“How’s it looking?” asked Susan, resting her hand on the edge of Carla’s console.
Carla leaned in slightly towards the captain and pointed at one of the screens. “Low-level overflights are almost complete, captain. Four light drones were lost, but we received good data before they stopped transmitting.”
“Reason for loss?” Susan raised an eyebrow. Drones got lost or damaged all the time, but it was always good to know why before committing to a landing.
Carla typed a short string of characters onto a virtual keyboard on the edge of the console, staccato-quick – the consummate professional. “We set them on pre-programmed circuits, trying to maximise the coverage of the planet, but with limited collision avoidance radar. They know how to avoid large objects, but they do hit the occasional tall tree. Sometimes they can fall prey to a local raptor variant species.”
Susan raised an eyebrow. “Any of those?” Some species could be quite large, and could pose a significant threat to a ground party.
Carla shook her head. “No large aviary variants to be seen. Looks like they were mostly tree strikes, and two failed on their fourth circuit. Possible lightning strikes on the far side, there are some big storms over there at present.”
“Any identifiable predators?” asked Susan.
“Not that showed up on the scans,” Carla shook her head. “Of course, there is a lot of tree cover and they could be hiding. The drones make some noise.”
“Thanks, Carla,” Susan nodded. She stood up and looked over at Trent on the far console. “Have you picked a place to land yet, Trent?”
Trent nodded. “If it were up to me, I would land on the larger continent on the other side of the planet. However, we have picked up a large metallic mass on the continent right below us, which could be the other survey ship. Therefore I suggest that we land there and have a look, as the size and apparent mass are about right. No response when we try to hail it’s systems though. Whatever happened to it, the long-life emergency backup batteries must have failed.”
Susan glanced up at the view screen. “Bring it up.”
Trent obliged, and a close-up of the area appeared on the view screen. It was covered in a wild tangle of green. No ship was visible, but a large green-covered mound might be the other ship. A hundred and thirty years of growth could hide even a destroyer, and they had no figures on plant growth rates here. Easy enough to make a small survey ship disappear. A red outline appeared on the screen, showing the rough shape of their ship, superimposed on the green. “I recommend that we land there, about a kilometre from the other ship. Geology is stable, aspect is good, only two degrees off the horizontal plane. We’ll destroy a lot of vegetation no matter where we land – but there’s a rough clearing close by. Too bad there’s no desert or much in the way of grasslands, that would make for a much cleaner landing.”
Susan looked at the screen and shook her head. “There’s not much choice, really. Let’s hope we don’t annoy anyone by wrecking their front garden. Everyone buckle up, we’re going to initiate de-orbit procedures in ten minutes.”
Taylor had strapped into a bunk for landing. Squilm lay on her chest, asleep. Designed for a crew of six, there was nowhere for her to sit for landing manoeuvres, and she had declined Carla’s polite offer to put her in a cryo pod for the landing, although Carla insisted it was safer. However, there was no guarantee Taylor would be woken up after the landing. Besides, she didn’t want to miss it – her first atmospheric insertion on a new planet. There was no landing shuttle; the whole ship was going down to the surface of the planet. She watched their progress on a small screen set into the bottom of the bunk above her.
“All tucked in back there?” came her mother’s voice over the speaker.
“Ready to land, Mum… I mean captain,” there was no point in rubbing in why she was here with the rest of the crew. She was clearly in the way – and wanted to stay well out of under foot.
“Right then, Henry, take us down. X marks the spot,” Susan crackled through the small speaker.
Taylor watched with eager anticipation as they began their descent. Unlike the old fiery lights in the sky, where capsules actually fell back to a planet, burning off a decent percentage of an ablative heat shield, their ship would take a more graceful approach, descending at a more reasonable pace of three hundred meters per second to start, then slow down from there. No point overheating the shielding unnecessarily, especially when you could negotiate directly with the planet itself, using an artificial gravity field beneath the ship to gently push back against the pull of the planet. It still required skill in landing of course – it many ways, it was like balancing on the head of a pin. That’s why they didn’t descend straight down. Instead, they were doing a double-orbit descent, using a pair of shaped force-field wings that extended from the fuselage for atmospheric flight, supplementing the fixed fins in the tail and the stubby retractable wings along the fuselage. They would enjoy a controlled glide down to their selected landing point and then do a vertical landing. It would give them a good opportunity to see the landscape before they got lost in the trees – literally, in this case.
Taylor watched the screen eagerly for a few minutes, but when the screen continued to show the same repeating background of green-on-green minute after minute with the occasional flash of blue, she grew bored. Not allowed to leave the bunk in case they had to make sudden course corrections, she decided to have a short rest. Not a nap, she thought, just close my eyes for a bit…
“Wake up!” said a familiar deep voice.
Not again, Taylor groaned, covering her mouth before she opened her eyes. “I’m up, I’m up, I was just resting my eyes.”
“Sure you were,” said Henry, offering her a hand. “About two hours of resting your eyes. I swear, you could sleep anywhere. You’d make a good Marine.”
Suddenly alert, she sat up, a little too quickly. No, that didn’t feel like artificial gravity. It felt… almost normal. “What did I miss?”
Henry shrugged. “Not much, lots and lots of green, it all looked the same after a while. Forests and clearings and water.”
She looked at him, eyebrows raised.
“Yeah, we’ve landed. That’s real gravity you’re feeling. One point zero five Earth normal. You should adjust pretty quickly.”
Taylor wiggled her toes, then accepted his outstretched hand as he heaved her up onto her feet. Squilm hopped down onto the floor.
“Has anyone been outside yet?” she asked, panicking. She didn’t want to miss a thing.
Henry released her hand, a little too slowly. “No, they’re still doing post-landing checks and automated sampling. It’ll be at least an hour or two before we open the doors to say hello to the neighbours, if there are any. It’s all on the monitors though – you could go have a look.”
Excitement at the prospect of seeing the surface of a new planet – on-screen, anyway, was superseded by other sudden, pressing needs. “Um, yeah, I’ll be there in a couple minutes. I’ve got to…” she nodded towards the doorway.
Henry grinned. “Might as well get something to eat before you come onto the bridge, there’s no rush.”
Feeling human again, Taylor walked onto the bridge carrying a cup of coffee. In front of her the view screen had been divided into ten sections, eight of which were showing different perspectives of the flattened clearing they had made around the ship when they landed. Carla had insisted it was a small price to pay for safety when they first emerged from the hatch, as anything could hide in the lush greenery, ready to strike as soon as they stepped outside the door. Susan had reluctantly agreed, and ordered the anti-gravity field extended when they were above the landing point, compressing all the vegetation within fifty metres of the ship several centimetres into the dirt. Nothing should survive that abuse – the rough circle around the ship was already turning brown.
I sure hope that wasn’t somebody’s front garden, thought Taylor, echoing her mother’s earlier sentiment. We’re one hell of a lawn ornament.
The other two screens displayed local atmospheric conditions – relative percentages of numerous gasses, pressure, temperature, humidity, and even a short-term weather forecast that came from a small weather station that had extended from the top of the ship. That part was only showing current conditions at the moment, but in a day or so it would learn enough from the local environment to provide useful predictions to prevent them getting caught in a storm when they were out surveying.
“Anything out there?” Taylor asked Angus, who was leaning against the wall at the back of the room, holding Squilm in his arms as he studied the displays.
“Nothing much so far. A few cute critters nosing around the edge of the clearing, that’s all,” said Angus.
“Hardly scientific,” said Carla. “Cute? It means nothing. From their perspective, they could be the ugliest pair of their species. The only practical measurement related to species-based attraction is the number of offspring that results, for the successful propagation of the species. But we don’t have that data yet.”
Angus rolled his eyes. “And some possibly never will,” he whispered to Taylor.
She stifled a laugh.
Bracing herself for a barrage of scientific test questions in return, Taylor coughed to get Carla’s attention. “Is it safe?”
Carla glanced over her shoulder at Taylor, then turned back to her console. “Safe? Another vague expression, hardly exact. Safe to breathe? Safe from predators?”
“Monsters,” winked Trent.
Carla frowned and continued. “Safe from harmful UV radiation? Safe from microscopic viruses? Safe from nonsensical questions?”
Taylor waited, not rising to the bait.
After a few moments, Carla turned to look at Taylor, giving her an appraising look. “Hmmm. She learns the art of patience, rather than opening her mouth before the mind is engaged. There may be hope.”
Taylor coloured, but held her tongue.
Carla gave an almost imperceptible nod and counted off on her fingers. “Fine. Is it safe to venture outside? Yes, if suitably prepared. Can you breathe the air? Actually, yes – the gaseous mix is quite well suited for humans, though it will smell odd at first due to the differences in the levels of trace gasses and odours from the local flora.”
She touched a third finger. “However, it will be loaded with all kinds of as-yet-unknown local micro-biota, so it is best that everyone wears an EVA suit while outside until we finish our analysis. Of course, that is only a minor concern. With the advent of interplanetary travel and regular interactions with other species in the Orion Spur, the need arose to develop appropriate measures to make such travel and business interactions safe and convenient. The tireless efforts of hundreds of scientists over nearly a decade resulted in the development of what people so casually call ‘nanos’.”
“They’re not a big deal, everybody has them,” said Taylor.
Carla scowled. “Without the effort of those scientists, inter-planetary exchanges would still require extended quarantine periods to protect the local populations, and most trade would still be restricted to closely regulated safe zones. Have you heard of the Rigel flu incident?”
Taylor nodded. “It affected a lot of people, a long time ago.”
Carla waved her hand. “It was a plague. Millions died, and all because someone broke protocol and let a Rigellan with a dribbly nose bypass quarantine and exit the safe zone, claiming diplomatic immunity. Viruses, bacteria and other micro-biota do not care about diplomacy. Introduced into an unprepared population, the effects can be devastating.”
“But that’s all fixed now.”
Carla nodded. “Times were desperate. After the Rigel flu incident, inter-planetary exchange was severely curtailed for several years. It was no longer enough to have safe zones and vaccines for those who interacted regularly with alien species, because rules were always being broken and someone, somewhere would go into or out of a safe zone without authorisation and appropriate vaccinations. However, to try and immunise several trillion citizens against all of the known viruses on every planet was deemed impractical and too costly. For every new species we came across, and for every new mutation of a virus, this would require an increasingly complex cocktail of immunisations and re-immunisations for all citizens, on every planet.”
Taylor stifled a yawn, earning a cold glare from Carla. “Sorry.”
“It was beginning to seem like the grand era of space exploration and inter-planetary relations might be ending just shortly after it began. The cost in lives was too dear, and the economic cost of trying to safely maintain inter-planetary exchanges was projected to grow exponentially. Within twenty years the cost to develop, administer and maintain whole of population immunisations would have exceeded the gross economic output of three star systems.”
Taylor coughed. “Wow.”
Carla frowned. “However, a group of scientists decided that the only way to protect the populations of all of the known worlds was to protect each individual from foreign invaders, but in a far more elegant and long-lasting way. It would have to be inexpensive, easy to produce, and highly effective against all microbiological invaders.”
“So they developed the nanos,” said Taylor.
Carla waved a hand. “The self-replicating, multi-species-adaptive, genotype-locked nanotonic phages, or S.R.M.S.A.G.L.N.P’s resulted from many years of research, development and experimentation, pushing the boundaries of both nanotonic and genetic sciences to the extreme.”
“Scientists may be smart, but they sure don’t know how to name things to be catchy,” grinned Leigh. “Nanos are a lot easier to say.”
Carla frowned. “Yes, well, one cannot be perfect in all things. Once the S.R.M.S.A.G.L.N.P’s, or ‘nanos’ are introduced into a host body through injection or ingestion, the ‘nanos’ are then activated and typed to the specific genome of the host, regardless of species, and catalogue all resident cellular organisms and structures of the host. The ‘nanos’ would repel any other cellular invaders, preserving the core biological functions and DNA of the host. Of course, if the host already had an illness when the nanos were activated, that was considered part of the normal function of the host, so it did not ensure perfect health. Therefore it is highly advantageous to introduce and activate the nanos into babies shortly after birth, to reduce the likelihood of any diseases taking up residence. But in practice, it was a highly successful solution overall, one taken so much for granted that few citizens of the hundred worlds even remember they have them. Now, a passenger goes straight out of the spaceport and out onto the street, on any planet, and goes about their business.”
“Any planet, anywhere,” nodded Susan. “Simple. No more safe zones, no more quarantines. And no delays, except for customs.”
Carla nodded. “The ‘nanos’ can do a bit more than that, of course, as part of monitoring and maintaining a host’s overall health. However we still practice caution on surveys, as an unexplored planet can hold many surprises. The nanos should defend against any micro-biota, but until we run a few tests, survey protocols require us to take precautions.”
Taylor nodded, suppressing a yawn.
Carla ticked off a fourth finger. “Will you need sunscreen? Not really, as there is a thick ozone layer uncontaminated by pollutants, which is good news for young ladies who might like a tan,” she said, raising an eyebrow in disapproval. “But then, I wouldn’t recommend going out in a tank top and shorts just yet, as we don’t know which airborne nasties and bugs like to target exposed skin. A full class two thinsuit should suffice, though.”
Taylor shifted uncomfortably, feeling like all eyes in the room were on her. She dared a quick glance. Yep, everyone was staring at her. This was worse than an exam. She shuddered.
“As for monsters,” said Carla, drawing out the word as she stared at Trent, “That remains to be seen. But we will be wary.”
“A monster’s just an ugly critter you haven’t made friends with yet,” said Leigh. “If you believe in that sort of thing.”
Trent nodded firmly. “Monsters exist.”
“Pah!” said Carla. “Monsters are simply uncategorised fauna. All is eventually revealed, labelled and catalogued through science.”
“But they can still eat you,” said Trent.
“Of course,” said Carla. “But a true scientist should know what is eating him or her. Very untidy, to be eaten by an uncategorised beast. What would your colleagues put on the death certificate?”
Trent stared back, open-mouthed. After a few moments he closed his mouth and turned back to his console.
“Nutter,” muttered Angus. “More worried about what it is eating her, than avoiding being eaten in the first place. Can you imagine her? ‘Excuse me please, before you take a bite, I just have a few questions for the record.’“
Taylor snorted loudly, earning her a sharp look from Carla.
“Ah, we can only hope,” sighed Angus, handing Squilm to Taylor as he turned to leave the bridge.
Taylor adjusted her glasses and tried to keep a straight face as she focused her attention on the far side of the room.
“Can I go with you?” asked Taylor as three of the crew started to suit up for the first extra-vehicular survey. Opening the doors for a bit of fresh air, is what I’d call it, she thought. She wanted to be outside, and she hadn’t been out in the open air since she left Earth over two years ago. She was feeling very cooped up, especially as she wasn’t allowed to do anything. All of her offers to help had been politely refused, even by Angus. Everyone knew their roles, and there was nothing for a seventh person to do other than try to stay out of the way of the bustling crew.
“Maybe tomorrow,” said Susan as she sealed the collar of Carla’s class two thinsuit. “We have to see if it’s safe first.”
“But Carla said it’s safe!” protested Taylor.
Carla gave Taylor a patronising smile. “My dear, there are protocols to follow. Besides, Trent could be right. There may be monsters lurking right outside the door.”
Trent nodded, stiff in his suit. He wasn’t sure if Carla was making fun of him, but he was willing to play along. “Yep, big, green ones with yellow eyes, and…”
“Enough,” said Leigh, who was already suited up, ready to clip on his helmet. “Let the little one be.”
Little? thought Taylor as she towered over Carla.
“Leigh, why are you wearing a different suit?” asked Taylor.
A small mechanical whine accompanied Leigh’s shoulder shrug in the heavy suit. “Old habits. Always like to wear armour when going outside. It’s not fast, but it’s sturdy. Besides,” he winked, “I don’t tan that well, I mostly burn.”
“Hey, can I…” Taylor began.
Leigh raised a hand. “Perhaps on the second trip outside. As Carla said, there are protocols, and for good reason, not just to taunt young ladies.”
Taylor coloured, and Carla’s frown deepened.
“You can watch from the bridge,” suggested Susan.
“Why aren’t you going, Mum, I mean, captain?” asked Taylor. “Shouldn’t the captain be going out first?”
Susan shook her head. “You’ve been watching too many spacer shows. Everyone in the first team was selected based on their set of skills. They don’t need a pilot out there just yet.”
“So Carla, xenobiologist, and Trent, geologist, I understand… but why is Leigh going?” asked Taylor.
“Muscle,” said Leigh, hefting a heavy rifle over his shoulder with practised ease. “You never know if the natives will be restless. Another reason to have the heavy suit.”
“Oh,” said Taylor, taken aback. She had forgotten all of this could be dangerous.
“No problem,” said Leigh, as he slid the helmet down over his head and lifted the visor. “You can watch from in here, if you like. There’s a small glass view port set into the wall beside the airlock, designed for manual inspections. You can watch us directly, real vision, not through the vid screens or AR,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows.
Taylor nodded and took off her AR glasses and tucked them into her pocket. “That would be nice.”
When all three were suited up, Carla opened the airlock and stepped over the threshold, followed by Trent. Leigh went last, carbine lowered and ready. The door closed slowly behind them, then the lights cycled from red to green. As the air pressure was almost equal, the cycle was fairly quick. She watched them on the small video screen mounted beside the airlock entrance.
Taylor turned to look out the glass view port, waiting for something to happen. The rest of the crew had already returned to the bridge to monitor the EVA.
“All clear?” she heard Leigh ask through the suit radio.
“Nothing moving,” confirmed Susan, echoing out of the speaker.
“Can you see anything, Taylor?” asked Leigh.
“Can I see what?” asked Taylor.
She heard a tapping and looked over at the video screen. “Push the button so we can hear you,” Leigh said, his fingers miming the action of pressing a button down.
“Oh!” said Taylor, looking for the button. There were two on the panel. She pressed both of them. “Can you hear me now?”
Leigh nodded. “Yes, good. Now, can you see anything through the glass? I don’t always trust the cameras.”
Taylor turned to look out the small curved glass view port, which showed the edges of the hull on both sides and a distorted view of the clearing. “Nothing I can see, it all seems to be clear around the door.”
“Good, always worth a double-check,” said Leigh, giving a thumbs up.
This was followed by a brief alarm as the seal on the outer door was broken. Moments later, she saw a pair of thinsuits come into view through the view port, followed by Leigh. Best seat in the house! she thought.
The trio slowly advanced into the clearing, Trent in front. Leigh was keeping watch from behind, slowly tracking the carbine back and forth as he kept alert for danger. The primal urge to protect the females by keeping them in the middle might be at work, Taylor reflected, or it could just be protocol. She shrugged. The trio was approaching the edge of the flattened clearing, Leigh keeping several paces back, when she saw something move. The others must have seen it too as they stopped their forward progress. Trent held his right hand raised, palm open, facing forward.
For a few moments, there was no movement. The survey team stood completely still. Three tall, slender beings slowly moved out from behind the nearest set of trees. How long had they been waiting there? she wondered.
As they moved out of the shadows, she stared at the figures. All three were a light shade of green. They would find it easy to hide and move in the lush forest undetected. Taylor recalled some of her xenobiology classes from the prior term, to see if she could try and categorise them.
Bipedal, vertical symmetry… Two upper limbs, each with three main joints, shoulder, elbow, wrist… two eyes. Humanoid, in other words. It was hard to see finer details at this distance as there was a smudge on the outside of the glass. Somebody should clean that. Only one head, although that was not always the hub of the central nervous system. Clothing? It was hard to tell. If they wore clothing it was very similar to their primary flesh colour. Possibly a covering over their waist. Green-on-green-on-green. I wonder if they photosynthesise to supplement their nutrients, or if it’s just a form of camouflage?
She watched closely as they approached the trio of waiting humans. Trent still had his hand up in the air. Hair? They did not appear to have any, unless it was very fine. Hands – two of those, with six digits on each green hand. Bare feet at the bottom of two long, green legs.
The green trio slowed their approach as they came closer to the humans. As they moved, they were partly obscured by Leigh. Something was about to happen. How exciting! First contact, and I’m seeing it first-hand! Well, not exactly in person, but live with my own eyes, instead of through a vid screen.
The one in the centre looked like they were preparing to communicate. An orifice was opening in the lower part of the head below a broad nose – so they had a typical mouth. She thought she could see a few yellowish teeth, but couldn’t be sure. They each had pointed ears set close against their skulls. Taylor put her face right up against the curved glass to get a better look.
The centre alien issued a small cough. Respiration, implying lungs of some sort and a diaphragm structure. The anticipation was killing her. What came next was the last thing she expected.
In clear, unaccented Standard, the alien in the centre said, “Welcome. You are expected.”
Right at that moment, a small lizard jumped up at the window and clung to the curved glass right in front of Taylor’s eyes.
Her scream echoed around the clearing through the ship’s external speakers, then several things happened in quick succession.
The lizard slid off the window.
Several darts flew through the air and Leigh dropped to the ground, releasing a short burst of bullets into the section of forest where the darts had originated from.
Trent stood gaping, frozen in shock.
Carla slumped to the ground, two large darts protruding from her chest.
Six aliens sped out of the trees and surrounded Carla.
Taylor’s screams were abruptly cut off as a strong hand clamped over her mouth and she felt a pinch in her neck.
A hand switched off the external speakers, and the clearing fell silent.
The last thing Taylor saw before everything went black was Trent down on his knees, and Leigh firing angrily into the tops of the trees.
Carla and the aliens were gone.
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