Prose Header

What Kept You?

by Geoff Nelder

part 1 of 2

Megan stared uncertainly at the bright spot in the swirling shades of lilac clouds.

“It’s just the rising sun, Megan, come on, you’re holding us up,” said Cody.

“Something’s not right, Captain. Although the landscape looks like a New England park, only kinda rose-tinted like an old photograph, there’s no sound.” Her excitement at stepping on her first planet was tempered by unexpected nerves. Though she was slim and slight compared to the two powerful men in the squad, her sharp wit and tongue compensated for lack of brawn.

“Don’t listen to her, Cody. Environment’s checked out from orbit and down here an hour ago. Goddamn, Cody, let’s go; we have people to rescue.”

“He’s right, Megan.” Cody’s deep voice calmed his crew. “The expeditionary team has been here four months. All we have to do is bring them back. No exploration, Megan, and no conquering, Travis. Move out.”

Megan gingerly stepped the half-meter drop from the shuttle onto the short fern-like grass. She might have jumped it, but her pack contained most of their electronics. The men carried the heavy-duty armory and provisions. All of them warily pointed small but deadly handguns. Because all radio communication halted when the expedition landed they backed theirs up with implants in their neck so they could communicate even if they were captured and stripped.

Megan headed for some low trees and covered the men who were activating a shuttle camouflage device. From over her right shoulder a dark hand-sized blur flew past straight for Cody. Before she could take aim or shout an alert, it just missed him and shot off into the clouds. As the two men turned she rushed over. “Did you see that?”

“Ignore her, Cody, it must be this damn purple sky getting to her,” said Travis

“Shut up, Travis. What was it, Megan?”

“I saw something going at you!”

“What?” said Cody.

“I don’t know. I —”

Cody persisted: “OK, what did it look like?”

“It went too fast. It was a blur.”

“I didn’t hear anything, Cody. Ignore her.”

“Megan,” said the Captain, “let’s concentrate on the mission, shall we? It is good for you to be alert. We know there are villages dotted all over the planet including one nearby.”

“I was listening at the briefing, Cody, I know this village three clicks away is where the expedition were put down and that nothing’s been heard from them since. But listen.”

“I’m listening,” said Travis, unwisely chewing at a pink grass stem.

“No, really listen,” said Megan.

They did. The tree branches blew around with the wind but they heard no sound except their own voices enhanced by their implant com systems.

“Just wait until we get to a town,” said Travis. “I’ve often experienced silence in the country.”

“It’s not just that,” said Megan, sniffing at a blue windswept honeysuckle-like seed as if to add an unusual odor to her argument. “The leaves jerk funnily and...” She batted away something — or nothing. She lowered her visor.

“Can we get on with this rescue?” said Cody, as he led the pair towards a tidy path near the outskirts of a village. A few spindly trees and a couple of towers lifted themselves above single-floor ochre buildings.

The three would-be rescuers lay in the weird grass beneath an overhanging branch to look for any activity.

“There,” whispered Travis, but then: “Sorry, I thought I saw someone come out of that domed house but as soon as I saw him... he disappeared in a puff of smoke.”

“Let’s keep calm,” said Cody. “Megan, set the cam to record five minutes.”

As he shifted his position to get another viewpoint, a puff of air forced them all to look towards the path to their left. Too late, the native had come up behind them, passed them, and disappeared into the village.

Cody spoke first: “Did I nearly see what I thought I saw?”

“Pity I hadn’t quite set up the camera,” said Megan.

“Do you think the atmosphere might have an hallucinogen we haven’t tested for?” said Travis.

“Just a minute,” said Megan, viewing the village through the zoom lens. “There’s a native sitting at a table outside a house. Extreme left, guys. The wall with a poster. I’ve just zoomed on it to give the translator some text to start working on.”

“Excellent. Megan you stay here and record everything; weapons ready.”

She thought she’d be better at communicating with the natives but then maybe Cody didn’t want trigger-happy Travis out of his control. She had telescopic vision via the camera and ears via the new coms implant and settled down again to observe.

A vibration along the ground scared her and she leapt up. She touched the ground with her fingertips. Nothing there but a memory, as if a snake had been there when she laid down and slithered rapidly out of the way. She wondered if Travis had tapped into a working brain cell when he suggested hallucinogens in the air.

Feeling the ground with the flat of her hand, Megan prepared again. She made a tripod with her elbows and looked through the lens. Immediately she tut-tutted: Travis walked as the aggressive soldier, pointing his powerful field weapon here and there, while Cody walked steadily up to the sitting local.

“Stop tutting me and record that the enemy is probably levelling a weapon at Cody from under the table,” Travis said.

“Don’t be an arsehole. And don’t call the locals enemies until one of them shoots you.” Megan hated Travis.

Cody slowly walked up to the seated native, who didn’t appear to be taking any notice of the intruders. He had translucent pink skin and was hairless. Megan chuckled as a similar image of her little plump granddad on a veranda wicker-chair came to mind. The native showed more interest in the cup he cradled on the wooden table than in his visitors.

With his hands held open, Cody spoke: “Excuse me, sir. I know you do not understand me but have you seen my friends?” To accompany his speech, Cody did a splendid sign-language job.

The native just fidgeted. Cody repeated his performance, while Travis let off a few rounds into the air. Cody, his expression touching on exasperation, turned on Travis, who shrugged his shoulders then stood open-mouthed. Cody spun back round to find the native gone.

“Where did he go, Travis?”

“Dunno. Maybe he went back into his house. What’s he left behind?”

Cody picked up what looked like a newspaper; at least the squiggles and dots didn’t fall off the parchment-like sheet. The men walked back to Megan so she could scan the document to the translator program. Megan watched them head back into the village, wishing she could front-line. A green light told her the translator had managed to make some sense of the input.

“Megan, come round behind the house we’ve just been to.”

Delighted that Cody must think it was safe and excited that it was her turn to explore, Megan ran round to find them standing in front of what looked ominously like five human burial mounds.

“They’ve been murdered,” said Travis.

“We don’t know that,” said Cody. “But it looks as if five of the seven are buried here. Look, Megan.” He showed her a damaged helmet that had lain on the nearest mound. Though worn and faded, the word “Marlowe” was discernible above the cracked visor.

“Brett Marlowe was the expedition leader,” she said.

“The bastards,” Travis said, levelling his weapon and looking for someone to kill.

“Hold your fire,” said Cody. Megan marvelled at his patience. He turned the helmet over, studying it carefully. “What do you see, Megan?”

“I know, it looks very worn for a new helmet only four months out of its box. Maybe he’d been in a battle. Are there any other bits of equipment on these graves?”

They looked at the mulberry-colored soil heaps. Suddenly, a lilac bird appeared on the mound nearest Megan. No bigger than and as sleek as a hummingbird it looked straight at her for a couple of seconds before it vanished.

Megan picked up a rose-coloured feather and said: “One of two things are happening here, guys.”

“They kill people from Earth,” said one-track Travis.

“Either that or we’re in one of those ancient Star Trek TV shows,” said Cody.

“Or time really is much faster here, except for us,” said Megan.

“Or we’ve slowed down compared to the planet. Come on, you two, get real.” Travis laughed.

“How long do you think it’s been since we landed?” Cody asked.

Travis said: “About three hours?”

“Look at your watch, Travis.”

“That can’t be right: only twenty-five minutes.”

“Try thirty-two days and twenty-five minutes,” said Megan. “I’ve used the camera data and the computer; time here is two-hundred and fifty-six times faster than on Earth.”

“Yeah right,” sneered Travis. “If this planet is in some temporal shift, why aren’t we whizzing about at the same speed as the locals?”

Megan shook her head: “I’m just telling you what is happening, not why. Maybe our bodies, coming from another time frame, have some resistance. You realise now, Travis, what probably killed the expedition team?”

“They weren’t murdered then? Hey, if a bird at home flies at thirty miles an hour, that’s over 7,600 miles an hour here! Perhaps one of our team got in the way of a fly.”

“Unlikely. We would seem like slow moving statues to them. No problem flying around us at all,” said Megan. “No, the expedition team landed here four months ago. That’s eighty-five years in this time. They died of old age.”

“Could be why they couldn’t call down their orbiting shuttle — the radio signal probably distorted. At least we can take off when we want — whoa, what was that?” Cody staggered back when an automobile-sized tram-like vehicle appeared and stopped near him. Two locals disembarked, looked at them for a second and blurred away. Seconds later the tram also vanished.

“So much for their simple lifestyle,” said Travis. “They probably have weapons too.”

“I noticed street lights embedded in the walls, so I guess they’d have electricity. I wonder if the tram is powered by an underground field along the green path it arrived and left on?” Megan really enjoyed solving puzzles.

“Let’s concentrate on the mission. If the five mounds are for five people, there might be two survivors.”

“Captain,” said Travis, “they’d be eighty-five plus the age they arrived at. We might as well go home before we also die of old age.”

“You feeling rheumatism, Travis?” said Megan, who’d been examining her translator readouts. “There are warnings in that newspaper you found. Apparently, there is a time dilation with altitude.”

Cody jumped at the news. “So the locals are being told to keep away from mountains because time is too slow for them?”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Geoff Nelder

Home Page