'Mission Fail' by Michael Meyerhofer

Lizard by Walter Simon

Illustration by Walter Simon

“So, Doc, how many do you think died today?” Fram asked. “A million? Ten million?”

We were sitting in the mess mall of the Scaled Angel, the only two in a room built for ten astronauts of various shapes and sizes. Fram was picking his teeth with a sliver of charred mammal bone. It made his gums bleed horribly, but he did it anyway. Usually, this was just a nervous tick of his, but I had the distinct feeling that this time, he was doing it just to spite me.

“That’s not funny,” I replied.

Fram grinned with all the warmth of the comet we’d been chasing. “Wasn’t meant to be.” He shoved his plate away. “Not much of a last meal, if you don’t mind my saying.”

I stirred my leaf-broth with a spoon. As much as I hated to, I felt guilty. “I told you, I don’t know how to prepare animal flesh. You’re the one who made me try!”

“Yeah, and you burnt it to a crisp! Tyco liked his meat cooked — not me. I like mine thin-sliced and raw. Just like the captain did. What about that did you not understand?”

I sighed and kept my eyes on my broth. The mention of Tyco and the captain drained all the fight out of me — and there hadn’t been much to begin with. My kind don’t fight. Big and slow, they used to call us. But we’re smarter than the rest. If anything, we just care too much. That’s what makes us good doctors, I suppose.

Fram, though — he’s a different story. Built for violence from the top down. It’s a wonder his kind ever became even marginally civilized, even with gene therapy.

“You know, Doc,” he said from across the table, “you’re just as much to blame as Tyco! How does it feel to be responsible for the death of your entire race?” The drugs made him slur, but I understood him anyway.

I stirred my leaf-broth again. I know he didn’t mean what he said. Sure, it was my psych report that said Tyco wouldn’t crack under pressure. But the truth is, for all Fram’s bluster, I know Fram actually blamed himself. It wasn’t his fault, and even the captain told him so, but Fram didn’t listen. He always was too hot-blooded for his own good.

Then again, there was plenty of blame to go around. For starters, one could blame Ground Control for not detecting that asteroid storm. None of the asteroids were bigger than a raindrop, but they took out our telemetry and our communications tower. We couldn’t finish repairs in time. Fram’s a good gunner — one of the best that came out of the war, they say — but even he’s not much good firing blind at those speeds. Still, to his credit, he managed to take a big chip out of the comet before it passed by. Then he shouted for Tyco to bring us around for another shot.

Only Tyco blew it. Can’t blame him, what with Fram shouting and the captain swearing and me crying, but that mistake alone probably cost a hundred million lives. Poor Tyco punched in the wrong coordinates. We swung wide. Fram’s proton blasts went everywhere but where they needed to go. By the time Tyco got our course corrected, the comet was out of range.

With some luck, we still might have saved the day. We just needed to kick the thrusters to full power and catch up with the comet so Fram could work his magic. But then the afterburner shorted out — some kind of asteroid damage we hadn’t detected. The captain thundered down to the engine room himself but hands like his only work so fast.

We calculate that the comet hit home just about the time Tyco locked himself in the lavatory and swallowed a whole bottle of pain pills. It took us too long to pry the door open. If I’m going to be honest, though, I wasn’t all that eager to resuscitate the pilot who had near single-handedly wiped out lizardkind, anyway.

Vrassh, our communications officer, went next. Really, I think she was just afraid that we’d get the com towers fixed and she’d have to listen to all the horrible messages streaming in. Pleas and curses from all over the world. The death throes of an entire planet, Fram called them. I couldn’t bear to listen. Luckily, Vrassh had already fired herself out the airlock by the time the captain got the com back online.

Poor captain, he couldn’t handle it either.

Sure, he was a fighter once, but not like Fram. When he realized there weren’t any sidearms onboard, the captain manufactured a homemade gun by piecing together an air drill and an engine coil. The bolt he fired through his skull fractured a bulkhead on the way out. We stopped the pressure leak but, my God, what a mess!

After that, I diagnosed everyone — myself included — as a suicide risk and prescribed massive doses of synthetic serotonin. It didn’t make much difference. I offered sedatives too but no one wanted them. Poison, mess hall cleavers, one even took a bath in sub-zero engine coolant. Finally, only me and Fram were left.

“I don’t know why we’re even going home,” Fram slurred. He’d apparently changed his mind about my cooking because he dragged his plate back and attacked his burnt mammal again. Synthetic serotonin is usually an appetite suppressant, but not in Fram’s case. “Our home’s gone. Everything’s gone! Why go back?”

“To say goodbye?” I offered, swallowing the lump in my throat.

Fram crunched down on a bone and marrow squirted across the table. He laughed between gory mouthfuls. “If we’re lucky they got — what — five or ten ships launched before the debris fouled up the solar collectors? If there are survivors, what do you think they’ll do when we show up?” He laughed and meat juice ran from the corners of his mouth. “Even if they don’t incinerate us, I promise you don’t want to see what’s happening down there.”

“What… what do you think’s happening?” I don’t know why I asked, since I already had a pretty good idea.

For a second, it looked like Fram was about to give me a straight answer. Then he snorted and gestured at my bowl instead. “Put it this way, Doc: that’s probably the last fresh batch of leaf-broth you’ll see for the next million years or so — thanks to you and Tyco!”

I felt stinging tears but refused to shed them. I knew Fram was right but I still didn’t want to believe it. Part of me hoped another ship had pulverized the comet after they realized we’d failed, but the horrified messages we’d received told otherwise.

Bad luck. Just bad luck.

I shoved away my leaf-broth and rose from the table. “We’re almost there,” I whispered, looking out the window at the blue-white sphere in the distance.

At least, it should have been blue and white. Instead, it was a mottled gray, like the baked tar-balls parents give their hatchlings to play with. A slow-dying planet. I imagined the clouds full of cinders, the jungles burning, cities choked with iridium dust and mangled solar collectors. For the first time, I was glad that I’d been an only hatchling.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. I started to pull away — I hadn’t even heard Fram approach — but he gave me one of those empathetic looks so rare for his species. Then he embraced me. It’s awkward being embraced by someone with short arms, but he held on and I dared hope that maybe, just maybe, I’d been wrong about him. Then I felt his teeth in my neck.

“Raw…” he hissed with slurry laughter.

I don’t even think I was surprised. I just reached down, grabbed a knife off the mess hall table, and angled it right between his ribs. Sometimes, it pays to be a doctor. Fram stiffened and fell backwards.

Lousy carnivore.

Fram toppled over, taking the table and my leaf-broth with him. I kicked him a couple times to make sure he was dead, then tossed the knife and walked to the observation window.

Before Tyco decided the lavatory was as good a place as any, he’d obediently programmed the ship’s limping engines to take us home and put us in orbit — good thing, too, since I navigate about as well as I cook. I remembered what Fram said: if there were any survivors orbiting in ships of their own, they’d blame us for what had happened. And rightly so.

“But it was just bad luck!” I protested to the empty mess hall and the cold stars beyond.

If Ground Control had detected that secondary asteroid storm and warned us to alter our trajectory. If Fram had aimed a little better. If Tyco hadn’t panicked. If Hobal 260 engines didn’t short-circuit one time in a billion — if today hadn’t been that one time. Enough Ifs to choke a singularity. Then another one came to mind: if I wanted to live, I’d have to change course before our ship was detected. But how?

You’ve seen Tyco do it a thousand times, I told myself. Could it really be that difficult? After all, I’d spliced the very genes that allowed my kind to walk on two legs instead of four, to say nothing of all those operations to encourage higher brain functions. Could piloting a damaged gunship really be that difficult?

Maybe it was the drugs — probably it was — but I wasn’t even scared. Things became eerily clear in the silence of the mess hall. I even knew where I’d go: the herbivore colony on the fourth planet. Dump the ship behind a red sand dune, burn my uniform too and pretend to be just another separatist who wanted to be left alone.

Left alone to start a new life.

I looked out the window again. That mottled gray sphere was close now, but all the landmarks I might have recognized were covered by dark, angry clouds. Even the basic skull formation of the continents was barely a faint outline. I knew I should get up to the bridge and change course but a strange thought entered my mind. Fram was right about something else — our last meal had been a disappointment, to say the least. Didn’t the last days of our kind warrant something better, something grand?

I looked down at Fram. He didn’t look so imposing now. In fact, he was barely a third my size, lean and full of gristle. More like an appetizer, really. That thought made me giggle. I wonder if I’d just given myself too high a dose. But his hot blood felt good, running through my cold fingers as I hauled him — lolling head, body, tail, and all — towards the kitchen.

*

About the Author: Despite various curses and divine afflictions, Michael Meyerhofer has managed to publish two books and four chapbooks of poetry.  His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, On Spec, Ploughshares, Quick Fiction, and others.  As he was writing this, his cat hopped up and randomly bit his arm.
(c) 2009 Michael Meyerhofer mrmeyerhofer@bsu.edu

About the Artist: Walter Simon’s website is: http://walterkurtsimon.bravehost.com.
(c) 2009 walterkurtsimon@yahoo.com

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