“All this fuss over a little black out,” Katherine Morgan said, her voice echoing in the cramped area that served as Reminiscence’s bridge. “It’s really not worth our trouble.”
Ned Sullivan didn’t even bother to look up at his second-in command. “One black out can turn the whole colony dark,” he replied. “So yeah, it is worth our trouble.”
“How did they even send a transmission?” Brandon Fey asked, speaking for the first time in hours. The engineer slash pilot was leaning back in the ship’s command chair, gazing out at the endless cyan tunnel of shockspace.
“Back-up generator is my guess,” Morgan replied. “They must have some juice left, right?”
“I doubt it,” Fey murmured, tinkering with a small gizmo on the bench. “But we’ll find out soon enough I suppose.”
Still, Morgan had a point. These simple repair missions took a large chunk of his time, and time was something he had less and less of nowadays. It’s just our luck the colony is so far away from Sol, he thought. If these were the types of missions he’d be overseeing in the future, then it was time to resign.
Actually he should have resigned years ago. Command had a nasty habit of handing out assignments that took far too long. And he had an even nastier habit of accepting them.
An alerting sound erupted in the bridge, jolting him out of his thoughts. Inversed red triangles urgently flashed on the screens.
“Emerging from shockspace,” Reminiscence’s AI, Amber stated abruptly, “in ten, nine, eight, seven, six…”
“We can count, thank you very much,” Sullivan said, strapping himself into the Captain’s chair and tightening the harness. Even after decades of experience the process of emerging from shockspace always tied his guts into bows. Not that it was something he would admit. Ever.
“Humph. If you say so,” Amber stated breezily. Before anyone could reply the cyan tunnel was whipped away like a yanked curtain, giving way to an endless void peppered with myriads of stars and asteroids.
“There she be,” Fey declared as Shorn came into view. It was much smaller than Sullivan thought it would have been. Much smaller. It was almost the size of a moon, except this “moon” was a brownish yellow with a few rough patches of green. It looked pretty desolate.
The space around it was even less impressive. Clumps of chunky asteroids whirled around like drunken dancers in null-gee, pieces of wreckage from what was likely other ships hung aimlessly around garbage dumps. Sullivan was genuinely shocked. Launching garbage within the orbit of a planet? It was unheard of. Even smugglers took the time to dispose of their unwanted possessions properly. This is bad.
“Looks like someone hasn’t been up to date with the house-keeping,” Fey murmured as he prepared for ship for landing.
“This is quite illegal,” Morgan said, glaring at the rubbish as if it were to blame.
“It’s not like anyone else is going to volunteer to clear it up,” Fey remarked. “This is quite literally the middle of nowhere. A no-man’s land.”
No-man’s land, huh? Sullivan felt a nasty twinge of irony twist in his stomach.
Grey clouds and fog obscured their journey down to the ground, as if it was trying to hide the surface from outsiders. When the clouds parted Sullivan couldn’t for the life of him think what the clouds could have been protecting. The planet was dry and dusty, caked with yellow and rusty red sand. A metal jungle lay smack in the middle of red desert sands. Tall, ugly buildings thrusted upwards like spikes, scraping against the clouds above them.
“Jesus,” Fey whispered, looking over the desolate landscape. Sullivan smiled at the name. Suddenly he had a new-found appreciation for the man who strode around for forty days in a sandy hell.
I just want to get the hell out of here as soon as possible.
Turning over to the right Sullivan noticed a small forest, the vibrant green leaves standing out from the repetitious colours that the planet had to offer. As the ship approached the ground he saw a cluster of sheds and little tin shacks lined in messy rows along a long concrete slab. Sullivan shook his head, secretly wondering who he pissed off to get assigned to this hell-hole.
The ship settled down on her dampers softly, the engines quieting down slowly.
“We have arrived at our destination,” Amber began, “thank you very much for flying Amber Artificial Intelligence Airlines.”
“That joke’s old,” Morgan grumbled, unstrapping herself from the chair, “and it wasn’t funny to begin with.”
Sullivan secretly smirked. There was a reason why he always made sure Amber came along with them—she was amazing company. By rights she should have been an it, but Sullivan refused to call his AI a series of meaningless numbers and letters like they were some sort of servant. To him Amber was just as, or even more so—human as the rest of the crew.
“Hmm. This place has an average temperature of twelve degree Celsius,” Amber was saying, “not that I’m an expert on a good climate, but doesn’t Earth have a much higher average?”
As human as she may have seemed, she would never really know the difference between hot and cold, the flaming burn of fire and the cold kiss of ice. She might have known the stats, but she would never actually feel them.
Then her statement hit him. “Can you confirm that? Twelve degrees?”
“Twelve degrees” Amber repeated, “although it seems the oxygen levels are around the same level, if not a tad higher. I’d suggest you take a thermal suit, minus the helmet.”
“Strange,” Morgan remarked as she suited up, “no one’s come out to greet us.”
“We’re just the repair guys,” Fey said. “I doubt they’ll roll out the big ol’ red carpet for us.”
“Doesn’t matter. We have a job to do,” Sullivan said, removing Amber’s chip from the control panel and inserting it into a mini-speaker. He then carefully popped it in his pocket. Now the AI would be able to travel with them. Procedure dictated that an AI remains docked at the ship at all times, but Sullivan didn’t want to leave her behind. The AI was known to get up to mischief when she was bored.
Even with the exo-suit, the icy winds of Shorn hit him at full force. The sand slashed and bit at his face like thousands of little insects. Sullivan had to pull the hood over his head in order to look up. He noticed a large warehouse-like landing center that would likely be the control base. He yelled for them to advance, but his voice was useless against the howling wind. He broke into a run, hoping that they would have the sense follow him to shelter.
By the time they reached the base it was less windy and Sullivan was able to speak properly. A set of automatic sliding doors stood obstinately in their path, refusing to open.
“The first thing we find on this planet and it’s broken,” Fey muttered, “no wonder they’re having problems.”
Almost as if hearing his disapproval, a blue beam of light shimmered out a small hole above the door, as if to scan them. Sullivan recognized an outdated model of an ID scanner as the blue light lazily swept up and down their bodies.
“Unknown personnel; Access Denied,” the androgynous AI said, “A staff member has been notified and will be along to assist you shortly. Thank you for your patience.”
“You’d think it would recognize staff of the United Sovereign Colonies,” Fey growled.
Sullivan had to admit; it was strange, but there wasn’t much they could do except wait for someone to open the door manually for them.
Almost half an hour dragged by and no one came. Sullivan’s patience was slipping away like grains of sand in an hourglass. A bad simile, he mused, considering the desert around him.
“You know, I’m pretty sick of waiting,’ Fey muttered, climbing to his feet. “Let’s try something new.”
“Like what?” Morgan asked. Fey didn’t respond. He drew his leg back and kicked at the door, shattering the glass like thin slices of crystallized sugar. He stepped through gingerly.
“You stupid son of a bitch,” Morgan hissed, “we’re here to fix their stuff, not break it!”
Fey shrugged. “You can wait there if you like. I’m done sitting around.”
Sullivan didn’t approve of the engineer’s actions, but he could hardly blame the man for losing his cool. Carefully avoiding broken shards stuck to the frame, he stepped through the shattered door and inside onto a polished white floor.
The warehouse was a lot smaller than Sullivan imagined it would be, and a lot less clean. Bags of rubbish were carelessly thrown all over the floor, the windows were grimy and splattered with dust, and what seemed to be dry cement coated the floor like icing sugar on a cake. It puffed angrily as he walked through it, filling the air with mushroom smoke.
“Anyone home?” Fey called out, his voice echoing eerily through the hallway. There was no response. Sullivan walked over to the control panel, but like everything else it was coated with a thick layer of dust and dry cement. It didn’t seem to be operable.
“You know, you could plug me into the system,” Amber’s muffled voice said. “It’d give me something useful to do.”
I knew bringing her along would be a good idea. Sullivan slid his hand into his pocket and removed the thumb drive, plugging it into the dock. A moment later the system completely powered up, the lights flashing vividly like attractions at an amusement park as Amber borrowed through the system.
“Hmm…very interesting,” Amber seemed to murmur.
“What is it?” Morgan demanded.
“This terminal has been left untouched for weeks,” Amber replied, “25 days, to be exact.”
“What?” First the faulty system, the lack of a proper landing site, the filthy control center, and now this?
“I think something really bad happened here,” Amber whispered, her voice sounding eerie through the outdated speakers. Sullivan could have sworn a similar scenario played out in an old film he had watched last night. He was almost expecting to see rotting corpses and lashes of blood appear on cue.
Suddenly a second set of external speakers jumped to life, bursting with static. “Who’s there? Can anyone hear me?”
Sullivan strode over to the rusty mic, praying it would work. “This is Captain Sullivan of the USC Reminiscence, do you read me?”
“What are you doing here?” the voice hissed.
So much for gratitude. “We’re here to repair your power arrays,” Sullivan replied. “Your system sent out an automated message.”
There was silence on the other end for a few moments. “Oh, so you don’t know?”
“Don’t know what?” Sullivan demanded.
Silence again. Was he being told what to say? Was he waiting for a sign? “We have a bit of a situation here.”
You don’t say? “Like what?” Sullivan demanded.
“Some kids went missing a few days ago,” the voice said. “Near the market courtyard on the edge of the city. Find them and bring them back.”
“Why can’t you do it?” Sullivan demanded. “You said they were missing for days.”
Silence. Then, “I’ll explain why. Just find the kids and come to our building.”
“Which building?” Sullivan asked. “There are dozens.”
“But only a few that have backup generators,” the voice replied. “I’m sending your AI the co-ordinates.”
“How do you know we have an AI?” Sullivan asked suddenly. He didn’t like how the voice at the other end knew more than he was letting on.
“I’m the lead technician for the systems,” the voice replied. “It’s my job to know.”
“Alright. We’ll see you soon. Over and out.”
The only response he got was the hollow hiss of static.
“So we’re abandoning orders, are we?” Morgan asked.
“When orders mean leaving people to die, kids most of all, they aren’t worth following,” Sullivan responded.
“To coin a cliché,” Amber murmured, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
Sullivan sighed loudly. “Don’t make me regret bringing you.”
“This place tops everywhere,” Fey said, his voice echoing through the tent-like tunnel that seemed to stretch like some sort of metro, connecting the several city sectors together. He kicked out at what seemed to be dry mud. “And I’ve been to some really bad places.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Morgan murmured.
Sullivan would have liked to join in on the banter, but he couldn’t afford to fool his nerves into thinking it was all peachy cream and well. Something terrible had happened here. But what was it? A massacre? An infection? A terrorist invasion? The lashings of dry blood on the walls, half-eaten corpses and bloodied weapons had failed to appear. As strange as it was to admit it, he would have found it more comforting if he had seen such sights. It would have told him what to expect. But the planet gave him nothing.
They came to the outside of the tunnel, and found themselves in a small square, like an outdoor market. There was no wind here, and it was a lot warmer, but no less filthy. Sullivan could see rows of what looked like small sheds. Beyond that he could see a dry forest. It was probably the patch of green that he had seen from the ship. Its trees were covered in scratches and marks, like a wild animal used it as a mast to sharpen their claws.
“What the hell…”
At the sound of Fey’s voice Sullivan spun around, looking at his line of sight. He spotted a small creature in the forest, looking directly at them with dark yellow eyes. Its skin was a dark caramel in colour with several black spots that covered its chubby, hunched body. It snapped its mandibles in a visceral fashion, cackling like a hyena. Sullivan noticed that the creature had small bristles on the top of its head that stretched down its back. They were quivering, like a rattlesnake’s tail. Danger. It’s claws curled up menacingly as it let off a small, soft growl. Sullivan noticed three similar behind it, yapping in distress. With one last snort, the creature turned around and trotted away with its group, their long faces bobbing up and down in union.
“What the hell was that?” Fey spluttered. “Some sort of alien?”
“I don’t know,” Sullivan said. Suddenly he felt ill. What’s wrong with me? He wanted to sit down and rest. He wanted to…
“I can do a search,” Amber suddenly said, derailing his train of thought. “I’ll need a DNA sample, though.”
“Let’s get some then.” Fey strode off in the direction of the forest in an almost hypnotized, mindless fashion. “Then let’s get out of out here.”
“Wait!” Sullivan commanded, his voice weak all off a sudden. His head was spinning, and he felt feverish. But Fey didn’t stop, he continued running into the forest. With a curse Sullivan jogged after the engineer with Morgan behind him, their boots crushing the leaves on the forest floor. He skidded to a halt next to Fey, who was standing next to a barren tree with twisted branches.
“Why did you take off like that?” Sullivan asked, out of breath from running.
Fey blinked heavily. “I don’t know,” he said. “I wanted to get the samples, so I came in here.”
“Your bio signatures are off the charts,” Amber said, her voice urgent. “You need to get out of here.”
Sullivan was about to respond when he heard a hiss and a gasp of shock from Morgan. He snapped around just in time to see one of the alien creatures scramble off, its bird-like feet scratching frantically against rock as it escaped.
Suddenly Sullivan heard a small hustle from the bush and looked downwards into a small trench. It looked like a nest, likely built by the aliens. Dry grass, sticks, berries, and other unidentifiable items were placed haphazardly around the trench. Suddenly the rustle came again, and a small shape emerged from the nest, like an animal awakening after hibernation.
Sullivan felt his heart stop.
It was a human child. A boy.
His clothes were tattered and in rags. The bottom half of his body was raw and naked, his skin bruised and covered in scratches. His dark, disheveled hair looked as dry as straw. His eyes were glazed, like he was half-asleep. He looked sickly and unwell, his malnourished body exposing the bones underneath his pale skin. He made small sudden jerks and threw himself on his back, snuggling up to the grass.
“Oh. My. God.” Sullivan saw there were at least two other children in the nest, a boy and a girl. They were in a similar fashion, and all looked absolutely dead to the world.
“Come on,” Sullivan said, trudging through the muck and stepping into the nest, “help me carry them.” He picked the first boy up, ignoring his squeals of protest. He’s so light. Sullivan felt that if he dropped the boy his bones would shatter like glass. He kicked feebly in the air like a rabbit. Sullivan pressed the boy close to his chest and whispered comforting words softly in his ear, although he was just as scared as the boy was.
The short walk back to the market square was uneventful, save for the tiny whimpers and snorts from the children. Sullivan almost expected them to start growling and snapping at him. His head was spinning. What were they doing in the nests? Where are the parents? The man on the radio must have known. But most of all the alien creatures worried him. Xenobiologists had not released any reports of alien life in the galaxy – not so much as a different species of animal form. This was first contact.
“The kid’s heart is beating like a rabbit,” Amber said. “He’s ill. Very, very ill.”
I don’t feel so great either. Sweat slid down his back, and he wanted nothing more than a hot meal and a bed, but he forced himself to keep going. His team was counting on him. Looking back he noticed that they were also feverish and sickly, but they carried the children regardless.
Suddenly the child in his arms squealed angrily, struggling to get out of his grip. He made the mistake of loosening his grasp and the child sprang free, falling to the floor. He stood up and shook himself like a dog, galloping towards the sheds. Sullivan’s eyes widened when he saw that the boy was running just as he had seen the alien creature run—hunched over, legs in a digitigrade fashion with arms hanging loosely by his side. He was like an animal.
No, he was the animal.
Sullivan ran over to the boy as he pushed open the door to the shed and charged inside. Sullivan followed him, but the sight made him stop dead in his tracks.
The entire building was filled with dozens and dozens of tall steel boxes with an endless web of cables and wires that interweaved together; hard-drives linked like a server. All the lights were off; half the cables were chewed through, and the inner wirings off the power generators had been violently ripped out, it’s electrical intestines spilling onto the dirty floor. He saw why.
There were dozens and dozens of humans here—all sizes, genders, and ages—who had made the generator room their home. The gutted wirings had been turned into nests; straw and grass covered the cables and overhead steel boxes mesh like a canopy. The humans looked at him with glazed expressions. Sullivan noticed that they were all terribly thin and frail, their clothes almost ripped to shreds. He watched as the people seemed to burrow their way through the massive nest, snuggling up to others, using their long nails to scratch themselves viciously. One figure squatted in a large pile of what looked like brown hay and did his business.
God help me…this can’t be happening. He felt like throwing up. Actually, he felt like slumping to the floor and dying. Through foggy vision he saw the boy from before, totter from one nest to the other. He grabbed him, somehow managing to tear his eyes away from the sight and stumble backwards into the courtyard with the squealing boy in tow.
“What’s the matter?” Fey asked as Sullivan sat down on the rough sand, dragging the boy with him. “You look like you saw a demon.”
Not far from it. “Go and see yourself.” Sullivan knew they wouldn’t believe him unless they themselves saw it. They stumbled forward, the children squirming in their arms. Judging from their expressions of horror, Sullivan knew they were as shocked as he was.
“What do we do now?” Morgan asked, the naked boy trying to wrestle out of her arms.
“We do what we were asked to do,” Sullivan replied. “We take these kids home.”
And then we get the hell out of here, he wanted to say, but for some reason the words died on his lips.
“Doesn’t look like much,” Fey said, staring upwards at the dominating skyscraper they stood in front of.
“We’re not here for the sights,” Morgan responded. “We’re here to return these kids.”
“I don’t think it’ll be as simple as that,” Sullivan replied, pressing the button of an old-fashioned intercom. It made an ominous buzz for a split-second before a voice crackled over the coms.
“You guys from before?” the voice asked.
“Pretty much,” Sullivan responded. He was starting to lose patience with the nameless man. “And we have the children.” The rest of the sentence died on his dry and cracked lips.
“Good.” A moment later the steel door slid open, the rails screeching against rusted metal.
“We’re on the top floor. I’ve opened the elevator for you.”
“Wait,” Morgan said as the coms went dead, “did he say ‘we’?”
The elevator was small and cramped, and judging from the groans of complaint it gave, it was going to give away at the slight pressure. But somehow they reached the top floor in one piece.
At least the kids weren’t as savage anymore. They seemed to be less and less eager to run off now. The little girl in Fey’s arms even went to sleep, kicking her legs as if running away in a dream.
Unlike almost everything else on the planet, the top of the building was actually clean. The red leather pillow-shaped walls and carpet were both spotless, and the large windows had not a spot of dirt or grime. Sullivan found it hard to believe he was on the same planet.
A door at the end of the hallway snapped open and a man came out. His thin black hair and fragile figure gave the impression that he had been seriously malnourished and was slowly recovering. His blood-shot eyes moved from Sullivan to his crew suspiciously as he stepped forward, closing the door behind him. His eyes darted to the children in their arms and his weary face lit up.
“You have them,” he croaked. Sullivan recognized the man from the coms. “Where did you find them?”
“In a nest,” Sullivan said, watching the man’s expression carefully.
The man’s face registered shock. “You saw the shed?” Sullivan nodded.
“Enough of the lies,” Fey spluttered, “what the hell’s going on here?”
The man blinked heavily as he approached them. “I’m one of the few who haven’t been taken over yet. Not completely. This building is home to just over a hundred other survivors.”
“Survivors of what?” Sullivan asked.
“The aliens,” he whispered, as if he was afraid of being heard. “They just appeared in the forest one day. They make people sick. Very sick. You saw what they did to people in the shed.”
“And why aren’t you like that as well?” Morgan demanded.
“I got out in time,” he whispered, “I escaped the hivemind’s corruption. The further away you are the less sick you become. Those people—” he paused and shuddered “—those things that used to be people are too far-gone. There’s no saving them.”
“What about the children?” Sullivan asked, trying to focus his mind. His head was spinning around like it was on a spring. He had to force himself to get the words out. “What will happen to them?”
“They’ll get better,” the man replied softly. “Look.” He walked over to them, taking the child from Fey’s arms. He didn’t resist. The man walked back to the door and opened it slightly ajar, calling to someone inside. A moment later a thin women with scraggy hair stepped into the hallway. Her thin face light up when she saw the little boy, scooping him up in her bony arms. The boy seemed to recognize the women, resting his head on her bosom gently and making nuzzling sounds.
Sullivan felt a lump in his throat as the man turned back to him with a grim expression. “You see? This is the only thing we could do.”
“You didn’t tell us about the aliens,” Sullivan hissed. “You didn’t mention any of this. Did you want us to get killed?”
“If we did, what would you have done?” the man asked as the woman walked back inside the room, cradling her child. Sullivan could see dozens of people inside. Most of them looked as if they had been raised from the dead. “You would have called it in. You would have gotten an extraction team here.”
“What makes you think we won’t?” Morgan demanded.
The man blinked heavily. “What will it achieve?” he asked. “There is nothing that can be done here. Most of us are dead already. Nothing can be done. They’ll come here with their guns and tear the city apart.” He looked at Sullivan directly in the eye. “Leave us be. Tell them you saw nothing. No one was here. It’s been abandoned. Let us live out our days in peace.”
He’s scared of people. He’s scared of going outside. He’s scared of everything. Whatever the aliens had done to him, it wasn’t gone completely. It might never be. These people were fragile, scared beings that just wanted to live and die in peace and quiet. Do I have the heart to put them through hell again? He didn’t even want to think about what they had gone through, and what they might still go through. But Sullivan knew that getting hundreds of trigger-happy armed men and hyperactive scientists would do no good. No good at all.
Better to leave it all alone, he thought, and never come back.
“I’m prepared to erase all data from the journey,” Amber said. “Just say the word.”
Sullivan turned to the rest of his squad. “What do you think? Do we go by our orders or not?”
Fey’s expression told him everything he needed to know, and seeing tears stream down Morgan’s face for the first time carved his decision in stone.
Sullivan turned back to the man and nodded. He didn’t need to say anything. There was nothing to say. Every cell in his body was screaming at him, decades of training commanding him to do what he was expected to do.
Sullivan ignored them all as he strode away, his footsteps as heavy as lead. If disobeying his orders meant giving these people peace, then it was worth it.
Yes, it was definitely worth it.