Originally appeared in Gateway Science Fiction Magazine in December of 2004.
The planet was dark and lonely when the star ship Republic entered orbit. Massive craters and deep ravines scarred the landscape and made the small planetoid resemble porous candy. Light coming from a white dwarf star in the center of the system was faint; most of it blocked by a thick ring of rubble from an ancient world destroyed long ago. Ribbons of bright yellow lights flowing west to east in the Northern Hemisphere were the only objects of interest on this desolate world. The warm glow was quite appealing compared to empty space and chill of a bleak landscape.
“I’d hate to live in a place like this,” Commander Ryan Parker said to nobody in particular. He sat in the crimson velvet seat of the ship’s executive officer, staring out the Republic’s wraparound view screen that displayed the excavation sight and the surrounding landscape below, on the planet Lyra II. “It seems so lonely.”
Captain Thomas Smyth did not answer the off-hand remark of his friend, but kept his hands steepled in front of him as the starship slowly orbited the planet. He resisted the urge to run his thin but strong hands through his blond hair, a habit he picked up in command school.
It had been a continual emotional rush for him ever since he was ordered from Alpha Centari III to Lyra II. The Space Navy had not been thorough in giving him instructions for this voyage. All the admiral had told him was the lead archeologist, Doctor Bellows, had sent an urgent message to the Earth Colonies United. He stated they had discovered something very fascinating, but needed urgent assistance. Making best speed, it still took them forty-eight hours to make the trip. Since his ship had arrived, there had been no answer to their continual hails to the colony. He was beginning to wonder if he had arrived in time.
“Captain, I recommend we prepare a security detail,” Ryan said, turning slightly in his chair. “Thirty minutes is long enough to wait for a response—especially if the colony is facing trouble.”
Thomas straightened from his contemplative position and shook his head as he stretched his arms. “Let’s give them five more minutes.”
“Aye, aye, sir.” Ryan answered, “but I don’t think five minutes will make a difference.”
The captain had known how long his second in command had been waiting for an opportunity to leave the ship; Ryan had grown up on a world where he had all of outdoors as his playground. Being cooped up in a starship, even one as roomy as theirs was a real trial for the good commander. “Not to worry, Commander. You’ll have plenty of time to head to the surface.”
The five minutes seemed long for both the captain and commander. Ryan busied himself by attacking the reports that had been brought to him by Ensign Moti. Knowing Ryan, Thomas surmised that he was reviewing the status of the star drives, and as a kind of intellectual dessert, calculating in his mind how long it would take them to reach Rigel IV at the standard cruising speed of Warp 4. He watched as the man laid down the reading, glanced at his watch after the exact passage of five minutes and addressed Thomas. “Sir, I’ll head for the shuttle—“
The chime of an incoming message alarm interrupted his declaration. Lieutenant Forge, calling from his seat at the helm panel turned to his superior and said, “Sir, the colony is establishing a communications link.”
“On viewer,” Thomas answered standing and straightening his black belt on his white jumpsuit. The overhead fluorescent light made the four silver bars of his rank sparkle like little jewels on his shoulders.
The worried face of Doctor Stanton Bellows filled the viewer as the scene changed from the planet to the concerned scientist on the planet below. Thomas saw the gaunt and haggard look of the man. His eyes looked frightened and his mouth twitched slightly. His graying hair seemed to be tousled and unkempt.
“This is Captain Thomas Smyth of the Space Navy Vessel Republic. We’ve been trying to contact you for the past half-hour. What’s going on down there?”
“Apologies, Captain,” Dr. Bellows said. “We’ve had some difficulties down here that has left the communication’s room unmanned.”
Thomas raised an eyebrow in curiosity and continued, “I was informed you had something of importance to tell the ECU. ”
“We have,” he said calmly and then broke in to desperate fervor. “And I wish we had never found the blasted thing!”
“Easy there, doctor,” Thomas said in a calm voice. “What thing?”
Doctor Bellows took a deep breath and apologized. “The past week has been, ah, stressful. What we found was an ancient plaque left by the Threen. Since its uncovering, well, out of the thirty-four scientists that lived here a week ago, only five of us are still alive.”
The elongated royal blue shuttle angled itself slightly, and they only heard a slight rumble as it entered the thin and vile-smelling atmosphere blanketing the planet. The pilot, an affable young officer named Riley, cocky as most rocket jockeys aimed his craft toward a silver rectangle of metal lying beside the colony dome. Thomas and Ryan sat in the back of the shuttle in beige leather seats with laser pistols strapped around their waists. Four grim-looking security officers, clad in gray suits, held their rifles at the ready.
Another jarring bump woke Thomas from his daydream. Riley turned to him. “We’re on the ground,” he said with a thick, not unpleasant southern accent. “The atmosphere is breathable, if a bit on the noxious side, Sir.”
Standing, the captain said, “Thank you, Lieutenant Riley. Alert the Republic of our landing and then join us inside.”
“Yes sir, ” Riley offered, nodding to the captain as Thomas disembarked from the rear of the shuttle where the bulkhead had lowered to reveal a portal. Just outside a dark fog hung on the outskirts of the compound, giving the ravines and jagged hills a more ominous appearance.
“It’s like a nightmare down here,” Ryan said staring out toward the black forms of contorted rock.
Thomas slapped him lightly on the back. “Remember this: ‘The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.’”
Ryan nodded. “I won’t forget, sir. I guess God is even on a dead world hundreds of light years away from Earth.”
“I, myself, don’t care what the terrain looks like,” Thomas said. “I just want to find out what has Dr. Bellows so riled. He is one of the best—and least flappable alien anthropologists in the ECU.”
Ryan nodded as the dark gray pebbles crunched underneath their black boots. “All these dead scientists. It sounds like something out of an Agatha Christie novel. Or remember that ancient movie? What was it called? Oh yes. Forbidden Planet.”
The two, with their security detail in tow, made their way toward the dome’s wall to a bulkhead sliding door. The octagon shaped orifice slid open with a grind when Captain Smyth hit the green crystal button. His party stepped in. The door slid shut followed by a hiss of air, which cleaned the room of all remnants of the swamp-like stench. After the required purge of the outside atmosphere, the door opened in front of them and they stepped into a hallway, which lead to a warm, brightly lit little room.
Ryan saw Doctor Bellows sitting in a brown leather chair looking at the fireplace where yellow flame danced and snapped brightly. His weary face looked up at the arrivals and brightened visibly. He seemed glad to see them.
“I’m Doctor Bellows,” he said standing up and extending his hand to the Captain. “Your timely arrival may have saved the lives of our remaining colleagues.”
“You said that other scientists are dead?” asked Ryan.
The doctor nodded sadly. “Yes—yes they are. It all started last Sunday. One of our archaeologists uncovered an artifact in dome two. It was a plaque, with a most unnerving inscription. Just looking at it gave Sarah Watson the willies. Shortly after the unearthing, everything went haywire. We have been working hard, hoping to find out what was going on, but we’ve had no such luck.”
“What type of plaque?” Thomas asked looking around the room, his thin face troubled at the mention of the deaths.
“A medium-sized block of polished, white granite, two feet by four feet.” As he spoke, he pantomimed a rectangular shape with shaking hands. “I shouldn’t have been surprised about the deaths. The plaque bears a curse.”
“ A curse?”
“Yes,” he said calmly. “The artifact was created by the ancient Threen, the race who once called Lyra II their home. The writing on its front cursed any transgressor who disturbed the remains of their king. I’m afraid that’s exactly what we did.”
The Doctor’s voice had a hollow sound. Thomas tilted his head slightly, studying the man, whose pale, sweating brow and colorless lips made him look like he was suffering from shock.
“Well, Doctor, something may be going on here, but I don’t believe in this curse,” Thomas replied putting his hands behind his back. “I believe God is with me and he will defend me from all evil.”
The change in the scientist was instant, if fleeting. Bellows eyes drew close, and his face darkened. “Faith is an illusion, Captain,” he said icily, “but you can keep it if you think it’ll help you before you die.”
“Die?” Ryan broke in. “You talk as if there isn’t any chance of anyone ever getting out of here.”
“We have disturbed the tomb and—”
“I know, I know,” Thomas said, feeling frustration well up inside. “Will you please tell me your story from the beginning, so I can try to make some sense out of this?”
Bellows paused for a moment. “It started a week ago. We were digging in Dome two when Dr. Forbes discovered something just below the surface. We quickly activated the sonar array. Our scans indicated that we were on top of a structure. We were all hoping to find the library of the Threen; a structure mentioned in other inscriptions we had unearthed. We were all very excited.
“We left the sight after work to celebrate. Our celebrations were interrupted by a piercing scream. We all rushed back to the excavation site. At the bottom of the pit we found Professor James Dunbar dead. Underneath his body we found a stone tablet that must have been uncovered in his fall. It was written in Threen.”
Doctor Bellows stopped. Thomas raised an eyebrow. “And?”
Bellows shrugged and continued. “The tablet said, ‘Curse be to those who have disturbed the chambers of the King. All shall perish at the sign of the mist.’ Since then when the mist outside covers the complex, someone dies.”
Doctor Bellows sighed. “The first night the fog approached, Doctor Nelson was out with a team looking over site 3B. We heard an explosion. We found his whole team decimated by what seemed to be an exploded plasma generator. Every three days the fog came in and more died; either as individuals alone or in groups. Each death event was as mysterious as the ones before. Professor Tharl Morgan, our radiologist did some detective work and before his death said he had an idea of what was happening but wanted to confirm it before he let us in on his ideas. He died horribly before he could tell anyone. We found him in his room, his body a contorted, dehydrated husk in his bed.”
From the way his voice warbled, the way he rocked back and forth in the chair, the way his eyes danced wildly around the room, Doctor Bellows looked to be close to a nervous breakdown. “Captain Smyth,” he said, the panic in his voice rising, “my daughter is part of this expedition. She has not fallen to the curse yet. Please take her to your ship where the curse cannot touch her! Please, get her off of Lyra II!”
Thomas sighed. “I wish I could do that, Dr. Bellows, but regulations order me to quarantine this area.”
Bellows blinked, and flexed fingers in a nervous, resigned gesture. “Then I guess she’ll die.” His voice sank to a whisper.
Thomas folded his arms and said firmly, “Will you quit acting as if your fate is sealed? Give me time to think. Give me a chance to fix it.”
“It won’t do any good if we cannot leave,” Bellows said halfheartedly.
“If it makes you feel better, I’ll assign my executive officer to guard your daughter. He can make sure nothing happens to her.”
Ryan, who had been standing by the window, smiled. Thomas guessed that his assigned duties agreed with his second-in-command. Watching over the Doctor’s daughter would be a welcome change from his duties on board ship.
Outside it was getting dark as the rotation of Lyra II turned them away from the system’s primary. The fog, which had been clinging to the rocks on the outskirts, now slowly flowed toward the complex like a phantasm. Ryan turned to his captain, “If we’re going to do anything, it should be soon, Sir.”
“Find his daughter—”
“Cassandra,” Bellows whispered.
Thomas continued, “…Cassandra and don’t let her out of your sight. Security detail…one guard to each person left alive.”
The soldiers saluted and hurried off down the passageways connecting the domes and the main dining area where Bellows said the crew could be found.
“Dr. Bellows,” Thomas said, turning to him. “I would like to see the pit…and the tablet.”
This is the first story that I got published and thought to re-release it due to Gateway Science Fiction Magazine closing their digital doors so many years ago. If anything, it’s an interesting snippet into the past.
Only two parts of this story was ever written and only one (this one) was published. It’s sad that the story only sits as a unfinished work on my hard drive.
I’ve considered finishing it here one day.