This is a short story inspired by some Worldbuilding questions I asked. I’ll provide links to the questions and answers at the end of the story since they will act as spoilers otherwise.
The planet hung in space like a perfect blue-green marble. Gazing at the displays Kate was looking through the readings with an expression of disbelief on her face. “Is this right?” she demanded of the computer controlling their ships systems.
Hearing the disbelief in her voice Jim unbuckled himself from his seat and floated over to her station, “what’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing”, she replied, “absolutely nothing. It’s earthlike to an absurd degree, have you ever heard of a five nines earthlike with established lifeforms orbiting a blue giant? This planet must have matured incredibly quickly.”
Jim shook his head, leaning in to look closer and whistling. “If this is real then we’ve just made our name at the Explorer’s Guild” he told her. “Computer, have you confirmed these readings.”
The modulated voice of the restricted intelligence controlling their ship replied “Yes Jim, I’ve run every scan we have. It’s slightly hotter than Earth and the sunlight is obviously a lot stronger but the environment is habitable. It’s earthlike to five significant figures with no signs of either intelligent life or of any terraforming. I’ve dispatched probes and they have begun scanning.”
The voice managed to inject a note of disapproval as it continued “I assume you will follow your usual protocol of visiting the world personally. Safety regulations require me to recommend you use a telepresence device but since I assume you will ignore that I have prepared the medunit to have your skin darkened and provide an immune system update. The solar radiation on the surface is the only departure from normal and so far the probes have found nothing unusually dangerous.”
It took a day to prepare for their landing, a long day. Many hours in the medical system prepared their immune systems and darkened their skin to the point that it was nearly jet black. Lenses were installed to protect their eyes from the intense stellar radiation and the implants in both of their bodies that improved reflexes and maintained vital systems were tested.
Finally they were ready and climbed together into the tiny shuttle that was their only way onto the surface. The ship itself was not built for atmospheric work but the shuttle easily dropped out of orbit and slammed into the atmosphere, skipping along as the heat shielding worked to keep them comfortable. Digital systems with reflexes thousands of times faster than even a boosted human were controlling the ship but still they both monitored the progress and watched the new world as it rose up beneath them. Both had done this many times before but they always watched each new landing carefully.
Speech was impossible over the noise of re-entry but Jim composed a quick query and flicked it over to her on their digital link: Any thoughts on a name for the world?
Kate didn’t reply for a while but then the message came back: Nothing yet, it’ll come to me. It’s my turn to name one after all.
Soon the violence of entering the atmosphere eased and they dropped into easy flight, soaring over the lush jungle below them. Images and video were stored and sent back up to the ship in orbit while the two excitedly compared findings. Finally the shuttle passed over the edge of the forest and a vast open plains covered with grass and occasional grazing animals stretched before them.
Kate pulled up one image and then flicked it over to Jim with a subtitle that read Fire must be common here.
Looking at the image Jim could see a long scorch mark in the earth with plants brown and charred and the skeletons of a few animals in the center of it. A second image showed that the plains were dotted with similar burnt areas.
He flicked a reply back Something is stopping the fire from spreading too far though, lets land at that one there. We can investigate the bones and the vegetation then decide what to look at next. I’ve not seen any carnivores yet, you?
When Kate sent back the digital equivalent of a shrug and a shake of the head Jim composed a query to Computer to scan the data for any carnivores and then directed the shuttle to turn and land in the center of one of the burnt areas.
Once the landing craft was on the ground and post-flight checks completed they directed the doors to open and stood on the steps looking out at the new world before them. Taking a deep breath they tasted the alien air, strange plants and flowers mixing with the universal smell of burnt ash. For some reason ash seemed to smell the same everywhere.
Kate jumped down the steps and landed easily, a few defensive drones floating out from the shuttle and moving to accompany her as she pulled instruments from her belt and started confirming the earlier results from the automated probes. She was the botanist of the pair and also a survival expert and holder of several athletic records at the Guild of Stellar Exploration in both the natural and boosted categories.
Jim though was a larger man, a xenobiologist who had always preferred a sedentary lifestyle. He kept his body set to a moderate fitness level although his survival implants would allow incredible bursts of strength if needed.
Unlike Kate he was more interested in the skeletons, which proved to be the remains of some sort of medium-sized quadruped. The beasts were shaped more like a large turtle than anything else, with a rounded back and a polished shell. The shell proved to be strangely light, not fragile but certainly not strong enough to act as a significant defense from the teeth and claws of predatory beasts.
Scanning the skeleton carefully Jim used his implants to build a 3D model of the creature and then combined it with the long distance scans they made of some living ones as they came into land. As he completed the model he flicked it over to Kate, come take a look at this he sent.
A few moments later she joined him, “what’s so important?” she asked still holding a plant sample in one hand.
“These creatures must be adapted to the sun out here on the plains”, Jim explained suddenly aware of just how hot he was getting. Sweat was forming on his skin and almost instantly evaporating as the brilliant blue-white light from the giant in the sky beat down on them. “The shell is reflective and actually lifted slightly from the creature’s skin so air can pass beneath it. They carry their own sun shade with them everywhere they go!”
Kate leaned over to look at the shell and then nodded, “That’s a novel adaptation, it suggests there aren’t many predators though as this looks slow moving and not particularly armored. Isn’t that unusual?”
Jim shrugged, “I’ve queried the computer to look for predators but the search is still running. No sign of any so far, maybe they avoid the day and hunt at night. There must be some out here though to keep the grazing population in check.”
Kate nodded, “We’d better stay in the shuttle tonight just to be sure, see what we detect. Tomorrow we can go on a longer trip. There’s a stand of trees a few hours walk away. I was thinking we can head to that, sampling as we go, and then return back to the shuttle. That should be enough to satisfy the guild and we can claim finders rights.”
She squatted down to look at the bones, “Any sign of what killed them? Was it the fire?”
Jim nodded, “I think so. You can see the bones aren’t scorched but the carapace is so the fire happened before they were picked clean. I haven’t found any teeth or claw marks, just small scratches that look like the work of scavengers.”
The two explorers spent several more hours sampling the area and then returned to the shuttle. Remote probes were also out gathering data and they spent the evening hooked into the digital world studying the reports. As their enhanced bodies could go for weeks without sleep they stayed working through the night compiling together a list of flora and fauna as well as mapping the local area.
Shortly after dawn they emerged from the shuttle once more, blinking in the light from the brilliant blue orb as it rose above the horizon. A small hover cart loaded with water followed them while they were surrounded by a number of circling defensive drones, each the size of a large man’s fist.
Kate squinted up at the sky, “Are you sure walking under that is a good idea?”
Jim shrugged, “We still haven’t found any predators and if we do I’d rather it be in the day, especially as they are most likely nocturnal to avoid this heat. We can make it to the trees in a few hours, wait in the shade for the worst heat to pass and then return in the evening. If anything goes wrong the shuttle will only need a few minutes to come pick us up but you know the guild rules on Finders rights as well as I do.”
Kate sighed and took a long drink from her water bottle and then the two of them set off at a fast walk towards the stand of trees. In these day of automated probes, telepresence devices, restricted intelligences and digital mind-sharing the fact that The Guild required explorers to walk across the surface of a planet to claim that world seemed like an archaic relic of the past. Sometimes the Guild of Stellar Exploration felt like a relic itself, but she had to admit that walking across the surface of a new planet always made it feel more real. Perhaps that was why the rule remained in place despite several attempts to overturn it.
As they traveled they took more samples and recordings, passing through another burnt area although this one had no skeletons within it. They were about to move on when Jim suddenly stopped, “look there” he said pointing.
Focusing her eyes on the area and applying a few levels of magnification she could make out strange hollows in the ground, “What’s that?” she asked.
“Burrows maybe” he said, carefully walking closer, “check the ground as you walk, they could be near the surface and unstable.”
They cautiously approached what did indeed turn to look like the entrance to a rabbit warren, with a number of small holes clustered together dropping into the ground.
“Another adaptation against the sun?” she asked. “Burrows for the day and grazing at dawn and dusk or overnight?”
Jim just nodded, carefully directing a drone to fly down the nearest tunnel, “yes it’s a common adaptation to hot areas. I wonder if they were deep enough to survive the…oh” as the drone turned the corner the digital feed they were both monitoring showed a small open chamber littered with bones. “I guess the fire must have reached deep enough to get them all.” he signaled the drone to haul a few bones out and then they moved over to wait for it to emerge.
Examining the skull first he said, “Another herbivore, rabbit analogue from the look of it. These bones have the same scavenger marks as the first ones.” leaning down he reached into the burrow and retrieved what looked like nothing so much as a silver feather that was fluttering by the entrance.
“Look at this” he said, “fascinating, maybe flying scavengers like vultures but small enough to enter the burrow. And look at this feather, how reflective it is. Another adaptation for the heat perhaps?”
Kate smiled at his excitement, “that’s your area not mine. I’m more interested in what stops these fires spreading further. This dry heat would make for fierce burning so the vegetation must be fire retardant somehow. Come on, I’ll grab a couple of samples but then I want to look at those trees and it’s not much further now.”
It really wasn’t much further and soon the two of them were approaching the trees. The trunks and branches had slightly blue bark but were shaped much like the jungle trees they had seen on many worlds, complete with vines and brightly colored flowers. Suddenly Jim stopped and flicked a quick note for silence to Kate, look, it must be one of the scavenger birds he sent, maneuvering one of the drones to fly towards the bird.
The bird was not much larger than the drone and had bright silver plumage. It was sitting on one of the lower branches of a tree grooming its feathers. The feathers themselves were gleaming and glittering like a disco ball. Those feathers are so bright, I’ve never seen anything like it he sent, maybe it’s sexual selection as well as sunlight resistance. Something must be driving evolution hard to get that intense a mirror effect.
The drone fired a tranquilizer dart carefully calibrated to the local wildlife and then swooped in to catch the falling bird as the two hurried over to examine their find. Gently he reached out and pulled open the bird’s wings, “Standard body plan for most feathered avians”, he whispered without even really being sure why he was whispering, “but look at this”. As he spread the wings the feathers meshed together and formed a perfect mirror. The two of them could see their own faces in it. “I think I’m going to call it a Mirror Jay”.
“Incredible”, Kate whispered back, “You’re right, I’ve never seen anything like it.” she hesitated and then continued, “I just tried to query the ship database and the bandwidth is dropping right out. Can you try?”
Jim looked puzzled then said “You’re right, I still have a signal but it’s dropping packets like crazy. I don’t like that, I’m going to signal for a pick-up.” he was interrupted by a rustling in the trees. Looking up the two of them saw silver plumage and flashes of light as a huge flock of the silvery birds appeared, perching on branches everywhere and looking down at them.
Kate swallowed nervously, “Is it just me, or do they look aggressive”. The birds were small, but there were hundreds of them and being mobbed was never pleasant.
Jim nodded, “Yes, perhaps they have a pack mentality, we should leave this one here and back away from them slowly and carefully” he paused for a moment looking worried, “I’ve completely lost contact with both the ship and the shuttle, either the birds or something in the trees is generating some serious electromagnetic interference.”
Together the two of them slowly backed away from the downed Mirror Jay, carefully watching the flock in the trees. As they moved they could see more and more of the birds gathering, a quick digital scan put the count at nearly a thousand now.
As they walked slowly away from the trees there was no sign of the birds following and they both began to relax. Ten minutes passed without incident and soon they were back to scanning the results of what they had found. The link to the ship came back online and they cancelled the emergency loss-of-contact alert that had already triggered.
“Do we still signal for pick-up?” Jim asked as they trudged through the heat, reaching out and grabbing another bottle of water from the cart.
Kate shook her head, “everything’s fine now, lets just complete the trek and then we can run some diagnostics.”
Glancing back Jim suddenly paused, “The Mirror Jays are in flight” he said, as they both turned to look. The stream of glistening silver flying up from the strand of trees was spectacular, like a trail of fairy dust or disco balls streaming up from the branches.
“Beautiful” Kate murmured, smiling at the sight, “I think people might want to come here just to see them. Look, a flock is heading roughly in this direction, we should get a good view.”
They both stood watching the sight, the flickering lights circling through the sky in a sight neither of the explorers had seen before. “Look,” Jim said watching one of the flocks starting to circle, “they must have found something over there.” he was interrupted as the nearer flock streamed past them, then started to circle around overhead.
“Jim. What are they doing?” Kate asked.
“I’m not sure”, he said gazing up at them, “remain still and see if they move on.”
He composed a quick message and tried to flick it over to her but the connection dropped out. He paused and tried again. “I’ve lost all data links” he said quietly, “how about you?” Glancing about he could see the drones responding to a lost connection by forming an automated defense pattern around the two of them.
She paused and then looked at him, a worried expression on her face. “Me too, I can’t even contact the drones or hover cart. Last command given was stop and the cart is still following it. Electromagnetic readings are all over the place.”
Suddenly a wave of heat struck them both like they’d stepped into an oven. Glancing up he immediately had to close his eyes as the brilliant light struck him but he still had a moment to see a swirling silver vortex, like a mirror in the sky. The brilliant light of the blue giant star striking a thousand tiny Mirror Jays and being concentrated towards the two of them as the entire flock angled their wings to focus the light onto one area.
Jim gasped and shielded his eyes from the brilliant light. Kate grabbed him and they dropped to the ground and rolled into the shade under the cart where it floated a foot above the ground. From the relative shade they could see the swirling mirror funnel. “Shit on me, they’ve formed a perfect parabola around us.” he gasped out in amazement, “It’s going to get hot. Really damn hot.”
Kate had the blank look on her face of someone consulting her internal computers. A few seconds later her eyes focused again. “Too hot”, she said. “The water on the cart will be starting to boiling in fifteen minutes. The manual controls are on top as well, no way to access them from underneath it. I still can’t connect to anything. I don’t know how they are doing it but that’s some crazy EM they are generating. If we had military grade links then maybe but these explorer ones aren’t designed for that.”
Jim had been consulting the cart technical reference. “We’ve got less time than that”, he said, “the superconductors in the carts gravlev aren’t rated to this heat. It’s coming down on our heads and I don’t see those birds getting tired before it does.” A sudden thought made him check something else and he groaned, “we cancelled the loss of contact response” he said, “the next level response only triggers if we lose connection for two hours. We’ll be dead by then. I think we found our predators, these Mirror Jays must cook anything they find out here close enough to noon”.
Kate was already pulling at the bottom of the cart, “Right we remove some of these panels, use them as improvised sun shades and make a run for it.” She said, “it will be harder for them to keep the heat on a moving target and the grass analogue is already starting to scorch around us. If we stay here we’ll be in a grass fire by the time the cart falls.”
Jim was already consulting the maps they had of the local area, “There’s a hollow with a water pool in it around twenty minutes away in the rough direction of the shuttle”, he said, “lets head for that first, we can cool off and hopefully they will be getting tired. If not we can rest then make the run for the shuttle.”
The next twenty minutes was the most hellish that either of them had ever experienced. Sweat evaporated as fast as it formed and the panels held above their heads soon became so hot their hands were burning just holding them. The air was scorched and each breath felt like an inferno roaring down their throat. Being smaller and faster Kate had an easier time but Jim was close to collapse by the time they both reached the hollow and dropped into the water, not caring about what might be lurking beneath the surface.
Fortunately there was no hostile wildlife in the pool, but unfortunately it turned out to be both muddy and shallow, only barely deep enough to cover them as they lay as much under the surface as possible, holding the sun shields over their heads.
It was now noon and the sun was beating down on them while the whirling Mirror Jays each gleamed like a thousand silver-blue suns. Even the two explorer’s enhanced bodies were showing signs of heat exhaustion. Jim ran some quick maths and cursed slightly, “this water’s not deep enough”, he said, “we can rest for half an hour, maybe a few minutes longer, but after that we’ll be starting to cook again.”
Kate just nodded, “I already did the maths”, she replied quietly, “and there’s no way either of us can make the run to the shuttle. She scowled at the useless defense drones still calmly orbiting them as though nothing was wrong, “stupid drones, we’re under attack dammit” she muttered to herself.
Jim was looking at her, “we split up”, he said, “they rely on numbers to focus enough heat and light in one spot. Half the flock will be less than half the heat. Or if they all follow one person that might let the other get away.”
Kate just looked at him, “We both know you’re bigger and slower”, she said, “I’m not ready to leave you for dead just yet.”
They lay in the shallow and muddy water, feeling it growing warmer around them for several minutes. Both were frantically running scenarios and simulations but neither could find a way out.
Finally Jim spoke again. “Cut off my head”, he said.
Kate looked at him in disbelief. “What?” she almost shrieked.
“Listen”, he said. “I’ve got enough autonomics to keep my body functioning for at least ten minutes without a head. It won’t move fast but I can program it to stagger away and it should act as a distraction. I can shut my brain down and you’ve got half an hour to get me to the medical units before I risk permanent damage. Wait a few minutes for the flock to follow my body and then run like both our lives depends on it.
Kate just stared at him for a moment while she ran simulation after simulation. Trying to find any other answer. Finally she just nodded. “I’m faster”, she whispered, “you’re right, it has to be you.”
He just nodded, putting on a brave face but she could see the fear in his eyes. Reaching out she touched his cheek. “Are you sure?” she asked, anguish twisting through her at the thought, “we’ve been friends for decades. I don’t want to lose you.”
“You won’t” he replied firmly, “just run like you’ve never run before and we both survive. I’ve already set up the program.” He pulled out his large belt knife and held it out to her. “You need to do it, and do it fast. I won’t be able to do this bit”.
If the trip to the muddy pool was hellish then Kate found a new level of damnation as she huddled beneath a scorching hot shield with steam started to rise from the muddy water around her. As she took the knife and swiftly cut into her best friends neck. There was little blood as he’d already prepared himself and the veins and arteries sealed themselves as fast as they were cut. In a way that made it both better and worse as choking back sobs she sawed through ligaments and severed the spine, leaving the main blood vessels and wind pipe to last. Finally one last savage stroke severed the last of the neck and the headless torso staggered to its feet.
Simple programming left behind in the body kept air forcing in and out of the lungs and through the severed windpipe, kept the heart beating. With no vision or balance the body staggered forwards slightly in a grotesque parody of life and then dropped to all fours. Determinedly and blindly it began to crawl away across the alien dirt as the swarm of Mirror Jays moved to follow it.
Kate waited impatiently for what seemed like an age but her digital readouts told her was only a few minutes as the body crawled away. She could see the vegetation around it starting to smoke and char and the body itself was moving more and more slowly as it overheated.
Cursing the sight of the flying silver creatures that such a short time before she had found so beautiful she muttered “Not Mirror Jays, Oven Jays”. She watched them follow the body as it crawled away, “and I name this planet Ordeal”. She glanced at the severed and unconscious head and touched her lips to his forehead. “I can’t wait here,” she whispered into an ear although she had no idea whether it could still hear her or not, “they may return and you don’t have time.”
With that she emerged from the water like a sprinter, head cradled in one hand and the other pumping. She burst out of the muddy hollow and set her sights on the shuttle, running like she had never run before. It took an hour for us to walk she thought to herself, now lets see how fast I can run five kilometers. Enhanced muscles set to maximum power, reflexes set so high she could see every blade of grass and every stone in crystal clarity she powered across the baked earth.
The body that had set speed records over guild training courses was jacked up to overdrive even as the Oven Jays swirled and half the flock moved to attack her. Her own speed provided some protection as cool air flowed over her skin but the sun beating down and the heat of her own exertions was causing alerts to come from all her systems. She shut them off and concentrated on her run. The water in her clothes from the pool lasted only a moment and then the sweating started as her body’s water reserves depleted at a dangerous rate.
She hit a speed that a century previously would have broken world sprint records, and she held that speed. Muscles burning and lungs on fire, sweat evaporating as fast as it formed she ran. She ran like she’d never ran before. Jim’s head was a leaden weight in her hand as the flock swirled above her, the heat beating down stronger and stronger.
Finally sensing that some sort of attack was happening the drones swung into action. They disrupted the flock a little and brought down some of the birds but there ere just so many.
One kilometer traveled, four to go. Each step was agony and non-essential systems were shutting down throughout her body.
Two kilometers down and the world narrowed down to just a hellish scene of fire and torture. The drones had run out of darts and were strafing through the flock, buying her precious seconds of respite.
Three kilometers down and she lost consciousness. All the oxygen and energy in her body was going to her pumping legs and the death grasp she held on Jim’s head, there was none left for thought. None left for anything but the primal urge to run, run, and keep running. Her last desperate commands to the automatic systems taking control of the body were to keep running for the shuttle no matter what.
There was no sensation of pain, or of anything else at all really. She was floating in a painless and blessedly cool void. Her system was so filled with drugs that she was unable to panic or worry but she was still feeling a strange sense of disconnect. Something was missing.
There was a surge of dizziness and then her implants came online. She felt them connect to the ship and she suddenly realized how alone she had felt. Isolated in the world with no connection outside her own skin, not even with Jim.
The urgent query went out to the ships Computer, who replied with a note of censure in its voice. “I have him, neither of you is permanently brain damaged although he has no body at all and yours is basically unrepairable. I’ve placed you both in medical suspension and am heading for the nearest medical facility as I am not equipped to grow you new bodies.”
She felt a mental connection reach out to Jim, he was still there. Still alive. The two of them spun up a virtual world and just stood there inside it, their avatars holding each other for a moment.
The voice of the computer paused and then sounded rather more smug than a restricted intelligence was supposed to be able to feel added, “I wish to remind you at this point that I recommended the use of a telepresence device. Perhaps next time you will follow my recommendation.”
For some reason the two of them found that incredibly funny. As the ship propelled itself as fast as it could through space the severed head and ruined body cocooned within its medical unit both collapsed into hysterical laughter in the virtual environment they were sharing.
I hope you enjoyed the story, the Worldbuilding questions can be found