The Third Planet
Among the myriad of stars, one distinguishable point became visible from the ark’s bridge. When first spotted by Commander Falon, it was entered into the ship’s log along with all the other observations on his watch. Casually, following normal routine, he switched to the ship’s scope with the intent of tracking it on his computer screen, a task that would take most of the hour. The point had appeared suddenly and fortuitously after the ship began to emerge unscathed from a belt of asteroids, yet continued to compete with much more wondrous objects in space.
Constellations, star clusters and nebulas loomed as a backdrop for meteors and comets, and the ghostly trace of exploded stars drew his attention away. At one point, which was taped into the ship’s log, he recorded a black hole surrounded by a brilliant halo of light. Untold marvels and astronomical enigmas were sprinkled jewel-like over the cosmos to distract him from that dull point of light. Nothing seemed so spectacular in the cosmos after witnessing the aftermath of a supernova, a black hole and a gigantic constellation with its one hundred billion stars. Yet he knew, with increasing confidence, he had discovered something important this hour.
Raising an excited four-fingered hand to his mouth, his huge cat-like eyes widened in disbelief as the realization grew. This was not a star; it was a planet—a brand new world!
Commander Falon had no external ears, only portholes on each side of his head that quivered in response to sounds. At this moment, the holes were motionless, and yet his mind was reeling with thoughts. Although his pupils were dilated with expectation, his simian face, with mere breathing slits for a nose, showed little emotion as he stared at the new world. He was, as were others of his kind, completely bald and had bright pink skin, mottled slightly with red splotches that came with aging, as did the wrinkles on his neck and chin. In spite of his gangly arms, which appeared too long for his torso and his short bandy legs, the commander walked with a graceful bipedal gait. A smile played on his thin lips as he paced back and forth on the bridge.
The commander surveyed his crewmen critically but with understanding this late hour. Orix, his executive officer and the ship’s navigator, had missed the planet entirely but so had First Mate Remgen and all the other crewmen on deck. He, alone, had made the connection, but he must be certain before sounding the alarm. Despite its apparent mediocrity, he had followed mission procedure, and now, it was paying off. The target point appeared fixed and radiated dully contrary to the blinking bursts of surrounding lights. The questions he continued to ask himself were basic to the mission. Was it a watered world? Was it a planet that might contain life? Exhausted as he was, Commander Falon, with guarded excitement, continued the difficult task of tracking the object with the ship’s scope. For a moment, his eyes grew fatigued and he looked away from the monitor to study it once more with his unaided eye. He had detected it amidst billions of stars. Now that he had found it, he wondered if it would illuminate with the right color: bluish white. After months of searching the cosmos, the distinction was critical—the difference between a routine asteroid or planet and a world that might support life.
Suddenly, as the last debris from the meteor belt fell away, the target object brightened into a steady, luminous glow. Falon caught the change at once and shot back up to his feet. Earlier, after first discovering it, he noted its constant glow among the twinkling stars, a characteristic peculiar to asteroids, planetoids and worlds. Now, as he had hoped, there was a definite bluish-white tint to the planet—confirmation at last…. and something else that caused him to gasp.
I don’t believe it, he thought, dropping back into his seat. It has company!
He was almost totally convinced of his discovery. The absolute proof would come in the telescopic image on the screen. Judging by its monstrous next-door neighbor, the planet was, it appeared, circling a moderate-sized star—another factor necessary to support life. It was not a mere asteroid or anomaly floating through the universe. It was connected to a nurturing sun. After lessening the magnification and placing the two objects on the same grid, he noticed the classic formation. There were, in fact, several planets of various sizes in this system. One large planet seemed to have a ring around it. Another gigantic world appeared to be hundreds of times the size of his target world. His planet, the only one with he proper tint, was the third planet from its sun. Additional magnification showed a large moon circling this world.
A crooked smile broke his expressionless face. The commander now felt vindicated for his long hours of searching and for their many months in space. Had he not caught its first glimmer, the ark might have passed this planetary system entirely and spent weeks, perhaps months, searching for a new world. While crew members manning the space-going ark were lulled into drowsiness and lethargy, Commander Falon, his staff and Doctor Arkru, the scientific director aboard ship, had taken turns standing watch. The star maps created by earlier explorers and the color spectrum pointing to evidence of water, oxygen, and life were the business of everyone aboard the ark, and yet most of the crewmen and student collectors were now asleep. Those on watch ignored the great window of the bridge, except to glance up occasionally at a passing comet, meteor or celestial anomaly, except one lone sentinel, whose mind never seemed to rest.
While on his long, lonely vigil, Commander Falon had become the first member of the mission to glimpse the new world. Now that he had honed in on the point with the ship’s scope, he could barely contain himself as he adjusted the settings. In support of his visual findings, was the murky appearance on the monitor of the new world, which circled its own sun. Now it was time to bring as much detail as he possible on the screen. Adjusting the computerized scope as he magnified the image hundreds of times, he received only a blurred likeness at first, but there was no mistaking the blue, white and brown splashes of color against the blackness of space.
“Great Celestial Father,” he whispered, as he fine-tuned the image on the screen, “wait until Doctor Arkru sees this. A living planet, after all these months!”
The crew surrounding him went about their chores on the bridge, oblivious to this momentous event, until awakened by the sound of his voice. In speech resembling the chirp of crickets and croaking of frogs, he gave the first order of his watch. “Standby by for landing instructions!”
“Sir?” the executive officer looked up from his controls.
“Landing instructions?” First Mate Remgen muttered with surprise. “Where to commander? All I see out there are comets, meteors and stars. I’ve never seen the universe this cluttered before!”
Commander Falon had given an incomplete order, which left his subordinates suspended over their controls. Prepare to land when? They pondered amongst themselves. More importantly was the question where? Remgen seemed quite correct: all there was out in deep space was chaos. The commander, himself, had written recently in the ship’s log:
For such a long time, our ship, on its mission to find living planets and collect specimens to populate other worlds, has seen the birth and death of stars, brushed comets and witnessed anomalies beyond imagination, never ceasing to wonder at the majesty of the Celestial Father’s realm. More rare than a black hole or exploding star and less common than even the most massive star are the handful of planets spread throughout the universe supporting life…
Remgen exchanged a dubious look with Third Mate Kogin, the watch officer piloting the ship. Following the standby command should come the coordinates to land, but it appeared as if the commander, who was busy at his monitor, was not sure. An uneasiness fell over the bridge as the crewmembers paused in their tasks. How was it possible that they had all not seen the target planet too? The inexplicable fuzziness of the image began to clear gradually for the commander, until he was almost certain of what he had found. His training and experience had conditioned him against hasty judgments. The perfectionist in him wanted to be one hundred percent sure. As he looked away from screen to gauge the reaction on his crewmates, his mind reeled with the discovery. When he looked back, the image had cleared to almost perfection—ready for inspection, yet for one more moment only for his eyes.
“Sir,” the pilot ventured nervously, “I’ve been at the helm before you arrived on the bridge. Is there something out there we’ve missed?”
“Look, all of you!” he cried, after transferring the image to the screen.
For a moment, the crew was speechless. The ocean bound world, they could plainly see, had moderately large land formations that were dotted with apparent cloud masses throughout. On each pole there was obvious indications of ice caps. To put the finishing touches to this picture, there was a lovely pale moon circling this world.
“Great leaping comets,” exclaimed Remgen in a breathless voice, “he found one! Our commander found us a terrestrial world!”
“Finally, after all these months, a life-supporting planet!” the pilot cried jubilantly, clasping his four digit fingers together as if to pray.
There were different names for the phenomena on the screen. The star maps often listed them as animate planets or blue-white worlds. Almost always they were terrestrial and could support life. To the religious minded, today’s discovery was a sacred event, for it proved that the Celestial Father’s reach was immeasurable. At the far end of the universe, nearly a year into the mission, one more prize had been given to them. It was, as were the other planets encountered, the only reason for their odyssey in space, and this time it was the commander, himself, who had discovered a new world.
All of the crewmembers on the bridge were acting like Doctor Arkru’s students, the commander noted indulgently. The long wait, in which they had all spent periods of time in their pods, was over. They would once again be on firm ground and out of harm’s way with the prospects of added provisions for the ship’s stores. Most of them, on scientific and hunting expeditions, would have a chance to explore the alien world.
Orix, the executive officer, who had been charting their voyage at this hour, was one such grateful crewmen and rose up to vigorously shake Falon’s hand.
“Congratulations commander, your instincts were right,” he spoke reverentially, “the color spectrum indicates life.”
“Instincts be damned!” snorted the first mate. “While the rest of our heads bobbed for lack of sleep, our commander never gave up! He found us a world!”
“The will of the Celestial Father rides with the ark,” declared Commander Falon, folding his arms.
Looking out at the chaos in space, the commander sighed. It would have been fitting if Eglin, the ship’s medic, who was also the chaplain, could say a few words. When they began the dissent, he would have Eglin give a prayer to the ship’s company as he sat buckled in his seat.
“Prepare to land sir?” the pilot looked up from his controls.
“Yes, of course, set the coordinates Kogin,” the commander sighed with great satisfaction, “this old ark could use the rest!”
“This calls for a celebration!” Remgen clasped his eight fingers together, looking around for agreement on the bridge.
“When we land safely, we shall celebrate properly,” Falon promised, patting the First Mate’s arm. “For now, waken the galley and have Wurbl bring us some strong Revekian beer.”
Raising the ships phone up to his mouth, he punched a large gold button on the panel. Though self-controlled most of the time, the excitement detected on his expressionless face was visible in his trembling ear holes and the quivering movement of his nasal slits and mouth. His smile widened in its crooked fashion and, for the first time anyone could remember, moisture glistened in his great, unblinking eyes. This was, Falon reminded himself, Doctor Arkru’s moment too. The Collector, as they called him, was the chief scientist and organizer of the mission. He, more than anyone else, was responsible for the search for terrestrial planets and the collection of specimens on alien worlds.
“Doctor Arkru,” the commander said, clearing his throat, “you wanted a wake-up call when a new world came into view.”
“Now there’s an understatement for you,” Remgen chortled to Orix as they chatted with the other crewmembers on watch.
There would be great laxity in the next hour, especially with the Collector arriving on the bridge. Doctor Arkru would insist on an immediate celebration when he joined the crewmen. Soon the entire ship would be given the glad tidings: a terrestrial world, not far away by the interstellar yardstick, had been discovered by the commander. The long periods of slumber, interspersed with monotonous routine, would be replaced by adventure, exotic foods and a daily regimen of work and recreation. There would be no drug induced sleep for a while nor the idling sameness of the compartments and passageways of the ship. Everyone, from the youngest shipmate to the commander, himself, would have a chance to set foot on the new world.
On the other end of the phone, still draped in sleep, Doctor Arkru groped around for his robe as he spoke: “When will we be preparing to land, Commander Falon?”
“It won’t be long professor,” the commander’s voice constricted as his eyes traced the great blue sheets on the planet that indicated water and life. “Doctor Arkru,” he confessed with complete candor, “once again the Scientific Fathers are correct about blue-white planets. We’re certain this one is terrestrial as some of the other worlds. It has oceans and vast cloud masses too.”
In a short while the lives of everyone on the ark would change drastically as the ship prepared once more to land on an alien world. Though jubilant and filled with high expectations, the officers and crewmen had no illusions about what lie ahead.
The old collector could barely contain himself as he scrambled around his cabin looking for his pants, tunic and shoes. He had slumbered in his pod for many more hours, while Falon and his staff, after awakening earlier, sat tirelessly on watch. After a short period in which the crewmen mulled over the commander’s discovery and shared their concerns, Doctor Arkru arrived with his young assistant, Zorig, bringing fresh enthusiasm to the bridge. As everyone else on the ship, both the professor and his assistant would soon be fastened in their seats. Entry and touchdown were imminent on the new world.
As with Falon, Zorig, and the others, there was mixture of feline and simian traits in Arkru’s face and body, but the doctor’s face was far more mottled with time. The wrinkles on his neck were extensive, and his ear and nose slits were crusted with great age. Normally the professor was, despite his years, particular about his appearance. To set a good example for his technicians and students, he always appeared clean, well groomed and in the proper attire. During this special occasion, however, the good doctor appeared eccentric and disheveled. There were, to the crew’s amusement, a pair of mismatched shoes on his feet. His brightly colored tunic, which had been pulled on backwards, was tucked halfway into his clashing pants.
“Look at that view,” his voice was tremulous with expectation. “Our commander discovered a new planet. I wish I’d been awake!”
“We need to run some spectral tests,” Zorig declared excitedly. “We must check the atmosphere for toxins. Oh look, professor, there are ice caps, just like Raethia and Beskol!”
“Simmer down lad,” Remgen chided gently, “there’s plenty of time for that. Just look at it Zorig and enjoy the view. Isn’t that a beautiful sight?”
“Beautiful!” Zorig almost wept. “I can’t wait to explore that world!”
For several moments Doctor Arkru and his assistant looked with wonder at the screen. Though the planet was still a long way away, the magnification made it look as if they were hovering directly overhead. Everyone agreed it was the most promising world so far. Against his better judgment, Falon allowed his crew a short round of libations, thanks to Wurbl, the ship’s chef, who, with his assistant, brought Revekian beer for everyone on the bridge. The commander rose slowly and shakily to his feet, the rush of the strong draught causing him to tilt this way and that as he took command of the bridge. At first, he placed an arm around the professor and the first mate, as the two men stood sharing their thoughts.
“Doctor Arkru, officers of the bridge, members of the crew,” he declared with a slight slur, reaching down clumsily to snap on the ships intercom, “its time to wake up the ship!”
“You mean the entire ship?” the pilot looked up at him in disbelief.
“Now here this,” the commander called out over the ark, “a terrestrial world has been sighted. Prepare to land. Those on patrol, awake your shipmates. Engineering mate on duty bring the ship to thrust-nine. Communications officer, chief medic and all ship’s officers are to be awakened to supervise personnel at their stations. Crewmembers and students on compartment watch look lively. Those on patrol inspect the landing stations, while technicians on duty insure that all containment chambers for specimens are secured. Batten down all hatches crewmen, and secure all items not attached to the bulkheads or deck of the ship. Preliminary estimations indicate a watered and oxygenated world with gas levels that might require our suits. The chief medic will insure the integrity of our equipment and report back within the hour. All hands take care of your morning business, including, if scheduled, the feeding and care of specimens on aboard the ark. At 0075 star time, all hands will strap themselves into their landing stations for touchdown on the new world!”