SECOND PLACE WINNER 11TH-12TH
by Sadhar Choudary
It isn’t safe at night. She knew this as well as anyone else, had been taught to repeat the phrase like a mantra ever since she was a child. Don’t travel alone after dark, and if you must, never go unarmed. Yet here she was, hurrying defenselessly along the side of the road. The steep mountains sloping away from either side of the single lane reached high, blotting out the brilliant star-spangled sky. If she were on home base, she would have retrieved her telescope and immersed herself in the view of Earth. But she was here, her muscles tight and her heart thudding out of her chest.
Preoccupied with her thoughts, she didn’t sense the glare of headlights wash over her back until the rover had passed. Shaken, she stumbled and hit the ground, her gloved hands sinking into the fine red Martian soil. The sensation combined with her nerves proved overwhelming, and she began to weep. The pitiful noise didn’t go far into the night. To her relief, the vehicle was gone, turned around the next bend in the valley. Steeling her resolve, she rose to her feet and briskly dusted off the kneecaps of her thermal suit. Then she realized the rover was returning.
Quickly, she tried to press herself against the valley wall, but it was too late. Before she could prepare herself, the driver brought the machine to a halt on the side of the road and disembarked.
He was clean-shaven, with fair, slightly tousled locks. He swung easily out of the rover, landing gracefully on the road. He had a lean, tall figure, and bent slightly over her to make eye contact. When he spoke, his voice was cordial, but there was a note of concern lurking under the surface.
“Are you alright? You shouldn’t be alone at this hour, especially not out here in the middle of nowhere.”
Something about him immediately calmed her: he seemed to be the quintessential Good Samaritan.
“Well, I was rover-jacked- I guess that’s what you would call it- and I’ve been trying to flag someone down but it’s dark and no one’s here and-”
Her voice broke, and she felt dangerously close to tears once again. She swiped the back of her hand across her cheeks, fully aware that they were still wet with moon-dew.
“Hey, hey, it’s OK,” he said reassuringly. “Come with me, and we can try and get you to remember the details of the theft while I drive, okay?”
Normally, she would be more hesitant about getting in with a stranger. However, she was fully aware of the helplessness of her current situation. More simply, she trusted him.
The two of them made their way toward the rover. I watched them from above, uncertain of when to act. Her guard was lowered for the moment, but I was unsure of my chances against the man. I did have the upper hand. For one, there was the element of surprise. Besides, they wouldn’t be able to discern me descending from the mountains in the darkness until it was too late. I had to act fast.
I leapt. With a thud, I landed on my limbs at the base of the mountain in front of the rover, easily absorbing the shock of the impact through the four prosthetics.
Immediately, their faces blanched, the woman visibly swaying. For a second, I thought I saw recognition in her face, but she made no move to identify me. The man put a hand out to grip her and steadied himself simultaneously.
“Get into the rover and close the doors,” he said to her, lips barely moving and eyes locked on mine. I held his gaze evenly until it broke, then watched his eyes flit toward the driver’s side of the vehicle, telltale of the weapon waiting inside.
“I don’t think so,” I said cheerfully, lifting my palm and shooting the tires. They deflated with a hiss. His face was an exact mimicry, slowly sagging in defeat.
“Try to defend her, and you’re next,” I told him, baring my teeth in a mockery of a smile. Behind him, the woman collapsed.
In direct contrast, the man seemed to compose himself, and his tone came out level and clear. “It is my duty to defend a civilian. I will break my body to uphold it, but I will not break my oath.”
I had to give him credit for standing his ground so well. Usually humans drove themselves silly with fright at the mere mention of the fabled star-scum. Advancing slowly toward him, I put up a hand, fingers splayed. Pointing directly at his chest was my other palm. The moonlight glanced off the metal as I lowered a finger. When I let a second one fall, understanding dawned on him. With it came fear. As the third digit came down, so did he. He sank to his knees, a sickly look on his face.
“Please don’t hurt her,” he whispered, his voice jagged with vulnerability.
“We’ll see,” I replied. “Depends on how helpful she is.”
It was clear that for all his heroics, his spirit had been shattered by his own guilt at giving way. He was no longer a threat. I stepped around him lightly and hoisted the woman over my shoulder, causing her to stir.
There was certainly a great satisfaction I felt in scaling the mountainside while carrying her, added weight though she was. I had zeroed in on the woman a year and a half ago, and had been patiently tracking her and waiting for the perfect opportunity ever since. Finally, she was in my grasp. That meant I would soon have their secrets. I looked back once as I climbed and noticed the man lying completely still in the middle of the road. I was quite high up by then and relied on his heat signature to see him through the pitch-black night. Confident that I was in the clear, I pulled off the mask and allowed myself to inhale the crisp mountain air. It would take some time before I reached the peak, especially while transporting her, but I was built to withstand the strain. Until I got there, I was left with my own thoughts.
As we neared the top, the scientist began to come to. She had been unconscious for a good while, and I exhaled a breath of relief to see her awaken. I carried her inside the mouth of the cave I had spent the last few days in and set her on the ground. The pale moonlight washed across her face as she opened her eyelids, blinking blearily. Tugging my mask back on, I sat down across from her and waited for her to orient herself. When she became aware of my presence, she gasped and shrank against the wall of the cave. Her small, fragile frame and upturned face reminded me of a child. I was struck by a flash of pity.
“What do you want from me?” she stammered. “Who are you?”
“You’re Dr. Linda McLellan, one of the leaders of the research team that created me 23 years ago. Human society decided they no longer wanted my kind, so you abandoned us-pushed us out into the wild under the pretense of releasing us into a natural environment- and waited for all 30 of us to die off. I dare you to tell me this isn’t what you did.”
She didn’t say anything, silently confirming what I already knew to be true. It was then that I was sure she had recognized me, if only subconsciously for a fleeting moment, when I first descended from the mountain. A whole minute went by before she spoke.
“What do you want?”
I grinned at her. “Glad you asked. Give me your data.”
“It’s classified information. The experiment is not to be re-conducted under any circumstances. The results last time-”
“Don’t you tell me a word about the results from last time,” I hissed through clenched teeth, interrupting her. It shocked her, and she gave a little squeak. “I am the result from last time. I know what you think of me, half-human hybrid that I am. The thing is, I couldn’t care less. All I need is the data. My species deserves the same chance at life that you do. You created the mess that I am, so look in my eyes and tell me how to make more messes.”
Another period of silence passed between us, and I turned to the heavens to gaze at Phobos while I waited for her reply. It finally came with a heavy sigh.
“You weren’t just an independently researched passion project, you know. At one point, scientists thought the next step for humanity was biological integration with both technology and other species. The government did too, and they’re the ones who drove us to…develop you. Evidently, we were all wrong. We’re suspicious, resistant creatures, we humans, and we weren’t ready for you.”
“Tell me about it,” I laughed bitterly.
“What I’m trying to say is,” she continued, “even if I wanted to help you, I couldn’t. As far as the government knows and wants, you’re dead by now. They have the research, and they’re not going to give it up. It’s hopeless to dream about creating more of you. I’m sorry.”
Her voice caught on the last word, and I was surprised to realize my anger at her had drained away. Left in its wake was a tired bitterness.
“I’m going to find a way to recover all of the work.”
“God help you,” she said gravely, and looked directly at me for the first time.
I met her stare.
“That saying went out the window when you started playing God.”