by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Exploring New Places, July 2018
Captain Pierre Jacques sniffed the air on Planet 227. It was dry and sweet, very still in his whiskers, and chill on his bare pink skin. None of his science officers had mentioned being cold, but then Captain Jacques was the only Sphynx cat in his crew. Everyone else had fur under their Tri-Galactic Navy uniforms.
“It’s exhilarating!” Captain Jacques said, eliciting a polite but distracted nod from the nearest officer, a junior scientist tabby who was busy scanning the unusual red-brown rock clusters with a uni-meter.
Captain Jacques twisted his large triangular ears as he looked up to see how far the geometrical spires reached into the violet sky. He didn’t usually get to join his reconnaissance teams on their first visit to a planet; it’s the captain’s job to stay on the ship, making decisions, retaining command. But scans had shown no sign of life or geologic instability on Planet 227, so he’d decided it would be safe to leave his second officer in command and enjoy a little field trip.
“So, what do you think?” Captain Jacques asked the junior scientist tabby. “Geological formation or archeological remnant?”
The tabby closed her uni-meter and holstered it at her hip. “The readings are indeterminate, Captain. This rock is similar to granite and very rich in minerals. The unusual spiral and honeycomb patterns we can see recur fractally all the way down to the molecular level — that could mean it was synthesized, or it could be a natural crystalline structure that’s unique to this planet.”
Captain Jacques hoped these spires were the remnants of a long-ago civilization. He longed to search for signs of that civilization and learn about what kind of creatures could have once lived here. Were they similar to cats and dogs? Or perhaps the humans who had uplifted cats and dogs so long ago?
But this recon mission was supposed to be a brief stop on TGN Initiative’s way to Starport 10.
“Let’s gather some samples,” Captain Jacques said, raising his voice to address the other four members of his recon team who had strayed farther away during their studies. “We don’t have time to do this site justice ourselves, but Starport 10 has a fully equipped science lab. So, let’s bring them enough information to decide whether it’s worth dispatching a full research team.”
“Aye, Captain,” they all agreed.
A fluffy white-furred cat gathered atmospheric samples in plastic bulbs that expanded like balloons; a Beagle gathered soil samples; and Captain Jacques helped a German Shepherd and the tabby to cut out a cube of the granite. In order to carefully preserve the honeycomb-swirl pattern on one side, they set their blazors to the narrowest beams possible. The red beams cut into the granite like a hot knife into butter.
The rock sizzled quietly as the three red beams cut through it, and a sparkly purple smoke rose from the growing seam. The smoke smelled like black licorice and made the captain wrinkle his nose. When the block was cut completely free, the German Shepherd, who was the largest of the team, jimmied the heavy stone out of its place at the wide base of the spire. Then the team gathered together with their samples, and Captain Jacques used his comm-pin to call up to the Initiative in orbit: “Recon team ready to port home.”
All five officers and their samples disappeared from the surface of Planet 227 in a glittering swirl of quantum energy, shifted through the folds of space-time, and reappeared on the telepad in the corner of the Initiative’s shuttle bay.
Captain Jacques sighed at the familiar sight of the Initiative’s gray walls and control panels with brightly colored computer displays. He loved the Initiative; the ship was his home. But sometimes, he wished he’d pursued his degree in archeology instead of working his way up the chain of command in the Tri-Galactic Navy. As the captain of the Initiative, he explored farther, traveling from planet to planet, living at the cutting edge of the future, than he would have as an archeologist, but sometimes he just wanted to settle down, dig in, and explore one small piece of the universe deeply — get to know a single corner of the past so well that he felt he truly understood it.
“Take these samples to the science lab and learn what you can,” Captain Jacques said. “We might as well get a head start on the work for Starport 10.”
Captain Jacques traced a claw over the honeycomb-swirl pattern on the granite block. Then with another sigh, he left his field trip behind and returned to the command deck.
* * *
The granite block hovered under the control of an anti-grav unit. With guidance from the German Shepherd officer, Lieutenant Maggie Barrett, the granite block floated through the corridors of the Initiative as lightly as a bubble, all the way to the science lab. Lieutenant Barrett laid the cube of stone to rest on an examination table and began running scans. Within a matter of seconds, the block was subjected to every form of radiation, sound wave, and particle bombardment that the Tri-Galactic Navy used in their standard volley of scans.
Deep inside the granite, crystalline molecules shifted. The honeycomb swirls rearranged with a cascading effect from the micro to macro level, and the rock began to hum.
Lieutenant Barrett couldn’t hear the humming even with her large, triangular, canine ears.
* * *
In the medical bay two decks above the science lab, Doctor Waverly Keller — an Irish Setter with cheerfully red fur — found herself arguing with a feline patient.
“Can’t you hear that?” Lieutenant LeGuin, an orange tabby wearing techno-focal goggles, complained to the doc. “It’s so high and piercing… A kind of whine, or a really high-pitched squeal…” He put a paw to his temple where the goggles interfaced with a bio-mech port buried in his fur. “It feels like it’s cutting into the base of my skull.”
Doctor Keller frowned at the display on her uni-meter. “According to my readings, there’s simply nothing wrong with you. Are you sure those goggles are working right?”
The orange tabby’s whiskers turned down. He was probably glaring at her, but Doctor Keller couldn’t see his eyes behind the lenses of the techno-focal goggles.
“I ran a complete diagnostic scan on them before coming to you. They’re working perfectly,” he said. Doctor Keller opened her mouth to object, but Lieutenant LeGuin cut her off. “I know you worry about the goggles’ long term effects on my brain, but there are years of studies, dating back to the time of humans, showing that they’re safe.”
“Hold on a sec,” the doctor said, raising a red-furred paw. More patients had filed into the medical bay while she and the lieutenant had been talking. All of them cats. Most of them with flattened ears, a paw held to the head, or other signs suggesting they were experiencing pain.
Doctor Keller left LeGuin waiting. Several of her nurses — all dogs — were seeing to the new patients. The one feline nurse had disappeared into the supply closet and was clutching her head as well. Doctor Keller made the rounds and checked in with each of the new patients. Sure enough, the medical bay was suddenly besieged with feline officers complaining of intense headaches.
After a few moments of thought, Doctor Keller returned to Lieutenant LeGuin.
“As far as my scans show,” she said, “there isn’t anything wrong with you or any of the other officers here. And, no, I can’t hear any high-pitched sound, but while dogs have a keener sense of smell, cats have a wider range of hearing.” Doctor Keller looked around the medical bay at all the glowering, cringing cats. Whether she could find anything wrong with them or not, they were clearly suffering. The simplest explanation was that they were actually hearing something she couldn’t. “LeGuin, can your goggles pick up sound waves?”
It took the orange tabby an effort to answer her, but he managed to say, “Yeah, probably if I adjust them properly.”
Doctor Keller coughed meaningfully, but LeGuin was in too much pain to pick up on subtle signals.
“I think you’re all suffering from an actual sound,” Doctor Keller said. “I want you to use your goggles to help me trace it to the source.”
“I don’t want to get anywhere near the source of this,” LeGuin snapped back, unable to keep the snarl out of his voice. But he adjusted his goggles, and the hum appeared on their lenses as an oscillating dim blue glow. With one paw pressed against the pain in his head, LeGuin followed the blue glow, turning his head to see where it grew brighter.
The blue glow led LeGuin and Keller out of the medical bay and through the winding corridors of the Initiative. The blue glow grew brighter and brighter, drawing LeGuin to the science lab. When the doors to the lab opened, the blue glow flashed brightly inside LeGuin’s goggles. He pointed, faintly, in the direction where it was brightest.
His orange paw pointed directly to the granite slab, covered in its swirling honeycomb patterns. Then he collapsed on the floor. Doctor Keller barged past him.
The German Shepherd officer, Lieutenant Barrett, stood beside the block of granite, examining the data she’d been gathering. “Doctor Keller,” she said when the doctor came up beside her, unaccountably snarling and angry. “What can I do for you?”
“Not for me,” Doctor Keller barked. “For my patients. Cats all over this ship are suffering mysterious headaches, and they’re being caused — somehow — by this cube of rock.”
LeGuin rolled on the floor behind the doctor, moaning and clutching his head. Doctor Keller gestured with a red-furred paw at the equipment and scanners pointed at the granite cube. “Shut it all down.”
“I… can’t do that without confirmation from the captain,” Lieutenant Barrett said.
Doctor Keller snorted. Based on LeGuin’s condition, she doubted the captain — another cat — was in any shape to give confirmation or, really, make decisions of any kind. Nonetheless, she touched her paw to her comm-pin and said, “Doctor Keller to Captain Jacques.”
A moment later, the captain’s feline voice chirped at them from the doctor’s comm-pin; it sounded tight and strained, but he said, “Yes, Doctor, what is it?”
“Tell this science officer with me that she has to shut down whatever she’s doing to this big rock cube.”
The captain’s voice came through, haltingly: “We’re studying that sample from Planet 227. It has highly unusual and very interesting properties. Is there a problem?”
“It’s causing your headache.”
After a long pause, the captain said emphatically, “Shut it down. Now. And I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
The German Shepherd shut off every scan still in progress, and, slowly, LeGuin’s headache receded. The orange tabby was just pulling himself off the floor and back onto his paws when the captain arrived.
Captain Jacques stared at the granite cube with steely gray-green eyes. “Cycle through the different scans,” he told Lieutenant Barrett. “Start the scans one at a time, and we’ll figure out which one caused this.”
“Are you serious?” Lieutenant LeGuin cried out, still laying on the floor.
“We need to know exactly what happened,” the captain said. He kept himself composed, his pink ears standing tall, even though he’d most likely been experiencing as much pain as had knocked Lieutenant LeGuin on the floor.
Doctor Keller watched both cats closely while the German Shepherd restarted the scans. As soon as Lieutenant Barrett started up the high-energy nano-structure scan, LeGuin began rolling and moaning on the floor again. Captain Jacques’ pink-skinned ears flattened, but he showed no other sign of pain. He was one tough cat. “Turn it down,” he said through gritted fangs. “As low as it goes.”
“Not off?” LeGuin yowled in disbelieving dismay.
“We need to understand what’s happening.” The captain’s ears were still flat. The pink skin around his muzzle was drawn tight.
The German Shepherd’s paw hovered over the controls. He looked concerned, afraid to do anything in case her actions might make the cats’ situation worse. “Maybe we should leave this sample for Starport 10 to study…”
“You heard my order: turn it down.” A cat with a headache has little patience. Besides, Captain Jacques thought, if the cube of granite were dangerous, they could hardly take it to a busy starport. It was better to get the analysis done. Here. And now.
Lieutenant Barrett worked the controls, and Captain Jacques felt his headache lessening as the high-pitched squeal grew less piercing.
Still lying on the floor, LeGuin said, “The visual display of the sound pattern — it’s changing.” The blue glow in his goggle lenses had dimmed from the brilliant flash of blue when he’d first entered the science lab. Now the blue light pulsed and moved, forming starbursts and squiggles.
“We need to document it.” Captain Jacques moved to the nearest computer station and set it to record and analyze the dangerous, high-pitched hum from the granite cube. After a few minutes, he said, “That should be enough data. Turn the scan off again.”
“Thank goodness,” LeGuin muttered under his whiskers. He was not sorry to see the pretty blue squiggles disappear from the lenses in his goggles. The sound itself withdrew from his ears like a knife pulling out of his skull.
Doctor Keller leaned over Captain Jacques’ shoulder to see the computer analysis of the sound on the display screen. They ran the data through several algorithms before drawing any conclusions, but both the captain and the doctor could see which algorithm was having the most success.
“So, what’s going on?” LeGuin asked, still sitting on the floor and rubbing the orange stripes on his sore furry temples.
Captain Jacques could hardly believe the words as he said them: “It’s language. Almost too primitive to translate, but it’s linguistic thought.”
“What does it say?” LeGuin asked.
“‘Cruel squishy bags of organic fuzz.'” Captain Jacques couldn’t help from snickering as he relayed the words. “I think the rock’s talking about us. We’re the bags of fuzz.”
“Hilarious,” LeGuin said drily.
“I wonder if we could actually talk to it,” Captain Jacques pondered.
“I don’t know, Captain.” Doctor Keller’s eyebrows were peaked, and her muzzle strained. “If it’s calling us cruel, then I think we’ve been hurting it.” The doctor was a deeply kind dog who could empathize with anything — even a hunk of granite who’d been hurting every single one of the feline officers under her care.
“Or maybe it’s just angry that we kidnapped it,” Captain Jacques suggested. “If we explained that we’re taking it to Starport 10 where it can observe the complexity of our civilization, maybe it will want to go! Maybe it would enjoy being an explorer, like us!” The captain was nothing if not optimistic. He looked at Lieutenant Barrett and asked, “Do you think you can reverse the translation algorithm and broadcast our speech back to the rock?”
“I can try, Captain.” Lieutenant Barrett fiddled with the controls for a while and then said, “The translation will be rough at best, but the more the rock talks, the better it will get.” She pointed with her large paw toward the comm-pin on Captain Jacques’ chest. “I’ve routed it through your comm-pin; you can start whenever you’re ready.”
Captain Jacques tapped his paw on his comm-pin and began speaking in slow, carefully pronounced words: “Granite life-form, I am Captain Pierre Jacques of the Tri-Galactic Navy star vessel Initiative. My crew welcomes you.” When he finished speaking, the same high-pitched squeal began, this time emitted from his own comm-pin.
The granite block answered in high-pitched hums translated into mono-tone speech through the comm-pin: “Squishy bags of fuzz are disingenuous. Squishy bags of fuzz tell lies. Pain. Abduction. Torture. Lies. Cruel, cruel squishy bags of organic fuzz.”
Once the captain recovered from the latest volley of high-pitched squeals, still inaudible to the dogs in the room, he said to the granite block through his comm-pin, “We had no intention of causing you harm. We didn’t know you were alive.” The captain’s own words struck him, and he repeated them softly to himself. “You are alive.”
The geometric spires under that lavender sky hadn’t been the remnants of a civilization. They were a civilization. Alive and vibrant; too big and slow and unfamiliar for the cats and dogs of the Tri-Galactic Navy to recognize what had been underneath their very paws. Starport 10 would send a long-term research team to Planet 227 for sure now; Captain Jacques would insist on it. They would reach out to and communicate with the geometrical rocky spires.
As the captain let himself get carried away with futuristic visions of brokering diplomacy between a civilization of sentient rocky spires and the cats and dogs of the Tri-Galactic Navy, Doctor Keller moved closer to the granite block.
The Irish Setter whispered, “We’re sorry we’ve hurt you.” The words were picked up by the captain’s comm-pin and translated.
LeGuin could not have sounded more disdainful as he said, “We’re sorry we hurt a slab of rock that’s been insulting us and screaming in a voice that still feels like its melting my brain?”
“Have sympathy,” Doctor Keller said. “This block of rock was ripped from its home, ported into a starship in the sky, whisked away, and examined by unrecognizably exotic alien lifeforms today.”
“It’s easier to have sympathy when you’re not in pain,” LeGuin observed. The orange tabby wasn’t ready to forgive a rock for giving him a splitting headache.
“I’m sure our guest feels much the same.” Doctor Keller’s red-furred eyebrows raised in concern as she looked at the cube of granite, covered in its honeycomb swirls. The twisty lines of the patterns seemed to writhe and move. The rock almost looked like it was swelling, growing larger, but that may have been an optical illusion caused by the writhing honeycomb swirls. Was the movement part of its communication? An expression of its pain? The doctor didn’t know, but she did know that the rock wasn’t happy here. “We have to go back to Planet 227,” she said. “We need to take it home.”
“Home, home, go home–” The words issued from Captain Jacques’ comm-pin in a monotone, but the high-pitched squeal that accompanied them from the rock grew louder and louder until the captain himself fell to his knees on the floor. He clawed at his hairless ears, clamping them against his pink-skinned skull. Lieutenant LeGuin yowled inarticulately.
“Help me get the cats out of here!” Doctor Keller cried as she grabbed the captain around the waist. She helped him up and let him lean against her as he stumbled out of the room. Lieutenant Barrett scooped up LeGuin in her arms; the orange tabby was struggling more with the noise than the captain. He shuddered and jolted in Barrett’s strong canine arms, almost like he was suffering from a seizure. Barrett rushed out of the science lab, and as soon as they were in the corridor outside, Doctor Keller sealed the door behind them.
“Can you soundproof the science lab?” Doctor Keller asked. The captain was leaning against the wall behind her, struggling to simply stay upright.
Lieutenant Barrett laid down her own feline charge, and then she went to work on the panel beside the science lab’s door. As she worked, the two cats continued to moan, and the captain’s comm-pin kept babbling, “Home, home, go home, home.” In irritation, the captain ripped the comm-pin from the breast of his uniform, tearing the fabric, and threw the shiny gold device down the hallway. It bounced off the wall and skidded along the floor before coming to a stop.
Finally, Lieutenant Barrett announced, “Got it!” Neither of the dogs could hear a difference, but the two cats visibly relaxed. “I’ve placed a sound-dampening field around the science lab that’s blocking exactly the frequency that the granite block uses to communicate.”
Down the hall, the captain’s comm-pin continued babbling in its monotone as the computer continued to relay the granite block’s speech to it. “We can still hear the rock sample talking…” Captain Jacques took a deep, cleansing breath. “Does that mean it will still hear us if we talk to it through my comm-pin?”
“Yes, Captain,” Lieutenant Barrett confirmed.
“Captain,” Doctor Keller admonished, “you’re in no shape to be in command right now. As the ship’s doctor, I believe all cats should be relieved of duty until this situation is resolved.” As soon as she said those words, Doctor Keller knew she’d pushed the matter too far. The captain would never agree to relieving every feline officer of duty.
“The cats under my command are all navy officers,” Captain Jacques spat, “trained to withstand much harsher conditions than a little unpleasant noise.” If he’d had fur, it would have fluffed out in irritation. Instead, his pink skin felt all tingly under his uniform. “Besides, the noise is contained now.” He stalked down the hall, hairless tail swinging behind him, and swept the babbling comm-pin up in his paw. “Granite lifeform, we intended no harm. We will return you to your planet of origin.”
But instead of answering gratefully, the translated voice over the comm-pin said, “Trapped, alone, darkness, isolation, lies… destroy squishy bags of organic fuzz! Squish them! Squish! Die! Die!”
The lights went out all along the corridor and alarms began to blare, followed by flashing red alarm lights.
“This first contact mission isn’t going as well as one might hope,” Doctor Keller commented.
“I didn’t know that it was a first contact mission until it was already a disaster,” the captain grumbled. “Lieutenants–” he addressed Barrett and LeGuin, “do you have any idea what’s happening?”
Lieutenant LeGuin shook his head. The red alarm lights reflected hauntingly off the lenses of his goggles. “My goggles aren’t picking up anything unusual anymore.”
Lieutenant Barrett examined the display panel beside the sealed door and said, “The granite block has found a way to communicate directly with the computer system in the science lab. For now, the ship’s main computer is protected by a firewall and the sound dampening field around the lab. But some of our best computers are in this lab; the firewall won’t hold long, and the granite block has already managed to overload several non-critical systems with intermittent energy bursts from the lab’s equipment. That’s why the lights are out and the alarms are on.”
Captain Jacques rolled his gray-green eyes. “This isn’t diplomacy; this is mollifying a crying kitten throwing a temper tantrum.”
“That’s what happens when our first act in meeting a new species is to kidnap one of their babies,” the doctor said.
“Or cut off one of their semi-sentient tentacles,” Captain Jacques said, remembering how he and Lieutenant Barrett had literally sliced the block of granite out of the base of a large spire with blazor beams. “Let’s get this flailing tentacle-rock-baby back to its home.”
* * *
Captain Jacques left Lieutenants Barrett and LeGuin to monitor the sealed science lab, and Doctor Keller accompanied him to the bridge. The flight back to Planet 227 only took a few minutes at top speed, and the artificial gravity aboard the ship only cut out for about half of that time due to the granite block’s meddling.
When the Initiative arrived in orbit, the planet below looked much different from when they’d left. Purple waves of light danced over the surface of the red-brown sphere like an aurora borealis.
“Can you magnify the view to show the area of the planet our recon team visited?”
The helmsdog complied, and the view zoomed in on the center of the waves of purple light.
“I thought so,” Captain Jacques said. “We need to teleport the rock sample in science lab five back down to the site of the recon mission. I know it won’t be exactly where we cut it from, but hopefully it’ll be close enough. Can you do that?”
“We’ll have to shut down the dampening field around the science lab in order to do so,” the helmsdog said.
Captain Jacques gritted his fangs and said, “Make it happen.”
“Aye, Captain.” The helmsdog dropped the dampening field around the science lab.
Immediately, the captain’s headache returned, so strong that the pain knocked him down. From his vantage on the bridge floor, Captain Jacques saw purple bolts like lightening snake up from the planet’s surface and strike at the Initiative. He felt his ship rock under him, and then his stomach lurched with the momentary loss and sudden return of gravity. His head exploded with a pain so bright that his vision sparkled, and for an instant, he wondered if he’d died because he hadn’t known his feline body was capable of experiencing so much pain.
“Done!” the helmsdog announced.
Captain Jacques’ vision cleared, and the pain subsided like a tide going out at the beach. On the viewscreen, he saw the purple waves of light dissipate, leaving the rocky sphere below the same dusty red-brown it had been before he’d ever set paw upon it; before he’d ever smelled its dry, sweet air.
“Our computer recorded a burst of sound waves coming from the planet,” the helmsdog said. “Extremely complex data, kilobytes worth in only a fraction of a second.”
“And the computer recorded it?” Captain Jacques asked, brushing aside the doctor who was busily checking him to be sure he was alright after his most recent collapse.
“Yes, Captain, all of it.”
Captain Jacques wondered what the network of rocky spires on the planet’s surface had transmitted to them, but he also knew that it wasn’t his job to figure it out. “Transmit the recorded data ahead of us to Starport 10, and then set a course to follow it.” He looked forward to reading the reports that the scientists on Starport 10 would generate as they analyzed the data. He hoped they’d send a team to Planet 227 to follow up with the rocky spires, forge a diplomatic connection, and learn what stories a civilization composed of stone had to tell.
But Captain Jacques wouldn’t be the one to stay here and talk to the rocks. He realized with a little surprise that he didn’t want to be. Diplomacy and research are slow work, unlike the adventure he’d had today, discovering that a simple rock was actually so much more.
If there were sentient rocky spires on Planet 227, what would be on the next unexplored planet? And the one after that? There was no telling what amazing things were waiting, out there in the universe, for an enterprising cat to find them. And Captain Jacques intended to be that cat.
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