From the author: Megan flees the Moon in her space capsule as terrifying aliens invade. But she must turn to confront them if she's to save not only her sister, but planet Earth as well. Originally published in the Defying Doomsday anthology of apocalypse fiction featuring disabled and chronically ill characters.
The moondust gets everywhere. It always did but there’s more stirred up tonight. The gunpowder stink of it is here, in my spacesuit, in my orbiting capsule, as much as I’ve tried to keep it out.
Below, Earth’s only satellite stretches grey and cratered, while in the distance the alien destroyers finish their job of smashing up the lunar colony. I’m lucky I escaped. Plumes of glittering rock scatter into the vacuum, alongside sparkling bits of twisted metal, cracked bottles, a golf club, a child’s shoe.
I should be fleeing with the giant Earth-Moon shuttle Tangerine Sky, Lucy’s ship, my sister’s ship, but I’m too slow for that. It brims with human passengers—miners, builders, tourists. It flees with all the little ships, all that escaped in time, all those with crews who can steer their craft so much better than me. But for once I’m content to be left behind, with the eternal camera behind my eyes. Left behind with a chance to make a difference protecting Lucy and those other ships now that I’m stranded here anyway. Lucy who cared for me, her older sister, when she was only a child herself.
Jennifer, tell me we can get between the Tangerine Sky and the alien vessel.
Perhaps we can, whispers the accessibility device in my head. I’m not sure why you want to, Megan, but our ship is fast enough.
I know what she’s thinking. When fighting the alien jellyships, speed and agility is everything. We learned this quickly. The aliens can hit big dumb rocks like the Earth and Moon but not a fighter jet. Yet dexterity is the one thing I lack. My brain was damaged at birth and my body does its own thing, independent of instruction. My speech is an unintelligible slur. I have cerebral palsy. Some call me spastic, though if they do they’re likely to get a kick in the groin. Oh, I’m sorry, must have been a leg spasm.
Jennifer, you have no sense of urgency. My AI is my friend but sometimes her timidity is frustrating. Give me a neural link to the guidance controls. And get the Tangerine Sky’s flight plan. Draft a tentative schedule and checklist for us.
Working, says Jennifer. I can feel her processing. There’s a faint warm buzz where she lives at the crown of my skull. She’s been here reading my fractured mind for a long time, since she was implanted when I was six years old. She spoke to me then and showed me how to say my first word: “Mamma.” I remember the tear that rolled down my mother’s cheek; she hugged me and told me how clever I was.
Mother died years ago. It’s just my sister left now, out there.
We’re ready, says Jennifer. Thankfully she doesn’t question my lack of piloting experience. Normally these lunar capsules will fly by themselves; their on-board computers programmed to orbit and de-orbit from lunar space. Usually my wayward limbs don’t have to touch the controls at all, but if you want to do anything more complex or untoward you have to manage it yourself. The arrays of buttons and displays in the glass cockpit make no sense. But maybe Jennifer knows it’s pointless to nag when I’ve set my sights on the marshmallow pie beyond the next crater.
She gives the first set of figures and I think the command to fire the attitude control thrusters, followed by a brief burn. The hydrazine monopropellant rocket gets us moving towards the alien vessel.
The spacecraft shakes and vibrates. Then it falls silent. Gradually, the aliens' curious craft grows larger.
Up close the ship reflects a kaleidoscope of colours. It’s translucent through my spacecraft’s spyhole window. There are stars and gemstones inside. The fact that it’s beautiful only makes it seem more alarming. Something that deadly shouldn’t look that attractive. It should be ugly, vulgar, with hideous slime-green monsters.
Do you have a plan, Megan? asks Jennifer.
To distract them, I say. To draw them away, and not get hit. Make sure you record it. If we pull this off, it’ll make one hell of a story.
That it will, she says, though Jennifer doesn’t really know. She could never understand why I’ve wanted to be a war reporter all my life. It’s not that the work of a desk-bound industrial hack is without value. For three years I’ve reported company profits and boardroom takeovers. Someone has to do it, but my war correspondent father was a hero. He died on Earth, killed by a landmine before I was born. It’s people like him who make a difference in the world.
I get Jennifer to bring us about in front of the aliens. We’re blocking their flight path towards the Tangerine Sky.
Come on you monsters. Look at me.
They must have seen us.
A small meteoroid barrels towards us on a collision course.
Megan, look out! I swear there’s blind panic in Jennifer’s ice-cold circuits.
End over end the space rock hurtles towards us. My stomach somersaults. I clench my fists. My nails cut my palms.
The aliens don’t need missiles; they just capture our local debris and fling it at us, as if we’re not worth the expense of real ammunition. Big stuff they throw at the Earth or Moon, small stuff at our spacecraft. The merest speck, if thrown fast enough, will punch a hole in my ship.
Damnit, roll us forty-five degrees, engine start, two second burn, I say.
One set of thrusters fires. The main engine powers us away, clear of the near-death experience. But what looks like a lump of iron pops from the gelatinous mass of the alien craft, closely followed by a stony planetoid.
So the aliens intend to give me no time to contemplate fresh manoeuvres.
Both missiles speed toward us. I swallow hard. I don’t intend to end my days as orbiting space junk.
Pitching, says Jennifer, as she does just that. We yaw too, at my command. I order more burns, the propulsion systems work overtime as another rock follows, part stone, part ice. Sweat trickles into my eyes.
But the alien craft is slowing. The translucent mass takes time to launch each attack, and the Tangerine Sky is getting away. The shuttle is a tiny grey pillbox in the distant black, and beyond it the blue-marble Earth shines, a swirling sapphire in the night.
Megan, fuel is running low. Jennifer’s statement draws my eyes to the displays, in search of the propulsion meter.
How low? I ask Jennifer.
Thirty seconds of main engine thrust remain.
Just thirty seconds. It’ll take minutes for the Tangerine Sky to reach maximum velocity and have a hope of escape. They’re not going to survive unless I do something radical.
The thrusters shoot us sideways. A small rock misses my capsule by inches.
Megan, we should leave.
Don’t even think about it, I tell her. Does Jennifer have inbuilt safety features? That would be too bad. Do we have reserve fuel on board?
Jennifer doesn’t reply. Jennifer always replies. Jennifer? If she’s having a system crash she’s picked one hell of a time. She can’t be having a meltdown, I can’t be that unlucky. Say something you mouldy hunk of silicon.
Xe ere, she says. Dimo giv.
A cold chill runs through me.
Dimond giv else die.
My muscles tense and spasm. That’s not Jennifer. It’s them, it must be. They’re not known for being chatty but it’s the only explanation; they’ve hacked into Jennifer.
My mouth is dry. What can I say to hostile ETs that have already caused so much fear and devastation? I feel my own precious diamond tight on its chain around my neck. Their harvesters have ravaged Earth, emptied every jeweller’s shop and bank vault without explanation. Maybe they use the jewels in industry, or as currency. Nobody knows. We only know that diamonds are what they are here for. We don’t know why Earthly diamonds. There are diamonds elsewhere in the universe. We don’t know what’s so special about ours.
If I could get answers to these questions, it would be the news story of my career. Besides, if they’re going to murder us all, I’d at least like to know why. Whatever their reasons, they’re ruthless plunderers. Rings and stones have been willingly surrendered by terrified populations, collected by governments and received by the aliens. Some called it appeasement. Protest groups marched and called the strangers Nazis. Some cities resisted and hid their diamonds … until the asteroid flattened Amsterdam.
The holders of memorial diamonds hide them too and mine is one of those. My diamond is my father. When he died, Mother took his ashes to a jeweller’s shop, which cooked them and pressurised them, extracting the carbon to form this sparkling gem. And since I inherited it, he’s always been with me.
So I can’t give it up. Using it to lure the aliens away is Lucy’s only hope. As well as being all I have left of him.
No. The diamond is mine, I tell them. Go to hell.
Their response is swift: another rock comes flying. I give the command to fire the thrusters, to take us out even further from the Tangerine Sky. I remember too late that Jennifer might not be alive to execute my order.
Forgive me, Megan. It’s Jennifer! I would hug her if she weren’t in my head. Perhaps her timing isn’t so bad after all.
Though I have an instinctive sense: Jennifer might be back but something is still awry in my head. I clutch the sides of my pilot’s chair, though I know that won’t save me.
Jennifer! No! I gasp as my plans unravel and Jennifer fires the wrong rocket.
The engines roar and we surge ahead towards my sister’s shuttle when we should be moving away.
Jennifer’s behaving with almost irrational human emotion. Whether she's trying to save herself, or me, or both of us together hardly matters. If she keeps this up we'll have no fuel left to perform docking manoeuvres with the shuttle even if we reach it.
I knew I should have been more careful of her programming. I might have guessed she’d do this. But she’s never disobeyed me before, not in two decades. Her betrayal hurts. I have no time for this. There’s only one thing I can do, something I’ve never done before: I put her into safe mode.
This effectively shuts her down. Her intelligence, her personality, all that makes her what she is. Goodnight, Jennifer, I say, though she’s already beyond hearing. Now I’m really alone out here, in the vacuum of space. The capsule shakes and vibrates as the thrusters fire; in front of me the burn button is lit up like a supernova--it has to be pressed to shut the propulsion system down. Shakily I extend my right arm. I bite my lip, accidentally too hard, and taste the iron of my blood.
My accuracy would be better if I were calmer but I can’t waste time generating dexterity strategies. Instead I go ahead and punch the glass cockpit controls, blindly. Pain sears through my knuckles but by some miracle I stop the burn.
The spacecraft falls silent; it drifts on through the nothingness.
But I know, even without looking at the displays, that the fuel tank must be almost empty; even if I could control my ship manually, I couldn’t correct its course for long.
Inertia carries treacherous Jennifer and me straight onwards towards the Tangerine Sky, with the alien monsters on our tail. It’s not Jennifer’s fault, though part of me curses her. Slowly, inevitably, the Tangerine Sky grows.
I can’t control my ship without Jennifer, but maybe I don’t need to. Perhaps there’s another way.
I twist my body around this way and that, so I can see behind me and to each side through my helmet faceplate. On the left-hand wall rests a SAFER unit, bolted to the metal. Its controls are substantial, designed for gloved and pressurised hands. I fancy even I could operate them.
I watch the Tangerine Sky through the capsule window. It looks so shiny and inviting, but that’s an illusion. It won’t reach Earth at all without my help.
I have no choice, I must venture out into the darkness. I swallow a Valium through my medication tube and try not to choke. I hate the blasted stuff but the situation demands it. The prescription is meant for emergencies, to calm me enough to control my shakes a little. And if this isn’t an emergency then my name is Neil Armstrong. I hope it doesn’t make me woozy. I need to be strong, not wobbly; strong like my father.
I check all systems on my suit: pressure, cooling and most important: the SAFER unit. Then slowly, clumsily, I unbuckle my seat belt and float free.
I try to relax. This isn’t going to be easy, even with the Valium.
When my bosses sent me to the Moon, I think they thought low gravity would be good for me, but what fools they were. Where the smallest uncontrolled movement or the lightest touch sends things flying through space, my body contrives to propel me or my stuff into infinity with each leg spasm.
I get my arms through the SAFER unit and strap it to my back.
I’m ready to depressurise and open the hatch.
My capsule’s too small to have an airlock so I need to hit more buttons to let the air out manually. I hold my breath and stab into the dark. One. Two. Three, the last one. Victory.
As I exhale I can hear the hiss of escaping air. Eventually I’m ready to open the door.
Clumsily, I seize the ratchet handle and push. Nothing happens. This ought to be the easy bit.
Cursing, I brace my legs against the pilot’s seat and put my shoulder to the hatch. I push and push but it won’t budge. I’m sweating now but it’s only a door, it has to open. I grab the screwdriver strapped to the leg of my suit and try to wedge it in the crack. It still won’t open. My hands wobble at the behest of their own personal puppet master. My mixed up brain won’t persuade them to fix the metal tool in place. If my sister were here, or my mother, or my father, we’d be out of here in seconds. I yell in frustration, incomprehensibly, and then, in fury, smash the door with the screwdriver. The whole ship vibrates but the door stays firmly shut while I swear at it like a demon.
After a while, I rest and take some deep breaths. I’m starting to relax.
I try once more and the screwdriver slips into place. I lean on it until it bends and now I worry it’ll snap before the wretched door moves. But then it pops open, swinging wide onto space and stars and I float into the sunlit emptiness.
My first EVA. It’s beautiful out here, just me and the stars. I wonder idly which one the aliens came from.
Grasping the door with both hands, I manoeuvre myself with some difficulty so my feet are flat on the outside of the capsule. Now the drugs have kicked in, my head is swimming, my eyes are blurry but my limbs are steady.
On a count of three, I lift my helmeted head to the blackness and push away from the spacecraft. Let it follow the Tangerine Sky without me in it.
Will my ploy work? I wonder. It’s the diamond they want after all, not my ship, not even me. I watch the shimmering alien mass as I recede into the nothingness. Then slowly, surely, the jellyship shifts and swings about slow as a lunar day. It drifts closer. If I felt like bait before, now I come with added sugar.
I don’t think I shall. Catch me if you can. I laugh at them, a hideous gurgling sound. What will get me first, the vacuum of space or the ghostly invaders? Neither, I hope.
Unfortunately, the invaders have plenty of speed. It’s only manoeuvrability they lack. Soon they’re a pale and shimmering horror through my visor. Then the missiles come. My muscles tighten--perhaps they’re playing cosmic billiards, with me as the eight ball. I wonder why they have so much trouble snaring small but moving targets. Maybe they’re as fragile as they look, maybe they dare not approach. We know they have remarkable deflection technology; they’ve used it to repel every missile and weapon we’ve aimed at them, yet maybe they’re not invulnerable.
Still, it seems too much to hope that I could just punch them between the eyes.
I have my hands clamped on the SAFER control box. At least I don’t have to manoeuvre the entire spacecraft this time, just myself in the vacuum. I try to relax, then move the joystick. My movement is as smooth as it ever is, and that’s smooth enough. The little nitrogen-jet thrusters fire and navigate me away from the alien vessel.
No. What is so special about Earth’s diamonds anyway? I don’t expect a reply, but I’m a journalist, I have a pathological need to investigate.
They surprise me.
Diamond perfect carbon structure reflection of god.
I stare at the alien vessel as shifting shadows move within. It almost sounds like the ETs worship the sparkly gems. Strange. Or maybe not, considering how we ourselves hoard them.
Humanity worships diamonds too, in a way, I tell the invaders. Perhaps we worship them too much.
No you unearth you lacerate perfect carbon structures.
Lacerate. There’s a word you don’t hear every day in relation to diamonds. But surely this is it, the answer to the great puzzle at the heart of the invasion. They’re trying to protect the diamonds from us, not merely harvest them. Because we cut them, and sometimes destroy them, as we destroy so much.
So the invaders are moral beings, not just killing machines.
Still. We do genuinely cherish them.
You do not you are nothing.
And here was me thinking I’d found a new friend. My jaw tightens, I’m achieving nothing. As if to prove my point, another rock comes tumbling. Cursing, I activate the SAFER unit and blast myself aside.
I have limited propellant in the SAFER unit too. Maybe I’ve miscalculated. Even if I go on until they inevitably catch me, it might not be enough. Maybe the alien ship will still catch my sister’s shuttle. After all, would they really bother coming after me if they doubted they could catch the larger ship? I know for a fact there are diamonds on board, and the aliens have some unknown means of sniffing them out. They are the evil scientists; I’m the mouse in a maze. And yet, even the tiniest mouse has pretty big teeth.
Another asteroid, a really big one this time, comes hurtling towards me. All thoughts fly from my head as I struggle to avoid it but at least the SAFER unit is holding up. My sweat-soaked hair is sticky against my forehead. I wonder if the suit cooling system is working as it should.
Listen. What if I told you the stone around my neck was once a human being? Maybe it’s time I tried a different tack, more than cat and mouse, now we’re communicating. Humans are made of carbon, the same stuff as diamonds. We don’t just destroy diamonds, we manufacture them too--sometimes from our mortal remains. If you kill us, you’ll be killing future diamonds and those who make them.
Silence. They’re probably not even listening anymore. Maybe they’re just waiting for me to run out of fuel or air. And even if they’re listening, when does faith consider reason? I’ve never been one for believing in deities. Jennifer took the place of all such imaginary friends when I was six. Although, right now a friendly god might have been useful to have around. The mirror on my wrist reflects the displays on my chest and those show all my supplies are running low: air, propellant, cooling water, all of it. I have a little drinking water left, though, so I take a sip, clenching my teeth on the plastic tube. A tepid dribble drips into my mouth, tasting of moondust.
And still they don’t respond. Though at least they haven’t thrown any more rocks.
The alien ship accelerates as I take a second swallow. It wobbles for a moment, goes extra blurry then hurtles away faster than I’ve ever seen. And it’s not going towards the shuttle, or Earth, or the Moon. It’s heading far out into deep space.
More of the jellyships appear from their stations about the Earth and pass before the Sun before vanishing into distant constellations.
Is that it? Have I done it, just like that? After terrorising humanity for five months, are they leaving without so much as a thanks for all the fish?
It seems hard to believe. Nothing has changed for me, I’m still floating here, hours from death.
But even if I’m doomed, the Earth will go on. And Lucy. I smile despite my predicament. Mother would have been pleased. Lucy was born through IVF when Mamma failed to accept the death of our father. People sometimes call me special but really they’ve got it all wrong, it’s my sister who is the special one. I close my eyes and remember how she cared for me when we were only kids, including that time she beat Sean Walker to a pulp in Grade Three for calling me a moron and putting beetles in my chicken tikka masala. Now at last I’ve returned the favour.
I think my air is failing. My thoughts are getting fuzzy and I’m turning sentimental. I could wake up Jennifer. Then I won’t die alone. But I dismiss that idea. No doubt she would be full of remorse. I’ll let her rest in peace; she’ll never know how much she disappointed me. I’ll just float here with my eyes shut and see what happens. Maybe I’ll just doze. I’m so sleepy.
I open my eyes with a gasp. I don’t see stars anymore, or Earth, or the Sun. I’m back in my capsule with the hatch shut and the cabin pressurised. My helmet is off too but that’s okay as there’s plenty of air in here.
I look through the window, and there’s the alien jellyship, hazy against the Milky Way. There’s the Tangerine Sky, too, whole and safe, within easy docking distance.
I stare at the jellyship. Did they come back to save me? They must have had a hasty conference and decided humans weren’t so bad after all.
I feel like the mass of a neutron star has been lifted from my back. I’m going to live, though I’m not sure why. Am I really that persuasive? A moment ago the aliens were acting like monstrous psychopaths, now they’re carrying out roadside rescues.
You please not lacerate diamonds.
I can arrange that. I promise. Perhaps it’s presumptive of me to promise on behalf of everyone but surely people aren’t so silly they’d refuse. It would mean the loss of an industry, but the survival of our species.
All humans keep yourselves safe.
Yes. We will. We certainly will.
We made error.
You easy to understand unlike others.
Well, that’s a laugh. Maybe I should go into the peace envoy business. And I laugh even more at the thought. It’s easy to communicate with them too, as scary as that is. Speaking with them is direct, immediate, like they have a hotline to my Wernicke's area. I don’t have to rely on Jennifer’s AI, which perhaps was never truly a part of me.
I ask them for a formal interview. An interview with an alien. Wouldn’t that be the scoop of the millennium? It would surely get me a raise. Several raises.
Perhaps, they reply.
With that they disappear into the blackness and I’m left to wonder what might come next.
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This story originally appeared in Defying Doomsday (Twelfth Planet Press).