Copyright 2017 William Petersen
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person,please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Dorn marveled at the dark, jagged peaks accentuating the rugged landscape; vast copper-colored lakes and flows broke up the stoic surroundings with lazy reflections. The occasional twinkle on the surface of the viscous liquid denoted the faint luminescence reaching out to the tiny world from a distant star.
“It’s not hard to get why others think we should stay within the safety of Onn,” Kil mentally broadcast from behind him, “Not that I agree, but I can empathize. It can be pretty intimidating when one looks at it from this perspective.”
Dorn turned to see her staring up at the monstrous partial disk dominating the black sky above them. The twin vertical lines of blueish-white lights making up her eyes burned with curiosity and wonder as she stood upon another world and gazed back at her own.
Milky white and tan cloud bands raced around the latitudes at varying speeds, some boasting visible turbulence and swirling storms. The monstrous ring system formed a majestic arc around their home world as ice chunks large and small rotated in an eternal, gravitational dance. All the while, the tiny moon on which they stood traced a haunting, black circle across the creamy surface.
“Yes, but if we stay there, then we learn nothing more. Deep down, I think that everyone wants to know what is out there,” Dorn replied. He had come to think of her as one born of his own light, a third to join his younger two back home. Her light waves and dark, red and black skin patterns resembled those of his own family’s so closely that most automatically assumed she was his offspring.
Both sets of eyelash-like wings on his back urged to flutter in response to his desire to move but were restrained by his suit. He engaged the controls to reposition, and the diamond-shaped light on his chest throbbed as her infectious energy filled his own body. Dorn looked back to the rest of the team following behind them as they ventured out to sample the vast methane lake spreading out ahead.
Two figures trudged over the alien landscape, taking care not to pierce their fragile suits. Walking was physically taxing and unnatural to them. It took endless training to learn how to rely solely on their legs. The two sets of black, frond-like wings on their backs cut through the dense atmosphere of their home world but were useless in the relative vacuum of the tiny moon.
“There’s just too much space,” Inst chimed in between breaths, never shy about voicing her opinion, “We can’t be the only living things.” The biologist’s normally soft, but confident, mental voice sounded tinny as it was processed by the electronics.
The approaching pair moved slowly and deliberately in the near total absence of gravity; pushing too hard with their long, slender legs could easily launch them into orbit. The ethereal blue tints of their eye lights cut through the metallic, orange haze even better than the external lights on their suits. Each brightened their eye lines to take in more.
“Space has nothing to do with it,” Uul, the engineer and ultra-pragmatist of their crew playfully argued, “It’s all about finding methane in all three of its states. Find that, and you’ll find life.”
“You never know,” Kil sent back, “Look at the fossil records and some of the things that have been discovered above and below our so-called habitable layers. There’s life in the turbulent, upper layers and even in the ices and rocks near the core. We used to think that nothing could live at either of those depths, but there they are.”
Uul shot back, “Yeah, but none of those are advanced forms of life, nor will they ever evolve to be. That’s why we’re not looking at the inner planets. Well, that and the fact that we would sublimate into a gas that close to Rone. Nothing could live so close to a star.”
Kil rose to the challenge, “But that’s exactly why we should be looking at those planets. Just because life as we know it cannot exist there, it doesn’t mean that something else can’t evolve under those conditions.”
Not one to be left without the last word, Uul concluded, “If we find anything out here, it’s going to be primitive at best.”
“I think Nia-1 is primitive at best,” chimed into their minds, “You guys want to get moving and answer some of those questions or use up your gasses discussing them?” Non, the captain of Nia-2 inquired with only a hint of humor.
“Just waiting on the stragglers, and then we’ll get around this formation. I don’t want to lose sight of anyone,” Dorn announced, but as he exchanged glances with Kil, both of their chest lights flickered with levity.
“Confirm that,” came Non’s response in a much lighter tone, “We really just want you to hurry up and get around there, so we can see it too,” faint giggles trailed into the minds of the Nia-1 team as they regrouped.
“And what about the lights?” Inst wasn’t ready to let it go just yet. The others instantly roused and groaned at the insinuation. “You can’t just dismiss them, we’ve seen them but still can’t explain them.”
“The lack of an explanation doesn’t make them alien ships,” Uul fired back.
“But it doesn’t prove that they aren’t…”
“Alright, we’re not debating this now. We’ve got places to go and work to do, so let’s…” Dorn trailed off as he stared at the faint shadow cast by his form. It seemed to be growing darker, and then it began to flicker and move. He looked up at the others, now staring skyward.
Dorn’s breathing stopped as he gazed up at the tiny, blinding disc of light streaking through the outskirts of the moon’s atmosphere. As his eye lights adjusted for the glare, an asymmetrical shape became clear. Gold and silver patches glinted with the reflected light of Rone, and two large, flat wing-like structures protruded from its center. Even at his current distance, he could see it was obviously metallic. It was something that had been made.
Dorn looked back to the others, now staring at him, their eye lines were as bright as they could get with wonder and shock. He let his gaze return to the strange object in the sky. “Um, Nia-2, are you seeing this?” Dorn inquired and tapped his helmet as if it would actually have bearing on his mental signal being transmitted.
Dorn didn’t need any confirmation for the truncated sentence. The object in the sky suddenly brightened, and then a piece detached from the underside and began to drift downward.
“Is it… Is it breaking up?” Inst questioned.
Uul was quick to answer, “No, I don’t think so. It looks more like a controlled separation.” The last two words echoed throughout their minds and those of the Nia-2 team.
Kil’s eye lines brightened, “But that means…” she trailed off.
“It’s a lander,” Uul finished for her. Though his professional confirmation as an engineer was not needed. A long, billowing tail had appeared with thin lines attached to something all of them recognized right away. A parachute.
“What does Control say?” Dorn inquired of Nia-2.
“We’ve sent the images, waiting on orders,” Non replied.
The mental voice of the navigator for Nia-2 suddenly streamed into their minds with a noted urgency, “What if it’s a weapon?”
The group momentarily faced each other, and all understood that if it was indeed a weapon, there was no chance of escape. The craft descended as the four explorers tracked its progress with a mix of fascination and dread. They watched in silence as the disc-shaped object crept ever closer to the surface of the hydrocarbon lake.
Their bodies tensed in anticipation as the craft touched down on the thick, amber liquid. Lazy ripples radiated outward in slow motion from the slight depression created by the impact. The parachute descended and draped off the object to rest on the surface of the golden-orange lake. The group was transfixed by the ethereal motions.
Well, this makes collecting a methane sample seem a lot less important, Dorn thought, shifting his focus from the lander to the object that had delivered it, streaking away into the blackness. A crushing confusion weighed heavy on his mind.
“Orders…” broke Dorn’s spell as it drifted into the minds of the Nia-1 team, followed by, “Control wants you back in the ship, now.”
The team stared at each other for some time before Dorn took the lead and began the arduously slow and awkward journey back to the ships. He had expected them to argue about inspecting the object. Yet, no one spoke as they navigated the craggy, jagged terrain of ice and rock to reach their craft.
Nia-2 slowly materialized through the haze, and Dorn admired the rectangular aperture atop the ship. It waited patiently for its time to peer farther into space than any other in their history. They assembled inside the airlock, and the process of pressurization began. As the inner door slid upward, the lights of the equipment panels flashed a barrage of colors at them.
“Wow, looks like we’ve got some messages.” Inst unnecessarily pointed out.
Each station flashed with communication indicators; messages and orders from home. The group removed their suits and vigorously fluttered their wings, reveling in the fact that they could again use them to swim through the thick gasses mimicking their home world’s atmosphere.
As they made their way to their respective seats, Dorn manned his own station and opened the communications to Nia-2. Non’s voice streamed into the cabin. “Dorn, you’re not going to believe this. They’re telling us to leave. They put a blackout on the mission, and they’ve ordered us home.”
A series of confused and worried looks passed between the crew, then all rushed to retrieve their communications from Onn Control. Gasps echoed through their heads, and Dorn began relaying his own orders to the group, “Mission is blackout status. No part of what the crew has seen or documented can be conveyed in any way to the public or anyone outside of Onn Control.”
Dorn looked up to see that the others were now watching him intently. Disappointment and confusion flowed out with his mental voice as he told them, “Immediate return.”
“What?” Orin, Nia-2’s engineer, called out, “What about the telescope? That’s half the reason we came here!”
“If we leave now, without a sample and without deploying the telescope, then the entire mission is a failure. Why would they do that?” Kil queried, but no answers came.
Dorn was thoroughly confused and opted to postpone viewing anymore messages from Onn. Instead, he joined the others in staring at the repeating image on the cabin display of the alien craft and its offspring.
The gentle voice of Ost, the navigator aboard Nia-2, slid across the mental ear of the others, “The coordinates and the timetable are in. We have two rotations to prepare for departure.” A few, painfully long seconds elapsed, and she added, “I guess this is for real.”
Dorn and his crew stopped watching the display and once again stared at each other. The confusion among them was as thick as the swirling gasses circulating throughout the cabin.
“What are we going to do?” Inst wanted to know.
Dorn was quick to respond, “We follow orders.”
“So we leave, just like that?” Kil’s anger was replacing her confusion, “We came, in part at least, to search for life outside of our planet. I’m pretty sure that thing out there constitutes not just life, but intelligent life. Why run away as soon as we find it?”
“I have an idea,” Nio, the team astronomer chimed in from Nia-2, “We can’t disobey orders, but that doesn’t mean we can’t investigate.”
“Investigate the lander?” Dorn inquired.
“No, we use the telescope.”
“How? The orders were pretty clear, and there’s no way we can deploy and activate it in just two rotations. There’s not enough time.” Dorn countered.
“Not deploy, just activate. We leave it attached to the ship and simply turn it on. I’m working on tracing possible paths right now. By the time the results are in, Orin and I could have the telescope up and running,” the astronomer confirmed, “That is, if we get started now.”
Non’s voice came to the forefront, “Dorn, I think we should do it.”
Dorn aimed his eye lights at the floor of the cabin and contemplated. The dark red bands of light tracing the length of his limbs and joints took on a muted, crimson glow. “Alright, we’ll turn it on, but we’re handing everything over to Onn Control. I won’t allow anything that directly violates orders.”
“We’re on it,” Non’s voice fired back almost immediately, “Keep the channel open, and we’ll connect you as soon as we have images.”
Dorn looked up at his crew and was met with a trio of dull eyelines. He turned away from the others and resumed watching the looped video. The crew assembled near one of the vents pumping the life giving gasses into the ship and began huddling together, preparing to rest until their pre-flight duties called.
For Dorn, the reality of the cabin quickly slipped away, there was only his respiration and the sight of the alien craft dropping its surprise, over and over again on the cabin display. The efforts of moving in the suit was taking its toll him as well, and the images began to blur as his eye lights dimmed. After fighting valiantly for some time, Dorn reluctantly joined his crew and succumbed to sleep.
A flickering light teased his senses, and as Dorn tried to stay in the warm embrace of slumber, reality and dream merged. His mental view showed the strange landing craft splitting open along a linear seam. The light coming out of it flashed and strobed, causing his own eye-lights to ebb and flow with luminescence. Shapes began to move from inside the craft, cutting through the light with black bars of shadow. Just as the shadows started to morph into discernible forms, the image blurred, and a familiar voice softly weaved its way into the dream.
“Dorn. Nia-1, can you see this?”
The words were coming from far away. Dorn illuminated his eye lines to reveal the rest of the crew still asleep. The lights on their chests and bodies pulsated rhythmically in time with their respiration, out of sync with one another, yet rhythmic and somehow cohesive. The lights of their eyes emanated a soft, almost imperceptible glow.
“Dorn, are you there?” Non’s voice was much louder and more clear.
Dorn forced more light through his eye lines, and the fog distorting his vision melted away. The image streaming into him quivered and fell into focus, and his eye lights grew bright.
“Is that..?” slipped out of his mind.
“The third planet,” Non affirmed.
Dorn ignored the stirrings behind him and stared at the hemisphere of cobalt blue sporting wispy, white clouds bands and swirls. Brown stains broke up the seemingly endless expanse of blue, eventually giving way to solid white at the pole. Faint glints tickled his eye lights and stirred his wonder. “Are those,” a prolonged pause, “Are they probes?”
“No, they’re satellites. Artificial satellites,” Nio confirmed, “What we saw, and what it dropped here, those are probes.” He gave them ample time to process the information over a prolonged silence, then added, “And that’s not all.”
As he marveled at the image of the blue marble, Non unveiled something even more amazing, “Dorn, we’ve found them circling nearly every body in the inner system, and I suspect that if we train our lens on the outer ones, we’ll find even more. Just like the one orbiting Nia, and us, right now.”
Dorn was lost in a churning sea of thought, and though he wanted to speak, to unleash the barrage of questions swarming through his mind, he couldn’t convert his thoughts into words.
Inst broke the silence from behind him, “It’s the same thing we are trying to do, but instead of placing equipment on terrestrial satellites, their equipment are the satellites.”
Uul stood behind her and offered his own input, “That means that they are much more advanced, at least technologically. We’re taking the first step off our planet, while they’ve already reached out this far, and who knows, maybe farther.”
Nio continued with her findings, “Light analysis suggests an atmosphere of mainly nitrogen and oxygen at a small fraction of our own pressure and depth. It’s just a thin bubble really, only slightly more dense than the atmosphere of this place and toxic as can be.”
“Living things are breathing that?” Kil asked in disbelief.
“Oh, there’s more,” the young astronomer announced, “To exist as a gas at those pressures, the surface of the planet would have to be very hot. I mean really hot. As in, vaporizing the very materials our ships are sitting on and evaporating us, hot.
Nio fell silent and let the others absorb the information. Dorn settled in to his seat and pulled up the feed for one of the external cameras. He sat in silence, staring at the jagged spires and icy terrain, trying to envision an intelligent organism that could live and thrive in a poisonous environment hot enough to vaporize him.
Nio concluded, “If you think about it, neither of our kinds could ever exist in the same place at the same time. Sure, suits and enclosures and such, but we could never really interact with each other. Our pressures and temperatures would crush and freeze them, while theirs would boil our fluids and incinerate us. The only real positive aspect I see is that they must be really tiny.”
“But what if they make up for it with numbers? What if their hostile?” Ost inquired, and she sounded disturbed, “I think we should turn the telescope off and get ready for launch. Control is right, we need to go back, and we need to take everything with us.”
Dorn was surprised by the obvious fear in her tone, and though he had already made up his mind, he took the opportunity to reassure her and avert any panic spreading among the crews, “She’s right, and that’s exactly what we are going to do. The higher-ups back home will decide what happens next, our job is to follow orders. Store the data, shut it down and let’s get to work.”
The moods of those in both vehicles was sullen as they went about the routine of preparing themselves and their ships for departure. The lights on their chests displayed the muted tones of uncertainty and confusion.
“I don’t understand why we’re running away. It doesn’t make any sense.” Kil announced.
Dorn was quick to reply, “We may not understand the reasoning behind the decisions, but we still have the obligation to carry them out.”
“You know what is going to happen,” Inst cut in, “They’re going to keep it all under wraps, and we all know it. It’s happened before.”
“Are you talking about the past sightings? But why?”
“Could be any number of reasons. Maybe it interferes with belief systems, or challenges some group’s power. Maybe they just don’t think the public can handle the truth. Maybe they don’t want the public to know the truth, regardless.”
Of course, Uul had to add his contribution, “Maybe they already know about the third planet and its abilities, and maybe they’re scared.”
Dorn was having none of it, “If they decide to keep the entire mission classified, then that’s the way it will be. All of us are bound by duty and our personal oaths to the program.”
“That oath also says that we have a duty to explore with bravery and expand the knowledge and future of all…” Kil challenged.
Her declaration surprised him. She had never tried to contradict him. Worse was the fact that she had done it front of the crew while on a mission. A flush ran through his body, and he turned away from the others, wings folded against his back in anger. “I’ve been with this program from the start. If any of you want to throw away your career and risk incarceration, or worse, you’ll have plenty of time and opportunity to do that back home.”
Nio’s voice rang out in their minds, momentarily startling them all. “What about the thing that brought it, how do we know they’re not already here?” The channel was still open, the crew of Nia-2 had heard the argument. “The people should at least be warned.”
“Warned of what?” Kil responded.
“Of the fact that monsters living on a planet of liquid fire are moving through the solar system and into our back yard!”
“That’s the kind of thinking that starts wars,” Kil shot back.
Uul weighed in with, “We might be losing a war right now, were it not for the fact that we’ve remained hidden. I agree with her, and Control. We need to get out of here, and leave no trace behind.”
Non broke his silence, “So you two think we should just run and hide? Never attempt to leave our own world again? Are we to forget everything we’ve learned up to this point in light of the discovery of intelligent extremophiles?”
“This conversation is over. Close the channel, and await my orders,” Dorn barked. He removed the image of the third planet from the cabin display, but none of them could get it out of their heads. With the preparations for launch completed and double-checked, there was nothing left to do but wait. His wing pairs swam through the thick soup of gasses as he positioned himself to nap the time away, grateful that his silence was reflected by the rest of the crew.
Again the dream of the strange ship floated into his subconscious, this time the interior was as black as the void between stars, and then something came out. His dream-self stared in awe at the tiny hand and forearm reaching out from the dark interior of the craft. Although gripped with fear and dread, he watched his own bare arm reaching out, in spite of his vehement mental objections.
The minute, pale thing came to rest in his upturned black hand, at least five times the size of the smaller appendage. Pain exploded up through his arm. He watched on in horror as the small arm and hand turned blue, then white, and crumbled into frozen shards. All the while his own arm seared and smoked, then turned to ash and floated lazily to the surface of the moon.
Dorn awoke with a jerk, breathing heavily. He roughly situated himself at his control panel and pulled up the feeds from the exterior cameras. The ringshine from the tilted bands of Onn was lighting the landscape even before the rays of Rone fell onto the tiny moon. He opened the channel to Nia-2 and projected his mental voice, “Non, what’s your status?”
“Ready,” was the reply.
Dorn heard the fluttering of wings behind him, though not a word was uttered as the crew settled into their own stations and began strapping themselves into their seats. He changed the feed to take in their sister ship. At the sight of the huge device perched atop the craft, he suddenly found their actions questionable. It seemed like such a waste of time and resources. There was no evidence of a looming threat, but orders were orders.
The time crept by agonizingly slow, and the tension within the cabin grew nearly as thick as the mix of gasses percolating within it. Dorn was more than thankful when the final command scrolled across his screen. “Lift-off in five,” was all he said.
A jolt shuddered the vehicle as the trio of landing gear groaned into action. The legs extended along tracks and then retracted, gently hefting the craft upward against the minuscule gravity of the moon. Once out of Nia’s atmosphere, the liquid rockets would be fired, then jettisoned prior to reentry.
“All systems operational,” Uul announced.
“Burn for course correction is calculated and loaded,” Inst confirmed.
Dorn changed the display to see below their craft, where Nia-2 soon crept into view. It too glided gently above the surface and slowly ascended.
“We have warning lights,” Orin’s voice came over the communications link.
“What? What warnings?” Dorn immediately asked.
“Nothing serious, two of the legs are just taking their time retracting,” the engineer affirmed, “All other systems operational.”
“Burn for course correction loaded,” Ost informed her own crew.
Dorn inquired, “What’s going on with those legs, Orin? Talk to me.”
“Um, I don’t really know. We can see them on the camera, but they aren’t moving. They haven’t even pulled in halfway. I’ve cycled them three times now, and I can’t get them to move up or down.”
Dorn didn’t need to expound the ramifications of the malfunction. All knew that there was no way the ship could survive reentry into Onn’s atmosphere with even one leg extended. The ship would be dragged off course and torn apart in the upper layers. The crew of Nia-2 understood this as well, and it was reflected in their silence.
“Approaching the burn window,” Inst called out with more urgency than was normally present.
Dorn turned to face Uul, “What can we do?”
“Honestly, I don’t know.”
“What about emergency docking?”
Non’s voice boomed, “You know there’s not enough time. Are you going to kill everyone in both ships, trying to save those in one?”
“What if we bump them. You know, nudge the legs back into place with our ship?” Kil asked.
Non quickly shut down the theory, “It’s too risky. Again, you destroy all, trying to save some.”
“We’re in the window,” Inst reluctantly informed them.
“I don’t know what to do,” Dorn admitted, the shame and regret clear in his tone.
“We’ll get back to you,” and with that, Non closed the connection.
“Dorn, we need to burn now,” Inst reminded him.
He simply nodded, and the craft soon shuddered again as the thrusters blasted them on a course for home. As soon as the burn was complete, Dorn looked to Inst, “Calculate their burn window.”
The crew of Nia-1 sat in silence and waited for the communications channel to reopen, while Inst furiously resolved the window for Nia-2. It seemed as though a bitterly slow amount of time had elapsed when she announced, “Window closed.”
The communications channel crackled to life as Ost’s voice confirmed, “Course correction plotted and loaded.”
Cheers erupted among the crew of Nia-1, and Dorn announced, “By the stars, I thought you’d missed it. Look, there’s always the chance there won’t be that much of an effect. They may even break off without any damage to the ship.”
“Dorn, we’ve calculated a rudimentary course to follow.” Non’s voice was somber and soft.
“What? A rudimentary course to where?” he asked.
“To the third planet.”
The words echoed throughout Dorn’s head, and he turned to see the surprise and confusion emanating from the others.
“What is he talking about?” Kil asked in a rising tone, “What is he saying?”
“We’ve decided, among ourselves, that this is too big to be decided by any one person or by any government. We took a vote, and we waited until the burn window had closed to tell you so there could be no argument.”
“Non, what are you doing? And what do the others have to say?” Dorn challenged.
Orin sounded off right away, “We voted, Dorn. It’s unanimous.”
“It’s for the greater good, and for the future of all, like the oath says,” Ost declared with obvious pride.
“I don’t really agree with the reasoning of why, but it’s a simple decision really; die now or die later. I choose to die later,” was all Nio offered.
Dorn pleaded, “I don’t understand. You don’t have gas supplies to stay in orbit long enough for a rescue, let alone a trip to the inner system. What are you thinking?”
“We’re thinking about the future,” Non told him with finality.
Kil erupted, “What future? Even if you somehow survive the trip, which you won’t, you’ll be evaporated before you get close!”
“That’s true,” Non’s voice was calm and even, “But the ship itself, our suits and equipment will remain. And given the relative size of our craft to their own, we just need to get close. They won’t be able to miss it.”
Ost’s soft voice again permeated their minds, “Don’t be sad, because we aren’t. This is far too important to leave in the hands of so few. This way, the populations of both planets can choose how to move forward, instead of just a handful on one side or the other.”
“There’s no turning back now,” Non told them, “You have a tough road ahead. It’s now up to the four of you to prepare the world for their arrival. Control will suppress everything, so it’ll be your word against theirs. You’re going to face ridicule, persecution and more, but you have to let them know. Both species will come together, it is now unavoidable…”
Crackling dominated the communications link as the gasses in the upper reaches of Onn ionized around the hull of Nia-1. Nia-2 was gone. The cabin fell silent, save for the gentle hissing of the gas system. The crew exchanged glances, their lights muted with loss and uncertainty.
Dorn stared straight ahead at nothing, his eyelines dimmed, and then darkened as he slipped deep into thought. He pondered not the outcome of the inevitable contact, nor the explanation he would have to provide to the families of those on the lost ship and his superiors. Dorn floated aimlessly through his mind, desperately searching for a clue as to how he would convince the world that not only do intelligent aliens exist, but that they are coming.
Extremophiles explores the common trope of The Aliens are Scary, a prevalent theme that has dominated science-fiction and horror as far back as I can remember. In Extremophiles, humans are the scary aliens. I’ve always tried to imagine the initial response of an extraterrestrial species, a less advanced species in this case, discovering us. Even sight unseen, as in the story, the knowledge of life on a planet as alien as the Earth is to say, Saturn, could trigger a wide range of responses and conflicts.
How might intelligent beings emerging from the depths of a gas giant envision us? Will the aliens run away in fear, knowing all too well the manner in which more advanced species treat those lacking in technology? Will they see us as lava-breathing monsters, in comparison to their own biology? Will our probes landing on their moons and orbiting their worlds provoke or offend? What if the aliens think we’re monsters?
“I write because I’m terribly unhappy if I don’t…” – W.P.
Visit William Online At:
Facebook: Author William Petersen
Sentient beings venture out to explore one of the many moons orbiting their home planet, searching for knowledge and life beyond their world, only to discover that life is more strange and terrifying than any of their race could imagine, and it's more advanced. Will initial fears and lack of understanding prevent contact, or will it ensure it?