The Endurance left the solar system for a five-year (ship time) mission to explore other solar systems and seek life. Years of searching within the Sol system had turned up lifeless worlds and moons.
Ruled by Senior Captain Rockwell, a bloated gasbag that never left the ship and didn’t allow any dissent or other attachments except to the mission, the crew carried out their mission.
One empty world after another.
All ruled lifeless. And the mission continued.
Senior Captain Rockwell floated at the center of the bridge like a big lemon-scented puffball. Each day it seemed like his arms and legs receded centimeter by centimeter into his rotund body. His neck was gone, but his expansive jowls had spread out over what used to be his shoulders and prevented his head from disappearing into the mass. His gold and black uniform squeezed him tighter than a candy wrapper; he’d need a new uniform soon.
His enhanced eyes glittered with activity and malice.
I floated before him in a position of abasement, arms tucked and clasped behind my back, knees bent as if kneeling.
I always wondered about the old shows depicting life in space that showed people walking about ships as if they were buildings deep within a gravity well. Did they not understand what any school child can comprehend? If the ship exerted gravity equal to that of a planetary surface on the people on the ship, it would also exert the same gravity on all the planets within a solar system. Such a ship traveling through a system would disrupt orbits, collect a train of smaller bodies and generally unleash havoc throughout the system.
Much the same could be said about Rockwell. His motes held him stationary at the center of the bridge with the cold blue lights dull on his hairless scalp. He wasn’t a giant lemony marshmallow of joy to the crew. He was Nibiru or Nemesis or whatever cataclysmic planetary body was supposed to sow chaos and destruction.
Five long years on this insane mission to explore space, figure out why the hell we were alone in this dark Fermi-damned universe, all for worlds no one wanted to set foot on, hadn’t improved Rockwell or conditions on the Endurance. Had the masterminds behind this mission known what would happen when they named the ship? They did pick Rockwell after all.
My own motes held me in position with tiny puffs of air like someone with a case of chronic, quiet farts.
Rockwell sometimes kept crew in this position for hours without speaking, without changing his glittering inhuman gaze. If he decided to space me, I wouldn’t be the first or the last.
I couldn’t — didn’t dare — look away from his puffed and doughy face. Like two gravitationally-locked bodies we both floated motionlessly and silently except for the soft fart-like puffs of our motes.
Without my visor, my face was naked to the cold lemon-scented air.
With a voice like a rumbling belch, Rockwell finally spoke. “You found nothing?”
I heard the edge in his flatulent voice. Did he know? Did he suspect? I had to assume that he didn’t know and trust that my own conditioning was equal to the task of fooling his inhuman gaze.
“There was no indication of anything living on the surface.” Truthful enough, though it lacked the precision that Rockwell’s question demanded. Still, I hadn’t claimed that we found nothing.
Would he realize the evasion? If I looked away, he’d pick up on it in an instant. A flick of my eye and it was the end.
The away team had set down on the class M planet designated P122M just after local dawn, a bloated reddish sun sluggishly crawling into the dusty sky. The class M designation sounded friendlier than the reality, deriving not from the fictional designation that still came to mind, but from the Hooper Planetary Scale that used Sol’s own planetary system as the ruler by which other solar systems were judged and found lacking.
Dry, rusted sand and rock stretched out ahead to a broken horizon of knife-edged mountains sawing at the sky. A world obviously driven by geological processes. Absent any shred of life, not so different than Mars, the benchmark for the class M designation. The Endurance mission was only the latest effort born from the frustration of decades of fruitless exploration and sacrifice, lives dashed against unfeeling Mars, in the quest to discover the presence of life on that red planet. Without even landing it was obvious from every measurement the Endurance produced that P122M was a clear lifeless Mars analog. Predominately nitrogen atmosphere. More geologically active, with a slightly thicker atmosphere and atmospheric signs that at least one volcano had erupted fairly recently. Fresh flows on a shield volcano, the lesser cousin of Olympus Mons, gave further evidence that this world wasn’t quite so mummified and desiccated as Mars.
Not the most habitable, though our suits made it comfortable enough.
I wouldn’t have bothered landing at all except for the order from that bloated gasball Rockwell. Entirely zero-gee adapted, he couldn’t have handled the gravity well if he wanted. The senior captain was ship-bound for life, and that’s the way he wanted it. For Rockwell, this was a holy mission — to go down in the annals of forgotten history as the man responsible for the discovery of life on another world.
We failed on Mars despite all of the painstaking work to reconstruct the history and evolution of that world. Bitter from that defeat we turned to the other worlds of the Sol system, convinced in our misguided belief that life must exist elsewhere.
Europa and Enceladus held salty sterile oceans beneath their frozen and twisted masks.
Daring the scorching hell of Venus, we dug into the history of Earth’s twin layer by molten layer without uncovering any evidence of a kinder, gentler past harboring life.
The gas giant clouds gave us nothing except chemically interesting atmospheres lacking in even the simplest organism sailing in super hurricane winds.
Comets mined from the Kuiper belt gave no evidence of carrying the seeds of life to other worlds.
Still, the devout persisted and launched the Endurance out to the stars, even as humanity spread slowly to the less hospital worlds of the solar system.
A chime on my private channel, a spark that resolved into a tiny image of Lutz projected by my visor. I acknowledged the contact with an eye-flick. “Yes?”
“Standard package deployment?” Her words didn’t convey the disgust in her tone. By the book, verging on insubordination, the hint of a sneer twitching on the corner of her lip.
Not directed at me. That was all for Rockwell up on the Endurance. A dangerous flirtation. The senior captain didn’t tolerate insubordination. Warning her would only trigger a response from Rockwell. Ignore her, pretend that the tone didn’t exist and he might not respond. Discipline her myself, and her chances improved.
“I don’t want any half measures,” I snapped. “This world is geologically active with an intact magnetosphere. I want everything deployed yesterday! Full expanded package deployment. Let’s see what we have!”
Lutz wasn’t a fool. Her expression smoothed out. “Yes, sir!”
“Oversee each step and report back when deployment is complete.”
The view of more dry sand and rock disgusted me. A century ago a world like this would have excited the imagination of everyone on the Endurance. A Mars-analog, true, but just that much more hospitable to life to reignite those ancient dreams of Martians. I understood Lutz’s tone. Whatever excitement any of the crew might have had about landing on a new world at the onset of the mission had evaporated just as readily as any water on the surface of P12M.
Home called to the crew.
As far as the crew knew, as unlikely as it sounded, the Earth was the only place in the universe harboring life. The specks of life scattered among the outposts and stations across the solar system hardly counted. None were entirely self-sufficient. Earth still mattered to every known living thing in the universe — with the possible exception of Senior Captain Gasbag.
I kicked at a sand-blasted ochre colored rock half embedded in the sand. My boot hit hard, the impact traveling up my leg. The rock canted up a couple inches. Sand trickled into the vacated space.
Earth and home called to the crew. Our five-year mission was coming to a close. The first ship to leave the solar system and explore was overdue to reach home. Would have already been there if the Senior Captain hadn’t plotted such a convoluted route back to include as many systems as possible. Five years of ship time was a long time to be away and out of communication. It was easier for me than some, I didn’t have anyone back home waiting for me. No family still alive, except for a brother that I hadn’t spoken to in over five years before I left, not since his drinking had caused our parent’s deaths. I doubt that Jim even knew that I was gone.
Or maybe he had seen it on the news, hoisted a beer and said, “Good riddance!”
Buckys tumbled past, leaving hexagonal prints in the sand, the red dust quickly staining their white sides. Dozens of the spherical droids scattered out from the lander. They’d roll, bounce and quickly fan out as they scattered to collect information like bees flying out after nectar. Tiny hexagonal sections would pop open so that tools could sample the ground, air and take measurements. If the terrain was too tough to navigate rolling in their shells, then they’d sprout spidery legs and scramble over everything. Reach a chasm or other impassable barrier, and they’d unfurl kite-like wings and take to the air to surmount whatever got in their way. Same thing if they got stuck.
With a Bucky to my left and another bouncing away to my right I turned and walked away from the lander, following the middle path between them.
I hadn’t gone very far before I heard sand and rock crunching behind me. My visor pulled up a proximity alert, showing me a rearview of Lutz following me up the gentle rise. I stopped, didn’t turn around.
“Expanded package deployment completed,” Lutz said. “Felicia and Neil are monitoring from the lander. Permission to accompany the captain?”
Captain. There was the joke. Alt shift captain. The lesser moon to Rockwell’s gas giant. We orbited each other, tidally locked, unable to escape. Not until we got home. I had no idea what Rockwell planned to do when we got home. He lived for the mission. Most likely he would ask that they send the Endurance out again. The stardrive system had opened up the empty universe to us. On those old shows, they always made it seem like the journey between the stars was instantaneous. They’d take longer setting up the orbit around a new world than it took to get there, or so it seemed. The thing they never dealt with was the emptiness and the long waiting between stars. The time spent with a small group of people cloistered in a fragile vessel further from the one oasis known in the vast desert of lifelessness.
A pop of static and my visor showed the connection to the Endurance lost. I had been walking lost in thought, and now I stopped, actually looking around. I had climbed over a small ridge which now lay between me and the lander, which in turn relayed the signals to the ship. The only active connection was to Lutz.
“Captain, I’ve lost my connection to the lander.”
What an odd feeling, to be disconnected. Free, for the moment, from the never-blinking attention of the Endurance.
“Confirmed,” I said. “Terrain blocking the signal. It happens on away missions.”
Like tiny pockets of freedom trapped in time. If I took another step, my visor might pick up the signal again. I didn’t take the step.
The ground ahead tumbled away in a broken slope, sand-scoured slabs of weathered rock that showed signs of ancient running water. At one time — like we saw on Mars — the planet had been wetter.
“Should we turn back?” Lutz lifted a hand, turning it palm up, indicating indecision.
Smart, a cautious gesture. Disconnected, that didn’t mean that our visors or suits had ceased recording. I made a half-turn to look over at her.
Lutz was at least ten years younger than me, whatever that meant. Relationships were dangerous things on the Endurance that could be used against anyone crazy enough to give into their feelings. Those left on the crew had learned to survive and keep such thoughts to themselves.
I liked the constellation of freckles across her almost colorless skin. A natural paleness accented by the lack of exposure to sunshine such as that which caused my visor to filter what streamed through my helmet. Her red hair lay hidden beneath her skull cap. Her visor had gone transparent, unveiling hazel green eyes that gazed back at me, questioning, wary.
“Not yet,” I said.
Movement in the distance, a flash of dulled white against the reddish sand. A Bucky crawling up on spidery legs out of a crevice where it had fallen. The Bucky reached the surface, tucked legs back inside its shell, and rolled on. My visor connection flickered live, then off, live again and finally off when the Bucky rolled down another incline and disappeared from view. For the moments it was exposed it had automatically relayed our signal.
“We can’t stay long.” I reached out and placed my gloved hand on Lutz’s hand.
Despite the thick material between us, an electric thrill ran up my arm from the contact. I didn’t remember the last time I had touched anyone in any sort of intimate manner. The fact that she didn’t pull away made the connection all the richer.
“We’ll need a complete surface evaluation,” I said, still holding her hand. “Nine individual site studies. With all of that exploration, there are bound to be other times that we are out of contact.”
“Does the Captain want recommendations on avoiding these communication blackouts?”
I shook my head, unwilling to trust my voice.
My visor’s connection flickered back on. A new channel opened.
“Captain? This is the Lander. Are you there?” Neil, back at the Lander.
I stepped away from Lutz, releasing her hand. The signal strengthened. I turned, shuffling in a tight circle until I spied the Bucky behind us, perched on the ridge. My mouth was dry.
“Yes. The terrain interrupted communications. Report.”
“Radial perimeter reached. No evidence of biological activity detected.”
Neil’s voice was emotionless. No disappointment, and why would there be after all of the worlds we had seen?
“Recall the Buckys. We’ll return and proceed to the next site.”
The connection vanished from my visor. On the ridge, the Bucky rolled down and away leaving me alone with Lutz again.
Sand crunched beneath her boots as she came closer, her visor opaque again. “How many more worlds do we have to visit before we go home?”
“We do our duty.” I looked down the slope at the broken slabs of rock showing clear sedimentation layers. Evidence that water had once held sway on this desiccated world. “We investigate.”
I walked away from Lutz. Sand and rock clattered away from my boots as I clumped down the slope. This wasn’t a small, low-gee world. Lutz trailed alongside like my shadow.
“Lutz, do you know why we send away teams?”
“Yes, sir. Human perspective provides unique insights and pattern recognition capabilities.”
“True. Mostly, though, it’s our imagination. That’s what sent the Endurance out here despite our lack of success finding life elsewhere within the solar system. In all of those trillions of stars and galaxies, how could it possibly be true that we are alone?”
Loneliness and fear of extinction drove us into space. Damned us to serve under Rockwell’s pitiless gaze.
I reached the slabs that I had seen from above. The fractures and weathering had exposed the edges of the layers to view, with sand drifting against the rough edges. I skirted around the layers, working my way down the slippery sand and rock into the gully below.
“What are we doing, Captain?”
“Final checks,” I said. Strictly for the record. The Bucky survey was considered complete. The array of instruments on the soccer balls was impressive. They scanned, tasted, analyzed, took core samples, measure atmospheric gases, took temperature and humidity readings. Each carried an array of complex instrumentation. By moving out in radial lines from the lander, they scanned overlapping zones until the distance between them increased to the point that coverage was individual. On Earth — back when we left — trials in even hostile environments showed substantial evidence of life. For the record, we checked multiple sites before filing our conclusions.
I unlimbered a small rock hammer from my suit and leaned forward to tap on the fragile sedimentary layers. Pieces broke away with each strike. I freed a palm-sized piece, pulled it free and turned it over in my hand. Nothing but blank rock. I pitched it to the sand.
“I think we’ve done our duty,” Lutz said.
I had already given her enough ammunition to have Rockwell space me when we went back, but I didn’t believe that she would use it. She was concerned that I was jeopardizing our safety. I was, but only for a moment or two longer.
I had continued to tap out another layer, deeper, brushing away the sand and prying the palm-sized piece of rock free. I turned it over and saw a symmetrical pattern on the underside of the rock.
“Nothing here,” I said.
I slipped the rock into a pocket as I stowed the hammer.
“Let’s head back.”
We climbed the hill side-by-side, my gloved hand brushed hers on more than one occasion. When my visor flickered as we connected to the lander, I took a step away.
A fluttery sigh escaped Senior Captain Rockwell’s lips like satisfaction. The chill in the air raised the hairs on my arms as my motes puffed softly to maintain my position of supplication before him.
“Very well then,” he said. “Record P122M as lifeless and go off-shift until alt shift starts.”
I bowed my head. I lowered my visor into place and then turned, twisting and flying away on my motes as agile a smaller fish escaping a larger predator.
The chime on my door surprised me, and for a moment I thought it would be security coming to escort me to an airlock. I reached for the smooth panel at the back of my quarters and hesitated. If it was security why would they ring the chime and alert me? They would simply come in. A glance activated the external cabin feed. Lutz floated outside on her motes. She glanced uncertainly up and down the corridors, her eyes hidden behind her visor.
Dangerous. Dangerous. Letting her in gave Rockwell the advantage and every second not letting her in risked her more.
I gestured, and the door slid open. Lutz jetted inside, and the door slid silently shut behind her. Suddenly the cabin felt smaller, almost claustrophobic with two of us in the room breathing the air. Lutz’s hair was pulled back tight over her head. She clasped her hands together, wringing her fingers. Her visor turned transparent, allowing me to see her eyes.
“It’s okay,” I said. I switched my own visor to transparency as I met her gaze. “Rockwell can’t monitor us here.”
Her eyes widened, and her mouth opened, speechless.
I kicked off and drifted closer as if gravitationally drawn to her. It felt something like that. She reached out automatically, and we clasped forearms. My momentum spun us slowly around. As we revolved, she turned her head, looking past my shoulder at the back of the cabin and the panel that I had removed from the wall.
I turned my head, looking at the collection and the new piece at the center. I had arranged the pieces in concentric circles. Tiny bits of rock, some no larger than a fingernail. Others, like the new piece at the center of the design, as big as my palm. The pattern of the fern leaf was clear, visible and dark against the lighter rock. The ceiling lights illuminated the display, making the array of fossils clearly visible. Her fingers tightened on my forearms.
“I don’t understand.” Her voice came out an awed whisper.
“We scratched, cored, sampled, measured, and scanned and still missed things. Not every time, but often enough.”
Her throat moved. She sagged, only her motes keeping her in place. If we weren’t weightless she might have fallen. “Why not tell —”
I didn’t need to answer. She knew what Rockwell would have done if there was any encouragement to this mad quest. Finding an extinct world was worse than finding barren worlds.
She looked back at me. “Will we go home?”
I didn’t give her the truth. “Soon.”
Lutz left after another moment of silence between us and left a void in the cabin. I twisted, motes firing small puffs of air to propel me over to the fossil display. I picked up the wall panel and lifted it up to conceal them once again. My eyes fixed on the centerpiece. My visor selected the piece, highlighted the fossil and pulled up the data I had already accessed.
Polystichum munitum, or western sword fern. We grew up in an area with lots of such ferns. With a glance, I accessed the planetary reports again. The ring around the planet confused things. Obviously, some sort of impact event had broken up the large moon that had once orbited the planet. The event had proven catastrophic for the planet. The entire surface must have been scoured.
Our bloated gasball of a Senior Captain had to know. He strictly controlled our course. None of the crew knew anything about P122M except the data released. Gravity and the solar spectrum didn’t lie. If I looked, I knew I would find more proof, but the fossil was enough. Alone out of the collection it was familiar. The other shapes and textures in the rock were unidentified. Bits and pieces of other evolutionary trees long gone.
The universe is an explosion still happening. Life is nothing but a brief moment of combustion. When we say the spark of life, we’re literal, and it is just as fleeting. Against the universe each of those sparks flares and dies in an instant. Some bright, some dim, all fleeting, across the entire universe.
This spark had burned bright, spitting out smaller sparks. One had drifted on relativistic currents, returning to its starting point. Rockwell wouldn’t let us stop now. As long as it was possible, he would keep the Endurance going, searching for another spark, a bit of tinder, a chance to burn.
I put the panel back into place.
This story is the 104th short story release, written in September 2015.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Clarke Directive Violation.
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.