WotF

The Cartographer
by Maxim Salnikov

A gust of wind hit the drone, tilting my view of the forest below, the drone’s cameras feeding static-ridden visuals into my VR helmet back on Earth.

I gently pushed the flight stick with my right hand as I pushed the throttle with my left. The drone glided over the red-leaved trees. Nothing. There was no sign of the creature. I brought the throttle to neutral, hovering at half a mile from Dora’s surface like an aerial hunter waiting for prey. The uncatalogued creature, its fur the color of weathered granite, would show itself again. It had to. I scanned the canopies below. Like usual, thoughts of my late wife invaded my memories. Even as I’d piloted my drone ten thousand light years away, she was there, in my mind, always. Serena.

One of the trees shook from impact. I yanked the flight stick, throwing the drone into the canopy, the red, angular leaves hitting the camera lens. A low pitched, deafening shout registered on the audio sensors. My helmet’s software overlay went berserk with trajectory suggestions as I sped between the branches, evading tree trunks with slight movements of the wrist.

There it was, right in front of me: the large, grey-furred creature’s back, as it propelled itself tree to tree, trying to make good on its escape. Not on my watch.

I snapped a few high res shots in the heat of the chase, not one of them worth a damn, dodged a low-hanging branch, and deployed the drone’s hardpoint. A crosshair appeared in the overlay, stun gun at the ready. I pulled the trigger, letting the electric stun darts fly. Missed, missed, missed again! The darts hit the trees, the ground, anything but the creature. I scowled, setting the throttle to maximum velocity. The creature glanced back at me, its eyes glowing an eerie green, pushed itself off a tree, and landed on the ground into a perfect roll. I threw the drone downwards. The creature came out of the roll running, using all four of its limbs to propel itself through the forest bed. Another pull of the trigger. Missed! Dammit!

The lucky break came when two thick, twisted trunks blocked the animal’s path. My quarry hesitated. The stun gun’s crosshair centered on its back, the lock-on audio cue beeping into my ear. I have you now.

Something hit my drone from above. The picture crashed, critical damage warnings flashing across my display, and the audio sensors went mute.

The silence turned to cackling static.

“Control, Drone Beta Four’s down,” I said, disorientated in my VR helmet that showed nothing but blackness. “What’s going on? Do you have eyes on me? Over.”

The drone’s backup microphone kicked in, the static noise giving way to the sounds of the forest. The picture was gone, but at least I could hear.

“Colonel Riley, this is Mission Control,” Ria said over the intercom in her West London accent. “Traveler has nothing on your location. What’s your status?”

A low, bellowing howl came from above. It was the creature. I knew it. I’ll get you, you just watch. The sound cackled again, before returning to crystal clarity. I heard a voice, a human, female voice, and it was not Mission Control. It was a voice I knew and loved, even after death done us part.

“Norman,” she said. “I believe in you.”

Serena. My wife.

My mouth opened, but no sound came out. The backup microphone cackled one last time, and cut the feed, leaving the drone blind, deaf, and immobile. I shut my eyes so hard I saw sparks and pulled the VR helmet off, letting it dangle from the cables that connected it to ISA’s mainframe.

I opened my eyes and saw my colleagues staring at me from their stations. It wasn’t just me. Mission Control heard it too.

To my left, my fellow pilots were oblivious to the commotion in the control room, the lamps on their VR helmets blinking green, hands gripped tight around their flight sticks and throttles. Traveler had carried only so many drones through the Anomaly all those years ago, and distractions was not something we could afford.

The rest of ISA’s staff were looking at me from behind their holoscreens with mixed expressions on their faces. The room, usually bursting with conversation, was silent. I looked past my colleagues, concentrating on the ISA logo’s three giant, italicized letters on the back wall.

The quiet spell lasted five seconds at most, before erupting into a cacophony as everybody started talking at the same time. I brushed my face with my palm, the touch of my pilot’s fingerless glove against my skin bringing me back to reality. I needed air, and I needed it bad.

“Colonel,” Ria said, rushing to me from her station as I climbed out of the pilot cocoon. “Are you all right? We already have all the science teams on this.” She squinted her blue eyes. “Whatever this is, try not to take it personal. We’ll figure it out, you know we will.”

Her taking the time to exchange words with me was an admirable gesture. Without Control coordinating missions from the Traveler’s sat scans, drone pilots were flying blind. I smiled, nodded, and let her get back to her holoscreen before calling the elevator.

Sections of the ISA skyscraper’s roof were partitioned into little gardens. I walked at a slow pace, trying to get a scent of the trees around me. There was none. The soft grass and the apple trees were supposed to bring calm to the overworked staff, but, with the gardens opening to the hovercar landing pad on the other side of the roof, I always found the effect more disturbing than calming.

How long ago was it that I’d been to a real forest? Not in my VR helmet on Dora, not in some eco-engineered bubble designed to keep people from going mad from city life pressures, but a real, honest to God forest? Five years ago? Six? I couldn’t remember. My life as I knew it ended the day Serena’s expedition was lost under the waves of the Pacific. Everything that followed was work, followed by more work. I tried to become less than human, to forget what it was like to feel. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. I walked up to the edge of the roof and looked at the city below.

San Angeles spread from horizon to horizon, a sprawling beast of concrete and plexiglass. Spires and skyscrapers reached to the skies, hovercars buzzing between the buildings like metal insects as they avoided the no-fly zone around the heart of the city: the International Space Agency’s headquarters. My workplace. I looked up. The Anomaly, a ball of pulsating purple light, threads of gold woven into its halo, shone bright in the mid-day sky.

My smartwatch beeped, signaling an incoming call. General Singh’s ID showed on display. I tapped the watch and a miniature hologram of the General’s face appeared a few inches away from my wrist.

“Norman, I was told about what happened,” he said, his New Delhi accent erased by the years he’d spent in San Angeles.

“What was that, Sir? I know her voice. It was her.”

“We don’t know yet, but I’ve got my best men working on it as we speak. Listen, why don’t you take the rest of the day off? You’ve got more pilot hours than most of our guys combined. Get some rest. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

I tightened my lips, thinking if I should reconsider what I was about to say. I didn’t.

“General?”

“Yes?”

“I want to be on Traveler II.”

It was a madman’s request. The first Traveler carried two landing modules: one with the drones, the other with a dog, three monkeys, snails, some plants and bacteria. The first lander made it. The second one crashed into a mountain soon after breaching atmosphere. Our animal friends made it past the Anomaly, though, so my chances were not half bad. The real madness of my request lay in the fact that it was a one way trip. We could send a ship through the Anomaly. We could not send a ship back. Whenever we tried sending probes the other way through the Worm Hole, they disappeared without a trace. In eleven years of research, we’d learnt shamefully little about how the thing worked. We had vague suspicions it was artificially created, but that was about it.

“Don’t be silly,” the general said. “We don’t need any casualties on ISA’s record. We haven’t had an astronaut die since NASA was disbanded, and I plan to keep it that way.”

“General, Serena is on that planet.”

“Don’t be absurd. As sad as the facts may be, we all have to face them. You were trained as a scientist, were you not? She is dead, and we both know it. You don’t have to make yourself a martyr. Aru will go. You’re staying here and helping Mission Control.”

“Aru is a robot. There’s no substitute for a manned mission, no matter how hard we try. Please, let me try to …”

“That will be all, Colonel. Now go home and rest.”

He cut the transmission.

I sighed, and headed for my hovercar. I needed rest. Tomorrow morning, they were waiting for me at the cyber lab.

*  *  *

The ISA’s cybernetics department was three levels below ground, neon tubes emitting a steady, white light from the corridor’s ceiling. A middle-aged brunette woman in a lab coat met me by the elevator.

“Colonel,” the woman said. “Thank you for coming.”

“Sure thing. General Singh didn’t specify what it is exactly I can help you with, though. He just told me you want to ask me some questions.”

She led me down the corridor. “You haven’t been to us before, have you?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t. Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. We’re used to obscurity down here. And it’s not that we want to ask you questions, it’s more that we want you to ask him.”

“Him?”

“The Autonomous Reconnaissance Unit. Aru. With your flight record, there’s no better man to test how well he’ll handle himself on Dora.”

“You refer to it as he?”

She chuckled. “Sorry. An old habit. The General is waiting for you in the chamber.”

“General Singh is here?”

She nodded, pressing her palm against a fingerprint scanner. The scanner beeped and a part of the wall slid open. We went inside. It was a simple square room, the back wall made of reflective plexiglass. General Singh stood in the corner, his eyes fixated on the humanoid robot in the center of the room, white plastic, rubber joints, and a glass visor for its face. The robot was sitting cross-legged on the floor, as if it was deep in thought.

“Colonel,” the General said, “glad you could make it.”

I saluted the General. More than anything I wanted to be back on Dora, searching the forest inch by inch for any trace of Serena. But ISA had a tendency to ground pilots for weeks after losing their drones, and I was no exception, flight hours or not.

“I’m told Aru’s ready for active service,” he continued.

“Aru, these gentlemen want to ask you some questions,” the brunette said.

The robot raised its glass face and stood up, its movements fluid and effortless. “General Singh, Colonel Riley,” it said, its voice a pleasant baritone. “How can I be of assistance?”

“Are you aware of your mission, Aru?” said the General.

“Yes, General Singh. I am aware.”

“State it for us.”

“I am Autonomous Reconnaissance Unit Model Five Dash Five. My job is to go to the Gilead star system through the Anomaly on Traveler II, to help coordinate lander modules, and to assist Mission Control with the scientific mission to Dora.”

“And do you think you’re qualified for this mission?”

“I’ve been programmed with eleven years’ worth of research data. Every drone camera recording up until today is stored in my memory banks. There’s nobody more qualified than me, General.”

“What about my last flight?” I asked. “Do you have a record of it as well?”

“I do.”

“What do you think about it?”

“Logically, that could not be the voice of Serena Riley,” Aru said. “The dead do not come back.”

I shivered. “Do you understand human emotions?”

“Of course. I’ve been given access to detailed records of every astronaut who served in the ISA, and in NASA before that. I understand.”

“But you can’t feel.”

“I don’t see how that is relevant to my objectives.”

I looked at the General. “May we have a word in private, Sir?”

The General frowned, but nodded consent. The lady scientist let us out of the room, and we were alone in the neon-lit corridor.

“Permission to speak freely?”

“What is it, Colonel?”

“You can’t send this machine on its own. It’s too much of a liability. The ISA invested millions in this tin can to be the next best thing to a human astronaut, but it’s not. It’s just a machine. Let me go with it. I’m the most experienced pilot you have, and my cartographer training will make all the difference in the world once we’re planet side. I don’t pilot with skills alone. It’s more than that. Instinct. What does Aru know of instinct?”

“Are you finished?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“The answer is no.”

He turned and started towards the elevator.

My upper lip trembled. “Nav,” I said, calling him by his first name like I used to before the accident. I was beyond formalities. “She was your daughter. You loved her too. Please. Please let me do this. I beg of you. For her sake. That’s what she would’ve wanted.”

General Navinder Singh stopped.

“Yes,” he said. “I know. She’s always been foolhardy, just like you. Look where that got her.”

“Nav, please!”

“I’ll think about it.”

He did not turn to face me as the elevator doors slid closed behind him.

*  *  *

The centrifuge was the hardest. I could take 5gs, even 6, but at 9gs, I threw up every single time. At 10gs, I’d lose consciousness.

After they pulled me out, I’d get up, and go again.

Aru was my partner for most of the trainings. We trained like I’d never trained before. The robot was reliable, I gave it that. It followed orders without complaints, knew no fear, and had none of the limitations of my frail human body. But it was just a machine. Nothing more, nothing less.

Physically, it was the hardest year of my life. Mentally, it was all I could’ve dreamed of, and more. Serena’s words echoed in my mind every time I stepped out of the centrifuge on my two legs.

“Norman, I believe in you.”

I’d replayed my destroyed drone’s recoding over and over again. Sometimes, when no one was looking, I cried, the memories of her face in my mind like a fresh wound I couldn’t stop from reopening.

They never did find out what it was that made us hear her voice. They haven’t found the creature I’d been chasing, either. But that didn’t matter. Soon, I would be on Dora, and none of that would matter. Me and Aru would step on the planet of red leaves and learn the truth for ourselves.

By November, I was ready.

Traveler II was due to leave orbit in a week’s time.

I could barely wait.

*  *  *

“Colonel Riley, do you read me?” Ria said, her voice coming through the headset loud and clear.

“Roger that,” I said, running last minute checks, the space suit restricting my movement. I almost envied Aru, who sat in the co-pilot chair by my side, its fingers moving across the control panel in a blur.

The Anomaly pulsed with purple colors against the backdrop of a million stars in the Traveler II’s view screen.

“Prepare for the jump.”

“Roger that,” I repeated. A drop of sweat rolled down my forehead. I pushed the flight stick forward, and felt the giant ship respond.

Traveler II’s nose touched one of the Anomaly’s gold-threaded rays, and the purple light enveloped us, swallowing the ship whole. My seat vibrated and I thought I heard metal bend. Tentacles of light licked the view screen, making it impossible to see anything but the Anomaly’s light. I shut my eyes, and counted down from five to calm myself.

When I opened my eyes, an ocean of stars as seen from a galaxy ten thousand light years away filled the view. Gilead, Dora’s sun, shone bright in the distance. I exhaled, remembering to breathe.

“Mission Control,” I said. “We made it.”

There was no response.

“Mission Control, come in. I repeat, we made it, over.”

No response.

“Commander,” Aru said. “Traveler I should be right ahead of us.”

Only, it wasn’t. I squinted my eyes. The robot was right. Traveler was nowhere to be seen, the star system empty of any signs of human activity.

“We lost communications,” I said. “Can you check what’s wrong?”

“Already did, Commander. Everything is fine on our end. It’s not the equipment.”

“Fine. Let’s get planet side.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for the communications to go back up, Commander?”

“Wait for how long exactly, Aru?”

“At least a few hours.”

“That’s how much it’d take us to get the ship into orbit. If they come back up, good. If they don’t … well, then it’s just you and me, buddy.”

“Whatever you say, Commander.”

I approached Dora with thrusters at half-speed, watching the distance to the planet decrease on the readout display. Hour passed after hour, with no signs of Mission Control or Traveler I reappearing.

We’d entered the planet’s orbit, and I felt there was no point in wasting any more time.

“Get the landers ready,” I said.

“Landers are ready, Commander.”

“Launch lander one.”

The ship shook as the first lander detached, carrying a dozen drones into the atmosphere. I unfastened my seatbelt.

“Let’s go.”

“Right behind you.”

We walked to the tail of the ship and squeezed through the second lander’s hatch. I fastened myself in and gave thumbs up to the robot. “Let’s do this.”

The hatch closed behind us and the floor shook as Traveler II shot the lander out of its catapult. There were no windows in the lander, so all I could do is grind my teeth and focus on not throwing up as we fell at 7gs into Dora’s familiar skies, the skies I was looking so much forward to seeing. Our miniature cabin rattled, Dora’s winds throwing it side to side.

The lander jumped as the chute deployed at three thousand feet. Controlled descent lasted minutes that felt like hours, until, at last, there was a thud, and all movement ceased.

We were on Dora.

“Aru, open the door.”

“Yes, Commander.”

The hatch slid open, and I walked outside, smiling. It felt like a homecoming. Dora’s red grass bed lay before us. Around us, the red forest. The lander was undamaged, its life support modules stacked with enough food and frozen water to last me a lifetime.

“Atmosphere?” I asked.

“Same as we know it. Breathable.”

“Good.” I detached my helmet. Aru tried to protest, but I waved him to be quiet. The air smelled of pine trees and soot. It was heavier than Earth’s air, but it beat breathing from the oxygen tank.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go find our drones.”

“This way,” Aru said, walking towards the forest. I followed, curious about whatever happened to Traveler I. Perhaps the wilder theories about the Anomaly were correct. Maybe it wasn’t just a Worm Hole in space. Maybe it lead to somewhere else. Somewhere different. Another universe, or an alternative version of reality. Maybe that’s why we could send ships and probes only one way. But, if so, could it be that, somehow, Serena was here? On this planet?

“Don’t be absurd,” the General told me. Was it really so absurd to believe in miracles? Perhaps. But I was only human.

I stumbled, a sudden pain in my chest halting me in my tracks.

“Are you all right, Commander?” Aru asked.

I wasn’t. My chest, arms and legs felt like they were about to explode from the inside out. I growled and rolled on my back.

“Commander? Can you move?”

“I … no … oh, hell, what is this?”

My hands bulged under the suit’s gloves. I ripped them off and watched my skin as it turned grey.

Aru opened a compartment in his leg and took out a morphine shot. “Whatever it is, this should help with the pain.”

He stuck the needle into my wrist, emptying the syringe. I felt dizzy, my vision clouding, but the pain receded.

“We need to get you to the lander’s medical module.”

Aru tried to lift me off the ground, but, as he moved me, the pain shot through every nerve in my body like melting lead.

I think I screamed.

“No, no, Aru. No.”

He put me back down. “Are you sure Commander?”

“Yes. Yes, just … just leave me be.”

I failed. I failed Navinder, I failed Serena, failed the ISA. How could I play on Nav’s feelings about his daughter so? He knew sending an astronaut to the planet was a bad idea. And for what? Just so that I could die here, with this robot to keep me company? Perhaps I was insane. I’d lost it back in that VR helmet, when I’d heard Serena’s voice. Maybe it was a mass hallucination of some sort. Not real. My wife was dead. How did her father phrase it?

“You’ve got to face the facts,” he told me. So here I was.

Facing facts.

I drifted in and out of consciousness. Night turned into day, and day turned into night as I lay on the red grass. Aru never left my side. Furry growth appeared on my exposed hands and face, and I could feel my new hair under my suit. The red around us was turning into shades of colors I had no names for. Soon, I lost track of time.

“Aru … Aru … are you still here?”

“Yes, Commander.”

“Can … can … you please … play that recording … Serena … her voice …”

There was a pause. Serena’s voice followed. “Norman, I believe in you.”

“Again … please, play it … play it again.”

“Norman, I believe in you.”

A rage filled me, a hate like I’d never felt before. Hate for my failures, hate for the storm that took Serena’s life, hate for ISA and for Mission Control. And with the hate, there was something else – something alien. Dora. The planet. I could feel its pulse through the space suit, I could feel it live through the very air I breathed, an entire ecosystem abundant with life. I could feel it all, down to every little blade of grass that I lay on.

I roared, and the suit ripped at the seams, giving way to my bulging muscles, grey fur coating my skin.

“Commander …”

I hit the robot across the visor with the palm of my clawed hand. Its head snapped off and fell to the ground. I was strong. And fast. Very fast. I looked at the orange sky. The Anomaly shone its beckoning purple light close to Gilead’s glow. I didn’t squint. My eyes were made for this planet.

Dora whispered to me, sending electric signals through the soles of my feet, through my spine, into my mind, where the planet’s thoughts dissolved into something tangible, a sensation as natural as breathing.

She told me that everything that happened will happen again. That history was cyclical. That soon, the drones would be here, looking for new specimens to tag and name for their virtual collection of pets that humans could study from the safety of their home planet ten thousand light years away.

I growled, shaking my fists at the sky. When the drones would come, I will lead them on a wild hunt, and circle back here, to this very meadow.

And then, I will destroy them.

“Norman, I believe in you,” Aru’s detached head said in Serena’s voice, cackling with static. I looked at the Anomaly one more time, and headed into the forest.

I believed in myself too.

– THE END –


Art by venomxbaby.

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