Flash Fiction: Rust

Here’s another flash fiction piece. Same rules as last time: ten minutes planning, an hour to draft, ten minutes to edit.

I hope you like it.

*   *   *

‘What do you mean we’ve lost them?’

‘Exactly that, Coordinator. They’re off the grid.’

Kloe stared up at her senior comms officer. ‘Just like the first team.’

Devin nodded. ‘Just like.’

The first retrieval team had gone out five days ago.

The call had come in from Poseidon Command at the northern polar base. One of the orbital mirror arrays had taken a one-in-a-billion hit from a meteor passing through the Calix system. A chunk of rock a couple of metres wide, too small to be picked up by the satgrid, but more than big enough to tear a hole through the array and send it plummeting down to Poseidon.

Central tracking had plotted the trajectory of the falling satellite as landing in P-8, so it had become Kloe’s responsibility as the Coordinator of P-8 Base to retrieve any useful parts. She’d duly dispatched a team of two non-coms in a rover to scope out the crash site. Two days later, as they should have been nearing the downed array, their signals had disappeared from the planetary grid.

A second team had been sent after them, on the assumption that they’d had the misfortune to not only stumble into one of the moon’s drifting magnetic black spots, crippling their comm units, but also drive into a ravine. Or something similar. The terraforming had thrown up some pretty odd geoscapes in some places.

Kloe sat back in her memfoam seat, frowning. After a moment, she reached for the comm unit on her desk and tapped a few times. The unit beeped and a deep, male voice emerged.

‘Coordinator. What can I do for you?’

‘The second team’s gone dark, Maze.’ Kloe leaned forward over the unit. ‘Find out what’s going on, will you?’

‘I’ll leave within the hour.’ A second beep.

Kloe looked up to see Devin’s eyebrows raised. ‘What?’

‘You’re sending in the military?’

She smirked. ‘Ex-military. Maze and his security team hardly constitute an army.’

Devin conceded the point with a nod. ‘Still. What are you worried they’re going to find?’

Kloe turned and gazed out of her office viewport. It was just after midday on this side of the moon, and the sky was beginning to shift from pale orange to deep red. She shook her head. ‘I’ve no idea. That’s what I’m worried about.’

*  *  *

First time off base this year. Maze steered the rover around a shallow lake, taking a moment to admire the wading birds winging away at the vehicle’s noisy appearance. Nice to get out.

Gauge was checking the geopos from the passenger seat. ‘We’re coming up on the last known location of the first team, boss,’ he said, tapping the display. ‘The second team went about a click further before going off the grid.’

Maze grunted. ‘How long?’

‘Few minutes.’ Gauge glanced over. ‘Any plan?’

‘Nothing yet.’ Maze shook his head. ‘Weapons live, though.’ That earned a second, longer glance. Maze concentrated on driving.

They came across the first rover two minutes later. Maze brought theirs to a halt fifty metres away. He zoomed in with the vision augment in his left eye and read the serial number emblazoned along the vehicle’s side. ‘P-8-12… something.’

‘That must be the second team’s rover,’ Gauge replied. ‘But what do you mean, ‘something’? It should say ‘SCI’ at the end.’

Maze was climbing out. He reached in to retrieve his multi-rifle and looked over at Gauge. ‘It might say that. But I can’t see, because it’s covered in rust.’

‘Rust?’ The younger man exited the rover too, his weapon already in hand. ‘How the hell has it rusted in three days?’

‘Let’s find out, shall we?’ Rifle up, Maze set off towards the other vehicle.

The rust had eaten away at the vehicle from its front bumper all the way to the rear of the cab, the gleaming metal replaced with gritty brown-orange flakes. Maze frowned, baffled. Nothing should rust that fast. It’s not natural.

Gauge, on the other side of the vehicle’s cab, reached out to touch the rover’s flaking hull. An instinct—danger!—that Maze hadn’t felt in years struck him like a punch. He opened his mouth to shout—

Too late.

The instant Gauge’s fingertip touched the rusted rover, it… came alive. A section of the cab’s side panel shifted, swarming up the man’s arm in a tide that reached his shoulder in a second. More followed, fully half of what had been the front of the rover bursting into motion.

Gauge didn’t have time to scream before he was encased.

Maze stepped back, horrified. He could only watch as the man-shape that had been his colleague seconds before froze into place, now a petrified statue. The rust—or whatever it was—stopped moving.

Ten seconds passed as Maze took three more careful steps backwards, then froze as the rust shifted, ever so slightly—

Then collapsed to the ground.

Gauge was gone.

Maze turned and ran.

*  *  *

‘It’s a shame, Kloe,’ said Overseer Thrum. ‘We had high hopes for Poseidon.’

Kloe nodded, watching the holoimage of Thrum shake his head sadly. ‘Indeed, Overseer. But there are other moons in the system. We’ll try again.’

‘I suppose that’s the attitude one must take.’ Thrum frowned and peered at her. ‘Did you ever work out why the animals weren’t bothered?’

‘Overseer?’

‘The animals,’ Thrum repeated. ‘The wading birds, the boar, and whatnot. Those little deer—I forget their names.’

‘Oh,’ Kloe replied. ‘We’re not certain, of course, but the prevailing theory is that only objects over a certain size are… targeted. Rovers, for example. Humans, too, unfortunately.’

Thrum nodded slowly. ‘As good a supposition as any.’ He sighed. ‘Oh well.’

‘There is one positive to come out of all this, if you look hard enough,’ Kloe offered after a moment.

‘Oh yes?’ The elderly Overseer’s brow rose.

‘The environmentalists back home will be pleased.’

Thrum frowned again. ‘How so?’

Kloe smiled wryly. ‘We’ve just built the galaxy’s largest, most expensive wildlife reserve.’

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