Short Story – The Not-so-Silent Planet, Part 1
As part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival this year, I was asked to write and present a short story entitled The Not-so-Silent Planet as part of a speculative storytelling show. The story and the presentation got a lot of accolades, which I really appreciated.
I was asked to write a science fiction story in three parts with something of a cliffhanger at the end of the first two sections.
Over the next three weeks, I’ll be posting all three parts of the story. Keep in mind it was written for dramatic presentation. I played the main character on stage and I had another actress playing the voice of the computer, Alice, offstage.
The story still works as just a story, I think. But the dramatic presentation did help to heighten the feeling of isolation that I was going for in the story.
A few folks asked if there would be anywhere they could read the story and I told them I’d be posting it. So here’s part 1!
“Commander Rudy, we’ve been able to gather more than the projected amount of energy from this planet’s star. We will be prepared for orbital insertion shortly. Shall I update the mission parameters?”
“Yes, Alice, please do.”
“Thank you, commander.”
I’m drinking a cup of coffee and talking to a computer. When we left Earth over six hundred years ago, Alice was the most sophisticated computer ever built. Now, I imagine, she would be a technological curiosity no more useful than an abacus.
My crew remains safely in hyper stasis. They will be woken up if and only if they are required for the mission. I’ve been awake for almost two months. Ever since we entered the planetary system.
Soon we will be in orbit around the not-so-silent planet.
“Alice, can you check the beacon?”
“Of course, commander. “
Alice provides me with a humming sound to indicate she is scanning the planet and I should wait. Whoever programmed her felt this would make it easier to recognize when she was working. I find it unspeakably annoying.
“The beacon continues to broadcast, commander.”
Ten years before our mission began, the beacon was detected.
You are not alone, it said. Send help.
Then it transmitted a set of coordinates.
The debate raged for months. Do we send help or do we assume it’s a trap?
Once we knew how far we’d have to go and how long it would take, a trap wasn’t much of a worry. My crew and I might die but the risk to the population of our planet was minimal.
You are not alone. Send help.
What kind of help? We don’t know what these aliens eat so we can’t bring them food. Are the involved in a military conflict? Is their planet dying? Do they need transport? And where would we take them?
In just a few moments, we will be in orbit above the planet and my job is to find the beacon and figure out what, if anything, my crew can do to help.
Ten people and one advanced computer are going to try to help what could be a dying planet? And if the mission succeeds, we will return to earth over a thousand years after we left. Who would volunteer for such a mission?
As it turned out, over seventeen thousand people.
None of whom were me.
“I am detecting signs of life on the surface of the planet. Would you like me to reduce the light shield so you can make a visual inspection?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Reducing the light shield now.”
From space, artificial light would provide the most obvious evidence of an advanced civilization. As we cross over to night, I can see the light signature of a gigantic, almost unbroken city that spreads out over every land mass. Whoever lives here has been busy.
Alice has been transmitting to them for months, though. Why haven’t they answered?
“I believe I have located the source of the transmission.”
“Can we reach it?”
The computer screen in front of me identifies a point about 15,000 kilometers away.
“It is in low orbit above the planet.”
“How long do we need to reach it?”
“I can maneuver us to close range in four and a half orbits. Approximately eight hours.”
“All right. I’m going to take a sleep cycle. I’ll be up in six hours.”
“Rest well commander.”
God space travel is boring. I should be excited by the prospect of seeing a new planet but all I really want to do is take a nap. I wish I wasn’t so damn good at this. If I’d been mediocre, I’d still be on Earth.
Scratch that. I would have died of old age a long time ago.
“Hello commander. Did you sleep well?”
“JESUS! Can you give me a minute to wake up before you say something, Alice?
“I’m sorry, commander.”
“It’s fine. I slept fine. How close are we?”
“As predicted, we will rendezvous in just over two hours.”
“Do we know what we’ll be rendezvousing with?”
“I believe we do, commander. My analysis suggests that the signal is being broadcast from a station connected to the planet by a space elevator.”
“Really? They’ve gotten a space elevator to work? That’s remarkable!”
“It is likely our colleagues on Earth will have also discovered this technology by the time we return.”
Yes. Of course it is. The programmers gave Alice a conversational personality so she’d be easier to relate to but ultimately, it just seems to have ensured she will constantly state the obvious.
Two hours later, we have docked with the station.
I start putting on my suit. We don’t know what kind of atmosphere might be on the other side of that door.
“The station is communicating with me. Their computer has wirelessly connected and begun downloading a considerable amount of data. I believe it is learning our language. It is telling me to wait five minutes while it adjusts the atmosphere in the station to your physiological requirements. I do not believe you will need the suit.”
“I’m going to put it on anyway. Best to be safe.”
“I agree commander.”
It takes about fifteen minutes to put on the suit. Longer when you are only assisted by Alice’s mechanical arms. I don’t even have my pants on when Alice interrupts me.
“I’m sorry commander, but the station has informed me the atmosphere is ready and it will be opening the airlock immediately.”
Well shit. I hope there’s air I can breathe in there. If not, this trip was one hell of a waste of time.
Here is a link to part two.
And here is a link to part three.