A squad of humans lay waste to an alien planet, orbited by three moons, in preparation for terra forming. Their next project, in a distant solar system, requires laying waste to the third planet from the sun and its viral indigenous life form.
O2-32784.93 is a planet inhabited by a destructive silicon-based life form, until Ewan and his crew obliterate every trace in preparation for an Earth-like utopia. Their assignment, including terra-forming, takes seven days, as prescribed by the gods. They lose a single crew member, yet all memory of this loss is obliterated before they tackle their next planet, in a distant solar system of nine planets, which orbit a yellow sun.
The alien virus that has devastated this system and its home planet proves to be formidable, with technology undocumented in a planet scourging life form. Ewan and his crew attempt to establish a base, as usual, only to have their ship torn apart before landing. Ewan finds himself in an odd world, encased by a metal exo-skeleton, devoid of the oceans and land masses the archives suggest were once here, only to find himself looking into a mirror of his own past.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Window in the Sky
...on the second day
Blood red the moons rose over New England, the shadows of the two smaller satellites deepening the largest to vermillion as they nestled across its sphere. A portent in ancient times, Ewan did not believe in superstition and sighed at their beauty.
“If only I could commit this evening to memory.”
The chip in his brain clicked into gear and he realised the futility of this errant thought. There had never been a moment quite like this and perhaps there never would be, yet he knew the phenomenon would be repeated in 8,544.37 hours, judging by his quick calculation.
The waters of the lake at his feet were ripple free, ideal for the perfect figure-skater’s twizzle, if the lake was not pure mercury. Its silvery sheen mirrored the triumvirate of lunar orbs, framed by age-old crags on three sides, and New England’s eastern edge sublime in its celestial window.
Ewan counted the stars through his window in the sky, as he did every night. His mind a web of images, preventing sleep. Scarlett lay motionless in his lap, her blonde hair eager to be teased by a wicked zephyr, but with no breeze here and no promise of one, New England was a ghost, stripped bare millennia before. Time had no relevance here.
Scarlett’s eyelids flickered, their erratic movement much as Ewan expected. He had witnessed this pain in many a comrade, living and dying, recalling the days’ action. They were not supposed to remember. Trained only to recall information deemed useful. A difficult task, despite their training.
The blonde-trimmed eyelids flickered again and, with a twitch at the corner of her mouth, Scarlett’s eyes were open. Blue turned to grey in the mercury light and the memory vanished. Ewan ran his fingers over her eyes, sliding them shut, the blank stare of sleep beyond recognition, chilling.
“There you go my sweet Scarlett. I fear you were not made for these times. It’s all gone now. This is my burden.”
Ewan rolled his companion onto her night kit and stood, stretching his arms skywards, one with the atmosphere trees that nurtured the sky over the soldiers’ camp, operational name, New England. His fingers reached out to the star-encrusted galaxy, unimpaired by the long-set light of the sun, and with no atmosphere to speak of, he felt they were within his grasp. Alas.
The marvel of the atmosphere trees was a sensory pleasure for Ewan and a scientific necessity. Its spectacle wrought a smile he saved for himself. The thin sphere of atmosphere the trees created for this camp would expand on the morrow as his platoon continued to eliminate all viral life in preparation for the terra forming.
Ewan kicked the lifeless rocks at his feet. Their task seemed endless, yet something promising caught his eye amidst the shades of black and grey. He bent down and plucked up a jagged rock, all silica. The edges were sharp, uncompromising, much like the natives who had despoiled this landscape. He threw the rock into the lake. It consumed the projectile in a gulp and, with barely a ripple, settled back into its mirror-like celestial image.
The solitary ripple rolled across the surface of the lake, settling on the silica shale beneath the sphere of the atmosphere trees. It did not register with Ewan as he bent down again, attracted by a single strand of colour; green. Life had begun to germinate here in New England, on planet O2-32784.93. His desire to pluck the blade of grass twitched at his fingertips.
“Look at you growing there, all by yourself. What an adventure you’ve embarked on. Take it from me, it’s as amazing as our window in the sky here, but that won’t last. Not once we give life to the atmosphere, so hold on tight.”
Ewan kicked at a few more stones, shards rather than pebbles, tearing at his boots. His team, a crew of twenty-one, slept, scattered about the silicon beach, restless in their nightmares. All but three indistinguishable; Ewan the leader, Arnold tonight’s watch, and Jenna M.I.A., as usual.
He smiled, saluted the watch, and climbed the mound at the western edge of New England’s perimeter. Jenna lay just beyond, restless in her eyelids, visions of the days’ slaughter fresh, yet to be erased. Ewan sat, close enough to observe, but far enough not to wake her, drew out his notebook and began sketching her hourglass figure.
Jenna lay on her side, accentuating the curve between shoulders and hips, hands cupped beneath her head. The faux atmosphere was warm enough to sustain life without a thread of clothing, and she preferred to sleep threadbare. Ewan had sketched her before, but never by a mercury lake beneath a trio of blood moons. He spread her supple form across two pages, rubbing in the edges with a dab of spittle from tongue to index finger, shading further with his pencil in the clefts that formed her breasts and the curious Y-shadow between her thighs.
Jenna’s lids flashed open, all doe-eyed menace set in an impossibly round face. “A girl could get paranoid with you lurking about.”
Ewan did not bite, yet to finish fleshing her out. His pencil the perfect shade for her brunette locks, long enough to cover her shame, if she was at all embarrassed; an impossible state for this woman. The final stroke done he ventured a rebuke.
“Not if she enjoyed scanning the finished product into her memory chip.”
“Who said it was for me to enjoy? Besides, what’s the point of having the package if you can’t enjoy it?” She rubbed her legs together making sure Ewan noticed. “Talking about packages, have you got a titanium implant in that thing of yours, or what?”
Jenna dragged herself up on all fours and nodded him over. Ewan did not need to be asked twice, but he did fumble his notebook into his body suit. The remaining actions were so formulaic that he found himself inside from behind before anything else registered, his fingers grazing Jenna’s hips, sending a ripple of goose flesh across her bottom and up her spine.
“I didn’t know you liked it rough, Ewan.”
“Just… like… being… in there…”
“Well, I like it rough… on you.”
Jena threw herself back against him, catching Ewan off balance, his mind elsewhere, and he toppled onto his back into a field of silica shale, which cut into him like a hundred jagged rosaries. She straddled him before he could recover, wedging her knees into the serrated stone with an orgasmic groan.
“The Gods, Jenna!”
“You wish! Don’t worry, I won’t shag it off. Just lay back and think of New England, big boy.”
“I could lose myself in our window in the sky, with all its atmosphere, the moons, the stars.”
“I think someone’s got stars in his eyes. I’ll make you forget the slaughter, Ewan. Just in time to do it all over again tomorrow. If there is a tomorrow on this planet, forsaken by the Gods.”
“They may have forgotten, but they did send us, their loyal Guardians, to regenerate this place. I suspect this planet will have a sun rise, just like the others we’ve saved.”
“How about a bit of planet-shattering sex first, that’s if you’ve got protection?”
“I’ve got you, isn’t that enough?”
Jenna slid her hips down and dug her nails into his chest. “Maybe out there, but here? I think I got you covered. How long can you keep it up, until the third sunrise?”
Ewan laughed, although the joke wore thinner than the atmosphere; three moons do not equate to three suns. It was an interesting idea, one Jenna rocked out of existence, faster and faster, until satisfaction overwhelmed her. She collapsed on Ewan’s chest, his fingers tangled in her hair. His lips met the top of her head with a gentleness that stirred the beast of a woman. She propped her head on her hands, digging both elbows into his chest.
“What do you think this is, love making or something?”
“It’s just a fuck, Ewan. Can’t you guys hold your load? Do you have to let your emotion seep out? Is this what a girl has to go through to get a decent orgasm? Aaauugghhh!”
Jenna climbed off and flopped spread-eagle on her back, asleep before Ewan could arch his back and relieve himself of a dozen silicon spores. He sat by her side for a while watching the transitions of the moons, while Jenna’s eyes examined the dark deeds beneath their lids. The dead would be buried within her id by morning; his would be saturated in their grief.
No Line on the Horizon
...on the third day
Ewan closed his notebook, his vision of Jenna complete in graphite, laying amidst the jagged spores in sympathy. The eastern horizon glowered and she stirred beyond eyelids at ease with this world, while he held her grief in the palm of his hand.
The galaxy above, a rainbow in stars, faded with the sun. A bolt of lightning shattered his vision, followed by a second. There were no clouds; the sky above bereft of atmosphere, the source of the electrical storm a mystery. Ewan had witnessed rejuvenated atmospheres explode to life, but never before their imposed state had taken hold. The third day loomed; one day to establish a foothold, another to create a perimeter and atmosphere trees, and a third day to cleanse to the horizon. They had so much work to do today, and much ground to cover.
Ewan roused Jenna, rocking her hips gently with a sympathetic hand. She did not complain, not when it concerned duty; she saved her moans for horizontal activities.
The perimeter beyond her seemed peaceful compared to the action down by the mercury lake. Nineteen comrades stirred, stretching tired sinews and rusty joints, their minds clear and ready for a new day, a fresh onslaught.
Scarlett held a one-armed pushup, scrutinizing Ewan’s approach as she lowered herself with the precision of a hydraulic lift.
“You owe me a hundred of these, or did you manage yours overnight?”
“I was laying back, thinking of New England.”
“Ew, way too much information.”
Ewan dropped onto all fours beside her and began his count before responding. “You asked.”
“And regretting it.” Scarlett lifted herself up on two hands, her legs perfectly horizontal above the shale biting into her palms. “What do you think we’ll find out there, beyond the perimeter?”
“Same as yesterday.”
The theory behind the Gods’ strategy was clear in moments like this. Fear did not inhabit Scarlett’s eyes, not like the night before. He knew she remembered the terrain, understood the substances involved, yet the opposition and the battle to quell the virus that had infiltrated and corrupted this planet were memories erased. Ewan recalled every moment, each near miss and point of destruction. He would lead them into the fray again, totally aware of the dangers, prepared to direct each member of his patrol to where they would be most effective and most in danger.
The soldiers in his unit held no fear in their hearts, each comrade robust with invincibility. Whereas the life forms in their wake knew only the destruction of the previous day.
Ewan completed his morning set, careful not to be seen to reflect or rub his sleep-starved eyes. His comrades were suiting up, checking weapons, and scanning the horizon. Jenna had joined them, without a solitary blink of recall in his direction. He tapped the pad on his chest and those memories pertinent to the days’ duties were projected onto the shale.
Arnold stood, weapon over his shoulder, the modern scythe. His muscles rippled beneath his mercury coloured jump suit, its pigmentation adapted from the surrounds, for camouflage, his eyes less assured of the image Ewan’s suit projected. “I thought you were boning Jenna all night, not working.”
The silicon shard that embedded itself in the side of his head did not surprise him, its velocity fueled by Jenna’s sass. “Might be time to grow some muscles on your head.”
“Only if it’s possible to match the one in Ewan’s pants?”
“Bastard.” The second shard wedged beside the first, the battering bleeding into Arnold’s eye, yet he smiled.
“I’m sensing an injury, could this data be pain?”
“Enough, you two. Study the images. The datum has been uploaded to your suits, so plug yourselves in. Tom!”
The soldier in question slid in across the shale, the bottom half of his suit currently standard issue Y-fronts, his charismatic smile disarming and purposefully full of cheek. “Another impossible mission, Ewan? I’m your man. You know my motto… live, die, repeat.”
“No one will die if we all study the intel.”
Tom slapped a hand on Ewan’s shoulder. “That bad, eh Boss? What viral bastard created this shit hole?”
“A silicon based life form.”
“The lowest of the low. So, no plant life, no atmosphere, and few competing species.”
Ewan nodded, relief in the action, acknowledgement his comrades were on the same page; switched on and prepared. “Just keep a sharp eye, and ignore the scopes. The composition of the virus mimics the surface shale.”
Tom stowed his scope, the objective clear and Ewan’s strategy simple. Tried and true on dozens of terra formed planets; at least that’s how he recalled previous forays into the unknown. The reality of his memories another question, but one he had no time to contemplate.
His twenty comrades set themselves into position, stationed in an arc, on the limits of the current atmosphere dome, with the mercury lake on their right flank and the rising sun at their backs. Ewan scanned the horizon, rolling hillocks of shale, rising to silicon crags, deserving of a layer of heather. There was no movement. He waved his troops onwards, the atmosphere trees stretching out, supplanting their lifeblood, extending the habitable atmosphere and the advance.
Ewan pondered the weapon in his hands. Its true nature not in doubt, but it had been dubbed ‘Cleanser of the Gods’. The Cleanser had three primary functions; a 180º force field, a matching disintegrating laser in the lower spectrum, and a simple blaster.
“Set your Cleansers for radiant laser.”
“Even rocks can be blasted, Ewan.”
Jenna’s confidence irked him, as did her macho stance.
“Just bloody do it!”
“Who got out of the wrong side of the silicon this morning?” Jenna’s ability to stalk a landscape with a quip second to none, drawing the eyes of each soldier in the arc while maintaining her focus. She fired off a blast to her left, at Will’s feet, shattering a creature unrecognizable beyond a rock, besides its eyes. The blast sat Will on his backside, the Cleanser in his hand cleansing the atmosphere, newly created above.
“Now that’s what I call a close encounter!”xx.
Ewan was not amused. “Get your finger off the fucking trigger, get back in line, and cleanse the virus chomping at your boots.”
Will leapt to his feet. Ewan as sharp. The silicon life form, the virus blasted by Jenna, yet to be vanquished. Its plethora of spores, were now individual entities, regrouping and rounding on the hapless soldier. Finger still on the trigger, he lowered the arc of his Cleanser to the horizon, the line between sky and terra firma. There was no line on the horizon when he had finished, only a silicon cloud, out of which emerged the main advance.
Ewan expected the onslaught to be stealth. The distinction between rock and native virus indistinguishable until they moved. The reaction of his comrades came as no surprise. Pacing steadily across uneven terrain their Cleansers vapourized the oncoming hoard; tenfold compared to the previous day. The soldiers’ inability to reconcile the two actions consolidated resolve. Their advance proved devastating. The purest of atmospheres stretching out in their wake, washing the sky clean of stars.
Calculations scrolled down Ewan’s ocular implant; territory accumulation, casualty numbers, infection predictions. The comparisons between his team and the indigenous population were satisfying in their lopsided nature. Line graphs splayed in opposing directions as he squeezed the trigger on his Cleanser, mopping up behind Jenna, whose predilection for the blaster created more viral spores than she cleansed.
Ewan opened up his mind to his comrades, replaying statistics of success, while requesting a halt in hostilities. The silicon cloud settled on the fringe of the atmosphere trees’ dome and the Cleanser units recharged, sucking in the newly ionized atmosphere, converting oxygen and hydrogen atoms into deadly particle-charged rays of destruction.
Life creating death.
It was the one thought Ewan did not transmit to his unit, but one he had contemplated many times. A dilemma quelled only by the knowledge that he acted at the behest of the Gods, the Creators.
“Jenna, switch to radiant laser. I’m sick of cleaning up after you.”
“Not one for sloppy seconds, eh Boss?”
“Now!”“What’d you do to him last night, Jen? ‘Cause someone’s got his titanium rod in a knot.” Scarlett traced her fingers up her hips and over her breasts. “I think someone needs some decent curves to ride.”
“I do the riding on my kit, and I’ll do the blasting in my zone.” Jenna turned her Cleanser in Scarlett’s direction. Ewan tapped the side of his head, directing his next transmission to the two women at the expense of their comrade’s amusement.
“OK, ladies, I think we’ve had enough fun…”
“The fun’s just beginning.”
“Until the threat of danger on our readouts reads zero, we still have a task to perform. Got it, Jenna?” Her thought transmission remained static, so Ewan continued with his. “Enough banter, switch to radiant. It’s cleaner, painless.”
“They’re just a virus.”
“It’s still a life form, Jen. And all life deserves respect.”
“Even one that creates a moonscape to live on at the expense of all other life?”
Jenna’s question had merit. Ewan had often contemplated it. What right did he, a mere Guardian and not a God, have to decide the relevance of any life form? He drew a deep breath, the freshness of the virgin atmosphere confirmation.
“Especially… there is no need to lose our humanity.”
“They’re not human, Boss, just vermin. They don’t care what the Gods gifted them. They’re not worthy of your compassion.”
“If you believe that, why is your sleep so restless?”
It was another question Ewan had mulled over. Did compassion compound with memory; the fingerprints of the Gods, those who remembered all? Did the erasure make his comrades less human? Would the fragments they forced him to endure eventually drive him mad? He drew in a deeper breath and life coursed through him. Why did the vermin fight on if they could not sense this, the beauty of existence? Had he missed something, the antithesis to life as the Guardians knew it?
Jenna stepped about, refocusing on the wasteland beyond the atmosphere dome. Ewan could see her fingers fiddling with her Cleansers’ blast control, in compliance. The compactness of the unit displayed pure genius; a trigger for the index finger and modulation controls for each of the other three. No need to drop one’s eyes to the device or lose focus, except when a unit did not respond. Jenna dropped her eyes from the horizon.
“Movement, Ewan.” Scarlett’s voice fell short of its previous sarcasm. “I have a visual.”
“Visual confirmed, scanners adjusted and also tracking movement based on the initial attack.” The determination in Tom’s voice belied the cockiness in his smile.
The approaching silicon cloud blackened the horizon, voiding the need for a warning. Rolling like a dust storm, defying the windless atmosphere. He raised his Cleanser, the statistics in his ocular implant transformed to a target scope, each of his comrades mimicking his actions, except Jenna.
The silicon storm ripped through the atmosphere dome, exposing the galaxies above. Respirator helmets activated automatically at the fracture in sustainability, encompassing the heads of the soldiers in a protective bubble. These were flexible enough not to shatter upon impact, yet impenetrable to the average battle blow.
Cleansers reduced the storm to dust, the compost of a new world, while Jenna blasted her path forward. The virus about her splintered, regenerated and attacked her from all sides. Ewan ran to her, his radiant laser useless with his comrade in the centre of the target zone.
The silicon life forms spun themselves into a miniature tornado and ripped through Jenna’s jumpsuit, eating into the flesh at her thigh. Ewan, joined by Scarlett, deftly blasted the creatures individually, scattering the vermin far enough for Tom to step in with his Cleanser – set to radiant, sending them into oblivion.
“Arnold, Will, Simon, close up the perimeter. Scarlett…”
“I’ve already got the medical kit out, Boss.”
Jenna bit down on her lip, drawing blood, unwilling to cry out. Ewan peeled back the blood splattered remnants of her jumpsuit. The flesh on her thigh shredded, the glint of her titanium femur in harmony with New England’s mercury lake.
“It’s not broken, Jen. We can patch up the flesh, right Scarlett?”
The blonde nodded, her facial muscles straining against the horror they wished to depict. Jenna’s sinews were still attached at the patella and the pelvis, but Ewan had never seen so little in between. He cradled his comrade as Scarlett administered a sedative. Jenna clutched his arm.
“I can feel them, Ewan… they’re inside me… converting me.”
“That’s just the shredded nerve endings, the pain speaking.”
“Not… in my head… my chest… our skeletons are perfect… the framework for their conquest… our strength is our weakness.”
“It’s just the pain, Jen…”
“No!” Jenna was not prone to exaggeration, only as complex as a silicon organism. “I can feel them. I’m turning into silicon… it’s what they do… to everything. You have to vapourize me, before I become your enemy,” she grabbed at his jumpsuit and pulled him in close, “and you don’t want me as an enemy.”
Ewan ripped open her jumpsuit. The flesh he exposed bore traces of mercury, tendrils of silicon. Scarlett stood and stepped away. Ewan followed her lead as he set his Cleanser for radiant.
“You were pretty good last night, Boss.”
“Not as good as you.”
He had lost comrades before, but never like this. Ewan stood back, his fingers fighting the urge to depress the Cleanser’s buttons. A single depression and Jenna was compost. She scattered in the atmosphere as it delivered its first zephyr.
The effect on his fellow soldiers manifested itself instantly. They had no memory of the fallen. Their number had once been twenty-five. The eighteen remaining advanced upon the silicon virus, pausing only to refuel. They assimilated three times the territory projected for the day, often outrunning the atmosphere trees, and Ewan did not fire another shot.
Scarlett and Sigourney led the advance, evaporating the indigenous life forms in their thousands, until Ewan called a halt to their advance. He had to physically restrain Scarlett, disabling her Cleanser, white hot at the tip. Sigourney continued on as the sun set on eyes crying out for tears, a state Ewan had wiped from Scarlett’s face.
Catching up with Sigourney was not difficult; talking her down became Ewan’s challenge. “Siggy, Siggy, the day’s done.”
“Take that you bitch!”
“Siggy, private, stand down… shoulder arms and stand down!”
She swung towards him with malice, her index finger cocked and ready. “I’m gonna kill every one of those bastards and anything and anyone who gets in my way.”
“I know, Siggy, but we’re about to lose the light. There’ll be plenty for you in the morning.”
“I’ve got night vision.”
“Sure, but do the other patrols? I can’t have you storming around vapourizing other Guardians.”
“There’s no such thing, they’re just a rumour.”
“As we are to them, Siggy. Do you remember how many we did basic with?”
“I do. I remember everything. Do you want to remember this, your loss?”
“Come with me and I’ll put it right.”
Sigourney shouldered her weapon with a sigh. Ewan’s upper body sagged with relief. He patted her on the back, a puff of silicon dust rising up, and led her to where their comrades congregated around a small mound within the scope of the protective atmosphere dome.
Ewan waved them into a tight circle and they joined hands, as instructed on their ocular readout. A stone tablet hovered over the mound. He bowed his head and tapped his chest lightly. As he spoke the more pertinent words were etched across the stone.
“To the fallen. Jenna – class of 2524, who gave her life force in the saving of this planet – O2-32784.93.” Ewan crossed himself, as instructed, allowed the etching on the tablet to be completed, and lifted his head. “We commit her remains to assist in the regeneration of this rock, soon to be a planet burgeoning with life. We will miss your vivacity. Take it with you to the Gods and honour them with it.”
Arnold shook violently. “Anger is more useful than despair.” Xx.
Each member of the unit held back a tear, as if enduring their first goodbye. Ewan remembered Jenna’s reaction at the loss of… a comrade whose name even he struggled to recall. He guessed it would be the same for him some day; lost and quickly forgotten, delivered unto the Gods for eternity.
The service was brief, their danger paramount. Ewan slid out his notebook, drew a dandelion on a single page, ripped it out and sat it on the stone tablet still hovering over the mound.
“Why did you do that?” Scarlett’s curiosity was not sympathetic.
“It’s as the Gods decreed, in their honour, from this life to the next, we lay flowers in the dirt.”
“Do you think there is a next, something beyond this?”
Ewan crossed himself again, the action a bemusement to himself, and then he nodded. His thought share had been switched off, allowing an errant truth, ‘at least for the worthy’.
He took watch as the others slept, increasingly restless until their memory chips were wiped. The three moons of O2-32784.93 were less red tonight. They had served their purpose; the omen fulfilled.
Get on Your Boots
...on the fourth day
Ewan watched the sunrise alone, allowing his comrades to sleep. They were too far in advance of their projected line, anger driven and now forgotten. The galaxies above faded with the virgin atmosphere, pure blue and fresh to the lungs after three days of smothering silicon dust. Their objective would be attained by lunch if they sustained no other losses.
Jenna’s naked curves drew his attention, the notebook cruel in its irony, falling open to expose her. Of all the pages in all the worlds, the Gods chose hers. There was a reason the memories of his comrades were wiped, why notebooks were not standard issue. Anything electronic could be manipulated, adjusted accordingly. Ewan required adjustment, but as their leader, their eyes and ears, the units’ advance warning system, driven by the only memories that mattered… the day before.
There would be another day of slaughter, with a spare up their sleeves if required. Ewan found it difficult to reconcile the silicon shards at his feet with the creatures that had attacked and eaten their way inside Jenna. His friend. A lover, whose memories of him were sketchy, rebooted every morning, and acted upon most nights. Every day had become a first date, but no innuendo would flow from his comrades this morning. They would not remember Jenna, despite their grief and the unified obliteration.
Scarlett beamed, her face glowing, so fit she barely sweat.
“Don’t tell me, I owe you a hundred.”
“Hit the deck now and I’ll let you get away with fifty.” Her viridian eyes glinted with mercury, the blonde in her hair brighter beneath the burgeoning atmosphere.
Ewan was tired, no exhausted, yet he managed one hundred pushups, despite the fifty on offer; fitness never the issue, the mind a constant bother. Ewan slapped the side of his head with an open palm. His inner ear itched, as if something crawled around inside. Was it an idea… or… did they have silicon spiders here? Creatures that burrowed inside the ear and slowly drove its host crazy. He whacked his ear again, lining up for a third blow, before Scarlett grabbed his arm.
“What’s out there, Boss?”
“What haven’t you told us?”
“I just need some sleep.”
“Why didn’t you ask? I could rock you to sleep.”
“You’re a mate. That’s what I need now.”
Scarlett’s eyebrows, discerning at the best of times, bunched together. The furrow between hinted at a memory, which Ewan rubbed away with a gentle stroke of his fore finger.
“Perhaps I’ll wake you early tomorrow, if I can’t sleep.”
“It’s a date.”
Scarlett kissed him on the tip of his nose and left him in peace. If he didn’t wake her tomorrow she would never know. Her hips swiveled suggestively. Such a waste. He was sure she’d be Jenna’s equal, but he knew Scarlett required more attention, and a sustained relationship. He had nineteen others to consider, to nurture through virginal thoughts each morning. Scarlett’s possible virginity best left to someone else.
“What’s that, Boss?”
Tom’s grin glowed a little too bright under a pristine sky; teeth that screamed ‘look at me’.
“How many times a day do you floss, Tom?”
“Depends how many indigenous bones I get my hands on. You know what they say about your choppers - healthy teeth, healthy body.”
“Who says that?”
“People with good teeth, Boss, and good health.” He cocked his head and spread his lips thin, the teeth beyond almost fluorescent. “Come on, I’ve got a feeling there’s a virus with your name on it. Fancy a good blast?”
“It’ll be strictly radiant today, Tom.”
“With these teeth, I must be your man. A bit of viral vapour never hurt anyone. I actually, fancied a bit of creature combustion, any chance?”
“Not if you want to see tomorrow.”
“Is the morning not the edge of tomorrow?”
“The morning is whatever the Gods decree.”
Ewan’s logic was not always sound, but Tom afforded him a nod and a bow with a flourish. The men understood each other; there would be no future without unqualified success on this day.
He tapped his chest and projected the days’ objectives, the crushed rock at his feet less grey beneath an azure sky. Ewan’s unit gathered, studying the intel gathered over three days, information they had collected without memory. Vital statistics and cleansing formations scrolled down the retinas of each soldier. Their brief meeting an indication, their preparations proved quicker. Ewan had no orders to impart; each of his comrades understood their duties, born to complete this work.
Ewan kept pace with the newest atmosphere trees. There were dozens spread out between this outpost and New England’s mercury lake. He marveled at their appearance as trees, higher than a hundred men, breathing air into the planet’s atmosphere. The branches spread out across the sky, seeking out unfulfilled pockets remiss of atmosphere, a plane between creation and the creators.
The line of sight from beneath the trees was perfect for a man searching for answers, bewildered by death. His eyes darted from back to back, pulling at those who became too eager by triggering warnings on their ocular readouts; the role of protector as draining as the purveyor of slaughter. He did not lose a single comrade and by the designated lunch break they had reached their objective, the extent of their sector.
Arnold set the perimeter scanners, while Ewan focussed on the horizon. The silicon crags there were losing focus, as if enveloped by a heat haze; an impossibility where no atmosphere existed. He stepped closer to the fringe of his own atmosphere bubble, reducing the usual resistance. Will held him back, his training trumping any natural curiosity, something Ewan felt drawing him closer to the anomaly.
“I’m not sure we need to be.”
“Says the guy who takes the rear, protecting us all through to completion.”
If only you knew the losses I have seen. It pained Ewan to hide his thoughts from his comrades. The faith they showed in him unjustified, the perfect nature of their tour of duty a lie of convenience. Will laid his hand on Ewan’s shoulder and shook it, a masculine hug of approval.
The haze in the distance closed in on them over the ensuing hour. Will organized a guard of four, flanking Ewan as he scanned the horizon and the advancing anomaly.
Scarlett tucked a sustenance pack into Ewan’s hand. “You should eat, the rest of us have.”
“Not hungry, thanks.”
“Eat or I’ll get Arnold to force it down your throat.”
He stuffed the sustenance in his mouth; the thought of being crushed beneath and force fed by a bruising, muscle-bound unit, who had sinew for teeth worth the distraction. His eyes did not leave the horizon rushing up at them in a blur of pixilated silicon. The food did not go down well as the approaching storm hit the edge of their sector, and imploded.
“What’s the scanner say, Boss?”
Ewan projected the relevant read outs and Will stepped forward to read. The results scrolled down Ewan’s iris:
Will raised his Cleanser. Scarlett mimicked him. The protective stances wrought a smile from deep within and Ewan could not hold it back.
“Look at you lot.”
“Look at us? Look at you, Boss. Have you lost it – terra form fever? You don’t know what that thing is!”
“Give it a moment, Will.”
His comrade refused to imagine friend rather than foe after a good days’ slaughter, switching his Cleanser to radiant. Ewan waited for the dust to settle, but the vision before him did not match his expectations. Beyond the protective atmospheric dome just out of arm’s reach the images of a dozen or more humans came into view.
“What is that, Ewan, a mirror?”
The images in the object before them certainly bore similarities to his unit, but they did not convince Ewan. He lowered his weapon to the ground and his mirror image did the same. He waved his hands at his comrades, signaling them to follow his lead. They did so, reluctantly, as did their reflections.
“Safeties on, everyone. You’re all relieved. Tom, set the atmosphere trees to advance 0.1 of a sector and square off the boundaries. Will, signal our transport.”
The orders were followed without question, as if they were expected. Their images evaporated from the opposing dome as they retreated, but Ewan’s clone remained stationary, just as he did. He tapped on his chest and issued a three word order, “Prepare to synch.” Ewan saluted his reflection, an action returned with an erect, satisfied stance. He retreated, into his own atmosphere bubble and his thoughts. These similarities had been encountered before, but their existence did not sit well. His evening and night would be spent wondering if it was a trick of the light. For if all alien life forms looked alike, perhaps in such a generic representation, so did humans.
The mercury lake seemed bluer on their return to New England, the trek back completed without fear of attack. His soldiers remained silent throughout. Such an odd close encounter in their eyes and on their lips, yet none burdened Ewan with questions. He led them back wide of Jenna’s memorial, but her svelte form filled his mind. The weight of her loss evoked a motherly response from Sigourney, who wrapped an arm about him as they reached New England.
“We all have our duties, Boss, our responsibilities, but why do yours weigh you down? Do you hide that much from us?”
Ewan understood the probe in her question. He also spotted the kindness, a trait she hid well; action being her usual M.O.
“I’m not hiding anything that isn’t hidden from me in time.”
“Now that’s a riddle.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
“And that’s a question.” Sigourney smiled, her teeth slightly crooked, the grin complimented by a parenthesis at the corner of her mouth. “You’re really good at what you do, Ewan.”
“Pity me then.”
“I do, we all do, and we all admire you. The least aggressive, offensive, defensive, thinking man of action any of us will ever have the privilege to serve under. The Gods have chosen well.”
“It’s just another mission, and it’s almost complete.”
“I thought our job was done.”
“Not until I see this rock terra formed and brimming with new life. The Gods, in their wisdom, gave us six days, only on the seventh will I rest.”
...on the seventh day
Blood red moons rose over New England and its adjoining provinces; a trick of the light Ewan manufactured with a quick calculation of the ship’s orbit. The three moons clustered dramatically at one edge of his porthole, planet O2-32784.93 at the other, the galaxy’s star hidden behind the fuselage.
Ewan sketched the stellar-scape in his notebook, detailing the newly terra formed planet. The Gods’ latest masterpiece, completed on the sixth day as the covenants prescribed. The passages were deeply ingrained in every Guardian, and he could recite them word for word, yet he had transposed these inside the cover of his notebook, reflecting on them at such moments of solitude, the memory of them soothing, yet the actual reading was far more satisfying.
And the Gods said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
So the Gods created man in his own image, in the image of the Gods created he him; male and female created he them.
And the Gods blessed them, and Gods said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth . . .
And the Gods saw every thing that they had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.Xx.
Ewan had never come this close to fulfillment. Had his memory been tampered with? Had he almost forgotten the losses… the Jenna’s of his crew? The planet below, so big in his porthole, unnamed despite the New England moniker but officially numbered, was magnificent. It had been a grey rock, lifeless and bereft of atmosphere, yet on the seventh day it fulfilled the promise of the Gods. A world of death, if world described such a lifeless lump, now green, blue and grey. Where there was no life, rainbows arched, winds blew and oceans waved with the triple tides. The Gods’ creation blossomed in his porthole in swirls reminiscent of an impressionists’ landscape, as prescribed for day five and six, and on the seventh day the Guardians rested.
Ewan closed his notebook, his sketch adequate, but lacking the colour and plant life blossoming below. He laid himself across his bed, head on hands, and stared out the porthole; a window big enough for him to jump through without balling up, the planet below enticing enough for the free fall. The thought was laughable, but at least it made him feel like laughing. The size of the porthole struck fear into many, the feel of terra firma under one’s feet so reaffirming compared to floating out in space on a mother ship, its size unfathomable due to its restrictions.
The bed bounced beneath Ewan and he knew he had company. He rolled over and found himself face to face with Scarlett. She had a pout that suggested innocence and sensuality, with bright viridian eyes to complement. Nothing could make her appear more perfect, but there seemed to be something, something she was not… Jenna.
“Hey. Have you drawn it yet, our new planet, in your odd little notebook? Most of us would draw it virtually, from memory, and screen print it.” She reached out to the console above his bed and projected her vision of O2-32784.93 there, with inserts of their base camp, dubbed New England. Ewan was suitably impressed, but her vision faded, the object in his hand more interesting. “Is your notebook complete?”
“Noticed it, eh?”
“We all noticed.” Scarlett flounced her hair, adding to the pout. “Is that how you remember?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Is it that mind boggling or are you that important?”
Scary was more the point, but Scarlett did not need to know that answer. Growth on her behalf, or memory leakage? No one had ever asked him so directly and only Jenna had hinted at it, the same way every night. Perhaps her role included ironing out the despair of recall, the tragedy of history. Had the Gods allowed this trait to creep on into Scarlett? Had he been that down, so obvious? Could she really replace Jenna? Did he really require such attention?
He caught her watching him, biting her bottom lip. She had caught him in a memory flood the likes she could only imagine, so he smiled. It amounted to a sad attempt, but he had more. “Come on, Scarlett, let’s hit the town.”
“Town? More like a commune – a tent. Such a huge ship and so little space.”
“The space is out there. Would you like me to open the window?”
The ship had plenty of space, and Scarlett knew it, or at least she should. Each sector crew quarantined to their own area of the mother ship. It was a form of contamination control. At least that’s how Ewan understood it. The only exception, those reflective images across the wasteland to the next atmosphere dome.
He brushed the memory aside. The idea behind their existence perfectly sound; Ewan and his soldiers the possible source of any infection, exposed to planet after planet. Separating them and the various sectors a lesson in control, and no one had ever died from or spread an infection.
The cabin door slid open obligingly, while asking for quiet. A state quite easily maintained. Everything here soft, in direct contrast to the planets they cleansed; the walls, their shoes, the furniture, there were no sharp edges anywhere on board. Ewan often hid his pencils for fear they would be confiscated.
Scarlett stepped out of the cabin into the communal quarter and Ewan followed. There were no space portals in here; these were the exclusive domain of each private room. One room for each soldier, twenty-six in all, thirteen on each side of the ship, the twenty-sixth always being empty, negating the question concerning empty rooms created by casualties. The mystery of the empty quarters never addressed, they were just empty.
Ewan knew better, but he understood the ruse. Where there were no statistics, there were no questions. No soldier ever considered themselves a statistic.
The common quarter was split into three zones; a communal eating hub, flanked by a reflective zone to his left and a training/preparation area to his right. Ewan and Scarlett’s entry into the common room created a full complement of nineteen. The empty chairs they approached were angular and body hugging, yet upright with no extreme edges. The chairs swivelled out for their convenience. Once seated, they were swivelled back into position, sliding into the table. Dinner trays emerged from within this communal bench, filled with a variety of expelled sustenance packs. The food stuffs displayed a colourful palette without exposing their actual nature.
“Ah, the high life.”
Scarlett laughed. Ewan managed to be good value at his sarcastic best, and he knew this.
“And four colours instead of three today,” she scooped up a mouthful of purple, “hmmm, blueberry, we must have performed well.”
“When was the last time you tasted an actual blueberry, or know what one looks like, Scarlett?”
“I don’t know, when I was a kid. Somebody told me this tastes like blueberry. Why would they lie to me?”
Simon threw his spoon on the table. “So what’s the red crap?” Scarlett dipped her finger in the red on his plate amidst his continued complaints. “Are you gonna probe that?”
“Why does everyone always ask me that? It’s food, not faeces.” She held up her middle finger, wrapped her lips about the dollop and sucked, sliding her finger out slowly, with salivation. “Mmmm… sauce.”
“And the brown?”
“The perfect complement… its steak.”
“That works for me,” Simon scraped the red over his brown and scooped up a mouthful. “Steak and sauce, gotta hope the yellow is chips.”
“I was hoping for corn.” Scarlett dipped her finger again, “Yep.”
Simon sampled his carefully, pleasantly surprised. “Nope, mine’s chips, brilliant.”
Ewan smiled. He had long suspected minimal difference between any of the sustenance packs, that each responded to its master depending on their individual taste. His gloop suggested ham, slightly smoked, tomato, and dijonnaise, quite different to the previous night’s feast. The origin of dijonnaise set his mind wandering; such an odd name. Where had he learnt that, as a child? Youth the one portion of his timeline he considered grey. He could not recall the learning, despite the knowledge of the Gods being was at his fingertips.
“What’s on your mind, Boss?”
Sigourney chipped away at him, just as Scarlett had, but in a less sensual, more probing mode. She peered over her cup from across the table and every set of eyes honed in on the exchange.
“What about before all this… you know, Genesis.”
“The passage or the planet below?”
She took another sip. A pin could be heard drop on the planet below…
“Oh, the birthing centre, or were you thinking about our schooling?”
Simon swallowed a mouthful of steak and chips without chewing, his gulp the only noise beyond the low hum of the mother ship. Sigourney ignored him, her head down over her drink, eyes fixed on Ewan.
“Time to move on, Ewan. We don’t procreate using the womb for a reason; it weakened women and expanded their hips, preventing leg muscle growth, keeping us from the real action. And the Gods know someone needs to look after you men.”
“I thought we invented the birthing centre so we could enjoy more killer thighs, like yours…” Sigourney threw her cup at Simon, hitting him between the eyes without looking, “no offence.”
She ignored the apology, “But you know all that, Boss.”
“Aye,” Simon swallowed again, “of course he does. We all have the same memories.” His last word relieved his mouth, but Simon’s spoon hovered with another helping.
Similarity bothered Ewan. Had this group been together their entire lives? Had he only ever met twenty-four people? He ate quickly, suddenly preferring his room with a view, three moons for the price of one, lost in his thoughts. The contents of the tray were easy to consume. In fact, tipping it up at one end and placing the opposite in one’s mouth would suffice. Crudeness did not overcome him, despite the rebellion. He finished up quickly and pushed the tray away. This activated his chair, which spun and dipped, affording Ewan an easy exit back to his room.
The path was blocked.
“How much creation can one take?”
Arnold wasn’t particularly tall, wider muscle on muscle, his penchant for sleeveless tops amusing Ewan, who smiled; a sentiment not returned.
“Let’s see, four days of de-construction, two days of creation, I think the Gods owe me at least one more day to marvel before we ship out.”
“Show me the orders.”
“No orders, Arnie, just protocol.”
Ewan wanted to steal a transport and set himself down on O2-32784.93, on virgin soil, to soak in the atmosphere, the plant life and a lake devoid of mercury. Such a pity the Guardians were now considered viral, possible carriers, despite de-contamination. Ewan’s other great regret; the Guardians were forbidden to appreciate their creations at first hand, only the Gods and other minions received such privilege.
The sigh Ewan emitted only spurred Arnold on, and drew a chorus of approval from the remaining crew members.
“What is it today, Arnie?”
“Mortal combat and I’m the predator.”
“Thinking of cleansing me, eh?”
“Bad thoughts are not tolerated and must be cleansed.”
“Hand to hand or a selection of weapons?”
“I’ll whip you with my bare hands.”
“No tricks, eh?” The brute nodded with a sly smile. “Well, it’s your funeral, Arnie.”
Ewan bowed low, to tentative applause. He was apt to out think a God, and they all knew it, but against Arnold, the Gods’ muscle? Could thoughts hold back such a pure mass of sinew?
Arnold cracked his knuckles, no mean feat, and waddled into the adjoining training area. Ewan followed, wary of the buttocks that could crush a walnut, not willing to be seen lagging, or in need of a push by the others. They had rested for two days, while he had watched over the terra forming of their sector. Only Scarlett and Will had popped in to witness the progress, and they were just as eager to see his spar with Arnold.
The simplicity of their common area belied its versatility. Flexible enough to accommodate general exercise, training, and test simulations, yet team sports were the norm. ‘The Hand of God’, a game featuring a round ball and two opposing nets, a favourite amongst the Guardians. Arnold cleared the room of equipment with a single command, expunged his lungs with a roar, and tore off his sleeveless top. His pectorals danced in the lights, rippling with a sneer. He arched his back, forming a circle of pure muscle with his arms, which bobbled and popped like a lava pit.
Ewan nodded and peeled his top over his head. He was lean, but not ripped, preferring to spend his time learning about weights than lifting them. If the Gods had desired him to ripple they would have birthed him that way. Surrounded by his peers he waved Arnold on. The hint of reluctance in this come hither not lost on his opponent.
Arnold rushed him low, took Ewan with a shoulder in the solar plexus, and tossed him into the air. He landed flat on his back. The floor here softer than anywhere in the ship, but there was nothing soft about Arnold’s shoulder, tensed at the moment of impact for maximum R & B.
“Ribs and bruised, Boss?”
Each individual molecule of air Ewan sucked in burnt, yet he stood, just in time for a second hit and lift; the thud of his back on the floor drawing a collective gasp.
He lay there this time, the ceiling an imaginary galaxy, revolving about a light he found himself drawn to, a light without pain. Air did not enter his lungs. Arnold leered over him, upside down, hands on hips, throwing his head back with a mighty laugh. Most gave up at this point, but Ewan knew he had to be better.
“Once more… with feeling.”
Arnold’s laughter ceased as Ewan picked himself off the floor, leaving one fist planted as he hunched over in preparation.
“Oh, I get it, Boss, you’re dreaming, and this is a part of the delightful vacation package the Gods sold you, a trip to a red moon. Is that all you got? You expose your head, you will be terminated.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
The brute stepped back a few paces and charged; his desire to finish the bout with extra velocity obvious. Ewan stood as Arnold closed on him, both sets of eyes widening. Arnold flexed his pects as he lowered his shoulder and Ewan dropped to the floor. Sliding between his opponent’s legs, he grabbed onto the one muscle Arnold was not known for and twisted it in a half pike, dropping the beast on his face, which muffled the high pitched scream passing his lips.
Ewan stood over his vanquished comrade and rubbed his hands. “You were right about one thing, Arnie, the negotiations were short.”
He scooped up his top and strode out, towards his room, no cheer to herald his escape; only wide-eyed amazement and Venus fly traps.
“Careful, you lot, the Gods might plant you on O2-32784.93 for insect control.”
Ewan awoke with Scarlett’s arms about him, her hands lathered in a soothing balm, drawing out the bruising, fading as she worked.
“I’ve never known you to sleep, Ewan.”
“What do you think I do in here?”
“No one knows. We have a sweep.”
He turned to her, the concept as alien as the silicon they had just cleansed, yet somehow he understood her perfectly. “Did you win?”
“No, I lost on both counts.”
He expected rolling over to be painful, but Scarlett was an excellent healer. The Gods had bestowed magical properties in her hands. If only her talents could have saved Jenna. The stupidity of dwelling on a woman dead and buried when a willing, scantily clad blonde lay massaging his chest, farcical. Ewan kissed Scarlett on the forehead, exacerbating the farce.
“I have work to do.”
“Work? Is there a suitable planet out there I missed?”
“Yesterday was the seventh day - I rested and admired our creativity – now I’ve been summoned.”
Ewan realised she had no idea what that meant, but he had not been commissioned to divulge such information. Scarlett watched him dress, clothed only about her hips in a diaphanous silken, floral wrap, subtly teasing. Ewan prided himself on formality; pristine jumpsuit, complete with tech touch pads, scanners, and a multi-dimensional communication device. He attached the accompanying micro dot to his ear lobe and slipped on the boots that walked like cushions of air. The clothing adopted an inky black with pinpoints of sparkling light, influenced by the omnipresent vacuum of space outside his port hole. He wondered how this suit would react in a forest. Would he be a tree or its leafy canopy? The possibilities were endless and he left Scarlett with this glint in his eye, his ebullience infectious for all the wrong reasons.
He found the room beyond his quarters deserted, the revelry of the night before had taken its toll, but his team deserved their recreation, even more so had they known of their losses. Through the reflective zone to his left, at the far end of this contamination zone, a blank wall. It seemed innocuous, a barrier between crews. Ewan stepped up to the wall, palms out, and placed them at head height, while speaking his name quite precisely. An outline of a panel, tall enough and wide enough for a single adult, appeared. He lowered his hands and the panel slid across, revealing a circular chamber.
Ewan entered, the nearest chair swiveling and dipping for his pleasure. He sat and it spun 180 degrees, sliding in beneath a polished round table, its glass-like surface defying its multi-faceted purpose. The lights in the room dimmed as a helmet, not unlike the respirator unit used on a planet’s surface, moulded itself to his head, concealing his identity. Streams of data flooded the visor, complemented by similar streams on his iris, and more on the information ball rotating slowly at the heart of the round table.
A Guardian appeared through a door to his left, but he wasn’t in Ewan’s room, as Ewan did not inhabit in his. They were virtual entities, separated by the walls of the mother ship. Another Guardian appeared to his right. The process continued until there were twenty-five. Ewan often wondered if they were all stationed on this ship or if some were beamed in from other ships in galaxies far beyond Ewan’s experiences. All twenty-five could have been Ewan; such were the similarities in their stature and bearing. He considered that familiarity a comfort and relaxed as the proceedings began.
“Welcome, Guardians. The Gods are pleased. The planet, designated O2-32784.93, has been assimilated. All sectors are as one. Losses incurred: two. Please prepare for a reset of all names and connections.”
Ewan relaxed as the room swirled about him in a plethora of colours. A woman’s face flashed briefly on the ball rotating before him, her long, dark hair and impossibly round face familiar, but ultimately impossible… and then she vanished.
The seats of all twenty-five Guardians dipped towards the ball, its images repeated on the walls beyond, a circular space of vision. Planet O2-32784.93 filled their visions, from mercury lakes and silicon piles to lush meadows and vibrant waterways. The skies billowed with water-laden clouds, and lightning, previously dry and without source, accompanied reinvigorating downpours.
A smile crossed the face of each Guardian, their mouths the only visible feature. Reaction and communication proved vital to growth, despite the lack of recognition, not that they were ever meant to meet. Each life as virtual as this room. Ewan cleared his mind, he could pontificate on this setting in the privacy of his own room, his thoughts his own, his vision a solitary consumption.
“Relax, Guardians. Extraction is momentary, collation, fleeting. Your thoughts and vision will be compiled to advance our knowledge, which we will pass on as necessary. Report from sector dubbed as New England.”
Ewan allowed his mind to be probed, his iris scanned, and every detail of his past seven days flashed onto the ball before him… accompanied by his own commentary, although his lips did not move…
“Silicon based life forms, viral in tendencies, multiplied upon destruction. Radiant sweeps were the only effective cleansing option. Virus assimilated weakened organisms, which were ripped open for insertion and populated from within. Titanium bone structures seemed to be the ideal target for assimilation. Current losses: one. Long hair, impossibly round face, impossible woman. Sector delivered in four days.”
The vision of the silicon invasion, through flesh along a titanium femur flashed across the screen, followed by the catabolism of organs and flesh. A floating tablet completed the tale, the name etched upon it nonsensical. Ewan did not remember any of this, yet there it was on the screen, mirrored in his iris, forwarded to all the surviving Guardians.