Pen pals

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Surveying an alien planet for potential resource development, a geologist makes a discovery that has the potential to create an ethical dilemma.

Submitted: July 11, 2019

A A A | A A A

Submitted: July 11, 2019



Pen pals


“Alright I think we got what we needed. Let’s head back to the ship and call it a day,” the commander said with a dull tired tone.

The team, including myself, had been out for hours mapping the shoreline, gathering samples, scouting the local geology. On paper, it was just a group of people walking along a pristine beach, picking up rocks. If you didn’t look at the details, one might say it sounded like a leisure activity. It might have been, if the beach was an Earth beach. No, you would not want to go swimming in this sea. The air was almost minus two hundred degrees Celsius, made up of mostly nitrogen and hydrogen. The sea was a soup of liquid gases, mostly methane, with some propane and ethane. The environment was very much like Saturn’s moon Titan. Unlike Titan, however, this wasn’t a moon, nor was it small. The gravity was similar to Earths’, maybe a little more actually. We were all wearing environmental suits, not space suits. The atmospheric pressure was close to Earths’ sea level, so all we needed was oxygen and insulation. Regardless, the suits where bulky and annoying to wear. The beach was more like a pebble field, made of sticky ice pebbles. After walking through it for five hours, my legs felt like they were going to fall off. Not sure why the federal mining commission choses such crappy places to set up mines. It’s always cold and toxic, or hot and airless. Just once I want to be sent to a tropical terra-like world, do my geological surveys in shorts with a drink in my hand, all the while enjoying the ocean breeze. I suppose there is some wisdom to this approach. If you rip up lifeless planets, the environmentalists can’t get mad at you. Well, they still do but not as much.

As I was gathering up my equipment and checking over my samples, I noticed I was missing something, a pad that had some notes on it. It must have fallen out of my pack somewhere. As much as I wanted to leave it, I’m not paid to lose company property, so I had little choice but to go back and look for it.

“You all go on ahead. I need to go back to retrieve something.”

“Understood. Stay in radio contact and be back within an hour.”

The rest of the team headed back for the survey ship, which was acting as base camp. It was just a few hundred meters away, but I felt like an idiot for not noticing I had lost the pad until I was almost back. Oh well. I dropped off the rest of my equipment outside the ship and headed back out. At least I was not carrying all of that this time. Walking back along the shore was a bit more pleasant this time. I was able to look around, and the suit was less uncomfortable without the equipment belt. The sky was a strange hazy orange color, and the sea was a dark brown color. It rippled and moved like water, but it looked slower and more viscous. It almost didn’t look real, like a bad computer rendering of water. All I could hear was the muffled crunching of the pebbles below my boots and my breathing as I walked. There was no wind, at least not enough for me to notice or hear.

A few minutes of walking later, I saw my pad laying on the ground by the shore. The display was still on with my notes. I bent down and picked it up, looking it over for damage. It seemed okay, so I got up and turned to head back. Something caught my eye, however. Next to where the pad was laying, some rocks where arranged in an odd patter. They were letters, not words, just random letters. Curious. If one of the others had come back, they would have picked up the pad. Maybe it was just a prank. Figuring it was just a joke I decided to play along. I rearranged the rocks to make a crude outline of a rude hand gesture, because I’m funny and original like that. Not giving it much thought, I started back to the ship, looking over my notes as I walked.


Entering the hatch, cycling the air and taking off my suit, I reunited with my crewmates.

“Not sure who did it, but funny. I especially liked the part about leaving my pad so I had to walk back for it, instead of just taking it with you”

The others looked at me, puzzled

“What are you talking about?”

“By my pad, on the ground. You know the poorly made rock crossword?”

The looks remained puzzled. No one even cracked a smile. I was beginning to think maybe they didn’t do it.

“Whatever you’re on about, it can wait. It’s been a long day, and we are all off duty until tomorrow morning,” the commander said as she grabbed her cup and left the room to her sleeping compartment.

The others made jokes about my nonsensical entrance before they all left as well.

That night I lay in my bunk thinking about it. If they didn’t do it who did? I thought to myself. That being said, will they be back? I would have to check tomorrow. Perhaps it was a prank. All things considered, I slept pretty well that night. My legs hurt the next morning, but that’s to be expected. After grabbing breakfast and doing my morning exercises, I suited up and headed back out. I set up the drill for core samples. It would take at least twenty minutes to get one, and I really was only needed if it got stuck, so I walked back down the shore to check the rocks again. When I arrived, I saw that the hand I had made was gone. In its place, there was a triangle with a line through it. I had no idea what it meant, but a cold shiver went down my spine. I looked around and saw nothing, just a flat plain covered in this pebble ice. Out of curiosity I picked up the rocks and once again rearranged them, I set them in groups of lines, the first group  had two lines, the second had three, and the third had five. It was just a hunch but I wanted to see what would happen.

I left and went back to the drill, collected the core and set it up in a new location. An hour later, I walked back to the rocks. The three lines I laid out were still there, but under them there were three more lines, seven, eleven and thirteen stones lined up in that order. I was taken aback, to be honest. Whomever or whatever was doing this understood prime numbers. This world was lifeless as far as we knew. It was too cold for Terran life or anything like it. There was no evidence of a civilization, no cities, no ships, just us and the cold. So why am I now finding evidence of intelligence? Who is doing this and where are they? Among the dune fields, I see nothing. My gaze now turning to the vast hydrocarbon sea before me, I started to think, Perhaps we were looking in all the wrong places. An idea emerged. I ran back to the ship and grabbed my pad. Bringing it back to the rocks, I set it down with a map of the sea open on its display. I had no idea what I was communicating with, how to communicate or if it would understand me. I could just try new things and see what it thought. I didn’t arrange any rocks, just left the pad and walked away. I had to get back to the others and work on some core samples. I decided to not tell the others about this just yet.

I had to wait until the next day to get out, as I couldn’t think of an excuse to head out that evening. I was up most of the night thinking about this situation. What had I discovered here? What did they think of me? Have they been watching or did they just notice my pad last I dropped it? My mind was swimming in questions and excitement at the possibilities. That morning we were all sitting around the table, drinking our coffee and going over plans for the day. I wasn’t paying much attention, but that’s honestly not unusual. I read the schedules the day before, so the briefings are not new info, but according to company policy, the briefings were necessary. I was stuck with lab work, so this meant staying inside and working over the samples we collected yesterday. The geology of this planet is interesting, It has a water ice crust with a silicate mantle just below. The ice crust isn’t all that thick in places, but the ice was less the target than the minerals under it were. Not to say the ice was useless. It was also collected from such worlds for many uses on ships. It’s just that the minerals are where the real profit is.

As I worked, I kept looking out the window to my side at the sea, wondering if my friend had returned last night, and what was waiting for me there. With the cataloging done, I scrambled to the airlock. The commander and a couple of the technicians were sitting in the common area. They were surprised to see me show excitement to do my job. They didn’t need to know I was still apathetic about my job, and my excitement lay with my side project. Everyday looks the same here. The same hazy sky, and no wind. It’s like this place has no weather, or at least very slow weather cycles. We know it “rains” here sometimes, the same stuff the sea is made of, but it hasn’t rained in weeks. Arriving back to my pad, I saw that it was still there, displaying the map. Next to it, the pebbles had been levelled out and rocks were arranged to duplicate the map in larger scale. Offset from the center was a single stone, perhaps it indicated where the creature was from. If so, I was right. This thing lives in the sea. What would such a being look like? I hadn’t a clue. I could see no evidence of these creatures, beyond our rock correspondence. On the other side of the pad was a set of concentric circles, consisting of a larger stone in the middle, and a stone residing at a point on each circle. It looked like a solar system map of this system, four planets orbiting a small star. I thought for a second. What was this supposed to convey? I felt kind of dumb. I was probably over-thinking it. it’s what I do. I left a map and it showed me where it’s from, and then it left me a map. The creature is probably doing the same thing. It wants to know where I’m from. This was kind of curious. This suggests that they know of space and their solar system, so they must have astronomy. I guess they understood that I’m an alien to their world, but this map might indicate they think I may be from another planet in their system. They may not know what the other worlds in their system are like. I guessed that they don’t have space travel, or maybe they do and I’m misinterpreting. Whichever the case, I figured I should respond but how? I’m not from these planets. I’m from another system some fourteen lightyears away. I figure I would try my best, I used some stones and I made a dotted line from the outer planet in the original map, and took a few steps to the side where I made a simple map of my home system with the dotted line reaching the third planet, Earth.

This may confuse them. I don’t know, but it’s the best I got. I’m not a linguist, nor was I very good at art. The fact I’ve made it this far is impressive. I had the feeling they may be keeping things simple for my sake, or perhaps I’m over analyzing things again. I need to stop doing that.

Back in the ship, not much was going on, it was night, dark outside, and everyone was asleep but me. I was sitting at the table, reading a book trying to tire out my brain. Out the window there wasn’t much to see, as this planet gets dark at night. It has no moon and it’s always covered in hazy clouds. No moon, no stars, just dark. Wait, I thought, how did my friends know astronomy if they can’t see through the clouds? Maybe the clouds do clear on occasion, or maybe they don’t see in visible light. I worked this over in my head, not looking at my book, when I saw something out the window. There was a small blue light down the shore some distance. I couldn’t make out detail due to the thin haze, but it was clearly a blue light. It looked like it was in the same location where I was communing with the locals. Was that one of them? It seemed ethereal, just a dim blue light that is moving around in smooth motions. I wished I could see details. I decided to go out and see what it was for sure. Grabbing my suit, I headed out the door.

As I walked, the light continued to hover above the ground. It was a few hundred meters away at this point, but I still could not make out any detail. I had my lights aimed at the ground so I could see where I was going without disturbing whatever this was I was approaching. That was my aim but not the outcome. As I got closer, the light seemed to stop, rise off the ground a little, and then swiftly move into the sea and vanish. I was a little disappointed. I was hoping to see what it was, as I suspected it was my ambassador friend. The maps where gone, so maybe it understood my message. The stones were organized into a pile, but not in any shapes or pictures. Maybe I scared it off before it could respond, or maybe it was done responding. I was not sure, but it was clear that they are intelligent and curious. We have been here for a few weeks, and they probably didn’t know what to make of us. Dropping my pad was a chance event that tipped me off to them. They probably didn’t mean to initiate contact. It may have been curiosity. I didn’t know what to do at this point. If I did interrupt it, maybe I should come back later. I left the stone pile and went back to the ship, looking over the dark sea, hoping to see another gimmer of light from its depth. In the end I saw nothing. I simply walked back, went inside and went to sleep without any more sightings that night.

The commander wasn’t that happy in the morning, regarding my unscheduled walk out on the surface at night. It was probably not the safest thing to do, so I get that. I respect the commander’s opinions and how it’s her job to keep us all safe, but I had to go out. I wasn’t sure if I should tell her that I was out chasing aliens on a planet she thinks is dead. I didn’t want to risk corporate finding out just yet, as I didn’t want them sending in a science team to disrupt the inhabitants of this planet. I’ve grown to appreciate these creatures. I don’t know what they look like, I don’t know anything about their culture, biology or philosophy, but I do know they are self-aware, curious, feeling creatures like I am. They may not have meant to be found out, so I’m not going to let their secret go and risk their peace.

I spent that day inside doing mineral cataloging. The findings where promising, and the levels of a number of metals were high enough in the samples to warrant mining. At first I was excited. I was going to be paid, but my excitement faded when I remembered the creatures in the sea. I did not think they would appreciate us ripping into their planet. I have no idea how that would affect them. What if our mining poisons their environment? What if they are discovered and harm comes to them? If the military found out, they would relocate or exterminate them so that mining could continue. I can’t let that happen, I just can’t. I was now at an impasse with my moral ethics and job ethics. I could probably fake my findings and hope no one checks them. The best outcome would be a report saying the planet was not suitable for mining, so after we leave no one would come back. I don’t know how to do it, but I need to convince the commander we need to leave.

I started making “revisions” to my notes and reports, small adjustment that made the mining prospects seem a little more underwhelming. I could easily lose my job if I’m found out, but I don’t care. I was thinking about my options when I was called into the common area. Everyone was around the table, talking. Apparently, the drill went missing and no one knows why. Blame was being casually passed around, but no one knew where the drill was or how it went missing. I volunteered to go out and look for it. The commander looked at me skeptically but agreed. Not like I could get in trouble again for being out during the day. The drill was last seen close by the rocks by the shore, so I made sure to stop by as I looked. The rocks where still stacked. No message today it seems. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I took a bunch of the smaller ones and made a simple outline picture of the drill rig. They might have seen it, or they might have stolen it. I don’t know their motivations. After finishing, I got up to leave. I took a few steps before I heard scraping behind me. I stopped and turned around. Sitting there was the drill rig, laying on its side over my diagram, small ripples dispersing in the dark sea. It was watching me, I know it was. I picked up a small stone and tossed it into the sea. Expecting it to be tossed back, I waited for a minute but nothing happened. Maybe it had gone. When I turned my back however, something landed next to my foot and bounced along the ground. It was the stone I tossed in. My friend was still here, just hidden under the surface.

I slowly walked to the edge, bent down and put a hand into the sea. It was cold, and I felt my glove get really cold as my hand was in the liquid. I couldn’t see under the dark surface. It was like putting my hand in muddy water. I left it there for a second, but had to pull it back because the cold was getting though my glove too quickly. Maybe I scared it. Maybe the creature was just thinking about what I was doing. I put my other hand in this time. The cold started to permeate my glove again. Suddenly I felt something touch my glove. I don’t know how to describe it. It wasn’t a hand, as it didn’t feel solid. It felt like a soft ribbon that just applied pressure to the side of my glove before letting go. I’ll take that as a handshake. Whatever these creatures are, they are very different from us. Over the radio I got a call. I was to report back. Something was going on.

When I arrived, the ship was listing a little. The ground under one of the footpads was sunk. I would not have expected the ground to give way, as the surface is so cold the ice crust is as hard a granite. Perhaps erosion thinned it. I didn’t know, but the commander asked me if it was worth staying here. As head geologist I was responsible for the final mineral report. If the samples showed promise to this point, we would simply relocate the ship and finish the survey. If they were not promising, we could leave early. I was a little torn. On the one hand, this gave me what I wanted, which was an excuse to leave and protect the local inhabitants. On the other, if my note edits aren’t convincing another team might come back and I would have lost my job, along with failing to protect them. I had a choice to make, I decided to take my chances and lie.  I recommended the survey was no longer needed. The order was given and we started packing up the camp and readying the ship to depart.

I was out gathering up equipment. I looked into the sea. It was mostly still, and small ripples slowly moved along the surface, but there was no hint of my friend. I remembered one of the messages it left, a triangle with a line through it, I still don’t know what it meant but it was obviously important enough to them they chose to use it in our first contact. I grabbed some stones around me and copied the symbol on the shore. I stood up, looked out over the sea and started to walk back to the ship with the equipment in hand. When I arrived back at the ship, I started stowing what I had, until I noticed a collection of stones on the shore by the ship, it was in the shape of a rude hand gesture. I smiled when I saw it. I can pretty much guarantee they did not know what it meant. They probably just replied to my message. Perhaps they thought it was a greeting in the same way I thought the triangle was a greeting. I may never know. There is only so much you can say with stone pictures. However, without actually talking with these beings, we shared something about each other, we learned about each other. I wish I could have gotten to know more about them, but it was their wish to not be seen. I picked up my pad, it had all my notes about the mineral surveys, as well as books and some useless entertainment. I looked at it and had an idea, I walked over to the shore and placed it down before going back into the ship, closing the hatch and gave the commander the go ahead to depart. Later I’ll let them know my mineral survey notes where “lost”, but that they didn’t show the planet as being favorable to mining. I might get yelled at but I’ll accept that. The information now belongs to the inhabitants of this planet. Perhaps they can use that pad to learn more about us; our language, and my taste in literature. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be back some day and they can tell me. I just hope they understand the symbolism behind me leaving it for them. They probably won’t, at least not at first, but I suspect my friend will, the one who shared my curiosity.

I wish them well.

© Copyright 2019 adev. All rights reserved.

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