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Echoes of Apocalypse

by Brad Beard

How long we orbited that planet, I do not know. In the beginning we kept records, time tables, rotations, the usual. I can't say when ft all broke down. I do remember the first anomaly. It was something we should never have received. It was something our instruments should have filtered out as random noise. The instruments did not.

The radio wave meter lit up in a way It only will do when receiving a purposeful transmission. Weston called us all in at once. It took us less than a minute to reach his station but he already had the translation program running. We asked the obvious questions; Where was It from? Who sent ft? What language? What frequency? Weston pulled up the answers which the standard programs had already diagnosed. The transmission had come from the planet below.

Davis left us immediately and we knew why. None of his scans of the planet had detected any forms of life whatsoever. The planet was dead. We knew he would try again, and this time with determination. The computer could be heard making soft noises behind its console as ft worked at the transmission and we all wafted. The computer finally made its well known sound, one which let us know it had finished whatever task we had given it.

Weston ran the translation.

"Please land at the south port. Them am twenty thousand still down here. We need your help to get them. The other ships are full. Please respond."

There was no more to the translation. The flashing words on the screen read, Language Unknown. Weston explained what we already knew. The computer knew all the languages of Earth and its twenty seven colony planets. We listened to the message many times before Weston tried something I wish he hadn't. He requested the computer play the message in its original language. I think we all took in little gasps as it played. I could feel my stomach do a flip flop and the hair on the back of my neck stood up as my scalp tingled. The voice sounded inhuman. It was the impossible.

We stood about, meeting each others eyes and then turning away, until finally Davis called us on the intercom. We now hurried to his station and he met us with a grim look. He told us the location the transmission had come from and said no sign of life existed there. No signs of any kind of life, even bacterial could be found on the planet or in its hazy atmosphere. No life could be detected below its surface, right down to its magma center.

I gave the order. A team of six was to go down; half our crew. Davis should have volunteered but he didn't. Six others did however and the rest of us watched as the shuttle parted from our ship and began its decent. They broke through the atmosphere without problems, and at two kilometers above the surface, they began to circle the globe.

Weston received a transmission. Expecting the shuttle, he simply let ft pass. An alien voice spoke gruffly in syllables and guttural clicks and roughness which made our skin crawl. Weston, seeming slightly shaken, put the computer to work on it and called the shuttle.

Davis must have erred, they said. They approached the night side of the planet and ahead of them they saw lights. Davis frowned and shook his head no, telling me the shuttle must be wrong. The shuttle called back but the transmission skewed off the atmosphere; we only picked up scattered words, then nothing. "Lights are ... fire spreading toward the coast of... movement, and lots of..."

Davis frowned more deeply and I could tell from his glare he trusted his instruments more than the men he heard speaking. Weston then played the translation.

"You are on an unauthorized flight path. Respond. You are in danger of intersecting magnetic corridor at your altitude. Respond. Aircraft respond or we will open fire. Respond."

When the message ended, Davis ran for his station and I followed. Davis reached his instruments and his hands nearly blurred as he set them scanning once more. There was no life, he demanded. No life. The six aboard the shuttle however showed up brighter than any scan I had seen. Davis clearly had his instruments on full power. Davis then began a scan of another type and he took in a breath. He pointed to a screen displaying red lines which seemed to run like curving currents. Magnetic energy residue, he explained. Echoes of magnetic fields which had at some earlier time been mechanically produced. Now more hazy images of their former power and harmless.

The import had not escaped me however. If the planet held no life now, it had indeed at one time in the past.

Davis met my gaze and I could see in him a rattling of his demeanor I had not before sensed.

We looked back to the main screen. The symbol for the shuttle no longer appeared. Davis hit the controls and searched furiously. It took only seconds to find a life form. A single life form. It read as crewman Parker and he stood on the surface of the planet.

At the same time, Weston called over the intercom. Parker had reported in. The shuttle had been struck by what they guessed to be a laser cannon blast. Parker had ejected at the last moment and reported the shuttle destroyed. No sign of the others.

Davis was certain. His instruments showed ft. The other five were dead.

We circled the planet for days, scanning. Parker stayed in communication. His suit would maintain him for another few days. I would be sure before sending our only other shuttle. Weston argued that whatever civilization had inhabited the planet had left a cannon running on automatic. Davis flatly agreed. No artificial energy of any kind still ran on the planets surface. Not so much as a battery one could fit in a wrist watch he had asserted.

During those days, we received two more transmissions from the alien voices. One warned of an approaching land based enemy and the other lamented the loss of place for which the computer could not translate the word. Davis grew more sullen as the communications came in. He disappeared to his station and worked endlessly, getting little sleep.

Then came the call from Parker on the planet's surface. A ground based exchange of weaponry had opened up near his position, he reported. It was moving his way. Davis scanned the area but I could tell he expected to find nothing, and he did. Only Parker showed up and as Davis zoomed in, we could see the point of light which represented Parker. It showed him on the move and at the push of a button, Parker's speed showed on the bottom corner of the screen. Parker ran in a full sprint.

Weston came on the intercom and as the channel opened, we could hear Parker's voice shouting from Weston's station. Parker cried out to us for rescue.

This time Davis volunteered without my giving an order. He and three others left in the remaining shuttle as Weston and I watched. Davis took the shuffle in at top speed, turning its skin a bright red and leaving a long trail behind him in the dusty atmosphere. Davis left his channel open and Weston and I listened. The first warning came as a gasp of surprise.

Lights visible to the eye, Davis reported to us. His tone held a flat note as though he felt his eyes less trustworthy than the instruments he had left behind. Apparent laser rifle fire fight on the peninsula below, he added.

Then on of the crew, a woman sitting behind Davis exclaimed that the planet was on fire.

Large scale detonations, Davis reported as if he merely watched a view screen. On our vessel, Weston and I looked with our naked eyes to the planet below and saw nothing but hazy atmosphere and the vague outline of land where ft met water. Davis reported once more. They had landed but Parker had disappeared from his screen aboard the shuttle. Weston and I pulled up the scanner at Weston's station and saw Davis spoke truly.

Davis reported he was coming back. He arrived a while later and as the shuttle docked, Weston and I gaped at the burns across one of its wings.

Our team studied the shuttle for days as we orbited. Davis made his report and retired to his station, a silent man. Though his and the other crewmen's reports varied slightly, all had reported seeing the ruins of walls and streets below.

We had all lived in space for some time and had lived through many harrowing ordeals but never had we known terror. Weston was the first to report hearing voices. The first, but not the last. A day after the shuttle had docked, Weston handed me a disc on which he reported waking to the sound of an alien voice in the corridor outside his room. Two other reports followed. Our female crew member had heard a breathing, odd and inhuman. Another had heard footsteps with an clicking quality and pace that had caused his nerves to jump.

I took the reports and read them. I made no comment but entered them into the ships logs. What day it was among all this I do not know, but as I stood alone in the viewing room watching the planet turn below me, I too thought I heard a sound. A rustling, something indescribable rubbing against itself. It came from behind me out of the corner of my eye I found myself watching a shadow upon the wall. Had I turned I do not know what I would have seen, I only know the silhouette had no human form. A head atop a slanting body with appendages I could not recognize. But then Weston's footsteps broke the silence and the shadow moved. As I turned, I saw only Weston coming toward me. He asked the question with his eyes, but I made no comment and filed my own report.

The next morning we found Everette dead in his bunk. His skin bore bruises and his eyes stared wide.

We remaining five held a meeting. Whatever had haunted the planet below now haunted us. Davis made the remark. We were being stalked by lifeless entities.

The nearest colony was two weeks away. We turned toward it and set course at full speed. Our coming to the hazy planet had turned out to be a mistake. Leaving it now proved another. As our course took us away from the planet at a speed that made the planet and its sun begin to diminish visibly, noises aboard our vessel became more numerous. I heard the eerie clicking footsteps outside my shower curtain and seemed to sense a presence with that odd sixth sense men have. Others heard things as well; voices, rustlings. Davis did what he could but no sign of any odd activity appeared on any onboard sensors.

Then Weston and I both heard an alien voice together. Our courage greater as a pair, we rushed forward. There in the corridor we found the dead body of our female crew member. The four of us flew onward toward the colony. Ship systems began to malfunction.

We found Davis dead at his post. A bullet hole from a weapon we did not possess marked his back.

Three days out from the colony, the alien voices became more frequent. We heard groups speaking together at distances down our corridors or through closed doors. Our food stores were broken into and destroyed. Two days out, Weston and I found our last companion dead, smothered by his own pillow.

I sent our ships logs ahead of us, putting the reports of all deaths into it as well as the location of hazy planet. Weston and I stayed side by side for the next two days. Finally the sun and then the planet came into view. Weston and I worked the controls from the viewing room as we watched ourselves come into orbit. Mutterings came from beyond the door at our backs.

Then to our dismay, our shuttle detached and headed for the colony.

Weston worked frantically and in the end, in desperation, we fired upon our shuttle, destroying it.

Communications came from the planet below. The ghostly nature of our enemy was ignored. The transmission stated the hostiles aboard our vessel would be eliminated.

Weston and I talked. No weapon could destroy that which could not be seen or felt.

The command center ordered us to land. Weston and I then imagined the outcome. Whatever was aboard our vessel could leave our ship with us.

Beyond our door, the voices grew more pronounced, alien guttural muttering. Movements brushed the door's other side and Weston and I looked to one another. Speaking of ft only once, we turned our ship toward the planet. Somehow knowing our intent, the scraping against the door increased. Weston and I put on our space walking sub and I hefted the large gun and aimed it at our view windows. I only had to fire once. The glass cracked, and then with a whoosh, it blew outwards, dragging everything out into space in an instant. Weston and I could not stay together but we could see each other as we drifted over the planet. The ship, now on a preprogrammed course cruised by us and then dipped steeply toward the planet, too steeply to safety enter the atmosphere. But that had been our intention. We looked on as It grew more distant and began to glow with a horrible red heat and shoot out a long trail of burning matter behind ft. Then the fuel tanks exploded. Showers of metal mined down through the atmosphere, glowing bright and then fading away until finally there was nothing left.

Weston and I talked once over our comm units and then I called down to the planet. Businessmen connected to our venture were enraged. The media was in a frenzy. The government called for an inquiry. But our immediate fate was explained to us by a dispassionate space dock operator. We would be free floating for fourteen more hours before rescue. Somehow, I did not care as much as I might have.

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Revised November 19, 2002
by David Kraybill
©2002 Beard-Kraybill Studios