Prose Header

Henry Jumps a Shark

by Colin P. Davies

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

The Robsons had been tracking the mysterious entity — the Martian — for twenty days. They had no idea what it looked like; every time they came close, a system failure or stroke of fate would thwart them. But they had learned one thing: it could move swiftly through the soft ground, burrowing just below the surface. They had managed to get a three-second vid of a shallow swell scooting across the desert surface.

Richard had called it a sand shark and the name had stuck.

“I’ve got something,” said Joan. “The audio trail is faint, but I’d bet my allowance on it.” She removed the headphones and offered them to her father. He gestured that he did not need them.

“I’m sure you’re right,” he told her. “Feed in the co-ordinates and let’s get moving.”

“I’m still eating!” Richard lifted another soy rib from the mound on his plate.

“You’re always still eating,” said Howard. “If we waited for you to finish eating we’d still be back in the Ribbon.”

Marion was at the wheel. “Locked in... let’s get this show on the road.”

She threw the Sprint up and forward and they bounded off across the dry and supposedly dead surface of Mars.

* * *

The first Henry knew that things were not well was when Branigan phoned him an hour before dawn. He propped himself up in the hard bed and listened.

“...gone missing. We can’t track it. I’ve had to hold the shoot, but we need a rewrite and advice... fast.”

“What are you saying? The robot has disappeared?”

“Yes, yes. Can you get here?”

“Me... what can I do?”

“For one thing you might be able to convince JJ to stay. Best camera I’ve got. And he’ll take a few with him.”

“Damn it, Bill! All you had to do was follow instructions.”

“It’s your toy. Get your backroom brains out here. Hire a floater. Hire a priest. Just get here.”

“Okay... give me six hours.”

* * *

Once in the air, Henry settled his turbulent thoughts and hugged a hot coffee. He had three companions: a robotics whizz-kid, a script magician, and a cold-faced woman from the Ministry of Entertainment. Quite how the Ministry had got wind of this affair was a mystery he did not expect to solve. It didn’t matter now; he had to live with the way things were, not how they should be. He’d known that for a long time.

His life could have been so different, save for one decision, one fork in the road, thirty years back. The lost possibilities still haunted him.

“I need you to do this,” Bill Branigan had said. “Can I trust you?”

How could he not support his best friend? “You know you can.” In those happy days he’d gone everywhere with Bill; pals throughout school and comrades in the cadets; room-mates in university and buddies at SNN: Systemwide Network News. They had shared a burning urge to be the best investigative journalists the world had ever seen; but, eventually, Bill had discovered the potential of politics, and Henry had discovered his limits.

“When this story breaks, Simpson will be finished and my road to the Senate will be clear.” Bill could barely contain his glee. “It’s the best story I’ve ever done, but I need you to take the byline.”

“Simpson may be a sleazy son of a bitch, but he has friends.” Henry could feel sweat on the inside of his stiff collar. “I’ll have to lie low for a while... a long while.”

“Far from it. When you run this report, you’ll be high profile. They wouldn’t dare touch you. Are you sure you can do it?”

Henry nodded. “I’m a journalist. It’s what I do.”

Except, this time, he didn’t.

He broke the bad news to Bill, apologized for his failure of nerve, and ran off to Mars with his tail very uncomfortably between his legs.

* * *

For Henry, the flight was three unpleasant hours of attempting to make conversation with the Ministry officer whilst keeping the geek and the genius shut out. They knew too much and, although both in the loop on the great deception, they were an accident waiting to happen — at least in Henry’s eyes.

“Officer Dehner... have you been on Mars long?”

Her surprise was evident. She didn’t expect conversation. “Since I was fourteen.”

Henry had no idea how long ago that was. The woman’s pale thin skin and black bob gave her a vampirish agelessness. “Your parents emigrated?”

“I ran away.”

The writer was listening to everything, but surreptitiously. The geek was under headphones.

“Why have you decided to join us?” Henry asked. Sometimes it was best to be blunt. “How did you know I’d chartered the flight?”

“You know I can’t answer that.”

“So it’s not routine?”

“Unless there’s a reason it shouldn’t be, then it is routine.” There was a glint in her eye like ice on a snowfield. “We prefer to keep watch on things — especially important things. You have a big responsibility bringing entertainment to the masses.”

“I feel it constantly.” Like heavy boots on a drowning man.

“And I’m genuinely interested,” she said. “You brought the show back from near cancellation. That’s impressive.”

“It was a stroke of luck.” Henry glanced around the small craft. “And I should thank the Ministry for getting that injunction in place, or we’d have been swamped by scientific hotheads and grant-seekers. As it is, we have exclusive rights for a further seven months.”

“Six months and twenty-one days to be accurate.”

“Is that what this is about? The Ministry is under pressure from somewhere?”

Officer Dehner simply tapped her nose with a finger and sat back in her seat.

Two hours later, the floater changed trajectory and slowed.

Henry peered out of the porthole as they came to rest near the team’s tent. The sun was high and shadows short, giving the desert landscape a stagey over-lit appearance.

When the dust had settled, Henry walked down onto the surface wearing his navy blue environment suit. His three companions joined him.

The ramp folded up into the floater and the craft powered down. The walk to the tent was about thirty meters across an uneven sandy surface.

Henry turned towards Officer Dehner. He could see her grey eyes clearly behind the faceplace. “I hope you won’t be disappointed,” he said over the radio. “There’s not a lot to see really.”

“I’ll be fine.” They set off for the air lock.

Branigan’s voice cut in: “Henry... be quick. Get inside. We’ve picked up readings. I think the shark is coming back.”

Henry spun around and almost lost his balance. The desert seemed still and dead — as it should be. “Are you sure? It’s been gone for over a day.”

“I’m just reading instruments... but something is coming your way... and fast.”

Henry hurried his companions towards the tent.

“Over there!” The geek yelled and pointed.

Henry spotted movement about a hundred meters away. The soft ground was rising as something passed close to the surface... and it was heading towards them.

They ran.

Henry watched the shark’s path veer to maintain a collision course. It was targeting him! He ran as hard as he could.

Realising he was not going to make the air lock, he stopped and turned to face the incoming moving mound. He knew what it was; he’d had the robot made to his own specifications: a tonne of powered steel, approaching at such a speed and thrusting the ground upwards with such force that the impact would smash his fragile body.

“It’s coming right at me!”

He had one chance.

He waited until the burrowing beast was almost at his feet — till he could feel the vibrations swelling towards crescendo — then, at the last instant he could bear, he jumped high and to the side, sailing through the air with Mars motion, falling and rolling and returning to his feet. It was neatly done and he would have enjoyed a moment of satisfaction except for the distorted scream that had cut through his ears.

Officer Dehner had been standing behind him and was now sprawled across the ground with her neck looking like a neck should never look.

* * *

That’s how it ended. There would be no resolution to the mystery of the enigmatic life-form. Of course it all climaxed on a cliff-hanger — what self-respecting show didn’t? But there would be no new season. When they discovered the shenanigans, the Ministry had pulled the plug and Henry’s visa. He had no choice but to head back to Earth and his old career.

The accident — as they called it — was never investigated other than by the Ministry, and if the cause of the malfunction was ever found, no-one cared to tell Henry.

He didn’t need to be told.

There could be only one culprit, one old friend who would wish him such devastating harm, and Henry knew exactly how to get even.

For decades he had kept a copy of a report that had never been broadcast, an exposé that would rock the government and destroy Senator Simpson, a report that, by its very existence, had bought favors and opportunities. It was as hard-hitting and venomous a piece of journalism as had ever been made, and would bring an end to a beneficial, if not beautiful, friendship.

It was the finest piece of work that Bill Branigan had ever done.

Copyright © 2010 by Colin P. Davies

to Challenge 400...

Home Page