Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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Failsafe

by Geoff Nelder




Commander Lithic Ash landed on his hands and feet staring at the grass. Short as if mowed or neatly grazed by sheep. Yes, the lime-coloured blades wore a tinge of purple, but if he’d dared to open his helmet he would bet the sweet aroma of freshly cut lawn would fill his nostrils.

He assumed he’d fallen off the Fata Morgana’s ladder because he’d missed the last step, or it could be his fuzzy head. Despair too. His vision blurred to match his thinking, as he thought of the three crew who didn’t make it. Especially, Teresa. He gulped, knowing he had a task to do. There was something critical he HAD to do but it wouldn’t come.

He knelt up and looked back at his sleek, obsidian-black ship, as if the vision of the finest fighter that SpaceWeb could fashion in 2432 could trigger his memory. Nope.

He’d have to go back in and review the mission notes. As he staggered to his feet, noting distant lilac sawtooth mountains and intervening undulating olive hills, he recalled everything up to taking off. A search and rescue operation? No. An intercept—no, or perhaps. Damn his head. Readings from his silvery suit sensor were all green for life support, suspiciously close to Earth’s atmosphere minus the increasingly unbearable pollutants back there. Was that a clue?

Lithic turned to the ladder and raised a foot but stopped in shock when he felt and heard a tap on the back of his helmet. With surprising speed he twisted, ducked and his right glove ejected a dart gun into position. Twenty metres away stood a red-headed woman, hands on hips of her navy-blue coveralls. No helmet. Another pebble rested in her hand. She rocked back and forth with laughter. Worse than subordination. She spoke but he only heard his suit’s radio crackles. He’d not switched on the external mike.

In between annoying hiccupping derision, she blurted, “Sorry spaceman… I was afraid you were going to take off!”

“I might still do that,” he said in his sternest commander’s voice, then realized the speaker would make him sound more like a cartoon mouse. He retracted his gun and initiated helmet removal, but halted when he thought perhaps this was all an hallucination. Too late, fresh, cool air hissed in and he breathed it with some relief.

She strolled through the grass towards him and grinned even more, showing she had all her own teeth and then some. She offered her hand for him to shake. Her real voice still quivered in merriment.

“Carmen.”

“Spanish?”

“Bronx.” More laughter. “And yourself?”

“Commander Lithic Ash, SpaceWeb, erm Fleetarm? Damn, I cannot remember. Originally, Germany. What the fuck’s happening?”

“Neurological impairment in the transfer, Lith.”

“Lithic.”

“Okay, sure. Most survivors have some damage. Deafness, mute, memory, emotional trauma, or plain dead. Your crew OK?”

She’d looked over his shoulder and he couldn’t resist turning to stare at his ship.

“I…I don’t get it. All three dead, still strapped in their seats. Teresa… she looks all horrible, dried up, like an Egyptian mummy, as if dead for centuries. Why? How?”

Carmen put a hand on his arm.

“The jump. Like a kind of fold in spacetime. Kurt, one of our scientists in the settlement says it’s a quantum mechanics thing and—”

“But we don’t have that kind of tech outside a lab.”

“The alien does, the Ktistes, as it calls itself.”

Lithic grabbed the ladder to steady himself. “What alien?”

“Jeez, you have lost it. Ktistes came about three years ago, yeah? No. Right, well an unrecorded comet came from out of the solar system. Looked like it was on a collision course for Earth. Remembering yet?”

Nein, afraid not, but comets are small enough for our ordnance to vaporize. Was that my mission? Ein moment, you’ve not explained the alien. LGM—really?”

Carmen removed a drink pouch from a pocket and offered it. “Best you come back to the settlement though I’m warning you, we don’t have all the answers. Lock up your ship. This planet has inquisitive fauna and flora. We’ll help with burial later.”

“Carmen, are you an astronaut too?”

She laughed, but in a good-natured way. “Hell no. I’m—I was a seamstress on Gun Hill Road. I was soon to be team leader. Oh well. Handy skill, I guess.”

He clambered back into what was now a morgue. Their spacesuits prevented leakage, so the musty odour was more in his mind than reality. Grief and helplessness manifesting themselves. As far as he could recall he’d only known them in training and yet he knew Teresa’s name and there was an added iced lump in his stomach when he tried to remember her details.

Lithic changed into SpaceWeb camouflage two-piece fatigues. Fractal art of many shades of greens he’d hope make him blend into this planet before he headed, somehow, back home. No time and overwhelmed by kuddelmuddel to analyse the automatic log and mission data, but he downloaded it to his wrist smartpad for later.

He threw a scanner, monocular, firearm, mini-multitool, radio and first aid kit into a knapsack and reached the hatch of Fata Morgana when a nagging feeling stopped him turning to descend the ladder. The mission. To his earlier worry about a task he had to do, he added comet, alien and this planetfall. Ah, he had to…

Carmen’s New York accent drifted up. “Come on, Ash, how long can it take a man to change?”

Damn the fraulein, he nearly had it.

Once on the ground he closed and locked the hatch then put the ship into camouflage mode, all via his smartpad.

A nearby fallen tree like a copper beech with burnt branches and roots, smouldered sending aromatic smoke snaking into the air. Lithic enjoyed breathing in the fragrance, reminding him of when he indulged in illegal hookah inhaling as a student. He clambered up on a smooth unburnt section of the tree. He realized it was likely a victim of his landing. He whipped out his monocular and scanned the scenery.

“Carmen, have you hidden your ships? I assume you arrived in arkships even if via the alien’s QM nonsense.”

“I should get off that tree, Lithic Ash, it’s sentient, not yet dead and knows you damaged it.”

It was bound to be a windup but he jumped off anyway. “Answer?”

He noted her caressing one of the branches as she spoke. “We know of three ships, all like yours, but damaged and they’re way over the horizon. There’s six-hundred and forty-three people here, all ages but none with chronic diseases and in all occupations from unemployable to highly-skilled. All of us woke up here one day a year ago on the ground, no beds, but inside a huge bright red warehouse in the next valley.”

The commander glared at her. “This is unglaublich, nonsense. Are you even real?”

She frowned, green eyes bore into him and her red hair bounced as if with a life of its own. Her head tilted then she put out a hand and poked his arm. “Real enough?” She grabbed his hand and lightly scratched before he yanked it back. “Am I getting under your skin, Lithic? Haha.” She jumped up a little.

“You think this is all a dream? It could be, but then maybe you’ve been in a dream for ever. How to prove not?”

He fingered the slight abrasion on the back of his hand, worrying now about possible infection from local microbes. Before he could reach into his backpack, Carmen sprayed his hand.

“There. And you’re more likely to contaminate this beautiful environment than the other way around. By the way, this antiseptic is just one of a huge bunch of items we found in an orange warehouse. We thought they must have been chosen by NASA peeps for all the survival and new settlement needs, but besides those there’s just as much useless stuff. Boxes of those ancient entertainments, DVDs but nothing to play them on; a thousand copies of Danish to Slovenian dictionaries in hardback form, and yet we only have three Slovenian people and no Danish!”

“I assume all reading is now on ebook, but what about—”

“And three hundred and forty-two pairs of cycle wheels, but no frames, et cetera. Then there—”

Lithic held up his hand. Fascinating though this was, he needed more critical info. “Maybe the alien is testing you, us, humans? Were there instructions to—”

“Put them together? No, but—”

Nein. Instructions on what you’ve been put here for and what to do. Protection from attack, how to prepare for return to Earth?”

She laughed again. “You’re kidding me, right? Yeah, a few would like to get back to family and friends but more hope they’d join them here. It’s a fantastic world isn’t it? No pollution, plenty of fruit, nuts and life in the landscape.”

He harrumphed at the unlikelihood of it all. “And what have you called this new Earth? Elysium? Eden?”

“Craigslist.” She smirked making a couple of freckles join up on her cheek, and pointed at his puzzled face.

“Ah, the warehouse of miscellanea.” He couldn’t help grinning at the name craigslist for a planet. He rubbed his face at the unaccustomed use of facial smile muscles and wondered why he’d not grown a beard while en route here. Strange that his crew had aged in death but not him in life.

They walked through the grass over a low hill.

“Careful there, Lithic, it’s sure boggy where the grass is longer and darker.”

Danke, I suppose you found that out when you sank to your left knee in it earlier?”

“Yeah, it’s also home to hand-sized, buzzing insects. Look!”

Out came his dart gun, but retracted it when Carmen put her hand out. “Nah, they can read minds. Best to back off and go far to the left. Strange ‘cos we thought they were inactive in daylight. Just think calm thoughts.”

“Easy for you to say. Why didn’t SpaceWeb vapourise the comet with missiles?”

She led him farther to the left. “What was your favourite lullaby as a kid? Mine was ‘I see the moon and the moon sees me’.”

He grumbled under his breath, taking care not to tread on what looked like a snail in case it had a million fire-breathing friends.

“Twinkle, twinkle little star-fighter,

“How I wonder what you are,

“Up above the world so high

“Ready your weapons eins, zwei, drei!

He stopped, his thoughts somersaulting. His ditty touched something important. His ship, the comet, landing unexpectedly in this perfectly, wrong place. Ah—”

“Watch out, Lithic, the grass is longer here and has a nasty habit of twirling around your ankles. Just over this rise and you’ll see our new home.”

Again, she’d interrupted just as he was about to recall something. He lifted his feet higher to avoid the purple, asparagus-like tendrils emitting an incongruously lemon aroma. On top of the rise he joined Carmen standing on a flat rock. He noted the plants didn’t venture over it, but should humans? What did the plants know? With narrowed eyes he examined the marble-like stone around his feet while telling his boots to be alert for any vibrations or tilting.

“Don’t look at your feet, man, look out there!”

His eyes upped and followed her blue sleeve and tanned finger…

There wasn’t a more idyllic valley in all of Bavaria. A wide valley with its meandering river, lush meadows, dark green forests tinged with purple. Perhaps too perfect and spoilt only by human habitation at a bridging point. Three large rectangular buildings, red, orange and grey, maybe two hundred smaller boxes, pastel colours with a random road pattern linking them. More reminiscent of Moroccan villages with their higgledy-piggledy layouts than a modern street plan. He liked it.

Yet… he shook his head as if to rattle memories into place. “Carmen, how did SpaceWeb find this planet? Yes, I know there’s a catalogue of over a million planets likely to be habitable but—”

She stood in front of him and frowned, finally being serious. “We didn’t find it, Lithic, the alien put us here. It found, or made this place. You really don’t remember your mission yet? Why don’t we go down to the village, check your log, talk to cleverer people than me.”

“Yah, is there a path down?”

“So, you don’t even remember the ultimatum?”

He stumbled on loose stones but saved himself with his hand held out to the ground. “What do you mean?”

“Before landing here, Lithic, what’s the last thing you recall?”

He danced his shoulders to realign the backpack, which had slipped then rubbed his forehead, smoothing out his worry furrows, as if it helped restore memory.

“Taking off, but I also recall a SpaceWeb briefing on the comet. The day after it’d been detected and we were being told of protocols to deal with objects on an Earth-collision-trajectory. If I have it right, ten missiles were to be launched from the Moon, but they’d take two years. I take it they failed?”

“Hence the need for your Fata Morgana manned mission, but before you got very far…”

They continued downhill through long grass following a trodden way Carmen must have made on her way up. The crushed leaves wafted up a fragrance of sage. Lithic ducked as three canary-like birds buzzed him before he shouted at them.

“I see. A message from the comet was received?”

“A series of statements that astronomers had been misinterpreting for months. They thought the flickering was a result of the comet core rotating unevenly, or whatever. Once someone found a quantum filter, messages were detected—wait for it—Morse but for the Chinese telegraph code. Hah, you should have seen the rest of the world’s reactions to that!”

“Disbelief, followed by suspicion it was a Chinese cometary illusion?”

“You do remember?”

He shook his head, still being careful following the woman down the slippery slope—in more ways than one. “Obvious politics. So, what did the message say?”

They’d come to a natural terrace of shingle. She stopped and faced him.

“They’d been to Earth ten million years ago. Deposited genetic material to what was already here. They were coming back to reclaim the planet.”

He was developing a headache. “Really? Why?”

“Before we ruined it any more. We had three months to pack our bags and leave. As if we had anywhere to go! Yes, we had tiny scientific and tourist spots on the Moon and Mars and knew of habitable planets but no way to fly twelve billion people—”

“Did we reply?”

“Yeah, we sent you. And your crew.”

“You mean our mission objectives…”

“I dunno, Lithic. The public were told you were ordered to negotiate. We’d sent radio messages but their’s wasn’t in that format. It was light flickering. I guess SpaceWeb replied with light flickering too but it was as if Ktistes couldn’t see or read them.”

“Or didn’t want to. But you’re here. How?”

“Dunno that either. We just arrived like you. In confusion. We can only guess that—”

“The alien transported you then me, but where the devil are we? The same galaxy?”

“Dunno that either. We don’t have expert astronomers. The stars have different patterns here, but don’t you want to know what you were supposed to do? In your log?”

“Obvious. Use a flickering light message using the AI and whatever contraption SpaceWeb instructed us to build, but if that didn’t work… mein Gott!”

He turned to look back uphill.

Carmen pulled back at his arm. “What’s wrong? Oh, your original mission was to blow up the comet.”

“Yah, and if we became unconscious or died en route, there was a failsafe.”

She laughed nervously. “Of course. What, a planet-busting bomb?”

He gently took her hand off his arm. “Set to detonate a certain time after the Fata Morgana became stationary.”

“How long?”

“Sixty minutes.”

“Then quick. Run and disarm it!”

“Has to be done manually.”

It was hard work running in long grass uphill. He tripped and fell onto his knees. He looked at his watch.

He lay down on his back. Beautiful sky. Azure blue with red tinges. High flying birds, playing. Carmen came into view. Her twisted smile said she understood. He would have enjoyed making this his new home.



THE END


2019 Geoff Nelder

Bio: Geoff Nelder lives in Chester with his physicist wife, within easy cycle rides of the Welsh mountains. Geoff is a former teacher, now an editor, writer and fiction competition judge. His novels include Scifi: Exit, Pursued by Bee; The ARIA trilogy; The Chaos of Mokii; thrillers: Escaping Reality, Hot Air. Recent: historical fantasy inspired by the mass abduction of the population of Malta’s Gozo in 1551 by pirates. Those 5,000 spirits need justice: Xaghra’s Revenge (July 2017) Collections: Incremental– 25 surreal tales more mental than incremental. Suppose We, a scifi novella out summer 2019.

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