By Jeffrey Gong
Sunrise on Felore was an unremarkable sight to those who were born on the planet, but to the immigrant Michael Elgrand it was a wonder. In the crisp silence of the dawn, he could clearly hear his every footstep crunching down on the frozen leaves.
But the main reason he went up to Felore’s plateaus was to see the sunrise itself. Elgrand was born on a space station and had lived most of his life outside of a gravity well. His first sunrise had been on a far distant planet, and ever since the Incident, it had become a sort of ritual of his to come up to the highlands of Felore and watch the sunrise. Sunrises, he once mused, were proof that beauty was everywhere, if one just bothered to slow down and look.
Elgrand came to a halt atop a small, bare hill and surveyed the alien landscape around him. The strong gravity was still giving him trouble, but thanks to a rapid bone-thickening drug and various other wonders of technology, the former Spacer was adapting rapidly.
Felore was a terrestrial planet, much like Earth, but colder and farther from its sun. All around Elgrand was a thick forest of crystalline “trees,” covered in opaque, rainbow-colored “leaves.” Most hardly had any movement at all in them, though humans had changed that– more and more of the forests were being harvested for their resources every day. As Elgrand watched, one of the thin, rigid leaves fell and hit the frost-covered ground with a sound not unlike that of a falling stone.
Elgrand removed his respirator and tasted the air. He always did this, every day, though it was technically against regulations. The Felorian germ problems were mostly solved decades ago, as human physicians figured out how to apply Earth medicine to Felorian microbes, but one never knew when a new one would pop up — it happened all the time on old Earth.
Felore’s sun appeared over the horizon, and the alien sky exploded with color, the few off-white clouds in the sky becoming ablaze with yellow and red. Colors that reminded Elgrand, wonderfully and painfully, of the past that was dead and gone.
For several minutes, Elgrand breathed Felore’s thin air, watched Felore’s sun rise, and listened to the silence of Felore’s crystal forests.
A silence that was harshly broken by the sound of his ringing communicator.
“Brilliant,” Elgrand muttered as he took out the device and pressed it to his ear.
The harsh voice of Elgrand’s boss, Mr. Cross, slammed into his eardrum. “Elgrand! Where the devil are you?”
Elgrand held back a sigh. “Up in the highlands.”
“Well, get back down here, then! There’s something we need you for.”
“Understood, sir. I’ll be there.”
Elgrand put his respirator back on, feeling the beginnings of lightheadedness from the thin plateau air.
“None of this leaves this room, you understand? Good.”
Elgrand looked on dubiously with two other colleagues as his boss began to type commands into his computer. His buddy Xander, well known for his gluttony at inappropriate times, grinned at him over a mouthful of local Felorian bug meat.
They were in the local headquarters of the Felorian Security Agency, the main source of law enforcement in the colony. Elgrand, having formerly worked as shipboard security for a large corporation, was hired by the agency after he was stranded in the system by the Incident and had worked as a law enforcement officer ever since.
A large map of the local region appeared on the computer screen.
“Any of you see the meteor yesterday night?” Without bothering to wait for an answer, Cross continued, “Well, we’ve just received word from the scientists that it wasn’t a meteor. Turns out it’s some sort of space probe or something like that, and it’s crash-landed here on Felore.”
“A probe?” Adriana, the other officer in the room, leaned forward as she spoke. “Wouldn’t that burn up in the atmosphere?”
“It was heat shielded — which means that whoever built it meant for it to crash into Felore. The thing’s apparently broadcasting a signal — that’s how we’re so sure it’s not a meteor.”
Xander perked up with interest. “What’s it signalling?” he asked excitedly.
“It’s broadcasting a location signal on a secret government frequency. We’re not sure, but we think it’s a message from the Republic, the first we’ve had since the Incident.”
Elgrand froze at those words. A message from the Republic…
The Incident, the collapse of the hyperspace route that had cut off Felore from the rest of the galaxy…
That had cut off Elgrand from…
Cross continued, “It might have the calculations we need to reopen the route. We’ve got to get to that probe. Just one problem with that.”
He tapped a screen, and a red dot appeared on the map. “The probe crashed into one of the hyperdeep trenches.”
Elgrand frowned. Most of the people on Felore lived in the valleys where the air was at just the right pressure for human life. However, Felore had extensive hyperdeep trenches, where oxygen was so concentrated as to be toxic to humans, many of which had still gone largely unexplored in the century or so of Felore’s colonization.
Cross looked up at the three officers before him. “You three are going to go down there and see if you can track down the probe. Once you do, extract all the data it has and bring it back. This is the most important assignment you’ll ever have, most likely, so don’t blow it. Understood? Good.”
The winds howled as the small scouting party approached the entrance to the trench in which the probe had crashed. Elgrand sat in the back of the small scout rover, the vehicle’s only turret at his command, and tuned out the sound of Xander and Adriana chatting in the front. Removing a ragged photo from his jacket pocket, he raised his eyes to the sky and searched for the sun, but it had long passed out of view.
It wasn’t long before they had to seal up the rover in order to have a breathable atmosphere. The rover would be able to keep them alive for seven days, which meant that if they couldn’t get to this thing in about three days, they would probably have to turn back. Xander was in charge of tracing the probe’s signal, Adriana the driving, Elgrand the turret.
The descent was, despite the best efforts of the shock absorbers, bumpy, and Xander grumbled a bit about Adriana’s driving, though he quickly shut up once she offered to switch with him.
Soon enough, the wildlife began to shift around them, as it inevitably did with the changes in temperature and pressure as their elevation changed. Up on the plateaus, it was either tundra or taiga, and everything was sluggish and crystalline. Down in the deep trenches, it was a pressure-cooked jungle filled with creatures flying about on the thick air, the vast majority of were as of yet uncategorized.
The rover switched from wheels to legs and continued trekking on. The small party was surrounded by lush plants and giant winged creatures that defied categorization in Earth terms. Xander described one species as “a unholy mixture of a dragonfly and a alligator.” A flock of what could loosely be described as griffins with eight swords for legs attempted to tear apart the rover, but Elgrand’s gunfire scattered them. As exotic as they were, they were just animals in the end.
They stopped in the middle of a small clearing in order to rest for the night. On Elgrand’s turn to watch, a serpentine creature with a glider growing out of its back attempted to tear a leg off of the rover. Elgrand warded it off with a flash of light. He watched as it spiralled away into the darkness.
“Is that the probe?” Adriana asked.
“No, Einstein, it’s perfectly natural for there to be a scorching crater and a hunk of metal in the middle of a pressure-cooked jungle,” Xander said.
Adriana ignored the sarcasm and snatched the signal reader from Xander’s hands. “Yup, it’s definitely coming from over there.”
Elgrand leaned forward. “I’m tired of staying in this damn rover for the past two days. I’ll go out there and check it out.” He grabbed his rifle and the device that Cross had given them to copy the data and put on his helmet, making sure his suit was firmly sealed.
Leaving the rover, he fell to the ground with a soft crunch of plant matter and approached the crashed probe. It was about as large as a small car, roughly spherical and a scorched gray color. The logo of the Republic was dimly stenciled on the side. With considerable excitement, Elgrand made to walk around the probe to find the access panel, then froze.
There was a gaping, roughly torn hole on the other side of the probe — and the inside was hollow.
“So, what’s the deal?” Xander asked over the radio.
Elgrand bent over to examine the insides up close. There had clearly once been a computer inside the probe before, but it was completely gone. Elgrand glanced down at the soft brown earth and found what appeared to be the tracks of a large animal, accompanied by a shallow, wide rut in the earth.
“It looks like the probe, but something came over and tore it open, or something,” Elgrand reported. He looked over to where the tracks led. “Looks like whatever it is took it over to the south.”
“What, some people were here before us?” Adriana asked in disbelief.
“No, I think it was just an animal.”
“Whatever it is probably ate it already, or something,” Xander said.
“Felorian fauna are weird, but they don’t eat silicon,” Adriana retorted. “It probably lost interest and dropped it off somewhere. Even if it’s beat up, the tech people can probably reconstruct the data.”
“I agree,” Elgrand said as he returned to the rover. “Let’s go over to the south. I think the animal went over there.”
“So what happens if we can’t find this thing?”
Adriana scowled at Xander but said nothing.
“We will find it,” Elgrand said as he rubbed his eyes. “We have to.”
The tracks had vanished an half hour ago, and the rover was now searching semi-aimlessly in their general direction. Xander, growing bored, was talking increasingly often while Elgrand and Adriana had grown increasingly silent.
“You know, it’s not our fault, is it? The boss can’t blame us, right?” Xander speculated. “I mean, it’s not our–”
“Shut up,” Elgrand snapped. “And look. There’s something.”
They had come to the grey stony side of the ravine, with a large, gaping cave entrance peeking out of a thick net of vines. And lying in front of the entrance was a large, shiny chunk of silvery metal, and tracks leading into the cave.
“That’s refined metal. It has to be from the probe,” Adriana pointed out.
“Yup. And that means whatever took the computer is in that cave,” Elgrand said.
“I do not like where this is going…” Xander muttered.
“In that case,” Elgrand said, sealing up his environment suit, “you can stay and watch the rover while Adriana and I go in and check it out.”
“That’s fine with me,” Xander said, brightening up. “I was never fond of caves anyhow. The last time I was in one, I tripped and broke my hand.” He tapped his hand nervously on the console. “Radio me if you die, kay? Then I’ll know not to come in after you.”
“That’s comforting,” Elgrand replied, dully. Leaving the rover, he readied his rifle and flashlight, touching down on the plant-covered ground with a soft crunch. Moments afterwards, Adriana disembarked as well and gave him a quick nod.
Together, they pulled the vines out of the way and shined their flashlights into the cave. The entrance led to a tunnel about three times as tall as Elgrand and just wide enough to fit five people walking side by side. The walls were dark grey stone, with visible chunks of softly glowing violet and pink crystals peppered all over. Shallow cuts in the walls seemed to indicate that something sharp had recently scraped against them. Sloping downwards at a slightly steep angle, the soft darkness invited the two humans into the depths of Felore.
Elgrand led the way, rather clumsily clambering down the uneven slope. From the profanity over the radio he knew that Adriana didn’t find it any easier to find purchase on the ground in their bulky suits.
For several minutes, they descended in relative silence, the glowing of the crystals becoming more and more pronounced with every step. The tunnel grew narrower and narrower, and more and more scrapes appeared on the walls. Every so often they would come across another chunk of metal. Xander radioed them every so often, and Elgrand replied with a single word every time.
Not far ahead, the tunnel had flattened out, with a strong purple light seeming to come from ahead. Elgrand was now at the entrance to a giant, circular cavern, large enough to comfortably fit a Republic cruiser in. Intense purple light emanated from massive crystal stalagmites hanging from the ceiling and walls, and in the center of the room was a pool of unnaturally slowly rippling liquid, tinted by the glowing crystals. The liquid seemed thick and viscous, each ripple sliding over the surface at a leisurely pace.
Elgrand turned around, intending to share his new finding with Adriana, but saw no one.
“Adriana?” Elgrand tapped his radio to make sure it was working. “Xander? Respond!”
Elgrand waited with only his heart beat as a companion.
“Hey, if you hear me–”
Elgrand flinched and was about to turn when
The stone ground rapidly met Elgrand’s visor, and his forehead slammed painfully against the reinforced glass, causing him to close his eyes in pain. His rifle, jammed between his torso and the ground, flew away from him as he fell. The gravel screeched against Elgrand’s suit as he found himself suddenly being dragged along the ground. The very essence of cold itself seemed to be wrapped around his right ankle, burrowing its way into his blood with teeth of icy steel.
Elgrand hardly even had time to react before he found himself hanging upside down by his ankle above the pool.
“while()? How interestingly, sladleid2!1ReconstructLink.exe? You ARE still A- live, cr- ea turing. ^? Much respectaturingly.”
Elgrand, rather unwillingly, opened his eyes.
The bloody, eviscerated face of Xander filled his vision.
Immediately Elgrand closed his eyes again, but the image of his friend’s face half torn off and shoved into his eye sockets resisted eviction from his mind.
“MMasd3Message.wav. eM- pa-thee, you cr-ea turings po-see-es? Suprisingly. Per-haaps only to own spe-a sees? Ma-ye-be. Xp[kjfoinja2911Instructions.docx.”
“Open yo-our, a-yes, filth who-man cr-ea turing. Flag-12io34.jpeg.” Whatever was holding Elgrand shook him like a dead rat by the tail.
Elgrand complied, and was first greeted with the sight of the rover, folded in two like a piece of paper and floating pathetically on the surface of the pool. Instead of bobbing, the rover seemed completely frozen in place, unnaturally still. Near the rover was Xander’s facedown body, looking like a doll worn out by being played with too roughly, leaking red oil into a puddle atop the pool.
Elgrand glanced upwards and found Adriana’s hand wrapped around his ankle. For the life of him, he could not locate the rest of her, nor what the hand was actually attached to. Blood was still spilling from the wrist of the hand, rather pathetically dripping onto Elgrand’s armour.
“You seem confused, .exe. Can— knot, c me, can you, .exe who-man? Interestingly.exe Companions– dead, .exe of course, you can c, no?”
Finally, Elgrand reclaimed his voice. “Who are you?”
Once again, Elgrand found words and letters forcing themselves through his larynx with considerable lack of regard for his nerve endings.
“Names. You would not understand them anyway. I live here, interloper. We live here, and you shouldn’t. Maybe I leave you alive so you can tell the rest of them?”
Elgrand blinked. “You’re… an alien. An intelligent alien. A psychic-”
“Smarterest. Ya? Who alien, really, h-ear-e in this place? Read up on your Rep-u-blic I have. Come– from,, planet called Earth.jpeg. Not here. We think I would have noticed if intelligent e-volver-d out in da Skin of this world. You from offworld, must be, so– you be the aliens, h-ear-re.”
Elgrand waited a moment to see if the alien was done– being interrupted by it hurt like hell. “How do you know English? Well, I mean, know is a bit generous-”
Suddenly, a deep depression formed in the pool, and the green-silver form of the probe’s computer rose out of it. “Much… daa-ta, in this clever lit-el, dee-vice. We should I build some like these. Would, I mean, save us a bit trou-a-ble. Took some tii- me to figure out code, ya? Reconstru-cted, language.txt from it. Good, no?”
Elgrand felt himself growing dizzy.
So. There was nothing more to this, was there? He was dead.
Well, not yet. If there was even a chance he could get out of this alive, he had to take it.
For their sake more than his…
“Hey, so, uh, why haven’t you killed me yet?”
“Little who-man. Dis-sect. Your companions. Interestingly biology. We learned all that I needed. I am not needlessly cruel. Convince me.”
“See here-” the pool of liquid began to quiver- “I am, terribly, I mean, a-lon-na. Alone. We once was like you who-mans, no? I walked about in suits like yours on a thousand planets. Never found anything — anything to cha-a-len-ge us!”
The wreck of the rover shook.
“Read your has-tory. You who-mans dis-a-gree a lot, don’t you? Fight a lot, kill a lot?”
A ruined rifle surfaced from within the pool.
“Pity you. But almost en-vy you, at the same time. Honestly. Uh. We never were that interestingly. Difference, always interestingly. We agreed about everything. Living got boringly for us. Most of us gone now. Moved on. I botched it for myself though. Left here. Alone.”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause. Just when Elgrand had thought of something else to say, the alien continued.
“Slept for a long time. Got woken up when you who-mans started chopping at my nerve endings. Those things you call fauna, see? I feel through them. Those crystal trees? I breathe through them. All misnomers, but close enough. Not sure what to do with you who-mans, to be honestly. I could get rid of all of them. Maybe I should start with you.”
Elgrand struggled a bit, flailing in an attempt to break the grip the alien had on him. “Could you not? Please?”
“And why not?”
Elgrand stopped struggling. “Well, look. That probe you’ve got there. I came down looking for it because I hoped it would help us get out of here.”
“Get out? Ah. You mean the hyperspace opening program. Yes. That was why you came down here?”
“Exactly. Look– none of us want to be here, really. We all came here to work. It’s our policy not to destroy native lifeforms and to avoid intruding on established ecosystems.”
“Then why. Did you do that?”
“The hyperspace connection broke. For some reason. We were stranded here. Felore was our only option to survive. Only place we could breathe and find water. Just let me go and take the probe with me. We’ve all got people we’ve been separated from. We rebuild that connection, we get out, we leave you alone.”
The alien said nothing for a while.
“You. Have people you care about. That you can’t meet?”
Elgrand sighed. “Yes. We all do. You must have had people you cared about, right?”
“Ah. Appealing to my em-pae-thy now, are you?”
The alien threw Elgrand to the ground.
Elgrand scrambled to his feet. “Thank you.”
“Sorry about your friends. Thought they were just animals.”