“Mars tugs at the human imagination like no other planet. With a force mightier than gravity, it attracts the eye to the shimmering red presence in the clear night sky . . . ”
— John Noble Wilford, Mars Beckons
It was rather alarming to be so close to a horse. Isabel had never realized how big they were. They were also pretty smelly. And noisy. The one closest to her gave her a baleful look as she thought this, and Isabel flinched . . . though that was less from the look and more from the fact that there was lipstick smeared across its mouth. Which was also alarming.
“What’s with the lipstick?” Isabel asked, loudly enough to be overheard from the engine rumbling above.
Her new supervisor, Agnes, looked up from her tablet. “Some sort of anti-nausea medicine.”
Isabel frowned. “On their lips?”
“It’s topical,” Agnes said absently, attention already elsewhere.
As far as first days at work went, this was one of the slowest Isabel had ever experienced. She had thought loading freight shuttles for Mars would be intensive, back-breaking labor — or at least, have more than two people running the machines that did the actual work. But all morning, it had been just her and Agnes, verifying various drone shipments as they came in and then moving them into place with mostly automated forklifts.
The conversation was light, to say the least.
At the moment, there were only a few more crates to load up — and the horses. Twenty-seven of them, to be exact, that were going to be used as . . . pets, maybe? Isabel had no idea what people on Mars were up to. Maybe it was marshall law up there, and their new sheriff needed a good horse to ride the red rocky plains.
The lipsticked horses just stared at her as she considered this.
“Okay!” Agnes said, disrupting Isabel’s fantasy about Martian cowboys. “Finally updated all the records.” She walked over to Isabel to show her the tablet, which featured a colorful spreadsheet that meant absolutely nothing to her.
Isabel nodded in pretend understanding.
“We just have to send up the horses, and — ” Agnes began.
Undercutting the ever-present rumbling of the shuttle, there was the high-pitched whine of a delivery drone.
Agnes frowned. “We’re not expecting another shipment . . . ”
Something flashed in Isabel’s vision, something that went ZING!, and something that resulted in a scorchmark on the floor. The horses shrieked.
“Bandits!” Agnes shouted. Her hand came up and down on Isabel’s back, forcing her down, and the next thing she knew, she was crawling on the ground after Agnes. The drone noise was deafening, but she could hear people shouting and the zings of laser gunfire.
The pair huddled behind a large empty metal crate, its contents already loaded on the shuttle. “Why does this have to happen on my shift?” Agnes muttered as she loaded her gun with a laser charge. Isabel had noticed the weapon on her belt earlier but hadn’t thought much of it. Obviously, her newbie position precluded her being allowed a gun.
Agnes peered over the crate. “There’s only eight of them,” she whispered.
Isabel’s heart had already been going a mile a minute, but now her stomach dropped a few feet. “Eight?!” she choked out.
Agnes nodded. “Must be an indie op.” She shook her head. “Amateurs.”
Isabel wondered what would happen if she just curled up and died right here. Save the bandits a laser charge.
“They’re probably anti-Mars activists,” Agnes continued, apparently unaware of Isabel’s distress. “Gonna steal the cargo and then blow up the shuttle.”
“Is that all . . . ” Isabel felt faint. Lying down was probably a good idea.
Anges finally turned to look at her, and she grabbed Isabel by her coveralls. “Get a hold of yourself!” she hissed. “We have to stop them! Don’t make me slap you!”
For all that robots did most of the lifting, Agnes was a strong and muscular woman, and the thought of her powerful hand against Isabel’s soft cheek frightened her more than the bandits. She nodded, still trembling but adrenaline was finally starting to kick in.
“Good! Now, if we’re going to save the shuttle, we need to shut the loading doors. Nothing can get past those. I’ll then give the all-clear to the pilot, and they’ll take off, leaving the bandits out to dry. Got it?”
Isabel nodded again. So far, so good.
“You don’t have a gun, so you’re gonna have to sneak over to the control panel to shut the doors. I’ll draw their fire. Ready?”
Isabel was the furthest thing from ready, but Agnes had already stood up and fired off a laser shot. There was a shout, and then the air was buzzing with zings. It was out of sheer self-preservation that Isabel was able to get moving, crawling behind various crates and pieces of machinery.
She couldn’t see anything that was happening, but she didn’t dare poke her head out to check. Obviously, Agnes was holding up her end of the bargain, since none of the laser fire came near Isabel, so she had to keep going.
Luckily, the control panel wasn’t very far away, and Isabel knew how to shut the loading doors.
Unluckily, it was up on a lift, and Isabel would have to expose herself to reach it.
There was no time to think. She squeezed her fists, closed her eyes — and stood up.
Immediately, there was a searing pain in Isabel’s side. She’d been shot! She staggered, clutching the wound. Oh, she was done for! All the places she hadn’t been to, all the things she hadn’t done, it was all . . .
Her hand was getting sticky with blood. Laser guns didn’t make you bleed. Isabel looked down.
Her coveralls were torn and there was a slowly growing bloodstain. A big shard of broken metal was sticking out from the side of the lift, perhaps just from wear and tear or from an errant shot of laser fire, and she had jammed her side right into it.
Isabel felt very embarrassed.
None of the bandits had apparently noticed anything, so she hoisted herself up on the lift, biting her lip to keep from crying out. Though the wound wasn’t fatal, it still hurt quite a lot.
Seeing the control panel was like seeing an oasis in the desert. Isabel staggered over to it and began the sequence for shutting the loading doors. Soon, there was an enormous rumble that shook the whole structure, and she looked over to see the huge pieces of metal slowly come together.
There was a cry of alarm from the bandits below, followed by more laser fire, this time directed at the lift. Isabel huddled against the panel, wondering how she — and Agnes — were going to survive this.
As if on cue, Agnes suddenly came flying out of nowhere, rolling onto the lift in a perfect somersault landing. Her clothes were singed, pieces of her hair were missing, and there was burn marks on her face and arms, but she looked very much alive. Isabel stared at her.
“Great job!” Agnes said, her eyes wild. She tapped a few buttons on the control panel screen, occasionally firing back at a bandit trying to shoot at her.
The shuttle engine’s rumble became louder, so much so that Isabel had to cover her ears. The loading dock began moving away from the shuttle, leaving a open space where it had been connected. It shook badly enough that even Agnes couldn’t stay standing, and she hunched down next to Isabel, who was back to wishing she could curl up and die, except now with more pain involved.
Agonizingly long minutes passed before the dock finally shuddered to a stop, a long distance away from the shuttle, which was starting its launch sequence. Agnes took the opportunity to lean over the side and fire off a few more laser rounds. Then:
“Got ’em all!” she crowed. “Take that, you filthy animals!”
Distantly, Isabel heard the sound of the shuttle taking off, and she sat up in time to see it bubble into the sky on clouds of white smoke.
Agnes turned to Isabel, her face lit up with exhilaration. “We did it!”
“We did it?” Isabel repeated, a little stunned by the whole experience and this outpouring of emotion from her boss.
“We did it!!” Agnes shouted and grabbed Isabel in a hug — a moment she would’ve quite enjoyed if not for the painful reminder that she was still bleeding.
A few minutes later, after Agnes had apologized and they had stuffed Isabel’s coveralls with torn pieces of Agnes’s, the women climbed down from the lift. Agnes went over and kicked a dead bandit with her boot.
“There’s gonna be a lot of paperwork about this,” she said, her former serious demeanor returning. “Where’s my tablet?”
Isabel was happy to look anywhere but at the bodies on the floor. “You left it by the . . . ” She trailed off, and Agnes turned to see why. Isabel could only point.
The horses, all twenty-seven, stared at them. One gave a little whinny and licked the anti-nausea lipstick with its broad tongue.
I apologize for any space shuttle inaccuracies. Cursory research on loading procedures just brought up a lot of Minecraft walkthroughs, so . . .
This story was inspired by a prompt found in this book: Write the Story