Red Planet

 

 

Ally rolled over and tried to shut out the raucous buzz.  It was a poor noise to wake up to, but she preferred a sound she couldn’t ignore.  Giving in, she pulled the pillow off her head and sat up.  Her first deep breath of the bedroom air triggered a giant sneeze.  As usual, the omnipresent red dust had invaded the room during the night.  She wiped away the layer of sandy red grit obscuring her handscreen and turned off the alarm. 

 

“Ally! Time to get up!” Her mom stuck her head into Ally’s room for a moment to confirm Ally was actually awake. 

 

“I’m up, Mom,” Ally said.  She shook the dust off the bedding onto the floor so the dustbots could get it, then grabbed her handscreen to take it into the shower.  She liked to play music during her morning routine.  She dodged the first dustbot coming into her room as she headed for the washroom.  They were back on duty after their nightly downtime. 

 

“Water’s on half-rations today,” her mom’s voice warned her from down the hall. 

 

Ally moaned.  The day was off to a bad start.  The showerbot didn’t allow any cheating.  Ally felt even the full water ration wasn’t enough to get clean.  Her bare feet left footprints in the dust of the hall.  By the time she came back, the bots would have the floor cleaned up. 

 

Hair, pits, feet and pubis. Ally raced to cover the priority spots before the water ran out.  She ended up cursing the shower when she failed to get all the shampoo out of her hair and did her best to towel it out. 

 

Breakfast didn’t do anything to improve her mood.  Pop tarts were on the menu.

 

“Mom! Roach paste for breakfast?”  Ally complained. 

 

“The proper name for the filling is invertebrate protein,” her mom replied. 

 

“Call it what you want, it doesn’t make it taste any better,” said Ally. 

 

“Here, you can have my icing packet,” her mom offered. 

 

The news and weather podcast her mom liked played in the background, coming from her mom’s handscreen which was propped up on the counter. 

 

“Today’s temperature is expected to hold steady throughout the day at 60 degrees Celsius,” the caster said. 

 

“Sixty degrees! It’s too hot to go to the rec centre,” Ally said.  “Maybe it’ll cool off later?  Mia and I wanted to go after school.”  

 

“Maybe,” said her mom, “but for now come straight home after school.  With the humidity, the death index is ten minutes.” 

 

“I hate this planet,” said Ally. 

 

It was time to suit up.  Ally got the heatsuit out of the closet and began the process of putting on the heavy, moisture-trapping suit, along with the boots, gauntlets and full head mask.  She checked the battery level and hit the test button on all three fans to make sure they were working. 

 

“Allison!” her mom called.  “Don’t forget to fill your water pouch.  I shouldn’t have to remind you.” 

 

“I was going to,” Ally said. She pulled a plastic tube out from the inner layer of the suit, near chest level, and attached it to the kitchen tap.  She ran the water until the liquid started backing up the tube, then unfastened the tubing, capped it, and shoved it back into her suit.  She finished putting on the headgear and gauntlets and turned on the heatsuit.  The fans kicked to life with a surge, then settled down to a quiet hum, one on each hip and one by her mouth on the headpiece. 

 

“Have a good day dear,” said her mom.  She kissed her fingers and then pressed the fingers on the suit’s clear viewplate, where Ally could see them.    

 

“Bye, Mom,” said Ally, and went out the two-door heat lock.  A small porch kept the outer door in the shade, but Ally could see the sun was out in full force today, with no clouds to shield its effects.  The red sand dunes of the valley stretched away in bright crimson waves, shimmering in the heat. 

 

“Darken viewplate,” Ally told the suit.  Her suit followed her command and dimmed the viewing portal by the default amount.   

 

She set off on the trail to school at a fast pace.  She wanted to have some time to talk with Mia at the waystation before school started.  A couple of waist-high drifts covering the trail in loose sand slowed her down.  The sand plows hadn’t been by in a while and the drifting was worse than usual this morning.  She watched a small dust devil skipping along the crest of some nearby dunes. 

 

When she got to the carbon sink, she decided to cut straight across it to the waystation.  Her mom told her to stick to the trail, which went around the carbon sink in a big loop, but Ally had taken this shortcut before and wasn’t afraid of it.  Adults were worried something in the sink would catch fire if you disturbed it, but Ally figured there was nothing here to burn.  Aside from the black color of the ground, the carbon sink had nothing interesting to see.  There were a couple of foot-high black bits sticking out of the sand here and there, but not many.  Sand that blew in got stained black in fairly short order, leaving the sable patch intact. 

 

The waystation was a small building with air conditioning and a water cistern, located at the halfway point between the end of the valley and the school.  Ally checked her suit status when she reached the entrance. The battery read-out showed it was down to half charge.  Going through the heat lock, she saw her friend was already there, fiddling with her suit.  Headgear discarded, Mia was tossing her head to the side, throwing the bangs of her blond bob out of her eyes in a familiar gesture. 

 

Ally took off her own headgear, which wasn’t needed in the waystation’s cooled interior.

 

“Hey, something wrong with your suit?” she asked. 

 

“One of the fans stopped working,” Mia replied. 

 

“That’s the second time in a week. We should call your mom,” said Ally. 

 

“She knows. We’re going to get a new suit at the end of the month when her cheque comes in. Two fans are enough till then.” 

 

“It’s dangerous. We can call my mom to give us a ride.” 

 

“You can’t spare the power. Besides, she’ll find out you’ve been cutting through the carbon sink,” said Mia, pointing a finger at the black dust coating the feet and calves of Ally’s heatsuit.   “That’s just the way it goes when there’s only two families at this end of the valley.  Not enough people for public transport. We don’t even rate a geothermal waystation.” 

 

Ally looked around the bare shed that comprised the waystation.  It was indeed a spartan setup.  A couple of benches, a hard-wired emergency comms panel and the taps on one wall from the cistern.  She went over to refill her water pouch.  Even with the suit, the heat was oppressive and she had consumed half of her water supply on the way here. 

 

“What do you think of that new boy that started yesterday?” Mia asked. 

 

“Dixon? He’s massively cute,” Ally said.  “It’ll be hard on him starting a new school in the middle of the term.” 

 

“Yeah, he’s cute. I think I’ll see if he needs help getting up to speed in his classes,” said Mia. 

 

“Hey, wait a minute. I’ve got dibs on that. I met him first,” Ally said, “and I’m an experienced tutor.” 

 

“All’s fair in love and war,” Mia answered. “We better get going if I’m going to talk to Dixon before class.” 

 

Ally raced to catch up with Mia at the heat lock and they competed to be first out the door.  Once on the trail, they settled into walking side by side, up and down the red dunes on the way to the school.  Mia started to lag behind, and Ally worried over the red LED, blinking on the defunct fan on Mia’s left hip.  That was on top the usual worry about the hole in Mia’s suit her friend had patched up with duct tape. 

 

“Look at that.” Mia’s voice came over the radio.  Ally turned to see what Mia was pointing at.  A bank of dark clouds was visible on the horizon, and as she watched, a bright bolt of electricity arrowed down from one of them towards the ground. 

 

“Maybe it’ll rain,” said Ally into her microphone.  

 

“I can’t remember the last time that happened,” Mia replied. 

 

When they got to the school, Mia sat on a bench in the coatroom, while the students around them hung up their heatsuits and chatted about the upcoming classes.  Ally helped her off with her head piece. 

 

“Are you okay?” she asked.  Mia was coated with sweat. 

 

“A little dizzy,” Mia said.  “I just need a minute.”

 

“It’s chemistry first thing today,” Ally said, sitting down beside Mia, “but I think you should go to the nurse.” 

 

“I’ll be fine,” Mia said. She got up and took off the rest of her heatsuit. 

 

They made it to chemistry just as class was starting.  Mia spotted Dixon sitting alone at a desk in the back, and shot across the classroom to take a seat on the stool beside him.  It was two people per desk in the chemistry lab and she usually sat with Ally. Ally yanked out her usual stool and dropped it into place with a clash.  Mia turned and sent a victory smile her way. 

 

Turning back towards the new boy, she said, “Hi, I’m Mia.”

 

A loud boom shook the classroom and rattled the desks. The lights flickered and students ran to the windows to see the source of the noise.  The day had turned dark outside, while sand and litter blew by the windows in a fierce wind.  As Ally watched, a thick bolt of lightning blazed down and hit a nearby comms tower, lighting up the scene and throwing sparks far and wide.  Another powerful thunderclap resonated through the class as it struck. 

 

“It’s an electrical storm. Get away from the windows, everyone,” their teacher called out.  He started directing students to gather along the walls and avoid metal and electronic equipment.  Mia, Dixon and Ally found a spot along a wall and sat down on the floor to watch the light show.  Mia sat in the middle and took both their hands as the room shook and abnormally large lightning bolts periodically flash-lit the surroundings.  There was no rain, just the dry crackle of electric currents, penetrating even into the school. 

 

“Wow, that storm’s a monster,” said Mia. 

 

A large crack followed by smashing and banging was accompanied by the lights going out.  A moment later the emergency lights came on, restoring a dim illumination to the room. 

 

“Yikes, that was close,” said Dixon, reclaiming his hand to cup his ringing ears. 

 

“A direct hit,” said Ally.  “The AC might be damaged.” 

 

They watched as the lightning strikes became more distant and the thunder less immediate.  The sky started to lighten.  After twenty minutes, the teacher let students get up and move around.  Standing at the window, Ally could see the sun shining down again on a schoolyard littered with debris.  The comms tower was leaning at an angle from a joint half-way up.  Dixon and Mia were still sitting, talking in low tones with their heads together.  

 

There was a low thunk and the main lights came back on. 

 

“Attention, staff and students,” the PA system crackled to life.  “The power grid has failed and we are now running on backup power.  Battery storage is insufficient to run our systems for an extended period of time. As a result, all classes are cancelled for today.”

 

This got a cheer from the students. 

 

“The danger from the storm has now passed. All students should return to their homes. The school will notify parents when classes resume.” 

 

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow, Dixon,” Mia said, as they lined up to leave the classroom. 

 

“Stop trying to venustrap him,” Ally whispered to Mia, holding her back in the crush at the door.  

 

“Jealous?” asked Mia. 

 

“No. I just want a chemistry partner for the next lab,” Ally said. 

 

“I’m sure we can work something out. Maybe we can be a trio,” Mia replied. 

 

The pair donned their heatsuits and were soon turning away from the rest of the departing students, towards the far end of the valley.  They crossed the red sands with a sure sense of direction, born of familiarity, even though the trail was buried under some new dunes from the strong storm winds.  It would take a visit from the sand ploughs to clear it again. 

 

“That storm didn’t help the heat at all,” said Ally. “My suit says it’s 62 degrees.”  The only reply from Mia was a grunt, as she slogged, head down, through the sand.  The intense whine of fans on high rotation filled Ally’s ears. 

 

Ally was glad when they reached the final ridge that hid the waystation from view. It meant they were almost at the halfway point and they could have a rest and cool off.  She was almost out of water again, trying to stay hydrated in the savage heat. 

 

They topped the ridge and Ally could hear Mia gasp on the radio.  A terrible sight greeted them.  The carbon sink beside the waystation was on fire, with huge flames rising up from the ground, reflecting in their face shields and making patterns on their shiny aluminum-coated heatsuits.  The smoke was billowing away in the opposite direction, giving them a clear view of the fire attacking one wall of the waystation.   

 

Mia fell to the ground. 

 

“Mia!” Ally knelt at her side. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Too hot,” said Mia. 

 

Ally saw a new red warning on Mia’s suit. 

 

“Your other fan shut down,” she said.  “I’ll call for help.” 

 

Ally tried her mom first, but the suit didn’t connect.  A no-service symbol showed in her heads-up display. She voiced the command for emergency services. There was still no response. 

 

“I have to go to the waystation,” she told Mia. “But first, let’s get you to some shade.” 

 

“You can’t go down there,” Mia said. 

 

Ally got Mia to her feet, and holding her upright, started guiding them towards a nearby rock.  The large beige boulder, about nine feet tall, was one of the few landmarks in the desert landscape. Her mom told her once it was a glacial erratic.  They moved into the stone’s shadow and Ally helped Mia sit down and lean back against it. 

 

“I’ll be right back,” Ally said.  She started down the slope towards the waystation. 

 

“Don’t go,” the radio crackled in her ears. 

 

Ally ignored it. She had to get to the comms panel before it was too late. 

 

One side of the building was fully burning now, but the entrance was still untouched.  The six-foot-tall flames on the carbon sink were sending waves of even more intense heat across the valley.  As Ally approached the heat lock, her suit started displaying unsolicited visual warning signals.  The heat was exceeding its cooling capacity.   She went through the double doors into the waystation.  Audible alarms assailed her from both the waystation and from her suit, and she could feel another jump in the heat.  Clouds of smoke were filling the interior and she could she see open flames at one end of the room. 

 

Foul-smelling vapours made her cough.  “Internal circulation only!” she ordered the suit.  Gritting her teeth, she plunged through the smoke, guided by the flashing red light of the comms panel.  Hitting the touch screen, she was relieved to see it still responding, as the warnings cleared and the main menu came up.  She blinked her eyes rapidly, trying to clear out the stinging drops of sweat rolling down from her forehead.  Ally found the dialing keypad on the menu and typed out ‘000’. 

 

“Hello, what is your emergency?” came a voice from the panel. 

 

Ally managed, between coughs, to tell the dispatcher about the fire and Mia’s collapse. The fumes and the heat were overwhelming her and she staggered back from the screen.  Turning towards the door, she fell to the floor and crawled towards the exit.  The smoke was getting into her suit and she was groggy from the heat. Coughing harshly, she crawled through the door and shut it behind her.  The airlock was filled with cloudy fumes from the waystation.  Ally managed to open the outside door to let in fresh air.  She lay there on the floor of the heat lock and let the fans clear her suit’s air supply.  It got easier to breathe.  Sweat dripped onto her faceplate, motivating her to get up and lurch away from the fire.  As she wobbled up the hill, the warning images gradually disappeared from her suit’s display, except for a low battery warning.  

 

She sat down beside Mia in the shade of the solitary rock. 

 

“Help is coming, I got a call out,” she said. 

 

“Thanks,” said Mia. 

 

They watched the waystation burn.  It didn’t take long for the flames to take over the whole building.  Some of the blaze burned with green and blue colors as various construction materials were incinerated. 

 

“It’s kind of pretty.” Mia took Ally’s hand.  “I’m not going to make it,” she said. 

 

“Don’t be silly. Help will be here any second,” Ally said. 

 

“My body temp’s off the scale,” said Mia.  “The suit doesn’t lie.  Hey, you’ll be able to take over with Dixon.” 

 

“Don’t talk like that! You’ll be fine!” 

 

“Tell my folks I love them both,” Mia whispered. 

 

“Don’t die! Don’t you leave me here alone. I don’t want to live without you,” Ally said. 

 

“You have to live. My mom says things will get better in a hundred years. I want you to see it for me,” Mia murmured. 

 

Mia stopped talking.  Ally held her in her arms and prayed for help to find its way through the sand dunes quickly. 

 

She must have drifted off for a minute.  Ally was startled back to reality by the loud purr of a cube-shaped, four-engine EV surging over the ridge, painted with fluorescent stripes.  The emergency vehicle stopped next to the rock and a couple of paramedics jumped out, clad in heatsuits plastered with colorful patches. 

 

“Are you okay?”  a paramedic with a female voice asked her.    

 

“Mia! Save Mia!” Ally said, pointing at her friend.  She kept hold of Mia’s hand as both the paramedics knelt down to concentrate on Mia’s condition.  One of them ripped off her friend’s headpiece, another pulled off one of her gauntlets.  After the first burst of frantic activity, they both stopped.   

 

“She’s gone, honey.”  The woman’s voice was sympathetic as she eased Mia’s hand out of Ally’s grip. 

 

“Let’s get you up,” said the other paramedic in a man’s voice.  The emergency team lifted Ally to her feet by the upper arms, one on each side. Ally was dizzy and her vision was fuzzy. She stared dazedly at the EV.  Still, you couldn’t miss the writing, spelled out in big letters across the side panel:  Australia Ambulance Service. 

  

 “We’ll help you into the ambulance,” said the man’s voice. “It’s nice and cool inside.” 

The End

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