Andre Lumin and Tom Novak sat at the controls of their Mercurian rover and watched the lander’s ascent. It rose up like a lost balloon, becoming a barely discernable speck, before its drive roared into life and it burned a bright arc across the evening sky. Seconds later it would be back in space.
Tom looked out on the planet’s surface. The windshield’s optics created a false day, but the Brisingamen cluster still dominated Idun’s sky. Their landing site was a barren, level field in an area of low hills. It was covered in loose stone and bare rock and located a couple of hours north of the shore that was their first destination.
They were here to study the tardigrade-like creatures that had been detected by orbital probes. On Earth 'water bears' were microscopic animals capable of living in the harshest environments. Morphologically the bears of Idun seemed to differ only in size, but that difference was astonishing. Those spotted averaged six meters in length and stood over two meters in height. They represented evidence of complex life, and they were coming to represent something more: the giant tardigrades had since been detected on a dozen more planets in this area of space. A mission to Idun was quickly put together from available resources. Two ships were already scheduled to be in the area, six months apart. The first would drop off the two man crew and the second would pick it up. Simple. Expedient. No one knew what could be learned in that time--planets are huge once you set down on them--but they had the personnel, the equipment, and the opportunity to make what many saw as an important first contact mission.
The rover was painted a bright yellow, a nod to an earlier generation of heavy equipment, sat on eight wheels and was heavily shielded. It would serve as their home, lab, and transportation. The labs were built along the right side exterior, hidden behind a large panel, which lowered to serve as an access platform. Robotics allowed them to work the labs from within. Andre eased it off the gravel and onto a slope covered in lichen. Ahead lay fields of blue, purple, red, and white. They saw no flowering plants. He proceeded cautiously. He had studied out the terrain carefully, but the charts showed only the vegetation and not the ground beneath.
Looking through a monitor, set to natural optics, Tom saw everything fade to a pale indigo. He was enjoying the ride. It wasn’t often that he found himself in a vehicle fixed to the surface by local gravity. He had been an astronaut for ten years. Andre, the mission commander, had twenty-five years seniority.
The two didn’t talk. They liked each other well enough, but they had spent their journey to Idun debating the implications of the bears and now were determined not to let their differences define their relationship. Tom wondered if there was any connection between these tardigrades and the tardigrades of Earth. Andre was skeptical.
"If there was a connection, why haven't we found any in the vast area between here and Earth? No. It's better not to draw such fantastic analogies. The size alone implies a very different physiology.”
Tom hadn’t been willing to let the matter go so easily. “True, but Terran species are also known to have giant antecedents. The sloth and the…”
“No, no. Nothing on this scale. Calling them tardigrades, or bears, it only sets up biases in our observations. Whatever these creatures are should be taken on its merits. The fact that they are on so many planets, that's much more important, much more wonderful, than having microscopic look-alikes on Earth. I don't mind telling you, I've spent my whole career dreaming of meeting another spacefaring species and now, after all the time we've spent exploring our universe, we finally discover a real indicator. Now that's exciting!”
His whole career was something Andre was quick to raise in any conversation. Not only was he more experienced, but his whole family was deeply involved in astronautics and had been since the beginnings of human space exploration. Tom was the only member of his family to leave Earth and he couldn’t trace its involvement past his own interest, which grew out of summers at the lake. There he would float on the surface of the water, staring up at the night sky, and imagine himself among the stars. He couldn’t really fault Andre’s reasoning, but even if they limited the bears to this area of space, how was it possible that they were on so many different planets? They saw no signs of civilization, or of the material culture associated with civilization. Tom began to advocate a wait and see policy.
They drove through round hills, following a course Tom had predicted would lead them to the tardigrades. Some hills were barren, but others were covered in leafy plants, many of which grew as high as trees, their stems twisting together to form a supporting trunk. In one place enough of these plants grew together to form a small grove. A forest primeval.
Circumventing a small hill, they found themselves at the top of a cliff overlooking the sea. Andre drew the vehicle as close to the edge as he dared and the two suited up. There was a loud, rolling, droning noise, punctuated with pips and whistles. They walked to the edge and found themselves near the center of a wide, round bay. Fifteen meters below beneath them stretched a broad, gravel beach crowded with bears. Andre stretched out his arms, delighted at such early success, “There are hundreds of them! Congratulations!”
Tom’s first response was to modestly wave off Andre’s praise, but he was also excited. Hundreds. The huge tardigrades covered the beach. He used his suit's vocal commands, “Adjust visuals. Increase magnification. Stop. Camera record.”
The tardigrades were uniform in size, though their coloration varied from red, purple, blue, and gray. Roughly matching the vegetation. There were no youth or eggs anywhere. Watching them Tom thought of seals gathered together to find mates and breed. But they weren’t seals. He reminded himself of Andre’s earlier point: don’t let analogies color your judgment.
Each bear had four pairs of legs and above each pair ran a hardened plate, dividing the bears’ torsos into four segments. The front and side borders of their scapular plates were smooth, but along the rear edge of these frontal plates grew a series of triangular points, with those on each side growing out to form much longer horns. Some Terran water bears had corresponding filaments growing from their plates. Each of their eight legs ended in four claws. They movements were supple, deliberate. Those in the water bore their weight so evenly that they seemed to be floating. On various parts of their bodies, though mainly on their heads and backs, were growths that reminded him of digitate corals. They shone with a pale bioluminescence. Were they parasites?
At the water line was a pool shaped like an enormous tardigrade print. Time and water had eroded it and Tom suspected it was simply a depression in the ground. It looked about three meters across. How big would a water bear have had to have been to make that?
Tom was about to raise the question with Andre when his visor lit up green and his suit's alarm system began an insistent warning: “Caution! Caution…”
His feet seemed to give out from under him and for a moment he was unsure of what was happening. He leapt back as the edge of the cliff collapsed, taking Andre with it.
“Andre!” There was no answer. “Andre!”
He stepped towards to edge, then stopped. He could feel the ground shift beneath his feet. Was Andre dead or injured? The fall was high enough to kill a man, but Tom couldn’t assume his teammate was lost. He would have to get down there.
Tom ran back to the rover. He knew the quickest way to get to Andre. He moved the vehicle up parallel to the cliff edge. It came equipped with a small service crane, intended to load heavy samples. Tom fastened himself into a harness and, using a remote, lifted himself over the broken edge. The cliff was a sandy grey, the areas exposed by the collapse a dull white. With the top missing, the remaining cliff face jutted forward, preventing him from a smooth descent. He jerked to a stop only a third of the way down. He couldn’t climb over it. Wherever he touched the cliff more dirt and rock was loosened and fell down towards Andre. This wasn’t going to work.
Turning himself around, Tom looked down. He couldn’t see Andre, but he could see the bears. On the beach. In the water. They weren’t eating. They weren’t doing anything. They just seemed to be waiting. How were they going to respond when he drove the rover down to the bottom of this cliff?
Tom quickly returned to the rover. It would take more than an hour to reach Andre. Even if he did survive the fall, would he survive long enough for Tom to reach him? It was too long for Tom’s peace of mind. He felt the tension growing down his shoulders and back. In his hands as they gripped the controls. He was angered at the senselessness of it all. They plan for every contingency so when accidents did happen it’s always seemed to be something unexpected, trivial. Something stupid. If Andre wasn’t dead, would Tom spend the rest of the mission caring for a wounded man? He tried to distract himself from these worries by concentrating on practical considerations. He did a mental review of the mission plans and tried to figure out how much could be accomplished alone, but that only brought back to his current situation. He saw a lot of tracks heading toward the shore, but he didn’t see any bears. He didn’t know why they were gathered, but it seemed they were all there.
Tom moved the rover down onto the gravel beach. At first he didn’t seem to draw any attention, he planned to stay on the periphery, but he hadn’t gotten far before individual tardigrades began to separate themselves out from the larger group. They seemed to position themselves between him and those nearest to themselves. They would rear up on their four hind legs and arch their heads down, emphasizing the horns that grew out from their frontal plates. He slowed and watched them. Each was protecting a smaller group within the larger herd, but none were moving towards him.
Unfortunately, the terrain of the beach drew him in closer to the bears. One of the bears stepped out and moved along side the rover. It reared up, placing its forelegs on the vehicle, like a dog trying to see over a fence. Tom watched it move around him on the external feeds. It seemed to be trying to look at the top. It came down and walked around the vehicle. It moved to the front and climbed up again. It ignored Tom, who sat only centimeters away on the other side of the windshield. Its underside did not have any plating, though there were skin folds around the legs. It climbed down, seemed satisfied and turned away. He was able to drive for several minutes before a second leader investigated him, this time without actually touching the rover. It walked in a semi-circle around the front and right side, pausing to rear up in a dominance display, and then turned its attention back to the water. They were all turning their attention to the water. That was just as well. Tom had driven as far as he could. If he was to get any further, he would have to do it on foot.
He stepped cautiously from the vehicle. He wasn’t far from the cliff face that Andre had fallen down, but there was a lot of rocky ground to cover. He watched the herd. They were quieting down considerably. A dull drone was all that was left of the earlier clamor. They were anticipating something. But what? He would worry about that once he had his crewmate.
The rocks were dry and bare. If he wasn’t in his suit, they would have been no impediment at all. Still, they didn’t slow him much. He could see Andre, face down amidst rock and rubble. Tom wanted to call out, but considered the silence. He didn’t want any attention now that he was outside the safety of the rover. From atop a rocky outcrop he could see the water stretched out before the bears. The surface glowed. It reminded him of the moon reflecting off the lake of his childhood. Tom hopped down and ran to the body. Whatever other injuries Andre had sustained during the fall, he had landed on his head. The visor plate was cracked and the connective brace between the neck and shoulders was buckled.
Tom knelt beside the body. Confirming what was already obvious, he accessed the data port on Andre’s left forearm. “Health status?”
There was no status to report.
He ran a check on the suit’s diagnostics. They were fine. Undamaged by the fall. Andre Lumin was dead. He reached down, intending to turn the body over, but stopped. Andre deserved better. Not some stupid accident. Tom stood and began to consider the situation.
He climbed back atop the outcrop. The water shone. “Natural optics.”
The Brisingamen lit up the night sky and the bears’ skin tones shone with a spectral glow in the light of their coral-like growths. The light in the water was not a reflection. Something under the water was moving closer to the shore. The bears began to push forward. The ones in the back now crowded in with the others and the ones in the front hurried into the water. He could hear their footsteps and the splashing of the water, but they had stopped making any noise at all.
Suddenly the source of the light emerged from the water. It swayed a bit as it climbed higher above the waves and was still some distance from shore. Only as a second one began to emerge did Tom realize what the first one was: a truly colossal tardigrade, at least thirty meters long. Nothing this big had walked on Earth for millions of years.
It upper body was a city of light. It seemed completely covered in the cones. A luminous reef, walking in from the sea. As the first approached the shore a third began to emerge. The bears on the shore rushed towards them, crowding their feet without fear. The second and the third also climbed up out of the water and were approaching the shore. They moved slowly. Tom wondered if it was because of their great size--did they require water for mobility?--or were they just being careful not to step on anyone?
With the first two were on the shore and the third close behind them, Tom stepped down from the rocks and began to make his way to the rover. One of the giants stopped. The other two looked to it. The hundreds of waiting bears stopped pushing forward. Tom was still. He watched the giant. The brightness of the cones on its head obscured its eyes. “It’s me,” he realized, “I’ve interrupted something.”
The giant began moving in his direction. Tom stood there and watched it approach. The bears made a path for it. Its size compensated for its seemingly slow movement, and it quickly covered the ground between them. A small group of bears came forward with it. They too were covered in the glowing pillars. Intuitively, Tom understood that they were herd leaders.
The group encircled him, standing shoulder to shoulder, as the giant stood over him. Looking up he could see the face and mouth of the giant. It reached out to him. His mind filled with images of suns and charts, routes and summers at the lake. He didn't know what to make of it. It was as though he had been asked a question he hadn't heard and was giving up answers he didn't understand. The journey to Idun. The landing. The arrival at the shore. Andre’s fall and his attempt to rescue him. The group now crowded in and he could see nothing but their faces pressed together and against him. He felt his heart beating, but he wasn’t afraid of them. A chorus of sound erupted. Things seemed to fold into themselves. For a moment everything went white, then black.
He woke up feeling the wind on his skin. He was lying in grass, unsure of what had happened. His suit was gone. So was Andre’s body. He sat naked in a field of grass.
The herd leaders gathered a few yards away. Stomping and murmuring, they were positioning themselves around a point he couldn't see. Their voices began to sing back and forth to one another. The pitch grew and modulated until it became the same sound he had heard while standing at the center. They bent space around themselves and blinked away. Again, it was as though his vision folded in on itself. A wave of vertigo washed over him. He held his eyes shut and buried his face in the grass.
The disorientation passed and he stood. He was at the lake of his childhood summers. What had just happened? Andre had met his spacefarers and Tom had been brought back to the place where he had first dreamed of space. Dreams, memories, aspirations. If the bears of Idun had no connection to Earth before, they certainly had one now. He felt the grass on his feet, the coolness of the early morning, and began to make his way towards the water.
Originally Pubished at: David Bird