• Published 15th Jan 2020
  • 809 Views, 89 Comments

In From The Cold - Cackling Moron



Twilight's prized pupil finds something in space.

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#4

And so it was that an away party was organised.

This wasn’t unusual. There had been a few occasions during their expedition so far that had required a quick trip down to the surface of a planet - collect actual, physical samples, investigate something that looked anomalous from orbit, etcetera - but this time it was a touch different.

Primarily because this time Nova was insistent on going down herself, rather than allowing delegation to flow around her like a river of responsible leadership. She was also insisting that Blithe come, because while she trusted in her own abilities she had an equal amount of trust in his presence to act as a balance to her, say, blindspots.

“Typically speaking - you know, just thinking about the guidelines and all - someone from the chain of command is supposed to stay onboard. Just a suggestion,” Xide said, once this became something on which she was refusing to budge.

Now that he mentioned it she could kind of see he had a point. Not enough of a point to make her want to change her mind, however. She thought about it a moment.

“Xide?” She suggested, pointing at him. His lights blinked but, again, this meant nothing to Nova, though his bobbing in the air certainly suggested being taken aback.

“I’m not part of the chain of command, I’m an advisor. Your advisor, specifically. I have explained this,” he said.

“Bah, sure, if you want to keep that up. Fine, uh…”

Nova looked about, tried to remember who came after Blithe in the chain of things and who she could also trust to be in charge of things in her absence. Her eyes - and brain - settled on the obvious choice, Third Choice, a pony who had been chomping at the bit to be given something to oversee ever since the trip had started.

“Alright, Third Choice, you’re up,” Nova said, pointing.

Third Choice, feeling the hoof of fate upon his shoulder, stood up straighter than he ever had in his life.

“It is my DESTINY!” He declared.

“Thought you’d be happy. Alright, chop chop, let’s do it to it.”

In short order equipment was put together, the shuttle stocked with whatever provisions would be required for the people it would be hosting for the next few days, and everyone involved suited up.

The suits were important. They were especially important on those worlds they’d touched down on which were unfriendly to life, and while this particular planet appeared to be very friendly indeed to life the suits remained important.

Nova gave a speech on this very subject to all members of the away party as the shuttle descended, knowing she had a captive audience and that, with all the bumping, most of them would want a distraction anyway, and listening to her was as good as any.

“Now I don’t care how nice it looks or how safe your readings say it is - when you are outside the shuttle these suits stay on, okay? We are taking samples of everything and we are checking everything and only once we are sure beyond an absolute shadow of a doubt that everything is fine is anyone setting a hoof or claw or whatever on this planet without protection. And even then I ain’t so sure about it. This whole place gives me the heebie-jeebies. Got it?”

A chorus of ‘yes’ from all those gathered.

The shuttle lurched. All the technology in the world could only do so much for entry into the atmosphere.

Swallowing, Nova plunged onwards, as much to distract herself from the horrible bouncing as much as to inform those listening:

“Get samples, get samples of everything. You see something new, take a sample. You see something you think you already got a sample of you get another one just to be sure. I want check-ins every fifteen minutes, alright? Just a tap, just show you’re okay and still alive enough to press a button. And no-one goes off alone, alright? No-one goes off in twos even. You’re in groups, stay in groups. I’m not going back one short, okay?”

This was something everyone could get behind.

The shuttle touched down in an area of gently rolling slopes and grass, being as how this was an excellent place to land a shuttle. Off in one direction were trees, in another some large bodies of water and much, much further away, mountains, but they weren’t so worried about those, at least not yet.

Ensuring that the shuttle itself was properly secure and that every group was properly equipped they all then set out, some in vehicles, some on foot (or, rather, hoof, claw, etcetera). Nova’s own group - containing Blithe and Xide, among others - stuck relatively close to the shuttle, mostly for ease of staying in contact with all the others.

They still had a poke around though, sampling grass, some trees, a hedge or two.

Meanwhile, in orbit, the science vessel continued surveying.

The surveying went uneventfully. From up there nothing appeared out of the ordinary. The place looked fine. Like any other nice, comfortable, life-sustaining planet might be expected to look. No outstanding anomalies, nothing in its geography or geology to raise any undue concerns. Some odd mountains in odd places, but nothing unreasonable or without what could be a fairly simple explanation. All in all it was perfectly and completely lovely.

Creepy as anything.

It did not take long for it to be noticed that the whole ecosystem was a bit off.

There were trees and grass and a few other plants (like the hedge), yes, but that was it. There might have been a lot of them, but it was just the same tree or the same type of grass or same bush or same daisy-like flower over and over again across the whole planet. Clones, basically. And none of them seemed to really have any relation to the other, as though they’d been put there rather than developed there. Just a bunch of random clones.

There were gaps, not links. Pieces, not a joined and inter-related system. Whole forests of the same tree. Not linked, not one of those types of tree that spread to form whole groves. Just copies, no competition. Like someone had tried to cover up with quantity the fact that they were missing a few important pieces. Like animals, for one.

They weren’t the only things missing, either.

“There’s no insects,” Blithe said, coming up beside Nova as she glared out across the landscape which was being aggressively pleasant to look at.

Nova was beyond being surprise at this point.

“Of course there aren’t. No animals, no insects. It’s not like that’s flatly impossible or anything,” she said with a sigh.

“Maybe the flora here evolved without insects?” Blithe suggested.

“There are flowers!”

Blithe tried to think of an argument that could be made for the existence of flowers where nothing was around to be attracted to them. There were good ones, of course, as flowers weren’t exclusively there to attract insects or animals. Just mostly. Mainly.

But then again, what Nova was referring to was to the field of daisies they were standing next to. Explicit, obvious, impossible-to-mistake-for-anything-other-than-daisies daisies. Which was kind of hard to argue around.

“...okay, yeah, that’s a little weird. But it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility. There might be an explanation,” Blithe said.

“I’m sure it’s a fantastic one,” Nova said, dripping sarcasm. This went far, far over Blithe’s head because he’d been stood far back when the sarcasm had been handed out, and didn’t really get how it worked. He just smiled and said:

“Well it’d have to be fantastic! By definition, I mean.”

Same word, two ways you could come at it from. Nova looked at Blithe sideways, or at least as best she could in her suit.

“You know what I mean,” she said. “Impossibilities aside this place is so-far turning out to be basically perfect. Atmosphere is about as comfortable as you could make it if you tried on purpose, nothing around that seems to want to kill us, no bacteria or anything lurking around to rot us from the inside-out - place is perfect.”

“That’s good,” Blithe said. Nova pouted inside her helmet.

“It’s weird!”

She brooded angrily on this point for some moments, and Blithe was formulating something so didn’t immediately reply. When he did, he came back with:

“If it turns out that the planet is suitable for colonisation do you think...”

He didn’t finish, perhaps out of fear that fully voicing the question might jinx it. Nova stopped brooding and sighed, kind of wishing she could rub her face. Helmets were a ballache sometimes.

“Right now I’m not thinking anything. Well, that’s a lie, I’m thinking lots of things, but not that. Let’s just focus on right in front of us right now, hmm? No use getting our hopes up this early,” she said.

“Good idea, Captain.”

Work continued, at least until, some time later, Blithe got Nova’s attention again.

“Going to be dark in an hour or two, Captain,” he said. Nova thought about this for a second.

“Get everyone in now,” she said.

Who knew what happened after dark? Maybe that was when all the really bad stuff started.

“Aye aye, Captain,” Blithe said, trotting off to communicate this.

Recalling everyone took perhaps an hour, tops, some groups having gone a far way away, but all seemed pretty happy to be coming back and made good time.

Nova was the last one back into the shuttle, waiting until everyone else had entered before following and bringing up the rear. Seemed the Captain-y thing to do to her, not that she knew for sure one way or the other.

By the time she was in and had sealed the doors behind her most of the crew had already shuffled off down the corridor of the shuttle to the mess or their bunk or for a shower or what have you, but enough were dawdling for Nova to feel it not a complete waste of time to speak up:

“Alright everyone. We’ll be sticking around on the surface another day or two just to be sure, make sure we didn’t miss anything so we don’t have to- wait wait, shh,” Nova said, stopping. Everyone else stopped too and listened.

Nothing. Then, a tapping sound. Tap tap tap. Then nothing again.

Nova swallowed.

“Is something...knocking at the door?” She asked.

No-one answered this, but there was another knock at the door so they didn’t really need to. Nova looked around but all she got from this was learning that everyone was looking at her. This was one of those times when being the captain wasn’t ideal. Ideally you’d want someone else in charge at a moment like this.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t how things had shaken out.

“Ugh, fine, bold leadership. I can do that,” Nova said to herself, hopping down off the chair and marching towards the shuttle door, only flinching a little bit where there was another burst of louder tapping.

“They’re persistent, whoever they are. I’ll give them that. Do we have any weapons on this shuttle?” She asked.

“We have one weapon,” said Blithe, so far the only other member of the crew to have moved a muscle.

The Hegemony was not big on weapons. They had famously big weapons on their famously scary ships and understood the importance of weapons in a general sense, but this remained something of a point of embarrassment for them. Ideally they’d prefer that no-one had weapons at all, but they were aware that this was unlikely to occur anytime soon.

At a nod from Nova one of the crew brought forward the single on-board weapon. It looked functional enough, if a little awkward given it was a generic all-purpose all-species model so had been made as broadly ergonomic as possible - good for hooves, good for tentacles, good for whatever!

Did make it look a little ridiculous on the user-end. The business end was less of a joke, though. If you found yourself looking down that end you’d likely know you’d made a mistake somewhere.

“Better than nothing I suppose. Give it here,” said Nova, gesturing for the weapon to be handed over. It was not, not immediately. The crewmember shifted uneasily.

“Captain?” They asked.

“I’m the Captain, I’ll open the door,” Nova said.

This was not really the right way to do things but it was the way that Nova was going to do things.

“You’re going to open the door?!” Blithe sputtered.

Annoyed at the lack of progress and keen to cover up the thrumming and mounting sense of fear building in her gut Nova growled and swiped the weapon out of the crewmember’s grasp.

“Someone knocks on your door on a planet you thought was uninhabited you open the door!” She said. Blithe gawped at her as though she’d lost her mind.

“Have you never seen a film?!” He asked.

“Oh give me that,” Nova snapped, snatching the weapon from the crewmember and marching up to the door, squaring herself as she did so. Had to project confidence, even as she felt less and less of it the closer to the door she got.

“Captain! I don’t think this is a good idea!” Blithe protested, albeit a safe distance from the doors and from Nova herself.

“Tell me about it. Write me up later,” Nova said through gritted teeth.

The inner door - an affair with a lot more glass (or glass-analogue) in it than the outer door - opened and Nova stepped into the airlock. The inner door then closed behind her, sealing with a hiss.

“Could just be the wind, please just be the wind…” She said to herself, clutching the weapon with one hoof, tapping keys to open the outer door with a field.

A pause while things cycled. The outer door opened.

And standing there, casual as anything, was an alien the likes of which Nova had never seen before and one not wearing any kind of environmental gear, either. Kind of big, kind of lanky, dressed for the sunny weather, standing on two legs and looking back at her with two beady little eyes.

“Knock knock,” said the alien, waving a hand. Nova waved back, without really thinking about it. Her brain had sort of just stopped at the sheer impossibility of the situation. She’d even forgotten to point the weapon at anything other than the floor. She’d forgotten she even had it.

Not that the alien seemed to mind the fact she was holding it in the first place. Assuming it even noticed. The alien nodded and cleared its throat and said:

“Hello and welcome to the planet. If we’re going to get along it’ll be best if we agree to some house rules as early as possible. Never had guests before but structure is important, I think. One, you should never - uh - “

The alien paused midway through extending a thumb to start counting off, only just having actually stopped to look at the crew of the shuttle stood staring at them through the inner door. Only Nova was properly in view, but that seemed enough to have disrupted the thing’s train of thought. It cocked its head.

“Uh,” it said again. “This might sound like an odd question but you wouldn’t happen to be colourful ponies and dragons and stuff in dinky little space suits, would you?”

All Hegemony spacesuits had helmets of the ‘solid material, flat angles, retractable bits and with many redundant cameras’ design, allowing those wearing them complete and unimpeded fields of view without the troublesome risk of cracking one’s helmet on a rock and dying. Did mean that you couldn’t look someone face-to-face while wearing one, but so what?

Also didn’t do much to disguise the shape of a pony’s head, either. Ears and such. And Nova’s case a horn, too. And that’s not getting onto the overall pony shape in general. You couldn’t really hide that.

Nova could only nod dumbly, brain still not quite fully recovered.

The alien looked, for all that Nova could see, surprised to hear this. It blinked and seemed to struggle for what to say next, eventually settling on:

“Wow, holy shit. Never thought we’d see you guys again.”

Author's Note:

Knock knock.

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