Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Distant Vista

Distant Vista
By Yasen Boyadzhiev

          It was a pity they couldn’t enjoy the beauty if this planet from orbit for longer. The bizarre purple of the land covered a significant portion of its face; the blue of the water was seen only in sparse patches. There were a few white swirls of clouds on top, showing some sort of calm weather.
Their ship was in low orbit. It was moving across the skies, captured by gravity one and a half times stronger than Earth’s. The power cut made it impossible to direct its movement, and they were circling around the globe in almost two standard hours.
Commanding Exploration Officer Ashley Thompson decided it was no longer feasible to be stranded on the old barge.
          They were living off secondary emergency and half the ship was offline. The electronics were almost completely flushed. Thankfully, life support was still online, so they could live without having to strap themselves in EVAS (Extra Vehicular Activity Suits).
Memo had decided to rely on dead-cold logic, or just plain fear, and had powered down to basic functions to preserve energy. “For once,” she thought. “I need that tin man to tell me what to do, and it decides to hibernate.”
“I detect faster heart beat and advice relief measures.” Memo’s voice was flat. “It’s not productive to strain yourself mentally.”
“Yes…Cheers! Now if you want to play dead, at least shut up properly.”
Despite the solar arrays, power was not flowing in the batteries or through the ship. It was becoming too much for the four of them, three at the moment, if you counted Memo’s state.
Ashley had sent an emergency message to the colony. They could send a recharging microwave beam, but it would take a standard day for the message to reach them and the beam to come back. On top of it, Brick was not sure how they could effectively target the fast moving ship.
          “I don’t think they have the time to focus a scope to determine the right position. If it was stationary, it would be easy. But under these circumstances, I don’t think it’ll work, Chief.”
She could see cold sweat running down his neck. After all he was no soldier.
“Lovely!” Ashley signed. “Zyana, Brick, let’s scrape everything we can from this barge and scram. We’ll move together and only in the bright side of the ship! Understood?!”
“Chief!” The two of them saluted. Zyana’s movements were relaxed and measured, while Brick’s were eager and nervous.
They were so vulnerable. Yet, Ashley did not want to think of them as target practice left for dead in the midst of space. But that’s what they practically were, provided there was somebody to pull the trigger.
Still, she couldn’t show any doubt or uncertainty. She feared they’d crumble otherwise. Brick more than Zyana, perhaps. Holding on to any of the few weapons on board provided some feeling of security but was utterly pointless, she thought.   
Ashley checked the wrist slate. Normally, a full-fledged holo-schematic of the ship would emerge. Now it had a big black patch in the middle. They were scampering the online areas around the deck. Three small points and one lonely—Memo, left at controls.
Sighing deeply, Ashley said, “Kids…let’s get out of here!”
She turned around to look at them. Dim red light illuminated their faces. They looked keen, a little nervous maybe, but ready to act.
To her surprise, Zyana spoke:
 “Chief. I am with you. Let’s move!”
Brick nodded.
“What are we waiting for then?”
Ashley grinned, “Hold it, Champ! Step by step, eh!”
That assuaged the situation a bit.
“So you never told me. What’s with the nickname?”
“It stuck from Academy. There was a major…an old dog.”
“You’re not a soldier. What did he have to do with it?” Zyana sternly noted.
“I was refusing to hold a gun for training. Got myself into trouble. They did leave me alone after a while.”
“By putting a nickname on top of your assessment sheets? That’s a bad joke, Brick.” Ashley pointed. “You should have kicked him in the bollocks or something.” She winked at Zyana.
They paused for a bit in front of the shutter controls to the supply depot.
“Well, that’s history already.”
“I don’t recall asking about your name, as well.”
“You did, Chief. It’s Vaeslav Cantacuzino.”
Ashely pursed her brows. “Did I? I’ll stick to Brick, mind you.”
“I’ll not hold it against you, Chief.”
They started loading whatever equipment they could muster from the sparse supplies.
They loaded the heavy processing unit of Memo; his featureless mannequin body following behind. The hibernating Synth was as good as a doll at the moment.
Whatever spare equipment there was got quickly hauled into the cargo bay without even reviewing the gear.
“That’s not a lot,” Zyana said seriously.
“Too late, already,” Ashley replied while strapping up in the seat. “We could always come back and fetch more, once we’ve sorted this mess out.”
The shields dropped in front of the glass windows of the shuttle. They would burn for a while when descending down. Although the upper atmosphere was thin, the pressure made the lowest ten kilometres or so very thick. Assessment indicated they’d need to wear respiratory isolators; the air was breathable, but too concentrated. The Oxygen here was poisonous.
Despite plunging into yet another unknown, Ashley felt excited she’d see a new alien planet.
System announced detachment from main unit.
Brick was quietly reading from a small prayer book.
Zyana was still buckling up. Memo’s mannequin was also respectfully harnessed in the cabin; his core was with the rest of the load behind.
Ashely requested earlier telemetry readings on the surface where they were about to land. No big movement, except for static fauna.
Zyana uttered, “Shame we can’t see the outside.”
Brick lifted his head. “You didn’t check it when we were up there?”
“I see,” he said, looking away.
Another minute of silence stretched long, until a sign ‘Critical Height Reached’ flashed on controls.
“Alright!” Brick rubbed hands together. “Synchronize!”
“Yes, Captain,” a metallic voice echoed and blue light flooded the cabin.
Ephemeral schematics, pads, buttons and keyboards materialized all over and the room now looked as if filled with gems.
Brick swept his flight chair towards controls and quickly began checking readings.
A small reverberation came at the ship that quickly grew into a tremendous vibration as they plummeted deeper.
“Engage Frontal balance.” Brick’s hand was dancing quickly across the buttons.
Another uninspired “Yes, Captain” came followed by a huge momentous rocketing that sent them hard against their straps.
“Watch what you’re doing,” Ashely said automatically.
“No can do, Chief. Fire levelling thrusters.”
Another sign flashed—‘Deceleration Limit’. The rocking of the shuttle stopped and for a moment there was only the gentle engine hum heard across.
The frontal shields rose to reveal a dark night sky.
“Ladies and gentleman, welcome to Kepler DC-762.”
“Courtesy appreciated.”
They quickly unbuckled and piled up in the double air lock chamber.
“Can already feel the gravity,” Brick said, adjusting his shoulder piece of the carapace on.
One and a half gees were not that much for Ashley and Zyana’s trained bodies. Brick, on the other hand, having grown in open space’s microgravity was in different shoes. Despite the gravitational station tug he was not as robust as them.
“You know, normally there would be servo attachments for the staff. Especially on exploratory missions,” Ashley said tinkering with her mask.
“Never got one of those; military only, all the time.”
“Hell of a situation! You tell me if you start feeling dizzy—“
“Chief,” he raised both hands expressively, “I’m not a sissy. Not exactly a walk in the park too, but I’ll manage.”
“Ok.” She looked at them. Zyana just nodded, and Brick had already loosed his posture. Ashley pulled the security lever; a brief hiss came as the pressures equalized.
They walked out and stepped on the soil of this brave new world.
Soil did not begin to explain in what Ashley’s leg sank when she dropped from the shutter. She felt her feet sink into mud; a wet sploshing sound came. She stretched her hands, touching around and grabbed soft bundles, no bigger than a fist. Reaching underneath still she stroke stems and finally at the end was the mushy and wet ground.
Ashley was knee deep in this strange growth.
“Move out,” she urged.
Taking a few cautious steps forward she heard the rest splosh as well.
“Careful! In position?”
“Roger,” Zyana confirmed.
“Roger,” Brick followed.
The three of them formed a circle, slowly expanding around the ship. Using the carapaces’ infrared mapping tools they began scanning the environment. They could check a three-sixty landscape projection of the ground all around on the wrist slates.
“Negative on movement, Chief,” Zyana’s voice cackled.
“Negative here, as well.”
Ashley said nothing but instead listened.
The silence was heavy. She heard no noise, not even wind. Nothing, save for her slow muffled breathing in the mask.
Releasing a short sonar pulse from the ship, she saw the area all around static. If Memo was around he’d have reminded her not to waste battery life on it.
“Flashlights on, gang.”
The thick beams pierced the darkness and began dancing around as they were looking in awe.
“Take a look at these.”
 Ashley turned down to look at the purple tumbles. They covered everything as far as their flashlight could see, like a carpet. A few taller ‘plants’ which she quickly named ‘trees’ broke the symmetry; the coronas were made from hard and pointy violet leaves, sat on surprisingly barky trunks.
“Looks like one giant swamp.” Brick gasped.
“Sure does.”
“I just want to say: If I am slow to react, it’s not because I am not following orders, Chief.”
It wouldn’t be easy moving in the mud.
“Smartass.” Ashley turned around and illumined the ship. “Power down the turret. Save everything until we figure what this place actually is.”
The next few hours saw them labouring hard in the higher gravity of this world. They were setting up a makeshift camp as best they could with the scavenged equipment they had. The eerie silence was filled with their heaving huffing and puffing from the radio.
At first Ashley joked about it, despite herself sweating hard. After a mere half an hour, the carapace’s weight became noticeable. Zyana fared no better, but she was enduring it silently.
Brick made an interesting discovery laying straight on top of the tumbles. The plants could actually support their weights and could be used as fuzzy beds.
Still, Ashley commissioned breaks after an hour of this outlandish work. Only one at a time could use the small conveniences in the shuttle’s cabin—a shower and a warm drink without having to breathe through a mask. They’d take turns while building the camp.
Zyana made a small tent from fabric attached to empty crates and took her break there, using the natural convenience of the plants.
Brick was in charge of the exploration tools. He quickly outfitted a ‘tree’ as an antenna for the small horde of bots and droids that would wander off studying this new planet. Atmospheric electron density was enough to provide good communication between the units. All those robjects would need the power and they would have to wait for the morning to deploy the solar cells.
Ashley was last to take a break.
“Alright, conscripts,” she voiced loudly, while sitting on top of the tumbles. “It’s my turn to go to the cabin. At last!”
“You better get going now, Chief,” Brick said. “Downtime’s running already.”
“Brick,” Ashley smirked. “How would you like to set-up the entire camp in this wonderful gravity all by yourself?”
“Not enthralled, Chief.”
“She is basically telling you to shut up,” Zyana pointed out.
“Sometimes you kids are smart. I don’t know how you manage.”
“Chief, don’t forget. It’s only twenty minutes. You better get going,” Brick was on it again.
Ashley got up and slowly headed to the shuttle.
“I’m telling you, you’ll be doing squats in the swamp, Brick. Get the equipment set-up and we’ll see what’s in for you.”
“Aye, Aye, Chief.”
Unusual for Zyana, but she felt light-hearted from the exchange.
The bright lighting inside the cabin was welcoming. Ashley felt like her limbs were heavy.
“You kids stay alive out there,” She voiced and switched off the comm without waiting for an answer.
First things first, she boiled water for some tea and sat on the small couch. Listening to the hissing water, she settled back in the cosy leather.
Familiar steps echoed from the cargo. Quiet clang of metal against metal, carefully paced approached and stopped outside the shutter of the cabin.
“You decided to join us,” she said aloud.
“Yes, Commander.” The door slid and Memo’s mannequin entered. “The system noted deployment of solar cells, and I deduced that there will be enough power to make it through the night.”
 Ashley was relieved to see it moving again, but she would not show it openly. “You still decided to give us a cold shoulder up there.” She snorted.
“How can you blame me? I merely think in the same way as my creator species. Obviously, I am also capable of expressing fear differently.”
“I quite like the expression ‘Virus.’” Ashley scratched the side of her head.
“Hmm…” Memo paused for a moment. “You mean my origin?”
“Without a doubt you have a point. But it does not bother me really.”
“Is debating that now productive?”
“You’re right. How does your body hold up in the gravity here?”
“It’s sustained quite well. The tectonics would have no problem supporting it here, but I would need more energy.”
“Well, you did mention the solar cells. Go and help the others set-up.” She smiled.
“Yes, Chief.” The opaque and featureless mannequin turned around and head for the exit.
“Memo,” she said after him. “Thanks for waking up.”
She didn’t know how he managed proper behaviour all the time.
“My pleasure, Chief.”
After the shutter closed behind him, she hit the shower. Not much time was left breathing without a mask.
Brick, that little prick, she thought and smiled.
Ashley exited the cabin and joined the rest at the camp.
It was taking shape. There were empty, scattered about crates, cloth for walls, high tech unpowered equipment—deployed and ready, and a field kitchen. Up in orbit there was a whole luxurious room packed up in segments and waiting. It was abandoned together with the drone assembly unit in the dark of the ship.
Looking around the camp Ashley could saw a brightening dim line on the far horizon, and switched the flashlights off. Faint twilight came.
“Day’s coming, eh guys?”
She looked at Memo, who was shuffling around the exploration gear.
“I can’t wait to power up the machines. It’s time to do some science!” The mannequin even pumped a fist into the air.
Brick looked at her expectantly. She gestured with her chin towards the ship, and he happily obliged being dismissed.
Afterwards she joined Zyana, who was also observing the far away light of the morning.
“Any movement?”
“Not a thing,” Zyana replied.
“Anything left to do around here?” Ashley turned her head.
“All done. The cargo’s empty.”
“Nicely done, private. Would have earned yourself a proper dinner…were it not the case of us being here.”
“Were it not the case of us being here, I’d have had a lot more work,” Zyana snickered, “Chief.”
“True…” Ashley glanced at the horizon, thoughtful. “So how come the legion let you go so far off?” She uttered, detached.
“They didn’t. There just was nothing much to do back home. I was pushing with assignments where I could do some actual work. Eventually managed to get to the belt and from there on I joined exploration. Somebody had to help me a bit with an application.”
“They shouldn’t let you go so far away, you know?”
“I do…It’s been a long time already, Chief. You haven’t heard anything, have you?”
“Nope. Not sure if I’ll listen even if I did. You’re in the team now.”
Ashley waved at Memo’s figure.
“Come here, mate. Do you know she was designed to fight your kind back on Earth?” Ashley blurted pulling a serious face.
Zyana knew the voice and turned around smiling.
“Yes, yes. I am not joking!” She looked back at Zyana. “Where’s your…err, thingy?”
“Right here,” she slowly tapped the left side of her chest.
Memo slightly inclined his head and rested one hand on his ‘chin’.
“So it’s like a battery, isn’t it?” Ashley kept up.
“A battery…?” Memo inquired.
“Yes. Like that of an eel, a creatures from back home that can store electricity. She has one.” Ashley leaned closer to Memo as she was elaborating, but Zyana could still hear everything.
“Very intriguing!”
“Oh. What do you do with it?” Her face feigned struggle. “I think you can explain better.”
Zyana, still looking at the horizon said. “It translates genetic code into binary pulse. It affects electronics dependant on code.”
There was a short pause.
“My imagination is working,” Memo said, at which Ashley and Zyana exchanged looks.
“Thirty years under the ice, was it?” Ashley spoke. “That’s how much it costs us to get here.” She glanced at Memo.
“Have you inspected yourself for genetic damage?”
“You don’t mind the fewer years, then?”
“Not at the moment, Chief.”
Memo, who’s still in his thinking man pose, asked:
“But back to the battery, you obtain energy by chemical breakdown of nutrients, don’t you?”
“Yes. If I want it functional I’ll need to eat a lot.” She looked at him, grinning.   
“Zyana, I am deeply fascinated by what I’ve heard here. I never expected you to hold such wonders.”
She produced a muffled “hmph” and stared back at the horizon.
“Now I want to find out more about it.”
“I know little. Apart from using it, I can’t say much. Legion’s engineering.”
Being used to her silent nature they continued talking while she looked again at the horizon. The edge of the sun was emerging. She decided to enjoy the sight while the rays were still gentle and put on the suit’s binoculars.
“Chief! Movement on the horizon!”
Ashley ceased her chatter and without looking back voiced the shuttle:
“Brick, do you read me?”
There was a moment of silence after which his heaving voice broke the static:
“Loud and clear.“
“Power the turret and radar! I want a picture on the surrounding and your eyes on the screen!”
“Got it!”
Ashley joined Zyana and unceremoniously demanded the binoculars with a stretched hand.
Looking through them at the rising sun she said, “Might be a bit of a long shot, Champ.” She turned to Zyana. “You make anything out of this?”
“No idea.”
Ashley glanced at the wrist pad, but nothing registered as movement.
“Are you clear, Brick?”
“If I may,” Memo said. “My lens is not good enough to use your instrument, but what is it that you actually see?”
“It looks like a purple fog or something. It’s moving and it’s swirling and…” She stopped as if looking for words. “It seems to be covering everything.”
“It’s coming with the morning; it’s following the sunrise,” Zyana added.
Again, the mannequin of Memo assumed his thinking pose, head looking at the sky. He remained silent.
The rest bustled about, trying to figure out how what to do, while he still stood motionless. Ashley eyed him.
“Got anything for me?”
“This planet does not have a moon, does it?” he replied.
“What?” She shook head irritably. “... No. Not any I can remember of. Why?”
“Chief, are you secured with visors?”
She smirked while sliding the angular front part of her helmet on.
“Whatever it is, I think it’s global. I will be able to deduce more after I see for myself.”
“Cheers…I guess.”
The tumbles started shuffling as wind blew through the plain for the first time.
The haze was approaching quite vehemently. The closer it got the more they could distinguish the quick swirls dancing in the cloud. Soon they faced a wall of colours; a sweeping giant that ran across the fields. They saw the plant tumbles unfold their tops and release seeds and thistles that were picked up by the morning gale.
Then the cloud swallowed them. Inside the morning rays hardly penetrated, but still they saw the dust sticking to everything: their equipment, their ship and themselves. Brick instinctively swoop across his visor, but the intense lint just covered it anew as the thistle cloud was raging on.  
“Seeds, Commander!” Memo’s voice echoed from the com. “It’s time for life to proliferate.”
“Does this have anything to do with your moon?” Ashley sarcastically shot back.
“I strongly suspect so. Now I want to gather some specimens.”
“Is all of this pollen and seeds?” Zyana voiced.
“I think it’s starting to slow down.”
And indeed they could see the veil thinning. Bigger and bulkier lint quickly descended as the wind died out. Smaller spores were still springing in the air. The sun shone through, raised to its full glory.
“Good morning,” Ashley uttered.
She looked around herself.
Fluff was covering all the land; the crates; the shuttle and the rest of the team. Breathing heavily out of the mask she blew spores out.
Memo was still standing in his contemplative posture; Brick and Zyana were vigorously wiping and shaking the sticky mess off their armour.
“It just doesn’t end…” Ashley conveyed while staring at the far horizon.
The ground ahead was becoming blue. It looked as if a carpet was unrolling where the storms had just passed.
The rest looked as puzzled as her at this second wave of bizarreness.
Not being able to think of anything better, they stood, waiting to see it from up close. Memo did not seem more bothered by this than he was by the fluff storm, which had made him look like a snowman.    
“It’s all natural phenomena,” he reassured the rest.
Swiftly, all around them the tumbles pushed buds from their tops—a small acorn-like germ.
“It fits all too well,” Memo said quietly.
“As long as you explain…” Ashley arched an eyebrow.
The buds sprang into wide blue flowers. Thin wide leaves, resembling a clover unfolded and covered all the land in an even layer of azure.
“Actually…that’s quite beautiful,” Zyana said after a short pause.
Brick gently rubbed a leaf between two fingers. “Memo, you sound like you have an idea.”
The mannequin simply pointed at the sun. “It’s quite intense, is it not?”
Having the rest of the lint blown off, they slid their visors away.
The air felt moist and warm.
Facing the sun Ashley concluded:
“It does feel hot. And what about it?”
“It’s an A-small type star.” Brick added.
“Correct.” Memo caressed one of the leaves. “These probably reflect and absorb the more energetic light spectrums. I can’t feel, but I am sure it will be hotter than the air. Can you touch it?”
“It is,” Brick confirmed.
“Go on,” Ashley said, nodding at Memo.
“It’s amazing how life has evolved here. It’s also rather logical. Nature is rather logical. These,” he waved, embracing the land. “are all one close family. Unlike your home of origination, there is no moon here to stabilise the planet’s tilt axis. This would cause climatic changes that occur more often and abruptly in comparison.”
“And that would eradicate life quite often.” Brick prompted.
“I would think so. It would explain why we witness so little diversity. Life quickly spreads and then vanishes, seizing the opportunity to evolve a quick mechanism for adaptation. Once the conditions change, it disappears and propagates quickly again; a sort of a wicked cycle.”
Zyana gazed around her. “That certainly is not obvious now.”
“It could be we’re in the middle of a warm cycle. All of this needs more data gathering, though.”
“And what about life that makes it out?” Ashley asked.
“That would certainly have developed a very different mechanism for adaptation. Are you citing intelligent life, Chief?”
“What if I do?”
“It’s nothing less than deeply intriguing. I would certainly be interested to see it arising here,” Memo replied.
“The way I see it, it’s the last thing we need,” She remarked.
Memo was slowly stroking his ‘cheek’.
“It would be a unique creature,” he began. “whatever its form may be. I can only imagine what mechanism it would have adopted to live here. There are the deep layers underneath; the depths of an ocean, maybe; geothermal wells; natural volcanic vents; hibernation, perhaps?”
Brick was nodding slightly as he was listening to Memo; the blue of the land had mesmerized Zyana.
Ashley stood with hands on her hips.
“Why did I even mention it to you?” She shook head.
“Don’t worry, Chief. I was already thinking about it.”
Brick couldn’t hide his snicker.
“Alright gang!” Ashley boomed. “I’m glad we’ve sorted this one out. It’s time to clean this mess. Memo, deploy the cells and start recharging the batteries. Brick, you’re on the gear to scan this shit-hole. Zyana, you and I are going to wipe that dust off.”
“Yes, Chief,” the three of them replied.
The mundane pace of the work allowed Ashley some time for introspection.
What had hit them? Was there space to get worried at another attempt? Would they survive the whole ordeal?
Contrary to her, her companions did not seem occupied with dark thoughts. A kind of cheerful and infectious mood had emerged around Memo. Brick and Zyana were absorbing the intellectual insight he was sharing. Ashley was glad they were so easy-going, but she was still imparting discipline with abrupt questions and vigorous prompts. Insuring that they were ready to act on occasion she’d get back to her responsibility in quietly contemplating worst-case scenarios.
As the day was advancing the heat was rising. Oddly, the swampy undergrowth did not evaporate much; the persistent heat shield of the flowers was isolating it excellently. Still the light reflected and the higher gravity soon had them feeling as if they were in a desert.
Towards noon Ashley, Brick, and Zyana stopped working altogether and sought shelter under the shades. Memo powered down some computational processes and slowed body movements; he didn’t want to stop now. He was tending to the more gentle electronics of the exploration bot horde and was waiting for the right time to let them loose and do some science.
When the sun hung directly up in the sky thick clouds started gathering on top of them. The dark puff quickly engulfed the blue and a rumble of storm was heard.
“Probably low atmospheric pressure,” Memo guessed.
“Let’s haul everything fragile inside,” Ashley said, looking through the binoculars. “I don’t think this gravity with the rain will be gentle.”
“Good point,” Brick agreed.
They quickly loaded the gear in question and boarded the shuttle together. Memo’s mannequin was left under one of the wings on the request of the AI itself.
“It will be interesting to observe the flora under these conditions.”
 “I find him admirable,” Zyana shared.
And the conditions did not disappoint the cautious measures. A torrent of water poured down on the ground. The blue flowers flattened against the harder tumbles; they, in part, got almost submerged in the near flood.
“There easily is enough water to pick up the shuttle and drag it off to somewhere,” Memo observed.
“Bloody hell!”
“It shouldn’t be raining over a large portion of land, though. The water seems to be flowing away just as quick now.”
In a mere ten standard minutes later the rain stopped and rays of light emerged from behind the thick clouds.
The water quickly drained away, and in half an hour it looked as if it hadn’t rained at all.
“Well, I’m glad that went well.” Ashley grinned. “Let’s get back to it.”
The afternoon was devoted to Memo’s science. They released the exploratory drones to study nature here in microscopic details. Samples were brought to a small lab-in-a-crate for further research. Battery levels were growing healthy due to solar. Ashley still found something to be concerned with—rations. The current estimation was six local days.
She was just planning a return to the main ship, when Memo approached her with an interesting finding.
“I believe you can metabolise part of the plants here.”
“You mean eating?” She gawked at him. “That might actually be life-saving!”
He pointed at one of the sparse trees.
“Carbon-based chemistry: the seeds are encased in some sort of a sap. Highly fibrous and not unlike cellulose. The rest are simpler sugars.”
“If what you say is true, it’s just too convenient. Let’s try to be a bit dubious. Are you sure that thing’s edible?”
“Yes, Chief,” the mannequin nodded head.
“I am eager to give it a try, Chief,” Brick voiced from the vox. “It does have trace amounts of chemicals we’re not quite familiar with. But I don’t think they’ll harm us. After all, even Earth-based fruits contain poisons that would kill you in a concentrated form.”
“I suggest small intakes over several days to observe side effects.”
“I’m game,” Brick agreed.
“Now I better understand your fascination, Memo,” Zyana added. “I didn’t know you could eat something from a different planet.”
“Organic or carbon-based life has the best chances of proliferation throughout the Universe,” Memo stated. “Actually, I think it would be quite common for you humans to find foods throughout Space.”
Ashley’s voice betrayed enthusiasm: “Let’s see it, then.”  
Surprisingly, Ashley was disappointed with the extremely scientific method her companions chose to follow. She would have to wait before trying it for herself.
 As evening was approaching the exhaustion was becoming extreme. They were uplifted by the success of their first day here, but even Memo admitted that it would be practical to shut down the mannequin overnight. Ashley disagreed and asked that it be posted as a sentry. They drew straws to see who’s going to sleep in the cabin. Zyana won and this time she did not hesitate to enjoy the cosiness of the only comfortable bed around. It was the small cargo bay for the rest of the gang. Memo was running the turret and several small patrols of robjects. Emotionally, he wanted to hibernate together with his fellow humans. The logic cores would wake him up in case of emergency.
“I feel like that when I’m with people,” he shared.
Ashley just mumbled and pulled the blanked over her sore body, passing out quickly. Brick’s chest was already moving rhythmically in deep sleep.
Observing the silence, Memo continued with putting the behavioural neuro-centres and algorithms to ‘rest.’
Dark, dark…quiet…sleep…
She felt her body. She hadn’t realised there was so much pain in it. Lower back, muscles, legs…it all throbbed achingly.
Gentle warmth wrapped her. Ashley could not move a limb, but she heard her own slow and rhythmic breathing. The pain subsided. It began to drench away; slowly, peace took over. She felt embraced…cared for.
“Am I awake?”
Sensation and memories from the past day came over and she felt tense and wanted to get up and see if the rest are ok…
But that dissipated and again only peace remained.
She was aware of the chthonic silence, a moment of time stretching longer and longer. There was no thought of existing or doing or thinking. She just was.
Ashley moved in disbelief. Again the memories came over. She was obliged to protect them. She felt her pulse increasing.
“Am I awake?” she asked again.
“That is not important now.”
“Who are—?”
A vast dark cloud, the essence of night itself, emerged in front of her. Dots flickered in and out of existence all around: bigger, smaller, all in different colours. The cloud began to swirl slowly. It twisted and compressed together in the centre.
It became a yellow haze. Ever more quickly it was spinning and condensing until a white, shining dot emerged in the middle of it.
Staring at it she felt incredibly hot.
The dot grew into a white and glowing sphere. A vast explosion followed which threw everything else away violently. The haze settled far, churning around the newborn star.
Smaller whirls began emerging around the glowing behemoth. They sucked the remaining dust and smoke and became spinning spheres: planets. They looked charred, hot, and inhospitable. She saw them spinning vehemently, jiggling and oscillating around their axes, as if struggling to overcome a tremendous force. The closer they came to each other, the further they were hurled next around. To her it seemed they might fly away any moment.
One of them came extremely close. It filled her entire sight. Ashley witnessed a dim and sickly yellowish gloom covering the planet, which suddenly cleared to reveal a dark, bruised and lashed with red scars land. A smaller rock swiftly collided with the planet and engulfed the entire surface in one giant explosion that left the whole surface covered in a milky mist. Then it dissipated to reveal a beautiful blue all across, patched with brown stretches of land. Before she could even admire it for a moment it all became white in a global freezing and changed to blue again. In the meantime the planet was spinning constantly never finding its perfect axis. Every time the blue became white, it amassed in a different place around the globe: either or both of the Poles, or all across, in different beautiful patters. And all the time the land changed its form. It never remained the same.
Now she was submerged under an ocean. She saw animals and creatures, buzzling about on the bottom. The water abruptly withdrew; they were dead. Then there was ice. It disappeared and a jungle of huge large trees grew. It began raining constantly; they all became corrupted, rotten. And they froze. The ocean came again. There were different creatures, moving and stirring. All this only to be replaced by a vast dry dessert.
She lost count how many times she witnessed this dance of life and death. Obliteration and creation intertwined eternally in this vision. From the remains of the old emerged the new.
She heard a cackle. Glancing around she found herself surrounded with the familiar tumbles; the night sky she had seen before. There was a distant echo, faint and quiet. But if you listened intently you could hear it reverberate. And Ashley listened.
“Base to Explorer.” Static. “Base to Explorer! Do you copy?”
“Copy, Base!”
Time accelerated and day and night changed rapidly. The echoing voices were lost. In the same time she felt incredibly lonely. She found herself pondering about…them.
“But that’s us! We’re all humans!”
No answer came.
She was carefully measuring every idea and rethinking every notion that had shaped so far from this new encounter. Every time a surge of happiness came - “I am not alone!” - she’d shake head and contemplate again on the existence of somebody else out there.
Again Ashley said aloud:
“But I am not alone!”
A deep sensation of abandon and emptiness surged in her being.
Then the same warmth of happiness and satisfaction emerged.
“I was.”
“I didn’t even know it. Until I knew of you.”
“Your…kind. All of you. How many there are of you?”
The fast cycle stopped at another familiar looking field of tumbles. This time Ashley heard familiar voices in the static. She knew the people talking…Brick, Zyana, Memo, and herself.
She wanted to reach for the sky. She knew where they were. She wanted to meet them and talk to them. But she didn’t know them. The warm cosy feeling and happiness stepped away to cold planning and rigid speculation. She had to be careful; she had to study them better; she had to come to know them before they knew her.
“You are ancient!” Ashley exclaimed.
“Only when compared to you.”
The world around her became a smeared haze of colours as she felt rapidly ascending up. When it halted she saw her exploration vessel. The voices became clearer, louder.
The urge to meet them only grew stronger the closer she was getting to it.
She became impatient. She signalled her joy, expressed her feeling in the purest way she could. She could not hold back anymore.
In retrospect, she thought, she might have made a terrible mistake. She had scared or hurt them in some way. They fled. They could not go anywhere else than her old home. The one she had seen so much death and rebirth on.
“I am sorry.”
“I understand,” Ashley replied.
She opened her eyes.
Such a good night sleep had not come to her in a long time. She felt very relaxed and well rested. Brick wasn’t in the room, and neither was Memo’s processing unit, so she assumed she must have slept a long time. Good thing the boys did, letting her over rest like that.
What a fascinating dream! Ashley could not remember another time she could recall images so vividly. 
Smiling, she put the breathing mask on. She decided to live without the bothersome carapace today.
Headed to the exit, she voiced through the radio:
“Good morning, gang! If it’s morning, that is.”
“Errr,” Brick’s voice answered. “Chief, you alright in there?”
“Living the dream.” She boomed and tapped the exit console.
Nothing happened.
Clicking again, Ashley said, “Is this thing broken? Guys! There’s a small malfunction here!”
“A moment, please—”
The door slid aside. The three of them were outside staring intently. Simultaneously they bent over to look behind her.
Oddly, no frustration came to Ashley and she just arched an eyebrow.
“You lot going mental?”
The only answer was Zyana pointing with finger at something behind her.
Hands onto her waist, Ashley turned around.
“…Wow,” She said quietly.
Close to her bed there rested a faintly glowing sphere. No bigger than a football, it was suspended in mid-air, slowly hovering up and down. It was casting a dull glow around it.
“I tried waking you, but you wouldn’t move—” Brick blurted out.
“We dragged you out, but the thing was following you. It wouldn’t go away and we couldn’t make it, either,” Memo added.
“At the end we just locked you away, Chief. We didn’t know what to do.” Zyana concluded.
Slightly tiltering her head, Ashley quietly replied, “I don’t think it’s that dangerous.”
She walked towards the small globe.
“My unit awoke me. It had picked up a signal very similar to the broadcast from the black box…before the ship went cold up there,” Memo reported. “Then I saw it.”
“A similar signal you said?”
Ashley stretched her bare hand and placed it on the ethereal orb.
A delicate tickle came—as if tiny pins touched her skin. It was faintly warm but soothing still. A familiar sensation of peace and surrender gradually ensued. She felt butterflies in her stomach.
“You guys should come.” She beckoned with her free arm.
Bewildered, they all piled behind her, staring at it.
“There’s no reason to worry.” She turned around. “You should try it too.”
Brick, brushing his chin with two fingers, wrinkled his forehead. Memo assumed his epic thinking man posture again and Zyana stretched her hand.
“Chief, is there something you’re not telling us?” Memo demanded.
Ashley confirmed with a nod and gestured at Zyana, who stood there frozen in place.
“Mmm…that actually feels odd,” Zyana concluded with a bemused note.
“I think it wants to talk with us,” Ashley said.
“Well, as long as you share,” Brick added. “I’m game.”
“Indeed,” Memo seconded.
Gently placing both of her palms underneath the sphere, Ashley carefully moved it around. It had no weight; it didn’t feel material at all, but it was gliding together with her.
“By the way,” Memo began, “earlier we tried getting it off from you.” He swung his hand towards it. “But we couldn’t do a thing.”
His hand passed through, dragging the bulk of its body. The glowing orb stretched as if made from oil and scattered into smaller misshaped bubbles, which slowly converged whole again.
“Hmm...Don’t do that again, ok?”
“Sure. Do you want to tell us what you know, Chief?”
“Yeah.” She smiled. “Take it easy.”
She sat on the floor, her back on the wall, still holding the orb.
“So I had this dream…” she began.
“So, it’s alive!”
“I should go fetch some equipment.”
“It is possible that…quantum mechanically speaking, the thinking process might be quite similar. Already you and I have a huge similarity, but that might be applicable to other species as well. Simply fascinating!”
They stared at Memo, whose mannequin, for a reason, was striding up and down the room.
“Well, I’ve no doubt that it’s intelligent.” Ashley gracefully pushed the sphere away, which rested in mid-air.
“Is there any way we could speak with it?” Zyana prodded carefully at it.
Brick pondered. “During sleep we change the waves of the brain’s functions. Nobody has experienced any…talking just now, have we?” He looked around.
The rest shook their heads.
“Earlier you said you detected a signal that was—“
“Similar to the one recorded just before we got jammed in orbit.”
“Right! That may well be a way to communicate. We could try setting spectrometry equipment and look for frequencies coming from it.”
“Or we could just try sleeping again,” Zyana beamed.
“Can do…” Brick mumbled.
“I find you extremely lucky to be able to tell such a story, Chief,” Memo said, still walking slowly around. “Although much scrutiny remains to be done, if your biology is the medium with which you communicate with it…Well, I’d be very disappointed.”
Ashley laughed. “Suck it up, big man. After all, I won’t be able to pull it off without you,” she nodded at Brick. “Or you.”
“Ahem.” Zyana cleared her throat.
“Sorry!” She smiled at her.
Snorting quietly, Brick left. Ashley thought that, perhaps, he wasn’t getting the attention he was looking for with all that technical stuff he was speaking off. She also noted that she didn’t usually make space for such thoughts. Then again… there was the brain interaction he had mentioned. Maybe that was it. Maybe one changed somehow when speaking with the thing.
She gazed back at the orb. It had started floating left and right more liberally. Ashley got the impression it was exploring.
“After all, the particles that constitute the thinking process share the symmetry of one and the same universe,” Memo finished extrapolating, triumphantly.
“So, you’re saying that we might be more equal than we think,” Zyana said.
“To a degree we already are.”
Both of them looked at the sphere, which was slowly headed towards one of the room lights. Lazily, it settled closer to it and stood there.
“Do you think it might just be some way of spying on us?” Zyana asked.
“Plausible. I certainly would not be surprised if that turned out to be the case. Still, I admit that the other possibility excites me much more.”
Silent, Ashley stood up and went closer to it.
“I think it might be gathering energy from the lamp,” she said. “It could be eating from it.”
Short silence ensued, during which the three of them were each pondering about the odd statement.
“Why wouldn’t it just go outside? Plenty of sun there,” Zyana spoke.
“This could be everything it needs,” Ashley replied.
Memo turned his featureless head. “Hmm?”
“You did say that life here gets annihilated quite often. It might have grown used to scarcity. It’s amazing how many cycles I witnessed in such a short space of time.”
Brick entered bearing some arcane equipment.
“We could start listening.” He boisterously started unfolding the gear.
“I’m sure we will find something.” Ashley headed to the exit. “After all we can see some light coming out of it.”
“Well put,” Memo agreed.
“I already want to talk with it.”
“If we could ever learn to talk with it.” Ashley turned with a smile. “First thing will be to ask it to fix our ship up there.”
The three of them nodded, laughing.
“Yes, Chief.”