ID 36883161 © Andrey Armyagov | Dreamstime
By Chris Hutton
3 – Divergent Paths
There had been no communication between Lacroix and the Galactic Coalition for over a year. No messages could be received nor transmitted by the research post. As such, Dr. Jiya Kapoor had not spoken with anyone off-base since her father had first communicated that her mother had contracted Huang Gao’s disease. By best estimates her mother maybe had a month left now, if she wasn’t already dead, and Jiya had no way to speak with her, let alone reach her.
As such, Jiya had been in a miserable state for some time. She attempted to focus on her studies as best as she could, researching the biology of the bentari and other potentially related pseudo-fauna, but as time dragged on it became harder and harder for her to focus on the task at hand. Of course she’d be a liar if she didn’t admit that it wasn’t just the crisis with her family that had disrupted her focus. The state of the research colony had been in rapid disintegration for months even before communication had been lost.
Something was amiss on Alium, and whether it was a natural migratory shift, or the sign of something far more catastrophic, Jiya could not say with any level of certainty. The Coalition’s research into the planet was too new, with barely a decade and a half of data collected and only by the marginal population of less than a hundred inhabitants, themselves a mix of researchers and necessary station crew with less scientific backgrounds. There just wasn’t enough historical or long-term studies to provide conclusive answers.
Nonetheless, Jiya feared for the worst.
Like many mornings over the preceding weeks, she found herself cresting over a hillock just south of Lacroix, well within the quarantine perimeter, and approaching upon Haruka Lake. She enjoyed the walk and it eased the tensions that usually plagued her. A few purple pinwheels twirled their helicopter-like wings and rose up over the thin layer of fog that drifted across the placid surface of the water. A garon mating call rasped from within a small patch of sapphire bentai, or fictusherba sapphyrus, a potential link between the evolutionary trees of the bentari, fictusherba primus, and the squid trees, fictus abora. This potential link was a major hypothesis of one of her three primary research projects, in which Jiya postulated a common ancestor between these three pseudo-fauna, and their own branch on the evolutionary tree above the split with, and separated from, the other primary pseudo-fauna of the Hiawatha savanna.
This morning, however, she pushed her research aside to simply enjoy the moment at hand, and to take solace in the peace that Haruka Lake provided her. The reed-like bodies of the bentai swayed with a light wind, their blades still spooled tight shielding against the morning dew. The scene reminded her of the bamboo plants piercing the waters of Lake Armstrong by her childhood home, and of early spring mornings as her mother and she waded up to the ankles along the shore collecting Freyan freshwater sand crabs, giggling as the crabs’ legs tickled against their palms. Often, as they bent down to scoop up their prize from beneath the soil of the shore, they had braced themselves against the shoots of bamboo.
Jiya ran the tips of her fingers up along the spooled blade of the closest bentai. The stalk-like appendage felt feathery to the touch, but also pulsing with life. The bentai jolted, then spooled its blade tighter to protect itself from any potential predators. The tighter it wound and the denser its blade became, the greater threat it posed, it’s reed-like blade honing to a deadly point.
Jiya let her fingertips fall aside, then toed away a thick clump of Hiawatha moss. It was the closest life form to an earth plant on the planet, and one of the only photosynthesizing life-forms that had a permanent rooted structure, lacking any form of mobility. The soft, blue pseudo-fauna offered a comfortable cushion, but it was also highly toxic to humans, so the fewer spores she picked up on her clothes, the better. She set upon the loose dirt revealed beneath the moss, and stared out across the lake, thinking of home and of her mother.
Only a moment passed as she sat level with the surface fog, condensation clinging to her hair, before a thunderclap sounded above. Another, and another, and another rung out in rapid succession. The precision of the sound was distinct; man-made. Multiple flying objects had broken the sound barrier. That could mean only one thing; the Coalition had sent a crew to investigate the silence of Alium.
Jiya looked up. The camouflage of the holographic dome worked in both directions, so at first she saw nothing but a lightly clouded sky. Then the first descent capsule burst into existence, popping through the dome. Immediately, the largest swarm of pinwheels she had ever seen rose up from the northern campus and flocked to the capsule, drawn by its heat. The swarm pushed in upon it crowding into every potential entry, and as the pinwheels landed she knew they would be sinking in their tiny rhizora siphoning heat from the vehicle. With enough force, they would obliterate the capsule.
A second capsule glided through the dome, and the scene repeated itself. Now smoke billowed from the first, and Jiya could see small fires breaking out as the pinwheels wound themselves between the aft heat shield and the capsule itself, piercing through the seal interface gap. As a third capsule broke through the dome, two smoke trails billowed up from the damaged landers that had preceded it. Only this time as the swarm approached a billow of ash, water vapor, and smoke released while the capsule jettisoned its heat shield. The burnt metal alloy arced away, crashing like a meteor onto a distant stretch of plain, and the retrorockets that had hidden beneath its shielding roared to life, slowing the trajectory of the capsule.
The swarm had fled from the conglomerate cloud momentarily, not yet clasping to the outer shell of the capsule. Then as the fires flared to life from the rockets, the swarm had charged forward again, only this time drawn to the heat of the flames. Hundreds of burnt pinwheels fluttered and fell from the sky consumed by the heat they so desired. Yet a new problem threatened the third capsule. As its descent slowed its parachute slackened threatening to fall upon the capsule, likely catching itself on fire as the cloth tangled against the rockets. Before this could happen, the retrorockets ceased firing and the capsule dropped like a stone, until the parachute fully expanded again sending the whole configuration into a wild spin.
The third capsule fought back to some semblance of equilibrium, steadying out, and Jiya watched it shift back into a gentle arc. It descended, its chute billowing above, and for a minute she thought it just might land safely. Just as she let out a sigh of relief, convinced the worst had been averted, an explosion sounded and the first of the capsules disintegrated into slivers of shrapnel scattering destruction across the grasslands. The force of the blast blew the remaining two capsules off course, propelling them in opposite directions, the second of the capsules arcing in giant ball of fire, a man-made meteor hurtling towards the surface of Alium.
The remnants of the three swarms fluttered in the open skies, then merged into one massive swarm and descended upon a new target as the fourth capsule crashed through the camouflaged dome. The pinwheels were hungrier and in greater numbers than Jiya had ever observed, and the chances of any of the Coalition crews surviving were rapidly diminishing. Jiya had to get help.
As she ran back to Lacroix in search of aid, Jiya just caught sight of a safety tether snapping on the third capsule’s parachute. Yes, they’re going to need help, she thought. If they survive the impact.
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