Short Story – The Not-So-Silent Planet, Part 2
I can still breathe. So that’s good news.
Unfortunately, I can also smell and the air in the station is foul. It doesn’t smell like death – at least not death as I would undetstand it. It just smells bad. Like dirty gym socks and spoiled food.
No one greets me when the airlock opens. Just a row of blinking lights on the floor that seem to be encouraging me to venture inside.
“Alice, Is there any life on board?”
“I do not detect any signs of life, commander. Although I must remind you that the physiology of alien species is an unexplored area of scientific discovery so any kind of life that strays too far from those we understand on Earth would not register.”
“Yes. I know that. Thank you.”
“Of course, commander.”
The fact she is so damn polite when reminding me I’m asking useless questions is just one more annoying qualities she possesses.
When they contacted me about this job, they said all the right things.
We all knew that the arguments were hyperbolic. They had to be. There were at least a dozen other people who were as qualified as I. I assumed they had already asked all the others and every one of them had said no.
I assumed I was their last hope because they had to know I’d say no.
And I did.
I can’t just stand here looking at the lights on the floor.
I walk into the station and motion sensors turn on the overhead lights. The room is large and mostly empty. In the center, there is a console with a holographic display that flickers to life. It flashes a message, and the message repeats every thirty seconds until I approach.
It reads “you are not alone. Send help.”
As I draw closer, the message changes to read, “welcome, Commander. Thank you for coming.”
I’m not sure if I should speak or type a response. I don’t see any sort of key pad so I try speaking.
The words vanish and an alien appears.
I’ve been taught to think that aliens will almost certainly look different than myself. It surprises me, then, that this creature looks almost human. It is bipedal, has binocular vision and hands with opposable thumbs.
No nose. That explains the smell.
It is covered with a fine purple hair and has a sunken mouth that is filled with sharp, canine teeth. The face is pinched and narrow and the eyes are set fairly far apart.
It looks directly at me and begins to speak.
“Commander Rudy Hanson, welcome to the planet of Thrayce. We are pleased you received our message and chose to find us. We are certain you have many questions.”
I do. And for the next eight hours, I ask some of them. I learn of the reasons for the beacon, of the power system that keeps the lights on for a civilization long departed, of the art and culture of a fallen planet, the physiology of a missing species, and I learn where they are now. Twenty light years away.
“I’m pleased you have returned, commander. You must be hungry.”
“I am, Alice. Did you record the conversation I had on the station?”
“I’m afraid not, commander. The onboard computer informed me the exchange of information must take place with a living being.”
“I wonder why?”
“Because they wanted their message to reach a living representative of another planet and not a mechanical one.”
It made a certain kind of sense. Knowing what I know now, a computer could not make the decision I face. Someone needs to make this call and it is a call that can’t be made on logic alone.
That’s why I was the only person on their list. They knew I would be able to make this call.
“Commander, did you learn what help they require?”
“I did. In a manner of speaking.”
“How may we be of assistance?”
“They don’t need any help. They reasoned that if their message reached a civilization advanced enough to decipher it, it was most likely we would respond to a distress call.”
“So the distress call was a lie?”
“Their call for help was real enough. They were looking for help in making contact with other sentient beings.”
Standing on this spaceship by myself, I understand how they felt. When dramatic climate shifts had forced them to abandon their planet, they had not yet been contacted by a single civilization. So they left directions on how to take the next step.
Along with instructions on how to alter our engines to make them faster and more efficient.
We can reach them.
But would we find them? Or would we find another beacon?
And would I be able to handle the smell?
“I’m receiving a communication from Earth. It must have been transmitted over one hundred years after we began our voyage.”
“What does it say?”
“You are not alone. Send Help. Coordinates 5938.23765. Message repeats.”