Thursday, October 9, 2014

100 Themes Challenge: Precious Treasure

     They said the planet was chock full of minerals, jewels, and fossil fuels. That’s what they said, at least. Xander wasn’t sure he believed it.
     It didn’t look very special. Just a place covered in water. Supposedly it had been inhabited long, long ago, but it didn’t look like anything lived there now. Once they hit atmosphere, it was smooth going. The ship landed on the water, the underside inflating, allowing them to drift along the sea.
     It was silent, except for the sound of waves lapping against the ship. Xander was among the first out to see this strange world. Above them, the sky was a uniform grey, clouds signaling a coming storm. Wherever he looked, he saw the sea, and the grey clouds. It was as though this world had lost its color.
     The engines broke the eerie peace. Xander looked over at the captain, who was even now descending onto the deck of the ship. He looked utterly calm; but they said he’d been to more worlds than any other captain. If anything happened, they could trust him to know what to do.
     “Beautiful place,” he said. “You know our oldest ancestors started out sailing on the seas? We moved to the stars, yet here we are again. On the sea.”
     “I’ve never seen an ocean this big.”
     “Not all of it is ocean. Geographic readings show shallow places where land exists just under the surface. Kylie calls them wading pools.” Kylie was the chief geographer, a brilliant little thing with twice the energy of the rest of the crew. Then again, she would have that energy. All her people did. Outcast or not, nothing seemed to dim her enthusiasm.
     “We make landfall in three hours. We’ll take some readings, then it’s time to wade.” The captain smiled, and left Xander to his ruminations.

     It was less than three hours. Xander had zipped up into his wet suit, a mask hanging at his side, just in case they had to go under. Kylie was already on her triple check of the equipment, making sure the waterproof casing would hold. The whisker-like tendrils along her body twitched sporadically. He could sense her growing excitement. She caught his eye and gave him a thumbs up.
     The crew consisted of Captain Miles, Kylie, Mirrell, the oceanographer, and a few “grunts” like Xander himself. They were all four on their first trip, with promise of promotions afterward. Apparently this planet was extremely important to the alliance. Should the readings be positive, they would bring more scientists and more crew in. This was merely exploratory.
     The water ended right around Xander’s knees. The captain was right; they were on some manner of elevated land. Mirrell was collecting water samples, while Kylie set up equipment. She was the only one without a wet suit; but she could breathe underwater. The rest couldn’t. Xander watched as Corina fit a mask over her face. She and Kylie ducked their heads underwater, apparently taking samples of the top layer just beneath the water.
     “Xander,” the captain called, and Xander moved to his side. He was nudging at something just beneath the surface. “You know a bit of history, correct?”
     “One of my better subjects, sir. Why?”
     “Whatever I’ve kicked with my foot isn’t natural. I’d like you to take the first look.” Xander felt his heart speed up. A relic? Some ancient tool used by the creatures that once lived on this planet? Xander slipped his breathing mask on and ducked his head under the water.
     Things looked strange under the water. Distorted and unnatural. His eyes took a moment adjusting to the water and the soil that had been inadvertently kicked up. Then he saw what was by the captain’s foot. It took a moment, because he suspected he was imagining things. He blinked, then touched it with one gloved hand. No, it was exactly what he thought it was. He dislodged it and pulled his face from the water.
     “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the captain said, fierce eyes narrowed on Xander. But Xander merely held up his find, and the expression changed. The eyes widened, the brows went up, and the captain’s mouth fell open.
     “That’s not…it can’t…”
     “Captain! There’s something down in the water!” Kylie’s voice drew them, and Captain Miles rushed to her side. Water was sliding off her pale, slippery body, and the whiskers twitched manically.
     “I saw it too,” Corina said. Her voice shook. “It was looking at us.”
     “Probably a water creature.”
     “It looked at us. It didn’t just see us, it looked at us.” Kylie’s voice held utter conviction. Xander forgot about the item in his hand.
     “Singh, James, watch the water while we finish up here.” The two men had been standing at a distance the whole time. They came over only hesitantly.
     “Captain…” James looked over at his compatriot, who nodded. “Captain, we found a skeleton. One of our own.”
     Xander felt the breath go from his chest. The captain looked at his find, then nodded.
     “Right. Let’s get back to the ship. I have calls to make.”
     “Is that…?” Singh began, pointing at what Xander carried.
     “Yes.”
     “I saw it again!”
     Kylie stumbled back toward them, and now Xander saw what she was talking about. A pair of large, protruding eyes stared at them from the water, before disappearing back under. She was right; there was intelligence in that gaze.
     “They’ve sent us to an inhabited planet…” Captain Miles said. “And we’re not the first…”
     “What do you mean? Wait, that…” Corina pointed at Xander’s find.
     “A body like our own, a breathing mask like our own? Someone was here before, and they sent us on without telling us!” The captain’s eyes darkened again. He was angry. “They must have suspected the planet was inhabited, and sent us anyway! Come on, to the ship, now.”
     A splash arrested them all. Then another. The water around them seemed to be boiling.
     “Go! Now!” They ran clumsily toward the boat that had carried them to the piece of land. But when they arrived, Xander saw it was too late. The engine was destroyed, the oars were broken. They were stranded.
     “Swim for it,” the captain said. “If we die, at least we die trying. Go!”
     The water felt so deep beneath Xander. He had dropped the old breathing mask somewhere during the run. Someone had come here first. Someone had died before them. The ship was in sight, and they must merely arrive there. There they would be safe. There, they would leave this place, and make their report, and no one need come here again. But why didn’t the alliance just tell them…
     James disappeared beneath the water. It was so swift, so silent, and Xander pumped his arms harder. Corina squealed once before she too disappeared. Kylie was far ahead of them, but she stopped after the second person disappeared, and began to swim back.
     “Go! Kylie, don’t wait, go!” Captain Miles shouted. Then he, too, disappeared. Singh was flailing, his sobs filling the air even as Mirrell next to him let out a shout. Kylie tried to reach for him, but his head was pulled under by strange fin-like hands before she could. She headed for Xander.
     “Keep swimming, Kylie!” he shouted, but she wouldn’t stop, she grabbed him underneath his arms, her streamlined body pulling them farther.
     Something tugged on his legs, and for a moment he was underneath, and he saw…he saw…
     Their eyes protruded, and their hands and feet bore fins for swimming, yet their faces looked so human, so horribly human, and then he saw one carried a faded alliance flag, arms tugged at him, tugged him farther down, and those strange human mouths moved, saying something, he suspected he knew what it was…
     Kylie’s strong legs began kicking at their assailants. Xander felt himself released, and they burst onto the surface, Kylie dragging him along toward the ship. He saw crew dancing on the deck, saw a rope dropped down. He didn’t know how, but somehow he was climbing the rope, and he saw lying on the deck, his limbs shuddering, and Kylie was shouting his name, but he was so tired, so very tired.
     They kept him in medical for a long time. It was peculiar, but they all looked slightly afraid of him. Kylie alone seemed unaffected, but she gave him long, pitying looks. He didn’t understand.
     Then he noticed the lack of reflective surfaces. The mirror had been removed from the bathroom. Time passed, and Xander also noticed they kept his hands well bandaged. One day, he grew tired of it, and took his bandages off so he could properly eat.
     Then he knew what those things under the water had been saying, and why they had an alliance flag.
     “Brother, become one of us. Brother, become one of us.”
     He stared at the fins on his hands for a long time. He thought of history lessons, how his species had gone to the stars long ago, and never returned to their home planet. There was a reason for that. The last crew to return to their home planet had been claimed by the ocean.
     And now Xander had too.
     That night he made plans with Kylie. They would return to his home planet. They would join the others.

     It would be nice to see Earth again.

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