Significant Other

by Bill Bowler

part 1 of 2


Oscar Atoca waded into the river. The water was green and clear and cold. Ankle deep, knee deep, waist deep, he waded in. He could see the bottom and his feet felt the sand and pebbles. When the water reached his armpits, he pushed off and swam against the lazy current. Thick brush lined the banks, and a corridor of tall trees stretched their green boughs towards a high blue sky.

Oscar heard the muffled roar and, as he swam around the bend, the falls came into view. Just upstream, the river dropped ten or fifteen feet down a rock face into a deep basin where the waters boiled and then spread and stilled. The hushed roar grew louder as Oscar swam to the deep pool, to the falling water. He put his head and then his whole body under the falls. There was only the roar now, and the weight of the falling water streaming down his face and body...

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP

Oscar opened his eyes and saw the silver panels and glowing dials of the command console. The transparent shield slid aside and, groggy and nauseous, Oscar pulled himself out of the transit cocoon to check the alarm read-out. Star Cluster X579dh: 6,000 light-years from Earth; dual star system with 4 planets, 2 in inhabitable zone; 1 Earth-type: 18% oxygen atmosphere, temperate, oceanic with 3 continents; 0.925 Earth gravity.

Oscar turned on the forward view screen. The beautiful dual stars appeared, one red, one yellow, against the black night of space. The ship’s auto-navigator had pre-set course for the third planet, the one like Earth. The hazy greenish sphere hung in space before them.

“Wake the crew,” Oscar spoke, as if to no one, but the ship’s main AI processor registered the command. The three remaining cocoon shields parted and, one by one, the rest of the men regained consciousness.

Disheveled and ill at first from their long, artificially induced sleep — almost two hundred Earth years had passed since they left home — the men shook off the half-death of hiber-transit, quickly oriented themselves and went to work. For the next 96 hours, they circled the third planet, analyzing the atmosphere, ocean, and land mass.

All parameters fell within human physical and biochemical tolerance. The temperate regions of the planet were covered with warm ocean and land masses supporting dense vegetation, with evidence of photosynthesis.

Civilization on the planet, however, was in either an extremely early or extremely late stage of development. None of the scanners picked up any sign of infrastructure: no buildings, no cities, no roads, no bridges, no indication of anything resembling an organized industrial society.

The biometers registered life forms but, except for the flora, which was dense and widespread, none of the higher forms was found in concentration, just traces, isolated and widely dispersed.

Capt. Atoca ordered the ship into stationary orbit over the “eastern” central edge of the primary continent, a narrow plain, adjacent to the ocean, ringed by vast forests with mountains rising to the north and west. They prepared the landing module for descent to the surface.

All four crew members and one android made the descent: Capt. Atoca; Svetlanov, linguistics and cryptography; Mundlapati, bio-chemistry and botany; MABeL, the Mobile Android Bio-environment Lab; and Armstrong, security and intel.

Transfer to the surface was smooth. The module made a soft landing; they opened the hatch and climbed out. The bio-parameters of the atmosphere and soil approximated that of Earth and the crew were able to move about without protective equipment or breathing apparatus.

The yellow-red dual sun lit the planet with an eerie orange tinge, an alien and starkly beautiful backdrop for the purple silhouette of the distant mountains.

Armstrong burned away the dense brush with a laser and they set up camp on a cleared area surrounded by tall waving grasses. Larger plants, hard-shelled and branching, resembling trees, loomed at the edge of the field.

Svetlanov assembled his sensitive cryptographic readers and translators. Mundlapati set up shop and began taking soil, grass, and atmospheric samples for further analysis by MABeL.

A broad stream ran just north of the clearing. A short distance down a slope from the camp, the tall grasses gave way to a black gravel beach, strewn with rocks and boulders and reddish-brown weed thrown ashore by the waves of an immense, green ocean. This was an extremely rare, E1(a)-type planet — containing liquid water — the type their mission was scouring the galaxy for.

Capt. Atoca made his way through the tall grasses down to the beach. The grass grew a good eight feet high and Oscar disappeared into the waving yellow ripples as he made his way to the beach. He imagined the grass was greeting him, welcoming him in. It seemed to bend and bow down towards him, to brush his face and body, and to open up a path before him as he descended towards the water.

A light breeze blew, and Oscar heard a gentle rustling, a whisper, as the surface of the yellow grass rippled. It’s peaceful here, thought Oscar. The spirits are restless, but friendly. I can feel it.

He came out of the grass, onto the black beach, and walked to the water’s edge. Small green waves lapped the shore. The horizon spread in the distance before his eyes, a hazy dull green line against the orange sky.

The two suns were low in west, behind him, their rays cast horizontally across the water’s surface. Oscar’s shadow lengthened. To the northeast, out at sea, he saw electrical flashes and atmospheric turbulence.

Something moved at his feet. He looked down and a small, six-legged creature scuttled across the gravel and splashed into the water. Oscar watched it swim beneath the clear surface. He noticed some floating clumps of seaweed. They drifted and bobbed in the waves, with green tendrils hanging down beneath the surface.

The six-legged creature, in running from Oscar, had darted into the midst of tendrils hanging from one brownish clump, and Oscar watched as the creature stopped and froze, eyes wide, apparently immobile, and the green tendrils wrapped around and around until the creature was hidden from view.

Oscar heard the whisper of the grass behind him, and sensed something from the lapping of the waves at his feet, and felt something from the water’s surface where the seaweed floated. A warning? Or was it a beckoning? Oscar looked up. The dual suns were setting; night was coming on. In the darkening sky, two small dots of light hung low on the horizon, the near planets. Oscar turned back towards camp.

Armstrong, with Svetlanov’s help, had set up security sensors around the camp perimeter. “Just in case we have company,” he said. As Oscar approached the area where the brush had been burned out, the grasses leaned away. He didn’t hear, but felt a shrill whine, like the shadow of an echo of a silent wail. He shivered and passed through the perimeter.

Mundlapati had been busy collecting specimens of fauna and had several small, insect-like creatures in screened cages, for study. He was also running samples of the dark soil and yellow grass through MABeL for analysis. He turned to Oscar. “This planet has great promise, Captain. On first inspection, it seems an ideal candidate for colonization.”

Oscar nodded. He felt at home here, as if, instead of discovering a new planet, he had returned to a place almost forgotten but still vaguely familiar, reminding him of something he could not quite bring to mind.

The silhouettes of the tall, stiff, tree-like growth at the edge of the grass, a hundred meters from the camp perimeter, swayed and leaned as if blown by an invisible wind. Their branching crowns bent this way and that; the branches mingled, then separated, then mingled again in different directions. They seemed to Oscar, at one point, to bend in unison, in a semi-circle around him, towards him, a ring of trees pointing to him in the center. He felt something at the edge of perception, fleeting, gone. What was it? He looked up at the dark, moonless sky, sparkling with stars.

Hours later, Oscar was wrenched awake from troubled dreams by the crackling of the security perimeter. He came out of his pod and saw Armstrong and Svetlanov already at the perimeter, weapons drawn. Between them was some apparition, held fast in the security force field.

“We have our first visitor, Captain,” said Armstrong. “Appears to be one of the locals.”

Oscar examined the uninvited guest. Humanoid. About three feet tall, covered with gray fur, with dark spots on the arms and legs. Three unblinking eyes, black as coal. Four digits, one opposing, on hands and feet. Extended flap-like ears indicated an acute sense of hearing. Around its shaggy torso hung a belt woven in an intricate and beautiful pattern of yellow and green from strands of grass and seaweed tendrils. From the belt was slung a long curved blade resembling a scythe: a black stone from the beach, pounded into shape and sharpened like a razor, with yellow grass wrapped around one end to form a handle.

The creature, suspended and held fast in the force field, made excited clicking and whistling sounds with its lips and tongue. Svetlanov scanned the immobilized creature with a handheld cryptometer, recording and analyzing the sounds. He studied the small screen of the translator.

“It’s a patterned sequence. Possibly semantic,” said Svetlanov. “No larynx, apparently, but the lip, teeth, and tongue structures can generate a wide variety of potentially phonemic fricatives and sibilants. We will need to collect more data.”

The creature, held fast in the security field, began to repeat one sound: “Shss. Shss.”

“What’s it saying?” asked Mundlapati, who had joined them.

“We have an insufficient data base, as yet, to decode the utterance,” said Svetlanov.

“Sounds like ‘Get me the hell out of here!’” said Armstrong.

“He’s brought along some friends,” said Oscar, looking towards the tall grass outside the light of the camp perimeter. They followed his gaze and saw shadows flitting to and fro in the dark grass. “Let him go for now. Let’s see what they do.”

Armstrong reversed the force field and the visitor fell back to the ground. He leaped up immediately and glared at Oscar, then spat on the ground and scrambled away into the tall grass with much whistling and clicking from his associates.

The next morning, they assembled the hovercraft and Oscar took Svetlanov out to reconnoiter the immediate environs, leaving Mundlapati to carry on with his flora and fauna analyses and Armstrong to keep watch.

Oscar piloted the two-man craft across the grassy plain and into the dense forest of thick brush and large, hard coated, branching plants that rimmed the edge of the meadow. As they drove deeper into the forest, Oscar glanced back over his shoulder. He could not shake the feeling that someone or something was watching him.

Svetlanov, busy calibrating his equipment, seemed not to notice. Under the branching canopy, the air took on a reddish hue that tinted the plants and ground. The underbrush around them swayed and oscillated as if in some cosmic dance; the higher branches rustled and scratched against each other, as Oscar listened and his thoughts drifted.

Oscar was Huron. His mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and, according to his great grandmother, his ancestors going back three hundred years and more, had all been Huron, the peaceful and civilized people who once inhabited the North American woodlands between Lake Huron and Lake Ontario.

Now almost nothing remained of the ancient tribal language or customs, just the names, the reddish skin and hooked nose, the high cheekbones and jet black hair. The tribe itself was long since dispersed; the old reservations had converted to casinos two centuries ago; the tribe members were long scattered throughout the megalopolis.

“Slow down, Captain,” Svetlanov broke Oscar’s reverie. “I’m picking up signals.”

Oscar slowed the hovercraft. He heard it now, too, from the far side of a slope that rose to their left. Oscar stopped, climbed out of the hovercraft and crept up the slope, motioning Svetlanov to follow. They reached the top of the incline and gazed down into a lush green valley that stretched away between two hills.

Three of the furry humanoids stood below them, chattering away. One was their spotted friend from the force field; one was larger and carried two long, curved blades, one on each hip; the third was smaller, with faint stripes, maybe a young one.

Svetlanov aimed the cryptometer microphone and pressed the record button. “Spot” and “Two Blades” had gripped the ends of a long, flat, jagged stone and were sawing away at one of the large tree-like growths. The tree had extended its branches straight up, directly vertical, to maximum height. The surrounding growth seemed to lean away from the sawing, stretching in all directions away from the sound. Branches were rustling and scratching each other, intermingled. As the saw teeth chewed through the plant’s hard outer shell, into the soft interior pulp, Oscar heard something. Startled, he looked around but saw no one.

“Did you hear that?” he whispered to Svetlanov.

“What?”

“I don’t know. Like a scream.”

“No. I didn’t hear anything, except that chattering and sawing down there. You getting jittery, Captain?”

“Yeah, maybe a little.”

They watched as the three humanoids cut the plant down and sliced the trunk into sections small enough to carry. From the stump, they scooped out the pulpy interior and carried that away, as well.

When they had disappeared into the valley, the brush around the stump grew limp and bent to the ground. Oscar heard something again but, this time, not a scream, more like a distant, faint echo of a choir.

“Do you hear that?” he asked Svetlanov.

“Hear what?”

“Is the cryptometer picking up anything now?”

“No. Nothing. What do you hear?”

“Check the brush.”

“What?”

“Use the translator. Any readings from that brush?”

“Are you serious?”

“Just get a reading.”

Svetlanov scanned the brush around the cut stump. Nothing. Just minor erratic electro-magnetic activity. He scanned two nearby trees and some of the yellow grass.

“Nothing, Captain.”

“I guess my ears are just ringing.”

When they got back to camp, an unusual and fragrant aroma was in the air. Armstrong had built a fire was cooking something in an open pot. Mundlapati sat nearby at a portable table.

“The underbrush is dry,” said Armstrong, stirring the pot which looked to contain something like oatmeal. “We gathered some kind of twigs and grass and cut some branches of, whatever it is, wood, and it lights right up.”

“A number of species of local vegetation are rich in nutritional content,” said Mundlapati. “The grain from this yellow grass, for example, that surrounds the camp — it’s quite tasty.”


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Bill Bowler

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