Simone had been taking samples when her heads up display shrieked into life. The atmosphere on Walmart 7 held several strains of pollen which meant that she could not go outside without a sealed encounter suit. She turned her head to look at what had triggered it.
The grub harvested lichen from a flat crop of grey rock when it stood on its hind legs and chanted. Simone worried that she had become accustomed to such sights that the alien becoming commonplace took away from her sense of who she was.
‘Tissamayaw, lsh nuf povah lu.’
Simone saw the blood pumping to the surface of its translucent skin. It waved its jointed forelimbs ahead in vicious arcs of desperate movement. Simone powered her suit up and stomped over to the grub. It turned its head and stared at her, the secondary eyelids blinking over and over as it extended its mandibles. Her stomach lurched with dread, the first real emotion she had experienced beyond latitude and a dull, persistent longing for home.
‘Tissamayaw, lsh nuf povah lu.’
They spoke through a series of hollow chambers, lined with tendons that resonated at different frequencies to produce speech. The words it chanted held a terrible, ancient quality she found awful to hear. The grub shuddered before collapsing and kicking its limbs outwards.
Simone sent the image up to Command. She saw that several other grubs and even a second-tier queen fall whilst others stood there, kneeling to acknowledge the moment or dancing in excited, small circles. Some even walked away with the blithe disregard of children. Her throat closed in disbelief.
‘What are you seeing down there, Doctor?’
Command’s default voice was a robust, salt of the earth paternal archetype. The canned reassurance was perfect for her.
‘We’ve gotten readings on a massive spike and distribution of pollen. Not the usual variants either.’
‘It’s not affecting everyone either. There are grubs and queens who are still upright and mobile.’
Simone held a brief inventory. Nothing got through the suits but it never hurt to check. Sometimes all she had been her routines and procedures, forever meeting the expectations but seldom the approval of her peers.
‘Vitals are fine, Doctor. Follow Encounter Protocol Eight and return to the compound.’
Simone looked through the available data to determine if the pollen was moving in their direction. She switched to a live feed of the main dining room where she would spend her off duty hours. They ate and talked without a care in the world. Late at night, or what passed for it, she would start to approach the subject of her alienation, her apathy but would retreat at the last minute, and she always saw the same wounded light in the eyes of whoever she spoke to.
Until one of them. Mathis, she thought, got up to the window and pressed his palms against it.
Her medical harness introduced a cocktail of mood suppressants and adrenaline into her, and her heart thumped with purpose in her chest.
‘Anything on the pollen?’ Simone asked.
Her Bubble shimmered in the air before her. Its waves of gravitons shimmered the air beneath it as she slipped inside, activating the engines with a turn of her head.
‘It’s an older strain, distributed from certain points on the surface. Places we’ve not been able to explore as yet.’
The gel solidified around her, reading the photo-electric cells in her armour so she was both pilot and engine in one.
She had one destination and one speed.
‘Where’s it come from?’ she said.
It sent over a three dimensional scan. A series of concentric, golden circles spreading outwards from distinct points on the planet’s surface.
‘Looks like it’s being vented up from somewhere.’ she said.
Command sent more footage. Grubs and queens made equal in their chances of survival, and they experienced it with an air of delighted acceptance.
‘It’ll reach the compound before I do, Command.’
The footage disappeared. Silence from Command, which unnerved Simone more than anything else that had happened. If there was someone watching, someone in charge, then she allowed herself the luxury of abstraction. To bear this was an awful responsibility for anyone, and Simone willed the Bubble go faster in response.
She was not sure if she was running away or towards the problem. The world around her resisted order and amidst the thick clouds of chaos, raw feelings emerged after years spent in hibernation.
The landscape hurtled past her, featureless by the velocity. She activated the external camera to see what was ahead.
The clouds of pollen moved at their own pace, twisted by the impending fields that propelled the Bubble like a globule of oil across a hot skillet. They shimmered, gold and green as they clung to any available surface or person with a hungry ease.
Simone saw the outline of the compound and sent a call out.
Silence. An ache started in her chest, deep and thick enough to make her struggle for breath.
She slowed down, preparing to hit the landing bay and get into cover when she saw the bay doors were open.
Command remained silent.
She stopped the Bubble and got out, still dripping from the immersion in the gel cockpit and saw shapes moving towards her. Simone sent out a message but got silence, teeming and insinuating as the pollen.
Her feet hit the body on the ground. She thought it looked like Mathis, but he was only wearing a white sheet and his LED tattoos were dark.
Simone saw the others coming towards her, all of them nude but for a layer of pollen, arms outstretched and grinning with a savage delight.
They were chanting and walking without a care in the world.
‘Tissamayaw, lsh nuf povah lu.’
Cara who had been an administrator turned her head and Simone saw the exit wound where she had removed her Phought device. It explained but did not mitigate the silence.
Cara looked genuine in her happiness. Simone had complained about the transparency, the lack of privacy and the constant noise but she yearned for one friendly voice to explain to her what was happening here. Cara had chosen something else to listen to and had mutilated herself to better commune with it.
Simone turned and ran back to the Bubble.
The nature of this was as random as a car accident, but Simone knew she was privy to rules and precepts established long before they had arrived here. She resolved to find out something, if not to survive it, then to at least die informed. She had a sense of wonder, a back handed gift from the universe itself.
She realised that whatever weird shit she had become inured to, there was always an event waiting to disabuse her of that notion.
She slipped inside the Bubble which dissolved the pollen with a crackling hiss and started the engine up.
Her colleagues stood there, arms open and inside her, an ache to understand, to belong roared up within her but she shut her eyes, took a deep breath and made her escape.
She would bear the silence for as long as she could. If not, well she could take off her suit and it would all be over in a single breath.