“We need to get better filters for the masks.” Jameson leaned over the bench towards Ryose, “That’s the third person we’ve lost this month...”
“It’s not the filters that are the problem,” Ryose pulled the filter out of the mask and showed it to Jameson, “See, not even slightly contaminated. The problem is your convict workforce making a break for it every time they see the possibility of freedom.”
“To where?” Jameson gestured towards the door, “We’re on Mars, it’s not like they’re just going to hop over the hill and catch the next bus home...”
“And ten years ago, we were the only colony up here and they’d have had nowhere to go, now there’s a hundred spotter camps out there, out past the weed, they could get to any one of those and take it over without any problems.”
“And do what?” Jameson shook his head, “They’d run out of supplies within a month and have nowhere left to go, resupply would pick up that they’re not the people who are supposed to be out there and we’d leave them to it. Except in the last six months we’ve lost more than thirty, and not one of them is out there in the spotter camps.”
“When was the last time you went out there to check in person?”
“There’s you, me, and the convicts in here,” Jameson grinned, “When was the last time you had enough courage to be in here by yourself?”
“I’d be fine.” Ryose snorted, “They can’t get in here.”
“And as a result, if something happened to me, they’d all starve to death because you’d not come out of here...” Jameson shook his head, “Tell you what, if you want to go take a look, you feel free, but in the meantime I want the better filters in these things. We all know they don’t cost a fortune, and in the meantime it’ll let us prove that there’s a problem with the weed.”
“You’ll put it on your tab?”
“If it gets you to put the bloody things in, yes, put it on my tab.”
“I’ll have to inform HQ about this...”
“Go ahead,” I shrug, “When was the last time HQ responded to anything?”
“Eight months ago when we last sent something worth responding to.”
“Fine, wait for your response, I’ll be out there looking into this.”
Jameson walked back into the main hall. Mathis, Grane and Lindo looked back up at him as he placed the new masks on the table.
“New filters,” He looked down at the masks, “Best I can do for now.”
“It’s not the filters,” Grane looked up, “There’s something in the grass.”
“We’ve been over this,” Jameson sat at the top of the table. “Every time we find a mask, we don’t find anything else, no blood, no bodies, nothing. If there was something else out there, there’d be evidence of a scuffle, something where we could see what had happened.”
“I’ve seen them out there.” Mathis turned to face Jameson, “Big beasts the size of trucks.”
“So where’s the footprints?” Jameson shrugged, “You lot have been giving me all this since we got here, but we’ve never got footage of them, not even when you’ve been screaming at us that it was right there.”
“They’re there...” Lindo shook his head, “We keep telling you this and you just keep sending us out there, you need to come with us and see for yourself.”
“Yeah, me and you three out there by ourselves, that’ll happen.”
“If we wanted to cause trouble,” Grane sighed, “We’d have done it when there were thirty of us, not now we’re down to three, come on man, you’ve been working with us since we got here, you know we’re not troublemakers.”
Jameson nodded, “Yeah, I know, but you see my point about the lack of evidence.”
All three nodded without noise.
“What if you took the penal collars out, would that make you feel any better?” Grane looked down at the table and then up at Jameson, “Look, I’m willing to have a bomb around my neck to prove that these things are real rather than just keep going out there till I’m lunch...”
“I’m not,” Mathis shook his head.
“Nor me,” Lindo frowned
“Then you both get to stay here and starve if I don’t make it back.”
“Better that than munchies for those things,” Lindo nodded, “You’ll see...”
“Alright,” I shrug, “You two to quarters, Grane, you’re with me, I’ll bring the collar.”
It’s cold on the surface, always has been, you’d think with the thinner atmosphere there’d have been less to stop the sun getting through, but somehow it always feels like winter on mars.
Though lord knows we could do with snow once in a while...
Grane is stood beside me as we cycle the airlock, even through the suits layers I can feel the cold.
“Two hours to nightfall,” I tap my watch, “Let’s get going...”
“We were on the west field when they got Hayashi,” Grane nodded, “Which means they won’t be out there now, we should try the east side to see if there’s anything there.”
“Uh huh,” I nod, “Alright, you’re on point...”
He sets off at a pace I can match, it’s been too long since I was walking out in the world, all that sitting down will do for your fitness if you don’t watch it. He pauses at the top of the ridge and looks over the side, pointing down to the valley below. The Weed is thick all the way down the side of the ridge, the line of it regrown all the way up to the point they’d started at yesterday.
“Does it always regrow this fast?” I look around the high grass.
“When there were thirty of us, we could keep it down, keep beating it back,” Grane sounds almost philosophical about it, “There’s enough of us now just to gather what we need and then make it back, it’s why we always work alternating fields, gives the other one chance to regrow in full.”
“You should have told us this,” I look around, “If we’d known it was regrowing this fast we’d have sent for more people, but you’re bringing back the same amount now as you were when there were thirty of you, what changed?”
“This stuff is easier to cut,” Grane takes out his scythe and slashes it through the grass, parting it as if it were nothing more than air. “In the beginning it was a lot thicker, if you go deep into the grass, it’ll be that thick again.”
“Same content though,” I crouch down and pick up one of the strands, then stand up straight and look out into the grass, “Two O’clock high.”
Grane’s head snapped around to look in that direction, “What did you see...?”
“The Grass moved, against the direction of the wind.”
“Yep...” Grane nodded, “And when you took a good look, nothing had changed, right?”
“Still believe it’s the filters?”
I raise the scanner and pass it over the grass, the concentrations in the air aren’t any different to what they were when we came here, still with comparable levels to earth, little bit more oxygen, but within tolerance for us. I put the scanner away and look up as the grass swishes again.
“Hear that?” Grane looks at me.
“It’s not an illusion if we both heard it, right?”
“Yeah...” I turn to look at the grass, “How fast are they?”
“Very fast,” He turns back to the grass, “Like lightning made from hate...”
“Then we head back now...”
“No,” Grane glances at me, his expression resigned, “When we see them, they’ll take one of us and only one.”
“So we move fast and keep looking this way.”
“No...” Grane looks back at me and then taps his collar, “If it gets you, we all starve to death, you know that and I know that. This way I get to take it with me when I go, give me the controls.”
I look at him as he points at the collar again. I press the release button on the collar and shake my head as the collar disengages.
“We take it together,” I look at him, “You know what it does, I know how this works.”
“Alright,” He turns back to the field, “They come in from the side, the grass moves at the front and the attack comes from one of the sides, so you look left and I’ll look right, you see it coming, you yell.”
“Won’t that draw more of them?”
“Only ever seen the one...”
“We could have hunted it down months ago if there’s only one...”
“It’s different for everyone,” Grane glances at me, “It looks like a wolf when I see it, it looked like something else when the others shouted about it.”
“But if there’s only one of them...?”
“Less talk,” There’s a rustling sound from the grass in front of us and I feel something move past my leg. “Ignore it,” Grane snaps, “It’s just the grass.”
There’s a shout from behind me and I turn to see Grane being dragged off into the grass, gone from sight within a second and fleeing towards the far end of the field.
“Blow it...” I hear him yell, “For gods...”
The sound ends in a scream and I flip the switch, fire erupting upwards into the sky from the middle of the field. The fire spreads quickly in the dry grass and I run back down the ridge towards the base. I step through the door and cycle the airlock, locking the door down behind me. On the other side, Lindo and Mathis are waiting.
“What the hell was that...?” Lindo looks at me
“It got him...” I pant, “but we got it.”
“He fell in the grass,” Mathis shakes his head, “And then you ran back this way and we heard the collar go off, where did you throw it...?”
“He was still holding it...”
“No, he fell in the grass near the edge, the explosion was in the middle of the field.”
“It got him and took him that way...”
“There weren’t any creatures out there.”
Just as we had thought when we looked at the tapes.
“Wait here...” I go back to my quarters and rewind the security camera footage to watch what happened. There’s me looking down as it went past my foot, then he falls and is gone.
I come back out of my quarters and go straight to Ryose, now sealed in his chambers with the door locked and bolted.
“There are no creatures out there,” I pound on his door, “But we need to get access to the fuel store.”
“We need to burn the grass down.” I point outside
“That grass is why we’re out here.”
“And it knows it...” I say, “There are no creatures out there, it’s the grass that’s taking our people.”
“Don’t talk shit.”
“You weren’t out there, I saw what happened, the grass took him.”
“It’s not my call to make,” He says, “We have to get authority from HQ for that.”
I can almost see him reaching for his standard operations manual
“We have to send a priority message,” He says, “and wait for the proper authority, setting fire to that grass could cause massive damage in the valley below.
“Waiting till morning could cause massive damage up here...” I say, “We need to move on this now.”
“No...” I hear buttons being pressed and the unmistakable sound of the blast door closing over the front of the outpost, “We wait here till we get word from HQ.”
I head back down to the mess hall and take out the food for today, not bothering to check if Mathis and Lindo are nearby. I drop the food on the table and don’t wait for them before eating. I turn the controls to the outside camera and wait.
It doesn’t take long...
Within an hour, the grass is spreading down from the hills, growing at a rate I didn’t think was possible. Lindo and Mathis come to the table when they realise that I haven’t segregated meal times like usual. I point up at the screens.
“Does it always grow that fast?” I ask
“Always,” Lindo nods, “If we don’t keep it down, it would have overrun this ages back.”
“What happened to Grane?” Mathis sits down, his manner suggests that he already knows.
“Grass got him,” I point at the screen, “And because we have to wait for the bureaucrat in the control room, it’s now coming for us.”
“Great...” he nods, taking some bread from the middle of the table.
“We got word back from HQ.” Ryose’s voice drifts down on the intercom.
“Bloody hell,” I pause mid bite, “That was fast...”
“Not really,” There’s a pause and the feed to the mess hall is replaced with another view, “I couldn’t raise the channel at HQ, so I got in touch with one of the outposts who put me on to another feed.”
“So what is it?”
“See for yourself.”
The view changes to a wide open field with mountains on either side, nothing but grass all the way along the floor and over the hills.
“Pretty, but what is it?” I look at the display
“HQ.” Ryose sounds despondent, “That’s all that’s left of it, that’s why we don’t get any response from them anymore.”
“And now they’re coming for us...” I look at the screen, “Unlock the fuel, we need to do something or we’ll end up like that...”
“It’s unlocked,” he says, “I’m sending a distress signal now...”
“Who’s he going to send it to?” Lindo looks at me
“If it makes him feel better,” I shrug, opening the blast doors to the basement and stepping through to the stairs, “We’ve got one chance on this, and it doesn’t involve us trying to burn the grass now.”
“Why not,” Mathis looks down at me from the top of the stairs
“Because nights coming and there’s no fire in this universe that will burn at minus a hundred with two hundred mile an hour winds.” I nod, “We stay here till the morning, burn anything that looks like grass trying to get in and then work on it from there.”
It’s only by the clock that we know that the sun has risen, outside it’s still as dark as it was in the night. The cameras were all taken down last night, the only way to see outside is to actually take a look. I go to Ryose’s quarters to find him not there, looks like he packed everything and got out of here in the middle of the night.
Stupid, nothing could have survived that storm...
I take one of the flamethrowers and pass the others to Lindo and Mathis, flicking the safety off the blast doors and engaging the hydraulics. I look out into the open ground outside with a sense of wonder. Scorched ground all around us, looks like something dropped a fission bomb in the middle of the night, nothing but dust all around.
He must have got through with the transmission...
We walk out and look around the devastation, nothing as far as the eye can see, I close my eyes and breathe deep of the air to smell the burned tang of our safety.
The vision around me fades and there’s a scream as Lindo is taken one way, Mathis the other, I bring the flamethrower up as something flows up out of the grass in front of me...
And then it hits me from the side...