“It would appear there’s intelligent life down there, Captain,” said the first mate, his excitement rising. “On the dark side, artificial illuminations can clearly be seen.”
“Roger that. We’ll maintain remote orbit and send down the probe before taking a closer look.”
The sphere, about the size of a basketball, was not metallic but made instead of a translucent composite material. Travelling close to the speed of light, it came in at a tangent, skipping through the planet’s atmosphere in a heartbeat. The frictional red glow was already fading as it did an abrupt u-turn and sped off in the direction of light. Back on the ship, all eyes were glued to the floor-to-ceiling monitors.
“Substantial amount of water– looks promising.”
“Yeah. Let’s see what happens when it hits the first landmass.”
The probe came over a large, verdant continent that was abundant in flora. Zigzagging across it at lightning speed, the massive amount of data it fed back to the ship had to be stored momentarily and drip-fed on to the screens.
“Would you look at that…”
“That has to be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
The scene was one of timeless tranquility, of an ecosystem that had clearly been in harmony for aeons. Plains stretched out to distant mountains; streams meandered their way to faraway seas; colours complemented and contrasted with equal majesty… ochre, amber, pea green, slate.
“Wow! Did you see that?”
A flying creature, larger than the probe, had suddenly swept past. Close.
“Yeah. Do you think we should give her some opacity? Just in case? We don’t want her being struck accidentally.”
“Sure. I’ll set her to twenty-five percent.”
As the crew studied the rest of the images, the probed parked itself in a stationary position a few miles above the planet’s surface. It was not a hover, but a graviton balance made possible by the latest scientific advances.
“Right– well there’s plenty of life down there: flora and fauna. But nothing, so far, to account for the illuminations on the dark side. Let’s get her across that expanse of water and see what’s on the next landmass.”
The probe sped at an incredible rate across an ocean that covered almost half the world they were investigating. It was not long before it made land again.
“Whoa! Look at that! Slow down, baby!”
Civilisation appeared on the monitors. All along the coastline tall buildings stood like sentries: animals scurried about on the ground or sat in machines conveying them rapidly over varying distances. There was clearly a system of behavior; an orderliness about the place.
“It’s almost like–”
“Yeah. That’s what I was thinking.”
The crew watched dreamily as the probe slowed to explore in more detail, it’s opacity reduced to zero. The animals were undoubtedly intelligent; were communicating, sharing expressions and producing sounds: language. The way they interacted spoke of a deeply embedded social code. From an engineering standpoint, it was clear they had developed the knowledge and skills required to create artificial cityscapes that sat on natural bedrock.
“Intelligent life, tick,” quipped a crewmember, his excitement swelling. “Shall we go in?”
“I want to see a bit more first, just in case. Get the probe to scan the wave spectrum. See if they’re transmitting any media data.”
Within seconds, innumerable streams of video data began flooding their monitors. With few exceptions the stories they told were of catastrophe; of cruelty on an unimaginable scale. Puzzlement creased the Captain’s brow.
“What the hell are they doing?”
One video in particular had caught his eye. An animal, shrouded in some kind of cloak, was kneeling, cowed, in the centre of a circle of perhaps twenty others. One by one they…
“O, my! They’re killing their own kind!”
In another, large numbers of the same animal had been herded into some kind of huge, fenced-off compound. A pen, effectively. They were peering out through the wire, hunger, thirst and pain writ large across their faces. And sadness.
“They feel emotion,” said the Captain.
“Yeah, but why’re they doing the things they’re doing?”
Still, nothing had prepared them for what the probe would show next. A large group of infant animals had been gathered in a low structure that had been… destroyed by “rocket attack”…? Pieces of these young animals were littered everywhere… most were dead… obliterated… But there were shrill noises coming from some of the survivors, while others were simply sat there trembling… many with missing body parts… dazed and in a state of shock… Temporarily mute.
“This is senseless,” remarked another of the crew. “Madness. And you know what I’ve also noticed?”
“Well, there seems to be one species of animal on this planet that totally dominates. And they don’t look particularly friendly.”
“And it’s not just their own kind they slaughter, either,” piped up another of the ship’s officers. “Take a look at this, Captain.”
The situation was a kind of small inlet, a cove, into which some water-bound creatures had apparently been corralled. It was so overcrowded that they were panicked, looking for clear water, bumping heavily into one another, causing distress and yet more panic. They, too, made noises, albeit of a different kind. But it was still language. So they were sentient, then.
Some of the dominant animals were floating above the water on small, buoyant structures. Suddenly, it began. Hooks were thrust into the flesh of the sea creatures to hold them fast against the sides of the floating structures. It was at this point that the carving began.
Fountains of lifeblood sprayed from these creatures as their bodies were slowly sawn through. Writhing throughout the ordeal they screamed in agony until something inside them snapped and they were still. Within minutes, ocean blue had turned to crimson. There was silence among the crewmembers.
“I can’t believe what I’ve just witnessed,” the Captain said solemnly.
He exchanged looks with his crew.
But it was not over yet. Further atrocities were to come.
In a building where another, smaller animal species was “processed”, the dominant animals were ripping their hides off right over their heads before throwing their helpless, quivering bodies on to piles of their unfortunate comrades.
Meanwhile, in another part of the planet, hundreds of airborne machines were dropping explosives on to a city where barely a single building remained intact. Countless numbers of the dominant animal cowered amongst the rubble, beneath the few flimsy structures that were still standing, protecting their young.
“This species is sick, Captain.”
Unable to take any more, the Captain instructed the live streaming to stop.
“Send the probe back to the place we started,” he ordered. “I need to restore my sanity.”
At breakneck speed, the probe traversed half the globe, returning in a matter of minutes to the exact coordinates where it had begun its survey.
“Make it do a slow tour,” said the Captain.
Immediately, their screens were filled with lush vegetation, arboreal backdrops, the chattering of a variety of different animal species participating in a holistic system, undisturbed by the dominant animal. The serenity was augmented by the soft sound of creeks and streams that bubbled over rock on their way to the vast expanse of the ocean.
It was a moment of supreme tranquility, one that tried hard to restore their optimism.
“Are we going in, Captain?”
He thought for a moment, then:
“Regrettably, I think we’ll have to give this one a swerve. Recall the probe.”
“Yeah– shame. It has such wondrous natural resources, as well. So beautiful. Like a jewel hanging in space. A noble stone. If only it weren’t for those animals.”
The probe returned and the Captain fired up the boosters, taking the ship out of orbit.
“So long, sweet rock.”
“What was it called again?”
© Kirk Austin