Monday, August 6, 2012

7 Minutes

Hey folks - just a sort of interlude here, I won't aggrandize it by calling it a short story or anything like that. Just something to mark the occasion ... and there's an announcement at the end which I figure you'll be interested in if you make it that far. Enjoy. - JG


Out on the plain, the sun was baking hot for its small size and there was barely a breeze to stir the purple grass. The work gang squatted, talking quietly amongst themselves. The white men had, after some discussion, agreed to let them sit in the shade of the tents the white men had erected.

The big one glassed the skies every now and again with a large pair of binoculars in between checking a pocketwatch. He seemed not to know what do do with his hands. He turned to the smaller one. "No sign of it yet, Doctor."

The smaller one consulted his own watch. "I don't expect there would be, my Lord, it's only just now entering the upper atmosphere if our telemetry is to be believed." He glanced over at a large briefcase sitting on a foldable stand. The briefcase opened up to show that it had no room to carry anything but the electronic equipment that filled its entire space. A video screen showed lines of text and several lights and gauges blinked and bobbed.

"Hmph," said the big man, looking at the sky again through his glasses. "Any word from our tiger team yet? Only seven minutes, right?"

The Doctor sighed. Though he called the big man "my Lord," that was a title of peerage, not an indication of rank. In their organization, they were equals. But it didn't hurt to be polite and the big man was easier to control when he was soothed. "That's correct, my Lord Cavendish," said the smaller man. "Should be plenty of time for those fellows. I expect we'll hear from them any minute now."

"Maybe you ought to call."

"I'd hate to disturb them, it requires a great deal of concentration, you know."

"Humor me, Dr. Stapleton," said Cavendish.

Just then there was a rolling chime. Dr. Stapleton picked up a handset off to one side of the briefcase. He answered, then listened a moment. Then he said, "Excellent work. Thank you very much," and hung up. He looked at Cavendish. "Speak of the Devil," he said. "Got it with time to spare. She's ours."

Cavendish didn't show his relief though the doctor could sense it. "Very good," he said. "Very good. Now we might take our time, what? Can hardly expect such an undertaking to go smoothly."

"Quite," said the doctor, consulting his instruments. "Should be within visual range now."

Instantly Cavendish had his glasses to his eyes, scanning the arc of sky where they expected the thing to be. "I see it!" he said. "Damn me, she's a big one. One thing to see the schematic, quite another to see it falling to earth like a cannonball, eh, doctor?"

Stapleton stood now and walked under the awning over the tent's opening, next to Cavendish, and produced his own set of binoculars that he had folded up in his pocket. He found the fast-growing black smear in the sky. "Beautiful," he said. "Just beautiful. They've outdone themselves this time."

Cavendish laughed. "Damn fools."

In the sky, something detached from the falling object - it was still a bit far away but it seemed to both of them to be a parachute, which was expected. Now there were flashes of blue light coming from it, further distoring the air around it, already blazing from the heat of its entry into the atmosphere.

They watched it quietly for a few moments, Cavendish only taking a brief moment to warn the work gang in their harsh tongue, and they stood and stretched with the languid ease of athletes as the white men watched the sky. The thing grew larger and larger until finally they could feel the heat of its retro-rockets washing over them, making them sweat, and it was too close and too bright for binoculars. Cavendish shielded his eyes from the dirt being kicked up and spared a glance for the gang, but he didn't need to warn them to stay back from the landing site. They'd done this before.

With a blast of dirt and heat the thing touched down, almost gracefully, like a beautiful woman alighting from a car onto a red carpet.

Curiosity had landed.

Instantly its sensors and probes started working, arms waving back and forth, irises opening and closing, like an insect being born, as its onboard computers ran their diagnostics and began taking the first images for transmittal back to Earth. Except, of course, the signal had been long since intercepted, the telemetry spoofed to conform to about what the scientists expected, the video piped in from a permanent camera station set up in one of the more scenic deserts of Mars, too inhospitable for any kind of life.

Cavendish called out to the gang and they set to work with their equipment as he and Stapleton strode forward to examine the magnificent toy.

"It's like a bloody motorcar," said Cavendish. "First the horseless carriage and now the riderless carriage! Hey?" He waved into the lenses of the cameras. "Hullo, you damned fools. Got you again. Better luck next time."

"You don't have to be so jolly about it," said Stapleton. He had the face of a man with a duty to do, one he didn't much care for, like an executioner.

"You and your pity," said Cavendish, taking out a cheroot and lighting it as the work gang finished assembling the cart and began putting blocks under the legs of the thing. The wheels spun in the air as the onboard motors tested themselves; they'd be still soon enough and wait quietly for the signal from Earth that would never come. "Lily-livered cowards." Cavendish blew out a gout of smoke that sailed away on the breeze. "Damn me, if we'd had half their technology in my day  ... why, give me a stout squad of navvies and a regiment of Her Majesty's Finest and we'd have taken the whole damn planet in a fortnight and been receiving Her first royal visit before the turn of the century."

"You can't blame them," said Stapleton. "After all, as far as they know the air isn't even breathable."

"That's no damn excuse." Stapleton packed up his briefcase and its stand as Cavendish ranted on. "Good God, man, an entire solar system to explore, let alone the Universe, and these ninnies just sit back and watch it on their video screens and make excuses for themselves about how it's dangerous. Did the men who explored the New World know what they'd find? No, damnitall, no they did not, and they went anyway. Don't they have bottled oxygen? Don't they have vacuum suits?"

"You're correct in that regard," said Stapleton sadly as he put the briefcase on the ground, sat on the folding stand, and began filling his pipe.

The vehicle that no man would ever ride was finally loaded on the cart, the repellers activated, and now a single man could maneuver it with one hand by means of the shaft at one end. The others in the small gang of men helped keep it steady and carried the other equipment. They were breaking down the tents even as the two white men talked.

"Ad astra per aspera," said Stapleton, shaking his head. "Well, I suppose that's all for now. I'm for my ship and a cup of tea, I think. Perhaps something stronger. Enjoy yourself in the capitol and give my regards to the Emperor."

Cavendish shook his head, grinning. They had the same conversation every time. But enough years went by in between that the men both felt it worth participating in that old debate. Like two old philosophers arguing over the existence of God, it was always worth the fight. It didn't hurt that Cavendish always felt he'd won the exchange. "Until next time, Doctor." he stuck out his hand.

"Until next time, my Lord," said Stapleton, and they shook hands. The doctor stepped away a few yards and Cavendish looked away as there was a flash of light and the kindly little man was gone.

He looked back that the cart with the rover on it. "Aren't you a big bitch?" he grinned. "You know, I wonder if that old ass will even have space in his trophy room for you. Perhaps I can convince him to let you come home with me, eh? Ha ha." He slapped on a wide-brimmed hat and shouted at the work gang to get moving as he ascended to his own flying craft to supervise the transport. It would be slow, but it hadn't been the first time Cavendish had driven a gang of coolies and the work agreed with him. The gang covered the cart with a tent to make it look like a common wagon and got it moving.

As they began their slow trek across the plains, several million miles away a room full of men cheered as the confirmation codes came in and the data started pouring into the expectant hard drives. And as the word went out across the Internet, for a moment the world took pride in their achievement.

What if it was all a lie? How do we really know what's out there in space? It could be more wild, more wonderful, more dangerous than you'd ever have imagined ... coming soon from the mind of Jim Gavin, a mind-blowing planet fiction novel that flips the script even as it carries on the grand traditions. It's not a reboot, but it does change everything. It's modern, but it's still packed with manly adventure. It'll be a goddamn blockbuster, assuming I can get anyone to read it. Watch this space, follow me on Twitter and Facebook and you'll be the first to know when it finds a home.

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