It’s Friday! I have a fun short story for you based on a writing prompt from where else but Author’s Tale! Enjoy!
Prompt: The year is 2038. The first astronauts have safely landed on Mars. Their first mission is to explore a cave that couldn’t be explored using the automated rovers in previous years. They discover a human skeleton in the cave with four words written on the wall.
Captain Marilyn DeGraw took a deep breath and eyed her crew – Aeronauts Michael Garbone, Lacey Turner, and Oxford “Manny” Manchester. Michael stood the tallest, nearly a head taller than both her and Lacey while Manny landed somewhere in the middle, but was nearly as broad as he was wide.
“Okay, gang. Mission is to explore the cave in 101.4.32. We have precisely four hours to get there, explore, and return before we run low on oxygen. We all know there are six hours of oxygen in our tanks but we absolutely don’t want to get near that if at all possible. I’m not hauling corpses back, understood?” Marilyn locked eyes with each crew member, who nodded acknowledgment. The sleek white helmets were set close to their heads and space suits had thankfully gotten more trim over the past 20 years so that they were fairly maneuverable. Dr. Kenny Hale was to thank for the breakthrough in the fabric technology that allowed for just as much protection in far more maneuverable spacesuits. Captain DeGraw pointed. “Manny, you’re in charge of The Beast.”
Lacey set her timer and everyone turned to follow Manny to The Beast, a seriously heavy-duty off-roading vehicle. Its heavily treaded tires stood 48” high and a small ladder automatically descended when the latch, located at the bottom of the door, was activated. The piston system slowly opened the door and everyone took their places in the rig. Manny in the driver’s seat, Captain DeGraw in the co-pilot’s seat, Michael in system analyzation, and Lacey in the rear-facing observation seat.
Manny and Captain DeGraw ran system checks and after five minutes, they began the two-mile journey to the landing site closest the cave. No one spoke during the five-minute journey. This was the culmination of three weeks of painstaking work. They’d spent long hours collecting and analyzing rock samples, working out the best route into the cave, drilling eye hooks in the rocks and threading heavy cable through each one to guide the aeronauts through the treacherous landscape leading to the cave. Two days ago, they’d made their last training walk, practicing walking through, clipping and unclipping and re-clipping their carabiners along the cable. They’d only just made it back to base before dark. The next day was spent fueling, sleeping, and verbally going through every process for the mission today. They couldn’t afford to have anyone tired or under-performing in any way.
The sun was just barely peeking over the horizon as they drove perpendicular to the sun. If everything went according to plan, they should be heading back just as the sun was high in the sky. If thing went just a little rough, they’d be back just after midday, and if things went really wrong, well, an automated message would send at sundown, informing mission control on Earth of no check-in from the mission.
Captain DeGraw actively pushed thoughts of things going wrong out of her mind as they drove. It would be no use to her crew if she was distracted by anything that might go wrong. They were going to operate as though everything was going to go perfectly and improvise quickly if things started to go wrong.
“We’re here.” Manny’s voice broke the silence. Captain DeGraw was the last person out of The Beast and the first to clip her carabiner to the heavy cable.
“Okay, team, this is what we’ve prepared for. Keep open communication and chatter to a minimum as we go.” Captain DeGraw took another deep breath and silently thanked Dr. Kenny Hale again for his breakthrough. She lifted a foot to a rock and they were off.
After 48 minutes of climbing, they’d crossed the half mile of unpassable-by-vehicles terrain and stood at the mouth of the cave. The double shoulder lights and headlamps were activated in all four suits and digital recording pads were pulled out of plastic pockets and adhered to hands. After checking that all gear was working, they looked to Lacey. Being the most experienced spelunker, she led the team into the cave. The twelve bright lights lit up every part of the cave, making it far less creepy to Captain DeGraw, though she would never admit to caves diverting all possible water for saliva to her armpits and hands. She clenched and flexed her hands, focusing on keeping her breathing steady.
“There shouldn’t be anything alive in here, so no need to worry about that,” Lacey said, her voice somewhat muffled through the normally crystal-clear speakers.
“Cave’s doing weird stuff to coms,” Michael said. “Use hand signals when you speak, just so we know to listen.”
“Roger,” everyone replied, raising their left hands in a fist to their shoulders.
Captain DeGraw smiled a self-satisfied smile. Her team was trained well and that she could own fully. Soon, Lacey was pointing out things that should be noted or collected or scanned and they spread out, getting notes and pictures and samples of various things.
“Oh my– ah!” Lacey’s voice came over the speaker and Captain DeGraw’s hair prickled all up her spine to the top of her head.
“What is it Lacey?” Captain DeGraw asked, rushing over. She came up behind Lacey and peered over her shoulder and gasped. “What. Is. That?
“Is that… what I think it is?” Michael’s breathy voice crackled over the speakers.
“Is that a skeleton?” Manny asked, even-keeled as always.
Their bright lights illuminated the skeleton leaned up against the cave wall, bones stark against the reddish-brown backdrop.
“That’s definitely human,” Manny continued.
“Yeah,” Captain DeGraw breathed. “What in– what the–”
“How did it get here?” Manny asked.
“That’s the question of the hour, isn’t it?”
“Ah, hour!” Lacey said. “We’ve been out here nearly two hours and it will take us an hour to get back.”
“Copy,” Captain DeGraw said. “Sweep this area for clues. You have one hour to gather information.”
“Uh, can I share one right now?” Lacey asked, her voice tight and slightly higher.
“Whatcha got?” Captain DeGraw asked.
“Uh–” Lacey’s voice came over the speaker again. Captain DeGraw looked over to Lacey’s outstretched hand, finger pointing. Captain DeGraw followed the finger and saw the words on the wall.
Been waiting for you.
“That is creepy,” Manny said, breaking the silence.
“Yes it is,” Captain DeGraw agreed. “Take another quick sweep and then I want to get out of here. If there is something or someone else actually in here, I don’t want to be in here any longer than necessary. You have three minutes.”
Silence reigned until Lacey called time.
“Follow Lacey out and then follow me back through the cabled section,” Captain DeGraw ordered.
“Yes’m,” came the chorus.
“Fall out.” Lacey look the lead and no one spoke as they came out, and silently Captain DeGraw switched places. One hour later, they emerged from the cabled section.
“I am officially creeped out,” Michael said. Manny burst into laughter as he pressed the latch and the door lifted.
Captain DeGraw even let out a snicker as she climbed in. By the time they got back to the station, they were all roaring with laughter. Once back inside the station, they unsuited and met at the general conference table. Manny brought the coffee and Michael the space rations.
As they passed around the food and drinks, each member scribbled down their own notes for discussion.
“Been waiting for you,” Captain DeGraw said, drumming the fingers of one hand on the table, her fingernails not quite long enough to tap, twirling some strands of her shock of red hair with the other. “What does that mean?”
“I have no idea,” Manny said, wiping some coffee of his thick, black moustache. “Is that the best place to start? What if we start with how a human got here? Aren’t we the first in this location? The closest station we know of is at least 1,000 miles away. It’s not possible for them to get here. And why here?”
“Slow down,” Captain DeGraw said. “Too many questions.”
“Yes, we are the first in this location,” Lacey said, cradling her mug in her hands, blonde hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. “The closest station is actually 1,835 miles. There are only six stations on Mars and they are all very far apart.”
“Actually we’re number seven,” Michael said, the cabin lighting reflecting off his bald head.
“Oh, right,” Lacey said.
“Either way,” Captain DeGraw cut in, “not many. And very far apart.”
“Is it possible it was a reinforcement? Somehow off course?” Michael asked.
“Just one?” Manny said, leaning back in his chair.
“That doesn’t make sense at all,” Michael said.
Round and round, they deliberated, trying to figure out how a human would have gotten to the location. After two hours, Captain DeGraw cut the discussion off.
“Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to run tests on the materials we collected and restart tomorrow. Everyone get a good night’s rest. We’ll be working hard tomorrow.” Captain DeGraw stood and went directly to the captain’s chamber. She fired up her dock and punched in her credentials.
“This is Captain Marilyn DeGraw, station 7 on Mars, section 101.4, date March 12, 2038. We explored section .32 today, a cave unreachable by unmanned rovers. We found a human skeleton with the words ‘been waiting for you’ written on the wall. Please advise on course of action. Please advise. Captain Marilyn DeGraw out.” She slumped back in her chair and sighed. None of this made sense. How did a human get to this site? And with no gear? And it decomposed? Does that even happen on Mars? Captain DeGraw tried to think about how decomposition worked. In order to be skeletonised, all the flesh would need to be removed by an outside source, right? Otherwise it would just mummify in an environment like Mars. There was no skin on the body. Nobody mentioned any discoloration on the ground, right? Or did they? Pulling a pad of paper down from one of the shelves above her console, Captain DeGraw made a note to ask about discoloration on the ground near the body. She also made a note to check what kind of material the writing on the wall was made of. They should probably take a sample from the body also, just to ensure that it was actually bone. If they hadn’t taken a sample from it yet, they were simply operating on assumptions that needed to be confirmed first. Sighing, Captain DeGraw crawled into her bed and tried to clear the image of the bright white skeleton from her mind and fall asleep.
* * *
Late the next morning, Captain DeGraw pulled herself out of bed, still exhausted after a night of poor sleep. She dragged herself down the hall to the kitchen and poured herself a mug of coffee. Michael soon buzzed into the room, clearly having been up for hours, and set down several papers.
“I’ve analyzed what we found,” he said, pouring himself a cup and sitting at the table near his stack. “Ready to hear it?”
“It’s a little early for data, but sure,” Captain DeGraw replied.
“There is no organic material in the cave.”
Captain DeGraw choked on her coffee and spluttered, dribbling some back onto the table. She grabbed a napkin and wiped her face and the table. “What?”
“There’s no organic material. It’s not an actual human skeleton. It looks like one, but it isn’t. See, I was thinking about it — mornin’ Manny — and I couldn’t figure out how a skeleton would get so white in that cave. It’s dark back there, there’s no light, so how would the bones get white?”
“I was thinking about that, too,” Captain DeGraw said, taking another pull of coffee.
“I was wondering how it would decompose,” Manny said. “Where’s Lacey?”
“I’m right here,” Lacey said. “I was helping Michael analyze. So glad it’s not actually human.”
“In order for a body to decompose, it needs oxygen and bacteria and all that other stuff,” Manny continued. “Stuff that is lacking in this environment.”
“Especially since no organic material was found,” Michael said.
“Did we get any samples off the body?” Captain McGraw asked.
Michael reddened a bit. “Yeah. I broke off part of the toe.”
Manny burst into laughter, and everyone else soon followed suit. It slowly descended into awkward silence.
“That still leaves the mystery of the writing,” Captain DeGraw said.
“And how it got there,” Lacey said.
“What was the toe made of?” Manny said?
Incoming message from Mission Control. Incoming message from Mission Control.
“Play message,” Captain DeGraw said, following up with her authentication credentials.
“Captain DeGraw, this is Mission Control. We had to do some research into the site and its history. We had to dig into the classified files and discovered that this was a failed site from the UK 12 years ago. They had many complications and chose to pack up and head home rather than die on Mars. After speaking with one of the crew members, it was a prank. The doctor had brought it along and so they decided to set it in the cave in case anyone ever came. There should be the names of all that crew on the back of the skeleton’s ribs. Go ahead and bring it in. Good work, crew. Mission control out.”
The crew looked around the room at each other. Captain DeGraw slowly shook her head.
“Dang Brits,” Manny said, and everyone laughed.
“Well, gang,” Captain DeGraw said. “Time to plan a new walk to the cave to clean house. We go tomorrow, so get ready for more samples. And we’re taking one of the writing to see what they used!”
“And planning another special treat of our own!” Manny said with a wink as he stood and walked out.
“Not a chance,” Captain DeGraw called after him. “Manny! I mean it!”
Manny’s laughter drifted down the hallway toward them.
“Manny,” Captain DeGraw muttered, glancing up to see Michael and Lacey exchanging glances. “Well, don’t just sit there. Go help him think of something.”
Michael and Lacey sprinted off like little kids heading to recess.
“I still don’t want to know!” Captain DeGraw yelled. She shook her head and emptied the rest of the pot into her cup, heading back to the captain’s chambers and punched in her credentials to update Mission control.