Harmony in the Extremes


<<What distance?>> Commander John Larkin replied, roused from his bucket-seat occupation of gazing literally into space. Though inquiring, his voice was tainted with a slight shade of cynicism.

Starx examined his equipment and said: <<Approximately 6.2 billion kilometers, Commander. The signal seems to have originated from the second planet of this system. Possibly a ground beacon.>>

<<This is not a habitated system>> the Commander dismissed. <<It's probably not even surveyed yet. Plot a course to the second planet, however; it might only be an ancient, strayed craft, but we have to examine every lead.>>

A rumble from the Alcubierre drive in the stomach of the Mnemosyne indicated a shift in speed and direction. After a babble of digital information from the console, Starx said: <<Analysis of the signal is complete. While it is not a conventional distress call, it is curious, nonetheless. It is composed of two blips, silence, six blips, silence, one blip, silence, eight blibs, silence. The figure 2618, in other words. The current year, under the old Terran calendar.>>

<<The Terran calendar is best!>> the Commander snapped abruptly. <<And the old calendar is the one we will continue to use on this mission. I'll have no more references to Galactic Reckoning, is that clear? There is nothing wrong with the ways of humanity.>>

<<Yes sir; sorry sir>> Starx said, and hid his embarrassment behind guiding the Mnemosyne towards the brightening orb growing in the viewscreen sky.

<<Do you think it's the New Atlantis?>> co-pilot Hang Quach asked at length.

<<It's possible>> the Commander conceded. <<But I can't understand how it wandered this far off course.>>

SOME SIX HOURS later the Mnemosyne swung into synchronous orbit around the obscure planet, which currently bore the ignoble name of TKU 3139B, Galactic Reckoning. The world was M-class, moonless and shrouded with thick white banks of cloud punctuated here and there by stretches of ocean and land.

Hang proceeded to rattle off a host of details on the planet below as Starx attempted to pinpoint the ground beacon. Commander Larkin watched in silence.

Finally Hang announced: <<The data banks of the Mnemosyne confirm that the planet TKU 3139B has been visited by several expeditions, starting with the Tren probe of 2551Terran Reckoning, in which a small automated beacon was erected (terminated functioning in 2575), and then by two manned Terran Space Authority (TSA) missions in 2563 and 2579, respectively. During the Terra-Soosagin War of 2587-99, the planet hosted an enemy base, although this facility were destroyed during the Soosagin retreat. The last recorded visit was in 2613, five years ago, by another TSA vessel. According to the Honrakki Convention of May last year, the entire planet is designated as a nature reserve. Its largely methane atmosphere makes it unsuitable for colonization, while mining is restricted due to its unique indigenous ecology.>>

<<Thanks for the history lesson!>> smirked co-pilot Dean Huntley, much to the amusement of medical officer Jenn Maquire, but not producing the same effect on Larkin. He was of the "war generation", as Huntley would like to say, reticent and stubborn, stranded along with Starx somewhere in his fifties. Huntley and Maguire, on the other hand, were postwar zoomers who often complimented themselves for their enthusiasm and zest for change. They had graduated as cadets from Space Patrol two years previously, and ended up in the new team of Squad 432 to complement (or inject new blood into) the veterans on the crew.

<<Have you pinpointed the ground beacon yet?>> Larkin demanded. But no sooner had he uttered these words than the Mnemosyne was smashed sideways by a tremendous blast, throwing him to the deck.

<<What the...>> Starx gasped scrambling back into his seat, his temple gleaming. <<Commander>> he pleaded <<orbit decaying.>>

<<Activate reverse thrusters!>> Larkin cried. Then there was a second blast, and half of the control room collapsed. Clutching on to a railing, Larkin screamed: <<Prepare life-rafts!>> and the remainder of the control room disintegrated into a searing apocalypse.

COMMANDER LARKIN WOKE from a restless sleep to a dizzy head and an almost sickening sense of confusion. His first thought was that he was aboard the Mnemosyne, waking to a normal day of interstellar flight. Only when he turned on his side and felt stabbing pain in his legs did he remember: a projectile of metal and glass plunging into the atmosphere of an unknown planet, clouds outside thicker than soup. He opened his eyes and attempted to rise.

The crash of the Mnemosyne, on the search for the New Atlantis, by Robert Sullivan and Canva

A wave of giddiness knocked him to the floor, and with stinging eyes he made out a glary, claustrophobic sickbay virtually glowing with antiseptic light. Larkin vainly searched his memories for such a room, but there were none to be found. Where was he?

His first response was horrifying: it was the afterlife. Surely nothing could survive that fiery dive into the clouds. But was Heaven this lonely?

A door chimed out of nowhere and slid gently open. Larkin retreated under his bunk, hand moving instinctively to a patch of white jumpsuit where his gun should have been. He squinted at the doorway, saw a figure there: female, young and as white as he was. And she was beautiful.

She stepped forward, and the door sealed the space behind her. <<My name is Sarah>> she said, advancing a little further. <<I bid you welcome to our abode, and assure you that both your crew and yourself are perfectly safe, in the best of hands...>>

<<My crew? Where are they?>>

<<You were the last to awaken>> she said, taking another step. <<Your crew recovered earlier today, and are relaxing in the lounge downstairs. I will take you there.>>

<<Where are my clothes?>> Larkin said as he staggered to his feet.

<<Wouldn't you rather like to know where you are?>> she counter-questioned. Before he could respond she said expansively: <<Welcome to Eden!>>

<<Eden!>> Larkin gasped, his worst fears confirming. <<This is Paradise?>>

Sarah laughed, somewhat artificially. <<Hardly, although there are similarities. No, I welcome you to Eden, second planet of the TKU 3139 system, and to the utopia constituted my husband Michael and myself.>>

<<Utopia... Eden...>> Larkin stumbled, astonishment overwhelming any fear of the stranger. <<I recall jettisoning as my vessel crashed into the atmosphere, but our vectors were wrong, it was all too quick. I can't understand how I could have survived that kind of descent.>>

<<But you did, and so did your companions. We were alerted to your distress signal and caught your escape pod in a negative energy net. The shock from deacceleration must have rendered you unconscious. But you have recovered now. Come.>>

She turned methodically and marched out the room. Larkin, curious but not entirely convinced, followed her down two flights of stairs, into a bright, airy chamber seemingly molded from mycelium. As they passed a grotesque sculpture of twisted black metal, he saw his huddled crew ascend from a long white sofa. <<Commander, you're alive!>> Hang exclaimed, gliding across the room to greet him in a warm embrace.

<<Now we're all together>> Lisa said <<let's proceed to the dining room.>>

THE DINING ROOM was paneled with wooden walls (not imitation, Larkin deduced), several sparkling chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and a long table set for a meal. At the head of the table stood a tall, lanky man with brown hair and eyes of similar hue. A queer humanoid robot hovered by his side; like his master, he was as motionless as rock.

Michael and his shapeshifting robot, on Eden, in Harmony in the Extremes, by Robert Sullivan and Canva

<<My guests, sit please, and welcome to Eden>> the man began crisply, and it became obvious to the five visitors it was Michael who had thus spoken.

They collapsed to their chairs following his example, but all lacked the courage to mutter a single word. Finally Larkin, clearing his throat hesitantly, said: <<As Commander of the Mnemosyne I extend my gratitude for the hospitality you have offered, but forgive me my ignorance...>>

<<Your ignorance is understandable>> Michael replied smoothly. <<And forgive me for the traumatic treatment that you have received thus far. We had to, let us say quarantine you for a short period, to determine if you were friend or foe.>>

<<And as part of this quarantine>> Larkin countered <<you found it necessary to confiscate our weapons?>>

<<You have no use for your weapons in here, I assure you. If you would allow us to explain, you would understand the dilemma we now face. But first to the meal - I'm sure your hunger is immense.>>

Immense it was, Larkin thought as the towering robot served up a plate of a delicious but exotic foodstuff. For the next five minutes everybody ate, nobody spoke. At last Michael, finishing the repast, leaned back in his chair and signaled the robot to collect his plate.

<<A most gratifying meal>> Starx said, swallowing his last morsel. <<A recipe I have never before come across...>>

<<Indeed you have not!>> Sarah said proudly. <<It is a recipe known only to the two who dwell on this planet. It is mostly composed of a heavily mutated aquatic haizao plant grafted from a specimen we obtained off the coast of this continent, about three thousand kilometers south of here.>>

<<The hana plant>> Michael said, <<can be best described as an enormous seaweed with an extremely long lifespan: the parent of this specimen is estimated to be at least 200,000 years old, and covered an area of sea of about 80,000 square kilometers.>>

Commander Larkin felt his stomach churn. <<Do you mean that thing we ate was a plant? It tasted like fish.>>

<<You should feel privileged to have dined upon one of the culinary wonders of this universe>> Lisa said.

<<Anyway, enough talk about food!>> Michael said. <<As I said before, I bid you welcome to the planet Eden, second world of the TKU 3139 system. I doubt you have heard about this world before. It is off the beaten track, you might say, an obscure planet lit by a dying sun but harboring a remarkable jewel.>>

<<I remember receiving a mass of life signals as we were dragged into the atmosphere>> Maguire related. <<From what I could deduce, it seemed like a tropical paradise, a planet-wide Amazon of life, but for such a splendid world to escape exploration...>>

<<And the scourge of exploitation that would inevitably follow>> Michael snorted. <<The occasional probe ventures into this system, but they never stay long. It is best for the welfare of this planet.>>

<<Why are you here then, if you disdain exploitation?>> Starx pressed. <<And what point is there for an Adam and Eve in Eden, if there is going to be no Cain and Abel?>>

<<We operate as the guardians of Eden>> Sarah explained. <<We arrived here five years ago, fleeing the crushing conformity of the Lemurian Revival, and declared this Utopia while also completing a study of local lifestreams before they collapsed with the parent star's demise. Quite an obdurate task for two and their robotic staff to undertake, but dedication and enthusiasm - they have been our great allies. While our work is far from complete, we have built up a worthwhile database. The fruits of our research are at your disposal. We'll arrange a tour of the labs, later.>>

<<I'd be very honored>> Hang said.

Something about Sarah's use of the word "operate" had unnerved Larkin, so he said: <<Later - listen, there's not going to be much of a later. I'm afraid we're on an urgent Space Patrol mission. We'll have to locate the Mnemosyne immediately, and begin repairs.>>

<<Salvage will be impossible, I'm afraid>> Sarah said. "As far as we know, your craft plummeted into the forest approximately 800 kilometers to the northwest. Given its velocity, I assume it was vaporized on impact.>>

Larkin shivered as his world went cold. <<I see," he said. <<Well, we'll have to contact the outpost on Randslav IV, and organize a rescue.>>

<<You know I can't allow you to do that.>>

Michael's words were curt, a simple command. An uncomfortable silence settled upon the room. Starx fidgeted uneasily in his seat.

<<Our existence here is a secret>> Sarah said. <<We refuse to venture anything which would jeopardize that secret."

<<Why then, pray, did you sacrifice the energy to save us?" Larkin said. <<Was it because a craft lost in your system would attract too much undo attention?>>

<<We acted according to our principles." Michael said stoutly. <<And in doing so, we did not expect ungratefulness for our effort. It is a cruel world outside, though we call it paradise; perhaps you might like to pass the rest of your stay outdoors.>>

Larkin flushed red, consumed with anger. then released (or suppressed) it, chanting a Buddhist mantra in his mind. <<I apologize. It's been a rather bewildering day.>>

<<I understand," Michael agreed, in a gentler tone. <<It should be us apologizing; I'm sorry for the inconvenience of this situation. But, as I was going to say, there is an alternative to a distress signal. We have in our possession a small but spaceworthy cruiser, capable of limited warp. We could take you to the next system and leave you there, so long as you claim to maintain our secret and our disguise. That way, you obtain your freedom, and we preserve ours.>>

<<The matter bears some consideration>> Larkin conceded sullenly.

<<THERE IS SOMETHING decidedly wrong here," Larkin told his crew about an hour later. They were sitting in their sleeping quarters, a modified lounge decorated with gaudy artworks and multimedia installations. The hosts of Eden had vanished about 20 minutes earlier, "tending to a few odds and ends before the commencement of the tour". The Commander was hugely unimpressed; their behavior was far from proper.

<<And their eyes," he continued <<did you notice their eyes? They looked as if they'd just popped a whole vial of sasoyd pills! How dare they forbid us from contacting Randslav IV."

<<Every man is an island," Starx said, reciting the old Atlantean refrain. <<It's a sovereign utopia. Who are we, to come in blazing our wills about?"

<<You're starting to sound them," Larkin accused, staring at him skeptically. What happened to the Honrakki Protocol? They are in breach of it, just by being here."

<<If I may speak freely, sir," Huntley interjected somewhat brazenly, "but I would suggest the need to be realistic. What demands can we make, when this facility is our only sanctuary on a probably deadly alien planet?"

<<If we are on an alien planet," Larkin mused softy. Eight pairs of eyes turned towards him in startled expectation.

"What do you mean?" Hang asked, exasperated.

"Well, nobody remembers anything beyond our jettison from the Mnemosyne," Larkin said. "By that time we were still at a considerable height - high enough to be plucked by a sub-orbital craft. It sounds improbable, but far more likely than the claim we were captured in a gravity net and siphoned down to the surface."

<<A single outpost," Starx considered, "alone on a medium-sized planet, in exactly the right position to open an anti-gravity net. Yes, it is highly unlikely."

<<Almost impossible," Larkin said. "And has anyone yet glimpsed the world beyond these walls?"

Scarcely had Larkin said these words when a sudden darkness enveloped the room. The luminous ceiling was gone, so rapidly that their eyes received a painful impression. They remained mute, not stirring, and not knowing what surprise awaited them, whether fair or foul. A sliding noise was heard: one would have said the walls were peeling away.

Hell in Paradise, by Robert Sullivan and Canva

<<It is the end of the end!" Maguire cried.

Light broke at each side of the lounge, through two oblong windows. Larkin flinched momentarily, stricken with terror. But curiosity being the stronger force, he looked out the openings thus created - and was overcome by wonder.

The world beyond the window was indeed alien, there was no doubt about that. A forest of tubular trees seethed for at least 100 kilometers before slowly merging into an angry orange sky. Larkin struggled to understand as he looked why they called it Eden. It was a planet which had long gone beyond the limits of attraction; it might well have been a splendid paradise in its youth, but it had since overheated into a sauna of steam and severity.

After draining the landscape of knowledge, and finding beauty only in its severity, Larkin said, "So, this is the garden under our hosts' dominion. A strange forest: the trees remind me of tentacles, swaying like anemone in the tide. A most peculiar form of life."

Even as he spoke it seemed like every limb in the jungle was rent by some unseen force; out of the tears gushed vast clouds of yellow gunk, swelling the land in a rising pastel fog. The windows slowly lost their transparency.

"Great gods!" Maguire muttered. "What in the name of man was that?"

"The daily emission of rartoin spores," Sarah said. "Well, it happens every 25 hours, so it's as close to a day as you get here. A Terran day, that is."

Larkin smiled bleakly.

<<I hope," Lisa continued <<you're sufficiently rested to commence the tour. Depending on the weather conditions, we may be able to take you on a flight to Mount Esvalva, a volcano about 5000 kilometers south of here. And after that, possibly a forest walk."

"Our stay here must be short," Larkin interjected. "I appreciate the effort, but we are on a very important mission. I wish to leave tomorrow, whatever the arrangements."

"Tomorrow is about 150 days away," Lisa said. "Terran Reckoning, that is."

FIRST CONTACT (c)opyright Rob Sullivan 1988-2023. Contact the author for all your criticisms and feedbacks.

Literary Me, at the Halfway House Squared