ORIGINAL FICTION: "Climbers" (Epilogue)

Chip Haynes

AN EPILOGUE- of sorts.

Far out beyond the last known planet, the space craft slowed to a near stationary position on the edge of deep space. From here on in, it was hide and seek. A purpose built craft, those interested would have found it odd for a single reason: It's cargo bay was pressurized. Obviously a freight hauler, and whatever it hauled had to breathe. The ultimate sky kennel? She had been cleaned and refurbished before this run, but the distances were telling on the hull. Small pock marks from meteor dust impacts on the nose and some scorching on that side that came just a little too close on that slingshot move around one planet's atmosphere early in the flight. She had obviously been around- more than once. Matter of fact, she had been here more than once. This mission was this particular vessel's second tour of duty. A return trip, brought back by popular demand. And it was demanding. Over sixty years before, the previous crew found they could pretty much come and go as they pleased. No one was looking. The target planet's inhabitants couldn't even see them. Just cruise in, off load and leave. If they had cake, it would have been a piece of it. Now those sixty years of advancing technology- technology mostly forged of wartime necessity on that planet- made it impossible to duplicate their previous flight without detection. Time for a bit of hide and seek. They could play that game. They had played it bore, on other planets.
At least they had eight other planets, the central star and one major moon to hide behind on their way in. That wasn't so bad. Could be worse. They could have to drift in like an asteroid with no cover whatsoever. That takes forever if you want to remain unidentified. From their position at the outer edge of the solar system, the ship began to pick up speed again as it started a long, slow spiral toward the center of the planets, keeping the local sun between the ship and their intended destination: The only planet in the system with a breathable atmosphere (for them, anyway), liquid water and life- such as it was. True, the bulk of the planet was beneath a thick layer of water, but what was left above it was (in places) usable. The ship was at its cruising speed in a matter of days, conserving fuel for the empty but long, long return trip. The crew looked forward to the trip back. There would be far less tension in a craft not carrying such a voracious cargo.
Arthur Crutchfield had inadvertently got it right. Some time just before the Second World War- Before radar, sonar, radio telescopes and the vague notion that we may not be quite so alone, this ship had an easy time of it on its first run to Earth. With a cargo of electric blue creatures secure in its hold, she came right in like it was just that much more deep, empty space. In one sweeping half orbit around the planet, the cargo was jettisoned in landing pods that would drift slowly down through the nitrogen/oxygen mix above the planet to soft landings away from the indigenous life forms. These new creatures that were being introduced would be able to start new lives here, where they hopefully wouldn't be near as much trouble as they were back on their home planet. Cute little things, but they did pack a wallop. It had been time for them to have their own planet- even if they did have to share.
Mathematically, the number of inhabitable planets for any given life form is infinite. Or zero, depending on how you play with the numbers. It could go either way. Also, it did cost, in time, energy and materials, to transport these creatures to any new world. With (realistically) only a finite number of usable planets within what would have to be considered a reasonable distance, it became obvious before too long that some of these animals were going to have to learn to share. Hence, a repeat trip to this particular globe. True, advances in space travel had pushed the limits of what was considered a reasonable distance. But still, It was easy enough to revisit one when they knew where they were going. This time, however, the mission was not purely to preserve the sanctity of life. It was also political.
Sometimes the line between an acceptable creature and a harmful pest is merely a matter of tolerance and perception. Some people keep snakes as pets, while others go running for the shovel at the first sight of one. So it was elsewhere. Everywhere. The animals in the hold of this small cargo ship were small by any planet's standards. You or I could hold one in our hand, but we'd be likely to loose that hand in the process. Yes, they looked cuddly, all covered with both short dark fur and strands of longer light hairs. Cute little ears and great big eyes, it just begged to be picked up and held. That was how it fed. The little booger was all teeth. And I mean ALL teeth. By weight, this carnivore's dental equipment accounted for just over ten percent of its body weight. Had you bothered to take a closer look, before you lost those hands trying to pet it, you might have noticed an abnormal amount of distance between its nose and chin. A very vertical head, if a bit narrow. But so cute, right up to the point where it opened it's mouth.
The flash of teeth from this thing's jaws would stop you in your tracks. Picture a house cat with a tiger's dentures and a decidedly two-faced nature. All cuddles and whirring noises if you came close, it would fast turn into a blur of teeth if you got within range. No matter that you were bigger. You wouldn't be for long. A land piranha with an incredible appetite. Born to eat? It lived to eat. With a digestive track like an open header on a dragster, there were few internals to slow down the passage of food from one end to the other. The long-standing joke was that if you looked right down its mouth when it yawned, you'd see a puckered little pin point of light at the other end. It had to eat a lot to absorb a little. So it ate like there was no tomorrow. Although certainly built to be impressively carnivorous, these little fang puppies weren't picky. Anything it could sink its teeth into was fair game- Animal, mineral or vegetable. Within reason. It wasn't big on rocks or sand, stuff like that. But then, who is?
The political part? They were popular on that home planet. Very popular. Unlike the climbers that never quite found their place in food chain back home, these little appetites on six legs had secured their place in both history and society. Never quite domesticated, they were still kept as sort of cheap house insurance. Forget the alligator filled moat. Just put a few of these around the house- on the outside. For some time, they were also kept caged within the house, to be turned loose should an intruder enter. Just be sure you get out of the way first.
As times changed, and the civilization civilized, caged animals were no more. What were once zoos were expanded to preserves, and everything was preserved. No more hunting, no more fishing (assuming, of course, that they had anything that would pass for a fish- and few things will), and no more meat on the table. Life was indeed sacred, but not all life was compatible with civilization. It would be very easy, at this point, to slide in a wonderful lawyer joke about here. Too easy. You do it. I'm busy. Preserving life had it's price, and that price was what to do with the animals that didn't fit in. It's the same here as well. Almost everyone loves dogs, but few of us have any use for a coyote. You don't really want to go around and shoot all the coyotes. Ok, maybe you do- But you can't. So what do you do? You try to contain them and you try to control them. But, where coyotes and climbers had never really caught the fancy and imagination of the general public, these toothy little fur balls were quite the trendy item for a time. Luckily for all concerned, trends do come and go. Now they were pests. And now they had to go.
Had there not been a rash of attacks by these creatures on that home planet, presumed to have been the results of packs of freed domestic animals, they might never have been rid of them. Sure, that first attack was a fluke, and maybe the second one had it coming, but after about the first dozen attacks, there was a general outcry to do something. And something was done, post haste, before any minds were changed or the tide of public opinion were to turn again. And before too many more innocent bystanders were gobbled up.
All of the creatures, both domestic-kept and wild, were rounded up. This in itself became a public opinion nightmare. Put two of these things in a cage and in no time at all you'll have just one- And a mess to clean up. By the time the number of animals rounded up equaled the number of cages that could be built in a real big hurry, there weren't all that many left to transport anywhere. They had inadvertently made their job easier. After all the cleaning up, that is. By the time the situation had stabilized, the public outcry was evenly divided between demands to get the remaining animals off the planet and demands to stop letting them eat each other and turn them loose right now. Tough call there. You and I both know how it would go here: We'd put them all in one big cage to tough it out while we warmed up the Bar-B-Que grille for the winner. Last left, first served. How do you like yours?
Such was not their way. These things- the ones that actually were trying to run this planet- were also trying real hard to be good and Do The Right Thing, as they saw it. But this was getting political and sentiment was divided. They might have to now turn around and just let them all go- the ones that were left. So it was that this ship was pressed back into service after a hasty rebuild and the crew given their instructions: Get rid of these things.
Even gone, there was controversy: There were rumors that the crew was armed and instructed to destroy the things once they got clear of the planet. Not true. They knew they had to find a home for these things, however nasty they might seem to some back on the planet. There was another rumor that the ship had been outfitted with a double airlock within the vessel and a fast-dump system to empty the cargo hold. That, it turns out, was quite true. No sense in taking unnecessary risks. The passageway between the crew's area and the cargo compartments were doubly sealed within the ship. Unusual for a cargo vessel like this. But then, this cargo was unusual. It could eat the crew for breakfast and its first thought would be, "What's for lunch?" And the fast-dump? It was there, ready to empty the hold into the vacuum of space faster (hopefully) than these things could eat through a second bulkhead. But the crew was not armed. That was just an ugly rumor. Completely unproven. As far as anyone knew. What they brought onboard in their personal effects was just that- personal. As I said: It was a very political situation. And not all that popular. Good thing they left when they did. Hope they got them all.
Now, months later they were spiraling in for a drop pass. Half an orbit and a slingshot move back out into space. And home. At some point in the descent, they'd launch the landing pods full of fur balls in trajectories designed to put them right where they wanted them to be. Now was the time to figure out where that was. This cargo could survive cold weather, but it did need food. Hot weather, by this planet's standards, might be a bit much for all that fur, so the midline of the globe was right out. A compromise was reached and the cargo was targeted. Their main sweep across the planet would put them over three large land masses, all of which showed signs of tremendous vegetation. If worse came to worse, the little fuzzy boogers could order a salad.
Then there was the matter of the planet being inhabited by other life forms. Something a bit more complex than just food for this cargo. With luck- and even with all this technology, luck played a big part- these pods would land well away from any major population centers. Some of the smaller clusters of the current inhabitants may be in for a rude awakening, though. The ship with its living bundles of joy picked up speed around the planet's moon (which appeared completely dark from the planet's surface) and made some course adjustments for the ride in. Radio signals coming up from the surface and hitting the hull were soaked up into the ship- nothing reflected, nothing seen. They could not make themselves invisible to direct eye contact, but they could make sure that no one had a reason to look. The con trail they might leave across the upper atmosphere in the slingshot move could be written off as a local transport- if any one bothered to even check. Just another unseen line in the dark, moonless night sky.
Well beyond the outer fringes of any thin upper atmosphere, the cargo bay doors swung open to the vacuum of space. The animals were safe and sedated in their cages with the sealed landing pods, and the pods were released a few at a time. By the time the ship was screaming around the planet at the apex of its turn, the landing pods were drifting slowly and gently through the thicker, lower air toward the planet's surface. Huge billowing gossamer parachutes slowed the delivery to a soft bounce as the well protected cages came to rest on the surface, and the animals got their first look at their new home. Some saw cool tundra, others broad expanses of grasslands. A few- and only a few- could see lights far off in the distance. Electric lights. To these things, that could only mean one thing: Food. But then, to these things, everything they saw meant food.
As the landing pods automatically opened on the surface and the small animals scurried out to hide where they could, the pods' instruments were relaying data back to the cargo ship as it streamed away from the planet: All systems functioned, all cargo delivered. Even allowing for a five percent failure rate- an acceptable risk in such an admittedly risky venture- the mission was a success. Once past the darkened moon, and well past the target planet, the cargo ship relayed a message back home: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED - CARGO DELIVERED - HOME SOON.
The mood on the ship had lightened considerable- after they made sure there were no animals left in the hold. And they checked it twice, just in case. Now it was just one long cruise home. A panel in the main control area of the craft, set near the controls that were used to off-load their precious cargo, set the tone for the return trip and the required philosophy for all of them at this point. Roughly translated, it read: "Don't look." Wise words to live by. Good luck.

And a last word.

For those of you looking for a moral to the story, I suppose it's there if you look hard enough. Maybe something along the lines of, "Yes, you can go home again- if you can find your home, and if you can figure out how to get there and (big one here) if you're even welcome back there." There must be a reason you are where you are. Deal with it. Adapt.
Was it a learning lesson? Oh, yeah. Ray and Barbara Meadows learned that fifteen minutes of fame can be about sixteen minutes too many. Steve Vaan learned that you can't run and hide forever- unless you pick the right hiding place. Max learned that no matter how good life on the farm may seem at the time, it can always get better if you stop the right truck. And Arthur Crutchfield? He learned everything he needed to know before the end of the Second World War, but it was all still amusing fifty years later.
And for those of you that have hung on this far, thanks for the read and I hope you enjoyed the ride.

Chip Haynes
Clearwater, Florida
February 5, 1997

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Copyright 1996,2010, Chip Haynes

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