30 Minutes for New Hell
by Rick Kennett
He checked the clock again.
Twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven …
From his vantage point at the weapons console at Com, Lieutenant Frank Peters looked first at the forward access hatch, then at the aft access hatch, speculating. Yes, he thought. Forward hatch. Definitely. It was slightly further from Scans, but more direct. And the Professor was nothing if not direct.
He leaned back and listened to the building power-song of the drive firing gravity rings down the hull, faster and faster, acting on every atom simultaneously, causing no g forces within.
Twenty-four, twenty-three, twenty-two …
By ear alone he could tell Utopia Plain was accelerating through .3 of light speed. The drive note sounded right.
Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen …
The Professor’s screeching from Scans as they’d broke from orbit had been, as he’d expected, unpleasant, and he could only hope now that his oddball captain’s oddball idea was going to work. He hated the thought of being on the receiving end of Antigone Pitra’s rightful wrath, not only wrong but disastrously wrong.
Eight, seven, six …
For the tenth time in two minutes he checked distance to target as the drive phased into deceleration.
Three, two, one …
Now, he thought and looked toward the forward entrance hatch.
The hatch crashed back and Professor Antigone Pitra entered at a fast walk, still wearing her white one-piece, starred in red and blue. A jarring contrast to the anger distorting her features, belying her natural beauty.
“You!” She jabbed an accusing finger. “Lieutenant … Peters, isn’t it? The one with the over-strong aftershave. What do you think you’re doing leaving orbit before the mission’s completed? I’m in charge here, not that girl. What idiotic stunt is that prodigy of a test tube trying to pull?”
Frank opened his mouth then shut it again. Having implemented Cy’s navigational program and given the Torpedo Flat their orders, he couldn’t honestly say ‘idiotic stunt’ wasn’t exactly what it was.
“Well?” said Antigone, eyes narrowing. “What are you doing?”
“Shouldn’t you be asking me that,” said Cy, coming in through the hatch behind her. “I am the captain.”
Professor Pitra stepped back in surprise. Cy was now attired in her formal uniform: dark blue slacks flared over boots and a tunic sporting a diagonal of silver buttons and a high collar, complemented with a short and severe ponytail and a single gold earring of linked female symbols glittering in her right lobe.
She moved with cool authority to her place at the repeater screens.
She sat. She crossed her legs.
“Range to target?”
“Three million, ma’am,” Frank Peters reported, “and closing.”
Antigone approached the captain, took in her attire, the straight, formal lines, high collar and gleaming silver buttons, said, “Why …” said, “What …” said, “You …” and stopped dead, unable to say more.
Cy regarded the Professor in an imperious manner. “White suits you, Antigone” she said. “Very demure. Mr Peters! Double check the safeties on the torp. I don’t want it coming back on us.”
“Aye aye, ma’am,” said Frank at Weapons.
“You plan to interfere, don’t you!” Antigone practically hissed.
Cy, recalibrating her range finder, said, “How could we? We’re now entering the fringes of the asteroid belt of this system, several million kilometres spaceward of New Hell.”
“Why?” Antigone Pitra, Terran Professor of Xenology, dressed in white and face going red, glared about so that all personnel quickly returned their attention to panels and screens, pretending they hadn’t been staring. “Why have you removed us from our lawful place? What gives you the right to interfere with and countermand my project?”
“Two words, Antigone: My ship.”
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing but –“
“Then I’ll tell you what I think I’m doing.” said Cy, checking monitor screens and meters. “I’m about to spit in the eye of Fate and play goddess.”
“The implications could be monstrous!”
“As monstrous as what you would have happen? Let the Dhooj bake or choke in the dark heart of a dust storm. Good god, woman! Stop thinking of them as possibilities. They’re living individuals, not ants in an ant farm to be studied!” The words came out hard and angry, perhaps more hard and angry than she meant. “Scans, Com. Stand-by to track.”
“Standing by, ma’am.” The voice of Sub-Lieutenant Farrell, steady on the comlink.
Central on several screens a single twinkling star grew large, grew larger, took on a shifting, irregular shape, now a tumbling diamond, now a shining pebble rolling and rolling.
“Asteroid AQ 347 according to the catalogue drawn up by your own Xenology Section,” said Cy. “It took me several minutes of computer time to find a nickel-iron job of just the right size and mass in just the right place.” She checked the range meter, its numbers spinning down and down. “Manoeuvring, step up decel another 50 g.”
The drive wailed in deceleration like a banshee forewarning of death. The asteroid focused, big now in the screens, an ovoid mountain stumbling through space, pitted and cracked, a thousand metres wide and an old fashioned mile in length.
“Mr Peters …” Captain Cy De Gerch hesitated an instant, then said what she’d always wanted to say: “Engage! Engage! Engage!”
A single neutron torpedo spat from Utopia Plain. The ship immediately curved away to starboard, gravity rings, inwardly turning, flickering down the hull, polarizing starlight rainbows in her wake.
Scans reported, “Warhead has armed. Torpedo running true. Detonating … now!”
For five dragging seconds, the time it took for light to span the distance, nothing happened. Then several screens flared white an instant before space darkened again, having marked for an incandescent second the death of the monolith that had rolled its orbit for a billion years.
Cy’s face lit with childish excitement. She hunched her shoulders and gave a squeal of glee, for a moment acting like the teenager she was rarely allowed to be.
Scans said, “High gamma static reading … no clear fix yet.”
Clear! Clear! Cy thought. I need to know, I need to track them. Oh god, I hope I haven’t vaporized it!
Cy turned with surprise. Vandal? In the excitement she’s forgotten the Professor practically standing at her elbow. A retort leapt to her tongue and was as quickly bitten back. She looked at Antigone, her smooth features and blonde hair somehow accented by her seething anger. Almost without thinking Cy said, “When I was fourteen I had a boyfriend – yes, a boyfriend – who told me once that I was so beautiful when I was officious. How officious you are right now, Antigone.” She smiled a quiet, meaningful smile at the other woman.
Antigone Pitra flinched with offence and shock.
“Oh, I hope so,” said Cy. “I hope I’m utterly certifiable.”
The Professor stormed out. To her cabin – the Captain’s cabin actually – to brood? To Scans to find support among her team? To Communications to report this insolent Martian to SectorCom? Cy didn’t know, didn’t care. Antigone could play her games; Cy was about to play her own.
And yet there was Frank Peters gazing after Antigone’s retreating figure – an attractive figure – with a distinct look of regret; and Cy couldn’t honestly say she didn’t feel the same way.
She folded down her collar. She hated high collars. They always scratched.
“Engineering, Com. Cut drive. Stand by to follow primary tracking input.”
Utopia Plain glided, sweeping through a million klick arc, curving back towards the swiftly spreading semi-circle scatter of outraged nickel-iron boulders, all slag-edged and hot, now boosted by a nuclear hammer blow to approximately three percent of light speed.
“Com, Scans. Target found. Throwing it to you for approval.”
The holo of an asteroid fragment appeared: irregular, potato-shaped, around 200 metres on its long axis. Data text and the orbital path graph present with the image showed its trajectory would need only small amounts of modification.
“I think the correct expression here,” said Frank, “is bingo!”
“Is it?” said Cy, puzzled by the unfamiliar term. She’d never played a game of chance that had not involved whole worlds and the power to destroy them. “Target approved.”
The ship moved in behind the fragment, closing..
“Com, Scans. Secondary tracking has computed the orbits of all fragments larger than two metres. None pose a threat to the Dhooj home world.”
“How far ahead did you plot?” Cy asked.
“One hundred and fifty years, ma’am.”
“A hundred and fifty years from now the Dhooj should be able to take care of any incoming rocks for themselves. At any rate, today we give them that chance.”
“Too bad we couldn’t just laser off a piece,” said Frank. “Be safer.”
“Be easier. Be less chancy too,” said Cy. “But then it wouldn’t have the added velocity given it by the detonation, and right now we need speed above all else. Besides,” and she broke into an evil grin, “little Cyleen like big booms.”
“Little Cyleen soon gunna get that in spades.”
The lighting flickered, the holo blurred and shimmered. An energy-hungry operation, fields of gravity were being generated a thousand kilometres away, to the left, to the right, balancing the rock on its course. It swayed and twitched, falling a half degree towards one field of several g, checked and countered by a flash field opposite, the whole oscillating in weird time to the flickering of the lights, the shaking of the image.
“Aldrin said he thought his ship was shadowed by an alien craft,” said Frank.
“What?” said Cy, caught off guard by this sudden remark.
“Buzz Aldrin. He was part of the first landing on Earth’s moon. Apollo 11. He once said he and Collins and Armstrong spotted what they thought might be an alien ship following them as they were heading for their moon in 1969.”
“Oh, ancient history. Sorry, Frank, not very good at that. The small amount of history my hatchment pod was taught usually concerned death and destruction on a grand scale: Midway, Jutland, uplifting things like that. And did human civilization fall after Buzz Aldrin revealed all this?”
“Not that I recall.”
The lighting and the holo image steadied with only the occasional flicker and blur. Major course corrections on the fragment were complete. It would soon be too late to do anything but minor trimming. Engineering was still applying a gravity field behind the rock to decelerate it, but it was now steady and constant.
Cy said, “Ms Hong, are we still monitoring Dhooj radio traffic?”
“No, ma’am.” ComTech Ingrid Hong’s face on the comlink screen no longer had an expression grim and sad. Now she practically beamed. “Professor Pitra shut down operations in Scans some minutes ago when the signals began to seriously red shift due to the Doppler Effect. By what I hear –“ She turned her head a moment to hide a lurking smirk. “By what I hear the Professor was in quite a state.”
It was too bad, Cy reflected, that they’d lost contact with Dhooj radio traffic. She’d wanted to hear their hopelessness, their goodbyes and farewells to loved ones, their prayers and death anthems, so as to give her a target to smash. It pleased her to think that the Dhooj, despairing and facing imminent death, little suspected the incredible forces hurtling through the cosmos to their salvation, that on their behalf a monolith had been exploded from its eternal orbit and orders defied. Perhaps Antigone Pitra was right: maybe she did have a goddess complex. Perhaps Frank Peters was right too: maybe she was doing this for herself.
Because right now it felt so good to wield such power.
The disc of New Hell grew bigger, redder, more defined. With its drive humming in smooth deceleration, Utopia Plain fell towards the planet with the asteroid fragment only a hundred kilomtres ahead.
“When do you want to pull away?” asked Frank, slotting his chair across to Astrogation.
“Don’t worry, I have it pre-set,” said Cy, voice tense. “Manoeuvring, get us back behind that rock. And close up another eighty K. Frank, sound collision.”
“Captain?” he said, unconscious of his return to formality.
“We’re going in with it. Making sure there’s no ricochet effect or deflection when we hit the atmosphere. Scans, Com. What’s the trajectory?”
Armand Farrell appeared briefly on the screen. Like Ingrid Hong he was no longer grim and sad – but he was starting to look nervous. “Holding steady at nineteen point five degrees, ma’am. No deviation. Entering atmosphere over the southern hemisphere in fifteen seconds.”
The collision alarm sounded. Crew throughout the ship buckled up and braced.
The planet loomed big and red and solid above the rock that Cy De Gerch, idealist captain or mad goddess, was jockeying down.
Into the atmosphere they ripped with a thunder crack audible even in that thin air. Utopia Plain jolted and shook. Twin apparitions of fire, the ship and the rock blazing across the pink-brown skies of New Hell. Above the cratered red plains and dead sea floors of the southern latitudes, down and down. Over cone peaks of smouldering volcanoes, descending, over more craters, descending, mesas, plateaus and canyons, down and down.
Across the equator, the rock trailing smoke and sonic detonations.
The storm front came into sight far on the northern horizon, a vast tsunami of foaming red dust engulfing the landscape.
As the final seconds slipped away Cy became aware of a peculiar sound from somewhere undetermined. What was it? Where was it coming from? Part of her mind obsessed with trying to identify it – a silvery trilling, musical and glittering.
Now they were over the desert with the storm immediately ahead. For an instant Utopia Plain, cloaked in smoke, hurtled over the startled heads of the fleeing Dhooj in their vehicle. Then as the drive surged and the ship swept upward, shuddering, shaking, accelerating in seconds too fast to see, that silvery sound, musical and glittering, puzzling and unknown, rose above the chaos, grew loud and burst in upon Cy with disbelieving recognition.
It was herself, laughing.
Below and far astern a huge chunk of nickel-iron rock struck the desert.
A flash of white light, visible shock waves rippling through the erupting ground, out and out in a spreading semi-circle north and either side – a rapidly growing cloud, four, five, six kilometres wide and more.
Utopia Plain powered back into space, swinging into the out and up on its drive singing.
Cy De Gerch unbuckled, leapt to her feet, and grabbed Frank Peters with both arms.
“We did it!” she cried, hugging him, being hugged, laughing, not insanely now but with the joy of life. “We did it! Oh Frank …Bingo!”
Amid the happy hubbub at Com he kissed her again, and this time it was returned.
There was cheering at Com. There was cheering at Communications, Scans and Engineering – everywhere aboard Utopia Plain but among Professor Pitra’s team. They were busy pondering the possible outcomes of this action, some of which were not cheerful at all.
As though smeared over in blood, the storm front had been obliterated in an elongated horseshoe shape, expanding and expanding, a great scarlet counterblast leaning hard into the north, sweeping back the storm, pushing far into its dark heart, confusing and confounding its winds.
It would take some time for the dust storm to regain momentum and surge forward and south again.
Which is what eventually did happen.
But by then the Dhooj had reached their lander and had lifted off, having got their thirty minutes.
Cy nudged Frank in the side to wake him up, rolled out from under the blanket, padded across to her clothes locker and began dressing in operational fatigues. She sat down at her desk and regarded herself in the mirror. Did she look any different? Any older? Any wiser? She started brushing her hair, which was in disarray.
“So how was it for you?” asked Frank, sitting up so that the blanket fell crumpled to his waist.
“Why do men always need a score-card afterward?” said Cy. Then softening her tone, she added, “It was good.”
“Only ‘good’? With the noises you were making?”
Cy glanced at the scar on her left forearm as she reformed her ponytail. “Maybe I was thinking of someone else.”
“And please don’t think you’ve converted me. In some other reality Antigone Pitra is a decent human being as well as beautiful, and if I could’ve got that woman back here she would’ve been the one making the noises, I guarantee it.” Cy finished with her hair and stood. “Now then, Lieutenant Peters, get up, get dressed and get out. You have the Com in ten minutes and we’ll need your expertise in docking with the xenologists’ observatory.”
He climbed out of Cy’s bunk and picked up his pants and tunic from a heap of other clothes, dark blue and unfastened silver buttons.
“Funny to think,” he said, “that in a little over an hour we’ll cover the same distance the Dhooj ship will need three months to do.”
“That they will cover it is all that matters,” said Cy as her mirror chimed and the image of ComTech Ingrid Hong shimmered into focus.
Cy swung back into the chair and switched the mirror through to two-way viewing.
“Two signals, ma’am.”
“The first is undefined. It came in on frequency modulation.”
“Old style radio,” said Frank, dressing.
Cy waved at him to be quiet. “Something as antiquated as that … Ingrid, could it have come from the Dhooj ship?”
“It was very brief, ma’am, and we had no chance to trace it. But for a primitive medium it was fairly strong, so probably local, so probably from the Dhooj ship, yes.”
“But we stopped monitoring Dhooj communications hours ago.”
“No, ma’am. This one was beamed specifically at us.”
“Oh.” She glanced doubtfully aside at Frank who was looking back at her in the same manner. Not really sure she wanted to hear the answer, she asked, “What did it say?”
“It said ‘Ghah.’”
“What the hell does that mean?” said Frank, pushing his head into the screen’s field of view.
A moment of surprise, even disconcertion, registered on Ingrid’s face, and was just as quickly gone. “Oh … hello, Lieutenant Peters. I’ve been monitoring the aliens’ radio traffic the last few days so I’m reasonably sure ‘Ghah’ is used as a polite acknowledgement. I think it means ‘Thank you.’”
Frank chuckled. “They knew we were here. All the time they knew we were here and they never once asked for help.”
“Why should they?” said Cy. “They knew we could see what was happening.”
“Yes, they knew we could see what was happening,” he said thoughtfully. “Cy, has it occurred to you they may have engineered their trouble to gauge what we would do?”
“What? Oh, don’t be so suspicious, Frank. They wouldn’t –” She stopped and stared at him, a dark surmise passing between them. Had the Dhooj deliberately put themselves in danger in the hope of provoking a reaction? Balancing trust against a choking death to seize an opportunity to study those who were studying them?
“The mother ship was evidently tardy in registering the advent of the storm,” Antigone Pitra had said.
“The second signal, ma’am?” Ingrid asked.
Cy brought her thoughts back to the mirror. “Yes.”
“It’s from SectorCom. Headed ‘Response Message 4033 Utopia. Re: Intentions.’ Sub-Headed ‘Confidential: For Captain Only.’ Text coming on screen now.”
Cy read it, then read it again, although the words came as no surprise. She said to Frank Peters, “Would you have done the same thing in my place? Given the aliens their thirty minutes, despite all?”
“I honestly don’t know,” he said, sitting on the bunk, pulling on his boots. “I don’t mind telling you that I was very glad it wasn’t me making that decision.”
She swung the screen around so that he too could read the short, stark words.
“You’re relieved of command?” he said, not quite able to believe the official communiqué.
Cy De Gerch nodded. She leaned back in her chair and finished fastening her tunic.
“Any orders, Captain?” she said.
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.