Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Soft Laughter

by Danny Raven


I

The Helium Converter started playing up several billion miles from home.

He’d been deep in the Karina System for weeks, mapping gold deposits on a land-search pattern and the increased pull of the planets there had begun to affect it. The thrust required when he left the System had been the last straw.

Deep in the ship, the main computer registered the change in the low humming of the Drive and instantly triggered the alarm in the panel above his head. A two-tone whining began. It echoed all over the Bridge, breaking the peaceful silence of his meditation.

When he’d settled down on the circular mat some time ago for a session, things had been running smoothly and he’d expected them to stay that way. He’d been into meditation for years and it helped keep him balanced on these long lonesome voyages.

Irritated, he tried to tune out the sound but the alarm was insistent. He cursed softly and descended from the silent plateau he’d reached and allowed his mind to identify the noise.

It was the alarm….probably the damn Stabiliser again. It had given him trouble before but it was nothing urgent and later would do. Slowly he reached up and felt for the Stabiliser square on the panel above his head and pressed it. He resumed his position and tried to regain the level he’d left. It was a few seconds before he realised the alarm was continuing.

He cursed and reluctantly opened his eyes. The Bridge swam into focus, lit by the dim glow of the instrument panels. He uncoiled slowly from his cross-legged position on the mat and stretched like a cat then froze when he saw where the light was flashing.

It took his nervous system a few seconds to react then the adrenaline pumped into his bloodstream and his heart started thudding in his chest. He scrambled over to the main console to double check but the Converter square was flashing there as well. His legs suddenly weak, he slumped into the pilot’s seat and stared disbelievingly at the panel.

‘It’s not happening,’ he thought stupidly. ‘It can’t be….but it is. Come on, Converters don’t malfunction. They never malfunction, they just don’t. But this one has. The light’s flashing in the goddamn square, look -- on off, on off, on off. And the alarm’s going, hear it? This is for real, for real, so what the hell are you gonna do about it?’

He bit his lip then reached out a trembling finger and pressed the Converter square. The alarm died but the red light continued to blink on and off. He leaned back in the chair and tried to fight the panic rising in his gut.

The critical corner of his mind had already appraised the situation and was trying to reach him through the jumbled fear.

‘Calm down,’ it told him. ‘Calm down. Relax. Relax.’

He tried to tune in to it. Brush the fear aside.

‘Breathe deeply,’ it commanded.

He closed his eyes and obeyed. Long slow breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Repeat. Concentrate on the breathing. In through the nose. Hold. Out through the mouth. Pause. Repeat. Relax. Concentrate.

He could feel the immediate panic receding. The hammering in his chest subsided. He tried to swallow but his mouth was still dry.

Calmer, he opened his eyes and considered his next move. There was nothing he could do up here -- the problem lay in the Drive section. He would have to make a visual inspection.

On still shaky legs he walked through to the stores cabin and pulled a repair suit from a locker. He climbed into it and went below.

####

The inspection confirmed his worst fears. Substantiated his earlier panic. The Converter was damaged beyond repair and would shut down completely very soon, which led to a very simple equation : no Converter means no fuel, no fuel means you drift, drifting means you don’t get home. Very simple really.

“Very simple really!” he said aloud and giggled idiotically.

He was slumped in the pilot’s seat, the repair suit strewn carelessly on the floor around him, staring out the observation windows. The ship seemed motionless. Frozen. Far off stars twinkled in the deep blue-black of space. He’d never noticed how pretty the deep blue-black was before or how nice it felt to be motionless. He could sit here forever and just stare out at space.

Except the critical corner of his mind wouldn’t let him. He could feel it nagging away back there behind the warm fog which was drifting down.

‘Come on!’ it nagged. ‘Come on, come on - make a decision!’

He tried to ignore it and lit a cigarette, his first in a week. He leaned back in the chair and inhaled deeply, concentrating on the tingling spreading through his body.

‘Come on!’ the critical corner nagged. ‘Come on!’

It was as insistent as the alarm had been and he knew there was only one way to shut it off.

He sighed and stared at the ceiling. ‘Okay,I’ve got two choices,’ he thought lazily. ‘One -- I could put out a distress message then sit back and wait for a rescue ship.’ He considered this idea briefly then nodded in agreement with himself. ‘Yeah, that sounds allright. The Company must have several ships roaming round this area. One of them’s bound to pick up the message and respond.’

‘No good,’ said the critical corner. ‘With no Drive power how can you avoid the pull of any planets you pass or space debris or meteors. No good. Next.’

He drew on his cigarette while the second choice worked itself out.

‘Two -- I could land on the nearest planet. Put out a distress message. Wait for a rescue ship.’

The critical corner considered this idea. It seemed to like it. Approval flowed warmly through his mind.

He sighed and drew again on his cigarette. For a while he lay back and watched the smoke drifting upwards until it was sucked into an air-scrubbing vent in the Bridge ceiling.

‘Move!’ ordered the critical corner.

Reluctantly he complied. He drew once more on the cigarette then stubbed it out and swung round in the chair to the navigation computer and tapped in a request for the nearest planet and any significant data. White letters soon began flickering across the blue background of the screen….

NEAREST PLANET : CYRAS.

“Never heard of it,” he muttered.

The information on the screen continued….

NEAREST PLANET : CYRAS.

POPULATION : ZERO.

ATMOSPHERE : COMPATIBLE.

FOOD SOURCE : ZERO.

LANDSCAPE : DESERTS AND MOUNTAINS.

‘Great,’ he thought. ‘Couldn’t be better. An uninhabited wilderness. Terrific.’

He shook his head and tapped in a request for the planet’s co-ordinates. He leaned back in the pilot’s seat and closed his eyes -- maybe the rescue ship would arrive soon.

II

Three days after he landed on Cyras there was still no message of a rescue ship.

Each day he’d taken the airmobile and explored the planet, leaving the distress message beaming out continually from the main computer and praying for a reply. Each time he’d returned he’d cursed loudly when the monitor’s blank screen told him there’d been no response so far.

The information on the planet had been correct though -- it was a dull wilderness of vast empty desert plains broken only by ugly black mountains and cliffs. There were no signs of life but there were insects everywhere. The flies bothered him the most, swarming and buzzing round him every time he put the airmobile down.

He brushed some away from his face as he sat on a hill overlooking the ship, smoking and gazing around as the planet’s red sun slowly climbed down the sky. It was the only interesting thing about the place and bathed everything in a soft reddish glow. He reviewed his situation as the shadows lengthened.

Only two more days fuel left in the airmobile. After that any exploring would have to be done on foot, although there didn’t seem much point -- he’d seen enough of the place to tell him it would be a waste of time.

The food should last about another six weeks with the rationing he’d already started. Water could be a problem though. Even on the absolute minimum, it would only last another month. Still he thought he’d seen a stream about a mile into the---

‘Hello, Alex.’

He spun round but there was no-one there. He heard the voice again inside his head and his skin crawled.

‘Hello, Alex.’

‘I imagined it,’ he thought, trying to reassure himself, glancing all around but still not seeing anyone. ‘Too much time on my own.’

He heard soft laughter inside his head. ‘No you didn’t imagine it, Alex. I’m real. At the bottom of the hill. Come and look.’

He walked over to the edge of the hill and looked down, not expecting to see anyone but someone was there, waving. Relief flowed through him and he felt himself relax.

‘So I didn’t imagine it, ‘ he thought. ‘Thank God for that.’ He smiled and waved back then started downhill towards the figure.

####

The first thing he noticed about the man was his thinness. How skinny his arms were before they disappeared into the white robe he was wearing and how pronounced the bones were in his face but he was so relieved to have some company that he didn’t give it much thought. Then he heard the voice inside his head again, welcoming him but the man hadn’t spoken aloud. He frowned, puzzled.

The man smiled. ‘Relax, Alex. I’m a telepath. We all are here.’

“We? “ Alex questioned. “You mean there are more of you? Where?”

Soft laughter inside his head. ‘We’ve been out of sight, Alex. We had to be sure you meant us no harm.’

“How come you know my name?” Alex asked him.

The man smiled again. A gentle smile. ‘I’ve been inside your mind since you arrived. I know all about you, Alex Franks. Come, meet the others.’ He turned and walked away.

For a few seconds Alex hesitated then he shrugged and followed.

They walked for some distance, heading away from the ship, the red sun casting long, narrow shadows in front of them. At the foot of one of the ugly, black cliffs they finally halted. Beside him, the man smiled then began climbing the rocky slope.

Alex groaned. ‘Not up there?’ he thought, lagging behind. The cliff was steep and he was tired from the walk and the rationing of the last few days.

Above him, the man turned. ‘No, not up, Alex -- in.’

As if on cue, one of the boulders on the slope slid aside, revealing a dimly lit passageway. Impressed, Alex glanced up at the white-robed figure then heard the soft laughter in his head again.

‘I didn’t move it, Alex. The others were waiting for us. They moved the boulder from the inside. Come.’ He held his hand out towards the passage.

Alex hesitated.

‘Come, Alex. Don’t be afraid. We mean you no harm.’ He smiled his gentle smile again then turned and disappeared into the opening.

Again Alex thought about it briefly then dismissed his fears. He climbed the slope and followed him in.

III

He would never have found them, no matter how long he’d explored the planet.

Carved out of solid rock, the passageway stretched a long way into the cliff. The red sunlight streaming in guided them at first then the passage curved and after that they were walking in a red hazy darkness.

Tendrils of fear began drifting around Alex’s mind. He slowed, feeling his way along, the rock cold and damp under his hand. He was considering turning back when he caught the soft glow of a light up ahead.

‘We’re almost there, Alex,’ the voice in his head said, reassuringly. ‘You can rest soon.’

The light ahead grew closer and eventually the passage opened into a well furnished room. By the soft light, Alex could see a group of white-robed men and women sitting around. They rose to greet him when he entered. They all looked so pleased to see him and he felt himself relax again. He heard their voices inside his head as one by one they came over and welcomed him and said hello.

“Hi,” Alex said, nodding and smiling. “Great to meet you all.”

‘You don’t have to speak aloud, Alex,’ he heard in his head. ‘We’re all telepaths, two-way. Just think what you want to say and we’ll pick it up.’

Alex nodded. He looked round at the smiling group. ‘You all seem to know my name,’ he thought, ‘but I don’t know any of yours.’

‘Oh we don’t use names much, Alex. We can recognise each other's voices so we hardly use them much, but think of me as Derv if it makes things easier for you.’

Alex nodded again but he was only half-listening -- he had caught sight of all the food on the table and it was pushing everything else from his mind.

Derv saw him looking at it. ‘Hungry, Alex?’

‘Very.’

‘Then please sit down and eat. Forgive us for not joining you but we’ve already eaten.’

‘You’ve eaten?’ Alex asked, glancing round at everyone. ‘But you all look so thin.’

Tinkling laughter inside his head.

Derv smiled. ‘I suppose we must to someone like you but this is the way we are. Please, sit down and help yourself.’

The food was good after his meagre diet of the last few days and Alex relished it. He chatted with Derv as he ate, surprised at how quickly he’d adapted to the new form of communication. ‘So you live here inside the cliff?’ he thought, indicating the room.

‘It’s always been this way, Alex,’ Derv said. ‘Even on our own planet we lived like this. Sunlight can be harmful to us if we stay out in it too long.’

Alex frowned. ‘Your own planet? You mean you don’t belong here?’

‘I’m afraid not, Alex. We had to leave our home a long time ago. Our planet was dying. It couldn’t support us any longer. We set off in a fleet -- those of us that were left. Our computer chose this place for us. We like it but it’s not our home.’

‘How many of you came?’

‘Oh there weren’t too many of us left at the end. Some wouldn’t leave. But we’re recovering slowly. You may be able to help us.’

Alex looked surprised. ‘Me? I don’t see how.’

Derv smiled. ‘But you’re helping us now, Alex. Just by being here. You’ve no idea how pleasant it is to have a visitor after all this time.’

####

The meal was over and Alex felt full for the first time in days. He leaned back in his chair and sighed contentedly.

‘What happened to your ship, Alex?’ Derv asked. ‘Tell us about it. Perhaps we can help you to repair it.’

Alex laughed. ‘Not unless you’ve got a Helium Converter you can’t!’

They all smiled. As if they had been waiting for him to say it. He could hear their tinkling laughter inside his head.

Derv rose. ‘Follow me, Alex.’

They took another long passage which led in a different direction from the first one. It sloped up gradually as they walked and after a while Alex could feel a change in the air and up ahead saw some of the red light filtering in around a large boulder which blocked the entrance.

‘Help me move the boulder, Alex,’ Derv said to him.

Between them they moved it, Alex doing most of the work. Derv smiled and beckoned for Alex to follow.

The passage came out on the side of the cliff and Derv pointed to a plain not far below. The light was poor and at first Alex thought he was looking at his own ship, that somehow they had circled back inside the cliff. Slowly he began to pick his way down the rocky slope.

About halfway down he could see the ship more clearly. His heart leapt when he saw the markings. Same kind of ship but another Company’s markings. Heedless of the rocks, he charged downhill towards it. Behind him, Derv smiled and leisurley began to follow.

Alex was in the Bridge when he rejoined him. The last rays of the sun slanted through the observation windows, painting the inside of the ship a dark red.

In his excitement, Alex spoke aloud. “There’s a Converter on board!” he told Derv. “It’s an earlier model than mine but if I can remove it, I think I can fit it into my own ship!”

Then he was silent awhile, his mind analysing the problem. How far was it from here to his own ship? What tools would he need? Did he still have the skill to do the job? His mind raced on and Derv listened as darkness filled the Bridge.

At last Alex said, “It’s a long time since I did any work like this but I think I can do it.”

Derv smiled across at him. ‘Oh I’m sure you can, Alex. If you put your mind to it.’

IV

He worked hard at removing the Converter over the next few days.

His hands were clumsy round the tools at first but gradually old skills came back and he achieved a semblance of dexterity. Often it was the technical side that held him back then he had to make the long trek over to his own ship to find the answers in the main computer.

One of the others was always with him. At times he was glad of the company but often he was so immersed in a particular problem that they ceased to exist physically. But he could always feel them there, inside his mind.

Sometimes he took a break and went back to the room inside the cliff for a meal but usually he was too busy and they brought food out to him. When they insisted that he stop and eat he would grow irritated with them.

‘You must eat, Alex. Keep your strength up,’ he would hear from whoever brought the food.

Once he asked in a half-hearted way where all the food came from.

‘We have lots of supplies, Alex,’ Derv told him, ‘and we don’t eat much ourselves. Besides, we do manage to grow a little -- there are some fertile places on this new home of ours.’

But he didn’t really care. He would be gone soon.

####

Transporting the Converter was almost as difficult as removing it. The others were no help at all, proving useless at physical work, till eventually he’d yelled at them to clear off and groaned and sweated and carted the damned thing himself.

By the end of the week he was exhausted but the Converter was now in the Drive section of his ship instead of the Drive section of the other.

He wiped sweat and oil from his face with a rag and slumped down on the floor beside it. Christ he was tired. Dog tired. He hadn’t done so much physical work in years. All that easy living as a pilot must’ve turned him soft. Still, the worst of it was over and things should be easier from now on. Say another few days to remove the faulty Converter and fit this one. Then he would be away.

He closed his eyes and the fatigue washed over him in waves. Wearily he dragged himself to his feet and stumbled through to his cabin. He collapsed onto his bed fully clothed and was asleep instantly.

In his sleep he dreamed of a huge black leech which fed off him. It grew and grew and grew until it burst, covering him with his own sticky red blood. He was too exhausted to wake.

####

The sun was high in the sky and the inside of his cabin bathed in the soft red light when he woke.

His head throbbed and every part of his body ached. He pulled himself out of bed and on shaky legs made his way through to the bathroom. His reflection in the mirror shocked him -- a haggard, unshaved face stared back, the cheekbones prominent, the eyes sunken and black.

He stripped and examined himself, surprised to find how thin his body looked. His ribs stood out in his chest and arms and legs, once muscular, now looked as if they belonged to an old man.

He pulled on clean shorts then stumbled through to the medical bay and climbed onto the examination table. He tapped in a request on the computer for a full physical check-up and lay back while his body was scanned. A couple of minutes later the scan was complete and he leaned on an elbow while he read the results on the screen….

DISEASE : NONE PRESENT.

CLINICAL FINDINGS : BODY HEALTHY BUT NINE POUNDS UNDER NORMAL WEIGHT.

TREATMENT : INCREASE FOOD INTAKE.

Nine pounds underweight? How could he lose that so fast? Puzzled, he walked shakily through to the lounge. He poured himself some coffee, lit a cigarette and sank into a chair. No illness -- yet he felt like a wreck. Increase food intake -- yet he’d been eating well over the last week.

‘But they haven’t!’ flashed through his mind and he sat upright so quickly that some of his coffee slopped onto his legs, scalding him. He cursed but the pain seemed to return some sharpness to his mind. He wiped the coffee from his legs and tried to think things through logically.

He hadn’t seen them eating at all, not once. And yet they all seemed so much fatter since that first time he’d met them in the room inside the cliff. At the same time, he who was eating two or three times a day was becoming much thinner.

Conclusion?

He didn’t like the way this was heading.

Conclusion?

He drank some coffee, not wanting to face it.

CONCLUSION?

They must be feeding on something and that could only be one thing -- him.

How?

‘Vampires!’ shot into his mind and a chill ran over him. He began sweating, despite the coolness of the lounge.

He went back to the medical bay and examined himself in the full length mirror. He looked at his neck first but there were no bite marks under the stubble. There were a few scratches on his hands where he’d cut himself while working on the Converter. A few small red marks, insect bites, on his arms. But nothing tell-tale, no obvious punture wounds.

There was one definite way to find out -- a blood test.

He punched in a request on the medical computer and held out his thumb to be pricked on the small, sharp needle when it appeared. The results came up on the screen a minute later….

BLOOD CELLS ARE HEALTHY. CIRCULATING VOLUME IS NORMAL. NO ABNORMALITIES DETECTED.

Relief flowed through him -- his blood was okay.

So they weren’t vampires. What then? How were they feeding off him?

He stumbled back through to the lounge and flopped into a chair. The throbbing in his head had stopped but something else was there. Them. He could feel their presence. They were listening to him. But they were always there and he could feel them inside his mind all the time. Now it was different. There was some subtle change. Like they were irritated.

He ignored them and returned to his thoughts.

‘They don’t eat food. They’re not vampires. They’re feeding off me in some way. How?’

He lay back in his chair, lit a cigarette and concentrated. Away somewhere in the depths of his mind he could feel an idea swimming round, slowly making its way up. He closed his eyes and waited for it to surface. At the exact moment it did, he heard a sigh in his mind.

‘So now you know, Alex,’ Derv said inside his head.

“Now I know,” he said, sitting up. “You’re feeding off my thoughts somehow.”

‘I’m afraid so, Alex. We live on thoughts the way you live on food.’

‘How the hell can you live on thoughts?’

It’s the way we are, Alex. You eat food -- we eat thoughts. We’re two-way telepaths, remember? We pick up thoughts…then we feed on them.’

Suddenly it all made sense and he cursed his stupidity. Him working on the Converter. Thinking about the problems all the time. Derv encouraging him. Bringing him food. Them growing fat at his expense. He shook his head -- Christ, he’d walked right into it.

And his weight loss. Nine pounds in a week. Somehow he must have lost weight quite quickly as they fed on his thoughts.

‘There’s really nothing you can do, Alex,’ Derv told him. ‘There have been others before you. We fed off them as well.’

‘The ship I took the Converter from?’

‘Yes and many more before that.’

‘And the food came from the other ships too?’

‘Yes. You’re not the first, Alex and you won’t be the last. You can’t escape.’

He sat in silence awhile.

Eventually Derv asked. ‘So what are you going to do, Alex?’

‘I’m not sure,’ he replied. Because he’d only half-understood the plan that was forming in the critical corner of his mind.

V

His plan started the following day.

The ship was locked, so they couldn’t get in. He knew he would still hear them but not seeing them gave him a little more confidence.

He took the circular mat into the lounge and laid it where it would catch the sunlight slanting in through the windows. Two or three days he had thought, to reverse the process. They would grow weak again and he strong. Two or three days without any thoughts for them to feed on. Two or three days of pure meditation when there was only silence in his mind.

He sat down on the mat and eased his tired body into position. He drew his legs up and crossed one over the other. Rested his hands lightly on his knees. Straightened his back. Closed his eyes.

He tried to clear his mind but in his weakened state it was difficult and anyway they knew what he was trying to do. Knew he was trying to starve them to death.

It took him five minutes to empty his mind of all thoughts. Then silence in his head. Silence. No thoughts. Nothing for them to feed on.

He heard Derv almost immediately. ‘There’s no point, Alex. You can’t win.’

He replied automatically, before he could stop himself. ‘Yeah I can. I can. I can beat you.’

Soft laughter inside his head.

He cursed himself. Began again. Tried to empty his mind. And Derv kept on provoking him -- floated questions into his head, simple questions he couldn’t stop himself half-answering.

‘How are you, Alex?’

‘Tired. Every part of---.’

Silence.

‘Hungry, Alex?’

‘No but I could use a---.’

Soft laughter.

‘You can’t beat us, Alex.’

‘Yeah I can. I---.’

The battle raged all morning. It took him till the sun was directly overhead before he had some kind of control. He didn’t bother with food.

####

In the afternoon they began attacking him in earnest.

It wasn’t just Derv now. The others joined in. They whispered at him from all the corners of his mind. Quietly. Very quietly. So quietly he found himself straining to catch them.

‘Alex…Alex…Alex…Alex…’

Then the whispering gave way to their normal voices. Having a conversation all across his mind. Not talking directly to him. Then occasionally darting a question at him to which he half-replied before he caught himself.

Then the shouting began. All of them. Six or seven or eight. Shouting at him. Each other. Anything. Singly. In twos. In threes. All together.

Then they were screaming. Shrill cries and screams screeching and echoing inside his head. Howling. Jangling. Piercing. Shrieking like knives all across his mind.

Then silence. Long, empty, eerie silence.

The sweat ran down his back, his chest, his legs. He dug his nails into his palms, waiting for them to begin again.

Soft laughter echoed round his head. Was joined by other laughter. All soft. Like children’s. It deepened. Criss-crossed his head. Deeper laughter. Growing. Building. Pulsing. Evil, crazy laughter. All inside his mind. On and on and on till he thought his head would explode.

He started screaming and shouting to try and kill the noise….long seconds dragged by before he realised the only thing he could hear was his own voice.

Silence.

At night he took a couple of tablets to help him stay awake. He suspected they could feed on his dreams.

####

On the second day the voices inside his head grew more sporadic.

Sometimes he slipped and responded to them but he was gaining control all the time, growing stronger. After a long silent period, they tried what he prayed was their last attempt to break him. They set up an echo effect inside his head. All of them, one after the other, from all the dark corners of his mind.

‘Alex…Alex…Alex…Alex..’

‘Alex Franks…Alex Franks…Alex Franks…Alex Franks…’

Overlapping and on and on, growing louder and louder. Then some of them started laughing while the others continued the echoes. But he was becoming detached enough to ignore them and he knew they couldn’t keep it up for much longer. The echoes and the laughter trailed away and stopped.

By mid-afternoon he was confident enough to leave the mat and heat some food. Then a shower. He did it all purely by reflex -- there were no thoughts involved.

Towards evening he detected a subtle change in the way they spoke to him.

There was just a touch of desperation about it, as if they knew there was now a chance they might lose. He ignored them and strengthened his resolve not to respond. Later on he allowed himself a meal then a sleep in the lounge. He instructed the computer to wake him in two hours.

At night some more of the tablets helped him to stay awake.

####

The following morning found them strangely silent and him much stronger. There was the occasional pleading which he ignored.

Once Derv asked him, ‘Is it too much to ask for just a few thoughts, Alex?’

He smiled broadly but his mind stayed silent as he breakfasted.

At lunch time he prepared a healthy meal then slept for three hours.

In the evening he walked through to the medical bay on stronger legs and weighed himself. His weight had increased by a pound and a half. He grinned at the healthier looking man in the mirror and allowed himself another sleep.

For the third night running he stayed awake, mainly in silent meditation and when the first red rays of dawn entered the lounge it was time to put the next part of his plan into action. He wondered if putting any distance between them and him would reduce their power and anyway, he was tired of staying in the ship. He showered and packed some food.

When he opened the door they were waiting for him.

VI

He came down the steps of the ship slowly, never taking his eyes off them.

They made no move towards him, just stood there in a semi-circle, watching him. His heart surged when he saw how much thinner they were and it made him feel even stronger. At the bottom of the steps he halted.

Derv said, ‘It’s pointless, Alex. No matter how far you go we can still reach you. We can still feed on you. Distance means nothing to us.’

He stared at them coldly but didn’t respond. He began edging away from them but they made no attempt to stop him, didn’t even move. Just watched him in silence.

When he was a hundred yards from the ship, he turned and looked back. They had started to follow. He turned and headed into the red-tinged wilderness.

####

He didn’t stray too far and after an hour he doubled back. The voices were always with him but there was a definite change in them now -- they were pleading almost all the time and he noticed that there didn’t seem so many of them.

‘Talk to us, Alex. Just a few thoughts.’

‘It’s agony, Alex. The hunger is terrible. Can’t you give us some thoughts?’

He heard a woman weeping but he ignored it and continued leading them round and round in the wilderness.

There was another reason why he wanted to keep them after him. It had occurred to him earlier that they would probably use up energy as they moved around but as there would be no thoughts for them to feed on, their reserves would be used up pretty fast. Which meant they’d be growing thinner and weaker all the time. He walked on.

When the sun was higher in the sky and was casting a warm glow over the planet he stopped to eat. This gave them time to catch up but he wasn’t worried. He leisurely finished his meal then picked some cover when they drew near -- he wanted to see them.

He almost laughed when he did. There were only five of them left and they were very, very thin. So his reasoning about them losing weight quite quickly was correct. He smiled and watched them go by.

####

They tried a new tactic.

Derv said, ‘How will you repair your ship without thinking, Alex?’

The others took it up. ‘You’ll never do it, Alex. You’ll never do it. You’ll have to start thinking again. How can you work without thoughts in your mind?’

He grinned -- that one had already been worked out a few days ago. Still grinning, he allowed a single, loud thought to run triumphantly through his head. ‘Easy -- I wait till you’re all fucking dead!!’

In the silence of his mind, there might have been a hint of soft laughter but

he shook his head. No, he must have imagined it.

####

A few days later only Derv was left alive and barely at that. Alex tracked him to the shelter of some rocks where he’d crawled. Compared to his own body which was gradually returning to normal, he was a living skeleton -- some of his bones were visible and the skin on his face had started to split around the nose and chin.

As Alex watched him writhing about feebly among the rocks and sand, he felt a weak thought coming into his mind.

‘Just a few thoughts, Alex….please.’

Despite the nightmare he’d been through he found himself curious about how they grew. He wanted to see it happening with his own eyes. He sat on a rock near Derv and allowed a stream of thoughts to run through his mind.

It happened very fast. Within minutes, he could see the flesh growing on Derv’s face. Saw the skin join and become thicker around the nose and chin.

Saw the grateful look in his eyes.

He’d seen enough. He closed his mind down again.

When he returned a few hours before sunset Derv was dead. He wept with relief. One by one, he found the skeletons of the others, every single one he’d met in the room inside the cliff. Accounted for them all.

A wild joy exploded in his heart and mind. He was free of the bastards! The goddamned leeches!!

He ran and danced and sang his way back to the ship, feeling a wonderful glorious lightness in his head.

For the first time in weeks his mind felt empty, except for his own thoughts.

VII

He slept soundly for ten hours when he returned to the ship. When he woke, he planned out the work he still had to do over a leisurely breakfast. The useless Helium Converter had to be removed and the other fitted. He smiled as he allowed different parts of the work to run through his mind -- it was such a relief to be able to think freely again.

He strolled through to the lounge with a cigarette and a cup of coffee and began to consider the problems. It was going to take about a week to complete the work, which meant his food supplies would be adequate. His water could do with topping up though and later he would stroll over and collect some from the room inside the cliff but he wanted to start work on the Converter right away.

He finished his coffee and cigarette and humming happily to himself, pulled on a work-suit, collected his tools and strolled down to the Drive section.

####

He worked hard for two days but the job proved more difficult than he’d thought. The removal had been straightforward enough but fitting the other Converter wasn’t as simple as he’d hoped. There were a few alterations and modifications he’d need to make.

He felt irritable. The hard work and the lack of sleep the previous week had left him feeling worn and tired and the fact that he’d walked over to the cliff and found both entrances to the room heavily blocked hadn’t improved his state of mind.

He took a break one afternoon and carried a cup of coffee through to the lounge. The view from there was calming and he wanted to try to relax and get the work into perspective. He lit a cigarette and stared out the observation windows.

The red sun was climbing down the sky, flooding the landscape with its soothing light. A vast sandy plain stretched away to some mountains in the distance. The sky behind them was a deep crimson, lightening up in stages to a soft pink.

Some of the irritation receded in his mind and he finished the coffee and lay back on the couch. He closed his eyes and tried to think about the job rationally.

‘Okay, you’ve ran into a few snags -- so what? They’re minor things, trivia. They won’t keep you here forever, just delay you, that’s all. A few more days won’t kill you, so relax. Take the problems one by one. You know you can beat them. Then you’ll be away.’

Away. He smiled. What would it be like getting home after all this? He sighed. It would be so good. So damn good. He lay there and daydreamed about it for a while as the red sun slid further down the sky. He would have lain there a while longer, just daydreaming but the critical corner of his mind was growing impatient.

‘Move!’ it ordered.

Alex grinned. “All right, I’m moving,” he said and reluctantly rose to his feet.

He yawned and took a last look at the view from the observation windows. He turned to go and Derv was standing in the open doorway. A partly fleshed skeleton. There was only one eye in the half-formed face. There was no skin at all over his nose and mouth. All the bones in his hands and feet were visible.

Alex screamed and staggered back against the couch.

Derv smiled a hideous smile. ‘Hello, Alex.’

“You’re dead! “ Alex screamed. “ I killed you!! All of you!!!”

Soft laughter in his head.

‘Not quite, Alex. You reduced us to bare bones, that’s all. You didn’t kill our life-force. No-one can. I told you that you couldn’t win.’

“But if I die you’ll have no-one to feed on!” Alex screamed at him. “You’ll all die too!”

‘No, Alex. We can stay as skeletons for years. It only takes a few thoughts to bring us back to life. Others have been here before you. They died as well. There’s no escape, Alex.’

He felt his mind invaded again. Like tiny insects scrabbling around inside his head. He didn’t have the strength to resist them. He slid to the floor and wept.

VIII

The rescue ship arrived two weeks later.

His distress message had beamed out all that time but the Company had ran into trouble in the Baltok System and no-one could be spared until now. The two-man crew had landed a short distance away on the same plain. They’d searched briefly for Alex but couldn’t find him.

“He must be around here somewhere,” the Engineer said to the Captain when he returned from inspecting the Drive section. “He’s been working on replacing the Helium Converter. Another few days and he would’ve been finished.”

The Captain was sitting in the lounge, staring out the observation windows as the setting sun bathed the plain in a dark reddish haze. “So where the hell is he then?”

The Engineer wiped his hands on a rag and shrugged. “Don’t know. Could be anywhere I suppose.”

The Captain yawned and stretched. “Well it’s too late to continue looking for him tonight. Let’s get some sleep. We’ll work out a search plan in the morning….after we’ve had time to think about it.”

THE END


© 2007 Danny Raven

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