"HiRes" by Carl Goodman

(Click picture above to view a larger image.)
 

The Robain Incident
(A Langford Joh story)
by William Alan Rieser

 

It was significant that the first Confederation hopefuls were Earthlings because the surface and texture of Robain had many similarities to their home planet. The gravity was nearly the same, the content of the air almost identical. Were it not for the fact that there were no viable life forms on the sphere, the scientists would have pronounced the place a doppleganger of Earth, proving the duplicity theory. It even had a similarly cratered moon in the same kind of geosynchronous orbit. But that was not entirely the case. There were bacteria and virus sized, one celled animals of diverse shapes, none of which approximated any of those at home. Aside from that, however, the weather cycles and the flora were exceedingly the same but the fauna was decidedly inhibited by something. The cause of this stifling was unknown, despite visits by many species who were particularly good at determining such things.

In spite of the advantages, Robain never quite measured up to Confederation expectations because of the disappearances. Virtually every colony ship withdrew after unsuccessful searches for missing members. It turned out that nearly every visitation could claim at least one individual, inexplicable loss. After years of trying to unfathom the enigma, the colonizers felt defeated. Whatever the trouble might be, not the scientists, the police nor their detectives could manage to clarify the slightest of clues as to where people vanished nor how. It became one of the more unsettling mysteries, especially because Robain held itself out like a very desirable carrot for a starving horse. That was why Ambassador Langford Joh became interested in the affair and decided to do something about it, mostly because he didn't believe that fear of the unknown should be allowed to flourish.

"I want a full scientific team," he demanded of the League of Sentients when he made his proposal. "It's time to put an end to this nonsense and find out what is really going on. Robain is too valuable to ignore and the predator isn't advertising himself."

The League agreed with him and he was granted a small expedition, stacked to the beams with first-rate scientists and equipment to delve the Robain puzzle via a fully fortified star craft. Langford, after all, was the entity who opened the door to Manic and exposed the Prail, however partially, to the Confederation. Even now he furthered that enterprise by establishing a more solid contact with the still controversial Manic denizens because they would not communicate with anyone else. It was thought by many that the Earth Ambassador might succeed on Robain where so many had walked away with nothing.

After orbit was established, Langford made the scientists duplicate everything previously done by others to examine the planet and verify the conclusions. There were no discrepancies, neither could they find an anomaly.

"You want me to believe it's a microbial heaven?" he scolded them. "A place for germs where man cannot walk in safety? Have you mapped where the disappearances occurred?"

"Yes," replied a technician. "We took everything into account. There are no similarities between places except for the fact that they were near water."

"Water," mused Langford. "The first I've heard of it. I assume you've probed these areas?"

"To their bottommost depths, sir. Nothing. No creatures of any kind, not in any lake, river or stream and the oceans are barren."

"Assuming that whatever they are can be revealed by your scanners. Isn't it possible there is another life form capable of eluding our present scans?"

"Highly unlikely, sir. The fabric of the universe is basically the same everywhere. We would have picked up something, if only to register a so called dead area, one that defied the scan. That's the beauty of our technology, sir. If there was something down there unscannable, our sensors would reveal it."

"I'm not convinced. If the void teaches us anything, it is that space is a paradox of complements."

"Excuse me," voiced the technician.

"For every one, there is a complementary opposite zero. One of everything that exists, surrounded by the purity of nothing. I cannot accept your logic. We have overlooked something. I'm going down there."

"But sir, it is dangerous."

"So is walking under an ice-encrusted tree. Get me a team. If you want, arm them to the teeth, but I'm going to set up a camp personally. While I am doing that, I want you to contact League representative Troif. Tell him I require his presence."

"But we can scan everything from here. Why do you find it necessary to go to the surface?"

"Because the problem is down there, technician," said Langford, arching his eyebrows in a way that told the technician to cease his objections.

In the surface camp, Langford made an unusual discovery near one of the lakes where a former colonist had vanished. Although the soil had the appearance of being fertile, it refused to cooperate with alien seeds. Nothing would germinate inside Robain dirt, an anomaly that Langford anticipated when he sent for his friend from the League, Byl Troif.

"Of what use can I be to this inquiry, Langford?" asked the foliant, a knowledgeable bushy rep from the Tamang system.

"Just this, Byl Troif. What might bewilder us is much less likely to confuse a species that specializes in rooting itself to planetary crusts. I already know there is something wrong with the soil. Perhaps you can tell us what it is?"

"You're asking for a private planting in an alien pot? How awful. What if it backflows my nourishment pods and poisons my delicate system?"

"Surely you have developed antidotes? Besides, if anything dangerous occurs, we'll have special sensors buried in your matrix. If anything serious happens, you'll be rescued, I promise."

"Spoken like a dropped fruit. I suppose I'll have to try, considering our friendship, but I don't like being the only tree in a desert. Couldn't you hide a friendly bush bunny in my branches or something?"

"How about a techo? Would that do?"

"What's a techo?"

"Oh, its an android gecko lizard filled with miniaturized armaments, just in case."

"That plus the sensors?"

"Acidic laser sensors, in case you need to spray something that won't go away."

"Where do you want me to plot?"

"Near the shoreline if you don't mind."

"What about communication?"

"Intraveinous digital, pardon the expression. If you have anything to say, I'll pick it up on the X band. Anything else?"

"Do you mind if I take a chlorophyl shower before we start?"

"Be my guest. There's a portable in my tent."

After a day of careful preparation in which Langford's scientific team fortified the foliant rep with everything he might need for a prolonged study of the surface, Byl Troif deposited himself by the lake as requested. Initially, the gleanings were meager and gave them only negative data.

"Strangest soil I've ever had the misfortune to cleave, Langford. Not a nutrient anywhere. In fact, it doesn't appear to me as though it is capable of supporting plant life at all."

"What about all the flora around us? Robain is almost completely green."

"I'm not getting any sympathetic vibrations, which I ought. No photosynthesis is going on. I don't sense moisture being absorbed by roots. Very strange. I suggest you analyze some specimens, break down their chemicals and look for oddities. I will assist the examination."

Then, in trying to obtain samples, the surface team experienced a deeper mystery. Whatever they touched for the purpose of removing from the soil vanished before their eyes when they exerted pressure and then reappeared moments later when they walked away. It went beyond invisibility because the foliage involved also removed anything about itself that could be sensed.

"It may be a clue," suggested Langford, studying one of the records. "Here we have a small tree in evidence that seems to transfer itself to an unknown place the moment it is touched and return only when we humans are at a safe distance from it. Could they have extended this trait to aliens either intentionally or accidentally?"

"It doesn't seem like a sentient response to me," insisted Byl Troif. "Why would any foliant with such an ability return to the same spot where it could again be seen?"

"Perhaps it is a different level of intelligence," mused Langford. "Certainly not on your lofty tier, Byl, but maybe something we are not considering."

"Like what? Designed? Controlled? Adaptive? For what purpose?"

"And for whose?" added Langford. "I think the disappearances are tied into it. Let's try something new. Do you sense any differences between these growths? Do any exhibit qualities that others do not?"

"Hmm! I do get an unusual feeling through the soil as though certain concentrations of energy are more important than others. But it is no more hard to understand than a large tree absorbing more moisture than a tiny shrubbery because of its size. Also, there is an undertone deep in the crust. Almost undetectable had I not been familiar with Earth machinery, but it is there. I can't explain it."

Having heard that statement, Langford immediately ordered sonic sensors to probe the Robain surface in places that Troif pointed out. They were soon faced with a controversial fact.

"There it is," stated the foliant emphatically. "I can feel that vibration through every pore in my leaves. Yet, your scanners show nothing. They are not picking it up."

"That is why I wanted you here," said Langford. "Had it been a question of sight, I would say we've found a subliminal image. It appears we've discovered a dimensional harmonic that does not register on traditional audio detectors. The fact that you are hearing or feeling something means we can tap into you to explore this possibility."

No sooner did they make this discovery than Langford ordered the entire scientific team from the orbiting craft down to the surface. Representative Troif was then encompassed by many hands and invasive probes to transfer his empathic sensitivity to any kind of equipment that would display what he was experiencing. It took four hours before they had any kind of success. Then, after one technician had inserted a tiny butterfly needle beneath the bark in Troif's trunk, a scope revealed a strange pattern on its reticule. It was a matrix of parabolic waves.

"There it is," shouted Langford. "That is what we've been looking for."

"But what is it?" complained a technician.

Langford ignored the man and asked Troif to rotate his roots in the soil. As he did so, the scope responded by showing greater and lesser waveforms. The bigger the image, the lower the frequency. It also became readily apparent that the shape of the wave indicated a precise modulation effect. One scientist traced the connection in Troif to a substance in the foliant's physiology, that of mirrored pith molecules.

"I thought so," said Langford. "Definitely a designed envelope. Gentlemen, whatever causes this exists beneath the surface. Let's get a mole and do some digging. We'll program the depth sensors for pith and see what happens."

That decision resulted in another discovery. The entire crust of Robain was riddled with subterranean tunnels, all of them filled with pith residue. Rather than proceed with mole vehicles, since further digging proved superfluous, Langford had them adapt two shuttle cars for exploration. After the first day of searching with these vehicles, some new facts were elicited. The bulk of the tunnels existed near water. They were perfectly cut and cylindrical as though a sphere had rolled through them. They were of different diameters, some small, some large.

Byl Troif made the next discovery on his own after noticing that all the tunnels exhibited a specific trait. They bulged near the surface in an unusual expansion that did not coincide with normal girth.

"I have it," he said excitedly. "They are not foliants at all in the normal sense. They are photon collectors, passing the energy down through their roots to something that feeds on them. The bulges prove it. You can see the feeding points everywhere."

Langford, however, was unsatisfied with these revelations. He wanted to find the spheres and perhaps the missing people. He became convinced they were near to ferreting out the truth when a technician managed to freeze an indigenous Robain shrubbery and uproot it for analysis. His examination turned out to be something no one had anticipated. It was startling and revolutionary.

"It is not vegetation," said the man, confirming earlier comments by Byl Troif. "This is a mechanism, a tool for distributing absorbed light, gathered by receptor leaves, to its roots. The material is actually a metallic-plasticine. Let's face the facts. The entire planet is covered by these things. There must be trillions of them and they all appear to serve the same purpose."

"Not necessarily," suggested Langford. "That is an assumption. There are so many different forms that I suspect there may be separate functions."

It was about this time that Langford Joh received a message and found it necessary to return to the orbiting star craft. It was from Manic, a critical communication long sought and only he could decipher its meaning. Alone, in his quarters, he permitted the message to decrypt itself.

"WE APPRECIATE YOUR OFFER OF JOINING THE CONFEDERATION, HOWEVER, OUR PARTICIPATION IS POINTLESS BECAUSE OF YOUR LACK OF PREPAREDNESS FOR OUR REALITY. HOW LONG DID IT TAKE FOR YOUR KIND TO RECOGNIZE THAT THE OBSERVED DENIZENS OF MANIC WERE SIMPLY ENTITIES THAT WE CREATED FOR YOUR SAKE? NEVERTHELESS, WE ARE WILLING TO ASSIST PRIMITIVE SPECIES UNDER CERTAIN CONDITIONS. YOUR PRESENT INVESTIGATION ON ROBAIN IS IN DANGER OF IMMINENT COLLAPSE UNLESS YOU FIRST UNCOVER THE PROTOCOL."

That was all the Prail were willing to advise and it both discouraged and encouraged the Earth Ambassador. He was discouraged because the Prail were being needlessly evasive about themselves as superior energy beings. They had accepted a minimal amount of interference in their affairs but were unwilling or unconvinced that they should proceed beyond that point. On the other hand, he was encouraged because the Prail, for the very first time, offered assistance in external doings, however slight.

Langford acted at once, interpreting the Prail's warning as viable. The teams were brought up from the surface before any danger could be encountered. He held a staff meeting to discuss the implications of all that had been learned thus far and allowed the technicians and scientists to speak their minds.

Tech #1: "We can scan the tunnels from here. They are more numerous around bodies of water but we don't know why. They exist from the very skin of the surface all the way down several miles to bedrock. Mostly they retain features of consistent diameters, but there are areas where they widen out into underground chambers or caverns."

Tech #2: "We have been unable to localize or identify a sphere nor have we observed them traveling in the tunnels. Personally, I'm beginning to think they may be invisible to us or our equipment. It's not unreasonable considering what we found out about the foliage."

Scientist #1: "True. If the green machines can avoid our sensors so easily, then it isn't too long a shot to infer that the spheres are superior and have greater abilities."

Langford: "What about functional differences between assorted machine types?"

Tech #1: "Just getting data on that. The larger the foliage, the more expansive its tasks. Trees do the same thing that bushes do with photons, but they also retain images by an unusual storage method inside what we think of as wood. No doubt the images are also passed on. Grass, for instance, is used to sense alien pressure."

Langford: "So they can localize where we are, visualize us and transmit that information to whatever is below. They can also detect the absence of things, so they must know where we are now since we are no longer in contact with the soil. I guess what you're telling me is that what we mistook for vegetation is actually a form of android sensing mechanism."

Scientist #2: "It is singularly useless, to our way of thinking, to deploy such a huge array of immobile androids. Even if they are feeding processed photons to the spheres below, there ought to be a more efficient method. On the other hand, the spheres move about beyond our capabilities of seeing them. Very convoluted."

Langford: "What could be the purpose of the spheres? You tell me they are being sustained by android mechanic greenery. Why?"

Scientist #3: "I suspect they are doing something in the unseen caverns below. Perhaps they, too, are machines. As to what they are doing, I have no idea."

Tech #1: "Building a new molecule on a vast scale!"

Tech #2: "Cavern art by an obtuse, eccentric alien artist!"

Tech #3: "Converting a formerly barren landscape. There are no records of what Robain looked like in the past."

Tech #4: "Preparing a colony for hybrid, sentient machines who prefer living under the ground."

Langford: "Interesting. It could also be a combination of all those things. I would remind you that the plants have demonstrated temporal control. Perhaps they can move about dimensionally. We can cloak a probe, can't we? Why don't we modify one for the tunnels and see if it can reveal anything. If it reaches a cavern without opposition, we may learn what we need to know. It seems to me that finding out what we are investigating is the first protocol. Also, I want to know who named this planet and why? There is nothing in the records."

These questions were answered in part the next day. Byl Troif, on consulting his personal database, found an allusion to Robain that offered a tidbit of explanation. An explorer in the 23rd century from the Ant Nebula named the planet after his mate. His name was lost, but not his lament over the fact that she had borne him a meager 38 sons, which for that era and location was considered particularly infertile and barren.

The cloaked probe provided another clue. As it descended into the far reaches of the caverns below, the technicians identified all of the missing persons gathered intentionally in a sticky, soupy matrix of what looked like a human ball of yarn. They were glued together and placed on a dais for display. They were kept alive by tubes extending from their mouths to a central system of roots in the cavern's ceiling. A rescue team was immediately launched into the tunnels. When the team reached the cavern, they were obstructed by an invisible barrier and could not reach what they now viewed as hostages. Several were seen to be struggling and flailing their arms helplessly, begging for help.

"The first protocol," said Langford angrily to himself. "What kind of species erects such an elaborate mechanism on what we now know was a barren planet? Why? What do they gain by taking hostages and sustaining? Are they being held for ransom?"

"We've only just established an alien presence," suggested Byl Troif. "A new kind of technology. Perhaps they have a different perspective on communication. Maybe they wanted us to knock on the door before opening it and entering."

It was then that a technician accidentally discovered the biggest anomaly by tripping a switch on a spectrum analyzer. It revealed an unknown form of energy being transmitted between Robain and its moon, a totally unexpected development. Langford surmised a connection at once and authorized intense scrutiny of the energy. When absolutely nothing was revealed, he intuitively placed a language translator and a dimensional filter in the path of the beam as it was intercepted. That produced a temporal lag result which, when tweaked by the technician, yielded a voice communication.

".....SO, GIVEN ... DIFFERENCES ... OUR SPECIES, WE THOUGHT YOU UNDERSTOOD ... CIVILIZATION AND ... SUBMITTING STUDY SAMPLES FOR NEIGHBOR ... CONSIDERATIONS. I AM TOLD BY ... INVESTIGATORS THAT YOU ... CAPABLE OF LISTENING TO ... UNDERSTANDING MY WORDS AT ... THIS TIME. IF THIS IS SO, PLEASE ... CONTACT SO THAT ... ESTABLISH THE PROTOCOLS."

"This is Ambassador Langford Joh from Earth. Indeed, we have just made the breakthrough with your temporal technology and are finally able to communicate."

"AH. THAT IS WELL. WE ... SURPRISED THAT YOU ... NOT RECLAIM YOUR CITIZENS, PUZZLED BY ... UNWILLINGNESS TO ... WELCOME CURTAIN."

"We found it to be an impassable barrier. There are many differences between what we think of as substantial and insubstantial."

"I THOUGHT THAT ... BE IT. WE ... SIMILAR PROBLEM ELSEWHERE. WELL, NOW THAT ... IMPROVED, ALLOW ME .... OURSELVES. I AM CONSUL KARAFF, ... CALYDO, WHO HAVE COLONIZED WHAT ... CALL ROBAIN. WE MUST EXCHANGE COORDINATES ... POINTS OF ORIGIN."

"Agreed. And our idioms. May we recover our citizens at this time?"

"CERTAINLY. I ... DISABLED THE CURTAIN."

"Is it true your forms are spherical, that your species created the tunnels below the surface and nourish yourselves via the mechanical implants above?"

"OF COURSE. NADIRIAN TOLD ... WOULD FIND IT INCREDULOUS, BUT THAT .......... PERSIST TO DISCOVER ... TRUTH."

"Nadirian?"

"YOUR OPPOSITE ... PRAIL. HE ... OLD FRIEND. IT WAS ... ALERTED ME TO THE FACT ... TECHNOLOGY, THOUGH PRIMITIVE, HAS FEATURES CAPABLE ... MANY SPECIES OUT OF ... THINK OF AS ... CONFUSION. WELCOME, BY THE WAY."

"Shall we meet? I am prepared to exchange relevant data. I also have a foliant with me. You will enjoy his conversation and form."

"ABSOLUTELY. THAT ... INITIATED CONTACT. NADIRIAN SUGGESTS WE WILL ... FROM THE MEETING. MY ... LOCATED IN THE CENTER OF THE LARGEST CRATER ... EQUATOR. YOU CAN'T MISS IT."

"Naturally, we would not dream of interfering with your colony. We were attracted to Robain because of its similarity to our home planet."

"THAT IS UNDERSTANDABLE. WE MUST ... THIS."

So that is how Langford Joh uncovered the Robain mystery and simultaneously revealed a little more of the Prail conundrum. It is recorded that Consul Karaff was acting in the role of real estate developer for the Calydo and that it was the purest accident that he happened to be monitoring their progress at the time of Langford's visitation. In his private memorandum, Langford Joh digitized some other thoughts.

"I don't believe for a lag that this was an accidental meeting. For one thing, Karaff dissembled his appearance. He was not of the Calydo, but a clever energy being capable of assuming a form he thought we could accept. The Calydo, of course, are far below acceptable standards as far as being accepted into the League of Sentients. He knew that. I suspect there is a connection between him and the Prail, much more than his alleged friendship with Nadirian, who I must now investigate with greater insight. Why am I so suspicious?

"Look at it rationally. The Calydo are incapable of modeling themselves after Earth without a stimulus. Granted, they have astounding mechanical aptitudes, but someone had to show them our planet and allow them to adapt their strange science to their needs. Otherwise, the use of vast fields of flora simply doesn't make sense. The repetitions are incredibly redundant, even for quasi sentients.

"Then, there was Karaff's ship. When we got there it seemed to be far too small for our group. But when we entered his portal, the rooms were massive. That smacks of manipulation, that and his serving us Lunaberry Wine which he had to take directly out of my mind. He was cordial enough and certainly informative. But I think he left enough unsaid on the edge of my consciousness to make me dwell on some ideas after we parted.

"For instance, there was the oblique aside that if the Prail wanted to, they could have dominated and directed the Confederation long ago and molded it to their purposes. And there was a decided sneer in his mannerisms when talking about the Calydo, as though they were actually of no significance, other than as buoys or bait. All of that leads me to conclude that we are being drawn into something. I must now concentrate on this deception or invitation and determine what it is. As for Robain, the Calydo have since abandoned it and left the planet as bare as they originally found it. We never did establish any sort of relationship with that weird species.

"Finally, there is the evidence of the platform, the one on which the hostages had been kept and maintained for so many years. For all that time, those helpless people had been staring at a graphic symbol etched into the floor of their prison. I've had it copied and brought to me. It's definitely the Prail symbol. Byl Troif thinks that I, not just Earth, am being tested. He may be right."




Story © 2003 by William Alan Rieser wrieser@juno.com

Illustration © 2003 by Carl Goodman carl.goodman@peppersghost.com




Back to Table of Contents