A Mutable Crowd
John A. Frochio
Nature is a mutable cloud which is always and never the same. Ralph Waldo Emerson
The planet was killing him!
Captain Suzy Wenchel paused at Dr. Isaac Abramson's doorway and peeked inside. In full uniform, she appeared both authoritative and stunningly beautiful with long black hair and deceptively angelic face. Though he appreciated these traits, he never let them affect his judgment.
"So how is this world shaping up, Doctor?" she asked.
He loved her oblique questioning tactics. Yeah, not really!
After a moment's reflection, he said, "Well, it's not Earth."
"Well, that much I know."
He sighed. It was time he shared his discovery with someone. "I have a mystery on my hands, Captain."
Physical scientist by training, his specialties were physics, physiology and xenobiology. He had received the enhanced sensory implants of an extraterrestrial researcher. He observes, collects samples, logs and analyzes data. When he's not out in the wilderness of Nova Reich, he was in his lab. He didn't socialize.
His hair fell across his eyes, white wisps like willow branches. His face was dirty and unshaven, hiding age lines. His frame was tall and bony. He was affectionately known among the team as the Wild Man.
He said, "There are more things living among us than we can see."
He liked to throw out the occasional oblique and intriguing comment himself.
The Captain became serious. "Explain, Isaac."
"It's better if I show you. Let's take a walk."
Nova Reich was a beautiful world in many ways. The rocks and soil contained a rich mix of elements that gave it a colorful and iridescent patina. When you walked over the bare terrain, you truly felt like you were on another world. The vegetation dwarfed them. Curiously, the most advanced animal life found on Nova Reich were a variety of arthropods not unlike Earth's common insects and arachnids. None of these yet proved to be harmful to humans.
They walked down a natural trail that winded from their hillside encampment into a valley crowded with lush and tall trees and spiraling vines and shrubbery. A mildly sweet candy fragrance grew stronger the deeper they traveled.
Finally he stopped and pointed toward a cliff wall on the side of a small hill draped with fat vines and bulbous purple and yellow flowers. He led the Captain through thick weeds to a hillside outcropping.
"Follow my instructions," he said. "Look directly under the overhang. Count to thirty, then shift your eyes slightly to the right. Tell me what you see."
She frowned but did what she was told. He mimicked her actions.
Moments later she exclaimed, "What the hell . . ."
"What did you see?"
"I'm not sure. Insects? Lots of them. They seemed to be working together in unison, like ants or hive beings. But they blended into the background. They were hard to see. Then the image vanished. Did I imagine the whole thing?"
"That's what I thought at first. But they're real. They can only be seen with peripheral vision, and only in fleeting glimpses. I haven't found a way to successfully record them."
She tried several times again to see them. Finally, she said, "There! They seem to be an extension of the landscape and the surrounding vegetation. You can't tell where one begins and the other ends. Are you telling me there is an entire intelligent civilization essentially invisible to us?"
"I discovered them a week ago, so I don't have any theories yet. However, that is very likely true."
She stepped closer. "Do you think they're aware of us?"
"Probably in the same way they're aware of the insects around them. We don't seem to have any impact on them, at least for now."
"That could change. We could build roads, towns, infrastructure that could easily disrupt their community. What would they do?"
"Adapt. They seem very capable of integrating themselves with their surroundings."
Captain Wenchel tried to take a step and nearly fell over.
He looked down. The ground seemed solid enough.
"I don't know, but I can't lift my feet."
Then he saw it. The ground itself had grasped her boots.
He said, "Get out of those boots! Now!"
He helped her undo the seals on her boots and lifted her out of them. When she hit the ground, they quickly sprinted away from the unstable ground.
From a distance, they watched in silence as the ground and surrounding vegetation converted the Captain's boots into something like an ornamental planter.
The captain said, "Back to the outpost. Time for an emergency meeting."
The meeting room buzzed with activity and mumblings of confusion and disbelief. Dr. Abramson heard the phrase "wild man" blurted out several times.
Captain Wenchel called for quiet. "I saw it with my own eyes. We have a problem."
Someone asked, "Do we know how many there are, where they're all located?"
Dr. Abramson said, "They seem to congregate in areas protected from the weather, in cliff faces, caves, crevasses, and where there is much vegetation. They appear to shape the environment around them to fit their needs. I have no idea how many settlements there are. I've discovered nine so far."
Master of the Guard Daniel Hruba argued for extermination. "They're clearly hostile. They attacked you. They must be treated as a dangerous life form and be eliminated."
Someone said, "How do we battle an enemy we can't see?"
Captain Wenchel said, "This is their culture. We've been here for two months without incident. There are no indications they are hostile. And there is every indication they are intelligent. Any preemptive strike we would do would be nothing short of genocide."
The arguments went on.
Finally the Captain said, "I see only two choices. We find a way to communicate and cohabitate with them peacefully. Or we abandon this exploratory mission. War is not an option."
Daniel grunted and said, "I hope you don't regret your decision."
"If we can't find a way to communicate with them in two weeks, then we abort the mission. I'll inform Mission Control."
Everyone was noticeably tense after that meeting.
Dr. Abramson worked with engineer Jarrett Cole and language expert Sofia Burnett on a plan to attempt communication with the Nova Reichians. For some time they simply threw ideas against a wall and watched them drop to the floor.
Then he said, "We're approaching this from the wrong direction. First we need to find a way to see them, and for them to see us. Until we do that the rest is futile."
Jarrett's eyes suddenly bulged. He blurted out, "I dabbled with magic in my youth. I used to do a trick with mirrors. I have an idea."
They were off and running.
A week later they unveiled their creation and plan. The device was a bit cumbersome, so they added wheels and a remote control to aid in its movement. Unfortunately, it looked like a motorized coffin.
The full length mirror inside the box provided an image of your peripheral view when you looked straight on. To compensate for fading images, cameras captured images that could be used to give the illusion of browsing through a gallery of still photographs. Images could be frozen on command or scanned at varying rates, forward or reverse.
Jarrett said, "Inside the box, you have total control over your peripheral view."
Dr. Abramson said, "Since I have the most experience with these beings, I'll be the guinea pig."
Sofia developed a series of scenarios for initiating communication with the creatures. He studied the various nonverbal and verbal methods.
Early the next morning, they went to the closest site of the indigenous creatures.
Dr. Abramson rolled up to their lair slowly. Jarrett and Sofia stood back several yards. He turned on the machine. It hummed to life. He played with the controls until he finally got a full shot of them.
He was astounded!
For the first time he could see what they were really like. They were translucent creatures. There were hundreds of them, tiny devils, all dark smiles and sharp teeth. They ate and spat out the landscape and vegetation around them.
One by one, each turned to stare directly at him.
Sofia called out, "Do you see them? Have you tried broadcasting a message to them?"
He hesitated on the comm switch. There was something uninviting about their demeanor. He reached for the motor control to back away from them.
His hand froze. The creatures masticated the very ground around him, and spat it out into a web that wrapped around the box, rapidly and inexorably.
He became entrapped by the creatures that were suddenly aware of his existence, their existence. He could barely hear Sofia's now muffled voice.
"Can you communicate with them? Can you understand them?"
He wanted to cry out. He tried to cry out. Yes, yes! Of course! Communication with our new friends is easy, once they make you a part of them.
John Frochio grew up and still lives among the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania. For a living, he develops and installs computer automation systems for steel mills. He has had stories published in Triangulation 2003 & Triangulation: Parch (2014), Interstellar Fiction, Beyond Science Fiction, Aurora Wolf, Liquid Imagination, SciFan Magazine, Helios Quarterly, Time Travel Tales anthology (Chappy Fiction, 2016), Visions VII: Universe anthology (Lillicat Publishers, 2017), as well as general fiction novel Roots of a Priest (with Ken Bowers, Booklocker, 2007) and sf&f collection Large and Small Wonders, (Byrne Publishing, 2012). His wife Connie, a retired nurse, and his daughter Toni, a flight attendant, have bravely put up with his strange ways for many years. His author's webpage is https://johnafrochio.wordpress.com/about/.
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