Arthropod

An arthropod is an invertebrate animal having an exoskeleton (external skeleton), a segmented body, and jointed appendages…” – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

Bristow was recalling years and years of mental training to soothe the slow rage bubbling inside him. Bristow and Davenant were soon going to be the first humans on Mars, the first delegation to attempt First Contact, to initiate conversation and hopefully, establish dialog. Though the mission appeared very rosy and noble on the outside, Bristow was having serious doubts.

For a species that had hidden itself from everything ranging from extreme conditions to the keenest of probes, the Martians seemed unnaturally gracious to accept two living visitors. What possible message could Earth be trying to convey by sending them? That they were harmless and curious? And what if the Martians did not take kindly to curiosity?

Bristow suspected that he and Davenant were being sent more in the office of test subjects than diplomats. He could imagine the officious fools back on Earth laughing to themselves. What had they declared him and Davenant before they left? Pioneers. In Bristow’s words, lab rats. True, the data they brought back would be worth years of development. But what of their lives?

Bristow’s concern for their survival stemmed primarily from the fact that besides the usual First Contact Protocols and basic survival needs like oxygen and spacesuits, Earth had given them no defense. It seemed as though Earth had naturally assumed that the Martians would be charming, pleasant hosts. Had they not even considered that the Martians might be hostile?

He cursed the ambassador back on Earth. This project was more to feed their vanity than to actually expand any scientific horizons. “Oh we sent humans to Mars, “they’d brag to themselves, not in the least worried about their lives.

Just last week, their communications gear had lost contact with Earth. If their mission was so frighteningly important, wouldn’t they at least have sent communications gear or back-up that would have survived a burst of measly solar wind? Davenant’s navigation skills had saved their craft from facing most of it. But enough of the electromagnetic radiation had fried the communications. All of which fuelled Bristow’s paranoia.

For all Bristow knew, he and Davenant could be killed the instant they set foot on Mars. If the Martians had eluded their sensors for so long, Bristow was sure that they would undoubtedly have the technology to send back enough garbled data to convince Earth that some random natural phenomenon had killed them. Nobody had ever gone to Mars to prove that they could return.

He sat in the silence, missing the beeps of the communications console and cursed the space-morphing, matter-camouflaging, xenophobic Martians inside his head. Perhaps shorting out their gear had been a Martian plot from the start?

Bristow detected a sudden movement at the back of the hatch. His reflexes spun him around, accelerated by the low gravity of the craft. His pulse relaxed as he discovered it was Davenant. Bristow was seeing Martians everywhere.

“What are you doing?” asked Davenant, bobbing towards Bristow cheerfully.

“Nothing“, muttered Bristow ominously, going back to the heap of silent abuse he was piling on the Martians and on Earth.

“Are you worrying about the Martians, again?” asked Davenant, sounding astonishingly calm and normal. Almost happy. As though he was worrying what flavor of breakfast rations would they have tomorrow.

“No”, said Bristow. He was not in a mood to share his troubles with someone as oblivious to trouble as this boy. Even if trouble loomed on the horizon, he would probably just look pleasantly surprised and invite it over for a chat. Conversations with Davenant generally went nowhere.

He hoped Davenant would leave him in peace, before his insufferable happiness annoyed him so much that he exploded.

“Back home, they told us to just be ourselves and stay calm”, said Davenant, persevering.

Bristow was stopped short of wasting his oxygen by re-iterating his opinions on Earth and on Mars and their situation and his inevitably dire predictions as to their fate by one look at his young, child-like face.

This Davenant. At face value, he was just about the most naïve thing Earth could have sent with him on such a mission. But as time progressed, Bristow discovered that Davenant had several talents. He was a good engineer, a damn good navigator, supposedly a student of astro-geography, perpetually curious and always, always, in a good mood. Even when the solar wind threatened to cast them adrift into space, even when the communication gear failed, even when Bristow had pointedly told him that this mission was useless and dangerous. There were times when Bristow had suspected that Davenant, with his smooth face and ready smiles and hidden talent, was a Martian spy. He had secretly probed Davenant’s mind quite a few times, in vain. Davenant was as he said he was. He was thrilled about being some First-Contact-With-The-Martians-Hero.

Bristow had seen many of such young ones with high hopes die untimely deaths. And he was sure that Davenant would just be another name on that list. Even then, even though he wouldn’t ever consciously admit it to himself, he had grown attached to this enthusiastic boy who tolerated his taciturn mood swings with irrepressible ease. Maybe he really was a Martian spy, secretly analyzing Bristow and transmitting data in ways that earth technology and mental training hadn’t discovered yet.

“I’m not a Martian spy, Bristow”, he said wearily, as though tired of saying it too often. There was Davenant, trying to calm him down and manipulate him into trusting him. Fortunately he wasn’t a telepath; otherwise Bristow would have had a lot more issues.

“Really, Bristow”, he said, “How do you expect to communicate freely with an alien species if you’re going to be so jumpy? Just because one solar wind blew out or comm. grid, doesn’t mean this mission is doomed from the start. Do you really need an inexperienced boy like me to tell you that your current state of mind alone is jeopardizing our mission?”

“I don’t trust species who hide themselves”, growled Bristow.

“Don’t we all hide parts of ourselves?” asked Davenant, philosophically.

Bristow stared at him. Was Davenant implying that he was hiding something? He watched Davenant float towards his bunk. Either he was hiding something that was so well-hidden that he had fooled Bristow into believing that nothing was there at all. Or maybe there was nothing. Bristow had never met anyone as alien to the concept of fear, of deceit, of treachery as he was. To Bristow, such a person couldn’t exist. And yet, Davenant did. Which made him all the more worthy of suspicion. He didn’t even switch on his brain-wave deflector. Didn’t Davenant ever worry that Bristow or some other telepath could manipulate him in his sleep? That they could spy on his dreams? Reveal everything about him?

Either he was too stupid to believe that such a thing could happen. Or maybe he had accepted that he had a nondescript brain. It was like trying to steal from a beggar.

“Morning!” said Davenant, finishing his breakfast rations. “Telemetry data says we locked into orbit last night. We will be able to take our pods to our surface in approximately two hours, Earth time.”

As Bristow mulled over his breakfast rations, Davenant floated off to re-verify the telemetry. Apparently, they would be reaching soon. Today was the day. Even if the Martians proved to be hostile, they would be at their mercy. Even if things turned out to be bad, he was just another paranoid telepath, wasn’t he? Completely expendable after a lifetime of suspicion and worry. But the young Davenant? Well, he never seemed to be bothered about the prospect of death. So why bother about his chances of survival?

Suddenly, there was a low, exhausting hum and all the lights dimmed out on the craft. Bristow jumped in alarm. Judging from the liquid food he spilt, the gravity was still on. And he could breathe. “Davenant!” he called out hoarsely. Had that boy pulled the wrong wire somewhere? Was he actually a Martian spy, sabotaging the mission? Even if he was, had they taken him captive? Had he died? Had he jumped off the airlock? Had he left Bristow all alone? Had he…

“I’m here. I’m here. I’m fine”, he said, chuckling with relief. If this was Davenant’s idea of a practical joke, Bristow was going to teach him to restrain his sick sense of humor. “I’m fine, really”, said Davenant, misreading the angry glare in Bristow’s eyes for concern. “Our environmental controls are shot, though. Maybe some leftover residue from the solar storm. Or perhaps Jupiter’s strong electromagnetic presence nearby is resonating with our components. I’ve reset them, and the system should be able to restore normal conditions in a few moments.” He helplessly tapped on a few buttons, and Bristow was treated to a high-pitched squeal of static wash, which slowly faded.

But to Bristow, these were omens. Signs. Portents. Worries of inevitable doom. Except that he wasn’t going to let it show. Even now, Davenant wasn’t worried. “These glitches happen from time to time”, he said, shrugging his shoulders at some seemingly ordinary occurrence, as though he had come this far from Earth and discovered that he’d forgotten to bring his toothbrush.

“Let’s just get this over with”, said Bristow, forcing a spacesuit on Davenant as he struggled to get into his own, in the unstable lights.

As the craft smoothly hovered over in geo-stationary orbit, Bristow admired the planet. Fiery red, marked with amazing landscapes, the thin atmosphere making it impossible to hide much. Not unlike Davenant’s mental composition. Impulsive, endowed with talent. His innate openness making the smooth, plain outlines of his agenda and purpose in life were impossible to hide. But that was where the similarity ended. The planet contained unknown populations of species hidden under its angry crust, frequent dust storms ripping across the surface, growing to astronomical proportions with the addition of more dust, fuelling its inexorable drive across the deserted planet, whipping up ice and dust. This abyss was their destination.

Davenant was padding up, repeating all the First Contact protocols to himself, face shining with excitement. Bristow, sullen and moody, packed a neuro-stunner. It had never hurt his chances before.

“Bristow, we’re supposed to be peaceful! How is carrying a weapon meant to convey peace? And even if it is in self-defense, shouldn’t we show the Martians that we trust them? Besides, what if it doesn’t work? Most of our equipment’s going through a bad phase. Are we going to run around screaming for help till oxygen runs out? Or shall we hope that Earth can see the two white figures prancing around on the red surface?”

Bristow ignored Davenant. If the Martians were hostile, Davenant would hope for his sake that the stunner worked. Safer was infinitely better than dead.

“Bristow, what if they don’t trust us because you’re carrying that thing?”

“Then they’ve got a lot to learn about making contact with aliens. Everybody who is not you, Davenant, carries some form of defense. And it’s not like I’m going to kill them. In any case, we’re out-numbered. It’s just to protect us”. To buy us some time, he told himself.

The ejecting pods were targeted at a relatively smooth point on the Meridiani Planum. But that was before today’s system malfunctioned. Still, out of all the possible ways he considered that he could have died on this mission, Bristow was least worried that he was going to die due to a rupture caused in his pod or suit by a sharp Martian rock. Davenant checked the landing systems once again and kept his cool as the pods detached into space.

The vast darkness, combined with the soaring temperatures and pressures rushed past rapidly, as the pods penetrated the wispy atmosphere. Davenant could see that the outer hull of Bristow’s pod was a dull, angry red as the metal fought against the atmosphere, and was rapidly sucked in by the planet’s gravity. Soon, the red, rocky desert soared up to meet them.

Bristow and Davenant, true to their training, detached their landing bags simultaneously, as they crossed 20,000 km in altitude. The pods landed on the dry ground with an oppressive thump, and then bounced up again. They tumbled around for a while, till their inertia wore off. As Bristow stabilized, Davenant looked anxiously around. Vast panoramas of red rocks and amber sky everywhere. No sign of life. No welcoming committee, as Bristow had predicted. Still, Davenant was hopeful.

“Greetings from Earth”, began Davenant, citing the First Contact protocols with a voice that made him sound more lost than friendly. No response.

“Greetings from Earth”, repeated Davenant, pushing up his transmitting frequencies to maximum. He sounded more confident now. He greeted the ground, the air, and the rocks. All in vain. Only the occasional swooshing of dust and the unimaginable silence of the Martian landscape greeted them in return.

Davenant’s suit began to sense a low buzz that was becoming louder. At first, he thought it might be a malfunction with the suit equipment. He searched around for the controls, checked the self-diagnostics, the suit’s inner AI told him everything was alright.

“Davenant! Behind you“, said Bristow, his white face showing through the helmet’s visor.

Davenant turned. Possibly a few hundred kilometers or so meters away, a vortex of red dust swirled seemingly out of nowhere. The dust storm gained more strength as smaller winds were sucked into it, and as more dust began to add volume to the vacuum beast. Calculated trajectory would mean that he and Bristow would soon be caught up in it. Davenant turned around, and began to run. Bristow did not need to be told.

As the wind began to catch up with them, Davenant and Bristow realized that they were on the edge of a cliff face. Bristow tried to stop, but the dust blowing off revealed the smooth, frictionless Martian surface, and Bristow began to skid. The wind had already pushed Davenant to all fours as he scrambled for the rocky edge. Bristow and Davenant were soon swept off the edge. They held onto to the rock with as much strength as their spacesuits would allow, waiting for the worst.

The cliff edge faced an unimaginable drop of nearly 40 km. Due to the lesser gravity, landmasses could add great depth, or height, to themselves without crumbling under their own weight.

Bristow’s knuckles were beginning to hurt. Why hadn’t the storm torn them off already?

“Not exactly the welcome, you’d expected, did you? Sending along a terrible dust storm. Now do you believe me when I say that aliens can be hostile?” he asked Davenant.

“Well, I’m a little surprised as to the lack of little green men”, began Davenant, “But just because they’ve been held up by a storm, doesn’t mean they’re hostile. We have dust storms on Earth, too.”

“Yeah, except we’re not on Earth, are we? Where we can just yell for help and hope it comes….”

“Shouldn’t we be ripped off into a million shards, now?” questioned Davenant, evidently playing along with Bristow.

It took them a while to understand that in-between their conversation and their forceful attempt to avoid looking down, the suit’s sensors had gone quiet.

Davenant was the first one to haul himself back up. Bristow preferred to hang on for his life, while he supposed that Davenant would be whirled into the vortex.

“Oh. Ok”, said Davenant, surprised. “The storm’s dissipated.”

Bristow scoffed in disbelief. How such a monstrosity of a storm could so quietly disappear was a scientific impossibility. They surveyed the area. Davenant was right. The area looked as still and peaceful as it had always been. The dust didn’t even leave behind trails of incriminating evidence of ever having moved. Silence and red, as it had always been.

Davenant began to repeat the First Contact Protocol. Bristow stopped him. What did the boy think he was doing? The Martians weren’t there to greet them. They never would be. All they had done was bear two years of space-travel just so that they could avoid getting into local dust storms. Their mission had failed. Davenant would have a hard time accepting it, but eventually he would. Why wouldn’t they just come out and make contact, damn it?

They had not wandered around for more than a few meters, when another low buzz began. Red dust was staining the sky.

“Oh, no. Not again”, said Davenant.

And for the next few hours or so, Davenant and Bristow dodged the storms. Bristow hadn’t indulged in this sort of extensive physical activity for years. And after the fourth storm, his space suit began to indicate that the existing oxygen levels would not last him long. Davenant’s scenario of the two of them scampering around had come alive. They had come here to be diplomats, not to be chased by winds.

Bristow’s age was failing him. He could not keep up with the sprightly Davenant. He sat on the exposed, rock, careful not to tear his suit and lose whatever little oxygen he had to the Martian atmosphere. All of a sudden, he heard Davenant’s laughter. What now? Had the boy finally found a little green man?

“Davenant, will you stop cracking up at odd times and help me get myself up here?”

“Sorry, sorry”, said Davenant, flushed with laughter.

“Well, what’s the joke?”

“This”, said Davenant as he swept his arm across the landscape. The Martian scenery was unbelievably quiet. But Bristow could sense that there was some form of foreboding. He thought the boy had gone officially crazy. “What, Davenant?” he sounded impatient.

“The storms. Here I was wondering why nobody came to say hello, when the thought occurred to me, why couldn’t the storms be the little green men.”

Bristow quickly ran a scan across Davenant’s mind. He seemed sane. Or at least he thought himself sane. But the rubbish that he was telling Bristow didn’t sound sane at all. Alright, Bristow had enough of this. It was time to go back, report their status and hope that all the data their suit’s external sensors had gathered from this short trip would be enough scientific fodder for quite a while. Maybe Davenant would sober up once he was out of the UV rays. Perhaps Davenant’s suit wasn’t handling the exposure to the radiation well. And Bristow’s oxygen was depleting from his suit.

Just then, the low buzz began to stalk them again.

“Davenant”, panted Bristow, “I don’t have time for your stupidity. So listen carefully. I’m running out of oxygen. There’s another storm coming towards us. You make it to the pods and get off the surface.”

“I’m not leaving you behind”, said Davenant, stubbornly. Bristow groaned inside his head. This was really not the time for someone to be afflicted with sudden loyalty. “Davenant, please go. Please.”

Davenant refused to budge. The storm was approaching them faster. Didn’t the fool realize that without the pods, he would also be stranded here with Bristow? Waiting for the end, till his oxygen lasted? For a while, Bristow seriously considered using his telepathic powers to coerce Davenant into leaving. The winds grew louder.

“Davenant!” shouted Bristow over the din, “Don’t be stupid! What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

And that was when Davenant did do the stupid thing. He walked right up to the storm. “Saying hello”, was his last transmission as the wind whisked him up into the air and communications died. Bristow was soon pulled into the inexorable vortex, the wind around him whirling at break-neck speeds, the red dust punishing their suits. Bristow’s oxygen levels were rapidly sinking as the dust tore at his suit. He watched for as long as he could. He and Davenant, suspended in mid-air, in the dynamic equilibrium of the harsh winds, sensors failing, klaxons bleeping, the red fading to black……

Bristow didn’t know if he was dead or dreaming. But whatever it was, it was extremely comfortable. It was a state of soothing, calm darkness. He felt warm, secure. He wished to stay in this state of bliss forever. But behind this first impression, Bristow’s conscious, rational mind was already beginning to process some details. Firstly, he was not dead. Dead people didn’t feel anything. Or did they? He had never been dead before to know. Secondly, it was dark.

Ordinarily, Bristow would have panicked, or worried, or drawn his neuro-stunner, or woven conspiracy theories or cursed Davenant. Or done something.

Something cropped up in his mind. It was a small, inquisitive little train of thought that was knocking gently on his mind. Bristow would have died of shock, if he hadn’t already. His mind filled with images of Mars. The images he had seen back on Earth, in textbooks, on data screens, on telemetry graphs, in artist renderings. They passed through his brain like an automated slideshow.

Bristow felt welcomed by that smooth thought again, focusing his mind on the image of Mars.

Home. The blue-green planet. It’s abundance of life. Through some mutual form of understanding, Bristow felt disgust. Bristow, for the first time, felt a sick revulsion thinking of the fond, cherished image of home. And as his mind compared and contrasted with the smooth, blank Martian surface, Bristow began to wonder if the Earth’s fertility was more an uncontrollable disease than a healthy boon.

He began to think of the animals on Earth, of the plants, of the trees, forests, oceans and all that they contained. Instead of pride, he felt a mental equivalent of wrinkling his nose. Wasn’t it just a little too crowded? A little too warm? And moist? And noisy? His mind began to compare and contrast with the smooth barrenness of the Martian surface. So quiet, so alone. So beautiful.

Was he under alien influence? The same aliens whom he had spent the entire two years believing as hostile? Images of pain and anger and destruction decomposed in his mind. The blank sensation of all-pervading calm filled Bristow again. His rational mind laughed at himself. Were they were trying to say they were peaceful?

Some corner of Bristow’s mind doggedly maintained that he didn’t trust creatures that hid themselves. Disease, pestilence, sickness, infection communicated the fear of the alien thought behind the guiding sensations. He remembered Davenant asking, “Don’t we all have something to hide?” Yes, and in a way, they cherished that hiding. Privacy of mind, of being. Hiding was equivalent to protection. Wasn’t he wearing a spacesuit to protect himself? Why shouldn’t the Martians hide to protect themselves from infection?

Bristow’s rational mind grappled with this means of communication. He tried to think of reaching out, to think of friendship, of bonding, of contact. The curious thought in his head urged him to think more. Bristow tried to more relevant things to continue their lopsided conversation. About Earth, about its beings. About humans. About geography, history, sociology, economy and so on….hoping that he conveyed the right message.

After a while, his train of thought was interrupted with ideas of exoskeletons. Creatures with exoskeletons, scuttling away from the daylight, hiding in the nooks and crannies. Insects with shells, did they not exist on Bristow’s home? Cockroaches and grasshoppers crawled into his brain, fleeing from fear, fleeing from discovery. Bristow found himself thinking of shields, of home, of walls, of covers, of trenches. What was he? A man obsessed with hiding, with being safe. A man behind shields. A man who fretted about being in control. A man who did not take kindly to being far-flung into space. A man who had not the remotest idea why he was here. A man who fled from discovery, who was trying scuttle back into the germ-filled corner he believed, who was trying to hide from the light. And yet, he claimed, he didn’t trust creatures that hid themselves. Didn’t the cockroaches behind refrigerators ever wonder why the humans fled or attacked at the first sight of them?

They were all running away, all trying to hide, all trying to defend themselves. Defense. A concept that Bristow had lived his entire life with. Protection. Security. Fear. His memories flashed back to the biology classes. His lecturer had pulled him up in class for not being unable to classify the given species. “It’s an arthropod, Bristow, or have you been sleeping in class, again?” Bristow remembered the embarrassment which had made him cringe inside. There he was, trying to hide, trying to survive, trying to build a wall of paranoia and arrogance and pessimism to prevent getting hurt. Wasn’t he an arthropod?

Bristow’s rational mind told himself that he was beginning to think rubbish, like Davenant. He was humanoid, he told himself. He was the one firmly grounded in reality. Humanoid, not arthropod. Being a pioneer, not hiding. He sighed inwardly. Had he stooped to the level of borrowing Davenant’s lines?

Perhaps, the spacesuit was a living extension of himself? He began to think of the spacesuit as detachable, as how it had come off his skin. He tried to feel the sensation again, of pulling off the suit, of feeling no pain while doing so, of viewing the suit more as convenience apparel than as a second home.

He began to wonder, why him. Why, out of all the people on that disgusting( if it must be disgusting) blue planet, had he and Davenant been chosen?! Davenant, was he alive? Was he alright? He remembered Davenant’s calm, resolute face as he walked into the storm, his almost certain belief that this was the way to make First Contact. His unshakeable belief that everything was working out alright, that they were great heroes.

Why had Bristow believed that Davenant would die a stupid noble death? He remembered the insect which first ventured out of the nest, out of the filthy darkness under the protection of the soil. The pioneer, the explorer, the unafraid, the curious.

Davenant was always what he said he was. If Davenant called himself human, he was. For once, Bristow felt he was deluding himself, that Davenant had been the one who was grounded in reality all along. Bristow was led to wonder, why was he always paranoid? Hell, he had even suspected Davenant, hadn’t he? “Why are you always so jumpy?” asked the memory of Davenant’s voice. Why, indeed? Survival? Defense? Protection? Exoskeleton? Arthropod?

And why shouldn’t the Martians feel the same? Bristow began to feel new memories fill in his head. The time when Earth was young, when it was like Mars, when it had a constant balance. But then the aberration happened. A combination of molecules and space debris began to propagate its own growth. It multiplied and branched out into varied forms, and began to control the existing balance for itself. Bristow’s mind watched the dinosaurs tear away at the leaves; the algal growths sprout and entrap resources. The balance had been contaminated. Competition was the way the disease propagated itself. Big eat little. Little trying to survive. Survival of the fittest. But even they hadn’t learned. They began to compete with themselves, morphing into more monstrous, more “adaptable” forms.

It had been an act of universal consciousness when the asteroid was marked. Earth was grateful. But even such devastation could not recover the balance it once had. Again, newer, more lethal forms of the disease evolved. Bristow watched them growing into far more resilient and angry beings, wielding the power to destroy the very host that supported their growth and even succeeding in crippling many of the finer ecosystems that supported their origins. Expanding and yet surviving. Not unlike cockroaches taking over complete control of the fridge, moving beyond the very source of sustenance. And some odd thought made him and Davenant feel like the two bold insects that had moved from the fridge to the drawing room. “We didn’t mean to hurt, you, to infect you”, spoke Bristow aloud, into the void.

Like the planet, within each shell was a consciousness. Except that this consciousness was bound only by the physical limitations of the exoskeleton. The planetary consciousness was bound by some understanding of the greater good, the greater expansion, the greater state of being, of existing. No competition. Just balance.

Now he knew why the Martians had tried to hide. He finally knew why some twisted act of fate had brought him and Davenant to Mars. To open his eyes, to re-affirm Davenant’s faith. The entire planet was alive. The storms were sent to intercept them; the dust, to penetrate every fiber and report its alien nuance by means of existing, by means of sensing. The clouds had parted to make their entry easier. Enough dust had gathered at the edge of the cliffs where he and Davenant hung, to make sure that the friction prevented them from being hurt. And even if they had fallen, they would have rolled off the slope of the underground cliff, into probably a cavern which, if they had rolled into it, would find surprisingly non-lethal. The entire red planet had become one little green man. This was life, in a way that Earth could never comprehend existed. Or perhaps it once did, before the limited scope of organic comprehension began to view the universe through its narrow, shortsighted eyes, struggling to understand whatever limited knowledge it could see beyond its own limitations.

For some reason, Bristow began to imagine Davenant trying to disarmingly argue against this omniscient power, smiling away as he tried to extol the virtues of the human race, the ideal diplomat that he was. But some force inside Bristow, began to list their demerits, banking on Bristow’s existing reserves of years of distrust. Davenant’s voice, or thought, or whatever began to bounce off the impenetrable shield of Bristow’s mind.

Davenant tried to attack the shell from another angle, if such a gentle suggestion by so young a boy could be considered an attack. He seemed to be asking Bristow about the space dust. If space itself was a life-from, with every move of it designed to reach some greater form of efficiency, some greater state of existence than before, then shouldn’t the implanting of space, the propagation of organic molecules, of life, of consciousness, of curiosity be considered more a calculated experiment than an accident? Perhaps the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs had been the greater consciousness’ way of clearing the slate, beginning a fresh start? After all, the species that evolved from that disaster were much different than those that had existed before. Maybe this was all somehow part of the greater plan? Bristow could feel Davenant’s philosophical tone again.

A thought inside Bristow fed off his confusion of the creature he knew existed as Davenant. So open, so unafraid. Bristow found his mind re-analyzing Davenant. What were his limitations? Where did he demarcate his own shields? Did he even have a protective skeleton at all? Davenant began to extrapolate that all these many years of scientific growth had been propelled by the greater consciousness, hadn’t it? And if they were really all that powerful and felt displeased with life on Earth, wouldn’t they have destroyed the planet? Hadn’t the measly, puny, organic astronomers on Earth seen with their own eyes, the awesome power of the universe? That they had survived thus far was only a testament that they were not an aberration; they were the next step to growth.

Davenant opened his mind further, projecting images of humans on Mars, of binding together the solar system and the universe in a form of physical reality, in a form of pushing the boundaries of safety, of security, evolving beyond the exoskeleton.

Bristow and the alien intelligence also realized why Davenant was special. He could penetrate anyone’s shield. To Davenant, whether it was Bristow or the Martian intelligence, he could always get under their skin, under their shields, explore beyond their exoskeleton. His openness made him invincible. His evidently benign demeanor made him insidious. One could not deny Davenant. He was right. No matter how much a person fought with Davenant’s ideas and views, he would always have that person over on his side. Whether it was his affable charm, or strength of intelligence, Davenant did not have adversaries. He was a greater telepathic manipulator than Bristow or any alien intelligence could ever be, simply because he trusted, he believed. He had faith, for whatever use that was to him.

And if the hardened Bristow gave into it, after nearly two years of close company, did this alien intelligence really think it could hold out long enough? The more Bristow tried to cave himself in, tried to protect himself from Davenant’s all-engulfing openness, the more the claustrophobic consciousness tried to venture out. Bristow couldn’t tell when he realized that Davenant had coaxed the being into a mellow concordance.

The alien being that had initiated First Contact with Bristow, slowly gave up on him, releasing his mental shields, leaving him every bit as intact as exposed. One could only show the cockroach what the world beyond the muck was. After that, it was up to the cockroach to grow himself. Davenant had succeeded in the mission. The Martians understood them, even if they would still have a hard time accepting them. They had studied them and their technology long enough. It was time for them to leave……

Bristow heard the dull thump of the pod attach itself to the ship’s docking station. He didn’t know whether he was asleep or not. But he realized that he was back inside his space-suit, though the oxygen was almost completely out, and that what he had experienced was not a dream, and he was extremely relieved to discover that he was back on the ship, with full control of all his faculties. He tried to remember when the conversation ended, when they latched back on to the pods and returned. The Martian surface from the ship’s windows seemed deceptively peaceful. Like a shield that was hiding the turmoil beneath.

Some part of Bristow’s mind poked himself. The alien being had used him. He had become the damned Martian spy that he was perpetually accusing Davenant of being. But the consciousness within the mental shield refused to acknowledge that something had penetrated it. Or maybe it had?

The first sound he heard was Davenant’s voice, gushing with excitement, “We made first contact, Bristow! We succeeded! Can you imagine them talking about us back home? They’ll say to themselves, They made it despite the hardships! Contact with aliens! Finally, we are not alone!”

The ship began to register a faint, buzzed beeping. A human voice was earnestly saying, “…..this is Earth…..out of range for……acknowledge…..”

Clearly Davenant had the thrill of his life. Without even taking off his suit, he ran towards the communications grid, accelerating in the low gravity, bumping into all sorts of corners, sending parts of ship components levitating in mid-air, in his wake.

“Hi! Hi! We’re back! We spoke to them! They spoke to us! They were not hostile!”

Davenant was unable to contain his excitement, and therefore losing coherence on a weak transmission.

“Dave…..Davenant?” asked a particularly raspy voice at the other end of the grid, “Are you alive?”

“Alive?! Are you kidding me? I’ve never felt more alive!”

“That’s…….. good news, Ensign Davenant……..”, said the unmistakable voice of his field commander.

“Yes, sir. Mission successful, sir. Contact has been established with the non-hostile. Sir.” Added Davenant lamely, his enthusiasm rapidly compressing itself, trying to sound professional and not like a three-year-old on the moon.

“…..Bristow, you there?……”

“Right here, sir.”

“How did….it go?”

“Very well, sir.”

“What are the……Martians like?”

He and Davenant exchanged looks. The nature of their communication was not so easy to explain. How was he supposed to communicate vocally the awe-inspiring power of what had just happened, of what Davenant had done? Bristow struggled for words. Finally, he gave up.

“The Martians are arthropods, sir.”

 

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