Ghosts on Mars by Alan Delaney


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SUMMARY: My entry for the May 2008 Flash Fiction Contest.

Drew was reclining on a bean bag in the Officer's Mess when his pager rang. Strictly, the Mess was out of bounds to him, but Official Corporate Protocol wasn't enforced much at the base any more. He stretched a hand lazily towards the nearest intercomm and punched in the number for Central Control.

"Drew. What've you got?"

A holographic image flickered into life in front of him. The image punched a few invisible buttons in front of it and stared up at an invisible display panel.

"Looks like C313 found something. Can you head out there and check it out?"

"It's probably another false alarm."

"I know, but if you have any free time on your busy schedule..." The holographic figure raised a sarcastic eyebrow towards Drew and let its sentence trail off.

In response, Drew shrugged and rolled out of his seat.

"Whatever. I need to stretch my legs out anyway. Send me the coordinates."

"You got 'em. Bring me a few beers on the way back, will ya?"

"Don't push it," said Drew, as he turned the intercomm off.

***

Drew grabbed his toolkit and jumped onto the speeder parked outside the building. Two decades ago, when Drew had first been stationed on Mars, the probes were sophisticated enough to do their survey without assistance and these sort of trips weren't needed, but the funding and the technology had dried up pretty quickly once the planet was officially listed as "stripped" and they were left with the older, cheaper models - the base was kept open on little more than a shoestring budget and a skeleton crew so they would take whatever they could get their hands on. The operation had never officially been dissolved, or not yet at least, as there was always the remote chance that there was a mineral deposit that the survey teams had missed or a mine that had not been completely exhausted, but nobody was holding their breath. The sensible money these days was in Jupiter and her moons.

Half an hour later, Drew pulled the speeder up alongside the probe and eased it down onto the landing pads. The probe was hovering above some heavily-eroded metal husks, probably the remains of one of the many failed and abandoned settlements that dotted the Martian landscape. The readings were inconclusive. There seemed to be some evidence of a heavy-mineral ore deposit just below the camp, but the decaying ruins could be giving a false positive. The only way to be sure was to clear some space and rescan.

Drew pulled a laser scalpel out from his toolkit and set to work.

***

Two hours later, Drew had made a wide enough clearing for a proper scan. He brought the probe closer to the ground and had it do a deep search of the area but the results came up blank. To verify, he had the probe scan the scrap-heap he had made of the debris. The probe came back with the same faint trace signals. With a heavy sigh, he blacklisted the whole settlement and reprogrammed the probe's flight path - he didn't want to have to come out here again.

He went back to the speeder and flicked on a radio so ancient it didn't even have holographic capabilities.

"Control? Drew here."

"Hey. What've you got?"

"Nothing. Just ghost readings from some junk. This area is as dead as the rest of the planet." The 2D figure on the monitor shrugged, it had been expecting this reply.

"OK. Thanks for checking. See you in a bit."

"Sure," said Drew, as he turned the screen off.

He jumped onto the speeder and examined the horizon as the craft gained altitude. There was another dust storm coming in from the North, a big one by the looks of it. It seemed likely that he was going to be spending the rest of his shift indoors. Just another normal day then.