wild harvest

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Alternate Earth
a thousand years after the human race sent seed ships out into the stars, a captain and his crew visit one of the seeded worlds to see what has become of the colonists.

Submitted: March 11, 2019

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Submitted: March 11, 2019



Wild Harvest

The ship emerged from Hyperspace in a tailspin. A newer ship would not have felt the effects of post hyperspace vertigo as badly as the Planet Hunter, but she was a fine ship despite her age. Not that the Bureau of Interstellar Affairs considered the Department of Cultural Reunification important enough to merit the latest equipment. When we were thought of at all by the brass, we were considered little better than messengers. Never mind they were perfectly willing to shift the blame on us should anything go wrong on a seed world. On some missions we were ambassadors; on others we were the cleanup crew.

As I desperately clutched the controls attempting to stabilize the Planet Hunter I was wishing I’d followed my father’s advice and gone to law school. However, under my steady hand, the universe was soon righting itself and the target planet coming into view. The homing beacon was broadcasting loud and clear. As usual, the clean up crew was right on target.

The star Lambda Andy is a sub-giant yellow star about 84 light years from earth. A distance the Planet Hunter crossed in two days took centuries for the ship we were tracking. That ship, identified as the Lights of Versailles by its signal, was a seed ship launched over a millennia ago. In the last 20 years, I had commanded a dozen or so missions to planets where seed ships had landed.

These seed ships were sub light speed vessels that had been launched in all directions during an ancient Terran political crisis. They were insurance against annihilation of the species should Earth finally manage to destroy itself. It didn’t. Each of these ships had been equipped with a homing beacon so that the various worlds they found could be found again. When a homing beacon was detected, it was my crew’s job to pay the new world a visit and to either reconnect the colonists to their culture, or find out what went wrong. It was my experience that any mission could go either way.

With the target planet below her, the Planet Hunter extended her wings and decelerated. She would find the beacon easily enough on her own. The Planet Hunter entered the atmosphere over a barren looking rocky range of mountains. So far this rock didn’t seem to have a great deal to offer. The Planet Hunter shimmied slightly as she morphed her shape into something vaguely bird-like. My crew was already strapped into protective pods in anticipation of landing. Within seconds the Planet Hunter made a flawless touchdown, perched on landing gear she hadn’t sported in space.

As I oriented myself I aimed the exterior cams for a good look around. We had landed in a long, wide valley surrounded by distant jagged peaks. There wasn’t much for vegetation here, a few scrubby looking plants and no visible surface water. I could see no animal life, either. If it weren’t for the beacon still audibly sounding, I would have thought we missed the target. I patted my console and murmured “good girl” to the ship as I unfastened my harness. Hennessy, Sparks and Hamilton were also rising. Stone and Gutman, the two least experienced in my crew, were responding more sluggishly. Landings directly out of Hyperspace took some getting used to. I turned to Hennessy and asked “Tell me about the atmosphere.”

Hennessy manipulated his console’s controls and frowned. “There’s a good Oxygen-Nitrogen mix within breathable limits, but probably a bit thin by Terran standards. I recommend Oxyboosters.”

“So noted.” I replied. Normally we weren’t so formal, but before we first set foot on a strange world, we followed a specific protocol to enter certain information into the log, in the event of any unfortunate mishaps. “Supply recommendation, Stone” I continued.

Stone snapped to attention at the mention of her name. Checking the incoming telemetery, she said “For primary recon, I recommend we take water and weapons and,” she paused, checking the ambient temperature, “wear protective clothing.”

“So noted.” There was one more order of business before anyone could set foot outside the ship. “Stone, you and I will be recon team One, Hamilton, Gutman you will be recon team two. Come after us if we lose contact for more than twenty minutes. Hennessy and Sparks you’re the monitor team.”

“Aye, captain” made its way around the ship as I grabbed the recommended supplies. Hennessy administered the Oxy-Boost injection, which would last about twenty-four Earth hours. I paused briefly before I climbed down the ladder to clear my mind of all expectations as to what I should see. I found this to be a useful exercise that had saved my life more than once. After all, the beacon we’d followed had left this planet nearly 85 earth years ago. Anything could have happened in the meantime.

A fierce northerly wind struck my face as my boots touched alien dust. The cloudless sky had a metallic patina. The valley was bathed in near twilight, even with the planet’s sun almost directly overhead. A moon was setting to the south, another half risen to the north. To the west was a vast stretch of desolation, which left the east, from which the beacon was coming. As Stone hit dirt, we headed in that direction.

The wind bit into my flesh as I spotted wreckage about 20 meters away. I saw no sign of any animal life but I heard every now and then what sounded like birdsong. I compared the wreckage to what we had on file for the Lights of Versailles as Stone and I made a cautious approach.

The hull was solid titanium and nearly two kilometers in length. Unlike modern ships, she was almost entirely mechanical with the exception of her bioengineered central computer. Crude stone huts had been erected a short distance from the ship indicating the crew had survived for a time following touchdown. Where were they now?

The birdsong got louder as I approached the abandoned settlement. I saw skeletal remains strewn about the streets, as if a battle had been fought here, and the dead left where they had fallen. Some of the remains were clearly not of Earth origin. The scene filled me with foreboding. Something had gone terribly wrong here.

Instinctively, I put my hand on my pistol. Stone methodically began to analyze the remains. I fought back my growing sense of alarm. As much as I wanted to turn back my duty was clear: I had to find out what happened. I tried contacting the ship to report my find, but there was something interfering. Stone looked up at me from where she was working. “Captain Michaels,” she panicked, “The instruments have all gone dead! They were working fine a moment ago!”

“I know, Tarin,” I said soothingly “we’re disconnected from the ship, too. I don’t like it, but we’ve got a job to do.” I wondered if my pistol would work either. The bird sounds were louder now, but I had yet to see anything that resembled a bird or any other flying creature for that matter. I had the uncomfortable feeling we were walking into a trap.

I scanned the abandoned village. There was nothing here that could account for the electromagnetic interference disrupting our instruments. At least nothing visible. I stood stock still for a moment, concentrating very carefully on my surroundings, clearing my mind of all expectations of what I should be seeing, trying to perceive only what was actually there.

Gradually I began to see figures surrounding the camp. They appeared to be bipedal and had formed a circle around us. I realized that what I had taken for bird sounds was the speech of these creatures, whatever they were. They were not tall, perhaps 1.5 meters. There appeared to be empty sockets where eyes should be and only the slightest suggestion of other facial features. They were thin, almost insubstantial. They did not appear to be wearing clothing but neither did they appear to have recognizable external genitalia. They blended almost perfectly into the background. They almost seemed to glide when they moved.

To my horror I realized they were moving; coming closer to Stone and Me. It was clearly too late to flee. Stone gave me a quizzical look as she read the horror in my face. She tried to get up as hands were laid upon her. I think it was only then that she could see the creatures. Bravely, she made no sound.

“Why have you come, Earthers?” To my shock, I realized that one of the creatures was speaking Terran. Its inflection was rough and tone quite high, but it was clearly speaking Terran all the same.

Keeping in mind the apparent hostilities that had happened here, and the apparent danger Stone was in, I carefully framed my answer to the creature. “We came looking for them.” I made a sweeping motion with my arm, indicating the village as a whole. Would they understand that?

“Your kinsmen have gone long ago.” The creature did understand. “Only P’lch knows where they are now.” Was P’lch an individual or a deity? Did I trust these creatures enough to ask?

“Who are you?” I ventured.

“We are Q’ayd,” it said simply. My gut warned me that the trap was about to spring.

Despite the danger, I had a mission which now included damage control, so I took the bait. “Is P’lch also Q’ayd?” There was a great deal of chattering that lasted a good while. I had taken a gamble that P’lch was a person, but I guessed now that P’lch was a deity. Stone was staring daggers at me.

When the chattering died down, the spokesman said, “You must come with us to learn about the others.” I nodded and Stone was released. Having no choice, we silently followed the Q’ayd away from the ruined village toward the rim of the valley. Our guides were also silent, as they solemnly lead us onward out of the valley. It was a march of perhaps 15 or 16 kilometers at most.

The wind had not abated nor had the temperature risen any. Clearly, the colonists would have had to adapt quickly or perish. I had not entertained any doubts since laying my eyes on the tell-tale signs in the ruined village that we would not find survivors. Yet, a small voice inside my head raised a shadow of doubt. After all, if I really believed there were no survivors, would I have been so keen to fall into the Q’ayd’s obvious trap?

As barren as the landscape had first appeared, I found myself fascinated by it. The perpetual twilight gave an almost hypnotic quality to the slow rising of the hills as we approached. As we climbed into a pass through the mountains, the sky began to darken rapidly. I saw small creatures scurrying through the brush. Blessedly, the wind began to die down. Time passed with a peculiar quickness. Before I knew it, we were on the other side of the mountains and approaching a village.

A rust colored moon was just beginning to rise to the south. A sudden multitude of Q’ayd came to welcome us, or at least to see the alien visitors. The Q’ayd village was a collection of rudely constructed round stone huts that resembled heaps of rubble. If one were not looking for a settlement, it would be missed altogether. It was not a large village, with perhaps 50 or 60 residents at most. There were 5 or 6 cooking fires crackling and the air was filled with a pungent, sickly sweet aroma of roasting meat. The very smell of it made me gag. I desperately hoped not to be offered any to eat.

Our guides led us to a fire outside a hut larger than the others. I guessed this hut was either the chieftain’s or a communal hut. The Q’ayd who had spoken for the group back at the ruined village now addressed us again, “Please sit here, guests, and wait. The S’qa will talk soon to you.”

Our guides filed into the hut, leaving us by the fire. I heard a great deal of the birdsong speech from the hut and guessed there was some deliberation going on about us. Across the village I heard a sustained keening sound, which I took to be singing.

“How could you have let them take us here?” Stone demanded in an angry whisper when we were alone.

“I know as well as you this is a trap,” I explained, “but these creatures clearly have had contact with humans, and we’ve got to assess the damage.”

“That doesn’t mean you’ve got to get us killed!” She retorted.

“It would be well to remember they would probably have taken you, whether I went along or not.” I pointed out. At 27 Taryn Stone was young enough to be my daughter. In fact, I had a daughter who was 28. She was an extremely intelligent young woman who had joined the Bureau 5 years ago and this was her third mission with me. However, this was the first mission she’d been on that she’d encountered alien contamination. Although, I had to admit when I surveyed the condition of the village, the only obvious sign of prolonged contact was the transliteration of certain Q’ayd words into Terran.

I tried again to contact the ship, but still had no luck at that. I aimed my pistol at the fire, nothing. I wondered what was causing the interference with our equipment. I had the idea that it was something about the Q’ayd themselves. There was nothing in the landscape or make up of the planet that could explain it otherwise. I was also beginning to suspect that perhaps the Q’ayd were not native to this planet either. The village reminded me of a colonial outpost. Could there be other worlds out there with these creatures? I shuddered at the thought.

The perpetual twilight gradually faded to darkness. The Q’ayd seemed to have forgotten all about stone and me. As the third moon neared a position overhead, I began to doze just a little as the deliberations inside the S’qa’s hut abruptly finished and a dozen or so Q’ayd came out to meet with us. Their leader wore a belt made of some unknown fiber from which hung a broad, flat knife. As insubstantial as the Q’ayd seemed, this one gave off a strong air of foreboding. I felt its gaze like a laser beam. Before this one I felt as naked as the Q’ayd appeared.

It was some time before the S’qa released its gaze. At length it spoke “I am S’qa of Q’ayd. Are you Terran chief?” I dared not hesitate with this one. “I am chief over my ship only, not of the Terran homeworld.” The S’qa seemed to bow. It was hard to be certain in the firelight.

“The truth is in you,” it replied. “What is your request of S’qa?” I briefly toyed with the idea of bowing but feared it might misunderstand the gesture.

“I have come seeking information of the other Terrans. What happened to them?”

The Q’ayd motioned in the direction of the fire, “Please be our guests at the fire before P’lch and I will tell you what was told to me about those who came before you.” We sat on the hard bare earth as a bowl roughly fashioned from clay was brought before us. It contained a steaming liquid from which came a most foul odor. The S’qa drank first, displaying apparent relish at the drink before it was passed to me.

Not wishing to offend our hosts, I drank gingerly. The liquid had a taste that reminded me for some unknown reason of dust and stone. It burned my throat like an acid. I guessed it was a rather potent liquor. I could barely keep the stuff down. Reluctantly, I passed the bowl to Taryn, who followed my lead, but with less success. I could see tears in her eyes as the bowl made its way around the rest of the fire.

When everyone had taken a drink, the S’qa looked up at the third moon, currently at its apex and solemnly began speaking: “In the time of my father, your people came in their metal box. We did not reveal ourselves at first because we did not know what manner of creatures had come to our home. We could not hear their thoughts. So we sent scouts to observe them in their village.”

“The season of cold had just made its beginning when your people came. They had no defenses against our diseases and soon many died. Only then did we decide to reveal ourselves. We gave them medicines and showed them how to survive here.” The S’qa paused, seeming to gaze directly at me. Taryn squirmed uncomfortably so I know she felt its gaze too. “Soon the Terrans grew strong. We learned their language and they learned ours. We lived in peace and friendship for a time. However, when their machines would no longer work, they grew angry and blamed us. When we could no longer live in peace, we began to fight. One day, there was a great battle, many on both sides died. When night fell, we could not find any Terrans alive. We left their village behind and you are the first Terrans we have seen since.”

I was certain the S’qa was lying, or at least not revealing the whole truth. But, with no instruments to rely on, I had only instinct to fall back on. “But what about the survivors?” I insisted, “surely some must have survived!”

The S’qa looked at me, thoughtfully, “I am sorry you have come after the dead.” Suddenly, I felt my arms pinned behind me and before I knew it, I was bound by a crude rope. I heard Taryn’s shouts as she was also subdued. The S’qa removed the knife from its belt and slowly sharpened it against a stone. It pointed to the moon overhead and said “when P’lch reaches the peaks beyond, I will send you to P’lch.”

Its meaning was clear enough as it continued to sharpen its knife in deliberate, almost ceremonial motions. Even though the temperature was below freezing, I was perspiring profusely. The Q’ayd began a high pitched chant which they continued as the moon slowly made its way across the sky. As the moon nearly touched the distant peaks I heard coming from the hills a great whoop as a handful of what appeared to be humans swarmed over camp and in the blink of an eye several Q’ayd lay dead on the ground.

I felt rough hands loose my bonds and I was pushed along as my liberator harshly whispered, “Come on, we’ve got to get out of here!” I found myself swept out of the Q’ayd village as we headed into the hills. I could not see Taryn in the darkness and hoped she had been rescued as well. My rescuers were human enough. They were rather unkempt in appearance and wore leather hide jerkins and trousers. Of what animal, I could not tell although it looked like cow hide to me. Clearly the colonists had gone native. After spending time with the Q’ayd I understood why they steered clear of them.

I do not know how long we traveled in silence through the dark hills. I had no choice but to trust my guides and followed their lead through the bitter chill. As a pale dawn began creeping over the horizon, we reached a rocky ravine that concealed a few small huts, which I took to be a village. The colonists had done a remarkable job building their village to blend perfectly into the hillside. Like the Q’ayd village, the huts were constructed to appear from the outside like piles of randomly fallen boulders. The amount of labor to achieve this effect by hand must have been enormous.

As I surveyed the village I wondered how they survived here. There were no signs of crops or livestock. I turned to ask one of the warriors as I was ushered into a crude hut, but he said simply “Rest now, there will be time later for questions with the Chief.” And then I was alone in a bare hut with a dirt floor. There was a pile of straw on the floor that looked suddenly inviting. As I lay down on it, my mind was buzzing with questions for which I needed answers. Despite these, I soon fell into a dreamless sleep.

Moments later, or so it seemed, I was prodded awake by the butt end of a crude spear and shouts of “Wake up!” by a youth of perhaps 16 or 17.

I stood despite the protests of every muscle in my body and extended my hand “Oliver Michaels, Bureau of Interstellar Affairs, Earth.” Apparently, the custom of the handshake had been forgotten here as the youth ignored my hand.

“My name’s George, Oliver Michaels, and you need to come with me.” I followed George to another hut. Taryn was already inside, seated crosslegged before a woman dressed in an intricately decorated leather jerkin and leather ankle length skirt. She looked tough despite her extreme age. There were signs she had been a very beautiful woman in her prime. George motioned for me to sit beside Taryn as he waited outside the hut.

After I was seated the woman pressed a cup into my hands and I drank. It was simple water but it tasted like the best drink I’d ever had going down. I passed the cup to Taryn, who did not drink but passed it back to the Old Woman. “I’m afraid the food here isn’t very good,” The old woman apologized as she handed me a bowl of dried meat. I hesitated briefly, remembering the smell of the roasting meat at the Q’ayd camp. Sensing my apprehension she said “Don’t worry, it’s beef.”

Suddenly hungry, I chewed on a strip of the beef, some of the best jerky I’d ever tasted really, and passed the bowl to Taryn. I realized that all was not as it appeared. Not only had the colony survived, they had been able to introduce Earth breeds of livestock as well. While we ate, the old woman spoke “I am chief Cianna, who are you strangers?”

Taryn answered first “I am Taryn Stone, and this is Oliver Michaels. We are ambassadors from Earth.” The old woman nodded and said “Earth. It has been long since I have heard that name. I was a small child when first we arrived on this planet. Not everyone then believed Earth still existed. And then we met the Q’ayd and were quite sure of it.” There was a hint of bitterness in her tone. “Why have you come after us, Taryn Stone and Oliver Michaels?” Cianna asked, looking primarily at Taryn. I gathered the society must run along matriarchal lines.

“To find out how things go with you.” Taryn explained simply.

I did not wish to be rude but I had questions I needed answering so I butted in. “I did not see any livestock or crops near your village. Where are these?”

“Village!” the old woman spat. This is not our village, that is many days march to the west. This is merely an outpost from which we can observe the movements of the Q’ayd.”

“My apologies if I have offended,” I offered quickly. “But I must know. How does it go with your livestock and crops?”

“They are well, Oliver Michaels.” Cianna responded, slightly exasperated, “now quit interrupting your betters!”

“My pardon, Chief Cianna,” I offered, “But you should know that I am chief over Taryn.” Cianna looked shocked. “How can it be that a man would have authority over a woman?”

Taryn stepped in “On Earth men and women hold authority equally.”

“Taryn is a fine officer,” I added “and is capable of her own command when she has enough experience, but she is young now and still learning.” That answer seemed to satisfy Cianna.

“Very well then.” She said. “Ask what you will.” “Tell us about the Q’ayd.” I requested.

“You have met them yourselves. You have seen what effect they have on our machines.” I nodded. Cianna continued. “I was small when they first came. I remember they came offering friendship at first and we tried to coexist with them peacefully.” Cianna paused, as if remembering something unpleasant. “Then people started disappearing.”

I swallowed hard, remembering the S’qa’s ceremonial knife. Cianna continued “The Q’ayd worship the third moon as a fertility goddess whom they call P’lch.”

“I was nearly introduced to her.” I nodded.

“Yes,” she agreed, “so it was reported to me. P’lch apparently requires nightly blood sacrifice and the Q’ayd considered us sacrificial lambs for the taking.”

“That’s disgusting!” Taryn interjected, looking pale.

“That’s what we thought.” Cianna agreed. “When we took measures to ensure our people would not be taken, the Q’ayd attacked us by force.”

“We saw the abandoned village around the ship.” Taryn nodded.

Cianna continued, “Then you can understand why there can be no peace between us and the Q’ayd. For decades we have hidden from them, growing stronger until the day we could defeat them.”

“But,” I objected, “this is their planet.”

“They are no more native to this planet than we are.” Cianna explained. “They believe they are, but our scouts found the remains of their ship years ago. We do not know how long they’ve been here.”

“How do you propose to accomplish this?” I asked. “With primitive weapons?”

Cianna smiled, a look of quiet triumph pasted on her face. “We are not so primitive as we appear, Oliver Michaels. Since we cannot use our technology, we have found a way to use theirs against them.”

“Really?” The prospect intrigued me. “How will you do that?”

“When we found the Q’ayd ship,” Cianna explained, “their technology was like nothing we had ever seen. It took us years to understand it. Their propulsion system does not so much propel as it projects. Much like the Q’ayd when they move.”

I nodded, having observed that effect first hand. “When we discovered this,” Cianna continued, “we wondered what would happen if the effect were reversed.”

“What does happen?” Taryn asked impatiently. Clearly as interested as I.

“A field is produced that freezes all motion. We think it may operate outside of our time stream but we really don’t know; which is why we haven’t used it yet.”

“How will that help you?” I wondered aloud.

“It will allow us to use our weapons in close range with Q’ayd.”

I was beginning to see where this was going. It would hardly be a fair fight. “And when will you do this?”

“Soon.” Cianna replied. “We’re moving it into position even as we speak.”

We heard voices outside. George entered the hut. “Grandmother,” he said, addressing Cianna, “the offworld ship has arrived.”

Cianna smiled. “Oliver Michaels, Taryn Stone, it appears your ship is here. It would be best if you did not remain to witness what we about to do.” As we stiffly rose to our feet, Cianna added “Send a ship in two years Earth time and then we will show you what we can do with this planet.”

That reminded me, I’d forgotten to ask a crucial question. “What do you call this planet, anyway?”

Cianna thought a moment before answering. “We’re about to call it ‘ours’, but I suppose the bureaucrats you report to want a proper name. Since I’m the eldest and the chief, I’ll name it after me.” She chuckled. “Call it, Ciannia.”

“Done.” I said as I climbed back into the Planet Hunter. As I strapped myself in, my mind was on how to word the report I’d have to make back at the Bureau. Contrary to popular belief, I had actually read the manual and was well aware of how many procedures I just violated. I wasn’t sure yet if the mission had been successful, other than getting off the planet in one piece.

I would definitely recommend that Ciannia reevaluated in two years time, as Cianna had suggested. I was eager to find out what Cianna’s people could do with the planet. I wished I could have seen their real village. I bet it held a few surprises of its own. In the meantime, I hoped I would be the one leading the mission back.

© Copyright 2019 Wesley Stine. All rights reserved.

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