As I’ve mentioned in passing a few times, I’ve been working on a book for about three years now. Unlike painting or photography, writing is a very solitary process. It’s not as if I can share my latest piece every few days or weeks, or my latest photo daily. A book takes a long time and a lot of work.
The working title is ATMOSPHERE. The premise I started with was the idea of humans landing on a planet where the atmosphere itself was sentient, so breathing connected them to it. I began with a first chapter that I dashed off in about an hour. Then I spent 6 months writing 50,000 words. I thought I was finished. Then I spent another 9 months revising and expanding it to 84,000 words. I am now about 1/4 of the way through the third and hopefully final polish of the novel. Then I query agents.
Here, if you are interested, is the latest version of chapter one. Warning: it will leave you hanging and hopefully wanting more.
ATMOSPHERE CHAPTER ONE
The airlock snicked closed behind her, punctuating the arrival of the first human visitors to Chara IV.
“This is it,” she thought. “You, Prithya Sartena, are standing on the surface of an alien world.” What would her family think? Her parents and sister, light years away on Earth. She pushed the thought down, like the prayers she no longer allowed to surface. They wouldn’t think anything. She didn’t exist to them. She took a deep breath as her suit recycled the single tear which had fallen from her cheek. Finding her center, she cast an analytical eye across the landscape.
They had touched down in a lush meadow, perhaps 100 meters across, bordered by dense, mottled woods. Beyond the woods, Prithya could see a few rocky hills and some more distant, larger mountains. Her heart raced. A whole world waiting for her to explore, study, and catalogue! She would be the first to understand this biome. Future scientists would study her work, build on her successes, and learn from her mistakes. She could name things! She chuckled to herself as she inspected her immediate surroundings more closely.
The ground beneath her feet was covered in a dense carpet of green and yellow. It felt damp and spongy through the sensors in her boots. Grasslike blades poked up through it, along with brightly colored flower analogs. She plucked a brilliant red specimen to examine more closely. “Calla Sartenis,” she said with a smile.
What had appeared to be petals at first glance turned out to be six puffy and apparently air-filled sacs grouped around a spiny blue center. Gently, she stroked one of the sacs, her glove passing the sensation to her fingertips. It was velvety soft. Suddenly, it burst and deflated, sending a burst of powder – pollen? into the air and onto her glove. Dropping the flower, she was struck by a familiar feeling of self doubt. The magnitude of the task before her pressed down on the elation she had been feeling a moment before.
Something flew overhead. A group of somethings, actually. She didn’t notice them until they had passed and entered her peripheral vision. They were curiously silent. Now that she thought about it, everything was curiously silent. Apart from the sound of a light breeze in the trees and the faint buzzing of what were presumably insect analogs, there was no sound. No bird calls, no animal noises, no chirping of insects. Maybe she and her team had frightened the local wildlife into silence?
Looking over at her companions, Dabrah (Dab) Diamond and Cohl O’Brien Manney, she smiled. They really did make a cute couple, especially when they thought they were hiding it. Cohl had his antique camera out and was happily clicking away. Considering the prevalence of imaging devices all over the ship and in their suits, his hobby had at first seemed anachronistic to her, but she had come to appreciate the quiet beauty in some of the two dimensional images he captured with the ancient device and displayed on the wall screens by his bunk. While Cohl played with his toy, Dab was watching another group of the flying creatures circling around above the trees.
They had prepared as well as they could for any eventuality, from initial spectrographic analysis to running exhaustive testing on the atmosphere after their arrival in orbit. It checked out at near Earth concentrations of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. The local biology was different enough that it was unlikely that they would get a microbial infection, but just in case there was something unexpected or something that they couldn’t test for, it had been agreed, by the time old method of drawing straws, that Prithya would breathe the air first. The luck of the draw had also earned her the nickname “GP,” for guinea pig. If she didn’t fall down frothing at the mouth, explode, or rip off her clothes and run away screaming, everyone else would loosen their helmets and breathe the air of a world twenty six light years from home.
Despite having trained her entire adult life for this moment, Prithya hesitated. Sometimes when a longtime goal is finally within reach, the final step can be more intimidating than any of the obstacles along the way. She steeled her nerves, her breath became shallower, and her heartbeat quickened. Cohl had stopped taking pictures, and he and Dab were looking at her, their faces expectant behind the visors of their plaz suits. She took a deep breath, forced herself into a calmer state, and sent the sub-vocal command to her suit which triggered the retraction of her helmet, the molecules seamlessly rearranging into a broad collar.
She stood for a moment, savoring the feel of a breeze that didn’t come from a cooling vent. It caressed her face, ruffling her short blonde hair. Tilting her head back to soak in the warmth of the alien sun, she exhaled, donating the first bit of Terran biomass to the Charan ecology. Then she took a deep, sweet breath of the only fresh air she had tasted since leaving home. It was sweet, too. Deliciously so, like springtime in a citrus grove. Her scalp prickled, the hair on her neck bristling as if there were a thunderstorm approaching. That would be the elevated electrical field they had detected on their approach, she thought. It posed no physiological risk to the crew, but the sensation did give her an eerie sense of foreboding.
“Well, GP?” Cohl raised his rebelliously untrimmed eyebrows. “Are we good to go?”
Prithya smiled at the nickname she used to hate and held up a finger. “Just a minute,” she said.
“Oh, come on!” Cohl started, but Dab laid a hand on his arm. “Relax, Cohl,” she soothed. “We’ve waited this long, what’s a couple of minutes more?” He looked at her and the tension visibly melted out of him. Could they be more obvious? Prithya thought. “I suppose you’re right, Dabs,” Cohl said, “but it isn’t as if we have a choice, anyway. We’re all going to be breathing this air soon enough.”
“We went over this on approach, Cohl,” Prithya sighed. “If I manifest any symptoms, you all can work on something to mitigate the effects before exposing yourselves. As I recall, you weren’t overly upset when I drew the short straw.”
Commander Mander Graff, who, along with the Captain, had stayed on the lander, interjected. “Your vitals look good from here, Prithya. How do you feel?”
“I feel great, actually,” Prithya responded. “Slightly heightened senses, colors look a bit brighter, nothing that can’t be attributed to my being a bit high on oxygen. I don’t think we have anything to worry about.” She shot a thumbs up at Dab and Cohl. “Go for it, guys.”
She watched in amusement as they retracted their helmets and whooped like a couple of kids, gulping lungsful of the sweet air. She went back to surveying her surroundings as Cohl spun Dab laughing in a quick dance. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him retract his gloves and contentedly run his fingers through the ground cover.
“Cohl!” Mander’s voice came over their com-plants. “You have no idea what you are touching. We were supposed to take this one step at the time.”
“Calm down, Man,” Cohl took great pleasure in this nickname, as did the others, albeit less overtly. “We’re here, we’re not going anywhere anytime soon, and we already know that the biome isn’t sufficiently compatible with ours to pose a significant health risk.” He lifted his left hand up to show a small insect analog crawling up his finger. Juggling his camera one handed, he snapped a quick photo of it. “Check this out, guys. It looks kind of like a caterpillar, but with spider legs.” The small creature worked its way to the lower side of Cohl’s hand. He turned it to keep it on top where he could see it. It skittered to the other side. “I think it’s scared of me,” he grinned. “No, wait,” a quizzical look came over his face. “It’s not scared of me, it’s scared of those flying things up there. Not sure how I know that, but I am certain of it.” He paused, shaking his head as if to clear it. “OK,” he said slowly. “That’s just weird. I know stuff about this place. Things I couldn’t possibly know.”
“Weird for sure,” Dab said. “I feel like I know stuff too. I was wondering about those flying creatures just now and suddenly information appeared in my head as if I had always known it. Turns out they are not so much like birds as flying mammals. Incidentally, your insect friend doesn’t need to be afraid of them, as they are headed for that lake we flew over on our approach.”
As she spoke, the circling flock took off in the direction of the lake, and the caterpillar thing on Cohl’s hand leapt to the ground and began munching contentedly on a plant. Cohl and Dab looked wide-eyed at each other and turned in unison to Prithya. “Are you experiencing this too?” Dab asked.
Prithya looked up from her crouch beside a bush, where she had been watching a lizard-like animal go about its business. “As a matter of fact, yes,” she said. “I was just postulating that this lizard thing might be climbing this bush looking for food, when I suddenly knew I was right. It’s headed for the berries on top of the plant. Here’s the kicker, though, I know what they’ll taste like when it gets there!”
“Hey, Man,” Cohl said, “Are you and Mags getting this?”
“We are. Personally, I think Prithya’s original assessment was correct, and you are all punch drunk from too much oxygen and the thrill of being on a strange planet. The Captain is more concerned. She wants you back on the lander for screening right away.”
“Hey,” Dab said. “This is no group hallucination. We have the empirical evidence of the insect and the flying things, remember?”
“And that lizard is currently munching on delicious berries at the top of this bush,” said Prithya. “That said, I agree with the captain. Let’s get back and try to assess what we’re dealing with. We’ll have plenty of time to explore later.”
There was a rustling sound, loud in the relative silence, and a stirring at the edge of the meadow. The three of them instinctively spun towards the movement, hands on their weapons, as something began to emerge from the trees.
Prithya had her weapon halfway out of its holster when she hesitated. Did they really want to begin this way, with violence? Her doubt gave way to conviction. “I don’t think we have any need for guns,” she said.
Dab and Cohl looked over at her in surprise, then nodded, dropping their hands to their sides.
“Of course we don’t!” Dab tossed her red curls in amusement. “Nothing here is a danger to us.”
“Are you nuts???!” Mander’s voice shouted through their com-plants. “We know next to nothing about the creatures on this planet! Prithya, get a handle on this situation and bring everyone back in, now!”
Prithya struggled internally but said nothing as Cohl turned and walked directly towards the biped which had just come out of the woods. “Calm down, Man,” he grinned, “We know more than you think. We’ll be fine. Watch this.” He walked over to the alien and looked up at it. It was about four meters tall, covered in fur, with a soft, deer like face topped by a crest, possibly bone. Two arms protruded from its sides at about Cohl’s eye level, each ending in a four fingered hand with two opposable digits. At the base of its neck were two smaller appendages with proportionately sized hands. “Is this cool or what, guys? FYI, those little hands are for eating.” He took the lens cap off of his camera and started taking pictures, moving closer to the tall being as he did.
“Cohl, you idiot! Wait!” Mander’s voice had an edge of panic. ‘The sensors…” He broke off as six more of the creatures exited the woods behind the first, explaining his alarm.
Cohl, replaced his lens cap, let his camera dangle from his neck, and walked over to the first creature. Looking up at its doe eyed face, he extended his hand and said, “Hi there! I’m Cohl.” The creature extended one of its long arms, took Cohl’s hand, and effortlessly tossed him over its head to be caught by one of the other six behind him. The camera flew through the air and ended up dangling from a bush.
Dab yelled “Cohl!” and raised her gun, starting towards the creatures, but almost immediately stopped and lowered her weapon, her face slack. Prithya stood and watched it all, confused by her own inability to act.
Cohl, meanwhile, stared up into the face of the furry giant holding him. “Wow, you sure are strong, buddy!” he said, sounding like an awestruck wrestling fan. He looked round at the other six. “Hi guys! Where are we going?”
Without responding, the seven melted silently back into the forest the way they had come. Cohl didn’t say another word.
“Cohl has disappeared,” Mander said over the com-plants.
“We can see that,” Prithya said. She clawed her way out of her paralyzing clarity of inaction. “I’m sorry, Man, I don’t know what came over me. I was, I am, certain those things were completely harmless. Even now, I’m still not sure they are a threat.”
“I’m absolutely sure they aren’t,” Dab said. “But, at the same time, I’m scared for Cohl. None of this is logical. Can we trust our own senses?”
“I’d say no, you can’t,” Mander said. “When I say Cohl disappeared, I mean he disappeared completely. His life signs and theirs dropped off the monitor as soon as they left the meadow. Get your asses back on the ship now!”
Dab snatched Cohl’s camera from the bush where it hung, and she and Prithya turned and ran back to the lander, Dab looking over her shoulder anxiously for any sign of Cohl. Once in the airlock, they removed their suits, put them in the decontamination hamper, and endured their own multi-phased decon treatment. Ten minutes later, after dressing, they joined Mander in the mess hall. Being the largest open area on the ship, the mess had become the de facto meeting room since they had all emerged from stasis two weeks prior to their arrival at Chara IV.
Mander paced furiously back and forth across the room, running his fingers through his hair and tugging at his beard, which, unlike Cohl, he had elected to keep when they came out of stasis. Dab and Prithya made attempts to speak, but he dismissed them with an irritated wave of his hand. Finally, he stopped pacing and faced them. “What were you thinking?!” he looked back and forth between them. We had months of First Contact simulations. Months. Every conceivable scenario, and not one of them involved walking up to an unknown alien to shake hands. You always err on the side of caution. Always. And you two stood there and let them take him!” He glared at them.
Prithya started to apologize, feeling sheepish. Then she mentally slapped herself. This was not their fault. “Man, you know we are better than that. Somehow those things used a sort of mind control to pacify us. In the moment, we were completely certain that the Deer Men were harmless. There was no sensation of compulsion, just the conviction that we had nothing to worry about. For an instant, I started to respond according to my training, but then it felt completely natural to just stand there and watch.” She stopped, noticing Dab glaring at her. “What?”
“Deer Men?” Dabs spat out. “Really? Those things took Cohl, and you want to give them some cutesy name?”
Prithya cringed. “Sorry, Dabs, we have to call them something, and their heads are pretty deer like, you have to admit…” She trailed off, realizing there was no point trying to reason with Dab right then.
“OK, whatever.” Dab turned to Mander. “Where’s the captain?
“She’s on the bridge, trying to figure out what happened to Cohl. Even if he were dead, we still ought to be able to locate his com-plant, but so far we have nothing. Mags says it’s as if he just dropped off the face of the planet when they stepped into the forest.”
“Shit.” Dab had gone pale when Mander suggested Cohl might be dead. “So, what have we been able to learn about the – she rolled her eyes at Prithya – Deer Men?”
“We would have more,” Mander replied, “except for some reason you both erased your data collectors right after they took Cohl, and his shut down too, so all I have is what we got shipside from the remotes. Want to explain that to me?”
“I don’t remember doing that. Do you, Prithya?” The two women looked at each other and then back to Mander, shaking their heads.
“Next time we’ll gather real time data while you’re out there,” Mander continued. “As for what we know, it isn’t much. We can surmise that they are warm blooded, and ship’s sensors indicate that their exhalations contain about ten times the carbon dioxide as the air, so they likely metabolize oxygen as we do. No idea how they communicate, as they didn’t make any audible sounds. Our sensors got absolutely nothing on them before they exited the woods or after they went back.” He paused. “It could be that something in the vegetation is interfering with our sensors.”
“Maybe that’s why there is no signal from Cohl’s com-plant,” Dabs said excitedly. That means there is hope that he is still alive!”
“Yes,” Mander said, “I’d say there is hope.”
“Then we need to get back out there and find him!”