Thursday, 5 January 2017

The Last and The Lost

It had been a long time since he had last looked upon the surface of a living, breathing planet. Yet before him now was that very thing, partially covered by swirling masses of dark cloud. A dream come true? A vision of the future? Who could dare to hope. In his mind he pictured the mottled blue and green of the naked earth, a sight not seen for centuries, and for a moment he let himself imagine that the planet below would herald the same familiar sights, the same glories. But no, Earth was long gone, lost to the depths of space and the ravages of time, and he could not let the fondness of his memories cloud his judgement of the truth. The world below him was indeed alive, and the specially designed computer systems surrounding him told him in a series of complicated graphs and reports that it was potentially habitable. The air composition was similar to that of the late Earth's, although it sported a higher moisture count among several other slightly higher or lower chemical differences. But that was fine, and in fact it confirmed something especially hard to find, something especially promising. The planet lay in the habitable zone, the small slim curve of space just far enough away from a sun star that it was not too hot, yet not so far away that it was too cold, the exact distance needed to support liquid water, and therefore, life itself. If the sophisticated diagnostic systems he was, and had been, running on the planet were correct then the entire thing had the likeness to some kind of jungle. No doubt it was overgrown and tangled, but, if plants could grow, then it should be teeming with life of other kinds as well, although so far his systems hadn't picked up on any. He stared down through the many layered reinforced glass window of the spacecraft, his spacecraft, looking down upon an alien planet, a living planet, a glimpse of hope.
The next step would be to send down probes. They would descend through the atmosphere, collecting information and taking readings until they reached the surface. Once they landed there would be a brief stretch of time where they would get their bearings, take photographs, sample the earth, and wait for further instruction - or interruption. After that they would set out, each in a different direction, exploring the planet and sending back as much data as they could transmit to their hosts on the craft that floated above. If there were indeed life down there then they would find it, and if they didn't, they would at least confirm the chances of human life surviving in such an environment.
He had noticed as they had drawn closer to the planet that there were no other spacecraft surrounding it, no stations orbiting it, no rockets or probes leaving or returning to it, and no signals being sent from it. They had, of course, sent their own signals down, in the vain hope that something down there might be advanced enough to receive them and possibly figure out a means of replying. But so far the planet had been silent, eerily so.
His carefully designed systems had already explored the structure of the planet and the small solar system that it existed in, estimating that it had been formed at the very least a few billion years ago. That was time enough for life to develop, though what kind of life it was hard to say. Perhaps it would be what they thought of as prehistoric, some kind of dinosaur species yet to be wiped out by an extinction that would make way for a species such as theirs. Or perhaps that had only happened on Earth by chance and here it would be an entirely different story. Perhaps the prehistoric creatures here would flourish, growing and evolving and moving forwards. Or perhaps another kind of being would gain sentience, one entirely different to the human race. Perhaps it already had and they simply could not see or understand each other, their differences too great. Until their probes reached the surface there was nothing he could do but speculate.
If there was life down there it would be totally different from anything they had encountered before - not that they had encountered much in their travels, only a few microbes and basic fungal entities, nothing to get excited about. But that had been on other planets and stars, ones deemed uninhabitable for human life, ones outside the habitable zone that they had already known would not be capable of supporting them. This was the first time they had come into contact with a planet in the habitable zone, one that could potentially be the salvation they were looking for.
After the initial confusion that always followed being woken from stasis had cleared, he had found a small spark of hope flaring in his chest. The computer had woken him, it had woken him because he was captain, it had woken him because it believed it had found what they were looking for, the gemstone at the end of their quest. He had stared at the small dot on the screen, his eyes scanning the initial reports the on board systems were already putting together, that small spark of hope growing. It sounded right, it sounded good, it sounded... too good to be true.
He had woken a skeleton crew, only the heads of each department, and as they had drawn slowly closer to the curious planet he had held a briefing, filling each of them in on what he had learnt so far, and what he hoped to discover. On each of their faces he had seen the same spark of hope that now lived inside his own chest, but he had cautioned them against it, reminding them that the likelihood of this planet offering them what they sought was a billion to one. They had nodded, and he knew they would try, but it was difficult, no one wanted to be stuck on this spacecraft any longer than they had to be, and the longer they were out here the worse things would get. The idea of sleeping an eternity in stasis on board a lone ship travelling through the never ending void of space was a terrifying one, and one they had all had to face at the conception of their mission, one they had had no choice but to face. What if there was no other life out there, what if they really were alone, wandering the universe, lost and asleep until the ships power finally failed and they all perished in the void, the last of the human race. It was not a subject talked about openly, not a fear voiced in the dark. To voice it would be to give it some kind of power, some kind of reality. No. Carry out the mission, find a habitable planet, find life, find a way to perpetuate the existence of the human race.
Once they had been briefed the skeleton crew had departed, each to work their own departments, run their own programs, receive and translate their own data. He had given them each leave to wake any crew that they needed, but had cautioned them to only wake whomever they deemed was essential. Too much hope could prove fatal if the planet was not what they suspected it could be. Too many crew with too much knowledge, too much fear, too much desire, could be deadly.
Now, all across different parts of the ship his skeleton crew worked with their own skeleton crews, sending him their data, their intelligence, their projections. So far it looked good, it looked promising, but they had to stay detached, to let emotion tar their work could be fatal, not just to them but to the entire remaining population of the human race. To fuck up could be to prove the extinction of their species. There was no room for error.
He moved his eyes from the reports flickering across the screens in front of him and back down onto the planet below. It was not what he had expected, what he had imagined, what he had hoped. As they had drawn closer he had let the imagine of Earth excite him, an old and well known image that filled him with a feeling he couldn't quite name. Yet as they had finally drawn into orbit and had glimpsed their first view of the planet below he had felt that feeling slip quietly away, leaving him cold and alone. While the reports and data streaming in from the ships computers told him that the planet could be habitable the sight before his eyes looked angry and foreboding. For this planet was not blue and green, partially obscured by white and grey clouds, this planet was dark. It was red and mauve and undulating and dark angry clouds swirling across it's atmosphere. At first they had thought it all land mass, then they had thought it all sea, but eventually they had distinguished that the red was the land mass and the mauve was the ocean. What had coloured these such alien and striking colours was still unclear, but he could not help but feel that it did not bode well for the success of their mission. As he stared down at the planet he was reminded of a painting he had seen when he was still a young boy attending school. It had been a religious school, one of the last before their society had been purged of all that, and on one of the walls in their congregational hall had hung a painting, a dark and foreboding painting full of reds, blacks, purples, flames and death. It had been an artists depiction of hell, and it had scared the young boy looking at it to the depths of his bones. The thought came unbidden to his mind and he felt a shiver of unease pass through his body.
'What if they were wrong, what if they were all wrong and we have somehow found hell?'
Only time would tell, and that time was fast approaching.

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