The New World
Jett didn't enjoy space travel. The recycled air of the ship was foul. Looking out of the porthole of the ship at the stars had been awesome at first, but it after several days it had begun to wear thin.
He heard the VI ship computer telling him stuff he already knew about their destination in its prissy, lady voice:
"In their search for the elusive Planet Nine beyond the Kuiperbelt, the Astronomer's Union made a discovery of greater significance in 2022 – the planet Hespera. A bare 112 million miles from the sun at its closest point, the eccentric angle of the planet's orbit, combined with an accumulation of space dust at its L2 point, had allowed it to remain undetected until then.
"Hespera orbits the sun at a full 80 degree tilt to the ecliptic plane. Spectral analysis indicated the presence of water and a viable atmosphere. There was a strong possibility of life on Hespera. Robot probes confirmed it existed – in abundance. The first human colonists arrived in 2031, in great space arcs. Hespera is truly the Ninth Planet. The planet Erebus, discovered in 2044, orbiting the sun at the great distance of one hundred billion miles and at an angle perpendicular to the ecliptic plane, is the Tenth Planet."
And now in 2050, here was Jett's family making the trip across space to Hespera to try and establish trade of irrigation systems and other machinery with the colonists.
"Ready for the adventure, Jett?" said Charli Kaplan, Jett's Grandma. She clapped him hard on the shoulder. "Not every day we get to visit the Ninth Planet."
"Oh, it's fascinating Grandma," said Jett. "And you remember when they thought there were only eight planets."
"I do indeed," said Grandma with a tight lipped smile. "Scientists are a hubristic bunch."
"Approaching Hespera now," said the computer.
The iridescent, purple orb of the desert planet was filling the view from the porthole. Soon they would be landing.
Now there was a blanket of clouds beneath them, against the muted colours of the Hesperan sky, deep purples fading into red.
The clouds surrounded them and there were only pearly mists visible, and then they were dropping to the surface of the planet. The geometric shapes of fields could be seen.
The ship landed on a plane of purply-red sand. There was a swishing sound as the airlock opened and the ramp lowered.
As Jett set foot on the ramp, he was buffeted by the crisp, chill wind. After the recycled air of the ship, Hesperan air tasted sharp, and fresh. His family followed his Grandma Charli down the ramp.
A small crowd of Hesperan colonists were there to greet them. At the front of the crowd, there was a lady with frizzy golden hair dressed in a green padded suit and helmet. She clasped Grandma's hands.
"Sadie Whitfield, colony governor. This is an honour, Madame Kaplan."
"No, the pleasure is mine," said Grandma, giving her best tight-lipped smile.
Sadie introduced a burly man with a bushy moustache, dressed in a blue padded suit shook hands. "Adam Marshall, our Chief of Police," said Sadie.
"We don't have much of a crime problem on Hespera," said the Chief.
Jett noticed that the Hesperan's eyes looked sort of pinkish. It was from the red pigment in the air. Harmless. If they stayed long enough, it would begin to affect their eyes too.
"Large or small, a crime problem can be solved. I may interest you in a line of security bots," said Grandma.
"Uh… quite," said Marshall.
To visit the industrial complex, they crossed the sandy terrain in landbuggies to a collection of grey domes over which clouds of smoke hung. Inside, there was the sound of clanking and clouds of smoke. The workers seemed a dour lot. There was no laughing or joking among them.
"Two of 'em workers have cracked," said the foreman to Sadie. "Dunno if they c'n work no more."
"Oh dear," Sadie shook her head. "I wish it were not the case, but amongst the Earth-born, mental illness is a common occurrence.
Jett felt apprehensive. Was this a likely result of living off Earth? He fervently hoped the workers were not seriously ill.
Sadie showed them around the different parts of the complex. She held up a nail for Grandma's inspection. "Hespera hasn't given up anything without a fight. Even to manufacture something as simple as this nail, we had to establish several primary industries."
On the way back from the industrial complex, the sky behind them turned blood red and Jett could see lighting flashes in the distance.
"Firestorm coming," said Sadie, her voice tense. "We'd better get to cover ASAP."
As the buggy re-entered the complex, Jett grinned at the sight of native Hesperan beasts. Six legged beasts of burden with smooth, blue hides, and blunt, beak like snouts.
The sky above turned an even deeper red. The flashes were nearer now. The air had begun to taste stuffy and dense…
"This way! Now! Hurry!" cried Sadie.
She led them into a cubic, metal cabin. Not a moment too soon. A bolt of lightning struck the sandy ground, but it was like no lightning Jett had ever seen… It created a pool of liquid fire. Wherever this lightning struck it flowed, forming streams of liquid fire that merged into others until the streets of the settlement were awash. Streets, ablaze with molten rivers…
But the storm only lasted minutes. The sky cleared and the oppressive atmosphere lifted. The fire seemed to seep into the sand and Sadie led them out.
The six legged blue beasts were standing around quite calm.
"The animals!" blurted Jett. "They stood out in the fire!"
Marshall turned his head. "The Lopers? Yeah, doesn't bother 'em at all. They secrete some kind of chemical barrier. Same with the vegetation. We had to grow native plants, because the Earth plants got burned to cinders. In the early days, it was like the whole planet was against us. Still feels that way sometimes."
That evening they attended a banquet the Hesperan leaders arranged specially to welcome them. A kind thought, although Jett had real trouble stomaching the first course. He sat by his Grandma, amidst the group of Hesperan colonists. The main course was Zipper eggs. Zippers were some kind of flying reptile in the Hesperan skies. The eggs had greenish whites and pink yolks. They tasted of rubber and rotten fish. Gross.
"Most of the planet is still unexplored," said Sadie. "The survey craft have all broken down and we don't have the resources to fix them."
"It's hard enough to survive on colony land," said Marshall. "We don't need to worry about the rest of the planet."
"The land and native people will remain a mystery," said Sadie.
"People? There are aliens here, aren't there?" said Jett.
"The Threll, yes," said Marshall. "They could be the remains of some ancient civilisation. But they take no notice of us."
"Then make them notice," said Grandma. "You could learn from them."
Jett nodded in agreement. "Exactly. There's just so much they could teach you. And you'd be the first people to establish contact with aliens. Real aliens."
Grandma smiled at him. "See? There's a bright boy. Sees his Grandma is always right. Make the Trell notice you."
"You don't make the Trell do anything," said Sadie sharply. "They're not to be trifled with."
"You get to visit the Trell temple complex tomorrow," said Marshall. "You may spot a Trell if you're lucky."
The elderly waiter seemed to have gone on a break. At that moment, a girl of about Jett's age came into the hall. What a striking girl she was! Jett could not help but gape at her. The first thing that struck him was her bright green skin. And the cascade of lustrous, purple hair flowing down her shoulders. Her pink eyes had an oblique, staring expression.
She did not speak, just gathered up the plates. Up close, her skin looked so smooth and shiny. Jett felt a thrill at her closeness as she took away his half-eaten egg.
When she had gone, Marshall gestured in her direction. "Rain, Sadie's daughter. Hesperan born. She was born green from certain native plants and medicines Sadie tried when she was pregnant. We notice much less sickness among the Hesperan born kids. They seem better adapted. Don't experience mental problems or allergies. Unfortunately, very few take an active role in colony life."
Weird. What did they do all day then? Jett did not comment.
After that dreadful meal, Jett turned to leave the hall to make for the sleeping quarters. Everyone else had already filtered out. Jett was about to follow them when he heard a soft voice from the other side of the hall.
He gave a start and turned around. Rain stood there, her skin tight red and white outfit hugging her graceful form, her green face framed by her purple hair. She beckoned to him with a green finger. "I have something to show you."
He felt a thrill once again. His curiosity could not resist and invitation like that. What could this lovely, mysterious, almost alien being have to show him in private? This was truly some kind of waking dream. She led him down a corridor and then a flight of steps, leading to a curtain.
She turned, green face close to his. He felt his heart beat faster… Her breath was on his face. She smelled sort of like flowers and mints… He badly wanted to kiss her shiny green nose.
"Don't be afraid," she said, her warm breath tickling.
"I'm not." It was a strange thing to say.
Rain pushed the curtains aside. Jett let out a slow breath at what he saw. Rain took his hand in hers. Her smooth, green skin felt soft and warm.
Jett saw a long, low room, lit only by a single electric bulb that gave off a constant, dingy light. In the room, was a case of some pinkish, Hesperan crystal in which was entombed the body of some kind of hideous monster man… Roughly humanoid, but with a bloated, green head, and elongated nose and chin. The eyes were black and blank. He must be dead.
Rain gazed at the crystal coffin with wide, pink eyes and spoke in hushed tones. "The first Trell they came across. A member of the expeditionary party shot and killed him. We think it must have started the colony's bad luck. That's why they keep him hidden here. He is their guilty secret."
"Oh, that's awful!" said Jett. "Um… if he's their secret, why are you showing me?"
She gazed at him, her rosy pink eyes were unblinking. The dim light shone off her green nose and cheeks. "I sense you want to know."
"You sensed I want to know?" Jett repeated, feeling a bit dumb.
"Yes. I can sense you are different." She gave a small smile.
"You can sense I am different?" he repeated.
"It happens sometimes. I can hear people think. Must be if they're as nice as you. Or it could be if I'm really interested in their thoughts." She shifted on her feet and twirled a strand of purple hair in her green fingers.
Then her expression turned grave as she pointed at the coffin. "The Trell can do it, I'm pretty sure. Talk with their minds."
"So it could be something to do with adapting to conditions here?" said Jett.
She nodded, her purple hair rippling and bouncing. "I think so too. Adapting to conditions here." Her intense, pink eyes gazed into his. "You're not adapted. You need comfort at night."
Did she think he'd get homesick like a little kid?
Jett's guest bedroom had a window that opened onto the fields and the sandy plains of the desert beyond, but after the sun set, the twinkling stars all seemed to fade, as though blocked out by a great shadow over the sky. Jett knew it to be the accrued dust in Hespera's L2 point. The only lights were those from the settlement.
"Darkness presses in."
Jett gave a start at the sound of Rain's voice at his elbow. She was dressed in a pink nightie. What was she thinking, sneaking into his bedroom?
She took his hand. "Darkness is heavy. Some Earth born go mad from it. I want to stay with you tonight."
Stay with him? This strange and beautiful girl wanted to stay in his bedroom? Jett knew he ought to dissuade her, but really, did he want to dissuade her?
She was gazing out of the window. Her green face creased in an expression of unease. "The darkness brings hunters."
In the distance, barely illuminated by the lights of the settlement, Jett could see an eerie sight… mounds rising in the sand and then terrible shapes bursting forth. Long tubular worms, like great, grey serpents, but with gaping mouths ringed with sharp teeth. These horrors were bursting out of the sand and leaping towards the wire fence that surrounded the settlement's perimeter! Leaping up out of the sand and burrowing back in before leaping up again, with as fluid a motion as if the sand were in fact the surface of the ocean. The predators of the night had the settlement surrounded and were closing in…