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“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Franklin D Roosevelt
“The preliminary evidence shows that the alien race on this planet destroyed themselves in an apocalyptic war.” said archaeologist Don Evans. “This species extinction is identical to the Doomsday Overkill scenario found on Tau Ceti b. In both cases, there were two competing cultures separated by a large ocean. The two rival cultures struggled for dominance and eventually the hostilities reached the boiling point and triggered the classic Doomsday Overkill Scenario of species extinction. I did extensive research on the tragic Tau Ceti b civilization and presented a paper on the to the World Space Agency.”
“Let's not jump to conclusions,” John Binford said. He knew Evans was older and had a lot of archaeological experience. However, he had a tendency to jump to conclusions. “It could have been a doomsday war. But it wasn't a nuclear war as there is no residual radiation or damage to the structures. It might be a catastrophic disease. Let's figure it out.”
He looked out the side window of the shuttle craft at the mysterious, massive alien metropolis. Three hours earlier their starship had dropped out of Faster-Than-Light speed and found the ruins of a dead civilization on Kepler 18 b, the second planet in the Kepler 18 system. Now the two archaeologists and the shuttle pilot, Mario Rodriguez, were descending in the shuttle craft to the tragic planet. As the lead archaeologist, he recognized that this deep space discovery was the chance of a lifetime. Both he and Evans were having trouble hiding their excitement. What was this species like? What was their culture? What caused the tragic extinction? Their job was to do an initial study of this ancient race and their civilization and find answers to these questions.
After visually checking several potential landing areas, Rodriguez chose what appeared to be a city green for the landing site. However on this planet, all vegetation was overgrown. There was nobody to trim the exotic-looking plants on this world. All animal life was dead.
As soon as the small ship touched down, Rodriguez felt a strange wave of anxiety and unease. Part of him wanted to immediately engage the engines and leave the planet. He assumed the disturbing emotions were a reaction to the uncomfortable high gravity of the planet and he ignored his illogical fears.
“Lexington, this is shuttle craft,” Rodriguez said. “We have landed on the planet surface...Will embark on EVA after checklist.”
“Good luck,” came the reply from the starship.
The three men quickly ran through the standard procedural safety checks and after pulling on the environmental suits and oxygen tanks, opened the hatch to the hydrogen, nitrogen atmosphere. With Binford leading the way, the three stepped out of the shuttle and looked at the dead city before them.
“This is exciting,” said Binford over the helmet com. “But let's think safety first.”
The empty, ancient city under the red Kepler 18 sun, consisted of tall structures lined in rows along what appeared to be streets made of a concrete-like substance. Most of the buildings were in a pyramid shape or a half dome geometric shape. The alien architecture rarely showed buildings constructed in Earth-like shapes.
Fifty meters away stood what appeared to be an alien statue. The planet's high gravity made movement slow. But the three men walked as fast as possible to the statue, hoping it would provide a glimpse of what the Keplerians looked like. The four-legged and four-armed insect-like creatures walked erect. However it was hard to tell where the head was. Binford activated his camera and took several pictures of the odd creature.
“The empty streets are spooky,” said Evans. “This used to be a thriving city full of beings with hopes and dreams.” He briefly knelt down and extracted a sample of the street building material and deposited in a sample bag.
“I keep thinking about Earth history,” said Rodriguez. “There was a period in our history where we all could have destroyed ourselves in a war.”
“Let's head down the street to the right,” said Binford trying to change the subject. “Based on the dust on the streets, I'd say the city had been empty for several hundred years.” Walking down the street, from time to time they came upon on a black dirt-like substance that crunched when the stepped on it.
“What is this crazy, crunchy black stuff?” said Rodriguez.
“I believe it is what remains of the corpses of the dead species,” Evans said. “The species appeared to have had exoskeletons.”
“Sorry I asked,” said Rodriguez as his left foot crunched again.
“The entryways or doors of the structures are about five feet tall,” Binford said. “That leads me to believe that the dead alien creatures were somewhat short.” He selected a structure that had a door-like mechanism that was stuck in the open position and motioned the three to follow him inside.
“This place gives me the creeps,” said Rodriguez shuddering. “Ever since I stepped on the planet, I've felt an almost uncontrollable feeling of anxiety and fear. Now inside a building, I almost feel nauseous.”
“I've been feeling spooked ever since we stepped on this crazy planet,” said Evans as he ducked and stepped inside.
“I thought I was the only one feeling it,” said Binford. “Let's take a quick look around and get back to the ship. This structure has what looks like a lobby and then has rooms off the lobby. It may be an apartment building or something similar.” The men walked to the near wall where there were faded etchings or drawings on the wall. Several drawings appeared to portray the Keplerians in daily life, providing a glimpse of the alien culture. Binford raised his camera to take pictures of the alien drawings, but in his agitated, nervous state, dropped the camera.
“That feeling of fear is getting worse. Let's...” said Evans.
He was interrupted by Binford screaming over the helmet com. The frightened man ran from the room.
“John, come back!” said Evans.
“There's a pack of wild dogs chasing me!” said Binford.
“Come back!” said Rodriguez. He looked all around and saw no dogs. “Nothing is following you!”
Completely unhinged, Binford ran without any sense of direction. His terror gave wings to his feet. The two men tried to keep up with him, but quickly fell behind in the high gravity environment. Binford made a quick turn down a side street. A brief scream was heard on the helmet com.
“John, are you OK?” said Evans between gasping for breath. There was no answer. The men jogged to the side street and came to a stop. The alley led to a large hole in the road from a sinkhole. Binford was 30 feet down the hole and motionless. His neck was on an odd angle and his faceplate was broken.
“On no,” said Evans. “He was a good friend and colleague.”
“I'm sorry,” said Rodriguez. “His sudden insanity has to be related to the intense fear we're feeling.”
“He once told me of a frightening childhood experience where a rabid dog attacked him. It's like something on this planet read his mind and then convinced him that his worst childhood terror was real.”
“Let's leave. We can come back for the body,” said Rodriguez. “The crazy feelings of fear have increased in the past few minutes. It's now like a feeling of terror.” He turned to jog back to the safety of the shuttlecraft. But hesitated when Evans didn't follow.
“Let's go! There's nothing we can do for him now.” demanded Rodriguez.
“I...I'm old...and...I'm dying...,” came a shaky voice over the helmet com. Evans legs buckled and he slowly sank to the ground. The terrified man curled in a fetal position in the street. His eyes were wild in fright.
“Snap out of it and listen to me,” Rodriguez said. “You are not dying. A psychic power coming from the planet is creating your fear. This has to be the doomsday weapon that killed the alien race.”
“I don't know if I can stand up.”
“If you want to live, get up!” Rodriguez pulled him up by his arm. “Somewhere on this planet, the doomsday weapon is active and it thinks there still is a war going on! It may be nuclear powered or solar powered but it is still functioning after all these years. We have to get off this planet now!”
Rodriguez frantically pulled Evans to the shuttlecraft. He suspected he didn't have much time to escape from the dead planet. It was only a matter of time before the doomsday psychic weapon probed his mind and pulled his biggest fear out from the dark recess within.
Just before the ramp, Evan's body went limp.
“Evans!” The man was completely unresponsive. Rodriguez looked his comrade's face through the faceplate, Evans looked dead.
“Did he die from fright or did he die from a heart attack?” Rodriguez wondered. Hoping his comrade was just out cold, he started to drag the archaeologist to the ramp. Almost to the ramp, he heard a buzz. He looked up and saw it. It was his worst nightmare come to life.
“No...Not snakes,” he said to himself.
Only fifty meters down the alien street a dozen 20-foot rattlesnakes slithered rapidly towards the ship. The buzz from rattles of the giant snakes was horrifying. He hated the shiny, scaly bodies of snakes. He hated the mean cold eyes. He hated the fangs. He hated everything about snakes.
When he was a young boy in Southern Florida, he and his younger brother had gone hiking in the woods. After they surprised a seven foot Eastern Diamondback that was sunning itself on a rock, the huge rattlesnake struck his brother in the hip. As he was helping his brother get away, the thing struck him. They immediately backtracked out of the woods in an effort to get to help, but his brother collapsed after only 15 minutes. Rodriguez left his brother to get help. He was delirious by the time he reached the woods edge and luckily bumped into a group of hikers that rushed him to an emergency room. By the time the hikers returned to the woods to find his brother, it was too late. Now the doomsday psychic weapon had pulled this dark terror out of his mind and created this illusion—or was it all real? His mind thought it was an illusion. Yet his emotions were screaming at him to run.
Rodriguez frantically dragged Evans up the ramp. Suddenly one of the giant rattlers lashed out and struck Evans. As the huge reptile grabbed the fallen archaeologist in its mouth, a horrified Rodriguez dropped his comrade The shuttle pilot was briefly paralyzed with fear as the snake, only five meters away unhinged its jaws and began to swallow Evans whole.
Rodriguez screamed and ran up the ramp. Slamming the hatch shut, he dashed to the shuttlecraft control panel. Without doing the checklist, he immediately fired the engines and lifted the small spaceship off the ground.
He was a good pilot and quickly maneuvered the shuttlecraft into a steep ascent.
“Lexington, this is shuttle craft. We have an emergency. Come in,” he said. There was no answer.
“Lexington, this is shuttle craft. Come in.”
“Lexington, do you copy?”
On the horizon, he saw a large fireball falling and burning up in the planet's atmosphere. He knew from the size of the fireball, it had to be his starship burning up in the planet's atmosphere. The doomsday weapon had gotten into the minds of crew and gotten them to destroy the main ship. It may have been one frightened individual or it may have been a group decision to destroy the main ship. The entire 50 man crew of the doomed starship had fallen victim to their deepest and darkest fears. Now he was the only one left from the deep space mission.
Without a way to return home to Earth, Rodriguez fought back his terror and maintained a steep ascent—reasoning that a higher orbit might escape the range of the doomsday weapon. Within an hour, he was twice as high as the original orbit of the main ship. Yet he still felt strong feelings of terror. Nervously he looked out the side window and impulsively jumped back. A rattlesnake was inches away from him and tried to bite through the glass. Several of the huge rattlesnakes had wrapped themselves around the shuttlecraft and were trying to chew into the ship.
He hit the light speed engine and within a few minutes, he was 300,000 miles away from the planet. Still he felt the iron grip of terror from the doomsday weapon. He was certain that given enough time the snakes would find a way into the ship and then strike him with their poisonous venom and then...he had seen how snakes swallow their prey whole.
“Perhaps once one is infected with the psychic energy, you can never escape the terror grip of the weapon,” he thought. Tears were streaming down his face. He could face anything but being swallowed whole.
He had one last desperate idea. He had the option of diving through the planet atmosphere and burning up on reentry or a suicide course directly into the heart of the system's red sun. He felt an odd comfort that death would bring complete freedom from the alien psychic force and feelings of raw terror.
As he was calculating a burn up re-entry course, he noticed a glint of light to his left. Glancing to the side window, he saw it was one of the large moons of the planet. On a hunch, he manually piloted the small craft to the dark side of the moon that faced away from the planet. As his small craft passed out of line of sight from the planet, he was amazed to feel immediate relief from his intense fear. Out of curiosity, he gingerly looked outside. The giant snakes were gone! There was no trace of the nightmarish creatures. The moon was blocking the psychic energy from the planet. Waves of emotions of joy and relief washed over him and he started to laugh and cry at the same time.
With new hope in his heart, Rodriguez blasted a course away from the Kepler 18 system. The new course always kept the moon from between his ship and the planet.
“We should rename that hellish planet 'Doomsday,'” he thought. “It's a good thing the human race never invented an insane doomsday weapon like that.” Checking the oxygen supply gauge, he estimated there was a few days of oxygen left. The shuttlecraft only had 2X light speed capacity. However, if he piloted close to a region of explored space, there was a possibility that an exploring starship or a passing deep space freighter would detect his emergency beacon. With a little luck, it was possible that someone could find him and pick him up.
“With a little luck,” he said aloud to himself and the faint spark of hope in his heart grew. It all seemed possible.
“With a little luck. With a little luck.”
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micheledutcher - Thanks for letting us read this story. Enjoyed it. Nice mix of SciFi and horror, great details, I liked the way it pushed the reader forward quickly. I did think the ending kind of faded out. Perhaps he could have been shielded by the moon at the end and finds out that the main ship is still there but no communication - and when he goes on board, he finds out everyone on board is dead for real, having died because of their fears. The ship falling onto the planet just being a figment of his imagination. But I did enjoy reading this. Good job!
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