‘Starr! To the control room! Now!’
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The intercom cracked and hissed, making it difficult to understand her Co-Commander’s words. Only the highly developed sensitivity of her pointed, feline ears enabled her to pick up the urgency in his voice.
‘What is it now?’ she grumbled, rolling reluctantly out of her gravity-controlled sleep chamber. She had lost count of the times Chemali had called her to see some discovery. Truth is, she was sick and tired of looking at junk and destruction. Smothering a yawn, she groped for the door of the cleansing stall. That should wake her up. Had she gotten through one sleep period without interruption since they’d left home?
‘Starr!’ The intercom crackled again. ‘On the double, Commander!’
She frowned. One of them really should make time to tend to a few necessary chores. After all, this spaceship was to be their home for another three years, or until they found Earth. Home. How she wished she was there right now. To walk through the cool green forests in early morning when all the world was still. One long finger stabbed a green button.
‘On my way. Don’t pop a vein.’
Really! The man didn’t even begin to understand the meaning of patience. His discoveries usually meant another chunk of space debris, a burned-out satellite, or the floating hulk of a long-abandoned space station. And the stuff was so primitive!
‘Hurry!’ Chemali called.
She stuck out her tongue at the speaker as she exited the stall. Pink skin glowing, she
somersaulted and slid, feet first, into her one-piece work suit. The shiny leaf-green fabric clung seductively to her slender curves. The colour matched her eyes and the soft fuzz that capped her head. She zipped the suit, gave a little push with her feet, and let herself float up towards the control room.
‘Took you long enough.’ Chemali didn’t even turn around as she entered.
‘Hello to you, too,’ Starr mumbled under her breath as she fastened the safety belts of her console chair and shot him a quick look. ‘Okay, hot shot, what junk have you discovered this time?’
‘Can’t you ever be serious?’ Eyes the colour of his emerald green suit and head fuzz flashed dangerously. He was growing a little tired of her flippancy. ‘No wonder you’re always in trouble.’
She glared at him. An extended mission was bad enough but a partner with no sense of fun made it worse. She had always thought Chemali was pretty cool but lately she was beginning to wonder. ‘Cripes, who put the wrinkle in your suit?’ she mumbled. ‘Besides, I’m not really in trouble.’
‘You’ve been reprimanded more times than I care to count,’ he retorted. ‘You know as well as I do, you’re supposed to follow the rules.’
‘Rules were made to be broken,’ she countered. ‘Sometimes, anyway. Weren’t you ever rebellious, Chemali?’
He shook his head. ‘No wonder they sent you out in space for five years. Perhaps they thought the solitude would teach you some respect for policy.’
‘And you got stuck with me. Why were you sent out here?’ His rosy-hued skin darkened slightly and she held up her hands in mock surrender. ‘Okay, okay. I give. Just tell me why you called me up here one whole hour before schedule. And it better be good.’
‘Earth,’ he said very quietly, regretting his harsh outburst, and almost regretting his presence here.
Starr drew her fuzzy green eyebrows together questioningly. ‘Yeah, that’s why we’re out here. So what about it?’
‘We’ve found it,’ Chemali told her, ‘but you’re not going to like it.’
Her eyes grew round and a grin of pure pleasure lit up her face. ‘Well, why didn’t you tell me that in the first place?’
Visions of meadows, sweetly-scented with wild flowers, and vibrant green forests raced through her head. Blue skies with fluffy white clouds and soaring eagles. Pretty green oceans teeming with all sorts of marine life. Sandy beaches and pink seashells. Brooks running merrily over smooth pebbles. Laughing waterfalls tumbling into churning white pools. Her research had indicated that Earth was a virtual paradise.
‘Do you realize we’re way ahead of schedule? That means we can go home early. Chemali, we...’
The one word was spoken with such a tone of authority that she stopped talking abruptly and stared at him in amazement, mouth gaping.
His lips twitched as if he were holding back a smile. Then he cleared his throat. ‘Didn’t you hear me? I said you’re not going to like it.’
‘Take a look. It isn’t pretty.’ He switched on the front monitors, turning the telescopes on full power. It hit her like the force of an unexpected wormhole — this wanton and total annihilation of an otherwise promising world.
She studied the images briefly, and then slumped in her seat. ‘We can’t colonize it.’
He shrugged his broad shoulders. ‘It doesn’t look very promising. We’ll need extensive tests before landing.’
‘Right! Let’s get the probes in orbit.’ She was all business now as her twelve fingers flew over the controls of her console panels. Starr could become totally absorbed in her work, effectively blocking out everything else. Chemali admired her powers of concentration.
Hours passed. Each test produced increasingly disturbing results. The idea of the overflow population of their home planet relocating here on Earth was looking less and less feasible. And they’d had such high hopes for this one. The humanoids here were so much like their own species and Starr had felt sure the two races could live in harmony. Now, it appeared there were no humanoids — or any other kind of life! Tears filled her eyes.
‘The ozone layer is in bad shape, but we can repair that,’ Starr said thoughtfully. ‘Any sign of life?’
Chemali shook his head. ‘None so far. Scans indicate only ruins of structural forms, some of them under water.’
‘Educated guess? Oh, four or five hundred years at the very least, possibly longer.’
‘That would explain why the satellites and things we’ve seen are so technologically primitive. So what do you think happened here?’
He drew a long deep breath before speaking. ‘Offhand, I’d say it was a complete environmental breakdown. There are trash heaps everywhere filled with things that still haven’t decomposed.’
She nodded. ‘There’s a high content of carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere, indicating extensive use of numerous polluting agents.’
‘Oxygen depletion. Carbon poisoning.’ He punched a few more buttons. ‘Water bodies are thick with sludge. No sign of living organisms there either.’
‘No plant life either. Humanoids can be so near-sighted,’ she said sadly.
‘What do you mean?’
‘They are unable, or unwilling, to visualize their own futures. They put all their time and energy into technological development and luxurious lifestyles, and ignore the probable consequences of their behaviour.’ She waved a hand at the screens. ‘This is the price they pay.’
‘Extinction?’ Chemali brought up a closer look. ‘Look at this. It’s so desolate.’
The images relayed by their orbiting camera probes were unsettling. Everything was deathly still and bleak, covered with varying depths of debris. Long-dead volcanoes stood like silent, open-mouthed sentinels, surrounded by pools of hardened lava. A few volcanoes, gasping for breath in the suffocating atmosphere, sent thick, black smoke signals spiraling upward from their charred tops.
Mountains that should have been covered with trees and capped with snow were just cold, naked rock. Flowing waterfalls had become mere gouges in cliff faces, above shallow black pools of sludge. Valleys that once supported lush green growth had become catch basins for falling debris. Rivers and streams were nothing but dry, deep scars. Ponds and lakes had been turned into beds of poisonous quicksand.
Cavernous cracks zigzagged across the landscape, gaping like monstrous mouths. Huge boulders protruded from jagged holes where they had been forced up by tremendous pressure from beneath. Gigantic trees looked up as if they had been uprooted and tossed to lie haphazardly wherever they fell, their branches like arms stretched out for help.
© Fay Herridge
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