Mortal Coil
by DJ Burnham
forum: Mortal Coil
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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Mortal Coil


          The Sleanshech was spilling Latent Energy Particles like a crudely slashed wrist, with nothing but a faintly shimmering slick to show for it.

          'Are you sure?' asked Commander Kousien, peering intently at the navigational holoarray, sweat running over the collar of his tightly fitting hazard suit.

          'I am certain of it,' came the insistent response from Chief Navigation Officer Phrant, as he jabbed a heavily gloved finger towards the faint glow at the centre of the image.

          'This is our last chance. You do understand that?'

          'He knows,' interrupted Tyllus.

          'Very well,' Kousien turned to address Tyllus, his Scientific Principal, and the rest of his bridge crew, 'if we are all in agreement?' A mixture of nods, grunts and similar affirmations had one thing in common. They all carried an air of nervous desperation. He strode over to the helm, 'Take us to the source.'

          The claustrophobically constraining hazard suits and helmets had been discarded, now that the leak had been contained. The thin, sallow skin of the ship's five hundred-strong crew had chafed against the rubbery lining, leaving sores and rashes in its place, but at least it had protected them against the potentially fatal ionising effects of the contents of the ruptured fuel chamber; though not from a vestige of LEP contamination. The engineers had tri-banded the casing and rendered it even stronger than it was before. The saboteur had been caught, sentenced and ejected - still alive - in a waste pod, which broke down at a safe distance from the ship; its occupant exploding as zero-g vaporised him into the vacuum of space. Retribution had its moment, but they were left with no way home, having been forced to vent the majority of their power source.

          The sleek turquoise hull of the Sleanshech hung in a fixed orbit above the pockmarked surface of a barren moon. Tests on the lunar surface had drawn a blank, and yet, LEP reverberation levels were causing the scanner's display to light up like a supernova, dancing frantically across the console. Kousien had dispatched his second Officer, Kranpheb, in the Runner and he was gingerly making his way towards the rapidly growing LEP reverberation levels. Suddenly the alarm went off in the Runner's cramped cabin and the little craft shot forward with a sudden power surge, before Kranpheb could bring it back under control.

          'What happened? Are you okay Kranpheb?' Kousien's voice erupted from the earpiece in his headset.

          'Yes, yes, I'm fine. Give me a moment.' He ran a rapid, top level system diagnostic on the Runner. 'Yes, everything is fine here,' he glanced at the small scanner,' the particle reverberation is behind me, Commander. I flew through a band of energy. This is the source.'

          'You flew through it?'

          'Yes, it temporarily combined with the Runner's own power source and shot me through at a tremendous speed. It felt like I was being spat out,' said Kranpheb, swinging the Runner round to try and see what it was he'd just come through.

          'Does this make any sense to you?' Kousien asked Tyllus.

          'Perhaps. Listen Kranpheb, are you heading back towards the interface?'

          'I've just completed the turn and I'm holding my position.'

          'Good. What setting is the scanner on?'

          'It's on full sensitivity.'

          'Right. Is the distortion field still in operation? We don't want to attract any interest from the planet surface.'

          'Yes, it checks out.'

          'We're out of sight on this side of the moon, but we can't get any specific readings from here. I want you to drop the scanner to its lowest sensitivity setting.'

          'Very well,' Kranpheb ran his hand over the control beam and watched as the glare from the scanner screen subsided. 'Oh. That's incredible,' he whispered.

          'What is it Kranpheb? What can you see?' Kousien leant even closer to the com and tapped his fingers impatiently on the console.

          'Upload the data to us,' said Tyllus.

          A few moments later the viewscreen on the bridge revealed what it was that had so amazed Kranpheb.

          'It looks like a wall in space,' said the Commander.

          'More than that,' Tyllus applied an extrapolation effect to the data and the image shrunk, altering the perspective further.

          'A sphere?'

          'Apparently so. At a fixed distance from the surface of the planet. I've never seen anything like it.' Tyllus gazed at the generated image in wonder.

          'Right, let's load up and get out of here. Helm, set a course for the energy sphere.' Kousien was already heading back to his chair, across crossing the blue stippled floor; designed to create an adherent interface with the soles of their boots, should the artigrav fail.

          'No, wait! We need more information.'

          Kousien glared at his Scientific Principal for a moment, then acquiesced, 'Stand down, Helm. What more do we need Tyllus? There's a huge, uninterrupted source of energy compatible with Sleanshech's drive system and it is within easy reach.'

          'Kranpheb, upload the Runner's system data for the period during which you passed through the energy interface,' Tyllus held his ground against Kousien, despite his aggressive stance.

          'Yes, Sir.' Kranpheb had regained himself.

          'Can't we do all this when we get there?' asked the Commander, testily.

          'Maybe, but let's see what we get back from Kranpheb shall we?' At that moment the data surged into the Sleanshech's computer. 'Ah. I was afraid of that.'

          'What now,' Kousien, stared at the tumbling figures.

          'The Runner's rapid passage through the interface was not a propulsive effect. It was repulsion.'

          'Repulsion? I don't understand.'

          'If we took the Sleanshech through an energy interface with those characteristics then the power surge would be magnified a thousand-fold. The data shows that the Runner was close to hull breach. The Sleanshech would almost certainly be destroyed by any attempt at engaging an energy field with those behavioural patterns. Basically, we can't just go and scoop up a chamber full.'

          'Damn! So what are you saying? That we're stuck here after all?'

          'Maybe not. Kranpheb, can you turn the Runner through 180 degrees and face the planet's surface, please?'

          'Yes, Sir.' He deftly swung about. 'I am in position.'

          'Good. What can you see on the scanner?'

          'What good is all this?' said Kousien, walking away from the console again. 'The energy field is behind him, this is a waste of time.'

          'Energy must have a source, Sir,' shouted Tyllus. His outburst had the desired effect, as the Commander returned to his previous position. There was no love lost between Kousien and Tyllus, but he was the Sleanshech's Scientific Principal and Kousien was forced to rely on his opinion.

          'There are faint energy signatures across the entire surface of the planet. If I adjust the scanner slightly...' Kranpheb increased the sensitivity level, '...yes, they are most heavily concentrated on the landmasses, where alien population density is at its greatest.'

          'There's our source,' said Tyllus, triumphantly. 'Right, let's run some more tests. I want surface sweeps, detailed signature analysis, high resolution imaging, magnified overlays, as well as some cultural and language appraisal. Once you've done that, bring the Runner back carefully Kranpheb, we will need to upgrade the hull integrity.'

          As they gathered more information it seemed to become evermore complicated. At first they thought they were looking at hundreds of thousands of tiny generators to power the Human's needs, but as time went by they realised that the energy signatures appeared quite suddenly and randomly - in what they termed a Bloom - and only lasted for a short time before rapidly vanishing. When they concentrated on a single Bloom event they made another extraordinary discovery. When the Bloom vanished, millions of energy particles rose up from that point, through the Earth's atmosphere and on towards the spherical energy field. The holoarray allowed them to observe the path of the phenomena, resembling clouds of sparkling spores being drawn towards the field and, even more frequently, larger glittering helical bundles escaped the field and headed back down to the Earth again. Attempts to intercept the spores on their way up, or the coils on their way down, were equally unsuccessful. Kranpheb returned the Runner to the Sleanshech, allowing the field to propel him towards the moon, rather than fighting to control his passage through it.

          For several cycles, Tyllus and his team worked on the data resources. Eventually they isolated the principles at work, but still didn't know if the energy field around the planet had been created by the rising spores, or if it had been formed at the same time as the crashing forces of coalescing rock had made the Earth. Either way, Tyllus drew a startling conclusion about the process which they had been observing, and set about building an LEP gathering device that might be capable of achieving their objective. He modelled it on an iconic figure that seemed to fit the rather primitive alien belief system. Tyllus and his colleagues chose a place on the planet's surface to make an attempt at appropriating a quantity of the particles and sent the device down in the strengthened Runner, along with Kranpheb and two of Kousien's cohorts.

          William Broom floated in the corner of his bedroom, staring in disbelief at the rigid form in the bed. His bed. His body. He absently considered the futility of folding his clothes so neatly, before retiring for the night. He wondered how long his body would remain undiscovered, how far it would decay, whether the wolves would get amongst the flock, how solitude had seemed a luxury in life but, in death, how that loneliness was now steeped in despair. In the moonlight, he studied every wrinkle on his old face, the shape of his nose, his grey straggly hair, the trace of a smile on his lips; so unlike a mirror, this disorienting perspective. Gratitude at a the peace of his passing was replaced by a flood of questions. In all those days and nights he'd had more than enough time to consider his mortality, but had never truly embraced a formal religion.

          'So, what next?' he said out loud, and felt slightly foolish.

          A knock was followed by a slowly turning handle and a faint creak, as the door to his bedroom gradually swung in towards him.

          'Who is it?' William asked, looking down to find himself fully clothed, but several inches off the ground. He hadn't been expecting anyone, and no-one had a key to the cottage.

          'It is time.' Came a resonant, male voice.

          William watched in horror as a black-cloaked figure stepped into the room, hood drawn down over his face. 'It cannot be!' He backed away to the foot of his, still occupied, bed. 'You're just a fantasy, folklore, the stuff of legend. This is not reality, I'm asleep, dreaming, a nightmare, yes that's it...'

          'I am sorry, but this is a sleep from which you cannot wake. This is no dream and I am real.'

          'My God! All these years, this is not as I imagined it would be.'

          'This is your time. You can do no more here.'

          William glanced down at his corporeal form and then held his right hand up to his face. 'Am I a ghost?' he asked, making out the form of the window through the increasing transparency of his palm,

          'You are all that remains of who you were and can no longer be. Your hour has come, and it is time. You will come with me.'

          'Yes, I understand,' said William Broom, as he felt his world slipping away around him.

          The cloak shifted and the moonlight glinted off a metallic, skeletal hand, as it slid out and reached towards the rapidly fading apparition, 'Come.'

          What remained of Broom drifted round to face Death. Acceptance led to dissolution as millions of tiny spore-like energy particles spread out from where he'd been standing. Just as they began to rise towards the ceiling, Death threw back his hood, revealing a silver skull. The LEP gathering mechanoid stepped forward, and the particles were sucked deep into the sockets of its orbits, down into the holding chamber behind its breastplate.

          'I have succeeded,' it said, apparently to no-one.

          'Excellent,' came Kranpheb's voice into Death's receiver. 'Return to the Runner immediately.'

          'I am on my way.' The cloaked figure pulled the hood back over its head and swiftly marched out of the bedroom, down the short hallway, through the front door and out into the night.

          'Sit here,' Tyllus indicated a heavy chair in front of the Sleanshech's fuel chamber. He connected a thickly plated LEP transfer conduit to the back of the mechanoid's torso and instructed everyone to leave the area.

          'Okay, let's go for a transfer.' The observation room was crowded with expectant faces as Tyllus initiated the process. It went without a hitch and a loud cheer went up as the chamber level indicators displayed the first content increase since the sabotage. 'It works!' Tyllus was delighted.

          'Send it back down as soon as possible,' ordered Commander Kousien. 'I want it operational around the clock. Try to identify areas where we might be able to pick up several loads on one trip. Keep me appraised.'

          'Yes, Kousien,' Tyllus replied, as the Commander swept out of the room. 'We can try to isolate areas rich in potential,' he said to his team,' but we have to remain under cover. We must check that the Runner's distortion field is fully functional, carefully appraise our landing site selection, and ensure that the LEP gathering mechanoid's route is undetectable. If we're discovered we could lose our only chance at refuelling.' He looked down at Death. 'Unhook it and look for the next most convenient Bloom site.'

          Several megacycles passed and it was a painstaking task. The fuel chamber was barely half full when the Commander burst into the chamber room, and into what had become another routine transfer session.

          'Tyllus, this is entirely unsatisfactory, we must speed up the process,' he blustered.

          'It cannot be made to go any faster, we have learnt a great deal, but any other method will lay us open to exposure and failure.'

          'Listen you fool! We shall be locked into an eternal quest for these collisions of uncertainty. The crew are restless, we are well beyond our original mission's parameters and we cannot send any messages home to Galgisae, for fear of giving away our whereabouts. We must load the game in our favour.' He hit the console with his fist. 'There is only one solution.'

          'What is that?' Tyllus enquired, with guarded sarcasm.

          'We accelerate the process on Earth.'

          'What do you mean? I'm tired of explaining the problems to you...'

          'Shut up you imbecile,' Kousien interrupted. 'The particles are released after each alien's death, yes?'

          'Yes,' said Tyllus, despairingly.

          'You are still gambling that you've landed near a potentially fruitful spot, and some of the landing sites have drawn a blank, have they not?'

          'There is an element of chance, yes,' Tyllus finished disconnecting the transfer conduit from the mechanoid and closed its rear panel.

          'Could you identify small numbers of living Humans in areas of low strategic risk?'

          'Of course, but I don't see what...'

          'Get down there and kill them!' Kousien bellowed.

          'What? We've already hastened the process by sending the LEP gathering mechanoid out to use its own in-built, enhanced scanner. It has been spotted by non-targets, doubtlessly compounding their primitive fears. This could have disastrous consequences on their cultural development.'

          'I don't care about that. Get down there and take them out.'

          'You don't understand the principles involved!'

          'You heard me. Adapt this thing of yours to simply kill one of them, suck up the particles, then go and find another. Accelerate the process!'

          'I will not. I created this mechanoid as an interception device only. I am a scientist, not a murderer.' Tyllus had gone a deep yellow with fury.

          'Then I will deal with it myself. You,' Kousien pointed at one of Tyllus's team and then at Death, 'I want this thing reprogrammed immediately. Do you hear me?'

          'With the greatest of respect, Sir. I put my trust in Tyllus. I am sure that we will be able to fill the fuel chamber in time,' replied Pweifus, bravely.

          'I'm in command on this ship, you'll do as I say...'

          'No they will not,' shouted Tyllus.

          'Right,' Kousien smashed his fist into the side of the Scientific Principal's head, genetic training guiding the blow to the most vulnerable area of his cranial endoshell. Pweifus leapt forward to defend his old friend, but was intercepted by one of Kousein's security guards.

          Both Kousien and his cohorts were Combat-Class, bred over hundred's of years for aggression and tactical prowess. Tyllus and his team were Sci-Class, similarly bred but, in their case, for searching intelligence, not for fighting. The struggle that broke out between the two sides was, consequently, short-lived and brutal. Pweifus fell hard against the angled edge of the fuel chamber containment banding and lay on the cold metal deck, yellow fluid pouring from the fatal crack in his head. As the fighting came to a close, no-one had noticed Death stand up, cross over to where Pweifus had died, and hold out the silvery bones of his hand towards an apparition that only he could see. Unbeknownst to the ship's crew, their hazard suits had been mere filters for the super-charged batteries of their lifeforce.

          Kousien had had his way and the Sci-Class team were forced into reprogramming the mechanoid.

          Skulking in the inky night, Death was back on the planet surface, his neuronic brain struggling with Kousien's new commands and the subroutine hidden in his fail-safe circuitry. The Sci-Class team had been true to Tyllus and had written a tutelar over-ride, woven into the new command protocols, invisible to Combat-Class inspection. It was these restrictions placed on his activities that were causing Death to approach mechanoidal apoplexy. On the one hand, Kousien's basic program was to isolate and kill a human, gather the resultant LEP's and proceed to the next victim. Whereas the Sci-Class subroutine was designed to prevent Death from bringing about any unnecessary harm or suffering to the indigenous species.

          Death was distracted from his turmoil as as the sound of squelching mud heralded the approach of a wooden cart.

          'Bring out your dead,' called the man leading the horse.

          Death watched in fascination as the rain-soaked labourers loaded the shroud-wrapped corpses onto the cart and continued on their gruesome procession, towards the burial pits. He waited until they had passed and slipped from the cover of the dank alleyway in which he had concealed himself. Sliding quickly through the back streets he soon made out the familiar glow of LEP Blooms from within one of the rickety wooden buildings. The door was locked, but his fingers were deft and well-equipped, and he stepped inside. To the human eye the interior was dimly lit, but to him it was ablaze. The ghosts of residual signatures hung like sentinels over the profusion of dead bodies. Those few that clung to life were delirious, ulcerated and vomiting profusely, but still managed to scream in terror as they saw the hood fall back and the shining, grinning skull reflect the sputtering candlelight. Death's current mission was soon completed.

          As he left the building the pressure receptors on the upper surface of his skeletal foot were activated. A flee-ridden rat scurried across his path. Death reached down, grabbed the squealing creature and sealed it into a thick pocket in his cloak.

          Four days later the fuel chamber was filled to capacity and the Sleanshech's engines were finally powering up. Tyllus and his Sci-Class colleagues had been placed in SAC's (Suspended Animation Capsules), as soon as the mechanoid's reprogramming had been satisfactorily completed. Kousien had had no intention of giving them any opportunity to disrupt his plans. He'd intended to revive them as soon as they reached their home planet of Galgisae, and have them court-marshalled for their disobedience.

          As the Helmsman started to take the ship out of the moon's orbit he watched the gasping form of an Earth rodent, as the last of the ship's breathable air was vented into space. To ensure docking compliance on arrival at Galgisae, it was essential that every trace of the Pasteurella pestis bacteria was removed. All ship's cabins, decks and compartments were flooded with a level of antimicrobial aerosol that would have been fatally toxic to the crew of the Sleanshech - were they still alive.

          Death had not, directly, brought about any unnecessary harm or suffering to the indigenous species of the Earth, and yet had managed to act on Kousien's command protocols.

          His creators were safely in their SAC's, and the rest of the crew's LEP's filled the fuel chamber. Death would be congratulated on bringing the Sleanshech and her survivors back to Galgisae. The medical records would show that it was the Earth plague that had killed the others and that it was as a direct consequence of Kousien's militaristic attitude that the contamination had occurred.

          A bony finger hovered over the launch button as the Helmsman paused to take a final look at the Earth.

          There was no rush.

          Death was immortal.

copyright 2005 DJ Burnham.

DJ Burnham has had a lifelong love of Science Fiction. Having recently retired from an exciting sideline in concert promotion for the likes of Roy and Nick Harper, he has found time to pen some stories of his own, many of which have appeared in webzines such as Silverthought, Bewildering Stories and Aphelion. With a full-length novel in the pipeline, he also writes poetry and creates original decoupage-style artwork. DJ Burnham lives in Brighton, England with his wife Sue and their cat. He is a Health Service worker by day and a dreamer by night.

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