The mystery of Leigh Lane is manifold. Living in Montana with her family, she is a writer of dark fiction, reminiscent of some of the most fear-inducing science fiction ever written. She has a unique sense of pace and a quirky use of words and juxtaposition that makes even the most simple and straightforward of plots and motivations twist and tumble. The intelligence in her writing is wonderful. This week’s Fiction Friday story is a selection from Of Mind and Matter, a compilation of her short stories.
Submitted for your approval in its entirety, “The Search for Intelligent Life”.
Sal could contain her excitement no longer. After over three months of travel, she and her crew were now on the brink of a new frontier. “This is it, guys!” she finally said, her urge to speak prompting a realization that she had been holding her breath for far too long. She took a deep breath.
The captain remained calm, or at least he appeared so, but the first officer gave an eager chuckle in response to Sal’s words.
“Its moon looks just like ours,” Sal continued.
“The planet itself looks a lot like ours,” the first officer added. “I wonder if the life- forms are as similar.”
“Let’s not lose our focus,” the captain said sternly.
Sal and the first officer exchanged glances.
“We’ll have plenty of time to celebrate, once we’ve returned home,” the captain continued. “Right now we have a job to do.”
“Yes, sir,” the first officer said, his mood already abating. He looked down at his console. “Shouldn’t we be going slower?”
The captain took a look. “Sal, what’s going on?”
Sal accessed the manual thrusters, finding that two of the five were receiving minimal power and one of them hardly functioned at all. She hit the intercom button on her panel. “What are you two doing down there?”
“We’re working on it!” one of the technicians nervously responded, his voice crackling through the intercom.
“All systems tested functional,” the first officer snapped.
“They were never tested for such long distances,” Sal muttered, suddenly feeling spiteful in her fear.
The technician’s voice came over the intercom again: “We must have burned out half the system in the acceleration. The diagnostics don’t seem to be functioning, either!”
“So what do we do?” Sal yelled back.
The captain stormed over to Sal’s console. “We need an answer! What are our options, Zee?”
“There’s nothing we can do, sir,‖ the technician responded. ―At our current speed, we might be able to survive a crash if—”
“A crash?” the captain interrupted, suddenly breaking into a sweat. He turned to Sal and the first officer. “Prepare for impact. “ He returned to the console. “We’re counting on you, Zee.”
Sal felt sick and dizzy. She had known that the mission was high-risk. What they were doing had never been done before. In theory, based on the results in the testing rooms, this was all supposed to be a success. They would be heroes when they returned home.
If they returned home.
The idea of traveling to another star system would have been considered ludicrous not even five years ago, let alone the idea of actually finding another planet that harbored intelligent life. All it took was a radio wave found from space a month before the beginning of the project, one that came as a surprise to even their greatest scientists, one that was clearly sent as a call toother planets. Within a few months, antimatter propulsion was a reality.
The mission was to observe the planet from a high orbit, and then determine whether some sort of contact would be feasible. The idea was like some strange dream when initially proposed to Sal. After decades of UFO sightings speculated in the news and talk of aliens reserved for the crazy, she now had the opportunity to be that UFO. Intelligent life on other planets could now be determined as fact; scientists like herself who lacked credibility because of their exploration in the matter would finally have their last word.
The reality of their imminent crash struck Sal back into focus, as the two technicians entered the room.
“What are you doing in here?” the captain roared.
The technicians both scrambled into the empty seats, preparing for the impact. “We’re not sitting in the belly of this thing just as she’s about to crash!” one of them said.
The captain held his tongue.
Sal studied her console. “I can reverse the thrusters we do have left, and then focus on the reverse propulsion system, once we’ve entered the lower atmosphere.”
The captain nodded, sweating profusely. “Whatever you think will give us the best chance.” He glanced over at the terrified technicians, disgust and contempt washing over his pale face.
“We’re going to make it!” Sal said, working hard on her console.
“I hope that whatever life is down there is friendly,” one of the technicians said with a deep, shaky sigh.
“We’re gonna die!” the second technician immediately cried out. The ship began to shake.
“Prepare for impact,” the first officer said, his voice trembling.
The crew strapped themselves into their chairs, and then braced themselves, bending their bodies over their knees and clasping their hands behind their necks.
The second technician began to pray, with tears streaming down his cheeks. “God help us!” he pleaded.
The ship slammed into the rocky terrain, bouncing a few times before sliding several hundred feet to a stop. The frail hull violently tossed the astronauts about, despite their efforts to brace themselves, and one by one it dealt them each a series of devastating blows.
Sal opened her eyes, a light moan escaping her. She had been badly injured, and she realized after a moment that her back had been broken.
“Oh God!” the second technician screamed at the top of his lungs. “Zee? Zee?”
The first technician lay limp in his chair, blood streaming from his mouth, nose and ears.
The first officer also appeared to be dead, as well, his head fractured from a strong impact against one of the consoles.
The captain appeared dazed, but not too horribly injured. He stared silently at his crew mates, his jaw slightly agape.
The second technician began to wrestle out of his belts.
The captain also got up, stumbling dizzily as he took a moment to gain his footing. He moved to the first officer’s console, gasping, his back and lungs spasming from one of the many heavy blows his body sustained. “The computers are off-line,” he breathed, struggling to regain his breath.
The panicking technician scampered to the door-hatch. “We’ve got to get out! We’ll run out of air! Open the door!”
The captain stumbled over to the technician, tackling him to the floor. “We don’t even know yet if this planet has the right consistency of oxygen! Are you crazy?”
“I can’t breathe!” The technician began to hyperventilate. The captain tried to hold him down, but the technician punched him in the face.
The captain continued to fight the technician. “For the love of God, get a hold of yourself!”
“Can’t breathe!” the technician gasped, and then threw the captain aside and darted for the door.
“What are you doing?” Sal cried, trying to get out of her belts. Shots of pain darted up and down her spine, but her legs were completely numb. She cried out, realizing that her back had been broken in the impact.
The technician pried open the door, despite a third attempt by the captain to hold him back, and a gust of sandy air filled the room. “Oxygen! We’re not suffocating!” he laughed. “Who’d have thought?” He peered through the door. “Doesn’t look like anything lives here – it’s all desert.”
“Well, you can’t just run out there!” Sal yelled, feeling helpless and dazed.
The captain kept his distance. “Maybe the people here live underground. Or perhaps this is their dead-lands. You can’t just assume—”
“Captain!” Sal yelled, hoping she might prompt him into stopping the technician from exiting.
“Wait!” the captain ordered.
The technician hopped out of the craft, turning with a grin. It took him a moment to realize that his feet were sinking into the sand. “Kinda mushy . . . .” His smile quickly faded as he realized he sank uncontrollably. He kicked and struggled in attempt to get back to the ship. The captain tried to reach for him through the door, but he was unable. He shuttered as,within seconds, the technician completely submerged beneath the surface.
Sal’s heart raced. “What just happened?”
The captain gazed out. “I don’t know.” He made his way back to his seat. “The terrain seems to be unstable.”
“Then why isn’t the ship sinking?”
The captain shook his weary head, confused. “Perhaps this is a carbon-based planet.” “Carbon-based?” Sal gave a look of doubt. “Carbon-based life forms only exist in theory.”
Exhausted and injured, the captain sat back in his seat. “We failed. . . .”
“But maybe the next team won’t.”
The captain sighed. “Maybe.”
As positive as Sal tried to remain, she had a hard time holding back her tears. She felt an incredible anxiety over the uncertainty of their fate. But worse than that, the captain was right. The mission was a failure. As far as everyone back home knew, they had found nothing. No one would even know that this planet, although not completely solid, had breathable air. They would not be getting the definitive answer they had been so patiently waiting for – the answer to that universal question: Are we alone?
The captain jumped to his feet as a loud rumbling seemed to grow near. He shrieked as he spotted a strange vehicle moving along the ground. “Humanoids, like us!”
Sal began to cough up blood. Her body had been more seriously injured than she had initially thought. “What do they look like?”
The captain shrugged. “Strange faces . . . tiny eyes.” He hurried to Sal’s side.
“I think I’m dying!” Sal coughed, her heart pounding and her mind growing faint.
“Maybe these humanoids can help you.”
Sal stared straight into the captain’s eyes. “If they’re a friendly race.”
The captain stayed by Sal as the humanoids approached the ship. “It’s going to be okay,”he assured her.
The humanoids spoke in a strange language, but both Sal and the captain could understand the fear in their voices, as well. It was not reassuring to know that they, too, were afraid.
Sal fought to remain conscious. She closed her eyes, her thoughts becoming jumbled and her mind slowly feeling detached from her body.
“Captain . . .” she mumbled, unable to finish.
“I’m here, Sal,” he responded, staring at the door.
The humanoids had weapons in their hands . . . and such ugly creatures they were, from up close. They had noses and ears that protruded unnaturally from their jagged faces. The creatures varied greatly in shape and size, as did the strange colored masses of short thread that grew over the bulk of their visible bodies and extended to great lengths from their heads and faces.
The captain cowered back. He saw much evil in the tiny eyes of these humanoid-beasts. “We come in peace,” he said, his voice shaking.
They began to speak in their strange language again, seemingly provoked by the captain’s words.
Sal tried to get a good look at them, but she felt herself fading quickly, her eyes straining to remain focused.
Sal thought about what would have happened if a UFO had crashed on her home planet, and wondered how her people would react to the introduction of an uninvited alien species. And with that, she proceeded to scream.