Monday, June 24, 2013

ARIA: Left Luggage by Geoff Nelder


Wednesday 15 April 2015:

Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, California.

RYDER NAPE KNEW HIS SHOCK OF BLACK HAIR GRABBED ATTENTION. He didn’t want aberrant hair but didn’t trust American hairdressers. Apart from that, he enjoyed being in America. When he graduated, it wasn’t in astrophysics or higher mathematics; it was in media studies—a butt of jokes. He had the last laugh. As an expert in New-Concept electronic presentations, he had been snapped up by a high-profile TV company at IMAX, London, and had leapt on exchange jollies like this one to Edwards Air Base in California.

When the Marimar blasted off for the Space Station, Ryder watched it with his friend, the Dryden Lab Education Officer, Manuel Gomez. Two days later, the news came in about the case.

Manuel was the largest man on the base. The engineers told him if he visited the Space Station, he’d have to go up as two separate payloads. Ryder was with him in his plush, pale green office when Manuel had just read a message on his phone and wore a mock morose face.

“Sorry, Ryder, buddy, all non-essential personnel are to leave the base.”

“So, where are you going, Manny?” Ryder said, hiding his disappointment.

You have to leave, you jerk.” Manuel laughed a bear-sized guffaw. “Although you’re right, my department has to leave the site.”

“But you’ll find a way to hide, won’t you? Stay here, take a glimpse at the case. How could you not resist it?”

“I know what you’re doing, Ryder. But you can’t stop, even though you’d be easier to hide than me.”

TWENTY MINUTES INTO HIS FLIGHT back to London, Ryder watched a patched-in monitor on his NoteCom. With Manuel’s connivance, he was able to monitor the case. His pulse, no doubt in tune with everyone else’s at Edwards, galloped as the crewless AutoLander, no bigger than a minibus, banked left to make a perfect touchdown.

The Dryden labs at Edwards Air Force Base in the Californian desert were designed for research, not to protect the planet from back-contamination by putative alien organisms. Ryder remembered a lecturer at Houston who had concluded that it was impossible to bring rock samples from Mars without microbes leaking into the Earth’s atmosphere within a month.

A buzz irritating his ear made Ryder realize that Manuel was talking. “There’s a stew going on here. The retrieval system to get the object is fucked up. So they’ve sent suited guys in with a big metal case to put the little case in—”

“But, Manny, I thought they were going to isolate the whole aircraft.”

“It’s in a hangar with the usual plastic dust screen—nothing special.”

“No negative air pressure in the hangar to stop back-contamination?”

“Actually positive, if anything, to stop the desert getting in. I know, buddy, but they…I don’t know.”

Ryder wiped sweaty hands on his trousers. Perhaps he should ask the flight attendant for a brandy. “So, they’ve opened up the AutoLander’s cargo bay and retrieved the case in the hangar, then put it in another case.”

“I’ll patch you in. They’re walking it to the lab.”

“Yes, thanks, but Manuel, why bother with taking precautions against back-contamination? They’ve already exposed the case when they opened up the cargo bay?”

“Yeah. At least they haven’t opened the case to see if the Marimar crew put sandwiches in. Do you have a view of the lab now?”

“Got it, cheers, but presumably they’re going to test it unopened for days.”

“I’m not privy to their plans. Reckon most tests were done in space on the ISS. You’re probably in the safest place on that airplane.” Manuel’s voice raised a notch from his usual deep resonance. “All they’re doing at the Dryden lab, Ryder, buddy, is decontaminating it. Usual stuff: fumigation dry chems followed by prolonged spraying with antiseptic and ending with pure water and clean-air drying. Don’t worry. They’ll send it to Goddard for its grand opening.”

Ryder was too excited to sleep while the other passengers enjoyed their zeds. His state-of-the-art NoteCom wasted its talents, giving him a static scene. Added thrills came from a moving camera viewing the holographic chevron but even that lost its novelty after the first hour.

He could call his fiancĂ©e, Teresa, but she should be asleep. She hated him leaving her in London slaving away at her lecturing career while he jetted to wherever an exciting space mission beckoned. He’d thought she’d be used to it after a year or so, but…

Instead, Ryder called Derek O’Connor, his boss and producer of cutting-edge TV, but was astonished that instead of snapping up this event, he sent back derisory quips about chasing UFOs. Ryder uploaded an illustrated report to him anyway.

WHEN RYDER REACHED HIS LONDON APARTMENT at breakfast time, he noticed Teresa, languishing in bed. No doubt her difficult temperament seeking another excuse to get at him.

“Ryder. Don’t think about getting in bed with me.” Her sharp tongue matched her short, spiked, blond hair. “Ugh, look at you. Didn’t sleep on your flight, did you?”

“Just wait till you know why.”

Insisting on going straight to his den instead of to Teresa’s bed was the easy bit. Getting useful information from NASA was not.

“I’m ringing Karen. She might have been on shift last night at the Goddard Space Centre. Remember the party when she snagged that job there?”

Teresa had risen from bed and stretched her arms wide while peering over Ryder’s shoulder. “Your sister spends so much time optimising the diets for astronauts, yet she’s a balloon herself.”

“That’s a bit harsh. Anyway, you wouldn’t be so slender if you’d had a couple of kids.”

“It’s to do with having the appetite of a rugby team.”

“Good, she’s online. Hi, Karen. You’re looking well.” He glanced at Teresa’s sneer and then back at Karen’s image. “How’re Eric and the children?”

Karen’s mass of milk-chocolate hair matched her tan. “They’re all fine, thanks, Brother. Isobel takes a crucial seventh grade test next week, and Glen has a final audition for the Pre-Teen e-Musician 2015 on the same day.”

“But isn’t that cheating?” called Teresa. She stood, arms folded, to glare at Ryder’s sister on screen.

“Well, he’s thirteen now, but not when we filled in the forms.”

Teresa walked out of the webcam’s view shaking her head, releasing a blond hair glistening, twisting in the light.

Ryder tried to pump his sister for information on the case. “And, Karen, they’re still enjoying their grub up there?”

“Why shouldn’t they be? I planned the carb bits myself.”

“And they’re still alive?”

“Cheeky sod. You did want favours?”

“You know I’m kidding, Sis. I’ll catch you tomorrow. Give my regards to your Eric and the kids.”

Her responses, in an indirect way, told him the astronauts had no significant ill effects from their proximity to the case.

He couldn’t raise Manuel, but then it was just after midnight in California, so he’d have to contain his information thirst. He wondered how long the odds were of being welcome in Teresa’s bed.

Alien Retrograde Infectious Amnesia

Today, Jack caught a bug at work. He catches a bus home. By the time he disembarks in the desert town of Rosamond, all the other passengers and the driver have fuzzy heads. Jack had caught an amnesia bug, and it’s infectious.

Imagine the ramifications:

The passengers arrive home, infecting family; some shop en route infecting everyone they meet. The bus driver receives more passengers giving them change for last week’s prices and today’s amnesia. Some passengers work at the power plant, the water treatment works, the hospital, fire station. All shut down in weeks.

One man, Ryder Nape, realizes what’s going on, but can he persuade friends to barricade themselves in a secluded valley, hiding from the amnesia bug?


“Geoff Nelder inhabits Science Fiction the way other people inhabit their clothes.”  — Jon Courtenay Grimwood

“Geoff Nelder’s ARIA has the right stuff. He makes us ask the most important question in science fiction–the one about the true limits of personal responsibility.”  —Brad Linaweaver

Robert J. Sawyer calls ARIA a “fascinating project.”

“ARIA has an intriguing premise, and is written in a very accessible style.” —Mike Resnick

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Genre – Science Fiction / Medical Mystery

Rating – PG

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