(Kelly was written by Kelly Blanchard. Ashley was written by Leka Melo.)
Ashley was definitely not happy. The Captain had come in with instructions that she was to wait at the camp for a visitor from The Writer’s world, who was supposed to conduct an interview with her. That was absurd! Was she meant to just sit and chat, like in therapy, while all the others explored the entrance of the cave they just found?
“That’s not fair!” she moaned, sinking into one of the horrid inflatable seats they had brought with them. It made a loud, squeaky noise.
“It’s your own fault, you know.” Meiling chuckled as she gathered her equipment. “You should had let Her in. How is she going to write you if she doesn’t know you? Now she’s called for professional help. You’re doomed.”
“Not funny. Why does she have to know about my past, anyway?” Ashley played with her fingernails. “It’s not like knowing what kind of toy I had as a kid will interfere with how I study Mars’ atmosphere, is it?”
“The more you moan, the funnier I find it. Just go with it. I hear Ms Blanchard is actually really nice to talk to!” Meiling stopped at the entrance to the camping site and turned around. “I promise not to find anything too exciting until you’re finished.” She winked and left.
Ashley groaned and crossed her legs, making the inflatable seat squeak again. Blasted thing! It was probably best to find seats at the research table instead.
As she got up, she heard a funny, glitchy noise, and a round, blue portal opened up in front of her. Through it, she could see a woman.
“Hi. You must be Ms Blanchard.”
Kelly smiled and took a look around before looking at Ashley once more. “I’ve been taken to the moon on these interviews, but this is the first time to Mars. Now I can check that off. And yes, I am Kelly Blanchard, and you must be Ashley.” She stretched her hand out to shake Ashley’s. “I’m assuming you have a last name?”
Ashley shook Kelly’s hand, still feeling slightly uncomfortable. “Winters.” She looked around. “Would you… er… like to sit down by the research table? The inflatable seats are horrid.”
“Sure thing.” Kelly nodded, following her to the table. “So, Ashley Winters, why did you get chosen to one of the people to come to Mars?” She sat at the table and observed Ashley.
“Captain chose the team. She had been training me as well as Sam for about five years, so she knows us well. Meiling is a genius and Aleksey can fix anything. Patrick was the last to join us, only about a week before we took off. That means I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to him, as when I was awake he was in the sleeping chamber and vice versa.”
Kelly furrowed her brows as she leaned forward, setting her elbow on the table, and planting her chin in her palm. “So…did NASA fund this mission? Or some other agency? What year is it anyway?”
Ashley leaned back on her chair, trying to seem relaxed. “NASA did. We’re the first manned mission on Mars, as they finally got the hibernation process to work. I’m sure you can imagine we were slightly nervous.” she chuckled. “It’s 2035 now, but I’m afraid we still eat the same boring rations the old films about Mars showed.” she got up to disguise the fact she was nervous again. “I could offer you some tea though.”
“No, it’s all right.” Kelly smiled then looked around as if to see if anyone was watching, and then she gestured with her hand and conjured a plate of cookies. She offered them to Ashley. “Homemade chocolate chip cookies. I bet they’re better than the rations, and I figured you might like something different.” Kelly smiled. Then she thought back to the topic at hand. “So…” She sat back in her chair. “Before Mars, before NASA, who were you? I mean, what did you do? Do you have family? Siblings? Boyfriend?”
Ashley’s eyes lit up as she saw the plate of cookies and she offered Kelly a broad smile. “Oh, my goodness! I think I love you!” she quickly looked around for a hiding spot. “When we’re finished, I better find a hiding place for this before they come back from the cave.”
She picked up one cookie and took a bite as she sat back down. “These are divine! Thank you!” Then she remembered what they were doing and her smile faded. “Oh. Right. Well, I have my mother back home. I didn’t have any other jobs though. Always wanted to be an astronaut. Funny that, lots of kids do, so no one thought to take it seriously when I said it.”
A warm smile lit Kelly’s face when she saw how excited Ashley was about the cookies. She bet that Ashley was now grateful that she stayed rather than go exploring with the others. Kelly nodded at Ashley’s response. “I imagine it’s hard trying to become an astronaut. What exactly is your role on this team here?”
Ashley though about her answer for a few seconds, taking another bite at her cookie. “It’s certainly not easy. You need at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biology, physics, or maths. Mine is in biology. So is Meiling’s. We’re the Soil Geeks, as they call us.” She smiled. “Although Sam is not far behind. When we first found the cave we’re exploring, they were running around with vials like a child making mud cakes.” The thought made Ashley snort and she choked on a piece of cookie.
“I see.” Kelly nodded, watching as Ashley recovered from almost choking on the cookie, and she was relieved that she was okay. “So, Meiling and you work in the same field. What all have you discovered with this cave you mentioned?”
Ashley leaned forward and widened her eyes, an excited grin on her face. “You are NOT going to believe it!” Then she stopped for a second and reconsidered. “I’m not sure I can talk about this…” Her voice lowered as she straightened her posture and crossed her legs. “It’s not official yet, you see.”
“Who am I going to tell?” Kelly asked, sitting back in her chair and gesturing to their surroundings. “I’m not even from this place or time, so it’s not like it’ll matter. What did you find?” She smiled because she had seen how excited Ashley got about it.
There was a brief moment of silence as Ashley pondered Kelly’s point, in which they could only hear the wind outside the tent. She sighed and moved forward again, almost whispering. “Right. The others don’t believe me, but I saw an actual Martian life form. And if I can find it again it’ll be the most amazing discovery of our time!” She sank back in her chair, looking very happy with herself.
“A Martian life form?” Kelly lifted her brows, and she considered this for a moment. Life on Mars under the surface…she supposed that wasn’t too far fetched. She remembered reading a while back that if the sun suddenly stopped shining, people on Earth could survive for a while if they went underground, so why wouldn’t that work on Mars? Kelly set her chin in her palm as she leaned forward. “A Martian? That’s cool! What did it look like? Humanoid? Alien?”
“Are you ready for it?” Ashley chuckled even more as she built up the suspense. “It looked like a bunny! But… kind of dark purple and with longer ears.” She picked up a peace of paper from the table and drew a sketch of the animal she had seen. “I was trying to lure it so we could find out more about life in this planet, but Susan and her big gob showed up like an elephant in a china shop and scared it away.” She pouted, then looked around to see if the Captain had not come back and been listening.
Kelly looked at the drawing with furrowed brows. A bunny? Well, that put a whole new meaning to ‘plot bunny’, but Kelly supposed anything was possible. “Did you tell the Captain about it? Are they exploring the cave now?”
Ashley’s cheeks turned bright pink and she clenched her fist under the table. “I did tell her. But since they didn’t see it, they thought I was being bonkers. That ridiculous Aleksey said I was having some sort of heat stroke.” she puffed and folded her arms. “Seriously! If we can find trees and mushrooms ON MARS, I don’t doubt anything else!” She looked down slightly embarrassed about her outburst and unfolded her arms again, placing her hands neatly on her lap. “Anyway… I think Sam believed me, so we are going to explore a little further later. For now, they’re sticking to the entrance.”
“Well, if you say you saw it, I believe you–for what it’s worth. I just hope it’s not going to attack you or anyone. That would be…a really sad way to die—on Mars, attacked by a bunny. But I do hope you see it again and can study it a bit more. It’s pretty exciting!” Kelly smiled warmly at her. However, she had to shift topics. “Okay, so we’ve talked about present day, but I want to go back to your past. You mentioned your mom. What happened to your dad?”
Ashley picked up a pen from the table and began to play with it. “Oh, he’s fine. We’re just not that close, really. Our personalities are too similar, so we clash quite often. But they’re still married, and all that. My family is quite boring, to be honest. Mum, Dad, dog.” She started doodling long eared bunnies and funny looking mushrooms on the peace of paper where she’d drawn the first bunny. “I guess it was all just a little too boring for me, so I decided to travel as far away as I possibly could.” She offered Kelly a sheepish smile.
This made sense, so Kelly nodded. “And you have any friends back home? You seem to really look up to the Captain. You two know each other prior to NASA?” She raised her brows.
Ashley lost control of her pen for a second and gave her bunny a wonky ear. She made a face at the drawing and put it aside.
“In a way, yes. When I finished my Master’s I applied to be a mission specialist and met the Captain. But I quit for a while. She helped me get back on track and trained me when I had fallen behind so I could still be in this mission.” She fidgeted in her seat and played with one of her rings. “If it hadn’t been for the Captain, I wouldn’t have made it into this mission, so I owe her big time.”
Kelly hugged her arms close to her as she listened to Ashley, and then she tilted her head to a side, curious. “Why did you quit in the first place?”
“I…” she searched for the right words in her head, but nothing seemed to fit. “I just…had other arrangements at the time. That didn’t quite work with being an astronaut on a space mission. We do stay away for a long time, after all.”
This got Kelly’s attention, and she had to press. “Were you seeing someone at the time?”
Ashley looked at the tent’s entrance. She’d look anywhere that was not Kelly’s eyes. “I was engaged, yeah. It seems silly, but this is a two-year mission, you see. It takes us roughly six months to come here, six more to get back. And we’re here for an entire year. That is a long time to stay away from your home when you’re starting a family.”
“That’s understandable.” Kelly nodded, feeling bad for her. “And I’m sorry it didn’t work out.” She hesitated but had to press. “Do you mind telling me about him? It’s not silly at all, and I’d like to know.”
Ashley began tearing up as she kept searching for places to look so she could avoid Kelly’s gaze. In the end, she gave up pretending and just looked down at her own hands. “I’m not sure I can talk about this. It feels wrong to say bad things about him. Susan… I mean… the Captain would probably find it easier.” she let out a small giggle. “She really doesn’t like him at all.” A slightly longer silence fell on the tent as Ashley picked up another cookie and bit into it. She took a deep breath and finally looked up to face Kelly again. “If I’m honest, I’m still not clear on what happened, even though it was a couple of years ago. Whenever I tell this story, it feels like I’m playing the victim or something, and it sounds all weird and blah.” she giggled again. “Look at me being all eloquent!”
“Hey,” Kelly reached across the table to touch Ashley’s hand. When Ashley looked at her, Kelly gave her a reassuring smile. “In my line of work, I’ve come to realize that there is no such thing as a stupid story, and I know there are many angles to the story. You have your own angle, which may paint you as the victim, or it may not. He has his own side of the story, and right now, I’m not talking to him. I’m talking with you, and all I want is the truth.” She withdrew her hand but didn’t break eye contact, and she asked softly, “What happened? And I’m not going to spread rumors or anything, so you can be honest with me.” Kelly gave her an encouraging smile.
Ashley now had tears running down her cheeks. She wiped them and took another deep breath, then offered Kelly the best smile she could muster. “Thank you. But I’m being honest when I say I don’t understand what happened.” she shrugged. “It’s a strange thing when someone sits you down and tells you that you’ve been abused by your partner, yet you know for a fact they have never hit you or something worse. Because we grow up learning that abuse is physical. If he didn’t hit you, how could he have abused you, right?” she shook her head.
“It was all roses for the first six months or so. But slowly he began to change and become overly critical. Then he would change back and be a sweetheart, so I’d assume he’d had a bad week or something.” Ashley got up again. She needed to stretch her legs. “Are you sure you don’t want any tea? It’s pretty much the only drink I can offer you here.”
“I’m fine, thank you.” Kelly reassured her, sitting back in her chair to watch her. “So, this guy had been abusing you emotionally? Mentally? That’s still a form of abuse, and I’m sorry you had to go through that. Was the Captain the one who sat you down and told you things point blank?”
“Oh, yeah! That one doesn’t tiptoe around anyone. You’ll see if you meet her.” she smiled at Kelly while rummaging through some bags.
“Ha! I knew I had one of those bags that you can close back up!” she put the rest of the cookies in the back, zipped it shut and hid it under some clothes in her bag. “I might actually share these with the Captain.” she confessed, sitting back down. “Sorry, I’m avoiding the subject, aren’t I?” Ashley scratched her head. “Susan is a good friend. When things got really bad, he insisted that I was joining the Mars program to spite him, that I wanted to sleep with one of the crew members and how could he trust me to be away for two years?” she frowned and her face turned pink again. “It all became a big game of guilt–tripping, where I was the heartless woman who had made him fall in love even though I knew I wanted to go away and leave him.”
“But you’re here now,” Kelly pointed out. “Did you break up with him for good, Or is he still expecting you back home?”
“Oh God, no!” her eyes widened and she shook her head vehemently. “I moved back with my parents in a different city and changed my number. And I think if he did show up, Susan would probably be there to tell him a few things.” she smiled at the thought. “There was a point where I could not take it anymore. The Captain was the one who came in, packed a bag with some of my stuff and took me out of there. She took me to her house for a few weeks and arranged for the rest of my things to be taken to my parents’ place. I don’t expect I’ll see him again.” She looked around once more and seemed to realise for the first time where she was. “But you know, you’re right! I AM here! I was so nervous at the launch I nearly jumped off the ship!” she cackled.
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t do that. You have a lot to explore and discover here.” Kelly smiled at her. “Now though, our time is coming to a close, but we still have some time left. So…” Kelly set her elbow on the again as she leaned forward, smiling, “Is there anyone on the team you’re interested in?”
Ashley let out a loud cackle again and leaned back on her chair, more relaxed. “Like who? That horrid Aleksey who manages to make me want to vomit whenever he opens his mouth?” she made a fake vomiting gesture with her hand. “I don’t know Patrick well enough and Sam is a bit like a younger sibling.” she leaned forward and placed a hand near her mouth as if telling Kelly a secret. “But I’ll admit Meiling is kind of cute.” With a wink, she got up and straightened her uniform. “I’ll admit I was dreading this, but you’re nice. I liked talking to you.” Ashley’s face lit up and she offered Kelly her best smile.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was quite nice chatting with you as well.” Kelly rose to her feet. “I suppose I should be going, but…Ashley, don’t hide from your past. Acknowledge what happened, but don’t let it control you. More onward because you are HERE of all places.” Kelly spread out her arms indicating to the base on Mars and smiled brightly at Ashley. “You have a place in history. How awesome is that! So, keep going onward, and find that bunny again. I can’t wait to hear more of what you all discover here, but for now…” A portal opened beside Kelly, and she gestured to it, “I have to go. It’s been great talking with you!” With that, she stepped through the portal and disappeared from Mars.
Ashley stood still for a moment, her eyes still focused on where Kelly had disappeared. She thought about the Writer’s message when she had announced their interview and smiled. Ms Blanchard was, indeed, The Muse.
Still smiling, she turned around and went back to the cave to join her crew.
Leka Melo’s story is untitled and has no release date set yet, but you can follow her on Twitter for more updates: