In the year 2120 AD, declining loyalty to any of the Earth’s three superpowers – United States of Democratic West, the Caliphate, and China – an independent organization known as “Ichthys” emerged. Its members took control of four spaceships and left the Earth in the early spring of 2121, shortly before the planet became engulfed in a devastating three-way nuclear war.
The captains of the four ships targeted four different known planets.
Jack Lewis piloted a ship with a crew of seventeen people to the closest exoplanet, Proxima Centauri b. Eight years later, the spacecraft landed without casualties, and humans came into first contact with an alien race, the Nsheos.
Jacob Oduya ventured, together with nine others, towards the slightly more remote Alpha Centauri bc in the same triple star system. Scarcity of resources on the uninhabited planet led to mutiny, suicides, and murders among the crew members.
Priya Xu navigated the largest ship, carrying thirty-nine people and various animals, in the direction of the only habitable planet of the star Wolf 359. The ship crash-landed on the planet, killing everyone onboard, with the exception of two dogs.
Alexei Men was in charge of a crew of four people onboard the smallest and fastest spaceship, IS Voznesenye, on its way towards a tiny satellite orbiting a gas giant near the red dwarf Lalande 21195, the farthest of the four.
The spaceship plunged heavily into the sand, like a gigantic bug trying to burrow its way into the heart of the planet. An alarm howled languidly, stifled and muffled – and stopped as abruptly as it had started. The humans inside the ship, pale and terrified, frantically gripping the scarce furniture until their knuckles turned white, or cowering behind the imposing mass of the navigation console, exchanged quick glances, their fear gradually giving way to hope.
“We made it.” Captain Alexei Men’s voice was hoarse and unsteady.
Olga Tingeeva crossed herself.
They laughed, color returning to their cheeks, prying away their cold, sweaty fingers from armchair backs and cryogenic chamber hatches, leaving the shadows of their shelter, stepping into the welcoming light.
“Phew! That was a close one.” Dr. Nils Kumar shook his large bald head.
“Does anyone own an extra pair of underwear?” Kazuhiro Montag grimaced.
The laughter was forced, and exhaustion started creeping in. They had spent the last few hours in the tumult of a malfunctioning spacecraft about to crash onto the surface of the planet. At the last moment, the emergency system had leaped to life, stabilizing the descent and safely landing the ship between two large dunes of hard, greenish sand.
“Is everyone alright?” The Captain looked around.
“Mechanic Kazuhiro Montag, reporting for duty!” Montag jumped up and blew at the fringe of jet black, curly hair descending onto his forehead.
Olga knelt in front of a golden icon of the Christ, tears welling in her almond-shaped eyes.
“Communication officer Ayelet Livni.” A tall, bony woman with a stern expression on her long face stepped out from behind a spacesuit stand.
“We’re all alive. We made it ... We’re on another planet!” Dr. Kumar’s dark, rugged face shone with childlike enthusiasm.
“More than eight light-years away from home.” Alexei Men smiled. “And we’ve made this distance in only twenty-eight years. Twenty-eight short, frozen years...” He coughed and looked at his crew members as they gathered around the central recreational area, hugging each other, smiling, and sitting down on the soft couches.
“What are we waiting for?” Montag’s boisterous tone cut through the pensive silence. “Let’s get out there and see if there are aliens or something ... What does our astrophysicist say about the atmosphere and stuff? Or is she still praying?”
“The astrophysicist has some information.” Olga was already working with her iDevice, conjuring a net of holograms. “As we know, this is technically not a real planet, but a satellite of a gas giant, to which it is tidally locked. It’s terrestrial, with a mean radius of 0.155 Earths – very small, smaller than the Moon. Five sixths of it is covered by an ocean. The atmosphere is uncommonly thick, but with only 9% oxygen. Outside temperature is currently close to 265 K.”
“Can there be aliens?” Montag made a move towards the spacesuit stands.
“What do you think?” Dr. Kumar suddenly pointed towards the main porthole with a shaky finger.
Two faces were staring at them.
Both faces were growing from the same neck – oblong, purple, and glistening, like a mutant eggplant. The neck was pulsating, seemingly sending energy waves to a grotesque, monstrous body with a chaotic growth of irregular, asymmetrical appendages – a pastiche of Salvador Dalí’s wildest dreams with a touch of Hieronymus Bosch’s intimidating lucidity. But the worst were the faces themselves – each an Argus Panoptes, a kaleidoscope of colorful rhomboid eyes adorned with wobbly, dangling reddish objects, which eerily resembled human internal organs.
“Holy –” Montag stood still, unable to avert his gaze.
The creature suddenly turned around and sauntered away from the spaceship, leisurely strolling through the sand on multiple feet. In a minute it disappeared behind a large dune.
Without exchanging a word, the astronauts hastily put on their spacesuits. The Captain took a plasma rifle, while the others armed themselves with ordinary laser blasters. They left the spaceship and hurried towards the dune, staggering and performing extravagant leaps.
Thick, leaden clouds hung in the air, sometimes drifting apart to reveal what the humans perceived as a gigantic brown moon, but in reality was a planet towering over its tiny satellite. Scarlet rays of the local sun penetrated the dense fog. Isolated patches of bizarre black vegetation emerged throughout the desert, and in the horizon one could distinguish the silky surface of the great ocean.
They climbed onto the largest dune, easily bouncing off the hard pebbles. What they saw there made them freeze in terror.
In a spacious valley surrounded by charcoal black bushes, a group of aliens gathered around a colossal stone statue. It had a snake-like body, yet its head was akin to a primitive, childish sketch of a terrestrial animal – two round eyes, no nose, a square mouth, and several horns protruding from its sides.
Bowing to the statue, shaking in what appeared to be ecstasy, the aliens then walked towards a large container on the outer rim of the valley, took small pink creatures out of it, carried them back to the idol, and, with swift and precise movements, tore them apart, throwing flesh and pouring blood at the base of the idol’s tail.
Using the binocular function of their iDevices, the astronauts could clearly see that each small creature consisted out of a head sitting on a foot-like appendage with multiple digits. Their skin was pink and completely bare, and their faces bore an uncanny resemblance to those of human babies.
“Oh my God!” Olga’s lips were trembling. “We have to stop them. We have to do something!”
“Those poor, helpless creatures...” Montag shook his head. “Come on, guys! Let’s teach the bastards a lesson.” He raised his blaster and stepped forward.
“Wait a minute.” Ayelet blocked his way, frowning. “Why do you want to interfere? Do you even know what is happening out there? These are aliens. They might have a completely different culture, completely different customs –”
“Culture? Are you out of your mind? They are sacrificing babies, for Pete’s sake!” Montag turned to the others. “Captain, what do you say?”
“We have to interfere.” Alexei Men was looking straight at Ayelet. “They are clearly killing the small ones. It does look like a sacrifice.”
“I can’t believe this.” Ayelet’s horse-like face expressed cold contempt. “We are intruders. We come to their planet out of nowhere. And you want to interrupt a possible religious ritual – or maybe just a dinner, who knows? Use force at the very first opportunity, instead of establishing contact –”
“This is not a dinner!” Olga said angrily. “And if it’s a religious ritual, it’s a bloody pagan one –”
“Of course.” Ayelet grinned sarcastically. “You are the mighty Christian, Olga, you alone know what’s right and wrong, you are fit to judge the entire world –”
“Enough!” There was steel in the Captain’s voice. “We escape from a war-torn Earth, spend twenty-eight years frozen on a spaceship, safely land on an alien planet – and the first thing we do is fight each other? Is that what we’ve come to?”
“Right you are, Captain,” Montag said quietly. “But we need to do something here. I mean, if we just stand there and sing kumbaya, then Ayelet has won.”
“Oh, now I’m the enemy.” Ayelet laughed bitterly. “Always blame it on the Jews, eh, Kaz?”
“What the f•©k is wrong with you, lady?” Montag’s face was visibly red behind the glass of his helmet. “And who the f•©k are you? I’ll do what the Captain says –”
“The Captain says we go and demand them to stop.” Alexei’s voice was firm. “We try to avoid bloodshed ... or shedding whatever liquid they have in their bodies.”
“Aye, aye,” Montag muttered impatiently and jumped down into the valley. The Captain, Olga, and Dr. Kumar followed.
The aliens paid almost no attention to the humans. They continued to walk about, bowing to their idol, extracting more pink baby-like creatures from the container, and methodically slaughtering them. The ground all around the statue was drenched in blood, and heaps of flesh began to accumulate near its tail. There were about twenty aliens in the valley, and only two of them interrupted their routine to stand in front of the astronauts for a few moments and exchange what looked like curious glances with their multitude of eyes.
“Hey, you bloody beasts!” Montag’s voice was quivering with indignation. “Let them go! You!” He half-pushed the alien closest to him and showed him his blaster. “You see this? This make bad. I shoot – bang! – you bad. So you drop it. Drop! On the ground!”
The face of the baby-like creature was distorted in a grimace. It had no nose, and its eyes were completely gray, without any noticeable irises or pupils, but its expression conveyed pain and misery in a shockingly human-like way. Alexei rushed forward and tried to pry it away from the alien’s many appendages. The alien reacted by extending a few of them, circling around the Captain, and lightly touching his lower back.
“What ... Is he patting you on the butt, Captain?” Dr. Kumar covered his face, suppressing a giggle.
“This is not funny!” Tears were flowing from Olga’s eyes. “They keep killing them ... Do something!”
Alexei managed to take the small creature away from the alien, and was holding it in his hands. Some of the other aliens dropped their burdens and started slowly advancing towards the humans. The one closest to the Captain opened one of his mouths, and produced a series of gargling and hissing sounds:
“Glrzz ... Ksssstz ... Hhhyrrrgt...”
Montag hit the alien hard across one of its faces. It stumbled, dropped the sacrifice, and stood still, its neck pulsating faster and faster, making its body change its natural silvery color to a venomous yellow. It began to talk rapidly, in a monotonous drone.