Bryanne dogged the hatch closed behind her. She felt the vibration of pumps simultaneously blast and vacuum the dust from her suit. Rotating her joints, she knew the drill: rotate, bend and flex to ensure all surfaces were blown free of Martian grit. Her mind swirled as she mechanically complied.
I sure as hell hope they didn’t organize some goddamned celebration. We’re here to stay and some bogus attachment to Terran time only made it worse. Of course we all miss rain and wind and clouds and… Green. Anything green. Anything besides this ugly shade of orange.
The chamber’s LEDs switched from amber to green.
Not that green. She smirked. Although, I guess that green means life, too.
She fumbled with her helmet’s catch, released it and removed the indestructible clear dome from her shoulders. A deep breath filled her lungs.
The odor of baking cake wafted in.
She trudged into the equipment room, stowed her helmet and struggled from her surface suit. Each astronaut had two such suits, plus the one made exclusively for space. Those were stored in the return ship. The busted return ship. The “we can’t fix it and we can’t send you a new one,” ship.
Following her nose, she passed through a tunnel to the community habitat, one with an attached kitchen. The long passage glowed with floor mounted lighting strips that snapped on and off as she passed. Without the lights the whole installation would have plunged into cave-like darkness. A manmade cave, with chambers and tunnels buried under a foot of cemented Martian regolith.
She called to her teammates, “Sorry I’m late y’all. I’m finally home from the salt mine.” No response. “You slackers better not jump out and scare the shit out of me. You know how I hate being startled, Martian ghosts and all that Rice-Burroughs crap.” She found a note on the dinning-slash-conference table, ‘Pinky and The Brain are waiting…’ “What the hell? Where are you guys?”
Pinky and The Brain were two of a half dozen lab mice they used to test some of the edible plants and seeds they’d been growing.
“Ah, the lab.” She started down the passage. “I smell cake. You know you shouldn’t have wasted all that new grain, just to bake me a cake.”
Her voice echoed off the narrow tunnel walls that led to the laboratory and the grow-light powered greenhouse.
She reached the airlock doors and knocked, peering through the clear plexiglass portal expecting to find Brickson or Allar ducking behind tall racks of experiments. “No jumping out and trying to frighten me, alright? Guys?”
After wiping at the window, accomplishing nothing—the moisture came from inside, she unlocked the sealed door and eased it open.
“Oh my god. What have you done!”
She found the cake, or what was left of it, sitting on the work table, obvious handfuls of it madly scooped from the tray, crumbs spread like a map across the stainless steel top. Around the table lay her team, foaming at the mouth, smeared blue frosting covering their cheeks and hands.
Ben Allar leaned against the battery bank that powered the grow lights. He twitched, spasming uncontrollably.
Bryanne knelt, her hand over her mouth, tears streaming, barely able to choke out her words. “What the hell happened Ben? Why, why are you all sick? Are you dying? Are you all gonna die?”
He feebly pointed to the cake.
“I see it. A surprise for me?”
He shook his head. “Eet,” he mumbled.
His head shaking grew frantic. “Noooo. Wwww… eet.”
“The wheat? The wheat was toxic?”
Ben drooped his chin, yes.
What the hell could have poisoned the wheat? Mars no doubt. The perchlorates? No, those we washed from the soil.
The man slumped to the floor, his long dark hair slimed with puke and bits of yellow cake. He opened his eyes, his chest heaving with labored breath.
Bryanne grabbed his jumpsuit’s collar. “Ben, was it ergot?”
He tried to smile.
She watched the light dim in his eyes. Looking around, there was Brickson, her close cropped hair and tattoos looking comical on her rabid pose. Paulie and Jill, and Ben, all dead or nearly so.
“How the hell did that goddamned fungus make it here?”
Bryanne collapsed cross legged and began to cry. Around her her teammates’ struggles slowed. She thought of the cake. She thought of being alone, the sole survivor on a godforsaken, curse of a planet.
She reached up and slid the demolished cake toward her, scooped a handful, and took one last look at Ben and his vacant eyes.
“There’s no cure for ergot poisoning, Ben.”