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  • Writer's pictureShivali Yadav

Unexpected Encounters

5 days.


That's how long I had food for. The plastic table was adorned with sealed meals, looking thoroughly unappealing in their bland packaging even though I knew they tasted fine. As I contemplated which one to pick up, a strange thud echoed from the other end of the Mars habitat. My eyebrows furrowed, my mind carefully going through the rational possibilities.


There was no one else in the habitat - this had been a solo mission, a mere routine checkup on the rovers and the workings of the habitat that had been isolated for the past few months. Which was strange in itself, but the thing that had confused me most was that the official reason for basically abandoning the habitat had been given as ‘unexpected encounters.’


So, not a human who caused that thud. Perhaps I’d left a door open, although that was unlikely. I shook my head and sighed. Naturally, this disturbance had to pop up as soon as I was about to sit down for dinner. Might as well go check. I walked through the oval-shaped white doorway, glancing both ways. I headed towards the IT Room, letting my ears pick up any stray noise.


Nothing.


It was eerie in a way, I supposed. The complete lack of noise paired with the fact that everyone I know was 250 million kilometres away from me, safe on Earth - it was enough to rattle anyone. Nevertheless, I had a job to do. Just for safety, I glanced inside the IT Room - empty, of course, safe for the glowing screens displaying data - and moved past it towards the bay area. The airlock door, as well as the hatch leading to the storage, were both closed. Despite myself, I let out a breath and chuckled. What did I think I would find? Extraterrestrial life?


I was just about to turn and go back to the meal that awaited me when a slight flicker caught my eye from through the circle-shaped window near the airlock door. I frowned and moved closer. There was a spacecraft outside, of course - the Centurion. The rest of my view was occupied with the vast expanse of the characteristic Mars red ground. Nothing strange there...what had caught my eye? Another slight movement - there! A slight ache began in my temple.


One of the compartments of the spaceship had been opened from the outside.


Think rationally, I reminded myself, pushing away the invasive thoughts. Maybe you had left it open. Or maybe it had become loose. I rushed into my astronaut’s suit - which was a Herculean feat in itself - and opened the airlock door, letting the pressure stabilise before stepping out.


I promptly fell down. Clearly, I wasn’t used to walking around in a bulky suit on a foreign planet. I pawed at my glass helmet, managing to get some rust-coloured dust off to examine the compartment. My blood ran cold, and I swear I skipped several heartbeats when I realised what the compartment was.


It was a simple fuel tank gauge, except it had been completely demolished, the parts and panels ripped out to provide an opening into the spaceship itself. A direct opening into the secure storage compartment where all the data I had collected from the rovers had been stored. My knees felt weak - whatever had caused this was a freak accident. Faulty wires, of course. What else could it be?


Unbidden, a thought came to mind. ‘Unexpected encounters’. Could it be…? No, of course not. They wouldn’t send me up here alone if they thought there were alie-


BOOM. I turned around, my heart in my throat going a million miles a minute, and watched the sudden fire go out as soon as it had come. One part of the habitat has been completely destroyed - the rest, miraculously, seem safe. The oxygen in the habitat must have supported it, but of course, the Mars atmosphere can’t. Chills run down my spine as I realise where the fire took place...the IT Room.


Whoever - or whatever - was doing this, did not want anyone to get information about Mars.


My brain was completely frozen with fear, but I looked down and choked out a strangled sob of horror. In my rush to examine the compartment, I hadn’t noticed it, but there it was, clear as day.


In the red dust, I could see my footprints from the habitat to where I was now. But right next to it, looking eerie in the middle of the rest of the undisturbed ground, was another set of strange footprints.


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