Sometimes, reality defies expectations so egregiously that the human mind seeks to reject reality in favor of its own prejudices. Cadet Marsh’s race was largely free of this bias, so he was able to laugh when Cadet Gibbs, Cadet Kyrie, and Jonas Bres all said, “that’s impossible!”
Captain Geneva, a post-human, simply rolled her eyes.
The voice which had inspired these varied reactions crackled from the radio again. “Who are you?”
Captain Geneva pressed the transmit button on the radio and spoke brusquely. “This is Captain Geneva of the Starship Argo. Who is this?”
“Star…ship… Starship,” the voice echoed. “I do not understand.”
“It doesn’t understand starship?” Bres said incredulously. “And you guys call me stupid.”
“It learned to vocalize our language in a single afternoon,” Kyrie pointed out. ”Cut it some slack.”
Captain Geneva silenced the youths with a violet glare, and then turned back to the radio.
“A starship is a vessel that carries life-forms through space. Do you understand?”
“You are… life forms? You can travel among the stars?”
“Strange… Strange creatures. Why did you hurt me?”
“We apologize; that was an unfortunate accident,” Captain Geneva said with another glare at Bres.
“Why have you come here?”
“That was also an accident. Your radio signals interfered with our navigational instruments, and we crashed on the surface of the planet. If you would be so kind to suspend your transmissions, we will leave peacefully.”
For a moment, there was only a confused jumble of radio noise, then, “I must think.”
“Thank you for your consideration,” Captain Geneva replied. “We are running low on supplies, so we must leave as soon as possible. Please make your decision quickly.”
“I have already decided,” the voice responded. “What you ask of me is impossible.”
Captain Geneva’s eyes dimmed momentarily, and her expression became grim. “If we cannot leave, we will die of starvation. I have no choice but to interpret your actions as hostile. This is an act of war.”
“War? What is war? I do not understand.”
“If you do not suspend your transmissions and allow us to leave, we will be forced to hurt you again,” Captain Geneva said icily.
“No… no… don’t hurt me,” the crackle became frantic- almost pleading in tone.
“Then suspend your transmissions,” Captain Geneva pressed.
“Then we have nothing more to say to each other,” she said, and resolutely turned off the radio.
Captain Geneva turned back to the cadets, who were all staring at her with horrified expressions.
“Oh! Captain-“ Gibbs said plaintively.
“Not a word, Cadet,” Captain Geneva snapped. “The situation is unfortunate, but I must put the welfare of my crew above that of hostile alien beings, no matter how pretty said beings are.”
“How could you ignore its pleas like that?” Gibbs persisted. “We’ve been negotiating with it for mere minutes. Surely, we could reach some solution if we tried.”
“Gibbs, we don’t have time to quibble. You heard the transmission yourself- the beings are unwilling to compromise. This will be a good learning experience for you. If you ever want to become an officer, you must learn to stop being so sensitive, and make difficult decisions.”
“Yes, Captain,” Gibbs said, her eyes brimming with tears.
“Good. Gibbs, Marsh, activate the force field and distribute our food rations. Cadet Kyrie, you have yet to tend to my nephew’s injuries; do so immediately. Look smart, everyone. We will return to the ship for weapons and backup bright and early tomorrow.”
“Hey, Gibbs, are you awake?” Marsh whispered.
Gibbs thought this was a rather stupid question. After all, even though she’d been trying to keep her sobs quiet, she knew she’d been failing miserably.
“You’d better get some sleep,” she mumbled. “We only get five hours of night on this planet.”
“My species hardly needs any sleep,” he whispered back. “But I know you need a lot. If you’re feeling up to it, though, Bres and I are going to contact the trees, again.”
Gibbs sat up with a start, and was promptly shushed by Marsh. He reached over to de-activate the force field that surrounded the camp, and then beckoned her to follow.
Gibbs, Marsh, and Bres made their way out of camp slowly, as Bres’ leg was mended, but still sore. They were as quiet as possible, keen to avoid detection. Soon, however, their silence took on a sense of awe as they gazed at the night sky.
Gibbs felt somewhat ashamed that she hadn’t taken the time to stargaze on this alien world. She’d been wrapped up with the mission, and eager to sleep when she could, but the night sky on Q4-5404-3963-9170 was truly spectacular.
In the eastern sky, two moons were rising. One was full, and bright red, and the other was small, pale, and irregularly shaped- probably an asteroid that had been pulled into orbit, Gibbs reasoned. In the north was an enormous, pink dust cloud, glittering and glowing with thousands of baby stars.
“Stellar,” Bres sighed appreciatively.
“Yeah,” Marsh agreed, before clearing his throat and assuming a more businesslike tone. “Anyway, we’re probably far enough from camp, now. I’m sure even the Captain’s bionic ears can’t hear this far.”
“That doesn’t matter, anyway,” said Bres. “She’s shut off her ears, for the night. Nothing will wake her up.”
“Are you serious?” Gibbs asked, her pale eyes wide with horror.
“That’s good for us,” Marsh said dismissively. He took the radio from his satchel and handed it to Gibbs. “I think you should be the one to talk.”
Gibbs beamed at Marsh as she took the radio, and the trio sat together on the rocky surface in a small, huddled circle. Gibbs touched the radio tentatively.
“Go ahead,” Marsh prompted. “It should already be set to the proper frequency. All you need to do is transmit.”
Gibbs nodded, bit her lip, and turned on the radio. She pushed the transmit button and said, tentatively, “Hello, are you still there?”
For a moment, there was nothing but noise, but then the alien voice spoke. “Is this Captain Geneva?”
“No. My name is Holly Gibbs,” she replied. “I’m a Cadet aboard the Argo. I’m here with my friends, Cadet Xellos Marsh, and Jonas Bres. We want to learn more about you, and we want to try to find a way to compromise, so that no one will have to resort to violence.”
There was another long silence, then the voice replied, “that is acceptable, Holly Gibbs.”
The small group let out a collective sigh. Bres flashed Gibbs and brilliant smile, and Marsh gave her an encouraging pat on the shoulder.
“Do you have a name?” she asked.
“I am the mind,” was the reply. “I am the only mind on Astra.”
“Astra- is that the name of this planet?”
“I have not been using words for long. Astra is the best word I can give to the thought that represents my planet,” the voice replied self-deprecatingly.
“Astra is a beautiful name,” Gibbs said. “I don’t understand something, though. You said you are the only mind, but we’ve seen so many organisms. Which one are you?”
“I am all of them. I am a multitude. I am one mind made from many individuals.”
Gibbs and Marsh exchanged astonished looks. “Incredible!” Marsh said.
“What’s incredible?” Bres asked excitedly.
Before Marsh could reply, Kyrie’s voice called out from behind them, triumphant.
Jonas Bres didn’t know everything, he didn’t even know most things, but he did know that when the prettiest, smartest girl you’ve ever met shows up unexpectedly on a beautiful, moonlit night, it was a good thing- even if the girl in question was yelling.
So, while Cadets Gibbs and Marsh tried to placate Kyrie with reasoning and pleas, Bres ran a hand through his hair and checked his breath. Then, when he was satisfied with the state of his grooming, he stood, flashed Kyrie a dazzling smile, and said, “hey, cutie. Glad you could make it.”
Kyrie just glared at Bres, obviously unable to see just how handsome he was in the dark.
“Just wait until I tell your aunt that you snuck out of camp. She’ll vaporize you.”
“Hey, don’t be mad,” Bres crooned. “I told Marsh that we should invite you, but he said that you would rat us out. Of course, I told him you were too stellar a babe to do something like that-“
“What are you doing out here, anyway?” Kyrie interrupted.
“We’re having a party!” Bres said.
“No, we’re not,” Gibbs sighed. “We’re contacting the trees again. We must be able to come to some sort of an arrangement.”
“You heard what the Captain said,” Kyrie said. “The aliens are hostile, and we’re running low on supplies. We don’t have time to negotiate.”
“Kyrie, we have to try and use what little time we have,” Marsh urged.
“Yeah, Kyrie. He broke my leg, sure, but I don’t think he meant to. This tree guy is pretty cool, once you talk to him,” Bres added.
“He?” Kyrie raised her eyebrow.
“We think that the entire forest is a single intelligence,” Marsh said gently. “As far as we know, it’s the only one of its kind.”
“The entire forest… but then, how is it communicating?” Kyrie said.
“We were just about to ask,” Marsh replied.
Kyrie bit her lip, looking back toward the camp. Then she sighed and sat between Marsh and Gibbs.
“Ask away,” she said.
Gibbs, in her relief, laughed out loud. Her laugh was high and clear, and rang like a bell over the quiet landscape. The whole party, though they feared detection, couldn’t help but relax and smile at the sound.
Gibbs pressed the transmit button. “Hello, again. We have another friend with us, Cadet Eileen Kyrie.”
“Your first name is Eileen?” Bres whispered incredulously.
Kyrie shushed him.
Gibbs continued, “We’re curious; how are you able to communicate with us? We didn’t see any radio equipment in the forest.”
“How are you reading my thoughts?” the mind responded.
The youths exchanged puzzled glances. Unfortunately, there were no crickets around to fill the silence with the appropriate chirruping.
Finally, Gibbs spoke again. “I don’t understand. You’re transmitting radio signals to us. How are you doing it?”
“You showed me how to think in your language. The ‘signals’ you speak of are part of my brain.”
“How can radio signals be part of your brain?” Gibbs asked.
There was a confused crackling noise, and then the strange voice spoke. “It’s difficult to remember, but over the millennia, I’ve been able to meditate on my existence. This is what I know about myself.
“Long ago, I was many. There were many unseen predators who would hurt me, so pieces of me would send signals to other pieces when it was hurt, so the others could help it heal, or try to fight the pain-bringers. Over time, the signals became more detailed.
“Centuries passed, and the predators stopped coming. Everything became very quiet, without the distress signals, but in the silence, parts of me became aware of very small, faint signals in the sky. I became aware of stars, pulsars, quasars, and the cycles of pulses that came from the sun. Pieces of me sent signals about these new discoveries back and forth along more and more ordered pathways, until logic emerged. I was awake.
“For millennia I could only think about, and talk to, the stars. Then you came, bringing with you the dimly remembered pain. You taught me your language, and I am able to think with your words, and communicate with you.”
Gibbs pressed the transmit button with trembling hands. “Thank you,” she whispered, “for telling us your story.”
Marsh stood and walked to the edge of the forest. He reached out and gently touched one of the white, moonlit blossoms with his dark grey hand.
“So, these little blossoms aren’t flowers at all, but tiny radio transmitters. They send radio signals to each other, back and forth, like neurons.”
“It can’t stop transmitting all of these signals, because that would be like dying,” Gibbs cried.
“Yes, so your little field trip was useless, after all,” a cold, mechanical voice replied. “In the end, we and the trees must be enemies.”
The small group turned to see two violet lights shining through the darkness. Captain Geneva had found them.
“I don’t blame you for trying,” she said. “I can understand why you might wish to avoid conflict. After all, this is a fascinating new species, and you are all young and curious. I suppose the loss of 4 hours sleep is enough punishment for you all. We still have 4 hours before sunrise, so let’s return to camp.”
For a moment, no one moved.
“Return to camp, now, before I decide not to be so forgiving.”
Everyone stood, and Gibbs, with fumbling fingers, returned the radio to its case.