Raymond Coulombe, Michael Gallant, Timothy O. Goyette
Harry J. Bentham
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War had reduced mankind into lowly space nomads going extra-solar, seeking refuge anywhere from their own radioactive contamination. Countless centuries of radiological and biological clean-up in the Solar System would surely be needed before Earth could be the centre of a thriving civilisation again, so a new transitional home planet was needed for rearing an enlightened and healthy population for the future. EE926 was part of the quest to find that planet. Out of a thousand modules, this was the one dispatched to the star labeled “least likely” to hold a world matching the desired criteria. With most of the experienced pilots dead in the war, only cadets were available to crew the module.
Arcturus Five, “Glimmer,” is a hot misty planet beside its orange giant star. Using extremely powerful electromagnetic telescopes in the early 2100s, it had been observed to be concealed behind a dense mist with potentially violent storms, but no probe had ever been sent out to investigate it. The mission of EE926 was to inspect that planet’s suitability with human eyes, then relay anything of interest out in all directions for all ships and colonies of humanity to hear.
In accordance with protocol, Cpt. Constan ordered Dr Spake to question Abby Posteque and record her deposition in detail in the logs. It was the one-hundred and thirtieth year of the expedition, and only the fifteenth day since the team had been roused from extra-solar sleep. Spake started, “Deposition of Posteque, Abigail. Expedition Biologist. Dated October thirteenth, 2297. You are now being recorded, Abby.”
Abby did her best to compose her tearful face, and she began, “I thought it would be a paradise when I first looked at the readings. But under all the mist covering this planet, we could not have anticipated what would be there when the module touched down. The team comprised three. That is, me, along with Security Jake Tracti and Pilot Trainee Caroline Mere.
“I remember believing instantly that there was something oddly artificial about the environment outside the module, from the moment we emerged through the airlock. The module was being rocked from side to side by the tremendous winds of the planet, and I wondered if we would have any chance at all without suits. I never imagined having to enter air with the exact same delicate composition as our own, yet still requiring the full protection of a pressure suit. I know, standard procedure is not to risk reverse-contamination by alien extremophiles, but that doesn’t mean a full pressure suit is necessary. We can avoid contamination with much simpler gear than that. But not in this case. We needed full gear because we knew our physical observations were bizarrely off anything shown by our instruments, and this discrepancy warranted the most extreme preparation.
“It was my idea to go out fully equipped, and I got objections from Tracti, who was determined to be a reckless show-off as usual. Even though I’m sorry for his fate, I still don’t take back my earlier remarks. I regret him being present on this mission at all. This was absolutely the wrong time and place for his sort.
“Steadily, the vaporous atmosphere began to whirl faster in the powerful winds, and they went perilously stronger and stronger as we gained distance from the module. The air around us began to fill with a thick, black dust that we could not identify, and it cut off our signal with the module. Losing our footing and the help of our scanning equipment, we could only wander in search of cover, and this took us to a deep gorge where we found the winds to be weaker. We took refuge there for a while, but Tracti became impatient. He paced along the rock, and wandered off into a fissure somewhere by. I don’t understand why he chose to go in, but Mere and I had no choice but to follow. He seemed to think the whole thing was a game. I don’t know what his problem was, or why he was so determined to take risks. I have already mentioned that he wanted to go without a pressure suit.
“At any rate, Caroline Mere and I were soon travelling through an immense cavity in the dark beneath the planet’s surface, and there was no sign of Tracti in sight. I could only rely on the small, weak flashlight built into the suit for any direction, and I saw wet columns and fissures of rock like you might expect at a cave interior on Earth. The possibility of life was clear. Liquid water is a common feature associated with the emergence of life. Personally, I have always thought something far more complex needs to occur chemically for a planet to get its initial organism.
“Even if we repeatedly tried to contact Tracti with our radios, we got nothing. After searching for some time, we found a large hollow, and there were lines we initially just thought were quartz veins because we did not anticipate life on the planet. These, we later saw, were tendrils. They led to the middle of the cavity, which had faint beams of orange light coming down from Arcturus.
“The organism had taken hold of Tracti’s body, and he was unconscious. I can only describe the organism as a spider plant, because it grew in much that way. It had smaller organisms attached to the ends of some of its spines and tendrils, seeming to grow their own vines. But it wasn’t a plant. It was a very animate creature, as we found when it snatched us by our ankles and pulled us towards it. It rose, and we saw that Tracti’s helmet had been removed. The tendrils were like feelers, moving and probing, and had found their ways into Tracti’s head through his mouth. His head was spinning in what may have been an altered state of consciousness, and the feelers had moved their way into his brain for greater communicational bonding. This presented a terrible disaster for us, because we would lack the ability to safely remove Tracti. If we used our cutting lasers to kill the creature, Tracti would surely die with it. Our best chance was to attempt to communicate.
“I introduced myself and our party to the creature, as we had been instructed to do in our training. I never thought a cadet like me would be given such an honour as alien contact, but that was our misfortune here. Apparently, it was not satisfied. Either it didn’t understand us, or it wanted more direct contact. It was plucking at our suits, trying to make direct contact with our flesh. Maybe that's how it communicates, I thought, so I did not resist yet. My cutter was ready to intervene if it tried anything dangerous against me, so I ordered Caroline to let the animal continue. If it needed our suits off to communicate non-verbally with us, then our suits would come off. Only if it threatened our lives, would I be permitted to act violently according to protocol. To my relief, the creature was satisfied to only depressurise our suits, and a strange odour leaked into mine from the creature’s lair immediately. My brain was becoming lazy, and I was losing concentration. A drug! If I had known, I might have used the last bit of my strength to fire my cutter and rid myself of the creature's nasty touch.
“I was unable to stop myself falling into a semi-conscious vision, allowing me to see a message from the creature’s mind in a series of glimpses. It was communicating with me. Me, because I had tried to initiate communication with it! Although Caroline was still in its clutches, I was satisfied that it was not invading her mind. It was working non-verbally with me, listening in on my central nervous system to gain entry to my thoughts. Isn’t it curious how what we can only do with a neural interface, the alien could do naturally by laying its tendrils at key nervous points on our bodies?
“Though I could not see the creature’s own images, it juxtaposed my own memories to create a weird chain of re-lived experiences that showed the alien’s story and the source of its paranoia. I saw, again, the merciless destruction of the Mars colonies by our sonic charges in the closing chapter of the War. The alien, like us, was at war. The whirling fires of the explosions that had ravaged the Earth were equivalent to the spinning storms of black dust on the planet’s surface. Between factions of these budding intelligences taking refuge in the planet’s chasms, there was a feud that could not be resolved. Despite all the intimacy with which they can communicate, even these beings could not resolve the differences among themselves enough to coexist with their own kind. The beings had other projections, like their tendrils, that could reach many miles into the sky and electrify the atmosphere. Doing this, they were generating the massive storms of Arcturus as weapons against one another’s colonies, and such storms had ravaged almost all other life on the planet’s surface. Exactly as it was with our own species, the intelligence in these plant-like things had driven them down an insurmountable path of war and self-destruction, and I was just another enemy.
“As I was broken from the vision, I saw Caroline had already fired her cutter in reaction because the creature had removed my helmet and would act out the same bonding that already killed Tracti. Perhaps it wanted to drain all my knowledge, and confiscate us as food. Caroline’s resistance aroused the animal's fury and it turned to her, tearing her suit and mauling her in such a way that I could not help without endangering both her and the creature.
“Finally, I resolved that I was entitled to kill the alien in self-defence, because it was the source of the storm and other greater evils on the planet, and it had displayed no intent other than malevolence and a desire to destroy us. I aimed my cutter to the centre of the mass of tendrils, and fired. It crackled as it weakened under the rays, and the odour became even fouler until I stopped. I cannot say for sure that the alien had died under the beam of the cutter, but it had definitely ceased to pressure Caroline's body. I was too late to save her from the smothering mass, and she was asphyxiated in the minutes before I had disentangled her body. If the alien had been destroyed under the rays, it made sure to kill Caroline with its last dying grip.
“I regret how I responded. If Caroline had only saved herself instead of trying to protect her superior officer from the creature, she might still be alive. I should never have tried to carry out contact with the organism. I should have treated the creature as hostile, the instant I saw what it had done to Jake in the hollow. I have digressed. Let me continue with how the mission concluded.
“The storm had ended, as I had terminated the alien’s tampering with the atmosphere, and I was successful in recovering both bodies from the cave. For the record, let me say that Caroline Mere is just one more name in the list of pilots who died empty deaths, deaths without meaning, due to the poor decisions of their superiors. I pledge that nothing like this will happen again, as long as I am an officer and I am able to intervene. Also, although Tracti put us all in jeopardy by investigating something without correct adherence to expedition protocol, he–.” She choked, unable to suppress her depression under the cold composure required in her deposition, “– I wish both of them were still here. I wish – I’m, sorry. You have the rest on file.”
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