Updated: Mar 15, 2022
A new crisis faces the planet of X-543...
5 MINUTES UNTIL NUCLEAR TEST AND TOXIN RELEASE COMPLETE. DO YOU WISH FOR THIS TO CONTINUE?
The computer screen displayed the warning message. The creature sitting behind it chose YES without hesitation.
Glowing blue hexagons on the walls of the lab switched to an eerie red like in response. The eyes of the looming bug statues pulsated bloody-red in reply, towering above like danger in the air.
STEP ONE COMPLETE. The plan was in motion…
Chapter 1: Darkness The Moray Eel
1 day earlier...
Before The Leak, the shoals of eels and groupers only had predators to worry about. Food was plenty and they worked in tandem. But after, danger was everywhere.
Darkness foraged for prey around the weeds and corals along the edge of his school’s reef. He hadn't caught anything in days now. That was partly because whenever he saw even a flicker of motion, he dashed into the nearest crevice. He couldn't afford to be spotted by a grouper.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, eels and groupers lived separately, only coming together to hunt before parting. That cooperative hunting behavior eventually evolved into a more social pack behavior, eventually becoming a hierarchy with the groupers dictating every eel’s any move. And now they were hunting Darkness.
The groupers enslaved us. Darkness thought. He was the only eel willing to say out loud the terrible things the groupers did to them. Everyone else kept safe, quiet, and submissive like mice.
But Darkness didn't regret his rebellious decisions. The groupers needed to know that they had enemies. They needed to know that their rule would someday end. Even if that meant him going hungry for days and having to run from everything he knew.
But he couldn't hide forever. Darkness’s friends, his family, were all crushed under the oppression of the groupers. They needed to be freed.
That night, Darkness managed to catch a few small fish and a large but passive crab. He slithered into the most concealed crevice he could fit in, retreating as close to the inner walls of coral as possible.
Boom. Crackle. Hiss.
Darkness awoke with a jolt as a luminous green liquid that radiated menace rapidly spread through the reef. It moved quickly, being carried by powerful currents. Anyone that got in its way seemed to fall to the seabed, choking their last gasps of water.
He saw a sea turtle with a limp flipper was about to be smothered by the liquid.
Darkness had two options, save the turtle or flee. If he saved the turtle, they would live, but at the likely cost of his own life. If he ran, this animal he could have saved would be dead, lost and gone from the world.
It was now or never. Darkness swam as fast as possible using all his might. He had only a few seconds to knock this turtle out of the way and make it out of the current of liquid.
5. 4. 3. 2. 1.
The turtle swam up to the surface, merely grazed by the liquid.
“Thanks for saving me,” she gasped between breaths of air.
“You okay?” Darkness gasped. A bit of the liquid seeped into a wound on his snout. He had no idea about what this liquid was and he didn't have the full picture of its effects. However, he had seen it instantly kill whatever it could smother. Hopefully that meant he was fine, if he wasn't dead already.
It seemed light enough to be carried by the currents, but dense enough to suffocate animals. All he knew was that he needed to investigate.
“Your name?” the sea turtle asked him. Her shell had unusual spikes around the edges, lined with serrations. Her tail was long and paddle-like, rather than nearly non-existent like other turtles’ tails.
How come she couldn't have escaped the liquid using her tail to swim? Darkness was confused. There was definitely something that didn't add up.
“Sea. Anyways, thanks so much for saving me. I umm...need to leave. I have important business.”
Darkness didn't trust her one bit. Since The Leak (which he had picked up after overhearing the survivors) and the groupers, Darkness had made a habit of not trusting easily, and it had kept him alive many times before.
Chapter 2: Pineleaf The Sailback Camodragon
A day before The Leak…
The pack’s days were numbered. The small prey and various fruits that fed the diminishing population of camodragons were now scarce. Pineleaf wasn't even sure
they’d make it through the winter.
The encroaching city beside their habitat of pine forest was growing at a rate faster than light. It robbed the forest of its belongings every time a building was constructed. Whoever lived there decided that all resources belonged to them and them only.
The problem was, no one even knew the first thing about the city. The pack leader, Hiddenscales, had forbidden exploration beyond the forest. “It was to keep us safe,” he had kept saying.
But Pineleaf knew there was subtext. A hidden meaning. She just needed to figure out what.
“What are you thinking about this time?” Pineleaf’s best friend, Mottledsnout, glided up to her branch. “That weird crab-thingy with the strangest looks that you're always checking on? Why are you so obsessed with a creature that can't even think?”
“It’s just how I’m not sure how we’ll survive this winter,” Pineleaf tapped her tail in thought.
“Also, your face makes him look like a model’s.” Pineleaf joked for the first time in a while.
“Well then, should we gather prey? Orrrrr…” Mottledsnout’s face filled with mischief. Her tail turned green in excitement. Camodragons had certain body parts that can change color, most notably the tail, limbs, and occasionally the wing membranes.
Pineleaf knew what her best friend was thinking. The only thing that was needed for an idea dumb to the hunderedth power to become practical was desperation, and that was not in short supply.
“Ok, fine. We’ll explore the city,” Pineleaf grumbled, “but we need a plan.”
“You know I hate plans,” Mottledsnout said.
“You know I hate no plans,”
“Fine. Let’s compromise. A simple plan,”
“Deal,” Pineleaf agreed.
The two camodragons agreed to sneak out of the forest at night, when the rest of the pack was asleep.
When the sky grew dark and the stars shimmered above like constellations of fireflies, Pineleaf and Mottledsnout were ready to put the plan in action.
“You ready?” Mottledsnout’s wings, patterned brown and orange were vibrating with excitement.
“Not so loud,” Pineleaf shushed the excited camodragon. They couldn’t be noticed by anyone else.
They both leapt from tree to tree, using their wings to glide through the endless green.
Camodragons’ foldable wings and tail fins allowed them to glide extended distances and maneuver through the treetops with ease. Their typically sleek, elegant builds helped greatly with this.
After a few minutes of treehopping, the greens of the forest started to fade into the metallic silvers and luminous blues of the city.
The city was closer than Pineleaf had thought. Much, much closer. Pineleaf expected it to take at least half an hour to glide there.
The chances of the pack surviving the winter dropped to zero. They needed information fast. That may be their only chance to save the pack.
“Remember the plan. We observe first, then explore,” Pineleaf looked at Mottledsnout’s excited brown eyes.
Mottledsnout nodded, but her cheeky expression made her look as if she was going to sneak away when Pineleaf wasn’t looking.
The city was a huge contrast to what the forest once was. Metallic buildings towered above, covered in cold, lifeless silvers. Any sign of life was hidden by this metallic coldness, lacking any kind of feeling.
This is what the forest could become. Pineleaf envisioned the death of all the creatures who lived there.
“There’s a lot of tech here. Do you think some of it could have come from the escape pod?” Mottledsnout pointed out.
Millions of years ago, an escape pod on faulty autopilot crash-landed on the planet of X-543. It was filled with a small population of almost every animal and plant species, hoping to form new ecosystems by the time it reached safety.
It was escaping the far away planet of Earth, which had been overtaken by climate change, the planet's once lush landscapes transformed into barren wastelands. Intending to land on the habitable planet X-765, it veered off course, landing on X-543.
The creatures who survived the crash rapidly evolved into their current forms. Many of those creatures gained sapient intelligence, replacing the long gone humans, whose separate ship blew up in the take-off process.
The story of the escape pod was passed down for generations, but most of its tech was lost, never to be seen again. But here, these buildings, they looked almost exactly like the drawings of the escape pod (trusting their accuracy). What if this is where the tech went?
But the city was only built a few years ago, thought Pineleaf.
The tech could have been only found recently, uncovered after millenia. If that was true, then why were the buildings in such good condition? The pieces of newly uncovered technology were probably repaired and cleaned after being found.
But most importantly, why did they need the tech? Obviously it would be cool to build using the remains of an ancient spaceship. But there was probably a bigger purpose, maybe even a grand plan.
A plan to destroy our forest, take our resources, she thought.
Pineleaf needed to know everything about that city. It could be their last chance to save the forest.
After a long pause in the conversation, Pineleaf realized that Mottledsnout was probably thinking the same things.
“Pineleaf, this could be our chance. We HAVE to go in!” Mottledsnout was bouncing wildly with excitement.
Crackle. Rumble. Boom.
Suddenly, a huge burst of dust and plasma erupted from the city. A state of fear froze Pineleaf in place, as she realized what this was. This was a nuclear blast.
Making quick calculations, Pineleaf realized they had only ten seconds before the blast reached them. They were just within the blast radius. If they moved fast enough, they would be able to escape with only moderate burns.
“Mottledsnout, run!” Pineleaf cried. The other camodragon didn't budge. She stared in awe at the colossal mushroom clouds and plasma waves bursting out of the sky.
Mottledsnout probably couldn't hear her over the thunderous booming thumping through the air. Pineleaf needed to come back for her.
It was too late. By the time Pineleaf had started moving, the blasts had already receded, gone in a blinding pulse of light.
Chapter 3: Darkness The Moray Eel
A few days after his dangerous encounter, Darkness was wandering the reef, looking for clues that had to do with The Leak. Specifically he was looking for areas with more coral damage, which were likely more exposed to the substance. And if an area had more exposure to it, it was likely closer to its source.
If he found a pattern showing increasing coral damage, he could follow that trail, which could lead to the source of The Leak. If he could find the source, he could figure out what exactly the substance was.
There was this curious urge inside him, this thirst for information. An inexplicable drive for knowledge. But deep inside him there was this feeling, a feeling that this was only the first wave. That there would be more Leaks to come.
As Darkness looked around, sadness filled him as it had been recently doing. The vibrant corals that once carpeted the seafloor, were now replaced with barren rocks and the pale, lifeless remains of what were once corals. This sadness, this loss, had hit Darkness. Everything the reef once was: vibrant, biodiverse, fruitful, had now transformed into the polar opposite.
How could he focus on patterns and statistics if sorrow controlled his judgement? How could he analyze which corals suffered the most damage when he couldn't even bear to look at them?
Don't let your emotions take control of you, Darkness fought against his feelings. Emotions meant impulsiveness. The reason he got banished from the groupers and eels was because he spoke up on impulse, driven by emotion.
But the groupers needed to know that us eels weren't just blind followers, his emotions fought back.
A few days ago, he felt like what he did was the smart thing to do, to show the groupers they had enemies. But now he questioned his own decisions, wondering if it would have been safer to stay submissive.
His impulse and rebelliousness had been controlling him for days on end, clouding his judgment. He needed to be smart now more than ever.
As logic and reason flooded back into Darkness, he scanned for clues. He slithered through the water, up to the skeletal scraps of a coral patch. Massive colonies of seaweeds coated the rotting corals like mold and fungi over a carcass. Seaweeds emitting an eerie blue glow.
But glowing seaweeds are never found this shallow.
They were only found deeper than sunlight could reach, creating their own light to photosynthesize. But from the drawings Darkness had seen, the luminescent seaweeds had always glowed yellow like the sunlight they were mimicking.
Like a flash of lightning, the thought crossed Darkness’s mind. What if the seaweed he saw had been contaminated with chemicals from The Leak? It made perfect sense, considering the information he had.
He couldn't jump to conclusions, though. That had caused him trouble in the past. He needed to suppress his impulsiveness.
But if the seaweed had been affected by the extremely dangerous chemicals from The Leak, why would it still be alive, let alone thriving?
Without warning, the corals below started to shake violently. Sand was being thrown off the seabed, forming mushroom clouds in the water. Darkness bared his sharp teeth, poised to strike. Something was under there. Something big.
The first tentacle struck so fast, Darkness didn't know what hit him. A huge gash ran across the entirety of his long body. If a single tentacle from whatever that was had that much power, he could not afford to take any more hits.
A cobalt-blue squid the size of a whale emerged from the sand, shaking the seabed with every move. Its humongous eyes looked only at Darkness, its likely next prey item.
A tentacle swiped at him, barely missing. He had to get out of here. But every time he tried to swim away, he could barely twitch a muscle. Every time he moved, it felt like a burning knife slicing through his body. His slight movements had only allowed him to dodge that tentacle by the smallest of margins.
As tentacle after tentacle came at him, Darkness realized his tactic of barely dodging would not last. His luck would eventually run out. He had to swim away as fast as he could. He had to conjure all his strength.
He swam as fast as he could, putting aside the searing pain cutting through him. He dodged corals and tentacles as he traversed the reef, looking for a crevice small enough to hide in.
The squid was gaining on him. Darkness felt the speed in his body drain with every move. However, the distance from the seabed to the surface was greatly decreasing. If he could get into water shallow enough, the squid would be forced to retreat into deeper waters.
But he didn't know how far away the shallows were. The squid was accelerating fast. In due time, it would catch up.
Darkness slowed. Ignoring the pain would no longer work. The injury now burned as if it was on fire. The squid was now a whisker away, poised to strike.
But the squid was slowing down, swimming in an unsure of itself way. There seemed to be something the squid didn't want to face. Something it was afraid of.
The water was transitioning from a deep azure to an emerald cyan. The once far below seafloor was now only meters from the surface. This was Darkness’s chance. His chance to escape into the shallows. Safety.
He dodged sharp rocks, squid tentacles, and sea anemones, trying to reach his newfound safety as soon as possible.
Suddenly, after making a turn, a wall of rock appeared before him. The vicious stinging tentacles of sea anemones emerged from the rock, waiting to poison anything that came their way.
The squid was catching up again, leaving Darkness with no escape. His heart pounded like a desperate prisoner trying to break free. He wouldn't survive, either way.
There was a sudden bite, and the world slipped into blackness, vanishing into the dark.