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False Paradise

It didn’t feel quite right. Or perhaps it did, more right than anything else ever had. Cassidy gazed up at the bright blue sky and squinted when her eyes met the sun. For a moment she asked herself if she should even call it a sun, this wasn’t Earth, after all. But who was here to stop her? She could name every single thing on this planet if she wanted, and nobody could so much so as rebuke her. Who knew, maybe they’d even have to make the names official after her return. Wasn’t there some sort of law permitting the naming of anything you discovered?

When she turned a full circle her eyes met a steep cliff that rose behind her pod. Up on top, she spotted the outskirts of more foliage. Her eyes hovered on the escape pod itself for a moment, she had never seen one from the outside. It looked little spectacular, as expected, though she took in the large number “8” painted on each side in the same, brand-typical yet somewhat stale light green.

Cassidy quickly turned forward again and grinned widely, then raised her APA, only to almost drop it when something whizzed by her head. It released a distraught buzz and she faltered, nearly falling into the murky puddle of swamp water to her right. “Oh, go AWAY!”, she flailed at it and the creature, that resembled a flying insect around half the size of her head, gave a last, annoyed buzz before it disappeared in between two brightly colored orange shrooms, each large enough for Cassidy to stand on.

She felt as though someone had shrunken her to the size of a couple inches and dropped her into one of Professor Kent’s extensive terrariums he maintained to experiment with biome- and conditions-compatibilities. The mushy ground gave a somewhat unpleasant yet fascinating slurp each time she took a step, and the tops of the largest trees, that spiraled hundreds of feet towards the sky painted a network of dark and light patterns on the floor... and the skin of her own hand if she held it out.

Thick vines meandered from the branches, some overgrown with moss or covered in strange webs. An array of bushes and ferns covered the stems of the trees, their monotonous greyish-green, broken only by the bright orange of the enormous shrooms sprouting from the ground or the barks of especially large trees.

Cassidy cautiously placed a hand on one of the shrooms, half-expecting it to snap shut and devour her arm, like a larger-scale Venus flytrap. But it reacted not to her presence at all. The flesh felt foreignly organic on her skin and a shiver ran down her spine.

Cassidy remained perfectly still for a couple heartbeats, and part of her wished to shut both nose and ears to be rid of the incessantly intrusive pallet of sounds and smells, most of which would have been bearable, were they not so voluminous. On top of that, she had a hard time disregarding the pungent, foul smell that crept up from beneath the murky liquid. She was taken back to her very first week on biowaste-duty, back when she had started at the lab, and shivered in disgust.

Her eyes wandered up, following the at least two hundred feet tall stem of the gigantic tree before her. How could something so beautiful smell like her workout shoes after the irksome monthly physical?

If only Professor Kent could see this, she thought and after a moment of hesitation, fetched her APA tablet. “Save view.”

She gazed at the picture for a second and found it didn’t even remotely capture the atmosphere to its fullest, with how she had never bothered to get a full reality recorder. So it was only... well, exactly what it said. A saved view.

She had no real goal, not even a direction. But it wasn’t like she was doing this for any functional purpose. Cassidy soon became so engrossed in leaping from shroom to shroom, challenging herself to jump farther each time, that when she first reached the outskirt of the swampy forest and stumbled out onto a large, open plain, the once blue sky had begun to glow with hues of pink.

She plopped down onto a dry spot and slumped backward, heaving from the exertion. Her wrist connector beeped incessantly, though the sound was nearly drowned in the chirps and chirrups of her surroundings.

Is this really what I was so scared of before? She nearly broke into vigorous laughter at the memory of her almost-panic attack, back in the pod. If this was all there was out here, this was more of a paradise than Avalon could ever be, for as hard as its designers had tried.

Her blissful glee was abruptly cut short by an urgent growl. It took Cassidy a few moments to process it had originated from her own stomach.

She jolted up from the soft, feathery grass. Her eyes met the pinkish-orange glowing horizon. On the far side, she spotted the glistening of water, and behind her...

Cassidy sensed her heart painfully contract in fear. Behind her rose the thick stems of swamp trees, between them she spotted the glow of murky water and the shadows of hanging vines. She instantly rose to her feet and turned, taking an uncertain step at the outskirt of the swamp. Back at the pod... back at... where? She hadn’t a clue as to where she’d come from, other than that she must’ve crossed the swamp. From the corner of an eye, she spotted the large silhouette of the blood-orange sun closing in on the horizon, ready to sink into the glistening water.

Her stomach gave another loud growl and then and there, Cassidy honestly raised a hand to slap herself in the face. What the actual space hell was she doing here? Her fists angrily clenched and she barely prevented herself from punching the enormous tree before her. What in the name of sweet sense and reason was wrong with her?

First, she launched an escape pod on some shady phantom-command her APA didn’t remember giving, that could just as well have all been in her head, and no real reason to hope she would be searched for. And now she capered off from her one means of survival, her one safe space that had her water- and food supplies, that had shelter and familiar technology.

Slowly but surely her knees buckled. She sank to the floor and stared at her smeared hands. Her palm was bruised from the rough bork of the trees and she clenched her fist, despite the pain.

You’re such a passionate, engaged, and curious person, Professor Kent spoke in her head and her lips pressed together. But you have the attention span of a preschooler. If you can’t learn to control your impulsivity and begin finishing what you start, I’m afraid I don’t see too bright a future in the research department for you.

Well, of course not. Her teeth gritted and she energetically pulled herself up, cutting her palm on one of the wheats. Cassidy hissed and watched a single drop of blood make its way down the side of her hand. I’m not even remotely ready to be a researcher. I get the once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore an unknown alien planet and what do I do? Go capering off like a mindless child, without direction, or purpose, or marking my way back. She shook her head, then angrily tore the hairband out and tied her obnoxiously hard-to-tame curls properly. No more irresponsibility.

She turned and surveyed her surroundings, but with proper care this time. Unease rose in her when she found she could barely make out the stream of water in the distance anymore. The sun had nearly set. So this is what they call a natural day-night-cycle, she thought as she determinately began making her way towards the water body. She would analyze it for whether it was safe to drink, and then she would look for where there was a good place to spend the night around here.

With every step, she sensed her own tiredness, and for wherever she was, she hadn’t the energy or resources to look for a way back to the pod before she had rested. Well, it seemed as though this would be a long night. Longer than Cassidy would have liked. But she really had only herself to thank for it.

Cassidy stared after the curious, three-tailed, silvery fish with awe. Normally, these kinds of creatures were edible, right? A disgusted tingle ran down her spine at the thought of eating an animal carcass – then again, if her growling stomach so commanded... She sighed, well, there wasn’t a viable way to catch it anyway.

Then she determinately tucked the bowl-shaped leaf of a marsh plant she had used to drink into the back of her belt and stood up. She was perfectly aware should she turn on her wrist connector now, it would tell her to intake nutrients. But thankfully, she had found out how to disable that alert soon after starting her internship at Professor Kent’s lab.

There was just no time, she thought, taking two steps back and squinting to make out the outskirt of the river, in preparation to leap. No time to spend hours at the library, like she had used to, back in school, reading old folk legends and mythology. No time to stop for so much as a proper meal. No time to catch a breath, or bat an eye.

You don’t have any time anymore. Wouldn’t I know better, I’d assume you don’t want to hang out. The memory of that conversation stung fresh, as though it had taken place yesterday and not two years ago, a couple months after the beginning of her internship. Leah hadn’t found any of her own yet, and she hadn’t taken losing her best friend to an eccentric professor and a room stuffed with plants and terrariums well.

I’ve only genuinely seen you three times, this last month. Cassidy shook her head. This wasn’t the time to think of her friends. Her eyes fixated on the glistening, dark river, and suddenly widened at the reflected image. Her head slowly raised and her jaw dropped in awe. Down at her, from a dark, purple-blue sky that glistened with myriads of stars, stared two spheres. The smaller one shone with an almost blinding pure-white, the larger had a soft pink hue. It took her a solid minute of standing motionlessly, admiring the twin moons, to realize she was grinning.

With two large steps, she was by the water and sailed over it in a flying leap. Had she had time, she would’ve seen Leah and Eitan more. It wasn’t like she didn’t care about them. It wasn’t like she was purposely neglecting them. But for whatever happened, she wouldn’t end as one of the dropout kids. She’d chosen her field, and she’d even gotten a fitting internship relatively early.

I’m not indecisive, she grimly thought as she made her way over to a couple of trees, some hundred yards up the river. Sure, there had been a phase when she’d had a new passion essentially every half a year. And... sure, that phase had stretched over almost the entirety of her teenage years... but she was over it now. No more randomly emerging interest in psychology, or anthropology, or ancient mythologies, or general human history... and as fascinating as it all was, no more wasting time on any of it either.

There had been three, Cassidy didn’t even recall their names anymore. She pensively stared up the largest tree, thinking she saw something resembling a fruit up in its top. Her hand stretched to pluck it. Two girls and one guy. Back in tenth grade, when field orientation had begun, they had been the only ones who hadn’t made a choice, after the orientation period had passed. And the next day, they hadn’t returned to class either. Cassidy stared at the vaguely plum-shaped fruit in her hand. Nobody exactly knew what happened with them... the dropout kids, as they had been dubbed. But for all she wagered, it couldn’t be anything good.

The couple that had been recognized or discovered by former peers had all ended in low positions, exclusively in the Support sector. The service personnel, the overseers of cleaner- and washer-units, or production-lines. Cassidy determinately held out her wrist connector to scan the fruit. That wasn’t going to be her fate.

And if I were to choose? She rapidly blinked. To choose between becoming a dropout kid and losing my friends? She angrily tossed the apparently toxic fruit into the river and stomped off. Why was she contemplating this nonsense now? She had long made her choice, and her friends were still her friends. Well... if they weren’t out of sensor range, still on the space station she had so foolishly ejected herself out of.

Cassidy abruptly halted. What was she even doing, thinking about all of this now? Her gaze wandered up and a cold shiver ran down her spine. For all that had happened yesterday, she was far worse off than any of the dropout kids. She wasn’t... on Avalon. Internships and decisions over a future she might not even have anymore didn’t exactly matter right now. She took an uncertain step forward and a fresh wave of fear swept over her. All she could do at the moment was attempt to survive... and attempt to somehow reestablish communications, or attract a rescue team. To make it back. To... have a future at all.

Cassidy was so lost in thought she ran directly into it. She instantly regretted the loud cry that escaped her mouth when her stomach collided with a solid object and her gaze shot down, from where it had been directed skyward. Her hand raised, then cautiously felt the strangely familiar yet foreign smooth substance of the waist-high monolith that stuck out of the ground. Despite the still hovering humid heat, it emitted a pleasant cool.

“What in the...” In a first impulse, Cassidy jerked back, only when the monolith remained unaffected by her touch, she carefully stepped closer again. “Scan that. Give me all available data.” Forgotten was her growling stomach as she raised her APA. Only in the back of her head, she registered the beeping of her wrist connector. She ran her hand over the smooth surface, only partially covered in overgrowth. Only then she realized it stood slightly tilted. But for whatever it was, Cassidy was already beyond certain it wasn’t natural.

When her display blinked green and she raised her gaze at it, her brows instantly furrowed.

x 60-70 million SY old

x Unknown, non-reactive material, estimated strength = 200 x harder than common plasteel, reaches 1.2 mi below the surface of the planet

x Unknown origin, unknown designer/user

x Likely application in terraforming, production of oxygen

x Fully functional

“Fun...ctional?” Cassidy could barely speak the word as her eyes met the first data point. “Sixty... million years...” She shook her head and gave an unbelieving laugh. “Sixty...” Her hand hovered over the structure before her gaze met her APA again. “Wait, this thing”, her hand pressed into the smooth surface, and now that she focused, to her eternal astonishment she sensed an ever-so-slight vibration from deep within the monolith. “It still works...?”

The APA displayed no new data, and a shiver ran down her spine. Moments later she had dropped to her knees and pressed the tablet against the monolith. “Tell me more, please! What is this thing doing exactly? What... powers it? And how the space hell is it still working if it’s really... over sixty million years old?” Cassidy adamantly stared at the display. It’s not human, is what it is, her head repeated over and over. No humans were around, that long ago. She frowned, had earth not still been roamed by dinosaurs, then?

But if it’s not human, yet it’s tech – even so advanced it can still function after such a long time, it must be... Her head jerked up when her display blinked green. Cassidy briefly skimmed the data and nearly dropped the tablet. Her wrist connector beeped faster than it ever had.

Function rudimentary yet immensely potent, indicating vast advancement of the designer.

Artificially breaks down carbon dioxide into oxygen; appears to not be the only of its kind on the planet; appears to be the sole reason oxygen can be found in this atmosphere. Result of a more thorough analysis has led to the discovery of several other environmental anomalies, data will be compiled and made accessible.

No valid information on a possible power source, it seems to be fed from something beneath the planet’s surface. Source outside sensor range.

Conclusion: Planet has been subjected to extensive terraforming since the time of installment.

Theory: Planet may not have supported life before its undergoing terraforming. A more thorough analysis is recommended, to determine age and evolutionary path of environment.

Warning: Presence of this kind of technology, with its substantial age and self-repairing/unharmed condition, indicates existence of highly advanced intelligence, though not currently in sensor range, most likely not on the planet. Caution and thorough documentation is advised for further exploration.

“Intelligence...” She could barely form coherent thoughts with how painfully her head spun. This is it. Part of her meant to leap up and down in joy, another to run away, screaming in terror. This is finally the proof... the proof we’ve been searching for for so long. Over five centuries had mankind had the ability to travel space. Yet this... Cassidy finally acknowledged the extensive beeping of her wrist connector... this was, quite possibly, the beginning of a new era.

You know what, her own words replayed in her head, if I really do meet an alien someday, and they ask me to describe what humans are, I’ll just play Never Gonna Give You Up, The Harlem Shake, and Fly Me Higher, for general reference. That’s really all the information one could ever ask for. Cassidy nearly broke into vigorous laughter at the memory of Leah’s face, and her mischievous smirk – but in that case, you must also add Sound Of Silence and maybe Ei! Ei! Ei!, just to be completionist.

A new era... Or – she lowered the tablet in something like resignation – or, more likely, it’s just an ancient ruin, and the aliens are long gone, maybe even extinct. Why else wouldn’t they still be here, after all? And who really knew what could have happened in such a long time. Whole civilizations could have lived, developed, and died. Well, she nearly laughed, at least I won’t embarrass myself by actually having to play those songs now. Cassidy thought, if anything, Leah would remorselessly insist on it.

“Display those other environmental anomalies.” She had mindlessly leaned on the monolith, the cool smooth felt pleasant against her back, to read the extensive block of data her APA spat out when she took in the first sound.

Cassidy barely scrambled to her feet and darted around the monolith when the first open mouth with the saber-like teeth flew at her, to crash and awfully crack on the smooth substance of the alien structure instead. The creature released a pained shriek and Cassidy screamed along and twirled around. Her APA tablet flew from her hand and smashed into the monolith.

She had barely reached the large tree she had inspected earlier and leaped up to grab hold of the lowest branch when the next pair of sharp-toothed jaws snapped shut where her leg had just been.

She hung as a limp, trembling weight on the branch and, in the bright twin-moonlight, caught sight of four hound-like animals with long, snake-like tails, three of which readily circled the tree she had saved herself into with bared teeth. The fourth still cowered by the monolith, groveling in pain.

Cassidy flailed her hands until one circled tightly around the tree’s trunk and finally managed to pull herself into an upright position. She could barely hold her ground on the suddenly much too narrow-seeming branch.

These weren’t the fully domesticated, artificially bred pets they sparsely permitted on the station. Cassidy attempted to steady herself on the tree trunk and finally slid into a sitting position, back firmly leaned against the tree. They were savage predators, who had never seen a human before... and even though none was larger than a mid-sized housedog, they would most likely devour her, if she gave them the chance.

Her hand automatically darted to the pocket where she carried her APA, and a wave of fear overwhelmed her when she spotted it over by the monolith... the display was dark.

Her hands pressed into the rough bark and she valiantly fought the rising panic. She couldn’t lose her APA. It was the only useful tool she had left, the only thing that could tell food from poison, measure water quality, analyze environments, and make recommendations. Without it, she was as good as dead.

Cassidy had no idea how long she spent, sitting up in the tree, her mind reeling with possible ways out. Ways to get her APA tablet back, without endangering herself. Ways to reach the swamp on the other side of the plain. But there weren’t enough trees to hop from one to the other, nor did she presume she could outrun the animals for a second.

Despite the imminent fear, her eyelids grew heavier and heavier with the moment. Soon, Cassidy was yawning excessively, and she sensed her body would fail her soon. Her head leaned heavily against the bark in her back and her hand instinctively tightened around a low-hanging, thin branch. She had used up all her energy reserves, and by the time the first hint of pinkish glow crept up on the horizon, she had passed out into soothing black.

Cassidy nearly fell off the branch when something crashed into her tree. Her arms wrapped tightly around the trunk and her eyes widened with panic, it took nearly half a minute for her wrist connector to stop beeping.

It was light again. A bright morning sun colored the outskirt of the swamp she had crossed the day before, making it even more lively and lush. And when Cassidy dared to peek down, she froze in bewilderment. Deep claw marks covered the lower part of the trunk, bleeding a red, oily substance. Three of the hound-like predators had long disappeared. The only one still cowering by the tree gazed up at her with fierce, orange eyes... yet around its mouth, she saw extensive smears of purple... blood?

Before Cassidy could wonder why it was still here if it had killed something else for sustenance, it tore its mouth open and presented two rows of... A shiver ran down her spine, and not from fear this time. Only in the last moment, she prevented herself from sliding down to inspect it closer.

It’s the one that attacked me first, last night – her eyes darted over to the alien monolith. The surface was stained in dried purple. It actually knocked out a number of teeth on that thing. She squinted to inspect the creature’s mouth that now circled the stem of her tree. Its formerly saber-like fangs now mostly cracked off, dull remains. Only now she realized that instead of fur, it was covered in greyish, patterned scales, some of which showed signs of wear. Its snakelike tail split into three, all tips extended in opposite directions.

Cassidy spent another solid minute inspecting the creature, pondering on why it was still here when its companions weren’t. She was clearly no easy prey. Then her eyes met her APA tablet that still lied by the monolith and her chest tightened. Her stomach gave a sonorous growl and her throat was completely dried out. She inspected another piece of the type of fruit she had found out was poisonous earlier, then angrily shook her head. She had to get back to the escape pod. But how?

Her eyes fixated on the distant outskirt of the swamp, though she had to squint against the bright morning sun. But even if there would be no hungry predator waiting for her below, how would she find her way back? She had not a clue as to what direction her pod was in.

Cassidy clenched her teeth in frustration. Her hand tightened around a higher branch as she determinately pulled herself up to stand. Or... had she?

For a moment her eyes darted up at the sun yet she immediately averted them again, cursing at the trillions of lights that sparked before her blackened vision. Still, when her eyesight returned to normal and she raised a hand to shield her face from the bright sun, her heartbeat quickened.

For whatever direction the swamp lied in, it was where the sun rose from. Last night she remembered strolling off towards the sun also, except it had moved to set. All I have to do is make sure I go towards where the sun rose from, and I’ll be back at my pod soon. Cassidy found her mouth widened to a grin before she perceived a low growl from below.

Right... the hound. She squinted at the creature, eyed its broken teeth, then her APA, and finally the branch she was holding on to. Her left arm wrapped around the trunk, her foot firmly pushed into it. Her right hand tightly grasped the branch. It took her a couple of tries but soon the organic substance gave way and she held in her hand what very well resembled a crude club.

The soles of her feet dug into the branch she was standing on and with a firm pull, she plucked one of the toxic fruit. “Chew on that!”

The creature gave a shrill hiss as her projectile hit it directly in the forehead and without further hesitation, Cassidy leaped from the tree. She barely managed to land on all fours, still, the nearly seven-foot deep fall would most likely leave a couple bruises, she already almost sensed them. As soon as she had regained composure, her hand tightened around her club again, and she took a flying leap at her APA.

Cassidy had just scooped it up and stuffed it back into her belt when she perceived a low growl from behind. She twirled around and caught a glimpse at grey scales. Her hand with the club raised and the branch smacked into something hard, she perceived the crack of scales and a high-pitched, pained screech.

Cassidy didn’t look for how badly she had injured it. She tucked the club under her arm, gathered up all her strength, and leaped over the river, then performed the most high-staked sprint of her life. By the time she had reached the outskirt of the swamp her head spun from exertion and she heaved, finding it harder to breathe with the moment.

She barely squeezed in between two trees and pulled up onto one of the orange shrooms. Lights sparked before her eyes and a strange taste entered her mouth. Her back leaned on the tree the shroom sprouted out of and heaved for a solid minute until she had somewhat caught her breath. Her head still spun and she found it harder than normal to breathe when she pulled herself up. Only then she recalled the lower oxygen levels of this atmosphere and internally cursed. It wasn’t as though she was already enough out of shape, no, the planet had to go ahead and make it even harder for her.

It took her another minute to recover so much she could climb the vast tree and poke her head out of the leafy roof formed by the dense treetops. For a moment Cassidy lingered, taking in the breathtaking view the position allowed before she continued her trek back. The temptation to fetch and check on her APA tablet was high, to see if it still functioned and could perhaps take a picture, but she left it where it was. She’d deal with one problem at a time, and for now, the task at hand was to get back to her pod. For whatever it would take.

The sun mercilessly glared down from a spotless noon sky when Cassidy thought the dense swamp foliage was clearing up, and she spotted the first outskirt of fresh grass peeking through beneath grayish-brown stems.

Her curls stuck to her wet forehead and she was sweating buckets by the time she pushed the last curtain of vines aside. She had long ditched her jacket and found herself immensely glad she was still in her workout clothes. The fabric, though designed for exercise, still uncomfortably itched on her sticky skin and Cassidy thought she’d give about anything for a bath right now.

When she finally pushed out in between the last two trees and carelessly landed in a mud puddle, soaking her lower legs in disgusting yellowish-brown, she nearly collapsed to her knees. What had felt like a carefree stroll yesterday had now cost all her remaining strength. Cassidy was painfully aware she wasn’t used to physical exertion, and apparently, the lower oxygen level was adding onto her lacking stamina more than she had hoped.

She was insanely thirsty, sore, sticky, and bruised. Her stomach growled louder with every step, and every fiber in her body screamed from ache. It hardly mattered now though. She blinked, waiting for her head to stop spinning and her eyes to adjust to the bright sunlight. She was back at her pod. It had sustenance and water components, and shelter. She would rekindle her energy reserves and then make a plan. Her fingers dug into the muddy soil. Make a... a... plan to somehow attract attention and get out of here.

Despite the struggles of last night and her poor handling of the situation, it had been a great shore leave. Her mouth curved into a smile. A day she would certainly never forget. Something to talk about, back on Avalon. Her very own adventure tale. And despite the oddly positive feelings she associated with it, she thought it was about time for this shore leave to be over.

Cassidy took a final deep breath and raised her head. Before her rose the cliff she had landed by, and there... She blinked once, twice, physically sensing her heart clump into a tight knot of fear. Her pod... Cassidy was up on her feet in seconds, sprinting forward.

She nearly stumbled over a couple large pieces of earth and rock sprawled by the foot of the cliff and stared with shock at the half-buried remains of the metal capsule. Her eyes met the large, light green number “8” that stuck out from what seemed like the result of a recent landslide. She stared at the half-buried handle of the hatch and finally collapsed to her knees.

A wave of overwhelming fatigue and despair crushed her last remaining spirit and she sensed tears well up in her sore eyes. It was all over now, certainly.

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