2946-06-26 - Tales from the Inbox: A Breath of Fresh Air

Besnik took a deep breath and released the seal catches on his helmet. The oxygen reserve of his suit was exhausted, and it was time to risk the planet's fetid, steaming atmosphere. The instruments told him it was breathable, but he had no idea if any of the local microorganisms would be compatible enough with his biology to cause problem. That was a risk he would have to take, as long as he wanted to avoid suffocating. His landing craft, partner, and temporary shelter were still several hours' walk away.

With his first breath, Besnik coughed, and suppressed the urge to vomit. The atmosphere had a bad smell, but a worse taste – it was utterly beyond anything in his experience, but it was reminiscent of both rotting meat and an open sewer. As the clinging mists around him indicated, the air was warm, wet, and thick. The alien flora looming out of the steaming haze were misshapen, cancerous things, most of them translucent and vaguely amoebic. 

As the initial wave of nausea faded, Besnik tried to remind himself that the world he was stranded on wasn't quite the primeval cesspit that it resembled. Having studied its biosphere for more than a week, he knew that the organisms he could see were lumpen and inelegant to the eye, but highly complex biological specimens from which - he hoped - the science of biology had much to learn. Almost all of them were not individual organisms, but complex colonies in which multiple species lived in a complex network of symbiotic and parasitic relationships. Each was a teeming hive of multicellular creatures, acting for the greater whole as the cells and organs in a human body might – ferrying nutrients, disposing of waste materials, repairing injury, or fighting off invaders.

As Besnik fought to gulp the local air without emptying his stomach, The helium-filled envelope of a gas tree ahead of him suddenly tore open with a flatulent sound, and the whole organism crumpled wetly to the spongy soil. Suddenly alert, the human explorer put his back to one of the bulging sac-bushes and watched in that direction carefully. He'd been on-planet for almost a week and still hadn't seen any large predators, but the mist reduced visibility so much that he could have passed a Centauran Ferroceros at ten meters without noticing it or being noticed.

After several seconds, during which nothing else in that direction moved, Besnik took another reluctant breath. The expedition still didn't know much about the gas-trees - not even how they obtained their nutrients. Their beige-brown color certaintly didn't match with the coloration of the planet's other photosynthetic organisms. Perhaps spontaneous bursting was part of their usual life-cycle.

"Vipin, it's Besnik. Can you hear me?" 

Once again, only the silence of a dead digital radio channel answered his call. Either his suit radio had been damaged by the crash, or the atmosphere, with all its poorly-evaporated water, was affecting the signal. He'd tried without success to radio Vipin every hour since he had flown too close to the canopy and clipped clipped a gas-tree with one of the wings of his aerofoil.

Grumbling, the explorer collapsed his helmet, clipped it to his belt, and set off once again, following the bearing indicated by his wrist unit. The terrain was hilly, but fortunately, there were no major obstacles between his crash site and the base camp. If he'd thought to bring two more oxygen tanks, just in case, he would have been able to make the walk without even taking off his helmet. 

At the top of a particularly large hill, Besnik was forced to stop to take a breath. The gravity of the world was less than Earth standard, but somewhat more than shipboard standard, and apparently his exercise regimen on the outward journey had not completely kept up with the difference. It didn't help that the air didn't get any less foul-tasting as he breathed more and more of it, and he was trying not to breathe any more than absolutely necessary. At least, half an hour after shedding his helmet, he didn't feel any ill effects other than the sporadic nausea.

Reaching the top of a particularly aggravating hill, Besnik leaned on the flexible trunk of a gas tree and surveyed what little of the terrain ahead he could see. The land sloped down into a valley, and he thought he heard flowing water in the mist. A minor brook or stream would pose no problem – his suit might even be able to refill its water reservoir from the stream, properly filtered.

As Besnik started down, the gas tree he'd just been leaning on burst with a very balloon-like pop. He turned just in time to leap out of the way of its wet, membranous envelope as it fell to the ground. "Ugh." He grumbled, kicking the tree's ropy branches. He hadn't seen a gas tree burst on its own before he took his helmet off – not since he started walking, not since he'd landed on the ball of putrid meat which could be charitably called a planet. It was a mystery he'd have to mention to Vipin, when he made it back. Perhaps it happened all the time, but he had merely paid it no mind before.

At the bottom of the slope, Besnik found a small brook, its waters almost clear. He stuck his wrist probe into the water, allowing his suit to test the liquid and, if it was safe, to refill the suit's reserves. Evidently, the suit liked what it sensed; he felt the tiny pump below his elbow spin up, drawing water up a tube in his arm to the reservoir behind his back. When the water tank was full, he took a sip from the water tube protruding near his neck and waded across. The stream, despite moving quickly, had a thick, muddy bottom – Besnik's boots clung with every step, and gray mud covered them up to the ankles when he emerged on the other side.

"Vipin, it's Besnik. Please tell me you're not napping on the job." Besnik sent again, trying unsuccessfully to kick the sticky mud off.

"Besnik? Where the hell have you been?" The reply was punctuated with static as the channel struggled to connect. Besnik tried to breathe a sigh of relief, but instead he caught a whiff of the mud he had walked through and gagged violently. It smelled like someone had blended a bucket of rotting fish heads in sulfuric acid.

"I'm..." Besnik struggled for breath. "Almost back. Wrecked the aerofoil. Any chance you can come pick me up in the rover?"

"Got your locator. I'll get moving right away." Vipin was a terrible driver, but Besnik didn't mind if the all-terrain research rover picked up a few dents if it meant getting clean sooner. "See you in a few minutes."

"Thanks." Besnik barely managed to reply with his eyes watering; the mud's reek seemed to grow stronger as it dried. He kicked his boots against the rubbery side of a sac-bush to try to knock some of it off, but managed only to smear the side of the xeno-flora with a thin film of the stuff. Almost immediately, the bush trembled in a disquieting fashion, as if repulsed by the mud as much as himself. In the end, Besnik gave up and began walking again, glad for a light breeze in his face which wafted the worst of the acidic stench away. As he did, another gas tree nearby failed; its ropy, twisted trunk fell limply against an adjacent specimen.

"Why the hell does that happen?" He asked nobody in particular. Idly, he wondered if the planet's miasmatic atmosphere was beginning to affect him. Realizing that his progress wouldn't make any difference since Vipin was probably only a minute away, Besnik approached the fallen tree. With its gas sacs burst, it looked something like a dead, emaciated webbed arm. Its trunk's entwined vine-like elements twitched like severed lizards' tails. There was nothing redeeming about the horrid things, Besnik decided.

Shortly after he started examining the flaccid tree closely, the random twitching turned into a cooperative tug, and the entire tree retracted into the ground with an elastic, slithering motion. "Hey!" Besnik trotted after the limp canopy, which was out of sight by the time he reached the place the tree had once rooted.

The sound of the rover's electric motors and a crash as Vipin plowed through a stand of sac-bushes, caromed off a large gas-tree, and skidded to a halt right in front of Besnik. The vehicle's nose was coated in several varieties of biological slime, each with its own consistency and putrescent shade of brown. "Hell, Besnik. You've been breathing this mess? Why didn't you call sooner?"

"Hell, Vipin, I tried." He replied, watching the tree Vipin had plowed over begin to slither into the ground below the rover. Something about that motion seemed wrong, but with his head swimming from the stench of the mud, he couldn't figure out exactly what it was. "Hey, did we know gas trees live in burrows?"

"Besnik, that doesn't even make a little bit of sense. Let's get you to medical." Inside the bubble canopy, Besnik saw Vipin strap on his own helmet and head for the belly hatch.

Besnik had a foggy sort of idea, but it was a very unpleasant one. "Wait, Vipin, don't-"

It was too late to warn him. The other explorer leapt the last few rungs of the boarding ladder, and just as his boots touched the spongy soil, a lightning-fast vortex of beige tendrils erupted from the vanished tree's "burrow" to ensnare him. Besnik saw a flash of comically surprised expression behind Vipin's faceplate, then his partner disappeared into the ground.

"Hells." Besnik took a step backward. He realized what had been bothering him. The gas-trees all around him had trembled and spasmed when Vipin had struck one with the rover. They weren't trees at all - they were the limb-like tendrils of some colonial organism living underground. The scent of unfamiliar human flesh had convinced some of these creatures to free up tendrils to snare him if he wandered too close - and Vipin had jumped right into its grasp.

With a chorus of tearing and popping noises, the other trees nearby began to deflate and fall to the ground as well. He was, he could see, thoroughly surrounded, and even if he was not light-headed from the stink of the substance on his boots, he doubted he could keep track of where each set of tendrils vanished in order to chart a safe path out of the trap.

"Besnik!" Vipin's voice contained a mix of fear and rage. "Get me out of here! I'm-"

Besnik didn't hear whatever Vipin said next. He took another step backward, stumbled on a rock hidden in the undergrowth, staggered, and fell onto his back - right into the eager embrace of the vine-like beige tendrils.

Besnik M. sent us today's story. Besnik is a field xenobiologist who has spent a lot of time on life-bearing worlds, examining their ecosystems. What he sent us here is, by his own words, a snapshot of what it's like to work on one of the most densely thriving planets he's ever set foot on. He sent this account as a high-fidelity suit-camera recording, but Sovanna took one look at it and decided not to subject her audience to the footage. It will be clear fairly quickly from reading his account why she chose not to put it on Feedback Loop, and why this particular life-bearing planet was skipped over for colonization, even though its stellar primary is close to a major artery of the Spacelanes. 

Besnik's account here has been left on a cliffhanger because that's where the footage ended. According to his supplementary notes, what follows was a bit of an anticlimax featuring Besnik and his partner Vipin shouting unkind things at each other through the wet, peat-like soil, then burrowing back out to their vehicle. Whatever dragged them down (Besnik is confident that it was some sort of meta-colony of carnivorous gas trees) presumably found humans quite unappetizing. It didn't hurt either xenobiologist, and they didn't have any further run-ins with it in their remaining time on the surface.

Besnik does observe that not everything on the planet was so harmless. He claims that he spent four days laid up in sickbay after trying to scrape the dried mud off his boots and discovering that it contained toxin-secreting microorganisms.