Man Down

Baker hunched over in his seat in obvious pain. A grimace washed over his face as another wave of agony wracked his body. His stomach had gotten worse, not better. A bitter bile tinged the back of his throat, and he thought for a moment that it would be better to vomit, but the thought repulsed him so much that he swallowed hard instead. He could feel the unsavory fluid wash back into his rebellious stomach. Sweat formed across his forehead and his ears burned in warmth. His vision grew blurry as if he had jumped into a clear pool of water. He wavered in his seat.

“Sir, a rover from the colony is approaching our site,” an unseen bot said.

Baker turned toward the voice, but still couldn’t identify its owner. He exhaled loudly as if he had been punched in the gut.

“Sir, do you want us to engage and destroy it?” the bot asked.

Baker searched for the voice again as nausea washed over him. His restraint gave way, and he quickly dropped from his chair to knees and vomited on the floor beneath him. The sour taste made him gag and he vomited again. His stomach still ached, but he felt marginally better to have released the hot liquid.

The bot rushed to his side and pulled him up back into his chair. It scanned his vitals.

“You have a fever.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Baker croaked.

“Based on my scan, you have a viral infection. The Knowledge Base doesn’t identify this virus. It could be native to this planet.”

Baker’s head lolled to one side, but he still tried to concentrate. He mumbled something unintelligible as the bot continued to assess his vitals.

Another bot stepped into the room.

“Does he want us to engage the rover?” it asked.

The first bot looked back at the interloper and replied, “He’s ill at the moment. He didn’t say. Find out what they want and report back.”

“They’re armed.”

“What?”

“They have weapons. They’re already threatening us to see Baker.”

“He’s in no condition to see anyone.”

“I don’t think they care. We either need to engage them or let them in to see Baker.”

The first bot looked at Baker who shuddered in his seat. Sweat dripped from his brow, and his eyes flashed open and shut.

“Mr. Baker, someone from the colony is here to see you.”

“There are three of them – the remaining crew members of the Phoenix,” the other bot interrupted.

Baker’s heavy eyelids fluttered, but he remained unresponsive. His body went limp, and then, almost as quickly as he had settled down, his body flailed forward and he convulsed. Vomit erupted from his mouth and slid down the side of his face as he rocked back and forth in the chair. The bot attempted to settle him down again, but his body still rocked and resisted its strength.

After a flurry of groans and gags from the gelatinous fluid, the rocking stopped and the billionaire lay back in his chair limply. The bot let go slowly and checked his vitals again. The bot poked around his neck and then on his wrists. It peeled open his eyelids and looked into the dilated pupils floating in a sea of bright red blood vessels, capillaries that had exploded into the whites of his eyes.

“He’s dead,” the first bot said.

The other bot had walked closer and stood beside the first bot. “What do we do?”

“I don’t know.”

The Second Transport

When Jane opened her eyes, Olivia’s face filled her field of vision. Olivia’s head seemed to float in the space in front of her with a look of concern. Even with worry wrinkling her face, Olivia was a beautiful woman. Jane felt an equal dose of admiration and jealousy. No one would ever describe Olivia as plain.

“Captain? Are you okay?” Olivia asked.

Jane tried to move her head, but her neck resisted. She moaned before the realization that she had no helmet thrust her into an instance of panic. Olivia recognized the reaction. “It’s okay. We’re in the apartment. Your helmet is over there,” she said nodding to the table behind her.

“What happened, Jane?” Olivia asked.

Jane looked confused as if Olivia had asked the question in a foreign language. Everything seemed blank, nonexistent, as if that very moment was her first breath of life. She remembered no history, no life. For a brief moment, she even forgot who she was, but hearing her name chased away the darkness like a fog dissipating in the rising sun.

“I don’t remember,” Jane replied struggling to get the few words out of her mouth. “How did I get here?”

“Two bots brought you here. You were unconscious when they dropped you into your bed.”

Jane closed and opened her eyes slowly. “Did they say anything?”

“No. I asked them what happened and they said they didn’t know. They claimed they found you unconscious, but I don’t believe them.”

Jane rubbed her forehead and swiped her hair back out of her face. She let out a big sigh as she tried to erase the confusion that plagued her. Images of an angry bot flashed in her memory like a puzzle missing just too many pieces. Her eyes flickered in concentration.

“You okay?”

Jane remained lost in thought.

“Captain?”

Finally, Jane returned to the conversation. “Yes, sorry, I just can’t remember what happened. Do you remember where I went?”

Olivia thought for a moment. “No. You didn’t say. I talked to you before I went to bed last night. When I woke up, you were gone, and then, the bots brought you here.”

“What were we talking about?”

“The transport. Edgar.”

The mention of the transport triggered a shrouded memory that almost revealed itself. Jane tried to concentrate harder. Finally, a few more unfamiliar thoughts broke loose into her conscious mind. Captain Regal. The launch of the second transport. War. A bot. The pieces fell into place.

“I talked to the Captain of the second transport,” Jane revealed. Her voice sounded as if she were reading from a script. Her memory unfolded before her. “Captain Regal.”

Olivia gasped and stared at her Captain in disbelief. Her mouth hung open for a moment before she spoke. “You did? Last night?”

“Yes.”

Olivia narrowed her eyes and glared at Jane. Her forehead scrunched in concentration, and Jane briefly thought she looked beautiful even when she contorted her face so.

“Are our families on that ship?” Olivia asked. She spoke as if she were waiting for a punch, hesitant and halting.

“They are. Regal said so.”

Olivia let out a breath of relief and tilted her head back. When she faced Jane again, her eyes were still closed as if she were squeezing them shut to prevent any tears from escaping. “Thank God.”

A silence slid between them – Jane struggling to conjure the memory that felt like a dream and Olivia basking in the confirmation that Edgar was not too far away. Olivia moved toward Jane and put her hand on the woman’s shoulder before she hugged her. They held that embrace for a moment, a relief from the stress of the battles fought and the ones to come.

“Did you talk to Rachel?” Olivia asked when she pulled back from Jane.

“No, I didn’t have time.”

“How did you get past the bots to get into the Control Room?”

Jane paused searching her memory. The face of a bot pulsed in her mind’s eye and startled her. The bot snarled in her memory, but she knew they didn’t display such emotion. Finally, she said, “There were no bots there. No one was there, not even Sprockett.”

“You just walked in?”

“Yes. I just walked in.”

At that moment, it hit her. She recalled turning around to face the bot that grabbed her throat and choked her. She vividly remembered the feeling of dangling by her neck as if she were being executed by hanging. The bot’s words to her were muted, but the feeling was there as alive and real as if it were happening all over again. Jane stared at Olivia, bewildered.

“What’s wrong?” Olivia asked.

Jane didn’t respond.

“Captain?”

Jane tried to say something but no words came out as if she were choking all over again.

“Are you okay?”

Jane stuttered. Olivia put her hand on her shoulder and looked into her distant eyes. “Jane, do I need to get a doctor?”

Finally, Jane uttered, “No.”

Olivia waited for her colleague to speak again. A few uncomfortable seconds passed.

“A bot tried to kill me. That’s why I was unconscious. A bot discovered me in the Control Room and tried to strangle me to death. I don’t remember everything because I passed out.”

“Oh my god!”

“I remember not being able to put my feet on the ground and the blank look on the bot’s face, but that’s it.”

Olivia sat back down in the chair next to Jane, stunned by the revelation. She wanted to cry out of frustration, anger, and fear. Nothing, it seemed, had worked out according to plan. She worried what this meant for Edgar and her. Would they really be able to live the life they had expected in their new home. The promise of the Mars colony felt illusory and sullied by the change in plans and leadership.

“What do we do now?”

Jane shook her head slightly, still dazed by her ordeal. “I don’t know. I just want to see Rachel with my own eyes and make sure she’s okay.”

Olivia agreed. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen once they get here.”

“We have to make the best of it. At least we’re alive. That’s more than I can say for others in Western States.”

“For now at least.”

Jane jerked her head toward Olivia. She didn’t say anything, but those four words sent a cold chill down her spine.

Left Behind

“You don’t love me.”

Marie sat stoically at the table before Ava, her elbows perched on either side of her cereal bowl. She shifted her weight forward onto her elbows as if she were bracing herself for an impact. The rain beat against the large windows behind her whipped by a ceaseless wind that had pounded the city for days.

Ava looked up from the screen she held in her hand as she ate her cereal. The research document she had been reading begged for her attention. She wanted to focus on it rather than the emotional decrees of her partner. They had been together for over a year, but she had sensed a shift in their relationship that she had ignored. Her work consumed her. She knew this, and she thought that Marie knew it too.

“I do.”

“More than your work?”

“Of course.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“You knew I loved my work when you met me. I thought you were okay with that.”

“I was at first. Now, I’m not.”

“What does that mean?”

“Ava…this isn’t working.” Marie waved her hand between them gesturing to her and herself.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Nothing, but I’m moving out.”

Concern washed over Ava’s face as she turned off her screen and put it on the table beside her bowl of cereal. She leaned toward Marie. “Marie, no…let’s talk about this.”

Marie shook her head slowly as if she reluctantly accepted her own decision. “Ava, look around you,” she began. She gestured to the large windows overlooking the beaten-down city 20 stories below them. “None of us are long for this life. We can’t breathe our air. We have to buy manufactured water to drink. Our country is under attack every day. Half the planet is uninhabitable. The world population has been halved in ten years. The weather has turned on its head. Just look at this hurricane. It’s only May for crying out loud. You’re headed to another freaking planet. I don’t know if you’ll make it alive or if I’ll ever see you again.”

“You can come with me. I told you that. Part of the deal is that the crew gets to have their families on the first transport to Mars. That’s a guaranteed ticket for survival.”

“Is it really? Are you confident that we can make it? We’ve never successfully landed a manned ship on Mars. What makes this mission so different?”

“We have to. We have no choice. It’s either do it or die here or in space.”

“I’d rather die here. I’d rather live my life, however long that may be, to its fullest and go out with a bang, not a whimper in some weightless darkness or in the endless sand of some desolate planet.”

“It won’t be desolate if we’re able to get a good portion of the population there.”

“I really doubt that’s going to happen.”

“Did you not listen to Senator Sprockett’s press conference yesterday? He went over his grand plan to colonize the planet. He believes we have a very good chance of success.”

“I don’t believe a damn thing any politician tells me. They’re as worthless as their over-inflated egos.”

“Don’t be such a pessimist.”

Marie shook her head. “This isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Oh, yeah, you’re moving out…”

“Yes. I’ve already made my decision. I’m sorry. I still care deeply for you, but this is not the life I want.” Tears pooled in her eyes and glistened under the pale light above them. Her breath hitched, and Ava thought that Marie would start sobbing right there in front of her, but she didn’t. Ava felt some strange relief when Marie held her emotions in check. She hated it when Marie cried because she didn’t know how to deal with it.

“I do love you,” Ava said.

“Not as much as you do your work.”

“That’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to choose between you and my work. You should coexist.”

“I’m fine with coexisting. My work and you coexist. Your work shoves me into a corner and barely lets me breathe.”

“That’s not true.”

“I’m done arguing with you, Ava. I’m tired. I just want to move on and live whatever life I have left in the most enjoyable way possible. If you love me as much as I love you, then you’ll accept my decision.”

Ava slumped back in her chair and stared at her partner. A lump formed in her throat, and she could feel the tears gathering in her eyes. She didn’t want to cry, at least not in front of Marie.

“I’ve already put your name on the list of family members to be on the first transport ship.”

“You can ask them to remove it. I’m not going to Mars.”

“Staying here is a certain death.”

“I know.” Marie sat stoically. Her solemn countenance, punctuated with the sparkle of tears in her eyes, oddly warmed Ava’ heart. She loved Marie more than she had loved any woman in her adult life, and even though she could feel her slipping away at that very moment, the scientist in her remained clinically detached like she was engaged in some emotional experiment. Her mind twirled as she sat in silence alternating between the darkened screen on the table before her and her partner at the other end.

“I should get going.”

“You’re moving out now?”

“I’m getting a hotel room for now. I’ll come back later and move my stuff out.”

“Oh…”

“I’d like it if you weren’t here when I come back for my stuff.”

“Why?”

“It may not seem like it, but this is hard on me. Seeing you hurts me, and I’m sure deep down inside that clinical mind of yours you’re hurting too. It’s best if we don’t see each other for a while.”

“That seems cold if you ask me.”

“I’m sorry.” With those last two words, Marie’s voice broke, and she quickly turned toward the hallway leading to the bedroom they shared. In the wake of her exit, Ava stared at the sullen room around her with its giant glass panes hovering over the street so far below. The rain slapped and wailed against the window. She could see no more than two or three feet beyond the perch outside. She sighed heavily, and then, she picked up the screen to continue reading the research paper a colleague had sent her as if her life wasn’t falling apart around her.

After much time, Marie returned to the open living area to find Ava still sitting at the table with the screen angled between her hands deep in thought. The remaining cereal in her bowl had turned soggy in the shallow pool of milk. The faint, sour smell of warm milk wrinkled her nose.

“I see you’ve already recovered quite nicely,” she said. She meant for it to be a moment of levity in a painful situation, but it came out wrong, and Ava just looked up at her with a hurtful expression. Marie thought to apologize, but the emotion stole her words and she clammed her mouth shut.

Ava frowned at her, but beyond that betrayed none of the pain that clenched at her chest. “I wish you’d reconsider.”

Marie shook her head vigorously before she said, “This is for the best.”

“For who?”

“For both of us.”

Ava cast her eyes down to Marie’s feet and scrunched her lips together in disapproval. She wanted to tell Marie that she loved her more than anything, even her career, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t leave herself exposed like that, to love someone so openly without fear of rebuke.

“I’ll get my stuff tomorrow.”

Ava looked up at her. The sting in her eyes was obvious, like a glaring light beat down on her. “I’ll be at work.”

“I know.” The words croaked, broken by the pain that Marie felt. She could say no more, so she turned, with her overnight bag clutched in her hand, and walked away before she changed her mind. When the door closed behind her, she felt like she had shut the door on her future. Her time was limited, that much she knew. Tears trickled down her cheeks, but she stood firmly erect, found some determination deep within her, and walked down the hall toward the elevator resisting all urges to rush back into the apartment she shared with Ava.

Ava stared at the closed door to their apartment from the other side. For a brief moment, she hoped that Marie would change her mind and come back in to work it out with her. She could change. She would for Marie at least, but pride and stubbornness kept her planted in her seat. The shock of what had happened rippled through her and she wavered like a tree fighting a strong wind. Finally, she picked up the screen again and flicked it on to finish reading the research paper. She always had her work. It would never pack up and leave her behind.

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.

Shut Down

Here’s another excerpt from my current project Origins.

The bots swung Wally’s wrapped body between them like they were moving a heavy, rolled rug. They stepped gingerly on the red rocks and sand as they moved toward the grave they had dug. Jane watched as she led the procession of the crew and Ava. She feared that his body would unwind from the canvas and fall out onto the sand.

Finally, they reached the grave. The bots tensed as if they were going to throw the body into the hole.

“Let him down gently,” Jane commanded.

The bots stopped and bent down lowering the body slowly to appease the Captain. Everyone watched them in stunned silence. Tears flooded Ava’s eyes, but she said nothing. The events leading to Wally’s death played over and over in her mind. She felt responsible in some way.

Jane sensed that she was supposed to say something, something wise and thoughtful, but nothing came to mind. She wasn’t a religious person. God had never been part of her life, and she had never learned any of the rituals that some people followed in death. Brad didn’t have a funeral. His body was never recovered and she had simply held a memorial for him so that friends and family could celebrate his life and have a hushed debate about her role in his death. She winced at these thoughts and glanced at those who stood around her. Everyone had bowed their heads in silence, so she joined them.

“Godspeed, Wally,” Frederick muttered.

They remained silent for a bit longer before antsy movement raffled through the small group. Jane ordered the bots to fill in the grave and mark it with a mound of rocks. They turned and walked back to the base in silence. Tears still streamed down Ava’s cheeks reflecting the shimmering light that glanced off her face mask, but no one noticed.

As they walked into their new home, Ava made a beeline for the sleeping quarters, while the crew sat at the terminals in the main room. Sanjay was the first to speak.

“When the bots get back, we need to shut them down.” He looked to Frederick for support.

“Okay, I need to check their software anyway,” Frederick replied as if he had planned to do it anyway.

“We’re not destroying them. We’ll store them in the back,” Jane stated emphatically.

“Who said anything about destroying them?” Frederick asked.

Jane looked at Sanjay and he wilted a little under her stare. Frederick followed her line of sight and rolled his eyes.

“You’re too paranoid,” he said to Sanjay. “We need them to help us build out the settlement.”

The hairs on Sanjay’s neck stood on edge. “We don’t need the god damned bots. You’re just stuck in our old way of living. This is a fresh start for us. Let’s not ruin it with the bots.”

Frederick looked to Jane for support. She replied as if on cue, “We’ll shut them down and store them in the back. That’s it. Nothing else.” She eyed each of the crew members before she sat down in one of the chairs and wheeled around to the screen next to her.

Both Frederick and Sanjay sighed for different reasons. Olivia said nothing. She still thought of Wally and the pitiful funeral they had just held for him. She looked around the room for Ava, but she was nowhere in sight.

“Where’s Ava?” she asked.

“She went to the back,” Jane replied without looking at her co-pilot.

Olivia walked away without a word looking for Ava. She needed a kindred spirit with whom to share her feelings about Wally’s death, and she knew she could commiserate with Ava.

Sanjay, still stinging from Jane’s rebuff, asked, “Are the bots not back yet?”

Jane spun and looked at him, seriously considering the time that had passed. The bots should have finished the burial by now.

“Are the exterior cameras up?” she asked Frederick.

“Yes, but I haven’t checked them yet,” he replied.

Jane gestured to the screen next to her and a video feed popped up, but it was from a camera facing the cave. She flicked her finger to the right and another feed facing the ship appeared. Another flick revealed the scene from the stretch leading toward Wally’s grave. Neither of the bots were there. The mound of rocks on his grave were barely visible in the background.

“Did they come back and we just didn’t notice them?” Jane asked.

“We would have heard them,” Frederick said.

“Can you go check?” Jane asked.

Frederick stood up and left the control room. The void he left rendered Sanjay and Jane silent. She felt the “I told you so” stare emanating from her irritable colleague.

Frederick poked his head through the door a few minutes later. “They’re not in here. We should ask them to come back.”

“Hit the kill switch,” Sanjay suggested.

“Let’s call them first. I’d like to put them in the back if we can. If we hit the kill switch, they’ll drop wherever they are and they’re too heavy for us to drag back in here,” Jane stated.

“Suit yourself,” Sanjay retorted. He sounded like a spoiled child, and it aggravated Jane, but she ignored it.

“Bot One and Bot Two, please report to the control room,” Jane ordered. A long moment passed with no response.

“Bot One and Bot Two, can you hear me?” she asked. Frustration strained her words, but she still received no response.

“Son of a bitch…” Sanjay retorted. Jane narrowed her eyes at him as a grim look overtook her face.

“They may have turned off their comm system again,” Frederick suggested.

“No, I clearly told them not to do that,” Jane said defensively.

“They’re not listening to you or any of us. They’re more autonomous than we’ve been told,” Sanjay said. “Hit the kill switch.” A determined look bore down on Jane. She could sense something not quite right about Sanjay that bothered her, but there were more pressing matters at the moment, so she ignored her senses.

Jane looked at Frederick for support. He shrugged meekly but offered no other suggestions. Then, an idea popped in his head. “Tell them you’re hitting the kill switch if they don’t respond.”

Jane seemed to grasp onto his idea like a last-ditch effort to save face and maintain her authority in Sanjay’s eyes. His despondent, constant stare continued to unnerve her. She kept waiting to hear him boast that he was right all along.

“Bot One and Bot Two, if I don’t get a response from you now, I’m hitting the kill switch. Report your positions and return to the control room.”

A hiss whisked across the comm system, but otherwise silence greeted the tense crew in the control room.

“Hit the damn switch,” Sanjay urged after the silence became too obvious.

Jane looked at Frederick for another perspective, but he offered none. She wheeled around to the big screen beside her and made several gestures until the bot control panel filled the screen. She flicked to another screen and the red kill switches shined a bright green. She poked each of the virtual buttons and they turned red. She sighed heavily as the screen confirmed that both bots had been shut down, and then, she turned around to Sanjay and Frederick who watched with great anticipation.

“There, are you happy?” she asked Sanjay pointedly.

Her stern look did nothing to alter his mood. He didn’t smile or shake his head to affirm. He just stared at his Captain and said. “Let’s just hope it worked.”

“Of course, it worked. All worker bots have kill switches. They’re not programmed for autonomy, so you need the switch in case something goes wrong,” Frederick replied. He seemed aggravated by Sanjay’s conspiratorial behavior.

“Uh-huh,” Sanjay mumbled. Then, he stood up and left the room.

Frederick watched him leave before he moved toward the terminals and took his seat. An exasperated look washed across his face. He said nothing to Jane, but she knew how he felt. Both astronauts turned to the screens near them and examined the comm status hoping for messages or some sort of communication from the supply or transport ships that should be well on their way by now. The futility of it all had yet to dawn on them.

As Jane and Frederick worked inside the control room, a faint metallic movement could be seen from one of the cameras that was trained on the space toward Wally’s grave. Neither astronaut noticed it as they weren’t paying attention to the camera feed, but to any observer it was clear that Bot One was scurrying further away from the base taking shelter behind one of the enormous rock formations that emerged at the edge of the sandy plain upon which the base and the ship sat.

Abandon Ship

I’ve been eagerly working on my latest project and have the first six chapters (30,000 words) in rough draft form. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3. I hope it gives you a taste of what’s to come with this work.

Fear had overwhelmed her to the point where she couldn’t think straight. Ava could only react like a wild animal cornered and facing certain death. When Jane had ignored her pleas to leave the ship, she did what she thought was the best thing to ensure her survival – she abandoned ship herself. The rest of the crew could plummet to its death on the broken ship, but she was going to do all she could to survive.

At first, she couldn’t believe she had pressed the button to open the door, but once the door whooshed open she stepped out like she was leaving her house for work as cocksure and determined as any other day in her former life. She stepped onto the rocky sand and paused a moment to survey her surroundings before she located a destination and immediately began walking toward it.

Her boots scuffed against the surface kicking up small sprays of sand as she stomped away from the ship. She slipped on the rocks, but her strong legs kept her upright. The dim evening light seemed much brighter once she was outside, but she flicked on her suit light anyway. It cast ominous shadows before her. She feared the ship more than anything unknown that awaited her.

The strange, sinewy shadows flickered on the dim, red sand as she walked away from the ship. The bulge of the pack she had thrown over her shoulder made her look like a hunchback, and she strained under its weight. Her breathing flooded her helmet leaving her unable to hear anything else, even the pounding of her feet on the ground as she trudged to a rocky outcrop just above the ship.

She crested the closest rock and stood at the entrance to a cave. The hairs on her neck pricked and she swallowed hard. Her heart thrummed in her chest from climbing the small hill but also from fear of the dark entrance to the cave. She sat the pack down at her feet outside the entrance and took one tentative step forward.

She flicked on the flashlight she had grabbed from the passenger cabin before she walked out the door and stood stock still aiming the light forward. The strong beam washed over the red rocks and the ghostly clouds of dust that she had kicked up. She panned over the space before her illuminating the mouth of the cave. She could see nothing but endless red rocks and sand that cast curious shadows before her. She sighed a bit in relief. Sweat trickled down her forehead, and she wished she could wipe it away, but she couldn’t remove her helmet.

After she swiped the cave with her light a few times, she convinced herself that it was safe. Anything was safe compared to the ship. She spun around and slashed the ship with her light. It stood a little more than 100 feet away from her. The beam of light traced an outline along the port side of the ship. She could see the back side dangling over the edge of the cliff. From this angle, it didn’t look as precarious since only a few feet of the end of the lumbering vehicle actually hung over the edge. The majority of the ship sat firmly on the ground, and the two cables that remained held firm.

She pushed the light back across the side of the ship when she caught sight of Jane peering out one of the small, porthole windows. She was too far away to make out Jane’s expression, but she imagined that Jane scowled at her. She had turned off her suit comm system, so she didn’t know if Jane or anyone else had tried to speak to her. She didn’t care.

Ava sighed again, almost relieved to be out of Jane’s domain. “Bitch,” she muttered to herself. She returned her light and her attention to the cave as she explored its depth. The mouth of the cave seemed like any other she had explored on earth. Nothing remarkable jumped out at her other than the thrill of being somewhere that no human being had ever been. She wished she could remove her helmet and inhale deeply. She often associated smells with her memory, and this was certainly a seminal moment for her. She was the very first human being to explore the surface of Mars in person. The tingle of excitement eclipsed any lingering fear she felt.

The wind picked up again as the pressure on her suit increased. She swiveled her head around to see if an encroaching cloud of sand was near, but there was nothing on the horizon. Nevertheless, she picked up her pack and moved it into the cave. As she plopped her pack onto the ground near the back of the rocky shelter, she noticed that a smaller opening in the back wall that led further into the cave. She quickly shined her light on the opening revealing paler versions of the red rock and sand that surrounded her. Her senses stood on edge again, but she ignored them.

She sat down near the back of the cave just to the left of the small opening to rest and gather her thoughts. The depth of the cave both excited and worried her. Sure, no life had ever been detected on Mars, but how did she really know if something inhabited the cave or not. It didn’t have to be some large animal or creature; it could be microscopic and just as deadly. Her skin crawled at the thought, and Ava shivered.

Outside the cave, the wind continued to build and the blown sand started rising like an antsy audience eager to get out of the theater. The whine and the strain of the cables attached to the ship cackled as the sand swallowed the ship. Ava shined her light out of the mouth of the cave, but the sand reflected her light back. She could do nothing but wait out the encroaching storm and hope that her colleagues didn’t plummet to their deaths. Her body rattled in fear.

The intensity of the storm rivaled the surges she had felt earlier in the day. The blown sand stayed outside the cave at first, but then a swirl of grit poked through the entrance and wreaked havoc on her. It pelted her face mask and her suit and sounded like rain on a tarp. She crouched lower to the ground, but the incessant beating continued. Meanwhile, one of the two cables holding the ship in place snapped under the pressure and banged against its metal hull. An awful groaning noise emerged from the blight – a sound of metal scraping across rock. Ava wanted to throw up.

In all the craziness of the storm, Ava managed to flick on her comm system and try to communicate with the crew. At first, the ear piece just buzzed with static, so she waited for it to die down before she tried to speak. A short silence convinced her to plead with the crew once again.

“Jane!” she yelled into the microphone. “Captain Smith!”

Nothing.

“Captain Smith! You have to get out of there! It’s not safe!”

“Where…are…disobeyed…at risk…” replied the Captain.

Her fractured words arrived in Ava’s ear. Ava didn’t need to ask Jane to repeat herself. She knew what the Captain had said. She clicked off the comm system again. “Fuck her,” Ava thought.

As if Jane’s anger had fueled the storm, the wind picked up and more sand piled into the cave drubbing Ava. She shook in her suit. The flashlight proved futile; she could see nothing in the reflection of the light in the blowing sand.

Ava grabbed her pack and dragged it to the small opening in the back of the cave. She slid through it pushing the pack in front of her. Whatever lurked in the tunnel couldn’t possibly be worse than enduring the sandstorm in the bigger cave. Besides, she didn’t want to hear the spaceship plummet over the edge of the cliff. She may have been angry with Jane, but she didn’t want to see the crew die.