“Look, Mother, the clock is running backwards!” Tom Coggle pointed to the hands on the pilot room dial.
Dr Martha Jane Coggle said, “The crash must have reversed it.”
“How could it do that?”
“I can’t tell you. I don’t know everything, son.”
“Well, don’t look at me so disappointedly. I’m a pathologist, not an electronician.”
Tom looked at his mother’s wrinkled face, her greasy white hair and tired eyes, “Time can’t run backwards, for Pete’s sake!”
Martha reached up to caress her aged skin. “Oh, if only it could, Tom. I’d be young again!”
Tom felt regret at his harsh words. It must’ve been the impact of the crash, he told himself. He suited up and stepped out onto the planet’s surface. It seemed to be a desert-like plain. In the far distance, huge crystalline structures towered hundreds of metres high. Above him burned a huge red sun. What the hell had happened? He remembered his mother’s stated aims. Take a spaceship and explore the neighbouring planets in the Centauri system. But their ship had lost power and direction, finally slamming into the surface of an unknown and potentially hostile planet.
He walked over an orange soil, noticing it was granular, like sugar, and that the gravity was not dissimilar to that of Earth. He glanced back at the silver ship, crash-landed at the edge of a waterless lakebed. His mother would be going over the ship’s sensors, assessing the damage, then, as likely as not, doing an external check with sensing rods. She’d been flying spaceships all her life. If Martha couldn’t fix it, no one could.
Tom saw a movement and stood still, looking with horror at something about forty feet away. Something that resembled an earwig, about two feet high. The creature walked on two legs, its other six used for balance, and two antennae waved above its head. The eyes were red and bulbous. He felt a revulsion but then, how was he to know if the creature was intelligent or not, or indeed hostile?
As if in answer, it dropped down onto its eight legs and began to scuttle rapidly towards him, emitting a shriek that came to him through his helmet’s earphones. Feeling fear running through his veins, Tom turned and ran, trying to control a rising panic. From time to time, he turned and saw he was gaining on the creature. Then there was his mother, outside the ship, taking readings on its hulls. “Mother,” he cried breathlessly through the radio link, “there’s some kind of animal following me.”
Martha opened a panel in the side of the ship and extracted a flame thrower. As if it were an everyday occurrence, she lit a pilot light and stepped forward to await the scuttling creature.
There it was. It raised itself up on two legs again and Tom noticed long fangs and a flickering forked tongue. Then it was enveloped in flames, emitting a sound between a wail and a scream before exploding in a fireball. “Got the bastard!” Martha cried.
The days passed. The planet seemed to revolve very slowly, so they used Earth days, sometimes waking in the light, sometimes in the dark. They’d sent a distress signal immediately upon crashing, but it would be several weeks, at least, before any rescue vessel would come. In any case, it was unsure whether any incoming signal would be detectable with the reduced power left in the ship’s cells.
“You know, Tom,” said his mother one day, “I’ve been going over the ship’s systems and that goddamned clock is still running backwards. I’ve never come across that before. Maybe it’s something to do with this planet, or that huge red thing up in the sky. It seems to have an enormous gravitational pull.”
Tom looked at his mother’s face and stared. Her hair seemed to be turning grey, her skin seemed less wrinkled, and her rheumy eyes seemed brighter.
“You know, Tom, you look a little like I remember you, when you were up on stage collecting your certificates at space college. I swear you look younger!”
Tom was just about to remark that he thought she too was looking younger when Martha nodded out of the window. Outside, there was a small group of Earwigites, as they liked to call them. Martha sat at the helm and turned the ship’s spotlights on. The power was low so they wouldn’t stay bright for long, but maybe they’d frighten the critters away?
The small group hesitated, then dropped down onto all eights and began to scuttle back into the desert to whatever holes they’d emerged from.
“Well, they can’t get in, can they, mother?” Tom asked.
Martha peered out through the window. “No, but they could do some damage, depending on how sharp their claws and fangs are, ugly little bastards.”
“Well, son,” Martha said, some weeks later, “this is how lonesome feels. This ship ain’t going nowhere. That crash wiped out too many drive units. I’ve repaired as much as I can, but we don’t have the power or the fuel to take off under this gravity.”
“What are we going to do, ma?”
“Oh, my God!”
Tom followed his mother’s gaze to the viewing window. “Ugh!”
There, attached to the window by suckers on the ends of its translucent legs was an Earwigite. Its body was pink, moist and throbbing, and its fangs hammered against the window. Then suddenly, another of the creatures jumped up and attached itself to the glass.
“Ugly brutes!” said Martha, “but they can’t damage that shield, it’s impregnated with tungsten.”
Then, the creatures began to crawl up the viewport screen, towards the top of the ship.
“They could cause a problem up there, though,” said Martha, “there’s radio masts and solar panels. I’m going to have to deal with them.”
Tom walked towards the window, feeling he would like to blow a hole in the slimy little monsters crawling upwards, and looked down. “I think we’ve got a problem, ma.” There looked to be a couple of hundred of the creatures, swarming all around the ship. “What are we going to do?”
Just then, there came a blinding electric blue light that caused Tom and Martha to shield their eyes. After a few moments, they opened them again to see a rocket ship landing close by. The Earwigites lay dead and dying around their spacecraft.
“Their lasers wiped out the creepy-crawlies. Thank God!” Martha looked at the backwards-running clock, then at the youth who could have been at university, rather than in his forties. “Well, son, they say you can’t turn the clock back. Guess they were wrong!”
Tom looked at his mother’s black hair and smooth skin, and into her shining blue eyes. “We’re going home, mother, and, boy, are they gonna get one hell of a surprise!”