Anomaly

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The First Empire collapsed shortly after the return of the starship mission to Anomaly. After two thousand years, a kinder, gentler civilization has emerged ... and a starship is back. -- (2,600 words, 5 chapters).

Submitted: March 23, 2019

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Submitted: March 23, 2019

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1: Adèle

Our survey ship spins down from configuration space, materialises in a cloud of evanescent photons, and settles into synchronous orbit around Anomaly. This is only our third flight, and everything is still new to us. I spare a thought for the intrepid explorers of the old Empire who first reached this super-remote system millennia ago, but only after years of boosted fusion flight, decades of cold sleep.

“Adèle, is the AI prepped up yet?” demands a typically-insistent Cateline.

So peremptory, so big and bouncy. So here to give us all a bit of get up and go.

“Patience.”

This was the last planet the Empire reached, shortly before the Fall. Records from the time are sketchy - we don’t understand the collapse at all but the coincidence sometimes gets people on edge. Recovery took us so long - two thousand years from a remnant population of nearly zero.

We were almost wiped out.

We have an advantage over their extraordinary powers in just one field: our quantum drive which makes distance immaterial. This planet - Anomaly - was at the very boundary of the Empire's domain, almost sixteen light years out. Really hard to get to.

But three hours ago we were all having coffee in the departure lounge, back on Earth.

The drive burrows beneath the metric structure of space-time. Down there at the Planck scale distance is just .. irrelevant. The theory was discovered a few years ago, they only recently got the engineering to work. We are the one and only survey mission .. and this is our third flight, the ‘farthest’ yet.

Our final crew member is Elicia, our petite team historian cum archaeologist. She’ll be investigating the previous expedition. We believe there will be ruins.

---

That's a remarkable planet beneath our ship, kind of what you’d like Earth to be. Some equatorial jungle but mostly semi-arid in the temperate zones - think southern France or Spain. Just the sort of place you’d have expected the Empire to have moved heaven and earth to colonise. But of course they vanished before they could get round to it.

As the scientist of the party, I’ll be staying on board to work with the systems. Which on cue come on line, the computer Alpha live on the net.

Adèle, we’re picking up a signal from a ground transponder. It’s very weak, no doubt the power source has decayed. The message is in Empire navy cypher. We don’t have decryption keys so it’ll be brute-forced. Invoking the quantum co-processor now.

We know about this protocol. Despite the awesome computational power we’re about to deploy I'm not expecting any immediate decrypt. We’ll just have to wait.

Cateline and Elicia are dressed to go. We don’t need spacesuits down there, it’s so warm my colleagues are in summer wear - though who Cateline is trying to impress I don't know. They’re under constant surveillance by the ship - any issues their personal transporters will whisk them up here no problem.

The reason we called this planet Anomaly? - Well, there are two reasons. First, despite the abundant vegetation, there is a strange ecological hole in the biosystem. No animals larger than insects and mice!

Secondly, there is a very large physical hole. It’s in the warm-temperate zone directly below our ship, near where the navy beacon is whispering its sad little coded signal. The depression is not natural and our best guess is that the Empire ship lofted a city-buster right onto the planetary surface.

The crater is quite spectacular and it’s one of the first things we’ll be looking at (the radiation has quite decayed away by now).

Why would they have done that? This place is full of fascinating puzzles

2: Cateline

The two of us translate to the surface, shimmering into existence in a sunlit glade. We're a kilometre from both the crater lip and the signal source. This will be our RV after we've walked around a bit, taking in the sights.

... I'm getting an update from Alpha. It's a vector code so the top-level meaning is in the principal components, the ones we get first …

Buzz, buzz, buzz. Adèle is like a fly in a bottle. Should have been a librarian. Sure, we need techs. Just not around me thanks very much.

And there's Elicia, head bowed in thought, tottering off towards the ruins.

It's glorious to be off the ship! I stretch .. expand .. absorb the landscape! I could do a little jig here, limber up. But instead I stride off towards the crater. Should be a great sight, like that meteor thing in Arizona I saw pictures of once.

... means we'll get the broad outline first, with the details later. Sorry folks …

There are bushes, flowers! The air smells so sweet. Fragrances wafting past on a gentle breeze. It reminds me of the Ardèche - same countryside.

No paths - no animals! - but easy walking. I’m taking in the sights, the sounds. It’s quiet except for the bee-things.  I’m heading for the crater edge, just a few hundred metres ahead.

---

Wait, this is interesting! It’s a conical hole, quite deep, three metres I'd say. It's like someone’s taken a very big ice-cream cone and pressed it hard into the ground.

Wow!

It’s about six metres across. The sloping dirt surface looks loose and crumbly.

Right, I’m at the edge here. It doesn’t go down to a pure point in the middle. Well naturally, soil would wash down. And at the bottom there seems to be something half-buried in the run-off, looks a bit gooey, like gelatine.

This all goes to the ship in real time so there’s no need to record anything special. Also, I don’t need anyone telling me to ‘be careful’ or demanding by-the-book observations. I’m going to explore. Let me just dig my heels in here at the top and take it steady.

3: Elicia

This place is so spooky. I’m on my way to the old base to see what’s there. It’s pleasant enough here but I feel like there are hidden eyes, you know? After all, what do we really know about this place - not much! I’ll be glad to be back on the ship.

I’ve studied the Empire for years. They consolidated on Earth then stretched out to other star systems as their ships improved. A paternalistic dictatorship. Aggressive monopolies fuelling their imperialism.

We've learned some lessons this time around.

And then suddenly it all collapsed. Everywhere. It seemed to be all over in a year or so. The interstellar colonies withered and died, abandoned. Our records are fragmentary in the extreme. There are records of a new social movement, almost a new religion which swept the Earth shortly after the last starship returned.

From here, actually.

The zealots of that new religion seemed to be in love with love. A frenzied desire to spread the message. That might not have mattered so much, but they seemed incapable of organisation. Wherever the new movement took over, collapse followed

A small surviving remnant of the Empire’s ferocious military, dug in deep under the mountains of North America, decided global extermination was the only answer. Those fascists unleashed Armageddon!

Humanity itself, along with all the traces of civilization, was almost completely obliterated. Their motivation might still be a complete mystery but we still live with the consequences of that reckless, final, genocidal act every single day.

Never again!

If there is anything intact here at the site, perhaps it will shed some further light on those distant and terrible atrocities.

---

OK, so I’m here. And, well, .. this is a classic Empire defence bunker, isn’t it? Half-pipe construction, reinforced concrete on heavy foundations. Five metres high at the centre curving down to the ground. The whole thing about 20 metres long with bulbous end-pieces. And there's the apron for the shuttle. Empty now of course.

The thing to remember is that the Empire was toxically militarised. With any new colony their first thought was to build this kind of site, hardened against even a close nuclear strike. Inside they'd place their command, control and communications protected by a dedicated squad. They’d build the research centre, and later the colony itself, at least a kilometre away.

The Empire was always nervous about threats - internal and external. Thank God we’ve evolved beyond that kind of paranoia. We don't even have a military.

Give peace a chance, hey?

So what happened here? It’s a mess, right? The walls in front of me are pockmarked with shell holes - and part of the end has been blown in. So that’s how the attackers got in. Then the nuke would have arrived from orbit and excavated that crater and you can see the effects here where the surface has been scorched. With the building breached no-one was going to survive that.

So what’s the real story? I’m thinking of that beacon, squatting in its hardened repository deep inside this derelict fortress somewhere. Perhaps the beacon will tell us, once we crack the code.

4: Cateline

So several things happened at once. I’m like scree-walking my way down into this hole when the surface becomes a lot less supportive - and gives way. The half-obscured goo at the bottom's trembling now .. the dirt slipping off it as I’m sliding down. The emerging, gelatinous lens is half my size!

I topple and fall right on to it, for a squishy landing.

---

Wow! I'm lying on my back at the bottom of a deep hole, looking up at the sky and a few wispy clouds - and the ship up there, though of course you can’t see it - and I’m feeling this jelly-mattress thing beginning to flow. Flow over my skin. It’s not unpleasant. It’s quite warm in fact and it’s just flowing up my legs and arms, under my clothes, even over my face though I’m not panicking.

I don't do that.

It’s warm like a bath and I lick my lips and it's sweet and I’m not at all worried as it covers my skin, my body,  flowing into me everywhere it can. I extend my tongue and taste my sticky fingers, lick at them .. hmm .. . I reach down and smear the goo over my body .. .

---

I don’t feel tempted to talk to anyone, it’s enough just to lie here and savour the feeling. So warm and good; drowsy contentment. Like a pleasant dream.

I feel remarkably well .. and revitalised. I get to my feet. A bit dizzy but it passes. The gelatine lump or whatever has quite vanished. The way cream vanishes into your skin. But so what, it feels good.

I leave the depression with no difficulty at all - I’m hot! - and begin to lope in the general direction of Elicia.

5: Adèle

So this is Adèle on the net, beaming down from orbit.

We’re nearly finished with the decode, folks. But you should take care down there. It’s just what you suspected, Elicia, there's been violence. It's the final transcript of traffic between the Empire ship and the ground commander. He says a mob has advanced on the bunker. 

"... We're surrounded. There are researchers massed behind our security team - which has defected to the mob! They've trained their weapons on us. They're demanding we surrender and come out. We've checked: they have heavy anti-armour ordnance. It's possible they could force entry. We're in contact with the ship. Maintaining a stand-off for the time being ..."

It’s still coming through. More in a few minutes. Puzzling isn’t it. This is very strange behaviour. What could possibly turn a bunch of sober scientists - and a rough, tough and highly professional security squad ...?

But Elicia stops listening because Cateline has emerged into view, approaching and pulling off her top. Cateline with a big gloopy smile on her face which is odd, since she normally has no time for either of her crew-mates.

“Elicia,” Cateline says as she pulls up, and even her tone is strange, thinks Elicia, because it’s earthy, breathy .. even erotic. Her lips are unusually red, cheeks blushing, pupils dilated. It’s really puzzling and unsettling.

And Cateline is so big, she thinks, and I am so small.

“Come here, honey, there’s something I want to share with you .. yes I really do,” she breathes.

And because Elicia is polite and rational and small, she ignores that profound uneasiness which is fuelling growing panic beneath her quiet, controlled exterior.

She permits Cateline to take her in her arms .. and to kiss her with growing intensity.

Soft gel transfers to her lips.

Cateline presses hard against the small of Elicia's back. A hot hand under her blouse draws her close, she's lifted onto her toes. Cateline’s palm - her damp other hand - caresses Elicia's thigh, rising under her skirt, leaving a glutinous trail.

For some reason Elicia doesn’t even scream.

And finally, Elicia reacts. She chokes and starts and shudders. Her intellect's shutting down. She is a creature now of impulse and desire .. of lust .. riding new emotions .. leaning into Cateline .. burying her face in offered breasts .. lips and hands working .. .

Afterwards, they both experience an intense urge to return to the ship, to Adèle .. and to get something to eat: they are suddenly ravenous.

---

Adèle on the net:

Oh my God. Listen up, the two of you. Get back here at once! There's an update. They figured it out. There’s some kind of neuro-parasite on the planet. Jesus! It invades its host and commandeers its nervous system. Its only concern is to reproduce - it makes its host complicit!  The Empire ship is now responding, manoeuvring, preparing .. .

Cateline and Elicia obediently press their transporter buttons, translating instantaneously to the ship. Advancing on a quivering, terrified Adèle, they know they are only three hours from Earth .. where they will find multitudes, the billions just waiting to be loved by them.

 

--- END ---


Afterword

They say there is only the text. That the author's intent and interpretation have no special significance for the reader. Right.

So let's talk about sex and chapter 4, where Cateline is her usual disinhibited self - as she is being parasitised. I thought long and hard about the sexual scenes in this story. I could have bowdlerised them .. which would have fatally undermined the energy and dynamic of the narrative.

There is a parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, which modifies the brain and body of its hosts to optimise its own transmission - it forces reckless behaviour. The neuro-parasite of this story is similar - it forces extreme sexual promiscuity because it needs physical contact to spread. The story describes how that feels to the possessed, how it works. The story needs it as a plot-device but it's not the main focus.

The central issue of interest is somewhat different: what would and should be our reaction when faced with an extinction-level challenge.

The Empire implemented a drastic, last-ditch but ultimately just-about-effective response.

The current Earth civilization is about to face exactly the same lethal parasite-pandemic. What will their response be - given the evidence in this story?

 


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