Written by Allen Crowley and Mike Acerra
Welcome to Lux Blox's eighth installment of Mars is for Misfits, the story of Athena Tripi, a tough and talented Sergeant in the Marine Corps who is put in the unlikely position of having to save not one but two worlds. Not caught up? Previous Chapter or Start from the beginning
Burden of Proof
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
― Carl Sagan
Escuela Anna Katherina Vivas
October 31, 2045
Standing in the parking lot of Escuela Anna Katherina Vivas, Maggie and Dean looked East toward Olympus Mons. Its umbra was shrinking as the arms of the sun wrapped around the mountain.
They eyed the Tesla, perched on its six haunches like an Olympic sprinter.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Dean peered into Maggie’s darkened polarized visor.
“As the crow flies?” She said, not missing a beat.
“It’ll cut the drive to the test site in half.”
They smiled in unison and hopped into the Tesla’s airlock, both eager to get under way.
At the first point outside of Venezuela Libertada, where the county road turned south, Dean kept the Tesla heading due east. The vehicle transitioned from the hardened aggregate to the wasteland’s mix of dust, gravel, and sand.
Out of morbid curiosity, Dean fought his inclination to avoid the rocks and craters. The Tesla's now famous ballast system amazed him. It’s six independent legs reacted to the oncoming obstacles with lightning reflexes. The twelve-passenger limo anticipated the terrain and compensated for any vibration as if it were clairvoyant.
“We shouldn't have left the kids at school.” Said Maggie, as a matter of fact.
“I could double back. We could take ‘em with us.”
Dean glanced at Maggie. She had that pensive Thousand-yard stare she often had when she was stuck on something.
“But I’m thinking,” Added Dean. “We’re the ones heading towards trouble.”
“If we left them at home, we could have gotten an earlier start.” Said Maggie- focusing on Dean’s eyes.
“Sure, but if this thing is as dangerous as you say, aren’t they better off hundreds of kilometers away?”
The heads up display projected green and yellow lines in a detailed overlay on the terrain, emphasizing a best course and obstacles to avoid. He continued to plow ahead ignoring the advice.
‘AI-assists are for sissies’, he thought and smiled.
“It was the right call. Don’t second guess yourself, Maggs.” He said, with one stiff arm on the Tesla’s wheel and the other now playing with the display’s controls.
Her silence was her way of telling Dean that what he said was sinking in.
She turned to her right, watching the sun's orange pallor shifting to amber. It reminded her of mornings at the academy. Pikes Peak had nothing on Olympus Mons for size, but it still reminded her of the Southern Rockies. She had kept her constant homesickness buried all these years. Everything was different since that maggot. Yesterday’s bedrock seemed like today’s quicksand.
Her pensiveness slipped toward depression. She smiled, recalling the title of one of Aurora’s albums; “All my demons greeting me as a friend.” She had spent her freshman year in high school listening to the Norwegian singer. She hadn’t thought about Aurora in 30 years. Now it came rushing back to her. Those sweet songs of the lightness of being, longing for love, and the release from pain.
That brought her back to the dream she had last night. A dream of pain she had never experienced. Starvation. Loneliness and the desolation of a soulless black void. She shuddered, forcing herself to focus on the terrain and get out of her head.
Dean and Maggie rarely drove out into the Martian wastes, and not off-road since their first year on the planet.
Amazonis Planitia had the rap of being the Nebraska of Mars. But Maggie thought it was a remarkably diverse expanse. Not as dramatic as other tourist attractions like Olympus Mons and the canyons. But the AP was beautiful while traveling at over 100 kph in a Tesla Metaphora in the early morning light.
Her depression and the brightening warm morning sun weighed on Maggie’s eyes and she fell into a dream.
Dean relaxed when he heard Maggie's heavy breathing. Neither of them got a good night's sleep.
A half hour later, Dean approached the small hillock where he'd planted the test patch of algae under silica aerogel. He slowed the rover, trying not to wake Maggie.
Maggie sat bolt upright and shouted, “I KNOW!”
“Good morning. What do you know?”. Said Dean, now braking at the edge of the test site.
“Oh my God. I had that stupid dream again.”
Dean pretended to listen as he eased the rover to the test patch.
"OK, this is where I found the little creature of yours."
"What else is around here?"
"Nothing, that's why I picked it.”
"Let's take a closer look."
Before Dean could agree, Maggie had grabbed her old miner’s helmet and climbed into the airlock. In ten seconds, it had cycled, and she jumped to the ground.
He noticed strange patterns in the regolith to the North side of the patch. He toggled the manual suspension controls that Lincoln had been messing with earlier that morning. All six legs began to raise the cabin into the air. From his new perch four meters above the surface he could see what he hadn't noticed the other day. Truck tracks, big ones.”
"Hey Magg's, can you see those tracks?"
"No. I'm coming down." He donned his dome and cycled through the airlock. He considered jumping, but hit the button, extended the ladder, and slid down.
“Those ruts are ore hauler tracks. They missed our test patch. Maybe that thing fell off when it swerved.”
“That seems like a reach.” Said Maggie, continuing to check for clues.
“It was heading west, Maggs.” Dean pointed back the way they had come. “Probably going to New Kiev. That means you were right. Your basalt theory. It had to be coming from the east.”
“Lycus Sulci.”’ They said together.
“Wait! You’re gonna love this.” Dean tore off back to the Tesla. He scurried up the ladder and seconds later came back, rolling an enormous case behind him.
He flipped latches on the top and it unfurled four black composite arms with metal housings on the end of each.
The arms stretched away from the center of the box in four directions until they were straight. Then four pairs of large propellers emerged from the bulbous nodes on their ends.
“It’s an industrial survey drone. A big one too. These things can do high altitude runs for days without coming down.”
Dean used a small control pad to activate it. The drone kicked up dust as it soared upwards.
“I’ll have it trace the truck’s route for us.”’
As the drone rose to a few kilometers above the terrain, Dean's tablet showed the route of the truck and a detailed lay of the land.
“That route makes sense for a Caterpillar ore truck.”
Maggie smiled. “Any excuse to stay off-road.”
The ride got rougher as they approached the Lycus Sulci range, the north western range of hills and mountains at the base of Olympus Mons.
“Sorry about that.” said Dean as he careened off a ridge of hardened ancient Basalt dust dunes. They reminded him of rows of petrified shark’s teeth.
“What’s the drone showing you?”
“No structures. The truck’s path going towards the mountains.” Said Maggie, staring at the screen in the front panel.
“Hey. What’s ‘PM?” Said Dean, keeping the same tone but consciously tossing a grenade into the conversation.
“What?” Said Maggie, turning and examining Dean’s face. She watched for tells. The crinkled crow’s feet. The turn of the corner of his mouth. The furrowed brows. Dean made a terrible card partner.
“PM? I read it on the back of that drawing in Sheila’s room. It said, “Thanks for the help on PM.”
Maggie straightened in the captain's chair and she stared off to her right, away from Dean.
“It was something he was working at MIT. Way before SARSA and the moon.” She said, exasperated.
“You guys were collaborating before SARSA?” Dean switched into the irritating lawyer tone that sounded like his father. He hadn't meant to.
“Jesus, Dean. We were practically siblings. We’d been doing shit together since I was seven.”
He relaxed. "So, what’s PM?”
“PM’s Project Manna. Vrom had this idea that he could program a biologic to create food for human consumption.”
“Isn’t that called farming?”
“He wanted to program an entire ecology that would make farming obsolete. Like Manna from Heaven. Food would ripen each morning for the plucking.”
“So, him calling it ‘Project ‘Manna’ didn’t tip you off to his God complex thing?”
“I was young. It was exciting. He wanted to end hunger.”
“That’s what all the mad scientists say. So, how’d you help? Weren't you at the Airforce Academy?”
“Still in high school. He got into MIT when he was 14. I helped him with theoretical stuff. I was like a sounding board for him.”
“What kind of theoretical stuff?”
“Why the sudden interest in Vrom Allison? Is this the time to be having this conversation?”
“Seriously? We’re tracking down the origin of a planet-eating worm that you helped Doctor Moreau create. And you think this isn’t the right time?”
“Fine!” Maggie crossed her arms. “Vrom’s ideas always sounded crazy and stupid at first, that’s how he works. He would break things down to their most basic assumptions. Dig below the surface thoughts. He wanted to grasp first principles.”
She gazed up at the moons. The stars had left the sky and now only Deimos and Phobos remained. They chased each other.
“So, with Project Manna he’d asked me questions like “What is the boundary of an ecosystem?” or “Can we cultivate innovative ideas like we cultivate potatoes?”
“Jesus. When I was fifteen, all I remember doing is playing video games and masturbating.”
“Consider yourself safely in the middle of the curve.”
“Very cruel, Maggs.”
Maggie smiled. She wanted to tell Dean about her past. And he deserved to know. Especially now.
“Is there any coffee left in your mug?” She asked.
Maggie reached for the blue chrome mug and took a sip.
“Full thermos in the console, sweetheart. Hot and black, like your heart.”
“Please don't be jealous of him.”
“I’m not. I get it, he's sick.”
She thought about that as she poured the coffee into a bottle.
“Sick is too kind for Vrom. He’s evil. Big difference.”
“Isn’t that what all ex-girlfriends say? All I know is, he leaves his biological calling card and you’re ready to jump up and track him down”. Dean’s voice took on an edge that moved past the bounds of the immediate conversation.
“Hey, if you hadn’t brought Martian Maggot into the house, I’d be blissfully ignorant, I just …”
“Whoa.” Dean matched the crescendo of her voice and calmed himself.
“You’re right, hell I thought I’d found alien life …” His voice drifted off to a chuckle.
Maggie matched his calmer tone.
“I’m glad you brought it home.”
The Tesla rolled in and out of a crater five meters deep but the coffee in Maggie’s cup didn’t notice.
“Not because I want to find him. I want to stop him, Dean. For good.” She beamed at Dean. He understood what that meant. He realized something he’d always suspected. Maggie was capable of violence if push came to shove. And Maggie was in full on mother racoon mode.
Dean kept his eyes on the hilly terrain.
“If I feel anything for Vrom, it's pity.” She added.
Dean grinned, “so you do have feelings for him.”
“Shut up” She laughed.
For the next few hours Dean drove with both hands on the wheel. He did his best to keep the Tesla going as fast as he thought safe. They were now moving into no-man's lands. They had enough life support for ten days and radio and satellite overhead. But a catastrophic event could end them this far out.
“Hey this drone can do spectrum analysis?” She said, examining the readouts on her viewer.
“I'm not surprised, it carries about a hundred kilos of equipment. What I wouldn't give for one of those.”
Dean slowed the rover to a stop.
“What?” Said Maggie.
“Check the drone imagery.”
“Yeah. Southwest. There.” Maggie pointed to a strange depression in the terrain. A long slender horizontal crescent shape.
“That must be on purpose.” Said Dean.
“Yep, a satellite wouldn’t be able to pick that up. To the drone it looks like the truck had driven through a crater.” Said Maggie, zooming in on the artificial cave.
They drove into the crater. Someone had excavated and manicured the terrain to appear as natural Martian surroundings. But this was a theatre set.
They could see a sliver of darker grey where the surface opened to a very unnatural cavern.
“Let’s get closer.” Said Dean, steering the Tesla into the dark crescent shape.
About 20 meters inside were scattered pilings and other equipment. Much of it in the familiar Caterpillar Yellow.
Dean drove the Tesla deeper into the crescent cave. It was pitch black. He turned on the Tesla’s lights.
“There, what’s that? Go that way”. Maggie pointed to four domes against the north side of the cave.
“Let's get out and walk around.”
“Good idea. I’m getting faint readings from the drone. I’ll have it fly to a lower altitude so it can get a line-of-site on the Tesla. Then we can use the Tesla and the rover as relays in case we get into trouble.”
“That’s not stinkun thinkun, Deano.”
Maggie and Dean left the Tesla and began a thirty-meter walk to the domes. There were no lights on. The only illumination came from the Tesla's high beams and their torches and helmet lights.
“Hey, look at this.” Said Dean, pointing at the enormous machine. “Some kind of Mining gear?"
He began tracing the components with his lights and identifying each along the way, as much to himself as Maggie.
"This is an RTG - a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. Like the kind we were going to get for the farm. But a really big one.”
“Isn’t this overkill for a dig this size?” Said Maggie.
“Guess they figured they’d be here for a hundred years." He continued to trace his hand along the machinery.
“Weird. This thing is rigged to provide direct heat. It’s set up like a giant glow plug.” He paused and looked back the way they came.
"That tube we've been following to get in here. I don’t think it’s for extracting ore.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think they’re going to heat up that basalt dust in these pug mills and feed molten lava down this tube and seal it off."
"So that's for sealing the mine? Like to seal in the evidence?"
"I'm sure there are lots of reasons to seal off a mine, but yeah, let's go with 'seal in the evidence.'"
“Dean, why seal a mine with melted rock? They could simply have blasted.”
“Maybe they didn’t want any leaks. Yeah, it’s weird.”
Maggie walked toward the dark shaft that fell away into the abyss. "Well I'm going down there." She continued her descent along the downward slant of the shaft.
Dean watched her go. He knew there was no stopping her when she got onto one of her 'quests' for discovery. She would sometimes work seventy-two hours straight to solve a biological mystery.
He started to double time it to catch up when a light caught his eye. He walked over and found a control panel.
“Hold up, Maggs.”
“What is it?” Maggie stopped and shrugged. She shined her torch on Dean, who was twenty meters back.
“You’re gonna want to see this.”
“What?” She looked back and forth at the way she wanted to go and the trek back to Dean.
“It’s a timer. This place has been rigged.”
“Why didn’t they set it off when they were here.”
“I have no idea. Nothing makes sense.”
We have a little more than two hours before “insta-volcanoe” starts. I say we high tail it down that shaft.” Said Maggie.
“Shouldn't we at least investigate those habs we drove by on the way in? Maybe we can learn something about what we’re walking into.”
Dean could tell that Maggie hated this idea. She was rearing to march into hellmouth and kill her demons.
“Fine! But we gotta move fast.” She said, walking to the domes ahead of Dean.
There were four hastily constructed domes connected by a central web of foamcrete making a fifth, central dome. The foamcrete domes had the aesthetics of molding fruit. They had been sprayed and allowed to bubble until they hardened. There were no exterior or interior lights on.
“Airlocks aren't working. No power.” Dean forced the hatch open and he and Maggie entered the first dome. They found it depressurized.
“Jesus, someone was in a rush.” Said Maggie.
“This isn’t right.” Dean picked up something covered in frost.
“What?” Said Maggie, shining her torch around the icy room.
“They left their comms and batteries. Even their clothes are still here.”
“They never moved out.”
“Then where the hell are they?”
“Dean, can you fly the drone into the cave?”
“Hmm. Not a bad idea.” Dean pulled the tablet from his side pocket and pressed a button that signaled the drone to come.
“I’d give it a couple of minutes. But you realize, we are now cut off until we get out of this cave again.”
“Can we power up this hab?”
“I would imagine if they hadn’t packed their socks and underwear, they probably wouldn't have disconnected their power supply. Let me check the breakers.”
Dean walked to the airlock again and opened the main panel for the hab. He primed the main fuse and reset it.
An alarm went off. Papers were flying around as the dome began to pressurize. The airlock doors closed and resealed the hab.
“I think we can take our helmets off.” Said Dean.
With the lights on in the hab, it became evident that there had been a struggle. Workstations and computers lay damaged on the floor.
“Dean, we should check the other domes. And don’t take off your helmet.”
“Really? We’ve got nearly a full atmosphere now.”
“I mean it. Let’s observe protocols for a bio or chemical hazard. Do it for my sake, please.”
“Roger that, Captain!”
They followed the outer wall of the first dome until they came to the hatch for the next dome. They activated the regulator in the airlock and waited for the pressure to equalize. Then they departed a dome of confusion and entered one of pure calamity.
“Jesus Christ. What happened here?” Said Dean.
The second dome was strewn with a mixture of confetti, plastic streamers, wires, and a gooey tar-like substance. As if teenagers were trying to create a haunted house on a tight budget.
“Maggs, do you have any idea what this is?”
“Is your helmet recording?” She said, breathing heavily now.
“Yeah. Since we entered the cave.”
“Good. Dean, whatever this is, I think it's bad.”
“Is it L Phage?”
“NO? What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“It’s something else.”
“Alien?” His chuckle did not alleviate the tension in the pressurized air.
“Shut up! Turn up the volume on your exterior mic. What do you hear?”
Dean and Maggie listened for any signs coming from the inside of the dome. At first there was the regular whirring sounds of life support.
“Dean. We’ve got to get evidence. It’s important. Whatever did this is either still here or left something we can bring back with us.”
“What do you want me to do?” resigning himself to whatever dangerous option Maggie chose.
“Let's check out the other domes and find what we can and get the hell out of here.”
“Ok. Hey Maggs?”
“I’m kind of spooked.”
“Well then you’re a smart boy.”
They found the hatch for the third dome open on both ends. The rest of the room in the same condition as the previous dome.
As they approached the hatch for the fourth dome they stopped in their tracks. In front of them was a pile of furniture and fixtures from the deck to the ceiling.
“What the hell.” Dean studied the pile of junk.
“Were they trying to keep something out?”
“What do we do now?”
“Start digging. We gotta get into that dome.”
It took five minutes to remove the massive pile in front of the hatch. The hatch was pitted and scratched.
“What the hell did they do to this thing?”
“Dean, what are these hatches made of?”
“It’s a standard industrial hab hatch. It can have layers of aluminum and Kevlar, with thermal lining, like a foam. Why?
“Those holes in it.”
Dean squatted and examined the four holes in the bottom of the hatch. “Were those drilled?”
“No way. See this star pattern? If it were a drill, they’d be circles. This was something else. Maybe a cousin of our little friend back in our kitchen.”
Maggie looked around the hab. Dean continued to try and open the hatch.
He took a cutting torch from his bag.
“They welded the hatch shut? God, this is so last century horror movie?” Said Maggie, who loved movie night more than anyone in the family.
“No kidding. And you laughed when I said, ‘Aliens”!
“I kind of wished I had a flame thrower about now.”
“Those are pretty badass. But this torch is as good as we got. Ok, here we go. Help me with this.”
They heaved the hatch open and investigated the airlock. It was pristine. No junk. Swept clean.
“Any ideas?” Dean studied Maggie's face.
“You still want to go in?”
Dean began to cut the welds on the hatch of the fourth dome. “This reminds me. I’ve been wanting to ask you.”
“Have you seen my MiG welders? I can’t find either one.”
“I saw them in the black lockers.”
“Yeah, that’s where they’re supposed to be.”
“Huh. Maybe Lincoln used them for his project.” Maggie understood that the small talk was an excellent tactic to calm their nerves. Her admiration for Dean was growing in these last moments.
“Here we go.” He said, as the torch melted through the second hinge.
They pushed the hatch open. Inside the dome there was a red light coming from what appeared to be a massive block of ice in the center of the room.
“Hey, Maggs?” Dean whispered.
“Yeah?” She whispered back.
“What are we supposed to be looking at here?”
“I swear to God I’ve got no freaking clue. Turn off your helmet light and torch.”
“Seriously? Bad things happen in the dark, remember?”
As their eyes adapted, they could make out the mass in the center of the dome. It was a network of fibers and gelatinous membranes stretched throughout the structure.
“It’s like a web. Isn’t it?” Said Maggie.
“Is it aerogel?”
“That’s what I first thought. But no, it’s organic.”
“Like, alive, organic?”
“Well, I think something alive made it.”
Dean jumped. “Did you see that?”
Something had moved. Something fast and large. They started to observe motion everywhere. Irregular shapes coiled and uncoiled, slithered, and wiggled in spasmodic motions. As their eyes adjusted to the dark, they realized the translucent mass in front of them was a large organism.
“What’s that sound?” Whispered Dean.
“It’s a voice.”
“It's coming from... Maggs.”
“Look up.” Dean staring at the curving ceiling above them.
Maggie followed his gaze, she was able to make out the milky mesh that contained a human foot.
“Jesus Christ Almighty.” Gasped Maggie.
Suspended above them were about fifteen or more people. Their bodies twisted in contortions, unconstrained by solid bones. Some had no bones at all and hung like skin sacks with eyes.
The bodies provided an unpleasant point of reference. They could see the motions were of worm-like creatures in a variety of sizes. They scurried within the transparent arteries in the gel, moving from one body and into another. The bodies had become nodes in the network, repurposed as transits and stops for the busy worms. Some were limp and lifeless. Others moved in spasmodic motions as if gyrating to programmed signals. Guttural sounds mixed with random gibberish came from the gaping mouths of the suspended miners. The sounds of drowning nightmares. The sounds weren't carried by the air of human lungs, but by the gases transmitted through the hive.
“Maggie?” Whispered Dean, paralyzed with fear.
“Dean?” Maggie said, robotically. The hairs on her neck stood at attention. A thick hide of goosebumps enveloped her. Her throat tightened to gag her. Her bones shook and she pissed herself. But she was still able to take all this in. The annoying field researcher within her observed the symptoms of oncoming annihilation dispassionately.
“Will this do for evidence?” Asked Dean.
“Can we go now?”
As they turned to re-enter the hatch their eyes fixed on the center of the airlock. A black slug a meter tall and three meters long lay between them and the outer hatch of the airlock and freedom. It glistened in the darkness. Its surface crawled with a thousand obsidian daggers. It was standing guard. They slowly moved back out.
“Does that thing look familiar?” Ask Dean.
“I noticed that too. Same spike pattern. Mandibles. Definitely related.”
“And we left one in our kitchen.”
“Let’s find another way out of here.”
Maggie followed Dean as they made their way around the perimeter of the dome to the rear hatch. While they walked Maggie kept aiming her helmet cam at the sights in the room. Bodies in all forms of contortions being entered and exited by countless worms and other multi-legged creatures. Red, pink, green, grey, and brown fluids exited and entered the bodies.
Maggie stifled a scream. Her gaze fixed on a woman staring right at her. The woman's mouth agape, a film covered her face. Hundreds of worms entered and exited her nose, eyes, ears, and mouth. Her eyes followed Maggie and she made a spasmodic valiant attempt at a scream. But only a thick resinous bile came from her mouth filled with thousands of tiny black and green eels.”
“Shit!” Whispered Dean.
Maggie shook her attention away from the horrific image. “What’s wrong?”
“The hatch. It was melted.”
“Can you cut it open?”
“Yeah, I can cut the hinges off.”
“Be quick.” Maggie said, looking around.
The adrenaline now made her want to punch her way out of the dome. A gnawing claustrophobia came over her. Then something damned on her. ‘Why did the worms bore through the hatch, but not through the foamcrete domes?’ If she survived the day, she could perform experiments. But for now, survive.
“It’ll l take a minute.” Said Dean as he pulled the torch from his bag.
Dean made quick work of the hatch’s two hinges and they could move it far enough to squeeze through.
Maggie saw two more of the black slugs approaching along the perimeter from either direction.
“Dean, they’re coming.”
A shriek came from within the red blob. The motions within the mass changed and speed up.
“I think it knows we're here.”
Dean tore open a control panel and turned to Maggie. “Hold onto this bar as hard as you can. I have an idea.”
Dean examined the panel’s control systems.
“Come on, where are you.”
The shriek grew louder, and the black creatures were getting closer.
Dean pressed a green button and there was a thud and a roar. The red blob shifted and then flew in the direction of the other hatch. A crunching sound shook the hab. Shrieking followed. A cacophony of sludge flowed onto the foamcrete floors. A horrid gurgling sound warbled in the thinning air. The pressure difference sucked the gelatinous mass through the airlock into the third dome. The black creatures shot after it shrieking. Dean activated the outer hatch behind them. It opened to the black cave.
“Time to go.”
As they ran from the decompressed dome, they encountered a blinding light. It was the Metaphora.
“Did you call for the Tesla?”
They hopped in the open deck of the airlock. They closed the hatch and the Tesla's acceleration threw them back.
“Who the hell is driving this thing!”
They cycled the airlock and entered the cabin.
Their captains' chairs were empty. They sat down. The console was lit with a red light.
“What's controlling it?” Asked Maggie, taking her helmet off.
“It’s gotta have an AI.”
They looked at each other and both said “Jessup!”
The Tesla then screeched to a stop in front of the power generator.
“Why the hell did it stop?” Said Maggie, running to the back of the cabin and looking out the back window.
“Maggie, come here. Said Dean, reading the console.”
Maggie could read the only thing on the large black screen were the words “Reset RTG to 60 seconds.”
They glanced at each other and then out the passenger side window. There was the generator that was going to power the lava flow into the mine.
“I got this.” Said Dean, who never had taken off his helmet.
“Dean no! Let’s go.”
“I don’t think it'll let us.” He said as he entered the airlock and closed the inner hatch.
Maggie watched Dean on the monitors from the external cameras in the driver's seat of the Tesla. She watched as he opened the panel.
“OK, it’s reset for 60 seconds. Let’s go.”
A shadow passed over one of her cameras on the driver’s side of the Tesla. She turned and saw the gaping orifice of the black creature. Its mandibles clapped together, and it lunged at the side of the Tesla and knocked her from her captain’s chair.
The cabin rose into the air and the vehicle twisted.
Dean hid behind the generator. He watched as the Tesla reared up like a horse confronted by a rattlesnake. That horse had six legs and titanium wheels for hooves. It seemed to wait for the giant worm to make its move. The black mass moved towards the Tesla. The vehicle directed all its weight to its two front wheels, which landed on top of the creature. The two front wheels pinned the creature to the ground. They spun in opposite directions grinding the massive worm to shreds.
Dean studied at the timer on the generator. "Twenty-five seconds until a hundred kilotons of basalt dust were going into a pugmill at 1500 degrees Celsius.
Dean looked back. A dozen of the black creatures coming towards them at a ferocious speed. He knew what he had to do.
“Maggie, go. Now!”
Dean aimed the 10,000-watt LED perched on top of the generator at the charging slugs.
He flipped the switch and they changed course aiming for the light.
The Tesla’s six wheels spun at the same time and it was gone in a cloud of dust.
There was nowhere for him to run. The creatures continued to close in. There must have been dozens of them. He wondered how they were moving. It was as if they rolled in the way 20th century cartoons would run. A blurring rolling action, as if they possessed wheels. The chitinous daggers propelled them forward.
There was no outrunning them.
He spoke into his helmet.
The Tesla was now traveling at 76 kph, still on autopilot, and it continued to speed up. Six black creatures pursued her. She heard a crackling voice on the comms.
“I don't know if you can still read me, Magg’s.”
“Dean, I can hear you!”
“But I always loved you.”
“Dean, try and hide. I’ll get help.” She realized he was not hearing her.
“Get the kids off the planet and don’t look ...”
Then there was static, and the Tesla banked left and up a steep slope on the side of the crescent cave entrance.
“Dean!” Maggie began screaming. Once she had exhausted a torrent of obscenities, she sobbed. The Tesla continued to accelerate.
Behind her the black creatures were falling back. They were faster than cheetahs. Propelled by undulation and chitinous hooks like a caterpillar. Her inner voice noted these taxonomy anomalies. She hated this voice right now. How could she be so cold.
The Tesla changed directions and headed North and up a steep basalt ridge to a plateau and stopped.
“She grabbed the controls and tried to engage the drive train. It would not move.”
“What the hell! Why are you stopping?”
Maggie activated the comms.
“MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY. This is Margaret Tenderly. Amazonis Planitia. My Coordinates are 213 degrees 35 minutes East by 15 degrees 16 minutes North. I am in a Tesla Metaforá rover. There’s been an accident. Require immediate emergency assistance. This is a class 1 contagion protocol. I repeat. This is a class 1 contagion protocol. Deadly organism. Unknown organism. It killed.” She stopped and gasped and swallowed tears as snot ran down her mouth and chin. “It killed my husband, Dean Tenderly, and everyone at a drill site 1 kilometer south of my position. Need assistance. Over?”
There was static on the other end. The Martian day was still young. It was 10 am. The contrail of a rocket to the southwest caught Maggie’s eye.
She scrambled and found Dean’s duffle bag and pulled out a Laser Sat Comm. She aimed it at the rocket and sent out the distress beacon.
No response. Nothing on any channel. Was the radio jammed?
Maggie was hyperventilating. She fought to control herself. She found her hands and looked at them as if they had been lost. A wild idea swam into her mind and nausea overwhelmed her. What a despicable person she’d have to be to dare do this now.
She looked at her hands again and out the window and then she knelt on the carpeted floor of the Metaphora. She clasped her hands together. A cramp tugged at her ribcage, and she sobbed. Then She squeezed her fingers so hard that pain raced up her arms. She was furious and wished her fingers would break.
She started to pray.
At first, she could only get out through clenched teeth “Please, God”. “Please, God”.
Then she recalled the prayers from her childhood, before her parent’s divorce, when she still attended mass. She picked one. The one that ended all the masses back in Batavia. She said it from rote at first. Her scientist mind was apologetic. But still taking notes on her choices.
“Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle…” She took a breath. She didn’t remember the last time she had taken one, or the last time she had prayed.
“Be our protection against the wiles and wickedness of the devil” She always liked that word, “Wiles.”
“May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host,”
A Heavenly Host. She loved the mystery of the church. She loved ideas like a heavenly host. It was like an angelic organism. Like the exact opposite of the thing she left in dome number four.
“By the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.”
Blood pulsed in her clenched white fingers.
“Oh God. Please God. I don’t deserve a miracle. I’m terrible. The things I’ve done. I don’t deserve anything. But I'm here. Right now. And I’m asking you. Please give me a miracle. I want a miracle. Bring him back to me. We aren’t done yet. We aren’t done yet. Bring back my Dean. Oh God, please bring back my Dean.” Her sobs wracked her body.
The radio still crackled with static.
Those things would find her soon. She might be better off on foot. She studied the airlock and glanced at her helmet sitting on Dean's chair.
If not at least it would be quick.