I have the pleasure today of welcoming the wonderful Saffron Bryant to Cairns Writes. She’s adding to the trove of stories here with a sobering tale of loneliness and disease. Cheery Stuff
Keep reading afterwards for the blurb and details on her fantastic new release, Survivor.
The Last Man on Mars
Randor stood, his entire body rigid, one hand raised in salute. He saluted for half an hour, just as he had done every morning for his entire life. He stood on the observation deck. The starlit sky spread out before him. The cold emptiness of space greeted him. He stared out past the thick glass, past the metal tunnels, past the red dusty planet and into the great beyond.
The mechanical alarm sounded once and he allowed his hand to lower back to his side. He stepped away from the observation deck and walked through the narrow metal corridors.
There were so many of them, it was like a rabbit warren spreading out in all directions. Of course the designers had expected the tunnels to be filled with people. The plan was for a brand new human colony. How that dream had died.
In his free time Randor had gone back over the news headlines and the reports from half a century before. There had been a lot of hope in those reports, a lot of dreams.
MARS COLONY PLANTS FIRST SEEDS
BOLD EXPLORERS SET FOOT ON MARS
FIRST MARTIAN BORN, ONE YEAR AFTER COLONISATION
Even fifteen years ago the outlook had been bright. Communications with Earth came in every day, albeit delayed by a few minutes depending on the time of year. But that was before.
Randor jogged down the corridor and ducked into the main communications room. Seven chairs sat empty alongside the equipment. They spun in circles as Randor walked past. He sat down on the only chair not covered in a thin layer of dust.
He held down the red communicate button and spoke into the microphone. “This is Randor of Mars Colony One, calling Earth Force Major.”
He waited for a few moments. Static beat at his ears.
“Repeat, this is Randor of Mars Colony One. Earth Force Major do you read?”
He fiddled with the dials and held down the speech button again.
“This is Randor of Mars Colony One, calling Moon Colony Alpha, do you read?”
Randor repeated the ritual five times, just as the protocol dictated. He had gone through the same routine every morning for the last seven years and in that whole time he hadn’t gotten a single response.
Next on his schedule was breakfast. He walked into the mess hall. Rows and rows of empty tables and chairs soldiered across the room. Each setting was an exact replica of the one before. The only thing which distinguished them now was the layers of dust.
Randor walked across the room and pushed his way into the kitchen through the swinging doors. A faded sign read ‘authorised personnel only’, but hey, who was going to stop him? He went straight to the frozen rations. He took the time to look over his options. There wasn’t really any point, he knew the stock by heart, but it was part of the ritual.
“Bacon,” Randor said. He often spoke out loud to himself. It helped remind him he was alive and not some lonely ghost. He grabbed hold of the packet and threw it into the auto-cooker. The machine whirred into life and internal lights flashed on.
Randor reached in and took out the well-cooked bacon. He carried it with his cutlery into the mess hall and sat down at his favourite chair, the only one not covered in dust. It was in the corner of the hall, backed against the wall with a full view of the rest of the room. He only ever felt safe if his back was covered.
He breathed deeply and the smell of the meat wafted up his nostrils. He smiled at the sensation. He took out his knife and fork and went to work.
“It is recommended that vegetable matter is added to your diet,” the mechanical voice piped up from Randor’s wrist. The monitor kept track of his health, eating habits and exercise. It hadn’t saved any of the others.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m going to the garden after this,” Randor said.
He scoffed down the rest of the bacon and took his plate into the kitchen. He flicked on the water and washed the single plate before laying it on a rack to dry, alone.
Randor walked out of the mess hall and down another set of corridors which eventually opened into a garden. Glass panels faced the sky allowing the sun to light up the plants. They were descended from the original stock taken from Earth fifty years before when the colony was first begun. Carrots, potatoes, lettuce, all grew in the Martian garden. Of course they’d been modified, allowing them to thrive with less sunlight and drier soils.
“Water on,” Randor said as he walked down the aisles of garden beds. In response the irrigation system jumped to life and water trickled onto the plants. His eyes ran over each section, ensuring each tiny pump was still working. He leaned over and plucked a carrot from the ground. He chewed on it as he walked the rest of the garden.
Everything was in order, which meant it was time for his daily exercise. He went to the gym and jogged around the running track. His legs felt good as they pumped in time and carried him around the large trail. It circled most of the colony and had open windows looking out on the planet.
Randor sucked in a deep breath and enjoyed the burn in his lungs and muscles as he pushed his body to go faster and faster. Without the pain it was too easy to think while exercising. Too easy to reminisce and remember days gone by. Much better to push to the very extremes and keep his brain occupied.
Randor’s feet pounded on the track. Sweat dribbled down his face and the blood pumped through his veins. The outside planet blurred past as he ran. His human muscles, adapted over millennia for Earth, carried him at extreme speed in the lower gravity. People said (when there were people to speculate on such things), that a person returning to Earth from Mars would be bedridden with the sudden fatigue of higher gravity.
He sprinted around the track for an hour, the exact recommended daily dose of high intensity exercise. Once finished he headed to the showers. The warm water trickled down his face and back. It splashed over his muscles and washed the sweat away.
He felt good after the shower, invigorated. According to the colony’s schedule he had free time. He hated free-time. What was a man supposed to do for fun when he was trapped all alone? The only living thing on the planet? Possibly in the galaxy? His face tightened as he pictured the next two hours. They were completely empty; no way to distract himself from the loneliness. He would rather chew on rusted nails than face the haunting solitude that was free-time.
Still, ritual dictated that he follow the routine and the routine said it was free-time. Randor walked through the hollow colony until he came to the common room. There were chairs and couches set up around tables. There were games and shelves of books. He walked over to the bookshelves and scanned the titles. They were the same as yesterday.
“Read it, read it, read it,” he said as he moved his finger along the spines.
He gave up and walked over to the games cupboard. There were chess boards and decks of cards, Monopoly- Mars Edition and all manner of other games. The computers had games on them too but he’d already beaten them all… twice.
He could have listened to music but he hated the way it sounded like other people, other voices. It reminded him of an old riddle; if music plays in a Mars Colony and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?…
He pulled out a deck of cards and took a seat by the window. He gazed out of the glass at the red surface of the planet as he shuffled.
Randor dealt two piles of five cards, placing the second pile in front of the empty seat opposite him.
“How was your run today Eiran?” Randor said as he picked up his cards and looked them over. His voice echoed around the empty room.
“Mine was good too,” Randor said.
There was silence for a while as Randor considered his cards and then laid a queen of diamonds face-up on the table. He waited for a few moments, staring at the empty seat opposite him.
“It’s your turn Eiran, I wish you wouldn’t get so distracted.”
Randor got up and walked around the table. He sat in the empty seat and picked up the second hand of cards. He studied them for a while.
“I’m not distracted, I’m thinking,” he said. “Besides, you’re one to talk; I saw Hera staring at you earlier.”
Randor placed a seven of spades on the table, laid the cards down and returned to his original seat. He picked up his hand and his eyebrows drew together.
“There’s nothing going on between me and Hera. I don’t know why you always think there is.”
Randor ran his hand over the cards before finally laying down a ten of clubs. He sat back in his chair and glared at the empty space in front of him. The corners of his mouth turned down in a frown. His foot rapped on the floor and his finger tapped on the arm of his chair. It felt like hours.
“Goddamit Eiran, it’s your turn!” he said and shot to his feet. He threw his hand of cards at the empty chair and stormed away.
Randor was still fuming as he exited the common room and headed for his sleeping pod. His ears and cheeks were burning with the heat and anger flowing through them. Eiran could be so frustrating! The way he never had his turn, the way he always talked about Hera… the way he was imaginary.
He slumped down onto his bed. Another hour of free-time and then it was dinner. According to the roster he was on star-watch tonight. He let his eyes drop shut and drifted to sleep.
When Randor woke and had dinner he went to the observation deck and sat on the hard floor. He gazed out at the stars. They were so cold. They taunted him from the safety of the sky.
He hated sitting here by himself, it made it too easy to think, to remember, but it was part of the routine.
Everything had gone wrong seven years ago.
He’d been down in the deep, patrolling the under-colonies. At the end of the shift he’d gone up into the colony proper and he’d found nothing. No one walked the corridors; no-one was in the mess hall or common room. There were no voices, no communicators. He’d run from room to room calling out but no one replied. The only sign of habitation were piles of clothes scattered through the rooms and hallways.
Initially he’d thought it was a practical joke, at least for the first hour. After the first day he was pretty sure it wasn’t a joke but he held some hope. After the first week he was curled into a corner of the mess-hall. He chewed his fingernails down until they bled. Tattered pieces of skin hung from the ends of his fingers. He’d taken to pulling out his hair, one strand at a time.
Then he’d found the routine.
The routine was pinned to every wall, handed out to every citizen; it was what had kept the Mars Colony running through famine and despair. It helped him survive. He clung to the strict, logical instructions like a lifeline.
Two weeks after finding the colony abandoned Randor tried to communicate with Earth and with the Moon Colony. All he received was silence. Neither of them responded. It was like the entire galaxy had gone away and left him behind.
He’d tried to access the video feed, to watch what happened, but it required a security password. He’d spent days typing combinations into the terminal screen. So far he hadn’t found the right one.
So here he was, seven years later, following the same routine and staring up into the same empty sky.
The next morning Randor stood to attention on the observation deck for thirty minutes with his hand raised in a salute. The time used to be spent on daily updates, the Human Anthem, a message from the President. Now all that was left was Randor with his lonely gesture.
Afterwards he went to the communications room, brushing past the empty chairs.
“This is Randor of Mars Colony One, calling Earth Force Major,” Randor said, his finger pressed firmly on the communicate button. He paused and listened for a response. Static met his ears. He opened his mouth to repeat the call when a crackling voice replied.
“Mars Colony One this is Earth Force Major. Urgent code red, Halucin Acute Virus outbreak. Millions dead. Isolation methods failed. Infected persons frozen en route. Do not o-” the airway went dead.
Randor’s heart was beating a hundred times a second. His ribs vibrated with the force of it and he felt his chest rising up to his throat. His face and neck were hot and blood surged around his body. He sucked in lungfuls of air but he couldn’t get enough.
“Earth Force Major! Earth Force Major! Do you receive?” Randor spoke furiously, his finger pushing so hard on the button it threatened to sink straight through the metal desk.
“Mars Colony One this is Earth Force Major. Urgent code red, Halucin Acute Virus outbreak. Millions dead. Isolation methods failed. Infected persons frozen en route. Do not o-”
“Computer, make contact with that speaker. I want him to hear me now!” Randor said and looked up at the main console which ran the colony.
“Error, communication impossible. Temporal impairment.”
“What does that mean?” Randor said, he gripped the arm of his chair; his knuckles were white.
“Message dated seven years ago, temporally impossible to regain contact,” the computer’s voice replied.
“Seven years,” Randor whispered.
This was it; this was what had happened all those years ago.
For seven years he had been left in complete silence without a single explanation. Until today.
“… Millions dead. Isolation meth-”
“Silence it unless another message plays,” Randor said.
The panicked voice cut off and Randor was plunged back into silence.
The Halucin Acute Virus. But that was just a lab experiment… All the nations and the independent colonies had sworn never to use it.
Someone had used it.
Randor wracked his brain, trying to remember everything he could about the virus. His mind was completely blank.
“Computer, give me a summary on the Halucin Acute Virus.”
“The Halucin Acute Virus or HAV is a synthetic disease designed to destroy human life. It was designed in 2035, the new alternative to nuclear war, but was banned by the United Nations and the United Colonies. The virus travels from host to host through the air and dies within minutes without a living host. Victims are vaporized due to extreme replication of the virus.”
Randor held his head in his hands. It was all so clear now. The Halucin Acute Virus was released. It spread through Earth and got into the frozen humans being sent to Mars. The cryo-chambers would have slowed the viral replication until they were defrosted and then BANG. The entire colony is wiped out in less than five minutes; leaving nothing behind but piles of dirty clothes.
The cargo ship arrived while he was down in the deeper tunnels. It was carrying the infected cryo-stasis bodies. A-tissue, A-tissue we all fall down.
Randor slid from his chair to the floor. He stared at the air in front of his face. His mouth hung open and a trail of saliva slid out of the corner and ran down his chin.
If the virus already wiped out Earth then it would have taken the Moon Colony. That meant one thing; he was the last human. His neck tingled. The sensation spread down his spine. The silence of the Colony grew louder until it was pressing in on him like a physical force.
He imagined the sheer infinitely of space. He pictured himself as the only human left amongst all the emptiness. He couldn’t breathe. His throat closed and he heaved to get air. He coughed and hacked, the force of it sending speckles of blood out onto the floor.
He fell into heaving sobs. His tears joined the blood. He would be alone for the rest of his life. He would never find love, he would never have friendship. He would never have a family of his own and when he died the entire of human history would die with him.
“No, no, no,” Randor whispered. He stared at the legs of his chair. His eyes glazed over and another line of spittle slid out of the corner of his mouth and dropped to the floor.
He collapsed to the ground. His cheek landed in a pool of blood, spit, and tears. He lay still, catatonic. It could have been for a minute, it could have been an hour, it could have been a day; time didn’t matter anymore.
By the time he swam back to consciousness his limbs and back were stiff and the cold had seeped through into his bones. His eyes stung with the tears he’d been shedding and his empty stomach growled.
He pushed himself to his feet and looked around the communications room. For the first time he saw the dirt and dust collected on the machinery. He saw the broken light which flickered in one corner of the room. He noticed the captain’s chair which had been empty for so long that the leather was peeling away.
Randor stumbled away from the empty room. He couldn’t think straight. He clung desperately to a single idea. He had to get away. There was nothing left for him here. He had to move, had to leave.
He went to the loading bay.
It was a massive room which extended out in all directions with a high ceiling. There were several ships pulled up in the bays, each a different size. Closest to the main door was a ship he hadn’t seen before. It was dark grey with the Earth Fleet symbol stamped onto the back. The door to the ship was still open, a gaping dark hole which beckoned to him.
Randor turned away from the ship and walked down the rest of the bays. He counted the ships as he went along. Four in total. Four ships abandoned in the Mars Colony Hangar.
“Four,” Randor whispered and his eyebrows drew together. “There should have been five.”
He wrapped his consciousness around the idea. He forced himself to focus on it; it was the only string still holding him to his sanity. He strode over to the nearest computer terminal and searched the hanger log. The entry door marked each ship as they came and went.
“Five,” Randor said, his eyes scanning down the list of names and times. “Come on, five.”
The second last entry was The Herald, which was the Earth ship, the one carrying the infected bodies. But then there was another. A ship left the hangar after The Herald arrived, five minutes after.
“The Beacon,” Randor said.
The Beacon had left the hanger after The Herald arrived. What if they were safe inside their ship at the time and they saw the disease spreading? What if they got out in time?
“They could still be alive,” Randor whispered.
His fingers feverishly tapped against the screen to find the calling code of the ship. He sent the call and leant against the wall. His heart was beating furiously and his head ached with hope.
“Please. Please be alive,” he whispered.
“Please!” He clenched his fists at his sides and desperate tears squeezed out of the corners of his eyes.
We all fall down.
If you enjoyed The Last Man on Mars then you’ll love Survivor:
When everyone runs, who will stand?
Nova is a new recruit to the Jagged Maw: an elite bounty hunter guild.
During a routine collection, she finds herself dragged into the middle of an alien uprising.
The Ancients, merciless beings set on reclaiming the universe, have only one person left to stop them: Nova.
She must battle the Ancients, time, and her sanity, in order to stop the annihilation of the human race.
Fear the hero who has nothing left to lose.
Limited time, special offer price of $0.99 at http://www.amazon.com
Saffron is an author, artist, and scientist who loves all things science and science-fiction. She especially enjoys writing thought-provoking stories that stay with people long after they’ve finished reading. You can learn more about Saffron at www.saffronbryant.com.