**Note: Although the following is part of a previously self-published eBook, portions have been modified. However, it has not been professionally edited and likely contains typos and other errors. It is offered as an example of raw science fiction storytelling.**
The local sun was setting, illuminating the bottoms of the clouds heavily laden with poisonous gases that gave each of them a green tint. Higher aloft there were a few clouds that seem to glow red, hinting the presence of other gases. Without the breathing filters contained in their masks, both Cristina and Alix knew that they would have already been gasping, choking, retching and subject to a miserable death.
At least the wind was relatively calm. Pre-terraform Pravda was known to have intense sandstorms that lasted several months. But since the earliest seeding of the clouds the weather had developed a more benign attitude at times, more prone to precipitation of droplets of water laced with a chemical cocktail of acids and dissolved poisons.
As quiet as it was, they still felt their skin tingling. Without a doubt the poisonous gasses were being absorbed into their skin. They could not remain for long where they were. It was going to have to be a very brief visit. They were halfway up a ridge in the foothills of very tall mountains heading for a cavern’s entrance.
“This is near Haven,” Cristina voiced her recognition through the muffling of the heavy filters.
“The cave’s right there,” Alix said as he led the way. “I’ve read about this place.”
“Do you think we’ll find sand-morphs?”
“It’s worth a try,” he said over his shoulder. “This is supposed to be where the bodies were found. Otherwise, we’re going to go back with nothing.”
“Next time we need to wear engineer uniforms.”
“If there is to be a next time,” Alix said.
“We have come this far,” Cristina said. “I’m thinking positive. This is going to work.” She hurried toward the cave’s opening. Alix sped up to keep her pace and they arrived at the entrance at about the same moment.
When they entered the narrow opening in the wall of a cliff, it was as if they were stepping into a strong gale as the wind from within the cave rushed out and past them. Even as they descended past the opening they still felt a strong breeze, the cool wind emerging from deep within the cavern. The air passing over and around them neutralized the poisons that still clung to their skin and clothing. No longer did their skin sting from the contaminants.
Cristina paused. Slowly, despite Alix’s protest, she removed the mask from her face, blinking to allow her eyes to adjust to the atmosphere and the dimness of the cave. She kept the mask close to her face until she ventured a shallow breath, then a deeper one as she was certain the air was safe to breathe. “It’s fresh air,” she announced. Then after taking several deep breaths she motioned for him to remove his mask. “It’s very clean air, oxygen rich.”
After a few breaths, Alix began looking around. “This is over-pressured from inside. It’s forcing the poisonous air to remain outside. For someone…”
“They are the only ‘someones’ on the planet,” Alix said.
“That we know of.”
“Yes, that we know of,” Alix confirmed. “They use the cave opening much like we use the airlocks on the accesses into the domes.”
“So, even the sand-morphs do not like the poisonous air.”
“It seems odd,” Alix said. “If they were indigenous life, would they not have evolved to live outside? They prefer being in the caves maybe because they can control the air here. Maybe Dom is right about them being colonists.”
“Or they are cave dwellers. They are silicon-based life. Still, it seems a little strange.”
“More than a little,” Alix said as he took the lead for their gradual descent into the cavern, being careful and alert to any sounds while looking for any movement or signs of life.
“They know we are here,” Cristina said.
“You can sense them?”
“Yes,” she said. “I understand some of their thoughts but they are coming in very unorthodox patterns.”
“Do they know you can understand their thoughts?”
She paused, and then soberly she announced, “They do not like us.”
“They don’t want us here.”
“Then we have our answer,” he said. “We should leave.”
“No,” she said. “Wait.”
“They feel threatened. They don’t understand us. We’re alien. They’ve seen some others of our kind. They are afraid of us.”
Alix sat down on a relatively flat rock outcropping. “Then we wait.”
“For them to come to us. That’s what you do when animals are afraid of you.”
“They’re not animals.”
“They would be from our perspective – or actually they’re more like a pile of sand.”
“I don’t think they’ll come to us. They won’t consider meeting us relevant enough. There’ll be no reason to meet us if we pose no immediate threat so they’ll just ignore us until we go away.”
“But we won’t go away and in five days they will be exterminated.”
Cristina sat down next to Alix. “That is just it, they are curious about us but not in any way we would normally understand. They want nothing at all to do with life forms like us. They want to be left alone in this world.”
“It is their world, then?” Alix asked.
“They claim it, same as we do,” Cristina said. “They really are in the process of turning this world into one suitable for them. The caverns are like our domes.”
Alix’s eyes widened. “They’re colonists, like Dom said, then?”
“It changes everything!”
“What does it change, really?”
“Obviously, they were here making this their world. Then e came along.”
“They were here first. They purposely hid from us. They avoided detection just like they’re doing now. Because of that they died,” Cristina said. “They’ll not be inclined to work with us or even share the planet. They do not desire the same environment that we want.”
“Then we wasted our efforts coming here.”
“No, not at all,” she said. “Now, we know more of the truth.”
“You’re ready to return to the present?”
“Not quite. They need to be warned. Maybe if they are warned…”
Alix was staring at the entrance and wondering. “How did the sterilization reach into these caverns if the caverns are over-pressurized?”
Cristina tilted her head to one side.
“Yeah, see we have attempted to solve one mystery and discovered another.”
“You don’t think the survey teams knew about the sand-morphs and somehow disabled the over-pressuring of the caverns,” Cristina posed.
“Look at the investments that were made to even make a full survey of this world. The near Earth colonies were growing overcrowded and until that point only one terrestrial candidate world outside of the Earth solar system was viable. A lot of hope had been invested in Pravda well in advance of any survey teams. Afterwards a fortune was invested just to get the world ready for the first colonists.” Alix stood up and paced back and forth as he continued his thoughts in silence. Even so his thoughts were apparent to Cristina even without her probing. He was disgusted. It was obvious what happened – or rather, would happen in a few days. Perhaps it was too late to alter any of that but now he knew.
The world needed to know the truth about Pravda.
“What do we do now?” Cristina asked when she sensed a lull in his thoughts.
“You know where they are.”
“Then we find them.”
“There are many of them.”
“There are more minds that I can count; thousands, maybe more.”
“You can find them and communicate with them.”
“Maybe they’ll understand me. I don’t know how that works.”
“You understand them.”
“Yes, to a fairly high degree. Some of their concepts are bizarre, so much so that I do not understand at all but I know what they are thinking in most cases.”
“That’s good enough for me. We can always go back home if it gets to be threatening or you sense imminent danger. Just stay close and hold on to my hand.”
“I don’t know what we will confront,” she warned as she took his hand and he assisted her back onto the floor of the cave.
Together they continued to descend into first one large chamber and then one even larger.
“They’re here,” she announced, prompting Alix to pause, then he turned around quickly, sensing some movement and observing a few shifting shadows.
“Find one who’s mind you can access and focus on it. Try to communicate. Tell it we intend no harm and have actually come to prevent any harm to them.”
Cristina stood off to one side, her eyes closed tightly and her face illuminated only by the faint glow that the talisman around her neck emitted. She probed here and there as she searched for an unsuspecting mind that would allow her access, not knowing whether a sand-morph would be capable of understanding whatever thoughts she projected. It was their only hope of success.
Finally, she found one mind, a particularly robust individual and somewhat unique from what she was able to discern. In fact, he was singularly dynamic and ambitious. To the chagrin of others around him, he stepped out from the shadows of concealment and bravely stood directly in front of her.
She had no experience or knowledge about the structures of the body, only suspected that since there appeared to a head that the part of it facing her must be a face. She attempted communication.
“Slahl’yukim,” she uttered.
“What was that?’ Alix asked.
“It’s the sand-morph’s name.”
“It’s personal name of the name of the species.”
“It is a personal name. Actually, he’s something like a poet.”
“Yes, he’s a little different from the others and a lot more open-minded.”
“He can understand you?”
“Only a little bit,” then she chuckled. “He’s trying to do the same thing with me that I’m doing with him. Some of the images he’s receiving don’t make sense,” she said then she turned back and smiled.
There was a gradual change in Slahl’yukim’s appearance. His face – or what she assumed was his face – seemed to brighten. Then, a veritable tidal wave of information submerged her mind, saturating it to overloading with everything and anything about him. He was famous among his kind but was regarded as a maverick. Exiled from their home world because he challenged the authority of their leadership, he was gathering a loyal following who supported his antithetical views.
As her mind was flooded she felt a comparable drain. Slahl’yukim was at least capable to some extent of telepathy and was probing her mind. It felt strange but she resisted her initial response to block his access. After a few moments, Slahl’yukim closed what she realized were his eyes, and then when he opened them what she decided was actually his face radiated warmth. “Cris-ti-na,” he struggled to utter. It sounded gravelly at first but then he repeated it several times as if practicing it, each time the delivery was smoother.
“Slahl’yukim,” Cristina said directing her hand toward him but then indicated with her other hand, “Alix.”
“Al-ix,” the sand-morph repeated.
Cristina indicated both herself and made a gesture to Alix, “Human,” she said.
Slahl’yukim stared at her, then as he realized what she had meant his face brightened again. “Sakum’mal,” he used one of his limbs to point to his torso then he turned and made a more sweeping gesture, “Sakum’malien.”
Cristina smiled excitedly, then nodded. “He’s teaching me some basics of their language,” she said over her shoulder to Alix.
“I see that.”
“Cris-ti-na pret-ty hu-man, yes?”
“Yes, she is pretty,” Alix answered.
Slahl’yukim looked at Alix as if angered for his apparent interruption but then softened and finally made a gurgling sound, which Cristina sensed was a laugh of sorts. The sakum’mal fell silent. He seemed to be searching, probing and testing then his face brightened just before he uttered. “A-lix jeal-ous Slahl’yukim.”
Cristina laughed. “Wow, he’s very bright! He’s learning our language from what he received of my thoughts.”
“Slahl’yukim,” Cristina addressed him. “Humans are a danger to Sakum’malien. Five more times of sunrise, Sakum’malien will die. Humans do not know the Sakum’malien are hiding.”
Slahl’yukim stepped back understanding some but not all of what Cristina had tried to convey. She reinforced her message with images of her world, the future world from which she and Alix had come.
Then she added, “Sakum’malien colony becomes human colony.”
She could see the growing concern as it swept over his face. He turned and made several quick utterances to the others. Some of them emerged from the shadows, prompting Alix to step closer to Cristina.
“Fear not Slahl’yukim. Fear not Sakum’malien. Future coming here, me know. You help us wanting.”
Cristina focused all of her mind toward communicating to Slahl’yukim but still there was resistance and gaps in bridging the understanding. He was getting some of it but never really all she wanted him to know.
“Human kill us,” Slahl’yukim said.
“Yes, in five days.”
“Now kill us.”
“Already kill us,” he rephrased.
“See,” Alix said. “It’s just like I thought.”
Cristina lowered her head, “I’m sorry,” she said, but then when she lifted her head to look at Slahl’yukim, a tear dripped down her cheek. “Humans who are here now are evil, bad people, not normal.”
Slahl’yukim turned away but then as if he had finally fathomed what she said. When he turned back, “Sakum’malien, human same. Some good; some bad. Some smart; some stupid.”
“You’re learning my language rapidly.”
Slahl’yukim nodded. “My language easy for you, for Alix. I teach. Already know much, I think.”
“I’d like that.”
“Me too,” Alix agreed.
He reached out to her with one of his appendages and at the end of it was something that resembled a hand. She placed her hand in his and he led her deeper into the cavern. Other Sakum’malien surrounded Alix even as he was following them and after a few moments all of them who were hiding emerged. It was a positive development. Cristina had broken through. She communicated with them. He didn’t know whether it would matter only that it could. There was a chance; there was hope.
Slahl’yukim led Cristina to a chamber where only she and he entered. Alix remained outside, as did the remainder of the Sakum’malien.
Cristina paid attention both to what Slahl’yukim uttered and what he projected mentally. In this way he provided her reference and structure upon which the language was based. After a few moments she understood its format. “It really is like music,” she said. Then she amended, “It’s exactly like music. It’s a language that is mostly music, except it adds in colors to the sounds.” She turned to Alix who was waiting patiently just outside of the chamber’s threshold. “Alix, it’s complicated music, like if we did a concern with our instruments and the lasers lightshow. That’s what it’s like talking to them, mentally. It’s beautiful imagery. A good portion of it is like our music. It is tonal with nuance added with harmonics overlaying the fundamental expressions. Wow, I wish you could hear it and see it like I can,” she said as she listened to Slahl’yukim reading a passage of the recorded Sakum’malien’s history that was etched into the smooth wall.
Cristina began to imitate what Slahl’yukim was reciting, but she carried the harmony beneath her utterances just as was intended, causing the Sakum’mal to pause in his reading but even more significant all of the Sakum’malien around Alix lowered closer to the floor of the cavern, as if they were bowing.
“Words sacred,” Slahl’yukim said almost as a warning for her not to utter them even in imitation and never to attempt singing them.
“It’s a song,” she countered, then turned to Alix, “I can see the structure. It is not like the way we write music, but it’s still music.”
“Maybe you should not further piss-off your instructor,” Alix suggested from the threshold.
“Slahl’yukim, I apologize. I understand the way your language is written. It’s like human music to a very large degree. I can sing it.”
Slahl’yukim did not understand everything she said but enough that he responded. “Others not ready. Words sacred,” he searched his memory of what he had acquired from Cristina’s thoughts. “This prophecy is ancient language – not used more… anymore. Symbols same meaning little changed,” then he indicated with a sweeping gesture, “All ancient things mysteries.”
“How long have your been in this world.”
“Sakum’malien here many generation. I come this generation, serve exile. Language different, custom changed. I adapt,” he said showing a good deal more comfort with Cristina’s language.
“Your home, does not help anyone here?”
Slahl’yukim gurgled with humor. “First Sakum’malien here sent die. Prisoners, misfits, malcontents. Adapt, time pass, organs changed. Outside can breathe sometimes – short while. Air inside, clean – prefer. Me, breathe outside, no good. Sick, make me. No adapt, much soon.”
“You come back with us,” Cristina said and projected. “You show humans.”
He paused, perhaps his expression was even a frown for a Sakum’malien. “Go you with where?”
“Human future not Sakum’malien. Pointless go there.”
“Sakum’malien are all dead in future. Humans do not know the truth about Sakum’malien.”
Slahl’yukim nodded slowly, having adopted some of Cristina’s characteristics and body language. “How me, others you save with you go future?”
“Sakum’malien can be resurrected. The bodies of thousands were preserved.”
Again Slahl’yukim appeared overwhelmed. “Prevent Sakum’malien die, here. Easier. Better.”
“We can do both then,” Cristina said.
“Pointless,” Slahl’yukim reiterated.
“How’s it pointless?” Cristina countered. “You come and help us in the future.”
“You help now. Past change. Future different.”
“Cristina, I don’t know if it’s wise to consider what he’s suggesting,” Alix said. “I mean, it could alter our future. We might cease to exist.”
“Or return to a better world,” she countered.
Slahl’yukim turned and stepped past Cristina. He said something to the Sakum’malien nearest to the threshold of the chamber. There was an apparently heated discussion for a few moments. Then he turned and walked back toward Cristina, “They know important reason come. Gratitude warning us. Say all fine. Poisons not inside caverns. What do humans, not matter.”
“Slahl’yukim, I assure you there are no living Sakum’malien on this planet in my time.”
“None aware you.”
“They could hide for a time but I seriously doubt there’s anywhere. After many generations of human exploration and habitation, everything has been explored.”
Slahl’yukim fell silent appraising what he could of what Cristina had told him. Then he focused on her eyes. “No Sakum’malien in future.”
He returned to the threshold and uttered far and loud for all to hear. Cristina understood enough of it to hear the plea in his voice. He was telling them the truth as he understood it, that she and Alix had come from the future to warn everyone of their impending doom because humans in the future understood it was wrong to exterminate them even if it was mostly unintended.
“Trust no humans,” Slahl’yukim said to Alix as he passed by. Alix did not know how to take it, but felt it was uttered in disgust. As he returned to Cristina he commented, “They much stupid. No listen. Dumb no survive.”
“If you stay you will die,” Cristina told him. “In five days.”
He nodded in response. “Sakum’malien place here, me too.”
“They can be resurrected. Some bodies preserved. My brother believes they can be brought back to life.”
“Bro-ther,” Slahl’yukim emulated, and then sought meaning from his recollection of having acquired Cristina’s thoughts. “Paul,” he pronounced, having found the name along with images in her memories that he acquired.
“Yes, Paul. You can help Paul. He wants to help you.”
Slahl’yukim seemed to radiate warmth. “Go time come. Take me, go.”