The Westbrooks could not help but feel a little intimidated as they stepped out of the elevator. The home of the CFO of TransSolar was verging on the palatial. Yet, inside, it was understated. Hussein Fars and his wife had good taste, and lacked the insecurities that plagued so many top executives.
Darius Westbrook was a geologist and his wife, Paula, a theoretical physicist, both with the prestigious Lunar University. Fars had handpicked them for the expedition he had been planning, overcoming their every objection, even allowing them to bring their daughter along.
“I’m still not sure about this,” Paula Westbrook muttered. It was the last point that remained an issue, as they would be travelling into the wild and uncharted Outer Systems.
“You know what he said,” her husband replied. He’d reassured them the system they would be operating in had been deemed safe and the expedition would be accompanied by a support and escort flotilla sufficient for their needs.
A servitor synth stepped forward to greet them and escort them through to the drawing room. Although her parents strode confidently in, eight-year-old Elizabeth hung back, using them as a shield, glancing around their legs. She’d inherited her mother’s lithe form and large, dark eyes, and, from her father, the pure black hair which cascaded down past her shoulders.
The Fars were waiting and the Westbrooks were evidently the first guests to arrive. Hussein Fars was tall and handsome with the dusky skin and glossy black hair of his Persian and Arab ancestors. His wife was of European ancestry with milk-white skin, which her black hair framed beautifully. Slightly shorter than her husband, she was slim with a dancer’s grace. She was a little younger than Hussein and had a similar determination in her eyes. The left-hand-side of her face, despite the attention of a plastic surgeon, was marred and the muscles motionless, the legacy of some tragic accident in her past. She was the antithesis in every way to the image of the trophy wife so many of her husband’s peers possessed.
“Welcome, welcome. I am so glad you could join us. This is my wife, Beth Fars.”
“Pleased to meet you both,” she said, stepping forward to shake their hands. The slack muscles in the left half of her face made her look slightly grim even as her eyes sparkled and the right-hand corner of her mouth twitched a smile, but her voice was unaffected.
Darius Westbrook was impressed. He’d read she’d forged a successful corporate career of her own prior to marriage. Being, like her husband, a Baburi Muslim, she couldn’t continue to work past becoming a wife. As an atheist with a wife pursuing a successful academic career, he found such dictates utterly illogical, but knew better than to start a debate with their employer.
“And, this must be Elizabeth,” Hussein said, spotting the child.
“Hello,” said Mrs Fars, approaching her and dropping to her knees to examine her more closely. “We’ve got the same first name,” she told her, “my name is Beth, which is short for Elizabeth.”
The girl shuffled back to the safety of her mother’s skirts. Her parents glanced at one another; Beth was tangibly charismatic, yet something about her was disturbing. Darius fought the sensation, fearing an irrational prejudice against her scars, but it went too deep.
Still, she worked to put them at their ease as they sat down to drinks, getting to know one another as they waited for the other expedition members to arrive, and they grew relatively comfortable in her presence. They’d have to, to voyage together; whatever the Baburis might say about dutiful wives, she was following her husband through space. But, then, how often did the CFO of a major corporation join his own expedition?
Over the next half hour, the others who’d be joining them aboard the dropship Xerxes arrived. There would be others, crewing the jumpship, support vessels, protective escort vessels, but only those here would be going down to the surface of PF35.
Besides the Fars and Westrbooks, there were their pilot and co-pilot, Tito Marvin and Jasmin Hathaway; their engineer, Noah Damon; the astrophysicist, Professor Chang Lee of Kinshasha University; Hussein’s assistant, Andrew Petersen; a graduate technician called Frodo Jones; three guards by the names of Mark Rogers, Duke Castor and Lisa Milovic, and, lastly, their guide, Bagheera Vaughan.
As was often the case with those who worked in the confines of space vehicles and came from old spacefaring stock, Tito and Jasmin were small and compact. This was in complete contrast to the archetypal Nordic giant Petersen.
Noah was older, in his fifties, and stood running his hand through the largest bird’s-nest beard they had ever seen as he sipped at a ridiculously-dainty cocktail.
“Professor Lee, you already know, of course,” said Hussein.
“Yes, we’ve attended several of the same conferences,” said Paula Westbrook as she and her husband shook the man’s hand. “It’s good to have you along.”
The professor showed the indeterminate features and skin tone of someone with multiple races in his ancestry, being the scion of academics and bureaucrats from several parts of the world.
He returned their greeting warmly.
Frodo Jones was the youngest expedition member, in his early twenties, with the straggly beard and unruly hair that had marked student types since time immemorial. He seemed almost as shy as Elizabeth, who was still hiding behind her mother, watching wide-eyed each arrival.
The two male guards were both of the traditional muscle-bound sort, although Darius thought he detected evidence of brains as well as brawn in their conversation: Mark had fiery red hair, whilst Duke had the profile of a Zulu warrior. Lisa Milovic was tall and lithe with a steely gaze that took in the small crowd as if expecting danger to suddenly manifest in their midst.
Their guide, the curiously-named Bagheera, was the last to arrive and the most eccentric of them all, a grizzled veteran of the depths of uncharted space with long wisps of grey hair and white stubble across his chin. He was dressed in Bermuda shorts, Hawaiian shirt and fluorescent-pink headband. He entered singing some ancient rock song that, even had they known it, would’ve been unrecognisable in his reedy, off-key voice. Darius had heard that such strange dress and behaviour were common on the fringe of inhabited space. He guessed, from the odd name, that the man was probably from frontier stock, which was good news as, oddities aside, he must have all the necessary skills and knowledge to keep them alive.
Hussein Fars tapped a glass. “Right, don’t be shy; circulate and get to know one another – we’re going to be working proverbially cheek-by-jowl for some time.”
They did, and by the end of the evening, even Elizabeth was no longer hanging back.
They left the Earth within the week. The longest part of the journey was the trek to the edge of the solar system to reach the point where it would be safe for them to engage their jumpdrive. There would be several jumps in order to reach their destination, but each would take only a few hours to achieve; it was the 24 hours necessary to boost their energy reserves through their solar sail that would add the most time to that part of their journey. Once at their final destination, the trip to the surface of PF35 would only add a couple of days to their journey time, lying, as it did, further out in its system than Earth.
There was plentiful entertainment to hold boredom at bay and ensure they retained their physical and mental fitness during confinement.
Paula Westbrook, who’d continued to maintain her concerns about Elizabeth, as well as worrying she wouldn’t have a satisfying role in the expedition, had a new issue to badger her husband with.
“Have you seen the way that strange Bagheera person keeps watching our daughter?” she asked Darius. “You just don’t know what these frontier types are thinking.”
Despite reluctance on his part, he raised the issue with Beth Fars.
“I wouldn’t worry,” Beth told him. “She reminds him of me when I was young.” She saw the question in his eyes. “Bagheera found me on the frontier and brought me back to civilisation.”
She, too, seemed to have her eye on the child, Darius thought, and was grateful his wife wasn’t concocting further conspiracy theories. Elizabeth and Hussein were childless, and he suspected she enjoyed having a child around, although, realising her presence tended to disturb Elizabeth, she kept her distance from her and her concerned mother.
“I must apologise,” Darius said more than once, suppressing his own aversion.
Every time, she laughed his concerns off, gesturing to her face and saying, “I know this disturbs people. Allah sets us these tests to try us. You’ll grow used to it, I assure you.”
They were nearing their destination. PF35 had first been charted three decades before. A routine analysis by TransSolar of the data had, according to the briefing Hussein provided, unearthed evidence of plentiful mineral deposits, including rare ores. They’d survey the world to discover exactly what was down there. If they were lucky, they’d uncover the mother lode. If the scans were inaccurate, they’d still receive a good payment for their services: new worlds always held the possibility of some useful discovery,
It was when they arrived in orbit around the planet that they discovered the Anomaly.
“The readings are off the chart; bizarre,” said Darius as he tried to make sense of what was on the screen. He’d been attempting to locate the minerals the earlier probes had detected. He’d found no sign of them, but had picked up an unnatural energy reading from the northern continent, located about a curious, octagonal mountaintop. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this was man-made.”
His wife and the astrophysicist Lee, looking at the screen, agreed with him.
“It’s not on any of the survey scans,” he said, comparing the data.
“It could be recent,” Lee suggested. “Perhaps someone beat us to it.”
“No,” Darius replied, focusing in on the visual scan. “The structure is old, I’m sure of it: natural or man-made, it’s been there a long time. It has to be on the original scan.”
“It has to be man-made,” his wife said; “these energy readings can’t be natural.”
Darius was still matching data, his face clouded with concern. “I can’t find any of the deposits.”
“What do you mean?” Paula asked.
“The minerals aren’t there.”
Lee frowned. “You mean someone’s dug them up?”
Darius shook his head. “No, I mean they aren’t there and never could’ve been. This survey is nonsense!”
“It doesn’t match at all.”
“A misfile?” Lee asked. Sometimes probe data got filed under the wrong heading, sending prospectors to the wrong system.
“No – same planet, wrong data. Look, the geography matches up, but the geology doesn’t. And, that structure isn’t there.”
“What do you mean?” Paula asked.
“We’ve been misled. Either the scan data was doctored by the initial expedition to conceal this anomaly, or the Fars have been lying to us…”
“Ah, hello, how’s it going?” the CFO’s voice interrupted them; Hussein Fars had just entered the survey suite.
“What’s going on, more like,” Paula muttered, before her husband could speak.
“Sorry?” Hussein asked, but Darius thought he detected a shiftiness in his eyes.
“This survey data is rubbish.” Darius pointed at the screen.
“Oh?” Hussein crossed to the screen, then announced with delight, “Aha! You’ve found the Panopticon.”
“The what?” Lee asked.
“He means the Anomaly,” Paula said.
“So,” demanded Darius, “you knew about this? You fabricated the data?”
“Yes. I didn’t want the truth leaking out. This is something special.”
“But,” Darius asked, “why bring us here? Why hire a geologist if you have no minerals to survey?”
“Because your wife wouldn’t have come alone,” Hussein replied without embarrassment. “My apologies, Professor Westbrook, but I am afraid you are not the Professor Westbrook we wanted; it’s your wife’s skills that we need. Of course, should you detect any mineral deposits, TransSolar will, of course, be most grateful. But, this expedition has a very specific aim.”
“That’s outrageous!” Darius exclaimed, Paula echoing his view. Although disgusted at being deceived, he also felt a touch of personal dismay that he kept hidden.
“Don’t worry,” said Hussein, “you’ll still be paid.”
“Paid? It’s not about the money!”
Hussein Fars allowed their shouts to wash over him without rancour and their anger was soon dissipated as their curiosity overcame their concerns.
“Hello, what’s going on here, then?” asked Noah, entering the survey suite.
Several other expedition members followed the engineer in, attracted by the ranting that echoed throughout the dropship, including Mrs Fars and the Westbrooks’ daughter, whom she guided away from the angry scene.
“You called it the Panopticon,” Paula said, eventually.
“Yes, that is what we named it. A panopticon was originally a prison design: a central tower enabled the warden to observe all the prisoners, hence the term, meaning ‘all-seeing’. Here, we settled upon the term due to its shape, from which the entire surrounding country could be seen, and due to certain curious properties it possesses.”
“What are you blathering about?” Darius asked, his tone still ripe with anger at being told he was inessential.
“We believe this… building was constructed by alien intelligences older and more advanced than humanity.”
“How do you know?” Paula asked.
“‘Cos, I brought back the log of the Hesperus,” said the Bagheera, stepping out of the shadows as if he’d studied melodrama.
“The Hesperus?” Lee echoed.
“A TransSolar research vessel,” Hussein supplied.
“The vessel was on an exploration mission,” Bagheera continued, “when it picked up on this here Panopticon of Fars’; but it ran into trouble. The entire vessel was lost, save for an escape pod… I picked up its mayday signal, recovered the log and the sole survivor.”
“The scientists,” elaborated Hussein, “believed the Panopticon was built to manipulate higher dimensions, drawing power from the star the planet orbits. That it was intended to see across the gulfs of time and space. Perhaps even to travel beyond them. That’s why I required a theoretical physicist and an astrophysicist. You have the requisite skills to study this unique device.”
“Just the two of us?” Paula said. “Something of this scale needs an entire team.”
“The data can always be analysed later.”
Darius was doubtful, but his wife assured him the readings could be consistent with such outlandish ideas.
“We won’t know until…” she shrugged and returned to the data. To his chagrin, Darius could see that, no matter how angry she’d been a few minutes before, she was absolutely hooked now.
“I think we have a problem,” Paula told the assembled team. “I’ve examined the readings we’ve been getting from the Anomaly, as well as the area around it. The original team were probably correct: the Anomaly does appear to be, well, some sort of time machine, for want of a better and less loaded term.”
Hussein literally clapped his hands in delight. Time travel was, alongside immortality, the last holy grail of human science: its discovery would make TransSolar – and, him – a fortune.
“But, there’s a problem with it,” she said, returning to her initial point.
“What?” Hussein asked, his tone a mixture of concern and irritation, as if afraid success was about to be snatched away.
“It’s breaking down. The process has probably been going on for decades, maybe longer.”
“Are we in danger?” Frodo, the technician asked. He’d helped the scientists take down the readings, but hadn’t understood their arcane reasoning.
“Possibly…” she admitted. “It’s probable these, random discharges of temporal energy and such, are what caused the loss of the Hesperus expedition.” Her tone was even, as if the danger held little concern for her. Indeed, her fixation with the discovery that would make her scientific career had suppressed all but a twinge of fear at the danger they were in. Had she not brought Elizabeth, she might’ve felt none at all.
“There’s more,” Lee added. “The danger posed by such discharges is localised to the region around the Anomaly. However, I’ve detected fluctuations within the heart of the star. These fluctuations seem to occur in conjunction with the discharges. This indicates your Panopticon is, indeed, powered by the star itself. The issue is that these fluctuations indicate a deterioration in the star’s gravitational field – it could, literally, go nova at any time.”
Noah crossed himself.
“We should leave, right now!” Tito, the pilot, exclaimed.
“I have to say, I agree,” said his co-pilot.
“We’re not leaving,” Hussein snapped. One of the guards, Rogers, placed his hand meaningfully on the taser on his hip; making it clear he backed his boss.
Jasmin swore and Tito shook his head, shocked.
“We’ve a duty to TransSolar,” Hussein said. “Remember, you’re all being paid to do this job.”
“If we live to spend it…” Tito muttered.
The only concession Hussein made was to order the support vessels back to the system’s edge from which they could easily jump away.
“No need to endanger lives unnecessarily,” his wife commented.
“Will we have enough warning to get away?” Jasmin asked.
“I can alert you to any worsening in conditions,” Lee said, “but, should it go nova, we won’t have the time we need to get back to the jumpship and out of the system. The longer we linger, the greater the danger…”
“I don’t like this place,” Elizabeth complained. Her parents had left her with Beth Fars whilst they examined the Panopticon. The girl’s fear of the planet had helped her overcome her dislike of the scarred woman. The ship had landed on the storm-swept surface of the planet so they could examine the construct first hand.
“Don’t worry, darling,” Beth crooned, stroking the girl’s lustrous black hair. “What’s this?” she asked, spotting a necklace around the girl’s neck. She picked it up to examine: it was a kite-shaped object of black stone with five circular indentations.
“Mother gave it to me.”
Beth produced a similar one. “I have one just like it. Do you know what it is?”
“Yes. They’re found on the planet Cygnus. Mum says grandfather found it in an alien tomb there. He gave it to her and she gave it to me. It’s very old.”
“And, very rare,” the woman replied. “This,” she ran her fingers across her own, “is worth a lot of money, but I would never sell it.”
“Neither would I,” the little girl affirmed.
Just then, the intercom buzzed and Beth went over to it and listened. Then, she turned back to the girl and said, “Your parents are going out.” So far, they’d only probed the Panopticon remotely with drones. “We’d better say goodbye to them.”
“Will they be safe?” the girl asked, worry etching her porcelain features.
Beth tried to smile reassuringly, although it was more of a grimace. “Of course, they will. They’ll have guards with them. And, my husband is going with them – I wouldn’t let him go if it was dangerous.”
That wasn’t entirely true – as much as she loved Hussein, she understood what was to be gained, and what had to be risked. Still, she managed to reassure the girl and was able to lead her to the loading ramp where a party consisting of her parents, Hussein, Bagheera, Petersen and the two male guards was preparing to leave the confines of the ship; the planetary atmosphere had been analysed to ensure it was safe to breathe.
The technician, Frodo, and astrophysicist, Chang Lee, would remain behind to monitor the star and the energy discharges, whilst Lisa Milovic kept a close eye on the pilots for any signs they were planning to leave early.
Whilst Elizabeth said her goodbyes to her parents, Bagheera took Beth aside and said, “You look after that kid.”
“I will,” she assured him, “I will.”
“Okay,” conceded Beth. Elizabeth had pestered her to let her watch the group’s progress on the monitors. Each team member wore a chest-mounted unit that served as a locator and a camera, relaying images of what they were seeing, along with data on the wearer’s health for Frodo to monitor.
The journey to the Panopticon was not without danger. Something large, low-slung, yellow-grey and clawed was stalking the small band. Those watching from the ship would catch occasional glimpses of it amongst the rocks.
“There’s something out there with you,” Frodo warned over the radio.
“You sure?” Petersen replied. “This place is dead.”
As if in response to his words, the creature leapt at them from an overhanging rock, ploughing into Petersen and bowling him over. A dark bulk overshadowed the man’s camera and there was a blur of motion before, a moment later, blood splattered across the lens, obscuring it. The other images span as the rest of the group turned to see what was happening, then resolved to show the creature atop the hulking assistant, bending down to snap his neck. Aboard the dropship, vital signs convulsed then died. The guards fired. It disappeared amongst the rocks.
Elizabeth shrieked at the scene. Beth just watched impassively, her face emotionless and immobile.
Sans Petersen, whose body would be collected by a drone, the team continued to approach the brooding mountaintop construction. Their chest cameras revealed visible waves of energy flowing outwards from the Panopticon, whilst hurricane-force winds lashed the rocky ground, as if trying to hold them back. Heads bowed, they slowly made their way up the slope towards it.
Suddenly, a multi-hued wave rolled down the mountainside towards them, enveloping Bagheera, who’d taken point, and he momentarily disappeared in a blaze of light; his vital signs and camera image went blank in the same moment. On the others’ cameras, he reappeared only to crumble into dust. Elizabeth screamed. Beth’s hand went to her mouth in shock.
Shaken, the team pressed on, struggling against the howling winds and sheets of dust. Beneath their feet, the ground began to shake and they were forced to dodge tumbling rocks.
“Mummy, Daddy, come back!” Elizabeth wailed over the radio.
“We’re nearly at the top, sweetheart. No point in turning back now” Her mother’s voice was distorted and cut in and out.
“Well, they may want to reconsider,” Lee called over to Beth Fars. “I don’t like the look of these readings; the star is increasingly unstable.”
Beth relayed the astrophysicist’s message to her husband. “Will you return?” she asked, at last, neither begging nor attempting to order him back.
“That’s a negative,” Hussein replied. “We’re almost at the Panopticon. At the very least, I want to see inside, get some useful data.”
“Okay,” she said. From the beginning, she’d agreed the risk was worth it. Everyone, even Bagheera, to whom she owed her life, was expendable in the quest to reach their goal. Lisa Milovic would ensure those aboard the Xerxes would wait. Each of the three guards had been guaranteed a big bonus payment to their loved ones if they failed to return, to override their self-preservation.
The team arrived at the ancient building. There were no seams in its construction: it was if the vast octagon had been carved from the living rock of the mountaintop itself. There was a shadowy archway and a long opaque window higher up. As the ground gave its fiercest lurch yet, an actual crack appeared in the wall. More rocks, some once part of the Panopticon, tumbled past.
“The surface of it seems to be ageing at an accelerated rate,” Darius murmured, fascinated.
“Be careful,” Beth told her husband as the group went inside.
It was as if the mountain shrugged its shoulders: a wide crack split the corridor from floor to ceiling and, then, the roof and walls tumbled in, burying Paula. Her husband vainly leapt at the pile of broken stone and struggled to shift it, to save her.
“Mummy!” Elizabeth cried and Beth couldn’t help but shriek with her.
“Is she alive?” Hussein demanded over the radio. His camera image showed the rubble as he stood, waiting for a response. “Well?”
The life-signs monitor showed that Paula was still alive, if badly hurt.
Beth couldn’t bring herself to speak, so Frodo answered for her. “She is alive – barely. You may be able to reach her from the other side of the blockage – but, you’d better hurry – the instability is growing. We really need to get out of here – like yesterday!”
Just then, Chang Lee swore.
Frodo turned. “What’s wrong?” Then, he turned back to the console and in a shaky voice said, “Be advised that Elizabeth Westbrook has left the craft…”
“What?” Darius demanded.
“She must’ve decided to go help her mother,” Frodo replied.
“I thought Beth was watching her?” Hussein cut in.
“I… don’t know what happened…” Frodo replied, lamely. He didn’t want to tell his boss that not only did his wife seem quite unconcerned, but, if her features could emote, he was almost sure she would be smiling. That chilled his heart.
Beth was watching one of the monitors. Spotting the little girl making for the exit, she’d made no attempt to stop her, just handed her one of the chest units so they could observe her progress up the mountainside.
Elizabeth was terrified, but knew she had to save her mother.
Mighty gusts of wind blew down the mountainside and the ground beneath her feet literally undulated with waves of force, making it almost impossible for her to make her way forwards. Only her desperate desire to help her mother allowed her to make any progress at all.
But, she wasn’t alone in the midst of the storm. Thunder rumbled, lightning rippled about the alien building, and rocks tumbled down the slope, and, amidst the chaos, the creature that had killed Petersen continued to prowl – only it was now stalking far easier prey.
At the corner of her eye, the girl noticed her pursuer and, with a shriek of fear, began to run.
Aboard the dropship, the observers could only watch her heartbeat rise on the condition monitor and the camera image jump wildly as she ran as fast as she could against the wind.
“What is it?” Frodo demanded over the radio, but the girl was too terrified to answer.
Suddenly, the creature pounced, knocking her to the ground. A rock bounced into it, buying her a few seconds. Desperately, Elizabeth pulled away. Downwards the claws slashed, tearing the chest unit from her. For a moment, the viewers thought the little girl had been killed, as the datafeed died, then realised what had happened as she appeared in the field of her own camera, staggering away from the danger.
“What happened?” Frodo demanded of the air.
“A creature attacked her,” Beth said. “She’s terrified. Trying to escape.”
Just then, the hunter leapt, slamming into the girl. She rolled and struggled to her feet. It swept at her with its sickle-like claws, tearing the left-hand-side of her face away, blood patterning the camera lens.
Frodo struggled to hold his lunch down. Beth merely put her hand to her face as guesses became certainty.
Elizabeth swung her arm, pain and fear drowning out all conscious thought, striking the creature with the taser Beth had also handed to her.
Frodo cheered the girl’s action as the beast rolled out of view. Then, the girl, too, staggered out of the camera’s field. All that was left to see was a crack in the lens and the dust particles blowing past, then, something, most likely another of the tumbling rocks, struck the discarded chest unit and the screen went black.
Hussein had taken Rogers to continue scouting the Panopticon, whilst Duke had gone with Darius to help the man’s wife. Back on the ship, Tito was agitating to launch and Lisa Milovic was beginning to wonder if he were right: the winds, earthquakes and energy waves had all increased in intensity, and communications with the team had become erratic to the point of silence.
There’d been talk of following after the girl, bringing her back, but Beth had pointed out that Elizabeth’s father would likely encounter her on his return and that sending more people out onto the dying world would inhibit their ability to escape and create more victims. They couldn’t argue with that; in fact, as none of them really wanted to take the risk, none of them were willing to argue with that.
“I’ve reached the heart of the Panopticon,” Hussein radioed at last. He sounded excited at the prospect of learning its secrets. Mere minutes later, the readouts for him and Rogers ceased.
Darius and Duke returned to the ship a few minutes later, dragging Paula with them. It was clear, from her broken body and fading vital signs, that she’d little chance of surviving even if there’d been a medical support vessel waiting in orbit. Only sheer desperation had kept her husband going down the mountain. The girl wasn’t with them: either she was lost out there, had fallen prey to the creature that had been stalking her, or had reached the Panopticon and also been caught in its collapse; none of the alternatives offered much hope.
“Where’s Elizabeth?” Darius demanded. He’d been too busy focusing to his wife to hear the message of her disappearance.
Frodo told him and he collapsed in a heap. They didn’t need to restrain him from leaving to find her: he’d lost the will to struggle any further.
Beth looked at him with sadness, but said nothing.
Chang Lee announced that the star was destabilising at a rapidly-increasing rate.
“We must leave now,” he stated, “although it’s my guess it’s already too late.”
The discussion lasted only seconds before they agreed, abandoning the dying world.
“Everyone buckle up,” Tito called over the intercom.
As the ship rose towards orbit, they scanned the world below them. Half the Panopticon had collapsed in upon itself, burying Hussein and Rogers, and the mountain was aglow with auroras. Great chasms snaked down its sides and across the surrounding rocky plains. For a brief moment, Frodo thought he had detected a human presence on the planet surface, but then it was gone, just a fleeting ghost on the screen.
They continued their ascent. Noah was praying aloud in his crash seat, beseeching the Lord to save them.
Beth wondered if she ought to pray to Allah, but, instead, she retreated into memory.
The events of that fateful day were still a blur; even now her mind had unlocked those long-hidden memories. She’d barely been aware after her face was torn asunder, but a primal urge to save her mother had driven her on. She’d barely even noticed the strange-hued ripple in the air, which had momentarily enveloped her, only registering the going had become easier as she staggered up the mountainside.
The Hesperus expedition had been spooked: although disaster still lay a full three decades away, the temporal eddies had caused disappearances and the deadly predators that roamed that forsaken rocky landscape had taken at least three of their members. The arrival of the mutilated little girl out of nowhere was the final straw: they took her aboard to give her emergency treatment and, then, prepared to evacuate the world designated PF35.
The Hesperus had risen skyward on a roar of ion boosters. The little girl was unconscious, doped with an anaesthetic. She recalled nothing of their journey to orbit. Elizabeth would never be able to tell what disaster had overtaken the ship and destroyed it and its crew, nor would she ever be able to explain how she’d come to be placed within the escape pod when none other had managed to escape.
All she could recall after that was when she awoke aboard Bagheera Vaughan’s scout vessel. She’d thought the name, the face had seemed familiar, yet she couldn’t say why, nor what had happened. Elizabeth, or Beth, as Bagheera had insisted on shortening it, could recall almost nothing, although her education in the care of a TransSolar foster family had seemed more like unlocking than teaching.
Only recently had Beth begun to recall anything of her past: fragments, dreams, guesses. It had been her idea to investigate PF35 and had been at her suggestion that Hussein approach the Westbrooks and ensure they come aboard. She felt a little guilty at naming Bagheera their guide, bringing him back to where he’d found her, only for him to die: some way to express gratitude!
“What the hell?” Tito shrieked. A ship had just appeared directly in their path.
The ship flickered and was gone for a moment, then was there again. He yanked the controls sideways in an evasive manoeuvre, but it was too late for the bulky dropship.
It seemed that God, Allah, Fate, or whatever watched over them, was deaf to prayers and entreaties: the Xerxes smashed into the other, smaller vessel. Half the dropship was torn away, but the command section kept hurtling onwards, momentum throwing them forwards. Had they only known the identity of the other ship, they would’ve been able to solve the destruction of the Hesperus. A lone escape pod, launched in a moment when it was still in the past, survived.
Beth wondered if, perhaps, whoever was watching over them had heard their pleas after all: they were still alive. But, if He had, He had a cruel sense of humour, for their momentum alone would not be enough to throw them out of the planet’s gravitational pull. Slowly, gravity would retard their advance: if they weren’t dragged back down to crash land, they’d be caught in an orbit about a dying world spinning about an unstable star.
Beth cursed Allah for this twist of fate. So, this was how it would end – dying in the same vacuum that nearly claimed her life thirty years before – after ensuring she, her child self, fell back in time to start the cycle anew. But, her rational mind reasserted itself: perhaps this was Allah’s will, after all, as perverse as it might seem. If Elizabeth, her younger self, remained here with them, she surely would have died. The strange event that hurled her into the past had granted her three decades of life that wouldn’t otherwise have been hers, including the love of a good man and the discovery of faith, and, now, as ironic as the circumstances seemed, she was granted an opportunity to farewell her parents.
Paula was barely conscious from pain and painkillers, but seemed to sense her daughter’s presence, even if she couldn’t see her, and weakly grasped Beth’s hand. If, by some miracle, they were rescued, Beth knew her mother was unlikely to recover from her wounds. Darius, her father, was in shock and didn’t seem to hear, let alone understand, the bizarre tale she told him, but accepted the hug she’d waited thirty years to give him. She’d made her peace with them – maybe that was what Allah, Fate or whatever had intended for her all along.
Lights flickered and began to fail, as emergency batteries died; slowly, a chill began to creep through what remained of the craft. Beth took out her prayer beads, a gift from her husband at their marriage, and slowly worked her way through them, finding comfort in the rote action. Then, as the lights finally died, she reached for the necklace she wore, a gift from her mother, so many years before. As she felt for the familiar indentations, she idly wondered if anyone would recover the valuable heirloom and if it would ever mean as much to them as to her. She continued to clutch it, tears trickling from her right-hand eye, as she sat back to await her fate. She didn’t have long to wait…
by DJ Tyrer