Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Short Story: Colonization


Ahhh, the vastness of space. The are so many worlds as yet unreached and unexplored. As NASA makes waves, talking once more of landing people on the moon and even mars, I am reminded of a story of the human race reaching for the stars I wrote a couple years back. As with all great explorers, there is always risk. But with that risk comes the possibility of reaching out, expanding the race to new shores, or in this case, new worlds and increasing the odds of continuation. But not all colonists are as they seem. And not all go about it the same way. Enjoy!


Colonization
by Paul Darcy

"What do you mean you lost it?" Mission Commander Calvin faced his medical officer.

"Look, I know it sounds ridiculous," Weber answered, "but it’s not here anymore. One of you three must have come in and taken it out during the night. By the look on your face I can tell it wasn’t you, but I find it equally hard to believe that Jenkins or Stewart would bother, even in jest. They are too preoccupied with assembling the pre-colony habitats to be playing tricks. Besides they have already expressed their dislike for this planet’s plant life more times than I can count, especially Jenkins. I hadn’t finished studying that particular specimen and will have to go and gather another one. Disruptions like this I can do without. You aren’t the only one with a strict timetable for this planet you know."

"I hear you," Calvin said. "Jenkins and Stewart aren’t fond of the foliage on this world and I don’t blame them. I don’t like it either. It’s damn strange, you have to admit that. Actually it’s too damn strange, but I have a mission to finish here in two days. The pre-colony buildings must be assembled and operational by then or we are going to incur very expensive overtime which I personally have to justify. The ship’s auto pilot back to Earth will need to be recalculated if we leave any later than two days from now and I don’t fancy doing that for no extremely valid reason. I know you have to catalogue the major flora and run your compatibility tests. Any disruption to either of our schedules is not welcome, but your work can be completed on the return trip to Earth. Mine can’t. Anyway I don’t think Jenkins or Stewart would play games with the damn stuff, but I’ll ask them when they get back in. We may be a new team, but we stand to lose too much by screwing around."

"All I should need is another day to study the specimens on planet, if they stay in my lab." Weber said. "After that, I’ll be the first one webbed in for our return home. Strange marginal planets like these are meant for the hard colonists to tackle, not contract foundation layers like ourselves."

Calvin had to agree and his face creased with concern. When he had first answered Weber’s call, Calvin had expected to come down here and have Weber explain to him that the unexpected disappearance was a prank, that he just found the thing in his salad where Stewart or Jenkins had planted it. Despite his and Weber’s judgement about Stewart and Jenkins, they may indeed have done something with the specimen. Calvin secretly hoped so. If this thing could get around on its own, and free on his ship? He was jumping to conclusions with very few facts. "I know the vegetation on this planet doesn’t conform to the norms we are used to back on Earth, but Christ it couldn’t walk out of here could it? It was only a bloody plant."

Weber looked thoughtful, but did not reply quickly enough for Calvin. "So, what were you able to find out about it before it went missing?" Calvin inquired. "Could it move, Weber?"

Weber rubbed his forehead and looked at Calvin. "I was only able to run a few tests late last night after I brought it in here. From what I could tell, it can move though I don’t think it was able to move very much, except maybe to turn towards heat sources for its energy requirements, similar to plants on Earth. But even if it could creep or something it should be damn slow. And yes, I checked the whole lab first before I called you. I’m not sure what to think if Jenkins and Stewart weren’t involved."

"Well keep looking, and make damn sure the next sample is locked up so it can’t creep away, or Jenkins and Stewart can’t steal it, or whatever the hell happened. I’ve got to go make my progress report. Let me know when you find the thing. I don’t like the idea of it lurking around my ship." Calvin left Weber scratching his head and looking about the ship’s lab module as if the specimen would suddenly crawl out from hiding and reveal itself.

Alone on the bridge, Calvin sat in his command chair and switched on the recorder to make his mandatary daily report back to Earth. The large delay imposed by the speed of light made sending these messages nothing short of talking into the void of space, but discipline forced him to relay anything of significance or lack of significance each day regardless.

Calvin began. "Our progress to date is good, though it took longer to clear the area of vegetation than first anticipated. The plants here are very tenacious and fast growing, but by working three hours of overtime the final site is sterilized and we are meeting schedule. The plant life disintegrated under plasma arcs readily enough, but is much more dense than the reconnaissance probes had lead us to believe. Dr. Weber has started his onboard analysis of this planet’s vegetation, though he has no conclusions at this time. Day ten report over. The usual coded information stream from sensors will follow. Calvin out."

Calvin toggled the transmit switch and was about to settle back and enjoy a bit of rest when the ship’s airlock cycled. It would appear that Weber was wasting no time gathering another plant specimen, even before he found the stray. When Weber returned, Calvin would personally make sure the new specimen was secured to his liking. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Weber, he just felt better handling things himself, and he didn’t want any more of this damn plant life on his ship unaccounted for. Though he would never admit he was afraid of it, it did give him the creeps.

Calvin had reclined back into his command chair for a small rest when he heard a clatter in the aft of the ship near the air lock. What the hell was this? Even half dozing, Calvin shouldn’t be hearing anything on an empty ship. It took him a few seconds to realize his name was being called as well.

"Commander Calvin?" There was a pause. "Commander?" more loudly and urgently this time and heading in his direction.

"In here," Calvin replied finally recognizing Stewart’s voice. A few seconds later the thumps of heavy boots reached the other side of the bridge door. The door whined open and an excited Stewart stomped in still suited up for outside construction work and carrying his helmet.

Stewart’s face beamed extreme excitement. "Spit it out, Stewart, whatever it is." Calvin was too tired to play fifty questions.

"We found something, Commander. I don’t know how to explain it, except, it isn’t ours, sir." Stewart looked like he was floating in zero gravity the way he was swaying on the bridge, even though the gravity on this planet was almost identical to Earth. Calvin sat up straighter in his chair.

"What do you mean, it isn’t ours? We’re the first company here. We were bloody well assured of that before we left." All Calvin needed now was a problem over the rights to pre-colonize this planet. "Have our competitors sent probes here? That would be in violation of agreements for this planet. Christ, this happened once before to another team." Calvin ended up playing fifty questions anyway.

"It’s not a probe, sir. We have no competition like that. It’s, well, we uncovered foundations." Stewart fidgeted like a nervous four year old and began talking faster and more excitedly. "Jenkins and I were starting to remove the last of the soil covering the bedrock for habitat three when we discovered walls, Commander. Definitely walls and not something naturally created. I’ve worked in the planet colony construction business for twenty eight years and I know what’s natural and what’s been constructed. And what we found is definitely a construction, I swear it." Calvin was fully awake now and sitting forward in his chair. Adrenalin drove the fatigue from his body.

Foundations? How old? Who could have made them? Calvin had a thousand questions racing around his head as he followed Stewart quickly back to the airlock. "Give me five minutes to suit up and I’ll join you and Jenkins at the site." Stewart sealed his helmet in place and cycled the air lock. In a moment Stewart was outside and Calvin was alone.

Five minutes later Calvin was fully suited and eager to go. He should have taken longer to double check his suit and connections, but what Stewart and Jenkins may have found was unbelievable. If it were real it would be the first signs of advanced life outside of Earth ever encountered. His name would go down in history as having commanded this historic mission to this fringe planet near Antares. This planet would probably bear his name forever after. Retirement with unlimited cash flow here I come, Calvin thought as he twist sealed his helmet in place, made one final all systems check, and cycled the air lock.

The ship’s air lock, a simple device consisting of a large gimbal driven by electric servos or manual crank, opened smoothly. The inner door closed as smoothly as it had opened, then the air was evacuated from the chamber and the outer door opened. Calvin stepped down a short ladder and out onto the alien planet. The sky was a hazy purple, and the wildly colored and disturbing plant life dotted the landscape like a distorted Monet painting. A large dark bare patch down a long slope revealed the work of Jenkins and Stewart. Two completed habitats rose defiantly against the purple sky from the site, and Calvin could see the flashes of plasma arcs on the edge of the large bare patch of ground where the last habitat was scheduled to go.

Calvin followed the burned trail and headed for the clearing. He walked more quickly than if he were going about a routine inspection of the habitats and soon arrived where Stewart and Jenkins were working.

They both stopped when they saw Calvin arrive, and Stewart pointed at the ground and spoke excitedly through suit radio. "See, Commander, right there. It is definitely a wall!" Calvin moved closer and looked down at the excavated earth. He had to agree with Stewart, there could be no mistake. This was no natural phenomenon he was looking at. Bricks or blocks about two feet square, were carefully positioned onto the rocks. Calvin could even see pins anchoring the blocks just as they were about to do with the frame struts of habitat three.

"Well, hole my ship!" Calvin couldn’t help catch Stewart’s enthusiasm. This was unbelievable, and would certainly mean untold riches for this entire crew. "Any guess as to the age of those walls?" Calvin asked, still staring at the partially uncovered blocks in amazement.

"Don’t really know." Stewart answered.

"I think I can guess," Jenkins added. He seldom spoke, but was a solid steady worker whose opinion Calvin trusted.

"Go on." Calvin urged.

"Well, commander. If you look really close at them they are riddled with this damn plant growth. It’s almost like Swiss cheese with the holes filled in. Damn stuff, looks like it can grow in or on anything. And, the blocks were about one meter underground so this damn vegetation doesn’t seem to need light, like mushrooms or something. See, its still alive down there. Anyway, since this planet is close to Earth in surface conditions, and if we took Earth as a model it would have taken roughly ten thousand years to deposit that much soil over these blocks. So, sometime when we were running around with sticks on Earth, these was being laid down here." Jenkins said no more. He didn’t need to.

"Hole my ship and tear my suit," was all Calvin could say to that. If Jenkins was right this would unbalance the entire view of the galaxy as humans had enjoyed it for many centuries. It had to happen eventually he reasoned, but to be here where it would all begin was daunting. Still, he was the Commander of this mission and had to act as such even if he wanted to dance about and sing. He forced his mind into practical get-the-job-done mode. "Stewart, Jenkins continue clearing out as much of this as you can and take lots of pictures. And be as careful as you can. The people back home are going to want to study this in microscopic detail. I think this warrants an unscheduled transmission to Earth. We can discuss this back at the ship over supper, if any of us can eat."

In response, Stewart and Jenkins picked up their plasma arcs and began carefully vaporizing more topsoil. Calvin made his way back up the path towards the ship and passed Weber carrying an empty sample container on his way down. "Weber, you will never guess what Stewart and Jenkins uncovered?"

"They found my stray?" Weber sounded hopeful.

"No, something far more unbelievable. Foundation blocks from a settlement, and possibly ten thousand years old."

Weber took a moment to speak. "But, we have only been in space for two hundred years."

"I never said it was ours, Weber." Calvin smiled through his faceplate and left Weber to ponder his comment and collect his specimen. "Oh, and Weber. Don’t let any more of those things get loose on the ship."

Talk over supper had included every myth and tale of ancient races and visits to Earth that any of them had ever heard. They kept looking at the pictures Jenkins and Stewart had taken of the blocks after they had cleared more of the soil. It seemed unreal and if the images weren’t there on the table in vivid color to validate the find, they may all believe it was nothing more than a mass hallucination.

Finally, after what seemed hours of discussion on alien civilizations, Calvin turned the conversation to the suddenly lesser important topic of the strange plant life on this planet and Dr. Weber’s progress in cataloging it. "So, Weber. What were you able to tell from the new plant specimen you collected today?"

"Let me tell you," Weber began, "after seeing those blocks I had a hard time concentrating, but I did manage to learn more this afternoon. First, plant life may be stretching it as far as classification goes. Though they roughly look and act like plants, though strangely colored and shaped, they really are not plants at all." Weber’s forehead scrunched up as though he were trying to think of how to describe, in laymen’s terms, exactly what they were. If he broke into biological lingo he would lose Calvin and the others completely. "Let’s just say they have more in common with fungus and animals than plants and need an new classification all of their own."

"What does that mean exactly?" Calvin knew a bit about fungus, but animal could refer to anything from insects to elephants.

"Well, they are definitely asexual. They divide and reproduce rapidly without any kind of fertilization and seem to need no direct light in which to do it. And their DNA is easily twice as dense and complex as ours which may or may not mean a whole lot other than they are not simple plants, or animals, or fungus at all but a highly evolved life form more complex than we are at the molecular level. And as we have noticed they are definitely top of the food chain on this planet. Much more extensive tests will need to be done to fully understand their life cycles, habits etc. I don’t have the time or equipment to even begin such a study here, but those who follow will have all the time and money to uncover their secrets once this world is properly colonized."

"And, I take it," Calvin said, "that you didn’t recover the stray?"

"What stray?" Stewart asked.

"Nothing to worry about." Weber assured. "One of the specimens went missing this morning. I suspect it made its way into some tight spot and died. Our ship’s atmosphere is not exactly friendly to them."

"Still, I wish you had found the thing." Calvin grumbled. Jenkins sat quietly, looking uneasy.

"Well, I know I’ve had enough for one day." Stewart said. "I’m going to cash in and go to sleep. Tomorrow we will start clearing another new spot for habitat three and I want to be rested. Plasma arcs look light and easy to use, but they are deceiving, right Jenkins?"

A grunt was all they heard from Jenkins, who also rose from the table and headed for his quarters. A tired Weber and Calvin followed shortly after.

***

At two twenty five am ship’s time, air recycling duct seven pinged with and unexpected vibration. None of the crew woke from the sound. Several minutes later more subtle noises began in other areas of the ship as the planet’s life form divided and squeezed its way into every dark corner it could manage. It began to bind its way into ships fiber optics and conduits and wall casings and it began to adapt and learn and feed.

Jenkins, lying on his cot, did not hear the life form as it slithered silently up his cot’s leg. In twenty minutes it had made its way to Jenkins pillow. A light caress on Jenkins neck nearly woke him, but not quite. An hour later Jenkins body began to change. The rest of the night period on the ship passed without incident.

***

Stewart expected to meet Jenkins for an early breakfast and was surprised when he didn’t show. A quick check of Jenkins empty quarters made Stewart wonder if he were still on the ship at all. A check of the suit lockups proved he wasn’t. Couldn’t even wait for me this morning, Stewart thought, packing back his reconstituted eggs. He and Jenkins were usually the first two up and out. They liked to work earlier hours taking it easy the rest of the day unless overtime pay were involved. Still, it was damn odd of Jenkins to leave without even warning him.

Stewart made good time to the habitat sites but found no immediate sign of Jenkins. He looked into the two habitats they had already set up. They were empty.

Stewart stood outside under the purple sky and looked around the clearing. Suddenly his eye caught movement a short ways into the thick alien plant growth and it took his mind a few moments to figure out what he was seeing. When he realized what he was looking it Stewart nearly staggered. Jenkins was kneeling down among the vegetation which nearly covered him. But that was not what nearly stopped Stewart’s heart. Jenkins was not wearing his helmet. Stewart rushed over to his friend.

***

At first Calvin thought it was adrenalin and the excitement of the find yesterday, but after checking with isolated instruments he determined that the ship’s interior temperature had increased by two degrees Celsius. Calvin played with the panels one more time. "God damn duo-logic programming." Calvin cursed as he tried manually rerouting an environmental control circuit and was thwarted by redundant circuits. "Our company paid top dollar to have this bloody ship checked out before we left? I’ll skin somebody when we get back home." He grumbled. After several more attempts the controls seemed to stabilize and the temperature began to return to normal, at least the air regulators kicked back on, something they hadn’t done automatically in a while.

Calvin heard a bang behind him and spun around. One of the control panels had fallen off and lay on the ship’s floor. It was one he hadn’t touched. It must have come loose with all of his fist pounding and cursing over the past half hour. Calvin snapped it back in place and caught a whiff of something unpleasant, like rotting garbage. He had been sweating in the extra heat of the ship and was in need of a shower. Christ, he was beginning to smell as bad as the plants on this world.

Calvin passed Weber on his way to the showers. "Going out for more?" Calvin asked.

"No. Actually I am bringing this specimen back outside. Your orders. I am finished what I can do here anyway."

"Learn anything new?"

"Not really. Except I believe they are very advanced life forms. Incredible adaptability." Weber had a look of concern pasted on his face and Calvin didn’t like it.

"Don’t tell me more of them escaped." Calvin grumbled.

"No, nothing like that. Though, I should tell you the holding tanks I placed them in were, almost compromised. Those life forms break down structures at a molecular level and integrate themselves with the surrounding substances."

"Like the alien foundation blocks." Calvin suddenly had a terrible thought. "Hole my ship. Weber, the one that got away." Calvin suddenly felt as though a cold wind had blown up his back.

"The one that got away was a very tiny specimen, hardly larger than my thumb. It couldn’t do much. Though we should find it in case it does some damage to a vital system." Weber lifted the canister he was holding. "I better get this back outside."

"Hang on, Weber. I’m coming with you. I’ll need to get Stewart and Jenkins over here to help. They have most of the ship’s equipment at the site. I have a feeling we may need it all. Hole my bloody ship! Let’s move."

It may have been the way the gimbal air-lock sounded while cycling, or it may have been the way it slammed shut like it never had before, but Calvin had the uneasy feeling that a coffin lid had closed. The air lock was definitely not functioning normally. Weber had moved away to the edge of a cleared area to dump his specimen.

Calvin tried cycling the air-lock again as if he were going to immediately reenter the ship. He keyed in the correct sequence twice, but nothing happened. After the third failed attempt he opened the emergency hatch to access the manual crank system. What he saw inside the hatch froze his blood to a point which no suit heater could rectify. The manual controls were shot through with the alien plant growth like an apple riddled with worms. The handle of the crank was actually deformed, detached and completely useless. Calvin slammed the hatch shut and raced for the habitat site to find Jenkins and Stewart while yelling for Weber to follow.

When Calvin and Weber arrived at the habitats, all was quiet and there was no sign of activity. Calvin had expected to see plasma arcs firing while Stewart and Jenkins cleared more soil for the last habitat. This lack of activity was unsettling. After a short excursion around the outside of the two finished habitats, Calvin decided to check inside them. Maybe Jenkins and Stewart were only taking a break, playing cards or something. The alien plant life had encroached on the newly constructed habitats already, where only yesterday Calvin could remember the dead zone around the habitats being much larger. He should have brought a plasma arc himself, but was in too much of a rush to bother.

Calvin tried the air-lock to habitat one, almost afraid it would not cycle. It functioned perfectly. He and Weber stepped inside. A quick search of its several rooms revealed that the structure was empty. They left and entered habitat two. It opened as easily as the first.

"Stewart, Jenkins." Calvin called. There was no reply. He removed his suit helmet after checking for green lights on the habitats environmental controls. The air was humid and much warmer than it should be. Perhaps Jenkins or Stewart hadn’t bothered to set the controls properly yet. If anything it should be cool and dry. It would be many months until the Earth colonists would come and this excess heat and humidity wasted energy.

A shuffling noise in one of the far rooms caught Calvin’s attention. "Stewart. Jenkins. Are you in there? What the hell are you two doing?" Calvin tried to sound authoritative, but the damp hot air made his words come out flat.

"In hear," came a croaking approximation of Jenkins voice. Calvin stiffened at the sound and he could sense that Weber behind him had been startled as well. Calvin lead the way as he and Weber made for the darkened far room.

At the entrance to the dark room Calvin stopped. He could feel extra humidity wafting from inside the room and the stench of decaying matter, the distinct smell of this planet’s vegetation. Jenkins was standing in a shadowy corner, the plasma arc cradled loosely in his hands. He was swaying like a drunk. Calvin was about to enter, grab Jenkins by the neck, and demand to know what was going on, but Jenkins voice stopped him cold. "We need go. We need inhabit new. We are crowded, need space."

Calvin’s nerves were jangling, on the verge of collapse. "Jenkins. What the hell has happened to you? Where is Stewart?"

"Stewart. Stewart joined. I am left, to stop." Jenkins voice cracked and nearly stopped altogether. Gurgling noises took over Jenkins’ voice making him sound like he was drowning in phlegm.

Suddenly the foundations of the habitat shuddered as though caught in a mild earthquake. Panicked realization gripped Calvin and he sprinted to a view port facing the ship. The ship was lifting off. "Weber," Calvin said. "Christ, Weber, the life on this planet is stealing our ship, and its auto heading is set for return to Earth."

So caught up in watching their only way back home disappear, Calvin and Weber momentarily forgot about Jenkins. The gurgling voice again stabbed at Calvin and Weber from the entrance to the dark dank room. "We need you. You come. It has been long time since last. We were undone. Our world changes. We use. We need new." Calvin and Weber spun around to face Jenkins, or what Jenkins had become. Shot through with the alien plant life, his exposed skin resembled a peeled and rotting grape. Calvin could see movement beneath that horrible skin, and the thing that was Jenkins wobbled unsteadily on its feet. He still held the plasma arc.

"Mother of all holed ships, Weber! We have got to warn Earth before our ship returns!" Calvin scanned the habitat. One room held a transmitter which might be Earth’s only salvation.

Jenkins stopped wobbling. "We stop you. We survive. We colonize."

Calvin and Weber launched themselves toward Jenkins.

The plasma arc flared.

The colonists advanced toward a new world.
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