Atmosphere: We Don't Orbit but Fall the Same

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Chapter 10

The Trotuul prepared to separate. The computers were buzzing, and the main bioelectrical line pulsed bright green to blue. Phlox held the thrust controls tightly, his brow sweating and tail twitching. Then there was the sound of iron weights being dropped on stone, and a silence fell around him as if a person unseen had just spoken. All mechanics were hushed, even the molecular flow of data appeared muzzled. His throat closed, and his arms froze, and although his blood still flowed, and his own neuro-electrical messages still functioned, the world had stopped. His body and all Splinter’s moving parts were poised for departure.

And in this false eternity, the shuttle did not shake; but something told him that he had been set in motion. Tilting his head and looking through the overhead cockpit windows, he could see the superstructure of the freighter moving gently, slowly away. The computer called off distance and coordinates in a tin voice. He listened as if the numbers didn’t apply to him, and then he slowly reached out and shut the audio off. As the freighter slipped out of view, the windows at his feet opened to the dark exosphere. Nothing made a sound.

Then the shuttle’s rockets began to fire in short bursts, cautionary grunts, the flexing of the small but muscular Hyyperbolt technology. The g-force increase tugged in corresponding pulses, slightly behind the sound of the rockets firing. The duration of the white-hot blasts increased, and the vessel must have been traveling with significant velocity, but nothing outside his windows lent scale or a real sense of motion.

The craft rode the dark, inky blackness and pointed to the sunlit horizon. He could see the twisting of the borealis lights directly below, and further ahead, he could see the blackness transitioning to a navy blue. The curve of the planet’s surface was bright white, and over the next fifteen minutes, the glare from the reflected light became intense as the shuttle raced into the blue dawn. He stared down at the flight controls, searching for the comfort and safety of data. The hull was heating up, but the temperatures were at the levels Tii had told him to expect. The white and blue of the stratosphere streaked by. Heat built up, and red flames blurred past the windows. The shuttle began to shake and sway and gravitational forces increased. He was pushed deep into his seat; he could not move even his head, and he felt as if he was falling from a high branch, or even that he had already hit the forest floor, the wind knocked completely out. His lungs compressed and pushed against his spine. Phlox closed his eyes. The red streaking effect outside his windows played out in fierce displays behind his eyelids. Green flares flashed and tore and reminded him of dreaming.

The shuttle continued to skip and buck through the dense atmosphere. Retro-propulsion began to fire, and the noise inside the small cabin pounded. The roar from outside was intolerable. His arms were incredibly heavy. When he opened his eyes, he could see the red glare fading, and soon he could move his head and wiggle his fingers. Outside, the windows began to clear and the roar of friction decreased. The craft’s systems had worked correctly: taking into account so many variables, compensating for the strong gravity and the dense atmospheric pressure. He lifted his heavy arms to rub his eyes and stood up slowly. His muscles were deprived of oxygen, and he felt hung-over and dizzy. But this was what it would be like on the surface. Over the course of the descent, he felt like he doubled in weight. He had done all the physical preparation he could, but had forgotten to prepare mentally.

The craft broke through the low-hanging clouds. There was a wide ocean below of dark, churning, violet waves. An unbroken horizon. Nothing but water in all directions. The speeding shuttle continued to descend. White caps rose and broke along an unending palette of shifting gray and purple waters. His fur stood on end, and his tail curled tight; he did not belong here. Water had always been the realm of the smooth-skins who moved like shimmering gelatin behind translucent leather. Primalans, and even their evolutionary relatives, shunned the water; their culture had never adapted to lakes, rivers or swimming of any kind. Malans had never even learned to sail on the seas of their home planet. Only after conquering the skies did they gain the confidence to challenge the mighty oceans of Akkacia One. And in the name of revenge, the Primalans had created missiles to pierce those aquamarine depths and exterminate the wet-skins.

The dark ages, when smooth-skins rose from the waters and roamed the forests of the Primalans, feeding whenever they wanted, was still imbedded in the Primalan collective unconscious. For centuries, the farrlin trees had been their only protection from the horrible, harpoon-style weapons of the wet-skins. That is why, even today, the Primalans—who had for all intents and purposes, turned away from ecological concerns and their arboreal rituals—still protected their forests.

Phlox did not realize how much time was passing. He sat immobile and exhausted, moving his eyes occasionally from the water—and his fears of what might swim below—to the busy controls and monitors in front of him. A dark mass on the horizon began to grow, and soon he could make out a large peninsula. The floor windows still displayed the thrashing purple sea, but in front of him his world was turning green.

The Trotuul slowed considerably, but he could not concentrate on the surface below or his work ahead. His shoulders ached, but he realized he had not passed out during the entire descent. Was it something on Splinter? Was it the pressure of a real atmosphere or maybe the planet’s magnetic fields? What had changed, if only temporarily, to cure him? If his body had cured itself, he didn’t have an answer. But even with so many variables to consider, it seemed that something on this planet was mitigating his insomnia.

The oceans slipped out of sight as the shuttle flew low above steep rock formations shooting out of the plains. Floating mists and low clouds hugged the higher ground. Swamps intertwined beneath, and everywhere the land was covered in dense vegetation. The preprogrammed landing coordinates were now comprehensible: less than 7000 meters to go, and his shuttle headed to a relatively dry patch, slowed to a minimal speed, and rotated gently to the left. The systems switched to Sholk-Ten levitation, and the craft set down gently. “God bless Eckorr Technologies,” Phlox mumbled as he stared out the window.

The shuttle began standard diagnostics while Phlox sat numb in his seat. He raised his hands above his head, and felt the full weight of his body. The shift from artificial gravity to one-point-five was a rude awakening, but although he was physically tired, he felt alive and ready to explore. He got up and slowly crossed the small cabin, each lift of his foot a conscious effort, and each footfall a loud pounding on the lander’s brittle metal floor.

The computer verified that the atmosphere was oxygen and nitrogen rich—a ripe breeding ground for carbon-based life. The fans spun and the cabin filled with a smell so natural—odors that had been completely absent for five years. The smell of plants tempted his nostrils, and he opened his lungs to dwell in the scent of damp dirt, exotic grasses, and oxygen untouched by machine. The Splinter had been a sterile bower where anything organic—flatulence, body odor, or the hint of decay—had been efficiently recycled or purged, but here he took in the scents of unseen flowers, cycles of decay, and felt strangely at home.

The shuttle’s portal slid upwards effortlessly, but a bright, white glare obscured his view of the landscape, and the intense white sunlight coupled with a blast of heat made it difficult for Phlox to keep his eyes open. He squinted—his eyes were so accustomed to artificial and strictly managed lighting, and his nictitating lids slid up and down furiously. His circular eyes narrowed, but his nostrils were wide, inundated with the near-tangible smell of flora and fauna.

Accustomed now to the bright light, he saw high yellow-green grasses stretching out on a wide, unbroken plain. Hovering above the reeds, clouds of tiny winged insects spun fervidly, condensing to form amorphous black shapes and then dispersing to near-invisibility. The hum of translucent wings pulsed in a delicate melody as the insects dissipated and coalesced in quick, impassioned fluctuations. At times, the insects rolled to their sides and flew in tighter circles, forming for an instant something more massive and threatening. Then they would turn and break away again. A few bumped and stumbled into the shuttle where they bounced off Phlox’s fur or buzzed around his head.

With heavy steps, he climbed down the short ladder and stepped between thick reeds. His feet sank into dense mud. As he slogged forward, the blades of grass parted easily, but they were taut and whipped back into place, quickly surrounding him. Immediately, he lost sight of the tall but distant rock formations, and after only five steps, he could not even see the tail of the Trotuul. Soon, chartreuse colored grasses, with fissured red veins, were all he could see.

The planet pulled heavily, and the mud seemed thicker than it was as he plugged along. He was already out of breath but kept walking forward. The reeds grew denser and bent with a crisp rasp as tiny barbs running along one side of each blade caught against his fur. The flies darted into his eyes and bashed against his ears: the entire world creating resistance to his every step. He was exhausted, but the smells, the richness of nature, drew him on. And although he could not see where he was going, he held his head high, his nose wrinkled and nostrils flared. He let the new smells enter his body and saturate him. He walked animal forward, his scientist-self close behind, and the slight hum of an insect-escort surrounding him.

He stopped to catch his breath under the white radiation of the alien sun. He pulled at one of the thick blades of grass. It was thick and resilient and would not tear easily. The edge with small barbs was very sharp, and where his fur was thinnest, the blade cut his skin. He used two hands to rip a reed open and inside there was a pale yellow sap, pungent—like fresh olives. He rolled some of the viscous liquid between his fingertips, and it stayed on his skin, lubricating it for a long time. As he walked, he pulled one of the long reeds up, and it pulled easily from the mud. The roots were thin and short, and he broke one off. He stopped to place it in a sample bag, and he sank a little deeper into the moist ground, the gritty mud squeezing up between his toes and covering his feet. The rich, fertile mud smelled like an Akkacian high-mountain meadow.

As he walked at a slow but steady pace, his body began to adjust to the strain of such a massive planet. Coincidently, the grasses grew thinner and shorter and the ground beneath him became drier, and soon he could see the tops of the rock formations. A snake-like creature, iridescent blue with two small legs near the head, darted across his foot. Phlox kept his eyes downward. The terrain was growing rockier; obsidian shards of various sizes jutted from the ground. He had to watch where he placed his feet to avoid the volcanic rocks’ sharp edges, but he didn’t mind: he was glad to feel solid ground beneath his feet.

His particulate and efflorescence scanner began picking up a high floral count nearby, so he veered to his right. The grasses continued to thin, and except for concentrated clumps, he could see above or through the reeds. He was standing on an almost imperceptible rise, and from this slight elevation, he was able to see all the way back to the tail and roof of the Trotuul. It looked a little like a stranded bloat whale, its gray body riding in a sea of twisting, fluctuating yellow-green.

He sighed deeply. The odor of the marsh was diminishing, and each breath brought in new and varied fragrances, impregnated with a mixture of countless organic compounds and particles. He arched his back and bent his neck backwards, exposing his throat to the open sky and high clouds as he flared his nostrils wide. The smells were different, and while new, they were not entirely strange. The climate controlled and computer monitored air of Splinter had been more foreign. On this new world, there was the reality of organic decay, a variety of particles that kept some primitive part of his brain distracted and put his rational mind at ease. Here, there were pollens in the air to calm the soul.

Swenno followed the clicking of the floral meter. High twisting brush mixed with delicate branches and large translucent, green leaves. He stopped and grabbed the worn, red, wood in his hands. Nothing strong enough to really climb. Suddenly, he missed his sister profoundly. His nictitating eyelids bounced up and down. He had not felt this way when he was on Splinter. He hadn’t allowed himself. “How are you doing Sis? Me? Never felt stranger; you should be here.”

The scanner clicked frantically, but he could not see any flowers. He walked towards a large pool that stretched to the nearest rock pillar, and as he stepped close to the water’s edge and pointed the scanner towards the cloudy liquid, the indicators jumped. He crouched down, and at the reduced angle, he could see into the water. It was clear but streaked with milky trails. Beams of sunlight sliced through the shallow water and sparkled among the snaking wisps. From the muck at the bottom of the pool, he could see small plants growing up from the mud. Each was a half-inch tube that supported between one to three layers of flat-leafed lily pads, all submerged, and from these leaves sprouted numerous white buds. Phlox circled the edge of the pool. He saw hundreds of these broad green leaves, and each pad contained thousands of sprouting blossoms, covering each round surface with intricate circular patterns.

He moved his hands towards the pool, hesitated, and then dipped his hands in the water. It was warm, heavy and smelled of brine. Flowers never grew submerged in water on Akkacia. He plunged his arms deeper, past the elbow and, repressing his repulsion, waved his hands, watching the leaves and tiny flowers sway. He pulled his arms free, but a sticky liquid enfolded his arms and dripped away slowly like honey. He was impregnated with the pale and milky pollen of a thousand foreign flowers. The liquid seemed to crawl towards his torso, and the efflorescence meter whistled intensely.

Phlox backed away shaking his arms vigorously, flicking off the residue. His fur remained moist and sticky. He felt nauseous, but he returned to the still water: the flowers dancing below the surface entranced him. Here, hundreds of lightyears away from home, was what they had come for, held in what they hated most. He walked farther along the edge of the pool, alive with the contrasting forces of anxiety and attraction. He was so close to the goal. The water was saturated with pollen and Phlox theorized how the pollen had evolved to be water repellent and to spread in the water and the air.

He sent a message to Splinter. “I’ve found high floral growth, water based. We’re not equipped to transport them.” A reply bounced back. “Similar reports. Keep looking.”

Phlox turned around and walked toward the rock towers. The efflorescence meter reacted at each pond that he passed. He turned the scanner’s audio off and latched it to his belt. While he was close to pools like these, the technology would be useless. He drew closer to the towers, but his route was circuitous as he refused to place his feet in any freestanding water. Streaks of pure black obsidian ran through the granite cliffs. Throughout, the rock appeared smooth, but there were also abrupt angle changes, small ledges and deep fissures running generally perpendicular to the ground.

He circled to the left and stepped into the rock tower’s shadow. Soon the ground rose gently, and he walked close and touched the stone. He let his fingertips play along the rough surface. He took a deep breath and smiled wide as he jumped up gracefully, but not as far as he had imagined in this heavy one-point-five gravity. He grabbed hold of some roots, swung himself up to a ledge, and without losing momentum, bounded off and up to a small bush. It quickly pulled out from the rock wall, but he held on gripping steadily with his feet. His muscles strained, but they were happy: they had not forgotten the climb, the dig of the toes, the flex of muscle. His tail flicked and snapped; there were no branches to wrap around. Sorry tail, nothing here for you. Phlox had to rest after climbing only twenty feet, but the physicality was a blessing; it combated the anxiety of being in uninvited territory.

After climbing a third of the way up, he stopped and sat on a wide ledge gasping for air. Clean, real oxygen poured into his lungs, and he quickly regained his strength. Soon he was climbing again, following the ledge as it wound up the cliff face. In one large section, the ledge was smeared and stained with white droppings, unmistakably feces, large and profuse. It looked exactly like bird shit found on Akkacia and smelled like the droppings you would find high in the farrlin trees. From the sheer size of the excrement, the fowl could be larger than the Cortt. Phlox drew his Vall laser pistol and held it tight in his tail as he pressed against the mossy granite wall.

He talked to his tail, “And you wanted something to hold on to.”

He had seen no birds, and hoped that he was somehow mistaken. He continued his ascent. He climbed for about fifteen feet, straight up a wide crevice in the rock wall. Except for the excrement, the rock surface was gradually becoming darker and smoother the further he climbed. To continue ascending, he had to work his way wedging his hands and feet within the larger openings in the face, and the easiest route took him back, above where he had seen the droppings. He stopped, but except for a gentle wind, he couldn’t hear anything. He found more droppings when he pulled himself higher, and it looked as if there was some sort of roost right above him. He transferred the pistol to his right hand. He climbed to the side of the mass of weeds and red, shiny sticks so that the nest was not directly above him. He peered over the edge and, except for some more scat, it was empty.

Swenno continued his ascent, and passed what looked like a cave far to his right. He was out of breath, but he wanted to get to the top to get the best view. When he reached the summit, it was surprisingly level, covered with grass and small brush. He sat in the shade of a fern-like plant and took in the view to the south. For as far as he could see, the terrain seemed to repeat itself: large stretches of tall reeds and interlocking marshes interrupted only by pockets of granite towers. A large river flowed westward: a blue vein across the vivid green. Slight swells or rolls in the plain stretched along its banks, and a particularly dense rock formation clustered where it met the sea.

He sat back on his haunches and peered in every direction. There were dark mountains to the north. He caught himself imagining that they were covered with trees, but there was no indication yet that this planet even had trees. He stared off in each direction for long periods. He felt dizzy. He had been through so much to get here: cabin fever, the void, narcolepsy and nightmares. All these events had delivered their own blows, and he sat reeling, waiting to somehow feel normal.

The white sun faded to yellow, dropped towards the horizon, and the alien landscape cooled. Fog settled among the towers in the immediate foreground. Then he heard a clicking sound behind him and spun around. A shrub on the other side moved to a force other than the wind. Then he heard what sounded like the scratchy caw of a large bird. There was nothing in the sky. He scurried quickly to another thin twisting bush. He still couldn’t see anything, but he could hear branches breaking. He stood up, high on his toes and tail, and from the north he saw the silhouettes of four falcons gliding down. Ahead of him something alive let out a piercing cry, and within seconds one of the four answered it. He bolted to the edge of the tower, and without realizing it headed straight towards the cave he had seen. He did not know what might be inside, but he was sure his odds were better. He was armed but had never been a marksman; he felt his chances were better shooting point-blank. He found the cave surprisingly quickly, and stepped into the darkness. Crouched in shadow, with his back flat against a wall, his eyes struggled to adjust. The tunnel was musty, but it didn’t smell as if anyone was home. He side-stepped farther into the cave. It turned twice and then dead ended. He spun around and waited. There was another loud screech from outside and light flickered along the cavern wall.

Blood pounded in his veins, but after a few minutes, he gained confidence that nothing had followed him. So he crept back towards the cave entrance. The large shadow of a bird circled close, then the falcon banked and dropped into view. Its wings were an iridescent red, blending to the browns and grays of its body. Its body was twice the size of a Primalan with a wingspan of at least ten feet. It twisted its head and hopped closer to the entrance. Phlox did not move a muscle, did not raise his chest for breath. Then it took to the sky. A minute passed, and it did not return. Phlox’s chest collapsed, and he let out the air held hostage by fear, his body softening under the relief of one long sigh.

The sky turned purple and then a lonely black. He heard an occasional screech from above as he huddled against the far end’s rough-edged wall. The entrance to the cave was black, smooth obsidian while the circular terminus was cut from a light porous stone. His refuge did not appear to be formed by hydraulic erosion or volcanic activity, but looked as if hands and tools might have chiseled it. He sat down and closed his eyes but felt like he was hyperventilating. When he opened his eyes, they played tricks on him. He thought he saw a faint glowing coming from irregular blotches on the lower part of the wall across from him. Staring and blinking was not helping. Rubbing his eyes made it worse as the colors created by pressure danced over any actual luminescence that might reside on the walls. Each time he looked away from the rock face, he caught a very faint, but real glow, in his peripheral vision. He could make out the spots for a split second before his mind would dismiss them, or try to shift them into something more logical.

The falcons did not return. He could hear no squawking or clicking but a gentle wind blew across the cave’s entrance whistling eerily and creating sonorous camouflage that masked their possible return. He considered climbing all the way down. No. Climbing the walls in the dark would be difficult, and it was best not to expose himself. Afraid to show any signs of weakness, he did not radio for any help, he messaged the captain to say that he was intentionally spending the night away from his lander. He made no mention of the birds.

He ate protein rations that he had packed. They were bland, and he hoped they would disperse no odor for the birds above. With luck, the creatures had already gorged themselves on whatever might be big enough out there to satiate them. After about an hour, he ventured out to the cliff face and sat briefly on the ledge to watch the brightest stars pierce the cloudy sky. He could not see the Trotuul. He guessed that it had remote control features, but he didn’t have a clue how to operate them.

He returned to the back of the cave and fell right to sleep. Heavy gravity sleep. Oxygen-rich REM cycles.

Phlox’s shuttle has giant flapping wings and glides through the clouds. It is swallowed by an even larger shuttle. This craft grows a beak, then ruptures and black feathered wings push forward, a murder of crows spilling forth, fluttering and tumbling, mutating until they are the same red and brown vultures. In his brain’s cascading hallucination, yesterday’s images bleed into pure dream, and he is tied by ropes made of long reeds to a rock completely exposed to the sky above.

Your dreams look more like my green dreams. Tonight you walk along the same still pools, fear the flap and cry of red winged hawks.

“To dream is dangerous. You are audio psychosis.” Phlox talks without moving his lips as he looks up towards the winged animals, but they dissolve so quickly that he cannot remember what they looked like. The ropes disappear too. In dim light, he sees the edge of a large dark lagoon, and whether it is early morning or late evening he cannot fathom. There are some rock towers nearby forming a rough circle. He turns all the way around but cannot see his shuttle anywhere.

Visions are never dangerous. Death comes during daylight. In Dreamscape you can think, and speak.

“Where are you, what are you?” Phlox says speaking with strange interior vibrations.

I, just an I, Green Kora. You are not of the quorum race. What is this fur, or this round face?

Phlox turns back one hundred eighty degrees. The voice he hears is the same quality and volume as if it is just three feet away, but he cannot see anyone. He steps toward the pool and his foot sinks into the mud. Something stirs in the lagoon, and he sees the curve of small globes breaking from the water’s flat surface. The smooth domes hold large protruding eyes that are yellow and motionless. Thin latitudinal pupils stare directly at him. After a long period, they seem to wink, and then without shutting their lids, sink and disappear.

Phlox woke up to soft light filtering in along the cavern walls. It was late morning. He shook his head, unable to remember the specifics of his dreams, but there was no denying anymore that he suffered a disease. It was a simple fact that at night he fell under the illicit spell of hallucinations. It wouldn’t take long for the psychosis, the voices in his head, to spread fully to his waking hours.

He sat up slowly. His muscles were sore, but he did feel rested. He stopped trying to move against the pain and rested his head back against the cool stone. Anxiety, like the tension in his muscles, had settled deeply into his body. After a while, he stood up and gathered his things. Outside, he turned one ear to the sky and listened carefully for the hawks. He could not hear or see anything, so he made his way down quickly, jumping from ledge to ledge. He stayed a minute in the shadow of the tower. He could see the shuttle’s tail fin sticking up from the tall grass like a flag. He took a deep breath and ran as fast as he could, leaping over rocks and plants, splashing through the edges of some pools to cut corners while water sprayed everywhere. It did not matter.

It was difficult to run in the heavy gravity. He was straining to bring in the oxygen fast enough, but he kept his legs pumping and his arms swinging. He swore that he could hear flapping wings. He reached the tall grasses and with each bound they lengthened and surrounded him. His arms cut back and forth against sharp toothed reeds, but the pain did not slow him. As he approached his shuttle, the door opened automatically, and he leaped over the stairs and dove through. He slid on his back fumbling for his Vall pistol, finding it, and pointing it towards the empty portal. His lungs heaved, but there were no vultures in sight. He activated the electric screen just in case, and the pale, blue energy-field crackled and sparked as it locked into place and then clarified.

“Dr. Swenno,” he gasped, “the great explorer, makes a speedy exit.” He laughed in loud barks. He grabbed some better food, placed it in his lap, and sat in the cockpit; its windows blocked almost completely by the tall reeds. He did not let a single crumb go to waste. He noticed his scraped arms were still bleeding and applied several bandages.

After carefully scanning the sky, he stepped up to the power shielding and looked to the ground outside. He gathered containers for more plant samples, turned off the energy screen, and stepped outside. He stayed close to the doorway but still found a variety of plants fighting for sunlight among the tall and dominant reeds.

Just as he climbed the shuttle’s first step, his ears twitched and the hair along the ridge of his spine stood on edge. The bristling effect crept up his neck and curled around the base of his ears. He turned back to see reeds swaying along a straight path; something was coming towards the shuttle. He leaped inside and backwards to the rear of the craft. He had forgotten to shut the door or power the shield! He searched frantically for the remote control to the door. He could not find it. There was a rustling and then silence. Soon, a slender blue green snout crested the lower portal lip. It was followed by bulbous snake eyes. The yellow eyes pivoted but did not focus on his bristling silhouette. He was too frightened to uncurl his toes.The eyes of a wet-skin,” Phlox’s mind screamed: instinctive repulsion for the bipedal smooth-skin. But this was entirely new, horrific.

He inched away from the door as he searched for the pistol at his belt. It was not there! Quickly he turned, leaped and squeezed himself into a cabinet, closing the clear plastic door in front of him. He stared into the room wishing that there had been time to close the main portal. He saw his pistol, and the control for the door, sitting in the cockpit. Phlox listened to his heart knock inside his chest.

The creature elongated and pushed its head farther into the room. It rolled out a long, spiked tongue. Impetuous, it flicked at the air, hooking the microscopic, stealing what it could. The intrusive tongue darted back and forth, reaching out for him. It continued flicking in rhythmic pulses that seemed to purchase leverage, so that as the split-tongue moved forward, it dragged behind it a slender, muscular body across a flush, metal floor.

Swenno gasped for air.

The reptile paused for a second, and then it pulled its long scaly body further into the lander, always keeping its slick form low to the ground. It had four short legs, broad feet and long thin claws. From its narrow tail, to the tip of its snake-tongue, it was almost six feet long. Its eyes reflected primitive intent. Swenno held his breath.

Its tongue flicked in and out more rapidly as it circled the cabin searching and tasting the air until it found an unlatched cabinet with food. The giant lizard looked reminiscent of small reptiles common on Akkacia, but this one was huge, grotesque. It turned quickly, rammed its nose in the cabinet next to his, and rummaged through the shelves. It moved over a few feet and scratched at metal compartments in the refrigerated section. It rose up on its hind legs, and racked its claws furiously until it pried open one compartment. It opened its big jaw, and Swenno saw a double row of small sharp teeth. It ripped at the contents and swallowed everything—plastic containers and all.

Phlox did not move; he was still trying to hold his breath, trying not to be eaten. Those eyes—something about those eyes—made his skin crawl, his fur twitch. Phlox breathed in carefully, slowly, and kept his tail curled tight.

The huge reptile pulsed its tongue through the air a few more times. Its fork-split ends rolling out with a slight whipping action. The scavenger turned slowly, dropped to all fours, and made its way to the open door. The knuckles of its spine twisted like a snake as it crawled out of sight. Phlox rolled from the cabinet, ran for the door controls, and activated the energy shield. He grabbed his pistol and peered out the portal. The alien was threading its way quickly into the grass. With his finger firm on the trigger, he was inflicted by a sense of déjà vu: somehow he could not shoot, and within seconds the creature was gone.

Phlox radioed the captain.

“Manage to find any flowers worth transporting, Swenno?”

“I did get some high readings, but the blossoms are all water based. If we had some way to replicate the warm water environment we might have a chance at reproducing and transporting them.” Phlox said, trying to mask his terror.

“Yeah, three of the other teams reported the same: various kinds of lily pad and pollen infused pools that make the efflorescent scanners worthless. I don’t like it at all. If those tiny water flowers are all we’ve got, then it’s a huge profitability risk. Saal says we can’t afford to haul and heat water for five years, and we don’t think they’d survive without it. We’ve got two days before we start strip mining.” The radio popped with static and then the captain’s voice returned. “Keep looking.”

“Sir, what kind of animal life have the other teams reported?”

“Some of the teams have seen some really big condors or hawks. They’re carnivorous, but they haven’t attacked any of the crew yet. Someone reported seeing a small horse-like animal. And there have been some large reptile sightings. Guvvat said they make a tasty barbeque. Taste just like torvet.”

“Did they test the food?”

“They did a standard scan.”

“I’ll report back if I find any exportable flowers.”

Phlox locked the shuttle up firmly and dropped the blast shields on all the windows. He set up his bed. He then downloaded data from Splinter to check on Calyx, but the readouts were as bewildering as before. The sensors were malfunctioning. They demonstrated brain activity comparable to someone walking, or even talking. After his dramatic pseudo-conscious expressions and gross-motor outbursts, Phlox had suspected that Calyx might just wake up, but the damaged malan had never stirred again. His brain-activity continued, but his body now seemed dead.

He spent the good part of the day fashioning a sample container that could hold three liters of water and be thermostatically controlled. He had worked in the open doorway—with electrical shielding on— and let the natural sunlight warm his fur. Now as the sun set, clouds of insects thickened above the reeds. He climbed into his bed and dropped asleep, his eyes fluttering beneath their olive lids.

The scent of budding roses circulates. Droplets of rain, refracting green, fall on the doctor’s upturned face. The drops of water are heavy and sticky, so that they hold stubbornly on to the short fur of his checks and drip slowly to the nape of his neck. When he opens his eyes, he sees that the horizon is violet, cloudless. High in the sky, an oversized kite with streaming tails of multicolored light, dances. To see more clearly, he blinks his nictitating eyelids rapidly, but the perfumed droplets still splat heavily on his brow, making it difficult to hold his eyes open. He squints and the spiraling kite draws closer. Phlox stretches out on a meadow of trim grass. The sprinkling rain continues, and he feels limber and calm. The grass tickles his back. Feeling more intense, it grows right beneath him, shifting, waving, gesticulating—pushing his body forward in small but disconcertingly real increments. A clicking like the tongue against the palate, and a bright red wheel slowly spins above him—a pulsing dark, red oval and a crimson center within. Then it is gone, and the grass grows faster, covering his body in long sharp reeds that shut out the remaining light. Then he is miniscule, and trapped within one of the last of the perfumed droplets. His lungs strain. He is sinking. He flaps around like a desperate bird. His eyes are open, but his vision is blurred by the shimmering surfaces that surround him.

The tick and hum of the shuttle’s machinery woke him. It was dawn and time to gather flowers. He checked Calyx Swigg’s vitals and saw that through his intravenous feeding system, he had absorbed a lot of nutrients, and then the absorption had suddenly stopped. Of all the data, this was the most disturbing. Was his body shutting down after coming so far? If Calyx dies a second time, I’m still responsible. He closed the data-link and collapsed in a chair, his eyes swelling as he shook his head.

He opened the shuttle’s armored door and was stunned again by the glare of white sunlight. He rubbed his aching eyes and surveyed the waving reeds. He peered as far as he could to each side, and except for flying insects there was no movement. There were no eyes striped like stalks of grass. He adjusted his backpack to carry the two containers upright; the bulky storage units were imperfect but would suffice for this first experiment. He turned off the energy field, felt for his pistol, turned the safety off, and stepped out onto the ladder.

Insects swarming along the wall of the shuttle parted for a second and then their cloud closed around his head. He jumped down to the soft ground. The containers pushed awkwardly against his spine, but he made his way quickly, looking to all sides. He checked for signs of falcons or giant reptiles while quickly gathering samples. He was back on the shuttle in just under an hour. He grabbed another homemade container and set out in the opposite direction. He saw some deep pools surrounded by plants like bamboo. He did not want to get close to the dark, deep waters, but he knelt down and thrust the box into the water and drew out yellow, floating blossoms. He marched back to the shuttle with the heavy slosh of water throwing his hips off balance.

The Trotuul began diagnostics and warm-up procedures automatically. Forty-five minutes later, the engines hummed loudly. The shuttle lifted with a jarring bounce. Mud had created suction against the hull, an uncalculated resistance. The craft circled clockwise, gaining altitude quickly. Then it set off on a straight course for its precise docking bay, accounting for the current rotational position of the freighter, predicting to the meter where it would need to be in two hours, forty-six minutes and thirteen seconds.

Splinter Sixty-Six was wedged into the black and arching horizon; an irritant slowly turning, burrowing in. As his small craft approached, Swenno caught a spectacular view of the freighter with its long, thin solar panels spread out like wings, reflecting the sun in a display of brilliant white. Phlox’s craft approached from the rear, just as the top of the freighter was rolling away from the planet’s surface. The flutes of the engine’s exhaust ports were pitch-black, cavernous. The shuttle fired retro-rockets, slowed to skirt the flared edge of afterburner number three, flew close along the length of its Hyyperbolt engine and straight to the docking ring.

The shuttle shook with a series of vibrations that ended abruptly in an uneasy calm; the shuttle’s engines powered off in submission to the mass and energy of the mother ship. Phlox let the machines do what they do best: progress through a protocol list, check every detail, and choreograph the position of every moving part. He unbuckled his harness but stayed sitting in his swing chair. The computers and monitors powered down in synchronized succession. The lights dimmed.

Artificial gravity was being pushed into the shuttle’s interior, and Phlox’s limbs started to gain weight. His tail twitched in anticipation of bolts locking, sliding home. Deep within the freighter, there was a loud thud, like a friend’s knock on the door. There was a muffled whistling as the first air lock filled. He waited with his eyes closed. There was a loud hissing as air pressure equalized between the vehicles. His door slid open, and then a disturbing smell filled the cabin. Splinter’s environment was so strictly controlled that he knew immediately that something was wrong. He waved his hand in front of the control monitors. They came instantly back to life, displaying normal oxygen levels and negligible nitrogen variances. There was nothing toxic in the air, but it was acrid, musky, and base. There was anaerobic decay, like the shit had truly finally hit the fan.

As he rode the lift up the central spine, the air improved but still stank of sweating bodies living too close together. The lift passed the labs. He considered jumping off to see Calyx and check if his condition had improved, but he had to report to the captain first and show him the flowers.

“What is that horrible smell down near the lower rings?”

The captain did not look up from the large monitor in front of him. “What are you talking about?”

“Something down there smells like crap.”

“Well, Swenno. I’m not a doctor or a biologist, but that sounds like something you ought to investigate.” The captain went back to discussing plans for the mining phase with Saal.

“Well, if it’s the environmental systems malfunctioning, you’re going to want to know about it.”

“Look Swenno, I haven’t left the command unit for the last three days. I trust this vehicle. She’ll hold together. I’m more worried about the environment down there. No fucking flowers, the crystal rating is really low, and I’m getting reports of crew members acting weird, some kinda bug.” He blew out a big breath of air.

Phlox showed him his flowers, but the haggard malan was not impressed.

“You know as well as I do, flowers growing out of water won’t get a price worth the picking.”

“But what if I can figure out how to cultivate them outside of their aquatic environment.”

“Do you think you could do that?”

“I don’t know, but the florescence counts are pretty impressive. We can’t market them at the target value, but they might make powerful pharmaceuticals.”

The captain’s attention turned to a call from the planet, and Phlox excused himself. Under his breath he said, “I raise the dead. I think I can keep a few flowers alive.”

Kinsal raised his head displaying a thin smile. But Phlox couldn’t read him, and there was no fit of hallucination to color code his reactions.

The doctor swung easily down to the already descending lift. He jumped down and entered the hallway to Lab Three. The strong smell of Primalan feces filled his nostrils. It made sense immediately: that was what he’d smelled earlier. A loud clattering sound came from one of the struts leading to the hibernaculum wheel. Then Calyx lunged into view, his arms waving violently. He stumbled, but pulled himself upright in the doorway. He stood across the room as if he had always been there, waiting for Phlox to come back. Waiting to finish the beating.

But in a split second, he noticed that Calyx could not stand still. He was swaying badly—he remained standing only by propping himself up in the doorjamb, and that his eyes were unfocused, his head unsteady. Phlox took a step closer, his pulse racing. The odor was horrible. Calyx’s eyes were wide, his pupils dilated unequally and empty of thought. He looked like a wild, velvet desser. He wavered again, and then throwing his arms upward his body elongated. His flesh pulled taut. He saw Calyx’s shockingly pale, hairless skin. Suddenly, he was standing dangerously close.

Here was the malan that he let die, standing before him. He was sweating. Even though he was culpable, he had never let the feelings fully rise, and an unexpected mix of emotions caught him off guard. Here stood a second chance. Phlox’s eyes filled with tears as he stood immobilized. This opportunity would not come again, but to accept it was, at the very least, to admit to malpractice. To be given such a miracle, led surprisingly to agonizing regret. Why this time?

The blind Primalan blinked and seemed to realize that someone had entered the room. He jerked his head, and cocked it a few degrees to the left. Then he gave a little hop, with the lack of reason or direction that an excited child might unconsciously demonstrate when excited or nervous. He turned toward Phlox but did not focus on him or on anything in the room for that matter. He rolled away, turning his profile to Swenno. His body tensed up, and he continued to hold his head at a slight angle as if listening to something unseen. His stub-tail twitched and then spun wildly.

Phlox took one step forward and stared at the newly awakened creature. How do you greet the dead after they have risen? His medical training, and his life-experience failed him.

Calyx moved his hand from the doorway and collapsed. His head made a loud hollow sound as it hit the floor. He opened his mouth wide, trying to howl in pain, but no more than a rasping cough broke free as he struggled to get up. He fought like a wounded animal against an invisible enemy. There was no rational thought to slow him down. Phlox kept his distance as his patient kept thrashing with unrelenting vigor. After a few minutes, he suddenly became silent and immobile. Then with surprising grace, he got on his hands and knees and crawled under the largest desk in the room, making no sound as he maneuvered across the floor.

Phlox drew closer and could see that Calyx’s backside was covered in feces. After a short time, his chest began to rise with deeper breaths, and he made a whimpering sound, coupled with a slow whistle. Swenno moved to get to a computer interface. Calyx was still wearing most of his monitoring tags, but the computer readout was immediately unbelievable. Real time data and a history of the last two days registered no conscious state at all, no evidence that he had ever stirred from a coma. He looked through the rest of the labs and the long hibernaculum, and from the mess he found, he judged that Calyx had staggered around for more than a day. Cabinets with anything edible had been raided. There was his crap smeared throughout the rooms. It was as if he had lost complete control of his bowels, and everything was covered with a five year backlog of nature’s worst fermentation.

Obviously Calyx had made remarkable progress, but any scientific explanation raised as many questions as it answered. Even if he could continue to improve, Phlox had no therapeutic protocol to follow. The computers said he was still comatose. Could he have brain damage that could not be distinguished from coma? And if he were at some level conscious, was he moving about in some kind of belligerent sleepwalk? What could cause, or maintain, such an extended attack of somnambulism? It was obvious that he was not a vegetable; something of his higher cerebral structures had healed. Like a Primalan infant, his patient could crawl and feed himself, a significant journey along the developmental path.

The disabled Primalan had created the most havoc in the site where he had first opened his eyes. His legs were understandably atrophied, so the initial radius of destruction was limited and in a rough oval around the exam table debris the stains were thick. He had torn out all the tubing that had been attached to his body, so the doctor looked for a glitch or a blip in the brain wave measurements to determine exactly when his patient had fallen from the table. A disruption in transmission occurred as the data-stream had transitioned from the last of the physical wires to a wholly remote transmission. Calyx had first rolled off his gurney twenty-eight hours ago, but he had no idea how many hours it had taken him to re-learn to walk. Everything about it was impossible; his leg muscles should not yet have been able to sustain him.

Calyx stopped crawling, settled down, and the doctor collected damp towels, plugged his nose and began to clean him. The smell got worse as he added moisture to each layer of crust. The doctor got more cleanser and soaked Calyx’s whole body, but the malan did not move or even flinch. His legs were limp as Phlox lifted each one to get the last of the crud off. The doctor set up a grooming vacuum to finish the job. Calyx’s vitals remained strong: the biometrics likened him to a sleeping baby.

Grabbing for straws, Phlox began to research sleepwalking. Scientists had documented that spikes in sleepwalking problems had really only occurred on Akkacia within the last two centuries. Similar symptoms had a precedent in a few other highly developed animals and could even be traced to a specific virus, but the antibodies did not exist in Primalan ancestors. The first documented cases had garnered a lot of attention. They were fully documented because the sick had been killed in prejudiced attacks when sleepwalking had been mistaken for sorcery.

Phlox’s eyes bucked beneath his green eyelids.

You dream in heavy gravity. You have reached great heights, why fall now? With a wide chambered heart and tail that should lift, why do you live in the rank past?

The next morning, he researched patients who had suffered industrial accidents and devastating brain-trauma. Through the TC11 tags attached to Swigg’s temples, he administered a standard practice brain-stimulus routine. Calyx sat straight up and began to cough, then stopped suddenly with his mouth ratcheted open, frozen in mid-cough. His heart rate dropped precipitously, and he careened back onto the floor. His mouth, however, remained flung wide open and his eyes were unfocused, his face slack, emotionless. He switched the program off, and Calyx’s heart rate immediately returned to normal. The trauma was especially problematic because his brain waves spiked to inexplicable levels, only to fall again. He searched the database for an appropriate rejuvenation program, but everything he tried did more damage than good.

Splinter’s electrical systems glowed brightly and the lights flickered momentarily and then the surge was gone. Phlox paid no attention; he assumed it was in his head.

Later his intercom snapped on. “Two malans are really sick. I need you on surface. Your shuttle’s being programmed with the coordinates. Nip this thing in the bud. We start mining soon, and you know it’s going to take all the able bodied malans we’ve got.”

The doctor collected medical instruments and tools. He left some food out for Calyx and locked him in Med Lab Three. He made his way down the central lift and through the large portals leading to the docking ring. The glare from the surface of the planet blasted the room with white light yet it felt colder than the rest of the freighter. There was a faint ringing in his ears as though someone had been shouting.

Drinia V

Rotation 269/Revolution 9753

Toral Blue: We take in a familiar smell, drink in a favorite color. Even damaged, this flesh wants to move. Muscles yearn for locomotion, the mind desperate to uncoil. This is a kindred spirit.

Kyryl Yellow: The colors and motion are true hallucinations. This alien speaks with unknown symbol. We’ve never been solid nor so nimble.

Toral Blue: There is a hunger in this body. Before her exile, Kora reported the same.

Violet Xal: You deny to the point of lying. I see your dreams; they’re just like mine. We could connect to this cold mind, set this alien in motion, but it is nothing like us.

Rotation 4/Revolution 9754

Toral Blue: Something more should flow in here. This wet puppet serves dreamrift head.

Xal Violet: This creature, like a vast hedge, drinks greedily from quorum’s sap. We should break it at the stem.

Toral Blue: No, heal the armor so the mind may grow. Concentrate and move that limb in collective vision.

Xal Violet: Then find something to redeem this waste of dream.

Toral Blue: Set the clock back for soft cal-iks. Stir emotion’s soup of intellect.

Xal Violet: Quorum will not waste the energy. If we allow it to blossom it must be a spy, a neuron bomb.

Toral Blue: A kill switch is all we need. We shall finish what we began.

Rotation 6/Revolution 9754

Toral Blue: Can you feel it? Its limbs move by electric control. We can command it to kick and walk.

Violet Xal: Yes, this clumsy creature is made of water and spark. A plant with ionic charge that we can rehabilitate.

Toral Blue: To Quorum and all Drinians, nourish the rhizome and strengthen this foreign stock.

Rotation 7/Revolution 9754

Chorus: The rest are rodents, moles that bury their visions. Quorum will seek a weakness, probe these new minds, and pull out dreams like strings.

Rotation 8/Revolution 9754

Chorus: White hot metals pierce our blue sky and penetrate our atmosphere without permission. This is no comet benign.

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