A Midstellar Tale

Joel 'Cop' Furches

We made planetfall on the daylight side of Rachael Lansbury- C right on schedule. At least some of those ancient companies that named stars after people had made good. RL-C was the third planet of the star named Rachael Lansbury. I've often wondered what her story was.

It was only logical to land on the light side because the light helps to guide the landing. I mean, not that the pilot needed light. The computer did most of the work, and with the instruments and sensors, the crew could have landed blind. Still, it's general policy to always land on the light side unless specifically instructed otherwise.

My job was life support, and my assignment had been to prep the spacesuits for the pressure and climate of this planet and do a maintenance check on the ship's scrubbers. Of course, that meant that it was night outside by the time I had my prep done. That was fine with me, though, I would be the first to see the alien starscape. I needed to do a test run on the suites anyway, so why not use the chance to ogle at the spectacular night sky?

With that justification I headed down to comp in order to find someone to take a walk with. It was policy that you never went out of the ship alone, so I was going to grab the one other guy I knew who would be up at this hour.

"Hey, Chazz," I greeted the short, skinny guy at the computer console. He smiled up at me from under his crop of straight, black hair. He was sitting at the console doing about three people's work while his hands flew over the screen/pads. My arrival didn't slow him noticeably.

"Where is everyone?" I asked.

"They're probably in bed, the lazy bums," Chazz answered.

"Easy for you to say. I have yet to see you sleep. I'm beginning to think you're a vampire or something."

"Vampires sleep."

"Oh. Well want to go planetside with me? Get the bugs out of the suites?"

Chazz snorted, "If there are problems with the suites, I don't want to be IN one when you find them."

"Oh, common, Chazz, don't you trust me?"

"Nope. But tell you what," he said punching a couple of spots on the screen opening two operation portals, "If you take suits 13 and 22 I'll monitor your vitals. Now all you have to do is find a buddy."

"Thanks allot. You just don't want me to pull you away from you computer game."

Chazz gave a nasally laugh and immediately turned stern.

"Go away."

"But Chazz," I whined, "who else am I going to get to go planetside with me at this hour?"

"Well there's always Amy in engineering."

"Why are you always trying to get me hooked up?"

"Because I'm already married," he said mildly.


"Misery loves company," he gave me a grin, and then turned away, "It was just a suggestion."

"Fine," I sighed, "I'll give it a try," and I headed out.

"There goes a brave fool," I heard him say through the closing door.

He was wrong, of course. At my age, the thought of asking an attractive woman to go on a walk with me probably shouldn't make me want to curl up in a fetal ball, but it does. I rehearsed my lines, took a deep breath, and headed in.

Amy was on night shift monitoring systems operations and sipping that awful pre-made space coffee.

"Hi..." I began, and then blanked on her name.

"Hi," she responded without looking up. She was short and petite in build with a slender, attractive face under straight, brown hair tied back in a ponytail.

"I'm Jack, from systems and life support," I said, more like a question than a statement.

"Yes, you are." She wasn't making this any easier.

"Look, I just got finished modifying the suites, and there's hardly anybody up this late, and I was wondering if you wanted to take a walk with me," I said all in one breath. I replayed what I had just said in my mind, and then mentally kicked myself. Amy, for her part, glanced at the digital time display, muttered "Its late," to herself and went back to what she had been doing.

I stood there for about a minute, expecting something else, and then decided that that was a 'no.' Trudging back to the locker, I mentally debated breaking protocol and going out alone. It was a tempting idea. I was starting to suite up when Amy jogged in.

"Chazz called up from comp and said you needed someone to test the suites with you," she explained. How had she missed that from my conversation with her, I wondered? Then I noticed that she was standing there expectantly.

"Oh, um... you're suit 22," I said, noticing that the suites Chazz had chosen to monitor were exactly the right sizes for the two of us.

We suited up and then I radioed Chazz to open the hatch. My facemask fogged as the pressure differential equalized in the airlock and the ramp lowered to the dusty planet surface.

"Have fun you two," Anthony gave us the go-ahead over the headset, and we walked out onto an alien world.

I had experienced it several times before, but each world is different, and the feeling of awe never wears off. At least for me.

"Mix is good, air filters are working out the salvageable gasses, air replenishing is working fine, pressure seems about right, temperature is within acceptable range... bit cold..." Amy rattled off the checklist of features as she stood watching the display inside of her helmet.

"Aw, man! Have you ever SEEN so many stars?" I enthused.

"Listen, Jack, I have a post to get back to."

"Right, sorry... hey, would you look at THAT!" I said, catching sight of a mysterious object in the sky. It was a pulsing sphere that seemed to ripple with colors. With no depth perception, I had trouble telling how far away it was. It could have been a heavenly body or something in the atmosphere.

"Amy, look!" I pointed frantically trying to draw her attention away from the gauges.

"What am I looking at?" she sighed, walking out from under the shadow of the ship to gaze skyward.

"That... THING right there... hey, where did it go?" In the moment I had looked away, the object had disappeared.

"It's probably a glitch in your digital display. Common, the suits check out, lets get inside," and she walked up the ramp.

"What did you see?" Chazz asked over the headset.

"I don't know, it was weird, it was like... Okay, remember those old spook stories about UFO's?"

"Oh, common, Jack,"

"Well it was the only example I could think of."

"Don't worry, Jack, if there is something out there, our survey teams will find it."

The next week was a flurry of activity. The planetary studies team works like that. Two ships land on a planet and then spend six days cramming computer banks full of data, trying to squeeze as much information out of the planet as it will easily yield. The first ship takes off at the end of the sixth day with the bulk of the data stored thereon. The second ship stays on for a seventh day making sure that the crews have not contaminated the planet. Like creation, six days of activity, and on the seventh, rest.

These are preliminary studies. If a planet yields something vital it is marked for further study. The barren rocks are largely left alone. It's a big universe out there.

My title was 'systems and life support,' and in planetary studies speak that translates into 'slave labor.' Since I had no studies specialty I was assigned all the hard labor and grunt work: setting up equipment, and transporting things. Working twelve-hour shifts like that under the large, glaring sun with the dusty soil blowing about me in a heavy environmental suit was tiring to say the least. I nearly forgot all about the thing I had seen in the sky.

By the end of the six days I was exhausted and looking forward to the long rest in space transit. I was on the first ship out, which happened to be the ship I hadn't come in on. This meant a long, bumpy ride in an outboard planet buggy to where the other ship had landed. The two ships land a sizable distance apart to take in more terrain. Wearily I climbed aboard the all terrain buggy and slouched back in my seat. The wheels started moving with a jolt, and we took off. I idly looked to my side and drew back. Amy was sitting in the seat next to me. I quickly composed myself and said the first thing that came to my mind.

"So... what did you think of the planet?"

"Hunk of rock. Just another footnote in the record books."

I had to agree with her assessment. The planet seemed to have little to offer.

"I'm exhausted," she added, and lay her head back on the seat, closing her eyes with a sigh. I took this as a polite cue to shut up, and did so.

The ship's captain was driving the buggy and there were twelve of us in the train. The other passengers all followed suit with Amy, laying back and closing their eyes. The ride wasn't as rough as I thought it would be, and I was almost tempted to join the other passengers in their repose. But I decided that since this would be my last look at this planet, I might as well take it all in while I could. There wasn't much to take in. The planet rested under a perpetually twilight sky reddened by the dust the high winds carried into the upper atmosphere. Rocks lay scattered about, eroded into spheres by the perpetual sand blasting they received from the wind. Though some of the rock formations were beautiful in a barren sort of way, I could not see them easily through the dust the buggy's wheels were kicking up.

Suddenly something hit the front bumper of the vehicle and went bouncing off out of sight. From the brief glimpse I caught of it, it looked to be a sphere about the size of a large beach ball that sparkled translucently with some light it generated internally. I looked up and saw another one drifting down from the sky towards us.

"Stop the tractor!" I radioed the captain through my headset.

"What?" came back his reply.

"Sir, requesting that you stop the buggy."

The whir of the wheels died as the buggy ground to a halt.

"This had better be good, Jack," the captain came back, annoyed.

"It is, sir," I said, vaulting out of my seat and running up to the front of the buggy. The rest of the passengers seemed to remain unconscious. I reached the captain's position, and signaled him to look where I was pointing.

"There, sir, about five o'clock high. See that thing?"

The captain squinted and strained his neck.

"Oh yeah," he said suddenly catching sight of the object, "What is that?"

"I don't know, sir, but I'd like to get a look at it."

"Oh come on, Jack, whatever it is, the science teams have probably already recorded it. Anyway, we don't have time for this. I delay too much longer and we'll miss our launch window. Now get on board."

"Sir, if the science teams had seen that thing, don't you think we would have known about it? Its not like they keep any discoveries a secret around here, everything gets around."

"That may be so, but..."

"Look, sir, I understand, you go ahead. I'll stay behind the extra day and take off with the other ship. I want to find out what that is."

"Jack, this is against policy..."

"So? You're the captain. I'm asking your permission."

"I'm NOT driving you back to the other ship, Jack."

"I'll walk. We aren't that far out."

"You can't go alone."

"So? Assign someone to go with me," I said, and then quickly added, "Captain, if this is something important, you'll never forgive yourself for missing it," From the expression on his face, I could only guess at what he was thinking. Finally, he sighed and radioed back to the train.

"Amy? You're assigned to walk back to the ship with Jack to check out an... anomaly."

"WHAT!?!?" came back her unbelieving response.

"That's an order," the captain added and switched off the link. "Have fun," he told me sarcastically.

Thirty seconds later, the buggy rolled out of sight in a cloud of dust, and I was left standing next to Amy in the middle of the barren plain. The captain had called the other ship and told them we were coming, without elaborating as to how or why. The tight lines in Amy's face told me she was not exactly happy.

"This was YOUR stupid idea, wasn't it?" she cried.

"Look, I'm sorry, I didn't know th..."

"I don't want to hear it!" Amy shouted, clicking off the COM link and began trudging in the direction of the ship.

"Thanks a lot, cap'n," I muttered, and headed out after her.

We found the sphere about fifty meters from where the buggy had stopped. It hovered a few centimeters of the ground and glowed eerily. It was made up of thirty-two smaller spheres that rippled with a light that went from violet to dark blue in the course of a ripple. The smaller spheres were held together by a skin, or force field, I couldn't tell which. It was so light; it was hardly there. The skin looked like a soap bubble with a slightly pink hue. If you looked hard enough, you could see the colors of the rainbow whirling across the skin. Even Amy was overawed at the delicate beauty and mystery of the sphere.

"Amy, this is the same thing I saw in the sky our first night here! Remember?"

"Not really," she responded, "Is this what you wanted to check out?"

"Yes, absolutely! The science teams didn't spot anything like this, did they?"

"Not that I know of. How do you intend to get this back to the ship for study?"

"I don't know. It looks so frail that I'm afraid it will just fall apart if I touch it."

Suddenly a gust of wind hit the sphere and carried it up into the sky. As I followed it with my eyes, I saw something that took my breath away.

"Amy, LOOK!" I cried.

This time she didn't have to ask me what I was looking at, she saw it too. The sky was filled with spheres drifting down upon us, and buffeted up by the wind.

"I think we just solved the problem of getting one to the base," Amy said in a near whisper.

We arrived at the ship in record time for foot travel, and the spheres were still descending o'er the land. The sun was just sinking in the south and I had precious little time left before I would be required to confine my activities to within the ship for the night. I was going to have to wait until tomorrow to study those things. Amy disappeared to heaven only knows where, when we got inside. I headed immediately down to comp and grabbed Chazz.

"No questions. Just come up to observation with me. Quick."

Chazz accepted this easily, and followed me. The sight from the observation deck was truly astounding. The winds had died and the objects were just settling to the ground. It reminded me of a scene from my childhood. We had a tall house overlooking a valley. One morning I awoke to a wondrous sight. Hundreds of brilliantly colored hot air balloons were floating low and lazily over the valley. Already dozens had begun landing. A gave a gleeful shout and ran to get my mother and father and show them. I wanted to run down into the valley and talk with the balloonists. I wanted to climb into one of the baskets and soar away. My parents had made me stay in the house and leave the balloonists alone. When I looked out the window again, the balloons had vanished as if they were never there.

Chazz gave a low whistle.

"What are those things?" he asked.

"You're guess is as good as mine," I replied, then added, "If you can get out of cleaning and prep work tomorrow, you can help me study them."

"Little late for that, isn't it?"

"Well these things didn't show up until just now."

"Well don't worry, I already finished all my prep work for tomorrow."

I gave him an astonished look. Computer prep work is a nine-hour job. Chazz grinned and held a finger to his lips.

"Don't tell anybody. If they new I was this good, they'd give me more work to do."

I couldn't sleep that night, despite my fatigue from the week's work. I kept running up to observation to make sure the things were still there. Chazz had immediately dubbed them 'spoogies,' and by the end of the evening, everyone was referring to them by that name. Where he had come up with it, I don't know. When the things were logged in, they were officially titled the Feuchay Spheres after my last name, since I had discovered them. Still, I doubted anyone would call them that.

The morning wakeup announcements came none too soon.

"All units report to stations and get your cleanup and prep done as quickly as possible. The sooner you get done, the sooner we have liftoff. There are some things... some objects that have shown up on the sight since last night. They seem to be indigenous to the planet, so try not to disturb them."

My heart sank upon hearing the announcement. No one seemed to care about the spoogies. What was more, they were set upon leaving as quickly as possible. Of course, I knew that it wasn't that they didn't care, so much as that they didn't have TIME to care. Their primary concern was getting the ship off the planet. Whatever the case, Chazz and I had to work fast. Surprisingly, Amy decided to pitch in, too. She and I had no assigned tasks since, technically, we weren't even suppose to BE there. Chazz, of course, was finished his, so soon the three of us were walking out among the spoogies, all hovering eerily over the ground.

"So where do we begin? I mean, what, exactly, are we trying to prove here?" Amy asked.

"I think we should find out whether these things are natural or artificial," Chazz answered.

"I'm interested in whether they are living or non-living," I offered.

"Well what do we have to go on? I'm not trained in the field of experimentation when it comes to anomalous objects," Amy seemed flustered.

"We observe and record," Chazz answered cheerily, "First, the object hovers over the ground. How? We don't know, so lets see what we can find out."

With that Chazz slid his hand along the ground under the spoogy. It bobbed a bit. He lifted his hand slowly. The spoogy rolled away from his hand. I stepped up and tried to touch it. My hand came within a few centimeters and it floated away. I tried grabbing it on both sides, and it slipped away before I could even touch it.

"Hmm..." said Amy; "It seems to have some sort of buffer zone around it. It's naturally repelled from solids on the atomic or magnetic level."

"Well can we tell HOW it does that?" I asked.

"We don't have the equipment out here," Chazz answered mildly.

"Nor are we going to get it," Amy added, "Everything has been packed away, or taken off by the other ship."

"Well it generates light, right? So it must convert energy somehow," I said.

"Hold your conclusions there, Sport," Chazz responded, "We have no way of knowing whether the light it's giving off is generated or simply refracted."

"Yes we do," I said, "Last night I looked at them from the observation deck and they were glowing. Plus, the one I saw the first night here was glowing, if you'll remember."

"Well okay, but some naturally occurring minerals have been known to glow, too," Amy said.

"Look, lets get one of these things into the ship, we can look at it there," Chazz suggested.

On the ship we were getting no further than we had outside. We sat in our suits in an airtight room with the same atmosphere and pressure as the outside. We didn't want the spoogy to be outside its regular environment, even in the lab.

"Well, okay, lets define some parameters here," Chazz began, "There is no way of knowing whether it was built by something with intelligence, or is a naturally occurring phenomenon. It has a pattern, symmetry, and it performs some complex functions. All this would indicate intelligent design, unless it was a life form. We know that life-forms convert energy, perform complex functions, display symmetry, and all the things we would see from intelligent design, only they are naturally occurring. There is one easily detectable thing that separates life-forms from artificial constructs, though,"

"The ability to reproduce," Amy finished.

"You got it," Chazz replied with a wink.

"So how do we find out in the..." I checked my watch, "three hours we have left whether or not this thing can reproduce."

"We probably don't," Chazz answered, "But for the sake of science, Jack, go out and get another spoogy, would you?"

I sighed, went out, and herded another spoogy into the ship. It was no easy process, you just generally pushed it and it rolled away, so you tried to corral it as best you could to the destination. It was especially difficult on the ramp, where it wanted to keep on slipping down to the planet surface. I was eventually helped by a gust of wind, which pushed it halfway into the ship for me. Other people where walking in and out as well, and several gave me strange looks.

Soon we had the two spoogies together in the ship.

"Now then," Chazz began, "Lets see you two reproduce."

He pushed one towards the other experimentally, to see if their fields would repel one another or not. They did, and the two bounced energetically away from each another.

"Well that shoots down that theory, huh?" I asked.

"It was a long shot anyway," Chazz admitted.

"Well guys, I'm giving it up and heading to decontamination," Amy said, "I suggest you get those things off the ship, decontaminate yourselves and the area, and get ready for launch."

As she headed out, Chazz and I leaned back. The whole thing seemed hopeless.

"You think they'll come back to the planet to study the spoogies later on?" I asked.

"Not much chance of that, I'm afraid," Chazz answered, "These things won't even go on official report for the planet. They weren't discovered during the initial six-day period."

"Ah, shoot," I sighed.

"Hey, cheer up, Jack. Let's try pushing them together again."

We got on either side and prepared to shove.

"Come on little guys, lets see some mating," Chazz said, and we pushed.

"What th..." I cried and fell back. My spoogy was planted firm as a rock in place. Chazz's floated towards it, and was suddenly thrown back with a burst of light. My spoogy began to turn slowly in place. With each rotation it spun faster until it became a blur. Its glowing got brighter and it began to pulse. Both Chazz and I retreated to the furthest corner of the lab and looked at one another.

"I... um... think we discovered something," I said.

"Yeah, but what?"

A loud rattling started somewhere within the vicinity of the sliding door to my right. I looked over to see the cause. The slats in the track that the door slid along were shaking violently and suddenly burst out of the track, flying into a corner. Then, slowly, the ball bearings underneath the slats began to slide together into a pile and levitate into the air. Chazz and I watched in disbelief as thirty-two ball bearings floated together into a perfectly spherical shape and began rotating slowly.

"Um... I'm only guessing at this next part, but you may want to tint your visor," Chazz suggested. We both hastily turned our faceplates a nearly pitch-black and not a moment too soon. There was a flash of light that would have put most suns to shame, and then it was over. The spoogy stopped spinning, and slowly sank down to a resting position. Where the ball bearings had hovered just moments ago was a brand new, freshly spawned spoogy.

"Spontaneous sympathetic energy reproduction! I saw it myself! Chazz and I both saw it!"

The more excited I became, the more uncomfortable the planetary board director looked.

"Listen Mr. Feuchay, the planet was thoroughly surveyed according to regulation procedure and declared unfit for further study. Your observations were not recorded, and not documented except for a logged clause that you discovered an anomalous object. We don't have the time or the funds to go back to the planet on a poorly supported hunch."

I decided to leave his office before I became too enraged. Chazz greeted me outside.

"Don't tell me, I know it's a no go. I told you they wouldn't go for it."

"But Chazz, that thing was important! It could have been intelligent life, for all we know!"

"Or, it could have been some chemical phenomenon that occurred when our ships upset the delicate balance of the atmosphere, or an illusion created in our minds by some hallucinogenic spore we picked up, or that planet's version of hailstones, or machines sent by a race elsewhere to survey the planet. Heck, Jack, it could have been anything."

"I know, I know... but I still think it needs further study."

"Well," Chazz smiled, "If the current regulations don't suite you, I suppose we could write new ones."

The jettison pod was cramped, even in zero G's, and we still had three days before the ship would launch us.

"So," I questioned Chazz for the 13th time, "We're stowaways then?"

"Not really," Chazz replied, "The captain and crew know we're here. They got orders to launch us to the spoogy's planet as we pass from Central. Its perfectly legitimate."

"Except that you re-programmed Central to insert these orders."

"Hey, if you have the access codes, it's legal to reprogram."

"And just how did you get those codes?" I asked.

"That's easy," Chazz's grin grew, "I did most of the core programming for Central."

"That's impossible!" I said in disbelief, "Central was created decades ago! You would have been, what? Thirteen at most!"

"I was thirteen. My academy-programming instructor was suppose to be the best in the system, but I was better, and he knew it. He actually had me do most of HIS work as 'extra credit.'"

I shook my head in wonder.

"Chazz, you're amazing."

"I know, shut up about it."

"So what's the plan when we get there?" I asked.

"Well the ship will launch us at such a trajectory that we shouldn't have to expend much fuel in navigation. We have enough for landing and takeoff with the help of the antigrav units, and enough energy to give us three days on the planet before we have to take off again to meet our ride home."

"Three days, that's it?" I said in incredulity.

"Look, Jack, I got you here, didn't I? Three days is all I could manage."

"I know Chazz, and I can't thank you enough. Its just, we didn't see them until the seventh day we were there. Three really isn't enough."

"Well either we'll see them or we won't. If we do, we can bring it back for more study. If we don't you've lost nothing."

"I may have lost more than you think," I said more to myself than to Chazz. I lay back and went to sleep.

The three days came and went without so much as an illusion of a spoogy. I got more discouraged as the days wore on, but Chazz was indefatigable. We had an hour to go before launch when Chazz and I made our last, dejected round. Well, I was dejected. He was humming to himself and smiling.

"Could they have been just illusions, Chazz? I mean, it's not as if we got any images of them on file or anything."

"Anything is possible, Jack. It's a big universe out there. That may have been the first and last encounter a human will ever have with a spoogy."

"What if we somehow wiped them out accidentally with our presence?" I asked worriedly.

"Just as likely as us accidentally creating them with our presence. And if we did, we didn't do it intentionally. You know how the saying goes, it's the thought that counts," he smiled, "Well say farewell to this rock, we have to go."

I took one last, searching look and then turned and left.

Chazz and I were both re-assigned to separate missions when we got back home. We decided to get together for dinner at his place before we left, because we didn't know when we would see each other next.

"So whatever happened to that Amy girl," Monica, Chazz's wife, asked.

"Chazz told you about her?" I blushed, "Well she obviously had no interest," I shrugged.

Chazz and Monica exchanged a look, and Monica burst out in laughter. I didn't know what that meant and I didn't ask. I had once asked them how they could stand being married when they were apart all the time, to which Monica replied, "That's exactly how we stand it."

We didn't mention the spoogies once.

After we had finished, and I was heading out, Chazz stopped me at the door.

"I have something for you," he said, holding up a bag.

"Thanks, Chazz, what is it?"

"Well, I neglected to mention it when we were on the planet that last time, but I found something you might find... interesting. I want you to have these."

I took the bag with curiosity and opened it. Inside lay thirty-two shining ball bearings.

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