|MAROONED by Carlton Herzog |
My story begins with our colony ship, the Esmeralda. It got mangled by asteroids en route to our new home, Mas a Tierra. The asteroid stream peeled away the ship’s hull like it was the layers on an onion. The life pods ringing the ship were all obliterated save the one reserved for the Captain. My father shoved me in, kissed me goodbye, then ejected the pod as the Esmeralda made her swan dive into the atmosphere.
I hit the water first, sank, then bobbed to the surface. From the window hatch I could see the Esmeralda burning and breaking apart as it descended. It hit the water and sank without a trace. I didn’t see any survivors on the water.
But I wasn’t alone. The curious creatures of that alien sea didn’t take long to investigate the new object floating on the surface. I pinged a lot of whale-sized things swimming under and around me, but nothing broke the surface, so I couldn’t get a look. Probably a big deal for them. It’s not every day they get visitors from the stars bobbing up and down on the swells.
Like every adolescent on the expedition, I received the Accelerated Maturity Protocol to help me speak and think like an adult. Together with the enhanced survival training, the AMP was meant to ensure that we would not be a liability to the colony or themselves.
At first, I had a calm, matter of fact attitude about my situation. I went step by step. First, I used the pod’s computer to fix my location. It said the currents were carrying me toward a southern continent.
As I drifted on the current, food and drinkable water occupied my thoughts. At sea, the water purifiers could keep me in fluids indefinitely. But the pod’s condensed emergency rations could only be stretched for a month or so. After that, I needed to find indigenous food sources or eat my shoes.
On day two, I was sitting topside with the hatch open when I drifted into a school of flying glass fish. They had transparent bodies and wings. They zoomed all around me. One flew past my head and down into the hatch. It flipped and flopped. I figured it was time to sample the local cuisine, so I climbed down and stomped it to death with my foot. Its blood was crystal clear syrupy goo, thicker than blood but smelling almost aromatic. Before I used the portable cooker, I tried a tiny Sushi sized bite and promptly threw it back up and all over the pod.
On day three, I spotted land. However, the current was carrying me parallel to it. If I didn’t change course, I would pass it by. The pod came with propellers and thrusters, but they died after a few minutes. I decided to abandon ship and swim for it.
I had a raft and life preserver. I packed a waterproof, floatable ruck with my journal, supplies, and my pulse pistol.
The breakers and rocks looked vicious, but I didn’t have a choice.
I dropped the raft into the water then slid down the pod. I began to paddle. When I did something reached up from the water pulled me off the raft. Its tentacles were tipped with smaller tentacles that had coiled around my leg. It dragged me under. I fired the pulse pistol in short controlled bursts in the direction of the thing. The water crackled and fizzed with each brilliant starburst. I must have hit or scared it because it let go.
When I got back to the surface, I could see the raft being pulled away by something under the surface. All I had left was my preserver vest, my backpack, and my pistol. My only option was to head for shore and hope for the best. Every now and then I fired the pistol into the water below to scare off any would-be predators.
I leisurely backstroked my way toward shore. I could hear the breakers crashing against the rocks and knew that things would soon be getting hairy. My mind wandered to William Blake’s The Lost Little Girl and the whys and wherefores of why my parents named me Lyca after the girl in the poem, and how it now seemed prophetically appropriate as I wandered through the wilderness alone.
That’s when I saw my first Dumbbell Behemoth. It had two bulbous heads, one in the front and one in the rear. Each head sported two thick antennae crowned with an omnidirectional array of eyes. The front head strained the shallows like a baleen whale hunting krill. The rear head fished with an elastic tongue, similar those on frogs.
As I pondered why both heads had so many eyes pointed skyward, the rear head snatched a low flying something or other with a tongue that shot out from the top of it head. Not even Darwin could have seen that one coming.
The current was carrying me on an intercept course with its line of travel. But our relative speeds precluded an encounter. It would be far down the beach by the time I made those shallows.
I studied the drifted blue beach sand. I wondered if it were made of some alien version of lapis lazuli. I wondered if I were stuck on a planet full of earthly riches with no place to spend them.
My musings were cut short by the first smash of the breakers. Even with the life vest, I rolled and tumbled in the crashing waves, bounced off the rocks, and was thrown this way and that, as I tried to get onto the beach. I would have drowned without my helmet and breather.
I gritted my teeth and paddled forward as best I could, and slowly, painfully made my way inch by inch, foot by foot, inside the breakers and onto the beach.
I lay there for some time, the aquamarine water washing over. After a time, I gathered myself and sat up. It was then that I noticed that royal blue sand came freckled with white shells of all shapes and sizes.
As I was sitting there, something like a large lobster emerged from the blue sand. It had enormous eyes on the ends of its antennae. It looked me up and down. I fumbled for my pistol, but by the time I found it, the thing had wandered away, then stopped and gobbled up some shells.
It crapped wet blue sand. More of the lobster things came out of the sand and did the same thing. It dawned on me that I had mistaken a large manure pile for pristine blue beach. I got up, brushed off the sand. and moved myself into a bare patch of forest just beyond the beach.
My priority was to build a shelter. Although my suit would protect me from the elements, insects and small animals, my soul needed the comfort of large visible shelter. I made a lean-to from cut branches and fronds and a bed of sorts from dried vines.
The vegetation around me was an explosion of colour—greens, reds, purples, blues, oranges, yellows—exotic and beautiful, alien and frightening all at the same time.
I suspect that the fullness of it would have been less overwhelming had someone been there to experience it with me, to share and compare notes. But that was wishful think: I was alone on a world our surveys had shown harboured no indigenous intelligent life.
I would spend the rest of my life talking to myself. That primal solitude would either drive me crazy me crazy or force me to confront my inner demons. There would be neither social crutches nor white noise to comfort me. Just the crash of breakers and the clicks and squeaks of what I took to be insect life all around me.
Once I had established my makeshift shelter, I focused on finding food and potable water while avoiding any would be predators. Things like viruses and bacteria would have a hard time getting past my encounter suit. But if they did, the regimen of nanite injections we received prior to and after departure would be more than enough to handle any foreign bodies in my bloodstream.
There was still the issue of large predators like the Great Dumbbell thing hunting on the beach. My pistol could kill it or any other living thing in a stand-up fight, but a large ambush predator or a pack could still fracture an arm or a leg with a bite, even if the suit prevented any break in my skin.
I set up an acoustic movement sensor to monitor my surroundings. When I turned in for the night, I assumed that fear would keep me awake. But I was exhausted and slipped into a deep, restful sleep. It was mid-day when I awoke refreshed and relieved that I had not become a meal for some alien carnivore.
I intended to safari that day. To that end, I detached my suit’s cooling unit and took off my helmet. The former to conserve power and the latter to ensure the full use of my senses.
I walked in a straight line walk through the jungle marking the trees I passed with a slash for the return trip. The jungle was alive with activity, a symphony of alien calls and squawks and chirps and clicks never heard by human ears. Things moved in the trees above me and in the growths around me, things that had the ability to stay hidden either through speed or camouflage or unearthly stealth.
Then things went south in a hurry. It began to rain. Not earth rain, but a torrent of ponderous heavy drops that struck like stones. My suit protected me. But it didn’t take long before the ground became an impassable mud slurry. I retraced my steps back to the beach, and as I did, the lightning flashed above the forest canopy then began striking the ground in enormous bolts that didn’t split trees but obliterated them.
I looked for a cave or some other form of non-conductive cover, but before I could get out of harm’s way a bolt caught me square in the shoulder and knocked me flat. I didn’t receive a shock. The suit protected me. But the bolt fried the suit’s circuits. Before I could do anything, three more bolts hit the suit. Now its outermost layers were melting with me inside. I scrambled out of the suit before it burned me.
I found cover under a rocky overhang and waited for the storm to pass. It seemed strange that the lightning had zeroed in on me. But I dismissed the idea that some intelligence was behind it as ridiculous.
When I got back to my make-shift camp, I found all my supplies had been fried. The containers and rations had melted together so now I was wholly dependent on whatever food I could find native to the planet.
That increased my sense of dread. I felt targeted. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was studying me.
Over the next few weeks, things went from bad to worse. The pulse pistol stopped working and I was unable to restart it. I ate plants but couldn’t hold anything down. I was weak and haggard. I needed protein.
I made spears. I slathered mud and grass all over my body to mask my scent and hide my form. The natural camouflage worked great. It allowed me to sneak up on the lobster creatures and hunt them with ease. The beach lobsters satisfied my nutritional needs but came with bouts of diarrhoea. Then I found small pools filled with big, fat juicy alien eels. Who knew something that slithery and slimy could be so delicious, satisfying, and stomach friendly?
If the prey animals I stalked could talk, they would have branded me the Terran Sneak Monster. I hunted every day and always made a kill. I was getting comfortable with my new life.
Other than sunrise and sunset, time ceased to exist. The days, weeks and months blended together into a nondescript continuum of hunting, eating and sleeping.
When I met Greenday, that all changed.
It was a typical tropical morning. Hot but not oppressively so and punctuated by a symphony of creature sounds. I struck out on safari. I hadn’t gone more than half a kilometre from base camp when I came face to face with what I call Centipede Joe.
I had stepped out of the undergrowth and found myself staring at an enormous vertical belly studded with bumps and fitted with row upon row of multi-jointed legs. The belly alone measured a good six metres, each leg two.
Centipede Joe had been sucking tree lobsters off branches. Then he heard me. He dropped to the jungle floor and nearly crushed me. I had stepped back just in time.
So there we were: Centipede Joe sizing me up as an appetizer and me staring into large bulbous insect eyes and a rapidly contracting mouth sucking in the last vestige of a tree lobster.
I turned tail and ran zig zag away from it. I could hear its bulk crashing through the trees after me. It would have been on me in another moment were it not for a serendipitous dunk into a pool hidden by leaves and fronds.
One moment I was running. Then next sinking into a sticky green vibrating slime. It felt electric against my skin. Something more than water and accumulated forest sediment
I sank down over my head. I could feel the ground shake as my pursuer stampeded over the pool and headed away into the jungle. I came up for air, covered in the green goo. I climbed up and out. After taking stock of things, I grabbed leaves and wiped myself off as best I could. Nevertheless, I had the distinct feeling I had tripped a switch and nothing would ever be the same again.
As I stood there, a green girl rose from the green slime. She stared at me the way I would stare in a mirror, curiously, admiringly, quizzically. And the more she stared at me, the more her face reflected mine.
I asked her, what are you?
She said nothing but continued making micro-alterations to her face until she was my double in every respect.
I asked again.
This time her mouth opened but no sound came out of it.
I asked yet again. She gurgled and burbled some disconnected syllables trying to ape my human speech. When her mouth opened, I could see her half-formed green teeth and stub of a tongue. I figured it was just a matter of time before she could talk in full syllables. Whether it would be in my language or some alien tongue was an open question.
So, I kept talking. My name is Lyca. Like the girl from the poem Little Girl Lost. I crashed here a few days ago. All my friends and family are dead. How are you able to copy me?
Greenday: Soon I am you, and then you will be two, and not alone.
Me: Okay. You’re fifty shades of weird, but you don’t seem to be a threat, unless of course you’re a body snatcher, and then I better not fall asleep.
Greenday: Not a snatcher. Friend. Your Friday.
She must have read my mind, because at that moment I was thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. How couldn’t I? The Esmeralda was named after his ship, this planet after the island he found.
Me: I need to find the supply pod that was sent in advance of the Esmeralda. I can contact earth with its equipment. Have you seen anything strange land here? Can you help me find it?
Greenday: Did not see Pod. Can help you find. This place is very dangerous for thing like you. Lucky you are that the others haven’t caught your scent. But they will. I will keep you safe. Help you find pod. Lyca no longer alone.
Her words were prophetic. For twenty five years, we remained inseparable, two versions of the same thing, one green the other pale. During that time, I never felt alone or scared. It was the rare predator that threatened us, and then only for a moment. For when the creature looked at Greenday, all its bloodlust subsided, and it was gentle as a lamb.
One day, we stumbled on the ruins of an ancient city. Its peaks and spires had sunk into the jungle floor eons ago. When I asked Greenday where did they go? She said Never left. Still here. In the water, ground and air—all around and in us they are.
What does that mean?
She reached down and grabbed a bit of soil: in here, all together with this world. Never alone or afraid again. The many are one, and the one is forever.
I understood the idea she was communicating. I didn’t understand how the minds and bodies of an entire civilization could be absorbed by a planet. But Greenday was living proof that the laws of biology operated at higher and more complicated levels here, so I took her at her word. It took the arrival of a terrestrial invasion twenty-five years later to clear up the ambiguities and unresolved issues Greenday had raised.
On that fateful day, the Inflexible set down on Mas a Tierra. No civilian vessel, it was much larger than the Esmeralda, fitted with pulse cannons, torpedo launchers and planet incinerators. It landed near the supply pod we had found. I had not been able to establish audio communications, but the homing beacon had kept pinging.
The Inflexible’s mission differed from the Esmeralda’s. Earth was fast becoming uninhabitable from constant warfare and runaway climate change. Inflexible had been sent to secure a beachhead for an approaching fleet of warships seeking haven after its defeat in the Pluto campaign. That meant squashing any indigenous resistance to the base and setting the table for the inevitable flow of refugees from Earth and the other planets.
Colonel Jack Murphy commanded the Expeditionary Force, which consisted of the Inflexible, the Valiant, and the Invincible. His first order of business was to identify any potential threats from native lifeforms, intelligent or otherwise. To that end, he established a perimeter around the ship consisting of armed marines.
Greenday and I had heard the roar of the landing thrusters and wended our way through the thick undergrowth to check it out. I was not thrilled with the prospect of visitors, for I had made peace with my situation long ago. Greenday was my soulmate, and she was all that I would ever need or want in another person.
Unfortunately, the ship’s scanners picked us up. The marines trained their guns on our precise location. One of them called out for us to show yourselves or be fired on.
As we walked forward hand in hand, we were peppered with red laser sighting dots from the marines’ guns.
Colonel Murphy asked, Who are you and what is she? Why is she all green?
Me: I am Lyca, sole survivor of the colony ship Esmeralda, which crashed and sank with all hands save me. This is my friend Greenday. She found me and has protected me and been my companion for many solar cycles.
Murphy: Is she a plant?
Me: I don’t know what she is other than she is my friend and the only reason I’m alive today.
Murphy: What are you, Green Girl?
Greenday: We are many and we are all around you. We are a city of life, both animal and vegetable, in the air, ground and water.
Murphy: Okay, that’s it. My doctor needs to examine the two of you. See if you’re contagious. I don’t want that thing near my ship until I know more about it.
(Murphy on his radio): Doctor Jackson. Get down here.
Doctor Jackson: Aye, sir.
Colonel Murphy: Get out here pronto with your team. We have those isolation cages for disease control. Have your techs move them out here and lock these two down until I can interrogate them some more.
Inflexible’s medical team examined us on the spot. Greenday, her hearing more sensitive than a dog’s, overheard the Doctor and Colonel Murphy discussing their next move and relayed the conversation to my mind.
Doctor Jackson: The girl Lyca seems healthy enough. I must admit being puzzled that she doesn’t look her age. My internal scans revealed the physiology of an adolescent not a forty-year old woman. As for the polymorph, I’m not sure what’s going on there. I think that she or it is just a colony of bacteria that massed together and duplicated Lyca’s form. It’s not as strange as it sounds since ninety percent of the cells in the human body belong to non-human organisms—bacteria, fungi and viruses.
Murphy: Is it dangerous?
Doctor Jackson: Hard to say other than its duplicating skills—a kind of mitosis at a distance—is about as alien as it gets.
Murphy: Here’s my problem, doctor. There’s never one of anything. Be it stars, or planets, or ears of corn, or monkeys. Where there’s one there’s bound to be more, a whole lot more. And you heard it same as I did say that it’s got a big family surrounding us. Presumably, it’s intelligent and has survival drives the same as our own. To live on this planet, we may have to compete with a rival more cunning, more powerful, and more alien than we can imagine. We’ll leave them in isolation for now until I can figure this out.
The isolation booths were larger than I expected. They came with sinks, a toilet, a bed and chair with a fold-out table. They sat side by side with no separation between the two.
The interrogations continued, on and off for three days, as did our medical exams that were now in the molecular DNA stage. Greenday kept me apprised telepathically as to what they were finding and what they intended to do.
Doctor Jackson: These things can duplicate us right down to our DNA. Our little friend there can be any colour she chooses. The green is simply a matter of choice.
Colonel Murphy: I don’t like the sound of this.
Doctor Jackson: You shouldn’t. I don’t consider myself a xenophobe. But that thing and presumably the legion she represents could duplicate one of us—right down to our memories and emotions—and we would never know the difference.
Colonel Murphy: What do you propose?
Doctor Jackson: Find another world. Although we can’t see them, they are the primary and ubiquitous form of intelligent life here, and I suspect that they will not go for our planned colonization.
Colonel Murphy: The green girl gets along with Lyca. Kept her alive.
Doctor Jackson: Lyca is a source of intelligence for them. They know all about us. Our history of conquest. Do you seriously think they consider us to be candidates for peaceful co-existence?
Colonel Murphy: I have my orders. The mission goes forward. If these micro-aliens give us any trouble, this ship and the two others will turn this planet into a burned-out cinder. You need to come up with a way to screen for doubles.
After Greenday filled me in on our situation, she said, We need to get as far away from here as possible.
Greenday: Leave that to me.
Greenday had hidden talents that even I in the twenty-five years we were together never knew about. One was the ability to re-liquefy her form. I watched as she reduced herself to a puddle of slime and then slid up the wall of her cell to a seam along its ceiling that was supposedly airtight. Over the course of an hour or so, she squeezed through that one and then through the top of my cell.
Before I knew what had happened, she covered me in herself, so that we were physically and mentally co-extensive. I suppose I should have been troubled and afraid, but the joining seemed wholly natural, like a long-awaited homecoming.
I could feel new power surging through me like a rush of electricity. From my faint reflection in the transparent poly-fibre cage, I watched myself grow more massive and muscular, and before I could say Boo, I kicked the locked door completely off its hinges, and then sprinted away through the jungle, leaping over gorges and crevasses with superhuman skill.
When we or I or she—I wasn’t exactly sure who was piloting my body—got far away from the Inflexible, Greenday spoke to me: We’ll live our life as we have always done. Don’t worry about them. In this state, they are no position to capture or harm us. As for their plans to conquer this world, their success depends on whether they can live in peace with it. If they treat it the way they have treated other worlds, my kind will obliterate them. You see, we are the planet, its smaller mobile bits, and we are but a tiny foretaste of what this world can do against unwanted intruders.
Our mood changed abruptly when the parasite ships attached to Inflexible found us. They didn’t waste any time. They opened fire in front of us. Every time I ran in another direction, I would be greeted with a fusillade of rail gun fire.
Inflexible’s troops were closing in on us from all sides. The parasite planes hovered above us. All seemed lost.
Then came the deus ex machina. The ground rose up in front and behind us in the form of two giant hands. They clapped together smashing the parasite planes to bits. Then they slapped the troops on the ground. We were alone again in the jungle.
In that moment I, we felt awesome, like nothing could touch us. I was living the symbiosis that I had studied in school and it was incredible. I was no longer the little girl lost. I was victorious with an entire planet as my family and guardian.
That sense of invincibility was fleeting and soon lost. The Inflexible, the Valiant, and the Invincible were planet killing warships. They had the ability to lay waste to the entire surface of the planet if need be to accomplish their mission.
And they did. Presumably, the destruction of the parasite planes had been watched on a live feed. From that, the commanders determined that the network of life on the surface influenced if not controlled the entirety of the planet. So, they systematically incinerated large swaths of vegetation to interrupt the network and pave the way for colonization.
We ran as far and as fast as we could. But the destruction of the planetary nervous system weakened Greenday more and more each day as the burning campaign continued. Finally, she dissolved into the ground, leaving me to fend for myself.
I spend my days and nights debating whether I should turn myself in to the occupying earth force. Part of me believed it would be the smart thing to do. The other part of me feared that I would be executed on sight.
One thing is clear: I’ve come this far. There’s plenty to eat. And most importantly, I have an entire planet to protect me. Sooner or later, Greenday will come back, once she’s well. So, I just need to hang tough and soldier on by myself until she does.