Atmosphere: We Don't Orbit but Fall the Same

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Chapter 11

Splinter twisted and turned to the dark side of the planet. Phlox ran along the strut of Docking Ring Three as the bright natural light quickly faded. With four minutes to separation, he slid into the pilot seat. As the freighter continued to roll his shuttle inverted, and the cockpit windows displayed the vast black expanse of the dark side of the planet. Suddenly the exosphere was alive with blue sparks, seeming to crackle and hiss as they shot across the night. Then they fragmented like lightning, flaring only to bounce back, break and split. They shot downward, stretching towards the ground, and he craned his neck to see how far down they descended, but maybe the downward movement was optical illusion—the effect of broken refraction through a thick and troubled atmosphere.

A warning tone sounded and then metal claws released and the shuttle floated free above the web of azure sparks. Phlox tensed as the shuttle’s rockets fired loudly, but then the doctor dropped quickly into a deep sleep. Meanwhile, his craft plunged through the electric bursts, losing stability and ricocheting, tossing the slumbering doctor’s head back and forth. Then, suddenly, the shaking was gone and the craft was back on course. He opened his eyes to watch the faint blue sparks shoot back and forth. The shuttle was descending rapidly and he craned his neck to stare through the upper windows and watched the last electrical streaks dissolve.

The shuttle slowed dramatically and flew low over dark waters that splashed occasional glints of starlight. Soon the view below grew even darker as he shot across land and into deep fog. The shuttle’s speaker announced that the landing site was approaching but he felt profoundly disoriented. He had to trust that the mechanics, the flow of electrons and the design of the software would lead him. His limbs were heavy as the pull of gravity increased, and it was getting harder to take in all the oxygen that his body craved. The shuttle’s engines cooled, and the craft glided. He was getting very close. A few unsteady points of light appeared on the horizon. Phlox blinked to see if they were real, and as he did they became brighter. The shuttle banked steeply, and he could make out a campfire flickering and sending off sparks and the silhouettes of malans—flickering shadows against an alien landscape. The shuttle turned again and came to rest softly behind one of the other craft.

The shock of this super gravity did not compare with the first landing. He got up and out as quickly as he could, and his muscles were caught off guard only slightly. His headlamp’s white light cut through the inky fog. The ground was covered by large white rocks, flat and even, and patches of delicate short grasses between. Without thinking Phlox found himself stepping from rock to rock like they were stepping-stones. If he could help it, he did not want to step on that dark green moss. A tall Primalan was standing a few feet away. He did not wave or raise his tail but stood stiffly, waiting for Swenno.

“Doctor,” he barked, “Come this way.”

Phlox stepped closer and recognized that the tall crewmember was Ladin. He followed him to the shuttle farthest from the campfire. The door slid up and he stepped through the electrical shielding and into the quarantine. He saw Mejjo lying on a cot in the front of the craft. His hair was slick, and his eyes bloodshot.

“The captain was vague, Mejjo. What are your symptoms?”

The Primalan on the cot flinched at the sound of his voice but did not turn towards the sound.

Ladin barked from just outside, “He’s puking all the time. Can’t keep any food down.”

Phlox could see that Mejjo’s fur was stained and matted with vomit. The brain wave monitor was not set up correctly. He articulated the device. He had a suspicion—but no clue why he had this intuition—that the malan’s brain waves would reveal something important. Standard medical procedure would not lead him to look there first. Wave readings usually indicate symptoms, not effects. He stepped back as Mejjo rolled to the side and convulsed violently, his body trying to throw up. The only thing ejected was thin yellow bile. He had nothing left. Phlox inserted a needle and administered a nutrient drip: dehydration was the most imminent danger.

Swenno looked over the wave readouts but saw nothing out of the ordinary. He downloaded wave analysis from Splinter, but Mejjo’s brain wave patterns matched the scans taken before their departure. Details of his blood work showed extremely low levels of melatonin, especially for someone who had been on the surface for two days.

“Are you able to sleep?”

Mejjo stopped coughing and looked briefly at the doctor. “I fall from the same cliff again and again. I drown in my own blood. But then float in space, my body exploding… ”

“Are you taking a normal level of dream-suppressants?”

Mejjo didn’t answer; just stared wide-eyed back at the ceiling.

Swenno gave him a powerful sedative and the malan sank quickly to sleep. He waited until he knew the intravenous drip was working correctly. Exhausted Phlox went to the back of the craft, set up a hammock and climbed in.

Sway-no, blue where did your dreams go? Your spark and electric click gone. You’ve not spun visions for two nights.

“Corr-ah, Corr-ah, don’t understand; you seem a voice outside of me. Talking to you proves insanity.”

Your ideas are a foreign tongue. Why do you question shared sight, visions sung? I see your mind and you see mine—don’t fight my dream, accept the signs.

“Okay Corr-ah, I surrender. To your lullaby voice, I submit.”

You’ve fallen out of metered beat. Are you an exile just like me? Awkward dreamer, relax your struggling mind and follow mine. Let us form quorum of two.

Through the windshield, Ettiquin’s bright morning sun struck his face and when he woke his throat hurt, but he had slept soundly. He stood up and stretched his arms high above his head, trying to pull the sleep from his body.

He checked Mejjo’s monitors, but there had been no changes. His melatonin was still very low, but fortunately he had stayed asleep the entire night and had not thrown up. He found that the enzymes that excrete melatonin were almost non-existent.

A loud barking broke the silence. Phlox ran to the door. A tall, thin malan named Anthullo was pacing—no strutting—outside the farthest shuttle.

“This is the fucker that’s been stalking our camp. I’m sure of it.” He kicked its lifeless head. “Don’t know how long to cook it but I think we should start barbecuing this bastard.” He and Ladin tugged the still bleeding lizard-corpse and threw it on to the embers left over from last night.

“I don’t even care if this is the one I saw yesterday. A dead croc is the best kind of croc,” Anthullo said, kicking the lizard farther onto the coals. Ladin did not reply but spat once, tail bristling.

Swenno wanted to conduct a necropsy, needed to look inside and see what made the alien tick. A complete analysis could show if elements inherent to its biology were in Mejjo’s blood stream. Again it wasn’t logical medical procedure, but intuition that he followed. He ran after Anthullo shouting, “Before you roast him, I’d like to look inside. We better learn as much as we can.”

“It walks on four feet and has a really big mouth. What else do you want to know?”

“Come on, you can help me cut him up.”

Anthullo stopped and laughed. “Yeah, we’ll call it torture, post mortem. Might make me feel better.”

They pulled the limp lizard from the ashes, its skin smoldering. Sulfur and alkaloids equally pleasurable and nauseating, rose through his nostrils. As they dragged it into Swenno’s shuttle, it left a red-brown stain along the floor and strung granules of dirt behind. Bits of the ground it had always walked on—the mud it was born to—smeared on the craft’s metal floor.

Heaving, and working together, they lifted the lizard high enough to get it on the makeshift operating table and lay it on its back. The thick tail dangled on the floor and its mouth hung wide open. There was a rifle blast on its stomach and the wound oozed a viscous gray-green puss.

“The fucker jumped up on its hind legs. I nailed it in its soft spot.”

The doctor offered the laser scalpel to Anthullo who hesitated, but then took it enthusiastically. He cut a long vertical line along the leathery skin. A thin, clear liquid bubbled out and sizzled as the hot laser cut deep. The smell was acidic, horrific. Wincing, he looked the doctor in the eye. “That’s enough for me. Have fun.” He let the knife drop into Swenno’s palm and walked off. The doctor was not surprised. Malans act tough, but they don’t like the stench of blood—theirs or anyone else’s.

Swenno continued the work. He peeled back the rubbery skin, using a traditional scalpel angled low to separate the dermis from the first layer of muscle. The muscles were similar in consistency and structure to that of Akkacian reptiles. He pried apart thin almost delicate ribs. He found two hearts, a huge stomach and a complex digestive system. Looking closely at the creature’s head, he saw some amphibian qualities: flaps over the ears that appeared to be watertight and slits and organs comparable to gills at the side of the neck. He removed a thin layer of skin at the top of the skull but did not find bone beneath. Instead, a dense liquid-filled cartilage encased the brain. The cartilage was completely translucent and inside he saw what appeared to be multiple brain lobes.

He stepped back from the table, his hands covered with blood. “What am I doing?” He dropped his hands to his sides, hoping to hear an answer inside his own head. There was none, only a powerful impression that he had crossed a line. It wasn’t guilt but a strong feeling of being out of his league or having wandered into the wrong side of town. He shook his head and returned to his necropsy, and when he cut close to the reptile’s knobby spine it glittered unexpectedly. All along the creature’s backbone there were thin yet brilliant flakes of crystal and these wafers of silicon sparkled more actively than the ambient light provided. The thin line of crystals glowed even more brightly as he cut away the skin at the base of the brain. Would he find the same crystals in other reptiles or other creatures from the massive planet?

As he opened the cranial cavity, he saw that the brain was not round but made of a half dozen flattened orbs. Each was connected several times to the others by sinewy fractures of the spinal cord and coated in the same crystal flakes, although here the specks were smaller than salt grains. Swenno worked until nightfall logging every detail of the extraterrestrial’s organs in his journal, including the weight of each delicate neural lobe and the spectral analysis of the crystals along the spine. As he began to clean up he collapsed on the floor falling asleep even as a metal pan filled with alien blood struck the floor, its ring only one of many vibrations influencing the dream: a young Phlox with the fuzzy light-brown hair clings to the deep ridges of a massive farrlin tree. He is directly below a large branch. The ringing is gone: no metal striking metal, only the tranquility of deep forest.

His big sister still has the advantage, so Phlox sticks close to the trunk, his belly close to the rough bark. He tries to predict which way she will move, hugs his body close to the trunk, and makes his way back to his bombs of rotten fruit. A branch snaps above and a little to the left. He corrects by shifting down and to the right, slips into a familiar pocket in the branches, and is filled with a profound sense of déjà-vu. But there is no time to think, as something stirs directly above him. He lunges for his fruit as manto flesh pounds his shoulders and head. He cries out and flings pungent manto in all directions, but his sister drops quickly on his back pushing him flat on the wide branch. She stuffs fruit in his ears until he cries and laughs at the same time. They hear their mother barking. His sister jumps away cackling and pointing her finger. “Now we’re even mush-head.”

The forest spins rapidly through day and night.

His sister is gone. His senses are dull and it feels like cotton wads are jammed in his ears. Someone is talking, but he can’t make out any words. He is congested and his head pounds. A delicate song, fast wind through dry grasses, builds inside his head. It is hypnotizing, melodic, and frightening. Phlox stands upright as winds swirl around him. He has lost all sense of time or place. He runs a short distance, but cannot see anything except flashes of electric blue lightning. The bolts strike and cyan-clusters explode in brilliant colors. They surround him but even then they fail to illuminate any concrete landscape. He runs in panicked zigzags. Finally he cowers, waiting for the electricity to strike him and the thunder to pound him deaf. But he catches his breath and notes there is no thunder and the lightning doesn’t hit the ground. In another great pulse, electricity tears in every direction, never touching him but leaving his skin in gooseflesh, his hair on end. Blue rays snap and dance all around with brilliant intensity. He sees an oval cave with walls of white soapstone with incoherent etchings on the walls low to the ground. He steps closer as the strange electrical current hops around him, stirring the fur on the back of his legs. Then, as if turned off by a switch, the lightning storm is gone.

Bones begin to rain down on his head and shoulders. He curls into a ball, protecting his head and waiting for the thick fibulas to pound him. But these bones are thin and weightless. The complete skeletons of birds fall gently from the sky.

He felt something tugging on his thoughts. Someone was listening, reciprocating.

Swenno woke up to alarms and stumbled over to Mejjo. His brain waves spiked and then flattened. His nervous system was a mess and his body convulsed. It was time to take him back to the freighter, back to the better machines. He radioed the captain who gave clearance to quarantine him on board, and in the same breath told him to pick up another crewmember, Guvvat, battling similar symptoms. Reports streamed in of more crewmembers with onset symptoms, but those malans were staying, resolute in their search for flowers and crystal surveying.

As soon as he was docked with Splinter he called Tii to help him; Guvvat was still strong and would walk off if not tied down. They got the new patients into monitoring beds and made sure that the electronic devices were fully functional.

Across the room, the body of Calyx Swigg stood up with perfect muscle control, its head turning, and its mouth muttering. Lips formed perfect circles and opened and closed in ways that imitated speech, but the only sounds coming out were the moans and rasps of labored breathing. This creature paced around the lab with heavy footsteps and intermittently ran into walls, not for a lack of physical control, but as if his higher functions were commandeered.

“Shit, he creeps me out.”

“I don’t know what to do. Can it get any weirder?”

Calyx ate, shat and stared blankly ahead. Swenno couldn’t decipher his behaviors, and had no idea what to expect next. This thing—that logically should not move—would lie in its bed sweating, barking and never sleeping. His grunts turned into something else: mumbled proto words sounding Primalan, but never making sense. He developed a strange habit of sticking his thumbs in his ears and flapping his arms around like a bird.

The next morning he unlocked Lab Three and as the door spun open, musty air flowed out. His patient had slept through the night and the fecal waste was at a minimum. He found him curled in the corner where he had said good night—a habitual reaction that had slipped out before he could catch himself. Today the blanket had not been forgotten. On some primitive level, he had relearned to pull it over himself, to cover his gangly body.

Phlox Swenno stood scratching his chin, holding his own tail in disbelief. The giant monster appeared so calm, displaying the civility that a sleeping child feigns. Has he really improved or am I just confusing dexterity with consciousness, anthropomorphizing progress that is not there? He realized that if Calyx Swigg could recover even fifty percent of his high-level brain functions he would still be little more than an ambulatory vegetable. This pulling up and tucking of his blanket proved nothing. It was as rudimentary as a meadow dog routing in the dust. Phlox stepped close and peered down to see that although his eyes were narrowed, his primary lids were still open. Calyx stared forward without fixing on any particular point and his full black pupils hid the color of his eyes.

He placed a bowl of freeze-dried manto cubes a couple feet from his head, and then he backed up, sat back on his haunches, and watched. The broken malan in front of him did not move. Phlox folded his arms, craving a targon root or something strong to drink. After a while his patient quivered in large silent spasms, the click and hum of the huge machine that incubated them the only sound. Cold comfort as they lived far from home, tree and family. Splinter held them instead in cold stasis while its huge rotating metal frame provided no solid ground to stand on. A tiny speck in the blue eye of the planet. Buried deep within Phlox’s soul, a slow spinning disorientation crested and tried to right itself. There was a twinge in the pit of his stomach; there was no way to know what was humane. There was no up or down, no obligation to nurture this fur in front of him. Couldn’t he just reach out and throttle this thing, for that’s what it had become. I’m sure there is no law against killing a Primalan more than once. He told himself he did not care and that no one else would either. He knew there was no respect for the weak, no tolerance for such an aberration—a society in freefall searching for a clean orbit.

There was no reason for this malan to still be alive. Was he even breathing right now? Phlox, keeping his arms folded, leaned forward, using his tail to push himself. Swigg’s chest rose ever so slightly pushing the blanket upward. It was alive. It remained stubbornly so. Then the particles of the reconstituted fruit seemed to instantly re-hydrate, decay, and the odor-particles drifted in invisible yet ever-widening circles. This quasi corpse’s nose began to twitch. His chin started to quiver. There was a trembling as the skin of the lips pulled taught but not yet parting. Slowly a drop of drool appeared at the corner of his mouth. Then this new malan blinked twice and rolled up his nictitating lenses.

“Hello. If you’re sticking around you should eat.” He tapped the bowl, watched as Calyx grabbed for it, knocked it over, and the mush splattered onto the floor. He didn’t care and simply rolled over and licked it up. It was the way you eat as far as he was concerned. The doctor looked him in the eye, and Calyx drummed his knuckles on the wet, sticky floor. Soon he would need to make some toys, or find items to distract and soothe this huge baby.

After being onboard for twenty-four hours Guvvat and Mejjo began to improve. The second night they were able to stay asleep unmedicated for a short time. The doctor noted that the quantity of the melatonin increased by twenty-five percent, and that the enzymes that produced it were active again.

Phlox tried to talk with the captain, but the distracted commander only barked. “Don’t have time for a sick crew.”

“Sir, there seems to be some sort of disease or toxic agent, something on that planet, that is not healthy. It’s not airborne—at least not a particle or virus that we can detect. And the foods have tested safely, but as a precaution I recommend we ban all foods from… ”

“It won’t matter.” The captain interrupted as he looked up briefly to catch the doctor’s eye. “The floral collection’s real low, and we’ll be blasting soon enough.”

Calyx jogged around the room while his mouth opened and closed with disturbing rapidity. He was so active that Swenno was unable to concentrate on his other patients or the mounting reports of illness below. About three or four times a day, he would coax Calyx back to the cot and restrain him. He was getting stronger and would pull hard against the thick straps and grunt loudly. Phlox did not like restraining him for long periods, but as soon as he loosened the straps the malan would always get back up stomping hard on the floor and pounding his large fists against anything and everything.

Guvvat and Mejjo were able to keep down solid foods, but they would not eat on their own. He cut up fruit and prepared a high-protein soup that he fed them personally. They gained some strength but still showed evidence of damaged nucleotides. Guvvat was able to walk now but he wandered around in a daze, his eyes wide and his pupils unfocused. Phlox began to worry that he would have to restrain all of his patients. But on some deep level he knew that Calyx Swigg was very different than these new cases; for what it was worth he had begun frequently to demand attention and interaction. His eyes and face reflected an increased attentiveness. He still shouted uncontrollably, but he was beginning to form more and more imitations of words—to form intonations that sounded like questions—while the other patients remained mute. Occasionally, they strained to say a few words, but most of the time their mouths hung open, useless and drooling. When allowed freedom of movement they would wander slowly, sometimes pacing back and forth or stand swaying in the corners of the room. Calyx drooled too, but in an exuberant manner—as if there was so much going on that he couldn’t help himself. Spit would fly when he would shout and his chin was never dry.

Swenno found a few short references to something that doctors and neurologists from the previous century had called “fatal pack insomnia.” It had affected a small region in northeast Akkacia. It was a steady degeneration of the thalamus where patients lost the ability to sleep, but Phlox didn’t know if this insomnia was the cause of degeneration or its effect. The patients he read about lost the ability to speak in the early stages of the disease. They had paced and walked like automatons. They stopped eating and had to be force-fed. Their muscles withered as steadily as their cerebral tissue, and eventually they would even stop walking. They would lie or sit with eyes wide open and vacant, but their bodies, their minds were never able to sleep. It made no sense that Guvvat and Mejjo were going down this same degenerative path but these references were all he had.

All the fatal insomnia patients had inherited a mutation of a specific protein; it was not a disease that they had been exposed to. Instead, it was genetic, striking quickly, insidiously and relentlessly. It advanced in very predictable ways; presenting minor symptoms of insomnia most often when the malan was over fifty years old and then advancing through recognizable stages and always ending in death. Disturbingly, the historical records contained no documented cure for that original insomnia. No amount of drugs or physiotherapies had been successful in bringing about natural sleep patterns. It was possible to apply concussive force or to induce a full coma, but sleep and especially REM cycles were never again attained for patients with this terminal disease.

The antique disease could not have anything to do with the current infection; the gene associated with this protein had been isolated and the disease had been successfully eliminated from the malan gene pool. Ekkor Industries would have known everything about all their flight crew’s medical histories even down to the slightest mutation. If one of these malans had shown a threat of the disease he would not have been allowed to fly. What was even more puzzling was that more than one malan in the very small sample presented these symptoms. The doctor turned his attention back to the external causes.

Strange connections to this eradicated disease, however, kept cropping up. When he performed a chemical scan of Calyx’s brain, he found what looked like the identical mutation of the same protein tied to fatal pack insomnia. A comparison with Swigg’s own medical history proved that it had never existed before. How could his brain’s chemistry, at the very level of his DNA, be altered over such a short period of time? Calyx had never left the freighter and the chemical scans should have kept any biological agent out. What’s got inside his head? It was like being alone on the freighter again; Phlox’s head was filled with questions and there were no answers, no one to respond.

Doctor Swenno had no better course of action than to treat the inflicted crewmembers with remedies similar to those he had studied. His aim was to prolong their lives and reduce their suffering, and he needed a standard treatment regime because two more sick malans were inbound with the same symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and insomnia. If he could stabilize them, he hoped to buy enough time to find a cure.

The stout Dranel was brought in against his will. The captain and first mate wrestled him from the docking ring and threw him violently onto a lab bed. Without guidance from Swenno they strapped him down tight. Once he was restrained he stopped struggling and lay still, his eyes wide and clouded. His mouth was open in a small circle as if he no longer remembered how to breathe through his snout. The other patient was pushed gently along but walked on his own. He lay down passively in the nearest bed blinking fast. Counting Swigg, Phlox had five patients to contend with, and he feared there would be more malans crowding his labs. Quarantine would become impractical.

The doctor walked out of the lab kicking at the door, and that night he dreamt of unending rain and slate colored landscapes. His surroundings filled with sloshing water as he struggled to keep his head above the rising water and lapping waves. He woke drenched in his own sweat.

When he returned to Lab Three, he found Calyx on the floor making gurgling sounds, intermittently yelping and then stuffing his hand in his mouth, muffled vocal cords still vibrating. He enjoyed the process immensely and would begin cooing, then slowly realize that his yelling—and subsequently the joyful vibrations—had stopped, and he would begin the same sequence again.

In spite of himself, Phlox found himself rooting for Calyx. He could do nothing for the other patients, and at least Swigg kept showing signs of improvement, as he explored the world and his own physical skills and limitations. But caring for him frightened him immensely, for the large malan would still have hours or even days when he would become catatonic. He wished he didn’t care. Not only was the healing process inconsistent and unsightly—his face was covered with open sores that would not heal, and the skin around his eyes pale and splotchy—but this was the same brutish malan who had attacked him. Why should I pray for your return?

Just then Calyx let loose a series of blood curdling screams while his face remained relaxed. Tii entered, took a moment to look casually at the screaming malan, and then plopped down in a sling-chair. “What’s new in the nursery?”

“Every malan we brought back has stabilized, but many who aren’t even sick are calling me, complaining that they’re afraid to sleep.” He paused. He was worn down by talk of disease. “Swigg is still my star pupil. And come to think of it, what he really needs is to spend some time in engineering. You know, learn a thing or two… ”

Calyx, who had just noticed that Tii was there, began erupting into some sort of song. He kept babbling as he came up and grabbed Tii’s arm. Tii smiled but his body remained stiff.

“So, Tii what’s happening? Has the captain given up on flowers?

“Yeah, he must have, because all he talks about now are the crystal counts. I’ve patched, cleaned and analyzed the aluminum oxide topography scans. The next step is figuring out where to blast. I’ve heard him arguing with Anthullo. But they’ll agree soon where to lock in the drill bursts. They’ll blow open holes in the planet’s crust to very specific depths. If done right, all we’ll have in our way are immense dust clouds. They get it down to an art form where there’s just a thin layer of granite left on top of the crystal. If they blast too deep the crystals will be ruined.”

Calyx swung Tii’s arm energetically from side to side.

“Calyx let go!” Tii pushed him away with one hand. “Thanks Buddy.” He had let go but remained rolling around the floor at Tii’s feet. “Soon as the blast sites clear, malans fly in, quarry out the ultra sapphires and haul them back to the Sixty-Six. Malans like this one,” he pointed at Calyx. “It’s what they do best.”

The baby started yelling. Phlox stared blankly down at him. Is he actually pouting because Tii won’t play with him?

“I better get to the engines. We’ve got to calibrate Hyyperbolt Two before they want power for blasting.” As he pushed through the door he paused. “Looks like you’ve got company.”

Phlox stood up and greeted Lann and Anthullo as they carried in Stemm on a stretcher. He was strapped down yet struggling. His mouth was towards the ceiling in a wide circle, and dry like it had been open for a long time. A room full of patients and the doctor’s medical training didn’t matter. He had no idea why Swigg was alive and why the others were sick. He had been dead. His heart should not be beating, that he even had brain waves, was beyond reason. Where is the science behind any of this? There was none. Some days Swigg would sit for hours unresponsively, but against all odds he kept re-emerging, vigorous and ready to play. He steadily gained skills and experience: using the bathroom, making active and vocal choices about what foods he did and did not wish to eat, and expanding his vocabulary. Stubborn, he refused medicines, including dream-suppressants, and Swenno did not administer any more medications to him. If he could regenerate after what was irreversible brain damage it was best not to interfere.

“Damn water flowers. This haul’s a bust.” The captain hopped over the back of his chair and sat back with his legs up. “Suggestions?” As a formality, he had brought in some of the senior officers up to his office in order to discuss the next stage of the mission: Ell, Ladin and Anthullo were quiet. They knew the routine, knew to wait.

“And the aqua flowers? What if Ekkor Industries decides they’re worthy?” Swenno asked leaning slightly forward.

“They won’t, so don’t bother. Ekkor won’t care about flowers if we compensate in ultra sapphires.” He paused, looking around the room almost smiling. “I say it’s time to cut our losses and flash-drill for Aluminum Oxide deposits. The surface is worthless to us.”

“There are three major regions where we could excavate first,” Ell added.

“Good. I want everyone off-surface in five hours. The particulate counts will get real high, real fast.”

“Swenno, you’re in charge of measuring those dust clouds and toxicity levels. If we scorch the ultra crystals then the shuttles won’t be dependable. Those ST engines will explode if irradiated dust-levels spike too high. Do you know the toxicity thresholds, the protocol for having landing parties again?”

Phlox was caught off guard. “Depends on the size of the blasts. I’ll start monitoring one hour after the flash burns.” He swallowed hard.

Kinsal leaned on the intercom, “Last shuttle recall. All vehicles off surface and in high orbit within the hour.”

Navigation emptied out except for the captain. The freighter’s spine was quiet and dark. Power was being restricted throughout the vessel and the malans already back on board were preparing for the inevitable recoil from the immense blast. Only the bio-network tubes glowed brightly; detailed data from 3D mapping was being sent to all excavation craft. Coordinates were being verified for all shock pulses. The entire engine crew was below, ready to address the tremendous power drain on the Hyyperbolt drive system. The freighter stopped corkscrewing as the drill blast muzzles locked into place. The Sixty-Six rumbled deep within the nucleus of its engines. Five flash cannons pointed down at the surface. Huge black tubes, ten feet across, skirted by a platinum meshing and cold titanium coils spun open. Black eyes staring down at the surface.

On a monitor, Swenno saw the first barrel began to glow and its black center disappeared as it filled with a bright red and deadly light. And then the light was gone, the black eye winking back. The destructive pulse already had surged, streaked to the surface at the speed of light, but he did not see it leave. It was invisible as it ripped through the stratosphere and pierced the atmosphere. Visually, nothing had happened, but everything in the path of the beam had been seared, elements striped of weak electrons, heavy metals vaporized. There was a rush of air within Splinter, and immediately the freighter trembled as vibrations kicked from the first cannon. This was nothing compared to the devastation occurring below, but so far the monitors were blank—the eyes of the machine wincing shut as it spat death on the planet below.

Cannon two charged and released. Its pulse created another recoil-wave throughout the freighter. Then the interior of the freighter quickly brightened as normal operating levels were restored. There would be no more wide-disbursement blasts from this orbit. Splinter Sixty-Six twisted once again as it dropped to a lower orbit, its guns pinpointing the largest aluminum oxide pockets. Phlox’s body crumpled against the window. He shook and quivered, electric, epileptic.

Fflocks can you hear me? The sky burns and the swamps are dry—even the lightning chased from the sky. Many frequencies lost and Drinian blood boils.

Phlox woke with his face pressed against the wall, drool cold against his cheek. There had been a strange noise—real or dreamt. Then his patients started up in a collective moan, and this wave whimpered back and forth as if they could hear each other—each individual’s distress adding to a shared misery. Like babies in an orphanage, crying simply because others were wailing. Phlox could not stand up. He struggled to push up off the wall, then he gave up and just watched, in shock. Their backs arched and fell while the waves of grief pooled and joined in superposition to form something extra-malan. It was the horrible caterwaul of a feline in heat. They began to shake and bounce—struggling at their restraints—faces straining while their bio-alarms pulsed at the fastest rate. The cacophony of wailing overlapped to create frightening harmonics that gained strength, broke apart and then grew strong again. The sick malans shook violently and someone fell off his bed. Then suddenly their chests fell in unison, and the alarms shut off. All the monitors returned to safe green screens and normal readings.

Unaffected, Calyx was lying on the floor awake. With a straight lip and set jaw, he watched as the doctor was finally able to move across the room. He vocalized and became animated as he approached, reacting gleefully as he was patted on the head. He rolled on his back to expose his belly. Phlox reached down as if to tickle him but he froze, angry that he would allow such affection toward this cruel malan. But his resentment slowly melted as he watched Calyx squirm in innocent expectation. He kneeled down to Calyx’s level stretching out a hand and quickly rubbed the large malan’s belly. This brought infectious laughter; he had become a totally different animal. His genetics were essentially the same, but he was truly reborn and passing rapidly through later and later stages of infancy.

Calyx stopped laughing and his face tensed and lost the effect of roundness, softness that boisterous laughing brings to demeanor. Suddenly he looked his age. He stopped watching Phlox and instead stared at some point fixed near the ceiling, as if something alive hung above him suspended in midair. Swenno gently called his name, but he did not respond, ignoring Phlox completely. The doctor tried various sounds to get his attention, but he kept staring upwards at that undetermined point, not quite catatonic but instead displaying signs of complete disinterest as if he was suddenly autistic. Phlox watched the hard-set face and narrowed eyes. He was worried about his patient’s progress, but really there was a competing concern: the beast of Calyx Swigg could return. If he could put that fear aside he realized he was rooting for his full recovery, but the scientist within did not want to admit that deep inside something as tenuous as faith or hope held sway. It was comforting to focus on the clarity of the science: Calyx’s physiological reality was a permanent vegetative or crippled cognitive state. He did not believe in the ancient gods, but what was left to explain the return of motor control and the resurgence of vocalizations? No. Whatever was responsible had to be a local phenomenon.

The doctor didn’t have time to think about it. He needed to prepare to test the planet for toxicity and particulate pollution.

“Knocked me off my feet, I tell you.”

“The Sixty-Six’s got the big guns. I’m ready to strip this planet and get the hell out of here.”

Calyx sat on the floor of the lower level engine-control room and paid no attention to the burly malans moving equipment past him. Tii had given him a set of various sized metal rings, and he was eagerly trying to fit them inside each other or seeing how far he could roll them. The crewmembers who knew Swigg best had declined to help with any babysitting. It was unclear if they had refused out of disgust for his disability or whether he had been too much of an ass even to his friends.

“But if it were a software virus or bug it didn’t show the same symptoms in any of the other systems.” Tii had the intercom open when Calyx began yelling in the background. Barjkus and the captain were silent on the other end. “There’s no logic to it so far, Sir.”

“Did the data just drop again?” Barjkus barked with authority, but really he was grabbing for straws just like Tii.

“It’s completely unpredictable, but I think the errors themselves operate in an organic framework.”

“Did you test the oxygen synthesizers on ring four?”

“Each one was malfunctioning. They were all turned on at one point, acting as if each of the other five were offline.” Tii grunted in frustration.

“Right. It’s like someone’s hacked in and planted a virus.”

“The only physical malfunction I found was a heat overload because the systems weren’t designed to run six re-gens at once.”

Calyx began shouting, repeating the same slurred word over and over, “Manto, manto, manto!”

“Shut up! You big baby.” Tii quickly turned his attention back to his superior. “I ended up having to take each of them offline, test each individually. Those Eckorr design guys are sublime. I found solid, state of the art mechanics, and when tested in isolation they ran perfectly. But as soon as we tied them into the bio-network they started to bounce again, take themselves offline or all run at once.”

“We had similar findings at all test points. No one found any hardware damage. It’s just the control systems doing exactly what they’re designed not to do.” Barjkus voice rose an octave.

Calyx began banging his head against a metal grate. Tii threw him a crude stuffed animal made from boot liners. Or, more accurately, he threw the toy at him. Luckily, Swigg picked it up, crammed it in his mouth, and stopped banging his head.

The captain’s voice cut back in. “Given the decay you’ve seen, how long can we sustain life-support? Do we have a projected failure scale?” His tone was matter-of-fact. Failure was just a technical phrase, not something that he believed in.

Tii was the first to speak up. “Right now, I have two running at full power and two are on warm mode for standby. All four are on complete manual settings. They are working now but someone has to watch them constantly. I’ve set some analog oxygen level indicators in the engine control rooms, at the bottom of the spine, in the medical labs and up on the main deck. Thing is, if you detect dips in the O2, then you have to have someone down here to clip out the bad cells and crank another manually.”

“Look at me. I look like crap, and I can’t sleep for shit.” Tii was in Lab One bargaining with Swenno. “I’m so tired, but fuck; it’s getting harder and harder to sleep.” Phlox handed him some small blue pills and didn’t bother telling him that they were just mild pain relievers. He wasn’t the only one who came begging for medicine. The crew was coming to him with threats or bribes, and even though the pharmacy was completely out of sleeping pills, the cabinets in Lab Two were broken into four times, and the crew members had resorted to stealing from each other.

Phlox didn’t tell anyone that he could sleep just fine. Calyx was now sleeping deeply too, but Swenno left him in an energy restraint field because he always woke up early, and he wasn’t mature enough to allow to roam. Keeping him in one spot also allowed the doctor to best monitor all his bio-readings. He didn’t like being restrained, but he complied as long as Phlox wasn’t too far away. The doctor spent many nights in a sling-bed in the corner of Med Lab Two.

Late one night, while the others lay still, mouths open to the ceiling, Calyx’s body became elongated and tense. He moaned and tried to sit up, but something unseen was pushing him down. Then he screamed, a short chilling and un-modulated howl like a deaf malan might make- the vocalizations of grief untempered by social norms. Then the other patients started to shake, their mouths extending fully, and they too began to moan. Steadily they harmonized with Swigg’s howling. The sound created a swirling sensation as if a single voice blew through them, spinning counterclockwise. Phlox shot out of bed to see Calyx’s eyes narrow as he peered around the room, looking self-conscious, as if he had shaken free from his semi-conscious state. But then he went limp, folding back against the cushion. Alarms sounded as his heart clenched and seized in cardiac arrest. Swenno spun on the balls of his feet, overwhelmed by the agonizing wailing coming from every malan and the scream of the medical alarms. As he pirouetted, the world seemed to slow down, and he saw clearly out the window that the ionic flares of the high atmosphere were pulsing wildly, raging with blue, spitting current. And it clicked. He saw cause and electric effect, but there was no time to celebrate or even think. He had to coax the machines to do their work and save Swigg’s life. And after a tense five minutes, the large Primalan’s heartbeat stabilized.

Phlox sat back and tried to digest it all, or rather, to swallow what was too huge to ingest. Those eerie manifestations of electricity, the global aurora borealis still spiraling and spitting on the planet below—it triggered, or at least correlated directly with, the writhing of his patients at this very moment. He went to his patient log, letting the sick malans howl, and he correlated their outbreaks, the manifestations of seizures and biological alarms with the freighter’s exact orbital position. The flare-ups always occurred when Sixty-Six was on the dark side of the planet. Unfortunately, the disease did not fester with enough regularity within those dark halves of the orbit. He had not seen it, because multiple elements had to align; Splinter had to be within the dark side of its orbit, the medical laboratories had to be corkscrewed correctly to point towards the surface, and electrical activity had to be occurring at higher than average levels. These three independent variables had been enough to cloud the now painfully clear cause and effect that was taking place.

Guvvat and Mejjo whimpered as the sky crackled in blue splitting lightning bolts. Swenno ran out of the labs and to the spine. The lift was far below, so he leapt across the spine’s diameter and bounded up the lattice, jumping and stretching his body in long arching movements only to contract and spring again. He rushed onto the main deck, his chest heaving. The startled captain spun on his heels.


“Sir. Move Splinter out of proximal orbit. My patients are in danger and the entire crew too!”

“Are you sick? Did that narcolepsy finally drain the blood out of your head?”

“There is something. I don’t think it’s on the surface—I can’t be certain—but something’s down there in the atmosphere of this planet. Every time the Med Labs spin towards the planet, my patients come under attack and they get sicker.”

“You are a pain in the tail Swenno. You know we can’t shift our orbit. In fact we’ve got to drop lower for the next phase of blasting.”

Phlox stared back with wide eyes and flickered his tail hard against the floor plating. “You’re putting your crew at risk, Sir. I want you to know the facts. You drop Splinter into lower orbit and you’ll put us in further danger.”

“Look. There could be a danger involved. You don’t know what it is, but it could be milder than you think. If you want to talk facts, then remember that we can’t afford to leave. We don’t have the time or the fuel to mine from high orbit. And I didn’t sleep for five point-two-years to come away with nothing.”

“Can we stay solar-side only?”

“I’ll put us geosynchronous with Ettiquin’s star, and I’ll stop the yaw rotation and keep the medical labs face up away from the planet. That’s the best I can do.”

Phlox spun around, tail straight up and bounded away. He shouted without turning back. “We’ll see if it works.” He did not hear the captain sigh, did not see him wipe the sweat from the thinning fur of his forehead. Instead, he heard him shouting to the pilot.

“Yorigg, take us to a good blast orbit, but keep us in the sunlight.”

Splinter fired small rockets to stop its rotation, the slow drill coming to rest. The black sky below sparked in final fury as the pilot increased the thrust and sped the craft toward the silver horizon.

When he returned to the Med Labs everyone was quiet. It was working so far. It would take a long time to construct a history of intensity-levels of electrical outburst and correlate them with disease symptoms, and Swenno had to monitor the toxicity levels near blast zones—the dead zones that the cannons created. While he read through the latest atmospheric data, his head tilted to the side, he slid into a hazy semi-consciousness.

Vast explosions have silenced dreamers. Quorum meets on the dark side. This is war and the end of debate. They will attack, and never look back.

Phlox stood up straight and shook the gauze of sleep from his head. He felt as if someone had just been in the lab whispering through thick bandages. One of his patients was chanting—inarticulate approximations but never words themselves—and the syllables echoed in the room, circumspect, feminine.

A high-frequency buzz wound throughout the freighter. It started in the engines, out along each ring, and then picked up speed as it raced up the spine. When it funneled up the center, it concentrated in the bio-network tubes, and they burned brightly, ready to pop. Then the lights blacked out. For a full thirty seconds, Phlox stood in complete darkness. All the machines were still. No flashing alarms. No flow of air.

Then the power came back up, providing sweet light and a flood of oxygen. And then louder sirens. A hull breach? No. Multiple bio-alarms. He ran to Lab Three. Calyx jumped up and followed him. He was too late. Only Guvvat remained alive. The others were dead: collapsed lungs or hearts stopped cold.

Phlox locked Calyx in the lab and raced to the top of Splinter’s spine.

“I just lost seven patients. Don’t you see it? We’re under attack. There are forces at work that we don’t understand.”

“Phlox,” the captain took a step closer to Swenno, his hand held high somewhere between a pointing finger and a fist. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Sixty-Six is strong; she can take a pounding.

“Goddamn it, Sir! Take the freighter out of low orbit.”

Kinsal struck Phlox’s face with a back-handed slap. “Weakling! Stay below where you belong.”

Buzzing and the smell of overheated network plasma filled the room. All the power went out. Phlox listened to the captain punching switches and his heavy, bitter exhalations. Kneeling on the floor, Phlox counted steadily in his head. Forty-three… forty-four seconds.

The freighter shook and spun too fast. Phlox stumbled back but did not fall, and the lights flashed on, then off and then steady on. Phlox stood up straight. “You can’t risk that I might be right.” Kinsal stepped quickly and confidently towards him, grabbing his arm and gripping it in a vise.

Panting, Barjkus stepped from the spine, “He’s right about one thing. The drain on the freighter is reason enough. The fuel to fight these electrical storms will surpass the extra fuel we’d use if we moved to twenty thousand kilometers and shuttle sapphire ore back to a high orbit.”

The captain pushed Phlox to the floor. “Learn some manners slick fur! Get off my deck.” He turned his back. “Count the number of blast holes, their depth and the sapph readings for each. Tell me if we’ve got enough prospects.” His voice rose—he’d lost his cool. “Then, and only then, will we move to chicken orbit.”

Phlox, can you read my dreams? Shocking silver fur flows, Kin-sal barks and holds a strange, yellow skinned fruit. With bare hands he peels it. Perched upon a pile of broken rocks he devours it.

I saw the dream, but his paws were empty. Phlox woke to the sound of his own voice.

To reach higher orbit, Splinter crossed over the dark side of the planet multiple times. It fought for stability through flashes of pure blue light. Huge sparks, running and snapping, clutched at the freighter’s smooth hull, and the crew felt symptoms similar to being on the surface: headaches, exhaustion and increasing insomnia. An accumulation of days without sleep and crewmembers could not concentrate at their stations. Eight inflicted malan made their way to Swenno’s labs. Haztim, who fought bravely against headaches and nausea, was found comatose in his quarters. He never recovered.

Drinia V

Rotation 10/Revolution 9754

Toral Blue: I enjoy Cal-licks pulse rhythmic. Amid his low volt circulation, I find bliss, but Quorum demands that we break this voyeur link.

Xal Violet: He lifts torso above long limbs. He walks, but only to fall. He consumes and feels empty again. It is an incarnation both beautiful and primitive, but I fear the ones that hold him.

Rotation 11/Revolution 9754

Chorus: Their brain waves dim and feebler draw the traits and darker rank of minds. Look, we have caught an invader. We’ll squeeze its dreams until it bleeds.

Rotation 12/Revolution 9754

Kyryl Yellow: Too many of our frequencies have now been obliterated. This metal ore in orbit came to punish us!

Xal Violet: They are not our kin but miners of the mind. Come Drinians, dream upon sweet revenge.

Chorus: Vengeance will follow two careful routes. Vengeance will follow two painful routes!

Toral Blue: The first half will follow me and infiltrate each alien soul, pry open their thoughts and make them talk. If they know not reason, then break them.

Xal Violet: My Dreamers will find a weakness to crack unwelcome satellite.

Chorus: Quorum’s network is under attack. We will burn them back.

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