T C Southwell writes fantasy and science-fiction books, e-books, and novels. Discover epic fantasy series by a South African author.
Lerryn regained consciousness in an explosion of pain. Drawing in a shuddering gasp, she gave vent to it in a piercing scream. White-hot agony seared through her leg and lanced deep into her bowels with gut-wrenching ferocity. She became aware of beings around her, but her eyes would not open, nor would her hands rise to her face to find out why. Her only form of free will was to scream, and this she did until her throat grew raw. The agony faded, and her shrieks died down to racking sobs. Again she became aware that someone stood close beside her. Her leg went numb, and she sagged with relief, finding that she lay on something hard.
Terror fluttered in her mind like a wild bird in a cage, and she struggled to remember what had happened. She was Lerryn Arche, space explorer, assigned a class 'B' exploration craft and sent out into the unknown. After months of hyper-sleep, she had woken in her tiny ship to gaze out at the glory of stars.
Her ship hung in the midst of an immense nebula comprising myriad stars of every size and colour. Never had she seen so many, the blackness of space sparkled with them, like diamonds scattered on black velvet. The ship obeyed its inbuilt instructions, and headed towards the fourth planet of a giant star. Owing to the size of its sun, the planet had a distant orbit, but was comparable in environment to Earth. Her excitement grew as she approached the alien world, the orange-grey land swelling in the screens. The faint beeping of an alarm startled her, and her fingers flew over the consoles as she attempted to correct the error in her flight path. An insistent drone joined the warning beep, and banks of red lights started to flash. A more urgent whine entered the fray, then a loud hooting, accompanied by more red lights.
Frantically she tried to fix the problem, diverting fuel to the boosters and firing retro rockets to rectify her rapidly decaying orbit. The alarms continued to increase in tempo and urgency, joined by the harsh braying of a klaxon that chewed on her frayed nerves. Her ship had developed a malfunction; a thruster was jammed on, and nothing she could do would avert the coming disaster. She silenced the alarms and stared at the planet swelling in the screens. Her only hope was to land in water, which might cushion the impact, otherwise she was doomed. The last thing that she had done before resigning herself to her fate was to activate the distress beacon. She remembered plummeting through the atmosphere, tongues of fire licking at her ship, until the heat had overwhelmed her.
Now she lay on something hard, immobilised. From the acoustics of her screams, she knew that she was in a room. Had she been rescued already? Had there been another explorer so close that they had been able to reach her before she had regained consciousness? If so, why did they keep silent? Why had they not reassured her when she had woken in confused agony? Sleepiness stole over her, drowning her questions in a rising tide of peace.
When Lerryn woke again, she could move. Her leg ached with dull venom, but her hands were free, and her eyes popped open. Walls of a pale baby blue surrounded her, meeting at odd angles, filled with convex and concave curves. As if designed by a deranged architect, the room disorientated her with its many facets, some surfaces shiny, others matt, no two the same, either in texture of disposition.
Lerryn sat up, groaning as bruises began to ache. She was still dressed in her tattered uniform. Scabbed cuts and abrasions peeped from the rents, and ugly bruises mottled her skin. Her right leg was encased in a weird substance, a warm, pulsating sheath that held it rigid. The pulsations performed a strange massage, which was why her leg ached. Her head pounded too, and she raised a hand to finger the lump on her temple. Where the hell was she? Was this a colony hospital, complete with odd cures?
Examining the thing on her leg, she came to the uneasy conclusion that it was alive; a living cast. Revolted, she left it alone, studying her surroundings again. The thing on which she lay was also warm, a flat expanse of grey-brown matter, supported by spindly legs. It too appeared to be alive, and her unease grew. Apart from the cast and table, the room was barren.
Rousing her cowering courage, she yelled, “Hey! Anybody there?”
Lerryn swung her legs over the side of the table. Dizziness made her pause, and when the lights cleared from her eyes, she found a weird creature before her. It pulsated with the same baby blue of the walls, a large ovoid that hovered about half a metre above the floor. Four tentacle-like appendages sprouted from its top, each tipped by three-fingered hands. Two dinner plate-sized eyes of deep gold regarded her, slit-pupilled and mobile. Below them, what might have been a tiny mouth was pursed shut. Lerryn opened her mouth to scream, and then blackness swept over her.
When she woke again, she sat up and scanned the room for camouflaged aliens, but found none. Reassured that she was alone, she pondered her situation. The planet on which she had crashed was inhabited by baby blue blobs! It seemed that they had rescued her, splinted her broken leg, and now kept her in this room. What did they plan to do with her? Experiments? Anatomical and behavioural study, then dissection? She shuddered. Having no idea how long she had been out, she was not surprised to find that she was thirsty.
More questions battered her reeling mind. Did these aliens have water? Did they have food that she could eat? Had they saved her from the crash only for her to die of thirst and starvation? She realised that she was no longer alone. The baby blue blob was back, hovering a couple of metres away, its eyes fixed on her. Controlling a powerful urge to scream and run, she studied it, noticing new details. Faint lights glowed under its skin, forming pulsating patterns. Was it trying to communicate?
Biting her cheek to bring saliva into her parched mouth, Lerryn said, “I don't know what you are, but I hope you're friendly.”
The alien's skin patterns brightened, then faded. Its tiny mouth pursed tighter, and its hind tentacles came into sight as they passed a grey-green object to the front appendages. Lerryn watched with deep suspicion as one tentacle extended the grey-green thing towards her. As it drew nearer, she shrank back, and it stopped. The skin lights flashed again, a swirling pattern of pink. Lerryn forced herself to examine the thing that it held out, a featureless sphere about the size of a coconut. The alien remained immobile, and she got the impression that it was trying not to alarm her. Pale pink patterns flashed across its skin again, and the tentacle moved a little closer, clearly offering her the sphere.
Lerryn reached out and touched it, finding it warm and dry. Food? Her stomach growled at the thought. Gathering her courage, she took the sphere. The alien withdrew its tentacle and moved away, watching her. She turned the orb over; examining it, then squeezed it experimentally. A jet of liquid squirted past her face, narrowly missing her cheek, and she hurled it across the room in alarm. It bounced off the wall and rolled along the floor, trailing clear fluid. The alien's eyes followed the object, and its skin flashed dark green patterns. It moved to pick up the sphere, offering it to her again.
Lerryn studied the alien, reminded of a man trying to tame a wild animal, offering it food and patiently waiting for the frightened creature to realise that he meant it no harm. She took the sphere and squeezed it again, collecting the clear fluid in her palm. It had no smell, and looked like water, which was confirmed by its taste. When she had slaked her thirst, the alien flashed warm pink lights, by way of congratulations, she assumed, and vanished.
Lerryn found that the grey-green sphere supplied water endlessly, and she was not surprised when, a few hours later, the baby blue blob reappeared, this time holding a sausage-shaped blue thing. Lerryn eyed its new gift. Was this food? Had her saviours found something that she could eat? The alien held out the object, and Lerryn took it. These aliens seemed to mean her no harm, and the water had been untainted, so why not the food?
Lerryn squeezed the sausage-shaped object, and brown paste oozed from one end. It smelt like boiled cabbage, and tasted edible, even pleasant. It seemed that she had no choice but to trust this alien, for if she did not eat, she would starve. She ate the paste, and the alien flashed its warm pink satisfaction and vanished.
There was no way to measure time; the room never darkened, and she slept when she was tired. Boredom was her greatest problem, for although the alien visited her often, hovering a couple of metres away and sometimes flashing warm pink signals at her, she had no way of communicating with it. She tried talking, but the alien did not appear to hear her. As time passed, it ventured closer, gazing at her in obvious fascination.
Lerryn dozed and dreamt, her mind providing a measure of entertainment as she languished in her prison. Often she recalled a time on Earth, when she had found a bird whose wing had been broken by sadistic boys armed with catapults. She had taken it home and splinted its wing, and it had bitten her viciously, shrieking its terror and pain. Lerryn had kept it in a little cage, coaxed it to eat, and kept it dark and quiet while its wing had healed. After a month, she had borne its bites and removed the splints. In another week, the bird was fluttering in its cage, eager to be free.
One bright morning she had taken it outside, opened the cage, and set it free. Her elation had been mixed with sadness as she watched it vanish into the trees, hoping that it would survive. Although it had remained wild, and all the thanks that she had ever received were painful bites, she had felt good about helping it, and was glad that it could fly free once more.
Often she woke from this dream to find the baby blue blob watching her, its golden eyes glowing. All its attempts to communicate using its patterns had failed, Lerryn only knew that pink patterns were reassuring, or indicated happiness, green meant disappointment, and blue were questions. She spoke to it, but it never tried to vocalise a response, and if it understood her, she did not comprehend its patterns.
Her bruises faded, and the ache in her leg grew less as the living cast massaged it. She came to the conclusion that everything was alive, from the cast to the blue sausage that made food. Whether natural, or the products of genetic engineering, all the things were creatures. The diet was monotonous, but nourishing, and her strength returned. She began to exercise, hobbling around the room until her leg throbbed, but after a while it stopped aching, and she was sure that it was healed.
Soon after she had come to that conclusion, the baby blue blob appeared, and moved closer than ever before. Lerryn sat still, waiting to see what it was up to. With excruciating caution it crept nearer, obviously trying not to panic her. When within range, it stretched out a tentacle and touched the cast. The cast creature fell off, an empty husk that the alien gathered up and carried away. Lerryn rubbed her leg, relieved to be rid of the strange cast, which had served its purpose decidedly well. Soon she was walking easily around the room, and only boredom troubled her.
One day, she woke to find that her forehead was hot, her mouth dry, and her stomach surged unpleasantly into her throat. Crawling off the bed, she vomited in a corner. The floor absorbed it, as it did all her wastes, and she climbed back onto the bed, her limbs weak and shaky. The baby blue blob appeared, its skin lights flashing in dark blue patterns. She could only gaze at it dully, hoping that it would understand and be able to help her. After a while it vanished again, and she lay down, drifting into a troubled sleep.
Lerryn awakened to find that she was immobilised once more, unable to open her eyes. This time she fought off the panic and lay still, trying to relax. Odd sensations came from various parts of her body. Something seemed to be attached to her arm with some sort of sucker, another thing lay on her belly. The sickness still raged in her, and shivers racked her, yet sweat ran off her. Had she contracted some alien bug? Would the alien be able to cure her? Something brushed her forehead, and a tide of blackness swept over her.
When she woke again, she was free, and apart from a slight weakness, appeared to have been cured. The baby blue blob appeared and hovered close to her bed, its lights flashing warm pink, evidently pleased with her recovery. Lerryn smiled at it, which caused its lights to turn blue. She wished that she could talk to it, and thank it, perhaps even find out more about it. Their forms of communications were incompatible, however.
After several more sleep cycles, the baby blue blob returned, looking excited. At least, Lerryn guessed that it was excited, for its skin lights were bright yellow, a colour that it had not used before. It floated around the bed twice, and she watched it, no longer alarmed by it. Finally it stopped and produced a small white sphere, which it held out to her.
Taking the sphere, she studied it, turning it over and squeezing it. She was puzzled, for nothing came out except a puff of air, and she looked at the alien. It flashed pink, gesturing with a tentacle arm. Air? Was she supposed to breathe it? What was wrong with the air in the room? The alien flashed every colour in the rainbow, and she stared at this intense display in amazement. It was trying to tell her something, but she had no idea what. The alien repeated the rainbow sequence, a little slower this time.
Lerryn shook her head, and the alien's skin lights flashed dark green. She thought about the implications of its handing her something that produced air. Maybe the air in the room was getting bad? Was there a hostile atmosphere outside, which she could not breathe? She sniffed the air that the sphere produced, and the alien's eyes brightened, its skin lights flashing pink. It wanted her to breathe the air in the sphere. Wishing to please her friend and rescuer, she put the sphere to her mouth and squeezed it, breathing the air it produced. The alien's skin lights flashed brilliantly in satisfaction.
The pale blue room vanished, and Lerryn found herself standing in an alien landscape. An amazing panorama of orange plants and grey soil surrounded her. Without thinking, she gasped, and coughed, choking on the acrid atmosphere. Holding the white sphere to her mouth, she breathed its sweet air. The baby blue blob hovered beside her, its lights flashing in rainbow hues. Whatever the atmosphere of this planet was, it was definitely not breathable for humans.
The distant orange clad hills were hazed with purple, and grey rocks thrust through the vegetation like armoured sentinels. Overhead, fluffy yellow clouds drifted in a pale pink sky, and pools of a weird greenish liquid nestled among the plants. Lerryn was fascinated, but the alien seemed agitated, flashing its rainbow signals at her urgently. It darted away, then returned, so she followed it. After a few minutes, she became aware that her skin was itching, and looked at her arm. It was covered in red blotches.
Panic gripped her. Was this some sort of experiment? Did the alien want to see her reaction to its environment? She called to it, then recalled its apparent deafness, but it stopped and turned towards her. Lerryn indicated her reddening skin, and it flashed soothing pink. Disgruntled, she followed it onwards through the orange undergrowth. At last it stopped on the crest of a low hill and moved aside, and she joined it, almost forgetting to breathe at the sight that greeted her.
In the next valley, a huge swathe was burnt in the vegetation, and a deep groove was dug into the grey soil. Wilted orange plants lay browning along the furrow, and yellow seedlings sprouted from the ploughed soil. At the end of the destruction lay her ship, mangled and blackened, resting on its side. Its many fragile arrays of solar cells and antennae lay twisted in its wake. A hole had been cut into the command capsule, evidently to remove her from it. What really caught her eye, however, was the shiny white ship parked beside it.
From its markings, it was a class 'A' explorer, bigger and better equipped than hers had been, and capable of carrying three crew. Two people stood beside it, clad in atmosphere suits, their faces hidden by helmets. They were examining the wreckage of her ship, looking for her body. Excitement coursed through her, and she started towards them, then stopped, remembering her friend.
The baby blue blob watched her with big golden eyes. Its tiny, tightly pursed mouth opened, and it seemed to struggle for a moment. A breathy sound escaped it, a flute-like tone that rose and fell. Lerryn glanced at the people again, finding that they were heading back towards their craft. The alien fell silent, and she turned back to it as its skin lights flashed warm pink. Lerryn grinned at it, then turned and bolted for the ship, terrified that the people would leave without her.
They turned when she called out, and she ran towards them, waving one arm, the other holding the white sphere to her mouth. They hustled her aboard their ship, closing the air lock and stripping off their atmosphere suits. A man and a woman were revealed, a young explorer couple, as so many were. They bombarded her with questions, while the woman treated her skin rash with a cream. The alien white sphere lay abandoned on the table as she related her tale, and the young couple's eyes widened in wonder.
“This planet has been flagged a class 'X' completely uninhabitable,” the man told her. “Its atmosphere contains a noxious gas that would kill you in a few days, even if you didn't breathe it. If you did, it would kill you in a few minutes.”
Lerryn smiled. “So that's why they kept me in that room all the time.”
“They?” the woman asked.
“Well, it. I only saw one, I think.”
The woman looked concerned. “Did they run tests on you?”
“No, it looked after me. It put my leg in a cast, and cured me when I got sick. It brought me water, and food that I could eat, which, judging by the atmosphere of this planet, is not something that occurs naturally.”
The man shook his head. “Everything is tainted with the gas. It's all poison to us. I can't believe that they didn't run any tests on you, they must have been curious.”
Lerryn frowned. “Not that I was aware of. Perhaps they were more concerned for my welfare than plumbing my insides. Not every creature has to be as curious as humans are.”
The couple glanced at each other. “Well, they'll never get another chance. Humans won't be coming back to this world again.”
“That's a pity. These aliens could teach us a lot about simple kindness and concern for others.”
The man became brisk. “You'll have to make a complete report to the commander on Abram colony. Now I think we should get going.”
Lerryn strapped into the spare seat, and they left the strange, orange-grey world, returning to the peaceful blackness of space. It took four days to move far enough from the planet for a jump, and during that time the white sphere died. Before it was discarded, the man cut it open, finding a pale, baby blue interior formed from convex and concave curves, odd angles and different textures.
It was not until Lerryn had settled into her hyper-sleep casket that she thought again of the baby blue blob's parting flute-like sounds. As she mulled it over, she realised that the alien had been trying to speak, the words distorted and mangled by a creature whose form of communication was not verbal. Its words brought a sob of sadness when she thought of how quickly she had left it, not even saying thank you or goodbye. She hoped that it understood, as she had understood the bird, her thoughts of which the alien had evidently shared.
As she drifted into hyper-sleep, the fluting words came again, hauntingly. “Goodbye, bird with a broken wing.”
Copyright © 2011 T C Southwell