Joshua Scully is an American History teacher from Pennsylvania. He writes primarily speculative fiction. His work has appeared in several online and print magazines and can be found @jojascully.
The Red Planet grumbled uneasily. This subterranean shuddering was no longer only mildly disconcerting. Rayar understood that no matter how surreal his entire situation appeared, the consequences of this mission would be both momentous and tangible.
Coolly manipulating controls within the operation cabin, Rayar disengaged the primary support struts of the first missile. Knowing that the launch window was approaching, he activated the piloting and propulsion systems. Lithium power cells hummed to life far below the launch platform. He exhaled deeply, hoping to keep his nerves in check. He didn’t want his stomach to turn at this critical point.
Each system required time to fully come online, so Rayar allowed himself a few moments of mental release. He imagined his home, nestled between grassy hills and just constructed before he departed on this tremendous endeavor. He had spared no expense on the dwelling, ordering the finest cut sandstone for the outside and employing evergreen timber and marble on the interior. A walkway paved in crushed seashells traversed a manicured lawn down to an inland sea of calm, azure waters.
His nephews loved to fish in that sea.
The cold, dry, stillborn world around the operation cabin was the antithesis of the lush, lovely countryside that surrounded his dwelling. There were no billowy, white clouds carousing through the sky or birds singing sweetly in nearby clusters of ginkgoes. There were no trickling streams of crystal water or reclusive creatures scurrying underfoot. There was only a barren, vermillion desert that blandly stretched away from the launch platform in all directions.
The fact that Rayar was desperately relying on this dead, sterile planet to preserve life was certainly ironic. He had traveled nearly three years through space to save his race and planet from an asteroid – a massive chunk of rock and ice careening toward all that he knew and loved.
Although his abode was situated in an idyllic, peaceful valley, far removed from the chaos and pollution of the metropolises, there was no doubt that his world had problems. A recent deluge of natural disasters, political strife, and climate change presented serious challenges before this asteroid was first spied ripping through the solar system. Academics and politicos agreed that the potential impact may well be the final fold in a global death shroud.
Rayar knew asteroids had hammered his planet on several occasions in the ancient past. The fossil record demonstrated that entire prehistoric lineages were erased by these collisions. However, technology had finally advanced to the point that this asteroid could be destroyed. Rayar sat at the controls of five powerful missiles, transported through the vacuum of space and assembled on this planet so that the approaching mass might be broken into multiple fragments.
The distance between this planet and his own was just enough to assure the asteroid remnants would have time to travel off the current collision course. The inner two planets may well be peppered by celestial grapeshot, but the third planet – the only one truly worth saving – would be spared death.
Civilization would continue.
A nearby control panel chirped multiple times, snapping Rayar from his wondering thoughts and alerting him that the first in the series of missiles was primed and ready to launch.
Rayar flipped two nearby switches and pressed a large, glowing button on the panel. A massive gantry crane overhead stammered to life and positioned an impressive, glistening missile on the platform.
Rayar used his tongue and lips to push a transmitter microphone away from his mouth. He didn’t want his voice to be garbled as he spoke through space to the command center.
“The first missile is in position. Launch will commence when the window is fully open. Awaiting confirmation.”
Knowing a response would not come for several minutes, Rayar prepared to again lull his nerves with thoughts of home.
There would be no such opportunity.
Another tremor rippled through the launch site. This one jostled the entire platform. Even the massive crane and missile swayed.
Rayar was aware this planet remained volcanically active, even if such events were incredibly isolated. If these tremors indicated a nearby eruption, the results could be damning. He stripped the dire thought from his mind.
There was a sudden rap on the operation cabin door. Rayar looked through a small window to see Ogla. He pushed the door open and his crewmate stepped inside.
Her face was a mottled red and green behind a clear visor, giving the appearance of simultaneous anger and illness.
“We have a serious problem,” Ogla panted. She had obviously climbed up to the operation cabin from the crew quarters below the surface in quite a hurry.
“Yes,” she replied. “The sensors are indicating serious activity below the platform. The readings are the worst that I’ve seen since we landed.”
“I’m telling you, there are explanations other than volcanism,” Rayar said flatly. He realized he wanted himself to believe that just as badly as he wanted Ogla to accept his suggestion as possible.
“What else could it be?”
“The platform could become unstable any minute. That’s what the sensors are showing.”
“I haven’t got confirmation to launch.”
“Unless you want to launch these crooked, I suggest we push the window!”
“Is that an order?”
Ogla grimaced. The colors of her face seemed to swirl.
“We could launch now, but you know the piloting and propulsion systems would struggle to reach the target from this point,” Rayar added. “The target is currently just beyond range.”
“I’m prepping the shuttle,” Ogla growled in reply. “We are leaving immediately after launch. This terrain is unstable. And that’s an order.”
Ogla slammed the operation cabin door closed behind her. Rayar knew that she was correct in her concerns. The site selected for the missile facility had proven to be problematic, but the ideal launch point was just moments away.
Rayar peered out into the black, featureless sky. The sun was setting in a bizarre twist of blue and violet on the horizon. There was a certain beauty to this event. Rayar wondered if this heavenly display would ever be observed again. With a discussion ongoing in the scientific community to improve the atmosphere on the Red Planet so that life may spread to this grave place, he hoped mightily that more eyes would see this extraterrestrial dusk.
Just beyond the glow of sunset, a twinkling blue dot appeared in the sky. That was his home. He could practically feel his crushed seashell path under his feet.
“Launch window has opened. Continue launch procedure,” a voice from another world crackled in his ear.
Rayar turned the dial on his transmitter to reach Ogla. “I have confirmation.”
“Good,” Ogla quickly replied. “I’m mixing our hibernation coolant.”
“Okay,” he snorted before turning the dial back to the original position.
Before responding to the command center, Rayar closed his eyes and prayed. He was not excessively religion by nature, but he did remain a worshipper of the old God. The habit of his friends and family to freely float between fashionable cults, new deities, and no religious practice amazed Rayar. He was confident that his God – the one that so many had once shamelessly turned to in times of piety or pain – would pardon the waywardness of creation one more time and scuttle the cosmic menace lurking somewhere above this hauntingly beautiful sunset.
With his prayer said, another thought entered Rayar’s mind. This may well be the last chance for God to destroy creation. An argument could be made that life, specifically the very race to which Rayar belonged, would soon be too advanced to be extinguished. No famine, flood, or divinely guided space rock would ever threaten the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, or the scurrying creatures again.
“Confirmed. Launching the first missile.”
Rayar pressed a round, red button with the appropriate numeral. Several warning beacons around the colossal crane flickered to life. A siren became audible somewhere near the crew quarters below him. The platform rocked, but not due to any tremor. The raw, carnal power of technology shook the planet this time.
He watched anxiously as the primary thrusters under the missile fired. Fumes from the propulsion were vented beneath the operation cabin, adding an iris hue to gathering gloom of night.
The operating system initiated a countdown. The first missile would launch in a matter of seconds.
Swallowing hard, Rayar pictured himself fishing with his nephews. He remembered when his oldest nephew, Garak, snatched an especially large ammonite from the water, only to be squirted with ink. Garak possessed a knack for seizing the mollusks and had helped construct the seashell path at his uncle’s home. To provide enough shells for the path, dozens of ammonites were caught by Rayar and his nephews over a few days during the previous summer. Garak even managed to capture a few with his bare hands. The soft tissue of the harvested sea creatures was marinated and grilled. The shells were crushed to make aggregate.
These memories brought a smile to Rayar’s face.
The countdown continued. There were only a few seconds remaining before the first missile lifted from the launch pad.
Ogla ripped open the door to the operation cabin. Rayar suspected the door nearly came off the hinges. She stepped inside, slamming the door shut behind her.
“Prep the other missiles now!”
Rayar opened his jaws to argue, but he was distracted by a plume of gray haze emerging from just beyond the launch platform.
Rayar haphazardly tapped a sequence of keys. The operating system, a technological marvel, suddenly seemed to move with agonizing lethargy.
Numerous additional plumes became visible in the dying light outside the cabin. The platform rocked unsteadily but not because of any awesome, technological prowess. An immense caldera was opening all around the launch platform. The first shift was rather subtle considering the magnitude of the event, sending Rayar and Ogla tumbling into each other as the platform and crane partially collapsed.
Pumice and lava from deep within the planet ripped through the ruddy, surrounding crust as the first missile launched. The projectile was regrettably canted to one side because of the partial platform collapse, firing off toward the horizon. There was no way the piloting or propulsion systems would compensate for such a trajectory.
“Launch the others!” Ogla cried.
Rayar regained his position at the controls long enough to punch a few additional buttons. An indiscernible communication from the command center back home reached his ear. He detected a hint of panic, but he couldn’t comprehend a single word.
The next tremor announced the main eruption. A massive jet of burning ash ripped through the launch pad. The gantry crane, carefully constructed over several earlier missions, immediately broke into two pieces and tumbled downward. Even in the low gravity, one piece struck the operation cabin with deadly force.
The other missiles deployed, but the second missile, crippled by the collapsing crane, struck the third. The ensuing explosion only added to the lethal chaos around the remainder of the launch site. Burning metallic shards rained onto the operation cabin.
Ogla was practically crushed beneath part of the crane. Several joints of her pressure suit ruptured. She gasped, twisted her body, and tried to free herself. Although she was nearly successful, her suit quickly depressurized. Struggling to breathe the thin cocktail of gases that replaced the pressurized oxygen in her suit, she found that her tail was hopelessly pinned beneath a riveted mass of iron and titanium.
“Ogla!” Rayar shouted. He reached out for his partner and grabbed one of her hands as the cabin tumbled into the abyss. He pulled with all his strength, but a damaged wrist joint merely allowed Ogla’s glove to slide off her hand.
Rayar caught a glimpse of her claws and vibrant green plumage before he was thrown on to his back. He landed above Ogla or on her, he wasn’t certain. When he called out, she didn’t respond. His visor smashed his snout in the fall. Blood quickly filled his mouth, and he thought he had probably swallowed a few teeth.
There was nothing to see now except a series of feathery cracks spreading across the main window of the operation cabin. The cabin slowly submerged in a sea of magma, and Rayar knew that the glass would burst inward any second.
He had no way of knowing if any of the missiles hit their target. He assumed that was unlikely.
His kind had ruled their planet over two hundred million years. Somewhere along the way, a primitive Troodon tamed fire and fashioned a spear from the branch of a dead sycamore to catch fish. More advanced Troodons had invested over a decade to construct a base on a planet three years away in an effort to save their civilization. The fire and spear were undoubtedly more worthwhile.
Fractures spread through the glass with considerable ease. Rayar closed his eyes. He thought of his nieces and nephews, and how he was the uncle that never missed a hatching celebration. If the academics were correct, those poor creatures had roughly one hundred days before impact.
The glass burst inward with a sudden fury. Rayar roared for the ages.