By Michael Juschke
Copyright 2015 Michael Juschke
Cover design copyright 2015 Team Juschke
Thanks to my wife Julienne for her active support.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, governments, organizations, places, events and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
When the call came, Dr. Fiona Johnson was sitting in her living room, watching Gemma, her six-year-old, play on the swing outside.
Fiona turned to the coffee table and picked up the phone, “This is Fiona.”
“I’m sorry,” Fiona said after a few moments, “I won’t be able to attend at such short notice— Yes, I know you said it’s an emergency meeting of the World Geneticists Society, but I can’t fly in three hours! I have an important talk tomor— What do you mean I have to? — You what? You can’t! That funding—” Fiona’s eyes widened as she looked around the room exasperated.
She took a deep breath, listening to the man on the phone.
“Yes, I understand,” she said flatly. “Three hours. At the airport. The ticket is reserved with Qantas.”
Fiona put down the phone and collapsed into her chair, staring blankly out the living room window.
Twelve hours later Fiona parked her hired Mazda 3 in an empty bay outside an abandoned lighthouse in the middle of nowhere, somewhere on the south coast of Western Australia. She turned off the engine and the lights. Total darkness enveloped her. The dashboard clock ticked over to 2 am. Fiona yawned. It had been a long day, even before that call from the Society, and worse since. Her mother hadn’t understood how important attending this meeting was; that if she didn’t attend, she would lose the funding the Society provided. She had refused to come over at such short notice to look after Gemma, and the nanny hadn’t been available either. Not until Fiona had offered triple pay.
Fiona sighed. At least Gemma had taken the news quietly for a change. She had given her that sad-Gemma-look, had said ‘Ok’, and had walked off to her room. Fiona could still see her turn and walk away, instead of throwing the expected tantrum.
“Oh, NO!” Fiona groaned. “The school ballet performance! Damn!”
Through her windshield, she stared at the dim shape of the lighthouse, barely illuminated by the waning moon. What a ridiculous time and place to hold a meeting, she thought.
Fiona got out of the car, walked around to the back of the lighthouse, and opened an old squeaky door as instructed. There was a tiny red glow inside the building, just enough to see, but too weak to be seen from the outside. She looked around for an entry to the basement that they had told her was there. She couldn’t see any, but suddenly a section of the rock floor slowly, and almost silently, swung upwards, revealing a narrow spiral staircase.
When Fiona arrived at the bottom of the stairs, the trapdoor above her closed and brighter lights came on. A normal door in front of her opened and a man appeared.
“Welcome, Dr. Johnson. Please come in,” he said.
She nodded curtly and walked down the short corridor to the main room. Twenty, maybe thirty, people were milling about, some with drinks in their hands. Most faces were familiar. They were all colleagues and collaborators Fiona had met either in person or by video conference over her twenty-two-year research career.
“Hey, Fi,” someone said from her right. She turned.
“Hey, Jack!” She smiled.
Professor John Mallard, from Illinois, smiled back. They had only met twice in person over the years, but their frequent emails and video calls, mostly to collaborate on a multitude of research papers, had eventually turned their professional relationship into a deep friendship, especially after the sudden death of Fiona’s husband three years ago.
Before they could talk more, the loudspeakers in the room came to life and announced, “If you could please take your seats, we’ll make a start.”
Fiona turned towards the podium. A grey-haired man, whom Fiona didn’t recognize, was standing there, smiling. When she looked back at Jack, he raised his eyebrows and briefly tilted his head towards the rows of seats. Fiona sighed. They walked to the seats and sat down.
“Welcome,” the grey-haired man said. His voice was gentle, slow and soothing.
“I am Daniel DeFroth. As you all know, you are the best of the best in the field of Human Genetics. You all have had a strong curiosity about the human body since early childhood. You have worked hard, and sacrificed a lot to succeed.” He paused for a moment.
“Have you ever questioned why you are always so driven?” he continued. “Why your work is always so important? Why you even risked secretly experimenting on yourself?”
A sharp hiss echoed across the room as everybody took a sudden breath. Fiona let hers out slowly and quietly. Most research institutions forbade self-experimentation. It was dangerous and unethical. Yet… she had done it. Many times. When she had been sure of a discovery, but didn’t have enough hard data to move it to human trials. Or when knowing that it worked was a crucial step in moving on to bigger things.
She took another breath, a slow, deep one, and stretched her fingers and toes as she let it out. DeFroth was right, she had been incredibly driven for as long as she could remember. Driven to be the best at school, at university and in her research. Yet, she had never wondered why. She just was.
“Think back,” DeFroth continued, “to when you were a child. Of the times when you had imaginary friends. Of the dreams you had at night, and the places you’ve visited in your dreams.”
The room in front of Fiona blurred as images from her memory suddenly floated before her eyes. Images of Taroni and Ekla, her imaginary ghost friends. And of her adventures and fun in a dream place that had always felt so real.
“Explore those places in your memory,” DeFroth said, his voice distant and low. “Go to your secret place. Your safe place.”
The images in Fiona’s mind swirled for a moment, but then she found herself in a forest, walking towards the little hut that Taroni, Ekla and she had built in this imaginary world. Fiona walked inside, feeling the comforting warmth of the log fire, and the familiar furniture and books.
“Open the secret panel,” the low, soothing voice said from somewhere.
What secret… Oh! Yes, of course. Right near the back wall.
In her mind, she walked over, bent down and lifted one of the floorboards. There, about a half a metre below the floor was a red button, and she wasn’t even surprised. She pressed it.
Fiona’s mind seemed to explode. She winced in pain at the sudden avalanche of memories, images, sounds and smells from a different time and place flooding into her. Fiona breathed deeply, trying to calm herself, trying to ease the pain. Eventually, the pain lessened, the relentless stream of information slowed and stopped. Somewhat dazed, Fiona looked around the conference room. Everyone else also looked pained.
“Now,” DeFroth continued in his low, soothing voice, “now think of your childhood. Think of your parents, your home, and your adult life.”
Fiona didn’t even have to try. The moment he said those words, the pictures came racing across her mind. The same pictures of her adventures, of her hut, and her friends. But now those memories were no longer standing apart from her life. Instead, they were connected to a multitude of other memories. Memories of a different father, mother, siblings and friends. Memories of living in a different place. And memories of being a different person.
She was… her name was Majlen. Majlen Kan-Del-Kla.
And Taroni and Ekla were… Taroni and Ekla Kan-Del-Kla!
They were not ghosts, imaginary, or friends. Fiona remembered now. They were her sisters!
“Now,” DeFroth said — his name was not DeFroth. It was… it was Had-Tre-Lon. Senior Project Leader Drelword Had-Tre-Lon.
Majlen switched her attention back to Had-Tre-Lon’s voice. “… of the Mission,” she heard.
Oh! Yes! The Mission.
She had volunteered, along with 35 others. The project’s senior technicians had blocked her memories, except for her knowledge in genetics and related areas, which would release little by little over time. She remembered lying down in the freezing-chamber, the lid closing over her, and some gas coming in.
Once her body was in stasis, her Essence would have been released and attached to the unborn child of an abducted human female, replacing its own Essence. The child – she – would grow up not knowing anything, except to pursue aggressively a career in human genetic manipulations, and eventually to undertake certain experiments on herself. All other memories were locked away, with one exception, the anchor memory that would release the memory lock once the time was right.
“The time is right,” Had-Tre-Lon said. “All of you here have achieved your objectives. You now carry tailor-made and fully functional genetic mutations. On their own they don’t amount to much, but when combined we will finally be able to achieve what our long and hard lab research alone could not. Congratulations, Heroes of the Jarlinth, you have finally paved the way for our own bodies to be adapted. Soon all our people will be able to come and take this world here as our new home!” He surveyed the occupants of the room, a broad grin on his face. “But for now, you must follow me to the Harvester ship.”
The Harvester! Majlen’s smile dropped. Her stomach clenched. The Harvester would destroy her body, all their bodies, to extract the genetic material. Had-Tre-Lon would then fly the ship home. Her Essence should automatically detach from her destroyed body and then re-attach to her own body still in the freezing-chamber on her home planet. It had worked in lab tests, but they didn’t exactly know why. The Essence was not yet well understood. And they hadn’t had the luxury of waiting to figure it out. Their world was running out of time. The project had to proceed.
Majlen took a deep breath, but somehow she couldn’t get herself to stand up. She could feel sweat beading on her forehead. Nobody had ever tried automatic re-attachment of an Essence across even a few light years, let alone across one hundred and ten.
Majlen, it works fine, Drelword Had-Tre-Lon spoke into her mind using his telepathic ability.
She closed her eyes briefly, swallowed hard, and tried to stand, but her knees buckled, dropping her back into the chair.
Majlen! She could feel a suggestive pressure building in her mind.
I… I… can’t Drelword, she thought back. I don’t want to die!
We need you; you carry the most important piece of code. Think of your family, of Taroni and Ekla. Of their children. THEY need you.
Majlen’s head started to hurt; Drelword was using his suggestive control powers. Images of Taroni and Ekla floated before her. Smiling girls, then smiling adult women and their mates.
Majlen got up and stood for a moment, trying to orient herself through the veil of images still streaming across her mind. She saw the other people filing out through the back door, although a few were still sitting.
She moved down the aisle between the seats, as more and more images of her family streamed across her mind. Ekla with her mate and their two children, images of them playing, images of Taroni’s mate who had died, images of Taroni’s daughter Gemma, images of… Wait! Majlen frowned and stopped. Gemma? It’s not Gemma, it’s Jerlyn. She continued to walk.
Gemma? The name popped up again, and then quickly faded, but just before it did, an image of a cute, blonde six-year-old girl flashed into her mind. The girl was smiling widely, her bright blue eyes almost sparkling. In her outstretched hands she was holding a card saying “I Love You Mummy”.
“GEMMA! “ Majlen heard herself yell aloud.
I have a daughter! My own daughter. A daughter without a father, a daughter who won’t have a mother. The thoughts just kept tumbling, despite her increasing headache.
She is not your daughter! Drelword pushed into her mind. Majlen winced under the pain. You are Majlen! he continued, relax and continue. If we need to force you into the Harvester, your Essence will not detach.
Majlen deliberately collapsed herself to the floor to stop walking. Her head was pounding with pain; fiery flashes were splashing across her vision. A moment later, against her will, she found herself slowly getting to her hands and knees and crawling forward.
It was all over, Drelword was strongly telepathic. Soon he would overwhelm her completely. He would make her get up and walk to the Harvester. He would get the genes from her body, whether she wanted him to or not. She should give in now. At least then she would still have a chance that her Essence might manage to return home to her body.
She would rather die than live knowing that she had condemned her own human daughter to death, or worse, to slavery. Once her alien race had modified themselves genetically to survive on Earth in their own bodies, they would not come as refugees from a dying planet. They would come as conquerors.
Her headache grew stronger; her flickering vision began to change. She could see some trees and a faint outline of a hut.
She concentrated, trying to replace the image with a picture of Gemma. For a moment, she could see her clearly, but then it was gone.
Majlen felt a mental scream explode in her head. The pressure lifted, and she gained a clear vision of the room again. There was one other, no, at least two other people lying on the floor not far from her. She could feel their anguish, their thoughts almost. Free from oppression, she quickly collapsed back to the floor and curled herself into a tight ball.
They are telepathic too! she realised. And if they are, then— A new wave of pain erupted in her head. She fought it.
Then… I… am… telepathic!
With a new glimmer of hope, she started concentrating, focusing, on Drelword, pushing, focusing her anger energy, unleashing it against his mind. She heard an audible groan in the room, and the pressure on her eased. Then it slammed back twice as hard. GEMMA! she screamed silently. She pushed back again, and suddenly realised that she needed to touch the two people in front of her. With a grunt, she lifted herself up to her elbows and deliberately crawled forward towards the man who was closest to her. The floor now felt like thick sludge resisting every move.
She reached out her arm and managed to get her hand over the man’s hand. A massive rush of pain, but also of energy surged up her arm. She could clearly sense the man’s thoughts and struggle. Jack! It was Jack!
Jack! she mentally sent to him. A wave of confusion returned.
Jack, it’s Maj…, she paused.
Jack, it’s… it’s… Fiona! Fight. We can fight this!
Fiona? Arghhh. I… can’t.
Yes, You Can! We are all telepathic, and there are two of us, and only one of him! Focus on me, give me your support, push.
She could feel Jack trying, but his confusion grew and he stopped. Fiona quickly switched her focus to Drelword and sent a wave of mental force, a command to slam his head to the floor. The pressure on her lifted, and she could feel Jack’s brain fog easing. It wouldn’t last long.
Jack, see the legs in front of you? Grab one with your right hand and hold on NOW! she sent with an almost equal force to what she had sent to Drelword.
Jack’s body jerked, his hand shot forward and latched on to the leg. Fiona felt the confusion, energy and thoughts of another brain. Her name was Eleanor.
Jack, Eleanor, focus! Focus on me, and me alone, she quickly sent with a strong suggestive push. Focus on me, on my voice, on my thoughts, only I exist. Concentrate and focus your mind’s energy on my voice now. All of it!
She could feel Jack’s energy flooding into her, and then she could feel Eleanor’s. Shaky and unsure, but coming in. Fiona could also feel Drelword refocusing himself, and raising a strong mental shield. Shielding! She instantly knew that she used to be able to do this too. All her people could do this, otherwise they’d have no privacy. Yet, right now she couldn’t, she couldn’t remember how to. Drelword must have regained his full memories and abilities to be so good at it. He probably had practiced too.
Fiona knew he would be gathering and focusing his mental powers, then drop the shield and unleash a fury against her without warning. She wouldn’t be able to withstand it. There was only one way for her to survive this battle. She had to strike first. But did she have enough power yet? She had to have enough to overwhelm Drelword’s shield, smash through his will, and force a mental paralysis on him that would last long enough for her to get up, walk over and physically kill him.
Fiona judged the energy building up in her body and mind, and she tried to sense Drelword’s power levels, but his shield blocked everything. She didn’t know how to tell when he was ready to strike. It could be at any moment. If she wanted any chance, she needed to attack him now. But if her power wasn’t enough yet…
She felt a kind of mental snap somewhere.
Instantly Fiona focused on Drelword and unloaded a blast of power and commands on him, but a fraction of a second later a massive jolt of pain exploded in her own head. Her vision blanked out. She slumped from her elbows to the floor, losing all control over her limbs. Her hand began to slide off Jack’s. As she felt her fingertips dropping off, his hand suddenly moved. A strong grip snapped over her wrist, and extra energy flowed into her — from Eleanor. Fiona soaked in Eleanor’s energy. She forced herself to recall the image of Gemma, and pushed back against the searing pain in her head. It eased, then increased, then eased again, then increased again – going on forever and ever.
Then it stopped. The pressure clenching her mind lifted off, her vision cleared. Fiona waited, trying to recover, and prepare for the next onslaught. It didn’t come. She slowly sat up, careful to keep her contact with Jack, just in case. She reflexively wiped her wet nose with the other hand. It was sticky. She looked. There was blood.
Fiona looked towards the podium. Drelword lay crumpled in a heap at the lectern. She got to her feet and walked over as fast as she could manage, she needed to finish him.
Drelword was lying still, his head rolled to the side, eyes open, empty. Blood was trickling from his nose, the corners of his eyes, and his mouth. It was slowly pooling on the floor. She checked his pulse. He had none.
Fiona walked back to Eleanor and Jack. Breathing heavily, Jack rolled over onto his back, stretching out his arms and legs. Fiona crouched down next to Eleanor and gently touched her. No reaction. She tried again and, this time, concentrated telepathically. There was no connection. She checked for a pulse, and turned away, unable to contain her tears.
Jack groaned behind her.
“Oh, shit!” she heard him say audibly a few moments later. Slowly she lifted her face out of her tear-soaked hands, but didn’t turn. Jack was making scuffing sounds, probably trying to get up off the floor.
“Quick,” he shouted, startling her with the sudden noise.
“Come on!” he shouted again. “Can’t you hear the rumbling and the whine? The Harvester is powering up! It’s leaving, even without Drelword. We’ve gotta stop it!”
“How can it be leaving?” Fiona said slowly.
“Oh, I don’t know. Autopilot as a failsafe or something?”
Jack grabbed Fiona’s left hand and pulled. The moment she was up, he let go and dashed over to the door through which all the other people had disappeared earlier. Fiona went to follow him, but suddenly Jack turned and headed to the podium.
“Grab her legs and drag her with you, I’m getting Drelword,” Jack said pointing towards Eleanor.
“What? NO! We have to take her back to her family,” Fiona said, turning her head to track Jack as he moved. He reached Drelword, gripped his feet and dragged him towards that door. At the edge of the podium Drelword’s head plopped unceremoniously off the step with a sick clunk.
“And how exactly are we going to explain her death, hey?” Jack replied. “We’re gonna get done for her murder! Come on, Fiona, hurry! We can’t leave them here, and we can’t let the ship take off.”
Fiona ran back to Eleanor’s body and paused. She took a deep breath and suppressed her tears. “I’m sorry!” she said.
Fiona crouched down and gripped Eleanor’s ankles. Then she stood up and walked towards that door as fast as she could, pulling the dead weight behind her. About half way, sweat started to run down Fiona’s face. She grunted and pushed on. Ahead of her, Jack reached the door. It slid into the side of the wall, and he disappeared through it. Fiona’s breath caught for a moment when the door closed.
A few moments later it opened as she approached. She sighed, stepped through and came to a walkway that ran around the side of a large cavern, about half way up its height. In the centre was a gleaming cylinder sitting on six landing struts. The Harvester!
The ship was ejecting steam from a number of vents near the engines, as they were starting their power-up cycles. Fiona listed to the sound of the ship’s main power core. Ship cores had a very specific sound pattern during their start-up. Anyone who had lived near a spaceport for a few months, as she had in her youth, could tell in their sleep how much time was left until a ship was ready to go, just by listening to it.
This ship had at most ten minutes left.
Of the five visible gangways, only the one to the bridge was still connected. It was about half way down the cavern. Fiona took a few long breaths, re-gripped her hold on Elea…, on the body’s, ankles, and trotted after Jack as fast as she could.
Seven minutes left. Fiona dropped the body’s feet as soon as the head was inside the bridge. Fortunately, Jack had dragged Drelword farther down, leaving space for her. She would not have been able to lug the body over the top of another. Fiona collapsed to the floor and leaned against the wall. She was wet with sweat from top to bottom, gasping for air, and expecting to pass out any second.
“What are you doing?” Jack called over from the main console. “Get out, now, back to the car, and away from here!”
Fiona didn’t move.
“Fiona, NOW! Out! I can’t stop the launch sequence, so I’m setting the self-destruct.”
Fiona looked at Jack, “I’m not leaving without you.”
“Oh, for crying out loud! Don’t be a fool, you have a daughter. Leave, you can make it.”
“So can you, Jack!”
Fiona dragged herself to her feet, walked over to Jack and grabbed his arm. Jack turned, and for a moment, they looked into each other’s eyes.
“I’ll try,” Jack said, “but I’ve got a bad heart. Promise me to leave me behind if I falter.”
Fiona stayed silent.
She sighed softly, “Ok, I’ll promise. How long till it’s set?”
Jack pressed a button, and an alarm began to echo through the ship, “Self-Destruct activated. Evacuate vessel now. Three minutes, fifty-eight seconds until self-destruct.”
Fiona turned and headed for the door at a sprint, dragging Jack behind her. Halfway across the gangway they could feel it jitter. It was retracting.
Three minutes left in the core’s power up sequence, two and a half until self-destruct.
They reached the door out of the cavern and into the conference room. Fiona’s lungs were burning. Jack was grunting and wheezing behind her. She pushed on towards the entry corridor and the door below the lighthouse.
Fiona couldn’t hear the core anymore, but she figured there wasn’t going to be much more than a minute left until the self-destruct. The conference room’s door swished open, revealing the hewn rock passage. Fiona pulled on Jack’s hand. For the last few metres, he had started to drag.
The moment Jack was through the door, it closed and the trapdoor above opened. Light from the early morning sun filtered down across the narrow spiral staircase.
“I’m… not gonna… make that,” Jack wheezed. Fiona turned. He was streaming with sweat, red as a plum, and gasping for air with a wide-open mouth.
“Yes, You Are!” Fiona shouted at him. “Unless you drop dead right here, right now, I’m not leaving you. Understand? You’ve come this far, you’re going to bloody well make it, mate!”
The ground briefly shook with a deep rumble, setting off an avalanche of fine dust and small rocks.
“Move your arse, now!” Fiona shouted. She turned and headed up the stairs. Jack, still in her iron grip, followed, more stumbling than running. More tremors shook the lighthouse; the old wood beams creaked worryingly.
Fiona and Jack half fell out of the lighthouse’s door and raced around the side. The gleam of the sun was starting to crest the hills. The ground began to shake more frequently, and a few cracks appeared in the rocks in front of them.
Fiona stared at the car park for a moment.
“There it is!” She pointed at her car just a couple of metres to the left. She let go of Jack’s hand to fumble in her pockets for the keys, not even sure if they were still there.
They were. Fiona opened the driver’s door, jumped in, and started the engine. Jack stumbled towards the car. He fell as a strong tremor struck. Fiona pushed her door open to jump out, but Jack dragged himself up on the bonnet, moved across the side, and managed to get himself into the passenger seat.
Fiona closed her door, put the car in reverse and hit the gas. She struck the bumper of the car to her left, but kept going and turning. A second later she screeched to a halt, threw the car into drive and gunned it. For an instant the front wheels spun, but then they gripped and the car jumped forward. The ground swayed. Out of the corner of her eyes Fiona could see the top of the lighthouse crack and topple towards the ocean.
She nearly lost control of the car on several occasions, racing along the gravel path up the hills towards the main road. Just before they got to the road the ground bucked violently. Fiona hit the brakes. A moment later an explosive roar washed over them from behind.
Fiona looked into the mirror, gasped, then turned in her seat for a proper look out the rear window. The lighthouse was gone. So was the car park. In fact, the entire front half of the spit where the lighthouse had been was gone. Replaced by the ocean and a massive dust cloud. Fiona stared wide-eyed at the scene. The gravel path they had come up on now ended abruptly on a new cliff face.
“Go, go, go!” Jack called out.
Fiona’s mind snapped back. The air was clouding with dust, little puffs of which were popping up all over the path accompanied by loud thuds. Something banged on the car’s roof, then more and more banging came, faster and louder.
Fiona jerked around to face the front and hit the gas.
Fiona turned to Jack sitting in her living room, “Do you think they’ll try again?”
“No. They don’t have the thirty or forty years it takes to do it. The atmosphere will be fully toxic in less than five years,” Jack replied.
For a long time Fiona stared into her teacup.
“We killed our own species,” she said quietly, “didn’t we?”
“No,” Jack said. “They killed themselves when they kept ruining their planet despite knowing better. We belong to this world more than to theirs. We just saved our home.”
Fiona looked up, and smiled. Gemma was playing outside on the swing.
Thank you for reading my short story.
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Michael Juschke lives in Perth, Western Australia. He has Bachelor Degrees in Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, and has been working as an IT professional since 1997. He has been a fan of Sci-Fi since his primary school days.
He began his first novel in 2004 while still working full-time in IT. In 2012, his first short story, “Edge of Darkness”, won him a commendation at the City of Rockingham Short Story Competition.
In 2015, he published the science fiction novel “Operation Lumi’nor”.
You can find out more about his work on:
Michael’s website: www.michaeljuschke.com.au