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Curtains

Their mercy mission to the stars was unmerciful... to them!

By Eric WolfPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 7 min read
Curtains
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

From the official report of Inoue Noburu, Cartographic Service-Division 74ZZ+3, [DATE]:

My first thought, when I viewed my orders, ran to this: Which shall it be: death in a painless flash, before I set foot on solid ground? Or one of painful increments, once I step outside of my ship?

The recording consisted of some spatial coordinates, and a series of other findings of no immediate lucidity to me, as I am not a quantum physicist by specialty. The most salient portion of the tape provided the ending of the recording: a voice, female, maybe late twenties, betraying her fatigue and anxiety, saying something I did not comprehend: “En jätä virkaani. Sinun täytyy ymmärtää miksi." I glanced at one of my interlocutors, keeping my facial expression as neutral and unrevealing as I could make it.

“That’s Finnish you’re hearing, Doctor," came the translator, also guarded in its inscrutable dispassion. “It means: I won’t leave my post. Surely you must understand why."

I did not understand, and awaited clarification, with my practiced, but failing, stoicism. In truth, this assignment had begun to work its intrigues upon me — a not-inconsiderable feat, given how comfortable I was at work. Mapping unexplored, potentially habitable star systems was rewarding work. My family had pride in me; I had achieved much, since the day we stood upon the Gojo Ohashi Bridge to part company. My parents, my brother and sister, and my girlfriend, waving the new cadet goodbye, at the start of his, I mean, my journey to university on Europa… it suddenly felt too soon to be leaving them, and all too late, too. My new role promised me a great adventure, and adventures mean grave danger.

One of my three interviewers leaned forward, waving a main visual screen on with one hand. A slender woman with intense blue eyes, a short crop of dark hair and a slight smile, was captured onscreen; she did not remind me of any of my past girlfriends, but she could be considered pretty, I suppose. I’m not what you would call a fodder for holographic fantasy projections, with my severe hairstyle and boyish features. I am neither as tall as my father, nor have I got my sister’s innocent charm. I am a simple mapmaker — that suffices, for now; I have just turned thirty.

“Subject’s name is Ansa Korhonen,” said the hand-waving woman. “A native of Helsinki, I believe?” Tilting her head, she read the file, in her virtual heads-up display. “Indeed. She was assigned, nearly eighteen months ago, to a neutrino listening post. In case some of our galactic neighbors get, well, cranky about the positive growth spurt we’ve seen in Concordance settlements, in this corner of the spiral Arm, it’s good to know what they’re thinking. And transmitting.”

“Six days ago,” added the aged fellow to her left, who seemed the senior officer in attendance, “we received a sign-off message from the station, indicating the facility was… no longer nominal. She claimed to be the only survivor, of some calamity. We know of no such incident in that region. If she’s alone, and under siege, she may have triggered certain… defensive measures.”

That’s where I came in, they said. I was not a military or intelligence operative — the Korhonen woman would be able to verify this with base records. Higher officials believed a civilian scientist might have a chance to persuade her to let down her guard. I had passed some battery of tests back on Earth, and I didn’t even know I was taking any tests. I agreed to do my duty, to the Concordance; should I perish, I would leave no wife and no children behind. I hoped I would survive the experience. The next morning, I boarded a starship…

^ ^ ^ ^

I was asleep in a makeshift bunk in the cargo bay when the stellar transport vessel arrived at planet [REDACTED}. We cut out our Wreaker-class continuum-distortion drivers and matched the rotational speed of the planet, directly above a desert landscape that was home to the covert underground listening post. A dropship in the main flight bay was ready to transport us to the surface, boasting armor and a panoply of particle and beam weaponry — this was a military craft.

The angry swirls obscuring our view of the landing site looked like clouds to a civilian’s eye. I was midway between civilian and military, but I knew that this was no ordinary aerial phenomenon. My assigned pilot, Flight Sergeant Hovsep Matevosyan, informed me, with a smile, that I could call him Joe, just before we saw these “clouds” — and then he frowned and said that these were active nano-scale offensive swarms. (What?) Consisting of unknown billions of eating machines, too small for human vision to detect, they could emit radiation, eat through a ship or even attack living beings, depending upon how they were programmed.

“I’ll do my best to get you there,” is all he could say to me. I must have blanched at the grim prospect of flying through such an engineered cyclone. Before our senses came to us, we boarded the dropship, and descended, into that planet’s atmosphere.

I recall wanting to ask him so many things, just to alleviate my fears, but it was not the right moment. My companion aboard the dropship relayed flight data, by voice contact, to our orbiting carrier ship. I believed he was accustomed to landing in conditions as dire as these were, and that he would see us through our difficulties. I am relieved to have honored him with that confidence.

The Flight Sergeant punished the ship, trying to evade these deadly clouds, as we tried to level out our plane on its descent. The nano-clouds shifted to make an assault upon us. At first, the wind and gravity battered us in what I assume was a normal process of aviation. The forward viewscreen was obscured by an angry pink, fluffy sort of disturbance. It looked a bit like something I once ate: an archaic novelty food called cotton candy.

Then the ship lurched forward. Matevosyan — I will refer to him as Joe, saving both space and time — struggled to resume control of his main instrument panel. “Doctor Inoue, get yourself into a crash-blister,” he barked. I got one open and crawled into its welcoming goo, but before I could seal the pod door, we collided, with, I presume, the planet itself.

“Joe?” I called out, when I could poke my head up out of the shielding goo, but of course, I received no reply.

I remember a strange buzz issuing from one of the bulkheads, when I climbed out of the crash-pod. That faint odor of burning metal in the air would inform a veteran of the wars of the danger I was in: the nano-clouds were beginning a full-scale effort to eat through the hull of our dropship.

^ ^ ^ ^

I believe the particle-beam assault began almost to the second that Joe and I managed to exit the ship, but I may not be correct in that assessment. The deadly cotton-candy swirls made seeing even large objects, like boulders, almost impossible. I was on foot; I couldn’t get the tractor to work, and so I had to drag the dazed Flight Sergeant with a handheld cable.

Blasts of evil light kicked up dirt and debris at what seemed like random spots all around us. I wanted to vomit, so afraid and bewildered was I, but I knew it would endanger my safety to have vomit in my sealed, pressurized helmet… a problem I would have been happy to have, to be sure, if the shooting stopped!

I smacked my hand against the right side of my helmet, and opened a comm channel to plead with my would-be assassin, “Ansa Korhonen — if you can hear this… please, you must cease firing! I have come to relieve you of this assignment. To take you… home. Do you receive, over?”

More particle blasts, one striking the nose of our dropship, bent it like the nose a retired prizefighter might have. One glanced off of my helmet, I am informed. “Say again, I am called Inoue Noburu, and I am not with Forces Command. I map the Galaxy. I am with Cartographic Division. Please, do respond!”

I dropped to one knee. I hit a preprogrammed sequence of coded numbers, on my sleeve control console. It did not open the outer hatch, though it had to be the correct numbers. My superiors would not send me, us, here to fail

My helmet crackled with static. A woman was laughing somewhere under our feet, then saying in her native tongue, “Haluan uskoa sinua, mutta kokemus on ankara opettaja.

“I don’t speak Finnish,” I gasped, which was the remark of an idiot, feeling like an idiot! “Could you translate it for me? I believe that you may have damaged the computing on my suit. With your beam fire.”

I think that was the longest moment of silence I have ever had to endure. Ansa sighed and said this in a low voice, almost a whisper. She sounded fatigued as she translated, “I want to believe you, but experience is a harsh teacher — that’s a fair description of my life, these past few weeks. Tell me, map-maker, where in Japan do you come from? It is Japan, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is. Kyoto.” I flashed back to my fond farewell at the Gojo Ohashi Bridge. “Have you ever been?”

“I have not been, no. Have you ever been, to Helsinki?” Over my helmet’s audio feed, I heard what sounded like a heavy machine, working somehow.

I was about to reply, when I noticed a “finger” of the nano-machine cloud was drifting our way. No, not drifting — actively reaching out to us, to Joe and myself! I yelped in panic, “Ansa, you’ve got to let us in!” I let go of the towing cable and dropped to my knees, colliding with a hard surface, one made of polished metal. “If you let us die out here… more people will come to rescue you.”

I shut my eyes as the deadly wisps stretched out, to a killing nearness. “Pilvi, stop that at once,” I heard her say. “I call them that, the deadly curtains I sent up to keep me safe.” The last thing I remember hearing was the sound of the main hatch opening, behind Joe and myself — and a woman’s gloved hands, as they clutched my shoulders. “Come inside then, Mister Inoue,” Ansa said.

© 2021 Eric Wolf.

[Explore the Concordance of Worlds: https://vocal.media/fiction/starship-driver.]

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About the Creator

Eric Wolf

Ink-slinger. Photo-grapher. Earth-ling. These are Stories of the Fantastic and the Mundane. Space, time, superheroes and shapeshifters. 'Wolf' thumbnail: https://unsplash.com/@marcojodoin.

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