Dust swirled outside of the small window in the red glow of the setting sun. The cold spring weather caused high winds that whipped the brownish red dust into twisting eddies, swallowing the small encampment and only allowing the most feeble of the sun’s rays through. The temperature was minus thirty and was warming up all the time, although this far north it would probably never rise above minus fifteen at any point this year. Inside the encampment, a young colonist called Samantha Kemp wiped the condensation from the airlock’s small portal window as she struggled to put her heated spacesuit on under the guidance of a companion. She was a young woman, in her early twenties, and she was going outside alone into the cold dusk. Her companion, David Pemberton, made sure she’d pulled the cumbersome suit closed at the back, visually inspecting everything and ensuring she attached the seals, before she tied her curled brown hair back into a tight bun and carefully clicked her helmet into place. The cramped airlock was poorly illuminated by a green light, giving the sensation of being at the bottom of a deep pond. Sam checked the heating elements of her suit were working correctly as she attached the power module, making sure there was no dust in the systems. Considering how thin the air was here, a lack of heating was feared far more than running out of oxygen – a lack of air in these inhospitable conditions would result in a slow descent into sleepy unconsciousness, eventually succumbing quietly to hypoxia, depending how severe the fault was. A slow leak might not manifest itself for an hour or so, whilst a catastrophic suit failure would probably result in a quick death in under a minute. Dave had been lucky enough to survive one such failure last year, and had described it as “rather like being drunk” as simple tasks like opening the door or increasing the air flow became hilariously difficult. He’d made it back into the airlock in the nick of time; all things considered, he said, it probably wasn’t a bad way to die. However, at these temperatures, a heating failure would kill you coldly, painfully, and slowly. You would know exactly what was happening, and unlike a loss of oxygen, you couldn’t borrow a friends’ spare air line. The spacesuit’s power generators that they carried on their backs were an old design; large, bulky, and provided only enough power for one. If yours broke, or became clogged with dust, there wasn’t a spare. A cold, lingering death awaited.

duststorm_nasa
Photo Credit: NASA

Just like had happened to Georgie, mused Sam. The cheerful American who had been the station’s doctor had died without a chance on an expedition to the sixth marker when her pack had unexpectedly given up. The panic on her face had been replaced by a woozy expression of melancholy as her organs slowly gave in, despite their warm physical exertions as they jogged quickly in the low gravity across the bleak landscape back home. She had finally collapsed quarter of a mile away from the encampment, her face blue, and with a distant look in her eyes, babbling away incoherently as hypothermia slowly shut her vital organs down. Hardly fair, really – dying because dust had caused a six dollar component in her pack to short out. When they had finally got her back inside she was stiff, cold, and utterly beyond any medical aid. Émilie, the youngest person on the station, had been filling in for her until replacements arrived, but she was an engineer, not a medic. Clever, yes, but there’s only so much you can do with a database without any real training.

The large, heavy door airlock door closed behind her, startling her from her thoughts as Dave finished off briefing her on the plan for her short trip outside. Walk to the atmosphere generator, find the fault, fix it if possible, come back straight away if not. Sam adjusted the dials on the oxygen regulator, feeling the waft of fresh air over her face. The heated elements of her suit were beginning to make her sweat a bit, but that would be more than compensated for once she stepped out into the swirling storm outside. Dave smiled and gave her a thumbs up before she tested the small radio that was built into the helmet.
“Hello Dave, radio check, over”
“Hello Sam, Okay, over.”
“Roger Dave, out to you. Lena, radio check”
“Hello Sam. Little crackly, but workable. I’ve got a strong signal on your video feeds and heartmonitor though. Good luck, have fun. Over”
“WilCo, I’ll be in touch. Out.”

She back waved at Dave, who gave her another quick thumbs up. The green light that had been illuminating his face turned red, the suit feeling like it was slowly inflating as the atmosphere was vented from the airlock. Presently, she felt a large clunk through her feet as the outer door slowly swung open, letting in the biting cold and the fine swirling brown dust that seemed to get everywhere. It quickly stuck to her heated suit, and soon she was lightly coated. The sun’s weak rays were still doing their best to pierce the dust storm, but night was falling and soon Sam would be reliant upon the small but powerful torches mounted upon the sides of her helmet. She trudged through the dust towards her objective – a defective hydrocarbon unit. The huge structures, twelve stories tall, loomed in the dusk. Sam, along with the others back in the station, were their minders and technicians on their desperate two hundred and sixty year mission to make the planet habitable again. The first stage was to replace the atmosphere and warm the planet to a temperature that could sustain life by pumping hydrocarbons, oxygen and nitrogen into the atmosphere, trapping the sun’s feeble rays and warming the planet. It would do for a start; the more complex chemistry would have to be accomplished by later generations. The behemothic atmosphere machines were designed to operate autonomously, but there were occasions – like now – when they would fail unexpectedly. The autonomous design of the hydrocarbon units was not one of convenience, but of necessity for the ongoing mission – should their minders perish, the generators should be able to operate for another decade or two before the all-pervading dust finally bought them to a grinding halt. Sam and her companions, along with their parents, and their parents before them, who had first appreciated the scale of the problem, had been trying to solve this problem for forty years, slowly making the bleak dead landscape fit for human life. Sam and her five companions had been at their little outpost for five years, and she was counting the days until she could return to her parents and the small city where she grew up, Gale Crater. She missed the bustling underground metropolis; dug deep into the cliff walls of a giant meteor crater. There were people, restaurants, schools… out here, there was nothing.

Nothing but death, thought Sam. Here, on the most remote stations, if there was an emergency there was little that anyone could do to help. Their nearest help, Station 3XC, three hundred and fifty miles away, had stopped broadcasting a year and a half ago. The crew of twelve might be in trouble, but there was little that could be done to help if they were. Their next supply mission was not due for another two years, and in the meantime they were on their own –three hundred and fifty miles, in these freezing conditions, might as well be on the moon. If they were dead, however, their hydrocarbon units would keep on belching out greenhouse gasses for another ten or twenty years – possibly until the end of the cycle, even, in twenty five years time, when it might be possible to go outdoors without a heated suit. That’s if the physicists at the poles succeeded in restarting the planet’s magnetosphere, of course, the failure of which had resulted in most of the planet’s atmosphere being torn away by the sun’s solar winds in the first place.

sunset_mars_nasa
Photo Credit: NASA

Soundless lightning illuminated the scene as the upper atmosphere (only a few miles above them) discharged the huge electrical charges that the dust clouds generated. Periodically Sam would stop to ground her suit, discharging the static that the storm built up on her, which could easily kill. The winds were slowly beginning to ease as she approached the hydrocarbon unit, with the occasional star beginning to peek through the gaps in the brownish clouds. Now that the wind was dropping, the dust was starting to fall like snow, in large clumps. In valleys, such as the one as where the unit sat, the ground was – in milder weather, at least – beginning to turn to mud, a sure sign that the permafrost deep below the surface was finally beginning to melt. The spring was beginning to arrive earlier and earlier each year. This sign, which should have been a welcome one – an indication that their long mission was slowly beginning to bear fruit – merely meant that along with the dust in winter they had to cope with occasional mud in summer too. In some places running water was beginning to flow in decent amounts and towards the equator the frozen soil was now reaching the point where some of the more ambitious stations were able to try growing plants outdoors.

In the meantime, however, the mud meant an annoyance whenever they went to correct a fault on the hydrocarbon units. Sam slowly walked the last mile down the side of the dry valley towards the atmosphere generator. Once she finally arived, drenched in her own sweat, she began to search for a way to find the problem. She carefully opened a service hatch on the side, tugging at the handles with her thick gloves. Under the cover a bank of flickering red lights blinked back at her. She frowned as she looked at them; leaning in, she could see that there was a problem of some sort with the reactor; something that was well outside of her knowledge range. Sam pushed the pressel on her short range radio.
“Hello Lena, Message, over”
“Lena. Send, over” came back the reply, with a slight Russian accent.
“Have you got Rak there? It’s a problem with the reactor – red lights on the power outlet, and the surge capacitor looks like it’s tripped. Any ideas?”
“Ah, not sure. I’ll get him. Wait out.” A minute or so passed before Rak came onto the net.
“Hello Sam, this is Rak. Could you look at the fault board for me?” Sam obligingly leant in, pointing her helmetcam at the fault board, the red lights flashing back, outnumbering the blue lights that indicated a normal function. The cameras relayed a feed straight back the encampment’s operations room. “Ah. I think I see the problem… could you leave a mobilecam looking at the fault board for me? Once you’ve done that, I’ll need you to open the engineering access door.” Sam obligingly reached into the utility pouch that hung around her right thigh, which contained an assortment of tools. She presently found a small camera, not unlike the one attached to her helmet, with a small antenna attached. She balanced it on the edge of the service panel before flicking a switch to turn it on.
“Rak, You getting this?”
“Hold on – yes, we’ve got the feed. Move it up and to the left – yeah, you’ve got it. Right, now I can see that, I want you to move along to door Charlie five, it’s the third along from where you’re standing – it’s about twenty meters along from where you are.”
“Serious problem?” she asked, trudging through the dust towards the door.
“No, not really – not yet, anyway. That’s the one, the release catch should be at the top and at the bottom on the left hand side.” Sam brushed away the thick encrusted dust that hid the release catch. It was stiff; probably hadn’t been used in decades, possibly since the unit was new and placed here by the company… she heaved on the top catch, which stuck for a moment before springing open. She brushed away the dust on the second catch – which opened far more easily – before kicking away the layer of brownish red dust that had built up over the bottom six or seven inches of the access door, pulling it open, ignoring the protesting squeals from the old, unoiled hinges, which were loud enough for the thin atmosphere to carry. On the fault panel another blue light went red, indicating the open door.
“O-kay… Rak, Lena, I’m inside. Now what?”
“Walk down the access tunnel. After about 20 meters you should come to a gantry across one of the hydrocarbon chambers, which will take you to the reactor.” Sam looked down the gloomy tunnel, and turned her headtorches on. The twin shafts of light penetrated into the gloom as she walked down the tunnel.
“You getting this on the helmetcam?”
“Yeah, no probs. Bit dark though – a light should have come on when you opened that door. It’s probably shorted with everything else. You still okay out there?”
“Roger, no probs. How long do you think this is going to take?”
“Shouldn’t be much longer. How much air and battery life do you have?” asked Lena.
“Uh, just a second…” Sam looked down at the screen on the back of her left wrist, brushing the reddish brown dust off it before replying. “Shit. Maybe about a three hours  fifteen. It’s going down a lot faster than usual, I must have been breathing quite heavily on the way here.”
“Roger – three fifteen. Don’t worry, that’s plenty of time, but keep an eye on your readouts. Let us know if you start to get cold.”
“WilCo. Passing through an airlock… wait one. Ah, I’m at the gantry now.” Sam looked through the small window of the airlock she was in out across the hydrocarbon chamber, where a blend of greenhouse gasses were mixed before being pumped into the atmosphere in a bid to warm the planet. The chamber was bitterly cold – colder even than the thin atmosphere outside, if that were possible. She wasn’t too sure of the chemistry involved – she was a pilot, not a chemist like Dave or a nuclear physicist like Rak, but it was something to do with producing industrial quantities of methane. Fixing broken nuclear reactors was somewhat outside of her pay scale, but it was her turn to go outside, and the experts could think far better in the relative warm of the pods than out here. The red airlock chamber light turned green, and she opened the door and stepped out onto the gantry.
“Crossing the hydrocarbon chamber now, there’s a door on the other side. Another airlock, by the looks of it.”
“Ro..er… …reac… …n th… ther side acro… …nother …try.” Static distorted the reply. She carefully walked across the narrow gantry, aware of how clumsy she was in her large suit. The hydrocarbon chamber was spherical, and at the midpoint she was probably twenty meters above the floor of the chamber as she edged her way across the narrow walkway, slimy with unknown oily substances.
“Rak, you are broken and unworkable. Say again all after ‘Roger.’” This time the reply was pure static, as the radios were defeated by the thick walls of the hydrocarbon unit. Sam opened the door, stepped into the second airlock and out of the chamber. She wasn’t scared of heights – she would be a fairly poor pilot if she was – but she wasn’t looking forward to doing that again on the way out. Closing the door behind her, she then threw the switch to begin the pumps that would exchange the two atmospheres she was going between – the poisonous hydrocarbons exchanged for the perilously thin air of the main chimney. She stepped out onto the next gantry, this time only about four meters above the ground. This led to a central column that towered up a full twelve stories to the open top of the hydrocarbon unit. It was the central chimney, belching out greenhouse gasses in a plume of oily smoke that reached miles into the evening sky. Four more gantries reached from the outer wall of the chamber towards this central column, each from a chamber like the one that Sam had just passed through. Importantly for Sam, the walkway around the column that connected these gantries contained the control panel for the small nuclear reactor core, buried deep underneath the unit. If it went critical it wouldn’t be the end of the world – buried deep as it was, it would merely destroy the unit and anything within a half a mile radius – although farming in the area once the planet’s ecosystem was under control probably wouldn’t be recommended. Its loss wouldn’t affect the grand overall plan of warming the planet either, although it may put it back a couple of years. The greatest problem would be that it would remove one more reason to exist in this hellhole – no, scratch that, hell would at least be warm, she thought – the problem being that it would reduce the number of units they had to babysit from five to four. A twenty percent reduction in their workload, when life was boring enough as it was, cooped up in the tiny tin can pod with people that you didn’t honestly like that much, really, with nothing to do but watch the dust swirl past the window and dream of the day that it started to rain…

“Sam, this Rak – we can’t read any of your transmissions. If you can hear this, we’ve got your heatrate monitor, but nothing else. Émilie is keeping an eye on it. When you reach the panel, you should see a large fusebox with a red boundary. There’s a large yellow switch on the right hand side. It’s the main circuit breaker, which has tripped. Move this from the up to the down position before you do anything else” The switch was quite stiff, but she managed to throw the circuit breaker after heaving on it a bit. After a while, the earpiece spoke again: “Assuming you’ve thrown the main circuit breaker, on the left hand side, there’s a large blue flappy switch.” Sam grasped it, and a powerful electric shock threw her over the handrail and to the floor four meters below. She felt a hot flush of pain as her left leg twist horribly, and she was plunged into darkness as her torches shorted out. As she started to slip into unconsciousness she could dimly still hear Rak and Émilie over the radio, telling her it was imperative not to touch that blue flappy switch under any circumstances, ever… Sam looked at the small computer screen on her left wrist through the cracks in her helmet visor. The heating elements in her suit had shorted out, and she only had three quarters of an hour left of oxygen, the level of which was falling fast. She collapsed back, in agony, looking up the length of the chimney into the now clearing sky above her. A few stars were already visible in the darkening sky, and a small blue sphere with a tiny pinprick of silver next to it hung against the reddish black sky. Despite the pain, the cold and the dark, she began to laugh out loud as she realised that she was going to die gazing upon her home – somewhere she had never been, having been born twenty years ago on another world – yet was her home nonetheless.

Earth.

earth_from_mars_nasa
Earth from surface of Mars – Photo Credit: NASA

* * * * *

When Sam came round, she was bitterly cold. Clouds had hidden the tiny blue planet at the end of the chimney, and the sky was now dark. Her breath was fogging the inside of her cracked visor – her cracked visor, she registered, certainly not a good sign, although it seemed to be holding for now – and she was dimly aware of a voice on the edge of hearing. She boosted the volume on her headphones – not without pain, as every movement was agony. A French female voice was just about audible.
“Sam? Sam? This is Émilie. Can you hear us? We just received a huge spike on your heartrate monitor indicative of a large electric shock and the fault panel shows that you flipped the blue switch. We’re sending Dave out to check on you, he’s preparing a suit now. He should be leaving the chamber in quarter of an hour.” Sam looked at her wrist computer. The readout showed that she had been unconscious for twenty minutes, and only had twenty minutes of oxygen remaining – which meant that she had also managed to leak five minutes worth in that short space of time. Her battery levels were critical and her heating elements had not come back online. She groggily calculated that by the time Dave reached her she would be acutely hypoxic, and certainly hypothermic. By the time he managed to get her back to the encampment she would be beyond help. She struggled to her feet and tried walking. It was painful, but possible. She fumbled in the dark for the ladder, before clambering up to the gantry, and through the airlock to the chamber. After a few minutes of very hard work – the second gantry on the way back out was even less fun with a twisted ankle – she had the red dust of Mars under her feet again. She bounced in the low gravity back towards the encampment, each landing a painful jarring, her head swimming with exhaustion, lack of oxygen and the cold. Her oxygen levels were now resting on “empty.” She could dimly see the lights of the encampment in the distance and tried raising it on the radio. The lack of reply was deafening. Her batteries had given out. She painfully, inch by inch, made it to the door of the airlock. After an infuriating few minutes trying to get in – which way did the handle twist again? – The light above the door flashed green, and the door swung open. She stumbled in, pulling the large door closed behind her, before slapping the emergency panic button. Hot air roared into the chamber as she opened the inner door, slumping with a crash to the floor of the hallway. There, suited up, and looking surprised as always in the green light, was Dave.

* * * * *

Ugh, thought Sam. Just plain, simple… Ugh. She could feel the pain in her leg, so she was definitely alive. Warm too, which was a bonus… bright lights, a soft bed and clean sheets. Her bleary eyes focused on the figure lounging in the chair by her bedside.
“What part of ‘don’t touch the blue flappy switch’ didn’t you get?” said Émilie with a grin. The skinny French girl – everybody here was skinny, a product of the one-thirds gravity and the meagre rations – gave Sam a friendly punch on the shoulder. “Good to see you back in the land of the living, you gave us a scare. Oh, and that’s another one you owe me.”  Émilie was sixteen, four years younger than Sam, and probably her best friend on Mars; one Sam’s favourite pastimes was hanging out in the medical bay with her, Émilie slumped in her favourite chair by the sickbed as she studied medicine. The sick bay was Sam’s respite from the other four members of the crew, who got on her nerves something chronic. They were both part of the second generation to be born on Mars; a whole generation of humans who had only ever seen Earth from afar, hanging in the night sky when the dust storms abated. Their grandparents had been sent by the company to colonise Mars, converting the atmosphere from nearly nonexistent to something similar to Earth’s. Now, they were carrying on the work of their grandparents.

“What happened?” asked Sam. She tried to sit up, but the pain told her that would be a bad idea.
“You got a pretty nasty shock off that panel and were thrown over the rail into the dust sump. You broke one of the bones in your left leg – not sure which – and it was a couple of minutes before we realised. Christ knows how you got back by yourself… Dave raised the alarm; one of the utility bots automatically scooped you up to get you to sick bay. I sorted you out. You were pretty blue by the time we got you out of your suit”
“How long have I been out?”
“About two sols. We were worried. You’ll be reassured to know that absolutely nothing has happened”
“Nothing ever does. Do you know what the plan is?”
“Well, we sit tight until our contracts complete, and…”
“About my leg!” laughed Sam, smiling at walking into the obvious joke.
“There’s not much that can be done until it heals, it may need plaster. see how you go with a splint. It’d probably be best if you sit in bed until then, you don’t really want to be cluttering up the pod really…” Émilie smiled, before reclining back into her favourite chair, closing her eyes. “Anyway, there’s the supply shuttle here in two days time. You want to be rested for that.” She grinned. Sam smiled with her. The supply shuttles normally had a crew of four or five and would stop over at a station for two weeks whilst the utility bots did all the heavy unloading and lifting. The days were admittedly long, as the supplies had to be stored and logged, but after the day’s work was done there wasn’t much to do but get familiar with the crew. Many young colonists had come into the world as a direct consequence of a combination of boredom and loneliness inherent in long duration space travel.

* * * * *

“Thirty seconds!” called out the navigator as he consulted the bank of supercomputer readouts. The encampment was a rapidly approaching silver speck against the brown plain filling the view from the cramped cockpit as the company ship hurtled towards the Martian surface. The crew of four didn’t look nervous – not overtly so, anyway – as they ran through the procedures of bringing several thousand tonnes of space freighter to a semi-graceful stop at their destination. Frank, their greying pilot, kept his eyes fixed on the patch of smooth looking ground he’d picked out from orbit.
“Roger, firing retros in three, two, one… Now. Retros firing… firing… burn completed. Descent down to fifty meters per sec.”
“Prepare for landing, Si – confirm restraints are fixed.”
“Fixed. Blonde or Brunette?”
“Brunette. Jackie, we’re on finals – how’s the core temperature?”
“Coming down to two-fifty, plenty of juice left for an emergency burn. Watch the hydrocarbon tower at one o’clock, it’s my ship I’m letting you fly, remember? Don’t bend her.”
“Approach is looking good, we shouldn’t need the emergency burn, but wait for my mark. Tower passing to starboard, I have visual.” He watched the oily plume from the tower pass by the small windows that ran down the right hand side of the cockpit before he retorted – “besides, It’s not your ship, Ma’am, it belongs to the company.”
“Oh, the company might own her on paper” replied Jackie, with a wry smile. “But in practice, she goes nowhere without me. She’s the only lady you’re getting near on this trip anyway – You’re still bitter since that blonde Aussie girl turned you down on twenty three.”
“Nope, she was howling and you wouldn’t poke her with a stick.”
A voice from the back of the ship called out the timings on cue.
“Fifteen seconds. Picture looks good, two degrees to port. Anyway – Bzzzt! Denied! You tried, failed, got shot down in flames, buddy.” Tom the Navigator shouted from the back of the cockpit in reply, the rest of the crew joining in with his laughter. Frank smiled.
“Helm, correcting, two degrees to port, final manoeuvre. Well, whatever. Let’s hope they’re better than Yankee Seven Two was. Now shutup a second.” The crew lapsed into silence as the settlement loomed into the cockpit, Frank’s brow furrowed in concentration. He pulled back on the control column, just as the feeling of groundrush began…
“Five seconds. Fire all retros!” he shouted, suddenly – franticly – throwing switches, hauling the control column in tight against his stomach. Jackie shouted in response.
“Roger, Firing! Hold on, everybody! Brace! Brace! Brace!”

* * * * *

The cargo ship touched down with a jarring thump one hundred yards from the encampment. The rectangular containers suspended below the ship shuddered and wobbled on their braces as the landing legs recoiled into their brackets, absorbing the impact of landing. Dust billowed up in huge swirling clouds as the retro rockets spat flame; suddenly, there was silence as everything automatically shut down. Inside, her crew breathed a collective sigh of relief as they flipped switches and read from checklists whilst they conducted their shutdown. Jackie peered out of the window at the silver pods, glittering in the ship’s floodlights.
“Christ, that never fails to terrify me. Well, that’s not bad. 47 million mile journey from Earth to Mars and we’re only two hundred yards out – Frank, you’ve landed us on the wrong side of the camp again.”
“Really? Oh well, close enough. Good enough for government work anyway. Too busy thinking about the settlers. Hell of a long way to fly, there had better be a shag at the end of this. Primary hailing channel one two five decimal five zero zero opened.”
“One track mind. Opening a broadcast frequency” – Jackie fiddled with a set of dials amongst her myranid control panel – “Hello camp Three X-ray Bravo, this is Captain Jackie Finnimore, of the MCS Delta Voyager, radio check, over.” There was a pause of ten seconds with nothing but static coming over radio. She frowned at the microphone before trying again, and then again on the secondary frequency. There was no reply from the station, its lights shining in the dust clouds a mere two hundred yards away. She sighed. “Looks like we’ve got a bad transmitter. Or receiver. Or something. Frank, take a look at our kit, would you? Si, Tom, prep your suits – we’ll try plan B.”
“Plan B?”
“Go and bang on the front door and see if they’ll let us in.”

* * * * *

The station’s heavy airlock door closed behind them with a metallic clunk. Tom opened the intercom and hailed the camp as they waited for the atmosphere to fill the small room. Si wiped away the condensation on the small porthole and peered down the corridor, but saw nothing.
“Still no reply. Crap… Think it’s going to be like Three Echo again? A whole camp full of stiffs?”
“I can’t see any sign of life, no-one coming to meet us… Yup. Guarantee it. Bugger… was looking forwards to getting my end away with some settler’s daughter too. We’re going to have to lug all these supplies to the secondary. Having said that, secondary probably won’t mind seeing us two years early.” He activated his short range radio. “Jackie? Frank? Si here. Looks like we’ve got a dead station again. Might need to prep a course for the secondary drop, we won’t hang around here too long.” He listened to their acknowledgement and peered back through the small porthole window into the station. “Lights are on, no sign of an obvious disaster… I wonder what happened?”
“Atmosphere loss?”
“Nooo… I don’t think so. I can see a few pot plants down the corridor. They’d have died ages ago. Virus, maybe? Or they might have all gone mad, killed each other… Happened before, you know.”
“Might be survivors?”
“Doubt it. Keep your kit sealed until we’ve figured it out.” The light in the airlock turned green. He opened the door into the station and they both walked in, bulky in their space suits. Slumped next to the door was a young man, also fully suited. Tom started in alarm, his eyes boggling, whilst Si leant over and inspected the body. The face – what was left of it, at least – visible through the visor was not a pleasant one. The boy had been dead for a long time, an eternal look of surprise fixed on his face. The nametag on his chest read D. Pemberton. Tom radioed the ship to let them know the situation; Jackie’s response was pretty clear.
“Run a quick check on the main computer to see if there’s an obvious cause and get a body count. I intend to depart for Three X-ray Charlie in an hour, I don’t want to hang around here any longer than we have to.” Si frowned at the reply.
“Let’s check out control first before working on a body count. Might give us a clue as to what happ – wait, did you hear that?” he said, suddenly looking round.
“Hear what?”
“Dunno, just sounded like… well, I dunno.”
“I didn’t hear anything… Should we split up? Cover more ground?”
“Ha! What are you, retarded? Have you never watched a horror film?” Si smiled. “I must be hearing things, that’s all. One of those utility bots that these places have, might still be wandering ‘round perhaps. Come on.” He said, gesturing down the corridor. “All these stations are set up the same, control is down this way, past sick bay.” He said, wandering down the silent corridors. Medical was deserted as well – the only thing worth noting was another body, this time of a young woman slumped in a chair by the bed. Her skin was grey, stretched tight over bones, mouth hanging slackly open, head askew, empty eye sockets staring into infinity. Tom looked at her for a long time. He was starting to get the desire to simply put as much space as possible between him and the encampment with its crew of corpses. He swallowed, and forced himself to speak, his words emerging thinly.
“Any idea what killed her?” Si frowned as he inspected the body. Her left arm, limply hanging down by her side, fell off onto the floor, leaving an empty sleeve dangling. Tom turned away. Si continued to rummage through her pockets.
“You okay? Not going to hurl? Nah, Not a clue. I can’t see any signs of a struggle, but then, you’d have no idea on a corpse this old. Lucky we’ve still got the suits on, the stench must be terrible… uh… possibly a virus? I’m getting good atmospheres on my dials, but we may need to run a full diagnostic in case there’s something the suits don’t pick up. Actually, thinking about it – no point really. Can’t see any reason to stick around. She’s not getting any deader.” Tom peered back at the girl’s body, wishing that he had his older companion’s disposition. The empty sockets were disconcerting, to say the least… “Yeah, looks like she’s been gone for years.” he carried on clumsily hunting through the girl’s pockets to find any clue as to her identity. The gloves on his suit didn’t make life easy. His search eventually yielded an ID badge. Tom took it from him, peering in the poor light.  “ID reads… Émilie Billiere, born 12th July 2276 – she would be what – 23? 24 now? Young. She must have been very young when she died, her body must have taken a while to get into this state.”

Si didn’t reply. He quietly walked towards the living quarters. He could hear the sound of a woman’s voice holding conversation. Tom excitedly whispered to him. “A survivor? Someone’s alive?”
“Don’t be daft. You saw the state of the bodies. Must be an old recording or something.” They peered round the corner. To their surprise, a man and two women were sat at the table. One of the women was sat with her back to the entrance, talking animately with her two companions. Her long mouse brown hair was greasy, tangled and matted, although here and there was evidence of where it had once grown in long curls. She wasn’t wearing anything; her skin was filthy, grimy and oil spattered, a fresh bandage and splint bound around her ankle. She continued to talk, oblivious to the two newcomers behind her. Her two companions were clearly paying rapt attention and didn’t notice their intrusion either. Despite his heated suit, Si suddenly felt a shiver run down his spine. Tom went pale, and nearly sagged to his knees.
“…Well, no, I don’t think so. She said that it would take a few weeks to heal – she’s getting pretty good at her job as a medic. Yes, I think so too.” There was a silence, before she went on. “Yes, I know – you’re right. I feel pretty lucky about it. By the time Dave would have got to me I’d have been dead for ten minutes, I reckon. Do you think that generator five is likely to have the same problem? With only the five of us, we’re getting pretty stretched.” She paused again, before laughing at the unheard reply. Her two companions sat stiffly facing the door, their rictus, skeletal grins sharing the unknown joke, their empty eye sockets staring past the astronauts into nothing. Tom and Si quietly, gradually began backing out of the room, but the woman clearly heard them. Sam turned around and made eye contact with them both.

Slowly, she smiled.

 

 

I wrote this back in 2009/10; it’s my first short story. My wife has persuaded me to publish some of them; feedback (especially constructive criticism!) is encouraged and welcomed. If you enjoyed it, please feel free to share it, but please play fair – don’t do it for financial gain without cutting me in, link back to my website and credit the author if you do so! Thanks for reading!

All written material copyright The Lost Astronomer, Feb 2017. Photo credits: (NASA)

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