Captain Hector Nandez couldn’t help himself. His dark eyes moistened as he looked out the window of the Colonia Nueve. No long-distant imager was needed. The planet Verde Grande shone like a great shining emerald in front of him.
At last, after eleven years of traveling at trans-light seven, the Earth colonists had arrived at the planet his grandfather, Emilio Nandez, had discovered almost a century ago. Suspecting conditions on the planet were favorable for life, Emilio had convinced the Western Hem’s colonization council to send an auto-ship on a scouting mission. What the ship found exceeded even Emilio’s wildest dreams.
Even though the planet had one small continent above sea level, it offered an interesting geological formation: a huge fissure that split the continent in half. Millions of years ago, the planet’s tectonic plates had formed a mountain range, leaving two valleys on either side. Dark green moss covered the thousands of canyons of the planet’s large valley, which was thousands of kilometers in length and stretched for hundreds of kilometers in width.
Rivers, some a kilometer or more wide, and others narrow enough for a man to jump across, ran through the canyons, which split off from the large valley like branches on a tree. Spectacular waterfalls fell thousands of feet to the valleys below.
On the other side of the huge mountain range, far taller than anything found on Earth, was a much narrower valley that had been created over millennia by a river that coursed through it. The narrow valley looked to be rich in mineral deposits, though it would be a challenge to navigate. Seeing an excellent opportunity to set up an agrist and mining colony on one world, the colonization council dispatched a bioforming party to study the terrain and release Earth flora and fauna.
Hector could see the bioformers had outdone themselves. Almost every Earth species they had planted or released had flourished. Giant pines spread up the mountains. In the valleys, grasses, ferns and wild flowers were everywhere. Dozens of tree species had grown into thick forests, exploding in different shades of green. The planet was named Verde Grande, meaning grand green one in old Earth Espanol.
Hector’s concentration was broken by a slap on the shoulder from Lar Vonn, the ship’s chief security officer.
“I bet you can’t wait to get down there,” Lar said, studying Hector’s face.
“I didn’t think I would feel this way,” Hector said shaking his head, feeling a bit embarrassed at being caught in an emotional moment. “My grandfather and father dreamed of visiting this place. They were denied the chance because the bioforming wasn’t complete.”
“Bureaucrats,” Lar snarled. “Verde Grande was ready for colonization fifty years ago. They should have gotten the chance to see this.”
“Well, at least we made it. No problems after the longest colonization flight in history,” Hector smiled, looking at his friend, a smallish but muscular man with sandy blond hair and bright blue-green eyes “How are the sleepers doing?”
“They are all a bit groggy,” Lar said of the two thousand colonists, many of whom had been in deep sleep for more than eighteen months.
“All those bodies, colonists and crew members, awake at once will create chaos. I’m accustomed to the two hundred who were awake at one time,” said Lar.
Hector nodded, remembering the three times he had awakened from transport sleep — the headaches, blurred vision and uncooperative muscles. All crew members and colonists were required to go under this deep sleep for the majority of the trip. The ship was equipped to sustain only about two hundred awake humans at one time. Hector had used his captain’s prerogative of staying awake through at least half the trip.
“Permission to take a scout flyer on a test run,” Lar said, his square face breaking into a smile.
Surprised, Hector looked at Lar. “And who would you suggest as crew for the scout?” Hector grinned, already knowing the answer.
“I think only a couple of senior crew members could be trusted for this mission,” Lar said with fake military propriety. “We would need a capable pilot, captain. Got any suggestions, sir?”
“Do you think we should?” Hector said, while rising from his seat and heading for the door.
“You’re the captain. Who’s going to tell you no?”
“Well, you could object, Security Chief Vonn,” Hector said.
“We’ve scoped the planet and nearby star systems. It’s all clear as far as we can tell,” Lar replied.
“Any biologists and geologists awake?” Hector asked. “If so, find a few and let’s take that scout out. Maybe test its landing and takeoff capabilities from the planet. Just a test mind you,” he said with a wide grin.
“They are already standing by. We can be off as soon as you are ready captain,” Lar said, turning to head out the door. He did not wait to see the surprised look on his captain’s face.
* * * * *
Hector steered the flyer into narrow canyons, avoiding outcroppings and peaks by mere meters. Years of waiting for the opportunity to visit Verde Grande and all that time cooped up in the transport ship were released as he swooped down on the planet like a bird of prey chasing its next meal.
“Nice flying, captain,” Lar said, not bothering to disguise his amusement when they had landed. “Scouts handle a bit differently than deep-space transports, don’t they?”
Hector couldn’t help but laugh. “I missed that mountain peak by at least fifty meters. Got to remember not to judge by sight.”
Lar shook his head and glanced at the other twelve crew members, who looked a bit green after the wild ride to the surface.
“I’m not sure, captain. Geologist Bergmann, fainted and Biologist Ensgstrom, just vomited behind those bushes.”
“They’ll be fine,” Hector said hoping to convince himself more than Lar.
“Permission to fly the scout back to the Colonia Nueve, captain. I — um — could use the practice,” Lar said saluting.
Hector started to deny the request, but glanced at the crew. Instead of scurrying around the planet, most were hunched over or sitting on the ground and eyeing him a bit warily.
“Permission granted,” he said with a sigh. “I’m glad you want to brush up on your pilot skills, security chief.
“Thank you, sir,” Lar smiled. That confirmation was the remedy the rest of the crew needed. They were soon on their feet and exploring the countryside.
* * * * *
After her stomach stopped churning and the throbbing in her head eased, Nira Engstrom attempted to slip away on a quick fact-finding mission.
“May I join you?” asked Wald Bergmann, the geologist. “I didn’t enjoy the captain’s ride any more than you did. Besides, my interest lies over this mountain. I would be happy to act as a look out.”
Nira started to make an excuse then remembered the captain’s orders to travel in pairs and report in every fifteen minutes. She didn’t mind the company. “Of course, geologist. You can keep me from getting lost.”
“Please call me Wald. My talents at finding our way back will rely on GPS and communicators, I’m afraid,” he said with a grin.
The plants and trees fascinated Nira. Barely a century old, the deciduous tree were huge — some were dozens of meters tall. Their limbs stretched out with thick limbs and large leaves created canopies. In the shaded areas, huge ferns blanked the forest floors.
Birds chirped and flitted by. Some of the species were almost unrecognizable. They sported unique color variations to blend in with the new environment. Even their songs and calls were different than what she had studied.
“What a dream to see this,” she said. “Thousands of years of evolution accomplished in so short a time.”
“I’m no biologist, but I don’t recognize any of these birds,” Wald said.
“The adaptor gene has helped the species here thrive,” Nira explained. “What a wonderful tool to speed up bio-forming.” She stopped to take notes and vids on her micro recorder.
“Ah yes, the biologists’ holy grail,” he said. “Since it doesn’t affect the geology of a world, I haven’t concerned myself over it.” Wald noticed Nira’s shocked look after hearing his admission. “I do find it interesting,” he added quickly. “Please educate me, Nira.”
“This is only the second colony planet to have adaptor species seeded on it,” she explained. “It looks like it has been a marvelous success. The gene is implanted in first-generation plants and animals to help them evolve and thrive in new worlds. You called it our holy grail. Yes, Earth scientists believe they have unlocked the key to evolution. This gene is triggered by stresses to its host. It expresses itself by producing changes to react to those stresses in following generations.”
“It works this quickly?” Wald said, jumping out of the way when something that resembled a rabbit bolted out of the underbrush.
The dark brown spotted creature was smaller than most wild rabbits on Earth. It’s round ears lay flat as it scampered away in a blur.
“Apparently so,” Nira said laughing. “In animals, the gene helps produce longer legs for chasing prey or escaping predators. Plants develop wider and different colorations to allow them to make use of the different amounts of sunlight and moisture.”
“Larger predators?” Wald asked, fingering his energy-pulse weapon.
“Don’t worry, there shouldn’t be any monsters lurking about,” Nira said. “To control wild evolutionary swings, scientists encrypted a terminator marker, which dilutes the adaptor gene after ten generations. It was designed as a survival tool.”
Nira’s smile changed to a look of concern as she and Wald topped a hill. Below them, the valley widened as two rivers flowed together. What captured her attention were the hundreds of birds and other carrion feeders gathered in one area. Using her power-binos, she gasped, sunk to her knees, and let out a heart-breaking sob.
“We have to go down there and investigate,” Wald said frowning after looking through her binos. “Even I know that many dead animals can’t be natural.”
* * * * *
“Tell me what you found, biologist,” Hector commanded Nira after she and Wald rejoined the landing party.
“Yes, captain,” Nira said. “After we were feeling better…” She stopped with an embarrassed silence. Wald shifted on his feet, not wanting to make eye contact with the captain.
“Go on, Nira. Nothing to worry about. Security Chief Vonn already scolded me.”
Nira smiled then continued with her report. “After we felt better, we walked over a rise to get a better look at the valley. I saw an unusual number of carrion eaters, especially birds, gathered in one spot — hundreds,” the biologist said, shaking her head. “That meant there was a big kill down there. We went to investigate.”
“A big kill?” Hector asked.
“Yes, captain. Hundreds of skins and bones were scattered around a large bend in the river. It’s such a waste,” she said, her green eyes filling with tears. “Many of the carcasses only had heads, claws, or fangs removed. Some were skinned. And…” she paused, fright taking over where there had been anger.
“What else?” Hector asked, getting impatient.
“Scorch marks in the earth, captain,” Wald said frowning.
Hector glanced at the geologist, the little man with short, scruffy brown hair and a pinched face was employed by Universal Mineral.
“The scorch marks were made by a lander,” Nira said. “Humans have been here, probably killing everything they could find. They left such a mess.” She frowned.
This time it was Hector’s turn to look worried as a shiver ran through his body. He turned to Lar.
The security chief scowled. “Tanlians, captain. I don’t know who else would land, plunder like this, and leave.”
“No permanent structures were built, just some temporary huts, skinning racks and smoke pits. They weren’t here long,” Wald said.
“But they know about the planet. They’ve been here and they may well come back,” Hector said, combing his fingers through his thick black hair. “How long has it been since they’ve been here?”
“From the looks of the decaying carcasses, three to four lunar cycles,” Nira said. Wald nodded in agreement.
“We need our defenses set up quickly, and we need to find shelter sites for our people. Get those colonists awake and ready to work,” Hector commanded as they rushed back to the scout flyer.