This is Part Four of The ’39, a story set in a certain sci-fi (prime) universe. just a few years before the events of an original series. I’m sure that you won’t have any difficult figuring out which universe. A new part to be published every week!
No copyright infringement intended. All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise.
Nothing showed on the main view screen. Nothing would. A small, rocky world in the middle of interstellar space was, for all intents and purposes, invisible in the visual light spectrum. The only way to see it would be when it passed in front of stars, but only when it was very close. Then again, in deep space, visual identification of any kind was virtually useless. Even from as close as two light seconds out, the planet was nothing more than a black spot Chew could easily blot out with his upheld thumb.
The new sensor suite, however, was an entirely different matter. Not only had it alerted them to the presence of the rogue planet, but had relayed a whole slew of useful information to them. In addition to size, gravity, mean temperature, and relative velocity, they were able to detect specific atmospheric components, leading them to believe that there was plant, if not animal, life. A lack of any kind of electromagnetic emissions, even weak ones, led them to believe that a technological civilization was highly unlikely. The presence of an unusually strong magnetic field indicated an active core.
When they’d initially detected it, the rogue planet had been travelling on an obtuse angle to Spirit’s course at .2c relative, so when they dropped out of warp, the navigator shaped a hyperbolic course to come up from behind at full impulse. Not a tricky maneuver, but one that was handled with precision and executed efficiently. Chew approved.
“Helm, standard orbit,” said Chew.
“Standard orbit, aye, sir,” said Call.
Even from orbit, the planet was a featureless black disc. Not until Jennings had changed the screen to show infrared did the planet come to life. Layers of atmosphere swirled infinitely slowly in the artificial color display, hotspots, hundreds of degrees C showing as bright pinpricks scattered over the surface of the planet like freckles. Whole swaths of red and orange showed areas where heat was trapped by thick jungle canopies. Large black areas outlined by deep violet and purple were oceans of liquid water.
Chew found it breathtaking. Life, no matter where, or what form it took, always inspired him, filled him with awe and a sense of smallness; it was not a smallness that made him feel insignificant, but that made him feel as though he was connected to something much larger, infinitely so.
“Jennings?” asked Chew.
“Initial sensor reports confirmed. Oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. Traces of argon, helium, and ozone. Higher concentrations of oxygen and carbon-dioxide than Earth-standard, but within tolerance. Abundant plant and animal life. The planet-wide atmospheric temperature is an average of 32.5 degrees, likely due to geothermal activity. Atmospheric pressure, 923.87 millibars. Surface area is 80% water, two major land masses, thousands of islands, most showing active volcanism. Vegetation is fairly uniform on the land masses.”
“Safe for a landing party?”
Jennings looked up from her scope and said, “As far as I can tell.”
Chew turned toward his first officer. “What do you think? Say five survey parties? Two to explore the oceans, over and under, one for the magnetic poles, one for each land mass?”
“Sounds about right,” said Leonova.
“The magnetic field is too strong for reliable beaming,” said Jennings.
“Shuttles, then. Jennings, I’ll need you up here to monitor and direct the survey teams.”
“Number One, call up the duty log. I want the next five teams on the rotation assembled in the hangar deck in half an hour, and I want them dirt-side in thirty-five.”
“Aye, sir,” said Leonova, immediately turning to her console. A moment later she was barking out orders over he comm.
“Call, Cangas,” said Chew. The junior officers jumped as though they’d been poked with sharp sticks. “I want you two leading one of the survey teams. Up for it?”
“Yes sir!” said Call, practically slapping his knees. Cangas nodded just as enthusiastically.
* * * * * * * * * *
The enthusiasm didn’t last long.
“Well, that’s one thing Jennings’ sensors didn’t account for,” said Call, slapping the side of his neck. “Insect life.” His hand came away gooey and smeared with his blood. “I thought you said we’d be safe from bugs!”
Sajad was squatting next to a lumpy fungal growth, taking samples. She paused and glanced over, smirk lost in the gloom. Turning back to her work, she sliced off a small piece of the plant, a small puff of white emitting from the hole. After sealing the sample phial, Sajad slotted it into the tricorder and started analyzing the sample.
“From viral bugs, not actual bug-type bugs,” said Sajad. “Viruses on Earth evolved along with other animal life, otherwise it wouldn’t be able to use our biological systems to reproduce. In fact, we have virus DNA intertwined in our own. So any virus that evolves on a different planet with non-Terran DNA wouldn’t have any way of interacting with ours. It would be like trying to run the code for a food replicator on a Turing machine. Completely incompatible.”
“Tell that to the insects. My flesh seems plenty compatible,” said Call with another slap. “And why is it so damned hot? Vronn, you sure I’m not being infected with some kind of weird, alien parasite? I don’t want anything bursting out of my chest during dinner.”
“You know, you throw the word alien around quite liberally,” said the junior science officer. “But for the sake of interspecies amity, I will try not to take it personally. Yes, I am sure, even with your alien physiology.”
Call muttered something under his breath and trundled ahead, knocking aside the dense, black foliage so that it swung back and hit him in the back of his head. He swore some more.
Cangas couldn’t be sure in the reflected light of their hand-lamps, but she could swear the Andorian was smiling. Call, she still couldn’t figure out. He’d been all fire and vinegar coming down to the planet, but now he was just sour. The phaser rifle he insisted on bringing was hanging at his side, a dead weight in his hand.
‘Well, good,’ thought Cangas, ‘I hope his arm falls off.’ She was getting tired of his crap, whatever he’d been through didn’t entitle him to make everyone else’s life miserable. She was seriously considering asking for a transfer to Beta or even Gamma watch, even if it meant a nominal demotion. The problem was that the Exec would want to know why, and Cangas would be compelled to tell her. It would leave a permanent blot on Call’s official record, and she just didn’t hate him enough for that. Yet.
Sajad walked over, eyes darting back and forth between where Call had just disappeared and Cangas. “Um, I found something interesting, I think.”
“Well, spit it out, Constance,” said Cangas. Vronn stepped over.
“Well, you’ve noticed there isn’t much in the way of insect life.”
“Ow! Bloodsucking bastards!” said Call from somewhere ahead.
Cangas smiled and nodded.
“Well, other than those mosquito-type bugs. No natural pollinators. Since there isn’t a day-night cycle and no flowering plants, how do you suppose the plant life propagates?”
“I get the feeling you’re going to tell me,” said Cangas.
“Well, to be honest, I’m not sure. Just a supposition.”
“So far I’ve identified a few dozen different species and sub-species of plant,” said Sajad. Cangas nodded, even though all the plants looked exactly the same to her. “Well, they are filled with spores.”
“That makes sense.”
“But there’s no delivery method. The skin of the plant has to be broken in order to release them.”
“Which implies something breaks the skins. Like a truffle hog?”
“Perhaps. And these plants are tough. I really had to work to cut off a sample.”
“But we haven’t seen any signs of animal life.”
“Well, we know there is. The ship’s sensors picked it up. We’re making a lot of noise, so it’s possible we’re scaring it off,” said Sajad.
“Picking anything up, Vronn?” asked Cangas.
Vronn shook his head, having learned the useful human gesture early in his Starfleet career. “Massive life-sign readings, but nothing distinct.”
“Well, I guess we have something to look forward to,” said Cangas.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Call remembered reading about the Enterprise’s encounter with a rogue planet. There’d been alien hunters and mind-reading shape-shifting beings, but the only thing they’d found resembled a slightly phosphorescent pill-bug no larger than his thumb. Then of course there were the swarms of biting insects that only showed interest in him.
Between the canopy of foliage overhead that blotted out the stars, the fleshy stalks that gripped at his legs as he walked, and the heat, he found the planet to be both oppressive and boring.
Vronn prattled on about how the fungus-like plants produced a type of pycocyanobilin, which in turn fed the trees and plants, substituting for photosynthesis. Whatever. What he wouldn’t give for single mugato or wild selat! So involved was he in his musings, that he didn’t hear the rustling in the underbrush, or see the leaves parting to his left. By the time Call realized anything was happening, it was on him.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Chew and Leonova watched the footage being transmitted live to the ship on the main view screen.Strange, twisted trunks shot dozens of meters into the air. Huge black, rubbery leaves edged with a faint phospherescent glow dripped condensation onto the white fungi that sprang up from the ground, knee and waist high and thick as grass. The landing party was less than half a click from their shuttle, walking along a narrow, meandering path.
Though he kept an open mind, he had to admit that it was not the most aesthetically pleasing vegetation he’d ever seen. In fact, it looked more like a sadomasochist’s playground. There was no sound but for the sporadic reports that came in when something new was discovered.
Vronn was in the middle of a report when there was a scream and the sound of phaser fire. The view wheeled wildly accompanied by shouts from the rest of the party. The air was filled by a cloud of glowing particulate matter.
Chew punched a button on the arm of his command chair. “What’s going on down there, report!”
There were a few more shouts and the camera continued to shake and turn around. There was a fleeting image of a small, glossy creature, not much larger than a corgi, disappearing into the underbrush. The camera steadied and took in the various members of the landing party. Everyone looked okay, but were coated by whatever was in the air; it looked like they’d been rolled in flour.
“Ensign Call, report!”
The camera steadied and focused on Ensign Call. Cangas was just helping him to his feet, his face a picture of mortification, phaser rifle hanging by its strap. He did his best to straighten his coat and brush off whatever was coating him, but it stuck to the fabric and his hair like paint, though it came off of his face as a fine powder.
“Yes, sir, er, everything’s fine, sir,” his face taking on a distinct flush.
“We heard phaser fire, are you under attack?”
“Uh, no sir, I uh, it was an accident, sir.”
“An accident?” There was absolutely no mistaking the displeasure and underlying undertones of threat in the captain’s voice.
Anxiety mixed with embarrassment as the ensign stuttered. “I mean, there was a creature, sir, and it surprised me…”
“It didn’t show up on your tricorder?”
“I, um, wasn’t monitoring my tricorder…”
“Isn’t that the entire purpose of taking point, ensign?” Call looked like he couldn’t possibly look more miserable, so Chew moved on. “So there was a creature? It attacked you, so that’s why you fired?”
“I, uh, not exactly, sir,” said Call. There was a pause as Vronn whispered something in the ensign’s ear. “Vronn believes we’ve been following a game trail. There’s a body of fresh water ten meters to the left, uh, my left, your right, and he thinks the animal was just, uh, going for a drink of, uh, water, sir.”
“So then why did you discharge your weapon?”
Call dropped his eyes and said, in a voice barely loud enough to be picked up, “I was surprised, and my finger just kind of jerked.”
Chew stared and said, “Surprised… just kind of jerked…” He paused before saying, “Mr Call, please surrender your weapon to crewman Leslie. Carefully now. We wouldn’t want any more accidents.” They watched as Call handed the weapon to the security officer.
“Number One, I believe we need to schedule some remedial weapon safety and planetary survey protocol training… for the entire landing party.”
Leonova nodded. “Consider it done.”
“Vronn? What’s that white powder?” asked Chew. They could hear the sound of Vronn’s tricorder scanning.
Vronn trained the camera on the swath of underbrush that had received the phaser blast. The thick plants had been cleanly sliced by the beam for as far as the lights penetrated. Chew could see that the stems were hollow. “They are plant spores.” As they watched, tiny buds started to sprout from the uniforms of the human party members.
“What’s happening?” asked Chew.
Vronn held his tricorder up to Cangas’s tunic. “It looks like the spores are responding to the trace minerals in the lieutenant’s sweat. Cangas looked alarmed.
“Is it… dangerous?” asked Leonova, stifling a laugh behind a hand. The crewmen were rapidly becoming fuzzy.
“Ow!” said Cangas. “I… it feels like I’m being stung all over!” She tried brushing the tiny plants off, but they held fast. The brushing turned to frantic clawing, which was mirrored by the other humans.
“It burns!” wailed Call.
“The roots are attempting to burrow into their pores…” said Vronn.
“Get those uniforms off!” said Chew.
Within seconds, the crewmen were standing in their undergarments, panting and chaffing at their red, inflamed skin, but no longer panicked. Their clothes lay in piles around them, quickly disappearing under new growth.
“Remarkable,” said Vronn, continuing his scans.
“Get back to the ship, immediately. Observe stage one decontamination protocol,” said Chew. “Alert the medical staff to meet them in the hangar bay, Number One.” Turning to Perkins, he said, “Issue a warning to the remaining survey parties, relay Vronn’s sensor readings and the video playback of the last five minutes.”
“Aye sir,” said Perkins.
“Leslie,” said Chew.
“Vaporize those uniforms. Leave no trace. Setting ten, wide beam. Yours, too, Vronn.”
“The spores do not seem to respond to my biology,” said Vronn.
“Yes, but I want to limit exposure as much as possible.”
“Number One, get down to the hangar deck and see to things.”
Leonova met the shuttle in the hangar bay 25 minutes later and supervised the decontamination with Chief Apeloko. It was actually the first time, she’d ever participated in the procedure, so she found it interesting. The moment it touched down, the quarantine barriers went up. The exterior of the shuttle was subjected to repeated sweeps of radiation in hard vacuum, followed by a chemical bath.
Once scans confirmed that every nook and cranny of the shuttle’s exterior was clean, atmosphere was pumped into the quarantine shell and the medical staff entered through the airlock wearing bio-suits. One by one the crewmembers emerged, naked as the day they were born and their heads shaved. Then came a chemical shower of their own, followed by a dose of UV radiation, and then a final scan. They dressed from the pile of soft, white medical scrubs next to the door. The Exec was waiting for them when they exited.
They stood at attention before Leonova, skin pink (deep blue in Vronn’s case) from scrubbing. Leonova tsked and started to walk around them, head shaking slowly from side to side. “What a sad sight you are,” she said finally. “So what happened?”
“I was surprised by a creature of some kind. Or I surprised it.”
“So, seek out new life and phaser it?” said Leonova.
“No, ma’am. As I said, it was an accident.”
Leonova scowled and shook her head. “Anyone have useful information?”
Sajad said, “I was concentrating on plant life.”
Vronn said, “I have a sensor reading. It was warm-blooded, approximately 21 kilos and a little under a meter in length. Quadruped. I have an image. It’s a little blurry…”
“Let’s see it,” said Leonova.
Vronn handed over his tricorder. Leonova looked at the playback and saw an animal with rough, gray skin. It had a small, oblong head with huge, black eyes and a rotund body with thick legs. More than half its length was made up of a spiky tail speckled with spores.
“So you were ambushed by a giant squirrel.”
“It’s really very interesting,” said Vronn. “I believeꟷ”
“Put it in the report,” snapped Leonova.
“Ma’am, I take full responsibility,” said Call, eyes focussed on the bulkhead directly in front of him. “I was in charge of the landing party, and it was my screw-up. The others don’t deserve to be punished.”
“Very noble of you,” said Leonova, stopping behind him. She let the comment hang in the air for a moment before leaning in. “So you think this is a one-man show? You think the captain is a lone wolf?” Call didn’t answer. Leonova straightened and walked around to face them all.
“We’re way out here on the end of a branch, people. We only have each other to watch our backs. There’s noone to unstick us if we get stuck. This,” said Leonova, waving at the quarantine barriers with her left hand, “is nothing. But it just as easily could have gone badly. Not just for you, but for the whole ship and crew. All it takes is a momentary lapse in attention and we’re all dead. This is not a walk through the Presidio. Now go get something to eat and get some rest, because it’s the last you’ll going to be getting for a long time. Dismissed.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Leonova never raised her voice. Call might have felt been better if she had. The others wouldn’t even look at him while they ate, though they did sit at the same table as him in the mess hall. The looks, and worse, the giggles, they got from other crewmen was almost unbearable. Call sat on one side of the table, Vronn, some little way to his left, with Sajad, Leslie and Cangas across from him, but staring intently at their food.
Call picked up a squishy blue cube between two fingers, looked at it, and put it down. Normally the blues were his favorite, but he’d lost his appetite. He ran a hand over his head, still expecting to feel hair. Instead, he felt smooth, slightly clammy skin. It felt like touching a snake, and his hand recoiled. Call put it back down self-consciously, and covered it with the other.
When he looked back up, he saw that Cangas was staring at him. “This is all your fault,” she said. “Thanks to you, we’re going to be pulling double duty, between our normal bridge watch and the remedial training.” As an afterthought, she pointed at her head and said, “And my hair had better not grow back curly!”
“Oh come on, you can’t blame him for everything,” said Sajad, leaning over.
“Oh yes I can,” said Cangas. “He’s had a bad attitude this entire cruise. He’s wanted to get into a scrap since the beginning.” She slapped the table top and the entire mess went quiet. The giggles stopped and people stared.
The silence stretched for a long, uncomfortable moment. Call’s face tightened and turned red. Then, eyes still downcast, he said, voice quiet, “You’re right.” Looking up, he said, “I’m sorry. I let you all down. I let myself down. I’ve been so focused on proving myself, that I haven’t been concentrating on the here and how… to my responsibility to all of you.” He looked at each of them in turn as he said, “I’ll do better. I promise.”
After another long moment, Vronn nodded, followed by Leslie. Sajad smiled. They all turned toward Cangas. “OK,” she said. “And you can be sure that we’ll all be on your ass to make sure that you do.” patted her head. “But I’ll never forgive you for this.”