David cringed. The sky was brown. That wasn’t a good sign.
He stepped out of the IHR pod and took a few tentative sniffs. The sensors indicated a survivable atmosphere, but that didn’t always mean it would be pleasant to breathe the air. David could detect some decay as well as new life in the woodsy scent. No, the air passed. The brown sky, though. That was more than a little disconcerting.
Sarah peeked out from behind him. “I guess we were due, after the last one. I’m going to miss purple skies.”
David glanced back at her. “It’ll take some getting used to. How’s the rest of us?”
“One fatality. Griggs.”
“Hm. Not bad, considering the ride we got, according to the logs.”
“At least he died in his ‘sleep.”
David turned from the vista before him to see Sarah for the first time in years. “Everyone else making it out of ‘sleep all right?”
She nodded. “Sure. Abydos is cussing in Egyptian, and Tanis is nauseous.”
David nodded. “So, pretty normal. Once everyone’s out and about, let’s get the equipment set up. I’m not expecting much more to get done today.”
“Abydos, start with the outer bodies and make your way inward. We’re the second planet in the system, so you should be able to get most of the work done before making it back.” David turned to the next man. “You been able to evaluate the damage?”
Tobias nodded. “We lost some of my equipment, but I should still be able to evaluate and preserve well over a thousand samples. Not as many as I’d like, given the number of ecosystems the probe indicated, but I suspect I’ll be able to make it work.”
“Good, good. Tanis?”
“I’ve already shot up three satellites up. They’re sending back solid telemetry that matches what the probe sent back. Looks like the tectonics are stable. I’ll take more samples of the core. My equipment weathered the trip fine.” He shot a grin at Tobias. “I guess geology is just made of sterner stuff.”
Tobias stuck out a tongue.
David rolled his eyes. “Fine, fine. Pan?”
“Tanis’s satellites have already identified about twenty-six sites I want to examine. Should take the better part of our first year here to catalogue just those and evaluate.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Who’s picking up Grigg’s slack? Since he’s dead, we should probably dole out his responsibilities.” Pan paused a moment before adding, “Not it.”
Abydos flicked on the log recorder. “Sixth planet is a gas giant with sixteen moons. Four of the moons sustain atmosphere, one of which supports some vegetation. I’ve taken samples for Tobias to check out. After the unexpected asteroids yesterday, the flight today has been pretty uneventful.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to PF2423. We should really name it something. Anyway, the outer system is pretty standard. Never thought I’d say this, but I’m hoping to spend more time planet-side this trip. It’s weird, but I really want to see brown sky again.”
Tobias lowered his sled, trying to keep close to the cliff. Yes, it had moved since his reading last week. Either the cliff or the vine had moved two meters in seven days. Given Tanis’s readings on tectonic activity, it seemed highly unlikely that an entire cliff face would shift that far. No, the vine had moved.
He gathered his coat tighter to himself. Why did the interesting plants always have to divide their species between arctic and arid regions?
All right. The vine had raised itself two meters higher on the cliff face. It wasn’t growth; the plant’s mass was approximately the same as at last reading. Looked like the vine actually moved in search of better soil, albeit slowly.
Time to take a sample. Tobias cut off leaf as well as some of a root he could see protruding from the rocky cliff. He glanced around. The planet might not look like much, but it was interesting, at the least.
Pan stepped into the kitchen of the IHR pod. “Behold, I present unto thee, the Baacow!” He flourished and revealed a covered tray. “I have grilled it and offer it unto thee for thine dinner!” He bowed, proffering the tray.
Sarah declined. “I think I’ll stick with the rations a bit longer, thanks.”
David stepped close, savoring the scent. “I take it you went hunting?”
“You gave me Grigg’s job.”
“Typically we don’t hunt the animals until we ascertain their place in the ecosystem.”
“You never said I had to follow his rules. Besides, it tastes good. I made some jerky yesterday if you want to try.”
David motioned. “All right. The animal’s dead. It’s not going to be more dead if I sample.”
“It’s called a baacow.”
David raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“It’s big like a cow and has wool like a sheep. And eyes on stalks. I didn’t grill that part.”
“It tastes like duck. How does that work?” David chewed a bit more.
“I don’t know. That would have been Grigg’s job to figure out.” Pan shrugged. “So I guess we’ll never know.”
Negative. Tanis grabbed another soil sample and analyzed it. Another negative. A sample from several kilometers away. No, still negative. No bacteria – the ground was dead. There was no way it would be able to support vegetation.
He rubbed his eyes. After mapping out the general tectonics, he’d focused on the dead areas to try and find out why nothing grew there. Now he knew that, but had to figure out why there was no bacteria to support the plants.
The dead zones had been a mystery to him since the first telemetry from the satellites had started coming in. Large swaths of land in the temperate zone supported massive forests dominated by redwood-like trees. Near the center of the forests, the trees would get so thick it they would block out the sunlight, choking out all other life. Eventually the only things standing would be the trees themselves, who would die out without anything else around them to nourish the soil.
The trees started out their life cycle that same tint of brown that most things here seemed to have. However, after their death, the trees would turn a ghostly white. The pale forests were eerie. Tanis had never seen anything quite like them. And then, at the center of those zones… they collapsed. Miles of fallen white trees, with nothing alive as far as the eye could see. Purplish-brown orchids would grow on the fallen trees. Tanis couldn’t identify where the orchids came from; they simply seemed to appear at the heart of the dead zones to break down the timber.
Tobias rubbed his eyes. He’d never seen dead zones like this on any other of the planets he’d served in IHR’s for. Something new.
Sarah finished entering the data and glanced over to Tanis. “I miss Earth.”
“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow.
“I never have before. I always hated my family – real repressive types, you know? That’s the reason I signed on to go on these IHR’s. Between ‘sleep and the years we spend on each planet, I figured I’d never have to see any of them again. But now… I don’t know. I’ve noticed it for the last few months. Ever since getting here. I want to go back.”
Tanis nodded. “I’ve noticed the same. It’s beautiful here. At first I hated the sky, but now I kinda like it. There’s things here to figure out. I still can’t fathom how the dead zones work. Tobias and I have been working on that one for weeks. But… Yes. I’m looking forward to the return voyage.” He shrugged. “Maybe you should analyze the atmosphere a little more. Maybe it’s effecting us.”
“Either that or Pan’s cooking.”
“True. I’m looking forward to Earth meals again!”
Abydos brought the sled down over the water, hovering a few centimeters over the undulating surface.
David scanned the surface. “It looks like carpet. How thick is it?”
“The vines here go down at least ten meters. Of course, it varies from place to place.”
“Smells like death. You sure they’re alive?”
“Don’t let the brown pigment fool you. It’s just the same thing that gets on all the land-based life forms.” Abydos shook his head. “How many more years are you under Guild contract?”
“Three missions or fifty years realtime, whatever takes place first.” David sat on the edge of the sled and peered into mass of vegetation. “Why do you ask?”
“This is my last mission. I never thought about it before, but I think I might stay home this time instead of signing on again.” Abydos looked to the horizon. “I was just thinking about my brother and my sister.”
“No offense, I’m sure they’re long dead of old age.” David stood again and calibrated the sensors on the sled, sounding out as much about the vines as he could.
Abydos absently adjusted their altitude as a swell in the water threatened to wet the floor. “I’m sure they are. I never got to meet them. When my family fled the Province of the Two Kingdoms, they were caught. Probably tried for being Christians. Either that or reeducated.”
David turned. “You’re Christian?”
The dark man shrugged. “Anyway, I thought I might actually find out what happened to them.”
“I never thought so much of home before PF2423.”
“Must be something in the air.”
David glanced at the telemetry. “How many sites?”
Pan waved a hand at the monitor. “I’ve mapped out eighteen possible colony sites, depending on what corporation wins the bid to colonize. Two arctic, three arid, five temperate, two tropical, and six aquan – all those last ones are away from your vine patches.”
“Anything look especially promising?”
“Well, two of the temperate sites are in the heart of the dead zones. Not entirely sure what that’d do to the population. They’ll be a distance from any ‘living’ ecosystem, though, which will provide a buffer if the settlers are looking for that. Me? I’d go here. Lots of baacows around.”
“I can’t believe you’re still calling them that.” David shook his head. “Griggs would’ve given them a proper name.”
“Something scientific, boring, and impossible to pronounce. What’s wrong with baacows?”
David glared before pointing back to the monitor. “Why this one?”
Pan shrugged. “Because it’s beautiful there. I did all the surveying, tested the local species, everything I’m supposed to before marking a possible colony site. And then I just sat down on a rock, near one of those giant arctic turtles.”
“The white ones?”
“Yeah. I need to name those. Anyway, this thing had some of the vines growing on its shell, and the vines were blooming. So, I’m sitting in the arctic, surrounded by desolation and snow, and here’s this turtle with flowers growing on its shell. The sky suddenly burst into pinks and blues – more brilliant than anywhere I’ve ever seen, and you know I’ve been here a while. It burst through the brown of the sky and all I could do was enjoy it. I’m telling you, the place was magic.”
David nodded. “I know. It’s not just there. This entire planet… it’s not that attractive. It’s as unique as every other place we’ve been this tour. Some mysteries. Some fascinating aspects. But there’s just something about it. I want to stay.” David paused, considering. “Abydos mentioned that he wanted to go back home more than he ever has before. And I’m honestly feeling torn. I’ve been pining for home, too.”
Pan tucked a smile into one corner of his mouth. “Me, too. I’ve been thinking about my kids. I wonder if I’m a great-grandfather yet?”
“You know if your kids were as debaucherous as you?”
“I hope they inherited something from me!”
“You’ve probably got fifty great-grandchildren by now.”
Pan grinned, revealing a few missing teeth.
“Must be something in the air. The filters haven’t caught anything, and every time I’ve run tests, I can’t quite figure out what it is. But we’ve all been feeling that way. Nostalgic about earth and yet feeling roots here.”
Pan grunted. “You mean we’re getting homesick.”
David looked at the older man. “Yeah.”
– – – –
Sarah glanced up at the brown sky and sighed.
David’s voice was gentle. “Next time you see sky, it’ll be blue.”
“I know. Home. I want to go back, but I want to stay here,” she answered. “Stupid sky.”
“We still need to name it. PF2423 isn’t that attractive a moniker.”
Sarah nodded. “Sepia.”
“Sepia it is. The nostalgia-inducing planet.” David gestured to the door of the pod. “We need to get to ‘sleep so we can go home. I think it’s about time.”
Sarah looked at him. “How’s everyone else?”
“Tobias is making sure all his plants are healthy. Pan’s terrorizing the computer by trying to hook up his monitors to the live specimens.”
“So, about normal. All right.” She motioned David into the IHR pod first before turning back to the vista and whispering, “Bye, Sepia. Bye, stupid sky.”
This story was written in response to the prompt Locator.