Aphelion Issue 249, Volume 24
April 2020
 
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The Harvesters

by Steve Carr




Silos as tall as the highest peak on Earth’s Mount Everest and as wide in circumference as the planet Mercury crowded the vast, frozen landscape of Pnmva. The tips of their conical roofs poked through the outer atmosphere into the darkness of space drawing power and heat from the white dwarf star it circled in an orbit it shared with no other planet. It revolved so slowly on its axis that each complete turn took a millennia. Seen from a great distance, Pnmva glowed, white and crystalline.

Ar-Patra passed through the semi-permeable hull at the base of the silo where it was the senior Flakas into the blizzard that blew through the narrow passages between the silos and met with a dozen other Flakev also slowly making their way through the tornadic wind, their translucent light-blue, constantly-shifting jello-like forms, floating a few inches above the icy surface. Ar-Patra had not been out of its silo in eons. Being summoned to the Grand Library meant that something of great importance was happening. He joined the other Flakev in humming nervous greetings to one another.


*****



The bullet-shaped space pod sped through space anchored to an asteroid by a gravitational magnetic beam. Inside the pod, Lt. John Tracer, lay inert, suspended on a bed of air, his naked body being touched only by the tube inserted in his arm that monitored his vital signs and body chemistry, fed him, medicated him, and removed the wastes from his body and bloodstream and shot them out into space. He was in a state of physical stasis. The neurons and synapses in his brain should have been functioning at their barest minimum to keep his body functioning and prevent brain damage, and although he should have been in deep sleep, he was wide awake and aware of everything that was happening to him. He was cognizant of time, but only in the sense of the now, a never-ending sameness. He had no idea how long he had been traveling through space. The only thing he could control other than his thoughts were his eyes which he kept open for long periods of time, and the ability to speak.

Staring at the perfectly smooth white ceiling inside the pod lit by a solar-generated incandescent light he found a single red dot the size of the head of a tack and kept his gaze fixed on it. The red dot became the ball he played with as a young boy, the ball cap he wore as a cadet in flight school, a freckle on his wife’s cheek, the planet Mars and a dozen other planets, and the fiery explosion of the Nereus I. For hours upon hours he talked to the red dot.

“Remember that time I water skied on Lake Amundsen at the North Pole and was being chased by a bob of hungry seals?” he asked it, wishing he hadn’t conjured up memories of water, which happened frequently. Since most of the glaciers had melted a hundred years before, water was in abundance on Earth. The tube in his arm kept him hydrated, but didn’t remove his constant thirst or his thoughts about the floating cities of his home planet. He would have given his left arm for a glass of ice water.

During long periods he thought about time, the passing of it, counting the second and minutes aloud until he fell off to sleep. He couldn’t recall how long a pod could keep its occupants alive, but he knew the time was finite.

In the pod with him, Diana Tradeau, lay suspended and connected to a tube just as he was. She had never responded to anything he said. He didn’t know if she was in a state of sleep or dead.


*****



Ar-Patra was the last of the Flakev to pass through the hull of the silo of the Great Library. It stood still for several moments absorbing with every sensory fiber that coursed through its gelatinous body the vastness of Great Library, much larger than the one it was the Flakas of. He knew that the surface of Pnmva was covered with silos, all exactly alike in size and purpose, but had only been inside the Great Library silo when emergency meetings were called. That happened only when a senior Flakas passed away and a new one had to be named for a silo.

The inside of the Great Library solo had no barriers to separate one dimension from the next, or one period in time from the next. It was devoid of any indication of time or place and was as endless as space, where stars were replaced by countless shining ping-pong ball sized free-floating globules, each what the Flakev called a “book.”

The Great Library held only those books containing the remnants of the greatest life forces – the essences – of every sentient planetary species that had ever existed and died since the beginning of time.

A steadily growing number of the books had begun acting erratically in the not-so-distant past, their usually steady glow blinking. They were spinning and nearly colliding with one another as they bounced around in the air, something no Flakas had ever seen them do before.

Millions of other Flakev representing silos from all over the planet had already merged into a mountainous blob connecting each one to all the others; a thought that one had was simultaneously shared with all the rest. Ar-Patra melded into them.

An intruder we are unable to turn away has entered our quadrant and is heading straight for our planet, was the first thought Ar-Patra received.

The immediate reaction among the collective Flakev was they shut down, ceasing to be connected in their thoughts or sharing their senses.

As they began to awake, all Flakev had the same thought. Is entering Pnmva space even possible?


*****



John was aware that the pod was beginning to feel differently. While the medication had prevented him from feeling any pain or becoming ill in any way, it had never fully sedated his mind as intended, but he could no longer feel its effects. His entire body began to tingle as if being pricked with needles. Almost instantly his hearing became more acute. He could hear Diana’s breathing and the subtle whirring of the controls on the navigation board at the head of the pod which he was unable to see.

Then he began to fell the pangs of hunger for real food, a sensation so foreign he didn’t remember or recognize it at first. When the pinky finger on his left hand began to twitch, he realized his body was coming to life. Within minutes he could wiggle his fingers. The tube to his arm gently retracted, pulling out of his network of veins and receding into the wall of the pod.

The mass of air holding him up slowly dissipated as it lowered him to a pad. His skin had felt no contact with or friction against any object since he had escaped into the pod with Diana. The pod was much smaller than a spacecraft, but large enough for two people with two pads for beds, a food generating and dispersal unit, a bathroom with a toilet and shower, a clothes and medical supplies closet, and a tools and weapons locker that contained a small toolbox and two high powered molecular disintegrater pistols. They had quickly stripped, set the controls, and laid on their pads and let the pod do the rest.

When feeling fully weaned from the medication, he gradually sat up and turned to see that Diana was already sitting up. She was staring out the front viewing window. The glow of Pnmva loomed large in the surrounding darkness with a backdrop of the dwarf star and a swirling constellation of pinpoints of light. The asteroid that the pod had hitched a ride on was gone, leaving the view unobstructed and sending the pod on a trajectory aimed directly toward Pnmva.

He followed her gaze. “Do you recognize it?” he asked.

Without turning to look at him. “I don’t recognize anything I’m seeing,” she said.

Known among the entire space fleet astronomers and among astronomers on Earth as being the best of them all, her inability to identify Pnmva or the area of space they were in alarmed him.

She stood and on wobbly legs stepped up to the navigation panel and looked down at the gauges that would provide the distance they had traveled and the time they had been traveling through space. She tapped on them with her fingers and then turned and looked at him for the first time. “They’re either broken or frozen,” she said. “Either way, consider us lost in space.”


*****



Ar-Patra passed through the hull of his silo and was immediately surrounded by the junior Flakev who attached themselves to it and were quickly informed of what was happening.

What is the plan? their thoughts hummed.

Ar-Patra turned his senses to the millions of books that hovered in the space inside the silo. These books, like those contained in most of the silos, were essences of life forms but these were the ordinary beings of the planets where they had lived and died. Just as in the Great Library, there was no way to make contact with an essence; not even the greatest Flakev in the history of Pnmva had discovered how an essence found its way to the planet. Whatever life an essence had lived remained a secret, separating themselves upon arrival, the greatest thinkers and influential among them entering the Great Library and all others entering the other silos. The purpose of any of it remained unknown, but Ar-Patra took his role as a guardian of the essences as his only reason for existing.

Remain calm and guard the books, he relayed back to the other Flakev.


*****



Sitting at the navigation panel, John kept his eyes fixed on Pnmva as Diana donned her spacesuit. They had suddenly became aware of their nudity soon after they were strong enough to walk about in the cramped space. Any other place their nakedness would have been meaningless but inside the pod it felt too familiar; too intimate. He dressed first and quickly and then occupied himself with trying to repair the gauges while she showered and dressed. They hadn’t taken the time to discuss how they felt physically or otherwise. As he stared at Pnmva he wondered if he should have told her that he was hearing voices; countless voices, garbled, unintelligible, many not even recognizable as human.

He was one of the first astronauts to make contact with the Drober species on the planet JKS 265, but their language of barks and whistles was organized into a speech pattern. Much of what was going on inside his head wasn’t.

He didn’t tell her he had been awake for most of the time as they were latched to the asteroid.

When Diana came out of the bathroom he didn’t turn to look at her, but her clean scent wafted his way.


*****



By consensus of the other senior Flakev who had joined together in the Great Library, Ar-Patra had been designated as the leader in finding everything it could about the quickly approaching craft. Their collective senses told them that it was small and that there were two inhabitants. Since Ar-Patra had never seen a space craft from another planet, or met any inhabitants of any planet outside of Pnmva, that information was basically useless. Most books floating about in his silo knew more about space craft and alien species than he did.

The prevalent question among the Flakev was, Can we break our own laws and tap into a book – into an essence – and get the information we need before the space craft arrives?

Most often there was a resounding “no.”


*****



The pod automatically turned over its control to John and Diana as soon as they had been detached from their tubes. Free of the pull of the asteroid, the pod was drawn in a straight trajectory by the immense gravitational strength of Pnmva, unusual for such a large planet. The damaged navigation panel allowed John and Diana to keep the pod stable, but that was about it. They had no control over the speed they were traveling and no idea what it was. A pod was a lifeboat in space, meant to maintain orbit near the spacecraft it had exited for whatever reason, keeping its occupants alive until they were rescued, not to travel indeterminately through space or to enter the atmosphere of another planet.

John surmised that the pod used its magnetic anchor to grab on to the asteroid possibly mistaking it for a rescue ship.

“I wish I had had time before the evacuation alarms sounded on Nereus to tell my parents that I loved them,” Diana said as she leaned across the navigation panel with her nose pressed to the viewing window. She was staring at the glint of sunlight on the tips of the silos. They looked like metal spikes poking into space.

John was sitting on his pad and pouring through the pages of the pod flight manual, looking for a way to bypass the damaged navigation controls. He hadn’t known Diana very well when they were on the Nereus I, a spacecraft designed for space exploration that carried a lot of scientists and ambassadors but few members of the military, which he was one, there in an advisory capacity only. The flight crew were all employees of the Nereus organization. The small group of military men and women had remained clustered together for most of the flight, only occasionally interacting with the others. It was Diana who grabbed him by the arm and yanked him into the pod when the order to evacuate the ship was given, just minutes before a reactor on Nereus I blew up. They both knew what to do when getting into a pod, but had no clue how to land one.

“We’re going to enter the atmosphere at incredible velocity,” he mumbled.

“What?” she asked wistfully, lost in her memories as she turned and looked at him.

He looked up from the manual. “Yes, to answer your question, we’re most likely going to die.”

“I didn’t ask that.”

He tossed the manual aside, stood up, and looked at Pnmva. It filled the entire viewing screen. He stepped up to the navigation panel and for the hundredth time tapped on the communications button, hoping to hear more than static or even worse, complete silence. The only noise he heard outside those made inside the pod, were the constantly changing voices that buzzed in his head. Every once in a while he thought he heard a word he understood, one spoken in an Earth language, but it was brief and jumbled with all the other din of voices.

“What got you interested in astronomy to begin with?” he asked her as he stood back and pondered the shimmering glow given off by Pnmva.

“I was just a child when my grandmother used to sing me that very old lullaby, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but it had great effect on me.”

He scratched his head. “I’m not familiar with it.”

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are,” she said in a sing-song voice.


*****



To his astonishment, when Ar-Patra returned to its silo, numerous books were acting in the same irregular manner as those in the Great Library. The senses of the junior Flakev were being awakened to a mixture of new thoughts: alarm and confusion. It gave them the news that there was a spacecraft headed toward Pnmva but that none of the senior Flakev sensed that it was a threat. He assured them that under his assigned leadership, everything was under control. It pointed out that new books continued to arrive as they always had, finding their own paths to the silos and entering the space and time dimensions of their choosing. He found a spot to separate himself from all other distractions and shut down all of its senses, allowing its thoughts to focus on one thing, the approaching spacecraft.

Flashes of images began to enter its awareness: the pod itself and inside it the two beings, their essences still contained within their shells. Its glimpses of them came and went so quickly it was uncertain what it was seeing. It tried to focus his thoughts on only one of the beings, the one that seemed to be responding to the erratic behavior of the books. It sent its thoughts to that one.

I am Ar-Patra, a Flakas for the essences of all beings kept within infinite time and space. Why do you come here?


*****



Clutching his head, John fell from the stool at the navigation panel onto the floor. The voices disappeared, replaced by what felt like electric current surging through his brain. He writhed in pain, certain his head was about to explode.

Diana rushed to his side, repeatedly asking, “What’s wrong?”

“A voice!” John exclaimed through clinched teeth.

“A voice?”

John clasped his hands over his ears, trying to shut out all external noise, especially Diana’s voice that made trying to clearly understand what was being said to him even more difficult. It did no good. What was being said inside his brain was unintelligible, definitely someone or something speaking to him, but beyond his comprehension.

In a brief instant between the intruding voice’s transmission, when the excruciating pain paused, he summoned up all of his powers of concentration and thought, We’re lost.


*****



Not the words, but the inflection in John’s voice and that he was addressing a Flakas directly, cutting through the barriers of time and space, the living and the dead, brought every book to a standstill. They hovered in place, flickering brightly.

All of Ar-Patra’s senses were suddenly awakened. Its entire being quivered as the importance of what had just happened – that it had made contact with a living, alien being – surged through its physical and mental ganglia. It quickly absorbed every thought and feeling that John had ever had; incorporating John’s intelligence into its own. It understood perfectly what the alien had said and quickly calculated the dire situation the creatures aboard the spacecraft were in.

Ar-Patra knew very little about the physical makeup of its planet and only of the structure and properties of the spacecraft that it gleaned from John’s thoughts, but at an intuitive level it was keenly aware that the two were incompatible. Nothing with what he calculated as the possible mass of the spacecraft had ever broken through the outer atmosphere of Pnmva. It wished it had more time to reason out how to respond but there was only a short amount of time left before the pod would reach the planet.

Time, time, time, it repeated to itself over and over, hoping an answer to the problem would present itself.


*****



The speed of the pod began to accelerate as it drew closer to Pnmva. The pod began to vibrate, in a subtle way, but noticeable to its occupants. When the pain in his head receded to a dull ache and the voices returned to a steady hum, John attempted everything he knew to bring the gauges and controls back online, but the few tools in the toolbox were meant for minor repairs to the life support system, not repair of the navigation panel.

Diana’s experience in space travel was mostly academic. She sat on a stool trying to offer encouragement to John’s efforts while staring at the tips of the silos that poked through the planet’s outer atmosphere. She likened their similarity to some kind of structured ectoplasm. They only appeared solid.

John stood up. The word “time” echoed through his brain as if originating from the bottom of a very deep well. He wiped the perspiration from his forehead with the back of his hand and gazed dispassionately at the looming planet. “I think we’ve bought it,” he said. “There’s nothing more that I can think to do. If only we had more time.”

It was then that Diana felt the tentacles of Ar-Patra’s senses reach into the deep recesses of her intellect. Her brain exploded into a fireworks of thought. “Time,” she screamed. “What if we’ve traveled through time and not just space?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Think about it,” she said trying to calm herself. “How could we had ever traveled as far through space as we thought we have in this pod? What if we’ve entered another dimension of time?”

He repeated himself.

“A wrinkle in time. Time travel. For a thousand years, going back long before space travel was a reality, time travel has been discussed as a possibility. Our scientists have been trying to figure out if time is not just a concept, but as real as a point on a map, ” she said. “What if we’ve traveled through the boundaries of time by accident?”

He glanced at the viewing screen. The pod was near to entering the outer rim of Pnmva’s atmosphere. “What of it?” he asked.

“We weren’t meant to be here,” she answered. “It’s not our time.”

The pod entered the space and time boundaries of Pnmva.


*****



Back again, thirty-two years, Diana sat on the front steps of her grandmother’s porch holding her favorite doll in her arms. She looked up at the stars. “Sing that song to me, Grandma,” she said.

“Don’t you ever tire of that song?” her grandmother asked from the porch swing where she sat.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it,” Diana answered.


*****



Ahead, ninety years, John lay in his bed surrounded by his family. “I’m going to heaven,” he mumbled.

His great grandson leaned over, placing his ear close to John’s mouth. “What did you say Paw Paw?”

“Heaven,” John whispered.

“What’s that?”

“A wrinkle in time."



THE END


2020 Steve Carr

Bio: Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, has had over 370 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had five collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.

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