Red Soil

by R.T. Allenson


The fatal mission to survey Mars was not without its share of stories; though its storytellers may be gone from this plane of existence, the record of their passing remains etched to those who they touched.

In particular, she remembers…

The young woman rose from her meditative slumber and turned to face at her co-worker. She sneered at her, cocked her head to one side and let out a breath of defeat.

“I was having a nice dream.” She replied, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “The boss told me he wasn’t coming today, so I thought I’d get some rest before later.”

“Not coming eh?” her co-worker replied, motioning with her eyes towards the hallway. She could see movement, shadows of people making their way towards the collected cubicles. She knew the footsteps all to well and without a moment’s waste, Alice was already busy fixing her workstation. Her co-worker could not help but laugh at her plight; her hair was all over the place, her uniform was crumpled in one spot and there was a large lipstick slash under her eye. She looked like she just came from a teenage slumber party.

“Oh for the love of God, Mary! Can’t you at least help out a bit?” She spat. She had taken most of her leftover food and was beginning to throw it away. Mary could only snip in dismay as the last of her noodles vanished down the maw of the trashcan. What a waste, she whispered to herself.

After a few minutes of hapless struggling, Alice finally got herself looking presentable and without a moment’s waste. Her boss, a tall bookish man of Nordic descent had begun carefully making his rounds amidst the huddled cubicles of the office room. Mary slipped back into her own work area, giving her friend a passing wink. Alice rolled her eyes and sat down on her chair, hands unconsciously tapping at the computer’s keyboard in an attempt to look busy. She squinted her eyes in regular intervals, keeping a lookout on her boss who was slowly making his way to her work area.

Oh come on already, she thought to herself as she wiped the sweat from her forehead. She had begun tapping random letters on the keyboard until she realized her computer was not powered up yet.  Quietly, she flicked the transformer’s switch with a loud click. Half-expectantly, she saw her boss’ gaze fixate on her. Oh boy, here he comes.

“Ms. Anderson?” He called in a deep, monotone voice. Alice stood from her work area and the man, bobbing his head, beckoned her to come towards him. He then begun walking back towards the hallway, to his office, her thought dreaded.  Nervously, the brown-haired woman carefully walked towards the hallway, taking care not to make eye contact with any of the other employees. On the corner of her eye, she saw Mary shrug in apparent disbelief.

Well, I’m gonna get fired that’s for sure.

The trip through the hallway felt longer than usual. Alice, with careful steps had begun taking long strides in an attempt to hasten the inevitable but her nervousness got the better of her. Her legs, she thought, would have broken in two if she dared run. In the end, she only managed a sort of overreaching step that, as she calculated, passed by two tiles in one stride. Not bad, she thought. This went of for quite some time until she passed by a glass-encased exhibit standing proudly in the middle of the hallway. She was sure she hadn’t seen such a curious thing before, let alone see such a thing in an office building.

Aside from the pre-martian pedestal wherein the glass box was seated, nothing was familiar with the strange display nestled in the very heart of the hallway. As she came closer to the object, she soon realized that the box contained an absurdly small and useless looking rock.

“A martian rock?” she blurted out. Her eyes scanned the area in a twitch; she had thought she heard someone following her.

The reddish, rust colored rock was roughly the size of a golf ball and was missing a piece in its lower corner. Fine dust, perhaps from the rock itself, had begun settling at the bottom glass floor and was visible even in the dim light of the hallway. The ebon-colored pedestal eerily terminated into a halt towards the glass box, as if the rock or part of the floor was somehow connected to it.  She noticed that, unlike other pedestals, this particular one was delicately ornamented with gilded circles and spots. After taking a backwards glance, Alice slowly reached out to touch the pedestal…

“Ms. Anderson?” A voice echoed from afar. Looking through the glass box she saw her boss motion with his head towards his office room, his hands holding open the door and his feet tapping impatiently. “Right away sir!” She replied and soon went scurrying through the hallway.

The air was cold and hung heavily with the almost unbearable smell of her boss’ perfume. Aside from the gentle tapping from his shoe, there was not a sound in the room.

“I didn’t call you, Ms. Anderson, because I’m going to fire you. So please, stop looking like you’re about to faint. I’ve not the funds to take care of another accident like Tony’s.”

“Oh!” She blurted out. “Oh, I’m just cold sir. I’m not used to being in such a cold room” She was lying of course, she was afraid to lose her job. But then, after what he said, she felt as if the weight of the whole world was lifted from her.

“However.” Her boss continued in a slightly curious, monotone voice. “I’d like to discuss this letter I received from your cousin.” His hand stretched towards her with a half-open envelope in hand.  She took it from him and then, after inspecting the broken seal, begun reading the letter.

“I took the liberty in opening the envelope for you. Yes I read it but it’s part of my duty, if your pardon me being professional, in inspecting letters with an urgent seal.”

“Oh, that’s quite alright sir.” She felt violated however, her own private life laid open by her boss.  She did not despise him entirely, but she found his overbearing nature a bit over the top at times. He was an entirely different person, not quite like his father.

Dad…

The letter was still neatly folded; no sign of tampering, despite what her boss had said otherwise. The letters, as she read, were unmistakably her cousin’s writing – a strange, cursive form that characterized typical Martian handiwork.  They said it was due to the air there, in the domes, which made their writing…different. Her eyes calculated every letter, a strange inching horror overcoming her senses with each passing moment she read.

….your mother first fell ill about three months ago, I’m not sure how long that is there on Earth but nearly everyone here has had breathing problems since the Sector Twelve fell down. Myself, I need the aid of a breathing tube to assist even the most miniscule of actions.

It’s horrible here in Mars, Alice. Something isn’t right with this place. New Kansas isn’t what it used to be. It started with the farms, and then sector twelve shut down…

I want to go home, but I can’t. None of us have the strength anymore to fly back to Earth. The doctors here said we’d just end up dying on the way back. A lot of us are ill and I know it has something to do with the rocks they brought in. Or the ground, the rocks have always been there right? I don’t know anymore. I just want to go home. They say it gets to you in the first few weeks but…I’m just not sure anymore.

Anyways, your mother….she passed away just a few days ago. We’re holding off the wake so you can hopefully come. I know you and your mother were never in good terms but at least, Alice, please pay her a visit. We can’t afford to send her body to earth and it’s out of respect for her. She loved you very much…

Her hands clasped the letter tightly, her nails digging deep into the brittle paper. It was an irritatingly painful sensation, but her feeling had somehow subsided after reading the letter. Her eyes, though she wouldn’t notice it, were twitching uncontrollably.

“Are you decided then, to go off to Mars? I can always arrange the trip for you.”

“Wha-?:

Her boss stood from his chair and circled her for a moment, his hands buried deep in his pockets.

“I can have it arranged, Alice. But I need a favor done in return. You’ll be paid well.”

Her legs unconsciously moved beneath the table. She had realized then that her boss wasn’t simply looking at her anymore, but staring at her. In response, her eyes quickly evaded his’ and went off trailing until she began staring into the rust-colored martian rock reflected faintly from the office window. There was something about it, the rock, which made her feel uneasy. A premonition, perhaps, of things to come; they said everyone goes to Mars someday after all. Alice however feared the red planet for the plain reason that it was alien to her and though she would foolish in hindsight, she still believed the fourth planet to be host to some unnamable race of monsters hiding behind the scarred landscapes and prehuman mountains. It would be a living nightmare for her, if she lived there and the letter only solidified her fears. But her mother, her family and the graveness of the times began edging at her mind.  Her boss had started smoking his cigarettes again; an awful smelling thing that had its own flavor. She had tasted it once and swore never to smoke again.

“Well Alice?” He started, blowing noxious smoke trails in the air. He held his head up for a moment as if to rest and appeared to gaze directly into the ceiling. His lips began moving, wording things and then almost instantly, he began smoking again.

Presently, he set his cigarette aside and sat comfortably at his chair. “All you need is to say, my dear, and I’ll arrange your trip.”

“What’s the catch?” She blurted out. Her boss cackled loudly, almost sneering beneath his breath at her inquiry. He lighted another cigarette and began the strange ritual of staring into upwards space.

“Ah, well I need you to get something from me that’s all, a little package from a friend of mine in New Kansas.”  He brought himself closer to her face, a sneer plastered all over his’. “A delicate package my dear, worth more than I pay you and possibly your life.”

“What do you need me for? Why not just ask your associates?” She retorted, brushing his face aside as politely as she could.  He had begun laughing in his distinct, monotone laughter that pained her ears terribly.

“Alice my dear, I need the delicateness of a woman to deliver my package safely. Besides, my associates might just take whatever it is in the package for their own. They’re a greedy lot of bastards, is what they are.” He then smiled and reclined in his seat, as if awaiting the woman’s response…or next inquiry.

“Should I know what’s in the package?” She asked meekly.

“No.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Quite possibly, but if you don’t meddle with it then you’ll be fine.”

There was silence for while, in the room. The two of them stared back at each other; Alice, with fingers twitching and her boss who callously perfumed the air with a noxious smoke. The sun outside seemed to hang lowly, almost pale and longing for true light. She noted, with extreme clarity, how sickly the outside looked in the sun and how the people inside the office – including herself, seemed to reflect that paleness. It wasn’t’ anything important, nothing but a simple curiosity born from her tired and restless mind. Her mother had died a few days ago, cold brittle under an even pale-lit sky; only a few parsecs separated the planets but she knew the sun there was different if not, probably worse. The sun had begun growing dim the past few years already and it marked the end of humanity’s last bastion of happiness. Colder climates were prevalent, even in the sunniest of countries and the hottest of lands. The modern soothsayers who still believed in a nebulous and detached deity spoke of the end, the fifth or sixth coming and the unraveling of the worlds. Alice knew however that the true end of the world had its roots in themselves, mankind; the lack of faith and love of the people, hopelessness, sheer greed and avarice and weakness of self – the latter, her own failing.  It wasn’t just the sun but it was one reason and the most persistent being half-omnipresent during each day. Mars held a brighter future, they said, where colonies could emulate what was beginning to unravel or otherwise entirely lost.

“So, my Alice?” Her boss interrupted. “I’ll pay you quadruple your pay if you ever accept my offer. Two birds with one stone eh? You get to visit your mom and get paid for…ahem…personal favors.”

He begun puffing out smoke again, further decorating the room with low-lying fumes. The smell of unknown chemicals lingered in the air and was almost unbearable.

“I—.”

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