Buy the full-length novel from Amazon!
Presumed Dead (Part 7)
by Rick Kennett
The Xenoid hadn’t tried to cover up evidence of its theft.
Her raft had been dragged out from behind the fungi bush and now lay on the white sand beach. Many of its locker doors hung open, their contents spilled on the floor. There was a gouged-out space on the control console where the computer had been.
It’d probably planned to use the raft after eliminating her, Cy guessed confidently. But, being a calculating creature, it had to secure the computer’s memory module when it had the opportunity. It represented a prize too invaluable to risk to the chance of failure.
“Which is what happened,” said Cy to herself, well aware how things could easily have gone the enemy’s way, leaving her entombed in that cold little room.
Veering away from such a nightmare, her thoughts sought saner, safer matters to dwell on. “Which is what happened,” said Cy to herself, well aware how things could easily have gone the enemy’s way, leaving her entombed in that cold little room.“Which is what happened,” said Cy to herself, well aware how things could easily have gone the enemy’s way, leaving her entombed in that cold little room.
The raft’s medikit. It’d been opened but not tampered with as far as she could tell.
The water distiller. It was missing as was one of the fresh water jars. All the other jars were still there and intact.
So the Gloop needs water.
But what was worse than the loss of the water distiller was that the Xenoid would’ve discovered the absence of food in any of the lockers and drawn conclusions.
Her frequent victim of attack, the raft’s radio, was gone, wrenched bodily out of its housing. Not that it mattered. The Xenoid couldn’t manipulate its limited transmission spectrum to contact its own forces. Communications equipment of a more convertible type, however, would be found in the Charlie-Sierra cairn.
What happens then? The Gloop gets rescued, followed by a jolly game of ‘Hunt the Human’ …
She ran a hand through her untidy dark hair. Reason, instinct and ingrained training told her, urged her to go now, push off the beach now, get to sea and pursue that thing while it might still be in visual range. Chase it, catch it, kill it. It had a good head start; but she had motor power where it had only sails.
No. Even though every muscle ached for battle and all her genetics screamed for Gloop blood there was one human thing she had to do first.
From the medikit she took a large capacity syringe. In the forest she found a large piece of dead fungus peeling from a tree trunk.
Returning to the pit in the middle of all that cold she found the ruins of the spider Lazarus exactly as she had left them, sitting beside the upraised hatch of the cryogenic chamber. Any lingering doubt or clinging hope was finally removed. This time for Lazarus dead was dead.
It was painful to remember her last words to the creature had been ones of sharp reproof — “Keep watch!” It had kept watch all right. It had died doing what she’d told it to do.
She gathered up the remains and descended once more into the hole.
If you have come to resurrect your dead at last, think on this little creature of your own design as well. You sent it to me and I accepted it as my friend through many hard days of travel. When you raise your dead I ask that you raise it too and let it live again.
Lieutenant C.J. De Gerch
Martian Star Corps
Cy looked at her words written in Lingua Stellar, the Esperanto of the stars, marked on the piece of fungus with blood from the needle point of the syringe. That the aliens would return one day was not assured. If they did they might not understand these human sentiments. They might simply sweep it and the crumpled spider remains away from where they lay atop one of the glass coffins. And yet if there was a chance in a million of physical restoration, Lazarus deserved it.
It had tweaked her nose, Crazy alien! It’d lifted its claws in surprise and swivelled its eyestalks and blinked and stared as if it knew what she was saying — and who was to say it didn’t. It had grabbed at her as she’d descended into the hole in a way that had clearly said Don’t go. How she wished now she had not gone.
Cy stooped and touched her lips to the hairy little body.
She was barely conscious of the long climb to the surface and the struggle to hammer the iron spike from out of the hinge.
The swinging of the hatch snug into its hole with a soft snick brought her mind back to the here and now. She was standing in the pit beside a flat disk of metal. Staring into the distance at nothing at all it was some moments before Cy felt the air around her gradually warm.
But all this barely registered. Mechanically, as if in a dream, she began filling in the pit with dirt from round about. Afterwards, with her hands filthy and her fingernails broken, she looked at what she’d done. It was a rough job, but she knew the wind and the rain would eventually obscure all traces of disturbance.
She returned to the cliff tops, gathered up some of the larger stones and carried them to her raft.
An unknown time later she awoke to herself completely. The island of fungi funerals and the island of maybe resurrection were vague shapes dwindling astern.
The sun was low in the sky, a big red ball almost touching the sea. She sailed directly for it.
As night came on the sea began to steepen. Rocked by the ocean, Cy stared into a blank, starless night through the canopy’s front cleared area. She thought of the grey aliens and what they might do now that she was no longer under their close scrutiny. Would they do anything at all? She was doing what they wanted, wasn’t she? Making for the cairn. What more could they want?
Riding the peaks and valleys of this see-saw ocean, her thoughts churned and tumbled. She worried that the scanner might be malfunctioning and the Xenoid was closing with her, unseen; that the raft’s navigational equipment was faulty and she was sailing east or north or south, any direction but west. All this despite the cairn compass in her pocket and the map in her hand telling her she was exactly on course, due west. She ran a diagnostic check on the guidance system and found it working perfectly. She ran one on the scanner and found it really was malfunctioning.
She slumped back on her haunches, cursing the idiot instrument, cursing Earthie technology, cursing anything that came to mind.
“I killed the goddamned radio three times with an iron bar and it kept bouncing back all smiles. I look sideways at this stupid scanner and it goes ftt.”
Being scanner-blind upped her insecurities. Maybe the Xenoid had circled back, was even now skimming towards her on its raft of fungi and dark metal.
A good look about with the infra-red goggles revealed nothing. She kept this up at irregular periods, though it did little to ease her mind. At other odd moments during the night, from the corner of her eye, she thought she saw shadowy figures looming out of the ocean gloom — huge, vague shadows leaning in towards her, there on a wave and gone, never there when looked for directly
Once or twice she caught herself with her hand on her head, fingers splayed. Again and again she checked the flare pistol, her two bars of iron and the knife lying beside her. Were her rocks ready to throw? Yes. Was the flare loaded and ready to fire? Yes. Was the knife and iron bars ready to hand? Yes. Where was her soft helmet? Here. Did its rebreather still work? No.
Not that it mattered. Her clothes were ragged and no longer airtight. She tossed the helmet away from her as if it repelled her, drew it back, then tossed it away again.
Throughout the night she checked these things again and again. Twice she heard herself laugh at nothing at all, and once caught herself weeping. Mostly though she just stared into the night through the canopy’s clear spaces, left and right and straight ahead.
Just before dawn, with the sea still choppy and pitch dark, the ghost of Josephine Manxman thrust up from the ocean ahead.
An instant later the rock plunged in, ripping through the canopy, thudding into the floor. Cy pushed up the goggles down from her forehead. In its grey resolution the Xenoid stood in its raft about twenty metres ahead, bobbing slightly, its thick body bending. The raft was so flat and low it gave the Xenoid the disturbing appearance of striding the wave’s white crest.
The Xenoid straightened. A whip-like arm swung around like a slingshot, slamming cross another rock.
Cy ducked seconds before it ripped through the canopy and struck the floor, cutting the fabric. Seawater spurted, then slowed to a trickle, stopped as the floor’s fabric self repaired. The holes in the canopy likewise began to heal.
Snatching up the rock she searched the night.
There! On a distant wave, a low bulge, grey among heaving black, there for an instant atop a wave, there a second and gone again into the trough, lying flat on its raft, sail and mast lowered.
Cy clacked the canopy fully open and lay flat on the raft’s wet floor, rock in hand. Impelled by nothing seen she arched up and hurled the rock into the night. It arced high and plunged down, meeting the Xenoid as it climbed a wave into sight, striking close to its large bulging eye.
Its distant whistle-howl made her blood sing with joy, the reaction she loved and hated so much. Right now she loved it entirely. She wanted to hear that Gloop howl, needed to hit and hit and hit.
Snatching up her own rocks she pelted them across, one after another. But the Xenoid was gone again, hidden by the surging sea, and she heard only a metallic clunk as one hit its raft. More by luck than design, she guessed.
Altering course south-west, she reached the spot where last she’d seen the Xenoid. She searched, turning herself around and around where she knelt in the centre of the raft, but saw her enemy nowhere.
Could I have killed it with that one hit?
It was a pleasant thought but unrealistic. More likely it was down in a trough, running with the waves. Or maybe it’d dived overboard and was even now powering up from beneath with powerful strokes of its lower limbs transformed into a great fish tail.
The thought unnerved her. She clacked the raft’s canopy over herself and powered back on course for the west.
The sun came up out of the sea astern a short time later, arrowing her long shadow before her and revealing the enemy some distance ahead. Glimpsed a moment on a wave crest, it was belly down on its raft, making rapid headway, lower limbs pumped out into a huge fish tail, thrashing.
The range was too great for a rock. She might hit it with a flare, but it was such an uncertain weapon.
The canopy clacked back a single segment. Cy pushed the barrel of the flare pistol into the sea air, letting her mind go blank – up a bit, left … left … pictures flashing through her head of sea and raft and prostrate monstrosity …
“Rise!” she cried, sighting down the barrel. “Rise!”
The sea churned, grey and green.
“There!” Cy shouted, one dark image in her brain, and fired at nothing.
The flare rocketed in a shallow arc across the waves as the Xenoid thrust up above a crest, its thick body in the act of standing, its long, thin arm swinging back to throw. The flare smacked in, staggering the monster sideways before bouncing into the sea.
Xenoid and raft slid down the side of the wave, into the trough and gone.
She blinked to the west.
Something low and long and hazy straight ahead.
A distant coast, low and purple on the horizon. She stared, almost unable to believe her eyes. She grinned unawares. A check of her flashing cairn compass showed the Charlie-Sierra cairn was somewhere on that coastline.
She yelled madly, incoherently.
The landmass creeping larger and larger over the horizon also crept onto the map seeded in her palm, detailed with inlets and headlands, her course etched in pulsing phosphorous.
For a couple of seconds she spotted the Xenoid again, riding high upon a wave, there and gone. It was even further ahead now and no longer lying down but knelling, paddling with arms flattened to huge flippers. It knew it was out of range of her rocks, knew it’d reach land first.
Another shot with the flare pistol? No, not yet. A flare point-blank was her only hope.
Again the Xenoid showed for a moment. Was it altering to the south? Why was it altering to the south? What could it see of the coast from its monster height?
It surfed down a white-capped breaker and disappeared.
Cy looked into the map in her hand and wondered what it was heading for.
An estuary crawled into view at the root of her thumb.
A check of the cairn compass showed its range counter racing down into single numbers.
She grew hungry at the thought of the food so near, and grew hungrier still at the thought of impending battle.
She saw in her hand a way to close with her fast enemy.
She altered course to slightly north of west.
Twenty minutes later – minutes in which Cy was certain the Gloop had by now broken into the cairn and was despoiling the food, arming itself and making contact with its own kind — she neared a beach of shale and heavy fungus growth. She turned the raft and ran parallel.
“Where is it?” she muttered, watching the coast slide by, all purple-green fungi, thick and unbroken. The hope she’d felt earlier was now battling with despair. She studied her palm map, then the beach, then the map again. “It has to be here! It has to — Yes!“
The inlet was small, barely the mouth of a creek, but large enough for the raft. Cy turned, clacking the canopy right down and powered in.
What if the creek narrows? What if the creek’s dry? What if the raft snags in the shallows? What if the creek forks and I miss the stream into the estuary?
She shook herself. Doubts are for losers!
On she went, the creek banks either side sometimes wide apart like a river, often close and rubbing at the sides of the raft. On she went, not really thinking what she would do if and when.
A scratchy, dry voice said, “Plans and deeds are all very well, child, but you must have inspiration.”
Hardly without turning, Cy realized a skinny figure with grey hair and a thin, pinched face was beside her. “Hello, Ms Xerri,” she said calmly, almost cheerily. “I didn’t know you were dead.”
“Whether I am or not is immaterial,” said Cy’s culture instructor from the once-upon-a-time. “Now then, how well do you remember your Gilbert & Someone-or-Other?”
“Gilbert & Someone-or-Other, Ms Xerri?”
The raft scraped over a shallow. Cy lurched to one side, but Ms Xerri stayed exactly as she was.
The culture instructor gave two sharp claps, a well remembered sign of impatience. “Sums and interstellar wisdom are all very fine. But in order for the brain to grow you must have art. Yes, even for such an unmusical, artless breed as yours.”
“Art for art’s sake, Ms Xerri?” said Cy, steering desperately through snaky bends, struggling to keep the raft from running up onto either bank.
“Art for your mind’s sake, child. And none of those self-pitying parodies of yours. ‘And have nothing more to do with the Mars navy’ indeed! Who do you think you are? You’ve been acting like a very silly girl.”
“Yes, Ms Xerri. I’ve been a very silly girl.”
“And you’ve deeply disappointed many people.”
“Really, Ms Xerri? Who?”
“You for a start! Now then, the words as Gilbert & Someone-or-Other wrote them. Big voice.” Ms Xerri waved a finger, beating time. “And … begin.”
“When I was a lad I served a term
As office boy to an Attorney’s firm.
I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor,
And I polished up the handle of the big front door.
I polished up that handle so carefully
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy!”
The raft surged on through rocks and shallows, grinding over the sand of the creek bed, jolting against the banks.
A moment more and the banks widened and the raft powered smoothly back into the wide expanse of the estuary. About a kilometre off to her left was the Xenoid in mid-channel, fully upright on its raft. No longer paddling and with no sail stepped it had slowed to a drift.
“As office boy I made such a mark
That they gave me the post of a junior clerk
I served the writs with a smile so bland
And I copied all the letters in a big round hand
I copied all the letters in a hand so free
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy!”
There was something about the Xenoid’s attitude, perhaps a twist in its body, that made Cy think it was looking back, searching behind with its big bulged eye.
She altered towards it, carving up a wake of white water. As she did she remembered the same heightened sense of grim glee playing Jutland, standing on the virtual bridge of her virtual destroyer, ramming battleship Iron Duke in that glorious night action …
Her heart leapt at the thought of battle joined at last. She sang:
“In serving writs I made such a name
That an articled clerk I soon became
I wore clean collars and a brand-new suit
For the pass examination at the Institute,
And that pass examination did so well for me,
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy!”
The Xenoid twisted its upper body around as if it were hairy taffy. Its solo orb glinting in the sun as it stared in disbelief, taking in what was arrowing across the water towards it with a huge bow wave churning before. The creature’s upper limbs swelled, then as quickly deflated and reached down for something on the raft. The being’s body rippled. In Stellar Lingua the thing whistle-howled, “Gwa t’l sidper kepp! M’t, Earfi, m’t!”
Astonished to hear it saying, Death to spider lover. Die, Earthie, die! Cy screamed back, “Dapt ou vo ke Gloop! Ooi ke kreech!” – Damn you for a Gloop! I’m a Spud!
She doubted the Xenoid understood why she’d called herself a potato — not that it mattered.
“Feeling better now?” said Jos, beside her, sunlight in her hair.
“Yes,” said Cy. “Oh yes!”
The Xenoid raised its arms again, grasping the pole it’d been using as a mast, twisting to swing it lance-like towards her.
Cy snatched up her pistol, fired off a flare.
It hit the Xenoid square in the upper torso and bounced sizzling into the water. But the impact had knocked it off balance. It waved its arms and frantically swung the pole about to regain footing. It attempted to shape-shift down to lower its centre of gravity, but instead hydraulic fluid bubbled from a spider wound in its torso, forcing it to stretch again, and in the process to once more lose balance.
She fired a second flare, hoping to catch it in the eye. But the creature twisted and this second shot likewise bounced off its body to fall like a glowing coal onto the raft.
Cy dropped the flare pistol, picked up her knife and held it out in front of her like a sabre in a charge. Her field of view filled with a vast darkness squirming like worms and stinking of stale burnt fat.
“We sail the ocean blue
And our saucy ship’s a beauty
We’re sober men and true
And attentive to our duty!”
Impact flung her off the raft, straight into the Xenoid, her out-thrust knife plunging deep into its flesh – flesh that immediately constricted about her.
Warm, stinking gunk oozed all over her, crawling across her body with its own wriggling life. Darkness closed around her with a wet sucking noise. She tried to move and couldn’t, tried to wrench back the knife for another stab and couldn’t. Arms and legs and body and head were caught fast.
The Xenoid wobbled and staggered, jolting her this way and that within the thick gripping ooze.
She fought against the hold of the viscous fluid, struggling to push back with her shoulders and break out. It held her tight against the monster’s inner skin and the muscles wrapping the outer skin around her had spasmed. In the dark and the stink and the crawling ooze her thinking was fast turning into a long, silent scream of revulsion.
The darkness tilted as the howling, whistling Gloop began to fall. Then everything thudded into the horizontal, jarring her heavily into the Xenoid’s internal slime. It rose further around her, a soft, smothering jelly. She fought to get her head clear, get her knife working – driven by hate, fear, and a blind instinct to destroy.
A muffled detonation from somewhere outside. A hard wallop slammed through the Xenoid’s body and punched into her chest. She gasped, winded, her mouth barely clear of the ooze. A quiver ran through the creature’s body and the note of its howl changed abruptly. It arched and rolled, and from the corner of her eye Cy saw a bright gleam where there should be only darkness. It was a rent in the thing’s hide, a spider bite. Through it shone a white glow, lighting up the pulsing veins, the muscles squirming like strings, the internal fluids slow moving like treacle. The howl and shrill whistling mixed with the crackle of fire.
For an instant the jelly ebbed, the grip on her head lessened. She wrenched it half around, getting her nose clear, taking a deep lung full of foetid air. The light blazed strong and bright. Out of this light blew a gush of hot air, smelling of burning Xenoid hair and flesh. It gagged in her mouth and made her empty stomach convulse — and suddenly she understood the concussion, the light, the sound, the smell of burning Gloop.
That last flare bouncing off the Xenoid and onto its raft … it’d just ignited beneath it.
The creature arched once more. It humped up and rolled and screamed.
A splash. The light faded, went out, and with it the heat faded. A moment of rocking buoyancy, then together, feet first, the human and the Xenoid began to sink. The hole that had a moment before had admitted light now admitted water.
They descended, the Xenoid’s arms flapping and Cy struggling against the gluey innards. It seeped through her clothing and fastened to her skin. Each time she tried to pull away it was as if she were pulling the flesh from her bones. The water was squeezing cold up over her legs, rising above her waist. The death she’d cheated escaping the sinking shuttle was returning to claim her at last.
In the stinking darkness, with the water creeping up further and further, Cy felt the Xenoid beating its arms against its body – either a death-frenzy attack against its enemy within or it was desperately trying to plug the hole in itself. Either way the Gloop’s actions were now a total abstraction to her. Despite the stench and the dark and the cold rising water, her mind filled with a strange rejoicing that she was taking the Xenoid with her to destruction. So it was that Cy did not realize for two or three seconds that her left leg had pulled free of the gluey ooze.
Immediately afterwards her right leg pulled free.
The Xenoid jarred into the bottom of the estuary, causing Cy’s lower torso to jolt from the sticky grip. It was losing its hold as the water rose, though her upper body, shoulders, arms, hands and the right side of her head were still held fast. It seemed to take several seconds for the gelatinous fluid to dissolve after contact with water. She longed to free her knife hand, to strike and strike and strike. Her mind was chaotic with conflicting needs. She wanted to surface and breath clean air, she wanted to stay stabbing and rejoice in the Xenoid’s death. Its arms had stopped thrashing against its sides after they’d hit the bottom, and for a second Cy thought it might already be dead, and following the thought came a brief touch of disappointment.
The water was up to her chin, but she could feel her hands loosening. Another few seconds and they’d be free, another few seconds and the water would be over her head.
As best she could Cy took in deep, rapid breaths to enrich her blood with oxygen, fighting down the bile threatening to rise with each intake of Xenoid stink.
The Xenoid fell over and her final air pocket was lost. Water surged over her mouth, nose, eyes, her whole head submerged.
In that same heartbeat her knife hand ripped free. She swung the blade up, resisting the urge to start stabbing, instead inserting its edge carefully into the sticky slime holding the side of her face. But the knife stalled in it, threatening to stick in the still gummy mess. Pulling away she sawed through her hair where it was gripped the tightest. But her skin still adhered. The beginnings of panic leapt upon her as she pulled the side of her head harder and harder against it.
Unable to pull free, she raised the blade to slice into her face when a voice in her head yelled, “Get it right! Get! It! Right! Slide, don’t pull. Slide!”
Cy slid her face across the gripping inner skin of the Xenoid and freed herself.
Her lungs began their demand for air, but her knife had found the rent in the Xenoid’s hide and ripped it wide. She pushed out into grey light, water roaring in her ears, rising slowly towards the sun gleaming far above — and something caught her leg.
The Xenoid, not dead, clutched her ankle with one of its a great paws.
With neither surprise nor fear she looked into the Xenoid’s one big orb. What was behind it? She couldn’t tell, but it gave her a passing sensation of what she struggled to recognize as pity. Was it really any different, this thing she’d been told to hate? It was a victim of circumstances, doing what it was told. Like herself.
And perhaps it thought the same of her. As if to say Be gone the hand unclenched and patted her away.
She began to rise — just as she’d risen from the sinking shuttle all those days of delirium ago.
She was back in those few frantic seconds as it sank … and remembered now why George had not got out. He was dead.
He was dead when they’d crashed.
He was dead as they’d hit the atmosphere, white flaring plasma engulfing the hull, aero-braking with retros roaring, g-forces crushing her back in her seat. He was dead as they’d made for the planet, trailing debris and air. George had been killed by the pod-ship slamming the shuttle with its neutronic hammer blow.
Those lost moments between hitting the water and escaping the sinking shuttle … she remembered pulling at his seat straps, yelling at him to move.
The light strengthening above.
She broke surface beside her sagging raft and inhaled great gulps of fresh air.
She caught the raft’s edge and gripped it with all the strength of a non-swimmer in deep water.
If George was dead … who guided the shuttle in? she thought, and George McClusky leaned down from the raft and pushed his face close into hers saying, “We did, ma’am!”
She recoiled with a shriek, floundered and sank again. Resurfacing, arms thrashing, she grabbed again at the raft. Cautiously she peered over the side, terrified she’d see that old friendly face again.
The raft was empty.
She dragged herself aboard.
“We did?” she gasped, lying like a landed fish on the raft’s waterlogged floor. Had the dead spoken to her even then, guiding her?
But the bag … the bag had been George’s, as had the rations, the cairn compass, the laser and the molecular scalpel.
“George,” she said sadly.
Sometimes I wish I could disappear, he’d said as they’d closed with the pod-ship.
What were those ‘sometimes’? Had his real reason for volunteering for deep space been to scout out remote, unregimented places to stage a disappearance? Family and responsibilities can be an incentive to fight but can also be an incentive to run. Then again maybe the scalpel had been a prop in an escape fantasy, just as she had put a laser to her own head without the slightest intention of pulling the trigger.
The Xenoid’s raft tilted suddenly and sank with hardly a ripple. Her own raft drifted further down the estuary, the shores closing in on either hand. And just up ahead, set back from the beach, half secluded among the mushroom trees, pulsed the light of cairn Charlie-Sierra.
Exhausted, her clothes in rags, she stumbled ashore, heading towards the black cube. Having sensed a human presence, it’d morphed out of its grey tree camouflage.
Josephine Manxman, not in blue but in a halo of white, glided out from the shadows ahead and stood silently on the path, looking down.
“Enough!” said Cy. “Get out of my head!”
Angrily she stepped forward – and stopped and stared at Jos. For some reason the hair on the back of her neck began to rise.
Jos lifted her face in curious little jerks as if it cost her much effort to move. Her eyes fixed on Cy an expression of sad longing.
Somewhere behind them in the trees, around the cairn, back at the beach and all about were what Cy could only think of as dim presences – those eighty or ninety men and women of McMurdo Sound and Moreton Bay whose deaths she was indirectly responsible for.
Cy stretched out a trembling hand to Jos. For a single instant she was wrapped in an embrace cold as the grave but warm with sincerity and love.
The next thing she realized she was walking into the cairn. Past its food stocks, though she had not eaten in a day. Past its neat rows of protein conversion kits, hydroponics, seedlings, tools, building materials, clothes and all that was necessary for independent survival.
At the centre of the cairn she reached up, gripped the big red beacon lever and pulled.
With midnight storm rain pelting down, Cy, dressed in fresh linen, left the shelter of the cairn, a scatter of ration packs and rags of decaying fatigues littering its floor, and went out into the howling dark. She went out to stand in the storm, looking up.
Her hair was soon plastered flat against her skull, rainwater streaming over her uptilted face like tears. But for her flexing fingers, hands by her side, she might have been one of the dead, stood at attention in the downpour. Above her the clouds all low and heavy lit fitfully now with sudden spurts of light, moving left, moving right, coming, going, shining a second, pushing through the weather, coming near, coming nearer …
Cy felt the prickling of a gravity drive on her skin, felt its power resonate through her body like the beating of a mighty heart too low to hear. Such tremendous energies, capable of thrusting a ship to the stars were pushing it slowly through the storm with outrageous ease.
It felt and sounded like something she knew intimately.
Holding the flare upright she fired off a single brilliant star.
The light swung towards her.
Her heart beat faster at the rich, thick pulse of the antigravs, rising and falling, cutting across the rattle of the rain in the forest.
Cy De Gerch reached up a hand, her fingertips feeling the trickle of immense power throbbing above.
Now the light was upon her, hard above her, shining down, a searching eye in the storm, finding her. She felt it warm against her wet upturned face. She stared into the light, felt herself moving into it …
Kind hands wrapped her snug in blankets, laid her down on soft bedding. A babble of human voices, the first living voices not her own she’d heard in so long a time.
She blinked against harsh, artificial light. Her vision cleared. Familiar, grandfatherly, the face of Dr Norsk, a hundred and three years old and right now looking every moment of it, smiled down at her.
“You’ve been lost a while, Ms De Gerch. We were getting worried.”
“I’m home?” said Cy.
“You’re home,” he said.
Cy sprung up and wrapped her arms around the old man’s neck, made a sobbing cry then fell back as if the act had been too much.
From somewhere close by she heard feet running down a companionway and a man’s voice calling, “Is it her? Is it her?”
Doctor Norsk looked to the side. “Yes, Ralph. It’s young De Gerch. We have her back.”
The face of Captain Brown, officiousness lost in emotion, pushed into Cy’s field of view as he looked down at her, his eyes shining. “Good god, Cy, what have you done to your hair?”
“My hair?” She felt the side of her head, the exposed scalp, shorn to escape the grip of the Xenoid inner skin. She clutched at the captain’s tunic in a spasm of anxiety. “Ralph … the Battle of Beta Electra?”
“Does it matter?”
“It matters to me.”
“You’ve not missed it if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s what I mean.” She collapsed back into the blanket with an overwhelming feeling of relief.
“What about the shuttle pilot,” said Dr Norsk. “McClusky?”
“George,” said Cy and her voice dropped. “Dead … dead …”
She turned her head and glimpsed the doctor peering out through the open hatch as if he’d seen or thought he’d seen something in the teeming forest below. Over his shoulder he asked, “Were you the only one there, Ms De Gerch?”
“I hope so,” she whispered. Then aloud, “Yes.”
A tingle in her left palm made her look at the map in her hand. It was gone, a gesture of farewell.
Captain Brown stood, shifting out of her view. Cy heard him say, “Captain to com.”
“Com, aye, sir.” A calm intercom voice Cy recognized as Lieutenant Frank Peters.
“Up ship!” said the captain – the sweetest two words Cy had heard in a long, long time.
The hum of the drive shrilled and ascended. The sound of building power thrilled her. Made her smile.
A couple of hours later Utopia Plain kicked out of subspace, back into the real space of the Beta Electra system five light days distant, striking starlight rainbows from her intense gravity fields back-rippling down the hull. Decelerating on a curving slide, the frigate swung into orbit around the third planet, eventually landing at a coalition base. Tarmacs and cafes. Noise and people. Life and a qualified safety.
In the base hospital, Cy underwent an examination by a team of medicos. Their diagnosis was physical and emotional exhaustion, along with signs of minor psychological aberrations that could not quite be accounted for.
After lunch the following day and before another series of tests were due, Cy was visited by Dr Norsk. On her bedside table he was surprised to see a half-finished bowl of beef stew.
Cy regarded the bowl with a rueful smile. “I pulled rank like a hard-nose bitch and told the orderly, ‘Real meat! Not the pretend stuff. Get it right!’” She paused, then continued reflectively, “I really don’t know what I was trying to prove. It’s the first time I’ve eaten real meat in my life, and the funny thing is … I don’t like it.”
“Do you wish to be discharged from this hospital?” asked Doctor Norsk.
Cy stared up at him, eyes shining. “Yes,” she said.
“Though it’s against all medical advice?”
“Though you have every right to remain here?”
“To return to the ship?”
“Yes … yes, Doctor, yes.” Oh, yes, to be again the experimental creation meant for this purpose, yes, oh yes, I want to, yes.
On Norsk’s authority Lieutenant De Gerch was discharged despite being scheduled for further examinations. Captain Brown asked no questions, made no objections, when she returned to Utopia Plain. Soon afterwards, as if she’d been waiting for her, the ship lifted and headed for deep space to join Task Force 7A then consisting of four Terran frigates.
Ten hours later the Xenoids began their long-anticipated push into the system and the fight for Beta Electra began.
The Terran cruisers, including the newly repaired Moreton Bay, took the brunt of the onslaught, their combined massive fire-power repulsing the initial attack. Space lit bright as novae with detonations big as worlds.
The five frigates of Task Force 7A played a small but pivotal role, denying the enemy a hooked flanking manoeuvre as the ballet of the battle moved into its main phase. It was a manoeuvre which, if successful, might’ve turned things in favour of the Xenoid fleet – if not for Task Force 7A, if not for the guns of the Utopia Plain, if not for an experimental girl, her mind focused on destruction, relishing the power, white light, fast numbers in her head.
Neutron torpedoes launched on her command, fiery blossoms in the night of space; glittering mirrors and laser lenses swivelled and fired at her will. Utopia Plain swept through the heavens, a comet blazing million kilometre curves and majestic arcs, cutting through the Xenoid thrust, hitting and smashing.
The flanking manoeuvre was held, and eventually repelled.
Soon afterwards the Xenoid front collapsed and retreated, their attack on the Beta Electra system a failure.
A thousand light years homeward there was for Cy De Gerch a tearful welcome home to Phobos, making her ashamed that she ever thought her family would forget her.
“I never gave up hope.” A simple statement of faith from a straightforward man, her father.
In the weeks that followed there was an advanced training course in the canyons and plains of Mars, which was continued in her first visit to Earth. Though before she began training in its mountains, green forests and hot deserts there was a visit to a city, to a street, to a small brick house one raining afternoon where she met with a family by the name of McClusky. She made no mention of the molecular scalpel in the Panic Bag. The father and husband they loved was a man without failings. Who was she to say otherwise.
On her return to Mars Cy rejoined Utopia Plain at Styx City Starport. At the forward hatch, with her bag slung over her shoulder, she met Captain Brown.
“Happy in the service?” he asked her.
“Yes, Ralph. I am,” she said and for all she knew, meant it.
In the control room she busied herself at Astrogation as the crew prepared for lift off. The Xenoids were regrouping among the stars, and she knew that in a few days she’d be once more slotting herself into Primary Fire-Control, white light, fast numbers in her head. Loving it, hating it.
“Up ship!” said the captain.
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.