Mystery and Crime Science Fiction posted September 5, 2012


Exceptional
This work has reached the exceptional level
two men on a desperate mission

Collision Course

by Fleedleflump

"This swamp smells worse than a cask conditioned curry fart." Chancer grimaced as his boot squelched into mud, sinking as deep as his calf. A bubble belched to the surface by his leg, echoing his comment.

Desh scowled. "This isn't a joke. If we can't increase our pace, we'll never make it to the weapons array in time."

"It's all a joke, Desh. Life's a joke." They trudged ahead for several minutes while the planetary satellite people called the Errant Moon loomed above. "Hell, if I'm on my way out, I'm at least gonna take the piss."

"Stay here if you'd like - you only serve to annoy me, anyway - but I will see this through. This mission is the most important moment since mankind took to the stars." Desh waved an arm expansively. "It's down to the two of us to do what's right."

"That's the biggest joke of all."

The swamp, a morass of rusty browns and blues, seethed and bubbled before them like a witch's cauldron. Shadows of trees lined the horizons, sentinels to the last gasps of humanity. They fought their way onwards. Chancer tried to ignore the ache in his thighs and a lethargy that slipped through his core like death's slow encroachment. They walked through humid air in an endless twilight - the local sun now cloaked by the moon they sought to stop. Chancer was sure the air never got so hot when he was young, but climate change had become an accepted fact of life.

Ahead was a building complex long since abandoned. A relic of the Colonisation Age, nobody knew how it worked any more. Rumour had it the complex housed a powerful weapons system - a part of Deliverance, the ship that brought them to New Hope in the first place. It was hearsay and supposition that fuelled this mission; a measure of how desperate the government had become. Find the weapons, turn them skyward, blow the crap out of the Errant Moon before it kills the world.

"If all else fails, unzip your flies and shake your wang at the problem," muttered Chancer.

"What?"

"Never mind - you wouldn't understand."

"Give up if you want, Chancer - I can do this on my own."

Chancer chose not to answer. Desh was a prize dickhead, but a prize dickhead with an aptitude for archaic software systems and the instinct for survival. They'd set out from Hope City numbering ten; some soldiers - now deceased - and a bunch of civilians with skills that might be useful. Nobody had travelled to the complex for decades - at least, nobody came back. Now they knew why. A constant battle with poisonous eels, aggressive infections, and hypothermia did for eight of them inside three weeks.

Now two men fought to reach their destination, ragged and spent; a software tech and a guy with a sneaking suspicion he got the job for asking difficult questions. As he smiled ruefully at the thought, Chancer turned to his companion.

"If this place is part of Deliverance, where's the rest of her?"

A frown flew at him from Desh's direction. "What are you talking about? We need to save our breath."

"Hey, I can walk and talk at the same time, you know. I'm serious - if we still had the original colony ship, we could blow this joint and find somewhere new."

"This conversation serves no purpose. We don't have Deliverance - activating the defence systems is our only option. You can stay behind and chat to yourself if that's your preference. Just stop distracting me."

"You have the personality of a halibut, you know that?"

"I simply-"

"A dead one."

It took them two days to reach the building - two days of alternating silence and bickering - and another one to dig deep enough through the sodden ground to find a doorway. What looked like old-world concrete as they approached turned out to be solid metal, discoloured by age. The entrance they uncovered was an airlock, still functioning. Something was providing power.

After weeks of hot marshlands, the hard floor felt strange.

"I don't think I've got any toes left," said Chancer, pulling at his boot laces.

"Don't look. Your sock could be the only thing holding your foot together."

"You're a barrel of laughs, alright," he said, taking the advice. "Why does this place need an airlock?"

Desh sighed. "I don't know and I don't care. We're probably too late to stop it now, but perhaps we should look for the controls anyway, see if we ever had a chance."

They explored the complex room by room, finding mostly empty spaces and what looked like dormitories, lined with empty bunks. The place was gigantic, and Chancer's ever-active mind was working overtime. Why would such a place be abandoned, and what purpose did it serve, sitting out here in a swamp? The walls had the plain look of utility and function; bare and solid. For somewhere clearly intended for a large population, its emptiness disturbed him deeply.

"This place gives me the creeps," he muttered as they crested a stairwell into a refectory. Empty chairs bore witness to nothing in a great swathe of tables. A servery sat dormant at one end, darkened and wrong.

Desh took a seat at one of the tables. "There's nowhere left to look. This place isn't what we thought."

"There're plenty of rooms we haven't seen." This didn't feel right - Desh was meant to be the dedicated one. "Come on, we have to try."

"You made it further than I ever expected, Chancer. I thought the soldiers might give me trouble, but I wrote you off from the start. That's why there was no accident waiting to take you down. I just assumed the bugs or cold would get you."

"You picked a ripe time to lose your marbles. Stay here if you want, Mr Serious. I'm gonna keep looking." Something in his colleague's expression made Chancer back away as he spoke.

Desh pulled a gun from his belt pouch. "I'm afraid I can't let you do that."

Before he'd finished talking, Chancer ran. Another staircase beckoned, leading up to a floor they'd not yet visited. Between the heartbeats pounding in his ears, there may have been a gunshot, but he kept running. Up the stairs, then up some more he went. His feet ached abominably and exhaustion threatened to trip him, but the end of the world is a powerful motivator. Somewhere in his addled thoughts, going to the top made sense - the radar arrays were on the roof, and presumably the weapons, too.

Ignoring several floors, he finally arrived, whooping for breath, at the top of the stairs. Plunging through a doorway, he heaved the metal door closed and threw the bolt. Even if this was the wrong place, getting shot by Desh didn't seem the right way to die; may as well take a front row seat as the Errant Moon tore the life from their planet.

Through vision turned hazy from his ordeals, Chancer explored the top floor. It turned out to be a single, large room, one side dominated by floor to ceiling glass. Through the window, all he could see was moon surface. We really don't have much time. The rest of the space was packed with consoles sporting a mind boggling array of displays and controls. He looked from one to the next, seeking something resembling weapons controls.

What he found rocked his reality to the core.

A display facing the viewing wall was covered with star charts. Centralised, a readout showed a small triangle labelled 'Deliverance' inching along a designated path. Just ahead of it, a blob that could only be the Errant Moon sat, stationary, immovable, implacable ...

"The moon isn't moving," he heard himself whisper as implications fired off in his mind, "we are." He slumped to the floor. "The whole world is Deliverance - we never disembarked." A tear tracked a path down the cleft of his nose, around the curve of his upper lip, and along the parting of his mouth. "The Errant Moon's not coming to get us - we're throwing ourselves on its mercy."

Purpose shot through him like electricity. If a course could be set, a course could be changed. They might be riding a modern day Titanic, too big and slow to turn at this late stage, but he was bloody well going to give it a shot. He pushed himself upright and looked again at the console. Buttons and sliders adorned the sides of the displays - surely something here could change their direction.

Before he could try anything, a crash from behind caused him to turn, and there was Desh, gun levelled at his chest, advancing with a red face and stony countenance.

"You just had to try, didn't you? I told you; I can't let you do that."

Chancer spread his hands in exasperation. "Why? This doesn't make any sense. We're here, and we have the means of survival in front of us. We need to use it!"

"We can't." Desh's expression looked apologetic - if apology came with a side dish of cruelty. "Deliverance doesn't have navigation controls. Hers was always meant to be a one way voyage."

"Let me at least try!"

"Even if I wanted to, I'm not permitted. You uncovered too much truth, Chancer. Whatever you think your mission is, mine is incontrovertible. I'm here to make certain you don't succeed."

Chancer felt his existence being sucked into the shadowy depths of the gun barrel, brandished at his face with unwavering precision. "You're killing us. You're killing everyone."

"Finally, you see how serious this is. Where's your precious sense of humour now, when the chips are down?"

"Running down my leg," he growled. "You wanna know how scared I am? My heart's beating so fast, it's like an alien's trying to bust through my ribs. I feel like my gut's eating my sphincter. Guns do that, Desh. But, am I scared of you? No, not one little bit. You're just a sad victim who'd rather die than fight for the life of everyone he knows. There's no justification for that."

Desh's expression didn't change; not even by the merest flicker. "The stories we're all told as children - of the great Colonisation Age, mankind's glorious journey into the stars - are lacking one important detail." He paused, making sure he had full audience attention. "Deliverance is a prison ship. We didn't leave Earth to colonise other planets. We were banished, many generations ago; sentenced to eventual death at the hands of an interstellar event. This is a death sentence the governments of Earth didn't need to carry out directly."

The ramifications almost overloaded his thoughts, but Chancer clung to the question he last came to. "They wouldn't waste a piece of hardware like this just to kill people. Why would they send us so far, on a ship big enough to build cities on, just to murder us?"

"We're not the descendants of just any convicts, and this isn't just a flying coffin on its way to cremation. Centuries ago, a joint task force initiated a global round-up on Earth. They took every mafia family, every triad organisation, every warlord, and rounded up all their members and relatives simultaneously. Combined with the population of every prison on the planet, the resulting crime nation was the stock from which we grew; our ancestors. Deliverance signified a new era for the planet - a fresh beginning where nobody started out wrong. It's also the most complex data gathering machine they could build, sending back readings from a distance never before reached, and evolutionary measurements of the populace. We're not just here to die, Chancer. We're the greatest experiment in history, about to become a footnote. It's the drug that matters, not the monkeys you kill along the way."

"But what's your part in all this - why are you helping them?" Chancer could barely hear his own voice, crushed beneath the humbling pressure of shock.

Desh smiled, an expression that haunted rather than graced his face. "A sacred vow. In return for clemency towards his family, my ancestor agreed to a solemn duty. His line would ensure Deliverance saw her mission through. We passed the duty down over more generations than anyone expected, ending with me, here, ushering in the final moment of glory."

Chancer felt his face flush with anger. "So, I have to die just because my ancestors were nasty bastards and you come from a family of lunatics? No, I don't buy that. This console works, Desh - I'm certain of it. With a little ingenuity and half a pint of luck, we can turn this turkey aside. Our nation can live on. Who cares about the crimes of our ancestors?"

"I do." The merest of flickers touched his mouth, and then his hand pulsed as he pulled the trigger. Roaring in anger, Chancer threw himself forward. A spike of pain sliced into his stomach as the deafening report of the gun assaulted his ears. Desh had time to look shocked but no chance to fire a second round. Chancer crashed his fist into the man's jaw and he sprawled to his back. He followed up with two solid kicks to the ribs, and stamped on Desh's wrist until he dropped the gun.

He bent to pick up the weapon, ignoring the pain burning in his abdomen. I'm dying, as if it matters.

"What can you do, little funny man?" said Desh quietly from the floor.

Chancer shot him through the face and dropped the gun, letting it clatter to the floor with muffled percussion. A numbness infused his face as he looked at what he'd done, but survival stoked the fires of instinct. "I can try."

Adrenalin pounding through his veins, he turned away from Desh's body and attempted to save the world.




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I hope you enjoyed the read. I chose to use the required picture as a scene setting and plot device, dropping my characters into the middle of it.

Mike :-)
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