The blueish fringe glowing on the horizon clued us that something was alive here. Took three hours to reach it. Huge planet, mucilaginous gravity. We crested a hill and gazed over the valley at the first alien life humans have ever found.
In the pearly starlight, the sessile colonies... no; cities... hug the ground, the chalky marl. The dust coats our boots, but in this gravity, drifts only briefly then settles.
Polyps of blue light cling to the earth, clumps separated by swatches of dirt. They could be phosphorescent minerals. Except, they are... singing? It isn't through my ears I heard them, but through the zygomatic processes under my eyes. My vision misted over.
The harmonies, the counterpoint, the calling one patch, to the other answering, the sweetest plaintive crying— no, a chorus... Singing under those disarranged stars, and all Phil Hanson wanted to do was collect specimens.
I grabbed his arm. "You can't! Can't you hear it? They're intelligent!"
His eyes glared with fear and anger behind his face plate. "What are you talking about?"
"You can't hear the singing?"
More alarmed: "Your oxygen line pinched? What's the matter with you?"
-- who are you? !welcome travelers-- not words, but feelings.
"They're sentient, Hanson. You can't hear it? There are thousands— millions— of them!"
He shook off my hand. "Get a grip, Walvoord. One of your radio wires is loose, that's all. Easy job, one life-form, collect a few specimens and get out of here."
"No!" I screamed, and lunged against the gravity to catch his arm again, but I tripped and fell against him, and he tumbled down the slope. I heard a flat crunch.
"Hanson?" It took me a minute to gain my feet, another minute to reach him.
He lay facing away from me. I turned him over and was swamped with a sick sense of inevitability. His face-plate had hit a skull-sized stone, and shattered. A ragged fringe of glass bits flapped, framing his surprised, bruise-colored face. There is no oxygen in this air, only nitrogen and toxic gases.
I wasted some of my O2 trying to revive him. "Some," I said; that's funny. Wasted enough so that I'll never get back to the ship now.
So I sit here with my comrade— my victim— and breathe shallowly, and I recite the statement we memorized for the occasion of meeting alien sapients: "On behalf of the peoples of Earth, greetings. We come in peace."
The cities glow in waves, I've noticed.
I've got about ten minutes now.
The songs have changed. First joy and greeting, then, as I gave up on Hanson, concern; distress; now there's a keening quality to the vibrations under my eyes. Somehow, they understood my recital.
I hold Hanson's dead hand, and watch the lovely lights. And think how I've betrayed that premise, that "peace". The perimeter of vision is black now... as I lay down and let the lights go dark, I feel it:
-- what might have been, oh stranger... --