Explorer Investigates Alien Worlds

In an alien forest where danger waits, an explorer treads with caution.

It watched him as his craft entered the atmosphere. Still ten kilometers above the sky, the ship came into view with momentum, disappearing just over the mountain that couldn’t have been more than three kilometers away. It watched him, not with sight, but with its auditory sense. Another moment passed and it heard perfect silence again, the ship was too far for it to hear. It lay dormant waiting, waiting for him.

Landing

As the ship landed, the astronaut sighed in relief to realize that he was alive in this moment. A research mission based on some positive data, the astronaut was there to collect samples; samples of the vegetation, the soil, and visual samples of all that surrounded him. Attached to his helmet, a small module recorded video of all that he saw. Incredible resolution would allow further investigation if it was warranted.

For the first two days, the astronaut went about his itinerary. There were plants all around him, plants about which very little information was known. The ecosystem here had been a mystery to his employer, to himself, and to all the inhabitants of his planet.

An astronaut could accomplish in three days what robotics could accomplish in five months. He was here because he was cheap, and to some extent, he knew they thought of him as expendable. There were people at the company he worked for that crunched all of the numbers. He understood the economy of sending him, and he was afforded an opportunity that no one in history had ever had the chance to have, but a part of him couldn’t help but feel like he was purchased at a price well below his actual value.

The mass he was on, actually a moon of a gas giant, had been spotted twenty-seven years ago. It had taken almost three decades to get the proper funding for the mission to see firsthand what kind of life the moon sustained. It was obvious from the imagery gathered that there was plant life, but the robots were too slow to accomplish what he was doing. His dexterity proved useful in the collection of samples, far faster than the most advanced robotics. Live samples could make their way back and be analyzed instead of being looked at by sometimes inaccurate onboard testers.

The astronaut was a part of a series of missions. Each series sent one astronaut every month to a destination worth exploring. This exploration was the fourth in the second series. Upon their return, each astronaut would be debriefed, contributing a living history to their culture, with a firsthand account of what it was like to be on another mass. The astronaut was excited by that, getting to be one of the individuals that would be watched again and again by those curious to know what being here was like. He would be looked at as a pioneer, an explorer, something that was rare for his society these days.

Night

Artwork by Vincent Di Fate

On the third night, the astronaut was startled awake in the middle of the night. He checked the time and saw he still had four hours before his next assignment. Night here lasted nine hours and the entire day lasted just over 18. He got up and looked out of the small capsule window. There he saw the light emitted by the many plants at night. It hadn’t crossed his mind to observe this any previous night, and it wasn’t a part of his mission objective to observe the moon at night.

The light was beautiful, covering a good portion of the land. For a long moment he tried to decide in his mind if it might be in the best interest of his employer for him to go out and explore the land at night.

The astronaut decided the answer was yes.

He opened the capsule and found that he didn’t need any light to see around him. There were a few creatures out now that he had not seen during the day. One in particular, a small cross between a caterpillar and a millipede caught his eye as it would glow like a firefly every few seconds. He wondered why these creatures might glow. Female fireflies would sometimes mimic a mating call and then eat their would-be lovers. As he didn’t have sufficient time to observe them, the astronaut could only speculate what these creatures were doing.

He looked in the lakes nearby and saw what looked like ragweed, flowing slowly through the streams. He tried to look below the surface of the water but couldn’t. He thought about using his light now but he felt it would ruin just how serene everything felt in this moment. He was alone but surrounded, looking at this moon in the most natural way he possibly could as a visitor from another world.

The astronaut gathered samples of the ragweed, he gathered samples of the fluid the ragweed was in, and he brought back three of the glowing creatures that had caught his eye.

He looked at the samples he’d brought aboard. They lit up the room now. Their glow enchanted him and contented him in a way he hadn’t felt in a long while. Their discovery had been wholly unexpected, and it was the surprise of finding them that brought him the most joy.

Waiting

Artwork by Karel Thole

It could lay dormant for days or even months, waiting for the right prey. Small insects were able to crawl on it without so much as a flinch. There was nothing visibly remarkable about it, and as long as it was still, the astronaut had no way to possibly ever see it.

The astronaut only knew it was hot outside right now because his systems notified him. Inside his pressurized suit, it was a constant temperature in which his body had been fully acclimated to his entire life. This moon had an oxygen rich atmosphere that would most likely support him but he couldn’t risk contamination this early in the analysis of life in this environment. He would lose himself in thoughts of contamination. Was his suit touched before he put it on? Inevitably skin cells would make their way onto his suit as he was getting into it. The decontamination chamber said it destroyed all of the bacteria, but what if an area was missed? What if something went undetected? Would he unknowingly contaminate the atmosphere?

The astronaut could barely see it orbiting above him now but the vehicle was there. Orbiting the moon, the astronaut was tethered to the craft by the constant stream of information he was sending.

The astronaut took samples of what looked like familiar flowers, carefully clipping them with mechanized shears and depositing them into spherical tubes. The process was meticulous and monotonous, with plenty of time to reflect on the unique position he was in. All alone on this moon, in perfect silence, with only the sound of his breath keeping him company. Of course, he wasn’t as alone as he felt; he was mounted with a camera that was recording a live feed to the docking robot, that was sending that information back to his employers.

As the astronaut approached it, it continued to hear him in that same way that it had gazed upon his ship days earlier. As he stepped closer, it could sense his warmth getting closer and closer, it could hear his footsteps on the ground.

The astronaut felt the bite in his knee. Immediately his suit became depressurized. He began to panic, his heart rate elevated as he realized that his death was mere moments away. The astronaut looked down at his hand, it was shaking and he thought about shouting; he thought about yelling anything, and he wondered if doing that would help him in any way. The poison that was invading his body began to paralyze him, working its way up his legs to his hands to his neck. It felt like an enormous surge of electricity through his body.

The plant below had a bouquet of flowers on top and several sharp mouths facing in each direction. The mouths looked like they were protecting the flowers, though they had no face to speak of. This was what had done him in. The astronaut was now down on the ground, collapsed and lying right next to the predator plant. He was so close he could see the fangs that had lashed out at him. Only one of the five mouths had responded to his sound.

He had walked past so many plants in the two days since his landing. He had taken samples, and he had seen no signs of intelligent life. For a single second, he thought about how he wished he could somehow get a sample of this plant, and add it to the others he had taken.

He hadn’t even seen the plant as it lashed out. In that split-second as he realized what was happening, the plant had recoiled fully and it appeared to be dormant once more. No more than a few seconds had passed.

Was the plant going to consume him somehow? How had it evolved over millions of years to reach this point? Was the plant acting in defense? Had he been about to step on the plant? Or was it something else entirely? Did this plant paralyze prey so that it could draw larger prey? Was he only seeing a small part of a much larger plant? Was this truly a plant at all? Most carnivorous plants drew specific prey; what did the astronaut resemble that was out there?

His mind wandered in that last second, imagining a much larger animal that had gone undetected, drawn from its home by the prey this plant had offered to it. He would be dead when he was to be eaten, a fact that bothered the mind of this explorer. He would never know. He then thought of the video feed connected to him. There would be a record of this after all. Somewhere, at some point, someone would review the footage. Someone would see what had happened to him, and what had happened to his body. Finite was the word that that stuck with him, in that split-second before death.

It didn’t matter now.

As the astronaut took his last breath, he turned toward the sky to see the stars above him. All of those points of light above, staring back at him. The astronaut thought of all of the circumstances that had to line up so that in this one precise moment, in this vast cosmos, this one plant ended his life.

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Explorer Investigates Alien Worlds