2947-02-05 - Tales from the Inbox: An Alien Aurora

I'll be more or less incommunicado for several weeks; this post was prepared in late January for publication. By now you all have probably read the reason for my unannounced disappearance so shortly after the holidays. The next time I dispatch Tales from the Inbox the day of publication, it will be from our new studio at Håkøya!

Ozias A. shares this account of an odd organism that has colonized the polar regions of Maribel. I have found some low-quality imagery of similar "floaters" drifting high in the planet's atmosphere, but his account - which comes with no supporting imagery except for a picture of a pebbly lake-shore covered in broken ice - is unique in the parts of the Datasphere searchable from Centauri. I don't have any reason to doubt him, but his failure to produce coordinates (citing good reasons such as poachers and tourists destroying the organisms' habitat) does make it impossible to verify the story.

The creatures involved seem to be largely flora, rather than fauna, and though they are occasionally spotted drifting as far north as the 45th parallel, one has never been seen on or near ground level before this account. If it's true, it makes them particularly curious specimens, and if their eruptions of this form can be predicted, they will quickly become an event that attracts tourist attention.

By the time Ozias felt that he was far enough from the frontier settlement to think, his arms were burning from the unfamiliar effort of rowing his little boat. There were only a few places on Maribel where true solitude could be achieved, and despite the colony’s youth, peace and quiet was becoming difficult to find. Even the southern polar sea’s confused jumble of broken ice and tiny, barren islands was an occasional tourist destination, but this inhospitable climate was still Ozias’s best chance for a few days of genuine peace and quiet.

Of course, he hadn’t planned to do any rowing. The tiny boat he’d brought along had come with an electric motor, but it had failed almost immediately. If it were not for the relatively short distance to his intended camp-sight and a favorable current, the retired spacer might well have turned back and riske pitching his thermo-tent on the picturesque but tourist-overrun clifftop at Cape Vingano.

As was true for polar summers on almost any world, Maribel’s orange solar primary refused to set, toying sullenly with the horizon. Ozias, at the direction of his navigation wrist-piece, steered directly toward it. The electronic guidance system informed him that the Gray Isle was near before he threaded through a narrow chasm between two great ice floes and first caught sight of it. The island’s flat, barren bulk might have been a dismal sight to some, but to Ozias, seeking as he did a few days of complete solitude, it was as welcome as the feeling of a warm shower after a year in space, forced to cope with a faulty shipboard acoustic cleanser.

Soon, the little boat’s prow scraped the pebbly beach, and Ozias, unafraid of the icy water because of his heated, waterproof attire, hopped out and pulled it onto shore. Because of the surrounding ice, the island’s beaches were totally becalmed, with only the slightest waves breaking the almost total silence. Sometimes the isle’s low hills were lashed by fierce polar winds, but it seemed perfectly calm – calm enough that Ozias could hear the crash of surf breaking against the great ice walls protecting the isle from the sea, four kilometers away.

After deploying the boat’s overland skids, Ozias towed it into the island’s interior, following the course of a small river of ice so clear he could count the bright pebbles over which it crawled. A kilometer from the shore, he found a patch of flat, dry ground sufficient for his thermo-tent, and began setting up camp. The place was everything he had hoped for – quiet in the extreme, both desolate and picturesque. Ozias had no intention of taking pictures, lest others befoul his hard-won refuge from society, but he knew he wouldn’t grow tired of the scenery in the week he had allotted to the expedition.

As soon as the domed tent was unpacked and staked into place, Ozias climbed the hill behind the campsite. To his surprise, on the other side, he found a small lake, its surface a sheet of ice so perfectly smooth he was certain that a stone kicked across its surface would slide all the way to the other side. After appreciating the view, Ozias returned to his campsite to prepare a meal, ravenously hungry from the exertion of rowing the last leg of the journey.

The sun dipped halfway past the horizon, bathing the Gray Isle in false twilight just dark enough for Maribel’s brightest stars to appear. It was a false twilight, Ozias knew, because it was also dawn – the solar disk would rise again shortly, without having completely set. The half-darkness would last, he estimated, less than an hour.

Just as Ozias had finished warming up a meal of re-hydrated wilderness rations, a chiming, splintering sound tore the isle’s blissful silence and startled him severely enough to drop his meal to the ground. Cursing and suspecting that his solitude had been broken by another human tourist, Ozias hurried up the hill to have a look around, expecting to see the lights of another camp glowing not far away.

He saw light, but it was coming from beneath the little lake, whose pristine ice was now shattered and shoved on-shore by mad waves far larger than such a small body of water should be able to produce. The light, too, was odd – it was electric blue, fitfully waxing and waning in a pattern reminiscent of an erratic heartbeat. Ozias was immediately certain that it came from no object of human origin, though the source was still hidden below the lashing waves.

The source was not content to remain submerged, though. Rising to the surface, a great phosphorescent bubble reached the surface, its pulsing radiance bright enough to cast shadows behind every rock and hill. The bubble didn’t stop rising at the waves, though – it kept rising, drifting weightlessly into the air. In its center, a mass of pinkish tissue throbbed and twitched along with the light, and below this vast orb, several greenish roots or tendrils hung limply.

Ozias, suddenly aware of his exposed position, dove to the ground, seeking cover from the hillside though the thing had no obvious eyes to see him. The creature – for there was no doubt it was alive, not a machine – continued to float upward, buoyant on the frigid air, and soon dozens of smaller specimens broke free of the water and followed it up. The variable light from each creature joined together to produce a chaotic strobing difficult to look at, but also impossible to look away from. Ozias watched, motionless, as the flock of airborne drifters rose above the hills, until they finally caught the cross-winds roaring above the sheltered place, and were quickly ushered away over the horizon.

Not certain what he had seen, Ozias hurried down to the swiftly calming lake’s shore to peer into the dark water. Splinters of ice crunched under his feet, and by the time he had reached the water’s edge, it had already becalmed itself enough to begin freezing once more, leaving no trace of the grand light-show which it had disgorged.