Author: Alastair Millar

When we found her, the Marsport Mary should have been dark and silent, or a wreck. Instead, the lights burned, the life support systems ticked over, the computers hummed… but there was nobody aboard. The salvage crews are bringing her in this afternoon; no doubt she’ll be in the news for a while. I won’t be watching: I’m scared, and I’d rather forget.

She’d been “overdue: presumed lost” in the shipping lists for seven weeks, after failing to return from a survey into the Belt. We only came across her by accident, on a run of our own. Her engines were disengaged and she was drifting, enigmatic, a metallic speck in the vastness of the solar system.

The Captain risked sending two of us over to see why. Pat and I, chosen by lot as the away team, mentally prepared ourselves for a traditional horror: the aftermath of a micrometeorite strike, contagion or a crewmember gone berserk. What we found was an empty shell.

We went over every inch of her: utility spaces, crawlways, sample holds, stores, labs, rest areas, everything. There was nobody there. The quarters for the twelve crew were neat, bunks made up, with family pictures and personal devices. The canteen automata were functional. The equipment was properly stowed, the EVA suits all present and racked. The emptiness was an almost physical pressure, and strange echoes made us jumpy.

Nothing suggested violence or disaster; there were no suspicious smears or residues or bodily fluids, no notes or scrawled messages. On the bridge the downloaded logs showed nothing unusual, just records of minor mineral deposits located. The distress call hadn’t been activated, the emergency systems were idle. A single 3-person escape pod was missing, but even that couldn’t account for all the missing.

“This creeps me out,” I admitted on the voice net. I sure as hell wasn’t taking off my suit, however much the bioscans insisted there was nothing unexpected here.

“There’s got to be something,” said Pat. “People don’t just vaporise, do they?” But there was nothing.

“We’ll mark the asteroids they surveyed as potentially dangerous,” the Captain interrupted, “Something might have happened to them there.”

“Like what?” asked Pat, “Because I’m telling you, I have no clue.”

“If I knew, there’d be no ‘potentially’ about it.”

“This is plain weird. Can we claim for salvage at least?” I asked.

“And get accused of running a scam? Or blamed for… whatever this was?” said the Captain sardonically. “Not worth it. Fire up her beacon, and I’ll message Corporate. Someone else can come and get her. Maybe they’ll have more ideas.”

So eventually the insurance company did send someone out, and she’s coming home to Mars today. There’s been speculation, but no conclusions.

I can’t go back to work without knowing what happened out there. It could have been us. Asleep, my dreams are haunted by her absent crew. Awake, I’m terrified: was this first contact? Or something else?