… continued from Lagoon
Three days later Anna and Jaci sat on makeshift chairs on the sandy beach of the atoll while Laxmi crouched and reviewed her findings with them. The sun was low over the shoulder of the central island’s mountain to the west, sinking down the blue-green sky toward night, yet even at high noon Anna could not shake the perception of almost twilight this world was bathed in by the dimmer light of its star.
The three of them wore lightweight utilities, short-sleeved and comfortable in the tropical warmth. It had taken a full day before Anna was prepared to allow anyone outside without an environmental suit and helmet, but Laxmi convinced her there were no toxins or viral or bacteriological hazards in the air. Soon after that, they took to spending much of their time in a gradually growing encampment on the beach, moving equipment as needed from the shuttle via the inflatable life raft. None of them argued that it wasn’t a pleasant environment, and Anna suspected they were all happy to be out of the shuttle’s confined space. She still insisted they move inside at night, however. They had yet to see any animals that might pose a threat, but that didn’t mean nocturnal predators were non-existent.
“I’ve finished sampling most of the plants on the atoll, as well as the water and the air. Obviously, by now we’ve figured out the air is safe to breathe…” Laxmi took a deep breath. “If a little odd-smelling. That’s likely due more to rotting vegetation, especially in the water, than anything particularly part of the atmosphere. The water will require desalination, as it has a great many organic and inorganic compounds in it, very much like seawater back home. That’s not really a problem, as long as we have power.
“That brings me to food. Unfortunately, I can’t really do a full lab workup with just the equipment in the shuttle, as we only brought a small chromatograph mainly for sampling any air that we might have found on the ring station. If we could get back to Aniara…. Right, well, we can’t. Anyway, by vaporizing the samples first I was able to work up a chemical composition, and the good news is that there aren’t any molecules present that are unknown to us, and their proteins are pretty much made up from the same twenty amino acids that make up everything on Earth. So that simplifies things considerably.”
“Wait,” said Jaci. “You’re saying there’s nothing alien about these alien plants?”
“No, I didn’t say that at all. But the bottom line is that the same elements make up everything in the galaxy, and they combine to make the same molecules. That’s basic chemistry, and the rules don’t change wherever you go. So, lots of amino acid molecules are possible, and before we left Earth there was lots of speculation about whether we’d find that extraterrestrial life would be made from different amino acids than life on Earth. But, most exobiologists agreed this was unlikely, and I think we’ve just confirmed that hypothesis.”
“Why was it unlikely?”
“Yeah. I mean, we’re twelve-hundred light-years from Earth, so why wouldn’t things be different?”
“Sorry, not following. You mean there’s some evolutionary connection between Earth and here, across all that distance? How is that possible?”
“No, Jaci, I’m not saying that. A direct connection is incredibly unlikely. What I am saying is that the basic tenets of evolution, of natural selection, apply no matter where you go. Life obviously formed here at some point, and just like on Earth, it would have gone through lots of trial and error to find out what combinations of factors gave the best survival rates. We’ve known for two-hundred years that there’s nothing random about the twenty amino acids that make up all the proteins present in Earth-based life; other amino acid compounds simply don’t compete as well, so even if they do form life, they don’t stick around. Eventually they’re all replaced by life from the same twenty amino acid molecules. So if that was true on Earth, it was likely to be true anywhere else that life formed, too. And, now I’ve shown that it’s true here.”
“Ok, so we can eat the plants, then?”
“Not so fast! Well, yes, mostly, but not just because they’re made of familiar proteins, fats, and sugars. They are made of familiar proteins, though of various amino acid profiles, and none of them are perfect fits for us. However, there are some fruits that appear to be of nutritional value, and by combining them with some of the leafy vegetables and tubers, we can sustain ourselves. I haven’t found any with obvious toxic compounds, which is actually surprising, but as we also haven’t seen any animal life, it may be that the plants didn’t need to evolve toxins to protect themselves. Still, I’m going to recommend that we proceed with caution, using a rigorous trial period to ensure no adverse effects before we start relying on any of the native foods.”
“Great! I volunteer to go first,” said Jaci. “I’m sick of these tasteless food bars. If the local plants kill me, well, since we’re going to die here anyway, might as well get it over with. What do we get to eat first?”
Laxmi regarded Jaci with amazement mixed with amusement, while Anna simply shook her head.
“Fine,” she said. “You go first, Jaci. You’re kind of expendable anyway with that broken leg, right? Survival of the fittest, isn’t that you said, Laxmi? Natural selection?”
Laxmi turned toward Anna, and her horrified expression made Anna laugh.
“Oh, come on, I’m kidding! We’re going to follow Laxmi’s protocols. Besides, just because something’s nutritious doesn’t mean it won’t taste like crap. So, with the food question mostly out of the way, let’s move on. I’ve been checking out the shuttle’s systems, and the bottom line really seems to be that we’re pretty well screwed. Still, given time, which solving the food question means we now have — thank you, Laxmi — I should be able to effect some repairs to the scramjets, which means we can probably get into the air and flying again. However, it’s going to take me a couple weeks, minimum. And, that’s not even beginning to look at the orbital systems, but since this craft is never going to reach orbit again, I suppose that doesn’t really matter. Still, if we can fly, then we can make it to the elevator base, and if we can get there, there’s a chance — a slim chance, admittedly — that we can find a way to operate it and get up to the ring station.”
“Ok, that sounds good, Anna,” Jaci said, “but what exactly is the point of getting up to the ring station? How is that better than being here? At least here we have food, not to mention air. And so far the station’s been actively hostile. I mean, it did sort of shoot us down.”
“You’re right. On the face of it, it’s probably not better. It’s a huge unknown. But I’m speculating — guessing — that if we arrive via the elevator, it won’t treat us as hostiles, and it’ll let us in. And once we’re in, we might be able to find compartments that still hold air, that we can survive in. And, there’s a heck of a lot of it to explore. We just might find something useful.”
“Well, it’s full of advanced technology, right? Something we aren’t seeing evidence of down here. Who knows what we might find, but what I’m really hoping for is some kind of spacecraft that we can use to get back to Aniara. And speaking of getting back, it’s starting to get dark, so let’s button it up here. Time to return to the shuttle.”
Jaci groaned. “I hate this part. It’s so difficult to move in this gravity. Are you sure we can’t just stay out here?”
“It’s difficult to move because you broke your leg. Stop whining, we’re the ones who have to help you. And yes, the gravity is tough for all of us right now. You’ll get used to it. But if you want to be the one to discover the blood-sucking insects and carnivorous plants that only come out at night, be my guest. Me, I think I’d rather set up some cameras to observe for a few more nights first, which sounds like an excellent project to occupy your time, Mr Capella Rojas. You can get right on it. Once we’re back in the shuttle.”
Laxmi helped Jaci hobble with his improvised crutch to the raft. Anna stood for a moment more, looking to the setting sun, dark red in a violet-turquoise sky, disappearing at last behind the shoulder of the mountain. In the last moment a flash gleamed from the spot on the mountainside behind which it set.
Satellite flare, was Anna’s first thought, but instantly she rejected that as impossible. The angles were wrong, and it seemed to come from the mountain itself, not from beyond it. A crystalline outcrop, maybe, glinting in the sunlight? Perhaps, but that would be for another day to investigate.
For now, though, she followed Laxmi and Jaci into the raft and they paddled out to the stranded shuttle.
… continued with Chef
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