T/W: Mention of death, sickness and a little physical violence
Commander Forseti focused on his breathing as their craft approached the impenetrable swamp of dark swirling gases. A lifetime exploring deep space could never completely rid him of this feral dread of the unknown and the exuberance of his crewmate did not help.
“This planet is too far away from a sun,” Vidar said, one leg bouncing up and down like a jackhammer, “Do you think we’ll find anything?”
The Laevrar System was uncharted. They’d found some asteroids, two wormholes and now, a planet. It had a strange blanket of dense gas making it impossible to see the surface.
“That’s what we’re here to find out,” Forseti said, hands flying over the controls. He exchanged a nod with Vidar. “Atmospheric entry in three… two… one…”
Blackness drowned them. Worse than the heart of a black hole, at least they knew what lied on the other side of those. Forseti breathed deeply. He fingered the bracelet of tiny blue stones on his left wrist and thought of his little girl, Amelia, who had given it to him. Fine black hair brushing a pointed chin, just like her mother. Eyes as blue as his own.
Crimson wavering light. Frantic like fire sparking to life, catching and roaring into existence. It leapt and grew, edged in pink and violet, filling their vision. It began to change to orange, to yellow and then white. A glorious burst of searing white light.
“Propulsion and thruster systems stable,” Forseti said, squinting, “Descent fully engaged.”
The light faded and both men gasped. A pink planet stretched out before them, enshrouded in wisps of white cloud. Forseti checked his instruments, blinked, pressed a few buttons and checked them again. He wet his lips.
“Vidar. That’s water.”
“By all the stars.” Vidar leant forwards, straining against his harness. “Is that… land?”
Forseti banked right, pointing the nose towards a large patch of reddish-brown amidst the sea of pink.
“Preparing chute deployment.”
Forseti landed on an area of deep-brown soil a few miles from the coast. A wall of red-leaved trees lay before them, crammed together as if to hide what lay within. The land rose eastwards, the terrain becoming mountainous with grey cliffs and craggy peaks. Black specks glided and swooped in the distance below a vermillion sky streaked with white.
Forseti triple-checked the dashboard’s atmospheric readings. “91.4 degrees Fahrenheit. It can’t be.”
“The planet must have its own heat source,” Vidar said. His eyes beamed with a feverish light. “We’ve found it, Forseti! Salvation for the people of Terah. We’ll be heroes!”
“There must be some mistake. How is there light?! Where is it coming from?”
“Let’s find out!”
Vidar leapt out of the door. Within seconds he was jumping lightly, then harder, feeling the land beneath his feet. Forseti waited, just in case. Could they really have found not just minerals and ore, but a habitable planet? It was too good to be true. Vidar’s nostrils flared, he threw his head back and hollered. This world was perfect, just as the readings indicated.
Eventually, Forseti descended the craft, took two steps… and fell to his knees.
The air! His lungs swelled, rejoicing. It felt so good! And the smells! Salty sea air, grass and land. It had been an awfully long time since he’d smelt fresh earth, he slid his fingers into the dirt. It was warm, very warm. He looked closer. Worms wriggled, long and fat and black ants scurried over everything. So… alive.
Waves roared faintly to the west and a breeze rushed across his skin. He closed his eyes, imagining Amelia running across this land, squealing in delight, fingertips brushing the red grass.
They’d actually found it! Tears dripped from his chin. He never really let himself believe, to hope. A place for the refugees of his decimated home planet, a chance to—
“Forseti, we’re not alone.”
His attention snapped back to find Vidar pointing towards the forest.
They came slowly. Peeking through wide thick ferns, stepping cautiously into sight like rabbits nosing the morning air. They looked to have a similar morphology to Terans. Humanoid, but willowy and strong like jungle vines. All oiled muscle and glowing skin the colour of good earth. Completely bald and dressed in brown cloth, shorts, trousers, vests, though the men mostly went topless. There seemed to be an equal number of men and women, the definition of their muscles becoming more apparent with every step.
He saw no weapons and swung around in disbelief as Vidar unholstered his blast gun. “Don’t you dare fire on these people!”
“Fleet mission directive 13.2: All life-forms hostile until proven otherwise.”
“Put. It. Away.”
Slowly, Vidar obeyed, but he kept one hand resting on the butt, his jaw tensed.
Forseti returned his gaze to the approaching natives and stepped forwards. “Greetings,” he said, arms outstretched, palms open and forwards.
This caused them to halt and burst into discussion. One woman seemed to be in charge; the others looked to her when they spoke. Their language sounded complex to Forseti and they mixed in hand signals too; that was all very promising.
Finally, this woman advanced alone. Her face smooth with green intelligent eyes and high cheekbones. If she had been from Terah, he would put her in her early-thirties. However, there was no way of knowing their lifespan. She was tall, at least a head taller than him. They all were. Why did she lead? Was she the strongest fighter? Wisest? Oldest? She stopped about four feet away and examined him, completely ignoring Vidar.
Then, she stepped closer, holding out her right hand with the palm facing upwards. Instinctively, Forseti placed his right hand upon hers, palms touching. Her skin was firm and warm, her eyes seized his.
A female voice entered his mind. “Who are you? What do you want?”
It took all of his training not to jump away in shock. He stared, looking at his hand and then back to her eyes. Swallowing, he gathered himself and attempted to send back a response.
“I am Forseti,” he thought.
“You are the leader.”
“Yes, as are you.”
“I am not.” Disbelief came through the sending that time. So, emotions could also be conveyed. Interesting.
“Who are you if you are not the leader?” he asked, “What is your name?”
“I am the best communicator.” Ah. Well, that made sense. “My name is Takala, it means ‘She who speaks in the mind’.”
Forseti frowned. “Others cannot do this?”
“No.” A strong sensation of pride flowed into him.
Vidar barked something, but Forseti cut him off with a sharp gesture. He quickly explained, ordered him to silence and turned back to Takala.
“We are explorers,” he thought.
“What do you seek?”
“Whatever there is to be found.”
He hesitated. Could she read his thoughts or only those he deliberately sent?
“It is our job,” he sent.
“You are unsure.”
“I… am not accustomed to this form of communication.” A moment passed as she studied him, he did not look away.
“Do you seek to harm us?” she asked suddenly.
“No!” Takala smiled and pressed down on his hand. “We seek only to discover. That is all.” He hoped his feelings of wonder and respect came across as he asked, “May we see your home?”
Takala turned to face her people and spoke briefly with a lot of rapid hand movements. It was a pleasant-sounding language. Almost musical. A trace of surprise washed over their expressions, but otherwise they did not react. Soldiers receiving orders, Forseti thought.
With that, she removed her hand, breaking the connection. Everyone began moving back towards the forest. She gestured for Forseti to follow.
Vidar looked just about ready to explode. “What is happening?” he demanded.
“She’s going to show us around.”
Vidar shook his head. “We must report back to the Fleet. These creatures are dangerous.”
“I don’t think they are. Besides, we have blasters and shields, don’t we? Where’s your sense of adventure?”
Vidar stiffened, clean-shaven face set in stone. “It’s against protocol.”
Forseti ground his teeth, moving into step behind Takala. Vidar really was a model Fleeter; following regulations to the letter, hair kept 2mm in length – even on a long voyage. Had Forseti been that rigid? Probably. When did he change?
The younger man was right, of course, but Forseti didn’t want to go back. Not yet.
“Don’t you want to see exactly what we’ve found?” Vidar’s expression flickered. “Come on,” Forseti said, smiling, “A brand new planet, untouched by the Fleet. This could be our only chance!”
Vidar cursed, but loped forwards all the same.
He did not return Forseti’s smile.
The forest was not pitch-black as he had expected. Instead, hundreds of glowing orbs, suspended in brown trees and red bushes, bathed the forest in a soothing blue light. Takala followed a wide path which snaked around the trees. Forseti walked as though in a dream, quietly, lest he break the spell.
“Where is she taking us?” Vidar asked. He seemed to suspect that Forseti wasn’t telling him everything. “What if it’s a trap?”
“I sensed no deceit from her… and I think I would have.”
“I still don’t like this. What is their energy source? What do they eat?”
“I didn’t ask.”
Vidar huffed, inspecting their escort. “They’re very tall and muscular, aren’t they? They’ll make fine labourers, maybe in the mines of Andorol or the pits of Dasho’ah?”
“Careful. We don’t want them knowing about that.”
“They can’t read our thoughts… Can they?”
Forseti eyed him. “I don’t know.”
That shut him up. He was right though. They would make good labourers, but Forseti pushed the uncomfortable thought aside.
Their path sloped, taking them upwards in a zig-zag. Forseti managed to keep up with Takala, though he suspected she walked slow for their benefit. Finally, the underbrush opened out onto an enormous smooth plateau of grey rock. On their right, numerous caves burrowed into the mountain, blue light emanating from within. People swarmed the space, talking in groups, carrying baskets filled with various shades of brown linen. Their height seemed more apparent now that they were out in the open with so many. Children darted between legs, waggling their fingers. Forseti stroked his bracelet in thought. Something seemed missing. What was it?
Vidar put a hand on his arm, “This is a mistake. What if she reads your mind and discovers our mission? There’s too many of them. Let’s make a run for it, we know enough.”
“We won’t stay long. Don’t worry. Can’t you tell they’re peaceful?”
Vidar’s lips pulled into a tight line as Takala halted. Forseti reached out and she accepted his hand. He sent, “You do not seem shocked by our presence.”
He felt her emotions first; she had been expecting this question. “The Harmonisers have already prepared for this possibility. You are not of this planet and therefore, your presence will disrupt the balance. You are free to stay a while and rest. I imagine you must be tired from your journey.” Takala paused. “We will not harm you, but you cannot stay long.”
“Who are the Harmonisers?”
“Our oldest and wisest. They decide who may breed, which animals may be hunted… such things as these.”
“What if someone breeds without permission?”
Shock. Confusion. “The planet comes first. Not us.”
He nodded, letting his gaze drift. Red-topped trees bordered the plateau, some with lavender fronds dangling. Such colour. There was a gap on the far side; a cliff or another plateau?
Takala reached out with her free hand, touching his bracelet. “Where did you get this?”
“One of these is sestone. We have it here. Did you not notice as you traversed the sleeping grounds?”
Forseti looked down at the tiny stones painted blue. Only three people knew one of them was a real gem. Him, his wife, Maya, and their daughter, Amelia.
Amelia had been thirteen when she gave him this bracelet that once belonged to her mother, looking so so small in those stark white bedsheets. Oh, how he had gaped at the one stone that glinted differently in the waning sunlight.
“This one is real, Amelia. You know this. Why didn’t you sell it?”
“For what? A loaf of bread?” She shrugged. “I wanted to give it to you. It reminds me of the stories Mother used to tell, you know, of tall trees and running water and funny animals. And your face!” She pointed, smiling through the pain, her other hand holding her stomach. “This is much better than bread.”
Amelia died that afternoon, her last breath carried away on a sunlit breeze. Forseti wept as her tiny hand went limp in his own, staying until the nurses gently pried him from her side. First his wife, then his daughter; casualties of a planet consumed by greed.
What would Amelia think of this mission? What would Maya?
He looked up to see tears streaming down Takala’s cheeks. Sympathy flooded through their bond. “I’m so sorry,” she sent.
Abruptly, she linked their fingers, making their mental connection stronger. It was like an extra weight upon his mind. Then, she shared something that made Forseti’s breath catch in his throat, shattering everything he knew to pieces.
Time blew away on a wind, taking crimson leaves and dust and petals with it, down gargling rivers, over the hills and under the rosebud skies. It blossomed in Forseti’s mind an understanding of what was missing from this land: poverty, hardship. Was it a trick? Was there another settlement where all the less fortunate lived? No. His heart sensed that this was not the case.
“I’m glad you made us come, Forseti. This will make a great story - once we’re decorated enough that flaunting protocol is beneath us, eh?”
Vidar stood at the edge of a cliff, rising and falling on the balls of his feet, gazing upon the land he would destroy. Pushing him would be almost too easy, but could he do it? For this wondrous land and its gentle people? Yes. Forseti stepped closer, raising his hands, flexing.
But, would it make him as cruel as the Fleet? Just as ruthless? He took another step and a twig snapped underfoot.
Vidar spun, black eyes glittering as his fist smashed into Forseti’s face, making him stagger backwards.
“You must think me a fool,” he said, “To think I haven’t noticed.”
Forseti blinked, regaining his balance. “We can’t take this world. Don’t you see how wrong it would be? Look at it!”
“It is our mission!” Vidar roared, “‘Look at it’ you say. Look at them! They are animals, living in the trees and the ground. They don’t even know how to make use of their planet’s resources.”
“Oh, but they do.”
Vidar spat on the ground. “You abandon your own people. Our people.”
“If we bring the Fleet here, you know what’ll happen. They’ll drain the sea, level the mountains… enslave the people.” Forseti straightened. “I won’t be a part of it.”
“I’m going back to report our findings.” Vidar glared. “If you come with me now, I’ll leave your betrayal out of my report.”
“No,” he said, “I won’t allow it.”
With a yell, Forseti launched himself at the younger man, knocking them both to the ground. Dust kicked up as they rolled, once, twice, then—
The land fell away. Forseti grappled, his fingers finding purchase on the cliff edge. His feet flailed, finding only smooth seamless rock.
Vidar stood, dusting his hands and looked down. Forseti pulled, grunting with the effort and brought one elbow up over the lip. Vidar kicked it away.
“Such a shame,” Vidar said, pressing his boot on Forseti’s fingers, “You could have been a hero.”
Something moved in the shadows behind Vidar, the man’s sneer twitched and went lax, his eyes suddenly distant. He leant forwards, too far, too fast and kept going, falling over Forseti head first. Vidar didn’t scream. The only sound was the distant thump as his body hit the valley floor.
Strong fingers gripped Forseti’s wrist and hauled him up. Takala pulled him away from the cliff and shoved him up against the nearest tree trunk. She turned his hand and pressed their palms together.
“You will go now,” she sent, eyeing him, “You will not return.”
He swallowed. “Did you know all along?”
“I knew you did not share everything, but I trusted. You have the love. You care for our land. I felt that. You will not hurt us, so I will not hurt you.”
A breeze rippled the lilac fronds hanging around them. They smelt sweet, like cinnamon.
“If more should come, will they be like you or like him?” She pressed her palm harder against his. “Do we trust?”
She wasn’t holding back anymore. A torrent of fury and black fear for everything she knew and loved overwhelmed him. He shook his head, knowing she felt his deep, pitiless shame.
“No,” he sent, “Do not trust.”
“Commander Forseti, GC 4376. Mission outcome: planet uninhabitable. No viable resources detected. No life-forms. Special Officer Vidar killed by hostile, unpredictable environment. Strongly recommend blacklisting planet for any and all future reconnaissance missions.”
Satisfied, Forseti exited the planet’s atmosphere with Takala’s revelation from earlier echoing in his mind.
“A female landed here once… long ago,” she had sent, “She was alone. Lost. I liked her and she stayed for many of our cycles. When she left, we gave her a tiny fragment of sestone as a parting gift.” Her fingertips had found the gem. “This... is the same stone.”
Forseti shook his head. Why didn’t Maya tell him? She had always been so mysterious and guarded about her past. Now he finally knew why… or part of it at least.
The sestone bracelet clinked as he raised it to his lips, engaged the thrusters and blasted off into the abyss from which he had come.