Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#66



Here's a chilling charmer courtesy of your heroic editor and Supreme Plasmate, Jeffrey Blair Latta!  A sci-fi sonnet about Humanity's first trip to the Red Planet and what they find there...or what finds them?

 
 

Red Sky in the Morning
 

By Jeffrey Blair Latta

Red sky in the morning,
sailors take warning...

          Old saying


AMATI'S NOSE WAS BLEEDING AGAIN. That made three bouts in only twice as many days and it wasn't nearly so funny now as it had been the first time.  Now he was beginning to worry.

He knew the doctors back on earth weren't enthused by the situation either.  Certainly they were careful not to allow their concern to filter through during their media-friendly transmissions to Chryse Planitia, but Amati could detect their unease all the same.  Overuse of formality.  Too many "stand by"s while the mission physicians discreetly kicked around "potential strategems" and "do-able options" in camera.  Monitoring your status, my eye.

He was an astronaut -- he wasn't stupid.

This sort of problem hadn't cropped up during the American shuttle launches, the Soviets hadn't reported any noticable tendency toward nose bleeds during the Mir missions and, all during the five year construction of the EEC Toroid, no worker had been hampered by profuse hemorrhaging of the nasal membrane.  As far as anyone could recall, Angelo Amati was the first to be so graced.  If nothing else, it made humanity's first voyage to Mars something less than a Kodak moment.  A blood bespeckled astronaut didn't make the cover of Time Life Pravda.  It would have been embarrassing if it wasn't so dangerous.

Amati unzipped his hammock and struggled free of its enfold, wincing as his bare feet pressed into the glacial duraluminum grate beneath.  He tipped back his head and held a finger under his nose as he egg-walked the three steps to the lavatory niche.  Wetting a towel, he delicately wiped the red stains off his upper lip and out of the hairs of his mustache like a painter adding the final brush strokes to a masterpiece.  He scrutinized his image in the mirror, adjusting the convexity to maximum, holding his breath.  Seconds passed until he was satisfied the bleeding had clotted.  He tried not to wonder how long he had been bleeding this time.

Somewhere a pot of coffee was brewing.  Its aroma spiced the air with a heavy, laden sweetness.  His stomach growled.

He turned, swept aside the Dacron curtains and slipped through the cushioned arch into the stark light of central axis.  Papadopolous was nowhere to be seen but, through the open port to the pilot house, he caught Laurent's voice signing off after transmitting their per diem report:

"--bet your bippy on that.  Pilot Marie Laurent, EEC Ship Empress of Bristol... out."

It would reach the Deep Space Network in twenty minutes; another twenty for a response to be sent back.  The original mission plan had specified transmissions every three hours but somewhere along the way cost cutting had taken its toll.  Same for the personel.  What began as a five crew mission, now was reduced to three.  The workload had not changed, just the number of workers.  Try finding a union in space. 

A vibration passed through the floor grates as Laurent pushed back her couch and, a second later, she clambered up out of the well of the pilot house.  With her hands gripping the top curves of the ladder, she spotted him standing there.  Her eyes cast a look at his left hand and he realized he still held the red-stained facecloth.  To his relief, she didn't crack a smile, not even a hint of her usual impish grin.  Her pale features took on a remarkable facsimile of concern, sympathy even.  Uh-oh, he thought.  What does she want?

"Not again?" she said, stepping over the top rung.  She brought a hand to her chin contemplatively.  "Angelo, this has simply got to stop.  How bad this time?"

"I woke up with it.  Some blood on my face but I think it's clotted."

"Here.  Let me see."

Reluctantly, he allowed her to stare up his nostrils.  Ah, the glamour, he reflected bitterly.

She nodded slowly, nose scrunched up like a rabbit studying the underbelly of a carrot.  "Uh huh.  It doesn't look like it's bleeding now." She stepped back and placed her knuckles on her hips like a drill sergeant.  "You know, much more of this, mister, and you're going to have to look elsewhere for a job." Then she slapped a smile into place and asked brightly, "Feel up to a walk?"

The question caught him by surprise.  "A walk?"

"Sure.  Like flying only not as high."

He grimaced.  "Why? What's going on?"

Her smile just spread.  "Suit up.  I'll explain on the way."

*                 *                        *

Amati struggled over the softly drifting crimson sands, barely keeping pace with his lighter and younger companion.  Whatever she had to show him had better be worth this effort.

Effort? Slow death was more like it.

Along with the "shirt sleeve environment" of the Landing Module, much was being made of the new EVA suits custom designed for this first Martian landing.  "Ambulatory enhancement" was the current catch phrase du jour favoured by press wranglers.  A vast improvement over the old accordian-jointed American Lunar style.  State of the art.  "You won't even know you have it on.'"

Well, maybe.

No denying the suits themselves had superior mobility at the joints.  On the other hand, the lunar astronauts hadn't had to contend with Martian gravity.  No one back home was going to see Amati leaping spritely over the Martian surface like a Care Bear on pep pills.  On Mars the reduced gravity did little more than serve as an excuse for expecting otherwise sane men and women to heft backpacks which, on Earth, no free thinking human would have tried to lift.  As far as Amati was concerned, a third of an immovable object was still cruel and unusual punishment.

"Huh-how much fuh-farther?" Amati puffed, hunching forward in a vain effort to take the pressure off his lumbosacral region.

"Another fifteen minutes." Laurent's laboured breathing reached him over his headset.

"Let's slow it down, huh? My triple buh-by-pass, you know?"

Laurent laughed breathlessly.  "Sure, Gramps.  No hurry." She slackened her pace and gratefully he did the same.  "It's just that I told Papadopolous I'd come right back.  I didn't think it would take me this long."

"She must have been out here a while.  How is she for Lox?"

"Her suit was restocked before she and I set out two hours ago.  Probably had about an hour's worth remaining when I left her.  No problem there.  I just don't want her to worry."  

Amati nodded.  "Contact her over the whip.  Tell her we're on our way back."

"No-can-do on that."

He frowned.  "Why not?" They trudged on in silence for several seconds.  Thinking maybe she hadn't heard him, Amati opened his mouth to repeat his question.  "Why--?"

"She can't receive it," Laurent responded simply.

"What's the matter? Something wrong with her system?" Without waiting for the pilot to respond, he activated his own long range transmitter via his chest panel.

"Papadopolous, this is Amati.  Are you receiving me?"

In his headset he picked up only papery, shuffling static.  He tried again.

"Papadopolous, this is Amati.  If you are receiving me, please respond."

Laurent chuckled quietly and her hand pressed his shoulder through the fabric of his suit.  Glancing over, he found her watching him, her face barely visible behind the Martian panorama reflected in the wide Lexan lens of her visor.  His own helmet was reflected there as well.  She was beaming like a child with a wonderful secret to tell.  Her lips moved but her voice came to him through his headset.  The effect was disquieting.  "She can't hear you, Angelo.  I left her in a cave."

"A cave?"

"Yes, a cave.  Now, come on.  And stop dallying."

Without waiting, she took up her trudging trek once more and he was forced to perform a lumbering sprint to catch up.  "What sort of a cave?" he gasped, barely able to blurt out the words between hitching breaths.  "Wait a minute, Laurent, tell me what's going on?"

"I want to surprise you," she insisted.  "Where's the fire? Wouldn't you like to be surprised?"

"Not when I just woke up with a nose bleed," he shot back hotly.  "Not when I'm struggling over this damn slippery sand with this damn pack on my back and...oh...oh great."

"What?"

On the inside of his visor, Amati's face appeared as a dim reflection.  A tiny red bead glittered beneath his left nostril.  He sniffed quickly and threw back his head, letting out an exasperated laugh that was almost a shout.  Just what he needed.  A nose bleed and he couldn't even touch his face through his helmet.

"What's the matter?" Laurent repeated, pulling up short.

"My nose is bleeding," he snapped at her without meaning to.  Quickly, in a kinder voice, he said, "I'm sorry.  It's just that my nose is bleeding again.  Now will you please stop with the mystery and just tell me what's going on? Please."

"Tilt your head ba--"

"Laurent."

He could see her face.  It wore a hurt look, her eyebrows meeting to shape a crinkle between her eyes.  Quietly she said, "All right, Angelo.  All right.  If you can't wait the few minutes to see for yourself, I'll tell you.  But let me tell you in my own way.  Okay?"

"I don't want--"

"Angelo." Her voice was focused and intense like a collimator.  He'd hardly have recognized it if not for the face.  Even that was somehow shifted, unfamiliar.  "This is important to me, do you understand that? More important than anything else I've ever known.  I won't tell you what it is until I've told you why it's so important.  Is that so much to ask?"

Until now he'd assumed Laurent and Papadopolous had discovered a new river bed, an interesting geological extrusion, something of fairly academic interest.  Now he didn't know what to think.  Reluctantly he nodded.  "Fine.  Just so long as you do both."

They resumed their journey but it was several moments before she spoke again.  However much he would have liked to, he didn't rush her.

With his head tilted back, Amati had to peer over his cheek bones just to see where he was going.  Ahead of them, the Martian plain stretched in a boulder-strewn skirt for kilometers before abutting against a low line of cliffs on the horizon.  Those hills, he knew, formed the edge of a vast blanket of ejecta thrown out during the formation of a crater hidden over the horizon.  Surely that couldn't be their destination; those hills were hours away by foot.

"When did you first decide you wanted to go to Mars?" Laurent asked suddenly, her voice very subdued and intimate in his headset.

He hadn't expected that.  But, all right, he'd do this her way.  He gave the question some thought and replied, "When I was sixteen, I guess.  My parents forced me to stay up until three in the morning to watch the final American shuttle launch.  It was Beagle.  I guess that was when I first got interested.  The EEC program was just getting off the ground then, but I decided, whatever it took, I would be an astronaut some day.  I didn't really think of going to Mars but I guess I was pretty much set on going somewhere."

He considered embellishing his story, then decided he'd answered her question well enough.  It was the same answer he'd given when the French Prime Minister had asked him that question.  He stopped talking but again it was some time before Laurent continued.  When she spoke, her voice was distracted and elsewhere.

"It was one of those American launches that hooked me, too," she related.  "I don't know what it was about them.  Those shuttles, they looked so...unreal.  All jet black and ivory white.  They looked as if they'd been designed just to look good; as if carrying payloads into orbit was something anyone with an Erector set could do; the real trick was doing it in style.  Only those ugly brown fuel tanks gave the game away; revealing that the difference between success or failure might be as slight as the weight of a single layer of paint."

Amati heard her lick her lips and swallow.  She was so high strung.  Tentatively he lowered his head and studied his ghost image in his visor.  For the moment the bleeding had stopped.  Thank heaven for small mercies.  His eyes rolled focus to infinity and he studied the terrain ahead.  A deep scarlet slash cut across the field a short distance before them.  Some sort of crevice, it looked like.

"I was younger than you," Laurent continued, "when I first thought about going to space.  The shuttle launch that did it for me was several years earlier than yours, too.  Launch Mission 51-L."

Amati regarded her through the side of his visor.  She stared fixedly ahead.  Still, she must have seen him because she nodded slowly.

"The twenty fifth shuttle flight." She laughed ironically.  "It was the first launch I had seen.  I would only have been...oh, three, maybe four.  I remember thinking how beautiful she looked as she rose on her white snapping tail of fire.  Being so young, with my limited experience, all I could find for comparison was my nightlight; the way it shone like a star in the darkness.  Of course, that flight took place during the day into a clear blue sky, but for some reason I've always remembered it as being night time.

"A male voice was calmly, soothingly speaking to the pilot.  At one point he said, 'Go at throttle up.' 'Roger,' another voice replied with that same calm assurance, 'go at throttle up.' I remember these things so clearly; I can hear it in my head the same way I can hear Armstrong stumbling over that stupid 'one small step' line.  Everything was so ordinary, so harmless.  And then...then it happened, and the voice -- the first voice -- was saying, still in that calm, soothing way, that there was no downlink.  I didn't know what the word meant -- 'downlink' -- and I didn't have courage enough to ask my parents.  But, as my father quietly...grimly grabbed me up and carried me out of the room, I struggled in his arms, fighting with all my child's strength for one final glimpse over his massive shoulder.  I didn't know why, but I had to see.

"For a moment I managed it: I saw that terrible burning cloud hanging in the blue sky; that beautiful nightlight extinguished as easily as a church candle; the black and the white and even the ugly brown, all gone; and I decided that downlink must mean hope.  There was no hope."

No.  It wasn't a crevice.  It was the beginning of a gentle slope.  Together they started down, carefully feeling each step with gliding movements of their boots.

"Boy, I'd hate to have been with you," Amati laughed with too much force, "when Bambi's mother was shot."

Her own laughter reached his ears like running water but with an edge to it, and she said, "Try King Kong.  The '76 remake.  I saw it on video and cried myself to sleep every night for a week."

Amati cleared his throat, just to fill the gap until he could decide what next to say.  But she knew him too well.

"This all relates, Angelo," she assured him.  "Just be patient.  Besides, we're almost there.  The cave is at the bottom of this slope."

"I'm just concentrating on keeping my footing," he rejoined, anxiously trying to watch his step without the benefit of being able to watch his feet.

"If you fall," she replied helpfully, "you'll just get there all the sooner."

"You were saying?"

"Have you ever asked yourself why we're out here?"

He gaped in disbelief.  "What does that have it do with anything?"

She didn't even acknowledge the interruption.

"The only industry that spends more money for less reward is the military," she told him.  "The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. poured fortunes into space travel and research.  Fortunes, Angelo.  And each goal has been vastly more expensive to achieve than the one before it.  The EEC spent more money to send the three of us to Mars than had been spent for all previous missions combined.  Much more.  We can't keep it up.  Not this way.  A lot of people have begun to ask the question I just asked you.  Why send us out here? Why pour all that money into something with so little reward?"

Amati smiled and said, "Look, Laurent, I think we've both had our fill of arguments for sending probes out here instead of people.  As far as I'm concerned, I don't doubt it's more economical, but the simple fact is that the public wants to see us out here.  They don't want to see robots walking over the surface of Mars.  They want to see flesh and blood people trudging over the crimson sands developing hernias from their unliftable back packs."

Laurent didn't even seem to register his joke.

"I'm not talking about that," she explained, speaking patiently as if lecturing to a child.  "I'm talking about something more fundamental.  Why send anything out here? Human, robot, anything.  I mean, when the Americans developed their shuttles they justified them on the grounds the shuttles could be used to build a space station.  Why build a space station?  For the same reason the Soviets constructed Mir: to observe the effects of prolonged exposure to space.  Why?  In preparation for a voyage to Mars.  Each step was justified, not by its own accomplishments, but by the step that was to come after.  In the end, the Americans gave up on both the shuttles and the space station.  Why?"

"Because they didn't have the money," Amati replied.  "Their economy was just entering its decline."

"And you think the EEC had the money to build their space station?  No one has the money to do any of these things, Angelo.  The Americans didn't have the money to land people on the moon but they did it just the same.  The Soviets didn't have the money to launch the first satellite, to put the first man in orbit, to soft-land the first probe, to land the first probe on Venus, to --"

"So it's expensive," Amati interjected impatiently.  "That's not the same as saying it's too expensive.  Whether you have the money or not depends on how badly you want to do the job.  It's just a question of priorities."

He heard her inhale in a slow stream, calming herself, bringing things under control.  Operational readiness.

"How badly you want to do the job," she echoed flatly.  "And there's the problem, isn't it? Not how badly we need to do the job, because there's really nothing out here they need us to do.  For all the vast expenditure put into this launch, no one really needs us to be out here.  We don't save lives.  We don't feed the hungry.  We don't bring world peace.  We can talk about spin-off technologies but nonstick frying pans only get you so far.  We're like opera or modern art; a luxury; good for you.  All this has been said time and time again, and yet, we're here just the same.  Countries mortgaged their futures to get us here.  Not because they needed us to, but because they wanted us to."

In a cloud-spuming shower of scarlet dust, they slid the final half metre to the base of the slope.  Amati paused and regarded his pilot expectantly, waiting for her to lead.  Laurent looked around a moment, taking her bearings.  Then, with a wave of her arm, she was off again.  Amati groaned miserably as he hurried to catch up.

"But it's over," she resumed, as he reached her side.

"What do you mean it's over?"

"Just that.  Do you really think there will be any other missions to Mars? This was it, Angelo.  We've shot our bolt."

"There had better be," Amati laughed, "or I know a few eager astronauts who are going to have some choice words for our Director."

"I spoke with the Director of Mission Planning," she said, her voice unnervingly cool and unconcerned.  "Before the launch, she told me next year's budget was slashed by the Oversight Committee.  All future missions to be placed on temporary stand-by status -- a 'hiatus of indeterminate duration', the press release will read."

It took a moment for Amati to fully understand what she was telling him.  Even then it was difficult to assimilate.  He felt as if someone had jabbed him in the base of his throat and left a dent there.  He swallowed tightly.

"But that's... crazy.  Everything's all set.  It would be insane to stop things now.  We'd lose the momentum.  I mean, what the hell was the point in sending us here if no one else is coming?"

"We don't fulfill a need, Angelo.  We're only here if they want us to be.  The public isn't behind us anymore."

"Christ," Amati muttered with a disbelieving shake of his head, wishing he could kick a rock but knowing he would probably just rupture his suit.  And what would that solve? "It's the fault of that stupid P.R. bureau, that's what it is.  I've been saying all along that they aren't getting the message out.  If the public knew what we do out --"

"Angelo." Her voice was gentle, shaping -- like hands molding clay on a wheel.  "We don't do anything.  Not anymore.  Once it was the dream of humanity to go to space.  The Soviets did that.  It was the dream of humanity to go to the moon.  The Americans did that.  The final dream...Mars.  Now we've done that, too.  And each time, the reality was something less than the dream; the public was disappointed.  Did you know, before the first Apollo mission landed on the moon, the American public had already turned against the thing.  As early as that, they understood the truth could never equal the dream.  They wanted worlds, Angelo.  We gave them worlds and now they're sated.  We've pulled the same rabbit out of our hat one too many times.  They've seen this trick before.  They know how it's done."

"There are other worlds," he argued, knowing he must sound remarkably petulant but not really caring.  "Ganymede or maybe Europa.  Certainly Titan."

"Worlds aren't enough anymore, Angelo.  They've seen worlds.  They've seen us walking on those worlds.  That's why this discovery is so important.  That's why I had to explain before I show you.  We have something better than worlds now.  We've found something that will bring them back again and again.  Something that will never grow stale."

He reached forward and caught her by the shoulder, pulling her up short and turning her around.  Momentarily she looked startled, eyes wide, lips parted.  Then she canted her head and regarded him curiously.  Neither of them spoke.  She was very beautiful.  He had never noticed that until now.  She frightened him a little.

"What are you talking about?" he asked evenly.

Slowly her eyes lit up and, for just a moment, she was someone he knew.

"Check your nose," she laughed, then turned and, twisting free, she resumed her determined jaunt.

"Damn!" He tilted back his head and stumbled blindly after her, coughing as the blood trickled down the back of his throat.  "Wait.  What did you two find, Laurent? Tell me."

"See for yourself."  She indicated with a careless wave of her hand without breaking stride.  The slope had turned into a sheer cliff as they walked.  They had been following its base for the last minute, stumbling over the loose, crumbling scree.  Glancing past her, Amati saw a cave mouth set into the red stone face.  It was narrow and dark.  He swallowed.

As they reached the entrance, she stopped and turned to face him.  Her lips were curled at the corners but there was something else in her eyes.

Casting a glance into the darkness of the cave, he asked doubtfully, "You left Papadopolous in there?"

She regarded him narrowly but didn't reply.  Very gradually a thought entered his head, almost as if she had put it there, from her mind to his, with her eyes.  It seemed so silly, so utterly...insane that he laughed with self-derision even as he asked.

"Don't tell me you found something alive in there?"

She didn't blink, didn't even seem to breathe.  His laughter melted away.

"That's it, isn't it?"

Her smile passed from her lips like the flourish of a conjurer's hand.  Her gaze faded like a reflection in a pond, focusing beyond him.

"When I caught that last glimpse over my father's shoulder, I knew I would become an astronaut," she recalled.  "I knew because I was terrified by what had happened to that light and to the people it carried.  Terrified by the loss of...downlink.  At the age of four I knew absolute fear.  And even then I understood that this was what it was all about.  Not discovery.  Not science.  Not worlds.  Fear, Angelo.  The fear of the night, of the unknown.  The fear of dragons.  The fear we experience watching a horror movie as the heroine descends into the dark cellar."

Before he could stop her, she wheeled and ducked into the cave mouth.  The black shadows closed behind her leaving him alone with the trailing sands and the salmon sky.

"Laurent!" he exclaimed.  But only static answered his call, dry and empty.  Then, louder, "Laurent!"

There was no response.  He really had no choice.  None at all.  After a moment, he bent and flicked on his helmet lamp, then climbed in after her.

He found himself following a narrow tunnel, waddling low to the ground.  Ahead he could make out the light of Laurent's lamp partially occluded by her silhouette.  His backpack slithered dangerously along the overhead stone.  With his body hunched forward, red beads dripped from the tip of his nose and pooled in the bowl of his visor.  In his head he could hear the mission doctors: "monitoring your status, Angelo." Not in here, he thought uneasily.  In here, we're on our own.

Her words resumed in his headset, disembodied and haunting.

"Our mistake was that we were too good," she explained.  "Like a trapeze artist, we made it all look so easy.  They didn't want it to be easy.  They wanted us to fall."

Laurent's light faded as the tunnel ahead opened out onto some sort of chamber and she stood up.  Seconds later, Amati straighened up beside her.

The cave was no larger than a living room back on Earth.  The white oval from Amati's lamp roved across the overhead stone.  Slender stalactites depended from the curved roof like daggers.  Stalactites, he thought, and it was a moment before their full significance occurred to him.  Real stalactites.  The first found on Mars.  Evidence of liquid --

Slowly he lowered his light.  Papadopolous lay sprawled facedown in the far corner, her shadow smeared across the floor and up the wall.  The curved shards from her visor winked in his lamp's lightcone.  Her blood gleamed damp against the crimson rock.

For a strange moment he thought he could help her.

"Oh my...my god."  He staggered to her side, knelt and gently eased her over.  There was a jagged starburst hole in the center of her visor just over her forehead.  Her face was white and bloated.  Her eyes had exploded from their sockets.  He tasted his own blood on his lip but, with so much blood around him, a little more hardly mattered.  He twisted around on his knees, turning to face Laurent.  She hadn't moved, but stood with her arms at her side, her face hidden behind the walls reflected in her visor.  The whole chamber was reflected there.  He could see himself; his arms held out imploringly.

Then, quite unexpectedly, a stalactite broke free from the ceiling and fell straight down, shattering like crystal on the hard floor.  Amati stared at the crusty fragments, puzzled.

Almost subconsciously he felt it.

A subtle shivering passed through the crystalline rock beneath his knees, resonating in his long bones, in the five liquid cavities of his body.  The air was too thin to transmit sound, so that he had a strange sensation of being transplanted into a silent movie as a swirling, roiling fist of red dust punched from the entrance tunnel in a single sustained rush.  A powerful invisible pressure raised him by the shoulders and heaved him back against the wall, crushing the breath from his lungs.  Instantly, visibility was reduced to nil, the air so thick with dust, he couldn't even see Laurent, let alone the way out. 

Finding his breath, he shouted, "There's been a cave in!  Find the tunnel!  We have to get out of here!"

In his headset, Laurent's voice was composed, unconcerned.  "I used a Semtex analogue," she explained.  "Some of the stuff we brought for the Geotomography experiment.  Plastic explosive mated with a metastable oxidant.  It was planted in the entrance."

"Laurent?"

"There isn't even any evidence of a tunnel anymore and the Martian wind will erase our tracks long before they get here."

He staggered to his feet, searching the filtering haze that glittered in his lightcone.  "Laurent?"

"They don't want worlds, Angelo.  They never did."

He took three careful steps forward, groping blindly.  "Laurent?"

Suddenly his shadow glided sideways across the mist as her light played on him from behind.  He started to turn and something struck his helmet.  He thought he had run into the wall.  It was only a glancing blow; he'd been hit harder playing hockey.  Beautiful silver threads weaved a spider's web over his visor.  Red beads sparkled like rubies amongst the threads.

 Damn, he thought, my nose.

The visor exploded in a glittering spray and he died instantly, slumping to the scarlet stone in a shower of a darker hue.

Laurent numbly lowered her hand and let the rock fall at her feet.  Then, before she could have time to think, to doubt, to question, she fumbled at the locking ring to her helmet.

"Flight 51-L was airborne 73 seconds before loss of signal," she told him, trembling uncontrollably.  "73 seconds.  Not much time for a decent goodbye."

An alarm sounded shrilly behind her left ear signalling an imminent system's compromise.  A voice asked her to make her way to the nearest available airlock.  It asked her to hurry.

She was hurrying.

"We gave them answers, Angelo.  But they didn't want answers.  They wanted something else.  Monsters maybe.  Martians.  Now they'll have those.  Anything they want.  Anything they can dream up."  The last ring was almost cleared.  She heard a tea kettle whistling and a misty condensation clouded the surface of her visor.  Shivering with the sudden cold, she breathed deeply a final time.  "Confidence is high," she said, then closed her eyes, squeezing tears from beneath the lashes. 

 *                     *                 *     

The wind gradually picked up, erasing their footprints, carrying the last vestigial traces of their trek upon the frail Martian breeze, across the level plain and past the Landing Module squatting abandoned like a ghost ship.  Within, all was as she'd arranged.  Her written log was left incomplete, interrupted in the middle of a sentence.  In the galley, a meal was left half-eaten, a cup of coffee half-drunk.

Across the vast reaches of space, the Deep Space Network received her final message twenty minutes after transmission, just as she died.  It was picked up by the Canberra Array and relayed to Brussels in under a minute.

But, even these few days into the Mars Landing, public interest had waned.  Mars was not what they had expected.  It was just like the moon, only red.  Who wanted red.

There were other things to worry about.  There was the earthquake in Kumamoto, the peace action in Paraguay, the civil war in Canada.  The world was in turmoil.  Who wanted red.

Few reporters were on hand to hear the words soon to be broadcast in every corner of the globe.  Most picked it up over the wire.  The Capcom on duty, who was first to hear the transmission, would later tell his children and, later still, his children's children that, not only was he there, but in that moment he knew.  Though he couldn't say how or why, even as her words came through his headphones, somehow... he knew.  This was only the beginning.

"Capcom, we have found something of definite interest up here.  We think it may be alive.  We're going to check it out but it looks like the big one.  You can bet your bippy on that.

"Pilot Marie Laurent, EEC Ship Empress of Bristol... out." 


The End


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Red Sky in the Morning is copyright by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)