A lonely scientist is very far from home. Curious observations turn to bizarre happenings.
The weather below was hellish, as it always was on Neptune. Around it's icy core raced clouds at war with each other, clashing at seven hundred miles an hour in blue and white streaks of gas. Huge cyclones the size of worlds tore through smaller weather systems, growing for decades before dispersing.
None of this registered with Benjamin de Silva. The almost oceanic and deceptively tranquil view to him was simply beautiful. Surely nobody could tire of such a sight. He was sat in a small semicircular dome just big enough for one person. Constructed of six glass panels it featured only a seat at the center with straps to stop the observer from floating away. Although Ben rarely used them, preferring instead to let himself drift naturally. This essential little room was fixed to the end of what was basically a cylinder, his home of two years. A two hundred and fifty foot long boom extended from the opposite end on which sat his power supply, it's nuclear source a healthy distance from his shielded homestead.
Ben looked in awe at the beautiful blue chaos and wondered about the others, his counterparts in the other outposts dotted around the solar system. All observing incredible wonders in fantastically diverse environments, their instruments gathering data that would keep scientists busy and the people of Earth hungry for more.
Each of the stations were named after ancient civilizations. There was Persia over Mars, Siam around Jupiter - specifically its moon Europa, and Assyria orbiting Saturn's satellite, Titan. Being a native of Sri Lanka, Ben de Silva's post was given the name of it's previous incarnation, Ceylon.
His research here was without doubt becoming the most important of all the outposts. Life was very clearly not confined to Earth. Microbial life and even organisms more exotic were present in the vicinities of the four stations. Here, on Neptune, something incredible was happening. Something that eventually would affect the way his race would think about their lives forever. It had taken him three years to get here and it would take the same amount of time for a rescue, even with the nuclear propulsion available to the craft of the day.
He had been prepared for such a mission all his life, having spent the majority of his adult years in remote locations on Earth and in it's orbit. He did not need the company of others, preferring his own thoughts, pursuits and pleasures. This was also the case with the other residents in their tiny worlds of instruments and silence. Discovery and exposure to nature on such a grand scale was all he had needed.
255,000 miles beyond the protective glass, moving amongst the devilish storms moved creatures. Strange and beautiful creatures, they swam in the extreme currents of Neptune as ink in water, as smoke through air. These living clouds with tendrils something like those of jellyfish, were pure white. Varying from two to four meters in length, they gracefully moved around the vast planet in groups. Although through Ben's optical instruments a group appeared as a single entity, as a school of fish in the oceans of Earth.
His thoughts turned to his most recent concerns and fears, now increasingly disturbing. He was the most distant of all the frontier scientists from Earth. Here, the sun was just a small dot of light, its rays taking over four hours to reach and illuminate the swirling beauty of this mysterious giant.
The seventy months and twenty five days of solitude, though, were now starting to take their toll. He was thinking more each passing week of the 'panic bed', although he hoped things wouldn't get so bad that it would come to that. This so called device was installed in each of the research stations as a last option available if the loneliness became too much It was, of course, risky. The user could be forced into a coma at the push of a few buttons and the connection of a few lifelines. This piece of equipment, stowed within the wall of the lab, would keep the patient - for that is what he would now become - in a state of near death until a rescue could be affected. The machine was for someone who had exhausted all other courses of action; for someone in a very advanced state of mental degeneration. Maybe, soon, for Benjamin de Silva
In the past few months he had experienced recurring dreams. They weren't nightmares but contained startling imagery involving mutated versions of the cloud angels. Sometimes he would be back on Earth, maybe outside his childhood home in Colombo or within the confines of an arctic research station. The creatures would appear next to him at seemingly random moments. He would turn around or wake up and one would be there, a vague form, but most definitely one of them. It would just hang there, its wisps and tendrils like lace curtains in a breeze. In the dreams, he felt he knew something, a truth. Like gaining some crucial knowledge about something that had always been there, but was just out of sight.
There were other occurrences too. Sounds, shadows, movements. The majority of people, most of all Ben, would put instances of the paranormal down to the effects of isolation and he was well aware that there were aspects of the subconscious that would surface through solitude. He was a man of science. But some recent incidents had pushed his logical mind to the limit. And now, perhaps, beyond.
After waking from a particularly lucid dream he had gone into the bathroom area of the habitat. Suddenly the whole station had started shaking violently. The vibrations were at such a high frequency that that some fixtures became loose, broke free and floated away from their original positions.
It came to a stop after several long and frightening seconds. He looked around then found himself looking into the mirror. He noticed a tear in the corner or his left eye. This alone was not worth noting, although the station 'quake' was very odd. Being so far out was beginning to upset him and affect his mind. Maybe as a result of the incident, he began noticing teardrops in the strangest places. He was observing Triton, Neptune's largest moon, on it's transit across the giant planet. From his position less than five thousand miles away he could resolve surface features very clearly with the lab's electronic telescope imager. He noticed a large shadow on it's surface, rounded at the bottom end and a tight point at the top. A perfect teardrop. At the top point lay a single boulder on the surface. This, thought Ben, was extremely odd. Something that relatively small could not cast the shadow the size and shape he was clearly seeing. Where was the object that was producing this shadow?
He sent his observations, as he always did, in a daily report to Earth. They agreed it was highly irregular and said they would analyze the data, asking him to continue observations. It didn't appear again.
One evening, a few days later, he had made some coffee and seen the same shape on its surface with the soya cream he had added. Okay, he thought -- that in itself is possibly a random coincidence. There was a dark spec of something at the tip -- just as with the shadow on the moon. It could have been a tiny piece of dust or plastic that had been floating around. But it was behind the lid enclosing the coffee inexactlythe same place as with the boulder and shadow on Triton. He started to believe something was happening to him that required the application of questionable conjecture, rather than reason.
All of this came at a bad time. There were new developments within the clouds of Neptune that required his full attention. He would need to ignore his need for explanations for the recent incidents and push away the shadows that were closing in.
The mental strains were being compounded by what he was now seeing. In amongst the large groups, new cloud angels were appearing, as if from nowhere. The numbers were increasing and he actually saw one materialize. There was no better description - it was just suddenly there. His imager was pushed to the limit but there, in the center of the screen, was a brand new creature in the space between two others.
There was one major difference with these new additions: they were black.
After several months' observations, the new arrivals began to fade in color. Eventually they were as white as the others. Without warning, the new appearances stopped. Ben could see no reason for this. There were no other factors or changes in the surrounding conditions, so far as he could tell. The data was dutifully sent to Earth.
And the dreams continued. Every night the angels were with him, peaceful but menacing, moving but not moving. He sat in the observation dome, shaking his head, crinkling the lines above his raised eyebrows. He came here every day and watched the blue gas oceans swirling. He neglected his work to a point where he would only look through the telescope to watch the creatures on their strange and unknown quest.
His reports to Earth stopped and he spent longer sleeping, now welcoming the visitors to his dreams. Thoughts of the panic bed were gone, at least for now. He had one agenda: to find out what they were and to accept the answer regardless of how fantastic. He tried sending signals, through light and radio. He tried every way he could think of to communicate with them, even in his dreams. Nothing was working. He felt alone in a vast world of creatures seemingly interacting with each other on some undetectable level. He was merely an observer, possibly also being observed by the angels in his dreams.
Loneliness became frustration, frustration became desperation.
* * *
The new crew, bound for Ceylon Station, had set off from Earth long before contact had been lost with the outpost. The powers that be had decided that too much was going on at Neptune to leave to one man. Science and discovery was happening in the outer solar system so staggering that new minds and new equipment capable of handling the task had been readied and sent on their way. A new laboratory and living quarters formed the bulk of the new ship, 'Gabriel'.
For Earth and the approaching crew, the radio silence could indicate any of three possibilities. One: the transmitting/receiving dishes were damaged beyond repair. Two: Benjamin de Silva had used the panic bed. This was the favored explanation as his final reports had been garbled, unclear and had shown evidence of high stress. Maybe he had thought the radio silence would bring a rescue party. In such a state of mental breakdown, no-one really knew how Ben would behave. This presented the third possibility: suicide.
The truth would be forthcoming. So hoped the team of scientists en route to the biggest set of mysteries experienced in humankind's recent memory.
* * *
The blue storms fought with the white storms and lightening flashed wildly across the face of Neptune. Docking clamps locked together and the sound of hissing, pressurizing oxygen increased the tension amongst the crew. The commander gave the signal to open the airlock and enter Ceylon Station. A world was waiting to hear of the fate of the silent scientist.
Carrying a few pieces of scientific equipment, they sailed into the unknown, silent anticipation leading the way. The structure creaked with the new vessel now fastened alongside. Alarms buzzed and lights flickered. Systems had not been maintained. The commander, Daniel Michaels, flipped a switch that stopped the alarms. Next to it, he noticed a printed image, wedged partly behind a control panel. It was a picture of a cup of coffee.
"Odd," Michaels said to himself under his breath. A brief look about the station turned up no sign of Benjamin de Silva. There was no body, alive or dead, and the panic bed was stowed, unused. One of the scientists, Jean Baptiste, called to the commander.
"Sir, you'd better see this." He floated over to the open door of the observation dome, pushing himself along the handrails that were attached to most surfaces. A note was fixed to the seat.
"Read it," said Michaels.
The sullen-faced scientist took the piece of paper from the seat and read it out. "Today I walk out of the airlock. The angels will save me."
They looked at each other, the commander shook his head.
"It's dated only three weeks ago."
"Damn it," whispered the third crewman, Lucas Christian, who had positioned himself at the entrance to the dome, alongside the commander. They all swapped glances, the circular sea of blue so still and calm behind them.
"Let's radio Earth and then get some sleep." Michaels said in a low voice, almost whispered. "Non of us have slept well these past few days."
Christian looked up from staring at the note, "And you think we will now?"
The next morning found the commander looking at the telescope imager, its lenses focused on Neptune. He pushed buttons and moved controls to move closer to the planet. Lucas Christian entered, not expecting to see anyone.
"Take a look at this," said Michaels. He pointed at the imager screen. Pushing himself slowly to the equipment panel, Christian said, "Is it a group of the cloud angels?"
On the screen, a vast collection of the white creatures formed the shape of a tear, some seven hundred miles from end to end.
"Peculiar shape," remarked the scientist.
"They're following this," the commander pointed to the tip of the group, a dark dot on the image. Christian moved closer to the screen.
"What is it?"
"I'll show you." Michaels pushed the telescope to its maximum magnification. A single black cloud angel raced through the light blue clouds. Thousands upon thousands of white angels followed behind, graceful and fluid of motion.
"Are they chasing the guy at the front?"
The commander shrugged. "Maybe. Or maybe he's leading them."
"We should send this to Earth. Let's not wait for the scheduled transmission."
"Already done. I sent it just a few minutes before you came in."
Christian nodded in acknowledgment. He continued to look at the screen, as did the commander. He rubbed his eyes. "That reminds me. I had the strangest dream last night."
Michaels looked at him. "Really? So did I."
© Steve Buick 2011