“They’re calling it Valles Fever.” The words came from the nursing station, on the other side of Abe’s curtained-off area. “Five more admitted today.” Kala shifted in the hard chair, rotating the discomfort to a new part of her body.
Abe’s breathing hitched. Kala’s feet hit the floor, and she scooted towards him. Her fingers picked at the sheets, smoothing them, wanting to smooth his hair then feeling silly for the impulse. Imagining him laughing at her.
Laughter was better than the convulsions that had overcome him on the outskirts of town that morning. Kala had been scrambling over the yardang rock formations that served as natural windbreaks for the colony, waiting for the golden hour, the perfect shot, while Abe collected biological samples for Martian ecosystem monitoring. It was his first real job out of Lyceum, and Kala wanted his success more than she had ever wanted her own.
As the first rays of sunlight grazed the tops of the ridges, Kala raced to capture the landscape before the radio operator raised the main antenna, retracted since the last windstorm. The antenna mast’s shadow corrugated across the yardangs, destroying the illusion of wilderness.
They said the wind used to sing as it constricted between the yardangs, before humans caulked the spaces with their civilization. Kala never heard the whisper of a song, despite hours spent photographing the landscape–futilely, since in the two years since her graduation she had blown her first and last opportunity at exhibiting her work. Maybe if she hadn’t been brooding over experiences she would never have, Kala might have noticed Abe’s illness sooner. But by the time she had packed away her camera and tugged her gloves over chapped hands, he had already tumbled nose-first into his precious soil.
Kala’s gaze traced the IV tube to the bag hanging from its stand. “How do you feel?” she asked.
He swallowed. “Woozy. I’ve never stayed overnight in a hospital before.”
“Your fever was really high.”
Abe started to nod, then winced. “Where’s my dad?”
Kala grimaced. “Call with the insurance company.” To distract him, she added, “I overheard the nurses talking about an outbreak. Other people with the same symptoms.”
Before Abe could respond, the curtain rings rattled, and Abe’s father joined them. Kala shifted over to make room. “Good news,” he said, not meeting their eyes. “You’re being discharged today.”
“They can’t just send him home,” Kala said. “He’s still sick. Are they discharging all the other cases too?”
“His grandmother will care for him while I’m at the construction site,” Abe’s father said. “He’ll be more comfortable in his own bed.”
“It’s not right,” Kala said stubbornly. Abe charmed everyone in the neighborhood, and she was sure their kitchen would be filled with tamales, dumplings, and casseroles by sunset. But. “They have drugs here. Doctors.”
“They say he’s not contagious anymore, and there’s nothing more they can do for him. Just drop it, Kala. Please.”
“Guys, I’m right here,” Abe protested.
“They can’t just send everyone home.” Kala hated the ragged edge of tears in her voice. She plucked again at the sheets. They were starched to scratchiness. Her best friend had collapsed before her eyes, and the doctors were just going to toe the line of corporate greed set by the insurance company? Send him home with instructions to drink fluids and rest?
“I’m sure they’re working on a vaccine,” Abe’s father said as he helped his son sit upright. The nurse appeared, pushing a wheelchair. Kala backed up and was engulfed in the curtain as they maneuvered Abe off the bed. “This will be over before you know it.”
A package waited outside her apartment. Kala wrestled with the lock and nudged the parcel inside, leaving it on the floor by the door. Her feet sank into the luxurious pile of carpet–a Mars reproduction of a family heirloom left on Earth, and the sole gift she had accepted from her mother when she moved out–as she crossed the room to flop on the bed. Kala rooted around the sheets until she found her screen. She ignored the blinking message from her mother. A trap closing around Kala, demanding her attention. It could keep demanding, and she would keep ignoring.
Kala settled in to pour over the Marsnet for information on Valles Fever. Most hits were public expressions of worry or sympathy. A few curated reassurances from the Disease Control Center about progress on the vaccine, carefully worded so the DCC made no promise of progress, only effort. Nothing she trusted, nothing she could use. Kala left requests on forum after forum and was rewarded hours later when someone responded from a burner account: First death confirmed in the Warrens.
Kala sat up and punched out who? with sweaty fingers.
She messaged Abe. Again, nothing. Kala prayed his silence meant he was sleeping, or that his grandmother had confiscated his screen to force him to rest. She checked once more for breaking news, but the Marsnet was useless. She would have to do her own footwork. Before folding up her screen, she finally clicked the blinking message from her mother. Did you get the package I sent? Do stay away from the Warrens.
Kala crawled out of her nest of blankets and dragged the package back into bed with her. She stared down at the sealed box in her lap. Her mother, who wouldn’t step a pedicured toe outside her late-gen neighborhood, had inexplicable taste in gifts. Like the fancy lizard Kala had refused on account of her apartment’s no-pet policy. If it had been a convoluted ploy to get Kala to move back home, it hadn’t worked.
Kala peeled the flaps back. Inside the box was a top-of-the-line face mask. Meanwhile the DCC denied they had a potential epidemic on their hands. Right.
I got it, she typed back. Thanks. She set her screen aside and untangled herself from the sheets. As she left the apartment, she tucked the face mask into her satchel next to her camera.
Kala let gravity lead her downhill to the Warrens where the streets twisted and dead-ended at the edge of the planitia. The neighborhood was the least sheltered part of the colony, and the most densely populated as first-gen families were pushed to the fringes of livable space. If rumors were true about the number of new ships being built on Earth, it would become even more crowded. Their colony population was projected to hit six digits before the new year.
The door of the Petridis family apartment was tagged with graffiti. Kala scowled and pressed the buzzer. The few people on the street stared at her suspiciously as she waited, like she hadn’t been coming here since their first day at Lyceum where Abe won a lottery to attend and Kala didn’t have to.
Kala’s mother had been less than enthused about the broadened enrollment. “I don’t want you spending too much time with the first-genners,” she said after asking where Kala had been after school. “What’s the boy’s name again?”
Her mother’s lips stayed pursed. “I suppose it would be to your benefit for some Earth culture to rub off on you. If you must socialize, I prefer you bring your friend here.”
A preference was not the same as an order though Kala would have ignored that as well. Abe’s grandmother, who had worked for the Korean space program before marrying Abe’s grandfather in California, had promised to take them exploring the next day, and Kala had a new camera to practice with. Meeting at Abe’s after class had fast become tradition.
Finally, the video camera mounted above Abe’s door focused on Kala’s face. Kala twisted her fingers, sweaty digits sliding past one another. At the hospital, Abe had at least been receiving medical attention. What if his condition had worsened since coming home? And why were the streets so empty? Even the homeless man who stationed himself on this block was nowhere to be seen.
“How’s he doing?” Kala blurted when Abe’s grandmother cracked open the door. Behind Halmoni, a pot simmered on the stove.
Halmoni wiped her hands on her apron. “He’s not allowed visitors. Go home, Kala, until this blows over.” She glanced past Kala, up and down the street. “It’s not safe for you to be out.”
The door slid shut in front of her nose. Kala blinked at it. No one had complained when she visited him at the hospital. So, he must have relapsed. She pressed her fingertips to her face and tried not to hyperventilate. Halmoni was making soup. Halmoni was not panicking. Abe was okay.
Kala dithered on Abe’s stoop and buttoned her jacket to her chin. The streets were quiet, everyone cooped up with their fear. Grooming it into something dark and twisted. She hoped Halmoni would tell Abe she had stopped by.
Her attention was again caught by the empty doorway to the undercity. The pavement there was stained with saliva and mucus. Had the first casualty of Valles Fever been someone like the old street man? He could die and not be named, possibly not even counted. Whereas if it were someone from the neighborhood where she grew up, someone like her mother, the news would be splashed across every media outlet. From the rumors Kala had heard of the undercity, it sounded like just the sort of place that could spark an outbreak.
The vacant opening beckoned to her. The DCC wasn’t making any headway in identifying the source of the outbreak, and if it was anyone other than Abe she would have been satisfied with kvetching on the Marsnet. But it was Abe. The one person who persisted in believing in her when she gave him no reason. She owed it to him to discover what was being covered up.
Kala fumbled in her satchel for the face mask. She drew the mask over her face, adjusting the strap so it didn’t pull her hair, and crossed the alley. She peered down into the passage.
Was she really going to do this? She had never been to the undercity, of course, but it couldn’t be sanitary down there, and when had her inner voice started sounding like her mother? Some part of her was screaming that she was making a colossally stupid mistake, but she had plenty experience ignoring that feeling–just ask Nasreen.
The gallery owner had called in favors and reporters and caterers, and as opening day approached, Kala hadn’t been able to look at her photographs much less send them to the printer. Instead, she drank herself to oblivion in her apartment, which is where Abe found her. “Why would you do this?” He chucked a bouquet on her table. Neither of them made a move as the greenhouse flowers slid over the edge and onto the floor.
The prospect of Abe dying was far more terrifying than visiting the undercity or bailing on her own exhibition. Kala took a deep breath and ducked into the stairwell. This was not why her mother had sent her the mask, she was certain.
Her exhalation condensed on her face, trapped by the mask, as she felt her way into the subterranean reaches that had sheltered the original colonists, Kala’s great-grandparents among them. She kept her eyes wide open, afraid to blink, but the black was so complete that after a while, she couldn’t tell if her eyes were open or closed. Her fingers quested along the carved rock wall.
It was like a tomb down here. No wonder folks stayed away if they could. Her boots scraped on the rock as she felt for each step. Kala glanced over her shoulder. The doorway to the Warrens seemed very far away. She swallowed and turned, the threshold ghosting on her vision. She descended a few more steps before she realized the faint light came from below.
She hesitated, imagining the scene she would encounter in the undercity. Like the hospital but so much worse without doctors or nurses or painkillers. Kala forced herself to take another step forward, then another, until finally, she stumbled to level ground at the mouth of a cavern.
Instead of pestilence, she encountered order. A camp stretched before her, each neat grid filled with sleeping bags and cookware. A couple of rows back, a princess canopy had been erected out of pink tulle. Lamps like will-o’-the-wisps served as irregular gathering points. Faces lifted to stare as she passed.
In her cleanish clothes and face mask–not even willing to breathe their air–Kala was certain she had hit peak interloper. Whispers coalesced in her wake. Surface dweller. She walked on, no longer sure what she was even doing down here. People seemed healthy. Dirty and distrustful, but this was no hospital. Kala raised a hand to lift her mask but was interrupted by a bout of coughing.
She followed the sound to the old man who hung out across from Abe’s apartment. Not dead then. He sat on a three-legged stool, elbows resting on his knees. “Enough with that look,” he said. “I’ve had this cough forever. From working in the mines. You won’t be catching Valles Fever down here.”
Kala pushed the mask up. Cold air pricked her face.
“I know you,” the old man said. “The friend of the Petridis boy. I’m Malcolm. What brings you to the undercity?”
“Kala,” she introduced herself, nonplussed that he knew Abe’s surname. She cast around for a place to sit, but she couldn’t tell what was trash and what might be precious to him. “Do you mind if I …?” He waved assent, and she folded herself to a spot of bare ground, wrapping her arms around her legs. The cold leeched through her layers, and Malcolm’s cackle sent him into another coughing fit.
She said, “There are rumors someone died from Valles Fever, and when I didn’t see you around, I started worrying. About what was going on down here.”
His bushy eyebrows rose. “Worried about us? More like worried about yourself. Or your friend?”
Kala flushed, thinking of all the times she had passed him by without so much as making eye contact. She was discomforted to realize how much her own past actions had been shaped by his lack of social capital. “Yeah, well, I am worried about Abe, and I’m angry no one is doing anything to stop the spread of the fever. They think it’s just a problem for the Warrens.”
“So you’re doing a little investigating. Gonna solve the mystery of the outbreak on your own?” He rubbed his hands together. “You won’t find answers in the undercity. We’re healthy as houses, it’s the air above that’s bad. Mark my words, more will fall sick after the next dust storm.”
Malcolm’s words haunted her all the way back to the surface. If the undercity wasn’t ground zero for infection, then where was?
The wind grew in intensity throughout the day, and Kala stuffed more weatherproofing beneath her apartment door. The forecast was calling for a moderate storm. A few weeks of fighting back the dust, of pacing the interior corridors of her district. Already Kala’s fingers itched to hold her camera. To stand atop the yardang and watch the storm roll in, even though she knew it was too dangerous. Dust abraded skin as well as camera lenses.
Such a stunt might have been possible before Mars was terraformed and the artificial magnetosphere installed. Then, the dust storms had been more dusty than stormy. Now that Mars had a denser atmosphere, the winds were worse. At least they weren’t forecasting a global storm like the one that hit when she and Abe were in Lyceum. All of Mars had been shut down for months though their teachers had of course assigned independent study projects.
Kala finished the weatherproofing. The wall she shared with her neighbor shook as something struck it from the other side, and a framed picture fell to the floor. She rolled her eyes and unfolded her screen. The intracolony portion of the Marsnet was still operational and a welcome distraction from stir-crazy neighbors. She settled on her bed and messaged Abe.
How are you?
Kala chewed her lip as she waited for a response, wondering how far Halmoni’s no-visitors edict extended.
Bored. How’s the storm in your sector?
A grin spread across her face. Bored was good. Bored was not dying. Stormy. Neighbors are loud.
Kala’s fingers hovered above the screen. Abe’s degree was in biology, and she wanted his input on Malcolm’s theory but didn’t want to sound like she was doling out unwanted medical advice. Hey, have you heard anyone talking about a correlation between Valles Fever and air quality?
I don’t hear anyone talking about much of anything, he wrote. Air quality like how?
Don’t know. Something having to do with the dust.
Sure, the infection could be airborne, but why now? The dust storms were here long before we were. They’re nothing new.
Kala rolled onto her stomach. So if I figure out what’s changed, maybe I can identify the source of the outbreak?
May not be an obvious factor, he wrote. Could be something that’s been in the environment all along but is now more virulent, or we’re more susceptible.
Still, it’s a place to start. It’s not like I’m doing anything else.
Good luck. Let me know what you find.
Kala closed her messages. Illogically, she wished the DCC would share the specifics of the confirmed cases, so she could map incidences, but it would be a privacy-law nightmare. Whatever the source of the infection, it had to be local to the Warrens. There still hadn’t been a single case reported elsewhere. She opened the news and started reading.
When the wind finally died, Kala’s eyes were gritty with lack of sleep. Her hand throbbed from hitting refresh, but not enough to stop. Confirmed cases of Valles Fever were spiking. The disease was still confined to the Warrens, but reports were frustratingly vague, statistics and travel advisories mixed in with real estate development updates.
Numbly, Kala shoved her screen across the bed. Malcolm and his friends would be safe in the undercity, and her mother was probably wearing a facemask inside her apartment, just in case, but where did that leave the Warrens? Screwed, by a quirk of the wind.
Kala reached to clear the screen, hesitating mid-swipe over an article about the housing development project. It was just a blurb, really. No mention of why construction was halted, machinery damaged by wind or needing excavation by dust. There were so many possible reasons for the continued shutdown of construction that the lack of explanation in itself was peculiar. She rested her chin in her hand.
Abe’s father worked on site–maybe he could explain the delay to her. Kala almost messaged Abe, but it would be harder for Mr. Petridis to evade her questions in person. It was high time to take a shower and leave her stale apartment anyway.
The broad avenue narrowed to a knife-edge, and at its tip was a checkpoint. Kala detoured through a vacant galleria, to a parallel side street, then through two tunnel alleys back to the Warrens. Fine-blown sand crunched under her boots. She halted near a window, toeing the pile of dust that must have poured from opening shutters. Inside, a figure in a contamination suit sprayed down the room with a fog of disinfectant. Unconsciously, Kala reached for her camera, ever present in her satchel. Plastered crookedly next to the open window was a public health advisory for Valles Fever. Click.
She moved on, camera raised and ready. Footfalls pounded toward her, and Kala dodged a teen in a hoodie. In the alley behind them, neon green paint dripped from quarantine graffiti. Kala swallowed. A spray can spun on the ground, came to rest. Click.
On the next street corner, a crowd had gathered, a sea of hands raised to the sky. A young woman, eyes heavy with makeup above a paper face mask, hefted a statue of Santa Muerte and hurried to join them. Click.
A health services worker, face hidden by a mask, the same model that Kala wore, bore a child away from a home. The child squirmed, stretching fingers toward the door jamb. Somewhere, someone sobbed. Click.
Kala was a landscape photographer, not some tourist come to ogle their tragedy, but all around her the familiar streets looked darkly sinister, like she had been dropped into an apocalypse. And if she didn’t record it, she knew no one outside the Warrens would believe her. She wasn’t even sure she believed it herself. Dazed, she shoved her camera in her satchel and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. Wished she could rinse the taste of bile away. She knocked on Abe’s door.
The security camera gimbaled and the door clicked unlocked. Kala waited, expecting Halmoni to swing open the door. Eventually, she pushed it open herself.
Dirty dishes were piled high in the sink, and the pantry shelves were bare. If Abe’s father hadn’t been hunched at the kitchen table, fingers furrowing his thick hair, she might have turned and left, assuming she had walked into a stranger’s home by mistake.
“Mr. Petridis?” Kala edged inside. Her voice was muffled through the mask. “Is it Abe? Where’s Halmoni?”
Mr. Petridis lifted his head from his hands, and his eyes cleared as he focused on her. “Kala. I thought you were one of the health workers,” he said. “I convinced my mother-in-law to visit with her friends. Abe is doing better. He’ll be happy to see you. You can go on back.”
“Actually, I wanted to talk to you about the construction project.” Kala gripped the back of an empty chair like a lifeline. “I heard the job site hasn’t been operational since the storm, and I thought that was weird. What’s going on?”
The haggard lines of his face deepened further. “Nearly the entire Fossae team has Valles Fever, from the foreman down to the crane operator. I’m one of the only people still well, and I can’t do everything by myself.”
Kala did the math in her head. The odds that the construction workers had fallen ill at such a higher incidence than the rest of the neighborhood had to be tiny. She thanked Mr. Petridis and retreated to Abe’s childhood bedroom.
“Your father is really beating himself up over the construction project.” Kala sank to the rug by his bed. Abe’s freckles stood out more than usual against skin made pallid by sickness, and his hair, the same light brown as his father’s, was greasy and pillow-flattened. He looked like a washed out version of himself. She started to pull off her face mask but he shook his head.
“Leave it on. Just in case,” Abe said. “Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure for it to be done already so people and businesses can move in.”
“What if Valles Fever is caused by dust storms stirring up bacteria or viruses at the construction site? The Warrens is just downwind.” Kala bounced her fist on the thin mattress and added, “You should have moved out like I told you.”
“Or fungal spores,” Abe said, ignoring her last comment. They both knew he couldn’t afford rent elsewhere. “I’ve sequenced fungi populations in my soil samples.”
Kala perked up. “Do you have any samples from the construction site?”
“They would have run environmental tests before breaking ground, but I don’t have access to that data.”
“Maybe we can collect our own samples–or ask your dad to get some dirt for us.”
Abe frowned at her. “Kala, it’s private property. They’ll send me to prison.”
“Last resort then.”
He nestled deeper in his pillows. “Why can’t you leave this to the epidemiologists to sort out? It’s their job.”
“I would love to leave it to the epidemiologists. But no one is talking about it outside the Warrens.” Kala couldn’t look him in the eye. “The governor probably just wants to pave over the problem, but how many people will get sick before that happens? And what are they doing to make sure the people who move in won’t be exposed? Nothing.”
“You think you can change their minds?” Abe said.
“I don’t know. I’m going to talk to someone at town hall.”
“I won’t break into the construction site,” he said slowly, “but I could get sputum samples from people who have the infection. Give me a few days to test cultures in the lab. The DCC doctors will already know it’s fungal, but if we’re talking to a bureaucrat, we need data to back up our story.”
“We?” She grinned as she said it, cheered that Abe felt well enough to leave the apartment.
“Not letting you steal all the glory,” he joked. “But you’re in charge of getting us a meeting.”
The edifice of town hall looked worse for the wear, and they had to circumnavigate a hydraulic platform to get to the main entrance. A chunk of stucco crashed and exploded near Kala’s feet, and she glared up at the workers on the platform. “You should rope this area off,” she yelled up at them. “It’s a hazard.”
“What are you, stupid?” one yelled back. “Don’t you know better than to walk under a lift?”
Abe dragged her away. “Save it for the deputy director.”
In the lobby, Kala tried to brush the grit from her pants but the hems were a lost, dust-stained cause. She sighed and imagined what her mother would say. Her mother would agree with the workers that it was her fault. Naturally.
“You ready?” Kala asked Abe.
He was still too gaunt and pale. Part of her wanted to order him back to bed, but he had far more right to be her than she did, and she would be useless explaining the analysis he had performed. His expression was resolute. “Let’s do this,” he said.
Kala presented herself at the front desk, and the receptionist led them to an office. The nameplate on the door read Deputy Director of Colony Planning.
The deputy director was like every other bureaucrat on Mars, a middle-aged woman in an indeterminate suit. After introductions, Kala said, “Thank you for taking the time to see us.”
“I’m afraid your mother wasn’t very specific about the purpose of this meeting. Why don’t you fill me in?”
Not for the first time, Kala wished she could take all the false graciousness of Mars and toss it down a slot canyon. After what she had seen in the Warrens, she wasn’t going to beat around the bush. “My colleague–” she gestured at Abe–“and I have identified the source of the Valles Fever epidemic. Since no measures have been taken to contain its spread, I can only assume the colony government is operating with incomplete information. We’re here to share our findings with you.”
The deputy director relaxed and smiled at them. “I assure you there’s no cause for alarm. The infection is contained.”
“Contained to the Warrens, you mean.” Abe’s lip cracked as he spoke, a line of red against his mouth. The deputy director suddenly seemed farther from her desk though Kala hadn’t noticed her retreat.
“I simply meant it’s not an epidemic,” the deputy director said.
“But it is.” Kala had checked the numbers this morning. “There have already been 893 deaths. More are falling sick, and you won’t even acknowledge the problem?”
“You’re talking about less than 1% of the colony,” the deputy director said. “It’s tragic for the families, but it’s hardly a catastrophe.”
Kala flinched and then narrowed her eyes. Trust the bureaucrat to reduce people to a percentage, and the smallest possible one at that, as if Kala didn’t know the difference between a mortality rate and a case-fatality rate. “With more than 5600 confirmed cases, that means 16% of those infected die.”
The deputy director was as responsive as a yardang. 1%, Kala imagined her thinking, is nothing.
The deputy directory interlaced her fingers. “This is the planning department. You want to talk to people in the DCC. I would be delighted give you contact information for someone in that department …” If you stop bothering me, the rest went unsaid.
“Valles Fever is a planning problem,” Kala insisted. She shot a desperate glance at Abe.
He scooted forward in his seat, data at the ready. “The Fossae development project has unearthed fungal spores, which become airborne during dust storms. Ever since groundbreaking at the construction site, each storm has been followed by a spike in the number of infections.” He set his binder on the desk, open to a table of data. “I’ve analyzed hundreds of sputum cultures and identified the infection as fungal–the same fungi that’s present in local soil samples.”
Kala held her breath.
“The Fossae project has been in the works for years, and it’s one the largest in the history of the colony,” the deputy director said. “People have invested a lot of time and money into its success.”
“In the Warrens,” Kala said, “a quarter of the population is sick.” She thought of the child being forcibly removed from their home by a health services worker. “Are you calling that an acceptable loss?”
“No, I am not.” The deputy director’s nostrils flared, a satisfying crack in her composure. “But I have colony ships scheduled to arrive daily for the next six months.”
“So you’re saying the people in the Warrens are expendable?”
“I’m saying that we need Fossae to house the new colonists. Unless you can prove to me the fungi come specifically from the construction site, there’s nothing I can do. I need hard evidence, not speculation. Have the DCC run tests.” She stood and extended a business card to Kala.
Robotically, Kala palmed the card; the name was for a DCC epidemiologist. Without another word, she walked out of the office. Behind her, she heard Abe thanking the deputy directory. Smoothing things over. Kala fumed her way past the reception desk and back outside the town hall. She looked up at the darkening sky so she didn’t have to see Abe’s expression when he joined her. Phobos hurtled east on its first pass of the night while Deimos tracked ponderously in the opposite direction.
“What’s wrong with you?” Abe said.
Kala clenched her fists. “We got the run-around. She knows we can’t get those samples. She’s only interested in covering her ass.”
“You’re wrong,” Abe said. “I thought she’d kick us out immediately when she learned why we were there, but she heard us out. She seemed reasonable to me.”
“Of course she heard us out. But that was for my mother’s sake, not ours. She didn’t promise to order environmental tests. She could do that, you know, with or without the DCC’s approval.”
“Fine. Then let’s go to the DCC,” Abe said. “Convince someone there to put pressure on colony planning.”
“And get the same shit from them? No thank you.” Kala dropped the business card on the street.
“So what, you just want to give up?” Abe vibrated like a live wire. Like a fever patient. She shouldn’t have dragged him out of bed. “You could make them listen. The people who matter are the ones getting sick.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Kala folded her arms over her chest. “My mother already pulled strings. It didn’t get us anywhere.”
“Not your mother. You.” Abe nodded at her satchel where he knew she kept her camera.
She notched her chin up. “What?”
“Do an exhibition. Make people feel something. Shame them into action if you have to.”
Kala’s heart raced like she was sprinting, and that’s exactly what she wanted to do. Run away. “I’m a landscape photographer.”
“You have a camera. Use it.”
She forced herself to stillness. “What’s with the judgment all of a sudden? I’m here because I’m trying to help, and it didn’t work so can you just back off?”
“No,” he said. “I can’t.”
“Nasreen would never give me a second chance.”
“She definitely won’t if you don’t ask her. If you don’t even try.” His expression was disgusted.
Kala remembered how, weeks after what was supposed to be her first exhibition, she kept finding desiccated rose petals under the furniture. Each one smelled like failure. Even when the stars had been perfectly aligned, when there had been an entire team of people going out of their way to ensure her success, Kala had managed to let them all down. Abe thought he was disappointed in her now? Just wait till she couldn’t put together whatever stunt he was expecting of her.
Kala shook her head. Fuck this. “I can’t,” she said. She turned away from him, away from the Warrens. After a couple of blocks, she came to her senses that Abe wasn’t well enough to walk home alone. But by the time she retraced her steps, he was gone.
Kala thumped her satchel inside the door and crawled into bed. The ceiling stared back at her.
What was she going to do? Abe, rightfully so, was pissed at her. The deputy director had blown them off. The DCC had their hands full and would no doubt just send her back to be Colony Planning’s problem. Meanwhile, the construction site was still half-excavated and how long would it be till the next windstorm stirred up the spores again?
Her hands itched to do something. Anything. Kala exhaled and climbed out of bed. She cleared a space on the table for her camera, then unfurled her screen into its largest configuration. She connected her camera to the screen.
It had been weeks since she had processed any photographs. The first transferred showed the Martian landscape she loved so much. The spartan desert colors. The slice made by the spine of a yardang against the dawn sky. The air was clear. If you didn’t know better–if you didn’t know a city existed just out of sight, in the crevices between the rock fins–you might mistake it for wilderness. Each colony on Mars was its own frontier. The next couple of shots showed a sequence as the radio antenna was raised. Then, time-stamped a couple weeks later, the Warrens.
The first shot was of the public health advisory by the open window. Kala hadn’t noticed at the time that the sign was defaced. Protect yourself from Valles Fever! Drink plenty of fluids; wash your hands; cover your face when you cough; if you start to feel ill, stay home. Nothing specific to a fungal infection. The window framed the worker inside, obscured by clouds of disinfectant. White jumpsuit, green face mask. A nearly empty jug of disinfectant on their back. Kala’s gaze drifted back to that small word handwritten at the bottom of the list. PRAY.
Next, a street-crowd shot, tight focus on the middle distance. Elsewhere, blurry faces, hands lifted towards a man standing atop a crate. Skin tones as varied as the desert: sand, dust, clay, basalt. Kala felt a chill. Valles Fever wasn’t contagious, but that wasn’t widely known. Did they think themselves immune, or that infection was inevitable? Reason–and public safety advisories–cautioned against close crowds, and yet for some, the compulsion to gather amidst tragedy ran deep.
The next shot hit her like someone else’s work. Kala remembered the girl carrying the skeleton icon. She didn’t remember how the girl’s hair clumped sweatily to her forehead. How her eye makeup had smeared, skeletal eye sockets to match those of the Lady. Santa Muerte clutched a scythe, and a silk flower was tied around her other hand. The girl faced the camera head-on, accusing her onlookers. Kala didn’t know documentary photography, but she recognized when a shot made her feel. She had chased that elusive feeling ever since picking up a camera in her arts elective at Lyceum, and here it was. Too powerful to keep to herself.
Kala chewed on her thumbnail. She allowed herself to consider Abe’s idea of an exposé of Valles Fever. Assuming she could even edit and assemble a proper narrative, was there anyone left of Mars who would give her the chance to show the work? Nasreen hated her guts. Even the girl in the photograph looked like she hated her. Her eyes bored into Kala, and how could Kala not at least try, in her own way, to get the truth out.
She would need more than photos of sick people. With shaky fingers, Kala messaged Abe, If we’re going to do this, I need fungi images.
Her stomach churned as she waited for his answer.
Magnified images of spores.
No problem. I can borrow the equipment at the lab.
Kala’s armpits were drenched in sweat. The fight song she had played to pump herself up for this meeting faded to static. Before her, the teardrop facade of Nasreen’s gallery was high on the left and low on the right, a yardang in profile.
What was the worst that could happen? Nasreen could mock her, humiliate her, guilt her. Kala had already ruined her own reputation so she wasn’t worried about Nasreen spreading rumors that Kala was difficult to work with. That cat was long out of the bag. The meeting was bound to be uncomfortable, but compared to dying of Valles Fever, it was nothing. Kala squared her shoulders and turned her back on the gallery. She entered the cafe across the street where Nasreen had agreed to meet and nabbed a table.
As Kala waited, she messaged Abe a thumbnail of the Santa Muerte girl. Can you find her? Ask her to sign a model release form.
Is that necessary?
Not legally, but if I can convince Nasreen to give me another shot, this girl’s face will be plastered on a wall. The right thing to do is ask.
I know her. Ana Cecilia Mendoza. Cecilia was a couple years behind us at Lyceum, studying engineering.
I’ll talk to her. Any other people you need me to track down?
The rest of the photos she had selected were either crowd shots or the subject was featureless and unidentifiable in a contamination suit. Nope. Kala glanced up as Nasreen entered the cafe. Thanks, gotta go, she typed, then folded her hands over her screen and sweated some more as Nasreen wound her way past crowded tables.
Nasreen stared down unenthusiastically at Kala for a long moment. Her curly black hair was shorter than Kala remembered though they had managed to avoid one another since the debacle that was supposed to be her debut.
“I already regret coming here,” Nasreen said as she sat.
Kala’s desire to flee spiked, so vivid that she wasn’t certain she hadn’t run out onto the street. Was she sitting inside the cafe, burning courage to apologize, or had she fled, again, and was puking in an alley? The second reality seemed more likely. Kala picked up the spoon next to her cup, feeling its hard lines. She forced herself to meet Nasreen’s gaze.
“I’m sorry.” Kala closed her eyes, opened them. Still in the cafe. “You went out of your way to be generous to a new photographer, and I didn’t show up. I’m sorry I ruined your show. I’m sorry you had to throw out all that pate.” She bit back the rest. She would not turn her first proper apology into a litany of her own insecurities. “I’m sorry I’ve been avoiding you ever since and didn’t apologize sooner.”
Nasreen softened. “Look,” she said. “That’s all very sweet, and I do appreciate the apology. For what it’s worth, I had the hors d’oeuvres delivered to the undercity. But if you’re here now because you want something from me, that’s not going to happen. On a personal level, I bear you no ill will, but professionally, I won’t be working with you again.”
Kala took a deep breath. “I understand–“
Nasreen started to rise.
“But hear me out, please.” Kala slid her screen across the table and waited. Nasreen’s curiosity won out, and she flipped open the screen. Kala couldn’t watch as the gallery owner clicked through the preview she had painstakingly put together.
“I thought you only did landscapes.”
Kala had to take a sip of water before she could talk. “Me too.”
“What are these?” A fingernail tapped the screen. Kala didn’t have to look.
“Photomicrographs of fungal spores,” she said. “They’re the cause of Valles Fever.”
Finally, Nasreen looked up. “How do I know you won’t pull the same stunt again?”
“They’re worth the risk, for both of us.” Kala nodded at the people captured in the images. “But if we’re doing this, we have to act fast, before more people get sick. I already sent the final image files to the printer. You just have to call the lab to approve the job.”
Nasreen’s gaze returned to the screen, to a photo of people congregating around a street orator. Nasreen had been in the business for a long time. Long enough, Kala hoped, to be adept at separating the artist from the art. Kala said, “Spin it. Spin me. I don’t care what you say to get them to come–just get them to come.”
“That I can do,” Nasreen said.
Abe was there when the exhibition opened, mercifully without flowers this time. She hugged him tight. “Thank you,” she mumbled into the fabric of his suit jacket.
“You have to stop making that face,” he said when she pulled back.
“What face?” She was smiling through her panic. That was good, right?
“Never mind.” He brushed his lapels. “Ralliers are gathering outside.”
“So long as they don’t scare anyone off. I told my mother to invite all her friends too.” She twisted the bracelet on her wrist. “What do you think of the prints? Is the music the right volume?” Incorporating music had been Nasreen’s suggestion, but Kala had selected the piece. The notes whistled and eddied through the gallery, ethereal as a sigh. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms. “It’s good, isn’t it?” she said, more a statement than a question.
“It’s good.” Abe squeezed her against his side.
A few early guests trickled into the gallery. Individuals, then handfuls of people, then a steady stream. Kala recognized a few reporters from the news vids, and nodded a greeting at the Deputy Director of Colony Planning. Occasionally, folks shifted their attention from each other to her work, and Kala wanted to cheer and declare the evening a wild success, but it wasn’t. Not yet.
An hour after the start of the event, Kala’s mother entered on her hover board. Her second best jewelry in gold, Earth emeralds, and Mars opals glittered against a sharp white suit. Mrs. Gasparyan circuited the gallery, dropping in on one cluster of well-heeled Martians after the other. In each instance, she left them studying Kala’s photographs. Kala was sure the conversations were mortifying, but it wasn’t about her, it was about the Warrens.
Kala had written up a fundraising plan with the expertise of her mother’s advisors. Their initial goal was to halt construction of the Fossae project, to allow time to assess whether the site was in an area where Valles Fever was endemic. Soil needed to be treated to minimize exposure, workers trained in hazard awareness and safety protocols, and the legal team prepped for the almost inevitable court battle. The mountain of work before her was daunting, but that was a worry for another day. When her mother made the first donation, Kala could kiss her. Soon the donation booth was thronged, and Nasreen swooped in for decorous crowd control.
At some point, the Santa Muerte girl arrived. A second-gen Martian and activist, Ana Cecilia Mendoza had volunteered to make an appearance as soon as Abe explained their goal. Her eye makeup was less smudged than in the print, and she’d left her icon at home, but it was unmistakably her. She drifted around the room, an intense presence with a wake of whispers. Maintaining a mystique so complete that Kala wondered if Nasreen had coached her.
Kala grabbed Abe’s hand and pulled him away from the punch bowl. Snatches of conversation carried to them.
“… Fever …”
“… Just terrible.”
The Santa Muerte girl judged them from the wall and Cecilia moved through their midst while the flutes and drums swelled. Kala closed her eyes, Abe’s hand tight in hers, and listened to the singing wind.
Copyright 2018 Nicole Feldringer
About the Author
Nicole Feldringer’s short stories have appeared in the anthologies Press Start to Play and Loosed Upon the World, from editor John Joseph Adams, among other venues. She lives in Northern California, where she is a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Find her on Twitter @nicofeld.