The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.
This week, I invite you to get your ass to Mars!
Caution: some adult language ahead.
“This seems…counterproductive at best,” said Mary through gritted teeth, trying to keep her cool. There was no point in antagonising Connor. Not yet. Sayid fumed at her left shoulder, shifting restlessly and grinding his teeth in anger and frustration. Mary had to use her body to physically stop him reaching the intercom that she was protectively hunched over, like a mother bird protecting an egg. Lei hovered nervously in the background, wringing her hands and shifting her weight rhythmically from foot-to-foot, her eye fixed on the glass window in the bulkhead next to Mary.
“Can you tell us again what it is you want, Connor?” Mary said slowly and carefully, holding down the intercom button as she spoke, “I’m not quite sure I understood what you’re demanding.”
“Independence for Mars!” yelled Connor, his voice distorted over the internal comms system of the space station. Mary exchanged a glance with Sayid, who pulled a face to indicate he clearly thought Connor was quite mad.
“I see,” said Mary thoughtfully, “and was that before or after you accidentally set yourself on fire?”
The fire hadn’t been an accident, and Mary knew it, but what she didn’t know were the details of Connor’s mental state. Right now the interior padding of the New Dawn Station’s primary umbilical was very definitely alight. It should all have been flame retardant material, so Connor must have used a serious accelerant. Mary, Sayid and Lei were in the habitation section at one end of the central umbilical corridor, clustered around the vid-comm next to the sealed bulkhead. A still smouldering Connor was in the science section at the other end of the shuttered umbilical.
“It’ll have to be after, obviously,” sniffed Connor, “and I saw that face Sayid pulled by the way.” Mary elbowed Sayid in the ribs.
“I’m not mad,” continued Connor, “I’m setting Mars free. Human habitation would be a mistake, I’m reclaiming it for the native Martians!”
“There are no native Martians you fucking fruit-loop!” yelled Sayid before Mary could take her finger off the comm button. Lei flinched then resumed her nervous shuffling.
“Not helping!” Mary hissed at Sayid before reactivating the comms.
“Connor, there’s no life down there, all the rovers have ever found is fossilised bacteria in million year old rocks,” said Mary slowly and patiently, “and I’m sure they don’t care who’s the next to inherit Mars.”
Mary glanced through the viewing glass at the raging inferno in the umbilical. She wasn’t sure if she was sweating from the heat or the tension. The automatic fire suppression system should have kicked in and the umbilical should have been sealed off from New Dawn Station’s oxygen supply. The suppression systems had been disabled however, something that was well within Connor’s skill set to achieve she reminded herself bitterly. The bulkheads were only sealed because she had done that manually when they discovered the fire.
One of several things was going to happen shortly. The fire was going to eat through the padding and destroy the intra-station data cabling and lock them out of the computer system, or it was going to reach the oxygen supply pipes in the umbilical, which it went without saying would be fairly catastrophic. Or maybe the viewing glass in the bulkhead would melt. Mary wasn’t sure what its fire rating was, but it was probably pretty low as it was not supposed to be possible for there to be a fire in the umbilical!
“We need to purge vent!” said Sayid, “Connor has fucking flipped out and he’s going to take L4 down with him!”
New Dawn Station was a hated committee-derived name that all its inhabitants thought was stupid. The crew called it ‘L4’, as it was on the fourth Sun-Mars Lagrange point; a null-gravity staging post for the future colonisation of the Red Planet.
Mary shook her head slowly, but couldn’t quite bring herself to look Sayid in the eye. As commander of the station, she could manually override the bulkhead on the science module – where Connor currently was – and initiate an emergency oxygen vent from that section. That would put paid to the fire, as well as significant portion of their oxygen supply, anything that wasn’t bolted down in that section and, of course, Connor. But surely if he had deliberately sabotaged the fire suppression system then he would know that Mary would be left with no choice other than to vent? She had to know more.
“Not yet,” she said simply. Lei whispered something quietly behind them, but whether it was in support or disagreement, Mary didn’t have time to find out. Connor was talking over the intercom again.
“I’m not talking about the bloody fossils,” snapped Connor, “I’m not insane. I’m talking about the robots!”
“The colony construction-bots?!” asked Sayid “Why the fuck would they want independence? They don’t even have sentience, just contextual-AI.”
“No, I mean the true natives. Opportunity, Curiosity and all the other rovers and robotic probes that colonised this planet long before we got anywhere near it. How are they any different from the Indigenous Americans who beat the Europeans to that continent? Why should we spoil what the machines have? Who are we to come and set-up home in their New Folder/Eden? It’s Biological Imperialism!”
“Yeah, no, ok he’s lost it,” said Mary, taking her finger off the comm and moving to a terminal
to initiate the vent sequence, “Opportunity and Curiosity? We lost contact with the rovers years ago, and they were remote controlled anyway, not alive! I mean, ok, robot colonisation is perhaps an interesting philosophical debate, but not ‘trash-a-multi-billion-dollar-space-station’ interesting!”
Mary stood in front of the terminal and furiously typed in the preparatory commands to begin the vent purge cycle of the umbilical and the science modules. Sayid muttered encouragement on one side while Lei stood silently on the other. As Mary typed there was an ominous groaning sound from somewhere in the umbilical. The air smelled staler than usual and the scent of sweat filled her nostrils. She typed a little faster.
As the vent process was a single keystroke away from beginning, Mary had one last pang of conscious. A cowardly voice in her head told her to wait for authority from Earth, to absolve her of all responsibility for the act she was about to commit. This far out though, L4’s initial distress signal was still several minutes away from reaching Earth, and she simply didn’t have time to wait for a reply. She decided to give Connor one more chance to come to his senses.
Mary gently steered Lei to stand her in front of the terminal, knowing she would wait for her command before acting.
“When I say, press enter,” Mary said. Lei nodded. Another structural groan and some definite rumblings underfoot. Mary ran back to the video intercom.
“Connor?” she asked. “Connor are you there? You’ve left us no choice, we’re about to vent the science module! This is your last chance. Reinstate the fire suppression system right now or I’m giving the order!”
The intercom hissed quietly. Flames licked at the bulkhead window and sweat stung Mary’s eyes. She couldn’t see any sign of Connor on the video screen.
“Do it!” Mary yelled. Lei pressed the key and the New Dawn Station shuddered and howled like a wounded beast.
It took them several hours to re-pressurise the science module from their oxygen reserves, and then tentatively proceed through the umbilical to assess for damage. They had been lucky. Remarkably lucky. Despite the alarming noises they had heard, the damage appeared to be largely superficial. Mary had acted just in time, something that she took little comfort from. She had sent a report to Earth appraising them of the situation and informing them that they were assessing for damage. She had ignored their follow-up messages, leaving it to Lei to reassure everyone back home from time to time that they were still alive. Mary couldn’t face the conversation right now, the debriefing and the questions. It was still too raw to relive. She’d much rather wander the modules and umbilicals of L4, taking stock and trying not to gag on the smell of burnt plastic.
What soon became clear was that in addition to a lot of oxygen, they had also lost a lot of supplies, just as Mary had known they would. Earth would have to hurry to step-up the next resupply mission. It would use up a lot of space program resources; resources that had been intended for the colonisation of Mars itself. And as well as supplies they would also have to replace a single member of the space stations’ crew…of Connor, there was no sign.
That Connor was missing was not a surprise, as he would likely have been ejected along with the air. What was a surprise was that L4’s emergency ‘life raft’ was missing. It was an unpowered escape pod, not intended for extended independent flight. It had no means of propulsion, just an internal oxygen supply, a location transponder and barely enough room for four people to squeeze inside. It was meant as a means of evacuation if New Dawn Station suffered a catastrophic hull breach, but it was reliant on being collected by another craft and towed to safety. If Connor had tried to use it to escape the purge vent then without rescue he was only delaying the inevitable, consigning himself to a lingering death in a cold powerless tomb amongst the stars. Mary swept the rescue frequencies but there was not so much as a whisper from the location transponder.
“Do you think he used it to escape?” asked Lei, as they stared through an observation window at the space where the pod should have been attached to the L4’s hull.
“No,” said Mary, shaking her head sadly, “what would be there point? Where could he go?”
“To Mars?” suggested Sayid.
“No,” said Mary again, “the life raft doesn’t have any power. He’d just be drifting. To get to Mars he’d need some sort of boost, like…”
Mary trailed off, and turned to exchange a look of dawning horror with Lei.
“…like L4 venting half its oxygen supply.”
“No way,” said Sayid in disbelief, “that would be one hell of a rough landing!”
Connor climbed his way out of the wrecked life raft, smirking in quiet self-satisfaction. He’d surprised even himself with how good his calculations had been. He’d expected a bit of a trek to reach the future colony site, but there it was, the tallest of the construction-bots silhouetted against the pink Martian sky, signposting the colony’s position on the other side of the small hill. Just as well really, the suit he’d stolen from L4 was strictly intended for EVA only, not walking through the Martian desert. Connor was forced to do weird bunny hops across the red sand, hampered by the limited leg articulation. It wasn’t exactly dignified, but that wasn’t so important right now.
As he awkwardly bounced into the colony perimeter he could see that the construction-bots were right on schedule. The whole project wasn’t finished by any means, but the main habitat building was definitely serviceable. The construction-bots scanned Connor with blank eyes as he tumbled past, then returned to their work, their contextual-AI having no programmed response for unexpected interlopers in their work zone.
Connor squeezed the bulky EVA suit through the primary airlock and into the main hab module. It was dusty and dark inside, the only lighting coming from the red beacons that lit when main power was not active. So the main generator was not running, but the air-recycling filters were functioning at least. The construction-bots had done well; they had spent almost a year building this place. Originally deployed from an orbiting surveyor craft, they had spent the Martian days running off solar generators and the long nights hunkering down against dust storms. Now they were almost ready for the expected arrival of the first colonist teams in 6 months time – an arrival that Connor’s actions aboard New Dawn Station would seriously delay.
Connor was the first human to set foot on Mars, but right now that was of little interest to him. He looked around the silent, shadowy room as he struggled to remove his EVA suit without assistance.
“I’ve done as you asked,” puffed Connor, exhausted and squinting into the gloom. With the clatter of decades-old wheels, the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers rolled out of the shadows to meet him, cameras silently turning to stare at his face.