A Verdant Hell – Tales from Terran Space

“Attention. This world is quarantined under Protocol II of the Alexandria Convention. Attempt no landings, and recover nothing from the planet.”
“Attention. This world…”

– Broadcast from a Terran Commonwealth Lazaret-class Warning Beacon

A dead-end system one jump off the Terran Loop, AT-010 has a pair of habitable worlds that have never been colonized. They were originally discovered during the colonization boom that marked the early heyday of the Terran Commonwealth, but they were removed from the list of available worlds almost as quickly as they had been identified.

The initial system survey had done close passes of both worlds, with orbital mapping and spectral analysis providing a baseline of information. Both planets were identified to have large continents and oceans (water covering fifty and sixty-five percent, respectively) as well as a higher but still survivable surface gravity. Those same surveys had identified developed biospheres featuring flora and fauna, which explained an almost earth-standard oxy-nitrogen mix.

Following up the initial survey, the Humboldt-Class survey ship Louis-Auguste Deschamps was sent to conduct an in-depth survey, arriving six months after the initial orbital survey. It deployed multiple survey teams to both worlds, providing support and recreational services for the deployed survey teams. When the first supply run departed, all was well. Logistical issues delayed supply runs for the next two months, but that wasn’t seen as a concern. Humboldt-Class ships regularily operated alone for a year, and Deschamps had deployed with a full load of supplies.

When the supply run finally arrived, the Louis-Auguste Deschamps was not at the agreed meeting point. Following long-standing procedures, the supply ship listened for (and identified) a faint transmission on the emergency bands and proceeded in-system. The Louis-Auguste Deschamps proved to be the source of the signal, the survey ship in high orbit over the outermost habitable planet and with all visible systems offline. The supply ship did not conduct any further investegation, but instead headed back to Armstrong to report the loss.

A follow-up team from the Colonization Programme arrived two months later, along with two destroyers loaned from Commonwealth member nations. Initial boarding of the Deschamps revealed that the entire ship had been deliberately decompressed, with much of the interior showing haphazard plasma scorching. The life support systems showed the most extensive damage, with filtration and processing membranes all having been reduced to ash. Throughout the ship the charred remnants of thick plant stems and desiccated leaves could be found.

The boarding team was able to recover a full data dump from the Deschamps’ computer core before returning safely. It was clear that something had contaminated the Deschamps, and the boarding team’s suits were subjected to a near-destructive decontamination procedure. The suits themselves were kept in quarantine as the data dump was decompiled and the fate of the Louis-Auguste Deschamps became clear.

It was obvious that something had got onboard and escaped contamination, but the extent of the contamination was stunning to the research teams even as they reviewed the last months of the Deschamps. The catalyst for the event proved to be the discovery of a plant on both planets. The same plant. The biologists onboard the Deschamps were thrilled to have discovered the first identifiable case of panspermia. Only between two different worlds in the same system, but still a notable discovery; in the excitement inert cuttings were brought aboard.

Apparently inert.

While in storage, one of the cuttings somehow caused the containment seal on its storage container to fail. This allowed spores from the cutting to spread into the ship’s atmosphere, and from there the life support systems. Spores that not only proved to be hardy enough to survive the decontamination process, but able to live in the filtration medium. While the damaged specimen was identified quickly, the issue with the spores did not become apparent for several weeks.

Further records indicated that the Deschamps crew quickly identified the nature of the contamination once they recognized there was a problem. Standard decontamination methods proved to have no effect on the spores themselves, and were only barely effective on the plant growths that were beginning to spring up all over the ship. Worse, growths were beginning to take root in crew that had been incapacitated due to allergic reactions with the spores. The only solution the crew could come up with was bottling and venting reactor plasma to incinerate spores and plant concentrations, but the battle at that point had been lost.

The boarding team immediately advised that their suit, their survey gear, everything they had taken over to the Deschamps was to be sterilized and disposed of. Plasma was tapped from the ship’s main reactors and was repeatedly dumped into the transfer airlock. Everything that could be offloaded was jettisoned offboard into an active drive field (the only thing the crew were absolutely certain would destroy the spores). Two weeks were spent monitoring the environmental system with justified paranoia before it was decided that the contamination had not spread off the Louis-Auguste Deschamps.

Fortunately for science, the crew of the the Deschamps had done every test and experiment they could think of on the plant. Its lifecycle was thoroughly mapped out, and its reproductive methods and genetic sequence fully analyzed and logged. Unfortunately, the data conclusively demonstrated that the plant was terrifyingly invasive, and that even the most diligent protective systems would inevitably fail. One of Deschamps own biologists commented:

Anything short of complete sterilization of the planet with nuclear weapons will be insufficient. The spores can survive conventional decontamination processes like high intensity UV or chemical treatment with minimal impact. They can even survive fairly high sustained doses of cosmic radiation. Not surprising they somehow got from one planet to another. The only real sterilization methods that appear to work are the ones that cause direct damage to the spores genetic structure; ideally something aggressively corrosive. Anything less is Russian roulette with an automatic.

The Louis-Auguste Deschamps was declared a complete write-off, and was subsequently towed into a solar intercept orbit for destruction. The Terran Commonwealth emplaced beacons in orbit of both worlds in the AT-010 system warning of the danger, and removed the entire system from the colonization program. Even when the Commonwealth spiraled into the most violent years of the Collapse War, AT-010 remained off limits by mutual agreement.

“We lost two experienced survey teams and a Humboldt-Class survey ship to those damn plants. You want samples? Get them yourself.”

Stavro Kristatos, Senior Administrator
Commonwealth Colonization Programme

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