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Mars Minus Two

by Charles C. Cole

The small, two-person biosphere was decorated with a hand-painted mural on one wall: the planet Earth mostly covered in dark, brooding clouds. Roma was watering several trays of genetically modified seedlings when Wycliff, her fraternal twin, joined her.

A black gardener's bib with “NASA” printed in large red letters lay draped over a counter stool. Wycliff grabbed it, tying it around his waist. Roma shook her head.

“You’ve got something to say?” Wycliff started.

“I hope you flushed.”

“Of course, I did. Anything else you want to talk about?”

“Nope,” she replied. “Nothing.”

“We can’t start healing until we get over it, and I really want to start healing.”

“Fine,” said Roma. “I’m sorry I overcooked your popcorn. There. Anything to start the healing.”

“That wasn’t so bad.”

“And I’m moving out,” she added, “in the morning.”

“What?” He glanced up at the ceiling cameras strategically placed to record their every move. “My sister Roma, ladies and gentlemen. She’s such a kidder.”

“Ever since we were selected among the pool of finalists for the first Mars couples’ mission,” Roma hissed, “you’ve been impossible to live with. I warned you this would happen. We don’t need a team leader when there are only two people on the team.”

“Lower your voice,” said Wycliff. “If you move out, they’ll scrub us from the program for sure. We have to make it six months in this biosphere to—”

“Fish tank, you mean.”

“-In this biosphere to make it to the final round of testing. We agreed, Roma. We can do this. It’s not hard. All we have to do is smile for the cameras and take notes on the experiments they assigned us.”

“And look like we enjoy each other’s company. This is why married couples make more sense than brother-sister couples,” Roma explained. “They’re motivated to kiss up. What’s in it for me?”

“Married couples fight.”

“We don’t fight?” she asked.

“Other than not being married, we’re perfect. We’re both scientists. We’ve known each other longer than any of the other couples, by almost twenty years in most cases.”

“We’re not a couple,” said Roma. “I love you, little brother, but I am not—”

“By two minutes, Roma. You beat me by two minutes!”

“I’ve reconsidered. I simply can’t accompany you to Mars and back. Sooner or later, I’m going to find a sharp object and one of us is going to have an accident. I know you had to pull strings, to go through hoops, to prove a brother-sister team would take the sexual tension out of the mission, maybe add a foundation of a common backstory, but being alone dramatically enhances sibling dynamics.”

“Don’t do this,” said Wycliff. “You’re cutting off your nose to spite your face. You’ll get scrubbed, too. We’ve come so far. We’ll be part of history. What do I need to say?”

“That you understand where I’m coming from, seeing as you know me so well. Hey, unlike Mom and Dad, at least we don’t need some messy, expensive divorce to go our separate ways. You’ve already had plenty of those.”

“I’ve had two. And they were amicable.” Roma arched an eyebrow. “The second one was amicable.”

“You never heard Tess behind your back. She would smile at you and talk a good game, then stop by the book club and just dump and dump and dump.”

“What about Mom?” asked Wycliff. “She always wanted an astronaut in the family. We’ve given her two.”

“Two astronaut candidates,” corrected Roma.

“She’s the talk of her retirement village, living in the limelight. They interviewed her on TV, for Pete’s sake. You can’t take that away from her. It’ll kill her.”

“If she could survive being married to Dad for 22 years, she can survive this.”

“Like you care. You’ve got nothing to prove. You were always her favorite,” said Wycliff.

“No, that was you. I don’t think she ever forgave me for dropping out of cheerleading in junior high to join Math League.”

“We could get married! This is space; local laws don’t apply.” The regrettable words exploded from Wycliff.

“First off: Eww! Second: If we’ve proved one thing, after being stuck in this government-sponsored ‘Big Brother’ experiment for the last month, it’s that even when you’re the only man around, most intelligent women would still choose the alternative.”

“Which is?” he asked.

“Any number of options that don’t include you. That’s why you’re in this position: you’re not easy to live with. And I’ve had more experience in that department than everybody else combined. Maybe we can rain-check as semi-finalists for a future mission. Go to therapy for a year. Acknowledging your antisocial idiosyncrasies is the first step toward making progress.”

“I knew this would never work,” said Wycliff. “Why did I even bother?”

“Because your ego is bigger than your appetite for videogames, and that’s saying something.”

“Fine. Leave,” he said. “But you should know that it was Mom’s idea. She had to sell me on it. I told her it wouldn’t work.”

“Of course it was Mom’s idea,” said Roma. “That explains a lot: reinventing marriage like she redefined good parenting. Blaming the system for her personal uphill battles when it was really more about bad choices. We’ve got to get out, you know that. Who knows what else she’s promised them?” Roma waved her hands over her head, their gesture for “Help needed.”

An intercom crackled to life. “Problem, Dr. Sturdivant?”

“We’re done here,” Roma said.

“Say that again, please.”

“We. Want. Out.”

“No can do, ma’am. Unless there’s a health emergency, you’ve got five more months ahead of you. Even if you choose not to be a finalist for the mission, and that’s up to you, there’s plenty of data for us to collect just by watching your social interactions. Like it or not, you’re great television.”

“Of course we are,” said Roma.

“Anything else?”

“Sure. Order flowers for my mom with a card that says, ‘Thinking of you’.”

“Will do.”

Copyright © 2014 by Charles C. Cole

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