07 October 2011

"Scarlet and Mustard"

By Curtis C. Chen

"That's Morse Code," Samantha said.

Leon squinted at her. "The fuck is More's Code?"

"Morse Code," Samantha repeated. "Samuel Morse." Leon shrugged. "American inventor? Mid-nineteenth century? Telegraph?"

"Funny, those combinations of syllables all sound like words," Leon said, "but they don't actually make any sense. Are you sure you don't have a concussion?"

Samantha shook her head. "Your concern is touching. Hand me that tab."

Leon turned, grabbed a dusty touchglass tablet off the table, and passed it to Samantha. While she tapped and swiped on the device, he checked the load on his rifle again, then sat down at the next window over and peered through the mud-streaked polycarbonate.

"So you're saying that's an old ship," he said.

"Shut up and let me finish this."

"Hey, you're the one who brought it up. Nineteenth century, that's the 1800s, right?"

Samantha lowered the tab. "We weren't building interstellar spacecraft in the 1800s, Leon. A lot of fleets still use Morse for emergency signaling. It's well-known, it's reliable."

"So it's just a blinking light?"

"Light or sound. Different combinations of long and short pulses; each combination represents a letter of the alphabet. Short, then long, is 'A,' long-short-short-short is 'B'—"

"Okay, I don't need the whole textbook," Leon said. "What are they saying?"

"Well, so far I've got A-Y-I-N-F-E."

Leon frowned. "That Swahili or something?"

"It's not the whole message," Samantha said. "Can I get back to this, please?"

Leon grunted and looked around the bunker. He started to ask Samantha if she was also getting hungry, then thought better of it. She got in a real mood if you interrupted her too much.

They'd barricaded themselves in here three days ago, after the rest of their landing party had been killed by the creatures outside. A gale-force thunderstorm two days ago had driven the beasts away, but also cleared most of the foliage that had provided cover for their earlier retreat.

Yesterday, while Leon and Samantha were enjoying the last of their field rations, this new ship had crashed into the runway between the bunker and the forest. Nobody had emerged from the spacecraft, but its automated distress beacon was transmitting, and the datastream insisted that eleven crew were still alive.

"That's weird," Samantha muttered.

Leon leaned over. "You got the message?"

"I think so. Checked it twice. It's just three words, in a loop: STAY AWAY INFECTED." She held up the tab for him to see, dots and dashes alongside capital letters. "But that doesn't make any sense. Zombies can't even talk, much less read Morse Code. Why go to the trouble of transmitting a message telling them to stay away?"

A chill ran down Leon's spine. "You got it backwards."

"Backwards?" Samantha pulled the tab back, close to her face. "But it doesn't spell anything the other way—"

"No." Leon looked out the window. The rain had stopped. The creatures would be back soon, sniffing around for prey. "It's two sentences. 'INFECTED. STAY AWAY.'"


Image: Miss Scarlett by Christian Brady, April, 2008