Little Green Men
by Peter Cawdron
|part 1 of 3|
Darkness surrounded them. Sleet rained down upon them.
“They’ve broken through the mantle,” Johnson cried over the sound of the frozen methane rain pelting on the back of his helmet. “Dallas wants everyone back.”
Some thirty feet ahead, Mitchell ignored him, wading forward through the mist rising from the thermal pool.
“Mitch,” Johnson cried, “you need to get your sorry ass out of that cesspool and back to the Deis Gratia.”
“You have no idea, do you?” Mitchell replied, his gloved hands working with a portable mass spectrometer. “These vents are astounding. Most of this planet is an icy wasteland at 220 degrees below, but everywhere we find these vents we find a warm chemical oasis at upwards of a balmy 90 degrees. There’s dissolved sulphur dioxides, calcium, lithium, radium. I’m picking up hydroxides and peroxides. This is a primordial soup. And those crystalline structures along the shoreline, they’re like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
“They’re wonderful, beautiful,” said Johnson. “But if you’re finished playing in the mud, we adults would like to get back to work.”
“You ignorant Neanderthal,” Mitchell muttered under his breath.
“I heard that.”
Mitchell looked around. Warm water lapped at his legs, just below his knees as he approached the far side of the pool. The lights from his helmet exposed a neon-blue crust running along the rim of the bank. As he raised his head, the spotlights on his helmet illuminated plumes of steam rising from the mouth of the main vent some fifty feet away.
Mitchell pulled out a pickaxe and took some samples, carefully scraping the neon coating into carefully marked specimen bags. “Five more minutes.”
“That’s what you said an hour ago,” said Johnson, adjusting the gravity compensator in his suit to relieve his aching legs. “Stop screwing around in that spa pool and get the hell out of there. We’re not down here to play around. There’s real work to be done back at the ship.”
“I’m going to need your help here,” said Mitchell, ignoring him. “I want to take a sample from some of these large outcrops above the waterline. I’ll need your mining laser. Will you help me?”
“You need help, alright,” Johnson moaned as he began wading over toward him. “You need help tying your goddamn shoelaces.”
Mitchell snapped. “You... You arrogant, obnoxious, stubborn mule. This isn’t a lark. This isn’t one of your bravado bonding-bitching sessions with the miners. This is potentially the most important discovery in the history of mankind.”
“What?” Johnson snapped back, as the muddy water swirled around his waste, “This hole?”
“This hole, as you so aptly put it, is the genesis of life. If my suspicions are correct, we’re dealing with the alien equivalent of hydrogenothermaceae here.”
“Aliens? Have you lost your bloody mind?” Johnson barked, breathing heavily has he waded forward into shallower water. “In over two hundred systems, almost three thousand planets and God knows how many moons, there hasn’t been a shred of evidence for extraterrestrial life and you think this hole is any different? Where are your little green men? I don’t see ET bathing in this cesspool.”
“Your arrogance,” replied Mitchell with mock calmness in his voice, “is exceeded only by your ignorance and pride.”
Mitchell didn’t want to get drawn into a lengthy debate. When Dallas had assigned Johnson to buddy with him he knew it was a mistake, but Dallas insisted. At the very least, it gave him the chance to explore for something other than volatiles for once, but Johnson, as far as Mitchell was concerned, Johnson was the missing link. Nothing would ever come of him, of that Mitchell was sure, and yet, deep down, he couldn’t help but risk providing him with an explanation.
“Life has existed on Earth for roughly four and a half billion years. For more than four billion years it looked pretty much like this, just a microscopic pile of sludge slowly forming various fundamental organic compounds, the simplest forms of life.
“I can’t be sure until I get these samples back to the Deis Gratia, but the chemical markers here are remarkably similar to DNA. There’s amino acids, simple nuclear sugars, complex molecular strings. There’s every chance these pools are populated by the alien equivalent of archaean bacteria.”
“Great, we’ve found a bunch of bugs,” Johnson grunted, coming up beside him.
“So you’re telling me that the first damn aliens mankind encounters are germs?”
“Well, statistically speaking,” Mitchell began, naively assuming Johnson was somehow remotely interested, “it’s not that surprising. The sheer weight of time required to produce intelligent life would suggest we’re more likely to encounter bugs, as you so eloquently put it, rather than your fabled little green men. The chance of mankind celestially co-hosting the galaxy with another sentient race is just ludicrously small. I think—”
“Can we just get on with this?” Johnson growled. “I’m hungry.”
Mitchell fumed. He turned on the recorder on the side of his helmet and calmed himself as he said, “OK, this is it. One last sample.”
He stepped up out of the pool onto a thin ledge, carefully finding his footing on the fragile crust. Johnson stepped up beside him without any concern for the ground crunching under his feet.
“The structure before me,” Mitchell began, “is roughly twelve feet in diameter, standing eight feet tall. It has the consistency of coral, branching out from a broad base just above the waterline. Specialist Johnson is going to use a standard 3800-nanometre deuterium fluoride mining laser to remove a section roughly the size of my arm.”
“Who the hell are you talking to?” Johnson asked, tapping him on the helmet as if he were knocking on a door to see if anyone was home.
Mitchell was flustered, embarrassed. “Posterity,” he spluttered. “I’m recording this moment for future generations. This is momentous. This is Nobel Prize material. I must record this. They’ll want to know. They’ll want to know precisely how this moment unfolded. They’ll examine this footage for generations to come?”
“To understand. This event will be studied like Columbus discovering the Americas, the pilgrims landing at Plymouth rock. It will be analysed like Armstrong setting foot on the moon.”
“Who’s swollen with pride now?” asked Johnson as he powered up the mining laser.
“Just cut here,” said Mitchell blandly.
Mitchell held the coral arm as Johnson sliced through it with the laser. The brilliant red beam seared through the structure in seconds. Mitchell turned to Johnson, holding the arm up in triumph. A smile stretched across his face as he held his trophy with pride.
“Are you happy now?” Johnson asked. “Can we get back to the ship?”
“Yes, yes. Let’s get back to the ship.”
Johnson turned and stepped back into the pond. Mitchell waded in behind him, keeping the coral arm up out of the water. Mud, stirred up from the bottom, swirled around their legs.
The wind blew wave upon wave of frozen sleet down upon them, reducing visibility to a few feet. Eddies swirled around them in the air. Flakes of methane snow lit up in the glare of their helmet headlights before melting in the heat radiated from the pool.
As they reached the far shore and moved out of the thermal bloom surrounding the vent, the temperature dropped suddenly. Mitchell activated his de-icing circuits, Johnson merely powered up his gravity-assister to increase the suit’s dexterity.
Crystals formed on their visors. Mitchell brushed his away with his gloved hand and noted that within ten feet of the outlying pool the ambient temperature had already dropped to negative 120. The warmth that had previously radiated through the soles of their boots was replaced with a chill.
The shuttle craft sat on the frozen plateau in the distance. The crunch of loose shale underfoot soon gave way to coarse ice.
“Did you see that?” asked Mitchell, breathing heavily with the coral arm resting over his shoulder.
“I can’t see a goddamn thing,” replied Johnson, using his wrist computer to detect the homing beacon on the shuttle.
Mitchell turned his head, allowing the spotlights on his helmet to pan around. Through the driving snow, shadows flickered in the darkness. The earpiece in his helmet crackled as a transmission came through from the Deis Gratia.
“Mitchell? Johnson? Where the hell are you guys?”
“Making our way back to the shuttle, sir,” Johnson replied.
“We’re pumping tritium,” said Dallas, from the warm confines of the bridge on the Deis Gratia some sixty kilometres away. “So come in slow and cold. I don’t want any flare-ups.”
Johnson screamed suddenly and violently. The pitch and intensity of his scream overwhelmed the radio transmission.
Mitchell turned to face Johnson. His hands instinctively went up beside his head as he tried to block his ears but his gloves hit the smooth outer shell of his helmet instead. Over the screaming, Mitchell could hear Dallas yelling as well.
The high-pitched squeal of audio feedback resonated with the screaming, deafening him. As he twisted, his headlamp lit up flashes of brilliant red blood streaked across the blue-white ice.
“Cut his transmission. Cut his bloody transmission,” Dallas yelled at someone else on board the Deis Gratia. Johnson kept screaming, rolling over on the ice. Blood marred his white suit, shards of crimson ice crystals lay smeared across the outside of his visor.
Copyright © 2010 by Peter Cawdron