A Science Fiction Short Story
The intercom crackled in his helmet, interrupting his daydream in mid-leap. Losing his rhythm, Beck landed awkwardly and nearly went to his knees. Only his reflexes and training prevented him from sprawling face first in the red dust that billowed around his boots. The dust hung in the air like mist, partially obscuring the furrows his feet had dug into the surface. Beck bounced a few more times in decreasing arcs, windmilling his arms until his momentum had dissipated and he was able to stand still.
“Beck, time to come in man, you’re twenty minutes over your EVA limit.” Gardner’s voice sounded annoyed.
“Plenty of air left in the tanks, Leo,” Beck replied, wanting to laugh but not daring to. Leo Gardner had a poorly developed sense of humor to start with, and it had deteriorated rapidly in the three days they had been on the surface.
“That’s not the point,” Gardner snapped, completely missing the point. “Twenty-one minutes to nightfall and I want you in before that. Get back in ASAP.”
“Yes, sir. Coming back right away.” Beck still wanted to laugh but Gardner was mission commander for this landing and nominally his superior. No need to rub him up the wrong way. Still two more days to go on this mission, the first of the habitat survey expeditions launched from the orbiting Nergal.
He activated the homing device on his wrist and turned around to orient himself in the indicated direction. The hull of the Wolf glittered brightly in the setting sun and Beck was surprised to see how far he had come. The craft looked tiny, like a silver toy on an ochre carpet and Beck felt a twinge of guilt for stressing Gardner out so much. Leo has seen how far out he was but not said anything until just now and Beck knew he would likely have gone on further without Gardner’s warning.
It took him more than an hour to make it back to the Wolf. By that time the surrounding landscape had morphed into a surreal purple twilight. Far away, the top of Olympus Mons still glittered in the light of the setting sun, the bulk of its mass hidden beyond the horizon.
“I’m here, Leo,” he informed his teammate, making short work of the last few meters leading to Wolf’s airlock. The ground around the craft had been trampled flat by their boots, but this was not like the lunar surface. The frequent windstorms had dissipated much of the red dust and left the surface granular, scattered with boulders of varying shapes and sizes.
Unlike mission control to pick such a relatively clear area for a landing site, but then, this was a habitat survey mission, he thought as he switched on his headlamp and activated the airlock door. In the shadow of the Wolf, it was darker and felt much colder, though that was physically impossible. Beck knew his suit controlled his body temperature. Another example of his mind playing tricks with reality.
Inside, he recycled the airlock and waited for the green lights to stop flashing before unfastening his helmet and taking a deep breath. The air inside the Wolf was canned, just as it was in his suit, but somehow, it just felt better.
“How’re you doing down there, John?” Gardner’s voice chimed in over the intercom. “Come to the bridge when you’re ready. I’ve got something to show you.”
“Will do, Leo.” Beck stripped off the bulky EVA suit reflecting on how much larger the airlock was, compared to the primitive lunar landers of the previous century.
Guess they never changed their clothes he thought with a grin.
The boots were the last to come off, and they were dirty, almost completely covered in red dust that clung to the enameled surfaces as if it had been sprayed on. Picking them up by the inner linings Beck dropped them into a waiting container for analysis and cleaning and turned to do the same with the rest of the suit. It was then that he noticed the anomaly.
On the back of his left shoulder, where he could never have seen it while wearing the suit, was a shiny red speck flecked with green, so incongruous in that white sterile space that it screamed for his attention. Picking up the suit gingerly he bent down for a closer look and nearly passed out in shock and surprise. On the white of the suit’s fabric was a tiny object, slightly larger that a ladybug, perfectly oval and glittering iridescent in the airlock lights.
Beck looked at the impossible sight for a long time, hardly daring to breathe, staring at something that should not and could not be there, although it was. The lander was sterile. He knew that. It hadn’t been in here or on him when he left. It had to have come in with him. Come in from the outside.
Very slowly he put the suit back down on the floor so as not to disturb the object and stepping back, switched the airlock cameras from monitor to record. Then he called Gardner on the bridge.
“Leo, can you come down to the airlock right away? It’s urgent,” he said, not taking his eyes from the crumpled heap of white on the floor. He half expected the sparkling object to have disappeared, but it was still there, seemingly inert, defying possibility.
“Be right there, John.” To his credit, Gardner had picked up on the undercurrent in Beck’s voice and he wasn’t asking any questions. At least, not yet. Beck continued to stare at his discovery, waiting for Gardner to open the airlock from the other side.
As he watched, the tiny speck of color expanded visibly, growing until it was five times its initial size. The iridescent red and green hues darkened to a deep burgundy, like a dried blood stain on the white of the suit. Beck’s first instinct was to get as far away from the object as possible, which wasn’t very far in the confined space of the airlock. Instead, he took a deep breath and held it, waiting for his training to kick in. Then he bent down to observe as the thing morphed before his eyes. Gone was the oval ladybug appearance of moments ago. Instead, It now looked like a small red marshmallow with a spongy, pitted surface. As he watched, fascinated, the thing pulsed. Then it exploded in a cloud of tiny spores.
The spores spread upwards in a tiny pink cloud, dispersing rapidly past Beck’s face as he tried, too late, to draw his head back. The feeling of the spores on his skin was a feathery caress, like a puff of breeze on a still day. His throat began to scratch and the muscles in his face and arms twitched involuntarily. Out of nowhere he felt a strange urge. He needed to get out, outside this restricted space. The urge became stronger, grew imperative and his muscles moved to obey even though his mind rebelled at the insanity of what he was considering. He tried to force his body to turn away but he no longer seemed to have control of his limbs or his will. His feet moved towards the exterior airlock, which he had sealed only moments earlier. He tried to focus but control kept skating away like a magnet approaching the opposite pole of another.
This is insane, he thought, fighting his body’s unnatural behavior, even as his shuffling steps drew him inexorably up to the lock. I’ve got no suit on. What the hell am I doing?
Even as he considered it, the thought careened away and something in his head insisted that he open the lock. His fading self-control understood suddenly that the thought was alien, hostile, somehow linked to the iridescent object on his suit and the spores he had breathed. Detachedly, he watched his arms reach out to the airlock control, his fingers moving over the keypad.
Behind him, a low melodious triple tone signaled the start of the internal airlock open sequence. Gardner was opening that door. He registered the event, even as his fingers tapped in the correct sequence for the outer lock, his muscle memory overriding his failing motor control.
“Alert, alert, opening both locks will result in hull breach,” Wolf’s AI broke in urgently. “Warning, catastrophic failure imminent!” The AI continued to repeat the warning in increasingly insistent tone and volume.
As he watched, the lights above the control panel cycled from green to red and a warning siren filled the airlock as outer lock unsealed with a sibilant hiss. Behind him, the inner door flew open and Gardner screamed at him.
“John! What the fuck are you doing, John?” he yelled, then tried to scramble back through the door, which was now pinned open against the airlock wall.
Beck turned to look at his colleague, feeling a vague sense of sorrow as he watched Gardner pull futilely against the air pressure pinning the door open. Behind him, the outer lock unsealed completely and popped open with a bang. The hiss rose to a roar as the air in the craft exploded outwards, pulling him and Gardner along with it. His ears popped and he strained for breath as he was forced outside by the gale of crystalline vapor that had been Wolf’s atmosphere. His head felt like huge hands were squeezing it from both sides and his chest and lungs burned with the effort to extract a breath from the vanishingly thin atmosphere. He landed on his back about five meters from the open lock, in profound silence and the last thing he saw was Gardner flailing and tumbling out of the lock towards him, trailing the last of their air in a glittering cloud of crystals.