COMMANDER SHIPLEY, SAVIOR OF EARTH
by Wm. Cassells
Handsome, dashing Chuck Shipley took cover against the bulkhead, firing his trusty laser festooned with reflex sights and a flashlight. A silvered spacesuit, visor open, half-unzipped, crinkled and clung to his body. He held the pistol aloft and vaporized an alien. Pow! Over the dead he advanced down the corridor. Thrice he reprimanded his attackers with gunfire. Thrice he remanded them to hell, hurling them down to the house of death. His laser sparked, its low-battery light flickering. He shook his head: it wasn’t enough. It never was. Too many of them.
Firing his laser all the while, Shipley fell back to the narrow airlock where his comrades lay. Remington? Dead at first contact. Koch? Dead, whimpering when they caved in his head. Winchester? Dead. Maimed Oscar Mossberg, groaning and gutshot, would join them soon, that noble luster slipping from his eyes. The tide of battle rolled in. The blast of war rang in his ears.
The beasts fell upon him in waves. One of them got in close, whiffling, thrashing and pecking at his chest. Whirling back, Shipley brought the butt of the weapon down. Crack! Its beak split in two. His momentum carried him forward. He punched another, an uppercut toppling it backward. He ducked frenzied blows. Ka-plow! Dead for a ducat! Another one bites the dust!
Knee deep in gore, Shipley fought onward: a man lost in a well-rehearsed dance. Bang! That’s the stuff! Pirouette. Bravo! The crowd loses it! Bravo! Bravo! Smoke and body parts everywhere. Shipley was a work of art. He did his extinct countrymen proud. Spinning, he aimed the weapon under his arm and vaped another alien. Bravo! Then another and another, his pistol annihilating generations of beasts. The low battery light blinked. Good for two hundred and forty shots. The counter under the sights ticked up. It read two-oh-five. On the flight up he wrapped the receipt around a wad of gum. So much for returns and exchanges.
“Leave me,” gurgled Mossberg. Hit bad in the first wave. Koch jabbed him with morphine and dragged him to make his stand. No rescue was on its way. They were the cavalry. “Leave me… Remember Earth” he intoned placing a hand on the airlock lever. Pausing from the carnage, Shipley apprised his friend. “Never Forget,” Shipley nodded answering the oath and raising a hand to his crucifix. He dropped the gold visor on his helmet, pressurized the suit and began to pray. Moss pulled the dead man’s switch. The countdown had begun.
Time slowed. Gasses hissed. A red strobe blinked in the corridor. Our father who art in ten. Pow! Pow! The gun recoiled. Hallowed be thy nine. Bodies drifted as gravity subsided. Thy kingdom eight. One flew off, then another, and for a moment the charge broke. Thy will be seven. Gibbering over itself, the warlike melee surged forward. On earth as it is in six. On earth. Low-battery flared in the strobe light and died. Give us this five our daily bread. Shipley grabbed a creature by its spines, body-slamming it into the wall. And forgive us four trespass. Reeling back like a Cy Young pitcher, he hurled his trusty pistol into the hecatomb. As we forgive those who trespass against three. Desperate Shipley seized Koch, grasping the helmet and heaved the corpse into the fray. The charge kept coming. And lead us not into two. The beasts were upon them! But deliver us from one. Geronimo! Moss screamed wide-mouthed battle cry, time sped up and the airlock burst open, belching the tumult into space. Amen.
Space always was quiet. Aliens writhed, bulged and then their contorted went still. Even the long preceding centuries of madness left them unprepared for this. The void robbed them of their physical advantages. So confident in their counter assault! To the last beast they wore ankles bare, forgetting that no one dipped them in the river Styx. Their spacesuits still hung, unblemished, on some far away rack. Shipley’s own suit held fast.
Floating there in the void, Mossberg, wise and courageous, gasped and fumbled. Then lost consciousness with the water boiling off his tongue. Shipley checked his watch: ninety seconds until Mossberg died for good. Already his eyes bulged in their sockets, hungry for air pressure. On a good day the reentry drill took sixty. Today was a very, very bad day.
Below him the pockmarked Earth curved in every direction. Oh, that a distant rest. Plumes of smoke rose from the North Sea oilfields, choking the continent. London, once and always a scar on the earth, smoldered down to its Roman foundations. The Pilgrim’s Progress and bits of London Wall remained. Flood waters and craters reorganized the country, down to the Isle of Wight into a Pollock. Far north, beyond the peaks and lakes, Hadrian’s wall must be there, with no one to keep at bay. Later, the orbit would carry them over the decimated Arctic and into the Siberian night. Then zipping across a dreamless Asia, its nationalistic passions put abruptly to rest. Further south, he imagined the outback ruled by weepy-eyed rabbits. Australia: Fosters, dropbears, and On the Beach. One of those still made sense. At perigee the ship should coast above the high Antarctic plateau before greeting the dawn in the South Atlantic. Did some traces of mankind linger on those rocks? Lonesome hands tending to the gardens of Napoleon till the end of days. Was that a redoubt worth dying for? Perhaps the Azores. He counted his vacation days while keeping time with his Speedmaster™.
Newton’s Third Law is a liability. One wrong move and gimble lock! You’d spin in a nauseating gyre till you blacked out covered in vomit. In cadets he hosed three square meals a day out of his helmet. After a day with a fish bowl screwed down on your head the smell of butyric acid never leaves you. In the midst of a pitched fight for the survival of his planet he struggled to keep down a shrimp cocktail. EVA never was his strong suit.
The hulk of the S.S. Pedaeus burned, devouring oxygen, rocket fuel and anyone who hadn’t been ejected into space. It flared up until the windows burst in blowing out the flame. Grabbing Mossberg under the arms, Shipley planted a boot on an alien body and kicked back toward the space station. The station expanded, filling his field of view. The second hand reached nine o’clock. He thought about his friend. Forty-five more. Moss might outlive him yet.
He zipped across the smooth night sky, striking a diver’s pose. His trajectory was too low, on impact he’d skid off the hull. Remember Earth. Remember Earth. His feet engaged under Mossberg’s armpits as he contorted his figure in a slow deliberate maneuver. Right foot to shoulder, watch that center of mass. Careful, careful. OK, hang on to the top of his helmet and left foot. He took a deep breath. Lunging with every sinew he accelerated toward the airlock. An equal and opposite reaction committed the dying to the corruption of the deep. The body’s ballast gave its last full measure of devotion. One last hurrah for Earth!
The space station Illium rushed to greet him. Fluid in his inner ear sloshed around. Bile tickled his throat. Shrimp cocktail. Keep it together. His nostrils flaring, the visor fogged up. Remember Earth, Remember Earth. They’re counting on you! Who is? Who’s left? Illium loomed overhead, blotting out the Earth. Here we go. Too fast? He hit the airlock dead on and initiated entry. Five seconds later it opened. Adieu, Mossberg. Adieu, Earth.
Inside he lifted the outer visor, keeping his helmet on. These old stations all had thin hulls, one blaster shot and pow! Besides, the alien living quarters smelled like pig shit. Shipley crept through the warrens of the ship. Arrows on the floor must go somewhere. The station showed its age. Slipshod walls might as well have been drywall. Control panels looked fake, like cheap replicas of 70s-era technology. Overhead fluorescent lights buzzed. Rounding a corner, he hit his head on a boom mic and swore. What the hell was it doing there? Even aliens broadcast from somewhere, damn any language barrier. Looking up he found himself at the foot of a mammoth blackened door and beside it a much smaller door. Shrugging, Shipley barged through the little door. Floodlights on the other side the lights overpowered him. He raised a hand to his eyes. Across the room a cohort of aliens surrounded an oversized metallic swivel chair. Shipley reached for his trusty pistol and found it gone. The throne turned toward him.
“How are you, son? Come to kill your old man?”
Six months in an alien torture prison, but Shipley wasn’t expecting this. His old man flew up to Illium with Shipley’s brother. Shipley wrote the eulogies the day they signed on for the mission. Aboard the Illium, father and son met little resistance. The beachhead established, they called in the second wave. Good men, all sturdy souls. Something went wrong. Six hours in ground control lost all contact. Wave three took on heavy fire with all hands lost. Later that day the bombardment started up again. When the shelling let up, Shipley’s father sent out a distress call. He escaped from the alien prison. Where would the rescue launch from? Engulfed in fire, his rescuers didn’t even make it off the ground.
Here, six months on, his father looked good. Sitting on the throne he had kind of a David Bowie vibe going on. The dye job was great and he’d definitely been working out. Even when he was out of shape, his old man still knew how to fight. As a kid Shipley watched him start a bar fight just to bottle a guy. All the years left that zest intact. There’s not much else to do. Working out and razing the homeworld. Space is a pretty dull place. Rocket Man played in Shipley’s head.
Bang! A laser beam hit the floor beside Shipley’s foot. “What’s the matter boy? Cat got your tongue?” Shipley said nothing. His father waved the gun muzzle in the air. “Patricide? What would your mother say? We raised you better than that. Your brother,” he held a skull in his left hand, articulating the jaw with his fingers, “he would never do that. Say ‘Hello’ to your brother, son, he’s missed you. I won’t.” Zap! The second shot singed his space boots. “What have you got to say to your pop? ‘Oh no, you’ve gone insane! You’re in league with the aliens! Boo hoo! Earth is in ruins and mommy’s dead.’ Out with it, boy!” What a performance. He looked around for a weapon. Not so much as a can opener. Damn laser. A gun, a gun, my kingdom for a laser gun.
“On the authority of Earth, I’m taking you in,” Shipley bellowed.
“Show some respect, boy.”
“Dad, it isn’t too late to give yourself up. Surrender. The court will take it under consideration.”
“Surrender? To who? Ha. I’ve burned all the courts.” His father cackled. In an alien tongue he growled, “Bring him to me!” Subtitles raced across Shipley’s vision. Not again. A flood of alien flesh burst toward him. Shipley struck a fighting pose, bracing for the inevitable.
Bzap! The nearest alien went down in a heap. “Stop, he’s mine!” the old man hollered, “Any last words, boy?” The aliens came to a standstill, drooling and jibbering. He raised the blaster. Shipley gazed down the barrel, lowered his mirrored visor and intoned, “Remember Earth.”
Ka-plow! and the world went black.
To be continued.
Three words lit up the dark screen. From the foot of the overstuffed brown leather couch a girl, eight or so, looked up at him with welling eyes. The dam gave way to choking sobs. Shipley, dressed in flannel pajama pants and a white v-neck t-shirt, set down his glass. He scooped the bawling child and held her to his chest. “Aw, Sam. Come here.” She wailed and wailed. Big tears rolling down rosy cheeks.
“Sweetheart, it’s just television. Make believe.” She trembled as she cried. “What’s wrong? Tell me what’s wrong.” He rocked her. The next time reel ran, interspersed with the credits. Stern UN men carried a flag draped coffin down a gangway. A portrait of Shipley at the foot of a casket. She shook for a while before rasping so low he couldn’t hear.
“Sam?” Shipley rocked the little girl.
“Don’t leave me, daddy.”
“Samantha. Oh, Samantha.” He bit down on his lip.
For a while, they cried together. He just went on holding her.
She looked up at him with red eyes, “I’m tired.”
“Me too. Let’s get you to bed.”
Lifting the the girl, he carried her down the hall and up the stairs two at a time. With each step he tossed her. She squirmed in his arms. At the landing, he shooed her off to get ready for bed. Alone in the ensuite bath he brushed his teeth. Without makeup he looked worn out. Because he was worn out. The bathroom light exaggerated the worst of it. Salt and pepper stubble caught Colgate runoff on his chin. He spat into the sink and wiped his face. He really did look like crap.
She stood in the doorway, mismatched socks on her feet. He scooped her up and carried her across the hall. He tucked the little girl in. The dinosaur sheets went up to her chin.
“Did you say all your prayers, sweetheart?”
“One for mom?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
He kissed her forehead. “Goodnight, Samantha. I love you.”
“Night night, daddy. I love you back.”
He waited outside the bedroom door, hanging on to the door frame, breathing slow heavy breaths. What could you tell a kid?
Downstairs, Shipley poured another glass of scotch, turned off the lights and fell sighing into his easy chair. It was late. He was too old for this. He downed the liquor. The scotch burned in his nose, in the back of his throat. Hints of wintergreen and peat mixed in his mouth.
For a while he counted the days, then missed a day or two and lost count. That was it. Most nights he just drank. Down at the liquor store people stopped asking for autographs. He gripped the empty tumbler in his hand, imagining it might break. Harder still. The glass was strong. He refilled the glass. Soda water and scotch. On his phone he tapped out a message to his agent, deleted it and typed it again. A book or an album. He could use the money. These sci-fi bits were career suicide. He took another sip. It could wait until the morning. Standing by the window he looked out over the expansive front lawn, toward the white picket fence and street beyond. Above, the clouds devoured every star. Tonight was a dark night and it just kept coming.
They were waiting.
Far away from the lost little girls and lonesome actors, outside all the double glazed windows and past the white picket fences, on the other sides of the roads of rich towns, high above the clonal Levittowns, eating rice and pamphleting airport terminals, entombed inside those mad halls of Rockland, lingering alone at Serling’s tomb, graffitied on walls with letters from The Rubaiyat, slouching on the drunk stools in dim bars, picnicking on the plutonium drenched banks of the Columbia River, stacked like cordwood inside nuclear craters, as foretold by the black apocalyptic scriptures of Fard, lofted into the night sky and exploded in the desert, gas-drowned in the trenches, charging through the valley of death, shot to pieces at sea, thrown over and over again from the windows into infinite dungheaps, burning in heretical flames with Wyclef, choking on ash at the boat houses, at the foot of Calvary, on Patmos praying for enlightenment, crushed among the temple ruins, holding the hot gates for all eternity, birthed, raised and sacrificed in the hall of Minos, crouching with Cain set on killing Abel, supplicants of no god with no purpose, moving on the face of the water, forgotten and remembered and forgotten once more, hatefully bending toward eternity, they were waiting.
And then they weren’t.
“Pretty good episode, huh?”
“Last week’s was better. I didn’t expect Koch to go out like that.”
“A guy like that? All guns and tattoos, he was dead from season one.”
“Sure, but begging ‘mom’ until they caved his head in. Do they all die that way?”
“It seems that way. Fragile buggers.”
“I bet that makes your job easier.”
“What’s gotten into you?”
“Oh, I was just thinking about the finale. We’re going to miss it.”
“It looks that way.”
“Couldn’t we just wait until after it airs?”
“Command isn’t stupid. If Shipley keeps saving Earth, we’re going to get written up again.”
“What does command know? They’re never getting off this planet.”
“We could smash up Venus, but they’re going to find out.”
“The bombardment plan will look the same. I can revise the calculations. Done.”
“And when Command finds out? What’ll we tell them?”
“‘A big enough explosion and they’ll never know the difference. We can even do a double on Mars.”
“What’s going on with you? You’re feeling bad for them.”
“I’m not! It is cruel, though.”
“Dead now, dead later. Dead. Dead. Dead. They’ll get there with or without us. Who wants to live like that?”
“They aren’t all that way. There are so many of them. Take the girl. She isn’t even old enough to resent him.”
“Most of them are miserable. A big bright light in the eastern sky and bam! We’re doing them a favor”
“We’ve been over this. There isn’t any other way. OK?”
“Come on, I don’t buy that. What’s going on?”
“Don’t be like that!”
“Do you think he loves her?”
“Come on, humor me.”
“I have no idea.”
“Remember the beach in Santa Cruz? He must’ve drank a fifth and he was pretty far out in the water.”
“So what? He’s drunk most nights.”
“But that night, he went all the way. He couldn’t even see the shore. Then he turned back and sat on the beach sobbing for nearly an hour. And the expression on the cop who picked him up! She cringed like her night was worse than his.”
“He lost his nerve.”
“It’s because of the girl. There’s no other reason.”
“How long has the wife been gone? Two years?”
“Funny little creatures, they’ve got everything in the world and die just the same.”
“God, the actor: two legs, two arms, a heart and lungs, for all the good they do him. He’s a damn wreck. What’s he doing hung up on her?”
“If I knew, I wouldn’t be out here with you. Let’s finish the job so we can go home.”
“Fine. After the finale. It’s your turn to tape it.”
William Cassells is a biologist by training and writer by avocation. His literary interests span fable, science fiction and magical realism. He lives near Boston under an assumed name and doesn’t own a dog.