ScifiShort fiction

Vacant Possession: a short story by GF Willmetts (fiction).

The drone, one of many, surveyed the first alien city. Unlike the ruins on Earth where nature ravaged its anger at global warming, this city was left perfect except for the absence of its people and their belongings. No hint of what removed either of them. As a vacant premises, Man could walk in tomorrow except…

There was always an ‘except’. Reasons generally. Any sentient species could flee for all number of reasons. Earthquakes or whatever they called them around here to potential plagues. Just because there was no bodies didn’t mean that couldn’t happen. No sign of seismic tremors. Not even rocket launch or landing pads. There might be something around that cleared the buildings that could potentially do the same to us. Some of the colonisation parties elsewhere never responded and there simply wasn’t even spaceships yet to do follow-ups as Mankind tried to spread across the cosmos.

Apart from these advanced cities, civilisations that only lasted a short time nearly happened to us, except we found a way to leave the Earth. Whether it existed now was debatable. We left a long time ago. Travelling meant rebuilding civilisations in spaceships as new pecking orders were established. Ours stayed pretty democratic with everyone having periodic voting over the generations. The decision to take over the cities or build our own depended entirely on finding out what happened here than just walk in. This was the sixth city that we found this way and there were more, each looking the same way. Either something catastrophic happened here or maybe they also became spacefarers. I wonder what an alien species would make of the remains of our own home planet. No doubt they would be removing the rubble or wading through the weeds and floods we left behind.

If we couldn’t find out why then it left a diversity of votes. If it was something infectious, maybe they cleansed their cities and it hadn’t finished yet. We could be looked upon as another infection for its remedy or what caused it. Equally, if we put up a city, either of such things could also attack us. Maybe it was a two-fold problem and they had died out and their cleaning products had done the tidy-up. The drones would have to look first but the decisions would be ours. If it was a cleaning programme, just where was the devices that did it? There was little life here. Any livestock that we found was way beyond these cities. Our biologists were still making sense of them to give an idea what the key sentiences were. Could we discover what we looked like from a cow or sheep? Only in broad terms. The fact that any were left did give us some hope.

There wasn’t a smell of death. There was nothing. That was far more worrying.

It's all dead.
It’s all dead.

Of course we measured radiation. Why think standard nuclear weapons when they could use a neutron bomb which would wipe out everything but the buildings. If there was a war, it was a long time ago. But the animals still kept away. It was a mystery. We had enough fuel to check the nearby planets. Maybe there were some survivors. Would we have done the same? Maybe. There was a lot of maybes.

We were edging our bets. One of the planet giants was a possibility for needed fuel although it would take time for it to be refined enough to make use of. We left automated machines doing that. We might be able to reach another star system but we were getting fed up of travelling. The next atmosphere planet might well be worse or have the same problem, so we continue to investigate.

‘Why don’t we get some of their animals into a city and see if they survives? It would save a lot of time.’

A simple enough request and quickly carried out. The local animals were barely smarter than donkeys and a couple were led to the outskirts and given a push in. That close, they didn’t seem to reluctant anymore. I controlled the drone watching them walk down the street. Maybe it would be easier to have had a stampede but we would need to see what happened.

Imagine our surprise when one of the buildings adapted its shape to the two local animals and provided food and water. We quickly turned our scans for nanotech. Totally alien, making it difficult to read but enough for some volunteers to enter the city and take up residence. Their homes adapted to them and, however it worked, they were provided with terrestrial looking food and a variety of drink. We weren’t stupid and checked everything for compatibility and it passed with flying colours. A gift from our missing alien sentiences. It saved a lot of building. Vacant possession. Plenty of room for all but we weren’t stupid enough live in just one city but spread out to a couple more and one on the other side of this world where it was a lot warmer.

That sort of made the convincer. We needed somewhere to live and we were handed it on a plate. Literally. Were we churlish enough to refuse such as offer? Well, a couple of us were. Me included. Oh, I visited to look around but before nightfall, I returned to the spaceship and began work on building my land truck. So did the other four for a while but slowly they succumbed to a city. After all, there was regular parties and the city was a marvellous host. It even cleaned up afterwards. The perfect host and they cared less how it accomplished such acts.

I popped in and out, rarely staying for long in any of the cities, just long enough to see some of my acquaintances from time to time. All having a marvellous time, telling me I took things too seriously. Given a few years, I doubt if any of them will remember how to pilot a spaceship. Of course, the computers can fly the rockets but they couldn’t make command decisions. No, I’m not the captain. Science grade with an expertise in flying drones, building my own truck and investigation. Leisure was boring. I went off to explore the planet. This time only carrying a couple drones in the back of my improvised truck.

We had only focused on the mysterious cities. I was curious about what these animals ate, the oxygen cycle, water cycle, nitrogen cycle. Y’know, things like that that made the world’s ecology worked. More importantly, why were those animals keeping away from the cities until put in there and settled down. Maybe there was something in the food?

I made a quick stop at one of the nearby cities and took some food from the animal enclosure to take with me and went out to look for a herd. I used a drone to drop some of the food by a few at the edge of the herd and watched while my chemo-analyser examined a sample. Just because it was edible didn’t mean it didn’t contain anything else.

Well, they didn’t pass out but they looked contented. However, some of the crumbs left over suddenly swelled an suddenly they were surrounded by a building. I looked inside but the two animals were gone. That proved my suspicions were correct, except why was it so quick here but not in the big cities. Maybe after it had its fill, it died. Yet it was still supplying food. Not dead. Why wasn’t it dangerous?

The chemo-analyser showed a secondary system, no doubt that was the building vibe. It grew very quickly so there must be a food source. I turned the analyser on the ground. It quickly showed highly fertile with various elements. Grew like a plant, just with buildings. An interesting adaptation or bio-engineering from our mysterious aliens. Maybe this was their mistake. The cities had absorbed all the local nutrients to be recycled. A plant that grows and turns into buildings and sees the guests as food. Maybe it deems us indigestible but why spare the local animals we put in there? Unless it was to prove they were safe.

Signalling the nearest city, there was no reply. They had to be alerted…just in case. I widened the signal. Nothing. Someone had to be on post. How quickly could this city plant kill everyone and all at once. Was it one plant or many? How could they communicate? Were they waiting for someone to find out before acting? How would they know? I looked around, but if something was watching me, it wasn’t obvious.

I had to resist the urge to rush in. All I had with me was a haz-mat suit. There was no time to go back to the ship. There might be someone still alive. I left my truck on the outskirts. It might have looked sensible to take it in with me but seeing how the plant grew so quickly out of the ground, I didn’t fancy being imprisoned in it or not being able to drive away. That building grew so quickly. I’m not even sure if I could crash out of it.

Checking my oxygen supply, I wandered the outer streets. Deserted. Gingerly, I opened a door and then decided looking through a window or three first. Nobody home. I tried a few more homes before thinking maybe they’d gone to a party. They had gotten quite common lately. I made my way to the civic centre. The quiet was deafening after getting so used to people noise in the cities. All my instincts said I was too late. I would need their transmitter to bounce across the world to one city on the other side of the world. They wanted a tropical heat. Maybe it hadn’t gotten that far yet. There was no response.

How long before it caught me. Maybe the haz-mat suit was confusing it. I didn’t take the same route back to the truck. No sense giving it a pattern. Even so, my mind raced. What was it? We had it drilled into us to be careful around dangerous animals and even plants at a pinch but this was not a plant that looked life a plant. How many plants could produce a straight edge? What would make it grow a city let alone many across the world? At least it made some sense why the local animals didn’t want to go near it until they got close enough to get enticed. Is that what happened to the other crews? So why was I immune? All I did was limit my stays and not stay overnight.

Whatever, I might not be given into panic but it wasn’t wise to stay here. Better to be back on board. Safer in orbit and I can decide what to do about this planet. I doubt if any more Earthers will come this way, so how do I leave an alarm for any other alien species? Multi-tasking. Just in case I could take anything else with me. I reached the truck, checked it hadn’t been invaded and sped to the landing dock. It couldn’t be that sentient.

There was a boarding party. Had some of them escaped? Bleeping the horn as I skidded near the boarding link. The last man in line turned. It was me. The door shut and the motors began to run. I kept driving. The lift-off blast would fry me if I stayed where I was. So much for escaping.

What about the three other cities we had. Looking in the sky, the other landing crafts’ flares were in the distance. Was that what they were waiting for. Not to eat but to spread. But the cities were still here so the crew was carrying its seed.

I skidded to a stop and checked my link to the mothership. I couldn’t stop it leaving but, at the least, I might get a landing craft back. It would take a few hours for them to get the mothership ready to leave orbit, assuming the plant creatures had access to the knowledge.

That did make me think. What was better? Air transport for me or stopping them invading another star system? True the transport could get me to the outer planet where the auto-fuelling was going on and I could eventually use it to move on, but in the opposite direction. A conscience worked against my being selfish. All the landing craft were on-board. I started the motors on all of them with the doors locked.

There was a flash in the sky showing my actions had taken place. An explosion in confinement. The generation ship was too big to be destroyed but they had no way of landing and I should have crippled it from leaving this star system. The galaxy at large might be safe by my actions and I needed to put something in orbit to warm anyone to stay away.

Would it be enough? Time would tell. I’d have to ration food for a while until I could grow my own. At least there was a meat source as I drove the truck towards where the nearest herd was. We never explored eating them because the cities provided food. The marker bleepers we pipped them with were scattered on the ground. They were gone. I did wonder if they were hanging around to eat me but this would mean they had turned into my crew. A tidy organism.

The thoughts of being alone for the rest of my life hadn’t really sunk in yet. Being in a generation ship for so long, being alone now gave an element of calmness. I still had to build an alarm beacon and needed to find materials and needed to check the other three cities for any terrestrial parts that I could cannibalise.

But why take out landing craft and even our generation ship than literally grow their own, like that of the crew and me? Maybe it did have limits. Maybe the mechanism had gone wrong over the years. It literally wined, dined and looked after bodily functions. A need to survive was a function of any living species. Had I done the right thing by stopping it escape?

Yes. Of course. It was essentially a wolf in sheep’s clothing. All the pluses were void when it wiped out my crew and proven masqueraded as them or else why was I there as well?

As I approached the next city, my advance drones were registering life but it wasn’t one of the ones we have selected to live in. I stopped to watch. It was my crew but in a different city. There was a disregard to my drones but if they were the real people then they would have spotted them, especially when I did some low passes. I travelled on to another city. Why my crew there and not those from the cities further up. The spreading out was to give everyone room and not to put us all in one basket after so long in space.

This went on with other cities. I didn’t dare go in. The landing bays were there but no landing craft. Clearly it couldn’t duplicate everything yet. The duplicates seemed to be having a good time but were they going through the motions of the originals?

At the next city, I took a more thorough look. This time for my own duplicate, Afterall, it had made one of me to go up to the generation ship. Surely it would have me lurking around here.

That gave me some serious thought. If it was duplicating everything it had seen us do then what would my duplicate be doing? I would be travelling around, like I’m doing now. I sent my drones ahead and it detected my truck. Another truck. I kept way back but followed, needing to keep the drones in range enough for when their batteries needed recharging.

My duplicate arrived at a city. An empty city. Suddenly there was life. Another set of crew. Well, that explained how it was happening. My duplicate was the carrier. How many cities would it fill before it stopped? If I killed my doppelgänger, no doubt another one would be created. Any visiting aliens would see a contented planet. Might even think we had mastered cloning and there was still plenty of space in the cities for others. Unlike the herds, they would have no fear of the cities. It was learning and intelligent.

Contradictory, I wasn’t alone on this planet but even with so many people I was alone and had nowhere to go. Well, maybe not on the mainland. The planet had some oceans so there might be some islands. I could rig the truck for water and look. I clearly couldn’t doing anything else here. I had no choice but leave this planet to them and hope without close contact, my cloned crew would die a natural death and the cities do their usual clear-up for another vacant possession.

What stopped that thought in its tracks was finding a derelict truck identical to my own. Someone had taken a potshot at it but there was no duplicate me inside or in the surrounding area. There was some landing tracks. Just some determination not to leave a useable truck or its remains for anything else.

If there were other duplicates of me visiting each city, why was I not considering the obvious and that I might be a duplicate myself. I certainly felt like me but maybe the others felt the same way, too?

Could that other me boarding the landing craft be the real me and I had stopped the generation ship from ever sending out landing craft again or ruined their chances of finding another habitual planet than stopping plant clones of us doing that? How was I to know? I had doubts who I was as well now. Could they recover up there? Maybe. Eventually. But so could these plant clones as well. I might have delayed the inevitable. If I was lucky, whatever made these cities might also have thought our vacant generation ship was open to possession as well and just doing its duty and we had just been caught up in its mechanism.

If I joined one of these cities, would my other clones out there do the same thing? If they did, it would stop the spread of this cloned humanity across the world. If you can’t live without them, then partying might be the only way.



© GF Willmetts 2023

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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