Full darkness had fallen, with only starlight pointing the way for wayward travellers. I could see the outline of the crater’s edge in a rough circle around the top of the forest and lights from the Xing. My peripheral vision caught flashes of light far away- a reddish firefly sort of glow, but when I turned towards that direction there’s only darkness. I figured it was too late to go back and with the space suit I had on, camping out was totally feasible.
Some scuffling came from below and then Estella’s voice, “Sam!”
“I’m up here, couldn’t see much. Some dim light in the distance. I’ve marked the direction so we can explore in the morning.” I hollered down my report.
“We can barely hear you!” Aurora shouted back. “Are you stuck?”
“No, I’m fine. I will camp up here for the night.”
Estella and Aurora made some exchanges between them. I couldn’t decipher the actual content with the wind blowing so loud.
“…we should head back to the ship before dawn.” I heard Aurora call up.
“Sam, are there things I can stab up there!?” Guppy’s squeak cut in.
“No, nothing to stab up here. I can barely see anything. I thought it would be a good idea to climb up here so I can see better…”
“But I wanna see.”
More talking that I couldn’t hear, I assumed the gals were trying to dissuade Guppy of climbing up. Though, knowing the kid, it probably wouldn’t work.
“All right, kiddo, I will climb down. You, hush and don’t move.” I resigned myself to do the sensible thing. I’ve always known that children would be trouble; you have to act all sensible around them.
“Guppy’s coming up to see, then you can both climb back down together.” Estella shouted up.
It did not take long for the kid to come up. “Hmm… looks like I underestimated you.” I gave Guppy an appreciative nod.
“Ooh, that’s pretty. Sam, why did you stop? They’re beautiful.” Guppy went over the edge and out of sight. Her voice got fainter towards the end, as if she was moving away.
“Crap, the kid has gone off. I better go after her.” I told the other two gals.
When I tried to climb over, a bout of dizziness hit me and I had to drop back down. It felt like there was no air right over the lip of the edge.
“Oh, I’m totally bringing some of this back to the ship. Sam! Where are you? You need to see this.” Guppy’s voice came to my ears.
“Crap, something is going on here. If you don’t hear me again in 1 minute, climb up here and go off towards the direction with the light.” I shouted down below before attempting to get down on Guppy’s side again.
I took a big gulp of air first and charged up over the edge. I felt my lungs about to burst up like a torn sack and my skin felt all wrong. The world was spinning in front of my eyes. In the midst, I saw a lot of small reddish flickering lights. I staggered forward a few steps before I felt like I was about to tip sideways. I held still, hoping that I wouldn’t fall over.
“Hey, Sam, you don’t look so good.” I saw Guppy coming close, but her face was distorted like in a funhouse mirror.
“Hmm, maybe you should go back. Here, take my hand, I’ll help you.” I groped for her hand, which appeared in multiples, all overlaid with each other. Then a small hand took mine and led me back over.
Not sure how long passed- 15 minutes?- I felt normal again. Guppy was looking at me with huge eyes, looking worried. “You ok, Sam?”
“There’s something with this edge. I couldn’t breathe whenever I go near it.”
“Can’t breathe? But it’s totally fine!”
“I don’t know, it’s getting late now. We better go down so Aurora and Estella aren’t worried. Come on, kiddo.”
“Ok. Then I can show them what I found. Look.” Guppy held out a hand smeared in a glowing reddish goo. I stooped to take a closer look. I decided it was some kind of bioluminescent algae, something in Estella’s expertise.
“Aurora! Estella! I can’t wait to show you.” She shouted before eagerly climbing down.
“Show us what?” Aurora called up.
“Look! It’s beautiful.” The glowing reddish goo has spread to Guppy’s arms, cheeks and hair. She danced around in the dark, hopping and making a light show.
“You just bathed.” I laughed at Aurora’s groan, not that she could hear it.
“I’m a glowfish!”
Estella chuckled. “You look like a thousand fireflies flying in formation!”
“I’m a space firefly!” Guppy danced around even more.
“I wonder if this stuff will make good plant repellent?” “Find anything interesting up there?” Estella and Aurora spoke at the same time.
“Um… no. Just lots of this stuff. And rocks. That’s it.”
“I couldn’t breathe whenever I was near the edge.” I pulled a long face at the thought that I performed worse than a child. “Guppy is fine though.”
“Oh, yeah, Sam got sick up there. You ok now, Sam. I was really worried.”
“Really?” Aurora eyed Guppy curiously, “Sam, feel like climbing back up there, covering yourself in the goo and seeing if you can breathe?”
“Don’t go alone, Sam. I don’t want you to get sick again.”
“It’s probably because Guppy is shorter so is closer to the ground where the breathable air is.” Estella pointed out.
“I’m okay now.'” I bent down to Guppy’s eye level to tell her. “Hmm… I don’t like goo normally but it might be worthwhile to try that.”
“I’ll go with her. Just in case.” Estella said.
Guppy reached up her fingers and smeared goo on my nose, then giggled. I tickled her under the chin.
“Hey! That’s cheating.” Guppy squealed with delight.
Aurora grinned from ear to ear, “I’ll stay down here with the firefly.”
“Yeah, I’ll stay here and play space firefly with Aurora.” Guppy smeared goo on Aurora and ran off giggling. Aurora went after her and the two left a trail of laughter.
Me and Estella exchanged a smile and went up to the edge. “By the way, Sam, next time you run off, can you leave us an arrow drawn in the dirt or something? We nearly didn’t find your trail.”
“All right.” I smiled sheepishly.
We both gooed up and tried to go over. The same as before. I tried to push through and didn’t even make it as far as before. I knew when to call in a defeat and retreated back to the safety of the ledge.
Me and Estella looked at each other. We speculated over how Guppy could do it before climbing back down to join Aurora and Guppy.
“And that’s what I would do if I were a space firefly captain.” We heard Guppy telling Aurora as we got to the bottom.
“You’ll make a natural leader when you get older.” Aurora told her before turning to us.. “How’d it go?”
“Goo tactic didn’t work.” I concluded.
“Aww, you didn’t get to play with the goo?”
“A pity,” Aurora nodded thoughtfully.
Guppy looked bummed. “I wanted more goo.”
“Staying close to the ground didn’t either, no idea how Guppy can breathe up there.”
Guppy looked back and forth at all of us. “Whatcha talkin about breathin?”
“Um…” Aurora gave Estella and me a blank look.
“How do I describe it? Whenever I go over the edge, I get dizzy, I feel like there is no air, you know?” I tried to explain to Guppy.
“Oh… Yeah, I forget sometimes…” Guppy had her head hung down while she played with a rock with her toe.
“What do you forget?” I prompted her.
“Please don’t make fun of me.”
“Go on, we won’t, I promise.” Estella encouraged her. I nodded.
Her voice had gotten so low that it was almost a whisper. “Well, I don’t need ta breathe. Knife boy got mad at me once because he held my head under water and I didn’t get scared or anything. All the other kids made fun of me, called me a freak, so I don’t talk about it.”
“Oh, that’s just your magic talent.” Aurora told her with a cheerful smile.
“But they like it when it makes me a number one scout.” Guppy puffed her chest out with pride. “Magic?” She looked confused.
“See, you do have a special ability! Like we talked about before, your special talent, like mine is building machines and Estella’s is feeling people’s emotions.”
Tears start forming in her eyes. “But… But I’m not special. Everybody knows it.”
“As far as talents go, that’s a really neat one.” Estella agreed.
“You’re special in our eyes. You’re part of our crew, right? That makes you special even if nothing else does.” Aurora told Guppy. Guppy’s lips started quivering and she looked like she wanted to bolt.
“Come on, kiddo. Tears are.. well, you only cry when you are happy.” I turned away to avoid looking at Guppy crying; I never liked the sight of tears, it gave me a queer feeling.
“It’s okay, being special is a good thing,” Aurora reminded her, taking her gently by the hand.
“Um technically…” Estella pretended to point out awkwardly. “Guppy having a talent makes her normal, like everyone else, not having one would make her special, so she’s right, she’s not special.”
Aurora played along, pausing a while before saying. “Well.. There you have it then, Guppy, having a talent makes you not special.”
Guppy squeezed Aurora’s hand and wiped away her tears with the other hand, making her face glow more. “Aurora? When we get back, can I have more cake?”
“Sure, we still have some red velvet.” She promised Guppy, nodding to me and Estella. “Let’s hurry back before Hue eats it, okay?”
I nodded and turned to walk off in the ship’s direction. We made it back easily. Somehow the number of plants hanging outside the ship seemed to have gone down. Abroad the Xing, Aurora wrestled Guppy into a bath before finally rewarding her with cake.
“I’m not sure if she’s a natural at being a mother, or just improvises really, really well.” Estella observed with a giggle.
I shrugged. “That’s one new experience I never ever want to try, motherhood.”
“After I get some sleep I’ll get started on that bio-fuel converter.” Aurora concluded the sentence with a yawn.
“You and me both, Sam.” Estella punctuated the sentence with an empathetic nod. “Excellent, I’ll do some test digging to see why the plants never overran the clearing, and when it’s dark we can harvest some plants for the converter to turn into fuel. Wasn’t there some lights you said you saw up top, Sam?”
“Yes, they were the same colour as the goo, actually.”
“Oh, well that answers that.” Estella nodded. “Can you give me a hand tomorrow digging a few test holes, Aurora and me are curious why the plants never overgrew the clearing, and are thinking maybe there’s something interesting under it, ruins or whatnot.”
With the plan for tomorrow all set, we all went to bed.
An alarm went off when I was still in sleep. I jumped up from the bed and donned my battle gear before going off towards the bridge to investigate the alarm. The bridge door won’t open again; I caught a wisp of green hair in my peripheral vision that veered off towards Engineering- Estella. I decided to take the old approach of vent crawling. Not that I loved crawling but someone had to get rid of those pesky plant creatures.
Sure enough, the first thing I saw in the vents was a bunch of tentacles stretching through it. Taking out my hedge clippers, I took a swipe at them. The clippers made a gash along one of the vines but didn’t cut all the way through. It twitched and another vine shot out at me. I wrestled with the vine and was put slightly off balance. I took another swing at the vines and this time the tool snipped right through one of the vines and it fell twitching to the bottom of the vent.
I wiped sweat off my brow. “That was close.” No more adventure with the vines until I got through the shaft to the bridge and was looking out through the vent exiting into the bridge. Apparently, they had gone a step ahead of me and were running rampant within the room. And with purpose, their layout didn’t look like plant growth as much as a circuit of some kind, connecting the various panels in the room. I didn’t like the look of that. I climbed out and took an experimental swipe at an important node- well, as far as I could tell, not that I’m an expert at this kind of stuff. I wondered how it would react when I provoked it like this. Perhaps it sensed my intention, it lashed out at me before my clippers got to it. I nearly tripped over some other vines trying to avoid the attack but it had to do better to change my mind.
Apparently, where I hit happened to be one of its weak spots. The clippers shredded several vines and partially severed another. Some other intact vines twitched as well; the circuit impression sunk into my mind more. And apparently I did not completely break the circuit, perhaps damaged one of the important nodes. A vine took a swipe at my head. I could feel the coldness as it swished harmlessly over me when I danced out of the way, albeit a bit clumsily. The clippers took some getting used to.
I wasn’t liking the plant circuit business one bit so I took another go at it. The vines tried twitching out of the way of the clippers while some others blocked my way. Even with that, I managed to cut partly through another vine. That provoked a more aggressive response when it tried to grab my wrists and neck. By now, I had gotten in practice and easily got out of harm’s way.
I sliced through another key vine. The other vines started twitching as if in a spasm. Some smoke rose and the creature began to retract into the vents and through some of the panels, leaving me amidst a room full of burst open panels, exposed wires, controls partially taken apart and the remnants of several vines sticking up here and there. I went over to the panel for alarms to pinpoint the section of the ship for which it was triggered but it was not working at all. Time for H squared so I headed on over to Engineering.