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Fiction Page 10



Lawrence R. Dagstine

       "Let them come in," Commander Wallace said, catching a glimpse of the two rookie navigators behind his top astronaut in the passageway.  He took the papers of recommendation, the ones from Central Galactic.  The documentation read:


       Wallace laughed. "Well, looks like we're going by the book," he said, crumpling up the papers and tossing them out. "Everything by the book so it seems, and old-fashioned too.  Well, wouldn't want any penalties or fines I guess." It was a direct order from Pyrox himself.  Central Galactic must have informed the rookies, hoping they would cooperate in the exploration of a new frontier world where insect penicillin had been found.  Wallace wondered if the new guys had received their instructions prior to arrival and was at this moment preparing to recall the hyperspeed route.
       When the introductions were made and the navigators briefed, they were sent over to the far side of the control deck, and the order was given to prepare for hyperspeed.  They were silent and seemed like androids almost, but Pyrox was a very big administrative head at Central Galactic, and whatever he wanted he usually got.  The airlocks made a "bleeping" noise as all hatches in the ship secured themselves, and Wallace couldn't help but notice how still things were since the ship's communication satellite hung outside the window while the ship disembarked port.  The satellite had been repaired since Wallace had seen it last.  His most decorated explorer, and second-in-charge (the astronaut), P.R. Kimble, was responsible for its speedy repair.  Lettered conspicuously above the hull of the rather small-sized spacecraft was: FRONTIER TO BENEVOLENCE.  Perhaps the name of this silvery-gray beauty, with a remarkable speed factor and interstellar flight record.  Steadying lines were attached and the docking rampart was released.  Kimble climbed into his chair in the cockpit below Wallace's seat and connected the engines and the communication links for interstellar travel, and the backhaul (transmitter pick-up) cable.  Meanwhile, Wallace released the ship's titanium appendages and the air vents opened so that oxygen and gravity could be sustained and manipulated at any time¾or at any pressure¾during the course of the trip.
       "We have lift off!" hollered Kimble from the cockpit, pressing a few red and yellow switches above his head.  He then threw a great big lever.
       "Good, very good," said Wallace. "Standby for hyperspeed.  Velocity should be used with caution, and at all costs keep your straps on.  The next fifteen minutes might get a little bumpy, if not make you throw up yesterday's breakfast." Wallace could hear Kimble's snickers from down below. "I mean it," he looked down and blinked.
       After Kimble had fired up the engines full throttle and used his computer in front of him to secure the backhaul cable, he reported to Wallace that everything was ready.  The ship made its ascent into hyperspeed, leaving a lot of light years trailing behind them.
       "How does that old cable behave?" Wallace asked from above.
       "Oh, it works," Kimble hollered up at him, "and is tightly secured too.  Don't have to worry about that.  But it's slow as hell.  One good thing about the rest of this ship, there's plenty of power."
       "Yes, well cold fusion will do that, Kimble," Wallace said with a slight grin. "So tell me, my boy¾what's been going on with old Horace lately? Think he's paying us enough to take this crap?" It was as if he wanted his two new navigators on the far side of the control station to hear him.
       Kimble looked at his own screen and saw that it was safe to leave his seat, so he unbuckled and joined his commander up on deck. "I don't know, you tell me.  You know the old codger longer than I have.  I'm only thirty-six.  My pension isn't for at least another twenty years."
       "Horace financed this whole thing, I could tell you that much.  But it makes me feel small in rank.  I've always been the superior aboard this ship, the greatest explorer and military archaeologist the galaxy has ever known.  I don't know why I stay aboard, with all the verbal abuse and all.  And I never take outward chances.  Perhaps it's the thrill, or then again maybe I'm just a glory seeker."
       "A glory seeker who should be proud," remarked Kimble truthfully. "A glory seeker who has fought trading wars in space, stopped famines, and who's now on a plight to stop a vicious disease spreading throughout the nine systems."
       "Yes, I guess so," said Wallace. "Who would have thought that an uncharted world, a frontier world in the outer boundaries of neither here nor there would hold the answer to all our prayers…Imagine that, ant penicillin!"
       "So it's from an ant?" asked Kimble curiously.
       "Well, a particular species of ant," Wallace replied. "Ants are known to be the only insect in existence that can live on other worlds than our own.  The little buggers come in many shapes and forms.  But not all carry the same penicillin.  These critters are a special mix, ones that have evolved through mutation and natural selection so I'm told.  Horace paid dearly for this mission, along with Central Galactic.  If anyone will profit from this venture it's him.  I hope my name goes down in the history books at least."
       "I am confident," Kimble said. "I knew you were destined for greatness the day you proved to humanity that the Bible was actually a children's fairytale.  Now that was a superb discovery.  But do you really think that ants will stop this strain of the virus?"
       "Once doctors get a hold of it and produce a pill or vaccine." Wallace looked across the flight deck. "Horace's boys.  Tweedledee and Tweedledum.  You know I don't think either of them have said more than a few sentences each so far this trip.  I find it strange." Both navigators were hard at work wearing the same tacky red outfits. "And their names, creepy.  Remus and Romulus."
       Then Kimble gave a slight nod their way. "And what about the new boys? Think we can trust them?"
       "We have to," Wallace said, although rather dispiritedly. "Otherwise how else will we get to this planet.  Horace said only they know the way.  But using star charts and other old-fashioned methods of navigation is ludicrous."
       "I agree," said Kimble, chuckling at the notion of a landmass globe. "Reminds me of an old book I once read…Memoirs of an Old Terra." He laughed on, along with Wallace.
       Remus, the tallest of Pyrox's navigators overheard their laughter, but kept silent to avoid a confrontation of words.  He leaned on a railing nearest the commander's seat, said, "Our laboratory should be already quarantined, except for the failure of some minor dispose." He then returned to his station.  Sarcasm was evident in the rookie's voice.
       Wallace stopped laughing and fixed his eyes on him, who, oddly enough, saw that he wasn't so silent after all. "So?" Wallace asked him, swiveling around in his chair.  Kimble stood quietly in the background. "And what about dispose in the lab?"
       "Just that the environment should be fully sterile before we use it to supply the insect molds," said Remus, and rather pragmatically at that.  
       Wallace shook his head. "There is an old space captain's proverb, Remus: `Don't rely too heavily on your conscience, otherwise you may salute yourself in victory when nothing has been gained or won.'" He pulled his chair back around and grunted.
       "Meaning, sir?"
       "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched.  Let's land first, preferably in one piece, and then find the stuff.  For all you know we might come home empty-handed.  But then I don't think old Horace would approve of that, now would he?"
       Remus made it his business not to reply.
       The ship jerked back and forth and was eased by Kimble; hyperspeed aftershocks, Wallace thought to himself.  The backhaul cable strode up and started detecting a sound, homing in on a strange signal from the unexplored spacial periphery.  Wallace consulted his watch, an old wrist speedometer that calculated time over speed.  It was now 03:00.
       Aboard the control station he watched Remus and Romulus handling their star charts on a computerized board, and typing in location changes similar to Kimble's so-called signals.  How old-fashioned and how incompetent, he once again told himself. "I think my mother could do this faster," he blurted out, once again on purpose so the twins would hear.  When the right signal was traced Remus cinched the location, checked the nearest planet in the region, its oxygen levels, and seemed satisfied.  Wallace, although excited over the twins' discovery of the location of the frontier world, still harassed them a bit more.  It was actually getting to be quite fun.
       Kimble started the communication satellite back up to forward the good news to the chairmen of Central Galactic, especially Pyrox.  A muffled growl came from the cockpit below, and Wallace knew that this vocal reaction was one of discontent.  He had felt the same way.  Kimble reported into the transmitter that the planet and its correct system had been found and watched the faces of the chairmen on screen smile yet at the same time jitter to life.
       After some moments Remus said, "We're less than 300,000 miles off," and Kimble repeated it to the chairmen. "It seems this planet was already colonized, and for a brief period of time about a hundred years ago.  It has a name, too.  Nexus." Kimble repeated that as well, like a bright schoolchild reciting his lessons on unknown planets.  From the monitor Pyrox glanced at his fellow chairmen and nodded and just said to continue on.
       "Easy for you, you old bastard," Wallace mumbled under his breath. "A couple of trillion dollars goes a long way.  You don't have to tell me either, Kimble.  Everyone back home must be having a field day." He had never shown this much spite towards Pyrox as he did at this moment.
       The next couple of hundred thousand miles took a little over two hours to complete.  At this rate, Wallace calculated, it would take them nearly another hour to reach the landing site the colonists used.  Kimble left the cockpit for a second and peeked at the close-up on the visual system beside Wallace's chair, but there was nothing to see except a few stray buildings and mining vehicles.
        At less than 20,000 miles off the tip of the atmosphere the ship began to lean more with the high cloud covers and make its descent.  Remus and Romulus's reports were given monotonously as they passed each new cloud.  The interior became warmer and a hint of moisture, due to the planet's warm climate, condensed on the insulated walls.  In the cockpit, Kimble was making preparations for a safe landing while the twins navigated the easiest route.  Outside the control station window it was totally dark, and they were only one-third of the way down.  Wallace's thoughts turned to his family back home.  He knew many of his nieces and nephews were praying for him, and a safe and speedy return to the military institute.  Luckily for him, the darkness had subsided and was caused by a couple of black thunderheads.  
       Daylight once again leaped in as Remus said, "Ten-thousand miles and narrowing to eight."
       Romulus made his own report, adding, "We're picking up more vibrations now.  The ship is on a slow downward spiral at about ten degrees."
       "Great," Wallace said shakily. "We're going to burn up because of you rookies."
       "We'll make it," said Remus assuredly. "Have faith, sir."
       "Hard to have faith when you're using old technology." Wallace gripped the sides of his chair much tighter.
       "I think it's safe to trust them this time, commander," Kimble said, checking on his straps. "I'll bring her in the rest of the way."
       "Five-thousand miles," said Remus. "Pressure rising."
       "Going in at four¾supersonic!" Kimble replied to that. "Brace yourselves."
       It was even warmer inside the ship than before.  Wallace turned off most of the lighting except for the illumination on the control panels.  Kimble resumed his descent with the aid of the twins at an even slower rate and brought the ship to a balancing halt.   Wallace massaged his cramped thighs once they were on the ground and it was all over; his hands and feet were completely numb.


       The interior lights were shut down and the cargo hold and loading ramp cooled as the four men exited the ship.  Wallace was happy to be in one piece--as he had previously mentioned--and glad to touch down on the old colony's landing site.  The air was breathable, but the temperature hot.  Over 120 degrees.  Kimble had changed out of his jumpsuit into his exploration gear, to feel more comfortable with the heat and all.  The commander pressed his face to the lens of a pair of futuristic-looking binoculars; the sun's rays were dazzling at first, but then quite irritating. "Ten-thousand miles of dirt and gravel," Wallace sighed. "At least we don't have to walk too far from the ship.  But what I want to know is where the inhabitants are?" Tiny specks of sand drifted up and covered the opposite side of his lens.  A hot wind was blowing…everything blanketed by sand.
       The twins walked slightly ahead, the first of the two saying, "The region is quite desolate.  No footprints.  It's been a while since a soul marked the ground where we stand."
       "Well, aren't we the scholarly one today," Wallace scoffed; his sarcasm seemed to be geared towards Remus.  Romulus was just the quieter, more simple of the two.
       "Yes, but how did an entire colony just disappear?" asked Romulus, using a landmass globe to survey the territory.  Everything registered back negative. "Surely the colonists would have had children, and then their children would give birth and so on and so forth."
       "Something happened obviously," said Kimble suspiciously, throwing his backpack over his shoulder. "A lot can happen over a century: loss of contact with the mothership, solar winds or radiation sickness, even a famine or virus." He looked at Wallace and nodded when he said that last part. "Also, a planet that rises in temperature over time can lead to certain disturbances in the colony's way of life.  But we're here on Nexus for one reason and one reason only: to find the penicillin.  I know our commander here doesn't need Pyrox on his tail, and neither do I.  I'm an exploration major and I plan on making my mark this afternoon."
       Wallace was impressed. "Couldn't have said it better myself," he said.  Then he cast his eyes at a tall silver complex in the distance. "Let's get some grub first though.  That building off yonder, to the east--that's a cafeteria if I'm not mistaken."
       They started moving toward the complex very slowly; in a moment they would touch the doorstep.  Wallace released the magnetic lock and felt a slight jolt run through his body, and a small cloud of dust rolled out from inside the first floor of the large chamber.  It was dark.  The only illumination came from outside the doorway and two emergency-ceiling lanterns.
       "I think the place has been flushed," Kimble said, seeing how things were empty and out of shape.   Tables and chairs were overturned, dust and strange entrails everywhere.  There were great big holes in the walls and floor, some of them up to eight feet thick. "I guess we can all agree now that the colonists of Nexus succumbed to a horrible fate."
       "Looks like we're not eating either," Remus said from the other end of the cafeteria, sliding open the door to a large refrigeration unit. "The colonists' rations are gone.  The list here says there should have been enough to last for up to six generations."
       "No food?" Romulus sat down on the only stable chair he could find.
       "What the devil happened here?" Wallace was more than just awestruck. "Darn place looks more abandoned than a haunted crypt.  What did this?" He took a step forward and right away his boot sank into a puddle of slime. "Ugh, what is this slop?"
       Kimble knelt down and took a sample.  He placed it in his pocket scanner and ran a quick analysis. "You're not going to believe this." He lifted his head and eyes at Wallace in surprise.
       "Enlighten me, Kimble."
       "This is mucus mixed with medicinal mold.  These puddles or entrails come from an insect.  We've struck gold." Kimble began to smile, and Wallace too was starting to adopt a happy smirk. "We are standing before a hundred percent concentrated penicillin.  This planet's species of ants must have burrowed inside of here and some of the other buildings after the colonists died off."
       "That's wonderful!" exclaimed Wallace. "Looks like you cut our journey short for us, Kimble.  Wait till Pyrox finds out we completed the mission in record time.  I mean you deserve all the credit of course.  You made the initial discovery."
       "Thank you, commander." Kimble felt a hint of admiration all around him.  Remus stood in the foreground shaking his head in slight disgust.
       Suddenly, Wallace's successful predilection came to a halt as strange noises filled the cafeteria.  The sounds were a cross between a shrilly cry and a giant drillhead.  They seemed to echo out from all the holes…the ones in the walls surrounding them…the ones in the ceiling high above them…the ones in the floor beneath them…would these circling noises ever stop, thought Wallace?
       Romulus looked down at the legs of the chair he was sitting on.  It was shaking up and down with him on it, and he was clearly the heaviest of the four explorers.  It was almost as if the entire complex was caught in the middle of an earthquake.  Romulus stood up right away.  The noises grew louder, and the two emergency lamps began to swing to and fro, and blink on and off repeatedly.  
       "What's going on?" asked Remus, taking light steps toward his brother.  He was actually ambulating on the balls of his feet. "Or better yet, what'll make it stop?"
       Kimble looked at the commander. "I don't like this."
       "Neither do I," said Wallace, feeling a bit panicky all of sudden.
       "Is there a way to make it stop?"
       "I don't know.  Let's find out, shall we?"
       Wallace noticed that behind most of the holes were giant pipes.  When he stood near one of them the air roared for a moment, then abruptly changed in tone.  The floor shook too, of course. "These ducts lead somewhere," he said, backing up. "That means there's a hatch or door that shuts on the other end." He looked at the far wall.  There was a handwheel on it. "Perhaps if we turn that we'll shut off the noise or whatever it is causing it."
       Kimble joined the commander at his side and both men slowly approached.  It was icy cold (the handwheel), and Wallace's hands slipped when he applied pressure.  Cracking his knuckles on it, he took another purchase and heaved mightily, but it was solidly immovable. "I'll need some help," he said to Kimble.
       Together the two explorers put their weight against the handwheel.  It moved tightly at first, then became easier.  They could hear the sound of doors and hatches closing from the opposite side of the holes, and the noises beginning to taper. "Hold it," Wallace or-dered, putting his ear up to the air.  The atmosphere inside the building began to change.  It suddenly got warmer.  Wallace was about to return to the handwheel and finish turning it when he heard a clawing sound and felt a tingle in his body.  Something was slamming into the floor beneath him.  Something inside the complex was alive!
       Kimble helped him give the handwheel another turn and the rush of hotter air began to increase.  Pieces of metal from the ceiling collapsed in around them.  In a moment the slamming subsided and the clawing noises, which were much different than the original "shrilly/drillhead" sounds, stopped. "The wheel won't go any further," said Kimble, who suddenly seemed nervous. "Did we close all the ducts?"
       Wallace walked over to one of the holes and looked down into a dim-lighted abyss.  A heavy, sickening odor welled up around him as he knelt there, and he suddenly found himself staring into an alienlike face just below him.  It was thin and red, with beady eyes and heavily bearded.  It had a pair of piercing talons attached to its jaw, and a long pair of razor sharp antennas.  Wallace's dull eyes sunk in dark hollows as, whatever it was lying down there, gazed back at him.  Then the mouth worked and a voice croaked, as it flew upward at the commander, trying to bite his head off.
       Just a few inches away, one of these same beady-eyed creatures gave rise by breaking through the floor beneath Romulus's feet, grabbing him with its mouth pincers and practically slicing him in half.  The creature was more than seven feet in length and stood on eight thin legs.  Romulus screamed more in pain than he did in mercy, as the creature took him in-between its mouth and descended back into the tear in the ground.  
       Remus began screaming himself, crying, "Someone help my brother, please!" But his cries were not heard fast enough…for a moment later a volcano of blood spewed forth out of the hole, spraying left and right.
       "Let's get out of here!" yelled Kimble.  Wallace couldn't agree more.  He was scared out of his wits, so much that he was already at the door to the complex; not very brave for a commander, but then maybe he wasn't a real glory seeker.  Soon, more of these insects began to ascend onto the cafeteria floor from holes previously made, and some new ones.
       "I'm not leaving without my brother!" Remus fell to his knees, his hands covered in blood. "I refuse to!" He just sat there on his shins, crying, until soon another insect came from behind him--out of the refrigeration unit this time--and used him for prey.
       Now that the twins fell victim, Kimble found it most practical to make his own exit.  Wallace was way ahead of him.  The creature jumping out of the hole was enough to realize when he had overstayed much of his visit.
       Outside, Wallace and Kimble were running as fast as their feet would allow them. "I knew something like this would happen," said Wallace, breathing heavily as he ran for the safety of his craft.  "Anything Horace Pyrox invests in usually turns to shit!"
       "But what about the people dying?" asked Kimble, following steadily behind. "You were the only experienced individual for the exploration.  What about the penicillin?"
       "Screw the mission--and screw Pyrox!"
       "No!" Kimble stopped in his tracks. "We may have lost our navigation team, but I can make up for that.  I'm going back for the molds, commander.  Will you wait for me?"
       Wallace stopped too, to shake some sense into his top astronaut. "Don't be foolish, Kimble.  You still have your scanner?"
       "Yes, why?"
       "Then you still have a sample of the cure, and there has to be a doctor somewhere in the nine systems who can work with just that.  Look around you, the hot climate and the mountains in the distance.  Those mountains are giant anthills, and Nexus's temperature produces the perfect breeding ground.  This explains why the rations are gone, and why the colonists died off.  They were eaten alive!"
       Kimble nodded and came to his senses. "You know in some cultures around our system there is believed to be species of giant ants, ones that adapted from frontier worlds into the smaller species we've come to know today.  These cultures have a name…"
       They had returned to the ship, and Wallace had strapped himself in and said to Kimble, "Our mission was a partial success.  Be thankful of that.  We lost our navigation team but we have to make sacrifices now and then for a cause.  You reminded me of that over the years.  But one thing to remember: as somewhat benevolent explorers, we either make it together or die together…no one is going ahead of time."