FICTIONAL LIFE

 

 

ARION

©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Chapter Twenty-Six - Mirrors in Flight

 

The Central Authority building and several others surrounding it were nearing completion. Several months had passed since Landing Day and while there was no real push, everyone stayed busy at their tasks and things got accomplished.  Gardens of Terran plants and vegetables were growing well in the fertile soil of the crater, and the colony livestock seemed to do well. Some of the chickens and guineas that had escaped from their coops were enjoying a free-range life, and they were thriving on the indigenous bugs they found living beneath the crater weeds.

Several dogs had been revived, and while none of them were specifically owned by anyone, the colonists were only too happy to have them around and take care of them. Once fully revived, each of the dogs reacted defensively and in confusion of the animal-people who had replaced their known humans, but it did not take too long before they warmed up to ear-scritches and belly rubs offered with treats and leftovers of food. The live cats decanted did not fare so well. None of them would come anywhere near any of the furmen, and took off as soon as they were released in the city. Several were seen on occasion, but they always kept their distance. It was hoped that one day they would come to trust the furmen, but for now they would have to fend for themselves as best as they could.

To give those working on the town a change of scenery, a rotation roster had been developed so everyone could join the shuttle pilots on reconnaissance flights out over the surrounding rainforests. Numerous discoveries of other native life forms had been made, and while some of them appeared to be carnivorous, most were small and none of these were anywhere near the vicinity of their crater valley; it seemed as if they were specifically avoiding the area or they just had not found a way in through the ring of mountains.  While always on the watch, no cities or signs of past intelligent habitats were discovered on their flights.

Long-range expeditions to the other crater sites revealed similar conditions as their own, but the one surrounded by contagion was left largely unexplored for fear of inadvertently bringing something back to infect their home site.

Over the months, the colonists slowly got more used to their new bodies, discovering what they could or could not do, and complaints about the unwilling transformations were heard less. While it was never discussed outright, however, several had begun to notice that during off-duty hours, the herbivore types tended to congregate together, where the carnivore types were more apt to be solo in their endeavors, joining other groups only on occasion. There were also more secret liaisons taking place as people experimented with those new bodies as well.

There were some families that were originally together before they had left the Earth that had since split apart due to their transformations; those who were compatible before no longer had common interests since they were no longer the same species. Some were like the Kirato family, however, that actually grew stronger and closer together despite the differences.

One particular split was with the Bonavita family.  Emma would no longer have anything to do with Angelo outside of their specialties, and then no more than was absolutely necessary. Their daughter Piale tried to maintain some sense of cohesion with them, but it seemed that her mother had little interest in her as well.  It became a common joke between father and daughter that the mother was more bear than human anymore, and although he had never said it aloud, Angelo felt more at peace with the animal hybrid he had become now that he no longer had the opinions of his overbearing wife looming over him.

Then one day, Angelo approached the mayor to see if he would grant a divorce between him and Emma. Ken said he would authorize it only if Emma agreed, but when it was presented to her, she could not agree fast enough.  Having no real divorce documents to sign, Ken simply made an announcement to the effect and had Arion make an official record of proclamation.  Three days later, Angelo was seen in the galley tent happily flirting with Trina Barron, an ocelot near his age who was an electrician for the city buildings. Piale had later seen her father ducking into a tent with the female feline and she approved; it was good to see him smiling again.

Ken and Kate were no longer making an effort to hide their own relationship, not that they had been fooling anyone to begin with.  It was rumored they would be married someday, and while they were both feline types, neither seemed to be in any hurry to tie the knot.  In fact, there were others who had once considered a marriage union, but now that they were all animal hybrids, the sacred institution seemed to be of little interest anymore; animals didn’t get married, they just got together.

It was on one of the official weekend breaks when a great number of the colonists spent the day on the beach at the crater lake.  No one needed to lay out to get a tan anymore, but there were still those who enjoyed relaxing on a blanket on the tawny sand, letting the sun warm their fur, while others splashed around in the lake. Ken and Kate were one such couple quietly occupying a spot near the water. The cougar was propped up against a drink cooler and the lioness had the back of her head resting upon his lap. Their conversation was light and they avoided topics of official business.

They both had their tablets with them, but they were currently aside face down on the blanket and largely forgotten.  From one of them, the Synthetic Intelligence lightly cleared his throat.  Ken reached out and picked up one, turning its screen toward him.

“Yes, Arion?”

“I am sorry to disturb your weekend, sir, but I have some information I thought you should know.”

“Go ahead,” Ken responded in a lazy tone.

“I have detected a spatial body on approach. It is at the extreme range of my sensors, so I cannot give you much information about it at this time, but it will intersect Bellerophon’s orbit in approximately three months.”

“Is it another rogue meteor?  There are thousands of rocks out in the asteroid belt.”

“This one is coming in sun-side from above the plane of the ecliptic, so it may be an asteroid with a wide eccentric orbit around 51 Pegasi, rather than drifting in from the outer system belt.”

“Are you suggesting action?”

“Not at this time, sir. It is too soon to make any conjectures concerning its course. It is certain that it will cross our orbit, but still unknown whether or not it will meet up with the planet itself. I will be monitoring it with utmost scrutiny in the course of its journey and will make any advisement when I have more data.”

“Three months, you said?”

“That is the estimate, yes.”

“It may not even hit the planet, just cross our orbit.”

“That is the current hypothesis.”

“Keep me informed, please, but do not spread word of this until you have more concrete information. There’s no need to alarm anyone until we actually know if there may be a potential threat.”

“Understood, sir. Have a good afternoon.”

“Thank you, Arion.” 

*** 

A month later, a crowd was gathered outside the steps of the Central Authority building. The two-story structure was largely finished with only some of the interior work still to be completed on the upper level, but the lower level was now usable. A knee-high rock wall with entrances at the corners framed a public park surrounding the building and Bermuda grass seed had been sowed to fill in the lawn.  The wall had been made using stone from a quarry that had been started at the south rim of the crater.

The mayor stood at the top of the steps to give a short speech and then used a regular pair of scissors to cut a length of red twine that had been stretched between two columns flanking the front door.  Once the symbolic ribbon-cutting ceremony had concluded, the crowd dispersed of everyone but a few who were tasked to start moving in items from some of the tents.

Although she was deputy mayor, Kate had watched the proceedings as one of the crowd, but afterward the lioness mounted the steps toward Ken, who was chatting casually with Dr. Manhigh. The cougar looked over at her, but continued his conversation with the botanist.

Without saying a word, Kate handed him a tablet, which he took automatically.  It was a moment or two before he actually looked at it, and when he did, his words faltered.  He glanced over at Kate, then to Manhigh, and then back to the tablet.

“Excuse me, Doctor,” he said to the Samoyed.  He and Kate went inside the building together and walked along a wide entrance hall. They passed a pair of open doors that led into a large cafeteria, where Rocky, Victoria and other workers were setting up tables and chairs taken from the galley tent.  The mayor led her to a wooden door with an inset frosted glassteel pane, one of the many items imported from the Earth for this purpose.

Inside the room there was a nondescript wooden desk in front of a window, three chairs, and very little else. Ken took the seat behind the desk and Kate sat down in one of the others, sliding her tail in through a slot in the modified chair back.  With the door to his office closed behind them, the cougar took another look at the tablet.

“Okay, Arion, what am I looking at?”  On the screen was a slightly-out-of-focus image of a dim sphere, something that had been photographed from an extreme distance.

“This is the object I detected twenty-seven days ago and have been monitoring on a trajectory toward the orbit of Bellerophon.”

“What is it? I can barely make it out in this image. It’s circular, but that’s about all I can see.”

“It is a perfectly round sphere, two thousand, five hundred thirty feet in diameter.”

“In the vacuum of space, how does a meteor that size become perfectly round?” Kate asked.

“It is neither a meteor nor an asteroid,” Arion replied. “It is a constructed object, possibly a ship, a vessel of some kind.”

Ken’s eyebrows went up and his tail thumped the wall behind him. “A ship?  How can you be sure?”

“Wandering asteroids do not make course corrections,” Arion explained. “I had originally calculated its trajectory to cross Bellerophon’s orbit, but not to intersect with the planet itself.  This object changed its course in order to come here directly, and it was not due to Belle’s gravity well.”

Arion-2?” Ken suggested.

“If it is, they’re early,” Kate mused, “years too early.”

The cougar looked over at her. “What if they developed a faster interstellar drive system before they finished building her? It’s conceivable they could have caught up to us.”

“I would recommend against getting your hopes up for that. Arion-2 was nine thousand, two hundred forty feet in length, but only one thousand, two hundred fifty feet in diameter. Even if we are only looking at it head-on, this is much larger than our sister ship’s diameter by another one thousand, two hundred eighty feet.”

“More than double the size,” Kate remarked. “It’s almost a half mile in diameter.”

“I have tried hailing the vessel, if that is what it really is,” Arion reported. “If it was my other entity on Arion-2, I would have rejoined with only a slight time lag. There has been no response of any kind.”

The cougar twitched his whiskers in thought. “If it’s an alien ship, they might not have recognized your signals as a hail, if they were even monitoring our frequencies at all.”

“Do you think it might be the Sori?” Kate suggested. “What Zaizen called a voidship?”

“Quite possibly,” Arion answered. “I will repeat my hails in Ambassador Zaizen’s language.  I will let you know if I get a response, but as His Honor pointed out, I may not even be on the right frequency to get their attention. They are still two months away from arrival, so we may have to wait for any kind of answer.”

“We’ll have to hope these are the Sori,” Ken said beneath his breath. “I wouldn’t want to guess that it’s a different alien race altogether. They may not be as friendly as your hairy dinosaur friend.”

Kate leaned forward onto the edge of the desk. “Arion, why don’t you contact Zaizen with this news?” she prompted. “She might be able to provide some information on their communications for you, and if it is them, perhaps she can put in a good word with them for us.” 

*** 

“Until you came to Serallasion, the Sori have never met another intelligent race in our exploration of other stars. We thought we were alone in the universe.”

“This was a common belief among the humans as well,” Arion told her in the Sori language, speaking via the techwatch they had gifted her.  “Until they met you, humankind had never encountered another space-faring race, although there have long been stories of other visitors to the Earth in more primitive times.  Do you recognize the ship design?”

“Sori voidships have round hulls as this appears to be, but cannot be certain from image. Using a human saying I learned while in Tellus, I do not wish to get my hopes up, but it is hard not to after being alone for so long!”

“Terran space vehicles are usually white so that they can be seen and identified in the darkness of space. This one does not seem to follow that convention.”

Zaizen smiled. “Sori vessels have crystalline surface with internal shield generation to reflect stellar radiations away from interior. If space is dark, there is not much light to be reflected.”

“That would be sensible,” responded the SI, “and fits why it appears dim at this distance. It is too far to mirror the reflected light of the planet, and as it is coming from the sunward side, solar light would be reflected away from us.”

 “Is so. I believe it is Sori, and this excites me. I will see my people again!”

“Dr. Kate would like me to ask you to ‘put in a good word for humanity’ if it is your people.”

“What purpose?”

“As you saw with the asteroid that bounced off atmosphere while you were in Tellus, we have no defensive capabilities. If your people think we might be a threat to them, you can convince them not to attack us.”

Zaizen seemed genuinely surprised. “Sori would not attack another intelligent species. Too much exchange of information to be lost. The Sori value learning of all things.”

“That is good to know.”

“Yes, to know is good.  There is something that I may be able to do for humankind — if that is the Sori and they come for me.”

“What is that, Friend Zaizen?”

“When the Sori first moved out through interstellar space, we had inadequate protection against stellar radiations. There were genetic mergings much similar to what the humans experienced, and this happened on every expedition that was sent out beyond the protection of our star. Merging sometimes with other creatures they carried, sometimes merging with one another.

“Decision was almost made to abandon interstellar flights altogether as too dangerous.  This caused much distress to those peoples due to potential knowledge gained to be lost. It took many times before a solution was discovered to return those afflicted back to original selves, but not before great loss of life trying.  Adequate protection was also developed to safeguard our voidships from future mergings once the cause was determined.  I believe the Sori can teach the Terrans same protections, but not sure if Sori can change furmans back to humans since we are unfamiliar with their physiologies.”

“The Furs will give you unending thanks if you can and will do this for them. Even if you cannot change these people back to their original selves, providing Earth with protection for future vessels will assure their cooperation and gratitude for more exchanges of information.”

“Is good. I will try to help.”

“On behalf of furmankind, Thank you, Friend Zaizen.”

The alien opened her mouth to reply, but a sudden downpour over the rainforest drowned out all further conversation. This one looked to last a while, so she switched off the device and absently dropped it into her marsupial pouch.

The home she had made for herself was in a cave grotto with several chambers within the rocky side of an embankment. There were Sori-made items she had collected from the ruined outpost dome months after the cataclysm, but most were useless without a charging station for the egg-shaped capacitors; this included her communication device.

What she had not told the Synthetic Intelligence was that even if the approaching ship was the Sori coming to check on their silent outpost, she had no way to contact them.  They did not use the radio waves that the humans utilized, and she did not have the technical expertise to create a charger or another device for the methods in use by the Sori.

If they were somehow able to locate the old outpost despite the crater destruction, she had scrawled directions on a wall in the dome that would lead them to this cave. Whether or not they would be able to find the old dome to begin with was another matter.

If the Sori did come looking for their science team, the earthen dome might be completely missed within the upheaval blasted out by the meteorite. It was sheer luck that a hardened stone bluff had protected even one of their abodes at all. They might never find the sole survivor of the expedition and she would still be alone.

Zaizen had always been a bit of what the humans would label as an optimist, but even she realized that being rescued was an unfathomable long shot. 

*** 

“If they can do it, we can do it,” Dr. Kazama stated to a small room of people in a meeting room of the Central Authority building.

“What if they have technology for such things that we don’t?” Will Andresen asked. He sat toward the back of the group, leaning back in a folding chair against the wall behind him, his arms crossed and his tail through the back of the chair silently brushing the wooden floor.  “It won’t matter if they can do it or not if we can’t.”

“I am convinced that with Arion’s help, he and I can find a way to reverse the transformation process.”

“You two have already researched this with the whole of human knowledge at your disposal and you’d already admitted that it was impossible,” Rod countered.

“True,” admitted the river otter, “but that was before we even knew it was possible. Now that we know it can be done, it’s just a matter of time to discover the method.”

Kate leaned forward on the conference table. “Satoru, it took the Sori years to find a way to reverse it, and Zaizen said there was a loss of life in some of the subjects they tried their methods on. Whose lives are you willing to risk?”

“Not only that,” Ethan added, “it took decades for these changes to occur in us at the genetic level while we were sleeping. It wasn’t an instantaneous transformation and there’s no reason to think it would be any quicker changing us back.”

“I can’t just sit around and wait for someone here to come to me with a chipped fang or a busted tail,” complained the doctor. “Ever since the change, we’re all relatively healthy — healthier than any of us were as humans. There’s really nothing for me to do until someone injures themself while building the town, tending the gardens or the livestock, so what’s the fuss with me utilizing Arion’s resources to research this thing under a new light?”

“I thought you would be busy investigating all the viruses and bacteria on our new world to keep those from harming our health,” Andresen remarked. “What happened with that research?”

“I’m still looking into that as things come up, but so far there hasn’t been anything that really likes our Terran physiology enough to infect us.”

Ken tapped the tabletop with a claw tip.  “Go ahead with your research, Doctor,” he said, “but I don’t want you getting anyone’s hopes up that you can actually change them back. Keep your studies between Arion and yourself and don’t spread word that you’re still looking into it. We’ve convinced everyone that the change is permanent so they would be better off just accepting that they’ll be this way the rest of their lives.”

“If keeping my mouth shut is the price to be paid to conduct my research, I can do that,” Kazama said quietly. “Arion and I will covertly devote available time and resources to our field of study. As you say, nothing may come of it, but I want to try.  Arion said that the Sori suffered these genetic mergers every time they launched a ship out beyond their star’s protective influence, so there’s no reason to think that any other ships that Earth sends out to other stars won’t experience these same transformations. If we can discover something, Arion can then transmit the resolution back to Earth, even if it takes decades for the news to get there and more to be forwarded on to any other colony ships.”

“Okay, you’ve convinced us,” Kate said at last. “Just don’t be delinquent in your other duties.”

The otter gave her a look of contempt. “Don’t worry about that,” he grumbled. “If you get a belly ache, a twisted ankle, or you and our mayor discover that you’re somehow pregnant, you can still come to me for medical help.”

The look of surprise on the lioness’ face was priceless and Andresen could not help but guffaw at her embarrassment. 

*** 

Drone ARN017 rose up off of the field near the runway and zipped up into the sky over Tellus to begin its morning flight over and around the crater valley. The field was occupied by twenty-four other such drones and several more rose up off the ground after it where they had all spent the previous day recharging their solar batteries. For every day since the initial landing, Arion regularly patrolled the skies over the crater with at least six of them in the air at all times, all on different paths.  The colonists had long since gotten used to the faint whines of their small rotors and rarely ever looked up anymore if one of them got close.  The purpose of the drones was not to keep watchful eyes on the furry workers, but to be vigilant for any indigenous creatures that might try to investigate the furman colony.

This particular drone followed a prearranged flight path toward the northeast, its sensors and camera lenses searching for heat signatures or signs of movement. The ‘daily rains’ were not always daily, and there were some days when it did not rain at all; this was one that Arion had forecast as a sunny, rain-free day.

ARN017 had been in the air for less than an hour when it discovered a sudden obstruction in its flight path. The drone dropped its velocity to zero within seconds and stopped to hover in front of a reflective glass or metal ball that had appeared to zoom in and come to a complete rest floating several yards in front of it.

The sphere was nearly a meter in diameter. Its surface resembled an unfaceted ball of crystal with a mirror finish, and was smooth without any discernible breaks in the material. There were no antennae, other extrusions or even exhaust ports. It was also completely silent; it made no sound, not even a hum, as if it was just another piece of the sky.

The drone attempted to scan the object, but its shiny surface reflected away anything directed at it, providing absolutely no information other than its size and its mere existence; only the drone’s own reflection looked back at itself.  As for the orb, if it was scanning or recording anything about the drone, there was no indication.  The two aerial objects simply hovered close to one another without either doing anything.

Finally, the drone moved closer, its small rotors whining through the air, but when it got within tapping distance of the crystal ball, the sphere moved away swiftly and kept on flying with increasing velocity across the crater until it was all but lost to sight.

The drone took off after it, but it was unable to keep up, having not been designed for such speeds.  Before the sphere disappeared into the distance, the final calculation the drone made was that the mysterious orb was going due east — directly toward the location of the Sori outpost. 

*** 

Inside the ambient light of a small cave hidden beneath the rainforest canopy, Zaizen moved across the main chamber toward a large flat stone propped up on top of two smaller boulders. The makeshift table was canted to one side slightly due to the uneven size of the boulders, but it was level enough for the Sori’s usage. Within the folds of a roughly woven square of cloth were several carcasses of the indigenous rodents that she had called chitners. Placed next to the fuzzy little bodies was a variety of leaves, stalks and berries of local vegetation.

She settled down on her haunches with her thick tail straight out behind her on the ground and reached for her morning meal. Her hand stopped above the table and she turned her long neck to look toward the cave entrance where she had seen movement at the periphery of her vision.

Floating just outside the entrance of her grotto was a large, mirrored crystal sphere, hovering above the dirt and rocks without a sound.  Zaizen swallowed, and then grinned. She turned toward the sphere and one at a time and in turn, held up each of her hands, all digits splayed out wide.

Recognizing the hand gestures, the crystal orb emitted a single tone, and then Zaizen began speaking in her native language. 

*** 

At the moment that Zaizen was having her encounter, a far larger mirrored crystal sphere assumed a geosynchronous orbit directly above the eastern ridge of the crater. Arion studied the alien ship from his lower altitude, quietly amazed that it had approached the planet far quicker than his sensors had been able to detect.

He directed several radio messages toward it, all encoded with the Sori language that he had been taught by Zaizen, but there was neither acknowledgment nor reply. The smooth crystal vessel was twice the diameter of what Arion-2 would be, but once it had stationed itself above the outpost, the sphere was silent and unmoving.

Arion contacted the members of the command team and gave a quick report on what was happening, but before he could finish, a smaller sphere seemed to extrude though the mirrored side of the larger vessel as if it was a bead of mercury and immediately dropped toward the planet below.

On the ground, the attention of several Furs were drawn skyward as a brilliant star zoomed through the air. It was not coming toward the town, however, but streaked toward the rainforest to the east. Moments later, there was a sharp snap of thunder as air rushed in to fill a sudden vacuum behind it.

Arion pinged the techwatch given to Zaizen, but she did not respond to his hail. Putting the watch into surveillance mode, he could listen in, but the camera remained dark, indicating that it was either inside a container or something might be covering it up.  Its sensitive microphone, however, picked up Zaizen’s muted voice – along with responses from another.

The Synthetic Intelligence recognized the Sori language and was able to decipher most of the conversation, but there were some words and phrases that he could not reference. Zaizen was giving an account of herself and her expedition team, and her voice was overcome with great emotion. She had been alone a very long time.

Arion heard the other voice state that a distress signal from this location had been received some weeks ago, but Zaizen was unable to verify this. It was not she who had sent such a signal, as the dome outpost was in poor shape when she had found it months after the meteor impact. She had been away to another continent with a Sori airship on a survey at the time of the meteor strikes and it had taken her a great while to relocate the outpost amongst the devastation.

She had found none of her team alive and had disposed of the bodies she could find in the Sori tradition. She had searched far and wide for any others who might have survived, but when the power cells of her airship ran out without any source to recharge them and crashed into the forest, she settled into a life of mere survival. Environmental conditions had deteriorated for years after the impacts, but eventually cleared to the way it was now. Had she known how to send a distress signal, she would have done so long ago.

It was then that she mentioned meeting an alien race called Human, and how they had suffered the genetic transformations into Furman, much as the Sori had in the earlier days of their interstellar exploration. These furmen had found the domed outpost and had collected some of the Sori devices to investigate, and Zaizen could only conjecture that they might have managed to activate one without ever knowing what it might have done.

The last thing Arion could make out of the conversation was an invitation for Zaizen to rejoin her people on their orbiting voidship. At long last, it was time for her to return home. 

*** 

On the flight pad on the edge of Tellus, Kate and a small team were getting prepared to depart. They did not know exactly where Zaizen’s permanent abode was located in the rainforest, so they were going to visit the domed outpost and hope that Arion would be able to track where the silver ball had gone from there.  They only knew that from what the alien had said, that her home was not far from the dome.

Henry was just finishing up his pre-flight check of the Flitter’s systems when his eyes were drawn through the forward windshield to a brilliant star rising up in the eastern sky. The unidentified flying object gained altitude quickly, rising higher and higher towards orbit. A snap of thunder reached them moments later.

Kate poked her head in through the hatchway and heaved a sigh. “I guess we can stand down now,” she told him. “Arion has reported that our alien friend has left with her people. There’s no one left out there for us to check on.”

 

NEXT


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