It was Surface Day and Karya was staring at the Martian sky.
Once a month, when the conditions were good, everyone – miners and caff fillers, foremen and scientists – was allowed to spend time on the surface. Rovers transported groups to geological formations, astronomers gave seminars, and cameras were made available for people to document the day. If an employee’s photo was chosen for company marketing materials, they’d receive a nice bonus.
Karya took nearly 300 pictures each Surface Day, mostly of the red-suited miners themselves. She wasn’t motivated by the potential bonus (though of course it would be nice): she simply needed to record as many faces as she could whenever she had the chance.
When she wasn’t taking pictures, Karya stared at the sky, drinking in the openness and the shades of gray and gold. It wasn’t particularly pretty, but its beauty was in its expansiveness. It reminded Karya of the only time she’d gone swimming, when her family won a vacation to a tropical island. She was nine; Marko was twelve. It was the first time she’d ever left the station where she was born, the first time she saw the sky from below, and the first time she’d been able to fully submerge herself in water. Her dad didn’t want them swimming alone, but Karya went anyway, plunging into the clear depths until they were no longer clear, until her lungs ached, then stung.
She kicked until everything burned and the water turned clear again and she was out, bursting free, filling her small strained lungs with pure life, blinking at the sunshine and the clarity of sand grains and palms and the subtle variegation in that blue, blue sky.
Karya had been holding her recycled breath for weeks now, waiting for the day the lift went up instead of down. Now she could exhale and breathe in sunlight, and horizons, and mountains. It almost made her smile.
But they’d sounded the five minute warning, a piercing electronic tone delivered to her earpiece, and Karya still had pictures to take. She drew her eyes down, raised the camera to her faceplate, and shot.
Every photo taken was made available on the mine’s ‘net, so after each Surface Day, she used her free time to scan through hundreds and hundreds of photos, squinting through the miners’ face masks in hopes of finally seeing her brother.
Marko had left home at eighteen, but his record – a single incident of vandalism – condemned him to the life of a miner on any of a dozen ore-rich worlds. Karya counted it a blessing that he was still in the solar system – or had been, anyway. Since she’d lost contact with him a year and a half ago, she had no way of knowing he was even still on Mars. The mine didn’t bother with accurate record-keeping as long as the quotas were met, and if a miner or two or forty died in a superheated gas leak or a collapsed tunnel, there were hundreds more willing to take their place.
She had no evidence that Marko was dead, thankfully, but she had no evidence he was still alive, either. Thousands of photos across eight Surface Days had revealed nothing. She was running out of places to look.
Karya turned her camera on Col and Maria, who were photographing their team with their own camera. Like her, they took many photos of the miners as part of their pledge to help her find Marko. They shared her suspicions of foul play, but she’d also bribed them with additional caff fills. The extra caffeine wasn’t physically harmful, but providing and accepting more than the allotted amount put all their jobs at risk. Col, who’d been assigned miner due to anarchist activity, had jumped at the opportunity to play whistle-blower, caffeinated or not. Maria and many of the others, having had friends who were suddenly “promoted” and never heard from again, wanted answers of their own, no matter how dangerous the questions were.
That had been three months ago. They’d found nothing, and between the secret caff refills and their risky investigation, Karya thought they were all lucky to still be employed, let alone not imprisoned.
The electronic tone signaling the end of Surface Day sounded. Maria elbowed her as they trudged towards the lifts.
“Any good shots?”
“Hope so. You?”
“We’ll see, huh?” They crowded into the lift. “Anyway, there’s always next month.”
Karya nodded and took one last photo of the hazy Martian sky.