Slow Planet



“The Gods came upon the world when it was waste and barren, stone under sky.  By their command, the plants did grow and soften the land with their roots.  In this way did the Gods place a sky of blue overhead, so that life could be born on the land and in the seas.  In accordance with the will of the Gods, the tiny things were fruitful and multiplied. And behold, they did begat mighty beasts and towering forests.  As this pleased the Gods, they....”

            “Is that really your log report?”

Silvia Sanchez hung in the doorway, floating in weightlessness above the floor of the corridor outside Greg’s quarters, interrupting him as he spoke into the computer headset that recorded his words.  Her voice was questioning and sarcastic.  The woman Greg was stuck in space with was tall, dark and businesslike, never hesitating to voice her disapproval of any messing around on his part.  His quarters were across from hers. The two small apartments were set between the observation deck and the vast cargo bay of the freighter that had brought the two of them to the remote planet they were orbiting.  Both of them had contracted for a one-way trip away from the overpopulated Earth.  They had been sent on a terraforming mission to a planet that might be suitable for colonization one day.  For Greg, it was the opportunity to escape Earth society and the pressure to be responsible and correct.  Sanchez, on the other hand, saw herself as an explorer, a conquistador ready to tame a wild planet and do her part to solve Earth’s problems.  Being stuck in space with her bratty shipmate had been part of the job.

            The freighter’s massive hold was equipped with all of the seeds, embryonic animals, robots, equipment and materials needed jumpstart life on a foreign planet, as well as quarters and supplies for the crew.  Their quarters consisted of small apartments, carefully crafted for life in weightlessness.  Each crewmember also had a palmtop unit that connected remotely to the ship’s computer, along with a two-way headset.  Upon arriving, Greg had programmed the freighter, using his computer to ease the long, lumbering vessel into a comfortable orbit over the empty world. After sending the robots to survey the planet, Silvia had confirmed that it had a usable atmosphere and that the oceans were suitable for life.  The programmed routines of the robots needed little adjusting.  The small, automated aircraft with mechanical arms and legs were busy accomplishing the first planting.  They had mixed the seeds, so that seeds from as many different species as possible would end up in as many environments as could be found.  Those plants that could grow would produce oxygen, preparing the atmosphere.  All the crew really had to do was wait.  The planet that had been chosen for them was a slow-moving one, so that when the freighter left it, eons would pass before they returned.  Time would allow life to adapt between stages of terraforming. Silvia had been monitoring the first planting, reading the robots’ automated reports and observing the procedure. She was bored enough to see what Greg was up to.  She had left her quarters and eavesdropped for a moment outside the elevator-style doorway to his quarters that yawned open.  He was engrossed in speaking his composition into the computer and had not noticed her until she had spoken.

            “Yes,” Greg said, answering her authoritative question with a grin. “Yes it is.”  He ignored her and fiddled with his headset.

            “And that is what you want the people who sent us here to read about our mission?”  She was scolding him.  She had given up her life on Earth with the understanding that her name would go down in history and Greg’s tasteless joke was like graffiti on a monument. 

            “I don’t care,” Greg countered.  “It’s not like we’re going back.  What are they gunna to do about it?”  Sanchez reminded him of the schoolteachers from his childhood, who had tried to condition him by showing uptight disapproval for every incorrect thought. Just because she was ten years or so older than he was and took everything oh so seriously did not mean she was in charge.  As was typical, she exhaled in a slow frustrated huff. 

            “Are you at least going to help monitor the operation?” she asked.

            “The robots are programmed to tell us if there is a problem, Sly.”  He did not mind helping, but letting her have her way bugged him. 

            “So, you don’t care.”  Greg ignored her disapproval.  On the way there, she had given up on asking him not to call her Sly, as he seemed to do it just to annoy her and protesting only encouraged him.  She pushed off the doorframe and glided to the observation deck, where she could see the planet below them reflecting the light of its alien sun in brown, yellow and pale blue.

            As the robots followed their programs, spreading seeds and venting life-friendly compounds into the open air, Greg disconnected his headset and used his palmtop to save the personal diary entry he had been narrating.  He closed the diary window, revealing the robot interface he had been using to monitor the first planting.  He opened the interactive map that the ship’s camera and the robots had been contributing to and examined it for promising new areas for planting.  He checked his clock.  The time was 15:22 hours and the date was 02/04/01.  The computer kept time in Space Relative Time, which had begun when they departed Earth, and kept track of the time the crew was experiencing. Although, from the onboard perspective, they had been in space together for thirteen months, they had been traveling at relativistic speed.  Hundreds of years had passed back on Earth.  The estimated departure time displayed along with the actual time was 10:00 on 02/05/01, but in reality, they would leave whenever the robots were done.  The more Greg tinkered with their program, the later they would depart.  The freighter’s computer kept track of the estimated departure time, although there was no real need to stay on schedule.  Since they were orbiting a slow-moving planet, much slower than Earth, time would pass relatively quickly.  The plan was to plant and then make a run.  Sanchez had it all worked out.  They would use the gravity of the star that the slow planet orbited to sling themselves out of the system and then accelerate in open space.  Then they could turn the ship.  At high speed, turning had to be carefully calculated for inertia, but the ship would have something similar to gravity, with down being whichever side was steered to face the outside of the turn. Shutting off the engines at the preplanned time would cause the ship to decelerate while turning.  As it slowed, the turn could be tightened, to keep the ship’s gravity steady, although the direction which would act as down would adjust toward the rear of the ship.  With the maneuver completed, the ship could then return to the planet. On board, only a handful of days would have passed, but on the planet, millions of years would have been experienced. That difference was why this unnamed planet had been selected as the project planet.  Its slow movement made giving the new ecology time to evolve much easier.

            On the observation deck, Silvia was using her palmtop unit.  She switched between observing the robots and occupying herself with a puzzle game.  She had noticed what Greg had been doing.  It did not make sense.  He had blown off the job of observing the robots, but he was playing with their routes.  She made a mental note to keep an eye on the changes he was making.  So far, he had not diverted enough of the robots to make a difference.  It might actually be helpful, extending the reach of the robotic workers, so she decided not to say anything, yet.  Still, she did not know what he was up to and that made her feel that something was wrong.  She finished scrolling down the list displaying the status of each robot and decided to get something to eat.

            As Silvia drifted to her quarters, Greg heard her coming and opened what had to be his least correct video game, adjusting the volume so that she could hear it.  The game involved viciously attacking innocent virtual people, with lots of screaming and gunfire.  He smiled inwardly as the door to her quarters eased shut, quit the game and went back to work.

            On the surface of the project planet, the swarm of robotic flies buzzed about their work.  They distributed the seeds on the land and laid eggs in the water.  They introduced plankton, the microscopic plants that fed so much of the ocean life back on Earth and krill eggs, which would grow into tiny shrimp.  Along with the living cargo, the robots dropped and vented fertilizers, giving the living things what they would need for a start.  One by one, they flew back to the freighter as they completed their programming.  They sped to escape velocity with a boom and turned upward, reshaping themselves to protect against the friction of the ozone layer that they had created.  In turn, each robot entered the rear gate of the airless aft cargo bay and eased into its own dock, clamping into place with metallic satisfaction and turning itself off.  The freighter’s vast wing of solar panels filled its batteries, basking in ample energy.  The ship’s computer could run its systems without tapping into the precious fuel needed for the engines.  Its programs carefully inventoried power, air, fuel and maintenance as it prepared to execute the carefully crafted instructions it would use to make the run.

            After the last of the robots returned, the computer reported its readiness to the crew in a generic e-mail.  Sylvia responded by clicking yes to the question within the automated message and the musical alarm sounded throughout the ship.  It was the signal for the crew to secure themselves and Greg and Silvia each floated to the aft wall of their respective quarters.  They fastened themselves in place using the retractable restraints that surrounded the mattress-like padding attached to the aft interior wall of each of their quarters.  The ship turned, closing the door to the aft cargo bay and automatically reeling in the solar panels, disassembling the interlocking pieces and stacking them in compartments set in its sides.  The freighter’s engines flashed to life and the ship sped forward as fast as it dared.  The boxy craft flew steadily, orbiting halfway around the alien sun before gaining speed as it left the system.  The engines winked off and the freighter drifted and slowed.  The pressure on the crew that had pulled them against the aft wall was eased to a more comfortable level.  The engines returned to life, accelerating steadily.  The ship spun slowly, aiming the floor of the interior outward before lighting thrusters that pulsed unevenly, adjusting the ship into a turn.

            Inside, friendly music sounded in the crew quarters, signaling that it was safe to get up.  Greg undid his straps and slid down the wall, landing easily on the floor.  He paced around the one-room apartment in order to orient himself. Walking fore felt like walking uphill and aft downhill, but stepping starboard or port felt uneven.  He retrieved a padded folding chair from his closet and walked to the door.  The door eased open when he pushed the button on the wall next to it.  He walked up to the observation deck, unfolded the chair and sat, enjoying the luxury of sitting down without drifting.  He could see the stars’ nearly imperceptible shifting out of the three transparent wall panels before him as the freighter traveled.  He removed his palmtop unit from his belt and worked the controls.  The viewing panel in the middle turned uniform blue, contrasting against the outside view that remained on the panels on either side. Greg examined a list of the television shows that he had requested when the freighter was being outfitted, selected the next episode of a comic series he was halfway through, adjusted the volume and selected play.  The show contained crass humor about overbearing parents and their rebellious, neurotic offspring that made Greg laugh hysterically at times.

            Silvia jogged onto the observation deck and nearly blundered into Greg and his chair.  Greg tuned to look at her. She had obviously decided to take advantage of the simulated gravity by giving herself a workout and had even changed into workout cloths, as though she could not exercise in one of the uniforms the company had provided, which resembled dark blue sweat suits.  She gave him a disapproving look as he lounged in his chair, neglecting his pale and pudgy body. 

            “What are you watching?”

            “A show”, he informed her, hoping to avoid her criticism by not mentioning the title.  She stood over him, watching the video.  The uproarious laughter of a simulated audience punctuated the dialogue.

            “That’s disgusting”, Silvia commented.

            Greg did not answer.  Without turning, he could feel her annoyance as she watched the show from behind him.

            “Weren’t you jogging,” he asked after a while. 

            She carried on, clunking back and forth through the short passage that ran down from the observation deck, past the crew quarters to the fore storage bay where the crew’s supplies were kept.  She did this soon after waking from each of the three carefully regulated sleep shifts she had taken as the ship completed the run.  She had tried to coordinate her schedule with Greg, so that one of them would be awake at all times, but he refused to sleep in shifts.  His habit of dozing off whenever he felt like it made her wonder what would happen if a problem arose while they were both asleep.  She had learned better than to press the issue.  He was not above agreeing to a sleep schedule to placate her and doing what he wanted, anyway.  Instead, she simply configured the ship’s computer to its most paranoid settings, so that an automated alarm would sound throughout the crew section at the slightest provocation.  She waited until the latter half of the run, at a time when Greg had fallen asleep in his quarters after playing some violent and repetitive computer game, to test the alarm.  It functioned correctly, filling the air with a rhythmic “honk-honk” of programmed urgency.

            Greg rushed through the open doorway to her quarters.  “What the hell?”  He was shouting over the alarm.

            She favored him with an anti-swearing look as he panted in front of her.  “I fixed the ship’s alarm system.” 


            “It wasn’t broken.”  She ignored him and fiddled with her palmtop.


            “I was asleep,” he complained.

            “How was I supposed to know that?  You won’t pick a sleep shift,” she countered.


            “Sorry,” he said and shrugged.  “Now that we know it works, we don’t have to leave the alarm running, do we?”

            “No.”  She turned off the alarm and he went back to his quarters.  Greg knew she was getting back at him for not letting her schedule his shifts, but he let it go.  She would deny it if he accused her and he did not see the point in starting another aggravating debate.  For the rest of the run, he filled his free time watching video and playing games. Silvia followed her schedule, seeing to it that she got the correct amount of food, sleep and exorcise, before enjoying videos on the observation deck.  When the freighter finished the run, Greg used his palmtop to look through the ship’s forward cameras and adjusted their route, so that the spacecraft would automatically ease into orbit around the project planet.  As the freighter slowed and straightened out, the simulation of gravity faded away.  Greg and Silvia strapped themselves to the walls of their respective quarters once again, as the freighter surrendered itself to the pull of the project planet’s gravity and tuned, creating a brief surge of inertia. The two of them undid the straps and swam to the observation deck to admire their work.

            Below them, the planet’s two large landmasses were green under a blue sky. The seas had lost their pale blue clearness and had come to look less alien.  The view was obscured in some places by cloud cover, indicating that there was life-giving rain on what had been a barren world.  Pure white ice caps had grown in the polar regions and the jagged mountain ranges were topped with white.  Silvia was fascinated with satisfaction as she observed the well-behaved planet.

            “Cool,” Greg commented.

            Silvia perked up.  She worked the controls of her palmtop, using it to peer through the ship’s cameras, focusing on the planet below.  What had been a desert during their last visit was covered with lush green bushes and sand had been replaced with moist brown soil.  The project planet was inviting the second planting, the release of earthworms and pollinating insects, as well as plankton-hungry shellfish and squid. 

            “We should go down there,” Greg suggested.

            Silvia was skeptical.  “That might cause problems.”

            “The life down there adapted to an empty planet, I think it can survive two people on foot,” Greg said with a look that accused her of being unreasonable.

            “The human body carries all sorts of micro-organisms with it.  We would be introducing them into the new ecology down there,” she explained patiently.

            “Better to introduce the germs and let them become part of it now, rather than putting it off until the colonists arrive and set up housekeeping.  Anyway, if the ecology can’t handle it, we should call the mission a failure,” he argued.

            She paled at the thought of scrapping the mission.  “True, but I still think we should wait until after the third planting.”

            “Come on,” he urged.  “You know you want it.”

            “What!”  She cringed.

            “We have been on board for over a year.  You have got to want to breath fresh air and stand in sunlight under a blue sky.  Let’s take a walk.”

            “Oh, um,” she fumbled.  She could not tell if that was what he had really meant, or if the comment was a revival of his habit of childish innuendo that he had used to annoy her early on in the mission.  He was right, she did want to walk on the planet’s surface and take a break from confinement in the freighter’s crew areas.  “What are you doing?” she asked him.

            Greg had busied himself using his palmtop and she could hear the vibration that the ship’s machinery sent through the walls while deploying the solar panels and sending a robot to take air samples and scout out a nice, warm beach somewhere.  Silvia watched on her own palmtop.  “I also think that we should raid the food supplies and cook up a picnic,” he suggested.

            “Have it look for someplace away from the plant life and not too windy if we are going to be on a sandy shore,” she added.  He was being more responsible than she expected and she found herself looking forward to a picnic.

In her quarters, she and Greg took turns fetching the vented plastic bags of flavored, microwaveable meat, poultry, rice and pasta that they had been living on and heating them in the microwave, before packing them in one of the hard plastic suitcases that Silvia had used to bring her things on board.  They packed self-cooling bottles of water and soft drinks in another bag and hugged the luggage as they propelled themselves down the hall, through the fore cargo bay and into the small airlock that separated it from the airless aft bay.  Silvia worked her palmtop and summoned a robot, which attached itself to the outer doors of the airlock and extended a tube into a socket on the wall.  Air hissed into its storage compartment.  As it finished, the airlock’s inner doors eased closed and its outer doors slid partially open, allowing the two crewmembers to pull themselves into the cramped compartment.  The robot detached, shoving them with the plastic-lined interior of the compartment as it turned.

            The mechanical fly eased out into open space with its robotic legs folded underneath it.  It rocketed toward the planet and then turned cautiously, its program mindful of the people inside its compartment, and fought the pull of gravity as it drifted through the ozone layer, too slowly to cause heating.  It righted itself and its single thruster winked off as its stubby wings extended and caught the air, so that it could glide downward.  Inside its compartment, the only light was the glow of Greg’s palmtop unit that he held out so that he and Silvia could see the view through the robot’s mechanical eyes on its screen as he controlled it.  He instructed it to find the other robot he had sent as a scout, which stood on the brown sand of the selected beach, silently transmitting its location.  The robot drifted to a stop, turning its wings to slow itself and running along the beach until it ran out of momentum.  It came to a standstill near the other robot and lowered its body.  Its cargo compartment doors dropped open.

            “Ahh!” Silvia shrieked as the robot dumped her and Greg onto the sand.  She shoved him with the palm of her right hand in mock annoyance.  “Stop laughing!” she commanded.

            Greg’s laughter increased and he rolled to his feet in a surprisingly agile move.  He took off running and zoomed back and forth along the brown beach singing “I’m alive, by the sea. May I thrive, over thee?”

            Silvia was surprised by the embarrassment that his uninhibited play made her feel even though she knew there was nobody around to see it.  She did have an odd feeling of being watched.  She crawled out from under the robot and stood, stretching and feeling the sand give comfortably under her boots. The sky was clear and a warm, gentle breeze moved through her long, black hair.  The alien star hung close in the sky, warming her through her uniform.  She gazed over the ocean, watching it meet the horizon.  The outdoor sensations felt familiar and friendly, but the alien aspect of the scene tugged her toward uneasiness.  The lazy sea smelled different from an earthly ocean and did not produce waves.  It only lapped lazily at the shore. The sand she was brushing off the rear of her uniform was brown, not the yellow she was accustomed to.  The plants that formed a neat line on the outer edge of the beach were more bushy and fern-like than she was used to and thick enough to hide anything.  Could she hear the stealthy movements of wild animals, or was it just the wind?

            Greg ran by.  He had shed his uniform and boots and was clad only in his pale blue boxer shorts. His soft, chubby body bounced as he ran.  He paused, breathless, and bent, leaning with his hands on his knees.  She scolded herself for noticing him as a man in spite of the fact that she had higher standards than that.  She had been in space with him for too long.

            Greg stopped running and stood for a moment before opening the luggage and pulling out a bottle of iced coffee.  It hissed as he opened the thick plastic bottle and took a noisy gulp.  He noticed the way she was looking at him and could nearly feel the tension.  He had known she would disapprove of his unprofessional exuberance.  Inwardly, he was disappointed because he had thought that she would lighten up when presented with shore leave.  He had been enjoying the feeling of freedom he had, so far from Earth’s standards of adult behavior, and he thought he could share it with her.  His mind groped for a way to demonstrate his point.

            “We should go swimming,” Greg suggested with enthusiasm.

            “No!”  Silvia’s frightened look surprised him.

            “OK,” he said, “I’ll go swimming.”

            “Wait,” she whined softly.  “We don’t know what’s in the water.”

            Greg thought about that for a moment and answered, failing to hide the frustrated condescension as he spoke.  “We haven’t even put fish in the water yet.  We should swim now, before we add sharks and stuff.”

            “Anything could have evolved,” she pointed out.  “I can’t treat you if you catch something, even it’s something I’m familiar with.”

            He nodded and gave up on swimming, realizing that she was being practical. “Can we at least take our chances and enjoy a picnic?”

            She nodded and he retrieved his uniform and spread it on the ground as if it were a towel.  They unpacked the food bags and opened them.  The pair ate quietly, enjoying the wind and the sound of water.  Greg wanted to start a conversation and he always could get Silvia to talk about work.  He made a show of gazing into the underbrush.

            “Looks like the first planting worked,” he noted, inviting a response.

            She swallowed.  “Better than expected.  Did you see how much green there is?  And these are new plants, a completely new species.  We should catalog them.  If the second and third plantings work out this well, people will be able to live here. Of course, we should have the robots take samples.  We have no idea what might evolve here, or how it will react to a human presence. Before we send for colonists, we do have to make sure it’s safe.  But, even if something dangerous is around, this experiment is a success.  We know this planet can support life, even if it does turn into something hostile.  What?”

            Greg had been listening with interest, but he had quickly changed his posture as if he were about to run away.  He was looking intently at the greenery behind her.  She turned her head.  The animal she saw had crawled half out of a hiding place in the brush.  It was about the size of a housecat, with a flattened, segmented body over at least eight creeping legs.  The creature’s exoskeleton was dark yellow with an armored, spiky look similar to that of a crab.  Its head reminded her of a locust, with two black eyes that dominated its curved face and antennae that gestured hungrily.  As they watched, the thing gave a single, loud squeak.  The sound was answered by more squeaks from the bushy jungle and the bug scuttled forward, unafraid.  As its entire body was uncovered, the thing reminded Silvia of a narrow scorpion without a stinger, but with a flat tail that dragged on the ground.  Its hindmost legs were long and bent, which may have given the creature the ability to hop toward the picnic.

            Silvia rushed to her feet.  “Let’s get out of here,” she urged in a hushed tone.  She hurried back to the robot that had brought them and Greg was not far behind.  He had his palmtop, but they left the food, luggage and his uniform where they were.  The creature made for the abandoned picnic, followed by three more of its kind.  They examined the food, twitching their antennae thoughtfully.  As the two humans made it to the robot, Greg manipulated the palmtop and the robot opened its compartment and lowered to welcome them.  The compartment doors slowly eased closed as they climbed inside.  The mechanical fly took off with a shove from its thruster, gliding upward over the beach.  It circled with its thruster flashing, gained speed, and climbed into space. 

            “Oh,” Silvia complained inside the dark compartment.  “That is the last time I listened to you.”  She mumbled something in Spanish, which Greg assumed was swearing. 

            He defended himself.  “We’re OK. Those critters were probably harmless and we did learn that there is animal life down there.  The experiment is working better than expected.  We should be pleased.”

            “You would not be pleased if they had caught us,” Silvia countered.  The thought of one of the bugs crawling on her made her shudder.

            “For all we know, they taste just like lobster,” he teased.

            She made a disgusted noise and fought the urge to hit him.

            The robot took them back on board their freighter, which was waiting for them with automated patience.  It eased onto the airlock and set the two crewmembers free, releasing them back onto the ship.  They changed and Silvia took a long shower, while Greg watched video on the observation deck.

            After showering, Silvia went to talk to Greg.  She pushed herself through the weightless hallway to the observation deck and floated over him as he hovered lazily near the floor.  

            “I’ve been thinking,” she said, interrupting his video.  “I wonder if we should carry out the second planting.”

            “That’s part of the mission,” he said casually.  It surprised him that she wanted to blow off the mission that had seemed so precious to her.

            “You saw those bug-things, there is life down there.  We might be eradicating it if we introduce new animals.”

            “Uh”, he thought for a moment.  “Everything down there evolved on the planet.  It should be better adapted to the environment than alien species from Earth. If anything, we should be worried about Earth life and the competition it will face.”

            “Still,” she wondered, “I don’t like the risk of extinction.  Those things don’t exist on any other planet.  Once they are gone, they will be gone for good.”

            Greg hid his annoyance that she was making a big deal out of it.  She was defending the things that had chased them off the beach.  “That’s what is supposed to happen, ain’t it.  We’re here to use the laws of evolution, survival of the fittest. Besides, when we do a run, the planet goes through millions of years.  They’ll have their time.” 

            She knew he was right.  They were using evolution and they had to let it take its course.  She and Greg sent out the robots, which stocked the seas with shellfish and squid and the land with insects and earthworms.  The mechanical flies laid the eggs cautiously, before returning to the ship.  Four of the robots would stay behind.  They took automated hatcheries with amphibian eggs that needed care and were programmed to ensure successful hatching.  The robots also brought back video footage and samples.  Silvia had changed their program to instruct them to document the results of the first planting.  As the freighter prepared to perform another run, she immersed herself in cataloging the plant samples and the creatures that had been recorded on video. Her discoveries interested her and she bored Greg with her findings.  The krill, tiny shrimp that had been left in the ocean along with the plankton, had multiplied and evolved.  They had adapted in the ocean to become predator and prey and some had moved to the land and diversified into creatures of various sizes, including the picnic-crashers.  The plants had also changed, evolving into new kinds of bushes and ferns.  Without much animal life, flowering plants had been saved for the second planting, but the plants that sent seeds on the wind had taken over every environment.  She began to look forward to the end of the run.  She wanted to find out what would happen next.

            After the freighter finished the relativistic maneuver and eased into orbit, Silvia and Greg watched the planet from space.  All of the land was green and filled with life.  However, Greg spotted something that made his spine tingle.  As the freighter orbited over the line between light and shadow, crossing to the night side of the world, the crew could clearly see lights on the planet below. 

            “Squatters?” Greg asked.

            “They do look like electric lights.  Think people got here while we were away?”

            “We should have a look,” Greg suggested.  He worked his palmtop and a close-up of the surface appeared on the observation deck’s middle panel.  What Greg and Silvia could see were clearly buildings, but very different from structures of human origin.  None of them were more than three stories tall, as if their builders preferred to widen a structure if more room was needed, rather than making it taller. Nearly all of them were round, rather than the familiar square or rectangular shape a human would produce. The streets were different, too. There was no pavement, only dirt and green plants between the buildings.  Instead of lampposts, light fixtures were attached to the outer walls of the structures.  Silvia drew her own palmtop and focused in on the inhabitants.  They did not even vaguely resemble human beings.  From a distance, they looked like grasshoppers and their long rear legs, angled so that their knees pointed up, were noticeable.  Other than that, the creatures appeared to be oval blobs, as the ship’s cameras only gave a general impression of their shape as they peered at the surface from space.  Whatever they were, there were swarms of them on the planet below.

            “Not good,” Greg declared.  “Not good at all.”

            “Aliens,” Silvia observed.  “They must have arrived while we were away.  They sure did claim this planet.”

            “And they must have been here thousands of years, relative time,” Greg added.  “They’ve hijacked our world.”

            Silvia huffed as the implication sank in.  The trip had been one way.  She and Greg were going to make that planet their home when it was ready for habitation.  Now, someone else had reaped their harvest, leaving them with no retirement plan. 

            “We should go back to Earth,” she said with a shrug.  “They need to know.”

            “We don’t have enough fuel left,” Greg moaned.  The last thing he wanted was to go back to Earth, anyway.  “Can’t we attack or something.”

            The suggestion irritated Silvia.  “Attack with what?”  The freighter did not have anything that could be used as a weapon, even accidentally. “Maybe we can talk to them, explain the situation.  Can’t make things worse.”

            “We can try,” Greg admitted.  “You work on that and I’ll send the robots down.  We should find out more about them and see if they have spacecraft, OK? Look, we might have to find another planet and make do with what we have for the third planting.”

            The two of them went to work.  Silvia tinkered with the communication equipment, attempting to eavesdrop on the planet below.  She encountered only silence but became more determined.  There had to be a way.  Greg reprogrammed some of the robots.  He sent the first two down for a closer look.  There was no problem.  The aliens had aircraft, similar to the propeller driven airplanes that had once been used on Earth, but he could outrun them with ease.  He had a closer look at the squatters.  They were quadrupeds, with scaly skin, whose front legs were almost horse-like and whose back legs were shaped like a grasshopper’s, even though the creatures obviously had bones rather than an exoskeleton. Instead of a neck, they had torsos centered over their front legs, with arms and shoulders.  Their heads were the most alien, with round, sucker-like mouths and black, multi-faceted eyes.  The robots had footage of them living a modern, though strange, lifestyle.  They were frequently seen fiddling, rubbing their long, shaggy hind legs together.  It made noise, which the robots recorded, and it seemed to be how they communicated with each other.

            Greg found no signs of a spacecraft, or even technology at a level that could build one.  He wondered if the alien civilization had slid backwards over the thousands of years that they had been on the project planet.  The fate of the third robot he sent demonstrated just how advanced the aliens were.  The robots did, of course, attract attention and the aliens had gathered around to watch as the mechanical aircraft cruised over their cities.  The third robot had suddenly disappeared.  When he examined the footage it had been able to send, Greg saw that it had made a recording of one of the buildings, a dome-shaped structure reminiscent of an observatory.  The dome had slid open, revealing a hollow tube.  As the robot was following its programming, movement had attracted its attention.  The last thing the robot had recorded was a small, cylindrical rocket being launched out of the tube and streaking toward its observer, leaving a trail of gray smoke behind it.  Greg stopped sending robots and adjusted the navigation software so that the freighter would move to a higher orbit. He checked in with Silvia and let her know what had happened.

            “Great!  Just Fantastic!”  She nearly threw a temper tantrum when he told her.  Her sharp, angry hand motions made her rotate sideways in her weightless quarters.  She had been doing what she could with the communication equipment, using her palmtop to have the freighter’s computer manipulate the receivers in every way she could think of.  She had come up with nothing and was running out of patience.  The last thing she needed was more bad news.

            Greg figured she needed to relax before she completely lost it.  “It looks like neither of us is getting anywhere,” he began.  “Let’s swap jobs.  You look at the information I gathered from the planet and I’ll see if I can find any communication from them.” 

            She agreed and he gave her the file names for everything he had stored on the computer.  He went back to his quarters and made himself a bag of chicken, which he ate while he searched the airwaves on his palmtop.  Both of them worked obsessively for hours.  Silvia floated into Greg’s quarters with news.

            “Greg, I don’t think these are aliens.”

            Greg finished what he was doing and looked up.  “OK, what are they?”

            “Krilloids,” she informed him.


            “That’s what I have been calling them.  I compared them with my catalogue from before the second planting.  I think they evolved here and they are distantly related to the krill we delivered during the first planting.” 

            “So, they’re part of our experiment,” he observed.  “Got any ideas on how to get rid of them, so we can do the third planting?”

            “Get rid of them!”  Silvia was shocked.

            “We have to make way for the colonists, not to mention ourselves.”

            “Greg, you can’t”, she protested.  “These are intelligent beings, not just animals or bugs.  We can’t simply wipe them out!”

            “True,” he agreed.  “We don’t have any weapons and even if we did, they can defend themselves.”

            Silvia’s eyes flashed as she listened.  “Greg, you always were a dick, but I did not think you were some bloodthirsty psycho,” she ranted.  “They’re people, innocent people, a whole planet full of them!”

            Her shouting made him defensive, pushing him to explain his position. “They’re a screw-up, a botched experiment,” he reasoned softly.  “And don’t forget that they are hostile.  They took a shot at us.”

            “One missile,” she pointed out.  She forced herself to speak calmly.

            “That’s our planet down there,” Greg interrupted.  “We have nowhere to go, it is us or them.”

            She gave up on persuading him.  “What are you planning to do?” 

            “I don’t know,” he said with a defeated shrug.  “We’re stuck.”

            “I still think we can communicate with them, somehow.  If we tell them who we are and how they got there, they might stop being hostile.”

            “Or, they might get worse,” Greg pointed out.  “Look how people reacted to Darwin.”

            “Like you said, they took a shot at us.  How can it get worse?”

            “Donno,” Greg mumbled.

            Greg had an idea.  “Can we do another run?  In a million years, they might either be gone or more talkative.  Problem solved.”

            “I don’t think we have enough fuel.  If we run out, we will be stuck together on this freighter for the rest of our lives,” she pointed out.

            “Lets work on talking to them.  If we can’t fight them, I guess we just have to work something out,” he suggested.

            Silvia thought for a moment and brightened up a little.  “If we can’t listen to them, maybe they can listen to us.  We can signal them using light.  They’ve got to notice.”

            “That would make us a target.”

            “True, but even if they can shoot a rocket into space, we could outrun it if we have to.”

            “OK, but be careful,” he answered, as if she needed his permission.

            Silvia went to work.  She eased the ship into a lower orbit, matching speed with the planet’s surface so that the freighter would stay in the same place in the sky.  She instructed the ship to use its thrusters to flash, signaling the surface of the planet during nighttime.  When she finished, she moved to the observation deck to relax and look at the planet below.  Greg was there, playing some game on his palmtop.  The sound from his game grumbled in his headset.

            The freighter spent the next two nights signaling and the days soaking up power with the solar panels.  During the third day, both crewmembers heard their palmtops sing out that they had an incoming e-mail.  Silvia opened it first.  She found a jumble of words on the page.

            “To use ancient leg.  Say we to you up.  Wink star who.  Must bright.”  She tried to make sense of the message.  She examined the log, which only told her that the ship’s antenna had picked it up from a source that had not identified itself.  Greg floated into her quarters and showed her an image of the planet’s surface on his palmtop.  It was zoomed in on one section of a krilloid city.  Several of the creatures were gathered on a rooftop, rubbing their hind legs and working with a device that resembled a radio antenna.  Near them was a large, green sphere on a pole.  The sphere emitted bright flashes of light and its lower half was covered to protect the eyes of the krilloids beneath it.

            “They want to talk,” Greg observed. 

            She showed him the e-mail.  “We don’t know what this means.  We need to be careful what we say.”

            “Just answer them,” he said.

            She thought for a moment, started to write something, deleted it and started over. Greg looked over her shoulder. 

            “Send something,” he urged her.

            “OK”, she said, defensively.  She wrote quickly.  “Hello down there, green is pretty.”  The look she gave Greg asked if he was satisfied with her rushed, inane response.  She sent it.

            It was a few hours before there was a response to the e-mail.  Silvia and Greg moved to the observation deck.  They could clearly see the flashing green light on the surface below.  Their palmtop units sang to announce an incoming e-mail.  It read, “Hello.  Who you?”

            “Keep it simple,” Greg suggested.

            She typed.  “We are travelers.”  That started the conversation.  Greg helped her study the krilloids’ halting answers.  Their English improved as the exchange of e-mail continued.  Eventually, Silvia explained how they had come and brought living things to the planet. The krilloids took that news rather well.  They explained that a fair amount of their technology and their knowledge of the English language that they referred to as “the ancient leg” had come from archeological digs, the excavation of four nearly identical aircraft.  Silvia explained that the aircraft were robots that had been left behind.  She offered to give them another one to examine, one in new condition.  The krilloids asked her to wait.  They would have to spread the news on the matter before proceeding.  The e-mail messages explained that she was talking to a team of researchers, who were very excited by the discoveries they were making. They had to publish their findings, to tell the world.

            Eventually, the krilloids were ready to accept a robot.  The government and media on the planet below had gotten involved and the robot’s arrival was much anticipated.  It would provide the proof needed to end the controversy that the research team Silvia had been talking to had started with their findings.  She was finding out more about their society. It was organized along the lines of vast tribes, which had established territory and become states, complete with military defenses.  Their technology had advanced steadily, although finding the robots had taken it in new directions.  In the process of deciphering what little data had survived inside the robots’ microchips, they had invented computers, and most krilloid dwellings were wired for computer communication.  They had done this before any widespread use of broadcasting, which was only used occasionally.  They had also made advances in electricity and invented aircraft by modeling their technology after the robots. The robots had been discovered a few hundred years before the freighter had returned from its run, but they had become ancient artifacts before being uncovered, because of the time differential. It had taken the krilloids centuries to exploit them and they had still been working at it when the freighter showed up.  Krilloid society was anticipating another revolution in technology.

            Silvia sent the robot, although Greg objected to sharing technology with the creatures.  They accepted it happily and she began to receive diplomatic messages from the “Council of Elders”, which governed the researchers’ tribe-state.  They were fascinated with the humans that had played a strong role in their creation and even seemed a little frightened.  Silvia negotiated with them.  First of all, they were willing to provide homes for her and Greg. They left the matter of land for human colonists for later discussion.  They were willing to give the humans a place to live, but they had to figure out where and relocate any krilloid inhabitants.  As it would take quite a long time for the colonists to get there, from the perspectives of the planet’s inhabitants, there would be plenty of time to work out the details.  The krilloids were also enthusiastic about the animals in storage for the third planting.  Already, the council was volunteering to build zoos and prepare the specimens for release into the wild.

            As Silvia had more e-mail to show Greg, he came around to her point of view. He started to share her enthusiasm for a new life.  As the Council of Elders had set aside land for their home, the plan came together. They would land the freighter and convert the crew quarters into a home.  Krilloid society had developed a sophisticated system of solar power, based on equipment from those first four robots, as well as computer communication that the humans were welcome to connect into in exchange for the technological secrets they would reveal.  Greg was surprised by how well the krilloids were taking the news of their creation. He thought it was too good to be true, but Silvia kept reminding him that they had found the robots and discovered part of the story centuries ago.  Greg had finally figured out what it took to make her lighten up.

            Soon, the council invited their human guests to land.  The landing point was near a sacred krilloid city by the sea.  A crowd of scaly brown people was there to meet them as the freighter eased through the atmosphere and dropped, slowing itself with its thrusters and coming to rest on the ground.  The land around it was lush and green, covered with a carpet of clover-like plants.  When Silvia emerged from the freighter, the noise from the crowd was deafening.  They were all fiddling with their hind legs, filling the air with squeaking.  A single krilloid approached her, holding a flat computer screen that displayed white text.  It squeaked and words appeared on the screen.

            The creature introduced herself as doctor kreen-eeek-wik.  Her?  Silvia had never found out which ones were male or female, or even if the human terms applied to the krilloids.  Anyway, Kreen-eeek-wik ceremoniously identified herself as the leader of the team that had sent that first e-mail and stated that the council had selected her to welcome the humans.  Sanchez had seen enough images of the strange beings to become accustomed to their appearance, but seeing one up close was different.  They were short but long and walked on their front feet with the rear legs almost in tow as the clumsy-looking appendages stepped behind them. Their skin was brown with broad, almost yellow scales that gave them an armored look.  They did not wear cloths, although most of them had small, purse-like luggage strapped to their torsos.  The creatures’ faces seemed expressionless and reminded her of the picnic-crashers she had met on her last visit to the planet.  She had to remind herself that these were people, not creepy-crawlies.  Greg came out next and he was behaving himself, to her relief.  He was quiet and let her do the talking.  The Krilloids had brought gifts, which they presented.  They had food, artwork and a vast array of unidentified gizmos to give to their human guests.  Kreen-eeek-wik explained that the crowd was also ready to unload the cargo.  Silvia told her that the robots could easily do that and simply needed to be directed to their destinations.

            Kreen-eeek-wik fiddled shrilly with her hind legs and her screen asked if Silvia had more robots.  Silvia motioned the krilloid to follow and led her alongside the freighter.  Greg went back inside.  Silvia and Kreen-eeek-wik strode in front of the crowd and made their way to the rear of the freighter.  The walk made Silvia feel alive.  The unmoving tug of gravity that secured her to the ground made her feel at home, as did the sunlight that warmed her and the breeze that blew over her.  The air smelled pure and fresh.  Near the end of the walk, Silvia worked her palmtop and the freighter’s machinery came to life.  The aft cargo bay struggled open and air howled into the vacuum.  She led Kreen-eeek-wik inside.  The krilloid scientist marveled at the neatly organized racks of robots clinging to the walls.  She strode forward, bending her head back to look up. The crowed followed to the door of the cargo bay, quietly peering in, their squeaking legs making only a whisper.

            She let the creatures look around.  Over the next few days, the robots unloaded and delivered the cargo to krilloid zoos and took apart the freighter, leaving the crew quarters and observation deck standing.  The Krilloids took the remaining ship parts for study and connected the crew section to their power and communication system.  The Krilloids came often to talk, asking all sorts of questions.  She and Greg both fit easily into the role of advisors. 

            Silvia had one last task to perform.  She waited until the time of night when her new home faced the general direction of Earth and activated the ship’s antenna, which had been relocated to what was now the roof of her home.  She broadcast a carefully composed message back to Earth, which told them about all of the things that had happened and invited colonists to come. She presented the message to Greg, so that she could say it was from both of them. 

            “Aren’t you glad we did not write them off as a screw-up,” she said, needling him, after sending the message.



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