A pilot at the end of his career makes one last flight.
|Celine flicked a switch on the cargo bay panel and the hissing sound stopped. She turned around, her neat jet-black hair sticking in place.
“That's the last of them,” she said, revealing a brief smile.
Dave sighed, “I almost wish we weren't going home tomorrow.” The journey would take a year and he would be bored crazy. He scratched his rough unshaven chin.
“I for one will be glad to be on our way,” said Celine. “Although I know what you mean. Few people get so see Neptune up close like this.”
It would be Dave's last voyage on the ship Salacia. He knew he was to be offered a desk job when he returned. It would not be as exciting, but perhaps more suitable for a man of his advanced years. He was barely fit enough to be on this mission and he knew he would be unlikely to pass another medical. It was for the best, he told himself.
For three months they had survey the planet's inner moons for mining potential. It had been a great success. Robots had scooped up most of the rocks from the moons, but Dave didn't resent them too much. His task had been to gather fuel for the journey home, which was trickier work. The crew respected his piloting skills if nothing else.
Every time he had flown over the Neptunian clouds, he had felt as though he were in a dream. It saddened him to be leaving it behind. On impulse, he asked, “Do you think the Captain would mind if I had one last flight over the atmosphere? The scoop is just sitting here and we have more than enough fuel now.”
“It's not part of the schedule,” Celine began, then relented. “But you've earned it. I'll tell her I said it was ok. Just don't fly too far, and keep in radio contact. We leave tomorrow at eleven hundred hours. That's …twenty hours time. Make sure you are back long before then.”
Dave grinned. He had enjoyed his previous flights, but he had been concentrating on following the clouds, trying to maximise the hydrogen capture. This time he would be able to enjoy the view. It would be one last glorious ride over the blue, and no need to worry about the damn schedule.
The ship lay over the dark side of Neptune. Its black shadow filled the sky, blocking out the stars, like a great mouth about to swallow the universe. The planet itself could not be seen, apart from a neon crescent towards the side facing the tiny distant sun.
The scoop was a light craft with swept back wings studded with dozens of propulsion jets that made it highly manouevrable. A tube-shaped nozzle mounted underneath gave it an unusual shape, and it housed two large cylindrical tanks in the back. Its shape and grey paint had led engineers to call it the Elephant, but that was a misleading name that concealed its terrific speed.
It would take him an hour to reach the cloud tops. By the time he arrived, the sun would be almost up and he could watch his last Neptunian sunrise.
Time ticked by. The planet changed hue fractionally with each minute as the dark sphere loomed larger. The cloud layer neared, flying by at a tremendous rate, but not too different from his orbital speed. He oriented his craft to align with it.
At last a blue light glowed softly about him. The sun could not yet be seen over the horizon but he knew where it lay.
He meandered randomly over the dim mists towards the light, dipping in and out as the clouds swept over him. So peaceful and quiet, he sighed. Nobody telling me what to do.
Celine called to check in on him, breaking his thoughts for a moment. “Fine,” he grumbled in reply.
He dived into a deep canyon that opened up before him. To his surprise he could see far below to a dark layer of thick cloud far below. The weather on this world varied more wildly than on Earth, but he hadn't expected to see such a view.
As he peered down into the dim depths, the clouds parted. For a brief time the lower layers were lit up. A black spot caught his eye against the deep blue far below. Driven by curiosity he circled downwards to it. An alarm sounded on his dashboard.
“Careful you don't go too deep,” warned Celine. “You won't get back out.”
“I'll be fine,” seethed Dave. “The real safety limits are always well beyond what they tell you.”
The black dot grew in size. It looked like a perfectly smooth black rock floating below him.
“There's something down there,” he said.
“Launch a probe,” came the reply. She had a good suggestion for once. He thought he would be able to fly down, but a probe would be easier.
His fingers whizzed over the dashboard as he programmed the probe's course. The clouds had closed off the sunlight by the time he finished.
He felt a bump as the probe launched and plummeted downwards. He turned on a monitor so he could watch the view from its camera. It shone out a bright beam in all directions.
As the probe passed by, Dave could see the sphere's smooth surface shining in the lamplight, floating freely. Certainly not natural, he thought. It must be an alien craft! His heart raced.
He did not have much time to examine it. The probe fell into the depths, lost forever. There were no more on board.
“I'm going to fly down to take a look,” he said.
“No!” ordered Celine. “Come back immediately! It's too dangerous. Report it and the next mission can send more probes.”
Dave didn't like the sound of that. He switched her off. If he left the object, then someone else would take all the credit. He was the one who had discovered it, whatever it was.
His craft flew a tight circle around the curious object, angled almost on its side. He wanted to see how close he could get, but he couldn't hover like the object could. It reflected the ship's lamps back at him.
“Hello,” came a thickly accented voice over the radio. It sounded soft and slightly robotic, not like any of the Salacia's crew.
“Hello?” said Dave. “Is that you in the sphere?”
“Yes. We weren't expecting you for a few hundred years.”
“Not you personally, but humans. Your technology is more advanced than we thought, if it can withstand the conditions down here.”
“Oh, yes. How are you communicating with me?”
“Your radio is primitive, and your languages have been easy to learn.”
“Where are you from?” Dave thought it must be a prank. Hadn't the Zheng mining company sent probes to Neptune? But they would't be hovering.
“About eighty light years away. This probe has been waiting and observing for thousands of years.”
“So you sent a probe just to observe humans? Can you fly faster than light?”
“No, that's impossible. We sent out thousands of probes, the first ones were sent hundreds of thousands of years ago. We have found numerous systems with life – your own system is but one of many. We have been observing them closely. As humanity has advanced, we have hidden away so you don't meet us until you are ready, which you seemingly are now.”
“How do you know we are ready?”
“You have reached a level of technology where you can withstand these conditions. That requires advanced molecular engineering, and massive amounts of energy that can only come from a well-ordered civilisation that has mastered its own world. We did not think you had reached that stage. Hmmm. You seem to need to keep moving, as if you were in an aerodynamic craft. That isn't what we would have expected.”
Dave didn't like the direction the conversation was heading. He didn't like the suggestion that his craft was a primitive one. How did that probe stay up anyway?
“I just like to fly like this,” he said, then decided to change the subject. “So how are we communicating, if you're so far away?”
“Have you heard of quantum entanglement?”
“Yes,” Dave said, “Two particles exchange information instantly at a distance.”
“Correct, but if you understood the physics, you would realise that there is actually no distance between them at all.”
“It's not really my subject. What kind of creatures are you? Is there one of you inside the sphere?”
“That would not be possible. We are bipedal, warm-blooded, oxygen-breathers, not too different from you. Are you an engineer?”
“No, a pilot. What do you mean, you're not too different? You must be more advanced than us.”
“You humans are no different biologically from how you were in the Stone Age. It is the same with us. We have not evolved from our ancestors, but our technology and society have progressed to a more advanced level, as you said.”
“So what is life like on...what is your planet called?”
“You may call us the Ralvar, that is our equivalent word to human, and our planet we call Tavu. Life there is good. We live free of want. People do as they wish.”
“What do you mean? Don't you have to work?”
“Only if they want to. Since long ago we have ordered our society to cater for everybody's needs, without needing large sections of the population to spend their days in dreary work that can be done by machines.”
“Sound too good to be true. So what do you do all day?” He thought of his own upcoming long voyage home.
“Do you lack imagination? There are a thousand things you could do if you wish.”
“Could I come and visit some day?”
“No. You would die on the journey, before you had travelled a fraction of the distance. Your questions are very primitive, not what I would have expected from a civilisation who were ready.”
“Just tell me, have you spread out to many other worlds?”
“No. Why would we? It would take millenia for our ships to reach another world. It's more trouble than it's worth.
The voice continued. “Think about it. Nobody would want to live on a barren world incapable of supporting life. And all the worlds that can support life already have their own life forms. Why would we want to interfere with their natural development?”
“So you just send out your probes and talk to other species you will never meet?”
“It just sounds a bit...well, boring.”
“That is the way of intelligent life forms who cross paths. Most species we have met share our view. We never leave our own systems because the distances are so vast. Only robot probes can manage to travel so far.”
At that moment, a gust of wind blew thick grey clouds over Dave's front window. Dave could feel his engines beginning to stall. He cursed as he tried to revive them.
“Is everything ok?” said the voice. “You are falling.”
“It's just these clouds. The engine can't handle them.”
“You fool!” the voice said. “Why would you fly here if your vehicle can't withstand these forces? It was a mistake for me to speak to you. You are not ready.” It spoke no more.
Dave's ship began to spin out of control as it fell deeper into the planet's atmosphere. It occurred to him that the clear weather had been but a brief break in the constant storms that scudded across the planet. He reopened the channel to Celine.
“Dave?” she gasped. “Where have you been?”
“You won't believe what I just saw,” he said, and his voice became faint to his own ears.