Tuesday 13 August 2019

Three Planets

by Doug Hawley


The astronomers first noticed the approaching star and its one planet on February 10, 2043.  How this caught them by surprise was never explained to anyone’s satisfaction, because we were told that it would ruin our whole solar system within a year.  I don’t know if the conspiracy theories about giving more lead time to important people to prepare, while leaving the unwashed masses at the mercy of a shattered earth, were true.  I’m an agnostic on the various stories.

At the time I was working on the NASA mission to Mars which had been scheduled for 2025, but had been postponed many times because of subcontractor failures, overly optimistic schedules, bad management and politics.  At least when the news of planetary destruction was delivered, we were getting close to ready for our original mission.  Necessity intervened, and our new mission was to land on the invader planet, Rover as we called it.  A highly placed group of physicists, chemists and astronomers had determined two things about Rover – it was a Goldilocks planet suitable for human life and it would not be destroyed as it and its sun wandered through the solar system.  I was a propulsion guy and not fluent in any of the areas covered by the experts, but it seemed highly unlikely that everything would come to pass as predicted.  It all seemed like a bad science fiction movie in which some Einstein has exactly the right solution.  Even given my skepticism, I couldn’t just hope for the best and ignore the conventional wisdom.

Our change of project was supposed to be a secret, but somebody tattled.  Within days of being given our new marching orders, Jason Wilkie sent out recruitment letters to everyone on what had been the Mars mission, and every other rocket scientist in the world.  The letters mentioned a private enterprise space ship project, but everyone at Mars Mission could read between the lines.  Wilkie was going to have his own ticket to ride to Rover.

Jason is the son of Mike Wilkie, the founder of Gold software in Portland, Oregon.  When Jason found that running the company after his father retired had bored him, he started his private rocket company outside of Bend, Oregon.  He promised a profitable company eventually, but so far it had been a rich man’s plaything.

Maybe I’m biased, but I didn’t want to stick with the devil I knew.  Sure, you can find a myriad of examples of private enterprise screw-ups, but I didn’t think that they were ever as bad as government cluster humps.  There were a couple of other things suggesting that I go with Mr. Wilkie.  His company had a sterling track record, and everyone that I talked to said that his project was ahead of the Mars Mission.  I jumped ship and headed for Bend.

When I got there I could see that his pitch had gotten some first rate personnel and the project was moving along on schedule.  One of the real pleasures was working with the brilliant and beautiful Sapphire Hendrix.  She was rumored to be a relative of Jimi, but she said no.  She was my boss on obtaining the right fuel in the right amount.  Other teams were recruiting the right five hundred to take the flight and the right supplies for the short journey.  Other scientists had determined that Rover had lower gravity and more oxygen, so if we had anything to be happy about it was that we would seem more athletic on Rover.

After working long hours, Sapphire and I had few drinks and commiserated.  I’m a born complainer and whined about my divorce and what I thought of as an unfair world.  Finally after I wound down, she said a little about her abuse as a child and the difficulties of finding a guy anywhere near her level without him just wanting a quick hookup.  We just looked at each other for awhile and without a word went to her room.  After the hookup, I was hooked.  It seemed so perfect that I looked for something wrong.  Eventually I had the good sense to just accept that I was about the luckiest guy ever.

Our preparation proceeded apace, and we felt that we had a shot at getting to Rover and surviving.  News from the former Mission to Mars was not as good.  We gave a good faith effort at helping them, but it didn’t look good for them.

Sapphire and I knew that we were going, but there was one surprise.  At the last minute Jason said he was giving up his seat so Fred Halley from the construction crew could go.  Fred said “Listen Mr. Wilkie, everyone here knows that you are far more valuable than me.  Shut up and get on aboard.”  I swear, there was not a dry eye to be seen.

I’m happy to say that when the day came, our trip to Rover was boringly smooth.  The experience on Rover was both better and worse than expected.  After we landed we saw buildings in the distance.  As we got closer, there were signs saying “Foreigners Unwelcome Here – Aliens Will Be Deported.”

Deporting us would have to wait until we passed another inhabitable planet.  In the meantime the Azari (people in their language) had us clean their houses, landscape their yards and haul their refuse.

We were told by the Azari to call their planet Azari after themselves.

Even for me it was hard to complain, and that is one of my best talents.  Seven billion had died on earth, and we never found out about the Mission to Mars.  Maybe they landed on an uninhabitable planet.  Even with menial chores and substandard housing and food, life with Sapphire is sweet.  The best part is that I’ve heard that we’ll be put on a planet where the primitive inhabitants will worship us as gods.

I was chosen to write the history of the survivors of the destruction of earth.  Our stay on Azari was what seemed like three earth years based on the amount that we aged, but we may have been aging faster on a planet that does not match our biological cycles.  We can’t be certain.  Our atomic clock either broke or was sabotaged, so we could not judge the passage of time.  It didn’t help that Azari was illuminated somehow so it was never dark and the temperature was generated internally and remained consistent.

A relevant subject that I should have written more about earlier is that besides the crew being picked for their expertise, we were picked for sexual compatibility and social skills.  It was understood that we should repopulate whichever planet we inhabited; otherwise humans would cease to exist.  There were a couple of notable exceptions, because of the limited amount of vetting, some special skills which had no good choices or things just going wrong.  Ace maintenance guy, Joe Martin had been a lay preacher on earth.  While on our second home, he became a zealot with a small band of followers.  Most of us were quite secular, but a few bought his line and called him “father”.  Alice Weathers, our astronomer, was old, unattractive and had an acid personality.  She largely kept to herself.

While still on Azari, it was made clear that we were unwanted and would be given the worst jobs available until we could be offloaded onto another planet.  We were, however, treated to an Azari spokesman, Sezan, who knew English better than we did.  I was appointed to interview him.

Me:  How does the planet generate continuous light?
Sezan:  There are chemicals in the soil that make a cool light.

Me:  How do you not lose atmosphere as you travel through space?
Sezan:  The same as your former home – gravity holds our air as we go, similar to yours.

Me:  Your planet and ours, your people and ours seem quite similar.  Coincidence?
Sezan:  No, we colonized planets similar to ours millions of years ago.  Our descendants on your planet seem to have forgotten their origins and slipped backwards.  We have kept track of earth as we have our other colonies.

Me:  Can you steer Azari, or does it travel at random?
Sezan:  Some of each.  We could avoid running into a star, but it would take a tremendous toll on our energy supplies.  Except in dire cases, we go where gravity and momentum takes us.  Sometimes we float in space for eons.

Me:  How did you pick planet Renn as a place to offload us?
Sezan:  We calculated that we will come close to Renn and it is a place that you can survive.  Also, it could be an interesting cultural experience for you to live amongst a primitive people who might end up worshiping you.

Me:  What can you tell me about the planet and the people?
Sezan:  I could tell you a lot, but I won’t.  We will give you a guide to the local language.  It is simple, much as the people there are.

During his final answer Sezan was laughing, which didn’t bode well.  They may not have realized it, because they think that humans are dumb, but we survivors did know when the Azari were laughing.  Whenever a human or Azari did something stupid or clumsy, such as a slip or blowing something out a nose, other Azari would make a sound like throat clearing and point at the victim.  The Azari had some holes in their vaunted sophistication.

As promised, all of us were given language lessons for the Renn and a very short guide to words and grammar.

We got to the departure date with a mixture of joy and trepidation.  We weren’t given a choice, so there was no point in wondering if leaving was a good idea.  At least the Azari refueled our rocket with high quality fuel and wished us safe passage.  The sweethearts also told us where to land to avoid killing many Renn.

After we landed and got on solid earth, the residents came out to meet us.  After a short, stunned silence Jim Gilgert shouted out “They’re superdogs.”  Jim never had a filter, and always said whatever popped into his mind, but he wasn’t wrong.  Clearly the locals were not in any way the descendants of the Azari.  They appeared to be mutant dogs about a meter high at the shoulders, built on the centaur plan.  Their “skin” appeared slick, no hair or scales.  Other than that and the six appendages, they could be earth mammals.  We’ll never know if they were imported by the Azari, or are native to Renn because they had little sense of the past or the future.  To them, it was always “now”.  In that sense, they are very much New Age creatures “in the moment”.

One of them came up to me, somehow assuming I was our leader and asked in their language “Welcome.  What do you need to know?”

We had prepared questions because the Azari had given us little information.

There was no word for “name” in their language, so I called him Joe.  We had a medallion that we hung around his neck with his name.  He seemed really happy to get it.

“What do you eat and drink?”

He pointed at what appeared to be a field of multi-colored fruit the size of watermelons next to what appeared to be a pond about a hundred meters away “Over there”.

“Do you have places for eating, sleeping, defecating and urinating?”  At first Joe looked puzzled, but then just gestured wherever, then dropped a load on the ground.  Said load quickly turned to dust and blew away in the light breeze.  Like anyone else would have, I wondered if it would be the same for humans.  We soon learned that it was.

“I can’t think of anything else to ask now Joe, but may I ask you questions as they come up.”


I went back to my people to tell them what I had learned and see what they thought.  After I had briefed them, Elmer Banks, the electrician, asked a question that I hadn’t thought of – “What about weather, the seasons and night and day?”  As we learned, I might as well not have asked.  The questions were meaningless to the Renn.  Because the planet didn’t rotate, we always faced their sun.  Nothing ever changed – slight breeze, equitable temperature, always light.  So far the wind has been steady and in the same direction from the temperature differential on different parts of the planet.

Sapphire had talked to some of the Renn.  “I had a really hard time communicating, but it seems that the Renn that we have seen is all of them, at least as far as this group knows.  They didn’t understand when I asked for a number, but I estimate that there are five hundred live ones.  I saw several of what appear to be corpses.  They are pretty much ignored by the live ones.  After a lot of interrogation, I learned that going in one direction is warmer and another is colder.”

Given that we were very comfortable, our next concern was food and drink.  Jill Smith and Jack Renfro analyzed the food and water that Joe had pointed out.  While they did their lab tests, we ate a little of what we had on our rocket.

Shortly, they gave an encouraging report.  “The pond is pure water and the food is composed of fats, carbohydrates and protein, but not necessarily the same as on earth.”

For what seems like a few days we explored, ate and slept when we felt like it.  The Renn mostly kept a respectful distance except when we wanted something.

Two unrelated things became obvious about the Renn.  They were very active and promiscuous.  Sex seemed to happen at the drop of a hat – but they don’t have hats or any other form of clothing – and was loud and long-lasting.  Despite their intelligence seeming to be between the dolphin and jack rabbit level, their art and craftsmanship astounded us.  Their carving ability with stone tools was as fast as Woody Woodpecker and as well done as Leonardo de Vinci.  We watched them carve the images of all of the crew into a stone wall in what seemed like a few earth hours.  Further explorations revealed what looked like an Azari rocket and what may have been its crew carved in stone.  An earlier Azari exploration must have prepared them for our arrival.

We largely had crew unity, with the notable exception of Weathers with the Renn and “Father” Martin with his followers, who avoided the rest of us.

Sapphire and I had our hearts broken when after a Renn year, she miscarried.  Over the years, despite our best efforts, there were never earth children born on Renn.  We had no hopes of continuing our species.  It was in no way compensation, we found that we were becoming healthier the longer we stayed on Renn.  The medical staff didn’t have all the answers, but the oxygen content of the air, lower gravity and the plants we ate were all good for us.  The real breakthrough was our telomeres.  Aging is largely caused by their deterioration, but that doesn’t happen to us now.  We may not be immortal, but if we are not injured, we will live lives like the Biblical Methuselah.

As nearly as I can reckon, I have not written for about three thousand Renn years or 750 earth years.  Why not?  Nothing happens, every day is the same.  Only four events of interest have occurred during that time.  Father Martin decided that the other side of the planet was heaven and took fifteen of his followers there never to be seen again.  Jessie Smith ate a Renn and died in pain.  The Renn showed no interest in the killing of one of theirs, or his death.  Weathers returned limping from an “intimate event” – her words – with one of the Renn with rashes all over her body.  No one else showed any interest in interspecies dating after that, despite sex being one of the Renn’s great talents and their interest in mating with us.

The rest of us are all incredibly healthy, bored and a little insane.  It has gotten so bad, that I write poetry.  I hate poetry and my poetry is horrible.  Sapphire has done her best creating games and things to keep us occupied, but even the most obsessive nerd becomes disinterested after a hundred or so years of a project or hobby.  She and Jim Gilgertz formed a company which produced “Hello Dolly” for 5,768 performances.  By the end of the run it had evolved to look more like “Streetcar Named Desire”.  Sex has largely ceased because everything has been tried and experimentation fatigue set in.  One couple worked through the Kama Sutra three times.  Our problem in part is that we have no problems, hence no driving motivation.   We can’t make things better or worse.

We live on in hopes that another race will appear to save us.  We’ve been sending distress signals to any other species like ours since shortly after we got here.  That hope and Sapphire is all that I have, but the time may come when we all follow Father Martin.

Published in two parts three years apart in Literally Stories.

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