When I abandoned the strip in the late 1960s, the main character’s surname stuck, so it seemed appropriate for me to use it for one of my early short story sales. I renamed Amber Aurelia…
Sun-arrows glinted on his polarized visor as Commander Rhodes led the recce-party down the slippery purple-stone scree of the giant plateau. Behind them he glimpsed their starship Aphelion.
Below, emerging from a grey ethereal mist, he spotted six half-naked humanoids. Instinctively, his gloved hand closed on the laser-gun.
But the alien reception-committee appeared weaponless. 'Leave your guns alone!' he barked to the four scientists accompanying him. 'They could be friendly.'
Unfortunately, Mineralogist Copenacre's initial reactions were too swift. He fired.
'Hell!' Chopping the gun from Copenacre's grip, Rhodes swore as one of the aliens jacknifed backwards. A plaintive shriek crossed grimacing lips.
'Ship to Recce-One! What's happening down there?'
Rhodes ignored the call.
'Jenkins, break out the surgical kit, fast!' he commanded the smallest of the team.
'Ship to Recce-One! Communicate, please! Who's been hurt?'
'Recce-One to Ship - don't worry! One of our group got trigger-happy.' He pointedly eyed Copenacre. 'Everything's under control now.'
He knew from past experience that staying on board during a reconnaissance was the hardest part. Listening over the transmitter, the slightest problem had a tendency to grow out of all proportion. The women onboard would still be anxious, regardless of all his reassurances; and that included his wife, Aurelia.
He knelt beside the stricken alien.
The biggest advantage with a low-keyed laser-wound was that it cut cleanly, cauterizing as it hit. Provided vital organs were undamaged and the victim survived the massive shock, recovery was very likely.
There was no blood, just a charred, fleshy hole in the creature's side. Yellow-brown contusions already bulged around the wound.
Rhodes stood up and levelled his ice-blue eyes on Copenacre. 'Let me do the reacting next time, okay?'
The mineralogist's narrow face was chalk-white. 'I'm sorry, sir. I'd pressed the button before your words-'
'You didn't think!' Rhodes snapped. 'All right, forget it - it's done now.' He sighed. 'Let's hope this doesn't create trouble...'
Turning to face the silently watching aliens, he added, 'Why haven't they turned hostile? It must be damned obvious what a kill-crazy bunch we are after your exhibition!'
'I've done all I can,' interrupted Jenkins. 'He should pull through.' He rose, eyes mirroring amazement. 'I've never known anything like it, Commander,' he whispered.
'As far as I can tell, that creature's built like us - inside and out.'
'You're sure about this?'
The odds against finding creatures of their own terrestrial structure were astounding. They could be on the verge of discovering a new civilization in its infancy! The prospect sent his body-sensors hammering.
With the gyroscopes malfunctioning, it was imperative to know which planet they had been forced to land on in their search for fissionable material to replace the power-core that had fractured during a whiplash in space.
Directing the antenna of his portable intercom-transmitter at the apparent leader of the primitives, Rhodes depressed the transmit button. 'Where,' he stammered, 'where - are - we?'
The ancient-white eyebrows of the bearded leader arched. 'Arrgh.'
'Recce-One to Ship - decode, please.' The leader's reply would now be flashing through the Aphelion's onboard computer translator.
Rhodes persevered: 'Who - are - you?' He spread his arms to encompass the entire group of primitives as he repeated, 'Who - are - you?'
'Gha Qzkg,' came the answer. Rhodes noticed that the Leader's two upturned hands possessed five digits each. Even the texture of their wrinkled leathery skins seemed earthly...
'Decode that.' Again, another question: 'Have - you - lived - here - long?'
'Rozyg udugw warrk.' Broad angular shoulders lifted. Eyes dead, suntanned face expressionless.
'Decode.' Strange, this aborigine answered every query posed. Merely by the inflection of my voice? Rhodes wondered. It didn't jell...
Beads of sweat ran down his prominent cheekbones; he licked his thin lips nervously. Even in his cooled lightweight spacesuit he felt hot and flustered.
He decided on a different tack. 'We're from Earth, the Sun's Third Planet,' he began.
Even if he was understood, it seemed unlikely that earthly points of reference and names would mean anything.
'Commander!' rasped Ship Control. A crackle of static, then: 'We've got it! The code's broken!'
Rhodes released a thankful sigh. 'Good. Now, what does Arrgh mean?'
A moment's hesitation. 'Earth.'
'But that - that's impossible!' Taking grasp of himself, he added, 'Anyway, who the hell are they?'
It just didn't make sense, none of it. 'Okay, we'll come back to that. How long have they lived here?'
'About fifty years.'
'Pass me the code, quick!'
Then, for five seconds, he succumbed to an electronic infusion through his skull into the mnemonic quadrant of brain. Cranial nerves tingled pleasurably; amethyst colours sparkled; the whole sensation was exquisite but, alas, transient. Rhodes could now speak their tongue.
He felt pretty dumb asking the next question: 'If you're on Earth, how are we from Earth too?'
'Time,' was the simple reply.
'A time-warp?' It had to be... That whiplash, the scatty gyros, the shattered core...
Suddenly, Rhodes espied an unnaturally smooth surface protruding from the dissipating mist. Dull metallic in appearance, with patches of reddish-brown.
The Leader nodded, pointing to the shipwreck: 'Aphelion...'
At last Rhodes comprehended. It was as though a searing light had pierced his brain and stopped both his heart and time: 'We warped into the future?'
A slow stern nod, that was all.
Wordlessly, Rhodes directed the recce-party back up the unstable slope. He thought of Aurelia aboard Aphelion and of the fate that awaited them all.
Rhodes couldn't resist one final glance. At his own image fifty years hence, a survivor of some disaster yet to come.
Previously published in Parade in 1972 as ‘The Natives Are Friendly’.
Reprinted as ‘The Lost’ in Costa TV Times, 2010.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.
If you enjoyed this story, you might like Spanish Eye,
my short story collection featuring Leon Cazador, private eye in 22 cases
published by Crooked Cat Publishing.