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“It looks a lot like Venus,” Ron Saunders said, looking down on the colorful planet through the ship’s main monitor. His current client had nicknamed the new planet Venus II and had brought him out to view the alien world for contract negotiations.
“Oh yeah, it’s colorful and pretty, but the clouds hide a real nasty side,” Capt. Wolff said. “If you dare go down to the surface and get a whiff of the air down there, the poisonous gases will eat right through your lungs, and then the carnivorous plant life will tear the rest of your body to pieces. The important thing in this deal is we are familiar with your terraforming experience. We need you to take out the existing plant life.”
“My price won’t be cheap,” Saunders said. “This vegetation is
really thick. Also it’s against interspace law to terraform and replace
existing native animal or plant life.” The Venus jungle reminded him of the
“It’s only plant life,” said Specialist Jane Collins in a self-defensive tone. “This isn’t animal life.”
“Yes, don’t be so damn self-righteous,” Wolff added. His hawk billed face grimaced in disgust. “We are aware of your sleazy record on Earth 7. We wouldn’t bring you all the way out here without checking your record...”
A sudden chill went through Saunders. He realized how detailed this new client was. In addition to knowing his technical abilities on this terraforming project, Wolff and Collins also knew of his slide to the other side of the law. They also probably knew that his license had recently been revoked and that he couldn’t find legitimate terraforming work. Maybe he would never be able to run away from the mistakes he made years ago. As a firm price had not been agreed upon until he surveyed the planet and this client also probably knew about his tightrope-like financial situation, he strategically decided it wise to lower his job bid.
“A million interspace dollars,” he said.
“Okay, a million. You have to start immediately and the job has to be done in three Earth months,” Wolff replied.
“Three months? Terraforming is a series of short-term and long-term processes! The complex atmosphere and temperature adjustments are long term. I can complete only the primary work in three months.”
“We have your ship in tow. With your ship and ours you have all the equipment you need to start tomorrow.” Wolff had an annoyed look on his face.
“OK. What is on the planet that you want so badly?” Saunders replied quietly.
“Uranium. You’re hired.”
Saunders nodded and looked again out of the viewer to the planet. It was going to be a difficult job, but this was very good compensation. These clients had big money behind them.
The mining company, known to most simply as “the company,” discovered this strange, new planet in an unexplored part of the galaxy. The advance search team, led by Capt. Wolff, were the first humans on the new world. The team lost four men to the man-eating plants on the first day. They lost two men on the second day, but they found rich deposits of uranium. The survivors returned to Space Station 5 and reported back to the company. The shadowy men at the top of the company were very interested in the planet's potential and immediately hatched secret plans for extracting the planet's uranium.
As the new planet was unknown to any authorities, certain options opened up. If the voracious native species of plants could be cleared away, the company could mine the planet successfully. For this promising operation, they selected the biggest star ship in the company fleet—the Cortez. The gigantic wheel-shaped ship, with supplies for five years, a full science lab, and an eight-man crew, had the power to destroy or build a world or both. They selected the very effective, but ruthless, Capt. Wolff to lead a team back to the new world.
Now they needed Saunders, the terraforming specialist, to complete the team. He would use his expertise to map out, implement and monitor the transformation from a hostile alien world to an earth-like planet capable of sustaining human life. After this terraforming job, hundreds of the diverse plant species unique to Venus II would be pushed into extinction and replaced by more manageable and less dangerous, less hungry earth plant life.
“I’d like to see the planet surface,” Saunders said.
“I’d advise against it,” Wolff said. “It’s really dangerous. On the other hand, it may create a feeling of revulsion that will add to your motivation to destroy this place.”
As Wolff turned to go, he motioned to the attractive, blond-haired Collins. Saunders knew that Collins was more than a crew member to the captain.
“You feel like coming?” he asked.
The captain abruptly turned and left the control room. Saunders followed and the two men headed for the far section of the great wheeled ship. Saunders wasn’t surprised that Collins stayed on board. She seemed a bit young for a sleaze like Wolff and a bit innocent for a job like this. “What is a nice girl like her doing in a place like this?” he thought.
In the cargo area, there were two science techs, Smith and Carter, who were checking the shuttles. Wolff selected the first shuttle and ordered Smith to join them.
Captain Wolff expertly piloted the small shuttle away from the Cortez dock and through the Venus II atmosphere. After they penetrated the thick veil of clouds, Saunders could see the dense purple and green vegetation.
“The bright colors are so intense, it almost hurts the eyes to look at it,” Saunders said.
“Yeah, you might think this vegetation is pretty, but you haven’t seen anything yet,” Wolff said with a sinister smile. “This place is really warped.” He pushed several buttons and released a fuel bomb into the dense jungle. The explosion cleared a large circular area for landing.
The shuttle landed in the middle of the jungle clearing. Donning the environmental suits, the three men stepped outside onto the charred surface. The suit and extra weight of the 1.3 earth G’s made Saunders feel bulky and sluggish. As he wandered to the edge of the blackened blast area, he was surprised at the size of the tall, purple, tree-like plants. The sloping branches and high oversized leaves blowing in the wind left large moving shadows in the dense underbrush. It left him with a spooky impression. Seeing a quick movement in the branches to his left, he turned quickly around.
“The moving shadows are spooky,” Wolff explained. “The reason we go down to the surface in threes is that we need to look in all directions. The movement that is dangerous is the creeping ground vines. The vine thing grabs you and like a python it wraps more and more vines around you until you suffocate. Those things killed two of my men on the first exploration team. Also when walking through the jungle, you really have to watch your step. You never know when you might step on one of the jaw flowers. It’s a ground plant that grabs your foot and doesn’t let go. But the most vicious species is this thing we call the Cobra. It’s in the deeper part of the jungle. It’s sort of a giant Venus fly trap. The cobra thing hides on the ground and then, in a flash, it stands up to about 20 feet and strikes at its target.”
Saunders took a step back. Like a crouching panther, the tall hostile jungle seemed to be silently watching and patiently waiting before striking for the kill. He had the uneasy creepy feeling of being watched, even though he knew there was no animal life. He got the unsettling sense that something or some kind of intelligence was watching them from behind the shadows.
“We need to leave now,” Wolff said. The men nervously turned and headed back to the shuttle. Saunders was startled to see that the lower section of the craft was covered by a strange purple-green alien moss. The fast-growing jungle was already reclaiming the land burned up by the bomb.
“Hurry up,” Wolff said. As he entered the hatch door, Saunders heard a scream through his helmet radio. He spun around and saw Science Tech Smith’s foot trapped by some kind of blue flowering plant that had sprouted from the charred ground. The man seemed to be in terrible pain.
Feeling a strange tugging on his left leg, Saunders was horrified to see a greenish alien vine aggressively wrapping itself around his suited leg.
“Ahh!” he screamed.
Wolff quickly reached over and jabbed at the hatch release. The door slammed safely shut and chopped the clinging vine in two. The vine piece that had wrapped around Saunder’s leg went slack. Both men stepped into the ship’s decontamination section.
“What about Smith?”
The captain didn’t answer and rushed through the shuttle’s decontamination process. Then he ran up front to the shuttle controls.
“What about Smith?” Saunders asked again as he moved into the shuttle co-pilot seat.
“Once those jaw flowers grab hold of your foot, they never let go,” Wolff said in a dull tone. "You have to chop off the foot. We have to worry about ourselves now. We don’t have much time.”
The look on Wolff’s face revealed the seriousness of the situation. Saunders could see that the shuttle windows were already covered with the purple-green moss. Wolff fired the engines and blasted away from the surface. The shuttle responded sluggishly at first, then headed upward at a sharp angle as Wolff, flying blind, gunned the jets. The alien moss finally fell away and the men could see out of the front viewer. Wolff piloted the shuttle into a low pass over the landing area and released another fuel bomb over the landing site. The resulting blast incinerated the landing area along with Science Tech Smith.
“It was the least I could do,” Wolff explained.
Wolff maneuvered the shuttle into a safe altitude. Then he went back to the hatch and deposited the dead piece of vine into a sterile sample container. When they finally docked the shuttle to the large mother ship, Saunders was relieved to be safely away from the planet.
Back in the science lab, Saunders threw his energies into a detailed terraforming plan. He found to his surprise that the captain had been right about the trip to the surface. The native plant life of the planet was so violently hostile that it was impossible not to develop deep, visceral negative emotions towards the strange world. It was much easier now to rationalize the morality of destroying all life on the planet.
The first step in terraforming and remaking Venus II in Earth’s image was to kill off the plant life. Saunders allocated a month for this task. Since it was easier to heat up a planet than cool it, he decided to create a runaway planetary greenhouse effect that would kill off all vegetation. Venus II had a high concentration of methane and ammonia—good greenhouse gases. He planned to set up a series of solettas (large orbiting mirrors) to be placed around the planet. He estimated he could raise the surface temperature from 100F to 900F. That should be enough to kill anything.
Next he had to reduce the amount of solar radiation on the surface. As Venus II had almost no magnetosphere, in the first month he also planned to install an artificial magnetosphere. Large solar powered electromagnets at each pole would create an effective shield that would protect fragile human beings from intense radiation from space.
In the second month, after all vegetation had been destroyed, he planned to change the temperature and atmosphere to be optimal for the support of human life. By removing the solettas and starting the removal of excess ammonia and methane, the temperature would fall. By installing solar powered converters the long-range process of converting the atmosphere would be started. The entire process would take several years, but at this point in the terraforming plan, it would be safe to walk on the planet surface in protective suits.
Another issue was the need to add extra nitrogen to the planet’s chemistry. Saunders planned to crash asteroids into the surface of the planet. He also planned, at this point, to stabilize the planet’s volatile weather patterns. Venus II had a very slow planet rotation which made for very uneven heating of the surface. The resulting sudden storms and unpredictable winds up to 250 mph were dangerous to human life. Saunders planned to utilize the ship’s tractor beam to tow the smallest of the planet’s three moons in a counter clockwise motion. The gravity pull would speed up the planet’s rotation and create days that were approximately 24 hours long.
He planned, in the third month, to introduce genetically altered earth bacteria and lichen. Several years after this primitive vegetation took hold, hardy Earth plants could be added. Originally he had planned to delete two of the world’s three moons and remove the excess salinity from the dead oceans. Now, as he realized his client wanted merely the eradication of the vicious plant life, he decided to go with three moons and salty seas. At the end of three months, he envisioned a planet safe for miners.
It was an ambitious and lengthy project. He had never undertaken a terraforming job with such a radical atmosphere change. He would have to stay for several years to monitor the temperature drop, but after the three months, they could start mining and start turning a profit.
Saunders sat back in his chair and looked at the piles of paper he created. The mapping out of the terraform plan delighted and energized him. The whole experience of the large project made him feel like a real scientist again. It made him feel young again. He vowed to himself that this was his last illegal job. He could use the money from this contract to start a new life.
The next day, under Saunder's direction, the solettas were evenly spaced in orbit around the planet and rotated to face the system’s main star. At the same time, two crews landed giant electromagnets on the poles. It was a long and eventful day period, but he still felt full of energy. He decided to stay an extra three hours in the science lab, and with great pride, powered up the electromagnets.
“All is working according to plan,” Saunders thought confidently. He wandered back to the sleeping area and took a sleeping pill to calm him and help him sleep.
The second-day tasks were completed on schedule. There was one aberration. The electromagnet at one pole was malfunctioning. Saunders was undaunted and sent a robot probe to investigate.
On the morning of the third day, Saunders had the crew install one of the atmosphere converters on the surface. Then something unexpected happened. The converter readout showed the mechanism wasn’t changing the atmosphere. He was baffled. Carter, the science tech, had informed him that the large converter mechanism was new and tested OK. The double-check on the feedback mechanism produced nothing. He stared into the monitor for hours, unable to reason why there was no atmospheric change. He was considering his options when the electromagnet at the other pole failed.
Looking at the robot probe video readout, Saunders noticed the electromagnet structure was now covered by a mass of the purple-green moss. He speculated the resilient moss had shorted the mechanism out.
“Any problems?” Wolff asked. The unexpected sound of the captain’s voice made Saunders jump.
“The fast growing moss has caused a failure of the electromagnets on the poles. It’s no big deal. After the temperature rise kills off all the vegetation, the electromagnets will kick in again. We’ve gotten the temperature of the planet to rise steadily.”
On the fourth day, the planet temperature readings showed a drop in mean temperature. By the end of the day, the planet temperature had fallen to the original position before they started terraforming. Saunders struggled to identify possible causes, but several hours later, he could no longer deny a failure. He could see no discernible increase in overall temperature. Considering the power of the orbiting mirrors, he was perplexed at the stable temperature phenomenon. A sharp voice behind him snapped him back to reality.
“I’m sick and tired of waiting on this,” Wolff said. He was in a ugly mood. Collins was behind him and had a worried look on her face.
“This is nothing like anything I’ve ever seen,” Saunders stammered. “It's like the planet is adapting to what we do and somehow dropping the temperature.”
“You’re useless! Time is money and I have to try something else,” Wolff said. “I’m going to nuke everything and flood the entire planet with radiation. That will kill all plant life and we can still turn a profit.”
“Yes, but you’ll always have to use protective suits to mine the planet.”
“Radiation will be an improvement to this hellhole!” Wolff declared angrily as he turned and walked away.
Saunders wanted to protest the captain’s radiation decision, but he couldn’t formulate a logical counter-argument. They were dealing with something unknown down there. Depressed and a little scared, he picked up his notes and left the lab for the sleeping quarters. As he walked through the storage section, he was shocked to see Collins packing supplies into Shuttle 2.
“I’m stealing a shuttle and taking off,” Collins said. “If you’re smart, you’ll join me.”
Saunders looked in stunned surprise at the determined young woman. She was giving up any share of the mining operation and abandoning her boyfriend. She was clearly shaken by this experience.
“You’re leaving Wolff?”
“Wolff was as much of a mistake as this assignment was. You should escape too. Come with me.”
“By contract, Wolff still owes me for 25 per cent of my terraforming fee.” Saunders explained.
“A 25 percent fee isn’t much to a dead person. I saw the crazy look on Wolff’s face. He gets angry and frustrated when he doesn’t know what he’s doing. As for you, you’re in way over your head.” She coldly turned away and continued to throw supplies into the shuttle.
Saunders shook his head and walked away. The chick must be crazy! In a small, slow shuttle, it would take Collins about six months to get back to civilization. He walked down to the sleeping area and collapsed on his bunk. Even though he was dead tired, an unresolved internal turmoil prevented him from relaxing and drifting into sleep. After 20 minutes of anxious turning and staring at the ceiling, he realized what was really bothering him. Some part of the deep inner workings of his mind was terrified and was screaming at him to run back and join Collins in the shuttle before it was too late.
The next day period, the great starship took 10 evenly spaced passes around the planet and systematically saturated the surface with hydrogen bombs. Saunders, his diminished role now being to merely monitor the plant life, took readings on the planet surface. After 48 hours, he was encouraged by signs that the flora was almost completely eradicated. The entire planet was dying. News of the progress put a smile on Wolff's face and seemed to raise the morale of the crew.
The smiles turned into gloom on the third day. Saunders, in his daily monitoring, was greatly surprised when the large brown patches of dead vegetation appeared significantly smaller. On the entire planet, the jungle was clearly growing back. If that was happening, these plants were the most resilient and adaptable species yet encountered by human beings.
“What the hell is going on?” Wolff shouted angrily as he looked over the figures. “How could anything take a nuke pounding and all that radiation and live?”
“I don’t know,” answered Saunders.
It was the fourth day when a strange coughing illness hit. Two crew members developed symptoms of uncontrollable coughing. Saunders noticed that both men had been working in the cargo hold. That was close to where the shuttles and the science lab were located.
He thought back to that frightening day when he ventured to the planet surface. One of the planet’s clinging vines had grabbed his leg in a vice-like grip and the closing shuttle door had chopped off a segment. Wolff had taken the vine and put it into a container. The container was then moved to the science lab. There was a possibility of contamination during the brief time before Wolff put it into the container. Another possibility was a bio leak in the science lab. If the alien vine on board gave off airborne spores...
Wolff quarantined the two ailing crew members to the science lab. No one spoke of a possible breach of the bio filters and bio contamination. If no one spoke of it, the possibility seemed less. The two crew members, fearful of the strange illness, voluntarily agreed to stay in the lab.
But 12 hours later, the two crewmembers, glassy-eyed and armed with science lab rock hammers, charged to the control room and tried to forcibly take command of the ship. One of the men hacked at Wolff. The captain raised his arm and the blow grazed his skull. Wolff fell backwards against the control panel, but managed to pull out his fully charged plasma pistol.
“Freeze or I’ll blast you a new breathing hole in your chest!”
The two crazed mutineers stopped.
“It’s plants...my head...it’s not...,” one mumbled. They both started speaking half sentences of gibberish. Wolff and Saunders took them back to the science lab and safely handcuffed them to chairs. Even though the crazed mutiny was quickly put down, seeing the unknown illness had progressed to a kind of psychosis left a chill in the crew and no one was brave enough to go to the lab and see how the two crazies were doing.
Several hours later, two more crewmembers suddenly developed the coughing illness. Before they could go out of control, Wolff handcuffed them in the science lab. Now there were only three left—Wolff, Saunders and Carter, the science tech.
“Saunders, Carter, get up here to the bridge,” said Wolff over the intercom.
“I've been monitoring the brown patches,” replied Saunders from the Lab. “They have significantly...”
“Don't worry about that now. Get up here!”
Saunders rushed to the ship's bridge. It was one of the few times he had been there.
“We’re the only non-psychos on board.” said Wolff. “I think Carter is gone. I can’t reach him on the intercom anymore. We have to leave this mad house planet before we all get the crazies and go bananas. You have to help me with the preparations.”
Saunders and Wolff both went through the calculations and the countdown checklist. Without a full crew, it was cumbersome.
“Ten minutes to leaving orbit,” Wolff said. “Someone has to check on him and make sure the cargo bay doors and cargo area are secure. I’ll control the ship and you go back and check on the cargo doors. While you are there see if...see if we have any crew left.”
Saunders knew he was right. Before they left orbit, someone had to check on the far side of the ship and Wolff was the best qualified to stay on the bridge. Without answering the captain, Saunders turned to leave, but delayed at the control room door. This was probably going to be ugly. He picked up a plasma pistol, slipped on a bio mask and gingerly walked to the far side of the wheeled ship.
The sound of his footsteps echoing off the gray metal walls made him feel more alone. There was nothing odd in the sleeping quarters. Walking slowly on, he reached the cargo bay doors. Carter was missing, but the doors were secure. He nervously activated the intercom.
“This is Saunders. The cargo bay is secure. I’m about to check the...the lab.”
“Hurry up. We leave in seven minutes.”
When he reached the lab, he nervously hit the door release and surveyed the darkened room. In the back of the science lab, in front of four chairs where Wolff had handcuffed the crewmembers, there were four large piles of purple and green moss. The infected crewmembers were in a state of metamorphosis—their bodies were in the process of turning into alien plants. Under the back science tables were some creeping vines. The vines started to move towards him making a scratching, rustling sound on the polished floor. Saunders quickly slammed the door release sealing off the lab.
Then he ran. In a state of panic, he ran in the direction of the control room. The plants were aboard the ship and growing. He and Wolf were going to have to find some way to quarantine this entire section of the ship. They would have to shut down the ventilation immediately. The damned plants probably spread via spores. Once the spores got into the ventilation they all would be breathing the plant spores and then...
As Saunders ran back past the shuttle area, he almost tripped over the...the “thing.” The sight of the thing filled him with a deep revulsion. But like a motorist seeing a dead animal by the side of the road, he couldn’t stop staring. The man—it was impossible to identify him—was completely covered by a purple-green fuzzy moss and was lying in the middle of the walkway. The thing uttered a guttural animal moan and slowly moved an arm toward him in a clumsy movement to grab him. It had to be what was left of Carter. Saunders quickly stepped around the thing and ran in a blind panic in the direction of the control room.
When he got to the control room, he was stunned to find Wolff lying on the floor sobbing.
“Try to fix it! Try to pull up!” he was hysterical. “I didn’t mean to do it! The plants got into my mind and made me put the ship into a dive.”
Realizing the captain was now infected, Saunders ran to the navigation controls. Checking the altitude, he saw that the ship was in a steep dive, entering the planet’s atmosphere and leaving a spectacular stream of fire behind. Saunders figured he could work the navigational controls, but the damn moss might be inside the computer. Looking closer, he noticed a small amount of green and purple moss on the underside of the control panel.
“The plants are inside my mind.” Wolf was whimpering and coughing on the floor.
Without the computer and flying by the seat of his pants, Saunders fired the maneuvering jets and slowed the ship’s speed. That stopped the ship from burning up. Strapping himself into the control seat, he activated the main drive. Without any qualified pilot training, he nudged power from the main drive. The ship sluggishly responded and slowed decent. Just as he thought he was going to pull the ship up and make it, he saw the ground rise up on the monitor. The first hit tore the great ship in two, and the jolt almost knocked Saunders out. The far side of the wheeled ship rolled away and burst into a ball of fire. Bouncing away, the control section flipped upside down and after several terrible bounces rolled to a stop.
Saunders unsnapped the harness straps and looked behind him. There was a gaping hole in the hull behind him. To his horror, he saw a mist consisting of plant spores and poisonous atmosphere slowly drift into the crippled ship. A few creeping vines crawled through the hole. He thought he saw one of the deadly Cobra plants rise up just outside the ship. The relentless plant monsters were coming to finish the job.
He knew they were on an illegal mission and no one knew they were out here. The cavalry was not coming. Holding his breath, he wondered if what awaited him was worse than death. He now realized that the entire planet must be alive. All along, the sinister plant life had countered all their moves. When the men first landed, the planet attempted to absorb them via spores and purple-green moss. Then it tried to attack with the man-eating plants. When the men retreated from the jungle and tried to alter the atmosphere and the temperature, the planet had adjusted. Even after the nuke attack, with an iron resiliency, the plant life had somehow adapted. Finally one of the plant samples must have given off spores that infected and assimilated the crew. Apparently, the alien intelligence logically reasoned that the only way to maintain the planet’s homeostasis was bring the ship down out of the sky. Therefore it ordered the infected crew to crash the ship.
In a flash, a Cobra plant reached through the hole in the hull and grabbed Captain Wolff in its jaws. The semi-conscious captain made a horrified whining, whimpering noise as the nightmarish vegetation enveloped him and then recoiled back outside the ship. Now Saunders was alone.
With no other options left, he sat motionless holding his breath. If he breathed the Venus II air, the atmosphere would ether poison him or the airborne plant spores would take control of his mind. He wished he could go back to the joy filled childhood days on Earth near the Amazon jungle. He wished he had never left Earth. He wished he had never let his rationalizations let his business deals drift to the wrong side of the law. He wished he had left in the shuttle with Collins.
Finally after two minutes, with his lungs bursting and tears in his eyes, he couldn’t hold his breath any longer. He drew the planet’s spores and poison atmosphere deep into his lungs.
Surprisingly, the air smelled very sweet. It wasn’t so bad. It didn’t make him feel different—at first. Then he felt the curious invasion of a separate new presence in his mind. Like a carefree ride down a children’s slide, he felt his human consciousness drift away. He knew his mind and body was being absorbed by the planet’s alien vegetation and soon he would no longer be Ron Saunders.
A mass of green-purple moss began to
creep steadily over the crash site and the stricken ship. Soon the site was
covered by a thick layer of moss. Then the crawling vines slowly climbed and
covered the ship. Great broad leaf trees and jungle vegetation sprouted from
the ground 45 minutes later. After two hours, the alien world’s absorption
process was complete. It was indiscernible that a human being had ever set foot
on the planet.
ccubed98 - And here I thought the ship would head to occupied space and begin colonization. but then who is to say the life boat was not contaminated?
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|Time Wars & other SciFi Tales|
by Gordon Rowlinson