Stranger in a Strange Land

Dirge Singer class Heavenly Container of Life
i34_2015 Lament for Lost Worlds
Hyperspatial Transit Trajectory
Hyperspace
April 2219

Jean Paoloni’s awareness returned suddenly, her semi-conscious mind suddenly acutely aware of the brightness behind her eyelids and her urgent need to urinate. She opened her eyes to discover she was sitting on the bottom of her little bubble of air. At some point while she’d rested, she ship had gradually begun accelerating, gently pressing her into the floor.

She stood and found her joints painfully stiff, the gravity was slightly higher than a gee, and it felt excruciatingly heavy after days in freefall aboard the Lifeseeker. Her bladder clenched painfully as she stood and reminded her of her need to pee. There was nowhere to go, of course, nothing that resembled a bathroom or even a vent, and she desperately did not want to share the small space with her bodily excretions. In the end, she couldn’t hold it in any longer and found to her amazement that the stream completely vanished upon hitting the pale orange surface of her cell, absorbed instantly and completely.

Jean pawed the spot on the floor with her foot in confusion, it was completely dry. She shrugged and sat down to meditate. On the bright side, she was alive, she could breathe the air, she hadn’t been subjected to unsurvivable accelerations, and she wasn’t sitting in a puddle of her own urine. On the less bright side, she’d had nothing to eat or drink in over a day, and thus far been kept in total isolation. Even if they didn’t let her die, it wasn’t a pleasant environment.

She sat down with a sigh and tried to meditate, focusing her mind only on her breathing. The clouds in her head slowly began to clear as she accepted the reality of the situation. Whatever it was the kiwawentoa were doing with her, it was clear they were taking their time about it. She closed her eyes and steadied her heart.

Jean opened a door in her mind and began constructing a new world for herself behind her eyes: a place her mind could escape to. She envisioned a long transparent spaceship corridors, laced through with metal conduits and support struts stretching out from behind a red painted wooden door in the darkness. She stepped through the door into her mental palace and began assembling a private new home for herself in the back of her mind. She clicked each segment of the station together like lego pieces, taking pains to carefully visualize the details of each one and commit them to memory before attaching it to the larger structure. All the segments were mostly glass, filled with plants and sunlight, and looking down on a blue world.

She was shocked suddenly from her meditative trance as water flowed into the cell around her. The walls of the chamber had taken on a soft spongy texture and water was running out of them, pooling and swirling at her feet.

“What the hell?” She said to the room’s silent controllers, the water level in the chamber continued to grow, rising slowly past her ankles. It wasn’t cold or warm, it felt rather close to body temperature. Jean groaned and sat back down in the slowly flooding cell. She drank some of the water and found it had little taste. Her dry lips greedily swallowed it down and she breathed a sigh of relief. At least she wouldn’t be dying of dehydration.

Water continued to flow into the room until the spherical space had half filled itself, leaving Jean floating in the center. She sighed and laid floating on her back, stretching her arms and legs out as much as she could and closed her eyes once more, resuming the slow process of detailing out her mindscape.

Jean knew that she couldn’t forever outrun the forces of madness brought on by prolonged social isolation, but she’d make those monsters work if they wanted to claim her. She knew she wasn’t immune to them, no one was, if the kiwawentoa never released her, she would slowly go insane in her spherical little prison, even if they did feed and water her appropriately.

The hours continued to tick by slowly. With no way to measure time beyond her own circadian rhythms, Jean was left guessing as to how long she’d been confined. She didn’t think it had been more than two days at that point, so she remained hopeful she wouldn’t be confined for that long.  But each hour of her confinement that nothing happened, a little bit of that hope was eroded away. She was fine now, she’d be fine in the cell for possibly months if that was how long it took for the aliens to decide what to do with her, but she had no idea as to the duration of her incarceration and thus took every precaution she could where her mental health was concerned. Better to do it now and not need it, then wait until she was already starting to go crazy.

After what Jean estimated to be around four hours, the water in her chamber began draining away, and she was deposited onto the floor. The walls had regained their hardness and water absorption properties and the space was quickly dry once again. After the water drained out, Jean didn’t even bother to move from the position she’d been floating in, she just sighed and went back to her meditation.

She fell asleep eventually, awoke, and went through another cycle of her pod flooding and emptying out again several hours later. Jean was never quite sure of the time durations involved since the lighting in the cell never varied, and she had no way to measure or denote the passage of time. One day seemed to crawl slowly and inexorably into the next with no delineations between them beyond when Jean slept. Her stomach was getting awfully empty though. The pains associated with hunger had since departed, leaving behind a low-level ache that probably signified the deaths of millions of bacteria in her gut as their food supplies ran out.

Having water helped, and after the first day, Jean always made sure to fill her stomach up on water at the very least, to keep hydrated and reduce that dull ache to a manageable level. She would need food eventually, but she could last another few days.

Jean counted five days, by the flooding of her chamber, before something happened. She was floating on the surface of the water, arms and legs spread, staring up at the dripping coral colored ceiling overhead. Then, suddenly and without warning, she was falling. The bottom of her room seemed to give out, and she and all the water were falling into a deep though still well-lit shaft the width of her room. Coral colored walls blurred past as the pool of water turned into millions of little freefalling blobs and droplets all around her.

The end of the tunnel came rushing up at her, and she came to a stop relative to the floor as a huge gust of wind caught and held her aloft. The chamber she had fallen into was larger and had some interesting looking devices involved in pushing air around, but before she had the chance to examine them closely, the entire chamber contracted in size and she was shot horizontally down another tunnel like she had been fired from a cannon. The airflow sucked her down the length of the tube, keeping her clear of the walls as she was raced along somewhere. The tube curved and went through several more ‘junctions’ as Jean saw them, before ejecting her out the side of a fake mountain and sending her cartwheeling into a small lake.

Δ

Jean rose to the surface sputtering and coughing up water as she crawled onto a rocky boulder strewn shore. Looking out from the lake, a vast bowl-shaped valley spread out beneath her, dotted with lakes and forests, ringed by impassable mountains that flowed upward into what appeared to be blue skies.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she groaned. The creatures had dumped her into the equivalent of a nature preserve. More startlingly, it appeared the plants filling the environment were all Earthlife. The kiwawentoa had claimed to have visited the Earth before, but the fact they had such a large space already prepared was impressive. Just doing some quick mental math, Jean figured close to a billion people could potentially fit into a city built on the valley floor.

She trudged off down the rocky incline, following the path of a small stream as it flowed out of the lake and meandered down the valley wall. The rocky slope gave way to a thick pine forest, and the ravine carved by the stream grew steep-sided as it cut through the soft earth.

As the pine forest gave way to deciduous trees further down the slope, Jean was coming to appreciate the scope of the engineering she was witnessing all around her. She was on a ship that experienced periods of acceleration and freefall. Either the kiwawentoa were operating with some form of artificial gravity and internal dampening, not altogether unreasonable to suppose given the scope of some of their other technology, or the entire chamber she was in was carefully spun up and spun down via some enormous gearbox and balancing systems. Zero gravity would wreak havoc on a delicate ecosystem, and if it was just spinning, then the acceleration would have thrown everything off, so some sort of mechanism to mitigate that had to be at work, though it was difficult to fathom how such a thing might operate.

Jean’s feet sank into the soft loam of the forest and small insects buzzed around her head. She saw squirrels darting up and down trees, and signs of other creatures like deer and rabbit tracks. The environment she’d been placed into was filled with earthlife, both flora and fauna, which was a fairly impressive feat, the kiwawentoa had clearly been planning the evacuation of Earth for a long time.

The deciduous forest opened up into a low basin filled with another lake. Trees edged right up to the shore, their branches dipping into the water’s edge. There was no sign of any structures, buildings, or people of the human or alien variety. She seemed to be alone in a vast wilderness. Jean was a native Martian. She’d grown up aboard the Alamanth Orbital and the closest she’d ever come to the wild was her military surface survival training from her years in the Martian Navy before switching over to Survey. All of that training had taken place aboard the Caligula Orbital, which contained all the sprawling military compounds required for the various branches boot camps, as well as a vast wilderness area for training in Earthlike conditions.

She had gear with her in those situations though, full military packs and equipment, she was never literally dropped naked into the woods, and that did not sit well with her. She wasn’t sure what the kiwawentoa expected her to do trapped in there beyond try to survive, but maybe that was the point.

She continued her exploration of the environment, wandering down the shore of the lake, watching as fish jumped in the glinting fake sunlight. The environment infuriated her on some deep level, she hated the idea of being a lab rat, which is what the aliens were essentially doing with her.

Unfortunately, she had to play along for a time, the sun was starting to set, and Jean was still alone and naked in the wilderness, and the fact that the wilderness happened to be inside a massive alien spaceship didn’t change the fact that she had to focus on surviving that environment.

And so, she kept walking, pacing out the perimeter of the lake, until she stumbled into a thorny bush covered in berries. She gasped in pain and stumbled backwards onto her butt as the thorns dug into her skin, but her eyes immediately went to the berries. She had no idea if they were poisonous or not, but her stomach was rumbling threateningly and she wasn’t up to attempting to hunt anything yet. She supposed she’d need to do that eventually, but if she could stave off starvation for a for more days, it’d give her time to prepare herself at least.

She plucked one berry off the bush, popped it into her mouth, and chewed it slowly, tasting for bitterness that might indicate toxicity. When she found none, she swallowed it down and settled on the shore of the lake to wait. She gave the lone berry a few hours to pass through her empty stomach, waiting to see if it gave her some sort of painful cramps or digestive trouble, and when that didn’t happen, she returned to the bush and carefully extracted and ate each and every ripe or even mostly ripe fruit from the bush. By the end of the process, she was cut up to the point where it looked as if she’d gotten into a fight with a bundle of razor wire, but her stomach was a little less empty and she felt a little more hopeful.

The sun fell behind the mountaintops and the sky began shifting through all the various colors of the sunset, darkness spread across the sky like a deep purple bruise, encircling the retreating sunlight and driving it back. Stars began to twinkle in the night sky as darkness set in fully. The night brought freezing temperatures that left Jean huddled in a miserable ball, clinging to her arms and legs for warmth. She had no material with her to start a fire, but shelter and fire were definitely going to be immediate priorities.

At some point in the night, she dozed off, passing into a fitful and restless sleep.

Δ

Jean awoke stiff and lethargic. Her joints and muscles ached from a night on the cold ground, and her fingers and toes felt dangerously numb. She rubbed her hands together and rubbed her hands against her feet, working up some friction and trying to get her blood flowing. The air was still chill in the gathering morning light, and Jean set off into the woods at a light jog, trying to work up enough body heat to be comfortable in the cool weather. She really needed clothes, but she really needed a lot of things. She needed to be able to hunt and trap things, which meant she needed to somehow fashion to tools to make those things. Principally that meant knives, axes, and string. If she could create a sharp enough edge, she could use that to sharpen sticks into spears.

The image of her trying to hunt something with a spear while buck naked crawled through her mind and had her cracking up laughing.

“I am so screwed,” she said aloud with a laugh. Her voice sounded strange in the wilds, she hadn’t used it since she first arrived. She sighed and silently continued exploring the area around where she’d slept. She drank from a small rocky stream that flowed down towards the water through a deep ravine and searched the riverbed until she found a handful of relatively sharp stones to work with. She wasn’t sure what exactly she was going to do with them. Try to chop down a tree? Sharpen sticks?

Nevertheless, she gathered as many as she could carry and walked back towards the place she slept her first night. She figured she should probably search around for a potentially better spot to camp out and found a place where three trees had fallen against each other, overlooking another small stream. It seemed like a natural place to try and construct a shelter. After depositing her handfuls of potential knife blades, she wandered around the forest breaking branches off of pine trees. She thought the fanlike branches would work well as the underlying structure for a roof.

After gathering an armful of branches, she draped them over the fallen logs and each other to make a low covered area. She cleared all the debris off the forest floor beneath the branches, and moved her rocks there as well. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

She next piled dry leaves and more pine branches onto the roof structure, layering them together in a way that she hoped would be waterproof, as she had a sneaking suspicion that the kiwawentoa had built weather into the environment. She didn’t want to get caught in a rainstorm in the night and die of hypothermia or something like that.

Once she had sufficiently built up her hut, draping branches over it to her satisfaction, she sat down in her hut and started trying to sharpen one end of a pine bough. It was easy enough to break all the branches away until she was left with a relatively straight piece of wood, but her attempts to sharpen the end of it were not going well. The stones she had were just not sharp enough themselves, to bite into the wood. She kept at it and managed to somewhat sharpen one branch, though it was a far cry from a usable spear.

She finally gave up for the moment in frustration and wandered off to look for more berry bushes. She hugged the lake shore, using it as a landmark to avoid getting lost, which meant threading up and down every ravine and gully along the shoreline, backtracking and retracing her steps to avoid hidden obstacles in the terrain.

She found a bush containing berries of the same type she’d eaten before, and stripped it clean. It was either good luck on her part or good planning on the kiwawentoa’s part that the berries were in season when they’d dropped her in there. That left her to wonder if it was intentional, how many chambers like this one were contained within the alien ship?

She speculated on the nature of her captors as she wandered back towards her campsite. They said they were collecting refugees, and if they knew about humanity before, then it stood to reason they had a good heads up on any species they’d be collecting. The piece of machinery Jean was trapped inside of could have been built hundreds of years ago.

Jean collected reeds and tall grasses from along the shore of the lake as she went, formulating a plan to braid them together into some sort of twine.

She drank water from the stream, and reentered her campsite. The sun was beginning to dip low in the sky again, and she set out on the ground before her hut, intent on starting a fire. She had found likely candidates for firewood while she was building her hut, and stacked them nearby for use later. She understood how to start a fire without a fuel source, and had even done it herself during survival training, but she still wasn’t particularly optimistic about her chances.

To start, she carved a divot into a large dry piece of wood with one of her stones, and filled the area around it with fine wood shavings. She piled various sizes of kindling within easy reach and set herself to the task ahead. She took a large dry branch and broke off a piece roughly twice the size of a pencil. She set the piece into the groove and began furiously rubbing her hands together, pressing the wood down in an attempt to build up friction between the two pieces.

The process seemed to take hours, but after what felt to Jean like an inordinate amount of effort, a faint wisp of smoke began curling out from between the two pieces of wood. Jean kept working at it, and finally, a small flame began spreading through the wood shavings. She carefully began to add kindling, stocking the fire gently and carefully urging it into existence. She piled on more wood as it grew, and before long the campfire was merrily snapping and popping away in the fading light.

Jean sighed, collapsing back into her butt and wiping the sweat from her forehead. The process was effortful, but the effect was worth it. The radiant heat from the fire felt good on her skin in the cooling air, and the light seemed to drive back the darkness plaguing the back of Jean’s head. The fire was a sign of light, progress, civilization. It defiantly cast back the gloom of night, sending long flickering rays of light across the lake and into the depths of the forest.

Content in her accomplishments for the day, Jean curled up in her shelter beneath a pile of leaves and slept.

Δ

Jean woke to the sound of birdsong. Her sleep addled mind found this significant but struggled to understand why as she slowly pushed back her drowsiness and brushed bits of leaf and debris off her skin.

The birds were new, she realized. Not being from Earth, the absence of birds within the environment hadn’t been something she’d remarked on, but now that she thought about it, there hadn’t been any birds at all up to this point. The sudden presence of bird noises in the environment jogged Jean the rest of the way awake and she jumped out of her hut, eyes darting to and fro. Either the Kiwawentoa had just released birds into the environment, which Jean found unlikely, or they had entered themselves, and she was hearing them talk to each other.

She wandered toward the source of the sound, stretching her muscles as she walked through the cool morning air. She crept slowly up on the source of the noise. It wasn’t hard to pinpoint where the birdsong was coming from, which Jean took as further evidence that it was, in fact, the Kiwawentoa and not actual birds.

The two creatures were not particularly subtle in their dark blue robes, they stood out in the forest environment like a sore thumb. Jean realized with a start that one of the creatures was Studying-Hoping-Envisioning, the hyperactive creature she had met in the Meetingspace.

Her partner was not a creature Jean recognized, its feathers were a mottled mixture of blue and white, and wore navy colored robes like Studying-Hoping-Envisioning, but with white trim instead of orange. She was puzzled by the fact they didn’t seem to need air masks or helmets to breathe her air, yet she needed one to breathe their air. If it was just a quirk of biology then it seemed like a rather unfair one to her.

Jean nervously stepped out from behind a tree and presented herself to the two aliens. They trilled excitedly to one another and Studying-Hoping-Envisioning waved her forearms excitedly, bouncing on her lower legs. She reached under herself where she had a pack of some sort hanging from her legs, and held it out eagerly to Jean.

Jean looked warily at the two aliens, then took the strange bag from them. Inside it were her clothes, her spacesuit, and a good deal of her equipment. She smiled appreciatively at the little creature. Studying-Hoping-Envisioning continued to gesture somewhat urgently at the bag, so Jean began going through the items in it until she found the earpiece that translated their speech, and held it up before her. The calico alien did a fairly decent approximation of a human nod, and Jean strapped the device to her ear with a shrug. She didn’t expect it to work without the larger computers backended into it.

“Sol-Martian-Jean-Paoloni!” A translated female voice said through the earpiece excitedly, Jean looked at the creature and smiled again, evidently, they had created their own translation backend to talk to Jean with.

“Hello Studying-Hoping-Envisioning,” Jean said, crossing her arms in front of her chest.

“We are so glad to have found you Sol-Martian-Jean-Paoloni,” she chirped back excitedly, “We have much to discuss, and little time.”

“How about we start with why you’ve imprisoned me and brought me to this place,” she gestured to the wilderness around her, “against my will.”

“We did not wish to see this happen,” Studying-Hoping-Envisioning replied sadly, “It was a decision of the High Singer of Fates, Xi has classified your species as violent and warlike, which requires containing you in an isolated environment where you cannot harm the other species in our charge.”

“Are you breaking the rules to give me back my things then?” Jean asked.

“It’s complicated,” she replied, “The ancestors don’t like it, but we continue without being stopped so far.”

Jean nodded and picked up the bag, “So you’re just going to leave me in here to fend for myself?” she asked seriously.

“We’re leaving you in here with the tools to leave this place,” the little alien said cryptically pointing a limb at the bag again.

“Is this some sort of test?” Jean asked.

The other creature, who had been silent thus far, spoke, finally spoke up, “Yes,” she said, “It is a test.”

“We will speak again soon, Sol-Martian-Jean-Paoloni,” Studying-Hoping-Envisioning said, “Until then, keep your things safe, and look for the hidden doorways.”

Before Jean had a chance to ask for elaboration on their thoroughly cryptic statements, the two creatures had pushed hard off the ground and went soaring into the air, leaving Jean alone in the forest once more.

 

Discovery Class Starship
FI-ESV Better Margins
Circular Orbit
50 AUs from Gamma Tauri
May 2219

Better Margins was not much to look at. It was a blunt-nosed, four hundred meter long sausage wrapped in coils of fuel tanks and warp rings, itself nestled in an elaborate truss structure that gave the overall vessel a distinctly skeletal look.

At the end of her twenty-day journey, the exploration vessel fell back into spacetime at the edge of Gamma Tauri. Her thrusters fired as she rotated herself in space, spinning and flipping her orientation towards the core of the system.

“I’ve connected with the Jabberwocky’s satellite network,” Zhao Biyu announced to the rest of the bridge crew.

“What’s the story, aliens? No aliens?” Benjamin Nesco asked impatiently from the captain’s chair. He’d been waiting nervously for their warp exit for days, fretting over the fates of the other mining ships.

“I’m checking the logs on the closest satellite,” Biyu reported back calmly, “the most recent file is labeled viewme,” She paused, “that’s weird, it’s registered as having come from the Stoneburner.

“Put it put on the main screen and play it,” the captain instructed.

She nodded and hit play on the file, captain Kaito Pendragon’s serious face appeared on the screen, lips pursed into a frown.

“If you are receiving this, it means our satellites have survived for some time,” he reported first, “If you’ve come looking for us or the Jabberwocky, you won’t find her, we’ve already left to return to Aldebaran. The full logs of our encounter with the aliens, and yes, I said aliens, have been uploaded to the satellite network. They were all instructed to accelerate out of system until their fuel supplies ran out. We have no idea what the ultimate extent of the alien mining operations in this system are, but we detected activity at every planet in the system prior to our departure for Aldebaran.”

“You have no idea Kaito,” Ben murmured in a pause between the other captain’s sentences.

“The satellites are all set to record, so there should be a complete record of everything the aliens do, provided they don’t destroy the satellites,” Kaito continued, “pick up those logs before you leave.”

The message ended, and the screen automatically reset to its display of the starfield.

“Biyu, what are the aliens doing right now?” Ben asked the Ganymedean woman.

She flipped through tabs on her display, and focused the ship’s telescopes inward. The view on the big monitor began zooming in and in and in, stars falling away out of focus as Gamma Tauri bloomed brighter and brighter. The actions of the alien miners were immediately apparent by the astronomically large blades sweeping through the system, scooping up asteroids, comets and planetoids.

“It’s a good thing they ordered their satellites to burn out of the system, or we wouldn’t have a surviving record,” Melissa said softly.

“Download it all,” Benjamin ordered her, “Pull everything from the satellites, we’ll take over the monitoring of the rest of their mining operations, see if they take this star too.”

Benjamin unbuckled from his chair, letting himself drift upwards as he straightened his body out, “Melissa, come with me, let’s check out their logs.” He pushed off his chair, drifting gently across the bridge toward the conference room, beckoning for his XO to follow. She nodded, unbuckling from her chair and slipping into his wake as he passed through the doorway. She shut the door and strapped herself into one of the conference room chairs to keep from floating off.

Benjamin scrolled through the list of automatically generated log folders where each day’s instrument recordings and logs for each satellite were recorded, found one dated three months ago, and hit play. The system at that time was calm, there was yet to be a sign of the coming aliens. He closed it and skipped forward a month, using a binary search to narrow down the timeframe for the alien’s arrival, and quickly found it. He moved it from the holoscreen in front of him to the main monitor, stretched out his legs, and hit play.

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