On X2 Prime, or X2603-A115 as it was referred to in the old databases of the Federation, it was always night. A slowly spinning skyful of stars shone tirelessly down on the barren landscape. The atmosphere was thin and dry, posing little obstruction to the cold, relentless starlight raining down from the great galactic bands stretching across the sky. Yet, it was never quite bright enough. The rugged, rocky terrain, mostly flat except for scattered low ridges rising to a few hundred meters, stretched to the horizon under a dim grey half-light, before giving itself up to the waiting darkness. Visibility was limited to about a mile, beyond which only the pale faces of distant dunes and highlands could be made out with difficulty. Even nearby, the starlit ground lacked clarity and detail, cloaked as though in a ghostly grey film. After some acclimatization, you could see better if you focused, and so walk around without great difficulty. However, if you were to shift your gaze, the landscape would dissolve suddenly into a blur, a ghostly haze. One thus got the unsettling feeling that this eerily quiet world deliberately withheld information, giving it out only as it chose in short, scattered bursts, remaining always unyielding and incomplete. X2 Prime was a world of emptiness bathed by the stars, desolate, yet somehow conscious. It was like being inside someone else’s dim, shadowy dream.
Lying on its side on this rough featureless terrain was something that did not belong to this world, a visitor that ought to have left this primeval, silent land long ago. It was a small cylindrical object about the size of a bus, whose pockmarked metal exterior shone in the starlight only slightly brighter than the ground. Through a clutter of double-glass portholes on its body the interior appeared dark. However, if on a sudden whim you were to crawl in through one of those openings, navigate the maze of cooling lines and squirm through a tiny access hatch to which all the wires led, you would reach the control room. Here a jumble of electronic equipment sat in disarray around a dark chamber, emitting feeble sounds and small, faint lights. Their tiny glow barely lit up a small part of the cramped chamber, as it did the tired, ancient face of Lincoln Selvo, poring over the little light, twiddling the machines here and there as the night wore on.
Lincoln was one of the last troopers of the Echo generation to leave Earth in search of habitable planetary systems. The state of his own planet had begun to succumb to complete political disarray half a century earlier, arising out of an escalating scarcity of land and resources, skyrocketing inequality, and consequent violence and upheavals. From this global chaos that spanned war-torn decades rose the Alliance, an improbable, tenuous coalition of the remaining governments, in a last desperate effort to unite all of humanity’s resources to formulate the survival of the species.
Foremost among the decisions reached in the long-drawn political debates at the Alliance parliament was to colonize other planetary systems that could support carbon-based life. Half a decade later, the Federation for Space Exploration was formed with hard-bargained funds funneled in from around the world, in order to develop the necessary technology and prepare troopers for exploratory missions. These soldiers, recruited initially from the Alliance army and air forces, received intensive, specialized training to handle years of solo flight and address all the varieties of situations that might arise in unassisted intergalactic travel. They were conditioned over years to blunt down their need for emotional support, their longing for community, friendship, family and contact with other people. At the end of their long, grueling program, the troopers would emerge almost sub-human, barely fit to blend into society, but perfect machines for the dangerous solo voyages they had been chosen for.
Only a decade into its formation, the Federation launched its first generation of troopers, among much celebration and optimism around the world. Every human being around the planet, across borders, cultures and political affiliation, was united in their desperate prayers for a successful expedition. The troopers were to travel to planetary systems that had been shortlisted by scientists at the Alliance labs. They would land if possible, carry out detailed measurements of the atmospheric and terrestrial conditions, and transmit back their reports. After completing a list of assignments on site, they were to return to earth with samples for a more comprehensive assay. However, time was of the essence, so the compact apparatus packed into each trooper ship was sophisticated enough to sufficiently gauge the fitness of a planet for human survival.
Following the launch, people the world over waited with bated breath for the first results to start pouring in. The nearest of the clusters that ships had been sent to would require only some years for any news to arrive. The situation on Earth, however was growing too politically volatile for the Alliance to wait that long before deciding their next step. To increase their odds, they needed to keep sending more troops every year to new star clusters, until news arrived of a propitious find. Entire floors of scientists and technicians at the central labs stayed busy analyzing light from the distant galaxies to decide which star systems held the most promise for human settlements. After the first generation of troopers had been sent off to the most promising destinations, the Federation turned to the next clusters in the list. This is how it had to happen, to save time, resources, and in the long run, the species. No stones could be left unturned.
Five years into the exploration, a grim cloud had gathered over the Alliance, with no positive results yet reported from the troopers. The global temperature had risen by another degree, half the coastal cities were flooded, and a great portion of the human population had been turned into migrant refugees. It was then, at the time of drawing up the Generation Echo destinations, that the small, fairly unremarkable planet X2603-A115, X2 Prime for short, entered the databases of the Federation. The spectroscopic signature had revealed nitrogen, silicon, some hydrogen and oxygen, and a lot of sulphur. This was hopelessly insufficient information on which to send a human on a potentially hazardous journey. But in the circumstances this sufficed for the Federation heads, who were now growing ever more desperate with every passing month.
Lincoln grew up in a modest household, dazzled by the Federation Space Trooper banners that promised a place of eternal honour and glory among the stars. At the age of 23, he found himself among the fifth fleet of space troopers, strapped into a tiny uncomfortable cockpit, waving goodbye through a misty porthole to his planet, headed for an unknown world which was little more to him than an alphanumeric code in a database.
Lincoln spent close to a decade in cryogenic near-suspension in a small spaceship hurtling at almost half the speed of light along a computer-charted course. The ship sailed through the Oort cloud, past Proxima Centauri and on towards a small system of planets, one of which was X2 Prime.
A month away from the cluster the computer woke him. Now that he was close, he had to re-examine the light spectrum, estimate the surface temperature, and evaluate whether the ground was solid enough to land. After an analysis he found almost nothing that held any new promise. The light signature was not remarkably different from his 10-year old data, the surface was about as warm and solid as the records indicated, only that hydrogen levels seemed to have dipped a bit.
Lincoln couldn’t call the Federation, of course. Any communication from this far would require almost a decade for a round trip, so there was no scope of requesting advice or directions. Weighing all the facts that he had at his disposal, Lincoln decided to land.
What he didn’t know yet is that it had started raining on X2 Prime. Active volcanoes near the equator were the source of the sulphurous gases in the atmosphere, and a combination of the planet’s rotation and tilt brought great clouds of them drifting towards the poles once every eight or nine years, where it would rain toxic sulphur acid for days across the great plains, transforming the surface of the planet into a deadly but beautiful dreamscape. And it was on just such a day, when the great northern stretches were being bathed by torrents of the venomous rain, that Lincoln’s small ship entered the atmosphere.
As the scarred surface of the planet came into view of his porthole, Lincoln realized that it was raining. He knew in all probability what it was that was raining. The exterior of the ship had some resistance against this sulphur acid, but in conjunction with the heat of atmospheric entry, the vital thrusters and sensing apparatus attached to the exterior would not be able to fend against this caustic liquid for long.
It was not yet too late for Lincoln to turn back. He could still power the rockets into a concentrated boost and safely skim off the atmosphere and out of bounds of the planet’s gravity.
Watching grimly the treacherous landscape unfolding below him and starting to feel the uneasy tumult of conflict arising within, Lincoln drew a deep breath and reminded himself calmly of his purpose. He hadn’t come all this way for nothing. He thought of the people who had sent him here, of how the last bit of Earth’s dwindling resources had been pulled from hungry mouths and begging palms to build this elite group of galactic explorers. He held a responsibility. It was through the decisions of people like him that the living might keep alight their existence in the unforgiving universe. He was a trooper. Not everyone could be a trooper.
Lincoln turned on the extra heat shields, switched off the autopilot and maneuvered the nose of his ship towards the surface.
Approximately ten minutes after entry, the primordial silence of X2 Prime was broken by a blunt, shining block of metal that ploughed through the twisting clouds and landed near a huge sulphur lake eight kilometers from the pole.
For days the sulphur ate slowly into the thick outer shields of the ship as the rain kept pouring interminably over the mute, lifeless plains. Lincoln powered down most of the equipment and kept himself busy in repair, maintenance, and sending more data to the Federation. He knew that it was of utmost importance that he stay alive at this time. But for that he had to find water. The ship was stacked with condensed synthetic chemicals which when combined with water could provide tasteless but essential nutrition to one person for essentially a lifetime. But water itself was too heavy as payload, and there was only a small stock onboard. Lincoln had to get out, and for that the rain had to stop.
And after some weeks it did, as it always had on X2 Prime. The lake dried slowly over days as the parched land soaked in the venomous liquid. A few days after the last of the puddles had disappeared, Lincoln finally stepped out of the ship in his protective suit.
He looked around for the first time now at the alien landscape. The rain-scarred highlands around the ship looked silently back at him. The clouds were gone, and starlight bathed again the tortured ground from which sulphur vapour still rose in heady fumes. Contrary to all appearances, however, the planet looked more promising to Lincoln than he had anticipated. The ground was solid and dry, the terrain was mostly flat, and other than the sulphur the atmosphere was devoid of dangerous gases.
Lincoln’s first task, according to his manual, was to examine his ship. On the first day he checked the photo cells that covered every imaginable square inch on the surface of the ship. All were badly damaged by the rain, but would probably survive a trip back home. On the second day he looked at the thrusters. They appeared fine on the whole, except one. A thruster at the bottom that had been under a sulphur puddle looked doubtful, but it was only required for a brief period during re-entry on autopilot, and Lincoln knew enough flying to handle that stretch on manual.
The next day he looked at the portholes and seals on the exterior that could have been damaged during entry. He found one that had been badly cracked from the landing. He ran some tests to gauge how much leakage it allowed. Barely any, but he calculated that at this rate he would lose all cabin pressure in approximately six years. It wasn’t a problem if he stayed on the planet as he only had to use mild pressure inside his suit to breathe, but the journey back would require the functioning of multiple equipment that needed cabin pressure for much longer. There was no repair he could attempt with his limited machinery that could seal the window against the vicious vacuum of space. This problem meant on its face, no matter which way he thought of it, that he wasn’t looking at going back home on his own.
At that moment, deep inside him, much deeper than his tough space trooper shell, an ominous dread began to settle on Lincoln’s heart.
He radioed to earth a short note about the situation, asking for a pick-up ship. It was the instruction. Article 5 of the Operation Handbook, titled Emergency Escort. Lincoln stared at the little writing in the handbook on his screen for a long time. Do not shift base. Leave radio beacon on. Continue assignment. Wait for rescue vehicle. It seemed so innocuous and routine when he read that. Help was coming. There was no issue here.
The next day Lincoln made an exploratory trip to collect samples of dirt and rock, which is all that the planet offered him off its lifeless surface. He returned and updated his spectroscopic data with the sample and sent them to earth. The soil showed signs of water, as had been expected from the initial analysis in the Alliance laboratories. But he needed water sources that were uncontaminated by the rain, so he would have to go farther.
As soon as he could put together some hiking gear from the stores of his ship, Lincoln set out on a longer expedition to look for caverns of sulphur-free water where the rain couldn’t penetrate. With a few days of scouting he found one twenty kilometers from his landing site. There were traces of sulphur in it, but with some basic purifying procedures that he could manage with the equipment in his ship, it was fit to drink.
Having solved this big hurdle, Lincoln felt himself filling with renewed hope and confidence. Not only was his own survival ensured, the planet could now be deemed fit for colonization. Perhaps, at this moment, he was holding the future of his entire species in his hands. He immediately sent a detailed and excited report of his new finding back to the Federation.
Buoyed by his new optimism, Lincoln moved to the next step in the instruction, to look for small silicon-based life forms. This kept him busy for a few months. He analyzed hundreds of soil and water samples from different regions, but found nothing. There was no trace of what could be counted as life by any stretch of definition. Perhaps this was because of the dryness of the soil. Or the acidity or thinness of the atmosphere. There must be some reason why life of any manner could not flourish on this planet. Or maybe he was wrong. Perhaps the conditions were always optimal, only that no life had ever got started by the fortuitous accident like it had happened on earth. Lincoln, with his soldier’s training, was not qualified to know.
There were forty-three instructions in the manual on operations required to be completed after landing. Lincoln was no scientist. These decisions were not his to make. He trusted the scientists who had made the list. But inside him a small voice would sometimes begin to speak of despair. This planet met some of the requirements, but failed in some other aspects that he could see even with his limited knowledge. What would possibly grow in this arid land? How would humans feed off this lifeless ground? Wasn’t the atmosphere too thin to breathe? And what about the sulphur rain? Lincoln would forcibly suppress the questions crowding his mind as he went on to the next instruction in the manual.
The last of his instructions was completed in four years. The time had arrived to go back home, except there was no way to. In these four years Lincoln had trekked so far as the equator of the planet. Everywhere he went had presented him with the same tired sight of dust, rocks and low ridges. The monotony of the terrain was almost deliberate, he would often feel. There was nothing to find, nothing to explore, nothing more to document. Everything had been analyzed, recorded, and sent back.
But the bit of information that he could never send as a trooper was what used to trouble him the most.
Lincoln missed everything. He missed earth, memories of which were slowly fading. He had almost forgotten daylight and sunsets, beaches, and how girls looked. His voice grew hoarse from lack of speaking. It sounded strange when he tried, so he stopped trying. He missed people and music and colours. But curiously, what he missed most about earth, he discovered, was rain.
When he was a kid, Lincoln loved to play a little game in his head whenever it would rain at night. He was a little embarrassed about it, and would run to a corner of the backyard patch where nobody could catch him playing. Here an old light by the garden shed lit up the wind-scattered raindrops against the dark night. Lincoln would stand under the light and look straight up at the raindrops falling from the sky. As the sparkling beads of water flew in towards him and broke over his face, he imagined himself to be at the helm of his planet, a majestic earth ship, sailing through a great dust cloud in space. The drops of water hitting him and the ground all around were a million specks of magical dust hanging motionless in space as the earth sailed silently through them. He was the captain of this ship, the only man on earth who knew the real story behind the rain. Lincoln found an inexplicable comfort in carrying himself away in this imagination, often drenching himself through for hours.
Now that he had been in a real spaceship through clouds of dust in the lonely blackness of space, the one thing Lincoln strangely found himself longing for, more than anything else, was rain. More than people or music or talking or daylight, he wished for the rain of the earth. And trapped for years in a metallic suit pressurized with dank, cold air, he was slowly forgetting what that was like too.
The only company of a man alone on a forgotten planet is quiet despair, and it was this, that in the third month into his fifth year, made Lincoln start sending radio messages to other directions than earth. It had been four years and a month. It would take more than three years before he would receive any Alliance response to his earliest transmissions from the planet. He hoped at least that someone else might be out there. Another trooper, a machine, perhaps a different species. How would it hurt to try?
He would sit for hours in front of blinking lights in his small dark coop, waiting for an answer. When his eyes got tired and his head grew numb from watching the tiny unchanging display, he would go outside and lie on the ground, gazing up at the canopy of stars above him spinning through the unending night, thinking of what his life had become. Sometimes he would read through the dry, voluminous technical manuals of the ship’s equipment to pass the ocean of motionless time. He would move around the ship, poking into its machinery, reading the labels on the control panels and porthole glasses, gazing for long at the names of the places where they had been made. There was no relevance of these words to this soulless, alien world; no trace of the society that had produced these machines was to be found in this dark, desolate land. These little labels and pieces of inert technology were his only thread to what he called home light years away, uncaring, oblivious. Slowly, pressing against his steely resolve, the cold, dimly lit walls of the ship would start closing in on him, and he would have to shut his eyes and scream inside his head to drive the thoughts away. Sometimes, on the bad days when it proved too difficult to keep the voices at bay, he would break the troopers’ protocol and cry inside his visor.
A year later, Lincoln tried turning on the cryogenics in his ship again. He knew he should save it for emergencies. But he wasn’t working on a plan. He was past the time of plans and ideas. He wanted to do it because he couldn’t bear staying awake anymore and listening to the constant buzz of emptiness inside his head as it echoed around his skull.
It didn’t work. Staying in an underpressured environment for years, much of the equipment had become dysfunctional. A lot of the cooling liquid had evaporated. There were no tools to attempt a repair. Vexed and dejected, Lincoln dropped the idea and returned to his cycle of staying alive and sleeping through the endless shadowy nights.
Three more years passed before the sulphur clouds arrived to cover the plains and it started to rain again. By this time Lincoln was aged far beyond his body. He barely moved out of his ship. He would sit in an unmoving stupor for days in his dark control room, staring at the flickering lights, sending radio signals every few hours, once in this direction, then another, sometimes towards earth, in an unthinking mechanical sweep of his fingers. He ate and slept in that position. His muscles had become terribly weak from his fixed posture and he could barely stand himself on his legs now. Any movement he made was after careful planning and deliberation in his head. It was far simpler to just keep on being. He couldn’t hear himself thinking in any particular language any more; it was always a tangle of thoughts that could not be told apart from each other, as if in the middle of a dream. Sometimes he could not tell what state of existence he was in: awake, asleep, or dead. He had lost almost all sense of identity: he didn’t know any longer who exactly he was or what it meant to be him as opposed to someone else, or not at all. The concept of other persons was now a vague notion. The spaceship was disintegrating around him from the sulphur in the atmosphere. With this rain, it had started getting worse.
It was one rainy night in the middle of this suffocating cycle of despair and hopelessness, eight years and two months after his landing, that as Lincoln sat in his tiny control chamber twiddling the displays, a small light started blinking in his machines.
Lincoln watched without the power to think as the light blinked on. This was not noise. This was a gradually revealing pattern, a signal.
Someone, or something, was sending information to the lone inhabitant of X2 Prime after a silence of almost a decade.
Lincoln’s heart was thumping wildly in his ears as the first stretch of the code ended and the chamber was immersed in darkness. As he stared at where the light had been blinking, he could scarcely summon the courage to believe what was now increasingly apparent in the emerging pattern. That this was, in fact, familiar code. Some long-dormant part of his near-comatose mind recalled what had been drilled into memory eons ago: Code zero of the Federation space troopers’ handbook, signaling the start of a message.
Lincoln felt himself waking slowly from a deep coma. Gradually the sound of the rain against the ship’s walls swelled until it was deafening.
With great difficulty, he managed to raise a shaking finger and press a button to start recording the signal. He was still powerless to think, and acted out of mechanical impulse. It was all happening too suddenly for his shocked and dazed mind to process.
The starting code repeated itself ten times, as was the standard. Lincoln was trembling and sweating uncontrollably now. An intense physical pain of tense anticipation started wrapping around his lungs and pushing into his throat. His entire life was arriving unbearably at its climax before his eyes.
Don’t mess this up, somewhere inside his head a little voice said. Lincoln clutched his chest against the rising pain and doggedly kept his eyes on the display.
The content of the message started. First was the broadcast origin. Lincoln read in his mind as the light blinked away before him:
Federation for Space Exploration, Alliance East, Earth.
Then a short break, followed by the intended recipient: Lincoln Selvo, Federation Space Trooper Echo to Proxima Centauri Sector A115. He had these codes engraved into his head.
Lincoln stole a quick glance through a porthole at the grey rain outside and found himself thinking: They are sending a ship. I have to survive for some more years. No, wait, they would have started long ago. It shouldn’t be much longer now.
And then, helplessly, his mind was suffused with images of his planet. A hero’s welcome. A sea of people around the pad where the return vehicle touches down. The flash of a thousand cameras, people trying to push through the security, his face on giant holograms doing rounds around the landing stage. Someone hands him a champagne bottle. So many things must have changed about the planet, and the people.
Lincoln turned back towards the machine where the light had begun to blink again. This was a brief code to indicate that the message would shortly start.
There was another short break before the body of the message began.
Lincoln found he had no need for a machine to translate the code. He could read it straight off the screen. It felt like an eternity to him as the tiny light blinked away in the dark room in its programmed dance, although the message lasted only a few minutes. This was followed by the stopping code, and then darkness.
Lincoln stopped the recording and sat in the dark for a long time. He didn’t know how long it was. It may have been minutes or hours. He found himself hopelessly incapable of processing the entire ramification of the message at one go. Just to give himself something to do, he slowly opened up a screen with the recorded signal and the code interpreter. He checked if he had understood the message correctly. He had. He checked again. There was no question about its meaning whatsoever. The dispatch was short and clear, and there wasn’t any room for interpretation.
Lincoln turned off the screens and sat in the dark chamber as the noise of the rain battering against the sides of the ship slowly filled his head to become an incessant drone.
No matter how many times he checked, Lincoln knew that the message would remain the same. There was no way to change it any more. The glowing letters on the screen spelled out in terse Federation format:
This is a recorded message. All Alliance operations have moved permanently to the new colony. Resources are insufficient to rescue troopers or accommodate returning ones. Thank you for your sacrifice.
That was it. Unanswerable, unmistakable, final.
Lincoln could feel only through his dazed trance that this was not a dream, that he was not imagining this through a confused, half-asleep delusion. But beyond that, he didn’t know what would be an appropriate emotion for him to feel at this point.
He sat in silence for some more time, thinking of Earth. So they had finally found a colony? Had earth been completely abandoned? Why did they leave the machines behind?
Lincoln sat in an uncomprehending daze for what seemed like a long time. Then, through the confused chaos of the delirium inside his head, he began to picture the rain in his backyard garden. There was no way that he could drench himself any more in that magical space dust like he once used to, years ago in a different world. There was to be no waiting any more for that, or for anything else. The message had arrived. There would be no help. This was it. There was nothing left in this story, except a long-drawn anticlimax of waiting in quiet despair inside a cold, unfeeling suit until time runs out. This story had ended.
Lincoln looked out of the porthole again. The stars were hardly visible through the great swirling sulphur cloud above. Grey sheets of the caustic liquid fell vertically through the windless atmosphere, beating mercilessly against the mute ground. Small puddles were already forming from which fumes rose in the air. Magic space dust, the words echoed around his skull.
Slowly, through the pain and the throbbing noise in his head, Lincoln felt an ancient knot release somewhere deep inside, as the tension of years of weighting began to let him go. The climax of his life had passed, and his verdict had been pronounced. There was nothing to hope for any more, nothing to work towards. He was now free.
For the first time, Lincoln did not send a dutiful message of his next operation to earth as he slowly took off his suit with his weakened arms and stepped out of the ship to embrace the magical space dust.