“What are they?” Allen stared closely into the view screens. Receiving from exterior cameras, the monitors showed the planet surface around the landing area.
“No idea.” Brale set his face alongside the commander’s, peering at the images with equal intensity. “The surveys have picked up nothing like this before, and they’ve been over the whole place in detail, within a fifty-mile radius.”
Outside, in the half light of the planet’s dawn, two ridges appeared, seemingly pushed up from the rubble strewn plateau. Two waist-high ridges in concentric circles, the closest perhaps a hundred metres from the small craft.
“Could we have set up vibrations?” The commander’s eyes did not leave the screen. Yesterday, carriers had transferred the first of the colonising equipment to the surface. But those larger craft had returned to the ship in low orbit, leaving only the two leaders of the mission to keep a final watch overnight.
“Doubtful,” said his companion. “Where are the other waves? Why are those two the only ones? There should be more.” He straightened. “We need a sample.”
Brale was the planetary expert, appointed to be the colony’s head for ten years. Trained in exo-world physics, human psychology and international politics, he would be the person who very soon would formally step onto the planet in full view of billions of other humans, variously placed in this system and beyond, and claim it as Earth Colony Three.
On this particular landing, however, he was just general dogsbody and observer, until the commander gave the final word to bring the people down and begin the whole, irrevocable colonisation process.
He turned to the board beside him and began entering a sequence.
“No, Edmund.” Allen’s hand held his arm. “Not a rover.”
Surprised, Brale looked at his friend. The commander’s brown face was concerned. “I think we should keep this quiet, just for the moment, just until we have an idea of what these things are.
“If we send out one of the rovers, the main record will show it, and they’ll want to know why…” his hand waved upwards, indicating the colony ship. “But if the lander’s record drops out for a little while…?” After a moment, Brale grinned, slapped the commander’s shoulder, and reached for his helmet.
Half an hour later, Brale regarded the low ridges before him. He should have a companion, but who would have thought an excursion necessary at this late stage? Still, they were both almost fully suited, a programme requirement for small surface expeditions, and if anything happened, Allen could be outside the lander in ten minutes.
Please don’t let there be anything wrong. Brale could not bear the thought of abandoning the years of planning, building and preparation, of extinguishing the eager hopes and expectations spreading throughout the ship in these last days, as the possibility of settling grew into a reality for the people now four years out of Earth.
He had been here all through the exploration phase, with his base on Colony Prime, one Earth month away. He had gone as far as anyone across this terrain. He had seen that it was viable as a support for human life. He knew this planet better than anyone else, and already he felt it could become home. Come on, Three, he said inwardly, tell me what this is all about.
He bent as closely as his suit would allow. These were not ripples caused by vibration. They were a build-up of some material, but so evenly formed, so evenly placed. How could it have gathered in such a seemingly intentional shape? Cautiously, he lifted a scoop of what appeared to be coarse sand and poured it into a sample collector.
Some of the loose material seemed to stick to his glove. Then, under a form of static attraction, it moved along his arm. Other particles rose over his boots, disturbed by his steps. With careful strokes he brushed himself clear, making sure the particles fell onto the ridges, and turned back to the lander.
He and Allen would run the sample through the analyser carried by all landing craft. They would find what it was—and they would make a decision. He felt cold at the prospect, his mind contemplating the unthinkable.
Half-way to the lander now. He hoped no-one on the mother ship had picked up his unplanned excursion.
“Edmund!” Allen’s voice sounded through his speakers, alarmed, urgent. “Get back! Quickly as you can! Get back to the lander! The ridges behind you have changed. They’ve joined up. Only one now, but it’s big and it’s moving, closing in on you—fast. Edmund…!
In the suit he could not glance back, but he believed the commander and increased his speed. He heard nothing from outside—how could he?—but almost immediately there was a sensation. He felt something pressing on him, as sand had pressed against him once during a storm in the Sahara Desert back on Earth.
This sand was not driven by a fast wind, but it engulfed him. He was surrounded completely by swirling purple and brown particles, but not abrading, not buffeting, just covering him. They clung, moving slowly over his faceplate. Why didn’t they flow past, on their way to wherever dust storms on Earth Planet Three went?
He lost all sight of anything outside his suit, and the commander’s voice faded into the far distance. His legs grew heavy, walking became slow and finally stopped.
The interior mask display showed three minutes passing, then four. Then he began to hear Allen’s voice again, calling his name and “Do you copy?”
“Copy! I’m all right—I think.” The brown and purple dust was thinning. He could see the lander and at the foot of the steps, Allen outside and fully suited. Brale raised an arm
“It’s the prokaryotes!” Brale swung the chair around and stared at his friend. The analyser had done its job and identified what the sample was made of—the microscopic forms of proto-life which had caused the colonial programme to move so slowly, in case these simple organisms had complex cousins elsewhere on the planet.
“It’s only the bacteria and archaea—nothing else. But in the highest concentration I’ve ever seen! There are so many, they’ve turned themselves into sand.” Brale’s voice shook. “I have no idea what caused this. It’s not happened on any other colony planet.”
“Tomorrow’s landing is out. We’ll have to investigate…” The commander turned to the view screens, looking onto the set-down area once again and there was heavy silence in the lander cabin.
“Edmund, what’s that other type of basic organism? The one that builds potentially intelligent life? There is one, isn’t there?” The sudden sharpness of the commander’s voice took Brale across the cabin.
“You mean the eukaryotes?” Brale also looked at the screens and his heart began to beat furiously.
“Eukaryotes. Yes. You and I are made of eukaryotes, aren’t we?”
“Thirty-seven trillion of them, give or take.”
“It’s how life developed on Earth? The other two prokaryotic types got together?”
“They made cells with a walled nucleus. Walled nuclei build complex life.”
Outside the lander, the ridges had disappeared, leaving a stretch of brown and purple sand. It was an uneven surface, and it was moving. All over, wherever they could see, appearances of objects were emerging and collapsing back into granules. Brale thought he recognised a small lander.
As the two travellers watched in fascination, a half-formed shape of what might be a space-suited person rose near the ladder and lifted an arm, just as Brale had done not two hours earlier.
“Mission abandoned!” said Allen, his voice dull and defeated.
But in Brale’s mind, a gleam of understanding grew, followed by realisation, and a sudden surge of joy that the planet would become his home after all.
“No,” he said, placing his arm around his friend’s shoulders. “Don’t do that. It will be all right. Take the word of your expert. The people can come down. We’re going to be colonists.”
He went to the exterior hatch, keyed it open, and waved at the brown and purple sand below.