| The wondrous and mysterious, pitch black expanse of space is home to many things. Most of this, for some strange reason, is absolutely nothing at all. There are planets constructed of mighty floating rocks or gas that fly powerfully through the night and there are suns that are born and live for milennia, only to die in the most impressive of ways. However, despite this, everythig around these structures is almost completely empty. And amidst this wide expanse, among the stars and rocks that fly through complete emptiness, there is a humble, though beautiful, planet named Earth.
Indeed, its name itself reinforces its humility. As home to a race with a mastery of tongue and pen that eventually resulted in several forms of art based solely on words, it is interesting to note that the name they bestowed upon their blue-green planet was shared with the dirt through which their farmers ploughed.
The race, humans, once again as an example of their humility, over the years of their fruition and progress, as they went from living in tiny huts to great towering structures, had a phrase which they would choke out following any of their daily mistakes; 'I'm only human,' they would say, as if their species was the definition of disappointment.
Fortunately, even with this inherent and almost instinctual lack of self-esteem, the planet did ultimately thrive. Follwing years of different variations on the question, 'What, exactly, is in the sky?' they eventually broke through their atmosphere and a man stood on the moon.
This progressed, evolved and grew until, hundreds of years later, space travel was commonplace. And so, this curious race spread out amongst the stars in order to see what they might find.
Which brings us to a ship. A great, silver, military ship, with a glittering hull and a hypnotically sleek pattern of flight. Having just left its last docking station, it was now making its way, once more, through the black.
Private Paul Grasse made his way from his new sleeping quarters, having been ordered to meet his Captain for the first time. What could he possibly want? I hope it's not a test... Oh my god it's gonna be a fucking test... The private thought frantically.
On the NASA-white door, the private rapped his shaking knuckles, the sound ringing out through the halls of the ship, the SS Gaea, Stay calm. Keep telling yourself that and you might just manage it this time. his mind was racing past him.
Called the captain, in his weathered, shaded voice, 'Come in.'
It was the door that reacted to the voice before the private, sliding open to reveal a tall man with with a powerful stance, staring wisely through his ship's great windscreen at the suns that were shining so many lightyears away.
He turned his learned head to greet the bright, naive face that had stepped into his office, worn atop an exercised body which sported the standard-issue uniform and smiled. The captain... Wow it's really him, in the flesh... Older than the pictures now, though, gray hair, used to be brown, I think.
'Ah, private, how are you?' The captain grumbled bleakly but with a gentlemanly air.
His voice shook, just as the captain had expected, and he was forced to cough to regain his long-quiet voice, 'I'm fine, sir, and you?'
The captain smiled at this question, 'Manners. I respect that in a soldier, son. Have you settled in?'
'I have, sir, yes.'
'Good. I hope you don't mind if I sit.' As the captain did so, falling back gracefully into his command chair, Private Grasse replied with a gentle, 'No sir,' still standing to attention.
'Now, private, please explain to me your purpose here on this ship.'
Reacting as a soldier would, with a rehearsed and pre-instructed reply, the young man began, 'To serve, with honour and- and adroit ability, the respected and experienced Captain Archibald Bloom- erm, you, sir.'
'That is a fine answer, private. But the ship, the crew. What do we do here? And, please, use your own words, not your schoolbook's.'
Shit...'Oh... Yes, sir, no problem, no problem at all. Well, I'm here to join your first team, the recon crew.'
'Private, what do we do?' his voice was slightly more impatient than it had been till now, a bit more unstable.
'Sir, the SS Gaea is one of four sister ships sent from Earth in order to detect as-of-yet unexplored planets and communicate with foreign and alien lifeforms.'
The captain chuckled, a chuckle that unnerved the private further, as he couldn't tell whether he had pleased his superior or further irritated him Or was he angry? He's still smiling, good sign? Bad sign? Mental?
'Good man. And so far, how many planets has his ship encountered?'
'Three hundred and sixty one, sir. Currently tracing the whereabouts of planet 362.'
'And of these planets, in the twenty years this ship and others have been searching, how many have supported sentient life?'
'So far... Not one sir.'
The captain, suddenly and briefly shedding his calm demeanour, let slip an almost unnoticeable laugh, 'And what is your opinion on that, soldier?'
The private stared obediently into the space that floated above the head that held the captain's twisted grimace, 'I'm here so that I can make my mind up on the subject, sir.'
Captain Bloom stood and shook his new underling's hand with a sigh, 'Welcome aboard, sir. Dinner will be served in twenty minutes, go prepare.'
The private obeyed, as privates do, and returned to his quarters so that he might prepare for his first meal aboard this beautiful ship. That was either brilliant or crap ... ah whatever, I'm hungry.
At dinner, the private met for the second time, the recon crew with whom he would soon be travelling to an alien word, as they sat around the table designated for them. They were not alone in the crew, which consisted of cooks and mechanics, nurses and doctors and all kinds of other members of staff, as the ship was like a slightly small city in its sheer vastness in population. Private Grasse, however, had just become a member of the five people on board held in the highest esteem- the astronauts who travelled to the planets below in order to explore and study. Four of them, the private included, sat around the table, though the chair at the head was empty, awaiting the captain. The three experienced soldiers began to help themselves, and so the private followed suit. In the great dining hall, their table, though the smallest, was very much the focus of the room. Resting in the centre, illuminated by well placed, ornate lights that wouldn't have looked out of place in an old hotel.
'So, new guy,' Commander Ben Jones addressed Grasse, treating himself to a chicken leg which looked tiny in his great black hands, 'You're our new doctor, then.'
'Yes sir,' Private Grasse replied I'm pretty sure you already knew that, though, didn't you, big fella?.
The unshaven man next to the gigantic commander grunted an amount of amused disapproval. He was Lieutenant Floyd Barrett, and he was, according to popular opinion, rather unpleasant. He spoke, 'You know who you're replacing, Junior?'
Private Grasse slurped his spaghetti and shook his head, 'I haven't been told.'
Barrett chuckled cruelly, 'Well allow me to illuminate to you the situation. The position you now hold previously belonged to Dr. Carl Foster. He died on this ship not two months ago. This is a dangerous job, kid, you sure you're cut out for it?'
In solemn memory of their fallen comrade, the three soldiers looked at their new teammate with a look of expectation, as if his reply would define him within their collective opinion forever.
He swallowed whatever he had been chewing and allowed his gaze to flick quickly from face to face, 'I'm sorry to hear about him, really... Y- Can I ask what happened?'
It was Commander Jones that replied to this, as Bloom's second in command he seemed to genuinely care that Grasse did not feel threatened, 'The job got him,' he muttered.
Grasse was hesitant but asked, 'Got him? But ... But the planet's are all empty... How-?'
The half-drunk Lieutenant was most definitely amused, 'Exactly. They're all empty. For some reason the human race is all alone, as far as we can tell. That gets hard to deal with after a while of setting foot on barren shitholes. Time comes, you lose sight of the point and, if you're anything like Dr. Foster, you shoot yourself in the face while sitting on your big, black commander's bed.'
Oh my fuck 'Oh my god,' Grasse whispered, 'I'm sorry.'
Suddenly, Captain Bloom made his arrival, though he seemed to have heard every word they had uttered, as he said, while taking his seat, 'Don't be sorry, Private, these things happen.'
'You said 'God', just know, I can assume you are a believer?' The captain asked, sipping a glass of wine.
As a response, Grasse said one of the most profound things he ever would, something he noted and was eternally, though secretly, proud of, 'Sir, it's mandatory that one has a system of belief to join this cause. I'm a curious man, I tick whatever boxes I have to in certain cases.'
This remark amused the captain, who laughed and slapped the back of the as-of-yet silent crew member that sat to his immediate right, asking him, 'What do you think of that, Father?'
Brian Valentine. Must be 'Father' Brian Valentine... Shit, I hadn't met him yet, bad first impression. Should have known they'd have a priest.
The priest spoke, saying something Grasse didn't expect, as he smiled and said, 'You'll believe soon enough, won't he lads?'
The other three laughed, they were certain their priest was right.
Commander Jones smiled at the Private, 'None of us did when we first joined, kiddo. The Father here is our scientist, at least that's how he started off, but over the years he caught the bug and eventually got ordained, tell him, Valentine!'
Valentine smiled a smile that just held in the chicken he had been chewing, 'You see, Grasse, what happens -or at least what happened to us- is that you join up all wide-eyed and enthusiastic and you stay that way for years, until one day it just kinda clicks. You see that every planet in the universe is empty, that the human race are completely alone and you realise that there has to be a God, that he's up there and he's a cruel bastard! A cruel bastard with a sick sense of humour!'
This statement shocked Grasse, despite his uninspiring beliefs, as the rest of his new team burst into a chorus of knowing laughter as a result of this statement. All except the captain, who smiled, drumming the fingers of his left hand against the edge of the table, while the other hand pensively scratched his almost-fuzzy chin.
Grasse decided to break the silence that followed, saying, 'I look forward to it. From what I hear, faith offers quite a high.'
They laughed once more, as if the Private had just touched upon an in-joke to which he was completely oblivious.
Frustrated that a statement that would have been considered witty among his usual pretencious contemporaries had been turned against him, the young doctor decided to further the conversation himself, 'So,' he said, 'That's what you all believe? That we're alone?'
Quietly,but quickly, the four glanced at one another, as if volunteering that someone else would answer the Private.
'I'll tell you what I think,' the scruffy lieutenant said, scrutinising the contents of his own wine glass as he swirled it with his wrist, 'I'd kill for some lager, Captain. Did we pick any up when we stopped?'
The captain nodded.
'Good, I'm getting sick of this fancy stuff... Anyway, yeah, Private you wanna know what I think?'
'Erm...' The private said, inquiring, with a glance to Commander Jones, as to what he should say.
'You probably don't, Kid,' The huge soldier said, 'But you won't know till he tells you, will you?'
'Go ahead, Lieutenant,' The private smiled.
'I think, personally, that there was a war. A huge war between everyone and everything in all these godforsaken wastelands we've ever been to. And I think it consumed them and I think it ultimately destroyed them and wiped them the fuck out. Wiped them all out, except for the rats that abandoned the ship. The rats that ran and hid, the most pathetic cowards in all the cosmos... Humanity!' He spoke the last word with an entertaining flick of his hand, as a magician would, having shouted, 'Voila!'
The captain sighed and looked away, as if he thought the soldier was speaking nonsense and that he wasn't shy about letting him know it. The others, however, seemed to think that just about anything was open to consideration at this point. They needed to know why they were alone, the joke that religion had become to them was no longer enough.
However they had been positive men before joining the crew and so, would not allow themselves to embrace such a shameful theory as regards their race.
'No way,' Said Commander Jones, shaking his mighty head, 'That can't be it. The rats that ran and hid? Come on, Floyd!'
They've had this argument before... Probably hundreds of times.
'Maybe we weren't the rats, then,' Father Valentine mused, 'Maybe it was the other way 'round. What if... What if we waged this godforsaken war... and wiped out all of these species?' You know it's shown in different cases that people often lose their memory following horrible deeds, they block it out. Maybe we, as a species, couldn't face ourselves after what we'd done, so evolved to forget.'
Jones was staring blankly at his plate, 'So that's it then. We're either the rats that ran and hid or the merciless destroyers of races?'
Silence, until Grasse said, 'They both kinda fit, actually...'
To each of the soldiers, elements of the two contrasting theories rang true in certain ways, and silently, for several seconds that felt far longer, they mused unknowingly and seperately on how it all mades sense.
Something must have snapped within the young science-priest before it snapped within the rest, an unwillingness to accept what he could not, in his mind, disprove. 'Of course, statistics say there has to be life out there. There just has to be. the universe is of such infinite size that it would be impossible that life hasn't yet evolved on other worlds. Statistically!'
'Statistics,' The young private thought, aloud,' Would it change anything to note that it was humanity that invented statistics?'
And nobody answered because nobody could.
A query crossed Grasse's mind and he splurted it at once, as if somehow asking it would change things, 'Sir, what would happen if we did find life on other planets? What would we do?'
This question, though extremely aspirational seemed to restore in the private the belief that his teammates were hiding from him an injoke that he himself was unaware of, as they suddenly shared smiling, though fleeting glances with one another.
The captain replied, in a way, to the private's naive question, by truning his smile on him and saying, with a burst of energy at the beginning of the sentence that died out by the end, 'Private! Do you own a copy of the standard issue handbook?'
'Yes, sir, they're eh... well, they're standard issue.'
'Good, well that question,' the captain paused and wiped his face quickly, 'Is answered in there, have a look when next you get a chance.'
This satisfied the private temporarily and so he nodded and began his dessert.
As the dinner came to a close, a klaxon suddenly rang out, startling the young doctor, while exciting those around him.
'What's th-' began Grasse, before the announcement that followed the bell answered his unfinished question.
The voice of a woman Grasse had not yet met suddenly rang out, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Planet 362 has been located, estimated time of arrival is roughly 40 hours time. It is advised that preparation for arrival should begin as soon as is convenient for all.'
'Fantastic!' Muttered the captain with a happy, but stunted movement.
'Hey, Cap'n, maybe the new kid's a lucky charm!' Commander Jones said, before turning to Grasse and saying, 'We're usually waiting weeks after setting out before we find a new planet!'
The private laughed, 'Glad I could help.'
The captain then stood, 'Right, lads, bed. Up early tomorrow, you'll have to get your physicals once we've assessed the planet's atmosphere.'
He left, as did the other three, as the private followed them back to the sleeping quarters. After minutes of meaningless banter, the three experienced soldiers fell comfortably asleep. However, when introduced for the first time to the gaping expanse of space, it is terribly hard to leave it and fall from reality to the far less exciting world of dreams.
And so, without truly convincing himself that he was trying to sleep, the private stared almost unblinkingly through the window above him and thought, Empty... , a thought that returned him to the dinner and bounced across several different points until he was reminded of the question he had asked the captain.
Unable to sleep and overcome with curiosity, he jumped with a young man's silence to the floor, shuffling in his socks to the foot of the bed and flicking open his trunk. The room was dark, and so he was thankful that he had left his torch at the top of the pile he had packed away. Fumbling around its handle, he turned it on and rummaged through the now-illuminated box of his possessions.
Beneath a bundle of old books he had been forced, by his mother, to bring 'In case I get bored while I'm gone'- Thanks, ma..., he found the only mandatory book there, The Interplanetary Officer's Handbook.
With the torch uncomfortably held in his jaw so that it might shine on the page beneath him, Grasse flicked to the Index and looked for a chapter that might be able to answer his question. After two or three different chapters that proved unrewarding, he finally found it on a page marked FAQs:
What is the expected procedure should a planet be located that supports intelligent life?
The private's heart rose and sank again in the time it took him to locate with his eyes and read the answer, which was, very simply:
'Bridge to be crossed if come to.'
That's it? and that was it. The hope that humans would one day locate contemporaries had become, to those in charge of the search, an official joke. Hmm... Fuck... At least it doesn't say, 'Kill!'
The next morning the private and his crew members were woken by the timed alarm in their sleeping quarters. Following a silent, tired breakfast, the four of them were sent to the First Aid Wing so that they could be screened and tested in order to land on the nearing planet, as was procedure.
The Private went last, not having any say in the matter as a result of him being new. However, once in the room he forgot completely how long he had been waiting, as he saw, once he entered, the most beautiful girl he had ever laid eyes on. Now this was in no way an accurate description of the young nurse, though she was quite pretty, but the private found something in her mannerisms that completely enchanted him.
'Hello there, Doctor, please take a seat on the bed,' she instructed kindly, indicating a white hospital bed while she rummaged through a drawer whose contents Grasse couldn't quite make out.
Turning to him, her brown ponytail flicking as she did, she asked, 'You know I'll be taking a blood test, yes? I have to do it for all new citizens of the ship.'
'Eh, oh yeah no problem...'
The nurse took a seat on the stool next to him as he rolled up his sleeve, 'If you'd like to look away now...' she said.
He turned his head and winced while she drew a sample of his blood, saying, 'I'm Paul, by the way.'
Finishing her task, she left to deposit it in its rightful place and returned to the stool with a clipboard, which she proceeded to fill out, saying distantly, 'Yes, I know, I have your file... Asthma?'
'Have you asthmatic tendencies? Inhaler, anything like that?'
'No. No heart conditions or family history of them either.'
'Very good,' she said, with a voice that sounded as if it was smiling, continuing to detail the health of the private on her from without hesitation, 'I'm Sarah. How are you liking the ship, so far?'
She hadn't looked up from the form having asked it, but the question, from her, delighted the private completely,'Em, yeah everyone's been very nice so far...'
She 'Mmm'd at this, which lead to a gaping silence, filled only by the scratching of her pen.
'So,' said the private ambitiously, 'What do you do for fun around here?'
For the first time, the young nurse turned her great blue eyes to meet his, 'Oh, there's loads to do. There are cinemas and restaurants on the lower decks, shopping centres as well. It depends on what you like!'
'Oh... cool. Em, I was actually wondering what you do for fun.'
'Me?' she smiled a pretty smile, flattered that he'd asked, 'Well, I actually like to swim.'
She giggled timidly, 'Yeah, why? Is that weird?'
He panicked slightly, afraid he'd insulted her, but managed to keep his calm, 'No not at all! It's just,' and they he laughed, in a friendly mocking of her hobby, 'why swimming?'
Tapping the pen against her foot pensively, she seemed to be enjoying the conversation, as she said, 'Lots of reasons! It reminds me of home a bit... And, have you seen the swimming pool?'
The private shook his head.
'Oh you should take a look when you can! It's open all night, on the top floor. The roof's the biggest window on the ship... You can swim with the whole of space open above you. It's really beautiful.'
The private had been only barely listening, as he had been busy working up the courage to say what he finally did manage to awkwardly spit out, 'Sound's nice. Maybe you could show me.'
She paused, almost inducing a heart attack in the young soldier as a result of pure anticipatory stress, but then smiled and said, 'Yeah, okay. How about tonight?
Later, having finished an hour-long physical consisting of treadmills and urine tests, the soldiers had taken to the gym, where they had been instructed to exercise for at least an hour. In the changing rooms afterwards, the towelled private asked a question that had been bothering him, 'It must get hard sometimes, does it lads?'
'Jesus, private, I'm pretty sure that's harassment,' replied Lieutenant Barrett, drying his scruffy brown locks.
Commander Jones laughed at this but said, in his powerful, deep voice, 'What do you mean, kid?'
'Well, all the empty planets? I mean, it gets difficult, yeah?'
A unanimous nod, he had been expecting this, they had answered this question before, but it was only leading to a further inquiry.
'Okay, so how do you cope with it? What's the secret?'
After each of the soldiers had spent a few seconds pondering the question they each, one by one, replied with the same answer, beginning with Jones, who said, simply, 'The captain.'
After the other two had agreed with him, Grasse asked, intrigued, 'Okay... How so?'
Valentine sighed, 'The captain's a great man. He respects us. He respects the universe. And he's never let it get to him, as far as he's concerned if there's no one out there then that's just the way things are. He takes care of us, and-'
But Commander Jones continued for him, 'Without him we'd all find this job a whole lot harder than we do. The captain saves our lives on a regular basis, if you ask me.'
The soldiers agreed and finished dressing. The commander, the last man to finish and leave before the private, said, 'Oh, by the way, Paul, you've got a meeting with the captain in twenty minutes.'
Acknowledging this, the private wondered what the purpose of this meeting would be, thinking, happily,He called me Paul.
Minutes later, the private found himself in the captain's quarters, in the same way he had been the night before, him standing to attention while the captain sat.
'How are you today, Private?'
'Very good, Captain, and you?'
'Sir, I've called you here to discuss something important with you. Something really important.'
'I'm all ears, sir.'
'In just under a day we will land on planet 362. I don't want you getting your hopes up.'
'What do you mean, sir?'
The captain sighed a sigh of experience, 'Private, we encounter a lot of planets on our journeys, and every time they're empty. Now that's not going to stop you're mind from wandering, and you're probably going to think that this time, maybe, just maybe, will be the time when we finally make contact. I just want to make sure that you understand that so far we have found absolutely nothing. I just don't want you to be disappointed.'
'I understand completely, sir.'
'Good man, and I want you to know that you can come to me to speak about anything you need. I'm your captain, I'm always here. And if you don't want to speak to me, Commander Jones or the other two lads will be just as happy to listen to you. It's been said by just about every team throughout history but I honestly don't think it's ever been more appropriate to say; We're a family. You're one of us now, Private, and that's very important. You'll realise just how strong that bond is after a few planets.'
'Okay, Private, that'll be all, you're dismissed. But just remember, you will consider, before we land on any planet, that this will finally be the one. Getting your hopes up, though, never ends well in this job.'
The private thanked him and left, considering, as he walked the halls almost aimlessly, everything the wise man had just said to him.
They get very serious about this thing... Have I signed up for a life of contemplating suicide... Or will I get lucky? Maybe this time- Oh. Fuck... But I'm not like that am I? I won't be that crushed if I don't... But who's to say we'll never? I mean, Valentine said it, 'statistically!'
Such thoughts consisted for the duration of the day, until eventually the private followed the directions he had been given at the time he had been told and found himself in the swimming pool, gaping up at the window above him.
He walked around the pool, staring upwards as he waited for the arrival of Sarah. The room was empty and every movement he made seemed to echo around him.
'You like it, then?' came a voice, snapping him out of his fantasies about the sight above his head. Fantasies of green men and tentacled women with ray guns and hoverboards. Fantasies of bug-eyed creatures and rolling tin cans with eye stalks. Fantasies of life.
He looked down to see Sarah had jumped into the pool before he had been able to reply. Emerging from below, she spluttered, wiped her face and said, almost excitedly, 'You've been looking up for about ten minutes, it's nice isn't it?'
Joining her in the pool, with an attempt to be exceedingly suave, he stared her in the eye and said, 'Beautiful.'
She laughed and dived back underneath the water, swimming around until she needed air, coming up right next to him.
'So... Did you swim much at home?' Grasse said, in an effort to make damp conversation.
She looked at him blankly for a short escape of time, without answer. Then, laughing, she splashed him, soaking his hair that had remained dry till then.
He laughed in response and returned the favour, which resulted in the two splashing wildly at each other. After several minutes of this, Grasse conceded defeat, laughing with his hands up, while she still soaked him, 'Okay I give up!'
She continued however, so he swam beneath the foamy water she was creating, over to her, where he picked her up in the way a groom would to a bride. She struggled, giggling, so he tossed her gently, back into the pool.
She emerged with a grin, 'Em, no actually I didn't swim much back home.'
He was slightly out of breath, 'So what makes you like it so much here?'
Though she clearly had an answer to this, the nurse seemed to enjoy teasing the less intelligent doctor, turning her head to the side and saying, 'Aren't you having fun?'
He smiled warmly at her and said, 'I'm having a great time.'
'Do this!' She announced, as she lay back on the water and flapped her arms gently so that she could stare upwards at the sky while she swam.
He copied her, and when he did, she asked, 'So, you excited? About your first planet, I mean?'
Both of them still staring upwards contently, but floating close to one another, the private said, 'Em, yeah, I guess...'
'The lads have been making you nervous?'
'A bit. I mean I can't wait to see the universe, to really experience it, you know? But they get very upset about there being nothing there when they go to look. I dunno, it's like they're prepping me for suicide watch.'
She looked at him, and he looked back, their eyes were meeting, though their feet were on opposite ends.
'I've been doing this for a while, you know,' Sarah said happily, 'And I know people. I think you'll be fine. In fact, you kinda remind me of the captain, in ways.'
There was a second or two, while they stared at one another, wherein the Private contemplated what to say, until he finally settled on it, and asked, 'Would you mind if I held your hand?'
Without answering, she extended her arm so that her fingers were in his reach. Carefully taking them in his own grasp, the private smiled, and continued to do so for the rest of the night, while they floated there happily.
The next morning, the private and his team members were woken by a far more urgent alarm than the morning before, and their worlds were almost shattered when they discovered why.
The announcement that followed was made by the same woman that had made the one at the dinner on Grasse's first day, an announcement that was only heard in their own room, as it said, 'Could the first recon team please report to the control room. Important update on planet 362: Life. Possible life.'
Grasse gasped and looked at Jones and Barrett, though Valentine was not there. The two soldiers wore faces that expressed the most powerful emotions the private had ever seen on any others. They were expressions of the most pure, childlike hope.
Without hesitation, the three men sprinted up the three flights of stairs that lead to the command deck. The two more experienced soldiers ran with such desperate purpose that the young private was swept naturally into the emotion.
It was Barrett that reached the command door first, proceeding to bang on it with all his early-morning might.
Instantaneously, the door slid open, showing them the control room, with the captain and Valentine inside, staring at a series of screens, with a large team of scientists standing behind them.
'Come in, boys,' The captain said, with pride.
They obeyed and, before the door had shut behind them, Commander Jones asked, 'Life, sir? Possible life?'
Private Grasse thought he caught a glimpse of hidden tears in the gigantic commander's eyes.
Valentine answered for the captain, 'It's very possible, Ben.'
'How? How is it possible, Brian?' Barrett cut in, sounding ferociously angry.
'Well,' The priest answered, gesturing towards the screen, 'They woke me an hour or two ago to verify, the assessment team. The planet, planet 362, it's... It's almost identical to earth.'
'What?' Commander Jones asked.
Valentine sighed, as if his body was trying to tell them he believed it to be too good to be true, 'Atmospherically, same amount of oxygen, nitrogen, everything! Practically the same distance from the sun. Just bigger than Earth, the sun just bigger than our sun, there's grass, trees, seas... everything.'
The team of scientists behind it offered a few comments that agreed with everything the priest had said.
'When will we know for sure?' Grasse piped up.
The captain, retaining his general calm, fielded the question for Father Valentine, 'Not 'till we land... Later today. Four hours. Get ready. Go now, but don't divulge any of this information to anyone on the ship.'
The four of them returned silently to their room. When they arrived, Private Grasse stood respectfully at the foot of his bed, where he could watch the reaction of his team, each one completely separate from the other. Brian Valentine fell to his knees at the window and began to whisper prayers quickly and loudly, as if he couldn't fit enough in before they had to leave. Commander Jones sat quietly with his head buried in his hands. Barrett dove into his trunk, reefing through it until he came upon and withdrew triumphantly a bottle of old Scotch whiskey, accompanied by four glasses.
'Six hundred years old,' he said, 'I was nearly shot stealing this, today's the day I get to fucking taste it.'
The other three took a glass once he had filled one for each of them.
'Look, fellas,' Grasse muttered, as they held their respective glasses, awaiting the imminent toast, 'This could be fantastic news but you all told me it was important not to get my hope up. Please, I don't want you guys to be crushed.'
Solemnly, Commander Jones bowed his head and said, 'He's right.'
'Of course he is,' Barrett said, 'But he might be proven wrong, so till then; TO PLANET 362!'
Above the planet, hours later, the four soldiers stood, looking down at it, with their captain standing with pride beside them. Its resemblance to earth was uncanny, the sole visible difference being the layout of the continents, though the planet looked to the private as if it could have been his home's brother.
Their uniforms on, they stepped, helmetless, into the landing pod, with the team of experts watching as they did. The atmosphere had been thick in the anticipation of this moment. The room had been silent and one could almost feel the hope that was emanating from everyone present.
The door closed on the five soldiers, who were strapped to the wall of the tube-shaped room.
'Hey, kid,' Barrett said to the private, 'Maybe you are a good luck charm!'
The captain spoke next, as a screen lit up on the part of the wall opposite him, which was between Grasse and Jones, 'Okay, boys, you ready? You know what to expect. Good luck to each of you. And 3... 2... 1... Now!'
Suddenly, the pod was deployed so that it could enter the atmosphere of 362, an entrance which the inhabitants of the pod felt every bit of.
Their cheeks were forced upwards as they whizzed downwards through the sky, at a speed that the private noticed was faster than he had ever fallen. The simulations he had been trained in were nothing compared to this.
After roughly half an hour, the parachute was released and the pod began to float gently downwards. When it landed, the silence was horrible within the pod, as the astronauts unstrapped themselves.
Hesitantly, Valentine, who was closest to the door, pushed it open.
With nostalgia, each of the soldiers gasped, as they witnessed trees for the first time in what, to them, had seemed far too long. Stepping out, they saw that they were in a magnificent forest, constructed almost exclusively of the colour green.
'So, what now?' the inexperienced private asked, 'How do we know if there's anyone here?'
Withdrawing from his pocket a large device which consisted of a screen on the end of a pole, Valentine forced the latter part into the ground saying, 'We'll know in an hour and a half.'
The following hour and a half was longer than any other the private had experienced as he attempted to climb trees and dig through the mud in a futile attempt to locate an equivalent of earthworms or birds.
The other four sat, however, not taking their eyes from the screen, which read, 'Scanning Planet.'
After about thirty minutes, it began to rain. To them, what had been a nuisance on earth suddenly became a gift from the sky. They embraced it, each of them, longing for the droplets of their own planet. It lasted not long, though, and soon the sun was shining high in the sky once more, their attention returning to the screen.
And then it beeped.
On cue and without pause, the four soldiers who were not the exceedingly calm captain rushed to the screen, where Valentine began to assess the details.
Minutes passed, just as quickly as they had in the preceding hour and a half, until Barrett said, 'And?'
Valentine whimpered, 'In a way- In a way there's life.'
Their ears pricked and their hearts soared.
'There's bacteria. Everywhere. That's a whole lot more than we usually find.'
The statement was followed by silence, until Barrett shouted, 'Balls to your bacteria!' and punched the device on the pole so hard it clearly damaged his hand.
'Damn... DAMN!' roared the commander, his heartbreak audible in his shout.
Valentine's own heartbreak was shown by his bowed head and his aching whispers of, 'I know, I know...'
'Shit... This is shit,' the private said after seconds of watching the three teammates around him, 'but come on, you lot, this isn't the end! There are so many more planets! We'll find life some day, won't we captain?'
But their hearts sank further when they saw the man he was addressing.
The captain had fallen to his knees and, with tears rushing down his face, had raised his gun so that it was pointing to his temple.
'Bacteria,' came a shaking mutter from the kneeling man, 'Bacteria...'
'Captain! Come on calm down!' Commander Jones said, crouching slightly so that he felt more comfortable addressing his fallen superior.
'Why, Ben?' The Captain asked, with what seemed like a genuine hope that he would receive an answer showing in his eyes, 'Why should I?
Closing his eyes, the captain prepared to pull the trigger.
Grasse, however, had been the closest to the captain, and was not willing to let a good man fall so desperately. With a sprint and a stride greater than he had ever attempted, the private rushed to his captain and kicked the gun from his hand.
At this, the captain paused, and fell down on his hands, 'WHY?!' he screamed to the dirt below him, through which his fingers were clutching, 'WHERE ARE YOU!!!'
Paul Grasse grabbed his captain, wrapping his arms around him.
'FUCK! FUCK THIS!' the captain exclaimed, smashing the ground with his fists.
Looking up, Grasse saw the devastated faces of his teammates, who were watching their hero fall from grace, with painful tears running from their eyes.
'Captain, let's calm down,' Private Grasse said, hugging the broken man. The captain turned his body and, sobbing, grabbed the man comforting him. Hysterical, he cried, 'We're alone, Private. Humanity, that's fucking it!'
'Shh, Cap'n, catch your breath,' the young doctor spoke, 'You don't know that we're alone. And besides, bacteria means that one day, maybe there'll be someone here, right, Valentine?'
Valentine seemed shocked to be asked but composed himself, nervously wiping the tears from his face, 'Yes, Captain it's most definitely possible.'
This registered with the captain for a moment, as he stopped his crying and what looked like a cruel inspiration spread across his face.
Standing up, the captain began to limp to the landing pod, saying, with aching in his voice, heartbreak he was attempting to hide, 'You're right, there'll be someone here someday. And we're gonna take measures. We're gonna make sure that when they do arrive, they fucking belong to us.'