Author : Richard D. Deverell
We all knew the story. Every child my age had grown up with it. Though the governmental space agencies had long since faded into obscurity and private companies began the exploration and plunder of the solar system, the governments continued long-range research. NASA, ESA, and JAXA stunned the world when they jointly announced the discovery of a mesoplanet orbiting a star a mere eight light-years away that, through their combined research, they had confirmed to contain liquid water and an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Suddenly, the corporations found themselves racing each other to build a craft and send a team to explore, and claim, the new planet’s resources. Even with the technology the corporations used for their work in the outer solar system, it took fifteen years to develop the star drive capable of accelerating to ninety-eight percent of the speed of light. Development of the integral rams scoop system bankrupted two companies and three more formed an uneasy conglomerate just for the opportunity to stake a claim on the new world.
Volunteers were drawn from every scientific field possible and the United States and China both arranged to have military personnel on board. In the end, fifty people, civilians and military, were selected to take the trip. Though it would only take them eight years to reach their destination, the time dilation effects of near-to-light-speed travel meant that, for every year they traveled, nearly six and-a-half would pass on Earth. By journey’s end, fifty-one and three-quarters years had come and gone on Earth. It would be sixty years before anyone on Earth would even know if the team had successfully arrived since they couldn’t send a message while traveling.
Those countries with citizens among the team sent them off in grand fashion, turning them into national heroes and bestowing medals and honors upon them before they did anything. For years afterward, the cable news would bring family members on to discuss how important the mission was. Soon though, the family members only appeared every five years, and then every ten. People didn’t forget; they just moved on.
Until last year. The first transmission came back and humanity suddenly found itself tuned in to the same programming around the world. The first readings from orbit confirmed the presence of vast inland seas of water and the atmosphere was thirty-five percent oxygen and sixty-two percent helium with other trace gasses filling in the rest. Those gasses indicated the presence of simple life, but there was no evidence of intelligent life or civilizations, either in electromagnetic emissions or even physical structures and roads. After monitoring the planet for weeks and sending out carefully constructed, pre-approved messages of greeting across the EM-band, including light and even an aerial probe to scan the ground closer and emit precisely-timed auditory messages, the team determined that the planet was uninhabited by intelligent life. Many on Earth were disappointed, but the heads of the corporations breathed a secret sigh of relief since they needn’t fear the bad publicity of trying to steal a planet from indigenous sentient life.
The first landing party quickly dispensed with the scenes that fill history texts, all carefully choreographed as well, and then began testing the soil for anything of value back on Earth. After a month, humanity again lost interest. Until we lost contact. The final transmission said only, “We were wrong.” Now, I’m one of the private soldiers assigned to investigate. My eight-year trip will mean fifty for my family. Everyone I know will be gone and I don’t know what I’m facing, but I know I’m not alone.