“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?”
“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.”
“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.