The Pedone Factor

Short Fiction

Wasteland Base

Science Fiction/Horror

I came here for the people. I like people. I had hoped that I could meet their families, but a year and a half ago, something changed. They all died. Since then, when the full moon rises into view, the base computer comes on-line, and allows me to scan for a message. Twelve hours later, the lights dim and it goes silent again. I don't know if anyone can hear me, or if my messages are just piling up at mission command. Seventeen times I’ve sent the message in the hopes that someone is out there. Seventeen months with no indication either way. Good thing I have plenty of food.

The computer problems started over two years ago. One day, it worked fine, accepted our data, transmitting messages to the home world, and receiving updates back. The next day, it sat dead, a useless lump of metal and silicon. Once a month, the circuits would spark to life, and the computer would hum, whir, and click for twelve hours before dying again. Individual terminals worked, allowing us to input our data, and so Sanderson ordered us to continue our tasks, reasoning that keeping our minds on something other than the loss of our sole lifeline to the home world might keep us calm. Career military, Sanderson took a pragmatic view on the situation. We couldn’t use the computer, but we could still do our work.

This worked for most of us. It didn’t work for O’Day. Our systems specialist, the computer had been his baby, and he coddled it for six months, trying to nurse it back to health. Each full moon, he redoubled his efforts, digging into the code, looking for an answer. As the twelve-hour window closed, his face sagged, and his body followed suit. We would find him asleep on the floor in front of it. That is, until the day we didn’t. After six months of futile tinkering, he wandered off into the desert, and we never heard from him again.

McCarthy suggested organizing a search party. Eternal optimist, that McCarthy, but Sanderson denied her request. I felt bad for Sanderson, struggling to deal with a handful of conscripted scientists and researchers, people who didn't want to be here, but lured by the promise of a better tomorrow for the Federation, captivated by tales of the untold riches in finding an untapped fuel supply in the dead rocks and desert that surrounded the base.

I'm not really sure why Sanderson took this position. She told me once, sitting down to our night-time meal, that after what she did on Europa she'd been offered her pick of assignments. She chose a post on this barren rock, the Wasteland Base, a geological survey of a dead planet orbiting a dying sun. She said she felt it was her civic duty to help the Federation, but the hollow look in her eyes told me there were other reasons. Money. Glory. She had realized, though, that the Federation had lied, that the only thing anyone found here was death.

McCarthy did end up sneaking out into the desert to look for O'Day. They'd been friends. Some said lovers, but having watched them interact, I believe they just clicked as people. McCarthy had been in charge of the thermal imaging. She'd studied the software that controlled the camera and processed the images. She and O'Day worked well together, and in her own words, losing O'Day was like losing an arm or a leg. It is with a strange sense of symmetry that she returned from the desert short one of each. She crawled all the way to the Wasteland Base's first aid hut, and expired on the door step, her remaining hand balled into a fist and pressed against the door, as if her energy ran out before she could even knock.

Sanderson locked down the base, arranged a small security detail to guard her office and to sweep the base. Anyone found out of their bunks was to be detained in the brig. I retired to my bunk, laid on my back and stared up at the ceiling, wondering if anyone would get home again. Some of the others had taped pictures of their loved ones above their bunks, so that their faces would be the last thing they saw at night, and the first thing they saw in the morning. I liked this, though I didn't have any pictures. I lived through the others.

Two days later, Sanderson emerged from her office and marched through the base, two guards at her side, straight to my bunk. Sanderson pounded on the door with her fist. Swinging my legs down from the bunk, I stepped to the door and opened it halfway. Sanderson extended her arm, throwing the door wide, and jerked her head at me, telling me to follow her. Her clenched jaw visible through her sullen cheeks, her skin waxy, eyes cold and hard.

I wondered what she had been waiting for, then I see it: the full moon hovering high over the base. The security cameras record everything and store it all on internal drives, but these can only be accessed by the main computer. We walked back to her office, me behind her, the two guards flanking me, one on either side. In her office, she ordered me to stand by the desk while a recording played on the vidscreen.

“We have a problem,” she said, as the video played, showing a me-shaped figure tinkering with the inner workings of the base computer, touching circuits, shorting out memory modules, introducing corruption into O’Day’s system.

“This video doesn’t mean much, but six months later,” she touched the side of the vidscreen, and the video jumped to a morning scene in the main courtyard of the base. Two figures stood talking. O’Day faced the camera, shoulders slumped and quivering. The other figure, me-shaped, but facing away, leaned in and whispered something in his ear. O’Day looked up, pupils dilated, face pallid. He nodded, turned, and walked out into the desert. The me-shaped figure watched him go, then turned to walk back into the base, pausing to smile up at the camera. “You were the last to speak to O’Day.”

I nodded and smiled at her. A shudder rippled through her shoulders, but she suppressed it, and touched the side of the vidscreen again.

"And then there's McCarthy," she said. This time, as the video switched to show McCarthy sneaking out of the base in the still of the night, and a shadow-me following her. One of the guards stepped towards me from behind, readying his cuffs. The other stepped away, his hand moving to his side arm. As the first guard pulled my arms behind my back, but before his partner could draw his weapon, I spun, pulling the guard between us, his head under my arm. A quick twist, and his neck snapped. I threw the limp body at the other guard, then pounced, driving my hand into his windpipe.

By the time the video had jumped forward to show me coming back into the base carrying McCarty's arm and leg, both guards were dead. Sanderson scrambled across the small office, reaching for her own weapon with one hand while lunging for her desk to sound a general alarm with the other. I angled my body into her path, snatched the pistol from her hand, and sent her backwards. She slammed into the wall and slid down to the floor. I stepped forward and looked down at her.

“I told O’Day to seek his truth in the desert,” I said. Her eyes stared up at me, wide like the full moon just visible out the office window. “He walked for five days, then found it, and it burned. McCarthy found just me.” I laughed. “She was stronger than I expected, but not strong enough, as it turned out.” I stepped forward. Sanderson pressed herself up against the wall.

“You’re not a member of my crew,” she said, trying to keep her tone authoritative, but failing. Her voice faded to little more than a whisper as she finished the sentence.

I shook my head. “I was trapped here when my mission failed,” I said. “A long time ago. The full moon allows me to call out, and your Federation finally answered, sending you and your crew. You were supposed to rescue me. You were supposed to leave.” A squeeze of my hand, and her pistol shattered. Sanderson flinched at the sound, her hands rising to protect her face. The ruined pieces fell from my hand, and I turned away from her. “Sound the alarm if you’d like,” I said, and left.

She never did. For all I know, she’s still cowering in the corner of her office, shaking and crying, but by now, I'd imagine she's been dead for at least a couple of months. Everyone else is. There wasn't much commotion. No one knew what was going on. I moved from bunk to bunk, taking my time, enjoying their pictures. Most ended up in the large walk-in freezer, snacks saved for later, far better than the K-Rations in this base, and no telling how long they’ve have to last. It has been so long since I’ve been able to eat well.

Alone again, I wait to hear from the world, ready to return to it, to the people. I like people.

Posted 10.02.16