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World Apart

By C.J. Connor All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Action

Chapter 8

Paths diverge toward different realms,

Each forgetting past union,

Vastly different grounds they tread,

Until they finally meet again.

For the following few days, things were tumultuous for every human, regardless of the planet on which they resided. To each, there loomed the potential end of life, and with this in mind, there crept the desire to desert all responsibility—work, school, chores—in exchange for the freedom they had dreamt of every day prior. Kids who had never been allowed a single piece of candy were suddenly consuming entire bags while they watched the violent movies their previously overprotective parents had outlawed. Schools were empty, and one was hard-pressed to find a cashier at the supermarket to ring up the groceries or a bag boy to carry them to the car.

This bout of negligence was relatively short-lived, though, as scientists soon realized that the approaching planet, as it had been identified to be, would in fact bypass them without incident. This was the conclusion made concurrently by Arth, Calri, and Fraq, but none expected things to play out as they actually did.

As the planet drifted toward Fraq, it gained velocity from the world’s gravitational pull and then found itself quickly attracted to the masses of Arth and Calri as well. Eventually, the simultaneous pulls of all three planets had the visitor in a deadlock. It froze in space, suspended at the triangular system’s center of mass with a potential energy analogous to a rubber band stretched so far that snapping is inevitable yet unpredictable.

For a week or so, scientists observed the planet, measuring its internal energy by utilizing the emitted infrared radiation and their thermal imaging telescopes. The expectation was that energy levels would be increasing due to the strain of the opposing gravitational pulls, but this hypothesis, unexpectedly, proved incorrect. In fact, the planet’s energy levels were stable and normal for those of an unreactive, potentially habitable body of mass: a surprising and rather enticing discovery, indeed. For Calri and Arth, the planet remained nameless, but those on Fraq came to know it as Centrum.

*****

“A couple more turns and I think we’ll be good to go. Yep, there it is. It’s all set. I’m coming in.”

Isaac stuffed the screwdriver into his front pocket, carefully, though, so as to avoid poking any holes. A break in his suit within the void of space could mean death, depending on the size of the insult and the time it took to mend. An astronaut may have 22 minutes if the hole is less than an eighth of an inch in diameter. If it’s something larger, like a linear rip, he could be looking at death within seconds. It’s the pressure that does it, and it’s your brain that really takes the brunt. Space is nothing but a vacuum, and a damn powerful one at that. It’ll suck your flesh out through any opening it can find, so it’s best not to lend a helping hand if you can avoid such a mistake.

Even so, the probability of puncturing a suit was quite low; the outermost layer was extremely tough. The gloves were the most vulnerable part: the Achilles heel, one could say. You could either have pure, unbreakable armor, or mobility that would allow for the fine finger movements required for fixing mechanical problems like the one Isaac had just dealt with. Unfortunately, the two traits were conflicting, and to give more in one meant to take away from the other.

Even with the suit’s durability, Isaac preferred caution. He’d heard about freak accidents, once-in-a-lifetime occurrences, the unsinkable sinking, the unbendable bending. Such extraordinary incidences pervaded every area of life, and he wished not be the subject of one such episode.

Presently, Isaac was getting reeled in for the fourth time in the last 10 hours. This trip had been to repair a loose landing shock that had been rattling around enough to trigger a sensor and send a warning to the cockpit. Earlier, it was a jammed solar panel that wouldn’t rotate, a flickering spotlight, and then a sudden leak in the pressure-stabilizing pipes after a small collision with a cluster of space debris. It seemed everything kept going wrong with the shuttle, which was ridiculous considering they had been assured that all had been triple-checked and verified as functional. But it was true that Fraq wasn’t much into space exploration. That baby had probably been sitting around in a big hangar somewhere, gathering dust for the last 50 plus years.

With the recent introduction of Centrum, the president of Fraq had decided it was time to pull the sheets off their fleet of spacecrafts and send a few reconnaissance crews out to survey the land. A preliminary squad of robotic land rovers had already delivered promising news, creating a wave of optimism amongst the citizens. The atmospheric evaluation returned staggeringly similar numbers to those of Fraq, reporting 26% oxygen, 73% nitrogen, and small amounts of various other gases like argon and carbon dioxide. Furthermore, the video cameras managed to capture clear images of plant life and even several different species of insects. Though the locomotive mechanisms eventually failed in the drones, the information they managed to provide was enough to convince the leaders to send some real investigators to finish the job.

That’s where Isaac came in. After serving in the military during his younger years, he had taken the scholarly route to college and separated himself from his jarheads friends. Now, he was coming upon nearly 20 years as a biologist, the last 10 of which he had spent in the more specialized field of ecology, studying the relationships amongst animals and between animals and their environments. His recent publication on the feeding and breeding habits of the Andromedan burrowing apes had stirred a lot of interest in the biology community and had earned him his own television show on Fraq Wild, the world’s most popular nature-oriented channel. He quickly became the figurehead of the field, and his face the symbol of wisdom and bravery—or insanity, depending on the observer’s personal interpretation.

Given his firm grounding on Fraq, the last thing Isaac ever expected was to leave the planet entirely, and, indeed, his journey began in the most unexpected of ways. The phone call had taken him off guard; the caller, claiming to be President Brownstein, was clearly yanking his chain. Within a minute, though, he had realized the validity of the man’s identity, and his skeptical tone had given way to a humbled tenor. He’d listened closely as his planet’s leader divulged plans for a mission to Centrum that needed his expertise, and it took little thought for him to agree to participate. It was a long trip to the capital, and an even longer 12-hour day of briefing and expedited space training, but they rewarded him well. Now, three luxurious hotel suites and over a dozen free meals later, he found himself knocking on the front door to a new world.

As Isaac neared the craft’s entrance tunnel, he turned to gaze along the shuttle’s face and down beyond its nose. There were still thousands of miles separating him from Centrum’s surface, but the detail was already beginning to reveal itself in patches of deep green and gold with varying textures of forest and blue ocean. Behind him, in the opposite direction, Fraq loomed a pallid shard of ice in a darkened pool. The distance was deceitful, for it cast serenity about a world of noise and motion. Crime, love, life: none of it existed from afar, yet all of it did exist in reality. This was the world he had come from, and in front of him was where he soon would be. He couldn’t help but wonder if the silence and the stillness of this new planet was equally as deceiving.

Centrum could be a youthful planet in the very beginnings of life, with an untainted environment filled with resources. It could be yearning for the Fraquians to land and cut out a billion years from the evolutionary process. In contrast, it could very well be a world more advanced than their own: a world with inhabitants who, through passionate eyes, see their encroachment as a threat. This issue was one of many he and the others needed to address in the coming days.

Isaac rubbed his chin—or where his chin would be if his helmet were absent—and lost himself in thought. In a way, they were lab rats or test dummies, thrown into the unknown just to see what would happen. Of course, this wasn’t the picture that had been painted for him, but out here in the emptiness of space, he suddenly found himself with a paintbrush of his own, and he was scared of the images it was creating

“Isaac, what the hell are you doing out there?”

The speaker in his helmet crackled with static as it spat forth his crewmate’s words. He jumped at the noise, his eyes instantly losing their gloss of thought. Turning from Centrum, Isaac met eyes with the medic, Marcus, at the opening of the tunnel. Marcus looked at him, partially concerned but mostly confused as to why his friend had suddenly gone mute and motionless. Isaac removed his right hand from the chin of his helmet and held down the blue button on the left wrist of his suit.

“Just thinking,” he said tersely, releasing the button to grab hold of his tether. Marcus nodded and disappeared within the entrance. Hand-over-hand, Isaac pulled himself along the rope until he, too, could feel the security of the tunnel about his hovering body. Marcus had already reentered the ship, so Isaac pressed the blue button again to complain. “Why didn’t you wait for me?”

“You were spacing, man,” Marcus chuckled. He squeezed a tube of peanut butter into his mouth and continued speaking with an obstructed palate. “I didn’t know how long you’d be.”

“Okay. Well buzz me in, then.”

“You got it.”

Isaac waited as the double doors parted, releasing wisps of steam from the sterilization chamber just beyond. He stepped into the clouded room, his suit shielding from the intense heat of the fog that engulfed him. A button press to his left closed the doors behind. Quickly, the steam vanished as the room cooled, oxygen now entering through the vents at the tops of the walls. The door at his face rose with a hiss, and he stepped through, detaching his helmet from his suit and popping it off in midstride.

“Hey, there’s our hero!” Marcus exclaimed.

The others were scattered about the cabin, so Isaac’s round of applause was a bit diffused and inglorious, but he took a bow nonetheless and then sat to remove his suit. “Next time, it’s someone else’s turn. Getting in and out of this thing’s a real bitch.”

He unclamped the tops of his boots and peeled them off with some effort, kicking them across the room and wiggling his toes in freedom.

“Maybe I’ll let someone else save your ass when we get to Centrum and you have a pack of pissed off ETs coming at you with laser swords.”

Isaac and Marcus turned to the other end of the room where Drake was cleaning his weapon. He was always in that same damn chair with the same I’m-a-killer look on his face and his disassembled assault rifle dispersed upon the leather footrest. He had only taken a few-seconds break from his chore to add his smart-ass two cents and was right back to polishing the barrel as if it were his manhood on a lonely Friday night. He was focused, pretending like he hadn’t said anything even though his hard face was clearly softer than usual. This was as close to smiling as he would get.

“Why don’t you stop playing with your junk and come say that to my face, big guy,” Isaac retorted.

“Yeah,” Marcus added. “Put it away. We’re tired of seeing it.”

Drake strained his neck as if someone were stabbing him and then set his gun barrel down: gently, but with much restraint. As he rose, his 7’6” frame cast a shadow that stretched like a spear toward the two men. The other team members—12 in all—were silent in their seats, content as uninvolved spectators.

“I think we made him mad,” Marcus whispered.

Drake moved to them, nudging Marcus to the side in order to get at Isaac more directly. He was slightly taller with broad shoulders and pecs like giant slabs of meat that pushed against Isaac’s chest. Black hair curled up from beneath his shirt and spread like dark smoke about his jaw. His brown eyes, matching the hue of his skin, squinted to intimidate. His hot breath came at eye level and made Isaac wince, but he didn’t cower. He’d had his fair share of scuffles back in his military days.

Isaac puffed out his own pecs, forcing Drake to take a slight step back. “So what was that you were saying, again?”

Drake looked at him, potentially impressed by the old man’s audacity but obviously angry, even so. It was a fight for pride now—for dominance. The two locked eyes, each searching for weakness in the other’s.

“What? You didn’t hear me, old-timer? You’re just the brains of this operation. Both of you.” He bobbed his head toward Marcus and scowled. “I’m the force, the warrior, the one who’s gonna save all our asses if anything bad goes down. You do your part or maybe I’ll decide not to do mine when you need it the most.”

“I might be smarter than you—and I am,” Isaac began, “but these hands have killed more men than you’ll ever see in your lifetime. Just make a move, tough guy. I could always add one more to the list.”

Drake strained his neck again, resisting the urge to pounce. His fingers curled into fists that trembled with coming eruption. Isaac tightened up as well, his huge hands hanging like sledge hammers at his sides. A sly grin began to materialize at the corner of Drake’s mouth, ushering a smirk, too, from his opponent. They both knew what was about to proceed. Without warning, the two lunged at each other with arms forward. The collision was so forceful that it sent a puff of air outward like a shockwave. A loud crack rang through the room as the two smacked each other’s backs in friendly embrace.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether you two are playing or truly about to rip each other’s heads off,” Marcus commented. The rest of the crew laughed and turned their attention back to their previous time-killing endeavors.

Drake took a step back and turned to face him. “It gets boring on this damn ship. We gotta find some way to bring some excitement into the mix.”

Isaac nodded in agreement and then turned to face his scattered teammates. His attention beckoned theirs, and they met his eyes to hear him speak.

“We approach Centrum, quickly. Maybe 10 more hours and its face will be the only sight beyond this windshield. Sleep well tonight. Tomorrow we break its atmosphere and feel its dirt beneath our feet.” Cheers echoed through the ship, rich with anticipation but void of pessimism, even a realistic dose. Isaac kept his qualms quiet, his proud face a superficial mask that concealed the apprehension below.

He turned back to his two closer companions. “I’m heading to bed. I suggest you both do the same.” He broke eye contact to look out through the panoramic window behind him. “We have no idea what we’re walking into, tomorrow. It’s best we’re well-rested and prepared for all scenarios.”

“Which of those scenarios are you afraid of,” Marcus inquired. He was sharp. He could sense the trepidation in his colleague’s voice.

“It’s not the scenarios I know of that worry me. It’s the ones I’ve yet to conjure. It’s the things we have no plan for that will test us the most.”

“Don’t worry, pal,” Drake assured. “I’m a trained soldier, as are half the others sitting around us. We’re ready for anything. It’s what we’re bred for.”

Isaac shifted his eyes about the cabin, unconsciously appraising each member of the team in hopes of forcing out his woes with confidence in his fellow man. He just nodded and took steps toward the door. “I know it. We’ll be prepared. It’ll probably be a cakewalk, anyway.”

He continued on to the door—which opened with a quick buzz—and disappeared into the lengthy hallway on the other side. His room was on the far end of the ship: an intentional choice. The walk gave him time to think. As he made it, his fatigue became suddenly apparent and his eyelids crept to close. His thoughts digressed from the unknown morrow to the empty bed that awaited occupation. In his wake, Marcus and Drake took seat and spoke. Together, they wondered at the authenticity of Isaac’s parting words.

*****

“Strap your asses in and hold on tight!”

Isaac’s voice boomed above the commotion of the cabin. Their craft had just broken Centrum’s atmosphere, the frictionless drift of space now giving way to a constant tremble as they plummeted toward the planet’s surface. The ship’s nose tore through the air, summoning on itself wisps of flame like prying tentacles. They reached about the windshield, slithering left and right in search of entrance, bringing with their touch a heat that radiated through space and warmed Isaac’s cheek. He sat in the pilot’s seat, his eyes perusing the panel before him, his brow exuding beads of sweat that amassed to larger pools before falling. He wiped clean the liquid angst, heart racing wildly, the clamor draining into nothingness behind the sound of his nervous breaths like waves crashing in his ears. Time slowed as he summoned the brief training on which his life now relied: the lever at his right that needed to be pulled, the switches that needed to be flipped.

Landing required that their ship overcome Centrum’s gravitational pull—a feat attained by shedding an amount of speed equal to the escape velocity of the planet: calculated at nearly 5000 miles per hour. The only way to do this was to activate the ship’s landing rockets. Isaac gripped the lever before him and heaved back with conviction, feeling as if he were stretching a tough rubber band, easier at first but then increasingly difficult as he pulled up further. The shaft vibrated in his grasp, threatening to pull loose and return to its original position. Finally locking in place, the ship jolted violently, the fusion rockets exploding forth white flames that propelled in opposition to their descent.

He quickly flipped the switches that spread the air resistance flaps. The ship was slowing. He could feel it. A screen at the base of the windshield informed of the ever-changing ground beneath them—a scrolling three-dimensional depiction of the surface as they approached. An altitude gauge blinked to his left. They were at 20,000 feet and rapidly descending.

He’d completed his tasks, and now the ship itself was in control of their safe arrival. It sensed the pull of gravity and oriented appropriately, keeping them on a level plane as they soared downward. Approaching 5000 feet, the landing rockets desisted, and for moments, they glided forward like a ship through the sea. Marcus moved to Isaac’s side and strapped himself within the copilot’s chair. Quickly, he reached to his left where a metal knob protruded. Grabbing the piece, he pumped it back and forth, the plunger forcing fuel directly into the engines’ cylinders.

“Time to fire this baby up.”

As Marcus screamed, he turned the key in the ignition, pressed a button, and sent the jet engines turning. They howled in greeting, their cries growing louder and sharper as their speed increased. Marcus grabbed hold of the throttle and pushed it forward, accelerating their ship ahead in a now controlled motion. He swiveled in his chair to face the others who were strapped in seats along the walls of the room.

“We’re in business!” he said. “You may now unfasten your seatbelts and feel free to walk about the cabin.”

The crew laughed at his formal tone and relaxed their tense bodies, their sighs escaping simultaneously. It was time, now, to look down upon this new world and preview the land they would soon set foot upon. Their numbers funneled from the room, emptying into the main hallway and dispersing left and right down the branches of its trunk. The smaller corridors emptied into large rooms whose outside walls formed the ship’s exterior. Their breadths gave way, through widened panes, to the outside world, affording view of the spreading treetops below.

Isaac and Marcus remained seated while the others diffused like smoke from their backs. They both leaned forward to survey the land, Isaac’s eyes growing in marvel.

“Wow. The richness of just this small sample of the ecosystem dwarfs even my highest expectations. Look at that: a coniferous forest of gold.” He pointed as he spoke. “And over there, a river flowing from those hills.”

Marcus nodded. It appeared that he, in fact, was speechless. His head pivoted from left to right and back again, absorbing the new world in awe, unconcerned with the words spoken in his ear. Their ship’s shadow brushed the yellow jungle, rippling with its texture and falling from sight as it dropped within a deepened fault. The ground split, revealing black rock and even blacker darkness below. Falls of water exploded from fissures along the cliff’s face, bursting in clouds of mist and disappearing back into the depths of Centrum. The opening of a cavern sat midway down within one wall of the fault, its image only fleeting as they passed over and again cast their profile on the continuing forest.

“Over there, in the distance,” Isaac gestured. “I see some kind of structures. Fly closer.”

Marcus squinted. He couldn’t make out the object of his friend’s attention, but he turned the wheel nonetheless. The forest thinned in time, its constituents dispersing from their intimate congregation. Thickly-packed pines spread, permitting eyes to pierce their ranks. The constructions in the distance sharpened with approach, the symmetry and intent of their shapes leaving unlikely attribute to natural formation.

“My God. It’s some kind of ruins.” The two scientists shared stares and shock. Their skin tingled at the discovery, their senses on fire with anticipation of exploration. “We have to land near,” Isaac continued.

“We can’t. The terrain’s too ridged, and the woodlands encircle it for at least a few miles. We need to land here on the plain.”

“Then take us down.”

Drake’s voice broke their exchange, and they turned to meet him as he shuffled forward. “What the hell is that?” He placed a hand on each of their shoulders and leaned between to look out. “Looks like some kind of buildings or somethin.”

“Yeah, we noticed,” Marcus remarked. “I’m landing this bird now so we can check it out.”

“Perfect.” Drake pulled his pistol from its holster and held it before his face. “Maybe I’ll get to use this pretty lil thing.”

Isaac rolled his eyes. “Don’t get your hopes up, big guy. We’ve covered some decent ground and have yet to see any signs of life.”

Drake looked at him, the flames of excitement in his eyes flickering in the wind of Isaac’s words. They dimmed but did not extinguish. He refused yet to accept that the planet was uninhabited. “The forests are so dense, though. We have no clue what could be under the cover of those branches.”

“You’re right,” Isaac conceded. “There’s still a lot to be explored.”

This time, his words were like fumes, bringing a blaze behind Drake’s eyes and a grin across his face. “Then let’s go lookin,” he exclaimed, raising, again, the pistol before his face.

The shadow of their craft shrank on itself as they lowered toward the grassland. One-by-one, the crew barreled in from the hallway, aware of the ship’s descent. The jet engines rotated to spit air at the ground, gradually slowing to sink their craft from the sky. The grass, which was yellow as the forest, swayed frantically with the gusts. A small jolt shook the Fraquians as they contacted the ground, the grass and soil compressing beneath the weight of their vessel.

“Ladies and gentleman, the bird has landed.” Marcus waved his hands about as he spoke, expecting praise for his safe maneuvering and receiving it with applause. The soldiers—eight of them including Drake—rose to their feet and retrieved their weapons from the rack on the wall. Of course, Drake already had his at hand. The other brains of the crew—two botanists, a microbiologist, an ornithologist, and a herpetologist—unbuckled but remained seated. They were much more patient creatures than their intellectually inferior, yet physically and charismatically superior, teammates who laughed and bustled in chaos about the exit door.

“Settle down, men,” Isaac began. “We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves here. I know the drone reported a clean atmosphere, but I don’t wanna trust my life or any of yours on the hearsay of a metal box on wheels.” The others chuckled and looked on as Isaac disappeared behind the sliding door and returned minutes later with a cage in hand. “This is my friend, Hansel.” He lifted the cage so that the team could see the white rat within. Hansel stood on his hind legs, hands gripping the bars as his two buckteeth gnawed for escape. “He’s gonna tell us if the air is fit to breathe.”

Isaac set the cage down and began to suit up in his space gear, sliding the helmet on his head and twisting it shut with a click. He moved to the exit tunnel that sat opposite to the less extravagant exit door that the others swarmed. “I’ll leave through here so that the air from outside doesn’t penetrate the cabin. I’ll be back in a minute with the results.”

Isaac buzzed open the door and stepped into the sterilization room. The door lowered behind him with a sigh. Drake watched uneasily.

“You think I should have gone out with him? You know, for protection?”

“Naw,” Marcus responded. “Isaac’s a tough guy. He can handle himself. It’ll be only a minute, anyway.”

Drake nodded in agreement and waited silently for his friend’s return. The minutes dragged, slowly passing one after the next. When four had passed without Isaac’s reappearance, the air inside became heavy with worry.

When the fifth minute ticked by, the team became restless, and Drake’s silence finally gave way to the thoughts that played so loudly in his head. “I’m going out after him. This isn’t right, man. He should be back by now.” Drake moved swiftly to suit up, speaking as he slipped his first foot into the cool Kevlar pants. “Ain’t no damn rat gonna last five minutes without oxygen. His little test is done. He should be here.”

Just as he reached for the torso of his suit, a knock on the exit door came in three staccato raps. The Fraquians looked around at each other in confusion. Isaac had never mentioned knocking as part of the plan. Drake tossed the body suit to the floor and stomped over to the exit, parting the crowd of soldiers with but a glance and stanch purpose.

“Isaac, is that you?”

“No, I’m but an alien with a humble request. It seems you’ve landed your craft in the midst of our game of football. Would you be so kind as to move it so we can resume play?”

The crew burst into laughter, and Drake slipped a grin on his face. “Damn it, Isaac. You son of a bitch. What the hell took you so long? You told us you’d only be a minute.”

“Hansel lives. He wished to be free, so I let him run off amongst the grass. I was sad to see the little guy go, but I have no more food for him and the smell of his shit was starting to get to me. I took my helmet off and decided to test the air myself before coming back. Sorry if I caused concern. Go ahead and open the door. The air is safe, refreshing even.”

Drake nodded, but suspicion lingered behind the motion. “Point your guns, men,” he whispered to his fellow soldiers. “We don’t know if Isaac’s words are genuine or forced by the tip of an enemy’s weapon.” The others raised their rifles in preparation. “Okay, man. Just a moment and I’ll open this baby up.”

He gripped the lever near the door’s frame and pulled it upward, releasing a hiss of pressure and bringing the door to a steady ascent. The sunlight beamed at Isaac’s back, casting shadow on his front as he materialized beneath the rising entrance: two legs, one body, and finally one head. He was alone. His silhouette moved swiftly through the doorway, the artificial light of the cabin piercing the darkness on his face and confirming his identity

“Geez,” he gasped, noticing the rifle barrels aimed about him. “Lower your weapons, men. I was just kidding about the whole alien football deal.” The soldiers dropped their rifles to their sides and awaited orders. Though Isaac was but a scientist, his decorated military history earned the respect of his crew and the title of the ship’s captain. Even if this were not so, his personality was not that of a follower. He would have assumed the position, inevitably.

“Shall we move out?” asked a voice from the group.

“Yeah, go ahead. Form a circle around the ship and keep your eyes open for anything of note. Unless in direct danger, radio me before firing any rounds.” The soldiers nodded and funneled through the exit. Isaac glanced at his watch and turned to those who remained. “Everyone else should gather whatever equipment you need and meet me outside in five minutes. We have only a few hours before night falls, so move your asses.”

The group dispersed from the main room and soon returned with bulging packs: vials, jars, magnifying glasses, tweezers, scissors. Marcus carried a med kit and sported a bright red fanny pack about his waist. He snapped open the case on a nearby table and checked its contents, thumbing through packets, and boxes, and rolls of gauze. When he finished, he looked to Isaac with a nod and closed the case, moving to his side and turning to face the others. Isaac ushered them out through the exit and followed, scanning his hand on a security panel to close the door behind. The sky was cloudless, the sun warm and bright and soaking his dark hair with heat. He held down the button on his small headset and commanded the soldiers to abandon their posts for his position. When all teammates were present, he spoke their plan:

“Okay, ladies and gentleman, here we are.” Isaac paused, admiring the fluttering, gold leaves of the surrounding forest, appreciating the cool touch of the breeze, the whoosh of its passing, the earthy scent of wood and pollen and mud laced within. The soft soil depressed beneath his boots. Here he was, indeed. He inhaled a deep breath of extraterrestrial air and released it with his next words. “The task, you all know, is simple. Do what you do best. If you know plants, then collect and study the plants you see. If you know reptiles or birds, then take pictures and document their behavior. If you kill people, then surround our party for protection, but try and keep your toys holstered.”

Isaac pointed to the sky. “The sun has passed its peak, so we’re on our way toward darkness. We have maybe three hours at most. As I said, we do our jobs, but we do them quickly. A complex of artificial structures was spotted a few miles into the forest over there. That’s where we’re heading. Considering this, be on the lookout for any other signs of intelligent life. It’s possible that the architects are long deceased, but they may still be around. To you brutes with the guns, remember what I said. Don’t get trigger-happy. We’re peaceful explorers, not violent crusaders. We need to make sure our intent is clear in case natives are watching.

“As we move, take your pictures and collect your samples, but if anything can wait until our return trip, please hold off. Our main goal, now, is to get to those structures, and we have no clue how much daylight we’ll burn in exploring them.” Isaac turned his gaze on Drake. “Get your men in position. Imagine a circle with a 20-yard radius and me at its center. I want your men equally-spaced about its perimeter at all times. You lead.”

“No problem,” Drake assured. He turned to relay the orders to his men, and they disbanded about the team of scientists.

“Let’s move,” Isaac instructed.

The ring of gunmen moved in unison with the others at center, their eyes probing every aspect of the environment. The grass beneath their boots was lengthy and unkempt, each blade extending, and twisting, and intertwining with its neighbors in chaos. Intermittently, the Fraquians would find their big feet looped or entangled in the mess, stumbling from the pull of the natural tripwires. Drake nearly unloaded a clip into the ground out of frustration, but he remembered Isaac’s command and, instead, went berserk with his dagger to the others’ amusement.

One of the botanists, the only woman of the team, knelt down to pull a blade of grass from its base, bringing the roots with and placing it into a small vial. A group of bird-like creatures occupied the attention of the others. The animals hopped about the border of the forest straight ahead, their two legs clearly powerful and long toes bearing talons. Their bodies were large and exquisitely ornate, decorated with interesting specs of blue and green upon a dirty blonde backdrop of fluffy feathers. They pecked at the ground with thin, black beaks that came to a point nearly two feet out from their faces.

Isaac lowered his binoculars. “What should we do about these little obstructions?” His words were to the ornithologist. “They’re in the way.”

The lanky man, barely 6’10”, lowered his binoculars as well and readjusted the glasses on his nose. “Well, I can’t think of a bird I’ve ever seen that resembles these, so it’s hard for me to make assumptions about their behavior. It’s clear, though, that they’re in the midst of hunting for food. Probably some kind of annelid or small burrowing insect. I would recommend circumventing them by entering to the left and looping back over, but we could also attempt to scare them away. We would need to be loud and confident if this were our choice, because they may charge to attack if they feel threatened but unintimidated.”

“We’re on another planet,” Marcus chimed in. “For all we know, these things spit fire and piss acid. I vote we move around them.”

“Good point,” Isaac replied. “That’s what we’ll do. Does everyone see that red bush at the edge of the woods? We’ll enter to its left to avoid those huge birds.”

“Awww, come on, Captain,” Drake yelled from the front. “I wanna kill me some dinner.”

“Not today. Take us toward the bush.”

The forest was about 50 yards ahead, the trunks of its citizens extending far above for hundreds of feet: so far, in fact, that eyes could not reach to see their tops. As the Fraquians neared the periphery, the yellow grass became black dirt that sank slightly beneath their heavy steps.

Drake halted his stride as he noticed a blemish on the soil. “Isaac, you may want to come take a look at this.”

Isaac sauntered to his side and looked down at the smear of blood tainting the earth. Short strands of white hair sparsely littered the ground like bits of snow, a pair of small legs and tail bloodstained and lonely upon the dirt. Isaac sighed. “Hansel. The little guy barely had a taste of freedom. Damn those birds.”

“I’m not so sure it was the birds,” Drake asserted. His words appeared hastened and strained, and with them a soft, but purposeful, push that forced Isaac behind him. Looking up, Isaac followed the sight of Drake’s rifle toward the forest where a large pair of eyes peeked at them from behind a cluster of foliage.

Two more eyes arose behind the first pair and came forward, the creature’s face breaking a beam of light to reveal a mouthful of yellow fangs gleaming with saliva. It appeared a small animal until it stood from its creeping advance, its head rising nearly to waist level. As it entered the light, its features illuminated: shaggy fur, large, pointed ears, brawny shoulders and powerful thighs asserting force through large paws like baseball gloves with claws. It walked on all fours, its tail white and bushy like a snow fox but its other features clearly implying its feline identity.

“What should I do?” Drake asked frantically.

The three soldiers at the front of the group joined with rifles aimed. The remaining four still watched the team’s rear. One of the biologists was seizing his chance to snap photos of the beasts, and Isaac pushed him back away from the danger.

“Don’t shoot yet,” he replied.

Drake didn’t like that answer. He shifted anxiously on booted feet, moving his gun for reassurance in the sound of its clanking metal parts. The two animals crept closer yet, approaching the point where their proximity would be too intimate for comfort. Low growls began to rumble from deep within their throats, a grave warning sifting through closed mouths. When their jaws parted in unison, the growls became shrill roars that flung the dribble from their teeth. The humans shrank beneath the sound, the soldiers’ index fingers toying nervously with the triggers of their weapons.

A shot rang out from an accidental misfire, and the cats came charging with ferocious speed and purposeful strides. Their hind legs pushed craters in the dirt as they sprang in attack, their mouths agape with fang-rimmed gums prepared to clamp. Before Isaac could finish his frantic order, “Fire!” the lead was already pumping in flashes of flame before his eyes.

The bullets chipped away at the beasts in midflight, their flesh peeling with each hit, their meat falling from their frames. Drake took a tackle from the lead assailant, its heavy body crashing into his and thrusting him to the dirt. He screamed like a man possessed, a deep, guttural howl bellowing forth from a place of feral instinct. His rifle sent a continuous stream of fire into the cat’s abdomen, blasting open a hole the size of his own head.

Assured of its lifelessness, Drake heaved the carcass to the side and stood. His chest pulsated violently with terrified breaths, the shirt that covered it drenched in blood and dripping to his boots. With the fur of his arm, he wiped clean the stray drops that speckled his face and then spat irately on the dead beast’s corpse.

“Woooo!” he hollered. “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” He walked forward to the other creature, whose body had fallen short, and kicked it briskly, its dead weight absorbing the blow with a thud. “Looks like our winged friends decided to leave the party.” He pointed to the right where the birds had taken flight across the plain. “I guess there’s no need for our little detour anymore.”

“Let’s get moving then,” Isaac began. “I don’t wanna stick around for these guys’ predators to pick up their scent.”

He waved Drake forward and the others fell back into place about the perimeter. When they eventually passed beneath the boughs of the external trees, the temperature instantly dropped with the sunlight’s departure. Within the adumbral forest, the light was diffuse, the gloom only rarely interrupted by isolated columns where the sun penetrated the thick canopy unhindered. The trunks were thick with jagged bark like shards of glass. The trees formed messy rows that stretched left and right as far as sight could reach. From their branches dangled grimy vines like beards that swayed in the fleeting breeze, brushing the travelers’ heads with unwelcomed strokes.

The botanist moved her hand along the vines, stopping to analyze one that extended all the way to the ground and disappeared amongst fallen leaves. She pulled gently, but it did not sway. “Amazing. This vine is buried deep into the soil. I think these are actually aerial roots, extending from the upper branches like straws to suck up water.” She grabbed the camera hanging from her neck and took pictures, releasing it to retrieve a small spiral notebook and record her thoughts. The group halted for her only briefly and then continued through the woods. They stopped in such a manner several times as they traveled, allowing for the collection of soil, puddle water, animal feces, and other relevant findings along the way. Nearly an hour passed before the beginnings of a clearing began to materialize in the distance. The pillars of light that broke the forest ceiling were becoming increasingly angled with the setting sun, instilling an urgent undertone in their strides. None of them wished, yet, to experience Centrum’s nightlife.

“Stop here,” Isaac ordered as they neared the edge of the forest. The trees stopped abruptly and the land beyond sloped down and dropped. “The compound should be directly ahead of us. Everyone needs to be extra cautious from this point on.” He bobbed his head forward. “Go.”

As he passed beneath the last trees, Drake noticed that the ground sank down into a large basin. He walked until he could see within, looking down upon stone walls that stood like ancient ruins, long forgotten. Isaac moved to his side, his breaths coming short and sharp as he laid eyes upon the scene. The others, too, joined ranks at the depression’s rim, its contents rendering them silent watchers. For a minute, they remained unspeaking, their minds absorbing the stairs and pillars and fountains and walls. They were indeed the product of intelligent minds. Their captain broke the silence:

“Let’s move down there and have a closer look. It took us over an hour to get here, so I’d say we have a good 45 minutes before we need to head back.”

Isaac’s excitement was tantamount to that of an 8-year-old boy at the entrance of a theme park. He hadn’t the mind to wait for Drake and the other soldiers to walk ahead. His feet carried him haphazardly down the steep slope of the valley, at times with small steps, at other times with large bounds and long moments of freefall that threatened, upon landing, to send him rolling down the rest of the way. The others trailed him, equally as thrilled but a bit more cautious in their descent.

He waited at the bottom for the team, and together, they moved on to investigate the ruins. As they approached, the grass turned to dirt and the dirt became the grouting of a stone tile walkway. The wind blew from within the dilapidated town square, bringing with it a whisper that was more than just its own.

“Quiet down,” Isaac commanded softly. “I just heard something. Drake, grab four of your men and come with me. Three of you stay here with the others.” Drake pointed silently to his chosen men, and they came to his side and turned to face Isaac. “Keep your weapons pointed and your trigger fingers loose, but no misfires this time. Somebody’s in here, and they don’t know we know it. Let’s keep it that way.”

The six men crept forward on light feet, the soldiers with their rifles extended and Isaac with his pistol aimed the same. They passed by a staircase, its chipped steps rising 10 feet into the air before dropping off abruptly. Isaac was beginning to think that these were the remains of a city destroyed by war, not time. They moved down a narrow corridor, its walls leading them beneath a garish archway of swirling colors and elaborate textures. It opened into a larger plaza centered about a grand stone fountain which, even empty, still radiated with a glimmer its former brilliance.

Drake was the first to pass beneath the arch, and as he did so, his rifle was struck from his hands and his head nearly removed by a well-placed clothesline. He hit the ground on his back, his vision flashing white and his breathing fraught from the blow to his throat. Isaac, next in line, could barely react before a strike from above weakened his knees and brought him to his friend’s side. He rolled over, quickly, as the attacker jumped from the top of the wall and out of sight. The other four soldiers had already burst past their downed comrades. Isaac listened, too woozy to stand, as a scuffle unfolded within the plaza. In moments, the fracas quieted, and Isaac forced himself to his feet. Quickly, he pulled Drake from his back and retrieved his fallen pistol from the floor.

“Hold it right there, asshole,” Drake said. He had already passed into the plaza and was out of Isaac’s sight. Isaac cocked his pistol and took but one step forward before the solid tip of a rifle barrel burrowed itself between his shoulder blades.

“Put the gun down,” his captor ordered. Perfect English. Isaac winced in confusion and bent to set his gun to the ground. “Now walk forward.”

He did as told, and upon breaking the plane of the entryway, he saw a mess of men with weapons aimed in stalemate. His soldiers, some at gunpoint with their hands in the air, others with their own rifle aimed at the enemy.

“You’re humans,” Isaac noted. The weapon on his back relieved some of its previous pressure.

“As are you, it appears,” came the voice from behind.

“We’re from Fraq. We’re here to explore this new world.”

“And we’re from Arth.”

“Then lower your weapons and we’ll lower ours. We’re not enemies.” With that, the rifle withdrew from Isaac’s back completely. He rolled his shoulders to relieve the soreness of its previous placement. “Lower your guns,” he commanded the others. Those still armed followed his order, but Drake maintained his rifle firmly at an Arthian’s head. He grimaced with anger. “Drake, I said lower your weapon.”

“This asshole hit me in the damn throat,” Drake hollered. “He coulda killed me.” As he spoke, he shook the gun in his hands, thrusting it at the man’s face hostilely.

“We didn’t know you were humans,” the man pleaded.

“Shut yo mouth. I ought a blow your brains on that wall.”

“Drake, I said put your damn gun down. Do it now! That’s an order.”

Drake stared down at the Arthian, their eyes locked: his plagued with fury and the other’s with fear. His finger trembled on the trigger as his heart and mind debated the course of action. After seconds of tension, he cursed up a storm and lowered the rifle to his side. With his concession, the Arthians followed suit.

Isaac turned to face the man behind him, taken aback, at first, by his height. The voice had him picturing a large and powerful figure, but the one that stood before him was barely six feet tall with lanky limbs and a soft, but confident visage. This was the first time their two kinds had ever met face-to-face. His mind rejoiced at the historic nature of the moment.

“Well, brothers,” he began, his attention drifting between the Arthians. “I believe we have a lot to catch up on.”

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