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Presumed Dead (Part 5)
by Rick Kennett
The map in her hand now showed only the blue-green of the sea. Apparently there was nothing but ocean ahead for the foreseeable future.
“Plain sailing form now on, Lazarus,” she said, turning to look for the spider, but could see it nowhere.
“Lazarus?” she called, then again a little louder as she stared about, unable to locate the creature.
She pictured the spider falling overboard, floundering in the sea, waving a claw, sinking into dark depths and gone. Then among the shadows at the raft’s other end she spotted it scrunched up in a black ball. She let out a long-held breath and crawled across.
“Hello. I thought I’d lost you.”
An eyestalk raised and blinked at her. A single claw unfolded and gently tweaked her nose.
She’d never really considered how fond she’d become of this tarantula-lobster thing.
All right, so it’s probably a spy for the grey aliens. So what? Let them play their games. It’s a free galaxy. That’s what I’ve been fighting to preserve all along. Isn’t it?
Almost in passing she noticed that the radio had healed itself from her attack with the iron bar, every sign of damage erased. It looked so smug sitting there all ready to transmit that she hated it on sight. She thought of taking the iron bar to it again, but what was the point? Its microstructure would only realign and repair. Anyway, did she really think it a temptation? Did she really think that one day she’d weaken and cry for help?
She smashed the iron bar through the radio, vicious blows and violent, smash and smash and smash until it was pulped. She knelt over it, delighting in its destruction, breathing hard and grinning with satisfaction, almost disappointed that it didn’t bleed.
“As if you really need a radio,” said Jos peering with a glowing face over Cy’s shoulder, “The frontier is expanding. You’ll be having company before too long. The wrecks alone are magnet enough for everyone’s scientific establishments. As soon as the front moves away this planet will be swarming with researchers and their support staff. You’ve thought out nothing!”
Cy brought her fist up and around. The impetus of the swing, hitting nothing, twisted her around. She fell to the floor of the raft, gasping with rage and frustration, glaring at Josephine’s boots. “Bitch! Bitch! Leave me alone!”
The apparition seemed to stretch above her, shoulders and head lost up there in a vague delirium sky.
“Follow your heart, Cy! Follow your heart and be happy! Or follow your damaged mind and die!”
Then once more she was alone. The thought that she’d finally lost it and struck out at her love – even though a mental projection – filled her with self-loathing. Jos was right. She’d run blindly at the first half-cocked opportunity that presented itself. She might not be able to clothe herself when her fatigues wore out. Her farming idea might not support her a lifetime. The planet was bound to be explored in more detail eventually. She’d be spending her days running and hiding. And with the locator chip still in her head she’d soon be found. It was inevitable.
She saw all her plans for a new life unravelling. If the only viable choice was to pull the big beacon lever in the cairn and yell Here I am, come get me, then perhaps she’d take the other way out.
She snatched up her laser pistol and pressed its glass barrel to the side of her head.
“Well, Jos, what do you say to this?”
Jos reappeared, vivid in her mystic sunshine but casting no light.
“Pull the beacon lever when you get there. That’s the only choice you have.”
“That’s my point!” Cy tossed the gun down. “I have no choice. Everything — everything – about me is mapped out and planned years in advance. I’m not a human being at all!”
“Remember when your father proposed to that woman he thought he liked?”
The unexpected question caught Cy off guard. With an effort of memory she said, “Maryanne Agva?”
“Maryanne Agva. You were ten. You were scared you were going to be landed with a stepmother. You didn’t like her.”
“Jos, I don’t see what –“
“You told your father he was making a mistake, that he was just jumping at an opportunity without considering things because he’d been a widower for so long. He thought you were jealous.”
“But you were right all the same. She wasn’t the woman for him. Too different in outlook and temperament. But he still proposed.”
“She didn’t answer straight away. Said she’d think about it.”
“She thought about it for a few days, then said no.”
“I was so relieved.”
“So was your father.”
“In-between times he’d come to his senses.”
“Remember how he described it? ‘Like putting an old fashioned revolver to my head with five of the six chambers loaded, pulling the trigger and hearing it go click.’ He’d made a foolish decision and was saved by chance. You’ve done a foolish thing too, but there’s still time to put it right.”
Then Jos was gone.
Cy groped about in the dark at her feet, found the laser. The power pack was cold. She brought the base of the barrel to her lips. Not a trace of warmth. She aimed it out the canopy opening, pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
Those angry, pointless shots fired down the beach had drained its last energies.
She put a finger to her temple. “Click,” she said.
During one of her compulsive checks of her stores Cy came across the flare pistol she’d discovered earlier and had dismissed as useless. She picked it up, gripped its handle, and laid a lazy finger against its trigger, trying to balance its awkward shape, its awkward weight. With her laser dead it was now her only distance weapon, such as it was. Its magazine contained ten flare cartridges. Concentrated magnesium. Old fashioned but effective. Hot enough to burn a hole in any Gloop, but with the pistol’s short barrel and bell mouth she doubted its accuracy over any sort of range.
Still, a gun was a gun was a gun. She stowed it in her backpack along with a knife from the medikit.
It wasn’t there.
She looked out to sea, then into her hand again. No, it wasn’t there.
An island was coming up some degrees off the port bow, and it wasn’t showing in the map in her hand.
“Why’s that?” she asked Lazarus with a note of suspicion.
The spider only blinked and turned its eyes to the west.
Grabbing the binocular goggles from their locker she focused them on the island.
White sand beaches fringed with fungus grass, and beyond that the thickness of a mushroom forest.
Cy willed the focus in and the forest image sharpened. Branches of yellow grapes showed themselves, and further along a growth of purple coils.
“Fruit,” she said hopefully. Here was a chance to see what native plants could be made editable using the protein converter. Besides, any supplement to her few remaining ration packs would be welcome. And if the aliens were trying to hide something …
“It’s settled then, is it?” she said, lifting Lazarus away from the controls where it had scuttled a moment before as if willfully obstructing the panel.
Cy dragged the raft up the short beach, hiding it between the trees.
Disappearing into the forest, she turned and stepped back to the raft, feeling about its interior for the rations locker. Chocolate. It went straight into her backpack.
She tried her knife on one of the mushroom trees. It went in soft, almost like flesh. An aromatic scent arose from the wound, changing within a few seconds to something sickly sweet and vaguely repugnant.
The sound of the sea faded behind her as she moved inland, stepping softly, watching the forest for movement. The mushroom trunks thickened about her the further in she went while overhead their black streamers quivered in the breeze.
The air smelt faintly of fungus scent and nothing more. Certainly none of the stale burnt fat smell of the enemy.
The slope flattened out. The way ahead was clear for as far as she could see. Nothing moved on the ground, nothing moved in the trees except for the occasional wind-ruffle of black streamers. The fruit-bearing trees must be further inland.
The forest changed as she progressed. The trees darkened on their eastern-facing sides and began to lean more and more to the west. The trunks also began to sport pittings and swellings. Further in the lean of the trees was quite marked, some of them angled back sharply, clinging onto the dirt with only a few bunches of wire-thin roots.
Then suddenly Cy found herself in a shallow depression among much younger growth: narrower, shorter, upright, their skins smooth and light and showing no damage. Here the ground was much more thickly littered with fungus debris and whole trunks were lying deflated, dry and flaking in a circle, a ring of flat fingers pointing away from the centre. She inspected some of the fallen trunks, probing one with her knife until the blade dislodged a piece of hard, jagged material. It was light coloured, irregular and misshapen. She couldn’t even guess what material it might be. Alloy? Plastic? Ceramic? Or could it be bone?
Further along found her among pitted, leaning trunks again, but now angled to the east. That she was pondering on this as she walked may have been why the funeral party caught her unawares.
It emerged from the trees to the left, so suddenly that Cy almost ran straight into the leading pall-bearer.
She stepped back in astonishment as the four figures, spindly, child-like and grey, marched past in total silence carrying a fifth grey figure lying broken on a bier or stretcher of poles and webbing. Their heads were large, their limbs were thin and long, and none took the slightest notice of her.
Wide-eyed, she watched them march with stern purpose through the trees to the north. Then before her stunned senses could react, another group was upon her – four more grey dwarves bearing up the corners of another bier on which lay a fifth with a gashed head, its dislocated spindly arms crossed over the chest. This group also hurried by without any sign of being aware of her.
A glance back through the trees showed she wasn’t about to be trampled by a third funeral. She hurried off after the strange processions.
Were these more ghosts? Was this her mind playing its weirdest trick yet? She expected them to vanish before she caught up. But she caught up and they were still there, still apparently quite solid. Trotting in their wake she smelt a stronger trace of the fungus scent. Through the forest, through the darkness, the two burial parties marched, oblivious it seemed to the puzzled human bringing up the rear.
The ground sloped downwards then gave onto a wide, sandy beach. The two funerals stopped at the water’s edge. Cy, feeling too exposed in the open, doubled back and hid behind the closest tree to watch them.
They just stood there, motionless. Guessing they were waiting for something, Cy searched the sky, seeing nothing. Out to sea, two or three kilometres away, she judged, were the outlines of a low-lying island, though nothing approached from it.
The beach curved away empty either direction.
These beings belonged to none of the races humanity had yet encountered. But Cy, thinking back to the grey fluttering thing in her dream the night before the map erupted in her hand, drew conclusions.
Another double funeral arrived a little further down the beach and stopped perfectly still.
Against her better judgement, Cy broke cover and approached the closest group. She went right up to one of the pall-bearers and raised her left hand, palm out to show the animated tattoo of the map, holding it up to its big liquid eyes. If this was of the same race that had put it there it might recognize its own people’s handiwork.
Not only did it not recognize the map, it didn’t even acknowledge her presence, didn’t so much as blink. She moved to another of the figures, displaying the map in her palm, receiving the same lack of response. She waved her hands past their eyes, snapped her fingers in their faces.
Not a twitch. Were they in a trance? Had they been mind-wiped? She gripped one lightly by the shoulder and part of that shoulder and all of the arm broke away.
Startled, she stared at the lump of pulpy flesh and the dangling limb in her hand before letting it drop. Despite this sudden dismemberment the being did not react, and the wound was not even bleeding whatever fluid these beings should bleed. Where the shoulder had come away was simply a mass of colourless fibre, looking and smelling very much like the fibre of the fungus plants.
She prodded its other arm, its torso, its legs. Fungus, all fungus like the trunks of the mushroom trees all over the island. She examined the figure on its bier. The head bore a deep gash on the left from temple to cheek bone; though rather than being ragged, the injury had smooth edges as if it’d grown there. The chest was caved in though the torso but looked more contoured than crushed. And all were fungus, as were the poles and webbing of the bier. No break where the hands grasped the poles, no gaps where the webbing wound round the frame. Just a smooth continuation one to the other. Even the corpse itself grew out of the webbing’s weave. The four pall-bearers, the bier and corpse were a single plant.
“This is right out of bent space!” Cy exclaimed. Why are fungus plants pretending to be people? Why funerals? Why here?
She looked about, once more feeling too exposed. Still nothing approached from either end of the beach, from sky or sea … or was there? She looked again at that low-lying island in the distance. Light-boost and increased magnification brought it into sharp detail. It was covered with the ubiquitous mushroom bush, though there was an almost violent outburst of taller growth at one end. Seen through infra-red, most of the island showed up as blobs of pale luminosity. But toward one end was a black spot where it must be significantly colder.
She returned her attention to the two growths of fungus standing before her in the form of two funerals involving grey, spindly beings. Were they another creation like the spiders? What purpose could they serve?
Her thoughts were interrupted by a soft squelching from within the growths. The two burial parties were beginning to collapse into themselves.
As she watched they shrank, deflating in short shunts, their features and angles shifting and flowing, gradually losing any humanoid shape. After a minute or so the squelching softened to a series of hisses like wet whispers. Where there had been five figures in each group there were now five rounded mounds connected by slurries of fungus. Both masses quivered in unison and were silent.
The scent of the fungi strengthened and sharpened like an exotic perfume.
With a sound like tearing fabric the two masses began dividing. In another minute there were ten shapeless fungoid masses wavering unsteadily on thick stems on the sand.
The other two funerals further down the shore were still standing in humanoid form. Cy walked down the beach toward them, and was within a few metres when with a sharp liquid sound they too began to shrink and melt, deflate and divide until the whole thing had reduced to ten irregular lumps of fungi teetering slowly back and forth on their stems.
She circled them, muttering, “Why? Why?”
Now two or three began developing low bulges or blisters. On this one and on that one and over here and over there blisters erupted, some widely spaced, some side by side. Soon they all had them in clusters of three and four and five. Making a sound like gasps of delight, almost human, they broke open with slits filled with a white churning substance. Cy looked back at that other group further down the beach, supposing that the blistering and slitting were more developed with them as they’d collapsed first. Looking again at the puckering mass at her feet she saw their slits had grown longer, wider in those few seconds, and that the white stuff inside each now seemed to be bubbling.
She moved to prod one with the barrel of her flare pistol when a series of muffled detonations from the other end of the beach made her jerk around. The fungus masses down there were jetting ten white geysers high into the air with a loud, throaty roar, clouding and spreading above the forest. For two or three uncomprehending seconds she stood staring.
One of the mushrooms at her feet gurgled. The foaming slit mouths stretched and widened —
She was running before she knew it, almost clearing the beach in her mad sprint for the trees when the fungus mass exploded, a series of rapid concussions blasting ten jets of spores high into the air.
Cy didn’t look back. Cy kept going.
Off the sand.
Up the slope.
Into the trees, leaping over bushes, pounding madly through the litter, running till she reached the forest. Only then did she stop and turn. By now the ten terrific fountains had eased to a spasmodic slurp slurp of white matter slopping from a grey shapeless mess flattening out on the sand. The air above the beach was white with twin clouds of airborne spores. What breeze there was carried them away from her.
Nevertheless she pushed deeper into the forest, as far from the clouds as she could get. The spores were most likely harmless, but the thought of maybe, just maybe, turning into a human mushroom from the inside out did not appeal.
Out of the forest rose a low shrieking, thin as if by height and distance, rising quickly to something like a giant’s scream, resounding through the night, high-pitched but descending.
Instinctively Cy dropped to the ground, covering her head.
An almighty crash pounded across the island. Rolling thunder beat through the trees. But no flash of an explosion, no violet earthquake. The night remained dark and the ground unmoved.
Yet almost before these impossibilities registered on her, the sounds came again: the distant shriek, the descending scream from within the forest not from above, the thud of impact booming through the trees – but now with different parts of the sequence exploding from different points of the island as if the whole uproar had been shattered, scattered and flung about. Then it began again, but now softer, muted and once more issuing from different points, within the trees near the beach, on the far side, at the centre.
In the middle of a fourth repetition it abruptly stopped.
Cy raised her head cautiously, stared about as her ears rang like five gong alarms. Something must happen now. Those noises were bound to attract attention if anything other than mushroom funerals inhabited this island.
She watched and waited. At odd moments after her hearing cleared she thought she heard something slither through the fungi litter. And beyond that rise … were those faint voices? No, all was quiet again. Nothing happened, nothing moved. Perhaps spore detonations were a common occurrence. Perhaps phantom explosions and their bizarre echoes happened everyday.
Memory went back to the flattened-out foliage surrounding a circular area of new growth and the tree trunks embedded with fragments of some hard material, and she began connecting them to this sound of an impact.
“Time echo?” Cy muttered. Like some ghosts … some real ghosts, she corrected herself, are meant to be?
Then she thought again of the plants imitating the alien funerals, and a less esoteric explanation occurred to her.
Taking a deep breath, she screamed. Screamed loudly.
She paused, listened, then screamed again.
Vegetable silence continued.
All the same she held to her notion that certain of the island’s plant life could adsorb and reproduce conditions from its environment as some animals could, like the lyre bird of Earth or the minor saurians of Proxima B. Maybe it just took time for them to absorb a new stimulation.
She returned to the centre of the island, finding the fruit-bearing trees of yellow grapes and purple coils. Gathering as much as she could carry, she headed back to the raft with a feeling of vindication as odd plants here and there serenaded her with variations in pitch, duration and volume of her own screams.
There was no trouble finding the raft again. The line of opened ration packs made an easily followed trail.
Perplexed, Cy picked up the first pack she found, its contents emptied into the sea. It cracked in her hands, broke apart, and began to biodegrade. In seconds it was dust sifting between her fingers. The next and the next, a couple of metres further on, were likewise in advanced stages of disintegration. All the packs she found bore marks of having been clawed open, their contents either splattered about on the ground or washing back and forth where the waves rippled up the shore.
Inside the raft she discovered the water jars and the water distiller undisturbed. But the food locker was empty, and where the protein converter had once been stowed, in its place, like a fairy changeling, was a piece of twisted metal. Cy lifted it to eye level and studied it in a stunned fashion. It was a scrap of the converter’s outer casing, its sheared edges sharp and bright. The fruit she’d gathered would remain inedible.
To one side Lazarus squatted, its eyes lowered, its upraised claws smeared with soy and algae.
“Why?” she whispered in a colourless, defeated voice. She slumped to the floor of the raft, the dust of biodegrading ration packs clinging to her clothes. She took a steadying breath, then raised her head, eye to eye with the spider. “My fault. I slipped into thinking of you as a separate sentient being, when really you’re nothing but a remote controlled tool. Those grey shits of things told you to do this, didn’t they.”
But, she reflected, was it true? Was the spider really just a remote controlled tool? Was its every action the result of a button pushed far away? Sometimes it reacted so humanly. There’d been instances over the last few days that spoke of spontaneity and an emotional response well beyond the capacities of a mindless biobot.
In the map seeded in her palm the pulsing phosphorescence line appeared more insistent than ever to be drawing her away from the islands, out to sea and to the south-west. Beneath her little finger the perfect miniature of her compass duplicated the same south-west bearing. By destroying her food and the means of converting local fruits, they’d given her an incentive to leave straight away for the Charlie-Sierra cairn — or thought they had.
“To hell with that,” she said, stubbornness rising. She was not about to be coerced. There was definitely something here they didn’t want her to see. Something on that other island, the one with the cold spot. Despite their advanced intellect, she saw that this time they’d badly misjudged human nature.
Don’t they know, she thought, that the best way to get a human to do something is to forbid it?
Food or no food, she was going to take a look at that other island, and that was that. Anyway, how long could it take? A day at most. The Gartino geneticists had built her to withstand worse than a few missed meals. Besides, curiosity gnawed harder than hunger.
Despite being an instrument of a manipulative power, Cy gave no thought to leaving Lazarus behind on the island. Best to take it with her. If they – these coercing grey aliens – lost track of her via the spider they might take a more direct part in enforcing the course they’d set for her. This was obviously a game called Keep the Human Moving for Charlie-Sierra. No telling what new rules they might impose if the circumstances changed.
Better the devil you know, she thought.
As she washed and medicated the knife wound on her arm she knew it was just a weak rationalization, that as a reason for keeping Lazarus with her it was about as sound as her overall plans for escape. This tarantula/lobster thing was her only friend on this planet, saboteur or not, spy or not. The thought of being alone again appalled her.
As she approached the island with its slice of inner coldness, Cy noticed that at some point in the past few days the lieutenant bar had been lost from the left shoulder of her tunic. Her Martian Star Corps insignia had come away too, she now noticed. The insignia that had once been spotted with blood.
The loss of both these status signs disturbed her, made her feel detached somehow, made her doubt for a whirling instant who she really was, made her feel the true measure of separation between herself and all that she’d been. She didn’t for an instant question this.
Following standard tactics, she circled the island from a couple of hundred metres out, just as any prudent starship commander would orbit an uncertain planet before attempting a landing. Cy lay low in the raft, watching the island’s coast as it passed by. At intervals she dropped her binocular goggles down over her eyes to see if she could fix the exact position and size of the coldness. Best guess put it somewhere deep within the growth of trees at one end.
Beside her, Lazarus alternated its gaze between Cy and the island, swivelling its eyes back and forth in an almost humanly anxious way.
“Yes, we’re going to the forbidden island,” she told the spider. “Any objections?”
Beaches, rocks, white sand slopes and expanses of green. Further around the coast fell back, carving deeply into a high rock face, making a bay overlooked by sea cliffs. Beyond this were clusters of trees with drooping fans of black streamers. Thick groups of them crowded about this end of the island as if deliberately hiding something. Infra-red showed that this was where the cold shadows gathered.
Some minutes later the raft was back at the little bay carved into the rocks. About to enter, another look at those rearing cliffs gave her second thoughts. For one thing there didn’t appear to be any way up. For another, it looked too good a place to snipe from or drop rocks.
Not that she expected to be attacked. The animated fungi had seemed fairly benign, and the Xenoid if still alive was surely far away in the mountains, heading east.
Coming about, she hugged the coast for several hundred metres, eventually running the raft up onto the white beach. Jumping out she pulled it behind some fungi bushes.
Eye to eye with the spider, Cy said, “Old human saying, Lazarus: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Right now I don’t know which you are, but either way you’re coming with me.”
She picked up the spider and loaded it into her pack. It offered no resistance.
Moving up-slope through the fungus, she watched for movement, flare pistol in one hand, knife in the other. Nothing emerged from the quiet forest and no wind ruffled its black fronds.
Before long Lazarus, unwilling to be confined to the bag, crawled up out of it and onto Cy’s shoulder. Using her hair like climbing ropes, it mounted to the top of her head, its favourite travelling position.
“If you must,” she said, hearing in her tone a coldness she hadn’t meant. Cut it some slack, she told herself. It was only following orders. Like me.
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.