Today, we are excited to present a story by a guest writer, sci-fi aficionado Avery Grey! This story is a retelling of the classic fairy tale “Iron Hans” (http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm136.html), so we encourage you to check that out to get the full effect of the story, and tune in next week for another sci-fi story!
Leandra and Gwen
At first there was nothing. Then, overwhelming silence.
Then, Griffith became aware of the darkness, quickly followed by a newfound sense of cold, which in turn was followed by the splitting headache he had developed after years and years of cryosleep. Just as he was dealing with this unpleasant sensation, the darkness around him lightened, and a hissing sound welcomed his ears back to life. He finally became conscious enough to open his eyes, and found himself staring at the plain metal bulkhead that made up the ceiling of the chamber he (and approximately 5% of the other passengers of the great ship Schwerin) had been entombed in for something like 200 years. Not seeing anything else after a cursory inspection, he slowly, painfully, began to sit up, his head pounding all the while. When he raised his head above the lip of his cryo-pod, he saw that everyone else was in pretty much the same situation that he was.
Well, time to get moving, he thought wearily to himself. He slowly pulled himself over the side of his pod, only to immediately fall to the floor. Now, on top of everything else, the floor was shifting under him, not allowing him any purchase. He bit off a curse, afraid that his nausea would assert itself even more if he opened his mouth.
After what felt like years (but in reality was more like a few minutes), he felt a firm clap on his shoulder just as his stomach and the room around him began to settle. He opened his eyes and looked up to see a young woman. This was his childhood friend, Lynn, who had luckily ended up not only headed to the same planet, but also in the same cryo-chamber as him. Though he would never admit it to her, knowing that she would be there with him for the journey gave him a lot of comfort.
“Grif, we made it!” Lynn said with a wide smile, maybe a little too loudly for Griffith’s headache. Suddenly, she pulled Griffith to his feet, without either his help or his consent. This disruption made Griffith’s vertigo come right back, causing him to lean up against Lynn to keep from falling right back down.
“Sure did. Hopefully all in one piece,” he replied (a little resentfully) after pausing to recover. Lynn snorted and playfully punched Griffith in the arm, which normally would not have fazed him except the room was still dancing a subtle waltz around him.
“Come on! Let’s go find your parents! They would be on the bridge, right?” she said, before lightly skipping off on dancer’s limbs towards the door out of the chamber, assuming that Griffith was going to follow her. Seeing his parents, who both had very important jobs on the vessel (his mother being the captain and his father being the helmsman), was the last thing he wanted. Griffith groaned. How did she recover so fast? He shuffled off after her.
Griffith stared in awe at the scene before him. Luckily, he had been able to talk Lynn out of going to see his parents on the bridge. However, this was only because because, shortly after leaving the cryo chamber, the ship’s intercom had politely asked the sleepers to make their way to the observation deck. This was so that they could look out the ship’s one large window and see the planet they would make their home on. Now that Griffith was here, standing before the observation window and looking down at the heavily forested planet that they were orbiting—a planet that was chosen for its similarities to Earth, both in composition and aesthetics—he couldn’t believe how far they had come. In his awe, he was almost able to forget about his parents, standing almost directly above him on the bridge of the ship.
While the Schwerin was mostly home to civilians who agreed to leave their lives on Earth to colonize new planets in new star systems, there was a sizeable military force on board as well. Their purpose was twofold: one, the ship needed a crew and the military had many trained crewmembers to offer, and two, they needed a sizable force to “reclaim” any planets that were too dangerous for the civilians to handle themselves, which basically meant any planet that was dangerous in any capacity. Griffith was part of the civilian population of the ship—as was Lynn—but both of his parents were military and had positions on the bridge of the ship, in the same room they were standing in right now. Parents or no parents, he just couldn’t pass up this opportunity for a new start.
He watched the first exploratory shuttle land on his new home and wished for a new, promising future.
Unfortunately, this future became less promising by the second. After the first away team didn’t respond by their check-in time, a second away team was sent, which also didn’t respond. A third away team was formed and sent down, this time composed of highly specialized, combat-trained personnel each equipped with a metal construct with a direct video connection with the ship that could help them fight and record their surroundings.
The scene these constructs reported was… strange, to say the least. The specialists’ shuttle landed in the same grassy clearing that the other two landed in, as it was the only non-forested patch of land for hundreds of kilometers. The other two shuttles were still there, completely unharmed. Upon landing, the team’s scanners lit up with strange energy readings pointing in the same direction that the two missing teams’ footsteps lead. With few other options, the team of specialists and robots drew their weapons and followed the signal.
In the middle of a small, oddly well-maintained small copse of trees were two things: an upright tube not unlike the Schwerin’s cryo-pods and a deep, bright blue pool of liquid surrounded by a strange metal apparatus. The tube was made of a bronze-colored metal, with an opaque glass window that stretched its length. It was covered with strange, unearthly patterns, worn down by countless years of being exposed to the elements. The pool’s liquid was translucent and seemed to spark with some sort of electricity. Wires snaked from the apparatus around and in the pool to the tube, and rusted red spots of blood stained the vibrant green of the grass surrounding the pool. Other than this, there were no other signs of the previous teams. Cursory scans revealed that the pool was the source of the energy readings sensed earlier, but nothing else could be revealed about the pool or the tube—they both seemed to be made of some technology completely alien to anything humanity had ever encountered.
Wary of the pool, one of the specialists sent one of the robots to investigate. That robot’s feed quickly shut off as the automatons surrounding him recorded its death: upon getting within arm’s reach of the pool, metal arms shot out and tore the robot’s many limbs off before shredding its metallic body and dropping the chunks of metal and wiring into the pool, where they were quickly dissolved. It suddenly became sickeningly obvious what had happened to the other teams.
Now that the team knew how the pool worked, they set to the task of destroying it. After all, if a colony was to be founded on this planet (and it needed to be, considering how quickly the ship was running out of rations now that its passengers were awake), this pool was too much of a risk to be left alone. Fortunately for them, the heavy laser weapons they brought made short work of the robotic arms that had destroyed their less well-armed compatriots. However, there was still the issue of the liquid in the pool itself. Dipping their canteens in proved disastrous (for the canteens, at least). Further scans revealed that the liquid was heavily acidic, so it was fairly easy to acquire a strong base and use that to both neutralize the acid and the electron flow that was making the pool spark. Then, the pool was drained of its contents and the water was stored in a safe glass barrel just in case it had some strange restorative properties on top of everything else.
The team was surprised to find something at the bottom of the deep pit that remained after the draining. The item was relatively small-around the length of the average adult man’s forearm-and was made of a smooth, cold material entirely unlike anything the team had ever seen before. What’s more, the oblong item had no obvious way to interface with it, although it did start to glow upon being touched. More concerning was that what remained of the machinery around the pool started whirring angrily upon first contact with the object, and the window in the tube split down the middle and slid away to reveal a humanoid figure.
The figure was massive, with a height well above even the tallest of the soldiers. Pebbled skin, shimmering almost iridescently in the soft sunlight shining through the treetops, covered well-defined muscles that did not obey human anatomy. The figure sported two pairs of arms—one pair in the standard, human position and another pair sprouting from his back, almost like wings. Thick, dark green cords of hair were piled on the top of his head, carefully organized and pinned with thick green twigs to keep them from falling into the many eyes spaced around his skull. He lacked a nose, instead sporting the flat, semi-covered nostrils often seen on snakes back on Earth. Still, the layout of his largest set of eyes, along with his nostrils and his relatively human, green-lipped mouth gave the appearance of a human face. Altogether, he made a terrifying figure, which made it all the worse when he opened his mossy green, sclera-free eyes and charged at the specialist holding the object.
Unfortunately for the creature, the specialists had had time to prepare and took him down easily. However, they did not kill him, instead choosing to take him back to the ship in chains in order to study him.
Unfortunately, attempts at communication with the alien failed, possibly because each conversation with the alien was partnered with twice as many guns as even the most aggressive estimation would suggest. At first, he refused to say anything at all, but after a few sessions he slowly, carefully, asked the soldiers to be very cautious with the object they found and to not touch it with their bare skin ever again. (Luckily for them all, after seeing the alien’s reaction to the object, one of the specialists had scooped the object up in his bag without touching it, and it now sat in a carefully-guarded cargo bay deep in the heart of the ship) He denied them any other information, even under threat of torture.
Of course, Griffith knew almost none of this information. He knew that there had been deaths, and that an actual alien life form had been captured for questioning, but past that he was frustratingly clueless. He even swallowed his pride and asked his parents to tell him more details, but they had curtly informed him that he was a civilian and “not to be trusted with sensitive evidence.” Unfortunately for them, Griffith had inherited their sense of curiosity, along with a willingness to break the rules that was all his own. Spurred by this and his frustration at his parents, Griffith got together with Lynn (who was always willing to stir up a bit of trouble, especially when it came to the military) and worked out a plan to sneak into the brig to talk to the alien.
Griffith stepped into the brig. Lynn and him had agreed that he would go and meet with the alien while Lynn stood guard outside, as Griffith could use his parent’s status on the ship to get out of trouble if he was caught. Upon his entrance, the alien lifted his head and stared at Griffith with his largest set of eyes.
”You… seem different from the rest,” he said in English with a deep gravelly voice and a mouth not entirely made for human languages.
Griffith was shocked, for the rumor mill reported that the alien had refused to say anything at all, even after being given rudimentary lessons in several different human languages spoken on board. Nevertheless, he tried to act natural. Maybe he had been fed misinformation, after all.
“Well, I guess I would. I’m probably the first civilian you’ve seen,” he said with a nervous chuckle. “My name’s Griffith. What’s yours?” He reflected to himself that he was possibly being too natural.
“My name…” the alien looked down and mumbled, almost to himself. “It has been very long since I have heard my name, such as it was. I suppose I have… forgotten.” With that, he lapsed into silence. After a few awkward moments, Griffith tried to fill the silence.
“Well, I need to call you something. What do you want to call yourself? It’s a rebranding opportunity if I ever saw one.” Now he was just rambling. How could the alien possibly know what rebranding even meant?
The alien only said, “Call me what you must.”
“All right, how about… Iron Hans?” Griffith posited, remembering a child’s story his parents read to him when he was young. The alien—Iron Hans—did not respond, so Griffith assumed it was fine. “So, Iron Hans… what’s your story?”
For the first time since the beginning of their conversation, Iron Hans looked up and made eye contact with Griffith. “If I am to trust you with such information, then you must first trust me. Help me escape from this place, and I will reveal everything.”
Griffith did not have time to be shocked at the serious answer Iron Hans gave to a question that was more of a friendly overture than anything else because at that exact moment, Griffith’s communicator beeped with a message from Lynn saying that guards were approaching. Griffith gave one last look to Iron Hans and ran out the door, thinking about the alien’s offer.
The next night, Griffith visited again, and this time, Iron Hans explained what had been done to him since he had come in contact with the humans. Griffith was shocked and appalled at this treatment, but admitted that he had no way to help Iron Hans escape. It was at this point that Griffith felt like he had to tell Iron Hans who his parents were. Before they could get any farther in planning, however, the guards were coming back and Griffith again had to flee.
By Griffith’s third visit with Iron Hans, the alien had formulated a plan. Griffith would use his position as the Captain’s son in order to sneak to his mother’s private terminal and steal the code to Iron Han’s cell. At the same time, he would look through all of the logs detailing the specialist team’s visit to the planet and find out what they had done with the small, glowing object they found in the forest. On this topic, Iron Hans had nothing to say but that he was sworn to protect this object and that he was to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. With the plan set and an agreement made to meet up in the same place the next day, Griffith set about his tasks.
Getting to his mother’s computer was simple; Griffith merely had to tell the guards that his mother wanted to meet with him in her room and he was in. Once there, it was fairly simple to guess her password, as she had been using the same once since Griffith was a young boy. (In any other circumstance, Griffith would be frustrated at his mother for a lack of security, especially with something so important, but this time it came in handy for him. Besides, it’s not like she was expecting her own son to turn against her like this.) First, mostly out of curiosity. Griffith accessed all files on Iron Hans. Here, he learned both about the location of the object, along with how heavily guarded it was, and exactly how the first two exploratory teams had died. He paused here, wondering if he was throwing his lot in with the right person after all, but pushed forwards nevertheless. With this information acquired, Griffith quickly found the access codes with surprisingly little difficulty and left before his parents came back to their room, mumbling an excuse to the guards as he walked past.
Iron Hans quickly explained the plan. They would spring him out of jail and sneak to the cargo hold where the object was being held. They would then disable the guards keeping watch over the object, grab the object, and head to the nearest escape shuttle, hopefully before anyone noticed Iron Hans’ absence. Griffith was reluctant to leave Lynn behind, but Iron Hans insisted that the plan was too dangerous, and the likelihood for betrayal so high, that involving another person would be foolhardy. They also agreed to leave immediately, before their plans were discovered.
Unfortunately, their strategy did not work out quite as they expected, and they found a squadron of guards waiting for them in the room that held the object, along with Griffith’s mother. She was smiling smugly and holding the glowing prize in her hands. Iron Hans’ eyes opened wide and he made a run for the object, only to be restrained by the guards immediately. More guards rushed to Griffith and pushed him to the floor. Struggling proved useless.
“Surprised, Griffith? I certainly was, after my squadron informed me that you had dropped by my room, especially when I was told that you did so on my prerogative,” she said. The guards around her shifted uncomfortably, no doubt thinking of the harsh punishments levied at them for letting Griffith in. “I knew you accessed my terminal, Griffith. I knew you read the files on… whatever this is. In the process of getting those key codes, you tripped about a hundred different security measures designed to keep someone like you from doing something like this. A log told me exactly what information you accessed, which helped me put together your probable plan. All that I needed to do was watch and wait for you to incriminate yourself. This was hardly the perfect crime,” she smirked; however, a moment later, her expression softened, and she looked almost hurt. The object was glowing even brighter and was vibrating softly, emitting a low whine. “I just don’t understand why you would do this. I know we.. haven’t exactly gotten along, but I would think that you would care enough about your friend Lynn to not commit this level of betrayal against the entire ship.” She paused, then softly, she said, “It’s going to be hard to dole out as harsh a punishment as I need to for your crimes.” She brushed away her regret and turned to face Iron Hans. “Now, for your friend, however…”
She was cut off by the object, which suddenly leapt into the air and started turning around by itself, shining hundreds of different colors in a hypnotic pattern and singing a soothing melody. It was entrancing—so much so that Griffith found himself pulled in by its glow. He stood up, unhampered by the similarly ensorcelled guards, and started walking towards it before he was violently tugged away and picked up by Iron Hans’ posterior pair of arms.
“We have to go. Now.” Iron Hans near-shouted over the siren song of the object, holding Griffith in a princess carry as he sprinted towards the escape pods.
“But…” Griffith struggled to shake off the fog in his mind. “Don’t we need that… thing? You said you refused to leave without it.”
“It’s too late. Your mother has already activated the weapon. Everyone on this ship is as good as dead—as we will be, if we don’t get to the shuttles in time.”
But that means… “Lynn!” Griffith yelled, his mind racing from the revelation. “We have to go back and get her! She’ll die!”
“There’s no time. Don’t you understand?” Iron Hans said bitterly as he unceremoniously dropped Griffith into the pod. “They’re all dead. Plot a course for the planet’s surface. Now.”
Griffith felt numb. As he keyed in the proper coordinates and pressed the “eject” button, he was surprised to feel tears rolling down his cheeks. He hadn’t even realized he had started crying. Too much had happened, and all at once, but he couldn’t help feeling as if he, personally, had been the one to consign Lynn to her death.
They had barely made it a safe distance away before Griffith heard the Schwerin explode behind them. Even so, the resulting shockwave shook the small shuttle and almost sent them flying off course before Griffith made some on-the-fly course corrections. After that, Griffith and Iron Hans sat in silence, both shaken, albeit for different reasons. The three-hour long flight was going to be unbearable.
After what felt like forever (but had actually been more like twenty minutes), Iron Hans finally spoke up. He sighed deeply. “I suppose I owe you an explanation.”
Griffith, still crying (though not as violently as before), was barely able to mumble a quiet “I would say so” without his voice breaking. Despite Iron Hans’ general stoicism, the expression on his face belied genuine concern and sympathy for Griffith’s pain.
“The object that we were unable to retrieve was, as you probably could surmise, a weapon. This weapon was specifically designed to kill as many people as possible—as you probably noticed, the song that it emits when it is about to explode is designed to draw people closer to it. It, and several hundred thousand others, were made in what my people would call the Great War, if any still remained to speak of it. The reasons for the war were complex, far too complex to easily explain to a foreigner such as yourself. None of them were worth the damage that these weapons inflicted.” Here, Iron Hans paused, working through the pain of his past in his own way.
“After the smoke cleared, I was the only one of my kind left alive. I did not know how to keep going after I had lost everyone that I held dear. I made it my goal to find every single one of these weapons and destroy them any way I could. After decades of searching, this was the only one I could find. However, I ran into a problem: the inventors of this weapon had made them indestructible without actually being set off.
“I could not bring myself to set the bomb off, although I would have welcomed the death that would accompany its explosion. Too much death already lay at the feet of these bombs. So, I set up the system that your people stumbled upon by repurposing some of the lesser weapons from the Great War and locked myself in the stasis pod, only to be woken if someone was able to dismantle the security system I set up.
“Perhaps I was arrogant, thinking I would be able to stop whoever stumbled upon my pod. One part of me wished that I would never wake up from my deep slumber. I… am truly sorry that you had to pay the price for my foolishness. By refusing the fate I had set for myself, I inadvertently caused the exact pain that made my past life so miserable. I hope you can find it in yourself to forgive me.”
Griffith wiped his face, still heartbroken over Lynn and angry at his mother, Iron Hans, and himself for allowing any of this to happen. However, as the flight to the surface of the planet continued, Griffith found himself slowly starting the path to forgiving Iron Hans for the small part he had played in the tragedy.
After the shuttle made landfall, Griffith and Iron Hans settled down on the planet. There wasn’t much else to do, after all. Although living with the being who played a role in Lynn’s death was almost unbearable at first, Griffith was eventually able to forgive Iron Hans, and the two of them made a decent home for themselves together. The two of them made frequent trips to natural wonders Iron Hans knew from life one thousand years in the past. Together, they found (or rediscovered) strange, incredible, dangerous things. They stumbled upon surprisingly recent signs of a great war, possibly belonging to a great civilization that lived and died during Iron Hans’ deep sleep. They saw wide herds of horse-like creatures, covered in a type of natural bone armor. They even came across a wide, crystal clear pool, revealing bright gold sand under its depths. Despite Iron Hans’ warnings, Griffith had leaned over the pool to see his own reflection, and the slightest touch of his then shoulder-length hair to the surface of the water instantly turned his hair into bright yellow, sharp, flexible, metallic filaments that cut into his scalp with every turn of his head. It’s strange, Griffith thought to himself. I thought that, after all I lost for Iron Hans, I would hate him. But that was not the case. Through his time with Iron Hans, Griffith could find a modicum of healing.