After a night empty of sleep, pondering the existence of love, and even though it was my day off, I got a chance to go off-planet for two weeks. One of the capture specialists was ill and had baled on an inoculation mission to M3287. I jumped at the chance to get a few light years away, and focus on something that had some meaning for me. “We get it to walk through a mist net – that’s what we call it. It’s a sedative spray. Has to walk into it, through it, inhale it. Then it drops off. The only way.” I nodded. Damn clever.
You could never inject a Teluthi, with that armoured hide, hidden by those spikes. And get anywhere near those sharp edges.. The Teluthi we were looking for had just picked up a furry friend. A lethal, slow killing fungus that would destroy the Teluthis and all their kind, as well as a lot of other stuff on their home, here in the M3287 Constellation.
We waited in amongst the broad and sweat laden leaves of the Teluthian jungle – well, the sweat wasn’t really sweat, but condensation that drifted through masses of airborne gorphyte pollen. The effect was shining trickles of dew that looked, and even smelled, a bit like sweat. Luckily, there were clear patches of open grass between the gorphyte bushes, and through these, on happy occasion, would wander the odd Teluthi, blade- like scythes for mandibles – a cross between a prickly praying mantis and a cutworm with a chainsaw for a mouth. We could hear some feeding nearby, and hear the snap as cut leaves broke off from plants, but nothing visible. Then I got shoved from behind.
I was just going to tell whoever it was in the team to stay still, when I saw it was a Teluthi, backing into me, head tilting up and down rhythmically as it mowed its mouth through a massive leaf. I moved aside, trying my best to a)behave like a gently parting gorphyte bush, b) not get perforated by those spikes, c) get my spray blaster ready. My mask was already on. So. A bit ahead of the beast. But this one was reversing.
There were no plans for mist bombing a reversing Teluthi. I waited, then popped a balloon of the mist stuff under its nose – flapp! The balloon burst, and out spewed the mist, but it was too close.The Teluthi only got a whiff, as the noise frightened it, and it scampered off. Dr. Hoag leered out at me from some bushes, I could have sworn he was waving a finger at me, but then I saw he was pointing. There was a small Teluthi walking into the last puffs of the mist. It sniffed, careened around, looked at me with small child innocent eyes, and fell down fast asleep. The mist worked, but now we had a kid on our hands, and a bristling mom Teluthi would soon be all over us.
Hoag was next to me now, and shaking his head at the team to leave the young one. I think he would have survived if there weren’t two adults coming from different directions. They rattled right past me, and pinned him between each other, then pushed. Hoag screamed and leaked blood everywhere, and then the two Teluthi’s pulled apart to examine their handwork. Hoag fell like a wet sack, and the two Teluthis sniffed him, and then I fell over a gorphyte leaf. Luckily, I fell in to the bush, so the prickly beasts couldn’t pierce me right away. But, they did start eating their way towards me. Now that sounds funny, but they eat as fast as a weedcutter. I still had hold of the spray blaster, and thought I’d give it a go – blepp! Mist puffed into their faces, and they looked at each other like ‘ do you feel the way I do?’ and then both lay down fast. I piled out of the bush, waved at the two others in the team to watch my back, and started to prep the mouth spray. It was like those vaccine sprays some of us had as kids.
Squirt squirt right into the tonsils. Tasted like old piss and cleaning fluid. I decided to do the young one too, and gave it just over half a dose. Snipped off a piece of scaly skin between the long and serrated spines, and sure enough, there was fungus. Put it into a little vial, and now I could focus on Hoag. We had to wrap Hoag in a sterisheet and kind of half drag him to the probe steps, then we carried him up. Once inside the probe, we could watch the Teluthis waking up, and see what happened. It took about twenty minutes, and then they flopped and rolled around, pricking themselves in the process, but nothing serious. My big anxiety was that others would see their distress, and attack them or beat them up or something, while they were down. Relax.
Not one Teluthi came near. Saw some, but they were much more interested in sweaty leaves. Now all three were up, and sniffing each other, and kind of re-establishing some kind of order in their lives. “They have to start pissing” whispered Gudrun, watching with me through one of the probe’s small portholes, rather than on the vid. “There.I think that one’s…” and sure enough, the big daddy one started squirting a lemony jet of urine onto the nearby bushes, this set the kid off, and then the female also joined in.
They peed for a minute, then two minutes, then going on three. “ Hell, will they ever stop?” I asked. Something we hadn’t figured on. The mouth vaccine would make them pee, but we weren’t sure how strong the stimulus would be. They could dehydrate. But then the baby stopped, then the female. But the male just peed on and on. Then some strange muddy stuff squittered out, and he stopped too. Then they all started licking the leaves. “Oh that’s gross!” Shadrack hissed, twisting his face. I saw other Teluthis approaching, drawn to the scent of the urine. Soon they too were licking the leaves, and within twenty minutes, there were at least thirty of them below us, lapping what was left of the urine. “Great. It’s working” I said. “Hell, they killed Hoag” Shadrack muttered.
It was the admission we were all avoiding. Until then, Hoag’s death had seemed incidental. True, no-one liked him much, even though he was the project leader. We had to do our job, and evacuate on the run, and there was no time. But another human had died, and we had not had a mourning. “ The rest are starting to pee now” Gudrun said, as if trying to distract us from Hoag. And they were. The strategy was to get the drug transferred contagiously, via the urine drinking. We thought that the Teluthis drank it to get some nutrient or trace element that their bodies gave it in processing, something they couldn’t otherwise find in heir habitat. Yet they never drank their own. Not consciously anyway, but perhaps by transference. Anyway it was a pee-fest out there, and we had worked out the dilution factors, so that about two hundred Teluthis would be inoculated at a time. As they were endangered on their planet, with only about seven or eight hundred alive in two small remaining areas of habitat, full inoculation was possible.
I walked over to Hoag’s body, and pulled off the sterisheet and took a good look. The body had been punctured in dozens of places,and while there was some amount of blood pooling,most had streamed out on the ground outside. Hoag.Old school, a sticker, but hell, he had published more papers than the rest of us put together, and had led the profession in one or two new directions in his time. ‘Hamba Kahle’ I grumbled the old Zulu goodbye at him, trying to keep my voice steady. The others came over, looked, and said their goodbyes. It’s not often a vet dies in the field.
We take the best precautions we can, and that makes us lucky. Injured, scratched, half-poisoned, losing extremities and getting scars, yes. Dying. No. So it was that for the first time that we used the first cryo-tank on the probe. These were specially made to embrace the dead, hygienically, until we returned home. Then we moved on, misted more Teluthians, for three more days, until we believed we had ‘bagged’ the full count. Then it was time to prepare for going home. First there was the medication needed to prepare for travelling at near light speed. That took a while to lull our bodies.
Then in a half hallucinatory state, we needed to make sure we all sealed ourselves into our individual event capsules – we called them crash caps, because that’s what they were, in the event of impact with an object at nearly two hundred thousand miles a second. They were also called n-pods, for narcolept pods, on account of how long we slept in them.Once we were settled in, the mellow tones of a reassuring voice , usually meant for first-timers, soothed us: ‘As we approach the relativeness of Earth’s time realm, we are re-timed, our bodies transformed into energy impulses, and placed in an artificially created zone slower than the Earth’s until we are re-timed. This procedure will not harm you. You will, however, feel lethargic for a few days.
Welcome back to New Earth !’ Basically, until we match our Earth time of departure plus a few earth days again, so that we don’t arrive back home and find our children are older than us, or worse, that Earth is a barren, burnt out planet millions of years in the future. The process, as with many of the freighters, the military, and explorers of the space generations, affected us, maybe permanently. Despite the comforting re-timing blurb. I would find myself taking what felt like a half hour to cross a room, and then at another time, feel I got across town in the second I thought about it. Most of us were loners anyway, and tried to stay away from any emotional attachments. If we did bond with someone, it was usually someone in our travelling herd of conservationists.
Yes, conservationists. We were sponsored by the drug business, of course. The so-called, legit over-the counter business. Even though I worked for the City, they found plenty of occasions to get me funded trips off planet, which reduced their pay packet obligations to me. And sometimes provided new knowledge, or a new resident at the city Zoo. It turned out that the biodiversity of other planets, now that we could travel at 172,000 miles per second, was not only within reach for those who appreciated great beauty and natural history, but was big business. A day or two after Earthfall, we stabilised, and could walk around again amongst , I liked to think, a mostly whole new population. Of course, just a few days had passed, and things would settle back to the way they were pretty quickly. Most of us used the occasion to visit the newest bar and get obliteratively drunk.
“ What’s it like to travel at near light speed.?” They always asked that, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I had no idea whatsoever. “ It’s like a blur, you know” I opened. That part was at least true. It was a blur, but not the blur they thought I meant. “Then it feels like it takes about five hours to lift your little pinky finger, and then it feels like a millisecond and you’ve read a whole book.” That part was a complete lie, but was close to the few times I had tried old, organic marijuana.
They stared at me in awe, and then I would say” Let’s see if we can make this feel like five hours…” and usually about thirty minutes later or so, they knew it wasn’t five hours, and I would say “ Do you know you weren’t even born when I started my return trip to earth two weeks ago?” That usually got them out of the apartment, even if I was just a few days older. I think it got them to thinking I might be seven hundred and forty, and that parts of me might break off. I thought about all the new lives I could have started if re-timing hadn’t been developed, generations after generations.
Every time you arrive back on Earth, everyone is new, everything is new. You have a fresh start every time, and you get to stay young longer. Before re-timing, there were those who took on the light years, signing away their lives and their future, all to find some new galaxy, some new life. They weren’t back yet.
There was a hearing once we were back, and collaborating testimonies and the ship vid showed what an accident it was. Hoag was laid to rest, and we all carried on living, going about our business. The Teluthi’s were doing well, judging from the radiovid we got of them daily, and so from that point of view, the mission was a success. Instead of the bar oblivion thing, I just wandered home, with a gathering mopiness.
Time would change things, but not just a few light years. I woke in what felt like the middle of the night, but was actually the middle of next day. My wristset was kind of wriggling and I looked at the caller ID. Inca. But she put down as I was about to touch ‘answer’. I fell back to a half sleep, and then there was a voice leaking into my bedroom from the access system. Inca. Sure was persistent for a one-night type of gal. I slapped the access button and soon she was standing mercilessly at the end of my bed.
‘ I heard one of you got killed with the Teluthi’s’ she said solemnly. I sat up.’Could have been any one of us, just bad luck and bad timing, really’ I mumbled sleepily. ‘Coffee? ‘ she offered. ‘Thanks’ I nodded and fell back on the bed. She put a cup by my bedside ‘ I don’t know how you like it, so I did it milk and two sugars’ she said and sat down on my old armchair, which I used as a clothes horse. ‘Usually half a sugar, but this is fine’ I said, nearly adding ‘ If you didn’t just do me for one night, you might know by now.’ I knew just by the way she sat, would never be domesticated. Probably the closest she got would be to make coffee. I would give her that. There was a long silence where we both sipped coffee studiously. Her eyes fell on my bedroom study desk, a notably different item of furniture from my study, study desk. ‘You’re reading the Mountains of California?’ she asked with a kick of surprise. ‘For the third time.’
‘ He is so powerful. Innocent.’ she said. That was about it. John Muir could capture the beauty of life through seeing its purity. I was pleased she liked such classic work, and Muir’s style of quiet passion. Definitely not populist literature. ‘ Wouldn’t it be… imagine what it was like to walk the Sierra Nevada in those days…I wonder if the Earth will ever get back to that?’ I mused. ‘They’re still there, you know, not as pristine, but still beautiful in places’ ‘Why are you here?’ I asked flatly. She put down her coffee. ‘I thought that I would see you at work, and we would be, sort of friends.. but when I heard about Hoag, I thought that it might have been you. And.. much to my disbelief, I found that I would have missed you. Considerably.’ “Ah’ I said. ‘Sort of friends, and ..’ she started protesting but I raised a hand and deflected her. ‘..and ‘ considerably’ .
You describe a mere acquaintance here, someone you know slightly, or slight knowingly…’ She cut in despite my raised hand, and she was getting angry. “ I’m not good at this. I’m telling you that I care for you, and I’m not good at telling anyone that.’ She stood quickly and started walking to the door. I shrugged. Near the door she turned. There was water in her eyes, and her voice was rising and falling. She stabbed an angry finger towards the floor. ‘You see? This is why.. This is exactly why I don’t like getting involved. It just fucking hurts more than just saying hi and moving on.’ I stood. ‘Same goes for me. Except we don’t have a choice.’ She looked. ‘ It’s not the way we look.
It’s not our bodies. Not the sex.’ I sighed. ‘It’s not visible. That’s the mother that got us. That stuff.’ That web of hope and dreams and dna and ideas. I picked up the John Muir book and put it down again. ‘ That stuff gives us no choice. Right now, only you’ve got it for me, and only I’ve got it for you. It pulls us together and carefully hides what it is.’ ‘ We do have a choice’ she said softly. ‘We can walk away’. ‘Yes.’ I agreed. ‘But that hurts. Almost as much as trying to stay together. For me, that’s no choice any longer.’
I picked up the book and put it down again. ‘Because it starts all over again, some other time, with some other being. And we either try, or we just walk away from something that makes us walk away. No choice. I don’t like taking the option every time, time after time.’ ‘So?’ ‘So, don’t walk away. I’m sorry for taking issue with the way you said things. We’re scared. I say bring it on. Let’s be scared together.’ I moved toward her, and she backed away a little, and then waited, and I held her. We stayed like that for a minute or two. ‘ Just for a day’ she said, and let go of me and sat on the bed. She saw my puzzled look. ‘We’ll have this relationship, whatever it is, just for a day.’ In my dreams I settle down with a loving and devoted woman and we do life together. So it was hard to hear the ‘day’ part. But inside me, I knew that I would never settle for settling down like my dream painted. It would end badly. Inca was right. A day. That’s all any relationship has. And if we’re lucky, that’s followed by another day. A day is as good as it gets, and if I was going to have a day, by God, it was going to be with her. ‘Ok’ I said, and we fell back on the bed, finding smooth and warm places we liked about each other. I think underneath it all we were looking for the invisible stuff.