The Price of Sentience
This planet…we are not alone on it…in the shadows of night, we see forms, apparitions. When I try to look closely, they fade away. This planet…It is my belief that it is not meant for us. I think we should leave. There is a darkness rising on Arjuna.
It takes an unusually high mental capacity to ignore the rambling thoughts of the Collective and focus only on the voice you want to hear. For me, a biologist currently trying to find salvation for the human race, that one voice I search for is often the root of all life: the Earth spirit. There are billions upon billions of thoughts in the Collective. Of reproduction, of love, of war…every life on Earth sends energy into it. Until recent decades, human kind, Homo sapiens, didn’t have the ability to tap into it. Being bipedal and with advanced abilities, the last step in human evolution was of the mind. It took thousands of years, but eventually select humans developed the ability that for so long, man had been lacking.
I am part of the Collective, one of the Listeners, the first human ever to hear the voice of the Earth itself. Although my grades in ‘Silent’ school weren’t spectacular, at a young age my Listening abilities surpassed any other humans’ in the world. At age twelve, I was pulled from school, isolated from the other children. I was the only one in my class with Listening ability, answering middle-school level biology exam questions with complex diagrams and exact genetic codes.
Soon after I was removed from ‘Silent’ school, school for children without Listening abilities (the term ‘silent’ refers to the relative silence of the mind), my life consisted of scientific examinations and intelligence tests, white rooms and interviews with military officials. Most of the scientists and people surrounding me were obviously Silent; aside from perhaps three other children in the facility, all younger than me at the time. I was never quite told what the facility I stayed at was called or where it was. I was only moved to another, completely different facility when I turned sixteen.
This second facility consisted mostly of time in a courtyard, filled with natural things; trees, flowers, bees, ants, birds…I don’t remember much of what happened there outside of what I heard in the Collective; only that, in that courtyard, with an ant on my hand, was where I talked to Earth for the first time. I remember the wires, too…the electrodes that left circular bald spots on my scalp when they were removed four months later. Perhaps to one of the Silent, the courtyard would have been a prison, but I didn’t quite mind it, not when I could immediately know the biological workings of every organism in my proximity.
When they led me out of the courtyard, the scientists and government officials that had been watching me the entire time asked me what I learned. Many times Earth had told me to tell them the truth if they asked, having warned me that they would not be happy of the news…but I told them anyway, because every living thing on Earth wanted me to. That’s what they all said in the courtyard, the bees and the grass.
So I told the man in the white lab coat what I heard. Humans were doing a lot of damage to the Earth. Not just the dirt or the trees, but the Earth itself. The scars from human activity were visible from space, some thousands of miles long. The rainforests, which hundreds of years ago had sustained the most genetic diversity on the planet, were gone, had been gone for decades now. The mass extinction caused by human activity had been enough to decrease the Collective. Animals foreign to me, like tigers and bald eagles and elephants no longer contributed to the knowledge, though Earth memorized their appearance and genetics and at their mention, had showed me what they looked like. They were all beautiful, in their own way. I couldn’t fathom why people would drive them to extinction. Fear, Earth always told me. Fear of what they don’t understand. Another common word I heard from everyone was greed. I’d come to hate greed very quickly, after becoming a Listener. Not for my sake, but theirs.
The summary of the message from Earth to the man in the white coat was this; Homo sapiens had done irreparable damage. There was no choice for us but to leave. We were destroying the planet, killing Earth with our mere existence. We either had to leave, saving Earth and our species, or stay and kill the planet and our species along with it.
The words I said that day, at age sixteen, changed the entirety of human history. I was not allowed to leave the courtyard facility, not because they wanted to study me, this time, but rather for my own protection. The media had come and interviewed me, the Listening prodigy who might possibly be the salvation of the species. A good section of the world was thrown into anarchy for a while –the hatred and fear of Listeners grew like an infection once the news spread, and a lot of Listening kids my age and younger, unfortunate enough to be in the outside world, were murdered.
The Silent Wars lasted for about a year. There was a fear voiced in the Collective that the gene that allowed humans to Listen might vanish if we kept getting killed. Whenever I heard others like me speak, I couldn’t help but feel guilty. It was my face, my voice, my ability, that had caused the death of hundreds like me. Earth reminded me that my face, my voice, my ability, would likely be the salvation of my species and planet.
I was seventeen years old when Arjuna was discovered.
I continued to search through the Collective for Earth, but the amount of seeming white noise was overwhelming today. I was unable to pick out even one individual voice. Despite what other Listeners had been worried about during the war nine years ago, the population had increased tenfold. Although that made Listening, for me, harder than it should be. And if there was anyone who’s clarity in the Collective should be top priority, it was Doctor Andromeda Victoria’s- mine.
From the age of seventeen, all and any Listener business related to Planet Arjuna was mine. For nine years, now, I had lived at the Courtyard Facility, expanding my knowledge of biology and earning the title of Doctor. The future of my species depended on my Listening abilities, as well as the abilities of several other scientists. Their specialties were scattered, most pertaining to space travel technology or air properties on Arjuna.
“Doctor Andromeda,” I growled to myself and disconnected from the Collective. Not that it had been much use anyway. Again. Doctor Simon opened the door gingerly, and entered my ‘lab.’ The word lab was definitely a stretch – I didn’t have much need for microscopes and other gadgets, but I did keep bio samples recently retrieved from Arjuna. For months, now, I had been trying to connect to the sample via the Collective, through Earth, but no connection could be made. “sorry if I disturbed your work…but it seems some progress has been made on the frigate. It’s almost time to leave.”
I was dumbfounded. The lack of progress made on my end as of late was not only aggravating, but also humiliating, especially when the engineers had already discovered the secret to light speed travel as well as a way to convert the toxic air of Arjuna to useable oxygen within two years.
Simon laughed and laid a hand on my shoulder. “They’re giving us a week before we leave for Arjuna.”
“A week?! That soon?”
“We’ve done all we can on Earth, Andromeda. It’s time to put our skills as biologists to the test. And your skills as a Listener, as well.”
I stood up and turned to face him, angry as hell.
“You turn around and go tell Colonel Agostino that I’m not ready! This is an outrage, this is ridiculous!” Simon laughed again, a pleasant –if not slightly infuriating- sound. For years, now, Simon had been my closest friend, the sole witness to my recent failure at Listening. If anyone here knew what I was going through, it was surely him. He met my piercing gaze directly.
“You worry too much,” He moaned, rolled his eyes, and left the room.
“And you don’t worry enough,” I retorted loudly, simply for the sake of talking. But in reality, I was perfectly aware of my tendency to make problems where there were none.
I was also aware of the fact that Simon loved me, in a deranged way. Perhaps I loved him, too. I knew in my mind what love was; the Collective was based on an emotion much like love. The Earth felt love for all life, even Man. But that feeling, that illogical rambling in the mind, the confusion of the heart; I had never known that personally. So yes, perhaps I did love Simon, but I was too busy and as of now had no inclination to reproduce. Perhaps later in life, if I did my job correctly, I would be able to pass my genes on to the next generation. If my team failed, having offspring would be irresponsible; who would give birth to a child simply so that child could die soon in the future?
With that thought, I glanced at the bio-sample from Arjuna and sat down.
There was no way that a fertile planet could lack a Collective, or some variation on it. Without the Collective, Earth as a system could not function effectively. Until recently, humans had been left out of the ‘loop,’ and as a result we’d destroyed the system. Without any form of connection, without Listening, a biosphere would certainly collapse altogether. There had to be a way to Listen to this bio-sample, but that would come later.
I dug my microscope out of my desk and dusted it off begrudgingly. I read the tag on the bio-sample: Protist, sp.
I couldn’t help but curse the original examiner of this sample, undoubtedly Simon, for his lack of specificity. On Earth, Protist, sp. would do no good. Examining an ‘extraterrestrial’ life-form under such a label was counterproductive, if not an absolute waste of time.
I spent the rest of my time on Earth observing the sample in the ‘traditional’ fashion:
At first glance, it seemed to be hardly more than its label…a protist with movement similar to that of an amoeba. Even its anatomy was similar; undulating pseudopods, organelles. The only difference was its behavior. Unlike Earthen amoebas, its motion wasn’t simply for seeking out food. Rather, it appeared to be aware that it was being watched. When I placed a food item near it, it refused to eat it- until, apparently, I went to bed the second day of observation and returned the third day to find the food gone, and what appeared to be an entire colony of ‘protists.’ The amoeba-like features had disappeared completely, and instead the image that came into my head somewhat resembled a tubifex worm colony. I wrinkled my nose in disgust.
How strange. It was absolutely grotesque, yet at the same time, for some reason, I couldn’t avert my eyes. It was like a war video from centuries ago; so much blood, gore, horrible visions…but they were hypnotizing. I watched the colony squirm and undulate like a cyst inside a human body for a number of hours.
I wondered briefly if the surface of Arjuna was covered completely in undulating masses like this one under my microscope, however the photographs of Arjuna’s surface showed advanced plant life, not a mass colony of amoeba-like organisms.
“Simon, I’m afraid you’ve stumbled upon something marvelous without even knowing it.” I mumbled, again simply for the sake of hearing my voice.
For reasons unknown to me, I continued to observe the colony, unable to take my eyes off of it. Something about its movement- independent yet connected-enthralled me. Even in its current form, the organism still seemed to be aware of my presence. In the name of morbid curiosity, I placed a small amount of food on the slide, next to the colony. Unlike the last feeding, this time small tentacle-like projections shots from the body and engulfed the food item.
Something about that action caused my stomach to churn. Not having ever been squeamish before, this surprised me.
Why had the simple action of a feeding protist colony managed to disturb me so much? Like a domino setup, the question planted in my mind about my strange reaction only made my head start hurting. I took that as a sign to take a rest from my observations. I leaned back in my chair and quickly worked my way through the pain into the Collective.
It had been approximately three days since I’d last searched for the voice of Earth to ask her for advice. My mind clawed its way through the unconscious thoughts of man and animal alike, searching for that one again…and hit a wall. The absolute absence of any thought. Never before had I even heard of an obstruction such as this one, even less encountered one personally. The ‘wall’ didn’t only block my mind from the Collective; I also felt it try to drag me into it. What was this thing?! I pulled myself from the Collective far too abruptly. I felt my body jerk from the shock, and felt the dull pain of my body hitting the floor. I stared up at the ceiling, made of glass, blankly. For the first time in my life, my mind was completely blank. For the first time in my life, I was Silent.
As a Silent one would not know what to do if he suddenly became a Listener, I didn’t know how to handle this sudden silence in my mind. I tried to lift myself up off of the floor, but I was shaking too much to function correctly, and I just continued to lie there, staring at the ceiling in silence.
I opened my mouth to call out to someone, anyone, who could possibly talk to me. This silence was unbearable, painful. I wanted Simon here, I wanted to hear his voice, hear him tell me to stop worrying so much.
In my mind’s silence, a sudden sadness came upon me; if humans hadn’t been deaf for so long, leaving Earth wouldn’t be an issue. If only my species had given up our arrogance sooner…
The fact that I still loved my own species, my own shamble of genetic material, reaffirmed my lifelong observations about the nature of love.
With that break in the silence by my own thought processes, the pain grew too great. As the night closed in around me, I felt that wall. Pulling me, blocking access to the Collective, to the Earth. As I drifted out of consciousness, one image repeated in my mind, as if a movie was being replayed; the bio-sample, its tentacles reaching out violently to encompass the food item. I dully felt my stomach spill its contents onto the floor around me, then silence and night.
“Andromeda…” At the sound of my name, I attempted vainly to open my eyes. That voice. I knew that voice. “Andromeda…please wake up.” That time, the voice cracked, as if the speaker was panicked. I shouldn’t cause anyone such anxiety, I told myself. Maybe I should wake up and tell them everything is okay. However, as much as I tried to open my eyes, or my mouth, anything, I simply couldn’t. I felt the protist colony, its tentacles digging deep into not only my flesh, but also my mind. “Andromeda, wake up! Wake up!” The panic had turned to anger now, and whatever I was laying on was shaking slightly.
“Simon! Doctor! Calm down!” this was a different voice, now. Stressed; authoritative.
“Calm down?! Calm down?! My mission, and my friend’s life, are in peril. If she dies…we all do! ”
“Get him out of here!” Some scuffling occurred, and Simon’s voice was now fading, as he apparently got dragged away from wherever I was.
“Andromeda! Wake up! Andromeda! Let go of me, you bastards! I’m the only one who can wake her! Andromeda!” In the distance, a heavy-sounding door slammed, and my friend’s voice was silenced.
“Guard the door,” The authoritative voice mumbled, and his footsteps eventually faded away. “Make certain the lovesick dog keeps his distance until we know exactly what’s going on.”
“Yessir!” Then, silence.
Without any further reason to be conscious, I let myself drift back into the darkness, but this time the wall no longer held me. My time as a Silent was over for now, and hopefully for the rest of my life.
Sometime later, I couldn’t possibly know when, the familiar, warm voice roused me to consciousness.
“Andromeda?” Once I was positive it was Simon, I opened my eyes. The first thing I saw was his face drawn in a smile. “Andromeda,” He repeated my name again, relief apparent in his voice. I felt the ability to talk had returned to me at last.
“Simon,” My voice sounded new to me, foreign. “Simon, what the hell happened to me?” I quickly scanned the room we were in. I had never seen it before. It most certainly wasn’t my lab, or Simon’s. Rather, it had a medical setting. I finally became aware of the machinery attached to my body, the ‘bleep’ of my heartbeat. “Was I sick?”
Simon smiled awkwardly.
“Sick is a bit of an understatement, Doctor.”
Understatement? Before I could even wrap my mind around the meaning of the word, I pitched over and vomited. I missed Simon by a mere inch. He swore and avoided the puddle on the floor. The scent was terrible in itself, the feeling left in my body even worse. Simon paged the medical staff, and almost immediately five or six personnel were in the room with us. One began to clean what had been the contents of my stomach, while the others read the instruments attached to me. Simon’s expression was almost unreadable.
“Andromeda,” He leaned in closely to me, as if whispering a secret. “You’ve been unconscious for three weeks, at least. We’re on our way to Arjuna, in the frigate.”
Any leftover grogginess from my comatose state dissipated almost immediately as his words sunk in. I sat up in my bed quickly, and began to rip the instruments off of me. No. So much wasted time! The fate of Earth lie in my hands alone, and I’d slept through the last few days of research I’d had left. We were God-knows-where in space, on our way to a planet of mostly unknown nature, and there was no way to contact the Earth Spirit.
On top of that, I had discovered hardly anything about the ‘protist,’ aside from the fact that it was possible that it had a two-stage life-cycle. I was going to Arjuna nearly blind, as well as practically silent.
“Hey!” Doctor Rosalia Sola, the women in charge of the Courtyard facility’s medical clinic, finally noticed the steady ‘bleeping’ of my heart monitor had turned into a singular tone of death. She ran over to me and attempted to force me back into a laying position on the medical bunk. “Andromeda, you’re not well enough to sit up yet! Get…down!”
With her small stature, there was no chance of her forcing me down. Although I wasn’t exactly a large person myself –I was blonde with freckles, not exactly intimidating- I took pride in my physical fitness. She seemed to realize this as well, for shortly after our little struggle began, she called the rest of the staff for help.
Simon was the only one who didn’t attempt to hold me down. He knew me better than that.
I stopped struggling after the fifth staff member grabbed hold of my right arm. They strapped me to the bed as if I were insane. In retrospect, however, when I stared at that protist for three days straight, and fell ill from an unknown agent, likely related to the organism…perhaps I was insane. The medical personnel left the room, having hooked me back to the heart rate monitor and dragged Simon away, against his wishes.
I tried the best I could to remember where I was when I fell ill three weeks ago. Not where I was physically; that answer was obvious, I’d been in my lab. I tried to track myself mentally. While observing the second stage of a practically unknown protist organism, my attempt to Listen somehow threw me into a comatose state, robbing me of my Listening abilities prior to rendering me unconscious.
It was blatantly obvious, had literally been right in front of my face- the bio-sample had made me ill, and apparently very seriously ill.
During the scuffle with the medical personnel, Rosalia had mentioned something about an infection…
On Earth, there were countless species of parasitic protozoans, so why wouldn’t they exist on Arjuna? Of course, I was lucky enough to be the first victim. Comatose for three weeks. Unable to connect to the Collective. The journey to Arjuna, although I’d missed three weeks of it, was going to take approximately six more months. Hopefully, Simon had known well enough to bring the infectant with us, as well as my laboratory supplies and limited amount of clothing. Six more months of research was a blessing, if not a miracle.
I closed my eyes and attempted to connect to the Collective. I was able to, however it was not the collective of Earth. Rather, it was the small network of lives upon the frigate. Compared to what I was accustomed to, it was nearly Silent. No murmuring of photosynthesizing trees, or hunting predators. The whispers of life hardly existed here, on the ship, in this celestial wilderness.
I chose my next research topic that hour; mapping out the elements of life- whether it be the spirit, or life force itself – that made the existence of the Collective possible.
The bio sample was first priority, however. It was obviously a threat, able to affect the human mind itself. Anything that affected my ability to Listen may have the ability to affect the Collective as a whole.
In the midst of thought, the illness caught up to me. I closed my eyes and drifted into a light sleep, nothing like the fever-induced coma of the past weeks.
Life isn’t quite the miracle we think it is- not the nature of life itself, at least. It’s the Collective, the force which connects all life by as of now unknown means, that is the miracle. An organism with the ability to infect hosts and implant itself into those threads of connection would be disastrous. If its means of pathogenicity were by traveling and reproducing through the Collective, there would be no escape, no cure, and infection of the mind might be asymptomatic. Perhaps it could infect every living organism within seconds, within moments wind its way into the Earth itself. Destroy millions of years’ worth of evolution in second. Life is just a bundle of cells, biology. Birth, maturation, reproduction, and death. Infection, thought, murmuring…
I was no longer secured to the hospital bed Friday morning-apparently yesterday was Thursday, the day of waking. As I’d hoped, Simon brought basically my entire laboratory along with him, and my clothing. For the first time in my life, perhaps I owed somebody something.
The food was surprisingly good on the frigate. I found it ironic that we could hardly afford biologist staff, yet the food was decent, and obviously expensive. I had been about to start on my research, but Simon- who else- had dragged me to the mess hall, and rather forcefully as well.
I sat at the table rather quietly, not in the mood for conversation. Anyone who has been in a coma would know that waking up is a difficult task; possibly as painful as the onset of the disease itself had been. It’s hard to compare. My exhaustion wasn’t the only reason for my silence, however. Despite the danger I knew would result, my scientist’s mind, even moreso my Listener’s genes, were desperately reaching out to the Murmur. Although most physical symptoms of the illness were gone, somehow I knew that the organism still lived within me at that time. I also realized that I would likely never be allowed to return to Earth. My stomach dropped.
My colleagues’ laughter somewhat roused me from my brooding, specifically Simon’s, but since nobody addressed me directly, my mind slipped back into its stupor. The true weight of my research was simply too overwhelming at this time. Surrounding myseIf with people was no escape, nor a comfort. More than anything else, I felt as if I was abandoning my duty. I stood to leave.
“I have some research to do, thank you for the meal, it was nice to see all of you after such an ordeal.” Most of the other scientists and crew sitting at the table said goodbye as I left, but Simon knew better. Before falling ill, I would gladly have eaten and made conversation with my peers. I would have been making fun of whatever he’d said, he would have shot back a clever response. No. Simon didn’t simply say ‘goodbye. ’He followed me into the corridor, all the way to my laboratory.
“Is something wrong Andromeda? You’re not acting like yourself.” I tried to smile.
“ I’m fine. Just a little tired, is all. Need to start more research. See you when I’m done,” I went to open the door, but before I got the chance, he blocked my way. Obviously, he wasn’t convinced.
“I know you’re embarrassed about what happened, okay? And you’re probably tired, too-okay, definitely tired-but you’re not acting like the Andromeda I know.”
“I’m sorry Simon. I know you’re worried. I’m just not myself today. Still groggy from being ill… surely you can understand?”
He still didn’t move.
“I’ll only let you work today if you promise me you won’t even look at that bio sample from Arjuna. It’s what made you sick. You’re lucky I even convinced Colonel Agostino to let us keep it alive.”
“I promise I won’t Simon. Do you really think I’m that foolish? Now let me through, I need to relax.”
Simon moved out of my way. He was visibly exasperated, since he was intelligent enough to realize that an agreement I made about limiting my research was void.
“Only you would find biological research relaxing Andromeda…only you.”
I locked myself in the laboratory, dismissing him through my intercom.
“As you can see, Simon, I’m not even trying to look at the sample. You can leave now.”
He saluted me sarcastically and left. I stood for a moment, somewhat stunned. Lying was not one of my specialties, a personality trait I was proud of.
Satisfied with the lack of company, I surveyed the laboratory. Just as I’d hoped, Simon had designed the research area as a replica of my lab back on Earth. So picking up on my research wouldn’t be as difficult as I’d feared. The bio sample slide was in the microscope already, so either Simon was really kind, or it had never been removed in the first place. As I neared the murmur- named for the ‘white noise’ effect the pathogen had on my mind-a series of thoughts entered my awareness. It was a completely new sensation, one similar to the Collective but at the same time utterly new to my being.
The common sense I had as a biologist told me to walk away, to stop where I was, to leave the laboratory immediately. However, my Listener’s mind thirsted for the silent isolation from the Collective to cease. Before anything else, I was a Listener. It was part of me, engrained since birth. The meaning of my life. I pushed forward.
The murmuring in my head continued to grow stronger, drowning my common sense and fear. With every step, the unfamiliar whispering became clearer and clearer. Was this the Murmur trying to talk to me? Or the individual protist cells communicating to each other? The murmuring was a wall of sound, however I could pick out certain, individual words, somehow in English.
One word was’ heart’. The other was ‘mind,’ and another was,’song.’
This organism knew English somehow, or my mind translated what it could make out, so I could understand. The latter was the more likely of the two.
One more step forward brought me to the microscope. I peered into the eye piece. What I saw was astounding; a third life stage of the Murmur. Rather, spores, resembling the final stage of the slime mold life cycle, reached toward the air. If this organism reproduced on the frigate, heaven knew what could happen. I had survived infection by either a stroke of luck or by selection of the pathogen. Perhaps seeing me as valuable, the Murmur left me alive. Regardless, I refocused the microscope and increased magnification, for a closer look at the spore pods.
“No…” They were already split open. “No!” It was a recent development; however the simple act of my opening the laboratory would have been enough for some of the reproductive spores to escape into the rest of the ship. “How smart is this thing?” My stomach dropped, as the realization dawned on me that this organism might not only be deadly, but also have intelligence beyond that of any known protozoan. Unfortunately, only continued research on the organism would hail any answers.
But before I could even think about continuing, I had to tell Simon about the reproductive spores, and sentence myself, and possibly him, too, to quarantine until we arrived at Arjuna.
I paged the entire ship: “Simon, Agostino, there has been a breach. I repeat, there has been a security breach! The organism has reproduced by spores. There is a great possibility that they have escaped into the ship. Use all and any quarantine and sterilization techniques to the greatest degree possible! This is Andromeda, in the Research Lab in Quarter 5 of the frigate. The Murmur is a potentially deadly pathogen in the second stage of its life cycle! Do not allow it to live that long! Over and out!”
After the last word left my lips, a pounding headache struck me. Almost as if hit on the head with a hammer, the pain brought me to my knees.
Then it left, as quickly as it had come upon me.
The pain was replaced with more of the white noise, the murmuring. Yet my attempts to get back on my feet were fruitless. In truth, I was unable to feel my feet at all. Or my legs. My gut instinct deduced this could be nothing but the Murmur, writhing in my body, doing God-knows-what to it. However, strangely enough, the nonsensical ramblings in my mind were eaier to understand, now. Rather than meaningless isolated words, I could string together simple ideas such as “fear breath heart fast,” which indicated that the organism within me could likely monitor my emotions. In the most extreme of cases, perhaps the pathogen was able to communicate my status to other organisms of its kind, as well. Outside of my body.
Already the sample on the microscope slide had been able to contact me via the same pathway as the Collective.
While part of me found this simply horrifying…the bulk of my being found this absolutely intriguing, beautiful, even. Without the Collective, my mind was painfully silent. It was almost as if I had made my own form of the Collective with this species, this Murmur. At that thought, part of me regretted reporting the spawn around the ship. I had sent hundreds, possibly thousands, of Murmur offspring to their deaths.
But I knew it was for the safety of my colleagues; Simon, especially.
I still didn’t know if this foreign organism was out to kill all of us.
I forced myself to stand, and, finding it easy suddenly, grabbed a Notescreen and pen. What with the resource crisis on Earth, use of paper was forbidden except in absolute emergencies. All records were kept in company-specific data banks and entered via Notescreens- the “great grandchildren” of computers.
It dawned on me that my research no longer required use of a microscope alone, but also internal research. I focused only on the foggy noise within my mind. I would learn what I could about this protist from its thoughts.
“Andromeda!” Simon took longer than I’d expected him to. The murmuring stopped the moment I heard his voice. The locks to the door hissed, depressurizing.
“Don’t open the door! More could get out!”
“We’ve both been sentenced to quarantine until we reach Arjuna. Agostino is furious, Andromeda! Open up!”
“Sure, come in, but hurry up, or we could get everyone killed before we even get there, and quarantine will have been pointless.”
Despite the dangerous situation on our hands, Simon laughed. It was a genuine laugh, which both surprised and disturbed me somewhat. I smiled sheepishly and let him in. Once opened, the door made an announcement, pre-empted by an alarm, “WARNING-this door has been programmed to unlock from the outside only. Once closed, it cannot be opened from within.”
This was not a new announcement, yet for some reason the sound of the alarm, followed by the cold, robotic voice, unnerved me. It was almost a reminder of the fact that this organism, a microscopic ‘alien’ protozoan, could have the power to kill every single individual on this vessel. Many times in history, similar things had happened, driving further evolution through natural selection. This was nothing new; I was simply involved in this specific instance…
However, as a member of the species at risk, as a human, my ability to be objective was ruined.
“Andromeda?” Simon had a habit of interrupting my thoughts. Sometimes it was an annoyance, specifically during research. However at times like this one, when I found myself nearly drowning in my thoughts; his presence and lack of knowing when not to speak were a blessing.
“Hmm...” I turned to face him. “Simon, what if I said that the Murmur might have the ability to wipe out our entire species?”
Simon met my gaze and smiled softly.
“Well, that should be expected from the first pathogen ever discovered outside of Earth. I’m certain things will turn out less disastrously than you think they will. Agostino has ordered every single surface of this ship to be disinfected. If chemical means fail, well, they always have lasers, don’t they?”
I imagined that for a moment- envisioned the chemicals breaking down the organism’s cells, and a laser incinerating the Murmur molecule by molecule.
And to my surprise, above all else, I felt sadness at the idea. It wasn’t even that my research subjects were being destroyed, but rather at the loss of life. Along with a fear of silence. The loss of connection.
“What if I told you that it’s possible that I might have made a connection to the organism?”
Simon gave me a strange look.
“It is your research subject, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you became attached…”
I sighed at his obvious avoidance of the subject.
“That isn’t what I meant, Simon.” I pronounced his name with heavy distaste. “What if I can actually ‘connect’ with the Murmur?”
Simon reached over and felt my forehead. I slapped his hand away lightly.
“You must still be sick…I shouldn’t have even let you in here…you should’ve had more bedrest…”
“No. I’m not ill anymore Simon. I’m not delirious. I’m not joking. I’m absolutely, one hundred percent, serious. I think the Murmur might be…intelligent. I had slight suspicions before, since it did exhibit a sort of ‘awareness’ when I first examined it feed. It acted as if it knew someone was watching. And then it infected me…so it must have somehow known I was watching. It could easily have been someone else looking through that microscope. Yet it chose me, Simon.”
“Well, that’s how parasites work, Andromeda. You’re looking too far into it. There is no such thing as an intelligent protozoan.”
“Simon, after all these years as my colleague, I thought you would have more faith in me. I thought you would respect my ideas and discoveries. The Murmur is inside of me, Simon. This is an internal ordeal…I’m a Listener. I would know what connecting with another organism feels like! It’s inside me…learning about me, learning to translate chemical signaling into English words, and emotions! But why…” My fear had turned to excitement about this unusual organism. It was unreal, unimaginable, and hardly even plausible that such a thing could exist. However, my mind was not meant for silence. I was designed to Listen. Since conception, my genes divided and developed in such a way that I was given the rare ability. Combined with my advanced intellect and awareness of the natural world, my mind was a wonderful combination.
Since when had it become a possibly deadly combination?
“Listen Andromeda…it’s not that I don’t respect your ideas. It’s just that from my experience, protists don’t speak. Or think. Or plot.” Again, Simon had awakened me from my inner ramblings.
“You forget, the Murmur is from another planet! Of course we’ve seen nothing like it. There is nothing like it where we’re from. Imagine what else is on Arjuna. If its soft-bodied protozoans can think, what can the other phyla do?”
Six more months felt like it would be an eternity, after that thought reached my mind. I momentarily felt like a child again, getting giddy over such simplistic, questionable ideas. The image of a beautiful, almost fully-forested landscape appeared in my mind’s eye.
“Beautiful,” I whispered, and grinned. A genuine smile felt somewhat strange on my face. Since youth, I was designed to be a thinking machine, a biological expert with the ability to immediately know an organism’s genetic makeup. My imagination had been curbed by harsh reality; nucleotide base sequences and codons.
“I don’t know what you’re looking at, but a possibly deadly organism from another galaxy is not beautiful. Or intelligent. It needs to be destroyed.”
“I was talking about the planet. Do you not understand how much new life there is?” I glanced at the Murmur sample, under the microscope lens, and started towards it. “Now, I don’t know about you, but I have about a year of research to do. You can either assist me, or stand there thinking I’m a fool who has no idea what she’s doing. The choice is yours.”
From behind me, I heard a familiar, aggravated sigh. I knew Simon all too well. I knew how to piss him off to the point of actually accomplishing something. I mentally began to count to ten, my favorite technique when he proved too stubborn to be of any help to me. Before I reached five, Simon was by my side with a Notescreen.
“So, Andromeda, listener of aliens, what shall I do to help you?”
I gave no indication that I had heard him, aside from a low grunt in my throat. I already had my eye on the eyepiece.
“Observe. Yessiree.” I cracked a smile at Simon’s comment, despite my attempt not to.
The Murmur’s reproduction spores were dead- and surrounded by many cells at the first life stage. If the extermination techniques throughout the ship failed, before long the new cells would reach the second, infectious life stage.
“Simon,” I waved him over to the microscope, “Look at this.”
He looked into the eyepiece.
“These are the reproductive structures? It looks just like a slime-mold!”
“And look at the new cells.” I edged him on.
“Just like amoebas. So is this thing an extraterrestrial species of slime-mold? It looks just like it.” That had been my thought at first, when I began this research.
“Yes, I thought that, as well. However, at the second stage, the Murmur is carnivorous. It becomes plasmodial, with one united cytoplasm. The cells maintain their individual nuclei, which enables it to hunt. The cells cooperate together, and form tentacle-like projections out of the cytoplasm.” The only function of this organism I had not yet figured out was its ability to become pathogenic. How did the Murmur’s plasmodial colony of cells reach into other organisms and cause illness? All I remembered from falling ill was the wall in my Listening mind, then darkness. “And somehow, at this second stage, it becomes infectious. Which completely rules out slime-mold.”
“Have you taken a DNA sample yet, Andromeda?” Simon’s question caught me off guard for some reason.
“What? Oh, no. I haven’t. At first, I was just curious back at the lab on Earth. I was trying to connect to it, and see if it could be part of the Collective.”
“Well, then. We have about six more months to figure out this organism’s genome. Do you want to take the sample, or should I?” I shrugged, not all too interested in the process of DNA decoding. Besides, I didn’t know how to decode DNA using machines. I had always been able to ask an organism for its sequence. The Earth Spirit was able to tell me the exact codes of extinct organisms, all in my mind.
“My job is not to fool around with machines. You can have the honor.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right. Ms. Listener doesn’t know how to use decoding systems,” Simon immediately called my bluff. I blushed, despite myself. “You know, it’s not even hard anymore. Let me just…” He grabbed a pipette and lifted the slide cover.
“Simon…wait!” I was suddenly very anxious about the sample retrieval process, having just realized that when I became infected, the slide cover was still on. So…how? ? Why had I even become sick?
“What?” It was too late to stop him; the cover was off already. I watched him in horror as he inserted the pipette and withdrew sample organisms. He dropped the sample in a test tube and replaced the slide cover. “Where’s the centrifuge?”
“You have to kill it?”
“Well, yeah, how else can I extract the DNA?”
“Can’t I ask it?” Simon froze and narrowed his eyes at me.
“Get the centrifuge, Andromeda. There’s no Collective up here. Everything we need to know about this thing is in its genes. Get the centrifuge.”
“It’s right under you, on the shelving unit under the lab table.”
“Oh, okay, let me just reach under here and…” The sounds of a human screaming interrupted him; I was unable to make out the rest of the sentence. Simon froze where he stood, and moved his eyes to look at me. “What the hell was that?” Again, a horrible scream, somewhat muffled by the door, covered the last part of what he said.
“Simon, that doesn’t sound like a greeting. That doesn’t sound like a visitor. It sounds like…” We made eye contact, and held it for a few moments.
Whoever it was screamed again-a rugged, gurgled sound. It lasted for a few seconds- about ten, if I had to guess- and then tapered off into lasting silence.
“That sounds like somebody dying. And not pleasantly, either.” Simon nodded –his normally calm demeanor had vanished. He was grinding his teeth nervously. “Forget DNA, Simon. Look in the microscope quickly.”
“It looks...completely different! It’s a plasmodium…but it looks like a colony of…” My stomach dropped, and my body flared in a rush of adrenaline.
“Tubifex worms? Something like that?” Simon frowned at me.
“Well, yeah…what are you getting at?”
“Then we’re all dead.”
Simon turned and looked at me, his mouth opened in horror, “What do you mean…Andromeda?”
“The second life stage is when it infected me. So…if these young cells are already at that stage, the others around the frigate are, too…” Simon’s expression was completely unfamiliar to me-something between a grimace, and a mocking smile.
“And it’ll infect everyone on this ship. We won’t even have the chance to study Arjuna in person!” And then a tear ran down his cheek. Never before had I seen this man cry, although much tragedy had befallen our previous compound before. “Our entire species depends on Arjuna…” Simon slammed his fist on the lab table, sending much of our equipment flying.
“Our entire planet, Simon…the continued existence of more than our species alone is counting on this mission.”
“Shit! How the hell could this be happening?”
“Watch your mouth, Simon. There’s no need for you to use that language in the lab.” I was mostly joking, but that certain curse had never before escaped his mouth in a professional setting before. “You’re making everything worse. There has to be a way around this. There always is. Maybe I was around it for too long and…”
“Andromeda!” Simon’s voice echoed throughout the laboratory. “You heard that person out there, didn’t you?” I nodded, humoring him. His facial expression was too dark for me to think he could be trying to outsmart me. He was scared. “Well…do you NOW?! NO! The silence in this place is painful! Something is wrong.”
“Maybe the pathogen extermination techniques worked. Not many organisms can survive laser sterilization…” I knew that was bull shit. I knew that we could possibly be the only ones still conscious on this vessel. Without treatment, the high fever would kill the infected.
A sudden raucous at the door of the lab made my heart skip a beat. More screaming, accompanied by somebody banging on the door violently.
“Heeeelp! Someone, help me! My head! It hurts! Androme…da!” The voice was familiar, although I couldn’t quite place it. I opened my mouth to answer whoever it was. His headache was likely the first symptom of the Murmur. I remembered it vaguely, although soon after I had lost consciousness.
“No, Andromeda!” Simon put an arm out to stop me. “Let’s just…watch what happens.”
“But that’s awful! He’s dying, can’t you hear?” I yelled, trying to push his arm away.
“Yes, and I can see, too, and that’s why I think we need to wait. How can we cure anybody, or figure out how a pathogen works, unless we know how it affects the human body?” As much as I hated him for saying that, I hated myself even more at that moment- for agreeing with him, and whole-heartedly. I nodded reluctantly.
“We’ll watch,” I agreed. “But only this once. After that, I’m going to try and help as many people as possible. Understood?”
Our ‘friend’ outside was soon joined by many more of the infected. All were screaming, obviously in a great deal of pain. My head ached in empathy. Why weren’t they losing consciousness, like I had? My Listening abilities must have affected the infection’s impact on my body –but by how much?
“I don’t think we’ll be much of a help two anyone right now. Look who it is, asking for us out there.”
The two of us inched closer to the door for a better look at who, exactly, was infected.
“Is that Rosalia? And Agostino…” It was Agostino, who was banging on the door, complaining of his headache.
“Don’t we need him to pilot the ship, Simon? We need to save him, at the very least. I’m letting him in. You can try and stop me if you want, but we’re screwed if he dies!” Simon did not move to stop me. He only watched, eyes narrowed in suspicion. I tried to open the door, pressed the depressurization button several times, before I remembered that the door could only be opened from the outside. “Agostino,” I screamed as loudly as I could, “Open the door!” He did as I told him to. In the split moment that the door was open, it was obvious that there were casualties.
“God in Heaven…” Simon muttered under his breath. Bodies littered the floor, covered in a moving growth of some sort-metabolic byproducts of the Murmur, more than likely.
I helped Agostino into the laboratory and handed him off to Simon. I heard the door hiss, preparing to close and seal us in the room again. I scanned the shelves quickly, selecting a highly corrosive acid. The metal the door was made of was resistant to the acid, however the closing and pressurization mechanism was not.
“Andromeda, what are you doing?” Simon’s voice was rugged –Agostino wasn’t exactly the lightest human in the frigate.
“Freeing us, Simon! What do you think will happen to this ship when everyone dies? I can somewhat pilot…”
“Wait…stop…” Agostino spoke weakly from Simon’s shoulder, “This ship is controlled by computer. It will arrive at Arjuna whether we live or die.” Simon cleared the lab table lazily, spilling most of the sample and DNA extractions, in order to set Agostino down. I grimaced at the sound of breaking glass, and silently mourned the lost samples and research.
“No matter- if the corpses outside mean anything, Simon and I are the only hope for Earth, now. And quarantine is useless.” I threw the acid in the door’s closing mechanism. The hissing silenced.
Simon stared at me, speechless.
“What, you want to starve in here when everyone outside dies?” There was no need to beat around the bush here. My actions had just saved our lives, and enabled us to help others. If Simon was actually angry, my perception of his character was incorrect. As I expected, Simon’s mouth upturned into a smile.
“What else would I expect from you, Miss Andromeda?” He commented, “Speaking of which, this disease is inside you. Like hell I know what I’m doing here.”Simon stepped back from Colonel Agostino and motioned for me to take his place at Agostino’s side.
“Simon, I’m not a human doctor, I don’t know how I can possibly save him.” I felt Agostino’s forehead, and immediately drew back from his flesh. Instinctually, I checked my hand for a burn mark. The fever was that prominent. “Dear God!” What could I possibly do to lower his body temperature? His organ systems would likely fail in moments, if they were still working at all at this point. Even if I had suffered this same infection, I hadn’t been conscious for the entire thing. I wasn’t aware of my own symptoms. I measured his pulse for the next minute, possibly one of the longest sixty seconds in my life. His heart rate was incredibly fast. So rapid, in fact, that I wouldn’t have been surprised if he dropped dead shortly. “Agostino, can you hear me?” Silence. “Simon, I don’t know how to help him, his body is over working itself, if his organs are fully functional at this point, it’s a miracle! Agostino! Colonel Agostino, you have to answer, stay awake! Stay with me!” I looked desperately at Simon, who watched quietly with his arms crossed and a neutral expression on his face. “Simon, please take over, I don’t know what to do. I can’t contact the Collective, I have no idea what his DNA is like or how to help his specific cells!” I swore under my breath. I hated the separation from Earth. Most everything I knew came from the Collective, and without it I felt like a clueless child. I felt deaf, uncertain of anything.
“It looks like he’s slipped into a coma, much like you did. Maybe he’ll wake up on his own. For a while, things looked bad for you, too, but your body healed itself somehow. Your fever went down after only a few days. ”
Even without the Collective, I knew that Agostino’s slowing bodily functions weren’t a result of the coma. My body had practically ridded itself of an otherwise fatal fever in only a couple of days- according to Simon, my body hadn’t ever slowed to the point which Agostino’s was slowing down.
I swore under my breath. I always had an uncanny ability to foretell death. In a way it made sense. Death is the completion of life. The final chapter. We live for the purpose of dying and making room for the next generation.
I knew deep within; Agostino was dying. He wasn’t just ill, as I had been.
“He’s on his way out, Simon!” My voice escaped in a panicked hiss.
“There’s life support equipment here somewhere…aha! Found it!” Simon quickly set the life support system up –it was a system not meant for humans, but rather for upcoming specimens from Arjuna. Regardless, it would do.
The sound of my own pulse in my head from panicking was replaced by the fast beeping of the heart monitor attached to Agostino, and the sound of his breathing. Curious, I attached a brain activity scanner to his temple.
“His brain activity is off the charts, Andromeda!” Simon commented, “I’m surprised, actually, aren’t you? He never quite seemed like the smartest man on Earth!” Simon’s attempts at humor almost always had bad timing. I ignored him.
“This is interesting; normally in a coma the body’s brain function lowers…why is his brain over-working?”
“I don’t know, but your brain activity was off the charts too for the first three days before it normalized.” Simon smiled smugly, “Why don’t you ask the protozoan itself about what’s going on?” Obviously it was meant to be a joke. However, as a Listener, perhaps it wasn’t a bad idea to try contacting the infection.
“Well, now that you mention it…” I turned back to the Colonel and stared at him intently. And if I couldn’t contact the organism within him, I would try my own resident Murmur. Immediately, the whispering began in my head. I could make out even more words this time; see, be, breathe, live, Arjuna. I repeated the words I could understand out loud, and urged Simon to record them. “Change, life, hold.” Simon typed the words in the Notescreen.
“What in the world do those mean? Not very useful…”
“Shush Simon, I’m trying to listen…everything we need to know, the Murmur will tell me.” Simon made a ‘zipping it’ motion and silenced. I smiled at him, momentarily remembering our days together on Earth. At that thought, I felt a great shudder within me, a floating, happy feeling that began in my chest, and spread to the rest of my body. “Earth.” The Murmur and I thought it at the same time. Simon looked up from his Notescreen, confused.
“Should I write that down?”
“Yes. Because both the Murmur and I thought it at the same time! Simon, this is great!” I smiled widely. The Murmur was almost like my new Collective, and apparently the organism had an affinity for Earth much like my own. “I don’t think it’s aggressive…I think it loves Earth as much as I do.”
Without warning, Agostino’s life support system went berserk. The heart monitor was beeping so loudly and rapidly that I feared the machine would explode.
“Simon! What the hell is happening?”
“He’s dying, Andromeda! The Murmur’s killing him, just like everyone else!” Simon tossed the Notescreen onto the floor and ran to Agostino’ side. “This isn’t good Andromeda…his heart is racing but his brain activity is flat-lining. To be honest, I don’t think he has much time left...this…’Murmur’ kills fast. Look at the halls! Not one person left alive!”
“Simon, I’m almost positive that the Murmur has different intentions. I don’t think it just wants to kill us all, otherwise it would have done that on Earth. It would have spread and killed everyone when it had the chance.”
“It infected you on Earth, though. Isn’t that proof enough? Once this wave passes, I vote we destroy any trace of this thing left on the ship, just in case.” Simon glanced at Agostino and sighed heavily. “Andromeda, we should take Agostino off of life support. He’s brain dead. There hasn’t been any brain activity for minutes; it’s not likely he’ll ever come back at this point.” He reached over Agostino’ body to unplug his life support.
“Wait!” We could use Agostino, or rather what was left of him, to study the pathogen further. “Keep him hooked up. This is the best opportunity we may have to study the Murmur in its infectious stage. I know, it seems wrong. But is it better to waste his body? His mind is gone; he’s not here anymore, Agostino would be proud to know his sacrifice hasn’t been in vain. Maybe he’ll save the lives of his crew.” Simon wiped his eyes –obviously trying to hide tears –and nodded.
“Okay. I’ll leave him hooked up. But you’d better discover something astoundingly helpful soon, or I’m letting him die. Got that? This doesn’t feel right.”
“I’ll discover something more than astounding, Simon, I promise you that. Now, let me work and pick that Notescreen up off the ground. I’ll be pissed if it breaks.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Simon saluted me mockingly as he followed my directions. Within my mind, I heard the Murmur. ‘Heart,’ it said. For a moment I wondered what it meant, whether it was trying to tell me something about Agostino’ medical condition, or my own, but then I caught myself watching Simon when I should be starting my research on the Murmur’s pathogeny. It was obvious by the way we acted around each other that Simon and I were more than mere colleagues. We were in love, and had been for a long while.
Ashamed at my weakness, I turned away from Simon.
“Why are you doing this to me?” I growled.
“What?” Simon answered –but I wasn’t asking him anything. I was asking the ‘parasite’ within me. Where did it live in me? How could it know my feelings toward Simon, even when I forced myself not to acknowledge them, to ignore them? The concept infuriated me, but at the same time the floating, fiery feeling in my chest began again. I soon decided that the fiery feeling in my chest was what it felt like to love. On Earth, I’d had a similar feeling when I Listened to the Earth Spirit. Much to my dismay, I realized that I not only loved Simon, but also the Murmur itself. The end to my silence in the blackness of space.
“Nothing…I just know what we need to look for now, is all.” I knew exactly how to go about my research, now. I didn’t need microscopes, or expensive equipment. I was a Listener with a new Collective to connect to.
3. The Accepted
“Log Entry 1-
All life is connected. Whether it is life on Earth, or on Arjuna, whether by the Collective or the Murmur, every organism depends on every other organism for survival. Perhaps the Murmur is dangerous. Perhaps the air on Arjuna is poisonous to our lungs, and Homo sapiens is not destined to ever live there. But Earth is dying, and quickly. We are almost out of time. Although I am far from Earth, I still feel her death approaching, her sadness at what man has wrought. The Murmur within me shares my love of Earth. Perhaps when on the microscope slide at home, the organism Listened. It knows how wonderful Earth is. I can only hope that the Murmur wants us on Arjuna. I would not be surprised if the planet itself rejects us, if the Murmur has informed it.
Apparently some of the victims of the Murmur are not truly dead. In the last month, Simon and I have found at least ten survivors. All are still in critical condition, save one. Doctor Rosalia. Together, we have hooked up ill crewmembers to life support machines, as well as brain monitors. Brain activity in the unconscious is sky-rocketing. My best theory is that they are trying to fight the Murmur off. Not purposely, but the immune system is attacking the organism, which I have discovered ‘roosts’ in the brain, causing severe brain damage. However, in Rosalia and myself, the body has accepted the organism. Rosalia cannot hear the Murmur clearly. Most likely my Listening ability gives me clear communication with the organism. Again, I apologize that my report has taken so long to send. This situation was never taken into consideration as a possibility. Deadly mistake. Until we reach Arjuna, Simon and I will be developing a vaccine for the Murmur using my antibodies. Hopefully they will assist others and give them temporary immunity, allowing them to accept the organism into their minds. Hopefully Earth is well. Only eight more months to go. It’s been how long on Earth?
I hoped that Arjuna would be beautiful when we arrived, if we ever arrived. This frigate was giving me claustrophobia- I longed for Earth, but would gladly settle for any planet with life on it. Over the last two months, I had laid eyes on many planets, but they were all barren. A sad image flashed in my mind, a barren wasteland; Earth. It suddenly occurred to me that we didn’t have one much time left. By the time we arrived on Arjuna, twenty years will have passed on Earth. The spirit of Earth was dying, and my species along with it. It had been about one week since the infection spread.
I sent Simon out to the rest of the frigate to look for survivors. It was likely that the passengers we thought were dead may be in comas, and subject to be connected to life support much like Agostino. Needless to say, Simon was exhausted.
Never before had I gone from being one of two survivors of a space disaster, so alone –to one of possibly ten or more miracle survivors.
Somehow, Doctor Rosalia survived without any assistance from Simon or myself. One day, mid-Listening, a familiar voice sounded from the destroyed Laboratory entry-way, and I turned to see Rosalia, the very woman who helped me survive the Murmur, standing behind me. For approximately one week, now, Rosalia was running the infirmary wing once again, caring for survivors and disposing of the dead, reporting any interesting effects of the infection in patients to me or Simon.
For some reason, Simon never suffered from the Murmur in that time period. Although it sometimes bogged my mind, I tried my best to enjoy missing the opportunity and risk faced with infection, and continued to work on my new project. Ever since we discovered survivors and cleaned up the ship somewhat, my research had become much easier.
Simon watched wearily as I positioned the needle for entry into his flesh. A scientist who’s afraid of needles. I smiled at him. He smiled back, more of a cringe than anything else.
“Are you certain you’re ready? You look like you’re in pain, and I haven’t even inserted the needle yet…”
“I’m fine Andromeda! I’m not a coward…” I was skeptical about that, at least when it came to needles.
“Okay, then. Ready?” I quickly injected him. “Hey, stay still!” Simon was shaking so much it felt as if my arm might shake right off of my shoulder. “Simon, the hard part is over! You need to work on this needle issue. I think I’m going to have you inject the next patient.”
“Are we done here? Rosalia asked me to help her with some of the patients.”
“Oh, well I apologize if it’s so terrible to be in my presence, Simon.” Against my best judgement, my heart grew cold. As of late, Simon’s attention had been centered mostly on Rosalia, while much of his criticism centered on me.
“I didn’t mean it that way, Andromeda…you know that. Rosalia doesn’t know nearly as much as we do about the Murmur. She can’t properly care for patients without one of us there.” That was true- for some reason, however, I found myself jealous of Rosalia. Her perfect shape, her exotic looks, her foreign accent. Her lack of freckles…she was beautiful. And intelligent. I had never thought of myself as beautiful. “Everything okay over there, space cadet?” I glanced at Simon, momentarily confused, and then smiled.
“Yes, I was just imagining you giving someone a shot and accidentally stabbing yourself instead.” Simon attempted to look angry.
“Well, that’s rude.” He winked at me- again I felt the floating sensation of love. “I ought to go now. Just to prove you wrong…where’s this shot I need to give someone?” My face grew warm- I must have been blushing- as I reached for the syringes.
“Give these to anyone without a red mark on their right cheek,” I told him, “Take your time. I expect you will do well, Simon. Sorry about the stupid signal, but as you know we’re mal-prepared for this situation…it was the best I could do.”
“I will. That’s a promise, Andromeda.” Simon, syringes in hand, started towards the door. “Only eight more months in this tin can, Andromeda. Then our new life begins.” Simon laid a hand on my shoulder and left.
I hadn’t slept in quite a few days. The exhaustion was just starting to affect me. I crouched on the floor and arranged myself in lotus position, closing my eyes. I focused on Listening, pictured the green of Earth and the Murmur’s cellular structure. My concentration was interrupted quickly by a strange unease in my heart. Momentarily I was aggravated by the disturbance- until I realized what exactly this familiar, distracting ‘pang’ was.
I sensed life. Life that was connected to the same network as me. Excited, I followed the life’s signal with my Listener’s mind. It was small. Small, but unfamiliar, a new spirit. Out of spiritual information, I opened my eyes and crawled on all fours in order to find it. This organism was very small, maybe the size of a member of Hexapoda, an insect. For a moment I felt like a child again, as if everything was new and exciting. Finally, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and focused on it.
The creature was no larger than an ant- it had three pairs of wings, four pairs of walking legs, two pairs of what seemed to be chilipeds. It was also a brilliant, iridescent purple, with white and blue spots that resembled stars in the night sky.
It was beautiful, completely and utterly new to me. I took a deep breath, trying my best not to cry. Heaven knew how this organism got on this ship, but it was a breath of fresh air. A sign of hope. The Murmur told me that this animal was called a Star Fly, translated into English. It then proceeded to feed me the names of the organism in the languages of several other species from around the Talon Galaxy, where Arjuna was.
According to the Murmur, Star Flies lived in the chasm of space, in large hives built on asteroids nearest to stars. They were thought of as celestial messengers, creators of new galaxies, maintainers of existing galaxies. This individual must have become either lost, or too curious, and ended up inside our frigate, likely a scout. I positioned my hand in front of the Star Fly slowly, and watched it crawl onto me.
Why didn’t we have any in our solar system?
The fly crawled around on my hand, the star spots flashing periodically. It reminded me of the fireflies we used to have on Earth- before they became extinct. The organism wouldn’t be able to survive for three months on the ship. It- or rather, she- had to be released back into space. Fly still on my hand, I grabbed a Notescreen and took a scan of her, for proof. After she was released, I would add her to my taxonomy database as the second organism, right after the Murmur. I would also ask the Murmur about the other alien cultures in this galaxy. As a human, I felt somewhat foolish – the Murmur was the first extraterrestrial organism we had ever discovered, yet there were already other cultures in that same galaxy that we’d missed. For the thousands of years my species had existed, how could we think we were the only sentient things in the universe?
Personally, I blamed religion. Egocentricism was a harmful human concept, a philosophy of arrogance. Unfortunately, humanity had built its civilization on such an idea. Also ideas of Gods, creationism, how omnipotent beings ‘gifted’ the planet to our species gave humans a sense of dominance, rather than responsibility.
As I set the Notescreen down, a loud clash resounded in the corridor outside the laboratory. I jumped and the Notescreen fell to the ground. The Star Fly abandoned my shoulder, taking refuge under the lab table. I followed her example and crouched behind it. I slowly crawled to the corner of the table so I could see what was coming. The sounds came closer- rhythmic clashes that almost sounded like footsteps. Indeed- the Murmur informed me that they were footsteps of a possibly aggressive organism. Two of them, actually. My mind wandered from my own safety to Simon and Rosalia’s. What would happen to the patients?
The footsteps stopped directly in front of the laboratory’s entryway. From the table, I could see two oddly familiar-looking pairs of legs. They were jointed and scarcely hairy…they were almost exact replicas of insect legs on Earth, more specifically wasp legs. What were insect-like extraterrestrials doing on my frigate? How had I not noticed them entering the ship?
The clanging became closer- the insectoids entered the room, and almost immediately, one turned the corner, and looked behind the lab table. I cursed myself. Of course! Wasp-like organisms most likely had some sort of infrared detection organs. They had probably seen me the entire time. The other creature looked my way as well- but instead of approaching me, it bent down and picked up the Notescreen. It looked the screen over curiously, flipping through the information logs.
The Murmur internally fed me the organisms’ information. They were highly evolved insect-like organisms. Their society was ancient, and had not changed much in the last millennium. Known for their aggression, the Vespins once controlled a vast portion of the Talon Galaxy. However, within the past century, other advanced civilizations grew tired of the Vespins’ arrogance and aggression, and fought back. In their defeat, the ‘space-wasps,’ for lack of a better term, built a distant outpost and took up a role as the galactic traders.
Why, then, had they broken into my ship?
The Vespin nearest me took a few steps closer. Somehow, I felt no fear. Rather, I watched the six-winged wasp with a sense of wonder. I observed its anatomy- much like Earth wasps, it had three segments; head, thorax and abdomen. But the middle pair of legs were short and stubby, and looked almost vestigial at this point in their evolution, likely to enable them to be bipedal. The front pair of legs had extended to almost half the length of the back, and become claw-like. The Vespin had three pairs of wings, rather than two. I couldn’t help but find the organism beautiful. Its flesh was iridescent in the dim light of the ship- unlike many wasps on Earth, the colors of the creature were bright, possibly lined with bioluminescent bacteria.
The Vespin was quite a bit larger than me- possibly about six feet tall. It was the wings that gave its’ ‘huge’ appearance.
The organism took no action against me- it seemed to be observing me in reciprocation to my observation. Feeling no threat from the Vespin, I attempted to make contact. Slowly, I stood up with my hands in the air, to demonstrate lack of a weapon. The Vespin backed up slightly, but must have understood my attempt at peace, for it approached me again, this time moving in closer. My judgment of its size had been completely wrong, I realized, now that we stood face-to-face. The Vespin was almost exactly my size, but the wingspan made up most of its bulk. On its head were four or five eyespots in addition to compound eyes. My best guess was that they were able to sense infrared- hence how they’d found me so quickly.
“Hello, I am Andromeda,” It wasn’t until after I spoke that I realized the Vespin likely had no knowledge of English. It stared at me- and then buzzed at its partner. The other Vespin buzzed back and started towards me. I connected with the Murmur, hoping it could translate:
“It wants to communicate, come here with that technology you found; perhaps it can help us understand this creature.”
“This technology is primal, but I will try to make use of it.”
I stood face-to-face with both Vespin. One still held my Notescreen.
“Hello,” I began again, “My name is Andromeda, I am a Human. We come from planet Earth to find Arjuna. Our planet is dying. You have infiltrated our journey ship. Might I ask why?”
The organisms turned to look at each other, and eyed the Notescreen. The one holding it turned to me and buzzed rhythmically- an oddly melodic sound, somewhat like that of the social stinging insects on our own planet. Immediately the Murmur within me translated.
“We thought the ship was abandoned and wanted to search it for valuables.”
The other responded, as well.
“Planet Arjuna is inhabited already. How many of you Humans are there? Are you all on this ship? The planet harbors a terrible disease; it kills anything not native to its environment.”
I froze momentarily- inhabited? That was not possible, we had sampled the planet’s surface, and the Murmur was the only resulting animal life form discovered.
“Inhabited by what?” I asked, “Also- the reason this ship looks abandoned is because of the disease. We sent a drone ship to Arjuna to collect bio-samples, and came back with a protozoan organism. I was the first to become ill as I was studying it. I woke up on this ship, having missed the launch. My first day back researching, the Murmur- that’s what I’ve named it-was already loosed around the vessel. Many died, but my partner and I discovered that the human body can actually accept the disease as part of it, and survive. Most of the infected are still in the medical wing, with my partner and the other awakened survivors.”
The Vespin glanced at each other- the insect-like facial structure made it impossible to gage any expressions and emotions. They could either panic, and leave, in fear of becoming infected, or want to raid the ship regardless.
"Are you saying that you survived the disease?” One asked me, “That numerous Humans survived the disease?”
“Yes,” I responded, and nodded for emphasis.
“I have never heard of such an occurrence before…”
“Why is your planet dying?” The second interrupted.
Every bit of information on Earth was on the Notescreen- they were asking about Earth to see if I would lie, I realized. Smart. Very smart. I smirked to myself- this was the first match of wits between Homo sapiens and an extraterrestrial species far more ancient than our own. There was no need to lie. It was obvious that the Vespin knew vastly more about Arjuna than I did.
So, I told the story of Earth- from the day of the Collective’s discovery, to the day when I contacted the Earth Spirit, to the present. With their permission, I announced the presence of the Vespin in the ship over the intercom.
“Are you shitting me?” Simon responded back over the intercom- and arrived in the laboratory within seconds, face red from sprinting.
“Can I ask you something about your species, now?” I asked. The creature looked at me and nodded- a gesture apparently picked up simply from observing me. Eventually, the rest of the awakened ship occupants arrived. Some gasped or glared, while others grinned widely.
“Are you male, or female? I am a female Human.” I had grown accustomed to calling even insects on Earth male or female. The term ‘it’ was somewhat an insult to me, meaning that I had no deep understanding of an organism.
“I am a male. Jasya is a female. She is my mate. My name is Dhashya.”
“So…you are a monogamous species?” I asked.
“Yes. And I can see here on this device that you have organisms that physically resemble us on your planet- where males are drones and females rule the colony. In our species we share the power and males have longer lifespans than females.”
I quickly asked Simon for a Notescreen. I recorded everything I had learned about the Vespin thus far, before an idea occurred to me.
The first inter-galactic exchange of information and technology! The government on Earth would likely render this mission null if they found out what I was about to do. I wasn’t a politician, however I figured that Earth politicians would likely turn alien races against us.
“I have a suggestion, Dhashya. Jasya. I would like to propose a trade of information between our people. You are a trading species now, correct? We have no treasures here, except for information. In exchange for your information.”
The Vespin pair glanced at one another and nodded.
“We will have to discuss such a trade with our Queen. You are correct. Information is valuable,” Dhashya responded.
After a tense few minutes in near silence, they addressed me.
“Andromeda of Earth, would you please follow us to our vessel?” My heart skipped a beat. Never before had I seen an ‘alien’ ship, or technology. I would be the first of my species to set eyes on such things.
“I would be honored.”
“Our information archives are not on our vessel, however- we will have to journey to our base hive. Do you consent?”
I nodded- however Simon would be uncomfortable with the idea. His face was tense enough as it was, his lips pressed together, fidgeting with his labcoat.
“Simon,” I called over to him, “I need to leave for a while.”
“What??!” He screamed, “What in the hell are you doing, Andromeda?! We have patients to treat here. You can’t trust them!”
“This is the only chance we may ever have to exchange data with an advanced species, Simon. I’m going to take it. You and Rosalia know what to do. You have the blood samples, the vaccine and everything else you need. The Vespin seem to know more about Arjuna than we do.” I saluted to Simon, nodded to Rosalia, and turned back to the Vespin.
“Bring a breathing apparatus. Our vessel has no artificial atmosphere, as yours does…are you prepared?” Dhashya returned my Notescreen- the one with all of my data about Earth- and nodded.
“Then, let us depart.”
To prevent this page from being too overwhelming to read, I've created PriceofSentience2 to continue the story.
Some basic character information and terminology: World of Arjuna