Crater Island

By PK Torrens | August, 2020


Artwork by Jose Baetas.

Note from Kasma's editor: PK Torrens is one of my favorite writers to submit work to the magazine in recent history. I hope you enjoy the story and ask yourself if moral cowardice is just as important to self-preservation as any of our more noble human qualities.

*****

I never thought the first alien we encountered would be a bacterium. But then again, what did I expect? A walking, talking quadruped?

"Muli bwanji, Elida." Chanda pipes in from the lab's entrance. "Stop telling jokes to yourself, and come out. I've made lunch, and I'm sure you've got to eat too."

It's disappointing I can't communicate with the bacteria. Maybe they're like me, ill-fitting and awkward. Or maybe, they just don't want to talk. I turn off the microscope's light, put the slide away, and clean the bench and instruments.

I remove my suit in the airlock-decontamination room, and enjoy the gusts of air and warm light caressing my naked body. "Decontamination complete."

"Thanks, Mosi."

Outside the lab, the sun burns bright in the scout-planet's violet sky, while the surf slamming against the shore ignites my thirst. I head for Chanda's airlocked tent, probably squishing millions upon millions of organisms as I tread along in my suit and heavy boots.

Bacteria dying don't bother me. They don't think - they're just biochemistry in sacks. What I want to find and protect are sentient species, those that can feel higher emotions like pain and remorse. Kind of like the guilt I harbour for wiping out the Tripods in Centauri. It's one of the few emotions that still manages to percolate through.

I kick a stone off the dirt walkway. The path winds between the ten-metre wide craters that we still can't explain, but all I really want is a drink. Does that make me a bad scientist? Or is it the fact that I prefer to talk to myself and not other people?

Chanda greets me with a smile. "The great Doctor Banda joins us. Come, have some goop."

"I want water."

"Well, when you ask so nicely, here." He shoves an aluminium flask into my hands.

I drink, trying to ignore his gaze. I know what he's going to ask. The same impatient, daily whining he exhibited on the previous seven planets.

"So, any news?"

"Nope." I grab a bowl of food, and tuck in. Thankfully, all we have is goop so I can eat with one hand, my other an amputated victim of repeated cryowakes.

"Right. Same old, eh?"

"Yep."

He paces in the tiny mess room, hands behind his back, facing the floor, huffing away.

Oh, right. It'd been over a week since we last discussed the importance of getting the colonists out of cryosleep bla bla bla, so I guess it's time for that again. I savour the taste of liquid protein before pausing my vital nutrient-acquisition to alleviate his anxiety.

"We have a thousand souls sleeping in orbit," he begins. "Waiting on our decision--"

"I'm well aware of that."

"You need to hurry up."

I sigh, and place my bowl down, hoping it won't get cold by the time I'm done reassuring his little boy-brain that I still think this planet will be the One. "We don't have too far to go. This place is excellent. An ocean of drinkable freshwater without the countless toxins of the last three, and enough land to get us going."

"So why the delays?"

"I've got to make sure these microbes can't harm us. They're like Earth's. DNA and RNA-based, and they have the exact same machinery, so there is a potential they could behave like pathogens."

"But--"

I put my palm out. I've seen him do it a couple of times when he wanted me to stop talking so I assume it means shut up. "Also, we still haven't figured out how the craters were created, nor why they exist only within a couple of hundred metres from the beach and nowhere else. Also, the microbes there are clumped together in macroscopic collections."

"The alien turds."

I exhale sharply. "Macroscopic collections. And, they're different from the bacteria that cover the ground. As soon as I've explained all that, and find it's benign, we'll get the colonists down."

He throws himself onto the seat next to me, and cradles his head. "I just feel useless. I'm the engineer here, I'm supposed to be getting the fabricators to work, constructing homes..."

I zone out, and pick up my spoon. Self-pitying tends to be the terminal portion of these discussions. The bowl is so clean it's reflecting light by the time I'm done with it. I know he hates me licking it, but the rations are painfully small. That's what happens when you don't strike gold on the first five planets you visit.

"Thanks for lunch." I remember to say. "I'm going back to work."

*****

I sit on the edge of one of the craters with my feet dangling down. The drop is over a metre, and the pothole landmarks are all roughly the same size-- between nine and eleven metres. Speckled in the middle of the crater are tiny calcium-based shards. I'd miss them if I wasn't looking for them, and surrounding the flecks are the larger bacterial footballs.

The cyanobacteria are everywhere, as if the whole million square-kilometre island is one giant stromatolite. We had them on Earth too, pumping out oxygen, and some developing symbiosis with larger cells to become plants and algae. It's the evolutionary origin of the eukaryotes in ball-clusters that evade me. Found only in the craters, they have the cellular machinery for carbohydrate and protein digestion, yet they survive in stasis, covered by layer upon layer of mineralised sediment around them. They seemed out of place.

The crunching of approaching boots gets louder, and Chanda sits next to me. "Admiring the view?"

"I needed a break."

"I'm sorry for giving you a hard time earlier." He picks up a stone and throws it at one of the microbe super-colonies.

"Don't do that!"

"Oh, sorry."

"You're contaminating the field." I glare at him. "The microbiome of the craters is completely different to what's up here."

He clasps his hands and slumps his shoulders. Probably feeling anxious again, or something. Apparently, I used to be able to read people before my seventh wake-up-- Chanda thinks the repeated cryo-wakes got to me. Whatever. It's the arm I miss, and the guilt I'm glad to have shed.

"I didn't think one crater mattered when there's so many." He goes quiet for a moment, realising he's an idiot, perhaps? "I'm just scared we'll never find a home, you know?"

I'm very well aware. "Every crater is important. And we still can't explain them, can we?"

"Meteorites could--"

"That's the worst hypothesis of the lot. They're all the same size."

"Some kind of animal that--"

"And where are these animals? Burrowed deep underground where our drones haven't been able to scope them out?" I sigh. "They're probably some kind of geological feature that we haven't figured out yet. The bugs may be attracted to a geothermal outlet."

He sucks his teeth. "I still think we can wake the colonists, even if we can't explain the craters."

It stirs inside me. A flush of unease that starts in my stomach and rises, whipping my heart into a gallop and making me want to strangle him.

"Sorry," he says. "I didn't mean to anger you."

How could he tell? "The colonists are where we disagree. I'm not calling the shot to wake up a shipful of people, and then find out I've doomed them."

A silence follows. He wriggles around, and a couple of times he takes in a deep breath, as if to speak but deciding against it. I do care about the colonists. They entrusted their lives to Chanda and me. I need to find a home for them; a safe, predictable and long-lasting home, without risking sentient alien life.

"It's amazing," I say. "This is what Earth was like billions of years ago, covered in archaea, like the little guys we're sitting on, spilling oxygen into the atmosphere. Though, they mostly lived in the sea and Earth had a supercontinent not just one island."

"I wish you placed equal value on the colonists as you do on admiring this planet."

Interesting. I never thought of it that way. I suppose I do admire the planet-- who wouldn't after spending so long hunting for a place to settle? After going to sleep for centuries then waking so many times and, apparently, losing my personality?

At the thought of having to go back into cryostasis, phantom pain and tingling erupt in my missing left hand. I wiggle my stump to shake it off, but the sensation only spreads up the non-existent forearm and arm before settling into uncomfortable dancing paraesthesiae.

Getting my mind off it works. Sometimes. "I'm going to get back to it." I stand up. "Don't worry, and keep yourself busy."

I know he wants me to stay and talk. He finds it comforting.

I make my way back to the haven. The lab itself is cramped, littered with shelf upon shelf of glass-slides, culture mini-silos, and DNA-analysis trays. Artificial fumes of bleach and various ammonium-based compounds fill my sinuses and make me tear, and remind me I've got to leave the atmospheric washout on before I exit.

The latest results await. I scan the display again and again, hoping to find the reason those eukaryotic organisms lived in macro-colonies and only within the craters. Surely, that's the key to the whole problem, but no matter where I look, I get no answers.

After two hours of report trawling, I shut the display down and slump in my seat. Two hundred and sixty-five Earthdays on the rock and counting, with nothing new to show for it in the past seventy. The submarine samples didn't help, and I can't think of anything that would.

Am I being too careful?

Cryosleep had already fried parts of my brain and, possibly, affected my decision-making processes. Rations are low-- Chanda won't tell me how screwed we are, and perhaps that problem drives Chanda's anxiety. Either way, we're stuck on a mega-stromatolite and the only thing keeping us from colonising is my fear of harming sentience. The evidence for which are some bacteria living in colonies that look like turds.

*****

I wade through the shallows where the water licks the island. Further offshore, surf pummels the flat sandy beach, roaring with every crashing wave. But it isn't like Earth. No seagull calls, no scurrying crabs, no children playing.

It could be become like that.

I select Chanda's icon on my heads-up display. "Come to the beach."

"Need company?"

That's the last thing I need. "Just come."

The African Committee for the Colonisation of Space deemed the possibility of indigenous fauna contamination or causing an ecological upset as a deal-breaker for a colony site. They never factored in starvation and repeated failure. Or the effects of repeated cryosleep on the Scouts. Or, maybe, food was carefully calculated, but we took too long assessing target planets. Two months max on each was their guideline - none took less than six.

Five planets, they said. Five planets that passed remote evaluation should lead to at least one favourable site for a colony after on-ground scouting. In retrospect, accounting for every biological eventuality seemed like a committee-made dream.

Chanda plods down the beach and speaks through his comm. "What's up?"

"I've come to a decision."

He stops walking, and with the aid of corneal zoom, I see his chest heaving. I ask, "Are you okay?"

"Y-y-yes."

"You've been happy with the geology and climate of this place for a while. I can't be one hundred percent sure about the biology, but I think we should do it."

"Are you serious?"

I sigh. "Yes."

He sprints toward me, kicking sand up behind him, and splashing through the water. "Oh my God. That's so great!" His hug is too tight, but I can't wriggle out of it with my sole arm.

"Okay, Chanda. Okay."

Eventually, he lets go, and grabs my hand. "We need to set the co-ordinates for Mosi's landing. Come on."

His pace is wicked, and I struggle to remember a time when I used to be fit, where a ten-minute jog wouldn't leave me gasping for air. Was it after the sixth scouting mission? I think that's when my health started going downhill. The ship's automedic mentioned emphysema, and a cryosleep-induced autoimmune disorder, and neither were curable.

We make it to base HQ. He madly gesticulates in front of the holodisplay, likely too frightened I will change my mind. He pauses. "Now. We're officially going to be able to call this place Pya Calo II. Are you ready?"

I don't think I ever liked drama, or maybe, cryosleep had killed that too. "Just do it."

With a flick of his finger, he commands Mosi-oa-Tunya to land one hundred kilometres in-land from where our base is set up around the lander. After accounting for orbital dynamics and weather patterns, the holodisplay states touchdown will occur in the morning.

"We should celebrate," he says.

"No. I should get back to work. If I find something now, there is still time to abort."

"I've got a better idea." He runs off into the adjoining module and comes back with a glass bottle. Beads of liquid form on its surface.

"What is that?"

"I've been bringing it down with us on every single scout mission." Carefully, he wipes the surface with a cloth. "Then placing it back into storage following disappointment after disappointment." He places the capped edge on the rim of the alloy table and slams down on top of it with his other hand. The cap falls to the floor. "And now, we're going to enjoy it."

I take the offered bottle. "What is it?"

"Beer."

The taste of bitter hops bursts across my tongue as I take a greedy swig. It's the best thing I've tasted in years. "That's really good."

He drains the rest of the bottle, and we chat until sunset about what the next few months hold. Weirdly, I enjoy the company.

*****

Falling asleep hadn't been easy after the excitement and colony planning, but the dreams filled me with ecstasy; children running around the beach, building sandcastles and playing in the rockpools, while adults surfed and sunbathed. And I ran the lab.

A proper community. Not just Chanda and me.

It doesn't last long because the proximity-intrusion warning wakes me just before daybreak. I scramble a suit on, and burst down the corridor to the HQ module where Chanda waits. "What is it?"

"What the hell are these?" He points at the display.

The cameras present a nightvision overlay. Hundreds, if not thousands, of giant worms are making their way ashore. Robotic sentries ping them, and return readings suggesting the creatures measure a metre in height and up to fifteen long. Microphones pick up heavy slurping noises across the beach.

"I've got no idea what they are." I manage to utter while my intestines feel like they're jammed up into my chest.

A worm heads directly for a sentry. The camera stays focused on the alien's mouth, full of baleen-like teeth. Feeds from two neighbouring sentries show the worm swallowing the sentry whole while the feed from its camera dies.

"Hey." I gulp air. "This isn't good."

"What should we do?"

I get a funny feeling-- it starts in my belly, froths up my gullet until I taste acid in the back of my mouth, and then oscillates between settling and rising. "I think I'm gonna be sick."

"No time for that. It's heading for the lab."

A single worm reaches the outer shell of the lab and touches the edges of its mouth against the semi-pliable surface. It attaches itself, and within a minute, the outer shell registers loss of continuity. The worm slides along, mouth-first, leaving a trail of molten polymeric shell-substrate in its wake.

Our other sentries are taken out one by one, and only the cams and mics fixed to the buildings are still active. Hundreds of the creatures slither along toward the core of the base. As if snap-frozen, they stop as a bright ball lights up the dawn sky. I do everything I can to fight the nausea.

"That's Mosi approaching," says Chanda. "We need to make a decision now."

"What decision?"

He glares at me and with pupils widely dilated. "What we do about the damned worms--"

The display throws up an alert from the lab - the inner shell is being breached.

"Elida. Decision. Now."

I don't have many options. The local fauna clearly behaves aggressively with little space for attempted communication, especially since it managed to dissolve metal and plastic like it were melting butter. Skin and bone will likely suffer worse.

Mosi's landing shouldn't influence me, but countless planets on, and with the risk of starvation, is there any alternative?

"Protect the base," I say.

"Are you sure?"

"Do it."

He selects a number of items on the display. The whine of charging capacitors fills HQ. Then cracking bursts pound outside, and the camera feeds white-out from the glare and electrical interference. Barrage after barrage of explosions slam against the hull. The worms' loud slurps punctuate the intervening silence between the volleys.

I grip Chanda's arm. He tries to pry my hand away, but I don't let go.

"That's starting to hurt," he says.

The explosions continue, mixed with mechanical moans and anguished sucking sounds. A fine smoke overwhelms the filters and seeps in-- burning meat.

What if they're sentient?

Not again.

Bile bursts out of me in violent vomiting fits. My retching drowns out the battle's noise. I let go of him and lie on the ground.

He reaches down. "Are you okay?"

"Leave me alone."

Sickening slurps, bordering on screams fill the air and audio feeds. I mute everything I can.

After, what seems like an hour, it quietens and finally stops.

I get up and watch Chanda cycle through the cameras mounted on the buildings. Worm carcasses are piled in the craters and dotted throughout the base, with steam and smoke wafting off them in the breeze.

Chanda breaks the awful silence with a cheer. "Mosi landed!"

I don't reply. I force myself into the airlock and don a vac-suit. With a hiss, the airlock opens, and I step outside as Pya Calo II's star rises on the horizon, throwing shadows at steep angles from the slaughtered aliens. The nearest is only a few steps away, its surface burnt into charcoal.

A crater next to HQ is crammed-full with three bodies and a couple of small cylindrical objects lying next to them. The creatures look frozen in fear, as if they had cowered behind each other in the onslaught. I walk on. All around me, the aliens lie still.

In the crater next to the lab, where I sometimes sit to relax, a worm is squirming, barely alive and leaking gelatinous fluid from holes in its side. Soft slurps emanate from somewhere in its belly. A hint of hope flutters in my abdomen at the sight of a live one, and I start towards it.

It turns its gaping mouth at me, lurches with a slurp and spits. The liquid falls on the edge of the crater, well short of where I stand. Bubbling and fizzing erupt from the ground where the spit landed. The worm tries again, raising itself with effort but its spit falls even shorter this time.

It crumples to the ground with a sound that, I swear, sounds like a yelp.

From the middle of its abdomen pops out a cylindrical object, then the worm stops moving. It's an animal, and I don't trust it, so I command a flying drone to come in and inspect. The drone whirrs above and prods the motionless alien, zapping it with a small voltage just to be sure. Dead-still.

I take a few steps and do a double-take as a squelch sounds from the crater. A football-like object pops out the worm's back end and rolls towards the edge. The football is a wetter and softer version of the countless super-colonies that dot the craters.

Their body plan is unmistakable-- hole at one end for intake and a hole at the other for waste. I would need to prove it, but I bet that's what it is. This whole time I wondered where the eukaryotes had come from, and Chanda was right all along-- alien feces. The brief moment of joy at figuring out the planet's biggest enigma quickly shatters as I realise what I'd just witnessed.

It must have defecated as it died.

I fight back the tears. After nearly an Earthyear on the planet, the first multicellular aliens humanity encounters on this planet finally show themselves. And we slaughter them.

I hop down into the crater, and place a hand on the creature's belly where the cylinder had emerged. A fine slit leaks a gel like an infected wound.

The cylinder catches my attention-- that is new. My fingers indent it, and I feel movement beneath its surface. Veins gently pulse under the outer membrane.

It could be an egg. Or the alien equivalent.

Is that what the craters were? Spawning areas? I command the drone to fly along the beach, away from the devastation I had caused, to a fresh area where indigenous life carries on. A kilometre away, worms are hopping down into craters, spinning in circles and throwing up dirt out of the crater. Some of the giants are still, curled around a few eggs and spraying a gel over the top of them.

My legs give out and I collapse to the ground, resting on the alien carcass behind me. Tears stream out of me, and wet the soil at my feet. The type of stomach pain that left me debilitated after the Tripods courses through again, tightening my intestines into knots. Flashes rip through my mind-- Tripods lying dead in swathes with ulcerating sores all over their body.

"I'm gonna go check on Mosi." Chanda voice streams through the implant. "You okay?"

I take a big breath in before transmitting. "Yeah. You go."

"You sure? You don't sound--"

"Go."

My whole body shakes with sobbing. I try to lift my non-existent left hand to cup the other side of my face, forgetting it's gone. I failed them all. The colonists, the indigenous life, and the committee.

I take a big breath, rub my tears away, and wipe my hand on the suit. I order two wheeled robots to come help me. I need to find out if these things think. Dissecting a dead one would help because where there's a brain-analogue, there's thinking, and where there's thinking, there's sentience. But even if I prove it, we could still accidently wipe them out, like our Staphylococcus did to the tripods.

The robots arrive.

I falter.

I cancel my order and send them back.

Pain in my abdomen eases, and then washes away completely. In this case, what I don't know can't hurt me, and no one will check my work. Chanda is right-- we need to hurry up, and it's all too late now anyway. I open the ship's database, and mark the newly identified worm species as: confirmed non-sentient.