“That’ll be a day’s rations.” I slid the broken toaster across the steel table to her.
No longer so dinged, rusty, and scratched, even a cursory glance showed the quality of my handiwork. She picked up her goods and frowned. “My neighbor said you fixed his for free. Why are you charging me?”
I wiped my greasy fingers off on a towel that hung on a drawer handle behind me. “A week ago I decided to be like the rest of you and make this place do. Even if I want to go home, I can’t without the entire crew. I’m not the captain, so I can’t just order you all to action.” I tossed the rag back down, letting it swing against the cabinet. “I have to start getting payment for my work.”
The colonist, until recently a science officer on our exploration vessel, took out her electronic notepad. She tapped a couple buttons and smirked. “Well, at least you’re finally coming across to seeing sense.”
“It’s not by choice that I’m doing this.” I moved over to another bench, taking up a personal computer that someone had ripped from their old ship quarters. I turned it around, trying to figure out how to fix it without the structure of the ship nearby. “There was never a vote to colonize. We just left the ship, and most of you didn’t want to go back once your feet touched the ground.”
She laughed as she went to the door of my little cave, holding her toaster tight. “You’ll see that everything’s fine. It’ll be ok – you’ll get over your fear soon. There are no such thing as ghosts.”
Once the makeshift door closed behind her, I groaned. At least she didn’t prod or poke fun, but her faux pity didn’t sit well with me. I gritted my teeth and reached for my tools, giving extra care not to harm the computer I worked on.
My tool slipped out of my hand. I tossed it against the wall.
This planet seeped despair. The vegetation, though complex, grew small and weak. The green leaves quickly faded to deathly brown, and the skeletons of ancient trees reached up only part of their old height. The animals and alien creatures that had once inhabited this planet still haunted the place. I could feel their malevolence with every breath, the grave planet entombed with the dead of an ancient race.
The breathable atmosphere, reasonable weather patterns, and similarity in size to our faraway home attracted us to this planet. After years of traveling, searching, and living cramped inside our ship, the chance to stretch our legs and breathe the air of a planet once more was too much to ignore.
I should have voiced my opinions then.
I closed my eyes and took up my tool again, continuing my work.
“This is goodbye.” My mother nuzzled up against me and pulled me in tight, close to her. The scent of her perfume clung to my uniform. “I’m so proud of you.”
I gulped. After months of training, backing out now would never do. “It’ll be ok. I’ll be back home eventually, and I love you, Mom.”
She gave a brave harrumph. I may come back home, but time dilation due to faster than light travel would mean she’d likely not be there to greet me.
Then again, I may not come back home.
She wiped her nose, removing the mucous. “Don’t let any of the aliens kill you. Fly smart, fly safe, and fly fast.”
I nodded and moved around her. Smoke bellowed out of my ship’s engines.
“I’ve got to go, mom.”
She held me tight, planted her lips on my forehead, and I broke from her hold.
The rolling, dusty sound of the wind carried over the entry to my cave. I listened to my door jar as the planet’s lonely voice whined for attention.
The repair business came in spurts. During the next lull I needed to reinforce my door. For now, I pulled my blanket up around me and crept out of bed. The lights came on automatically, brightening slowly from a dull warmth to a more appropriate shine. The door moved more, but the lights banished the ghosts from my room. I shivered, cool air of the night coming in through the cracks around my door.
I held the door still, and the rattling stopped. An extra bar and the rattling would probably stop, perhaps a rubber gasket to seal from the air that came in. I let go of the door.
I jumped back from the door, starting a bit before I realized the noise couldn’t have been caused by my release or even my abode. I flicked open the lock and pushed down on the metal latch, then pulled open the steel door taken from the room on my ship.
The colony – a collection of alien-hewn caves and portions of metal salvaged from our ship – appeared in good condition. The colony’s lights remained off and dim for the night, and the air smelled as fresh as it had the first day.
Movement above me made me look upward. Something in the sky, far up above me, sparkled. It streaked quickly down and the flames grew in intensity. Somewhere, probably a few miles to the southeast, the source of the light probably landed.
Quickly I receded into my abode, blanket still wrapped around me. The lights turned themselves off when I clicked, and I fumbled blindly on my tables. Eventually I came across an old, metal tube, and clasped it. I expanded the telescope, now certain I had the right object, and returned outside.
I looked up, the last of the fiery remains in the sky, and trained my sights on it. I turned the ancient tool, focusing the light in the lenses, and blinked.
Ghosts or no, the ancient whispers of the windy planet were the least of our worries.
I moved the scope to the right, left, up, and down. I closed it shut with a snap, then hurried to the Captain’s cave.
I held my breath. Though not as solid as portrayed in pop culture, the rocky barrier at the outer edge of the solar system loomed large ahead of our ship.
We kept the lights, both internal and external, off during this perilous part of the journey. Even the heat that kept us alive and that was emitted by our computers had a chance of giving us away, but this was our best and possibly only chance.
“I don’t see them,” she said, her voice a mild, hushed whisper. She closed the shutter on the window, what little light that came from stars instantly cut off, and handed back my telescope. I held it tight, glad to retrieve my heirloom.
I wanted to peek out the shutter. I wanted to chance looking through the glass, but I knew the risk we’d taken by opening it in the first place. “They haven’t said anything yet.” I put the telescope in my bag, removing its temptation. “If the aliens were going to stop us from leaving the system, you’d think they’d have shown up by now, right?”
I could hear her move, perhaps with invisible answer. “The first ship we launched came back saying we’d all be killed if anyone left. ‘Stay home, spaceman,’ they said. What if that was our only warning?”
“Then we’ll know if they spotted us because we’ll be dead.” I swallowed, then reached a hand out to her. “I told my mom not to be afraid for me, but I’m scared now.”
“Me too,” she said. “I just wanted to explore the universe. I don’t want to get in some alien’s way or colonize a planet they want for themselves.”
I heard her choke, a sound larger than what we were allowed right now. “Sometimes I wonder if signing up to explore for the rest of my life was a good idea.”
I took her and clenched tight, letting her know I was there for her. “We’ll come back home. We have to, if we want to give our knowledge back to our people.”
“It won’t be home anymore.” I heard her sniffle, felt her shake. “Everyone we love will be dead by the time we get back. We may just as well never return.”
I paused a moment, the released her and gave a nice rub. “Aww, don’t say that. That’ll mean the aliens have found and killed us. The ship’s well put together, and we’ve got plenty of mechanics to keep it running.”
She cracked open the shutter again. “Running…”
“You can’t be serious.” He blinked his eyes.
I reached to his computer and dimmed his lights, hoping nothing leaked from his office outside. “The computers picked up the explosion. I saw the falling debris, and I used my telescope to see them.” I released my breath, then took in a new one. “The aliens are here. I saw their ships – beautiful, like arrows – and they’re fighting above us. If they finish battling each other and notice us, we’re dead.”
The captain brought up information on his computer. I leaned over, seeing that it was data from the listening posts, and that the microphones had picked up the explosion. “I asked electrical to reduce power production and all the computers to keep the lights off until morning.” He pointed to me with a pencil. “Tomorrow, you lead an expedition out to the debris field. I want to know what kind of aliens are fighting above this planet, and if there’s a chance they’ll come back.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
I felt the ground – it’d been years since the last time I’d done so – beneath me. The radiation stung slightly, but I’d live. Nothing a few med packs couldn’t handle, nothing a bit of soil treatment wouldn’t cure.
I breathed in deeply, then took a step further. The air sat heavily in the lungs, whipped wickedly over the ground. Twisted metal spiraled upward, melted into useless chunks that corroded and rusted.
Shaped stones sank into the ground at even intervals, tightly packed together. I scanned further out, the field of dirt and unnatural carvings continuing out as far as I could see. Behind me was the same thing, a few larger, stone monuments erected in the empty field.
I walked to a cave. The square entry, hewn from a marble, no longer housed a door, but it could be repaired. It smelled musty and ancient inside, but these cave-like structures could easily provide shelter for a few days.
I coughed and turned on my flashlight. The cave walls were lined with drawers, each tiny and labeled with a faded, scratched tag that glimmered in a fools’ gold alloy. I took the handle only to break it off, but the lock – mechanical, simple, ancient – had similarly degraded. I pried the drawer open, and dust flew out at my face when it soon fell clattering to the ground.
I trembled. The debris field burned hot with fire, the explosion destroying several of the thousands of endless tombs that covered the grave planet. My team held close their lanterns, carried tightly their rations. The wind whispered and wailed hateful sounds, cautioning against error now.
I reached down and pulled up a piece of duller metal, finding it still warm to the touch. Underneath the soil had been scorched. I sighed and picked it up, putting it in my bag. “The pieces are too small in this area. There’s nothing we can learn from this.” I looked to my small team, each of their faces fearful. “Get as much metal as you can. We can use it to repair our ship. I’m going to go a little further, see if there’s something bigger.”
“But what if the aliens see us?”
I spat on the ground. “This was always a bad idea. Always.”
I marched up the hillside. Tombstones – definitely tombstones, definitely rocks that marked the placement of alien bodies – lined every inch and crevice. In the sides of the mountain, where it was too steep to place the larger stones, the ashen drawers were carved. Bones, degraded textiles, meat, and alien jewelry sat in coffins that my feet tromped over.
At the top of the hill, I saw the largest mass of the ship. It sat in flames in the next valley, so I waved my team on. “Careful,” I said. “Take cover if anything moves.”
The cockpit of the tiny, alien ship glowed red with lingering heat. Nearby, made of what seemed to be a strange, brown leather, was a piece of furniture that I had to assume once held the alien’s body.
It wasn’t burned, but nothing sat there now.
My heart throbbed quickly. “Scatter,” I ordered. “Get back home. The pilot survived, and the colony’s too close by. We’ve got to liftoff.”
One of my troop shook her head. “They’ll see us. We have to hide.”
“We can’t send back a message. We have to go-”
All of us clung to each other as we heard movement. Metal rattled, and strange lungs coughed.
A body rose from the wreckage. It was tall and slender, walked on two appendages, and used another two appendages to remove some of its clothing. It cut a parachute off from its back and shook out a last, bulbous appendage that was topped with fibers.
What had to be eyes, white with dark, circular centers moved rapidly.
I chirped, whining, scared. I felt the tentacles from my friends clench me tighter.
The alien grunted and pulled an object from its hip. I recognized the creature’s brown, peachy skin from descriptions given by our species’ first captain. The alien pressed a button, then spoke, “I am Captain Bill Aster of the 502nd battalion of Terra Nova. How dare you defile our home?”
My friends shoved me from our pile, squelching as my body – bulky, compared to the alien’s, and brilliant orange – spewed forward as representative. “It wasn’t our choice,” I said. “We just wanted to explore, just see what was out there.”
“I recognize you. You’re some of those curious little aliens, from iota sector.” The machine translated a laugh, but the eerie sound the alien made in the background caused me to shiver. “Those dirty rat bastards from New America reported that they’d told you to stay home, and you disobeyed their unusually wise advice, didn’t you?”
I wrung my tentacles together. “Is it even fair to keep us jailed? Confined to our home planet?”
“Out of all the planets you could have settled, is it fair you chose Earth?” The alien stepped forward, a tiny appendage pointed at me. “This is the planet every species but yours spawned from, and it’s the planet to which our dead of Terra Nova deserve to be buried on.”
“It’s ok,” I protested, waving my tentacles in surrender. “We’ll leave! I swear!”
“I don’t let the New Americans live or die here, not if I can help it, and those mongrels can claim genetic heritage to Earth. You think I’m going to let some dirty alien away with defiling our graves? With disrespecting our dead?” It reached the empty hand to a new object in it’s belt. “I hope you don’t have blood, otherwise it’s going to spill all over our soil.”
“No, please, we didn’t mean any-”
But ghosts can only whisper and hide, and the tales of the dead – even my own – only blow over the fields and tombs of the grave planet.