Astronauts receive a welcome message from home. Co-winner of Spiritual Fiction Contest.
|The Last Planet
"Hey, Joe, have you seen the latest job spec?" Lee twisted round painfully to watch as Joseph Harmon came forward and eased himself in stages into the engineer's seat.
"Give me a break. I'm still stiff from cryo," said Joe. He wriggled slowly, testing his muscles before allowing his body to settle into the seat. "Okay, let's have a look at it."
"It's a strange one," said Lee. "Well, the job looks routine but they've added a bit that doesn't make much sense." He passed the transcript to Joe.
SETI-9 Sector A9016: Planet Rosco795. Standard Robot Investigation. Arrival 3052-12-06-2318. Report 48 hours. Authorization code 901B. Special instructions: This one is the last.
Joe frowned and read the final sentence again. "What the hell does that mean, 'This one's the last'?"
"I couldn't make it out either," said Lee. "Do they mean it's our last and we can go home afterwards? Or is it the last in the sector? Dunno why they have to be so cryptic."
Joe shook his head. "Can't see it being our last. We're way short of our quota. I'll just have to ask them."
"Great. That means we won't know until we've finished the job. Takes at least four days to get a reply out here."
"Yeah but it can't be helped. Can you go check on the robot while I get a message out?" Joe turned to the keypad and flexed his fingers.
"I could do that if you like," offered Lee.
"No, that's okay. I've gotta get it right first time or they'll misinterpret and it'll be days before we sort it out. Remember the mess they made of Hannibal41. Lost us weeks over that."
Lee laughed at the memory and left to attend to the robot.
Outside the ship, the gray planet came ever closer, Striations of blue coalesced around its equator. His routine maintenance of the robot completed, Lee studied the planet through a viewport. Rosco795, only the second Rosco they had been asked to look at. He thought of the millions of names assigned to these orbiting chunks of rock, of how mythological names had long ago run out and they had been forced to resort to numbers as well as names. If this was the 795th Rosco, the mind could not comprehend how many other planets there must be, hundreds of Omegas, Plutos, Junos, Harveys, thousands of names and hundreds of numbers. It was too much for the mind, numbers without meaning.
And still there was no sign of life, let alone the intelligent life they were looking for. This one, Rosco795, looked possible; that blue color might mean water and the striations must surely be clouds. Yet Lee had seen plenty of planets that seemed even better prospects, only to yield the same bare sterility he had come to accept as the norm. With a sigh, he turned to the hulking figure of the robot and hit the green button on the remote. Indicator lights flashed on the robot’s chest and its head moved to regard Lee.
“Thanks for waking me up, buddy. I was just having a nice dream.”
“Do androids dream of electric sheep?” replied Lee. “No, no, don’t answer that. It’s just a meaningless reference to some ancient sci-fi novel I read a while back.”
“I’m hardly an android,” said the robot. “Okay, I have a head and arms - and too many of those. But you can’t really say these tracks are like legs.”
“Don’t be so literal, Ben. It was just a silly thought.” Lee pointed to the viewports. “And there’s your next job. That blue and grey blob is your home for the next couple of days.”
The robot turned to watch the planet roll by in the black emptiness of space. “Well, I suppose it beats dreaming. But not by much.”
Lee hit the comms button and announced: "Robot's ready when you are, Joe. On my way back to the bridge."
Over the next two days they watched as the ship's computer processed the streams of data from the robot. How diligently the robot worked, sifting, sampling, sniffing, analyzing, always searching for that organic footprint, the first sign that life might be present in some form. Very early on they knew that there was no chance of carbon-based life on Rosco795; the chemical mix was all wrong. But they let the robot continue as it worked through the other possibilities.
When the job was done and the answer the usual blank, they ordered the robot back to the ship and did not hurry through the usual docking and cleansing procedures. No new instructions had come through and they still awaited an explanation of that strange final sentence on the job spec. Joe prepared the usual report and sent it on its way; Rosco795 - life: no evidence.
Normally they would have gone back into stasis at this time, allowing the ship to receive the next co-ordinates and to make the jump without their interference, but they wanted to know what was meant by "the last one". So they passed the long hours in quiet conversation or watching the gray planet roll by the viewports. The lack of new coordinates seemed to make it more likely that they had completed the tour for this sector and they allowed themselves a little hope that they might be going home early.
It was exactly 48 hours after they had completed the Rosco795 job that a message came through. They read it on screen as it appeared, character by character, as though exhausted by its journey through the endless distances of space.
SETI-9 Sector A9016: Re your query. Rosco795 was the last planet. There are no more. If no life found, get into stasis. You're coming home, boys!
Lee turned from the screen to look at Joe. His mouth opened to speak. At that moment the ship filled with blinding white light and the words remained forever unspoken in Lee's mouth. Instead it was Joe who said, "What the...?"
So bright was the light that they had to hold their hands before their eyes as they stumbled against edges and corners on the way to the viewports. They peered between their fingers at the brilliant brightness that now filled the emptiness of space.
"Jesus," breathed Joe.
"You're right," said Lee, his voice filled with excitement and joy. "We've done it, we've finally done it..."
Outside, the man, robed in light and shining as brightly as a thousand suns, beckoned to them.
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. Mt. 24:14 NIV
Word Count: 1,112