by James C. Glass
Five ships went out from the Helas system, each with forty souls on missions that would last most of a lifetime. Following an arc of established gates stretching five thousand light-years along the Orion arm from their point of origin on Terra, they searched for habitable planets revolving around red dwarf stars and any other systems they could find.
Red Star 5 was the last to leave Helas, its crew young and eager for adventure, but knowing it would be forty years before their return, and most of that time spent in cryosleep. Geologist John Shriver was barely twenty when he shipped out. For the first twenty years, they followed the line of pinches in spacetime and the long stretches of normal space in between at half light speed to visit systems listed as habitation candidates by Helas astronomers.
Scientists had warned them about what they might find. Even in the habitable zone, most close planets would be tidally locked and blasted with radiation and plasma from their active red suns. And this is what they found, three times—Terran-sized planets blasted to sterility with no signs of water and only traces of atmosphere, burning on one side and frozen on the other. The scientists were awakened three times, but only to analyze spectroscopic data before going back to sleep again.
In that twentieth year of their mission, only a year from turnaround time, crew morale was low as they approached the fourth system on their list, and suddenly the mood changed. Around red dwarf 1697H orbited a planet slightly larger than Terra. It was not tidally locked and had a year of eight Terran months and a day of 5.33 Terran days. A band twenty degrees north and south of the equator showed three small seas and four landmasses widely separated from each other. There was an atmosphere of nitrogen with traces of argon, carbon dioxide, and 1 percent free oxygen. North and south of the band, the planet was covered with thick ice, temperatures ranging from twenty Fahrenheit to minus forty.
The crew celebrated and opened up the sleep capsules so the scientists could join them. During the jubilation of the moment, Captain Ursula Soder suggested a name for their new discovery, and the crew cheered.
They called the planet Hope.
* * *
Two landing sites were selected on a continent in the center of the unfrozen band on Hope. One was on the shore of a shallow sea, the other several hundred miles west at the base of a long range of rocky crags. John Shriver, now the head designated geophysicist, would lead the land studies party, and Danel Zosel, a marine biologist, would be in charge of the work by the sea and in its depths.
Ursula Soder lectured them before they left. “With little free oxygen, Hope is not a candidate for settlement, so we focus on the science. Our remaining target is at least seven years away, so we’re not going there. I’d like to get out of here within a month or two and get us all back to Helas in time for some retirement parties.”
The two landing shuttles departed at the same time from the three-mile-long mother ship and sailed down to the surface of Hope like leaves falling in a gentle breeze. Planetary geographer Carol Hulett was on John’s team, as was Mike Wratne, a botanist. Scott Coulter, assigned to them by the military, flew the shuttle, and Nathan Yushida was there to fix things that broke.
The crawler was unloaded, a shallow pit dug, and the inflatable shelter was placed inside it. A two-layered geodesic dome was erected over the shelter, and the two-foot spacing between layers filled with dirt to provide shielding. The shelter was home to the scientists, while Coulter and Yushida lived in the shuttle and slept in a heavily shielded area behind the reactor. By evening of the first day, they were all settled in and shared their first meal together in the shelter.
“We only have two rovers, and I want one kept by the shuttle at all times,” said Coulter.
“There are three of us doing field work,” said John.
“Go out two at a time. Captain’s orders, and I’m in charge of security. We have no idea what you might find out there.”
“We’ll waste time shuttling back and forth,” said Carol, but Coulter ignored her, and the discussion was over.
John and Carol took the rover out the following morning and headed straight for the range of jagged peaks a few miles away. They were masked, with rebreathers that would last four hours. It had misted during the night, and broken patches of fog swirled around the peaks. In other directions, there was only level ground and flat rocks all the way to the horizon. Carol had all her instruments going, recording distances and altitudes and local oxygen content as they traveled. John shook his head at the sights around them.
“Everything looks dead, not even a weed here, and the surface has been scoured down to bedrock. If this is the norm, I don’t see how there can be any free oxygen here.”
“It’s a little over 1 percent right now,” said Carol.
“That’s for us to find out,” said Carol, and smiled.
John thought she had a nice smile and was glad to have her on his team. They had known each other casually in graduate school.
They bumped along over hard packed soil and flat rock for three miles and parked a few yards from jagged rock rising two hundred feet above them. John craned his neck to see the summit.
“Looks basaltic, but mixed in with seams of lighter rock,” he said.
Carol set up her laser on a tripod and squinted through a little telescope aimed at the base of the rock. “So grab your pick and have fun. I’ll join you when I’ve finished a topo scan from here.”
by Sarina Dorie
Mama struck at the silk cords in a complex song I had never heard. “If you love me, how will you show me? Will you sing to me until dawn and promise to never leave my side? Tell me I am your universe and you are mine.” She repeated words every so often to accompany her strumming.
He imitated her song, adding stanzas of his own. Mama clapped her pinchers together in pleasure. Clavira tried to draw his attention. “What about me? Do you love me? Gimme. Gimme.”
Her music was so inelegant it hurt my head. I wanted to chomp down on her with my fangs to put an end to her horrible music. I felt bad after I’d thought it. Maybe Mama had been right about why my sisters and I needed to go our separate ways.
The male tilted his head and studied her with eight eyes. He didn’t have twelve eyes like us. Venom dripped from his fangs and onto his chelicerae jaws. He must have thought she was a tasty morsel rather than an arachnipede. I didn’t blame him when her music was as disgusting as aphid droppings.
“Watch and learn,” Mama said. “But not over here.”
Mama grabbed onto us with two of her legs and tore the delicate lace of the web as she pulled us free. She crawled down the ladder of the central web to a little shelf that jutted out in the cavern wall. She thrust us between silk cords and onto the ledge before hastily patching up the web and turning back to the male.
The male and Mama circled each other, playing songs for hours. The music didn’t vibrate through me now that I was no longer on the web, but I could still hear how pleasant it was. She played and danced as he sat on the web. He tucked his pedipalps under himself and curled up like he was about to molt. Mama had told us about this ritual. I couldn’t see if he transferred anything from his belly to his pedipalp, but I assumed he must have when he uncurled. He would sacrifice his own pedipalp as they mated, so she could have their babies. It was so romantic! I couldn’t wait to see how this worked.
Mama approached him, and he scurried backward. She started up her song again and let him approach her. She was patient and kept her movements slow and small so she wouldn’t scare him away. If I had been her, I would have snatched him up so he couldn’t escape, but I supposed I had to learn patience if I was wanted to lay an egg sac someday.
She must have made him feel safe because he let her come closer and closer. She arched her thorax upward, and he climbed under her belly. It was a great view to watch from below. She plucked out two simple notes she could reach from her position.
A molting spasm shook me, and I wiggled farther out of my shell. My attention focused on cracking the hard outer body around my new soft one so I could push it off.
My sister twitched and kicked me. I kicked her back. A discordant note twanged from above.
Mama screeched and shuddered. Her two back pairs of legs were bound together with silk. The male’s fangs sank into her belly. She tried to shake him off, but he held onto her with his pedipalps and wrapped his legs around her abdomen. She rolled down the web, momentarily sticking before crashing into the wall. He held fast. Her legs twitched, and she kicked out, but not with as much effort as before.
“Mama, get up,” I said. “He isn’t a mate. He’s an imposter male.” My voice was a small raspy creak without the aid of music.
I trembled in horror. I wanted to turn away, but I was stuck in my shell, my eyes gazing upward.
Mama stopped moving.
The imposter mate bit other places under her abdomen and her legs, injecting venom as he did so. If his venom was as potent as ours, it would take a day before her insides liquefied. Then again, his venom might be quicker. He had petrified her more quickly than ours did.
My molting would take hours more, and I would be stuck watching them all that time. I felt hot and sick.
He descended down the central web toward us. I was too weak to do more than wiggle. Clavira was farther along than I was. She had made it halfway out of her shell. Her head was pale yellow, instead of gray, and bald of the fur that would keep her from sticking to the web. She kicked her legs and pushed herself out of her old body more frantically.
He hovered above Clavira. He clacked his chelicerae jaws together and waved his pedipalps ominously. Another molting contraction seized her, and her legs curled inward. She was easy prey. She was so small and vulnerable. I couldn’t bear to watch.
“Move,” I told her.
She floundered, and more of her shell cracked, but she couldn’t get full control of her legs yet. They were still inside the exoskeleton. I kicked at her, trying to push her from the shelf and onto the ground below. She rocked back and forth, but didn’t fall.
He reached through the ropes of the web. I wrenched one leg free of my molted shell and batted his leg away.
“Over here,” I sang. “Look at me.”
He ignored me. He pulled her though the hole in the web and into his embrace.
“Clavira!” I cried.
He crunched through her shell and tore it away. She screeched and kicked out frantically with her pale limbs, but she was so weak. She looked like a baby in his arms. His fangs flashed in the light and tore through her soft yellow skin. He licked at her blood and bit her again and again.
A spasm seized me, and I curled into myself, pushing a little more of the exoskeleton off of me in the process. When the pain cleared from my head, two legs were free.
The male stuck my little sister to the web above to save her for later.