The man was lucky; he knew that. He had food and water. He had the huts. At least, that’s what he called them. The buildings had fancy names. Proper names. But he preferred huts.
Yes, he was lucky. But there was one downside, one problem that gnawed away at him like an ache in his bones, and there nothing he could do about it. He was lonely. That was the top and bottom of it. He missed Deborah.
Deborah had been strong and determined. Clever too. She’d kept him going when things had gotten tough. And she’d rigged up the power supply. Without it, he wouldn’t have been able to keep the green stuff away, and that was the most important thing. Plus, with the power on, the filtration system kept the air inside the huts perfectly safe, and it made the water drinkable and ran the recycling systems. And the indoor lighting—well, that was certainly a comfort in the long, empty evenings.
Shame about the comms though, he thought. Deborah had tried to get them working, but something was missing. The command module, she’d called it. It had been removed, presumably by the people who owned the huts, and without it, the comms couldn’t be coaxed back into life. There was no way around it.
What was it she’d said? I’m not a miracle worker. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
The man smiled. He’d always liked her little sayings. They were one of the things he missed. One of the things.
Not a miracle worker. To him, she had been just that. She’d made the days bearable, made this place a home. I’ll visit her later, he decided. He had no flowers to leave at her graveside, but he’d sit by her for a while and dust off his happy memories. God knows that wouldn’t take long; their time together had been too short. He tried to visit her grave every few days and spend at least half an hour there. It wasn’t enough to repay her kindness, her warmth, her generosity, but it was something. And it was all he could offer. If only I had something to take her, he thought. Lilies. That was what you left at a graveside, wasn’t it? White lilies.
“She’d have liked that,” he murmured and sat up with a start. Had he just said that out loud? He cocked his ear, half expecting to detect an echo of his own voice. He talked to himself all the time, but it was disconcerting not to know whether he’d just been doing it. It was as if he was losing his grip; the border between thoughts and actions becoming blurred and muddled. If you carry on like that, you’ll lose it completely, he told himself. You’ve got to keep it together.
He stood and crossed to the window, looking out beyond the chain-link fence and staring out across the bizarre landscape. Deborah had fixed the fence and locked the gate too. Nobody could get inside without his knowledge. He was safe. Locked away from the outside world.
The man let his gaze roam over the surreal forest of twisted living statues, marveling at the way the light caught the blue-green branches and made them glisten as if they’d been freshly painted. It’s grown since yesterday, he thought. The trees were getting wider, stronger, reaching farther into the air. He stayed at the window, lost in thought until he caught sight of his reflection in the grime-smeared glass, a foolish grin on his lips, his eyebrows raised in an exaggerated expression of dumbfounded amazement. What the hell am I doing? Grinning like a goddamned idiot! He scraped his hand down his face, muttering, “Trees! They don’t look anything like damned trees. Green and tall but that’s about it.”
He scowled. Real trees, like they had back on Earth, were beautiful, soaring into the sky, brimming with life. But the gnarled and twisted structures growing outside were nothing like that. They were ugly, deformed, gangling things, crowded together and stretching to the horizon in every direction; more like an infestation than a forest. Oh, they were alive all right, that was for sure. But they didn’t harbor life, they destroyed it. To touch them meant certain death.
“Oh, Deborah,” he whispered, “why did you do it? Why did you try? We had everything we needed right here, didn’t we?”
But, as always, he knew the simple answers to those questions. Deborah had been an engineer, a problem solver. She’d been compelled by her curiosity, driven to find out more. She’d done what she had to do.
The man stared at the glass, and for a moment, his reflection faded away, replaced by a vision of Deborah’s face; her sweet, kind face. Look at me, moping around, he thought. If she could see me now, what would she say?
He allowed himself a small smile. “She’d say, we’ll get through this,” he murmured. “She’d say, you can do it, so pull yourself together, Parkins. Pull yourself together.”
Extract From Chapter One
“Hey,” Cate called out. “Quit arguing you two and come up here. Quick!”
Siobhan felt the rover slow, and her stomach tightened. “What? What is it?”
“Oh my God!” Tessa breathed.
Siobhan hurried forward, squeezing her way between the back seats. She sensed Ben following close behind her.
“It’s the grunge,” Cate said, bringing the rover to a halt. “Look.”
“What do you…” Siobhan’s words died on her lips as she peered through the windshield. “What the hell’s happened to it?”
“Shit!” Ben breathed. “It must’ve mutated.”
Siobhan gazed out over the stunted forest of glistening blue-green clumps, each one strangely stump-like and at least three feet tall. “Maybe it just grew up over something. Maybe there were some bushes or small trees, and the symbiont sort of coated them.”
“I don’t think so,” Ben said. “They look like they’re growing, like the symbiont cells clustered together and formed towers.”
“Why?” Cate asked. “Why would they do that? To get to the light?”
Ben shrugged. “I don’t know. I think it’s more likely that the symbiont mutated, and there’s a new strain trying to outcompete the rest. But there’s something weird happening here. Most mutations are harmful to the organism, fatal even. It takes a long time for a new strain to get established, and the symbiont just hasn’t been here long enough.”
“That might be true in nature,” Siobhan said, “but there’s nothing much natural in the symbiont. Maybe they made it grow like this on purpose.”
“Did they tell you that?” Ben asked, his tone sharp. “In the trucks, did they say the symbiont was going to change?”
Siobhan turned on him. “No, of course not. If I’d known about this, don’t you think I’d have told everyone? Give me some credit.”
“Okay, okay.” Ben raised his hands, his fingers spread wide. “I just wondered if you’d heard anything—maybe some clue that didn’t make much sense at the time, that’s all.”
“Well, I didn’t. This is just as much a surprise to me as it is to the rest of you.” Siobhan took a breath, her scowl fading. “The point is, what’re we going to do about it? Shall we turn around and head home?”
“You’re kidding, right?” Tessa blurted. “It’s obvious what we do. We go out and take a look—maybe take some samples to show the council.”
Cate unstrapped herself and stood tall. “That’s not your call, Tessa. I’m in charge here, and my priority is the safety of the crew. We have no idea what’s going on with this grunge, but God knows it isn’t going to be anything good. We can record as much data as you want from inside the rover, but that’s it.”
“What?” Tess rose to her feet, squaring up to Cate. “Listen, I don’t know what your problem is, but you’ve been giving me the side-eye ever since I set foot in here, and I’ve had enough. If you’ve got something to say to me, spit it out.”
“Only problem I can see is your attitude,” Cate said. “We have a thing called chain of command, and you’d do well to remember it.”
“We’re not on the ship now, Cate, but if you want a contest, how about this? We’re both patrol team leaders, so I answer to Connor, not to you.”
“Stop!” Siobhan commanded. “For God’s sake, what’s got into you two? We might have found something important, and you’re wasting time squabbling. It’s ridiculous, and quite honestly, I expected better from both of you.”
Tessa set her jaw as though spoiling for an argument, but when she caught Siobhan’s eye, something seemed to make her think twice.
“We need a rational discussion here,” Siobhan went on. “Let’s weigh everything up, and then we’ll decide, all right?”
“Definitely,” Ben said. “This could be vital to the whole settlement, so let’s keep our egos out of the way.”
Cate stared at Ben, her hands on her hips, but then her expression softened. “Seriously? A man is telling me to keep my ego under control?” She let out a dry laugh. “What do you think of that, Tessa?”
Tessa folded her arms and looked Ben up and down. “I don’t know, maybe he does have a point.” She turned to Cate. “Aw, what the hell. I guess I might’ve overreacted. First time outside the wall. Might’ve gone to my head a little.”
“Fair enough,” Cate replied. “It can take you that way, the first time. You get used to it.” She paused, but when she saw Siobhan glaring at her, she added, “And, for the record, I don’t have a problem with you, Tessa. But the rover’s my baby, you know? I’m responsible for it. But, I didn’t mean to be a jerk. Sorry about that.”
“Right,” Siobhan said. “So let’s talk. Ben, you’re the one with the scientific knowledge. What do you say?”
Ben looked from Tessa to Cate. “We won’t get much data from in here. If we turn around and head home, we’ll only have to come back another day for a closer look. And we’ve got suits and equipment on board, so I’m happy to volunteer. I’ll go out, take a sample and come back in. Ten minutes tops.”
“If everyone agrees, I could go outside with him,” Tessa put in. “It’s safer with two, and I’m used to the suits.”
“What about your knee?” Siobhan asked.
“Not a problem,” Tessa said. “I’m good to go. Just show me where the suits are, and I’ll get ready.” She hesitated. “But it depends on Cate. I’d like to hear what she has to say.”
Cate took a slow breath. “All right. I can see what Ben’s saying. If we turn up at home with nothing more than a few photos, I know exactly what the council and the patrol team will say. They’ll send us back out, but they’ll waste a day arguing over who should go on the mission. Half of them will want the glory, and the other half will be falling over themselves to stay out of it. Meanwhile, we’ve got two volunteers who can handle themselves. Seems to me like we’ve got this covered. So long as it’s a quick walk outside and everyone sticks to the usual routines, I’ll go along with it.”
“Good,” Siobhan said. “We need to find out more, and there’s only one way to do it. But listen, you two, you’d better be careful out there. Don’t touch it, not even with your gloves. Keep your suits well away from the symbiont.”
Ben nodded. “No problem. There are plenty of tools we can use. I’ll go and see what I can find.” He started back toward the rear of the cabin. “Come on, Tessa, I’ll show you where to find a suit.”
“Excellent.” Tessa rubbed her hands together and squeezed past Siobhan, hurrying to catch up with Ben.
Cate watched her in silence for a minute then said, “Shiv, I think you should have a word with Tessa. Make sure she doesn’t get carried away. Ben’s a nice guy and all, but Tessa could eat him for lunch.”
“Right.” Siobhan looked away, but she felt the color rising in her cheeks, and when she turned back, Cate was regarding her with narrowed eyes.
“None of my business,” Cate started, “but you and Ben—something going on there?”
“You’re damned right,” Siobhan said, “it’s none of your business.” She paused. “We’re just…you know. It’s nothing serious.”
Cate smiled. “Fine. I understand. You’ve kept it under wraps while you’ve been working together, so you’ll get no complaints from me. Just make sure it stays that way, or we’ll have to talk about reassigning one of you.”
“It won’t come to that,” Siobhan said quickly. “You can rely on me.”
“I know. Why don’t you take a seat up front? I’d better go back and make sure they’re suited up okay.” Cate didn’t wait for a reply but passed Siobhan and headed back to join Ben and Tessa. Siobhan saw that Ben was already stripping down to his T-shirt and boxers, but she realized Cate was watching her, a smirk on her lips, so she turned away, making her way forward and taking the front passenger seat.
Maybe I should get reassigned, Siobhan thought. Might make things easier if we’re not in each other’s pockets all day. She frowned. One day, she’d need to sit down with Ben and see where their relationship was going. But not for a little while. Just for once, she didn’t want to be the pushy one.
She sat in silence, her fingernails dragging at the textured nylon fabric on the seat’s padded armrest. She wasn’t sure how she felt about Ben going outside with Tessa, but he’d better damned well watch what he was doing. If anything happened to him, if he hurt himself, she’d…what? What would she do? After all, she had no claim on him. I’ll tear his head off, she told herself. And the mental picture made her feel a little better. She glanced over her shoulder to see how the others were getting on, but Ben and Tessa were still suiting up, so she ran her eyes over the rover’s control panel, checking the instruments and power levels. As far as she could tell, everything looked fine, but she was determined to be thorough, to keep herself occupied, and by the time she’d finished, Ben was already making his way into the decontamination cubicle at the back. Be careful out there, she thought, watching the door slam shut behind him, then she stared outside, a chill running across her skin. She didn’t like the look of the strange clumps of symbiont. She didn’t like them at all.
I hope you enjoyed that snippet.
At the time of writing, Rift is available on all Amazon Stores and on my own web store. It will be in Kindle Unlimted for 3 months from July – September 2018. After that, it will be appearing in all the main stores, e.g. Nook, iBooks, Kobo etc.Find Rift on Amazon Find Rift on My Store