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Gambler's Walk: A short short alien contact story
DRIVE-BY STORIES #22
Alain's helmet thunked against the outer airlock door, the sun visor blocking out the harsh glare from the planet's sun. He leaned into the pose, gloved hands braced on the thick door as the decon spray hissed and roared around him. The blasts of super-heated air buffeted him but otherwise the suit was a calm antiseptic eye at the center of the storm. Ultraviolet light bathed the inside of the airlock. The decon went on and on as he tasted the remnants of the banana chips he'd eaten before suiting up.
Weren't supposed to eat before going out. Regs didn't want something you ate upsetting your stomach when it might be caused by something in the environment. Confused the data. Alain had grabbed the chips, not even a handful. A tiny bite, otherwise his stomach was going to be upset.
The whole exercise was absurd. Why send a person—a vulnerable-to-being-eaten human—outside with only an environment suit for protection, instead of sending a robot or drone? It wasn't like they had any shortages of robots or drones. Nice, non-sentient devices that might actually scare away any wildlife outside that remained after the lander's descent. Except, for some reason, they didn't want to scare away wildlife. Plus the bets were more exciting with a person.
Already, from the cameras and windows, they'd seen the animals of this world resume their routines. Lots of data coming in. The animals had apparently gotten over the shock of the landers descent two days ago now. It was, probably for most of the animals, an oddity on their landscape if they noticed it at all. Another type of rock, maybe. Something that didn't show any outward signs of hostility, but warranted enough caution to curve the paths of the migrating animal herds around the intruder. Let's just be safe, he imagined them saying. I don't know what it is, but it doesn't look tasty. No need to get close.
That hesitancy led to the next step in the absurd rulebook on board: time to send out a person, as in a person was less threatening than a drone or robot. How could they tell the difference if the human is wearing a suit? "A person doesn't act like a robot."
Yeah, a person will run away screaming if some alien predator decides to conduct a taste test.
As a member of the Biological Sciences Division, the duty had fallen to him. They rotated it. Everyone else acted like he'd won a prize by getting the first excursion. He didn't run BSD, had no ambitions to run the division, but if he did the first thing he'd do is give people a chance to opt out. Best thing he could do was stay in his lane until he could get home. Lab work. That's what he wanted to do. Analyze tissue samples and genetics? Yes. Work on classifications? Absolutely. Keep the coffee coming and he'd get lost in the work. In. The. Lab.
Why send him out, risking his life?
"You okay, Alain?" Lissa's voice on comms. His operator.
One last thunk of his helmet against the door as the jets started to weaken. "Sure thing," he said. "Can't wait to get out there and see what wants to eat me."
"We don't have any eyes on big predators," Lissa said, her tone suggesting an attempt to reassure him. "I'm watching out for you."
All that meant was that the predators were probably hiding or camouflaged and Lissa would end up watching them devour Alain.
"Stand clear of the door," she said.
Alain pushed off the door and stepped back. He let his arms fall to his sides. The suit was an environmental collection model, mostly a single piece with a helmet and a contained air-supply. They didn't have to worry about pressurization, only contamination. One critical reason for the suit was to keep his biota away from the planet's biota. In theory, a human could walk out there with nothing on at all. Temperate, almost tropical conditions, UV exposure lower than levels at sea level on Earth, No toxic gases in any concentrations to worry about in the atmosphere. Except an exposed human would also be a walking toxic spill, dropping DNA and their own personal biota into the native ecosystem.
And an unprotected stroll out there would likely prove fatal. There was no way to know how many of the organic molecules in the atmosphere—pollen, spores, bacteria, viruses, phages, and who knew what else—would be fatal to humans. Everything from a rampant infection to severe allergic reactions.
The other key feature of his suit—collecting samples of everything that came into contact with it. Assuming he survived. If so, he might end up working on the suit analysis, cataloging the specimens, concentrations, and where they were found on the suit. He'd done that work before and it suited his skills. He grinned at his own silent pun—and then the doors slid open.
The view outside was a meadow of vegetation in a range of variegated greens from light to dark, all saturated. It sloped down to his right before larger vegetation, trees or the analog, that continued down the hillside.
Alain moved to the open door and stopped, hands on the sides. "Leaving airlock," he reported, though he hadn't yet stepped out.
The treed slope dropped away, a dense canopy of growth that cascaded downhill until it reached a long white sand beach that divided the forest from the ocean. Alain closed his eyes briefly. So many ways to die out there.
But he had to be a team-player. Make the effort. Get out there and let the suit gather samples while he formed his own impressions and everyone else placed bets on whether or not something would try to eat him, succeeding or failing. How long he'd last. What he would collect. He cast a wary look skyward, saw nothing except the small fliers they'd observed, and started down the ramp.
Before he reached the bottom, he fixed his eyes on his target. A large boulder they'd marked on the maps near the center of the meadow area. It was granite, they knew that, with some sort of plant or moss analog growing on it. Maybe fungal growths. It ranged from a couple meters to over four meters tall, sloping down like the meadow. It had plenty of crevices and cracks, almost a jumble of rocks. Good opportunities there to discover smaller organisms that they hadn't observed yet. Enough to win the bets with a discovery and beat the bets on how long he'd stay out.
The crew member doing the first excursion got half of everyone's take. Another reason they all saw it as winning the lottery. And if the crew member died? Well, then it was a bonus paid to their surviving relatives.
Alain was going to win. If they were going to force him out here, he was going to clean them all out. He’d win the bets and take half of whatever else anyone got. The odds weren't in his favor—it wasn't any secret that he didn't like going out. He figured his plan had the best chance of keeping him alive while winning the bets.
First stage—getting to the rock—seemed the most dangerous. He'd be moving. Movement attracted attention. Great when things ran away. Not so great when they didn't.
Grazers with four long slender legs walked gracefully through the vegetation, their lean bodies gliding like boats above the ground cover. Their heads swung back and forth on thick necks, mowing the tops of the plants. Long crests rose back over their heads. As Alain moved out away from the ship, wading through the vegetation rising to his chest, they hooted and moved away.
It took Alain fifteen minutes of slow, careful movement to reach the rock.
"You made it," Lissa said, sounding pleased. "Ready to come back?"
Alain studied the rock. It was bigger than it'd seemed from the ship's images, but rougher. More cracks and handholds. Insects or something similar crawled on the face of the stone and moss, some taking flight. A few sported fat blood-colored tails ending in a trident-like arrangement of barbs. Not something to piss off. Chances were it'd end up being able to puncture the suit and he'd die horribly. None of those stayed when he got closer. They hopped like grasshoppers away from the rock as he started to climb.
A couple minutes later, Alain reached the flattened top of the rock. It was mostly stone, almost no moss or debris on the wind-swept surface. He stretched out on the warm stone, crossed his arms, closed his eyes, and pictured being home where the worst thing he had to deal with were mosquitoes. Pretty soon he fell asleep.
He won the bets. Set a new record for staying outside on the first excursion. His suit collected a treasure trove of samples. It might not have been the most exciting excursion for those watching, but it worked. And there were rumblings that Admin was reconsidering the regs around excursions. He hadn't violated any regs—he'd checked that thoroughly before coming up with his plan.
Unexpectedly, Alain discovered he'd also developed something of a reputation. After he'd settled down a pack of winged predators had swooped down, taking one of the grazers. They lifted it to the top of the rock to consume their meal not three meters away. Other than some side looks and snorting noises, they hadn't paid any attention to Alain. People were impressed at his nerves to be able to remain so still.
He nodded and didn't tell them he'd nearly had a panic attack when Lissa showed him the footage.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it!
This is a new challenge. I’m writing short short stories, under 2,000 words, many under 1,000 words. I’m sharing them to my Instagram stories several times a week. They’ll drop off that, but premium READINARY subscribers can read the full archive of stories here. When I have 100 stories, I’ll publish a collection of them all.
Best wishes, always — Ryan
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