The planet glowed in the darkness beneath them. Some fluorescent chemical in the ocean made large fractalized patterns of green light dance across its surface. This planet was known as the Shining Maiden, but to them it was just B720-C3, another territory to claim and analyze.
Like most planets, it was lethal without the right protection. The crew had to put on special suits when they entered its atmosphere. There were rumors of men going insane, of wandering off from the group and vanishing from sight, the instant they breathed its air; there were rumors of strange creatures that lived within the water that would shoot a deadly poison at anyone who came near them. One operations technician was rumored to have spent seven hours screaming before he finally died from shock. Vrone didn’t know, or care, about these legends; their job would either be boring or fatal, and he wasn’t sure if he cared which one it was.
Vrone didn’t know how long he’d been enlisted, only that he’d signed up for each re-enlistment when it was offered to him. Time didn’t seem to mean very much when you drifted through space. His job, though lowly, was well-paid and dangerous enough to warrant a certain respect from the other crew members. The “Reconaissance Techicians,” or “Recon Team” as they were usually called, had to go on foot through an entire territory to make sure that the glass birds and eye-spiders weren’t recording any false information, or “false pickups” as they were called in the rather ugly argot of the Military Intelligence Office. There had never been any false pickups in his entire career, and for years he had half-hoped that there would be; now he was beyond hoping. What did it matter? If he died, all he owned would go to his mother and someone else would take his place.
The entire Recon crew went silent when they landed. It would be hours, even days before they could open the latch and explore; through the bowels of the ship, they could hear orders being barked and boots squeaking against the floor. Vrone closed his eyes and imagined the flocks of glass birds flying noiselessly off into the sky, to the eye spiders fanning out from the underbelly of the ship, feet clicking across the dark ground beneath.
“I wonder what we’re here for,” Vrone said to the suit next to him. The suit’s head, all reflective plastic and knobs, turned slowly to him.
“Who knows,” said the suit blankly. From the voice, Vrone could tell that it belonged to Ranfin. “Probably the same thing as always––collect data, collect the machines, some light espionage if we’re lucky…the usual, you know.”
“It feels different this time.”
Vrone got up and looked out of the porthole. Outside, dust swirled across a barren, undulating stretch of dirt. A jagged mountain denuded of its soil rose over them in the middle distance; Vrone thought of the outline it would make against the stars in the night sky, and felt lonely.
“Is the whole planet like this?” he asked the room.
“Pretty much,” Ranfin replied. “There’s some plant life deep in the ocean…allegedly. And you saw that glowing muck. We’re on Beach Island though, so we’ll at least get to see some of the water. Nothing living though…we hope.”
The door opened. The four men fell into formation, and walked onto the island. Something stepped across Vrone’s shoe, which nearly made him jump; even in the half-light, he could see it was an eye-spider creeping across the ground. Vrone had never liked the eye-spiders. Once one had felt his exposed ankle and he’d nearly jumped through the ceiling of the ship; he’d never forget the soft stroke of its foot as long as he lived.
In the distance he saw the ocean, glowing with an unreal green light in large patches; even in the tepid daylight it was clearly visible. He imagined this light was somehow watching him, and then chided himself for personifying things. A soft click in his ear let Vrone know that base had just pinged his location; he imagined them looking through the camera on his helmet, and had half a mind to do a cartwheel just to make them dizzy.
“Any signs of life? Over,” a bored voice asked in his left ear. He pressed a button on the side of his helmet to talk to base.
“Negative. Over,” he replied.
“Something’s been here,” Kygof said in Vrone’s other ear. Vrone shuddered; Kygof had a horrible habit of coming up behind people and scaring them when they least expected it. They had learned how to handle being startled, and Vrone’s hand was over his mouth—or where his mouth was, behind his suit—before he could think.
“Kygof, don’t do that,” Vrone said when he recovered himself. “You could compromise all of us.”
“I don’t know what, exactly,” Kygof continued, unfazed. “My unconscious senses are telling me something that I can’t interpret. There’s just a feeling here that I don’t get on other planets. It doesn’t feel quite dead to me. You know?”
“It’s nerves,” Vrone said. “We all have it. All those rumors about this planet…if you keep believing in them, you’ll invent something to be afraid of, even when it isn’t there.”
“Oh God, it’s one of those planets?” he said, his voice saturated with fear. “We’re on a veldt? My sister was sent to one when––“
They covered the eastern part of the island in silence. The sun set. The silhouette of the rock against the stars made Vrone feel even lonelier than he’d imagined it would. The sound of the ocean was everywhere now, and in the light the foaming crests of the waves glowed underneath the stars.
“There’s no one,” Vrone said, more to himself than anyone else; no one looked up. They came to the beach again. Something small gleamed in the sand, right at the waterline; it moved with the waves, falling out and coming in with them, like a piece of driftwood. Vrone moved toward it and picked it up.
“Stop!” Harjo whispered, but he was too late. Vrone held it up to the light; it was transparent, cylindrical, apparently hollow, with something translucent and rolled up inside of it. Something dark and solid was covering its smaller end.
“Just toss it,” Kygof said at his shoulder. “What if it’s a bomb? We can’t bring a bomb back to base. If we weren’t killed by the blast, we’d be killed by Lieutenant Diamond-maker.”
“I know that Kygof,” Vrone said patiently. “That’s why I’m going to send out a discovery signal, all right? And don’t do that.”
Vrone unhooked something on his belt and pushed a button. The Lieutenant’s voice was instantly screaming in all of their left ears; after a few moments of readjustment, Vrone held the object up to the stars again and pressed a button on the side of his helmet.
“So what?” the Lieutenant said. “It’s the night sky. We’re monitoring it back here. Are you even doing your jobs?”
“It’s an unidentified object, sir,” Vrone explained. Halfway through his description, a swarm of glass birds flew soundlessly through the sky above them and hovered around Vrone. Each one shined a bright blue light at the object, which glowed and reflected their lights.
“It doesn’t appear flammable,” the Lieutenant said calmly in his ear. “Not according to the reports we’re getting…still, just to be safe, set it down—slo-o-owly—and we’ll investigate.”
The Lieutenant clicked off. Vrone slowly bent over and put the bottle down on the ground. The birds swarmed over it before he’d even taken his hand away, knocking him off balance; the edge of one wing skinned the back of his hand as he fell. He brought up his hand to the light and saw small crescent tears in the fabric, behind which his flesh gleamed. A foul odor reached his nose.
“My suit’s broken,” he said, pressing desperately at all the buttons on the side of his head. “One of the birds––“
Vrone came to with a searing vision of light boring into his pupils. He blinked it away and sat up on a cot, dressed in a flimsy garment. He saw a painting of a lily on the wall opposite him. He knew that painting. He was in the spaceship again, on the hospital wing.
“You had a pretty nasty scare there,” someone said from the doorway. He looked over; a man he didn’t recognize was standing in the door, watching him. “We thought you were gone.”
Vrone cast his mind back to the last thing he remembered.
“That glass tube,” he said. “There was something in it.”
“There was,” the man told him. “But don’t worry about that now. Try and get some rest.”
“Have they figured out what was in it?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, sir.”
The inside of the language room was abuzz with people and the sound of their murmuring voices; when Vrone came in, all stopped and looked at him. Vrone walked up to the main screen and saw the display—a translucent sheet, laid out against a lighted board, with chicken scratch drawings on it.
One of the linguists, a young man he knew by sight, met his eyes as he tore them from the screen.
“It’s a message,” the linguist said. “Written in an extinct language never seen before on this planet.”
“Something technical from Bode’s Galaxy,” the linguist said. “It was mainly used by researchers during the terraforming process. If I’m right, that is. We might just be reading pictures in static.”
“What’s it say?” Vrone asked.
“Roughly this,” the linguist said, and handed him a screen. On the screen was an image of this paper, overlaid with text:
My name is Erwin Michaels. I live with my mommy and daddy and my seven sisters on an island. I am the oldest boy and the third oldest after my sisters Vera and Rose. This is my message in a bottle for you to read, please if you can write me a letter and send it back, you can send it:
Mr. Erwin Michaels
148 Sandy Cove Road, East Mountain
When you write me back can you tell me about yourself? Waht do you do? Where did you find this letter? I am in [sixth?] grade and I am [eleven?] years old. What is your favorite food? Mine is Red Sea Salmon. I like games and learning languages and my stuffed animal, Pile.
Do you believe in fairies? Because I do. I saw one once in the garden, hiding under a toadstool. Mom told me I was just imagining it, but Ellen and Vera saw it too, and I heard at school that Jorah had seen one hiding in the mouse hole at her father’s house. She says they come out of the forest, but I know the truth. They come out of the ocean. Hopefully they will read this message and pass it along to you, because I would like to hear from you or hear from someone.
I am running out of room but please don’t forget to write to me and then maybe send a message in a bottle of your own—
The writing was sloppy and unlovely; a child’s handwriting, Vrone realized, completely in keeping with the translation of the letter.
“I don’t think you’re reading into static,” he said.
“Delighted to hear it,” the linguist said, “But it doesn’t help us much. East Basdovia is an island…on a planet in another galaxy. Nowhere near this one. And when I say nowhere near…”
“Could this be Basdovia? This island? Maybe they both have the same names.”
The linguist shrugged. “It could be,” he said dubiously, “There are some weird similarities between the two planets. People seem to go missing on both of them. But we have no record of intelligent life on this planet. Just some plant life at the bottom of the ocean, where temperatures are most amenable to it. Nothing sentient enough to write a letter and send it in a bottle.”
“A remnant from some other ship,” Vrone volunteered. “Someone’s son or daughter asked him to send a message in a bottle. Or he brought it out with him to the beach and it got lost. Or some ship crashed in the ocean and we got a remnant.”
“That’s out of my wheelhouse,” the linguist said. “It would take us ages to figure out who’s been here and when. But we might have to do it.”
Vrone looked at the letter again. Something about it seemed strange. How did he know a child wrote this? Maybe an adult wrote it to seem childlike, or a teenager made it as some sort of prank.
“What are fairies?” Vrone asked.
“That’s a speculative translation,” the linguist said. “This word”––he pointed to something on the screen––“means some kind of supernatural being, one that’s both small and terrifying. That’s all I know. I’ll have to send this to one of my colleagues to get confirmation. But in the meantime, think of it as a small flying animal that never dies.”
When Vrone turned around, the Admiral was staring at him. Everyone went silent again; a small voice sang out, “You’re in trou-ble.” He heard them snicker as he left the room.
The Admiral led Vrone, through corridors and small shortcuts through the ship he didn’t know existed, back to his hospital bed. There was a photo of Vrone, laid out on the ground, at his bedside.
“That’s me,” Vrone said.
“That’s you,” the Admiral said, “Being a dumbass and grabbing an unidentified piece of space junk without following proper procedure. If you didn’t have connections I’d be sending you home right now. As it is I just have to give you a warning.
“You need to stay in the hospital wing,” the Admiral continued. “Your suit was breached while out on patrol. We still don’t know what effect the atmosphere has had on you. We don’t know why you’re…frankly, why you’re still alive.”
The universe revolved around Vrone’s head for a few moments; he felt his temples throbbing with blood. “Am I…do you think I’m contagious?”
The Admiral laughed and put his hand on Vrone’s shoulder. “It’s not like that,” he explained. “We just need you to be there…in case anything happens to you. We want to keep an eye on you. For study.”
And research, Vrone thought. Don’t forget that.
Vrone thought about what he’d seen. How did such a message get to this remote hellscape with no intelligent life? His mind’s eye returned to the jagged mountain stretching overhead, the bare earth and the gusts of sand that blew with the wind, and he thought of the small tears in his suit made by the bird’s wing as it swooped down. That should never have happened; glass birds are programmed not to injure anyone in their way. Erwin’s message turned over and over in his head.
Vrone woke up in utter darkness. At first he thought he had put his blindfold on, but there was nothing over his face. Occasionally they turned the lights down in one part of the ship to save power––but there were no lights on anywhere now. Even the display lights were turned off.
He got up warily and felt his way down the bed; something urged him not to call out. He slowly got to his feet. He was still naked under a sheet.
Outside in the corridor he heard nothing, not even snoring or the hum of machines. There was a faint, foul odor over everything. /that he hadn’t noticed before. Outside the windows he saw nothing, not even the sand or the stars, not even the reflection of the glowing waters. His flashlight cast a small, diffuse beam of light over the corridor. He slipped into his suit, expecting at every turn to come across a pile of corpses or writhing figures. Nothing.
One room glowed with light that seemed supernaturally bright in the gloom. Vrone turned off his flashlight and warily made his way towards it. There was a sound, from everywhere at once, like a great gong clanging around him and through him. Then the ship seemed to shift about fifteen degrees, sending Vrone careering through the air and skidding across the floor.
Vrone looked out of the window.
He thought they were eye spiders at first. They were impossibly tiny, no bigger than the palm of his hand, with small glowing bodies in the shapes of hourglasses. They glowed. He thought of fireflies, those tiny creatures his father told him about, of the small capsules they sometimes saw out of the windows, the bigger ones zooming off into space. He thought of the words of the linguist, of Ranfin, of the Admiral.
No intelligent life for ten to the power of six miles…except us, of course. But then, are we really intelligent life? and for once he wished that someone, anyone, would show up to tell him that cheesy joke he’d heard a million times before.
The figures disappeared.
“It’s a dream,” Vrone said aloud. “Maybe an effect of the atmosphere. It’s taking its toll on my mind. But the doctors are looking after me, and I’ll be all right.”
Nothing answered him or responded; he felt less reassured than ever. Another clang, another shift. Vrone was now wedged against the wall, far away from the mouth of the glowing room.
“It’s nothing,” he said to the empty air in front of him. “In a moment I’ll come to. It’ll be daytime again. And then it will be night time, the kind of night time where one can see the stars.”
“I won’t be scared,” Vrone declared. “It’s been a strange day for all of us. This mood—this feeling—it’ll go away.”
He blinked, and it was night outside. In the distance he saw the foam-capped waves swelling against the beach, and almost cried from seeing it. The foul odor was stronger now, but he knew that as long as he could see out the window, everything would be fine. There were no glowing bodies.
Vrone looked up.
They were everywhere, on the ceiling, on the walls, on the perimeter of the window. Outside, he could see them crawling out of the sea, lines and lines of them, all faintly glowing against the darkness.
Do you believe in fairies? Erwin had asked. He was trying to warn them. God bless him, however he knew, he was trying to warn him. Or perhaps they were trying to warn him. But it was too late now.
Through his suit, through the protective gear, he felt an impossibly small hand reach out and touch his ankle.