ORIGINAL FICTION: "The Taking Tree" by Kevin Long (2013)

Kevin Long
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The captain sat on a bench in a grassy clearing, looking at a huge tree, roughly a kilometer tall. He, and the grass, and the ridiculously large plant were inside an even more ridiculously huge geodesic dome a bit over nine kilometers across, and perhaps half that tall at its apex. There were smaller trees, plants, and flying animals, and bugs and rodents and bushes and walkways in there, as well as several of what appeared to be snack bars, though it was hard to be sure as they were buried under centuries of accumulated bird crap.

“This is a damn peculiar solar system,” he said. His assistant agreed.

They had discovered it by chance on a long-range probe from their ship went slightly off course. There was nothing remarkable about the star itself – a standard yellow one of a type that made up perhaps a tithe of all the stars in existence – but it had planets. That was a bit more noteworthy, but not remarkable. When the science officer noted that the planet consisted of only two small, rocky planets, a rudimentary asteroid field, and nothing else, that was when the captain sat up and took notice.

“We’ll check it out. Send probe data to HQ, along with a mention that we’re diverting from our planned patrol route to investigate.” The Communications officer had agreed. “Science, send the probe data to astrogation so we can plot a course through that system’s peripheral icy-particle cloud.

“There isn’t one, sir,” the Science officer responded.
“What?”
“Probe data indicates no icy planetesimals whatsoever. Also, as you can see,” here, he touched a display screen, “The asteroid belt is oddly dense and close to the star, well inside the orbit of both planets.”
“Huh. Well, the positioning is odd, I’ll grant you that. Any idea as to the density?”
“I have to make some estimations about composition based on spectrographic data and electromagnetic carrier-wave reflection and – “ The captain rolled his eyes. Like all science officers, he tended to blather on. The captain poked him with a finger, and the scientist quickly snapped to the point.
“4.8 time 10 to the 24th power kilograms.”
“Holy hells! That is dense! You could build a planet almost the size of ours out of that!”
“Yes sir. Asteroid belts tend to be made of detritus too small and dispersed to coalesce into larger bodies…”
“You know, I did take some science classes in the academy,” the captain said, irritated.
“Of course. Apologies. In any event, this is the densest asteroid belt ever encountered. There is no scientific precedent for it, and in fact its mere existence violates several laws of physics.”
“Damn peculiar,” the captain said.

***

It took them eight days to actually enter the solar system. They launched several probes en route to get more data, only to find – confoundingly – that it really was every bit as empty as the early probe had suggested. As they crossed the heliopause, the science officer said, “We have life signs.”

That was news! Life was very rare. Very rare indeed. Theirs was the twelfth starship ever built, but their people had been plying interstellar space for a century, and yet this was only the second time life had been discovered. The universe was basically an unforgivingly hostile place. They’d all get promotions and hefty bonuses for sure!

“Spectrograph is showing absorption lines indicative of massive plant cover on the inner planet, photosynthetic, probably based on chlorophyll or something like it. Massive oceans. Disproportionately large moon.”

“Wow, just like home,” the Astrogation officer said. The captain shot him a look that made him blush, and he said nothing more.

“Let’s designate that one X-1 and its moon we’ll call X-1A. What about the other planet?”
“Call it X-2?”
“Why not?”
“Unremarkable. About half the size of X-1, perhaps a third the mass. Tenuous CO2 atmosphere. Unusually large quantities of water ice at the poles, no magnetic field. No moons, or at least none I can see from here. It it’s got any, they’re insignificantly small. No life signs….wait…no life signs….but…”
“But what?”
“We’ve encountered hundreds of planets like X2. There shouldn’t be any life there. Its mass makes it incapable of holding any kind of substantial atmosphere, but I’m getting very faint life signs.”
“Double discovery bonus for the crew!” The captain exclaimed. Several of the bridge officers hooted at this. The captain allowed it, then ordered them back to work after a short time. Starship life was hard. They deserved this moment.

“Could it be aquatic life? Under the ice, like on Beebobasrella Lobba?” That was the only other place life had been discovered. The oversized-moon of a superjovian world twenty five lightyears from home, and forty lightyears from here. Beneath kilometers of ice, there was an ocean of liquid water, through which swam millions of species of xenophorms. Alas, none of them were sapient.

“No sir, I wouldn’t be able to detect that with this equipment anyway. But there’s not that much ice, and the life signs aren’t reading around the poles. They’re equatorial.
“Damned peculiar,” the captain said.
“I agree, sir.”

***

A day later, they pulled into orbit around X-1. The chief planetologist asked the captain to meet him in her lab, so we went down.”
“There’s a problem.” She sounded gleeful.
“There always is.”
“Well, we’ve dropped a dozen geomapping satellites, and we’ve got a pretty mosaic of the entire planet now. We’ve kept finding oddities like this – “ she displayed a picture of complex intersecting striations, “ – and this – “ she showed another, “ – and this.” She showed a third. “At first we thought they were some kind of tectonic feature…”

“They’re roads,” the captain said. His eyes were faintly aglow with the thought of how huge the bounty was for discovering sapient life. He didn’t get into the Interstellar Navy in hopes of making money, but he certainly wasn’t adverse to it. At the same time, this complicated matters considerably. “I presume you followed them and they led to cities?”
“It’s hard to tell. I’m not a biologist or a geologist, but assuming these are roads – and I agree that’s most likely – then they’re pretty old. We’re only finding them in desert areas. In the more verdant ones, they disappear, presumably overgrown by vegetation. I’ve found places that appear to be cities, but if so, they’re in ruins, and overgrown. As you know from home, glass-and-metal structures tend to deteriorate much faster than masonry ones, particularly in active climates. In a couple centuries….”

“Wait, you’re telling me these people have been extinct for centuries?”

“Oh, no sir. They’re not extinct. We’ve found – well, we’re not sure, but we think we’ve found indications of inhabited villages and possibly some herding or tilled fields. There’s definitely people down there, but they’re stone age.”

The captain nodded knowingly, and floated up the hall to his cabin. There were protocols in place for first-contact situations. Thus far they’d never needed to be used. He knew full well what they said – they forbade any landings or attempts to contact by the discoverers themselves. A xenocultural observation post would have to be set up. They’d watch these new sapients for at least a decade or so before deciding what to do next. Just the same, he was in an uncharted spot in history, and his mood was all over the place as a result. He felt the need for guidance, and pulled the old, hardbound rulebook out of the shelf. He didn’t even bother to open it, just clenched it to his chest almost like a talisman. After a few minutes, it worked. He activated the intercom.

“Bridge, this is the captain. Break orbit and lay in a course for planet X-2. Also prep the extended recon shuttle for launch to that asteroid belt.”

***

They found the dome from orbit. Ordinarily they would have taken shuttles down to the surface, but as X-2’s gravity was low and its atmospheric pressure was only around half a millibar, they decided to simply land the whole ship instead. The “Life Signs” consisted of a thin and tenuous equatorial belt of lichens. But there were ruins everywhere – as far as the eye could see in every direction. As dead as it was now, this planet had been densely populated at one time.

Two days later, the captain sat on the bench gazing at the freakish tree.

“How’s it going?” a voice asked behind him. He turned from the waist to look, but he already knew who it was from the eastern accent.
“Hiya, Doc,” the captain said.
The doctor plopped down on the bench next to him and handed him two pills.
“Take ‘em.”
“What are they?”
“Mood stabilizer. You’ve been up and down and up and down for the last week. Figured we could head off a manic episode. Also some anti-nausea stuff to help you cope with the low gravity.”
“Good thinking.” He swallowed both of them. “You know, I like it here. Reminds me of home.”
“The trees aren’t so huge at home.”
“True, but we’ve been cooped up on that damn tub for three years. It’s nice to feel a little grass beneath my feet.”
“Where’s….?”
“Our science officer, and Wilker and Sallig are poking around through the ruins attached to this complex, trying to find out what they can. I’ve got shuttle crews flying all around looking for points of interest. Did you get those corpses I sent over?”
“Yeah. Unpleasant looking critters.”
“Yeah. Wrong number of arms. What can you tell me about them?”
“Captain, I’m just a doctor, the biology team could better expl….”
“Just gist it for me, Doc.”
“Ok.” The Medical Officer sighed heavily, and focused his thoughts. “Well, the biggest news is that their DNA has two less nucleotides than ours.”

“Really? That few? Is life even possible with such a small number of base pairs?” At just that moment, a cute rodent with a fancy tail lept lazily from a branch on the tree, and sailed two meters to the next branch, then scurried away.

“Evidently so,” said the doctor. “Bebobasrella laban life has two more nucleotides than we do.”
“Focus, doc.”
“Sorry. They’re carbon based, the live in a range of temperatures and pressures almost exactly like ours. We breathe the same kind of air, obviously. Brain capacity is slightly larger than ours. I talked to Sallig, and she’s guestimating they were perhaps about 10% smarter than we are, on average.”

“Disquieting, but not entirely unexpected. Form what the science boys are telling me, their technology was way more advanced than ours. What else you got?”
“I surmise they came from X-1. They definitely didn’t evolve here. The strata out there that contains biological remains is perhaps a thousand years thick, give or take a century. And it’s under a thousand years of dust, again give or take a century, so the planet’s been abandoned at least that long.”

“My thinking,” the Captain said, “Is that they tried to make this planet more like their own. Tried to make it capable of sustaining life.”
“Why would they do that? The gravity well is so shallow here that there’s no way it could sustain an atmosphere for very long.”
“I don’t know. This is an unusually empty solar system. Maybe they felt like they had to. Get all their eggs out of one basket.”
“Still,” the doctor said, “It seems like a conspicuous waste of resources.”
“I agree. They co – “ at just that moment, the captain’s earpiece bleeped. It was the communications officer explaining that they’d just gotten a message from the Astrogator and his team, who had just arrived at the mysterious asteroid belt. After a brief and flustered conversation that the doctor could only hear half of, the captain terminated the call and looked ashen.

“The asteroids? All eight hundred and sixty TRILLION tons of them? They’re artificial! They’re all artificial! A massive array of solar power satellites.”

***

They convened the staff meeting in an ad-hoc lab in a large wood-paneled room inside the sprawling dome complex. It had been hastily, and somewhat destructively, converted into a lab. They sat around an awkwardly high table built by the vanished aliens, but it was more annoying than simply standing in the low gravity, so they abandoned that almost immediately.
First the astrogator – having returned with his team from the belt – gave a report in which he indicated that the entire solar panel array was several thousand years old, and badly deteriorated. Few if any of the satellites were still functioning. The Chief Engineer had calculated that at their peak, the array had probably captured 5% of the stars’ energy, more than enough to power both planets in this system, regardless of how large their populations had been.

“So is it reasonable to surmise that that’s what happened here? Their power network broke down and civilization collapsed?” The Captain asked.
“Perhaps on X-1, but indications are that the Belt Array ceased to function long after X-2 was abandoned.”

“Damned peculiar. Where’d they get all the material from to build that from, anyway?” No one had any idea.
The Science Officer explained that the room they were meeting in had originally been an alien library. They had evidently recorded thoughts or memories or some other form of psychic impression on little semisolid blobs that looked like chrome. He held out one in his hand. “We have reason to believe that they wanted us – well, someone, anyway – to find this particular recording.”

“Because of its placement. All the others have been found in small bottles on the shelves, but this one was placed on that.” He pointed to a small ornate pedestal that had several flashing-light arrows pointing at it. “Doctor Wilker hasn’t fully cracked their language yet, but his tentative translation of the writing on the arrows is ‘Look here.’”

“So can we play this stuff? The recordings?’
“Not yet, but there are detailed electrical schematics we’ve found, and the doctor and engineer and I feel that we can eventually interface their playback mechanism with one of our brain scanners. With your permission, of course.”

“Do you even need to ask? Of course!”

***

It was three weeks later when they finally got the thing to work. The captain had grown to love the dome, and spent all of his free time there, as did much of the rest of the crew. They tried not to think of the endless ruins and icy deserts outside. Finally the day came when they needed a volunteer.

“I’ll do it,” the Captain said.
“Sir, it’s dangerous. It could conceivably kill y-“
He ignored Doc’s protestations and laid down on the bed of the Brain Scanner. After several minutes of jiggery pokery, the science officer pressed ‘start.’
Suddenly he was in the dome, but there was nothing in it but grass. The huge tree was just a sapling. The world outside the dome was dark and cold, but not dead yet. He took a step. This was remarkable! It was just like he was actually there! He heard a voice behind him and turned to look. “Gaaah!” he exclaimed, startled.

“Sir, what’s wrong, what’s happened? Should we break the connection?”
“Just gimmie a moment,” he said. “Wow, that was weird. I’m experiencing a kind of subjective simulation, as though I’m in one of their bodies. They’re not hinged the way we are. The head moved when I turned to look.”
“Do you want us to…”

“No, no, I’m fine. There’s a guide here. I’m going to go talk to him.” He did.
‘Welcome,’ the guide said, ‘what would you like to know?’
“What happened here?” the captain asked. His brain was assaulted by static, no, not static, there was a pattern to it, but there was so much contained in each dot of the snow assaulting him.
“This is damn difficult,” he said, “They don’t think the way we do. They don’t process information in an intuitive….if I focus…”

He saw a large gas giant planet with beautiful rings and numerous moons. While he watched, the planet gradually faded to dust, and the dust itself was further disassembled by impossibly tiny machines. Some of this stuff moved one direction, but the rest of it – the dross, and the moons – was simply left behind. Eventually it was carried away by the solar wind. Later, the moons were similarly disassembled. He sneezed and lost focus, and saw an earlier phase, another planet, with large ice moons. Fleets of ships were mining ice, and taking it to a planet – X-2 presumably – and dropping it into the atmosphere. He saw X-2 in its glory days, with beautiful pink-sand beaches and deep blue oceans that rolled like a dream in the low gravity, while billions of gawky aliens lumbered about their lives. He heard strange music. He turned to see where it was coming from, and saw the destruction of a natural asteroid belt beyond the orbit of X-2 and the construction of the vast artificial asteroid belt inside the orbit of planet X-1. He wondered absently about his childhood pet, and somehow the machine interpreted this to mean he wanted to see the history of the solar array, so he watched time roll backwards, the satellite/asteroids gradually coalescing themselves into a cloudy but very solid planet. This kind of phantasmagoria went on for the better part of a day, before he couldn’t stand it anymore, and he called for them to pull him out of the machine.

***

The captain sat on the bed of the brain scanner, with is legs dangling over the side. He looked ashen and shaken, and hadn’t spoken yet. He was compulsively drumming on the bed with one hand, and, running the fingers of his other hand through his hair. Someone brought him a drink, and presently he took that with his third hand.

“The name of this planet is ‘Mars,’” he said. This used to be a much larger, more conventional solar system. The inhabitants of Earth – that’s the third planet…uhm…that’s X-1 – had somehow gotten it into their heads that Mars was the future home of humanity. Once they got reasonably good at spaceflight, they set all their resources into making this planet more like their home world. This was called ‘Terraforming’,
‘Terra’ being an obsolete name for ‘earth.’

“Why did they do that? This planet can’t hold an atmosphere.”

“They believed.” They looked at him for more, “That’s all there is to it. They believed this planet was their only option, so they shipped resources here from other planets to replace the air and water that escaped into space every year. Presently, their technology advanced to the point where they could simply take whole planets apart, and move the resources they needed here.”

“Wait,” said the doctor, “You’re telling me these people – “
“’Humans,’ they’re called.”
“ – these ‘humans’ disassembled an entire solar system just to keep re-filling a leaky bucket? That’s the stupidest thing imaginable.”
The science officer concurred, “They could have built really large space habitats like we’ve done, or with the technology you’re describing, they probably could have simply built suitable planets from scratch.”
“Probably,” the captain said, absently.
“Why?”

“They believed. What else can I tell you? Somehow they got it into their heads that space wasn’t worth anything unless it was just like earth, and that people can only live on planets, and that Mars could be made like earth. They became fanatics. By the time they realized – no, admitted. They’d realized it long before the end – by the time they admitted to their mistake, they’d used up all their resources and had no other options. Mars died. Presumably their civilization fell apart after that, the recording doesn’t say. It was obviously made before that point. ”

He turned at the waist – for his kind had no neck – and looked though the window, across the open Martian surface, and into the dome. He stared at the tree. It seemed malevolent to him now, evil, a vampiric thing, its tendrils sucking the life blood out of six planets and hundreds of moons and millions of asteroids, and billions of comets, all just to keep itself alive. Such madness!“Do you think Fleet Command would mind if I killed that thing?” he asked of no one in particular.

No one said anything for a long time, and then the science officer mumbled something about not understanding such fanaticism.

“They were convinced they were building paradise; convinced that they HAD built paradise. But then they woke up and found it had only been a dream.”

The End.

Copyright 2013,2014 Kevin Long

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