A Space Traveller Uncovers An Impossible Mystery In The Thrilling First Chapter Of Emma Newman’s Before Mars

A Space Traveller Uncovers An Impossible Mystery In The Thrilling First Chapter Of Emma Newman’s Before Mars

A geologist whose art has captured the imagination of a space-obsessed multibillionaire accepts a new a gig on Mars, partially as a way to escape the postpartum depression that’s been plaguing her back on Earth. But as soon as she arrives, she makes a shocking discovery — and suddenly she’s surrounded by strangers she can’t trust in a space colony that’s millions and millions of miles away from home.

Before Mars cover detail.Image: Ace

We’ve got an exclusive look at the first chapter of Hugo winner Emma Newman’s latest novel in her Planetfall series, Before Mars. It begins as Anna Kubrin disembarks from her spacecraft on Mars, feeling a bit of regret at leaving her family behind, as well as rather disoriented after a physically and mentally gruelling six-month journey. But as she’s getting acclimated, she discovers the Mars she’s arrived on isn’t what it seems.

Warning: This excerpt is bit of a long read, but it’s absolutely worth your time — and make sure you read through to the end.

I am not on this beach. I see the waves and hear them smashing against the shore. I can even taste the salt on my lips and feel the grains of sand between my toes. I breathe in deep and for a few moments even believe that the crisp, fresh air is filling my lungs. I close my eyes and tilt my head back like a sunflower to the sky, letting the sun’s heat soak into my skin and turn the darkness into the deep pink of my eyelids.

But I’m not choosing to do any of this. I’m just going through the motions now. And it’s not enough.

There’s the dog barking, right on cue, the sound of his panting getting louder as he closes in. The first time this happened, I thought Basalt was going to crash into me, but now I know he is racing past. As I open my eyes again I see him, all wet fur and exuberance as he plunges into the surf and barks. Stupid dog, I think affectionately yet again. But unlike the first time, when he stank the car out on the way home, I feel a terrible longing to be with him.


I turn to face my daughter, her chubby legs paddling in the shallows, arms stretched up so her little hands can hold on to her father’s thumbs. “Are you paddling, Mia?”


I can’t see her face beneath the ridiculous sun hat’s frills. But I can see Charlie’s face already going pink, despite the sun cream. His ginger hair is already bleached white-blond in places and the freckles across his nose are a deeper browny orange than they were a month ago. He’s watching Mia, smiling at her staccato steps and the way her legs jerk up, forward and down, the walking too new to be smoothed into an easy gait.

“We should have come here before!” he says. “Mia loves it!”

I look away, seeking the horizon. We couldn’t come before but I won’t say it. And the reason we’re here isn’t as pure as he thinks it is. It’s not for Mia. It’s for me. Selfish as ever, I wanted to come to this beach and make the recording to capture something precious. Something to take with me.


Charlie looks at me and I smile like everything is fine. I can see him searching my face for any signs of brittleness. We are reduced to this; even when I smile, he worries.

“We should go,” I say. “You’re starting to burn.”

“I’ll put on my hat.” He lifts Mia out of the surf and earns a squeal of delight as he swings her across the sand ahead of him while taking giant strides. I watch them go back to the towel and the remains of the picnic, and listen to the babbles that Mia makes as they go.

I crouch, scooping up a palmful of sand so I can examine the grains and tiny shells. It’s easier than watching my family. I know the first time I did this I was wondering when to tell them. How Charlie would take the news that I was leaving. I was lining up the arguments, ready to fling back at his inevitable anger and distress. Those thoughts weren’t recorded though. Just what I saw and smelled and touched and heard.

Using my lenses to zoom in on the sand grains, I study the tiny shapes and colours that only magnification can reveal. I let most of it fall through my fingers and zoom in again on the specks left stuck to my skin. They resolve into the calcified shells of organisms that once lived in the sea, chips of coral and a peach-coloured fragment of shell. Minuscule lumps of olivine have been tumbled smooth by the violence of the ocean, along with a few specks of quartz.

Even as I studied the microscopic world in my palm, I knew I should have gone over to Mia and Charlie. But I tried recording them close up during the picnic and I kept wanting to cry. I don’t want to spoil today. I’ve done that too many times. Did; I did that too many times. I didn’t want to spoil that day on the beach. It was supposed to be perfect.

But it is not enough.

I brush the last grains of sand from my hands, just like all the other times, and look down the coastline. I cannot help but identify the different strata of rock exposed in the cliffs. It’s impossible to ignore the booming sound of the sea in a nearby cave that’s been carved out by so many thousand years of relentless energy from the waves. Farther down the coastline, I see a stack of rock left standing in the sea, now looking like it was never once part of the cliff. Shading my eyes, I stare at it, imagining the way the sea beat against its former connection to the headland, how it bludgeoned the softer rock and made it crumble. I picture a rugged hole between it and the rest of the cliff, a gaping wound where the sea has smashed space between the stack and its source, a thin bridge of rock all that’s left joining it to the land. Then I imagine that last connection collapsing, the roar of the rock plummeting into the sea, the stack left stranded out on its own.

“Anna,” Charlie calls. “Come and have a drink.”

I look at him and Mia, the stretch of sand between us, and feel as if my legs are rooted in place. I simply cannot cross the distance between us. “I’m fine, thanks,” I call and turn back to the ocean.

Like all mersives, even full-sensory memory recordings get stale. I have echoes of the feelings that flooded me when I recorded this day, triggered by the associated neural pathways being lit up by my chip’s playback, but weaker than when I first came back and sank into this recording. Those pathways have been distorted by all the other emotions experienced in the months since, not just diluted, but fundamentally changed, like those chips of olivine. The playback of this day on the beach has been tumbled by the wash of my thoughts and emotions, its sharp edges smoothed, its original raw shape softened. And now there is a new emotion being added to the churn, one I am trying my best to ignore.

I am afraid.

As soon as I acknowledge the fear, I try to suppress it. In some bizarre way I am surprised nothing is altering the force of the sunlight here. If this were a dream, a thunderhead would be blooming in the sky behind me. Its shadow would stretch across the sand, swallowing my own, whipping the gentle breeze into squally gusts and adding white crests to the waves. Mia and Charlie would look up at the gathering storm; she would probably start to cry, and he would hurriedly pack away the picnic as the sand stings his legs. We would all know something terrible is coming, something destructive that will end this fragile warmth and shift this haven of natural beauty into something that wants to scrub us from its presence with waves and rain.

But the sky remains blue and the cloud is nothing but an echo in my imagination, reverberating through mental corridors to where I am now, a long way away from its cause. Yes, I am on this beach and the sun is shining and my family are safe and happy. All is well.

Perhaps I could just stay here. Forever. Knowing my family are just over there, happy, better off without my being right there. Yes, better that I am over here, the water just a few steps away.

“Dr. Kubrin?”

The woman’s voice makes me jolt. This isn’t part of the recording!

“Dr. Kubrin, the connection has been made now. You need to end immersion and disembark.”

Stupidly, I look around for the source of the voice. Connection? What is she talking about?

“You need to end immersion now, Dr. Kubrin, or I’ll take steps to do that myself. It’s time for you to disembark. You’ve arrived.”

“Arrived?” I look around the beach. I’ve been here forever, haven’t I?

“Yes, Dr. Kubrin. You’re disoriented due to immersion, prolonged solitude from the trip and being in a low-g environment. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“Arrived where?” I ask.

There’s a pause. “On Mars, Dr. Kubrin. You’ve arrived on Mars.”

“End immersion.”

The waves pause, impossibly, and the sound of the sea ends with an awful swift finality that feels frightening on a deep level. I go to turn around, to take one last look at Charlie and Mia before I leave the beach, but of course, I can’t. This is a recording, not a fully rendered virtual environment.

There is a moment of total darkness, and then I see the interior of the craft that’s been my home for the past six months. I look down at my body, encased in the flight suit I cannot wait to take off (and burn, if I had my way) instead of the blue summer dress from the mersive. I’m a stone lighter than I was when it was recorded, fitter than I’ve ever been in my life, even taking into account the inevitable decline caused by the journey here. I throw a glance at the door to the mini-centrifuge. I’d burn that whole section of the craft too, if I could.

It’s nothing like the spacecraft in the mersives I played when my chip was first implanted, and even just calling it that seems wrong. There’s no consideration of a pleasing aesthetic in the design, no smooth lines or sleek panels hiding all the tech behind them. Practically every inch is filled with equipment designed to keep me alive and, where possible, comfortable. There’s just enough space for me to stretch out my entire body in the main section, positioned right behind the seat I’m in now, but that’s it. The rest of the craft — little more than a glorified rocket — is filled with cargo and the pod that’s designed to keep my body working properly on the journey over. I’m just the sort of cargo that has more demanding needs.

The large screen in front of me is filled with the communication between my rocket’s AI and the Mars Principia base. I scan it, catching up on what’s happened since I immersed, in an effort to convince my brain that I am actually in the cockpit of a rocket recently landed on Mars and not on a beach on Earth.

Most of the “conversation” between the two AIs relates to a problem with the connecting corridor between the base and my craft — the connection that Arnolfi mentioned — which has been resolved. I’ve got a green light to disembark. It’s all I’ve wanted to do since I climbed into this bloody tin can, and now, strangely, I find myself reluctant. For a moment I consider looking through the external cams but decide against it. I’ve seen enough of Mars through a camera lens. The next time I look at it, I want it to be with my own eyes, with only the plasglass of my helmet between me and the view.

An icon flashes on the screen, indicating an incoming call. I’m confused by the lack of a corresponding ping from my neural chip’s Artificial Personal Assistant before realising I must have disabled that feature. I haven’t needed it for months. I answer the call with a two-second-long stare at the icon and the screen shifts to show the face of a woman I recognise from my briefing. It’s Dr. Arnolfi, neurophysiologist and psychiatrist. Her hair is a sandy brown, her large eyes blue with long lashes. She looks older than I expected though, in her early sixties at least and tired enough that her face borders on haggard. I wonder how long ago the picture of her included in the briefing files was taken. Probably before she went to Mars. That was only a year or so ago and she looks at least ten years older. Shit, is this what this assignment will do to my face? Perhaps she was too vain to have a more up-to-date picture taken.

She smiles and I force myself to return it. I’m out of practice. “Welcome to Mars, Dr. Kubrin. I’m very sorry about the delay. Some dust interfered with one of the instruments, giving us a false reading so the umbilical corridor wouldn’t attach and form an airtight seal. It’s been resolved now.”

I nod. Then I remember I should reply straightaway. “I see. Good. Thank you.”

“It’s very common for new arrivals to feel a reluctance to disembark,” Arnolfi says, “no matter how much they have looked forward to leaving the ship. Leaving a place that has become familiar in a time of upheaval can be difficult. It’s perfectly normal to feel a variety of emotions that may seem contradictory.”

I frown, bristling at the way she has decided how I feel and commented on it as if I asked for a diagnosis. Bloody psychiatrists. They’re all the same. “I’ll be out in a couple of minutes. I just want to check a couple of things first.” I’ll leave when I’m ready.

She nods, but I can tell she doesn’t believe my excuse. “These will be a challenging few days for you, with a huge amount of new information to assimilate. We’re all looking forward to meeting you properly and will do anything we can to make your stay here rewarding and comfortable.” There’s a sense of her managing me, a firmness to her suggestions, probably to challenge my inertia. Her confidence and professional manner are impressive but they don’t make me warm to her.

“Thank you,” I say.

I don’t like her. I end the call and stare at the blank screen, trying to work out why I’ve made such a snap judgment. She seems friendly enough. Polite. I want to put it down to the fact that she’s the first person I’ve interacted with in real time for six months, but I know the truth. It’s because she’s responsible for my mental health here. She’ll have read my file. She knows me far better than I know her, and that sticks in my craw.

The hatch lock is displaying a green light for the first time since it was closed, indicating it is safe to unlock and open the door. I release the harness that holds me snugly in the seat and feel a small thrill at the fact that I don’t immediately start to float off. My head aches and I’m already tired, even with the weaker Mars gravity. I dread to think what I’ll feel like when I return to Earth and am back into feeling gravity three times stronger. There’s a doctor here though, and I’ll be checked over right away. That, I’m not looking forward to.

Before I unlock the hatch I grab the tiny case I was allowed to bring with me into this section of the craft and check that everything is inside. I pull out the tiny plaited ginger and blond locks of Mia and Charlie’s hair, tied with a pale blue ribbon, and kiss it tenderly. “Well, I got here,” I whisper to it. “I didn’t die or anything.”

I want to go home. I’m not supposed to be here. I press the plait against my lips, squeezing my eyes shut. It doesn’t smell of them anymore. I’ve handled it too much over the past few months. Putting it back in the case, I look up until the urge to cry passes and then make my way to the hatch to press my palm against the lock display. It reads my identity and confirms that it is safe to leave, and with a hiss, the locks disengage. Gathering up every mote of courage I have left in me, I push on the hatch and it swings open, revealing a short temporary corridor linking the rocket’s life pod to the base. Its retractable segments are visible even when locked into position, and while it looks sturdy enough, I don’t stride out confidently. I’m feeling dizzy and strangely aware of all of my limbs. Then I recall how in the first few hours of flight I kept checking to see if my arms and legs were still there. This overawareness must be a side effect of feeling gravity again.

The corridor is about five meters long and there’s a metal door at the far end that looks like the elevator. It opens and Dr. Arnolfi comes out with a man who has an empty wheelchair. I recognise him as the base doctor — though he’s trained in several disciplines, that’s his primary role. He has light brown skin, dark brown eyes and black hair. Dr. Asil Elvan smiles at me and I find it easier to return one to him. He pushes the chair down the corridor as Arnolfi hangs back in the elevator.

“Here’s your welcome to Mars wheelchair,” Dr. Elvan says, extending his hand. “Even if you feel fine, please accept the help. You need it just until I complete your physical assessment and get some things sorted out from the journey over.”

The handshake is brief and my hand tingles afterward at the first human contact since I left Earth. He notices me staring at my hand as he takes my case, slotting it behind the chair back and strapping it into place. “Need a hug?”

Amazed at myself, I nod and he embraces me. He’s warm and real and smells faintly of antiseptic soap. It is extraordinarily comforting. “This is your welcome to Mars hug,” he says quietly. “It’s going to be fine.”

I sag a little, with relief and fatigue, and he releases me to steer me into the chair. I plop down and let him put my feet into the rests. “Please keep your arms inside the vehicle at all times,” he says cheerily as he pushes me toward the elevator.

Arnolfi extends a hand when I get to her and I shake it. “It’s good to meet you at last.” She smiles. “Once you’ve had the all clear from Dr. Elvan and recovered a little more, I’ll speak with you about the trip over and settling in here. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“I won’t bother you with them,” I say. “The base AI must be . . .” I pause. There’s been no virtual handshake. I ping my APA and find that I haven’t put it back into active mode since the trip, even though I realised that when it didn’t alert me to the incoming call earlier. Damn, I’m more out of it than I realised. I activate it with a simple thought command and the handshake with the Mars Principia AI is confirmed right away. The familiar icons appear down the right-hand side of my vision: messages, notes, media and a new one for Mars Principia. I recall from the briefing that it’s the name of both the base and the AI that runs it. “That’s better,” I say as Dr. Elvan pushes my chair into the elevator, Arnolfi pressed into a corner as a result. “I’m fully online now.”

A new message arrives via the base AI as Elvan pushes the button to descend. It’s from Charlie. I want to open it instantly, but it’s a video file and I can’t give it the attention it deserves right now.

The elevator interior is plain and functional. The structure is exposed and the cable mechanism is visible behind a clear plasglass ceiling panel, to make access for repairs easy, I suppose. I marvel at my initial disappointment. What did I expect, Martian decor? A plush carpet the same colour as its dust?

“How did you find the self-care regime on the way over?” Elvan asks. “I know there were some new meds you were testing out. Did it make the centrifuge easier to deal with?”

“I don’t know about easier,” I say. “I don’t have a basis of comparison. It didn’t make me sick though; I know that was a problem for some people.” I don’t moan about the centrifuge and having to spend a couple of hours in it a day so my body could be subjected to artificially created gravity. He would have gone through the same regime on his flight over, and I don’t want to form a bad impression. And better to be spun every day than go through six weeks of recovery time once I’m here. “I was kind of hoping I’d feel better than I do right now though.”

He nods. “It’s always a bit of a shock, but you could be much worse. By the look of you, and the fact you could walk, I reckon your bones and muscles aren’t too bad. Your brain and your eyes need to get used to this little bit of constant gravity again though; that’s why you feel dizzy. It won’t be too bad. I’ll get you back on your feet in no time — don’t you worry.”

I think back to the preflight training and the barrage of information about what six months of space travel would do to my body. The rocket was insulated well enough to shield me from the radiation and anything except the most extraordinary solar flare events, so no one was very worried about that sort of exposure. It was the weightlessness that was the real problem. I had no idea how much the human body was dependent on gravity to function well. I left that first training session in a complete mess and almost called it all off. Sod Gabor and his “wonderful idea” — he wasn’t the one putting his body through hell. I couldn’t muster the courage to say that to my multibillionaire boss in person though, so I went back the next day and learned more about how advances in medicine over the past ten years of people being flown to and from Mars were making it easier to protect people against long-term effects. It calmed me down. As one of the trainers pointed out, “If Gabor is going to spend all this money to send you to Mars, he’s going to want you in a fit state when you arrive, isn’t he?” It didn’t escape my notice that they told me all the horrors first, before explaining that the mini-centrifuge would protect me from most of them. I suppose they were just making sure that I would follow the daily regime.

The elevator reaches the bottom and the door opens. A corridor stretches ahead, lined with the same functional printed moldings that can be seen in any underground car park in London. The only difference is the colour; instead of the ubiquitous grey of normal concrete moldings, these are a warm rusty red, thanks to being made from Martian concrete, using materials harvested on Mars and re-formed into building materials.

This base doesn’t look like anything in the gaming mersives. There are no panoramic views of the Martian landscape and there won’t be until I go outside; most of the base is built underground as the cheapest and safest way to protect the inhabitants from dust storms and the radiation that gets through the thin atmosphere. Even though the most dangerous dust storms are fairly rare, when they happen no one wants to be on the surface.

Even though it’s nothing much to look at, there is still a thrill. I’ve been watching the show they make here for years and when we start walking down the corridor it’s just like all the times I imagined being here, being one of the presenters, leading the viewer to see another aspect of life in Mars Principia. That was way before actually coming here was a possibility, when it had the fuzzy glow of a favourite daydream. Since then, I’ve walked around this base in virtual simulations so many times I know where everything is and it feels odd to actually be here now. There’s a temptation to instruct my APA to end immersion, just in case I’m still on Earth and able to go home this evening. The thought that I can’t do that makes me crumple a little. Why did I say yes to this ridiculous scheme?

“You might be feeling overly aware of your limbs?” At my nod, Elvan says, “All normal. There are a few things we can do with your APA to help your brain remember how to process proprioception within a constant-gravity environment.” Perhaps he’s mistaken my silence for worry. “Did you keep up with the virtual program too?”

“Yes, I did all of it.” I don’t mention the days when I really didn’t want to. There were a couple, early on, but then MyPhys identified the early stages of depression, ran a neurochemical analysis without my permission and had the printer make me some meds. When I couldn’t muster the desire to take them, the printer included them in my food.

“Good. You’ll be on your feet in twenty-four hours, then. I’m not saying you’ll be able to run a marathon then, but I’ll be able to sign you off for trips in the rover in three to four days, if you follow all my advice.”

We get to the end of the corridor and through a set of double doors into the central hub of the base, from which all the different areas can be reached. There are several large screens (which puzzles me, considering we’re all chipped), chairs and shelves of equipment, which mostly looks like it’s all to do with exploration and surveying. It’s well lit and functional, rather than comfortable. Through the doorways off this room there are labs, as good as the ones back home, along with quarters for the team, of which I am now the fifth. Elvan starts steering me toward the medbay and fitness suite. I know Arnolfi has a lab in that area too.

“I’m going to make sure your personal belongings and cargo are put in your quarters,” Arnolfi says. “Then when you’re finished with the good doctor, you’ll have everything you need to settle in.”

“Thanks,” I say. “Where are the others?”

“Banks and Petranek are on an expedition. I was hoping they’d be back by now but they were delayed. They should be back soon.”

Hiding my disappointment at not getting to meet Banks yet, I watch Arnolfi leave, unable to shake my initial gut feeling, even though she’s been nothing but polite and welcoming. “Do you get along with her?” I ask Elvan as we head to the medbay.

“Arnolfi? Yes, she’s very easy to get along with. We all are. That was one of the recruitment criteria.”

It wasn’t for me, I think, but neither of us raises that point. I wasn’t subject to the same requirements as them and didn’t fight several thousand other candidates for the privilege to be here. Even though everyone in this base — on this planet! — is an employee of Gabor’s corporation, they still had to compete to earn their place here. I’ll be sharing this base with four of the brightest, fittest and most remarkable people in the corporation. Yet again, I question why I am here. Why did Gabor send me, and not one of the thousands of better-qualified people? There are better geologists and better artists than I. The string of events that led to my being here seem just as unlikely as they ever did. Some would say that having one’s art come to the attention of one of the richest men on Earth was good fortune. I am yet to be convinced.

The medlab is similar to the ones on Earth, thanks to it all being GaborCorp kit, and the concrete walls have been covered with turquoise blue panels that are easy to keep clean. The change in colour is pleasant after the red corridors, and the examination bed is comfortable enough that I can rest while various test results come back. My bone density and muscle tone are pretty damn good and Elvan talks excitedly about the difference the new meds regime has made and how excellent my results are. He sends a recovery program to my APA and after overseeing a couple of hours of my trying the exercises out — all designed to help my brain recalibrate — he lets me walk around unaided.

“OK, you can go and settle in, get a bit of rest, but then I want you in the gym at nineteen hundred hours so I can do a baseline physical. And nothing strenuous, no fast movements or attempts to work any machinery or lab equipment, got it?”

“Got it.”

He watches me as I shuffle to the door. I don’t feel too bad; I’m just being careful, but I am still thinking far more about which way is actually up and how my body is moving than I would normally.

When I leave the room and am alone again, I almost turn around and ask if I can stay a bit longer. I’ve been alone for six months, and the thought of going to my quarters to be alone there instead fills me with the same dread that I felt each day I woke up in the craft on the way over, facing another day of solitude. But I should see where I’m going to sleep and check that everything is there. Maybe if I can just put up a couple of pictures, I’ll feel like I’ve actually arrived. Maybe if I say that to myself a few more times, I’ll actually believe it.

It’s strange walking to the sleeping quarters section. It’s so familiar, even though this is the first time I’ve been here. It helps in some ways; I hate the feeling of being lost, but to have it replaced by this curious duality is unnerving. There are conflicting sensations of being newly arrived and yet so well rehearsed that I don’t know how to feel. It’s almost a relief to find my room, thanks to guidance from the Mars Principia AI, and I look upon it with the genuinely hungry eyes of a new arrival seeking comfort.

It’s basic but nice enough and the bed’s memory foam feels good when I sit on it experimentally. There are no wipe-clean panels on the wall in here, and three of the walls are dull red Martian concrete. The fourth wall is displaying a forest and there’s the faint sound of birdsong being piped through speakers somewhere. Did Arnolfi think that would make me feel less homesick for Earth? As I stare at it, my APA pops up a dialog box with options to change what’s displayed. All the usual things are there: seascapes, meadows, deserts that can be enjoyed without the dangerous heat. None of them seems right. I scroll down with a flick of my eyes and see a Mars option that makes me laugh. Discarding my previous decision to see it through my own eyes, I select it, and the pines of a Noropean forest are replaced by the brutally barren Mars landscape. With a thrill, I see a small plume of dust kicked up by the wind and I realise it’s a live feed from one of the external cameras.

I have arrived on Mars.

My little case rests at the foot of the bed and the crate that was stored in the cargo hold for the trip stands in the corner. Arnolfi must have used a drone to bring it here; it’s so heavy. I go into the tiny bathroom area and see everything I might need already there. A notice displayed next to the shower details the time limit and water flow limitations, to ensure no one depletes the water supply faster than it can be replenished. I use the toilet, grinning at the simple pleasure of doing it the old-fashioned way, and wash my hands with the same delight.

I open the case and pull out the photo I printed of Mia and Charlie, taken a week before I left. She is sitting on his knee, pointing at a page in a storybook passed down from my great-grandmother, her little mouth in a perfect O shape. Charlie’s expression mirrors her as he echoes her reaction, and it still makes the breath catch in my throat. As soon as I’ve unpacked, I’ll watch the message, have the inevitable cry that follows and then record a reply.

I look around. There’s a narrow ridge that runs around the room at about waist height, standing out from the wall by just a centimeter or two, presumably just the join between concrete moldings. I decide to prop my photo on it, in line with my pillow, while I look for something to use to stick it to the wall. I look away for just a moment and hear it slide down behind the bed.

“Shit.” I kneel on the bed to slip my hand down the side of the mattress and pluck it out. I find the edge of it with my fingertips and pull it up, only to find it’s not the photo, but a scrap of paper. I can’t imagine that anyone else here has this kind of paper; it’s too thick for notes, and anyway, hardly anyone uses disposable paper anymore. I can tell from the way it feels that it’s the real stuff, not printed. Charlie could never tell the difference, but I could. I cannot see how else this paper came to be here unless it came with me.

But I haven’t unpacked my cargo crate yet. Confused, I turn it over, wondering if it’s something a previous inhabitant lost and left behind. There are words painted onto the thick stock, swirling like informal calligraphy.

DON’T TRUST ARNOLFI! the message reads, and my heart stops in my chest at the sight of the familiar style.

Even though they’re just words on a plain background, and not the usual landscapes that I paint, I know my own style too well. I painted this myself.

Emma Newman’s Before Mars will be out April 17.