by Frank Minogue
Fennican Cooperhouse approached the Volterran colony in the Arcturus star system with the usual amount of cynicism.
No one had been there in over 300 years, and communication had long been severed.
Cooperhouse, being the colony clean-up man, knew just how bad it could get. Imagine your company Christmas party where, scattered among the gifts, lights and tinsel, are body parts, biohazards and the smell of incinerated hair.
You know it’s been nasty when even the rodents stay away.
Despite all that, Cooperhouse was always awed when he saw a blue planet. He looked out at Volterra and mused, “A lone diamond in the dung heap of space.”
The Volterran seas were more turquoise than blue, and the long u-shaped valleys hinted at an earlier glacial period. The planet had been chosen because of its mineral deposits and fresh water.
When the colonists landed, they described an Eden. Extensive searches found no aliens or anything more intelligent than a double-tailed monkey.
On arrival at the base, the clean-up team exited the craft and prepared to step over the skeletal remains of colonials locked in death grips.
The team’s checklist even had a box for Heads On Poles. They expected to pass by burned-out buildings, pet remains and vehicles in all states of destruction: in other words, the usual.
But they found no bodies alive or dead. No destruction at all.
The lights for the landing zone were on, and they were greeted by a recorded voice: “Welcome to Volterra. Follow the concrete path to the main building — and enjoy your stay.”
Sergeant Kestenbottom turned to Cooperhouse and said, “When it’s nice like this, it usually means it’s worse.”
The tall, red-headed New Zealander had been with the team the longest and had a sixth sense when something wasn’t right.
“My gut says we get back on the lander, return to the ship, launch the BRB’s and zoom out of here,” Kestenbottom said.
While Cooperhouse respected Kestenbottom’s gut, he didn’t think they were at the point where they had to deploy the BRBs (Black Rain Bombs).
But he did have his security team on high alert. The walk to the main compound was along a concrete dike where, down below, the brown water sat unmoving.
“Easy, lads. Calm waters are sometimes the last thing you see before you erupt into a red starburst of bone and sinew,” Sgt. Kestenbottom cautioned.
Maxglax walls surrounded the compound, making it impregnable to all but the most powerful lasers.
Cooperhouse approached the voice-activated lock on the gate and gave his name and rank.
No response came, and he was about to order the gate blown open when a soft voice came through the speaker and said, “Come in.”
“Who is this?” Cooperhouse asked.
“Come in,” was the only reply. After an electronic clicking sound, the gate swung open.
“Anything moves that ain’t human, blast it,” Kestenbottom grunted.
Cooperhouse ordered half the team in and the other half to form a secure perimeter around the compound.
The compound was designed in concentric circles of white pyramidal buildings that led to the main administration building in the center.
A building-to-building search ensued: domiciles were tidy but something didn’t feel right.
The team found computer terminals with half-finished entries, letters partly written and unintelligible reports — but no sign of impending danger or an enemy to worry about.
In a sketchbook, someone had drawn a nude figure with one arm missing.
In the security building all the weapons were in their storage cases, but a couple of the entry code boxes had been smashed, as if someone couldn’t remember the code and got frustrated.
They found nothing that would indicate the fate of the colonists.
Cooperhouse had done similar searches, where they had to drag the bodies out of the way to get into the rooms. He once found a compound in such a state of destruction that the only sign of human remains was an eyeball dangling from the edge of a table.
Even the vehicles’ batteries were charged and ready to go. One rover was facing out, fully loaded with soil sampling equipment. On the seat was a list of testing priorities, but at #8 on the list the person had left a series of dots, as if he or she was trying to think of what else to add.
“What about food?” Cooperhouse asked.
“I checked the food lockers, sir. Filled, every one of them. And food in the domiciles too. Well, I did find one strange thing.”
“Found a sandwich, if that’s what you call it: two slices of bread with a shoe stuck between them.”
“What’s strange about that? I eat that all the time,” Kestenbottom joked.
“Okay, how did four hundred people suddenly disappear? The beach?” Cooperhouse asked impatiently.
They were now at the center of the compound and the bright Volterran sun made them sweat.
“Surround the building,” Cooperhouse ordered.
Up the metal ramp they went, weapons at the ready. The door was ajar, so without hesitating Cooperhouse pushed through, followed by his men. Nothing. Nobody.
After a thorough search of the outer offices, Cooperhouse and Kestenbottom stepped toward the door that led to the central meeting room.
As the door swung open they were immediately bathed in a bright and warm light. The entire party was temporarily blinded by it. Then the light dimmed.
As the scene before Cooperhouse came into focus, he looked down at his feet to see grass, green grass, mixed with patches of earth and in the center of the room was a tiny pond, with rocks and even a miniature waterfall.
The room had been emptied of furniture. A video monitor hung from the ceiling. Cooperhouse gazed around, looking for what had generated the light, but could find nothing.
“What the hell’s going on here, sir?” Kestenbottom asked.
“Don’t know. Seems strange that the colonists built this pond.”
“And that light. I can still feel it on my skin, almost like we’ve been sprayed with something,” Kestenbottom added.
“But what generated it?” Cooperhouse asked.
“I did. Well, they did — but through me,” came a voice.
“Who said that?” Cooperhouse asked. Weapons were set to incinerate.
Everyone looked, but there was only the grass and the pond.
“Over by the rocks,” the voice said. “You can walk on the grass. It’s real.”
Cooperhouse stepped first, wondering if he’d suddenly be sucked down into the earth by some Volterran monster.
As he neared the pond he watched as a turtle climbed out of the water and on to the rocks.
It was the size of Cooperhouse’s hand and by all appearances, an ordinary fresh water turtle, except for the square cut out of the top of his shell.
A fitted piece of glass or a glass-like material had replaced that section of his shell. A faint light came from inside. Cooperhouse and his men stepped back.
“I can now say I’ve seen it all,” Kestenbottom said. The others in the detail closed in, captivated by the light-producing turtle.
“Where’s the sound coming from?” Cooperhouse asked, more to Kestenbottom, but the turtle answered.
“From me. By the way, my name is Sonny Boy.” He even lifted his head to talk and turned to face the person to whom he was speaking.
“How can a turtle talk?” someone asked.
“Could be voice projection,” one of the men said.
“No. I can talk. Even learned a few songs, like Mack the Knife. Do you know it?”
“Where is everyone, Sonny Boy?” Cooperhouse asked. Normally he wouldn’t talk to a turtle, but the little reptile might know something.
Sonny Boy hesitated, even withdrew his head in slightly, then he spoke. “Inside me.”
“What’s inside you?” Cooperhouse leaned in closer.
“Everyone. All the colonists.”
Kestenbottom laughed. “Can I step on him, sir?”
“No. Back off. Okay, Sonny Boy, I’ll play along. How did the colonists get inside you?”
“The Volterrans did it.”
“But who are they? What do they look like? Where can we find them?” Cooperhouse was getting impatient with that little turtle.
“Well, they aren’t people and they’re not turtles. That much I can say. In fact when I try to think about them too much I suddenly get tired, so I try not to think about them.”
“Are they well armed?” Kestenbottom asked.
“You can’t fight the Volterrans,” Sonny Boy replied matter-of-factly. He shifted his position on the rock.
The light from his shell suddenly brightened, then faded again.
“Are you speaking metaphorically when you say the colonists are inside you?” Cooperhouse asked.
“No. In fact — well, I suppose I should tell you. The Volterrans have started dissolving you too,” Sonny Boy replied.
The men laughed. One said, “Hey, I’m dissolving. Better get a mop.”
“Dissolving, eh?” Cooperhouse wanted to grab Sonny Boy by the throat and yank his head off, but he resisted.
“Yes, dissolving you. What is your mother’s name?” Sonny Boy asked.
Cooperhouse had to laugh. It was too absurd: a turtle asking him his mother’s name.
“It’s... um, oh now you’ve got me frazzled. It’s...” But he could not remember her name.
“Sergeant, what’s your wife’s name?” Cooperhouse asked.
Kestenbottom smiled, looked like he was about to say it, but he just couldn’t remember it. Cooperhouse could see him struggling.
“Sanchez, what’s the sergeant’s nickname?”
Again, the struggling.
“You see. You’re all dissolving,” Sonny Boy said.
“And what about you? How come you didn’t dissolve?” Cooperhouse asked Sonny Boy while pulling out his communicator.
“They like me. Oh and just so you know, your mother’s name is Cynthia, the sergeant’s wife is Peggy and his nickname is Clodhopper.”
Cooperhouse backed away and so did the men. He clicked on the communicator and reached the ship’s captain.
“Sir, We’re leaving the planet right now. The aliens have... killed all the colonists. They have a mind power. We need to launch the BRBs. Sir? Sir? Are you okay?”
“The ones in the ship are dissolving too. You won’t be able to destroy Volterra. Oh, I wish you could stay, but you really must leave. I’ll help you get back to the lander,” Sonny Boy said.
“We know how...” Cooperhouse stopped. “We won’t know, will we?” He wondered what would happen if he squished the turtle under his boot.
“I’ll help you,” Sonny Boy said, sliding into the water.
“Sir, something’s happening to my skin,” one of the men said, holding out his arm.
Cooperhouse and the others gathered around and were shocked to see that the man’s skin had ‘thinned,’ exposing his muscle tissue.
“We need to get out of here now!” Cooperhouse yelled.
He was the last man to leave and he stopped, wondering if he should take the turtle to have it analyzed.
“They won’t let you take me,” Sonny Boy said, reading Cooperhouse’s mind.
“Okay, but I’ve got a question before we go. How the hell did you end up on Volterra?”
“I was Tom’s pet. He was one of the colonists. Well, he still is. He’s just... inside me.”
Cooperhouse was about to say something more but couldn’t remember.
“You had better go,” Sonny Boy said, with a touch of sadness in his turtle voice.
Cooperhouse nodded. “Goodbye, Sonny Boy.”
It was only through Sonny Boy’s help that the clean-up team made it back to the lander. Cooperhouse could feel Sonny inside him, helping.
He had to pull men back in line, as they would wander off. He even had to strap them in and fly the lander himself, as the flight crew had lost the ability to fly.
One man’s hand had dissolved.
They returned to the ship, and the dissolving process had taken hold of the entire crew.
The captain and some of the other officers were singing Mack the Knife.
Cooperhouse noticed on his computer screen that the captain had initiated the BRB sequence but hadn’t finished it.
With Sonny Boy flooding his mind with knowledge he’d never had, Cooperhouse got the ship out of Volterran orbit and headed into deep space.
Sometime over the next few hours — or perhaps a few days, — the crew felt a weight lifting off them, but dissolved body parts didn’t regenerate.
On a whim Cooperhouse asked the captain if they would be returning to Volterra sometime soon.
“Volterra? Never heard of it.”
Cooperhouse had them check star charts. No place called Volterra existed.
“Must have confused it with another place,” Cooperhouse said.
On his rocky perch Sonny turned on the video terminal and watched Jeopardy, his favorite Old Earth game show. Inside him he could feel the Volterrans. They were quite pleased with their Sonny Boy.
Copyright © 2008 by Frank Minogue