Journal and Remarks
Mon Feb 15 2021 (Updated: Mon Feb 15 2021) - 9 min read
THE failure at Alpha Centauri left me devastated. Perhaps we’d been foolish to get our hopes up, but the conditions were so promising; two planets in the habitable zone, with both possible candidates to harbour life. But after an exhaustive survey of those craggy, barren worlds, the team sent by the Academy was left despondent and bickering, and there was no choice but to declare the mission a failure. There was no life in the system, and as far as they could determine there never had been. This was the worst setback in the program’s short history. At 37, I was already the oldest member of the Academy’s research corps, and despite my qualifications, there was no guarantee that I’d get a chance to participate in the next expedition. So a year later, when the call came to join the team at Ross 128 b, I responded with a mix of joy and trepidation. The Ross system was the next best hope for finding alien life, and likely the last opportunity I would ever have to make contact with the unknown.
Located 11 light years from Sol, Ross 128 b is a rocky, roughly Earth-sized world. It lies within the inner habitable zone of its star, a red dwarf, and has an orbital period of a mere 9.9 Earth days. More importantly, Ross 128’s moderate stellar winds allowed for the formation of a planetary atmosphere. Tidally locked, one half of the world is perpetually sunlit while the other slumbers through an eternal night. The average temperature is 7 °C, or about 8 degrees Kelvin lower than Earth.
Given the long-range detection of gases such as oxygen and carbon, the existence of plant life on Ross 128 b had long been speculated. There was reason enough for excitement, and when we arrived in orbit we gazed down from the ship's windows at a verdant and watery world. There was no longer any doubt. We had discovered life.
I. Pampas Planitiei
AFTER more than a month awaiting authorization at Maartens Station, the science vessel Ryōken, under the command of Captain Arla Kuznetsov, arrived at Ross 128 b on 27/12/2248. The mission objective was to survey the area we called Pampas Planitiei, a continent-wide stretch of grassland that extends along the sunlit half of the planet.
We landed just to the west of the terminator, the line dividing the light and dark sides of the planet. Before us, in the sunward direction, were the lush, almost fantastical greens of the plain, and to the east, dimly glimpsed in the failing light, was an arid expanse of jagged rock. It was an incredible scene, and the excitement I’d been holding in check throughout our journey swelled as our lander touched down. Setting foot on the soft, almost springy surface of the plain, an inexpressible emotion surged in me; I had been dreaming of this moment my entire life, and the reality of the experience was more powerful and arresting than anything I could ever have imagined.
Preliminary readings indicated that the atmosphere was breathable, but on captain’s orders we maintained strict environmental protocol throughout our stay. Even with the sophisticated equipment granted to us by the Lunar Academy of Sciences, it was uncertain what, if any, pathogens might lie undetected in the air. Although I longed to feel the wind that caressed the grassy plain, I dutifully remained suited and helmeted. Given our initial analyses, I have high confidence that future expeditions will be able to forego this unfortunate necessity, and I can’t help but envy them their first breath of alien air.
R128b-Va to R128b-Ve
PERPETUAL sunlight, coupled with a moderate climate (an average of 13°C during our stay) has resulted in an abundance of plant life on the star-facing half of the planet. The grasses endemic to the Pampas Planitiei region, classified here as R128b-Va through e, are startling to the Terran eye not only for their size (typically rising to the knee and often far above the heads of even the tallest expedition member), but also for their distinctive colouration. There were greens like polished jade, shades of chartreuse streaked with olive, not to mention echoes of moss, fern, and emerald. There were other, subtler hues, for which new names will have to be invented.
Alongside the riot of colour is a strange homogeneity of texture: on the plain, even the tallest of the grasses are feathery soft to the touch. They retain an almost fluid malleability, drifting with the soft winds in a hypnotic undulation akin to the movement of undersea forests. It was a thoroughly alien landscape, and to our exultation, it was one we found brimming with life.
R128b-Vf to R128b-Vh
WHILE the plain’s grasses comprise something like a soft, background hum, the range of cacti-like species on the plain rise like a crescendo. In particular, R128b-Vf, a towering plant with thick, gently curling branches, was so large it could be glimpsed from the lander. The tallest specimen catalogued by the expedition measured an impressive 10.3 meters. Vaguely reminiscent of yucca brevifolia, the famous (and long extinct) “Joshua tree” of old Earth, R128b-Vf raises its limbs to the ever-present light in gentle supplication. The plant’s surface is covered in fine, hair-like protrusions, neither needles nor leaves, but rather more like the cilia that reside in the human lungs. Taking a short break from my analysis, I allowed a sense of wonder to overtake me; for a moment I could almost feel the plant breathing.
R128b-Fa to R128b-Fc2
THE variety of insectoid life on the plain is staggering. In the first week alone we catalogued no less than 129 wholly distinct species, each with at least one subspecies or variation. Unlike Terran insects, those found on Ross 128 b typically possess between 2 to 4 limbs, almost all of which are multi-jointed and far longer than the animal’s abdomen and thorax combined. Two-legged insects such as R128b-Fb also tend to possess a wide, chitinous appendage on the back of the thorax. This is something like a sail that, once the creature has launched itself into the air through a single push of its powerful hindlegs, is extended to catch the wind. It was not unusual to watch thousands of such creatures gliding and swooping in elegant syncopation over the plain.
R128b-Ff was particularly notable. With 4, stick-like limbs and a round, apparently eyeless head with a pair of gaping mandibles, the most apt comparison is to the Mantidae family, more commonly known as praying mantises. However, unlike its Terran counterparts, the “ross mantis” possesses no forelegs. Instead, it uses a long, whiplike appendage that stems from the back of its head to attack its victims; the tip of this appendage is brimming with tiny, hooked barbs which latch onto the flesh of its prey. Preliminary research indicates that this extremity is likely how the ross mantis senses its environment, and its strength is remarkable - on numerous occasions I watched it latch onto and drag prey much larger than itself scrambling and kicking to an inevitable (and rather horrific) death.
The abundance of insect-like life in the Pampas Planitiei region provides an ample food source for the apex predator, R128b-Fj, which Captain Kuznetsov nicknamed the “green heron” due to its camouflage and size, measuring between 80 and 150 cm. Wingless and featherless, this large, warm-blooded vertebrate stalks the plain on a pair of long and hairless legs. Its thin, shapely body extends to an arcing and extremely flexible neck, at the peak of which is a narrow head with a hard, almost beak-like mouth. The green heron is perfectly adapted to its environment, snapping up the planet’s insects with a serene, almost deathly silence. Without aid of heat and motion sensors they are nearly impossible to spot. They also seemed completely undisturbed by us. Like ghosts, they flit through the grasses, and it is possible to be seated on the plain and passed by one of these strange, silent killers without ever being aware of it.
II. Piedra Oscuro
AS the light fades at the planet’s terminator, the grasses of the Pampas Planitiei region give way to rock. Insectoid and vertebrate life sharply declines. What is left on the dark half of the planet is a craggy and obscure landscape of jagged cliffs and rock formations. Much of this rock is igneous, akin to Terran granite or basalt, and is often broken up into blocky protrusions like teeth or grasping fingers. Given the absence of light and vegetation, we had little hope of finding life, but the planet’s near-constant winds serve to carry grass seed across the terminator. These windswept particles provided the initial biomass necessary for the proliferation of what is perhaps Ross 128 b’s most surprising and mysterious form of life - a single colony of interconnected eukaryotic cells.
II.I The Ross Monophyletic Clade (R128b-MC):
SOMEWHAT akin to the Terran slime mold, the Ross Monophyletic Clade (RMC), is a hemisphere-spanning colony of life that almost certainly originated from a single ancestor. Using the distributed seeds and pollen of the Pampas Planitiei region as its primary energy source, the RMC has no need for sunlight to maintain itself. It also secretes an enzyme which allows it to break down and consume the minerals it resides upon, which explains the strange, and almost nightmarish rock formations of the region.
There is very little rock on the Piedro Oscuro that does not contain at least trace amounts of the RMC colony. Pale orange in colour, the organism is also bioluminescent, and in the gloom of the planet’s night-facing half, it provides an eerie, almost fog-like glow. When disturbed (as by a footfall or when scraped up for analysis), the RMC discharges a very fine, reddish-yellow fluid.
Although loath to admit my carelessness, a minor accident when handling a sample in the lab revealed that this acrid secretion causes a sharp, stinging sensation when touched, one similar to that produced by the Terran man-of-war.
It is possible that this secretion also has hallucinogenic effects; following my accident, and after having been subjected to a battery of tests by our medical staff, I returned to my bunk and drifted into an uncomfortable sleep. Throughout the night I was disturbed by a series of strange, and increasingly disjointed dreams. Before me was what appeared to be an undulating ocean of orange-coloured skin. As I gazed at the surface of this strange membrane I was confronted by images of my past: childhood memories, long-dead faces, and half-buried conversations. I had the uncomfortable sensation that these things were being dragged out of me, culled by the waving, orange-tinted membrane. It was almost as if my mind was being scanned by a foreign entity. Waking, drenched with sweat, I quickly recorded as much of the dream as I could remember. I was also aware of a faint burning on my finger tips - the exact place where I had inadvertently touched the RMC sample.
In a feverish rush, I returned to the lab. I must have been somewhat incoherent, as Ahmadi and Davis, the two technicians on duty, looked at me with worried expressions. Captain Kuznetsov was summoned, and afterwards it was determined that I was experiencing anaphylaxis.
A part of me was left wondering if the RMC had not been attempting to communicate. Although my colleagues took this hypothesis with good grace and professionalism, their skepticism was apparent. Computer modelling was used to simulate the effect of the RMC sample on my brain. Again and again, the results came back negative: the RMC colony was without a nervous system, let alone anything that resembled a brain. There was no “mass consciousness” at work on the planet. As time went on, even I had to admit that I had been swayed by my desire to make contact. The RMC was nothing more than it appeared - a colossal layer of rock-sucking slime.
Fifteen years after the transmission of this journal to the Lunar Academy, the Ross Dyson Sphere was completed, and I along with the other members of the expedition were finally able to return home. Since then, I have had the pleasure of seeing my Journal and Remarks widely circulated and discussed, both by the scientific community as well as the general public. There is no doubt that I was present at a defining moment in human history. However, as interstellar exploration continues, and new life is confirmed on planet after planet, the singularity of our work has diminished.
In our hearts, I think all of us on the Ross expedition had been hoping for something more. All those who go searching for life amongst the stars must harbour the same dream - to be the first to make contact with an intelligence like our own. Despite the incredible richness of the biodiversity in our galactic neighborhood, the ultimate prize has yet to be claimed. To date, no evidence of intelligent life has been found on Ross 128 b, or any other world. We may no longer be alone, but there is still no one to talk to.