A spaceship lands on a new world and the explorers learn something terrifying.
|Emily Watkins and I were both thrilled to learn that our ship was to be the fourth one to land on a strange planet. Six ships had set off at one time from Earth to locate a world we could colonize. Our Earth would no longer be habitable within just twenty years -- one generation -- and six hundred of us colonists had been selected, a hundred in each ship, to locate a planet that we could remake into a new Earth.|
When it was determined that this world was one we would be exploring, Dr. Wainwright had a huge grin on her face as she said, "Beverly, this one is the closest to Earth-like of the fourteen worlds we've come across. It could be The One."
I could definitely hear the capital letters in her voice. Dr. W was my favorite of the four scientists accompanying us; she was easily the friendliest and the most eager to learn about the planets we visited. It was most unfortunate, from her point of view, that we had not been able to explore any of the previous planets we had found. She had begged to be included in the landing parties, but she was deemed too important to the tasks ahead of us. So she depended on me to tell her all about the worlds.
From the orbital-view windows it did look almost exactly like a newly-formed Earth. We could see mountains and plains, forests, lakes, deserts and oceans—but no cities, no highways, and certainly no people. It looked like I believe the biblical Garden of Eden might have looked.
The pilot announced, with an unexpected quiver in his voice, "We will land in just one hour. Emily Watkins and Beverly Hu will be conducting the exploration of the planet." He was apparently just as excited as the rest of us to discover our new home.
While the ship was landing, Emily and I stood anxiously beside the instruments that would tell us exactly how Earth-like the planet was. Just as the ship set down in a large clearing, not far from a lovely azure lake, the instruments showed that the planet was in fact almost exactly like Earth. There was a sun, slightly smaller than Earth's, and the sky was bright blue with fluffy white clouds scudding across it near the horizon. There were somewhat odd-looking trees, what looked a lot like clover on the ground, and shrubs and bushes everywhere.
But we would have to wear our spacesuits when we left the ship, until we had confirmed that the air was in fact as good as it looked.
Emily and I donned our suits, to the obvious envy of those colonists who were not in hibernation, and stood at the inner airlock, wondering just what we were letting ourselves in for. After all, this would actually be the very first planet we would be exploring in person; all the others had turned out to be uninhabitable, either as seen from orbit or once we landed and tested the atmosphere. Dr. Adams had assured the crew that the atmosphere on this planet was very good, though he said it was difficult to know just how good until we had a viable sample.
Emily and I exited the ship after the hour's wait, and set off toward the woods and gardens of this world. These features looked very much as if a reasoning being had designed them, though we found no hieroglyphics or other writings of any kind. We also found no animals, no insects, no birds—it was as if the world were nothing but a hologram.
After a half hour, we were called back to the ship and jumped to a second landing site halfway around the planet, in the southern hemisphere. Here we found almost identical scenery, with slight variations in trees and plants. We took samples of the water, the dirt, the plants and the leaves at each stop, and Dr. Wainwright told us she would let us know the results of the tests as soon as possible.
"But everything looks fine," she assured us. “There is one mineral I can’t quite identify but I’m sure I’ll find out what it is before too long. One interesting thing, though; the plant life on this world is extremely fast-growing.”
We had initially scheduled just two landings, but the scientists extended the search to another two explorations on the other side of the planet. They also authorized us to remove our spacesuits. I was thrilled to get out of the claustrophobic helmet, especially when I caught some fantastic floral scents.
Everywhere we set down seemed the same, with differences only in the size of the forests, lakes and hills. It might have become boring if we didn't have the benefit of a beautiful sky and blue lakes to look at, and a wide variety of flowers, as well as their exotic aromas.
After our second half-hour excursion, I told Emily, “If we have to leave here but we never find the perfect world, I want to come back here to live.”
We saw nothing that wasn’t natural in any of the first three landings and explorations, and in none of them did we find climate or surroundings that made us at all uncomfortable.
On returning to the ship from our third excursion, Harold, the pilot, asked over the intercom, “So, what do you think, team?”
As the senior officer, Emily responded, “There are still no signs of a dominant race here." I was surprised that she sounded a bit disappointed. “But it’s a beautiful place, isn’t it? And so peaceful.”
“Remember what our purpose is.” Harold's voice came over the intercoms to admonish her. “Will we find any intelligent life on this planet?"
Dr. Wainwright added, "I have to say, if it has always been this peaceful here, any native population may not have needed to evolve intelligence.”
“What do you mean?” Emily asked.
“On Earth,” Dr. W went on, “early primates became intelligent so they could cope with the drastic changes that kept occurring over and over in their environment. If there were no harsh or radical events – no volcanoes, ice ages, huge thunderstorms, earthquakes – in this planet's lifetime, any life would have had no need to evolve.”
Emily nodded thoughtfully. “And if they had evolved at all," she said, "they’d no doubt be like the Polynesians were when the missionaries found them – happy and free, and needing no civilizing.”
We took the samples we had gathered from this excursion and handed them to the scientists waiting at the door. I included in my own report that I couldn't imagine why intelligent life shouldn’t have risen somewhere on this planet. No reason, that is, until dusk fell.
We'd gone out for one last exploration and were collecting flowers and plant specimens near the ship and taking photos. As the sun began to set, I noticed Emily suddenly straighten up and sniff the air with a strange look on her face.
She called out to me, “Do you smell that? What is it?”
Hearing this, the pilot returned his full attention to us. "What's going on?" he asked.
I took a deep breath, puzzled. "It smells almost like a combination of rotting fruit and bug spray," I said. "It's nothing like how it smelled just a few minutes ago."
“I don’t know,” Emily added, “but it does smell strange, doesn’t it?”
In a moment, both of us were struggling for breath. I grabbed Emily’s hand and we raced toward the ship, but Emily stumbled a dozen feet away. She went to her knees and I stopped and grasped her hand. By brute force alone, I was able to drag myself and Emily into the airlock where we stood, hands on knees and gasping for clean breaths, for several minutes.
Dr. Adams noted, calm and stoic as ever, “My instruments show a strange, murky bit of dense air falling from the clouds. It’s descending over the entire hemisphere, as far as I can tell.”
As he began analyzing the material, he went on, “I can find no explanation for the toxic air, but it’s suffocating and quite possibly lethal. My instruments can’t appraise it well enough for me to be certain, but it would definitely be highly uncomfortable for humans, and perhaps worse.”
“Is it all over the planet?” I wondered. I stared out the porthole, definitely concerned now.
“I believe so, Beverly,” Dr. Adams said. “I'll record the atmosphere throughout the night, and in the morning we may have enough information to determine what the full situation is.”
We settled down, disheartened, to sleep for a few hours. In the morning Dr. Adams informed us, “The dense fog did not lift until sunrise. Further analysis shows that all over the planet, beginning at dusk last night, this poisonous gas rained down from the clouds. I assumed that the unknown mineral we found in the soil had something to do with this gaseous rain, and found by an analysis of the gas that the rain and the strange mineral are indeed directly connected.”
“So, if this happens every night,” Emily said, “or even if only every now and then, it would certainly explain why evolution hasn’t taken place on this world.”
I nodded. “Only the rare creature that could exist under such conditions, finding secure shelter every night, would have been able to survive.”
Harold made a note in his pilot's journal about our experience and, as we lifted off, Emily recorded a name change in the log, from Garden of Eden to Snake in the Garden.