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.

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