‘This is my worst nightmare.’ Thought captain Roscoe Waterson. He was willing to go down with the ship but losing the lives of his crew had always been his greatest fear. And now, it seemed like that was about to happen.
Another blast shook the 60-foot spacecraft. Through the curvature of his windshield, he saw another two dozen scraps of metal explode off the left side in a puff of silver and yellow glitter. Before looking forward again, his eyes lingered on his co-pilot, slumped in the seat next to him. His head was cocked at a grotesque, unnatural angle. The dead man had been like a brother for over twenty years. They met during their Galaxy United Academy classes and later flown over 49 missions together. On this mission, besides himself and his co-pilot, Philemon were: First Officer Samara Singh, Second Officer Salvator ‘Suey’ Mickelson, Doctor Marcella Rose-Ann Smith, and Flight Engineer Barnaby John Berry.
The first violent assault had shaken the ship like a snow globe, suddenly, without warning. Another blast from the sleek gray-green ship behind him rocked his battered vessel. The attacking ship had impressive fire power and bristled with laser turrets. It was entirely, frustratingly, superior to his own. With no response from Mickelson, being able to return fire from his position was a no-go.
The heart-wrenching screams from the cabin behind him petered out. A woman moaned. ‘Marcella?’ He heard labored breathing- the shuddering sound of someone inhaling and exhaling thick, watery jelly.
“SINGH!” He shouted. No answer, just the breathing- Darth Vader under water. “BERRY!...ANYONE!”
‘I should have known. God damnit!’ Becky always told him, “Rossy, just trust your instincts.”
Before he fell into a grief darker than the universe around him, the screen over his head finally came back on line, it flickered like an old-fashioned tv, black and blueish lines roiled down the screen. Desperate for human contact, he jabbed a couple of buttons and swiped an on-screen toggle.
A voice struggled through invisible speakers, “Water…bzzzzzzzz..kay? ZZZZZZZ…kikikik…hear me?!” One more adjustment and the screen blipped into focus. It was the head of Galaxy United himself. The handsome chiseled face on the screen was such a welcome sight, Waterson’s eyes blurred. He exhaled a gust of fear infused air, not realizing he’d been holding his breathe.
“General Tyson! Everlovin’ Jesus Pants---!”
“Waterson! What’s happening man!? Receiving code red!” Tyson’s face on the screen reddened with frustration, his steely blue-grey eyes bulged with stress. His slicked back white hair stood stiffly from his head in tufts as if he’d been pulling it.
Waterson shook his head. His blonde hair bristled against the inside dome of his helmet. His wild dark eyes were focused on the General, he willed himself enough calm to find his tongue, hands crazy-glued to the reaction wheel.
“Sir. General Sir. The Celestrons! They’re attacking! But I don’t get…they could have blown us to smithereens!”
The screen flickered as another blast assaulted the wounded spaceship. Something ‘pinged’, then ‘hisssssssssss…’
Oily charcoal smoke spiraled with white steam behind the listing ship. It dissipated rapidly into the frigid blackness.
The screen cleared. And the solid, rocky face of the general was replaced by Lieutenant General Doctor Irving. He was the biggest brain in the laboratory and the main man behind this mission. His sweating face was as puffy and pale as risen pizza dough. Waterson figured he’d not seen the sun in decades, preferring his sterile, cavernous laboratories.
Irving said, “The race was peaceful…Their behavior the past three years, studied by experts…by me!”
“Yes!” screamed Waterson. “A successful alliance!”
“They seem to be playing cat and mouse with you.”
Three days before his spacecraft, the Buttercup, was assaulted in deep space, Captain Roscoe Waterson was comfortable in a guest house on the planet of Mooglican.
The ship was named by Waterson’s daughter, Everbeen. She was three. Buttercup was her favorite Power Puff Girl. The crew loved the name. It grounded them, reminded them of their other lives at home on earth. Besides, the crew were tight as family. The had crowded into the hospital room the day Ever was born. Each member, an auntie or unkie.
The craft was yellow over silver, customized to suit the name. It was a newer, more compact ship than its predecessor of 2084, but with all the options that the old schoolers called ‘bells and whistles.’
The ship’s landing on the black, craggy planet had been easy, without any complications. The excited crew of six disembarked, their boots puffed onto a surface that was hard and glassy like obsidian, with rivers of soft silty black sand, sand that much resembled the black volcanic beaches of The Big Island, Hawaii.
They had been met by about sixty Celestrons. They were creatures scary in malevolent appearance: four long thin, insectile legs with two upper arms, and long tubular bodies with triangular heads. The eyes were baseball sized, with tiny whirling flickers, like campfire sparks in a wind gust. The head scientist, Dr. Irving, had named them Celestrons because they resembled portable celestial telescopes. Their outer shell was chitinous, shiny black, like that of crickets.
The crew of six wore their lightweight gravity suits- white, with reflecting yellow and silver strips down the sleeves and legs. The American flag and Galaxy United logo were embroidered on their chests opposite their names. The wore clear globe helmets.
The entire Celestron race was female, they procreated in labs. The tall black leader had come forward, bowed her head, and chirruped. Their legs ended in segmented, four fingered tentacles. With an eerie imitation of human hands, she beckoned the crew to follow her. They did. The Celestron crowd parted, the crew walked/air-bounced through moon-like gravity after the leader. The crowd followed at a respectable distance. They chattered in a clicking, chirping behind them like excited children on a fieldtrip. They sounded like crickets giggling.
For the previous three years, Dr. Irving had been communicating with them- studying their language, customs, beliefs, and so forth. He had developed a translator for the crew- it was essentially an iphone type of device, similar to the 2080 version, but with an advanced translator application. Once inside their facilities, they would be able to plug into their master computer and communicate freely.
The alien compound was a world on a world. Immense, it was roughly eighteen miles in diameter, with a protective dome like a bubble through which the galaxies were viewed. Individual sleek, stalagmite-type structures rose to the underside of the dome in a thousand places, like giant hill ant hives. A million smaller, dome-topped dwellings mushroomed from the ground, resembling the modernist structures of Japan. They glowed with phosphorescence and flickered with movement. There were thousands of these ‘cities’ encompassing the Mars-sized sphere.
Waterson’s crew were led into the dome through a series of air-locked passages that had been constructed specially for the requirements of their human visitors. They emerged into what resembled a space age black Jetson’s-Marriott resort. The Celestrons apparently were impervious to changes in gravity, they needed no alteration in body structure to adjust. The crew, once inside their guest quarters removed their cumbersome helmets cautiously. The air was sweet, with sandy-cinnamon notes. The soft black sand was the source, so the pleasant scent permeated pretty much everything. The warm atmosphere was dialed in for human comfort. The crew shed their spacesuits and relished the spacious interior of the structure.
The translator was integrated to a blinking wall of sleek electronics by Samara Singh, Waterson’s officer in charge of communications.
Singh gave Waterson the thumbs up after working the miniature keyboard about ten minutes. Waterson clamped on the headphones and adjusted the mouthpiece.
The leader’s head extended on a neck that telescoped out a foot. She lifted a foreleg and one of her thin, tentacle-like segmented fingers telescoped out two feet. It plugged into an outlet like an EV charging.
Respectfully, Waterson waited for the creature to initiate the two species’ first communications face to face.
“Welcome friends from far away.” Surprisingly, the voice was that of the vintage virtual assistant, Alexa.
Behind Waterson, his crew clapped and pogoed up and down with happy excitement.
Waterson said, “Thank you my friend, for having us as guests to your beautiful planet.”
The alien leader seemed pleased and proud. Her thick, tube-like body tilted upwards a foot as if puffing proudly. She now looked down upon Waterson. He was not comfortable in this position and wondered if she had intended it so.
He said, “I am Waterson. We call you Celestrons. What are you actually named?”
The leader said, “Call me Tan. We are delighted with your name for us.”
They conversed two hours. The other five humans sat on tall, comfy motorized roller stools. They watched the historical interaction as if in the front seats of the biggest Oscar ceremony ever. Celestrons did not use chairs, their legs simply telescoped into their bodies; they ‘sat’ opposite their guests, outnumbering them by six times. Again, the subtle shows of domination unnerved the captain. As the Celestrons watched the humans, the ember sparks in their eyes slowly turned crimson, then into a throbbing blood red glow.
Smith shivered, gooseflesh rose on her pale, freckled arms. “That’s rather unnerving.” She whispered to Berry, “Don’t you think?” She tucked a long auburn strand behind her ear like she always did when nervous.
All the red glows focused her way.
Berry bent to her sideways, and whispered back under his thick dark mustache, “Uh, it’s downright creepy.”
Shift, eyes on him now.
Mickelson, pale, bald and bespeckled, softly went, “Shhhhhhhh! We certainly don’t want to offend them.”
The round red glows halved in size as if the creatures were smiling.
Singh rolled closer to Smith, put a sisterly arm around her, and stroked the goose pimples down. Her dark skin and doe-like eyes were a pretty contrast to her shipmate’s features. She whispered, “I totally concur. Creepville, man.”
Shift, back to the women.
Suddenly the eyes brightened to fun-loving fireflies-in-snow-globes once again.
The entire crew breathed a sigh of relief and smiled hesitantly.
Waterson was unnerved, it had to be coincidence that the Celestrons’ eyes responded to his crew’s dialogue…as if they understood what they were saying.
Over the next three days, the crew took turns communicating with the Celestrons through the translator.
They partook in the food at the banquets, though it was often difficult because the food sometimes squirmed on the plate. Once stabbed and still, the food was delicious, like the freshest of sushi. Waterson felt like the adventurous foodie traveler called Bordain his grandparents had watched on their flat screen tv.
When the astronauts’ mission was complete, they prepared to leave. Waterson waited for the okay from Berry, the engineer. Mickelson oversaw the re-plenishing of supplies and gave him a thumb’s up when satisfied.
Berry approached Waterson, frowning. “What’s wrong?” asked Waterson.
“Well, nothing really,” replied Berry. “But while inspecting the outer fuselage door I heard something, from under the ship. There was nothing there. But I felt watched the whole time…”
Waterson said, “As much as I enjoy making history and all, I can’t wait to leave. There’s something wrong here I can’t put my finger on.”
Berry said, “There’s something else. There are fine scratches on the outer panels beneath the injector rudders, both sides. Very faint. I know they weren’t there three days ago. I inspected thoroughly for entry damage.”
‘Thorough’ is your middle name. And you found nothing wrong? Everything ship-shape? Correct?”
Berry nodded, “Yes sir. Internally, she’s just like she stepped off the showroom floor.”
Waterson smiled. “Let’s hit the sky!”
A sea of shiny black Celestrons gathered around The Buttercup, leaving a wide path through their center. The crew boarded, the Celestrons waved their long black insectile arms in a goodbye gesture they had picked up from the humans. Waterson thought to himself, ‘Hope I didn’t pick up any habits of theirs. I’d give Ever nightmares.’
“…My reports were accurate…” Waterson continued. “Everything was just as you documented, Dr Irving. We were treated like royal guests…but…”
Waterson realized he could no longer hear that awful breathing. Probably for the best.
“But what?” asked Dr. Irving. Another blast from the left side. Another spray of spaceship glitter. The jolt so violent the ship rolled like a car off an embankment. Everything electrical buzzed out, including the video monitor.
“…but my intuition…” Waterson said quietly to no one at all, before falling unconscious. “I felt they were faking.”
Roscoe opened his eyes.
He lay in a field of tall grass. “I dreamed I was in a Hollywood movie…” A song from his grampa’s era played in his head.
It was warm and sunny and wonderful. Fat white cotton balls hung in the cerulean sky. Insects chirped nearby- pretty, shiny black crickets. He sat up on his right elbow and saw nothing but grassy rolling hills in all directions. Vivid green and flaxen, dotted with white, pink, and yellow wildflowers, like in The Sound of Music. They were on the top of the tallest hill.
Everbeen sat in the grass in front of him. She wore an old-fashioned blue pinafore, faded and soft. The fine blonde hair she’d inherited from her dad was tied in a long ponytail; the hush of a breeze blew the undone strands into her face. She was concentrating on the flower chain she was weaving in her hands. A long one, to match the one she wore around the top of her head. He would wear it too. He laughed at the thought, and she looked up.
“Daddy! You’re awake!”
The earth trembled then. Rumbling vibrated the air. Evers’s eyes grew wide as she swiveled her head from side to side. “Daddy!?”
A dark, planet-sized shadow rose slowly behind his daughter, ascending, cresting the hill. An immense black sphere, it blotted out the sun. The air chilled.
“No!” He screamed and leapt to his feet.
The air pulsed with the heartbeat of the alien craft. His own heart was about to explode. He scooped up Ever, she burst his eardrum with a scream. Wildflowers rained from her lap. As he ran down the hill with the child in his arms, he felt insects crunch under his bare feet, poor crickets.
No matter how far he ran, the circular shadow overtook him.
The earth suddenly heaved upwards. His feet kept running in the air like a not-funny cartoon’s.
Gravity sucked him down. To shield the child in his arms, he landed hard on his back. ‘WHAM!’ His head bounced and all went black.
His throbbing eyes felt more like tumors, swollen and sore. He cracked them open a sliver and white-hot pain sizzled through them. He shut them again. He tried to raise a hand to shield them for another try and found he could not. ‘Whaaaaa?’
He could not move his head either. ‘Paralyzed from the neck down?!’
Then, as he came to, his senses sharpened. He felt the thick rubber straps binding him to his bed. ‘Wait. No. Too hard for a bed. A table.’
He panicked and opened his eyes as wide as he could, still only a sliver. So bright. Tears streamed. As he blinked them away, his vision cleared. A strap across his forehead and another over his chin held his head firmly in place. He tested his arms again and felt the straps dig in. He was not surprised to feel his abdomen and legs just as securely fastened.
‘An accident?’ Then, slowly, in fragments, his last flight played in his head in fits and starts, like an ancient reel to reel film in what they had called a movie theatre. ‘My crew, dead. Impossible…true.’
More liquid flooded his eyes and he squeezed them shut. When he opened them, a doctor was in the room, his white-coated back was to him, eight feet away. He had obviously been alerted to a change in his patient’s vitals and had come to examine the readouts.
He thought, ‘The whole thing was a dream then! Just a horrible nightmare!’ He laughed. It came out like a mad dog coughing up a giant hairball.
“Hey…” croaked Waterson. He could barely hear his own voice and tried again. “Doctor.”
The doctor ignored him and kept jotting notes on his Apple Hologram 55. Grinning like a mad man, Waterson said, “Did you get all that? Record it? That was one crazy dream, huh? What a horror movie that’ll make! Right?”
Confused, he attempted to get the doctor’s attention again, “Doc, what’s wrong with me? Can you undo these? I’m awfully thirsty…”
A second doctor came into the room. The two men in white coats looked over the notes on the modern Apple gizmo.
The doctors turned around. Lieutenant General Doctor Irving! And General Tyson! Neither doctor said anything, and Waterson wondered if they had heard him. Maybe he was still sleeping. As the doctors peered over him closer, one on each side of the ‘bed’, they blacked out some the blinding white dazzle. Waterson closed his aching eyes with relief. He was in safe hands; they would fix him. He felt a cool hard plastic straw against his lips. He opened his mouth a fraction and felt joyously cool water trickle down his parched throat. He sucked with vigor and after a few seconds realized the water tasted of sand and cinnamon. ‘Odd.’
He opened his eyes as Doctor Irving removed the straw. The straw was a long thin black appendage that was telescoping back into the sleeve of Irving’s lab coat. Waterson gagged in disgust but willed himself not to vomit. On his back, unable to turn his head, he’d choke to death. ‘Might be for the best.’
“Doc! General! Please wake me up! Enough is enough!”
When Doctor Irving spoke at last, the voice was that of Alexa, though infected with loathing, “My dear Captain, I’m afraid your nightmare begins now.”