Holsten was taken aback by the number of people who had gathered to hear the news. The Gilgamesh was short of auditoriums, so the venue was a converted shuttle bay, bare and echoing. He wondered if the absent shuttles were currently clamped to the derelict station, or whether this was where he and Lain had been kidnapped and brought to by the mutineers. All the bays looked the same, and any damage had presumably been repaired by now.
In his solitary labours he had lost track of just how many people had been woken up to assist with the reclamation effort. At least a hundred were sitting around the hangar, and he was struck with an almost phobic response to them: too many, too close, too enclosed. He ended up hovering next to the doorway, realizing that some part of his mind had resigned itself to a future of dealing only with a few other humans, and had perhaps preferred that.
And why are we all here, anyway? There was no actual requirement for physical attendance, after all. He himself could have continued his work and watched Vitas’s presentation on a screen, or had her warbling away in his ear. Nobody needed to shift their pounds of flesh over here just to trust to their antiquated eyes and ears. Vitas herself had no practical need to give a presentation in person. Even back home, this sort of academic status-mongering had been conducted at a distance, most of the time.
So why? And why did I come? Looking over the crowd gathered there, hearing the murmur of their excited conversation, he could speculate that many of them must have come just to be sociable, to be with their fellows. But that’s not me, is it?
And he realized that it was, of course. He was tethered inextricably to a social species, however much he might fancy himself as a loner. There was, even in Holsten, a desire to interact with other human beings, preserving a bond between himself and everyone else here. Even Vitas was present not for scholarly prestige or for status amongst the crew, but because she needed to reach out and know there was something she could reach out to.
Looking over the crowd, Holsten could see few familiar faces. Aside from Vitas’s own science team, most of Key Crew were occupied on the station, and almost everyone here had last opened their eyes way back on Earth, so could know nothing of Kern or the green planet or its terrible inhabitants save what they were told, or from what unclassified material was available in the Gil’s records. Whilst it was true that a lot of them were young, it was the knowledge gap that made him feel old, as though he had been awake for centuries longer than they, rather than just a few strung-out days passed in another solar system.
Guyen had found a place at the back, keeping similarly aloof, and now Vitas stepped forward, precise and fastidious, looking over her audience as though not entirely sure she had come into the right room.
The screen her team had installed, taking up much of the wall behind her, shifted from a dead to a lambent grey. Vitas regarded it critically, and then managed a thin smile.
“As you know, I have been overseeing a survey of the planet that we are currently in orbit around. It seems unarguable now,” and she was good enough to throw a tiny nod Holsten’s way, “that we have arrived at one of a string of terraforming projects that the Old Empire was pursuing immediately before its dissolution. The previous project we saw was complete, and under a quarantine imposed for unknown purposes by an advanced satellite. As we are discovering, work at our current location appears to have been arrested during the terraforming process itself, and the control facility abandoned. I am aware that Engineering has been
undertaking the formidable task of investigating that facility, whilst I have been investigating the planet itself to see if it might serve us in any fashion as a home.”
There was nothing in this clipped, dry delivery to give any clue as to her conclusions, if conclusions there were. This was not showmanship or a desire for suspense, simply that Vitas considered herself a pure scientist first and foremost, and would report positive and negative results with equal candour without judging the value or desirability of the outcome. Holsten was familiar with that particular academic school, which had grown more and more popular towards the end on Earth, as positive results became harder to find.
Vitas looked out over the gathering, and Holsten tried to interpret her expression, her body language, anything to get an idea of where this was going. Do we stay here? Are we heading onwards? Are we going back? That last possibility was his major concern, for he was one of the very small number who had first-hand experience of Kern’s green world.
The screen brightened, grey to grey to grey, and then there was the curve of a dark horizon, and they were now looking at the grey planet.
“As you’ll have remarked, the surface of this planet seems curiously uniform. Spectrographic analysis, however, shows abundant organic chemistry: all the elements we might need to survive,” Vitas told them. “We dropped a pair of drones as soon as we had established a high orbit. The images that you will be seeing are all taken from drone camera. The colours are the true colours, with no touching-up or artistic licence.”
Holsten wasn’t seeing any colours, unless grey counted, but as sunrise crept across the orb displayed before him he saw contours, shadows: indications of mountains, basins, channels.
“As you can see, this planet is geologically active, which may have been a prerequisite for the Empire’s terraforming. We don’t know whether this is simply because, of all the Earth-like qualities they wished to find in a new world, that would be the most difficult to fabricate—perhaps outright
impossible—or alternatively that they have, indeed, instilled that quality into the planet at an early stage. Hopefully the recovered information from the station will give us an idea of how they went about the process. It is within the bounds of possibility that one day we ourselves may be able to duplicate the feat.” And there was at least a hint there that Vitas was feeling a little excited by the thought. Holsten was sure her voice lifted a semitone, that one of her eyebrows even twitched.
“You can see here the drone readings of the basic conditions planetside,” Vitas continued. “So: gravity around eighty per cent of Earth’s, a slow rotation giving around a four-hundred-hour diurnal cycle. Temperature is high, bearable around the poles, survivable in northern latitudes, but probably not within human tolerance towards the equator. You’ll note that oxygen levels are only around five per cent, so no easy home here, I’m afraid. A salutary lesson nonetheless, as you will see.”
The image shifted to a much closer view of the surface, with the drones flying far lower, and a ripple went through the audience; one of bafflement, disquiet. The grey was alive.
The entire surface, as far as the drone camera could register, was covered in a dense interlaced vegetation, grey as ashes. It feathered out into fern-like fronds that arched over each other, spreading hand-like folds to catch the sunlight. It erupted into phallic towers that were warty with buds or fruiting bodies. It covered the mountains to their very tips. It formed a thick, grey fur on every visible surface. The image shifted, and shifted, and Vitas noted different locations, with an inset global map showing where the views were taken from. The details of the view, however, barely changed.
“What you are looking at is best thought of as a fungus,” the science chief explained. “This solitary species has colonized the entire planet, pole to pole and at every altitude. Scans of the underlying ground—as overlain here—show that the actual topography of the planet is as varied as one might expect of a substitute Earth—there are sea basins but no seas,
river valleys but no rivers. Investigation suggests that there is a planet’s worth of water bound up in that organism you see before you. And it may even be a single organism. There’s no obvious division observable. It appears capable of some manner of photosynthesis, despite the colour, but the low oxygen levels suggest this is chemically distinct from anything we’re familiar with. It’s not known whether this pervasive species is somehow an intended part of the terraforming process, or if it was the result of an error, and its irremovable presence led the engineers to abandon their work, or whether it has arisen after that abandonment—the natural by-product of a part-completed job. In any event, I think it safe to say that the stuff is there to stay. This is now its world.”
“Can it be cleared?” someone asked. “Can we burn it back, or something?”
Vitas’s outward calm had at last been ruffled. “Good luck burning anything with that little oxygen,” she tutted. “Besides, I am recommending no further investigation of this planet. By the time we had established the position down there, and conducted some exploratory research, the drones were beginning to show signs of reduced functionality. We kept them going for as long as we were able, but both of them eventually ceased working altogether. The air down there is virtually a spore soup, new fungal colonies looking to sprout on any fresh surface that becomes exposed. Which reminds me, with all the excitement within this system and the last, we need to construct more drones in the workshops once the resources are available. We have very few of them left.”
“Granted,” Guyen replied, from the back. “Get onto it. I think we can assume this place isn’t going to be our home any time soon,” he added. “But that’s not going to be a problem. Our priority is to gather everything we can from the station, file it, translate it, and work out what we can put into action. At the same time we’re undertaking a major overhaul of the Gilgamesh’s own systems, repairing and replacing where we can. There’s a lot of useable tech on that station, if we can find a way to splice it to our own. And don’t worry about not being
able to go live on Fungus World. I have a plan. There is a plan. With what we’ve found here, we can go and take our birthright.” The speech veered into the messianic so abruptly that even Guyen himself seemed surprised for a moment, but then he turned and departed, curious conversation welling up in his wake.