Card Challenge: Day 63
Card Day 63: A man peers over the edge of a large leaf, noticing piles of berries and fruit arranged on the leaf as if upon a table.
Exploration in concept was thrilling. Exploration in reality was exhausting. Ulrich collapsed down into his tent for the night, sinking into the cheap polyester that stunk with a week’s worth of his unwashed scent. His limp arm cast about the tent, finding his pack and tugging his recorder from the dark recesses.
“Ulrich Briggs, exploration party 39974 on Ourea-2, day 15. I traveled—“ he glanced briefly at the blinking display on his writs, translating the numerous metrics into useful data—“27.39 miles today. There was no sign of any intentionally formed structures. I catalogued seven potential new species, available in my imagedeck with transcribed narration. I have set up camp for the evening within the foothills. Tomorrow, I will begin to descend the mountains and search for any sign of sentient habitation or shelters. Proximity alarms are set and any trigger will initiate upload of all of my data, as well as activate my distress beacon.” The rest of his message descended into the rote jargon required by daily travel and bureaucratic CYA policies. Ulrich faded off to sleep, the final words dribbling from his lips with the same automaticity his entire journey had taken on.
The next morning broke bright and slightly cool. The thinner atmosphere meant that the temperatures tended to fluctuate a bit more rapidly from day to day, and Ulrich was very thankful for the temperature regulation of his Discovery Corp uniform. He stretched his arms wide and breathed deeply. There was something lovely about the freshness of relatively untouched air. There was no smog, pollution, or even foreign scents to sully the surrounding atmosphere, so he was left with a lungful of crisp morning air. It almost made the day seem worth it.
After a quick breakfast from his rations, Ulrich thumbed the compression button on the camp and watched as it swiftly folded in on itself until it fit neatly in his pack. The noise was uncomfortably loud, and he was disappointed that the local fauna opted to cease any morning songs or sounds in response. It made the first few steps of his journey all the lonelier.
The foliage around him was a much brighter shade of green, but they grew as hula hoop-sized leaves up and down the alien equivalent of trees. The trees here, however, stretched far taller than any he had seen on earth. He had measured quite a few specimens well over 500 feet. However, the trees grew shorter and squatter as he neared the mountains, taking on an almost moss-like quality to their low profile. They still arched high above him, but seemed to crawl along the surface, clinging close as if any higher and they would be ripped straight off the surface. It was remarkable, and Ulrich walked along in the midst of a botanical cave. The sun peeked through the branches, lighting the soft ground beneath his feet, but the shade did its best to suck the meager warmth from the surrounding landscape.
Still, the view was incredible. The one benefit of the job, Ulrich though glumly.
Ulrich was not studying his lifeform scanner as close as he should have. He was used to the usual noise of small creatures that crawled unhindered through the region. But, his boredom bred complacency, and he missed the taller heat signatures creeping along his footsteps.
Lunchtime came after what felt like hours—mainly because it had been—and Ulrich loved the break. Even the wonder of a new world grew dim when his feet were aching and his back groaned from the weight of his survival pack. He smiled, realizing he would at least have the chance to lighten the pack a tiny amount by devouring his lunch ration for the day. It was a small solace.
Just as he broke the seal on his mid-afternoon vittles, the foliage around him shuffled to life, opening to allow a collection of tall humanoid figures. Ulrich studied them, wide-eyed, and tried to fit this into the paradigm of bored observation that had thus far defined his exploratory experience.
They were taller than humans—everything on this planet seemed taller than Ulrich thought was average—and covered in relatively thick, dark skin. It made since, his scientific brain added, given the decreased atmosphere and extreme temperatures. Their eyes were set deep into their heads, but looked intelligently out at him. Each individual of the troupe was clothed with one of the large leaves from the abnormal trees. They were wrapped intricately around their tall, slender bodies, and Ulrich found the sight of them enchanting. They moved gracefully, and their eyes followed him with wary intrigue.
Slowly, Ulrich lowered the food to his lap, but his mouth remained agape in amazement. This was a truly fascinating find, but it was terrifying. The sudden danger of the situation settled over Ulrich like a blanket, but he felt just as frozen as he had in wonder.
Their fingers, long and delicate, were wrapped tightly around smoothly carved spears, but they were not lifted or poised to attack. Still, the simple presence of six alien beings, watching him intently, made Ulrich begin to shake. He was a scientist, not a fighter, not a soldier, just a mere explorer. He knew there would be dangers, and he had expected problems with local fauna and inhospitable conditions, but not that he might meet some truly sentient being who could maliciously choose to destroy him.
One of them, a creature with a smooth scalp and slightly glowing grey eyes, stepped forward slightly, sharply angled nose sniffing towards Ulrich. He did not doubt that the alien would have any difficulty smelling him, especially after these days in the field. The leader, or at least the one he presumed was the leader, began to speak. Unfortunately, Ulrich had absolutely no way to possibly understand the complex language that circled around him. He smiled, hoping it would not appear aggressive. The leader looked taken aback, but then split its mouth into a wide grin.
Ulrich did not like the surprisingly sharp teeth that grinned back at him.
But, instead of moving in to attack, the leader motioned to one of the others, and another creature stepped forward. This one looked similar, but the eyes were a soft-blue glow, granting a slight illumination in the shadows. It was also more tightly muscled, looking thicker and more intimidating than the slender and graceful leader.
This was it, Ulrich thought. The end was coming. He closed his eyes tightly and waited for the inevitable.
Instead, the being knelt down beside him and pulled a tightly wrapped package from the leafy garment. Its nimble fingers danced over the packaging, revealing a cluster of brightly colored berries and oddly shaped fruits. It was only after a prolonged period of, frankly, still being alive passed that Ulrich dared to open his eyes. He was met with an image of bounty, even if it did scare him. It could, he reasoned, be poison.
The alien lifted a single berry to its lips, crushing the food between those razor teeth. Then it smiled, bright blue juice staining its teeth in a slightly unsettling display. Ulrich swallowed deeply and carefully lifted a berry to his lips.
If this was it, he had at least made a once-in-a-lifetime—a once-in-a-species—discovery. He munched on the berry, smiling at his gathered hosts. It was surprisingly good, tart and sweet, and the juice trickled down the back of his throat pleasantly. It was also surprisingly filling, and a welcome break from the stale, bland rations he had been devouring.
Still, it was only fair. He extended the bar to the being kneeling before him. It reached out, glancing at Ulrich and then to the leader standing behind. The leader jerked its hand sharply to the side, and the brave creature beside Ulrich eagerly bit into the bar.
As much as Ulrich hated the rations, the alien seemed to enjoy the change from the berries which were certainly stale to them.
Ulrich grinned at it, it grinned at him. First contact.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.