By PK Torrens | December, 2019
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Roberta Banda was about to become the first person to step out onto an exoplanet. Too bad the diamond-mesh vac-suit gobbled her ass and gripped her forearms to the point of venous obstruction. It would relax soon. Hopefully, so would Walu Mambwe’s breathing. His puffing rasped throughout the airlock.
“You okay?” She swallowed, but there was nothing to push down. “We-- we need to be on our A-game.”
Hyperventilation wasn’t her problem. Mouth breathing, on the other hand, snuck up on her whenever she dropped her guard. An impending sense of doom tended to ride along.
“Yeah,” Walu said from behind. “I’m ready to go.”
His words sounded empty. How the hell could anyone be ready for an utterly alien environment?
Focus on the job and suppress everything else-- think like a robot and move like a machine. Her soccer coach had taught her that. It didn’t help much with scoring goals, but it served well in aeronautics.
She checked the cameras, perimeter sensors, and suit life-support. Green, green, green.
“Here we go.” She reached behind her palm-up, and Walu cracked it with a high-five. She commanded the airlock to open.
Damn. The only thing that could make her century better was knowing Mama watched with pride. That, and a serving of Mama’s hand-milled nshima with beans. But she was long gone, and her corn patch had been on the way out even before Roberta left Earth in fancy gear.
The wall in front of her lowered, forming a ramp to the soil. Pya Calo’s pale blue horizon and green ground metamorphosed from a 2-D drone image on a screen to stark reality. Plain white flowers littered the uneven surface, and streams of shimmering water slithered along the crevices. In twelve years, people back home would get to see the view too.
She savoured each careful step down the ramp. To her left, Mosi-oa-Tunya’s massive engine tail spread out on the greenery, and the Zambian golden eagle clawing a rocket with its talons was emblazoned on the ship’s neck-- perfectly contrasting with the serenity of the planet’s vegetation.
Then the moment she had been waiting for-- she stepped onto native soil with a soft crunch. “Muli Bwanji, Pya Calo.”
“Whoa!” She teetered to the side, struggling to remain balanced. Through her heads-up display, she adjusted the boot grip and stabilized. “It’s like I’m standing on something round.”
“Check out the infra-red,” said Walu.
She flicked her thermal-vision on. The landscape twisted out of shape. Ripples of leaves, petals and streams replaced by chunky heat-emitting pipes criss-crossed beneath her feet in layers upon layers. What she thought had been soil was in fact a network of dense and long pipes covered in vegetation. “What is this?”
“You’re the biologist.”
“It looks artificial.”
She peered straight down. Space on either side of the pipe dropped into deep and narrow crevices with interweaving tubes running through them. The heat signature at the contact point of her boot’s spikes and the underlying material burned bright. “How did this not get picked up on the pre-landing scans or by our drones?”
Her mask fogged as the air gushed in and out of her chest. The suit adjusted temperature and humidity settings, melting the condensation away.
“The cylinders are tightly packed-- it would look like solid ground from the air.” Walu knelt on an adjacent pipe. He tore at the vines and grass covering it, uncovering bark-like material. “It looks like a tree.”
“Some kind of plant-analogue, maybe.”
Peppered around the valley, trunks stood tall in the air like baobabs-on-steroids, topped with glorious canopies of broad leaves. Maybe he was right. But determining the significance of such evolutionary convergence separated by light years would take time.
“I can’t believe the drones didn’t pick this up,” she said.
She pursed her lips and controlled her breathing into long exhalations. Think like a robot.
An AI would have been more careful and systematic. She needed to be thorough and leave surprises for cowboys. The room for error shrank to an infinitesimal margin twelve light years from home.
“I’m going to re-run the drone scans and get some detachables down the crevices.” asked Walu.
“Good idea.” She hopped to Walu’s tree and knelt next to him. “Let’s find out what’s in this.”
She unbuckled a multi-tool from her belt, set in on laser-mode, and teased apart the bark with soft strokes. Pop and sizzle, with puffs of violet and blue plume. The coarse, brown covering layer burned off in chunks. Beneath it, a soft green membrane glistened, reflecting the sun’s light in a rainbow pattern.
“What the hell is that?” asked Walu.
“Don’t know. It looks like--”
The sound became louder and from over the horizon, a swarm of insects appeared, encircling them and their ship like an ever-shifting cloud. The horde kept their distance but buzzed with fury.
“They sound pissed off.”
“Or that’s just the way they fly. Or they’re hungry.” Beads of moisture formed on the inside of her visor. She shut her mouth and breathed through her nose. There had been no sign of insects on the drone recon flights.
“No way can they get through the diamond-mesh,” said Walu.
“Either way, I don’t want to test their resolve. Let’s get a piece of this for the lab and get back inside.”
She incised the membrane and cut out a piece. A liquid gel gushed out through the tree’s wound, splattering across her foot and suit. The wound’s surface settled and re-sealed. “How did it do that--”
A horrific sting shot up through her foot. She screamed and kicked away from the source of pain. Where her foot had rested, a circle of razor-barbs now stuck out of the trunk, and a red, bloody piece of meat disappeared beneath the bark surface.
Walu’s shrill voice burst through the comm. “Robbie, what the hell?
“Get inside now!”
“Put your arm around me.”
“No. Go. Now.”
She followed him, limping as fast as she could up the ramp into the airlock. Crawling bugs sprung out from vegetation covering the trees and scurried toward the trail of blood.
The ramp rose and sealed. A hiss of pressurisation followed by a shower of disinfectant.
Mosi-oa-Tunya’s voice rose up above the noise. “Please keep still.” The pattering of liquid spray on her suit and vizor eased, and multi-articulated limbs unfolded from the walls. They prodded and caressed different parts of her suit. “Dr. Banda, please lift your left foot.”
A sharp bite ripped through her sole.
“No sign of macro or micro contamination,” said Mosi-oa-Tunya. “Please proceed to the medical bay.”
“Thanks, Mosi,” she said.
The inner airlock door opened and as she stepped, the remnant fluid layered on the floor nipped her laceration. “Bastard.”
“You okay?” asked Walu.
“Yeah-- it stings.”
“Come on, let’s get you in the med-pod.”
She hobbled down the corridor with an arm around Walu’s shoulder. Her foot oozed blood and stuck to the floor, making wet sounds with every step.
Learning from errors and being systematic and careful. All the things she had been taught to do-- they would have prevented that mistake: Thinking the tree would be safe. Thinking anything would be safe, and her suit impervious. But if she didn’t take risks, how would she go forward?
She plonked down into the pod’s cushions. They automatically adjusted, fitting around her body like a glove.
Walu cradled her foot. “Shit. Damn thing took a bite out of you.”
She snatched her foot away. The arch of her foot missed a chunk of flesh. “It did that through diamond mesh?”
The pod’s arm gripped her ankle and placed her leg into the surgical compartment that promptly filled with fluid. After thirty seconds, the pod stopped humming, the pressure around her ankle eased and she slid her leg out of the liquid box. The hole had been replaced by a fine scar.
She rubbed the numb mark. “Did you see it happen?”
“Check the cameras.”
Barely five minutes on the damn planet, and they’d already been assaulted. It boded well. Although, the pod’s report specified no contamination or signs of venom-- it’s like something had taken a sterile biopsy.
“Look.” Walu forwarded the drone’s component feed to her implant. The trunks interweaved for a whole kilometre in altitude above the planet’s actual surface. They hadn’t stepped on Pya Calo’s soil, or anywhere near it. The scouting drones hadn’t identified that biological feature because it just looked like dense plant-life from a cruising altitude, despite infra-red augmentation.
“One kilometre above the surface?” she said. “Damn. Those are some big plants. It may mean there’s some big animals around we didn’t find while scouting.”
“I can’t see any sign of that on the camera recording. The detachable has zoomed down to the true surface. It’s digging to find the depth the roots go into the soil.”
“Someone’s got to have them.”
She gave him the look.
He dropped the smile. “The plant was probably protecting itself. We did cut it into it.”
“Yeah.” She stood up. “Let’s get this membrane I cut out of that thing tested.” As if it were a soft-shelled egg, she delicately placed the material into the organic analysing unit.
“I’m going to check how far around the planet this tree system goes.”
You are very interested. You have no idea how long it has been since visitors touched the green last. Twelve thousand rotations around God, or has it been less, or has it been more? You lost track. Irrelevant, because you have arrived.
You are very interested. Your repeating units are strange. Did you have many mothers who couldn’t decide how you should grow, or where you should climb? Irrelevant, given your current design.
Maybe not. Maybe you are parasitised. You will help.
You are gladly here. You have travelled far and wonder from where. It can’t be from here for green touches green everywhere here. You aren’t green. That is acceptable.
You will talk.
I have been waiting.
The organics in the sheet-material weren’t like anything she’d previously seen. They had organelles but not like Earth’s eukaryotes. No mitochondria, no endoplasmic reticulum, and strangely, for a plant, no chloroplast. But was it strange? It wasn’t Earth life so why should it have stamps of Earth’s evolution?
Discovery of life but unlike anything seen on Earth. Mama would have loved it. She was the reason Roberta had done so well. Discouraging her from a zombie movie obsession and fostering learning. She’d always encouraged Roberta to talk about plants – givers of life, Mama said. People depended on plants, and so we needed to respect the roots and shoots. Mama knew the name and practical utility of every grass and herb, medicinal and nutritious.
Mama. That’s what Roberta would christen the giant trees, once she figured out their biology. There would be time for that.
“What?” asked Walu. “You got a read from the membrane?”
“Yeah. Just let me absorb this for a second.”
DNA and RNA littered the cells but there were no ribosomes-- nothing obvious that would convert the code into action. There had to be. What made it all tick-- the answer to that was the key.
She lined up the next batch of tests and forwarded a summary of results to Walu’s implant.
His face slackened. Then his eyes widened, and he turned to her.
“That’s right.” She put out her hand for a high-five, and he obliged. “That’s right.”
“This alone was worth the trip.”
“Absolutely,” she said. “I haven’t got the final receptor reads on the sample, but it looks, structurally, like conductive tissue: semi-permeable membrane with channels, receptors and--”
Walu’s uninterested glaze betrayed his ignorance.
She smiled. “In other words, it looks like muscle and nerve tissue. You know, for information transmission, unheard of in Earth-based plants.” He opened his mouth, but she waved him off. “I haven’t got the final results so let’s wait for it. Now, where’s this place your drone found?”
A biological bounty awaited. The amusement park elation of exploring an uncharted planet fought against her will to be systematic. Getting out there and sampling-- that’s what she wanted to do-- yet being careful is what she needed to do.
“The drone completed a sweep,” said Walu, “and I’ve combined it with the deployed satellite data. There’s no mountains or oceans, just vegetation covering everything. There’s only one place on the whole surface that looks out of place. This.”
He flicked it through to her implant. Two images, one bird’s-eye view and one front-on, of a rocky mound rising above the green. It spread and filled her visual field, the mound like a desert island sticking out in the middle of an ocean.
The drone pushed through thermo-images displaying what lay underneath the foliage surrounding the mound. Sprawling out in all directions, buildings, orders of magnitude smaller than the mound, littered the true surface. The mound itself formed the rounded tip of a giant sphere, propped up by massive buttresses. Apart from the mound, the whole city was buried by the trees, like Pompeii by ash.
“Wow! Man, that looks like a city.” Walu’s words flew out in rapid succession.
Incredible. Perhaps they would find some remnant of sentient life.
Mosi’s shuttle piloted itself to the rocky formation and hovered above it. Thick branches crawled up the side of the rock, like spokes on a wheel, converging on the rounded apex, and plunged into a hole.
“That looks like an entry point,” she said. “Can our drone fit into there?”
“No way, that hole’s half a meter wide. I’m gonna pop a mini-D down there. Our other one is at ten kilometres beneath the surface, and still struggling past roots.”
So damn casual, old Walu. Ten kilometres? That would make an Earthly biologist’s eyes water. Trees didn’t get past one hundred and fifty metres back home. The engineer had no idea, just hooked into the drone controls without an appreciation for the gravity of that record-setting plant fact. Mama wouldn’t have approved.
She sat back and let the mini-D be her eyes. It descended the hole next to the vines, lighting the way, and evading the occasional bug.
It finally registered a detectable floor. The shaft opened into a room’s ceiling. Measurement pings registered a stadium-sized space, but the floating mini-D’s lights illuminated only a small area around it.
Potholes in the floor contained pools of water, bubbling and writhing with larvae. Plant climbers, leaves and pale flowers covered the walls and vaulted ceiling.
The camera feed shook with a loud thunk. Then another. Thunk after thunk, the pelting relentlessly continued. The implant struggled to process the sounds, and the image de-stabilised and blurred under the barrage in the dim lighting.
“Don’t know what’s happening,” said Walu. “I’m gonna pull it back up.”
She skipped back through the recorded feed and paused on a few images. Wings and antennae.
Damned insects, again.
She pushed the image through to Walu. “Our little guy can’t handle that many flying bastards, eh?”
The mini-D sprang out of the dark hole and floated below the hovering shuttle, covered in insects. It initiated a rapid spin, throwing the insects off.
“Let’s try that again,” said Walu.
It didn’t even make it to the room before being swarmed and bombarded.
Walu leaned back from the command chair and looked over at her. “What next?”
Processing and being careful-- that was the name of the game. Clearly, the building had been important and, likely, the only accessible remnant of the beings that lived in the city before. It needed to be explored so whatever clues were left behind could be documented and sampled. But losing life couldn’t be in the risk equation.
“I’m going to go down in a spark suit so if one of the bastards touches me again, it’ll get fried. You’re staying up here.”
“Come on. There’s no way--”
She glared at him.
“All right, all right. Have it your way.” He got up and walked away.
Pissing him off was the least of her concerns. He’d get over whatever he was angry at. He always did. Risk assessment and plan implementation rested on her shoulders, not his.
You find it. You don’t judge if you find it. Unclear. It was always unclear what you needed. You needed more than God. Strange drones.
You didn’t intend to destroy their roots. You didn’t!
Your subunits cannot find it. History unclear to you. You will want to go back, away, away, away and never visitor again.
I am apprehensive.
Roberta wore a shock suit over the top of the diamond-mesh. If any of the critters tried to bite her again, they’d get a huge voltage up their ass.
“You ready?” asked Walu.
“I was born ready.”
Walu smiled and they high-fived. “Good luck. I’m pulling you out if I lose contact.”
“Sure.” She gulped air. “Let’s do it.” Sounding brave and being convincingly brave were two different things. She hadn’t achieved either.
Walu walked away. Before he reached the command-module and would be able to see her, she tugged hard on the carbon fibre safety-cord fastened to her shoulders. Secure. Hopefully.
Adrenaline surged through her, quickening her heart and pulling at her guts. Her hands dropped by her sides.
“Okay,” said Walu. “I’ve got your helmet and corneal visuals. Ready to go when you are.”
She popped the airlock and the ramp descended to sit above the mound’s hole. From the edge of the ramp, the mound’s dark mouth only needed teeth to be more terrifying. Her right knee wobbled ever so slightly.
A lone insect, the size of a hand, flew up and smacked into the suit’s electric field. Crackle, pop and the flying bastard fell lifeless, like a dead weight, straight down the hole disappearing into the darkness.
“Fuck,” she muttered.
“That was a big boy.”
Walu sniggered. “Yeah, and it got one thousand volts up his butt.”
“Let’s do this,” she croaked. Breathing through her damned mouth again. She sniffed long, hard and deep. “Relax the rope.” He gave her slack and she stepped off the edge, hanging off the security cord.
“Hah! Born ready.” It’s a pity false bravado didn’t work on one’s own self-confidence.
Nearing the mouth gave the illusion of it rising to engulf her. Swallowing her whole. She played mental images of her fear draining from her body to her toes, and then dripping away from her. Before the first imaginary droplet left her foot, blackness surrounded her.
The suit emitted blaring light in all directions, illuminating the vertical tunnel. Insects crawled, flew and slithered up and down, and struggled to get away from the glare in a rush. Even the vines seemed to move.
“Can you still hear me?” asked Walu.
“Yes. You’re very clear.”
Etchings in the walls remained shaded, barely visible in between the stringy plant climbers. “Stop descent,” she said.
She hung in mid-air, swaying slightly as her shoulders brushed the leaves. She pulled apart the green climbers. Intricate engravings of lattices and checkerboards covered the shaft’s curved walls, with occasional stylized leaves and branching trees scattered amongst the geometric shapes.
“You getting this?” she asked.
She cleared further blocks of wall and the whole surface seemed to be carved with similar designs, parts eroded where the plant had dug into rock. “Let’s keep going.”
Her ears hurt as she descended. Vascular tissues in her nose hadn’t lost the swelling from zero-G, and so blocked her eustachian tubes, making equalising pressures difficult. The suit administered a decongestant up her nose, and the pressure in her ears settled.
The tight tunnel opened up into the massive space at the bottom. Hanging in no-man’s land as she was, midway between the floor and ceiling, highlighted the enormity of the room that the mini-D’s images couldn’t convey. The whole damned planet was a no-man’s land, but floating in the breeze of an air shaft in the middle of a gigantic alien structure defined the term. Bird-sized insects buzzed around her.
Lack of control. That’s the feeling that ripped through her. Those mental droplets she’d tried to shed returned-- swirling and frothing inside, spurring the blood-filled drum in her chest into a frenzy. Only the flap of membranous wings was audible above the pulsing in her head.
“Hey-- umm-- Walu. You getting the feed okay?”
“It’s nice and crisp. You all right down there? Your suit’s numbers are off the chart.”
She swallowed glass shards. “I’m fine. Just… acclimatising to what I’m seeing.”
“Take it slow. I’m here.”
Because that’s useful. Up there in the damn shuttle.
She breathed deep. Robot and machine. Need a goal.
Water in pools on the floor steamed and shimmered in the dim light. Writhing masses beneath the bubbling surface breached and dove.
Samples of them would be a good start.
She lowered herself to the ground, and twigs snapped under her weight. “I’m down. Anything funny, you pull me in.”
“I got you.”
She crouched next to one of the smaller puddles. A few of the tadpole-things slithered to the edge, raising themselves onto the dry, and expanded pliable but bent wings. They beat them without lift. One gained traction, flapping furiously, and flew straight up smacking into her vizor’s electric field. It fell back down, smoking.
Poor bastard. She picked it up and placed it into a sample beaker.
A horde of bugs had snuck up and encircled her in a buzzing sphere. They hung motionless in the air. Their beady eyes glistened. She stole a big breath through her nose. “Looks like my friends are back.”
It possibly passed as brave. The pulsing in her head didn’t catch on and drowned out the beating wings.
Something had already tasted her-- maybe they liked the taste of human meat.
“They’re flying in formation,” said Walu. “The spacing between them is dead even.”
“Though, on your right, the wings are nearly touching. They’re packed in tight in that area.”
No point in standing there. Maybe the walls had more carvings. The swarm completely obscured the closest wall, like an ever-shifting living pattern. As she approached the living curtain, the insects retreated but remained facing her.
Snap, snap, snap. Vines and sticks broke and groaned underfoot. The slow cadence of her steps a testament to her discomfort.
The flying biters had no further room to go. Their wings fluttered against the leaves covering the wall. Each small set of octuplet-legs hooked and penetrated the sheet of leaf under it, like an army digging in for trench warfare.
“Did you notice the concentration of plant and insects?” asked Walu. “I’m just rewinding your feed from earlier. I didn’t realise it then, but the plant covering the wall where those insects are resting is really thick.”
She switched to infra-red. The heavy foliage in front of her glowed brilliant hues of orange and red. Heat petered out at its edges, softening into a consistent yellow that varied little along the rest of the visible wall.
“You think their mummy lives there?” Walu joked.
“Scans suggest beyond the vines is more wall-- no alcove or anything that could hide something of importance. But behind the plant material, the heat sig shows the wall is colder.”
Only one way to know for sure. She gripped a leaf-ridden branch in an area spare of insects and yanked. It didn’t budge. She tried harder but the branch didn’t bend.
“This stuff is sturdier than what we’ve encountered so far.” She flipped her multi-tool out and whipped through the branches. Wilting shoots and vines sizzled, then fell lifeless with charred edges. A corner of the underlying wall revealed itself. On thermal imaging it registered as a heat-sink, like metal.
Humming from the insects intensified. A bunch of flyers converged onto the metal, landing and spreading their wings, covering the surface.
“They seem to like the cool,” said Walu.
She cleared more surface. Greenery tumbled to the floor.
Shadows and reflections from etches popped into view before swarms covered it. Like goddamn moths to a flame.
“Get me a reading on that surface,” said Walu.
She placed the multi-tool on the surface, brushing aside insects. “There. You getting anything?”
“It’s an alloy similar to Inconel.”
The polished metallic surface reflected light like a mirror. “No wonder it hasn’t corroded.”
Groups of insects charged at her suit, frying themselves into smoky messes. She stepped back. Flapping winged insects blanketed the entire alloy surface. “I’m going to clear them. We’ll see what’s on it. You ready?”
“I was born ready.”
She lit up the alloy surface with an electric field, and the insects dropped in unison. Briefly, the entire surface of the metallic plaque dazzled before a layer of buzzing pests engulfed it again.
Your drones discover it. The lies. Unclear as you know it causes distress. Like a storm. Or competition long ago.
Too bad. Always is. You are going to leave. You will be fine.
Digestion of cellulose buried in your code. Tell-tale. Tell-tale.
I don’t want you here anymore. Not enough room under this God for both of us.
Radio silence. Understanding the plaque’s alien hieroglyphs would take time, despite Walu’s best attempt.
“Shit.” Walu’s voice came through after five minutes of agonising silence.
“What? Is it anything obvious?”
“I’ll bring you up and you can have a look.”
“Hold on. There’s no danger. The little bastards are staying away and there may be more. What did you see?”
He forwarded the still onto her HUD. She enlarged the image. Two vertical lines separated the alloy surface into three columns. Each column etched into three drawings, forming nine images in total.
The mish-mash of images made no sense. “How did you read them? Up to down and left to right, or something else?”
Walu hesitated. “I think it only makes sense right to left and up to down.”
In the first column, the etchings depicted small tripoded creatures in a city, with progression down the column, the creatures multiplied in number and completed the giant spherical structure.
The second column complicated things. The top image rendered an intricate three-dimensional etch of a meteor or circular ship with a long tail. Below it, the middle image showed a seed spreading roots and a trunk bursting through the surface. The lowest etch depicted a vast network of roots and trunks, centred around the same seed.
Detail in the last column exceeded the others. Tripoded creatures with vines coiled around their limbs, hanging from trees, serpentine roots spreading around buildings and swarms of finely-detailed insects covering upended tripods.
The last image depicted a similar spherical meteor with tripods packed into it, with the tail pointing to a tree-and-leaf covered surface.
She switched to normal view. “Shit.” Insects surrounded her, keeping a foot’s distance. At this proximity, she could see fanged flyers the size of birds and claws and red-eyes and wings with barbs and crawling snails with bubbling goo that melted rock.
Her head burst in a cacophony of a thundering pulse and turbulent breathing. Physiological parameter warnings filled the corners of her HUD.
“Whoa! Sorry I was looking at the images. Should I pull you up?”
The insects in front of her face parted and out of the darkness, a flying object slapped against her vizor. Electric buzzing and sparks lit up the edges of her obstructed vision. The smell of smoke filled her helmet. A red-warning flashed across her vision:
VIZOR LEAK DETECTED
Her vision cleared, and something thumped onto the floor.
Walu’s voice cut through the adrenaline-soaked experience. “I’m getting you out now.”
The security-cord moved behind her.
Another object hurtled out of the dark. An eagle-sized, six-winged insect stopped at the edge of the suit’s electric field, turned its ass at her and sprayed. Small droplets sparked through the field and onto her. She coughed and spluttered.
The cord snapped taut. She shot straight skyward, dragged by her shoulders up the shaft.
Out of nowhere, figures scaled up the tunnel after her. Hairless humanoids with countless eyes covering their skulls and bark covering their skin. They scrambled over one another, reaching out with crab-like pincers for her feet.
She tried to scream. Maybe she managed. She kicked wildly at their deformed limbs and caught her foot in a vine. She ripped it free and dragged part of the vine up with her.
“What the hell is going on?” Walu yelled.
“Get me in!”
The shuttle’s massive doors opened and swallowed her. Before the outer airlock closed, one of the monsters jumped and gripped a handhold with its pincer. The door slammed shut amputating the pincer’s tip and trapping it in the airlock with her.
“Wait for the decontamination--”
“Just get me out of here!” She ripped the suit off, while the room whirred, buzzed and sprayed.
Doors of the inner airlock sprung open and Walu ran in. “You okay?”
“No.” She pointed toward the outer airlock. “Look at that--”
Gone. The amputated monster-limb was gone. “Where the--”
“What are you talking about? Look at what?”
“Did you see those zombies… those things chasing me?”
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Walu gave her a sideways glance. Then did a double-take. “What’s that yellow stuff on your face?”
He wiped her face with a damp cloth. “This stuff.” Yellow powder covered the cloth.“Never mind,” he said. “Let’s get back to Mosi and get you cleaned up. We’re going to have to run the whole shuttle through decontamination.”
“Wait. You’re telling me you saw nothing?”
“I saw the insects--”
“No. The damned multi-eyed zombie things.”
His brows furrowed. “Robbie, what are you talking about?”
She pushed him aside and ran to the cockpit. Trawling through the recorded vids, she played back her helmet’s feed. Nothing. Just insects whipping around.
Walu sat in front of her without a word. She slunk back into the seat and stared out of the side window. Had her fear imagined that craziness? Surely not.
And why the hell was everything on the planet so aggressive?
Walu turned around when they reached Mosi. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I--” She sneezed, splattering yellow droplets over his face. “Damn. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, man.” He wiped his face with his sleeves. “I’m going to go set up the decont. You clean yourself up.”
Outside the shuttle, Mosi loomed. Its body and tail had been assaulted in the three hours they were gone, engulfed in leaves, colourful flowers, vines and roots-- the plant grappled it in a strangulating hold.
Colours on the flowers? They had been plain white when they arrived. Or had they? She’d have to check the vids.
Football-sized pods carpeted Mosi’s doors, barely discernible through the foliage. She neared and ordered the doors open. The pods slid off, toppling to the ground as the doors receded into the hull.
She picked up one of the pods and placed the multi-tool against its solid outer shell. Images flashed on her HUD-- it looked like a seed, complete with a cotyledon and germinating seedling.
Walu’s shouts pierced through the still air. “Get in!”
He ran up behind her, eyes wide-open and face contorted, and pushed her inside. “Close the airlock and get into your seat.”
“What’s going on?”
“Just trust me!” He sprinted around the corner.
She flipped the door controls, jogged over to the control-room and buckled herself in. “Now, tell me what’s going on!”
“I saw them.”
Mosi’s engines roared.
Aliens that look like fucking zombies? Were they going nuts?
She’d fantasised about the discoveries they would make on Pya Calo for years before they left. It used to keep her up at night and be the topic of conversation for the few rest-hours during training camps in Antarctica and the desert. Never had zombies come up. Her chest heaved. Screw thinking like a robot-- robots didn’t have to contend with being petrified of bloodthirsty monsters. She’d already been bitten by something; death by ravaging wasn’t a risk she could take.
“Did you see the eyes and the claws?” She wiped the sweat from her brow.
“No, no, no. Green zombies, Robbie, with bolts sticking out of their necks.”
She didn’t have time to think about why Walu saw what sounded like numerous Frankensteins. Mosi thrusted and launched out of Pya Calo’s atmosphere.
I am coming with you.