Evolva: Croatoan

“When were you going to tell us about the other colony, Dean?” Tom might have been speaking low, but I could hear him loud and clear through the night air.

“I wasn’t, Tom, and they aren’t going to know.” Dean’s voice had an edge to it that scared me. I hated when leading figures got that tone of voice. It never meant anything good.

“Why not? Why didn’t you tell us the moment we were woken? Why didn’t you wake the people who could make a decision when you first found the buildings?” Tom’s voice was angry. “Most of us already know. It’s not like you’re dealing with a bunch of idiots, Dean. We are educated people who are trained to observe things. Above all else, we’re curious. We already know there was another colony here. Now why the hell did you give the go ahead to bring the rest of the colony down?”

“Because it was my choice, Tom. And I only had two options, one of which I was not prepared to do unless absolutely necessary.”

“What choices? I don’t remember being told of any choices.” Tom practically snarled at Dean. They must have been arguing a while for him to get that way. Tom was usually a very calm man, choosing to reason rather than argue.

“Cut the shit, Tom, you knew damn well who thought they were running the show when we left. Who knows if they’re still in charge, the way things were, the Creationists were all but in charge when we left. Ours was the last colony to leave Jupiter station and the Earth systems. There is no going back. Mitch Umbenauer was clear about that before I ever began planning this colony. I only had two choices when we reached EV0982.” I heard Tom take a step back, probably leaning against the side of the building with his arms crossed, listening. He might get angry, but he is a rational man. He would listen to Dean, now that he was being truthful.

“What choices did you think you had, Dean?” Tom’s voice was calm as he prompted the governor on.

“I could either assess the situation, which I had ample time to do over six months, and bring the colonists down. Or I could start the self destruct sequence on the colony ships. With everyone in still in cryo, no one would be aware of what happened.” I heard Tom suck in a breath as someone, probably Dean, shifted their feet in the grass.  “I resolved I would only do that if there was a reasonable cause for it. If I really thought the whole colony was in danger. It was a last resort I refused to use. I had no evidence, even after six months, of what could have wiped out the previous colony. For all we knew it was the indigenous wildlife, which we are much better prepared to protect ourselves from. I wasn’t about to let something like that make me press that button, Tom, not after what all these people had been through to get here. You know as well as I do they can’t go back. There’s nothing to go back to.”

“You should still tell them, Dean. The rumor mill is working overtime already. People are afraid and fear makes them do stupid things. They will do better to hear from you everything you know.” I heard Tom take a step away from Dean in my direction, “We’re all tired of government hiding things from us under the guise of being ‘for our own good’. Don’t start that here, not when we have a chance to start over.”

I slipped around the corner of the building, hiding against the wall as Tom walked away from me. Dean McGowen followed at a slower pace, clearly thinking things over. I had a gut feeling we would be getting a little information session from governor McGowen the next day. He wasn’t any less a rational man than Tom.

I leaned against the building as I waited for Dean to plod slowly away and closed my eyes. It was true, there really was a colony that existed on EV0982 before us. I wondered how long ago it was that Dean seemed to think we were better prepared than that colony. It must have been one of the first wave of colonies, back when they used to just drop people on a planet with little more than what a planetary soldier was given. I let that thought over rule any other doubts before I opened my eyes. I would know more about it tomorrow, I was sure.

The clouds had moved away from the moon, the nocturnal rainfall that Mairead predicted over the forest having moved onward. The light of the low hanging moon was startlingly bright, illuminating the foliage just outside of the force wall with nearly complete clarity. At first I just marveled at it. After a lifetime of artificial illumination, natural light from the sun and moon was still a novelty. Then, I saw him, a figure, rising up out of the foliage not eight feet from the edge of the force wall, only about twenty feet from me. He was not one of us, I was sure, not with a body that lanky or tall. I couldn’t see much more of the man despite the brightness of the moonlight but I knew he could see me and, somehow, I knew he could see me much clearer than I could see him. I froze against the side of the building and watched the man as he watched me for a very long moment. Then, like an apparition, he slid back through the foliage and disappeared into the shadows of the forest.

I moved and I moved fast. I ran past where my domicile was and straight to the main building where I could see Dean just entering. I practically knocked him over when I caught up to him.

“Jennae, what’s wrong?” Dean studied my face and it took me a little while to respond. My lungs were killing me, I still wasn’t totally used to the planetary air, but the shock of what I knew I had seen stopped my voice more.

“A man, I saw a man, in the forest.” I finally croaked as Dean led me into the main building, sitting me down on a chair. “Outside the force wall, there was a man, watching me.”

“Slow down, start at the beginning.” Others who had been in the main building came over, slowly, curious about what had shaken me. Dean looked up at the closest person, “Markus, go get Tom and Natalia Holt. Please?”

I could tell that last part was not something Dean was used to, turning a command into a request. Military training dies hard, especially in the ones who have been in longer. I took a moment to catch my breath, closing my eyes and trying to collect my thoughts into something coherent. Markus returned quickly with Tom, he must have been close, and then left to find Natalia.

“Jen, what happened?” Tom gave Dean a hard look before kneeling in front of me. I looked into Tom’s eyes and drew a breath.

“I was walking back from the lab and heard the two of you talking, so I went around the outside of the west storage building so I wouldn’t disturb you, when the clouds moved and I saw a man standing in the woods.” I hoped I fudged that enough to sound believable.

“A man standing in the woods?” Dean looked up and I realized there were even more people around me. I started feel uncomfortable. Dean located someone and spoke, “Andrew, are all the colonists within the force wall?”

“It wasn’t one of us,” I answered before the head of security could open his mouth.

“How do you know?” I could tell from Andrew’s voice he was trying to sound like he didn’t doubt me, but he was failing miserably.

“He didn’t look human. He was too tall, and he didn’t move like us.” I could feel my lungs relaxing and leaned back, looking up at Dean. “It wasn’t one of us, I know it. And he was there, watching me, then he went back into the woods.”

“Where, Jen? Where did you see him?” Tom, I knew from his face, believed me.

“I was standing at this end of the west storage building and looked straight out at the woods. He couldn’t have been more than twenty or thirty feet from me.” Dean stood up and nodded at Andrew, a silent military command.

“Andrew will take a team out and investigate, see if they can find anything. If they can’t tonight, they’ll look in the morning when there’s more light.” Dean smiled down at me and lay a comforting hand on my shoulder. “It just rained, the ground is soft enough that anything out there should have left a footprint or something. Don’t worry, Jennae, you’re safe in here.”

Andrew had a team of men and women already armed and walking out the door. He nodded at me before leaving. Despite the fact that I thought he was an asshole, I hoped nothing happened to him.

“Tom, why don’t you take Jennae back to her quarters? I think she needs a little time to calm down.” Dean gave Tom a cursory nod and smiled down at me again, “Jennae, I’m sure you saw something, you aren’t the kind of girl to go making up stories like that. Andrew and the team will figure out what it was you saw.”

Although his words sounded reassuring, I wasn’t completely convinced. Tom could see that, but he gathered me up and lead me out of the main building. I could see his face in the security lights along the path to my quarters and didn’t try to talk to him. He looked angry and pensive at the same time, a combination that, in light of what I had just seen, frightened me.

Tom dismissed Natalia’s questioning look with a nod to Meghan and Kaitlyn when we entered their house. He would fill her in on the events of the evening, the conversation with Dean included, after the girls were safely in their beds. For now, she just set about brewing a pot of tea and setting out leftovers from dinner, a vegetable stew of some kind, to calm my nerves. I ate dutifully and helped her clean up afterwards, avoiding the curious looks that Meghan and Kaitlyn shot my direction. They didn’t need to know what had scared me, especially if Tom did not want to discuss it with Natalia in front of them.

Fortunately it was late enough that I could safely bid the Holts goodnight and slip across the well lit courtyard to my own little house without it appearing too strange. Once I was safely inside, I made sure all possible points of entry into my house were safely locked tight and nothing was hiding in any of the corners before climbing into the shower to clean the grime from the green houses off of my skin.

I had barely gotten dressed when there was a sharp knock on my door. I peeked out through the small window beside the door before opening it, recognizing the sharply erect form of Andrew McGowen standing before it. He had his hands folded behind his back and his feet were shoulder width apart, at ease position. Once a soldier, always a soldier.

“I wanted to tell you we didn’t find anything, but the light isn’t good and we’ll look again in the morning.” Andrew’s blue eyes glittered in the white security light above my door. He smiled what he assumed was a comforting smile. “I’ve posted extra sentries tonight. If you would like, I could stay here, on a cot, with you. If that would make you feel safer?”

“Um, no thanks. We’re central enough, I think I will be alright. Thanks, anyway, Andrew.” As if that request wasn’t blatant enough. He was getting to be a problem. However, there was no need to be rude. “I think  I would rather be alone right now, you know, to get some sleep. It’s been a really long day and that just really took all the energy out of me. I appreciate your offer, though.”

“Any time, Jennae. Let me know if you need anything. Have a good night’s rest.” He smiled winningly at me before snapping his feet together and walking away.

I shouldn’t have been so nice to him. I thought as I shut and locked the door. Exhausted, I plodded gracelessly to my bedroom and climbed into bed, asleep before my head hit the pillow.

 

The next morning Governor McGowen called a meeting just after breakfast that all members of the colony were required to attend. When we reached the main building he had a screen erected at the far end of it with chairs lined up down the hall facing the screen for everyone to sit in. I joined the Holts as they took a seat near the front. Dean McGowen looked nervous as everyone filed into the room. I thought he might have been expecting a mutiny.

“Sit down, everyone, there should be room for all. There are still seats at the back. If I could have everyone’s attention, please.” Again, he appeared discomforted by the request, rather than the command. The room, however, quieted down immediately and he began, “I know that over the past few weeks since you first set down on EV0982 there have been rumors floating around about the discovery of a possible colony that was here before us. I wanted to let you all know, just to set the record straight, that there was a colony sent to this planet seventy years ago.”

Governor McGowen waited for the explosion of murmurs to die down again before he continued, “The colony leader was a man named Enoch Stauffer. He established the colony on August 8, 2412 as a peaceful research community on a relatively new world for the purpose of studying the evolution of the organisms over time. The colony consisted of 1500 scientists of various disciplines and their families. They were dropped onto the planet surface by a military class research ship named the Demeter. The Demeter was assigned to drop four colonies of around the same size on planets of a known age and then monitor those communities on three month cycles to report data back to the Earth system, and retrieve any colony shown to be in danger. Three months after the first drop the Demeter returned to EV0982 to discover that the community had vanished. Upon investigation it was found that the entire community seemed to have packed their belongings, including all research equipment, and disappeared. Only the buildings were left behind in a manner indicating careful planning, as if the colony had simply picked up and left. The crew of the Demeter maintained orbit around EV0982 for thirty days performing numerous aerial, geospatial, and direct contact searches of the area. Considering that no belongings were found and the buildings were left clean and empty, the captain of the Demeter assumed that perhaps some problem had been encountered by the community and they were able to summon help from a passing ship which retrieved the colony.

However, later investigations showed no human ships, military or otherwise, passed close enough to this system during the intervening time between initial drop and the first check point to have picked up a distress beacon, let alone came close enough to retrieve anything from the planet surface. At that time in colonization history and due to the nature of the colony, satellites had been  placed at strategic points in the system just prior to dropping the colonists for the purpose of both collecting planetary data as well as to serve as beacons for communication with the Demeter. During the resulting investigation, these satellites were retrieved and the information they contained analyzed. Key members of the colony, both scientific and administrative, were required to keep video logs of daily occurrences that were uploaded to the memory banks on the satellites so that in the event of an unknown situation occurring that would result in the death or disappearance of a colony, a safe method of recording information regarding the event could be stored out of reach of the danger. Review of those logs showed that after thirty days, fifteen younger members of the colony seemed to have suffered from an outbreak of an influenza-like disease that quickly abated. No members of the team succumbed to the disease and all of those members who had become ill recovered within five to seven days of the onset of symptoms with no obvious side effects. It was recorded that further investigation into the disease revealed it might have been brought to the planet surface by one, or a few, of the colonists and was not endemic to the planet. All other recordings indicate that research and daily life were proceeding normally with no problems outside of the ordinary issues such as adequate protection against indigenous predators and navigating the unfamiliar terrain. Three weeks after the recovery of the last influenza victim, the recordings stop. Nothing more was recorded from the surface of the planet to indicate what happened to the colonists. Whatever it was that occurred, it is assumed it was sudden and completely unexpected.

The Earth system government at the time ordered the planet to be put under strict satellite observation for one whole year after the disappearance of the colonists with regular direct contact search parties being deployed to search the surrounding areas in the hopes that something would emerge to indicate what happened to the colony. No party stayed more than seven days at a time on the planet surface. Nothing was ever found to indicate what happened or where the colonists went.”

“So why are we here?” I heard Mary Isenberg’s nasal voice float up from the back. She was a nervous woman at the best of times and I dreaded to think how she was now.

“We were given assurances regarding the relative safety of the planet prior to drawing up the colony agreement. The year spent observing the planet revealed no indication of an indigenous people or civilization that could have abducted or attacked the previous colony. Since the time of the disappearance there have been eight expeditions to this planet that have provided information that all of you are familiar with regarding the ecosystems and organisms on the planet surface. This is probably the best studied planet of all the ones we were given to choose from, which is why the choice was made.” Dean smiled calmly at all of us, “Honestly, we are also significantly better prepared to handle whatever this planet chooses to throw at us than the first colony.”

“But we don’t have the option of going back, like they did.” Someone, I think it was Archie Giuntini, grumbled loudly from the front row.

“Now, look, I am going to be straight with all of you. You all knew when you signed your names to the colony contract that there was no going back, even if that were an option. Not only is this a one way trip due to fuel and economy, but you all knew how things were changing back home. The extremists on both sides were rising again, like they did fifteen years ago, and things were getting worse by the minute. We don’t have anything to go back to. Hell…” Dean leaned forward on the podium and ran his hand over his face with anxiety, “President Marshall gave me the order that if I found any reason what so ever that we could not establish a colony on this planet, I was to terminate the lives of every single individual, including myself, rather than think about returning to the Earth system. He was expecting to be deposed within days of our departure. For all I know, he’s been dead since that time.”

There were murmurs through the room, but Dean continued, “I did not and still do not consider that a viable option. Especially since our security and building crews have survived six months solid on the planet surface without anything more than the usual issues with indigenous wildlife.  There has yet to be an indication of anything that we did not expect, especially since we have so much information from the preceding investigations regarding this planet. We are better prepared, better trained, and better organized than that colony and we will survive here. We have no other choice.”

“Now, if you have any questions, I am happy to answer them now.” Dean slid from behind the podium and sat down on a chair placed beside it.

Not surprisingly, many people had questions regarding everything from wanting to see the actual data and records from the first colony to inquiries about the security situation and how it was being handled. Dean informed everyone that all of the records, including the first person record logs of the actual colonists themselves were available on the library database for each and every one of us to view, no restrictions. He then launched into an explanation of the current security measures in place and asked if anyone had suggestions, to please bring them to light for consideration. He listened patiently as a few people made their remarks, discussing with them how to implement them into the current protocol.

To my great relief, no one mentioned the episode from the previous night. I had not had a chance to ask Andrew what he might have found this morning in the daylight. He was clearly back from investigating the area for the second time, he stood behind his father patiently. The mud on his boots and the lower part of his pants indicated he had, indeed, followed through. Unfortunately, he caught me looking at him and moved to sit by me.

“I thought you might want to know what we found this morning.” He sat on the chair beside me, leaning in closer than I thought was necessary and keeping his voice hushed.

“What was it?” Tom leaned around me, placing a subtle hand on my shoulder which caused Andrew to lean back a fraction.

“We found animal tracks through the forest floor, and around that area. It’s possible you saw a new species that can rise up on two legs. We already know that there are a few nocturnal herbivorous species that spend most of their time in the trees, but will occasionally take to the forest floor. It’s been observed rising on two legs to reach foliage when it’s in the tree. We’re thinking that, in combination with the tracks we found in the mud, this herbivore is what you saw last night.” Andrew smiled warmly at me and patted my knee. I tried not to flinch. “ Most likely it was just as startled as you were, but there’s nothing to worry about.”

“That’s good to hear.” Tom gave my shoulder a squeeze and I nodded, trying to look relieved.

“Glad I could settle your fears, Jennae. Maybe we can get that smile back on your face now.” Andrew gave me another pat on the knee before rising to join his father, who had indicated he needed Andrew to answer some of the questions being fired out by the other colonists.

I wasn’t relieved by Andrews explanation. I knew I saw a man, not an animal, watching me in the moonlight. I couldn’t stop going over it repeatedly in my head, trying to make the image fit. The herbivores Andrew mentioned were numerous, one of the most obvious species in the surrounding forest. We had captured and dissected quite a few of them, even tried them for food when their flesh was found to contain nutrition we required. None of the specimens brought back, nor any of the animals observed in the wild could stand higher than my waist. They also couldn’t walk on two legs, their body physiology requiring them to drop to all fours and trundle along with an ungainly motion until they reached a tree. The man, and I was convinced it was a man, had been standing and walked smoothly, backwards, into the foliage.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” Andrew’s voice startled me.

I had gone back to the corner of the west storage building and was staring through the force fence at the spot where I had seen him. I didn’t realize I had been so lost in thought until Andrew’s voice sounded barely two feet from me.

“I don’t think it was one of the herbivores.” I turned and looked at him as he stood beside me, a scowl etching his features.

“We didn’t find anything else, Jennae.” His scowl deepened

“I’m not saying you did. I’m just saying that what I saw last night was not an herbivore.” I shrugged and looked at him, “Maybe the reason you didn’t find anything else is because the tracks of the herbivores covered the tracks of whatever was there. Maybe it wasn’t touching the ground when it moved. It was in the tree line, it could have been hanging from a tree and I couldn’t see that clearly. I just know it was too big to be one of the herbivores, and it didn’t move like them either.”

“Do you think it could have been something that feeds on them? Some kind of predator?” he stopped scowling, now that I had let him know I didn’t think he was lying to me.

“Maybe. I don’t know.” I shrugged, and turned in his direction, deciding to head back to the greenhouses. “I just know it wasn’t one of the  herbivores.”

“But you don’t think it was a man, either.” His statement caught me off guard.

“What?” I turned and looked up at him, surprised to find myself so close to him. I forced myself to grin a little, “you mean like the ghost of one of the first colonists? Andrew, are you crazy?”

“I sincerely hope not. But that’s just the sort of rumor that shouldn’t get started around here.” The scowl returned.

“Then perhaps I should change my description.” I stepped back, scowled up at him, and put my hands on my hips in the best ‘I mean business’ pose I could muster, “the thing I saw appeared humanoid, but was definitely taller than me. IT moved too smoothly to be one of the herbivores we have observed around the settlement since arriving. I think that perhaps it might have been a new species of ANIMAL that we have not yet fully observed. I also think that we should instate measures to try and observe this animal with the thought that we have settled in its natural territory. Is that a better statement?”

“Jennae, I didn’t mean it like that.” Andrew stepped back, clearly un-nerved by my irritation.

“Andrew, I was scared last night. I did not expect to turn around and see something staring back at me through the force field. It took all my will power not to scream bloody murder when I saw it. Please try to understand that.” I sighed, looking back at the spot where I had seen the man.“Now I am trying to rethink what I saw so that perhaps our more animal oriented scientists might be able to discover what this creature is.”

“I understand.” He took a step back toward me and I looked up at him.

“I really need to get back to the greenhouses. Please let me know if you find anything else that might be useful.” I spun on my heel and walked away, trying to look irritated.

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