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A Cold Wind Blows (Ephialtes Short II)

E p h i a l t e s   S h o r t   I I

A Cold Wind Blows

by

G a v i n   E   P a r k e r

 

A Cold Wind Blows

[_ _]

Version 1.0.0

Published 2016 by parcom entertainment

Copyright © 2016 by Gavin E Parker

This book is copyright under the Berne convention.

No reproduction without permission.

All rights reserved.

The right of Gavin E Parker to be identified as the author of this

work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and

78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

www.ephialtestrilogy.com

 

[email protected]

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Introduction to The Ephialtes Shorts Series

Ephialtes Short II:  A Cold Wind Blows

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

A Note from the Author

Introduction to The Ephialtes Shorts Series

The Ephialtes Trilogy is a sequence of three novels.  Set in the twenty-third century, they chart the fallout and unintended consequences when a human colony on Mars secedes from the mother country on Earth.  At the time of this writing only the first book, Ephialtes, has been written and published.

Alongside the main novel trilogy are The Ephialtes Shorts.  The shorts are individual stories that take place in the Ephialtes Universe.  They complement the novel trilogy but are not essential to it.  Appreciation of the shorts, however, is likely to be greatly enhanced by familiarity with Ephialtes.

Gavin E Parker

June 2016

Ephialtes Short II:  A Cold Wind Blows

One

Lush green fields stretched all the way to the horizon and a pleasantly cool breeze blew through her loose auburn curls.  She decided to run through the dappled sunshine toward the stream at the bottom of the hill.  She couldn’t help but giggle.  There was a small copse ahead of her and she couldn’t wait to explore it.  What might in be there?  Rabbits?  Butterflies?  Squirrels?

The shade from the trees allowed her to stop squinting and reminded her of what she had read; that the sun could damage skin and cause burns.  People, particularly fair-skinned people like her, had to wear ‘sunblock’ to protect themselves.  She let it go for now.  Practicality and fantasy made for uneasy bedfellows and at that moment she just wanted to relish the freedom and space, not dwell on the tiresome realities.

There were rabbits, squirrels and the rest, of course.  If she wanted it to be there it was there.  At the other side of the copse she walked out into a glorious brown-orange field of wheat, which seemed to go on forever.  She walked through it, her hands outstretched, touching the heavy ripe husks.  She stopped and took deep breaths of the cool, clean air.

The alarm sounded.

She groped behind her and grabbed her comdev.  Blearily, she looked at the time; 06:10, as it always was when her alarm went off in the morning.  She swiped right for ‘snooze’ and rolled over.  She thought she could lie there awake and enjoy coming around slowly over the next ten minutes but she was very quickly back asleep then awakened by the alarm again: 06:20.  Time to get up.

Over breakfast she scanned the travel sites.  If she did manage to land a job, she figured, she could probably save enough for the trip over about five years.  What about organising a job the other end?  Damn, who would offer a job to someone a hundred and forty million miles away?  Maybe she would have to wait a further couple of years in order to save enough to pay for the trip with a little bit extra set aside to support herself for the first few months while she job-hunted.

Job-hunting.  Shit.

The interview that day would be the eleventh she’d had in the last three months.  And this one was for something she was actually interested in; bioshelter agronomy.  She knew she wasn’t great in interviews but she equally knew she wasn’t that bad.  Had she just been unlucky in the past?  She hoped so.  She really wanted this one.  Not just because it seemed like a great job.  Not just because she needed to start paying off her debts.  And not just because she couldn’t face much more pretending to be confident in front of panels of bland corporate suits.

It was because she wanted to stop dreaming.

If she could just land this job she could start putting some money away and her plan would cease to be an idle fantasy.  In however small a way she could start preparing for the journey she longed to make – the journey from Mars to Earth.

Kimberly Gooding had always wanted to go to Earth.  It was so ingrained in her personality that she couldn’t even remember a time when she hadn’t been obsessed with the blue planet.  From when she was a little girl she had always been gripped by pictures and videos of the mother planet, which was so unlike her own.  She saw images of vast bodies of water.  Amazing clouds, scudding through vivid blue skies.  Fields and pastures that seemed to her impossible.  All of this was real, she excitedly learnt as she grew older, but with a catch.  It was millions of miles away, across a vast ocean of space, on the other side of the solar system.

She had seen images of people on Earth ‘outside.’  Postcard scenes of packed beaches and public parks.  Musical concerts and sporting events.  There were no dome walls – ‘outside’ just went on and on forever.  It was beautiful.

In her world ‘outside’ could only mean one of two things.  It was a trip to one of the domes or a very rare excursion out into the Martian wastelands.  The various domes in Marineris did have their own wonderful qualities.  They were built for the most part as public parks and the sense of space and the trees and grass and flowers were intoxicating.  But it always felt like a tease, a hint at something much more expansive and ennobling.

A trip into the Martian desert was a waste of time.  It was necessary to wear a suit, so one was carrying their own ‘inside’ about with them, and what was there to experience out there anyway?  Just kilometre after endless kilometre of brown rock, brown sand and brown dust.  Why bother?

Kim had spent a disproportionate amount of her young life in IVRs.  There she could roam about virtual fields, soar above virtual canyons and vicariously experience all the famous places on Earth.  But IVRs were not reality and as impressive as the sense of presence was it could never substitute for the real thing.  Touch, smell, feel were all absent and she always knew she was in an electronically enhanced fantasy.  She longed so much to be there, without an IVR headset, without a pressure suit, just walking in glorious daylight towards a distant horizon she could never meet.  That was her ambition.  That was her dream.

Her cousin Kristen had managed to sort her out for the interview.  Kristen’s ex-partner, Jason Hernandez, had worked at the farm for six years.  He’d tipped Kristen off that there was an opening.  Kristen thought that, for the most part, it was just another lame excuse for him to contact her – he’d been coming up with a lot of them lately – but she’d let her favourite cousin know and Kim had jumped at the opportunity.

Nepotism wasn’t enough to secure the job in itself but Jason had provided some great coaching for the interview.  He knew the panel and he knew the role so he was acutely aware of what would play well and he made sure that Kim was up to speed.  All she needed to do at interview was keep it together, do the eye-contact thing, control her breathing, maintain positive body language, remember all the don’t-talk-abouts, remember all the do-talk-abouts, and not bump into the furniture.  If she had those licked she would definitely be in with a shout.

As she showered she tried not to think about it.  If she thought about it she would worry and that would affect her body chemistry and that would impact negatively on her chances.  She put it to the back of her mind, worrying instead that she might not be sufficiently not thinking about it.

She tried to think of a breakfast that would help her succeed at interview because everything that day was about succeeding at interview.  Porridge seemed to be the most interview-successful breakfast.  The complex carbohydrates would provide lasting energy and sustain optimal brain function for the duration of the interview, she reasoned to herself unreasonably.  She made herself porridge.

On the journey to Venkdt Agronomy she thought about what she might like about the job rather than the interview process she would have to endure to get it.  She had always had an interest in botany.  One of many things that drew her to images of Earth was the vast array of disparate flora.  It seemed to be a subject without end.  Her bedroom walls were still adorned with posters not of movie or sports stars but of trees and flowers.  A sequoia was as enthralling to her as any teenage heart-throb.

She had studied biology in college but that was remote and theoretical.  This would be hands-on, practical and real-world.  Mars had a growing population to feed and the biodomes were an expanding concern.  The production of food and the development of evermore advanced techniques to tease the most nourishment out of the hardiest plants in the most unforgiving circumstances was of vital importance to the ongoing Martian project.  Now fully independent of Earth, agriculture was essential to the further development of the planet.

Venkdt Mars had always seen food production as a crucial part of Martian development and had a dedicated division to oversee it – Venkdt Agronomy.  While the settlement was small the biodomes that grew its food were a sufficient, if expensive, solution to the sustenance question.  Yields were maximised by genetic modification as were tolerances for the low-pressure necessary inside the larger biodomes and the lower intensity of any natural light.

Kim had read that since independence Venkdt was planning a huge expansion of its food production.  The biodomes were expensive and in order to keep the necessary supply in line with the expected growth of the Martian population it was expected that new techniques would be developed to allow for even bigger domes.  That would mean lower pressure and hardier plants. 

The job Kim was going for was Junior Research Assistant.  In effect she would be a farmhand, but a farmhand on a twenty-third century farm on Mars.  She would be helping to raise crops to feed the planet and also documenting all procedures and measuring all outcomes, feeding data back to the Venkdt Agronomy genetic architects who were designing the crops of the future.  It was a peach of a job.  She wanted it.

Venkdt Agronomy was based on the outskirts of Marineris.  There were offices in Central Marineris and that was the address on their letterhead but the working part of the operation was in the south-west.  It was necessarily at the edge of the city, its low-pressure domes expanding out into the Martian wilderness at a steady rate.  There was a ban on any other type of building in that area, originally enforced informally by Venkdt, which owned all of the adjacent property, but latterly enshrined in law by the new Martian government.

Kim had expected the interview would be at the domes, since that was where the post was based.  She thought there may be a tour of the facility as part of the interview process.  In fact, she had learnt disappointedly, the interview would be at the sterile uptown offices.  Her cab would arrive there in five minutes time.

She tapped her comdev to pay the cab as she stepped out at Venkdt Mars HQ.  She frowned subconsciously as she walked to reception.  Though she felt herself to be doing a good job of suppressing her anxiety it was still there and rampant just below her conscious thoughts.  In her mind she was projecting confidence but any casual student of body language would be able to see just how stressed she was.  Adding that to her uncertainty, her youth, and the distinct way she didn’t quite mesh with her ‘smart’ suit, an astute person might have been able to guess that she was on her way to a job interview.

She approached the main reception desk.  “Hello.  I have an appointment with Venkdt Agronomy?” she said to the receptionist.

“Just pop your comdev over there,” the receptionist said, gesturing to a pad on the desk in front of him.  Kim complied and he read from his terminal.  “Kimberly Gooding.  Eleven-twenty with Scott Watson et al.  Do you know where you’re going?”

Kim felt foolish admitting she didn’t but she thought she remembered from conversations with Jason that it was on the second floor.  “Second floor, isn’t it?” she said with as much confidence as she could muster.

“Third floor,” said the receptionist.  He tapped at his screen.  “I’ve just sent the details over, your comdev will take you right to it.  Have a good day.”

“Thanks,” said Kim as she headed to the lift, the small defeat of guessing the wrong floor stinging far more than it warranted.

Once at Venkdt Agronomy Kim followed her comdev through some double doors and down a corridor to a small open area.  There were seats and potted plants.  It seemed a bit quiet and Kim was wondering if she was in the right place when a door opened and a woman leant around it.  “Ms Hansen?” she asked.

“No, Gooding,” Kim replied.  “I’m eleven-twenty.”

The woman stepped through the door, glancing down at a folded piece of paper in her hand.  “Kimberly Gooding, yes,” she said.  “Would you care to take a seat for a few minutes?  We’re running a little late, I’m afraid.”  She gestured to the seats and disappeared through the door as Kim sat down.

The decor in the seating area was corporate bland as it was throughout the building.  Kim glanced about, noting the pine furniture and hard-wearing practical carpet, which had been laid in squares.  In the middle of the room years of footfall had merged the boundaries and it was difficult to make out individual pieces.  At the edges of the room you could still just about make out a grid.  Kim was well aware that her hyper-attention was due to her anxiety.  Still, she felt that giving her mind these pointless observations to chew on might distract it from the well of dread that was bubbling just beneath the surface.

“Ms Gooding?”  It was the woman again.  Kim stood.  “Would you just like to come this way?” the woman said, and she led them down a short corridor to another room.  She opened the door and said, “Ms Gooding for you,” holding the door open while Kim entered.

‘Eye contact,’ thought Kim as she walked to the empty chair ominously facing some desks, behind which three people were sitting.  She smiled and looked each of them in the eye as she sat down.

The man in the centre spoke.  “Well, thank you very much for coming.  I’m Scott Watson, I’m project lead on the Erebus Project and this,” he gestured to his left, “is Stephanie Hart from HR.”

“Hello,” said Stephanie.

“And this fine young man,” said Scott, gesturing now to his right to a grey-haired man surely nearing retirement, “is Doug Ball.  Doug is one of the Senior Operating Officers at VA and is my boss, sort of, would you say, Doug?”

“For a few more weeks, at least,” said Doug, jovially.

Kim tried to smile along, like it was a dinner party and the host was making innocuous pleasantries.  She forgot the names of Stephanie Hart and Doug Ball even as she was hearing them, though she nodded seriously as each name was said, like she was making a firm mental note.

The rest of the interview was a blur.  She knew she had kept up the eye contact thing and she knew she hadn’t suffered from the dreaded mind-blanks at any point.  One of her answers had seemed a bit waffly and irrelevant but she’d caught herself and wound that one up as soon as she realised.  She’d given answers to all the questions, maintained positive body language (as far as she could tell) and had, she thought, managed to sound competent but not cocky.  She’d been sure to be honest about the extent of her capabilities – she felt that admitting some shortcomings added to her overall credibility.

“So,” said Scott Watson, “is there anything you’d like to ask us?”

Kim asked him, as she had carefully planned to, where he thought Martian agronomics were going.  Luckily, during his reply he mentioned something she’d read about in her research for the interview and she skilfully chipped in with something meaningful, nodding and smiling as she did so.

When Kim confirmed that she had no further questions Watson wrapped up.  “Thank you very much, Ms Gooding.  We’ll be in touch.”

On her way out Kim passed through the seating area again.  There was a tall, thin man sat in one of the chairs.  He looked like he was in his late twenties but he was already bald over a large part of the top of his head, save for a few wispy strands of hair.  He was wearing an ill-fitting blue suit and was clutching a leather document wallet.  Kim quickly smiled at him as she passed.  ‘You got no chance, sucka,’ she thought.

Kim spent the evening in her room.  Her mother was on a late shift so she could have used the living room to watch her streams on the wall there.  A nature documentary from Earth always looked great on the wall, and if she sat close enough she could almost imagine she was in the jungles, deserts or oceans depicted.  But she spent the evening in her room, idly messaging friends and listening to music.  As she listened she browsed her comdev, reading various articles about biosphere agronomy, Earth flora and, just for a fleeting moment, one about the latest video heart-throb.

When her comdev buzzed again she assumed it was a reply to a light-hearted comment she had messaged a friend a few minutes earlier.  On looking at the device she saw it was a message from Scott Watson.

 

‘Ms Gooding, I take great pleasure in offering you the position of Junior Research Assistant as per the terms discussed previously. Initially, the position will be a fixed-term contract for six months (Gregorian) with a further rolling contract at the end of this probationary period.  We hope to hear from you soon, congratulations on your performance at interview.’

 

Kim let out a stifled shriek and rolled onto her back on the bed.  She made excited little movements with her arms and legs as she giggled to herself.

Two

The large, low-pressure domes of the food producing region of South Marineris were easily visible from the observation deck at Allentown Spaceport.  There was a cafeteria on the deck and throughout her childhood Kim had often been taken there by her mother as a treat for some small achievement.  The observation deck was unusually high for a Martian structure, affording impressive views of the landing grounds and Martian outlands beyond.  Looking back the other way, it was possible to see the edges of Marineris itself.  The city was impressive in its own way, the large biodomes particularly so.

Kim had never been this close before.  Though she was still in the main personnel area she could see glimpses of the low-pressure domes through the high windows illuminating it.

“This is Hector Meyers, and this is Jason Hernandez, who I believe you know,” Scott Watson was saying.

“Hi, Kim,” said Jason.

“Hi, Jay,” Kim replied. 

Hector stepped forward and offered his hand.  “Good to meet you, Kim,” he said.

“Likewise,” she said.

“Vic Roemer isn’t here just now but you’ll meet him when he comes on tonight.”

“Tonight?”

“Yeah, Vic does nights.”

“I didn’t realise there were night shifts,” said Kim.

Watson looked at her.  “We went over this at the interview, didn’t we?  Is it going to be a problem?”

“Oh, no, no, of course not.”  Kim’s mind was racing.  ‘Nights?  Who said anything about nights?

“You understand that you’ll be mostly working nights, once you’ve had a few weeks of orientation?  We spoke about this, I’m sure we did.”

“It’s fine,” said Kim.  Her heart was sinking but it did all seem to add up.  The job had seemed too good to be true and it had seemed miraculous that she got the appointment.  Now it was all making disappointing sense.  The money, the lack of decent rivals at interview.  It wasn’t quite the peachy day job she had imagined.  It was crappy night shifts.

“Jason, Hector and myself will get you up to speed, and when you’re confident and we’re confident you can take on nights with Vic.  With the extra production we’re being expected to do now we’re ramping up operations around the clock.  It’s why we’re taking on new people.”

“I see,” said Kim.

Hector smiled at her.  “You’re going to love Vic.  We stuck him on nights so we wouldn’t have to put up with him.”

“That’s not fair,” said Watson, but he laughed.  “Vic’s a good guy.  He’s just better suited to working -”

“Alone?” said Jason, and Hector grinned at him.

“Unsocial hours,” said Watson.  His look at Hector and Jason remained friendly but warned them off continuing.

“‘Unsocial’, that was the word I was looking for,” said Jason.

Watson was turning stern now.  “[_Unsocial hours.  _]That’s his thing.  Anyway, Kim, you’ll get to meet him later and he’s going to be your main work buddy.”

“So this is Dome 8,” said Hector as they pushed their way through heavy polythene drapes.  “No wait, this is Dome 10.  See?  Even I get confused.”

“They are a bit similar,” said Kim.

“Similar?  They’re all the same.  Only difference is the crops, and each of the main crops is in at least two or more other domes.  It can play tricks on your mind,” said Hector, adding as an afterthought, “Especially after a heavy night, if you know what I mean.”

Kim knew what he meant, even if she’d never experienced it directly.  She didn’t have a wide circle of friends and her closest pals were quiet and bookish.  A night on the town for them would be a rom-com and some silly banter in a fast food joint.  From his careworn features it looked like Hector’s idea of a fun night out diverged somewhat from Kim’s.  “Yes,” she said in reply, inwardly cringing at the blatant inauthenticity of her answer.

“To tell you the truth, I’ve spent whole days working the wrong dome on occasion.  This place is like a bad dream; you go through a door and end up back in the room you’ve just left!  At least that’s what it feels like.”  He was trying to be friendly and Kim appreciated that but they were fundamentally different types.  Still, she was glad of the warm introduction and she hoped she was making a good impression.

“So, is this maize, again?” she said.

“Yup, more maize.  This is a few weeks on from dome . . .”  He paused to think.  “From dome whichever the last one was.  Twelve?  Eight?  Whichever the last maize dome we were in, this is a few weeks on.  She’ll be ready for harvest in the next two or three weeks.”

“And we oversee the harvest, right?”

Hector stopped.  “Well, oversee might be a bit strong.  All the major processing – planting, harvest, tilling – is done by drone.  I guess you could say we oversee the drones, but our main involvement is just to be around in case anything goes wrong.  Pound the bounds every day, just making sure nothing’s gone awry.  This place is monitored all to hell, so if the system thinks there’s something up it’ll let you know.  But we still need eyes on the place.  You know, to catch the odd little thing that the ’puters wouldn’t.”

“And the development domes?”

“Ah, the development domes are different.”

It was good to know.  As delightful as it was to wander about the bright, airy production domes surrounded by beautiful living plants it would be good to have something interesting to do now and again.  She was looking forward to a time when she might be left alone in a dome of maize, or wheat or barley.  She would take in the smell, maybe run her hands through the crops and imagine she was on Earth, where she longed to be, in a wide open field with the sun on her face and birdsong in the distance.  The peace of the domes excited her.  With the crops silently growing and the soft natural light there was something soothing about them.  They seemed almost like churches.

She had drifted off into thought and had missed the start of what Hector was saying.

“ . . . and that’s why it’s a different ball game.  These are for feeding people, but development are for feeding information back to the office guys.  Not about food, see, but about information.”

“Where do you spend most of your time?”

“In a working day?  Don’t tell Scott, but mostly in the staffroom!”  He grinned at his remark and Kim offered a smile in return, purely from politeness.  “No, seriously it’s probably fifty-fifty.  There’s more work to do in the research domes but there’s less of ’em.  I try to divvy it up, you know?  Spend some time on a research project then take a walk around one of these.  It’s quite nice, actually.  Some job, eh?”

“It’s lovely,” said Kim, and it was one of the first fully sincere things she had said that day.

Kim spent most of the morning with Hector.  At lunch she ate quickly in the staffroom then excused herself to go and sit in the nearest production dome, where she read her book and briefly snoozed.  Although she vaguely knew Jason she had felt a little awkward sitting with him and Hector.  They were both older than her and she had never really spent any time with Jason.  Her cousin Kristen had been seeing him for a good few years before they split up but Kim had only ever met him at family gatherings, and even then it was in the company of others.  She was grateful for the advice he had given in the preparation for the interview but didn’t feel like being around him any more than necessary.  It had been tough trying to appear relaxed and friendly all morning with Hector and she figured she’d earned a break.

Hector was going to show her the research domes after lunch.  There were three of them and they were the furthest from the main personnel area.  Unlike the other domes, which were laid out in a grid formation, with four doors connecting to each adjacent dome, the research domes had only one way in and out.  They were set apart from the production areas by long walkways.

Hector and Kim had just set off to the research area when a call came through on Hector’s comdev.

“Hello?” said Hector.

“You’re going out to research?”

“Yes, I’m just taking Kim out with me now.”

“Listen, I’ve got a high-up here and he needs to look at the research facilities.  It’s some new project, or something, could you take him out there?”

“Sure, Scott.  Where is he now?”

“He’s here.  We’ll come and meet you.”

“Okay.”  Hector put the comdev away.  “We’ve got to wait.  Scott wants us to take one of the back-room boys out there with us.”

“Do you have many dealings with the researchers?” said Kim.

“Not really. We just do what we’re told and feed the data back to them.  Sometimes they’ll drop by, but they don’t really need to.”

They both felt the air move as Scott opened the door to the dome access corridor they were standing in and they could hear his distinctive bassy tones as he and the researcher approached.

“This is Hector Meyers and this is Kim Gooding,” said Watson as they drew near.  “Hector’s an old hand at this and Kim is our newest employee.  Kim’s been with us,” he looked at his comdev, “just over five and a half hours, I make it.”  He smiled but the researcher didn’t smile back and he quickly moved on.  “Hector, Kim, this is Dr Daniel Kostovich.  Dr Kostovich isn’t strictly part of VA but he works for the main company and is assisting on a special project.  I’m sure he can fill you in on the walk out.”

“Hello,” said Kostovich as he made fleeting eye-contact with Hector and Kim before resuming his agitated stare at the floor.

“So,” said Scott, “I’ll leave you to it.  Dr Kostovich has full clearance, so anything he needs . . .”  He let the sentence trail as he turned and made his way back to the personnel area.

“It’s this way,” said Hector, and he led them on.

“So what is it you’re up to?” said Hector as they walked.  Kostovich didn’t reply.  “What’s the research you’re doing?” said Hector, this time louder and more obviously directed at Kostovich.  Kostovich seemed startled, like he had been daydreaming.

“Oh, it’s just some ideas we have kicking about.  Higher tolerances for lower pressure, that sort of thing.”

“Right,” said Hector.  “Lower pressure, bigger domes, is that it?”

Kostovich seemed surprised that Hector understood the concept.  “Yes, that’s it.  We need to get the tolerances down as low as we can go then, as you say, we can maximise the size of dome we can build.  You guys might need to wear suits if we can pull this thing off.”

“We wear suits now,” said Hector.

“You do?”

“Well, they’re issued.  Most of the time it’s not necessary.  If we’re doing a lot of grunt work we might take an O2 tank along, and plenty of fluids.  But it’s okay.”

“Really?  I didn’t know that, but it makes sense,” said Kostovich, enjoying playing a character less knowledgeable than his real self.

“What crops are you working on?” said Kim, keen to be a part of a conversation where she might seem like less of a noob than she was.

“The usual.  Cereals.  We’re thinking about adding some traits from cacti, which is why I want to look at the research domes.  I’ve also been looking at lichens, as they already have very high tolerances for low pressure.  If we can develop an organism that could grow outside then we’d really be onto something, but that’s my own personal project for now.  Listen, would you be able to help me out with that?”

Kim wasn’t sure how to respond.  Did she have to play everything by the book, or did researchers command absolute respect?  “What do you mean?” she said.

“Well, I’ve got some cactussy lichen hybrids that I think could survive outside.  The research domes have airlocks, right?  So you could get some sensors out there for me?  I’m hoping to have some samples ready to go in the next few weeks but I’d like some current data on the conditions we might be putting them into.  Would that be a problem?”

Kim looked to Hector.  “Would it?”

Hector frowned.  “I guess it’s okay.  But this isn’t part of the research program?”

“It’s not part of the official research program, but it is work I’m undertaking for Venkdt.  All it is is placing some sensors outside.”

Hector shrugged.  “You’re the boss, I guess,” he said, unsure.

“That’s great,” said Kostovich.  “I have a couple with me.  If you could just take them outside and pop them in the sand, then bring them back in in four weeks’ time that would be great.”  Before he had even finished speaking he was rummaging through his backpack in search of the sensors.

Hector’s brow furrowed, fleetingly.  “Did you run this past Scott?”

“Past who?”

“Scott Watson, our supervisor.”

“Oh, no.  I didn’t even think about it then.  Look, this is semi-official, could you just get them out there for me?”

Kim looked to Hector, who shrugged then looked away.  She thought it might be a good opportunity to show how she played by the rules.  “I’m sorry, Mr Kostovich, but -”

“It’s Dr Kostovich.  You’re research assistants, right?  I’m a researcher, so could you just assist me like you’re supposed to?”

Hector’s initial dislike of Kostovich was deepening.  “Hey, just gimme the goddamned sensors,” he said as he thrust his hand out.

“Look, you’re not doing me a favour, and I’m not asking you to do anything untoward.  This is part of a skunkworks project, so it’s just a bit under the radar, that’s all it is.  I’m senior here and I take full responsibility for all of this.  It’s okay, really.”

Kim reached out and took the sensors.

“Thank you,” said Kostovich.

The research dome was smaller than the production domes.  It had the same four doors, ninety degrees apart, as the larger domes but the one they had entered by was the only one in use.  A modular design, the area covered by the research domes could expand grid-like, just as production domes could, but for now the dome they were in just had the access door and three airlocks to the outside.

As they entered Hector went to talk about the current experimental crop they had in there.  It was a super-high yield rye, modified to withstand very low temperatures and thereby require less heating for its domes.  Kostovich marched directly to the far side of the dome, completely ignoring him.  “This area here,” he said, gesturing to an open expanse outside the dome.  Kim wandered over beside him while Hector bit his tongue.

“Anywhere?” she said.

“Yeah, just a way out from here.”

“What are they monitoring?”

Kostovich paused and made an almost imperceptible wince.  “Pressure, wind speed, temperature.  A few other things.”

“Okay.  I’ll get on to it right away.  I’m new here so I’ll have to check with Hector.”

“Hector?”

“Me,” said Hector.

“Is it okay?” said Kim.

“Sure.  I guess I need to show you the suits anyway, and the airlocks.”

“Thank you,” said Kostovich.  “They’re dumb sensors.  All the data is stored locally.  Plant them, harvest them.  Just like the cereals.”  He smiled insincerely and Hector felt like punching him.

“I get it,” said Hector, through clenched teeth.

“Great, I’ll be off then,” said Kostovich.  “Give them four weeks then just send them over to me at Venkdt R&D.  Actually, I’ll come back in four weeks and collect them.  Thanks a lot.”  He patted Kim weakly on the shoulder and turned and left.

“That guy is a massive twat,” said Hector.

Kim waited until she was sure Kostovich was out of earshot, a courtesy which Hector had dispensed with.  “Are they all like that?” she said.

“Don’t know,” replied Hector.  “Like I said, we hardly ever see them.  He’s not one of them, anyway.  Not regular VA research, I don’t know what that’s about.  I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone from R&D come down here before.  Anyways, do you want to get those things out there?”

“Sure, sounds great,” said Kim.

Hector tapped at his comdev.  “I’ll get a drone to bring the suits.”

They returned to the personnel area a little before five.  Watson was in conversation with Hernandez as they entered the office.  They stopped and looked over.  “So how was the first day?” said Watson.

“All good,” said Kim.

“We even made it to the great outdoors,” said Meyers.

“What?”

“I took Kim outside.  The guy from R&D wanted us to plant some sensors, so we went outside and did it.”

“Outside, huh?” Watson said to Kim.  “How was that?”

“Amazing,” said Kim, thinking she might have oversold it.

“Suit four still isn’t right,” said Hector.  “Coms breaking up all over the place.”

“I’ll get it sent away,” said Watson.

“It’s the same as last time.  They never fixed it right.  Time before that, too.”

“I’ll get it fixed.  Didn’t interfere with the excursion, though?”

“Nah.  Beautiful clear day out there,” said Hector.

“The view was incredible,” said Kim.

“Good,” said Watson.  “I can’t even remember the last time I went outside.”

“Was it when you worked for a living?” offered Hernandez and they laughed.

“Maybe it was,” said Watson with a smile on his face.  He looked mischievously at Kim.  “I don’t have to do that kind of thing now, I get the help to do it for me.”

“Vic here yet?”

“Not yet.”

“In two or three weeks you’ll go on the night shift with Vic.  You’ll get to meet him in a minute, he’s a good guy,” said Watson.

“Yeah, lovely bloke,” said Hernandez, and Kim thought she caught him rolling his eyes at Meyers.

“Here he is now,” said Hernandez.

“What?” said Vic as he entered the room.  He looked over at Kim then quickly looked away.

“Vic, this is Kim,” said Watson, “Kim, this is Vic.”

“Hello,” said Kim, and she offered her hand to Vic.  She didn’t feel comfortable shaking hands but Watson, Meyers and Hernandez had offered theirs to her earlier.  She thought she might get in first with Vic.  He took the hand and shook quickly.  “Hi,” he said, almost too quietly to hear.

“You might struggle to get a word in edgeways with Vic,” said Meyers, “but every now and then he goes through a rare contemplative period.”

Hernandez laughed.  “S’up Vic?” he said, insincerely.

“Assholes,” said Vic quietly as he strode to his locker.

“You’ll be glad to know we don’t work a full night shift,” said Watson.  “What time will you be knocking off tonight, Vic?”

Vic finished rummaging in his locker.  “Finish, or clock off?”

Watson smiled.  “What time does your shift end?”

“Three.”

“There you go,” said Watson.  “Nine hours, and you can be in bed by half-three.  That’s not so bad, is it?”

“I guess not,” said Kim, cautiously.  “I don’t know how I missed it.”

“Well, there’s a lot of small print.  Most of the stuff in your contract is things that you’ll never have to do.  I guess HR put it all in there just so they’re covered.  It’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

“No, it won’t be problem,” said Kim, “I just wasn’t expecting it.  Like you say, it’s not the whole night any way.  More like a late shift, I guess.”

“That’s right,” said Scott, “more like a late shift.  It’s not for a few weeks anyway.”

“Why do I need a buddy?” said Vic.  “I can do the shift on my own.  It doesn’t take two.”

“It’s not our decision, Vic.  The place is expanding and they don’t want people working alone anymore.”

“But it doesn’t make sense.”

“They’re worried about the loneliness driving people crazy.  In fact, it was your psych evaluation that prompted them to make the change,” quipped Meyers.

“That’s enough,” said Watson, and he sounded serious.  “It’s all changing Vic, that’s just how it is.  Listen, if you finish your rounds in half the time that’s fine by me.  Put your feet up, catch some zees.  The company wants to phase out lone working.  They’re paying for the extra staff so let’s just roll with it, okay?”

Vic grunted something as he crashed down into one of the small, functional sofas.  Scott watched him with a slight frown, then turned back to Kim.  “Well, that was your first day, how did you find it?”

“It was great,” said Kim.

“Think you’re gonna like it?”

“I do.  I love plants, I love big spaces.  I’m really excited about it.”

“Great, we’re glad to have you with us.  That’s it for today, then.  You’re free to go.”

“Okay.  I’ll see you all tomorrow.”

“Need a ride, Kim?” said Hernandez

“I’m good Jay, thanks.  See you all tomorrow.”

The three weeks on days were good.  Once she was settled into the role Kim was able to relax and be less guarded in her conversations.  Her new colleagues had gradually changed from cardboard cut-outs into real, three-dimensional people.  She learnt a little about their home lives and even remembered the names of some of their partners.

In the third week she spent a lot of time working on her own.  It was great.  There wasn’t much to the job.  It was mostly carrying out simple tasks or just being around in case a call came through with an urgent request from Research.  Spending time in the fields was incredibly soothing.  Some of her friends had remarked that it would be unpleasant spending so much time alone but Kim welcomed it.

Nights were different.

There was something about the darkness that changed solitude.  In the daytime, in a bright, airy, sunlit dome solitude was something peaceful and calming.  At night the same isolation felt reckless and dangerous.  Consciously she knew that, as in daytime, access to the domes was meticulously controlled and the only people allowed admittance were her colleagues.  However, millions of years of evolution had programmed her brain to be on high alert when the sun went down, and a nagging fear of the dark kept her from relaxing.

She used her unfamiliarity with night work to stay close to Vic.  Though there was something dark about him he seemed the lesser of two evils.  He appeared not to mind having her tag along as he casually went about his work.

“Do you like working nights,” asked Kim.

“What do you think?  I ain’t got no one lookin’ over my shoulder and I get time and a half for the hours past midnight.”

“You don’t find it creepy?”

“Creepy?  Nah, not really.  Why?  Is it freakin’ you out?”

“No, it’s just . . . a bit lonely, I guess.”

Vic grunted.  “Lonely.  I see.”  He carried on fiddling with his comdev.  Kim wandered toward the edge of the dome they were in.  Vic finished what he was doing and joined her.  “You know the night shift is a doss, don’t you?”

Kim shrugged.

“I mean, we have to do it, but it’s even dossier than the day shift.  We’ll wander through about five or six domes, go back, check on the surveillance and monitoring systems, and that’s us done for the night.  Push a couple of chairs together and there we are.  In the land of nod until it’s time to clock off.”

Kim wasn’t sure if he was serious or if he was testing her.  “You sleep on the job?”

“Sure.  Look, this is a nine-hour shift, right?  We have enough work for three hours, tops.  So we stretch that to five hours, have a meal break and then take it easy.  Did you think you would be working for nine whole hours?”

“I . . .”  Kim struggled to find a reply.

“Don’t worry about it.  Stick with me, I’ll show you the ropes.”

They walked to the next dome.  They were now at the outer edge of the grid. Kim’s eye was immediately drawn to the far side of the dome, where the Plexiglas allowed a spectacular view of the Martian surface to the right with the glittering lights of Marineris arcing round to the left.  “Wow,” she said, unable to help herself.

Vic grinned.  “It’s something, ain’t it?” he said.  “I kinda get used to it but every now and then I stop to take a look.  Come on.”  They walked around the edge to the far side of the dome and looked out onto the wilds of Mars.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” said Kim.

“Sure is,” said Vic.

“Imagine if you could go out there.  I mean just go out there and run about.”

“I don’t think that would be such a good idea.”

“Yeah, I know.  I just mean imagine if you could.”

Vic drifted away from Kim.  He slowly ambled further around the dome wall.  He was observing her closely.  She was entranced with the view and her fantasy about frolicking through the dunes but once she noticed he had moved away she instinctively moved too, subconsciously trying to remain in close proximity.  It was what Vic had expected.

“You know, there is someone out there,” said Vic as Kim ambled closer.

“What?”

“There’s someone on the outside.  You never heard about that?”

Kim shrugged.  “No.”  Taken as read, the statement was ridiculous.  She sensed a joke, or a hoary old campfire tale, or some sort of trick come-back.

“Yeah, a few years back, when all that Ephialtes stuff went down.  One of their commanders made it to the surface.  Made it all the way into Marineris, actually.  But he ran off back outside.”

“I remember that, I think,” said Kim.  “That was a bit further north, wasn’t it?”

“That’s right,” said Vic, smiling appreciatively.  “Over that way,” he gestured with his thumb, “at the Allentown Spaceport.  Four or five klicks north, like you say.”

“Did they ever find the body?”

Vic drew breath and paused.  “No.  They never found nothing.  No body, no trace.”

Kim waited for Vic to elaborate.  She was starting to feel cold and as she thought about what he’d said she zipped up her jacket a little way.  Clearly, he was itching to tell the story but wanted to be prompted.  She didn’t want to pander to him but her natural curiosity bubbled through.  “Why did he run off like that?”

Vic shrugged.  “Who knows?  All we know for sure is that they never found him.”  He nodded towards the outside.  “Still out there.”

Kim zipped her coat further.  Though the domes were climate controlled the temperature dropped at night to mimic real world conditions on Earth.  It was positively toasty compared to the temperature outside but Kim still felt a chill.  “I wonder where he is.  I wonder why he did it.”

Vic settled, confident now that he was luring her in.  “Well, Kim, you’re asking the right questions.  Why did he do it?  Does it make any sense to you?  You’ve come all that way, you’ve been shot down, you’ve surrendered to the MSS and you’re safe in Marineris.  Why would you run out there,” he nodded to the outside, “to certain death?”

Kim shrugged.  “Who knows?  Long dead now, I guess.”

“Well,” said Vic, “I don’t know.”  He waited before continuing, hoping to build as much tension as he could.  “I’ve heard some things when I’ve been out here late at night . . .”

“Oh, come on,” said Kim and she shook her head, grinning.

“No, it’s true!” said Vic.  No trace of a smile played about his lips.

Kim shook her head again.  She knew where this was going.  It was an old campfire story that went all the way back to the home planet and probably all the way back to before the start of recorded history.

“I swear,” said Vic.  “I’ve heard things when I’ve been out here at night.”  He glanced at one of the huge Plexiglas panels.  “Heard things outside.”

“Bullshit,” said Kim, and she took a few steps away.

“I’m telling you.  It always used to be quiet out here.  Maybe a little wind sometimes, but that was it.  Ever since they had that business with the commander there’s been strange things going on.  Not every night.  Sometimes there’ll be months when nothing happens.  But then it starts again.”

“You’re full of shit,” said Kim.  She felt odd being so familiar with someone she barely knew but she’d picked up that the others didn’t take Vic too seriously.  She was starting to see why.

Vic frowned.  “You don’t believe me?”

“Of course I don’t believe you.  It’s a stupid, spooky ghost story.”

“Okay, okay,” said Vic.  “You don’t have to believe it.  All I know is what I heard.  And saw.”

Kim guffawed.  “Right, what did you see?”

“Why should I tell you?  You’re just gonna laugh.”  He was looking down and fiddling with the seam of his jacket. 

She looked at him and tried to figure if it was part of an act where he was trying to slyly sell her the story.  “Well,” she said, “I probably am going to laugh, but I’d still like to hear it.”

Vic weighed her up coolly.  “The others all laughed at me when I told them.  That’s why I stopped telling them anymore.” 

She sensed a sadness in the remark and thought she needed to offer some reassurance.  “Hey, I’m laughing at the story, not at you.”

“Same thing.  I seen stuff out here, and no one believes me.”

Kim was feeling more serious now.  “Well, it is quite an unlikely story.”

“I ain’t even told you yet.”

“Yes, but . . . I thought you were just trying to creep me out.  You’re not just trying to creep me out, are you?”

Vic seemed sulky.  “No,” he said, and looked at his feet.

Kim decided to humour him.  If nothing else it might lift his mood.  “What was it that you saw?”

He looked up at her.  She could see that he was mulling over whether or not to tell her.  Again, she couldn’t decide if it was genuine or if he was skilfully manipulating her.  If he had said ‘Ha! Gotcha!’ at any point it would have made perfect sense, but he seemed to be for real.

“Footprints,” he said.

Kim looked at him.  “But we go out there.  I’ve been out there myself, just the other week.  I’ve left footprints out there.”

Vic nodded along.  “Uh-huh.  You think I’m stupid?  Think I can’t recognise my own footprints?”

“No!  But, come on, it’s just footprints.  There are a million explanations.  It’s not mysterious.”

“It isn’t?  Well, these were USAN commander prints, just like the guy who disappeared out there.  What do you think about that?

“Commander prints?”

“Yup.  I looked it up.  USAN commander boots have a distinct pattern, and that’s what I saw.  Out there.  In the sand.”

Kim was certain now he was having her on but his poker-face remained sincere.

“So I’m sure you took a picture, right?”

“Went to get a camera -”

“What’s wrong with a comdev?”

“This was a remarkable thing, it was dark, I needed the best quality I could get, okay?”  He looked rankled.

“Great, so show me the pictures.”

“That’s the thing, when I came back with the camera the prints had gone.”

“Oh really,” said Kim, “I am so surprised by the end to that story.”

Vic rubbed his chin.  “I thought you might be different but you don’t believe me either.”

“Of course I don’t believe you.  It’s a ghost story.  Okay, it is slightly creepy, so well done for that, but it’s just a silly story, isn’t it?”

Vic shrugged.  “Okay,” he said, with a note of defeat in his voice.

Kim wasn’t sure what was going on.  Was Vic genuinely wounded by her failure to buy his laughable story?  Or was he playing a mean trick on the new girl and acting the part for all he was worth.  Should she try to win him round or would that make it worse for her when he snapped into a new persona and pointed and laughed at her for buying into one of the oldest, hoariest stories of them all?  She felt a mild anger rising – she was on to a loser whichever way she played it.  She decided to go with her gut.  Vic did seem very plausible and if it was a ruse she would have to bide her time and have some form of slight revenge further down the line, if she felt he deserved it.  If she trusted him and it came back on her, so be it.  Just one of the prices you have to pay when you’re new and feeling your way.

Vic had started to wander and Kim had drifted along with him.  “So you really saw footprints out there?”

Vic frowned before saying, “Yes.”

Kim let his answer hang before replying.  “So what do you think it was?”

Vic shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Some sort of secret MSS training, maybe.  But there was only one set of prints.  I don’t think they’d send anyone out there on their own.  That’s a standard protocol.  Even here, we have to go out in buddy pairs.”

Kim thought if she was going to humour him she should go all in.  “You believe in ghosts?”

Vic stopped and turned to face her.  “I don’t know what I believe.  All I know is what I saw, and all the things I heard.”

“You must have a theory though, right?”

“Maybe I do.”

They walked on.

“And your theory is?”

Vic stopped.  “You’ll laugh just like the rest of them.  Why should I tell you?  You’ve laughed at me already.”

“Hey, I won’t laugh at you.  In fact, I didn’t laugh at you before.  I just laughed at what you were saying.  I thought you were winding me up.  I still think you might be, to be honest.”

Vic looked Kim up and down.  “So you’ll go back to the others and laugh about Crazy Vic.  You can bond over it.  Really feel like you’re part of the team.”

“Come on, I just . . .”  Kim threw her arms up, exasperated.  They walked on.  Kim was feeling miserable.  It was only her second night and she’d either offended her workmate or was being set up for a laughing stock.  She looked at the ground as she walked.

They came to an airlock and went through it into the next dome.  Vic sealed the door behind them.  “I’ll tell you what I think it is,” he said suddenly.  Kim was startled.  She was expecting to walk back to the personnel area in silence.

“What?” she said.

“It’s him.  The commander.”

Kim nodded understandingly.  She thought it was ludicrous but she was hoping to placate Vic.

“It’s the only explanation,” he went on.  “There was never any of this before the incident.  None.  But ever since . . . and the prints I saw were standard issue commander, I swear it.”

Kim wasn’t sure how she should react.  “You think it’s a ghost?”

Vic briefly closed his eyes and pulled a taut fast frown.  “Ghost?  Crazy Vic sees ghosts at night, that’s about right, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t mean to offend -”

“Well you did.  You have.  Christ, I don’t know what I think.  I know what I saw, and I know that commander got away and they never found him.  What do you think about that?”

Kim tried to think of an answer.  “I don’t know, but he must have died out there.”

“Must?  He’d just come a hundred and forty million miles across the vacuum of space.  You don’t think they might have planned for an inhospitable environment?  That they might have set up some contingency plans?  Vehicles, habs?  How do you know he wasn’t picked up by a support vehicle and taken back to some remote position?  Maybe he’s carrying out recon missions while they build their new carriers back on Earth.  Maybe he still has enough firepower at some supply dump out there to finish his mission and he’s just biding his time.  Ever think about any of that?”

Kim’s head was spinning.  She knew it was crazy talk but she could just about imagine seeing it from Vic’s point of view.  “I suppose that’s possible,” she offered.

Vic looked at Kim’s forlorn face and immediately felt guilty about his outburst.  He was so used to being mocked and belittled that he sometimes got his retaliation in first.  Kim didn’t seem as mean as the others and hadn’t deserved his mini tirade.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he said.  “The guys never let any of this stuff go and I’m just tired of it.  I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

“It’s fine,” said Kim.  “I didn’t mean to imply anything negative.”

“I’m just telling you what I saw, and I did see it.”

“Sure,” said Kim, “I believe you.”

And she almost did believe him, sort of.

Three

The following night Vic was more settled.  He was friendly enough, though maybe a little subdued.  Kim hoped he’d noticed that she hadn’t mentioned his story to the others during the handover period.  She had remained true to her word.

They decided to split up that evening.  Vic would take on Research.  There were a few minor tasks requested by researchers and he would take care of those while Kim had the less onerous task of wandering through the production domes.  Ostensibly, she would be looking for any issues arising but in reality was just providing a human presence to assuage insurers.

At night the domes were under a low intensity light, calibrated to mimic moonlight on the plants’ native Earth.  The low lighting would have made for an exceptionally pleasant stroll but a sense of isolation was always close by, the more primitive elements of Kim’s brain telling her to be wary of potential hazards that were an impossibility in the tightly controlled environments she was in.  There could be no predators hiding in the fields of corn, no beasts of prey using the dark recesses of the domes to their advantage.

She still found herself looking over her shoulder occasionally.  Though she knew that the strange sounds she sometime heard – cracks and creaks and snaps – had to have logical, mundane explanations she still felt a fast shock of fear each time she heard one.  She stopped herself from calling out, ‘Is there anyone there?’ but it took effort.

Having toured the outer production domes she made her way to Research.  She expected to find Vic in Research Dome 12, but he wasn’t there.  “Vic?” she called out hopefully, but plainly the dome was devoid of human life.

She circled round the edge, making a full sweep, then exited the way she came in.  She traversed the connecting tubes and made her way to Dome 14.  “Vic?” she called again at the entryway.  There was no reply.  Cautiously, she entered.  She inched her way around the edge calling out, “Vi-ic,” in a sing-song voice.  At around a hundred degrees from the door she stopped.  The dome was filled with a high-yield wheat and it was ready for harvest.  It was a beautiful golden brown, though it appeared grey in the half-light.  She looked at it for a moment before turning to the view outside.  It was the same vista that had entranced her so the previous evening.  She tried to make out landmarks in the city but soon gave up, preferring to look at the Martian desert, feebly illuminated from the light spilling off Marineris.  As she looked at the dunes and rocks she thought about Vic’s story.  She figured that Vic was sincere in his beliefs but his beliefs were just plain wrong.  Outside of the inhabited areas Mars was a massively unforgiving environment.  No life could be sustained there, even fleetingly.  The poor commander from Earth, who had run out into the Martian wilderness more than three years ago now, would have perished within hours.  Even if he did have a support base it would only have been able to sustain him for days or weeks, not the months and years that had passed since he had disappeared into the tundra.  Wherever he was, he was long dead.  Maybe he was covered by the constantly shifting Martian sands and would only be revealed by chance, thousands of years into the future.  Maybe he was close by and would be discovered in the next few years, perhaps being repatriated to Earth for a military funeral with honours.  However you looked at it, he was just a ghost now.

There was a sudden rustling in the wheat behind her and Kim spun around, instinctively taking a step back toward the edge of the dome. Impulsively she raised her hands across her chest and half crouched.  A figure rose from the wheat, indistinct in the low light.  As Kim opened her mouth in a silent scream she realised the figure was Vic.  “Jesus!” she said, “you scared the shit out of me!”

“What?” said Vic, reaching up to remove his earbuds.

Kim stood straight now and took some quick steps toward him.  “You scared the bejesus out of me!  What are you doing in there?”

Vic wound up the buds and put them in his pocket as he walked toward her.  “I was just doing some manual acidity tests.  What are you doing?”

Kim relaxed further, relieved to be around another person and not at the mercy of some spectral corn spirit.  “I’ve just been . . . checking the domes, like you showed me.”

“Great.  Finished?”

“Yeah, I guess I’m finished now.”

“Okay, let’s go and get a cup of tea.”

“Yeah,” said Kim.  “That would be nice.”

Four

Kim was due on again at six next evening.  She’d got to bed around four after having something to eat.  It was two o’clock now, so she had some time to browse the webs on her terminal before getting ready for work.

She searched for information on the USAN commander who had run off into the wilds of Mars.  His name was Hayden Steiner and he was a decorated veteran of WWIV, in which the USAN and the Asian Bloc had butted heads pointlessly for seven years before negotiating a peace barely any different from that which had existed before hostilities had begun.

He had been the only member of the USAN’s expeditionary force to Mars to get there uncaptured and had waged a one-man assault on the Allentown Spaceport and Parry battery that had very nearly succeeded.  He had been apprehended by the MSS in their first combat mission and would have been returned to Earth had he not immediately escaped and run off into the desert.

Kim searched for an explanation for Steiner’s apparently suicidal flight from capture and could find none.  As a prisoner of war he could have expected repatriation, like his fellows rescued from the stricken Ephialtes, a prospect none too alarming.  Why had he run off like that?

While there were no satisfactory answers as to why Steiner had fled there was plenty of crazy speculation about what had happened to him since.  Variously, he had been picked up by aliens, was an alien, had gone back to a second hidden USAN spacecraft or similar, as Vic had suggested, or (Kim couldn’t help a grim-faced smile at this one) continued to roam the Martian wasteland like some lost soul in purgatory.

The version where Steiner’s nomadic spirit continually roamed the deserts surrounding Marineris was by far the most popular.  There were many posts by people confirming they had seen a human figure outside the domes who, on subsequent research, bore a striking resemblance to library photos of a USAN commander.  Interestingly, thought Kim, none of the eyewitnesses to these extraordinary sightings had the presence of mind to lift their comdevs to eye level and take a few snaps to settle the issue once and for all.

Despite the flimsiness of the stories they seemed to feed upon themselves.  There was even a group actively campaigning the Martian government to come clean about what they knew of the situation, since – obviously – there was a cover-up.  The reasonable denials of the government – they didn’t know what had happened, and no body had ever been recovered – just added fuel to the flames.  If the government are denying it, the logic went, it must be even bigger than we thought.

Idly, Kim had been drawn down a path of clicks concerning similar tales throughout history.  Ghost ships, ghost trains, ghost planes and ultimately plain old ghosts themselves.  Though scrupulously rational Kim did find some of the stories creepy and she thought about stopping, but there was something compelling about these ghost stories that kept her reading.  In a way she felt a little proud that Mars had its own haunting, however modest.

She lost track of time, swept up in a world of ghouls and fiends, suddenly realising she should be getting ready for work.  She shut the terminal down and switched on the light as she got ready, even though dusk was still an hour away.

While she was at work that night she thought about going to see Kristen.  It had been on the Steiner mission that Kristen had been injured, and she hadn’t been to visit for ages.  She felt bad, but it was difficult finding things to say.  After the first visit what more was there to discuss?  It wasn’t like they were close anymore, and that made it awkward too, but it was Kristen’ ex-boyfriend Jason who had helped her to get the job and she felt she should at least drop by to thank her for that.  Maybe she could ask her about Steiner?  No, that would be insensitive.  Kristen’s injuries on that day had been severe and life-threatening.  The fact that she was still receiving treatment in hospital now, three years later, attested to that.  And, just on a practical level, Kristen had been taken out of the picture way before Steiner’s capture and escape.  She would have been unconscious, being patched up by a field medic and rushed to the ER while all that was going on.  She pushed it to the back of her mind, putting it on a vague ‘to-do’ list that she would never get round to reading.

It was Kim’s last night on lates.  She’d made it, almost, and she’d found that Vic Roemer wasn’t that bad after all.  He was a little odd but she could live with it.  If she had to do nights (and as it turned out, contractually she did have to do nights) Vic was as good a person as any to do them with.  She could put up with the quirks and at least he wasn’t mouthy or overbearing.  She thought they had the beginnings of a good working relationship.

She got to the office early.  The day shift hadn’t finished up yet so she was on her own.  After she’d put a few bits in her locker she logged into her work terminal.  There were a handful of inconsequential work emails waiting for her, mostly circulars with no particular relevance to her personally, but one was to her only.  It was from Dr Daniel Kostovich.

He began the email, ‘Dear Kim,’ which surprised her.  She hadn’t thought that he had been in the slightest bit interested in her or Meyers and she seemed to recall that he didn’t even remember Watson’s name on the day, only minutes after having met him.  She read on.

Kostovich wanted his sensors returned at the earliest opportunity.  He seemed reasonable and charming in the email and Kim felt a natural inclination to help him.  Somehow this was magnified by him having seemed such an asshole the first time they’d met.  From his email it appeared he didn’t remember the atmosphere of that encounter.  From his tone it might have looked to the uninitiated that Kostovich and Kim were old pals with a long and friendly history together.

Kim brought up her work schedule for the evening.  There wasn’t much on and she thought there would easily be time for her and Vic to venture out and pick up the sensors.  It seemed like it might be fun – she had only been outside a handful of times before, and never at night.  Vic’s ghost stories scuttled quickly through her thoughts but she pushed them to one side.  She’d be with another person, albeit Vic, and that would take the creepiness factor down to acceptable levels.  More practically, she wondered what the conditions might be like.  There had been a few dust storms recently and although storms on Mars held little power they might impact on visibility.  If it came to it, they could carry out the recovery task without visuals – a head-up display with GPS overlays could easily guide them – so it was more from curiosity that Kim brought up a meteorological report for the day.  Indeed, there were dust storms predicted for Marineris that evening.  She looked up at the window.  ‘It seems clear enough now,’ she thought, ‘but that’s how it is with weather – unpredictable.

Five

She’d chatted with the others as they’d arrived back from the domes.  She asked Jason if he knew how Kris was doing and he made positive sounds in response but seemed like he didn’t want to be drawn on the subject.  She said that she would be visiting soon and while she was saying it she meant it sincerely.

When the others had gone she spoke to Vic about the Extra Municipal Activity.

“Tonight?”

“Yeah, he needs the sensors back as soon as possible.”

“It has to be tonight?”

“I’m off now until Monday and he’s asked me specifically.  Is it a problem?”

Vic shrugged.  “No.  I could have done without it today, though.  Have you checked the tanks?”  He was hoping there’d be a practical reason they wouldn’t be able to do it that evening.

“Yeah, there’s more than enough.  The two that me and Meyers used the other week are back now too.  We’ve got a full complement.”

“What about the weather.  I heard there’s storms coming.”

Kim’s shoulders slumped slightly in resigned persuasion.  “Vic, I’d really like to get this done.  He’s specifically asked me to do it and it might be useful to be on his good side.  He even remembered my name.”

“Well,” said Vic, pursing his lips, “I guess.”  He closed his locker and Kim wasn’t sure if it was a slam or if that was how he always closed it.

It was a long walk out to Dome 12.  They brought the pressure suits with them in the trolley.  Vic had wanted to use a drone but Kim insisted that would be overkill.  She’d hauled the trolley for eight domes before Vic volunteered to take over.

“I just want to do a boundary check before we go out,” he said when they arrived.  The small particles of sand that had been hitting the dome walls throughout their trek seemed more frequent now.

“Okay,” Kim replied.  She was relieved that Vic’s check would give her some time to sit and recover.  She hopped up onto the trolley.  “See you in a bit,” she said, and Vic went off on his short excursion.

Kim looked out through the dome wall.  The wind did seem to be gaining strength.  Although she could still make out the light from Marineris as it peeled away into the distance the further it went the dimmer it got.  It seemed that she could see the arc of light slowly shortening as the density of the dust storm increased.  She could hear the quiet howls as the thin Martian winds whipped between the domes.  The howls reminded her again of Vic’s stories and she smiled, thinking of their ridiculousness.  At the same time she glanced over her shoulder, feeling the slightest tinge of relief when she spotted Vic on the other side of the dome, slowly making his way around as he needlessly inspected this and that.

By the time Vic had completed his circuit Marineris had disappeared.  “Grim night, huh?” he said as he ambled up to the trolley.

“It’s got worse over the last twenty minutes.  While you were off.”

Vic looked at his feet.

“Shall we?” said Kim.  She tapped on the trolley as she spoke.

Vic looked at the dome wall.  It looked like an abstract shadow play.  Bits of sand and occasionally larger pieces of matter hit the Plexiglas then disappeared against a background of an ever changing muted red glow.  The gravelly pitter-pat of the sand and small rocks hitting the wall was underpinned by the soft howls of the wind.

“You really want to go out there?” said Vic.

“It’ll be fine.  Ten minutes and we’ll be done.  Let’s just get it over with.”  She jumped off the trolley and opened it up, pulling out a pressure suit and handing it to Vic.  She pulled out her own and unselfconsciously stripped down to her underwear before putting it on.

Vic was doing the same.  “Could have done without this tonight,” he said as he grabbed his helmet and tank from the trolley.  He looked up at the top of the dome.  “Getting worse,” he said.

When they were fully kitted up they checked each other’s suits and tanks as part of the EMA safety protocol.  They checked the coms in the suits; they could communicate fully.

“That’s all the checks.  Are you ready?” said Kim.

Vic gave her the thumbs up.  It was hard to see his face clearly through two visors but she guessed he wasn’t smiling.

“I need to hear it,” she said.

“I’m ready,” said Vic, with the slightest touch of irritation.

“Let’s go.”

Once they were outside the full extent of their limited visibility became apparent.  Though Vic was stood in front of her Kim could only just see his outline.  “Are you okay?” she said.

“- uat?”

“What?”

“- aid wh -.  My com i - operly.”

“Say again?”

Vic tilted his head and tapped the side of his helmet.  “I said my com isn’t working properly.  I think it’s okay with my head like this.  Got to be a bad connection somewhere.”

“But we just checked it.”

“A check’s only valid as you’re doing it.  It’s not working properly now.”

“Should we go back?”

“It’s fine,” said Vic, bitterly.  “We’re out here now, we might as well do it.  If I need to talk to you I’ll just tilt my head.”

“What if I need to talk to you?”

“It’s fine, it’s intermittent.  If I hear you talking I’ll stop and tilt.  Come on, let’s get this over with.”

Kim brought up the positioning overlay on her HUD.  It highlighted the coordinates of the two sensors, visually overlaying them on what she could see through her visor.  What she could see was almost nothing; the two virtual sensors were her only guide points in a whir of sand and darkness.  To the bottom right of her HUD was a top-down map with coloured dots representing her, Vic and the sensors.  It also showed the domes and part of Marineris behind them.  She set off toward the first sensor and glancing down saw Vic’s orange dot moving behind her own.  She looked over her shoulder but saw only a whir of sand in the darkness.  Turning back she carried on toward the sensor.

At the sensor she sunk to her knees.  She could just make out the top of the device which was barely poking through the sand.  She scooped some of the sand away with one hand while she pulled on the top of the sensor with the other.  “Nearly buried,” she said.  When Vic made no comment she glanced down at the map.  In the centre, she could see only one solitary orange dot.  “Vic?” she said, without alarm.  There was no reply.  “Vic, I’m going to make this sentence as long as I can in the hope that you get just a tiny part of it and tilt your head so I can speak to you properly.”

“- ay.” 

Kim waited.

“Is that better?”

“Much.  Listen, I think the coms on that suit are properly screwed.  I’ve lost your transponder now too.  Where are you?  You’re behind me, right?”

“- be.  I’ve still got your transponder, yes, I’m right behind you.  Are you ready to get the next sensor?”

Kim placed the sensor in the pouch on the leg of her pressure suit as she stood.  “Yes, I’m moving out now.”  Her eye was drawn to a small orange blip popping up on her map.  “Vic, I’ve got you showing halfway to the next sensor, please confirm your position.”

“- oms are scre - .  No, I’m right behind you.  See.”

Kim waited.  “See what?”

“I’m tapping you on the shoulder.”

The orange blip disappeared again.  The wind howled.  She thought back to their first meeting when she wasn’t sure if Vic was messing with her but she had given him the benefit of the doubt.  Now she was thrown into confusion all over again.  Was she being played? 

“Vic, if you’re screwing about I’m gonna kill you.”

“- at are y - bout.  Let’s go.”

“I’m starting off for the second sensor now, please stay close on my six.”

“- oger.”

Walking toward the last sensor Kim was acutely aware that Vic’s transponder wasn’t transmitting.  According to her map she was alone and her visibility was close to zero.  She thought about Vic’s stories of the wandering commander and, irritated by her own irrational fear, once again thought he might be deliberately messing with her.  “Are you still there, Vic?” she said.

“- till here,” he replied, after a pause.

Human beings, having evolved on plains and savannas, naturally fear isolation and darkness.  Predators with superior night vision can easily pick off those who might stray from the light of the campfire.  Kim was stripped of all useful visual information about her environment and she wasn’t fully assured that she wasn’t alone.  Despite her conscious efforts to suppress it her fear was rising in scope and magnitude.

The second orange dot appeared on her map again.  It was now midway between her position and the sensor.  She stopped.  “Vic, can you turn your transponder off.  It’s creeping me out, I have you in front of me again now.

“Vic?”

She turned around, all the while knowing it would be useless.  The view didn’t change.  Facing backward looked the same as facing forward – a dark reddish swirl.  Kim bit her lip as she turned back toward the sensor.  All she had to do was grab it and she could head back to the airlock.  Strictly, she should remain with Vic at all times.  That was the protocol.  But Vic had told her he could see her transponder and she had told him to follow her.  She would be able to justify heading back alone and, without any clues to his position, she would be unable to find Vic in the storm anyway.  It seemed like a plan to her and, luckily, it coincided with what her gut was telling her to do – get the hell out of there.

“Vic, I don’t know if you can hear me, but I’m going to get the second sensor and then head straight back to the airlock.  Stay on my six and, if you can, make physical contact so I know you’ve understood this, okay?”  She waited for a tap on the shoulder but none came.  Ahead of her on the map was an orange dot with the sensor beyond it.  She set off.

“I’m heading to the last sensor.  I’ve got about forty metres to go,” she said.  She hoped Vic was able to hear her but if not the sound of her own voice was comforting in itself.  As she walked she glanced down at the map, focusing on the orange dot.  It wasn’t moving and she was nearly upon it.

“Vic, if you can hear me, I’m diverting around an obstacle.  Stay close.”  She deviated from the true line in order to avoid the orange dot.  Part of her knew it was just Vic’s faulty equipment but her animal brain was telling her to avoid it.  The dot – electrical signals on a screen, as intangible as the thought of what it might represent – loomed before her as phantoms had loomed in people’s minds throughout history.  She had neglected to mention to Vic, if he could hear her at all, that the obstacle she was avoiding was, as far as could be reasonably assumed, a phantasm.

Though she could not see anything Kim nervously looked to her right as she ported round the dot she could see on her map.  At some low level she wanted to be able to react if the threat – whatever it was – loomed at her from the swirling dust.  She might only be able to see it when it was centimetres from her visor, when it would be far too late, but still her instincts, which were slowly taking greater and greater precedence, insisted on it.

With relief she reached the sensor.  Unlike the first, which had nearly been buried, this one was being stripped of its bedding and would undoubtedly have fallen over had it been left a few more days.  Kim slumped to her knees and grabbed it, relieved that she wouldn’t have to spend any extra time digging it out.  She pulled and it yielded to her.  She let out a pent-up breath, pausing for a second before she began to stand. 

She felt it as she stood.  It was as distinct a feeling as she had ever known.

A tap on the shoulder.

She span around.  “Vic!?”

-

She involuntarily took a few steps backwards then wished she hadn’t.  It had to be Vic but now she had no way of checking.  He would have to be two or three metres in front her now, assuming he hadn’t moved.  It was too late to check.  Everything had potentially changed in just a few seconds and in that short time she had lost her chance to confirm the presence of her confederate.  She waited, nervously backing further away even as she thought she should be holding her ground waiting for Vic – surely, the only sensible explanation was that it was Vic – to catch up.

Her mind was a whir of conflicting thoughts.  She felt stupid at her irrational fear but equally glad that she was in full flight or fight mode on the off-chance that her fears somehow weren’t entirely unfounded.  That she had somehow resisted the urge to turn and flee at the first tap on the shoulder was something of a victory.  She congratulated herself on it as she backed away from where she supposed Vic might be stood in the deep, dark red haze.  The strain that first tap had put on her emotional resources could not bear the second tap when it came.

She ran in blind panic.

The HUD had guided her back to the airlock.  Her hard panting breath had managed to partially fog her visor, which was supposedly unfogable.  It made no difference, anyway, as she was effectively blind from the storm.  When the outer door had sealed behind her she had felt only the slightest relief.  Her fear was so overwhelming that anything seemed possible.  The solid pressure-door could only offer scant protection from the phantom Kim imagined on the other side of it.

She was so panicked she ran to the inner door and tried to open it before she had repressurised.  When the door refused to open her fear rose again, blocking out all rational thought.  ‘Open,’ she thought to herself, ‘Open, open!’  After collapsing in terror and assuming the foetal position in the airlock, squeezed into the corner near the inner door, she began to give it some thought.  As the wave of ultimate panic subsided and some rational thought crept back into her consciousness, she remembered about pressurisation.  Pensively, she stood and at the second attempt could keep her hand steady enough to push the buttons.

On entry to the dome she was shocked to see Vic stood in front of her.  “I’m sorry about that,” he said.

Kim grappled with the locks to her helmet, eventually calming enough to unlatch them and pull the helmet off.

“What?” she said.  It was inadequate for what she wanted to say, but would do for now.  It was short, simple and would keep Vic talking as she tried to gather her thoughts.

“I’m sorry I had to leave you out there.  The protocol is we both head back if faulty equipment endangers the mission but I had no way of telling you I was headed back and no way of finding you.  My coms just went.  All of them.”  He shrugged.

Kim was still panting.  She put a hand to her forehead and massaged her temples as she thought.  She dropped the helmet to the floor.  “How did you make it back?  With no coms?” she said.

“Nothing to it.  We were headed from sensor one to sensor two when she finally quit on me.  I just turned left and carried on until I hit the dome, then worked my way along until I found the airlock. Simple.”

Kim looked at him.  She was still breathing hard but the adrenaline was receding.  “You tapped my shoulder before you left?”

“What?”

“You tapped me on the shoulder to tell me you were leaving, right?”

Vic shook his head.  “Nah.  You were gone, as far as I could tell.  If I’d chased after you I could have gotten really lost.  I’m sorry I cut loose but I figured you had a working com and could make your own way back, and . . .” he gestured to her, “I guess you proved me right.”

“I felt you touch my shoulder, Vic.  Don’t piss me around.  I’m really not in the mood.”  She stared at him, her fear now transmuted into anger.

Vic shrugged again. “I came straight back,” he said.  “It was all I could do.”

Kim looked at him and without realising she was doing it she raised her right hand to touch her left shoulder.  She felt a chill.

Vic saw her discomfort.  “Probably got hit by a lump of construction debris or something like that,” he said.  “There was a lot of stuff blowing about out there.”

Kim thought.  She tried to remember what she had felt but the harder she thought about it the more indistinct the memory became.  She was sure it was a double tap each time, the standard attention seeking move.  Or was it?  Could it just have been flying debris, happening to strike at shoulder height?

“Must have been something like that,” she said.

“I’m sure that’s what it was,” said Vic.

Kim searched his expression, hoping for a smirk or a nod, but he remained sincere.

“I’m sorry if I scared you.  That damn suit was supposed to have been fixed weeks ago.  That’s the third time it’s been away for repair and they still haven’t fixed it.”

“Put in a complaint.  It’s got to be a major safety risk,” said Kim, blankly.

“I guess.  We’ll need to file an incident report anyway.”

“Incident?”

“Yeah.  You were outside alone, against protocol.  Gotta file a report.”

Kim slumped against the trolley.  “Let’s not do that.  How long was I alone?  One minute?  Two?  Let’s just finish up and get out of here.”

Vic assessed Kim coolly.  “You’re pretty shaken up, aren’t you?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay.  Forget about the report.  Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Kim thrust herself off the trolley and snapped, “Well I haven’t, okay?” far more viciously than she intended to.

Vic lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender.  “Okay, okay.  I’m sorry.”  He looked chastened.

Kim quietly muttered ‘sorry’ as she turned away and started taking off her pressure suit.  Vic looked on nervously, aware that Kim was rattled.  “Been nice having someone else around of a night,” he offered weakly.

“I thought you preferred to be alone.”

Vic shrugged.  “I don’t mind either way.”

Kim finished changing with sullen, angry movements.  She purposely kept from making eye contact with Vic, who had started changing too.  “Damn thing,” he said, as he placed his helmet in the trolley.

When Kim finished she walked away a short distance.  She folded her arms and looked at the ground.  “Listen,” she said.  “Don’t tell the others about this.”

“About what?”

She felt like Vic was trying to taunt her into saying it out loud for his own gratification, but his tone sounded genuine so she responded calmly once the initial twinge of anger had subsided.

“About what happened.  I thought there was someone out there.”  As she glanced over her shoulder she half expected Vic to break into a huge mocking grin and point at her, but he nodded sympathetically.  “I felt someone touch me.  After you’d gone.”  She felt a chill just saying the words and quickly corrected herself.  “I mean [_I thought _]I felt someone touch me.”

Vic stopped and looked at her.  She was turned away from him but from the dropped shoulders and beleaguered stance he could tell she was still upset.  “I won’t tell,” he said.  He went to put the last of his kit in the trolley.

“Do you think . . .”  She left the sentence trailing.

Vic paused.  “I’m sure it was just the wind, Kim.”  It wasn’t what he thought but he was kind enough to offer it to her, knowing it was what she wanted to hear.

She turned back to face him.  There was an anxious, querying note in her tone as she said, “It was just the wind, wasn’t it?  Blowing debris about, just like you said.”

“Sure,” said Vic, sympathetically.  “What else could it have been?”

“Let’s go back to the staff block,” said Kim.  She took the handle of the trolley and began trudging to the dome’s exit.

“Yeah.  We can catch a few zees until it’s time to knock off,” said Vic, following close behind.  “Storm’s easing off out there,” he added.

“Good,” said Kris, staring at the ground ahead of her as she walked.  “I hate that damn wind.”

 

Ephialtes Trilogy Book One:

Ephialtes

Out now in paperback.

Also available in eBook format through all major digital outlets.

Praise for Ephialtes:

“The story effectively generates suspense for the inevitable confrontation between the two planets . . . An absorbing, inventive introduction to Parker’s version of the 23rd century, where politics still reign.”

- Kirkus Reviews

“For fans of this kind of military sci-fi, there’s every reason to pick this title up. The book is an exceptional example of its genre that does all it sets out for succinctly, but pushes for a full, fleshed-out trilogy as something to look forward to: a trilogy that seems likely to meet expectations. The book oozes quality throughout.”

- Self-Publishing Review, 4 Stars

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A Note from the Author

 

Thank you for reading Ephialtes Short II:  A Cold Wind Blows.  I hope it you enjoyed it.

If you liked it I hope you will be able to find some time to post reviews on your favourite retail, book and social websites.

Reviews are essential to the success of any book but particularly so for independents.  As such, they will be very gratefully received.

Gavin E Parker

June 2016

 


A Cold Wind Blows (Ephialtes Short II)

The Ephialtes Trilogy chronicles the conflict between Earth and Mars, triggered by Mars’ secession from the USAN in the aftermath of World War Four. Alongside the core novel trilogy are a series of short stories set in the same fictional universe. A Cold Wind Blows is the second Ephialtes Short. It tells the story of a young girl whose dream job in the agricultural domes of Mars leads to the unearthing of some primal fears.

  • ISBN: 9781310256943
  • Author: Gavin E Parker
  • Published: 2016-06-20 21:45:10
  • Words: 15368
A Cold Wind Blows (Ephialtes Short II) A Cold Wind Blows (Ephialtes Short II)