Commander Georgiana Owen rolled over in bed to answer her comm. “Good morning?”
“It is a brand new day, Commander,” said Warrant Officer Gabriella Castille’s halting monotone. “According to Sergeant Franklin. Also, 07:00.”
“Thank you, Gaby. I’ll see you at the briefing.”
The Kaptaran Navy Ship Alouette’s wardroom felt a little chilly to Georgiana. She wouldn’t normally wear a short-sleeved field shirt and cargo trousers aboard ship, but they fit the mission at hand.
There were four others there: two uniformed, two civilian. “Good morning!” Owen said, activating the tabletop display. A holographic planet appeared in the air. “Welcome to a brave new world!”
“Isn’t that a looker of a planet,” breathed Sgt. Franklin, eyes shining. “Is it all water?”
“Close: ninety percent.”
Dr. Krafft, planetologist from the Muphrid System, remarked, “Pretty. So why are we going?”
“A side-project to the KAKAPO program,” Cmdr. Owen explained.
Eyes widened around the table. KAKAPO had started out tracing a prime-numbers signal. Now, it covered the efforts to establish a dialogue with the aliens.
Cmdr. Owen smiled, “Humanity is now in contact with two sapient species: the Keplerians and the Salps, as we’ve nicknamed them. Dr. Bose,” Owen said, addressing the Earth-born anthropologist. “You’ve been on the KAKAPO Outpost. How would you summarize them, physically?”
Bose sighed. “The Keplerians are semi-aquatic. They resemble stingrays, crossed with birds.”
“I see the resemblance,” Owen said thoughtfully. “And the Salps?”
“Colonial intelligences,” Bose said, her voice oddly weary. “They live in the atmospheres of hot Neptune-type planets.”
“Exactly,” Owen said. “And as different as they are, they do have one thing in common: they’re adapted to a fluid environment – atmosphere or sea.”
“Oh,” Krafft said, eyebrows rising, “Check all the wettest planets?”
“Two examples isn’t much of a pattern,” Bose objected.
“Granted,” Owen agreed. “But it left us wondering if humans are the unusual ones.” Krafft, Franklin, and Castille laughed. Bose didn’t. “We deployed a surveyor microsat. It’s found something strange.” A rash of orange points spread across the strings of islands on the holographic planet. “These steady blooms of heat and smoke. We thought they were volcanic…”
“Can’t be,” Krafft said. “No cones, no fissures. Those look more like alluvial plains.”
“Exactly,” Owen nodded to the planetologist. “We examined the spectrographs of the smoke, and found copper, tin, arsenic…”
“Metal smelting!” Bose exclaimed, “But there are no earthworks, buildings…”
“Weird,” Sgt. Franklin said, grinning. “Let’s go see!”
“But,” Dr. Bose said, “If there are people there, they might be pre-industrial!”
“We’re only landing long enough to verify these readings,” Owen said, “We’ll deploy within the hour.”
The cloudy atmosphere over the shuttle’s hull…Owen, Castille, Krafft, and Bose were belted tightly in, while Franklin flew them in.
Owen was sitting across from Dr. Bose. The anthropologist looked glum.
“Doctor? Are you alright?”
“Just not comfortable with flight.”
“I noticed earlier that you seem troubled.”
“Frustrated,” Bose admitted. “I didn’t find studying the aliens at KAKAPO very fulfilling.”
“How so?” Owen tried to sound sympathetic, although it baffled her how anyone could find sapient aliens a disappointment.
“I just…found them ugly, to be honest.”
“Well, I do hope we have something fulfilling for you here,” Owen said, smiling.
The shuttle was fitted with pontoons, and splashed down as gently as possible.
“Switching to local gravity,” said Franklin, “so be ready. It’s about half what we’re used to.”
Owen shook her head, noticing how it took her hair longer than normal to fall back into place.
“As we’re getting out,” Dr. Krafft said, “jump like you’re trying to go about half as far as you actually want to.”
Owen opened the hatch. Hot, wet air rolled in. The landscape was blanketed in vapour. Swaying, slender ‘trees’ rose through the haze. The shuttle was bobbing just off a shore of pure white sand.
Owen fixed her eyes on the water about halfway to the shore, and aimed for it in her jump. In the low gravity, she overshot and ended up stumbling, laughing, onto the beach.
“Good advice, Prof. Krafft!”
“Oh,” Bose sighed happily, “the plants are actually green here!”
“Can’t beat green, can you?” Franklin agreed cheerfully.
Castille navigated them toward the heat bloom sites. The watery sunlight left a golden glow in the air around them. They listened to the croaks, hoots, or whistles coming from the forest, chatting about what creatures might have made them. The forest thickened, and a new, deeper sound reached them: deep grunts and hoots, back and forth, almost…conversational?
Franklin turned, gesturing for everyone to quiet down. Stopping behind a clump of reed-like undergrowth, they beckoned the others forward.
The clearing ahead was lined with coils and braids of dried foliage. A group of a dozen or so beings sat among it. They seemed to have four limbs, like a human. The ordinariness of it surprised Owen more than the alienness.
There was ample alienness. They were maybe twice Owen’s height, covered in shaggy, auburn fur. Or feathers? They had huge eyes in blue-skinned faces. Each long limb had two ‘elbows’ and ended in long claws, including one opposable digit! Owen glanced in fascination at her own hand.
Dr. Bose gasped as one of them scratched at the splintered end of a hollow stalk, a bit like bamboo, sharpening it to a wicked point. All at once, the troupe started moving, some with young holding onto their backs. Two adults carried the sharpened stalks. Others carried large stones.
“Let’s follow them!” Dr. Bose urged.
They let them get underway, tracing their tracks out onto an expanse of white sand dotted with groves of foliage between shallow rivers. They spotted columns of smoke ahead, mingling with the haze. They caught up with the troupe – Dr. Bose compared them to Earth sloths, so ‘Sloth’ became their nickname – at a field of holes in the sand, each one letting out smoke that smelled like hot metal.
The humans took cover in a grove. Krafft was rubbing the sand between his fingers, shaking his head. “How did they even discover fire? It’s soaking wet out here!”
“Clearly, they did,” Dr. Bose said testily, “Let’s see what they do!”
What they did was to take the stones they’d brought, and begin hammering at the ground around one of the smoking holes. The sand broke apart, but not like a sandcastle; more like pottery. Smoke poured out, and the Sloths blinked against it as they dug away the rubble.
“What are the ones with the spears doing?” Castille wondered aloud.
The Sloths carrying sharpened stalks sat on their haunches, the stalks raised and pointing into the chimneys being demolished. One of them stabbed down into the smoking hole, then another.
When they raised their spears, each one had impaled a multi-legged creature the size of a large sheep. The Sloths started ululating and began pulling the speared creatures apart.
“Group hunting,” Dr. Bose was muttering, “Tool and fire use.”
“But if they built those kilns, or whatever,” Franklin said, frowning, “Why did they wreck them?”
“I thought they were cooking.” Castille remarked. “But the prey were alive.”
“Once they’re out of sight…” Owen began.
“Out of sight?” Dr. Bose interrupted. “Are they not what we’re here for?”
“They’ll probably return to their nest,” Owen reminded her patiently. “So we know where to find them, yes?”
Bose took a deep breath, nodding contritely.
“Hey, Doctors,” Franklin said, “Is it my imagination, or are the plants in here weirdly, uh, uniform?”
Franklin was right. Owen had seen thickets and groves on enough planets to expect tangled masses of different species competing for space. This one was tidy-looking, with only a few varieties in evidence: the slender trees, wound round with vines, and fringed with bluish flowers, or something similar. “Mysteries abound,” Owen said. “Shall we try solving one?”
They crossed to the smashed chimney, now deserted. The chamber underneath was round, centered on a smoldering cone of clay, crushed by falling debris. A tunnel opened in the wall. Franklin jumped down, peering in. “Clear.”
Krafft jumped down to the broken clay cone, kicking at the lumps fallen out of it. “Copper.”
“Maybe those crablike creatures are pests?” Bose suggested.
“But if the Sloths are smelting copper,” Franklin asked, “why didn’t they take it with them? Or tidy it up?”
“You don’t just close a smelter up and leave it,” Krafft pointed out.
“Besides,” Castille said, “If they could smelt metal, why do they use rocks and wooden spears?”
“We should get back to the nest and see what they’re up to!” Bose insisted.
“We need to split up.” Owen said thoughtfully. “Franklin, take Dr. Bose back to the Sloth nest. Prof. Krafft and I will explore below. Gaby, you’ll stay up here, so we can all keep in contact.”
Owen joined Krafft in the pit. He was tapping the chamber’s hardened walls.
“This isn’t just sand,” he said. “It’s like concrete.”
Owen grimaced, “I suspect Dr. Bose might argue that it could be baked by the heat?”
“Are we going in?”
“I’m afraid we’ll have to, well, crabwalk.”
Owen couldn’t help but check that she had her sidearm pistol in reach before clambering into the tunnel.
It wasn’t totally dark; a fine lacing of holes in the ceiling made a faint twilight.
Krafft tapped on the ceiling. “This tunnel’s lined with the same concrete.”
“Not formed naturally by the heat, then?” Owen said flatly.
“That a polite way of saying you think Bose is full of it?”
“I’m naturally suspicious of obvious answers.”
“The Sloths obviously wouldn’t fit in these tunnels?”
“You know, I was part of the expedition that made contact with the Salps and the Keplerians. We assumed that the Keplerians were the ones who had sent the prime numbers beacon, because we saw them first. It didn’t occur to us to check a gas giant for life. So I’m trying not to…”
Owen stopped. They started to register a staccato clicking sound, coming up the tunnel.
They scrambled back toward the entrance. Owen forgot the low gravity, and when she emerged, she accidentally leaped out of the smelting chamber and practically into Castille’s lap.
“Quick,” she said, “Get into cover!”
They took off at a low-gravity sprint toward a line of dunes a hundred or so metres away, skidding awkwardly onto the reverse slope. Looking back, they saw three dozen creatures clambering out of the smoldering hole.
Owen had seen Earth crabs before; that was very much what they looked like, just bigger. Their bodies were vaguely cuboid and iridescent. Their pincers had three jaws instead of two. Their eyes, on short stalks, swivelled independently, glittering blue-black in the hazy sunlight.
“Look at what they are carrying,” Castille gasped. “Spears!” These were almost as long as Owen was tall, and the tips glinted with…
“Copper,” Krafft said.
“We’ve been looking at this backwards,” Owen muttered.
“What are those ones doing?” Castille pointed.
The Crabs had split into two groups. Twelve or so without spears had scuttled to the grove near the smashed chimney. Some even climbed the trees. Then, Owen realized these ones were carrying baskets, hanging off their legs.
“I’ll be damned,” Krafft breathed.
Some seemed to examine fruit or flowers before picking the ones, presumably, that were ripe. Others began cutting away wilting fronds from the trees, or ripping up shoots and throwing them aside.
“They’re weeding!” Castille said. “I wish Nicole was here! They have the camera.”
“We’ve got a problem,” Krafft said. “Look at the armed ones.”
The two dozen spear-wielding crabs were moving in a close mass of scuttling legs and clattering spears, almost straight at the dunes where they were hiding!
“Time to run?” Castille squeaked.
“Yes!” Owen agreed.
Owen had hoped the low gravity would make running easier. It certainly improved their stride, but she and Castille fell so many times, their uniforms were plastered in damp sand.
Finally, they reached the forest, nearly crashing into Dr. Bose and Sgt. Franklin.
“What’s happening?” Bose demanded.
“We need to draw back,” Owen said, gasping for breath. The humidity felt like breathing soup. “The Crabs, they’re coming this way, and they’re armed!”
“Armed?” Franklin unslung their long rifle.
“Copper-tipped spears!” Owen declared. “I think they’re tracking the Sloths.”
Bose looked shocked, glancing over her shoulder toward the Sloths’ nest. “We need to do something!”
“Get out of the way?” Franklin suggested dryly.
They bolted for a clump of blue undergrowth. They could just make out the hunched, shaggy shapes of the Sloths through the swaying forest.
Franklin slipped on their digital goggles, activating the zoom. “The Sloths are getting agitated,” they said. “Shit, the Crabs are storming the nest!”
“That can’t work,” Bose said, baffled. “They’re huge!”
“Uh, the Crabs are in a close formation. What’s the word for that, when they have spears?”
“A phalanx?” Bose suggested.
“Right. The Sloths can’t get past it. Oh, shit! Not sure how, but the Crabs have set the nest on fire!”
Owen could smell smoke already. The Sloths’ hoots and screeches grew frantic.
“We’ve got to do something,” Bose exclaimed.
Owen blinked, “Such as?”
“Can’t we shoot at the Crabs?”
“No!” Franklin cried, aghast. “I can’t just shoot something I don’t understand!”
Bose growled with exasperation, and suddenly charged into the thickening smoke.
“What the hell is she doing?” Krafft burst out.
“Uh, Commander?” Franklin asked, unslinging their rifle again, “Do we go after her?”
Owen cursed her own shocked inaction. “Nico, can you see her?”
“The fire’s screwing up the infrared,” Franklin groused.
Then, amongst the hoots and screeches of the Sloths, and the clicks and clatters of the Crabs, came a very human scream.
“Damn!” Franklin growled. Through the smoke, Owen could just make out the Sloth tribe moving out of their nest quickly. From the other side of the forest, a teeth-rattling buzz made of dozens of chitinous clicks. Owen couldn’t help but think of it as a victorious cheer. Then she shook her head, annoyed at her own anthropomorphizing. “We’ll try to get closer. Nico, lead the way!”
The fires had guttered in the humid air, but not before turning the dried nesting materials into masses of carbon and ash.
“No sign of Dr. Bose,” Castille said thoughtfully. “Or the dead Crabs.”
“That fight looked pretty one-sided,” Krafft objected.
“No, Gaby’s right,” Franklin said, frowning, “They were still cutting up and handing round the meat from the Crabs they killed before. It’s gone.”
“I think we have to split up again,” Owen coughed. “Nico, you and I will track the Crabs. Castille, take Prof. Krafft after the Sloths!”
“Nicole,” Owen asked, “you spent more time with Dr. Bose. What was your impression?”
“She was captivated by the Sloths,” Franklin said. “Compared them to…orangutans?”
“A hominid species. They went extinct when Earth’s biosphere collapsed. That might explain why she’s so defensive of them,” Owen said thoughtfully. “She almost seems to resent the idea that the Crabs could be sapient.”
“I do think the Sloths are sapient,” Franklin pointed out.
“Oh, agreed. She also mentioned discomfort with the KAKAPO aliens. And, even two thousand years on, the trauma of Earth’s ecological collapse runs strong.”
Franklin stopped. They’d been following the Crabs’ tracks. But now, in their midst, was a single human bootprint.
“They must be carrying her,” Franklin declared.
“She’s alive,” Owen said, relieved.
“There’s no blood,” Franklin agreed, “and she was strong enough to struggle.”
“Gaby,” Owen said into her earpiece, “We’ve got Dr. Bose’s trail. Join us as fast as you can.”
Owen had assumed they would be returning to the chimneys, but it quickly became clear they were heading to a stretch of shallow dunes further inland. Clouds were advancing from the delta, and Owen spotted a flash of lightning on the horizon.
“Castille,” Owen said into her comm.
“Here, Commander,” Castille and Krafft had caught up with them. “Were you about to ask about the storm?”
“We have approximately twenty minutes.” Owen had learned not to doubt Castille’s weather forecasts.
“Down!” Franklin hissed suddenly. Out on the dunes, something moved. A pair of Crabs, each with full baskets on their forelimbs, were moving across the sand. Both of them seemed to look around, and then abruptly vanish!
“They’ve gone underground,” Owen realized.
Krafft whistled. “We’re a kilometre at least away from the smelters. There must be a whole network of tunnels under here!”
Owen turned to Castille, “Gaby, are you picking up Dr. Bose’s comm signal?”
“Barely,” Castille said. “The signal is diffused. I cannot raise her, and I can only place her within fifty or so metres.”
“That’s better than nothing,” Franklin asserted.
Walking across the sand, Owen fancied she could feel a hard surface just underneath.
“You’re right,” Krafft said. “Look,” he kicked away the sand. A hard crust dotted with sieve-like holes laced the ground under the sand. Owen remembered how they had afforded light for her and Krafft to see in the smelter tunnel. Except now, there was light coming out of them! An indigo glow was coming through the lacework of holes. Gaining the top of a dune, a twisting pattern of purple light became visible, appearing and disappearing under the sand!
At last, the tracks of the Crab…warriors? Soldiers? suddenly converged and stopped. Franklin brushed away sand until a circular lid became visible.
“We don’t know if anyone’s waiting on the other side,” Franklin pointed out seriously. “If two of you can lift it, I’ll cover the entrance.”
“No,” Owen interrupted, “I will.” She opened the holster on her hip and drew her service pistol. “If this contact is going to be violent, I’ll take responsibility.”
Franklin looked ready to argue, but they and Castille stooped to dig their fingers into the rim of the lid and lifted it free. Luckily, the hole was empty.
“Okay,” she said softly, “I’m on point with Castille. Franklin, bring up the rear, please.”
Luckily, these tunnels turned out to be larger than the one Owen and Krafft had explored. More central or heavily used? The walls were patched with glowing fungus or coral. The tunnels forked, and Castille tried to steer them into the zone of Dr. Bose’s diffused signal.
It was good that they didn’t have to use artificial light; it meant they spotted Crabs before the Crabs spotted them. Twice, they froze, waiting and hoping for the clattering shapes up the tunnel to take a different fork.
Owen took the next left on Castille’s advice, and then stopped. There was already another fork! And she could see two more down each.
“I think,” she said, “we might have found a city?”
“Or a hive?” Krafft suggested.
“Gaby? Are we close?”
“Yes,” Castille said with rare frustration, “but I cannot be precise!”
“If this is a city,” Krafft said, “How come there’s so little traffic?”
“Questions later,” Owen said, quelling her own curiosity.
The eerily lit tunnels now opened at irregular intervals into rough rooms. The first one they found was centered on a bowl in the stone floor full of what looked like coal, a block of rock, and a number of stone and copper tools.
“Forge,” Krafft muttered.
Another room looked, and smelled, like a produce barn, hung with dried plant matter.
Another, smaller one, had a fire burning down the end. The fire was surrounded by a group of Crabs. Owen froze; something was different about these Crabs, though. The curved exoskeletons on their backs appeared to be misaligned, some of them lifting clear off soft-looking flesh.
Owen turned to Franklin, who looked back with wide eyes in the purple glow. They mouthed the word ‘moulting.’
They passed room after room like that, clustered groups of Crabs huddled around fires, moulting.
They had to duck into another such space, because a spear-wielding pair of Crabs came up behind them. Near the entrance, away from the huddled Crabs and their hearth, there were…things. Strips of reeds, laid across stones. Baskets lay up against the walls, some apparently half-finished.
Owen took a careful breath, trying not to make too much noise. She couldn’t restrain herself from a look around. She turned to Franklin, making a ‘picture-taking’ gesture. Franklin nodded and carefully stowed their rifle to take holographs until the way was clear.
Finally, they heard something new among the clicks and the distant thunder. A very human sound of frustration. A harsh sob.
Owen, Castille, Franklin and Krafft advanced. Owen took a risk, whispering into her comm, “Dr. Bose, can you hear me?”
Another human-sound reached them. Owen listened carefully, and she thought it just came through on her earpiece. That was good. Bose was at least close to her comm.
The latest chamber stood out: Rods of the bamboo-like material had been embedded across the entrance. Inside, Dr. Bose was pacing back and forth across the chamber.
“Bose!” Owen hissed in an urgent whisper.
She started, turned and sprang to the barred doorway, “I thought you’d…” She began.
“Quiet!” Krafft said urgently.
Franklin tried to pull the bars out of the doorway, but to no avail. Krafft gestured for them to move over, and he produced a multi-tool from his pocket, unfolding a small saw blade. He started sawing through the bars, making an alarming amount of noise. Franklin switched back to their rifle.
“Bose,” Owen asked, “Are you injured?”
Bose held up her forearms. They looked like a saw blade had been pressed against them in crisscrossed patterns. The wounds weren’t deep, but looked ragged and painful. “They carried me like a sack!” Her voice, hushed, squeaked with agitation. “Then held me at spearpoint while they shut me in!”
“We’ll have you out in a minute,” Krafft said, still sawing.
“And then what?” Bose demanded.
“Back to the shuttle,” Owen said, “There’s a storm coming.”
“They’ll chase us!” Bose hissed.
“I don’t think so,” Owen said. “It looks like they have synchronized moulting cycles. All the ones we’ve seen lately are immobilized.”
Bose’s eyes widened. Krafft cut away the last bar and Bose scrambled out.
“Gaby,” Owen said, “Can we backtrack?”
“Yes,” Castille said, turning her tablet around. She’d been drawing a map on the screen. Owen felt a moment’s pride and admiration.
“Franklin, on point,” Owen said, “Castille, you navigate. I’m in the rear.”
To Owen’s relief, it was much faster going with Castille able to retrace their path.
“The forge is coming up,” Castille remarked.
“Franklin,” Owen said, “If we don’t meet another, um, patrol, then I want you to holograph the forge.”
“Good thinking, Commander,” Franklin said softly.
“You want to take pictures?” Bose hissed.
“We’ve discovered a new civilization, Doctor,” Owen pointed out, trying not to sound confrontational, trying to focus on the discovery. “Young by our standards, as you said!”
“I could have stayed on Earth to see bugs,” Bose grumbled.
“Here we are,” Castille said. The forge room was warm, and still smelled of burning. It hadn’t been inactive long.
“This is ridiculous, we need to get out of here!” Bose was frantically pacing back and forth.
“They’re almost all moulting,” Owen reassured her. “It will only be a moment, I promise.”
“They attacked the Sloths!”
Owen looked at her in bewilderment, “After they had been attacked!”
“The Sloths are like us! Hominoid life forms, with social behaviour. I watched them protecting their babies when their home was burned! I watched one of them take a spear for a child! These things probably just lay eggs!”
“What does that matter?” Franklin demanded, “The Crabs smelt copper, weave, build…”
“And then they burn the forest and spear other beings,” Bose exclaimed. “It’s going to be just like on Earth!” And suddenly, she grabbed an emergency flare from her equipment belt, ignited it, thrusting it into the forge. Smoke and soot began billowing up.
“Bose!” Owen coughed, staggering back from the smoke and knocking over something. Metal clattered on the floor. “Put it out!”
“Let it burn,” Bose cried, “The Sloths will see it, they can clean this place out before it’s too late!”
“You’re out of your mind,” Krafft snarled. He and Franklin grabbed anything they could use and shoveled out the coals, scattering them and dissipating their heat.
The smoke began to clear. And then she heard a loud, rapid clicking, and the clatter of spears.
“They are coming from the direction we wanted to go,” Castille said dismally, glancing out the door.
“Then we need a new route, Gaby! Can we go around the long way and end up back at the doorway?”
“Maybe!” Castille squeaked, frantically examining her tablet.
“You lead, then,” Owen said. She glared at Bose, who was looking stubborn. Her eyes widened when Owen drew her sidearm and said, “After you, Doctor.” Hopefully, Bose didn’t notice that her hand was shaking.
They rushed back into the tunnels, moving as fast as they could. Owen repeatedly whacked her head on the roof. A copper-bladed spear hit the tunnel floor. If she hadn’t just taken a step forward, it might well have gone through her leg!
A Crab was three metres behind her. Owen was transfixed by the creeping, chitinous apparition. She reflexively raised her pistol. She blinked, aimed carefully at the wet ground between her and the alien, and squeezed the trigger.
The shot was ear-splitting. Wet grit sprayed off the floor and the crab recoiled, and the humans fled.
The scuttling and clicking faded. Castille cried out, “I have to stop! I have to think!”
“Now?” Krafft demanded.
“Hey,” Franklin snapped, “back off! Gaby?” Franklin asked gently.
“I need to re-orient,” Castille said.
“Let’s get to someplace a little more defensible,” Owen said.
“There’s a chamber up ahead,” Franklin replied.
Franklin began snapping pictures inside while Castille worked. Owen did a double take as she processed what was inside.
“Dr. Bose,” she said. “Look at this.”
There was a set of wrapped bundles, of multiple shapes and sizes, across the room. The shapes were identifiable: a three-fold claw, a boxy shape, jointed legs.
“That’s one of the Crabs that…” Bose began.
“That the Sloths hunted and were butchering in their nest,” Franklin said from behind their camera.
“And what do you make of these, Doctor?” Owen gestured at the neatly wrapped remains. Not only wrapped, but hung with ropes of crystals and pieces of copper, and surrounded by…flowers?
“What’s the point of this?” Bose whined.
“The point is,” Owen said coldly, “Complex behaviour can arise without sapience. But someone is going to miss them.” Anxiety and frustration overcame her, and she snarled, “And you wanted to give away their presence so that they would be decimated!”
“I saw you aim your weapon at it. You’ve got the same disgust for bugs as all humans!”
“And that gives us the right to…” Owen began, but she bit off the sentence with exasperation. “Franklin?”
Castille’s directions were spot-on; they found the ‘lid’ in the tunnel and, in the low gravity, leaped up into the open air, and the thunderstorm.
By the time they made it back to the shuttle, they were soaked.
Owen said, “I’m going to move the shuttle up the coast. Just to be safe. I doubt they’ll track us through this storm.”
“There’s a cove just upshore,” Castille said. “Where the Sloths moved to. We could observe them more.”
Looking at Bose, Owen felt a petty impulse to say no, but she agreed.
Commander Owen rose the next morning to find the hatch open. Krafft and Castille were fast asleep. Owen moved quickly to the hatch.
The cove they’d parked in was bathed in watery sunlight. On the shore, the Sloth tribe were digging in the sand, grooming, living.
Franklin was on the shuttle roof, snapping pictures. Dr. Bose was watching them through zoomed-in digital goggles. When Owen sat down next to her, she took them off.
“The one that got hit with the spear seems to be recovering.”
“Good,” Owen said, earnestly.
“I’m sure lots of wounded Earth creatures recovered, before they were wiped out anyway,” Bose said bitterly.
“So, you thought, what,” Owen demanded, “to take sides?”
“Don’t you see that they have the potential to become a civilization, too?” Bose asked.
“Perhaps,” Owen agreed, “but our mission was to discover the source of the metal smelting. We did. It wasn’t them.”
“So, another civilization of weird creatures who can’t make words we can pronounce or facial expressions we can read?”
“I don’t regard the universe as owing me things I can easily understand.”
“And yet you can see the beauty in them, can’t you?” Bose asked, pointing to the Sloth tribe.
Owen looked back at the shaggy creatures. Their heavy pelts, gangly limbs, bright blue faces and large eyes reminded her of children’s toys. Through the haze, she noted one adult combing its claws through the pelt of a youngster playing with a seashell.
“I can,” Owen said earnestly. “They’re, well, adorable!”
“And they’ll go the way of Neanderthals, the great apes, whales, and everything else humans destroyed because they were scared, or greedy, or just hungry!”
“Am I not correct in thinking that several Earth species were brought to the brink of extinction, only for humanity to correct its course and prevent that? Like the megafauna with the long noses?”
“Right! Strange creatures, but magnificent and easy to empathize with, I gather. I invite you to see the beauty in the Crabs as well.”
“I don’t know if I can do that,” Bose said, stubborn.
“Which is why I won’t press charges when the ship picks us up. But I’m dismissing you from the KAKAPO-2 project. You can return to Earth. Write about the Sloths, if you like. But I’m afraid we can’t move forward trying just to undo our collective past.”
“Alright, fine. Just,” Bose huffed. It struck Owen that she was trying to not to cry or get angry, “let me have this.”
They sat together, observing the Sloths through the humid haze.