside of the Colony buildings at that point, where you have to wear your suits and breathe from the tanks; just a few rehearsals for evacuation procedures. None of which actually helped during the real Evacuation, because the adults (most of them anyway) left for Earth without us. But I guess it did help us get ready to live without them. We couldn't go back to Earth, because we had been born here on Mars, and our skeletons grew up in Martian gravity. They would probably not support us in Earth gravity, which is almost 3 times as great, and neither would our muscles. The adults would have enough trouble adjusting back to Earth gravity after years on Mars, but our bones had never been Earth-adapted in the first place, so there was no way we could go there. If there had still been a Moon Colony, maybe we could have just stayed there, but apparently it had been abandoned years ago.
The theory was that there would be help coming from Earth eventually, and our parents would be able to help us survive until then, by withdrawing to just a single dome and trying to keep it operating. I'm not sure if the adults who Evacuated really believed that, or just needed an excuse to get out and pretend they weren't leaving us to die, but anyway that's what our parents were told. But everything had been breaking down even before the Evacuation (that's why it happened), and things didn't get any better afterwards.
The first lurch of the rover, when Olivia drove it into the airlock to get ready to go Outside, was not very smooth; we almost crashed into the side of the airlock door. At that point, I think maybe I was not the only one who thought, 'you know what, this is it, we're all just going to die now, and then it will all be over finally.' I was about ready for it, to be honest. I didn't really want to die, but I was tired of everything getting worse all the time, and it seemed inevitable. But she got better at driving pretty quickly, and drove it into the airlock and operated the doors, then successfully started the process to seal up and pump all of the air out of the airlock and back into the dome before the exit door opened. We really couldn't afford to lose much more air. I guess that had been true for a while now.
When the airlock exit opened up, Olivia drove the rover out onto the rocky, sandy Martian soil. Liam was sitting up next to her, looking at the map of the Colony on his tablet and trying to figure out which way we needed to go. Nothing in the real world looked all that much like that map, as far as I could tell, but then I wasn't the one navigating. Liam looked nervous and uncertain, and everybody else except Olivia looked stone-faced or frightened. Olivia looked pretty calm, so much so that I honestly wasn't sure if she even realized how much trouble we were in. She has very pale skin, blue eyes, and very narrow and angular features. She always looked a bit off, with her eyes too big and her jaw a bit sideways. Her hair was kind of wispy and its natural color more or less looked like it was just dirty, and her voice was always a bit squeaky and quavery, but she was calm, and frankly that counted for a lot just then. Liam, on the other hand, is as tall as an adult, muscular, with light tan skin and wavy brown hair. His face is kind of blocky, and he has a lot deeper voice than the rest of us. Because he's tall, and has that low voice, the young kids tend to treat him like an adult, the one in charge, sometimes even when Charlotte's parents were still there. Liam is actually not the sort to want to be in charge, at all, he's pretty quiet, but sometimes he gets thrown into that position whether he likes it or not.
"Is 29 over there?" Olivia asked Liam in her quavery voice, pointing off a bit towards her left.
"Um..." said Liam in his deep voice, frowning, peering hard at his map, looking up again, frowning, turning the tablet around. "Uh, hold on, give me a second."
Olivia's eyes stayed extra-wide open, as usual, and she looked over forward and right. She drove slowly forward, looking around curious but not anxious.
"There, is that the tower?" shouted Lucas from in back.
"No, that's just a comm tower," said Olivia, "the water tower is much wider than that."
It went on for a few minutes, several of us shouting out landmarks and questions, but none of it making sense with what was on the map, until finally Liam figured out that the map we had was what the Colony was supposed to be built to eventually, not what it was now. Most of the lines on it were imaginary buildings, meant for later phases, which never happened. The part marked in red, which the map legend called "Phase 1", was all that really existed, so to use the map you had to ignore anything on it which wasn't in red. When he was finally able to tell us which way to go, and we found Building 29, there was a little cheer that went through the rover, like we had achieved some sort of a victory. Which, I suppose we had, successfully traveling on our own from one building to another without any adults to tell us how to use the rover or where to go, but immediately afterwards we all remembered why we were trying to find Building 29 in the first place, and it got very quiet again.
"Ok, let's see if we can open the airlock," said Olivia, and she started hitting keys on the dashboard.
What if we cannot? I thought, but it seemed like a bad idea to say it out loud.
"What if we can't?" asked Lucas. He was about 7 Earth years old, still chubby-faced, light brown skin and curly hair, green eyes. He was smart for his age, but not maybe as smart as he thought, and he had no filter between his brain and his mouth.
"Charlotte's parents got in somehow," said Liam, "so they must have gotten it to work."
There were several questions that then hovered in the air, unspoken but felt, like ghosts seen out of the corner of the eye. Did they actually get in? If they did, given that it seems like something new breaks every day lately, does that really mean it will work for us? Even if it is working, does the fact that Charlotte's parents got in, necessarily mean that we can? Maybe there's something about opening the airlock in Building 29 that they knew and didn't think to tell us about. No one said any of this out loud, but I think most of us were wondering about at least one of those questions.
"What if there's some trick to it that they knew and we don't?" asked Lucas. No one answered.
For the hundredth time since the Evacuation, I found myself wishing that our education had, you know, taught us something. Something useful. I could recite some memorized facts about history, but not how the American colonists on the Mayflower had actually figured out what to do when they arrived in a new place and had no support. I could solve some math problems, but not actually figure out how fast our oxygen supply was going down, or what to do about it. I could answer questions on whatever feel-good political topic was new that year, but I couldn't drive a rover from one building to another. Aside from reading, which helped to look stuff up (as long as the computers still worked), I could not actually do anything with what I'd been taught by the computer programs they called "school". It was at that moment, though, sitting in the rover (with everyone else in it because no one wanted to be left behind), when it hit me for the first time.
Maybe our parents' education, had been just as useless. Maybe the adults didn't know what they were doing, either, or at least not well enough. I mean, as soon as I thought to consider the question, I knew it had to be true. Look around; clearly they hadn't been taught what they really needed to know, or the Colony would not be falling apart. The only real question was, how had they succeeded in getting to Mars in the first place, then? They knew enough to get here. Why couldn't they keep it going, if they were able to get it started? I was thinking about actually asking the question out loud, maybe to Noah, who was my best friend.
"Oliver," said Noah, at just that moment, which was kind of startling since I had been just about to talk to him.
"What?" I asked, looking over at him. Noah is rather dark-skinned, kinky hair, brown eyes, but his facial features look like he's Asian. He's got a great poker face, and his voice is pretty even, so it took me a while to figure out that most of what he says is sarcastic. I mean, even more than most 13-year olds. I'm going to give most of the kids' ages in Earth years, since that's what you're used to.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked. "You looked like you just thought of something." Apparently my poker face is crap.
Our conversation was interrupted by the sound of the airlock doors opening. It was not loud, but everyone was so quiet inside the rover that we could actually hear it (supposedly sounds are louder on Earth, and also travel faster, even Outside). The rover was almost totally quiet when it wasn't moving so we could all hear the raspy metal noise the airlock doors made. Olivia and Liam gave a small cheer, which made the rest of us feel better.
She drove the rover into the Building 29 airlock, gave the command to close the airlock doors again, and then opened the inner doors between the airlock and the rest of Building 29. Then she made the mistake of opening the rover doors.
We could all feel, as much as hear, the air rush out of the rover. Our ears hurt from the rapid pressure change, and we all started to scramble to put our suits on. Why hadn't we put them on before, I wondered, just in case? Noah and I helped each other get suited up, holding our breath while we did it, then started helping the littler ones get suited. Some of them had passed out by the time we got everyone suited up and air flowing from their tanks, but they came around quickly once they could breathe oxygen again. We looked around, to see who still needed help, and saw that Liam and Olivia were still working with Charlotte. I realized that she was fighting them off.
Of course, I thought. The fact that there's no air in Building 29, means her parents are dead for sure. They had radioed back when they got here, but they hadn't radioed for hours, so they were either out of power or unable to talk. Either way, with no air in the building, their tanks would be empty by now. They were dead. Charlotte wanted to die with them.
But, you know, asphyxiation is a really crappy way to die, and eventually she panicked and then the problem wasn't that she was fighting them, but that she was too panicky to cooperate well. But, they got her into her suit and started her air flowing, and then she calmed down. It seemed to have shocked her out of her stone-faced torpor, though.
"Charlotte, we need you," said Olivia, talking over the radio link we all could hear when we had our suits on. "We need everyone to help out, including you, ok? We need you." She looked Charlotte in the eyes, and when Charlotte looked away and down, Olivia kind of ducked down to get into her view. You can't put a hand under someone's chin when they have a bubble helmet on, so you have to move yourself to wherever they're looking when they try to look away.
Charlotte was, easily, the best looking girl in the Colony. She had light brown skin, big blue eyes, long hair that falls down like silk around her shoulders, not too skinny and not too round, a voice that made you smile just to hear it, a smile that lit up the room. But, I sometimes think she's just not as tough, mentally, as if she had been a bit uglier, and had not been as pampered by everyone on the Colony all her life. Not mean, and not really spoiled, but maybe a bit too ready to give up if things get hard.
It turns out, though, that there's nothing like the feeling of not being able to breathe to motivate you to try harder. She nodded to Olivia, and we all stood up to get ready to leave the rover.
"I should have checked the sensors before I opened the rover doors, to see if there was still air," said Olivia, in her quavery-even-though-calm voice.
"I should have reminded you," said Liam.
"We're all still alive, it's ok," said Charlotte, and we all looked at her. We're all still alive, sure, if you mean the ones in the rover. Not your parents, though. None of us said it, not even Lucas, thank goodness.
We piled out of the rover, and then sort of huddled next to it. There were 20 of us, which was ridiculous, but like I said nobody wanted to get left behind. We also didn't really want to leave the rover, and go through the inner airlock doors and see what was left of Building 29, and Charlotte's parents. We didn't really want to stay where we were either, though, so after a few seconds Liam and Olivia started walking and the rest of us followed.
It was a ghost town, of course. Building 29 was the last one made before everything started to fall apart, and it was (or had been) the most comfortable to live in. The oldest buildings had mostly all been converted over to non-residential uses; food processing and battery manufacturing and that sort of thing. Building 29 was the new, shiny one, except that now in the space of a few months it had turned into a complete mess. There was red dust everywhere, so apparently there was a broken window somewhere, which explained the lack of air. There was no power, of course, and therefore not much light. At some point there had been a water leak, and there was old water damage everywhere. The adults had turned off the water to every building except the core ones that we were supposed to be staying in still, but apparently prior to that a lot of water had leaked here somewhere, and then just evaporated away I guess. No wonder our water supply was low.
We went in single file, with Noah and Emma in back to make sure the rest of us didn't get left behind. I am the fifth oldest kid, and it kind of annoyed me that I was being lumped in with the little ones like Lucas and the rest, but there didn't seem a reason to raise a fuss about it. Charlotte was third, right behind Olivia and Liam, and I wondered if maybe it would be better to have her in back just in case we came upon her parents and their bodies looked awful for some reason and we didn't want Charlotte to see them, but I couldn't think of exactly how to suggest that.
In the end, after wandering around for maybe an hour, we never did find them.
To this day, I don't know what happened to them. My guess is that one of the collapsed sections of the building, was newly collapsed on top of Charlotte's parents, but they might have gone crazy and wandered off into the Outside, or maybe got lost trying to find their way back to Building 3 where we were, and ran out of power to radio for help, or who knows what else. We found the water tower, which was right outside Building 29 and is what they were looking for, but it had leaked away nearly all the water anyway, probably into the building from the looks of it. After a while, I realized that Olivia and Liam and the rest of the older kids knew we were not going to find them, and just didn't want to say so in front of Charlotte. But our suits only had so much power and so much oxygen, and we would need to get back to Building 3 before the rover's power got too low, and so without really saying anything we just ended up walking back to the rover and getting in.
Charlotte cried the entire way home. We all sat in the rover, miserable and silent except for her (at first). I think maybe that was the worst point in the whole time, everyone stuck in the rover together, Charlotte crying and eventually a lot of the other kids too. Actually probably all of us.
It is kind of horrible for me to think back on it now, but none of the rest of us did anything for Charlotte, like no one hugged her or anything. I think maybe Olivia would have except she was driving, and none of the rest of us did because I think we felt like there's was nothing we could do or say that would help. I have since figured out that sometimes you just put your arm around somebody even if it doesn't help any, just to let them know that somebody else cares that they are unhappy, and they're not alone, but none of us did, probably because we were all so shell-shocked by the Evacuation and everything that had happened since then. We were so stunned by one bad surprise after another for months, and we just all cried alone even though we were all there together in the rover, and it was the worst.
But, one thing about hitting your worst point, is that things actually start to get better after that. Really I think it was knowing that there were no adults left, that might have been why we stopped being scared, and started trying to figure things out for ourselves. Before, there was this looming fear, never said out loud; "what if the adults can't figure out how to save us?" Afterwards, it was like the monster in the shadows comes into the open light. It's still scary, but now it's not your imagination you're dealing with. It's time to fight back. We took to calling it "the Monster"; it was a big amalgamation of all the things that had gone wrong, all the things that were still going wrong and trying to grind us down.
No adults were going to fight the Monster for us, so we had to learn to fight it ourselves.