[Day 378 of the Chrysalis terra-formation endeavor, pre-oxygenation phase]
We're statues sculpted by apprehension and hope while we sit in the command center and wait. The planter-drones sent to the surface should be reporting in any minute now.
Some of us stare down our terminals as if to bore holes in them. Other eyes fixate on the front wall-monitor where the planet's amber curvature hazily looms against the backdrop of space. The silence is well nigh sepulchral, making even the susurration of filtered air and the bassline thrumming of the ship’s systems deafening.
A young exoplanetologist pores over the telemetry and holo-images flickering on his terminal’s 3D display and breaks the silence with a strained tone. “Successful depositing of cyanobacteria cultures verified.” Quivers in the voice betray relief coupled with mounting elation. “Initial readings confirm the cultures have survived the transplantation!”
Released from tension, we all spring up from our seats, whooping and applauding.
Yet the joy is by no means unbounded. It’s dampened by our consciences gnawing at our hearts.
None of us speak his name, but we see it written on each other’s faces. We’re all thinking of Dr. Rei Kashiwagi. Were he here now, his fiery eyes and sharp tongue would be castigating us for our arrogance and foolery. His glaring absence reminds us of what he believed in, and how we crushed it.
The mission demands our complete attention, making it easier not to talk about him. But underneath the veneer of normalcy we maintain, we’re constantly asking ourselves if what we did to him was justified.
And we're terrified of the answer.
Back when we embarked on our journey from John W. Campbell Space Dock, our hearts were brimming with optimism and motivation. Not in our wildest dreams did we imagine we’d end up doing what we did.
We were the best bioengineers, geologists, astrophysicists, and terra-forming specialists Earth had ever dispatched. As the vanguard, we would push the first domino stone and set in motion the process of remolding an uninhabitable planet into humanity’s next cradle.
Ours was a mission of hope, symbolizing the next greatest step in human exploration and expansion. Once terra-formed, Chrysalis would become the stronghold from where humanity would venture into the Carina Sagittarius arm of our galaxy.
It took twenty-odd years to reach here. A skeleton crew of three members operated the Danaos in two-year shifts while the rest slumbered in cryostatsis pods. Every two years, another team of three woke up to replace them, and the previous trio would hit the hibernation sack. After taking turns like this, we finally arrived at the straw-colored planet.
We entered into low orbit and commenced surveys. Orbital sensors studied the planet’s atmosphere and geomagnetic field. Probes gathered telemetry on the stellar winds spewing out of the system’s F-type star.
For closer studies of the planet’s surface, crewmembers piloted shuttles and surveyed the stony landmasses and murky oceans, carefully avoiding the violent sand storms that frequently thrashed and pummeled the barren landscape.
The atmosphere's carbon dioxide content clocked in at around ninety percent—unsuitable for any form of terrestrial life. Our mission was to initiate the creation of an oxygen atmosphere by seeding cultures of cyanobacteria in runnels found in the Tophet Valley and the antipodal Canyon of Gehenna—locations so christened by our lead exogeologist. These blue-green algae photosynthesized even in low-light conditions, and would slowly and steadily oxygenate the atmosphere.
The projections based on a year’s worth of surveys confirmed our hopes; this planet would flower into a second earth in three to four centuries.
We were in the middle of preparations for the transplantation of algae, when Dr. Kashiwagi made a discovery that changed everything.
With the shuttle Aizu he was analyzing the composition of the oceans and their effect on the sand storms. A brilliant and curious mind, he was older than most of us but spry and piloted the craft with a childlike exuberance. His signature head of riotous grey hair always wobbled when he dashed excitedly from one instrument to another in his lab.
During his survey he stumbled upon unusual readings near the Tophet Valley. He collected soil samples from the region using remote land rovers. After close examination he discovered the soil contained a native species of anaerobic bacteria.
How he prattled with excitement when he announced at the daily debrief that Chrysalis was not devoid of life, but instead cradled life in its nascent stages! The data and holo-images he projected on our interfaces were distressingly conclusive.
We sent a separate team; the samples and data they brought back only confirmed his findings. When faced with these facts during the second debrief, the project center fell silent with the exception of Dr. Kashiwagi. He beamed and spoke of his plans to search for more forms of microbial life on his next sortie.
The rest of us grasped what this all meant, but none of us dared address the elephant in the room, as if ignoring it would make it go away.
The basketball-sized color projection of Chrysalis floated in the center of the room, like a spherical fire lantern threatening to waft away in the night sky. The planet was so close to us, but we sensed it was slipping out of our hands.
The ship’s chief engineer finally broke the silence.
“So what does this mean for the mission? Doesn’t that kind of throw a wrench in the whole terra-forming project?”
She couldn’t have put it more bluntly.
Still stunned by these developments, all we could do was mutter half thought-out sentences about not making any rash decisions.
But Dr. Kashiwagi’s calm face looked up from his data pad and said what we feared he would say.
“It’s as clear as mud. As difficult as it is, we’ve got to pull the plug on the terra-forming project. No question about it. The mission guidelines expressly state so. We mustn’t touch Chrysalis. Our interference could destroy indigenous life forms. Even if they survived and adapted to the new environment we created, it’ll still mean we interfered in their natural course of evolution. And we don’t have the right to do that.”
True to his character, he claimed the moral high ground. With a swipe of the hand he pulled up the mission guidelines on the central holographic display and highlighted the pertinent paragraphs.
“The mission has to change to one of observation,” he said. “Just imagine the insight we could gain by observing the evolution of life from such an early stage!”
What he said was right, of course, and in accordance with mission guidelines. But we all read the disappointment simmering beneath each other’s faces. We hadn’t come all this way to make a few observations of anaerobic microbes for several years and spend twenty years heading back to Earth.
Dr. Kashiwagi and the guidelines were right in principle, but surely this could be an exception? It’s not as though we were talking about vegetation or animals roaming the surface. None of us said it out loud, but these thoughts ate away at our minds.
Heated debates ensued. We opposed the cancellation of the project.
This shocked Dr. Kashiwagi. He accused us of not valuing the sanctity of life and said we should be ashamed to call ourselves scientists.
Despite these strong words, we still were willing to discuss the matter further. But when he said he would transmit a report of his findings to Earth, he crossed the line. Our feelings toward him cooled rapidly. We realized we could never see eye to eye.
We had to move quickly if we wanted to save the mission. After the debriefing, a team of us secretly programmed the system to not send out any of his messages, but camouflaged it to seem like nothing was amiss.
“But how can we silence him for good?” The cautious exogeologist asked. “We could force him into cryosleep, sure, but when we eventually get back to Earth and he wakes up, he’s bound to tell everybody what happened.”
“We could warn Earth in advance,” the young astrophysicist said. “Tell them he lost his mind and just imagined he discovered those microbes.” But this proposal was also flimsy. A nosy technocrat on Earth was bound to start sniffing around after hearing such things.
After much discussion, an idea took root in our thoughts and steadily grew until it unfurled a poisonous flower, deadly to the touch. Dr. Kashiwagi would have to be silenced permanently.
A few among us hesitated. But in the end we all swore an oath of silence.
During his next sortie, Dr. Kashiwagi’s shuttle experienced a critical malfunction. The accident killed him.
Thereupon we deleted all records of the indigenous anaerobic bacteria from the data core.
Now, ten days later, we’ve successfully kicked-off the actual terra-formation process. We’ll be seeding more cyanobacteria in the months to come, and observe the rate of oxygen production for the next three years before we return to Earth.
We keep telling ourselves we did the right thing.
[ten days earlier]
The shields are holding up for now and keeping the water pressure at bay. But it’s only a matter of hours before they fail. They’re designed for atmospheric entry, not for water. Life support systems aren’t doing that great either; they could shut down even before the walls cave in. Either way, it’ll be the end of me.
I’ve underestimated those blockheads. I knew they were upset and viewed me as an impediment, but I never dreamed they’d resort to such madness. I’ve been too focused on the anaerobic bacteria. Had I paid equal attention to the crew’s body language these past few days, maybe I wouldn’t be sitting here now, sinking slowly to the bottom of a sea on an exoplanet. But there’s no point bemoaning that now.
I was flying over the ocean headed for Sector kappa-rho on Continent IV. My goal was to find more samples of the anaerobic bacteria and possibly even discover complex organisms that fed on them.
All systems were functioning optimally until energy levels in the propulsion system began fluctuating out of the blue. In no time the critical failure alarm clarioned and I lost control of the shuttle. I sent out a Mayday call; but the dummkopfs on Danaos didn’t respond.
That’s when I realized. This was their way of getting rid of me for good. They timed the malfunction to occur as I flew over the ocean.
The waters of Chrysalis will hide all evidence of their crimes, leaving them to freely bulldoze this planet with their terra-forming plan, come what may—the hubris! They’ve let their determination compromise their consciences.
For future missions they'll need to invest more time vetting crew candidates and their psych profiles—not that that’s going to do me a ton of good now.
But desperation won’t help me feel any better. I’m focusing instead on uploading all the data I have onto the Aizu’s crystal data core.
The bulk of my records are stored on the Danaos. The fools are no doubt deleting them right now as I descend to my death. But what they can’t get their hands on is the data I have here with me. It’s not much, but they include all the important records on the anaerobic bacteria. I’ve also summarized the events that led to this accident, and recorded my belief that the crew of the Danaos conspired to kill me.
Crystal data cores are durable suckers made to withstand extreme temperatures and pressures. This one here should safely house the data for a considerable amount of time—two to three centuries I reckon. Any longer than that, though, and the data will inevitably deteriorate. It’s a long shot, but maybe someday a future mission to Chrysalis will discover my ship, recover at least part of the stored information, and uncover the truth of what happened today.
If the knuckleheads proceed with the terra-forming plans—and I’m certain they will, there’s an eighty-three percent chance the first phase of seeding cyanobacteria on the planet will succeed.
That’ll be the death knell for indigenous microbes. Centuries later, when colonization begins, people will have no idea their new cities stand on the graves of indigenous life killed by the first terra-formers.
Ignorance is perhaps bliss. But there are truths a people should not be allowed to hide from forever. If we’re to continue looking for planets in this galaxy to make habitable, we need to ask ourselves if our lives carry more weight than indigenous life, even if they’re only microbes.
[Summary of the Report on the Circumstances Surrounding the Terra-forming of Chrysalis]
Ever since marine archeologists recovered the remains of Earth shuttle Aizu and its crystal data core from the depths of the Tartarus Trench in the Suwa Ocean, we have spent close to three standard years painstakingly restoring the remnants of the valuable information it carried.
According to official records, the Aizu was supposed to have exploded due to a reactor overload during its return ascent to the mother ship Danaos orbiting Chrysalis during the first Terra-forming mission roughly five standard millennia ago. Accident reports describe a cascading reactor collapse, resulting in a powerful explosion obliterating the craft and its sole crewmember, Dr. Rei Kashiwagi.
The recovered Aizu, however, shows no evidence of a reactor collapse. Instead, a failure in the propulsion system appears to have been the cause of the crash.
The discrepancy between the historical records and the archaeological evidence piqued the interest of scholars and government officials alike. But none were prepared for what we would discover.
We succeeded in reconstructing approximately sixty percent of the information Dr. Kashiwagi uploaded in the hours before he died as he sunk into the Suwa Ocean.
The data weave a horrifying tale of two murders. One was the murder of Dr. Kashiwagi by the crew of the Danaos and their subsequent cover up. The other was the willful destruction of indigenous life on Chrysalis.
During his surveys, Dr. Kashiwagi had discovered indigenous anaerobic bacteria near the Tophet Valley. Based on these findings, he called for immediate cancellation of the terra-forming project.
The captain and the crew of the Danaos, however, wanted to proceed as planned. Though we have no conclusive evidence, we surmise the shuttlecraft Aizu was tampered with. It appears the crew colluded to have Dr. Kashiwagi “removed” by way of a convenient accident.
We do not understand the motives behind the crew’s actions. Perhaps they suffered under immense pressure to complete their mission. Perhaps they believed they had the right to destroy the early sparks of life budding on this planet, if it was for the sake of humanity’s progress. Lacking evidence, we shall never understand.
We have thrived on Chrysalis and take pride in our humanistic principles and respect for all life. But we must now come to terms with the fact that the beginnings of this colonial endeavor was tainted by the destruction of indigenous life, a pattern we sadly find all too frequently in our history.
In facing this tragic truth, we must take Dr. Rei Kashiwagi as an example of one who did not bend his principles and tried to protect nascent life on Chrysalis.
His is the legacy we choose to embrace.