Lieutenant Harry Nelson-Heron watched the monitors carefully. The terrain below looked decidedly inhospitable as the launch, designated Bravo Two-zero, one of NECS Beagle’s largest, cruised slowly over the desolate landscape. The planet was locked in a global ice age, only the equatorial regions being relatively ice free. Their survey had detected what appeared to be structures buried in the ice at various places, but with the ice sheets up to several miles thick, it was going to take some time to unravel this and confirm that they had indeed found an ancient lost civilization. To complicate matters, the sun in this system was decaying rapidly, contributing to the global freeze. As a part of the survey they had dropped several surface probe units and one of these had been lost on landing.
The lost probe had to be down there somewhere, the mystery was why its beacons were not sending back the location signals that should have been transmitting regardless of the state of the rest of the unit. Harry sighed, they had already completed several sweeps across the area into which the probe should have descended – had in fact descended two days earlier. It had signaled the deployment of its landing gear – and then ceased to send anything at all. The brief signal had been insufficient to give an accurate fix so now they were reduced to this aerial sweep and reliance on visual reconnaissance.
He turned to the pilot and said, “We’ll turn at the extreme edge of the search zone. Then take us north and we will sweep along the broken country at the edge of the ice sheet please Arno.”
“I comply with your commands, oh Navigator,” grinned the pilot. Sub-Lieutenant Arno von Richthofen manipulated the controls and the launch swung to a new heading. “I wonder why the probe isn’t in its programmed descent location. I’ve never known one go so badly off course – or disappear like this, come to that.”
“Oh, I have,” chuckled Harry. “If you remember, that’s how Ferghal, Danny and I ended up trapped in this strange Fleet that uses atoms and electricity to move about through the skies of strange worlds instead of upon our own natural oceans under the power of wind and muscle. It was similar probes that almost destroyed our ship when they went back in time and we found ourselves on Vanguard in the exchange.”
“Ah, so you would wish to return to your sailing ships? I think I have heard you tell us that they stank, that the water you drank – if you dared drink it – was foul with salt and you had the constant threat of being wrecked on dangerous shores,” Arno ventured, bringing the launch round to follow the designated line of the sweep.
Harry focused his attention back on the landscape, flashing a smile at his friend, “No I do not. I am become as soft as the rest of you now, and too spoiled by the luxury of fresh clean water, good food and the comfort of my own luxurious berth.” His attention was drawn to an anomaly in the terrain and he said, “But wait. There is something strange there. Bring us to a hover please and descend – there is a deep crevasse there. See? It lies hard against the canyon wall. Take us down please and land. I will explore that crevasse from the ground, see, there is a mark as if some object has recently struck the edge and fallen within.”
Arno, having brought the launch to a hovering position studied the scanner image. “You’re right, that does look as if something has gone in there. I’ll contact the ship for a support and recovery team.”
“No need,” said Harry. “Take us lower if you please, I’ll contact the ship and tell them what we see. I wish to descend to a position from which I can scan that opening at a more natural angle and peer into the abyss it no doubt gives access to,” he finished with enthusiasm.
Arno, used to Harry’s rather old fashioned manner of speaking, nodded. “Good idea, I’ll take us down.” To his co-pilot he added, “You heard the man, Warrant, we’ll go down to the floor of the canyon. Watch for wind sheer and weather patterns – this could be rough.”
“As you like boss,” replied the Warrant Officer. Like the rest of Beagle’s crew, he was a specialist in survey work, but, being a pilot as well, had drawn the duty of co-piloting the ship’s various ‘boats’ as they were known in the Fleet. In Harry’s Division and working under him as they mapped the planet, he had developed a strong liking for the young lieutenant, although, he acknowledged with a laugh to his mess, ‘young’ was hardly a term to be used on a man who, for though he appeared to be no more than twenty (which he was biologically), had actually been born four hundred years earlier!
With the rest of the crew busily operating their equipment, the launch began its descent through the thin atmosphere until it slowed and settled on the floor of the canyon, less than a hundred yards from the lip of the crevasse.
Harry struggled into his extreme climate suit saying, “According to our sensors the temperature in the shade is negative ten degrees Celsius. The wind adds an edge of course. What wind speed do you have?”
“Interesting,” said Arno, “but it’s negligible at the moment.” He checked his instruments. “Five minutes ago, however, it was logging almost ninety kilometers an hour. Watch yourself near the edge, you may need a tether!”
“I’ll consider that,” replied Harry. “I wonder why the probe drifted so far off target?”
“Could be a sudden gust of wind caught it,” suggested Arno. “This canyon seems to get some sudden downdrafts.” He frowned as he studied his instruments. “And the reverse for some reason. Never seen anything like this. Look, according to the sensors there is an updraft forcing up the canyon wall ahead and to starboard.”
The Warrant Officer sucked his breath, “Gawd! That is some velocity. Higher than a tornado. You sure you want to go out there Boss?”
“I shall take a tether,” said Harry. “Warn me of any sudden changes to the atmosphere,” he added, his attention on the monitor. A part of him was also reading the onboard computer, to monitor any other signs his eyes might miss. This ability was not something everyone in this age had, but was the result of an illegal experiment on Harry and Fergal O’Connor, Harry’s boyhood friend and companion, involving a genetic splice which had affected their ability to work through the Fleet provided cybernetic links. These had been fitted to enable them to ‘catch up’ on the knowledge gap of four hundred years. Now he took it for granted and sometimes forgot that others didn’t have the privilege, as he saw it, of being able to hold conversations with the artificial intelligence that ran the ship’s systems.
Harry scanned the ground. At this distance the scar left by something striking the lip of the crevasse was obvious, yet there were other marks as well, marks he could not identify. “I wonder,” he mused quietly. “Those don’t look normal – not like something the probe would cause.” He used his computer link, “Analyse the marks I see please Bravo Two-zero, identify if possible.”
“Abrasion due to high velocity winds. Impact markings are evident in the gouges. A metallic object has fallen over the edge,” responded the launch.
“Thank you,” Harry responded. To the scan technician he said, “It is as I thought, the scanners find traces of metal – our probe must be within the crevasse.” he saw the startled look on the ScanTech’s face and grinned, “Sorry Ahmedi, I should remember to put that on your screen when I tell the ship to do something.
He activated the inner hatch to the launch’s airlock and stepped inside, closing it, he activated the outer hatch, using his cyberlink to the launch’s computer rather than the manual controls. Stepping out of it, he set the hatch to close and attached his tether line to an anchor point adjoining the hatch. Satisfied it was secure he set off toward the opening. To the launch’s computer he ordered, “Bravo Two-zero, record all visual, audio and sensory events I am monitoring.” He switched to voice comm. “Arno, it appears that this opening is another source of the anomalous winds you recorded. The ground here is entirely free of any dust or particles. The rock is swept clean as if subjected to some scouring action.”
“I see it,” responded Arno. “Take care. Any wind that can create those patterns has some power behind it.”
“I shall,” responded Harry as he studied the ground. Moving forward he carefully approached the edge of the opening and peered in. Light penetrated a little more than fifty feet downward before the strange effect of the thin atmosphere, the sharp contrasts between the bright reflection off the barren rock walls and the ice lying in shadows, left the rest of the ravine in darkness. Using a laser range taker Harry tried to gauge the depth. Surprised by the reading he checked again, then commented to Arno and the crew, “I have a depth reading of six hundred feet here, but I suspect it may be much deeper. I think this cavern curves back beneath us. Send out a drone probe, I will send it down to explore it.”
He made to step back as he spoke and was poised in mid-step when there was a sudden violent rush of air – as if some fantastic beast had drawn a sudden great breath. He was swept from his feet to tumble into the crevasse.
The breath was knocked out of him as the tether snapped taut and he collided with the rock wall. For a moment he hung, breathless against the rock face, then he felt the wind rushing past him again and suddenly he was once more falling, but now diagonally. Once more Harry struck the wall and desperately tried to grip the smooth rock. His gloved hands slid without purchase, his body now in contact with the rock, sliding unchecked along the inclined wall. Quite suddenly he was falling again, but this time only for a short distance as he was sucked into a short tunnel and fetched up, gasping, against an obviously manufactured metal screen through which the air was being drawn with some force.
As suddenly as it had begun, it stopped. Harry took stock. His tether line snaked from its harness toward the entrance of the tunnel, obviously having parted from the launch’s anchor point. He wondered what had become of the launch? Was it still safe – or had it suffered some damage? He tried his comlink.
“Bravo Two-zero, are you receiving me?”
The link remained silent. A sighing sound and movement in the air alerted him and just in time he wedged himself into the angle between the screen and the rock wall. Once more the air tore past him, demanding all his strength to avoid being sucked into the screen.
“Well I cannot remain in this place,” he said to no one in particular. He studied the smooth walls around him, these were not natural. Indeed they had a polished finish suggesting some machine at work. Giving his attention to the screen he found that it was anchored to the rock by some means he had never before seen. “Not the work of men,” he said to himself, “And if not, then whose?” An irregular section on the far side of the tunnel caught his eye as he focused his lights. “A door perhaps,” he mused and made his way across to it.
His guess proved correct, but the apparent controls bore markings that were outside of his experience. He was concentrating on these when, quite suddenly, the door slid open and he heard in his mind, as if through his ears, a series of clicks and whistles. The air around him began to move again so he stepped quickly inside and the door slid silently closed behind him.
On the surface Sub-Lieutenant Arno von Richthofen searched desperately for any trace of a comlink signal or locator beacon from his friend and superior. “Warrant, lift us out of here so I can signal Beagle – something about this damned canyon seems to be blocking comms.” To the Commop, Tecrate Ahmedi, he said, “Try a deep scan – that damned hole may have outcrops. He could be caught on one just below the surface.”
“Tried it already sir,” the Tecrate sounded pre-occupied. “It’s as if there is an interference screen like the Consortium’s in operation. I get nothing below a hundred feet beneath the surface.”
“I don’t understand it,” Arno said, busy at his own console. “That tether should not have parted like that – almost as if he was deliberately dragged in by something.” He contacted the command ship, “Captain,” he began, “Lieutenant Heron has fallen or been dragged into a crevasse. His tether line ripped loose from the launch and we can’t get a scan below a hundred feet of the canyon entrance.”
“Acknowledged. Remain in position, I’ll send down a retrieval squad to link up with you. Upload the record while you wait so we can study it and see what we need,” replied Captain Jack Dumbleton. “Why had he left the launch?”
“We found traces that suggested the probe had gone into a crevasse, so the Lieutenant ordered us to land and went to check the marks. He had just taken a depth reading when there was a sudden violent indraft into the opening and he was sucked into it. We can get no trace on his beacon or his comlink, but that may be due to a screening device – Tec Ahmedi says it appears similar but more effective than the Consortium screens.”
“Damn, so we don’t know what we may have down there then. What about this indraft? Any idea on what causes it?”
“Negative sir,” Arno replied. “It’s as if something is drawing air in at intervals – but other vents expel air with a similar force. We are monitoring three discharges at present sir.”
“Right, your data record is coming up on system now. Hold your position until I’ve had a look at it. The rescue team is on its way.”
Harry followed the passage cautiously. His first thought was that this might be a Consortium base, but it was like none he had encountered. For one thing the passage was built on dimensions too large for human use unless the occupants used vehicles inside it. The air seemed reasonably fresh, but very moist, the walls streaming with condensation, and the temperature moderate – in fact too warm for his suit. He reset its controls and moved forward carefully.
At the end of the tunnel he found himself looking into a large chamber. Galleries ran around the sides at regular intervals and the center was occupied by a large and strange looking machine. Figures moved on the galleries beneath him and at what appeared to be a console to one side of the machine. Again he heard the strange high pitched whistles, accompanied by clicks and what sounded like burps and realized that he must be in contact with a computer of some power for this sound was entering his ears in the same manner he was accustomed too when linked to his ship.
Harry studied the figures nearest him keeping to the shadows and remaining absolutely still. They appeared vaguely humanoid, with short, stout, legs, strange looking arms, heavy bodies and large rather streamlined heads. A beak-like mouth dominated what he thought of as a face, but it appeared that these creatures’ nostrils were located behind the head, a curious arrangement for an apparently subterranean animal. The eyes were set on each side of the beak, just below a heavy lobed forehead, and appeared to be large and almost liquid dark.
He gave his attention again to the computer and, after a few minutes, began to make sense of the algorithms it used. To his annoyance he could not interpret the data flowing through its networks. From time to time something attempted to access his mind, but he was quick to block it, until he found an image in his eyes which he realized must be an error screen. Thinking carefully he formed a mental image of the surface and inserted this into the data stream. This seemed to work and he was able to find other images, presumably from external sensors which showed desolate ice sheets, and others which appeared to be caverns, though the lighting in them was strange. It took him a moment to realize that some of the images showed views of a liquid world beneath the ice, something their deep scanners had detected in several areas on this ice covered planet. He tried an experiment and formed the image in his mind of his own world, blue-green and swathed with sweeps of cloud, just as he had last seen it. There was a pause in the images he was viewing, then, equally suddenly; he was looking at a world of water, scattered islands and small continents, swirls of cloud moved gently across the oceans with the ice caps occupying small areas at either pole.
He was about to try another image when he heard a shrill series of clicks and whistles and spun round to face a formidable figure. The creature seemed alarmed by his appearance and he carefully showed his hands to be empty, making what he hoped would be interpreted as a gesture of non-aggression. Other figures rushed to join the creature on the walkway. Some, larger than the first, swiftly took positions between Harry and the others.
“I mean you no harm,” Harry said carefully and slowly, hoping that his translator device would somehow turn his speech into something these creatures understood. He tried again, “I need your help to reach my own people on the surface.”
The aliens seemed puzzled by his speech – as well they might be, he reflected ruefully. He could make no sense of theirs after all!
One of the larger aliens advanced on him slowly. Harry stood his ground, making no move, but alert to the possibility of an attack. A stream of clicks and whistles assaulted his ears and he had the sudden feeling that he should recognize these sounds. He was sure he had encountered them before. He thought for a moment. Of course! The dolphins. They communicate by whistling, clicking and other sounds the human ear is unable to detect. He indicated the computer at the center of the chamber. Its huge screen offered a possible means to communicate if he could but get it to obey him.
The creature regarded him with suspicion – or so it appeared to Harry – then made a gesture. Cautiously Harry moved toward the ramp leading to the main floor, the creatures following. More gathered, parting as he approached, allowing him to walk almost to the console which he now saw occupied a full half of the chamber’s floor. He let himself link into the datastream, searching for something which would allow him access to the display. He was conscious too that the computer was studying him, taking information from his mind and he allowed this. After all, if their computer could unlock his language it might be able to translate sufficiently for him to speak indirectly to these strange creatures whose technology he realised was at least as sophisticated as that of humanity, if not more so.
He found what he needed and allowed himself to think of earth, his home, the oceans, the satellite stations, the vast starships and finally the Beagle in her orbit above this planet. He watched as the images, slightly different to his own manner of seeing them, appeared on the screen. The creatures watched in unnerving silence until he showed their own planet, its northern and southern hemispheres covered by ice with only the narrow equatorial band dry and lifeless, devoid of water or plants and free of the ice.
Suddenly a strange voice sounded in his ears, “Welcome to the Harry Nelson-Heron, you are the first of your species I have encountered and must be far from your own seas. I am the Guardian, created to maintain the life of all species until the ice retreats.”
“I belong to the human race, Harry Nelson-Heron is the name I am known by,” Harry said, relieved that his hunch had paid off. “May I know the name of your people?”
“They were many, but most species have not survived, these are the Cetaceanus, the last of the race that created me. Are you the last of your kind?”
“No,” Harry thought carefully, “we are many and spread among the stars on many worlds.” He thought of the Lacertians and pictured Pangaea and Seraphis, the home of the Lacertian race. “We may be able to help your people, but to do so I must return to the surface and communicate with my own kind.”
“I cannot permit that,” came the voice again. “The surface is dead, the Cetaceanus cannot survive there and I cannot permit any to endanger them.”
“But you endanger them by refusing to allow me to help you,” said Harry. “Are these not the last of their species? How can they survive if they do not have a world that can sustain them. You have surface sensors, can you not measure your planet’s sun? Do you not know that it is dying? How will these survive when it explodes?”
There was a long moment of silence during which Harry was aware of the computer’s activity. Then it spoke again. “I detect your ships and others of your kind. They search for you but my screens prevent this. I have analyzed our sun and I see that you are correct, it is because it is dying that our world remains frozen. I will allow you to rejoin your companions, but I must ask that you help all those I have guarded and take them to new places where they may thrive.”
“Thank you,” Harry let his relief show. “We may save time if you can communicate directly with my ship and allow me to speak to my superiors.”
Captain Jack Dumbleton was startled by the appearance on his screen of Harry’s face. “Harry, where the hell are you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine Captain, just a few bruises from my descent into the pit.” Harry smiled carefully. “I find myself in unusual company. I’m in a complex of caverns among a race whose technology must once have been vastly superior to ours. They need rescue from here, their systems are failing slowly and already many of the original species they attempted to save have died out. They are themselves in danger of vanishing forever if we cannot help them sir.”
“Acknowledged. Can you get to the surface and show the assessment team how to make contact? How many,” he thought carefully, “people are we talking about here?”
“Quite a number, sir. We’ll need transports from Fleet for this one.”
“Okay Harry.” The Captain looked thoughtfully at Harry’s image. “One more thing, how are you making contact with us? This isn’t a normal transmission and it’s sending our comms crazy!”
“Sorry about that sir. I had to persuade the ‘Guardian’ here to allow me to talk directly to you. It seems able to decipher my language and speech – almost as if it has copied my mind in some way.” He paused. “These beings use a speech form much like our whales and great mammalian aquatic species. I suspect the name the Guardian has used is the closest translation we would understand.”
“That will have to do, I suppose, though I am concerned that it can ‘read’ your thoughts like that. Where are you now?”
“I’ll be on my way to the surface as soon as I finish speaking to you sir. My escort is ready and so is the transport they use. If Sub-Lieutenant von Richthofen can land Bravo Two-zero at these co-ordinates,” he had the references appear onscreen, “I will be brought up to meet him sir.”
“Very well, he’ll be on his way as soon as you end transmission. I’ll send down our science team to meet you and your friends.”
Arno von Richthofen landed the launch exactly on the markers given. The ground outside appeared featureless – a barren expanse of rock and sandy shale stretching away in three directions. The fourth side was cut off by a sheer cliff rising from the desert, part of the vast eroded plateau criss-crossed by canyons including the one in which Harry had vanished. But this cliff had a feature now which had not been noted by any previous scan – a large opening had appeared in its base and from this came Harry and two strange figures riding an even stranger appearing vehicle. Arno felt a surge of relief even as he took in the odd appearance of Harry’s companions.
“Thank God,” Arno exclaimed. “Thought we’d lost you for good this time.” His relief overwhelmed his usual punctilious care to respect Harry’s rank.
Harry grinned, “I thought I’d managed to put a period to my life there too. That will teach me to have a care when peering into air intakes in future. I shall have to reward my guardian angel for this one I think.” He stopped and indicated the pair of Cetaceanuses. “These are D’artes and G’laea, and they need to meet the Captain. I trust the launch is still able to take us there?”
“It is – despite an attempt by a certain nameless Lieutenant to drag it into a crevasse,” retorted Arno, adding, “If you will step this way, sir. Our scientists are waiting onboard and I need hardly tell you they are eager to meet our guests.”
Alone at last in his quarters Harry stripped for a shower and examined his bruises. Thanks to the Lacertian genes, these were already fading. He dried himself, pulled on his coverall and sank onto his bunk tired to the bone. It had been a long and exhausting day. His mind went back to those far off days aboard the seventy-four gun HMS Spartan, now so far in the past. He smiled gently as he recalled how he had sat in the fore top to listen to the wind and the sea and sometimes to Ferghal’s fiddle as the crew relaxed on a make and mend. He smiled again as he thought of his dear friend Ferghal, now a commissioned engineer, serving aboard one of the vast starships patrolling the vastness of space just as they had patrolled the seas in their wooden walls all those years ago. His smile widened as he recalled wondering what it would be like to travel among the myriad stars visible from his perch at sea – and what other creatures might live among them.
Well, he thought, now he knew. And at least one of those species might now have a future, albeit upon a new world, but a future – even for their ‘Guardian’ whose program and structure would be taken with them. He drifted into sleep, a silent prayer for all who traveled by sea or stars running through his mind.
© 2008 Patrick G. Cox
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens
Discuss this story at ResAliens Forum at SFReader.com.
(Note: Story illustration above © 2008 Crystalwizard)
#08.25 ~ Harry in the Underworld by Patrick G. Cox (4600 words)
+ Another maritime adventure in space featuring our hero, Harry Nelson-Heron, a young lad snatched from 1804 and thrust 400 years into the future. This story is based on the characters from the novel Out of Time by Patrick G. Cox.
Be sure to look for Patrick's sequel, The Enemy is Within published by Hallmark Press International.
Other short stories featuring Harry Nelson-Heron:
+ A Ship of Heaven?
+ In the Absence of Gravity
+ Harry and the Thinking Machine (only in ResAliens Anthology, Vol 1)
Patrick G. Cox spent thirty-six years in the fire and emergency services, reaching a senior position and rank. He has published a book on Marine fire protection, several technical papers, and speaks at conferences on Fire and Explosion Investigation. He lives in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, UK, where he is a Reader at Tewkesbury Abbey, and has three grown children. Patrick blogs under the pseudonym The Gray Monk.