TWA #14 – Short Story “Above” by David Webb

Above

The chair in the hearing room is surprisingly comfortable. That’s good. I expect to be here for a while, because even with what’s happening outside, the wheels of international law grind on. I can imagine somewhere, a man in a suit is saying something along the lines of “I don’t care what has happened to the sky, we have processes to follow and follow them we shall!” Even if they lead into hell, no doubt. I have never been a witness in a legal case before. I think most people haven’t, but if you should be – in whatever time remains to us – you’ll find this experience similar to yours, although the room I’m sitting in is part of the international law courts in the Hague.

It’s my first time in Holland. Strictly speaking I’m not under arrest. I have a hotel room. I’m not allowed to leave it and I have guards that accompany me there and back every day. Today, which I think is Tuesday, is the first time I’m actually going to answer any questions. I shouldn’t be nervous. So much of what happened is a matter of record. I shouldn’t be nervous, but my stomach is dangerously liquid and there’s too much saliva in my mouth. They tell me it’s just a hearing, but part of my nervousness stems from the presence of the ICC’s Prosecutor. She builds cases and prosecutes people for crimes against humanity, and I’m the only one who came back who might possibly be able to stand trial. Her name is Mercedes Alfaro, and no one has ever heard of her outside the legal world. I have no idea whether her presence is a good or bad thing. She’s a tall, slim woman with jet black hair that falls to her shoulders and brown eyes that, were circumstances different, I would call thoughtful. She sits, everyone else sits.

“Mister Wynne, can you describe your relationship with John Howard Carter?”

I nod, then remember myself and lean forward to the microphone.

“Yes, I was John’s ghost writer, biographer and speech writer.”

“How long had you known him?”

“A little over ten years.”

It started when I blogged about him: he was one of the 1% of the 1%, one of three men who had more money than one could even begin to conceptualise. The word “billionaire” didn’t apply to him. I found out that he valued doing things face to face, that he hated publicity (that he didn’t control) and that he believed in staying hands on. I discovered all of this when he turned up at my door and asked me to stop writing about him and start writing for him. I had a degree in English Lit and a day job in retail. What else was I going to do. But from that moment, I was on the inside and I had unprecedented access to John Howard Carter, reclusive money mountain. He was forty when I met him; his face had a bland handsomeness that would have scored him a career in television, he exercised religiously to stay, as he put it, lean and hungry.

“Nothing should be beyond us, Gwyn!” he’d say.

Being around him made me feel like prey. He didn’t have focus, he had a series of temporary obsessions. He’d made money by becoming obsessed with economics and developing a need to understand money. When his business concerns could tick over without him, he found new ways to create wealth. When that bored him, he turned his attention to life extension and, by association, futurology. He was either inspirational or terrifying, depending on how you felt about his smile. He didn’t often stop smiling. The rest of us, his staff, bobbed along in his wake. Some of the team referred to him as The Superman. Some days, that was how it felt. We were just caught in his slipstream. It stepped up a gear the day he discovered we live on a planet.

That sounds stupid. Everybody knows that. Planets are big, enduring, and ours has taken everything the human race can throw at it. What rocked John’s world was how precarious that existence was. He’d paid no attention to anything other than the development of tools that he needed to make more money than anyone else in history, and then to plan living until humans could reverse the aging process. The thought of having that taken away by an asteroid, or the supervolcano under Yellowstone, or a Gamma burst, was intolerable. John Howard Carter resolved to do something about it, there and then.

“We’re going to Mars, Gwyn,” he said one morning over breakfast, which for him was a carefully constructed smoothie and a handful of supplements.

“You’re going to Mars, John,” I corrected. “I’m staying here. I’m just a lad from the Welsh valleys, I’m no astronaut.”

“You will be,” predicted John and I knew my fate was sealed.

NASA hadn’t lifted anything out of close Earth orbit in seventy years, the commercial concerns that had wanted to mine the asteroids had faded away, the space race was run and economics had won. It took John Howard Carter three months to round up as much of the available talent as could be persuaded to get involved, and then he trawled the Universities of three continents for the best and brightest. Of course it worked.

Mercedes Alfaro holds up her hand.

“There is no need to speak about the technical details, Mr. Wynne. We have expert testimony which speaks to those issues later.”

I nod.

“It’s just as well, ma’am, I’m not sure I can remember any of it.”

They show us the evidence. They have collected every document John’s project generated. We watch video of him speaking, which pleases me because I wrote the talk he gave TED. It’s also nice to see John again and be reminded about his enthusiasm.

“We have all our eggs in one basket!” he says at the start of the talk, “and what did your mother, your grandmother, say about doing that?”

He wanders around the TED stage, fixing specific people with his stare. I’ve heard body language experts deconstruct what he’s doing, and they all comment on the fact that he smiles frequently but the smile only ever reaches his eyes when people are agreeing with him. They always point up the aspects of his performance which indicate dominance or a desire to dominate. They don’t see it as a performance, because that’s what it always was.

Ms. Alfaro asks me to illustrate my point. I hadn’t realised I was talking.

After we announced that John Howard Carter was going to Mars, the PR team insisted he do some hearts and minds work with schools. We thought, at the time, that there might be genuine public interest in going to another world (and if there wasn’t, we’d astroturf some). John went to his old school, somewhere in Kansas. When we traveled in the USA everything dissolved into a series of interiors: car, jet, helicopter, car again, building. We could have been anywhere, but John moved through the halls of the school pointing out where he’d had classes and asking about members of staff. He read a prepared lecture on what he wanted to do and why, which we’d kind of pulled together from the TED talk, and then he took questions from the students. One kid, a girl in the back row who hadn’t seemed too interested in the whole event asked why Mars. Why not the Moon?

“Excellent question!” said John “because the moon would make a whole lot of sense. It’s closer, we’d have less of a life support issue, we’ve already done it so we know it can be done…that’s all really sensible stuff. But the problem with that is it’s already been done!”

“So you just want to get famous for doing something new?” the girl asked. John’s smile lit her up.

“It’s easy to get famous!” said John “Do you want to be famous, miss?”

She laughed behind her hand and nodded.

“OK!” said John “Here’s the deal: if, when you turn 18, I haven’t been to Mars, I will find you and propose to you. I promise that I will do this, here in front of all of these people.”

There was a predictable outpouring of laughter and shock. He waited until everyone had finished reacting, perfectly calm, his eyes on her. When the room was quiet enough, he shrugged.

“The press are here, everyone is tweeting, right now you’re famous. I bet that people will be talking to you about this for as long as my project goes on. I bet that you’ll have some fame for a year or so. How hard was that? Is that what you wanted to be famous for?”

She shook her head.

“Good, I was hoping you’d say that. You’re like me, you don’t want to do the easy thing. From my point of view, unless we ask a lot of new questions and find solutions to new problems this isn’t worth doing. Back in this 1960s, when…I know, ancient history right? …when NASA were working on the Apollo program, they discovered how hard it was to get men into space and bring them back safely. They solved problems we hadn’t even known existed. The tools they created, the techniques they used, made advances that made life better for everyone. We need that push again, but mostly we need to understand how to live on other worlds because mankind – for all our faults – is too rare and too precious a thing to trust to just one planet.”

She was nodding, her smile revealing the braces she’d been hiding previously, enthralled. For John, she was the only person in the room. His eyes were on hers and nowhere else.

Later the same day we did a talk at a library – not in Kansas, we did the car, jet, car, library exchange of interiors – and a group of local business people showed up as a spontaneous crowd. They just sat and listened. John did his prepared presentation and asked if they had questions. I could see him at his lectern, gripping the edges, his knuckles slowly turning white. They just sat, their silence and apparent indifference like a vacuum. He faltered, shot me a wide eyed look that was part incredulity and part panic so I rescued him. I walked on, applauding, and said something about more information being available on the website. John sat in silence as we did the exchange of interiors in reverse. He was pale, shaken and withdrawn until his phone pinged. Mechanically, he checked his email. Then the smile came back.

“Ecuador said yes” he explained, and he was himself once more.

“What about Mars itself?” asks Ms. Alfaro.

I’m glad we skip over astronaut training and the launch because they were not my finest hours. I still don’t know why he insisted I share the experience with him. I know writers are supposed to experience stuff, but the ubiquity of recording media should have made me redundant. I went anyway, taking up a seat that should have gone to a scientist or engineer.

Everyone knows the stated aims of the mission: to live on Mars for as long as possible and return to Earth. The crew was John, the french Geologist Hetty Morice, the African polymath Betty Okafor, the actual Astronaut Alan Schmitt, engineer and designer Ben Grant, and me. By virtue of having no practical skills, I was sitting well out of the way and missed any sight of the descent. The chatter ceased, I noticed. It’s hard to describe that part of the journey, the repressed excitement and the struggle to stay calm and focused as we contemplated getting to the surface and then the sheer physicality of the fall from orbit. All the way down John, Alan, Betty and Ben were chatting back and forth about piloting the lander, the descent, the stresses and strains on the vessel and the view. Then they abruptly stopped talking. All Hetty and I could hear were the automated voices of the altimeter and other instruments. They didn’t speak until almost a minute after we touched down.

“Did anyone else see what I saw?” asked Alan. There was more silence. “Come on,” he said “did anyone else see anything as we were coming down?”

“Guys? What’s occurring?” My sole contribution to the day.

“I saw…I don’t know, Alan. I saw something that might have been…” John faltered. He pulled himself together. “We all have tasks at this point. We can talk about what we might have seen when those are done.” Always focused.

There wasn’t much room in the lander to hide and whisper in corners, so when Hetty collared me there really wasn’t anywhere to go. Her accent was pure Parisian, her English perfect, her eyes worried.

“I overheard Alan saying he’d seen a pyramid. Do you think this is some sort of practical joke?” I shook my head.

“If he says he saw something, he saw something. But it’s possible there was a trick of the light. We all saw the ESA photos from 2006. There’s nothing out there except natural formations.”

“And a stepped pyramid,” said Alan as he passed us, which ended the conversation.

Ms. Alfaro raised her hand.

“No documentary evidence of any of this made it back with you. What proof do you have of this story?”

“None whatever,” I admit “shall I go on?”

“Please.”

I want to describe the lander, and the “kit pod” that went on ahead of us which contained the shelters and the tools, the instructions, the materials which were supposed to make our stay on Mars possible. No one is interested. They’ve seen the pictures. I want to talk about how, rather than being battered and irritated by the continual company of the same people, we’ve become close. I can’t, no one is interested in how Betty taught us to speak a little Swahili so she could share some of her childhood experiences with us. No one cares that Hetty and I discovered we had a mutual love of the Asterix books, or that Ben and Alan both had perfect pitch and would occasionally harmonize their conversations just because they could. No one wanted to hear about the awful jokes, the times when we would fall into a mutual silence for comfortable hours only to be disturbed by words from Earth. None of that matters here. But it should. We weren’t stir crazy. No one had cabin fever.

After we touched down everyone had a job to do. Even me. We did them. There were things to unpack and check, things to test, things to get ready. We were like kids at Christmas, because we were going to be the first humans to set foot on Mars. Alan and John were supposed to go first, then Hetty and Betty, with Ben and I staying with the lander in case we were needed. Instead, there was a meeting.

“I think we should all go. All we need to do is step outside and take a look, and if we’re all seeing the same thing we’ll work out what to do next.” Alan was completely dispassionate, setting it out as if straying from the plan was something he did all the time.

“As eager as I am to get out there and find out every tinfoil hat wearer was right,” said Ben “we really do need to think this through and do it the right way. We have to stay safe. We simply can’t afford mistakes out here, no matter what we can see out of the window.”

John nodded, Betty seemed to agree.

“I say stick to the plan entirely,” said Hetty slowly “we’ve got no reason to do anything but follow our timetable. Either it’s there, in which case it still will be when we’re set, or it’s not. In which case this is a lot of fuss about nothing.” She was right, of course, and that’s what we did. Slowly and carefully, we built the rover. We recovered the kit pod, no small task in itself, and we got used to the suits. Everything we did was slow. After three days, we were looking pretty good. It was also that point when everyone’s will snapped.

Ms. Alfaro wants me to get to the good bit.

I can tell. She’s being patient with me as I ramble on about solar panels and rover charging stations, the fun of getting into and out of a hard shelled suit, the daily radiation checks. I can sense the patience draining out of the rest of the room. They want me to say how it all fell apart.

We wanted to see the pyramid, to explore it. We sat down one night and talked for hours about how the expedition would work. We made good plans. Everyone would go, because we all could, but only people with the right skill set would stay. Anyone else would turn around and go home pretty much right away. That was it.

If you want to know what it’s like on the surface of Mars, there are parts of Arizona that look a lot like it. Sedona is the same colour. It’s rough terrain, hard to walk on because you need to watch your step all the time. If you fall over in a hard suit it takes at least one other person to get you back up again. As we walk, the shape appears and I’m half hoping it’ll be just another spurious rock formation, the kind that Cydonia is famous for. The kind it has to be, or there are so many questions to answer. But the edges are too sharp, the steps to pronounced. It’s like an Aztec pyramid, rising above the plain. No one speaks as we move closer, no one speaks until we can reach out and touch the blocks of stone, blocks of undeniably worked stone that chip away the last hopeful doubt. We can’t cling to the notion that this is a freak of weathering.

“I’ve seen better workmanship in Egypt,” says John to a startled silence. “You want a good pyramid, you gotta get Egyptians involved.” Suddenly the tension evaporates and we’re eager kids again, touching, exploring, investigating. The stone is the same colour as the rocks on the Martian surface, which means that somewhere out there is a quarry. Hetty is talking to herself, in French, trusting that our audio recorders will allow her to transcribe what she’s saying later.

“Can we climb it?” asks Ben.

“In these suits?” says Alan. I know he’s thinking about the potential for falls and suit damage, both of which could be fatal.

Betty looks up, takes a dozen or so steps backwards.

“I see nothing special at the top,” she says, “so if you’re looking for sacrificial altars…”

“Found a door,” says John. And of course he has. We cluster around it, and our conversation is all about how we should open it. There is a hunt for an opening mechanism.

“We’re assuming it is a door that is supposed to open,” says Betty, “If this is a tomb, the door is probably sealed.”

Ben, Betty, and I are sent back to the camp for tools. We actually have explosives with us, which Ben knows how to use, but we’re not taking them along. No one wants to be the first to vandalise a non-human artifact, although I suspect we’re going to. On the drive back – we got to use the Rover on the basis that we couldn’t carry everything – Ben starts to express concerns.

“The thing is, this was either built since 2006 and frankly that seems unlikely, or the ESA and NASA have been editing the pictures they’d taken of Cydonia for decades. Why would they do that?”

“Money?” I venture.

“Could be,” says Ben, “I just don’t see why. What do they gain?”

“If people believed there was any sign of habitation on Mars, they’d insist that we come here with a proper scientific investigation. It would force various governments to commit to a space program that perhaps they didn’t want, couldn’t afford,” says Betty.

John’s voice interrupts her train of thought.

“Door’s open,” he says, “don’t know how, not sure what we did. Did you get the lights and camera?”

“Yes, John,” I say, because I recognize the tone of voice. He’s found something new to focus on.

When we arrive, they’re just starting to venture inside. We set up lights, we scramble to put out a solar charger for the rover batteries and the lights to charge from, we hand out tools and recording devices of all kinds. My suit has a camera and an interior sound recorder, which I now turn on, and I grab a high definition stills camera. Inside…

It’s almost disappointing. Inside is a relatively short corridor that opens into a much larger chamber. In that chamber is a raised dais, perhaps ten or so feet from the floor, and there is an immediately intriguing oblong box on top of it. We should be recording everything as we go, but we scramble to see the box.

It’s a sarcophagus.

Betty has archaeology training, because there’s very little she hasn’t turned her hand to, and she insists we record the rest of the space before we even think about the box. It’s a good thing we do because the walls are decorated. There are pictograms, which aren’t hieroglyphs. That’s a relief to all of us, I don’t think anyone could cope with space faring Egyptians today. The glyphs cover the walls and I start by looking at them trying to find anything that might indicate a start point. They stop roughly eight feet up the walls, and that tells me that they are supposed to be read. I get so enthralled in this, I almost don’t see the flashing red light on the camera indicating that it’s not working. I poke at it for a few moments then swear.

“The hi-def is busted. I think it’s just batteries, so I’m going to take it back to camp and see if I can work on it a while.”

“Sure,” says Alan, “it’s not like this place is going anywhere.”

As I leave, I notice John is crouching next to the sarcophagus staring intently at something.

The replacement chargeable batteries for the camera turn out to be in the lander. I can suit back up and be on my way back in a little over an hour. Everything takes longer when you do it solo. I radio the team to let them know. There’s no response. I pull a few items together and leave the lander, stepping into the corridor that connects to the main living area and try another radio set. That’s when I hear it.

“Don’t come back,” says Hetty. “I’m going to try closing the door so he stays inside, but don’t come back.”

I babble questions into the silence but she doesn’t respond. Then she’s back, breathless and it sounds like she’s running.

“I can’t close the door. Go to the lander. We’re the last. Go to the lander. We have to leave.”

A few minutes later, I’m in the lander as demanded. My mind is whirling.

“How is he here?” says Hetty, and then she whimpers, and then there’s a noise like a hammer on plastic, and then silence.

I look out of the window. I can see the camp. I can see John. He’s staggering, holding a geological pick in one hand. He’s not wearing the top half of his suit. His mouth is open, his head thrown back, howling soundlessly and making his way towards the lander. His right arm is gory to the elbow. His head snaps forward. He looks right at me from a few hundred meters away. The radio crackles, spits.

“…scarlet sacrament…flow…the bright interior light…” it babbles in a voice I don’t recognise, “…the way! Open…and now awake!” Then it shrieks, because I have strapped myself in and pushed the big red Go Home button. The one we designed so no one would have to die alone on Mars, whether they could fly the lander or not. And just like that, I go home. I fall into the Pacific, I am recovered, and I am delighted to be alive until I register that no one is pleased to see me. They tell me to wait until night and look up.

I do.

The sky is dominated by it, a tri-lobed burning red eye, fixed on Earth, and accompanying it a twisted and clawed hand blue shifted as it reaches out to us.

It appeared when I launched.

John is following me home.

Be sure to vote on your favorite story here!

Born in England, David tried to identify his ancestral roots by having his DNA tested. The lab results came back accompanied by a note reading simply “oh dear.”

He lives somewhere in the middle of England, where his tendency for sarcasm and his crippling addiction to tea pass without comment by the general population. He likes reading and writing, history, science fiction and things that are silly, neatly combining all of these by venerating (as all Brits surely do) Doctor Who.

He recently acquired a Bowler hat and is not afraid to wear it

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5 Comments

  1. Pingback: TWA #14 – Cthulhu in Space Battle Thread! - The Writer's Arena

  2. There’s not much I can say about this one, other than that it’s a great solid story told in a subtle but confident voice.
    If I could make one criticism it would be that I would have liked to see a bit more of the horror on Mars.
    Have a vote from me.

  3. A solid, interesting piece of writing! Good work.

  4. Very well done. In the true spirit of the challenge, i think you channeled Lovecraft’s storytelling style perfectly. The buildup is slow and low, full of rich detail and stark facts interwoven with the narrator’s personality. And, of course we wouldn’t see the encounter in the pyramid: the imagination can fill in the details better than the written word. I agree that the ending was somewhat abrupt, but that is, again, a very Lovecraftian device. His stories rarely end with anything other than, “I got in a boat and sailed away.” Impressive work, Mr. Webb. I look forward to reading more!

  5. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    I enjoyed this story very much. I felt it wasn’t without its faults – Perhaps pacing could have been moved along a bit more in some places, and maybe an element or two excised, but these factors are easily outweighed by what I loved about the story.

    It was written through what I saw as a very evident love of language, the prose was expertly handled. Take for example the line, “The rest of us, his staff, bobbed along in his wake.” Gems like that are pretty awesome.

    The use of Mercedes Alfaro as an intervention measure for skipping over unnecessary details was a stroke of genius. Those moments moved quite naturally.

    I would have liked quite a bit more exposition of the terror elements at the end. As this is supposed to be the focal point of the story (even more so than the personality traits of John Howard Carter) it felt, by contrast of the rest of the narrative, a bit rushed through. Though I thought it was terrifying in and of itself, it did seem too abrupt.

    This story took my TWA vote this week.

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