My mission on the ESE Escapade was the most challenging experience of my life. And to be honest it was all rather unexpected, because nobody thought we’d find much life on the planets in Star System 25.
My name is Dr Caelon Griffin. I am a medical officer serving in the Intra-Galactic Medical and Research Corps (IGMRC). After my internship, I was appointed to the ESE Escapade on its maiden voyage. What an opportunity! It was my first time on a ship of the Galactic class, never-mind such a fine one. It was also the first time I was traveling more than ten light-years from earth.
But before I tell you what happened, it would help if I share some excerpts from Captain Murray’s log.
Captain’s Log: UDS 6184.108.40.206
On Universal Date System (UDS) day 6220.127.116.11, equivalent to Standard Earth Date (SED) 15 August 2187, the ESE Escapade exited the holding position P98 in Earth’s orbit.
Captain’s Log: UDS 666.56.001.9
Our ship has now cleared the agreed edge of the Solar System. All systems performing normally. Communications with earth using the new XXV88C system are beyond expectations.
Captain’s log: UDS 618.104.22.168
We are presently surveying an approximately Mars-sized rocky moon (diameter = 6908.7 km) in a circular orbit around a large gas giant (diameter = 156,022 km). The moon has been officially designated XX8965GC1, but we’re calling it Viridi-Flavo.
Captain’s log: UDS 622.214.171.124
The atmospheric exploration probe has returned. The planet has an atmosphere of about 23% Chlorine, 45% Nitrogen, a mix of gaseous hydrocarbons, and several other gases in small quantities. Atmospheric surface temperatures where the probe took readings ranged between 2 and 9 °C. We will know more in about 12 hours when the first surface probe reports, followed by a human team if that is feasible. We do not expect to find any interesting life on this planet.
In the light of what followed, Captain Murray’s last statement in log UDS 6126.96.36.199 will remain one of those infamous examples of the vagaries of intra-galactic exploration. For Viridi-Flavo was a planet with some of the most incredible and fascinating life forms we could possibly have imagined...
To my delight, I was given the task of monitoring and studying one of these. My job was to understand its anatomy and physiology and, ultimately, to try to develop a protocol for its care in captivity. Early on, I joined a data-gathering team to fully investigate the conditions on the planet.
I discovered that I was dealing with a rather sedentary species which lived in the shallows of the large lakes of liquid hydrocarbons which abound on Viridi-Flavo. Each individual resembled a large bird’s feather with a bulbous foot of between 2 and 5 cm in diameter at the base. They appeared to exist in two colours: pinkish-white and a startling blue. When they chose to move, they used their feet to crawl in an unusual and rather charming slow-motion, circular dance.
Our remarkable technical corps managed, in almost no time, to create simulated environments for all the various creatures collected for study on-board the Escapade. I worked closely with a crusty, but supremely efficient, old engineer by the name of Horas Ambarsan. He would spend a large proportion of our original discussions saying "Och, you scientists seem to expect us to perform bloody miracles!", and variations on that theme.
His misgivings notwithstanding, we eventually created a very satisfactory ‘Viridi-Flavo-rium’ for my creatures, with a pond of oily liquid, a small greasy beach, and a pleasantly murky yellow-green chlorine atmosphere. We selected and caught three specimens, and put them together in the same enclosure. One blue and two pinkish-white.
Officially, we were not supposed to give our charges names outside of the tightly defined naming conventions. My specimens were designated PLFGY1, PLFGY2, and PLFGY3. In the end, however, I called them the ‘Pilfiggies’, and named the three individuals Penti, Hexxi and Heppi.
To my surprise, I found I had an ally in my sentimental inclination in the form of Captain Murray. He took an unexpected interest in the Pilfiggies and became a regular visitor to my lab. It was a source of private amusement to me to see the tall, stately man in his impeccable, insignia-studded uniform, peering curiously at the three Pilfiggies as they slowly gyrated around the floor of their pond. "How are our feathered friends today?" he would ask, and laugh heartily in his baritone voice at the oft-repeated joke. I discovered that he was particularly interested in Penti, the pretty blue one.
As you’d expect, the Pilfiggies are a Chlorine-breathing species. It seems that the breathing occurs through the feather-like upper part of the body, while the bulbous foot remains submerged, with no gaseous exchange taking place there.
On the underside of this foot is a most unusual mouthpart, which acts in a grating fashion. It is used to process the primary Pilfiggy diet: bits of sodium which occur naturally in the lakes which are its habitat. The Pilfiggy metabolism relies on the energy derived from the reaction of sodium with chlorine. A great deal of research is needed to understand how this is catalyzed and occurs in their bodies. I was most amused when I discovered that their waste product is table salt!
Everything started out well, and we made good progress toward understanding the basic functioning of the fascinating little creatures. Then, just as I had begun daydreaming about my Nobel prize, things suddenly took a turn for the worse. To my great horror, Penti began to show every sign of ailing.
Initially, the feather-like organ began to swell in a peculiar way. A day or two later it appeared to wilt. Soon, the creature stopped making its occasional circular movements. Finally, it heaved itself up onto the edges of the oily lake. And there it sat, unmoving and limp. Gradually, it lost all its colour until it had the pasty appearance of a boiled cauliflower.
After that, Captain Murray’s visits were a source of great anxiety to me, as were visits from other scientific personnel. Not that the captain dispensed of any of his usual, commendable courtesy. If anything, he became even more gracious, and treated me with a great deal of compassion during the whole episode. Nevertheless, I became obsessed with trying to find the solution to this mystery illness.
But none of us had the least idea of what was wrong. How could we? We had only known of the existence of this species for about three weeks!
And an additional mystery was the state of Penti’s pink companions. They both appeared fine and continued exactly as before. Meanwhile, Penti wouldn’t ‘eat’, or move. I wanted to scream with frustration.
We built a second enclosure and transferred Penti. That way, I could try adjusting temperature, slightly change the atmosphere, and make all manner of other attempts to revive the flagging Pilfiggy. But nothing made any difference. I began to resign myself to the fact that my first major scientific assignment on the Escapade had been an ignominious failure.
I watched helplessly as my charge gradually edged towards death. I was struggling to sleep, unable to imagine what else to do. As a result, I lost weight. The strain was badly affecting my mood and my concentration.
The end of the saga came early one morning when I arrived at the lab. When I reached Penti’s enclosure, I saw that the end had come. All the ‘frills’ on Penti’s feather had shed overnight and lay around its foot like leaves fallen from an autumn tree. All that remained of Penti was a pale, bare stalk. I felt my stomach contract in a knot and a vague panic rose, bitter, in my throat. I tried to pull myself together.
My options were limited: there was nothing more that I could do… Not that I had done much good in the first place. At that terrible moment, I wished I had never been given this damned, stupid assignment. I felt a kind of relief at the thought that now, at least, they’d take away the pink Pilfiggies and give them to someone who knew what they were doing.
Miserable and dejected, I was just about the contact my superior officer with the bad news, when I noticed some movement at the edge of the oily pond. Was I dreaming? I put my communication bead back on the desk and peered intently into the enclosure, watching for several seconds.
Yes, there could be no doubt. Each of the little fronds, each of which I now realised had a small foot, was carefully drilling down into the soft gravelly substance which formed the bed of the pen. As they did so, they slowly pointed their little tails into the yellowish-green haze. To my further amazement, I observed their tails began to unfurl, into complete, new, miniature feathers, and gradually blush with new colour. Some became pinkish-white, others blue…
When the news got around, Captain Murray was more thrilled than anyone. He immediately visited the baby Pilfiggies, and continued to do so every day. Beaming happily, the first thing he did when he saw me was to clap me energetically on the back and say "Well done, old man! You know, I had the greatest confidence in you!"
He insisted on referring them as the ‘boys’ (pink) and the ‘girls’ (blue). The poor man had, of course, been distressed about Penti’s death. But I reassured him that it seemed to be part of the natural reproductive cycle of the species and that she (?) had been an excellent mother (?), producing such a wonderful, healthy brood of at least 30 new Pilfiggies. It was certainly a relief to me that the event had nothing to do with any idiotic oversights on my part!
After that excitement, I was relieved that the mission proceeded without further incident. Then when we finally returned to Earth, I was transferred to another ship and didn’t serve again on the Escapade. But I never forgot the experience, witnessing Penti’s ‘pregnancy’ and the Pilfiggy ‘births’.
Then, about a year later, I met a friend who is still serving under Captain Murray. I asked, jokingly, how the captain adjusted to life after the Pilfiggies.
“Oh, don’t you know?” he replied, impishly. “The Captain adopted a pair of pet Pilfiggies! He had a special enclosure made, which he keeps permanently on the bridge. I think he enjoys their company on the long, lonely jumps between star systems.”