Part 3 of my flash fiction series. This is System Error.
The wind howled as it raced over dust shrouded hills and through the broken crevasses of a desolate landscape. It rushed up a mountainous dune, collecting great masses of heaving sands and hurtling them on before it. It crested the peak like a crimson avalanche flowing against gravity, smashing against a solitary figure bent over in the face of the storm.
Even decked in protective gear, wearing an airtight mask and goggles to hide vulnerable flesh from the scything sand, it was evident that Peter Henderson was having a bad day.
On the other side of the scratched exterior of his goggles, two eyes sunk into dark sockets and webbed by cracks every bit as deep as the great canyons in front of him. Peter hadn’t really had the week he was looking forward to.
Today was due to be a day of success, corporate congratulations to a backdrop of expensive champagne; possibly the most expensive ever drunk by humanity. It’s not cheap transporting champagne to Mars.
Expectations of a week ago saw his afternoon spent relaxing in the control centre of the BHP Rio Billintinto station on Phobos, high above the unwelcoming weather of a Martian day. He should have spent the morning monitoring sensor readings showing the death of the last great Martian storm. Now he was spending his day facing death at the hands of the last great Martian storm. He was having a tough time appreciating the irony of fate.
Crimson sands dominated the maelstrom about him, the surface of Mars raised against the intruder. It seemed ever more likely that red might be the last colour he would ever see. But it was blue that sealed his fate, the deep, bright blue of computer failure, flashing repeatedly with those damning words: System Error.
The tech team had been on it for hours, sending updated commands and running diagnostics until with one last gasp of desperate hope they turned the communication system off and then on for a final time. System Error.
Whatever had caused the problem it hadn’t been nearly as robust a failure as Peter might now have liked. Commands to the equipment nine thousand kilometres below on the surface of Mars may well have failed, but messages to and from Earth, sixty million kilometres distant, had been depressingly active.
It was depressing because the three minute delay in the conference call to the Board of Directors was a not-inconsiderable amount of time to imagine the critical response to his protestations of innocence. The condemnation of his failure was inevitably more vitriolic than his exhausted imagination could envision.
Three minutes of contemplation might seem like a painful delay, but in the wake of the exasperated utterance that sealed his fate as the stupidest man outside of Earth orbit, it didn’t seem quite long enough.
With a bit more sleep he probably would have realised the terrifying trap he’d set with “the only way to complete the mission today would be if some idiot actually goes down there.” The Board of Directors did love a good volunteer after all.
One hundred and eighty seconds of intense regret, like that feeling when you wake harbouring guilt from some terrible crime perpetrated in a dream, but sadly lacking the crucial aspect of relief that would make it all ok when next you open your eyes.
So when the CEO’s response got back to Peter, he was already looking haplessly around the room for support through the curtain of sweat blurring his vision, the rest of the crew vigorously occupied with the more immediate task of trying very hard not to meet his eye.
After that, all that was left was to don the suit and ride the rocket train down to Mars. He sent a few emails back to Earth. Madeleine liked it when he wrote, most of the time.
So at last he stood amidst the great red storm, his finger held precariously over a screen offering a graphical representation of a big blue button. Someone in technical was having a right laugh with that. It should have been red. It was always red in the stories.
The crackling radio barely penetrated the shifting air, but he was sure he caught the CEO praising his sacrifice. That would look great on his next appraisal. He was sure someone would be there to read it.
At least Madeleine’s share options would be worth a whole lot more once it was done. Sadly his healthcare plan was unlikely to cover what came next.
“Bugger it,” he muttered, slapping at the screen.
His final thought as the world exploded was that at least he’d probably get a nice statue. He was right, but thanks to a system error on his employment profile, they printed it with the wrong face.