Interlopers

The sun smoldered as it slashed its way across the Martian sky. The women kept themselves busy with important tasks, Ava in her garden and Jane and Olivia near the base laying out components for the new module to be erected for the first settlers.

Jane and Olivia worked largely in silence save for the occasional instruction or request muttered to keep things moving. Both women thought about the impending arrival of their loved ones. Jane had Rachel, her step-daughter, and Olivia had her husband, Edgar.

Olivia struggled to remember what it felt like to wrap her arms around Edgar. It had been so long since she had seen him that he felt more like a long-lost friend than the husband she loved dearly. The memories of their last days together before she left on the mission to Mars spread across her mind like a wonderful spring day on the earth she knew as a child.

I’m so proud of you.

Why?

Because you’re doing this.

What if I don’t make it?

If you don’t make it, I won’t make it. We’ll die together.

I don’t want to die together. Not now. It’s too soon.

Then, this is our only chance for survival.

She hugged herself tightly to her husband trying to staunch the flood of tears to no avail. He gently placed his hands on the sides of her face and bent down to her. Their noses almost touched and he tried to wipe away the tears with his thumbs. He finally gave up and smiled warmly at her. His eyes glistened, but he did not betray any sadness he felt.

You can do this. I know you. You don’t fail when you really want something. I’ve never been in more awe of you.

More tears. She glanced down toward the floor beneath him trying to regain her composure.

I love you.

I love you, too.

If we make it, we’ll start that family. We’ll have to.

Finally, a smile emerged from the tears. Olivia emitted a little laugh. The joy in her heart sprang forward at the mention of a child, something she desperately wanted but hadn’t had the time for. Neither of them had. Busy careers had deterred them.

I can’t wait to have your child.

Edgar smiled, a big toothy smile that made his whole face shine and reminded Olivia of the moment she first saw him and how she had fallen for him almost immediately.

There’s no future here. We both know that. I’ll be right behind you. Now, get out there and lead us home.

He didn’t allow her to respond. He pressed his finger to her lips, and then, he kissed her like he had on their wedding day, a deep, passionate kiss that showed the world how much she loved her.

“Olivia,” Jane called. “Olivia.”

Jane’s voice jarred her from her recollection. “What?”

“Can you help me move this over there?” Jane asked, pointing to a stack of crates that they had built near one corner of the new building yet to be constructed.

“Sure.”

After they had lumbered across the sand with one crate and placed it on the shifty sand, Jane stood up straight and stretched her aching back. She looked out toward the horizon where Frederick and Sanjay had disappeared in the rover.

“I thought they’d be back by now,” she said still staring out at the horizon.

“It’s probably just taking longer for them to load than you expect. Sanjay’s leg is still not 100 percent. I could tell he was moving slowly earlier.”

Jane looked at her co-pilot and nodded. “It will be dark soon.”

“The rover has lights.”

“I know, but I think we have to be careful until we find the bots. I don’t like knowing they’re out there watching us.”

“What do you think happened? Why didn’t the kill switch work?”

“I don’t know. Frederick needs to look at the code again. They weren’t supposed to be autonomous.”

“In many ways, Sanjay’s right. We shouldn’t have brought them along. They’re part of the problem on earth and now we have them here, too.”

“Not all bots are bad. We needed them here to help us set things up.”

Olivia looked at the crates scattered around her. “They’re not helping us now.”

Jane grimaced in agreement. She sighed. “Let’s get the last of the crates moved over here and call it a day. We can start erecting the building tomorrow morning.”

Jane switched to general comm and let Ava know the plan. She acknowledged her Captain but kept working in the distance. Jane glanced over at her hunched near the ground. She felt a momentary pang of guilt for being so hard on her earlier, but she reminded herself that she had good reasons for exercising her authority as she and Olivia made their way back to the last few crates that needed to be moved.

As the final crate clanked down on top of the pile, both women exhaled in relief. Olivia sat on the stack of crates and Jane, once again, turned her attention to the horizon.

“Why haven’t they returned with the last load yet?” she asked, not waiting for a response from Olivia. “Frederick, Sanjay, what’s your position?”

Nothing.

Jane waited, glancing nervously at Olivia as the seconds ticked by loudly.

“Frederick, Sanjay?”

The yawning silence clinched at her stomach.

“Frederick?”

Jane stared at Olivia as if she were requesting an explanation for the lack of a response.

“Maybe they’re out of range,” Olivia suggested grasping at any benign possibility.

“I was able to talk to him on the last trip with no problem.”

“They could have seen something and driven further out.”

“Frederick wouldn’t have done that without telling me.”

An intermittent bit of static coursed through the channel sending a chill down Jane’s spine. A familiar bad feeling reverberated in her chest.

“What do we do?” Olivia asked. Worry creased her forehead and her eyes remained fixed on Jane. The fading day glimmered on her face mask, and Jane could she her reflection in her co-pilot’s mask.

Jane ignored the question. “Frederick, do you hear me? What’s your position?”

Ava, unaware of the budding fear between the two astronauts, joined the two of them at the back of the base.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

Olivia turned to her seeming almost annoyed that she had interrupted them. “We can’t get in touch with Frederick and Sanjay?”

Ava turned to watch Jane, but Jane ignored her, too, as she continued to call the men over crew comm. Jane fell silent staring out to the horizon. She felt eyes on her.

“Maybe some solar activity in interfering with the radio,” Ava suggested.

“That’s possible,” Olivia said hopefully.

“Maybe,” Jane muttered.

The three stood in silence for a moment. Finally, Ava wheeled around slowly and observed the work around her. She squinted into the muted light of another sunset that was just another hour or so away.

“Do we want to go look for them?” Ava asked.

“The other rover is still in these crates,” Jane said. “Frederick needs to assemble it.”

“Let’s go inside and keep trying to contact them,” Olivia suggested. Worry and exhaustion made her eager to sit down and remove her helmet. It felt heavy on her aching head. She took one step toward the base and looked back at Jane and Ava. Jane stood still, but Ava followed her. “They’ll get back here soon,” Olivia promised.

Jane kept her gaze on the horizon toward the supply ship. She accepted Olivia’s prediction and followed the other two back into the building, but worry weighed on her shoulders. Sanjay going silent wouldn’t have been a surprise or concern, but Frederick being incommunicado concerned her greatly.

In the back of her mind, Jane knew she couldn’t handle losing yet another crew member. The loss of Wally had knocked the wind out of her and sent her back many years ago when she lost Brad. Images flashed before her eyes as she waited for a response from Frederick.

She vividly remembered her last conversation with Brad. He had decided to do a solo space walk to repair their hobbled ship as a last-ditch effort to save it. Death was imminent for everyone on board unless something heroic happened, but Brad willed the crew to survive even if it meant his own demise.

“Take care of Rachel for me,” he said.

“Don’t say that. We’ll get you back in here. I promise,” she replied.

“Jane. Listen to me. That’s not likely. It’s either me or all of us. You realize that, don’t you.”

In that moment, her breath hitched and she wanted to cry, scream actually, about the precarious position they were in. Brad was the only one who could possibly fix the ship. She had to choose between her own life and his, and she wilted under the pressure.

More words were exchanged, but they felt fleeting, unsaid. His gloved hand squeezed hers, and she stood aghast at the impersonal nature of the last touch she would ever receive from her husband. She wanted to pull him closer, feel his body next to hers one more time, but instead, she just watched as he entered the hatch and disappeared behind the door. Tears puddled in her eyes until she huddled her emotions together and shoved them into a dark space deep within her.

“Is that them?” Olivia asked. She stared at the screen over Jane’s shoulder in the Control Room. In the dim light of the evening, the rover appeared over the horizon on one of the cameras facing out from the base. The camera on the rover wasn’t working, and Jane still couldn’t communicate with either Frederick or Sanjay, yet the rover appeared to be heading straight for them.

The rover bounced over a prominent hill and finally came into full view of the camera. Olivia gasped, and Jane stopped trying to communicate to her crew. When Ava saw what they saw, confusion and fear twisted in her mind.

“Where did those other two rovers come from?” Olivia asked. Jane and Ava greeted her question with stuttering silence.

Sabotage

“Where’s Ava?” Jane asked instantly when the base alarm blared. She looked at Olivia for an answer, but her co-pilot ignored her as she rushed to get her suit and helmet on. Jane followed her and did the same. If the base seal was indeed compromised, they’d only have a few minutes to survive at most. She instantly regretted removing her suit as her fingers refused to cooperate with her frantic movements. The alarm continued to blare around them like some petulant child wanting attention.

Finally, after both women had their suits on and their helmets sealed on their heads, they caught their breath. The alarm seemed subdued within the confines of their protective suits, but they could still hear it. They stood outside the Control Room in the common area, but they could see the flash of the red warning light pulsating in tune with the alarm. Jane looked at Olivia and asked again, “Where’s Ava?”

“I don’t know,” Olivia gasped, still out of breath.

“Can you look for her?”

Olivia turned walked to the back of the base without another word. She disappeared into the the doorway of the sleeping quarters. Jane stepped back into the Control Room and into the glare of the red light. The video feed showed Frederick and Sanjay aboard the supply ship.

“Frederick, Sanjay, the base alarm has gone off. We’re leaving the Control Room to identify the issue,” Jane said.

“Do you want us to come back?” Frederick asked.

“No, keep loading up the rover. We’ll take care of this. It’s probably just a seal issue. I can fix it.”

“Okay, let me know if you need us to come back.”

Jane shook her head to confirm, but said nothing else. Instead, she pulled up the base status on her screen. The perimeter seal was all green except for the section near the air filtration system at the back of the base. Concern wrinkled her face as she concentrated on the red area. She tapped it and the screen magnified the area. One of the pipes had sprung a leak.

As she stood up to make her way to the back of the base, Olivia returned to the Control Room. “Ava’s not here. She’s not responding on general comm either. My guess is she’s back in the cave. That seems to be her favorite spot.”

Jane shook her head. “I’ll worry about her later. I’m glad we finally have the supplies for her. I need to keep her focused on the work she’s supposed to do here. I’m tired of her playing detective in that damn cave.”

Jane rolled her eyes. Under normal circumstances, Olivia would have smiled and agreed, but the alarm barked in rhythm with the ache in her head. “Did you find the problem?” she asked her Captain.

“Yes, one of the pipes in the air system has a leak. My guess is that it wasn’t tightened properly and rattled loose.”

“Can you fix it?”

“Let’s take a look.”

The astronauts stepped toward the exit and into the air chamber. The door whooshed shut and the seal emitted a sigh before they opened the exterior door into the bright day.

“I’d forgotten what the day looked like,” Olivia said as they walked around the back of the base.

“No kidding. Those lights in the base skew our perspective.”

As Jane turned the corner, she stopped in her tracks. Olivia bumped into her. “What’s wrong?” Olivia asked.

At first Jane didn’t respond, but before Olivia could ask again, she said, “Do you see those tracks in the sand?”

“Where?”

“By the air system.”

Olivia focused her attention on the unit attached to the base. She could clearly see the divots of footprints encircling the metal boxes. The bright sunlight glared off the shiny surfaces and simmered in the red sand like a pot almost at a boil.

The women walked slowly toward the air system. Jane swiveled to look around them. Nothing but red rocks and sand stared back at her.

As they came up on the air system, both stared down at the tracks. “Maybe these are Frederick’s tracks from when he installed the unit,” Olivia suggested.

Jane thought for a moment, and then, she shook her head. “No, that was yesterday, and the wind would have covered them by now. These are fresh. As in moments ago.”

“They don’t look like tracks from our suits,” Olivia noted. Her voice scratched the surface of concern, but sounded doubtful like she couldn’t process the visual evidence with the facts she thought she knew.

“No, they don’t.”

“Who could have left them?”

Jane pivoted again to survey the horizon. Again, nothing.

“It’s more like ‘what’ not ‘who’”

Olivia stared at her Captain. “But we shut down the bots.”

“We did, but we don’t know where they are. We never confirmed that the kill switch worked.”

Olivia turned and looked over her shoulder. The thought that two worker bots had autonomy frightened her. “What do we do?”

“We have to find them and destroy them. If they have autonomy, then there’s no telling what they’re capable of.”

“Now?”

“Let’s wait until Frederick and Sanjay get back. We can take the rover out and look for them. It’s obvious they’re nearby if they were just here. We just have to find them.”

Olivia looked her over shoulder again and Jane followed her line of sight. Both women felt nervous, but Jane channeled her energy to finding the problem with the base seal. She circled the air system unit and examined each pipe attached to the base. She didn’t need a reminder that the fresh tracks encircled the air unit. Whatever had been outside the base had concentrated its attention on the unit, and it went without saying that the alarm and the presence of the bot were related.

After examining a couple of pipes, Jane found one with a green tag on it, which indicated that the pipe provided oxygen to the base. She examined the pipe carefully from the bottom of the air unit to the joint at the wall of the base. The clasp that sealed off the gap around the pipe had been undone and dangled loosely from the pipe. Jane pushed it against the wall and pushed the lever to re-seal it around the pipe.

“That may have been it,” Jane said.

“That little thing?”

“It doesn’t take much to break the seal.”

“That’s scary.” The irony of her statement didn’t escape the two women.

Jane surveyed the horizon again and wondered where the bot was and why the kill switch hadn’t worked. It didn’t occur to her that there may be more bots on the planet than she knew of. She hadn’t quite linked the mysterious supply ship with the forces that were quietly working against her and her crew. That would come later.

Arrival of the Phoenix

The first few attempts to reach the Phoenix failed miserably. The quiet comm channel belied the anxiety felt by everyone in the Control Room.

“Are you on the right channel?” Olivia asked Frederick as she stood behind him at one of the big monitors.

Frederick turned back toward her and looked aggravated, something the cool-headed astronaut rarely expressed. “Yes. I’ve confirmed it several times.” He returned his focus to the monitor.

Jane sighed in frustration. Sanjay had taken a seat at a console in the back of the small room and had remained uncharacteristically quiet.

“I don’t suppose anyone has a suggestion,” Jane said aloud.

“There’s been a lot of solar activity. Maybe that’s affecting our communication,” Sanjay said.

“How long has it been going on?” Jane asked.

“Since before we entered Mars’ atmosphere,” he replied.

Hope flashed across Jane’s face. “Maybe that’s it. It seems strange that we cannot communicate with anyone.”

“How much longer before it dies down?” Frederick asked Sanjay.

“It’s an unusual pattern of activity. I don’t know,” he replied.

As if on cue, static rattled across the comm channel. All four astronauts perked up immediately. Frederick took control of communication.

Settler to Phoenix, come in Phoenix. Can you hear me?”

Static swelled on the channel and then steadily petered out. Never in the history of space travel had the disappearance of static deflated the expectations of astronauts so thoroughly. The entire room slumped in the soundless gap.

Then, “Settler, this is Phoenix, do you copy?” a strange voice said. The elated astronauts jumped up from their seats. Olivia whooped. Frederick tried to retain some composure to respond.

“This is Lieutenant Cummings with the WSA Settler. I hear you Phoenix! What is your position?”

“Nice to hear your voice Lieutenant. This is Captain Stone. We are preparing to enter Mars’ atmosphere.”

Smiles abounded around the Control Room. Frederick pumped his arm as Olivia hugged him. Sanjay smiled but remained reserved.

“Captain Stone, this is Captain Smith. We are so glad to hear your voice. We’ve been unable to communicate since we landed three sols ago.”

“Captain Smith, it’s great to hear from you. Your legend lives on. Congratulations on the successful landing. I hope we can follow your lead.”

Jane smiled wanly. The ghost of Wally floated in her mind. “Thank you, Captain. We look forward to seeing you.”

Frederick interjected, “Do you have a bead on our position?”

“We do. It’s coming through loud and clear. I’m glad we finally established voice contact. The radio has been dead for several days now. We have not been able to contact Mission Control. Have you had any luck?”

“No,” Jane replied. “We managed some initial contact, but the line was too broken to do much good.”

“We’ve had nothing. I hope everything is okay.”

“Me too,” Jane said looking at her colleagues who temporarily assumed a somber mood. Everyone thought of their loved ones on the transport ship and still on earth. “How’s the rest of the crew?”

“They’re doing fine. Excited to finally land this thing. Any advice on getting on the ground?” Stone asked.

“Keep it steady like they trained you and you’ll be fine,” Jane replied. The Settler’s landing seemed like an eternity ago. Jane could barely remember what it was like, and she momentarily worried that the atmosphere on Mars had affected her mind in some way. Everything felt fuzzy and indistinct. Even her memories of earth had lost some of their clarity.

“We’re locked for entry. See you on the other side,” Captain Stone said. His voice sounded compacted and firm.

Jane did not reply. She just watched the screen in front of her as the tense minutes ticked away loudly in her mind. None of the four astronauts in the Control Room said a word. The faint hum of the air system blanketed them, but the rhythmic vibrations did nothing to soothe them.

“I have it on radar,” Frederick announced breaking the deafening silence. Jane seemed almost relieved to hear his voice. She moved to look over his shoulder, and Olivia joined her. Only Sanjay stayed in his position.

The small blip on the screen slowly moved toward them. Hope and fear competed for space in their minds. The supply ship held the keys to their future on this planet, but landing a large, manned ship on the sandy surface had been a tricky proposition. Many missions had failed where Jane’s had succeeded, and even she wasn’t sure what made the difference for the Settler.

The tension almost overwhelmed the crew. Time slowed to a crawl. Every question and answer seemed to leak out one drop at a time. The blip on the screen moved in agonizing slow motion. Jane felt sick at one moment as the blip stalled and flickered on the screen.

“Sanjay, can you go establish visuals?” Jane asked.

The mercurial astronaut looked surprised and hesitant, but after a brief pause, he said, “Sure.”

Sanjay grabbed his helmet and secured it over his head. Without another word, he left the Control Room, and Jane could hear the hiss and whoosh of the door as he left the pressurized base. She waited patiently for Sanjay to report back.

A long time passed before he said anything. Finally, he said, “I can see the ship.” His matter-of-fact reporting annoyed Jane. Shouldn’t he be more excited?

“How’s it look?” she asked.

“Fine.”

“I’m going to need more than that, Sanjay,” Jane replied.

“The angle of the ship is a little odd. That may be a problem.”

Jane turned to the screen a gestured for a different channel.

“Captain Stone, can you hear me?”

Nothing.

Settler to Phoenix, come in, please.”

Some intermittent static filled the channel. Jane grimaced. “Damn it!”

“They’re coming in fast,” Sanjay reported.

“Too fast?” Jane asked. She looked at Frederick for confirmation. He shrugged.

“They’re going to have problems at that speed and angle,” Sanjay stated.

The tension in the control room rose. Olivia perched above Frederick’s shoulder watching the radar screen intensely. Frederick read some measurements aloud. Neither Jane nor Olivia said a word. He began a countdown to landing. Each number he uttered felt like a slap to Jane. The agony of uncertainty and the many lives that hung in the balance plagued her. That familiar twist in her stomach pulled her down.

“I’ve lost visuals,” Sanjay announced. Despite the tension of the moment, he sounded nonchalant.

“What happened?” Jane asked.

“The ship descended a little north of here. It disappeared behind the hills.”

“Did it land safely?” Olivia asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t see it. There’s no smoke or anything.”

“We have to get out to it. How far away is it?” Jane asked.

“It doesn’t look far. I can take the rover out,” Sanjay replied.

“Wait, take Frederick with you,” Jane ordered.

“Okay.” Sanjay sounded aggravated.

“Get out there and report back as soon as possible,” Jane ordered looking at Frederick.

Jane tried again to reach the Phoenix, but she received no response. Olivia watched her intently with a worried expression on her face.

“Maybe their radio was knocked out in the landing,” Olivia suggested.

Jane ignored her and tried again. Finally, she gave up and sat back in her chair anticipating a report from Frederick and Sanjay. The minutes trickled by as she waited with her co-pilot.

Into the Abyss

Ava listened on general comm as Sanjay and Olivia chatted about their discovery of the abandoned supply ship, but then she lost interest. She stood silently behind Jane and Frederick as they watched the camera feed from the astronauts, and her mind drifted back to the markings on the walls of the cave just outside. She wanted desperately to go back to the cave and have another look as if staring at the odd symbols would help her translate them.

After Sanjay and Olivia confirmed that the mysterious ship wasn’t even from the WSA and had been abandoned, Ava begged out of the control room, but neither Jane nor Frederick noticed. They were too busy trying to unravel the mystery that both intrigued and worried them. They didn’t acknowledge her excuse to leave the room.

While they debated what happened to the crew on board the ship, Ava slipped out one of the side doors to the base and beat a straight path to the mouth of the cave. She only paused momentarily when she noticed a cloud building in the distance. She’d only be on the planet for a couple of days, but she knew that another sandstorm was coming. Her stomach clenched, but she kept moving forward. She momentarily glanced at their own abandoned ship and the single cable that held it in place.

Ava ducked into the small opening and slid down the path to the room with the symbols. She ducked again and stepped into the room, which felt cavernous after wriggling through the narrow path at the entrance. She flicked on her suit light and angled the light around the room slowly, hoping to see something that she had failed to notice in her previous visits.

The cacophony on the general comm became too much. Olivia was yelling at Sanjay and a persistent howl filled the background. Ava barely registered that the sandstorm had reached them before she flipped off the sound. The stark silence pervaded her space and she settled into a studious trance. She traced her hand along the wall following her light as it struck each column of symbols. Nothing came to her. She had studied ancient languages in school and was familiar with many of them, but this looked like nothing she had ever seen, which was both frustrating and intriguing.

Her gloved hand scraped over the edge of the rock wall and caught what felt like an edge of some sort. She stopped and traced her fingers along the vertical line that was as tall as a door. She tugged on it, but it refused to budge. She stepped back and pulled with both hands wedging her feet into the rocky sand for leverage. Slowly, the rock wall parted along the edge opening like a real door in some mystical rocky house. Nothing but ink black darkness stared back at her. She swallowed hard.

At first, she shined her light into the new opening hoping for some insight into what lay before her, but the dark room swallowed her light and revealed nothing of itself. Her gut ached from the uncertainty of the unknown, but she did what she had always done; she stepped forward fearlessly.

Her suit light seemed powerless against the darkness. She only managed to project an orb of light around her immediate area. The room looked like it was shrouded in heavy black curtains. Her heart raced as she stepped deeper into the room. Suddenly, she feared that the door would slam shut and that she’d be stuck in the horrible darkness. She stopped and took one step back before she regained her composure. She became aware of her short, stunted breaths. She trembled as if her next step would be her last.

She backed up to the door and put her hand on the wall next to it. She aimed her light at the wall and only dusty, pale red rock stared back at her. She kept her hand on the wall as she traced her steps around the dark room. Her meek light did nothing for the room as a whole, so she aimed it at the wall beside her. At first, there were no markings to be seen, just plain rock, but after a few steps along the edge of the wall, more markings appeared.

The new markings weren’t symbols at all. They were drawings, pictures depicting something that she couldn’t quite grasp. The darkness conspired against her. She couldn’t see the whole of the drawings because the blackness swallowed her light as soon as she moved it to another position. She tried to step back and shine her light on the wall to no avail.

“Damn it,” she said to herself, exasperated by the futility of trying to see the entire wall. Finally, she gave up and continued moving along the edge of the room away from the entrance. She followed the wall for a while noting the various drawings as she moved forward. The new room was large, for it took her a while to reach a perceived corner. She turned and continued along the far wall, and after a bit of time, she turned again.

Before she made another turn and headed back to the entrance, the drawings stopped. The blank dusty rock returned to her view. By her estimation about three-fourths of the space in the room was covered in drawings. She wanted to see the whole of the message, but she needed a brighter light or a few lights to brighten the room.

She stepped out of the door being careful to leave it open. The room she had left seemed impossibly brighter, but she reasoned that the darkness of the new room had made her eyes very sensitive to even the faintest light. She climbed into the narrow passage way and crawled back to the mouth of the cave.

Before she poked her head out into the mouth of the cave, she could hear the howling wind without the aid of general comm. Bits of sand and rock whipped down the small opening and pelted her suit. She pushed forward and stepped out into the cave. Blowing sand engulfed the entire shelter. The racket of the sand beat against her suit, but she was far enough in the cave to avoid the most serious assault of the storm. She sat down at the far inside wall to wait it out.

Her insolence angered the wind and it flailed relentlessly against the mouth of the cave. The fading day had withered further under the weight of the sand. She shined her light toward the opening but the sand bounced it back to her. A faint shriek and whining reverberated just outside the cave. It rose and buckled as the wind whipped. Finally, an unnerving scraping of metal against rock started and stopped before it vibrated the ground around her. A pinging slapped against the metal and the scraping sound hailed down upon her until it stopped just as suddenly as it had started.

In the confusion of the blowing sand, she didn’t know what she was hearing, but then, she realized that the final cable holding their ship had snapped and that the wind had pushed the hapless vehicle over the edge of the cliff. Her heart thumped in her throat as she strained to see through the sand to the space where the ship had been, but the grainy, slithering skin of the storm obscured her view.

She flicked on general comm, but static filled her speaker. She ignored it and said, “Captain! Can you hear me?”

Static responded to her. She thought she heard someone screaming, but she dismissed it as more static. She didn’t bother trying again. She turned the comm system off to end the pain of the noise in her ears. The blowing sand crawled over her like bugs running for cover. She felt her way along the back wall toward the small opening and stepped into it. Only a smattering of blown sand filtered into the passage way. She sat down against the wall straining to see in the fading light but relieved to be away from the angry storm. Her breathing heaved under the weight of her suit as she slowly calmed down. She leaned her head back against the rock. Something in her mind clicked.