The population of a planet responds to the appearance of strange alien life-forms.
/ / /
Dark is the kjarnek, but the Gwhirra do not mind darkness. The Gwhirra bring the fire with them. The Gwhirra take the fire of the Sun, and hold it, keep it. It stays alive for when the Gwhirra need it. Kchktkl. Deep in the kjarnek is the Klantl of the Gwhirra. Brilliant are the facets of the Klantl, fiery are its crystals, deep are its pools, and hard are its stones.
Gkch. The fire of the Sun is on the surface, not in the Klantl of the kjarnek. That cave is ever dark. The Gwhirra must hide the fires in the glassy eknga and bring them down to the Klantl, down to the deep darks of the kjarnek. The Gwhirra live and survive in the kjarnek. Kglkt. Unpleasant is the surface. The Gwhirra cannot stand against the crunching, boring, smashing—karrrrrchtktkklch—eklihta. Furious are the eklihta. And the vile, melting, burning chetj. Fearsome are these beasts of the Sun, these creatures of the upper world.
But clever are the Gwhirra. The Gwhirra steal the fires of the Sun when it is at its apex. The glimmering eknga brought from the surface light the Klantl, and bright is the city of the Gwhirra. Tchnnnnk. For in the deeps of the kjarnek, in the Klantl, belong the Gwhirra. In the darkness made bright survive the Gwhirra. Cunning are the Gwhirra. Crystal tools to shape the Klantl, and the fire of the Sun in their chests, have the Gwhirra. Many legs and many arms have the Gwhirra, and the Gwhirra-works are great for clever are their makers. Rktlk. Down in the cool deep darks of the kjarnek the Gwhirra find chtik and tlakaj to eat, and tnak fields to grow, and the fire of the Sun in the precious eknga to drink. Tchtklatkk.
Dark is the kjarnek, but the kjarnek is the home of the Gwhirra. We are the Gwhirra.
Clad in a tough metallic hardsuit, I surveyed an alien landscape unlike any I had ever envisioned. The sky was brick-red and the jagged landscape was colored in deep purples and blues, with the occasional dark green, bright yellow, or dull ochre. Crystalline spikes and bright metallic filaments covered the landscape, sparkling in the wan light of the alien sun, a small blue-white disk near the western horizon. The entire planet seemed to be covered in this mountainous, serrated desert, or so the planetary surveys showed. To the south, at my partner Rachel’s back, a jagged hill reared up at a steep angle, while in the north a storm was approaching. Bright blue spikes of lightning stabbed out at the conducting crystals among the mineral forest. The clouds were pitch-black, blotting out all view of the dim sky. Lightning struck once every few seconds, encouraged by the high percentage of ions in the planet’s atmosphere.
Enthralled, I didn’t recognize for a few moments the danger that the approaching storm presented. In my helmet radio, Rachel’s voice sounded: “If we don’t get into an electrically insulated area when the storm gets here, we’re gonna be crisped! Rich, get inside!” Her transmission crackled and sparked with every discharge of lightning in the far-off storm. Static electricity, we had found, was a serious problem with our electronics on this exotic world.
I turned from the crystal wonders at my feet and started back towards the landing craft. After cycling through the air lock, Rachel and I went to the meeting room and I called the rest of the lander expedition together.
“This environment is exotic, but dangerous,” I started when my explorers had gathered. “We’ve got to be on the lookout for storms, we can’t have our systems fried.”
“…or ourselves,” added Tomas, one of our scientists, ruefully.
“Right,” I continued, straightening in my chair. “What I’m going to do now is charge the hull plates to match the thunderheads, that way we won’t be struck. We’ll hole up in here until the storm wears itself out.”
Across the room, Christine fidgeted. I quirked an eyebrow at our second scientist, and she spoke up tentatively. “I noticed that there’s a nearby cavern that’s electrically grounded. There aren’t any organic chemicals in there, so far as my spectroscopes can tell, but there’s lots of weird EM radiation. I want to go in there and check it out, and we might as well do that now if the rest of the mission plan is going to have to be aborted ‘cause of the storm.”
I frowned. Well, the mission plan did call for EV exploration today, and I was a bit annoyed at the sudden weather changes… After all, no one had expected the ions in the air to cause storms to pop up so swiftly. Finally I sighed, what the hell. It couldn’t hurt, right? No aliens to worry about, just whether they could pack enough air to outlast the storm.
“You can’t go alone, obviously,” I said matter-of-factly. “Is anyone else willing to go in with Chris?”
Two hands were raised before I could finish speaking. I smiled faintly as I looked at the three eager faces in the room. We didn’t come all these light years to sit in a tin can any longer than this, I thought.
“Okay then, Tomas, why don’t you go into the cave with her. This storm looks like it will last maybe…” I leaned over to check the latest meteorological updates from the orbiter module. “Five hours. Bring oxygen for ten hours in your suits, and drag an extra twenty hours each in with you. You can leave that near the entrance to the cave.”
The two explorers were eager to be off, and gathered the necessary supplies quickly. After cycling through the air lock, I instructed them to place some radio repeaters between the spacecraft and the cave mouth, a quarter-kilometer away, in the hopes that we could maintain radio contact through the static. Tom and Chris were in the cave and barely registering on the radio when the storm hit the lander.
Gwhirra stood at a sentinel post near the surface. Two of us there were, above the farthest tnak field. Tingling was the air with the storm outside. Dangerous was the lightning, for it could quench the fires of the Sun in us.
Kkt. The two eklihta moved around the cave ahead. Small were these eklihta, smaller than usual. Very young, perhaps, they were. We pressed against the ground. We watched the eklihta through the crystal sentry shield.
[What do they do, Jlakket?] I hissed to the Gwhirra by my side.
Jlakket clicked. We Gwhirra surveyed the eklihta. Side to side, Jlakket’s head shifted. [I know not, cousin. Dangerous are the eklihta, and tough are their skins. They will eat our crystal hides to support their own bodies, yes. We must destroy them now.]
The eklihta picked their way across the ground. Strewn with sharp crystals was the cave floor, and so careful were the creatures. Tkkkch.
I clicked at my companion, [We wait for them.]
The eklihta moved slowly. [Not often do those creatures venture into our kjarnek, cousin, with it they are unfamiliar] Jlakket hissed through his plates.
One of the eklihta lowered itself to the ground by a tnak stand. [Do these also steal our crops?]
It pushed a proboscis at the tnak, and we Gwhirra felt vibration. [Tjengk, it is boring! Destroy it before it reaches the Klantl, we should!] With thrill quivered Jlakket’s plates.
[Quiet yourself, cousin,] I hissed. Klfknk. [Alarm them not. We wait for them.]
The dead sound of the radio scanners infuriated me. The storm had gone on far longer than expected (damn this ionized atmosphere!) and there was almost no word from the astronauts outside. Rachel pulled her headphones off and looked at me. “I think I caught a few transmissions, but there’s still a lot of interference from the residual ionization of the storm. Want to hear?”
I nodded dully at my companion in the lander control room. Rachel activated a control panel and fed the output through the control room speakers. Static hissing flooded the room, and then I could faintly hear Chris’s voice, reporting on a scientific core sample she was taking. Then I thought I heard Chris and Tom shouting for help. Or perhaps screaming.
“Damn,” I said to no one in particular. I checked the meteorological update again. “Two more hours, and then the storm will be at a safe distance.”
“You think we should go after them?” Rachel asked me, looking directly up at my face. “How much air do they have?”
“They should have at least two hours each, but there’s the extra oxygen they brought along,” I replied, letting my eyes fall shut. “They should have headed back for the spares by now, but then they would certainly be in communications range.”
I stood there for a minute in the cramped control cabin, considering the situation. The lander had supplies for all four astronauts to be outside at once. The mission plan even called for all of us to go extravehicular for certain studies or tasks. And I was responsible for Chris and Tom, I let them go out there, I was their expedition commander. I reached for a radio panel and began to type out a status message for the orbiter. It would be queued for transmission as soon as a relay satellite passed overhead.
“Get all the spare oxygen you can,” I told Rachel. “We’re going to head in to look for them.”
“Good,” she breathed as she edged her way past me, heading back towards the cargo hold. “I hate the idea of them in that cave.”
[Krrrrrrk… Tjengk, now what shall we do? Perhaps there are more.]
[Silly Jlakket, we have destroyed them. What have we any need to worry about?]
We Gwhirra were making our way back to the Klantl. Swift are the many legs of the Gwhirra, and agile are the Gwhirra among the crystal formations of our kjarnek. We threaded our way among the shards with no difficulty. [Small these eklihta were, yes? Perhaps, scouts. Perhaps, younglings. Small ones hunt not. Small ones are fed. So shall we now fear grown eklihta?]
My head swiveled towards Jlakket. I did not slow. [Cousin, do youngling eklihta not stay near the parent?]
[That is why I have concern. Perhaps, within sight was the parent. Perhaps, there will be parent eklihta to look for the younglings.] With worry Jlakket gnashed his plates. [Full grown those eklihta will be. Towering and powerful those eklihta will be. Eklihta have never yet come down to the Klantl, but if they should, what shall we do?]
I slowed, and stopped. Chltk. This I had not considered. Should many fully grown eklihta reach the Klantl, deep in the kjarnek… We Gwhirra cannot hold ourselves against the proboscises, the grinding plates, the crushing feet. Ravaging and ruining were the eklihta. Fearsome were the eklita on the surface, where we could run. In the kjarnek…
[We shall make haste,] I clicked. [We should tell the Klantl of these strange eklihta.]
I stooped to pick up the boring tool. Chris must have dropped it when she was taking a sample from a nearby silicon crystal. I stood up and wearily glanced around for the bored crystal…yes, there was one with a small hole in it. Rachel stood a few steps away, looking at the instrument in my hand.
“Well, they must have come this way,” she surmised. “And since we didn’t pass them on the way here, they must be farther in the cave.”
I grunted assent over the hardsuit radio, and began to trudge into the dark. “Let’s get moving, then.” I hoped they still had air.
We walked past numerous crystal spikes and filaments in the dark cave, the beams from our head lamps refracting off of all the crystalline faces, winking like eyes in the dark. We checked the walls of the cave carefully for side passages our shipmates might have taken, but the cave went on in a single snaking path. Many amazing geological formations caught our eyes, rainbow-hued and strung like rocky laces. I was too absorbed with thoughts of the safety of my crew to be caught in wonder. Chris and Tom could have tripped on a faceted spur…fallen on a rainbow filament…had their suit punctured by a mineral spike…and been entombed in a crystal grave.
I shuddered at the thought. Behind me, Rachel saw the uncharacteristic movement. “What’s wrong, Richard?” she asked me delicately.
I refrained from describing my visions of gruesome crystal death and simply told her that I was worried about Tom’s and Chris’s safety. “We both are,” was her reply, “but they’ll be here…somewhere.”
“Is there any chance there’s anything…dangerous…in here?”
She glanced at a scanner in her hand and shook her head. “Still no organic molecules, not even water. There’re only the dangers that geology can throw at us.”
I then rounded a bend in the faceted tunnel, and at the new sight that greeted me I did stop in amazement. My jaw dropped open, but I quickly closed it when my helmet began to fog up.
The cave floor sloped downward sharply, but the roof remained level and the sides bulged out, so a wide cavern was formed. Inside this cavern was an immense structure built out of regular crystal shards. It looked like a sort of hive, or warren…yet the top tiers were almost reminiscent of some Earth skylines. The whole thing sparkled with its own light, and I saw little uncut crystals here and there that glowed with some inner fire. Some spires extended right up to the roof, and seemed like supporting pillars. Others were capped with pyramids or flat roofs or geodesic figures partway up to the cavern ceiling. Filaments of rainbow crystal arced between the spires. The structure looked like it had been transplanted from a dream.
Rachel came up beside me and I heard her sigh in amazement. She checked her scanner again, and then gave me a puzzled look. “Nothing but the crystal. Maybe it’s a dead civilization?”
How wrong we were.
[Cha, Tjengk, they are there!]
Quickly I turned and pivoted my body away from the Klantl. Tgchk! Yes, there, in the deeps of the kjarnek were two eklihta. Ktchttk. Eklihta, here where none had been before! Younglings were these, again! [Is there a parent?] I clicked urgently. At a better vantage point stood Jlakket.
[I see none, what must we do?] Apprehensive was Jlakket.
Obvious was the answer to me. Adult eklihta could not know of the Klantl in the deep dark kjarnek, the eklihta would hunt all of us Gwhirra. [Destroy those,] I hissed. [Those eklihta must not know of the Klantl. Those eklihta must not tell others. Kta! Rush, hurry, cousin!] We started up the floor of the kjarnek. Quick are the feet of the Gwhirra on the crystal stones of the kjarnek! Chtchkg! Swift are the Gwhirra!
Rachel’s scream cut through my head. She stood rooted to the ground, one hand raised, pointing, I followed her hand…
Streaming up the incline were two chitinous things, crystal plates like armor clanking together, many limbs rapidly pumping them up the hill, faceted heads waving left to right as they moved. In the centers of their chests glowed the same fire I had seen in the small crystals of the city. The things were moving so fast… Suddenly, they picked up their first few sets of limbs and pointed them ahead, like lances. I jumped, startled into action, and grabbed Rachel’s arm, pulling her around the bend in the cave again. “Hide, quick! We’ll get back to the lander after they leave!”
“They must have gotten Chris and Tom!” Rachel cried. “We have to help them!”
“We don’t even know where they are, if they’re in that city at all!” I hissed. “We can best help them by surviving now to find out what happened to them later!”
I pulled Rachel behind a crystal outcropping, swearing at its translucency and hoping it would be enough to conceal us.
[Gtchk, this way!] I sang.
[Look, Tjengk,] clicked Jlakket. [They go to run, they go to tell others!]
We sped up the kjarnek ground. Burning in our hearts was fire and thrill. Unstoppable are the Gwhirra when our hearts are aflame, unstoppable are we Gwhirra save by destruction.
We rounded the curve in the deep kjarnek. We saw the eklihta behind a hgleng. Stupid are the eklihta younglings. Tnkch. Best that we kill these eklihta before they are swift adults…dangerous and clever are the adults! Klchkt! We Gwhirra charged around the hgleng. I thrust an arm forward at one of the younglings. Scraped through the chest, this eklihta fell. White steam spewed from the wound. The eklihta twitched and died.
The creatures attacked us. Rachel fell instantly as one of them lunged on her, spearing the hardsuit—the tough composites broke like brittle paper. I tried to ignore surprise, emotion, I reached for my only possible weapon, a small laser drill, if I could just immobilize the second creature while the first was distracted and then immobilize the first and then make a run for it, maybe I could make it to the lander, make it to orbit, and never come again to this forsaken crystalline graveyard…
In front of me loomed the second creature, what I thought was its head reared above me, its first six appendages facing my chest, the small plates on the underside of its faceted helmet grinding and clicking, the light from my head lamp glistening off of its crystal surface, the inner light inside the thing glowing a burning purple-red…
Without thinking to aim, I activated the drill.
Jlakket reared up, preparing to make a death strike. I stood over the corpse of one eklihta. Kchchkch! Cold was this eklihta. Cold and destroyed.
Brilliance burned my vision. Piercing was the wail that Jlakket made.
Red was the venom of the eklihta youngling. The venom stained the claws of Jlakket. Gcht! Useless appeared one of his arms.
With anger Jlakket hissed. He drove his weight down, spiking the eklihta with five feet. Sharp are the feet of the Gwhirra.
[The injured arm is well?]
[The venom only stained. Numb feels the arm, but temporary is numbness. I thank you, cousin.]
[Not needed are thanks. We stopped the eklihta. No more will know of the Klantl in the kjarnek.]
[Careful must be the Klantl in the days to come. Watchful for the parents must be the Klantl, yes.]
[True is this. We will speak to the Klantl. Come, cousin.]