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Geoff Nelder

The February Selected Writer is Geoff Nelder

Feel free to email Geoff at: geoffnelder@yahoo.com

geoff

FALLING UP
by Geoff Nelder

Her run through the abandoned mine left Cruza exhausted. The old mineral track made it hard to run in the musty darkness. She’d tripped, twice, obliging Hek to hurl himself against the rough wall to avoid barging into her.

“Cruza, use your headtorch. I can hear the bastards catching up.”

Tears filled her eyes. They’d been running for days through an alien jungle then into this abandoned mine—evidenced by rusted machinery not unlike machines on Earth. Their third team member, Eduardo, didn’t return from a toilet break. His eviscerated remains freaked them both out and when they sighted the quadrupeds, they ran. She’d tried to navigate a course back to the Northern Expedition Base, but the undergrowth and their need to escape terrifying pursuers led to this mine.

She gulped, took a moment to return to her normal tough persona, put out a hand to steady herself and wished she hadn’t. Even before she put her now sticky hand to her nose she smelt something no human nostril was supposed to experience: a cross between rotting fruit and a Keplerian slug’s slime.

She pinched her nose. “¿Quépasa? What did they mine in here? Molluscs?”

Hek pushed his short but muscular body past her. “Coming up fast.”

“Leave me, why don’t you? Ah, you’ve left a calling card, si?” She accelerated to catch him, grateful there were no more railtracks. There he went, legs going like egg-beaters. The flashes from her light of his SpaceWeb fatigues made her think of the retro Green Lantern superhero. She wore the same colour but set off with her long black braids that now whipped her backpack.

They rounded a bend to be blinded by sunlight. Hek skidded to a halt just in time to stagger as she fell into him.

“Why did you stop? Ah.” She saw they’d emerged at a semi-circular exit, but as if it had been drilled half way up a cliff. “This is loca!”

“Actually, I’m getting used to this damn planet,” Hek grumbled. “Designed by Salvador Dali after one too many riojas. Wait. They should’ve reached my surprise.”

He checked his wrist Smartpad. “Ugh, they must’ve sensed the sensor.”

She looked back into the gloom. “We were told they weren’t that clever.”

Hek tapped at his device. “At least I can bring down the roof. Best to get outside, not much of a ledge. Try to merge into the cliff.”

The rumbling travelled right through her, followed by the cliff-face shaking. She unplugged her fingers out of her ears and dug them into the white rock. She looked over at Hek doing the same thing while voicing ‘sorry’.

Her fingers proved to be poor pitons once the outblast blew out of the cave, taking her with it. Her stomach griped and icy fingers ran up her spine when she found herself momentarily suspended a few metres from the entrance surrounded by an assortment of white and grey stones. She couldn’t see Hek, but in order to call his name she first had to stop screaming.

Perhaps adrenalin had slowed time for her for she could see the cave entrance, a dark void from which the native quadrupeds might emerge if they clear the roof-fall. She twisted herself around until Hek came into view: lying forwards at an absurd thirty-degree angle.

“Hek! ¡Oye!Wake up.”

He didn’t. How could she reach him, and how could she not vomit?

A cold knot in her stomach travelled upwards. She could plummet to a certain death any moment and with him unconscious she was alone. Apart from his companionship over the months since landfall, the next nearest human was twenty-one kilometres away…a long way in this hostile environment, assuming she reached terra firma again. Their comms had packed up within hours of leaving the base, making her feel even more lonely. This surreal situation reminded her of her zero-gee training. Si, but here she had no hydrazine nor air bottles to use as jet propulsion. What was she to do, fart her way to him? Ah, throw something in the opposite direction.

What was disposable in her pack? While shaking with fear, she pulled her arm out of the strap and partly unzipped the bag all the time fighting nausea at the thought she’d suddenly plummet to the ground that was—wait a moment—out of sight.

She couldn’t detect the ground. No tree canopy, rivers nor lakes, unless it was a large body of grey, featureless water. If so, and if she fell, should she go in like a dart? Head or feet first, or curl into a ball? It wouldn’t make any difference. She’d pulverise. Her stomach might be a ball of ice but her head was hot with fright perspiration.

Meanwhile, her hand brought up a full water bottle. Not needed if she’s headed for an ocean, so she was about to lob it behind her when she squirted it instead. A water rocket. More control, and she might not need to use it all.

She didn’t think her water jet method was working at first until she realized Hek was close enough to splash his face. But if she did… he’d wake up only to see her drifting away again.

“Hek, wake up, por favor!”

“Stick to regulation English, and let me sleep.”

Lo sien—ah, sorry. No, Hek, wake up properly we’ve been blasted out of the mine and are falling… in a way.”

Finally, his eyes opened in a startled, wide-awake way, matching his mouth. “What the fuck! Do you have a chute open, holding us both up?”

As if. Finally, they touched hands. His were warmer than hers. Only then did she spend a moment to examine her surroundings. Stones floated with them, some had moved to be together like small worlds coalescing with their own gravitational pull. She saw movement in the mine entrance.

“Hek, we’re in more trouble from the natives.”

He slowly turned his head from staring below him—waving his hands as if they were wings—
to examine the two creatures. Hairy quadrupeds, rather humanlike but with no ears, many pin-prick eyes and a proboscis which apparently served as nose and mouth. One was standing on its rear legs.

“They won’t harm us from there. Spaceweb refused us firearms because the natives don’t possess them.”

Cruza wrinkled her nose. “Pity those decision-makers didn’t see the way they masticate their human prey.”

“They underestimated their intelligence too.”

Cruza found that the additional threats made her vibrate with fear all the more. “Hey, we’re going up!”

Hek’s eyebrows shot up faster but settled to quizzical when their upwards rate steadied at a walking pace. “Why didn’t I think about it before? There’s a note about gravity anomalies on this planet in the briefing, doc.”

Cruza shook her hair sending a few black escapees into the air only to rise with them. “I didn’t think they were near here and—oh no—they were probably temporary. We could plummet any moment! Wasn’t one mad theory that macro repulsion from geomagnetic aberration—”

“Wild, irresponsible theory,” he said, twisting his body to look upwards.

This isn’t theory, Hek. Ugh, this is so surreal! We are up in the—”

She stopped listening and couldn’t answer with bile in her throat, swallowing because she didn’t want to float in her own spew. She was an astronaut expecting death on the ship from asteroids any second. How ironic to meet her death by a likely plunge to the ground miles below.

She forced herself to listen to Hek. “Can you see what I think I see up there?”
Again, bile had to be swallowed but maybe looking upwards would be calming. Cruza narrowed her eyes. “Lines. The sun’s reflecting on white lines like a grid.” She wrenched her backpack round to her front and fetched out a smart-scope. “It’s a net. Gracias a Dios, I thought we’d keep going up into outer space.” She was developing a dull pain at the back of her head.

“Well, you can thank him when we know how to slow down, or we’ll be diced like wire going through cheese.”

Now her stomach threatened to revolt again. She peered again through the scope. “It’s like a huge webbed sail and we…” She took a difficult deep breath. “…are headed off center. One thousand, two-thirty-four meters and closing at five meters per second. We don’t seem to be accelerating.”

“That’s something. Cruza, undo your top.”

Still gripping the scope she folded her arms across her chest. “What? No, it’s freezing up here.” She looked over at him. He’d unzipped the top half of his green fatigues and was removing it.

“I understand, you want to increase our air resistance…” She gasped a few times before continuing, “We’ll zip our jackets together?”

In spite of her terror, Cruza appreciated the irony of using a parachute upside down to slow their rising. Once they tied off the cuffs to their ankles she felt a slight tug downwards. Relieved, she examined the net again. “Three-eighty-one meters and now four meters per second. Those creatures in the mine didn’t put up that net.”

“Guess not. Maybe, like the mines, it’s ancient tech from a long-gone population. But just ‘cos it will stop us drifting to a higher-altitude oblivion it… God, it’s getting hard to breathe.”

Si. Hypoxia. My headache, nausea… thought it was just fear.”

Hek’s breathing was more labored than hers. “How high?”

She frowned at him, worried then pointed her scope downwards. “Only three thousand, six-fifty metres, but… oxygen is ten percent less than Earth’s at ground level. Might be…even less here.”

A few minutes later they fell upwards into the net. Their heads could have gone through the rhombus-shaped gaps but they threw their arms wide to ensure capture. Within a minute they’d donned their jackets again though Cruza still shivered uncontrollably.

Through chattering teeth she said, “Now what?”

Ripples in the silver wiry mesh billowed away from them. His arm pointed to where the curve descended back to the ground although she could only see it disappearing into mist.

He took a breath and said, “It must be anchored to the ground… though… the anomaly might…”

“Understood. Reverse?”

She aimed her scope down again. Her frown deepened and in spite of her shivering condition, her face heated. “We have another problem.”

Hek looked down. “Boulders. Those critters… fucking clever.”

She shook her head. They could easily dodge those dozen or so rocks. Perhaps altitude sickness was affecting her reasoning. Ah…

The quadrupeds had selected lumps of limestone with sharp quartzite embedded. The first one hit the net making it bulge. Cruza gripped the wires until her knuckles whitened but was relieved to see no damage. Except to her nerves. Now they could fall to their death or get stoned from below! She shook both from the cold and being scared witless.

The second rock was rotating and tore through the net like a three-dimensional chainsaw.

She screamed when her breathing allowed, but Hek put his arm around her and encouraged her to crab-walk down the slow-flapping net away from the tear.

“It won’t get much worse,” he gasped.

She didn’t believe him until she saw rocks hit but then rollover and through the gap.

A thump in her back made her cry out. She turned to see a fist sized lump of white quartzite spin away from her. She looked over at Hek to ask him to examine her back but saw him holding a hand to the side of his face, blood oozing through his fingers. She pulled out a first aid kit from her pack and pressed a gauze swab to the bad graze on his face. His left eye was all blood. He didn’t complain, so neither did she.

Silently, they spent the next two hours crawling down the net until it ran out. It didn’t reach the ground. It didn’t need to. Thicker silver ropes led from the upside-down mesh hammock downwards. Hek removed his trousers to wrap around the rope. She smiled—a blessed relief from crying with pain and fear—at his orange undershorts and at how much a gentleman spaceman he was.

“Now, your turn. We need both pairs.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but logic prevailed.

With no downward force as yet—if ever—progress was slow, but the caution against a sudden gravity normalization was necessary.

Cruza was sure her right shoulder-blade was chipped by the rock, badly bruised at the least. She screamed inside at every tug when partly hugging, hanging on to her trousers on the metal rope. Hek’s face must have been killing him too, but he too laboured on stoically.

He paused their downward progress and said, “You noticed anything? Something better?”

She sniffed at the slightly warmer air, uncertain whether the iron aroma was from the rope or their blood. “I’m breathing more easily.”

“And?”

He loved his riddles. She looked around at a few wispy pink cumulus and perhaps grey mountain tops. It wasn’t that. She tentatively let go of the rope.

“We’re buoyant.”

“And with it, a new danger.”

After another half an hour, Cruza was once again without her jacket, it having linked with Hek’s as an air-brake but this time above them. As they drifted down, their trousers now linked loosely to the rope they peered through the last low cloud to see the anchor point. She grinned when she spotted their base, over to the east by a mere two kilometres. The one they set off from a week ago.

Hek said, “With luck someone will have their scope on us, and send a vehicle.”

Si.” Then she thought of what they looked like. Two people dangling on a line like puppets—in their orange underwear. “I hope we have editing rights on the footage they send home.”

Hek tapped his good ear. “I’m receiving something at last. Are you?”

“Crackles, hey, just a moment,” she said as she used her scope on the base camp and not liking what she saw. Before she could mention it to Hek a radio message came over to both of them:

…comms down, but might be operational now. The natives have been trying to contact you. Warn you of a vicious snake in the forest. Also, some idiot set off an explosion in the limestone cliffs near the gravity anomaly causing all sorts of problems with loose debris flying up in the atmosphere. Keep clear. These natives are friendly. You can’t miss them. Mostly on all fours and they wear fur clothes. Out.

Geoff Nelder lives in Chester with his physicist wife, within easy cycle rides of the Welsh mountains.

Geoff is a former teacher but is now an editor, writer and fiction competition judge. His novels include Scifi: Exit, Pursued by Bee; The ARIA trilogy; The Chaos of Mokii; thrillers: Escaping Reality, and Hot Air.

Recently he has written an historical fantasy inspired by the mass abduction of the population of Malta’s Gozo in 1551 by pirates. Those 5,000 spirits need justice: Xaghra’s Revenge (July 2017). His collections include: Incremental–25 Surreal Tales More Mental than Incremental. Suppose We is a scifi novella published in December 2018.

Geoff’s website:
https://geoffnelder.com