30 Minutes for New Hell
by Rick Kennett
What are they doing?
Cy De Gerch leaned forward and peered at the scene on one of her repeater screens. A few minutes ago, there in the middle of a New Hell desert viewed from a high-orbit drone, the Dhooj’s vehicle had suddenly stopped – skidding on its six balloon tyres, spraying red dust. Yet none of its crew, clad in their vacuum suits and transparent helmets, had so far emerged.
Which was odd, and Cy knew it. Ever since their landing on New Hell two days ago the Dhooj had been trundling along, setting up experiments, making observations, reporting excitedly back to their home world thirty million kilometres sunward like the pioneers and explorers they were. Energetic creatures, the Dhooj, not ones to just sit. Didn’t they have geological samples to take? Water probes to drill? Low g sports to play?
On impulse Cy shivered and pulled her grey tunic closer about. There was a desert wind blowing down there. She could feel it even from so distant an orbit. The scene was too much like home, too much like Mars. And well she knew that Martian winds blew forever cold.
Lieutenant Peters, a slightly-built fellow of twenty-six, stepped up beside her and said, “Cy, Drone 12 is losing its masking field.”
“Why tell me, Frank?” she said. “You’re the officer of the watch.”
“It’s an executive decision to destruct or return it to the ship before it’s detected.”
“Executive?” Cy made a derisive noise deep in her throat, an odd sound for an eighteen year old girl to make. “When the captain went on leave and I was given command of Utopia Plain I thought Yes!” She punched a fist into the air. “But … no.” Her arm sagged. ”This isn’t a command, Frank. At least not the sort I always hoped for. So what if I’m now the youngest captain in the Martian Star Corps? Antigone Pitra’s in charge here. I’m just a caretaker providing transport for her bunch of Earthie xenologists.”
As she spoke the screen chimed, flickered, and the desert scene was replaced by the face of a woman, late twenties, blonde hair shoulder-length and curled, expression of concentration, thinly arching eyebrows, intense eyes. Pretty in an austere way.
“Attention, everybody. Attention, please. Professor Pitra speaking. A change of circumstance has arisen and I will need to see all section officers in the wardroom at nineteen hundred, sharp.”
Cy gave Frank a What-Did-I-Tell-You look. The screen returned to the desert scene. The Dhooj vehicle had not moved. No one had emerged.
Reaching behind her head to lift her dark hair, Cy said, “Think I’ll gather it into a ponytail like the captain has. Hmmm? You know, if I could steer around Antigone Pitra’s attitude I wouldn’t mind getting her in the sack. How about you, Frank? Don’t you find her attractive?”
“She’s nearly ten years your senior.”
“Maybe I like ‘em older.” She laughed and added. “You’re right. You’ve probably got a better chance with her than a genetics experiment like me anyway.”
“What about the drone?”
“What’s it covering?”
“The mother ship. Starboard quarter.”
The screen flashed up an image of the alien ship in orbit around New Hell, an ungainly rinky-dink tube sprouting rocket exhausts and antennae clusters.
Cy let her hair fall. “Fire it into the atmosphere. If they spot it they’ll think it’s a meteor. No one’ll be the wiser. They won’t know we’re here watching them. No one’ll get culture shock and civilizations won’t fall.” She switched the view back to the desert where nothing had changed. Have they broken down? “Advise Professor Pitra first. She’s rather possessive of this mission and if you suddenly pull one of the drones she could get …ticklish.”
On several screens at once the Dhooj vehicle abruptly spun its six balloon-tyres, throwing up clouds of red dust, tightly U-turned and accelerated back along its own tracks.
At a deliberate one minute past nineteen hundred hours ship time Cy De Gerch entered the wardroom. Present were Lieutenant Frank Peters and most of the ship’s section officers: Senior ComTech Ingrid Hong and Sub-Lieutenant Armand Farrell the boss at Scans were sitting close together, and as she passed Cy sensed they were sharing an air of … not so much upset as a common sadness.
They know something about this, Cy thought without really understanding why she though it … except that these two officers worked closest with the Professor and her group of Terran xenologists.
A moment later Professor Antigone Pitra entered, wearing a one-piece outfit, white with flecks of twinkling red and blue about the breasts and waist. As she stepped onto the dais at the front of the room and adjusted keys on a hologram hand-held, Doctor Ben Norsk, the only Earth person in the crew of Utopia Plain, bustled in.
He nodded Cy a greeting as he took his seat beside her, then remarked with a smile, “Captain … what’s that delicate scent you’re wearing?”
“Mytilene Moonlight.” She presented her wrist. “Like it?”
“Exquisite! Takes me back to Summer nights on Earth in the long ago. I haven’t always been a hundred and four, you know.” Then noting her fresh fatigues he added, “If I’m right in guessing where your romantic interests lie,” and he inclined his white-haired head discreetly towards Antigone Pitra, “then I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“What’s a tree?” said Cy.
“Large leafy vegetation still found in some places on Earth. Mars won’t see them until terraforming is advanced another couple of decades. What I mean is … you’re off target.”
“I guess so. But you can’t blame a girl for trying … nor a boy,” she added, having just noticed Frank Peters, likewise neatly dressed and scrubbed, watching Antigone’s graceful finger movements on the hand-held. Oh do stop drooling, Frank. His aftershave was evident from where she sat. “Doctor Norsk, do you have any idea what this is about?”
“Sorry, no. I’ve been too busy studying the biology of the Dhooj under the stresses of a pioneering space flight – a unique experience! Doubtless this has something to do with her pet aliens. But what isn’t with our visiting Professor?”
Cy glanced again at the sombre faces of Ingrid Hong and Armand Farrell. For some reason memories returned of the alien vehicle’s abrupt halt, its sudden acceleration back along its own track. Once more she pulled her tunic close. An undefined uneasiness had come creeping, cold like a Martian wind.
A four metre-wide holo blinked into existence, a crater-pocked world, wrapped in deserts and red like Mars. Professor Pitra stepped forward and ghost-like through it.
“This is a view of the eastern hemisphere of New Hell,” she began, “the portion we are presently in orbit above at a height of, I believe, three hundred thousand kilometres. For those who have not worked closely with me during this mission I should explain that New Hell derives from a literal translation of the Dhooj name for this planet. It shines a vivid red in their skies, and many of their religions equate ever-lasting burning with after-life punishment – as do some of ours.
“There’s been a development on New Hell which may entail the early conclusion of the mission. A short time ago one of my drones –“
One of my drones, Cy mentally corrected her.
“— detected the beginnings of an atmospheric vortex in this region.” She gestured to a far northern plain on the holo image. “Mare Nubilus – Sea of Clouds. This disturbance has since broadened into a southward flowing storm front, which has continued to broaden with gathering strength and speed.” As she said this a blot, darker red than the red of the planet itself, grew out of the indicated area of Mare Nubilus, swelling, widening, within seconds looking like a bloodied crescent. “The weather systems of New Hell, like many other aspects of the planet, hold many similarities to that of Mars, which is why I specifically asked for a Martian crew for this mission. I need not tell you – you of all people – what the present situation means.”
“Massive dust storm,” said Cy. “Those back home can blow for weeks, sometimes months. They can even end up covering the whole planet.”
“Yes,” said Antigone, nodding, her blonde curls bobbing, while beside her the red storm image spread wider, pushing further south.
“So the Dhooj will be scrubbing their mission?”
“Naturally. There’s nothing else they can do.”
“Too bad. But logical. They can’t possibly survive down there with a dust storm raging. And if it blows for weeks or becomes planetary the mother ship isn’t –“
Cy stopped abruptly as two points of white light appeared on the holo of New Hell. One, down by the equator, was labelled DHOOJ LANDER; the other, pulsing some distance further north and just perceptibly moving south towards the lander, was labelled DHOOJ TRANSPORT VEHICLE. She looked at the dust storm, then at the two points of light, then at the dust storm again. “Professor Pitra, is this all to scale?”
Cy glanced about at her people, feeling now what she saw in their faces, the same grim uneasiness she’d seen a few minutes earlier with Ingrid Hong and Armand Farrell. They had known what this was about, and now so did they all. Even Frank Peters’ look of romantic speculation was quickly turning to one of bewilderment and dismay.
“How long before the storm front overtakes them?” Cy asked in the sudden quiet.
“Approximately three hours. There’s a natural variation in wind speed, but that’s our best estimate.”
“Are you quite certain the Dhooj won’t make it to their lander ahead of the storm?”
“Quite certain,” said the Professor crisply. “The mother ship was evidently tardy in registering the advent of the storm. Because of this, and if the present circumstances continue, they’ll be overcome while they’re still a half hour’s travel away.”
“What do you mean by ‘if the present circumstances continue’?” asked Frank Peters.
“If they lighten their load they may increase the speed of their vehicle. But they’ll have to do it very soon. That margin of opportunity is swiftly narrowing to zero.”
Cy could hardly credit the coolness with which Antigone Pitra was pronouncing this death sentence on the aliens. She said, “By ‘lighten their load’ you mean sacrifice some of their number?”
“The longer they leave it the more of their party they will have to leave behind. In a short time it won’t matter what they do. It’s simple mathematics.”
“As Martians,” said Cy, “my crew and I know all too well the dynamics of a dust storm of that order. You’re blinded by absolute darkness. You lose all sense of direction. It blocks radio and navigational equipment, works its way into your re-breather and chokes you, or clogs the heat-exchange so that you’re cooked alive in your vacuum suit. Wheels and tracks seize, machines stop. There’s death a dozen times over in a big dust blow like that.” When there was no response to this – Cy wasn’t sure what response she was expecting – she added, “What contingency plan have you got?”
“Contingency plan?” said Antigone blankly.
“For something like this. To help them.”
“The mother ship isn’t designed for a planetary landing, nor does it have a second lander. I thought you knew this, Cyleen.”
“No, I mean what contingency plan have you got?”
The Professor shrugged.. “There isn’t any. What could there be?”
“You have Utopia Plain.”
“Are you proposing to bring the ship down and snatch them up?”
“No, one of the shuttles would be better suited. They work well in an atmosphere, even one as thin as New Hell’s. It could easily drop down and –“
“Swing low, sweet chariot,” sang Antigone in a sardonic contralto, “coming for to carry me home.” Antigone laughed a light incredulous laugh and said, “That’s quite out of the question. You know as well as I do we are not permitted to interfere.”
Cy began to rise, but felt the restraining hand of Doctor Norsk on her arm. She flashed him an angry look, but an instant later her young face sagged and she let the gentle pressure of his hand return her to her seat.
“This law of non-interference, which we both work under, remember,” Antigone was saying, “is for their own benefit. To barge into a still-developing civilization holds extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation. Earth’s own history is littered with such instances – particularly European contact with the Americas, Africa and Oceania. The result was the disintegration of societies and the death of cultures: misery, suffering and often war. The Dhooj home world has a similar history.”
“You’re talking about primitive people here,” said Cy. “The Dhooj can hardly be called primitive. If they’ve come this far they must be close to developing subspace capability and breaking out of their star system.”
“Yes. Our studies show this to be a distinct possibility. Be that as it may, are you ready to risk an entire planetary civilization? Although there are several nations on their world that are industrialized and a few even have a capacity for space flight, contact right now with us would only be catastrophic for them. Don’t think me cold-hearted, Cyleen. But you cannot put the lives of the few above the lives of the many.”
“I am thinking of the many. If their expedition ends in death it may put their space program back decades. They may abandon it altogether. Their civilization may stagnate because they’ll be unable to reach out for the resources needed to sustain a growing level of technology, not to mention population.”
“Unsupported assumptions. You’re pontificating in matters you know nothing about.”
Cy rose slowly to her feet, and this time no hand could restrain her. “Don’t you speak to me like that aboard my ship!”
“Your ship? Why, you jumped up teenaged Frankenstein! Who do you think you are apart from a genetically modified piece of biological ordinance. I’d already begun my studies in xenology when you were nothing but a smudge on a Petri dish in some colonial military lab. How to shoot with accuracy … that’s all your breed knows.”
Antigone stepped from the dais, leaving the holo image of New Hell running, the storm front to continue its creep southward. At the wardroom door she stopped and said, “Once the Dhooj have terminated their mission, my group will be returned to our orbital observatory. I have my orders and you, Cyleen, have yours. The problem with you is that you’re developing a goddess complex while barely being human.”
She swept from the room, a swiftly moving figure in white and twinkling red, all but Cy De Gerch staring after her.
Thwonk went the ball against the wall.
She caught the ball in a fingerless leather sports glove. “Why so formal, Frank?”
He stepped into the ship’s gymnasium and regarded her with natural interest, her shorts revealing thick calves, sleeveless top showing disproportional wide shoulders above the modest swell of her breasts, the long scar tracery glistening with sweat on her left forearm, souvenir of a training accident two years before. He said, “Well, you are the captain, aren’t you? And your summons sounded formal enough. Blowing off steam?”
“Yes, Frank, that’s exactly what I’m doing,” she said with a deceptively pleasant lilt. “I’m blowing off steam. Because you know –“ Suddenly pivoting on one bare foot, she thrust out an arm, clutching at his throat and crashed him back against the wall.
“I am this close to shoving those Earthies out of the goddamned airlock!” she hissed.
“Cy! Power down!” he gasped, grabbing uselessly at her iron grip. “There’s a law against it !”
She relaxed pressure. He coughed to catch his breath but made no effort to escape. They were there against the wall nose to nose. The smell of her sweat, the lingering traces of perfume … He tilted his head slightly and kissed her on the mouth.
Though his kiss was not returned, nor did she resist. It was a long moment before she pushed softly back from him.
“This law of non-intervention,” she said, batting the ball again thwonk thwonk, “is only to save developing civilizations from being destroyed by culture shock. Yes?”
“That’s the gist of it.”
“What if we could save the Dhooj without them knowing it was an outside agency doing it?”
“You mean as if by an act of god?”
She turned and stared at him. “Do you think I have a goddess complex?”
“No. And neither do I think you’re just a … what did she call you?”
“Genetically modified piece of biological ordinance?”
“That’s the one.”
Cy gave a wry chuckle. “I’d like to think I’m more than that. But in many ways she’s right. I was made to meld with a frigate’s weaponry system, made to hit hard, hit with accuracy. The ship and I … we complement each other deadly.” She swatted the ball against the wall again, once, twice, catching it tight in a leather-gloved grip. “If we can’t remove the Dhooj from the danger we’ll remove the danger from the Dhooj. At least for the thirty minutes they’ll need to reach their lander.”
“And make it look natural.”
She nodded. “Is the storm still blowing south, same speed?”
“Same direction, same speed, and as expected it’s still growing.”
“And have they ditched any of their number to make some distance?”
“No. They’re sticking together. It must’ve occurred to them, but they haven’t done it.”
“Good. I’m glad. I’ll shortly be sending a signal to SectorCom advising them of my intentions.”
“You’ll find out soon enough. I’ve left a navigational package with Manoeuvring. I want you to implement it in …” Cy glanced up at the gym’s wall clock “… fifteen minutes.”
“No. Things aren’t in quite the right place yet. Though I was lucky enough to find it at all, celestial mechanics being what they are.”
“You realize there’ll be a court martial waiting for you back at base.”
“You think I don’t know that? You think I don’t feel I’m betraying the captain’s trust? By rights they should’ve brought in a replacement commander. But Captain Brown recommended I be boosted from Exec and be given the responsibility of command – an eighteen year old genetics experiment. Frank, you’re the Exec now. What do the crew think of the situation?”
“You saw your people’s reactions at the meeting. That’s pretty much the feeling throughout the ship.”
Although Cy tried to hide it, Frank noticed a momentary look of relief in her eyes.
“Instruct the Torpedo Flat to ready tube number one,” she said. “Standard proximity fuse with the warhead cranked down to minimum yield.”
“Fine. That’ll give you ten megatons to play with. Cy, I hope to hell you know what you’re doing.”
“I have special instructions for Scans and Engineering as well,” she continued, brushing his warning aside. “But I’ll contact them myself.”
“Better contact Medical too. When I call hands to Flight Stations our comely Professor Pitra is going to blow a seal.”
“Let her! She’s only been lording it over me because she thinks she has regulations and the authority of SectorCom on her side.”
“She does have regulations and the authority of SectorCom on her side. She’s right: we shouldn’t be interfering. Think of all the crimes and wars and massacres they must have seen over their years of observing the Dhooj. Would you have them intervene in all that too?”
“This is different. This is their break-out opportunity. If that group dies now their whole planet is heading for disaster.”
“You can’t be certain of that. You know, I’m beginning to wonder whether you really are doing this for those poor bastards on New Hell or for yourself.”
“Just implement my instructions. Trust me, Frank – I’m a jumped-up teenaged Frankenstein.”
“Very well.” He turned for the door.
“Oh, and Frank.”
“You’re a lousy kisser.”
Thwonk went the ball against the wall.
About the Author
Rick Kennett has had horror and SF stories published in several magazines, anthologies and podcasts including Dunesteef, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. He won two Parsec Awards for podcast stories in 2013, a year that also saw the publication of his novel The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. One of those Parsec Awards was for Cast of Wonders Episode 71, Now Cydonia, one of the several Martian Ranger Cy De Gerch stories.
When not toiling at the day job in the transport industry, he can be found wandering cemeteries – necrotourism – or working as the podcast reporter for the Ghosts & Scholars M R James Newsletter.
About the Narrator
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.