Original Fiction: Highest Noon By Michael Siegel
Ship: RF Hydrax
Class: Fast Scout Ship
Range: 500 AU
Armament: 2 Plasma Guns
Mission: Scout the 87AB5 system for sign of previous habitation and potential clues to location Xarax. Refuel from Kupier Belt as necessary. Return to RF Uriel at pre-designated rendezvous time.
Mission Duration: 50 days
The star was low on the horizon, small and red. Its light reflected off the clear calm sea and turned the landscape a glowing amber. Kate made one last check, nodded to Samson and then slowly undid the seals on her helmet. She immediately felt the cold razor-sharp air on her skin.
“Color’s good,” said Samson. “Vitals good. How does it smell?”
Kate took a deep breath through the mask. She visualized the air pulling through the honeycombed filter.
“It’s sharp. Sharp on the tongue. Sharp in my lungs. Like a cold icy morning.”
She looked around, expecting to see frost on the flat plain. But there was none. The ground was a uniform sandy brown. The only features were a few rocky outcroppings, also sandy brown, and the long silver form of the Hydrax, lights bobbing around her as the crew worked. Just beyond, she could see the crystal clear water of the ocean.
“Smells like … nothing. But a sharp nothing.”
“So it should. The planet’s barely alive.”
“Famous last words,” she said. She now had the helmet off completely. She could feel a very slight breeze in her hair. She unsealed a glove.
“So far, so good,” said Samson. “No reading on the filter. Air isn’t quite sterile but the microorganisms shouldn’t bother us.”
“Also famous last words,” said Kate.
She bent down and touched the ground. It was cool, soft and sandy. She felt like she could wriggle right through it.
“Welcome,” said Samson with some dignity, “to Planet 87AB5 Gamma. Third closest surviving planet to its dying star. Host to very little life. And now the latest conquest of the Tagichi Free Worlds.”
“Should we put up a flag?”
They turned back toward the Hydrax, now glowing red in the dawn as the star began to arc above the horizon. The crew were already extending the umblicals toward the sea as she prepared to feed off the planet.
After checking in, Kate and Samson did a wide circle around the Hydrax’s landing position, checking the four probes they had sent down. Four probes, four days and not a peep out of them. Two indicated some organic matter buried about two meters deep.
“Maybe an algae or a lichen or something like that,” said Samson. “Didn’t respond to probing. Dormant as far as we can tell. Probably something left over from before the star began to die half a billion years ago.”
Kate looked around and wondered what it must have been like. The world would have been a frozen ball of ice for ten billion years. But their preliminary survey showed that it has once been seismically active, so there would have been oceans underneath the ice, perhaps warm enough for life to evolve. The ocean and the air contained organic compounds — the residuals of whatever life forms had once lived there. And now the dying star had melted the oceans. Whatever life might have been there had hundreds of millions of years to adapt. But in four days, nothing had been sighted. Only a layer of material deep in the ground.
“Hey you two,” came a call from the ship. The crew, having finished setting Hydrax up to replenish and refuel, were milling about the landing site. Shari and Sharina were walking toward them, helmets off, their young faces beaming in the growing daylight.
“Did you look at the map?” asked Shari. “There’s a little cove not half a click from here. Beyond those rocks.”
She gestured at a hefty extensive clump of rocks that lay a few hundred meters away, piled like boulders. Kate didn’t care for the look of them.
“We were going to head over to the cove for lunch in a few hours.”
Kate looked up. The star was now halfway up the horizon. She recognized the color from the last four days – settling down, getting ready to suddenly become slightly bluer and much brighter before slowly fading away.
“Has the Captain approved it?” asked Samson.
Sharina nodded. “She said we need to have a good-sized party with at least one marine, preferably two. Renford has agreed to go, so …”
Samson groaned. He stretched his arms up, showing off his muscles. Shari and Sharina looked unimpressed.
“I guess I could manage that.”
Shari headed back to the ship. The others sat in a triangle. Kate began to pore over the seismic data. Samson and Sharina looked over the data from the probes. Samson brought up a sample of the organic matter and they examined it in a test tube.
“Odd,” said Sharina. “It’s totally inactive. But it’s amazingly well preserved. I’d almost say dormant except that there’s no reaction to light or heat.”
“There were plants like that back on … Citadel, I think. We would harvest them for a preservative.”
“Useful for surgery,” said Sharina, glancing back at the distant form of her wife. “But I think I know the plants you’re talking about. Those were alive. You exposed them to air and they became active. I mean, for plants. This, though. Not responding to anything. It could have been down there any length of time. It could be millions of years old. Tens of millions. Went underground when the star began to die. And then maybe forgot to wake up.”
“No signs of civilization or past intelligent life, though,” said Kate. “That’s all the Admiral cares about. What’s one more lichen?”
“This isn’t lichen,” said Sharina. “It’s way more complex than that. There are signs of differentiation. Whatever’s down there was more like a plant or a tree. Striations that almost look like musculature.” She sighed. “I wish we had a few weeks here. I’d dig it up. See what it was like.”
“The Refugee Fleet is no place for a real scientist,” said Samson.
Kate tried to focus on her own data but couldn’t. Her mind kept drifting to the layer of organic material just a few meters down, the remnants of whatever ancient life had lived on the planet. It made her uneasy. She glanced up at the star, slowly moving toward the zenith.
She returned to the task at hand, searching the data they’d taken in orbit for any sign that intelligent life had either lived or visited. There was nothing. As far as they could tell from orbit, the planet was ocean and desert, turning to ice at the poles. Not a single structure was to be found on the ground or underwater. Chemical scans, trace scans, structural scans, gravity scans – nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.
Presently, she looked up and saw Shari returning, along with Renford and Thompson. The latter was carrying a small crate.
“Looks like lunch has arrived,” said Samson.
They put away their equipment and slung the packs onto their backs.
“So where is this cove?” Thompson said when they arrived.
Shari gestured over at the clump of rocks. “Through that. There’s a passage through them. Shouldn’t take long. We’ll be there before noon.”
Thompson smiled. “Looking forward to that.”
He caught Kate’s puzzled look.
“87AB5 will reach maximum brightness precisely at noon when she’s overhead. It will be the hottest this place ever gets. “
Kate nodded. Thompson has never been able to study an RR Lyrae up close. He’d spent most of the last 28 days bent over his instruments.
“And that’s special because …”
“Because it only happens about once a week anywhere on the planet.”
“High noon,” said Kate.
“Highest noon,” said Thompson.
“We have to give the star a name,” said Kate. “Even an informal one. I can’t go on for the next twenty days calling it …”
“87AB5. Why bother? No one’s going to live here any time soon.”
“Why bother? Because we’ve got three more weeks of watching that thing pulsate. She should at least have a name.”
Thompson shrugged and headed off toward the rocks, leaving quiet footprints in the dusty soil. Each step was the first any intelligent life had ever trod there. The others followed, leaving a tangled pattern of first footprints.
“We shouldn’t even be here,” said Samson as they walked. “Against regs to land on a planet like this. We should be heading out to the Kuiper Belt to refuel.
“Captain had no choice,” said Renford. “We burned a heck of a lot of fuel getting to those cinders Alpha and Beta.”
“There’s always a choice,” replied Kate. “She just didn’t want to wait. Another week and we could have ridden that comet out. And refueled while we were doing it.”
“Captain likes to put down,” said Renford. “Stretch the legs. Breathe some air. Don’t you like getting out of that can on occasion?”
“I like getting back in one piece more,” replied Samson. “The rules are there to get us back in one piece.”
The rocks loomed up large before them. Like the rest of the planet, they were sandy colored and gritty.
“I don’t like the look of them,” said Kate.
“Mock if you will. I don’t like them.”
“Well our picnic site is behind them,” said Thompson. “There’s a path through. We either take that or go around. If you want to go around, be my guest. We’ll see you sometime tomorrow.”
As quiet as the planet was, it was even quieter within the rocks. Even the sounds of their footsteps seem to die away, occasionally returning as soft echoes that made it sound as if they were being followed. There were dark quiet crevices in the rocks that seemed to beckon to them. Kate was sure she could see movement in some. Halfway through, they came across a cave that seemed to stretch infinitely back into the ground. They could hear water dripping and sloshing inside, in response to the tide. And Kate was sure she could hear other things as well. Skittering, squeaks and taps. A very subtle whispering. She half-expected the mouth of the cave to suddenly explode in a wave of bats. Or perhaps a swarm of crawling insects.
They hurried past the cave. And although their computers insisted they were more than halfway through, it felt like they were plunging ever deeper into a labyrinth from which there was no escape. The air grew hot, still and damp. Kate could feel sweat on the inside of her suit and her hair became wet. By now, talk had ceased and the only sounds were the quiet tread of their feet and the loud gasps of their breath. And even that seemed to fade instantly among the rocks.
Samson touched her shoulder and she jumped.
“Almost there,” he said. “A few more turns.”
Kate plodded on. She had the sensation that their suits had been replaced with flowing white robes that glinted in the brightening star as it moved closer and closer to the zenith. She began to check their numbers, constantly expecting one of them to disappear. For a brief moment, she couldn’t see Shari. But before she could cry out, the young woman came around a bend in the rock, her head down, treading along.
“Keep an eye on each other,” she croaked. “It’s easy to get lost here, especially when you’re tired.”
There were only a few turns left but each one now seemed to be further and further away. As they reached the last turn through the rocks, it seemed to recede into the distance. She could have sworn it took an hour to get there. And all the time, she kept checking, forward and backward, to make sure none of them had stopped. Or perhaps plunged into one of the dark crevices in the rock.
They took the final turn and suddenly, the spell was broken. The rocks ended. And there was a little lagoon, the water clear and blue, reflecting the yellow star that was a little over an hour from the zenith.
“Is it my imagination,” asked Kate, gasping for breath, “or is 87AB5 getting bigger?”
“Nearing maximum,” said Thompson, equally out of breath. “Soon, this part of the planet will be the warmest it ever gets.”
Kate thought back to Umbriel, when she was small, before it fell. She remembered endless hot days on the beach with her family: her parents, elder siblings, grand-nephews older than she was. Now most of them were dead or enslaved.
It has been many years since she’d felt a real warm breeze, not an enhanced memory or computer dream while she lay deep in the bowels of the Uriel as it spun through the hyperspace between worlds. She let the growing heat touch her skin and thought back to those quiet days thirty thousand light years away.
The set up on the shore, a few meters away from the gentle lapping waves. As they ate lunch, they talked a little of the planet and the star system. But mostly, as always, of the homes they had fled and the promised planet they were fleeing too. It had been months since Sevestapol had found vast ruins on a dead planet orbiting around a dying red giant. The excited translation of the runes was the last confirmation that they were on the right path. Now, many were doubting.
“Our husband,” Shari was saying, “ is convinced we took a wrong turn a thousand light years back. He thinks it’s only a matter of time before the Admiral stops the fleet and sends the scouts a long way out to pick up the scent again.”
“We have time,” said Samson. “Haven’t heard the sound of pursuing spaceships for a decade.”
“But they don’t have time back home,” said Thompson. “God only knows what’s happening back there.”
Kate lay back on the sand and look up at 87AB5. She swore she could see it getting bigger, brighter and hotter as it ascended toward maximum.
It was growing positively hot now. She settled into the sand, which felt like a welcoming bed. She could imagine she was back on Umbriel, that any moment her mother’s voice would call out, telling her the tide was coming in or that lunch was ready. Or a shadow would pass over her – her father wading into the water at low tide, when it was at its least dangerous. She listened for the calls of birds or the cries of fish as they jumped from the water.
She wasn’t sure if she had fallen asleep or not when she was startled by a voice.
“What’s that?” It was Thompson. Kate’s eyes opened.
Thompson was standing on the shore, the water almost but not quite touching his toes. And he was pointing back toward the rock. Kate sat up and looked. She could barely make out movement. She stood and stepped toward it, as did the others.
The creature was tiny, perhaps spanning half the length of a thumb. It would have been impossible to see had it not been moving so rapidly. Its shell was transparent, its organs and claws the same color as the sand. Kate stepped closer and could see that it was shaped somewhat like a crab, with two claws and a furiously churning array of legs.
“I’ll be damned,” said Sharina as she watched little creature scuttle through the sand. “There was no indication of this in the survey. The probes would have detected even this level of movement.”
“Maybe they were underground,” said Kate.
“Possible. But why would it come out now?”
Thompson coughed and pointed straight upward – at the now greenish and notably brighter glow of 87AB5.
“Over here,” said Renford, excitedly. “Two more! And something is digging out from the sand.”
They hurried over. Indeed, two more of the tiny little crabs were scuttling away from them, toward the rocks. The sandy soil churned and dipped and a small turtle creature emerged, gray to the point of transparency. It too began moving away from them.
“Amazing,” said Sharina. “I wouldn’t have thought anything would survive under a dying star. Maybe some algae or bacteria. And we’ve got multi-cellular life!”
She dug out a scanner and stood over the turtle as it moved toward the rocks. Closer in, she could see it had a dozen legs. Organs were visible through its transparent shell. But she shell was visibly darkening under 87AB5’s light.
“I don’t think it’s been above ground before,” she said. “We could be looking at a very short life-cycle.”
“Or a very long one,” said Samson.
“More of them,” said Shari.
Now there were at least two of the little turtles on the ground and many more of the tiny crabs. And all were moving in one direction – toward the rocks.
“It’s almost like they’re running away from something,” said Kate.
“Us, presumably,” said Samson.
“I don’t think so,” said Kate. She walked toward the rocks and stood against them, facing the sea. The tiny crabs and turtles continued to move toward the rocks, one skittering just past her leg.
“What could they be doing?” she wondered, looking up at the rocks. The brighter light had only managed to make them look more forbidding.
There was silence as they all contemplated this new information. But then Shari broke it.
“Do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” said Sampson.
“Shh,” she replied. Everyone went quiet again.
“That whispering noise. Do you hear it?”
Kate and the other strained. But the only noise was the very faint lapping of waves on the shore.
“Keep listening,” said Shari. “You can’t hear that?”
They all stood still for a full minute. More of the tiny crabs emerged. Now almost three dozen were scuttling toward and up the rocks.
“Wait,” said Kate. “Now I hear it.”
“Hear what?” said Sampson.
She motioned him to be quiet. They stood still, like six statues.
“I hear it now,” said Thompson. “Very faint. Kind of like a rustling.”
“More like whispering,” said Sharina.
“Sounds like a slithering to me,” said Kate and shuddered.
“Where is it coming from?” asked Sampson. “Must be something to do with the sea.”
“No,” said Shari. “It’s coming from everywhere.”
Kate considered this. “Maybe we should head back.”
There was no discussion. They all began to rapidly pack their gear. By the time they were ready, the sound was undeniable. There was something familiar about it. Something Kate couldn’t quite put her finger on.
As they moved back toward the rocks, it hit her.
“It’s almost like … like something moving through sand.”
All six of them stopped dead and looked down at the ground.
The sand was moving.
It was almost imperceptible. But now that the sound had been identified – and they all silently agreed with Kate’s description, they could see it. Grains of sand bounced along the ground. Small dunes moved slowly. Nearby, a small depression began to form, the sand swirling within it like a whirlpool.
Out of the whirlpool emerged a slender green cylinder. It waved back and forth, as if listening. It kept coming, extending into a two meter long undulating tentacle.
“Back,” said Sampson. “Don’t let it near you.”
“Do you think it’s hostile?” asked Kate.
“I don’t want to find out.”
“The crabs,” said Shari. “They were moving toward the rocks. Away from this?”
“Away from them,” said Thompson.
“Do you remember what you said,” Kate began. “About how there was an entire layer of organic material under this sand?”
“Oh my God,” said Shari.
“I think we need to get back to the ship,” said Samson. “Right now.”
Other depressions were now forming in the sand. A second green tentacle emerged and then a third. They extended out to their full length and then began to dip and sway toward the ground as if dancing to music only they could hear. One wandered near a crab that had not quite reached the rocks. And in a momentary flash of green and white, the crab disappeared.
“Into the rocks,” said Samson, firmly.
They all took the order and plunged back into the rocks. Now the sound was loud and seemed to be coming from all around them. They could see little whorls forming in the narrow path.
The ground trembled with every footstep. The sand was quickly becoming a minefield. The rocks were safe and they skipped and jumped between them. But in the islands of sand that marked the path, more small whirlpools formed. And in a few, tentacles were already emerging, snaking toward the sky or flailing about the ground in search of prey. Samson edged too close to one and, in a flash, it had snapped at his arm. He reeled back, cursing in pain. It had torn off a small section of his suit, leaving a red welt behind.
“Move!” he shouted. “Stay off the sand!”
It was difficult to do both at once, the path was so narrow. And the ground was now shaking as if from an earthquake. By the time they’d made it halfway through, they were all covered in bumps and scrapes from scrambling over the rocks. And two more had patches missing from their uniforms when they’d strayed too close to a tentacle. Sharina’s had even drawn some blood.
“Why don’t you use your pistol?” shouted Renford. “Cut them down?”
“Saving the charge,” gasped Samson.
“That open area between us and the Hydrax.”
Kate felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. It was a long run from the rock to the Hydrax. A long run on open ground.
Midway through, they passed the cave. But it was no longer silent. From the cave came not a whispering, but a loud slithering and roaring, as if a great mass of writhing creatures was within and on the brink of bursting out into the daylight. Kate felt a strange pull toward the cave and imagined herself jumping in, knowing the few seconds of the embrace of whatever was in there. But Sharina grabbed her shoulder.
“Keep moving, Dr. Brown. Or they’ll leave without us.”
Kate jumped and realized that Sharina was right. If the landing site was as active as the cove, the Captain would already be preparing to launch, to escape any potential hostile life. She wouldn’t want to leave them behind, but her first duty was to protect the ship. If it was damaged, they were all lost.
As they scrambled over the rocks, she ran through the procedures in her head and checked her computer. They had minutes, at the most, before they would see, arcing overhead, the steel arrow of the Hydrax propelled by a bright plume of hydrogen plasma.
They kept going, clawing their way over the rocks, avoiding the tentacles that now occupied the sandy path they had taken earlier. Every now and then, there was a yelp as someone slid too close and was bitten. The tentacles never missed a chance. They were as alive and active now as they had been dead and dormant before. Kate vaguely wondered if they were venomous and if the venom would work on an alien species.
She kept expecting to hear the thunder of the Hydrax’s main engines. But no sound came from the plain ahead. Finally, they managed to get over the last rock.
Kate felt a swelll of relief. The Hydrax was in launch position, her bow angled upward and her thrusters down. Every airlock was closed, every port sealed. She looked like a crossbow bolt ready to fly. But she was still there.
And then her relief turned to horror. Between them and the Hydrax was an undulating sea of tentacles. They waved. They snapped at each other. They coiled into impossible knots looking for any scrap of food. Already, the nearest were turning toward them, flailing at the ground as though trying to advance.
Kate waved her arms while Thompson signaled. Hydrax did not answer for a moment. But then her guns swiveled toward the field of flailing vegetation. Kate felt relief begin to blossom. They were going to make it after all.
They felt a flash of brutal heat. A blast of plasma seared the tentacles in front of them and they stepped down off the rocks and into the charred ground. The tentacles waved angrily, snapping and biting at the air. Another flash of heat and another short blast cleared another dozen meters and the crew advanced slowly, Samson bringing up the rear with his blaster drawn. A few tentacles tentatively poked up behind them through the burning sand. Another flash, another blast, another dozen meters. But the way behind them was closing fast. They were now in a burnt island in a sea of lethal flora.
But before the Hydrax could fire again, the ground shook and thundered and a great chasm appeared under her. Her bow arced upward and her tail sank. A gigantic green maw appeared amidst the swirling ground.
“High ground! Get to the high ground!” shouted Kate.
The others obeyed. The charred ground behind them was now teaming with new and angry tentacles. They turned toward a smaller but closer outcropping and ran. They weaved their way through the dense growth, even as the metal of the Hydrax began to scream in protest as one, two, then three mouths bit into the hull, crunching through the space-hardened superhull as though it were paper. The guns swiveled downward and one fired wildly, incinerating some of the tentacles. But the blast caught Renford, cutting him in half. His twitching body disappeared into a pool of writhing tentacles.
“Don’t stop! Run while they’re feeding!” shouted Kate.
They pushed through the tentacles. Kate could feel the mouths snapping at her, occasionally tearing off a piece of her uniform, once or twice getting into the skin. She heard screaming behind her but didn’t dare turn, concentrating on the rise ahead, pushing toward safety.
With a final effort, she was through. She turned to see her crewmates scrambled onto the rock, all missing pieces of uniform and pieces of flesh. All were bleeding. But only Renford had failed to make it.
And over their heads, she watched as the Hydrax’s tail was pulled down. Her hull, accustomed to the rigors of space, was still no match for a now seething mass of teeth, rending her apart, spilling equipment and crew onto the ground and into the teeth. There was a loud detonation as the fusion cell ruptured, ejecting white hot plasma. There were alien screams as the gaping mouths died. But there were human screams too as what remained of the crew went with them.
“That’s our ship,” said Samson.
“That’s our crew,” responded Kate.
They stood on the rock for half an hour, watching the writhing mass of tentacles before Kate noticed they were slowing down. Slowly, they began to withdraw back into the sand. A few, damaged by either the Hydrax or each other, flopped around on the ground before going still.
And within another half hour, the ground was quiet. All the tentacles had disappeared except those that had died ripping apart the Hydrax and a few patches around where members of the crew had fallen, leaving only scraps of uniform, a few bones, guns, computers. An ominous circle of dead tentacles marked where Renford had fallen.
There was a brief rustling noise then as dozens of transparent crabs and turtles descended from the rocks out onto the sand. Most buried themselves quickly. A few begin slicing into the dead tentacles. But within an hour, they had buried themselves in the sand as well.
It was silent. The only sounds were the breathing of the crew. Kate was vaguely aware that some of them had been crying. But they were silent now, sitting on the rocks behind her, looking at her and at Samson.
“Meridiem,” said Kate, breaking the silence.
“What?” said Thompson.
“We’ll call our star Meridiem,” she repeated, looking up at 87AB5, now westering and beginning its slow fade. “I think we’ll be under her for a while.”
“All right,” said Samson. “Meridiem. Well, we’d better get to work.”
One at a time, the survivors began to pick their way down the rocks to search what was left of the Hydrax.