“This is Delta Base IV calling Alpha Command. I repeat: this is Delta Base IV calling Alpha Command. Are you receiving me?”
Sterling waited for a response. All he got was the crackle and hum of the transmitter. He adjusted a couple of dials and tried again. The crackle and hum were augmented by a high-pitched whoop and clicking like a dolphin being sarcastic. Sterling threw down the microphone in annoyance.
It had been months since he had heard from the command centre. He’d given the radio apparatus a complete overhaul, thinking it might be a glitch in the system but recently he’d come to believe they just weren’t answering.
All he wanted was reassurance that the supply shuttle was on its way. Food was desperately low; Sterling was strict with himself, rationing out what remained, eking out every freeze-dried granule. As nutritious as a three-course dinner, the boffins had boasted. Hah! Not if you make one of the packets last a week.
He donned his suit and began his perimeter check. The base was sheltered in a deep crater – perhaps that’s what was interfering with the signal home? Perhaps Sterling should move the antenna? If he got it to higher ground, he might be in with a chance.
Everything was secure. He vacuumed up the dust that had settled on the solar panels. This was a regular chore. It was like trying to hold back the tide. It’s a metaphor or something, Sterling considered, for the futility of human existence.
He had become quite the philosopher in his lengthy isolation. In his down time, he kept his mind occupied with reading all the books he’d never got around to on Earth, and he had kept up with his exercise programme, compensating for the reduction in his food intake with extra protein pills. He was in good shape, strong, and he knew it.
Suddenly, he saw it: a green flare across the sky. The supply shuttle was about to land. Sterling could hardly believe it. He scrambled up the side of the crater so he could see the craft for himself, sending loose stones and dirt raining on the panels he’d just cleaned. See? It was all futile. He would be sure to make that the focus of his report.
Wait a minute – that was no supply shuttle.
Sterling dropped to the ground. His visor only allowed him a restricted view but he could see, even from a distance, this ship hadn’t come from Earth. It was dark and jagged, and seemed to be more gun than anything else.
An attack ship! Sterling gasped. Why, from here they could plot a direct course to Earth! They could vaporise several large cities before anyone knew what was happening!
Sterling’s mind raced. He forced himself to focus; he didn’t want to fog up his visor and throw himself into a panic.
He watched as a gangplank lowered from the belly of the vessel. Green mist escaped with a hiss and two pairs of legs appeared. The alien soldiers walked to the end of the gangplank, affording Sterling a good look at them. He couldn’t tell what was uniform and what was skin. They were dark green in hue, almost black. Their heads were pointed and equipped with mandibles through which they chittered in their alien tongue. They seemed to be amused by the flag Sterling himself had planted on a hillock.
Their attitude seemed casual but then Sterling was no expert in exomorphic body language. They were just two soldiers, enjoying a breather, chewing the fat.
Well, Sterling thought grimly, not on my watch!
Using his vacuum, he blew up a cloud of dust so they wouldn’t see him coming. He threw himself at them in a frenzy of kicking and stabbing – he tore out the flagpole for this very purpose; he thrust it repeatedly into their scaly thoraxes until their screeching stopped and the ground was thick with their luminescent blood.
Hah! thought Sterling with satisfaction. That’s what you get!
He didn’t think another thought. His head was reduced to a puff of steam in a split second.
The captain of the alien ship put away his weapon and looked at the scene of carnage at his feet.
Poor fellow, he thought, looking at the remains of the Earthling. Must have gone crazy with the solitude. If only he’d positioned his aerial where he’d planted his flag! Then he might have got the dozens of messages we sent to inform him that we’d won the contract for delivering supplies in this sector.