This is what we wanted. This is what we feared.
Encountering new life. Endangering our lives.
These were some of the last words I heard from my mother on the last transmission from Marv.
It was difficult to watch from afar. Not even to watch. To wait. To wonder. It helped me to write the reports. To smooth out all the roughness, pare down all the inessential, and restrain all the rawness from the contents of the data packets that the crew sent before that last transmission. When I saw my mother as a member of a crew on a daring first mission, performing her duties, exhibiting solidarity with her crewmates, I am able to let go of that lurching dread that wakes me almost every morning.
I must save emotion for another time. I must save the feelings for when I am alone. I must focus on the facts, and even the wonder and the accomplishment. She knew what she was getting into. And she was good enough to help us know and accept it too. I despised that lurching dread. Whenever I felt it, I couldn’t feel anything else. I couldn’t feel proud. Deep breaths didn’t always help.
But writing the reports helped.
When humanity first envisioned sending crewed vessels beyond its native solar system, to join the many probes, orbiters, and rovers that had already watched and touched dozens of exoplanets, new vessels were needed. Advances in propulsion and speed had allowed unmanned vessels to reach their several destinations within mere decades. What was still needed was new ways to shield living passengers and explorers, to carry the sustenance that they needed on the voyage and at their destination. Exoplanet Exploration Vessels (XXV) were invented and built. They were first called Exoplanet Exploration Ships, but the initials XXS were often used by certain reports to joke about the “excess” spending on vessels that were deemed, by some, to be unnecessary. The technology to send people to exoplanets would become cheaper in time. In the meantime, it should suffice humanity to gather data from the observations and experiments performed by mechanical eyes and hands.
That all changed when life was discovered under the sprawling seas of planet E-49186587 (under the naming convention that was common at the time). Once life was discovered—complex life, no less—there was great global public interest in exploring the exoplanet now known simply as Marv.
Probes and rovers and the peering eyes of at least three different satellite arrays had deemed the exoplanet a potential habitable environment, or at least a potential source of valuable natural resources, most of which lay under the vast oceans and seas. The planet was, like Earth, mostly water. And there were many alien things swimming in those waters.
When the first probe, the “made for all environments” Multiple-Ambience Rover Vessel (MARV), sunk beneath the tumultuous waves, it was greeted within the first minutes of its descent by curious schools of what looked like fish. Before a single day cycle had ended on the planet, MARV had witnessed several creatures that could be cousins to ones that were originally found on Earth, or the Jovian and Saturnian moons. Bioluminescent jellyfish fluttered by as MARV sank deeper. Tiny whirlpools made by something that looked like a charybdid triggered MARV’s course correction rotors. But the most mesmerizing sight that MARV would see—and that the people back home would see—was yet to come.
Because of the flowing and many tentacles, the graceful way the animal glided through the water, the fact that it lived in the deepest depths of the sea and yet could comfortably and quickly rise to the surface, and perhaps most notably because of the majestic wing-like pair of lateral fins, the creature was named, by those who first sighted it, the forsaken angel.
Later, it acquired a number of poetic monikers. It was called Medusa’s Wrath, the Great Gargantuan Whale, Revenge of the Merfolk, the Colossus Fish, and the Tentacular Piranha. Some referred to it affectionately as “Vine-o-saurus.” To keep official discussions at the appropriate level of decorum and away from the confusion and—admittedly alluring—theatricality of other names, the creature was temporarily named the “plokamisaur.” The name stuck.
There were thousands of them on the planet. But once, in the planet’s past, there had been millions. Their worn skeletons littered the ocean floors. There were signs of transition in what seemed a once-steady cycle of life on the planet that had been disturbed by some change, likely whatever caused the plokamisaur die-off. The planet was still adjusting. Early indications were that there was still a strain on the population of remaining plokamisaurs.
MARV wandered the oceans for three years sending back images and data when it could. There was some interference with the outgoing and incoming signals from the probe. Whether caused by the probe’s engineering or something in the environment, it was not known or discovered, despite all the data. Not everything could be automated. Troubleshooting the communications issues were beyond the scope of MARVs many skills.
For almost one entire year, it lost contact with Earth, a year during which it was believed to be lost. When Earth regained MARV’s signal, the probe became even more beloved of the people back home for its resilience and cleverness (even though it was unlikely that the probe had solved the communication problem.) It was believed that MARV had moved out of the area on the planet that disturbed communications. All of the data that the probe had been collecting and saving in its local memory banks was still intact. Three years was not a long time, but it was long enough for MARV to collect and send back a great deal of intriguing information and promising prospects for further exploration.
The plokamisaurs continued to enthrall. Their sightings were just rare enough to keep them mysterious, and yet keep them in the public consciousness. Unfortunately, it was clamped between the jaws of a plokamisaur that MARV met its untimely end.
By that time, a more sophisticated explorer, the Undersea Rover Sealed to Universal Liquid Ambience, or URSULA, had already been designed and built.
URSULA was designed to withstand a broad variety of liquid environments without corroding, from salty oceans to seas of sulfur to pools of liquid metallic hydrogen. Unlike MARV, multiple URSULAs were built for various exoplanets. They were encased in other vessels for transport to their destinations. The first few URSULAs were sent to closer exoplanets. But since the death of MARV, mourned all over Earth, there was a keener curiosity about the creature that had swallowed him.
URSULA-9 was sent to E-49186587, the planet that came to be known as Marv in honor of the first representative of Earth to arrive there.
When URSULA-9 descended, it took on the burden of its predecessor’s mission and carried on in the work of studying and observing. It had landed in a different sea and came across different lifeforms. But again there were the dominant species. Again, the most prominent of those was the plokamisaur. URSULA-9 was more nimble than MARV, and managed not to get swallowed on an occasion or two. But just like MARV, it moved into a part of the planet where its connection to Earth was severed.
URSULA-9 still had not made contact by the time the first crewed mission to Marv was ready to embark.
The transplanetary undersea exploration vessel named Ghost Shark (designation XXV-B49-C-01, also known as “Ghosty”) was the first manned vessel to explore an inhabited exoplanet. An outer shell that covered the vessel allowed it to travel through outer space. It could land itself with the help of two removable and reusable thruster rockets. The eleven crew members were experts in multiple fields from exobiology to quantum mechanical engineering. All of them were skilled cooks and gardeners. All of them were top-ranked athletes. All of them were trained in advanced drawing and painting. They were the first people to be enhanced with the next generation of synthetic sensory devices. They were expected to do what robotic rovers could not do, not just to study but to experience the exoplanet as only a sentient and conscious creature could.
They arrived safely in only five years of travel. They settled on the largest island on the planet, and they began their mission.
They sent home video of their exploration, collected data from early experiments, transcripts of their meetings and discussions, and paintings and songs about Marv. They confirmed much of what previous unmanned explorer vessels had collected. They even found and recovered URSULA-9, which had managed to outmaneuver any plokamisaurs it encountered. But Ghosty was much larger and much less nimble.
So one day, when it unexpectedly encountered a plokamisaur, it was not ready, and not able to outrun it. Transmission ceased after one horrifying burst of video showing the crew desperately trying to outrun a creature that was faster and nimbler by magnitudes.
After waiting for several days for contact, then weeks, and months, it was decided that a rescue and recovery would not be possible without more potential loss of life. Despite pressure from the families of the Ghost Shark’s crew, the vessel, the crew, and the planet were designated a loss.
Nine years later, an emergency dispatch drone was found hurtling toward our solar system. The drone contained a massive data packet that included a message from the crew of the Ghost Shark. Subdivisions in the packet were labeled with the names of all eleven crew members. Each sub-packet contained a personal message for that crew member’s family, and whatever observations, data, and other information that person had gathered. There was a twelfth sub-packet that included information about crew interactions, away missions on the island, discussion transcripts, and other information that was applicable to the whole crew.
So much had changed for me in that time. Yet, one thing had not. Somewhere inside, pulsing gently in a deep and dim chamber of my heart, had been the hope that my mother was still alive. That she and her crewmates had found a way to stretch their supplies, to cultivate the land, consume the animals of the sea, to survive.
Orbiters had swept by the planet where my mother was last seen. Two more unmanned probes had been lost to its waters, searching for the Ghost Shark.
There were sharp and detailed pictures of the island where the crew had landed. It was clearly uninhabited. The Ghost Shark was lost. It had suffered the same fate as MARV. There were other B49-C vessels in the works. Other inhabited planets had been discovered. They were much farther away. No vessel of ours could reach any of those planets within my lifetime. But the overarching mission to explore had moved onward.
Marv would be revisited someday sooner. Maybe I would even be on that mission, if they raised the age limits by then.
I had thought a second mission to Marv would be far too late for the pioneering crew of that first mission. But then that drone appeared with Ghosty’s logo on its shell. And the ghosts of the crew within, captured in the contents of that data packet. They had survived the last transmission they managed to send home. Survived long enough to gather what appeared to be several years’ worth of data. Long enough to keep reaching toward home.
I couldn’t listen to my mom’s recordings alone. I received offers from friends and family to be with me when I opened the message she had sent for me. But I didn’t want anyone else to be with me when I listened to it.
So I went through the other files in her sub-packet.
I went through the files in the other crew member’s sub-packets. I was one of dozens of analysts assigned to process and review the information, and present summarized reports for the decision-makers.
The last that the people of Earth heard about the Ghost Shark was that they were trying to carefully explore areas far from plokamisaur territory. There were plans to study the creatures, but first the vessel had to be tested in the alien waters. The crew had to get a hang of it. The waters had a different buoyancy, a different viscosity and drag, than the waters of Earth. An artificial lake had been built with conditions mimicking those in Marv’s oceans and seas, but it could not mimic exactly.
They encountered the plokamisaur that made them vanish far sooner than they had expected. The Ghost Shark was badly damaged in the scuffle with what they first believed to be an angry plokamisaur. They managed to get away, but the damage to the ship was so extensive that they had to surface and try to get the vessel onto a rare bit of dry land, a different island from the one on which they had settled. They barely managed it. But the ship was in no condition to return to the waters, much less to launch into space.
As they made repairs and tried to at least get the communications and life support systems working, finding a way to reach the main island where their supplies were, using all the spare parts they had brought along, they studied the plokamisaurs, for two years.
That was when they realized with astonishment something they had not known from years of studying previous data. The plokamisaurs were intelligent. They were definitely far more advanced than the most advanced primate on Earth. They seemed to be on the verge of sentience.
According to the captain, the plokamisaurs were perhaps at the equivalent of humanity’s early hominid stage. The crew might have the opportunity to study emerging consciousness in a species that was already advantaged because of its size, position in the food web, and primal cleverness. A species that would soon become dominant because of its mastery of its environment and itself.
There had been tension among the crew until they discovered this fact about the plokamisaurs. The crew spoke honestly about realizing—truly realizing—that there would only be ten other people for each of them to interact with for however long they were stranded, perhaps the rest of their lives. Learning that the plokamisaurs were more than just impressive animals was such a relief, such a delight. Caution was warranted. That, they understood. But they also understood that they weren’t all alone in their new world.
In great earnest, they began to study and even learn from the plokamisaurs, who had distinct personalities, and even rankings that went beyond the rankings found in Earth animals that lived in packs and hives. The crew as a whole was befriended by certain plokamisaurs. Individual crew members made individual friendships. Both species approached each other with wariness and restraint.
The crew learned that the plokamisaur’s main method of communication was through electrochemical signals carried through an organized network of microbes arrayed in and even slightly above the waters of the planet. Signals moved through the network akin to the vibrations of a spiderweb, only more sophisticated. At the time they sent the dispatch drone, the crew was still trying to figure out the nuances of the structures and pathways, and some aspects of the system that seemed to defy the known laws of physics.
The plokamisaurs insisted that the signals were best felt through a bodily surface, but the crew used Ghosty’s detectors to learn and translate the communications made through the network. Rarely, and only when they were surfaced, the plokamisaurs used vocalizations. The Ghost Shark’s crew had recorded some of these and transmitted them. They were surprisingly gentle and high-pitched, like the cries of a certain frog species on Earth. The crew believed such vocalizations only expressed strong emotions, like laughter or anger.
When the friendly plokamisaurs told them that some of their kind wanted them gone even from the surface rocks, as they called dry land, the crew explained that they were only stranded on the planet because of the plokamisaur attack.
The plokamisaurs expressed regret that they could not make amends and help. That was the first time they mentioned that the situation might have been different had the humans landed there in the past, a century past from the crew’s later reckoning. The plokamisaurs explained that their people were declining. The last remnant of their cunning was the microbe network, but parts of it were eroding. They asked for help from the Ghost Shark’s crew to understand it and restore it.
The crew of Ghost Shark were perplexed. The plokamisaurs had seemed to understand the human crew’s dilemma, that they were in no position to do anything but try to survive until they repaired their ship, which they might not have the resources and tools to do. Then again, the plokamisaurs also knew that their human visitors were already studying their planet. The crew made no promises, but they did say they would study the problem and share their findings.
The discourse between the two peoples continued, and the human crew learned that the plokamisaurs were not always confined to the sea. The stories were vague and mythical. But the plokamisaurs claimed that they once swam in the oceans of the air above, and even in the oceans of space between globes, outer space. But the crew found no vessels or signs of recognizable technology on the planet. Most plokamisaurs whole-heartedly believed that the tales they told were not myth but history, but they did not understand how their ancestors had managed such feats.
Ironically, the one who almost ate Ghosty became their main envoy and ambassador to her people. She seemed fond enough of them, and they of her, that the human crew jokingly asked her once if she was the one who had eaten MARV. (She never answered.) She was the one who explained her people’s delicate situation. She explained why she had attacked the Ghost Shark. She meant no permanent harm. But her people knew that the human visitors were speaking to their people. She only wanted to speak to them before it was too late. The eleven people aboard the Ghost Shark would not disrupt the planet’s current state much if at all.
But if more were to come, it would trouble our last days.
That was the translation of the vague and ominous reason the ambassador had given the human crew. That was what triggered the discussions that would confirm that the plokamisaurs were not a species that was rising and maturing, but a species in decline.
Theirs had been a great civilization, one that boasted of grand accomplishments, extraordinary abilities, and worldly insight, all of which had eroded away as their numbers had eroded. In only one human century.
I finally found the courage to watch the message my mother sent me. I took deep breaths to still that lurching dread in my gut. I started the message before I was ready, so I would not back out. My mother was cheerful as usual, and apologetic for causing such anxiety with her long silence. She did not explain further. That information was in her public sub-packet.
She said all the loving and encouraging things one would expect from a wonderful mom. I saw the wistfulness behind her smiling eyes. But I saw something else too. She was hiding something. She seemed…it seemed as if she were struggling to suppress a strong emotion. I caught glimpses of it in frozen frames. Excitement. Or hope.
She had a special friendship with the plokamisaur ambassador. It seemed my mother too had been named an ambassador by her captain and crew. The crew used up all the spare parts and every scrap of debris they managed to find, repairing the Ghost Shark’s hull, and restoring most of its systems. That included communications, but something about the areas where the microbe network had collapsed made it impossible to regain a signal to Earth. It was likely this collapse in the zone they inhabited that had made it impossible for later orbiters and rovers to find the crew. It seemed that the crew had no choice but to study and try to help the plokamisaurs repair the microbe network.
It was my mother who negotiated a mutual agreements between the two peoples that could mean life or death for both.
The plokamisaurs were interested in similar organisms to them and wanted to learn about the undersea life on Earth. According to their history, they had once been explorers, just like the crew of the Ghost Shark. The human crew, setting aside the last remnants of suspicion, shared what knowledge they had in Ghosty’s data banks into what remained of the microbe network. They studied the network, ran experiments and simulations. In return, the plokamisaurs vowed to help the humans survive on the planet. They would protect the human crew from harm, even from enemies among their own people, until the crew could repair their vessel. They would even help find resources and bring them to the surface rock island.
Plans were changed, trajectories for a newly built crewed vessel were recalculated. A rescue mission, and with it an official ambassadorial mission, would be mounted. There was urgency, because some scientists believed they understood more about that microbe network than the crew of the Ghost Shark. Because of advances in knowledge over the past decade that the explorers stranded on Marv knew nothing about.
Those scientists were certain that the network was not merely a biological communications array, or even a simple planet-wide brain. They had frightening conjectures about the planet: that it was itself a ship or an inter-dimensional object, or that it was shifting through different planes of existence. The Ghost Shark’s crew had sent a heartening message, a message whose hope was thinly veiled. But that may have been because they were not aware that they might be slipping away, even if they were standing still.
I made my entreaties to the powers that be, so that I could be on the mission to rescue the Ghost Shark, to bring my mother home. We could be ready by the end of a year at the latest.
That year came and went, with no further messages from Marv.
Plans were changed again and again. There were doubts and hesitations that maddened those of us who knew we had to go. Conjectures had become theories. Those theories warned of dangers that we were willing but not equipped to handle.
Once again, I woke every morning with that lurching dread in the hollow of my stomach.
We did not detect the creature until it emerged from the asteroid belt right at the edge of the solar system. And when we saw it, we knew immediately what it was. It was still astonishing. Still unbelievable. It swam through the vacuum of space, propelled by some force that we could not discern, tentacles rippling, fins expanded and waving.
It was swimming through space, like in its people’s myths.
It was morning where I was. I had been alerted as soon as the creature was spotted. I watched the live transmission, breath held.
The transmission flickered, or perhaps it was the creature that was flickering.
Vessels from the outer planets were immediately deployed.
The plokamisaur stopped moving just as it encountered the deployed vessels, half of which were armed with weapons not yet at the ready.
It hovered in space. I entered authorization codes and switched to the transmission from the bridge of the vessel that directly faced the creature.
The plokamisaur opened its mouth as the crews of the surrounding vessels held steady. They watched—and I watched—as something emerged from the toothful and cavernous mouth. A ship. A familiar ship.
The Ghost Shark.
My wide eyes filled with tears that I blinked and brushed away as quickly as I could. The captain of the ship whose transmission I had tapped into received a message from the long-lost explorer vessel. Ghosty’s captain first identified himself and provided his code, long expired, but accepted all the same. He asked all vessels to stand down their weapons and explained that they had no propulsion or fuel. They would need a tow.
My gaze switched between my mother’s ship and the plokamisaur. They had a story to tell. At that moment, I did not need to know it. I heard but did not heed the banter between the captains. The applause and cheering from the surrounding ships as detectors and scanners confirmed the identity of the Ghost Shark and its crew, all eleven members, alive and well.
I watched the plokamisaur as it patiently floated in space while towing lines were attached to the ship that it had carried in its belly through the vast expanse of outer space.
Once the Ghost Shark was anchored by towing lines, the plokamisaur veered away and vanished in a swirl of cosmic color. And my gaze returned to the ship that was bringing my mother back home.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Plokamisaur Encounter” by Sanjay Patel.