Greta stepped out onto green rocks, with purple liquid lapping across more pebbles of green, grey, and brilliantly gold crystals. The air had been confirmed as oxygen rich, more so than Earth’s. Safe to breathe, the doctor and biologists on board had insisted, but she wasn’t so sure.
The air was putrid, rotting flesh disgusting. She noted orange and brown leaves floating in the violet liquid at her feet and wondered what kind of plant life had developed on this planet. There was a carbon dioxide factor and nitrogen, in the atmosphere, but the ratios were far from E-standard.
“Bring respirators if you’re sensitive to foul odors,” she shouted back up the ramp, where Rasta was starting the electric buggy up.
“I’m alright. We’ll get used to the smell in a couple of days or so. It’ll be background to us as our noses adjust.” His long dread locks were bunched at his neck. Tied into order by a polka dotted red bandana he’d folded up to do the job.
Greta placed the test tube carrier on the ground beside the water, “I wonder what kind of life we’ll find in this water? At least I think it’s water. That’s what the astronomy scans said.”
“I wouldn’t drink any of it until we finish testing.” Rasta warned her.
“I’m not a fool, man.” She dipped the first tube under, letting liquid dribble into the sturdy glass tube.
Lifting it, she held it toward the first of two suns pulsing in the sky. The planet was the seventh in a system of fourteen orbiting the binary dwarf stars. “They’re aptly named. Romulus and Remus for the stars, and Gemini System. I hope things won’t be as turbulent as old Rome was.”
The water glowed faintly, but otherwise clear in its container. “Hmm, take a look at this, Rasta,”
He rolled his all terrain explorer down the ramp and came to a stop beside Greta.
“So, the violet is a trick of the atmospheric reflection?”
“It would seem to be. I don’t like the aura, look it’s like it has a magnetic field or perhaps some sort of radioactive properties.”
“Get more of it, and some of the pebbles too.” Rasta said, “I’m off to see if our aerial survey was accurate.”
“Be careful. I know the survey said no fauna, only plant life, but you know they can miss big time.” Greta warned him.
“I’ve got my stunner with me. If I’m not back in 60 standard minutes, get into the ship and lock up.”
“You’ve got a locator beacon?”
“Yes, mother,” he teased her, but pulled the blinking button out of his overall pocket.
“Freddie, get out here,” Greta yelled. “The water isn’t purple like we thought. It’s the strange way the two suns light the atmosphere that’s doing it. Bring a radiation meter, will you?”
Freddie came out wearing a respirator.
Greta laughed at his multifaceted eyes, over the top of the device he wore to keep the stench at bay, made him look more like an insect than ever. His limbs were stick thin, and his knees bent backward in comparison to a human. The Scilari were Earth’s first contact with an alien world. He carried a meter in his lower arms and brought a camera to record the scene in the top set.
She would never understand how Freddie could do two totally different tasks with equal precision and not end up with a mess of both. She’d barely learned to concentrate on what she was doing at the moment without letting future tasks cloud her thinking.
“Hmmm light gamma radiation from the water. Nothing that will hurt us unless we stay here for a thousand years though.”
“Then why can I see the glow from it?” Greta asked.
“Must be the same trick the atmosphere is playing with perception of water. Ultra-violet light from two directions might cause its color. I’m thinking the different angles of light from two sources are causing all sorts of visual anomalies.”
“We have much to learn.” Greta agreed
“But these gold crystals. They are like light emitting diodes. Handle them with care. They might be a life form and not a rock.” Freddie cautioned her.
“It wouldn’t be the first time. Although we haven’t convinced our allies from Eclecta to accept you fully, they’re a prime example of a non carbon based life form. Remember the pictures we’ve shown you?”
“They’re silicon based, right?” Greta reminded herself.
“Yes, but these are gold and copper. Copper is an excellent conductor, and gold is nonreactive. It could be an exoskeleton.” Freddie theorized.
“How would we communicate, if they’re a sentient life form?” Greta paused for a moment thinking, and then said, “Perhaps the Eclecta? They’re pure binary code. They might have a chance.”
“Perhaps. First we have to confirm my suspicions.” Freddie bent from his waist, as he handed Greta the meter. Comfortably on four legs, he carefully lifted each one in turn, picking the yellowish crystal like rocks out from under them and piling them together closer to his top hands. “I’m not taking a chance on bungling a first contact by not respecting the possibility.”
“Do you want to follow Rasta and record his path? He was in such a hurry to explore I doubt he turned on his camera.” Greta asked.
“Do you mind? I don’t want to leave you alone here,” Freddie could hardly keep his enthusiasm in check.
“Go follow the explorer’s tracks. I’m sure they’re obvious. You know there might be something about this theory about the yellow crystals. See how they’re almost all close to the water? Not one where Rasta took the all terrain vehicle.”
“Take a few inside. Put them in the communicator’s chamber. It might be able to decipher a language if it’s there in a form that it’s able to analyze.”
The suns were approaching zenith when a massive reflective flash blinded her. As she recovered her vision, she noted the water was deep blue. Freddie seemed to be right about angles and light waves. Did she dare to strip down and take a swim? The spectrometer showed minor traces of elements in the water, and it was H2O exactly as Earth’s was. But who knew what might lurk in the depths of the pools she’d seen as she walked the stream beds for a kilometer to each side of their landing zone?
The stream was structured. There was organization to the way the pools were constructed. Greta shivered. Was this evidence of an extinct civilization or were they still around, perhaps hidden? She peered over her shoulder at the cliff they had dropped over before landing. Where were the builders?
Checking the time, she walked toward the tracks from the explorer. Rasta was due back in five minutes, but where had Freddie disappeared to? Changing her mind, she went up the ramp to check her tracking screen. Both of them had locators. It shouldn’t be hard to see where they were.
She had a moment of terror, when the display showed nothing, then she realized it had been left on the settings screen and touched the square that allowed her to see the crew. It was only the three of them. Research Two and dropped them on their way into hyper drive to the next system. They were on their own for the next three weeks. There was only an emergency beacon to launch if they were in trouble.
It looked like they were both in the explorer and hurtling toward base. She moved through into the lab, where a clear carbonite box held almost one hundred of the gold crystals. She dumped them in there let them land in a scattered heap. There was nothing disorganized about them now. They stood in an exact grid precisely separated by exactly a centimeter. She could see there were five missing from a perfect square.
She hurried out to greet her companions. The day should be twenty six hours according to rotational measurements the satellite had noted. The suns were going down toward opposite horizons. Her brain knew what she was observing as the twin stars slipped toward sunset. Her body didn’t understand at all. Every other world she’d been on, had but one star. Habitable planets in a binary system were rare.
“I need to get five more of those crystals. You were right Freddie, there’s some sort of intelligence here. Wait till you see what happened in the lab.” Greta knelt to carefully scoop up five more pyramid shaped crystals.
“This planet is inhabited,” Rasta stated. “We’ll have first contact soon, I’m sure.”
“Yes, yes, I agree,” Freddie added. “We saw several indications of a civilization who were builders, but nothing to indicate who or what they were.”
Greta paused on the ramp, “Rasta, get the explorer aboard. We can watch the moon rise from the kitchen. I don’t want any equipment outside over night.”
The explorer which had been so speedy when they left earlier, was barely able to make it into the storage bay. Rasta hopped out and connected the massive charging cable.
“Are you going to put those crystals with the rest?” Freddie reminded her.
“Yes, and we’ll leave the camera on the box this time. I forgot and I could kick myself. I would have loved to see them move.”
“Move?” both her team members spoke at the same time.
“Yes move. I dumped them in a heap. Look at them now.”
Rasta approached the lab station. “Would you look at that?”
Freddie hurried over to stare at the rigid precise rows. Greta took the five she had in her pocket and placed them in a heap in the corner. She left them as far away from the area that needed to be filled in to complete the array as was possible. Turning on the overhead camera, she turned her back on the display, and lead the way into the crew quarters.
“Rasta get over here. Leave them alone to do what they need to.” She called.
“They’re crystals, not breathing beings,” he protested.
“Respect them and give them privacy. We’ll know soon enough what they might have to say. I left the communicator primed to receive.” Greta told him. She rarely put her authority as Captain on the line. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking they aren’t sentient beings. We know from other civilizations we’ve studied group mind sharing is possible, sometimes a single being has many parts as well. Open your mind Rasta!”
“Yeah, don’t get on your high horse, Captain.”
His right fist clenched, and she could see he wanted to flip her the age old sign of contempt. His middle finger twitched, but he did control his temper. She sighed. If he hadn’t been the best ever at mapping and systematic exploration, she would have put him and his hair out to space before they ever landed.
“Come on Rasta, let’s get some food together and watch the moon rise,” Freddie prodded him.
“Reconstituted Meal. I’ll be glad if we can find something on this planet, we can use to synthesize fresh,” Rasta mumbled under his breath.
“You and me both, but this stench of rotted plant matter probably permeates every bit of organic matter too. Personally, I’m glad we have the rations,” Freddie folded his legs under the tall stool at the table in front of the diamond glass window.
“Bring water to drink, Greta,” Freddie requested.
Rasta ripped foil packages open, dumping water into a couple of pots, and used the inducer to heat everything. Serving the meals onto compartmentalized plates, he brought them over to the table.
Greta checked their water supply and made note she’d need to run the hoses into the pool. Their purifiers would the rest. It could even bring the elements together as long as the atmosphere had hydrogen and oxygen in it. Easier on the power requirements if it was just a matter of distilling it from what was already liquid.
The three of them sat, digging into their meal and watched the night spread from overhead to the horizons. No one admitted how uneasy it made them. Wrapped in their own thoughts, comfortably silent they watched as the edge of the world began to glow.
The astronomers had promised a good show. Greta had studied the planet’s moons on the way down, knowing she had to navigate between them. Six of them. The largest was innermost in orbit, but two more almost as big were on outer orbital paths. Two had faint rings. The other three were tiny and unlikely to be visible tonight. She wondered if the twin suns would give them full moons at all times or if there were phases.
Orange fire peeked into the sky and the first sliver of the big moon slid into view. The crater pocked surface reminded her of a badly carved pumpkin like her father made for fall harvest on Angora. Some traditions had carried through from Earth no matter where humans had settled. The moon rose, dominating the sky and dimming the stars vying for recognition.
“Look over there,” Rasta point to the right edge of the landscape where the cliff behind them blocked the horizon, and a smaller yellowish orb seemed to leap into view. Smoother, its pale lemony light elongated the shadow of their ship. They could track its arc as it sped across towards its zenith.
“I wondered if we would see phases. This one isn’t quite full, looks to be waxing gibbous,” Greta speculated.
“Well, that one is a crescent, and definitely waning,” Rasta pointed to the pointed arc of the third moon poking over a hill. It floated into view below and to the left of the brilliantly orange full moon.
Freddie shuddered, the exoskeleton bones of his legs rattling under his chair.
“What’s wrong?” Greta had learned to trust his instincts.
“I think we might have been very lucky to have a clear day. These moons? What are they going to do to the weather? Are we fools to be on the surface?” She could see the skin on his abdomen rippling as his whole body reacted to his statement.
“Rasta, you’re going to take the intake tubes out to the nearest pool, right now.” Greta ordered.
Training had him running out the side hatch, pulling the long hoses out from under the ship where they’d been coiled in storage. Winds buffeted him and small drifts of sand flowed over the tracks his explorer made.
As if the heavens had heard Freddie’s comment, clouds were already floating across the illuminated sky. In the communications lab, the computer pinged an emergency alert.
Greta pushed up from the table, the sinister beauty of three moons glowing behind gilt edge clouds, instantly ignored. Quick strides took her into the lab, and the message glittering in red on the screen.
“Welcome, we hope you are a heavy ship. We have had no visitors in centuries of our time. We crystals, as you call us are the early warning system for weather and surface changes. We are expecting a sonic storm. Are you sound proofed?”
Rasta slammed the hatch door closed, snapping the interlocking clamps down as she emerged into the hallway.
“Damn, it!” He hissed in disgust.
“Paradise has its draw backs,” Greta said. “Our little crystal friends have spoken.”
“They’re all gone out there. Not one left on the surface and there were thousands.”
Rasta raced up the stairs to flight command and plopped into his sculpted seat. Flipping switches and pushing a complicated sequence of buttons, his long fingers danced across controls.
“What are you doing?” Greta understood it was a response to what he’d observed when he secured the water source.
“Setting the automatic stabilizers. We’re in for a blow. We’ve got enough light reflected from those moons, and the suns are powerful enough during the day, even with cloud cover, our solar panel array is providing good energy. So, don’t worry we’re going to cut into the fuel supply,” Rasta answered her unasked questions.
The rocking bounce stopped, and Greta eased into her command center. The message on the big view screen flashed red. Communications had transferred another message from the crystals.
ORANGE MOON FULL. THREE DAYS, MEASURED IN YOUR UNITS, 84 HRS OF STORM.
IF YOU SURVIVE, DELEGATION WILL WELCOME YOU. OUR APOLOGIES FOR NOT WARNING YOU.