The Mars Option

30-Day Flash Challenge, Day 12

Photo by Hikmet Çolak on UNSPLASH.

Lieutenant Commander Sheila Sykes squeezes herself into the tiny Martian cavern. Technically she is breaking protocol with this unaccompanied entry, but she has a hunch.

The rock in front of the cave had seemed an unlikely coincidence. It looked way too circular, uniform, evenly shaped to be a random occurrence. No, this arrangement of rock wheel and cave door reeked of design and intentionality.

What was their intention?

That one was easy. The southern hemisphere got the worst storms on Mars. Therefore this stone wheel was put here to enhance the security of whoever lived inside the cave.

She reached that conclusion a few seconds after seeing the circular stone in front of a sliver of an eclipse opening beyond.

Sheila Sykes had just discovered the first ‘shelter’ on a planet in the solar system that wasn’t earth.

Sheila keys the radio to call for others to aid; some childish voice insists she is the first to explore the tiny shelter, unaccompanied by any hangers-on that wanted to bask in the glory of HER discovery. She releases the button and steps to the wheel. Standing as she is, outside the cave and to the right of the stone door, she looks down and sees an even compressed, packed-soil path from where the wheel had rolled open and shut for a considerable period. Cosmonaut Dmitry Malkovich would be the one to evaluate the soil samples, examine the path, determine how long the arrangement existed, etc.

She stands by the entrance, listening carefully for several seconds; all she can hear is the damn, ever-present wind. Pressing her shoulder against the wheel, Sheila leans in, and while it is heavy, the wheel begins to roll smoothly to the left.

She steps back and once again considers keying in for assistance. She again silences the radio before saying anything. Reeves would love this. She will contact him; she decides – after exploring the place to her heart’s content.

There are, incredibly, signs life had been here at some point. Rock tools scattered around something that appears to be a naturally occurring internal chimney and fire pit.

Aided by her flashlight, Sheila’s eyes sweep back and forth across the cluttered place.

She almost misses seeing them – she had been mentally preparing herself for emerging from the cave and summoning Reeves when her eyes brush across the twin shapes, cubes. More specifically, cardboard boxes.

The odds were against the random occurrence of a precisely balanced, perfectly circular rock stone from just happening to find itself in front of a cave, but the cardboard boxes were the clincher. There had been life here. She feels her heartbeat racing; looking down to her monitor, she sees it is climbing. She intentionally takes several deep breaths before Lesley, who is working comms today, deploys someone to check on her or initiate radio contact. Her heartbeat lowers enough, so she steps towards the boxes, assuming both might still have some trace of ink printing on their surface.

But then she startles. As she comes nearer, she sees in the gap between the boxes the unmistakable femur, patella, tibia, and fibula, loosely forming the left leg of a human being. Once she gets closer, she can see the entire skeleton. It is completely bare. It must have lain here for centuries to be so clean. Had it been outside the cave, where it would be subject to the windstorms and dust storms so famous in these regions, a body might reach this level of apparent decay in only a few short weeks.

The rictus grins of cadaver skeletons always freaked Sheila out. She steps to kneel beside it, carefully or respectfully avoiding looking at the face of the departed.

Then she sees the paper; pinned to the skeleton’s chest is what appears to be a note.

More questions leap forward to join the congregation in her brain. How did a note survive for hundreds of years in this environment if the body decomposed? It was a question she could ask, but she knew this was not her wheelhouse. Riggins or Applewhite might have an answer, but not her.

Sheila leans forward carefully to inspect the note. She will photograph it shortly, but she is hungry to read the words she sees on the page.

The atmosphere here is unsuited for their survival. Advise testing the next planet towards the sun.

That the note exists is impossible. That it appears in English presents about twenty-thousand questions.

Sheila, confident any glory will still fall on her shoulders, exits the cave and makes the call to Reeves.

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