“I could have had it all once, you know,” she said, between sips of Martian Blue. “The big house back on Mars, the private shuttle, luxury apartments on Titan and Europa, all of it, the whole package. I could have been living the dream.”
I laughed, took a big swig of Enceladusian Red, and wiped the foam from my lips with the back of my hand.
“You too, huh?”
Every old prospector has a “one that got away” story.
She looked over her shoulder, leaned over the scratched plastic bar table, and looked me in the eye.
“No. I mean it.”
I stopped laughing. I’d known her long enough to know when she was being serious. I also knew that she’d been everywhere and seen everything. I’d been her teacher once, but that was a long time ago. She’d been places and seen things I never had. If she had a story to tell, I wanted to hear it.
“I was on a long-haul prospecting trip. Don’t ask me where because I won’t tell you. Somewhere way off the beaten track, far from any colonies or shipping routes. Long-range analysis indicated that a planet orbiting one of the stars in the cluster might be capable of supporting life.”
“I remember when that was a big deal.”
“Yeah, me too, but no one gets excited about alien life anymore, unless it’s advanced, and there was no indication of that. There’s always the possibility of interesting pharmaceuticals, of course, but mostly I was looking for rare metals. Osdium, ruthidium, irenium, that sort of thing. You know the drill.”
“Well, there was life all right,” she said. “The place was lush with it. It was all blue and green and white, oceans, forests, mountains, clouds. Reminded me of old images of Earth, back before we screwed everything up.”
She stared out of the nearest viewport for a moment, her eyes distant, and took another sip of Martian Blue before she went on.
“I’ve been around, you know? I’ve seen a lot. Dust clouds lit by the fires of dying stars, auroras on a dozen planets, sunset on Atropos and moonrise on Nausicaa. Things most people never get to see. But I’ve never seen anything that moved me the way my first sight of that planet moved me. Even before I landed, just looking at the place from orbit through the viewports, it called to me. Like coming home. Not that I ever really had a home, but it felt like I imagine coming home must feel, you know? When I close my eyes, I can still see those mountains, hear the wind in the trees, smell the perfume in the air—”
“Wait, what? You breathed the atmosphere?”
“Keep your voice down.”
She looked over her shoulder again, checking that my exclamation hadn’t drawn any unwanted attention, while I shook my head in disbelief.
“You know better than that,” I said. “It takes months, sometimes years, of testing before you can be sure that it’s safe to breathe a planet’s atmosphere. It doesn’t matter how human-friendly the gas mix might be, all it takes is one bacterium or virus to which you have no immunity, and the next thing you know you’re convulsing and bleeding from every orifice, and so is everyone who’s been in contact with you. How long ago was this?”
“Relax. I’m not patient zero. It was twenty years ago.”
“OK. You got lucky. But why?”
“Let me tell my story, and you’ll find out.”
I waved over a robot waiter and ordered another Martian Blue for her and another Enceladusian Red for me. She waited until the robot left before she continued.
“I landed in a clearing in a forest in the northern temperate zone and sent out drones. The drones were barely out of the hatches when they started reporting lorintium.”
“You found lorintium? Stars! You weren’t kidding. You hit the jackpot. Was there much of it?”
“That’s the thing. I thought at first the drones had to be wrong. There couldn’t be that much lorintium on one planet. If what the drones were reporting was correct, there was more lorintium on that one planet than had ever been found before on all the explored planets put together.”
“That’s what I thought. So, I decided to get a closer look. The drones were finding plenty of animal life out there, but nothing that appeared dangerous, not to an experienced prospector in an armoured suit. So, I suited up, grabbed a prospecting kit, and went out to see for myself. And it was true. The stuff was everywhere. I didn’t even have to dig for it. The rocks were full of lorintium. And it wasn’t just a small local outcrop. I walked for a kilometre, and I sent out drones over a hundred kilometres, and everywhere it was the same. There was lorintium, lots of it, everywhere.”
“So, what went wrong? How come you’re sitting here talking to me instead of … I dunno. I can’t even imagine what you could do with all the credits you’d get for finding that much lorintium.”
The robot waiter came back with our drinks. I scanned my wrist implant to pay for them, and again she waited until the robot left before she continued. Robot waiters aren’t supposed to record audio, but there are rumours sometimes. She wasn’t taking any chances.
“I’d seen enough to convince myself that there was no mistake. There really was that much lorintium. I was about to return to the lander and call it in, when I saw the fairies.”
I choked on a mouthful of Enceladusian Red.
“Fairies? Has this whole thing been a windup?”
She shook her head.
“That’s just what I call them, for want of a better name. I’m not saying they were really fairies, like in the old stories, any more than the ‘trees’ were really trees. I’m not saying they were magic or supernatural, or anything. Except … well, hear me out, and you can decide for yourself. They were humanoid, they were about ten centimetres tall, and they had wings, like butterfly wings, covered in shining, iridescent scales. Stars! They were beautiful. The colours of their wings reminded me of auroras on Dinesha, or the crystal fields on Raiden, when the light hits them just right, or rainbows on Vulcanus. But honestly, none of those comparisons really comes close. And their voices! I heard an old recording once, of a lark singing back on Earth. Their voices were like that. It was they who told me it was safe to breathe the air.”
“You understood them? How?”
“I don’t know. That’s the thing I can’t explain. I don’t know how I understood them, but I did, and they understood me. They sang to me, and told me stories, and I understood it all. I took off my suit and walked with them barefoot in the grass. I ate the fruit they gave me and drank the water they brought in shells from a nearby stream.”
I shuddered at the thought.
“Do you know how many horror movies start like that?”
“They told me it was safe.”
“How could they know what was safe for you? And how could you be sure they were telling the truth? Assuring the giant alien that it’s safe to eat the big blue berries could be a very convenient way to get rid of an invader when you’re ten centimetres tall.”
“I didn’t just understand their words. I understood their thoughts and their feelings, and they understood mine. I don’t think they’re capable of lying. I don’t think they know what lying is.”
“OK. I mean, I can’t pretend to understand, not really. Sounds like hypnotism to me, but here you are, alive and well, so I dunno. Go on. What happened next?”
“I thought about what would happen when the Company came for the lorintium. I thought about bulldozers ripping up the forest, and about drills and crushers tearing up the earth. I thought about mining waste poisoning the air, and the soil, and the water. They felt what I was feeling, saw what I was seeing, and I felt their fear, their pain, their horror, and their incomprehension. I saw us through their eyes, and in their eyes, we were monsters.”
“What did you do?”
“I went back to the ship. I sat there, staring at the comms console for the longest time. Then I wiped every hint of lorintium from the data and called it in NOI.”
“Nothing of interest? The largest deposit ever found, of the most valuable resource in the universe, and you reported nothing of interest?”
“Yes. I had to. I couldn’t be that monster.”
I sat back and took a long swig of Enceladusian Red while I wondered what I would have done in her place.
“Did you ever go back?”
“No, and I never will. Someone might wonder what I was doing way out there and decide to investigate.”
Her wrist implant vibrated. She knocked back the last of her Martian Blue and stood up, slinging her backpack over one shoulder.
“That’s my flight. Time to go. See you around.”
I stood up. We shook hands and hugged. We both knew that, given our nomadic lifestyles, there was a good chance that every time we parted might be the last. But we never talked about that.
“I can trust you with this, can’t I?” She looked me in the eye.
She pulled me out of a tar pit on Aurigae, dug me out from under a rockslide on Beta Pictoris, and had my back in more bar fights than I could remember. I would have died for her ten times over. But I wasn’t about to tell her that.
“You can trust me. But you know there’s no guarantee someone won’t find that place someday. You gave up unimaginable riches, a life of luxury and security, and it could all be for nothing.”
“It’s a very remote cluster. It’s very expensive to send someone out there. There’s no reason for the Company to send anyone out that way again now that it’s been declared NOI.”
“But it’s not impossible. It could happen.”
“It could.” She smiled at me over her shoulder as she turned to leave. “But if it does, it won’t happen because of me.”
Copyright © 2023 Keira Reynolds
Keira Reynolds is a trans woman, a software developer turned writer. She is currently studying Arts and Humanities, with a specialisation in Creative Writing, with the Open University. She lives with her wife Julie in County Kerry, Ireland. She loves Ireland, but not the Irish weather, and dreams of escaping to somewhere warm and sunny. She occasionally posts random thoughts on her blog at https://keirareynolds.com.