Clash of the Mutants
by Rod Hamon
part 1 of 2
“This is AX593. Come in, please. Requesting permission to land.”
There was silence.
Kurt called again, but still nothing. “Where the hell is everyone?”
With his spacecraft hovering a few kilometres above the ground he checked his instruments, they confirmed that he was correctly aligned for landing. The space center should be directly below him but there was nothing on his monitor.
A few hours earlier, the Earth had come into view on his monitor - the first he’d seen of it for a long time. It was a welcome sight and, from space, looked no different. The cloud-covered sphere still rotated slowly on its axis revealing each continent in turn.
The Sun continued to transfuse life into the planet just as it had done for millions of years. The journey had been lonely and Kurt was glad to be back. He smiled as he looked down through the window at the blue sphere. The most beautiful thing in the universe.
The desire to be an astronaut had been in Kurt’s blood. He had never considered doing anything else. Friends had attempted to put him off, mainly because Kurt had inherited his father’s height, not a desirable attribute for an astronaut who is crammed into confined spaces most of the time.
Although he had always enjoyed a challenge, this operation was something different. He had embarked on the mission fully aware that he would never see any of his family or friends again. Mission control had emphasized that this would be a tough assignment and that once the craft left the Solar System, they were on their own.
“Are you sure you want to spend all this time away?” they asked. “Wouldn’t be volunteering if I didn’t,” Kurt replied.
Kurt was now returning from the one-year journey exploring stars in the Sagittarius region. His task had been to seek and explore extra-stellar planets in the hope of finding one that could support life. He had seen many spectacular star systems but was unable to locate any planets suitable for humans. The lack of even the most primitive microscopic organisms led him to believe that Earth was the only place in the universe where life existed.
Kurt had been travelling close to light speed for most of his one-year journey but, for those on Earth, he had been gone three hundred years. He knew changes would have occurred since his departure but was unprepared for the surprise that awaited him.
He leant his head against the window and looked down. He reminisced about his family. During his long isolation, he had often thought about them, his wife and daughter. He wondered what had become of them and wished things had been different.
Of course, none of his immediate family would be alive after all this time and he doubted if anyone on Earth would remember him: the crazy person who chose to go on that journey all those years ago and never came back.
This had been the first manned operation to travel beyond the Solar System. Kurt was excited about it - to him it was the adventure of a lifetime. The invitation to lead the mission came about at the time when his marriage to Wendy began to fall apart, so he volunteered. He had had plenty of time to think about his marriage during that lonely expedition. I know I haven’t always been the easiest person to live with. Even as a child, I had a short fuse.
The first few weeks of the trip had been uneventful. His co-pilot Larry was the practical type: everything always done by the book, always reliable. In contrast, Kurt was adventurous, a risk-taker, never afraid of danger. He was chosen to lead the operation because of his reputation for bravery. He had established that status ten years earlier whilst still a junior officer. Kurt had served as a crewmember on the stranded Mars Module. When all hope of rescue had been given up, he decided on a risky plan.
“If we stay here we’re going to die, for sure. Why not let me give it a try?” His senior officer shook his head but Kurt ignored him and, with aid of makeshift equipment, climbed outside the craft and repaired the broken fuel unit. The mission was saved.
Most of Kurt’s successes were the result of risk-taking rather than smart thinking. He was a man of action. If something needs to be done, then get on and do it. That was his motto.
The authorities stonewalled all questions about the politics behind the venture but Kurt didn’t really care about that. It was the prospect of travelling to the center of the Milky Way that excited him.
Kurt stared again at the monitor. This is very strange. Why doesn’t mission control respond? It was getting dark now and the only landing site visible was a small park well within the city. He sent out his call signal again, but still no response. Damn it, where is everyone? “Can you hear me down there? This is AX593 calling. Come in!”
The spacecraft had provided every requirement for the long trip. Food, drink and air were synthesized by stellar radiation. On-board entertainment — music, electronic games and movies — helped alleviate the tedium.
Disaster struck just a week into the mission. A failure in the craft’s purification systems temporarily cut the oxygen supply. Larry suffocated and died. Kurt narrowly escaped death himself. Gasping for air and semi-conscious, he crawled across the floor towards the emergency mask that hung on a hook on the cabin wall. He had no recollection of placing the mask over his face and turning it on.
Having to dispose of Larry’s body was one of the most distressing things Kurt had ever had to do. He relived that day. How glad Larry would have been now to be returning home. Kurt felt angry. Someone — he didn’t know who — had stuffed up.
Kurt ejected Larry’s body through the air lock. He felt he should say a prayer but words failed him. Tears came to his eyes as he said, “Good luck, old buddy.” The words seemed so inadequate. He would forever remember his partner’s body slowly drifting away, getting smaller as it floated into the distance. It’s going to be tough being alone.
A mayday signal was sent to base requesting help. Kurt waited for them to make a decision but, for hours, heard nothing. In the meantime, the craft continued to accelerate away from Earth. He waited. Perhaps they can’t rescue me and will leave me to float forever in space.
He called them again.
“We’re working on it, Kurt. We’ll get back to you soon.”
Four more hours passed before they called again. “Sorry about the delay, Kurt.” There was a pause. “OK, here’s what we’ve got.” The controller hesitated, searching for the right words. “Although it’ll be costly and difficult, we can organize a rescue mission.” Kurt waited for the word “but.”
The controller hesitated again. “But — you’ll appreciate — it’s really in the national interest for the operation to continue. It’s more than just the national interest, it’s — as you know — this project is vitally important. We’re really depending on you, Kurt, in a big way.”
The controller paused once again. “I know what you’re thinking: a year alone in space is a long time. But we won’t pressure you. It’s up to you.”
“Yeah, right! OK, let’s get on with it.”
Thus, for a whole year, he had travelled alone, exploring the depths of space, the stars and their planets. The Sagittarius region is densely populated with stars, millions of them, stars of every size and colour. Although it was a lonely period, it was also a time he would never forget.
The journey was now over. He was home again and desperate for company. As he looked down on planet Earth, memories of his family flooded his mind. Kurt thought about his daughter Suzy and wondered what her life would have been like. But even his grandchildren, if he had had any, would be long gone.
Kurt attempted again to contact mission control but without success. It was getting dark now and his only option was to land his spacecraft in the park. His instruments showed that there was a clearing someway from the road among the trees. In spite of a raging storm, the landing was smooth.
He emerged from his craft confronted by heavy rain. It was a short walk from the park to the street where he sought shelter under the canopy of a large building. There were few streetlights to illuminate the night. Strong winds lashed the rain against his face and thunder could be heard in the distance.
“Thanks for the welcome back!” he shouted, but the wind swept his words away. The lights of this building, like most of the others, were off. Sporadic street lighting provided the only illumination, leaving some areas in almost total darkness. Occasional flashes of lightning allowed him a brief glimpse of his surroundings, outlining the tall buildings against the sky.
Since his departure, the city had grown considerably, both in area and in the size of its buildings, many of which towered precariously two or three hundred storeys above the streets.
Something’s very wrong here. He would have expected the city to be bustling, but there were no vehicles and not a single person on the streets.
Where the hell is everyone? I can’t just wait around here. Got to find out what’s going on.
He left the protection of the canopy and moved further down the street looking for people.
“Is there anyone here? Where is everyone?” But his shouts just echoed back.
As he walked from street to street, there was no letup in the rain. He noticed poles with flags, saturated by the rain, hanging limply. In spite of the occasional gusts of wind, the flags just hung there, so he couldn’t make out what was on them. He felt slightly optimistic, though. The flags meant there must be people here somewhere.
But as Kurt continued on, his concerns were now turning to anxiety. His eyes roamed nervously, his muscles were tense and perspiration ran down his face. Kurt had rarely known fear but this was different. This world was alien to him. Perhaps the entire human race has been wiped out. Then he thought about the flags.
He looked up at the massive buildings, dark and lifeless. What the devil’s happened to the world since I left?
In spite of the rain, he sat down on a small stone wall and thought. So this is what’s become of the human dream of a better life — its search for Utopia? He looked around. What a godforsaken place this is.
He continued making his way through the deserted streets. Occasionally, he would notice light coming through the windows of buildings. He’d then bang loudly on the doors and shout, “Is anyone in there?” But the empty echo was the only response.
It occurred to him that villains might be lurking in the semi-darkness, so he avoided dark areas, and narrow lanes. It was whilst approaching a particularly poorly lit section of street that he became more nervous. He had a premonition of danger.
There was something, some small sound he hadn’t heard before. He was not imagining it. He stood motionless, listening. The rain was still falling heavily and the wind howling. The surge of adrenaline in his veins flooded his senses, increasing his awareness a hundred fold and in spite of the wind, he was alert to every sound.
Some minutes passed before he felt safe to continue, but he was ready to defend himself if need be. There was a narrow alleyway a short distance away on his left. Just as he reached it, there was a scratching sound. A black form leapt out and, with a blood-curling scream, darted off into the night. He got a brief glimpse of the creature, as it scampered away. It was an enormous feral cat.
Kurt’s heart beat rapidly and he reached out to a wall to steady himself. His legs were shaking and it was some minutes before he recovered from the fright. His fright was followed by another emotion: anger. He was angry that, of all things, a mere cat had caused him such alarm.
He turned a corner and, for the first time, saw people scurrying away in the far distance. His frantic shouts for attention were either not heard or ignored. The people disappeared and Kurt was alone again.
As he travelled from street to street, he occasionally glimpsed people but always in the far distance usually hurrying along under cover of their umbrellas. This is hopeless. There must be some place around here where people gather.
He was walking down a narrow road just about ready to give up, when he came across an open doorway. The illuminated interior was warm and inviting, so he stepped inside. It took him just a few moments to realise that this was a cinema; the first he had seen since he was a small boy. There was no one in the ticket box but, from the sounds coming from within, there was a movie showing. People at last!
Kurt went in. He desperately needed to speak to these people but was unsure what to do. Should he try and speak to someone now? Should he call out? The movie appeared to be reaching its end, so he decided to wait until it was over. He could at least dry out for a while.
The cinema was dark and he had difficulty making out the seats. The back row appeared to be empty, so he sat down. From the silhouettes of the people watching, it seemed that the place was about three-quarters full. The movie was nearly over. Stirring music was playing to scenes of soldiers wearing large helmets and marching away into the distance.
Superimposed over the marching soldiers was a flag portraying the outline of an arm with a clenched fist. It reminded him of the patriotic movies of the old days usually shown on Sunday afternoons, movies depicting the glorious armies of the homeland once again conquering the evil oppressor.
The excitement of the audience and their readiness to applaud, made Kurt feel uneasy. It was as if he were a stranger in a political rally. As the movie ended, the audience applauded enthusiastically. Too enthusiastically. There were occasional shouts of approval as patriotic symbols appeared on the screen.
The intensity of emotions increased as words appeared from the bottom and slowly moved upwards and into the distance. “Unity of Purpose! Onwards Together! Purity of Race! Remove Corruption!”
The flag appeared on the screen again as the cinema lights slowly came on. People got to their feet ready to move out. Kurt rubbed his eyes adjusting to the light. Two rows ahead of him, a man spoke: “Very stirring.”
“Indeed it was,” replied the man next to him.
Kurt gazed in the direction of the conversation. The two men were moving along the row of seats towards the exit. One of them turned to the other. Kurt caught his breath, overcome with horror at the sight of the poor man. He had clearly been in an accident. His face was dreadfully misshapen and grotesque. The narrow mouth showed little evidence of lips and his teeth were prominent when he spoke. The nose was long and narrow and his protruding eyes large and round.
Not wanting to embarrass the man, Kurt tried not to stare but curiosity forced him to look again. He was unprepared for the sight that met his eyes. The man standing next to him had now turned. His face was identical. Fear gripped Kurt as he looked around at the faces of the other people. Every one of them looked the same. Each had the same hideous face.
Kurt shivered with revulsion, realizing he had been sitting in the dark among these ugly creatures for the past few minutes. Instinctively, he hid his face in his hands to avoid attracting attention to his own appearance.
About five minutes elapsed before the last of them left the cinema. He then got up and cautiously headed toward the exit. Reaching the street, he decided to head back the way he had come but, as he passed beneath a street lamp, he heard shouting.
Three of the creatures were standing on the other side of the road and pointing in his direction. “Mutant! Get the mutant!” they shouted.
A dark alley to Kurt’s left seemed his only chance of escape. He entered and ran at full speed through the semi darkness. At the far end, there was a sharp turn to the right. He emerged thinking that he had escaped, but slipped in a puddle and fell heavily.
As he attempted to get up, he became aware of someone standing over him. It was one of them. The creature grabbed Kurt’s shoulder with a vise-like grip. “Get to your feet, mutant!”
The other three creatures had caught up and surrounded him. Their faces looked even more ugly up close. They were tall and muscular and their fingers long and thin like those of a tree frog. Their dark rounded eyes peered down at him as if he were a cockroach to be squashed.
Copyright © 2007 by Rod Hamon