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Presumed Dead (Part 3)
by Rick Kennett
Night came quickly in these latitudes, dropping out of the late afternoon sky like a black weight. Though she thought it silly she didn’t much like the idea of coming across spiders in the dark. Not that she imagined there was a posse after her or that she might be ambushed. But the notion was hard to shake. The spiders were an unknown quantity.
In the lengthening shadow of a capsized hulk she stopped to sniff the air. The hot iron smell of the wreck vied with the scent of rain. A thunderhead was forming in the north. Watching the brewing clouds, for a moment she thought kindly of the dry red of home and its clear pink-brown skies.
When she got to Charlie-Sierra, she decided, she’d have to build a shelter. There’d be tools in the cairn. A simple structure at first, she’d add to it over time as she farmed her crops, walked in the sun and made wind and string instruments to play in the evenings…
She laughed, wondering where the music idea had come from. Many years ago a culture instructor, an old Earth woman by the name of Ms Xerri, had despaired of her ever playing so much as a pennywhistle. “Child, child, child,” Cy remembered aloud, mimicking Ms Xerri’s scratchy-violin voice and tone of permanent disappointment, “like all your brethren you have an excellent sense of rhythm and Vincent Van Gogh’s ear for music.” To which little Cyleen had beamed with pleasure and ignorance.
She shrugged off the unlikelihood of evening recitals on the homemade lute or the handmade flute. But what about a treehouse? Were there trees at Charlie-Sierra? Real trees, not these toadstools with delusions of grandeur, the only sort of trees she’d so far found on this planet. A treehouse like kids build for themselves on Earth, like she’d never had on Phobos, little rock moon of her birth.
Spud, George had said.
Something tickled her ear. She brushed at it, thinking of music, thinking of George deep in the sea and the coffee they never drank, thinking that something had tickled her ear again so that she brushed at it again and something hard took her finger in a gentle but firm grip.
Cy brought her hand forward and the grip slid off, though not before a claw dragged briefly into view.
Her backpack’s straps were off her shoulders in an instant and she was jumping away before it even hit the ground. It lay there with the open end towards her like the dark mouth of a cave. She crouched, saw movement within. A claw emerged, then another claw, then an eye atop a wavering eyestalk. On eight shaky hairy legs the dead spider crawled out of the bag.
She sat down in the dirt and stared in a daze at the spider crawling toward her.
The eyestalks no longer drooped but were erect and the eyes glittered. Its legs were steadier now as well and regaining their rhythm. The claws, closed and held aloft, were ambiguous in intent. A swirl of discoloured matter where the iron had struck made a bald patch on its back.
Spider legs touched her ankles. It climbed onto her lap.
She touched its wound, soft and pulpy. “Are you too gunna tell me what a bad girl I’ve been and how I should be back in the war?” First a banshee at the porthole, then her dead mother’s face thrusting from the dark. Now here was the ghost of a murdered bug. Her insanity, she decided, had reached a whole new level.
She stroked the fur on one side of the plump spider body. As if in response, the spider folded its four back legs and sat, a warm mass against her legs.
Furriness? Weight? Warmth?
She sprung up with a yell. The spider tumbled off backward, landing on all eight feet, claws clicking, eyestalks flexing.
“You’re alive!” she laughed, feeling a weight she’d not been truly conscious of lift from her mind. “You’re alive … but you were dead.“
She skirted round the creature, its eyes on her as she moved towards the pack and picked it up. The smell within it wrinkled her nose.
She headed back to her wreck with a lighter step, the spider watching her go, its eyestalks extended and waving as if saying, Crazy alien!
It was close to sunset when she returned to her wreck, full of her idea of examining the spider residue and all too conscious of racing against the light. The short planetary day would soon slide into a brief twilight, then plunge her into night.
She scraped gluey flakes of drying yellow spider ooze from the inside of her backpack and put some into the mediscan. Setting it to ‘analyze’ she made a quick trip to the nearby stream, her long shadow stalking ahead, to wash out her pack and its lingering pungency.
When she returned the scan was churning out some interesting results. The machine thought the spider ooze was a compound related to protoplasm but with a high percentage of silicon, much of it bonded to organic molecules. Cy reset it to look for evidence of reconstruction on the molecular level.
While it cogitated, she opened a ration pack of algae and black beans in satay sauce, her favourite – George had chose well when he’d stocked his panic bag. The pack’s self-heating was almost complete when the mediscan chimed. Yes, there was evidence of massive restructuring at the molecular level carried out by molecular machines or nanobots.
The Kreengs weren’t exactly alive and they weren’t exactly mechanisms.
Cy ate slowly, savouring the beans and algae. It was not just the taste but the texture of the food. There was a subtle difference, she thought, between a bean grown on a terrestrial organic farm and a bean force-bred in a Martian hothouse. Reluctantly, she conceded that Earthies ate better.
Cy awoke to the sound of rain and the feeling of something moving slowly across her sleeping bag just as morning was putting dim light through her cabin portholes.
She reached across and turned on her mediscan’s instructional player. By its light she saw a spider with a discoloured scar on its back crawling into the valley made by her hip and crooked knee.
“Well, hello, Lazarus,” she said and sat up. The creature had by now plopped onto the deck and was heading towards her belongings.
“I don’t suppose you get that highly comical biblical reference. You see, there was this guy by the name of Lazarus on a planet called Earth. This must’ve been – oh, I don’t know, thousands of years ago … I’m talking Earth years, those little 365-day things they have there, not the real years we have at home — 668 days long, and every Martian day forty minutes longer than an Earth day. Anyway, come the plague and this Lazarus guy falls over dead and gets shoved in a tomb. Then this other guy JC, a big shaker of the time and not one to disoblige, being the sky admiral’s exec — he fronts the tomb and rolls away the stone because he doesn’t much like people being dead when there’s work to do, and he says, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ But Lazarus disobeyed … and came fifth.”
The spider gently gripped a canteen and lifted it as if measuring its weight.
“It’s a pun,” she said.
The spider put the bottle down and crawled across to the medikit.
“Forth … fifth. You see? My dad told me that story when I was a kid. He wasn’t much for jokes, my father, but I do remember him telling me that one. Maybe he didn’t think he had much to laugh at in his life: a widower with five kids and a nowhere job at the Hall freight depot on Phobos. Maybe that’s why my parents invented me, as a way out. Just before I was born my family moved from industrial Hall at one end of Phobos to residential Stickney Crater at the other, a definite step up. And my father did retire early. So perhaps I served a purpose after all. That is apart from the bangbangbang I used to do. Did I ever tell you I used to be a trained killer for the state? Oh yes! I’ve five scorched ships to my name. Not bad for someone of my tender years.”
Cy’s unappreciative audience ran its claws across the medikit, then moved on.
“Do you Kreengs have war? Bet you don’t, lucky things. How about language? Not in words, but you communicate somehow, don’t you. How about love or sex? Not always the same thing, mind. Do you have them in your lives? No, I suppose not. You’re not biological. Not … exactly. Say, what if something happens to one of you beyond your capacity to self-repair? Are you replaced? If so, how? Or is it a case of one less spider on the plain doesn’t matter? Bit like me. One missed cog in the war machine …”
She stopped and watched uneasily as Lazarus approached the laser pistol with an out-stretched claw. But the safety was on, so she let it be.
“OK, we’ve established that you probably have language. But do you have humour? I doubt it or you’d have been on your back kicking up your eight legs laughing at my father’s joke. Humour: That’s another thing you’re missing out on. What a dull existence it must be without sex or love or humour.” As she said this it dawned on her that none of these would likely be taking any part of her future life.
She got up and started preparing breakfast. A glance out the porthole at the rain told her there’d be no leaving the plain today. In a way it made her happy to find an excuse to put off her journey for a little longer, and yet it made her uneasy to stay in this haunted place longer than necessary. Not that her ghosts wouldn’t follow.
After touching the pistol’s handle and firing stud, the spider scaled the wall below an open porthole.
“Before you scuttle off,” she said, nibbling a honey oat wafer, “one last thing: do you have religion? I have a feeling you do, Lazarus. I have the feeling you have your gods. Who are they, eh? Who put you here and told you to dwell among the wrecks? Was it Jehovah? Or Buddha? Or Mohamed? Or Zeus? Or Fred the Spider Deity?” She fell to pondering as the spider crawled out the porthole into the rain. “Strange to have religion but no war, religion but no love.”
The day continued damp, the rain sometimes teeming, sometimes easing. The wind picked up and cried like the dead against the ships. Grey scud raced overhead almost at mast height. Cy huddled in her cabin, its hatch and portholes shut against the storm. Made her feel womb-snug. Sometimes she played first-aid instructional holograms on her medikit disc player with the sound muted, barely watching them. The 3D images moving pantomime-like before her were no substitute for human contact.
She stood at a porthole and stared into the rain. The horizon was grey all around, the hills to the west invisible. Some of the more distant wrecks were little more than vague smudges.
Has Father been notified of my death? Did he weep? Did he ‘take it like a man’ and bottle it away inside for always? Will my brothers do the same? Ari, David, Michael, Conner — will they forget their strange little sister? Will dad give away my stuff? What about my gear aboard Utopia Plain? What about my framed hologram of Jos and me atop Mount Olympus? Will that be thrown away? What are the captain and the others doing now? Preparing the ship for action? Who’s navigating her? Who’s at fire control? Lieutenant Peters?
“Frank Peters, you take good care of my guns!” she shouted into the rain, and not for a moment thought to censure herself. Frank wasn’t a Gartino, didn’t have a genetically enhanced affinity with the weaponry system. She was better. She knew she was better.
The surrounding wall of vagueness drew perceptibly in, giving the impression it was hiding something.
The cry of the wind through the masts and the spars went on and on, and in slow degrees grew to a thin drone. Faint at first so that it had to battle the silvery beat of the rain to be heard. But before long it dominated the whole gloomy landscape. It hit a steady note, wavered, rose again, fell, rose and fell. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the stream. Cy went up on deck and splashed through puddles to the freighter’s stern rails.
It was hard to make out through the rain exactly what was happening by the stream. Was the drone coming from that crawling black blur there? And was the crawling black blur a massing of Kreeng spiders? Were they raising their claws to the south-east as they droned?
Overcome by disquiet, she returned to the shelter of her cabin, closed the hatch and switched on the medikit again to watch The Plumber’s Friend, sound muted. But her eyes kept straying to the porthole and the constricting greyness. Besides, she knew how to use a plumber’s friend to hook herself up to a vacsuit’s biological hoses. It was essential equipment for anyone who went into space and was second nature to every Martian from toddler to greybeard.
The spider noises, rain beating the tempo, rose and fell, rose and fell.
When the lecture ended she absently felt for another hologram disc, this one titled Space Fittings. She slotted it in, still watching the porthole, listening. Was there now a difference in the note the spiders sang? Had the pitch changed? Having Vincent Van Gogh’s ear for music she couldn’t be sure. Beside those naked arms and legs thrusting into her field of vision were beginning to distract her.
Cy stared at the hologram. Two women and a man were madly fornicating in zero-g, tumbling about each other; glistening skin, arms and legs and bodies intertwined, making it difficult to know who was doing what with what to who.
Astonished, Cy snapped the hologram back to the start and hit play. In quite an artistically shot scene, the man and the two women floated into view dressed in what Cy could only think of as perfunctory clothing, put on so it could be taken off.
“George … my, my, who’d have thought,” she murmured, smirking. Obviously something he’d thrown into his panic bag should he ever have had to wait one or more lonely nights for rescue.
With wide eyes she watched Space Fittings up until its orgasmic end.
Then she sat, staring at empty air.
She smiled a small, contented smile and let her finger linger over the replay stud.
“Jos,” she whispered, remembering.
Reluctantly she put the holo player away.
Somewhere in the greyness outside the spider serenade droned on.
Cy awoke. By the angle of the sun slanting in through the porthole she judged it an hour after sunrise, later than her usual time to wake. Very odd.
But the sky was clear and the day was warm. It was time to go.
Down at the stream she washed herself and filled her two canteens.
As she dried herself and dressed she gazed into the west where the rising ground huddled into hills shimmering in the morning thermals. Out that way was the Charlie-Sierra cairn, out that way was hope and survival … and possibly the most terrible death she could imagine: enveloped within the huge body of a Xenoid, smothering in its thick ooze-covered innards.
Trailing after these thoughts came a trace memory of a dream of the night before, about a grey something coming into her cabin. Like most dreams, the more she tried to remember it the more it receded and dissolved until all that remained was the vague impression of annoyance and that the grey something had flapped.
“Crazy dream,” she said and shrugged.
As she crossed the plain later that morning, heading west, Cy saw Kreengs going about their spidery business. None had a scarred back, which gave her a pang of disappointment. She’d wanted to say goodbye and to apologise properly to Lazarus, the spider she’d once killed, but saw it nowhere.
The arrow on the cairn compass still blinked slightly south of west. It was a beautiful day for a hike of a couple hundred kilometres.
She hummed and sang snatches of popular songs, some recent favourites, some years old carrying many memories. Jos lived among some of them, recalling times of training and learning and loving. Others memories returned her to Phobos and the lost days of childhood: running through the tunnels busy with people; the gardens of Stickney Crater all colours and blooms; baking cakes with her brothers in their tiny kitchen; the flutter in her stomach whenever the gravity failed; travelling the open-car monorail from Hall back home to Stickney with Father, the wind in her hair and laughing. Music had been ever present in her home, from earliest memories till the time she left for Mars at age ten.
As she swung along with music on her mind, she decided to do some rhyming of her own. Rummaging through memory she came up with a song about the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy by … who? Gilbert and … someone-or-other? Yes, Gilbert & Someone-or-Other, writers of popular musicals in the 19th century. She remembered Ms Xerri, her long suffering culture instructor, taking her class of Gartinos to see something called HMS Pinafore, which eleven year old Cy had expected to be a tactical study of sea-going warfare in the British Navy, old school. She was disappointed — just a little – to find it was a 19th century musical comedy by Gilbert & Someone-or-Other. Some of the music even stuck in memory.
Later, Ms Xerri took them to The Pirates of Penzance which Cy had expected to be about piracy in the star system of Penzance, wherever Penzance was – she hadn’t come across it in her astrogation studies. She was disappointed – just a little – to discover it was another 19th century musical comedy by Gilbert & Someone-or-Other. Some of the music even stuck in memory.
Ms Xerri had said Gilbert & Someone-or-Other’s music and words often cried out for parody. Before long Cy managed to tease out some lyrics and eventually came up with:
“When I was a girl I loved to roam
Through the long dirt tunnels of my old spud home
Then they took me to Mars where I learnt a lot
Like how to shoot and who gets shot
It’s programmed progress to my destiny
As youngest ruler of the Mars navy!
“I was mixed and cooked in beakers and tubes
A teenage warrior with B-cup boobs
I’m a hot-shot witch at Fire-Control
A deadly machine with a young girl’s soul
They brought me into being but they didn’t ask me
If I wanted to be a shooter in the Mars navy!
“And now I am free, they presume me dead
A big course change from the life I led
I’ll roam this planet till the day I die
I am myself, my name is Cy!
I’m content to live in obscurity
And have nothing more to do with the Mars navy!”
She could’ve gone on adding verses, but gave it up. The bitterness was showing. Besides, there was no music in her, as Ms Xerri had often said.
The only music she really knew was the howl of Utopia Plain’s lasers.
“Yes, I do make them sing,” she said, then laughed, sounding slightly crazed.
By late morning when her left palm began to itch she was trudging up rising grasslands of fungus, thin whips of mushroom. Viewed from up here, the ships offered a surreal vista of red-grey shapes marooned in a plain of dirty yellow. The general south-easterly lay of the wrecks was a massive mosaic telling a story both heroic and tragic. If only she could understand it.
From where she stood it looked just like a gigantic piece of surreal artwork.
She laughed at the thought. Crazy idea.
Scratching her left palm, she turned and walked on.
The slope levelled onto a prairie of fungus grass, green to the blue-sky horizon.
Cy hesitated, realizing how dangerous this magnificent view could be. Out there she’d be exposed and vulnerable. There wasn’t a stick of cover for as far as the eye could see. If any hairy monster appeared on the skyline …
She shrugged. She had her laser, she had her training. Fighting Xenoids was what she’d been created for.
“Coming ready or not, Johnny Gloop,” she said and started off slightly south of west across this endless stretch of green.
Yet her first few steps wavered, her mind overwhelmed by this immense vista of green. Vistas of red were the norm. Anything else still struck her as odd, disturbing.
The morning is red as most mornings are in the Martian deserts.
Negotiating the scattered volcanic ejecta with that odd hopping step so natural to Martian gravity, in their black and yellow vacsuits they look like wasp-coloured kangaroos. Cadet Roscoe Wiltchie is carrying the crystalline barrel across his shoulders. Behind him Cadet Cy De Gerch carries the swivel tripod, power pack and control module on her back. It’s only twenty minutes since Sergeant Kreeng tossed them off the personnel carrier.
“Get it right, you two. Twenty-five minutes to find your position, set up and be ready.”
But even now they’re behind schedule.
Clock numbers flicker on their visors.
“Come on! The drones are due in five minutes,” says Roscoe on the short-range channel.
“Which is not my fault,” Cy replies.
“Not mine either.”
“Remind me again who’s navigating this exercise. There’s not supposed to be this many rocks.” She images the map on her visor. “I’m sure we’re going the wrong way.”
“Of course we’re going the wrong way. Trust me.”
They bound on in silence. Visor clock numbers race past sixty seconds, fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven …
“We’re here,” says Roscoe.
“And we’re late.” Cy plants the tripod legs on a clear bit of red sand. “We should’ve been on position at zero minus two minutes, not zero minus fifty seconds!”
“We would’ve been later if we’d followed the plan,” says Roscoe, fitting the barrel onto the mount. Only now does it begin to look like a megawatt field laser. Hurrying, he clips on control module and power pack. “Power up! Calibrate!”
“Ready to acquire!” says Cy.
Surprisingly no target appears in her visor sights. Their clocks are at zero; the target drones should be approaching now. Nothing is approaching. Cy wonders if they too are late, then says to Roscoe, “What do you mean ‘if we followed the plan’?”
“The route we were given to get here in time is wrong.”
“Of course deliberately. Do you see Old Get It Right making an honest mistake? Think about it, Cy. This is not just a simple gunnery exercise. It’s –”
“Target!” says Cy. Thinking time is over: a drone in her visor sights, swinging over the horizon. “Acquire!”
The laser swivels, lifts to fifteen degrees elevation. Even through their darkened visors the laser flash is brilliant. They look for the drone’s disintegration. But the drone is still there, intact and closing fast, with two more following.
Cy swears, re-acquires target and fires again — and again the pulse goes wide. She glares at the black dot swelling visibly into a flat ellipsoid against the pink-brown sky. It’s beginning its final dive. At a range of one hundred metres it will self-destruct in a blue cloud of dye. At that distance their suits will absorb the blast wave. The real killer will be the humiliation of failure, coloured blue.
Roscoe says something in a loud, excited voice about the gun being wrong too. She ignores him. Switching off the sights she fixes the plunging drone with an angry stare. It’s all she can see, all she wants to see. The laser barrel shudders to the right, flares like the sun. The drone explodes in a flickering fireball and a pop of faint thunder trickles down through the thin atmosphere of Mars.
The following drones close in – two flat ellipsoids, swooping down in erratic zigzags.
Her young face works behind her visor as she watches the drones dive, less than a kilometre away now, purposefully, personally malicious. She hates them, hates them with a seething passion she has never felt before. It surprises her. It delights her. She raises an arm and points a gloved finger. “Go bang!”
Two orange flowers blossom briefly in the sky, leaving Cy standing there with her arm extended pointing at dissolving smoke puffs, grinning and barely conscious of Roscoe muttering in her earphones, “God … oh god almighty!”
Cy dropped her pants, squatted and peed into the grass. “And they said I cheated because I caused them to self-destruct prematurely,” she muttered indignantly.
She cleaned herself with water from a canteen, then pulled up her pants, making an air tight seal with her tunic: survival habits of a lifetime don’t change overnight. She couldn’t quite shake the idea that she was committing a horrendous crime every time she passed bodily waste that was not immediately recycled. The sight of rain and running streams had been disturbing enough.
As she reached over her shoulder to drop the canteen into her backpack her hand began to itch. A skin irritation had been coming and going through most of the morning in her left palm. This time, though, it felt less like an itch, more like something thread-like brushing against her skin. Then her hand came up against something rounded and hairy, which immediately scuttled away.
“Dammit!” She dropped the pack to the ground. “Lazarus! Is that you?”
A raised pair of spider eyes peeped out, a sheepish tarantula.
“What in the name of Space are you doing in there?” The eyes dropped back into the depths of the bag. Cy stood above it, peering in. “Lazarus! Lazarus, you come out of there at once you eight legged … thing you!” God, I’m starting to talk like my mother.
Lazarus balled itself up in a bottom corner, wrapping its legs and eyestalks about its hairy body.
“OK, don’t then!”
Hefting her pack with a deliberately violent jerk, Cy set off again across the fungus grassland, slightly south of west.
The map erupted during chocolate.
The sun was straight above and Cy was relaxing in the fungus, chewing a bit of steak that had never been part of an animal, grown instead inside an algae tank. Lazarus had deigned to clamber out of the backpack to stretch its eight legs and look about.
“I’d give you some of this,” she said to the spider as she held up on her splade her piece of seaweed masquerading as meat, “but I know you don’t eat. And even if you did you wouldn’t be able to assimilate it because to you it’s alien foodstuff.”
Lazarus turned its eyes to her as if it knew what the human was saying.
“That’s the paradox of space colonization,” Cy continued. “I can breathe this planet’s air and drink its water — though I always set my canteens on ‘sterilize’ after filling them just to be safe. But I can’t assimilate any of its life forms, either plants or animals: alien protein, you see. Not that there’s any animals on this planet … I suppose there’s fish in the oceans, though I didn’t see any when the shuttle went down. Not that I was looking for fish.” She chewed reflectively on the alga steak. Why didn’t George escape with me?
The spider stared at her.
Cy absently scratched her hand and said, “There are such things as protein converters, and they do work on certain alien organic materials that aren’t too dissimilar. There’s probably one in the Charlie-Sierra cairn … have I told you where I’m going?”
She paused to wonder why she was telling Lazarus anything. Was isolation wearing her down to where she was ready to chat with alien insects?
A square of McMurdo Sound chocolate followed the last bite of algae steak. She closed her eyes and smiled, letting that wonderful Earth chocolate melt in her mouth.
“In the neighbouring star system” she said, returning from chocolate bliss, “there’s a fine little squabble brewing over territory with things known as Xenoids.” She paused, her expression twitching as if she’d just smelt something disgusting. “Lazarus, I just said the X word. You’re supposed to shudder in horror or at least growl with disapproval.”
The spider did not shudder, it did not growl. She snapped off another square of chocolate – then dropped it as a furious itch erupted in her left palm.
“Dammit! What is that!”
She scratched at it, rubbed it against her knee. Neither helped.
Shooing Lazarus away, Cy grabbed the medikit and searched for a dermatological spray. Just as she found it the itch stopped.
Something like a blurred tattoo, green outlined in yellow, appeared beneath the lines of her palm. As she stared the swirling colours took on sharper definition until it resolved itself into what looked like a map. Two thirds of the middle of her palm had taken on the green of the landscape she travelled. It was edged between thumb and middle finger with a yellow strip beyond which the skin had turned topaz and seemed to sparkle like sun on water. A silvery line passed diagonally from just above the right of her wrist to the yellow edging just below her index finger, pulsing every few seconds with a soft, trickling phosphorescence. Immediately beneath her little finger was a perfect miniature of her cairn compass pointing south-west, the direction of that pulsing line.
She spat in her hands and rubbed them together. The image remained. The mediscan could find nothing wrong. No infection, no alteration to pigmentation.
But the map, lying mysterious in her palm, seemed to recall again the dream she had last night, of something grey that had fluttered into –
Cy shivered, unawares. Yes, the greyness had fluttered towards her like a sheeted something blown on a desert wind. But as before, the more she tried to concentrate the more the dream dissolved into an impression, a fading fancy …
She looked to the west where her cairn compass pointed, then to the south-west indicted by the picture in her hand. Both horizons were alike.
“What’s the difference?” she asked herself. Why a longer, different route to the shore of some body of water? That sparkly effect in the topaz surely denoted wave action.
She checked her remaining rations, then studied the map again, estimating distance like the navigator she was. Her supplies might not stretch to accommodate such a detour. Then again a fluttering greyness had gone to a lot of trouble to redirect her. Probably the same grey dream that had told Lazarus to secrete itself in her bag.
She left the lunch dish and splade in the fungus to biodegrade. She looked at the map, then looked at the spider looking at her.
“Well, Lazarus, what’s your grey god doing? What’s he up to, eh? He wants me to go south-west and I don’t know why. But let’s take it as read that he didn’t induce this map into my skin just to play games. Maybe it’s not so much that he wants me to go south-west as he doesn’t want me to go west. Is he so concerned about me running into a Xenoid?” She stared into the west as if willing the enemy to appear, her brain boiling with impossible hatreds. Ugly pictures lived there, which pleased her.
“Do I put my trust in something that flutters in dreams? That controls lobster-spiders and litters the landscape with sunken ships?”
The spider swivelled its eyestalks a moment, to the south-west, to the west, to the south-west again, but proffered no other opinion.
“Very well then,” said Cy with decision.
Lifting Lazarus into her backpack she set off south-west. Within a couple of minutes, however, the spider crawled out again and onto her shoulder. There it gently rappelled up her hair and squatted atop her head, lightly gripping her scalp with its eight legs.
“Happy in the service, are we?”
She chuckled at that old navy saying. It’d been asked of her on occasion, particularly by the captain and Dr Norsk in a semi-jocular way, and she’d always given a positive reply. Jos had asked it the night before the training flight into the asteroid belt, the night before she died. Are you happy in the service, Cy? and Cy had answered Of course. Had it been a lie then? Had it been a lie later? She didn’t know, which worried her.
The spider proved to be something of a hat, protecting the top of her head from the afternoon sun. It was the warmest day she’d experienced since the crash. Not a cloud anywhere.
That she was in the northern hemisphere was certain; Charlie-Sierra, about a hundred and twenty kilometres away now, was a northern co-ordinate. But Cy was unsure whether she was in the tropical or sub-tropical zone. Not that that mattered much. Her clothes could tolerate cold and heat, and protect her from the vacuum of space. Still, she thought it a shame she didn’t have her helmet and gloves in case of a cold snap or changing seasons.
Where were her helmet and gloves anyway? Lost overboard from the raft? Still in the raft sitting on that beach a long way back? She didn’t know, couldn’t recall. She wasn’t even sure how long she’d been adrift after the shuttle sank. She’d seen Jos first in the raft – she was sure of this now – sitting at the other end as if at a great distance, as if the raft stretched impossibly long. Jos sitting at the far, far end, watching her, equipment clips and name tag gleaming whether at high noon or midnight.
“You were with me in the raft, Jos,” Cy whispered. “You were walking on the water, you were waiting on the beach.” Some parts of her jumbled memory slotted into position, and she didn’t like the pictures they formed.
They said it together, identifying the image on the scan in the same instant. As George reached for the radio Cy put a hand on his arm
“Yes, wait. I don’t know shit from mud – yes, honestly, George; I’ve never seen mud in my life. On Mars you don’t waste water mixing it with dirt. But I do know these things. That’s why I’m out here, that’s why I was born. And please stop ma’am-ing me.”
“Look at the way it’s moved in the past few minutes: in odd little jerks towards us, not a smooth alteration. Makes me think it probably can’t quite get a fix. Sensor malfunction, perhaps. Let’s not announce ourselves just yet. For the moment keep this course and speed, pretend we’re a meteor or piece of space junk. It’s moving in our general direction, but on its present heading it’ll still miss us.”
“Unless it changes again,” George said. The pod now showed more distinctly on the screen, sharper outlines and detail. “But then why should it?”
“Because it’s housing something not in the least bit human, so we shouldn’t judge it by human standards. I mean … those pods are not really meant as escape capsules, more like self-contained miniature spaceships that can continue the fight after the main ship’s been destroyed.”
“Yes, just saw it.” The pod-ship had moved another degree towards them. “This one’s obviously decided we’re worth a closer look. Time to stop pretending we’re something else. Open up the drive.”
A steady hum swelled up through the shuttle cockpit, ready to shoot gravity donuts along the hull for thrust and manoeuvring, acting on all atoms at once, causing no g-forces within.
“Come to new course three zero two by zero zero five,” said Cy.
“You do know we’re unarmed.”
“Of course. You told me so. I know that and you know that, but perhaps Johnny Gloop out there doesn’t know that. Those pod-ships are fast. I doubt we could out run it. But if we can bluff it then maybe it’ll outrun us.”
“Contact the garrison?”
“Yes, and on a beam the Xenoid will pick up. Tell them we’re about to engage an enemy vessel.”
“They’ll think we’re mad.”
Cy’s face worked to suppress a laugh. “Yes, won’t they.”
George transmitted the “Engaging Enemy” signal – something that took him a moment to look up on the computer – then brought the shuttle onto its new course. As he did so he reached into a bag beside his seat, bringing out gloves and soft helmet, securing them to cuffs and collar. Cy did likewise, opening up her helmet intercom, the rebreather unit starting on her first breath.
As the range counter’s thousands-of-kilometres began falling too fast to read, that forgotten block of chocolate floated across Cy’s visor. She snatched it, stowing it in George’s panic bag, all the while keeping her eyes on the hologram, on the converging points at its centre. She said, “Happy in the service, George?”
“No. Sometimes I wish I could disappear.”
Pod-ship and shuttle rushed together.
George chanted off the range. “Eight hundred thousand … seven fifty … seven hundred thousand …”
Cy watched the image of the pod-ship, waiting for it to veer away.
“ … six fifty … six hundred thousand …”
“Run away, Johnny Gloop,” Cy said softly. “We’re big and scary and we’re coming at you.”
“ … five fifty thousand …”
“Run away, run away, run away …”
“… five hundred thousand …”
What’s the matter with this Xenoid? Is it death-or-glory bio-weapon like me?
“… four fifty thousand – hell! It’s altering towards us!”
The Xenoid launched a missile.
“Starboard fifteen!” said Cy, but George was already racing tilted gravity rings down the hull, turning the shuttle, dodging the missile as it zipped by a mere two thousand kilometres away.
The range counter blurred as both ships closed with each other. On the scan the two images merged. The cockpit shook and bounced as two fast-moving gravity fields crashed by each other, and the whole structure of the ship rocked, coming close to being torn asunder.
But it held together, and gradually things began to steady and the images in the scan drew apart. Cy caught her breath, and together with George she watched the range grow, well aware this was a momentary reprieve.
“Signal the garrison again, George. This time on a beam the Xenoid can’t pick up. This time tell them the truth.”
George did so.
“Any second now … Yes!” Cy pointed to the scan where the Xenoid, already some two hundred thousand kilometres astern, was beginning its huge U-turn.
“Then this time we are dead,” said George.
“Don’t count your warheads before they detonate, George. It’s still turning. It doesn’t have the manoeuvrability this shuttle has.”
“And this shuttle doesn’t have the speed it has. It’ll catch us.”
“You’re slipping into morbidity again. I did warn you about that.”
“Are all Martians this crazy?”
“Only the ones out here at the front.” For the first time since the battle began Cy took her eyes from the hologram. She searched for George’s face behind his helmet visor, but got lost in its reflected cockpit lights. She softened her tone and, trying not to sound like a starship officer, said, “Trust me, George. OK?”
A hesitation, then: “OK.”
“Head back towards it. One eighty degrees. Then give me control of the drive.”
“But it’s already called our bluff.”
“This time we’re not bluffing.”
George manipulated the helm, tilting gravity rings, curving the shuttle in a graceful arc, then relinquished control to Cy.
“I heard a propulsion expert say this couldn’t be done,” she said, easing back the focus of the drive so the gravity rings bunched towards the bow. “Or maybe he said it shouldn’t be done.”
“What couldn’t be shouldn’t be done?” George said with growing apprehension.
“Ever pushed two magnets together, like pole to like pole? Remember what happens?”
“They repel each other.”
“Exactly. By bunching gravity rings at the bow and quickly alternating their polarity we’ll either get a temporary repulsion field … or it’ll tear the hull to pieces. I forget which.”
“I think I’ve just peed myself.”
“George, keep up. I did that five minutes ago. Range?”
What he replied, if he replied, was drowned out in a tremendous crash that shook the ship, making it shudder like a living, frightened thing. For a second Cy thought the second attack had begun, but a glance at the scan showed the Xenoid only now finishing its turn and yet to fire. The crash had been her drive modifications taking effect, stressing the hull to its limits.
Once more pod-ship and shuttle rushed together.
The Xenoid fired, a small spark detaching from its scan image as it veered away.
“Brace yourself!” said Cy, polarizing her make-shift repulser.
A discordant shout cut across the song of the drive. They were, Cy guessed, about to be ripped apart one way or the other.
The missile hit the repulser field.
The missile deflected away.
“We did it!” she heard George saying in her helmet phones a second before the missile image blurred into a swell of light, obliterating everything in the hologram.
The shuttle’s hull and the inside of Cy’s skull rang like a bell as the universe shifted violently sideways.
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.