Red Phantom

This is my first science fiction story to be published. I’m experimenting with writing away from my usual themes… hope you enjoy.Rahul

Maxwell bundled himself clumsily into the Habitat’s airlock. A pneumatic sensor triggered a sharp hiss that shunted the fine Martian dust from his white suit. He’d been called in early from the day’s research assignment on a count of the impending storm.

We had made contact with this planet three months ago. In that short time, we had learnt much about Mars – a planet that had been an enigma to our species ever since we turned our eyes to the stars. Now, with only a few weeks to go before they sent in the next crew, we were wrapping up our mission. We’d leave the station shortly before the new guys arrived, making space in the Habitat for more explorers.

“We’re in for one helluva treat this evening,” exclaimed Maxwell, as he made his way into the kitchenette. “Winds’re gettin’ crazy out there!”

There were three of us – the three pioneers, as they hailed us back home. Maxwell, the geologist. Kirby, the mission engineer. And myself, science officer. We shared an equal passion for the Cosmos, and I guess it was that — along with our impressive flight log — that got us the job in the hot seat. The first humanoids on another planet. Gazing up at the twilight pink sky, that tiny disc of a star slowing its onslaught of rays onto this barren, strange land, it was easy to feel our place within this grand architecture. The Earth had been invisible to us for three months. And whilst the excitement of what we were doing fuelled us, there was an unspoken truth that hung in the artificial air within Habitat-1 on the Olympus Mons basin: we longed for that pale blue dot, perhaps more intensely than the countless others before us had longed for this red riddle.

“Mission Control, this is Habitat-1…” Kirby’s voice droned into the microphone from the pilot deck. A spurt of static followed a sharp acknowledgement from back home. “We’re turning in for the night. Bad storm on its way…”

“We read you, H-1,” came the terse reply. The planet would be turning away from Earth, and we’d enter a brief dead zone. The Martian night was impending. Out here, this far away from the Sun, the nights were quite a sight: a black sky, peppered with a million burning fires from lightyears away, with the twins Phobos and Deimoes radiating their soft luminescence upon the orange powder that covered this planet.

Silence permeated the Habitat’s cabin. Outside, a Martian storm was broiling. We could hear the winds gather speed. It was an awesome phenomenon, experiencing such a storm on a distant world. It was, truly, alien.

Kirby powered-down the systems. A soft hum sounded from the computer bank. Fingers dancing across a keyboard, he gently eased the machine into sleep.

It was then that I felt it: a chill that began to sweep through the living quarter. Kirby and Maxwell felt it too: we looked, alarmed, at each other. This was not normal.

And then it began. That haunting mechanical sound that cements fear: a low, pulsing drone from the emergency console. The entire living system was bathed in a red glow. Kirby dashed to the mainframe monitor. Maxwell and I ran over to the radio. Of course, there was only static. We could only contact the return vehicle, orbiting miles overhead. It was useless.

“CO2 tank is down,” cried Kirby. “Pressure leak in 2-7!”

His words hung in the air. 2-7 was a tank array fixed to the outer hull of the Habitat. The only way to reach it would be to go outside.

“Can’t we remote-shutdown?” I yelled over the sound.

Kirby rapped at the computer’s keys. He squinted at the display.

“No,” he replied. He looked worriedly over at us. Mission Control couldn’t contact us – we were in a zone of radio silence. Our orbiting craft overhead was programmed on a flight path that meant it was impossible to stage an evac any time soon. There was only one thing we could do.

I rushed over to the rack of EVA suits. A mutual understanding was had, I knew that. I was the only one who knew how to disarm the faulty gas tank. Because I’d designed it.

Kirby and Maxwell rushed over to the EVA control deck. We all knew we had mere minutes to sort this out; the impending storm was moments away. And trust me, you did not want to be caught in the middle of a Martian dust devil.

I stepped into the airlock. A cloud of vapour descended over me. Then that hiss. The circular door slid open, revealing the icy Martian night. The wind bit at my suit, scattering the white material with that distinct, fine orange powder.

Habitat-1 was designed as a hybrid living system/rover. There’s these huge trawler wheels, almost like the metal treads of those old fighter tanks – but on a grander scale. Stepping out onto the red soil, I moved carefully past one of these giant wheelbases. The tank array was located underneath the structure; there was just enough room for one EVA walker to squeeze into the narrow space between the rocky surface and smooth engineering of the undercarriage.

A squawk of static broke the silence inside my helmet. It was Maxwell. He told me that the leak was spreading to the second of the four tanks. I needed to act fast. Wrenching my body, trapped in the heavy EVA suit, I eventually managed to see the complex array system.

What perplexed me was the reason for this leak. What could possibly have caused it? We had based ourselves on what we knew was a safe area. There was no threat to tectonic activity. Maxwell’s geological findings hadn’t revealed anything peculiar about the underground. And it couldn’t have been the inducing of the sleep mode from inside. We were doing that for the past three months; the entire system was designed for it. A chilling realisation crept through my mind. It was the only explanation. There could be no other reason: something external had compromised our life support.

I reached the array. The central tank had a horrible scar through the middle. Thick vapour flowed like tendrils of liquid through the iced atmosphere. But what caught my eye was a striking affirmation of my fears.

Emerging like a sword stabbed through a man’s heart from the tank, was a thin, metallic plate. In the shallow light from my helmet, I could vaguely discern an intricate and complex pattern embossed on its surfaces. No humanoid could ever have designed that. It was distinctly foreign from us.

My breath caught. A deafening silence pressed down on my head from within the helmet. A single thought wracked my brain: how could we have missed this? We had been living on this rock for three months. How could this discovery have eluded us?

And somehow I understood. Glancing over my shoulder, I noticed something I had overlooked earlier — just after I had departed Habitat-1. This was no ordinary Martian tempest: the zephyr carried along its invisible currents metallic flakes. Stepping out from the cramped array, I walked a few paces away from the craft. I ignored Maxwell and Kirby’s shouts of danger; my attention was focussed on the new enigma that this planet now presented. No orbiting satellite, no mechanical explorer before us, could’ve discerned what I was observing that night.

Snowflakes. Metal snowflakes. Differing in size, some as tiny as a hair follicle, others about the approximate size of a small stone. I reached out into the wind, and captured one in my gloved fist. Examining the object through my visor I immediately recognised those peculiar markings etched on its smooth surface.

Something didn’t feel right about all this. The different sizes. The fragmented pieces… as if… as if broken-off from something larger. A fractal of sorts… The single word rushed like a projectile through my mind:

Debris.

Somewhere out there, in the distant Martian horizon, another craft had just crashed into the rocky surface. Looking through the billowing clouds of dust whirling before me, I could vaguely make out the outline of a ghost. A red phantom. A craft that was strikingly inhuman.

I moved quickly. Retreating to the array system, not saying a single word to neither Kirby, nor Maxwell, I carefully removed the metallic object that had pierced our CO2 tank. Then I shut-down the cylinder, and carefully removed it from the rest of the system. We were safe… for the while. Finally, I radioed to the others. It was time for an unplanned EVA.

*

It took us about thirty minutes to traverse through the Martian winds. We used the buggy, a small rover that was designed to carry our research assignments to the farther reaches of our exploration radius.

Our first reaction to what we saw was that this was certainly not human engineering. The fallen vehicle wasn’t of the usual capsule-like shape of our Earth-crafted space machines. This looked incredibly advanced. Angular, with materials we had never seen before, much less utilised for spacecraft.

I was the first to approach the craft. Even through the broiling winds I could easily see the extent of its damage. I could almost imagine its final moments of flight; drifting light light through the interstellar vacuum, from a distant home, perhaps it had lost control, and forced by the Martian gravity, had slammed into the red planet.

As Maxwell and Kirby joined me in standing before the behemoth of this alien spaceship, a current of excitement surged through my veins. Transient beings, no matter how far dispersed across the stars, held that same desire to explore, to make contact, to feel bound across the firmament. We knew not, at that moment, who or what lay within the fallen spacecraft. But in the vastness of our Cosmos, for the first time, we knew we were not alone, the only inquisitive creatures on a pale blue dot floating in the darkness of space.

©2011 Rahul Dowlath. All rights reserved.

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7 thoughts on “Red Phantom

  1. Brilliantly written Rahul! I took great pleasure in imagining the vivid images painted by your well chosen metaphors. Your storyline was impressive and filled with interesting surprises, “In the shallow light from my helmet, I could vaguely discern an intricate and complex pattern embossed on its surfaces. No humanoid could ever have designed that. It was distinctly foreign from us.”

    Furthermore, your writing is very concise and flows nicely from paragraph to paragraph leading up to an effective climax and a mysterious and interesting ending.

    You have boldly approached a new genre and have succeeded in constructing a well written story. I would take great pleasure in indulging in a novel of yours, should you choose to embark on writing one.

    Aron

  2. Hi Aron

    Thanks for that great comment! Really appreciate it. I am in the tentative stages of planning a novel… will work in earnest at the end of this year.

    Look out for more stories on here soon! 🙂

  3. Well done, Rahul.

    You had me anticipating the ending in full enjoyment. I look forward to a sequal or perhaps an entire novel. I dont need to echo Aron’s words, but I share hs sentiment. You’ve got what it takes.

    Congratulations.

  4. @Filip thanks for the kind words! And thank you for visiting my blog. Your comments are encouraging, and I am indeed in the early stages of planning a novel that I hope (this time) will work out to a completed draft. With regards to a sequel to “Red Phantom”, the thought did strike me as I wrote the story. But I honestly wrote this one on a whim, just to experiment with a new genre. Perhaps I’ll write a sequel, perhaps not. It depends if I have anything worthy to say… 😀 but thanks once again for supporting my blog!

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