Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Catch And Release

by Daniel C. Smith



The following narrative was recorded on datapad QP107503b, assigned to Project Icepick for general use. Delete and Edit functions were disabled by unidentified personnel. Recording attributed based on voice recognition database to Lieutenant John F. McAlister.

"Hey, McAlister, I got good news for you."

I don't know what I hated more -- the sound of Griffin's voice or the fact that the sonic shield of the brig prevented me from getting my hands around his throat.

"And what's that Griff?"

"Your execution finally got scheduled, six A.M., tomorrow morning."

"And that's good news because?"

"Because Johnny boy, you're the only poor bastard I got locked up down here. Once they put you down I can go back to sleeping on duty."

"You're a real credit to the fleet, Griff. We need more officers like you."

"Yeah -- right back at ya, smart-ass. I just got one question, McAlister. Why? Why'd you do it?"

I don't know why, but I tried to explain it to him. "I told my father I hated him once..."

His jackal-like laugh cut me off.

"You threw away twenty years in the Space Corp for some childhood psycho BS?"

"Didn't you have a father, Griff?"

"I'm a clone, jackwad, no daddy issues here."

"Do you want to hear why I did it or not?"

"Well," he drawled, "I'm sure it's a real ball-breaking story, Johnny, and maybe if I get real bored with my porno database, I'll come back and listen to it later. But don't count on it -- they're streaming the new Mona Lazer flick tonight, so I'm sure I'll need both hands on deck... or is that on dick?"

"You're pathetic," I said.

He opened the shield enough to throw a tray of food at my feet.

"It's lonely in deep space, what can I say? That's your last meal, enjoy it. There's a pad in there, for, uh, your last will and testament. Or a confession."

With that he disappeared into the bowels of the ship, from wherever it was that he monitored the prisoners.

Prisoner.

Condemned prisoner.

I decided to skip my last meal and work on my last will and testament. Or my confession.

####

It had been one of my favorite places on Earth, Snapdragon Creek. In the summer the river banks overflowed with pink and yellow hollyhocks, and blue herons crisscrossed the sky. My father always told me that when he was my age you couldn't even see the smog cloud above Kansas City. Not yet.

I remember I was about to tell my father how sick I was of the fact that everything, and I mean everything, had been better when he was my age, when I felt a tug on my fishing pole. I had one on line, and so did my old man.

I wanted to be the first to reel in his catch.

The little guy put up quite a struggle -- even once I had him reeled in -- he flopped and flopped once he was inside the boat, refusing to accept defeat. I uselessly tried to catch him with my hands.

When he had freed himself from my grip for the umpteenth time my father picked it up, removed the hook from its mouth and threw my prize back into the water -- along with my moment of triumph.

I couldn't believe it.

"Too small, son," he announced. Then gesturing at our cooler he said, "Besides, we're at our limit now, time to go home."

"But I caught a fish... it was my first..."

"But if we take too many, and take 'em too young, there won't be any left for you and your son when you want to come here and fish," he said.

"I hate you! There aren't any limits..."

I screamed it, all the other people fishing up and down the river bank could hear.

My father stepped in close and spoke softly, almost in a whisper, the way he always did when he got angry. "John, everything has limits, including my patience. Now get your stuff together, we're going home."

I did not speak to him, outside of 'yessir' and 'nosir' for weeks.

But my father had been right. By the time I graduated high school the brown cloud over Kansas City had married the brown cloud from Denver, and suddenly sunshine was in short supply in the heartland.

And there weren't any more fish in Snapdragon Creek, or any other body of water for that matter.

Overfishing, over-logging, overuse and overextension... put them together, and what did we get? Over and done.

When the Space Corp recruiter came through town, I was first in line. Earth was in its final death throes, and I wanted to get off while the getting was good. Life had to better out there -- even under the pressure domes where the sunlight's fake and the oxygen recycled -- but at least it's clean air and the phony sunlight doesn't cause cancer.

My old man hit the roof.

It seemed planet Earth needed me, and kids like me (whatever that meant) now more than ever. My old man was big on 'it's never too late.'

"You can make a difference, Johnny!" It was like a mantra he repeated over and over.

But I didn't want to hear it, and I wouldn't.

I left that night without any fanfare, no prolonged farewells sad or otherwise, and for the next ten years I only spoke to my father 'through' my mother.

And when she died, I quit speaking to him altogether.

I graduated top of my class and shortly after that I was assigned to Project Icepick and it was off to the moons of Jupiter.

He sent me a wave, how proud he was and all that. But by the time I had decided to write back, it was too late to tell him that I was sorry or that he had been right about anything or everything.

But I couldn't have told him any of that, not then, because I didn't know any of it.

Not yet.

####

Project Icepick: every young cadet had wanted to be a part of it, and I was getting my chance. The colonization of the moons of Jupiter was going to be the crowning glory of the Colonial Program -- my assignment was more than a dream come true.

For over a hundred years scientists on Earth had known of the existence of subterranean oceans on three of Jupiter's moons: Callisto, Europa, and Ganymede.

The purpose of Project Icepick was simple: break through the icy lunar surface of Europa (whose sub-surface pocket held more water than all of Earth's ancient oceans combined) and explore the watery depths hidden below.

And in 2112, we did just that. Broke through the ice and began sending unmanned probes to 'pave the way' for the manned probes that would soon follow.

Probes that would be piloted by me, John McAlister, the hottest young pilot on the project.

I had been down in the surf (as we called it) three times when it happened: first contact.

There was life down there, beyond the microbial forms that we had expected and had already found. But this was something bigger, and a lot smarter that any microbial life forms we had encountered so far.

"Natalie, did you see that? On the lidar, something... something big."

"Calm down, Lieutenant, probably just a piece of ice, why are you getting so excited?"

"Because pieces of ice don't stop and then change direction."

With that my co-pilot was up out of her seat and back at the science station. She replayed the images.

Something had been out there, directly in front of us. It had come to a complete stop, and then proceeded in a new direction at a higher rate of speed than before it had stopped.

Whatever it was out there had detected us, and then it took steps to avoid us -- something in the icy waters of Europa had made a decision.

All of that could only mean one thing.

I ordered us to surface immediately; command would want to know about this right away.

####

Colonel Eakis was a small man. He covered the insecurities his physique generated by barking his orders, and the Colonel could never be accused of eloquence.

"I want one of them."

"I'm sorry sir?" But I knew what he meant.

"A specimen, McAlister. Are you deaf?"

"No... no sir. But how do you propose...?"

"Kill one of the damned things and drag it to the surface, the scientists will take it from there. What's so hard to understand about this, Lieutenant?"

"With all due respect, Colonel, we don't even know what they are. They could be intelligent..."

Eakis rose from his desk, but it didn't make him seem any more imposing.

"McAlister, there are plenty of pilots on assignment here -- if you're tired of being top gun around here I can..."

"No, sir, I just meant... well, how do you propose we capture one of those things -- imagery shows it was almost two hundred meters -- God only knows how much it weighs..."

"I don't want to capture it. I want you to kill it. Then drag it in. It's a fish, boy -- this should all be simple enough."

"Yes sir. I'll get it done, Colonel."

Simple enough.

####

Sergeant Maru, that's Natalie, and I dropped ourselves back into the surf the next day.

Only this time we were armed. And we were carrying enough supplies to last two months -- as far as Eakis was concerned, we would come back with a 'specimen' as he called it, or not come back at all.

"You're going to be famous, John."

"I couldn't do this without you, Sarge."

"What happened to Natalie?"

"I just want to be sure we're out of range, in case Eakis bugged the ship."

We both laughed and I had to admit, the idea of two months alone in this cramped hydra-probe with Maru didn't sound all that bad.

But I had an uneasy feeling about the task ahead, and it was only getting worse.

"What do mean by 'famous', Natalie?"

"Out of range, eh? I mean my sister works for the Net News Services, and I'm keeping a diary of our mission. This is first contact with a significant life-form. You've seen the size of one of them, we're not talking about discovering plankton -- there's nothing sexy about plankton -- you're going to be the most famous fisherman of all time, John!"

"I can't believe Eakis would approve something like that."

She just winked at me and smiled.

I smiled back, hoping that this mission would take the entire two months.

####

I originally designed a search vector between the path that the creature was on when it first approached us and the angle it took as it evaded us. But after six weeks, we still hadn't found anything. We hadn't even recorded any data that would indicate the presence of a life-form such as the one we had observed. I was beginning to think that perhaps we had seen a phantom.

Still, the six weeks hadn't been a complete waste of time, if you know what I mean. Natalie and I had grown quite close. I laughed at her academy stories, and she listened to me reminisce about Snapdragon Creek.

Then reality caught up to us. To me.

"John, lidar's showing an ice field coming up port-side, pretty considerable chunks of ice."

"And?'

"Let's power down, drift with the flow."

"Power down?" It was a pretty bold move, but from our position we had about five days left before we would have to head back to the surface.

Empty-handed.

The gravity of our mission hit me once again.

"Sounds like the best idea I've heard all day -- let's get it done."

We left just enough power to run the lidar -- we could last without recycling any air for at least thirty-six hours.

We listened to the pieces of ice scraping against the hull. And waited.

####

We were drifting for about twenty hours when lidar showed something coming our way, something big, something even bigger than the one we had first encountered -- a flattened spherical shape, about three hundred and twenty meters in diameter. It was passing close by, and the lidar imagery proved quite revealing. All around the circumference of this creature's body were tens of thousands, possibly millions, of antennae of varying shapes and sizes, guiding it through the murky depths, where light had never shone.

But there was definitely a size differential -- there was definitely more than one of those things down here.

Things.

I tried to tell myself that this was just another mission, but I knew better.

Who knew exactly what these creatures were, how long they had been here, how they had evolved and whether they were the only higher life-forms in this vast ocean, deep sea?

Or if they were intelligent in any sense?

Hello, we're from Earth and we are taking you to our leader, dead or alive.

Actually it would be dead. Our weapon was a torpedo that carried an electric charge, enough volts to kill anything, even something of the size we were talking about here. Then we would attach our ship to its underbelly and guide it back to the surface and Colonel Eakis. It would be quite a feather in the old man's cap, and it probably wouldn't hurt my career any, either.

Natalie started powering up, but I told her to wait.

"Let it get in closer," I said, "we know how fast it can move -- I want to get a good shot."

"Aye aye, sir," she winked at me.

I felt a crushing weight, a sense of panic, as if I were heading down a path from which there was no return.

And I was taking the rest of humanity with me.

So we waited. And whatever this creature was, it moved closer and closer.

Two thousand meters. Unless it could move three times as fast as the first one had when it swam away from us, there was no way it could out run our torpedo.

The only problem was whether or not we would be able to get our shields up in time to deflect the backwash from the electric pulse.

"Fire it up," was all I said.

The entire sequence took less than twenty seconds, but that was more than enough time for our friend out there to notice.

The moment that I felt I had trained whole life for was here. Failure was not an option.

We reached full power and I had a clear target lock; the beast was now changing directions, but it was too late. Once the missiles guidance computers lock on it's all over.

"We got 'em, John -- I'm pursuing at full speed."

Yes, we had 'em, dead center and closing.

"John -- we're getting too close -- we're running out of room -- we'll be hit by the charge..."

I fired.

But at the last second, for reasons I didn't... couldn't understand at the time, I released the target lock. Lidar showed the torpedo veering clear of whatever it was that I had decided not to kill and take to the surface for Eakis and his butchers.

If that torpedo didn't make contact with something in the next three minutes, it would power down on its own. Inert. Dead.

Just like my career. And probably my life. I couldn't believe what I had just done.

"John! What did you do?" Natalie screamed. She couldn't believe it either.

All activity involving the weapons systems is recorded, every detail. Command would know that I had released the target lock -- they'd know that I had let whatever it was swimming out there get away on purpose.

The moment I had waited my whole life had come and gone.

I looked at Natalie and realized that I had lost her too.

"Take us home, Sergeant."

####

Natalie... Sergeant Maru kept her distance all the way to the surface. I didn't push it -- it was for the best after all. I would be brought up on charges -- no sense dragging her down with me, no sense throwing her life away, as if I had the right.

She smiled at me as they lead me away in shackles after we had docked. I like to think it was a gesture of understanding and not pity. I guessed I would never know.

So much for being famous.

When I awoke the next morning, my last morning, the guard detail was already on its way down the corridor, eager to toss me out the airlock.

The only surprise was seeing Griffin hovering behind the guard detail.

The following is a transcript of audible conversation captured by datapad QP107503b, assigned to Project Icepick for general use. Delete and Edit functions were disabled by unidentified personnel. Attribution of passages to individuals present was based on automatic voice recognition routines.

MCALISTER: "I am locking the pad into passive recording mode so it will pick up everything until somebody notices and turns it off... which could be a while with Griffin in charge."

SOUND OF CELL DOOR OPENING.

MCALISTER: "What's the matter, Griff, first shift didn't show up this morning?"

GRIFFIN: "No, I volunteered for this shift -- I wanted to watch 'em put you down after you ruined my evening."

MCALISTER: "How's that?"

GRIFFIN: "The news services busted in on my movie last night, you're all the buzz in the solar media."

CRACKLING SOUND. Pad motion sensors indicate rough handling consistent with forcible seizure of device, confirmed by subsequent vocal passages.

GRIFFIN: "Is this your confession? Maybe I can sell it to news services, make back what I lost when they cut in on my pre-paid download..."

MCALISTER: "I was on the news?"

GRIFFIN: "Yessiree Johnny, you were on the news, all over it in fact. You're some kind of hero. Too bad for you you're a hero to all the wrong people."

MCALISTER: "Wrong people?"

GRIFFIN: "Students mostly, and all the underground rabble that feeds off of their nonsense."

METALLIC CLICKING SOUNDS. Identified as fastening of latches on standard type 42 light restraints.

MIDSHIPMAN AKIHIRO: "He's right, you're the coward that let the little fishy go, and now all the kids adore ya..."

MCALISTER: "I'm no coward..."

GRIFFIN: "You were convicted of it -- cowardice and dereliction of duty. That's your epitaph, McAlister old man, here lies a derelict coward. 'Cept you won't be laying anywhere, you're about to be spaced!"

LAUGHTER. Attributed to AKIHIRO based on following remarks.

AKIHIRO: "Griff's right. Those kids on Earth are all hot to save the planet again -- they're saying it's never too late, but you're just the latest rage, the newest cause, it -- you won't last long..."

MCALISTER: "Maybe they're right. Maybe my father was right. Maybe it is never too late."

GRIFFIN: "If they are right, you won't live to see it. C'mon, no sense putting this off any longer."

SOUND OF AIRLOCK DOOR OPENING.

MCALISTER: "I guess I'm done. But I'm betting that this isn't over. Those kids and 'underground rabble'? They vote, or their parents do, and..."

SOUND OF AIRLOCK DOOR CLOSING.

GRIFFIN: "Bye-bye, hero."

AKIHIRO: "...Shit. Is this thing recording? How do we erase..."

THE END


© 2011 Daniel C. Smith

Bio: Daniel C. Smith has published over a hundred poems, stories, articles and reviews in publications such as Tales of the Talisman, The Leading Edge, Star*Line, Space and Time, and Aphelion. His Aphelion appearances include short stories (most recently Founding Fathers, June 2008), poems, and an ongoing series reviewing golden age science fiction novels and movies titled RETROGRADE.

E-mail: Daniel C. Smith

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