A Scream of Light

📅 Published on May 13, 2022

“A Scream of Light”

Written by J.C. Fields
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

ESTIMATED READING TIME — 29 minutes

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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Takoda lifted his gaze from the burning embers of the campfire toward the sky. Tonight, the stars were brilliant in a cloudless sky. Tree limbs, heavy with unfallen leaves, barely moved. This natural stillness, normally produced a calm within him. A calmness his people expected of their medicine man. His leadership, over the past four decades, had kept his tribe fed and safe. A fate other groups did not achieve. But his intuition told him all was about to change.

Tonight, dread filled his soul. He sensed the coming of an event so horrific it would tear his world apart. Stories told around a campfire by the ancient ones, so long ago, forewarned of a night like this. A night where the silence would be broken by a scream. A scream of light.

As he watched the thick ribbon of stars flowing from southwest to northeast, a bright light caught his attention. Barely distinguishable among the others, its movement caused him to study it more carefully.

The speed of the light crossing the sky increased as did the intensity of the glow. When it passed overhead, he felt and heard the scream foretold by the ancient ones. The light disappeared behind a ridge and the roar of a wind storm could be heard for only a few moments. Then, silence. His world returned to quiet as if nothing strange had occurred.

The ribbon of stars provided enough light for him to distinguish landmarks telling him where the odd light had fallen to the ground. Covering his campfire with dirt until the glowing embers faded. He set out, determined to discover if his fears concerning this event were justified.

His search took most of the night. When he topped a ridge half a day’s walk southeast of his village, he saw an object below in a valley. An object he had never observed before. But one described to him long ago by the ancient ones.

It resembled the egg of a bird, only thousands of times larger. Four legs extended from the body of the egg to the ground supporting its weight. The outside of the structure reflected the dim glow of the stars. Strange markings were evident on the sides.

From his vantage point above the valley, he stood like a statue. How long he remained unmoving, he did not know. The eastern sky glowed with the coming of dawn and yet he continued to direct his gaze on the strange object.

Hours passed. The sun rose in the morning sky, still Takoda remained. With the sun directly overhead, the object vibrated and a hole opened underneath. Takoda stepped behind a large tree to obscure his presence from whatever might emerge from the egg. To his surprise, a box with four tubes attached to the corners began to be lowered to the ground.

His curiosity satisfied, he turned and began the long trek back to his village. He would need to explain the dangers that lay ahead. The ancient ones’ predictions, heard so long ago, would finally come to pass.

* * * * * *

Flight Commander Logan O’Neal read the planet survey summary for the fourth time. The original examination of this particular planet, accomplished by an unmanned probe one hundred years prior, identified it as an uninhabited, M-class planet. Mineral composition contained oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron and calcium in almost the same percentage as O’Neal’s home planet, plus an abundance of free-flowing water and flora.

Mission Specialist Carol Snow looked over O’Neal’s shoulder. “You’ve been studying this planet’s profile for almost four hours, Logan. What’s so interesting?”

“I’m finding the analysis hard to comprehend. A planet of this age, with all of these resources, should have produced multicellular reptilian or mammalian life by now.”

“I realize I’m supposed to know this, but remind me again of the age of this rock.”

O’Neal smiled. “This planet’s star is relatively young for this section of the galaxy. It’s four billion years younger than Sol. So, maybe it hasn’t had time for the proper evolution to kick in.”

“From what I’ve seen, it is beautiful. Too bad we’re here to screw it up?”

“Not necessarily. The Foundation has learned from some of its earlier mistakes. We are not here to terra-form the place. Just identify its worthiness for colonization.”

Snow kissed his forehead, “Oh how naive that sounds, Logan. The Foundation will colonize, conquer and ravage this little piece of heaven in the galaxy. Just like it has on other planets over the generations.”

“Then why are you on this mission if you feel so cynical?”

“I’m an explorer, Logan. I love discovering new things and more importantly, I love you.” She patted him on the shoulder. “Besides, I find your innocent naïveté charming. You’re the last optimist in the galaxy.” She chuckled and left the command center.

He watched her leave and said under his breath, “It’s not that I’m naïve, I just choose to be positive about our explorations.” Returning his gaze to the computer monitor, he continued to go over the previous survey of the planet.

* * * * * *

Flight Engineer Nina Webb cleared her throat as she stood in the entrance to Logan O’Neal’s stateroom.

He looked up from his computer. “Ah, Nina, come-in.”

“You asked to see me, Skipper?”

“Yes, when is the next launch window for our rendezvous with the Hermes?”

“In ship time?”

“Yes.”

“Eight hundred and forty standard ship hours.” Nina paused, and gave him a whimsical smile. “That’s thirty-five standard days. Our mother ship is, as you know, dispatching another team to one other M class planet in this system.”

He nodded. “Any contingencies in case of emergencies?”

“Not following you.”

“While I don’t anticipate any trouble, but how fast can we take off if needed?”

“Safely, three hours. In an emergency, ten minutes. You expecting trouble?”

Taking a deep breath, Logan shook his head. “Not at the moment. But I’ve seen several inconsistencies within the previous survey of this planet and our own observations.”

She leaned against the door frame to his cabin and crossed her arms. “Care to share with your flight engineer?”

“I think I have to. The original survey indicated the only non-plant life discovered on this planet were unicellular algae type creatures.”

“I’m familiar with them.”

“Jack did a preliminary survey around the landing site and discovered what he called ant-like creatures.”

“That’s a far cry from algae.”

“I know. It took almost six hundred million years for single-cell organisms to evolve into multicellular insects on our home planet.”

“Maybe the first survey missed them.”

“An assumption I suspect is correct.”

“So, how would that cause us trouble, Skipper?”

“I’m just wondering what other organisms it missed.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Do you think it’s possible?”

“I’ve never heard of it happening before, but there is always a first time.”

“You want me to pre-stage the ship for an emergency takeoff?”

O’Neal shook his head. “I don’t want my wariness to rub off on the crew. Just be mindful of a possible need.”

She stopped leaning. “I can do that. In the meantime, we need you to sign off on our first extra-vehicular excursion.”

* * * * * *

O’Neal watched on the command center monitor as Mission Specialists Carol Snow and Jack Brady lifted the PVTOL, Planetary Vertical Takeoff or Landing aircraft, away from the ship. Their destination, the top of a ridge roughly three kilometers to the west of their landing location. Nina Webb stood next to him. “How long for them to get there?”

“Jack guessed half an hour. He wants to take it slow and observe the flora between here and the top. Battery power will give them two hours of flight time if he uses all four propellors.”

She nodded as she watched the drone-shaped vehicle climb to an altitude above the surrounding trees. It disappeared two minutes later.

Using the radio, O’Neal said, “Jack, maintain voice contact as you climb.”

“Roger. Nothing to report this early in the flight.”

“Don’t care. Sing a song if you want.”

They heard a chuckle from the speaker. “Trust me, you’ll regret asking.” The disembodied voice continued. “From what we can see, the trees thin out the higher we go. Do we know our elevation above sea level where the ship landed?”

Nina said, “One thousand meters.”

“Got it. Lift is steady, maintaining current power usage.”

“Good.”

“Wait a minute, Skipper, we’re coming up on a USO.”

“What do you mean an unidentified stationary object?”

“I can tell you it didn’t occur naturally.”

“Then what the hell is it?”

“I’ll be damned.”

“JACK…”

* * * * * *

Takoda handed the pipe to the man on his left. Denali, a tall and handsome warrior accepted the object and inhaled deeply. He then passed it to his left and exhaled. The smoke dissipated as it rose with the heat of the fire.

“The Spirit Warrior has spoken to me, oh great medicine man.”

“What has he told you, Denali?”

“We are to face great obstacles. The appearance of the giant egg is an omen.”

“Yes.” He watched the pipe pass from one warrior to the next. He continued. “How do we cast out the giant egg, Denali?”

“We must do what our ancestors did. Beseech the sun and stars to strike out at our invaders.”

With a knowing nod, Takoda asked. “What do the rest of you warriors suggest?”

A murmur arose and the shaman sitting directly across from Takoda raised his head. His image flickering in the light of the fire. “The ancient ones foretold of this day, my brothers. They tell us of a previous visit by these flying eggs. One hundred winters ago, one visited our world and our ancestors isolated it until it rose again into the sky and disappeared.”

Denali spoke in his baritone voice. “We must destroy this one. We cannot allow it to return again.”

The shaman closed his eyes and started chanting. Takoda listened and then spoke above the rising tempo of the warriors joining the song.

“Brothers.”

No one responded. He tried again. This time louder.

“BROTHERS.”

The interior of the teepee grew quiet.

“Brothers, Denali is correct. The last time one visited our world, it was allowed to go free. Now another has arrived. The ancient ones were right to warn us of this day. We must not betray the trust they have bestowed upon us.”

The warriors joined together in a chant as Takoda stood. He allowed them to continue for several minutes. Finally, he raised his hands. Silence ensued. “Prepare yourselves for a possible long journey. I will travel to the home of the ancient ones and seek their guidance. When I return, we will know what to do about the egg from the sky.”

* * * * * *

“Skipper, it looks like the skeleton of an ancient teepee. The upright posts are tied together at the top and only tattered cloth remains attached to the poles.”

O’Neal closed his eyes and exhaled. “Land and confirm, Jack.”

“Roger, that.”

Nina placed a hand on his arm. “Skipper, this can’t be.”

He shot a quick glance at her. “Why not? We’ve been lied to before. What makes this situation any different?”

“This planet is not supposed to be inhabited.”

“So, we were told.”

Neither Nina or O’Neal spoke as they listened to Brady land the PVTOL. They heard both Carol and him securing the aircraft from flight mode.

Brady said, “Carol, stay with the PVTOL, leave the rotors on idle and I’ll check this out.”

“Roger.”

Silence ensued on the speaker for several minutes. The next sound came from a winded and excited Jack Brady.

“Skipper, this damn planet has intelligent life on it.”

“Take a breath, Jack, and then explain.”

“Inside the teepee poles was a charred area surrounded by a circle of rocks. Animal remains were also nearby. I would swear they belonged to a rabbit and several birds.”

O’Neal took this information and stared out the command center viewport. Finally, he said, “Collect samples of the remains and return to the ship.”

“Roger.”

Paul Weaver, the ship’s pilot and communication engineer crawled up the ladder into the command modular. “Hey, Skipper, we’re getting a distress call from the Hermes.”

O’Neal fixed his attention on the man. “Put it on speaker.”

The pilot went to a communications console and flipped a switch. A disembodied voice said, “Repeat, Hermes 1, this is Hermes. We are declaring an emergency, do you copy?”

O’Neal slipped on a headset with a built-in microphone. “Hermes, this is O’Neal. State your emergency.”

“Logan, this is Barbara, we just launched Hermes 2 for its descent to Trappist-1d, when we got hit by a massive solar EMP. The pulse knocked out 90 percent of our ship’s computers and we are on manual control. Only communication and life support systems are online.”

“What about Hermes 2?”

“They are not responding to our requests for updates.”

“Barbara, can you reboot the computer systems?”

“No one is sure right now. I’m being told some of the circuits are fried and need to be replaced.”

“Do you have enough replacement parts?”

“My chief engineer is too busy to ask at the moment.”

“What about propulsion control?”

“That’s what they’re working on. Our orbit was low so we could launch Hermes 2. We’re getting ready to…” She paused. “Just a second, Logan.”

The three individuals in the Hermes 1 command center remained quiet. O’Neal thought he could hear his heart pounding in his chest. He looked at Paul, snapped his fingers and whispered, “Get on the sensors and see what you can detect.”

With a nod, the pilot moved to another console and started making adjustments. O’Neal turned to Nina. “Check to see if the EMP affected any of our systems.”

“Trappist-1d isn’t aligned with 1e right now. Sunspots are regional and electromagnetic pulses, when emitted, are normally a focused beam of high energy. We should be okay, but I’ll check.”

“Do it.”

The voice of the Hermes commander came back on the speaker. “Oh, my god, Logan. The Hermes 2 entered the atmosphere, broke apart and the pieces are burning up in the atmosphere.”

O’Neal closed his eyes and shook his head. “What about your situation, any updates?”

“Not looking good for us either.” Her voice remained calm and professional. “We can’t stop our orbital degradation. I’m told if we don’t get our propulsion back on line here in the next few minutes, we’re doomed.”

“Not sure what to say, Barbara.”

“Nothing to say, Log…” The hiss from the speakers told O’Neal all he needed to know. Hermes had entered the planet’s atmosphere and was probably breaking up. He looked at his pilot, who turned and just shook his head.

“Damn.”

Paul said, “Skipper, in the data we received Trappist-1 was classified as a stable G type star, similar to Sol. However, readings we are getting show it’s actually an M class. It’s several billion years older than Sol and entering a phase of instability.”

“Wait a minute, Paul. That data indicated it was younger than earth’s sun.”

“Not according to what these instrument readings are telling me.”

The flight commander drummed his fingers on a control panel. “What the hell else is incorrect about our information on this system.”

Nina looked up. “Whatever it might be, it just cost the lives of every crewmember of the Hermes, Hermes 2 and probably us as well. We’ve got no way to get home.”

* * * * * *

Takoda entered the cavern only he, as the medicine man, knew about. His predecessor and mentor, introduced him to this sacred place over forty winters ago. Since then, his need to travel to this location rarely occurred. Tonight, he felt a compelling need to consult with the ancient ones. Communicating with them required a simple but intricate process.

Stripped down to his loincloth he sat crossed-legged in the center of the sanctuary’s smooth floor. Before him stood a clear tube half the height of a grown male. He sat with his hands on his knees with his palms facing the ceiling. Closing his eyes, he recited the words his mentor told him to memorize, oh so many years ago.

The words held no meaning for him, but his instructions were to pronounce them properly and in the correct order.

“Alpha five two, beta nine seven, phi twelve, delta seventy-two, lambda seventeen.”

A glow appeared at the bottom of the tube, intensified and extended to the top as he recited the words. When he finished, a baritone voice said, “Who has spoken the code?”

“It is I, Takoda. Medicine man of the Nuevo Nation of humans.”

“You are recognized, Takoda. Speak.”

“A large egg shape vessel has landed on our world. I grow concerned about the appearance of this object and seek guidance on how to protect my people.”

“Takoda, medicine man of the Nuevo Nation of humans, think back on the teachings of your ancestors. Did they not predict this would happen?’

“Yes.”

“Are there men like yourself inside the vessel?”

“I do not know. I have not seen any.”

“When you see who occupies it, you will know what to do.”

“How?”

“Think back on your lessons from your ancestors. They told you about this day. Remember their words.”

“But…”

The glow diminished and Takoda knew the interview was over. He sat in the dark as the final words spoken to him suddenly made sense.

* * * * * *

The mood among the crew of the Hermes 1 could only be described as dire. All were professional astronauts with thousands of hours of experience. Each knew the dangers of venturing outside their home solar systems and all accepted the risk. However, the reality of the current situation made them face the cold sobering fact they were now stranded forty lightyears from their home planet.

Carol Snow stood behind O’Neal as he studied the readouts of the demise of the Hermes mothership. “Logan, let’s face it. We’re stuck here.”

“I know, Carol. Without the Hermes we cannot communicate with the Foundation in a timely manner. With the equipment we have on board, any message we send will take forty years to reach them.”

“A lot can happen in forty years.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that.”

Paul Weaver climbed up through the access tube into the command center. “Hey Skipper, Jack and I have jury-rigged warning pods we can place around Hermes 1. They’d give us a heads-up if something alive approached the ship. Plus, who or what will get a surprise when they try to cross the boundaries.”

O’Neal nodded. “Thanks, Paul. How much time will they give us?”

“Depends on how far from the ship you want to place them.”

“What’s their range?”

“In theory, a kilometer. In reality, I wouldn’t put them more than half a klick from the ship.”

“Make it so. Before you go, Paul, do we have the fuel to take off and land again?”

“A couple of times. Why?”

“In case we need to move our location.”

“We’ll need to be careful with our fuel use. What if the next place is worse?”

“Good point. Okay, you and Jack go ahead and set up the early-warning pods. But neither of you are to do anything solo, always have a buddy with you on extra-vehicular activities.”

“Got it, Skipper.”

When the pilot disappeared down the access tube, Carol turned to O’Neal. “What are you not telling us about this planet, Logan.”

He hesitated for a few moments. “The information in our database about this place isn’t even close to what we’ve observed. Before we broke Earth orbit, I was assured the survey information about this planet would be one-hundred percent accurate. Now it appears there’s probably intelligent life here.”

“I think it’s more than probable.”

“I agree. But how do we prove it?”

“Send up the high-altitude unmanned drones. If the place is inhabited, they should be able to tell us.”

“That’s a good idea, Carol. Can you work with Paul to get them in the air?”

She nodded. “Then what?”

“We slip into survival mode. If the place is inhabited, we need to determine if it is hostile to our presence. If we find they are, we need to find somewhere we can defend, settle in and survive.”

* * * * * *

Four drones lifted off from a patch of ground north of Hermes 1. All were programmed to seek out nutrient enriched soil and flowing water. Plus, they were equipped with ground searching radar and ultra-red imaging to search for living organisms.  Paul Weaver controlled the flights remotely from his console on the level below the command center. Each of the drones had a range of one-hundred kilometers and would spread out within their quadrant in a triangular flight pattern. Their programmed path would return the drones to the Hermes 1 when their missions were completed.

O’Neal asked, “Do I need to help you monitor them, Paul?”

Weaver smiled and looked up at his commanding officer. “Skipper, don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.”

With a limp smile, O’Neal placed his hand on the pilot’s shoulder. “I know, Paul. I’m just anxious about the results.”

“Me, too. If there’s anything to find, they’ll find it. What if we need to move to another continent?”

“Do we have the fuel?”

“We would have to gain orbit and then land. We’ve only got the fuel to do that once.”

“Then, let’s find a compatible spot close to here. How many jumps could we do?”

“Max of three. Beyond that, I can’t promise a smooth landing.”

“Got it.” O’Neal retreated to his stateroom two floors below. When he got there, the room was empty. After taking his uniform off, he lay on his bunk with his hands behind his head. Fifteen minutes later, Carol Snow entered the room and locked the door. She wore a simple smock which she pulled off over her head.

O’Neal watched her and lifted the covers as she slipped in next to him. She snuggled and asked. “Are we going to be okay, Logan?”

Silence filled the room as the commanding officer drew her into an embrace. “The optimist in me says, yes. The realist isn’t sure yet.”

She buried her face against his chest, his arms encircling her. She said, “I want the optimist to be correct.”

“So do I.”

* * * * * *

The six crew members gathered in the galley the next morning to listen to Renee Weaver, the mission’s biologist and medical doctor, summarize the drone missions from the previous evening.

“If we stay where we are now, we’re basically screwed.”

O’Neal sipped coffee. “Why?”

“The soil within two hundred kilometers of our position has a high alkaline Ph. So high, only certain trees, shrubs and vines can survive. The drones found no edible vegetation within a one-hundred-kilometer radius circle. Limestone is prominent underneath the subsoil. While we have evidence animals were here at one time, they seemed to have disappeared. I don’t even recommend consuming the water.”

O’Neal raised an eyebrow. “Surely, our osmosis system will clean it?”

“Preliminary analysis shows unknown single cell organisms in abundant quantities. The process will get most of them. But it’s the ones we don’t get that worry me.”

“What about boiling the water?”

“We can try, but some of the bacteria appear to be heat resistant.”

“How about ultra-violet radiation?”

“We’re still testing and it shows promise.”

O’Neal did not respond as he drummed his fingers on the galley table. “So, the environment where we are currently, is hostile to human existence?”

Renee nodded. “For our biological make-up, that’s a correct assessment.”

Jack Brady stood to refill his coffee. “That fact wasn’t mentioned in the initial survey was it, Skipper?”

“No, it wasn’t. The only fact the survey was correct on was the atmosphere. Same basic composition as Earth, 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, 0.9 percent argon, and 0.1 percent other gases such as carbon dioxide.”

The mission specialist sipped his freshly poured coffee. “So, we need to find somewhere else on this rock to try to survive?”

Nina Webb said, “Unless we abandon this planet and try another one within the system.”

Shaking his head, O’Neal clasped his hands and placed them on the table. “I don’t trust any of the data from the original survey of this solar system. This planet was considered the best one suitable for colonization. You have to remember, we have three planets in our sun’s habitable zone, one is Venus, which has a runaway greenhouse effect and the other is the dust bowl of Mars. No, we have to stay on this planet. We have enough fuel to do three hops and that’s it. I believe we need to be cautious and not waste any of our fuel until we figure out a good landing spot.”

Carol spoke for the first time during the meeting. “I’ve been running some numbers. We have enough food on board to last six months. If we ration, maybe nine. We don’t know what the seasons are like here. Plus, we haven’t seen any living multicell animals larger than ants so far. The skeletal remains from the teepee were very old.” She paused. “I haven’t seen any birds either. We need to send the drones out again to search for other life. Let’s face the facts, we’re going to be here awhile. If we are going to survive, we need to find a place where we can start growing our own crops.””

Nina nodded. “I’m with Carol. The planet is tilted on its axis more severely than earth. So, seasons could be a lot more diverse and severe. Since we are on the equator, somewhere else around here might be our best bet.”

A vibration could be felt throughout the ship which grew in intensity with each passing second. O’Neal muttered, “Oh, what fresh hell is this.”

All six members of the crew, without being told, hurried to their duty station. O’Neal climbed the ladder toward the command center.

* * * * * *

Takoda stood to leave the ancient one’s cavern when the ground began to shake. He rushed toward the entrance trying to keep his balance at the same time counting. Most of the tremors lasted to a count of sixty or ninety. Dust and pebbles fell from the cave’s ceiling as he grew closer to the opening. His count went over one hundred as he passed through the entrance. After hearing the sound of large rocks crashing to the floor behind, he turned to see a large boulder partially block the entrance. When his counting reached one hundred and fifty, the tremors stopped.

Dust continued to fall from the ceiling as he looked in. A low rumble from deep within the cavern caused Takoda to stand back from the entry as a cloud of dust and debris billowed out. When quiet returned to the cave, he re-entered to retrace his steps toward the home of the ancient ones. When he arrived, the clear tube lay shattered on the floor. Plus, one of the room’s walls had collapsed exposing sunlight and a huge open-air expanse.

He stepped into the newly revealed area and marveled at what it contained. The sight of the object suddenly brought back all the words his ancestors had told him long ago.

* * * * * *

“Bad news, Skipper.” Jack Brady popped his head up through the opening into the command center, without entering.

O’Neal turned to look at the mission specialist, who also acted as the team’s geologist. “How bad?”

“The scale of that quake was off the charts compared to anything we’ve ever measured on earth. From what we could determine, the epicenter was thousands of miles north.”

“So, in other words, this hell hole is also unstable.”

“Ground radar shows the crust of the planet underneath us as porous, like a sponge. So, these types of earthquakes could be common and happen on a regular basis.”

“Aren’t we lucky.”

“Paul and I think it’s imperative we find a more stable locale. There’s a strong possibility a sinkhole could open under us at any moment.”

“That bad?”

Brady nodded. “Yeah, that bad.”

“Okay, let’s get out of here, have Nina prepare to take off.”

“Roger that, Skipper.”

* * * * * *

O’Neal folded his arms as Nina Webb sat at the flight control modular on the command deck. He asked, “Can we obtain orbit?”

“Yes, but we would have only enough fuel to land and that would be it. Where we set down will be our home for at least forty years, probably longer.”

“My guess would be longer.”

“Mine, too.” She looked up at him. “Jack is concerned about the data we have on this planet.”

“I don’t trust it, either.”

“What happens if this is the most stable region on the planet?”

“The thought has crossed my mind.”

“Like we’ve discussed, we have enough fuel to do three medium-length hops or make orbit once.”

“I know. When we first got here, I argued with the mission commander about letting us orbit for a day or so to get a feel for the place. She told me to trust the surveys and do my job.”

“Guess you won’t get a chance to tell her she was wrong.”

“No.” He scratched the stubble of his week-old beard. “Keep preparing the ship for take-off. I’m calling a meeting with the others.”

Fifteen minutes later, the remaining five members of Hermes 1’s crew gathered in the galley. O’Neal started the meeting. “I’ve had a short conversation with Nina. She says we have enough fuel to make orbit and then land again. Hopefully in a more stable environment. The original survey of this planet indicated where we are today, is the best suited to start colonization.” He looked at all five individuals. “As we have discovered, the survey was total BS.”

Nods from the others.

“Okay, we have a decision to make. Make orbit and take our time surveying the planet and pick a new spot. Once we do, that’s it. We have to make it our home for the foreseeable future.”

Carol asked, “Or?”

“We make up to three medium-length hops to various spots and see if they are more stable.”

Renee Weaver raised her hand. “How far is a medium hop?”

“Good question. Nina told me less than a thousand kilometers.”

“What if we make shorter hops, can we make more?”

Shaking his head, O’Neal said, “Doesn’t work that way. Most of the fuel is used on takeoff and landing. We have enough for three and only three.”

Renee and Paul looked at each other, he nodded and she said, “Paul and I vote to make orbit.”

O’Neal looked at Jack. “What do you and Nina say?”

“Orbit.”

Carol, put her arm around O’Neal’s waist. “What do you think?”

“It’s up to you.”

“Orbit.”

“Then it’s unanimous, we make orbit and see what’s going on with this rock.”

* * * * * *

The egg-shaped vessel emitted fire as it rose toward the heavens. Takoda felt a sense of satisfaction. His plan to force the object to leave would remain that, only a plan. Since it included the possible deaths of whoever traveled within the egg, he felt a sense of relief. He did not want to instruct the warriors of his tribe to take a life. Killing was never a good answer. But in self-defense of his people, he would not hesitate to make the decision.

He watched it until the object disappeared into a cloudless sky. The rainy season would start soon and it was time for everyone in his tribe to start planting.

The shimmering radiances, known to him as devil lights, lit the sky as the sun set low on the western horizon. The increasing frequency of their appearance concerned him, along with the growing intensity of the earthquakes and the scarcity of game for his warriors to hunt. Maybe it was time to move his tribe. Although where to remained a mystery.

* * * * * *

Hermes 1 circled the planet Trappist-1e in a polar orbit for a week. While the ship circled the globe every ninety minutes, its rotation underneath them exposed a new part of the surface each time around. This allowed the crew to search the entirety of the planet for a suitable landing zone. At the end of the week, having measured and surveyed the entire planet numerous times, a dejected crew gathered in the galley for yet another briefing.

“Well, now we know.” Jack Brady summarized the findings. “There is a narrow strip of arable land extending one hundred and fifty kilometers above and the same distance below the equator. Since most of this planet’s surface in this narrow region is ocean, where we originally landed seems to be the most hospitable section of the planet.”

O’Neal stood off to the side of the meeting, his arms folded with one hand supporting his chin. He let the crew talk.

Renee Weaver spoke next. “Paul and I have been able to determine this planet, like earth, possesses an iron core and thus a magnetosphere. Unlike earth, it is less dense and only protects this narrow strip around the planet from solar radiation emitted by Trappist-1. The loss of the Hermes and our sister ship, Hermes 2, was due to an outbreak of sunspots which are causing numerous EMP bursts. We believe this particular star is entering a new stage of solar instability. And, at some point in the near future, the radiation emitted by the star could overcome the weak magnetic field generated by the planet’s less dense iron core. When that happens, whatever life is left, will be wiped out.”

O’Neal spoke for the first time. “So, even if we find a place where we can grow crops and build shelter, it will all be for naught.”

“Unfortunately, Skipper—that is correct.”

“How long?”

Paul answered. “Year, two, maybe never. As we know, the data from the early exploration of this planetary system was completely wrong. We don’t know the planet’s history. The current situation may have been the norm for centuries. We just don’t know.”

The commander pressed his lips together. “Is this the only habitable planet in the system?” He looked at Nina Webb.

“No, Trappist-1d is similar, but we don’t have the fuel available to break orbit, circle it, and safely reenter the atmosphere.”

“Puts us in a no-win situation, doesn’t it?”

Everyone nodded.

“Well, then, let’s go around a few more times and identify a better spot for us to target as a landing zone.”

* * * * * *

The point of light grew brighter by the moment as it streaked across the sky. Denali, chief warrior of the Nuevo Nation, followed its trek. His band of men stood behind him. Some watched in awe, others feared it as a bad omen. When the light vanished behind a mountain east of where they hunted, he stood silently memorizing the location.

Speaking to no one in particular, he said, “The egg-shaped object has returned.” The shimmering and swirling lights, having grown more intense during the egg-shaped vessel’s absence, momentarily dimmed as the object streaked overhead in the sky. “I must return to the village and tell Takoda what I have witnessed.”

Turning to his band of men, he made a whooping sound and set off toward their village at a steady pace. His warriors followed.

Denali sat on the ground in Takoda’s teepee. A fire burned in the center with the smoke climbing toward the opening at the top. The older man asked, “You bring word of the egg-shaped object?”

“Yes, it has returned.”

“Where?”

“Over the eastern mountains.”

“Can you lead a group of warriors to it?”

“Yes.”

Remaining quiet for a few moments, he noticed Denali did not prepare to leave. Instead, he displayed a frown on his handsome face. Takoda continued. “You have concerns, my brother?”

Denali nodded.

“Speak.”

“When the object flew overhead, the shimmering lights faded and then stopped. Once the light disappeared behind the mountain, only then did the swirling colors return to the sky.”

Takoda’s brow furrowed. “And you saw this with your own eyes?”

“Yes. Ask my warriors. Many called it a bad omen.”

“The shimmering lights are growing in both brightness and intensity. Our ancestors do not foretell of this happening.”

“Is the appearance of the egg causing the shimmering lights, Takoda?”

“Only the ancient ones can answer that question, Denali. Unfortunately, they have been silenced by the shaking earth.”

“What do you ask of me?”

“Follow me with your warriors. We will find the egg-shaped vessel.”

“And when we do?”

“The very existence of our people depends on our success. It must be destroyed.”

“As you wish.” The warrior bowed. “When do we leave?”

* * * * * *

During the final moments of the Hermes 1 descent, one of the five thruster engines on the vehicle failed. This caused the ship to tilt and land harder than engineering specs designed it to do. The landing leg on the port side of the vehicle collapsed and caused the ship to topple onto its side. Computerized controls saved the crew from a catastrophic event by immediately taking control. However, the ship would, at some point, need to be abandoned for safety reasons.

Five of the crew survived the landing without a scratch. Unfortunately, Renee Weaver suffered a broken leg and was immobilized. She supervised the setting of her leg and the inflation of a temporary cast, which would have to be utilized until she healed.

Solar panels were deployed to power the generator used to inflate the team’s extra-vehicular inflatable habitat. With the crew’s biologist supported by crutches and all stores and equipment secured, O’Neal surveyed the landing zone. Carol Snow stood next to him. He said, “Well, it could have been worse.”

She chuckled. “I don’t see how.”

“Think about it for a second. We could have missed the landing zone and been on top of the mountain over there. When the shipped toppled, we would still be rolling down the side.”

Taking a deep breath, she hugged his arm. “I see what you mean. Lucky us.”

“Yes, in forty years, when our SOS sent from orbit is finally received on earth, they will assume we are all dead. I am sure cost-cutting measures will be enacted and a rescue mission won’t even be discussed.”

“So, this is it.”

“Yeah, this is it.”

Jack Brady cleared his throat. “Sorry to intrude on you two, but we have another problem.”

Rolling his eyes, O’Neal took a breath. “You’re just full of good news lately, Jack.”

“Sorry, Skipper. But I found something about a half klick from here you need to see.”

O’Neal noticed a sidearm on the mission specialist’s hip. “Why the gun?”

“I found human tracks.”

* * * * * *

Bending over, O’Neal examined the imprint in the soil. “Damn. It sure looks like a human foot.”

“There are more prints ten meters to the east.”

“How many?”

“My guess, a party of maybe four. That is if they walk like we do and don’t have four feet.” Brady smiled when he said it.

“Okay, let’s get the early warning perimeter set up and make sure the PVTOL still works. Looks like we need to be proactive.”

“PVTOL is fine. The only damage we really suffered was to the ship itself. What about the laser rifles?”

“Is everyone trained?”

“Yes.”

“Then issue them. I don’t want to be surprised by an angry group of life forms who more than likely will not understand anything we say.”

Brady smiled. “You know Skipper, if you speak English slow enough, everyone understands it.”

Shaking his head, O’Neal said, “You’ve been watching way too many twentieth-century videos, Jack.”

Chuckling the mission specialist hurried away to tend to his task, leaving O’Neal and Carol near the footprints. She looked down at them. “Why does a lifeform on a planet forty light-years from Earth have a foot that looks identical to ours?”

“I don’t know Carol. Maybe we should ask Renee.”

* * * * * *

Renee Weaver examined the image of the footprint. “Damn, looks identical, doesn’t it?”

O’Neal let the question go unanswered.

“You know Skipper, there was a theory floating around about a century ago which suggested our galaxy might have been seeded by an ancient space faring race of humanoids.”

“What kind of seeds.”

“DNA actually.”

“You think this proves the theory?”

“I didn’t say that. I just mentioned it. Until we see one of these individuals, I’m not speculating what they will look like.”

“This damn planet was supposed to be uninhabited.”

She looked up at the flight commander. “You keep saying that. Obviously, it is.”

“Yes. But we haven’t seen evidence of any large mammals or reptiles. Evolution doesn’t work that way, Renee.”

“Then there has to be another explanation.”

He folded his arms. “I’m listening.”

“Speculation.”

“If that’s what you’ve got. Talk to me.”

“A hundred and forty years ago, the Chinese were rumored to have launched an experimental faster-than-light spaceship from the dark-side of the moon. They kept it a secret and few details were known. I personally don’t buy the story, but there were some who did.”

“Actually, they launched a lot of missions from their base on the far side. Although they were supposedly sub-light and restricted to our solar system. The base was abandoned about two decades ago when the current hyper-drive propulsion engines were introduced.”

“Well, there you go, Skipper. Maybe these are the descendants of that mission.”

“If they are, Carol might be able to communicate with them.”

“Why do you say that?”

“She speaks Mandarin.”

* * * * * *

On the sixth day of their trek, a warrior who had been sent ahead to scout, appeared before them, breathless and showing burn marks on his arm.

Denali asked, “Why are you hurt, Mika?”

“A great lightning bolt struck me. There were no clouds in the sky.”

The head warrior started to say something, but Takoda placed his hand on the tall man’s arm. “Did this bolt come from the sky or the earth, Mika?”

The man stared at the medicine man. His eyes wide. “From the ground.”

Takoda nodded. “Can you take us to this place?”

Turning, the still out-of-breath man pointed, “At the top of that highland, about half a day’s walk.”

The medicine man remained quiet for a long time. Finally, he said, “We are close, Denali.” He looked up at the rise of land before him. “I have been to this place before. At the top of that rise, is an expansive plateau. We will find answers to our questions, there.”

* * * * * *

Paul Weaver hovered the PVTOL at an altitude of one hundred meters while Jack Brady scanned the land below for intruders. His methodical scans of the terrain with the binoculars, suddenly stopped. Weaver noticed him concentrating on one specific area.

“Do you see something, Jack?”

“Movement halfway down the slope.”

“Want me to get closer?”

“Yeah, take us down fifty meters.”

The hovering vehicle grew closer to the ground when Brady suddenly motioned for Weaver to take it back up. “What is it?”

“Fourteen dark-skinned men who look like they come from an island in the South Pacific.”

“Are they armed?”

“Bows and arrows are all I saw.”

“How far from the security perimeter?”

“Maybe half a klick.”

“Did they see us?”

“Yeah, one of them pointed directly at the PVTOL.”

“Time to tell the Skipper. I’m heading back.”

Brady only nodded as he kept his concentration on the advancing men.

* * * * * *

Takoda pointed at the strange object floating over the plateau. “We have been discovered.”

Denali turned in the direction the medicine man indicated. A sense of fear nibbled at the base of his brain when he heard gasps from some of the men behind him. One cried out, “The great spirit will protect us, won’t it?”

“Yes, my brothers. We also have our medicine man with us. He, too, will protect us.”

Takoda kept his concentration on the object as it flew north, away from where he stood. He turned to Denali. “I am not sure the great spirit can protect us against men powerful enough to fly.”

Denali stared at his older companion. “I saw no men, just a large machine.”

“The front part of the object was transparent. I saw two men, similar in appearance to us.” He stood still and continued to gaze at the top of the plateau. “Denali, make sure your warriors have fresh water and something to eat. I will explore and try to determine who these men are.”

“No, Takoda. I will go instead.”

With a smile, the older man shook his head. “It will be alright. Protect your men. I must know more about this flying machine before I place any of you in harm’s way.”

After climbing to the top of the rise, Takoda noticed a shiny pole with a green light blinking on the top. He stopped several meters away and studied it. Picking up a rock, he tossed it toward the pole. With a crackling sound, the rock stopped even with the pole and fell to the ground. “That’s what caused Mika’s burn.” He looked further and saw another pole. Staying outside what he considered an invisible fence, Takoda started walking again, toward what he knew lay beyond. The events of the past few days caused him to remember a warning heard from the ancient ones many, many years ago. They foretold that their ancestors would find them one day.

* * * * * *

O’Neal watched the older man approach on the outside of the security fence. He walked with his hands at his side, his left hand using a large walking stick. His clothing appeared to be made of a woven material and draped over his slender frame. His hair was long on the sides and pulled into a ponytail in the back. His facial features reminded the flight commander of someone from the Pacific rim on earth.

He stopped and raised his right hand. He spoke, but O’Neal did not understand.

Carol said, “I think he said, he is not a threat.”

“Mandarin?”

“A mangled version of it.”

“So, the rumor may be true. This could be what’s left of the Chinese experimental spaceship. Can you ask him his name?”

“I’ll try, but I might be asking for a soup recipe.”

She said something and waited for the man’s response.

“Takoda.”

O’Neal heard multiple swishing sounds high overhead above the protection of the security fence. He reacted by protecting Carol with his body and looking back toward his crew. He notice their weapons pointed toward his right and firing just as arrows struck their targets.

Jack Brady and Paul Weaver stiffened as arrows embedded in their chests. Both men grimaced, but remained standing. They trained their weapons on targets to O’Neal’s right and continued to fire. Nina Webb collapsed with an arrow through her upper torso. O’Neal withdrew his weapon as he looked in the direction of his team’s fire. At least twelve warriors, similar in appearance to Takoda, collapsed. All suffering from massive damage from the weapons burning huge holes in their torsos. Moving his handgun toward the old man, he saw horror in his expression as he watched his warriors collapse and die from the laser fire.

A tall man, his right arm missing, started running toward O’Neal screaming. He ran into the security barrier and burst into flames.

The carnage subsided and the flight commander aimed his weapon at the old man just outside the electronic fence. The only survivor now displayed a mask of grief.

O’Neal said to Carol, “Ask him why they attacked.”

She spoke and saw the old man return his gaze toward them. He emitted sounds. The length of time between his words and Carol’s translation seemed like an eternity.

“They were following my orders. Forgive me, I only now understand who you are.”

O’Neal turned to check on his crew. Jack and Paul were now prone on the ground. He felt the carotid artery of each and then closed his eyes when he felt Nina’s. “They’re all dead.” He pointed his handgun at the old man again. “Ask him why I should not kill him where he stands.”

Carol mumbled a few words and the old man nodded. He spoke and Carol translated.  “You have every right to do so. But I can show you to a ship that will take you home.”

* * * * * *

Four Months Later

The ancient ship, found in a hanger carved out of rock on a mountain, took a month for O’Neal and Carol to prepare for take-off. Now after twelve weeks of acceleration it approached what many physicists claimed was an unbreakable wall. Carol looked up from the flight controls of the Chinese spaceship and said to O’Neal, “It appears we will reach the speed of light and then accelerate beyond, once we’re through the barrier.”

“That’s what the AI program, Takoda called the ancient one, explained.” He turned to Renee Weaver. “How long will it take to get back to earth once we cross the barrier?”

“The passage of time will slow for us as we reach and exceed the speed of light. Once we cross the light speed barrier, it will seem more like three or four months from our perspective. On Earth time will pass normally. I’m guessing we will get home a few years before our SOS message reaches them.”

O’Neal took a deep breath. “I’m sorry Paul’s not with us.”

“Yes, so am I.”

Carol said, “Takoda told me he knew the planet was dying. The ancient ones told him his ancestors would someday find his tribe, reveal the truth and take them home. Apparently, he was also told about this ship, but didn’t know its location until a recent earthquake. I’m glad we were able to rescue the remaining survivors of his tribe.” She turned to her husband. “Why did Takoda remain behind?”

“I don’t know. You were the last one to speak to him.”

“What he said, didn’t make sense.”

“What was it?”

“All of life is dream walking, all of death is going home.”

O’Neal nodded. “It’s an ancient Chinese proverb, one I heard numerous times before we left on Hermes. His mission was over, he saved his people, now he could rest.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by J.C. Fields
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: J.C. Fields


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Author's Notes: N/A

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