Calvin inhaled deeply through his nose and held the air inside his lungs for a few seconds before slowly releasing it, trying to force his heartbeat to slow to a normal rhythm. Be calm, he instructed himself. Cool. Collected. Sure, you’re about to step onto the surface of a planet that has never before been visited by humanity, but hey, you’re an expert. You’ve got a wall full of diplomas that say so hanging in your office. Of course, that office is sixty light years away right now…
“Everything okay, Calvin?”
“Everything’s fine, sir. Just, uh, giving my equipment a final check.” Calvin tightened the straps of his backpack, adjusted the attached oxygen tank, and lifted the mouthpiece to cover his lips and nose. He sucked in a quick breath. “Good to go, sir.”
Mel Yung smiled, and a network of wrinkles spread out from behind his pale brown eyes, drawing a roadmap of experiences across his leathery face. Yung only really looked his age when he was smiling. Calvin wished he wouldn’t do it quite so often.
“We aren’t in the office today, kid,” said Yung. “Out here in the field, you can call me Mel.”
“Is this your first field deployment, Calvin?”
“Yes, sir. I mean, yes, Mel. To tell you the truth, I’ve been dreaming of this day since I was a kid, watching you do it on TV.”
Mel smiled again, and Calvin cringed inwardly. “Hey, relax,” said the older man. “It’s just a job.”
“I don’t think that’s how the millions of settlers on the three habitable planets you’ve identified feel about it.”
“Three? Oh, you’re including that oversized moon in the Delna system, aren’t you? I don’t really deserve top billing for that one. Herman Nerole did most of the work. I was just the one who made it back alive.”
“Still,” said Calvin, not willing to let his idol off the hook so easily, “you’re living history!”
“The funny thing about history,” said Mel, hoisting his own oxygen tank backpack, “is that it’s all old news.” He flashed another wry smile and palmed a large, flat button beside the airlock. The hatch swung open, revealing a mountainous, rust-colored landscape that fell away from the narrow plateau they had landed on by leaps and bounds, descending to a series of rocky plains that extended for miles until they curved away into a fading horizon. Above it all was a dimly monotonous grey sky.
“Now, before we head out there,” Yung continued, “a couple of reminders. Don’t waste your oxygen until it starts getting tougher to catch your breath. The oxygen from the geyser up here should provide us with plenty of breathable air until we’re about halfway down the mountain. After that, we go to our tanks. The atmosphere on Glyna isn’t poisonous, so you can drop your mask whenever you need to talk, but try not to inhale too much of the local air all at once.”
Calvin nodded. He’d read the briefings and gone over all of the data from the probes. In fact, he was the one who had sent out the probe that found the oxygen geysers on planet Glyna in the first place, and it was that discovery that had earned him a place on this exploration alongside his childhood hero.
“This is your baby,” said Mel. “Why don’t you go first?”
Show him you deserve this, Calvin encouraged himself. Be calm. Cool. Collected. He wiped his sweaty palms on the rubbery fabric of his thermasuit, set his teeth, stepped out onto the powdered, burgundy dust of planet Glyna, and sucked in a lungful of alien air.
Yung followed him out and closed the hatch of their shuttle behind him. Written on the hatch in bold, friendly letters was the shuttle’s name, Peace III, a reminder that wherever they went, the Explorer Corps “came in peace”.
“Well,” said Mel, “let’s go scout an alien landscape!”
Calvin let Yung lead the way as they began their descent of what they’d come to call New Faithful. The mountainous oxygen geyser was the key feature that had brought them to Glyna: it was the clue that had revealed the immense stores of oxygen beneath the planet’s surface that were gradually escaping all over the planet, slowly transforming the atmosphere into a human-breathable environment. New Faithful was the largest, and probably the oldest, of these geysers, and probes had identified the accelerated growth of certain species of local organisms and plant life around its basin, suggesting that parts of Glyna’s ecosystem were already prepared to respond favorably to the planet’s evolution. At the current rate of release, Calvin and his research team had estimated, it would be a thousand years before enough oxygen would be released to make Glyna broadly habitable by humans, assuming the other elements of the ecosystem evolved appropriately.
Humanity didn’t have the luxury of quite so much patience, however, so Calvin had been trying to gather support for a proposal to artificially widen some of the largest oxygen geysers, drastically speeding Glyna’s transformation. Part of what he was here to discover was whether there were any sentient locals who would be negatively affected by Glyna’s oxygenation. Humanity might be desperate for living space, but thanks to the work of Mel Yung and others like him, it wasn’t xenocidally desperate. Not anymore.
Glyna’s gravity was about half that of Earth’s, and Calvin found himself enjoying the freedom of movement as he leapt and bounced down the mountainside. For the first hour, he and Mel kept up a light banter, pointing out interesting formations in the rocks or stopping to cut samples of the various oxygen-friendly brown grasses they came across. The further they went, however, the thinner the air seemed, the sparser the vegetation grew, and the less breath they had to spare for conversation.
Eventually they paused, panting, under an outcropping, and Mel signaled to put the oxygen masks on. Fresh, cool, breathable air flooded into Calvin’s lungs, and he gave a thumbs-up. After swallowing a bit of water, they continued on, sucking on their mouthpieces and surveying the red landscape around them in silent wonder.
Soon the explorers arrived at the foot of the mountain. Calvin stopped to take a scraping of a delicate brownish mold growing on the underside of a boulder. At this distance from the geyser, oxygen levels were low enough that only the most basic oxygen-friendly molds and fungi could grow.
Within a few miles of the base of New Faithful, plant life almost entirely ceased to exist, replaced by dry rocks and dust. The explorers spent half an hour traversing the dead terrain before Calvin spotted more vegetation, in the form of scraggly bits of bluish grass and moss growing in cracks and crevices. “Non-oxygen-dependent species,” Calvin explained. “The dead zone we’ve just passed through suggests that too much atmospheric oxygen may be poisonous to these plants. That’s one strike against my proposal.”
“Only if we find sentient species that are the same way,” Mel pointed out, “and we haven’t seen any sign of that.”
“Not yet,” Calvin added.
As they continued on, Calvin watched as the moss and grass gave way to scrub brush and small trees, all tinged with the same shades of blue amid the browns and reds of the soil. He had stopped to pull a branch from a twisted, shoulder-high tree with a wrist-width trunk and thin, veiny blue leaves when Mel said, “Look!”
Standing several yards away were a dozen knee-height, hairless, two-legged creatures with wide, terrified eyes, bulbous noses, tiny mouths, and six-fingered, two-thumbed hands. They were wearing clothing made out of some type of fabric that was similarly colored to their pale, reddish-brown skin. Some had brown, crusty paint smeared on their broad faces. One of the aliens, a relatively tall one with a swirling pattern painted on its chin, was holding a thin wooden staff with a pointed tip. The same swirling pattern was painted onto the garment that covered its chest.
Most of the aliens were holding rocks that they had picked up from the ground. Several had their arms cocked, apparently ready to throw at the first sign of danger.
“Try to appear non-threatening,” Mel whispered.
The two men knelt, making themselves small.
The creatures came a little closer, and a few began to speak back and forth. Their speech was a high chittering noise, a cross between the sounds made by a squirrel and a chimpanzee.
The loudest conversation seemed to be between the alien with the spear and a short, squat one with a diamond shape on its forehead and a loud, gruff voice. The squat alien was gesturing excitedly with its hands, speaking very quickly and beating its thin torso with a rock.
Finally the tall alien–Calvin thought of it as the chief–stomped its foot on the ground and the rest of the creatures, including the loud, squat one, all fell silent.
The chief turned to the explorers, raised its arms towards them, and launched into a speech that lasted for several minutes. Yung seemed bemused by the situation, but Calvin couldn’t help sneaking glances at the rocks held in the rest of the tribe’s hands. He had no interest in finding out how strong their arms were…
At length, the chief concluded its speech and stood expectantly, awaiting a response.
“These little guys seem pretty primitive,” Mel said. “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to learn anything from them through direct communication.”
“So what do we do?”
“How about a little experiment? You think the oxygen levels of the planet have been steadily increasing over hundreds of thousands of years, right?”
“So what if these guys, and whatever animals they make those clothes out of, have evolved to function on whatever trace amounts of oxygen their lungs can filter out of the air?”
“Why wouldn’t they live closer to the geyser, then?”
“Superstition, maybe. Mountains are highly symbolic to the tribal mindset. Or there might be another, smaller geyser nearby.”
“They might also breathe something else entirely,” Calvin said, “like nitrogen, maybe, or CO2. Oxygen could even be harmful to them.”
The aliens were beginning to whisper to each other as they watched the humans talk. Calvin saw a few of them mime the way the humans removed their oxygen masks whenever they spoke.
“I’ve been to a lot of planets,” said Yung. “I haven’t yet come across anything that breathes nitrogen.”
“Maybe not, but…”
“Listen, kid. One thing I’ve learned is that in the field, you’ve got to rely on your instincts. I’ve got a hunch.” Yung took a deep breath from his mouthpiece, then gently, carefully held it out in front of him, offering it to the chief.
The chief took a few cautious steps towards them, and the squat alien chittered at it ferociously. Turning to the squat one, the chief barked a few short, angry words, then strode determinedly up to Mel, lifted its face to the mouthpiece, and applied its tiny mouth to the valve. Mel thumbed the manual discharge.
The chief’s eyes widened, and its swollen nose wrinkled.
“I think he likes it!” said Mel.
Then the chief choked, retched, and collapsed.
The aliens burst into a cacophony of chittering and the squat one leapt towards the humans, its gruff voice raised above all the others.
“Is it dead?” asked Calvin.
Yung shrugged. “So much for that hunch.”
“Sir, did we just murder an alien? That’s against all kinds of regulations!”
“Relax,” said Yung.
The aliens were getting louder, and coming closer.
Calvin was livid. “We could lose our jobs for this!”
Yung was staring intently at the approaching aliens. “Hey, it’s just a job.”
Suddenly Yung pulled his mask from his face, thumb on the manual discharge, and sprayed a long burst of oxygen towards the nearest creatures. They recoiled in panic, and a few dropped to their hands and knees, retching.
A stone whizzed past Yung’s ear. The explorers leapt to their feet, and Yung shouted, “Run!”
The humans bounded away across the plain, setting their sights on the distant peak of New Faithful. The aliens raced after them. Despite their short legs, the aliens were better adapted to Glyna’s gravity, and they easily outpaced the explorers. As they ran, they hurled rocks, bruising the humans’ legs and backs and pinging shots off the oxygen tanks. Some of the braver aliens grabbed at their feet or hammered at their knees.
Between breaths, Yung sprayed oxygen in the faces of any aliens that got close enough. The aliens retched and gagged, and a few that swallowed direct bursts collapsed and didn’t get up again. Calvin kept his mask on his face, but fought back with his feet and hands, kicking the aliens away and dodging their missiles, doing his best not to hurt them too badly.
After several minutes of running, the aliens fell back and chittered angrily after them. Looking over his shoulder, Calvin saw a few of them kneeling beside one of their fallen friends who had taken a blast of oxygen from Yung’s tank.
The humans slowed their escape, but continued to jog towards their ship at the fastest speed they could maintain.
“Can’t stop,” said Yung between gasps at his mouthpiece. “They’ll follow,” gasp, “they always follow.”
“How do you know that?”
Calvin tried to put himself in the aliens’ place. “Sir,” he said, “they must think we’re dragons.”
Yung looked at him quizzically, and kept on running.
But Calvin couldn’t get the thought out of his mind. To these aliens, the oxygen geysers probably symbolize supernatural dangers. To us, hell is a place of fire, like a volcano. What if their version of hell is a lake of poison instead of brimstone? We came to them from the poison mountain, breathing poison. That would make us dragons, or worse… Demons.
“The geysers are accelerating, Mel.” Gasp. “These aliens are going to get wiped out, and soon.” Gasp. “We can save them!”
“Forget them,” retorted Yung. “How about saving us?”
Calvin ran on, newly motivated. We can’t seal the oxygen geysers permanently, but maybe we can buy them time to build their civilization and technology to the point where they can save themselves.
Of course, before they could do that, they had to make it back to the Peace III and off the planet.
The explorers’ pace had slowed almost to a walk by the time they finally reached the feet of New Faithful. Even in the lower gravity, they couldn’t run forever.
Calvin collapsed in fatigue. Yung’s chest was heaving, and the redness in his face highlighted his wrinkles. In this state, he did indeed look dragon-like. “Can’t afford to stop,” he rasped, but he, too, allowed himself to sit and rest on a moss-covered rock.
A minute passed while they sat, gulping oxygen through their mouthpieces and staring at the ground, heads between their legs.
There was an eruption of chittering.
Calvin whipped around to look behind him. Less than half a mile away, the ground was teeming with what looked like hundreds of the beige aliens, approaching fast. Where did they come from? Calvin thought. Why didn’t we see them coming?
“Camouflaged!” growled Yung. “Run! Run!”
Calvin scrambled back to his feet and took off up the mountainside. The veteran explorer was right: even now, Calvin could only see the aliens because of their movement. Their skin and their clothing blended in to the colors of the landscape. They must have been following at a distance, waiting for their quarry to slow so they could catch them by surprise.
The humans dove uphill, putting every ounce of remaining energy into their legs. Behind them, their pursuers were gaining, gaining. The explorers’ only hope, Calvin realized, was to climb high enough that the atmosphere became too poisonous for the aliens. Even now, it must be having an effect on them… Was it enough?
A stone thunked into the ground ahead of Yung, followed closely by another. One caught Calvin on the hand, and he cried out in pain from behind his oxygen mask.
“Gotta fight it out!” roared Yung.
Calvin spun around just in time as the first wave of attackers reached them. Leading the pack was the squat alien with the diamond on its forehead. It was brandishing the chief’s painted wooden spear in its many-fingered hand. With a blood-curdling screech, it leapt towards Calvin and thrust the spear out in front of it.
Desperately, Calvin pulled the mask from his face and fired off a long burst of oxygen from his tank. The stream of oxygen caught the creature in its open, snarling mouth, and it dropped, gagging and wheezing, to the ground. A dozen more took its place, flinging rocks and jabbing with spears.
Five or six of the aliens gripped Calvin by the knees and held their breath as Calvin doused them with oxygen. Closing their eyes and puffing out their cheeks, they struggled to topple him. Two others dove at his chest, knocking him to the ground. Some of the aliens turned from their assault on Yung and piled on top of Calvin, beating and pounding and piercing.
Calvin fought for his life, lashing out with all his limbs, adrenaline surging, blood flowing from the many places he had been stabbed. “Let me go,” he howled, “or you’ll all be dead in 500 years!” Only as he heard the words pass through his lips did he realize that they sounded like a threat.
Suddenly Yung emerged from a press of bodies, spraying a broad swath of oxygen over Calvin and driving the attackers back for a few seconds. Yung grabbed Calvin under his arms and hauled him to his feet. Together, they ran again.
“Almost,” gasp, “there,” said Yung. His mask was dangling from his face now. The air was oxygenated enough to breathe.
Calvin limped and stumbled. The pain in his legs was too much. He could feel blood oozing out into his suit from dozens of different wounds. He collapsed.
Mel stood over Calvin, taking stock of the younger man’s injuries. “I can’t carry you, kid,” he said. He looked up, and started to back away.
“Mel, please!” Calvin choked. He saw the aliens a few hundred meters down the hill, panting and gasping in the poisonous air as they tried to come up with some way to reach the humans and finish them off.
“You’re a hero, son,” said Mel. “Fifty years from now they’re gonna name this rock’s first human city after you, I promise.” Then he turned and jogged towards the ship.
“Mel, no!” Calvin cried. He tried to stand, fought with every scrap of strength he had left, but the damage was too great. He could only lie on his face and wait to bleed out, as the man he had once called his idol abandoned him and condemned an entire fledgling civilization to death.