“It’s amazing!” Cyrus shouted. He sprinted into the lab and skidded to a stop in front of a giant holo-screen that took up half the room. “We finally found it. Life on another planet!”
His colleagues gathered round him in front of the 3D image; an alien forest of bluish leaves and dark red trunks. Vibrant redwood ramps crisscrossed between intricate log houses.
And a people that resembled deer gathered in front of it all, staring out at them with large, wide-set eyes. They had delicate antlers, soft-looking, tawny fur and short, fine muzzles.
Deeren, Cyrus had heard them called.
Primitive Race, he thought, as he examined their houses. Skilled blends of different woods, ranging from near black to bone white. But still, only basic wood.
The Deeran at the front of the group spoke. Cyrus felt a start as he realized it was speaking English. “What do you want on our planet?”
It seemed to be a female, with a soft voice and fine antlers that curved around each other in an intricate web.
Cyrus put up his hands. “We don’t mean harm. Just want to explore and learn from each other.”
The Deeran perked her small ears forward, a friendly gesture, it seemed. “Then, we invite you here for an exchange of cultures.”
The crowd around the holo-screen exploded into cheers.
Cyrus was startled. That fast? How did she know she could trust them?
Perhaps these people trusted far too easily.
Brand-new, space-bending travel brought Cyrus through a wormhole to the Deeren planet. Within a day, he was in the very place he’d stared at thorough the holo-screen, walking along redwood ramps with that same female Deeran he’d spoken to.
“My name is Fauna,” she said, as they left the ramps and houses to walk along a path of packed, black earth. The bluish foliage grew thick overhead, and a rich, floral pine scent filled the air.
“You are filming this, no doubt,” Fauna said, as Cyrus spun for a 360 view of the forest.
“Of course.” The tiny devices in his corneas recorded everything in immersive detail. Everyone back home was watching in real-time. “This it too historic not to record.”
“Your technology is impressive.”
“I know.” Cyrus jumped back as a creature darted from the woods to stand stalk-still in front of them, head down, hackles raised. It flashed ivory teeth and let out a menacing sound somewhere between a snarling wolf and a roaring lion.
The back of Cyrus’s neck prickled and his hands went numb. “W-what is that thing?” It had a black mane, a shot muzzle, and sinewy muscle bunched beneath short golden fur.
“A lupine,” Fauna said, and then made the exact same growling roar the creature had.
Cyrus’s heart raced and he scrambled back another step. “Did you just…?” He stopped as the lupine relaxed and let out a strange, purring yip.
Fauna made the same noise with perfect imitation, and the creature melted back into the forest.
“That was Auren,” Fauna said. “My guardian. He was coming to make sure everything was alright.” She continued on with her graceful canter.
Cyrus stared after her for a moment, before stumbling to catch up. “You… you spoke to it.”
“Him,” she corrected. “And of course I did. Don’t you speak to other animals?”
“Not like that.”
“Strange,” Fauna said. “This is basic language arts. Now I see why humans can’t understand our language.”
“We just discovered this planet. Give us some time.” Cyrus protested. “How did you learn English so quickly?”
“I’m a communicator,” she said. “All Deeren learn basic animal languages. But then you can specialize.”
“In different Deeren languages?” Cyrus said.
She swivelled her ears in what appeared to be amusement. “Goodness, no. All Deeren understand each other.
“So, you all speak the same language?”
They broke through the thick forest into a field of yellow-green grass and winding plants that resembled colourful flowers.
Fauna picked a long, red and yellow petal. “No, we do not all speak the same language, but that does not matter. Do you need to be red in order to see it?”
Cyrus shook his head. “Wait… what?”
“For us, knowing each other’s language is as natural as seeing different colours. Only with other animals do we need to learn.”
“Oh.” Cyrus paused to admire the alien beauty of the field, as he tried to wrap his head around this.
“Are you listening to this?” said a voice connected to his mind from earth. They weren’t speaking to him, but commenting on the footage they were watching through his eyes.
“I know, right? Crazy!” Replied another.
Cyrus blocked out the voices and ran to catch up with Fauna. “Wait, so, if it’s not the language of other Deeren, what do you specialize in? It can’t be aliens. This is your first encounter.”
“Our first encounter of aliens from space,” Fauna said. “But there are other alien worlds.” She stopped and scooped up a handful of black earth from the side of the path. “The world inside here, for instance.”
Cyrus pulled up on font of her and stared at the pile of dirt in her rough, hoof-like hand. “You speak to… bacteria?”
“I think a nicer word you humans use is Microbiota.” She took Cyrus’s hand and sprinkled the dirt into his open palm. “An entire ecosystem in your hand, all interconnected. They don’t speak through words, but have their own way of communicating.”
“What do you say to them?”
“This can’t be real” said a voice in Cyrus’s head.
“Amazing,” said another.
“Fascinating,” a third added.
Cyrus was trying to block the thought comments out, but clearly some were getting through.
“I tell them different things,” said Fauna. “We send some to fight viruses, for instance.”
“Viruses?” Cyrus said. “Inside a human… Deeran body?”
“Of course.” She looked at him with those big brown eyes. “How do you cure disease?”
“Antibiotics and immunization.” Cyrus said.
“And what do those do?”
“Well, antibiotics kill everything.”
“All the bacteria inside you?”
“That is like killing all of your flowers along with the weeds.”
Cyrus laughed and strode back into a walk. “I suppose you could put it that way.” He glanced around the open field. Wild. Natural. Beautiful. The air was crisp and clear. He could feel how much cleaner it was than earth air.
“Unbelievable,” said one of the voices that sneaked past Cyrus’s mental block. “Talking to bacteria.”
Microbiota, Cyrus thought.
“Your kind have been sentient for about as long as humans,” he said to Fauna, as she trotted alonside him. “Why haven’t you advanced as much in technology?”
She swivelled her ears in that amused way, again. “We seem primitive to you.”
“No!” he said automatically. Then lowered his gaze. “Sort of.”
“There is more than one way to advance,” Fauna said. “In some ways, you seem primitive to us. Like, you humans don’t always understand each other, just because of different languages”
Cyrus sprinkled the dirt still gripped in his hand. “And we can’t communicate with other species.”
“Exactly. And, well, if you don’t mind, human. Killing an entire micro-ecosystem to eradicate one pathogen seems a bit… crude.”
Cyrus laughed again. “Fair enough.”
There was one more thing that was bothering him. “Hey, Fauna. When I told you my species meant no harm to yours, why did you accept that so… readily?”
She bounded ahead of him playfully, then turned back with her ears swiveling. “Silly human. Part of communication is emotion. What kind of communicator would I be if I couldn’t detect sincerity? You humans project emotions so strongly, it’s like reading one of your giant signs.”
Strange, how light and carefree these Deeren made him feel. He trotted to catch up with her. “You’re a lot more than you appear on the outside. How would you like to visit earth?”
She stopped and perked her ears forward. “I would love to.”
But Fauna, Cyrus really should have predicted, didn’t quite like earth.
“The air is strange,” she said, taking a laboured breath. “Like toxins mixed into it.”
“Well…” Cyrus said, leading her down the silver ramp from the space shuttle. “Our ancestors nearly destroyed Earth with pollution. We’re still dealing with the aftermath.”
“You almost destroyed your entire planet?” Fauna said, as spectators raced up to her, irises outlined in red, indicting they were recording.
“Yeah,” Cyrus said. “How about that.”
She laid hear ears back. “Unbelievable.”
“Oh, just wait,” said one of the spectators. “It gets better.”
“This is our state-of-the-art war museum,” Cyrus said, taking her through the modern alloy building. It was right beside the space lab where he’d first spoken to Fauna.
“War?” she replied, ears back.
“We… kill each other in massive numbers.”
Fauna’s ears went flat against her head. Her large brown eyes went wider than he’d ever seen, very much like a deer caught in headlights. “Why?”
“Oh, different reasons,” Cyrus muttered, taking her through 3D depictions of the world wars, the war on terror, and, most recently, the water war. “Politics. Land. Resources. Ideology.” He stopped at a holo-image of starving children. “If this was happening to your family, wouldn’t you fight?”
She rounded on him, for once, her soft eyes harsh and angry. “We would not let our own species starve while we have food.”
Right. He’d told her of the huge disparity of wealth.
Her eyes softened and she turned away from him. “Unbelievable.”
“Righteous alien, thinks she’s so superior,” muttered and angry voice in Cyrus’s head.
A chill ran up his spine. No. We can’t start thinking like that.
He took Fauna’s shoulder and turned her to face him. “Wait, you can’t tell me your species never fights.”
“Of course we do,” Fauna said. “But it does not escalate to such massacres. You told me humans are advanced, yet I see evidence to the contrary.”
“Oh, really?” said an angry voice in Cyrus’s mind. “And you’re so advanced living in treehouses, are you? With your high and mighty morals?”
“Careful what you say, Fauna.” Cyrus whispered. “You’ll make people angry.”
“Yes,” she scoffed, with a noise that sounded oddly like a horse. “I suppose the more violent among you will throw a child-like tantrum.”
“Are you listening to this?” The voices were getting louder. Harder to block out. “She’s calling us infants.”
“Who the hell does she think she is?”
“Let’s kill them all and take their planet. They kept it nice and unspoiled for us.”
“…would be so much better than living on earth.”
“We can’t do that,” another voice protested. “It’s not ours. We made a mess of this planet. We have to live with it.”
“That wasn’t us,” someone else argued. “That was our ancestors. Why do we have to pay for something they did?”
A roaring debate was going on over Cyrus’s live feed.
He grabbed Fauna by the arm. Sent out a thought-message to security.
“Already on it,” one of them replied.
Of course. They would have been listening to the thought comments on his feed.
“Fauna, we have to get you out of here.”
She looked at him with those big brown eyes, ears still back, but no longer flat on her head. “I’ve said something wrong.”
“Yes… I mean… well, what you said was offensive to some people.”
“More offensive than slaughtering each other?” She spat.
“Oh, that’s it!”
“Does she think we’re all like that?”
“Sometimes you gotta fight. You just… do!”
Cyrus clapped a hand over her mouth. “Stop, Fauna. Just stop talking. You’re making it worse.”
He took his hand off her mouth and she lowered her gaze. “I suppose I don’t understand as much as I thought I did. Some communicator I am.”
“It’s fine,” Cyrus said. “You couldn’t have known.”
Rapid-fire machine guns sounded from somewhere outside.
A guard in silvery armoured clothes raced into the room and grabbed Cyrus and Fauna. Rushed them out of the museum and into an armoured truck.
The world rang with guns and shouting, outside.
“We’ll get you back the ship!” A driver shouted over the noise.
The guard got into the back with them, talking to someone through mind connection. “What do you mean, highjacked?” He said suddenly. “Where were the sentries?!” He gripped his head and his eyes met Fauna. “The ship to your home is gone.”
Cyrus felt like a boulder had just crashed through his stomach.
Faunas ears went flat against her head. “What would they want with the ship?”
“Worst-case scenario, they attack your planet.”
She nodded, as if expecting this. “You can reach my people with your technology?”
“Yes,” Cyrus said. “But I don’t see how-”
“Tell them to prepare defensive measures. They’ll understand what it means.”
“But, your people can’t fight,” said the guard. “That spaceship isn’t armed, but I’m sure the hijackers have weapons.”
“Just do it,” she said.
Cyrus was skeptical. Worried sick for Fauna’s species. They seemed so peaceful. So innocent and vulnerable. He wondered what possible good it would do, as the guard put a message through.
One day and a space-jump later, Bane landed on an alien planet and led his crew out to the lush foliage, the fresh air, the pristine environment outside. Insult us, we take your planet! He lifted his rifle, knelt and glanced through the scope.
The forest was quiet, only a faint rustle sounding through the giant bluish leaves.
Through his scope, Bane saw wood houses among the thick branches. Caught sight of an antlered head. There you are.
But then something happened.
His vision blurred, his head started pounding, and he lost all motor control. His rifle swung down in a shaky arc as he pulled the trigger, bullet shooting far wide of its target.
Other gunshots sounded around him, but Bane barely noticed. He didn’t even wonder if they’d hit their target, as he dropped his rifle and staggered around blindly. “I can’t see. I can’t see!”
All round him, his crew was shouting the same thing.
Blackness overtook him. His head felt like it was being ripped in half. He screamed until something seemed to grab his chest and squeeze, pressing the air right out of his lungs.
He clutched his throat. Stumbled to the ground as he struggled to breathe.
As he thrashed and gasped, he heard a rustle of leaves beside him, and a growl that sounded somewhere between a snarling wolf and a roaring lion.
A sharp stab of agony in his neck.
And then, nothing.
“What did you do?” Cyrus said, watching the holo-image as the hijackers dropped like writhing flies. Then lupines darted out of the forest to finish them off. “I mean, I know a communicator sent bacteria to attack, but how did you know they’d be deadly to humans?”
“They evolved,” Fauna said.
“Right inside the hijackers?”
“Well, no.” Fauna looked at him. “They’ve seen humans, before.”
He stared at her, sickness churning in his stomach. “When you put that dirt in my hand, you sent them inside me.”
“Only to understand how your anatomy works… and prepare for any possible invasion.”
“But… it was still such a short time.” It had only been a week since Cyrus landed on their planet.
“Bacteria evolve fast,” Fauna said. “You know that. They routinely become immune to your antibiotics. Guide their evolution, and you can expediate it.”
Cyrus shook his head. He’d thought they were primitive, but they’d learned to harness a tiny force of nature humans were only beginning to understand. “I thought you were peaceful.”
“Peaceful,” Fauna said. “Not foolish. Our actions were purely defensive.”
“And brutally effective.” Said the guard beside them.
Cyrus met his eyes and nodded. “Unbelievable,” he thought, with a confusing mix of emotions.