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The grass bent beneath his boots as he stepped outside of the ribbon box. What would it feel like if he went bare foot? Wet? Raspy? Like carpet? Green spread out all around them, welcoming them to the small island. Kaleb took off his helmet and took a whiff of the air. So fresh, so salty. The ocean roared in the distance, jealous of the attention the grass received.
“That’s dangerous, you know,” his partner Foelhe commented, walking past him.
Kaleb shrugged. “If anything happens to this piece of property, they’ll sew me right back up, and probably stick so many needles in my behind, I’ll look like one of those…what are they called again?”
“Porcupines.”
“Yeah, one of those.” He looked around, finally focusing on the sky. Bluer than the ocean. Sure was different than from where he was from. “Think we’ll see one of them?”
“Doubt it.”
“Stop playing around, you two, we have a mission to fulfill,” said Dalin, forty meters away, walking on the beach with his own partner. His voice sounded muffled, coming from the headset inside the helmet Kaleb was carrying. Foelhe shook his head as Kaleb sheepishly put it back on.
The two of them walked in silence until they reached the edge of the water. No sign of threats. Maybe it wasn’t so dangerous here as most people thought. It certainly didn’t look to be harboring danger. Kaleb watched the ocean steal his footprints from the beach.
“Call down the ATV, this island looks to be uninhabited, but to the northwest, satellites suggest there are people living there. A wonder they never made it to this one.” Foelhe tapped something on his wrist. Kaleb did the same, instructing the vehicle to drive over and deposit the boat in the water. He didn’t like the rubbery foam molding to his head nor the plastic visor that was fogging up.
A few moments later, they were speeding to the northwest. There were six of them altogether, three companionships. The boat went fast enough to see the next island growing on the horizon, but the fish in the water were dark blurs. Not even the screen in his visor could identify them quickly enough. Governmentally issued, they were.
The ocean stretched out as far as they could see, no less infinite than the stars. Each wave glistened in the sun like a show of lights. Kaleb sighed. What would it be like to immerse himself under that surface, without any body armor on? Opposite the empty vacuum of space, being filled instead of emptied? He couldn’t believe he was here; it didn’t feel real. So close to a world that touched each sense, yet a barrier that held him back.
Other, larger shapes began swimming after their boats. The shapes couldn’t keep up, but it was obvious they were trying. They weren’t just fish. Still, the screen couldn’t identify them. Either it wasn’t advanced enough to cut through the interference of the water, or there was no file archived with information on these creatures.
“What do you think those are?” he asked Foelhe. The only response was a shake of the head within his helmet. The others didn’t seem interested either.
Soon they reached the beach, this time not covered in fine sand but in larger pebbles. Some of the rocks seemed sharp enough to cut open his feet, if he ran barefoot. Kaleb stepped out, his feet creating small holes that filled themselves up with rocks and water as soon as he left. His past prints on the world were being erased along with the past. He only existed in the present.
It seemed calm at first, but there was tension in the air, penetrating their helmets. No one said anything, although Foelhe kept his hand at his side, fingers clutching the handle reflexively.
The first sign of intelligent life was a broken spear hidden in the rocks. At first it looked like a wet stick from one of the trees, but the screen pointed out that there was a sharp rock tied to it. It also pointed out that something had urinated on it five hours ago, as well as a multitude of other useless details. But it couldn’t tell him what had been following them.
“Is this an accurate level of their technology?” Dalin asked, more to himself. “I wish those up high would have shared the classified with us.”
They stood there for a few moments, observing the spear, as if it would suddenly start talking to them. Kaleb felt impatient. There was life out there, waiting for them, but no one could get past the spear and begin contact.
“Come on, Foelhe,” he said on the private channel. His partner looked at him wearily, sighed, and started following him to the growth at the edge of the beach. The others glanced at them, but then went back to analyzing the spear.
As soon as he parted the first leaves, longer than his body, the alarms went off in his suit. At first, he thought it was danger in front of him, but after a moment with nothing happening, he realized the danger was behind. Swiveling, he found Foelhe already rushing back to the others. The waves were high, nearly engulfing the ATVs. Strange. Then his screen pointed out the obvious. There were more than five others on the beach with him. There looked to be about ten, with more coming from the sea.
The fish!
These fish had hands, feet, and heads like humans. Except they were blue, with white stomachs and they were covered in fins, including their faces, replacing their hair. Crawling out of the water, they started rising onto their back legs. Some wore basic loin cloths, others nothing, although there didn’t seem to be anything to see. A few looked feminine, but it wasn’t as obvious as it would be on humans. His screen pulled up close ups of one of the faces. It was smiling, but with the sharpened teeth, the smile looked devious and dangerous. They approached the men with little apparent fear.
One got close to Dalin and spread his arms wide, still with that toothy grin, Dalin raised his gun, but the creature just took hold of it, and shook it, like it was shaking a hand. It was either mocking Dalin, or really playful and innocent. Dalin took it as the former.
“Get away from me, you monster!” he screamed. Kaleb heard it over the channel, but whether the actual creature did, he wasn’t certain. Dalin pulled his gun back and aimed it at the blue humanoid.
“No Dalin!,” Kaleb yelled. This was not their mission.
Too late. The gun tore a hole right through the light blue abdomen, searing everything the energy touched. The creature collapsed, dead. The others looked horrified. Some jumped back into the sea, others rushed forward to really attack the humans this time. Kaleb found himself running towards them, not sure what he hoped to accomplish.
Foelhe was the next to act, Dalin shocked at what he had done. He shot another of the blue men from afar. It fell back and its twisted bones could be heard from where Kaleb was standing. With the help of his helmet, of course, but that noise haunted him. Foelhe was going to take out another when Kaleb pushed him to the side. They both fell down.
The others with Dalin took aim, hesitantly. The hesitation cost them. Somehow, a large wave reached them, pulling them down to the depths. They let go of their guns and tried scrambling out, but out of the wave came more of the blue things, grabbing them and preventing escape. As long as they had their armor on, they would be all right, but if the creatures found a way to break in, they would drown.
Kaleb watched helplessly as three of them disappeared. Dalin was running, not trained against this type of fear. Foelhe punched Kaleb off of him.
“What are you doing? We have to kill them, or they’ll take us down with them.”
Kaleb didn’t have an answer, but still couldn’t allow his companion to slaughter the natives. Their job was to explore, make contact, and set up a friendly base. Killing them all would put an end to that idea, permanently. They might have ended it already.
His visor was full of mud and pebbles, so he tried wiping it clean, but didn’t get much off. He did see Foelhe’s figure get up, though, and take aim again. “Stop it, Foelhe! We were to make contact, not come as conquerers.”
“Maybe these savages need conquerers,” Foelhe said. Kaleb imagined him sneering. “We were never going to lower ourselves to their level. We were going to civilize them. Make them in our image. They have nothing they can offer us.”
“What about control of the waves? Maybe they could teach us,” Kaleb tried to reason.
Foelhe snorted. “They weren’t controlling the waves, they saw it rising and swam in it. Now stop annoying me, I have to show them their place.”
Kaleb stood up, placing himself between Foelhe and the natives. His back camera showed that the natives stopped chasing Dalin and were looking at him curiously. Maybe he could convince these they came in peace.
“Kaleb, you are making a mistake. I didn’t come here to try to learn a language, or make peace offerings to these primitives. I came because it was the only way to get these suits and guns outside of a virtual sim. I want to hunt, and these violent monsters make the perfect practice.”
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You’re being recorded, you know.”
“And I’m fully justified in everything I do. I doubt the men up top will care enough to listen, anyway.” Foelhe waved his gun in Kaleb’s direction. Kaleb spread out his arms in protest.
“I am the senior companion,” Foelhe said. “You have to obey my orders. So get out of my way.”
Kaleb felt his suit struggle to obey, but he quickly overrode it. Foelhe’s influence wasn’t as complete as he thought.
“Fine. There are natives that want to kill me. You will not let me defeat them myself. So I must use force.” With that, he shot Kaleb.
It was a low setting, a warning shot, just stunning him. Fear entered into his mind. Foelhe was more dangerous than any animal on this planet. He had the mind of a killer, but had never had the chance to use it until now.
Foelhe was between Kaleb and the natives. Kaleb tried to focus his attention on himself. “You don’t want to do this, we can still make peace.”
Looking at him, Foelhe laughed. “You’re not going to change me, Kaleb. If you don’t want to be a murderer, sticking to some vague principle of rightness, do that. But I am not limited by your moral system.”
By then, some of the blue natives had crept up behind Foelhe. They looked ready to attack. Kaleb began to talk to Foelhe again, ready to say anything to distract him, but Foelhe ignored him, turned around, and started blasting the creatures.
The back camera.
The screams would haunt Kaleb’s mind for many sleepless nights, if he ever walked away from this. Taking out his own gun, he resolved to stop this. His finger reached the trigger, but the vague principles of rightness made him hesitate. The hesitation cost him, as Foelhe immediately turned around and shot him. This time at full power.
Kaleb breathed, straining. Finally he was able to feel the sand as it crept into his armor, now compromised. His bosses would not be happy with that. But it did have a unique texture. Foelhe’s voice was no longer coming through the speakers, but his movements showed his glee. Vision going double, Kaleb shifted his gun in the sand. Only one shot. No suit-aided aiming. It was all him.
Kaleb stayed silent as Foelhe’s screams mixed with the weeping natives. Dalin and the others were nowhere to be seen. Hopefully he had made some sort of difference. It was cold, even though it wasn’t supposed to be cold on the beach except at night. The sun was shining. It looked different through the atmosphere. Not so lonely.
Both Foelhe and Kaleb died around the same time. Only thirteen point eight five seconds separating them. Dalin and his subordinates remained down there, but Helman decided to let them fend for themselves for a bit longer. His interest in Foelhe and Kaleb occupied his mind right now.
He went to the pod. Gas steamed out as it opened. Waving his hand to clear it away, he looked in, seeing a familiar shape. Kaleb’s body looked like a baby’s, cuddled up in a fetal position, with only skintight underwear on. He looked cold. Wires were coming out of every part of him.
A meter away, another pod opened. Helman put himself between the two. Foelhe’s body looked much the same as Kaleb’s from this perspective, just that his skin was a bit lighter.
Slowly, the two of them awoke, fingers twitching, eyes moving before they finally opened. Kaleb let out a breath of relief. Foelhe clutched the edge of the pod, eyes open wide.
“Well, good news for both of you. You’re not dead.” He let them take that in, since he was sure they didn’t want to see him in an afterlife. “You never went down to the surface. That was a lie. You’re still here, in Zeta. We got you all dressed up in your environmental suits, and had you sit down in what you thought was the ribbon, then drugged you and brought you back here.”
“That sounds like a lot of work,” Kaleb said, words blurred by a trembling mouth.
“The suits walked here on their own and deposited you,” Helmen said with his tight smile. “This whole thing was a test. We needed to know how well you would handle it.”
“So did we pass?” Foelhe asked, anger lacing his voice like an iceberg.
“I think we all know the answer of who passed and who didn’t,” Helman said simply. Foelhe glared at him, but he didn’t even see it as he was looking at Kaleb. “Us men up top do listen.”
“So what happens now?” Kaleb asked.
“You get to go down with others who have passed, if you want. You see, none of our technology works down there, except for the most primitive devices that don’t rely on electricity. No one knows why that is, and we need someone to find out. Someone who will establish relationships and find the information we need,” he said, finally looking at Foelhe. “Not someone who will think he’s better than the sentients down there,”
Kaleb smiled. “Someone to make first contact.”

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  1. By First Contact Cover | Sage Eyes on 24 May 2013 at 8:47 pm

    […] The cover for the short story First Contact. […]

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