Aphelion Issue 252, Volume 24
July 2020
 
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The Sum of His Parts

by Jeff Parsons




The transponder’s emergency light didn’t penetrate far into the thick snowstorm. The strobe flash would emit once a minute, much faster if it detected search frequencies, but the key part of its function was its microwave emissions blasting out. Even those would most likely be redirected and absorbed by the tall, sharp mountain peaks and ionic backscatter in the atmosphere.

Stepping back from the transponder, Aubrey inspected its placement – four self-screwing straps secured it to the wind-scoured bare rockface of the craggy ridgeline.

Looking good, he thought.

The problem now was getting back down to the safety of the crevasse below. His protective full-body envirosuit kept him from freezing to death for now, but it was his Adaptive Mobility Unit, his AMU, that allowed him to cling to the side of the mountain despite gale force winds. Still, going up a wall always seemed easier than going down.

Tricky. Have to go around that patch of bad ice. Plot a course, will you?

[Just let go. That’ll get you down real quick.] his AMU said. Aubrey had kinetic implants installed long ago to help with walking, but his new cognitive adapters allowed him to converse in his head with advanced AI.

He responded. If I fall, you’ll get damaged and repurposed as a bathroom stall attendant.

[There’s no such thing. You’re just afraid of failing in front of your girlfriend.]

Aubrey went silent. He never dwelled much on it, but it was difficult at times living as a teenager with a genetic defect that gave him deformed, crippled legs. And, to make matters worse by broadcasting how different he was, the eight multi-jointed legs of his AMU harness made him look like a spider, or more succinctly, a human riding a spider. Hence, the nickname Spider.

[I’m sorry. I know you like Freya. Just trying to distract you from the imminent peril of falling to your death.]

She’s not… we’re just… friends. And I’m not going to die. No one is. Not today at least.

She was waiting down below in the narrow crevasse that had been their path home to base until an avalanche blocked the mountain pass. The temperature was dropping precipitously and Freya’s sprained ankle limited her movement through the ever-deepening snowpack, so it had been a stroke of luck that a grey hazy void showed up on the radar sweep of their Heads Up Display or HUD. That void was sheltered behind a thick slice cut into the mountain, a calve of rocky ice that could crack at any time and cover the entrance to the void… a winding ice cave that snaked like probing fingers into the mountain.

Also down in the cave with Freya was Charles and Surenganee. Charles, also known as Heat Ray, always wore a silver reflective HUD, so you could never see his eyes, but you always knew how he felt because he was relentlessly outgoing, optimistic, and cheerful. Surenganee had the same outlook in life, but was more impulsive, always living in the moment. She had the idea of slipping out and away from the outpost base to explore the region where the 2397 expeditionary team had disappeared, thirty-five years ago. While unplanned outings were in complete disregard for station rules, it was fun and exciting, something desperately missing from their dull station lives. Aubrey went along because he wanted to be included as a friend and also, he knew that Freya would be going.

The things I do for attention... you done with that course?

[Ages ago.] A green line appeared on a small topographical map on the right side of his HUD. [I just love wandering around your unstructured and unformed thoughts.]

Shut up. You take over. And please don’t get us killed.

[Don’t worry, Aubrey. Hang on tight.] AMU chuckled, which helped ease Aubrey’s fear as they descended down the blizzard-obscured mountainside, a snow-covered sheer drop of over three hundred meters. Thankfully, AMU went down in reverse, so Aubrey was able to lean back into his chair. Concentrating on the mountainside passing by helped distract him: some type of basalt rock mixture; permeated by ancient ice; smoothed and sculpted by wind; recently speckled with patches of snow; typical of most of this planet. Unlike the nearby home world Gaia, a green and blue paradise of flora and fauna, Sicarax V only had some primitive forms existing far beneath the thick sea ice, primarily near the volcanic vents. Essentially, it was a frozen ice-ball resplendent with rare elements.

He closed his eyes. The protective suit’s heating system was losing its battle against the piercing cold. His feet were beginning to feel numb. The rhythmic cadence of the AMU lulled him into a meditative state until it skipped, sending the unit screeching across the ice. His eyes popped open.

AMU!?!

[Sorry. The ice isn’t structurally sound here so I’ll need to-]

With a startling crack, the immediate mountainside crumbled and icy rock accelerated wildly before him as they fell. The AMU’s legs scrabbled for a hold on the surface, repeatedly jabbing with its thin ice pick ends until with a jarring lurch, one of them held and the fall jerked to a stop.

Ouch! His back hurt from the sudden stop. Don’t do that again, he thought, clenching his teeth, then exhaling slowly to deal with aching muscle pain.

[Agreed. Recalculating route. Got it. Only a hundred more feet. You okay to move on?]

Yes. He couldn’t wait to get into the cave and out of the wind.

The remaining descent was uneventful. The narrow bottom of the crevasse was filled with hard-packed snow glazing a debris field of rocks, ranging from pebbles to boulders. The wind stopped pushing at him the moment he entered the sheltered cave. His ears were still ringing in the sudden relative quiet.

The deep cave had a dusting of snow that disappeared away from the entrance. The cave’s surfaces consisted mostly of clear ice, the visual depth up to ten meters, making it seem as if he was walking in the air. Light crept in from the entrance and through some veins of ice, probably streaming from distant connections to the surface. Freya’s helmet light pointed at him from the end of the cave. It barely reflected upon the ice where she sat, some thirty meters away where the cave branched off into three tunnels.

[There she is. The love of your life. Go to her.]

I am going to hook you up to the mainframe for a diagnostic when we get back.

[Please don’t. The base AI… it’s so… boring. I promise to be good.]

Aubrey smiled as he approached Freya.

Their HUDs allowed a full facial view, so he saw her smile back, a flash of displayed emotion that reminded him of the beacon’s strobe. She was a positive person, just quiet and not much for smiling. Her long, cherry-red hair contrasted starkly with her freckled creamy-white skin and pale blue eyes. He was entranced by how different she looked because almost everyone at the outpost had brown or yellow skin tones, with dark hair and eyes to match. Aubrey’s skin was light brown, reminiscent of the sim-cocoa shipments they received from the home planet. Likewise, his eyes were a light brown and his hair was long, straight, and jet-black.

She interrupted his fugue of rapt fascination with her when she asked, “You okay, Aubrey?” She always called him by his real name, not his nickname.

“Oh, uh, yeah,” he said, voice squeaking. “You?”

“Ankle still hurts. Better if I keep off it.”

He glanced towards her ankle. Most of her body was covered by a gold foil blanket taken from the emergency kit opened before her. He’d taken the beacon from it earlier. One of the two flashlights was missing from the kit.

“Where’d they go?” he asked, referring to their other two friends.

“There was a ping on our HUDs. From one of the tunnels. They went to investigate. Lost radio comms about ten minutes ago.”

The only blips on the HUD topo now were Freya and him. His lips pressed into a thin line. They left her alone! How can they be so irresponsible?

[They’re teenagers, like you. Prone to not thinking ahead. Besides, you didn’t exactly object to this irresponsible outing, did you?]

You sound like my mother.

Freya was staring at him. He realized that she was expecting him to say something.

“No comms, they could be lost. We need to-”

She interrupted, “Don’t leave me here alone. Please. They said they saw tracks further inside one of the tunnels. Big ones.” Almost reflexively, she grabbed the flashlight and switched it on.

“There’s no animal life. On the surface, I mean, I mean we haven’t found… um, okay. Can you walk?”

“Not very far,” her tone was hesitant. “You could give me a lift…”

An electric tingle swept through his body. He found it difficult to talk when he said, “Sure,” as nonchalantly as possible.

[Way to go, tiger.]

He leaned down and grasped her outstretched hands. Their protective suits were made from a flexible yet tough poly-comp material, but he could tell she had a surprisingly gentle touch as he helped her stand.

“Sit behind your back?” she asked, looking closely at the AMU with curiosity. Aubrey was strapped to the AMU chair in front of the main structure – she could sit on the chassis behind if she dangled her legs around him, away from the AMU’s eight legs.

He nodded to her question, not quite trusting his voice.

She held onto his shoulder, favoring her right foot as she climbed up behind him. After two squirming readjustments, she settled in comfortably, circled her arms around his waist, and looked over his right shoulder, their helmets almost touching.

He remembered to breathe, so as to not appear nervous. The masks they wore filtered outside air, so breathing was already unusual enough.

Is she… she smells like strawberries? Am I imagining that?

[You tell me, lover-boy.]

When she spoke, it was as if she were whispering in his ear. “They went down the middle tunnel. The big one.”

“Oh yeah. I see their tracks,” he said, referring to the faint smudges here and there which popped up on the HUD infrared overlay. Their helmets were interactive to voice commands and often anticipated user needs.

The tunnel was about four meters in diameter, roughly circular with rolling lumps, depressions, and shallow turns, much more confining than the cave, but having grown up in tight quarters, he was comfortable with that. The steady tinkle of his AMU’s legs poking into the floor’s slick ice was delicate, so he was able to hear the rhythmic whoosh of her mask’s rebreather close to his head as they explored the winding tunnel.

The infrared smudges became more pronounced with each step into the mountain, but there were no radar blips or personal ID markers from Charles and Surenganee.

“We are in such big trouble,” she blurted out. “The whole base must be looking for us.”

“Yeah, not such a good idea to go out just before a storm.”

“Why did we ever choose to do this?”

“I just wanted to be a part of the group. I mean, Charles and Surenganee, they’re really good friends, the best I ever had and I wanted to become, well, closer to them. And…”

“And what?” she asked, helmet moved closer to his.

“I was lonely, and uh…” He couldn’t finish the sentence.

“I’ve been lonely my entire life.”

She never talked much about her life to him or anyone else as far as he knew. When she was very young, she’d lost her parents in the transit to the outpost. A viewport had blown out. He suddenly felt overwhelmingly sad for her.

“No need for you to feel lonely,” he said without a thought. “You’ll always have me around.”

She hugged him tightly for a moment. “Thanks,” she said, softly. “Oh! See that?”

There were faint imprints on the ice, not just infrared traces, they were old imprints. More and more of them further up the tunnel. The air was warmer. Did the ice melt and drip to the floor?

[Unknown.]

Her voice trembled, “Those look like tracks, animals maybe?”

“No animal on the surface for at least… well, a long time.”

“If not animals, then what?” she asked.

He shrugged. Mankind had searched through the vast reaches of space for centuries and had yet to discover any intelligent life.

The tunnel ahead widened into a sphere. Closer up, the ice was no longer translucent. It was blackened with a carbonized smoot and pitted with dull grey shards of some material.

“This doesn’t look natural,” she said.

“Let’s get a sample.” he said, moving close to the wall. He brushed at the surface but nothing came off. The discoloration was integrated into the ice. Pulling out a small screwdriver, he chipped away at the wall and extracted a shard embedded in a nugget of hard ice. The shard was a sliver of lightweight material. He handed it to her.

She looked it over. “Looks like a metal composite. Can’t wait to analyze this at the lab.”

Aubrey heard a pocket zipper open and close. She’d tucked it away.

“The topo map shows a void up ahead,” she said. “A large one…”

It wavered on the edge of his HUD screen. “Wow! It’s a large cave! Wonder what’s in there?”

“Hopefully not the reason why Charles and Surenganee haven’t sent out any comms…” She eased closer to his body.

[Multiple heat signatures ahead.]

“Uh, Freya, my AMU detects, uh, says there are heat indications in the cave ahead.”

“You talk to your suit?”

“Yeah,” he replied almost defensively.

“Nice!” she replied, simply. “The cave… that must be where they’re dawdling.”

“And hopefully no animals?”

She quipped, “No animals. You said so.”

Trying to appear brave, he said, “So I did. Ready?”

“Okey-dokey,” she said.

“What?”

“Yes,” she giggled.

“Topo map went wonky,” he said, noting how the map froze in a distorted pattern.

[Interference. Might explain why there has been no comms.]

The cave was huge; her flashlight beam didn’t reach the ceiling. But, most interesting, clustered near the far wall, about a hundred meters away, there was a scattered grouping of dimly glowing lights. He zoomed in on the view. It didn’t help much. There were about twenty indistinct blobs.

“What is that?” he asked.

“Difficult to say,” she said. He could tell that she was also looking around at other parts of the cave.

“That’s definitely not natural,” he said, breaths becoming quicker.

[Ya think?]

“Okay, let’s take a closer look,” she said.

“Uh-uh, no way, let’s go back and wait for-”

“Charles and Surenganee are in here somewhere. They may need our help.”

“How can we help them if something happens to us? Safety first. First rule of rescue – don’t become a victim.”

“If something happens to them, I’ll never be able to forgive myself. You, too.”

Her empathetic reasoning wore away at his raw fear. “I know. I know. It’s not that… Okay, let’s just be careful, okay?”

“Absolutely,” she agreed, giving him a quick squeeze.

As they crept closer, each movement of the AMU echoed in the enormous chamber.

And then, revelation…

The glowing lights held people. They were immobile. Trapped. They wore environmental suits of a style that Aubrey had seen in historical holos.

“These people… they’re the expeditionary team,” she whispered with a reverent voice.

[Still alive in a stasis field.]

“The suit, uh, AMU says they’re in a stasis field.”

“We don’t have that kind of tech, Aubrey.”

This is so dangerous.

[Yes, it is.]

She tapped his shoulder. “The wall ahead. Part of it looks artificial. See how there are straight lines etched behind the ice?”

“Yeah. What is this place?”

“Oh no,” Freya cried out, twisting her body against his back.

“What?” he practically yelped.

She pointed to their left.

“Huh?” he asked, then saw it. His two friends, Charles and Surenganee, were about ten meters away, also encased in the glowing fields, facing towards the cave entrance. Upon closer inspection, they appeared to be frightened. The blue glow cast an asphyxiated look upon their appearance. He took out his screwdriver and edged it close to the field surrounding Charles. Nothing. No arc or spark. When he pushed the tip into the glow, his hand went slack and a paralysis spread up his arm quickly. The screwdriver dropped involuntarily from his hand onto the floor, breaking the contact. He shook his arm to get the circulation back.

On the verge of panic, she cried, “No!” She shifted her body behind him, probably looking about the immediate area. “We need to leave now, Aubrey, we need-” Her words stopped suddenly. The grip on his body became painful. Her next words were slow and thick, as if forced out through a clenched jaw, rigid lips, and a thick tongue, “Behind us.”

When he turned to look, at first, he didn’t recognize the black cloud of particles blocking the exit. It was enormous. Its shape was changing, condensing, coalescing into a towering juggernaut about twenty meters tall vaguely resembling… a human, if you took away most distinguishing features, almost like a crude prehistoric clay figurine.

[That’s not an organic being. My systems… overridden…]

The figurine construct stood before them, completely formed, motionless.

[They want to know why you’re here.]

He shivered and it wasn’t from the cold. “Uh Freya, my AMU said something took it over. It, whatever it is, it or they are communicating with us. They want to know why we’re here.”

She didn’t respond at first – her mouth was halfway open and her eyes had gotten very wide. “Tell it we got stranded. And we want our friends, our people, we want them back.”

[They ask if you’re the creators?]

Who are the creators?

[The ones who made them.]

What? Why don’t they know that themselves?

[They’ve been waiting for the creators. The people assembled here didn’t answer, weren’t able to. They were perceived to be hostile. Neutralized. I suggest you answer quickly.]

A crackling aura appeared around the figurine.

Freya’s grip on him increased. “What did you say to them, Aubrey?”

His mind raced. If I answer honestly, we’ll be held here, because we’re not the creators. What if I tell them what they want to hear?

The figurine started glowing blue.

“Aubrey!” Freya screamed at him.

I can’t lie. I can’t. It’s not right! This is mankind’s first contact. What kind of impression would that make?

[They’ve found our base, all of the other bases, and the home world. I think they’re going to do something-]

No! AMU, tell them the truth. We’re not their creators!

The figurine was now glowing bright blue. Electricity sparked loudly in the air, some bolts discharging with violent flashes to the ice floor.

Freya had a death grip on him. He could barely hear her screaming.

Then, the figurine disappeared. Instantly. No more crackling electrical discharges or rumbling of the ice around them, just Freya screaming…

“Freya,” he said. “Freya!”

She stopped and looked quickly around the cave. It was silent again.

“Where’d it go?” she asked timidly.

“I don’t know. It… they asked me if we we’re their creators. I said no.”

“Of course we’re not. Why don’t they know that?”

He laughed. “They forgot? Must’ve been a long time ago.”

“Wait? You told them were not the creators? Oh no no no no! They’re going to suspend us in those blue lights, freeze us, whatever it is!”

“No, I got the impression they were frozen because they couldn’t communicate and rather than take a chance, they were immobilized.”

“So, we’re safe?”

A deep seismic rumbling shook the cavern. The wall behind them, the one with lines on it, trembled and the thick coat of ice on it sheared off and fell to the floor, smashing loudly into many pieces. Slowly, a crack grew between the large rectangular section of the wall and the floor. A warm light peeked out into their eyes. It was an opening, a door, that creaked and groaned upward, slowly exposing a mysterious area behind it. There were bizarre buildings and structures within – it looked like an underground city!

[I’m back! I now have complete control of my circuitry. FYI, they were accessing your thoughts the entire time they interfaced with me, so… good response. They want to talk…]

Why should we trust them?

[If they wanted to harm you, they could’ve done so already. Besides, while they were talking through me, I got to look around in their systems. They’re just very… careful. Not malevolent.]

“They want to talk with us,” he said to Freya, each word almost leading to uncontrolled excited laughter.

“Tell them to release Charles and Surenganee. And the others, too…”

Immediately, the blue lights vanished. People stumbled, some fell, all clearly disoriented and groggy.

“You’re safe!” Freya said to the group. “You’re safe! I’m Freya and this is Aubrey. We’re from the nearby outpost. We’re going to talk to the owners of this place. If you feel up to it, you can come with us or you can stay here, rest, and get your bearings.”

Charles and Surenganee waved once but didn’t do much else. Apparently, the immobilization process took a lot of out of you.

“Take off your helmet,” Freya said to Aubrey, a mischievous smile in her voice.

It took some clumsy fumbling, but he managed to yank his headgear off with a flourish that sent his long hair cascading onto his shoulders.

Freya had removed her helmet, too. He knew because she leaned over his right shoulder, gently turned his head to her, and kissed him firmly on the lips.

“Well done, sweetie,” she said afterward, looking deeply into his eyes.

[Someone’s fabulous! What a lucky boy you are…]

He knew that he’d never be alone again. He had her. She had him. And mankind would no longer be alone in this vast galaxy.



THE END


2020 Jeff Parsons

Bio: Jeff is a professional engineer enjoying life in sunny California, USA. He has a long history of technical writing, which oddly enough, often reads like pure fiction. He was inspired to write by two wonderful teachers: William Forstchen and Gary Braver. In addition to his two books, The Captivating Flames of Madness and Algorithm of Nightmares, he is published in SNM Horror Magazine, Bonded by Blood IV/ V, The Horror Zine, Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine, Chilling Ghost Short Stories, Dystopia Utopia Short Stories, Wax & Wane: A Coven of Witch Tales, Thinking Through Our Fingers, The Moving Finger Writes, Golden Prose & Poetry, Our Dance With Words, The Voices Within, Fireburst - The Inner Circle Writers’ Group Second Flash Fiction Anthology 2018, and Year's Best Hardcore Horror Volume 4. For more details, visit his author page at Jeff Parsons - Author.

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