RED

Penelope Hart

They had been walking for hours – across a wasteland of rust and dust and dirt – a thick, boiled crust that got under their fingernails, through their hair, stained their skin 'till everything, absolutely everything was red.

O’Reilly stood on the crest of a hill, shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun. There were no landmarks in sight, no trees or rivers. Below the planet flattened into a sheet of crimson rock, strands of burgundy and maroon crystals weaving through the landscape like veins. “It would be beautiful,” she thought, “if it were any other colour.”

“Are you sure...we’re heading...in the right direction,” puffed Johnston. He came up behind her in his heavy suit, put his hands on his knees and bent over, his chest heaving. His normally-blonde hair was stained a dark auburn, his cheeks tarnished red. A thick coating of grime covered his suit from head to toe, the dirt flaking off like rust.

“The mayday signal pointed north,” cried the Lieutenant from below, “before we landed.”

“Crashed,” corrected Johnson. He turned to O’Reilly. “I still don’t see why we’re continuing with this mission.”

“You know what it’s like,” she said, “no man left behind.”

“But it’s us that needs rescuing, not troop D.”

“I agree with you,” said O’Reilly, “but we’re not in charge. Do you want to be court-marshaled?”

Johnston sighed, screwed up his face like a child. “We should be searching for an Oasis. I can already feel the fever coming on.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said O’Reilly. “It’s only been a couple of hours.” She dropped down the slope after the Lieutenant.

***

They marched for hours across the empty plane, stared down at their boots without speaking. The kilometres passed in a reddish blur, time barely altering the crimson sun.

Eventually, the landscape began to rise and dip – formed craters the size of lakes and towering mountains of biscuit rock. They clambered down a gully of raspberry cliffs, polished smooth by an ancient river. Everywhere there were signs of water, of the bite of ice, the erosion of rain – O’Reilly wondered where it all could have gone.

By noon, Johnson began to lag, falling ten, maybe twenty metres behind. He stayed within earshot, muttering to himself, cursed as he stumbled over the pink and scarlet rocks.

O’Reilly stopped at the base of a hill, waited for him to catch up. “You OK?”

“I’m bleeding,” he said, raised his arm up to show her, his suit torn below his wrist. Dirt had settled on his skin, formed a crust the colour of dried blood.

O’Reilly took his hand and spat on the dirt, rubbed until his skin shined through. “There you go,” she said, “good as new.”

Johnson took back his hand and stared at it suspiciously.

***

Come night time, O'Reilly gathered vines off the rocks – spindly things that looked like veins. She stacked them in a pile and lit a fire, cooked up one of their vacuum-packed meals. The fire glowed redder than usual – a deep maroon – but they were near frozen without the sun and so they sat around it, warming their fronts and backs in turn.

“Remember the sea,” said O’Reilly, breaking off pieces of vine and throwing them into the fire. “Remember the blue of a mountain lake.”

“Remember grass,” said the Lieutenant, “green in summer – white in the winter frost.”

They turned to Johnson, staring at them through the flickering flames. “Remember sunsets,” he said, “and stop signs, and poppies. Remember beetroots and chilies and lava.”

“Come on Johnson,” said O’Reilly, “you have to try.”

His face glowed a bright carmine. “Remember cuts and scabs and bruises.” He looked up at her with shining eyes. “Remember blood.”

They sat in silence, watching the fire die down.

***

The next day a storm blew in – gale-force winds which coated their suits with dust, blew dirt into their mouths and eyes, drilled the powder deep into every cranny until there was nothing left unsoiled.

“Not long now,” screamed the Lieutenant. He held the map up against O’Reilly’s back, tried to make out the landscape through a wall of stinging sand. They were buffeted by the wind, pushed and shoved and harassed endlessly. O’Reilly held her hands to her ears as she walked, her head raw and ringing from the constant screaming gale.

“It’s like opening your eyes in the night,” said Johnson, “and all you can see is black.” He stopped walking and stared down at his hands, caked with the fine, red dust. “You close them again, just to make sure they’re really open, but you can’t tell the difference anymore.”

O’Reilly pretended she hadn’t heard, stumbled after the Lieutenant, battling his way up the slope ahead. He reached the peak and stood there for a second, his figure buffeted by the wind. She watched as he held a hand to his eyes.

“I think I see it,” he called.

“The ship?” cried O’Reilly.

“Just the tip of it, peeking out of the boulders.” He dropped out of sight below the ridgeline. O’Reilly grabbed Johnson and pulled him up the slope.

***

It lay on its side in the valley, the bottom-half buried deep in the earth. The shell had been burst open like a cocoon, the contents exposed to the outside world. Wind blew in through the open top, scattered terracotta dust over the empty seats.

“Where is everybody?” asked the Lieutenant.

O’Reilly ran her hand along the cool metal belly. The ship was identical to theirs: a long tube of aluminium that had been tapered at the end. Inside, the cabin was a mess of jumbled blankets, tools, and spacesuits, packets of dried food.

“They didn’t take any gear,” said O’Reilly, turning back to face the others.

“Didn’t need to,” said Johnson, pointing into the distance. “Lucky buggers landed next to an Oasis.”

Twenty feet away, a dome rose out of the rocky valley, smooth and sleek as an alien spaceship. The wind wrapped around the sphere, peppering it with the fine red dust that coated everything. A line of footprints was barely visible in the dirt, leading from the rocketship straight to the front door.

The Lieutenant whooped and broke into a run, his feet bashing new prints in the dusty earth.

"Wait for me," cried Johnson, racing after him.

"Last one's a rotten egg," called O’Reilly with childish glee, and she sped off to meet them, shot past Johnson with ease, catching the Lieutenant up from behind. They ran alongside each other, laughing like children in a playground. Together they reached the dome.

"You first," said O’Reilly.

"After you," he replied.

She laughed, pulled open the door. "Together then."

They stepped inside.

Everything was red. The walls. The floor. The pool of water, stagnant in the middle. Wind broke through a gash in the ceiling, blew withered leaves around the room like confetti.

"No, no, no," said Johnson as he joined them inside. "It's meant to be blue. It's meant to be green and blue and aqua and turquoise."

O’Reilly stepped into the pool, moved towards a patch in the centre. It was darker than the rest of of the water, thick and viscous as tomato soup. As she moved closer, she felt the water grow warm. Something solid brushed against her leg. Behind her, Johnson screamed.

O’Reilly looked down to see a mass of bodies rise in the water. They were flesh and muscle and blood and guts, their skin hanging off them in strips.

“Get if off me,” cried Johnson and he began to rub his arms, his face, his legs, the dirt and mud spreading around his skin. “Their blood,” he said, “their blood’s all over me.”

“No it’s not,” said O’Reilly. “You’ve got to calm down.”

“I’m covered in blood!” His movements became more frantic, the rubbing faster, harder. He began to gauge at his skin, to draw lines along his arms so that he really was bleeding – bright red beads which pooled in the crevices, ran down his body and dripped into the bloody water.

“Stop,” cried O’Reilly. She rushed forward and grabbed at Johnson’s arms, but he was manic now, tearing and ripping and slashing his flesh. He looked up at her and his pupils were huge and empty, reflecting the red of the pool.

“Leave him,” said the Lieutenant.

“But it’s not real. It’s all in his head.”

He shook his head. “It’s in his lungs too. It’s on in his ears and nose and mouth.”

Johnson stopped struggling and O’Reilly released his arms, let them fall limply to his sides. The Lieutenant took a step forward and gave him a push, Johnson’s knees buckling so that he slipped into the water, merging with the mass of other bodies.

O’Reilly took a step back, wrung her hands together, coated in Johnson’s blood . “We need to get out of here.”

The Lieutenant shook her head. “I’m staying.”

“We’ll find another Oasis,” said O’Reilly. “There’s got to be others.”

“It’s done,” said the Lieutenant. “We’ve found Troop D.” He laughed. “I don’t know about you, but all I can think about is the time my bastard dad smacked me cold, or when my dog got hit by a car. All this red, it brings out the worst in people. All I have left is hurt and anger.”

“You’ve got to visualise. Close your eyes and really imagine you’re somewhere else.”

She squeezed her own eyes shut but all she could see was a glowing red disk where the light had been.

The Lieutenant sat down in the bloody water and folded his arms.

“Goodbye O’Reilly,” he said.

***

The gale had stopped when O'Reilly left the dome. The sun baked the earth a deeper shade of red. She was exhausted from all the walking, her legs burning as she picked her way up the bluffs.

Johnson’s blood was drying on her hands, stiffening in the crevices so that it cracked when she moved her fingers. She rubbed at it but it refused to go away, the dust and dirt blending with it till she couldn’t tell the difference anymore.

She thought about what the Lieutenant said — about the hurt and anger brought on by the colour red — but she had other associations: her ten year-old self discovering her adulthood; the birth of her baby boy twenty years later. She wondered if this was the same for other women — if they were more resistant to the colour red. Even if this was true, she'd need to find an Oasis soon. With the last of her strength, she pushed up a slope, broke through a cluster of boulders to reach the saddle of two hills.

Below there was no dome, just an empty valley of dust and rocks and dirt. O’Reilly fell to her knees, scanned the horizon for a sign, any sign that would indicate the direction of an Oasis.

To the west she spotted a patch of shimmering water — so bright and white it looked almost as if it was made of light. She heaved herself upward, stood swaying on her feet, the light glittering before he eyes.

“An oasis,” she whispered, “a genuine oasis.”

She could see it in her mind’s eye, a deep pool of teal and cobalt water, cool and sweet to taste.

She took a step down the hill.