This is the uncut, unedited first chapter of
Meridian. A SciFi novel converted to Amazon Polly speak.
By Robert Chalmers
A small eddy of wind drifted the fine red grains of sand around the edges of the torn hulk, lying half-buried now in the rolling dunes of an awesome, terrible landscape. No living thing appeared to have stirred the sands in an aeon. Across the higher dunes, some two thousand meters from trough to peak, a scorching howling wind shrieked in fury. Thick clouds of the crimson and ochre sand drove before the wind as if belched from the throat of the furnaces of some unnamed Hell. There was no sun to light this land, if land it was. The sky was a pale pink hue, with dense puffs of deep yellow and orange cloud whirling like some devil across the seemingly endless landscape.
If there had been anyone able to live in this open inferno, they would have seen a trail of bright light and smoke hurtle down to the dunes through the boiling clouds. Into this wild land had plunged the travel capsule of Friday Martin, the captain of a Meridian Liner, the lonely space vessels that moved along the time meridians between galaxies. He was now half buried in the cabin of the capsules smashed hulk. Fortunately the vehicles were very light, needing no protective strength for travel in warp time. This lightness, plus the powder drifts of sand in the lee of the dunes, had saved Friday’s life. As yet there was no movement, no sign of life. The landing was relatively soft, as it had been slowed in the thick atmosphere by the automatically opening parachutes, and not at warp three, it’s normal cruising speed in hyperspace.
Many hours had now passed, with the console clock showing two Earth days to have slipped by. The craft was almost totally covered by the shiftingsand, when Friday started to regain his senses. The first thing he noticed as he slowly got his bearings was that there was very little sand in the cabin, and none at all on his wounds. Wounds, he noticed with surprise, dressed with a curious type of cloth. Friday looked about in mild surprise, half expecting to see a rescue party lounging in what was left of the craft. Not a soul was to be seen, and no answer came to his call, save the shrieking of the wind far overhead.
‘I must get myself out of here, and quick about it,’ he thought. Already the sand was running in small flows into his cramped space, almost as if it had been waiting for him to stir.
‘I’d better take these charts and the log if I’m ever to find just where in the galaxy I am.’ It was with some misgivings that Friday realized that the capsule didn’t have emergency rations. These had never been considered in these craft, but by the moons of Centor, Friday vowed that Deep Space Fleet would carry them in future. If he had a future. A quick glance around and Friday proceeded to wriggle from what was left of the cabin. The last thing to catch his eye in the cabin was the clock. Three earth days. Friday stopped just short of the exit passage, torn open in the crash, the fierce heat and glare beating in on him with almost visible force. The protective suit for use in space was still in position on the bulkhead, and Friday decided to use this as some measure of protection against the elements. Although it was a struggle in the confined space, and Friday was far from being fit enough for any great exertion, he finally managed to don the suit and pull the shield over his head. Now to face whatever lay beyond the open hatch.
The one nagging worry at the back of his mind, in view of the utter desolation seen outside the hull of the shuttle, was who had dressed his wounds, and how was it that he had not perished simply from thirst. In fact, when he thought about it, he was still neither hungry nor thirsty. Dragging himself out to the exit, Friday determined to find first who had helped him, and then if possible where in the galaxy this hellish planet was.
A big man, even by Earth standards, Friday stood six feet three inches in bare feet, his massive frame kept in shape by long hours perfecting his skill with the ancient broad-sword.
The Commander of his own Deep Space Fleet, twelve ships in all, traveling far beyond the known limits of the home galaxy, past a thousand galaxies, peopled by a myriad life forms, the fleet had passed beyond the curve of the plane of space. The meridians were unswerving and they marked out the plane of space. Captain Friday knew he was in trouble. None knew his whereabouts, and only Friday knew he was alive.
Friday had left Deep Space Fleet Eight to return to the flagship five light years distant. He had not arrived, and there was no trace on the electron probe directed along his flight path. Only one person in the fleet would not accept his apparent fate. Where all believed he had perished in deep space, a victim of unknown forces, his fair and lovely Illya alone kept faith in Friday, the man to whom she was betrothed. After three days of searching the grid of the Captain’s flight path, the only thing the fleet’s probes could find was a slight dent, or depression in the fabric of space. Each time the probes swept over the area, the beams were deflected around the section. As the Captain’s craft was not to be seen in this section visually, the search was reluctantly called off. The fleet would keep station for one week while routine maintenance was carried out and the vast distances between the various craft in the fleet reduced. All hoped that in that time, some sign of the Captain would be found, and he would manage to return.
At this news, a plan began to form in Illya’s mind. Dangerous, but if indeed her beloved Friday was gone, she could not live without him.
Friday crawled to the shattered exit and stared out at a scene that stunned him. He had visited some inhospitable places in his travels, but none to match the raw fierceness of this. The red sands and fierce heat, clouds that appeared to be some terrible living gas, and a sky of pink haze torn by raging winds convinced Friday that he was faced with a task of survival never encountered before by mortal man.
As he collected his thoughts he realized the air must be life supporting, or he would have been dead long ago. But even as he cast about for suitable material from which to fashion a weapon, he could feel thirst and hunger setting upon him as the air dried the moisture from his body. It was still a mystery how he had lived to now, but Friday well knew that who ever had helped him up to now did not want to be seen, perhaps could not be seen.
Friday wrenched a flat piece of light metal from a broken strut. ‘No sword this’ he thought, ‘but with a little sharpening I should be able to fashion a reasonable weapon, at least enough to defend myself with should I need it’.
Some time later, using some of the many small stones scattered on the floor of the sand drift, Friday had fashioned what any man would call a sword, and bepleased to go into battle with. Little did Friday know that this very sword would ring in many battles across the face of the planet, before he would find his fair Illya again. Friday was a strong man and gallant, and the thought of his loved one pining over his loss drove him on to meet the unknown, for he knew he must at all cost return to her side.
Gathering his few possessions he set off along the base of the dune, wondering where in this wild land he would end. Food and water were the main concerns, so the top of the dunes should be the best vantage point from which to scout the surrounding country. So thinking, Friday began to angle up the side of the dune on the lee side. He had only moved about thirty feet from the craft, heading along the bottom of the dune he had crashed against, when with out warning a large run of sand slid from the face and in the twinkle of an eye there was no trace of the wrecked craft. Just a silent shift of sand, and now as he stared behind him, he could not say if he had moved thirty feet from the craft, or three hundred feet. The hair on the back of his neck started to prickle, almost as if he could see the elusive beings he felt must be all around him.
What had held back the sand he could not even guess at, but he knew he must get out of the area swiftly. Friday had been too long a traveler to panic, but even as he stood and watched, he could see that the giant ridge of sand was slowly creeping forward over the valley floor formed by the dunes, the dune ahead seeming to recede at equal pace. Nothing was left behind but the small stones he had used to hone the sword.
‘If I can reach the top of one of these dunes,’ he spoke aloud,’ I should be able to see quite a distance.’ Friday did not know the planet, but it seemed inconceivable that the entire surface was covered with this shifting mass of burnt, wind blasted sand. As Friday struggled to reach the summit he knew he would soon have to find water. The puffs of furnace hot wind blowing down the slopes were quickly drying him out. It seemed like an eternity trying to reach the top, for each few feet he gained he slipped back at least half the distance, the soft moving sand having no foothold. The space suit he had on was more of a hinderance than a help, but he kept it on for the moment. Finally he reached the top, too dazed and worn to even look around at first, and the force of the wind had blown him back onto the slope where he rested just below the summit. There was no rest though, every moment he sank further towards the base in the moving powder. Struggling to his feet again, Friday gained the ridge and set off along its length, keeping just below the edge.
The gale seemed to ease a little, and in order to make better time he clambered to the ridge again and stood upright against the wind. To his great surprise, the wind was quite cool and moist about three feet above the sand, and moisture began to condense inside his hood and trickle down the face plate. Friday knew now he would survive, and standing buffeted by the wind, looked out over the landscape. A more forbidding sight had never met his eyes, but away on the horizon, in the direction of the wind, a dark blue smudge showed above the desert. This could only be vegetation, but to reach it would mean a Herculean struggle across the sand ridges, and Friday knew he did not have the strength for such an undertaking. The only course open then was to follow the length of the dunes, and hope that they would eventually lead to safer ground. Friday had to keep up in the wind, for to slip below the ridge meant almost instant dehydration from the great heat rising from the sand, and only the force of the wind keeping it below his head level. Friday had gone on for some distance when away in the hazehe could make out dark masses on the sand ridges. Vegetation was growing out into the sand, which could only mean the edge of the desert. There was still a long way to go so Friday put his head down against the wind and pressed forward. Suddenly he stopped as if turned to stone. There at his feet were tiny footprints, the size of a young child’s, and perfect in the shape of a human beings. It didn’t seem possible, but as Friday looked closer there could be no mistaking the fact that a human child was walking somewhere ahead of him. But where? There was no possible way that a child could survive out here. Was there perhaps another wreck? Friday had to pull himself up short. There were no other humans in this part of the universe, and therefore these had to be aliens making the tracks. Friday was not a man given to conversing with himself, but in his much weakened state, adrift in this unknown hell, he knew that if he did not at least hear his own voice, he would soon give up to madness and despair.
“Illya, I will come back,” slowly, softly, Friday chanted into the hollow of his helmet, the words a mere whisper as he stumbled on. Mile upon mile he followed the small prints, the blue haze gradually taking shape into soaring mountain peaks, heavily timbered and capped with snow. Perhaps this could explain the cold wind and the moisture, driving down off the peaks, but Friday was almost beyond caring as he stumbled forward through the sand.
In a dream like state Friday noticed that the tracks were appearing in the sand just ahead of him. Whoever was making them was invisible to him, and each time he stumbled soft voices called to him.
‘Friday, Friday, get up Friday, keep moving, we’re nearly to safety.’ He could feel tiny hands touching him, trying to help him up. Convinced he was going out of his mind, for he could see no one, none the less he would struggle to his feet and stumble on again along the tracks. Suddenly it came to him. There was more than one track, and as he looked back, the prints behind were blowing away in the wind. ‘Who ever this is must be just in front of me, but I see no one.’
Food and water was becoming Fridays main concern, and he was slowly drying out, despite the high moisture content of the wind. Paying no more mind to the problem of the children Friday moved on and on until he must have been no more than two or three miles from the forest. Looking up again for direction, Friday saw ahead of him a gleaming tower of metal built out of the sand. The tower was very high, and no more than half a mile distant. There was an umbrella shaped dome on the top and Friday estimated that the tower was about thirty yards across. It was quite obviously made by intelligent beings, but there were no doors or windows visible at this distance so there was nothing to do but continue on and try to get a closer view. Friday decided to use a great deal of caution in approaching this new object, even though there was still no sign of life. The small foot prints that he had been following led straight to the tower, but Friday was not about to walk blindly into anyone’s trap, if trap it was.
Circling around the tower about fifteen yards distant, Friday could see nothing to be alarmed about, although the underside of the hood, he could now see, was spaced with small round port holes. Still no one stirred, and no faces appeared at the ports. Again Friday heard the whispering voices, quiet and shy, like a small child unsure of it’s elders.
‘Approach the tower, Friday, and we will help and feed you,’ they whispered over and over.
‘I cannot see you, but I must trust you, I cannot go on without food and rest.’ Friday cried out to the empty wastes about him. He had discarded his helmet a long way back, the stifiling heat inside it had been as bad as the heat outside it. Stumbling into the shelter of the tower, Friday found that a protective energy field had enveloped it, cutting off the wind and heat, and closing out the aerie light from the sky. Dry and cool, in a grey twilight, Friday faced the towering column with interest.
As he watched, a smooth seamless panel slid back to reveal a small cubicle. A small collection of strange fruits werestacked inside and next to the fruit was, to Friday’s surprise, what could only be a loaf of bread such as was baked upon Earth thousands of years ago. Friday fell upon the meal and knew of nothing else until he had drained the last drop of honey coloured liquid from the drinking pitcher. Sleep soon crept up and overtook Friday in the quiet of the force field around the tower, and he fell into deep dreamless slumber, the last thing on his mind as he drifted of were the voices of children whispering, and the face of his beloved Illya floating before his minds eye.
Friday awoke some hours later to the sound of the same voices that had lulled him to sleep. ‘Illya lies beyond the blue mountains, far beyond the glades of the Thanes, deep in the country of Marga.’
Friday was instantly awake. What had he just heard? Illya on this world too? The fleet must have sent a rescue team after him. Well, they would reach him soon enough, so Friday decided to investigate his surroundings, then search on.
The twilight still surrounded the gleaming tower and as there was now more food and drink, it seemed that the beings who peopled this place meant him no harm. Standing up he flexed his great muscles and shook his head like a lion, his dark locks flicking across his great shoulders. The protective suit and helmet were gone, as were his tattered cloths, replaced by tight breeches, woven like chain-mail, and made of a cool strong fabric. On his feet, high calf boots of some green coloured hide and across his chest and around his girth, a harness of the same leather, now carrying a short dagger of about ten inches, as well as his own hastily made sword.
Both sword and knife were now razor sharp, and as the sword had a high ring to it, then it must have been tempered with fire and water, truly the very nature of this place. Friday knew now that he was dealing with craftsmen, if indeed he ever got to meet them face to face. To have come through his ordeal safely, Friday knew that the people were at least willing to find out his intentions towards them. There was nothing for it but to confront them squarely. Unbuckling his sword, he laid it at his feet and faced the tower. Head held high Friday called out.
‘I can not see you my friends, but you have saved my life. Here is my sword and my services, I am yours to command. In the name of honor.’ Having spoken, Friday replaced his sword and stood back, proud and fearless, awaiting his answer.
No sooner had he taken his stance to await reply when all about him he could feel movement, like the rustle of wind in fallen leaves. Small hands took hold of his and led him to the opposite side of the tower. Here he found an entrance, just large enoughfor him to enter, although he still had to stoop slightly. Immediately he was inside the door he could see his young hosts. “I’ve fallen into the hands of children !” cried Friday as he realized there was not one adult in sight. Bathed in a blue shimmering light, the group stood in a tight knot against the far wall. About twenty appeared to be in the room altogether, and to Friday, they were undoubtedly Earth children, in age from about six to twenty years old.
Shaking off the feeling that he was dreaming, Friday approached the older of the small band. Apart from her striking beauty, she was clothed in much finer raiment than those about her, and stood a little in front as though sure of her authority. Approaching to within arms reach, almost spellbound by the girls beauty, Friday asked softly,
“What is this place in which I find myself, who are you and your small friends, and why have you saved me from the hell of those shifting sand mountains?” A hundred more questions were on his lips, but he was silenced by the girls slightly raised hand, and the hint of a smile in her eyes.
“All these things you will know, and more, before we must finally part. For now there is no time. My name is Remea. The place you find yourself is Earth, in the galaxy of the Milky Way. We saved you because you also appear to be an Earth man, although certainly the largest we have ever seen.”
Friday was not a man easily shaken, but now with his stunned mind reeling, he instinctively took a step backwards. Immediately he stepped from the tower, all sign of the people within vanished, only the empty room seeming to mock him.
Earth. But it was not possible, this looked nothing like the Earth he remembered. Nowhere was there sands like he found here, nor sky or cloud the colour of these. Again Friday heard the soft voices and felt the tug of hands upon his clothing.
“Return to the tower,” they said,” do not be alarmed.”
Friday stepped back into the room, the children again visible to him.The girl Remea approached him again and spoke to him.
“Why are you so alarmed, do you not realize we mean you no harm?”
Friday chose not to answer, but waited for her to go on.
“Which part of Earth are you from, Friday? Our people do not travel much, and we know of no colony upon Earth where the men grow to your height.”
Friday tried to find the right reply, “But Earth has no colony, not my Earth, we are all one race, the people of the planet became as one many hundreds of years ago. It became necessary as we moved into deep space in order to better face the hazards encountered there…”
It was now the girls turn to stand wide eyed, and an excited chatter broke out amongst the other children.
Remea stepped forward, her manner now slightly colder.
“Why do you think of us as children, and what is this Earth that you picture in your mind, all green and blue? I think that you are not of our Earth at all.” Remea stood and looked at him, and Friday could feel her mind searching his for hidden meanings.