Planet PX-150, as Space Services officially named it, served as a mining facility and outpost for Earth and its explorations. Earth explorers visited the planet over one hundred years ago to discover ancient ruins of a once-advanced civilization that once roamed the stars. They also discovered an ore that could be used to power intergalactic spaceships. A catastrophic tremor severed communications with Earth, and when a team eventually arrived to check on their fate, they learned of the ore discovery. The small colony grew into a thriving mining settlement after that.
However, one area of the planet remained untouched for whatever reason. Records of the colony's first years had been lost after the quake, leaving no official records of why the area had been marked as forbidden. Randy had been assigned to the planet as a mining geologist to conduct exploration and protect the planet’s environment from the impact of the mining operation. He questioned his superiors why they had not ventured into this part of the planet. Still, no one would give him a straight answer—only telling him that this corner of the planet, the “Lost Zone,” was off limits to terraforming and exploration.
Randy rechecked his maps and GPS to mark his location should he need someone to find him. After sending two drones behind the mist and losing contact with both, he suspected his GPS and other tracking equipment wouldn’t work once he ventured into the fog.
Luckily, he had brought personal drones that were lighter and more maneuverable with him. He hated the heavy and clumsy ones Space Services issued, so at least he wouldn’t have to explain their loss. However, losing both drones was enough to make him aware of the dangers of relying on technology to keep him safe and get him back to civilization. He took it upon himself to learn bushcraft and how to leave a trail so he could backtrack and find his way back again. Today was the day he put it all to the test.
The temperature plunged as he passed through the misty portal. Within seconds, he couldn’t tell where he had entered. He marked an X where he stood with a chalk stick, then drew an arrow directly behind him.
He had brought a mechanical compass, which spun wildly as he tried to get a reading of where he was. After a minute, it settled down and pointed to the north. Or what he assumed was north from his geological observations of the planet. Shifting his pack to rest better on his back, he began walking deeper into the Lost Zone.
The ground was uneven, rocky, and full of crevices that could easily swallow a man. After nearly two hours of traversing a misty forest floor covered in fern-like plants and tall leafy trees, the mist cleared, revealing a sunny sky and open fields covered in knee-high grass.
The sound of birds cawing filled as he made chalk marks on trees every few yards. He recorded the coordinates from his compass and notes about the woods, sights, and sounds in his notebook as he walked. It was late afternoon when Randy decided it was time to camp for the night. He wasn’t sure how far he’d come into the Lost Zone, but he judged it to be several miles at least.
The afternoons hiking had reminded Randy how out of shape he was. The backpack was heavy, and the walking and climbing had been much more intense than he had anticipated, thus tiring him out much sooner. Sitting on a fallen log, he checked his compass and got his bearings. If he was right, according to the maps he had stolen, he should be almost in the middle of the Zone. But there was no indication of what was so important there that Space Command had forbidden colonists to enter. The woods were like those he’d explored on Earth in his work as a geologist. Scribbling some notes and coordinates in his notebook, he decided to go further until he found an excellent spot to camp for the night.
The pain in his legs started slowing him down some time ago. He stopped every so often to rub the calves of his legs and take the backpack's weight off his shoulders, taking more out of him than he anticipated. He had made many trips like this over the years, but supplies and equipment were usually carried on transport devices. He wasn’t twenty-something anymore. Age and soft living from technology was fast catching up with him.
He was ready to rest when he found a clearing to make a camp for the night. He built a fire, warmed coffee, and munched on rations that he brought with him. It was colder than he anticipated, and he worried if he would be warm enough in the sleeping bag and small tent. But it was all he had, and exhausted, he crawled inside the tent for the night.
Waking up, Randy shivered from the cold air seeping into the tent. He untangled himself from the sleeping bag and crawled out to find a sea of thick fog had settled over the campsite.
He checked the pad he brought, but the electronics weren’t working. Fortunately, he found an antique watch that worked and noted the time as half past eight in the morning. He only knew the sun was coming up because the fog became brighter. He couldn’t travel until the fog lifted, so he built a small fire, thankfully, finding dry enough wood to ignite, warmed up his leftover coffee, and nibbled on crackers. He packed the tent, sleeping bag, and cooking utensils as it grew lighter. He doused and buried the fire when the sun finally peeked through the fog. He had no idea where he was going, so he kept to the heading he had taken the day before.
The sky had cleared, and the temperature had grown warmer when Randy reached the foot of a mountain. He had heard rushing water from a distance for some time and had taken a path toward the sound.
The narrow valley before him was covered in rocky outcroppings and sheer drop-offs, but it also held a large waterfall. The sounds of water rushing and crashing into itself echoed through the valley and drifted up to the other side of the valley where Randy stood. Mist lifted from the pool below that quickly evaporated as the sun came out.
Randy feverishly took notes on the different types of rocks, wishing his pad worked so he could record images of the unique rocks. The mountain was old, with striation after striation of rock revealing the area's history. All the time he was working, he felt a connection growing. Something or someone was out there.
Randy trekked across the narrow valley to the waterfall and sat on a flat rock. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something wanted to communicate. It was faint and unclear, but there was another presence with him.
At first, he thought the sounds were just the sounds of water splashing and the breeze blowing, but as he listened, Randy began to make out words coming from beyond the waterfall. He concentrated, blocking out the sound of the rushing water as best he could. Then he heard the voice.
“Why have you come?”
“To try to understand why this place has been left alone.” It was the only answer he could come up with, as he wasn’t sure why he had come. “Who are you?”
“I am Achelous, The ruler of this world.” The reply was thunderous as the water in the pond below him rose violently and just as suddenly became calm as it eased its way back to the levels it was a minute ago. The sounds of running water over the waterfall ceased suddenly and began again. All within the space of a few seconds. “You are the interloper.”
“Why do you say that?”
The voice from the water boomed. “You came and threatened to divert our water from the sacred pool. The water that sustains my kind. I rained down on your people, flooding their camps, begging them to leave. They refused. I sent more flood water their way until they placed explosives at the sacred pool and threatened to destroy this waterfall. That is when we revolted, and many on both sides died. When they realized we would not surrender, a wise one of your kind came to me with the idea that the most sacred of our waters be off-limits to humans. We agreed. They were to leave the sacred waters alone but placed a stasis field around the sacred pool to confine us.”
The accusation was true. Randy knew he wasn’t just talking about him but about humans on the planet. As the last word echoed off the sides of the hills, Randy stepped back from the cliff's edge. He had never considered humans to be interlopers on an uninhabited planet. Except, maybe this wasn’t uninhabited.
Randy chose his words carefully as he stood and faced the waterfalls. “Achelous. I admit we have shown less respect for native life forms than we should have. However, many of us did not know of your existence. For this, I must apologize for how humans have treated you and your people. I am sorry if we have intruded on your world.”
The falling water paused once again before Achelous spoke. “Apology accepted. For now.” The last two words scared Randy, but he didn’t say anything. “Why did you come here?” The voice from the water seemed calmer than it had a minute ago.
“I came to learn why this area was off limits and not mined like the rest of the planet.”
“Now you know.”
“So, you live here, and we have the rest of your planet? That's not fair.”
“No. It is not.” The ruler agreed.
“Achelous. I must return to my people before they miss me. I have a job to do, but I will be back. I want to know more about you and this place.”
“You may return.”
With that comment, Randy felt that Achelous had left. He picked up his backpack and headed back down the trail in the direction he’d come. Only this time, instead of mist and fog keeping him nearly blind and making his walking almost impossible, the trail was sunny and warm. His trek back to the misty veil took far less time.
Randy returned to the main settlement by late evening and headed to his small apartment in the residential district. Achelous’s phrase, “You are the interlopers,” kept replaying in his mind. The words bothered him more than he expected.
Thinking back to some other planets where he’d worked, he wondered what other creatures or beings had been subjected to the same treatment or worse. What if no one had been told that there was native life on the planets that had been destroyed for the sake of profit or science?
For the next several weeks, Randy went about his job. His expertise in exogeology, engineering, and computer programming served him well, as much of his work consisted of maintaining the systems that allowed humans to mine the ore from the planet. A catastrophic failure would cost millions of dollars and the loss of lives.
He often lay in bed at night thinking about Achelous and how he had been bullied into giving up most of his planet to humans so they could mine the ore so vital to them. It was all well and good to talk about intergalactic cooperation and respecting other cultures and beings, but he knew the reality.
Human came. Humans saw. Humans took.
It was several more weeks before Randy could return to the Lost Zone and the waterfalls. The trip back to the waterfalls was much easier this time, both because of his notes and directions, and once he was in the zone, the sky cleared of the fog and mist surrounding the zone's edges. While he didn’t know how much Achelous knew about what happened in the human zone or the planet, he suspected that he knew more about what happened than he let on. Either way, Randy was glad the going was easier this time.
“Achelous, I came back.! Like I said I would.” Randy stood at the waterfall, hearing silence except for the rushing water. He sat on the rocks, pulled a thermos from his backpack, took a long swig of water, and waited.
“I had begun to think you weren’t coming.” The voice rose from the waterfall that stopped mid-stream as he spoke.
Randy stood. ‘It took me a while to find the time to come. They keep me pretty busy at work. I was also trying to learn more about the original settlement and what happened back then.”
“And what did you find?”
“Not a lot. There had been some early accidents when they first started drilling. From what I can tell, there was an extensive and deep tremor, and the main settlement was destroyed. The data collected to that point was lost. We know from Earth data when the first colonists arrived, but information from then on was not sent back to Earth. We knew nothing until investigators were sent here to find out why they lost contact with the settlement. After they arrived and found the surviving colonists, Earth sent more people and equipment to increase mining.” Randy paused, taking a breath. “Something’s been bothering me. There used to be more of you?”
Achelous answered. “Yes. There were millions of us at one time, and we traveled throughout the solar system, as you call it. We call this planet Oricum. It was a center of commerce for the entire system at one time.”
“And now?” He was almost afraid to ask.
“We were part of a collective, joined by our consciousness regardless of where we were. Over the eons, more left our planet to settle elsewhere. We were once corporeal. While we evolved to a non-corporeal state here, many of our descendants may have retained solid form.”
“Why the connection to water?”
The waterfall slowed before it stopped. “Water is life. Without water, we would cease to be as our consciousness is contained in the water. When we agreed to the treaty, those of us remaining dwell only in the sacred pool.”
Randy had read a great deal in the past weeks about human enslavement. The plight of Achelous and his people mimicked the history of what his ancestors had done to Native Americans on Earth centuries before. “What would you do if you could have your world back? To be free to roam your world as you once did?”
The waterfall roared, then fell silent as the water stopped flowing. “You can make that happen?”
“I don’t know.” Randy paused, “I’m not sure if I should try. Even if I try, I’m not sure I can pull it off. It was just a wild question.”
“To make humans leave?”
“It probably wouldn’t make them leave, but it would force them to come to terms with you. It would probably be a disaster for the planet and us. I would have to leave. I’m not even sure it's doable, and I’m not sure the planet could survive it.”
“You would do this for me and my kind?”
“Not just for you, but for humans and other species treated like you were. To make them understand what they’re doing to the planets they colonize or, in some cases, take over.”
The waterfall ran slowly and quietly as Achelous pondered the human’s words.
Randy sat quietly and fiddled with a small twig that lay near where he sat on his backpack. The enormity of what he’d just suggested began to sink in. Sabotaging the mining equipment and forcing his superiors to abandon the planet or learn to co-exist with the native population was preposterous, but he’d said it. As he thought about it, sabotage seemed more and more like a good idea.
The meeting with Achelous opened Randy’s eyes to see what he had deliberately missed. The impact that mining had on a planet and its indigenous life. Being a geologist specializing in mining on extraterrestrial worlds, he had always assumed that their work to reclaim the planet's terrain was enough. He knew that in some cases, it had made a difference, and in some cases, as with barren moons, it hadn’t mattered. But it mattered here, and the impact, regardless of how many native trees and grasses they replanted, clearly wasn’t enough.
He saw no path to convincing Achelous or the leaders of the mining colonies to co-exist. He realized that his thought about sabotaging the mining operation was the only way out. Now, he had to figure out how. He made mental notes about where he could adjust to shut down the systems as he went about his duties. It had never occurred to them that someone would want to sabotage the systems and shut them down, and security was lax.
With his inside knowledge of how things worked, Randy found the one system that would render the whole mining useless if shut down, as it would require millions of dollars to rebuild. The ore veins were diminishing. It was only twenty or thirty years before the ore was depleted. He knew they wouldn’t spend that money as the ore had been found on other planets.
It took several weeks of studying the system and the intricate programming to learn where he needed to change the code in the computers that ran the mining equipment. He had to keep operations within nominal ranges as he slowly rewrote the code. It had been simple—create a looping code that gradually eroded the programming until it crashed entirely.
Randy had been surprised at how easy it had been to shut the system down. He had doubted that it would work. But it did.
Over the next several months, officials from Earth, the colonies, and companies involved in the mining operation rushed to the plant to investigate. But no one would agree on who would foot the bill to bring the system back online again. Most of the miners were transferred to other mining operations. It was decided that the outpost that served as a waystation for colonists on the way to establish new colonies would remain open. Randy felt Achelous would be comfortable with the colonists as no mining would be done.
Randy was thankful that despite their efforts, the computer forensics team never traced the code changes back to him. As the mining operation closed and he was scheduled to be reassigned, he slipped off to the Lost Zone again.
As he approached the former boundary of the zone, he realized that his electronics worked. Achelous and his kind were reclaiming their world.
He approached the waterfall, sat on a rock, and waited. After several minutes, the water flow ceased, and Achelous spoke.
“Welcome, my friend.”
“I wanted to tell you I will be leaving on the next ship.”
“Do they know what happened?”
“No. They still think it was a bug in their program. I never mentioned you, and they never mentioned the Zone once. It was as if you didn’t exist, but it's enough for me to know that you are getting your planet back. They are leaving the colony here, and others will visit on their way to their new homes, but they will not take your land or water. Maybe now you can find more of your kind again. I hope justice was served. They know you’re here. That's why the Zone was off-limits to humans. So, we wouldn’t find you and…”
“Return our planet to us?”
“Or try to destroy you. It was a real possibility that, in some circles, your very existence would threaten them. There are still a lot of species out there that have no tolerance for anything or anyone who isn’t like them. But now it doesn’t matter as the planet is yours again.” Randy rose to leave.
‘I will miss you, Randy.”
“And I will miss you.”
Years later, after retiring, Randy Robertson returned to planet PX-150.
As a planetary geologist, he led a movement towards more humane and equal treatment of ingenious and native life forms when humans contacted new life forms. His work started after he returned to earth and spoke up about how life on XP-150 had been treated in the past and pushed for a renewal of talks with the Achelous and his life forms.
The result was that the planet became a favorite spot for the burgeoning tourism industry. Colonists spread the word about its beauty, and now inhabitants from all over the solar system came to view the crystal waters.
Randy sat on the same rock he’d sat on decades ago, relishing how beautiful the sky, forest, and vegetation were.
The waterfalls looked the same, but the sun that beat down on him was much brighter, and the winds that blew the trees and grass on the mountain seemed different than he’d remembered them. More vibrant was the only way he could describe the subtle differences.
Achelous spoke first. “I never thought I’d see you again.”
“Neither did I.”
“You look old.”
“I am old, at least by human standards.”
“You saved this planet.”
“Nah, all I did was change a line or two of code.”
“It was more than that. We knew our planet was dying, and so did your superiors. They knew the ore was running out, and you didn’t know that the operation was losing money. Your code change gave them the excuse they needed to shut the operation. They knew what you did, but they kept quiet.”
“How do you know this?”
“It was long after you left. An old one from the time of the treaty came to me. He admitted that they used you as an excuse. They hadn’t expected that people would wish to visit our beautiful world. The old one told me that what you did changed everything and allowed them to profit now, which they will do without interfering with our world.
“I always thought it was too easy, but I am glad it has worked out this way.”
“We owe you a great deal. Our home is thriving for the first time in centuries. I would like you to meet someone. We had little energy to manifest ourselves to you before. I was barely able to muster enough to speak to you. But now, I want you to meet my mate, Eridia.”
A waterspout sprang from the center of the pool of water below the waterfalls, and a melodious voice rang out. “Achelous has told me so much about you. It's a pleasure to meet you.”
Achelous spoke again. “You have done even more for us. Descendants of our race who left for other worlds are finding their way home. Making pilgrimages to the Sacred Pond. Our gratitude will be eternal.”
They spent hours talking about what had occurred in the years since they met, and when Randy left, he felt he may never be back with his friend.
He was wrong. He spent the remainder of his life exploring and learning about new worlds, but when he died, he’d left a request that his ashes be returned to the Sacred Pond so he could spend eternity with his friend.