Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Musical Chairs

by K. Vesi





They landed near a lake. Marianne and Leon, crouched as low as they could in their bulky spacesuits, were taking readings of the soil. Andy was off to their left, taking a look at the land with its tubular grasses and wispy trees instead of setting up the atmosphere scanner. Nearer to the water, Darius was busy with his sample station. In the distance their ship could be seen, sleek and small.

"Andy," Marianne said as she helped Leon with the opening mechanism of the specimen flask. "Be a good captain and get that atmosphere scanner started."

"Right," Andy said and walked over to the cargo bundled up nearby.

Leon and Marianne exchanged a smile. Andy was their captain but often his crew had to be the ones to keep them on mission.

Darius wasn't supposed to go into the water, just take a sample. That caught everyone's attention: splashing. Darius stumbled face first into the lake. His whole body slammed into the foreign, potentially harmful water and became submerged.

The three astronauts ran towards the lake.

Marianne's brain registered the strange lights in front of her as nothing more than the light from the planet's sun shimmering off the water, but the lights were strong and within a few strides she was blinded. She felt a stinging sensation on her face from the intense heat. Then her helmet cracked and the stinging became very painful very fast as the lights entered her suit.

"Darius!" she screamed, as much for the initial alarm for Darius's safety as for the searing pain she now felt.

The word 'Darius' was replaced by sounds of a breeze flowing through this alien landscape's trees and grasses and by the lapping of lake water gently reaching the shore. Not real silence. There was no real silence on planets with life on them. Just this planet had become void of human noise, but not the humans themselves. They were still there, frozen, in various modes of movement.

Andy's body nearly floated in mid-air like he was about to crumble to his knees, his hands to his broken helmet. Leon's body was arched in agony, his face looking up to the sky, the damage to his helmet evident. Marianne's body leaned forward in an unbalanced way like she was about to fall, her arms flung back, her fists clenched, the crack in her helmet large and clearly irreparable.

Not that that mattered. The lights had entered the astronauts' suits and were doing damage, including to Darius under the water. The lights were being: being inquisitive, being unintentionally destructive, being present in the moment for eons...

The cargo bundle containing the atmosphere scanner broke down first but the sleek spaceship in the distance took centuries to disintegrate into nothingness.

Then the lake dried up and Darius's body was revealed.

Then the planet's yellow sun turned large and red.

Then the remaining life still clinging to existence died in the burning dryness of the planet becoming engulfed by the red giant.

Then one day the large hole in Marianne's helmet filled in, the crack disappearing, and the cracks in her fellow astronauts' helmets did the same.

The lights surrounding the four dissipated, flickering away...

When Marianne opened her eyes her arms continued to fling backwards but her leaning body was balanced by one large step forward. "Darius!" she screamed again for what for her was only a moment.

Darius lifted his body up from the stony ground, looked over his shoulder at Marianne, "What!"


* * *

Dippy walked behind Marianne, slow, awkward, but still daunting. If the inhabitants of this planet could comprehend how menacing Dippy used to be, they'd be terrified. Except Dippy was now just that--dippy, both physically and intellectually. A robot whose hate-kill function was disabled by Marianne, Dippy was now a companion. Not the friendship kind. More of the heavy-lifting and get-me-out-here kind.

The humanoid beings on this planet showed signs of sentience. They walked right up to Marianne, curious, but avoided contact with Dippy. Two of the humanoids, both female, approached her. They grabbed her pant leg and shook it. Then, triumphantly, the two backed off to join the others, a small group of primates crouched together watching her.

"What are you doing here?"

The spoken word scared the primates. They hooted and huddled more closely together though they didn't flee, either too scared to move or too interested. If interested, then they would be well on their way to sentience.

Marianne should have been surprised but she wasn't. Not anymore. She turned around.

"Hello, Darius. Glad to see you, too," she said.

"Not using the light aliens to travel?" Darius asked, spying the tall ship nearby.

"You mean the Deviens. Leon's name for them has kind of stuck with me. No, I'm trying to keep in the same time and space. Have you found Earth?"

Darius remained silent; she had her answer.

"Lost Andy," Darius said. "Some time ago. I keep calling up the light aliens and think of him. Hasn't worked yet, but I will find him."

"To them, you and Andy may still be together."

"Not that crap again."

"They may not understand our physical forms," she said. "They went for our brains, sensing our thoughts, and in the process--"

Darius shook his head, looking down at the ground, trying to hide his frustration.

"They're an intelligent life form and that means we can communicate with them. We just haven't succeeded yet," he said.

"Contact with them killed us," said Marianne.

"Wrong."

"We don't need spacesuits anymore and it's not because we've been--"

"Vaccinated," Darius said. "Yes, we have. The light aliens vaccinated us. We didn't die. We have never died."

"The Deviens couldn't tell the difference between what killed us--them--and what was slowly killing us--time. Now they come calling anytime they sense trauma to our cellular existence. Aging or an accident, it doesn't matter. They fix it."

"Talking to you..." The Deviens appeared, surrounded Darius, and in that moment he vanished.

"And now we cannot die," Marianne said to the empty space where Darius once stood.

She turned to face the primates still huddled together, watching this exchange with unabashed interest.

"We cannot die," she said to them.


* * *

An asteroid was heading towards this planet, would hit it in about two hundred and seventy-five years. All life would be extinguished, including these primates, but not if Marianne could help it. That was her mission.

"I think you have a chance," Marianne told her spectators. "Just don't annihilate yourself when you go nuclear. I don't want all my hard work to be for nothing."

The primates stared up at her, all eyes on her lips, her words. Words of warning. Maybe her words were like seeds now planted into their subconscious to be put to good use in the future, when they populate the planet with ideas and skyscrapers.

"Nice thought," she said to herself. "Nice try, Marianne."

"Talking to yourself?"

"Yes, Andy, I'm talking to myself," Marianne said, looking up at her captain who just appeared in front of her. "Many people do it. Not just me."

It had been a while since she ran into her fellow astronauts. Two visits in one day wasn't common.

"I'm looking for--"

"Darius," said Marianne. "I know. He was just here."

"What? Did you piss him off?" said Andy.

"Yes and no."

"If you hadn't done that, we'd all be together."

"Sorry." And Marianne was genuinely sorry.

She knew Andy wouldn't stay long so she continued her mission. She handed Dippy a particle generator which needed to be placed firmly and deeply in the ground. A few of these generators around the equator of this planet and then Marianne could start up a resistance field in orbit.

Dippy bent down clumsily and planted the generator squarely were it needed to be. That was the kind of companion she needed. Andy watched the robot complete its task but made no comment on what he saw. Clearly, he didn't care. It had been a long time since either one cared what the other one did.

"Are you sure you don't want to travel with me?" said Andy.

Marianne shook her head, no.

"Why?" he asked.

"Difference of beliefs," she said.

Andy got quiet. He was the captain after all and it was hard for him to go against his training.

"Your choice, but we don't have to agree."

"Yes we do. If we don't, we could end up for years as killer machines like last time. We arrived on this planet, looking for supplies, and were ambushed by his kind," Marianne said, pointing to Dippy. "They tore us apart, made us one of them, until the Deviens intervened and restored us to our human selves."

Andy looked at Dippy then back at Marianne. He stifled a chuckle. Marianne angrily handed another particle generator to Dippy. She planned on planting three generators in each location for good measure. Only one was needed but she couldn't trust her curious, new friends not to dig some of them up.

"You're under stress," said Andy. "These other lives you say we have lived are either nightmares or vivid hallucinations. Given what we have been through, it's understandable."

Marianne laughed, "Really, Andy? Nothing is dangerous to us because we'll be restored to our previous selves. I'm not dreaming this."

"I don't have these dreams," said Andy. "Five years tops."

"Yes you do, and we haven't been at this for five years," said Marianne. "More like hundreds of years, possibly thousands of years. We were machines for a hell of a long time and once on some resort planet--"

"That you had a dream of, yes."

"--where we lived for many years, wildly celebrated, because we were the first humans to make contact with the inhabitants there. Then Leon became a leader of a country or an army and he killed many people."

"Hard pressed to provide more details? You can't even name the planet," said Andy.

"Once we're restored by the Deviens, our brain cells return to their original state and those memories are only residual, but it happened: Leon started a massacre, and while I can't remember it all, I sense he enjoyed it."

"I need to find Darius." The Deviens appeared and Andy disappeared.

Marianne handed Dippy the third generator.

"Plant that for me, Dippy," Marianne said and Dippy went to work obediently. What a good companion.


* * *

One location done. A whole planet to go. Marianne planned on following the equator, planting particle generators every hundred kilometers or so. Later in orbit, she'd ping those generators to initiate the resistance field's formation. The mission to save this planet would take years. She had the time.

"Well, good-bye for now," she told her little group of friends.

The primates moved amongst themselves now, crawling over each other, all trying to get a better view of her.

"I'm probably going to run into more of your species on this planet. I'll tell them you said hi."

To the primates, Marianne's moving lips were the most fascinating part of her. Words of salutation. Another seed.

"Come on Dippy; back to the ship."

Dippy couldn't understand her English. He followed by example and he followed her back to the ship. It wasn't a big ship but a tall one and Dippy fit in it nicely. Not much a coincidence, though.

"Took this ship from the killer machine planet, didn't you? You should give that planet a proper name since you keep going back to steal stuff."

Marianne's gaze flitted to her console screen; Leon's reflection stared back at her.

"Now that you know how not to get caught and end up as a murderous robot," Leon continued. He looked over at Dippy latched securely at the back of the ship. "Like this guy here. Good steal."

"Thanks," she said, guardedly.

She swivelled her chair around to face Leon who sat casually in one of the passenger chairs. Visits from all three of her fellow astronauts in one day: that had never happened before. Something was up.

"I'm travelling alone now, too. Left soon after you," said Leon. "I couldn't take our fellow companions' denial. I think it's the clothes. That's got those two highly esteemed scientists stumped. They can't wrap their single-minded brains around the Deviens reconstructing our clothes along with our arms and legs. Cellular regeneration with a sense of fashion."

"Andy and Darius have become separated," said Marianne. "They're currently searching for each other."

"The Deviens may still be interpreting their presence as together," he said. "I liken our existence to musical chairs. All the chairs are set up in a row, four in our case, and the music is playing, but no chair is being taken away, and the music isn't stopping. The four of us are going around and around. No end."

Marianne found that likening faulty.

"But even if chairs are taken away and the music stopped, there will still be one chair," she said. "One person is left sitting."

"A winner," said Leon. "And with the game over, maybe the Deviens would make contact with him, or her. Communication with such an advanced life form would give humanity an advantage."

Marianne turned back to her console, began the codes to start up the ship.

"How did you pass all the psych tests back on Earth, Leon?" asked Marianne as she guided the ship upward; "Because right now, you're sounding psychopathic."

"I'm not saying someone needs to find a way to eliminate the other three," he continued. "But some of us may have to make a sacrifice. We're not finding Earth. You've stopped looking, I know. I don't think we'll find Earth until we make contact with the Deviens. The problem is convincing Andy and Darius. They think we just got here and Earth is one step away."

"Eliminate. Bad choice of word there after what you did on the resort planet," she said.

"You've killed," he replied.

"Yes, when I was a machine, I'm sure I did, and in self-defence over the years, but you massacred people."

"I don't recall that at all. Our memories fade. Key events are missing or jumbled. I remember my actions as being justified."

"It was genocide. The people of that planet were horrified by us and killed us. That is what happened next. Then we woke up on another planet, courtesy of the Deviens."

From his jacket pocket, Leon took out a disc which Marianne recognized as more technology from Dippy's planet. Before she could react, Leon leaned forward and fitted the disc into a round space in her console. She looked down at one of her screens, saw that two missile-like devices were deployed from her ship.

"Those two capsules will replicate and surround the whole planet. Then they'll turn on, a full-on force field," said Leon. "Much better than the resistance field you were setting up. Your planet is saved. Happy now?"

"No," said Marianne. "Now what am I going to with my time?"

"Find Earth, like you always wanted to," he laughed.

Marianne watched the Deviens come and go with Leon. She then returned to her controls, but flickering lights materialized behind her. She braced herself.

"Leon, I don't want--" she started to say.

But it wasn't Leon.

She swivelled her chair around, looked at the spot where he just sat. Someone else was there now--a woman.

"Who are you?" Marianne stood up...


* * *

And found herself by a lake. She glanced around her: tall grasses and tiny trees. Alien, of course. The grasses were tubular and spiral with orange, bulbous tips; the trees were stubby with feather-like green leaves, but Earth's trees and grasses would be alien, too. She would find life on Earth strange; she had been away for so long. Except she recognized those alien trees and grasses... and that wasn't all.

She left the shore, heading up a hill into the grasses and soon after into a thicket of trees. She entered a clearing. The tubular grasses were cut very short, almost carpet-like, and there wasn't a tree in sight. This clearing wasn't done by nature.

"Where are the sandwiches? How's your back--do you need a chair?"

"Wouldn't go up now, too crowded."

"Only one sun; just like Earth."

Marianne meandered her way through a spattering of people sitting or hovering around portable tables and chairs, like at a picnic zone in an amusement park. No one was in suits. The planet must have passed all hazard tests. She listened to the human voices. She was home.

The Deviens must have transported her here. She didn't think of them so this shouldn't have happened. Staying in one spot like she was must have triggered their attention: she had stopped moving around and around the chairs. They took notice, focussed on her, and brought her to a place she couldn't stop thinking about. She knew something was up with today.

A flash of light went off to her right.

"Anything happening?"

"What did they use this time?"

"Are the four free?"

Are the four free?

Those words hit her, jarred her back to her lonely reality. She changed direction, heading right, past the picnickers and their carefree conversations. The further away she got from them, the thicker the crowd of people became. She pushed her way to the front and found herself back on shore.

She saw everyone from behind. She saw Andy curled up in mid-air, his toes barely touching the ground, his hands to his helmet. She saw Leon's body arched painfully skyward. She saw Darius sprawled just under the water, the lake being still and clear today, and she saw herself, leaning dangerously forward, frozen in a position of nearly falling.

There were guards stationed at regular intervals but the crowd kept a respectful distance from the immobile astronauts. Army and scientist types moved about "the four" with weaponry and scientific instruments. One scientist placed a scanner near Andy and stepped back but before the device could be activated a stream of light burst out of Andy's suit and destroyed it.

"Come too near to one of the four and that happens."

"Inanimate objects are destroyed but not humans. I heard that the zap really hurts, though."

"It's some sort of protection but the astronauts are trapped."

Marianne listened to the conversations, watched the activity on the shore: part rescue mission, part scientific discovery, and part tourist attraction. Of course, when she and her fellow astronauts didn't report back to the main ship orbiting the planet on automatic, a distress signal would have been sent to Earth. People would have come, discovered the astronauts' fates.

She looked up at the planet's sun--yellow, young, and brightly shining on this cloudless day. The rescue mission would fail. Any scientific discoveries would be completed soon. At some point concern and interest in the four astronauts would wane. Then the four would be abandoned. From time to time a patrol ship would probably stop by to check up on them, but for how long? Centuries, sure. Millennia, maybe. Billions of years, no.

Humanity would be long gone when the Deviens solved the biological problems of the four humans, but that didn't matter for the moment. Marianne was part of a journey that had come full circle. For some reason no one recognized her. No one was putting two and two together yet. All she had to do was break ranks with the crowd and identify herself as Marianne Wether. She took a step towards one of the guards...


* * *

And found everyone gone: no guards, no crowds, no army or scientist types, and no lake. Darius laid face down on rock. No, the lake was still there. The shoreline had moved fifty metres or so. The lake was shrinking.

A hand on her shoulder startled her; she spun around.

"Oh, hello," said a woman, beaming nervously at Marianne, as if she had been the one startled, not Marianne.

Marianne studied the woman. This was the woman who appeared on her ship. That could mean a Devien had taken physical form. A Devien finally succeeded in communicating with a human, but wait. Maybe not...

"Reba?" Marianne said. "Reba Brent? What are you doing here?"

Marianne took a step back in shock...

And found herself on a sidewalk, in the middle of a busy downtown. She was back on Earth. She tried to place the city. There was a metal box near her and she could see pictures behind the glass. Couldn't be but it was: a newspaper kiosk. Those kiosks were antiques by the time she was born. She looked at the newspaper through the glass and knew then what city she was in, Toronto--her mother's hometown--and the date, July 6, 2027--her mother's birthday.

"I put a little of everything in it: milk, cream, white sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon."

The woman who looked like Reba handed Marianne a tall paper cup. Marianne took a sip of the strange brew--coffee with the works.

"Thanks Reba," said Marianne.

"Reba?" the woman laughed. "Let's find somewhere to sit."

There was a bench by the coffee shop. They sat down. A tree grew beside the bench, an Earth tree. Marianne looked up at it in a sort of 'hello'. She could leave this bench right now, find the hospital her mother was born in, and hold her infant mother in her arms. That'd be amazing. The thought was fleeting. She became serious.

"Reba was a girl from my school days that I was so cruel to, she transferred to another school. Her leaving, the hurt I caused her, has stayed with me. It took me years to realize what I had done and now--"

"Now you cannot think of her without sadness," said the woman.

"I had to admit to myself that I had done an ugly thing. It wasn't easy. If I ever saw her again, I'd apologize. You look like her, but I think if we ever did meet again, she wouldn't be as happy to see me as you were, no matter what I say."

"Call me Reba then," said the woman, grinning at Marianne. "I want Reba to be happy."

"Me too," said Marianne, and then reminded herself she was talking to a Devien. "There are four of us frozen on this planet. You hurt us by mistake and--"

"Then we helped you," said Reba. "We didn't mean to hurt you."

"I know," said Marianne. "It's just that a lot of time has passed. We're far from home, billions of years from--"

"No, you're not," Reba said, looking around the city street.

"Time is a lot different for us," Marianne explained. "And we don't live--"

Reba gave a look of playful exasperation. "Talk about time," she said. "This story of yours is taking a lot of time. Your coffee must be cold. I will go get another."

Reba got up, headed for the coffee shop's entrance.

"No, no, no," Marianne begged. She stood up to follow...


* * *

And found herself in front of her frozen self. She studied her scrunched up face inside her damaged helmet. The Deviens pulsated around her face but their light was dim, subdued.

"If this is what you mean by frozen, we can't stop the frozen."

Reba stood by Marianne's immobile self.

"You view yourself as changed. We sense you do not want this change," Reba continued.

"Well, humans do change. Slowly," Marianne said. "We call it aging. Then someday we age so much we cease to exist. We call it dying."

Reba laughed, "You do not cease to exist."

Marianne stared at Reba in silence: her life after death beliefs were reinforced by a Devien. She wanted to savour the moment but she needed to continue, the momentum of understanding too fragile to stop now. She racked her brain and then it came to her.

"Alright, we don't cease to exist," she said. "But we keep moving. It's like having a chair to sit in but then the chair is taken way."

"No chair?"

Marianne felt elated but dared not show it.

"No chair, and when that happens, the person has nowhere to sit."

Reba was puzzled. "With no chair, what does the person do?"

"The person leaves. They go somewhere else, but they can no longer sit in the chair because the chair is no longer there. That is what happens to humans. They have a chair, they are sitting in a chair, and then one day the chair is gone. It's a game we all play but one by one we leave the game."

"I get it now," said Reba. "You cannot leave because we have your chairs. I like this game. Can we play this game, too?"

"You may already be playing this game; it's just that your game is a much longer one," said Marianne.

"We love games!" Reba said.

"Okay, so now--" Marianne started to say but stopped.

Reba was gone.


* * *

Marianne waited for Reba's return. It was an awkward wait: quiet, boring, and a letdown. She decided to take the time to look at her fellow companions, the ones she had abandoned in a fury of harsh words.

As she walked over to Darius, her other companion crossed her mind--Dippy. Poor Dippy. He was strapped to the back of a ship orbiting a planet who knows where. For quite some time she preferred Dippy over Andy and Darius and, naturally, Leon. Not so much, now. She had to disable Dippy's intellectual and physical programs to make him agreeable and stupid and clumsy wasn't really that agreeable. It was just simpler.

She knelt down by Darius's sprawled out body, coming in close. There it was: the damage. The crack was scored across the whole helmet. She couldn't see his face but there was a soft glow coming from his helmet.

"Well, Darius," she said. "You're right. We can communicate with the light aliens. I need to listen to you more, not be so dismissive of your ideas. Wait till you meet Reba."

Next was Andy, her captain, curled up in mid-air. She crouched down to his level and could just see parts of his face through his fingers. He looked strangely peaceful with his eyes closed, the Deviens in there with him just as peaceful, shimmering around his features.

"Andy, you're wrong," she said. "It's not been five years and I'd love to tell you that again but I won't. We need each other. I should've never left the group. I'm sorry."

Marianne approached Leon reluctantly. She looked up at his open-eyed stare at the sky, the Deviens invisible in the glare of the sun.

"First off, thank you for the musical chairs metaphor because it helped me to communicate with Reba," she said. "But guess what? I've got a new mission: I'm going to get Reba to remove your chair. You've done harm--wilful harm. You need to be stopped as much for yourself as for others. You can't go back to Earth, Leon. You're too dangerous."

Finally, she returned to her immobile self, moving gingerly around her leaning body. Reba wasn't returning any time soon. 'Soon' was the applicable word, though, not 'return'. Reba would show up someday. Then Marianne would introduce Reba to Andy and Darius. Maybe the three of them would finally get through to Reba and she'd return them to correct year on Earth. If so, Marianne could sign up for a patrol mission to watch over 'the four'. Then one day, on her own terms, in her own time, she would ask Reba to take her chair away and she'd go somewhere else.

Marianne peered into her helmet, at her scrunched up face lit softly by the Deviens. She tried to smile at herself but failed. What to say? 'You're in for a rough ride... Hang in there... Trust yourself.' She decided on no words. Instead, she patted herself on the shoulder. That was what she needed: support. Well, she wasn't going to find that here.

In a flicker, the Deviens appeared and disappeared, taking Marianne with them.


* * *

"Ugh!" Andy said as he fell to his knees, his hands to his helmet, but the pain he felt quickly subsided.

Leon's arched body forced him to stumble backwards, breathless, but he remained standing.

When Marianne opened her eyes, her arms continued to fling backwards, but her leaning body was balanced by one large step forward. "Darius!" she screamed.

Darius lifted his body up from the stony ground, looked over his shoulder at Marianne, "What!" He stood up, looking frantically about him. "What! What's going on?"

The four quickly converged.

"We're on a planet with a sun that is about to go supernova," said Andy. "We've been transported here. The reason doesn't matter right now. We need to focus on how to get back to our ship."

"There is a chance," Leon said, "That we've been frozen for billions of years in the same spot. For some reason we've now awoken. Don't know if that is true but it would make it more difficult to get back to our ship, wouldn't it?"

"Impossible," said Darius. "We need to start a search. Look for any technology we may have stumbled across that brought us here."

"You think we've never left the planet?" Marianne said to Leon. "I hope you're wrong."

"Me too," said Leon. "Because then we have nowhere to go."

'Anywhere but here,' Marianne thought as she gazed up at the red, gaseous giant engulfing the whole sky.

With that thought, slowly, one by one, then in droves, the lights returned. Before anyone could be afraid, the Deviens surrounded the four astronauts and spirited them safely away.


THE END


2017 K. Vesi

Bio: Ms. Vesi is a Candian author who has been away from writing for far too long. Please welcome her back with comments on her story in our forum.

E-mail: K. Vesi

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