This story is by Paige Guerra and won an honorable mention in our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Paige Guerra has been writing stories since she learned to type. She is currently working on her first novel, a mix of YA, dystopian, and sci-fi. Paige is a full-time nurse that loves memes, Spider-Man, and going on adventures with her husband, Nick. This is her first published piece.
The vast, red expanse of the planet spread out in front of Rodriguez—nothing but scarlet cliffs and crimson dust as far as the eye could see. A single speck of white, the pearlescent Hub of SX129, stood at the crest of the distant hill, becoming a rusted orange as the sand kicked up. Rodriguez could feel the wind pressing in on the arms of his EVA suit as he turned to scan the horizon. He clicked commands into his bracer, and the display inside his helmet overlaid waves of neon green onto his vision.
“Nothing here but dead space. I’ve tried every scanner I have; are you sure you saw the signature over here?” he asked Emerald.
“The infrared lit up like a Christmas tree,” she said. “Alerts and all.”
“There’s no way it could be that easy. We are not finding evidence of alien life forms this quickly.” Rodriguez rolled his eyes even though he knew she couldn’t see them.
“I swear it was right here,” she said. “If you’re scared of a little wind, you can go back. I’m going to keep looking.” Her grayish form disappeared with the next swirl of dust.
“We don’t have time for this. Mission Control said that storm is almost here. I’m giving you five more minutes, or we abort until it passes.” Rodriguez turned and began trudging back toward the Hub, each step sinking into the fine particles and sucking his feet down like quicksand.
The wind was picking up, pushing against him so strongly that he barely made any forward progress. As the next gust of wind rolled past, the sensors on his screens began blinking, and a message displayed. Teammate Out of Range.
“Give it up, Emerald,” he said. “Time to go home. You’re wandering too far.” Rodriguez turned back toward where she had disappeared behind the mound of rocks. None of the camera settings picked up the signature of her suit as he clicked through them.
“I’m serious. We need to get back before the wind picks up any more,” he said.
Still no response.
He began a slow turn, scanning the surface of the planet in every direction, until the small map in the corner showed he was facing back toward the Hub once more.
Rodriguez let out a nervous chuckle. “Not funny, Emerald.” A new alert came up on the display. End of Mission. Return to Base. He took a few labored steps in the direction of the base. Maybe she had already turned back?
There was a crackle of sand hitting the glass of his helmet as the next gust of the storm blew past. When it cleared, he could just make out the airlock door ahead of him. “Emerald? Do you copy?” he asked.
The comms unit responded with static.
Rodriguez turned in a half circle, keeping the spot where the airlock door ebbed in and out of view behind the whorls of red sand at the edge of his field of view. He saw nothing but red. Another gust of wind pressed in on him, nearly toppling him into the sand.
More alerts signaled on his display. Abort Now. Storm Imminent. Now was not the time to be irrational. They had to get to the Hub, and fast. Clicking the infrared back on, he turned to face the other direction, catching a glimpse of the Hub as he did.
Suddenly, his vision bloomed neon green. “Jeez, Em, you scared the shit out of me.”
The green outline of her EVA suit moved closer.
“Let’s head back inside,” Rodriguez said, turning back toward the door. “Did you see any other readings?”
Static buzzed through the headset. The storm must have been interfering with the connection.
“Emerald. I said, did you find anything?” Rodriguez turned against the wind to face her. “We need to head back.”
There was nothing but red dust.
“Does anyone copy?” he asked the static in his headset. Another alert sounded: his heart rate was increasing. Then a red screen. Connection Lost. He willed himself not to panic. The airlock doors were a few steps away at most. Rodriguez fought through the thick ground and air and moved in that direction, one foot in front of the other.
His boot thudded against the metal airlock before he could see it through the dense debris. Blindly feeling around, his gloves made contact with the handle, and he thrust the door open, heaving it shut behind him.
Inside, swirls of dust circulated through the tiny capsule as the pressure stabilized. The white walls reflected harsh green light into his eyes, and Rodriguez remembered that his infrared lens was still active. He switched it off as the pressurizing stages of the airlock completed and the light above the second door turned from red to green.
After unlocking his helmet and pulling it off, he stepped into the main room of the Hub and locked the door behind.
Emerald was standing inside.
“How did you beat me back here?” Rodriguez asked.
She looked confused. “I’ve been back for almost fifteen minutes. We lost the comms because of the wind and were trying to get your suit to reconnect.”
“But—that’s crazy—last I saw, you were way past the next ridge looking for that heat signature,” said Rodriguez.
A loud thud came from the side of the airlock.
“Heat signature?” she asked, cocking her head.
This time, three solid bangs that sounded like someone pounding on the airlock door.
“Did you hear that?” he asked, turning toward the door. The thick window of the airlock reflected bright white back at him, empty.
He glanced at the screen next to the airlock which displayed three outdoor camera views: one from each side of the airlock, and one aimed toward the door. Another astronaut was banging on the door.
Rodriguez zoomed the camera in. “Who is that? We need to help them!” He furiously tapped commands into the screen, and the communications were restored with the suit outside.
“Help. Help! Let me in!” a woman’s voice called through the static. It sounded almost like—
“Get dressed. We need to get them inside,” Rodriguez said. He turned to Emerald. “Where is your suit?” he asked. The spot on the wall next to his hanging helmet and gloves was empty.
Bang. Bang. Bang. The astronaut outside pounded on the door again. “Let me in! The storm’s too strong!”
“Emerald,” he said, pulling his helmet back on and moving toward the airlock door. “Get your suit on in case I need extra hands.”
She slid in front of him, blocking the door. “I wouldn’t do that.”
“Rodriguez,” the woman’s voice yelled through the comms. “This isn’t funny, Nico. Help me!”
Bang, bang, bang.
“Please, hurry!” the familiar voice said into the speakers.
Rodriguez froze. “Is this some kind of sick joke?” he asked Emerald. “Who’s out there?”
The voice came through the speakers from outside again. “Let me in, Rodriguez, or I swear—” the rest of her words were cut off by static.
Rodriguez stepped backward, drawing his blaster from the holster of his suit. He aimed the barrel at Emerald’s nose, but kept an eye on the screen beside her, where he saw the astronaut outside clambering toward the airlock handle.
“You’re going to shoot me, Rodriguez?” she asked calmly.
“Who are you?” he asked. “What are you?”
“Put the gun down,” she said. “You’re being irrational.”
He ignored her. “What’s happening?” Rodriguez asked again. “Cut the shit, right now.”
Emerald’s scream broke through the static of the communication system, a guttural thing that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
His eyes flicked to the camera again in time to see her EVA suit disappear into the dust storm once more. Rodriguez’s stomach churned as he cocked the blaster. “Last chance,” he said. If he was wrong, Rodriguez wasn’t sure he could live with the consequences.
The woman in front of him said nothing.
Rodriguez waited one heartbeat. Two. He hoped he was making the right call. Three. He pulled the gun to the left and shot a blast through Emerald’s hand.
Her arm erupted with a spew of tar-black blood and she roared, a monstrous growl ripping through the Hub.
The last thing Rodriguez saw was the swipe of a jagged claw and flashes of his own blood splattering the white walls, painting them red as the scarlet sand outside.
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