A Little Late

A_Little_LateThe dust sloshed back and forth across the hall in crashing waves. They were slow waves, but if one watched the progress of a single mote throughout the day, as Professor Jeffrey had done on one lazy Sunday when swimming through piles of ungraded papers didn’t appeal to him, they would find that the mote moved rhythmically back and forth across the hall several times throughout the day.

It had to do with the fact that this hallway connected the chemistry wing of the building to the physics wing. The chemistry wing had an air conditioner that was always working too hard, making the entire wing roughly the temperature of the city morgue, while the one in the physics wing coughed and sputtered sometimes, but that was about the full extent of its usefulness. This made the two wings vastly different temperatures, thus, there was always a breeze rushing through the slightly slanted hall. While the bottom floor of the building got plenty of traffic, and was swept regularly, this hallway, on the second floor connected barely used labs to storage areas, and was rarely traversed by anyone other than the occasional lost student, and, of course, Professor Jeffrey.

Along the hallway there were three office doors, one was his, the other two belonged to other faculty that spent time in their research labs instead of “trekking all the way up into the wastelands” as he had heard one of them, Professor Laren, refer to it. Dr. Jeffrey, however, liked it up there. He appreciated the solitude. It was late on a Saturday afternoon, so Dr. Jeffrey was fairly certain that he had the entire building to himself, but this hallway didn’t seem much more lonely than the middle of the week. He normally worked at home on the weekends, but Jaylene’s death had him distracted and he couldn’t focus on anything at home, so had decided to come to campus to try to do some mindless grading for a bit.

Jaylene had been one of the students in his introductory mechanics class, and had died the afternoon before. She had tripped on the stairs in this very building after coming out of his lecture. He had already disappeared out the side door when it happened, eager to find his way to the sandwich waiting in his office which he hadn’t had a chance to eat for lunch. He had been nearby when it happened, and had listened to the sirens as he munched down his sandwich. He had rushed through the meal, because he didn’t like to eat in front of his students and knew that at any moment there would be a knock on his door. It would be that little freshman girl who sat in the front and usually asked questions: the girl who had forgotten her assignment in her dorm room that day. The very same student that had asked if she could turn it in late and he had said that if she hurried, and made it back to his office before he left for the evening, she would get full credit. The very same student that had been rushing down the stairs and tripped. Jaylene, the very same student that had busted open her skull on the stairs and died twitching in a pool of fluids that leaked from her head while Dr. Jeffrey enjoyed his sandwich, expecting a meek little knock on the door at any moment.

The knock never came, though, and eventually he did leave, after waiting around for a little while extra, wondering if she would show up. He gave her the extra time because he had a soft spot for the girl. She was bright, and asked questions, rather than playing on her phone and thinking that he couldn’t see it, like the rest of the class. Her assignments were usually fairly thoughtful, though not excessively so, she was an undergrad after all, but he always recognized her papers in the pile because she had a tendency to make little doodles on the edges of the page. For some reason he found it endearing. Lately, since Halloween was coming, they had been of pumpkins and ghosts.

Dr. Jeffrey had made his way downstairs and outside, when he came across a group of four or five of his students standing around outside. By then the body was gone, but looking at their faces, Dr. Jefferey had immediately known that there had been one. When he had asked, they had told him, passing the story back and forth as each one, in turn, tried and choked up.

Finally piecing together what had happened, Dr. Jeffery had sat down on the pavement. It hadn’t been a gentle crouch, or a smooth seat, it was the motion of a man that had just been punched in the stomach.

Now, Dr. Jeffrey let himself into his office, the sounds of the lock clicking open sounded loud in the cavernous space of the windy hall. His office was small, but he liked it. It had shelves on one wall, overstuffed with books that looked like they had been used hard. His desk was up against another wall, piled with papers and more books. The third wall held a whiteboard and the fourth was almost entirely the door and a framed copy of his diploma. Most offices he had been in on this campus had windows, and sometimes he thought that might be nice, but his didn’t have one and he was usually okay with it, the sunlight outside was often a distraction. After settling down in his chair, he spun back to look at the door, which had closed behind him. The building was old, and it was obvious everywhere one looked, the junction between the door jamb and the wall was no exception, and it sported a crack that ran almost the entire length of the door. He didn’t do it intentionally, but when he sat at his desk thinking, his eyes always found themselves running up the crack, exploring its twists, turns and dead ends.

Dr. Jeffrey let his eyes play Lewis and Clark on the crack now, as he thought again about Jaylene. This was his fault. She had been rushing because of him. That little light had been extinguished, why? Helpless anger started to bubble up in his chest and he sighed a long quivering breath as he wondered why he had told her to rush. He couldn’t have known, but was it really necessary? He hadn’t had anywhere he needed to be. He could have sat and enjoyed his sandwich, but no, he had decided to assert his dominance over his little student and had gotten some sick pleasure out of the thought of making her scramble to go get the paper. His eyes were starting to burn, and his jaw was clenched as he turned back to his desk and picked up the stack of assignments that had been turned in the day before, meaningless papers that a girl had died over. He started to shake. He needed to do something, he felt like something was floating through his torso up into his throat: a building pressure. He wanted to punch something, or break something. His eyes flicked around the room, as he tried to calm himself, but then his eyes landed again on the stack of pages in front of him and he settled on taking his anger out on the meaningless pieces of paper.

“DAMNIT!” he shouted as he threw the pile towards the door, trying to fling all the savagery out of his body but only feeding it. He stood and kicked the papers, which scattered across the floor. He howled with rage as he turned around and punched the back of his chair, tipping it over.

This was his fault, and for no reason.

Suddenly he saw himself and realized that he was throwing a tantrum like a small child: something he hadn’t done in many years. Suddenly, seeing how pathetic his actions were, his anger melted away into sadness. The resolve left his knees and he crumpled to the floor in sobs, the tears running down his face to land on a few of the pages that littered the floor.

After a while, his tears having stopped flowing and his breathing back under control, he picked himself up and stared at the disarray on the ground that had recently been a tidy stack of assignments. He was about to start picking them up when he noticed one over near the door. Only the top corner stuck out from beneath those on top of it, but his blood turned to ice as he recognized a small drawing of a pumpkin. He slowly bent to pick it up, his body shaking again. This time though, it was something closer to terror than anger. It could be someone else’s, of one of her other assignments, he reasoned, but he knew it wasn’t. He picked it up and looked it over. It was the right assignment and it was hers, complete with a little doodle of a pumpkin and a ghost.

Written on the opposite corner in her distinctive handwriting and blue pen was a little note that said, “Sorry it’s a little late, I’ve been a bit scatterbrained lately.”


Little Problems


A small stone dislodged itself from the hillside, shaken loose by the thundering engine. The rock, no bigger than a man’s fist, danced down the stone slopes above the temple. It bounced off of one rocky protrusion, then ricocheted off the head of the giant serpentine creature that watched over the path below with lifeless stone eyes. From there, the small rock made its way across a few stairs, almost coming to a rest on the edge of the last one, then tumbled down a steeper slope of granite, making sporadic ticking noises until it came to rest in a pile of like stones obscuring part of the walkway. Once the stone’s several moments of adventure were over everything was still again, just as it appeared to have been for a very long time.

The engines, having been cut, left everything in silence and I stared out the window for a long moment, just appreciating the lack of white noise. It had been a long time since I had gotten the opportunity to appreciate real silence. No ship rumbles, no whirs, whines, or fans, just my thoughts, my heart, and my breathing. It was blissful for the 20 seconds that it lasted, then the computer sensed that carbon dioxide levels were rising slightly and the fans on the scrubbing unit came to life. I noted that, had I held my breath, I may have gotten a bit more than 20 seconds of peace.

As I checked the scanner again for any signs of life, my mind wandered to how excited Kathy would have been at this moment. We had trained our whole lives for this moment, all four of us, but I was the only one that had made it. We had all known the risks of traveling 46 lightyears from home and more importantly, it turned out, the risks of spending 80 years frozen in a tin can hurtling through space. As much as I missed them, and had mourned the loss of each one of them, it was hard to dwell on anything but the fact that I had finally made it. Still, something was wrong, I was sensing no life but my own.

I made my way to the hatch, securing my helmet and let myself out. As the scientists back on earth had determined from so far away, the ships sensors seemed to indicate that the atmosphere could sustain me, though I would just feel a little out of breath all the time, like I was jogging at high altitude. I knew what that felt like, because it was another thing they had made me do in training, it wasn’t pleasant, but the discomfort was manageable. Still, until the computer’s sweep for anything likely to be an airborne contagion was done, I was determined to breath the air that I brought from home. That, however, didn’t mean that I couldn’t take a look around.

Since I had woken up two years ago and started the gradual deceleration process, I had been receiving messages from earth, but they were frustratingly vague. They didn’t address any actual needs or concerns because the ones I received today were sent 46 years ago. My message telling them that there had been a fire while we slept and it had killed Kathy, Laurence, and Marisol had only been traveling for two years. The people who received the message, sitting in the command center, would be the grand -children of the voices that wished me and my three dead partners luck today, the generation in between would be the ones keeping the chairs warm now, knowing that we were due to land at this very moment, wondering if we made it, having to wait 46 years to hear what I said as my booted foot struck the surface of the planet and buried itself in the charcoal colored sand. It would be the year 2337 on earth then. There were hundreds of hours of preparation that had gone into this speech, everyone important already knew what I was supposed to say when I became the first human to set foot on the home-world of an intelligent alien life-form.

Had Kathy been by my side, I may have even done the whole rant like I was supposed to. I may have talked about the bringing together of such distant life, of “reaching for the stars and, perhaps, finally finding a friendly hand to help us up,” but it would have been for her, not for the gawking masses on the earth. It most certainly would not have been for the people who fancied themselves in charge, having scripted every word and, for some reason, expecting me to follow orders sent so long ago, while I stand so far away. They were little people on a little world, I saw that now. The cameras on the side of the ship, though, were pointed at me, and the faint green light in my helmet was on, indicating that the audio from my suit was being broadcast back to earth, so I thought I ought to say something. “Shit, guys,” I said, “that was a long drive, but I made it!”

I grinned as I thought of the immediate decay from grin to angry frown as people holding their scripts on the earth 46 years from now let the pages flutter to the ground scrambling to stop broadcasting my curse words to “young impressionable ears.” Little people on a little world with little problems.

I only briefly entertained the idea that, perhaps, my solitude and my loss had caused me to grow jaded. “As feared, though,” I said, adopting a more serious tone, “the sensor readings taken from space seem to be consistent with what I’m getting down here. There are signs that someone did live here, but nobody appears to be home.” Grinning again, I added “Guess we should have called before coming over…”

We had sent the first message out here to the 47 Ursae Majoris system in the year 2001 and in 2094, we received a reply. Ours had been personal and distinctly human, theirs had been unmistakably the work of intelligent life, a repeated series of the first 29 prime numbers. That, however, was all. There was no extra information, just a response that only said “we are here.”

Ecstatic to know that we are not alone, we sent other messages, but 92 years is a long time to wait for a response. We waited though, and not a single one came. In the meantime, the Hermes project had been started. Hermes was our ship, my ship, that carried me and three corpses one way on a 46 lightyear jaunt across space on a mission that was well summed up by saying, “Hey guys, did you get our messages?”

I tell you this now, only so you may fully appreciate why I chuckled so madly at my comment about calling, that I managed to trip and fall flat on my face. I managed to pull myself to my feet, which is no small feat in a space suit, let me tell you. Then I started walking towards the temple, brushing myself off, and reckoning that I had earned the laughter at my expense that my trip would generate when it finally reached my audience.

I had been calling it the temple since I noticed it and decided to set the ship down there, because, to me, it looked like some sort of temple, and there was nobody else to lend an opinion, so “we” unanimously decided that this is what it shall be dubbed, without any sort of a clue as to what its actual function was.

The immediate area was flat, wide, dry, open desert full of dark colored sand and no oceans. There were none on this planet, though, apparently, it maybe rained sometimes. In front of me towered a large granite outcropping. It was roughly U shaped and I stood at the opening looking in. The entrance to the temple was carved into the stone wall that made up the far side. There was a single straight path that lead from me, under a cracked stone bridge to the base of stairs that ran up the hundred feet or so to the entrance, which was a dark rectangle framed by surprisingly Greek-looking columns. Above the entrance, there was a platform that held what appeared to be a chair.

I made my way under the unstable-looking bridge, and past the pile of rocks that had poured down onto the path and been topped by the one I watched fall as I settled my ship into the sand. As I walked, I looked cautiously at the gargantuan dragon-like statues that looked down at me from above.

Kathy, at this point, would have started chattering about the near universality of dragon myths on earth. She would have loved to find them here as well, there would have been no shutting her up after that.

I’m pretty sure that I loved Kathy. We had grown close in the three years that the four of us spent on Hermes while it accelerated to top speed. I’m not sure that I would have loved her if the dating pool had included more than one engineer, Kathy, and one biologist, Marisol; but it had, then when we went to sleep, she, and the other two were taken from me by a fire. A fire that had completely destroyed the two women’s pods, then had somehow been extinguished in time to leave mine and Laurence’s relatively intact. The fire had left a few scorch marks on mine and had melted his nutrient hose shut. He had been left unharmed by the fire, but his body was starved and he died, then rotted for 39 years before I woke up. We had been one big happy group when I closed my eyes, thinking of the adventure that awaited us, but then, in a flash, I was awake, and my only companions were the charred remains of two women and the dessicated corpse of a man.

I watched the statues as I moved slowly down the path. My breathing echoed in the helmet and the fans roared, but I could still hear the slow crunch of each footstep. There were no sounds but these, and no movements but mine. The eyes of the dragon-things almost appeared to move to follow me as I made my way down the path, but I knew it was just an illusion.

As I reached the bottom of the staircase, it struck me that this was probably no temple. Sure, their civilization must be different enough from ours to defy logic, we had been trained with that in mind, but there were certain things that seemed to be universal. I glanced around from my new perspective and I could see a series of small doors in the rock walls high above the path. The doors were sealed with large stone doors and lead out onto platforms. It was a universal truth that if you didn’t want company you closed the door, and that gravity was on your side if you attacked from above. I no longer thought that this was a temple, it was set up to be easily defended and nearly impenetrable, it was a fortress. Though, I had already adopted the name “temple” in my head, so I kept calling it that.

This realization made me uncomfortable for several reasons. First, it didn’t look like they were going to turn out to be the peace loving creatures we had hoped. Secondly, why have defenses set up if you aren’t going to use them? I had been holding out hope that our sensors that looked for signs of life just didn’t know what to look for. We had never met life from another planet before, it could be of a form that we couldn’t even fathom as life – my eyes darted back to the dragons as I thought this. The fact that I had walked into such a fortified structure meeting no resistance, though, did not bode well for the idea that anyone was here.

I felt like I should call out something like “Hello?! Anybody home?” as if I had just popped by the neighbor’s house and found the door open. The silence of the place forbid me uttering any such thing, so I walked up the steps, one at a time, trying to make as little noise as possible.

Once I was about halfway up the stairs, I noticed that the dragons were no longer looking at me; I had finally left the range that their creepy, lifeless eyes could follow. They all looked away from the entrance, warning off intruders. Not taking the hint, I pushed further.

I had come so far. I was a little man from a little planet, who had made a big journey, and now needed big answers.

The entrance had been dark, but my suit had sensed it and turned on lights, illuminating the cavernous interior. Every sound thundered back and forth, echoing around the large dark space. There were many entrances and exits to the room I stood in, but I wasn’t immediately interested in them as much as I was in the huge stone pedestal at the center. You see, my specialty was decoding written language. I had studied, in detail, decryption and encryption techniques. I knew all about the history and methods that had been used to decode ancient languages on earth, and I had learned all the basic scientific principles that our scientists on earth thought might be useful in locating, or understanding a primer.

What originally appeared to be a primer had actually been a direction to the back wall of the building where there were laid out tables and tables of words, phrases and descriptions with context. They included references to specific fundamentals of physics with small pictures and diagrams. With the use of this wall of text, obviously laid out to give an alien reader a chance, I was able to get a shaky grasp of the language used on the pedestal.

The words on the pedestal composed a simple message that only took me two days to translate. One of the hardest things was figuring out the dates, but, knowing the period of the planet around the star had helped, and the writing referenced a message, that I assume was the one from earth, so I was able to lay out a time frame.

Essentially the message said. “If you have found a use for this planet, it is yours. We received an invitation to colonize a planet in the [No translation] region [93 earth years] ago and will be traveling for the next [90 earth years]. Under the supervision of [No translation, though it seems to be an organization or government name], ownership of this planet is dissolved.” Then it was dated with what I was able to transcribed as something like the year 2140 on earth, and followed by a symbol that looked like a horse shoe with a line down the center. That was 40 years after Hermes was launched. I crunched the numbers in my head.

The aliens were due to arrive on earth to “colonize” in the earth year 2230. The messages I sent while I stood there, wouldn’t reach the earth until 2237.

My blood ran cold. I knew that an invasion was on its way, and wouldn’t be there for another 39 years, but I couldn’t warn them.