The Beacon

A screenplay.



KHANA BISHARA is doing two things: she is cycling her feet casually on her bicycle-chair, and she is using two slender, bright-pink styluses to push metallic sand around on the tabletop.

As she nudges the sand, it shifts on its own, trying to anticipate what she is trying to build. So far she has crafted some ancient Roman architecture. She traces a half-circle around it, and a contemporary retractable dome curves out of the sand, partially hooding the columns and arches.

She admires the result for a moment, and speaks a command with quiet authority.



The sand-model responds, shrinking in scale, revealing an entire landscape of mini city-domes sprawled over a barren, mountainous region.

Khana inhales, slowing her feet to a stop. It takes her a moment to unscrew her steel water bottle. As she starts to drink, she is bathed in red light and an ALARM sounds, causing her to gag on the water and lose some down her chin.

The alarm intones in a mellow, masculine voice: INTRUDER. WEST AIRLOCK. INTRUDER.

She sets down her water bottle and proceeds out. Once she's out of sight, the metallic sand sculpture melts down, returning to its smooth idle state.


Khana looks out the glass of the airlock and smirks.

A compact-looking space suit stands outside the airlock glass, shrugging in mock apology. RAQUEL MAKALA smiles in a tolerant kind of way and flips her gloved hands a few times in a gesture of impatience.

Khana presses a button on the wall and speaks into the mouthpiece installed there.


Stand clear of the door.

Raquel looks back at the door, which she is already well clear of, and then back at her superior in mild disbelief.

Khana waits an unnecessary moment for Raquel to clear the door, then pushes another button on the wall panel.

The outer door slides shut behind Raquel and the chamber fills with HISSING streams of air.

Khana stands with shoulders back in wooden formality, letting her eyes flick suspiciously over the other woman's suit only once.

Raquel catches it and mouths something sarcastic that might be "relax," but her helmet apparently has no speaker to convey the sound.

Khana touches a control, and the flashing red lights cut out. A split second later, the normal yellow-white lights illuminate the chamber.

The pressurizers slow to a stop, and a green light CHIMES to the right of the door. Khana hits a control, then whirls around and walks away as the chamber door begins to slide open.

As Raquel crosses over the threshold, she pulls off her helmet and looks down the now-empty hallway with concern, but not much surprise.


Khana has a seat at her bicycle-chair and stares tiredly down at the table. She reaches out with one hand and lets her fingertips swirl and sink into the metallic sand.


Isn't it not safe to touch the sand?

Khana turns around to look at the other woman, in time to see her puffing on an e-cig.


If I stop, will you stop?




Ah. There is no compromise with you, Raquel.

Khana turns back to the sand, although she pokes at it now with a stylus instead of her fingers.

Raquel starts changing out of her suit in the corner, the e-cig hanging from her lip.


Khana, listen. I'm, ah… I'm sorry.


I forgive you.




Yes. Where did you go?


First I went to check out the Secondary, but Ashali wasn't at his post.


Where was he?


I don't know. He didn't leave a note. Then I took a stroll through Cave Valley.


Shit. I knew it. Shit always happens in the final year of a job… We should have all stuck together.


Well, don't talk about him like he's dead.


If he doesn't want to be dead he should stay at his post. One can't just go wandering off in space. But he wants to go for his little walks, same as you. What good did caution ever do us.


Caution? Have you been outside? Let me remind you what's out there. Dirt. Dust puddles. More dirt. I did find an interesting rock, actually, I'm going to have a look at it later.

She pulls the rock out of her pocket and holds it up; it's oily black, round-ish and lumpy. She flips it and catches it.


Ok. I'm glad for you. My nagging will temporarily cease.

Khana offers a stiff smile, and Raquel returns it with warmth.


You were sure gone a long time.


Oh, yeah. I got lost a little.

Khana's smile vanishes, and her eyes mist over. She SLAPS her hand into the sand, sending it flying across the floor.


The FUCK you mean, you got lost a little?

Raquel flinches, looking at the spilled sand in horror. She stands there in her underclothes, stunned.


Khana, I'm sorry. I'm back. I was always coming back.


I know.




I'm fine. I'm sorry.

Khana rubs at her face and then walks out.

Raquel reluctantly pulls on her comfy-pants, absently dropping the stone into her pocket. Nearby, the spilled sand begins its self-guided journey back up the table leg, and into the sand box.


Wearing fluffy comfy-pants and a white tank top, Raquel arrives at the bottom of a narrow stair chute. She pulls on a black utility vest and climbs the rungs.

Once her eyes peek over the top, she sees Khana sitting at a console. Nearly the whole room is bedecked in flickering lights and buttons.

She hefts herself out of the chute.

Khana sits up stiffly, never slouching, holding a bowl of cubed orange stuff. She forks a cube into her mouth and chews without enthusiasm.

Raquel plops down at a nearby console, resting her elbows on it.

Window panels surround this small control room 360 degrees around, offering a view of the planet, about 30 feet below. The terrain is all dark-brown mud and devoid of vegetation. Numerous small moons are visible in the dark blue sky.


Any signals while I was away?




Aw. No imminent threats to humankind, no dangerous space-pirates?


The Beacon only alerted me to one hazard. An intruder.


Stop locking me out, you bitch!

The corner of Khana's mouth curves up in a rare smile.


I assume you already pinged Ashali a whole bunch of times?


I did.

Khana glances over at her subordinate.


Why do you have so much non-regulation attire?


What, the pants? It's not illegal!


Not for this mission, no. Still, they don't pack efficiently and the fur will create fiber dust. Not to mention they're a snag hazard.

Raquel runs her fingers through the plush fur on her pants, considering.


I packed my favorite clothes because… four years is a long time to be without them.


Why do some people feel such attachment to their clothes? I never pack civilian clothes.


That's because your favorite clothes are the efficient ones.

Khana's lower lip bunches up as she considers this.


Alright Boss, listen. We can wait here, for hours, trying to catch a glimpse of Ashali, trying to pick up a signal he hasn't sent yet. Or we can dive.

Khana puts another forkful of mystery cube in her mouth and chews, not answering.

Raquel doesn't need an answer. She pulls on a virtual reality helmet and reclines in her seat, hands folded.

After a moment, Khana sets down her bowl. She pulls out a VR helmet from under the console, and fits it on also.


The realm within the VR helmet HUMMS to life. Something a bit bluer than natural water swirls and spins past, as the words NOW ENTERING appear in the middle of the experience.

The words THE DIVE appear shortly after, partially blocking a plain option menu that includes EXPLORE, PLAY, JOURNEY, SOUND ONLY, VISUAL ONLY, MULTIPLAY. A cartoon hand, one made of fantasy with blue scales and webbing, reaches forward and touches the PLAY option.


The two women can be seen through the window, hands folded the same way over their tummies, with VR helmets on.

From outside, the beacon looks like a space shuttle with the nose pointed up, the lighthouse positioned near the very top. Additional compartments are built into the base, miscellaneous structures spanning out like spider legs.

There is no wind. No creatures, no movement, just brown clay mountains, caves, and valleys that were formed God knows how.


Raquel sighs a little in her seat. Down near her folded hands, on her plush luxurious pants, right where the pocket is, an inky dot of black appears and spreads just a little.

Gradually Raquel sits up straighter. She pulls off the helmet, vaguely distracted, as though she had stopped truly watching. She stares down at the helmet in her lap, running thumbs over the complex-looking wiring. She looks over at Khana.

Khana might be asleep. Dancing LED lights on the helmet indicate it's still on, but she is otherwise at rest in the chair, lower face slack, lips slightly parted.

Suddenly curious, Raquel rises, leaving her own helmet on the chair.

She approaches the unknowing woman, and examines her a moment. She brings her face closer, then even closer, and brings her lips just shy of Khana's.

The act is interrupted by a TWITTERING alert. Khana, instantly awake, jerks upright; Raquel isn't fast enough and gets bonked on the eyebrow. She takes a few quick steps back.

Removing her helmet, Khana glances from Raquel's chair to Raquel in confusion.

Raquel merely points to the flashing light on the console.


What's that?

Easily distracted, Khana brightens at the sight of the signal. She hits a button, and a holographic screen appears.

Words, symbols, and bar graphs populate the screen. Khana murmurs to herself as she reads it.


The Beacon has picked something up. Oh, its similar to that other signal we got, remember? Come read. This isn't some lump of radioactive asteroid; this is definitely a nuclear space craft. Don't you think? Come on, come look!

Raquel, feeling less ashamed now that she has permission, comes forward. But at her approach, the hologram warps and falters.


Well, it's never done that.

She leans over the console and the projector itself, but the hologram BUZZES loudly and the picture behaves even more bizarrely, jumping and quaking.


Ah, rats! I'll go grab some tools.

Raquel sits down at the edge of the hatch, then begins to climb the rungs back down. She does not notice that behind her, as she stepped away, the hologram went back to normal.

Khana stares after her in wonder.


Raquel lies on her belly on a narrow cot while swiping through pages on her media book. Moving news clips and articles and talking heads pass casually away under her finger.

Khana enters and sits on the opposite cot.


Well, that was exciting.


What, the signal? Of course it was, that's what we're here for.


It is?


…Isn't it?

Khana tilts her head to the side, looking off into space. Raquel pushes away the media pad and slides a new cartridge into her e-cig.


I studied history and culture. Back at Academy.


Culture? You?


Extensively. I kind of thought that's what I would be doing at the Beacon; watching for trespassers and making ourselves known. Being the first to tactfully greet a potentially unknown culture. But that's not what we do.


Well, sure that's what we do.


No. We receive all manner of signals, and we forward them on to Terranova, where some bumbling official decides whether to do anything. Some resource-waster who's never even been in zero-G. You know what we are, Raquel?


Sentinels. No, pioneers?


We're space fodder. All we do is pass information to the people who really do things.

Looking up at Khana from the cot, Raquel gives a small jolt. Her fingers suddenly dig into the sides of the cot, and her eyes widen. Khana is slow to notice.


Well, that's all. I just wanted to share.


Oh… oh my God!


Raquel? What?

Raquel trembles stiffly but seems afraid to move.


Khana… Khana… there's something in my pants. There's something in my pants. Oh God, it's crawling. I can feel it!

The woman on the bed, still afraid to move, emits a high-pitched squeal of terror.

Khana jumps to her feet and grabs hold of Raquel's pants legs, tugging them all the way off.


I don't see anything!

Khana shakes the pants out and drops them on the floor.

Still shaking, Raquel springs from the bed, examining it's plain bedcover.


There are not supposed to be any life possibilities here. You'd better not be going crazy.

Khana peeks under the cot, and flips over the fluffy pants again.


Let's see your legs.

Raquel hasn't moved at all, and just looks at Khana pleadingly. Khana bends over with her hands on her knees, looking over the other woman's flawless skin.


Raquel, what's that?

Raquel twists around to look at her upper thigh, which bears a bluish-black smudge. She frowns, her eyes distant as she tries to make sense of it, then she gasps.


That smooth rock that I found!

Khana's eyebrows arch up in curiosity.

Raquel picks up the pants and sticks her hand in the pocket. She gasps again.


Empty! It's eaten a hole through.


We'd better find it.

At that moment, a blue light flickers next to the yellow ambient lights overhead. The masculine voice of the Beacon intones: INCOMING MESSAGE FROM SECONDARY.


Stay here! Find that rock.

Khana jogs out of the dorm.


Khana hoists herself out of the hatch and scrambles over to her console. She then halts, lowering herself into the chair with much self-control, and holds out her hand over the flashing blue icon.

With a brisk inhale/exhale, she taps the button.

A hologram message appears, similar to before. This message projects against the window panel, replacing the clay mountains and many-colored moons with a darkly lit control room.

The alien face staring back at her has carapace rather than skin, black as night except for irregular camouflage speckles across the top of his head and shoulders. His white tank top clings to the plates of natural armor underneath. Though the exterior is clearly tough, the gold-flecked eyes are gentle, and the voice is soft and somehow melancholy.


Hey Khana and Raquel. Beautiful night out, huh? I think I saw the moons make mouse ears again. I know we used to send a lot of messages like this, and I know that we haven't been, anymore. Maybe we're ready to see other people, ha ha ha…! I want you to know that I… am happy to be here. But right now I need to tell you that I've been doing something I am not supposed to be doing. I've been going for unnecessary walks outside the climate-safe zone… sorry, Khana. And the closer I get to the Day Side, the more I notice unexpected things.

The strangely expressive bone-face becomes a bit somber, and he takes a deep breath.

Khana's face is rapt, and comparatively unexpressive.


If you are receiving this message, it means I have not returned. It was not my intent to hamper our mission, and for that I deeply apologize. Death is the sole reason that I would not return. Do not retrieve my corpse. Do not go outside the climate-safe zone. Just send an exploratory team when the mission is over. I left the Secondary Beacon unlocked, and automated the air locks. Be safe, and keep your eyes on the sky. One year is not such a long time. Raquel, Khana… it's been a pleasure.

The alien gives an almost-grin, perhaps not believing this message will ever be viewed, and the holoscreen is gone, returning the dead planet's landscape.

Khana stares past the window, and catches a shallow breath in her throat. Her hand comes up involuntarily over her heart. The image of self-control, she stands, and starts climbing back into the hatch.


Khana and Raquel face each other, heads bowed, both of them sitting on bicycle-chairs but not cycling. Raquel speaks first.


This is… it's impossible. He can't be gone.

Khana merely nods.


That's why he didn't leave a note, he didn't want us to know.


And now he's dead. What did I tell you?


Gods above, Ashali… Khana, I can't do this.


Can't do what?


Sit in the lighthouse collecting signals. You said it yourself, those aren't even our signals; if they're important, we send them someplace else.


It's the job we agreed to do. This mission isn't over yet; we will complete it.


You say that because it's your job, but do you believe in this mission anymore? Really?


Yes. Don't lose vigilance, Raquel. Terranova, Brekka, and the distant allies have no eyes in this sector. None except ours! Someone has to monitor what passes here.


I know. But you know, if we take a walk… those messages aren't going anywhere. They'll be here waiting for analysis when we get back.

Khana lifts her head, sadness plain on her face.


What was he searching for?

Raquel lifts her shoulders.


Where's the rock?


I'm telling you, it can crawl. I couldn't find it anywhere.

Khana pushes herself to her feet.


I will walk out to the Secondary, and see what I can find. You brought a strange object into our midst; you stay here, and find it.

Raquel groans with childish disappointment.


That's ridiculous! Take me with you. You need a second pair of eyes.


I'll manage. And so will you.

Khana gathers up the space suit and helmet that Raquel had discarded in here before, and exits through the sliding door.

Raquel watches the space suit go, longingly.


As Raquel navigates the small network of hallways, she struts with a bit of defiance in a pair of white gator-print shorts, with shiny red vines looping down from the belt.

She peers up into the air vent, and peeks down in the corners, then passes into the next room.


One of the cots stands askew, the sheets, pillow and pillow case all in disarray.

Raquel dumps the pillow out of the other pillow case and shakes it down with a bit more force than is necessary.

She stands looking at the mess she's made, and puts her hands on her hips. Beneath the frustration is genuine puzzlement; she taps her bottom lip.

She flops back on her disheveled bed in defeat.


Raquel paces the tiny lighthouse floor, pausing to stare intently in each direction out the windows.

She takes a seat, eyes still trained on the distant land formations. She takes out a pair of gigantic headphones and fits them on.

Her plain but feminine fingers touch a dial, moving it forward by increments, then back a little. She taps a few buttons that cause a glitter of activity on the console.

She leans back in the chair and listens. A sound comes to her through the headphones, barely a BUZZ of background noise, then other sounds too.

Though it isn't crystal clear, she can hear Khana softly HUMMING to herself. She adjusts the dial, and the humming goes away. Other sounds come through, but they are all just a different kind of SUSURRUS, some like water or crunching dirt.


Khana steps out, fully protected in the space suit. She passes a couple of three-wheeled motorcycle-like vehicles, but keeps going on foot.


Dark brown mountains rise up on either side of Khana as she trudges through this valley.

These mountains look like those on Earth from a distance; but up close, they look more like they've been melted down and bubbled back up. The deep holes and caves running all the way up the mountainside are almost perfectly sphere shaped.

The ground before her, too, is pocked with half-sphere pools of silver dust, swirling almost imperceptibly.

She seems not to see the silver pools as she navigates around them. Two large moons, one pale pink and one olive green, hang in the sky overhead.


Khana's eyebrows are knit with resolution as she walks around a motor-bike, which has been left nonchalantly out in the open before the entrance.

She glances briefly down at Ashali's boot-prints in the dirt as she steps into the Secondary's airlock.

The structure, though smaller than the original Beacon, still towers up a ways, where it is topped with the shiny windows of a lighthouse.


Khana pulls off her helmet and dumps it on the floor, to mimic the drop in her mood.

Walking through the halls, she notices nothing amiss. All is clear and tidy.

At the end of the hall are two combined rooms. To the left is a niche with layers of dun fabric that make up Ashali's nest.

To the right is a miniature recreation room, with a ladder leading straight up into a chute.

MONTAGE: Khana opens the metal food cupboard (orange cubes); scans through holo-messages up in the lighthouse, hitting a button repeatedly as mundane info screens scroll past; kicking and throwing bits of dun fabric about as she disassembles his nest.

A CLATTER; Khana looks down. A personal notepad has fallen out of the bedding. When she touches the screen, it illuminates with the word LOCKED.

Khana huffs.


Khana looks over at the parked motorbikes, giving them a bit more consideration than before, and walks into the airlock. She pauses there a second, running fingers over Ashali's locked pad.



Khana calls out to Raquel as she enters the dorm. She finds the woman dead asleep and snoring. Both beds are still messy.

Instead of disturbing her, Khana places the pad on top of her own pillow, and puts it conspicuously on display in the center of her cot.

She looks over the sleeping figure before exiting.


The hell are you wearing?


Khana is greeted by an unusual HISSING sound as she walks into the rec room. Frowning deeply, she turns her head toward the sand box.

There's a small section of sand that is fountaining up a few inches in the air, and spilling a great deal of sand on the ground.

She picks up the pink styluses with a trembling hand. She gives her hand a sharp look, and the trembling subsides.

Reaching out with a stylus, she slashes and pats at the fountain, but the sand does not respond.

With a cringe of uncertainty, Khana sticks her bare hand directly into the sand fountain, closes her fingers, and pulls it back out. As she retracts her hand, the sand fountain stops.

She opens her hand. She's got the strange lumpy rock in her palm, a tiny row of legs flailing underneath it. Sand skitters and bounces away, off of her hand.

She holds it up to the light between two fingers. It's vaguely translucent, and a couple layers of dark blue and green can be made out.


Khana opens the door of a box-it looks like a microwave-and places the rock inside. It immediately starts crawling out; she shoves it all the way in and slams the door.

Inside, the rock is hit with a blue spotlight, then a bright white one.

Khana's eyebrows are up as she watches the rock climb around in the box. Next to the device is a smooth silver screen, which flips itself on to show a close-up real-time image of the rock within. Khana's eyebrows seem to go a bit higher as she waits.

The screen presents an x-ray image of the rock, revealing the craftings of mortals rather than God. Gel filled with spider-like webbing surrounds two simple gears, one big and one small, and a tread of retractable peg-like feet runs underneath them.

A smile comes over Khana's face as she watches the screen.


Oh, hello. Now who are your robot parents?

Khana picks up a heavy scanning device and plunks it down in front of the rock's door. Then she grabs a pair of boots and blocks the door with that, too. She speaks softly at the bug through the obstacles.




Khana, wearing the oversize headphones, has two holo-screens up in front of her, and talks to a tiny point of orange light on her console.


My thanks to Bevan for explaining how to plug it in. I would never have guessed this were a storage device.

On one of the screens, a long-haired, bushy-eyebrowed man is nodding to himself, an image of Raquel's rock appearing in the frame next to his, then switching to similar shapes and designs of the same rock as he peruses in research.


For now it seems to be locked, though it is asking for "Noy Eriod's" passcode.

INSERT SCENE: The rock attaches by its feet to one of many different-shape keyholes in a hub, causing a screen nearby to display WELCOME NOY ERIOD. PASSCODE? in three different alphabets, two of which are alien.


Raquel can maybe crack it, she's suspiciously good at that sort of thing. But what I can't do is find out who Noy Eriod is. I'm going to my rest for a few hours. If either of you can locate Mr. Eriod, please tell me on the next feed. Most likely he was on a previous mission.

The bushy-eyebrowed man continues to research and mutter his findings, something about the Virgo system.



The point of light on her console winks from orange to blue.

She looks to the other open screen, in which BEVAN, an alien female of the same armor-skinned race as Ashali, is reading something off-screen and frowning.


I don't know how you got that thing. Only ones I see are incredibly far away. Parithcan make. Have you even heard of Parithcans? They don't leave their planet for talk or trade, ever. I'll have more on that in the next feed, and you're welcome in advance. Bevan out.

At almost the same time, both holo-screens are superimposed with the word REPLAY?

Khana rubs sleepily at her eyes and leans back, looking out the window.

Outside, it's still night, still the same strange mountains. Stars and moons hang in the sky.


Who you talking to?

Fresh out of the hatch, Raquel straightens up behind Khana, but Khana is too tired to do anything but stare out the window.


Hey! You're sending messages. I want to send a message. We could tell people about that bug.


Way ahead of you.


I looked all over but…


I know, I know. I found it.


We could tell people that Ashali's proclaimed himself dead.



Khana swivels in the chair and looks Raquel hard in the eye.


We are not doing.

Raquel deflects Khana's bloodshot stare with a dainty lift of her chin.


I kind of like the look in your eye.


Raquel, I apologize for letting the isolation get to me sometimes. You probably think I'm fucking crazy. We have to find Ashali. We have to.

Raquel merely nods, as though they were discussing the weather.


This is the most interesting thing that's happened since the moons made double mouse ears that one time.

Khana blinks at the ridiculous comparison, and stifles a yawn.


I need to rest, four hours. Did you find Ashali's media pad?

Raquel holds it up. At the touch of her finger, the screen changes from LOCKED to GREETINGS, ASHALI!


Way ahead of you.

Khana takes the pad.


How did you do that?


I watched him type it in one time.

Khana almost smiles, and hands the pad back to Raquel before heading back down the hatch.


VIDEO FROM ASHALI'S PAD: Angles up to see two curving peaks, like a great bubble that burst in two, the sky between them a lighter shade of blue.


There it is! I found daytime!

The view goes lower, scanning over a dark, lumpy valley that was once boiled rock.

NEXT VIDEO: Scans over some strange swirls in the dirt.


There is not ever wind. So I wonder what made these swishes. Who knows what the previous sentinels did. Or maybe it's a ghost.

The camera pans around to frame Ashali's face behind the glass of the helmet, looking off into the distance with doubt. The heavy carapace brow is drawn in mock fear.


I am afraid of ghosts.

Suddenly Ashali GASPS and points the camera at the dirt again. A long, waving swish has cut a path in the dirt. Panning to the side to follow it, the camera finds a poorly drawn smiley face with its tongue sticking out.


Vortuk help us...

NEXT VIDEO: Ashali sits on the ground, one elbow resting on his knee. With an air of philosophy, he gestures at the tire tracks in the dirt before him.


When first I came out this way, I brought the bike. I came no further than this, to the edge of the horizon, and I dismounted. I looked around. I admired the heaven's light coming up over the hills. I did not expect to find anything, and there was indeed, nothing here to notice. But today…

Ashali moves into a cross-legged position and straightens up his back, looking off toward the horizon.


Today I come here on foot. Today something is different. Can you hear it?

He cocks his head to the side, listening. There is a SUSURRUS, but it might be recording feedback.


Maybe it's too faint.

He crawls forward and touches the camera; the volume gets louder, but it still sounds a lot like WHITE NOISE.


I can hear it, in any case. I didn't hear that sound before.

NEXT VIDEO: At the very base of a curved spire of rock and looking up at it, dazzling blueish-green daylight igniting the sky behind it, and fading to the deep blue of night toward the tip of the spire.

Ashali pans the camera to one side, revealing lumpy land formations that stripe the ground with long shadows. He pans the camera the other way, where there is not enough light to cast very good shadows.

Ashali brings the view back over the sky again, perhaps admiring the light. The recording blinks off.


At the sound of a CHIME, Raquel's face appears before a food processor, and opens its door.

She pulls out a neat bowl of orange cubes, and wolfs them down, hardly chewing.

Once the bowl is empty, she puts it back inside the processing box and shuts the door.

Sitting back down at the console, she considers the pad in her hand. She pushes a button, and the holo-display plays back another video of Ashali walking through the land of half-daylight.

She shakes her head and snaps the video back off.


The lights are dimmed. Raquel walks in, holding Ashali's pad uselessly in her hand, and looks down at Khana.

Khana sleeps with an eye-mask on, on her back, with her hands folded neatly over her belly.

Raquel sits down on her own cot, and slides the pad away under the pillow. She sits back, a little bored, a little sad, and watches Khana sleep.

Finally, she lies down on her own cot, just the way Khana is lying, and folds her hands over her belly.

She stares up at the low ceiling above her cot.


The darkness and serenity of the dormitory is flooded with red light, and then the ALARM.

The familiar masculine voice warns them: INTRUDER ALERT. SOUTHERN AIRLOCK.

Both women spring upright with their legs swung over the edge of their beds. They look at each other in confusion, and pull on their boots.


Both women come jogging up to a wide, darkly lit room. This garage is full of huge storage boxes stacked to the ceiling.

The airlock door has a window, but it's only a narrow strip at eye-level; they peek out.

Nothing. Just an empty chamber, and the landscape beyond.

Khana grabs the spy scope goggles attached to the wall and peers through them.

Through the scope, she sees only dirt. Angling down, the dirt does not even look disturbed.


Security playback.

A holo-screen opens up on the wall panel, showing exactly what they saw out the window: nothing. The holoscreen continues to show nothing when the red light signals, and the INTRUDER message blinks across the bottom of the screen.


There's nothing there.


Must have malfunctioned.


I've never heard of that. How? Why would it malfunction?

Khana looks out the strip of window again, and a single sob escapes her. She recovers immediately, blinking and fighting it back.

Wordlessly, Raquel puts her arms around Khana and hugs her. Khana hugs her back.


It's almost been four hours. Come on, let's go check the feed.


The two women sit upright in their swivel chairs. Raquel sees the blinking blue light on the console and smiles hopefully at Khana.

Khana leans forward and taps the button. Not two, but three holo-screen windows pop up.


Play Bevan.

The holoscreen depicting Bevan moves to the front, and the alien's dark face is knit with concern.


I'm sorry, Khana, I couldn't get the Parithcan ambassadors to give up any information on your Noy Eriod. Such a paranoid, private bunch! I did provide them with your signal, should they change their mind and contact you directly. Aside from that, all I can tell you is that a race of aliens live on planet Charo in the Virgo system, and they call themselves Parithcans. No Parithcan has ever been part of an Allied mission to your location, that's clear from the mission logs. I don't know what else to say about your discovery. Finders keepers, I guess.

The holoscreen ends with the REPLAY? message, rather abruptly. Khana breathes in and out to release her disappointment.


Play Francis.

The second holo-message moves to the front, bearing the image of the human with bushy eyebrows.


Greetings! I found several different types of these devices that you asked about. They are all storage-basic gel and crystal design. Some are passkey-protected, but the older models have a hardwired protection. You can try plugging it into any old device, but it won't play. It will only play on one device: the playback device belonging to the user. If you don't have that user's personal playback, you can't view the data. You could try finding out who the owner is? Well, good luck!

Raquel cheers sarcastically.


Play final message.

The third screen moves to the front. Framed in the display is a snowy owl with huge red eyes. When the screen enlarges slightly in preparation of playing, the owl moves a mouth instead of a beak. The angelic feathers flutter briefly, then settle back against its body.


I… Noy Talat. Brother Noy Eriod.




You bring Eriod. You live, Eriod good, brother like brother. Need good, live, you. Why?

Raquel looks to Khana for clarification as the owl-like person continues with his incomprehensible string of words. Khana stares hard at the holoscreen in concentration.


White-feather Noy. Map. Planet. MAP! Bring back Noy, humans live. Noble, white-feather, KILL! Humans die. Sign-off.

The video ends with an awkward, lop-sided expression on the agitated avian face. Raquel buries her face in her elbow, laughing apparently.


How is that funny?


It… just is, I'm sorry.

The eyes look almost Satanic, blood-red and with one looking wider than the other in the final still-frame.


I didn't know there was an avian race.


He just said he's going to kill us! I mean, is that how you read that?


Let's not jump to conclusions.


You wanna play it back? I'm pretty sure he said, if his friend is dead…


No one is dead.


What? …You were pretty pessimistic about it before. How do you know?


A few things. My current rank. And yours. Both of which could be higher. The cuisine, which could be better. Our station. My family, back home, who always wanted me out of earshot, and they got their wish tenfold. I can still hear them whispering! I did everything right, Raquel, everything. Perfectly. To the detail. Mom and Dad still would just give me that sad look, like they felt sorry for me. But I don't think of myself the way they think of me. That's how I know this mission isn't a bust. That's how I know Noy Eriod isn't dead. Ashali isn't dead. No one is dead.


But, Khana…


No communiques. Let's load up the bikes.



Khana swings down into hatch, and Raquel bomps her fist on a console button, shutting off all the holoscreens.


Raquel is practically skipping as she grabs her utility vest off a hook, looks around for her boots, and finds one on the floor.

Khana walks in, and hands a yellow space-helmet with racing stripes to Raquel. The other helmet, still tucked under her arm, is standard beige.


I repaired all the communicators in all the helmets, even the ones we're not using.


Sounds useful.



Khana walks out.

Raquel hunts around for the second boot. As she spies it on the research ledge in front of her, she pauses.

The door to the small examination chamber is ajar. Her boot and the clunky scanning device look very out of place there.


Khana? Were you scanning something?





Ah, nevermind.

She grabs her boot. She doesn't give the open box another thought.


Khana and Raquel stand before the airlock door, fully suited and helmeted. Raquel's vest and Khana's belt are loaded with tools. The door begins to lift open with a hydraulic HISS.


Khana has a seat on her long, 3-wheeled motorbike, and flips a switch to make the protective glass canopy close on top of her.

As she looks over at the other bike, Raquel gives her a thumbs-up. Raquel's helmet is already on, her canopy already down. Khana speaks through the helmet's communicator.


Follow my lead.


Khana's bike weaves back and forth to avoid the puddles of partially settled dust. Raquel, not far behind, drives straight through them, causing dust to swirl but, remarkably, not fly very far. It's as if the dust is too thick and heavy.


Khana pulls in next to Ashali's discarded motorbike, and peers out the window. On the ground, it's clear to see tire and boot tracks in the dirt.


He went this way.

The two bikes take off in that direction.


The only sound in existence is the RUMBLING of two motorbikes. With headlights on, they drive through this seemingly endless night, passing neither dust-puddle nor hill.

Whether they are still following Ashali's tracks is impossible to see as earth disappears under their headlights.

A mountain up ahead seems to add an extra layer of darkness. It's top is not conical, but more resembles a bubbling cauldron in shape. Up above, five moons hang like multi-colored marbles in the sky.


Seen in the improved light, Raquel's bike is streaked with dust and Khana's is relatively clean. One helmeted head turns to look at the other.


This is a long walk…

The other helmet looks over at her, then faces forward again.

As they come out of the shadow of the mountain, however, a sudden brightness flares against their glass canopies, and the women GASP.

Up ahead, they see the curving arches from Ashali's video. Between them is a brighter shade of blue that can only mean sunshine.


We have to hope he did not deviate his path. There is no telling where he went from here!


Don't be silly. He thought those arches were beautiful; he went there.


Well, alright…

They drive toward the arches. The world begins to brighten.


The motorbike slides to a stop.

Blinking against the brightness, Khana flips a switch to raise her bike's canopy.

Her boots come down on bleached-white earth with a faint CRACKLE.

The women walk towards the light, and the moons in the sky behind them are starting to be washed out by the sun.


This side of the planet faces the sun perpetually, shouldn't it be…


Hotter? Yes.

Unlike the night side, the day side is smooth and flat, just packed white earth as far as the eye can see.


I can see for miles! So where is he? Did he really go out that far?

Raquel takes the lead, walking ahead.


I don't know. I don't see anything.

Raquel scans the ground as she walks. The hard, crumbly ground doesn't take footprints.


Well… it is a little hot…

A bead of sweat runs down Khana's forehead.

They spread out a little, checking the ground and the horizon.


What was he even doing out here?


I don't know. I'm baffled. Brekka's atmosphere is pretty harsh, maybe all this reminds him of home.


Khana, look at people's faces when they talk! Ashali looks dead inside when he's talking about Brekka.


He doesn't like his home planet?


No. He doesn't.

Khana pauses to unhook Ashali's pad from her belt, and play a video. She absently scratches the back of her helmet.

Up ahead, Raquel continues to stomp forward, her eyes scanning the bleak landscape.

Khana looks up from the pad in time to see Raquel fall right down into the ground, arms flailing.



She runs as well as she can in the somewhat restrictive suit, and slows to a stop before a deep fissure in the ground.

She peeks over the edge.



Down at the bottom of the 12 foot hole, Raquel pushes herself up into a sitting position. A layer of powdered dust seems to have broken her fall.


Are you hurt? The hole is shallower that way; go on, I'll help you climb out.

Using the wall for support, Raquel rises cautiously to her feet.


I'm okay, I think.

Raquel stares, unmoving, down the dark shaft.


Khana, I think it goes deeper. Come down here.

Khana's eyebrow twitches uncertainly, but she climbs in.

She touches Raquel's elbow.


Sure you're okay?

Raquel nods faintly, and turns from the dark shaft to Khana.


After you.

Khana activates the forward-facing flashlights on her helmet and creeps forward, testing each step.


The ground seems stable. I'm thinking it was the sun all by itself that made this crack. There's probably cracks all over the surface, then.


Uh huh.

Khana ventures into the narrow opening.


How deep could it possibly go?

Raquel follows, clicking on her own helmet-lights.


The two space-suits squeeze through a long, narrow tunnel, with packed earth on either side and above them.

The path forks. Khana takes out a tiny can of spray paint from her belt, and paints a red arrow on the wall pointing back the way they came.

She leads them down the larger of the two paths.


They walk comfortably now in a somewhat wider tunnel. Their lights pick up rough, hard earth.

Khana takes out another flashlight, examining the tunnel all around, and clicks it back off. She turns to Raquel.


We've been marking our path. If Ashali had come down here, I'm certain he would have done the same.


Or… he might have come down using a different path. Maybe he came down another split.

Khana sighs, accepting this logic, and swears softly.

With her head hanging down, her helmet lights shine on Raquel's belt. Her eyebrows knit.


What's that furry thing on your belt?


Lucky rabbit's foot.


Pass it up.

Khana holds out her gloved hand, and Raquel unhooks the rabbit's foot and gives it.

They both look at the rabbit's foot. The long wisps of fur between the toes are fluttering.


Oh my gosh, there's wind down here.

Khana sprays another arrow pointing back the way they came, and they continue down.


The passage is quite wide now. Not much can be seen in the flashlight as they creep forward.

Khana continues to hold the rabbit's foot aloft, waving it around to locate the air current.

The rabbit's foot is a bright spot in the darkness, but the light goes suddenly dim. It brightens again, then dims once more.


What is that?

A dark fog is passing in random plumes before their helmet-lights. Looking up, Raquel's spotlights hit the low ceiling, which is swirling with a dark purple-ish fog.


Crouch down! I have no idea what that is.

They both crouch down to get their heads out of the strange fog, and continue creeping down the path.


They are still walking bent with plumes of purple swirling just over their helmets.

Khana runs her gloved hand along the wall as they go. When she takes her hand away and looks at it, the fingertips are wet.


I think I hear something.

Khana stops and faces her, and they both pause to listen. For a long moment it's just quiet. Then there is a faint, watery SLOSH.

Khana frowns, spooked and unhappy with that particular noise.


You're kidding me.


No joke, that sounded like water. Let's go.

As Khana steps forward, a purplish drop of water hits her face-mask and runs down. She irately rubs it off with an arm.


The women continue taking cautious steps on the now-wet rock. The sound of TRICKLING WATER is now constant.

They approach a circular opening. Their flashlights hit nothing at all beyond the edge of the opening, and the opening is already marked with yellow backward-facing arrows.


Oh, holy shit. Tell me he didn't drown in some unholy underground lake.


Okay. It's alright; at least now we know he was here. Right? We know he was here.

Khana delicately leans against the icky wall, and lowers herself to the ground.


Let's rest a moment. Just rest. Lights off, save power.

Raquel squats down opposite her and clicks off the lights with a tired, clumsy hand. As the lights go off, Khana lets her face sink into sadness and doubt.

Sitting in darkness, they both turn their heads nervously toward the cave opening.

The TRICKLING sound echoes from the gaping blackness beyond.

Khana edges toward the opening and unclips the flashlight from her belt. She bangs it on the lip of the opening, and it echoes back many times: CRACK-crack-crack, CRACK-crack-crack.

Khana and Raquel continue to face the opening, Raquel nodding slightly at their new understanding of its breadth. Then comes another sound: SLOSH.


Was that him? Wish we could yell through these helmets.

Khana lifts her hand-held flashlight and blinks it rhythmically four times, and then twice. No other sounds respond though.

Khana looks back at Raquel, then back into the cavern, and plants herself at the opening, a bit protectively. They sit in silence.


They slosh through about an inch of dark water, casting their lights from side to side. Clumps of stalagmites grow out of the wet ground here and there, but the opposite side of the cavern can't be seen.

Raquel scans over the cave wall to her side.


There are no markings.


I know. But he's… something's down here.

Their boots continue to SPLASH against the shallow water.


I mean, something must live down here to be making that foggy by-product. Think we'll find mushrooms?


Could just be micro's in the water.


Well, it would be a potentially lucrative discovery. Could maybe farm something, down here under the surface.


Yeah. Something gross.


Raquel! An opening.

The splash over to a side tunnel that has opened up.

Khana flashes her beams along the interior of the opening. Ashali's yellow spray paint has drawn an arrow with a big X through it, and the word NO! for emphasis.

They peer down this tunnel, which curves around a bend. They leave it alone and keep walking.


Black swarming clouds obscure the ceiling, and give forth a single drip.

The drip hits the peak of a huge stalagmite. Down near the base are a cluster of smaller stalagmites, one of which is wide enough to make a table for Khana and Raquel to sit on.

Raquel holds a square device in her hand, which deploys a long needle. She stabs this needle wetly into a glowing purple mushroom with neon green gills.

She frowns intently at the readout for a moment.





She jerks the needle back out.


The water wouldn't be too bad, though, if we filtered out all the excess minerals.

They sit quietly on their perch, alone in the dark in the middle of the shallow lake.


It's been nearly 24 hours since we left. No telling how long Ashali's been down here. Brekkans can go a long time without food or water.


How much air did he bring with him?


You can only condense air so much. We'll run out, ourselves in… 48 hours.


He's gonna die.


I don't see his body! Do you see his body, Raquel?


No, ma'am.

Khana stands up and puts her boot violently through a large mushroom. It crumbles, surprisingly dry inside.


Time is oxygen. Let's go.

Raquel stands without complaint, and steadies Khana when she SLIPS in the mushroom debris.


Depressed and anxious, the two women continue to trudge forward, purplish smudges dried onto their face-masks. Suddenly the SPLASHING noise of their feet ceases.

Khana notices and looks down.



The ground at their feet is dry, but slightly muddy. Scanning ahead with the lights, they see footprints.

They spread out a little and study the prints.


These aren't boot-prints.


Do Ashali's feet make shapes like this? How many toes to Brekkans have? Like three big toes, right?


Three, that's right. But I can't make out toes in this.

The footprints in the mud have too much ball and heel to be boots, but the mud isn't stiff enough to capture more detail.

As they climb the gently sloping earth, two new side-tunnels appear.


Split up, meet back here in five.

She marches a bit recklessly down the right side-tunnel.


Are you serious!

Raquel hurries to catch up with Khana, who glances back in irritation but doesn't slow down.


Split up! We are not splitting up down here.

A GUST of purple wind forces Khana to halt her steps. The women stand close together as the fog hinders their light and presses against them.

Khana YELPS.


It's right in front of me!


What's in front of you?

Even as she speaks, Raquel is hugging Khana's arm and digging her heels in, trying to pull her back.

Khana holds her ground with gritted teeth, and fumbles a white-bladed knife loose from her belt.

As she holds the blade out before her, the wind abruptly stops and the smoke falls gradually away from their headlights.

They remain frozen in place, captivated by something in front of them that THROBS and WHEEZES, not noticing that purple spray has converged into droplets that are running down their helmets and suits.

Before them are three large, grey-ish sections of skin blocking off the rest of the corridor. The skins cover all but a triangular gap in the middle, which puffs out a minute gust of purple smoke every time the skin flaps clench.

Each skin panel is lined with green veins, through which fluid can be seen flowing.

Khana tightens her grip on the knife.


Oh, god Khana, please listen to me. I promise on all that is holy, Ashali is not in there. Let's go.

Khana continues to stare at the fleshy wall, her face slightly contorted in fascination. When Raquel pulls on her arm, she allows herself to be pulled back.


Raquel drags Khana out of the corridor by the hand, looks at her in startled panic, and starts wiping ineffectively at the purple liquid. Khana raises a hand to indicate she's alright.

Still wielding her knife, Khana nods toward the remaining corridor and starts walking. Raquel unsheathes a knife of her own, a standard-issue white blade same as Khana's, and follows.

As they come up on the tunnel's entrance, they notice a yellow marking on the wall, but it's only a line and a dot.


This is not a standard mark.

They both stare at the brief marking for a moment.


Well… shall we?

Khana turns to her, grateful for her willingness.




Their headlights indicate the tunnel goes back quite a ways. As they walk down it, they have to edge away from ripped shreds of skin-flap clinging to the wall.

A few feet past the torn skin flaps, Khana slips and falls with a SPLAT.

Groaning, she peels her face-plate away from the raw-looking fleshy floor of the tunnel.


I need a launch pill.


Officer Raquel Makala, do not be sick inside your helmet.

They watch the network of green veins pulsate across the fleshy walls and floor.


It's just an organism trying to survive with limited resources. It's stretched itself across the stone…

Raquel rests her hands on her knees, breathing deeply.


And that weird valve must have grown across the opening, to keep the resources in.

Khana takes Raquel by the elbow, pulling her upright, and plants a foot slowly into the fleshy ground. Raquel squeezes her eyes shut with effort and her face has gone pale and clammy.


Keep your eyes shut, then. Step very slowly.

The tunnel slopes up. One step at a time, they advance over the disgusting terrain.


We should go back, Khana.


Shh. You're okay. You're okay.

Their boots take another cautious, SQUISHY step, sending up SPURTS of green fluid from popped capillaries.

Refusing to glance down, Khana stares ahead, resolutely marching forward. When she hears a CRUNCH underfoot, she reluctantly moves her eyes downward.

She moves her boot out of the way. Something lies absorbed in the pink flesh, which is swollen and leaking green fluid in an unhealthy way.


Be still, Raquel. Don't move. I'm gonna let go.

Raquel, unwilling to risk opening her mouth, manages an MM-HMM. Khana releases her elbow, and bends down.

Khana plunges her gloved fingers into it. When she closes her hand around the object, fluid and flesh spill apart like jelly.


K-Khana? What are you doing?


I found something.

She inspects the tiny cylinder in her hand.



Khana shakes the cylinder, and sprays a swirl of yellow on the pulsating wall.


What was that?


Still not safe to look. Let's go.

Khana leads Raquel further up the slope.


Khana, weary and drawn with worry, leads Raquel forward, then stops. She nudges Raquel, who blinks her eyes open.

Before them is a round room, the end of the tunnel. A thin shaft of light cuts through from the ceiling and hits the pool of water that makes up most of the floor.

Khana peers down into the pool. The shaft of light streaks all the way to it's crystal clear rocky bottom.

She then looks up. Little stairs have been carved into the side of the wall, leading up toward the gash in the ceiling.


It's a way out!

She begins scaling the wall, her sure feet climbing easily on the narrow stairs.


Come on, Khana!



Khana positions her boot on the first stair with far less enthusiasm.

At the apex of the stairs, Raquel finds a ledge and hefts herself up.


Another tunnel up here, but there's no ick on it.



Raquel wedges herself through the crack in the rock, climbing excitedly down the narrow path.

Back on the stair, Khana takes another uncertain step.

Raquel blinks in wonder as the narrow tunnel opens up into a spacious room.

A hunched figure crouches on the other end.




Huh? What did you find?

Raquel cocks her head to the side as she approaches.

The figure doesn't move or respond.

Raquel reaches forward with a trembling hand and pulls on the figure's shoulder.

The whole thing falls sideways, crouched in fetal position, its face three gaping holes for the eyes and mouth. Grey and white feathers cover the entire canvas of rotten skin.


Khana losses her footing, and falls back into the pool of water.


As Khana sinks, she notices that this pool opens into a much larger one, where streaks of light cut through the sepia-brown water in places.

She squints her eyes trying to see more of the larger pool as her lightweight suit buoys her back to the top.


Khana surfaces, her helmet looking a bit cleaner.

Up above, Raquel emerges from the tunnel and starts down the stairs.


I'm sorry I screamed. Are you okay, boss?


I'm fine.


I'm sorry, it's just that I was surprised. There was a corpse up there. No, it wasn't Ashali! It was our friend Noy Eriod.

She holds up a handheld device with a U-shaped end.


Can watch his movies, if we ever make it back out of here, eh?

Khana smiles.


Well done, Raquel. Did you find any trace of Ashali? Did you find an exit?


Negative, and negative. Dead end.


Alright. The way forward is underwater, then.

Raquel takes the last steps off the treacherous stair.


Are our suits made for that?

Khana faintly shrugs.



Raquel grins and jumps.


Breathing comfortably in their suits, the women begin to paddle forward, surrounded by bubbles from Raquel's jump.

They pass through a narrow streak of sunlight.


Let me surface first. If anything takes my head off, go back the way we came.


Ah, you're starting to sound like your old paranoid self, sir.

Khana doesn't reply, but kicks toward the surface.


Khana's facemask breaks the surface, and turns around in a circle. Her final facial expression is one of horror.


Raquel, get up here.

Raquel's face appears beside hers. She looks around, a bit disgusted and perplexed at the same time.

All around them is clear evidence of previous habitation by something civilized. Computers, screens, and furniture lie partially submerged in water or pink fungus.

They both turn their head at a sound of WATER SPRAY.


Khana, what was that?

Khana begins swimming, and Raquel follows, still facing the silence that had been a sound. They reach a nearby stalagmite island, large enough for only one of them, and Khana climbs up its narrow peak.

Near a clutter of floating debris, and stationary debris overgrown with fungus, the water ripples tellingly. Suddenly, a dark shoulder disappears behind an island of garbage.


Raquel. Get up here.

She doesn't need telling twice. Raquel is up on the rock with easy athleticism and hardly a splash, sharing the few inches of footspace with Khana.


There's something in the water.


Like a fish?


No. Not like a fish. Give me your e-cig, I know you brought one.


Can't really smoke one through my helmet, Khana.


Then it's really silly to bring them.

Raquel sighs and reaches into a vest-pouch.


It brings a bit more comfort than the rabbit's foot.

Khana does not attempt to understand. She merely takes the e-cig and begins disassembling it.

Raquel frowns at the dead e-cig and looks away.


Oh, shit, there is something over there.


I know. Don't distract me.

Khana fits tiny pieces to her spray can.


How do you know it's not Ashali?


It's not him.

Khana un-snaps a roll of black cloth tape from her belt, and wraps it around the neck of her contraption.


Ashali is rough. What I just saw was smooth. Still have your knife?

In response, Raquel un-sheathes it.


You're starting to scare me.


When I deploy this bomb, you need to dive underwater. Ok?


Yes, ma'am. When are you going to throw it?

With a noisy FWOOSH, something surfaces amid the nearby islands of garbage, JOSTLING broken bits of hardware. A triangular black flipper is briefly seen.


AH! Now!

She tosses the bomb and dives. Raquel pauses to try and see the creature before diving, herself.

They flap their arms to stay down under the surface; soon enough, a POP and a RUMBLE heard, and the surface above is lit up in orange and red.

In that moment before the flames die down, a dolphin-like silhouette turns toward them in the water, it's eyes incandescent.