Atmosphere: We Don't Orbit but Fall the Same

By Garth Bunse All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Action

Chapter 13

The air around the shuttle flashed with rays of sunlight as it rapidly dropped through distinct layers of clouds. Far to his left, Phlox saw huge gray billows, hurricanes of dust created earlier by Splinter’s blast cannons. The shuttle was angling away slowly, circumventing the area on a preprogrammed route. All of the escape craft had hidden the night before and landed separately, scattering randomly as Kinsal had commanded. Barjkus was staring out the side portal. He was talking to himself but his banter grew continually louder. “Nothing was physically broken, but everything was firing out of sequence. Even life-support—for a long time before it stopped processing carbon dioxide, it was generating too much oxygen.”

Phlox left him to his mumbling for a long while and then spoke up. “Without you, we would have had to abandon Splinter days before.”

“The captain said I couldn’t stay, but I knew I could—thought I could—get the freighter back under my control.” Barjkus did not turn towards Phlox but continued to ramble. “The synthesizers stopped being able to talk to each other. I kept searching all over for the problem—kept thinking it had to be one large issue that was causing all the minor errors. We’d figure out one work-around, and then something completely different would fail. And the shit just kept happening. We were fighting just to keep the lights on and then to keep the O2 generators running. I mean, it just kept coming back to a large-scale failure of the bio-network. It shouldn’t have happened. It’s organically redundant. We could never find any single piece of hardware that had failed except in its ability to communicate with other devices.” Phlox tried to look the engineer in the eye. Calyx was playing with a piece of wire, but he also looked like he was listening to Barjkus.

“I mean, I started thinking like the captain, no longer an engineer. What if this turned out to be a simple and precise attack from an unseen enemy? Right before the alarms he was shouting, ‘Complete failure? It’s impossible, the system’s perfect. It’s got so many redundancies. It couldn’t be an accident.’” The engineer didn’t stop for breath and his hands gesticulated wildly.

“Kinsal always believed we’d been attacked. He knew that sabotage or technical malfunction were impossible. This firmness of belief might have been what saved us. I kept looking for what had broken, but when the network appeared diseased, Kinsal ordered the shuttles taken off-line. It wasn’t protocol, but it stopped them from being monitored electronically by the node—kept them isolated from what we have to assume was an infected bio-network. He personally programmed every precaution that he could into the flight computers of each craft.” Barjkus laughed loudly. “A week ago he made sure that they weren’t being charged by Splinter. So at the same time that he wouldn’t admit he was worried about the infection, he was taking precautions so that it wouldn’t spread even through the power lines.”

The shuttle slowed and steadily descended. Without warning, Cal was back at the flight controls. He flicked a single switch, and they turned and banked steeply to the left. Spread out below them was a large green plateau that ran gently toward a small group of jagged peaks. The plateau was bisected, somewhat evenly, by a steep rocky ravine that dropped towards a fast moving creek. The north plateau appeared to be broken by thin veins of white rock that formed a series of natural terraces that were surprisingly level, forming a ladder that stepped part way up the mountain. At its lowest elevation, it ended abruptly in sparkling white granite cliffs that stretched from the far north side and curved towards the east. The surface on the south side rolled slightly, and its farthest southern edge looked as though it were covered in marsh and reeds like Phlox had encountered on his first landing.

The sky was filled with shuttles. There were some thirty craft of various types still in the air and others strewn across the green plateau. More were taking off only to land again in star-cluster formations. Crew still stumbled from their craft, pacing in constricting circles. Under the gray and drizzling sky, malan and their machines blurred. Just before losing the last of its altitude, Phlox’s eye caught a flash of light reflecting off irregular towers of basalt and granite at the top of the highest peak. The whole mountain seemed out of place in a land with such flat, swampy stretches, and Phlox reasoned that it must be made almost wholly of dense, erosion-proof rock.

The craft touched down gently and as the portals swung up, mist poured in, quickly blending the interior with the exterior. The diffused light outside was not much brighter than the shuttle’s electric lights. Calyx sat still in the cockpit, waiting for unknown signals and Barjkus continued mumbling. Phlox peered out to see clouds hanging low, swollen with water. But the air felt warm, clean. Rain began to fall in large drops and blinding lightning struck the mountain about every three minutes. The strikes were very close but the ensuing thunder was hushed as if the collapsing air currents were muffled by high humidity or a planet operating by its own physical laws.

From halfway down the shuttle’s ladder he watched Primalans set soft feet on rocky ground and step gingerly, as if walking were new. It had little to do with the strong gravity, for in their heavy footsteps was the shock of still breathing, of still finding a material world in resistance. They stumbled through short embraces but kept their mouths held in hard straight lines while an emotional inventory took place without words. Occasionally there were exuberant greetings, intense cheers for the living, but they were quickly swallowed by a survivor’s guilt hanging in the salty air surrounding them. They had lost some thirty or more crewmembers, and although it felt good to be alive, Phlox was numb. No one could speak directly about what had happened.

He did not realize that he had descended the stairs or that his legs treaded without guidance. He moved, instead, in a strange kind of autopilot, a body moving without true motivation. He looked around, but his eyes couldn’t focus on anything. Calyx had hopped down at some point and now huddled close, with his tail wrapped around Phlox’s right leg. He blinked his wide eyes, and when he reached out, the doctor took his arm without realizing.

Craft still circled and touched down all around. These were the shuttles that had been programmed to fly out and hide behind the obsidian moon. They were ordered to fly close, stationary orbits on the dark side. They had run silent—blacked out with only the O2 scrubbers on—creating the smallest energy-signature possible, so that no enemy could hunt them. Night had been spent, not on the warm surface but flying in the inky black. Shuttles continued to appear and each landing sparked subdued celebrations. Each craft kicked up tiny rocks and debris but the closest malans would crowd around the ship, running under it, not caring if they were nearly crushed. They ran drawn, if not by hope, then at least to collect shards of Primalan civilization.

When they found Tii they ran to him and Calyx practically tackled him. “Glad to see you too, Buddy. Have you seen Barjkus?

“Yes. We made him fly with us.”

“Did he tell you?” Tii’s voice was emphatic, but Phlox was confused.

“He manually disabled three transferring couplers. They were overheated and he rerouted them without protection.”

“He didn’t tell us—just kept talking about how the captain wouldn’t let him stay.”

“He probably kept Splinter in orbit ten minutes longer. Phlox, is there any chance he could survive that kind of radiation?”

They stood with chins to their chests. Calyx gently kicked at small pebbles. If what Tii said was true, then it was already too late. It would have been a long-shot to save him even if they had the full hospital, or if he had started anti-mutation serums immediately. They returned to their shuttle but did not find him.

It was painful when shuttles landed without crew. These had been jettisoned at the last second—their intended crews forced to take other craft or lost on Splinter—but they had still followed the same pre-programmed flight paths. They landed as gracefully as if being piloted by Primalan, so when portal doors kicked up and open, malans would gather, hoping for more survivors. They stared into the dark cabins, waiting, as the fur on their backs glistened with light rain, waiting longer than they should before turning away.

They found Barjkus working outside his assigned shuttle. The engineer was unloading boxes, his tail dragging in the sludge. Phlox pulled a medical scanner from his belt. He had cycle-six exposure, and it was unbelievable that he could still stand. He might live for an hour or two more. Tii saw Swenno’s face and started moving boxes around. Phlox thought it was as good a plan as any and pitched in too. After a while, they convinced Barjkus to take a break and sit down. They continued a slow-paced charade of getting his things in order. After less than two hours, he was unconscious.

“The cell damage was too extensive, Tii.”

“I know, Doc. You don’t get through engineering school without learning about radiation exposure. He knew what he was doing.”

It had started to rain hard and Calyx wandered back and sat between them. He seemed to comprehend what had happened because he kept his mouth shut. They laid Barjkus to rest in his shuttle and the three of them sat in the open portal, not speaking.

Tii ended the silence. “Yorigg and Barjkus are gone. Guess I’m the new head engineer.” Phlox looked around, and Tii laughed absentmindedly.

There was a loud barking that rose above the din of heavy splattering rain. It was the captain, his head raised to the sky, his fists thumping his chest. He stayed standing in the doorway of his shuttle as everyone came walking towards him. He used its height as a stage for addressing the silent, haggard crowd. He wore a flight suit opened halfway. Its sleeves dangled around his thighs and his chest was exposed. His torso, normally a boasting barrel shape, looked deflated. His brown hair was dark and slick, his eyes pale. The contrast of his white bulky space-suit covering his legs made him look off balance. Kinsal stood, legs akimbo, like he needed to mark his space, but he barked orders with a surprising fluidity for a mouth set so hard to the side. Here was a man in charge, and he knew that he must remain in command or watch the order he had created collapse. Anthullo and Achlis stood one step back and to each side. They looked strong as they watched the captain. And all the malans listened quietly: everyone understood that they needed each other if they were going to survive. Kinsal stepped forward and planted one foot on the next step down, closing the gap between himself and his Primalans.

“I know there is some doubt out there, lots of misinformation rubbing the fur the wrong way, but it’s far from hopeless.” Low, soft barks, like coughs, ricocheted through the crowd. “Just shut right up, Malans! We sent two messenger skates back. Two separate velocities. They’ve got differentiated masses, they pack in separate voids. It’s redundant but it ensures that at least one will make it. They’re tiny but they make good time flying and should arrive at Akkacia in less than a year.” He paused and scanned the horizon. “So listen up. A rescue craft launched in just over a year from now could be here in three years.”

“Not when they hear there are no flowers and a low crystal count!” Someone shouted loudly from the back of the crowd.

“They’ll come, and I’ll tell you why.” The captain spat out the words without pausing. “Because I told them exactly what they want to hear. They’ll come as fast as they can because I made sure they got the initial reports of top-level florescence and I exaggerated the crystal density. I even retro-marked the messages before uploading my log to the skates. It will look like we reported cash crops long before the system failure.” He stepped to the side as if to survey everyone. “We’ve got supplies for two years. But we have to work together in order to stay happy and dry. We can make our protein rations stretch out longer, but we’re going to need to figure out what we can grow and what else we can eat around here.”

Phlox heard complaints being thrown out from all directions—fearful questions, without answers.

“What does Ekkor care? If anything, they’ll send another freighter to pick us up and that will take another five years.”

“What are we going to do without a vaccine or without dream-suppressant? Why the hell are there no emergency supplies of Dream-Out?” Daani was standing tall in the crowd, his tail flared.

“I did not sign up for this. Fuck this! I’m not living like a primitive. Signed up for being half-frozen for ten years. Signed up for living in a can, giving up trees, working like a dog. I did not sign up for three years on a goddamned treeless, rainy shithole. And now, I’ve got to live with voodoo dreams swimming in my head.”

“We’re fucked.”

Primalans were howling, pounding their chests and whipping their tails.

The captain jumped down off his makeshift stage and grabbed the first complaining crewmember that he saw. He held him by the throat with two hands and shook him violently. “Get it out of your system.” He was howling directly into the malan’s face, but he was obviously addressing everyone. “We’ll call it a free whining day. But tomorrow I’ll shoot you in the leg if you talk to me like that.” He released the skinny malan and threw him to the ground.

The stripe of white fur along his back bristled as the malan jumped back on the platform and howled into the air. The crowd was silent. “Everyone, inventory your supplies. Medical, too. Swenno will be setting up a field-hospital on the east side. Bring him whatever you find. I’ll allow all crew to stash one day’s worth of food. All other food supplies will go to Craane’s team. We will be living and eating together. We’ve got no time for any head-bashing or hair-yanking. I’m in for the long haul, and you’re all coming with me. But we need to get busy. If I catch any of you hoarding food, I’ll shoot you myself.”

The captain turned and strode into his shuttle with the remnants of his command team at his side. By now it was raining in heavy, sticky drops but the temperature had dropped only slightly and the sky was radiant. Flashes of bright lightning above the camp continued unabated, and the splatter of jelly-like rain drowned out the pounding of thunder.

The Primalans broke from their huddle and while some hid away, others began to work loudly. A few shuttles took to the sky and after hovering temporarily, spun down to form the last circles. Three or four craft fit their noses close together to form buildings of sorts. Malans howled at each other as they began to build their shelters, and barked encouragement, teasing each other as the momentum built. Tug walls were popped out and the sides of some shuttles were converted to create porch areas with cantilevered roofs. Tarpaulin walls were hung that could later be reinforced with poured foam. Light from windshields and windows, in walls now pointed skyward, created natural light in makeshift homes.

That night Phlox dreamed in vivid hues—normal things in colors extreme. Then tenacious gravity pushed him down. He fell into a black sea. He thrashed in the thick water, struggling to stay afloat. Sinking, he could see the water’s surface above, a dim blue sky broken and jagged.

Swenno and Swigg walked the perimeter of their new camp. Calyx kicked at small tufts of grass but was quiet and stayed close to Phlox. When they returned to their shuttle there was a message from the captain.

“Tii’s coming.” Calyx shouted way too loud as he went jumping to the door. Tii poked his head in. “Did you just get called?” Phlox nodded.

“How you doing Cal?” Swigg was bouncing with a big smile on his face. “I don’t know what the Cap’n has in mind. Can the news be any worse?” Tii said as he punched Swigg gently on the shoulder.

“Glad to know you’re still a smartass. A marooned and tailless ass, but a smart ass.”

“It’s how I survive. Do you need me to be sincere and talk about my feelings, Doctor?”

“No, oh, please, no. Three years of that would be enough to kill me.” They laughed cautiously while Calyx hopped up and down laughing in loud barks. Then the large malan jumped down and started playfully pushing them both. “Let’s go. Let’s go. Showtime.” He tugged them out of the shuttle and led them up the path.

Tii shouted, “Sometimes, Swigg, sometimes, I think you understand more than you let on.”

“He’s a sponge; he just keeps growing.”

They walked towards the center of Camp. The captain had set up a command center and repositioned his large shuttle close to the central ravine. Its dark blue nose jutted in the air as the ground started sloping steeply and its wings spread out towards the rest of the shuttles. He had not gone down with his ship. “There’s no profit in dying.” Phlox had heard him repeat many times that morning as he’d circulated among the arriving craft. This was his idea of saying something comforting. Or on some level, he felt the need to defend his actions even though no one was questioning them. But maybe the threat of financial failure on top of mortal danger could explain the inexhaustible energy that he displayed, the relentless barking of orders.

“Most of you know now that Barjkus died of radiation burns. He was a hero. If he hadn’t risked his life more of us would have been trapped up there. Swenno did what he could. And my first mate Saal, he’s gone too—an explosion on the main deck.”

It was Day Two, maybe Day Three and the captain was pacing, addressing his people.

“We don’t have time for mourning. What we need is order, and I want to make something perfectly fucking clear.” He waited glaring, his tail rising. “We live by Code Twenty-One. We are a downed vessel on an unclaimed planet. This is martial law in case any of you are confused. And I’m the martial.” His chest was thrown out, his tail high and slowly curving as if it were tensing, ready to lash out.

“You’re in teams according to your original section destinations. Instructions for each team are being beamed to each shuttle, including designations of the only craft that will remain operational and which additional shuttles will be converted to living-space. Make sure the solar panels are articulated and arrayed correctly. I want each team to be on full solar by noon tomorrow. We’re saving stolk fusion cells to power the flyers only. We’ll be swapping fuel out of most of your shuttles. Tajuun will be looking to see how we can best arm two or more craft, just in case.”

“Swenno, you’re setting up a field hospital one hundred yards down on the last terrace. You’re being separated off for a reason. Some are complaining of sickness already. We don’t know what they have or how contagious it is, but we can’t afford to lose any more malans. I don’t know how any of us are going to fare now that we’re stuck on the surface. I’ll discuss reintegrating those shuttles once you prove to me this shit isn’t directly contagious.”

Phlox said nothing. It was not the time or place to explain proper quarantine procedures.

“I’ll assign you two more craft. Tell me if you need a T8 or a tri wing.”

“In addition to Calyx’s Tug, give him an Eighty-Eight.” Tii was speaking up for the first time, the words flowing forcefully. “I’ll tie in a shuttle-cluster part way up the slope. We’re going to need climate-control in the field hospital so we’ll blast into the cliff side and create a cave to equalize temperature. The tri-wing has the most cargo space to convert to bed space, and we’ll need a hospital with a separate supply source. The tug’s got the output that the doctor will need. We’ll wire it in as back-up for the whole colony, but the hospital has to have ample primary supply when we can’t generate enough solar.”

The captain was caught off guard and so was Phlox, but Tii was standing tall and he kept on talking. Phlox couldn’t tell if his exuberance was due to being able to help him or a nervous reaction to having just bossed Kinsal around. “And Daani, you’re helping with the medical lab set up. Be ready to strip the wings off the Eighty-Eight, place the three shuttles side by side.”

He spat out the last order and then he took a step back.

“Fine, make sure those contagion energy shields are up by tomorrow.” Kinsal turned his attention towards another group. He shouted back, “We can’t afford the power output for long. And Phlox, you’re in charge of Swigg. We can’t have him wandering around by himself.”

The new second in command, Anthullo, addressed the crowd, yelling too loudly. “We need all the shuttle rings hardwired for communication. We can save a lot of power if we get off the wireless transmissions. We’ll be able to better mask our location too.” He gave a quick look back at the captain who stared back at him with arms crossed.

“Also, there is a lot of ionic activity up there.” He gestured with his tail. “And both Tii and I agree that transmission degradation is almost certain. In a month or two, we might not be able to trust the voice or data-radios.”

“Do we have enough wire?”

“Guvvat, that’s what your team needs to figure out.”

“We can strip the wings that we just tore off the Blojj.”

“That’s good, Tii. Get on that, Guvvat. And if anyone else strips wire, bring it to Tii.”

“Dulli, you’re in charge of maintaining our landers. I want you to layout an airport of sorts. And get some sort of lightweight hanger built. Figure out if you need a flare system for possible night landings or if that’s a waste of our resources.

“Tetirkk, I want you to rig a perimeter alarm and defense system. Very soon we’ll take the power shields down—we can’t afford that kind of energy drain. So, we need a low power system that will be alert to motion, heat and wave patterns that can trigger the energy shields.”

“Sir, I should be on that team.” A thin malan named Tesholl raised his hand. “I’ve got some experience with iso-fences. I think I can keep them fucking lizards from wandering into camp.”

“Good.” The captain quickly stepped forward again. “You’re on and you’ll lead it. Report back to me soon with a plan. By tomorrow we’ll make a final call on how big we need the fence to be.” Anthullo stepped back slightly.

Calyx hiccupped or made some strange noise. Phlox twisted to look back at him, and saw that he was standing and paying attention like everyone else.

“Gaull, you are in charge of crops on the north of the stream. Maybe start with the rice varieties. They might work well here. Raani, you’re crops on the south side and you’ll experiment with indigenous plants. Get the doctor involved. I want his go ahead for any edibles you find. I want your team on the first survey flights.”

Swigg who had already started swaying back and forth, started jumping up and down like a pet that knows the focus is somewhere else—knowing on a subconscious level that the attention is not on him, and for some reason he needed it back.

“And, sorry, Jump group. You will be in charge of latrines and other waste. I know Forrd’s got experience with methane generators. Get us a temporary system by next week and a report to me with plans for a permanent solution in two weeks. I know this is the shit job, so your team gets excused from all kitchen duties.” Calyx started yelling, “Shit, Shit, Shit!” But Phlox reached up and grabbed him roughly by the neck and succeeded in getting him to shut up.

“Haolt, you are in charge of getting us some running water out of the stream. Run it to the center of camp. Make plans for irrigating the north side too. We don’t know if we can expect a dry season, but we better plan for it.” Cal hopped high but silently in the air as if half of him knew to behave but the other half could not contain itself.

The captain moved closer to the crowd. Everyone was standing at attention, listening intently, except Calyx. He looked as though he were paying attention, but by the time Phlox turned to look straight at him, he realized he was imitating the captain’s body language and physical mannerisms. Copying him perhaps without intending to mock him; it was always hard to tell if he understood what he was doing. He certainly had no clue that his actions might be seen as insulting. Wasn’t this hulk of a malan really just a three-year-old, and wasn’t he just innocently acting out as any youngster might? As Phlox caught his eye, something seemed to pass between them, like a high level understanding: as if Phlox had found Swigg out, and his clown smiled back.

“Thank you for holding your tails high. Remember, we don’t have the luxury of a democracy. Right now, I dictate the order of the ass-kickings. Anyone that disagrees with me can live in the swamp and sleep with crocodiles.”

Shortly after the sun rose, there was shouting outside Phlox’s shuttle. He ran to the door as it slid open.

“He attacked me from behind.” Daani, his rain jacket, ripped and bloody, was standing outside. “Youlf was there. He fired off two rifle shots.”

“I hit it at least once, but it didn’t go down.” Youlf was a pace behind, his tail dragging in the mud as he spoke. “It started to drag Daani off, but I fired two more times and dropped him, but it got up again and slipped down the embankment. It was gone before I got to the edge.”

Daani’s wounds were dramatic but turned out to be superficial. He would spend a few days in bandages. He was okay, but something shifted in the malan, and he stayed close to the makeshift hospital and didn’t mind helping Phlox build a permanent one.

Within less than a week Phlox had a decent sized hospital structure in place. The lab was going to take longer. Calyx turned out to be helpful, if not a bit clumsy, as he liked to help move heavy machinery around. He had even stayed focused long enough to help erect new walls and ceilings. He sniffed out their new surroundings, but never ventured too far. He seemed to keep developing, but he was so large that Phlox kept forgetting that he wasn’t indestructible. Even as he started to wander longer distances, he usually came right away when Phlox would bark for him.

The hospital and lab were nothing compared to what he had had on Splinter. Three craft lay side by side and now had room for twelve hospital beds. The largest shuttle, with its wings newly stripped, was in the middle, and because it was placed slightly ahead of the other two, it sat neatly between them. It was nearly gutted and felt spacious even when Calyx stood in the center while new portals were cut so that they would align with the smaller pod doorways on either side.

“I hope we don’t fill this sucker.” Daani was driving homemade bolts into the frame of the roof between the last and middle shuttle. He didn’t raise his head, and no one answered him. The shuttle farthest back was tucked into the slope of the hill and was used for medical storage. They had used a mining shuttle to carve twenty-five feet into the hill and now, besides the ability to balance temperature extremes, they had additional storage. It could even be retooled to be used as an additional quarantine room but Phlox hoped they never would. Quarters for Phlox and Calyx were set up in the first shuttle. Large foam-filled tarps stretched from the noses of the shuttles and created more living space, and they set up a small kitchen under a tarp just off the entrance, hopeful that there would be enough to cook.

It took three or four weeks for the tension to build and the fighting to begin. The camp was basically completed, and the reality that they would be marooned for years had settled in and tightened necks. A fear of lizards and sleep-disease increased the anxiety-level, and Primalans started throwing punches. During week four, the doctor bandaged two noses, sealed a serious knife wound, and put one leg in a cast. It felt desperate but not out of control. These malans were doing what they did best when stressed out: picking fights and kicking the shit out of each other. The captain was able to keep control, but something in his own demeanor was shifting. When he did speak he went to lengths to explain his actions. He still maintained a firm rule, but the king had been humbled. There were no more lizard attacks and his command might have benefited from one, because it would have given something for everyone to rally behind.

Swenno finished inventorying all the medical supplies. There were enough for all the basic problems that they might encounter over the next three years: broken bones, diarrhea, and concussions, but they had only one surgery module and its software was acting up. Also, he would need to start a blood drive for any significant surgeries. No one was going to like that. If the insomnia returned, he had very little medication to aid sleep. He still had no problem sleeping, so whenever he could, he searched the faces of his colony looking for the early signs of exhaustion. But often it seemed pointless. Everyone, except Calyx, exhibited the symptoms of sleep deprivation.

His brain waves fly in the alien atmosphere, blown by unseen forces. The dream is deep. He sees his daughter high above him—young, white fur catching the light—moving quickly along a slender branch. Drifting behind her, curling playfully like her own tail, is a trail of sweet, piercing laughter. She stops and begins hopping for a large manto fruit above her. On the fourth jump she knocks it down but can’t keep ahold of it. Phlox holds his breath, but she lands softly and steadily back onto the branch. She is agile and getting stronger every day.

“Papa! I got one. Let’s go get it.”

She turns and runs back towards him. “Catch me!” She demands as she leaps at him, her thin body elongating. He sees the skin of her belly as she flies through the air. Phlox opens his arms wide and catches her with a graceful step back to absorb her momentum.

Now at home. “Go to sleep Juun! We’ll pull more manto tomorrow… ”

“No. You can’t stay up. Get back in bed.”

Whenever the clouds stopped dumping rain, hawks would appear. They circled in slow ovals high in the sky, following the wind and the smell of new food sources. The first to swoop too low was shot out of the sky and left to rot.

And one by one, malans came to Swenno complaining that they could not sleep. He gave out sedatives until they were all gone.

Two more weeks passed and Swenno had gathered all the machines and lab equipment they had. Tii had salvaged some other hardware and made some power and software modifications. Calyx was useful for pulling things apart. Given power tools, he could dismantle anything. It was as if he excelled at the physical. If he could act without higher-level thinking, then he did not appear or act disabled at all—although it took a lot of begging to get him to put anything back together.

After a short malan named Gantta went missing, the infighting ended. Even the most aggressive Primalans seemed to be saving their strength for something else. The colony never recovered Gantta’s body, and although theories were rampant, they never found out what happened to him.

The insomnia gained momentum, and Tetirkk was the first to be hospitalized. He went missing one morning and was found late that afternoon far outside the camp’s perimeter. He was stumbling up the mountain in a trance. Three grave-faced malans carried him to the hospital and struggled to tie him down as his legs continued to buck, still trying to walk. He must have hidden his own insomnia for several days before it had come to this. It was the same disease that had begun to attack them before and Phlox was no closer to understanding it. He set the quarantine shield and hoped it would make a difference.

That evening, Phlox sat outside the hospital and looked out over the plains watching the distant reeds. The sun slipped within the gap of flat horizon and bloated clouds. Calyx came around the corner, his nostrils flaring and his belly contracting in quick breaths. He hopped up and started towards the crest, towards the center of camp. Phlox followed, curious to see what scent he had picked up.

There was laughter on the twilight edge of the camp. The hunting team had returned, and they were holding their laser rifles high in the air. They were dragging something large behind them. Calyx had stopped walking and was now jumping up and down. And then Phlox, twenty yards behind, saw him stop and his shoulders fall. He was staring at something being pulled through the mud. When Phlox caught up with him, he was still standing perfectly still, straight lipped and wide-eyed. Anthullo and Youlf were dragging a huge lizard by the tail.

Youlf shouted back, “Come join the bonfire, Doctor.”

“We’re eating fresh meat tonight, malans!”

The limp carcass was covered with shiny green triangular scales. Its head was missing and behind its seeping body was a slick trail of violet blood. The doctor knew death, but it was unknown to the brand new Calyx. He thought he saw him crying. “Do you understand, Cal?”

“I understand.”

“We need to eat.”

“We all need to eat.” Calyx said, seeming to just repeat Phlox’s words.

Phlox couldn’t really pay attention; he was caught up in the crowd’s jubilation. The camp was receptive, actually happy. For the first time, there was real, tangible hope, a feeling of confidence that their last year wouldn’t be a hungry one. Tonight there wouldn’t be enough for everyone to get their fill, but everyone wanted a taste.

With no direction from the captain, they built a bonfire from the thickets and brush that they had pulled up to clear space for the camp. Swenno had analyzed that first kill from weeks ago and had found no toxins or any reason that they couldn’t eat it. But hearing all the hooting and howling, he knew they would not have obeyed him even if he had declared it off limits. Many malans were pitching in with the preparations for a big meal, and no one wanted to miss the ceremony of it.

Someone inverted a bucket and beat it like a drum. Malans raised their heads towards the sky and howled, barking for no reason except to bark. There was an energy stirring in the humid air as if they all knew the meaning of this slaying. They began to push each other—everyone trying to get close to the fire, to the roasting meat. No one was talking, only grunting and howling. They did not fight but shifted in a violent, primitive dance around the fire, twisting and turning, and slamming their feet into the mud. They played a sort of Gorrdel drum fight on the ground. Those who fell or whose hands touched mud had to rotate out farthest from the fire and push their way back in. Malans were getting pushed down, trampled on, but no one was complaining—no one was really getting hurt.

Calyx was absent and Phlox worried because this was the kind of thing that both the new and the old Swigg would love. He checked all around just to see if Calyx was watching, but he was nowhere to be found. He caught Tii’s attention as he rotated to the outside of the circle. He nodded his head in understanding, pushed a drunk malan out of his way as the mob turned faster.

Eventually, they found him climbing one of the terrace walls high above camp. There was a hint of light in the sky and far below they could see the large fire flickering and shadows of malans still dancing and spinning. Black smoke rose straight up into the purple sky.

“What are you doing, Buddy?” Tii asked with a mix of caring and impatience. But Calyx wasn’t talking or listening. He had gotten to the top of the wall, and he was moving away from them, jumping from rock to rock in the gentle slope, stopping just long enough to gain his balance and careful to never set foot on any living thing.

“Let’s go back to the party, Cal.” There was a hint of pleading in Phlox’s voice as he and Tii walked quickly to keep up.

He turned and looked Swenno straight in the eye, but he remained silent.

“Do you want us to leave you alone?”

From the corner of his eye, Phlox could tell that Tii’s body language had shifted. He was leaning back on his downhill foot. He wanted to go back to the party.

“Cal, I want you to come with me, but it’s up to you. We’re at the big fire down there. I know you can find us.” The burly malan turned away and returned to hopping between rocks and did not look back. Tii started down the hill and Phlox followed him, but turned and shouted uphill, “Don’t go too far.” By the time they got back the lizard meat was all gone but the malans were happy. They were eating other dishes and passing around bottles of heavy manto wine.

Phlox drank with the rest of them. He could think of no better plan.

That night Phlox slept deeply and without interruption. His head—heavy with alcohol—never stirred from its pillow.

The grind, the wind, the large eyed blind. Crystal, copper, and metal ore huddle around burning thistle. The grind, the wind, the large eyed blind.

When he woke, he knew he had never moved from the curled-up position he had been in when he passed out. He had dreamt of giant bonfires—the joyous ones they had had when he was young. But he had also envisioned the flower-pools of this planet and sparks, tiny flames within air bubbles, a boiling just below the surface.

Weeks later it had become convention for the Primalans to gather at sunset and build a fire, even when they had nothing fresh to cook. They stretched out a giant tent at the center of camp with a hole in the middle to vent smoke. They made plans to build a permanent structure to allow a dry meeting place for everyone. When they weren’t roasting lizard meat, Calyx was fascinated by the fires and would sit close, throwing in fuel and watching it burn.

“A waste of food, that one.” Lann, fat in his chair, spat out the words.

Phlox ignored him.

“Why are we wasting resources on him?”

“We’re going to need to run lean. And that one’s gonna be eating too much,” someone added.

Obviously they had not seen that Calyx could pull his own weight. Phlox caught himself and wondered why he felt protective.

For a month the rain poured constantly. The storms blew from the direction of the closest blast zone so the beads were dark with soot, and even when the rain tapered off for short periods they were still wrapped in a constant gray mist. The Primalans just had to adapt—had to be wet as they had never been before. And the mud: the soft ground around each shuttle quickly turned to pools of sloppy muck that gushed easily between their toes. Mud and rocks caked beneath their cracked heels. A quagmire. It was day after day of sloshing through rain, bad moods and bad fur days. Wet, unhappy malans.

The temperature cooled but it was tolerable. No one knew for sure if this was summer or winter. To carve territory against the rain and mud, everyone erected tall poles in the center of their shuttle configurations, where the shuttles’ noses met, and hung tents that they tied off to each shuttle’s tail. It helped to keep the loud pounding of the rain a little farther above their heads, off the metal roofs of their homes. Even on drier days, thunder would pound—seeming louder at twilight—and lightning would spark and flash as it hit the shiny black peaks of the mountain above. Lightning would reflect off the mirror-like surfaces, refracting the light and confusing the senses. It was like the sparks that they had seen from orbit.

A grid for energy-collection and distribution was up and running, and even with the rain, enough solar power was generated and stored in each craft’s batteries. Many of the shuttle engines were kept active and could be used to distribute energy to each pod when they needed a backup supply.

Phlox evoked his father’s firm tone and told Calyx to go to bed, and even though the thunder was booming he complied. This was remarkable because ever since the first bonfire, he had started to question Phlox’s commands, to just do what he wanted. But as he continued to evolve, he remained the most obedient during the evenings, and even though he had gone to bed, the large clown was sitting up laughing hysterically and talking in long nonsensical sentences. It was late, but he was full of energy. Earlier, the relentless splattering rain had masked his laughing fits, but now the rain and thunder had calmed, and his snorting and giggling woke Phlox up.

“Go to sleep Cal! Or I am going to have to tie you up and gag you.”

Silence.

“Field damper. Hiccup. Nebula. Exo-claws. Thermal exhaust. Fluorescence.”

Phlox tuned out the continuous flow of words, and Calyx finally fell silent. Once he went down his roommate usually slept soundly, and within five minutes he could hear him snoring like a boar.

I’ve been attacked. To be awake is to be terrified. I was cornered by one of my own kind. But he did not kill me, did not eat me.

I am torn inside, damp and beaten by fear.

Ff-lox where are you? Dream for me your fragrant forests. Distract me from pain and loneliness, the brutality of my own species.

Phlox woke from a cold sleep. He could hear Calyx walking around the room, banging gently on objects in a half-hearted attempt to be obedient yet wake his friend. Deep in the folds of his brain, Phlox felt an unresolved question surface. But also there was a warm feeling of having been here before—the daughter he’d held. But this, this was the son he’d never had, using words she had never spoken.

“Where did you learn the word ‘hiccup,’ Swigg? You used it up there on Splinter. You use a lot of words I’ve never taught you.”

Calyx just looked up and shrugged his shoulders. Most of the rest of the crew was respectful but very resistant to actually conversing with the abomination they thought him to be. For Primalans, the word hiccup was only used by children. And how about those other nouns that had flowed so seamlessly from his mouth last night? He must be remembering his own vocabulary, heavy with words he learned as a child. Phlox ignored his own fears about how much of his past life or his former personality he might eventually recover.

“Brain, bad indigestion, gas hiccup,” he said as he wiggled his gangly body over to Phlox’s bed.

“Up on Splinter, you knew there would be an explosion—you saved my life. How did you know? Could you hear something I couldn’t?”

“I hear something.” His voice was absentminded; he was a distracted child again. He pushed Phlox’s shoulder with two hands and hopped slightly away with his head cocked to the side. His body contracted, and he looked small.

“Tiny voices, the most confused.”

Phlox watched as he hopped across the room scraping his knuckles across the shuttle’s floor before slipping out into the morning’s muddy brown territory.

There was no locked medical lab and Phlox did not have the strength or time to seclude him or watch after him. The large malan was on his own and had to fare for himself. He was strong enough that even the chop-tails would not mess with him. It was still a dangerous world for him, because there were so many basic things he did not understand: glass, although nearly invisible, can shatter and cut. Yesterday he came crying to Phlox after burning himself. He had started to wander in wider circles, and the new world that surrounded them was not frightening or foreign to him. He had never grown up on any other planet; he was growing up here, and he had a way of never looking surprised.

Raani’s team had built crude plows and when the rains finally slowed, they invited everyone to plow for the colony’s first crops. From the terrace above, Phlox watched an excited Calyx strap on the harness. He made quick progress, his body smiling as he bent into the metal yoke. He coaxed the others with shouts and nonsense words and got more than one malan to race with him. He easily beat anyone that tried to compete with him, although his lines were not the straightest. And soon he started spinning circles, having grown bored with straight lines. He hit a rock, backed up and ran the plow over his own foot. He unbuckled and threw the straps down, held his bleeding toe and began to hop madly on his uninjured foot, shouting and crying out for help. “Phlllooox!”

“Cal!” Phlox jumped off the terrace and ran out to this malan that had become more than his responsibility. He was Calyx’s primary caregiver. The colony knew it, and now he realized profoundly that Cal felt it, too.

“Phl, phl… ! Phlox!” He was sitting in the middle of a furrow with the soil of the mound elevating his bleeding foot. He was trying to pull it up to his mouth, to suck on the wound like a dog would.

“It’s okay. Let me see it. Oh, it’s not too bad. Yeah Cal, you cut yourself, but it’s not too deep. You’re going to be all right.”

He sat down with him and held his foot carefully in both hands.

“Come on. We’re going to go wrap that up. Yeah, I’ve got some iodine and some antibacterial patches.” Without thinking, he talked in careful rhythmic speech. Why was he consoling Calyx Swigg? But the words of comfort spilled out, and at first he felt ridiculous. Cal didn’t know most of these words, and he didn’t understand what medicine was. Swenno continued, however, to do what felt natural and kept talking even though his patient was no longer crying. Then Phlox found himself holding tight onto that foot and sobbing. The images of his own Juun flowed, clear and brilliant, kept vivid by recent dreams. She was the baby malan that he could not fix.


Rotation 51/Revolution 9754

Toral Blue: My visions meld with the one called Cal-liks. It was once paralyzed, but now it grows and ventures out on its own.

Xal Violet: Your dreams have turned sympathetic. Its motion is hypnotic trick. Remember it came with the invaders. To keep it alive is a necessary evil, but it is an evil like the rest.

Rotation 69/Revolution 9754

Xal Violet: Certti citizens we must meet. Intruders found our firmament.

Toral Blue: We crushed the shell but the meat still lives.

Chorus: We must become a spear in darkness, to become cause in their defect.

Rotation 77/Revolution 9754

Xal Violet: Focus full force on gray matter. Break minds as we broke their burning icicle.

Toral Blue: Block their spiked visions of gluttony and dream forth a weakness, find it now.

Xal Violet: Their wavelengths are unguarded. Gather blue lightning and strike in unison.

Chorus: Strike!


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