Written for the terribleminds.com flash fiction challenge 'Ten Little Chapters.'
Have you ever thought how it would feel to stand just to the left of greatness? Well, that’s where I stand. The view from behind the console affords me a unique perspective. Now, for example, I see the captain’s hand shake just slightly as he issues the commands which steer us through the asteroid field. So, greatness is nervous. Greatness has doubts. Greatness is as tired as anyone else in this battered vessel, and those who stand just to the left of greatness are in on the secret. I am in on the secret.
I am in my bunk reviewing the scripture when I am summoned to the bridge. There is a problem, and the relief technician who works while I sleep is not qualified to attend. I sigh and place the book aside gently. The words of Karlow should not be handled roughly. I perform the sign and put my boots on. Greatness is waiting.
“Captain?” I say as I enter the command room. The relief technician stands nervously at attention, his antennae twitching as he tries to remember if he should salute me. A newly promoted civilian. My lip curls.
We are all on our knees before the radar screen. It flickers and buzzes, the resources needed to keep it in good repair long ago expended in the exodus. Nevertheless, it reveals unmistakeably a facsimile of the promised land. I am prostrate before Karlow’s great gift. He has rewarded our piety; after twenty years we are home. The captain rises to his feet. I touch my forehead once more to the floor and murmur the eighth oration.
I must confess that I am nervous as we explore the promised land. We have been wrong before. I remember the rock in the fifth quadrant, the lieutenant’s antennae withering as the breath was sucked from his lungs by an atmosphere putrid and toxic. A great loss to those who remained, we thought. However, when I was assigned to sort through his effects I found a number of obscene visigraphs depicting sexual acts the nature of which I will not repeat. A reminder that Karlow sees all and acts accordingly.
Greatness calls. Before I can reach the bridge I become aware of the nature of the emergency; stretcher bearers dash through the corridors, carrying writhing figures. Apparently liquid falls from the sky here, and it is toxic to our flesh. When I reach the command room the captain looks grave, and from the angle I have entered at I can see that he is leaning- one might even say heavily- against the console.
We have now learned to recognize the signs of incoming precipitation. The blood of those not fast enough lies green to match the vegetation covering the plains. I feel these rains are a punishment, that we have brought the unrighteous to the promised land. I urge the priest to seek them out and force them outside when the skies open. He nods but does not meet my eye. I notice his scripture book is foxed at the edges. My claws protract suddenly.
Karlow is testing us further- the balmy temperatures that greeted us have now dropped and left us shivering. The old and very young are dying. We harbour sinners in our midst, and Karlow’s displeasure grows. I have tried to intimate this to the captain, but curiously he always seems to be called away whenever we have a meeting scheduled. The priest is also hard to find, even though I have evidence of wrongdoing- I witnessed the Quartermaster’s spouse copulating with a town planner in the grain silo.
This has been puzzling me: there are intelligent fauna on this planet. Airborne creatures which can improvise tools from twigs and small quadruped mammals which are everywhere and are able to get into even our most tightly sealed grain silos. And yet there are no populations with language, no species which has learned to build. It is as if the planet was waiting for us, the righteous, to occupy that most elevated niche. There has been no further precipitation since the town planner was found with his throat cut in the quartermaster’s stores. I could not get the blood out from beneath my claws so I had to cut them.
The captain is saying we must dig downwards, for the young and the very old will only survive the cold under the warm crust of the planet’s surface. Doesn’t he know that Karlow only claims the unrighteous? That anyone lost in the freeze was undone by their own foul thoughts? I was hoping to stave off the cold by assisting Karlow in his work to dispatch the deserving, but it seems I have not been observant enough, the temperature falls day by day.
They have imprisoned me! I rattle the bars of my cage. The digging machine plunges into the earth and I scream as if it were being driven into my own breast. This is not the way! The frosts are upon us, Karlow obviously does not approve of this action! My antennae clack together. The machine rumbles and sinks, then hits… something. I am startled enough to stop shouting. I cannot see what is happening, but there is a lot of noise and then something terrible is pulled from the hole made by the machine. It is small and pink, it has eyes but no antennae, and its limbs are short and soft. It looks around at us, then opens its jaws and begins to make a noise. This planet is riddled with demons, eating at its core like those pests in the grain silos. We were fools to ignore Karlow’s commands, his burning rain, his icy seasons. We did not repent, and he has sent the swarm to destroy the promised land. I recite all fifty orations and ten apocrypha. My claws have grown back now. I raise my hand to my throat.