Voices/Future Tense

An Orions’ Arm E-zine

Traveler’s Notes: Walking the Underground

On this, my last full day on Labyrinth, I turn off my nightmask and contemplate ultimate darkness.

Or perhaps more like penultimate darkness. Plenty of cave systems on other worlds have various bioluminescent life forms within them and the Labyrinthine ecosystem far outstrips such places in its complexity. Instead of the absolute absence of light that I might have encountered in a cave on Ridgewell or Darwin, here the darkness is quickly broken by a myriad of lights. Here and there faint sparks of light flash in a staccato rhythm or hold to a constant glow. Lampwings and glowmoss signal for mates or pollinators, respectively (or so we think. Labyrinth’s ecosystem is terribly complex and not fully catalogued yet).

Above me hang glittering constellations of star-like points. Vast living reefs of micro-organisms and their various symbiotes, parasites, and predators cling to the ceiling of the great cavern where I have set up camp. Many of them use light to signal to each other, although whether to attract or repel varies from life-form to life-form. In some cases, both purposes may be served. The light emitted by some of the creatures up there may server to attract a mate or prey, while signaling to predators that the creature in question is something bad tasting, or uninteresting, or something else that they want to avoid.

During the time that this world has been explored, all such options (and then some) have been discovered among its myriad flora and fauna. Part of what brought me here really. Alien ecosystems hold a special fascination, even to the point of driving me to the twenty year journey to get here from the nearest wormhole linked system.

That trip was an experience in itself. My travel pod strapped to one of the cargo struts of the great Metasoft freighter, I had spent the first month of the journey awake, reading, virching, and filling my journal with observations of the great ship and its vac-adapted crew. The ship was a twenty kilometer long spike of interlocking support struts, fuel tanks, and conversion drive nodes; the entire thing open to space and protected by a great shield disk at the bow to block in-flight radiation and particle impacts. The crew were all vecs, adapted both physically and psychologically to operate in the deeps of interstellar space for the years required for any such journey. As a result they weren’t a terribly social bunch, and while I occasionally saw them skittering along the ships struts like great mechanical spiders or jetting among them like bits of metal dandelion fluff, they rarely bothered to stop and chat. Not their fault really. They just weren’t wired that way.

After a full thirty days of no one but myself for company (the crew were either busy with their own tasks or already powered down for the journey), I finally gave in and went into stasis, only waking up when the ship dropped into orbit around Labyrinth and my true journey could begin.

And what a journey it has been. After shuttling down to the small research colony, I spent a few days acclimating to the new world and then arranged to enter the cave system. Donning nanoskin, many-pocketed coveralls, and a nightmask I passed through the airlock from the colony arcology into the Labyrinthine world proper. And my adventures began.

The nanoskin proved its worth almost immediately. Despite the rich climate, this is still a cave system and sharp edges are common here. So are sharp weapons (both defensive and offensive) on some of the life-forms. However, despite what sometimes seemed active maliciousness on the part of the surrounding environment, the wisp thin layer of diamonoid and nanomachinery that covered me from head to foot protected me at every turn; preventing cuts, abrasions, and punctures, and blunting impacts as I traversed the occasionally challenging cavescape and had occasional encounters with even more challenging plant and animal forms that seemed to all be competing to either grow the most thorns or collect the most blood from their surroundings (even if mine would have poisoned them).

The nightmask was equally useful. A biocybernetic symbiote, it covered my face completely and extended microscopic tendrils through my skin to interface with my optic and auditory nerves. Once connected it filtered the air I breathed for dangerous gases and spores and used a combination of active and passive sonar, infrared sensors, and low level light sources to provide me with clear and vibrant vision even in the stygian gloom of the Labyrinthine cave system. Using it I was able to perceive any number of fascinating life forms and geological phenomena as I hiked from cave to cavern to tunnel.

Stone mimicking blindtoads snatching insect analogs out of the air with long sticky tongues. A colony of dangleworms extending almost 10 meters from a cavern ceiling to its floor, the largest members of the colony literally forming the walls and structural supports of the colony while the smaller and less mature members crawled over and around them. A protoplasmic squoonch oozing its way through a crack that seemed far too small to accommodate it. All these I saw and more in a year of exploration and travel. Yet for all the wonders I saw using the tools at my disposal, it was the things I saw when I wasn’t using them that often filled me with the greatest wonder. Such as the light-show I am seeing now. And the greater show I am hoping to see.

I pitched camp this night on the shores of one of the great lakes that dot the Labyrinthine underground. Kilometers across it extends through a series of interlocking caverns and submarine caves. Its waters are pure and cold and swarm with vibrant life. Of the many life-forms that live within the night-dark waters, one is of particular interest to me and the major reason I have deactivated my nightmask this evening. According to my onboards the time of year is just about right, and with a little luck…There!

Far out across the waters of the lake, a blue-green fire ignites. Starting as a tiny point, it expands in moments to a burning fog that fills the lake and seems to move both within and above the waters below. Although it began with a blue-green hue, it does not stay there long. Red and yellow are added to the mix, and then a host of other colors, all flowing and changing and pulsing across the lake so brightly that at times it almost seems my dark adapted eyes must be dazzled by it. And my heart most surely is. Here, in front of me, a once in a lifetime experience: the aurora crabs are breeding.

Although named for their more crustacean features, the crabs share interesting traits with such animals as the Terran cicada. Like that insect species they may go for long periods (sometimes measured in decades) in a dormant state, buried beneath the ground (or in this case the lake bottom) in a grub-like form. When conditions are right they first burrow to the surface and begin the next stage of their existence as an underwater nymph, filtering the mud of the lake bottom for edible debris and the occasional rotting corpse. Then, as their life-cycle continues, they metamorphose into a swimming form possessed of both squid-like jets and a protective carapace. However, this chitin-like shell does far more than provide safety from predators. It is coated with organic phosphors that allow the crab to both glow and change color at will. Using this natural signaling system, the crabs swarm up from the lake bottom, flashing and winking at each other. Seeking to find a mate and produce the next generation they frantically signal to each other in a storm of ever-changing light. And all this over a period of just a few days. Afterwards the females of the species return to the lake bottom to burrow in and lay their eggs before dying, their own bodies providing the first meal their offspring will ever eat. The males last a little longer, but come to the same fate in the end, their rotting corpses enriching the lake bottom ooze and providing a rich feast for the lakes other inhabitants (who in turn will die and provide for a future generation of the newly hatched nymphs when the time comes). And so the cycle of life continues.

Tomorrow I shall break camp and begin the trek to the nearest pickup point where I can be taken back to the arcology station. Shortly thereafter I will return to space and then to another interstellar transport (hailing from the Dominion this time) which will start me on my journey back to the wormhole Nexus and then eventually home. But for now, for tonight, I will sit and watch the lake fire, the beautiful glow of millions of tiny life-forms all reaching out to each other for the sake of continuing their species. By their efforts, they create a thing of passing beauty and lasting memory in those few lucky enough to see it. I can now count myself among those lucky few. I have not wasted my time.

*****

More about the author, Todd Drashner, here.

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