Once it finishes its decelerating burn, the last wisps of plasma escaping the compact engine, it drains the gel away from the sac containing its organic body. Reflexively, the body begins to cough, clearing its lungs like a newly-hatched child. A cord attaches the base of its skull to the rest of its ship, linking freshly-grown nerves to the artificial brain within the core of the starship.
It was time to upload.
Carefully, it begins to disconnect itself from its senses, cutting itself off from the ship. For the briefest of moments, it cannot see nor hear anything; it is deprived of all stimulus, passing through in an almost dreamlike state. Such a transition is always dreaded, but it is necessary. One of these times, it thinks, it may never leave the space between bodies.
Vaguely, it starts feeling a distinct beating against ribs, a painful thump thump, and realizes that the transfer was complete.
Slowly, he opened his eyes for the first time in decades.
Coughing again, he took a deep breath, gulping in precious air. Even the feeling of his lungs expanding against his ribs was agony, like his skin would tear under the strain, but the pain ebbed as time passed. His blood felt like rivers of fire running throughout his very being, but it was a welcome sensation, after so long without tactile sensation. It was always a difficult adjustment, returning to his body, but he always managed it.
Slowly, he tested his fingers, making sure the neuroconnectivity had not degraded. He blinked his eyes, stretched his limbs, curled his tail, and performed other test exercises. His organs and skeleton were artificial, made from metals and plastics instead of flesh, but there was always a correlation between complexity and the number of issues that can occur, and the cybernetics were complex indeed. Still, the advantages they held over their organic equivalents were far and wide.
Pulling the plug from out of the base of his skull, he gently kicked against the wall, pushing off towards the cockpit of his ship. There was a protein brick waiting for him in the synthesizer, and he ate greedily as he seated himself. Already the world was swiftly approaching, and there was much to be done.
Now that he could see the world more intensively than before, he realized the true extent of its changes. It was like there had never been a trace of civilization on it, only expanses of dust and rock. The image brought back painful memories, and he brushed them aside for the time being. He reviewed the signal again, and began to pinpoint where it could have been coming from on the planet. Perhaps there were survivors, after all.
There. Nestled within a mountain range, hidden from view. Scanning the area around it, he could see a single, familiar canal, stretching all the way to the ice cap. It was perhaps the only thing left from before, and he found his attention devoted to it.
He realized there was something else, too.
The stargazers had landed and set up a base camp nearby. No doubt they were intending to launch an expedition to the source of the signal, if they had not done so already. And if they were to find whatever remained there…
The thought gave him pause. He saw what was good in the stargazers, but he knew that they, too, had a darker side. They would let their anger cloud their judgment, let their fear of the unknown consume them. They were young, yes, but that did not mean that their fury couldn’t wreak a terrible havoc upon the Network. The only solution would be to hide, but how long could that last?
Looking closer, he saw that there was another vehicle at the camp, different from the one used by the stargazers. It had to have come from the other spacecraft, the one belonging to some unknown species. Perhaps the prospect of first contact would have kept the stargazers occupied for the time being…
Regardless, there was no use keeping in the dark anymore. They would have seen his deceleration from across the system; they knew he was coming.
And so, he prepared for landing. The ship trembled slightly as he detached from the bulk of the engines, and prepared for reentry. It would be nighttime on the planet when he landed, but he doubted that the stargazers would fail to notice.
As he entered the final calculations, he found his mind wandering, to a much earlier time.
“Toxic?” Teksha inquired, panting.
Tararsha flared his crest. “I’m afraid so, subcommander. The meat’s full of cholesterols; our hearts would be lucky to survive a few bites.”
Teksha glanced down at the animal they had downed. It was a massive beast, covered in a thick coat of brown fibers that served to protect it from the cold weather. A pair of bony protrusions curved from its mouth, longer than he was tall, and its snout possessed a long muscular appendage, most likely meant to grasp for food. It had not died recently, but he could still sense a great deal of heat coming from its corpse.
At least up closer to the poles, he could actually distinguish heat sources. Farther down south, where the temperatures became unbearable, it was a distorted haze of heat, like trying to see through mist. He’d nearly succumbed to sunstroke there, exacerbated by Tenokaskin’s high gravity and thin air. Not only was every step a struggle, but he could not even fly here.
“Yet another thing we can’t eat,” he said sadly. “How many different animals have we examined? Fifty? A hundred?”
“Far too many,” Tararsha replied. “At least some of the aquatic life has proven edible.”
“And so any future colonies would be limited to the humid coasts, where they’d likely develop disorders of the lung. There has to be something farther inland we can use as a sustainable food source, and the farther from the equator, the better.”
“There do appear to be large inland bodies of water, but samples have indicated that they lack the same chemicals found in the oceans; it may be possible that the life there would also be there.”
Teksha let out a frustrated hiss. “We’ll have to go there and find out for sure. Has the other party returned from their survey?”
“Not yet, subcommander.”
“Call them back. We’ll take the flier to the next location the Urshnata scouted out.”
Tararsha gave a small bow, and went over to the flier. Teksha turned to watch the horizon, thinking. They had been searching Tenokaskin for a twelfth of a local year already, and it was not promising. The weather proved violent despite the thin atmosphere, and the planet’s tilt meant that some areas would become even warmer periodically, which had ruled out anything short of the polar regions.
And now, this. Unless they found something that could easily sustain them here, they’d be forced to use cloned wildlife from Cefac as food, which ran the risk of an ecological catastrophe.
The Urshnata would be swinging back from the asteroid belt in another twelfth of a year. When it returned, odds where they would just pack up and leave; the commander seemed unwilling to make large-scale efforts to make a home here. Kauetirye would likely be the next target world; the results had been even more promising than Tenokaskin, but it was also a great deal farther out. Such a journey could be risky, but would it be more so than trying to remain here?
He clicked to himself, thinking, and watched the clouds roll by. Though it was not a pleasant world to be on, it was certainly a beautiful one. Here, the horizon looked almost flat, giving the impression that there was no end to the vast plains and forests and oceans. Tenokaskin was brimming with life, like a lush garden all over; he could scarcely find anything that didn’t have something alive over it. Even the rocks were often coated in thin filmy plants, and he found himself wondering just what lurked in the deepest parts of the oceans. It was perhaps the most lively world he’d ever encountered, even including Cefac.
Could intelligence thrive on such a world? There had been no signs of civilization discernible from orbit, but millennia had passed between his own people’s evolution and their development of civilization. Perhaps, if there was an intelligent people on this world, the same could be the case for them.
It didn’t seem likely, however. He scratched his snout absentmindedly, and waited for the other survey team to return.
Later on, he mused, it was fortunate there had been a delay.
When he imagined returning to the red planet, he never thought it would be as such.
The stargazers had gathered around his craft as he landed. Though it was a deep night without any moon in the sky, he could still discern that it consisted of two females and one male. They were without spacesuits; evidently, they’d already determined it was safe for them on the surface.
There was another figure with them, a massive bulk that walked on four legs, hidden by a thick spacesuit. The unknown visitor, then. If it was standing freely with them, then contact was already underway, and was going well.
Perhaps he could do the same. If they had not yet found evidence of the previous inhabitants, he could direct their attention away from the search. After all, contact with a living, advanced species that was willing to engage in relations would be far more interesting than a dead one. It would be better if he could convince them to accompany him back to their planet and begin a formal dialog.
He hated to think of them as ‘dead’. He hoped yet that he could find survivors, but the stargazers took precedence. There was no use in hiding from them anymore; the Network was thrust into the center of attention, now.
With that in mind, he grabbed the metal mask from its rack, and pulled it over his face. It was cool to the touch, and the sensation was a reassuring one, giving him strength. He was Diplomat, now, and it was time to fulfill his duty. Opening the hatch, he stepped out into the night, trying to look as professional as possible.
He couldn’t help but spare a glance at the four-legged alien as he exited the ramp, but he swiftly returned focus to the stargazers.
“Greetings,” he said.
They first came into view over the horizon, a trio of dark shapes advancing over the snowy plain. In contrast to the ground, their heat signatures were like flares, drawing his attention swiftly. They must have been attracted by the dead animal; perhaps they’d been tracking it before his crew had moved in for the kill.
His breath caught as he saw them. They stood on two legs, and had two arms and a head, but it was there the similarities ended. Their heads were round in comparison to his, and they lacked either wings or a tail. How they could balance themselves, he could scarcely imagine. Perhaps it helped that their bodies were shorter and more squat than his own; they appeared to be bulging with muscle or their equivalent of it. In their hands, they wielded some kind of hunting tool- a thick pole made from tough plant material, tipped with a sharp stone.
Crude weapons, but they would be effective enough. For a moment, Teksha felt wary as he saw them approach, then relaxed when he saw how cautiously they were also approaching. If he was careful enough, he could avoid a violent confrontation with them, maybe even begin a dialog, assuming they had a language.
First contact. Never had he imagined that he would be the one to make it for his people, and he felt a sense of giddiness.
Slowly, inch by inch, they drew nearer, allowing him to get a closer look. What he’d originally assumed to be the same kind of fibers as on the dead animal were actually artificial coverings, stitched together with flexible string. They did have the fibers on their head and over their eyes, though it was sparse elsewhere, making their smooth pink skin visible. Their eyes were small in their heads, and he could see that they were made of soft white gel, with thin membranes acting as irises and pupils. There was a strange organ in the middle of their face, one whose function he could only guess at.
For a few moments, they only stared at him, tightly gripping their weapons. He glanced over at the dead animal, and realized they must have been hunting it.
Fellow hunters. Already that could be a point of connection between them.
Cautiously, he crouched to the body. The aliens didn’t move, but their eyes followed him. They watched as he cut away a piece of meat from its flank, and he warily held it up for them to see. An offering of food could help convince them that he meant no harm.
There was a long pause, then one of them slowly stepped forward, tentatively reaching forward with its own hand. It had only five clawless fingers, he noted, and it looked far stronger than his own.
After another few moments, the alien took the offering.