Second Place

Cover of Second Place


Second Place

 

“You ready?” What a stupid question. And yet he asked it anyways. 

“Of course I am. Let’s go.” How could I not be? We’d been cooped up inside of this ship for 7 months, just the crew. They’d been able to ration food and supplies for eight people. Four men, four women. And now we were here. The surface of Mars. We were going to be the first human beings to ever step foot on the red planet. 

We drew straws weeks ago to decide who’d go first. Only one could fit through the door, so the others had argued about who would get “the honor” of being the first one. To be totally honest, I didn’t really care. I got to step foot on mars. I didn’t particularly care if someone’s fat behind happened to be in front of me, or if another was getting a view of my better side. I just wanted to be there. And I finally was. 

Captain Stewart to unlock the door. She was the Captain, but she’d been assigned the position more than anything else back in training. A few of the others were offended, as they wanted it, but it didn’t really matter to me. She was experienced. More experienced than I was, so I certainly had no claim to supremacy. And as we progressed through training and the trip so far, she certainly fit the task. I suppose others might’ve done fine as well, but Captain Stewart certainly got a seal of approval from me. 

I looked at the tinted screen on her mask. She had blond hair, and bright green eyes, but I couldn’t see any of that. I couldn’t see anyones face anymore, and probably wouldn’t for a while. Our ship's oxygen filter had broken a few days ago and we’d been in our full suits since. 

Dr. Maya Harrison was our agriculturalist, and the lucky one who’d been designated to go first. Captain stepped aside and we all watched eagerly as she leaped out of the ship onto the rough surface. She landed gracefully and raised her arms victoriously. 

Despite how little I cared about the order of exiting the ship, I was second in line. As soon as we were all done cheering for Dr. Harrison I jumped out myself. I walked up to her and gave her a high five and we both turned around. One by one, everyone exited the ship until there were eight people standing in a lazily organized semicircle, waiting for our orders from our Captain. 

“Well, we have about 10 hours of sunlight left, so now is a good time for us to just, explore and look around a little bit. Don’t wander too far, and make sure any pictures you take get to Dr. Cross.” James Cross was our resident technology guy. Anything and everything related to technology went to and through him first. I didn’t like him. But he was extremely good at what he did and we needed him dearly, so I maintained positive vibes with him.

She started to say some other things to the scientists, but I tuned her out. That stuff didn’t really concern me. They were all highly intelligent individuals with years of training and experience. They had research and collecting to do, and pictures to take. I might help them when asked, but none of that really mattered to me.

I had two jobs, and neither of them were particularly relevant to the instruction the captain was giving. My secondary duty was assisting Dr. Reid in maintaining the exercise regime and facilitating food and diets. I really had no formal training in that area of study, but Dr. Reid insisted that he needed a second pair of hands, and we were friends, so why not? But that would be more of a hobby that anything else, because that wasn’t my main job.

I was an engineer, and thus in charge of putting together and maintaining the facility, along with Dr. Reid. I also needed a second pair of hands, so together we made an odd, but necessary duo.

 Designing the facility was a difficult issue. It was actually what the bulk of my training was dedicated to addressing. How do we get a large facility that houses eight people to Mars? It has to have food, the garden, water, storage, sleeping areas, energy, some amount of entertainment, and loads of scientific equipment I probably couldn’t even turn on. But, we managed to figure it out. 3 weeks of assembly that would put Ikea to shame would be in my future. Oh, and taking apart our ship and reusing its parts. 

That was the caveat of this whole mission. It was why only about 50 people on Earth had expressed interest in going to Mars. It was why of the eight of us, no one was married. 6 of us were only children. All of our parents had passed away. 

 

We were not going back.

 

I worked for NASA, but had never been particularly interested in doing any space missions. I suppose I had as a child, but who doesn’t want to be an astronaut when they’re a child. But something about going to Mars just captivated me like nothing else. I had no wife, no family, few friends outside of work. So why not? We would have satellites, and the internet, so it's not like we would be completely cut off from Earth. 

Twenty years ago, having the internet in space might’ve seemed pretty far fetched, but it wasn’t twenty years ago. It was 2114. We’d pretty aggressively been addressing the problem for a while. We knew any expedition to Mars would have to have communication back home. I really only assisted with the tail end of the project, but they’d whipped up a powerful enough satellite.

“Cunningham, did you hear me?” I heard and felt a powerful tapping on my helmet. I looked at the name tag. The Captain had just said something and I wasn’t paying attention at all.

“Uh, no, not really, I assumed it was directed at the research crew” I replied somewhat sheepishly. Captain Stewart was nice, but did not appreciate it when we weren’t listening. 

“Well, you assumed wrong. I want you and Dr. Reid to have a meal ready in 3 hours. After that I want you start with anything related to setting up the garden. We need to start growing food as soon as possible. We can sleep on the ship for a few more days” I nodded and acknowledged her request then turned around. 

It was red. Very red. Nothing but red for as far as I could possibly see. The golden hue of my helmet combined with the sun glowing on the red surface mixed for a glistening red orange expanse as far as I could see. It was extraordinarily beautiful, but looking around, for the first time, it fully dawned on me what I’d done.

This was my life. This planet. This suit. Listening to Captain Stewart ordering me around all day, and only communicating with others through this headset. I was stuck on Mars. And suddenly, I didn’t like it. 

I started wandering off and tried to take deep breaths as best I could from the confines of my helmet, but my panic induced some newfound claustrophobia that weren’t helping. I needed to take it off and breath, but that wouldn’t happen any time soon. We needed to look at the air filter on the ship and fix it first. If we could fix it. It was supposed to be the central unit for the base, but if it was irreparably broken. We’d brought reparative tools, obviously, but what if the whole thing was shot? The thought of actually being stuck in this suit forever consumed my mind. These filters weren’t meant to last forever. They were meant to be turned off, charged, given rest, even replaced. And we had limited replacements. 

That was another part that scared off applicants. The idea of supply ships. It just impossible with our current technology to get a ship that could make a round trip. But we could get a supply ship every year. Because of that, we had limited supplies. It hadn’t even phased me, to be quite honest. We were built to be mostly self sufficient, and by the third or fourth year we would hypothetically be entirely self sufficient. 

But too many people worried what would happen if we didn't get a supply ship. If one crashed, or got off course, or some other unforeseeable event. If that happened, we could theoretically die. Suddenly, that thought began to creep into my mind, and it didn’t sound too bad.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw Dr. Reid.

“I’m freaking out” I said, fairly bluntly. “We’re stuck here, forever, and its really bugging me” I admitted. He didn’t say anything for a second and I couldn’t judge his reaction.

“Yeah, I get that. Don’t worry. In the next day or so we should have the satellite up and running and establish contact with Earth. You can watch youtube videos or whatever it is you’re missing.” He rotated a bit and started to walk off. “Come on, let's go find something interesting, we have a few hours.” His words had slightly comforted me, but I was still nervous. Still panicking just a little. I followed, hoping, as he said, we’d find something interesting. 

Nothing we found was particularly interesting, which was, in a way, the most fascinating aspect of it all. We looked in awe at how mundane the planet was. Nothing but red, everywhere. A few craters, some particularly large rocks, even a small cave or so. 

After a while we headed back to the ship. We still had an hour and half or so, but we wanted a jump on everything. We started unloading all of the stuff relevant to us from the ship. Dr. Reid pulled out a table, a plethora of food items, and his little dietary calendar. I peeked over his shoulder at the meal docket for today. Sandwiches. Delicious.

Captain Stewart said she wanted food first and foremost, so I started setting up the greenhouse. The exact location and dimensions of everything had been decided over a year and half ago, thanks to our rover. 

I started drilling everything in place, and pulling out the walls, and unfolding the floors, and putting together the boxes. I grabbed the lights, and the generators, and the large tarp to cover everything. Putting everything together helped calm me quite a bit. I was in my element, and I was comfortable. I was relaxed.

 Its become my most cherished memory, because that was the last time I felt relaxed.

After getting all my stuff out, I began to help Dr. Reid with his sandwich making. I took one and put it in the slot on my chest and heard a small whooshing at it got pushed into my helmet. I started biting away at the sandwich my helmet held in front of me. I had long been used to eating without my hands with the help of my suit, but often chuckled at how ridiculous I still must’ve looked. 

As I was eating I heard a very panicked voice. It was unmistakably Dr. Julian Moss. She was our geologist. I was under the impression she’d been collecting rock samples, a fairly laid back task, and her panic worried me immediately. 

“We have a very, very, big problem.” What a uselessly worrying statement. I couldn’t comprehend what problem we could have outside of our equipment and supplies, of which we were all aware. I kept munching away while spreading the peanut butter on another sandwich when she said it again.

“I’m serious you guys, I need everyone here NOW!” That made me jump. I looked at the little screen on my arm. I saw the little blue “M” for “Moss” in relation to my own “WC” for “Warren Cunningham” and began to go to it. I beckoned to Dr. Reid and he waved his hand.

“Moss is a bit kooky, you know that. It’s probably nothing.” He was right, she was an oddball. And it probably was nothing. But nonetheless I found my way over to her. 

I found her in a cave. I saw everyone standing around someone sitting down. I couldn’t see anything behind the wall of suits. 

“What's wrong?” I inquired, now quite worried. As though I was Moses, they immediately all separated and I saw what was wrong. It wasn’t a person sitting down.

 

It was a body. An old body. 

 

“What the hell is that?” I asked, noticeably confused. “We are the first people on this planet, how is that there?” I was almost shouting at this point. 

“Oh it gets worse” Moss reassured me. “Look at his shoulder” I got closer and noticed an anachronism. Something that I could not possibly be looking at. Because it was in every sense of the word, completely impossible. 

 

I was looking at a Soviet Flag, with “MCMLV” in gold letters printed below it. 1955. Almost 160 years ago.

 

“What is going on?” I looked around at the others. “Are there others? Did he have anything with him?” I had a million questions running through my head. 

“That's unclear, but there’s someth-“

“Where's Dr. Reid?” Moss asked, cutting off our noticeably worried Captain, speaking into her radio, expecting him to answer.

“He didn’t want to come, he’s making food” I said, almost dismissively, allowing me to ask the million dollar question. “Why are you all so scared? Okay, the Soviets got here in the 1950s, God only knows how, but why are you so scared of this old body” 

“We aren’t scared of him, we’re scared of what he had with him.” This time the voice was Courtney Villa, another geologist. She handed me a book I hadn’t even realized she had been holding until now. I flipped through its pages and it was all Russian. 

“Yeah, Russian is pretty scary,” I said sarcastically. 

“Last page” She said, annoyed. I flipped through to a page that had an English message hastily scribbled on it.

 

“THE SOVIET UNION HAS WON THE SPACE RACE, BUT THEY ARE COMING” 

 

“What is that supposed to mean” I was more confused than anything at this point. She shrugged her shoulders. 

“We don’t know, but whatever it, we need to be wary of it.” Was her reply, with a shaky voice.

“Don’t be an idiot Moss. He probably wanted to pull a “gotcha” as he died in case anyone ever found him. They somehow got here, and then ran out of supplies, and died. There's no other explanation.” I was rationalizing out loud, but I wasn’t even sure how much I believed it. 

“That would be a wonderful explanation, Dr. Cunningham, if it weren’t for this” she grabbed the body, leaning on its stomach, and flipped it onto its back and revealed why my solution, as optimistic as it was, was most definitely wrong. 

 

This man had several stab wounds penetrating his entire suit, with dried blood caked all over the wound. 

 

“A human could’ve done that. We’ve only just got here, we can’t read the rest of that journal. Haven’t you read The Shining? Cabin Fever is a hell of a drug, and besides, we’ve had rovers and satellites on this planet for what, 100? 110 years? We would’ve seen any other living creatures. We’d know if there was any life here.” I began to ramble a bit more to try and explain this a way, but inside I knew this was very bad.

“Where is Dr. Reid, its really quite important that we’re all here for this” Captain Stewart interrupted. 

“He’s making sandwiches. He didn’t think it’d be important enough to leave”  

Dr. Cross recommended we bring all of this back to the ship, where we could meet up with Reid and hopefully be safe and near our supplies while we figured this all out. We all agreed that was a pretty logical course of action and set out, dragging behind us the body of this nameless Soviet. 

 

We had beautifully clever little radios. For close distance, we could simply speak as normal, as we had a Mic and Speakers in and outside of our suits. It sounded as though we were in the open air. However, we also had a radio that could broadcast to all eight of us. It was this that Dr. Moss used to beckon to us, and it was this that we all used to demand any sign of life from Dr. Reid - demands that were not being granted.

As we came in view of the ship I started running as fast as one could in the gravity of Mars, towards the table Dr. Reid had been making his sandwiches on. They were all gone, and the table had been knocked over. My heart started thumping in my chest to the point I could barely focus on anyone else's words as I frantically looked around for Dr. Reid. 

I noticed my own equipment had been rambled through and ran over to it. 

“Oh, shit” I said, holding back tears. The others rushed to my side, and we circled around the pile of my now ruined equipment. 

There lay Dr. Reid, his helmet cracked open, his lifeless, blue eyes looking up at us. His suit had been sufficiently ripped open to expose his bare chest, now decorated with a labyrinth of cuts and scrapes, with a gaping hole at the center. I heard a creaking behind me and turned to see our exceptionally large ship slightly rocking and heard a loud scream that froze me where I stood and made my heart attempt to escape my chest. 

 

We were not going back.