The Mind of Astra, Part V

Somehow, Gibbs was able to return to sleep, but the calm, dreamless state was shattered abruptly by a high pitched, electronic shriek.
“My hover-bike! That little ingrate has stolen it again!” Captain Geneva shrieked before her voice broke into nonsensical electronic beeps.
“Wake up, cadets.” The Captain shouted as soon as she’d regained control of her voice. “Pack up. We need to leave now.”
Gibbs sat up and rubbed her eyes. She gazed around blearily for a few moments before making an important discovery.
“Hey, Kyrie is gone, too,” she said, pointing at the empty sleeping-bag beside her.
Captain Geneva beeped incoherently again, and Gibbs and Marsh both took this as a signal to leap out of their sleeping bags and throw everything into knapsacks as quickly as they could. Captain Geneva, still beeping, pointed in the direction of the ship, and they began the long trek back to the ship.
After approximately 30 minutes of walking, the adrenaline rush caused by abject terror of the enraged captain left her system, and Cadet Gibbs’s feet began to slow. She was tired, not just from the lack of sleep, but also from the emotional toll of defeat. She loved the forest, and she would now be forced to fight against it- to take part in destroying a beautiful, unique being. There was no way the forest could defend itself against the ship’s advanced weapons.
Gibbs had read about genocide in her history classes. Now she would take part in one.
In the next moment, however, a thought came to her. It wasn’t a happy thought, because it could not save her new friend, but it made her smile, anyway. She didn’t care what happened to her. She didn’t care if she was thrown out of the academy, or thrown into a holding cell. She would refuse to take part in the genocide, anyway.
She looked up and saw that Marsh was wearing the same smile.
“I don’t know about you, Gibbs,” he said, “but I’m sure going to miss the Argo when I’m in prison. I hope I’m able to stand on the bridge one last time.”
In that moment, there was a blinding flash of light, and suddenly, the alien world around them vanished, and they were standing in a pristine, white room, with walls covered in gleaming buttons and lights. They were aboard the Argo.
“Wonderful, Marsh,” Gibbs said. “Now, could you hope that I get my own luxury star cruiser?”
“I might be able to arrange that for you,” Bres said, waving at them from the captain’s chair.
“What is the meaning of this?” Captain Geneva demanded.
“Well, I’ve always wanted my own starship,” Bres explained calmly. “So, I decided to steal this one. I couldn’t very well leave you guys stranded on the alien world. Luckily, Cadets Morris and Chua were able to fix the quantum transporter, so I had them bring you aboard. You really didn’t have to walk all that way.”
“Get out of my chair now,” Captain Geneva shrieked. “Zenon! Phelps!” she called to the two guards standing by the entrance to the bridge, “Throw my nephew into the brig at once.”
The two guards didn’t move.
“They’re on our side, Captain,” Cadet Kyrie said. She was seated at the helm, wringing her hands, but speaking in a calm, determined voice.
“Our side?” the Captain asked.
“Don’t listen to her, Auntie,” Bres said. “She just has a little case of Stockholm syndrome. I kidnapped her, you see, so she could help me make my getaway. In fact, everyone on board is my prisoner, so none of this is really any of their fault.”
The Captain was speechless.
“Impressive,” Marsh said, grinning. “So, how do you plan to get us off this rock, anyway?”
“We’re not on a rock at all,” Kyrie explained. “We’re on course to the edge of the solar system, where we will be able to make the jump to hyper-speed. We’ll be home in approximately 48 Earth hours.”
“How-“ Gibbs gasped.
“I remembered how quickly the forest learned to speak our language,” Cadet Kyrie said, “so I decided to teach the forest to speak to our navigational instruments. The computer language is a lot more simple, logical, so it was able to learn in a very short time. It knows this sector of the galaxy better than anyone, so it’s concentrating as hard as it can, keeping noise to a minimum, to guide us home.”
Gibbs was unable to speak. She ran to Kyrie and flung her arms around her neck, and then ran to Bres and did the same.
“Stellar!” he said. “I get my own ship and hugs from cute girls. I should kidnap and steal more often.”
“Kyrie, I can’t believe it,” Marsh said. “You actually took a chance.”
“You gambled with our lives,” Captain Geneva sneered. “If we survive this, it will be by sheer luck.”
“Gibbs, Marsh, I’m getting tired of listening to her. Could you two escort her to the brig, under threat of torture and death and other bad stuff?”
Gibbs saluted Bres, and then took Captain Geneva by the arm. She and Marsh took Geneva away.
“Hey, Kyrie, when I get out of prison, can I call you?” Bres said when they’d gone.
Kyrie smiled. “If you forget to call me, I’ll hunt you down.”
The forest on the planet Astra, over time, came to be known all over the galaxy as The Oracle. Scientists from many different worlds came to study the strange new alien, and The Oracle, in turn, learned from them. During this age, there was a leap in technological progress, leading to the discovery of a way to perform intergalactic, and later, interdimensional travel.
The Oracle remained on its home world, unable to reap the benefits of its own contributions to sentient-kind, yet through the stories of other travelers, it was able to gain a greater understanding of other worlds and beings, and to travel in a way only a mind can travel. It was no longer alone.

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The Mind of Astra, Part IV

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?”
“Correct.”
“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.
“Impossible.”
“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.
“Busted!”
***

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.

The Mind of Astra, Part III

When Cadet Marsh had announced that he’d found a way to communicate with the alien species, he’d expected praise and adoration- or at least a friendly smile and pat on the thorax. What he didn’t expect was for Cadet Kyrie to groan, roll her eyes, and say, “someone, please, shoot me. Put me out of my misery.”
She did anyway.
“Umm, Kyrie, I know you’re scared of the organisms, but…”
“I’m not scared of them. Being torn apart and eaten by alien trees is nothing compared to my fate,” Kyrie replied.
Marsh boggled at her.
“Look behind you,” Gibbs said with a resigned sigh.
Marsh turned and saw a hover-bike, gliding easily over the surface of the planet, coming from the direction of the ship. A young, male human, with messy black hair and a cocky grin, was driving the bike with his feet as he leaned back against the seat with his hands behind his head. He made a wide circle around the group of Cadets, and then stopped.
“Hey guys,” he said cheerfully. “I’m here to rescue you.”
The group was silent for a moment- a silence punctuated by the perpetual quiet of the alien world. Then Gibbs sighed, stepped forward, and spoke.
“You’re here to rescue us from what?”
“I dunno,” the boy said, dismounting. “You guys have been out here forever, so I assumed you needed to be rescued.”
“Well, we don’t. Go back, Bres.” Kyrie said firmly.
“I can’t, baby. The captain ordered me to stay on the ship. Plus, I stole her hover-bike. If I go back, she’ll throw me in the brig.”
Marsh grinned. Bres wasn’t an intelligent human- at least, by any measurable standard- but he did know how to have fun.
Kyrie was less impressed. “Bres, as leader of this expedition, it is my duty to take you into custody, and escort you back to the ship.” She fumbled around in her knapsack, retrieving a pair of magnetic restrainers and a stun weapon, which she tried to wield menacingly.
“Stellar! I’ve always wanted to be your prisoner, beautiful.” Bres held out his wrists and wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
Kyrie blanched and quickly put the restraints and the weapon away.
Bres shrugged, and turned to Marsh. “So, if you guys aren’t in danger, then what’s been taking you so long? The captain and I fixed the ship’s hull ages ago, and all you guys had to do was figure out why the radio control thingies don’t work.”
Marsh sighed. “We can’t find the source of the radio interference. Gibb thinks that the trees might know something-“
“Wait, the trees?” Bres interrupted.
“For the last time, they aren’t actually trees,” Kyrie said.
“Anyway,” Marsh continued, “I was just about to tell everyone, before you arrived, that I’ve found a pattern in the radio signals.”
Gibbs and Kyrie both turned sharply toward Marsh.
“The captain said that the interference was just a lot of noise,” Kyrie said.
“Yes, it does seem like random noise, at first, but there is a subtle pattern. It’s organic, almost fractal, but it is a definite pattern.”
Kyrie’s face lit up. “Can you decipher its meaning?”
“No, but I’m going to send out a signal of my own- the usual first-contact language cipher. Hopefully, the aliens are more intelligent than I am.”
Kyrie bit her lip. “It sounds like a long-shot. Go ahead and broadcast your signal, and we’ll continue to examine the trees.”
Bres turned and started to strut toward the forest. “Great, let’s go.”
“Wait, Bres, we have to watch them from here. The trees could be dangerous,” Kyrie shrieked.
“Good. Danger is my middle name.”
“I’ll report you,” she threatened.
“I can’t get in worse trouble than I’m already in,” Bres countered.
“Finally, a mutiny!” Marsh said enthusiastically. He slung his radio over his shoulder and followed Bres.
“Wait!” Kyrie called.
Gibbs hesitated, looking first to the forest with her longing eyes, and then anxiously back at Kyrie. Finally she heaved a heavy sigh, and ran after the others.
“Get back here now! That’s an order.” Cadet Kyrie called.
She kept calling after the others until her throat was hoarse, but her voice just echoed impotently in the chilly, evening air. She finally gave up and sat behind the boulder to wait for the others, wiping the tears from her cheeks.
Gibbs wrapped her arms around herself and shivered as she gazed around the strange forest. It was unsettlingly unlike any forest on Earth. There was no quiet whisper of wind rustling leaves, no chirping birds or humming insects, and no stirring of fallen leaves or blossoms underfoot. The trees just jutted out of the planet’s rocky surface, still and silent.
Gibbs shivered again, and turned up the heat on her electric jacket.
Bres, completely unruffled, stepped up to a tree. “How do you talk to one of these, anyway?”
He rapped sharply on the tree’s trunk. “Hey, what’s this thing made of? Plastic?”

Marsh reached out and touched the tree. “I think the trunk is made of keratin, like your fingernails.”
“Oh, neat. These flowers are pretty weird, too.” Bres took a small laser knife from his pocket and cut off a blossom.
The eerie stillness was immediately shattered. All of the trees began to shudder and shake at once. The tree Bres had cut thrashed wildly, knocking him to the ground. Marsh’s radio emitted an ear-splitting screech.
***
Cadet Kyrie lay on her back, staring at the wildly thrashing trees in complete bewilderment. Seeing the blank expression in her eyes, a bystander might have thought that her brain had shut off completely. In fact, it was actually performing the very tricky function of switching from complete resentment, and a desire that her friends meet their certain doom in the alien forest, to concern for her friends, and the desire to rescue them from certain doom. Several synapses had to override her usual fear impulse, and tap into the underdeveloped courage centers of the brain.
In other words, Kyrie was in shock.
Luckily, Kyrie had been gifted with a very efficient brain, so within very little time, Kyrie was back on her feet and reaching for her stun weapon. Her brain performed another tricky operation, and she said, “wait, do those things even have a nervous system to stun?”
She put away the expensive stun weapon, picked up a rock, and rushed toward the forest.
When she reached the trees, she threw herself on the ground and crawled under the flailing branches, awkwardly pulling herself forward with her elbows while clutching her rock. She made her way toward the hideous screeching noise, ignoring the more sensible urge to run in the opposite direction.
Soon she could see her friends at the edge of a small clearing. Cadets Gibbs and Marsh each had one of Bres’s arms, and were attempting to pull him away from a tree, which had one of its branches wound tightly around his leg. Kyrie crawled over and lifted her rock, ready to bring it crashing down on the branch. A small hand grabbed her wrist.
Kyrie looked up. Gibbs was shouting something unintelligible.
“What?” Kyrie shouted back.
Gibbs let go of her wrist and reached over to turn off Marsh’s radio. Immediately, the cacophony stopped. Gibbs let out a sigh of relief.
“There, that’s better. I was saying, ‘don’t hurt the tree.’ Bres cut off one of the flowers, and that’s when they went crazy.”
“Bres did what?” Kyrie cried. “He’s a menace. We should just let the tree have him.”
“I don’t think the tree really wants him,” Gibbs replied. “It’s just lashing out-“
“Stop pulling me,” Bres cried. “The tree is squeezing.”
“Wait, do you still have the flower?” Gibbs asked.
“In- in my pocket,” Bres gasped.
Gibbs let go of Bres’s arm and reached into his trousers pocket, soon producing the blossom. It was small and white, but not at all delicate. It glinted in the sunlight in an almost metallic way.
The branch stopped squeezing, and uncoiled itself from Bres’s leg.
Gibbs held out the blossom, and gently touched it to the end of the branch. For a moment, the blossom glowed with a soft, white light, and then the light traveled from the blossom, down the branch and to the trunk of the tree. All of the other trees became still once more. The blossom fused itself back onto the branch, and the branch returned to its original position. Once more, the forest was silent and still.
“Let’s get out of here,” Kyrie urged.
***

The trip back to camp was maddeningly slow. Bres couldn’t walk, so Marsh and Kyrie had to help carry him back. They had to stop by the rock where Kyrie had left her knapsack, and wait for her to check every item, to make sure nothing was stolen. Bres was the only one who attempted to make conversation, which mostly consisted of him exclaiming from time to time, “that was totally stellar!”
When they arrived at camp, Kyrie almost dropped Bres, partly from annoyance, but mostly from surprise. She fumbled to keep her hold on him while trying her best to stand at attention.
“Captain Geneva, Ma’am!” she cried, attempting to salute, but managing only an awkward bow.
“At ease, Cadet,” the Captain said. She was standing in the middle of the messy encampment in her clean, white uniform, with her hair pulled into a sleek bun, while examining the mussed, tired cadets with a critical eye.
Captain Geneva was a tall, strikingly beautiful woman. She had a lithe, graceful figure, a perfect peaches and cream complexion, and gently glowing, violet bionic eyes. She was graced with the type of statuesque beauty that commanded instant respect and fear, from all but one person.
“Jonas Bres, you are a disappointment to your entire family,” she said, one of her electronic eyes on the injured boy, while the other still surveyed the cadets. “I should never have allowed you to tag along. I knew you would endanger the mission. You can say goodbye to your letter of recommendation. I’ll do whatever I can to make sure you’re never allowed into the academy.”
“But Aunt Willa-“ Bres began.
“Not another word. You’re spending the rest of the journey in the brig. Now, Cadet Kyrie, kindly explain what Bres has done, and why you allowed it to happen.”
Kyrie’s face burned bright red as she told the Captain everything that had happened so far. After she finished, the Captain shook her head and sighed.
“Cadet Gibbs, get the portable physician from my knapsack, and see to Jonas. Cadet Marsh, explain to me why you decided it was a good idea to follow my prion-brained nephew into the forest.”
“Well, I thought we’d learn more about the organisms if we examined them up close- and I’m glad we did. We’ve learned an immense amount- we’ve learned exactly what we needed to know.”
Kyrie looked at Marsh blankly. “We have?”
“Of course we have! We’ve confirmed that the trees are definitely the source of the radio interference. As soon as the trees reacted, the signals grew more intense. I’ve been broadcasting our first-contact information for a few hours, Captain. Hopefully, we’ll be able to communicate soon.”
He handed the radio to the captain with a grin. The Captain eyed him warily, took the radio, and turned it on.
For a few moments, there was only static. Then the static seemed to coalesce into a rough, alien approximation of the human voice. The weird distorted voice simply said, “who are you?”

The Mind of Astra, Part II

“Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet-”
Cadet Kyrie shut her eyes and chanted her mantra steadily, willing herself not to jump up and strangle Cadet Gibbs. The mantra was usually an effective stress-reliever, much more than her previous mantra, which had been pi. Her therapist had suggested she change it because A, mantras were most effective when they were repetitive, so a non-terminating and non-repeating decimal wouldn’t do, and B, perhaps words that evoked a pleasant image, like a rainbow, would have a soothing effect. Indeed, Kyrie had found reciting the colors of the visible spectrum to be quite soothing, before she met Cadet Gibbs.
Kyrie stopped chanting and opened her eyes. Gibbs was sitting across from her with her hands folded in her lap, waiting politely for Kyrie to finish. Kyrie wasn’t quite certain why she found the girl’s innocent face so irritating. Certainly, Gibbs was a very silly girl, at times even eccentric, but she was ultimately harmless.
“Listen, Gibbs,” Kyrie said as patiently as she could manage. “This isn’t a good time to joke around.”
“But I’m serious,” Gibbs whined, further straining Kyrie’s patience. “Listen, you said yourself that the cherry trees aren’t actual trees, but rather, an alien species we know nothing about. Well, no one is around but the trees- maybe they’re intelligent.”
“Hey, yeah!” Marsh said excitedly. “We’ve been going about this all wrong. We haven’t seen the trees for the forest! How exactly should we go about communicating with them, though? They don’t appear to have any usual sensory organs.”
“They may have some sensory organs, hidden in the blossoms,” Gibbs replied. “But if all else fails, maybe we could try touching them.”
“Hold on,” Kyrie said. “Those things could be dangerous. We can’t just start poking and prodding them until they react. You might be onto something, Gibbs, but we need to proceed with caution. We’ll study the trees from a safe distance, tomorrow. For now, let’s get some rest. Marsh, set the force field, will you?”
To avoid any argument, Kyrie immediately slid into her sleeping bag, and resolutely shut her eyes.
***
“You were right, O, fearless leader,” Marsh said. “Watching the trees from 50 meters away all morning has been really productive.”
Cadet Marsh wasn’t usually quite so sarcastic, but he found that, sometimes, sarcasm was the best way to communicate with humans.
“The problem with humans,” he always said, “particularly the intelligent ones, is that they just don’t know how to have a good time.”
Just now, for example, the team leader, Cadet Kyrie, was cowering behind a rock, staring through a pair of digital binoculars at a fascinating new species of life, completely immune to the wonder and excitement of making first contact with a whole new race. In fact, she seemed to dread the entire experience as though it was a trip to the digital dentist.
Behind her, Cadet Gibbs was biting her lip, and staring at the trees with her longing, soulful eyes. Sometimes, Gibbs seemed to understand the wonder that was replete in the universe, but she didn’t ever seem to grasp just how fun it all could be, if she’d only let it.
Kyrie and Gibbs often wondered how an irresponsible being like Marsh had ever made it into the United Planetary Academy, let alone the top class.
“Now look, Marsh, once we’ve finished making our preliminary observations, we will be able to observe the new species from a distance of 20 meters. Then, if all goes well, we can send a robot to try to establish initial communication,” Kyrie explained.
“You want a robot to hog all of the glory?” Marsh gasped. “No way- I’ll mutiny first. Gibbs, are you with me?”
“Get this through your thick, grey skull, Marsh. I’m the expedition leader, and I say we go by the book. No one is going to die, or get infected by alien parasites, on my watch. If you say one more word, I’ll report you to the captain.”
Marsh looked to Gibbs, who merely gave a tiny, apologetic shrug. Marsh huffed and sat on the ground, taking out his radio receiver and fiddling with the dials.
“Good,” Kyrie said smugly, and turned to Gibbs. “I’ve completed my initial scan of the life-form, and I haven’t seen anything unusual.

There don’t appear to be any sensory organs, though the life-form may be sensitive to touch, as you say.”
“Really? Did you check the flowers?” Gibbs asked, reaching for the binoculars.
She scanned the trees slowly, “This is incredible, Kyrie. The flowers look exactly like the ones on Earth. I can see the petals, an even the stamen at the center. What are the odds that a flower would evolve on its own, light years from Earth? “
“Keep looking,” Kyrie said. “Watch what happens when a breeze happens along.”
“Nothing happens!” Gibbs said. “The blossoms don’t move at all; they’re completely rigid. The trees don’t even sway.”
“Big deal,” Marsh said. “I’ve just found a way to communicate with them.”

The Mind of Astra, Part I

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.

Enjoy

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.”

Posted on Web Fiction Guide