By Godfrey Blackwell
Private David Nowak peered through his magnoculars at the human forms a kilometre downhill from him. “Shackleton
, I have eyes-on the target. I make seven ... eight bo’s and a four curves viz.”
“Buildings?” asked his fire-team partner, Maeng, three feet to his right lying prone among the ferns.
David moved his focus from the figures wandering slowly about the colony’s perimeter to the town itself. It was a typical startup colony: all pre-fab white igloo-like hab modules with a few long half-cylinders interspersed for services and storage. Everything appeared intact, just as it had in the orbital photos. He zoomed-in on the massive, hockey-rink-sized communications dish sticking up from the centre of the cluster of buildings. No damage was apparent to that either.
“Everything looks normal.”
“Negative, this place is not
normal,” Corporal Ogumbembi, invisible behind retro-reflective optical camouflage a klick to the north said, his voice dull and slightly distorted over the comm.
“Eighty-six the chatter,” the recon platoon leader, Captain Ho, ordered from his position in the U.N.N. Shackleton
orbiting above. “Keep panning.”
A live feed relayed everything from the six reconnaissance specialists’ helmets up to the orbiting ship that had sent them down. David dutifully moved his field of view slowly over the entire complex to give the non-expendable officers and UNICA staff a good view.
“Everything looks peaceful and the colonists appear uninjured, but ...”
“But what? You seeing something we aren’t, Nowak? Over.”
But there isn’t supposed to be anyone here
, he thought. UNICA had lost contact with the colony on Ladon, named Marianne, only a few months after the first settlers reported touch-down. After seven years, the Interplanetary Colonial Authority had finally allowed bids for a new colony. After two years in cryo-sleep at the new colonists arrived to find Marianne still inhabited. But that wasn’t what bothered David.
“Well, they’re just standing around staring into space.” He panned slowly back and forth with the magnoculars. “They’re not really doing anything. It’s not right ... ”
“Keep your opinions to yourself, Novak,” Captain Ho growled. “Hold position and keep eyes on.”
David bit his lip and kept quiet. After twenty minutes no new orders had been sent from the orbiting ship. He wondered what was taking so long. No doubt there was a debate going on between the new colony’s C.E.O. and Mr. Louwen, the UNICA delegate. Although Ladon didn’t have as much land as old earth or even Mars, there would be plenty of room for two colonies. All the same there would be legal, political, and policy concerns. He was glad Mr. Louwen was in charge of such decisions and not him. He panned with the magnoculars around the complex twice more.
“No way,” Ogumbembi said.
“What?” David hissed.
“Our position’s compromised,” Ogumbembi’s fireteam partner, Carter, called over the comm..
David could hear Ogumbembi chomping at the omnipresent wad of nic-gum in his cheek. “Negative, negative. They cannot see us.”
“I said cut the chatter,” Captain Ho barked. “Carter, there’s no indication you’re compromised. Stay frosty people.”
The retro-reflective material woven into the fabric of their uniforms and webgear was covered in tiny light-reflective beads, and microscopic cameras to all directions ‘projected’ onto them their surroundings. It was impossible they’d been spotted. David knew where the others were and couldn’t see them. Yet he put the magnoculars to his eyes again; though the Shackleton
could see what Carter did, he couldn’t.
“Call it out, J.C.” David said.
“Reference, far left hab,” she said. David got it within his vision. “Ten over, two down.”
He keyed that into the ‘noculars and shifted his view as prompted by the glowing green arrows that flashed on the view. There he found the colonists Carter was talking about: two curves, standing completely still. One was facing towards Ogumbembi and Carter’s position The other, a blonde, seemed to stare directly at David. He zoomed in; her eyes seemed to bore right into his. Self-consciously, he looked away. Feeling foolish, he looked again, and she was still looking ‘at’ him as before. He stared into those eyes for several moments. They were a light blue, almost like the sky on earth. He zoomed out a little to get both of the observers in his view. Both were wearing the standard, close-fitting, functional attire common to space travel.
He let out a a long, slow breath. Ogumbembi chomped his gum noisily and snickered. David bit his tongue, reminding himself that Captain Ho and the UNICA bureaus were listening.
They were ordered to stay the night in observation of the town. The two curves had stood staring at them for two hours before finally turning and walking slowly back amidst the habs along with the rest of the colonists. As darkness descended, not a single light was kindled in the whole complex and all was cloaked in blackness.
The ‘bots were unpacked and set up and put on sentry mode at each of the three positions their team of six had taken up and the human soldiers bedded-down in the moss-blanketed hollows between massive tree roots. David found sleep elusive, however, and was still awake when the gas giant Typhon -- which Ladon orbited -- rose above the horizon, bathing the landscape in a subdued reddish-brown.
Not a sound came from the colony. The only thing he could hear was the soft hiss of Maeng’s rebreather and the occasional barely-perceptible whir of their ‘bot’s gun mount. Maeng suddenly rolled over and he grabbed David’s thigh. David resisted the reflex to flinch and give Maeng -- or the night watch listening to their radio traffic above -- the entertainment of a reaction.
“What you still doing up, cutie-pie?” Maeng asked.
“Did you notice how quiet it is here?” David said. “Not even any birds or animals.”
“Wasn’t this place terraformed?”
“No way, these trees are huge -- thousands of years old.”
Maeng shrugged, released David’s leg and rolled over.
They spent all the next morning watching the colonists mill about before an order to move came: they were ordered to go to admin status and make contact with the settlers. Sarin, the team medic, had scanned and sampled the atmosphere constantly without detecting anything possibly dangerous. The Shackleton
’s powerful scanners likewise deemed the place safe and they were ordered to remove their helmets and respirators for their meeting with the colonists. David couldn’t help but wonder if they were being used as guinea pigs.
He walked down the hill with Maeng behind. With their camo gear de-activated, he could see Ogumbembi and Carter descending to his left, with Sarin and Farro off to the right. Once out of the trees they moved through waist-high grass. There were about thirty settlers visible -- briefing said that just over a hundred had been on the colony ship but who knew how many were here now? When the soldiers had closed to within a hundred metres, the colonists showed the first real life, darting about as if scared but unsure where to go. It put David in mind of feral cats.
A group of them finally broke and ran back in between the buildings, but the remainder started running around in confusion, save a clump of a half dozen who seemed frozen. David headed for these. They got more skittish as he approached. He called out, holding his arms apart with rifle pointed at the ground in what he hoped was a reassuring fashion. “UNICA marines ... we’re here to help.”
“Yeah, we come in peace, bo’s,” Ogumbembi said, grinning like an idiot and chomping away.
“Knock it off,” Captain Ho said. “Nowak, get in close and try to make personal contact with one of the braver ones.”
David wasn’t sure the group standing still were brave, the way they stared wide-eyed at the approaching soldiers. Too scared to run was more like it. The blonde curve he’d seen staring at him through the magnoculars was in the group. His heart beating a little harder and his mouth going suddenly dry, he headed towards her. She was even more beautiful close up, seen with his own eyes. She wasn’t, perhaps, the pop definition of beauty, being taller and fairer than the norm on adverts. But she was gorgeous to his eye.
“Don’t be afraid.” he said.
“We can see in your mind that you want to take us.” She said
“Hey, no one said anything about that,” he said. ‘Hostile takeovers’ weren’t unknown, but he hoped that was true.
“We can see your thoughts.” She seemed to be relaxing a bit now that she was talking. Her ‘friend’ from the day before stood nearby.
David stopped. Could they really read his mind? He was suddenly ashamed for comparing her to advert models and not thinking of her as a person.
“Look, I didn’t mean it like that,” he said.
Both the blonde and the brunette grew frightened and started to back away. I’m not a bad guy!
he thought, but could see he was only making them more scared. Holy Mary, Conceived without Original Sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
Where did that come from? Then he remembered, a long time ago, Fr. Vinogradov had taught him that to help in times to resist temptation. He repeated the prayer in his head.
They stopped cringing. “Uh, I’m Nowak. David ... ah, Private ... UNICA marines.”
She only stared blankly back at him.
“David is my first name. What’s yours?” He winced at the awkwardness of that. They’d somehow heard his deepest, darkest thoughts, and how he was trying to make small talk.
Maeng approached. They did not appear to fear him, yet as She moved away from the wall, she came towards David. Holy Mary ...
“We can’t hear you anymore, where did you go?” She said.
“Where’s the colony administrator?” Maeng asked.
She just turned and walked away.
The hours that followed were frustrating and puzzling. Conversation with the colonists was impossible; they did not respond to verbal communication, making only vague or embarrassing comments on some inner thought of the marine nearest them. They seemed innocent somehow, growing timid and cringing whenever those thoughts were vulgar or turned to the craft of soldiery. Finally, the marines gave up trying to interact with the colonists and just wandered the complex themselves, filming everything for the decision-makers up in the Shackleton. Sarin moved about scanning them with her bio scanner, with her fire-team partner Ferro acting as scribe and videographer. Ogumbembi and Carter were the most unnerved and volunteered to set-up camp, choosing the foot of the hill well outside the colony proper. David and Maeng searched for any non-medical sign that might explain the colonists’ behaviour. Everything seemed not only intact, but new, as if the buildings had been abandoned shortly after construction. Through windows they saw framed photos on desks, clothes in closets, and blankets on beds, but it all seemed untouched as in an advertisement.
After three hours of searching, Maeng insisted they actually go inside a hab. David felt uneasy at the suggestion, so Maeng went in and David removed his pack and sat on it near the door. While waiting he broke-down his rifle to clean it. Sarin sat down next to him and, resting her elbows on her knees, pondered the scrolling data and images on her tablet between her feet.
“Find anything?” David asked.
“Nothing useful,” she said, sighing. “Although I’m having some problems with the bio scanners; they’re giving me lots of dead spots. But what I can
see looks completely normal.”
“What’s wrong with the scanners?”
“I don’t know,” Sarin shook her head. “They’re always finicky. I’d like to get one of these colonists up to the Shackleton
for a full scan in the med lab.”
“Don’t they have one here?”
“Nope. Haven’t been able to find any medical equipment of any kind; but I haven’t looked everywhere yet.”
“The locals aren’t too helpful, I guess.”
Sarin sighed and got up. “I’m going to go do some more scans.”
David pulled out some headphones and plugged them into his iPhone. He selected some of his classical music to accompany his weapon-cleaning. It always helped him relax and think of higher things. With mind-readers about, he didn’t particularly want the images that his death metal collection conjured. And it was just as well, for by the time he’d extracted and oiled the bolt, She was approaching him, moving like a graceful long-legged gazelle.
“Hello,” he said, hitting pause and draping the headphones around his neck. “Uh ... how are you?”
“You have pleasant emotions.”
David felt his face heat. “Um, yes, I guess so. Just listening to some good music ... ah, some classical music?”
She just looked at him with that vacant stare all the colonists had, almost as if she were blind, or that She were only a holo-projection being controlled from elsewhere. He stood and took the phones from around his neck.
“It’s pretty old stuff, but, well, I guess it’s ‘classic’ for a reason.”
She didn’t react or move.
“Here, listen to this,” David put the headphones on Her head and thumbed the screen on his phone. “This is a beautiful one here, fitting for ... ah, well, it’s Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus
She suddenly screamed and threw herself backwards, tearing the headphones from the jack. She landed on her back and the phone automatically switched to ‘ambient’ mode, filling the air with the beautiful voices of a boy choir. She shreiked and started to thrash about on the ground. Other colonists nearby started wailing and convulsing around him.
“Hey, turn that off, bo’!” Maeng shouted, emerging from the hab, then stopping short. “What the--?”
David fumbled with the controls, trying to turn it off, but accidentally switched to a Bach harpsichord concerto, then to some of his industrial rock collection. When the electronic instruments and pounding base took over, the colonists went silent. She
sat up, then stood, and approached. Others did also, until a ring of colonists had formed around David, all looking intently at his phone. Then the music stopped; he’d been holding down the power button on the side and after its five-second delay, had finally deactivated the device.
The colonists dispersed, although She stayed standing right in front of David, uncomfortably close. He pocketed the phone.
CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE TO PART TWO
IF YOU'VE ENJOYED THIS STORY SO FAR, YOU MAY ALSO BE INTERESTED IN:
CHIMERA, by Godfrey Blackwell
- Mackenzie Frazer, a scarred veteran of war in Iran, has returned home to a partly collapsed America and thinks he has left the horrors of battle behind. But one night when returning home he encounters something that has followed the veterans home ...
TIME LIZARD, by Albert Blackwell
- Imperial Space Marine Tim is attacked by a strange creature but in the experience gains the ability to pause time which he must use to the utmost as he and his comrades face off against the diabolical Science Time.