Author: DJ Lunan
Clarke peered mesmerised through the tiny pod’s porthole at the forested planet, verdant, moist and fertile stretching to the horizon. He smiled, doubting it could save his soul, but it was certainly rescuing his mood. Six years wearing a HAZMAT suit in 50 degrees of direct sunshine, digging by hand through briny pans to unearth and capture colonies of salt termites, had left Clarke with limited memory of the colour green, or the texture of water on his skin.
So happy to have left the desert, he’d been hard-drunk persistently during the three weeks’ voyage to his next assignment – prospecting.
“I hate these green planets, they may look placid, but you need to be on your toes, termite-diviner!”, screamed Messina as she battled to align the Sunship with the planet’s gravity.
“Looks like paradise to me, Messi!”, replied Clarke.
It was one week since the communique from HQ directed them here; ‘Our intel is 80% potential for super-mites and great-hoppers. Take Clarke for recon and sampling. Report back.’
“Empty air”, Messina noted.
She was right, no clouds, nothing flying, no large animal heads, no plane-eating snakes.
“Odd. We any intel on the ecosystem?” asked Clarke. Messina was sweating, her eyes darting across the canopy looking for danger.
She finally realised gravity equilibrium, brought the Sunship into hover mode 100 feet above the canopy.
“None. I’ve prospected planets like this before. If we don’t get attacked by something big in the next couple of minutes, there’s a good chance it’s a plantation. And termite-boy, we are still intact! Get ready, 30 seconds.”
Clarke stared out mesmerised. But, like staring at a stereogram, slowly the unerring regularity of the canopy loomed, making his eyes spin. If this is a plantation – then for what and by who?
Worse still, without GPS data, this would be old-world exploration: man-in-a-pod on a strong rope with a collecting jar.
He looked quizzically at Messina, a hundred questions bursting. She winked, releasing his pod, and he fell at blistering speed through the blinding sunlight of the cloudless planet. The pod crashed through the canopy, jerking to a hard stop ten feet above the ground. The triple-butted graphite-steel amalgam rope, rippled up and down, leaving Clarke bobbing like a dinghy in an estuary.
The lush planet had disappeared. Under the canopy, there was nothing, just white earth. It was a plantation. The trees were planted regularly five metres apart in all directions. Each tree had a massive buttress with familiar indentations indicating termite species. But the scale was massive. The trees towered over 200 metres, with termite buttresses extending up 20 metres. These termites would be massive. And valuable. The intel was right, but the eerie silence was unexpected.
Messina barked through the intercom, “Clarke, stop gawking and get sampling.”
Clarke complied, activating the sampling arms, four vacuum cleaners, each sucking twenty grams of organic material into jars. The white earth was dry, with desiccated pine needles, dust and what looked like turtle-sized termite shells.
It conjured memories of pine forests in lowland Scotland, planted with gold-rush gusto when softwood prices were high. But spent twenty years gestating standing soulless, soundless, dry and empty – an arid oasis among the peat bogs and persistent rain. But they were owned, bankrolled by old-families who were banking on their share of the logging prices as royalty.
“Looks like an abandoned colony, Messi.”
“Where are the critters, Clarke?”
“More importantly, who owns this plantation and where are they now?”
“Darn forest planets – always complicated.”
“Give me the desert anyday. Let’s go, Messi”
The line crackled.
The pod began to bob and weave.