Red Desert: Invisible Enemy by Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli - Read Online
Red Desert
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Summary

Mars hasn’t always been red.
Once it was covered by oceans.
It was blue, hospitable, inviting.
Then everything changed, but something remained . . . waiting.

Third book in the science fiction series “Red Desert”.

The joy of finding the small community living in Ophir is soon shattered by the news coming from Houston about the loss of contact with Station Alpha. In fact for more than a day now, no life signs have been detected inside the habitat.
So, together with Jack, Anna sets out for Lunae Planum again. She’s assailed by dread about Robert’s and Hassan’s fate, and also by doubts concerning their involvement in the death of both the Isis mission commander, and most of all, his wife.
However, having to face Michelle’s murderer is only the first of her problems.
Torn between the desire to return to Earth and the ambition of getting the credit for her scientific discoveries, Anna will see her feeble certainties waver several times, until the revelation of a more devious danger concealed by the Red Planet: an invisible enemy, whose mysterious intent menaces her existence and the one of the only person who is still at her side.

The previous books are:
“Red Desert - Point of No Return” (book 1);
“Red Desert - People of Mars” (book 2).

The final book is “Red Desert - Back Home”.

Follow Anna Persson (AnnaPerssonDR) on Twitter!

--- This is the third book in a series of four and it ends with a cliffhanger. ---

Published: Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli on
ISBN: 9781310695803
List price: $2.99
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RED DESERT

Book 3

Invisible Enemy

Original title: Deserto rosso - Nemico invisibile

© 2013 Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli

Translation by: Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli (© 2015)

Translation revised by: Richard J. Galloway and Julia Gibbs

Cover: © 2015 Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli

Important note to the reader: This book is written in British English.

Previous book of the series: Red Desert – People of Mars

1

Self-control had taken him thus far and kept him alive, until now, but he knew he was one step away from losing it. The report he’d just sent had maybe been the most useless one since the arrival on Mars. It was eight o’clock in the morning of a day when any activity was suspended, but for more than a week now Station Alpha had been inhabited by phantoms who avoided meeting each other. It really wasn’t what Hassan had expected from the mission, anyway, in spite of all that had already happened, he was afraid that the worst was yet to come.

He rubbed his hands on his face in a vain attempt to remove his sleepiness. The sound of silence had kept him awake all night long, together with that of his own guilt. If only he had managed things otherwise, Anna wouldn’t have been out there now. She had passed the point of no return an hour earlier. He hoped she had decided to come back, but he knew her enough to be certain that she wouldn’t. Perhaps, sooner or later, she would come to realise that as usual she had behaved impulsively, but by then it would be too late.

He hurled his folio against the wall. The device bounced back and ended up intact on the floor.

Why the hell had she fled that way? He’d searched the laboratory, her quarters, even her personal space on the server, but he hadn’t found anything that justified such a drastic choice. It wasn’t that he had ever seen much logic in her behaviour before, but that didn’t persuade him that death was what she was looking for.

Actually, he had found something, in the laboratory, but it made her gesture even more incomprehensible.

Hassan shook his head, finally he rose from his seat. Keeping on thinking about it would only worsen his mood. He picked up his folio and inserted it into his pocket.

No sooner had he set foot on the corridor and closed the communications room door behind him, than the lights went off and he found himself in the dark.

What the hell … By instinct he reached out to touch the wall; his breath failed in his throat. He struggled to hear beyond his heartbeat, roaring in his ears. He could discern the grave background noise of the life support’s ventilation system. With his sight now adapting to darkness, he searched for the faint glow of the touch-screens located beside the doors, including the one he had just exited from, but he couldn’t make them out. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t the banal failure of a lighting fuse. The emergency system was still working, but the main one seemed out of order. It had been overloaded by something or, more likely, by someone.

He heaved a deep sigh, as he clenched his hands into fists so hard they hurt.

All the small emergency lamps came on. Blinded by that sudden light, Hassan placed an arm over his eyes. But he couldn’t waste any more time. He waited for his sight to get accustomed, then he headed to the centre of the station, trying not to make too much noise. Whatever the guy was up to, he would find Robert and would make him stop.

Once he reached the quarters area, he found the door of his colleague’s room wide open. The inside had been turned upside-down. The weak morning sun revealed his personal belongings scattered on the floor. The mattress had been overturned and was leaning upright against the wall. Its cover had been ripped. For a moment Hassan considered the idea of getting something to defend himself, before facing him, but he immediately discarded it. The last thing he wanted was to appear menacing to a person prey to a psychotic condition, caused by some weird cocktail of drugs. In any case he had to stop Robert before he ended up killing himself, or killing both of them, after damaging the life support too.

A loud crash, followed by the noise of broken glasses, made him turn. The laboratory. That was where he was.

Hassan started running.

More violent impacts came in succession, as he approached the end of the east wing. When he stopped by the laboratory’s entrance, he couldn’t believe what was unveiling before him.

Rob, he called aloud, trying to keep a friendly tone.

Robert stopped, holding a probing pipe mid-air; he was using it to smash anything he came across. A faint smile appeared on his face, but he didn’t turn to meet the newcomer’s gaze.

What are you doing? Hassan stopped short of insulting him.

There was glass everywhere. The Plexiglas box used to handle the samples lay on the floor; it was crossed by a long crack. One of the screens had been hit in the centre by a sampler, which was stuck inside it. The reagent closet doors had been smashed and several pots were overturned. A jar was broken and was leaking its content. The thin smoke rising from that piece of equipment wasn’t a good omen at all.

He was opening his mouth with the intention of asking for an explanation, when he saw Robert throwing the pipe towards him. He raised his arms just in time to avoid getting it straight in his face.

That was when he lost control.

I’ll kill you, Hassan shouted, as he faced him and grabbed him by the neck. But, to his huge surprise, he couldn’t push him towards the wall. The guy seemed as though he was bolted to the floor.

Robert smiled again, then hit him on the chest with both hands.

Hassan felt his breath failing him as he landed on his back on the floor. In a moment the knees of the other were on top of him.

What have I said to you, Qabbani? Robert was soaked in sweat, his beard neglected, his hair greasy, his gaze wild. You’re a dead man, he whispered. His hands wrapped around Hassan’s neck and started tightening.

The latter was flailing, trying to get free from that grip, but in vain. He was still dazed by the fall and the astonishment. He was feeling Robert’s fingers compressing his trachea.

Screwing her wasn’t enough for you, was it? Green seemed possessed, as if all his strengths were funnelled towards the attempt to kill the other. No, you let her escape. His face contracted, like he was about to weep; he laughed instead. And now she’ll die because of you. He stressed the latest word by tightening his grasp. You’ll be glad … you two will rot together in hell!

It was increasingly difficult for him to breathe. The little air entering his lungs wasn’t enough to make him think. His sight was blurring. He could just hear that hysterical laugh. No, he must not pass out.

He reached out with his right arm, feeling around him in search for something, until his fingers brushed the base of an overturned stool beside the counter. He stretched as much as he could and finally succeeded in grabbing it. Robert didn’t even see it coming, as it hit him on the nape of his neck.

Finally, he let go of his hold on Hassan and faltered enough for the latter to shake him off and stand up, brandishing the makeshift weapon with both hands.

Robert rose as well, as if the received knock had just been a slight annoyance. However, a huge amount of blood was dripping from a wound on his brow, running into his eyes.

Hassan didn’t miss the opportunity. He hit the other again, this time with more strength. Robert lost his balance, but he didn’t fall. How was that possible? The physician felt himself being assailed by an uncontrolled thrill. And he hit him again and again.

God, how much he had desired to do that in the last few months. He couldn’t believe he had a good excuse to smash that empty head. With each blow he dealt, at each squirt of blood striking the wall he felt himself invaded by a deep sense of release.

Finally Robert collapsed to the floor, motionless.

Hassan let the stool go and remained still, looking at him and enjoying the unexpected pleasure. In the end, the guy had stopped playing the fool.

Then he saw the blood on his own arms, on his clothes, which were stained with it. With a sense of horror he understood what he had just done. His physician’s instinct emerged. With some hesitation, he went close to his colleague’s body. He knelt. His hand trembled as he pressed his index finger on Robert’s neck. When he perceived a heartbeat, he allowed himself to exhale in relief.

Then he noticed a movement out of the corner of his eye.

***

He didn’t know what time it was out there, in Texas, but on Mars it was already daytime and mission control was in ferment again. Jan had tried to ignore the footsteps in the corridor, as he had tossed and turned on that uncomfortable couch, but in the end he’d given in and joined the others in the control room.

Good morning, Gray greeted him with unusual cordiality. He was eating his personal version of breakfast, a series of indefinable snacks. There was a cafeteria in the Ares Building of the Johnson Space Center, with a wide choice of dishes, but the software engineer seemed to prefer vending machines. Though one of his hands was occupied, he was seated at his workspace looking busy.

He wasn’t the only one. The room was already crowded. Various employees came and went. In the lower area, Nichols and Moore were muttering to each other. They were wearing different clothes to the day before. They had no doubt gone home to sleep or perhaps they kept a change in their office for emergency situations. Looking at them, Jan realised he’d been wearing the same clothes for more than twenty-four hours, and he hadn’t had the time to take a shower before putting them on. His appearance must have been horrible, possibly worsened by the anxiety he was feeling. However, nobody appeared to notice.

Hi, he replied to Gray, with a voice that seemed to come from the hereafter, but the latter wasn’t even listening anymore.

Oh, holy … the technician exclaimed. All his attention had been captured by something on his terminal.

Hearing him, a few heads raised, alarmed; among them Jan recognised Sasaki’s. The only exception was that, as usual, the latter looked indifferent. Only the speed with which he had stood up betrayed a certain curiosity.

I don’t wanna hear more bad news, Nichols thundered, climbing the stairs with Moore on his heels.

But Gray looked anything but fearful; in fact he reacted to his chief’s words with a grin. That awoke Jan’s interest, and he was behind him in a moment, soon reached by the two officials.

We’re receiving a transmission from Mars. The most total silence fell on the room. The software engineer paused for effect, which achieved the intended purpose: everybody was looking at him. It’s coming from Persson.

When Anna’s smiling face appeared on the screen, the bystanders burst into general exultation, jumping and raising their arms in sign of victory. Jan, instead, found himself enchanted by the image of her. She was more beautiful than he remembered. She had no doubt changed, looked more adult, more mature. The events of the mission appeared to have transformed her into a different person, except for that expression of contagious joy he had often seen on her in the past. It was his Anna, and she was alive. Unwillingly, Jan started laughing. He was almost ashamed that he’d thought she wanted to commit suicide. She was a tough one.

The video started playing and everybody quieted. Houston, Ophir Chasma here, I hope you are all seated, because what I’m about to show you is a once in a lifetime event.

Her hand reached the side of the screen and the framing enlarged. Various exclamations of amazement echoed in the room as another four persons appeared. A man in his seventies was beside her on the driver’s seat, whilst two women and another man, more or less the same age, were in the back of the vehicle and leaning on the seats so as to be in shot.

Holy shit, those are … Gray murmured, as a high-calorie bar fell from his hand.

"Jack Diaz, Elena Sernese, Nestor Almeida, and Irina Kowak, the Hera crew," Sasaki announced with precision, although he hadn’t even been born at the time of that mission.

I suppose you’ve recognised them, Anna continued. After all, I guess you didn’t lose anybody else on Mars thirty-three years ago, did you? She laughed at her own joke and Jan echoed her. Even if the transmission was at least sixteen minutes old, it seemed to him that she was there now. How he longed to hug her.

How the hell did they make it? Nichols exclaimed loudly.

I’m sending you plenty of data on Ophir station, which is what they christened it. I know you’ll have many questions. A few laughed, it was just like Anna was answering to the mission director. The most important thing you must know is that there’s water down here, a lot of water. Again, agitated reactions inside the room, half way between exultation and astonishment. "Another thing is that these new friends of mine aren’t the only Martians I’ve found."

Nichols cast a perplexed glance at Jan, as if he could interpret her words. He shrugged. Anna loved mysteries, but during the years they had been together he had never succeeded in guessing what she meant when she started playing those games.

We couldn’t take them in here for lack of room. She highlighted her sentence with wide gestures, which made the other four laugh. "But our heroes have children and also grandchildren. They are twelve people in all!"

Holy shit, Gray reaffirmed. His vocabulary seemed to have been reduced to only those two words.

Now it’s Jack and his colleagues’ turn; they want to say hello to you. They’ll be happy to answer all your questions, but this will happen in the next few days. Later, Jack and I will get going. First, we have to go back to Station Alpha, where we can find the necessary equipment to restore the communication between Ophir and Earth.

Stop the video, Nichols exclaimed.

Gray looked at him for a moment, uncertain, and then did as ordered. Someone attempted a weak protest, but the mission director ignored them. We’ll watch it later. Now we must inform her about what is happening at Station Alpha.

If only we knew, Sasaki commented, laconic.

She’s remarkable, isn’t she? Melissa asked her brother. She was standing on a chair, so that she could reach the window and look at what was happening outside.

On another chair beside his sister’s, Alexandre replied with a cry of assent, as he kept on observing through the glass.

Something was going on by the rovers. Anna’s had been refilled with methane and oxygen, while the carbon dioxide filters had been regenerated during the night. The idea was to climb up the planum again, by following the small rover driven by Nestor, and wearing their suits to avoid consuming the air supply of the biggest vehicle. They would take almost two hours to get up there. They needed to drive eastward for about ten kilometres, where the rocky wall lowered and a part of the canyon’s floor rose, creating a narrow, natural, quite steep slope, which was passable by four-wheel drive vehicles without issues. Once up there, Nestor would refill Anna’s and Jack’s suit reservoirs and say goodbye. They would then start their journey towards Station Alpha. They would proceed without stopping, even at night, taking turns in the driver’s seat. Satellite navigation would show them the right direction even in the dark. In doing so, they would reach the destination in less than twenty-five hours, the maximum travel time allowed by the life support with two passengers on board. Perhaps for a few hours they would be able to keep in contact via radio, but the communications would become more and more difficult as the kilometres passed and they would be stopped to avoid wasting energy.

She really is, Julian commented with enthusiasm.

Melissa turned to him. Dad. She pronounced the word with a reproachful tone. His behaviour had changed since Anna’s arrival. He had become livelier than usual, and curious.

Bear with me, all my life I’ve only known two women more or less my same age. One is your mother, the other my sister. He was being ironic, but his daughter wasn’t much in the mood for joking right now.

She shook her head, and her brother followed suit, concurring with her disapproval towards their parent. She’s the first insight we have of Earth, Melissa commented, as she resumed watching the operations occurring outside. I’m looking forward to going there. She smiled to herself, thinking about that planet that would soon stop being a distant star in the twilight sky.

Julian heaved a resigned sigh. I envy you.

2

The morning light reaches my eyes, as we move eastward inside the deep canyon. However, its walls are so far from each other that the sun can fully illuminate it.

It feels strange to be in the rover again. I spent almost two days in the vehicle, until yesterday evening, but now all that is just a distant memory. It seems that coming so close to death has triggered something inside me. Although I’d had the strength to react and leave Station Alpha, I kept on feeling prey to a snaky sense of depression, although I tried to fight it by focusing on my purpose.

But today everything seems different. The encounter with the inhabitants of Ophir was the most exciting event of my life, for better or for worse. I feel pervaded by a new energy, an enthusiasm I believed lost forever. It’s a new beginning.

I look at Jack, who’s driving at my side. He’s led this small community for thirty-three long years. I can’t imagine what he must have faced. I recognise in him the charisma of a leader, but I’m tormented by questions to which I don’t dare ask for an answer. I feel a sense of reverence mixed with awe for him. But at the same time, I feel safe embarking on this journey with him. I’m tranquil, as if nothing can touch me. And perhaps, even a little happy.

Incoming message.

Jack casts a rapid, bewildered glance at me.

It’s the on-board unit. I feel like smiling. I don’t think he’s accustomed to dealing with such a talkative rover. Play.

A window materialises in the windshield’s augmented reality, just in front of the passenger’s seat. Nichols’s big face smiles at me nervously. Something in his expression makes me feel ill at ease. A glimmer of worry makes its way inside me, spoiling my tranquillity in a moment.

Anna, I’m glad to see you safe. Seeing him, he didn’t look glad at all. We’ve got so many questions for Diaz and his crew, but they must wait, given your intention to go back to Station Alpha. His smile has completely vanished.

All of a sudden I feel my breath fail. Jack watches me, with a furrowed brow, as if he can read on my face the agitation I feel. The rover jerks a bit and he resumes looking ahead.

We’ve lost any contact with Hassan and Robert.

Hassan … The word escapes my mouth, as I’m overrun by an adrenaline discharge. I knew that returning to Station Alpha would mean I had to face him, but somehow I’d pushed that thought away. Now it comes back to my mind, unexpected, as if I could have forgotten everything.

I’m not scared of him, I’m scared for him.

I place both my hands on my face, but they stop against my helmet.

We haven’t received a report for twenty-four hours now. The main server of the station has stopped responding, so we are unable to see what’s happening now or what has happened in the building, with the exception of the communications room, the greenhouse, and the other rover, which, however, haven’t reported any activity. He stops, as if searching for the most suitable words. He’s using official language, similar to that of a doctor talking to the relatives of a patient who has just died.

I understand why he’s recorded this message alone. I was expecting a video with all the guys at mission control. That’s why I immediately felt a sense of anguish as soon as he opened his mouth.

My sight blurs. I’m weeping. I feel something terrible has happened. It’s my fault. I ran away and something must have happened between them.

We’ll end up killing each other.’ My own words said during that meeting resound in my mind, insistent, despite my attempts to ignore them.

Nichols shakes his head. Anna … I’m afraid they’re dead.

Incredulous, I stare at the picture on the windshield. He isn’t talking seriously, no. Hassan can’t be dead. And Robert? How is it possible I don’t care about him? He was my friend, is my friend.

We have access only to the life support sensors, and since about nine yesterday morning we haven’t detected any breathing activity inside the station. Another pause, another search for the right thing to say. Nichols rubs his face with a hand and stretches his collar. Well, there’s the remote possibility that there’s something wrong with the emergency system as well and that the readings aren’t correct. He doesn’t really believe that, it’s evident. Anyway, this is the situation. We are repositioning the orbiter, which we had put over Ophir Chasma, to the Lunae Planum. In a few hours we’ll have some real-time images you can access as well.

The video continues, but I’m not listening anymore. I mute it. I reach out to the control panel and activate another satellite communication channel. Station Alpha, Rover One here, over. What I’m doing is nonsense. Houston uses the same channel. If they don’t receive an answer, why should I? It’s Anna; Hassan, please, reply to me. I almost hope someone is listening. Perhaps he doesn’t want to communicate to Earth. Perhaps he’ll talk to me. Hassan, damn it, answer! My voice breaks, and changes into a whispered sob.

I can barely feel Jack’s hand leaning on my suit’s sleeve, but I shoo it away. I don’t care what really happened to Michelle. I don’t care if Hassan had anything to do with her death. He could have killed her with his bare hands and I wouldn’t care now.

God, if You really exist, as he believes, see that he’s alive.

His face in the mirror looked relaxed, thanks to a few hours of sleep in a real bed and a long shower. Having a shave had helped too, as well as wearing the clean clothes he’d bought at the hotel’s boutique. In the hurry of the previous day he had forgotten to take any luggage with him. Fortunately, he had been able to put everything on the room’s bill, and he wouldn’t be the one to pay.

But most of all he was feeling more