Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Here's One For Mr. Serling...

by P. B. Hampton



During the passage of manmade time a microsecond falls when the universe is suspended. This event is far less than a beat, much briefer than a wink; it is that precise break just before the second-hand on any device touches straight-up midnight. Yesterday has not gone, tomorrow has yet to come, neither past nor future may be marked.

Countless episodes may transpire within this atomic chasm: untold stories of worlds colliding, unknown persons wrestling with tenuous fates or, perhaps, merely the lightning-quick snatch of a preying night owl. None are above the fold of this pinpoint void and that moment may soon arrive when we shall all meet our destinies beneath the glare of unwavering spotlights. Or, should our fates be less heralded, we may visit while shrouded by the guarded gloom that often pervades those mysterious corridors withinů the Zero Zone.

A pilot and his copilot are stoic in the cockpit as their spacecraft plummets from a wide yellow sky. The pilot, although shuddering along with his craft, waits until a light prompts him to trigger a switch that gives control of their vehicle to an onboard computer. The system begins firing retro rockets, precisely coordinating a progressive retardation of their descent until the ship settles upright on a barren spot of dark terrain. The tip of their bullet-shaped vessel points toward the smaller of two suns hanging above.

"Whew!" The copilot exhales, flipping a series of switches. "Baby, do I hate coming in blind like that! Nice job of override on that entry, sweets."

The pilot, a fair-skinned man with light hair, nods as he studies the images sent from a camera mounted in the nose of their vessel. "We got lucky, Susie. There's a lot of vegetation out there; we could have easily landed in the bushes."

The copilot studies the monitor. "Yeah, I'll say. Hot out there, hon, and the humidity is off the chart. Wow, I am not crazy about this, Dane."

"Jenna and Roland would have come in blind for us, Susie."

"Yes," Susan sighs, "they certainly would have. We might as well get to it."

Offered here for your consideration is a tale of galactic proportions. The somber, tight-lipped pilot of Tram Unit 3 that is owned by Universal Mining Concerns is named Dane Lawson. Pilot Lawson is from Brimstone, Idaho, a small town located on a middling-sized planet called Earth. His copilot is also his wife of 12 years and they are making their 23rd run as a team. Universal Mining hires only married couples without children, having discovered that tram-mates who care deeply for each other make very dependable haulers. Dane and Susan Lawson have been called from a routine run to answer a distress signal being sent by Unit 1, piloted by Jenna Vickers with Roland Vickers in the second seat. The beacon is coming from well outside the normal shipping lanes, emitting from an uncharted planet that Star Mapping Command has designated as Omega Void. The teams are transporting a lightweight amalgamation of ores called trilumium that has become ten-times more valuable than gold to Earthlings.

It is a long-held belief that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If so, then bravery must be given to the heart. Dane and Susan disembark their craft to enter a strange environment in search of their friends and this they do because it is the right and noble thing to be done. The couple ventures beyond the safety of their ship wholeheartedly, a feat that must be considered as an act of true bravery while at the same time being beheld as a thing of beauty to unblinking eyes that are set beneath the wrinkle of curious brows within the Zero Zone...

"Oh baby, is it hot!" Susan Lawson drinks incessantly from a plastic canteen, a one-gallon container filled with water slung across her shoulder. Her husband carries a similar vessel but does not drink. He holds a small device in his right hand which he swings back and forth in the direction of heavy foliage.

"Go easy on that water, Susie. Jenna and Roland might be in bad need of some."

"No way, not with this humidity. There's got to be water all over the place."

"Yeah," Dane responds, "but is it potable?"

"Oh." Susan caps her canteen and puts it away.

The heat produced by two suns is relentless and draining; they have traveled less than one mile and Dane feels as if he is walking in a quagmire. "I'm getting a strong signal from right over there. Come on." He leads the way as they fight through thick grass, each step sinking into loamy soil. Dane wonders why Eden Colonizing has not settled here for this topsoil would lend itself to many crops: corn, beans, tomatoes...... They burst through a final tangle of undergrowth to enter a clearing and his heart sinks. There is no sign of Jenna or Roland Vickers but their solar-powered distress beacon rests upon the ground, pulsing dutifully one call after the next. Dane looks around, voicing his wonder: "Why would they leave it here?"

"Maybe it's their campsite, Dane, and they're out looking for food or whatever."

"Could be...oh no, Susie, is that what I think it is?" Dane strides a few steps to bend over and heft a rod made from wood. The obvious weapon, about three feet long, has one end honed to a sharp point while the other end is blunt.

"God, Dane, is it a spear?" Susan racks a round into the Velper Cannon she has strapped to her forearm, looking about excitedly.

"Easy now, Susie, just take it easy. Maybe Steve made this; you know how good he is with wood." Dane takes note of the precise balance and substantial weight of the piece, realizing a reasonable mind would be required to conceive such a weapon. "It's more like an arrow but it has no stabilizing feature. Maybe he's hunting fins for it."

"Come on, Dane, you know we don't have the stuff on our ships to carve out spears or arrows. Oh, God, look on the tip of it!"

Dane winces as he follows Susie's finger: the tip of the weapon is smeared with blood. "Still, it could have been used by them, Susie, and not on them, couldn't it?"

"Yeah, yeah, I guess that's true."

"Okay, we've got one shot at this and then we have got to go. There's no telling how long the nights are here and both suns appear to have passed their zeniths." Dane looks around with sweat streaming down his face. "I say one mile and then we have to turn back. Sound good to you?"

"Yeah, that's about as far... A zephyr stirs the thick air and Susan turns to face it. "Ahh...hey, honey, you smell that?"

Dane tests the tiny breeze with his nostrils. "No, what do you smell?"

"I could have sworn I smelled steak cooking on a grill."

"You're just hungry, my voracious little wife. Now, focus, we've got one shot at this and then we have to go. Use your intuition, babe, which way do we go?"

"That way," Susan points immediately, "where somebody is having a cookout."

####

They have struggled through the heavy grass for an hour, either forced to dip into their water supply more than once. They have no evidence that their friends are alive even though they have been calling out and have their wristband radios set to scan all frequencies. Finally, with an exhausted sigh, Dane plops down to rest. "That's it, Susie, I'm sorry. We have to turn back."

Susan squints ahead, wriggling her nose. "I swear to you, Dane, I smell something that is being grilled."

Dane looks up with a sad expression. "Have you stopped to think that might be the Vickers we smell being cooked?"

"So, you have caught the aroma?" She shakes her little head and Dane is amazed, once more, at just how much he loves this woman. "Let's not think the worst, okay, Dane? Come on, babe, it's right over there."

"Actually," Dane sniffs, "it is coming from over there."

"Well, let's go see. We have our wristbands; we won't be that far apart and we can talk. Come on, Danie, pretty please."

Whenever Susan Lawson uses that face and calls him Danie she always gets what she wants.

"All right," Dane relents, "but we communicate every two minutes."

####
**

"Dane!" Susie is back up but her transmission is weak. Dane checks his wrist-set to confirm a clear channelů "Dane!" Susan must be whispering into her wristband in order for her voice to sound so faint.

"Go ahead, Susie." Dane feels a great lump enter the pit of his stomach.

"Dane, my darling, go as fast as you can back to the ship and get out of here. Do not wait for me but always remember that you are my love forever. Please, Dane, you can make it if you get out now!"

"That is a big negative, Susie-Q; we leave here as a couple!"

"No, darling, I beg you, it's no use...oh, God, they've seen me." Her voice does not ring with fear but with tones that carry such a deep finality they make Dane feel sick to his stomach. Susan is yelling now: "Go, Dane, go! Please, baby, please!"

Boom! Boom! Boom!

The sound of Susan's Velper Cannon reverberates from the southeast as it spits out big fat rounds of explosive missiles.

"Dane, that thing we found..."

Boom! Boom!

He is fighting through the grass, unmindful of the slashing cuts he receives.

"...is not a spear or an arrow..."

Boom! Boom!

Dane knows only to get to his love, never once considering that any alternatives might exist in this or any other universe.

"...it's a toothpick!"

THE END


© 2012 P. B. Hampton

Bio: P.B. Hampton is a warehouse worker from western North Carolina who has been married to a fine woman for 39 years. His second love is the tricky craft of stringing together prose to create a series of mental images. Perry's story Night Owls appeared in the December 2011 / January 2012 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: P. B. Hampton

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