Up to her eyeballs in debt, Dr. Rachel Galliance jumps at the chance of a last-minute rotation on Mars, despite being terrified of hypersleep. This is her last chance to get life back on track, and it’s only one stint on Mars – how bad can it be?
When she awakes, her vessel – the Renovo – is eerily quiet; that’s before it begins to disintegrate around her. Fighting for her life and struggling to save her crewmates, Rachel realises something is very wrong. The question’s not will they reach Mars, but will they ever see Earth again?
It was cold, barren, and the last place Rachel wanted to go, but if she was ever to pay off her debts, a rotation on the Mars colony was the one obvious choice. Space never failed to provide continued allure to the naïve. It called the dreamers of Earth towards the heavens; until its true hostility revealed itself. When that occurred there was only one thing to draw the Environment Habitat Developers out; cash. An 18 month chore as an ENVO would solve all her issues. She could repay her loans, take care of mounting bills, and return to the relative luxury of Earth. There was only one problem – the thing that terrified her more than space itself – hypersleep. Unfortunately that was a mandatory part of her upcoming tour. Black. Nothingness. No dreaming, no calm drifting into sleep, the absence of a blissful awakening. Just emptiness. Death. It was truly frightening.
Rachel looked down at her bare legs as she sat under the harsh lights of the prep room. She should’ve shaved; the small black hairs were well past acceptable levels. They pricked the surface like the first spines on a young porcupine. The metal floor was cold under her feet, the bench beneath her hard and uncomfortable. She was about to face her worst nightmare and yet, here she was, thinking about just how undesirable she’d appear when her lukewarm body was flopped into the sleep box.
The door behind her slid open and Rachel instinctively drew her thin robe closer – she could hold on to her modesty for a little longer.
The man entering looked up from his tablet device as she nodded.
“If you’d come with me.”
She stood, wondering if he saw through the attempted bravado. Her forced smile wasn’t as strong as she’d hoped for, and she could feel herself trembling. It was too late to back out now. All the arrangements had been made. There was only one thing laying in her future; Mars.
Even with her eyes closed, she could see them still; the dark and wailing skulls that haunted her without reprieve. They loomed in the night sky, pulsing in and out of view like a moving tide, blazing bright with piercing tones of bloody red and the fires of Earth’s end. The heavens were filled with the thunder of roars, the lightning of screams. The sound came from her own lips as well as others; unseen strangers, lone voices becoming an orchestra of terror. Did the blackness end? Were her companions ever silenced? Or was the torment one never-ending cascade as hell itself must be? Darkness. Terrifying blackness. A nightmare that knew no end.
Rachel awoke with a start, fear spreading through her body as pins and needles froze her. It took a moment, but her mind finally found its place, bringing with it the clarity needed to eradicate the panic.
The transparent ceiling of her sleep box was already whirring away out of sight. The same action occurred along the line of coffin-shapes that loomed in the dimly lit room as if only shadows. Aside from the low, mechanical whir there was silence. Stillness. A complete absence of life.
She lay there in the cocoon of swaddling; material like cotton wool that wrapped her skin as if a fleece to a sheep. The tingling in her bones subsided quickly and she shrank from her outstretched position to a curled, foetal shape as the abruptness of her waking shocked her. It was cold, and the air pricking against her skin felt like an ice-cube sticking to a frozen windshield.
“You’d have thought they’d have turned on the heat, brought us a flannel and handed out some salted nuts for our arrival.”
She looked across and saw a tanned and broad man sitting bolt upright in his box. He seemed remarkably awake considering her own blurred consciousness. He saw her looking and winked.
“Guess the service ain’t quite up to the standards all those brochures promise.”
He stood, stepping out of his sleeping container without a stitch of clothing on.
“Dendrick,” he smiled, hovering over her box so that nothing was left to the imagination. She shrank further into her cushioning, hiding her pale and prickly legs as the sight of him reminded her she was alone in the presence of strangers.
“Rachel Galliance,” she replied, not quite knowing why she felt the need to share her surname. “You know you’re naked, right?”
“Sure do. I’m in and out of hypersleep just as God himself intended; naked as the day I was born and ripped down to the finest millimetre.” His muscular thighs strode by her to the lockers on the wall and he began fumbling with the handles.
“Well if you could cover up that millimetre sometime soon I’d be grateful.”
There was a chuckle to her left, and Rachel saw the rest of the unit was waking. Almost a dozen or so sleeping boxes now had movement from within. A hand came waving through the air for a high-five. Rachel was so long without interaction that the slap against her palm sent a stinging sensation through her.
“I couldn’t have said it better myself. Put the midget away, we’re all gonna puke before we’ve even had breakfast. I’m Louanne.”
She looked up from her stinging hand and saw a bright face in the box next to her. The woman had fine features and closely cropped hair. Like Dendrick, she was alert, and began to climb out and put herself in order. Though, unlike the man, a small crop top and boxer shorts protected her modesty.
“The first time’s always a bitch. Few more rotations like us two and you’ll get used to it.”
“Are you and…”
“Feck, no!” Dendrick called as he pulled a blue T-shirt over his head.
“Oi! You think I’d even stay with you with that thing?!” Louanne cajoled as she joined him by the lockers and winked as she glanced between his legs. She unsnapped a door and began to pull out her own belongings. “We always do the geo rotations together. Pays better that way; I’m the brains, he’s my brawn.”
“Hey! I’ve got my PhD too.”
“Yeah, yeah, is that what they call those crappy credentials from that busted institute?” She smiled affectionately at him, before waltzing back across the room and offering a hand to Rachel. Rachel took it thankfully, the grey fuzziness beginning to fade but jading her senses no less. “So newbie, what you here for?”
“Bio sourcing and recognition.”
“Ha, the alien expert, eh? Go forth and find life…or some crap like that, right? I wouldn’t get excited; only new thing you’ll find is some goddamn tasteless mould in the algae processors.”
“How many times you been out here?” Rachel asked as she stood in front of the lockers and searched for her name. As usual, she found herself right at the top. A pigeon hole, mailbox, locker; it didn’t matter what it was, it was always at the top, despite her small stature causing an obvious issue. But people didn’t have time for problems, and luck never seemed to be on her side.
“Thanks,” she smiled as Dendrick saw her pondering, unsnapped the metal storage box and passed the bundle of clothes and small bag into her arms.
“The rest will be in cargo,” he said, answering her next question before attending to her previous one. “Fourth and last vacation, baby. You gotta love Mars, but the sand is way nicer down in sunny Ha-Wa-iiiiiii.”
“Yeah, and we’d be there already if this idiot hadn’t signed us up for a final road trip. Third time’s a charm, I say. We’re set up for the next few years, I plead. And this one puts our names down again.”
“That’s MY brains for you; after this we’re retiring and living the life of luxury.” He gave the women a wink, before adding, “And you, Dr. Galliance, can come join us any time you like.”
“Guess I need to do a few more rotations before I can pay my way,” Rachel replied as she set her things on the floor and began to pull on the standard ENVO jumpsuit. Around her, others were doing the same, until the entire room was filled with uniformed blue lemmings ready to get to whatever work was instructed. “Where is everyone?”
“No meet’n’greet here. This ain’t no Butlins. By the time we get off this planet, we’ll all be the colour o’ red, have that ENVO stink, and be lacking the social niceties of home. I seen it all before. You gotta work for that money, ere.”
Rachel turned to find the source of the North England accent. His teeth were bright ivory against his dark skin. Despite his words, his eyes were cheery, his tone upbeat.
“Ballard,” he said, nodding slightly.
“Dr. Galliance, bio-sourcing and…”
“I ‘eard you. Now, if it ain’t time for brekkie, I don’t know. I gotta fill my gut before we land and this hunk o’ junk gets disassembled.”
He moved towards the door and led the group, pulling an ID card from his jumpsuit and swiping it across the sensor. Rachel reached up to her own breast pocket as the door slid open and found she also had a small, hard card stowed on her. She pulled it out and saw it was similar to her Identicard from Earth, though her details and biochip were imprinted across the red, grainy image of Mars’s surface.
There were voices outside, and Rachel followed Ballard and the others in joining the throng of blue jumpsuits as if she were a tributary’s water flowing into a rushing river. It was true what he’d said; the Renovo – Ballard’s ‘hunk o’ junk’ – was more than their transport; she was their new home too. Once landed, the vast modules of metal, the junctions, circuits, bolts and sheeting that had so silently glided through space, would be disassembled, repurposed and added to the growing Mars colony they were now orbiting. She was a one-way ship, a vessel with far more to give than the journey itself. She was, as Rachel thought of it, in her infant form awaiting metamorphosis. Perhaps, as a newbie ENVO herself, the two of them shared a similar fate.
There was laughter ahead, and Rachel looked and saw they’d emerged into a mess hall. There were no windows; every room, each corridor, served a purpose for later. Windows were a luxurious extra that the colonists had to minimise. Instead, a wide metal box with a low ceiling was laid out with narrow tables and benches cutting across the rectangular space. Breakfast was dispensed by vending machines. Industrial pipes disappeared into the ceiling above each booth; chutes down which their meals dropped once their new ID cards had been scanned.
Rachel took a tray, swiped her card at the first machine and looked disdainfully down at the small, non-descript silver pouch that dropped from the vending machine. There was a straw fastened on one side, and she turned it over in her hands, squeezing it slightly in her fingers to discover that it was squidgy. ‘Rehydration Solution – Strawberry’, she saw, written in machine-stamped black text. It was far from a milkshake, but at least they’d managed to tailor it towards her taste. Though, as she placed the packet on her tray, she suspected it’d taste much like the nose-wrinkling protein shake monstrosities from back home.
Moving to the next booth, Rachel was equally as disappointed when another pouch fell out. This time it rattled when she shook it. She peeled back the opening edge slightly and saw there were several dried, brown cubes inside. The deposit was followed by a bottle of water taped inside a thin plastic bowl.
“Ain’t no fried eggs, is it?” Ballard muttered as Rachel slumped onto the bench beside where he and the others were already seated.
“It’s fine,” she replied, scanning the scant food. Why did I accept this job? She never dreamt of a bronzed and warm waffle, ice-cream on the side and drizzled with maple syrup – she knew cuisine was about to hit an all-time low. But this? That waffle sounded like a decadent treat.
Rachel looked up from her dismal meal to see a tall, willowy woman with long platinum hair slide onto the bench opposite.
“How did you…?”
The woman tipped her head towards the metal tray still clutched in Rachel’s hands; she hadn’t even begun to unwrap the off-putting food.
“Am I the only one who hasn’t done this before?”
“I’m sure there are a few others,” the woman replied as she pulled open the silver pouch containing the cubes. She tipped the three chunky and unappetizing bricks into her bowl and proceeded to pour water over them. “The problem is, ENVO’s cut out for Mars end up staying, and rookies who leave never wanna come back. They can’t have all that wasted transportation and training costs, so most of the firms prefer to utilise us folks who don’t mind wasting half our lives on journeys back and forth as long as the pay cheque’s good.” She used a small spoon concealed on the back of the silver packet to stir the sludgy porridge that was growing in her bowl.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Dendrick said, shovelling food into his mouth. “If you gulp it down, the taste only stays for an hour or so,” he winked.
Around her, people were leaving the benches and replenishing their trays, so Rachel tentatively followed the platinum blonde’s actions and soaked the cubes in water. Now that she looked closer, she saw they were fibrous, as if a tiny bale of hay had been vacuum packed. The material began to instantly expand as it met with the liquid in her bowl, expanding as if it were a living thing under her microscope.
“It’s not that bad. Honestly. Here,” the woman reached across the table and offered a tiny brown envelope. “Sprinkle a little cardamom on it. It helps.”
“Wait? You brought spices?” Rachel looked at the contraband with astonishment.
“Being on the priority hire list has its perks.”
“Here’s to that,” Louanne said as she grabbed her tray and rose from the table. “Spices, booze…smokes,” she added, throwing a questioning look towards Dendrick.
“Well, space hasn’t killed me yet, so they may as well,” he replied, joining Louanne as they pushed their trays into a slit in the wall and hurried out of the room.
“Louanne smuggled in cigarettes?”
“Louanne always smuggles in cigarettes,” Ballard grinned.
“How?” Rachel asked as she sprinkled a little spice onto the thick, clustered porridge before her. She filled the spoon and took a taste; it wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever sampled, though even as she gulped down the lumpy mixture, she realised the aftertaste was far from fleeting.
“The flight crew mostly,” the woman opposite revealed. “As I said, most of us folks do this trip on a regular occurrence. I wouldn’t trade this for flight duty, though. They have to stay awake during the journey; pay’s better, but hell, the boredom is horrendous.”
The porridge was becoming increasingly unappetising, and Rachel pierced the tiny straw into the protein pouch in the hope a little liquid would quicken the meal’s passing. Unfortunately it added to the distaste in her mouth and created an additional layer of revulsion. Now, there was a thick, slimy coating on her tongue, sealing her mouth shut as if she was eating glue.
From the doorway, she saw a slight, angular-faced woman hurry across the room. She flashed a look of annoyance towards Ballard as he raised his glass towards her which implied they were far from strangers. The newcomer ignored his jeer, and whispered something to the woman sitting opposite. There was a clatter as stools were pushed back, and within the blink of an eye, the two women were gone from the refectory.
“What was that about?” Rachel asked, staring after the duo.
“Hell’s if I know,” Ballard replied as he shovelled another heaped spoon into his mouth.
Rachel left the bench quickly, aware that Ballard was grumbling about her discarded tray. She didn’t care; she’d seen the look on the woman’s face and it wasn’t one to take lightly. She made it across the room and out the door within seconds. A few ENVO’s had filtered out across the ship, including Dendrick and Louanne; Rachel had no doubt they were huddling in a dark corner inhaling nicotine desperately. However, for the most part, the corridors were sparse. It didn’t take long for her to catch the cascade of silver hair glistening under the lights, and she hurried to catch the two women.
“Are you absolutely sure? What about Hinder? Palau?”
The woman – Silver as Rachel tagged her – marched ferociously along, her cascade of hair shining under the lights.
“They’re not here, Jax. I’m telling you, we’ve looked everywhere. It’s completely empty.”
“But they left with us, they had too. Keren, Louanne’s down some dark grate right now chugging her lungs out. She got those fucking ciggies from Galen, she had to. He’s our guy, he’s THE guy.”
“I’m telling you, they’re not here. The whole thing’s freaking me out. Every item on our contraband list was individually stashed in our lockers, but there’s no one here. We’re on our own. The entire flight crew is gone.”
“GONE?” Rachel couldn’t help herself as she heard Keren’s revelation.
The women whirled around in an instant and bore down upon her, taking her between their arms and drawing her through the corridor. It was shrinking somehow; the cold metal walls seeming to close in around her. The claustrophobic darkness stirred inside her and the terror of hypersleep was momentarily remembered.
“For God’s sake, don’t scream it out.” Silver’s hair swished back and forth as their pace quickened and her grip upon Rachel tightened. “I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this.”
“For why we’re completely abandoned in the middle of space?!”
“Not you too, Keren?!” Silver asked, rolling her eyes and pulling them along. “You ain’t some rookie, you’ve been to flight auto-nav. Pull it together. We’ll just use autopilot, and then ground control takes over and eases the Renovo down. It’ll be back to work as normal and you’ll be wishing this whole thing had been more exciting. There’ll be a very simple explanation for all of this.”
“Of that I very much doubt,” Rachel said briskly as she shrugged off their grip and tried to manage her panic. “What the hell is going on? Where’s the crew?”
“How should I know? I don’t run this bloody thing. I’ve been in cold storage, same as you.”
They continued along the corridor, occasionally twisting at an intersection so that Rachel had no idea where they were or, indeed, how to get back.
“Where are we headed?”
“Nav Control. We aren’t normally allowed in, but seeing as there’s no one to stop us we might as well…”
They reached another intersection, the subtly oval-shaped hallways disappearing around curves in both directions. “I’ll be damned if I can remember the bloody blueprint…Keren, which way?”
“Left. Nav Control is just ahead, we can…” She was cut off mid-sentence by a loud pop, after which she let out a roar of pain. “What the fuck?!” Keren howled as she grabbed her leg. Rachel looked down and saw crimson between the woman’s clenched fingers.
“Shit,” Silver cried as Rachel saw there was not only a bullet-sized hole in Keren’s leg, but in the metal wall too. She couldn’t stop her fear now and she stared at the hole in the wall as Keren’s cursing rang in her ears and the sound of air being sucked into the void began.
“Grab the patch,” Silver commanded as she began to support Keren’s weight.
The words meant nothing to Rachel, and she stood motionless, still transfixed on the hull breach. There was nothing between them and space but this metal tin. And here she was, staring straight into the void.
There was a stinging sensation across her face and she lifted her eyes to see Silver’s hand drawing away.
“For God’s sake, pull yourself together,” the woman shouted in her face, before pushing her to one side and pulling a black box concealed in the wall to the floor.
“I’ll patch, you help Keren.”
“I don’t need any help, I…”
There was another loud pop, and Keren fell silent as the side of her head exploded. Blood sprayed across Rachel as the force splattered a fountain of red across the wall. Blood continued to pump from Keren’s body as she fell to the floor, and Rachel stepped back as the incoming red tide trickled towards her feet.
She was about to escape the growing puddle when the ship lurched violently, throwing Rachel across the corridor. She crashed into Silver and their eyes met.
“Leave the patch,” Silver said quickly, abandoning what she’d been doing.
“How far is it?” Rachel shouted as the lights flickered and the Renovo lurched again. An alarm began to sound; shrill, deafening and fear-inducing. There was nowhere safe to run, no bolthole or shelter to scurry into. Their tin can was at the mercy of space’s wrath; inside was dangerous – outside was certain death. The realisation was terrifying.
“Come on,” Silver shouted as she raced away. She’d reached an airlock and had one hand gripped around the doorframe’s rim, the other beckoning for Rachel to join her. She snatched at Rachel’s clothes as soon as she could, and dragged her across the threshold before sliding the door into place and punching the manual Incredi-lock button.
“You can’t do that, you’ll fritz the whole system!”
“The hell I can’t. Space may have just got a slice of the pie, but it ain’t getting me. Not today, anyways.”
Rachel looked back, pressing her face to the thin window slats etched in the door. The siren, her panic, Silver’s desperate calls – whatever it had been – had distracted Rachel from the obliteration. She gasped as she saw the dark void in place of the hallway. There was nothing left aside from the jagged edges of torn metal, the ferocious assault silenced by the vacuum on the other side of the door.
“The others, they’ll…”
“The siren will have triggered an automatic lockdown. We’ll have to manually open all the Incredi-locks now. And that is gonna be a bitch of a job.”
Rachel stared out the window in horror. Keren and anyone else unfortunate enough to have become locked in a breached zone were gone.
“Space junk maybe, a rogue packet of screws some careless engineer let float off into space. Does it really matter?”
“I’m sorry about Keren, I…”
Silver swirled around and glared at her.
“I don’t wanna hear her name. You haven’t the right to talk to me about her. You’re no one, a chancer, a first rotation scud. You don’t get the privilege to think you mean anything.”
“I’m sorry, I…”
“We need to get to Nav Control and find out what the hell’s going on.”
Silver turned away from her, leaving Rachel leaning against the cold wall as she tried to focus. The Renovo lurched again, the ship’s parts grinding against one another and filling the air with terrible shrieking to join the drone of the alarm.
She was an ENVO. It was her first rotation; it was to be her last too. The trip, the flight – hell, even the work itself – was a means to an end, not some great journey of discovery. She was here for the cash. She was here to set her life straight. Now it seemed she might die out here.