Description: Why would aliens visit earth? I asked myself that question early in my writing career and rejected the more benign responses like “They want to be our friends!” or “They want to help us progress toward a new age of Enlightenment!” because, well, an advanced alien species encountering us would hardly be impressed; quite the contrary. After all, they would be advanced, as in dramatically superior to us. I also didn’t want to have them show up to blow us to bits (which they could easily do, being superior to us), since that’s been a bit overdone since H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” So I thought about it, came up with a few plausible responses that fell between these two extremes and wrote some stories for the ones that seemed to make the most sense. This collection is mostly a product of exploring alien encounters of this sort, with a sprinkling of stories set in space thrown in for good measure.
Below are a few sample stories in this collection, all of which were previously published. “Worms” was published in Exciting UFO Stories #5; “Plague” was published in Alien Worlds: Beyond Space & Time #9; “Sturgeon’s General Warning….” was published in Startling Science Stories #31; “Stranded” was published in The Fifth Dimension (June 2013); and “Exodus” was published in Inner Weather (2003).
Worms. That’s what brought them here. Worms. I know it sounds odd, but it’s true. Really. I’m a worm-broker—at least, that’s what they call me. I only owned one bait-house in Tennessee when they came—now I have sixty. They bought every worm I had—and paid in gold. So, I started buying worms from other bait-houses. They bought all those worms from me, too. Soon I was rich. All because of worms.
It was early summer when they showed up. Fishing season was well underway, so I had plenty of worms on hand. Or so I thought. I’ll never forget that first Tuesday—or was it Wednesday? Can’t remember—when I was locking up shop for the night. From nowhere, someone said, “Worms” and I nearly leapt from my shoes before I realized there was somebody standing in the shadows. “What?” I called, trying to give myself time to recover. “Who’s there?” Talking shadows are unnerving.
Someone stepped half-way out of the shadows, stopped, and backed up again before I could get a good look at them. There were two of them, wearing a pair of overalls of some sort. Black overalls; all black. They stayed in the shadows and one of them repeated, “Worms.”
“Sorry, I’m closed,” I said, turning to walk home.
“Worms,” the other one said, louder, throwing a coin on the ground in front of me. A gold coin—but not from here. Egyptian? Maybe. It didn’t matter; it was gold. It tasted like gold.
“Well,” I smiled, “How many do you want?”
“Worms,” they said, again, throwing down another coin.
I shrugged and brought them worms until I didn’t have any more left. One hundred fifteen dozen worms, give or take a few. They didn’t even ask for change, all they wanted was a box to put them in. Then I had to set it in the shadows—they wouldn’t come out under the light.
One of them picked up the box and the other one said, “Tomorrow,” and the first one finished with, “Worms.” Then they were gone and I needed to find some worms. Lots of worms. Fast.
It took half the night and all the next day for me to round up the worms. I checked under all the usual rocks and debris. I watered the lawn and grabbed some more. I called all the local boys who supplied me with worms and told them I’d pay extra for rush delivery—all they could find. Then I bought all the worms I dared from the local bait-houses. So, when they showed up the next night, I had about three hundred dozen worms all boxed up and ready to go. This time, they tossed a handful of coins on the ground—ten in all—and said, “More, tomorrow.”
I made some phone calls, sold a few of the coins, and was soon buying worms from three counties. I was careful, though, and didn’t buy too many worms from any one dealer or sent somebody else to buy them for me. It wouldn’t have paid for them to find out what was going on. I went through five thousand dozen—and they still wanted more. So I got curious about what they were doing with all those worms and, that night, I followed them to their spaceship. Yep, that’s right, space—ship. They knew I was there, too. They asked me in—not in words, mind you, but I knew what they meant. It was weird. Real weird. Kind of a tingling in my forehead that pulled me toward the ship’s door—and through it.
Inside, there were all kinds of shiny metal things but not any lights that I could see. A glowing metal bar was on the wall every now and then but it didn’t help me very much. It was like walking in twilight. A bit chilly, too. And empty. I followed the corridor until I heard some noise—then I stopped.
“Come,” one of them called. So I walked through a doorway and into a small room with a table, chairs, and the familiar smell of worms. And aliens. Two of them.
“Worms,” one of them said, stepping away from the table. There they were; my worms, wriggling around in dishes full of some kind of goo. They offered me some but I declined, telling them I raised the worms and couldn’t possibly eat them, too. It didn’t stop them, though; they were hungry. For worms. My worms.
We talked a little bit, then. Sort of. I talked, they replied in my head. I don’t know how they did it, but it gave me a headache. Anyway, it seems that worms are a highly prized delicacy on their world—kind of like caviar or escargot here on Earth. (I wouldn’t eat them, either!) Anyway, they’d been coming to Earth every now and then to get a fresh supply. It had gotten a bit risky, lately, though; with all the technological advances us Earthlings have made, they had to be careful. They couldn’t harvest them themselves anymore, the way they used to do, so they bought them from me. Of course, with the increase in danger, the worms were at a premium on their planet and they were going to make a lot of money when they got back home. That was good for me, too.
That pretty much sums up my little talk with the aliens. Then I left their ship, went home, thought about it for a while, shrugged, and went to bed. Why should I care about what happened to my worms? Eaten by fish or alien, what difference did it make? Simple: fish didn’t pay in gold. So, I bought more worms and sold them to the aliens, too.
It went on for about two months and then, one night, they didn’t show up. I tried to find them, but their ship was gone. So I had worms. Lots and lots of worms.
Damned aliens, anyway.
© 2014, all rights reserved.
Sturgeon’s General Warning: Too Much Science Fiction May Be Hazardous to Your Health
Try to Imagine:
You work the graveyard shift at a convenience store. Which store? It doesn’t matter; it’s one of the prototypical regional chains in Podunk, U.S.A. Got it in mind? Lots of aisles with over-priced candy, food, beer, sodas, toilet paper, lighters—everything a traveler might need, all stacked in neat little rows gathering dust. You’re in Podunk, U.S.A., remember? Not much ever happens in Podunk.
All right. Graveyard has a few short peaks of business—and lots of long, dry valleys. The first peak is when the second-shifters get off work; the second is the influx of drunks when the bars close; then the third shift lunch-break; and, finally, the early risers. The rest of the time, it’s the stragglers, the woe-be-gone, the between-stops truckers, and the sightseers from down South who get lost. You might see three or four people in an hour. Might. It’s BORING. Oh, you’ve got to balance the books and clean the place and that will eat up an hour or two each night—which leaves about four or five hours of doldrums. Just to keep from falling asleep, you have to do something—like reading science fiction. Asimov, Vance, Zelazny (blending into fantasy, just for a change of pace), a little Heinlein to perk up the middle-of-the-week blues, and short stories on the weekend because you never know what might happen.
Then, one night, in the middle of Enemy Mine, you hear this whirly kind of noise, like when you were a kid twirling a yo-yo around your head as fast as it could go. Only, this whirly noise is right outside the store, and it’s much, much louder. You turn, expecting to see one of those fancy new-fangled helicopters you’ve been reading about. The black ones. Then you see it.
Your first thought is about Dracons. The mental picture you’ve drawn from Longyear’s descriptive prose is still very fresh in your mind. You see one of their ships gently setting down by the gas pumps and—
And you realize there really is a ship there, and something is emerging from it. Only, it’s not a Dracon ship. For a fleeting moment, you wonder if Davidge is going to come to your rescue—but only for a moment. If there’s one thing you know for certain, it’s that Davidge won’t be saving you. These aren’t Dracons.
Two creatures detach themselves from the hull of the cauliflower-shaped craft, unfold their limbs—each one has three—and ooze their way up to the door like a water spider gliding on the surface tension of a puddle. One is about twice the size of the other—perhaps four feet tall—and you have a fleeting burst of confidence that you could take them if you had to. Then you get a good look at them as the larger one grabs the door handle with a six-inch talon and pulls it open. So much for overpowering them. Next option, please.
The smaller one enters first, bounding about on its three legs, its rotating eyestalks taking in everything. You are standing behind the counter with your back tightly pressed against the cigarette rack. As the aliens approach, you see that they have ridges of bone down their front, each one sprouting something that looks like a heap of spaghetti. They stand there and, out of sheer habit, you say, “Welcome to—”
You almost say “Earth,” but you stop yourself before the cliché slips out. You finish with a lame, oft-repeated, “How may I help you?”
“Glagnock Trishnu,” the larger one says; its voice deep and sonorous, coming from somewhere you can’t see.
“Huh?” You stutter. “I-I don’t understand.”
“Glagnock Trishnu,” the larger one repeats. As if it should suddenly be clear, it adds, “Artenni.”
“Artenni! Artenni!” the little one coos, hopping from one leg to another and another, almost knocking off the counter display. This week, it’s Marlboro Man.
Now, in a brief moment of interstellar understanding—perhaps the first in human history—you know what “Glagnock Trishnu” means. You point and say, “Down the aisle, first door on your left.” You watch the little alien run out of sight, and a few minutes later, you hear the familiar sound of the toilet flushing. Then the little one is bounding back into view.
“Nutui,” the larger one says. “Nutui,” the little one echoes as they walk out the door. A few moments later, they reattach themselves to their ship and it leaves. You go outside to watch, but they’re already out of sight. You stand there for a while, shrug, and go back inside. You walk past the counter and head for the storeroom to get the mop, just in case the alien made a mess. On your way past the counter, your eyes fall upon the abandoned story, and you pause. You reach out to pick up the magazine, glance at the page you were reading. Davidge, Dracons, Zamiss—all of it has taken on a different character; it’s suddenly more real.
With a shudder, you toss the magazine in the trashcan by the door and think, no more Sci-Fi for me! A quick glance at the stars confirms your decision. “You see all kinds,” you mutter to yourself. You shake your head and shuffle toward the bathroom, wondering what kind of mess you’ll find.
“I think,” you say to yourself, “I’ll start reading mysteries. Nice, safe mysteries.”
© 2014, all rights reserved.
“The complaints are becoming excessive, Minister,” H’Juri’s assistant stated, pointing at the muted screen in the corner. “These Earthers are becoming a nuisance.”
“Understandable, S’Gashi,” the Minister of Communication replied. “How are the web technicians progressing? What is the projected date for nullifying the interference?
“At present,” S’Gashi replied, scraping his paws on the soft earth, “it is projected to be accomplished within a few solar cycles.”
H’Juri nodded, patting the ground with exasperation. “It cannot be helped, then. Very well, S’Gashi, inform the Unity of the situation—perhaps other research can be more fruitful.”
“Yes, Minister,” S’Gashi scratched the ground and rose to leave. “At once!”
When S’Gashi had gone, H’Juri stared at the odd images scampering about on the communications screen. “They are strange, are they not?” the old Minister muttered, turning the volume back on.
“L’Ci!” the Earther called D’Zi screamed at the Earther called L’Ci and she scampered into the domicile with haste.
“A strange species, indeed,” he muttered, punching the code for the Ministry of Science.
“Ah, H’Juri,” the familiar face of P’Dana’s assistant appeared. He rapidly scarped the ground, leaving two sets of gouges for a considerable distance. “P’Dana will speak with you at once.”
H’Juri politely scratched the ground with one paw, deferentially awaiting the appearance of P’Dana. When he appeared, they exchanged the usual greeting of brothers and H’Juri asked, “Tell me, my brother, how fare the understandings?”
P’Dana’s proboscis snapped out, snaring a large insect from the sky. As he munched, he said, “They are a most curious species, my brother, most curious, indeed. I have only recently discovered that they have an underutilized supply of insects that they fail to propagate. Perhaps even a greater variety than our own! It appears they have a fetish for mammalian flesh and vegetative matter and fail to capitalize on them as a splendid dietary resource. Most distressing. I recommended to the Chief of Ministry that we do not make contact.”
“Ah,” H’Juri murmured. “A pity. They are, as you say, a most curious species.”
* * * * *
A dozen solar cycles later, the Minister of Resources interrupted all transmissions of the interstellar communications web to announce that it was true, R’Ndus IV had been severely decimated by the L’Gana virus. “It is only a matter of time,” he said, “before their entire food supply will be destroyed. R’Ndus III has also been affected, though less severely, thanks to the quick response in establishing quarantine. Even so, the food supply has been reduced by nearly half. Unless we can circumvent the effect of the L’Gana virus, it is inevitable; with four planets of the Unity already dangerously depleted, a large percentage of our people will die.”
After the broadcast, H’Juri sat for a time, resting his paws on the ground, palms up, signifying submission to the inevitable. When his brother called, he whispered, “P’Dana, my brother, is there nothing to be done?”
P’Dana gently scratched the ground with one paw, rolling a clod of dirt between his claws. “My brother,” he said at last, “let us not abandon hope. It is true the L’Gana virus is destroying R’Ndus III and IV and has already crippled I’Lian I and P’Duris VI, but our own planet will be spared the starvation.”
“It is not for us that I weep, my brother. Is there not something that can be done for our brethren who die?”
“H’Juri,” P’Dana said, digging his claws into the ground. “Do you recall the Earther interference?”
“Indeed,” H’Juri replied. “After the web technicians developed the blocking device, I have kept certain links open to receive their transmissions. I have been understanding them ever since.”
“Then, do you recall my informing you of the teeming supply of insects?” P’Dana paused long enough for H’Juri to signal his remembrance. “Perhaps we would be able to find a species that could withstand the L’Gana virus. I will be discussing this with the Chief of Ministry, shortly.”
* * * * *
“A satellite, surely,” Alexi Levitov said, pointing to a stream of light cascading toward the Anderson’s field. “But I haven’t heard of any in that state of decay.”
“No,” Adrian O’Donnell replied, watching the stream of light change direction, level out, and lightly touch down. “I don’t think it’s a satellite. Shouldn’t we investigate?”
“It’s not our duty,” he replied. “We’re desk jockeys, remember? I’ll call the home office.”
“Where’s your adventurous spirit, Lev?” Adrian asked. “Let’s take a look, first. It might be nothing.”
“Look, Lev, this is my home; I have to find out what’s landed over there. Besides, the Anderson’s will be calling over here any moment—they known I’m here.” It was true, too—she was surprised they hadn’t already called. Perhaps they were sleeping—it was late, after all.
“All right, you win,” Alexi said. “But just a look—and not a close look, either. I’ll call it in on the way over. Deal?” Lev had already taken out his cell phone, so Adrian shrugged and started walking toward the car. About ten minutes later, they pulled off into the Anderson’s cornfield, parked the car, and got out.
The field was sprouting up nicely; the corn stalks were about waste-high and, being dressed in shorts and T-shirt, Lev was getting nicked by their long, sharp leaves. Adrian was, too, but she wasn’t griping about it—she had grown up on these farms and knew how to minimize the damage. The ship was at the far side of the field, and a bright light beamed out from one end of it. Something was standing where the light left the ship, but it wasn’t watching them. Lev stopped, whispering a description into the phone, but Adrian moved cautiously forward.
When she was within thirty feet or so, she was able to see the creature better, and for all intents and purposes, it looked like a five-foot tall anteater. It was bipedal, pear-shaped, had a proboscis-like elongated snout, and was plucking moths out of the air with great skill. One thing was for certain: it wasn’t human.
“Welcome to Earth,” Adrian said. It was a cliché, she knew, but what else should she say? It jumped and wheezed—until it was able to spit out the moth it had been choking on. “My name is Adrian O’Donnell. What should I call you?”
It sat down, scratched the ground like a bull about to charge, tilted back its head, and made a funny noise. Adrian thought it was its name, but when she tried to repeat it, all that came out was gibberish. So she settled on Pidna. “Do you understand my language, Pidna?”she asked.
I t straightened, clawed the ground deeply, rose up on its hind legs and growled. “Of course I do, Earther—” it started, then stopped. “Apologies, Adrian O’Donnell, but your pronunciation of my name was most inappropriate. However, it will suffice as, I am sure, your vocalization apparatus does not conform to my own, thus making it impossible for you to be accurate.”
“No apologies necessary, um, Pudnana. Is that any better? I had no intention of insulting you.”
“Better, yes, but still incorrect. I believe, however, the former would likely be the simpler solution. You may call me Pidna, Adrian O’Donnell.”
“In that case, call me Dee.” By this time, she had moved in closer to see the ship better, particularly the light emanating from it. It was an oblong, metallic craft about twenty-five feet long and half that wide. The light was coming from inside a hollow tunnel, and bugs were flying inside, trying to reach the light. Before they could get there, though, they stopped in mid-air and fluttered to the tunnel floor. There, they were gathered up by an automatic sweeper. The bugs—they were still alive—were swept onto a conveyer belt that took them behind the light. As she watched, the light—it was sitting on a platform—moved forward a little bit. The ship was moving, too, in a kind of slow pirouette.
“Very good, D’ee,” Pidna said, standing perfectly still. “And how might I address your companion?”
“Hmm? Oh,” Dee said, glancing back to see Lev standing several feet behind her, his gun drawn. “Put that away, Lev,” she told him. “Pidna will not harm us. Will you, Pidna?”
“Most assuredly not, D’ee. My journey here is a peaceful one intended to benefit both our species.”
It still took a stern glare from Dee before Lev lowered the gun—and even then, he didn’t put it back in the holster.
“This is Alexi Levitov—but we just call him Lev. You are free to do the same. Isn’t that right, Lev?”
Lev nodded. “Yes.” After a brief pause, he added, “I would not have harmed you, either,” and put his gun in the holster with the snap undone.
“Nor could you have, L’ev. However, if you do not mind, I have need of another locale. This area seems to be nearly depleted. If you would excuse me?” Pidna did something with its hands—they were paws, really, remarkably dexterous ones—and the light went out, leaving them in the dark. A few seconds later, the ship rose off the ground—with Pidna in it.
“Lev?” Dee asked, wanting to be reassured by his presence. “We did see that, didn’t we?”
“Yes,” he sighed, “and I had to phone it in. That was rather stupid, wasn’t it? With the ship gone, we’re going to—”
Then the light blared out again, still close by but in another part of the field. We hadn’t even heard it land.
“Hurry up,” Dee said, moving toward the light, thinking about the moths.
“Pidna?” she called as they neared the ship.
“D’ee? L’ev?” it replied without moving away from its ship.
“We thought you were leaving!” Dee gasped, regaining her breath.
“Oh, surely not. This area has a considerable bounty to offer. However, in order to harvest it, it is necessary to reorient the luminescence. I will be here for one of your I Love L’Ci Show. Perhaps a commercial longer.”
“I Love Lucy Show?” Lev asked.
“A sit-com from way back,” Dee said. “It’s about a half hour, maybe a little longer.”
“Yes, yes,” Pidna said. “I do seem to recall that you have segmented time periods. However, we were unable to agree upon the designations and their lengths. Thank you for the insight; I will inform them upon my return.”
“You’re going back, then?”
“Most assuredly so,” Pidna replied, patting the ground. “Here, I do not belong. Perhaps I will return if the yield is sufficiently palatable and resilient.”
“Oh?” Lev said. “And what if our leaders do not wish for you to return? What if they want to talk to you about it? You did mention it would be mutually beneficial.…”
Pidna snorted. “Indeed. Should the yield be of sufficient quality and quantity, we intend to initiate trade with your world. It will be moderately embarrassing for us to trade with such an underdeveloped species, but, in the end, one must eat, yes?” To illustrate the fact, Pidna plucked another bug out of the air. “Ahh, it is not entirely unsatisfying. I must admit the prospects do indicate a favorable venture. Success, however, will be determined on my homeworld. It is time to reorient the luminescence.”
By the end of the half hour, they had moved around the Andersons’ field eight times, all the while trying to keep up with Pidna as the alien collected samples of insects. Once Pidna had finished with the field, it used a strange-looking device to collect a few specimens that had luminescent sensitivity. Then Pidna left.
By the time the field agents finally arrived, Pidna was gone and Dee and Lev had an unbelievable tale to tell. It wasn’t very convincing—even with the aid of the crop circles Pidna’s ship had left—until Pidna returned, a few months later, to negotiate a trade agreement and asked to speak with them.…
* * * * *
“My brother, it is done,” P’Dana reported. “We have returned from the Earther world with enough specimens to repopulate a considerable section of R’Ndus IV. If all goes well, these insects will be the salvation of our brethren. We will still need to supply food for a few solar cycles while they propagate; but with extreme rationing, the danger from the famine will soon be behind us.”
H’Juri patted the ground in excitement. “That is good information, indeed, my brother. It is true, then, that a robust species was found? One that could survive the L’Gana virus and reproduce in sufficient quantity?”
P’Dana replied with equal excitement—he was scarcely able to believe it, himself. “Most assuredly so, my brother! It is indeed amazing that the Earthers had something to offer, after all. The species is a most hearty survivor and is even moderately palatable!”
“It is good, my brother; our people are saved,” H’Juri sighed.
“It is indeed, my brother. It is indeed.” PDana closed the transmission and glanced at the insects scurrying around his hind paws and haunches. They had been the only kind that had survived the L’Gana virus while thriving in the alien habitat. He eyed a nice, juicy one, and his proboscis sprang forth. A few moments later, he licked his snout and said, “A moderately tasty species indeed, these K’Ock R’Oches.”
© 2014, all rights reserved.
Journal Entry I
Mom says I should keep a journal so there’s a record for our family history. I guess it’s important but I don’t know what to put in it. She told me to write whatever I thought should be in it. OK. My name’s Thespis and I am the second son of Haon. So, now what do I talk about?
It is a bright, sunny day—too bright and too sunny. Dad says the Ozone layer is depleted and UV rays are getting through. Dad says we’ll be going, soon. I hope so; I’m tired of being stuck inside all the time.
Journal Entry II
I heard from Largo, yesterday. He says the underground complex is cool and depressing. There’s no UV rays, though, so he’s OK. He says he’d like to be going with us instead of being one of the “Chosen Ones.” I think I’d rather be one of the Chosen Ones instead of going to the neighbor planet. Sure, it’s safe enough but, jeez, I’m scared. It’s supposed to be cold, too. I’ll find out soon; Dad says we’ll be leaving next week. If we don’t, the next window will be too late. Whatever that means.
Journal Entry III
The ship is ready and space is waiting. We’ll be gone a long time. Dad says we aren’t coming back. He says, if we do, we’ll all die. There’s twenty other ships going, each one with a different family. There will be fifty-six of us on Dad’s ship, and it will get crowded. And smelly. Dad says I have to be good and not get in anybody’s way. What if they get in my way? Dad says I shouldn’t get angry because the ship is small and we all have to live together for quite awhile.
I have to say goodbye to my friends, now, because I won’t have a chance when we leave tomorrow. We’ll be too busy.
Journal Entry IV
We’re in space. Getting here was dull. Dad made me stay in the room I’m sharing with my brothers and we all got sick. Being sick in space gets messy. But then we started feeling better. Space is a whole lot of blackness and really bright stars. I stay in my room a lot, studying. I don’t like all the emptiness. It reminds me of Largo and my other friends. Especially my other friends, the ones who didn’t get chosen. Dad says they’ll all be dead soon and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Journal Entry V
They did it. Dad warned them not to. Dad’s a scientist and knows these things. He explained it to them but they didn’t listen. He just shook his head and said nothing for a very long time when he saw the pretty plumes at the poles. Atomics isn’t safe to play with. We knew what would happen, though, a big explosion and clouds of radiation and debris. That’s what they wanted: clouds. Especially the clouds the poles produced. Vaporized ice and stuff like that. Home is already starting to cloud over.
Maybe they’re right and the clouds will keep the UV rays out. I hope so. Lots of people are going to get sick from the fall-out.
Journal Entry VI
Dad’s been busy taking readings. He says the planet is already 60 percent cloud-covered and the temperature is rising rapidly. At the rate it’s progressing, everybody that wasn’t Chosen will be boiling, soon. I hope my friends don’t survive that long. I don’t want them to suffer. I’ve stopped going in to watch Dad while he’s working, but every time I look at home, I can see it for myself. There isn’t any land anymore. All there is are clouds. Pretty soon, I won’t be able to see that, either. We’re getting farther away from home all the time and its shrinking.
Journal Entry VII
I can’t see home anymore. I’m glad. It didn’t look very good the last time I saw it. Dad just walks around frowning and shaking his head. Especially when he’s taking readings. He told me yesterday the Chosen Ones are in danger, too. If the temperature doesn’t level off soon, the tunnels they’re living in will turn into an oven and cook them alive. I avoid Dad as much as I can, now.
Journal Entry VIII
We had a funeral today. Three of them. They killed themselves. One of them left a note that said they couldn’t live any longer knowing that all the people they knew and loved were being burned alive. Dad made an announcement after that. He said we couldn’t let it stop us from keeping our race alive. He said it was up to us to bear the burden of the race so our children can grow up and create a new one. I guess that means me.
Journal Entry IX
I can see our new home now. No details, it’s still too far away. Some of the younger ones are getting excited about it. Me? I keep thinking of Largo and the others who died. Especially the ones who killed themselves. I wish I could join them. But then I think about what Dad said and feel better. Not much, but it’s enough. Maybe this new world will be OK, after all. I don’t know, though, it’s a whole lot colder than ours was. Dad says we’ll have to make a few changes in our DNA to allow us to live there. He said a whole lot more about it, but I didn’t understand him. I nodded a lot, though, because he kept on talking.
We went to the lab and the doctors injected us with stuff that burns as it goes in. I asked them what it was and they called it “bacteriophages with recombinant DNA sequences” or something like that. It’s supposed to fix my genes so I can breathe on the new planet. Breathe and keep warm enough to survive.
Journal Entry X
I can see the planet now. It looks weird. There’s a whole bunch of blue that shouldn’t be there. It makes me nervous. I like the green and brown, though, because it reminds me of home. It tells me there’s land down there. Dad says the blue is water, but I don’t believe him. There can’t be that much water on a planet. It doesn’t make sense. There’s a lot of white, too. Dad says it’s cloud-cover, and the reason for the odd color is because the clouds are filled with water, too! How does he know? I’m scared, all over again. We’ll be making planet-fall soon.
Journal Entry XI
Mom read my Journal today. She almost didn’t give it back. She said I was doing a fine job but not to let my father see it. I don’t know why she said that, but I won’t show it to him. He doesn’t know I’m doing it, anyway. Mom says he’d approve, but if I showed it to him it would upset him. Then she comforted me—or herself, I couldn’t figure out which. Maybe both.
We’re going to be locked in our rooms again. Dad says it’s time for us to begin our descent into the atmosphere and make a landing. It took us a long time to get here. Dad quit taking readings of our home a week ago because it didn’t make any difference any more. When I asked him why, he shook his head and sent me away.
Journal Entry XII
We’ve landed but Dad won’t let us out. He says he has to do some tests to make sure our DNA has been adapted to suit the climactic conditions. Or climatic? I don’t know, he said it too fast. He asked for volunteers to be introduced to the atmosphere. I volunteered, but he wouldn’t let me do it. He said, “Adults, only,” and left it at that. I guess it was a good idea because two people died before they found out what was wrong. A lot of people volunteered after that. The doctors have to shut off some more genes and turn one back on before we can be let outside. I don’t know how they did it.
Looking out the window is very strange. The green I saw from space is plants, not sand-cliffs. It scared me, at first, until I realized they were just like big colonies of lichen. Then I could look at them without thinking they were going to eat me. The sun is a lot dimmer, too. It makes it very difficult to see. Dad’s going to have to work on that. In the meantime, he’s asked for suggestions about a name for our new world. It seems important to him. We have the privilege because we were the first ones to land. The other ships deferred because it was Dad who made the trip possible in the first place.
I saw an animal. At least, that’s what I think it was. It looked kind of like us but with too much hair. Its head was too big in the front, too. I laughed when it threw a rock at the ship. Then it ran away. When it came back, it brought others with it, and they ran up to poke the side of the ship with sticks. It was all very funny. They made some noises with their mouths that sounded like, “Urt,” and that’s what I suggested for the name of the world. Dad said he liked it, and it stuck.
Journal Entry XIII
I get to take my first step on Urt, soon. It’s a big, new world, and once we leave the ships, we aren’t turning back. Dad says we’ll have to move quickly to get far enough away from the ship before the self-destruct mechanism goes off. I don’t really understand why we have to blow up the ship but Dad says it’s so we don’t make the same mistakes again. He says, if we don’t know how to make the technology, we’ll forget about it and it will be lost forever. I hope so! I don’t want to see my new friends dying from UV rays. Dad laughed when I said that. It was the first time I’d heard him laugh since before we left. He said it would be a long time before that happened because Urt has a lot more atmosphere than our old home had. He says it is rich in Ozone, the stuff that keeps the UV rays out. I’m glad.
Journal Entry XIV
I have to end this journal, now. We’re going to leave the ship and it’s going to blow up. The ship, not the journal. I’m taking it with me. Dad told us not to bring any technological gizmos, but Mom said I should bring my notepad, anyway. They had an argument about it and she won. She said we needed it. She said it was important for a people to have a history. I didn’t know I was writing history. Dad said, all right, if it was history, then I could take it with me. Then he demanded to read it.
I didn’t know what to do. Mom had told me not to show it to him, but a son does not disobey his father when he demands something. Especially on a new world and in a ship that’s about to blow up. I handed it over and he read it.
It took him a long time and his face never changed once. He just stared at it, and when he was done reading it, he handed it back to me and said, very quietly, “Keep it.” Then he walked away. After she touched my cheek to tell me it was OK, Mom followed him. I guess that means I’m in charge of our history, now. I hope I don’t lose it. History’s important to a people, just like Mom says. And our new home needs some history, too.
© 2014, all rights reserved.
“Stranded” is a self-contained excerpt from my novel, The Snodgrass Incident.
Lilith Greenberg tugged gently on the tether attaching her to The Junket’s airlock, and the small shift in momentum propelled her gently toward the little survey ship. As she floated toward it, the braided carbon nanotube strands retracted into the shoulder pouch of her Evac suit. It hissed softly as it slithered around the spool, an unnerving sound that reminded her of an oxygen leak. She cringed and, as she had done a dozen times before on this mission, checked her oxygen level. The O2 pressure was normal, as it had been every other time she had checked it, so she returned her attention to the ship.
The Junket reminded her of a black widow spider clinging to its prey, its eight titanium spikes – four on each side, evenly spaced – clung to the surface of the asteroid as if it were ready to wrap it in a silky cocoon. Between them, the body of the ship bulged with fuel and engine compartments, and at the nub near the end, the steady red pulse of the buoy deployment chamber shimmered against the black backdrop of space. The bulbous bridge, barely large enough for the pilot, tilted slightly forward from the body, its open airlock a gaping maw waiting to swallow her up. It grew steadily larger, and she positioned herself with her thrusters until the laser sight indicated she was ready for the airlock’s cocoon-like embrace. She held her arms out in front of her, braced herself, and waited for the gentle clang of contact.
The airlock’s shape mirrored the Evac suit’s with barely a micron’s difference between them, and they needed to merge perfectly for the seal to be complete. The first few times she had attempted it, she’d recoiled from the impact and had to waste thruster fuel before she had grasped the handholds. From those initial failures she had learned to ignore the contact and focus only on the handholds. She made a routine of it after that: brace herself, watch her handholds, make sure her timing was right when she closed her grip, and let the magnets suck her boot toes into the stirrups. Now it was second nature, and the suit merged seamlessly with the airlock opening with little effort on her part.
“Seal the airlock,” she said, waiting for the spider’s fangs to close around behind her. A moment later, the fangs injected their corrosive venom into the Evac suit’s seal, dissolving the goo that held the two halves of the suit together. A few seconds later, the front half of the Evac suit moved forward six inches and pirouetted inward, allowing her to step out into the small, pressurized bridge.
She floated to the captain’s console and retrieved the data from the suit’s recorders, estimated the angle for the laser broadcast to Mars Base, and transmitted it. “Now to deploy the buoy,” she said as she pressed the command sequence for injecting the device into the asteroid’s nickel-iron core. The buoy was mostly a homing beacon, but it also contained a supply of moles – small machines that would tunnel through the asteroid preparing it for the larger machines that would follow later to harvest the metallic core.
“Well,” she said, “another one down.” She leaned back, and frowned. “Where’s the ping?” she asked, listening for the sharp, resounding ping that had accompanied all of the other buoys. But there was no hammer-on-anvil sound. Instead, there was a dull thump, like a pillow being fluffed. “Odd,” she muttered, “That’s never happened before.” She sat up and pressed the diagnostics icon, scrolled through the options until she found the buoy’s deployment mechanism, and initiated it. The computer rapidly ran through its sequence of sensors and reported the mechanism was functioning properly.
“Strange,” she muttered, frowning. “Maybe I should do a full diagnostic?” She returned to the main diagnostic screen, paused, and shook her head.
“No,” she said. “Check the buoy deployment record, first.” She had only begun the sequence when the proximity alarm blared to life and the navigation screen automatically overrode the diagnostics screen. She gasped.
There were two shapes coming toward The Junket. One was small, barely five times the size of the ship, but it was crumbling into smaller pieces, and they were fanning outward like a shotgun blast. The other was the bulk of the asteroid, rotating on its axis, a bulbous outcropping slowly coming into The Junket’s path. A digital countdown poised ominously above the image: 12 seconds.
Her mind whirled. The Junket was surfing the splintering chunks like a wave. The asteroid was on a collision course. No time to turn the engines on. No time to get in the Evac suit. It wouldn’t matter, anyway; if the ship were damaged, she couldn’t repair it. Survey ships didn’t carry spare parts. It would just take longer to die in the Evac suit. “Thrusters!”
Her fingers flew over the controls, initiating one thruster after another, trying to nudge The Junket out of the asteroid’s path. But the ship was sluggish; the anchors were still engaged, and the thrusters were not designed for the added mass. She wasn’t going to make it.
The alarm grew louder and changed pitch – a distraction she didn’t need – and she did the only thing she could think to do: she rotated the ship until the legs were facing the asteroid and braced for impact. It was a surprisingly soft bump, cushioned by the chunks of asteroid still clinging to the anchors, and she was almost ready to breathe again when debris began clattering against the hull. For a few seconds, it was like hailstones pinging against a flyer’s roof, but then the larger chunks started banging against the underbelly of the ship. She gasped as they jostled the ship around, and her fingers flew over her console as she listened for the soft hiss of an oxygen leak. She took a slow, shallow breath and clung to the computer console as the battering continued for nearly a minute before dwindling to an occasional light rattle. No oxygen leak.
“Damage control,” she said to herself, shutting off the klaxon and studying the warnings dotting the console. The engine seemed undamaged. There was a fuel leak. “Stop that,” she said, sealing off the leaking compartment from the rest of the fuel reservoir. Two anchors had broken off; two others dangled uselessly. A few of the thrusters were nonfunctional. No hull breach.
She switched back to the navigation display, studying the asteroid and the debris cloud clustering around it. The Junket had been batted by the asteroid and was drifting slowly away in a looping arc. She shifted to a larger view to study the debris cloud, used the functional thrusters to stabilize the ship, and repositioned The Junket to a safe distance from the debris but within landing distance of the asteroid.
“Have to go outside,” she said, shaking her head. “Well,” she sighed, “No sense putting it off.” She pushed herself toward the airlock and twisted in the air to back into it. She barely took enough time to make sure her hands and feet were properly placed before she sealed the lock. The sealant oozed into the grooves and the front of the Evac suit shifted into position and squeezed into place around her. After a few seconds, she checked the sensor readings to make sure the sealant had set and said, “Eject.”
The clamps released the back of the Evac suit and peeled away. A moment later, the airlock decompressed and she was ejected a few feet into space. The Evac suit’s thrusters fired automatically, stabilizing her in relation to the ship, and she tugged gently on the taut tether line until she could grasp the outer handholds. She belayed the tether from her shoulder pouch and scampered along the hull as if it were a cliff face, reaching here and there for small outcroppings, until she was under the belly of the ship. Once there, she pushed off and floated away from the ship, belaying the tether line to keep it slack.
“Damn,” she muttered as the extent of the damage became apparent. “Damn and damn again.”
Two of the anchors had been pulled from their sockets, leaving behind bits of wiring and shards of metal clinging to the tortured joints. Two others were dangling, boulders impaled upon them; something would have to be done with those before The Junket would be space worthy. The other four seemed intact. The underside of the hull was riddled with dents and scratches. One of the fuel compartments had a jagged gash, but the fuel had long-since leaked out and frozen into a cloud of fine mist.
“All right,” she said, firing the suit’s thrusters to nudge her closer to one of the damaged anchors. The anchor was as thick as she, four times her height, and had three joints. She pulled herself up to the socket joint connecting it to the ship. She activated a control panel beside it, keyed the sequence to trigger the time-delayed explosive charge, and confirmed the command four times before the two minute countdown finally began. She pushed against the ship’s hull and floated away, giving the anchor plenty of room, and waited. The explosion puffed, and the anchor floated free, its slight momentum moving the anchor slowly away from the ship. If it hovered too close to the hull, it would be a potential hazard, so Lilith cautiously returned to the joint, pressed her back against the hull, and pushed against the anchor’s mass to increase its momentum away from The Junket.
Then she turned to the next damaged anchor.…
* * * * *
Ed Granger studied the schematics and shook his head. It was an old design, reliable and unimaginative. The science labs were efficient, stocked with the best equipment that would fit in the tight little spaces, but it was far from what he was used to at Mars Base. He would have to be creative if anything strange happened – as it almost certainly would.
“Hi Ed,” Meredith said as she entered the lab.
“Hello,” he said, glancing up from his console. “I hear the roster’s going to be posted tomorrow.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “But the scuttlebutt says you’ll be on it.”
“We’ll see,” he said, turning his attention to Meredith. “But it won’t be an easy decision. You’re just as qualified as I am – if not more.”
Ed raised his eyebrows as a sudden frown distorted the roundness of her face into a bitter oval that threatened to overtake her eyes. They were pretty brown eyes, and he’d had a great deal of trouble avoiding them of late. Lilith had been gone too long.
“Oh, I know,” Meredith said, waving away his concern. “It isn’t just science, you know. It’s also chemistry. If they choose Lilith to be the commander, you’re a shoe-in to be the science officer. If not,” she shrugged. The round nubs of her shoulders undulated, and he found his eyes drawn to them.
“Lilith still has two months left on that asteroid survey for The Cartel. Mars Base won’t disrupt that.” Two more months of temptation, he added to himself as he realized his eyes had strayed a bit too low for propriety. He tried to mask his interest – and discomfort – by turning his gaze back to the Snodgrass schematics. “It’s a quaint little ship,” he said. “And that pod,” he shook his head. “Small quarters and a lot of gadgets.”
“True,” Meredith said, sitting down beside him and tilting her head. A few auburn strands escaped the tight little bun that topped her head. “But The Snodgrass mission isn’t scheduled for departure until after she gets back, and she has a lot of time to read up on it while she’s hopping between asteroids.”
Ed nodded. “They’ve been sending her updates,” he said, “but they’ve held back a lot of the mission details. They won’t send any of those until they’ve made their decision. Besides,” he added, “she’s never commanded a ship before. Most of the other candidates have. If they take one of them, you’ll be on it.”
“Oh, really? Like you’d turn it down,” she said, nudging his shoulder with her own.
Ed turned to her, and said, quietly, “Yes.” As soon as he said it, he knew it was true. If Lilith was not on the ship, he wouldn’t be either. He would be wherever she was – if she’d let him tag along. He shrugged. “It’s a long mission.” Three years too long.
Meredith stared at him for a long moment before reaching up to tuck the stray strand of hair back into her bun. “You miss her, don’t you,” she said quietly.
Before he could muster up a response, the intercom chimed in. “Central Control to Ed Granger. Central Control to Ed Granger. Priority 1.”
Meredith’s eyes widened as Ed leapt to his feet and ran toward the intercom panel and tabbed the button. “Granger to Central Control.”
A moment later, a voice said, “Transferring.”
The delay was longer than normal before an efficient communications officer rapidly confirmed his identity. Ed’s fingernails dug into his palms as he went through the routine of providing his name, identity code, and security clearance. At length, a new voice asked, “Is the transmission secure on your end?”
“Securing,” he said, punching in a few numbers before turning to Meredith.
“Of course,” she said, making her way out of the lab.
He finished punching in the code and said, “Transmission isolated.”
“Mr. Granger, this is Admiral Ashcroft. Our outpost on Ceres reports that long-range imaging indicates The Junket has been severely damaged and is adrift in orbit around the asteroid it was surveying. We have not received any messages, and the status of the pilot—”
“Lilith,” Ed whispered harshly, his forehead gently coming to rest against the communicator’s console.
“—is uncertain. Your assistance is requested.” There was a momentary pause, then Admiral Ashcroft said, “Pardon?”
It took him a few seconds to compose himself. “Lilith,” he said. “The pilot’s name is Lilith Greenberg.”
“Yes,” Admiral Ashcroft said. “It is. Do you know– No, there isn’t time. We need your help. We’re assembling a team of scientists to troubleshoot—”
“When do I leave?”
“—the problem, and you—” the Admiral paused a moment, then said. “The cruiser will arrive at South Port shortly. The Fifth Wheel. Specifics of the situation will be relayed and updated to the cruiser as they become available.”
“I’m on my way,” he said, toggling off the communicator. A moment later, he rushed through the lab’s door and ran headlong into Meredith, almost sending them both sprawling to the floor.
“Sorry,” he said, setting her down. “Have to go.”
“Yes,” he said, turning away and sprinting down the corridor.
“Can I help?” she called after him.
He half-turned, “No—” and kept going until he slowed at the end of the corridor. He caught the corner with his hand and propelled himself around it.
* * * * *
It was bad. There was no way else to put it. The ship would fly, but landing would be difficult, if not impossible. The buoy mechanism was non-functional. The fuel leak had used up a fifth of her supply. Half the anchors had been separated or destroyed. If that were all, she could manage well enough to get back to Mars Base, but the communication laser was a garbled mess. No replacement parts. Her ship was a survey vessel – sleek, fast, and sparsely equipped. She could not contact Mars Base to revise the pre-programmed course through the asteroids. She had two options: continue the mission or risk flying out of the asteroids manually with limited information. Neither option was appealing. There wasn’t enough fuel left to finish the mission, and she didn’t relish the idea of dodging asteroids without the assistance of Mars Base’s computers. If she miscalculated the trajectory to Mars Base even a fragment of a degree, she’d be adrift, lost. She had six hours to choose.
“Six hours,” she muttered, “to find another way out of this mess. All right,” she nodded to herself. “What’s working? Everything inside the ship. The Evac suit. Four anchors. Propulsion. Thrusters. Supplies – two months of food, oxygen, and water. Eighteen buoys that I can’t deploy. Me.”
Not much, she admitted to herself.
“Mars Base to The Junket. Please respond.” Lilith jumped, reached for the console to keep from flying free. “Mars Base to The Junket. Please respond.”
“The Junket here,” she said, then shook her head. “The laser’s broken, Stupid. You can receive messages, but you can’t send any.”
“Mars Base to The Junket. We are aware of the accident and are working the problem from our side. If you are receiving this message, please respond.”
She slapped the console. “Damn it, I can’t respond. The communication laser’s toast. Without that, there’s no way—
“Wait a minute,” she said. “How did they know about the accident?” She frowned, brought up the navigation charts, and studied them for a moment. “Ceres,” she said. It wasn’t close, but she was within range of their telescope. “Maybe,” she said, sitting back.
“Mars Base to The Junket. We are aware of the accident and are working the problem from our side. If you are receiving this message, please respond.”
“All right,” she said at last. “Respond I shall.”
* * * * *
Ed Granger hurried up to the desk and Landis Schwartz waved him on. “Pad 3, Ed,” he said. “It will be ready in five.”
“Thanks, Landis,” he replied. “Any word?”
Landis shook his head. “Whatever’s going on, they’re keeping it hush hush. All I was told is that you were coming and to rush you through.”
“All right,” Ed said. He turned and hurried to the air lock. It was already open, and he stepped into it. A moment later, the lock closed, and he waited.
“Five minutes,” he muttered. Accident, he thought. What kind of accident? His thoughts raced, bouncing from one catastrophic scenario to another, each one becoming progressively more disparaging, until, at last, the outer lock opened and he rushed through the small tube into The Fifth Wheel.
“I’m Deidre,” she said. “When you’re strapped in, we’ll be on our way.”
She had already started the take-off sequence, so he decided to wait until they were airborne before he pressed her for information.
“South Port, this is the cruiser The Fifth Wheel. Ready for departure,” Deidre said into the communicator. After a brief pause, Deidre nodded and said, “Thank you, South Port. Will do.” A few seconds later, the cruiser was airborne and making its way through the thin air of Mars.
“Make yourself comfortable, Mr. Granger. We have half a planet to cross.”
Ed nodded. “A two hour trip,” he said. “I’ve made it many times.”
“Two hours under normal circumstances,” Deidre said. “We’ll be there in one.”
Deidre nodded and smiled. “The Fifth Wheel is fast.”
“I was told there would be details about the accident—”
Deidre shook her head. “Not for my ears, Mr. Granger. I’m just the cabbie. That,” she pointed to the console, “is for you.”
Ed looked at the console and saw that it had a biometric scanner. He put his finger in and felt the brief prick as it retrieved his DNA. A few moments later, the console came to life, and he saw the blurred image of the damaged Junket orbiting an asteroid like a wounded grasshopper. He stared for several seconds before turning his attention to the data.
* * * * *
Lilith studied her handiwork and nodded to herself. “That should do it,” she said. Then her suit beeped, and she nearly jumped into space. If it weren’t for the tether.…
“Okay,” she said, “O2 levels dropping to minimum. Time to go inside.”
Once inside, she went to the console and checked the time. “Thirty two minutes,” she said. “Plenty of time for Phase Two.” She sat down and began the arduous task of overriding the navigation computer’s preset programming. Several minutes later, her finger poised above the final confirmation and she pressed it. “Well, there’s no going back, now.”
She entered a short sequence of commands into the navigation computer to be triggered precisely one minute after the scheduled departure time. The commands would fire the engines in a short burst, rotate the ship, pause for five minutes, then fire the engines a second time to return The Junket to orbit around the asteroid. It was a simple maneuver, but it was much riskier than she would have liked. Even a short distance in the asteroid belt could be hazardous without proper guidance.
She held her breath as the first engine burst flared to life, but when the ship didn’t explode, she let it out slowly. Then she turned the sensor display toward the asteroid and watched. “Now for the response,” she said, watching the countdown as it dwindled form 30 seconds to zero.
The display changed dramatically at that point, as a series of explosions on the asteroid surface followed each other in quick succession. They were carefully timed to explode when the asteroid rotated to face the general direction of Ceres. With luck, they would be large enough to be seen by Ceres’ telescope array – if they were watching. If they weren’t.…
* * * * *
They were only a few minutes from landing at Mars Base when an update came in. It was terse: No reply. Explosions observed. Video upon landing. Ship schedule terminated. Status uncertain.
He had barely had time to begin digesting the new information when Deidre announced, “The Fifth Wheel to Mars Base. The Fifth— Yes sir, landing sequence initiation in thirty seconds.” She turned to Ed and said, “Brace yourself, Ed. This is going to be a bit rough.”
He nodded without paying attention, but when the torque of the ship’s maneuvers nearly sent him flying across the bridge, he grabbed hold of the console and clenched his teeth. The ordeal didn’t last long – perhaps half a minute – and then they settled to the ground.
“All right, Ed,” Deidre said. “The airlock’s cycling. Time for you to go.”
He gulped, nodded, and rose to his feet on shaky knees. “Thanks,” he said, taking a deep breath and making his way to the airlock. Once through, there was a scooter waiting for him.
“Hop on Ed,” Toby Arnstaadt said. “I’ll fill you in on the way to the briefing room.”
Ed stepped onto the low platform and gripped the handles. “What’s with that last update, Toby. It said there were explosions.…”
Toby nodded. “Yes. On the asteroid. The ship’s still orbiting her. You’ll have to see them. We know it’s a message, but we don’t know what it means. Here,” he said, tapping a code into the scooter’s console. “Check out what she did.”
Ed watched, raising his eyebrow as The Junket fired the engines and moved several kilometers from the asteroid and stopped. “That,” Toby said, “was not pre-programmed. It’s manual. She’s cancelled out the pre-programmed route.”
“No,” Ed said quietly. “That means.…”
Toby nodded. “Yes. She can’t finish her survey, and she’s going to risk a blind shot to Mars Base. Keep watching.”
Ed did, and when the explosions started, he tensed considerably. “How?”
“Alex thinks she’s using the buoys. They have explosive charges to plant them into the iron core. But the oxygen and fuel,” he shook his head. “We’re not sure how much she used. We’re assuming she kept enough in reserve for a return trip, but we don’t know how much leeway she gave herself.”
“At least we know she’s alive,” Ed said, “and The Junket is still space-worthy.”
“We’re counting on that.”
“What about a bullet ship?” Ed asked.
“No time,” Toby said. “Even our most favorable estimates on her oxygen supply won’t last long enough to get one ready and send it out.”
“So, what am I here for?”
“We’re almost to the lab,” he said. “It’s at the end of that next tunnel. Those explosions – we think it’s a message, something more than ‘I’m alive!’, but we can’t figure out what it is. What do you think?”
Ed replayed the sequence of explosions, but nothing came to him. “Perhaps if I saw it on a larger screen?”
“You will,” Toby assured him. “We’re here,” he added, bringing the scooter to a stop. “Now, the reason you’re here is simple. We need your ingenuity and your knowledge of Lilith. We need to know what she’ll do, and, more importantly, what she can do. You’re going to help us find a way to bring her back without being able to communicate with her.”
The door opened and a cacophony of voices scattered down the hallway. Someone inside looked up, and Toby nodded. The man – wiry, red-haired, tall – came over and ushered them inside. “Mr. Granger,” he said as he led him to the table. “I’m Miggs. I’ll forgo introductions for the others for now. We need your help.”
Ed pointed at the large computer screen and asked, “Can I see the explosions? Close up?”
Miggs snapped his fingers and said, “Millie—”
She bent to the console and a few moments later, the first explosion flared across the face of the asteroid. It faded out, and when the asteroid’s rotation brought it back into view, the second explosion – more like a flare, this time, as if it were a dud fizzling out – lingering until the face of the asteroid disappeared. The rest of the explosions – some short and powerful, others long and fizzling – followed suit until, after the seventeenth one, it fell into silence.
“Well?” The wiry man said, “Any thoughts?”
“It’s a pattern of some sort,” Ed said.
“We know. But what pattern?”
Ed frowned. What would Lilith do? he asked himself. What could Lilith do? Lilith was a generalist. She knew a little about a lot of things, like any good commander does. But her first love was navigation. Her second love was him. She was competent in the basic sciences – chemistry, physics, astrophysics, propulsion – the type of things she needed to know if something happened to her crew. But she was far from an expert in any of them and seldom cared about theory. She was practical. She was hands-on. Sometimes she was rash, but when she was, it usually worked out well. Intuitive. A bit reckless.
“She knows something,” he said. “This is not a desperate act.”
“What?” Miggs said.
“She has a plan,” Ed said. “That is a message, and we need to figure out what it is. She’s trying to tell us what she needs from us. We have to figure that out.”
“All right,” Miggs said. “Keep talking.”
Ed tilted his head. “Lil is intuitive, decisive. Once she overrode the programming, her mind was set on that being the best course of action. Something is wrong enough with The Junket to prevent her from making it through the rest of her pre-programmed sequence. But when she took that little jaunt, she was showing us that she could still maneuver and that The Junket could fly. The explosions are partly intended to get our attention so that we know she’s still at that asteroid, but there’s more to it than that. If all she wanted was our attention, one big explosion would have been more effective.”
“All right,” Miggs said. “Amber, alert the computer bay that we’re going to need time on short notice. Once we figure this out, they’ll have to program her route to the nearest safe port.”
“How long has it been since she set them off?” Ed asked, suddenly.
“With the time lag, about two hours,” a large-boned brunette said from a console in the corner. “We’ve been trying to contact her ever since Ceres sent us word about the accident, but she’s not responding.”
“She’s waiting,” Ed added. “We’re supposed to do something, and she’s waiting for us to do it. She’s an excellent navigator, and she would have risked returning on her own if the situation was bad enough.” He frowned and looked at the brunette. “What did you say?”
“It’s been about two hours.”
“No, after that.”
“We’ve been trying to contact her ever since Ceres—”
“How?” Ed demanded.
“By laser, of course.”
Ed shook his head. “No, no, I mean, what messages have you sent her?”
She frowned. “We’ve been requesting a response. It’s set on a ten minute repeater.”
Ed nodded. “What, exactly, is the message?”
“Well,” she said. It’s almost time for it to be sent, if you want to hear it.”
“Yes,” he said, moving quickly to her side.
“It’s a simple request—”
“Shh,” Ed said. “Play it for me. I want to hear exactly what it says.”
“All right,” she said, punching in the codes to interrupt the repeater and turn the volume up. “Here it is: Mars Base to The Junket. We are aware of the accident and are working the problem from our side. If you are receiving this message, please respond.”
Ed listened, and when it finished, he motioned for it to be repeated. When it finished, he started laughing – loudly and enthusiastically – and the room fell quiet, save for the echoes.
* * * * *
Lilith had never been very good at waiting. She liked to do things. But there wasn’t anything she could do yet. So, she dozed. It was not a restful sleep, though; the message from Mars Base kept waking her up.
It was a monotonous message – tedious and wasteful. “Mars Base to The Junket. We are aware of the accident and are working the problem from our side. If you are receiving this message, please respond.” If she got back, she’d tell them so. At the very least, they could vary it up a bit, make it seem more human.
She was about ready to shut off the communicator so she could get some real sleep when something changed. The message was different. The messenger was different.
“Mars Base to The Junket. Mars Base to The Junket. Lil, this is Ed. I know you can hear me but can’t respond. That’s okay. We know what you want, and we’ve got the computers doing their calculations. Once we have them, we’ll transmit the coordinates and departure times. We’re not sure where you’ll end up, yet, but it will be within your limits. Those explosions were awful clever, Lil. Sorry it took so long to overlay the patterns. Spelling out REPLY like that, one bit at a time.…”
“Oh, Ed,” Lilith said in the pause that followed. “Dear, dear Ed.”
“Okay, we know you’re short on fuel, but we don’t know how much. We’re assuming the worst case scenario with a little flexibility. That way, if you have more, it won’t be a problem. Same with oxygen. That doesn’t leave us too many options. We’re trying to find a ship that can rendezvous with you, but it doesn’t look promising. We think the computer will send you to Ceres. It’s the nearest outpost, but you’ll have to dodge quite a few rocks to get there.”
“Listen, Lil,” Ed continued after a moment. “We’d like confirmation that you’ve received this message, and it’s going to be a bit tricky. We don’t want to use up your oxygen, but the explosion needs to be large enough for Ceres to pick up. You’ll need that last buoy and the following food packs.…”
Lilith scurried through the larder tossing out the food packs as Ed named them off, and when he finished, he repeated them a second and third time. The instructions became more complicated at this point, since she had to do some chemistry with equipment that was never meant to be used to do chemistry. At the end of the instruction, Ed said, “Lil, you have to be careful with this. It’s sensitive. You don’t want to put the trigger in until you’re ready to set it off. The buoy trigger will provide the primary heat source, but once the reaction starts, you’ll only have about fifteen seconds to get clear of the concussion. You won’t be able to set a timer on this one,” he added softly, “and it needs to be set against the iron in the asteroid for fullest effect.”
Lilith sighed. “Another Evac – more oxygen depleted.” She shook her head. “There has to be another way.” She sat back, her nose pinched and brows furrowed. “Another way.…”
It took her an hour to rig up the device, and a two minute spacewalk to set it in motion. She hadn’t liked the idea of trying to outrun a concussion wave, so she’d set up a contact trigger, secured the goo around the buoy the way Ed had directed her, and gave it a gentle shove toward the asteroid, adjusting the speed so that it would contact the exposed nickel-iron core deep in the cavern that had formed when the asteroid had shattered beneath her. Then she made her way back inside before her suit’s oxygen had completely run out.
The explosion, when it occurred, was brighter than she’d expected for such a small device, and she smiled. “You’ve always been a good cook, Ed,” she said.
Then she waited for the next transmission.
* * * * *
Lilith strapped herself into The Junket pilot’s seat and triggered the sequence to set in motion the navigational instructions Mars Base had sent. It would be a two week trip through the asteroid belt. The computer executed the first maneuver, a short jaunt to clear herself from the asteroid debris and set her along the way. Then The Junket dipped suddenly as the proximity alarm blared to life – too late; the tiny asteroid had already streamed past The Junket, barely a half kilometer from the ship. Lilith gritted her teeth and her fingernails dug into the arms of her seat as the ship jolted severely and the engines flared to life. The burst was a long one, this time, but then the thrusters kicked in, steering the ship along a slow roller-coaster ride through space. Most of the time, the shifts in attitude or trajectory were soft and easy to adjust to, but every time she settled into a routine, the computer would warn her of a pending acute adjustment, and she’d cling to her seat. Her instinct was to take manual control, to stop the spin or the g-force, but she knew that would be a mistake; the computer had its reasons, and usually they saved her life.
It was a bumpy two weeks, but at the end of it, The Junket settled into orbit around Ceres, and she maneuvered her ship to the landing field. It was a rough landing with only half the legs working, but they keep it upright in the tiny gravity and secured it in place long enough for her to escape into the relative safety of Ceres Outpost.
Then she had to wait for The Snodgrass to pick her up.
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