Copyright is held by the author. This is the conclusion to yesterday’s post.
A CIRCLE of blue lights gleamed across the titanium structure, pointing to the empty deck of the Iris Space Station, last stop for Elora passengers, before they took lighter vehicles down to the planet to land unspotted in unspoiled territory.
“The Elorans call Iris the Sun at sundown,” said M to the young man who sat reading on the next seat over. Ever since leaving Nimbus, M had tried to talk to the youngster, but with little success. M had fought against an unwillingness he felt himself to communicate with anyone on the trip back to Elora. He felt a constant sharp pain as if a heavy rock lay on his chest. Besides, he was bored of talking about himself. The boy, Brian, was not keen on talking either. A freshman from Professor Krinke’s department, majoring in intergalactic sciences, Brian was so thrilled with his first assignment as the assistant to the project leader that he was dumbfounded most of the time.
“Why is that?” Brian managed to ask.
“Because the space station is in geosynchronous orbit with the planet and only at around sundown does its hull reflect sunlight down to the surface. The station looks like a yellow saucer in their empty sky,” said M, as Brian nodded. “But to me, it’s like an artificial moon — that you sometimes don’t see at night, but always know is up there.” Brian nodded again.
They rested for a couple of days at the station. M slept for the entire two days, only interrupting his rest for showers and meals. Brian spent his time reading up on the Eloran culture (a subject he already knew a great deal about) and, in the gym, running 10 miles on the treadmill and pedalling a similar distance on the stationary bike. On the second day, right after Iris started to glitter on Elora, they took the Whipple-3, the most silent light-weight shuttle available, entered Elora’s atmosphere, and at around midnight, glided over the villages built among the ruins of the old civilization.
“Some houses are still in good condition,” said Brian, looking at the night-vision panel in front of him.
“Some of them live in the old houses,” replied M, piloting the shuttle and making a sharp turn. “Usually the leaders of each tribe… Others stay in their tents.” M cut the speed and they gradually descended and flew low over a street where two-storey detached houses stood facing each other. Weeds and tall grass hid the old, crumbling asphalt of the road; the houses looked as if they were floating in the green of the earth. M pointed to a house with an ornamental pool in the front yard.
“The leader of this tribe lives in that house,” he said.
“How do you know?” asked Brian, examining the place in detail.
“That’s the house I was raised in.”
A silence followed M’s statement. Brian kept his eyes on the monitor as they flew over the villages, gazing at groups of cylindrical tents gathered around big fires — their flames fuelled by large wood piles.
“In my book it says the Elorans believe that these houses were placed on their planet by God to shelter them from evil. Is that true?” asked Brian.
\“Which evil?” asked M. “I don’t know if the houses could save them from anything. Still, I can’t argue with your book. If it says so in there, it’s got to be true. That’s what books are good for, right?”
“So, Elorans really believe that they were placed on this planet by God?”
“I can’t say anything about that either and neither can you. Well, the truth is they have no idea who they really are.”
“How harrowing,” said Brian.
M landed the shuttle on a field surrounded by oak trees. The two of them took out their suits and put on regular cloths and back packs, and unspotted by the local Elorans, stepped outside. M pointed to the west-southwest and the two men started walking into the twilight. A breeze swept M’s chin, leaving a sour taste in his nostrils.
“Do you always select the specimen from this area?” asked Brian. M nodded. “’Cause you know this place?”
“Well,” said M. “It’s quite different now from the place I used to know.”
Brian was the one to nod this time. They walked silently for 10 minutes until Brian spotted flickering flames from the distance.
“How does it feel to be back?” asked Brian.
M kept walking, looking at the ground he stepped on. Millions of thoughts wandered through his mind — reflections on longing, the consumption of a planet, and dilemmas of all kinds. But he was unable to form a sentence from this swarm of thoughts, nor was he able to convince himself that any words he might utter could truly convey his feelings. At the very least he wanted to say that he did not know what to say, but a rush of sorrow stopped him.
Instead he replied: “It’s not the place that I used to know; so, technically, it’s not a homecoming.” But he didn’t believe what he said.
Three tents, apart from the others, isolated, and seemingly unguarded, squatted on the slope of a hill facing a sea of glimmering firelight — barely illuminating the night. While an anxious and curious Brian watched, M crawled toward one of the tents. Brian kept his eyes on the shadows cast on the canvas tent walls — shadows that moved slowly from one side of the tent to the other, blending with and then separating from each other, two shadows, one man and one woman.
M came crawling back, the scanner in his hand. He sat next to Brian and started his analysis.
“It looks good,” said M, ten seconds later. “Eighty-five percent chance of virus.”
“So, will you take the sample from this tent?” asked Brian.
“The blood sample first,” replied M immediately.
“I meant the blood sample, as well,” Brian said, stuttering.
“If you like, you can do the final job,” said M. “You can prepare the sample.”
Brian looked at M as if the man was at that moment chopping someone’s head off in front of him. The look was one of disgust, but with a certain level of respect.
“Get some sleep,” said M. “We have to wait till everyone goes to sleep. I’m notorious in these parts and I don’t want to hear my name whispered around again.”
Brian nodded, took out his sleeping bag from his pack and curled up into it. He peered up at the stars until he could no longer command his eyelids to stay open. Elora seemed like the most peaceful planet in the universe.
M woke Brian by shaking his shoulder. In the west it was still pitch black, while in the east a ray of morning light painted the sky a dark golden colour. There were noises around, dense and howling like the wind, all alike, all vibrating at the same frequency, and all repeating the same sound: M.
“I’ve got the blood sample,” said M pointing to a tube half filled with warm red liquid. “We have to return to the shuttle, but we’d better wait till everything settles down.” They were crouched behind some bushes and M looked through the branches scanning for movement. “Let’s give them an hour. Soon, they’ll gather at the main building, seeking the guidance of their Chief. Then we can go back to the shuttle unspotted.”
The voices moved around them in waves, echoing one name: “M, the Flying M.”
Brian was about to drift off to sleep in his shuttle seat, when the transmitter signalled an incoming message. He jerked awake with a start and checked the message, which confirmed the presence of the virus in the sample. Brian turned away from the console and saw M sleeping peacefully in the folding bed. Thinking of what would happen next, Brian felt a deep loathing, a repulsion toward something inhuman. He woke M.
“It’s positive,” he said.
They camped near the deserted tents behind the bushes for three days. M told Brian that everyone was probably still in the main building and they would move back to their tents once they felt secure. And so it happened. At dawn on the third day, the occupants — including the selected specimen — came to their tents. M preferred to wait until dark, so they did.
They waited for the last fire to die, for the last flame to go out, before they began crawling toward the tents. M was in front, a light-weight laser axe in one hand. Brian followed, carrying the cube case full of ice. M opened the canvas tent flap and stepped inside. He smelled burnt wood, a scent alien to him now. Lining up his aim, he brought the beam of the axe close to the neck of the sleeping man. Then he lifted the axe high and swung it downwards, hitting the exact same spot. With the initial blow, the body shook horribly, but fortunately no sound escaped from it. M placed the head in the case, still held by Brian, who was now shaking just as much as the corpse had a moment ago.
“Let’s move,” said M. “Get out and get some fresh air.”
They walked back to the place that they had camped. “We have to burn our suits here,” said M pointing to the dark red spots on both their suits. “You catch this shit through contaminated blood, and there is no anti-virus for it.”
Ten minutes later, they began their walk back to the shuttle in silence. Right before they arrived, M looked back at the silhouette of the old city, his hometown where he had been born. A feeling of despair caught his heart. He felt depressed, helpless, and alone. While gazing at the first waves of sunlight in the east, he didn’t notice the shadow flying at him. Knocking him to the ground, the apparition bit his bare hand with rage. It was the woman from the tent — the wife. M could see the deep cut in the woman’s hand as she grasped his bitten hand in hers, and mixed their blood irrevocably.
“Run,” shouted M to a shocked Brian. “Run back to the shuttle. They’ll come for you next.”
Brian ran frantically, raced inside the shuttle and started the engines immediately. As he took off, through the shuttle’s front windows he saw the woman lying on M, the woman crying with pain, banging on M’s chest and cursing in a language M did not understand.