Friday flash fiction – Commander Cello and the Preserved Cliffs of Mercury

The Lunar Expeditionary Force pursuit cutter Civil Discourse traced a pretty orange-white swathe of burning gas particles as it dropped through Mercury’s nearly-there exosphere.

On the bridge, Commander Adeline Cello, of the Tranquility Cellos, mentally edited the live footage coming in from the flock of sensor drones surrounding the shark-like vessel. Only top-notch mission images would be good enough to post on her official PopScope account. And if ever there was a mission that would put her clapplause count into orbit, it was this one. The folks back home loved a squid hunt.

“Eighty seconds to primary checkpoint, Commander,” reported Hector Cromwell, the genetically-uplifted capuchin monkey who served as the Discourse’s pilot, engineer, gunnery sergeant, and currently the rest of its crew. “The signal’s coming from a series of subsurface gas vents inside the rim of Rembrandt Basin.”

“Within the Exclusion Zone?”

“Technically, yes.”

Extensive command empathy training and six weeks of confined quarters with nobody else to speak to had given Commander Cello unparalleled insight into her crew’s psychology. “What burdens your fuzzy brow, Bosun? Concerned about the danger?”

“Certainly not, Commander,” replied Hector, whose status as LEF property legally constrained him from questioning the decisions of senior officers, on pain of an artificially-induced embolism. “My charts classify this Exclusion Zone as a nature preserve, for something it calls the Mercurian Umbral Lava Worm.”

“Poor things,” nodded the Commander thoughtfully. “It’s up to us to keep them safe from being molested by outside influences.”

“But there’s no such thing as Mercurian Lava Worms.”

“No? Well, I’m not a biologist. Are you?”

“Actually I have doctorates in Physiological Modelling and Planetary Ecosystems, so -”

Commander Cello waved her fingers. “I see you’ve missed my point. This is a legal matter.”

Hector decided to risk another comment. “That’s another thing, Commander. The Teuthid Collectivists are –“


“The, er, renegade asteroid miners with the cephalopod morphology?”

“Ah, the squid-faces. What about them?”

Hector posted a looping video signal to her monitor. “They’ve been broadcasting this transmission for the past week. I’m surprised you haven’t seen it. It’s a declaration of legal independence under the Inner Solar Planetary Treaty.”

“They’re not treaty subjects. The asteroid belt’s not an inner planet. Or are you a lawyer too?”

Hector shook his head vigorously. “Not really, sir. I’m only licensed to practice in Argentina, Costa Rica and the Martian Polar Settlements.”

The transmission’s audio boomed through the bridge PA. “-wish to establish an independent colony for maternal health care purposes. Medical engineers commissioned by the Teuthid Collective have recently discovered how to remove the genetic locks preventing transmorph reproduction. We claim these unused Mercury territories, which are uninhabitable by natives of environments with natural gravity and radiation shielding. We take them as compensation for more than a century of institutional abuse and forced labour. Here we will establish a free Teuthid state, open for all transmorphs, and defend their rights and liberties until -”

Commander Cello had heard enough. She cut the recording off. This whole conversation would have to be edited out of her mission report. Nobody got clapplause for giving whiners their due. She composed herself for the cameras. “These squiddy insurrectionists have declared a state founded on illegitimate demands for self-determination and reproductive freedom. As Commander of the LEF vessel Civil Discourse, I have no choice but to execute all avenues of economic and military sanction to discourage this aberrant and probably offensive behaviour.”

“Economic, sir?”

“No, military.” Commander Cello struck a pose she judged to hit the dramatic midpoint between unwavering and bellicose. “Arm the seismic torpedos, Bosun.”

Hector let out a sharp screech which the Commander fortunately interpreted as loyal bloodlust. “Torpedos armed. Target is locked and flight telemetry is green.” He tapped on an alarm display. “The Teuthid Collective is requesting us to unlock and withdraw, Commander. They report over four hundred civilian lives including – oh, more than twenty newborns! That’s impressive work.”

“Disgusting!” declared Commander Cello. “They breed like…like…”

“I’m sure the word you’re searching for is ‘animals’, sir,” said Hector. “Incidentally it looks like our vessel has been painted by both ground-based and orbital weapons platforms.”

“What? Those duplicitous, whip-faced mobsters! How many platforms?”

The capuchin monkey scratched his chin-bristles as he totted up the bright dots on his screen. “Too many for evasive manoeuvres, sir. It looks like they’ve been planning this for a long time.” He reached out and held a tiny fist over his weapons panel. “Shall we launch all missiles and show them how things are done, Inner-Planets-style?”

Yelping, Commander Cello issued the order to deactivate weapons and scrub the targeting lock. She had turned a shade even paler than her usual lunar alabaster. But the cameras were still rolling and she had to make the best of things. “Given this new intelligence on the enemy resources and disposition, I have decided to make a strategic withdrawal to Botticelli Habitat on Venus.”

Hector tapped his navigational profile. “Course plotted and locked, Commander. Thrust sequence initiates in nineteen minutes.”

“Why so long?”

Hector unstrapped himself and clambered out of the pilot’s station. “I need a little time to power up the lifeboat and get it clear of the thrusters’ backwash. Now Commander, I’m sure you’ll be tempted but I recommend you don’t set off the neural disruption charge in my brainstem. I’ve slaved the weapons system to reactivate if my vitals cease. I don’t think the Teuthids will take kindly to another act of Lunar aggression.”

Commander Cello was dumfounded. “But you’re part of the Civil Discourse family. A trusted and valued LEF employee! What will you do down…there?”

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll find some use for a civil engineer.” Hector Cromwell saluted. “Goodbye Commander Cello.”

“You’re leaving me all alone! What will I do for a crew?”

Hector thought about that for a moment. “You could try not being such a racist.”


This week’s story, which was definitely intended to be funny and not any kind of satire at all, was inspired by (and slightly adapted from) the tremendous sci-fi pulp title generator at Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual. Other (rejected) possibilities this week included such forgotten tales as “The Titanium Airship of Betegeuse”, “The Mystery of the Unthinkable Insect”, “The Trail of the Unlicensed Vampire” and of course the horror-comedy classic “Gorilla Dentists”.
There is a non-zero chance that I will further explore the neocolonial social media exploits of Commander Adeline Cello, of the Tranquility Cellos, in a future installment. I may also write “Gorilla Dentists”, if pressed.
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