TriJusty stood on the hilltop, surveying the land. He didn’t notice the bones just below him, nor the way the clouds roiled through the sky. He cared about one thing, and that was Lucin.
It wasn’t accurate to call him a ‘he’, perhaps we should say ‘they’. It was one organism, a mushroom genus with shared roots. But that didn’t mean it lacked intelligence. Evolution had worked wonders on this planet.
This information comes to you through trial and error, through deaths and recordings. It’s value is the trailblazing cost of exploration.
We don’t know much about Lucin, certainly a high priority for further information. It’s a proper name, and it’s traded. We aren’t sure what the currency is, nor what the benefit of Lucin would be, if any.
TriJusty, a name offered by the creature itself, is willing to speak, and already knows our basic languages. The little black creature the flies (a mixture of a bat and bird to our eyes) is semi-sentient. We aren’t sure if it’s a pet, or something more.
The air is safe to breath, but bring your helmet. Patches of sulfuric clouds travel along the surface, and they are large enough that you can’t outrun them.
It’s advised, as usual policy, do not negotiate with anything aside from what you carry, and make no future promises. This is still in the neutral exploration phase, and has the potential to turn hostile. Take no permanent action unless necessary.
One final note. This TriJusty might have technology (or other means) to read body language or vocal cues. Other experiences of our people have shown a level of manipulation that is troubling.
My parents named me Maddalena Agnes Snezhana, but everyone in the service calls me Snez. It’s easier. They tend to butcher the simple lilt of my last name.
On my team: Lamya, a scholar and linguistic, not to mention a decent shot with standard rifle. Respected and a great listener. Eka, strategy expert, and weapons expert. Quiet, but when she talks everyone shuts the hell up. PandyAndy, explosives and logistics. Everyone razzes him about his name, but it’s on his paperwork and his patch, so we call him PandyAndy.
We’ve been together straight out of graduation. I was top of officers, they were top of their respective specializations.
“We got any insider news on this one?” PandyAndy said as he checked his gear. We were in the transporter, flying from space into to land, hopefully in one piece. The usual amount of turbulence shook us every so often.
“Yeah Snez, give us the goods.” Eka watched everyone else check their equipment, ready to correct any mistake that would harm our safety or the mission.
“Who’s the pilot?” Lamya glanced around and nodded. “Payton’s worked with us before, she’s good, sir.”
“Aside from the official report I forwarded, I got the impression…” I leaned in and they mirrored the motion, so our heads were close together. They understood I had rudimentary mind-read, and used it on superiors as easily as aliens and anyone else. “Many other agents have been down to collect the scarce data we have so far. Headquarters has sacrificed lives, and this planet is important for reasons we haven’t been told. What I don’t know is how far up the food chain we are. Expendable or last resort? My suggestion would be treat this planet lethal, hostile and consume nothing except what we bring with us.”
“You really think they consider us expendable?” PandyAndy said in mock surprise.
“Do you think the other teams thought of themselves as expendable?” That seemed to sober the group, and their focus tightened. Good.
“Payton, you overhear any of that?”
“Yes Ma’am, until we get back to base. Then no ma’am.” Payton smiled but never took her focus off flying.
“Good woman. Keep your safety top priority. Lock up everything even while parked. Got it?”
Payton nodded, and that was enough for me.
The mountains in the distance looked fresh. They hadn’t experienced eons of weather to smooth ragged edges. They were also unnerving, too tall for comfort. Patches of bushes dotted the landscape, and a desert-like expanse in every direction, except the mountains. It wasn’t the beautiful sand type desert, but the cracked ground, desolate type that held nothing but a death wish for living creatures.
Eka and PandyAndy worked together with the map and digital information. They led us further into the desert, parallel to the mountains. Lamya and I followed, watching the horizons for movement or landmarks. Our gear was no longer shiny, but in perfect working order nonetheless. We agreed before departure, helmets on for travel, and if any diplomacy was needed, we could remove them.
“Is that our ride home?” Lamya pointed back toward the transport lifting off.
“Payton would only leave under direct orders. She would send flares if she were in trouble. Crap. What are they playing at?” I cursed some more in my head. Team didn’t need to see my full anger, they felt their own and had to control their own emotions. “We’re here, we have a mission, not to mention a mystery. Let’s get to it.”
They nodded in unison.
The bushes were weakly, and appearing less often. The sky grew darker, yellow-brown type clouds just looked dirty to the Earth team.
[Hey Boss, this the ugliest planet we ever visited?] PandyAndy used the helmet to helmet communication.
[Possibly. We’ll see how night time is before I cast my vote.]
“There,” Eka pointed at a distant mound of earth that was raised higher than any other mound in sight.
“Right, form up, hands on weapons but safety on, fingers off triggers. Got it?” I didn’t wait for answers, just led the group toward the mound.
As we approached, I felt waves of inspection. It was growing uncomfortably intense with each wave.
[These creatures are telepathic, and strong. Keep helmets on.]
[Got is boss.] They replied in unison.
A wave of gratitude filled me for a moment, my team and I had worked together to build that unshakable trust that no one could describe. The side effect of this burst of emotion was the intrusive examination lessened. Noted for future testing.
Protocol dictated a song and dance of distance, yelled greeting, wait, move closer, repeat until the target responded in kind. Then we wait for an invitation. The creature knew our protocol, and immediately invited us to converse.
As we approached, I noted the skeletons at the base of the giant mushroom shaped creature. Lamya flinched as we all noticed a skeleton in one of our space suits, only partially buried.
“We greet you, Earthers, in the name of friendship and honesty.” The biggest mushroom shape spoke in a deep gravely voice. It had yellow eyes with strange shaped pupils, and the voice had no mouth. There were fangs hanging down from the cap, visible and clinking together slowly. The impression I gathered, this was their version of mouth watering. They saw us as food. My spine shivered, but I kept it together.
“We greet you, TriJusty.” I wasn’t about to play it’s game.
“You do not return our honesty?”
“Tell me why we’re here, TriJusty.”
“You do return honesty. I like that.” There was no smile to observe, but the teeth clinking stopped. I took that as a positive. “I asked for competent representatives of your kind, and you’re the first to arrive protected.” The giant mushroom nodded toward each of us, and it seemed like it meant our helmets.
“You’ll judge how competent we are.” My training prepared me to protect my thoughts for an indefinite amount of time, and I erected the mental wall in that moment. What that meant was I couldn’t observe their feelings, and they couldn’t see mine.
“Oh you can hide, how fascinating,” TriJusty said. The other eyes swiveled around, so all the mushrooms on the mound watched me, and only me. The black bird-bat lazily turn their head toward me, and it’s gaze appeared more intelligent than the others.
The silence spread out and enveloped everyone.
The mushroom spoke, but it didn’t seem to talk to me. “The others can’t hide. They don’t trust us, and see us as the cause of death to the body they sent before.”
I nodded toward the skeleton in a space suit.
“Well, how is it you can hide, Snez?” the bird-bat spoke.
“Born that way.” It picked up specific information, my name, from my teammates minds. Crap.
“Oh yes, from the body of a female. But you don’t share minds. Each one of you contain a separate entity?”
The mushrooms hissed, and recoiled from the idea the bird-bat suggested.
“We are just as surprised by the idea that each of you aren’t like us. Am I to understand you share minds?”
The mushrooms shivered, and the bird-bat took flight to avoid falling. It headed right for me, and I raised my arm as a rest. My other arm raised for the benefit of the team, signaled calm.
The claws of the bird-bat looked strong, but it used gentle pressure, just enough to keep it upright on my suit. “I’m the leader of TriJusty, if leader is the right word. These are connected, part of me, but also separate. You interest me. Tell me, what are these others to you?”
Every instinct told me to run from this creature. It gave off waves of despair, and I wanted to wrench my arm out from under it. I mastered my fear, and answered. “They are my team. Chosen family, part of me, but separate.”
“You would emote if one of them were taken?” TriJusty said, all the mushrooms spoke in unison with the bird-bat.
“Then we will spare them as we spare you. We want to join with your people. Our planet is spent, and you could settle your kind here.”
“Tell me about that proposal.” The pit in my stomach dropped.
“We have land, and breathable air. There is water enough, and you have technologies that could help manage that resource. We are strategic in the galaxy, or so your other bodies thought. It’s a very nice planet for you.”
“Yes, I understand TriJusty. But what would you get out of it?”
“Your honesty is delightful. Food. We need fuel, and bodies are the best fuel. We could also get plants and animals again, which would be ideal for our survival. There are a few of us, your ‘friend’ Lamya thinks we are ‘symbiotes’. That’s a good enough term for now. Others of my tiny frame rule over others of their kind,” it nodded toward the giant mushrooms.
“You understand I am not authorized to negotiate. I’m here to gather information and take it back to Headquarters. What do you suggest I tell them, beyond the convenience of this planet’s location?” There was a piece I was missing, and felt it just outside my grasp.
“There is one more thing you can tell them. We have a way of population control,” TriJusty said. He brushed at the air, as if brushing a thought away. “No, no, not birthrate control. I mean a way to actually control individuals. It works on animals, plants, your kind. It’s Lucian. Thank you for the vocabulary boost. Your team is smarter than the last one. Lucian is hallucinatory, made by the gills in my caps, my mushrooms. With enough of my kind spread strategically around the planet, we can keep just enough in the air to control populations.”
“How do you know this?”
“We’ve done it before. You think we can speak languages so easily because we waited for your kind? We assimilate cultures, and have held power over our planet for… a long time.”
For the first time during this conversation, I wanted to drop my wall and scan. I hadn’t practiced mind domination in ages, and didn’t trust my ability in this moment. Damnit.
“Is there a way to collect a sample of Lucian?”
“Your Headquarters already possess three samples. They have enough.”
“TriJusty, did one of the former teams trade a person for a sample?”
“Why yes they did. It was all very civil, since they arrived without helmets.”
I understood why my team was chosen. Headquarters wanted me to mind war with this creature, to see if it was possible to control them. Fuck. Expendable category. I knew if I didn’t war with TriJusty, they would send me back until i figured it out. They couldn’t order me to use my gifts, part of the laws governing service, but they could make life miserable.
“Do you know why I was sent?”
“I have an idea, since you can hide.”
“You understand it’s not personal?” I hoped honesty could help avoid violence, no matter how this played out.
“Oh, personal – I understand. Let’s see what happens, yes?”
[Normal withdraw procedure if I take my helmet off.] I told second in command through the helmet.
[Understood.] Lamya replied.
My wall dropped, and I focused my will into a spear, threw it with everything at the large mushroom, and hit the cap. My training kicked in and I enveloped the mushrooms, separated them from the bird-bat. The bird-bat looked around once the mushrooms were engulfed.
“Why am I alone? Why have you forsaken your sworn duty?!” It shrieked at the mushrooms, who lazily relaxed under my control.
“TriJusty, I control them now. Why do we need you?”
“Go ahead, try to get them to spore, to do anything. You can’t. Give them back to me. They’re mine.” It’s cries were pure sorrow.
I tried to direct the mushrooms to spore, to look at the bird-bat, to do anything. They slumped over and seemed to fall asleep. I released control of them.
“They need you, and you need them. Interesting.” I glared at the bird-bat. The world was more beautiful when I could feel it, sense it beyond my sight. Now that I had cut it off and given it back, I saw the energy connection between the mushrooms and the black creature.
“Please bring your people here to our planet. We can work together, and learn much from each other.” TriJusty said after a few deep breaths.
“One thing before I leave to file my reports. Why is the planet desolate?”
“The cycle repeats. Sentient beings come, accept the deal, populate, reform the skys, reform the ground, give new life to the planet. Eventually some unbalance happens, and we are left alone.”
“There are ruins of other space traveling creatures on this planet?” I couldn’t contain my excitement.
“Yes, at least five have visible ruins, more are buried. My kind know the locations.Oh I understand your excitement now, for your kind that is another draw, another bonus for populating this planet. We will only share our knowledge if our conditions are met. Tell your Headquarters I’m done talking.” The way TriJusty said headquarters sounded nasty.
Payton landed while we were about half way back to the loading zone. The team silently trudged, and I felt each of their fear and worry.
The team described their individual experiences, and I collected them together, edited them into one report, then added my own notes. I knew Headquarters would skim personal experiences and opinions and go straight for the factual findings. I bullet pointed the important bits, as usual.
I attached my telepathic credentials, in anticipation of them hunting them down anyway. I was higher on the scale than average, and to cope with the TriJusty’s long term they would need someone at least as powerful as my gifts, with developed diplomacy. That wasn’t going to be easy.
Of course Headquarters accepted the deal, and begin pioneer efforts. None of the applicants were informed about the TriJusty, and life as an exploration team continued, status quo.