by Mark English
Roaring on a mighty flame stack, the rocket ship Conquest descended to the surface of planet Alpha-1. Bulbous-bodied, tri-finned, and gleaming, the interstellar colony ship was breathtaking--which was part of the Big Idea.
Camera drones had arrived the week before, and taken up strategic positions around the planned landing site to stream the event in real time back to Earth. The retro rockets were largely for show, jetting out streams of fire accompanied by a symphony of sound to shock and awe--the actual deceleration being handled by anti-grav.
With Earth so over-populated and polluted, the Conquest was a bold initiative to show the peoples of Earth that there was a future amongst the stars. Alpha-1 was the first candidate for colonization--a stunning show here would assure votes and funds for continued exploration.
The ship landed, and with a quiet sigh the engines dropped to a lightly steaming mode, clicking as they cooled. Billions of people strained forward to get a better view of the rocket wreathed in mist standing proud on an alien world as the event was broadcast into their homes back on the Earth.
A hatch in the side cracked open, a long rectangle hinged at the base that slowly lowered, forming a ramp up into the body of the craft. A dramatic pause and then an entourage in full regalia descended solemnly: the leader of the mission, Colonel Planers, followed by a security team and Earth's most eminent scientists. Cameras zoomed in on the chiselled visage of the Colonel, his braided uniform communicating the gravity of the mission, whilst the Union Earth flag he carried emphasised the exploratory nature of their mission.
Arriving on the ground at the foot of the ramp the party organized themselves in a semi-circle with the Colonel at the focus. Back on Earth a billion breaths were held; what was the Colonel going to say?
He raised his dimpled chin. "As I gaze out across this world, holding the flag of Human Unity, I plant it as a symbol of our intelligence and progress in working together to reach out to the stars." He raised the flag in two brawny hands and with an artistic flourish plunged it into the ground at his feet.
A monstrous rolling voice thundered across the landing site, rocking the entourage. "Oww!"
They staggered, looking around for the source of the voice.
"Get that flag out of my head." The Colonel gasped and gave the flag a quick jerk, pulling it from the ground. He and the rest of the landing party cast their eyes over the soil, seeking out the source of the voice. All they could see was soil, and small plants--nothing untoward. Back on Earth billions of eyes scoured the virtual ground from their armchairs.
"Yes, I'm down here, and for the record your rocket really hurt--you burnt me."
The Colonel stared intently at the ground--this was not the stage debut he had expected. "Err, sorry? We can't see you, where are you?" Another thought strayed across his dazed mind. "You speak English?"
"I quite literally have a brain the size of a planet, and I have learned your language by reading your minds."
The entourage of human destiny looked at each other. The Colonel caught the eye of a security officer and made a hand signal: hostile.
The voice sighed resignedly, "I am not hostile. Look, all I want is to be left alone. I am happy in my orbit sunning myself, so please leave now."
"We would like to talk with you, w-w-we have so much to learn..." stammered the Colonel, thinking on his feet, though natural wonder and amazement coloured his voice.
The voice interrupted, "I don't want to talk with you, and I already know everything you know and then some. Go away."
The party became aware of a low-frequency rumble, felt rather than heard. "Is that you making that rumble, er, Sir Planet?" queried the Colonel.
"You would call it a catastrophic earthquake; I would call it a gentle shrug--if I had shoulders." The landing team started muttering in consternation. A few of the scientists backed up the ramp. "Consider this your one-minute warning."
With a lift of their collective skirts the entourage dashed with all their finery back up the ramp, which closed rapidly. Within thirty seconds the anti-grav kicked in and the rocket ship rose smoothly and silently to became a mere dot in the sky.
* * *
The planet's surface settled into the peace it knew before the rocket's arrival; insects chittered, leaves slapped in the breeze, and small, fat, pink worms popped out from the ground. They blinked their big single eyes up at the spot in the sky where the rocket had gone.
"Have they gone?" one said--its small mouth forming the newly-learned English words.
"Hm," replied another, a frown creasing the space above its eye that could have been called a forehead, "I can still feel their thoughts." It shaped the words carefully and clearly.
"Do you think they swallowed the whole 'telepathic planet' story we put in their heads?" queried another.
"Yup, they bought it, hook, line, and sinker. Certainly what I'm reading in their thoughts is absolute horror and abject failure," replied the second worm.
"Much better than your idea about telling the truth--did you really think they would quail before telepathic worms?" parried the first, his spoken words getting clearer and clearer with the practice.
"Hang on. Their thoughts have just scrambled into anger; something's up." It twisted its chubby body around, as if searching for something. Its one pale eye found what it was looking for, stared straight into one of the cameras, and knew it was speaking to billions of astonished humans. "Bugger, we've been rumbled."
About the Creators
Mark English is an ex-astrophysicist who became a space scientist working on the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn. However, computer science and high energy research followed, with a stint at the JET Fusion Torus. All this high-falutin' science hasn't dampened his love of fiction. It has, however, ruined his enjoyment of rainbows, colourful flames on romantic log fires, and rings around the moon. This story originally appeared at Every Day Fiction.
"Elias, Smith and Jones," Escape Pod, http://escapepod.org/2013/01/31/ep381-elias-smith-and-jones/
"Knock On," Stupendous Stories Showcase, http://stupefyingstoriesshowcase.com/?p=1101
"Reunion," Perihelion SF
"Carrying Shadows," Third Wednesday
and more at Every Day Fiction and Antipodean SF.
World's Shortest Creator Interview
If, due to some very poor logistics, you had to survive several days in some random tropical wilderness, what would you do to find food, and what species would your imaginary companion be?
My companion would be a plant-based lifeform that breathed air, ate rocks, and excreted bananas during daytime. At night it would settle into the local regolith, and sprout potatoes. With all food groups covered, and with a nod to 'The Martian,' we would wend our whistling way in wonder.
I'm really into Korean TV drama right now. Why don't you just talk about that for a bit?
No. Sorry - I don't know enough, however I have been getting into a Japanese crime show that features a maths/physics professor who solves murders. Now all I need to do is remember the name of the show and I can seek it out again!
About the Artists
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology. He does the Space Squid cover designs and other squid stuff.