London, England. December 2016.

It was said that the eyes were the windows to the soul. If this was true, it held true for no one more than for General Lucian Devereaux. Looking into his left eye – lost in a battle long ago, replaced with a temperamental prosthetic – one could see his emotions as changing colour.

Normally this didn’t worry him, because normally his eye remained silver-grey. Grey was control, restraint, apathy. As long as it was grey, his enemies could not guess him.

On the day of his trial, it was crystal blue.

Lucian stood before the Military Court of the United Kingdom dressed in his navy uniform, dark patches on his chest where his medals had been ripped off by the Court Martial. He’d had his forearm flayed in a Russian gulag seven years ago, but this metaphorical stripping felt worse. His medals – excellence in tactics, strategy, and bravery – had been a part of him. Without them, he wasn’t sure what remained.

“Lucian Devereaux, the court finds you guilty of the following war crimes.” Lucian wished he could sit, not because the verdict would shock him, but because it would take ages to recite. “Misconduct towards an officer, targeting civilians, making false records, mistreating subordinates, resisting arrest, torturing and murdering prisoners of war, unauthorized experimentation on prisoners of war…”

He resisted the urge to check his pocket watch. It, along with his other possessions, had been confiscated upon his entry into the courtroom, yet he hadn’t been able to stop reaching for it. As if he had any conference to attend anymore, any place to go but prison.

“…assault, fraud, and disgraceful conduct of a cruel nature. The sentence for these charges is life in prison. How do you wish to plead?”

For a moment, even though the courtroom was filled with inferiors who hated him, civilian witnesses, and colonels lusting after his position, Lucian considered pleading innocent. But despite his many sins, he’d never in his career told a lie. He wasn’t about to start now.

“Guilty.”

The gavel came down, hollowing his bones.

The Phase A Shuttle. November 2026.

Nearly a year aboard a space shuttle with these people might drive Lucian mad. He spends his free time on an exercise bike or treadmill, and even so, notices his muscle mass deteriorating at an alarming rate. The others seem less worried about caring for their bodies. He scoffs as he watches them struggle to open the packets of astronaut food. One rips into a juice box with his teeth and then seems surprised to see the orange droplets float above his head. Is Lucian on a par with these exiled criminals? He’s never exacted justice upon those who didn’t deserve it. Unlike Hans, he never laid a hand upon his wife. Unlike Mustafa, he has never taken what isn’t his. He still cannot understand why he was chosen to travel among them.

“What’re you in for?” Valeria keeps asking. She’s the youngest, maybe twenty-five, and seems drawn to him for his silence.

Like he always does, Lucian answers, “I volunteered.” He doesn’t tell her why he would volunteer for a mission like this rather than go to jail like the next man.

As the months roll by, he learns that all of these people worked in respectable fields once. Lynda was a chemist caught making meth in her laboratory, not only to support her own drug habit, but to sell to high school students. There isn’t a laboratory in the world that will hire her now. Hans, the one entranced by the floating orange juice, was a behavioural psychologist who killed his wife after learning of her affair. Now he’s touched in the head; Lucian catches him trying to engage others in cognitive behavioural therapy for nail biting. Mustafa was a doctor who committed tax fraud.

Nobody’s crime is as dire as Lucian’s, but there are certain, undeniable factors linking Crew One. All of these people are geniuses in their fields. All of them are banned, via a life sentence in prison, from continuing their life’s work on Earth. All spiralling into depression and insanity from the loss of their passions. All with no families, nothing to lose.

Looking at them, Lucian wonders if he cannot see himself. He goes to the tiny bathroom and shaves, though there is no hair on his jawline and all he draws is blood, which trembles on the razor before floating above his head.

London, England. December 2016

Nothing could have changed his sentence, but it wasn’t life in prison that concerned Lucian. Losing his rank would have been bad enough. Being remembered as a general discharged dishonourably for committing all the war crimes in the book – that grated on his nerves worse than those shackles around his wrists. What the law didn’t understand was that some people didn’t deserve mercy. Torturing terrorists for information hadn’t been his first choice, but his only choice. And they’d spoken. He’d saved Liverpool from a certain bombing.

That kind of logic wouldn’t help his case, his lawyer said. England wanted him put away for life. What could change was his reputation. He could rebuild his career as a pioneer and leader if he joined the Mars One project.

At first, Lucian let the woman talk because he felt rude interrupting. The project was privately funded by investors and corporations, she said, including some experienced aerospace companies (though NASA, she added with what struck Lucian as false bewilderment, refused to join the effort). Its goal was to establish the first off-world colony.

Who were these corporations? Who in their right minds would invest their company’s money in such a far-fetched project?

Independent scientists, his lawyer answered cryptically. In terms of the legal system, volunteering would be a viable alternative to life in prison. Because volunteers could never return to Earth once gone, the British government had acquiesced to let him sign up. And the project’s investors needed highly trained professionals such as himself. It would be a win for all parties involved, a fresh start.

Lucian filled the application the next morning.

Valles Marineris, Mars. 2027.

Landing happens in 2027, or so the brochures say. There is no way for Lucian to be sure. His pocket watch, the only timepiece he has ever trusted, is stopped at 23:59 on the day of his arrest eleven years ago.

Twenty-four hours before landing, the crew moves into the landing module from the transit habitat, which is too large to land on Mars’s surface. Lucian carries a rucksack of supplies on his back, offers to carry Valeria’s as well when he sees her struggling. His courtesy surprises him, and he remembers that he once fit into the British royalty’s social gatherings because of such unexpected displays.

Valeria looks up at him suspiciously. She is slight, with a narrow nose and chin but strikingly large eyes. Her hair is a reddish brown that makes Lucian think of cooling embers. For the first time, he realizes that in the year they’ve spent together in space, he hasn’t asked a single thing about her. Not why she’s so quiet, not what she hopes to accomplish in the new world. Now, as he takes the pack from her limp fingers, he says, “Why are you here?”

Mustafa and Hans bound past him in the ribbed metal corridor, shoving each other like schoolboys in their haste to exit. Valeria presses herself into the wall as if to make herself smaller, but she needn’t bother. She’s hardly noticeable as she is.

Except that Lucian notices her now, because she’s the only one who doesn’t seem to belong here. The only one, as far as he can tell, with no scientific training.

“I volunteered, too,” she says.

The lander looks exactly like those used for previous, unmanned missions meant to test the terrain for such a landing. The transit habitat where he and his crew – he doesn’t know what makes him believe it is his, but he knows this with certainty – lived for a year will remain in orbit around the sun.

The crew buckles themselves into the lander. As he did in the military, Lucian makes a perimeter to ensure everyone is securely fastened before strapping himself in. Hans scowls at him, mutters, “Thanks, Dad,” when Lucian walks over.

Disrespect is something Lucian still isn’t used to. It surprises him when the others laugh rather than whip out pistols and point them at the one who insulted their superior. He doesn’t linger on the fact that nobody has appointed him leader, that they are all equally low in this new, lawless land. To do so brings him one step closer to chuckling at floating orange juice, and that is no civilized way to live.

Landing goes smoothly, but what comes next is agony. Reacclimating to gravity after nearly a year in space feels to Lucian like having every bone in his body compressed. The recruits are told it will take roughly forty-eight hours for the pain to go away. Their deteriorated muscles, however, will take months to rebuild.

They put on their space suits, leave the lander, and wait for the rover to pick them up. Hans looks like he’s about to throw up. Lucian gives him an anti-nausea pill and hopes the rover arrives soon so the man can take it before he fills his helmet with vomit. This time, Hans accepts without complaint.

Even through the suit, Lucian feels Mars’ chill. The planet’s surface is uneven and rocky, and his atrophied calves scream as he walks. For a moment he’s self-conscious about his awkward movements in the suit. Then he remembers that this group of recruits, unlike his old one, doesn’t pay him much notice. Still, it is hard to walk as if no one is watching.

The soil here is as red as he’d expected, the atmosphere a dull orange. There are still tracks from where the rovers wandered, checking the location for debris before Crew One’s arrival. Lucian suspects they will be erased soon; dust constantly swirls into the air, coating his visor. He checks the radiation strip on his suit and notes that it is already yellow.

The dust in the air does not let him see the rover until it is fifty meters away. The recruits seat themselves and are sped toward the settlement, which Lucian also cannot see until he has arrived. The thought of living without seeing three-sixty degrees around him makes him grind his teeth.

He is the first to enter the settlement through the airlock, since the others continue marvelling as if there is anything around them but dust and rock. Lucian is already planning ahead. According to their schedules, Crew One will spend the next few days in one of the living units, recovering from the gravitational changes. He removes his helmet as soon as he’s out of the airlock to scout his new environment.

Bunk beds like in the military. Dim fluorescent lights on the ceiling, the kind that make people look sick. Roughspun blankets and clothes in the dressers. Bean-bag chairs and steel tables. Plain, white, flimsy walls, all assembled by the Earth-operated rovers. Its sterility is both familiar and comforting.

Lucian is unpacking what little he’s brought – shaving blade, broken pocketwatch, uniforms, comb, linens, and boots – when the others enter. Hans, still looking green, collapses on the nearest cot. Lucian makes a note he has not had the opportunity to make in the transit habitat: that man is weaker than the others. If he were Hans’ superior, he’d have him doing exercises to build up his strength. He doesn’t think giving such an order here, though, would fare well.

To his surprise, Valeria takes the cot above his. He is lying on his back, trying not to think about the pain in his bones, when she climbs up. The mattress sags beneath her.

“What could you have done?” Lucian wonders.

Her shifting stops. She pops her head down to look at him, and backlit as she is, her auburn hair shines like Mars’ iron-rich soil. “What?”

“To get placed here, in this prison.”

Her lips twitch. “I told you. I volunteered.”

Lucian represses his own smile, feels annoyed that she has made him have to. “Then you’re running from something.”

“I didn’t realize you were the psychologist in the group.”

“You’re averting the question.”

“I’m just trying to make my life useful. Meaningful, you know?”

He does know, but will not admit it to this girl. “There are better ways to be useful in your field, surely.”

“In today’s world, I’m not sure there are.” She shrugs. “My craft is more needed here, I think.”

Before he can ask her what her craft is, she returns to her bunk. Soon the shifting stops, and all Lucian can hear is her faint breathing.

Undisclosed Location, March 2017-2025.

Lucian’s military experience made him the perfect candidate for training. Each crew member would be isolated for several years to prepare for the seclusion awaiting them on Mars. Lucian never minded solitude. By thirty-eight he’d married only briefly, and even then, for political reasons. Her family had given him the foothold he’d needed to climb the ranks in the military. He’d been relieved when she’d had the affair, letting him divorce her honourably.

The public had blamed him then, too. Cold and calculating, the tabloids had called him. She felt alone in his company. Who can blame her?

On Mars, everything that had made him hated would be an asset. His willingness to use force, his lack of willingness to put up with excuses, laying down the law and punishing those who broke it. He would have people under his control again – an army. On Mars, callous would mean effective and war crimes would translate to justice.

A private jet took him to an unnamed location that he suspected, judging from the climate and the colour of the sand, was somewhere in Tunisia. As expected, he excelled at training. He already had more diverse surgical experience than any doctor in England – amazing how effectively one learned on the field – and learning to repair the rover models was simple. The only thing giving him trouble remained the gardening. Everything he touched died. Was it the soil? The lack of rain? Wearing gloves helped.

In 2020, he learned the communication satellite had been placed into Mars’ orbit. This would allow 24/7 communications between Earth and Mars, complete with audio and video signal. Lucian regretted not being able to break from Earth completely, but allowed that the others in his company may want to keep in touch with their families. He remembered his father’s tobacco-hoarse laugh, spent the rest of the day installing a sprinkler system in order to forget.

2025 marked two milestones: Lucian hadn’t been in physical contact with another human for eight years, and he was informed that the life support units had arrived on Mars. The Environmental Control and Life Support System had finally been activated, allowing water to be harvested from the soil, stored, and used to produce oxygen for the inflatable habitation unit. Soon the first manned mission to Mars would depart with him on board.

Lucian looked up at the sun and thanked God – all the gods – that departure loomed on the horizon. Not because he missed humans, but because he felt so restless he couldn’t sleep. He missed the thrill of war. He missed shaving. There were no mirrors in this outpost. His beard crawled down his neck, and that was no civilized way to live.

Valles Marineris, Mars. 2027.

The first trip outside the settlement takes place one week after their move in. Lucian’s atrophied muscles have only begun to build up again, despite his rigorous exercises, but some of the younger recruits seem ready to explore, so he acts as though he is energetic and curious like them and plans their first expedition.

“Why are we bringing all this shit?” Hans complains when Lucian hands him a rucksack laden with rope, harnesses, radiation strips, airtight patches, glass cleaner, boots, and water.

“My soldiers packed no less on their drill runs,” Lucian answers.

“We’re not your soldiers,” Hans mutters, though when Lucian raises an eyebrow, he does not elaborate on the challenge. Lynda skips down the corridor humming a children’s school song (“the sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace!”) and the tension bleeds away.

“Our purpose today is to study Mars’ terrain,” Lucian tells them as they suit up. Valeria glances at him with shining eyes, and it strikes him again how young she is. The others’ excitement has seeped into her in a way it cannot influence Lucian. He considers helping her with the straps on her suit, but does nothing.

Outside, the air is dusty. Lucian plants his feet carefully, though there are no traps or landmines here and he keeps reaching for a rifle that is not there. The transmission of Hans’ voice is a string of German expletives in Lucian’s ear, and the man moves as if every step agonizes him. Lucian is aware of them – Hans, Lynda, Mustafa, Valeria, and the few others who felt well enough to come – as if they are extra limbs on his body. He does not know what it is like to have children, but he understands how to take responsibility for others. He realizes he is sticking closely to Valeria, speeds up when he sees her notice.

Lynda and Mustafa walk arm-in-arm, Mustafa watching her almost tenderly as she stops to study a Martian rock in the orange sunlight. Here on Mars, where Crew One must live in even closer quarters than they had in the transit habitat, Lucian is aware of dynamics he has never before noticed. He averts his eyes, though neither Mustafa nor Lynda seems bothered by his gaze.

“I’m going home,” Hans moans after another ten minutes of trekking. “My legs are killing me. I’ll call a rover to take me back.”

“If you wish to die in the Martian sandstorms, be my guest,” Lucian says. Valeria squeezes his elbow, but Lucian does not know what this means and pulls from her grasp. Hans turns on him.

“Hey, fuck you, General.”

Lucian takes two steps forward. Valeria moves between him and Hans and says, “Let’s check the weather forecast. If there are no sandstorms predicted near base in the next hour, you can go.”

They turn the radio frequency to the weather station, find only static. “Maybe a storm’s already on its way,” Mustafa muses.

But a part of Lucian – the part that eats and breathes military intrigue – tells him this is something else. They are out of range of the regular radio stations, so he flips through the frequencies until he hears a crackly voice come in.

“…recovering faster than the others. Tensions between Eight and One. Bipolar disorder seems to be a liability for those trying to create order.”

By the orange radiation strip on Lucian’s space suit is a large silver 8 that matches the 1 on Hans’. Lucian clicks the transmission off. “The weather is fine. Let’s go back.”

The next day, he catches Hans stealing painkillers while the others are in the greenhouse. “I can’t take this fuckin’ gravity!” Hans mopes when Lucian corners him. The fluorescent bulb above highlights the crater-like circles under his eyes and sunken cheeks. “Lynda doesn’t need them. Women have a higher pain tolerance, right?”

The man’s idiocy makes Lucian strike him, hard. Hans reels, his mouth lopsided in stunned silence. He puts a hand to his cheek, pushes his crooked spectacles up his face. “Is that why you’re here?” he demands. “To be our goddamned dictator?”

Tensions between Eight and One. Whomever broadcast yesterday was watching them, is likely watching them still. Are those private investors thinking of interfering if the settlement does not go smoothly? Again Lucian wonders about these faceless people on whom he now relies. They anticipated that someone would need to uphold the rules, clearly, or they would not have recruited a decorated general. But is he doing what they expect?

“You have your skills, I have mine.” He holds out his hand and, reluctantly, Hans releases the painkillers. When Lucian catches his reflection in the man’s spectacles, he notices that for the first time in nearly a decade, both his eyes are grey again.

Amsterdam, the Netherlands. October 2026.

Crew One – Lucian’s crew – flew to the Netherlands for departure; the private jet arrived while Lucian was picking his yellow and shrivelled okra. He felt no sorrow leaving his solitary dwelling of nine years. What he did regret was that he was forty-seven, and despite the exercises he’d done, weaker than a man of thirty-eight in service. For the first time, he wondered if he’d be strong enough to lead explorers in the new world. He locked himself in the jet’s bathroom with a switchblade, clogged the sink with bristly salt-and-pepper hair until his beard became neatly trimmed again. Only then did he look at the rest of his face.

There were wrinkles at the corners of his eyes now. His lips still pulled into their line, though more colourless than before. His eye, which should be colourless, was the vivid blue it had been the day of his trial.

This held his attention. By God, had it been blue all this time? Was he sad to be leaving his outpost after all? He didn’t know, couldn’t tell, and wished the eye would be more specific.

By the time he arrived in the Netherlands, he was showered and ready to meet his fellow recruits. Men and women from every walk of life had been selected; the new colony would need ecologists and biologists and psychologists and everything in between. Lucian wondered if he’d be recognized, if his reputation had outlived his career. The Executioner General, they had called him. But he was different now, blue-eyed and weary. He didn’t recognize himself.

The Netherlands proved cold and dry, and the people he met scowled. He felt relieved to be ushered into the bunkers that would house him and the other recruits until the next morning, when the shuttle would be launched. He was familiar with bunkers – comfortable, even. They reminded him of the days when he’d had a long, prosperous future ahead.

Perhaps this was his second chance. Lucian stepped into the bunker almost smiling – to actually smile felt excessive – and was hit by the smell of rancid sweat.

He started. Before he could turn, the guards supposedly there for his protection slammed the bunker door behind him. The only light remaining slanted down from the tiny, barred windows near the ceiling.

Lucian stood facing a crowd of the most unappealing men and women he’d ever seen. The Mars One project advertised its need for doctors, scientists, social scientists, even spiritual healers. What he saw was a slew of ragged men with drooping jowls, scars and tattoos snaking up their arms. The women weren’t any better, wiry hair around angry faces and limbs stiffened from drug use. Suddenly Lucian understood that the Mars One project wasn’t just a second chance for professionals without a place in the world.

It was a high-security prison.

Valles Marineris, Mars. 2027.

In another week, it becomes clear that Lynda has a green thumb and is excellent at fixing the rover. Mustafa can mend broken bones and Petyr, a former accountant, keeps track of their inventory. Lucian breaks every day into a tight schedule consisting of exercise, gardening, home maintenance, planet exploration, decontamination, and thirty minutes of relaxation in the evenings. He allows Lynda to ferment their ten crates of grapes into wine. When he gives that particular order, he swears a few of them actually smile at him.

Hans continues being useless. He stalks the habitat offering exposure therapy to Mustafa for his fear of spiders. When Lynda reminds him, gently, that there are no spiders on Mars, he breaks down and weeps for hours. The fifth time it happens, Lucian is ready to shake the man back to his senses. He starts forward, but feels a hand on his arm.

Val shakes her head. “Leave him be. He mourns his wife.”

“Then perhaps he should not have killed her.”

The girl cocks her head as though he’s said something strange, though as far as Lucian is concerned, he has only stated fact. Before he can think of something else to say – why he feels the need to follow up, he doesn’t know – she starts toward the cot where Hans sits weeping. Lucian’s muscles tighten. He prepares to intervene if the man grows violent, but Hans only buries his face in her shoulder. Then she is singing, quietly but with the clearest soprano register Lucian has ever heard. He does not know the song, but recognizes the language as Italian. Hans’ violently heaving shoulders eventually settle down. Lucian stares at Val, and she catches his eye, and he realizes now that she is here to keep them human, keep them sane.

One month and eight reports to Earth later, supplies start coming more scarcely. At first Lucian thinks it’s a mistake, so he goes out in his space suit to see if the communications satellite is still in orbit. Sanjeet, a former engineer, informs him that all communications are operating well. But when Lucian tries contacting the Netherlands, he receives only static. He cannot find the channel on which he heard the mysterious voice, and for the first time he considers that the Mars One project has no obligation to communicate with the government or to even continue supplying rations if funding runs short. Perhaps the entrepreneurs have grown tired of the experiment, or have witnessed Crew One’s petty squabbles, its inability to function as an entity, and declared it a failure. Perhaps they were only a trial run to prepare for Crew Two.

“The shuttles could be going off-course,” Hans says, wringing his bony hands. “We’re going to starve.”

“We have the greenhouse,” says Lynda, but their beans are wilting and the tomatoes haven’t taken at all, and only the oregano thrives. What good is oregano? Lucian resists the urge to step into the greenhouse himself, knows he cannot order the plants to start growing. He resents plants for their lack of ability to fear him.

When supplies finally do arrive, they are three-quarters of what the group needs to survive until next shipment. Lucian counts rations quietly, refuses to let accountant Petyr do it because Petyr would only spread panic around the colony. Doing the math, he concludes that all but one of them will survive on these supplies.

“It’ll be fine,” he tells the worried genius-criminals around him. “I’ve rationed everything, and it should last us another month at least.”

Except it won’t, even without Hans stealing supplies.

So the next time Lucian sees the man rifling through the supply cabinet, he knows what must be done. This time it hardly matters what Hans is doing there, if he taking more than his share or simply searching for greenhouse fertilizer. The others have caught Hans stealing often enough that no one will doubt Lucian’s word now.

As he comes up from behind, Lucian recites the same mantras he’d recited with the prisoners of war in Liverpool. What is Hans except a drain on resources? The greater good trumps one weak man’s life.

Of course Crew One was not given firearms on Mars, but Lucian has never relied on such things. A soldier’s ingenuity is his most dangerous weapon, he told his recruits a lifetime ago. He holds a harness wire that will slice a throat easily.

Hans’ cries draw several Crew One members to the scene, as Lucian had planned. Lucian is not a murderer, but an executioner – and effective executions need audiences. Lynda’s face pales when she sees them. Val lets out a small gasp and Petyr starts forward, then steps back when Lucian’s voice booms across the room. “This is what happens to those who put their individual desires above the colony. We cannot survive otherwise.”

It is done in a single pull, and only when the blood pours over Lucian’s hands and Val screams does he consider the question of who might be next, or just how useful a singer really is on a Mars colony.

Or when, exactly, she became Val to him.

Lynda cries for a week, and Mustafa spends every morning murmuring in Arabic on his prayer mat. Petyr now puts at least one room’s distance between himself and Lucian when possible. Only Val will still associate with him, though she no longer makes eye contact, no longer brushes him when she passes or shares those secret smiles he never returned but always cherished. Later, after they have eaten a substantial meal for the first time in a week, Lucian hears her singing. This time he recognizes the song: Mozart’s Lacrymosa. He rolls onto his side in his cot and covers his ears.

If there is one thing he does not need here, it’s a conscience.

The next shipment is even more sparse, with not enough oxygen vats for half of them and only honey and salted beef for food. Lucian feels his face drain of what little colour it has as he studies the supplies. He feels old suddenly, every one of his forty-eight years. The Executioner General. Is this his greatest talent: playing God with those society has deemed morally hopeless but intellectually valuable? Is he to murder them one by one as they lose their sanity and usefulness?

Lucian has appropriated Petyr’s job of taking inventory. In truth, Petyr has become redundant. But Petyr is stronger than Val and better at fixing the rovers. But Val is Val, his only friend, and her voice is like clear water. But what does that comfort, that single link to humanity, matter when compared to Crew One’s survival? But what is survival without humanity?

Lucian locks himself in the bathroom with a switchblade, begins shaving the stubble off his face and neck. Except there is no stubble, and all he scrapes is skin. What if the true threat to the colony is not the short supply, but the single-minded way in which he knows to deal with it? Just a little further and he’ll reach the oesophagus. What if someone else comes up with a better solution, one he’ll never be able to see?

Spheres of red tremble on the blade’s edge, and in the mirror his eye is bright, bright blue.

Raluca Balasa
Raluca Balasa holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Reno. Her approach to writing is character oriented, often dealing with love/hate relationships, antiheroes, and antagonists who make you agree with them. Her short work has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways, Aurealis, and Grimdark Magazine, among others.