Twisty 3-minute story - Plan B
EXTRACTED FROM "THE FRACTUS PROJECT", ONE OF THE NEW-CLASSIC SCI-FI SERIES ON AMAZON
Regional Controller TD White instantly donned his ultra-impatient, blazing-mad not-you-again look as soon as the screen cleared, and he confirmed that it actually was me – the accursed nuisance from Negeet. Seeing that expression, I shut my mouth and waited – he was obviously going to speak, and carry on speaking – ranting – before I could squeeze a word in.
‘What is it this time, Gragg?’ Norg Almighty! Was he in a mood. ‘And it better be good. Or else. This better not be yet another digup on your property. So make it good, Gragg.’
This was going well. Everybody else I screenup is at least polite, and they wait until I’ve spoken before reacting; and they call me Mr Gragg, or Yeffy. But TD’s the Regional Controller, ultra-busy, super-impatient and super-self-important. As much as anything with him, it’s because he suspects his wife is on The Game and he’s permanently short of temper, and manner. She is – everybody knows that much for sure. But I didn’t mention that. I didn’t need to right now. Save it for a better occasion, I thought. Not that she’s been with me, I hasten to add – Marietta and I are perfectly happy as we are. So are the endless children who seem to cluster around me whenever I screenup long distance – they like to make snide comments to put me off my stride when I’m chatting live. They’re lovable like that.
‘It keeps you on your toes, Dad,’ they say. Who’d have’em, eh?
‘Er—’ was all I managed to get out before TD interrupted.
‘It is, isn’t it? You dug up yet another something else? How many times do you need telling?’
‘Er, yes. This one’s—’
‘—exactly like all the rest. Yes - like every other find you’ve had in those three norging fields. How many finds is it? Eighteen this year? Just in three plots. What’s this one? Bigger? Shinier, smoother, more sticky-outish like cannon? Not singing and dancing, is it? It was a battlefield, for Norg’s sake. You expect to find relics. It’s what you’re there for – clearing the rubble and trees and any wreckage you find. Get it in your thick norging head – I don’t want to know about every single scrap of Yerrick debris you find. Nobody wants to know. How many times do you need telling?’
‘But it could be important, TD—’
‘You tell him, dad.’
‘’Shuffle off, Yoli,’ I aimed a clout at my youngest… youngest of the walking ones, anyway. I don’t count the others.
‘Gragg! The battle in your area was two hundred years ago. There’s nothing of value. It was all ploughed-over and buried not long afterwards, in the Big Clearup.
‘Every time you screen me, it’s the same old, same old. Every time, you’re telling me, “This is the one”. No, it’s not. It’s yet one more different bit of some duo-century-old smash-up. And there’ll be more. And others after that. Do whatever you want with whatever it is. Break it up. Dig it out. Open a tourist stopover with integrated toilet. Sell the metal. Another pulverised screw-bolt off a lift unit, is it? Or an intact Class One Deadweight-Battlecruiser Pride of the Imperial Spacefleet?
‘I don’t want to know, Gragg. Nor does Regional Council and the Heritage Committee. There’s no interest. It’s yours. A bonus. All you have to do is clear this year’s allocation of land – three plots to make useable for agriculture. And you need to get that done or you’re out the exitway with no reserve.’
I signed off then. Actually, I signed off about five seconds after TD had cut the link.
‘That went well, Dad,’ my cluster congratulated me. Sarcasm is their big new word this week.
‘What you found this time, Dad?’ Ginita, my eldest manages to sound derisory even with what seems like an innocent question.
‘Another cannon that turns out to be an axle off a clearancing kosho?’ Maykti liked to practise her sneery lip.
I growled and they scattered and we all laughed. We had this understanding like that – They did the jokes and I screwed things up. And none of us told Marietta the truth about anything.
But the kids, of course, know everything. Think they do, anyway. And, mostly, I suppose, they do. It’s like Us versus the World, and we make a game of it.
‘Like I told TD the RC, I was deep-ploughing along the wide-strip that’s due to be the new roadway this morning – please stop doing that, Cygmund – and I hit something, so I’m out the cab and checking and it’s the usual white-satin metal that fetches a price with the yippies.’
‘But it’s big and smooth and still a bit shiny under the mud,’ They all chanted it – my usual litany to TD.
‘Ah, my sarky little fruit-of-my-loin,’ – they didn’t like to be reminded of their origins – ‘what I didn’t get round to telling him is that this is interior, not outer hull. Some unit from inside, and it’s not one of the reinforced heavy-metal gunnery things… or engine shielding.’
‘You always say that, Dad.’
‘I bet it’s another drive motor cowling.’
I had to shake my leg to clear them away.
‘Dad, you can’t spare the time to be fiddling about unearthing another bit of smashed-up rubble.’
‘You’ve got to finish the clearancing before the season’s ended.’ Full of helpful thoughts, they are – bright-eyed without the bushy tales
‘Drag it out, roll it down the hill to where the yippies’ll collect it for scrap.’
‘No, Dad, it’s not a tri-valent bomb. They didn’t have’em then, Dad.’ Jerimia, Number Two, was super-patient with me sometimes.
‘I got a feeling—’
‘You’ve always got a feeling.’
‘That’s what Mum says, too.’
‘Just finish the plot; it’s got to be clear by season’s end.’
‘Or tidy up the far plot.’
‘I can’t. I need to clear this strip first, or there’s no allocation for next year – TD RC made that clear enough. So this thing has to come out.’ There, that was decided. I smiled broadly round them all. The suspicion on their little faces! Who’d have untrusting kids, eh? Marietta’s influence, of course.
Then Jenny-Dee comes up with her bright idea – the one I’d sort of mentioned in passing while we were coming back from our latest find, ‘Why don’t you let us take a few days off our usual edu-work schedule, and we could do the finishing on far field while you—’
‘Couldn’t dream of it,’ I protested. ‘Marietta would never—’
‘Dad, dad, dad,’ they clamoured, ‘you must.’ Oh good. Seed planted nicely, Jenny-Dee and me. So that was decided upon. It’d take them off the infilling and colly-stud work they didn’t like.
‘Just don’t let your mother know; not yet, anyway. If she asks, you’re doing your routine stuff—’
‘And you’re investigating your latest two-hundred-year-old bomb.’
‘Just don’t tell y’ma things like that. I have to pick my moments for that kind of news.’ As if that was going to happen – it was written all over Yolanya and Mixita that they were going straight round to snitch on me. Ah well, I already beamed it to her, so she could put on her act. As long as TD Arsy doesn’t find out.
Getting late, but I might as well get the short-arm digger on site and in position for an early start on the morrow. Ginita came with me and we thought we might as well just have a little dig all the way round the thing, see if we could estimate the size of the job. Maybe get the sluicer up there, too and wash it down a bit.
So it was somewhat late and dark when we staggered back home – weary but happy, as that revolting little cartoon guy always says – and shared the info with all and sundry while we cursed the doyogs for eating our suppers.
‘Dad,’ I’d primed Ginita, ‘There really isn’t anything different about this one.’
‘I got a feeling,’ I said.
And the kids and Marietta said, ‘You’ve always got a feeling.’ And we were laughing about it and we found something warm in the oven – it looked like Charlie’s doyog from down the next plot. But what the heque? Tasted fine.
‘One day – you see,’ I told’em, and we all laughed again.
I was thinking about that new find up there on the wide strip. I just knew there was something about it when I first found it a couple of days ago. And looking at it this evening with Ginita, cleaning some of the mud off, and feeling it. It wasn’t exactly common knowledge that a Battleweight Cruiser had come down in this vicinity. That’s because not many people these days are in the least interested in the goings-on of two hundred years earlier, in the pre-settled days. But it’s definitely known among those who are interested in such things. It was a spaceship – never intended to land anywhere. But it had suffered a fatal hit, and lost its orbit. Almost certainly broke up on its way down. Dozens of big bits were scattered in this region, and hundreds of small ones.
This particular section didn’t look especially familiar, but which part of a two-hundred-year-old alien spaceship does? Even on the supposedly reasonably accurate plans and schematics of the interiors of such craft, I couldn’t spot anything similar. But what blueprints of enemy warships ever are?
Shiny and smooth, with knobs on. And several broken pipes coming from it, ‘Or going to it,’ Ginita reminded me. A bank of dials – all shattered; and cooling grids that were buckled and smashed flat. Several ports and weld points showed where other things had fitted to it.
From the portion that was exposed during the evening, we were thinking in terms of a pod of some kind, perhaps a communications unit… Or air con… Power? Heating? Weapons control?
‘With a full day’s digging out, it should be possible to identify it to some degree.’ Ginny sagely informed me.
‘It needs to be dug out and removed anyway, Dad. You can’t leave it here if the new roadway’s following this route.’ Yoli knows these things.
‘Yeh, yeh, I know.’ I was muttering and nodding to myself, not displeased that Yoli had decided to come along. She’s a bright girl.
‘Dad,’ she said. ‘Have you put your hand on it? Felt it?’
‘Mmm,’ I said. ‘I have. You can feel it, too?’
‘Dad? It’s still live, isn’t it? Something’s still ticking.’
‘I don’t know about ticking, Yoli. It’s like ticking without the ticking. Something is live – there’s power of some kind remaining in there. Are you staying to help? We’ll need to get on with it if we want to have it done today.’
We were finished mid-afto, and stood on the muddy rim of our new pit, gazing down at the gleaming metal unit we’d unearthed. ‘It’s a module, Dad.’
‘A podule. Too small to be a module.’
‘Nearly as big as the digger. More broken-up. Lot of smooth, unbuckled parts. Could it be a weapons unit? The sort that’s independent in case of attack? Like a sealed-in controller?’
‘He’ll be fed up if he’s still inside.’ We looked at it and felt at it, and considered it and left it there for the night. ‘I’ll go down to the yippies and fetch some sensors. You want to come with me?’
No, she didn’t. ‘Right. And we’ll test it tomorrow, hmm?’
‘There’s possibly something still live,’ we continued next morning. ‘Not alive – a long-period battery.’
‘Probably taking power from the ambient temperature.’
Ginita and Yolanya made their pronouncements, ‘It’s probably nothing.’
‘I’d best inform TD Arsy.’
‘No! Dad, no. You can’t. He told you—'
‘But this could be important. I have to inform him.’ And if he tells me to effoff the airwaves, then I’m free to do with it as I wish, aren’t I?
I was slightly surprised when the screen came live, but gratified. This would, of course, go well.
‘If this is about— It is, isn’t it? I recognise the look on your face, Gragg.’
‘Yes, but—' He was near livid.
‘You’re cut off, Gragg. Automatic. No more links here. I don’t want to know. The government doesn’t want to know. No-one does. Deal with it. Goodb—’ He cut himself off mid-word.
‘That went well, dad,’ Cygmund had come to join us. Cedrica by his side. Holding hands. Twins do that kind of thing, so they tell me.
‘Mm, didn’t it just.’ Yesss, it had been so predictable. ‘Now, my little ones, I have total permission to whatever I want with our little find. And Regional Control doesn’t want to know – you heard him. And that’s recorded.’ I treated them to a big smile – a slightly weak one, anyway. ‘We can do what we want with it. Arsy said so, didn’t he?’
‘We can anyway – we always do.’
‘I have a feeling about this one. We’ve not had anything with any vestige of power lingering in it before.’ I was quietly rather pleased; that slight feeling you’ve pulled something over on someone. ‘He’s got no comeback, whatever it is.’
‘Yeah, right, Dad.’
‘Oh, Faithless Ones,’ I chastised them. ‘Let’s get over there and get that thing open. I reckon the double edging we exposed is the jamb around an entrance… portal… something. We need to lift it and straighten it up. With all the lectro and mech gear we have parked around, it shouldn’t be too hard to open it up. And don’t tell your mother.’
‘Dad, you know she already knows. She always does.’
We soon had it lifted out of its hole, sitting there level and quite splendid, really. ‘Nobody’s ever found any of the wartime remains with integral power before. Not ours or the Yerricks.’
‘Dad, it’s so common.’
‘Now, it is, yes. Two centuries ago, this was pioneering stuff. So. Are we going to get it open and see what’s in there?
Under an hour, and it hissed. There was a quiet click, and the oval space proved it was a door, and it eased open a hand’s width.
‘Who wants the honour?’ I invited. Yes, I know, anyone else would have made their beloved progeny stand well back. But I’m not like that. Anything to be rid of them. No, not really, but I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be anything deadly in it, and they’d love being first in.
The twins did it. Very nifty on their feet, they are. Not too good at opening big heavy doors, though. Ginita had to help. ‘What is it, Dad?’
I peered in over their heads. It looked so much like they’re supposed to that I was surprised. A row of four incubators. Each with a body. Small. Cryogenic capsules. Exactly like they always depict them.
We squeezed into the podule.
‘I never realised they were so small, for all the bother they were.’ To see them in the flesh. ‘They’re a mite emaciated and pale, but that’s living flesh you’re looking at.’ First time I’d seen them for real, and I wasn’t at all sure they were still alive – could be dead as Mati Halott until we check them.
‘Come on, then, let’s have a proper look.’
We peered and poked and looked at intact dials. All the indications were that these Yerricks were indeed alive, even if very deeply cryo’d. ‘Norging good technology.’
‘What you going to do, Dad?’
‘Tell you later. Something to check… man to see.’
I’ve been selling all this stuff to the yippies for three years – all kinds of relics. Anything small and preferably recognisable. There’s some demand for it among our lot; and a good demand among the Yerricks themselves. It’s not smuggling, exactly, not these days with relations restarted and improving. In fact, I regard myself as a peacemaker between us – selling war mementoes to the former enemy. Funny, that. But that’s how it seems to work. Like they regard it as honourable ancient history – too far removed from surviving descendants on either side. Or maybe the return of heroic objects that are part of the soul of Yerrick.
The yippies make good go-betweens, and I have huge stores of relic-items. I even collect them from other plot-holders secretly. Memorabilia from the War Times – goes down well with the Yerricks.
‘These are ultimate relics, Dad, actual Yerricks.’ Yolanya had her head screwed-on the right way round; sees the value in everything. I taught them well.
‘Are you going to turn them off and let them die? Sell their bodies?’
‘Ahh, my children, I brought you up so well, didn’t I? Always go for the profit item, isn’t that my maxim? Sell the bodies? Let’s call that option Plan B, hmm?’
‘So, what’s Plan A, Dad?’
What an opportunity! They are the best publicity we could hope for – two-hundred-year-old living heroes being returned home with all honours. Living ones. I could even sell the cryo podule as their “home” for the past two centuries. Through the yippies, I can quietly sell their management rights to a Yerrick contact I know of. I heard he’s a publicity genius – he’s the rep for Meritrinya Artworks, hmm? You must know them? And Sirene Sounds? Yes, he runs their campaigns. So I’m sure he can alert and capture half the universe’s attention to living war heroes from two centuries back. Ha! That fool TD RC – no claim on them at all. They’re mine.
‘Think of the demand for memorabilia that will be created. And the resulting price boom,’ I told my offspring. ‘Just wait till it’s all in place and working before you tell your mother, hmm?’
‘Are we set, then? Wake them up? Bring them round?’
‘Bring them back to life?
With all the buttons and knobs set as we thought they should be, I finger-tipped the button with not so much as a hesitation or prayer to Moneta, my Cash-God. And we sat back and waited. And shuffled round. And made a drink. And tapped the dials. And sat back again and waited.
‘There’s definitely something happening, Dad,’ Maykti whispered, as though it would disturb them to hear outside sounds.
‘I think the one on this end is looking a bit healthier-coloured.’
‘Is indigo a healthy colour for them?’
We peered and whispered – that’s catching, this whispering thing – and re-checked all the dials. Didn’t adjust anything.
‘It looks like the system does them one at a time, Dad. It’s just this one so far.’
‘Okay, it’s definitely doing something. Think how long it takes you to wake up after one night’s kip, never mind seven thousand nights.’
‘It won’t be wanting breakfast will it, Dad?’
Norgs! I hadn’t thought of that. ‘Your mother’ll have something in,’ I assured them. ‘Hello. Look. It just moved. Twitched.’
This was norging exciting stuff. The first-ever alien revival – not that they looked all that dissimilar to us – funny colour, kid-sized, longer arms and the eye sockets looked to be bigger than ours; but their eyes were shut, so we couldn’t tell what they looked like.
‘Yes! Yes. Dad. It’s trying to sit up.’
Cygmund and Cedrica were in there as well, helping, chattering, overwhelming the poor thing with so much audio and visual stimulation. It probably had a bit of an olfactory overload, too, after all the digging we’d been doing.
‘Gently,’ I cautioned them. ‘It’s going to be bewildered. Give it time… see, it’s opening its eyes.’
Glitter-eyes as big and black as Size 9 bolt-holes. It was looking round, slowly. Realisation coming to it. I took a step forwards; the twins took one back.
‘We should have had a drink ready to offer it,’ Yolanya was saying.
‘I expect it wants to know the score first,’ I said.
‘What score? Does it follow the Redball Games, do you think?’
‘Why? Is it a Ghas Rovers fan?’
My kids do it on purpose. ‘The score,’ I told them, ‘just means everything that’s been happening; where they are; the passage of time; what’s going to happen to them.’
It was speaking, a bit falteringly at first, but we’d had a memocryst in Yerrick, so we had the basics for communicating with it. It sounded a bit gear-box crunchy, but, well… Its vocal cords are stiff, I thought, and you forget words, so it’ll improve, and I started to tell it what was happening, about their cryogenic podule being found virtually intact. It was looking round, like it was remembering… and realising.
I spoke more with it; and the kids did, too, saying it had a second chance at life. ‘You can all go home, back to Yerrick as heroes of the old wars.’
‘You’ll be famous celebrities,’ I worked on him. ‘Famous and rich.’ I didn’t mention the huge profit I was in line for. He – I think it was a “he” – didn’t need to have his mind cluttered with mundane things of that nature.
‘What?’ He said. ‘Go back to Yerrick? To the home planet?’ He looked so baffled, shaking his head. ‘No… No! Definitely not. We can’t go back there. We were convicts. The last thing we are is heroes…’
He was trying to get up, but I put a hand out to stop him, ‘You’re not strong enough yet to stand. Just rest and take it all in.’
‘No, no. We’re under a death sentence. On a suicide mission. Our leaders – and everyone else – hold grudges; debts and judgements last in perpetuity – they don’t lapse after a couple of centuries. They’d confirm the original sentences for us and carry them out as soon as we landed. We’d be dead in a week – dismembered.
‘We’re damn-well not going back to Yerrick. Never. No way.’ The look on his face! So determined – absolutely set firm.
Ginita leaned a bit closer, and muttered, ‘I think we might be back to Plan B, Dad.’
*** PLAN B ***