Coming soon . . .
The Exiles of Erde
The distant planet 'CNC552' was being terraformed as a new home for humanity's burgeoning population. It was a peaceful planet with no indigenous life other than a few primitive plants and a profusion of macro-algae. But a routine resupply mission finds the outpost deserted and the terraformers brutally slain. What was a boring supply run quickly turns into a life-or-death struggle. An unknown ship arrives in orbit and destroys the supply vessel, and the surviving humans are rounded up by an alien race that strongly resembles a nightmare from Earth's prehistoric past. This saurian race is searching for Earth-like planets to inhabit, and for one planet in particular, and has no love for human competitors.
The human captives are taken to the saurian home world of Erde, where they must use all their wits to survive the brutal treatment they recieve there. Above all, they must keep any knowledge of Earth a secret, lest all humanity suffer the same fate as the slain terraformers. If they are to survive and escape, the human slaves must learn all they can about their strange captors, the beautiful and dangerous planet they inhabit, and the saurian's strange and mystical caste-like society.
A slow feeling of uneasiness stole over Arion March as he watched the display on his navigation console. In front of him, the horizon of CNC552 curved as gracefully as ever in a beautiful blue arc across his viewscreen, rolling slowly by beneath his orbiting ship. It was a completely unremarkable, Earth-like planet, but somehow he knew that something had gone terribly wrong down there. And the silence on his headset only served to heighten his sense of gnawing anxiety. Scanning the audio channels, he should be picking up radio chatter, navsats, a homing beacon… something. But there was nothing; only the boring, unbroken hiss of white noise. For the first time on this voyage, March began to wonder if he’d made the right decision by signing on.
It had seemed like a choice assignment when he’d volunteered for this posting aboard the deep-space supply vessel Glaucon. Easy duty – only a year, round trip, give or take. A milk run. And at 1½ times pay, a very lucrative one. It was all the more so because the Company had been forced to reduce the hazard limits to 12 parsecs in order get enough able-bodied hands for the trip. Skilled labor was in short supply on the guildnet, so anything over 40 light-years from Earth was now considered hazardous duty, and paid accordingly. March had laughed at that. The money was good – very good. It had certainly seemed like a lot when he signed on.
And up until today, the trip had gone about as he’d expected it would. After an uneventful six months in transit, the Glaucon had finally dropped out of hyperspace near its destination, CNC552. There had been no serious malfunctions during the voyage, and the ship’s crew of twenty were all in good spirits after the long trip, as well they might be. All they had to do was deliver the Company’s relief team of scientists and terraformers to the planet below, drop off a cargo hold full of terraforming materials, and pick up passengers for the trip back home. Return trips were usually better than the leg out – a party atmosphere – as teams from distant planets were always flush with credits and happy to be heading home to Earth. The contraband bottles hidden under March’s bunk would go quickly, and then the gambling would commence.
But now, as March listened to static where an active communications frequency should have been, he wasn’t so sure. He fidgeted with the commlink, flipping manually through the channels with increasing irritation. Maybe there was something wrong with his gear; something the diagnostics had missed. He didn’t relish having to report a communications failure to the captain right after entering orbit. But if the equipment wasn’t broken, he thought, then where the hell was the ground station? . . .
March flipped on the speakers, letting the ominous hiss of static fill the compartment. He studied the diagnostic output, but his communications equipment was working correctly. Then he ran a quick check on the navigation panel to verify their current orbital position. Being the ship’s navigation and communications officer, March knew this equipment as well as he knew his own name. In fact, he was certified on every system in the ship. He could pilot Glaucon all by himself if necessary, and often did. He was certain of the vessel’s position even before he checked the nav systems, but he ran a diagnostic on them anyway. There was always the possibility of equipment failure on long trips like this.
Glaucon had achieved POI – planetary orbital insertion – right on schedule. The ship had actually arrived in the 55 Cancri star system a little early, but March had been forced to nurse Glaucon’s long, ungainly mass carefully through several crucial trajectory correction maneuvers to achieve a sufficiently circular orbit around CNC552, and this had taken time. Those TCMs always seemed simple, and invariably ended up taking more time than expected. In this case, the planned maneuvers had been complicated by the presence of the huge gas giant, CNC553. A truly gigantic planet – almost thee times the mass of Jupiter – CNC553 occupied the adjacent planetary orbit in this solar system, and its tremendous mass and rapid orbital pace had continually perturbed Glaucon’s approach vector. Nevertheless, March had finally stabilized her trajectory and they had entered orbit around the budding blue-and-white planet below exactly on schedule. CNC552 was a fresh, young world that would someday be a new home for humanity. That, at least, was the plan.
The work to prepare CNC552 for colonization was already well underway. What had been a rocky and almost barren planet only ten years ago was now slowly becoming covered with a carpet of lush, green Earth bioforms. Of course, there was indigenous life here as well. When CNC552 had first been discovered in 2098, its oceans had been – and still were – teeming with life.
The first Earth vessel to arrive at CNC552 had been the scout ship Carrie Hilton. The explorers found landmasses in exactly the right stage of underdevelopment to promote easy terraforming without the complicated environmental restrictions that were required for more advanced biomes. The vigorous life in the oceans had encroached only slightly onto the land, providing would-be terraformers with the huge benefit of an embryonic yet breathable atmosphere, coupled with vast unoccupied land areas virtually devoid of indigenous – that is, competing – species.
The planetary surveys of the planet’s coastal wetlands revealed a world where echelons of primitive flora had come ashore, but where no animal life had yet evolved. Giant seaweed-like plants, which the Carrie Hilton’s biologists had labeled nematophytes after their ancient Earthly cousins, had been slowly spreading their spores ashore here for a several millennia. The surveyors’ reports went on to discuss the numerous bogs and lagoons along the shoreline, each one alive with great gray-green tentacles reaching feebly for the sky, or snaking blindly out of the brackish green water along the muddy shoreline. Although the spores of the semi-aquatic parent plants were unable to reproduce identical plants on land, the nematophytes had developed an adaptation: spores that could group into tiny, heart-shaped, gelatinous sheets called gametophytes, enabling them to cling to the damp, mineral-rich soil of CNC552. Within these gametophytes, sexual reproduction found its first expression on this barren landscape.
Following the first appearance of the nematophytes, other plants had invaded the shore. In a short time (evolutionarily speaking), the leafless stems of numerous water plants had begun to attach themselves to the soil by means of tiny hairs that would eventually evolve into roots. Stems ultimately specialized into simple leaves to better capture the light and aid in photosynthesis. In a span of just over 20 million years since the first nematophytes had released their spores into the frequent gales that battered the shore, CNC552 had developed its own tenuous, coastal carpet of mossy greenery. Generation after generation of ferns and primitive, leafy plants had spread into the surrounding lowlands: reproducing, dying and enriching the soil with their remains. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria had adapted to life on land, diligently holding those nutrients in place. The results of this slow evolution were rich marshes, endless wetlands, and vast coastal meadows choked with fern-like plants. In almost every way, the planet was right in the middle of what terraformers liked to call “the sweet spot,” just ready for the hand of man.
The captain of the Carrie Hilton recognized the potential of CNC552 as a colony world even before the exobiological survey teams brought back their samples. And when the chemistry and morphology of the indigenous flora and bacterial life proved to be compatible with Earth bioforms, these samples supplied further encouragement that CNC552 might be colonized. The Carrie Hilton had immediately sent a message back to the Company, reporting the discovery of an Earth-type planet with a level two biosphere, ripe for development. The sense of excitement underlying these first reports was palpable. After all, discovering a new colony world would reap tremendous profits for the Company and fetch the Carrie Hilton’s crew a huge bonus.
CNC552 seemed to be a perfect prospect for an overpopulated Earth looking for room to grow.
The Carrie Hilton had orbited CNC552 for several months, gathering huge quantities of data. They conducted extensive mineral assays, seawater analyses, took atmospheric and volcanic magma samples, collected soil samples, and took core samples everywhere from polar ice regions to the deep seabed. During this time, the surveyors also mapped the entire surface of the planet from space. It was a stormy, tempestuous world, but very promising. By the time they returned to Earth, the surveyors had documented proof that CNC552 was a perfect subject for colonization, and the crew’s fat bonuses were assured.
The Company had wasted no time. They designated CNC552 as a Class I terraform objective and selected a contingent of fifty scientists and engineers to launch the first phase of the project as soon as possible.
When the first terraforming ship arrived at the planet two years later, its crew immediately established an outpost station on the surface at a pre-selected site near the shore of the southern ocean, where they set to work. They began the complex process of transforming the landscape, using symbiotic Earth bioforms specifically adapted to the environment based on the samples brought back to Earth by the Carrie Hilton. The terraformers first introduced additional nitrogen-fixing plants and bacteria, followed by genetically engineered conifers and grasses. The combination of long days and relatively high atmospheric carbon dioxide proved highly conducive to growth, and the new plants spread rapidly, with little competition from the local flora. Nor was there any concern about predation from insects, since there were none. As the first primitive grasses and genetically engineered trees spread across the landscape, carefully selected flowering plants and pollinating insect colonies were acclimated and transplanted into the wild.
The members of these terraforming teams were passionate about their work. They regarded themselves as latter-day evangelists – scientific missionaries who enthusiastically converted the heathen wastes to a new life, and turned barren rock into new hope for mankind. They set about each new task with an almost religious zeal, successfully adapting and integrating species after species into the new environment. During their five-year assignment, they logged significant progress. Their glowing project reports were beamed back to Earth via hyperlink. Within 25 years, their reports claimed, CNC552 might well be ready for its first human colonists.
Five years passed, and the first terraforming expedition reached the end of its tour of duty. A relief ship from Earth delivered team two, and the project continued. The first group returned home with fat paychecks and healthy bonuses. The next five years showed even more promise than the first, as wave after wave of biological transplants took root on CNC552. Bio-modified pandanus, mangroves, and willow trees began to appear along the shores and estuaries. Magnolias, dogwoods, and a hundred other upland angiosperms were seeded in the coastal hills and valleys, along with experimental food crops. Hardy grasses and cacti began to spread into the dryer areas of the interior, some of the more aggressive grasses advancing many miles from their coastal nursery during their first ten years. Adaptation and differentiation among the new biota were all carefully monitored by the terraformers, of course, and all mutations carefully controlled. During this phase they cautiously began to make a few additions of animal biota, most notably birds, invertebrates, and additional insect species. This second tour of duty went as well as, if not better than, the first. Aside from the frequently tempestuous weather, CNC552 had seen a quiet decade of steady development. Everything had proceeded exactly according to plan.
Until now . . .