They didn’t know we could see them, or at least they didn’t know it a few hundred years ago. Perhaps by now they knew we existed, but of course there was no way of knowing. We wouldn’t know until we got there, wriggled our toes in their soil, tasted their food, and shook their hands. Then we would know each other, and hopefully we could embrace and be friends.
That was my hope, anyways, although I have often been called unrealistically optimistic. Our team had spent many decades researching the planet through tiny scopes with giant lenses, watching the population of the planet as they unsuspectingly lived their lives under our gaze. My story is only part of that research; for fifty-five years my eyeballs have been glued to a screen attached to a scope peering into the darkness for a speck of light.
I have always adored space. This is not an uncommon admiration to posses, but my passion to study it in such detail was not at all ordinary. As a child I rarely slept; I stayed up through the nights to get a better look at the stars. But what fascinated me the most weren’t the stars, but the other planets that circled our sun. The two that shine the brightest are the
pair that sits nestled inside our orbit, Sram and Susev. When I received my first telescope at age nine, they were the first points I focused the viewfinder on. Much to my disappointment, even with the fairly inexpensive telescope my parents had given me, the barren state of the planets was evident. While I had been taught this in school, this first-hand revelation left me devastated.
Maybe I was lonely. I grew up on a tiny island in the southern hemisphere of the planet with oceans surrounding nearly as far as the eye could see. I had friends, but felt restricted. When I was seventeen I built a boat and traveled around the globe. I learned many things, but mostly I learned that I wanted to continue to explore. I dusted off my telescope and began to spend my nights again peering at the sky as my boat drifted on the sea.
Meanwhile, at the capital city near the equator, the foreseeable future of our planet was changing. The Association for Galactic Exploration, AGE, was convening for their first major breakthrough. Adreen Klysmid, self-dubbed “Planet Hunter”, had actually found something. It was the rainy season, and I sat undercover in my boat as watched him bob his head on the wafer-thin screen. He spoke rapidly, and in short bursts that seemed to shoot up from his diaphragm like a haywire rocket, “We did it! We— we found it! Well, I did. I found them— our allies! Our friends! Our fellow inhabitants—of this galaxy!” Adreen stopped to catch his breath and stared at the reported, open-mouthed.
The reporter was unyieldingly calm as she shook his hand, “Congratulations, Mr. Klysmid.” She turned towards the camera and looked me in the eyes, “Well, there it is from the Planet Hunter himself. Please stay tuned as we venture into the lab to get the inside story on the newly found planet, inhabited with life just like our own.” I didn’t move for an hour and a half. And then I called AGE and told them I was on my way.
I arrived at the capital island about the same time that the rest of the planet did. I docked my boat a mile out from shore and attempted to adapt to land-legs. I underestimated my ability to acclimate myself with the ground and found myself falling onto a woman smoking a waterpipe on the dock. “Watch it,” she grumbled, “You’ve got to watch where you’re going when there are this many people on one island,” she blew vapors that formed the map of our planet. Then she looked at me and stuck her hand out, “Noril Delcius.” I introduced myself and though I knew I should have been walking towards AGE instead of staying at the dock, something in the way Noril kept peering at the sky convinced me to stay with her. She didn’t say anything, and I began to talk.
I told her about my twenty years on this planet, about my first telescope, about my boat and how I had traveled to all ninety-three of the islands on the planet. I told her everything I knew about Sram and Sunev and every constellation I could name. I told her about the news report the night before and Adreen Klysmid’s discovery, and then Noril scoffed and broke her silence, “Oh, Adreen. He’s inside handling all this press and he can’t even create a
coherent sentence without going on about ‘his’ discovery. It was really a group effort, and
I’ve been the head of that team for thirty years,” Noril puffed on her pipe and exhaled a constellation. I told her I didn’t know anything about that, but would she tell me about it? Noril didn’t answer and looked at me with her blue-gray eyes, “Say, you’re not looking for a job, are you?”
The job she was offering me was really more like an internship than a job. Actually it was entirely like an internship, complete with no pay and ghastly paper filling (AGE was actually horrifyingly disorganized until I managed to sort out all their records). I did that for a year, a dreadful 290 days, save the wealth of information I was gaining in the process. I learned the history of everything, or at least the history of everything that I cared about.
Noril Delcius founded the Relpek Mission fifty-one years before the discovery of the possibly hospitable planet. While AGE had always been interested in discovery, its focus had remained within the solar system, despite its name. Noril, however, had greater aspirations. Constructing the largest telescope ever created, Noril began her quest for life beyond what we had seen before. She dubbed the light meter “Relpek,” after the mathematician and astronomer Sennahoj Relpek, as Noril was never one to give herself credit for such things.
The telescope was set to observe over 100,000 stars at a set time for a span of three and a half years, registering if the stars flickered. If one did, then it was noted, for a planet may have passed in front of it, causing the light to become dimmer.
The area being observed at the time of my internship was surrounding the star Relpek11. Adreen Klysmid was on scope duty when Relpek11-a was sourced as being a viable candidate for further investigation. After calculating the distance of the planet from the sun, it was found to be a similar distance from the sun as our own planet, in the “hospitable range.” And that’s when Adreen called the reporters.
After my year of internship was completed, I began to receive paychecks. I wasn’t notified by anyone, but I figured that meant I was hired for an actual job this time, and I was delighted. Of course, that didn’t mean that my job requirements changed that much, but I took it as incentive to work on whatever I wanted to anyhow, which was Relpek11-a. At this point, Adreen had taken the opportunity to bask in his new fame and leave the menial work of sorting out the details to the rest of the staff. And so the investigation began. What was the planet like? Was it like our own? Could it really sustain life? What if Relpek11-a was looking at us, wondering the same things?
Relpek’s first law: The first thing we noted was the planet’s orbit. We only need to confirm our recording of orbit since we had already registered its orbit three times. It was 15% larger than our own; a year was 365 days on Relpek11-a. This detail of precision was the first wakeup call for me. This is real; this has potential to change everything. There could be people on that planet who are celebrating another year of life at this moment. But we couldn’t be too hasty. The orbit of Relpek11-a was much less elliptical than our own, which would mean considerable less change in climate than we experience. The planet could be in stalemate, the oceans (if they existed) never rising and falling, crops unable to grow after long since depleting the soil.
Relpek’s second law: Too much speculation; there was another issue. What if the star the planet orbited wasn’t hot enough, or cool enough? We shifted our focus towards the star the planet zoomed around. The sun was larger than ours, brighter by 25%, and hotter, causing the planet to have an equilibrium temperature of −18 °C. The same fears came up again. The planet could be a wasteland, hot and dry and empty.
Relpek’s third law: But what if it were small enough to compensate for such changes? Maybe it was, with a radius 1.4 times smaller than our own. But there was still so much we didn’t know.
We built a new telescope. We zoomed in closer, close enough to make out the small moon orbiting the planet, and to see the two smaller planets orbiting closer to the sun, just like our own solar system. There was water. Not as much as on our own planet, but it was there, covering 70% of the surface. Noril died the day after we found out, and we named the telescope after her. She died with tears of joy in her eyes.
Adreen had long since left AGE, and after working at the head of the Relpek mission for thirty-five years, I decided it was time to suggest something radical. We could continue to build stronger telescopes, to send out signals and try to make contact. But why do that, if we could just go and see the planet for ourselves?
One gets attached to the object they are observing if they do so for any length of time. The computer and Relpek and Noril haven’t told me that they have formed any connection or bond with the tiny planet they tracks, but I’m sure they have as well.
But try as we might, we can never overcome the distance of time in our viewing. Our observations are of ancient history; what we see of the planet is nearly primordial news. We are separated by six hundred light-years.
What else might we be separated by? As species we might hold drastically different value sets, and I wager that no one is prepared for an intergalactic war. I for one am certainly not.
Perhaps my biggest fear might be to arrive to find nothing left. Not that my research would be for nothing, because it would still matter, but for my own sake. What if, after our nearly endless searching, joyous discovery, decades of preparation, and lengthy journey across constellations we land on a planet where only a vestige of civilization remains? We are physically prepared for nearly anything to go wrong, but not mentally prepared for that. We could never be prepared for that.
But that isn’t stopping us. In three days time, we launch for Relpek11-a.