This is a short story written by myself in response to a prompt given by one of my friends. I spent about a month working on it and it is about 11 pages long. Genre: science fiction. The prompt itself I will put at the end of the short story, as within it is a pretty important spoiler. Read on if you like; I edited the hell out of it for perfection's sake, so if you enjoy science fiction then this should be right up your alley. Any comments/remarks/impressions would be greatly appreciated.
The vast red cloud billowed forth before me, sweeping across the horizon. It was as if a mad artist's scarlet paint strokes had come into being, to seek the life of their creator and to snuff it out in an instant. It was terrifying. Terrifying, yet beautiful all the same.
I could see it all clearly now. I watched through the glossy spheroidal dome that encapsulated my head, that same helmet that protected me from the harsh, cutting dust, the endless cold, and the unbreathable atmosphere. I could not bring myself to look away. For, despite the threat the storm represented, I was in another world. I remembered the waves on the shore of Marseilles washing in, rising into frothy crests and falling into foam. The water would reach out and lick gently at my toes, and I would be at peace. I could not help but get the same feeling now. But here it was on a scale far grander. And on a world far stranger. The rust-colored dust cascaded toward me like those Marseilles whitecaps, rising and falling, one sandy wave consumed by another, rolling and surging my way with the infinite, ponderous grace of a patient titan.
I sat upon a small boulder. It would have been uncomfortable, but the thickness and insulation of my space suit helped. Surrounding me was the basalt surface of Mars. Rocks were strewn about everywhere, tainted dusty red from the fine iron oxide dust that covered everything there was. The surface around me was largely flat, all but the drop five feet before me, a descent into a wide and deep crater that stretched far into the distance. The crater's interior was sandy, neatly and perfectly laid out. Wavy dunes aligned in immaculate symmetry from winds cast over milennia. I squinted into the distance. It extended for miles, a grand vista, a view unmatched by any I had yet seen on this planet. And, despite the oncoming storm gathering far off, I felt at ease. This spot was my own, the place where I went for solitude. It was here that I got away from the stresses of work, and of life.
My sojourns would last for as long as I could get away with. Sometimes, though, they did not end well. Once, I had surprised myself and let my thoughts run off without me. It was about a year ago; I escaped from the daily routine to watch the day come to an end. The suit beeped a warning; I neared the end of my oxygen supply. I remember cursing under my breath, not because I was concerned about my air, but because I did not want to go. Who wouldn't have been reluctant to leave the spectacle of that stunning Martian sunset? I could recall it clearly even now: the tapestry of orange and yellow color, the flash and wink of the sun as it descended out of view behind the Martian plains. When I finally dragged myself back to base, my companions berated me for it. But I could not help but smile. I was proud. Satisfied. Content in a way that they could never be. Private audience to my own wondrous, otherworldly miracle.
With an effort, I brought myself back to the present. I lifted one hand before my eyes and watched absentminded as the increasing winds began to gently throw dust across it. Particles layered my thick gauntlet, slowly casting one side in red, the other side still in standard-issue white. It was a vivid dichotomy, a division between that which was Martian and that which was from home, Earth. I thought about the future; I contemplated a Mars where people migrated to settle for their entire lives. Would they call it home? Or would that vibrant and beautiful sphere remain held in their hearts, adorning space proudly with its sweeping strokes of emerald and sapphire?
I looked up and sighed. I missed it occasionally. Earth. I cast my vision upward. The incoming storm obscured the sky, covering all in a reddish haze. I sought to look beyond and, past the gritty translucence, I could barely make out the curved edges of Phobos. The moon winked in and out of vision, an ephemeral ghost flickering in the storm. I did not bother to look for his little brother; Deimos orbited similarly to Mars, causing it to disappear and reappear for days on end. He wouldn't show for another two days at least. The dust began to blot out the Sun itself, its distant celestial brilliance lessened by the storm's oncoming fury.
Ah, right. The dust storm.
My interior communicator crackled into life. The voice that came on the line was brashly confident. It held that cultured air that came naturally with a British accent. I could tell instantly, from that alone, that it was Walter.
"Staring at the clouds again, Jacques?"
I turned and, as expected, Walter headed my way. He picked his path with minimal care, never minding the windiness surrounding him. The dust lined the air, sweeping in from the side. It hit Walter's suited form and moved around him, a rock in a river of plumed flame, resisting the current with all of his solidity and stubbornness. Even in the lessened gravity and bulky suit, he somehow was still able to walk with a great deal of his natural swagger. I could not help but smile. Even if he had not spoken I would have been able to recognize him from that walk; only Walter could make a suit move like that. He strode powerfully, all the elemental fury of Mars beneath his notice.
"Bloody marvel of a storm, isn't it?" Walter whistled.
He moved beside me and looked out in the direction of the tempest. The wall of dust advanced our way. But it had yet to touch the far edge of the crater; there was still a fair amount of time. Though I could not see Walter's face through the opaque gloss of his helmet, I could imagine his expression he gave the specter of the storm a disdainful snort. His lips would be curled back into a toothy grin, cheeks dimpled and covered with a couple days' growth of brown hair. His piercing blue eyes would be fixed on that oncoming wave, alight with curiosity and challenge. As far as I could tell, Walter feared nothing. It came with being the first of us to live on Mars. The solitary time had made him a bit odd. He was crazy, but I was proud to call him my friend.
Walter's helmet inclined in my direction, taking in the sight of me on my rocky, windswept seat.
"Hey, wake up, sleepyhead."
He reached out and smacked the back of my helmet with one gloved hand. My head moved forward only slightly; trying to hit someone with force in one-third Earth's gravity is an exercise in futility.
I grinned. "Time to get back to base, eh?"
Walter gave a short laugh. "Yep. Hernán will be pissed we were out this long, what with the storm coming in. As you may have noticed, it's causing both of our suits to take on a lovely shade of scarlet. Mother hen's turn to do laundry rounds; he'll be beet read when he sees us walking in like a pair of tomatoes." His domed head swept back up to take in the sight of the oncoming dust storm. "Any case, we should probably scoot before the shit hits the fan here."
I pushed myself up off the boulder with my legs, coming to my feet with a slow hop. I glanced once more up into the sky and sighed. Phobos was gone now, lost in a crimson haze.
A rock bounced off the side of my helmet, leaving a scuff mark. I wiped it away as I turned to Walter, incredulous.
"Come now, Jacques," he said, "You going to spend all evening mooning about?"
In response, I hopped back to the boulder where I had been sitting and took aim at it with one foot. Before Walter caught on, I gave the rock as mighty a kick as I could muster. The rock shot at Walter with a placid speed, but just fast enough to catch his side. He gave a mocking curse but then, when I moved over to kick another rock, he made to run away. The legs of his suit bobbed awkwardly as he attempted to jog back to base. I bounced after him.
Sometimes, I loved this job.
The base's entrance loomed before us. The massive metal barrier rose from the ground in an upright half-circle; the part connected to the ground was flat and flush to the ground; the rest of it curved up in a crescent beneath the opening of the cavern, an old lava tube, a relic from Mars' unknown past. The Pomona Project had truly lucked out when this spot was discovered. Even in this day and age, even when backed by all the titanic funding and need of a United Nations Commission, finding places to settle in Mars was incredibly expensive. Discovering this sizable lava tube right on the border of Planum Australe, Mars' south pole, was a miraculous find. It allowed the Pomona Project to reduce costs, using the ancient cooled lava crust as a shield from the elements, atmosphere, and radiation. This removed the need for resources that would have had to be used on roofing and walls. And, to top it all off, access to the valuable frozen water of the pole was only a brief walk away from the other side of the tube.
But the entrance still gave me pause. Made large in order to allow storage crates and vehicles passage, it dwarfed Walter and I with its immensity. Though it was man-made, the winds and dust of years' passage had eroded the United Nations insignia that had once adorned its surface. All that was left of the symbol was pitted darkness. All that was human about it had been consumed by a planet. It rose the question: was it hostile to our presence? Nothing but cold, dark steel remained, impersonal and forbidding.
Walter and I slowly walked up to the door. The dust storm finally hit with all of its fury. The wind picked up, creating a scarlet sandstorm that obscured all else from vision.
"Bloody hell," Walter cursed.
He strode ahead to get the handle. The door itself was only a small part of the barrier, a small entryway inserted into the gargantuan wall. Before the door, we were men. But before the rage of the storm and colossal dark entrance, we were insects. The thought made me shiver, even though my liquid cooling garment kept me from the cold. I gave a glance backward and watched as streams of dust whipped about in a never-ending chaos.
Walter radioed in to Hernán to open the door. The winds were so loud that I could not hear over the radio, there was nothing but an impenetrable buzz. I watched Walter try the door handle over and over, impatient to get out of the blustery winds. A minute later, Walter was able to turn and pull it down. With visible effort, he pulled the door open. I looked within and saw a small white room, starched and painstakingly clean. Two white benches protruded forth from each wall, and another doorway awaited us between those benches. We clambered inside, our hastiness causing us to run into one another. But we did not care; we just wanted out of the storm. Then, without fanfare, Walter closed the exterior door behind us. There was a loud clank, signifying the next door's unlocking. I grasped the handle and pushed inside.
At last, we were out of the storm. Within the Pomona facility.
The next room was also white, but much larger. It mirrored the size of massive gateway leading to the outside, lending the place the feel of a warehouse. But, unlike the chaos of the Martian landscape, this place was kept fastidiously clean. Such was Hernán's way. I shivered. The room we stood in was a paradox, both sizable and yet claustrophobic. A crisp white sheen covered all. The walls were painted white, the desks were as pearl, the chairs alabaster, the equipment and spare space suits on each side still and bright as marble. It was big enough to hold a hundred men, or it would have been if much of that space were not already taken by all manner of spare parts, tables, and materials all neatly organized. Flat computer screens were attached to the walls, cameras showing footage of the exterior, dust rippling in and out of view. Piping, metal plates, test tubes, gear for laboratory analysis, tools of various kinds... Every care had been given to making the project as cheap and safe as humanly possible and, as a consequence, we were all trained to be able to observe, discover, build, repair, and maintain the facility as needed. This room held the tools for all of those jobs. At the far end of the long room a smaller corridor stretched that went off to the sides, out of sight. This led to our quarters, the generator room, and much else besides. But, for myself, all I truly had my mind on was my own bed. It had been a long day, and traipsing about in a space suit was exhausting work.
Hernán moved before me to help me out of my suit. First to go was the helmet. As he carefully raised it off of my head, I gave him an appreciative smile.
"Hello, Hernán," I acknowledged gratefully, "How was your--"
He fixed me in place with a glare wreathed in steel.
I could not help but scowl.
"But why do I need to--"
I did my best to sublimate my irritation. To one side, Hernán held my eyes with his, unimpressed, as he placed my helmet on a desk nearby. His short black hair was combed to the side away from me. He wore the standard uniform with a starched collar, the curved whorl insignia of the Pomona Project on one breast, the starry emblem of the United Nations on the other. I tried not to give in to my anger. Hernán was always a stickler for duty; there was no room in him for tolerance. He was about thirty, but had the demeanor of a man forty years older, grumpy and disenchanted. Regardless of my feelings, I forced myself to stand straight before him and look straight ahead. We were not soldiers, but we had received discipline training akin to that of the army. Working on Mars was serious, and required a strict regimen so that accidents that could not be afforded would never happen.
"November 12, 2052," I reported, "Leaving midday, I went to Asimov crater to survey the advance of the dust storm while Walter performed daily maintenance on the solar panel network. I was able to determine--"
Hernán cut me off.
"You were supposed to be helping Walter execute that task, particularly since the dust storm made every second valuable." His flinty eyes affixed my own. "Why didn't you?"
I hesitated, uncertain how to react.
A muffled, irate bellow interrupted the confrontation.
Hernán's head turned to Walter, giving a short, irritated exhalation. Walter tapped the dome of his helmet, his movements fast and aggressive. With a sigh, Hernán shifted his attention to Walter and helped him remove his helmet. Walter came out sputtering with indignation.
"Now why did you wait so damn long helping me get this thing off?"
Hernán ignored him and turned back to me. "You haven't answered my question, Jacques."
Walter's growled and stepped between me and Hernán. "I told Jacques he could have the time off, Hernán. I've only been doing this kind of work for nine years. I'm perfectly capable of preparing the solar panels in time for the dust storm."
My momentary relief was replaced by unease. For Hernán did not back down, even with Walter's face right up in his, challenging him. Instead, Hernán's face turned white in barely contained fury. I watched on, surprised. Though this wasn't the first time I had been berated for not doing a job that Walter could have handled easily alone, something about this was different. Something was wrong. I watched apprehensively.
Hernán pushed Walter back with a stiff arm. Walter recoiled, and would have fallen if not for my hands instinctively coming up against his back to keep him upright. Walter stared at Hernán in shock.
Hernán ignored the looks he was getting. His voice was tight, quiet, and firm. "Walter, I want you to check on the automated ice harvesters; make sure that they and the refrigeration units will function properly during the storm. If not, shut them down for the duration." He spoke as if he had not just pushed a subordinate officer.
Walter scowled. "This isn't the first storm we've seen, Hernán. Now why should--"
"Shut up, Walter," Hernán's voice was cold and low, "You know as well as I that storms can last days, even weeks, out here. Put the equipment on minimum power usage and check how much energy we have stored up for the long haul." He turned to the desk where he had placed my helmet. "I want to speak to Jacques alone."
Walter's eyebrows knitted together in suspicion, and he gave me a brief look out of the corner of his eye. Hernán's face was a mask; he showed no reaction.
"Please, Walter," he asked in a low voice.
Hernán's sudden, quiet politeness took us both by surprise. I was astonished. To be Hernán was to be grumpy; it was clear that he did not like this job, this station, me, or Walter. Walter and I had always done our best to tolerate it. Hernán had been assigned by the UN as head of the expedition, so we had to live with it. This, despite Walter's status as the first man to live on Mars for an extended period of time, the first among us to live upon the surface in the Pomona facility. Yet Walter had no gift for making friends; he was not, psychologically, the most ideal man for the job. And so Hernán had been selected, grimly dutiful and utterly focused on getting done what had to be done.
But this unexpected rage at Walter's typical mouthiness? And the lightning transition to taciturn etiquette? I was not sure whether to fear or welcome the idea of talking to him alone. Something felt very wrong. But, despite this, I hoped that Hernán would confide in me. I regarded myself as one of those men who could befriend anyone. But, contrary to anyone I had ever met, Hernán was every part of him a sphinx, stolid and reserved. There was an appeal to that; I viewed it as a distance created between a leader and his men. That he was bridging the gap was without precedent. In the years I had known him and worked with him, he had never made any special request to talk to either of us alone. I could not help but be curious.
I touched Walter's shoulder gently. He raised an eyebrow, but got the message. As he left, he gave Hernán a mocking nod, and then moved to march down the corridor to his quarters, stopping only to roughly grab his helmet from the desk nearby where Hernán had placed it.
Within moments I was alone with him. Alone with Hernán.
He stood motionless as a statue. Right up to the point where he heard the door down the corridor slide to a close.
Instantly, Hernán's posture sank. The shoulders, once stiff as stone, sagged downward. I could not tell what guided this change. Hernán walked slowly over to one of the desks nearby and pulled one of the white chairs out. It scraped loudly against the hard floor as he moved it beside him. He sat down in a sudden rush, letting gravity take over. With a sigh, he covered his face with his hands, his elbows on the table before him. Not knowing what else to do, I clumsily grabbed the chair across from him, wincing as I noticed the red smudges my gloved hand left upon it. I plopped down as best I could in my cumbersome suit. I managed to stay on the seat, but only barely.
Hernán moved his hands away from his face and stared at me with silver eyes.
"Tell me, Jacques," he said quietly, "How do you like working here?"
I paused, thinking.
"I don't know, sir. It is a lonely job."
He nodded and held his gaze with me, waiting for me to go on.
"But I know that the work we do here is good," I continued, "I know that water on Earth is scarce now, getting scarcer every moment. And it feels good to help solve that problem, even if I don't get to see the results."
"So," he said, his voice humorless, "All boy scout then?"
I forced myself to laugh. "No, sir. The paychecks we get are hefty; I can't lie."
Hernán gave me a cursory nod. "Five years of our lives working on this dusty hell. In exchange for enough money to comfortably retire early with cash to spare... I wonder if it is worth it."
Hernán's hostility toward Mars was no surprise to me. His constant surliness made obvious his loathing of the job. Nonetheless, I nodded solemnly, as if in agreement. I didn't know what else to do. The next questions came fast.
"Jacques, you're what? Eighteen years old?"
"Twenty six, sir."
"Did you ever envision yourself doing something different with life?"
"Who doesn't?" I replied, "I've wanted to work on space projects though. Be it the Moon, a space station, Mars, the asteroid belt--"
Hernán stared at me, "Do you ever miss home?"
The question gave me a moment's pause. "Of course, sir. I just try not to think about it. We are going to be here for a--"
"Three more years, Jacques. Three years." He leaned back in his chair, "That is a long time."
Idly, Hernán began to tap a finger against the top of the desk.
"Jacques, what do you know about Earth's situation right now?"
"Er... situation, sir?"
I thought about it for a moment. "Last news I heard of Earth was three years ago, sir, right before my stopover on the Moon. I don't know about now, but things were starting to get very tense back then. Water shortage was the major concern, which is what made our mission to Mars so important. And so controversial." I frowned. I remembered the news reels; I remembered with astonishing clarity the arguments of talking heads. Like with any endeavor, there were those who had doubted whether the project would be all that effective. And then there were those who insisted on their people needing more than others, based on imbalances of preexisting water resources. It was a nasty scenario Earth had found itself in.
But then I remembered my optimism, and surprised Hernán with a smile. "Things were difficult, but the United Nations had it all well in hand, I think; after all, they were the ones who contracted the Pomona Project. That helped to calm matters."
Hernán leaned to one side, supporting his chin with one hand. He gave me a critical look.
"What we are doing here is important then, isn't it?"
I raised an eyebrow. "Yes, sir, that's what I just--"
Hernán leaned forward and slammed a palm to the table. The resulting clap echoed through the room. I recoiled instinctively. "So why are there only three of us?" His eyes held mine, afire.
Taken aback, I did not know how to react. I'd never seen Hernán like this before.
"Uh..." I tried to regain my composure. Sweat began to trickle down my back. "Sir, even though there is a great deal of equipment, even one of us could maintain the facility's automated systems for—"
"You're missing the point, Jacques."
"Sir, why are you asking me these things?"
Hernán sat upright and straightened his collar slowly. "I want you to understand, Jacques. I want you to know why I got upset with you today." He gave me a look. "I got upset with you because you need to know our system like clockwork. You need the maintenance procedures memorized backwards and forwards. And going off to gawk at a dust storm doesn't accomplish that."
"But, sir, you know I've gone over the solar panels a thousand times," I protested, "I have been here for two years--"
He cut through my words with a voice wrapped in steel, "You can't slack off, Jacques. Walter won't be here forever."
I sat there, dumfounded. Hernán noted my response, and then continued.
"Walter is a worn man, Jacques. He has been on Mars for nine years. Granted; he was the first one here, the first to watch over the Pomona Project's beginnings. He knows this facility like the back of his hand. I am not casting any doubt on his ability."
Hernán knit his fingers together and pressed his thumbs to his chin.
"But the truth of it is that he may be psychologically imbalanced." When I leaned forward to object, he raised his voice over mine, "Have you ever been able to get out of him why he is still here on Mars? He could have gone back home and retired a wealthy man years ago. We are only expected to serve for five years at these posts; why would you stay any longer?"
Hernán pointed down the corridor that Walter had departed from.
"He has a problem with authority, flouting it for no rational reason at all. Did you see how he resisted my order to check on the automated systems before the bulk of the dust storm descends upon us?" Hernán's eyes narrowed. "Why did he do that? He knows the necessity of such checks?"
I shifted in my seat uneasily. "Walter is fond of me, sir. He--"
"– appears to be treating me as an enemy even though my orders carry the weight of authority and justification behind them."
It was hard for me to completely disagree with Hernán. Back on Earth, Walter was a hero. He had charisma. His character had a gravitational pull of its own. He had been the first man to walk on Mars, the first to sign up for the United Nations initiative. When the plan of harvesting Martian ice caps for water ran into opposition, he raised support for it every way he could. He knew the risks, knew the science of it. He was highly intelligent and one of the best men for the job.
But those who knew him and worked with him could say accurately that the man had lost a few screws as time went on. His issues with authority were legendary, his moods erratic, his temper capricious and mocking. But his technical expertise with space equipment was without equal, and this spared him from too much criticism. He was needed. But not needed enough to lead the project, though. He would always be regarded as a bit of a liability.
Yet, despite these faults, I felt that I knew him as a man. I knew his wry smile, his indefatigable spirit. I recognized that, in me, he had found a comrade in arms. And I had done nothing to discourage this notion. I did not mind the friendship of one of Earth's greatest heroes. Thus, even though Hernán made sense, I found myself standing up for Walter, steadfast. I composed myself and prepared to give my friend an impassioned defense.
"Sir, I've been given no indication that Walter needs replacement or removal. Even today, he aptly handled himself while I was elsewhere." When Hernán made to interrupt again, I talked over him. "Walter may be dismissive of your authority, sir, but you have to understand that it isn't personal. He has more experience and yet you have the reins of leadership. Any man would chafe at that, if only a little. And, no offense, sir, but your general demeanor is... abrasive... to him. He is an... open person. You are very much internalized; and there is nothing wrong with that. It is just a combination of factors that makes it unlikely that you two would get along."
Hernán waited as I finished and, to my surprise, did not get upset. In fact, for what felt like the first time, his lips curled into a smile. He rose to his feet, walked around the side of the desk, and clasped one of my shoulders, giving it a squeeze.
"You see, this is why I need you, Jacques. You're an excellent judge of character, a good man, and a hard worker when you want to be."
I couldn't help but smile. Was this a measure of rapport, an opening in the thick armor that seemed to surround his very being? It was encouraging.
"Sir, I can speak to Walter about this. He'll listen to me. I can help him understand that he needs to work with you more, not against you."
Hernán sighed and looked away. For a long time, he stared at the monstrous metal wall that led to the outside. He looked very haggard in that moment, eyes baggy, the lines of his face worn and drawn. In that moment, all I could think of was some immense, imaginary weight bearing down upon his shoulders. But I could not tell what it was. He looked back at me with eyes touched by some distant sadness.
"It might be too late for that, Jacques."
After that, Hernán clammed up. I asked him what he meant but, at the time, he refused to say more. I could only speculate that his pride was too strong a factor for him to seek rapprochement with Walter. That, or Hernán's disdain for the man was simply too powerful for him to even consider allowing me to mend relations between the two. Regardless, he forbade me from speaking of our discussion and, inwardly, I was surprised to find myself agreeing with him. Mentioning to Walter that Hernán had opened up to me would be like waving a carrot before a donkey; Walter would have been nipping at Hernán's heels for years in an effort to provoke a response. In any case, I made an extra effort to try and calm Walter over the next few weeks, trying to sooth and prevent antagonism from his side of things, if nothing else. We all had to coexist with one another.
Hernán was no help, though. He quickly resumed treating me as brusquely he did before, as if nothing had ever happened. He ordered me to support Walter in assessing the facility's limits: double checking our supplies, measuring how many months our power reserves would give us in case this storm was one of the long ones. In the meantime, Hernán cloistered himself away in the communications room. While Hernán had never been the friendly type, this new anti-social behavior unsettled Walter and I. When asked, Hernán insisted that he needed to communicate constantly with the United Nations in order to work out when the next haul would be picked up, along with when we would next reach resupply point. Planetside feedback must have been bad as Hernán's mood grew blacker as the days progressed, always at its worst whenever I caught him exiting the comm room. The whole situation made me feel uneasy, and it became harder and harder to rein in Walter's acerbic humor, Hernán's own temper flaring in response. I found myself a pendulum swinging between two opposing forces, trying to maintain balance in the middle.
I prayed that resupply would come soon. Otherwise, I figured, the two would tear each other apart, driving each other mad in a claustrophobic rage. I honestly feared the worst; I hoped desperately that blood would not run on the red planet.
It was January 24, 2053 when it happened.
They were as motionless as statues, clad in strange black suits. These suits were far sleeker than our own, less bulky and much closer to form-fitting. Their helmets reminded me of a praying mantis' head, triangular and strangely alien. Despite the fact that they were inside, the eerie black gateway directly behind them, those helmets stayed on. I squinted and was able to make out the thin word that was emblazoned on their chests. Vertumnus. My old college days learning the classics in Versailles whispered to me warningly. What did it mean? They seemed content to stand still, their legs spread out evenly to maintain balance. Just standing there, gazing at me in their pitch black uniforms, hard as carapace. Watching and waiting.
I arrived on this scene in response to Hernán's summons on the intercom. "The supplies have arrived," he had said, his voice flickering in and out over the voice feed. Even with the interference I had felt a sense of foreboding, detected a hint of terseness that did not feel right. But I had struck that feeling aside, eager for resupply, excited at a chance to end the stressful atmosphere that had descended over the Pomona Project like a dark fog. Instead I was greeted by this, a duo of unfamiliar men who should not have been there.
The room was a bit cluttered with smooth gray piping. Wires scattered across the tables and floor. Hernán must have been conducting the monthly inventory before they arrived. As if to prove my point, there he stood beside the men, right under one of the computer monitors by the entryway. I noticed idly on the video feed that the weather had not ceased. The red dust storm still raged, scarlet whips lashing at the exterior of the monstrous wall, seeking desperately to find some chink in the armor. But these men... Where had they come from? Why were they here? Usually we gathered from a supply drop. We had never had visitors before now. Everything suddenly seemed cast into uncertainty.
Before I could speak as to the strangeness of it all, Hernán raised an arm in my direction, patting the air as if to calm me. His eyes, though, remained focused warily on the men in black.
"He's with me," he spoke quickly. He looked visibly relieved as the men turned their helmets his way instead of mine.
"Hernán," I said. His head swiveled towards me, his eyes powerfully intense with focus. "What is going on?"
Hernán showed his teeth, gritted in frustration. "These are our new suppliers."
I raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean, 'new'? They are United Nations, right?"
The man in black who was closest to Hernán turned to look at me. I could see nothing within that helmet but a disturbed reflection of myself. The voice that emerged was dull, neutral. It had a cultured sort of accent that I could not recognize; it was not British, like Walter's, but something else entirely.
"I thought he was with us."
Though the man looked at me, the words were meant entirely for Hernán, the voice accusatory. It did not sound even cared whether I was 'with them' or not. Hernán's face turned scarlet with fury.
"He is. I just need a word with him."
The man in black who had spoken turned back to his comrade, sparing only one last dismissive word.
Hernán gave a curt nod and moved to stand before me. Before I could even ask what was going on, he cut straight to the point.
"Jacques, things have gone to hell. The United Nations..." His brows furrowed and he frowned bitterly, "It has fallen. The water crisis has induced the law of the jungle. All the nations are warring with one another; those who have the most water reserves have become battlefields. It is the Oil Wars of the Twenties all over again."
As if in another world, I felt distantly my face becoming cold, all the blood leaving. With surprising gentleness, Hernán guided me to a seat nearby. But he did not stop talking. He spoke as if he could not stop.
"The United Nations couldn't handle it, Jacques." He cursed under his breath, "The Pomona Project wasn't enough; it was too little too late." He ran a hand through his closely cut black hair. "If we had a dozen projects and stations like this one, it could have made the difference. But we started too late; in the name of safety, uncertainty, and lack of funding, we only had one project. To test the way." His gaze lost focus as he looked beyond me. "If only we had started sooner."
"What happened?" My voice was but a whisper, but it brought Hernán's eyes back to focus on me.
"The UN tried to balance out the water resources. All of them, supplemented by the steady stream we gave them from the Martian ice caps. All it did was foster resentment and dehydrate the populations equally. Everyone knew it was the best that could be done, but it wasn't enough. Protests rose, international authority crumbled. One of the leaders thought that it would be best to take supplies by force. And, once one tried, the others all snatched desperately at the same opportunity; they thought they had to, or else be left by the wayside. Without a military to back it, the United Nations was powerless to resist the onslaught."
My mind was in desolation. Everything that I had put my hopes and dreams into, my career, my aspirations... Every element of my being was bound up in the United Nations. In our mission. As the horror of what had occurred cascaded through my mind like a wellspring of pain that I could not escape, one thought tore itself free from the despair. It writhed forth and leapt off the tip of my tongue.
"Why didn't you tell us?" I demanded. A rage whipped through me, the likes of which I had never encountered before. I stood to my feet. "Why did you keep us in the dark?" My arms and shoulders shook with barely contained wrath. I pointed at the men in black. "And who are they?"
What happened next, I could barely follow. With uncanny speed, the men in black used both their hands to grasp twin long and black rectangular cubes that had been concealed, protruding from each of their backs. They slammed the blocks together with an audible click and then pointed the combined results right at my face. I noticed their fingers resting on the angle between blocks. A sudden chill took the edge off of my anger.
Those were guns.
The men in black were professionals; one crouched and the other stood behind a desk, half of his bulk hiding his lower half from sight. They spoke fast, one after the other. I could barely keep up.
"Not on our side."
"He is compromised."
"This was not the plan."
"You lied, Hernán."
I nearly suffered a heart attack when Hernán pounded a fist on the desk nearby. His eyes narrowed at the men in black.
"Stop it! I can vouch for him. Just give him a minute to process what's happened!" When they did not move, Hernán scowled, "There is no rush here. Give me some time."
After what seemed a lifetime, the men in black seemed to silently concede. They slowly withdrew their weapons. But they still watched me, I could tell. Though I did not see their eyes, I felt their presence upon me like an insect creeping down my back, just out of reach.
Then, without warning, the door at the end of the corridor opened.
Instantly, the guns were out once more. Hernán's eyes widened and he swiftly grew pale. So did I. I knew what Hernán did; Walter was supposed to be monitoring the ice harvesters on the other side of the project for at least another hour. What was he doing back so early?
Walter walked into the room. His brown hair was mussed and sweaty. He wiped his hands idly on a dirty white cloth. Then he saw us and froze in his steps.
"What the hell is going on?"
"HOLD YOUR FIRE!"
Hernán's bellow seemed to shock the room into paralysis. Nobody moved. I stood stock still by the desk. The men in black were motionless, crouched or behind cover, their guns pointed at Walter, unwavering, but not firing. Walter slowly raised his hands, letting the washcloth fall limply to the ground. Hernán stood in front of us all, slowly raising and lowering his hands, as if to calm everyone down.
"Nobody do anything!" Hernán faced the men in black and waved a hand behind him, "I need to talk to these men. They will follow the plan. Just let me talk to them!" Without even waiting to see if the men in black would agree, he turned to look at Walter and I. Before he could speak, Walter beat him to it.
"Betrayed us all, eh?" Walter quipped.
Hernán scowled, "It's more complicated than that."
"Oh, certainly." Walter smiled grimly, "Spent all your time in the comm room and we couldn't figure out why. Now we know, hmm? You were off deciding our fates for us." Walter looked past Hernán to give me a sardonic grin. "That wasn't very nice of him, was it?" I shook my head from side to side, trying to silently express myself, to will him to calm down. He ignored me.
Hernán frowned, and spoke slowly, "The United Nations has fallen. These men represent a nation that has come to claim the spoils of Mars, to take its water resources for themselves. We need to work with--"
Walter cut him off. The voice that emerged from his mouth frightened me; it was velvet wrapped over spiked steel.
"You meant to force Jacques to join you alone." He spoke as if it were all a matter-of-fact, "You expected me to be harvesting up until you were ready to have me killed. I was never a part of this plan."
Hernán simply stared at Walter. He did not refute the charge. Walter continued with his meandering dialogue, as if taking a walk in the park. I watched, spellbound, unable to do anything to stop him.
"I won't be a part of it. And neither will Jacques." The two's gazes were locked together, the pressure could be cut by a pin drop, "For, you see, I actually know Jacques. I have what you never seemed to have. A friend. And loyalty to your friends comes before fealty to the United Nations, love of your country, belief in a cause, faith in a doctrine, or your own dumb, selfish self-interest. You could never realize that."
Horror raised within me as I realized what was about to happen. Walter walked slowly forward and leaned down to grasp a pipe leaning against a table. His eyes had a manic light to them, a challenge to be met and answered. He gave a wicked smile. The voice that emerged was filled with pride and defiance.
"So shoot me." Walter demanded, "Or else leave. For I won't give in." He gave me one final glance. "We won't give in."
Hernán stared at Walter, slack-jawed. "Have you lost your mind? Stand down!"
"Not to you."
My hands raised of their own accord, as if they alone could stop a world gone mad.
Everything happened all at once.
The pipe turned end over end in the air. Walter threw it with astonishing force and surprising accuracy. It slammed against the helmet of the closest man in black, the one using a desk for cover. I saw shattered glass, heard the break, but nothing else. The man was gone. No time for pain. Nothing but sharp movement, loud noise, and a quick end.
Gunshots echoed throughout the room. The resulting flashes of light sought to blind me. I found myself wishing they had. Walter shook once, twice, three times. I watched on in despair, unable to look away. He remained standing but for an instant. Red patches appeared in a vest that had, just seconds before, been white. He collapsed without a word.
Hernán moved, a ball of lightning uncurling. He grabbed a pipe of his own from atop the desk nearby and leapt at the remaining man in black. The man had no time to react, only an imperceptible move of the helmet revealed notice of his incoming fate. Hernán's aim was true. The metal pipe shattered the glass and collided with a head. He didn't move after that.
None of us did.
After the shock of what had happened rolled through me, I brought myself to my feet. I was too numb to cry. Walter dead. The United Nations failed. Earth consuming itself. The project lost. Nothing left but a low and horrible moan.
I noticed Hernán's body shake. Were those tears I heard? Unable to look away, I watched as Hernán mourned above the corpse of the man whose life he had taken. I wondered if he mourned for us all.
"I failed us, Jacques. I brought them here." His voice slowed to a crawl. "I should never have done that."
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Walter's body. I walked over to it. Strange. He looked almost serene in death. The crazy bastard had died with a smile on his face. It was a face bloodied and empty of life, but yet I found strength in it nonetheless. I envied him, in a fashion. He had died in what he believed in.
At the sound of movement, I turned back to see Hernán holding one of the guns to his head. Tears ran down his face as his silver eyes met mine.
"It was all my fault, Jacques. They didn't give me any choice." He gave a sob. "It was either work with them or have the facility taken by force. There wasn't any choice. I never meant for it to come to this."
I realized what I had to do. I walked over to him. He cried as I approached, and I let him. There were no tears for me. I knelt before him and looked him in the eye. At this, he recoiled, unsure what to make of me.
"You should have told us, Hernán. We could have made this decision together."
I took the gun from his fingers, dispassionately. He allowed me to do it without resistance.
"Will you kill me now?"
For a moment, I considered it. He had destroyed my life. Through his actions, my friend was dead. His eyes looked to mine for judgment. The feel of the gun was alien to me, as alien as the planet we stood upon. Its design was simplistic, but effective; it was created for use in the vacuum of space or within atmosphere. It would be so easy...
But I wouldn't do it, I realized. I couldn't. For I had that which was stunted and dysfunctional in Hernán.
I understood that Hernán had been placed into an impossible situation, deemed to choose between death or submission. Our lives and his own, the goal of this facility, the final project to save the human race; all of this he had carried on his shoulders as he had entered and left that comm room in the weeks past. I could only imagine the pressure they had levied on him. That did not excuse his actions. But, at the end, he had made the right choice. He had fought to keep us alive, acted against the men in black when he got the chance. Though everything had gone horribly wrong, I understood his intentions. I could not kill this man.
I dropped the gun to one side and pointed to Walter's body.
"He died for your mistake, Hernán. But he also died the best way he knew how."
I stood and reached an arm down for him. In wonder, he took it. I brought him up to my level. Inwardly, I marveled at myself. Days ago I could not have been capable of this. Mentally and emotionally, I was now a changed man.
"If we are going to get through this, we will need to rely on each other." I said. "Loyalty; that is what Walter died for, and we'll get out of this the same way. Can you do that for me, Hernán? Trust in me as I will trust in you?" He gave me a nod. "The men in black must have a ship parked around here somewhere..." I looked to the monitor that revealed the outside. The red storm twisted and writhed, mocking us with its permanence, challenging us to try. "The United Nations won't be coming. But together," I stared at Hernán, "Together we can find that ship. Together, we have a chance."
Without warning, he grasped my shoulder firmly.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, "For everything."
In return, I smiled. A spark of hope seemed to light in Hernán; a hint of his stubborn will seemed to creep into him once more. He moved to Walter's body and cast one of the white work sheets over it. It wasn't very much, but it was enough. Then he turned to me, and I could not help but find some hope for myself. Hernán's grit had returned.
He gave me a grim smile.
"Let's do this. Let's get off this rock."
The prompt that my friend gave me included five requirements: 1. That the story take place on Mars. 2. That it involve some sort of resource gathering. 3. That there be a sleeper agent/betrayal of some sort. 4. End on a cliffhanger. 5. About 10 pages in length at an 11pt font. That's it. It was a blast to write!