By D Thomas Minton
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Sam Gondo had never thought Luke Estes was a bright man, and this confirmed it. Only an idiot would gawk at a Bindi weapon. Not that the other xeno-geologists, statisticians and data techs were much better. They lingered in a small knot at what they must have thought was a safe distance, obviously unaware that a Bindi anti-personnel device had a kill radius of half a kilometer.
No accounting for advanced degrees.
Gondo adjusted his nasal cannula, improving the flow of oxygen. He wondered if his concentrator unit was working properly. Since dropping from the orbiter to Paralon's surface four-standard days ago, he had constantly felt like he was suffocating.
Estes noticed him and waved him over. "What took you so long?"
"I was setting a shot three points back," Gondo said. "Couldn't leave it unfinished." He climbed out of the two-man runner and could now see the object Estes had summoned him to examine. A slender cylinder of rust colored metal a half-meter in length stuck out of the corn-kernel regolith. Four razor-straight tail fins projected from its end.
It wasn't any Bindi-tech he had ever seen. That didn't give Gondo any comfort, however.
"What is it?" Estes asked.
"Damned if I know what it is," Gondo said. When had he become the expert in unknown shit? Gondo realized then that he was the only member of the nine-person survey team that had served on the lines during the Bindi war. He doubted anyone else had ever seen alien-tech except in news-streams. "But it isn't Bindi."
Gondo cautiously approached across the loose regolith and knelt down on the opposite side of the object from Estes. Up close, he confirmed the red color was a skin of iron-oxide dust. Everything on Paralon--equipment, rocks, people--took on that color given time.
"Is it dangerous?"
Gondo ignored what he considered a stupid question. Of course it was dangerous. He had never encountered a piece of alien hardware that wasn't.
Gondo winced as Sandra Kaneal crunched across the regolith to where Estes knelt. Her heavy stride would have triggered a Bindi-weapon at twenty meters.
"Look at the angle," she said. The cylinder leaned slightly to the east, forming about an eighty degree angle with the ground. She stepped around Estes and reached toward the object.
Gondo seized her wrist with a speed that made her gasp.
"I was just going to wipe off the dust to look for re-entry burns."
"Don't touch anything." The only marks Gondo saw the on the object were micro-pitting on the upper surface. "I don't see any evidence of re-entry."
"So it didn't come from orbit...." She looked up into reddish sky, her eyes tracing an arc toward the east. Gondo could see she was already lost in mental calculations. Kaneal was the expedition's data jockey and thought more in numbers than in words. She took concussion wave return rates and angles of refraction generated from shot charges and thumper truck vibrations and transformed them into three-dimension maps of subterranean features.
"Whatever it is, it's dangerous," Gondo said.
"So it's a bomb?" asked Estes.
Gondo shrugged. "I'm assuming our grid needs to run through here, so I recommend we set a Tovex charge, vacate the area, and blow it up."
"Blow it up?" Kaneal said. "You just said you didn't know what it was. We can't blow it up."
"We can, and we should."
"Look at the pitting on this thing. It's got to be centuries old, and it isn't Bindi. An archaeological find like this is incredibly important."
Gondo's annoyance with the woman was rapidly growing. In the four days he had been planetside, Gondo had never had a conversation of more than five words with her, or any of the other scientists for that matter. He hadn't come to Paralon to socialize.
"This thing jeopardizes everyone's safety," he said.
"Based on what?" Kaneal planted her fists on her hips.
"Five years of seeing people blown into pink mist by things we had never seen before--alien-tech like this." Gondo spoke directly to Estes, knowing mission decisions were his.
Estes began to speak, but Kaneal cut him off. "This is a science issue, Luke. You don't have the authority to make this decision without consulting the senior scientists."
Estes looked sympathetically at Gondo. "She's right." He rose and dusted the red dirt from the knees of his thermal pants. "This will take only a moment." He and Kaneal went to talk with the watching scientists.
Gondo cursed. Estes was stupid enough to listen to them. He needed to find something to convince Estes of the danger.
The object had no seams, as if it were a solid piece of metal, and no obvious propulsion system. He blew at the dust, exposing some of the underlying metal. Even with the micro-pitting, it had a strange opalescence to it, like nacre. As he watched, the pitted surface smoothed.
Gondo rubbed his eyes with a gloved hand. Had he actually seen what he thought just happened? The patch he had blown now looked smooth and shiny, yet the surrounding area still looked pitted. Perhaps it was some kind of optical illusion from the sheen of the material. He removed the tips of his pressure glove and cautiously touched the surface with his fingertips.
The material was as smooth as it looked and warmer than he expected. His fingertips tingled as they swept the surface, leaving behind what appeared to be small furrows in the material. Gondo pulled his hand back.
He squinted at the spot he had touched. In the furrows, his reflection stared back at him, but as he watched, it twisted and became more alien looking. Watching the reflection made his head hurt, and he squeezed his eyes shut. The pain spiked like a migraine behind his right eye. Gondo pinched the bridge of his nose. He felt awash in emotions, all jumbled together so that he could not pull them apart or make sense of them. They left him feeling helpless and filled with despair.
Gondo opened his eyes and stared up absently at Estes and Kaneal. He had not seen them return. He pulled away from Kaneal's hand on his shoulder
"Is it a bomb?" Estes asked.
Gondo exhaled heavily, trying to clear his head. The ice crystals hung in the air for a moment before subliming. "I don't think it's a bomb." He wanted to say more, but for some reason he couldn't think what.
"That settles it. Sandra, figure out where it might have come from and we'll take it from there."
Kaneal explained that calculating the trajectory was easy. Estimating the needed parameters was harder, especially because Gondo had insisted they not touch the object and Estes had agreed. Kaneal had to guess its weight, its total length, and the resistance of the regolith. She used these to estimate the height from which the object had fallen.
"After that, calculating the parabolic arc was simple," she explained to Estes as they gathered around the small conference table in the crew's pressurized habitat module.
Gondo sat at the end of the table, thankful to be rid of the 02 concentrator and pressure skin. His head still hurt, although the migraine had faded. He would rather have been setting shot in the next grid, alone, but Estes had insisted he be there. Like it or not, Estes now considered Gondo his alien-tech expert.
"How far?" Estes asked.
"It's not perfect," she said, "but it looks like it was fired from three hundred kilometers to the east, more or less. Unfortunately we have no 3-d projections for that area. It's just outside our survey grid. We do have a high resolution image from the orbiter." She projected the 2-d image onto the table top and added a yellow dot on the spot she had calculated as the object's likely origin.
"What are these?" Gondo pointed to black speckles that covered most of the image.
"Most likely shadows from rock formations called hoodoos," said Estes. His training was in geology, with a specialty in subterranean mapping. "They're aeolian erosional remnants from when Paralon had a thicker atmosphere." He leaned closer to the project image. "Look at this." He pointed to a blackened area that extended from near Kaneal's yellow dot towards the northeast.
"Some sort of rift zone?" suggested Kaneal.
"Maybe, but some of these hoodoos look odd." Estes magnified the image and leaned closer.
"Those aren't rock formations," Gondo said, a coldness gripping his gut. He had seen similar things on reconnaissance images from Bindi bombed planets. "That's wreckage."
That Gondo had trouble sleeping that night, wasn't unusual. He hadn't slept well since Mariposa. But tonight, he felt muddled, like he had been concussed. It wasn't painful; something was just...off.
Frustrated, he got up and paced the narrow corridor of the habitat module. The rhythm of the crew's breathing was discordant in his ears. The module felt claustrophobic. After years of close-quarters fighting, Gondo hated tight spaces. People got killed in tight spaces.
Gondo pulled on his pressure skin and coat, inserted his nasal cannula and went outside.
In the cold night air, the inside of his mouth frosted over.
The sky was surprisingly clear of dust and very black. The stars were solid points in the thin atmosphere. Enough of them filled the sky to see by. Beyond the scatter of trucks and modules, Paralon's desolate landscape extended into the darkness.
Since Mariposa, the universe had felt like it was collapsing on him, with too many people telling him his life would right itself, when the only person he really needed was gone. Paralon had been his solution to escape the platitudes and--Gondo shook his head. He had come here because it was easier than facing a life suddenly empty. Yet the pressure of his loss had not eased, and the claustrophobia had only gotten worse since....
Gondo could feel the pull of the alien object. It lay out there, in the darkness.
He climbed into the two-man runner and drove to where the object stuck up out of the regolith. Covered in a skin of red dust, it was difficult to see, but it was as if Gondo could feel its presence.
He knelt next to it, his knees crunching down into the corn-kernel. His breath crackled in the cold.
The object had done something to him when he had touched it earlier, but he couldn't figure out what. He blew the red dust off another spot and pulled the tips off his pressure glove. The cold bit into his fingers as they hovered above the glittering surface. He felt compelled to touch it. Again the object felt smooth and warm. In the starlight it was hard to make out anything, but dark shadows seemed to flow across the surface where his fingers had touched it. He squeezed his eyes shut. His head hurt, a migraine stabbing into the sinuses around his right eye.
Emotions flooded into him again, but this time he recognized them. Fear...the memory of being in the drop ship with his squad hurtling toward the surface of Laguna, where his entire crew but him a new recruit were killed by a Bindi gravity bomb. Despair...his wife Liera, burned to the edge of death in the Bindi assault on Mariposa, but pleading to die so the pain would go away. Hopelessness as Gondo looked across Paralon's starlit landscape, empty of all life, and knowing that he belonged there. He opened his eyes, disjointed, and the pain quickly receded.
He scrambled back away from the object, suddenly afraid. It had gone into his head and summoned those memories, but for what reason? Gondo scrambled to his feet and jumped into the two-man runner. He put it into gear and accelerated directly at the object. It made a satisfying thump as the runner ground it into the regolith.
Kaneal wriggled through the hatch connecting the thumper truck's operator cab to the pressurized crew space in the rear. She retrieved a water bag from the shelf and sat on the bench next to Gondo. He slid around to the opposite side of the table.
Six hours had passed since Gondo, Estes, and Kaneal had set off across the regolith to find Kaneal's yellow dot. Thankfully Gondo had been left to himself in the rear of the thumper truck, until now.
"That the latest news?" Kaneal nodded at the smart-paper near Gondo's elbow.
Without looking at it, Gondo slid it across the table.
When Kaneal picked it up, words and pictures materialized on both sides of the sheet. Every twenty-four hours they received a data burst from the orbiter containing the latest news-streams, which could be weeks or months old depending upon where the story had originated.
"Shit," Kaneal said. "The Bindi blew up our diplomatic team."
Gondo watched her emotions slide across her face as she read the article. People's naivety about the Bindi still amazed him. "It's what they do."
"What do you mean? Why kill a diplomatic envoy and risk the ceasefire? It makes no sense."
"They're aliens," said Gondo. "Our best psych and military minds haven't been able to understand them. They don't make sense because they aren't human. We can either tiptoe around them or wipe them out."
"Don't you think that's extreme?"
Gondo didn't. Every alien life form encountered by humans had had only one goal: the cold-blooded extermination of any human they encountered. The only reason the Drogs and the Tifen hadn't succeeded in making humans extinct was that they seemed to have no interest in conquest. When humans started avoiding Drog and Tifen space, the fighting effectively ended. The Bindi were different, however. They were aggressive, even if it made no sense. They had turned Gondo's home world, a planet far from Bindi space, into an uninhabitable cinder. Gondo had no idea how he and a few hundred others had managed to survive the attack. His wife Liera had not.
"Look, Gondo. I know you've got history," Kaneal said, "but we just haven't found a common ground yet."
Gondo pressed his hands flat against the table to stop them from shaking. "You haven't seen what they're capable of," he said. "Talking and making nice--" Gondo shook his head. "You're an idiot."
Kaneal's mouth dropped open. It took her a second to recover. "You're a bastard." She threw the smart-paper onto the table and folded her arms across her breast. "If you're anything like those in charge, no wonder they want to kill us."
The intercom crackled. Estes sounded like he was kilometers away. "We've got debris. Suit up, and let's take a look."
The debris ranged from fist-size to larger than the truck.
"You recognize anything, Gondo?" Estes asked.
Gondo shook his head. None of the pieces were sufficiently large to give him an impression of how the ship might have looked.
Before Gondo could stop her, Kaneal picked up a piece of the debris. She wiped off the red dust to reveal a blobby lump of blackened material. "It's light." She tossed it to Estes, who dropped it.
He picked it up and studied it. "We'll take it back and see if we can figure out what it is."
Gondo realized he was holding his breath and exhaled. The metal had not affected either of them. Could it be their gloves, or maybe the debris was different from the object he had touched? Gondo wondered if he had imagined it all.
He knelt next to an oblong chunk of debris about a meter long. He reached out with his gloved hand but didn't touch it. If nothing happened, he would still not know if he had imagined it.
He pulled off the tips from his pressure glove. Leaning closer, he blew the red dust away. The blackened metal underneath was dull. His fingertips tingled with cold as he had second thoughts about touching it.
Gondo swallowed hard. This was the only way to know.
Like the surface of the other object, the debris felt warm. Where he dragged his fingertips across it, he left lines of gleaming nacre, as if the black had been soot that he had rubbed away. Gondo jerked his hand back as if he'd been burned.
Pain stabbed through the right side of his face, nearly causing him to black out. He squeezed his eyes shut so tightly he saw explosions of light. They coalesced into a drop ship hurtling through atmosphere, but this time the ship was empty except for shadows, long and thin, like those cast by the hoodoos. Then he was holding Liera's lifeless hand, but it wasn't her, only another hoodoo shadow. He wanted to scream for his loss, but he knew it would do no good. He would never get her back, no matter how many Bindi he killed, or how hard he made his heart, or no how far across space he ran.
Gondo opened his eyes. He sat on the ground, gasping for oxygen. His fingers burned in the cold air.
Kaneal stood over him, concerned eyes looking down at him.
"I'm okay," Gondo said, pulling away from her as she reached to help him up.
"I think we've seen enough," Estes said, turning back toward the truck. "We better get moving again."
The debris field grew denser as they continued east. They approached the heart of the wreckage spread over an area peppered with slender rock hoodoos. Gondo had never seen anything like hoodoos before; they rose up like eerie alien silhouettes.
After another hour of driving, a large piece of wreckage came into view. The force of the impact had left a five-hundred-meter scar in the ground and toppled hoodoos. A skirt of scree had been pushed along the leading edge. Fine red dust coated everything.
Kaneal leaned forward to get a better view through the windscreen. Her jaw hung open. "It's huge."
"Let's take a look," Estes said.
They suited up and headed out.
The wreckage towered at least thirty meters over top of them and Gondo got the feeling that this was only a small piece of the original ship. He swallowed hard, fighting to damp his sense of awe. Estes, however, had already approached the wreckage with outstretched hands. Nothing happened when he touched it.
"This is unbelievable," Kaneal said breathlessly.
Without any particular plan, they dispersed as things caught their attention.
Gondo saw a concentration of debris tucked up beneath an overhanging hoodoo and went to investigate. As he neared, he got a familiar, tingly feeling that made him stop short. The ship debris hadn't been thrown against the hoodoo on impact. He couldn't exactly say what the order was, but it certainly wasn't random. In his time in the military, Gondo had gotten good at detecting patterns. Order got people killed more often than random.
"What is it, Gondo?" Estes asked.
"That debris wasn't thrown there."
"Are you sure?" Estes approached slowly from Gondo's left. He reached the debris and pulled up suddenly. "Oh, shit."
Gondo rushed forward.
Just to the other side of a crate-like piece of metal was a flattened, leathery mass laid out on the ground. It was elongate and at least twice Gondo's size, with numerous leathery projections splayed off in different directions. Small curved hooks of some black material covered it.
Gondo's stomach clenched. It looked vaguely like the hoodoo shadows he had seen in his memories when he had touched the debris.
Kaneal joined them. "What is that?"
"I don't know," Estes said, "but it looks organic."
"Looks like it's been dead a long time."
"Hoodoo," Gondo said, not realizing he had spoken aloud until the others looked at him quizzically. "It's shaped like a hoodoo."
Estes nodded in agreement.
Gondo surveyed the other items in what he now thought of as a camp. In addition to crate-like pieces, spherical bulbs, abstract polygons with projecting flexible cords, smooth plates, and cylinders with ridges were stacked in no order he could discern. Gondo couldn't begin to guess what any of it was. "I wouldn't touch anything."
"I don't see more of your Hoodoos," Estes said after he and Gondo reached the back of the camp near the rock wall.
"Luke, look at this." Kaneal stood next to a cylinder several meters away from the camp. At first Gondo thought it was an object like the one they had discovered in the survey grid, but as he approached, he was saw it was actually a hollow tube held upright by regolith packed around the base. It leaned slightly to the west. Around its base was a halo of grey ash and cinder.
"That's where our object came from?" Estes asked.
"He must have been trying to launch it into space." Kaneal shaded her eyes as she stared up into the reddish sky.
Gondo tried to parse everything into something intelligible, but it made no sense. Anyone--anything with this level of technology would have known it was impossible to put a projectile into space without some type of onboard propulsion. The escape velocity necessary was too great on a planet the size of Paralon.
"An S.O.S., maybe?" Kaneal said.
"Look at the ash pattern. I see three--four separate residues." Estes traced their outlines with a gloved finger.
"That makes no sense," Gondo said. "It must have known it couldn't succeed."
"He was desperate," Kaneal said. "Maybe he had a mate back home."
Gondo bristled at Kaneal's use of the pronoun reserved for people. This thing was an it. It didn't feel desperation. It didn't miss mates. Not the way a human did. Not the way Gondo did.
Gondo looked back toward the corpse. He couldn't shake the fact that it resembled the shadows from his memories the last time he had touched a piece of the alien debris. Was it possible the object they had found had implanted a message--a final, desperate message home from a lonely castaway--into Gondo's brain? Gondo dismissed the notion as ridiculous; he was projecting his own experiences and emotions onto a cold-blooded alien.
Yet as he looked at the evidence around him, he found it hard to deny the possibility.
"That's an odd S.O.S.," Estes said. "Where's the message?"
Unless the strange nacreous material itself contained the message and it only needed someone to touch it to release it. Memory metal, imprinted with the experiences of the Hoodoo. A crazy idea, Gondo thought; it was absurdly...alien.
"We should x-ray the object," Kaneal said. Neither she nor Estes seemed to have noticed Gondo's silence. "Maybe it's hollow."
Each successive time he had touched a piece of the alien metal, the emotions and memories had gotten clearer, as if it were learning how to communicate with him by using his own experiences and memories to tell a story in a way to which he could relate. It was finding a common ground. Gondo and the alien, he thought. It just couldn't be.
Gondo pulled off the tips of his pressure glove. Before Kaneal and Estes could say anything, he ran his fingers down the side of the cylinder and watched the opalescent furrows shimmer and lengthen. He closed his eyes, anticipating a pain that never came. He was among a dozen Hoodoos as their shimmering ship, damaged in an attack, bucked and rocked and came apart in Paralon's atmosphere. Their fear was palpable as the hull glowed white hot and began to melt. Then he was alone with memories of Liera, but not Liera. Something different, a Hoodoo far away but important to the one survivor of the crash. The longing was as strong and real and desperate as Gondo's. Like Gondo, the Hoodoo knew it would die with that longing, but it had never given up trying to get its message home, no matter how remote the chance of success. The Hoodoo had died here, alone, but struggling to the end.
Like a human would.
Gondo opened his eyes. Ice crystals crackled on his cheeks. Faced with a lonely death, the Hoodoo had never given up.
"You okay, Gondo?" Kaneal put a hand on his shoulder.
This time, Gondo did not pull away. He looked into Kaneal's eyes and saw sympathy, not pity. He took a deep, satisfying breath. "Let's get to work," he said. "We have a lot to learn here."