A Science Fiction Short Story Contest Entry
|Colin Six-Seven set the science rover to orbit slowly over the largest moon in the middle range from a yellow dwarf. He was sixty-seven in home planet years, but travel speed made him younger, but perhaps more frail. His helmet covered a white crew cut and the suit covered his pale six-foot frame. That was the deal with space work though, lonely. Not many men had close family, so they spent their downtime in low-grav places with their own. After a while, space was unkind to people who went to big spheres.
“Did you see green?!” Colin said.
“I wasn’t looking. Checking the initials on the probes. Looks like we may have good metal.” MAX intoned.
“You know I wasn’t… Max, review!” Colin grunted.
“Flash of green. No positive for life. No positive for water. Order?”
“Drop more probes, get a read on the material comps, and mark this one off as a quarry.”
“What’s the atmosphere?”
It instantaneously checked instruments from the earlier probes. “Interesting. It’s close to inhabitable.”
“A large list of species, but the air quality seems very random and it’s moving.”
“Is the air denser and sinking, or less and rising?”
“The former, slightly.”
“Let’s make another high pass over that same area. Calc it… and slow it down.”
“Coming around again,” Max replied in an asexual voice.
MAX, the Metal Analysys X Model, did more than the name implied. It had all the data the company possessed and knew allowed uses, this was one of them. Finding new life was a priority higher than sources of new metal, so it would assist in any way.
“Have you noticed the solar star along the ecliptic?” Colin had noted the low trajectory.
“The depth of the site would only allow reflected light from the star that cooks the surface.”
“But this!” He pointed up.
“Yes, the minor sun would give direct light for a long growing period.”
“How far down?”
“You asked the wrong question.”
He sighed, “Can I get down?”
“Following the route mapped, you have a survival rate of 78.4%”
“Thanks for the odds,” Colin snorted, “Print me the map and come to a stop on the next revolution.”
Colin got into his slimline gear. It was built to deflect all but the largest direct laser blast, and even those weapons were out of vogue. Since the advent of the Hyper-Drone engine, there were plenty of resources for everyone. It could be a long time before war broke out again.
The path down wasn’t difficult, and even before a rope was needed, there was a sturdy ladder. The air was already good for breathing, so Colin removed his helmet and strapped it to his belt. He paused to rest because he was in a gravity environment, and he was a spaceman. About halfway down the hole in the moon, probably a mile or two across, he could see the work. There were fields and trees bearing crops of some kind, and water in abundance cascading from openings in the rock walls. This was the find of a lifetime. Those fields were cultivated, and he could see something moving in the distance.
He finally made it to the bottom and headed towards the most activity he'd seen from above. If they were friendly, riches awaited. If not, well, who could tell what would befall him. Colin hadn’t felt the full force of gravity from his home planet in a long time, but he could gauge it was about two-thirds here, which would make traveling fairly easy, even though he didn’t get out that much. As long as he maintained line of sight with the ship, the comms worked, and he talked with the computer.
“Max, this vegetation is definitely cultivated.”
“Yes. The patterns are distinct. How is it being done and by whom?”
“You tell me. There’s water coming out of the rocks, but from where?”
“It must be an aquifer of some kind. We had no indicators of water on the surface.”
“I was aboard, Max,” Colin said while looking up at a white puff hanging in the sky. “It may have a microclimate here, too.”
Colin hadn’t gotten very far before finding sentient life. Two of the assumed residents of the community stepped out from tall plantings of an unknown crop. They were armed with a two-pronged metal fork on the end of a long wooden handle, which later he would realize were simply farming implements. There was no way to send actual detailed readings back to Max for analysis, so his assessment would be recorded by the computer as he spoke quietly into the speaker in his suit.
“Bipedal with arms shorter. Seems humanoid, but the skin looks amphibious. Probably just under three meters. Gangly. Probably from generations in this gravity. Large eyes with lateral pupils. No tail. Three fingers with dimpled ends.”
One of them spoke in a series of squeaks. Colin put in his earpiece and turned the translator to the on position. The device held thousands of languages from the known universe, but it did better than that. It had the ability to roughly decipher patterns, and it would learn from it. Unfortunately, it did take time. The statement was probably repeated, and the box kicked out the word “come.” It wasn’t too difficult to gather what they wanted, and Colin nodded. The two in front of him turned and walked at a fast pace, and he had to double-time it to keep up. The locals, he was the alien, continued to speak. It was good, because the translator began to pick up phrases, then simple sentences. Soon it would learn the language.
“Why… you come?” He was asked by one of the residents in more formal dress.
“We saw you from the sky.” Colin pointed up, not knowing how well he was understood.
“How… more… you.” It asked him. He had no idea if it was male, female, or something else.
“It is only me. I have a flying craft.” The translation could be garbled, but it nodded anyway.
They sat inside a cave that would probably be dark if not for the lanterns glowing and casting flickering shadows on the reddish rock walls. Colin wondered where they obtained the oil. He’d seen no hint of livestock or extraction wells for making fuel. It seemed dry in the room where they sat at a rough-hewn table, even if the air was a bit stale. Looking around the room, he made assessments. There were metal objects that were almost certainly made with an alloy, woven rugs and linen, and other items suggesting an age of civilization. He guessed some sort of better burning material would drive the people here to a simple steam engine soon. At sixty-seven, he marveled, to make a famous discovery. His mind raced with questions.
“How do you feed plants?” He knew saying “fertilize” would be a waste of time.
“Feed… that… for… poop.” The box spit out after translating the language of the locals.
“From where? I saw no animals.” He held his hand over his eyes and mimed searching with them.
“Not out. In… and up...this.” His opposite held out his hands and showed levels in the rocks..
That made some sense. From the smooth reddish walls at the top of the canyon, he’d assumed it was also closed off to the bottom. This was far from the truth. There was a large opening about a meter off the ground that led to this cavernous room, and there were other caves, both bigger and smaller all around. Some were walled off by sturdy structures. Many openings were high off the ground without ladders, and he could only imagine that there was some interior network. The more they spoke, the more he understood, and soon they had some meaningful dialogue.
Colin knew he had to win over these people. His first order of business was to give any knowledge he had about planting to his new friends and to learn from them. It was about a nine-month crop rotation, with three months too cool for growing, and it looked to be the middle of the season. Colin six-seven told them of some vegetative material, and he drew pictures of them, that might be planted in the cold months. But his jaw dropped when a woman, who looked to be his species, walked by carrying a basket of garments.
“Who was that?!”
It sounded like sneezing, but it was probably laughing. “Yes,” he said, “Your kind are here. Stayed.”
“Same mix… code… nu.” Colin understood him, they had the same DNA, but how he knew his was a mystery.
Max would hover the craft forever, and running on solar power, it could almost be forever. So he just said he’d be out of contact in the caves. They had times worked out for a check-in, but they weren’t firm at all. The inhabitants here were friendlies. He told Max as much when he strolled outside, and that he would be spending a little time here, learning about the culture. They had made him feel more than welcome with a very posh room, and the food was delicious. But better than anything, he was being constantly attended by females who would often stay. He’d been in space so long it felt like making up for lost time. The language wasn’t difficult, and aside from making strange new sounds, he caught on. It was bliss.
“Time to get food. The cold is upon us.” One of his hosts told him several weeks later.
“How can I help?” Colin said. He had almost decided to return after he took the research craft home and found a transport to come back.
“We have good work for you!”
It turned out they realized the new resident was well versed in science, and they put him in with the storage crew. The task was massive, as they had to put away enough to last until the next major harvest. He was shown the areas where crops would be placed, some cooler due to depth, and some not as much. Colin did calculations on the amount of space, found out which plants needed to be in cold storage, and explored the caves on the lower levels to find new areas. In the end, he did much better than expected. All the while, he watched from his rough but very comfortable room as mostly humanoids worked the fields. Some items were picked, some cut to the ground, while others fields were left to fallow for crop rotation. They set up for a fine harvest festival, and it was incredibly fun for both the aboriginal and his people. They even broke out some interesting fermented beverages. It was a nice party.
“Come. With me.” He called to him and motioned.
“Are there problems?” Colin asked with no answer coming.
He was placed in a room with others, and then the group was taken down a long hallway with the same orange-brown walls. They all seemed to be the same age, but it took a bit more for reality to dawn on Colin. He was never going to be famous. No transmission would make it to his ship even if he had tried. Something was wrong, but until he got to the room, it didn’t make sense. Then he understood why he’d seen no four-legged cattle.
“I can be with women and help with adding new lines to the breed!” He screamed.
“You have already completed that.” The one sharpening various implements replied.
“But I help you in ways no one as smart as me can help you! I can bring you new seeds for cold crops!” He cried.
As the native turned him to butcher properly he said, “Others will be along...”
He felt a stabbing pain in his neck and blood flowed out of him.