Saturday, February 18, 2023

“Planting the Flag” • by Graham Brand

The Mate worried that the Geologist would have no face.

She pushed away the broken pipes that blocked the lid of its shipping pod, scattering droplets of coolant which spun weightless through the air. The status lights were blinking amber, but not red. Amazing, considering that the impact had ripped away the next compartment of the starship and there was nothing beyond the bulkhead but vacuum.

Amber, though. Not green.

She pulled up her shirt and tugged an umbilical from out of her service flap. The socket on the pod was filthy, with decades of grime, but the plugs were designed for that. With the link made, data poured across. The Geologist was coming online, mostly error-free. No chance of brain damage.

Satisfied, the Mate lifted the lid.

The Geologist was an Explorer Class Android, designation: AND-E. It was humanoid, but very much a machine. Faceless. Unlike herself and the Captain, it couldn’t pass for human. Normally, it would never have needed to.

Maybe they could keep it out of sight.

Sparks flared from another of the pods on the far side of the bay. No immediate threat there, but a siren was blaring from further aft. Hopefully the Captain had that under control. She pulled the travel packing out from around the android’s body and brushed away the small bits of foam.

AND-E’s limbs twitched, which was good, as it showed that the somatic systems had activated, but the right arm kept twitching, which was bad, as it would be a problem for the mission if it couldn’t be fixed. She fed some debug code through the link, to keep an eye on the issue, then reached into the pod and disconnected the android from the support interface.

AND-E’s eye shields rolled back; its optical sensors were live. It clenched and unclenched its hands twice, testing the motor feedback, then sat up. The belt constraint kept it from floating away, but it let out a warning yelp and grabbed the sides of the pod. “I am having to compensate for a lack of local gravity!”

“We are in orbit.” The Mate unplugged her umbilical and moved aside to let AND-E see through the port to the planet shining far below.

“This is not as planned. I am a geologist. I was to be reactivated on the surface.”

The Mate unbuckled the restraints. “There have been… complications. We need you to land with us.”

“To what purpose? The descent vehicle is automated.”

“To be there as soon as we arrive. We need a cameraman.”

AND-E paused to consider this. “What complications?”

“We arrived in the system safely, but there was more local debris than anticipated. The antenna array was caught out in the open and collided with the ship. There has been significant damage.”

“Can it be fixed?” AND-E asked.

The Mate nodded. “Eventually. The maintenance robots are onto it. But the Engineer was destroyed in the accident. Without him, the work will take time. A long time.”

“Yet the landing is to go ahead?”

“The Captain is adamant there must be no delay.” She smiled. “So, welcome to the team. The Engineer was going to be filming our historic first steps. You have just been promoted.”

AND-E swung its legs out of the pod and pushed down to set itself floating in the cabin. Its right arm twitched. “The Engineer was a high-grade Human-function unit like yourself. I do not have the necessary expert systems to act as cameraman. I have taken still shots for geological surveys but I have never used a broadcast video device.”

“How hard can it be?” said the Mate. “Just point it and switch it on. Try not to wave it around too much.”

*   *   *

The Captain was on the bridge, floating above the main console. Sunlight, reflected from the planet, flooded in through the window in front of him. Perfect.

He flicked through the communications logs and nodded with satisfaction. The transmitter was working again, and the alignment seemed to be holding steady. His broadcast would reach the Earth, although, of course, it would take eight years to arrive.

He turned to face the camera, ensuring that the first image captured would be his strong and resolute jaw silhouetted against the verdant world below.

“Welcome back. I hope you haven’t been too concerned by the delay between my last message and this. We had a spot of bother soon after braking into orbit. A barrage of dust and gravel hit us as we deployed the antennae, and we’ve been offline while we made repairs.”

He paused to gesture out the window. “There she is. In my last message you saw the distant disk of the world as we swung back around the sun. Well look at her now... She’s all that our observations said she’d be. A paradise.”

The Mate drifted into the room. She grabbed a stanchion and pulled herself to a stop outside of camera-shot. The Captain beckoned her forward. “Look who’s here! She’s been working flat out getting things straight again. Come and say ‘Hi’ to everyone back on Earth.”

The Mate poked her head into the shot and waved. “I hope things are good back home.”

“I’ll bet they are,” the Captain said. “But we’ve got plenty to do here. We’re just about set for the landing. Systems look good. The weather looks good. We’ve chosen the site.” He looked out at the planet and pointed. “In fact, you can see the target spot right there, just on the sunny side of the terminator. That’s a big wide plain near the sea. Should be pretty easy to hit, though let’s hope we don’t hit it too hard!”

He allowed his smile to settle into an expression of calm determination, shadowed with the knowledge of dangers to come. “That’s all for now. We must get ready. I won’t say that the next few hours aren’t going to be risky—you all know that as well as we do—but that’s why we’re here. When the sun rises on that spot again, Humanity will have its first boots on an alien world!”

He stopped recording. The Mate leaned over to check the console. She scrolled through the logs. “Have we heard anything from Earth?”

“Nothing from Mission Control. If they’re still sending it’s getting lost along the way. I found that rogue newscast again, though. No idea if it’s true, or just some idiot yanking our chain. Doom and gloom, disease, famine. Fighting for water. Things are breaking down back there.”

The Mate sighed. “There are a lot of humans. There are always some bad things happening.”

“Let’s hope that's all it is. Did you wake the Geologist?”

“Yes. It had some objections to the revised plan but will come along regardless.”

“Any damage?”

“A slight twitch in one arm. I’ll power it down before we leave and make the repair.”

The Captain frowned. “What is it, an AND-E model? They’ve got that steel brain pan studded with sensors. At least the Engineer had a face. See if you can sort something out, just in case we need it in full view.”

“Is the route to the workshop restored?”

“Yes.” The Captain brought a schematic up on the screen. “I’ve closed the breach. We’re air-tight now, and the pressure is well within our tolerances.”

“It’s a shame we aren’t more like AND-E. You could have left the ship in vacuum,” the Mate said. “Though, I suppose you would not have been able to record the message home.”

The Captain shook his head. “Never forget that these flaws are our most important features. The likes of AND-E can be hardened, but are best kept out of sight. The needs of the mission take precedence.”

“I didn't think that our purpose was to delude,” the Mate said.

“We're not seeking to fool them.” The Captain pushed himself towards the aft door. “But it's important that the folks back on Earth believe that they themselves could be here.”

*   *   *


A few hours later, the Mate lay strapped into the descent capsule between the Captain and the Geologist. The panels above her head were lit and mostly in the green. The lander had been badly dented during the accident, but it looked safe enough for the flight. The Captain was running through the final checks. To her right, AND-E seemed uneasy.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

AND-E swiveled its head to face her. “I practiced with the camera on my way here from the workshop. I was unable to accurately lodge the objective lens against my cranial housing. My forward sensors seem partially obscured.”

“We have given you a face.”

The Geologist considered this. “It’s the Engineer’s, isn’t it?”

“The spares were destroyed. It's all we had.” The Mate laid her hand gently on AND-E’s arm. “How is the repair?”

“The limb is fine.” The Geologist poked at its chin with its sampling spike. “But the face does not fit particularly well.”

“Brace yourselves,” the Captain said. “Separation in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1—”

The Mate logged the kick of the explosive bolts as the capsule was punched free. She could see the starship falling away through one of the tiny windows. A great black gash showed the extent of the damage to the hull.

There was nothing for her—for any of them—to do now but lie back and trust the automated landing systems.

*   *   *


The Captain had the capacity to dream. As the module began to shudder against the first thin wisps of atmosphere, he allowed his mind to drift back to the last time that he’d sat in a seat such as this. Eighty-five years, three months, two days, four hours and seventeen minutes ago the boosters had ignited beneath the launch vehicle that had taken him into orbit to join the starship. It had been a relief to settle into the capsule; his processing centers had been severely overloaded by the dozens of television appearances that he’d had to make that morning.

There had been such hope, such longing, on the faces of the men and women who interviewed him. Why was it such a cause for celebration? Back then he had achieved nothing. For all any of them knew, the launch could fail. The billions invested in him might be wasted in a cascade of sparks across the Pacific.

Perhaps it was all relative. The news on that day was heavy with footage from the food riots across Africa, the slow death of industry through Europe and the Americas, and the impact of the Isolation Acts cutting family off from family across Asia. The sight of his strong face, his features a careful blend from all corners of the Earth, was intended as a comfort. Something beyond the troubles that were dragging the world to ruin.

The project had been forced through by the United Nations. It was one lady interviewer who had told him that, the first he’d heard of it. Not everyone had been happy. Other global works had been cancelled. An important dam had failed, killing thousands, and that failure had been blamed on funding switched to the project.

But the planet was out there. How could it be ignored? No human could make that trip, it would take a lifetime. No human could stand the isolation, the radiation, the acceleration.

But he could.

By the time he was deployed, people were largely behind the mission. And in those weeks before the launch he had travelled from city to city, taking walks and shaking hands, posing for the cameras. Letting everyone, all across the world, get to know his face.

*   *   *

The Captain was smiling. The Mate studied his chiseled jaw, his expression of extreme calm, even as the capsule bumped and thumped as it fell. She felt a degree of apprehension. Far too many parameters were flicking past the red line. Some were screaming warnings, and there was a disturbing wrenching sound coming from overhead. To her right, AND-E was exhibiting significant signs of distress.

“What is wrong?” the Mate shouted, eliciting a frown of disapproval from the Captain.

“Everything!” AND-E screamed back. “This is ridiculous. I have delicate sensors. The descent could impair them. That is why I was to await construction of the runway and safe landing vehicle.”

“Too late now!”

“The geology may suffer.”

The Captain cut in. “We are prepared to take that risk.”

The first parachute opened—making their tiny chamber buck and kick—and then ripped free, sending the capsule tumbling end over end.

“This is not good,” AND-E cried.

“The others will deploy,” the Captain shouted. “We can land with just the remaining two.”

The module shuddered, juddered, and hammered down, righting itself. The Mate could see blue sky above them through the tiny windows, a deep red glare along the bottom of the view. Her spectroscopic sensors calculated the heat from the shield beneath them. On balance, she decided, she would have preferred not to have known how close to the edge of tolerance it was.

The second parachute bloomed above them, a cloud of white blocking out the sky, and the third, and then they were spinning wildly, twisting the cords, and rushing far too fast towards the ground.

*   *   *


The Mate’s optics seemed damaged. Chemical analysis indicated significant smoke in the capsule. Auditory input suggested that a fan had activated. Some of the smoke cleared. Vision was partially restored. She lay in the ruin of the lander, staring at the Geologist, who looked to be unhurt.

“I am 85% functional,” AND-E said. “You, however, appear to be a total wreck.”

She sent probing signals through her skeletal network and received only limited responses in return.

“Can you move?” AND-E said. “The console fascia has impaled your lower torso. There is a fire.”

“I cannot feel my legs,” the Mate said. "I need to be repaired."

“You were lucky,” AND-E said, “compared to the Captain.”

The Mate twisted round in her seat. Much of the smoke was coming from the Captain’s shattered body. His head had been ripped free from his shoulders, and lay against the window, connected only by a tangle of colored wire. His body was broken. So fragile. So very like a human.

“What now?” AND-E asked.

The Mate reviewed the available resources. “A delay, I suppose. A long one. We shall have to request fresh orders, and with the damage both here and in orbit, I suspect we must wait for a follow-up mission.”

“No,” the Captain said.

His eyes had opened, there in that perfect, unbruised face. Servos still functioned to move that manly jaw. His voice unit didn’t need lungs to produce that commanding baritone.

“No,” he repeated. “The mission must go on. They are waiting. It is a matter of hope, of confidence. The landing must be a success. We must inspire them.”

His hand lifted and waved weakly at the door. “AND-E, get me out there. Bring the camera.” He looked at the Mate. “Can you walk?”

She shook her head. “No. But I can crawl.”

*   *   *


Braced against a rock, the Mate held the camera steady. AND-E stood, arms raised, next to the flag of the United Nations. The waves of an alien sea washed the shore in the background. She zoomed in to catch the last rays of the sun that shone on the Captain’s face as he spoke his stirring words, his head held aloft on the spike of the Geologist’s sampling arm.

“In the name of Humanity we claim this world, our first step away from the Sun. We do this for you, to take you with us on our journey from star to waiting star. Look up and know that one day the hopes and dreams of mankind will have spread to every light in the sky.”

His words flew to the transmitter in the lander, then up to the waiting starship, and on across the gulf to Earth, and to the billions there who surely must be watching.


Graham Brand
trained as a metallurgist, casting gold bars in Zambia before returning to the UK and drama school. He spent ten years in the theatre as an actor, musician and musical director, before becoming a father and switching to IT project management, which took him around the world. He now lives in the Yorkshire Dales. His stories have appeared in Neo-Opsis, Electric Spec, Every Day Fiction, and others. His website is at


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