Ghost Planet


By Alan P. Ellis

Copyright 2016. This story is the property of Caelin day pty limited

Stewart felt weak; he tried to move, he couldn’t. He flexed his arm but nothing happened. Panic flooded him; he was paralyzed his fear only ebbed as his hazy brain remembered. After all the Thiopental pumped into his body it would take time to respond.

He had never been in an induced coma before and made up his mind he wasn’t ever going to be again; he ignored that he would have to for the return journey. Six weeks he had been unconscious; it wasn’t like you were sleeping. Sleep was nice; sleeping was something you enjoyed, even if there was the occasional nightmare, but he hadn’t dreamed: there was just an endless blackness.

No matter how unpleasant there was no alternative. Six weeks was a long, long time stuck in a cramped spacecraft, especially with six other almost strangers. An image of BettyLou appeared in his mind; why couldn’t he have spent six long dark nights dreaming about her, why? He knew why, she was the mission’s co-pilot. How professional was that, fantasizing about your co-worker?

Stewart forced his thoughts to the others in the team and immediately to an image of the other female Helen. Hell what was wrong with him, a few weeks without sex and all he could think of was women? He forced a picture of Hogan into his vision; now there was the opposite of gods gift to women. It was unkind way to picture the man; Hogan couldn’t help how he looked and he did have a quite a nice personality. Stewart wondered if Hogan’s parents had known from the start and given him a tough man’s name to harden him up. Hell what was going on in his mind? Either he was thinking sex or being mean. Tony’s face was there. What did people say about Tony, he was the space adventurer; Mr. America in all his versions; obviously without the shield, and superpowers.

His arm could move now and Stewart tried to lift off the cot but his body still wouldn’t move, a trace of concern was dispelled when he remembered he was strapped in: the Vern was too small to create its own gravity. A picture now entered his mind of them all floating around the cabin: unconscious, bumping into each other and the walls. He’d had enough of faces, so he forced his eyes open.

It wasn’t the most welcoming of sights, banks of switches: barely lit by the emergency lighting, and flickering screens of data. Waking up inside of the tin can it seemed a hundred times smaller than he remembered, and it was tiny then. Maybe: no definitely, an induced coma had been better than six weeks of claustrophobia.

His body was beginning to answer his demands now and he made his hand crawl over his chest to the harness release catch. He pressed but his fingers were too weak to open it. Again panic swept in: and out. He hoped Clive had followed the instructions. ‘Enough but not too much’ the medical supervisor had warned them all. ‘An overdose of Barbiturates can, and will be fatal’. Well he was alive, but what about the others?

Now there was a mental return to work, he was commander and the crew was his responsibility, he tried the release catch again and it almost opened. Yes he was responsible but only until they arrived at their destination, then the science crew called the shots. ‘Wow’ he silently murmured, they were the ones who would be the first to set foot on the Ghost Planet.

Stupid newspapers; they had a lot to answer for. 2027 QR356/34 isn’t an practical name for a planet, or one that stays on the tip of your tongue, so of course the newspapers: as newspapers do, gave it a much catchier name; the Ghost Planet. Not that they knew there were ghosts: even the tabloids wouldn’t stretch their imaginations that far, but because it appeared from nowhere.

The astronomers had ridiculed that immediately saying that it didn’t just appear, it would have come from somewhere like the ort cloud: the sphere of icy planetoids and comets outside the Solar System stretching half way to the nearest star. They said it probably had an elliptical orbit that took it way, way out beyond Pluto.

The newspapers responded saying if that was so then why had it never been seen before. Because last time had probably been before telescopes had been invented countered the scientists. They went on to say it probably wasn’t even a planet, but probably a dwarf planet just a few thousands of killometres in diameter, probably big enough to keep its own tenuous atmosphere.

Obviously that had the reverse effect of shutting down the tabloids and the riskier speculated that with an atmosphere it could have life on the surface. That didn’t last long; that was a step too far for even the outlandish of editors. Whoever you believed, and however you thought about it, there were an awful lot of probables.

At last the catch worked. Stewart slowly unclipped the straps and laboriously pulled himself into a sitting position.

Immediately Betty Lou was in his mind again, she was in the cot directly in front, sitting up. She looked as if she had, had a really rough night. He smiled at the thought, normally she always kept her appearance neat; but she looked cute, disheveled and all.

Turning a little one of the science bod’s was up too. He tried to put a name to the face but his mind was blank. He didn’t have the strength to twist around and see if any of the others were awake.

A disembodied voice broke into his semi conscious state. “Good morning everybody.”

Was it morning?’ He thought, did the phrase mean anything where they were?

The lighting intensified a notch or two

Morning back to you control.” BettyLou said in a loud’ish voice. “Wakey, Wakey everybody… It’s another glorious pitch black day in the darkest depths of space.”

Stewart wondered how she could be so cheerful when he felt stunned.

I can’t stand happy people first thing in the morning. Go back to sleep.”

Stewart recognized Hogan; that made four awake he turned his body slowly. The geologist: Stewart still couldn’t remember his name. Suddenly it came to him: Tony, of course it was, Mr. America: how could he forget, was stirring. Helen the anthropologist seemed to be awake too, but Ford and Clive: the doctor, appeared to be still asleep. As if to prove him wrong Fords hand moved.

Ford? Now there was a man who got what he wanted, and what he wanted was to be the first man to stand on another planet. And he would be too. It was there in the flight instruction in big bold letters. ‘Mr. Ford will be the first to step down onto the planet’. Who the hell did he think he was, Neil Armstrong the second? Well actually he almost was: he had been the fifth man to go to Mars: once the Vern’s predecessor craft had got the first crew safely there and back. This time he would actually be the first. Stewart wondered if he had something planned to say ‘First step for mankind…’ Pillock, Stewart thought. Just because he was one of the world’s richest men: and owned the spacecraft they were in, and the rocket that had blasted them off from Earth, and all the equipment they would use? All that didn’t give him the right to be the first; still maybe it did, money always talks, and credit where it was due, Ford didn’t hesitate to throw all of his space business’s into the effort when the Ghost planet was discovered, and that was even before the planet became really interesting. Interesting? There’s an understatement if there was one.

That had been around the time the Ghost planet was passing Saturn, when Earth’s telescopes began to make sense of the pixilated images they were getting. A bright reflection had been observed from the first and as expected the glow indicated a surface covered in ice. Other data indicated: as it got closer to the sun, that the ice was beginning to melt, but what happened after Jupiter really drew everybody’s attention.

The melting ice was forming oceans, and the atmosphere was thickening. The bigger telescopes could make out where the melt water was running in rivers: rivers that ran in straight intersecting lines. The observers were stunned. Rivers didn’t run in lines, they meandered, that was what water did. The scientist surmised that there were fractures in the ice that the water was running run up against and along. They still held to this even when it was clear that it wasn’t the odd random one, almost all of the waterways criss-crossed in a very unnatural way.

While every man and his dog was trying to work that out, data came in showing the atmosphere was almost life sustaining, maybe the equivalent of being on top of Mount Everest, but a human could: just, feasibly survive.

Almost too late the world’s governments became interested, and the worlds space agencies put other projects on hold; even the miserly U.S. Congress suddenly decided against their previous stance of no extra allocation of funds and suddenly found a whole pile. The Chinese, the European, Russia, Japan, India; everybody suddenly found money to build and prepare something to investigate, but they were all late starters, Ford had already got a mission sitting on the launch pad.

Richard Ford had made his immense fortune on the back of tech boom; from that he had branched out into almost everything: as long as it made, or would make money, and one of his companies proposed mining asteroids. The Ghost Planet was an ideal chance to test what he planed and if he played his business acumen in the right way he could get the collective world governments to pretty much pay for the mission Stewart and the others were already on. Ford had rushed his teams and by the time the Ghost Planet had come inside the orbit of Mars it was a done deal.

Then everything had changed, no not changed that was such an insignificant word, but there wasn’t one that could describe the magnitude of what was next seen through the watching telescopes. The world was stunned as the towers and buildings of a city emerged from the liquefying ice.

Stewart was gaining strength; once: if anybody had asked him, he would have said spending weeks in bed would be real luxury; he was realizing it wasn’t. His muscles felt limp, each breath was taken with effort and he was sure he could feel: he definitely could hear, the blood rushing around his body, sending his heart into overdrive. Why hadn’t the doctors warned him; he remembered they had, but the knowledge and the experience were two different things.

He pushed the electric blanket off; swiveled on his buttocks and swung his legs over the side of the cot. He felt like he wanted to throw up, but he didn’t think his legs would carry him far enough to reach the tiny cupboard that was their toilet. With effort he held it back. Too late it came to him he had no weight and the swing of his legs carried through his hips and pulled him against the waist strap. “Wowa.” He called out.

BettyLou was laughing at him.

Forgetting where I am?” He said, slightly embarrassed.

Where you are is making history.” Tony was slowly floating towards one of the handrails that ran around the cabin. He looked as if he was ready to go on a twenty K run; damn him for being so with it. Everybody was up now: except for Clive.

Without the warmth of the blanket Stewart began to feel cold. “Has anybody turned on the cabin heater?”

Yes commander. Cryogenics are off.” Answered BettyLou, in a sharp efficient tone.

It still feels cold enough that we could be down on the surface already.”

Somebody; everybody?” Helen’s anxious voice interrupted, drawing their attention. She was beside Clive’s cot. They all looked at her. “I can’t get him to respond?” she said anxiously.

Hogan and BettyLou pushed themselves across the cabin to her side.

His blankets cold?” said Helen as she looked up and around the faces. “It hasn’t been switched on?”

Stewart felt a chill run through his body, and it was nothing to do with the cold. “It’s not on? Didn’t anyone check?”

Hogan looked at him. “Don’t you remember; he set up the infusions; he was last to go under, he was to do it himself.”

BettyLou was checking Clive's pulse. “I can’t feel anything… I think… he’s dead,” her voice was full of shock and disbelief.

What, dead; who’s dead?” Ford was pulling himself from his cot and disconnecting the intravenous feed. “Somebody’s dead; how, what happened?”

Clive.” Stewart uttered, still in disbelief too. “His thermal blanket wasn’t on; it looks like his core temperature went too far down and he froze to…?”

Blanket, is it working?” Fords voice sounded more like he was considering implications rather than outcome.

Hogan reached for the switch and flicked it. Immediately a tiny pilot light glowed. “I think it is; it looks like it wasn’t switched on?”

Ford seemed slightly relieved. “Why wouldn’t the foo… why would he forget to switch it on?”

Maybe he didn’t forget?” They looked at Helen. She held two vials of Thiopental. “Did these all have the same amount in them?” She looked questioningly around the faces. “Because this one seems to have more missing?”

Ford was first. “Your saying he overdosed?”

No, I’m saying there’s less in this one than the other.”

He’s the doctor, why would he make a mistake like that?”

Hogan looked at Ford. “More to the point he’s our doctor; what happens now if any of us get sick?”

Ford was unsympathetic. “Then we don’t get sick.”

What are we going to do?” Said Helen her emotion getting the better of her.

Do?” Ford said firmly. “We carry on.”

No… I mean with… Clive?”

They all looked at Stewart. Being commander wasn’t all glory and adventure: it could also be shit, he thought; but what were they supposed to do? There had been a meeting, ‘Dealing with unforeseen circumstances’ the clip of papers had been headed. In amoungst the loose pages was ‘crew fatality’. Hell what a thing to remind somebody about when they were setting of on an almost suicidal mission? He had rushed through it, and all he could remember were the bits about getting going again. What were they going to do? Betty Lou saved him.

She looked at Ford disapprovingly. “Staying healthy or not, the first thing we have to do is tell back home what has happened, we can decide what to do with his body later.

Later?” Stuttered Hogan, “We can’t take him back with us? We’d have to spend six weeks locked in here with a corpse?”

What’s the difference?” Muttered Tony, “We already have.”

Ford spoke again. “What’s happened has happened, nothing changes now that he’s not part of the expedition anymore, but if I need to remind you all; we are. There’s going to be time for grief and mourning later on; right now we need to cover him up and get back to work.”

The others looked at him; nobody said anything but BettyLou pulled up the blanket to cover the dead mans face. “Okay, the mission goes on, but shouldn’t somebody say something out of respect before it does?”

Ford looked at Stewart. “I think that’s the responsibility of the missions commander?”

Me?” Stewart barely knew the man; he looked pleadingly at the others. “I didn’t know him, What about one of…” Nobody seemed willing, and he searched his mind for what he knew of his life. “Clive…?”

Parker,” said BettyLou softly.

We all volunteered for this mission for the same… I think we all grabbed the opportunity, and… The truth is I never got to know Clive, I regret that now. I guess people always say that at every funeral. We never know the people around us, and only realize that we don’t when it is too late to find out… I don’t know much about his dreams and aspirations, but I think I speak for him when I say he wanted to be part of something extraordinary. I don’t know what my obituary will be, but Clive rose above the mundane and did do something above and beyond what most of us can ever hope to do?”

Ford began a slow clap. “Well done, now let us all do something extraordinary and give him the legacy he would be proud of?”

BettyLou nodded as she went to switch on the link back to mission control.

Probably best if we wait a bit longer?”

She turned to Ford. “Excuse me?”

We can inform them later… when the time is right?”

The time is right?” she said in an irritated way. “One of our team has… passed away; there are people need to know now?”

Do they, will it change the mission: no, the mission has a purpose that will not be served by creating a cloud of doom over it. We all came knowing there were certain… risks. Parker knew them possibly even more than any of us, he would not want his epitaph cut before it can be written.”

BettyLou was taken aback. “Your saying we keep it secret?”

Of course no, obviously he won’t get off when we get back, but think about it, do any of you want to be part of a history making event and then have someone say ‘wasn’t that that the one where somebody forgot to switch on his blanket and died before they got there?’”

BettyLou’s mouth hung open in incredulity.

Couldn’t his epitaph be ‘he died while exploring new worlds?’”

Stewart wasn’t sure what he felt. “Okay his body will, but he’s going nowhere.”

Ahh yes, but who is to know?”

Us for a start?”

And you are happy that in all the history books, and taught in all the schools will be the story of the intrepid astronauts who will be remembered for what one of us forgot to do, rather than for what we all did?” Ford smiled he could see it on their faces that, that wasn’t what they wanted. “We can give him a legacy that will make his family proud, by waiting.”

Betty Lou wasn’t convinced. “And how do you propose that?”

We can say that he got lost exploring somewhere; or wandered bravely away like captain Oats in the Antarctic. We can give him a real hero’s death?”

The rest of the crew looked at Ford wondering if they had actually heard what they thought they had heard.

We don’t have to make any decision now, He’s dead and nothing will change that, but think about what I said. Think about what you want your children to remember; think about how you want to be remembered.”

Hogan was first to speak. “He’s right, we’re here to do a job; to explore. We need to focus on the mission?”

The Ghost planet was growing larger every time they gazed down on it, but they could see nothing through the thick clouds that now shrouded it. It was disappointing both to them and the observers back on Earth. All anyone had seen was a tantalizing glimpse of the emerging buildings before an impenetrable haze began to cover the planet. A single satellite saw a little longer, and that had been even more exciting. As darkness fell on the Ghost planet it had seen what could have been pale; greenish, lights; but not electric light, the spectrum was wrong. Maybe an entirely new form of light, or maybe it was as old as oil lamps. There wasn’t enough information.

That’s where will we be landing?” Tony looked past Stewart as he studied the images taken before the clouds blotted out the view.

That’s the plan.”

That is, where will be landing.” Said Ford firmly. “We will land just inside the walls.”

If they are in fact walls?” added Stewart.

Ford looked at him disapprovingly.

Stewart smiled. “If we are going to do this objectively it’s best to have a little skepticism.”

A little is no problem.”

It’s a shame about the clouds?”

Ford shook his head. “No, the clouds are our friend.”

Sorry?” Stewart looked at Ford puzzled. “Haven’t we just been talking about them have taking our view away?”

And everybody else’s view; in a couple of hours we will penetrate it and be the only ones to see what is to see?”

That wouldn’t also be because your broadcasting networks will be getting the feed from us first?”

Ford Looked at Betty Lou and smiled. “Oh yes; that too.”

Whoever they were they were obviously a maritime nations?” observed Hogan into the following silence.

I still can’t get used to this.” Said Helen. “Alien civilizations, it’s the stuff of fiction, if there are aliens why haven’t we known before?”

Because they probably had trouble signaling from under a couple of K of ice?” muttered Tony, he took on a statue like posture to emphasise his point.

Helen punched him. “Act sensibly.” She said without humour.

The Vern entered the upper atmosphere, there was still no external view as the parachutes opened and slowed them down.

For what seemed an endless time a red tinged mist was all they could see. Then at long last it thinned and was gone. The craned their necks trying to see what they could through the small viewing windows eager to see, and what they did see astounded them. The sight enchanted them.

The light wasn’t particularly good: about the same as a heavily overcast day back home. They couldn’t see the city: at least not as clearly as their imaginations had pictured it, but it wasn’t a crushing disappointment; instead everything was covered in a blanket of dark, dark, red.

Are we seeing what I think we’re seeing?” said Betty Lou in an awe filled voice.

If your seeing a planet covered in vegetation then your seeing what the sensors is confirming.” answered Hogan glancing at the data readouts and straining around to see out of the nearest window.

We are recording all this.” Added Ford anxiously.

Betty Lou had to make sure herself. “We had better be because nobody is going to believe we have found alien life.”

Damn it all of you, I can’t see a thing from over here?” grumbled Tony.

It’s like looking down on the Amazon rainforest.” Said Betty Lou. “Only an Amazon that covers the whole planet; well except for where there are still ice fields?”

And assuming the Amazon was Crimson instead of Green?” Stewart pointed out.

Tony couldn’t believe that. “What it’s red, all of it?”

Somebody kick me.” Hogan said almost laughing. “I must still be asleep and dreaming?”

Stewart felt like: well he wasn’t sure what he felt like, other than it was as if he was being plumped straight into one of his childhood dreams. “This is going to change everything we’ve ever known or believed.”

Without seeing the sight Tony didn’t seem quite so mesmerized. “What you mean is that it’s going to open a massive can of worms?”

Betty Lou glanced quickly back at him. “The state the world is in maybe that’s exactly what it needs?”

Guy’s, discussions later.” Stewart broke in uneasily. “We are descending fourteen K too fast. Make sure your buckled up it could be a hard landing? Firing retros.”

The euphoria vanished as they all lay back on their couches and prepared for the jolt. The roar of the jets shook the padding beneath them.

Fifty seconds,” called Betty Lou over the sound.

Then it was quiet

We’re still too fast,” said Stewart anxiously.

Again there was a roar, but a second later the retros shut down.

Don’t stop?” Demanded Ford. “We can’t damage the ship or we may never get it off again.”

She didn’t stop it.” Snapped Stewart. “That’s all the fuel in the retros gone.”

Thirty seconds.” Betty Lou’s voice was raised a pitch or two higher. “Twenty seconds.”

Stewart felt himself gripping the armrests harder than he intended.


As Betty Lou spoke there was a loud bang followed immediately by a sound like a few million fingers scraping over a blackboard. Then the view from one side of the capsule went black: or a dark Grey kind of black.

Then there was a jerk, and the Vern rapidly slowed. Somewhere close they could hear tearing, snapping, and popping as the Vern came to an abrupt stop; followed by a lifting, and then a less violent drop to a gentle stop. The cacophony of noise was replaced by total silence.

They lay reclined, not moving, not speaking, just waiting for something else to happen.

Hogan spoke. “Are we down?”

I think so?” Answered Betty Lou unsurely. “Except for some reason the ground ranger is telling me we are three metres in the air?”

Again there was silence as they all began to realize they had actually set down on the Ghost Planet.

Ford opened the hatch and stared out; he took in a deep breath, held it and then let it go.

Well?” a voice called from behind.

Moist to wet; a bit musty with a sharpness… a trace of Petrichor: wet soil for those of you who don’t know, chilly and rarefied. No over exertion unless you want to get dog-tired in rapid time, otherwise the air is fine. I think you all can take your helmets off now.”

Ford climbed down the outside onto the skids, hung down and let go. He fell to the ground in a crouch, hitting the paving with more force than he should have, and after weeks of zero gravity it felt like a fifty-K impact. His legs collapsed and he fell in a heap.

Betty Lou saw him sprawled across the road. “Richard, are you okay?” she called down to him with less concern than he expected.

He didn’t know, but lifted his hand in a general, feeble wave. “I’m fine. I thought we were told the gravity was going to be weak?”

He stood and looked around. It wasn’t the most elegant of first footsteps: or what he had planned, but they were his. Pride flooded him; he was the first man to step on an alien planet. Forget the Moon, forget Mars, they were backyard; they were family; they weren’t alien at all. It was him, Richard Ford who was the first human to set foot on a truly alien world, but not even he had imagined one like this? He looked along the street, and it was a street. He had to remind himself that what he was looking at was real and wasn’t conjured up by some scenery tech from a sci-fi medieval theme park crossed with alien that made it all the more theme park’ish. He decided at that moment that he would buy some land somewhere and replicate it all once they got back to Earth. Sometimes he had brilliant insights, he had never given building any sort of amusement park a seconds notice, but he had never had such inspiration.

If you are ready?” The voice was borderline sarcastic and coming from Steward.

Ford turned to see Stewart’s ankles hanging at his face level. “What?”

Help me down, grab my legs?”

Help? Oh yes.”

Not my ankles.”

He sounded annoyed but Ford wasn’t in habit of grasping men’s thighs for whatever reason. Reluctantly he did controlling Stewarts fall. Together they helped the others down and then they all took in their surroundings.

There were two predominant colours: the Grey Black of the stonework and the deep, dark Red vegetation. It was as if they had stepped back to the dawn of photography and were looking at the off colour monochrome pictures of some surreal ancient town, made more the weird under crimson clouds. A shiver ran down his spine; it wasn’t a theme park he was looking at, it was the set for a horror movie. He shook off the feeling, hoping no one had noticed his reaction.

The plants congregated along the cracks creating a rich blood colour that seemed to be oozing from the between the stone blocks; it was spreading before their eyes.

Helen pulled a screwdriver from her mission suit’s maintenance pocket. “This is impossible.” She said as she held the tip in front of the creeper to block it. It’s movement stopped as it touched the smooth carbon rod. They watched in fascination as it lifted slightly up the screwdriver and seemed to point into the air. Helen suddenly gave out a short, shocked cry of surprise and fear, before she dropped the screwdriver as if it had burnt her.

Betty Lou reached out quickly. “Are you all right?” she said in concern.

Helen was visibly frightened: she stared at the vine, unable to look away as it lay back; spread under the screwdriver and carried on its way. “It was looking at me.” She said in a wavering voice.

It was what?” Betty Lou looked at it, other than it was spreading remarkably fast there was nothing unusual, except for the colour, and except for the way it was getting thicker.

It looked at me?” the terrified woman blurted out again.

Tony had begun to laugh; Betty Lou threw him a mean stare and pulled Helen away.

Tony gave a low whistle. “Will you get a load of that?”

Accelerated growth.” Said Ford. “This is marvelous, it probably only ever does this once every four hundred years to take advantage of the thaw. Nature grabs the chances when it can; a few things do something similar on Earth. Birth, reproduction and death in a brief time, but I’ve never seen any plant do what this is doing, and I should know, one of my bio companies been trying to get a growth increase a fraction of what this can achieve. If we find nothing else this alone is worth the trip.”

Hogan wasn’t quite so impressed. “Blood red, looks at you, and covers everything; you think that’s a good thing?”

The colour could be easily explained. I’m guessing it photosyntheses in a similar way to Chlorophyll F, harvesting light from the far Red. As for having eyes now that would be amazing, she’s letting her emotions get control after Clives death? Believe me in the right hands this is worth a fortune.”

Everyone knew whose hands they were going to be. They tore their eyes away and looked across the open space, or what they could see of it. Everywhere was dripping wet, as if they were in the wettest cloud forest, and through some of the windows: in the darker places, huge chunks of ice could still be seen.

They couldn’t see far down the street to either side as ground hugging: swirling, mists had begun to form. The sun was still a long way off but its warming effects were obvious, even though its light was weak through the leaden clouds that swirled above. A light to medium snow was falling.

Hogan spoke without taking his eyes off what he could see. “Did you ever visit that Hogwarts adventure thing in the winter?”

It’s not the same,” said Ford.

Nothing like it?” added Tony.

Betty Lou ploughed middle ground. “I don’t know, use a bit of imagination and maybe?”

Stewart looked up. The Vern lay against a tall tower of hewn stone. His eyes climbed to the tall cupola at its top; it was wrapped in one of the decent parachutes. “It was that, that saved us from a hard landing.”

They all looked up at the ripped red and white material.

Talk about lucky,” muttered Tony. “If we had of crashed we could have ended up stranded here?”

Don’t even joke about that.” Said Helen seriously.

What should have saved us.” Grumbled Betty Lou. “Would have been a proper decent.”

Ford looked at her in a hostile way. “For my part we had enough fuel; the calculations were correct.”

Stewart tensed, feeling the blame was being thrown onto him.

You both could be right.” Said Tony. “It’s just possible that at the rate the ice is melting and changing states it has an unbalancing effect. Maybe it’s effecting the rotation and increasing gravity?”

Betty Lou shook her head. “This is sure some weird place?”

All that aside guys.” Interrupted Stewart. “The Vern is no good to us half way up a tower; we need to get it down and into a clear space so we can lift off again.”

Can’t that wait?” Said Ford impatiently. “We should look around first and get some idea of where all this came from?”

Aren’t you forgetting the training?” A plan was forming in Stewart’s head. “Secure for departure first thing?”

Look around you?” grumbled Ford. “It almost certainly been like this for centuries; what can happen now?”

I don’t know, but procedures are there for a reason.”

So what do we do, find the nearest plant hire yard and rent a crane?”

No Richard, we climb the tower and cut the tethers.”

If you will excuse the observation, but completing what we just avoided sounds just a tad bit stupid.”

Stewart tensed again; Betty Lou intervened. “Gentlemen, we are all in this together, accusing and name calling are neither productive or helpful. Maybe a compromise?”

Stewart drew in a deep breath and nodded.

Betty Lou looked at Ford expectantly.

Then what do you intend commander?” he said calmly.

As I said cut the ropes, but not all at once. My intention is that if enough are severed the weight of the capsule will hang from the parachutes remains, tearing it in a controlled way so that the Vern comes down slowly?”

Ford still wanted the last word. “And if it doesn’t and smashes down?”

Then whoever goes up needs to make sure it doesn’t?”

Whoever?” Ford looked at him. “Isn’t that you? You are commander and it’s your idea.”

Yes…” No matter what he had said about exploring he was as keen as any of them to have a look around. “Yes… Okay, I’ll go up the tower.”

Right,” Betty Lou looked at him. “Then you don’t need us all here to help?”

Once its down we need to move it clear of the buildings; I can’t do that on my own?”

No, but for now it just needs you up there?”

Yes.” He protested weakly, they were all going to have the fun and leave him to do the mundane. “But there has to be somebody down here to tell me what’s happening?”

Betty Lou looked around. “Any volunteers?” Nobody spoke. Now she sighed. “Then I suppose I’ll do it.”

There was a definite mood of relief amoung the others.

Ford and Tony wandered off in one direction, Hogan and Helen in the other: Stewart lookup the outside of the tower. He had no idea how high it was but it would be a long way down if he fell out of one of the windows, and that was a distinct possibility. He chose one as low as possible, that he should be able to reach at least two of the ropes from. “Well I’ll do it then?” he said to Betty Lou in the forlorn hope that somebody else would appear and take his place. Nobody did and she just nodded.

There had been a door at some time but now it was rotted away. Stewart pushed the remains aside and stepped over the fallen bits. Immediately the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He had the weirdest feeling of not being welcome. The flashlight flooded the room with light and the feeling disappeared.

He guessed that what had once been furniture lay over the floor; at least he was guessing at what it had been; now was crushed flat. Rapidly melting blocks of ice still covered some of it. On the walls were what could have been traces of red paint, but anything else that had hung there had been scraped off with the action of the ice.

He tried to concentrate. They were on an expedition, he knew all of this should be recorded, and it would be. He forced himself to put everything else out of his mind and searched for some stairs, fearing that they too could have been pulverised out of existence; he didn’t want to think what to do if that had happened. Thankfully they hadn’t, they were made of stone.

In the shadow frost covered the surface so Stewart carefully began to climb, one step at a time. The steps were narrow and his work boots half hung over. He wished there were handrails to steady him but there was only the damp, greasy wall. He came to the first floor; there was a way to go yet, he needed to get to the third. The feeling he wasn’t alone was growing; it seemed to be just outside the edge of the beam of light. By the time he was climbing the second set of stairs it was so strong he could almost touch the sensation, but by then he could see the faint light entering the window on the landing above.

He was rushing; he knew he shouldn’t and then his foot slipped on the ice-covered step. He fell forward cracking his head; his consciousness was flickering and the feeling of dread was overpowering. Somewhere below he could hear the flashlight clattering down the steps. His face was flat against the cold stone, and the chill cut through waking him up. Below there was a pool of yellow light; around him were the eyes. He was going crazy, and then Clive was stood on the landing beside the window. Stewart felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.

Where am I?” Clive was asking him in a pathetic lost voice. “Where I am?” he said again.

Clive?” Stewart said in absolute disbelief. “How did you…”

Is that… I don’t remember… what’s happening?”

Stewart didn’t know himself. He blinked trying to get his eyes to work, but he couldn’t dispel the feeling that eyes surrounded them both. “Clive don’t you remember; were here to explore.”

Explore… They want me to go with them?”

They; who are they?”

They knew we would come; someone would come.”

Stewart was dumfounded. “Waiting for us who has been waiting for us?”

They say that each time they saw the Blue planet the light grew. Now is the time.”

Lights grew… you mean the city lights; they’ve been watching out as we gained technology?”

Now is the time they can live again?”

No, Clive don’t listen to them any more.”

They say I am one of them?”

Clive your one of us. You just forgot to switch on your blanket?”

They… want me to go with them?”

Stewart was desperate as he got to his knees. He could see vague shapes in the light from above and below and reached for the knife strapped to his thigh. He gripped it tightly. “You are with us; you are with the team.”

They say that was before.”

No, no, your still one of us. Don’t listen to them; your one of the team.”

I have to go with them.”

No you don’t have to; fight them.”

They are too strong to resist.”

You must resist.” Stewart was on his feet; he could feel the taste of blood in his mouth. “They are not us, they are different. You know you are different; look at them, look at me, are they you; they are not us.” Stewart slowly climbed the stair towards Clive, continually keeping him talking as he took step by step.

They want to be us.”

He was just three steps below the landing. “Us, no they can never be us?

Clive looked confused, torn. “They have been waiting… for so long.”

Waiting, why, what for?”

For us… they have watched and waited… They have seen humanity evolve... We knew the time would come.”

Clive seemed to be losing his battle. “Clive stay with me; tell me, tell me what time has come?”

The time for you to take us.”

He was one step away from the top. He had to cut the tethers: they had to get away. “Clive no, concentrate, tell me where do they want us to take them?”

To the Blue World.”

He was on the landing; Clive seemed oblivious to him as he sidled to the window. Looking out he could see a taught rope a metre beyond. He was in front of the window, blocking the light seemed to embolden the eyes and Clive turned.

Join us.” He said. “Join us and the Blue World can be ours.”

Stewart balanced on the windowsill leaning against the side as he slowly reached out his arm towards the rope. He had no idea what he was going to do other than he needed to free the Vern. “Clive deep down you know Earth is already ours, It’s ours; not theirs.” He sliced the blade against the rope.

Suddenly the eyes grew. “Join us.” Clive demanded as he stepped quickly towards him.

Stewart didn’t know if he was pushed or fell, but he tipped back and screamed as he dropped.

Betty Lou watched Steward disappear inside the building. There was no sign of the others and she suddenly felt very alone. She knew what loneliness was; she was a loner, but that had never made her feel alone. Some people never understood that she liked her own company; ‘Mr. Right will come along?’ ‘Poor dear, your not married?’ ‘On the shelf?’ she had heard them all, and never felt they applied to her. She had never married, she had, had the chance: often, but it was always a choice, work or family, that was the worst part, not what you had missed, but what you would miss and never know you had. It was cliché but her clock really was ticking.

She felt so tired; she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes.

Was it that or had she done what she had set out to do? Work before marriage, but what was that balance; work for how long and to what end? If it was to achieve then what could she do after being the first woman to stand in an alien street on an alien world, being watched by all those eyes... Instantly her eyes were open and she was wide-awake. The eyes had gone but not the fear and chill in her bones. She was being silly; it was the excitement her emotions were all over the place. She needed a brisk walk, there was so much to see and do. She tried to move forwards and look up to see if she could see Stewart, but her shoulders were pinned to the wall. Desperately she tried to turn her head; pain shot through her scalp; something was gripping her hair tightly. The emotions she had moments ago tried to dismiss took her to the edge of terror as she squinted out of the corner of her eye, to where she could see the tendrils creeping towards her throat. She went to scream but there was already someone screaming from above her.

Stewart was falling and then he wasn’t as he slammed onto the top of the Vern. The scream stopped in a gasp as the air was driven from his lungs. For a moment he lay face down on the cold metal; his metal, their metal, and then he was sliding off. With desperation driven speed he reached out and clutched at one of the parachute tethers. Panting he looked at his other hand and saw he was holding the hilt of the knife so tight his fingers were white.

Quickly he pulled himself closer; reached up and slashed at one of the ropes. It took three to sever it and the Vern dropped a few centimeters. He stretched further over and slashed at another and dropped ten or more. Frantically he slashed a third. Again the Vern dropped but this time there was a ripping sound above him. He rolled over a little to look up and saw the canopy was tearing apart.

He screamed again as the Vern plummeted down. It was a short trip and a second later he was bounced up and slammed down onto the Vern again. He groaned as he felt himself sliding off.

He didn’t slide far before something stopped him; he vaguely remembered it was the aerial. Gathering his sense’s he lowered his aching body to the ground, but before his feet touched it he heard Betty Lou’s terrified voice.

Stewart. Help me.”

He saw her; vines were enveloping her. He wasn’t aware of getting off the Vern or crossing the space between them, it seemed as if he was in one then another place, tearing and slashing at the creeping plant.

Where he cut and broke it a thick, white, puss like fluid oozed out. The plant rustled and shook and in his mind head a screech like a million cockatoos frightened into flight.

Betty Lou was fighting it as it lost its deathly grip, but she couldn’t pull away as her hair was now so entwined it was part of the plant and the plant was part of her hair.

Stewart sliced a cut through the shrinking gap between hair and plant until she could throw herself away. She turned and stared at where she was sure she would have died as tears poured out of her eyes.

Stewart grabbed her shaking body and held her tight, speaking words of comfort softly into her ears. Then without warning she turned and pulled his face to hers kissing him with a desperation he had never felt before.

Tony was starting to get a little concerned, and a lot annoyed. They had gone miles? Though it just felt like they had, what they definitely had done was go in and of practically every house or building they passed. Every time it was the same, they were filled great lumps of solid ice or debris where Ice had been. It wasn’t as if Ford was exploring, he gave the briefest of looks inside before moving to the next.

What exactly are we looking for?”

The entrance.” Ford said as if Tony should have known.

To where?”

The interior.”

Tony stopped walking and stared after Ford. “You can’t be serious?”

Come on; we haven’t got all day; however long a day is here?”

You are serious?”

Ford stopped and looked back. “There has to be one somewhere here?”

You do know those stories are pure speculation?”

They are based on myth.”

Isn’t that the same?”

Myths are based on fact.”

Tony didn’t think that was exactly the way he remembered.

Legend says they abandoned the surface and lived underground.”

And that could be a reference to hell?”

So could the metro.”

I don’t think I subscribe to the same magazines you do?”

Ford looked at him mockingly. “I don’t imagine you would.”

So who are these ‘they’?”

Whoever lives here?” Ford left the room and went outside.

Tony followed him into the next building. “You said that in present tense?”

I intended to.”

The that implies they are still here?”

Ahh now you are catching on.”

Look around; this place has been abandoned for … well, for a long time.”

Around about eight hundred years?”

Tony stopped and stared at Ford as the man passed him and went to the next house. He was still standing trying to absorb what Ford had said when he came out and went into yet another. Tony sauntered after him wondering if Ford was playing with him. “That’s a joke isn’t it; you’re taking the Mickey?”

No, I’m completely serious.”

No, you’re pissing me about?”

Ford stopped and walked back to him. “In thirteen-thirteen a Thomas Baldring was told by God that he would give salvation to him and the chosen by leading them to a new world.”

Tony waited for Ford to continue, but instead Ford turned and walked away. Tony stared after him. “That probably wasn’t meant literally,” he shouted not sure whether to laugh or not.

Have you a better explanation?” Ford disappeared through another door.

Tony had to admit he didn’t. “So what did God do swoop them all up on a golden chariot?”

How the hell should I know, I wasn’t around then?”

Okay so assuming that’s what happened; then what went wrong… this isn’t the paradise they would have expected?”

According to the Index of James of Portugal they turned to the path of the devil, and God threw them out.”

Tony tried to study Ford’s expression hoping to see anything that could betray a hint of sarcasm, but if there was Ford covered it perfectly. “Meaning he threw the planet out of orbit?”

To where the Ice of the heavens would extinguish the fires evil.”

And this Thomas of Portugal…”


Wrote all this down… I don’t think I heard of him before?”

As you said we don’t have the same taste in reading?”

That’s for sure.” Tony muttered when Ford disappeared again. He was fast coming to the conclusion that Ford was borderline insane. “And ‘they’ are these lost sinners… and they have survived underground?”

Their descendants; Yes.”

Tony was wondering how Ford had made it past the psyche test; still owning the Vern he probably didn’t take one and now listening to what he was hearing he began to wish he had failed his. “Okay forget everything else, and if maybe they did at first, they still would have still perished eons ago?”

It wouldn’t have happened overnight. Some catastrophes can be moderated. Being thrown out of orbit would have taken months if not years for its effects to be fully felt?”

I realize that, but they still wouldn’t have had time to up civilization and dig underground even if everybody picked up a shovel.”

Caves; lava tubes would have provided the bridging time.”

I’ve read those kind of theories; colonists dig down to reach the heat from the core, and use it’s heat and energy for light and power, and to grow vast subterranean fields of crops, but it all theoretical.”

Not on the moon.”

Tony realised he had spoken without thinking; they had used lava tubes to set up the moon colonies. “They are only partly self supporting, and the moon doesn’t have a hot core?” He looked about them. “I doubt this place does either?”

I disagree its not only possible it’s likely the core is still active. The gravitational disruption of Jupiter and the Sun would cause immense internal activity; enough to keep the core hot.”

Tony nodded; maybe Ford was onto something; even if it was so bizarre that it was laughable?

Everything was and is possible. Everything that can be done on the surface can be done below it, better in some ways, No heat or moisture is lost to the atmosphere; no atmosphere is lost to space, No soil is blown or washed away, everything created stays that way, all it needs is some event to provide the incentive and life can even improve?”

Even if your right, we were never made to live underground, we are peoples of the sun.”

But were not talking about us. This is them, different people. As different as moles that spend their lives in the soils.”

And that’s what worries me; just how different have they become?”

We: you and I, will be the first to know… once we find the entrance to get us below ground to find them… Now come on, this is not an archeological dig that can take decades, we have days at most.”

Tony was more certain than ever that he didn’t want to. He looked back from where they had come: to where the Vern and to all that was known on the planet was; then he turned and reluctantly followed Ford into the complete unknown.

Stewart wasn’t lying in a comfortable position, but he didn’t want to show it in case Betty Lou moved. The bunk was too narrow for two people but it felt so good; his body nestled tightly against her back. He lay sublimely at peace knowing that any of the others could return at any moment; yet he didn’t care. At least they were fully clothed: they hadn’t wasted any time undressing. There had to be something in the rules about the mission commander and his second in command having sex on duty, thinking that made him smile.

Are you laughing?”

Her voice made him stop immediately but the smile lingered. “Thank you.”

Thank you?”

I mean that was nice; really nice.”

He felt her pull his arm from around her. “I shouldn’t have… I’m sorry.”


Before he could say more the hatch was torn open and Helen dove through. She pulled it shut and fell back against the bulkhead oblivious to Stewart and Betty Lou.

What Stewart feared happened did, and Betty Lou pulled away from him and quickly crossed to the obviously distraught woman. “What’s wrong?”

Hogan… I think he is dead?”

Helen and Hogan went from building to building in a slow methodical way. She using a voice recorder and him a visual one. In the bright photo light: working as a team, they analyzed what they could, bouncing opinions, and scientifically challenging each others conclusion in a calm way; and what they were discovering was beginning to trouble them.

What basis do you have to claim it is human blood?”

Colour for a start.” Hogan said as he took the recorder into close up.

What basis do you have for assuming it is actually from a human?”

Humanoid then, the window catches, door handles etcetera seem appear to require humanoid type appendages?”

You are assuming they had red blood, there could be other equivalent ways of providing a life form with its needs?”

Then the arrangement; the pattern, as if some hand was dragged across the wall?”

The image that came to her mind made her shiver. “Or it could be some primitive art?”

Yes it could or for some ritual; maybe a sacrifice and then some symbolic smearing in a place to protect against some form of evil or receive some sort of blessing?”

Well if it was it didn’t work; this place stinks of something nasty lurking in the shadows.” She looked behind her to make sure she was nowhere near any opening.

He tried to sound positive. “Cheer up, I know the place is creepy, but try not to think that, whoever was here, whoever put these marks on the wall and for whatever reason they did, died long ago.”

I know, and that’s what I am worried about.”

We’ll take a sample and go, hand me the kit.”

Helen pulled the shoulder bag around a reached in. “have you noticed the vine doesn’t grow inside the buildings?” she said as she handed it to him.

There’s not much light strikes the surface, it’s either under ice, too far from the sun, or beneath cloud, so I expect it keeps to where it gets the most when it can?”

But plants don’t have brains, they make mistakes; moving across the edge into barren ground, too wet, too dry; too sunny… too dark. Plants are explorers they cross boundaries even if it is almost always fatal but this… stuff knows exactly how far to go.”

Hogan shrugged. “We learned from evolution, maybe it did too?”

But we have brains?”

And we chose to go to places like this where we were never made to go.” He smiled. “One more, I saw a place that looks a bit different further down the street, maybe it’s a meeting hall or if we’re really lucky it could be a museum that has the complete history of the planet on display?”

What was that I said about brains, maybe not all humans have one either?”

It wasn’t a museum, but when they entered they found a door. A different door, not rotten and falling to pieces like the others this was still standing doing the job it had been designed for; blocking an entrance.

Painted on it was the first writing they had seen; though in words they could not understand.

Hogan stood back so the light flooded the wall. “What do you think it says?”

This way to the bathroom, would be welcome?”

A public place anyway; there’s no lock.”

No, and I suppose now you are going to want me to open it?”

We are exploring?”

Yes, and something that’s getting less and less enjoyable.”

Then do you want me too?”

Even though part of me wants to say ‘don’t you think a woman is capable’, I will say yes.”

Hogan handed the vision recorder to her as she sidestepped, keeping the door in view as she began to record him.

He stood beside the door pointing; making a series poses showing surprise and interest as if he was an ancient archeologist finding a hidden tomb.

Helen humoured him until she could no more, “Stop pissing about and get on with it opening it.” She felt a little guilty when he looked sad, but told herself it was probably just as deliberates as his other antics.

You’re recording?”

Go ahead.”

There is a handle cut into the door; leading me to believe; as I said before that the builders had hands or appendages that they used like hands. It actually fits my hand quite comfortably. That’s funny?”

What is?”

It’s not cold; pretty much everything else I have touched has been between cold and freezing; this isn’t.”

How much wood have you touched?”


I’m talking about here?”

I haven’t come across any that isn’t half rotted away before now.”

Wood is an insulator.”

He nodded. “Assuming this is wood. We should take a sample and analyze it?”

You have the test kit.”

I will, once I have a look behind.”

A feeling of dread came over her as he spoke. “Are we sure we want to?”

It’s a door, not a portal to another dimension?”

I don’t have your confidence on that.”

He ignored her foreboding and pushed. It stayed shut even when he put his shoulder up against it.

Locked; that’s that then.” She switched off the recorder. “This was the last; lets go back, I’m hungry now.”

Opps.” Hogan laughed. “Pull not push.”

As Helen saw the door open she was overwhelmed with a need to run outside into the street. “No…” she said sharply.

Hogan wasn’t listening as he switched on his flashlight.

Hogan no; I’m feeling really uncomfortable about this.”

He shone the beam into a descending tunnel. “There are stone steps going down… aren’t you recording this?”

No, look this is a bad idea; lets talk to the others before we go any further?”

He cast the beam down. It was a powerful light, but even so he could still not see where the tunnel ended. “It’s completely empty. Stone blocks on the walls; bring the camera closer, you can’t see from back there?”

Each step she forced herself forward felt like a step towards hell, and as soon as she could see down she went no closer.

Stone slabs for the ceiling.” He began again. “And stone steps going down for… however far the beam reaches and some.”

Helen stepped back. “Okay, now lets go back.”

Ill just go down a few steps until I can see the bottom.”

No, no, you said just look?”

I am, I promise I won’t go all the way.” He took the first steps calling back. “Once the beam hit’s the end we’ll be able to estimate depth and have an idea what’s…”

Hogan keep talking so I know you are okay.”

There was silence.

Hogan, keep talking… stop being stupid.”

There was no reply.

She wasn’t shouting but her voice was rising. “Hogan… this isn’t funny anymore?”

She was almost rigid with fear but forced herself back to the opening. It was in complete darkness. She couldn’t see the light from Hogan’s flashlight. Helen quickly pointed the cameras light into the tunnel but there was no sign of him.

She was petrified, she didn’t know what to do and couldn’t move to help him, but she was moving in a slow, slow shuffle forward. She let out a scream of terror as she realised it was the door, slowly closing and pushing her towards the top step. She dropped the recorder and threw herself to the side just before as the door sank into the recess and closed.

Helen lay on the ground sobbing. Quickly she twisted her body to see if she was living a nightmare or if Hogan would be stood there. In the gloom the door was shut as they had first seen it. In the dark corners of the room the eyes began to appear.

Scrabbling and stumbling Helen raced for the door and back down the street to the Vern.

Try as Betty Lou may Helen was still inconsolable when Tony and a disappointed Ford arrived back. Stewart was as relieved as anyone at the diversion from having to decide what to do.

Ford gave the woman no more that a cursory glance, whatever her disappointment it was not as great as his at failing to find an entrance to the underworld.

What wrong with her?” Tony said quietly to Stewart.

Hogan’s missing?” Stewart replied.

Tony looked around the capsule; was hard not to notice an absence but he had. “He’s got lost?”

It seems he found a passage; went down, and never came back up.”

Stewart tried not to speak too loud for Helens sake, but it was loud enough for Ford to hear. “Down, he found a passage down; down to where?”

Stewart still tried to keep his voice quiet. “All she knows is that there were steps going down.”

Fords depression was immediately thrown off as he turned on Helen. “What did you see; did you see the bottom?”

Betty Lou glared at him. “There was no bottom it was too deep.”

Ford was almost laughing; he stood up. “Come on you have to show us where they are.”

Nobody s going anywhere,” Stewart was surprised how forcefully he spoke.

Ford considered him for a moment. “You are in command of the Vern, you don’t have the authority to order anyone about on the surface.”

You are in the Vern.”

And on the surface.”

That doesn’t change the fact that I am responsible for the safety of the Lander, and for the safety of the Lander nobody is going anywhere.”

Ford made no attempt to hide his anger. “And your safety does not extend to one of its crewmembers?”

Of course it does, but it will soon be dark; we don’t know anything about this planet and common sense should tell us it will be worse in the dark. Were not going home without Hogan; as soon as it’s light again we’ll all go and find him.”

I fail to see what difference that will make, if he is lost in a tunnel it will be just as dark down there as it will be outside.”

Stewart’s mind sought for a reply; a knock on the entry hatch saved him from having to find one.

Everybody looked at each other until Helen said what they guessed. “It’s Hogan.”

Tony went open the hatch until Stewart reached over and grabbed his arm. “Shouldn’t we check the outside feed?”

Why are you expecting visitors?” was his lighthearted come back.

As a matter of fact I could be?”

Tony looked at him puzzled but he flicked in the outside view. He gasped at what he saw. “It’s Clive?” he quickly turned as they all did: except Stewart.

The blanket still covered the cot where they had left his body, but it was laid flat.

But…” Tony stuttered as he turned back to the screen.

Clive was stood expressionless; he looked sallow, and his lips were moving. They watched his soundless words, their own lips mimicking the movement, and knew he was asking to be let in.

He was dead… wasn’t he?” Tony said in disbelief.

Stewart looked at him. “He still is.”

Then what’s out there?”

The knock: when it rang again, echoed through the silence inside the Vern, but nobody made a move. Stewart went to the control panel and switched on the Vern’s landing lights.

The screen lit up as the view was flooded in light. What had been Clive staggered back. It turned and walked out beyond the ring of light.

Stewart broke the silence. “When it’s light again will find Hogan; but until then we stay inside, keep the light on and don’t open the hatch for any reason.”

In real terms a night’s length on the Ghost Planet was short, but it was a long night for Vern’s crew. Nobody could summon up a conversation even Tony found nothing to comment on. They tried to sleep, but sleep was impossible. Betty Lou tried to get everybody to eat, but no one had an appetite.

As the hours of darkness passed they had got nearer to the sun. The melted ice turned to water; the water evaporated into the crimson clouds and came back down again as heavy rain.

There had been no more visits as the weak daylight raced between the buildings and past the Vern.

Tony spent some of the night making weapons, by morning he had a few things, but all they amounted to were several makeshift clubs. They had the knives, but they were designed for functionality, not as weapons; still it was something to make them feel they could defend themselves. What good they would be against a zombie or ghost no one wanted to ask.

Looking outside they were greeted with a new vista. The plants had spread and now virtually covered the entire walls of the buildings; in some ways it gave the street a less derelict appearance, as if everything around them was some Ivy covered cottage on the front of a chocolate box, but no rural idyllic scene had the vegetation covering the windows and spreading over the road as well.

They left Helen in the Vern; she was still upset and likely to fall to pieces if they found… if anything happened.

Stepping down they couldn’t avoid treading on the leaves, and when they did the foliage recoiled away, giving the appearance of a wake where they had walked.

Heck,” grumbled Tony. “Why do I feel like a murderer just by walking on them?”

I once saw a plant that had the same reaction in Australia.” Betty Lou said feeling the same mood. “I can’t remember what its name was, but the locals just called it sensitive weed. If it makes you feel any better a couple of hours later it was as if nothing had happened?”

Ford nodded. “I saw one of them a few years ago in one of my offices. The staff used to poke it every time they walked past, just to watch it curl up. I’m surprised nobody ever formed a plant protection society so they could charge someone with plant abuse?”

Can we get our minds back to what we set out to do?” urged Stewart impatiently.

I think we are,” Countered Tony. “Observe and explore.”

I mean finding Hogan.”

Betty Lou looked at him. “We know what you mean Stewart; I don’t think any of us has forgotten that?”

Ford was impatient too. “We should have brought Helen. She’s the only one who knows where this tunnel is?”

She would be more hindrance than help.” Tony’s words weren’t spoken unkindly. “We know what to look for; we’ll find it.”

If she wasn’t too hysterical or lost to give us the right directions.” Grumbled Ford. “Is this damned fog getting thicker?”

Stewart look back towards the Vern but it had disappeared into the mist. “Probably thicker… What a hellhole of a place. Frozen solid for hundreds of years; then straight into searing heat.”

Yea,” Tony sighed, “We’d better be long gone before that happens?”

We will,” Betty Lou said.

Tony wasn’t so sure. “I dunno; does anybody? The place is changing too fast for my liking, and if the ocean we saw reaches critical temperature it’ll turn into a runaway greenhouse and boil off, and turn this place into an inferno.”

A hell-hole like I said.”

For heaven sake.” Betty Lou was getting exasperated. “You two sound like you cant wait for a catastrophe to happen.”

Tony shrugged and then saw something. “Just when you think it can’t get weirder; look at that?”

Emerging from the gloom was a massive flower. For its size it was impossible to miss but with its deep, blood red colour it merged into the other vegetation. At the very center a smaller white flower replicated the outer edge.

Betty Lou smiled. “A bit big for my coffee table, but it’s quite pretty really.”

Ford was thinking along the same lines. “We will have to make sure we take back some cuttings. One of my businesses does some plant cultivation, I’m sure they can get a cultivar to fit in a vase for you?”

You should have brought a bigger spaceship?” Tony’s comment was inoffensive but they all knew it was meant to be.

Ford smiled a sickly smile. “Yes; I think you are right.”

That looks like it could be the place.” Stewart indicated a building still clouded in the fog.

As Helen had described it was different to the other buildings and once inside they saw the door exactly as she had said.

They approached it cautiously and opened it ready for anything… anything that was except for the stairs leading up. Stewart stared unable to believe what he was seeing. “She did say they went down?” he said to no one in particular.

Definitely down.” Answered Betty Lou as puzzled as any of them.

Tony stepped back and looked around the room. “That’s it; that’s the only door; she had to be mistaken?”

Down further than the flashlight…” Stewart’s words trailed off. There could have been a window; but what was there was a patchy fragmented area where leaded daylight struggled through, to half-light the landing. A dark solid shape was obscuring part of it. It was hard to know what he was seeing until it moved, then he knew that at the top of the stair was a shadowy figure. It was coming slowly down the stairs.

Hogan?” he said hopefully and then: as if an afterthought, realized he was holding his flashlight, he lifted the beam to the shape. “Clive?” He gasped reflexively stepping back from the opening and standing on Fords foot.

Ford moved and now shone his flashlight up the steps. “It can’t be.”

Clive faltered and held up his hands. “Hurts.” He said. “Stop, hurts.”

Stewart stepped further back and slammed the door shut. “I don’t know where Hogan is but he’s definitely not here, and I for one don’t think we should be either.” He backed off towards the outside door.

Tony followed but Betty Lou and Ford didn’t.

We need to go.” Said Stewart.

We can’t just abandon him?” Protested Betty Lou.

Ford spoke almost at the same moment. “Not before we’ve found the way down?”

Stewart was almost pleading. “We’re not abandoning Hogan, we can’t find him; if we knew where to look, we would, but we don’t?”

Ford smiled. “We can find him if we find the way down; there has to be another way?”

Helen looked into the swirling mist, the crew seemed to have been gone for hours. Shapes kept appearing and disappearing, each time she expected it to be one of them, but each time she was disappointed.

The Vegetation had changed in just the short time since she had come back. The vines had become thicker and woodier. The short stems had become erect and the rustling of the leave had become so pronounced it was a constant background like the chirping of a trillion cicadas. But while all that was disturbing the plant had produced a flower. It was about half a metre across and lay nestled on the bed of vegetation. In amoungst all the weirdness it was a small oasis of beauty. She couldn’t help herself leaning over and taking in the sweet aroma. As Helen’s shadow fell over it the flower pulsed and iridescent colour rippled from center to edges and back. It was beautiful and mesmerizing as an opening appeared at the very middle; she peered down into its depths fascinated until a steam of blood red puss shot out splattering her face and upper body.

Yuck… yuck, yuck?” Helen gasped: spitting out the foul taste, and wiping the slimy stuff from her eyes and lips. Panic came as she realized she was slowly losing her vision, she wiped her eyes desperately but everything was going dark. She knew she needed to wash it out and turned trying to get back to the Vern, but then the pain started. A burning: excruciating, pain that sank into the roots of her eyes. Now her throat was afire and her face and hands felt like she had been scalded. She screamed in agony and stumbled blindly kicking a thick vine. Immediately its tendrils wrapped around her ankle holding her. She couldn’t see it and the more she struggled the tighter it became. Whatever she did made no difference it just gripped tighter and then it sprang back, whipping her off her feet. As Helen fell amoungst the leaves they swiftly enveloped her body. In moments she disappeared from sight.

Tony was stood at the door looking out. “I think we’ve got bigger problems than finding Hogan; fist off we need to get through that?”

Outside they could see what had been ground cover passing through was now standing erect close to knee height.

Guys we really need to get back to the Vern while we still can.”

Ford shook his head. “We can’t leave; there is so much here we need to understand?”

No,” snapped Tony. “You’re not going to be first to make contact. This planet doesn’t want us here, and whoever: if there is anyone, is underground they sure as hell won’t be any friendlier. We have to leave; we can come back again but next time we bring rocket launchers and flame throw…” Tony stopped speaking giving Ford chance to speak again.

There isn’t time to come back. In days the sun will burn it all?”

To me that’s a good thing,” said Stewart. “After its perihelion some others can come back and…” Stewart looked at Tony. “What are you doing?”

Give me your bandage.”

My what?”

The bandage from your first aid kit, give it to me quickly.”

Tony had stripped off the knife from the end of the metal handle he had brought from the Vern, and was replacing it with the loosely wrapped bandage. Stewart handed his to Tony and he wrapped that around the other. Tying a knot he then saturated it in alcohol from his own first aid pack. “Right.” he said holding it up. “Are we all ready to go back to the ship?”

Stewart and Betty Lou nodded, they all looked at Ford.

We are missing the opportunity of our lives.” He protested.

No,” countered Stewart. “We are saving them.” He took the laser cutter from his tool pack and dialed the power to high and looked at Tony.

Tony nodded and held the torch against one of the stone blocks in the wall. The searing beam arced out hitting the rock liquefying a small patch. Lava formed and bubbled out amoungst a shower of sparks. Tony held the alcohol soaked bandages in the spray until it burst into flame. Without waiting he stepped outside holding the flaming torch low in front of him.

Immediately he touched it the vegetation recoiled back clearing a path for them; he stepped along it.

Betty Lou was quick to follow as was Stewart, but Ford held back. He looked around him at the wonders he had discovered and that each one could be worth a fortune back on Earth.

They were around eight metres away when Stewart glanced back. He stopped. “Damn it Ford; come on?”

Betty Lou stopped a couple of metre’s further on and Tony beyond her. They watched as Ford came out of his almost mesmerized state and looked at them. “I’m coming,” he said angrily. “But I can’t leave without something.” He leaned down and began to pull at the plant.

Come on…Hurry,” urged Stewart.

Ford was about to stand when Clive emerged from the shadow

Ford… behind you.” Shouted Stewart too late as Clive gripped Fords shoulders in his hands.

Ford screamed in surprise and tried to pull away but Clive pushed him back to his knees. The Leaves rose up again rusting and shaking they pawed at Ford.

Stewart watched in horror as they began cover Ford to his waist. Without another thought he raced back to the two struggling men.

Tony was watching, his torch held up and path clearing forgotten. Without him noticing the vegetation quickly began to rise and in whiplash movement grabbed his ankle, immediately ripping his leg from beneath him. In shock and surprise he fell heavily onto his knee. There was a crack of shattering bone and he now screamed in pain, dropping the torch as he clutched at leg.

Betty Lou looked back and forwards. In one direction Tony writhed in agony the other Stewart was slashing down with the laser cutter. He severed Clive's arm, but in his rush and panic cut off Fords too. Betty Lou felt nausea well up inside her as all three men fell to the side and out of view. She turned sickened by the sight to Tony, and saw he was being dragged away by the vegetation. She fell to her knees grabbing an arm and a hand holding him. He was screaming in pain and fear as the plant dragged him from her grip. Her tightly clasped fingers slid along and off his hand, and then he was gone. She sobbed in despair, as the bulge that was him was dragged further, and further away.

She looked about her; she was alone and the leaves were rusting as loud as she had ever heard them, as if they were celebrating success.

The torch was close by and it was still alight, she grabbed it plunged it into the leaves. It was a futile revenge that the sound of success changed to shriek of distress as she ran back to the building. Clive and Ford were still clutched together. She felt bile race up her throat again as she saw Fords mutilated body. Clive was still and so was Stewart, but she could see his chest moving.

She bent down and pulled him into a sitting position. “Get up; we need to go.” She wept.

You have to leave me,”

She could barely hear what he was saying. “No way.” She dragged him to his feet and reached down to pick up the torch again. “We can do this.” She urged.

You have to leave me.” He said again pleadingly.

She ignored him and helped him to the door.

He felt like he weighed a ton, either the planets gravity was strengthening or she was getting weaker; either way she knew she was close to failing. Each step she took she expected to be her last, but the Vern was so tantalizingly close.

She wasn’t even sure Stewart was still conscious, but he was putting one reluctant foot in front of the other. He had stopped begging her to leave him: how could she, they were a team: they had been a team.

The Vern was so close now; she could see the vine had wrapped itself around the skids, but no higher.

Fear raged inside her: as if she needed another problem, it wasn’t fair. Still life never was. You’re born and then you die; how fair was that; it all came down to what you did in between, and that was never enough.

Another few steps; her legs were on fire but at last she was there. She pushed Stewart against the ladder. Eight rungs up, it seemed like a marathon as she began to climb hauling his body up step by step.

He wasn’t a big man: but he was almost a dead weight; she couldn’t carry him up. Despair came and then she remembered the hoist. As quickly as her aching legs could push her she climbed, and opened the panel. She pulled out the sling; it looked too thin but she slid down and fed it under his shoulder and back the through other way.

Again she climbed the eight steps, she was exhausted as she slumped inside the Vern and hit the toggle; the winch began to lift Stewart into the air. He looked unconscious; his head hung to one side. She looked back where they had come; they were coming, all of them. Zombies; walking dead; the whole crew or what had been the crew. Ford was missing an arm, Tony limping on his one good leg. It was almost dark now, yet they eyes were nowhere to be seen. She could have been one of them. She pulled Stewarts limp body into the spacecraft.

They were close now and she rushed unwinding winch cable letting Stewart down onto the floor of the capsule. She could hear one of them at the base of the ladder and tossed the wire out: slammed the hatch shut and secured it not a moment before there was a hammering outside.

Betty Lou lay panting, her heart racing. She was completely exhausted, but she couldn’t rest. They had to get away. She dragged Stewart to a cot laid him on it securing the harness tight.

Quickly she sat on the command couch; secured herself and switched on the Vern’s flight systems. The hammering was louder and constant; it was getting to her and she had to force herself to go through the launch procedure step by step.

The engines when they ignited were deafening; only then did she realize she wasn’t wearing a helmet or any flight gear. There was only a second or two before the thrust hit and the Vern separated from the landing skids.

She wondered what had happened to whoever was stood by the spacecraft as the fuel turned to lifting force. One thing was for sure they would have been incinerated in the blink of an eye. Her heart raced again as he glanced at the screen. Someone was out side: clinging to the ladder, and then they were gone swallowed by the flames propelling her away from the Ghost planet.

Only as the planet dwindled below: and after she set the course for Earth, could she relax. She had been lucky; so very, very lucky, if the vine had grabbed her she would be one of them, yes she had been very lucky… Very lucky that one of the dead crew had not cut her off… She had been lucky that there were no eyes to distract… She realized that she had never been that Lucky.

Stewart was trying to undo his straps but his fingers seemed ineffective and his movements too clunky.

She looked at him. No, she had never been lucky and now never would. She released her harness and went to Stewart. She grabbed his wrist and held his hand away from the release catch.

He looked at her in a pathetic way. “You should have… left me…”

She nodded sadly. “I know… It was supposed to be this way wasn’t it?”

You should have…”

I thought I was: Is it too late?”

Inside me… to infect the whole of Earth.”

She nodded. He was getting stronger now; he was still fighting, but it was only a matter of time before she completely lost him.

She moved over to the hatch and looked back. “I’m sorry.” She was sure he smiled before she blew the explosive bolts.

Betty Lou was sucked out through the opening in an instant and shot out into space. The air in her lungs was exhaled in a long scream and then her blood began to boil.

She looked at what had been her body. She felt strange; she would have expected to be distraught, but was indifferent. It was like taking off a winter coat when an endless summer came, something you wouldn’t need again.

She could see the Vern. It was tumbling out of control, and falling back to the planet. She could feel that Stewart was dead; he would ride the Vern in its fiery plunge back down, taking the eyes with him. She could hear them screech: a multitude of them. How many angels could fit on the head of a pin; how much evil could hide in a body: enough, and now they would burn; all of them would burn with Stewart.

Her body was turning slowly and looking towards the emptiness of space, but she would be the first; the first woman to venture beyond; to see what was out there.

Continued in Return to the Ghost Planet - August 2016