On A Crooked Planet
by Dan Larnerd
Hanging in orbit was the UES Pierre Cruzatte; a long range survey ship that resembled a submarine more than the starships from twentieth century television. It had no windows and no graceful curves; just thick titanium bulkheads, blinking sensor arrays and a monstrous interstellar drive.
A small shuttle left the docking bay in the belly of the Cruzatte. It sliced through the thin atmosphere without strain to its heat shield and safely touched down on the surface of planet SC-28E.
At the rear of the shuttle, a pressurized door hissed open. A tall figure in a gunmetal-gray environmental suit stood at the shuttle’s exit surveying the area as hydraulic jacks lowered a ramp.
Heat simmered off the orange landscape in hypnotic waves. A gasping wind sent wisps of sand coiling along the rocky ground. In every direction, there was nothing but bald rolling hills.
The young man in the environmental suit clanged down the metal ramp and into the sand. As a cloud of dust rose up around his feet, he put his hands on his hips.
“What a butt ugly planet,” Tyler muttered.
Lieutenant Pilgrim ducked out of the shuttle door and into the light of the system’s red star. She wore a similar environmental suit that was snug in all the right places. As she made her way down the ramp, Pilgrim grinned at Tyler.
“Where’s your sense of wonder, Tyler?” she smirked. “You’re the first human to set foot on this planet.”
“Ehhh,” shrugged Tyler. “It’s not the first time.”
Captain Edison exited the shuttle and said, “I’m glad to see the thrill of interstellar exploration isn’t lost on the new generation.”
He made his way down the ramp past Tyler and added, “One day, Mister Tyler. . . This planet could be terraformed. With such rich soil, it could easily be another New Topeka or Breadbasket. The colonists that settle here could name their capital city after you.”
“Right now, I’m more interested in the present,” Tyler answered. “Tonight, I got my first date with Natasha.”
“Natasha Babcock?” Pilgrim said as she began to trail along after them. “Natasha Babcock from Medical?”
Tyler stopped and asked, “Yeah. . . Why?”
“She seems like, I don’t know, a little out of your league.” blushed Lieutenant Pilgrim.
“Well, maybe she heard I was going to have a capital city named after me on this and the other dozen rocks—”
He suddenly cringed and gritted his teeth, cutting his sentence short. Tyler grunted and smacked the side of his helmet.
“What’s wrong.” Pilgrim asked.
Tyler spat, “Got a headache. I’ve had it ever since I’ve left the shuttle.”
“It’s probably your body adjusting to natural gravity. As well as magnetic poles.” Captain Edison offered. “My head’s buzzing a little as well.”
“The joys of being planetside.” Pilgrim sighed.
Tyler mustered. “I’m good, Captain. Really. Let’s just find the anomaly and get back to the Cruzatte.”
Kicking up rock and orange sand, the three explorers began to climb the nearby hill. As they made their way to the top, a small wind kicked up out of nowhere.
A headache begin to creep into Pilgrim’s skull. She took a deep breath and tried to focus on the mission.
She muttered, “All this fuss, probably for just another reactor core dumped by pirates.”
“Maybe, Lieutenant,” Edison responded. “Or maybe—”
The three stopped dead in their tracks and stared in disbelief. Sitting on a neighboring hill, was a two-story house complete with pitched roof, vinyl siding and shuttered windows. A porch swing swayed softly from two chains. It sat with an air of tranquility in the center of a harsh alien world.
Edison said, “I believe we found our anomaly.”
“A house!” Pilgrim announced breathlessly.
Tyler remarked, “The way it just stands there in the middle of this wasteland. It looks an album cover from. . . uhh. . . that band. I can’t remember their name.”
Folding his arms, Edison mused, “Maybe it was placed here by a star cult.”
They were all quiet for a moment staring at the house in the distance.
Pilgrim gave a lighthearted laugh and offered, “We’re not going to get any answers standing around up here.”
“Agreed.” Edison nodded.
The three made their way across the dunes toward the house. Pilgrim beamed with the excitement of such an odd discovery. Soon they were standing in its long shadow. Edison studied a holographic display of the orbital scans of the area as Pilgrim and Tyler stared up in wonder.
“Curious. There are massive amounts of selenium here,” Edison reported.
“Selenium? Like in our comm arrays?” asked Tyler.
Edison gave him a rare smile and said, “Very good, Mister Tyler.”
That’s when Pilgrim noticed something strange.
“The house looks like its listing a bit to the right,” she began. “There doesn’t seem to be any right angles at all. Like a house drawn from a dream.”
Looking up from the hologram, Edison studied the building for a moment and then gave Pilgrim an approving nod.
Lieutenant Pilgrim smiled, “No sign of a crooked cat or a crooked mouse.”
“How’s that?” Edison asked.
“Oh,” she explained. “I was just thinking back to a nursery rhyme my mother used to read to me and my sisters. . .”
Then Pilgrim recited:
“There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile. He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile. He bought a crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse. And they all lived together in a crooked house.”
Then Edison pressed a button on his wrist comm, took another glance at the house, and said, “Control. This is Captain Edison.”
A voice crackled in all three explorers’ helmets, “This is Control. Go ahead.”
“We’ve found a structure. It looks like it’s the anomaly the planet scans detected.” Edison began. “We’re going to enter.”
There was a heavy pause. The static filling Pilgrim’s helmet seemed to cause the pain in her head to erupt. She bit her bottom lip and looked at the house. Its front door seemed to beckon her in.
“Acknowledged,” Control answered. “Check back in five.”
Pilgrim smiled, “Should I ring the doorbell?”
With Edison in the lead, the three explorers made their way up to the front porch. Their heavy boots clopped against its wooden planks. Edison examined the door as Pilgrim peeked into one of the front windows of the house.
“Everybody step back,” Edison commanded.
Holding her breath, Lieutenant Pilgrim watched him swing the front door open. Cautiously, Edison stuck his head into the doorway. Behind him, Pilgrim and Tyler peeked over his shoulders.
She watched as Edison slowly entered into a parlor at the front of the house. The walls were covered in baby blue wallpaper bordered with a wooden frame. A decorative light fixture hung over head. A pair of overstuffed chairs sat in one corner. An archway on the far side lead to the living room.
“Slanted or not, it seems structural sound.” Edison reported then motioned for Pilgrim and Tyler to follow.
“Curious,” Edison mused. “On Earth, you have to go into the old parts of cities to find this style house. As a younger man, I used to study them. I fancied myself a student of twentieth century architecture. Buildings had soul back then. Not like the prefabricated polyurethane modules made for colonies.”
“I always wanted a house like this,” Pilgrim replied. “Every kid who grew up on starships wanted one. To have a place with real windows, a yard with grass.”
“I was thinking earlier about starting a new life with someone in a house back on Earth,” nodded Tyler.
Raising an eyebrow, Pilgrim smirked, “Someone like Natasha Babcock?”
Tyler huffed, “Give it a rest, Pilgrim. My head is absolutely throbbing.”
Shaking his head, Edison activated his holographic display. It cast a pale, blue light over the walls and furniture. As he studied the readouts, he walked into the living room. Pilgrim followed, leaving Tyler fuming behind her.
“There is a major source of selenium right below this house,” Edison reported.
Pilgrim looked around the living room. A boxy television sat in an entertainment center against the wall. A glass coffee table separated the TV from a plaid couch on the other side of the room.
Tyler came stomping into the room. Pilgrim watched as he tried flipping a light switch on the wall.
“Wishful thinking,” he muttered.
She walked over to the entertainment center and opened one of the cabinet doors. It was empty inside but as the door creaked open Pilgrim heard a voice. She paused and looked back at Edison who was still studying his scanner.
Then she heard the voice again. It was like a distant whisper.
“Did you hear that?” she asked Edison.
Edison looked up and said, “Hear what?’
Frowning, Pilgrim explained, “I’m not sure. I thought I heard a voice saying your name.”
“My name?” Captain Edison replied with an amused look.
There was another faint voice calling out the name, “Edison.”
“I heard it that time!” Tyler blurted out.
Pilgrim said, “Me too.”
“I think it came from the kitchen. I’ll check it out.” Tyler volunteered.
He opened up the kitchen door to reveal a black and white tile floor and twentieth century appliances. Peeking in the fridge, he was disappointed that it was empty. Then, as he ran a finger along the countertop, Tyler made his way over to the oven.
“Hey, guys!” Tyler laughed. “The kitchen smells like chocolate chip cookies.”
Pilgrim and Edison turned toward the kitchen. The voice again called out for Captain Edison.
“You smell chocolate chip cookies?” Edison asked.
“Yeah, like my grandma used to bake in her oven.” nodded Tyler as beads of sweat began to form on his face.
“Tyler, I think you should get out of there. Now.” Edison said with a tinge of urgency.
He gave Edison a perplexed look and asked, “Why?”
“You’re sealed in an environmental suit,” Edison explained. “There’s no way you should be able to smell anything.”
Terror spread across his face and Tyler bolted out of the kitchen. He glanced over his shoulder as if he was being chased by a monster. Edison’s name was whispered again.
“I think it’s time we go.” Pilgrim said.
“Yeah,” Tyler shouted. “My head really hurts and I am getting freaked out. This house—”
He stopped mid-sentence as his whole body went rigid. Pilgrim gasped as Tyler’s eyes rolled back white in his head. An agonizing scream gurgled out of him and he went thrashing to the floor.
“Tyler!” Pilgrim screamed.
Both Pilgrim and Edison went straight to his side. His face was covered with sweat and contorted in pain.
Lieutenant Pilgrim shook him, “Tyler? Can you hear me? Tyler?”
His eyes shot open and he whimpered with a pleading look, “I feel like I have fingers in my brain. Pulling at things. It hurts.”
Edison pressed a few buttons on the collar of Tyler’s environmental suit. A display of his vital signs were projected into his helmet. The lines showing his heart rate and breathing were spiked mountains and deep valleys. However, the line showing his neural activity was quickly flat lining.
Tyler cried, “I don’t want to be down here anymore.”
“You’re going to be alright, Tyler,” Pilgrim said with a fake smile.
“I want to go. I have a date with. . . date with. . .” Tyler sobbed and then shouted, “I can’t remember! It took her name! It took her name!”
She opened up her mouth to give him the name of the girl. Her own head was beating like a drum. Panic set in as she realized she couldn’t remember the name of Tyler’s date either.
“His brain functions are dropping fast,” Edison said. “It’s like something is draining his mind.”
Then he took a hard swallow and added, “Our minds.”
“Tyler,” Edison said firmly. “I want you to focus on something. Keep something in your head. Maybe you can build a type of firewall against whatever is in your mind.”
“I don’t. . .” Tyler gasped.
“Tell me the ships you served on.” Lieutenant Pilgrim urged Tyler. “What are their names?”
His face twisted as he struggled to remember and Tyler began repeating, “SP-108. Pat Garrett. Amenity. Pierre Cruzatte.”
Tyler repeated the names again, “SP-108. Pat Garrett. Amenity. Pierre Cruzatte.”
“Good.” smiled Pilgrim. “Keep it up, Tyler.”
Edison pressed his comm button and said, “Control. This is Captain Edison. We’re in trouble.”
As Tyler continued to repeat the ship names, Pilgrim waited for Control to respond. She could feel an intruder in her mind and immediately started to think of the names and faces of her four sisters. She tried to focus on them as she felt her memories being peeled away.
“Control!” Edison snapped. “We have an emergency! Respond.”
Pilgrim pressed her own comm button and yelled, “Control. This is Lieutenant Pilgrim! Tyler is in trouble! Respond!”
There was no answer.
“What could be doing this?” asked Pilgrim.
Shaking his head, Edison said, “Not sure. Definitely lured us here. I think this house doesn’t really exist.”
“I don’t believe so. I believe it’s a mental projection designed from our own thoughts.”
Edison continued, “My readings followed the selenium down toward the planet’s core. As if this whole planet is some sort of antennae. Taking in everything. . .”
“Including our memories.” finished Pilgrim.
Tyler stuttered, “SP-108. Pat Garrett. . . Pat Garrett. . .”
Captain Edison nodded, “It could be some sort of weapon. We need to get out of here now.”
Pilgrim stood up and said, “Help me carry Tyler.”
She grabbed his arms as Edison took hold of his ankles. With a grunt, she helped lift Tyler off the shag carpet of the living room.
“I can hear them talking.” Tyler murmured. “Talking from above.”
Carrying Tyler between them, Pilgrim and Edison moved away from the kitchen. In her mind, Pilgrim pictured her sisters and thought their names over and over again. They were feet from the parlor when Captain Edison collapsed. He landed with a thud on his side.
“Cutting and pasting.. . .” Edison tried to explain. ‘Like a word processor.”
Pilgrim felt something wash over her. It was a stinging pain that shot through her body from the back of her skull. Every neuron seemed to fire at once. The pain brought her down to her knees.
She shook her head around in her helmet and tried to focus again on her sisters. Reaching down with both hands, she yanked Edison upright.
Behind her, Tyler let out a deep sigh. His body forgot how to breath. After a small tremble, he slipped away. An alarm began to blare on his suit.
Pilgrim turned to the sound of the alarm. Although she looked down at the body of her crewmate with pity, she couldn’t remember his name.
“My words. Getting. . . small.” gasped Edison.
The life signs alarm began to blare on Edison’s suit. His lips quivered as his heart couldn’t remember how to beat.
Covering her face shield with her hands, Pilgrim squeezed her eyes tight. She thought about building a firewall in her mind like Edison said. She tried to picture her sisters, but their names and faces were gone. Tears streaked down her cheeks as the animalistic part of her brain burned with rage.
Pilgrim began to scream, “It’s not real! It’s not here!”
When she opened her eyes, the house was gone. Her two fellow crewmembers were laying in the orange sand. Towering over them was a shimmering metal column; an alien pillar that pulled in every color around it. The strange symbols on its three sides burned her eyes when she looked at it.
Something told her that the host was not happy to be discovered. It sent a lash through her brain. Blood dribbled out of her nose as years of her life were burned away.
“Edison! Pilgrim!” Control barked over her comm. “Can you read me?”
As Control’s voice cut through the blistered parts of her mind, Pilgrim grimaced. She realized the planet had gotten into their minds and had prevented them from hearing their own ship’s calls. The spectral voice they had been hearing had been Control the entire time.
Control radioed, “If you can hear me, hold tight! There’s a rescue shuttle on the way.”
She shook her head. Fighting through the whirlwind that was stripping her mind bare, Pilgrim knew she had to warn them. They shouldn’t get anywhere near the house.
Activating her comm, she fumbled for the words. As soon as the right words of warning came to mind, they were taken. Most of her vocabulary had been stolen. All the memories she had left were the nursery rhymes her mother would read.
“Crooked.” she managed and then dropped dead to the ground.
All around her body, the house was being reformed. All its angles stood perfectly at ninety degrees. At the base of the alien column, Pilgrim, Edison, and Tyler were completely swallowed up inside its mirage. They were all silent now. Their knowledge had made this place more authentic and deadly.
The house was whole again. It looked out over the rolling dunes of the planet and prepared itself for the approaching rescue shuttle. With a soft creak, its front door opened.
Dan Larnerd is a graduate of Marshall University and has worked in radio and for a few newspapers. He lives in the Portland, Oregon area.