First Contact

“Damn it, Rick, slow down!”
“Relax, Jack, we can safely cut through an atmosphere at ten times this speed.”
“I don’t care, we’ll look like a shooting star down there, and it’s daytime on this side of the planet. We want to be discreet.”
“Look, there isn’t anything there but plants and animals and rocks and dirt. We saw no lights, no cities, and our telescopes are excellent.”
“Still,” Jack said, “We don’t know for sure. Slow down!”
The green fur on Tubark’s neck stood on end as her hairy, tentacled arm with its seven tentacled fingers pointed to the bright afternoon sky. “Do you see that?” she exclaimed. All four of her eyes stared at the sky as her hairy tail drooped and the feathers on her forehead stood up.
“Yes. What was it?”
“I think it is a dragon, as in ancient tales. We think they are only in stories, but maybe dragons are real?”
Targov shook her head. “It cannot be. This must be a dream. Or it is something we know not of. Come, we need to see The Elder.”
“Lots of flora and fauna on this planet, Russ, but surveys show no intelligent fauna.”
“We’re not looking for intelligence, Jack. We’re just studying animals. And there seem to be a lot of different species of beast here. We hit the jackpot!”
“But are any sentient?”
“Who cares?”
“I do,” Jack replied. “We’ve never found a sentient species, why haven’t we?”
“How should I know? They’ve wondered that forever! But if there is a sapient species here, they must not be past the hunter-gatherer phase, certainly before discovering electricity. We saw no evidence of civilization from space. No cities or anything like that, no lights. But it is odd that out of all the planets we’ve explored, of all the alien life we’ve found, we’ve never found a sentient animal.”
“You think we’re the only sentience in the universe? That can’t be!”
“Why not? Maybe we are, or maybe we just haven’t found any sentience.” Russ chuckled. “Maybe they’re all so far beyond us that they have invisibility or something. Maybe they all hide!”
The Elder frowned; or what passed as a frown with his species. “Dragons are not real. They are made-up stories, stories to make you deny the maker of the world. They are lies.” He twitched his hairy tail and frowned more deeply, all four eyes glaring and the feathers on his forehead standing straight up.
“Well, I do not know what we saw, but we saw something with fire come down from the sky. Toward the sunset, away from the water, toward the barren land. We want to look and find out what it is.”
The Elder, who didn’t look old, scratched his head. “No,” he said. “Not alone. There are deadly animals and other dangers. I will send spearmen and clubmen with you for safeness.”
He grinned; or at least, the way his eyes moved was the equivalent of a grin. “Maybe it is the maker, come to visit his creation? Or maybe it was a trick of the light. We shall see.”
“Hey, Marge, we caught one! Have a look!” Russ was excited. He’d found something like a bat or a bird, but it looked on the video they’d captured that the animal was neither bird nor mammal, or maybe both; it had fur on its body and feathered wings. It was a red animal, about half a meter long. It stood on the ground, wings folded behind it, with two four-taloned bird-like feet on the ground, and strange, tentacle-like arms and fingers collecting its food and sticking it in what passed as its toothy mouth.
“Whoa! Russ, you’d better be recording.” Russ glared at her a second, and started laughing. Of course it was being recorded, inside and out, with technology far beyond an MRI or CT scan.
Something rustled in the foliage behind the animal and it jumped up, startled, and flew away. Another animal lumbered out on four legs, with the strange, tentacled arms they had seen on the bat-like creature. It started eating the fruit the flying animal had been dining on.
It whirled around, snarling, and a tentacle swiftly snaked out, grabbed it, and it disappeared into the underbrush.
“I want pictures of whatever grabbed the second specimen. Jackpot, indeed! I wonder how many new species we’ll catalog?”
“Don’t know,” Marge said. “Did your notice that both of those animals were so much alike, but different? Both with feathers and hair, each with four eyes, and each with six limbs, although one had two feet and two wings, and one had four feet, both animals with those prehensile snake-like arms and fingers? The feet were different... a few other things.”
“Well, it seems so, but with only two specimens... we saw nothing smaller than that bird-bat, for instance.”
“I am curious, myself,” the Elder said. “Tubark and Targov will go, since they saw it fall and know where. Katak will record pictures with animal skin and charcoal, Moadir the scribe will record events with writing, and Abat and his crew of spearmen and clubmen will hunt meat and protect from dangerous animals.
“And I will go also.”
Abat was taken aback. “Elder? You will go?”
The Elder frowned. “You cannot protect?”
“Yes, but… why?”
“I am an herbmaster and plantmaster. There is poison, and other hidden danger you may not see, hear, or smell. I know all of the lore. I will not lose a party as the Previous did!
“How are the robots holding up, Rick?” Rick snorted. “Like brand new. None have caught anything since Russ’ robot caught those three. Or two and a half or something, Russ says there’s not much data from the third. I’m bored.”
Jack shrugged. “You should have studied biology instead of engineering. Russ, Marge, and I are all working our butts off. There’s tons of data to study. But I worry that we may affect the environment, and thereby affect the ecosystem’s evolution. XZ-287 haunts me.”
“Jack, you had nothing to do with that planet, or that expedition.”
“No, I didn’t. But I’m terrified of repeating it. Rick, every species on that planet became extinct! That world was alive and thriving, now it’s completely dead and lifeless.”
“Well, there were and awful lot of...”
“Unintended consequences. The butterfly effect.”
Rick snorted. “I don’t worry about butterflies, I worry about dragons.”
“Yeah, I worry that your butterflies will drag on and on and bore me to death! Stop worrying, we take precautions.”
“Yes, but are they enough?”
The party halted at the Elder’s insistence. “I smell preyberries,” he said.
“Preyberries?” Abat asked. “What are they?”
“You do smell that, do you not? That sweet smell?”
“Yes, it makes me hungry.”
“That is preyberries. The gongarath eats them not, but eats those that do. We shall not go farther. Yet. We shall wait until the gongarath has his dinner, then hurry past. You do not want to smell of preyberries, or of anything that eats them!”
They melted into the underbrush on the other side of the trail from the preyberries.
“Where’s Marge? She’s late for her shift and I’m starving,” Russ whined. “Oh, wow! Guys, we got another one.” Everyone looked at the largest holographic screen, showing the happenings transmitted by the robot.
An animal that vaguely resembled a small polar bear, except it was covered in sky blue feathers rather than white fur, had those furry tentacled arms, and a face that looked nothing like a bear’s, looked around with its four eyes.
“It didn’t take the bait,” Rick said dumbly.
Russ looked at him. “Well, no kiddin’. But why?”
“Watch and see, I’m curious,” Jack said. Just then, Margaret came in.
“Sorry I’m late, Russ, I overslept.” Her hair indeed looked unbrushed.
“Your loss, Marge. Check out the screen! We got another one,” he said, seeming to forget all about his earlier starvation.
The animal sniffed around the robot that held its large tray of preyberries. It lost interest, and went over next to a bluefeather bush and seemed to roll itself into a feathery ball that looked like all the other bluefeather bushes.
“Whoa!” Margaret said. “That was different!”
Jack laughed. “It’s all different. We can probably forget everything we learned in all our biology classes here, that only applies to Earth life. Even the chemistry is different. We’ll see all kinds of other stuff even weirder, I’ll bet.”
“I wonder if all the bluefeathers they cataloged by telescope were the flora and which were those weird blue bears?” Margaret mused, as another of the bat-birds landed, and took a single piece of fruit before being startled and dropping it and flying away.
A different, smaller four-eyed species waddled up on its four legs and started feasting on the preyberries, again grasping them with those strange multi-tentacled limbs all these animals seemed to have.
The gongarath hadn’t gone far, and had been lying in wait. A tentacle sprang out, grabbing the unknowing animal. A clawed foot whipped forth from the faux bluefeather bush and grabbed the tentacle, which dropped the animal and went limp. The animal scurried off, and the faux bluefeather uncurled and began dining on the gongarath.
“Wow,” Margaret said.
“Still hungry, Russ?” Jack asked, grinning.
The Elder was very pleased. “We can continue,” he told his people. “Our spiritual friend, the bushbeast, has vanquished our foe for us. But do not eat the fruit. Only those who smell of the fruit will the gongarath devour. Do not even touch it, or its juice!”
By then the animals had worn a path from the trail to the bait robot, its camouflage partly torn away by the animals. The Elder spied the robot at the same time as Tubark. “What is that thing, Elder?” she asked.
He frowned. “It is not in the lore, and I have studied it all. Katak! I need a record!”
“Holy crap! Did you see that?” Jack said rather loudly.
“See what?” Margaret asked.
“Clubs and spears. I think we may have found sentience! Hey, Russ! Somebody wake Rick up!”
“Now, hold on,” Russ replied. “That doesn’t prove sentience. Heck, back on Earth crows use tools, but it doesn’t make them sentient. Let him sleep. He’s an engineer, not a biologist. Wake him up if something breaks.”
“But he shouldn’t have come down so damned fast! I tried to warn him when we were landing. They might have seen us.”
“Relax, what could happen? We were just a shooting star.
The Elder became cautious. “Be careful,” he said. “It will be starting to get dark soon. Stay to the left and touch nothing orange. Orange is death. It is poison. Walk single file. To touch that orange is death.” Right then, one of the clubmen screamed.
“I spoke too late,” the Elder said, and dug in his bag for a certain herb. “But perhaps not too late. If I can draw out the poison he will live.” He attended to his wounded charge.
A while later as the sun was setting, the clubman awoke.
“What is your name, clubman?”
“Ragar, Elder.”
The Elder was relieved. “You will not perish tonight, Ragar. If you knew not your name, you would be dead by morning, but the herbs have power and we were swift. How do you feel?”
“Weak and shaky. I feel thorns all over and my mind and senses are dulled.”
“We shall rest a while longer, then. You are very lucky, Ragar. Orange is death out here. Do not touch the orange again! It is poison. The second time you touch the orange there is nothing anyone can do for you. Death will be swift and terrible.”
“How did I get here? I do not even remember being called to duty today.”
Two of the Elder’s eyes twirled in mirth. “Never you will. And you are lucky it is so, for you would not want to remember the horrible pain.”
He turned and faced his troupe. “He shall live,” the Elder informed them. “But we must make a litter or he cannot travel. It looks like we rest here this night to avoid that. Travel will be slower now, as he will be weak.”
Rick threw his book on the floor in frustration. “To hell with this,” he said aloud to no one, since no one was there. “I’m an explorer, damn it. I’m not sitting in this can the whole expedition, I’m exploring.”
He went to the supply room, half empty now since the robots were no longer in storage. “Damn,” he said to himself. “The sun won’t be up for another hour.” He started donning the environment suit.
The three scientists were sitting down for breakfast, and Russ asked “Where’s Rick?”
“Don’t know,” Margaret mumbled through a mouthful of food. “Something important probably broke.”
“Yeah,” Jack answered. “His brain. A long time ago.” Both of the other scientists laughed.
“Pass the salt, would you?” Russ asked, and sipped his coffee and made a face. “Cold,” he said, and put his cup in the microwave, which failed to start. He pulled out his phone and tried to call Rick, to no avail; the phone informed him that there was no signal coming from Rick’s phone. He fumed. “Damn him! Why is his phone off? The damned microwave is busted. What good is an engineer if he’s never available?
“Hey, Marge, did Rick ever show up for breakfast?”
“I don’t know. Jack?”
“Nope, haven’t seen him all morning.”
“Crap. Well, my coffee’s cold. Guess I’ll have to make a new pot.”
“Has anyone checked his room?” Margaret queried.
“Well,” Russ replied, “I guess I’ll check his quarters… after I get another cup of coffee!”
But Rick wasn’t in his quarters. After he made more coffee and drank a cup, Russ looked. There was no Rick. He called Margaret. “Rick’s not in his room. We need to search the ship, he might have had some sort of medical incident. He could be in trouble.”
Fifteen minutes later, Margaret discovered that one of the environment suits was missing. She got on the phone after setting it to ship-wide. “We’re in trouble, guys. That damned fool Rick went outside. Meet me at the airlock and we’ll figure out what to do.”
“We?” Russ thought. “She’s heading this disaster. Damn that assbasket Richard!”
He thought a few other things that were far worse.
“How is he, Elder?”
“He will live, but will never again be a clubman. He will be far too weak for physical work for the rest of his days. But he can walk now, the sun is ready to rise and the sky is lighter, so we shall continue. We are almost at the barren land. Have we meat?
“Much, Elder. Too much.”
“Too much does not exist.”
After standing in the airlock while ultraviolet light sanitized the suit, Rick had strolled outside, feeling invincible in his environment suit and forgetting everything that had been drilled into him about this mission—leave no trace you were ever there. Take nothing but records, and leave nothing, not even footprints. You do not want to be the unwitting cause of a catastrophe.
He walked through the barrens and into the life, with all its varied children, many of them deadly.
He had no knowledge that orange was death.
Possibly for the entire crew. After strolling for an hour he returned, and entered the ship at the same time the natives were entering the barrens.
“The dangers I know are passed,” the Elder said. “Dangers I know not are future. All must be wary. We are but babes.”
“What is that thing in the distance, Elder?” Abat asked.
The Elder frowned at him. “Which of my words do you not understand? I know not what is ahead. It is a strange thing, an alien thing. It is not in the lore.”
“Where in the hell have you been, you son of a...”
“Shut up, Russ, I’m in charge. Where the hell have you been, idiot? Why in the hell...”
Rick had his helmet off and was starting to remove the gloves, the bottom of his suit stained orange from something he had brushed against. He shrugged and interrupted. “I went for a walk. Is that a crime?”
Russ glowered silently, looking like he was going to tear the engineer’s head off, perhaps with his teeth.
“Yes, it is, moron,” Jack replied. “Especially if you’ve killed this planet. You have heard of XZ-287?”
“Hey, I was wearing a...” He screamed and collapsed.
“Oh, crap!” Jack swore mildly. “Heart trouble?” He rolled him over. Rick stared, eyes darting wildly.
“What the...” Jack started, before grimacing in mortal pain and collapsing himself.
They stood maybe ten meters from the ship, in awe of the huge thing. Katak stood for a minute, then got busy with his charcoal.
“Elder?” inquired Tubark.
The Elder smiled, a peculiar movement of the four eyes. “Well, it is most certainly not a dragon. But what it is? All stay, I will investigate.”
He strode forward, and when he got closer, the giant thing startled him and shocked him deeply. A pocket door slid open revealing a closet sized space, and there were lights inside! The only lights he had ever seen in his life were in the sky, besides lamps with flame, and these were not flame. And how can an opening in a mountain appear like that? He walked inside to examine it, especially curious of he cool lighting, not like fire at all, and the door slid closed again.
Everyone was in a panic. The Elder was missing inside that shiny mountain, and there were frantic poundings as if he were trying to kick his way out.
The Elder was in even more of a panic than his charges, until the airlock’s interior door opened and he saw the strange creatures unconscious and dying on the ground.
This was beyond belief. What were those things? But he would help them if he could, as he would with any stricken animal. He got his herbs and neutralized the poisons. But now what? How could he get out of this mountain he had trapped himself in?
He huddled by where the opening he had come in had been. Maybe it would open again.
The next to last to be exposed, Margaret came to first. She was on pins and needles, electric currents all over her body, and her mind was nearly useless. She wondered where she was and how she got there?
She sat up, vision blurred and a roar and whistle in her ears. And she was so weak! Her vision and hearing improved after a couple of minutes, and she saw Russ starting to twitch, then noticed the animal by the door. Where was she? She tried vainly to remember. She did remember the trip here, and the landing, but the memory of the landing was very hazy.
She opened the airlock, hoping the strange beast would go in. It did. She closed the inside door, and the outside door opened after the ultraviolet did its work.
Russ was sitting up, blinking. Jack was twitching. Rick was still. She went over to him and felt for a pulse.
The pulse was very weak, and he was as pale as death.
“Elder! You are alive! Thank the Maker! Are you all right?” Abat asked worriedly.
“Yes. Bewildered, but physically sound.”
“What was there?”
The Elder ignored him. “Moadir!” he called. “Your service is needed.”
“Yes, Elder. What do you wish me to record?”
The Elder looked at Abat with three eyes and Moadir with one. “I saw light inside the small cave in the shiny mountain. When I went in to investigate, I was trapped inside. It is not good to be trapped like that, hard it is to not panic.
“But the inside opened into a large cavern, and I saw strange creatures collapsed on the cave’s ground. I saw orange on one and knew it was the death.
“I have never seen any creatures as such, nor heard of them in the lore. These beasts were nothing like I have seen in the world. They had only two legs and only two eyes, and their arms were very strange as well; stiff, not limber like ours. They had their bodies covered with something, I know not what or why. But as any good herbmaster, I made the poison not poison.
“Eventually, after one of the strange animals awoke, the wall opened to the small chamber. Hoping I could get out, I went in, and the wall closed up and trapped me again. Then the other wall opened and I was free.
“I have never seen such so strange. I can describe nothing inside the mountain, there are no words. I must think much on this. But we have surely found Tubark’s and Targov’s ‘dragon’.
“We will now head back to home. I think we may learn nothing more here, and my soul tells me this is a very dangerous place.
“This lore will be talked about for generations!”
The three of them sat at a table trying to figure out what to do next. Rick had awakened last, didn’t know who he was, and died a few hours later. His body was in the freezer. With no engineer they would have to call the expedition off and go home. “Besides,” Jack said, “I don’t know how you two fared, but my brain’s not functioning normally and I can barely lift this, uh, this… this coffee cup. Perhaps we can collect the robots without, uh, um, Rick.”
“Maybe,” Marge said doubtfully. “We certainly can’t leave them here.”
Jack shivered. “XZ-287.”
Marge shuddered and Russ shook. Marge said “Yes. And I don’t know about you two, but I think my IQ has dropped, uh, severely. I feel drugged. I’m really afraid we’ll mess something up terribly. XZ-287 haunts me, too. Russ, are you up to collecting the, uh… the robots?”
“I don’t know, I feel drugged and stupid, too. I’ll try.”
The robots were collected, leaving no trace. But they lost a lot of data; Russ was not only not an engineer, his thought processes were terribly disrupted. He felt like he hadn’t slept in days.
The sentient group’s evidence was among the lost data.
Fortunately, the ship was simple to operate. After one told it the destination, it could pilot itself. After the robots were collected and other preliminaries necessary, it rose slowly.
“Elder, Look!” Abat exclaimed anxiously, pointing. They were barely out of the barrens, and had seen some strange objects… animals? ...floating to the mountain. Katak drew furiously, as he had done when the strange floating things, one of which they had seen on the trip to the barrens, had floated past.
It was the Earthian ship on its way home, rising into the sky, but there was no way he could know that. A council of Elders he would have to call. Surely with the combined wisdom and knowledge of all the Elders they could figure this out.
“There are trace amounts of a type of molecule we haven’t seen before, Doctor Rhome, but it seems to be an incredibly strong neurotoxin.”
Russ nodded. “That makes sense; I still feel drugged.”
“There was a different alien molecule as well that seems to bind with the neurotoxin, neutralizing it and allowing it to be excreted with urination. We were able to synthesize it after some study. Apply this cream to your temples and the back of your neck every morning for a week, and come back for another examination. I’ve already given Dr. Niven medication, and Dr. Tyson has an appointment this afternoon. None of you know where the substance came from?”
“Rick was wearing part of an environment suit when we came to. He must have gone outside, despite everyone’s warnings.”
“Well, at any rate you should feel much better in a week, and by month’s end you should almost be back to normal. But I doubt if any of your lost memory will be restored. We’ll have to see about that.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“See the receptionist for that appointment on your way out.”
The Elder spoke to his fellow Elders on the council. “This was indeed a puzzling encounter. You have all read Moadir’s record and seen the drawings of Katak. What say you of all of this strangeness?”
Elder Golblath spoke. “Elder Varchov, like you I know not what to think. This sounds like magic.”
“There is no magic. Magicians are tricksters!” Elder Groll replied.
“That is what I mean. Magic is anything you do not understand, and this we understand not at all.”
Elder Nilbud spoke. “According to Elder Varchov and his people, there were heavy things floating in air like feathers, even the huge shiny mountain, there was cold fire, and more. Say I that if anyone should see this again, that we hide from them. There could be more peril than any have ever seen.”
The Elders took a vote. The result was unanimous. “It is agreed then. If such should happen again, wisdom says we should hide.”
Two years later the same crew was back, with a different engineer, who had been cautioned by Jack to descend slowly. There would be no shooting stars this time.
But the natives had been watching the barrens closely ever since their first visit, and stayed put until the aliens left.
Their data collected and specimens studied, they were on their way back to Earth once again.
“Very good expedition, Marge,” said Russ.
“Yes, we did learn a lot about this planet,” she replied. “Five hundred fauna species, twice as many flora. And from only fifteen robots!”
Jack mused. “I wonder why we’ve never found any sentient species anywhere? Something told me we’d find it here, I was sure there would be sentience here, but I don’t know why I was so sure.”
Russ grinned. “Maybe they’re all so far beyond us that they have invisibility or something. Maybe they all hide!”



The Pirate

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