The Flare Dive

by David Farmer

The PD-1 Protector Droid rolled on his magnetic treads to his usual place on the flight deck. He tilted his spherical head forward and looked down at the instrument panel, the sensors behind his glowing red eyes scanning the readings. He reached out one hand and carefully recalibrated the external heat sensors. His highest priority was to guard the crew, and he was very aware that the ship wasn’t designed for what Captain Stokes was about to do with it. Discretely, the PD-1 reached out with his other hand and held on hard to the edge of the instrument panel.

They were far enough above the orange and red gases of Jupiter that they could clearly see the huge, white-hot flare travelling up through the atmosphere towards them. It was a rare, natural phenomenon, and the F20 survey ship was in a perfect position to intercept it and collect some of its debris.

They had done this before. The Captain, strapped into his chair at the controls, aimed the ship like a weapon and accelerated. The hull vibrated as the first traces of atmosphere tore past, and there was a rumble as the tail stabilisers and swept-back wings slid automatically out of the streamlined fuselage.

This time they hadn’t even lowered the shutters over the view panels, and the PD-1 watched as the flare slowly grew larger, bright against the orange gases behind it. As a precaution he lowered the magnetic flanges around his treads to anchor himself more securely to the floor, and held there as tight as he could.

The vibrations from the hull grew stronger, and the ship started responding to the flight control column as the control surfaces in the wings and tail bit into the thicker atmosphere. The Captain continuously corrected their flight, aiming at a point in front of the target. At the last instant he adjusted again and aimed the ship into the heart of the flare. The temperature readings in front of the PD-1 suddenly spiked, and there was a sound like bullets hitting the hull as the flare debris was collected in the ship’s vents. Then it was gone. The deeper orange of the normal atmosphere was around them, and the Captain rolled the ship level, slowly pulled out of the dive, and aimed them back into space. He retracted the wings and tailplane as the ship accelerated to escape velocity. For a while they watched the flare on the scanners as it started to dissipate in the upper atmosphere.

Part of the joke seemed to be that they pretended it wasn’t dangerous. Tony Peel, the Engineer, unstrapped his harness and floated out of his chair. He grabbed the moving handrail along the wall, and floated casually around the room to the coffee machine, the grin he exchanged with the Captain the only thing that gave him away. Aneko, the Navigator, smiled to herself and then rolled her eyes at the PD-1.

The Protector Droid decided he would never understand this crew. He raised the safety flanges discretely. He had learned not to be too showy about it. The crew would pretend he had been scared, even though he was incapable of that. He scanned the instruments on the main panel, looking for problems.

Something was using up the oxygen in the control room. He swivelled his head and looked discretely at the Captain, the Engineer and then the Navigator. They didn’t seem to have noticed anything. He used his own sensors to scan around the cabin, and found he could localise the source of the disruption. There was a shadow just above the Captain’s head. As the PD-1 watched, it moved over to the back of the flight deck and he lost sight of it. The door didn’t open, but presently the oxygen started to disappear in the corridor outside.

It had happened again. They had collected something else. Something that didn’t come out until they were gone.

#

The Protector Droid saw the crew off the ship and into the shuttle that would take them to the space station. The last was Aneko. She let go of the moving handrail and spun slowly in the air to face him.

‘Thanks for taking care of us, Mr PD-1,’ she said. She seemed to be having trouble breathing. She glanced back past him. She could tell something was wrong.

‘You are welcome, Aneko.’ He had a flat monotone voice, and had resisted all attempts by the crew to change it. He pressed the button that slid open the door for her.

Then, infinitesimally, the oxygen started draining from the room. Something was here, right above them, and he seemed to see a shadow float over their heads and make for the doorway behind Aneko, the entrance to the shuttle. The PD-1 raised an arm. His fingertip retracted, but before the pulse weapon packed in his forearm could fire, the shadow darted back the way it had come, through the closed door to the aft sections of the ship.

‘PD-1?’

‘Yes, Aneko.’

She giggled. ‘What are you pointing at?’

‘I am not pointing, Aneko. I am merely waving goodbye.’

She laughed again. ‘You’re not waving, PD-1! You’re pointing at the shuttle!’ She drifted close to him, turned her head and sighted along his arm. She turned back. The eyes were impish.

‘That may be true, Aneko. I may be pointing at the shuttle. On the other hand, I may be waving.’ He moved his arm so that his metal palm was towards her, but then didn’t move it from side to side to complete the gesture. ‘Who can tell, Aneko? Who can tell?’

She suddenly snorted a huge laugh she seemed to have been holding in. Then she said, pretending to be serious again, ‘See you next time, PD-1.’

‘Indeed, Aneko. See you next time.’ She was gone, and he closed the door. He had made her laugh. He wasn’t sure how, but he might be able to do it again if he thought about it long enough.

The shuttle broke away from the survey ship, and the vibration coming through the floor from its engines ceased. He swivelled on his magnetic treads and moved quietly through the aft door and then along the silent, bright corridor. It ran the length of the ship, and he checked every room that led off it. He expected to find something in the lab, but this time it was silent.

The cargo bay at the end of the ship was dim. It was in vacuum, and he entered through the two doors of the airlock. The huge panels in the floor were open to the stars, and he looked down at the distant, spinning space station, with the red-orange of Jupiter a small striped disk in the background. Something moved behind him, and he slowly and quietly swivelled.

There was something pale seeping through one of the walls. He could see three dark disks set in a horizontal line that might be eyes, and a mouth underneath that opened and closed as if it was breathing. It was hard to see, almost transparent, and he wasn’t sure if a human eye could detect it at all. It floated slowly away from the wall.

He couldn’t detect any life signs. There was no heart, no circulation, no brainwaves, and yet it floated where it wanted in a vacuum, and used up the oxygen in the ship. As it got closer he could see tiny serrated teeth in its mouth, and the three eyes swept the room together.

He raised his arm and it seemed to notice him for the first time. Its mouth moved in what may have been a shriek before he fired the blue plasma across the room. The creature shattered into pieces that floated to the sides of the cargo bay, and faded away as they hit the walls.

The PD-1 stayed still for thirty minutes, but nothing else appeared. He left through the airlock and glided up the corridor. He checked all the rooms again, just in case, and then went to the control room to check the oxygen levels. It was as he entered the room that something blocked his sight. It wasn’t entirely dark, but something had slid over his face, covering his light and movement detectors, and he reached up with his left hand to tear it off.

It grabbed his fingers and left his face, and he saw what it was. There had never been two before. It tried to bite through his fingers, and he could feel the tiny teeth grind against the metal. He brought up the gun again and splattered the creature all over the walls.

He went to the control panels and started checking the instruments. He had to be ready when the crew returned in forty-eight hours. He found the oxygen levels were returning to normal. He could find no other problems, but he kept checking, just in case. And all the time he was aware of one thing, at the back of his mind, reminding him over and over of his duty - Safety Regulation 31177: ‘If an alien life form breaches the ship’s perimeter, any surviving crew must be quarantined and separated from each other.’

‘Separated from each other.’ His duty was to guard the crew. If they were separated from each other they would no longer be a crew, and he would have failed. Therefore, he must not tell them about the creatures from the flare.

He had to be ready for the next flare dive, in case there were more. He checked his pulse gun. Then he kept checking the instruments, over and over and over.

At the back of the ship, in the microscopic spaces behind the panels of the cargo bay, the thousands of offspring of the two aliens started to expand and look for oxygen.

Copyright © 2009 David Farmer.
First published in our Infinitas Newsletter, July 2009.

This page last updated 20th July 2009.