Originally published in ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION AND FACT, September 2016

TRANSMISSION #1109 from Leo Bakri, planet Keleni, received 05/29/2151 at Exobiology Center, Newton Habitat University:




Yes, I'm well aware of the disdain the "colorful" portions of my titles, along with my informal style, bring among some humorless individuals within the scientific community.  To which I say, tough shit.  This may be my last major scientific report from the planet Keleni, so I'll title it as I wish.  All right, let's pretend it has a subtitle:  "An Examination of Birth Patterns Among Manta Gliders of the planet Keleni," how's that?

I'm also attaching excerpts from my personal notes to this report, since I'm told that my "adventures" make good copy in the university's newsletters.  Conflicting messages, anyone?

I suppose the university can't help it, though, if people are fascinated to learn what kind of trouble an 87-year-old man who has to use an exoskeleton to get around has gotten himself into now.

Ugh.  Even with the exoskeleton I'm pretty tired even before I start out.  Not having a good day.  But I can't let myself dwell on that.  I didn't bring myself all these light-years from Earth just to sit around.


On Day One of my little expedition, I started out in my squat, armored rover, leaving my small home, which huddles close to the ground to protect itself from the planet's eternal windstorms and hurricanes.  The trip would only be a quick flight in my shuttle, but the rover contains the better set of research equipment and is slightly more comfortable if I end up spending a few days at the remote site.

ATTACHMENT: Details of Keleni ecology:

Keleni spins three times faster than Earth, with stronger winds, possibly up to 100 to 200 kph, and more violent hurricanes and other storms, larger waves, and more lightning.  It has more jet streams, more turbulence.  Hurricanes can last for weeks or months....


Even encased within the rover, it feels as if Keleni is trying to scour me off its surface.  The vehicle shakes and rocks back and forth, making driving that much more difficult, especially since I've already been feeling tired all day. 

Living here the past few years, though, has allowed me to view many marvels, such as what I call the Great White Spot, a massive hurricane twelve years old that hovers over this world largest ocean, never trying to sneak toward land.  But those "normal," 200-kph winds over land areas have brought wonder enough, given how they've forced animals such as the manta glider to adapt.


The rover made the usual slow progress across Keleni's landscape, which of course, has no roads to aid its advance.  On Earth, one might follow common pathways of animals through thick vegetation or woodland areas, but this world's constant tempests erase such paths as quickly as they're formed. 

At one point, as the rover made its way through a shallow valley, the winds whipped up so severely I raised the vehicle's six wide wheels to let it settle onto the ground.  I deployed the support claws to grasp the earth and keep the rover from being blown away, and me along with it.  I registered peak winds of 350 kph!

After about ten minutes, those winds slacked off just enough for me to retract the claws, lower the wheels, and get the hell out of that valley.

Given its rapid rotation, a day on Keleni is only eight hours long.  I'd started my journey at sunrise, but only four hours later I hadn't yet reached my destination and with the sun setting, I decided to wait to proceed any farther. 


Given my own physical limitations, my preference is to wait out the night, no matter how many lights, night vision devices, and lifeform sensors I may have.  I'm at the mercy of my technology and how it interacts with this violent planet, and I prefer not to push its limits, especially on days when I'm feeling tired even before I start a particular project.


Eight hours after I began, it was now Day Two of my expedition.  Within about an hour and a half, I arrived at the manta gliders' breeding grounds.  I deployed the rover's claws again, purely as a precaution.  I made the usual checks on my exoskeleton and left the rover. 

Winds were light for Keleni -- about 75 kph.  With the sun climbing into the sky so quickly, if you stood in one spot and watched your shadow, you could see it grow shorter and stouter from one moment to the next.  The landscape was dominated by plants I'd dubbed sunnysiders, which featured red and blue cylindrical leaves that tracked the sun throughout the short day.  Their wide roots anchored them firmly into the soil against even the strongest winds.

Some of the manta gliders concealed themselves among the sunnysiders.  Still more gliders hid among another groups of other animals called daggerheads, which resembled manta gliders from above.  The gliders were taking advantage of the fact that daggerheads weren't tasty to many flying predators, essentially saying, "See, I'm not tasty either!"

My exoskeleton held me unmoving at the side of the rover as I deployed a low-slung equipment module that lowered itself from the rear of the rover and walked itself to the edge of the manta gliders' breeding grounds.  It opened up, its metal flaps sliding closely along its skin to keep the winds from catching them and blowing the module over. 

Various components slid, rolled, or flew from the module.  Most would in turn launch nanite probes that would seek out the slumbering manta gliders in their caves or shallow holes, would burrow into the ground, or take flight.  They would record cubes and flat images of the gliders and they prey, as well as the creatures who, in turn, preyed upon the gliders.

ATTACHMENT: Details of manta gliders:

The animals use tens of thousands of tiny legs working in concert, almost like flagella on sea creatures.  Those legs allow the manta glider to move with incredible grace and agility.  Its "wings," anywhere from half a meter to two meters wide, can glide over virtually any surface.  Sometimes the manta glider literally glides, tilting itself so that flowing air pushes against its underside to lift it and propel it along.

The manta glider feeds mostly on insects, but they're especially fond of small sedentary animals called nesters.  They can sting a nester with a poison that immobilizes it.  The manta glider then takes it slowly into its body and digests it over a period of days.  This eliminates the need for feeding for some time, but also makes the manta glider vulnerable to other predators during that time.

The gestation period of the manta gliders is about two months, and the mother will only feed a couple of times, hiding in a cave or hole the rest of the time to protect themselves from predators such mud walkers and wind sprinters, which are faster and stronger than they are....


So -- have you noticed that undercurrent of dissatisfaction or cynicism in parts of my little report here?  Gentle bitching about "disdain" or downplaying my "adventures," and making sure to mention my exoskeleton -- something a man in early middle age like myself should never have needed if I'd gone head and had rejuv when I was supposed to?

Don't worry, it's nothing the university or anyone else has done.  If I feel as if I'm a damaged soul, it's all of my own doing. 

Listen to me -- "damaged soul," indeed.  What a bunch of pretentious crap.  The truth is, I'm not certain whether I want to go on living much longer.

Oh, not for me the lamenting and the ennui and pointing a disruptor at my head.  It's just that it's taken me this many decades to realize the reason I neglected my own health was because I didn't feel I was worthy of living longer.

But let's set the melodrama aside for now, though, shall we?


With the winds fairly calm, at least by Keleni standards, many of the pregnant manta gliders were out in the open.  I saw a few who had already enveloped nesters and were heading into the digestive phase.  One hapless glider, in turn, was being stalked by a mud walker.  Imagine a furry, egg-shaped being with stubby legs.  You couldn't underestimate its speed, however.  Those little legs soon overtook the food-burdened manta glider and pounced upon it.  It was a slow-motion pouncing, though, given that the mud walker was about half the size of the manta glider and still had to stay as close to the ground as possible even on what was a calm day by Keleni standards.

Manta gliders breathe through a type of trachea situated on their backs.  The mud walker pressed itself against that trachea until the glider suffocated.  Then it began to feed on the glider.  If enough of the nester the glider had been feeding on was left, it would consume that, as well.

By the time the mud walker had its fill, the sun was starting to set yet again.  From my vantage point just outside the rover, I could barely make out its silhouette as it left behind the remains of the manta glider and the nester.  Its outline faded away as it entered a stand of sunnysiders which had turned themselves to soak in those last remaining bits of sunlight.


Yeah, sometimes I feel as if I'm the one fading away here on Keleni.  My exile has been self-imposed, but some days I feel no less destitute for all that.  Some days I feel as if I'm the silhouette, and my real self is the one at the mercy of a source of illumination and being perceived from the proper angle.

Or maybe this is just a lot of bullshit that I'm thinking because I's so tired.  Now I'm getting short of breath.  I think I'd fall down if my exoskeleton wasn't holding me up.

Oh, crap, a medical alert!


"This is a medical alert.  Access diagnostic bed immediately.  If unable, request help through datalink.  Exoskeleton can also transport you."


OK, so maybe I have to embrace some of the melodrama after all.  I was about to fall over, but at my command, my exoskeleton got me inside the rover and onto this bed.  Its medical tech isn't as advanced as what I have back in my house, but it'll do for now. 

Seems I'm having some kind of "event" relating to cardiomyopathy.

The bed has injected me with some medical nanites that are checking out my heart rate, blood pressure, how well I'm breathing, and my body's oxygen saturation.

After the fact, I realized I was getting short of breath even as I deployed the equipment module.  Now it's tough even for me to lie down here on the bed.  Turns out that's a symptom, too. 

The solution?  Turns out there's a list.  ACE inhibitors.  Beta blockers.  Heart pacemaker.  Heart transplant, or, in my case, an implant, since I don't think a manta glider or mud walker would be a suitable donor.

But remember the part where I wasn't worthy of a long life?


Work continued in my absence as the countless nanite probes began to report back.  They revealed details of the physiological changes the manta gliders went through during their pregnancies, and how they used various tactics to keep from becoming prey, especially in the latter stages of gestation.  And in just a few days or even hours, they should start giving birth, some of them away in their hidey-holes, others right out in the open beneath 100-plus kph winds or higher.

ATTACHMENT:  Survival strategies in manta gliders during pregnancy:

Given that pregnant manta gliders are generally abandoned by their mates after conception of their child, the females of the species must engage in several strategies to survive....


I really don't feel like going over any of that data right now.  For my own sake, I really should get back to my house, where I have access to more, and better, medical tech.  But that would mean abandoning this science mission, and this kind of thing is the whole reason I'm here on Keleni.

That, and the continuing effort to try to forget my past.

Oh, I could have had my memories actually snipped.  But I think that's cheating.  Just as, somewhere deep down, I've always thought having rejuv treatments are cheating.  We live the time we're meant do. 

Said the man hooked up to a diagnostic bed, brought there by an exoskeleton, his bloodstream teeming with medical nanotech.

What was that about a foolish consistency?

Decades ago, working in law enforcement, I took a man convicted of a simple assault charge aboard an orbital habitat down to Earth where he died in a terrorist attack.  Blamed myself.

Served on a starcraft during the Great Human War and kept the engineering module's blast doors open enough during an attack that my lover Marie Sovel could get out.  Endangered the ship in the process.

That they made me forget.  Marie was the love of my life, and they wiped away all knowledge of her as anything other than a co-worker.  Punishment for my crime, though I found out later what had happened.  Guess that's why I'm so leery of the snip now. 

Then came years, decades, of study, after abandoning law enforcement and military duty and remaking myself as a scientist and explorer.  I purposely refrained from intimate human contacts of any sort, whether emotional or sexual.  No time for tenderness or affection, plenty for applied planetology.  Very little for meaningless sex, but lots for exobiology.

I've heard the idea that to embrace death is to accept it as part of life.  But these manta gliders, while not sentient, don't accept that idea.  They abandon the open spaces where they normally live for an underground existence as their children develop within them, coming out only when they can't deny their hunger any longer, emerging to track down prey at risk of becoming prey themselves.

They work, they fight, to live and to make sure their children live.

So I want to see how these manta gliders manage it, manage to give birth, with so much stacked against them. 

But the biotech readings on this bed are telling me I may not last that long.  In fact, they also tell me that heading back to my house for treatment may kill me, and even if I get there alive, any treatment is just prolonging the inevitable.  Seems that all these years I've gone for the quick patch-up job, and now everything's coming loose at once.

So here's the next question -- what do I do now?  Risk death for a chance to witness this miracle of birth, blah, blah, blah, as it happens?  Or head back home to give myself a few more minutes or hours of life attached to more machines, simply pondering the events of my life as I have countless times over? 


Automatic data upload from research nanites in absence of Human researcher. 

Number of manta gliders examined:  136

Number who survived birth process:  107

Deaths of manta gliders and offspring due to complications with birth: 4.

Deaths of manta gliders and offspring due to predators:  25

My observations here confirm may of my theories regarding....


The moment I completed the above attachment, I was grateful that I decided to engage in what amounted to a celebration of new life rather than a consideration of the dead past.  Considering the very existence of life is as close as I get to some sort of spirituality.  I'd try to explain that, but it would probably just meet with more disdain for being too "colorful." 

Tough shit.  And don't bother begging for more. 

This may be my last major scientific report from the planet Keleni.  If it is, then just remember me as....

TRANSMISSION #1109 from Leo Bakri, planet Keleni, ENDS.

# # #

TRANSMISSION #1110 from Bakri home A.I., planet Keleni, 05/29/2151 at Exobiology Center, Newton Habitat University:

Leo Bakri lifesigns terminated.  As per subject Bakri's request, his exoskeleton transported his remains outside the rover and atomized them.  Approximate windspeed at moment of atomization:  215 kph.

TRANSMISSION #1110 from Bakri habitat A.I., planet Keleni, ENDS.