Three spacefarers embark on a rescue mission to a newly discovered mineral-rich planet that harbors a dangerous secret; by Eric Dawson.
|Image generated with OpenAI
From far away, the ship looks like the silver-gray carapace of a beetle, somehow discarded and floating in the depths of space. As it draws closer, it appears more streamlined: a Spanish galleon slicing through an obsidian ocean.
Inside are all the trappings of a late 23rd-century space exploration vessel: splices of metal interwoven with spirochete-like wires and sinewy tendons of titanium, some like branches and others more like the antenna from a 1950s-era radio.
Along one of the corridors, burrowed deep inside the viscera of the ship, a woman. A woman sound asleep – or almost. Her eyes flicker.
Emily didn’t even have to open her eyes to sense the hovering presence. She couldn’t stand it when anyone watched her sleep, which was just one of the reasons she’d always refused hibernation flights; now, though, with the gravity problem virtually solved, she didn’t have any excuses to not go anymore – beyond, of course, just not wanting to go. For her to maintain her engineer status, however, it was time: she needed this flight.
She opened her eyes. Captain Anders Collins stood in the doorframe of her cabin, his face its usual mask of seriousness – a nice but dull ruminant, she thought. How long had he been standing there? She stretched, stood, avoided eye contact. Though he was, technically, the captain, their history allowed for a little less formality. Plus, it was only a three-person run anyway; no need for excessive hierarchy.
“We close?” she asked.
“You can see it,” Anders said. “Come look.” He was tall, with salt-colored hair and gray eyes.
Emily pulled her hair into a tight ponytail, nodded, brushed past him, and headed down the corridor to the main flight deck. He waited a beat to examine the small paperback books on her nightstand, wondering where she’d found actual books, then followed close behind.
Emily stood in the small command center, studying the screen with the quilt-patch of cosmos that lay before them.
“There,” he said, pointing. “It just came up.”
Amongst the stars scattered like bioluminescent organisms in the ocean depths, floated one dot that looked like all the rest but with a slight orange tint. It was a tiny, flickering speck: a planet. The planet.
“Hmm,” she said. The captain was clearly waiting for her to say something, but what was there to say? They’d come out of the space fold just fine, so her job was essentially done; now it was just a question of gliding in, of hitting the right spot.
“Any recent communications?”
“An hour ago,” he said.
“But not a recording. You’re sure.”
Anders sighed. Emily could be tiring, but she was one of the best in her field, and he’d been glad she was the one assigned to this mission. Of course, it would also give him a chance to show her who he really was. He knew he shouldn’t have made that clumsy attempt at an almost-kiss back on oasis leave. He’d felt lonelier than usual, and maybe the drinks hadn’t been the best idea, but he’d realized what he’d done before even seeing the look of shock on her face. He was a respected commanding officer, in line for further promotions, and though he didn’t want to apologize, he could still show her that one stupid moment wasn’t who he really was. For the entire two months of their trip, he had been nothing but professional.
“We ran the voice analytics again and it’s really him.”
She meditated on the miniscule orange orb, and tried to imagine what could possibly be on its surface, tried to imagine Ramirez down there – alone, but perhaps not entirely. Technically, this was a rescue mission. Technically.
There were three of them: Captain Anders Collins; engineer Emily Picache; and Jimmy Thompson, biologist. Three of them, if you didn’t count the little detail of the twenty weaponized robots in the hull, informally known as “Defense Unit Droids.” Emily referred to them as “Duds,” like her own little joke, but in reality, they terrified her. It didn’t make sense why the sleek, black, metal-encased robots even needed to be there, and though she’d only asked once, she knew the answer would always be the same: a precautionary measure. Isn’t that what the higher-ups always said? It was nothing more than a way to flex muscle, to let anyone else know who had the power.
She’d only gone down into the hull twice on this mission, and that’s where she’d seen them. They were the size of linebackers, racked against the wall and standing with heads bowed like some sort of robot prayer group. Or assault rifles propped against a barracks wall. There was no need to bring them along, and even if they did encounter something, one droid, even one, would be enough to wipe out several city blocks. But twenty?
Which was yet another reason she wanted to retire early. The space program, which had begun with the stated mission to explore and learn, had almost instantaneously morphed into a wholesale militarized industry. Because the exploratory trips had become precisely what the critics had predicted: missions to acquire resources.
They hadn’t even known about the planet until Ramirez’s signal, and then, after examining it, the Agglomerate was as happy as a faceless multinational organization could be. Why? Because the planet’s atmospheric signature was off-the-charts undeniable: that little orange dot seemed to harbor every mineral anyone could possibly want, along with some additional ones they didn’t even recognize.
Still, this was a rescue, which was one of the reasons she’d agreed.
Along, of course, with the person they were rescuing: reconnaissance agent Luis Ramirez, a fact that in and of itself made things complicated.
An hour later, Emily Picache found Anders examining the plants in the greenhouse. The plants were Thompson’s job, specifically, but they all liked spending time in the room; the small chamber was a place where they could almost feel like being back on Earth. It had only been out in the vastness of space where she’d realized how much she loved being around plants; to simply see them and touch them brought her solace because plants, she’d come to realize, were home.
The greenhouse was only thirty by thirty feet, but it was crammed with dozens of rows of herbs and vegetables, all growing hydroponically under an array of multi-colored lamps. Anders, the same man she knew had led fierce battle raids against contraband pirates, now stood over a small bean plant, examining it as if it were a newborn baby. Without looking up, he spoke.
“Even in ancient Mexico, they’d figured it out,” he said, almost to himself. “The Aztecs knew to grow corn, squash, and beans together because…” he stopped himself. “You know all this. I’m being condescending. Sorry.”
She did know these things, and he knew that she knew them, but talking about the plants had become an almost sacred ritual, like having something they could all agree on.
Two of the tentacles from one of the cucumber plants had become entangled, like a green double helix. She gently tried to untwist them as she spoke, but realized it was useless.
“Listen,” Emily said. “We’re almost there, and you know I respect mission regulations, but can you please just give me a little more information?” She gently adjusted one of the bean vines that had flopped over the side of its box. “I agreed to come. I’m already here, so I’d just like to have a better sense of what we think we’re getting into.”
The fact is, although she hadn’t heard the actual recordings, she’d seen the initial record of communications from Ramirez – even though she hadn’t been supposed to. The transcript of the distress calls reflected the usual pattern: first, the short, written messages with just a few words, and then, a few months later, the voice recordings. The initial one-line written messages, which simply informed of the crash and location, were part of the normal systems protocol. Even with most communications down, those messages would still transmit. But then the voice recordings later seemed to suggest two things: first, that Ramirez’s communications had been fixed, and second, that something intelligent seemed to have helped him. Based on the crash analytics she’d seen, there didn’t seem to be any way he could have gotten the communications up and running on his own.
“What do you want to know?” Anders asked, now bending down to examine the feathered greens of some carrots, brushing them lightly with his fingers.
“What did the voice recordings say? Is Luis okay?” She’d slipped on that one, using Ramirez’s first name. Did the captain realize she’d known Reconnaissance Agent Ramirez from before, had had an actual relationship with him? And was that, perhaps, the reason she’d been asked to come in the first place? She hadn’t said so at the time, but it was the main reason she’d agreed – even though she didn’t care about the relationship any longer. Everyone knew that Reconnaissance agents weren’t good for romance to begin with; the life was too lonely and involved too much time away. It was like they needed solitude, required it like other people needed… well, other people. But still. She wanted to know if he was okay.
The captain walked along the row with its chaotic profusion of plants, reached up to touch a tendril from a cucumber. “Agent Ramirez is okay,” Anders said. “But it’s still interesting. The first three voice recordings simply confirmed location and condition of the ship, just as a well-trained Reconnaissance agent knows to do. But then,” he paused, bending to smell the delicate flower of a melon plant, “what followed seemed different.”
Emily waited. She wanted to know, but she was scared to push too hard. The Agglomerate was strict about mission protocols, especially regarding who knew what.
“He said there was life. He thought it may even be intelligent, can you believe that? And even stranger, on several of the transmissions, he used a word that surprised me.”
“What was that?” Emily asked.
“Beautiful,” Anders said. “He used the word beautiful.” The captain turned to her, nodded. “And he said everything was okay.”
“He said that?” she asked.
“Yes,” Anders said. “But we’ll know more soon. See you on deck when you’re ready.”
Emily felt off balance. All this time, she’d been worried, wondering if Ramirez was in real danger, but now, what did it all mean? And beautiful? She strained to imagine what the world they were going to might be like. She leaned against the side of the ship’s corridor. It was a late model of the organic-structure vessels, one of the new ships that could actually regrow certain parts, like a starfish regrowing an arm or a salamander sprouting an entirely new limb. Parts of the ship felt like the bark of an oak, but here it was as smooth as an aspen’s trunk.
She thought of the dormant robots in the hull and tried to imagine what life could be like on that small, pulsing speck of orange. Would they be offering their plants as a gift, or would the machines lying in wait below need to be called upon? She started to leave the greenhouse, but heard a shuffle down the corridor, then a soft metallic click. Jimmy Thompson stood outside one of the micro-vaults, sliding the safety bar closed. How could he have access to one of the vaults? And why hadn’t she been told? She wanted to accost him, to ask, but instead retreated back into the greenhouse, pretending she hadn’t seen a thing.
“Dinner time,” Jimmy Thompson announced. He always kept his wristwatch on, so he’d always know what time it was back on Earth – in Colorado, specifically, where he was from. Thompson never let the others forget a mealtime, and Emily liked that about him. She could get lost in her own work, so it was a nice reminder to be human. They sat down at the table in the dining nook like a little family of three, and she thought about mentioning the vault in a casual sort of way, but decided to watch first. Jimmy seemed fine, happy as ever.
“Almost as good as home,” Thompson said, ladling mashed potatoes onto plates. Anders smiled. The food was, at best, flavorless, but they liked to pretend otherwise. Emily served the steamed spinach, looked over at Thompson. He was a kid, practically. Was he even thirty? She liked to razz him about being so into biology (“who cares about life?” she’d joke), but she loved how passionate he was about virtually any living thing. Whatever the day, he could always manage to talk about symbionts. Or elephants. Or bees. Or even bacteria and viruses.
Thompson took a chomp out of his reconstituted chicken, tough like a leather coat sleeve. “Disgusting,” he said. “All the technology in the world, and they couldn’t make food in space just a little better?”
Anders ate without complaint, only glancing up at the other two between bites.
Emily felt uneasy with the silence, as she usually did. What could be in the vault? Her heart lurched as one searing possibility entered her brain, followed by a quick post-script: impossible. Could Jimmy, sweet Jimmy, be responsible for bringing a virus to the planet? She’d heard rumors, but never confirmations, that sometimes the Agglomerate kept such measures as a backup. But there was no way he’d be in charge of such a thing. And no way the captain would have allowed it. Still, it would explain the reason they’d brought a biologist along on a rescue mission, wouldn’t it? She’d thought about asking subtle, indirect questions to gently lead Jimmy around to the topic, but suddenly lost patience.
“What’s in the vault?” she asked, turning to Jimmy. “I saw you go into it today.”
Jimmy took a sip of water, placed his glass down carefully on the table.
“Smallpox samples, that’s all,” he said.
“Kidding. What do you think we’re doing here? It’s just some samples for experiments. A few different microorganisms.”
“Bacteria, mostly. But all harmless to us,” he said.
“But to be weaponized for later?”
Jimmy twirled his fork on the table. “You really don’t trust the Agglomerate, do you? I mean, I get it, but sometimes experiments are just experiments.”
Emily wasn’t at all sure she could believe him.
The captain leaned back in his chair. “Besides, wouldn’t the Agglomerate be more original if they wanted to destroy life on a planet? With all their technology, they’d be able to come up with something more inspiring than the modern-day equivalent of delivering syphilis to the natives, don’t you think?”
“So you’re saying they have thought about ways to eliminate a planet’s life?” Emily asked.
“Contingency plan,” Anders said.
“I know, I know, precautionary measures, right? If I hear that phrase one more time, I’m going to lose it.” Emily slammed her fork down on the table harder than she’d intended.
Anders shook his head.
In that moment, she felt herself click over to a slightly more aggressive stance; the sense that one of them was hiding something had begun to well up inside her. And now they seemed to be playing with her.
“This isn’t just a rescue, is it, Captain? I read a synopsis of Ramirez’s transmissions, and his ship actually crashed four years ago. Isn’t that so?”
“How’d you get -?” Anders asked.
“We all have friends,” she said, “working at different levels of the Agglomerate.”
“But what’s the point?” Thompson asked, sensing Emily’s ire.
“The point is this. We didn’t start organizing this mission until four months ago, so why, when the Agglomerate can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, didn’t it see the need to organize this mission until it caught wind of the fact that there might be cobalt on that little orange dot? Or whatever else might be hidden under those rocks. Am I right, Captain?”
The table fell silent.
Anders stared straight ahead for a moment, as if trying to decide how much to share. Then, at last, he spoke. “Fair enough,” he said. “This is a rescue mission, but those mineral signatures in the planet’s atmosphere did inspire the process to move faster.”
“So is this all about minerals, then? Minerals we can suck out of another planet like a tick that sucks blood?”
Anders remained calm, but his voice sounded firm. “Your reality is too binary. Too black and white. There’s possibility of food out there, and who knows what else? Also, think about the knowledge we could gain: there’s actual life on that planet. Ramirez has confirmed it. We just don’t know what. So yeah, there are minerals to mine, but this is about so much more than rocks in the ground.”
Emily should have been sleeping, but she’d given up – opting instead to do a little workout in the gym. Sometimes, she found, even a few minutes of exercise could help her reset. Why was she always in such a terrible mood on missions? Space travel always did this to her. She stretched out one of the bands fastened to the wall, felt the burn in her right tricep, and listened to the hum of the ship. Would Ramirez care when he saw her? Was he lonely, ready to give up the life of a Reconnaissance agent? They’d known each other long before the Academy, before he’d even gone to Reconnaissance school, and when she’d found out what he was training for, she’d started calling him “Renaissance man” to tease him, but out of a deep respect, too. After all, R-agents were special. The world saw them as a mixture of explorers but with the solitary wherewithal of snipers. They could last years in solitude, and though the physical training was tough enough, the mental part, everyone said, verged on the impossible. She’d heard rumors that if you broke, you couldn’t even return to society; supposedly, there was even a home for washed-out Reconnaissance agents in one of the mountain towns back on Earth. The training was known to involve experiences with psilocybin and sensory deprivation tanks, but with the purpose of entering the darkness to then confront whatever you found there. Like virtually every religious prophet who went into the wilderness.
So were R-agents prophets, or just sad loners who could put up with some tough mental training? She’d always wondered about plant-based hallucinogens, but could the plants actually be talking to the humans, once ingested? Ramirez had never once spoken of his training, despite how often she’d asked. Hell, maybe he’d just done a bunch of sit-ups and called it a day.
“You love adding to the mystery,” she’d told him once. “One more guy in a secret club.” But as she’d said it, she’d been stroking his hair, imagining if it could be possible to have a future with a Reconnaissance agent. Or if either of them would even want to.
Mid band pull, she heard it: a ping from the flight deck. Then another. A message had come through. They were close enough to talk to him, to actually talk. Throwing the towel over her shoulder, still dripping with sweat, she ran to the control room. Apparently, the receiver had been pinging for a while because Anders was already there, already flipping dials.
“Agent Ramirez. Are you there? Agent Ramirez, do you copy?” He didn’t have to use the word “copy,” but he liked the sound, made him feel like he was in one of those old movies he watched back in his cabin. He rotated the knob under the speaker and waited, but only silence answered. Emily looked to the monitor; the orange orb was now the size of a nickel.
“Agent Ramirez, we’re coming for you. We should be landing within twelve hours.”
More silence and empty space. What if, she wondered, the SOS had been a recording, sent out automatically, and Ramirez were already lying dead somewhere? They would have come all this way for nothing.
“Here,” a voice said, clear but distant, like a whisper in the darkness.
The captain leaned closer to the microphone. “Do you read? This is Salamander Vessel 3271, operated by Captain Anders Collins. This is a rescue mission. Do you copy?”
Then, static, and… a laugh. “All good,” the voice said. “It’s so nice to hear. I’ve been waiting a lifetime, it feels like.” It was Ramirez. But did his voice sound flat? He hadn’t been a gushy guy to begin with, but had the training done that to him? Or the solitude? Emily pressed her face close to the mic.
“What’s it like there?”
Could he recognize her voice? Would he?
“It’s beautiful,” Ramirez said. “You must come see for yourself. It’s hard to describe, I can’t…” and then a whirlpool of static engulfed his voice.
But there was the word again. What did it even mean? Birds were beautiful – and intelligent. As were dolphins. Were humans beautiful?
They only had a few hours to go. They’d eaten their protein bars, and now checked and re-checked the equipment for landing. Anders had just returned from the hull, and Emily eyed him questioningly.
“The droids?” she asked.
“Protocol,” he said.
“But we know it’s safe. Agent Ramirez is down there, has been down there for years.”
Anders shrugged. “I prefer to be cautious whenever possible.”
Had Ramirez’s voice sounded desperate, eager to return? Not as desperate as hers would have been, but then again, that was Luis.
One hour from landing, and their suits were on, all fully prepped and ready. Thompson had given a more detailed rundown of the planet’s vitals, and he was excited. There were real signs of life there, he said. Significant life. But still, he added, in a by-the-way sort of manner, it would be impossible for them to breathe.
“Impossible?” Emily asked.
She imagined Ramirez in or near his ship that whole time. Reconnaissance vessels were designed for long survival runs, but she still couldn’t fathom what his life must have been like, training or not.
And then, in a sudden rush of the present entangling itself with the future, they arrived. After the months of planning, then the worry, then the single orange dot on the screen, it had all converged into a moment and a planet on which they now walked.
Their boots crunched small pebbles, and in the pale selenian sky hovered three globes, each a slightly different shade of crimson. The distant sun offered only a dusk-like illumination of the landscape. Thompson had been joyous, examining everything that looked like it might not be a rock, and Emily wondered if he could ever be someone who’d release something biologically destructive on another planet. Did he have it in him?
But Thompson wasn’t there at the moment; he’d gone off to examine a metallic flash they’d seen just to the west of their ship. They’d all observed it as they were landing, and though Thompson had thought it a huge lake, Emily wondered if it might have even been another ship, somehow.
During the descent, they’d seen distant peaks interlaced with massive cirques – filled with what looked like either snow or salt, she couldn’t tell. Maybe they were diamonds, for all she knew.
Anders and Emily stood in the middle of what appeared to be a forest, but had they been on Earth, she would have thought they were underwater. The “trees,” which is what Thompson referred to them as, looked like giant coral. Or lichen. They were pink and knotted, with branches that tendrilled out into smaller and smaller florets. A few times, she thought she’d seen movement amongst the branches, like a bug or bird flitting here and there, but she knew her mind was just playing tricks. Thompson had said the growths seemed to be alive, but they weren’t a life form based on carbon. And the air had no oxygen either. Several of the elements coming up on their monitors were entirely unidentifiable.
“Where’s Ramirez’s landing site?” she asked. She knew, but she just needed to keep talking. Something felt off to her; maybe, after having been confined to their ship for so long, it was just frightening to be back out in the open. And in a strange new world – with life, and another person, somewhere out there in the golden distance.
“Just over that ridge,” Anders said. And then he turned to Emily, looked at her through the heavy-plated visor of his helmet. “You good?” he asked.
“All good,” she said. She lowered her hand to where the transponder was attached to her belt. The drones lay dormant on the ship, but two rapid clicks would summon them instantaneously.
Suddenly, from behind one of the lichen-coral formations, a form. Willowy and tall like a worm held upright, the thing had no arms or legs, and it moved as if invisible centipede legs lay just underneath. It also had no face, but the center of its body held ten small, black circles. She couldn’t tell if they were eyes, mouths, ears, or nostrils, but the formation reminded her of a spider’s eyes. The creature stopped before them, stood seven feet tall, and wavered like a grasshopper in the sunlight. Or an eel emerging from its underwater cave.
Anders and Emily stood their ground, both with fingers on their transponders, but then, simultaneously, they lowered their hands and relaxed their bodies. A hum had just arisen – from the creature, perhaps, or possibly from the ground itself. Or the lichen-like trees. In that moment, they understood the creature posed no threat. The hum was gentle and soft, a song without any clear melody, like what one might have heard in an ancient church. The buzzing vibration was warm, and it reached deep inside them, and she not only felt that she’d be safe, she knew it. For several minutes, the worm-like creature, with its round apertures, stood before them, and she felt the universe unspooling itself deep inside her, offering hints of a luminous and layered knowledge. It felt like an eavesdropped conversation, barely heard, but containing untold secrets, and she began to think on a level that was no longer originating from within herself. She felt lightheaded, almost euphoric.
Emily didn’t know how long the creature stood before them, but it might have been only a minute – or as long as an hour. And was it communicating, even? Could pure emotion be called communication? Could energy? And then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the creature left, gliding like a snail past them, back into the coral trees.
Anders pointed, still not saying a word. On the ground, a crab-like animal the size of a Great Dane scuttled out from a hole in the earth, and then, upon seeing them, returned just as quickly. Several more emerged, but they too also retreated.
“Not all life here is intelligent,” he said. “Just like on Earth.”
But what was the worm-like creature from before? Emily wanted to talk about it, but she couldn’t find the words. Her brain was on high alert and simultaneously relaxed, similar to what she’d experienced from Sapiens-B, the pill that had been the latest rage back on Earth. It was that feeling, but with a bliss that that hinted at a profounder meaning and connectedness. And she sensed a gentleness in this landscape, now merging with her own understanding of herself.
Would the beings fight? Could they fight? She actually wasn’t worried for herself any longer; she just wanted to know more about whatever the creature was, and if there were others.
Also, an even stranger thing: she felt a twinge of fear for the creatures. Because she knew what would happen next. If there really were minerals and, heaven forbid, some sort of food source, then the pattern would be the same: Earth, headed by the Agglomerate, would colonize and take over, as countries had done to one other back on Earth for centuries. And as they’d done to the planets of Quetz and Huitz almost immediately after the space fold had been discovered. Those poor planets barely knew what had hit them. The only life was bacteria, the official reports had said, but now she wondered.
Then there he was: a man outside the ship, waving. He was still far away, and distance on the twilight planet was harder to gauge, but there he stood, a clear vision in the distance: Luis Ramirez, in full space suit, right arm waving happily in the air. The wave was a simple, universal gesture back on Earth, but here, it seemed jarringly out of place. He was like a man on a porch, waving to friends. Still, she waved back. Would he react to her being there? Would he gush, effusive? No: she didn’t want to be let down, so she told herself to expect professionalism, nothing more. And hopefully gratitude. She started to ask Anders to call Thompson, to tell them they’d found Ramirez, but then she saw the captain’s hand, fingers moving over the transponder’s single rectangular button.
She called Thompson over the mic herself. “All good, Thompson? We’re close to Ramirez, and he seems fine. We’ll be able to wrap up the important part of this mission soon, seems like. You okay? What was the reflection, anyway? Are you seeing a lake or what?” They’d taken bets. Jimmy had bet on what he was hoping for: a lake. Even if not Earth water, it would probably still support life of some sort on this planet.
“You okay, Thompson?” she asked again.
And then his voice came on, and she felt a wave of relief. Why was she so on edge? Hadn’t Ramirez already confirmed this place as safe?
“All good here.” Thompson’s voice was staticky and distant, perhaps from some sort of interference in the atmosphere itself, but she could still make it out. “Strange moment,” he said from across the distance. “I just met two… beings. Like humans,” he said. “But not.”
Emily’s heart elevated. Humans here? What did “like but not” even mean?
“Men, women, what?” she asked.
“Women, I think,” Thompson said, “but not exactly. Still, they were elegant. I think they spoke to me, but I’m not sure. They had no weapons, and after a moment, they just disappeared back amongst the rocks, almost floating.”
“Not exactly women? What are you talking about?” Emily asked, feeling tension rising in her throat.
“They were… serene,” Thompson said. “That’s all I can say. And -” his voice cut off; it sounded like he’d stumbled.
“You okay?” she asked.
“All good,” he said. “But I see it now. I see…” his voice trailed off again.
She and Anders were within two hundred meters of Ramirez’s ship; he’d lowered his arm, and was walking towards them slowly.
“Definitely seeing metal out in that valley,” Thompson announced over the radio. “Not a lake, but lots of flashes in the light of the sun.”
“Ramirez is coming to meet us. We’re almost to him. All good? Let us know what you see, then let’s all convene back at the ship,” Emily said.
“Sure,” Thompson said, “but remember: there are lethal levels of toxins in the air here. I don’t know what these plants are made of, but nothing on Earth could survive this place. Don’t go for a run with your helmet off is my point.”
“I won’t,” she said. She wondered: could there be water somewhere? She’d seen liquid diamonds on one planet earlier in her career. And she’d heard of helium rain. But what else might be out there?
Anders, Emily, and Luis were all within feet of one another. Ramirez stopped, extended his hand
“It’s so good to see you guys. It’s been a long time. Too long, even for a Reconnaissance agent. Thank you. Is that you, Emily? Yes. Oh, God. I’m so glad.” And though his face remained passive, his voice hinted at a deeper emotion. Though the suits were large and heavy, he reached out to touch her hand; she felt the gentle squeeze through the glove.
“We’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” she said.
“Definitely,” Ramirez answered. “And we’ll have time.”
She had so many questions – about the planet, about him, but then a garbled message came through her earpiece. Thompson?
She called once more. “Jimmy? You okay? I thought I heard something from you. What are you seeing?”
A full minute passed, and she was about to call again, but then he spoke.
“Ships,” he said at last. “Dozens of them. Actually, hundreds. From who the hell knows where. But all different types. Some belong to the Agglomerate, but most of the others… I’ve never seen anything like most of them before. Some are as small as a football, others as large as a battleship. But all ships. Strange shapes and sizes, not always metal. Maybe hundreds of them, all neatly lined up in rows.”
Ramirez had stopped only a few feet before Anders. Watching Emily’s face closely, he smiled and, in one quick move, pulled off his helmet.
“Here,” he said to the captain, “now let me help you with yours,” and before Anders could do anything, Ramirez had wrenched the helmet off the suit, and Emily watched in horror as, not even a second later, Anders’ eyes bulged and he fell, spluttering, to the ground. Veins rose on his neck and forehead, and his eyes, now horribly bloodshot, seemed to no longer see anything.
“Don’t be scared, Emily,” Ramirez said. “I’m still me, Luis. I can explain everything.”
She stared at him. It was Ramirez and wasn’t. How was he even breathing without a helmet? What had just happened? Up close, she could see small, pink lichens in his nostrils, and around them, she noticed for the first time, small packs of what looked like an almost invisible pollen glistening in the crepuscular air. What if, she thought, what if the being they’d seen earlier wasn’t the intelligent species on this planet? Or the crab. Or the “elegant” female beings. Or even they themselves, for that matter. What if the intelligence lurked in the lichen-like trees? Or the packets of pollen in the air. Or. She stopped. Ramirez smiled.
The planet itself.
“I know you don’t want to die like the captain, so the only other choice is to do nothing. This place is entirely welcoming, so just embrace it, as I did, and you’ll be able to not only breathe, but breathe like you’ve never breathed before. So just accept this place, and relax into the cycle. I’m still here, I’m still me. See? Just do nothing. The planet has already introduced itself to you.”
She took a step back. “But Anders,” she said. “Why?” She could barely get the words out. The captain lay on the ground, his face now dark purple. Spittle had formed at the edges of his mouth.
“You’re not Luis,” she said, taking another step back. “Luis would never do that.”
Luis nodded like a parent might nod when about to explain something simple to a child. “He wasn’t on the same emotional wavelength as you – or even your friend Jimmy out there. He wasn’t trusting enough. I didn’t want to have to deal with such complications.”
She wanted to run, to yell at him, to scream to the heavens. They’d flown through a space fold, traveled months with the Agglomerate, spending millions, and for what? To die on an orange planet with poison air?
In that instant, the radio cut through. She wanted to tell Thompson, to tell him to run, but Ramirez studied her closely, not moving even the slightest muscle in his face. She clicked on her mic so Thompson could at least hear their conversation. Whatever had Ramirez in its thrall might not respond well to violence. She knew to remain calm. But maybe… And then she thought it: the droids would help. They could wipe out the whole damn lichen forest, wipe out Ramirez and his ship, and anything else that scurried up from the depths of this place. They could do a targeted assault. Or just incinerate everything, herself be damned. She kept her voice calm.
“Don’t you want to come home?” she asked, looking into Luis’s eyes, searching for any glimmer of what looked like the old Luis.
“I’m good,” Ramirez answered. “But don’t you see? You’re looking for the old me, and I’m still here, but I’m better and stronger now. I could live forever – or close enough, in Earth terms.” He spoke quickly, as if wanting to convince her. “And that sense of intelligence you caught a glimpse of, that you felt from that being? That was just the tip of the iceberg. You could be immersed in a sea of understanding. Just immerse yourself now,” he said, laughing.
She lowered her hand slowly, her fingers only inches from the transponder. Could he sense what she was about to do? Could he even know about the droids? He hadn’t seemed to notice, or care.
“I’m only laughing because I haven’t spoken with words for years, and language feels clunky and unnecessary in my mouth. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But now I do. I have tasted the cosmos, Emily.”
Emily shifted her body backwards. He sounded like himself in voice and manner, but who was he really? She took another step back, not too obvious, to create more space between them for when the droids came.
“Just come home,” she said. “Because if it’s true what you’re saying… if it’s true, then you can help humanity. Imagine.”
And then, in that instant, she saw the situation with clarity, and she knew she’d made her choice. She would do what she had to do without any more planning or preamble. She placed her hand on the button, fully expecting a reaction from Luis, but he remained calm and in place. She pressed it twice, two fast clicks, and held her breath: within seconds, the droids would be here in swarms, lighting up the whole valley. And maybe she’d die, but it didn’t matter now anyway. They’d obliterate everything.
But where were they?
Luis stepped forward, vague smile quivering on his lips. The droids had been programmed to avoid friendly fire – and, more specifically, them. She clicked the button again, then twice more. No: she hadn’t missed. There was still nothing.
Suddenly, like a flash of inspiration, Thompson’s voice broke over radio just as she saw him on the ridge. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I got ’em.” She felt her second wave of relief of the day. Thank God for Thompson; he’d been listening the whole time, and he had control over the droids. Never had she wanted to see an army of weaponized robots so badly. And if she ran, maybe she could get away fast enough.
Ramirez saw Thompson on the distant ridge, and he smiled up at him, waved as he had to the others. The captain on the ground now had green bile oozing from his mouth and nose.
“Come on over,” Ramirez said, “and bring them too, please: the droids could come in handy later.”
And with that last word, the platoon of metallic droids, shining in the sun, rose up behind Thompson on the ridge. And then she knew. She clicked the button one last time, but she already understood it was too late; it had been too late from the moment they’d touched down. Thompson, still in the distance, pulled off his helmet and waved.
“The air smells great here,” he shouted out, laughing. “Who would have thought?”
Emily felt dizzy, uncertain. That’s all this whole rescue had been: a call to get them to come. The intelligent beings weren’t the willowy worms, the elegant female-like creatures, or even the crabs. The intelligence had infested Ramirez, and like a parasite, had used him to call out across the universe, to lure them here, to this lonely planet. How many countless beings from other galaxies, other universes, even, had come? The parasite-call had likely been going out for millennia, like pollen into the air. Or an invisible virus. And it had worked. She imagined the other ships in the valley Thompson had seen, the vessels lined up in neat rows, now no longer to be used again.
“This planet is brilliant, isn’t it?” Ramirez said. “It created that atmospheric signature with the minerals, knowing that’s what would attract other beings. Of course, it evolved to learn, and it changed so it would draw in more species like us. Then, since the planet itself couldn’t communicate, it used me to make the call to my own species. Just like it used other beings, from those other ships, to make other calls. Wonderful, isn’t it?”
Thompson was striding down towards them, and the black-shelled robots, like beetles of death, stood at attention in the funereal sun on the ridge. His voice cackled over the mic as he gasped, half laughing, between words. He spoke like a madman, like someone who’d just stumbled upon one of the mysteries of the universe.
“We have nothing on this. Viruses have nothing on this. It’s always been parasites, hasn’t it?” he said, only fifty meters out now. “Like Spinochordodes tellinii, the parasite that makes grasshoppers commit suicide in water. Or the Orphiocordyceps, that zombifies ants then causes them to die on a leaf at high noon.” He sounded almost hysterical, and increasingly out of breath. “Or the Euhaplorchis californiensis, a fluke that latches onto a fish’s gills before making its way to the brain, where it puppeteers the fish to jump and swim erratically – thus drawing the attention of birds. Or toxoplasmosis. Or… or… there are so many on Earth alone! And now here, on this planet. Parasites used us to call us here. And they inhabited us before we even knew we were no longer us. But you know what? I don’t care! My mind is no longer mine alone, but it’s wonderful. Wonderful!” he shouted.
Emily felt a trembling deep inside her, like the subsonic rumble of a seismic shift. She knew these two men, and she knew they were being controlled by something that wasn’t them, but the dissonance of their behavior, the happiness: she couldn’t take it in.
She collapsed onto the ground.
And perhaps the other species had come not just from the parasite-call sent out into the far reaches of space, but because of that parasitic emotion that had incessantly infested her own species throughout time: greed.
Emily felt suddenly delicate, like a grasshopper poised on the tip of a blade of grass.
Or an ant losing control of its tiny, twitching limbs.
The pink coral-trees swayed gently in the breeze, perhaps moving on their own, and they trembled as if waving goodbye – to her, to her old life, to everything she thought she’d known. Emily knew in that moment that there was no way to escape, and she also knew what would happen next. She would do nothing because she could do nothing. She wouldn’t take off her own helmet and die as the captain had; instead, she’d become like them, little by little – and so gradually, she wouldn’t be able to distinguish her thoughts from the thoughts of the planet. She knew she’d still be herself, but as part of this larger organism, and she too would call out to the universe, then lie in wait to welcome the next arrivals.
She was already beginning to feel the surge of immense power, a power that came from a connection to a deeper, pulsing intelligence that rippled under the surface of everything around her: the rocks, the lichen, the vibrating moons.
And if they ever grew too large for this planet, maybe they’d move on to another. She imagined the pollen packets floating through the air, and already she was forgetting the old Emily, flight engineer, 38 years old, lover of mystery books. Such facts seemed trivial now. And entirely beside the point.
The person she had been didn’t matter any longer. Her former self was like a barely-remembered dream, and the pale lavender sky, though empty, would soon be filled with more ships arriving each day. The call had gone out like a siren song, and the universe had responded. She felt a tickle of terror, but also excitement, at the thought of letting herself go, of becoming gloriously entangled in this new understanding, which felt… what was the word?
She was ready. She removed her helmet.