Originally published on my previous site, The Mind of Astra was my first attempt at serialized fiction. I felt making it the first serial I published here to be appropriate.
The search party had been wandering for days, walking in confused circles around their advanced, expensive, shiny, but functionally disabled starship. They were a group of young, attractive and intelligent cadets- the best and brightest of the United Planetary Academy- but presently they were merely hungry, tired, and frustrated.
As the planet’s sun, poetically named Q4-5404-3963-9170, sank lower in the mostly-nitrogen sky, the party’s pace slowed more and more until the party leader stopped.
“There’s not much light left, and we’re all tired. Let’s set up camp here, in the clearing, away from the trees,” she said, throwing her knapsack on the ground.
“Aye-aye, Captain Kyrie,” said a tall, lanky boy, Cadet Marsh, who’d been walking behind her. He tossed his knapsack beside hers. “You don’t need to tell me twice.”
Behind him, at the back of the short line, a small blonde turned toward the trees and sighed. “It’s a shame we can’t sleep under the cherry trees.”
Cadet Kyrie rolled her eyes. “They aren’t cherry trees, Gibbs. They aren’t even trees, really, though I can’t think of what else to call them. They’re alien organisms, and we can’t afford to make any assumptions about them. I know that they look pretty, and they seem harmless, but it’s best that we keep our distance.”
“I know they aren’t really trees,” Cadet Gibbs snapped back. “Stop being so pedantic.”
“We may be friends, but I’m in charge of this expedition, and if you continue to be insubordinate, I’ll report you.”
“Well, I’m not in charge, but this fighting is driving me nuts,” Cadet Marsh grumbled. “Let’s just set up camp, eat some dinner, and try to get our heads straight.”
“Fine,” the girls said, still glaring at each other.
The group worked quietly as they set up camp, though Gibbs would sometimes look up at the “trees” that surrounded them and sigh longingly. She didn’t know why she felt so drawn to them, though she suspected it was simply because they reminded her of the cherry trees she’d been so fond of at home.
The organisms really did look like cherry trees, with elegant, slender branches and puffs of what appeared to be delicate, white blossoms. They appeared to be the only living things around. The air was silent and still, and the ground underneath was smooth, barren stone. The trees were the only interesting feature of the landscape.
Even after they’d settled down to eat, Gibbs would still look up at the trees from time to time. The others were absorbed in eating their bland rations, famished from the long day’s walk. When they were finally finished, though far from satisfied, Kyrie spoke.
“Okay, we need to rethink our mission. Our tactic of walking in circles-“
“Exploring the perimeter,” Marsh corrected.
“As I said, walking in circles, is clearly getting us nowhere. We haven’t found any radio towers, or towns, or dwellings, anywhere. Yet, the radio interference is still present. Marsh, you need to re-calibrate your instruments. The signals can’t be coming from ‘everywhere,’ as you say.”
“I’ve tried everything, and I can’t pin down a source. The planet itself must be generating the radio interference- there’s no other way to explain it.”
“No, before we landed, the Captain, the real Captain, said that it was coming from a source on the surface of the planet. She had it pinned down to this region before everything went haywire.”
“Well, if that’s the case we just need to explore a wider perimeter, because my instruments aren’t doing us any good,” Marsh said, folding his arms stubbornly.
“This is taking way too long,” Kyrie moaned, putting her head in her hands. “We’ll be stuck on this forsaken rock forever at this rate. I don’t want to die here.”
“Then we should go back to the ship and tell the Captain that we failed our mission,” Marsh said. “She can send someone else to find the source of the interference. I don’t want to admit defeat, but I’m not very fond of the idea of being stuck here forever just because we’re incompetent.”
“You’ve been quiet, Gibbs. What do you think?” Kyrie asked.
Gibbs stood up and turned around slowly, scanning the horizon with her eyes, as though lost. Then she looked back at Kyrie helplessly.
“I have one idea, but you aren’t going to like it.”
“Tell me anyway,” she said wearily. “I’m willing to try anything, at this point.”
“You’ll laugh at me.”
“We laugh at you, anyway,” Marsh said.
“You’ll call me a baby,” Gibbs said.
“You are a baby. You’re barely 75 Earth years old,” Kyrie sighed. “Just tell us your stupid idea, already.”
Gibbs hesitated, then looked back at the horizon and smiled.
“I think we should ask the trees.”