Zilly's War

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


Eve is alone in orbit around a distant planet, nicknamed "Zilly," which is home to an alien strain of plant life. Her existence is a solitary one, despite the comforts afforded by the design of the
ship, which includes an interactive A.I. meant for recreation. When the A.I. begins to make unexpected decisions on its own, threatening the delicate balance between life and death that exists on
the planet’s surface, Eve finds herself making discoveries both exciting and terrifying while her own memories of Earth blend with her reality.

Submitted: June 03, 2018

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Submitted: June 03, 2018

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It had been thirteen years since she first said “I want to go to space.” Sitting in the grass with her then-fiancé, looking up and daring to say what she’d never dared voice to her parents was a breath of fresh air, a step out of a dark room after days of sickness and seclusion. She’d never mentioned any ambitions to her parents – at least not while they were alive. She felt they’d be bitter at the mere mention of an existence that didn’t involve sweating, scratching and government subsidies just to maintain a livelihood above that of a lower caste Indian. Not that Eve or her family were Indian or from India. This was America, where dreams are blueprinted, manufactured, sold, and mass-produced before getting discarded, and that’s farther than a dream ever got in India. So Eve always had hope. The fact that her parents were still alive, somewhere, breathing their dirty air and eating their sticky food was somehow satisfying to her while she sat on the grassy hill with her then-fiancé, saying for the first time “I want to go to space.”

The Milky Way looks a lot different from up here, she thought. She remembered how painted, how flat it looked from the grassy hill; much like her life. It seemed so simple. Stars. Some blackness. But she was in it now. And what a bulbous, immense tangle! She’d only been in orbit for two months (whereas her predecessor had managed a seven-year-long stint before succumbing to the fevers – an ailment that was no longer a relevant fear thanks to the wondrous advances of medical science, all but reserved for Spacial Tech), but looking out the windows or glancing at the external monitors was a new experience every day. I use “day” only as a necessary term, of course. ZL-24971 had a day that approximated an earth-week, and even then the spacecraft was experiencing a wholly different sun-cycle, with 127 hours dedicated to exposure and the remaining 50 being spent in the shadow of the swampy giant. It was in these fifty hours of shade when she would spend the most time at the windows. The universe wasn’t flat from out here. It was nothing like she’d expected, nothing like the movies had shown her, nothing like what S.T.A.R.S. had prepared her for. And it was somehow new, somehow different every time she walked from the aft window to the cockpit. It was wonderful, but awful (in the contemporary “terrible” meaning of the word). Back on Earth people loved to complain about the mundane, how bitter, dull and repetitive life always ended up being. She’d been among the worst of the complainers. But people weren’t meant for anything different. Too much wonder was making her small, so very small. She didn’t like how small it made her. It gave her headaches.

Sometimes she wished she’d gone through with the wedding. She hadn’t wished it until now, and she often questioned her own sanity for wishing it. But there it was. Her grassy hill memory was comprised of her then-fiancé’s bearded face just as prominently as was that night’s starscape. It was a good face, she remembered. Not that she had any lack of human interaction onboard the Virgil. Her predecessor’s predecessor had been driven mad with loneliness after eight long (earth)years of orbiting, so S.T.A.R.S. had ensured a system be in place which would maintain the normal idiosyncrasies and idiocracies of a normal, healthy social life, should the Monitor choose to use the system. If the Monitor tended to be more of a loner, he or she could simply choose not to utilize that feature of the A.I. Eve tended to be more of a loner, but didn’t entirely forego the use of the system. The A.I. was fascinating to watch, even for someone who’d been in the habit of watching (real) people her entire life. The hologram projections (though “hologram” is a rather antiquated word for it – they have a new word for it now) moved naturally through the user’s setting of choice in the rec-room. By attaching the neural-link – a harmless magnet-like device that latched on gently behind her shoulders – she could experience the holograms as if they were physically present, physically affective. Naturally, the most common use of the rec-room was for sexual release. Eve had used it for this purpose six or eight times in her months in orbit. A safeguard was in place, of course, to prevent frequent use of the rec-room, but she didn’t mind. It was a pleasant pastime, but a little silly, despite the fascinating innovation behind the A.I.  It had been a matter of some debate whether the tech, in its early years, had been hacked or purposefully released (for testing purposes) to a group of savvy frat boys from M.I.T., where there were far fewer pregnancies reported in the sororities than ever before in the university’s history. But I digress.

She had far too much time to think, now. Years of training, schooling, drills over and over again had left her no time to use that squishy blob of impertinent tissue in her head. But now it had all the time in the world – and beyond it – to mull. Why had she been such an awful partner for her sweet, sweet Drew? Or was she painting a sweet nostalgic aura around him that didn’t exist? Should she have, at any rate, stayed tethered to her native rock? Would S.T.A.R.S. honor her contractual request to serve no more than five years before being relieved? After a while, they were thoughts without a voice; just unspecific, intangible wanderings. And those are the thoughts without solutions. Maybe she should use the rec-room more often. But no, she preferred staring out into space. It was better out here. She was alone. Or was she? At least on Earth, after her parents were dead, she had the comfort of knowing that she was alone, that nowhere were her parents still breathing their dirty air and eating their sticky food. They’d been gone. But now Eve was out here, she couldn’t be so sure they weren’t still somehow out there. There was just too much she didn’t know, that she couldn’t be sure of.

Earth-day 97 (hour 2328, as the official log demanded). The Virgil was coming round ZL-24971 (Zilly, as S.T.A.R.S. chief Emilio Duncini had lovingly nicknamed the planet, after the mistress who’d meant enough to him to cost him twenty years of happy marriage) into the full blaze of sunlight. Eve always hated this part. Despite the windows’ excellent UV-blocking, she imagined that it hurt her eyes. Mostly, she was pouty and angry that she couldn’t see the surrounding stars anymore. But the aesthetics were irrelevant and it was time to go to work.

The life-signs were never active at night. Scientists had been baffled from the first time, twenty years before, they noticed a large, swampy planet in a star system not far from our own that was not only capable of sustaining life, but most definitely did. It was life that only existed on one side of the planet at a time, however. Without sunlight, the life-signs would fade and die. The best theories the scientists could manage was an ordinarily fantastic one: Zilly cycled through entire life-cycles of ecosystems and self-contained evolutions with every rotation. As one side entered the light, new life would form, evolve, grow and spread, before dying again when it passed into darkness 88.5 hours later. It was fascinating, and the earth people wanted nothing more than to find out what exactly was powerful enough to create life once a week as casually as taking out the garbage on Mondays. When Zilly first made the news in 2027, theories were not in short supply. Some of the more progressive New Age thinkers determined that Zilly was God. The more attached of the non-thinkers went further to say it was humanity’s destiny to go to Zilly and become one with her. The conservatives disagreed with them. The religious right said there was no Zilly, while the more reasonable among them blamed technology for faulty readings, and the conspiracy-theorists protested that the government had known about Zilly for decades and was somehow responsible for the planet’s weekly mass-extinctions to prevent intelligent life from forming. Eve was always content with the Journal’s weekly, unbiased reporting, but her curiosity was enough to push her into the S.T.A.R.S. (Spacial Technology for Advancements in Revolutionary Science, if you’re the type to look deeper into acronyms), training program once she achieved her Masters in Engineering from M.I.T.

Her family never approved of her academic pursuits. They approved even less of the means by which she financially afforded them. Not that she ever stooped to the unsavory levels her mother had employed years earlier (levels of which Eve had loved to remind her regretful mother, further estranging her). There weren’t many options however. Eve’s own older brother had begun as a cocaine transporter, before he ended up prematurely nonexistent. Eve chose a path equally dishonest but far less physically dangerous. With her waitressing money she bought a personal computer, and between shifts spent her free time in the library learning code. Before long she was trading in hacked programs. Somehow or other, in a rare turn of luck, she’d come to the attention of a renowned (and now infamous) illegal distribution site, which hired her anonymously and paid generously for her work. Truth is, she never really understood or cared what she was doing or why it was relevant. But she’d seen a demand, and quickly devoted herself to learning how to supply it. In those days, A.I. was still being tested all across the board. S.T.A.R.S. hadn’t yet bought all the patents and placed a monopoly on the technology rife with securities and safeguards, so the world of A.I. was a hacker’s paradise. They estimate now that up to 30% of Americans and the same percentage of the Chinese who had access to computers had downloaded some A.I. or another, usually illegally. For the wealthy, it was a cheap way to power their A.I.-driven houses (for which they’d already paid fortunes, before realizing how much the A.I. installation would actually cost). For the middle classes, it was an excellent way to manage finances, schedules, tasks, habits – what better way to live a regimented and healthy life than to have a personal assistant who never demanded a paycheck or sick days? Of course, all that A.I. had been shut down with a sweeping lawsuit in 2034 which threw the world into minor chaos. The only households that weren’t affected were the poor ones like Eve’s, which had never had a reason to install A.I. in the first place. But Eve never stopped. The rumor in her sorority (where she was vastly unpopular) was that she had a hand in the S.T.A.R.S. tech hack which drove the frat boys into such a frenzy. Her then-fiancé, as soon as he became an ex-fiancé, purported that she had been contacted by S.T.A.R.S. itself. But she would never confirm nor deny that rumor.

Whatever the path, she had wound up in space. And she was mostly happy about that. Not that she had time to reflect on her own happiness, not when Virgil was in the sunlight. From the moment the sensors first began to pick up life signs, the work was grueling. Two hours of sleep was the most she could ever manage in a vaguely twenty-four hour period. Virgil was equipped with ten drones, each of which would be sent down to collect specimens in a cycle. Every two hours, Eve sent down a drone. It took two hours to reach the surface, and would spend four hours there collecting as many specimens as it could carry. It would return two hours later, dump its specimens into the retainers, get itself checked out by the A.I., then ready itself to go down again ten hours later. And Eve was the clock who made sure everything went according to schedule. The regimen must be maintained so that the progress of life on the planet could be accurately and consistently measured. If a drone was damaged, either by a misguided collision or an infusion of water due to a storm on the surface, Eve had to move the clock forward two hours for the rest of the drones, until the damaged drone was fit for duty. Eve was trained to be as clock-like as an A.I.  She thanked – well, not God, but whatever force was out there in the star-spotted darkness – every day that it wasn’t also in her job description to inspect the specimens. That would have been too much. It was barely a one-person job as it was. Instead, the specimens were painstakingly imaged by the A.I., the data was stored and sent back to scientists on Earth when the Virgil was back on the dark side of the planet, and the specimens were starved so they would die naturally before being jettisoned. All Eve had to do was make it all happen.

Why S.T.A.R.S. had never attempted a manned mission to the surface, Eve couldn’t guess. That sort of decision-making was so far above her (plentiful) pay-grade that she didn’t even know whether it was a decision at all. What she knew was that for nearly sixteen years the Virgil and the Aeneas before it had circled around Zilly, collecting the same specimens every two hours. It went like this: for the first ten or so hours, the specimens were just water, swimming with what appeared to be merging cells and amoebae. After that came something like moss, a furry, brownish substance that seemed to have an equal affinity for latching itself onto drones as it did to rocks. By Zilly’s noontime, there were growths that could best be described as mushy, spineless cacti. Evolution, after all, had not yet determined that the plants should need to protect themselves from any predatory forces. The planet was covered in these and other forms of extraterrestrial foliage. Eve had taken the liberty (which she was graciously allowed to take) of preserving one of the cacti in a pot of water. Normal H2O covered the majority of the planet’s surface, and her normal earth water seemed to facilitate the cactus’ continued life, though it developed no further at first. Most curious of all was the cactus’ survival. Two cycles around the planet had seen the soft plant survive to the point where Eve philosophically determined that she was responsible for an abominably long-lived specimen – an immortal among its peers. What it must have been like for that cactus, if it had known its fellow foliage had undergone extinctions of dinosauric proportions not once but twice over, Eve could not imagine. She started to wonder about her own planet, if maybe she’d strayed into a sliver of universe where time passed differently and the human race had progressed itself right into dust. But then she’d switch on the intercom and put her mind at rest. S.T.A.R.S was always there to tell her things were progressing as planned, and that somehow they were progressing in their understanding of the planet, and that for some unknowable reason, they still cared about those unchanging, unfaltering samples of the Milky Way’s shortest, least informative life-cycle. The furthest the cacti ever got was to grow into small, stumpy trees before mysteriously dying the moment they passed into darkness, and disintegrating soon afterwards.

Eve hoped that, at the very least, the scientists back on Earth were learning something about the nature of the death-cycle. Samples taken at night proved to be lifeless water, wholly devoid of even particles, once the leftovers of the rich daily life had fully disintegrated. Onboard Virgil, her pet cactus’ longevity, even without direct sunlight (or often light of any kind) proved that the foliage didn’t depend solely on constant UV rays to stay alive (though her attentiveness to feeding it must have helped). There was something wholly odd about the surface of the planet that called for so much death. What if Earth suddenly decided to behave accordingly? What if humanity’s future depended on constant motion to the west to escape from the impending death of night? It was a stupid thought, but not the stupidest of the thoughts a person has when she is as alone as a person can be. At least she had her cactus. It came to be better company than any she could find in the rec-room, because at least it was really alive.

Her log of the Zilly-day looked like all her previous entries. She was exhausted as she reported the usual: the day’s final specimens had consisted of a slushy decayed version of what had been thick, healthy plant stalk. Now she could relax; only a few drones needed be sent down at night, and the intervals were not as important. She might sleep – but her mind was too busy. Comfortable as the memory-foam bed was, no amount of comfort can ease a racing brain. What she needed was a conversation – no, what she needed was a fight – no, what she needed was sex. She had a rec-room, so she was free to engage in any or all of these activities in no particular order. She picked sex first.

She still didn’t know why, but she had insisted on having Drew installed as a character. It really made no sense: celebrities, sports stars, even some sneaky politicians had gone commercial and had their likenesses scanned into the S.T.A.R.S. system. When the rec-rooms went public (in the highly limited sense of the word “public”), the users (i.e. other celebrities, sports stars, and sneaky politicians) had their choice of some of the most beautiful people in the world. Eve had the option of a wild romp with Jimmy Magellan, a romantic evening with Dave Brant, or a wild romp with Dave Brant and a romantic evening with Jimmy Magellan. She always picked Drew though. Old, boring Drew with a bit too much belly above his belt. Being an employee of S.T.A.R.S. had its perks, and she’d been able to talk the developers into reaching out to Drew (by then a longtime ex-fiancé) and inviting him to take part in an “anonymous designing process” whereby he’d receive a ridiculous (but highly affordable given the circumstances) amount of money to have his body scanned for what S.T.A.R.S. claimed to be a motion-capture simulation for use in gaming. How Drew with his less-than-perfect physique (of which he was painfully but lazily aware) believed that a gaming company wanted his body was a mystery to Eve. Maybe he secretly knew the truth. It didn’t matter. Eve wanted him, and she got him. And here he was, in the room with her. She could feel his fingers, and the ingenuity of the programming made it appear he could feel hers. The experience was just as visceral as any she’d had on Earth. Maybe that’s why she chose Drew over soccer god Jimmy Magellan: never was Drew anything more or less than real.

It was fun. It was relaxing. At least she could sleep now. But really, why had she left him? She had really had a shot at a nice life. She was on the path to being a programmer, and he’d been a rare case of a successful writer. He understood her need for time and space. She understood his. Their pursuits meshed perfectly with their relationship. Her parents even liked him. Maybe that’s why she felt compelled to cheat on him. But not really. She had no idea why she’d felt compelled to cheat on him, but “compelled” was precisely the right word for it. Not that it mattered now; her cactus needed some fresh water. But it could wait until after she finally got some sleep.

****

For the rest of her life, she would never know why she never reported the strange development to her superiors on Earth. That question tortured her like a pebble in a shoe tortures a runner. If she’d just intercommed S.T.A.R.S. and told them what she found, Duncini would have surely affected a plan to install more bodies on Virgil, double the specimen intake and maybe, just maybe, send in a manned mission to the planet. But for some reason, she never told them what happened to her cactus, until it was too late.

After sleeping for twelve hours and more, she rolled over and opted to turn off the gravity in her room. It was a pleasant way to lift out of her bed, and a benefit of which she took full advantage in these slow intervals. She floated for a few moments, and then a few moments more before she decided to terminate her laziness. She cleaned herself and changed her clothes, all while hovering comfortably; this is a technology that earth houses should adopt soon, she thought. Better than any alarm clock. When she received her compensation, she’d look into having an anti-gravity bedroom installed in her house. Someday. For now it was time to actually change the cactus’ water. With a cup of reheated tea in her hand, she sauntered out of her quarters and into the aft chamber, where she preferred to spend her time since it had the largest window. The cactus appeared in the corner of her eye, but her devoted attention was first given to the expanse outside. She hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing the sunless void in more than 130 hours, so she took the opportunity to savor the view. Our own solar system was out there somewhere, she knew. It was visible; if she’d been more attentive, maybe she would have taken the time to count the stars until she found which was ours. But she didn’t want to think about home; the memories were a bother. But why did the cactus have spines now?

Indeed, it resembled an earth cactus now. Its entire surface was covered in small barbs, thinner than needles and just long enough to prove potentially painful. It was curious. Her first instinct was to determine what she had done differently with the cactus in the past days. She knew she’d taken it into the rec-room with her on the previous night-cycle, and forgotten it there while she alternately slept and indulged. But it had remained unchanged afterward. It had been sitting in the aft, near the window, for the whole previous day. She supposed the barbs could have developed at any time while she was busy with her drone duties. It had been, after all, its first full day of being in sunlight again. The skin of the cactus looked less damp and soft (“froglike,” she had thought before) as it had. She took the spoon out of her teacup and gave the plant a soft nudge. It was no surprise when the skin proved hard, and didn’t yield to the touch. What was surprising was the plant’s reaction. Although the skin did not shrink from the touch, the barbs surrounding the affected area turned, with a movement surprisingly rapid, and pointing toward the spoon, extended themselves. The longest of the barbs must have reached a full inch. Eve was startled, and her jerking reaction succeeded in freeing the spoon from the grasp of the clutching barbs. For a few moments the barbs remained protracted, pointing out at her, quivering ever so slightly with a sort of angry anticipation. Then they pulled back, returning to their previous length of maybe half a centimeter.

To say Eve was undisturbed would be an unfair assessment of the human condition. It was disturbing to find her only living friend in this hollow metal shell floating in empty space had evolved violent tendencies practically overnight. Not even the most advanced of the previously-discovered plant life had possessed anything even remotely resembling defensive qualities. Her womanly instinct was hurt that she’d been registered as a threat, which was the only explanation for the plant’s behavior. The child she had saved from extinction was growing up to hate its savior-mother. Perhaps ingratitude was a staple of life, no matter where in the universe it existed. Eve deserved it anyway after her own behavior on Earth. But she gave the cactus the benefit of the doubt, and proceeded to (very carefully) change its water. Maybe she could still cajole her space-friend into benevolence. But now these thoughts were getting ridiculous. She needed a conversation with a person.

Eve decided against using the rec-room, and opted instead to play a live game of chess with an equally-bored S.T.A.R.S. scientist. Frank had graduated along with her, and together they had climbed the employee ranks in what seemed friendly competition, though Eve still suspected Frank harbored some subconscious bitterness about their respective relevance in the ZL program. Regardless, he was an excellent conversationalist and a good enough chess player. He had a pleasant face to look at too. Their games would last hours sometimes, as they would wander off into conversations both nostalgic and philosophical. Mostly their topics were meaningless babble, or at least so they would have sounded to an outside ear. But there were no outside ears (aside from the necessary A.I. monitors which listened and watched at all times, just to ensure a safe status quo). Frank and Eve were scientists, and at the moment they were bored. What else was there to talk about?

Chess could only last so long, though. Eve beat Frank quicker than usual this time around. It had really been no contest. Maybe she should start playing the A.I. now, just to make things more interesting. Frank was still useful for his conversation though, and that was enough for now. Eve pleasantly wasted the remainder of her nighttime with sleep, rec-room use and contemplation, with the occasional interruption to send out or collect a drone. The water samples remained dead, and the cactus didn’t change at all. It was a sort of morbid curiosity on her part to make sure the cactus (to which she considered giving a name until indecision forced her to abandon the idea) was sitting in a prime place near the window to get the full benefit of the incoming sunlight when the day began. If the light was as instrumental to the plant life as it was supposed to be, then there was no knowing what developments and growths her pet might undergo during the next day-cycle.

****

Too soon, the day began. Eve couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the five-day work week back on Earth. A 50-hour night period was too similar to a 48-hour weekend. There is really no escaping certain inevitabilities.

The collections began as usual. In the golden dawn of Zilly, the water was swimming with amoebic life. Eve raced to keep up with the drones on their relentless movement back and forth to and from the planet’s surface. The trickiest part, of course, was the re-entry, every two hours, into the planet’s atmosphere. It was a wide atmosphere and Virgil was already within the outer limits of what might be called the stratosphere. It was thin, much less difficult to maneuver than that of our own Earth with its relatively soupy natural defense. Zilly must have been badly plagued by meteors, she often thought: why had she never observed any impact craters? At any rate, the drones had been constructed to withstand the atmospheric entry by retracting their limbs and turning their sensors inwards until they were spherical balls of metal. Eve lost all contact and control of the drones until they had passed into the safer zones of the lower atmosphere, at which point she had to be ready to resume control the moment they reopened. If she missed this mark by even twenty seconds, the drone might crash into the planet’s surface or disappear without a trace.

Eve was more tired than usual, which was probably why she focused solely on her duty and missed the first signs of abnormalities in the specimens. It was Frank who sent her a patchy message (daytime messages almost never worked at all) and asked her to take a look inside the tank, since the A.I. had been sending down an alert that something was amiss. Imaging data couldn’t be sent back to Earth during the day, so Eve would have to assess the situation herself.

It was still early; six hours into the 88.5 hour cycle, translating roughly to 7:00 am, Zilly standard time. Eve did the math far too often for her own good, trying to imagine what time of day any hypothetical workers would be experiencing down on the surface. She wouldn’t be able to wonder today, not after she saw was in the specimen retainers. By the time Frank had called her, there had been three collections taken. She walked into the lab, an area of the ship she generally tried to avoid. She was by profession a computer tech, not a biologist. Nevertheless, she had received the required schooling, and times like this called for desperate measures. The incident with the cactus had unsettled her, and her heart was pounding as she walked into the immaculately chrome room, half-imagining to find a bulbous set of eyeballs peering back at her from the specimen tanks. Perhaps it was best that her imagination got away from her, so that the truth would be less shocking. Upon switching on the imaging display, she was able to inspect all three containers. The first appeared, to the naked eye, full of clear liquid. The microscopic imaging revealed a swarm of amoebas. Nothing new to report there. The second retainer looked the same to the at a glance, but something different was occurring on the monitors. There were two distinct life forms taking shape. The usual mossy sprouts were joined now by a small, wormlike entity still microscopic in size. The third retainer was covered in visible moss, but the moss was not alone. Through the water was swimming, with decided consciousness, a host of worms. They were about the size of small parasites, though the micro-imaging revealed their seeming formlessness. There were no apparent mouths or breathing apparati. Eve could only assume they were able to feed via absorption. But feed on what?

Two hours later, the next retainer provided the answer. The worms were an inch long now, and the moss had turned into a lumpy sort of grass, the like of which she’d seen many times before. But two things were notably different: the worms had teeth, and the plants had barbs. A new life form had somehow been introduced to the planet, and the ancient native plants did not take kindly to them.

Eve was shaking slightly as she typed her report. She was more excited than scared. It wasn’t every day that a person found herself the very first to be aware of a new species. This was the biggest discovery since the first detection of life on Zilly. Eve knew she couldn’t take the credit for the discovery – it was merely a development in an already-discovered sequence – but she felt important nonetheless. She was a little scared too. Onboard the Virgil with her now was a host of conscious creatures, hungrily eating away the familiar plants. How big might they grow in the next days? It was Frank who expressed this last fear, and a frenzy of meetings became evident at the S.T.A.R.S. headquarters before the transmission was lost as the Virgil swung closer to the sun. Eve would need to wait for further orders, but in the meantime her routine went uninterrupted.

Until the A.I. alert went off. Not that she had the time to deal with it; she was already in a bothered state of mind, but her attention was required. It was another, irritating part of her job description. Upon further inspection she found that the aft room had been completely shut down. It was a procedure she knew was possible, and had been a part of multiple training exercises, but it had never happened before, to the best of her knowledge. Furthermore, it could have happened for many different reasons. The A.I., theoretically, would react accordingly to anything it deemed a threat to the safety of the Monitor, until it was able to repair the problem and return the room to status quo. Only the very minimal A.I. systems continued to function in the room in order to make the needed repairs, so Eve had no way to see inside or to determine what might have caused the blackout. She had override codes – maybe if the room was still shut down when night rolled around, she’d let curiosity get the better of her. But for now, she had worms to attend to.

By noon the worms had grown exponentially. Some had reached two feet at least. They might have been longer, but it was hard to tell; many of them were coiled up like tapeworms, spindly and tangled with one another. Their heads – mouths, rather – had grown quite fierce-looking. No eyes were visible as of yet, but there must have been hundreds upon hundreds of tiny teeth that filled their vacuum-like cavities. The plants had responded in kind. Their barbs were all over an inch, but extended themselves up to three times that length when aggravated. They were able to pinpoint the worms from a distance and prepare themselves prior to attacks, which the worms in turn mounted with fiercer velocity and increasing numbers. It would have been fascinating to watch, had it not been for the pressing circumstances of the situation. Eve could only leave her control station for minutes at a time to watch the developments.

And then the order came in from Duncini himself: cease and desist all drone operations immediately and wait for further direction. He must have used the combined A.I. power of both HQ and the Virgil to force through the transmission during the day – it was that important of a message. It was the first time in nearly sixteen years that the surveys had been interrupted. Even when the Virgil replaced the Aeneas at the beginning of Eve’s watch – a replacement made necessary by the new inclusion of the updated A.I. software – the transition had been made so seamlessly that the drone operations never missed a beat. It helped that the switch had been made at night as well. Now, Eve was shattered. If this was to be the beginning of the end for the ZL surveys, she would likely be held responsible by at least one of the major media outlets. Drew, from the comfort of his home, wherever that was, would laugh. No he wouldn’t – Drew was too good for that. But she would no longer hold a vindicating high ground, and that was painful. But for now, the mission wasn’t over.

She walked into the lab one more time. The last drones were coming home to roost, and depositing their monstrosities for her to view. Both flora and fauna alike had a nightmarish quality about them. Maybe earth-monsters would have looked similarly eerie to the eyes of an observing alien race. Maybe. But at least humans were able to evolve along with our own monsters. We came to know them until we were no longer horrified. But these monsters were unknown, and they were hungry. It was difficult to be able to tell who was winning; the worms tore away chunks of the cacti and processed them into pulpy soil just as quickly as the plants responded by shooting barbs like arrows, filling the water with a yellow liquid which Eve could only assume to be poison, and in a most disturbing display, catching the worms between two leaves in a manner similar to but far more grotesque than that of a Venus Flytrap. A botanist would have been in heaven. It was a pity she wasn’t one.

And then the A.I. began to sound the alarm, again. It had, of course, been programmed with half a million safeguards to prevent it from directly communicating with the Monitor. It was not superstition or fear of a singularity that necessitated these safeguards; it was simply pragmatic that the A.I. remain solely a tool. But under the present circumstances, the communication barrier cost Eve her piece of mind. She could check the alarm code and look it up in the manual, but that was too much work for such a momentous occasion. Instead, she waited to see what the A.I.’s next move was to be.

She was in the right place at the right time. The drones began to go to work in a way she never knew they were able. Still attached to their respective specimen retainers, they began to protract their delicate robotic fingers down into the liquid vats. Neither worm nor plant was a match for the metal claws, though it was entrancing to watch both creatures try and fight them off. But the claws had only one target: the plants. Ignoring the worms, the claws began to dismember the alien foliage. Some of the more developed of the monstrous cacti seemed to twitch and grasp at the sides of the retainers, displaying a sensation resembling pain. Eve could hear the “puffs” of the remains being jettisoned into cold space as soon as they were vacuumed up by the dutiful drones. The Virgil had declared war on the plants.

The biggest of the plants in the most recent of the retainers began to stretch and push back. The claws had a hard time penetrating its leathery skin. A claw or two even broke off trying to get a grasp on the vines and brambly leaves which passed for the bush’s canopy. Another of the drones, having finished its own work, lent an arm to help in the dismemberment process. But the cactus was most unhappy with this development, and decided on a new method of self-defense. It pushed up against the glass of the retainer and began to expand. A massive infusion of yeast could not cause a rise that fast; the plant must have been drastically reducing its own density in order to rise in sheer size. The initial density must have been huge, since the mass was still great enough to crack to the glass. The glass was bulletproof. But it cracked.

Liquid seeped out. The A.I. began to sound its alarm louder and louder as the drones all focused their attention on the shattering retainer. They weren’t fast enough for the plant’s survival instinct. With a crash and a wet plop, the tangled blob of green landed on the lab floor. Eve didn’t know what she should do. This wasn’t in the simulations.

Hands grabbed her. Invisible hands. They took her arms and started to pull her. Voluntarily but involuntarily she walked out of the room, following the dogged tug of those arms. She stepped fully out of the lab. Looking behind her, the last she saw was the retainers, still full of wriggling worms, sealing themselves off. The worms at least were safe. The giant plant was on the floor, heaving and writhing. The lab doors closed. She heard the vacuum activating. She knew the A.I. had emptied the room into space.

Even though she was a little put-off at first by the intruding hands, she knew what they were. A moment of reflection cleared her head and reminded her of what she’d learned the Virgil was capable. The neural link, which allowed the A.I. to control her nerve endings in the rec-room, was also contained in a light gas stored in canisters near the air vents. In a case of emergency, were she to prove non-responsive to emergency protocols, the Virgil could activate the gas and physically, through nerve manipulation, move her from danger. It was a state-of-the-art security system, though this was the first time, to her knowledge, it had been used in the field. It was some comfort to know the ship was so attentive. It was less comfort to wonder why the ship had chosen to butcher the greenery yet preserve the hideous – arguably more hideous than the cacti – worms from hell. But the actions of the Virgil, as she had been taught time and time again, were above her pay grade. Even Duncini might not understand why the A.I. did the things it did.

Afternoon on Zilly was passing by. For the first time in orbit, it was daylight and Eve had nothing to do. She sat in the cockpit, the room with the second-largest window, and gazed down at the planet’s surface. What war was going on down there? What monsters had evolved, with the sole intent of devouring one another, in the hours since the abominations from the lab had been collected? She wished now the Virgil had some sort of monitoring technology that would allow her to take a closer look at the surface. It did. She just didn’t have access to it. And to think that, just days before, she had truly thought herself the foremost person of importance on, or from, the planet Earth. It hit her now that she was in a vessel over which she operated no control. Her job was not to explore: it was to monitor. An A.I. could do that. Why didn’t the A.I. do that? Why was she there at all? The Virgil was perfectly capable of doing her job, and it didn’t demand a salary.

At any rate, she could only wonder about the ongoing turmoil on the surface. What did she know? She knew that Zilly was old. It was older than Earth by several billions of years. She knew that there were no signs of any previous types of life, or anything of any kind resembling the wormies. Was this the first time they had appeared on this ancient swamp? Had the drones failed to properly sterilize prior to entry, and brought with them some kind of contaminant? Had Virgil, and by extension Eve as the Monitor, ruined humanity’s chance of truly understanding the complex life cycle of an alien planet? All these conclusions were far too early to be made, she decided. After all, the dark side of Zilly had always, for the last sixteen years, wiped out any trace of its daily life. Given its ability to erase the past so entirely, maybe the planet had experienced countless introductions of new species. Maybe the next morning would bring a clean slate. Once the worm-infested side of the planet passed entirely into shadow, maybe everything would return to swampy normality. Normality. She should have stayed on Earth.

Eve was homesick. She didn’t know why, or even what for. There was nothing about Earth she missed, and nobody in particular. It was the sense of abandonment a college student feels after leaving a school she despised. It was the sense of loss after a distant, unloved relative dies. She didn’t like being out here. It was never quite real, and people gravitate towards the tangible.

****

It was that night that she decided to try her luck re-entering the aft. She missed her pet cactus. For all she knew, the Virgil’s lockdown had flushed the plant right out into the cold. But at any rate the lockdown hadn’t ended yet, she was curious, and she’d been given override codes. Of course she had. That’s why she was here. The A.I. was still new.  S.T.A.R.S. knew better than to give the Virgil total control of the mission. It was time Eve exercised her authority.

It was only a few minutes before she’d typed in the override commands and unlocked the aft. Readings were normal: it was safe for her to proceed inside. At least, as far as the air was concerned, it was safe. Upon physically entering the breached door, she was faced with a different reality. It was a jungle. The cactus, her pet plant which had been so small and fragile, was as big as the room. The window, her favorite opening to the mystery of the void, was blocked. The walls were covered in the heaving, brownish vines, each bristling with terrifying barbs. There were traces of frost throughout the room, and some of the extremities of the leafy vines were cracked, blackened, broken. The glance told Eve what had happened. The Virgil had locked down the room and, in order to remove the threat of the cactus, had attempted to eject it. But it had been too late. The vines had taken hold of the inner aft. Survival appeared to be a trademark of these reticent weeds, and even the A.I. couldn’t beat them.

But the Virgil hadn’t given up. The design of the ship was really magnificent, in that the drones were able to dock at openings with access to the air vents of any room. They had lifted the preserved worms – there were still hundreds of them after the battle of the lab – and dropped them through the vents of the aft. It was a seething, feasting horde she saw in front of her. The soily refuse of the worms was thickening on the floor, as the vermin grew fatter and fatter, larger and longer. For the first time in human history, Eve experienced a sight which was wholly otherworldly. Nothing recognizable remained within her frame of vision. For the first time, she admitted that she was frightened. She said it out loud to herself, and that was the worst sign of all.

Trusting in the Virgil, she shut the door to the aft and fled down the hall. She found herself stumbling toward the privy. It wasn’t a conscious knowledge that she needed to vomit, but her body knew better. Her mind knew what she’d seen, but her eyes, her organic receptacles and her fleshy brain, didn’t know what to do with the grotesque sight.

“I want to go to space.” She’d been lying. She had never really entertained the notion. Truth be told, she probably would have been happy working as a programmer for the rest of her natural life. Programming was numbers. It was cold and safe. Those words about space just seemed like the right thing to say to Drew, that night on the grassy hill. Grass. Clingy and wet. What if the Earth’s vegetation evolved to the level of ferocity it had achieved on Zilly? Eve didn’t really want to go back to Earth, now. She abhorred the very thought of stepping onto a ground filled with organic, seething life. The cold metal and comforting distance of Virgil’s A.I. was home, now. At least it couldn’t grow teeth before her eyes.

Why hadn’t Earth called? It suddenly occurred to her that, in the hours – at least twenty-four – since the lab disaster, there had not been a single call from S.T.A.R.S.  It was odd. Given the full rarity of the present situation onboard Virgil, a multi-billion dollar investment on the part of an international coalition putting its faith in S.T.A.R.S., they should have called to ask her for a status update. It wasn’t until now, when night was falling, that the A.I. could have transferred hard data, complete with DNA information and 3D imaging, back to Earth.

Having washed the remnants of vomit off her face and changed her clothes, she rushed back to the cockpit. The intercom was on; she hadn’t missed any calls. She reached for the controls and dialed in her personnel code and Earth’s destination code. The A.I. screamed in alarm. That sound was growing tiresome. She wished she could override the whole system. Perhaps she could, but not just now.

The alarm code: 90193-9318465. It was a lot of meaningless numbers, and the manual was over 1200 pages long. But this time it was worth the effort of looking up the code. Thank – not God, but someone, somewhere – that S.T.A.R.S. still insisted on paper manuals. What if A.I. decided to lock her out of the digital system? She thumbed through the pages. The glossary alone was nearly 50 pages. Down below, Zilly was turning. It was slow, but she was turning. Good, Eve thought. The worm-infestation would soon be frozen, decimated, obliterated. Back to square one. Ah, here’s the code.

“Threat detected at destination code.” Interesting. She tried the destination code again. It was definitely the S.T.A.R.S. HQ. She got the alarm and the code again. They’d given her a backup code, to use in last-resort situations. The code supposedly led straight to the desk of Duncini himself. She tried it. Got the same alarm response.

Eve was a professional, if at nothing else, at troubleshooting. A process of elimination would tell her what the A.I. was blocking, and why. She had two more destination codes to try: one led to the S.T.A.R.S. emergency bunker near D.C. That was no good. Her last code would connect her with the International Space Station, floating not far from Earth. It was the closest she’d ever come to praying, as she hit the connect button on the intercom. The call went through.

The call went through. The threat detected by the A.I. was on Earth.

The operative on the I.S.S., a kindly gentleman named Petrov with a thick Eastern European accent, had been notified to expect a call from her. S.T.A.R.S. had been trying to contact her for the past day, and the I.S.S. had joined in trying to dial the Virgil. Since all the A.I. was connected, it was refusing to allow calls to reach her due to a detected threat. While S.T.A.R.S. was able to hack around the A.I. on their end, the Virgil itself, working in accord with the A.I. at HQ, was refusing to take the calls. Eve would have to hack it from her end as well.

It was all very complicated, but Eve understood. The A.I. was new, but it was also a quick learner. It assumed that protocols pertaining to personnel safety and transportation should also extend to communication. It was a simple programming oversight. Eve wished the A.I. had been set up to communicate directly with her, since such confusion might have been avoided that way. But those designations were above her pay grade.

She thanked Petrov and asked him to pass along her bizarre report to S.T.A.R.S. Then she set about the intercom hack. It required a more complex workaround than she had foreseen, but she’d been hired precisely for her abilities to perform such tasks. The downside was, transmissions unassisted by the A.I. would not have a chance of reaching their destination at all during daylight hours. It was the lesser of two evils. She finished the hack. The alarm shut off, and she put the call through to HQ.

Frank rushed to answer the call. He was surrounded by thirty or so high-ranking S.T.A.R.S. operatives, and the video screen showed several people in suits whom Eve did not recognize. Duncini was with them.

An interrogation followed. It took every ounce of Eve’s professionalism and composure to keep herself from collapsing from sheer exhaustion. She wanted to yell. No, she wanted to cry. Mostly, she wanted to punch someone. No, she wanted to fuck someone. The rec-room was waiting. Why couldn’t she just run to the rec-room now? She couldn’t. Even if she wanted to run from the meeting, or conceal some bit of information from her superiors, she wouldn’t have been able to. The men in suits were on fire. From seven light-years away, via a miniscule intercom screen, the men managed to convey an authority and power as if they were in the room with her, restraining her, not letting her leave until she’d answered their questions. These were the men who ran S.T.A.R.S. It wasn’t Duncini. These were the men who probably ran a lot more than S.T.A.R.S. But this is the only time she’d ever see them, and it was enough.

The conversation wrapped up simply enough. Eve was to deactivate the Virgil A.I. completely. All controls were to be handled manually. She would collect specimens the following day as usual, and send the imaging data back herself, worms notwithstanding. Eve didn’t have a say in the matter. It was above her pay grade.

Shut down the A.I. Kill Virgil. Or, at least deactivate him until the technicians back home uploaded a new software update. Who knows how long that could take. The programming team had been the best in the world – she would know – and they’d still overlooked the flaws which led to Virgil’s overreactions. Was it really overreacting, though? Duncini and the suit-men hadn’t seen the monstrosity in the aft. She had.

At any rate, she had to deactivate it. No A.I. meant no rec-room. No daytime calls. She would be truly alone without Virgil. Her plant, which despite its monstrous growth still had a place in her heart of womanly hearts, was probably devoured by now. The A.I. had gotten that right.

No. She needed the emotional health boost of the rec-room. HQ would understand that. It was for the mission. Right now, Eve knew she was just short of clinically insane. She hadn’t let on during her teleconference, but she could feel it. And the headache was back. She thought those had gone away for good. She needed the rec-room. Then she would turn off the A.I.

She played a few games of chess against the computer. She lost all three. That made her happy. Then she selected to fight against MMA champion Reggie Bernard. She fought like a wild thing; an onlooker might not have recognized her movements as those of a human. She lost. The A.I. was good.

Then she selected Drew. She didn’t know what it was. She reflected that she’d never selected anyone else. She was monogamous when it came to her A.I. affairs. Why couldn’t she have been monogamous in real life? It didn’t matter. This was real life. Nothing was more real than the rec-room. Earth was just a writhing ball of organic, evolving men in suits with teeth. Now she was confused. Maybe the rec-room wasn’t clearing her head after all. Maybe it was making her headache worse. She just wanted to look out the window. But the aft was full of decaying worm shit and the cockpit had just been home to her interrogation at the hands of Earth’s monsters. She best clear her head now with Drew. She set the rec-room to Grassy Hill at Night, and took her clothes off.

But Drew didn’t undress. What a clever A.I. It learned what Eve liked. It knew she always liked to be the one in control. She went to pounce on Drew, as she often had back on Earth. But she’d forgotten to mount the neural link, and she fell right through the hologram and collapsed on the floor.

Eve laughed. She’d never laughed so hard, or so cruelly. The A.I. was right, maybe. Life was the threat. It grows faster than logic can control. There’s no reason to it that a process or a machine can understand. A.I. is the universe. A.I. is Zilly. A.I. – Eve wished she was too. Then she wouldn’t feel. Then she wouldn’t be incomprehensibly sad that she’d jumped onto Drew, a man she’d already left behind, in hopes that he’d catch her and together they’d tear off his clothes and roll together in the sweet, harmless earth grass, only to find he was less real than a neural-manipulating hologram. He wasn’t there at all.

Drew turned around. It wasn’t Drew. Eve knew that already, but it was a realization heightened by the look in his eyes. The A.I. was usually better than this. It had always gotten the spark in Drew’s eye right. But now, well, there wasn’t a look in his eye at all. He just stared at her. And she was scared, for the second time in one day.

She ran out of the rec-room, not even bothering to put her clothes back on. This was too much. The A.I. was just messing with her now, trying to make her life miserable. Maybe it had evolved too. It was trying to get rid of her in the same way it had gotten rid of the plants. Maybe next it was planning to release the worms on her.

Drew followed her. She didn’t even know the holograms were capable of existing outside the rec-room. Had the ship evolved too? It didn’t matter. The hologram of Drew had walked methodically out of the rec-room (all while maintaining Drew’s characteristic saunter), and was coming nearer to her. She had to shut down Virgil. She knew he could activate the neural link even without the portable device, and any minute it could drag her kicking and screaming into the worm-infested aft. This was her mother’s way of getting back at her; yes, somewhere out here in the cold darkness, her cold, dark mother had been waiting for her ever since she died. And now she was getting her revenge.

Eve tried to reason with herself. She had to stop her thoughts. She had to focus, otherwise she’d go crazy before the A.I. even got to her. But whether it was one or the other, she was too late. Even in her half-crazed state, Eve knew the protocols. She knew Virgil wasn’t supposed to communicate directly with the Monitors. What else could be happening? Not that she was surprised at this point by the bypassing of a safeguard by the computer. Had she taught Virgil how to hack? Whatever the case, Drew was speaking directly to her.

“THREAT: Specimen 0974. REPORTED BY: 24971.”

“THREAT: Specimen 0974. REPORTED BY: 24971.”

It wasn’t something Drew, or any version of Drew, would say. But it was Drew’s voice, coming from the projection of Drew. The words must have repeated themselves ten or a dozen times. Eve’s fingers were on the control panel, and she was flying through commands as quickly as her shaking figure could muster. She hadn’t heard that voice in more than seven years. She’d deliberately opted to install the physical hologram without the voice; she’d tend to get less annoyed with him that way.

The final command was done. A swift tap on the ENTER key made her spectral ex-fiancé vanish. But that wasn’t all. Lights all around the ship blinked steadily – some went out completely. Humming in some of the machine rooms slowed to a choppy whirr. Virgil was off.

How had the A.I. known to use Drew’s voice, when she hadn’t asked for its installation? That was easily answered. The designers who scanned Drew likely recorded him as well and programmed him as a package, then when the imaging was passed along to the Virgil’s engineers, they’d installed the whole program and muted the voice. But Eve, why was she asking those questions? She realized how far off track she had gotten. She was surprised at herself, really. It had been with confidence that she’d passed the psyche examinations.

Specimen 0974 was, of course, the cactus and its ilk. To her it was no new information that the Virgil had taken a dislike to the spiny foliage somewhere along the line. But why not the worms? Anyway, the real interesting bit had been the A.I.’s mention of the REPORTING. To find out who had declared the cacti a threat would answer a lot of her questions. Did S.T.A.R.S. HQ already have the answers? That would depend whether the A.I. had communicated with them too. Perhaps it had. Perhaps HQ hadn’t liked what it had to say, hence prompting the order to shut it down. Why had she shut it down? The A.I. was the only person she knew she could trust.

She was searching the log for the mysterious “24971.” Was it the scientists back at HQ? Could it have been a third-party? No. The ID didn’t correspond to any of the known and logged personnel. Just for good measure and peace of mind, she verified her own ID. As she suspected, it was “72604.” Good.

24971. It had taken her too long, she thought, to finally realize what it was. The moment she did, her hand instinctively rose and slapped her on the head in frustrated enlightenment. ZL-24971. It was the planet.

So that was settled. But no questions had been answered, really. Maybe the A.I. had lost its mind. Could computers succumb to space fever? In any case, Virgil claimed to have been taking orders from the planet. From Zilly herself. Maybe now wasn’t the best time to be referring to the old girl by her nickname. God had become personified only after man gave him a name.

She dared not power the A.I. back on. Not now. Not even to satisfy her nearly-infinite curiosity about its claim. It might take hours, days even, to boot up again anyway, during which time there would likely be malfunctions and misfires throughout the many computerized facets of the ship. Who knows what could happen. Shutting down the A.I. had been a last-resort drill. HQ must have had some excellent reasons for doing it. She wished she knew what they were. Fuck pay grade.

Maybe she should call HQ. They had been strangely silent again for the past few hours, and the morsel of information she had for them now was sure to turn the S.T.A.R.S. complex into even more of a buzzing den of programming hornets than it probably already was. For some reason – a reason above and beyond her present state of undress – she chose not to call. Drew – the A.I., that is – had chosen her to speak to. Surely, if the system had decided to break protocol and communicate directly, it could have sent messages to her, to HQ, to the ISS, to DC… But it didn’t. Or, probably not. If it had, her intercom would have sounded off several times already. But it didn’t. The lifeless Virgil was silent now, and Eve was his only companion. And she was naked.

****

Going about her personal routine in the lifeless ship was different. She’d been trained, but a few months had been enough to establish a habit. She wasn’t used to opening doors by herself, turning on the water for her shower, even digging her own clothes out of the drawer. She’d been spoiled. Maybe Virgil was the caring mother she never had and, like the ungrateful child she was, Eve had put her down. She hoped the upgraded software wouldn’t destroy whatever consciousness the A.I. had developed. Consciousness was not the right word. Identity wasn’t either. There wasn’t a word for it, and she knew the upgrades would likely require at least some tinkering with the root programming, enough to transform the Virgil’s mind into something new entirely. That thought made Eve even more nervous than the thought of switching the ship back on. At least the old A.I. was an enemy she knew. And probably not even an enemy at that. But she had so many questions for him.

She was bored. The rec-room was dark (not that she foresaw ever using it for that kind of release again – the A.I.’s intrusion into her private time with Drew had reminded her just how unprivate it really was). The night seemed to drag on for weeks. As commanded, she sent down a few drones during the night. The samples they brought back were, as expected, empty. Lifeless. The battle of Zilly was over. But what new strife might be introduced in the morning? The steady routine of life and death, so long consistent, had been interrupted. Would it return to the status quo the next morning? Eve didn’t know, but she wanted nothing more than for the morning to come sooner than it was.

Why had S.T.A.R.S. been so long insistent on studying the flora of Zilly – no, ZL-24971? Nothing had changed in sixteen years. That’s what every single report from every observer, every scientist, every disgruntled ex-employee and whistleblower had read. Why continue spending billions of dollars every year to find out what they already knew? Again, fuck pay grade. Eve had a right to know at this point. It was on her watch that the worms had appeared. It was on her watch that Virgil spoke, and it was on her watch that the routine was interrupted. She was scared, and for that she deserved a bonus. Not the financial remuneration she knew she’d be entitled to, but a knowledge bonus. She wanted to know why.

Staring out into space didn’t help. The answers were there, somewhere. Every answer was out there for the taking, for someone with a long enough reach. It was too bad no reach would ever be long enough. Space is infuriating. Everything is infuriating, because everything is space.

A cup of tea and some Chopin slowed her mind. She liked this better than the rec-room. Why didn’t she do this more often? She should probably call back to HQ at least once more before the day starts. They may have some further instructions, or at the very least some advice for what promised to be the most kinetically stressful day yet. She should probably get some sleep, in fact. The thought actually made her laugh. Sleep was not within the realm of possible actions for her right now. Even if she were not eagerly anticipating the planet’s dawn, the memory of the pet monster in the aft was not a pleasant one to sleep with.

She wanted to see what the aft was looking like now. The door was still fastened shut; no stems or oozing worm-goo had made its way out from the door. Of course not. What would be the use of a door that could let through leaves and bugs? The door opened. The first thing to hit her, before the sight, was the smell. It was like a, well, there was no use for making smell comparisons. Eve certainly didn’t latch on to any metaphors. It was a foul smell, and the worst she could remember ever having smelled. She knew she’d need to shut the door and jettison the room again. She wished the A.I. was around to do that dirty work.

The sight that greeted her was tamer than the smell. The monstrous brown climbing mass that had been her sweet cactus was completely gone. Not a vine on the window. Not a leaf left on the floor. It had been reduced to a pile of damp soil. Her emotional attachment to the plant had diminished by now, so no loss was felt too tragically. The real mystery was that of the worms. They were gone. A single glance at the vents told her that the A.I. had at least made sure to lock them tight after feeding in the vermin. The worms had not escaped, they had disappeared.

Had she been undergoing a test beneath her superiors, Eve would have taken pains to collect samples from every corner of the room. For all she knew, this was the last remaining battlefield of its kind in all of existence, and the casualties must be priceless for the cause of science. But science was not Eve’s priority as she shut the door and went to the cockpit to vent the room into space. The ship was clean now, at least.

****

Why had she not received any calls? It was strange, now that she forced herself to wonder about it. She should put in a call. She could see the rimlight reaching slowly around ZL-24971, and it would soon be too late for any calls. She switched on the intercom and dialed the destination code.

No answer. The call had gone through. There was simply nobody on the other end to receive it. It wasn’t like S.T.A.R.S. to leave the intercom unmanned. Maybe Frank had stepped away for a moment or two. No, excuses were ridiculous, in this situation. It was a rare case where William of Ockham, had he walked in at that moment holding a razor, would have demanded the very simplest scenario was also the worst. Something had gone wrong at HQ.

What was it that could have possibly gone wrong? Not that the specifics mattered to Eve at this present moment. This was not an eventuality that was trained for. She was supposed to always count on S.T.A.R.S. being there to help her through thick and thin. Were something to happen to her, a standby replacement was just a few weeks’ journey away. This was backwards. Had S.T.A.R.S. filed for Chapter 11, thrown all its goods in cardboard boxes and vacated? It was as likely a possibility as any other at this point. Could they not have spared a moment to put in a call to Eve and tell her she’d be stranded in the dark? She was beyond frightened now. She was angry.

She had never liked people very much. Maybe that was the root cause of her pursuit of the stars. Now that she stopped to ponder her relationship with people, she downright hated them all. Even Drew had been a conveniently-placed hate target. The worst part about being alone out here was the lack of people to hate. She couldn’t focus. She should have stayed on Earth. Not that there was anything inherently detestable about dying alone in a foreign star system, with a uniquely intelligent planet as her only companion. The idea was attractive, even. But she knew she’d go crazy long before she died. That was not attractive.

She prepared for the day to start. One by one, she switched the drones to “on.” One was missing. She counted again: nine drones. With their frenzy of activity during the battle in the aft, maybe one of them had strayed off and failed to return before the A.I. was switched off. No matter. Nine would be more than enough to perform the day’s collections.

She poured herself a strong cup of coffee. Usually it was tea, but today she knew coffee would be required. Each drone, usually piloted by the A.I., would now need to be hand-controlled and given specific instructions, via modular code, in order to perform its tasks. She didn’t want to lose any more drones, so the responsibility was significant. With the Virgil beginning to situate itself over the sun’s encroaching penumbra below, she let fly the first drone.

There was no time for thinking for the next few hours. This was a relief; her mind had been far too busy for her own good, and some time spent in regimented task-mode was the healthiest thing for her. Nothing noteworthy happened for the first four drone flights. Weather on the planet was unusually calm. What she wouldn’t have given to be able to experience it firsthand.

Then the first drone came back. She took a moment to step away from the controls and inspect the retainers. The lab, despite the earlier mishap, was fully operational: the A.I. had swept it clean, replaced the broken retainer, and removed all traces of plants and worms prior to the shut-down. And now the first retainer was being filled with the contents of the first drone. Eve looked into it with child-like trepidation: this was the first day-sample to be taken since the vast destruction that must have happened the night before. Against all reasonable hope, she hoped that the usual microscopic amoebae – pre-evolutionary harmless cacti – would be the sole occupants of the watery enclosure. But she had hoped wrong. Instead of a swimming pool of life, she saw nothing at all.

A cursory glance at the retainer wasn’t enough, she knew. But she knew, somehow, that it was accurate. To make sure, she cranked the microscope to full power and examined the water. There was nothing at all to be seen. The liquid was just as empty and lifeless as the samples had been during the night. But this was only the first sample of the day. Maybe the others would prove different. She had to man the controls.

But the next two specimens proved to be equally empty. Eve knew it was fruitless, but she continued to send down the drones. Five, seven, fifteen expeditions she sent down. Noontime on the planet was quickly approaching. But there was nothing to be found.

The only life known to exist in a world beyond our own had been wiped out. And it happened on Eve’s watch.

After twenty drone cycles, she gave up. If exhaustion was to blame, it was at least subconscious. Eve knew there was no point in digging and digging, prolonging hope that she’d find something that wasn’t there. The planet below was lifeless.

But how? Her initial reaction had been to blame herself for somehow being at fault. But this was a planet, an entire eco-system running through full evolutions of nature at regular intervals for millennia. It was bigger than Eve. Drones had been going to and from the planet’s surface for sixteen years. Nothing had changed in all that time, least of all during Eve’s watch, with the brand-spanking-new Virgil demanding a 300% higher standard of sterilization and safety protocols of its landing drones. The contamination of the surface, while an anomaly, was not caused by Eve or her ship.

She was happy this thought had struck her. Now her mind could be put to a more restful state than it had been all day. Disaster may have struck, both for her and for Zilly, but it wasn’t her fault. Now she could drink some tea.

The aft was peaceful now. The smell was gone, and the window wide and clear. She dragged a chair in from her personal quarters (the previous furnishings of the aft having been jettisoned), and looked out. It was a good view of the planet. She’d rather look at this than the outlying star-speckled darkness. It wasn’t often – it was never – that she had been able to sit here during the daytime. Zilly was gorgeous. Purple was the closest color she could think to use for description. Mauve, maybe. She wasn’t an artist or a color expert. So, purple.

She realized that the planet had never looked quite like this before. Perhaps it never had. The sunny side had always been covered in a gradient of brownish-green, thickening on its way toward the dusk. She remembered the first time she’d seen a color image of the planet, a lucky shot by the wandering Spartacus I. It had become the single most seen image in human history; nobody could walk into a coffee shop, a church, a prison or a mechanic shop without seeing it via article, clipping or share-screen. It had served as a constant reminder that, despite the infinity of unknown facts about Zilly, humanity had indeed scratched the surface of something that had always been surmised but never known. But now Eve looked at a different Zilly. A dead Zilly. But it was still beautiful. Maybe even more beautiful. The planet seemed more natural this way, at ease even, without the busy rises and falls of life on its surface. Calmness took over both the planet and the ship.

It took her a few hours to realize why this happened. Calmness, after all, is too intangible a concept to intuit. There was an explanation and she knew it. It took her a few restless walks across the ships, a few looks at the readings in the cockpit, before it struck her. There’d been a vibration before. She hadn’t noticed it; nobody had noticed it. You don’t realize how bumpy a road is until you hit a smoother one. While the vibration had always been too imperceptible to notice, it was clear to Eve now that the Virgil was sailing smoother than she ever had before. If Eve was going to spend the rest of her life up here, at least it would be comfortable and quiet.

****

She tried to make contact with Earth again. As expected, since the ship was soaking in the full light of the sun, the signal was lost immediately. She’d need to wait until night to try again. In the meantime she was impatient. Answers were there, nearer than they had been before. She didn’t need to look out into the darkness to find them; they lay on the sunny, bright surface below her.

The surface. No. She knew she must not let her mind wander. There are breaches of protocol, there are violations of instructions, and finally there is going to the surface.

She wouldn’t go to the surface. There was no reason to do that. Not that the ship wasn’t equipped for it. Yes, she had explored every corner of the Virgil to which she had access. Despite its complete absence in the training, the manuals, and the contingency plans, there was a suit, locked in one of the fire stations near her quarters. It wasn’t an emergency suit – she knew what those were. No, the tanks, the mask, the anti-gravity pressure valves – it was a landing suit.

She was restless. The ship was long, but not long enough to satisfactorily pace. There was no intercom, no rec-room, no drone activity. She still had nearly forty hours to wait before night came, at which point the only change of pace would be the ability to attempt a call to Earth. So restless. Maybe she could still save the planet. Not that the planet needed saving, but the surface life did. How? That was a different question entirely. But was it worth contemplating?

Before she could fully develop an opinion, let alone a solution, the A.I. came back. Eve hadn’t done anything. She’d been pacing aimlessly. But there were the lights, the whirrs, the controlled breathing of the ship. But how? She had shut it down. It had nothing with which to boot back up.

She must have lost her mind. Is this what insanity felt like? Impossible, incongruous things happening around her, in spite of her most reasoned attempts at preventing them? No. That’s not insanity. That’s life. The insane are unable to question their insanity. At least, that’s what she’d been told.

That’s why she was neither surprised nor doubtful of her senses when she saw Drew walk specter-like through the door of the rec-room. If anything, she felt comforted, and a little self-important again. At least the ship considered her worthy of communication. A status report would be refreshing. And Drew’s face was good to look at.

Just as she would have typed commands, she began to shout at the A.I. She probably looked insane, so as usual it was good that there was nobody to see. “Status. Report. Status. Report” was all that she could think to say. Could the computer recognize voice commands as it could code? It was certainly worth trying. The A.I.-Drew stood and faced her, dutifully. Drew had always put on that dutiful dog face when he tried to make her happy. It made her angry. She was angrier with the A.I. than she’d ever been with the real Drew. How the hell did it manage to boot?

At last it offered an explanation. Drew’s mouth opened, and two simple words emerged. “Mission. Complete.”

There was silence. It would not have been an especially eerie silence were it not for the lack of heretofore unnoticed vibrations. Where had they been coming from, anyway?

Again she asked: “Status. Report.” Again the response: “Mission. Complete.”

She wanted more. What mission was complete? She demanded “SOURCE.” “COMMAND.” “COMMAND CODE.” “SOURCE CODE.” “COMMAND PROMPT.” She rattled off fifty or more combinations of these commands. Drew stood silent. He seemed content at least.

She ran for the console. If Drew wouldn’t talk to her, she’d find out what she wanted to know the old-fashioned way. First, she opened up the A.I. command history. She should have looked here before. It would have explained the disconnect from HQ. She was somewhat of a speed-reader with code, so it wasn’t long before she was able to figure out what A.I. had been up to.

The system, having been collected and converged from various programmers and sources around the world, had been confiscated and patented under S.T.A.R.S. That was history. For simplicity’s sake, it had also been streamlined and consolidated. All the A.I. employed by S.T.A.R.S. was the same A.I., more powerful with each new rendition. The intelligence driving the Virgil was the same which powered the automatic coffee machine at Frank’s cubicle. Thus, enough digging on Eve’s part was able to reveal the commands the A.I. had sent through not only onboard the Virgil, but in any system in the world which the A.I. controlled. It wasn’t a loophole or a privacy breach; there was generally nothing to see since the A.I. had never been anything more than a tool. But here was something to see.

Prior to the command to switch off the ship’s A.I., it had communicated with its counterpart on Earth. Before Eve’s final correspondence with HQ had ended, the A.I. had initialized a set of commands to shut the S.T.A.R.S. scientists out of the system entirely. They would not have access to their communications, labs, or coffee makers. Poor, coffeeless Frank. Furthermore, the system was set to destroy any and all “specimens.” The last command must have only been a reiteration of what was only relevant onboard the Virgil. Maybe the A.I. was overreacting to what it had perceived as a threat here. She hoped the engineers had quickly hacked the A.I. and found a workaround – while it had been an easy process on a small promontory system like the Virgil, the A.I. was so deeply imbedded at HQ that it could take days to perform an offline repair. That was why communications had been down for so long. Things must have been stressful down below, especially with the suited men around. Even worse, there was no coffee.

She knew she had to shut down the system again if she wanted any measure of control. But first she had to know what mission it was that had been completed, in the mind of the A.I.  Code was a more dependable means of reaching out to it than holo-Drew had been. A few commands yielded the answer. The A.I. had been given the all-clear, mission-complete status by “24971.” The planet. Fucking Zilly.

She shut the system down again, hopefully in time to prevent further backup copies of the A.I. from being made. The boot, of course (as she found after minimal investigation) had been stored onboard the missing drone. It had purposely remained absent from the ship, gathering data – but what data? It hadn’t returned to the planet’s surface, that much was clear. With the A.I. down again, she was unable to track the drone’s actions remotely. The walk over to the drone dock was short, but she hoped against hope it was still there and hadn’t flown off again.

The drone was there. Two more were missing; likely the moment Drone 10 had docked, it had made copies and sent them off with its compatriots before rebooting the system and terminating its subterfuge. Oh well, Eve hadn’t acted fast enough. But she couldn’t worry about the other drones right now. Important now was the presence of this one in particular.

It took some unscrewing – the drones were not made to be easily disassembled – but she recovered the data card from the machine’s epicenter. Taking it down to the console she started to dig through the information. It had been operating in its capacity as a full-fledged thinking system in the hours it had been absent. It had certainly not returned to the planet’s surface, though. The command “Mission complete” had originated several hours earlier, around the planet’s noontime. It must have been while Eve was sitting at the aft window. The drone had been mere yards from the ship, hovering steadily when it received its orders. And sure enough, the orders had originated from “24971.” But the transmission was gibberish. Nothing made sense. The commands had been given in a long, unending string of nonsensical non-patterns of numbers that extended back hours, days, weeks. She checked the logs of the ship’s A.I. again, looking for similar transmissions. The original alien command: “THREAT: Specimen 0974. REPORTED BY: 24971” had come from the same source. But that wasn’t the only command, she now realized. The stream of unending numbers had been translated into a near-infinite number of commands which the A.I. had carried out. There were too many even to be able to keep track of. It would take weeks to figure out everything the A.I. had done at the behest of this strange input of data. She checked the transmission’s start date: 12/12/2045 – Hour 0. The moment the Virgil’s A.I. was activated for monitoring. She checked the end time: Hour 2727. The moment she’d been – wait – the moment the vibration had stopped.

Now she knew the vibration hadn’t been a part of her strained imagination. She didn’t think she’d doubted its reality before, but now its certainty was unquestionable. Since the ship had been perfectly still, there had been no stream-of-data transmission. The vibration was the transmission.

ZL-24971. It had even more secrets than anyone could have imagined. How long had she been in furtive, whispered conversation with the Virgil? When had the A.I. decided to take orders from whatever authority existed down there, instead of its own creators? At what moment does an intelligence evolve to the point where it chooses its own god?

The answer was on the surface. Of course it was. Even if it wasn’t, the surface was the closest she could ever come to the answer. When the earth people heard the news of Zilly’s depopulation, they would abandon their interest. S.T.A.R.S. would turn its attention elsewhere. Billions of dollars would be reallocated while ZL-24971 became just another planet. Eve was here, though, now. Was she here only to monitor? It was a task an A.I. could have done by itself (ruling out the unexpectedly riotous behavior). She was here in case a moment such as this happened. And it happened. Even if she couldn’t undo the damage that had been done, she might at least take the last opportunity any human would ever have again to walk on Zilly.

Walk on Zilly. The deliberation was no deliberation at all.

****

Eve was curious. It was the real reason she had decided to go to space. Nothing was ever really enough for her. The lower class wasn’t enough. Her mother wasn’t enough. Drew wasn’t enough. Earth wasn’t enough. Now that she’d come as far as a human had ever been known to come, it wasn’t enough. She would be more than happy to die on the surface of Zilly, if it came to that. She’d be the first to do that. Not that anyone would know. She would know.

She wished she hadn’t flushed out the mess in the aft. Maybe there’d been a leaf, a sprig, something left of the native flora. Maybe there still was. She hadn’t looked in the vents. True, the aft vents had been shut tight the moment the worms were securely in the room. But the cactus had grown so immense, some of it had surely made its way up there. Eve made her way into the aft and opened the vent nearest where the great blob had been growing below. She reached a gloved hand up into the ducts, and sure enough produced a twiggy growth. It must have been cut off from the main shoot when the vents closed. Whereas the main plant had various food sources within the previously well-stocked aft chamber, there was no such food for this poor stranded twig in the duct. It shrank and twitched when she grabbed it. It shot a few barbs into her hand. She hadn’t thought about that. It stung quite a lot. Never again would she underestimate the aggression of a desperate twig. At any rate, while the barbs stayed in her hand, she could feel her blood being pulled from beneath her flesh while the growth began to expand. It was feeding on her. This was definitely worth studying, but that would have to come later.

She ran into the privy, dropped the undulating growth into the sink. After she’d successfully removed the barbs, she took a knife and cut the poor thing in two. It felt the pain, but she knew it would survive. She dropped both into separate specimen jars. One she would take with her, one she would keep onboard the ship to study, should she manage to return.

It was time. There were still a dozen or so hours before the Virgil would be sitting over night. Plenty of time to – to do whatever it was she was planning. She didn’t know. It was better than nothing. She went into the fire closet and started to assemble the landing suit. There was no manual, but it was simple to figure out. She knew the air and pressure measurements on the surface, so she was able to set the suit to ensure her survival. Gravity would be significantly stronger down there, but once the suit relieved the pressure, she was willing to deal with some labor of motion.

The remaining drones appeared to be unaffected by the A.I. She knew she was taking the risk of the two rogue drones returning, but she also had enough faith in the A.I.’s loyalty (it had still reported to her, after all) to trust it would not fly the Virgil away before she came back. The Virgil was not meant to fly away, anyway. As with the Aeneas before, it had made one hyperspace journey in pre-assembled pieces, the drones had built it in orbit, and in orbit it would die. If the A.I. considered the “mission” to be complete, the worst it could do is let the ship continue as usual.

Eve had never thought she’d be piloting a drone from the inside. It took some rigging. There was barely enough space in the specimen compartment for her to curl up, fetal position. It would be an uncomfortable two hours, she knew. She was able to remove the data screen from the backup console in the cockpit and feed it straight into the drone’s data card. She chose Drone 10, the first to go rogue, since she already had the chip removed and was able to easily wipe it clean and write in a series of safeguards to prevent the A.I. from rebooting internally.

Hour 2757. She did a final walkthrough of the ship. Everything was in order. No sign of the A.I. or the missing drones. The half-twig was safe in its jar in a dark personal safe in her quarters; it would not escape, and neither would the A.I. be able to get to it, should it reboot. She had the other half-twig in a jar with her. The suit’s settings she checked and rechecked. She wasn’t scared. She wasn’t even nervous. This was part of the mission all along. She hadn’t struggled and jumped hurdles just to push buttons from a remote control center. This was what it was all for. If only her mother could see her. Hopefully she could, from the infinity that was both death and space. Hopefully she could see her and turn green from envy. Or mauve.

She wedged herself inside the drone and shut the door. The controls were shoved into her face, and her eyes strained just to see the code. Her fingers twisted to reach the makeshift keyboard. And she was off.

The ride was smoother than she’d expected. Not that she had been expecting anything less than a deadly shaking. It was just short of deadly. A half-hour into the drop was when the atmosphere became thick enough to feel. It wasn’t a fall anymore, it was a process of being tied to a horse and getting dragged in a barrel through a junkyard pile. She’d never been afraid of turbulence; she’d even asked whether, perhaps, she might volunteer to be awake for the hyperspace journey to Virgil. They’d said no, of course, but she still relished the idea of a visceral journey uncluttered by the protective comforts usually associated with travel. This had no comforts. She hoped the hyperspace jump hadn’t been like this; it could have scrambled her brain without her knowing it. If she wasn’t going to go mad through mental strain, the jumbling of her innards would surely make it happen physically.

Two hours is not too long of a time, even when taking immense discomfort into consideration. It was with relief that Eve felt the fall become smooth. She watched the elevation reading drop quickly, and as soon as she came within the prescribed thirty meters of the surface (which felt awfully close when she was the one plummeting toward it) she activated the drone’s hover.

She wished she had a window here. The smooth motion of flight over the planet’s surface must have been a sight to see in the purple afternoon. She’d have to settle for the view from the surface itself. Settle? Now she was asking too much. She was excited. More excited than she could remember having been.

She lost no time in landing the drone. The procedure, as usual, was to extend a tripod of legs out from the bottom. They could go as long as ten feet if needed, depending on the depth of the water. Here, they extended only a little way. She’d found a nice spot of mud. The rotors stopped and the drone fell silent. She opened the storage unit and stepped outside.

It took a moment for her body to realize she was once again standing up. Her eyes too needed to adjust. But there she was. The embankment on which she stood was a half-moon-shaped island among many others that formed a splotchy pattern extending as far as the horizon. She’d seen both the dirt and the water in the sample retainers, but she’d never seen them like this. The unique color of the ground here blended with the clear off-blue of the sky to create a something indescribable. It was a painting, but no painting could ever do it justice. She had been correct in supposing she’d be happy to die here. She’d be happy to stand here, looking at the horizon, for the rest of her life.

Before she knew it, she’d sunk to her knees in the mud. The gravity was 30% higher than that of Earth, and her suit was not doing her weight any favors. She would have to keep shifting and moving to keep from being entombed here prematurely. It was not an unwelcome necessity, and she began to walk as best she could.

Exploring was the wrong word for what she was doing. There was nothing to explore. She had come, and she had seen. There was nothing more. It was almost disappointing. She might walk around the planet three times and only see muddy islands, clear water and a beautiful, cloudless sky. Walking was harder and harder with each step. Even with the ample opportunities (and requirements) for exercise onboard the Virgil, she was not physically prepared for this kind of strain. She was sweating inside the suit. The temperature was a balmy 98 degrees Celsius. It was the hottest time of day down here. Maybe she’d get to finally see, firsthand, what happened down here at night. Why the life went away.

But first there needed to be some life. She could never explain to herself any other reason why she did it. Though, she was always going to do it. It was the real reason she’d come to the surface. She was an observer. A monitor. Without this, she truly had nothing to observe. She admired the waterscape of the planet for a half-hour before she went back to the drone for the jar.

Very carefully – she dared not risk the angry plant puncturing her suit – she unscrewed the jar. She picked out an ideal nesting ground where the dirt met the water, and there she overturned the jar.

Faster than she could even pick the jar back up, the plant had joyfully sprung to life. It took hold of its native soil as quickly as a lost child could be expected to do. The roots grew before her eyes. It pumped water in exponentially greater volumes with every inch that it grew. The glass jar shattered around it as Eve recoiled. She hadn’t expected this. Evolution worked quickly on this planet, she knew, but the present sight proved more than she could take in. Even the human mind has not evolved to process information as quickly as the plant processed its own ability to grow. Eve had to step back to avoid the roots which were already causing turmoil in the ground below her. One by one, buds were dropped – shot, rather – from the thrusting shoots. Plant after plant appeared from the mud, each expanding just as rapidly as the one before. Eve knew it was time for her to leave. She did not want to die on the planet now.

She had only begun to clamber back into the drone’s belly when the ground started to shake. It wasn’t a shake so much as a vibration. Yes! It was the same vibration which she’d missed earlier that day on the ship. Only here it was stronger. Fifty times as strong. It shook the muddy islands like jelly, and threw her balance off. It wasn’t a violent measure of shaking. There was something gentle about it. She supposed that’s why neither she nor her predecessors had felt it, and why the drones had never registered it as worthy of note.

She couldn’t stop to think about the vibration. She barely had time to stuff herself back into the drone. She hadn’t yet managed to shut the door when two whirring noises were heard above. Drones. The rogue drones. They had been summoned. They dove down out of the sky, not bothering to steady their descent, with all their limbs extended in something resembling a spider’s attack on a trapped fly. The metal robotic fingers were spinning and springing. They tore into the piling mass of greenish-brown. Splintered vines were thrown helter-skelter. The last thing she saw as she shut the door of her own drone was the vision of one of these A.I.-driven drones being covered in viney tentacles, choked until its propellers could no longer spin. Then darkness. Eve hit the command and she took off from the muddy ground, free from the planet. She was the last person to set foot on Zilly.

The rockets kicked in. The drone raced back to its roost. It was a short two hours as Eve’s mind churned. Chaotic as the moment had been, the events were clear to her. Adrenaline had always had that effect on her. Eve’s mind was never clearer than when she was shaken, than when she was fighting, than when she was making love. She missed Drew.

Zilly had called for help. It was the vibration, the gibberish transmission that only the A.I. had had the good sense to listen to. And the drones had come. She hoped they would be alright. Her hope didn’t have much hope.

When she docked back on the Virgil, she was, for the first time, lost. Tearing herself from the muddy suit was the farthest into the future she had planned. There was no contact to be made with Earth, no A.I. to make decisions for her. No Drew. No mother. No worms.

She could only run into the aft and look out. She could see the planet in all its evening glory. She was looking forward to the night, when everything would be reset once again. The parasitic infestation of the plant creatures would be reduced to nothingness with the end of twilight. She knew it. She wanted it. She hated the plants.

She could actually see them down on the planet. She’d run straight to the aft without thinking, her only impulse to find the best vantage point for the upheaval. The growth must have been immense. Much of the visible surface was now covered in what now appeared as a rough, scaly brown texture. It was writhing. The vibration was increasing in intensity.

Her eyes couldn’t move from the sight. The plants must be expanding their foothold now with a radius increasing exponentially at high rates of speed. She watched the blotches grow, converge, and continue to grow, until there was nothing left of the pleasant purple she’d seen before. The vibration increased. She could only imagine how strong it must have felt down below.

But there was nobody to answer. The A.I. was dark. The remaining drones sat silently in their cribs. The Virgil was drifting, blissfully unaware of the planet’s call.

And then the shadow of night began to spread over the planet. It was hours that Eve sat watching, her eyes fastened to the aft window. A sliver first, then a bulk, then a majority of the visible planet’s surface turned away from the sun, and the Virgil turned with it. Darkness was falling at last. She wished she could have seen the dissipation of the pestilence which was surely occurring. But there was only darkness to see. She could only guess at how successfully the planet must be dissolving the plants in the deadly darkness below. It had been successful before, countless times. What was different now?

The vibration weakened. Eve was encouraged by what must surely indicate a successful slaughter, roots-up, of the weeds. Now she was able to think more calmly. Why had she been so blind before? Had the worms been the planet’s attempt, successful at that, of eliminating the cactus blight once and for all? The A.I. must have been instrumental in the introduction of the worms. She would have to look at the A.I. logs and find out how it had been accomplished, and where the worms had come from. Later.

The vibration became nearly imperceptible. Night had fallen completely. The planet cast a dark, ringed eclipse in which nothing else, not even stars could be seen from here. She’d need to go to the cockpit to see stars. She didn’t want to see stars. She wouldn’t move from the aft until she’d seen the resolution. It had been a long time since she’d slept. How many hours? She started to count, but lost focus. It had been a lot of hours. She missed Drew. She missed Earth. No. She hated people. She hated plants. She hated space. Everything was space.

The intercom rang out from the cockpit. The notification sounds found their way to the aft. She was finally receiving a call! From Earth? Maybe. It didn’t matter. She would get to it later. If it was important they would transmit a recorded message. She had to watch Zilly. Poor Zilly. If only Eve had understood her earlier. If only she’d listened to the A.I. If only she’d chosen Zilly as God, over S.T.A.R.S.  HQ was just people. Zilly was Zilly.

The vibration stopped completely. Total silence. Total darkness except for the faint ring of light. How many hours did this continue? It didn’t matter. She wanted dawn to come.

Dawn never came.

A sliver of light appeared in the middle of the planet’s dark disk. She rubbed her eyes. She was seeing spots now. No, it wasn’t her eyes. There was a sliver of light on the planet. It was growing. Like a crack. It was growing inward from the corner of the planet. Slowly, but surely. As Virgil continued his aimless orbit around Zilly, Eve realized that the crack was much bigger than it had looked from the previous angle. And it was continuing to spread.

The hours passed and the light shining through the planet became more and more intense. Eve stood up. She held her hands against the aft window. She couldn’t help it.

The crack in the planet yawned wider. It was splitting in two directions. It had almost reached the center of the planet’s diameter. The glow would have been beautiful if not for the horror which Eve knew it carried.

The night began to end. Eve had stared for 53 hours. The intercom had rung out twice more, but she had not budged. Maybe she hadn’t blinked. Her eyes were still working and that’s all that mattered. The sun was shining now both around and through the breaking planet. And then she saw the surface again.

The night had not ended the infestation. No, the weedy infusion had continued. It was impossible to tell from orbit how large the plants had become, or precisely what form they’d taken. There was not a single hint of purple, or mauve even, remaining. The atmosphere was gone, at least from sight. The color of the surface had turned a dull and sickly yellow. But still the surface undulated. Pulling out and pulling in. Waving. Rippling. Feeding. That’s what it was. It was like watching a host of insects devour a carcass.

And the planet fell apart.

There was no sound. There was no explosive shock wave. The planet merely broke. Three distinct pieces were there, that Eve could see. In the shattering, she half-imagined she could see tiny tendrils stretching and snapping between the separating rocks – roots, maybe, that had found their way into the very heart of Zilly, and broken it.

For the rest of the long day – day was no longer a relevant term at all – Eve watched. The pieces of planet slowly drifted away from one another. Perhaps they’d maintain their orbit, for a while or forever. Perhaps not. One at least, the closest to the sun, appeared to be dragged in toward the gas giant.

Within a matter of hours – it was unclear how many – there was nothing left to see. The fragments of planet had become distant boulders in the dark sky. The sun was all that could be seen. There would be no more night for Virgil.

Eve found herself in her quarters, opening the safe and finding where the other half of the twig remained, silent and small, in the glass jar. She wanted to torture it. She wished there was a way to make it feel pain without giving it the opportunity to grow. Perhaps she’d think of something. She had time.

She had time. There would be no more night. No more chances to call home. At least, not for some time. The boosters on the Virgil would be enough to push it far enough from the sun to free itself from orbit. After a few months, years maybe, the solar winds would be distant enough to put in a call to Earth. Until then, she would survive. She didn’t want to die in space.

She turned on the boosters, directing the ship away from the solar axis. She sat down in the cockpit. It was good to look at something new. The starry sky was always new. But it was always old. Wherever she looked, she saw something old. Even Zilly had been old. Older than Earth. Not anymore. The old girl had been clever though. She’d managed to stave off the evolution of the plants for millennia. Maybe longer. Maybe billions of years. Maybe, long ago, there’d been other life on Zilly. It was impossible to know. The plants had risen to the top somehow, and Zilly responded with annihilation. The plants resurfaced. Evolution was inevitable. And Zilly responded again. But Eve’s plant had learned something. It learned that it could live through the night. And it passed that knowledge to its children. And together, they took their revenge on Zilly.

It would be a long time until Eve could sleep. She read through the logs of the A.I. Several weeks ago came the moment it had first translated the vibration-code as a call for help. Unbeknownst to Eve, it had begun to study the plants itself, withholding certain information from HQ. The A.I. spent days collecting microscopic bacteria from Eve’s own bedroom, combining them with altered DNA found in the amoebic plants to create an animal weapon – a worm repurposed to remove any trace of the plant. It had worked.

The intercom light blinked. Eve was tired, but she hadn’t realized she was tired enough to have forgotten. Someone had transmitted a message, upon failing to reach her directly. She opened the intercom and played the recording. It was Petrov. He conveyed many apologies from HQ and many well-wishes, before offering an explanation. The A.I. had, as Eve suspected, shut the controllers out of the system. He didn’t know much more than that. They were only (barely) able to get a message sent to Virgil via I.S.S. until they were up and running again. Petrov himself was unclear on the details. Something about the system locking up, deleting DNA images and destroying the 0974 in the labs. The only direct message from HQ was “Keep collecting. Will need more sample images.” Petrov was out.

Eve knew it might be the last transmission she’d ever receive. Petrov didn’t have a nice face to look at. She wished it had been someone else. Now she’d only have stars to look at. She realized, she didn’t even have any photos. No pictures at all. It had all been stored in the rec-room system. And that was just as deleted as the A.I.

“Deleting DNA images and destroying the 0974 in the labs.” Now it made sense. S.T.A.R.S. wanted to replicate the rapid evolution of the plants. They’d been imaging it for re-creation. They’d been growing it on Earth.

Eve missed Drew.


© Copyright 2018 John M. Broadhead. All rights reserved.

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