By R.T. Moody
artwork by EDWARD
For a time after he had awakened, Daniel Corbin, gazed up at the star-studded, moon lit sky… He had spent his whole life examining the heavens, and it still filled him with as much awe now as it did when he was just a boy.
He yawned deep and long, and stretched. Before the launch, it had been days since he had had a full night’s sleep. The anticipation of the mission to the Moon consumed all his time and energy. It was his life’s dream and work. Daniel, along with his two colleagues and crew members, Karen Smart and Cory Frost, were to begin the initial steps of what would be, in time, the first off world colony civilization: The Sky Garden. If this mission proved successful, if they alone could bring to fruition the kind of habitat which was the true driving force of the project, the dream, potentially, the next step was Mars, with him and his team leading the way. Long from now, people on other worlds scattered across the galaxy would remember them in the same way as explorers of old; journeyers; frontiersman of the cosmos; heroes….
Wondering the time, Daniel raised his arm to look at his watch. He was surprised to find he was not wearing it… He sat up, feeling around him for the watch. “What the hell!” He had expected to be aboard his ship, but now he found himself sitting in the middle of a field on the cold ground, under a large tree. And as if that was not strange enough, he was also naked!
Panic swept over him as he scrambled and crept about on all fours, looking in all directions like a dog chasing a fly. “What!… Where am I?… How?…” Memories of being on board the ship were slowly returning. Horrifying flashes of fire and ear piercing chaos filled his head- the three crew members scrambling in futile effort to regain control. But then what? Daniel asked himself. Nothing! He couldn’t pull it together… What happened?
Stiffly, he stood. As he looked around Daniel called out to his missing companions. “Karen!… Cory!…” He felt relieved to see Karen lying not far away. He only hoped she was not hurt, or worse… Cupping his genitals, he ran to her. She also wore no clothes! He crouched to shake her… “Wake up Karen!” She stirred and slowly opened her eyes…
They all met during the colonization project and both Daniel and Cory found Karen extremely attractive, but, being professionals, and all of them figures of great callings, none of the crew could ever find it in them to jeopardize the project’s success with personal interests. But Daniel did have feelings for Karen, and he often entertained thoughts of acting on them. He just had not.
As Karen rose sleepily, coming to a rest on both elbows, Daniel said, “Thank God you’re ok!” Karen blinked repeatedly, waiting for her eyes to adjust, and after a moment Daniel came into focus; drowsiness soon was replaced with surprise. A slow smirk crept across her face as she asked Daniel, “Daniel, what are you doing?” He couldn’t help but laugh. “It’s not just me…” he said. Karen looked down and jumped with shock at the site of her own naked body, and tried to cover herself with her hands. Daniel fell back laughing as Karen, in her bewilderment, watched him have his fun. “Hey,” Karen said at last, “Jerk, when you’re done goofing around, think you could make yourself useful and find me something to cover myself with?” Daniel, coming out of his laughing fit, sighed and wiped his eyes as if it had moved him to tears. “Like what sweetheart?” He said then, “If you haven’t noticed, we are in the middle of nowhere…”
Looking around her, Karen said, “Good God Daniel, what happened?” Casually taking in her slim dark figure as he spoke, Daniel said, “I don’t know… What’s the last thing you remember?…” After taking a moment to reflect, Karen said, “I remember the count down, lift off, all systems were in order, and then… something went wrong…” Daniel asked, “Do you remember what?” She shook her head. “No…” she said vacantly, “Just turbulence… and… fire!”
Daniel’s head dropped in disappointment. “Yeah… That’s all I remember too…” As they sat in silence, meditating over the endless possibilities of their current situation, a voice in the night called out to them, “Hey! You two naked people! Is there any chance you would have some clothes I could borrow?” In the direction of the voice they saw a head poking out around the large drooping tree. “It’s Cory!” Karen yelped with excitement. Awkwardly, they tried to cover themselves as they shuffled toward their friend.
Cory was grinning cleverly as they approached. He remarked, “You know, I was hoping to do something like this in zero gravity… Make a party of the trip!” Daniel and Karen laughed without conviction. “So…” Cory said after an awkward moment in which they all realized they now stood more or less completely exposed to one another for the first time. “Can you two tell me why we are not on our way to the Moon right now?” Daniel and Karen both shook their heads no, and Daniel said, “All we remember is the launch and then something going wrong… But we don’t know what…” Frowning as he thought, Cory said at last, “That’s about all I got too…”
“Well,” Cory said, “There are a few things for sure: We all seem to be in perfect health; which is good. Also, it seems we are not far from home… Yup, we are just outside of Day Owl.” Confused, Daniel said, “How could you possibly know that?” Obligingly, Cory turned and pointed at a red blinking light looming far above the city in the distance. “Oh…” Daniel said, “The launch tower…” Cory replied, “Yeah, that’s right. Not only that, but if you would direct your attention to the interstate, over there… He pointed again. Both Daniel and Karen turned to see a large sign which read: Welcome to the city of Day Owl.
“Cute…” Daniel said sarcastically. Karen just shook her head in disbelief. “Well,” she said, “Your lame sense of humor appears to be intact…”
Karen winced, and a loud groan came from her stomach. “Are you guys as hungry as I am?” Both men nodded in agreement. Daniel noticed some fruit growing on the tree. He reached up, took three from a branch and handed two to his companions. Cory eyed his with unappetizing suspicion. “I don’t know…” he said, “I think I’m all set…” Daniel seemed to agree. But Karen said, “Screw it…” and took a bite of hers, chewed, and spat it out, gagging and heaving. Watching Karen, Cory and Daniel discarded theirs. Karen wiped the spit from her face and held the half eaten fruit to the Moon light. “Gross… that one’s rotten!” Cory said. “No kidding!” Karen snapped back. Daniel took the fruit and examined it. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fruit like this before… It looks like a glob of organic waste in the middle.” Karen shook her fist and stomped her feet in anger. “Goddammit!” she yelled, “I’m sooo hungry!” She caught Cory with a sleazy expression on his face. “What?” she demanded. He looked her up and down, and said, “Looking good.” She realized then that she had stopped covering herself… She unleashed a fury of blows on Cory, punching him in the arm and cursing him out. “I’m sorry!” he pleaded laughingly, “Okay! I’m sorry! I mean it!”
Shortly after Karen had finished pummeling Cory, they gathered again to decide collectively what they should do next. “As I see it,” Daniel was saying, “We have two options: We can try walking through the city to the compound, like this…” he indicated their nudity, “or, we walk to that house in the distance and see if they will help us…” “I think the second option makes far more sense.” Karen chimed in, “Clothes! Food! A phone! Yes! Let’s do that!” Cory, like always, had to add in, “I don’t know you guys… streaking through the city could be fun!” In a stern, impatient voice, overriding his comment completely, Karen said, “We are going to the house!” They started walking.
Old Mrs. Byers was heavily engrossed in her knitting when a knock came at the door. Hard of hearing, she looked up, wondering if she had heard anything at all, and then went back to her knitting. Tap-tap-tap, the sound came again… “Philip!” She called to her husband, “Someone is at the door!” Her husband, Mr. Byers, also hard of hearing, was watching old black and white footage of men walking on the Moon with the volume almost all the way up, and did not hear her. “Philip!” she yelled again, drowned out by the commentary. “Eh?” He turned and yelled back, jarred from his senility by the calls of his wife. “Someone’s at the door!” His face scrunched in disgust as he looked up at the clock on the wall and realized it was near midnight. “Who in the world would be at the door this time of night?” he grumbled. He lay back in his chair and said, “They can knock till morning for all I care! It’s probably just another sales creep anyway…” Mrs. Byers rolled her eyes and mumbled, “Never mind…” as she set aside her crochet and stood. “What?” Her husband yelled absently again. “I said, I’ll get it!”
The old woman leaned with her back against the door, eyes blazing, mouth wide open and her hands on her breast, trying to still her breathing. She could not believe what she had just seen… I must be loony! She thought to herself. She looked through the peephole in the door again… She gasped and then called to Philip. “Philip! Oh Philip! Come here! Come now!” What’s ailing that woman now? Phillip thought to himself as he stood to walk to the front door. Why can’t she just send them away?
When he joined his wife at the front door, he said, “Now what is it?” Flustered, the old woman explained, “There are people out there! And they don’t have any clothes on!” The old man smiled unbelievingly, “What are you talking about, woman?” Indicating the peephole, she said, “Take a look for yourself!” The old man looked. “Well! Would you look at that?” Just as his wife had said, there before his own eye’s stood three naked strangers; a woman… an exceptionally attractive women… and two men, standing foolishly, covering their shame with nothing but their hands. He turned to his wife, “Probably some dam hooligans playing a prank…” But the old woman wasn’t convinced. “I’m not so sure Phillip! They don’t look very young!”
As he turned back to the door, Phillip said, “Okay, okay, just be quiet. I’ll take care of this.” Phillip opened the door as far as the little chain would allow. He faced the three strangers and said, “Beat it you pervert’s! Or I am calling the boys in blue!” The old man began to close the door, but Karen began desperately pleading for help. He slowly opened the door again, and said, “What is this? Some kind of joke? What happened to your clothes?” Stepping forward, Cory said, “Well, you see sir…” The old man shrewdly cut him off, saying, “I wasn’t asking you! I was talking to the girl!” Karen continued, “If we could just use your phone sir, we would greatly appreciate it…”
Suddenly, the old man realized that he recognized these three nude wanderers. His face drained of color. “I know you!” He said in amazement, “You’re that astronaut girl! Karen Smart! But it can’t be you!” Daniel, Karen and Cory all looked at each other, puzzled. “Why can’t it be us?” Karen asked finally. “Because…” said the old man, “You’re supposed to be dead…”
When the old man unlocked the door the three friends stood staring listlessly for a moment, in shock. Holding the door wide open, Mr. Byers boomed invitingly, “Please! Come in! Come in! Make yourselves at home!” He closed the door behind them.
Once inside, the old man introduced himself and his wife. “It sure is a pleasure to meet you folks! I am Philip Byers, and this is my wife, Silvia.” The three visitors smiled politely, and Karen, speaking for them, began to introduce them, “This is Daniel Corbin and Cory Frost, and I am Karen…” But Silvia interrupted, explaining, “We know who you are; we know all of you…” The old woman smiled, her kind eyes sparkled. “Why don’t you find our guests some clothes, Silvia…” Philip said. “Oh!” she said, stirred from a moment most mesmerized. “How rude of me!” she said, blushing, “I’ll be right back!”
Finally clothed and fed the three friends sat around the kitchen table with the elderly couple. Mr. Byers had phoned the police, and now they were simply waiting for them to arrive.
Breaking the ice, Philip said, “So, what happened to you kids? Where have you been?” Daniel answered the question. “We don’t know… All any of us remember is… Yesterday, in the middle of the launch…” Philip interjected suddenly, “Yesterday! I hate to burst your bubble, but you kids have been missing for close to a year!” There was silence. It seemed like hours. Finally Daniel asked, “Are you positive?” Completely reassured, the old man said, “Oh yeah, as sure as I am sitting here now.” Philip jumped to his feet in excitement and said, “I have something you kids might want to see.” He ran into the next room and returned carrying a cylinder of newspaper. He unrolled it and tossed it on the table. Together, Daniel, Corey and Karen read the headline: Tragedy…. State of the art Space shuttle crashes during takeoff… All three crew members parish…. The article went on to explain the finer points of the mission and its direction, as well as describe its courageous crew. The photo showed all three crew members standing on a platform before takeoff, smiling and waving confidently.
“What is the first thing you remember after the explosion?” Philip asked. Daniel glanced from side to side, to one then the other of his companions, and said, “Well, not much… We all woke up a little while ago in your field by the big tree… We had been sleeping on the ground and our clothes were gone…” Daniel laughed nervously and withdrew. The elderly couple exchanged a curious glance, and finally Silvia said, “Your ship crashed in our field… The accident destroyed our house! Fortunately, we were not home at the time… This house was paid for in full by the government as a replacement. Also, we were paid a large sum not to…” she stopped and looked both ways, as if someone might be listening; she whispered, “talk to the media…” Cory, his wit lost to shock, said, “Now I see why you kept the paper…”
Daniel noticed Karen was looking pale. He asked if she was going to be sick. She said, “I don’t think so… I’m just worked up and now I’m feeling nauseous… It’s all … this… I don’t understand it, and it’s got my head all messed up…”
“You can lie down in our room, sweet heart.” Silvia offered. “I’d like that…” Karen said, and weakly stood to walk with the old woman to the back of the house. Shaking his head, Philip said, “Poor thing… She will feel like a new woman after she rests a bit…” Daniel thanked Mr. Byers for his hospitality. “It’s no problem at all!” he said, “It’s not every day a few naked, missing astronauts stop by…” Daniel and Cory blushed. “Especially,” Philip added, “One’s that are thought to be dead!” They all laughed. Philip stood and exclaimed, “What do you all say we have ourselves a good time!” Daniel and Cory looked at one another wonderingly. Philip continued, “We should be celebrating!” Cory said, “Celebrate?” Philip chuckled, “You bet! Don’t you see? National heroes return! This is a great day!” Mister Byer’s delightful enthusiasm was refreshing. “What do you suggest?” Daniel asked. Mister Byers reached atop the fridge and brought down a box of cigars. He had a big grin on his face.
Karen tossed and turned in the warm bed trying to put many questions to rest. Her thoughts were so overwhelming she found herself feeling nauseous again… Her skin was starting to itch and tingle. She scratched an itch on her cheek, took a deep breath and pulled the soft blankets even closer and closed her eyes. But there was no reprieve from the irritation of her skin. The strange sensation was starting to spread.
Mrs. Byers hummed happily as she cleared the kitchen table. She watched Philip and their guests standing and smoking cigars on the patio. Soon, the cast of bright head lights poured into the house from the driveway and slowly drifted from one end of the house to the other.
“Now, I got a question for you boys…” Philip stated quizzically, “Is it true that you invented a super -flora chemical that makes it possible to grow any kind of plant in even the most desolate of environments?” Daniel laughed and said, “Yes, we call it Compound E. – The E is for Eden, a reference to the Garden of Eden in Genesis.” He took a puff of his cigar and continued, “We named it as such because that’s how we wanted people to envision the plantation, as a paradise! And the beginnings of something grate! A new start for mankind! We wanted to show everyone that life on other planets was not only possible, but it could be heavenly as well. It would be the greatest accomplishment since the first moon landing. ” The old man seemed infatuated. He said, “Would it be possible to use Compound E. to transform planets in our own solar system into environments similar to Earth, instead of just limiting it to a certain hermetically contained locality? Say, for instance, turn the Moon into a small version of Earth?” Daniel was impressed, very impressed… “Theoretically,” he said, “given the power of Chemical E., yes, it is possible; and we have considered this, to transmute entire planets into earthlike atmospheres. In fact, that very well could be the step after the Sky Garden plantation on the Moon: Total Planetary Transmutation of Mars… A second Earth within our own solar system… The red planet at one time use to be similar to earth before comets destroyed its atmosphere. We would simply be rekindling the flame… Why travel thousands of light years to the nearest inhabitable planet, when you can make the nearest one habitable? But even so, we could never do the entire Moon…” Puffing his cigar, Philip asked why. “Because,” Daniel said, “As I’m sure you know, our own planet uses the Moon’s pale surface to refract Sun light to keep it warm where the Sun can not directly. If its reflective surface were to be compromised, Earth would freeze over…” Philip laughed and said, “Ah…” As if he would have thought of it himself if only he had time to think of it a little more in depth, and, Daniel thought, perhaps he would have. “I’d guess” Mr. Byers said, “It’s safe to assume that this Eden concoction has no side effects since you were going to use it on your mission?” Daniel nodded. “Correct. The vegetation grows faster, bigger and is as safe and delicious as anything grown naturally here on Earth.” Philip looked amazed. “Wow!” he said in wonder. “I don’t suppose that you could get me some of you miracle juice for my garden, could you?” Both Daniel and Cory laughed. “No… Unfortunately not! But if it ever is marketed to the public, I promise that you will be the first to know!”
When the three men entered the house they found Silvia sitting in the living room having coffee and chatting with a Sheriff. Philip walked over and shook his hand and said, “Thank you for coming all the way out here on such a bizarre call… We sure do appreciate it!” The Sheriff smiled. “It’s no problem… We get some crazy calls some times, but this one I just had to look into for myself… I mean no offense, but I’m surprised to find that it’s true…” Indicating the two men at his side, Philip laughed and said, “I don’t think I would have believed it myself… Talk about some unexpected guests…” The officer introduced himself as Sheriff Savoy, shaking hands with Daniel and Cory. “It’s a pleasure to meet you gentleman. There are a lot of folks that will be very happy to see you alive, and in good health.”
“Well,” The Sheriff said after taking some statements from Daniel and Cory about what they could remember, “I can give your guests a ride to wherever they need to go…” Daniel and Cory were pleased to hear this and took him up on the offer. “I’ll wake Karen, “Cory said, “So we can get going.” But before he could leave, the Sheriff said, spying something under the neckline of his loaned, loose fitting shirt, “That’s some nasty bruise you have on your shoulder there, Cory…” Cory tried to look, but he could just barely see it. He did recall though that Karen had slugged him a few good times outside when they were all standing by the big tree. “Oh that!” he said explaining, “Yeah, Karen punched me a couple of time earlier… I like to give her a hard time; no big deal…” He felt around for it and asked, “Is it really that bad?” Daniel couldn’t believe what he saw! There were some large bruises of an unnatural coloring that seemed to be swelling with fluid. They were covered by frail skin that looked like it was going to let go any minute. “Damn boy!” Sheriff Savoy said, “I think we better get you to the hospital to get that looked at pronto!” Cory laughed nervously. “Really?” he said, “For bruises? Are you sure?” He was folding his arms and trying to feel the spot on his back. “Is this it?” Cory pulled the frail layer of skin… breaking it open… A putrid smelling brown-green fluid poured from a hole it made in his back. Daniel gagged and backed away. None of the people in the room could tolerate the sight or smell. “He’s got some kind of infection!” Daniel exclaimed.
From Karen’s room came a horrifying scream that easily filled the house. “Karen!” Daniel called after her. They all ran to her aid. When they entered the room they found Karen sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall and covering half of her face with her hands. Brown-green fluid identical to Cory’s recently discovered wounds was dripping through her fingers on a white night gown Mrs. Byers had given her. “Shit!” the Sheriff shouted, “This one’s got it too!” Daniel turned to the Sheriff and yelled, “Her name is Karen!” Along with the Sheriff, everyone else jumped back in surprise.
Karen was silently sobbing as Daniel crouched down and asked her what happened. She glanced at him out of one eye but said nothing. “Come on Karen! Talk to me!” Daniel said, “What happened?” Whimpering, Karen replied, “Oh, Daniel! Something is terribly wrong…” Frightened, Daniel said, “I know… I think you and Cory have some kind of infection…” She shook her head slightly, saying, “No, it’s not an infection…” At a loss, Daniel said, “What do you mean?” Karen growled with a temper he had never seen in her before. “I don’t know how it happened!” she yelled, “But we are not who we think we are!” Daniel was confused, and frightened. “What?” he said, “I don’t understand… Karen…”
Karen began to laugh madly as she sank her fingernails just under her left eye… and then, she pulled the flesh from her entire cheek in a big strip… In the wound there were small flies squirming around…. and even a worm… Some of the flies, freeing themselves, took flight… Everyone in the room gasped and cried out in terror! Daniel, tearing up, ran his fingers through Karen’s hair. “Oh no Karen…” he said, “What have you done…” Karen grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and fiercely pulled him nose to nose with her. “I’m not Karen!” she yelled in his face. She picked one of the insects from the juicy awful wound and crushed it between her fingers. “They’re fruit flies!” she grated, “We are not the people who went up in that ship! We just think we are!” She then grabbed Daniel’s pointer, middle and ring fingers on his right hand and broke them off effortlessly… Daniel stumbled back and fell in shock. Daniel looked down at his hand and to the three foul smelling stubs oozing the same brown-green slime onto the floor. He looked back up at Karen just as she pulled a large revolver from behind her back… “She has a gun!” shouted Sheriff Savoy as he reached for his own weapon at his side. Cory stopped him pleading, “No! Don’t shoot her!”
Daniel was sitting on the floor in front of Karen, squeezing his wrist, trying to stop the flow of the awful slime. “Karen…” he said, “Where did you get that gun?” Philip spoke up from the doorway and said, “It’s mine… She must have found it…” Karen smiled at Daniel, tears streaming her face, her teeth visible through the gash in her cheek, “It’s too late, Daniel…” she said, “We are already spoiling… There will be no life for us like this…” She raised the gun and put the barrel in her mouth… “Karen! Don’t!” Daniel cried, “We can figure this out!”
There was a loud bang, and when Daniel opened his eyes he saw Karen doubled over, headless before him. The wall was stained with the brown-green slime which began in a thick splat where her head had been and traveled up the wall to a fine spay where it met the ceiling. A few bits of brain matter rained down onto the corps as Daniel stared vacantly at the mangled plateau that was Karen’s neck, lower jaw and tongue… Her left leg began to twitch… absently her food bumped Daniel’s, and he moved away….
Daniel’s ears were ringing as he rose to his feet. The silence in the room was deafening. No one spoke. Then he heard a loud CLICK sound right next to his head. “What the hell are you doing?” Cory demanded. Daniel turned to see Sheriff Savoy pointing his gun at him point blank. “Sorry fella’s,” The Sheriff said with a country boy twang, “But I’m not taking any chances… You could be contagious... And I don’t want anyone else here, including myself, to turn into… well… whatever the hell you are…” He ordered Cory to join Daniel where he could keep an eye on them. As the Sheriff looked down to speak into his radio, Cory grabbed him and threw him against the wall.
They scuffled and rolled about on the floor. “Get off me you freak!” The Sheriff yelled. “Just let us go!” Corey demanded. For a moment it seemed that Cory had the upper hand, but the sheriff broke free and pointed his gun at Cory. “You’re a quick little bastard!” The Sheriff panted, “But your condition has made you weak and soft!” He shuttered. “It’s disgusting to touch you…all squishy… frail…” He shuttered again. Cory just looked angry. “What the hell are you?” the Sheriff demanded. Cory said nothing, but suddenly dashed at the Sheriff without warning. The Sheriff shot him four times in the chest…
But… incredibly, he would not fall! He just stood there swaying from side to side, the holes in his chest leaking slime. He coughed up slime and spat some on the floor. “Is that all you got? PIG!” Cory shouted sardonically. The Sheriff’s mouth gaped open as he stood motionless for a moment in awe. Finally, shaking his head, he took aim once more, and fired a shot that hit Cory directly between the eyes; his head exploded and the cast-off covered every inch of the room.
Cory’s body kept standing for a brief moment; it wavered, and then dropped to the floor. Daniel found himself in Sheriff Savoy’s sites once again. “Don’t even think about it…” he warned him, “Or I’ll give you the same hair cut as your two friends there…” Karen was rite, Daniel thought, there can be no life for us like this… Quickly, he made a move for the gun in Karen’s hands, and was gunned down before he could even touch it….
Daniel Corbin rubbed his eyes. I must be dreaming… He thought to himself. Above him hung a web of tree branches before the bright blue morning sky. The branches had a strange fruit growing from them… Or at least things which resembled fruit anyway…Daniel noticed one seemed to be growing rapidly bigger… He lay there feeling mesmerized by it… Watching it grow and grow… It just kept getting bigger… It pulsated… Soon it was enormous! I must be dreaming! He thought as it started to sway gently. It got so big it was now suspended just above him… Suddenly it stopped, quivered, and burst! A downpour of horrible smelling brown-green slime splashed over him… Coughing and gagging he scrambled to get away…
“Stop right there!” a voice called to him, “Face in the dirt! Hands behind your head!” it commanded. Daniel looked up to see a man dressed in a black suit. Daniel complied. The man held him down with a stern foot. “Hey!” he yelled, “We have a conscious one here!” Daniel’s hands were quickly tied together with a zip tie. Two men, wearing white bio-hazard suits got him to his feet. “Well, well…” one of them said, “Looks like we picked ourselves a big one…” He tugged at Daniel’s arm. “Come along, it’s time to go to market…” The other man laughed. As the two men walked him away, Daniel was staring back at something he could not comprehend… It was him! They- were him! Karen and Cory too, dozens each… hanging from the tree, growing and dropping like fruit.