Through the copper clouds

by Matthew Wilson

Red.

James could see the ground from here, he ran his glove over the breath smudged window and squinted. It had always been his favourite colour.

As a precaution they sent the robot first, like a Canary down a cave. The storm was closing in and when they slipped on their boots, James realised with great regret they would only have fifteen minutes flat before they had to pack up and move on.

It was good to be back in his fore fathers solar system.

He’d heard the stories, how the war on Earth had made life uninhabitable, forced survivors to the next world, and the next till they realised over population was not a problem with bigger planets. More were discovered and some settled.

In time his parents told him that without human interference, Earth would stabilise, grass would grow again and beauty reign. They longed to see it for history books were not the same, but age had taken them.

Now James was continuing their wish, when the position had opened up on the archaeological dig he found he could not refuse.

“How could you miss a planet – I mean a whole planet!” James moaned.

“It’ll still be there when we take off.”

There were only nine in the system. Correction – eight if memory served since Pluto had been downgraded. Few men came here for this was the starting point of man, and their many mistakes. A crime scene they had trashed few wished to visit, but Simon had set them down on Mars. Not Earth.

“You read the history books, this place is supposed to be green and pretty. You see any lakes?”

“Hey, a guy can make a mistake.” Simon muttered, hoping not to worsen his hangover, machines usually took control of the last few million miles, but after Jarvis was kept at home with the flu Simon had pressed he had could handle this little adventure himself.

But he had not been trusted with a billion dollars worth of technology. They had given him James, who dared who could drink the most.

And he wondered why he had set them down on the wrong planet!

He raised his visor and put it down, the claustrophobia making him queasy.

James smiled and offered to made him a bacon sandwich.

Simon blew out a great gasp of air, “Not funny, man.”

“You up to this? You’re lookin’ green.”

“I told you, I can tell colours, genius – where’s that robot?”

James waited till Simon swallowed with some difficulty and raised a thumb. Good to go.

He pressed a migraine red button in the wall that blinked green. The door receded up into the ceiling and the gale that blew in would have blasted him off his feet if he had not made fists of his toes.

“Robo? Robo, come on, boy!” He felt his words slapped back across his face and must have deafened Simon behind him. “Robo?” Only he took any care of the machine, kept it’s wheels oiled and tail sensor polished.

Somewhere out in the red haze he heard barking. The manual made it possible for the machine to rattle out a sultry feminine voice. But miles from home made a lonely man, and since his dog had been killed by a car, James had bought a smile to his face to beat back the loneliness by painting fur on the metal plates.

“Robo?” He would have to get him.

“Leave him, man. We got more back home.”

“You would leave him, wouldn’t you?” James said with some disgust, he moved forward at a crouch, and Simon afraid to be alone followed. Had the machine detected something out here? Father said this world was dead. Red as a matadors flag and lifeless as Io’s moon.

He stopped only once to look up into the witch cauldron like clouds, they were too thick to see out into space. How close was Earth? Was it’s seas as blue and deep as he imagined?

The sooner robo came back with some rock samples they could add to their collection the better. The barking got louder and the drink made his head feel unattached as he bent down and picked up a red rock.

He started whistling into his microphone, “Here, boy. Here, boy! Wanna play catch?”

The machine had no nostrils beside the ones he had pained on with permanent ink in bored times. But the machine was programmed to act like his dead dog. It bounded over, wagging it’s polished tail, sniffing.

“Good boy.”

“Alright, we got the dog, can we go now?” Simon asked, watching the thing drop the rock in James’ hand. But James wasn’t moving and Simon had to stagger over, leaning into the wind full of particles like a whirlwind in a dyed corn field to get a better look.

“What is it? The thing found an alien? That would be a turn up for the book-”

Simon stopped talking as he remembered stories of the war before he was born. The nukes vapourising all that he had missed and dreamed. In James’ hand he held the licence plate of a car.

“I don’t think this is Mars.” James said.

Beside him, Robo lifted his painted head, and howled at the sky.

The End