Here we have chapter two of Mitch Benn’s debut sci-fi novel, Terra. If you missed chapter one, you can find it here, and you can also listen to audio clips of both chapters over on Soundcloud. You can also buy the whole book in shops or online now. Imagine that!
Someone else who didn’t have many friends was on the same road as the Bradburys that night. His name was Lbbp, and he was a long, long, long, LONG way from home.
Lbbp’s home was a small but comfortable apartment in a very tall cone-shaped building in a busy district of the great city of Hrrng, on the beautiful island of Mlml on the distant orange-green planet of Fnrr. If you have a very very very powerful telescope and you point it at the space between the second and third stars on Orion’s Belt on a very clear summer’s night, you still won’t be able to see the distant orange-green planet of Fnrr. It’s pretty distant.
Lbbp didn’t have many friends because he was very busy. He had little time to pay attention to the few friends he had and certainly no time to make new ones. The thing that kept Lbbp so busy was his work. Lbbp loved his work, and, though he was too modest to say so, he was very good at it.
Lbbp was a scientist. On our world he would have been called a biologist. Lbbp was fascinated by living things. All his life he had studied the plants and animals of his own world; going on surveys and expeditions, conducting experi ments, writing books and essays until at last he became one of the few scientists on Fnrr permitted to study the plants and animals of other worlds. And of all the worlds he had ever visited, by far his favourite was the one known in the clipped, clickety language of Fnrr as Rrth.
Lbbp loved Rrth. It had some of the most beautiful plants and fascinating animals of any of the hundreds of worlds Fnrr’s scientists had surveyed, but there were rules to be followed when visiting Rrth. In particular, it was strictly forbidden for a Fnrrn to have any contact with the dominant species of Rrth, the strange and noisy bipedal primates known as Ymns.
Ymns, it had been decided, were simply too stupid and primitive to be bothered with. Even when they weren’t fighting each other or making a disgusting mess all over the nicest bits of their own planet, they seemed to spend a lot of time smashing into each other in those funny little land vehicles they whizzed round in (but didn’t seem to be very good at controlling). Given the chaos that Ymns already caused with the simple, clumsy machines that they’d thus far managed to invent for themselves, the damage they could do to their planet – or, far worse, to other people’s planets – if they ever got hold of any proper technology did not bear contemplation. They were offlimits. To everyone.
Besides, as the Fnrrns knew from watching the episodes from Rrth history the Ymns told each other on their picture screens, any time someone from another planet did visit the Ymns it didn’t go very well. Either the visitors would start killing and enslaving the Ymns in their millions, or the Ymns would invent some new weapon and blow the visitors up with it. Usually both.
Lbbp had his own reasons for distrusting the Ymns. Over a number of visits to Rrth he had studied and cata logued many fascinating life forms; towering trees, dazzling blooms, magnificent beasts and beautiful delicate flying creatures. It saddened and angered him that every time he returned he would find another species gone, another vast area of natural beauty ripped up and destroyed to make way for the Ymns and their nasty square buildings and ridicu lous little vehicles, or just blasted bare and left barren for reasons Lbbp couldn’t begin to guess at.
Lbbp was careful never to express these feelings to his colleagues at the Hrrng Preceptorate, the vast teaching and learning establishment in his home city where he held the post of Postulator. As a scientist he was supposed to be cool and objective in his studies and writings. Still, Lbbp couldn’t help but feel that the Ymns didn’t deserve such a planet as Rrth. Or at least that Rrth deserved better in habitants than the Ymns.
In any event, the rule was that any Fnrrn spaceship entering Rrth’s atmosphere had to have its invisibility shield switched on at all times, to avoid attracting unwanted Ymn attention.
Most Fnrrn scientific expeditions to Rrth would consist of a group of five or six scientists, but Lbbp liked to go alone. He enjoyed his own company and there wasn’t much room for anyone else in his little lemonshaped spaceship. Lbbp was proud of his little lemonshaped spaceship, although, since they don’t have lemons on Fnrr, as far as he was concerned it was just spaceshipshaped. In fact, the first time he’d seen lemons, on an earlier visit to Rrth, he’d logged them in his field journal as ‘small yellow spaceship shaped fruits’.
On this evening, the evening of the Bradburys’ uncom fortable day at Mrs Bradbury’s mother’s house, Lbbp’s little spaceship was hovering invisibly over what, in the dark ness, looked to Lbbp like a driedout river bed. Since there aren’t many roads on Fnrr (not since they invented gravity bubbles) and since Lbbp tried not to pay much attention to the Ymns or their little land vehicles (it just got him tense and angry, and that didn’t help him work) he didn’t really know what roads were or how to recognise them. If he had, he might not have been content to let his little spaceship hover just a few metres above the surface of one.
Right now, Lbbp’s mind wasn’t on Ymns or their vehicles anyway. His attention was fixed upon the fascinating little Rrth animal his ship’s lifedetectors had picked up a few minutes earlier. It was about the size of a small ksks (a Fnrr fruit which tastes almost nothing whatsoever like a melon) with soft grey fur, a twitchy little nose and two long furry flaps sticking straight up from the top of its head. Lbbp was transfixed by these flaps. Were they ears? Lbbp found ears particularly interesting, not having any himself, and he’d never seen such amazing ears before. The animal must have incredible powers of hearing, he thought. Lbbp was just noting in his field journal that the animal’s superior hearing must help it to evade predators with ease, and that, as such, it probably had very few offspring to prevent overpopulation, when the little animal started suddenly, flattening its ears to its head. Had the animal sensed his presence? Nervously, Lbbp glanced at the switch control ling the ship’s invisibility shield. Relieved to see that it was still in the ‘on’ position he gave it a comforting pat with a long, grey fourfingered hand. A comforting, clumsy, ever so slightly just a bit too hard pat. Just hard enough to switch the invisibility shield off.
Had Lbbp’s attention not been so fixed on the kskssized bigeared animal, he might have noticed the Ymn land vehicle speeding towards his ship from the other direction. But as the ship’s instruments started making angry chirp ing noises at him, he definitely did notice it. Moreover, he realised with a sick feeling in his chest (where his stomach was), the vehicle’s Ymn occupants would notice him too.
Mrs Bradbury finished accusing her husband of mak ing the baby cry by driving too fast, and was just turning round in her seat to check on the baby, when she heard Mr Bradbury screaming. A highpitched scream of terror she’d never heard him make before. Turning back around, she saw what he was screaming at, and started screaming too.
Hovering impossibly a few metres above the road ahead was a huge lemonshaped object. It seemed to crackle with a mysterious energy and bright light glared out from the many little windows along its surface. One beam shone fiercely through the car’s windscreen, blinding the Bradburys. Mr Bradbury, still screaming, slammed his foot on the brake and wrenched the steering wheel to the right. Mrs Bradbury clutched at Mr Bradbury in panic, succeeding only in putting one hand over his eyes while grabbing the steering wheel with the other, pulling it to the left. The car, very confused now, went into a flat skid, turning through a complete rotation as it passed under the hovering lemon thing, with Mr and Mrs Bradbury in the front seats clawing at each other and screaming all the way.
In the back seat, their baby girl had now stopped crying, but it was impossible to tell.
The car continued to turn, passing through another half rotation before sliding sideways off the road and into a field, coming to a bumpy halt in the long grass. Immediately the front doors of the car flew open, and Mr and Mrs Bradbury leapt out and ran, ran away across the field as fast as they could, screaming, screaming and never casting a look be hind them.
Lbbp crawled out from beneath the control console and, rather pointlessly now, switched the invisibility shield back on.
He peered into the darkness, in the direction in which the two Ymns (Lbbp assumed they were Ymns) had disappeared. There was no sign of them; even his ship’s life detectors couldn’t pick them up. Lbbp wondered why Ymns needed those vehicles at all if they could move that fast on their own.
He refocused the life detectors back on the spot where the small furry animal had been. To his annoyance, but no great surprise, it had gone. Just as he was about to shut down the life detectors and set off back into space (it occurred to him that the two fast Ymns might have been running to alert the Ymn authorities, and this meant it was time to leave) the life detectors made a faint pippip sound.
What had they found? Pippip.
A small reading, no bigger than the furry little animal, but why such a faint trace?
Pip ppip pip.
The signal was muffled, as if the lifeform was being shielded by something, but there was nothing he could see that would—
Ppip pip pippip.
The vehicle. Something was still inside the vehicle. Lbbp’s mind whirred into action. On the one hand, that was a Ymn vehicle, contact with Ymns was prohibited . . . on the other hand, he hadn’t become one of Fnrr’s leading scientists by denying his curiosity, and those two fast Ymns didn’t look as if they were going to come back in the near future . . .
This is a really bad idea, thought Lbbp as he engaged the gravity beam. I shouldn’t be doing this, he thought as he stepped into the gravity beam. I could get into all sorts of trouble, he thought as he descended through the floor of the spaceship. Oh well, too late now, he concluded as his feet touched the ground.
If anyone had been around, they would have seen a shaft of bright light appear out of nowhere, and then a tall thin figure with a large bald grey head, large shiny black eyes and a lipless mouth, clad in a shimmering blue onepiece garment, sliding down this beam to the ground almost like a child on a playground slide. So it’s just as well that no one was around, as Lbbp confirmed with a quick sweep of his handheld fieldscanner. No one except whatever was inside the vehicle.
Lbbp had to bend low to peer through the vehicle’s win dows. He was marvelling at the huge, clumsylooking con trols when a tiny noise from the back of the vehicle caught his attention. Turning, he saw – what was it? A small, almost hairless creature staring back at him with large, blinking blue eyes. Lbbp experienced a moment’s anxiety as he noticed that the creature was bound securely in its seat by means of firmlooking restraints. Odd; it certainly didn’t look danger ous to him. Its tiny hands had only the merest suggestion of claws, far too small and blunt to do any damage, and, as it suddenly opened its mouth wide, he could see that it had no teeth at all. A wave of Lbbp’s fieldscanner confirmed that the creature’s limbs weren’t even strong enough for it to stand up unaided, never mind attack anything.
Lbbp realised what he was looking at. It was a Ymn in
fant, probably the offspring of the two Ymns who had fled. Lbbp felt a surge of concern and indignation at the tiny Ymn’s plight. It was just a newborn; their newborn, and not only had they lashed it in restraints like a dangerous animal, they’d abandoned it to its fate at the first hint of peril. Lbbp was angry; it was true what they said on Fnrr. Ymns were indeed foolish, brutal savages. They couldn’t care for their planet, they couldn’t care for each other and now it was clear they didn’t even care for their own children. They were disgusting.
And yet . . . this tiny Ymn didn’t seem capable of brutality or savagery as it sat in its little chair, peering at him. Seeing it now, in its newborn innocence . . . Was it really destined to grow up to be as stupid and unthinking as the rest of its species? Ymns had a basic intelligence, this was well understood. You needed at least a degree of intelligence to mess things up as completely as Ymns did.
It deserved better than this, Lbbp thought. It deserved to be raised by someone civilised, someone who would give it an understanding of the true value of things, someone who could show it the wonders of the universe and who would never EVER leave it to perish, helpless and alone, someone . . .
Lbbp suddenly saw where this train of thought was lead ing him. Don’t be ridiculous, he thought, it’d be dangerous, it’d be impractical, unethical, really REALLY illegal, it’d . . .
The little Ymn made a contented gurgling sound and reached out to Lbbp with a chubby pink hand. Without thinking about it, Lbbp reached out his own hand. The little Ymn grabbed his outstretched finger.
As the five tiny pink digits squeezed his long thin grey finger, Lbbp knew what he had to do.
* * *
Neither Mr nor Mrs Bradbury were especially fit, and running is hard work even when you’re not screaming at the top of your lungs. Nonetheless, they covered quite a considerable distance before they simply had to stop to get their breath back.
Once they had their breath back, naturally they started arguing with it. Strangely, given that this was the last argument Mr and Mrs Bradbury would ever have, it began much the same way as all their others: why did you grab the steering wheel; I had to, you had your eyes closed; I didn’t have my eyes closed, you had your hand over my face; I told you you should have let me drive, and anyway what have you done with the baby; what do you mean what have I done with the baby, you’ve got the baby, no you’ve got the baby, no you’ve got—
A moment’s silence.
A moment’s silence in which the sheer unimportance, the utter trivial pointlessness of this argument and every argument they’d ever had hit them like a dozen buckets of icy water, and all their anger disappeared, to be replaced by a dread that clutched at their insides like a cold hand.
Without another word to each other, the Bradburys ran. Back the way they’d come, back towards the danger they’d just fled, unaware now of tiredness or breathlessness, unaware of anything except the wet grass dragging against their legs and the freezing dread clenching ever tighter in their guts. They ran and ran, without a sound except a whispered please please please please as they went.
As they approached the road there was no sign of the floating lemon thing, nor was there any sound except their own footsteps and panting. No traffic noises. No animal sounds. No baby crying.
They saw the car. They saw that its lights were still on. They saw that its front doors were still open. Its back door was open too.
They looked into the car. They saw their bags. They saw their coats. They saw the highly expensive, and quite empty, baby seat.
For a second they stared at the baby seat, still and wordless. Then a sound came from inside Mrs Bradbury, a howl, a wail, a great animal bellow of horror and despair. Mr Bradbury stood motionless, his mouth moving silently, his eyes reddening. Then they fell like stringless puppets into each other’s arms and cried, and cried, and cried as if they would never stop. They cried for their own foolish ness and for the baby they’d been too busy to name, who was now gone, they knew with a terrible, terrible certainty, somewhere they would never ever find her.
Mr and Mrs Bradbury never argued about anything ever again.