Strategic Retreat

Solway’s holding the torch when Heinwald emerges into the corridor. She points it at the breach like a flamethrower. Heinwald ducks out of the way as the three tracks of breathing filling his helmet drop to two, to one; the others have killed their radios.

Heinwald does the same, joins his fellows, leans in until all helmets are touching. Solway flips the charger on her torch as the bot rejoins the group: her unsteady aim stays fixed on the opening.

“Sol.” Heinwald shakes his head, vaguely amazed he’s saying this. “It hasn’t done anything.”

“Are you crazy?” Her voice is muzzy through the acrylic, a vibration almost as much felt as heard. “Araneus just wrecked itself?”

“We don’t know anything for sure. Whatever that thing is, do we really want to piss it off?”

The breach remains empty in the combined light of their headlamps.

“So we let it come back with us?” Vrooman. “We just welcome it onto Eri?”

“We don’t even know if the torch can hurt it,” Heinwald points out.

“Looked like meat to me. Cookable.”

“That meat survived fuck knows how many aeons in hard vacuum at absolute zero and you think a welding rig is going to take it out?”

“It’s leverage,” Solway says.

“What?”

“It has to come through here. Maybe you’re right, Vic, maybe a beam that vaporizes titanium won’t even make this thing itch. But we’re not gonna get better odds anywhere else.”

“It might not even be hostile,” Heinwald says. “If it wanted to kill us why are we still alive?”

Vrooman’s got an answer to that: “Maybe it’s not interested in a few scouts. Maybe it wants to track back to the whole nest. Who knows what—”

“…not…idiot” Solway’s helmet slips and slides against theirs as she hefts the torch, makes and breaks and makes contact. “…not gonna blast… first. …is. We ask questions…”

“It said it was hard to talk—”

“Fuck that. It gives us answers or it doesn’t pass.”

Still nothing. Where the fuck is it?

“Maybe we’ve got it wrong. Maybe it doesn’t care about us, maybe it doesn’t even want to leave the cavern.”

They never let me in…

Thirty seconds. Sixty.

Fuck this. Heinwald wakes comms. “Hello? Uh…Hitchhiker?”

“…”

“You there?”

A hiss. A carrier wave. The cackle of some distant sparking short-circuit.

“It’s there all right,” Solway buzzes. “It wouldn’t go to the trouble of—of waking up and tracking us down and introducing itself for fucksake and then just go away.”

“It knows,” Vrooman says.

She keeps her torch trained on the opening. “That’s good, right? Doesn’t want to come through, maybe it thinks we can hurt it.”

Heinwald breaks contact and steps over to the cart. The cascade’s down by almost half.

He leans back in. “We can’t stay here.”

“This is the only bottleneck we got,” Solway reminds them.

“And we barely have enough O2 to make it back as it is. We’re gonna wait out something that holds its breath for millions of years at a stretch?”

“Maybe we could go back inside,” Vrooman says, “and Parlez.” His voice sounds dangerously close to a giggle.

“Maybe seal it in somehow,” Solway suggests.

Heinwald looks around the corridor for loose plating, or convenient boulders loosed from some fissure they didn’t notice on the way in. “Maybe we can…” go back inside with that thing and somehow pull back the slab we cut out and weld it shut…

“What?” Solway says.

“Nothing. Never mind.”

And all the while the sheer adrenaline boost of fight/flight is sucking oxygen out of their tanks as though they were running a marathon. Heinwald’s got maybe ten minutes before he has to tap the cascade again and when they all do that they’ll be down to 45% easy, without having even started back up and that fucking horrific self-described human is lurking back there in the dark with all those porcelain bones, got all the time in this world and a dozen others…

Solway seems to accept it at last. She breaks contact, steps away; behind her faceplate Heinwald sees her throw her head back and open her mouth in a silent prolonged FUUUUCCCCCKKKK!!!! that probably would have deafened the lot of them if her comms had been on.

She returns to the fold, leans in. “Hook up the electricals.”

She stands watch, the torch almost a part of her now, while they retrieve servos and spinal cords from the Faraday bags. It only takes a few minutes to snap the cart’s nervous system back into place but Heinwald’s tank is still down to the dregs by the time they finish. Everyone piles onto the cart: Vrooman back in the driver’s seat, Solway twisted around facing backward with her gloved hands still clenched tight on the torch, Heinwald plugged into the cascade to grant himself another few minutes of life. The cart spins backward, skidding; forward; back again in a tight three-point turn that bruises the rock wall; straightens and lines up back the way they came.

They boot.



This entry was posted on Monday, April 5th, 2021 at 8:30 am and is filed under fiblet, Sunflowers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

12 Responses to “Strategic Retreat”

  1. James Gauvreau

    It lives! I’m glad to see another bit of this story see the light of day.

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  2. Seruko

    Any chance for another sunflower novel?

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  3. Nestor

    I’m sure it’ll be friendly and want to come in for a cup of tea. Perhaps it’s a representative from a descendant civilization, here to deliver Eriophora’s accumulated mail! A sort of vacuum hardened postman Pat, if you will.

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  4. BTW

    Sorry, but my thoughts immediately jumped to:
    “Valerie, no!”
    “VALERIE YES”

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  5. BAMK

    God the tension is excruciating

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  6. Nestor

    Oh and the art is on point as usual. I assume you made it like for the last fiblet?

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  7. dpb

    In one of the earlier stories Sunday was complaining that nobody ever said hello, and now the crew are getting pissy when someone does.

    There’s no pleasing some people!

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  8. Peter Watts

    Seruko:
    Any chance for another sunflower novel?

    There hasn’t been an actual novel yet. But yes.

    In fact, I still don’t know how long this story is going to be when I finish…

    BTW: “VALERIE YES”

    Hmmmm.

    I mean, if Star Trek: The Next Generation can do a crossover with X-Men, why not?

    Nestor:
    Oh and the art is on point as usual. I assume you made it like for the last fiblet?

    I just started out with a Google seacrh for “asteroid mining tunnel” or something. Started with Saturn 3 (which was a terrible movie, btw) and ended up with something called “Inseminoid” (which I have not seen, but which looks even worse). The illo is a screen grab from Inseminoid, with elements from a couple of other screen grabs mooshed on top via GiMP.

    dpb:
    In one of the earlier stories Sunday was complaining that nobody ever said hello, and now the crew are getting pissy when someone does.

    There’s no pleasing some people!

    Actually, Sunday made that complaint a few billion years after this story takes place. But you’ll see she’s nowhere in the current narrative, so that’s okay.

    It is starting to get harder to keep canon consistent, though. Especially since I’m not writing it in chronological order.

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  9. Tran Script

    Had no idea what was going on until I read Araneus, which I guess I’d somehow missed.

    Anyway, moar please. I want to see the post human in all its glory.

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  10. Nestor

    Hah! Inseminoid! I remember looking at the box in the video rental store, never got around to seeing it. Fortunately Legend of the Overfiend came along a few years later to scratch that particular itch.

    Heh.

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  11. dpb

    Nestor,

    It’s a terrible film, which commits the cardinal sin of being boring.

    I can reassure you that you missed out on nothing.

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  12. Jeff Bonkers

    There’s so many things horrible to redemptive to flat-out alien that could happen here… man. Good setup, Pete.

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