The first few hours are still a bit hazy. So much had happened, and so quickly, that it is hard to remember the exact order. What I can say is that our ship, the Scorpion, had encountered a massive gravitational anomaly and was nearly ripped apart within a matter of minutes. What that anomaly was soon became obvious as a planet – approximately the size of Venus – had virtually materialized directly behind us. How was such a thing possible? I could not explain it. How did our sensors miss it?
Nevertheless, we were forced to abandon the Scorpion, scuttling it before the final shuttle left so that the ruined hull did not crash into the surface of the very planet whose gravity caused its demise. It was protocol. We could not risk the danger of it landing in an inhabited area, if such a thing existed.
As far as we could tell, given the limited sensors’ available on the shuttle, we were the only ones to successfully make it away. Of the Scorpion’s complement of fifty-six crew members, only the five of us remained. The shuttle that we had used to escape and lurch our way to the planet’s surface suffered damage beyond repair. She would never leave the ground again, but that was not much of an issue seeing as how we had no mothership to return to.
My name is Lieutenant Clark Reynold. Former lieutenant that is since, as the senior surviving officer, I was now Commander. My fellow survivors were Lieutenant Indira Rashmi, our science officer; Chief of operations Tanner Grover; and crew members Masaru Kazuo and Serina Wren: two frightened kids whose first mission would turn out to be their last.
After gathering what sparse supplies were aboard the derelict shuttle, we walked for days in the direction of the rising sun – deciding that “east” would be the course we would take. We had seen no structures or cities on our way down so “east “was as good as any, so long as we maintained a steady course.
We encountered insects, birds, and some reptiles and small mammals. But no signs of sentient beings.
Stopping to allow the crewmen a chance to rest, Lieutenant Rashmi stood with her hands on her hips and turned in circles, taking in our surroundings. “This place is a botanist’s dream, Commander. No higher lifeforms yet but… just look at the incredible diversity of flora! I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“That says a lot,” I muttered, “given the extent of your travels. Scorpion was going to be your last deployment, wasn’t it?”
She sighed and switched to the diminutive. “Looks like it will be my last, Clark.”
We walked for days on end. Fortunately, there was plenty of fresh water available and, with Dr. Rashmi’s approval, we were able to sample some of the local fruits and vegetables. It would subsidize our meager food rations until we could find some sort of permanent solution.
Days… that presented a dilemma. At first, we continued to use ship’s time but the nice thing about being on a planet – any planet – was the sunrise and sunset. At Indira’s suggestion, I dictated that we would drop the use of ship’s time until it proved necessary again. We started to accustom ourselves to the planet’s days and nights. Until Crewman Wren made an observation.
“Yes Serina?” I had given up the use of formal titles – what was the point – and I was hoping that the rest of the crew would catch on eventually. Who were we kidding? We were no longer on a starship. Nor would we ever be again. We were civilians now.
Serina screwed up her face. “I know that you said we’d no longer use ship’s time, but I’ve still been keeping track. Just until we can make some sense of days and nights on this planet.”
“Not a bad idea, Wren. Is there a problem?”
“Yes, sir. There doesn’t seem to be any definable logic as to when the sun rises or sets. The lengths of days and nights vary. In fact, the sun seems to come up in a different place each day. I’ve been watching that, also. Some mornings, it’s a few degrees east. Others, a few degrees west.”
“Thanks for letting me know, Serina. We’ll keep an eye on that.”
“Yes sir, Commander.” She saluted and began to leave.
“Wren!” I called out as she started away, “Let’s not be so formal anymore. Please… call me Clark.”
She looked a bit stricken but, eyes lowered, she said “Yes, sir. I mean… Sure thing, Clark.”
In respect of Serina’s discovery we returned to ship’s time for a bit. Just for the important things. And one hit us soon after. It was mid-day and hot. We were just cresting a hill and stopped at the top for a drink. Most of us were too preoccupied with the heat and fatigue to notice, but Tanner, hailing from Australia, seemed to think that it was a refreshingly cool day. He stood and looked about. I could almost see the wheels turning in that engineer’s head of his. He wanted to find a way out. I could tell. But we all knew that was a pipe dream. However, on this particular afternoon, something caught his eye that excited him.
“Yes! Yeah! I knew it! I knew we’d find it!”
“What the hell are you going on about Tanner?”
We all stood and looked in the direction that he had been pointing. The sunlight was gleaming off a structure in the distance. It was undoubtedly large, and clearly far away. It seemed to be made of glass, the way it sparkled in the sun.
“Well, I’ll be…”
Now we had a goal. The structure was far off. Using the rangefinder, we estimated it at about two-hundred kilometers. At least four days travel. But, feeling refreshed, we eagerly changed our tack and headed off in its direction.
We soon ran into one of the Things. Things. That was all we could call them, because we had no idea what purpose they could serve. The first one seemed like a piece of stone sculpture, pink granite, maybe? It was circular in shape and perched on its edge atop a round base of the same type of stone. It was more like a donut than a circle, with a hole in the center made of thicker, smoothly polished stone. The hole was surrounded by a series of horizontal and vertical lines – also smooth and raised. Yes. A sculpture. But who would place a sculpture in the middle of nowhere?
“Sentience!” Tanner was practically dancing about. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why it’s here. But I do know that it sure as hell isn’t natural!”
He was right. And so, with a renewed spring in our step, we continued on toward the structure.
We made camp that evening after having walked longer than usual. We had purpose now. We were no longer just ambling about. We all slept soundly that night, despite our excitement. It was partially because we had worn ourselves out but also because, for the first time since the crash, we had hope.
“Commander! Commander!” There was a flurry of movement outside my tent. It was Crewman Kazuo.
I awoke startled. I had a covering of very fine vines on my kit bag and the exposed skin of my arms and face, which I quickly brushed off before crawling outside of my zero bag. “Clark, Masaru, I told you…”
“Okay. Clark! Serina is gone.”
“What do you mean, ‘gone?’” I couldn’t help but notice the green strands on some of the others, but it seemed like we had something more important to attend to at the time.
“She was not here when I woke up. Once the Chief got up, the two of us went looking for her, but it’s been hours. There’s no sight of her.”
Well, fuck. You can’t catch a break. Just when things start going well… We searched for twenty-four hours – by ship’s time, not by an estimate, per protocol. Then, despite our personal feelings – and they had become personal now – we decided to move on.
“Look everyone. I know that this is difficult. But we are not leaving her. Serina is a pilot. She knows how to read direction, probably better than all of us, and she knows protocol. She is aware that after twenty-four hours we would resume our mission. So there,”I pointed to the structure which was growing closer and looking larger every day, “There is where she would go. She knows that is where we are headed.”
Everyone saw the logic in that. They probably felt as helpless and saddened as I did, but there was no other choice. Chances really were that Serina headed in that direction. I could not think of a reason that she’d head off without us, but nevertheless, resuming our journey was the only reasonable thing to do.
We reached the structure in two days. It was amazing. One-hundred-fifty meters high, mostly made of glass on a metal frame. It was cone-shaped but had an opening on one side. Sort of like a split. It sat at the end of a court of sorts, with another similar structure at the other end, although much smaller, at about fifteen meters. Between the two was a water garden with a great deal more of the Things. The stone sculptures, between them. All with different markings.
On either side of the garden – the space between, which measured about three-hundred meters – there were other structures, but they were set into the hillside. They had glass facades facing the center of the garden and three round glass openings at the top of each. Quickly glancing inside led us to believe that they were greenhouses or sorts. We headed directly for the larger impressive structure that we had been following for days.
Inside, we were amazed to find palm trees, large plants, ferns, and the like, even though it was cooler than outside. It was a great relief to finally be out of the one-hundred-degree heat. Of course, it came as no surprise that the structure – we had come to calling it the pyramid, although it had no straight sides and was more like a cone – had more of the Things inside. Some round, some square, some as tall as three meters, and some short. Indira examined them closely. She approached a donut-shaped one, like the one we had seen on the way to the pyramid. She reached out and touched it, ever so gently, running her fingers along the relief of the carvings.
We were startled by a trembling. Dust fell from the ceiling of the building as it began to shake violently. The “earthquake” threw all of us off balance, sending Kazuo careening into another of the stone figures. As if a result of him stumbling into it the shaking became more intense, knocking us all to the floor.
After the shaking subsided, we began to stand. Kazuo reached out toward a stone to steady himself.
The Chief was horrified. “Masaru! Don’t touch that! No one touch anything!”
Grover looked around and his eyes lit upon a metal staircase that spiraled up the walls of the cone. He ran for it and climbed two steps at a time, coming to rest on a grated catwalk of sorts. He looked down.
“Commander,” he said cautiously, “I think that you’d better come up here.”
I began to ascend the staircase, looking up at the Chief and admonishing him as I climbed. “Tanner, I said to stop calling me Commander. I’m not your Commander anymore. We no longer even have a ship.”
“Uh,” he addressed me but his eyes were still fixed on whatever he saw below. “I think that I may have found one for you.”
I reached the platform and, following his gaze, saw what Chief Grover had been fascinated with. A person who has served on the bridge of a starship for any length of time would recognize it instantly. The stones were arranged very deliberately.
At the left and right edges, as well as directly at the fore, were tall rectangular stones where the peloruses would be found aboard a starship. Almost directly ahead but again to the left and right, were the conn and course indicators – thick ovals of gray marble in this case. Front and center, a green sunstone which must be the clinometer faced an open portion of glass aligned directly with the smaller pyramid across the water garden.
The clincher, however, was the donut-shaped stone that Indira had touched. The one that set off the earthquake. Positioned in the middle of it all. The ship’s wheel.
We discussed our findings with everyone. Indira supplied the most inciteful speculations. “So,” she spoke slowly and deliberately, “Let’s assume that this entire planet is one gigantic starship. A living vessel. Let’s assume, without trying to figure out how it works, that these stones somehow control it. How does it move? What propels it?”
Chief Grover furrowed his brow. “It may be easier than you’d think. It can orbit a star, the one most convenient to it at the time. After it picks up enough inertia and builds velocity, it would slingshot itself to an adjacent star, orbit it for a time, then do it again and again. Jumping its way across the galaxy.”
I nodded in agreement. “But imagine what an effort it is, and how delicate an operation it would be. One miscalculation and all of this,” I looked outside toward the surrounding forest, “Would perish.”
“It could take us home!” Crewman Kazuo seemed elated.
The Chief shook his head. “Now hold on. As the Commander said, piloting this… this ‘ship’ would be a very complicated operation. Its gravitational pull is undoubtedly what destroyed the Scorpion. Guiding it into orbit around a star could easily end up ripping an entire nearby planet apart. And what if that planet was Earth?
“No. I could never learn to pilot this thing. Even for Wren, it would take several lifetimes to perfect the process.”
Indira piped up. “But if we could find the beings who created it… They must still be alive. The planet moved past us on the way to this star. It wasn’t here when the Scorpion arrived; and look at the structures, the gardens… they are all well maintained. Groomed. If the planet had been abandoned, then all of this vegetation would have gone wild. Covered everything.”
Our discovery was by no means a guarantee that we would ever make it home. But again, it provided hope. Optimism was necessary if we were to keep going. Over the days of our journey prior to discovering the structure everyone was becoming resolved to the fact that we would never see home again. Perhaps we would die soon if we couldn’t find a sustainable source of food. Despite the planet’s vegetation, there was not enough to provide us with a diet that would feed us for long, even subsidizing it with our meager rations.
I came up with a plan. “Alright everyone. Let’s get a good night’s sleep here, and then head out in the morning. First order of business is to look for Wren. Then we’ll further out the search area and begin looking for the beings who created this place. We’ll split up. The Chief and I will begin searching north and east. Indira, you and Masaru will cover the south and west quadrants.”
“Is that a good idea, Commander? Splitting up, I mean?” Indira seemed concerned.
“I think it should be safe. We won’t travel too far from the structure, and we’ll plan on being back here before dusk every evening.”
We ate a hearty meal, a renewed sense of excitement among us. I had trouble sleeping, and I presume that the others did, too.
Morning brought a horrifying discovery that dissolved the confidence that we had had the previous evening.
We were all gathered in the water garden between the structures, washing up in one of the clear pools when we heard it. Screaming. It was Serina! It didn’t take long to figure out which direction the sound was coming from, and it sounded like she was close.
“Commander! There!” Masaru pointed to one of the long, low, glass structures set into the hillside. Serina was inside, and she was in distress.
Masaru headed directly for her, and was about to step through the opening in the glass, when Grover grabbed the back of his jacket. “No! Don’t go in there. Look.”
I saw what he had seen, and I wish that I had not. It was horrible. Serina was there. At least, half of her was there. It seemed as if her legs had “grown” into the soil. They really couldn’t be called legs anymore, as they had changed into what looked like vegetable matter. She was literally rooted into the earth like all of the other plants. It was ghastly.
“Oh, my Lord,” Indira mumbled. “I’m fairly certain that I know what is happening. The vines and tendrils. It makes sense now.
”Think of the planet as a botanical monotypic habitat. That is an environment where a specific species lives largely dominating the ecological area. To ensure that it occupies the selected environment, different species devise ways of destroying or genetically modifying all the other potential invasive species.”
My heart skipped a beat as I realized what she meant. “We are the invasive species.”
Indira nodded, “But at least it’s not trying to kill us off.”
“I’m not so sure that’s a better situation.”
“So, what happened to Serina?” asked Masaru.
“All I can think of is that the structure – maybe a greenhouse of sorts – accelerated the process for her. My God. It’s horrible.”
We decided that we needed to continue our search for the inhabitants of the planet. Now more than ever, as they may have been able to help Serina. Masaru, whom I had always suspected had feelings for Serina, asked to remain with her. We weren’t sure if she could even understand what was happening anymore, but he did not want to leave her alone.
“Alright crewman,” I hesitated, “But stay away from the structure. Until we know what’s happening, don’t go near her.” I wasn’t sure if I was making the right decision but at this point… I wondered if it really mattered much. “We’ll return here in the evening. It seems like the safest place to spend the night is in the pyramid. The tendrils didn’t seem to grow on us last night.”
Indira, the Chief, and I spent the rest of the day searching for signs of intelligent life. We tried to spread out but made certain that we were within sight of each other. If that wasn’t possible, we’d call to each other periodically. I wasn’t about to lose another member of my crew. Since we had promised to meet Masaru back at the pyramid by evening, we couldn’t make it very far. I realized that I’d need to come up with a better plan the next day. I dreaded going back. I did not want to see Serina again. I hoped that her transformation was complete. Perhaps then she would be out of pain and at peace.
“Thank God. It sounds like it’s over. It’s a horrible way to lose her, but at least she is no longer in agony. Now, uh…” I looked around frantically, already aware of what had happened.
“Commander. Down there.” Indira pointed to the floor of the greenhouse. There lay Masaru, already transformed. Either he thought that he could help Serina, or he decided that, since the outcome was inevitable, he’d rather die with her.
We slept inside the pyramid one more night, and then left in the morning with the intention of not returning until we had found the planet’s original occupants or died trying. Tanner decided that he wanted to go his own way, leaving Indira and I to stay together. Once again, I was the Commander of nothing, so who was I to stop him? We wished him well and said that we hoped to see him again.
Indira lasted two days. I suppose that repeated exposure to whatever forces were causing us to transmute, perhaps also related to body size, were making the transformation inevitable no matter how careful we were. I understood that I was next. I had resolved myself to it but I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t scared.
I awoke in the morning to find the tendrils over my body again, thicker than before. Now I realized that they were not growing over me but growing from me. I did not attempt to remove them or even stand up. Within an hour they had overtaken me and I could feel myself rooted to the soil. As I lay there, unable to move or speak, I felt a sense of panic overwhelming me. Although I was sure that the process had been complete, I retained my awareness. Days passed before I faded from my human consciousness.
And yet… somehow I knew what was happening around me. I watched the seasons come and go. Experienced the passing of years. I could feel the warmth of the sun, the cleansing rains quenching my thirst. I could communicate with the planet – with the other plants that surrounded me, and with my former friends – whispering through the silence in a language of their own. A language of scents and colors. It was beautiful, but at the same time, I felt a deep sadness. I miss my human form.
I have finally discovered what the random marked stones positioned about the planet are. They contain the stories of those who came before us. Somehow, the planet allowed me to tell mine. The marking appeared as I thought of my history. I wonder if future visitors will be able to decipher it and, if possible, leave before they meet the same fate.
This story previously appeared in Creepypasta podcast.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Kenneth Kohl has published several short stories and articles for literary magazines, e-zines, and podcasts as well as two full-length novels. Kenneth lives in Columbus, Ohio with his beautiful wife, two sons, and an energetic shepherd dog named Daisy. When he is not at his computer working on his next novel, he is probably hiking, biking, or traveling the world. Kenneth's anthologies and novels may be found on Amazon or most local bookstores.