Originally Published on Short Fiction Break, August 2016.
Jupita looked up from the console to take in the surreal view of the frozen planet in front of her. The last planet left in this star system, its orbit skirted the edge of the habitable zone. Japan and England had already claimed the two best planets for their respective countries last year, in 3956. That left the cold but Earth-sized Sikstu for the U.S. And Jupita was heading the first colonization. She should have been excited–perhaps she was–but at the moment, her stomach churned.
“Are the burn bombs ready?” She turned to her second-in-command, Khalon.
“Ready and aimed, ma’am.”
“And our orbit?”
“Steady. We’ll have them all dropped in a few hours.”
Jupita nodded then turned to the back of the control room, where the lead scientist assigned to her team worked away at his console.
“How long before we can land, Kepler?”
“Four hours, minimum.”
“Start the release,” she said to Khalon.
The crew–consisting of soldiers, scientists, and civilians–swarmed to the windows throughout the ship. Mouths gaped as the burn bombs jetted away from the ship and toward the planet below. As they hit the planet’s surface and the chemicals reacted to the ignition spark, flames erupted and spread radially from the crash sites.
The kinetic bombardment projectiles contained calcium carbide in one end and an ignition source in the other. Upon impact with the icy surface of Sikstu, the capsules broke open, releasing the CaC2 to react with the oxygen in the ice. The resulting acetylene gas then ignited. The burn would melt the ice across the planet, releasing precious carbon dioxide into the depleted atmosphere. The planet would then have liquid water and would support human life.
Or so the scientists claimed. The whole thing sounded like something from a sci-fi movie to Jupita. Of course, she was still wrapping her head around the fact that she was colonizing a whole other planet, 1200 light years from her own.
The flames vanished almost as quickly as they appeared.
The ship landed on the largest island on the planet, roughly shaped like the top half of Africa. The outer door of the ship opened and the device in Kepler’s hand chirruped. He gave Jupita the thumbs up and she waved to her soldiers.
They fanned out, weapons raised. Kepler followed, stopping to collect a sample of the land and stash it in the kit slung over his shoulder.
Large sections of ice and snow that had formed on top of solid ground melted from the heat of the burn. It reminded Jupita of melting ice cream.
There were no signs of sentient beings. The scientists had terrified Jupita when they couldn’t tell her for sure that no intelligent life occupied this planet. “Fairly unlikely” was the best they could say. It was her job to find out for sure.
“Ma’am, you’re going to want to see this,” one of her soldiers called to her.
She joined him in front of what looked like a scar in the earth. It may have been a cave, before the ice and snow sheltering it had melted. Jupita knelt to examine three recesses in the floor of the cave. The ground had been scratched to form bowls.
Her stomach dropped. Someone had built this shelter and lived here. With a family. There had been intelligent life on this planet, and she may have killed them off.
“Keep searching,” she called to her men. “This way,” she said to the soldier who found the cave. “Kepler, with me.”
They walked away from the cave and down to the shore. Jupita almost lost her lunch when they encountered a body.
It was a goose-sized, furry puffin with arms instead of wings, and a snout instead of a beak. Thick, sharp talons grew from its hands and feet.
Jupita reached for it but pulled away when it squirmed and made a sort of guttural squeal.
“A living specimen,” Kepler said, joining her. “How fortunate!”
Jupita’s piercing glare shut his mouth.
“Look at this!” The soldier called.
Kepler hurried to him. Jupita lifted the scarred creature, cooing at it, and joined the men closer to the shore. Two larger versions of the animal in Jupita’s arms lay motionless.
Jupita clenched her jaw and fought back tears as she turned to carry the baby back to the ship.
Her men reported no other signs of life, so they prepared for habitation of the planet. The scientists were content with their samples. Jupita stole away to the med ward and checked on the baby. She convinced Kepler to leave it alone until it healed, at least. She shuddered to think what they planned for the poor thing.
After a week, it was stable now, its vitals normal. Well, steady, anyway. No signs of distress. Although Jupita assumed it must be in unspeakable pain.
She pulled a chair up next to the crib and cooed to it.
“It’s okay, baby. You’re not alone.” She felt guilty saying this. It was alone. Jupita had killed its family. She wondered if it knew, if it could feel the remorse that clung to Jupita like a leech.
She looked into the poor creature’s eyes. They mesmerized her with their red hue, reminding Jupita of the fiery surface of Mars. “May I call you Desher, after the Egyptians’ name for Mars?”
The creature made a noise that Jupita took as consent.
“Well, then, Desher, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Jupita.” Jupita held her finger against the creature’s hand. The creature grasped it and Jupita smiled.
“I’m going to take care of you, Desher. You’ll be safe, I promise.”
Desher made great strides toward recovery over the next several days. Kepler noticed, too.
“If we can study the creature, it could give us vital clues for our own survival.” Kepler strode into the med ward with Jupita close on his heels.
“But Desher is just a baby!”
Kepler stopped and spun to her.
“You named it?”
“He’s a living being, Kepler. I couldn’t keep calling him ‘it’.”
“Well, it is coming with me to the lab.” Kepler reached into the crib. Desher lashed out at him and made a noise that caused both of the humans to stop and stare.
“Did it just say your name?” Kepler asked.
“What did you say, Desher?”
“Joo-Pah,” Desher waved his hand at Jupita.
“Extraordinary. It’s learned your name. It’s got some level of intelligence! Oh, I can’t wait to study it more.” Kepler grabbed Desher, ignoring the thrashing and cries of “Joo-pah”.
“Stop! Don’t hurt him!”
“This creature is no longer any of your concern, Captain.”
Kepler left, Desher’s cries trailing back to Jupita standing in the empty med ward.
It was three days before Jupita worked up the courage to see what Kepler was doing to Desher. Jupita’s heart broke when she saw wires sticking out of his head and sutures on various parts of his body.
“What is he doing to you?” She ran to the baby and held him in her arms.
“Joo-pah,” he murmured.
“You must be in so much pain.”
Jupita did what she could to hold back the tears. Good soldiers don’t cry. But were good soldiers really expected to stand by and allow such torture?
“I’m going to stop the pain for you, okay? You won’t hurt anymore.” Jupita went to the cabinet where Kepler kept the drugs they used in their lab tests. She found the pentobarbital.
“Close your eyes, Desher.” Jupita softly sang to him as she administered the IV. He convulsed as the drug took effect, then slackened in Jupita’s arms. Jupita could feel the schism breaking open in her heart. It was so deep, she felt it may never heal.
She carried the tiny body out of the spaceship amid stares and protests.
“What are you doing, woman?” Kepler shouted at her. “I’m not finished with my testing!”
Jupita pulled her weapon as she turned and pointed it straight at him.
“You are now. Go run some different tests.” She looked around at the other concerned faces watching the exchange. “Everyone back to work. That’s an order.”
No one moved as Jupita holstered her gun and walked to the cave they had found on their first day on Sikstu. She kneeled, placing the body next to her. She proceeded to dig a small grave with her hands. She placed Desher into the hole and covered him with care. Kneeling back, Jupita began to sob.
She looked up from the grave to take in the surreal view of the half-melted planet. It was on the edge of the habitable zone, and it was all theirs.