Milly entered the library with one thing on her mind. Where was she being commissioned next? It would take a six mecra-long flight to get anywhere worth studying. She had coordinates that looked much closer. As she walked down the echoing, cold, marble steps, she hoped it was somewhere she could study the lifestyle habits of the Gannibions. But she didn’t know of any Gannibion outpost this close to galactic center. Long ago, the Gannibions had left Earth for safe havens where they could practice mushroom farming in peace, away from the noises and pollution of the city planets.
She entered the coordinates into the glistening, translucent, thin and tall, blue podium that controlled the central computer, including its cartoscope. Milly found a planet she had never heard of before. And she had spent years studying galactic geography, so that was saying something. She had no idea what or who she would find there. So, she also looked up her new partner for the journey, in the profiler. She found Nerta’s information and was stunned. A fellow cartographer, yes, but she mainly studied exobiology, not cultures or local politics. What could the Exploration Coalition possibly have the two of them doing on such an unknown world?
The next day, Milly and Nerta met for the first time. They greeted each other with the customary hand turning at heart center (palm to chest, clockwise quarter turn), and asked the basic questions about each other. They shared information they had each already looked up in the profiler about the other. Once the niceties were done with, Milly asked the question on both of their minds.
“Have you heard of this planet before? Do you know what we’re going there to study?”
Nerta replied, “I have no idea. I only know they asked me to bring my full kit. We’re meant to study some anomalous phenomenon, I’m sure.” With that, they both sat the rest of the four mecra-long journey in silence.
When Milly and Nerta arrived on the planet, the place was foggy and swampy, covered in the thick, salty air of a bog drenched in unknown compounds. They heard some rustling in the brush, some flittering in the trees, some crackling of wood. Nothing too large. The place smelled of overcooked garlic, closing in on itself like a contracting iron lung. Nerta unloaded her biokit and Milly set up her telescope. Then they went back inside to find a new message waiting on their ship’s communications system. The Exploration Coalition announced,
“The two of you have been called here to study an anomalous phenomenon—“
Nerta interjected in an unnecessary whisper, “see, I told you”.
The Coalition continued, “We have reports of an unidentified species roaming the forests of this world. They are small in stature, about the size of a large dog. We also know that various explorers have returned from this planet with hallucinations. Due to these reports, no humanoids have chosen to settle there. Please investigate what is causing these hallucinations and whether or not this has anything to do with the unidentified species or some organic or inorganic compound on the planet. The Gannibions would like to settle a new outpost closer to the central city planets, in order to trade more easily. This planet is the only one without a city on it. If you can solve this problem, we may be able to enhance diplomatic relations with the Gannibions. When they contact you, please assure them that it is safe to do so. Report back what you have found in three days.”
This news was not so much shocking, as it was worrying. Milly and Nerta immediately closed their ship’s door and set a plan of action. They decided they would wear their suits 100% of the time, and wear helmets while outside. They would open the ship’s door only briefly, once in the morning to leave on exploration, and once in the afternoon to return from it. They would not explore at night. Milly decided she would also do more research about this place, based on the rumors of related incidents, rather than the coordinates (as she had been doing). The two went to sleep that night more curious than ever, but also a bit concerned.
A loud “kathump” echoed through the entire ship, waking the two up early the next morning. A crunching sound invaded Milly and Nerta’s ears. One of the creatures was walking across the front of their ship. There was a crack in the front viewport. The two decided they had to be very cautious. They would wear their helmets indoors as well, until the viewport was repaired. Nerta decided she would follow the creature and analyze its leavings for a hallucinogen. Milly decided to spend the day repairing the ship.
Nerta walked quietly and softly along the ground. She didn’t want to scare the creature off. After watching it carefully for an hour, she collected some of its stool. She continued to follow it closely, and finally she eyed a glistening patch of its saliva on a nearby tree branch. She gathered it into one of her sample vials.
Meanwhile, Milly hammered away at the bluish-grey metal, putting the ship back into the shape it was when they arrived. Loud gongs broke through the sound barrier of her helmet. Creaking sounds rang in her ears as she re-tightened bolts. The soft shuffling of her suit comforted her with white noise. One of her gloves got stuck to the window as she applied a window sealer. Luckily, there was no tear in it. She finished the repairs to the body and went inside to test for electrical errors. As she attempted to turn on the system, the yellow lights flickered across the screen. It turned on and showed a complete picture — no real damage done there. However, the diagnostics indicated that communications systems were down and there was some damage done to one of the engines.
Nerta arrived back at the ship, to Milly’s reports of what was wrong with it. With as much work done as could be done before dark, the two decided to rest and eat for the remainder of the evening. At least now the ship was airtight again, so they could take off their helmets indoors. Nerta cooked an instant meal of beef stew and squash soup. The smooth orange liquid warmed their mouths and their spirits. The large chunks of protein in the stew filled their bellies. Both of them gulped at the water as if they had never had any before, thankful for it after a long day’s work. As they ate, they discussed their lives back home and their work life before this commission.
“You have a family back in the Center?” Milly asked Nerta. Her voice was always self-possessed, clear and smooth. It was low for a woman’s voice, but comforting nonetheless.
“Yes, Scinta, Lacey, and Nelton, my partner.” Nerta replied. Her voice was high pitched and seemed to always end in a question, even when she wasn’t asking one.
“That’s a cute name combo, Nelton and Nerta. When did you meet?”
“When we were young. Before I knew I wanted to be an exobiologist. He’s a junior member at EC HQ. He didn’t want me to come on this trip, but the rest of the EC said they wanted their best biologist assigned. He couldn’t refuse.” Nerta explained.
“How old are your children?”Milly asked.
“Scinta is eleven and Lacey is three. It’s her first time being without me since she was born.”
“I’m sure she’ll do fine.”
“She will, she’s strong… So you mainly work with the Gannibions?”
“Yes. I’ve spent time on several Gannibion settlements over the past fifteen years, and I have a few contacts I stay in frequent comm with. Like my friend Havark, I share all of my work with him and he gives me the Gannibion point of view on it. He asks for my opinion on every deal he makes with the EC. I’m not surprised they wanted me on this journey. If anyone can convince the Gannibions to settle on a planet like this one, it’s me.” Milly laughed about this.
“Before we give the okay to the Gannibions, I think we should know more about the EC’s history with exploring this planet, don’t you think?”
“I definitely think so. I’ll repair the comms tomorrow, so I can research it tomorrow night. Hopefully they’re repairable.”
“Thanks. Hopefully it’ll help my own research too.”
“I better get to bed, then.” Milly said, as she got up and washed her bowls. Nerta washed her own as soon as Milly was done.
The next morning, Milly and Nerta woke to the sound of one of the creatures ramming at the side of the ship. A clank and a thump, a clank and a thump, a clank and thump. They turned on the electricity briefly, the ship buzzed and revved. They couldn’t move it because one of the engines was still broken. But at least this scared the creature away.
Milly spent the entire day repairing the comms console on the ship. She used some of the spare wires they had brought along. As she worked on the wiring that was accessed from the outdoor panel, the smoke from her soldering iron floated into the atmosphere. By the end of the day she had skipped lunch, soaked her suit in sweat, and turned red, but she got it done. The communications system was working once again.
When Milly went for the final test of the comms, two messages were waiting for them there. The first was from the EC. They notified Milly and Nerta that the Gannibions would soon make contact, and would want to know what was going on on this planet. One of their Gannibion contacts, Havark, said he knew Milly and wanted to speak with her directly. The EC had to comply. They asked Milly and Nerta not to reveal what the issues were with the planet or that there were any issues at all. They said to report to the Gannibions that this was a routine research commission, executed as always before any new settlement could be made. The second comm was from Havark. He stood center-screen with his shaved head, creamy mocha skin, big blue eyes, and silky coral robes. He addressed Milly directly:
“My dear friend. It hasn’t been long since we’ve spoken. How are you? What do they have you exploring these days? I hope all is well… We heard that you were assigned to this commission on the planet of our next potential settlement, so I asked to speak with you directly. Do you have any news of interesting plant or animal life there? Is it properly habitable? Is the ground level enough for us to build our storage facilities and is it large enough for us to live as far apart as we have been accustomed? What is the terrain like? Infinitely yours, hoping to speak with you soon.”
Milly immediately replied to him, with as short of an answer as she could, so as not to betray him or the EC:
“Havark, my dear friend. I hope all is well with you. How is the Gannibion Council? How go your trades and your studies? How goes your brotherhood? We haven’t discovered much about this planet. As soon as we do, I’ll let you know. So far, we cannot officially say it is habitable. Infinitely yours, be in touch soon.” Milly ended the comm with the customary Gannibion sign of respect: “Infinitely yours”. She sometimes ended her EC comms this way too, accidentally.
While Milly was doing all of this, Nerta continued examining the materials she got a hold of, for hallucinogens. She set up her microscope in the ship’s tiny, one-table lab. With it she examined some saliva and stool from several creatures, sap and condensation from several plants, and the water from nearby sources. Nothing contained any kind of hallucinogen. She was running out of ideas.
That night, after a meal of tarragon chicken salad and garlic mashed potatoes, which smelled like home and comfort to Nerta, Milly went into the cockpit and logged into the console. The bright yellow lights of the console served as the only light in the dark, echoing room, as she explored the infoweb into the wee hours of the night. She searched for anything that had to do with hallucinations and commissions, anything that had to do with unsettled planets and hallucinations, and failed EC commissions. Finally, after several long hours of searching, her query returned a short, but very relevant video. The lone survivor of a failed EC commissions said:
“It was the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen. He killed each one of them in their sleep, picking them off one by one. It wasn’t until it was just me and him left that I realized it was him. Everyone else was experiencing hallucinations. People shaking and rocking back and forth in fetal position, people leaning against walls and following the lines on the walls to nowhere, people talking to themselves. No one but me stayed sane. They weren’t even conscious enough to question who was killing whom. When it came down to the two of us I knew I had only two options — kill or be killed. I waited up for him that night and pretended I was asleep. When he came to kill me, I got to him first. … [He paused and looked down at his hands, like they were someone else’s, entirely alienated from his own being.]… I’ll always feel sick about it, but I’ll never regret it. I did what I had to do.”
You could tell by their verbal responses to him in the background that the EC believed him. They mentioned that his record was perfect so there was no reason not to.
This video was splashed across the dark net, and there was no report attached to it. The info captions below the video said the man was returned to the general population after a three-day quarantine. Some comments said they thought he had murdered everyone and he shouldn’t have been allowed back into society. Some comments said they knew this man and he’d never do a thing like that. One comment said his blood was the only sample without a hallucinogenic compound, out of everyone on his ship. Milly believed him, and wished she could have found the report it came from.
The next morning, Milly told Nerta about what she had discovered the night before. This gave Nerta an idea: since the EC had told them that no previous commission had found a hallucinogen on the planet, maybe two or more of the materials she had sampled mixed together would create a hallucinogen. This would explain why samples of any one substance would turn up negative, while something was causing hallucinations. Nerta spent the rest of the day hunched over her microscope, fiddling with her vials, studying various combinations of saliva and poop from various animals, tree saps and condensation, and local water.
When Nerta discovered that the sap of one tree and the saliva of these creatures created a hallucinogen when combined, she ran into the engine room and announced this to Milly. They were both relieved that they had found the answer.
Meanwhile, Milly had spent the day repairing the ship’s engine. She tinkered and tinkered with it. She used the spare parts they carried to replace a coil, and sealed the radiation chamber with the puffy sealant that oozed from the applicator gun. After some trial and error, she finally got it working. They were both relieved, because now they knew they could return home. Overall, the day seemed like a major success.
That night, while eating a dinner of rabbit-based meatloaf and steamed carrots, Milly and Nerta crafted a no-nonsense report to the EC regarding what they had discovered about the hallucinogen on the planet, stating that it was thus uninhabitable. They went to bed expecting to return home the following day.
However, they awoke to a new request from the EC:
“We regret to request that you remain on planet for another three days. We ask that you seek a cure or treatment for the phenomenon you discovered. Please let us know if you need additional supplies or tools.” As with most EC comms, it was as short as it could be while getting their point across.
Milly and Nerta discussed the video Milly had found about the one survivor who had no hallucinations. They reasoned that he must have either never been exposed to the hallucinogen, or else he would have found some sort of cure whilst on planet, since the EC had no cure and he had left quarantine without any symptoms. Milly spent the day hunting the survivor down over the web. She found no trace of him. So, she contacted the EC and told them she had found the video of him. At first they responded that they knew of no such man. So, Milly sent the video to them. They reluctantly responded with his contact information, and no other statement. She then sent him a message, asking for his help and reflection on what had occurred. She told him this was highly classified EC business and she would not share his response with anyone outside of leadership. The man replied, succinctly, that he was the only one of his crew willing to drink the water from a certain waterfall on the planet. He described what it looked like and where it was. He reckoned this might be the treatment they’re looking for. He let them know that he did experience hallucinations, but that they would subside when he drank the water. After a few days off planet, they were completely gone.
With that news, Nerta put on her soft, silver spacesuit, and snapped her light, aluminum helmet into place. She gathered a few clear glass vials and went out looking for the waterfall he spoke of. After a few hours of searching, Nerta came upon the waterfall. She then collected some water from it. A long walk back, over hills and through a gorge, and she returned to the ship tired but triumphant. She went into her small, cozy lab and tested it against the hallucinogenic compound. To no one’s surprise the water dissolved the hallucinogen in a matter of minutes. Some compound in the water was destroying it. With enough water, it would definitely flush the hallucinogen from someone’s system.
Unfortunately, in her rush to collect the water, Nerta had ripped her spacesuit and had been exposed to various substances along the planet’s surface and inside the ship, including the hallucinogenic compound she was working on in the lab.
Nerta awoke in the middle of the night experiencing hallucinations that would appear to her like daggers to her amygdala. She described them to Milly, saying colors flashed before her eyes and she was being transported to locations of her childhood, and then to moments of terror in her life, and then to moments of joy. It was as if she was being sped through the most emotional moments in her life history. Milly immediately ran into the lab and got a sample of water, then gave it to Nerta. After about half an hour, Nerta’s hallucinations subsided. The two decided that they would collect as much of the water as possible so Nerta could flush her system. She seemed to have enough to last the rest of the night.
The next day, Milly put on her soft silver space suit and ventured to the waterfall, through the gorge and over the hills, and filled every single one of their containers with that water. The thick plastic was heavy to carry there, and once filled, even heavier to carry back.
When Milly returned, she saw two new comms on the console. The first was from Havark. He asked if there was any news about the planet. Milly decided she could ignore this for another day without seeming suspicious. The second was from Nerta’s partner Nelton. He said,
“Sweetheart, Scinta and Lacey are missing you so. As am I. I thought you would only be gone for a few days. Please let me know you’re safe and sound. Scinta had a good few days at school, and Lacey took her first steps, finally! I can’t believe you missed it. Sending you all my love.”
Nerta didn’t want them to worry, so she decided to call them once she had enough of the water in her system. She responded,
“Nelton, my love! I’m doing fine. Our research has been extended because of some interesting chemistry on this planet. Nothing to worry about! I’m elated to hear about Lacey’s first steps, and I’m so sorry I missed it. I’m glad Scinta is doing well, too. Sending you all of my love.”
During this comm, she could barely keep her face straight, because she was seeing flashes of light coming through her field of vision. So, she decided to send it without visuals. She added to the end of it,
“Because of the planet’s chemistry, I’m sending this comm without visuals. Don’t worry, I’ll be home soon!” Which wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth either. She didn’t want him to worry.
That night, Nerta’s hallucinations took a terrifying turn. She woke in the middle of the night screaming about insects wiggling their way between the folds of her space suit and her clothes underneath, smacking herself and pulling out some of her hair by accident. She accidentally ran into one of the walls, trying to get rid of the non-existent bugs. Milly was deeply worried about her, and decided they shouldn’t stay on this planet any longer. Whatever the EC thought they wanted, it wasn’t worth putting Nerta or anyone through this. There would be no way to contain the hallucinogens in the long-run, so the pursuit was futile. The one thing she couldn’t understand was why the water didn’t permanently dissolve the hallucinogen in Nerta’s body. Why were the hallucinations coming back?
The next morning, Milly sent a comm to Havark:
“My dear friend. The EC wishes us to stay on this planet for two more days. However, we’ve run into issues with the chemistry on the surface. We are researching what can be done to ensure habitability for any settlers. I can’t reveal any more at this point. Infinitely yours, speak soon.”
Milly then sent a comm to the EC:
“We regret to inform you that the planet is uninhabitable. Nerta Willoughby has been exposed to the hallucinogen, so our research has been halted. By drinking the water sourced from a particular waterfall, she has been afforded intermittent sanity. However, after a short time, the hallucinations return. There has been no permanent solution as of yet. We will collect as much of this water as possible, so that we can use it to research whether it can be used to create an inoculant, once we are back in the Center. Our recommendation is to deny the Gannibions settlement on planet 06.59.42.43.X7.”
After waiting for an hour or so, Milly received a reply from the EC:
“We regret to request that you utilize Scientist Willoughby’s intermittent lucidity to do such research while you remain on planet. When you return in two days, bring as much water as your stores allow, sourced from the waterfall you mentioned. We have discussed the topic with EC Science Leadership, and they have asked us to ask you to research why said water does not offer permanent relief from the condition you describe. If Scientist Willoughby has not been exposed to any more of the compound, her condition should have permanently improved. We request that you seek to discover why this is not the case. Thank you for your service.”
This reply angered Milly, which was rare for someone who had grown accustomed to the cold treatment of EC HQ over the years. At this point, Nerta was in one of her lucid periods. Nerta said she was willing to do such research, she was curious and personally invested at this point. She realized there must be some third compound which helps the hallucinogen to replicate within the body, once its composition is present in the blood and brain. Nerta spent the rest of the evening testing three-way combinations of the various samples she had taken, but found no such reaction. Then she had an idea. If it wasn’t in the solid or liquid samples she had taken, maybe it was in the air. So, she mixed the tree sap and creatures’ saliva with her own blood, took it outdoors, and left it exposed to the atmosphere overnight.
The next morning, when Nerta went outside to check on her experiment, the hallucinogen had replicated far more rapidly than expected. It had nearly filled the entire petri dish. Finally, they had the answer! Nerta ran inside and told Milly, who was making breakfast for them both. Nerta explained that before the water had a chance to completely flush it from someone’s system, whatever element in the atmosphere that would cause this reaction would get into the person’s bloodstream and force replication. She determined that this was the reason being off-planet was the opportunity a person needed for the water to work as an antidote.
With this news, Milly supposed that the ship had not been properly sealed from the atmosphere, that this reaction was occurring while Nerta had her helmet off at night, inside. So, Milly ran another diagnostic check on the seal throughout the ship. This time, she took the handheld atmometer into every corner and crevice of it. She discovered that there was in fact a leak. Not large enough to be registered by the central computer, but large enough for particles to get through, and it was right above their beds. So, she applied sealant to the entire square meter of inner wall above their headboards, just to be safe. They decided to flush the ship of its atmospheric exposure, refill it with oxygenated and filtered air, and keep it completely sealed for the next two days, to further test their conclusions. First, they would replenish their stores of the waterfall’s water.
Milly left Nerta to continue drinking the water inside a sealed ship, while she went to the source to refill their thick plastic containers. She trudged through the gorge and over the hills, filled the containers, and dragged them back. Once inside, she sealed the ship and settled in for a long two days.
That night, Nerta drank as much of the water as she possibly could. She didn’t hallucinate and slept soundly.
The next day was long. The two of them rode the stationary bikes that were provided for exercise. They watched funny videos on the infoweb. Nerta sent a comm to Nelton, asking him how the children were doing and letting him know things were going well, that they were close to concluding their research. Milly decided it was time to tell Havark what was happening:
“My dear friend, we have discovered that this planet is uninhabitable. Due to the state of atmospheric conditions, we cannot recommend that you settle on this planet. I am not authorized to tell you any more than that. However, I can say that I have personally seen the negative effects of an invasive compound, and I strongly recommend that you forbid your brotherhood from visiting this planet at all. Infinitely yours, hoping to hear from you soon.”
It was hours before Havark responded. In the meantime, Milly checked all the systems aboard the ship, to ensure it was ready to return to the Center when the time came. Nerta started experimenting with the water they had collected to see if she could, in fact, create an inoculant against the hallucinogen. First, she would have to isolate the compound that caused its disintegration. She had to invent a way to test for something there had been no common test for previously. So, she distilled the water and collected the sediment that evaporated from it. She discovered that two sets of sediment collected into her containers, one of which was crystalline. The crystalline substance could be concentrated, but that would require daily application and there’s no guarantee that there would not be intermittent hallucination between applications. If there was a way to get the body to produce the substance on its own, that might be an answer, but the substance was entirely inorganic. While Nerta was experimenting, Milly finally received Havark’s response:
“My dear friend, I have shared your message with the Gannibion Council. We will take your recommendation into strong consideration. However, the Council recommends that the Settlement Council wait for the Exploration Coalition’s report on the planet, to determine whether it is truly uninhabitable, or if such conditions can be managed. I’m thankful, as always, for your honest communication and friendship. Infinitely yours, hoping to hear from you soon.”
This disappointed Milly. Havark always respected her opinions and honesty, but the Gannibion Council could set its sights on a direction and ignore good advice sometimes. Especially when a new settlement was on the table.
That night, Nerta and Milly ate tuna fish salad and egg-drop soup, both easily hydrated with the only water stores they now had on board, from the waterfall. The tuna fish was soft and full of that umami flavor they both loved. The egg-drop soup was warm and gave them both a feeling of brightness. They were relieved to find that the water had no negative effect on Milly.
The next day, Nerta and Milly awoke to find that Nerta again had no hallucinations or nightmares. The water treatment was working and the ship was properly sealed. They spent this day riding their stationary bikes, watching serial shows they both kept up with, and some funny videos on the infoweb. Finally, their last night on this horrible planet had come.
“So, what are you going to tell the EC tomorrow? Do you think you can create an inoculant?” Milly asked Nerta.
“Yes, definitely. If it can be distilled, if it can be isolated, it can probably be concentrated and utilized in that way. The methods we discover in the process could revolutionize inoculation as we know it. There’s no telling if we’ll encounter such trouble again on another planet. Such discoveries would be like treasure. I’m going to recommend that EC Science Leadership pursue it.”
“What a waste of resources. They must realize that the investment in developing such a thing is extravagant. And, even if they can find it, the continuous application of an inoculant would have a negative effect on the social and mental health of any colony. But if it can be profitable or further their reputation, they’ll do it.”
“I don’t think so. I think scientific discovery and medical benefits to society far outweigh the costs. Plenty of people would benefit from living on this planet. And the science behind the solution could be applied to so many situations.”
That night, after a meal of hummus and eggplant on rehydrated bread, which they both found delicious and nourishing, Milly and Nerta went to sleep. They were both pleased the ordeal was over. Though they didn’t agree on the overall implications, the basic findings of the mission were clear and their job was done.
The next day, Milly sent out a final comm to the EC:
“Respected Leadership. We regret to inform you that the cause of the replication of the hallucinogen is in the atmosphere. Thus, with replication being unavoidable and consistently occurring more quickly than the compound in the water can destroy it, the planet is uninhabitable. Settlement is not recommended. Scientist Willoughby will present her specific findings on the chemistry and biology of the planetary conditions upon return. We will be taking off within the hour.”
Just before they left the planet, the EC responded:
“We ask that you fill your stores with water from the aforementioned waterfall. And fill all remaining viles with atmospheric samples. EC Science Leadership will be pursuing the development of an inoculant. Until such an inoculant can be created, we will not recommend settlement on this planet. Thank you for your service.”
When Milly and Nerta landed back on the Center, Milly noticed a personal comm from Havark to herself:
“My dear friend, the EC has contacted us and told us that they are continuing research on the planet in question. They have been unable to mark it as habitable yet, but further research is required. Until then, the Gannibion Council has agreed that settlement is not recommended. We have also taken your information into consideration, and I wish to offer you an official ‘thank you’ for your honesty. The Gannibion Council have discussed how there must be a problem with the planet that the EC has not shared with us. We are grateful you were a part of this process, so that we don’t send our brotherhood into a dangerous place. Settlement on the planet has been banned until further notice. Personally, I wish to thank you, as always, for your honesty and friendliness. Infinitely yours.”
Having prevented the settlement of a people she respects on an unsafe planet, Milly returned to her hab-pod in a good mood. Nerta was sent to a three day quarantine, which worried her partner, who told her children it was expected and nothing to worry about. Three days later she returned to her family, safe and sound, and free of hallucinations. Fascinated by the planet’s chemistry, she asked to be a part of the inoculation research team, and was granted permission. Milly was a little disappointed in the EC for pursuing such research, but she wasn’t surprised either, she did see the value in it. Her next assignment would put her back with the Gannibions, which put a smile on her face.