The mass of blue-gray shapes moved over the dusty plain with perfect coordination and seemingly arbitrary direction, like a shoal of sardines. A cloud of thick dust rose behind them, and began to drift lazily towards a man perched on a high rock by the side of a small metal building. The man coughed reflexively, none of the dust actually breaching his air filters, and cleared the chalky film from his faceplate.
An elevated rail line stretched out to either side of the corrugated structure, extending up to the distant mountains and out of sight towards the sea. The seeming fragility of the white spiderwebs that supported the line was a marvelous lie, one of the few things in the landscape that belied the true nature of the creatures below.
Periodically, a breathy whistling noise rose from the undulating carpet of life. It would sound several times from one single creature before others began to join in, but it always spread to the entire group until they were a chorus. Always.
The man climbed down onto a small shelf in the rock, about six feet from the desert floor, and stood with his hands on the hips of his silvery environment suit as the heaving sea of leathery tentacles approached him. There were no eyes, no hands, and no distinguishable shape to them; just an amorphous mass of appendages nearly twice a man's height.
As the creatures grew close to the rock, a few leathery tendrils about the thickness of a human finger began to brush the man's knees. He didn't even flinch, instead leaning forward slightly to examine the faint scaling now visible on the surface of their skin. It had a pattern like tortoiseshell.
One of the structural engineers had said that it was unique to each creature, like a fingerprint. The man was dubious that anyone could possibly know that.
A few larger appendages brushed against his legs for a moment, and then the waving conglomeration began to ebb out into the dust. The creature nearest him whistled, and it rippled through the group like an echo.
Several weeks after planetfall, before they had realized who or what the creatures were, some of the colonists had shot at a group who'd approached the human encampment. The aliens had silently retreated with their wounded colleague, only to return the next day as though nothing had happened, each with a little silver box strapped to one of the thicker tentacles near its crown. When the colonists had drawn their guns again, the boxes had spoken. Just once.
“Don't,” they'd said.
One of the colonists had fired a shot anyway. The bullet had slowed mysteriously as it reached the creature, sparking slightly, and bounced to the ground as if it had merely been thrown.
After that, all the creatures began wearing the little boxes, but little else changed in their behavior. None of the humans ever shot at them again.
A harsh, piercing tone suddenly cut through the air, causing the man to scrabble at the volume on his earpieces.
The group of aliens below had suddenly spread themselves into a narrow crescent. He peered toward where the sound seemed loudest, and saw a pool of dark liquid forming beneath one of the creatures that had knotted itself into a tight ball.
The man squinted, quickly finding the gleaming shape at the open end of the crescent. Each alien had produced a silvery rod from deep within its nest of tentacles, and the man could hear the faint snapping of electrical discharge. He instinctively drew his legs up beneath him as the gray aliens chased the shining creature away from their group with the rods.
The colonists called them sand crabs, and they were the only land-dwelling creature they had encountered that had shown both the ability and the inclination to kill a human being. Like most of the animal life on the planet, the crabs had a seemingly endless number of legs of varying sizes. Each was tipped with a razor-sharp set of pincers, the largest of which could easily snap a human torso in half.
The man fingered his own silver rod he carried in a holster at his hip -- the crabs' carapaces were like steel, and bullets simply ricocheted off them -- and focused his long-range viewer on offending animal.
Thankfully, the crab appeared to be retreating in the opposite direction of the train station. He turned his viewer to the group of aliens who were now moving with quick purpose back over a nearby ridge.
The injured individual was easy to distinguish, both by its tight, contracted shape, and the trail of dark blood it left behind. The group passed its wounded member around as they moved, all of the aliens seemingly eager to touch it. As its peers caressed and held it, each would in turn join it in the strident keening noise it still made. By the time the group reached the ridge, all of them were crying. With pain? Alarm? Some combination of the two?
There was a settlement over the ridge, with honeycomb buildings made of rooms barely big enough to fit one of the creatures inside. It had been a mystery at first, those bare and tiny buildings in which the creatures could often be seen resting. Most of the colonists now agreed that there must be other, larger structures underground where the creatures produced their impressive technology. No human had ever found anything like this, but it was the best explanation so far.
The man glanced back up the shining rail line, toward the human settlement in the mountains. Someone would be wondering where he was by now.
A soft scratching noise behind the man made him whirl around as he yanked his electrical prod from its holster. Expecting a nest of sharp claws, he was surprised by the soft tentacles that greeted him instead. A single creature, only barely as tall as the rock, hovered next to it.
The man blinked, his mouth open in amazement.
In the twenty-six years since they had landed on this planet, nobody had ever reported having seen one of them alone.
Was it watching him? He looked around for a larger group, but he could see nothing for miles but dust, rocks, and the train station.
He could be imagining it, but he was almost certain now that it was watching him. The man dangled his legs over the edge of the rock, and spoke in its direction.
“Are you lost?”
The thing didn't move from its position, but he thought he could detect slightly more rapid movement among the smaller tentacles at the top of it. The man was about to speak again when a stuttering noise began to emanate from the thing's little silver box.
“You are lost.”
The man recalled the problematic reports he'd heard from other colonists who'd had interactions with individual creatures.
“No, it is a question. Why are you separated from your group?”
Again, there was a pause.
“You need help.”
The man sighed, and the thing spoke again.
“You need help.”
It extended a single tentacle, and touched his leg with it. Another soon joined it. He pulled his leg away, and the tentacles retracted. The man huddled on top of his rock, his arms around his legs.
“What do you want?”
“You are lost. You need home. You need a home.”
The man could not help himself, and began to laugh. Now you tell us, he thought to himself as he relaxed and watched the thing carefully for any further weirdness.
He should be recording this, he knew. There was a rich bounty available in the colony for any descriptions of unusual or novel behavior exhibited by their inscrutable hosts. It had nearly three decades, and they had learned almost nothing about the native civilization of this planet, save their nearly unrelenting benevolence.
The creatures had built the entire rail line within about a month of the colonists' arrival with vast, spidery building machines that had come seemingly come out of nowhere and disappeared just as mysteriously. The first intrepid colonists to ride the little cars, far too small to accommodate the aliens themselves, had found a city in the cool mountains equipped with greenhouses and living quarters and medical facilities, all far superior to those they had brought from their dismantled ship, the Providence.
Everything, right down to the threading on the bolts that held his kitchen table together, was unmistakably copied from what the humans had brought with them when they landed. The only pieces of truly alien technology that the aliens had left in the colonists' possession were the electric prods and the train, and none of the scientists had been able to even begin an explanation of how either one worked. Both were of seamless construction, made of completely unfamiliar alloys that seemed to defy any analysis, and seemed to work via thought alone.
The alien beside the man began to move, startling him to his feet again. It had begun to spread itself out, flattening itself into a shape he'd never seen before. Like a giant flower.
Lower and lower, it spread itself onto the baking ground. The man crouched uncertainly.
“What are you doing?”
“I'm sitting. Like you.”
It had become a roiling carpet, the tentacles underneath it moving twice as fast as normal to avoid the hot ground.
“You were sitting. I would like to sit, too.”
An outlandish set of ideas began to dance around in the man's head, still too inchoate to give voice. It was smaller than any of the creatures he had ever seen, and was behaving very oddly. Copying everything he did . . .
“Don't you . . . shouldn't you be with a group? You're always in groups. Why are you alone?”
“I want to be with you.”
The man blinked rapidly.
The alien's appendages fluttered.
“You need a group. You will be my group. I came alone, to be your small group. Humans have small groups.”
The man smiled and shook his head in wonder, his hypothesis beginning to coalesce. It was one based wholly on previous experience, but not with the aliens.
“What do you mean we have small groups? The town over the hill has two hundred humans in it.”
“But you are not all a group. I have seen you. You have small groups, sometimes just groups of two.”
“Groups of two.”
“Yes. I have watched you, in your settlement.”
The man ignored, for the moment, the more disconcerting aspects of the statement. Since their construction, none of the colonists had ever reported seeing one of the aliens within five miles of the human settlement.
“What you're talking about are families. These are . . . those groups . . . that is how we raise our young. Our children.”
“You have no . . . children. You have no group. I will be your group.”
The man's breath caught in his throat, and he cleared the dust from his faceplate in lieu of touching his actual face as the thing continued. It was too bizarre to be true, and drew the strangest mix of feelings the man had ever felt up from a place he had thought long sealed.
“You were in group of three. You, and a genetically dissimilar group-mate, created a child. Now they are gone.”
The man sat again, his breath humming in his throat. He was beyond caring how the creature knew all this, what the implications of that were. Instead, he found himself crippled by the thing's terse assessment of his loss. The edges seemed suddenly sharper, denuded of any importance like some ancient skeleton unearthed by an impassive archaeologist.
He glanced down at the slate-colored alien beneath him. It was exactly the same color as the rock he was on, complete with a fine gray coating of dust. Perfectly at home.
When the humans had first set down, before they'd realized how toxic the metallic dust in the air was, nearly all of the members of the survey team had begun to develop severe renal and pulmonary dysfunction. In two of the members, it eventually led to kidney failure. They had been in the process of making their peace with the world of the living when the party of aliens had come for them. In two days, of which the sick men remembered nothing, they were returned to the settlement in complete and perfect health.
It had happened two more times, once with an advanced case of bone cancer diagnosed as terminal back on the Providence, before the colonists finally realized the absolute and very clearly defined line that their new hosts would not cross in their benevolence. Or couldn't cross; nobody knew which.
The man's wife had been the first to give birth on the new planet, and one of the last. It was six agonizing months before the child died of multiple organ failure, five months longer than any of the others.
Parties were sent to the alien settlements, and ignored. The human doctors frantically tried to at least find a cause for the deformities, if not a cure, and a thousand theories sprang up. Tiny amounts of the cadmium and lead from the dust outside leaking into the water. Some heretofore unknown side effect of the slightly lower oxygen levels in the air. The strong magnetic fields of the planet. Nobody knew. One thing quickly became clear, however: all of the women who had actually given birth had been pregnant when they had made planetfall. As the years stretched on, it became painfully obvious that, whatever the cause, no new children were even being conceived.
The man on the rock finally caught his breath, pawing with frustration at the tears he couldn't wipe away. He coughed inside his suit, and adjusted his air flow.
“Yes. We were . . . my wife and I . . . we had a child. That was our group, our family.”
“They are gone.”
The man hunched forward, wrapping his arms around his knees.
“Yes, they are gone.”
A low noise, something like a small motor, began to emanate from the alien, but it said nothing.
The man took a deep breath and glanced at the little globe the hung from the train station. It was beginning to glow, although still a pure white color. He looked over again at the alien, who showed no signs of moving.
"Look . . . it's been . . . nice talking to you. And I appreciate, I guess, that you . . . want to be in a group with me? But I need to be alone, right now, okay? Wouldn't you rather be with your group?”
The purring noise began to get louder. The man's head was throbbing from the congestion brought on by his tears, and the anxiety brought on by the approaching train.
“Really, I need you to go now. Please. Go away.”
The thing extended to its full height, taller than the man, but only half again as wide.
“You are my group.”
The man looked over at the globe. It had begun to add the faintest rosy pink to its white glow. The train was probably no more than three stops away.
The man gritted his teeth, choking back a sob, and pulled the electrified rod from his side, brandishing it at the thing. He had no idea if it would even hurt it. It backed away slightly, the noise subsiding.
“Go! I will use this!” he turned it all the way up, to demonstrate, “leave me alone!”
The thing backed away several more feet. A series of trembling waves spread in the tentacles over its entire body.
“You . . .”
The man jumped down off the rock, and the thing swept back about six feet. It held its ground, all of its tentacles shaking.
“There is space for everyone here.”
The man cried out in response to those words and lunged at the thing, a hot and complex rage pushed suddenly to the surface of his consciousness at the sound of those words. The jagged scream of an animal rose in his throat as he thrust the rod into the gray shape.
The creature fled, and the man collapsed back against the rock, sobbing.
There is space for everyone here.
Those were the words they had heard, twenty-six years ago, when they had sent their first radio transmission to this beautiful new planet. Just one response to their litany of questions, information, and carefully prepared statements. Just one sentence to mark the end of over four hundred years of history and culture and memory, the search for a new planet that had slowly become, over the years, the magical answer to nearly any seemingly impossible longing.
They had trusted in the message, trusted that this little brown world was to be the destiny around which fifteen generations had built a life of dreams.
None of them had questioned their own interpretation of its meaning.
There is space for everyone here.
The man watched the creature until it retreated over the nearby ridge, and then he slowly began to move towards the train station. He looked up at the globe -- the train was no more than two stops away -- and climbed the stairs to the platform, adjusting his oxygen supply as he wheezed from the effort.
Neither he nor Ann had been a romantic. Neither had ever stood in the orrery and dreamt of some new paradise where the answer to life itself would be revealed, nor had either of them obsessed over the archives, sighing bitterly over images of waterfalls and beaches from old Earth. When that message had come, although neither of them had dared speak such heresy, they had both met the news with dread. The colonists' ancestors may have been brave and adventurous, but adventurousness didn't sustain a society of thousands.
People like Ann did. She had attacked her work as an environmental horticulturist with the enduring passion and energy and pride of one who truly loved their little world on the Providence. It was one of four massive ships that had literally stripped the last life from a ruined Earth, but it had been hundreds of years since anyone on the Providence felt an allegiance to anything other than the ship itself.
The man could now see the train on the dry horizon. He mounted the platform with a sigh and glanced up at the tiny green glint of the settlement on the mountain, where the ruins of the Providence were to live out their final days. He quickly turned his attention back to the approaching point of light down the track.
It had been twenty years since Ann had taken this same train out to the coast, walked into the ocean, and drowned herself. Others had assumed that she had fallen into the deep depression that finally claimed her due to the loss of their son, but the man now knew better. He had finally come to realize what Ann had understood twenty years ago.
He knew the true meaning of that first message the colonists had received.
There was room on this planet for everyone that had been on the ship when it landed, and not a single child more. There was no room for anything new -- no room for a generation of human children who would see this planet as their home, as their birthright.
The point of light had become the round front of the express shuttle from the mountain settlement to the coast. It was the same train that Ann had taken that day, and it did not stop at this station.
The man spread his arms, his face relaxing as a cool sense of relief spread throughout his body. He smiled gently, and fell back onto the track.
* * *
Halfway up the ridge, from behind a large rock, a single gray shape tentatively emerged.
The creature hovered uncertainly for a moment, and then glided over the desert to where the man's body had been thrown aside by the front of the train's suspension field.
Slowly, it extended one, then five, then twenty of its prehensile appendages towards the body. Again and again it touched, delicately turning the man over several times. Finally, it carefully pulled the body up into itself, and began to carry it back up the ridge.
A high, sharp keening began to rise from it. Louder and louder, it cried out with a new and unfamiliar pain, uncertain of how to find relief from it.
It was unable to hear and feel others of its kind nearby, others who would come and share its pain. It felt a deep fear rising up inside it as it called out blindly into the desert, seeking any that might hear it.
But for the first time in its life, in the life of any of its kind, it was alone.