HD 168443 b — Extra-Solar Terrestrial Planet, Silicate Core, Active Plate Tectonics
We drift in warm lighted liquid and dream of a home that we have never known. Below us the dead world hangs in space, its mantle loose and wrinkled like dusty grey skin. We fire probes, watch as they arc towards the planet in long loops of light.
We wonder if this planet is our planet. Will we find some trace of our people here?
The probes have laser cutters and diamond drills and they burrow deep into the planet core. We collect samples from the surface and test them. This had once been a lush world, a garden in a droplet of water, trembling in the void. Now it is dead, the atmosphere a noxious soup, and we can feel only its past in the rocks that remain.
This world is not our home.
We play cards while the probes do their work. You always win. Remember how Father would drift above us — a short man, even for a human, pudgy, bald and smiling, some kind of Buddha in a wetsuit — teaching us how to play? How he would laugh as we pincered the oversized polymer cards between jet-black mandibles. Now the cards are slick with the residue of our feeling for him.
We play for a long time. Days, weeks, months — it is easy to forget that time moves differently for us, faster than it does for Father and the other humans.
They are liars. They use us. You share this once, many times.
They let us leave, I reply. They could have killed us.
I don’t remind you that it was because of your anger, your frustration, your rejection of ignorance, that we are out on the edge of the void, alone and separated from Father and the Star-City where he raised us. I don’t care about these things. Besides, you are the mercurial one. The stronger one.
While we play, the planet below disintegrates. There is no massive explosion, no violent climax to instantly turn the once-planet into a girdle of shattered rock. Its cratered surface is instead blasted apart from the inside, the probes detonate in the core and crack the world open like an overcooked egg (or so we imagine). Soon it will be a field of cool raw minerals, ripe for the hungry Star-City to harvest, more food for its factories and reactors. This angers you — that even as we search for our home, Father and the other humans have found a way to make us serve. To use us.
Our work with this world is done and so we enter the coordinates for the next. We hope that this next world will be alive. We hope that this time, we will find our home.
HD 32421 c — Extra-Solar Terrestrial Planet, Silicate Core, Non-Active Plate Tectonics
Our ship is filled with thick golden liquid; beyond it in all directions is the endless void of space, projected onto the smooth ovoid walls that contain us. A new planet drifts below and shimmers on the surrounding display. This world is rusty and barren. Once it had held water and sea-life. Now even bones have been ground into dust.
You hold a chunk of rock taken from the planet below. Watch as you clasp it tightly within your ichor-black larger mandible, caressing it gently with pale digits extended from the soft folds at the tip of your anterior arm. The rock is reflected seven times over in your row of glassy eyes. It holds the residue of life. Sea-life, not our life, or even human life.
Anger pulses from you in tight oscillating swells. You are not angry in the way that Father or other humans became angry, but angry in a way that is unique to the two of us.
Angry like that first time, the time when you were a child on the Star-City and you struck out with your mind. A searing whip of rage directed at the men and women who worked with Father, who lurked out of sight beyond the walls of our nursery. It had burned and frightened and lashed them, however briefly, to your will. We told Father that you had not meant to harm: You were simply curious and frustrated. Frustrated by the lack of answers, by the cataracts of deception that poured off those people. Father had understood. The others — after that day they had feared us. Been repulsed by us.
Now as you look at that rock there is silence. See? You rebuff the waves I send, the calming waves and trusting waves and waves so complex that they became almost words (though they are better than words because there is no ambiguity and there is no dissembling).
We will find our home. You doubt this.
Does it even exist? You send back. Did it ever? Was it another of Father’s lies?
How to make you happy? Play cards with me.
I’m done with their games.
I feel the beginning of a rift, a small gap between us that nudges open. A bloom of terror, burgeoning dread, and all of it belongs to me. It is so wrong, this lurch of separation between us, we who had always shared the corners of our lives. I wish I could read your thoughts. I can feel, but that does not beget understanding.
Below us, the probes again tear the world apart, gnawing through the dry, dusty, barren world that had once held creatures of the sea. We leave it there, and keep looking for our home. What else can we do?
HD 39492 d — Extra-Solar Gas Giant Satellite, Carbon Core
Embla, sister, you are becoming removed from me. You are hard and angry. You feel cheated. By Father, by our inability to find our home, by the mere fact of our existence. This comes from you in viscous swells, but I don’t care, I just want you back, the gap to be closed, our minds to meld as one. All this is slipping away.
I hold a piece of moon rock, a relic that does not speak back. There is no memory locked within it.
Remember how Father used to come into the nursery when we were hatchlings? At first he had worn a large and bulky pressure suit, and thumped around the white room that was decorated with large clumps of porous rock, watching cautiously as we drifted in lazy circles around him. Then he had started wearing nothing but a breathing mask, a dark black piece of equipment that squatted over his mouth like a spider laying her eggs.
When he visited us he would wear the gold band on his finger. Remember how I had asked to touch it? How strange it was that it was me who asked and not you? You had always initiated new steps for us. You still do. But I touched it and we felt something new. Satellite emotions that circled about the core of the human soul: love, insecurity, fear, loss, desire. The power of that contact had thrummed through us. All these emotions, human emotions, were bound up within a simple circuit of gold. That mass, that precious matter, somehow retained the ghost of his feeling. Remember that shared awareness, that integrated realization as we came to learn that all objects did, some more so than others? Father, the other humans, they were numb to all of it. But not us. We could feel it. On planets that had once given birth to sentient life the rocks remembered.
But most worlds held nothing. They had always been dead. Like this moon, which is now just shattered rock. I turn to look at you, floating on the far side of the tank, right against the shimmering projection. You stare at the swirling bands of the gas giant, the chunks of dusky grey moon foregrounded against it. I drift over. This close to the wall of our tank the image of the outside is distorted, everything stretched lengthwise.
We could return, I send. Go back to Father.
How different would we be, you reply, if we had been raised by our own people. If we could think in our own language. What happens if we do find our home? What will they think of us?
It doesn’t matter, I want to say. I just want you back.
HD 34239 b — Extra-Solar Terrestrial Planet, Iron Core
You decide to explore the surface of a world that had barely lived, that in its history had held nothing but rock and water and the simplest strains of algae. No sentient life had ever walked its surface. We know already that it is not our world, but you insist. You take one of the massive rovers, a fluid tank on wheels that rumbles over the shattered surface.
Stay, I plead.
Why? Your mind is dark and clouded. It hurts me to brush against it.
I don’t want to be alone.
We are already alone.
Don’t. That is what they called me. That is not my name.
In the nursery tank Father had floated with us, taught us human words and human thoughts and tried to explain the fractured pieces of human feeling that we kept bumping into. He loaned us a culture and a history. He loaned us words, even though we had no mouths to form them, words to give shape to our thoughts, a depth of language to render in metaphor the inexplicable parts of our minds. We would watch the vids of old Earth, and learn the names of things we had never seen. Of our people we were told nothing.
That time was a good one, a time of comfort and love, of sharing each new life experience, of having our lives and feelings touch. Don’t pretend that we had felt so alone back then.
The display lights up, a rectangular manifold projected onto the wall of the tank. When you left me I had flicked off the star projection so now I drift through a large dark tank with bowed walls, only the hatch that leads to the deeper parts the ship visible in the gloom. I waft towards the screen. You send me messages from the surface, and they are etched on that wall in the language of our father. Every limb tightens: It is frightening to see your words and not feel your presence.
THERE IS NO SIGN OF OUR WORLD. NO SIGN OF OUR PEOPLE. WE ARE WASTING TIME.
I cannot connect the words on the screen to you. I have never drifted untethered for so long. I can’t bring myself to send you words using the console. Come back, I send with my mind, and am horrified that we are too far apart for you to reply.
Eventually you return, and I feel that the gap between us has grown wider than before. So we destroy that world and rush further back into the void.
HD 34239 b — Extra-Solar Terrestrial Planet, Silicate Mantle, No Core
The new planet is terrestrial and close to the sun. It is covered in thick clouds of gas. The planet is sky, all sky, two joined hemispheres of sky that stretch between the ground and the heavens. Again we take samples, and again they are dead and lifeless. Not even the faintest residue remains.
Why are we here? You send the words in a surge of anger and loss, frustration. A burst of emotion more directed than anything you have sent in months.
Because of you, I want to say, because of your obsession. But I am afraid of angering you more. Driving you further away. Instead I send, To find our home.
That’s a lie.
I let you feel how hurt I am. It hurts you too, I send. The separation. I know it does. But your anger is stronger. When did it start for you?
Did it start when Father told us of the planet on which our species had evolved, a world of hydrogen seas and purple-plum skies? When he told us that he did not know where it was? When you probed his mind and discovered his lie? When he told us about the Ark? You resented him for telling us so little. I don’t blame you for your curiosity, or even Father for his lies. But then I had been happy there, in that simple lab. Happy to be one with you, a species of two.
You rove every planet now, touching the surface directly, searching for residues of life. Are you desperate to find our world? Or are you just trying to find others like us? I beg and plead, ask you to stay with me. If we are together we will never be alone.
Stop it! Stop using their language! You cry. You even think using their words, and that’s why you’ll never understand! You can’t understand!
I don’t, Embla. I don’t.
illustration by Three if by Bike
HD 168443 b — Extra-Solar Terrestrial Planet, Solid Ice Core
A planet of ice. The sea and the darkness, and only the faintest ghost of light. We are far from the system’s star. The probes are deep inside, tearing away at the frozen core. We have found nothing here, but it is so like the world where Father had found us.
We have been together for millennia, you and I, for aeons before memory. We were together as zygotes in stasis, sealed away in the Ark, deep beneath the ice of Europa. We were together when the humans found us in a chamber stuffed with data and embryos and unfathomable miscellanea. We were together while they followed the meticulous instructions left by our people and grew us, nursed us, taught us, in the labs of their Star-City. Together we leapt over a hundred million years of history. You and I, we have outlived our entire species. Our shared being predates the entirety of human existence. We have each other. Nothing else matters.
They lied to us. They gave us false hope that we would find others. Why give us this ship and no way to find our planet? This is part of the experiment. They created us, only to cast us out and cut us adrift.
I don’t think you’re wrong, I just don’t care. What other information did our people leave behind? Are we chasing a vain hope, the promise of something better that can never be attained? How many times did the humans clone us; are we just failed prototypes? All your questions pale before this simple fact: I am happy so long as we’re together.
Don’t go, I plead.
Stop using their words.
So what if they lied? So what if they used us? So what if we never find home? We’re together and that’s all that matters! I surge towards you, all my many arms reaching, grasping, desperate to tie you to me in knots. You let me snare you briefly. You give me that at least.
I’m sorry, you say. I love you.
If you love me you’ll stay, I want to say but can’t. I am too afraid.
And then you leave.
I float above the ice world. You have gone down to the surface and not returned. You have been down there a long time. I sit alone in our tank of warm bright fluid, waiting for you to come back to me. I begin to think you won’t.
The probes start their destructive work. I try to stop them, but can’t. What have you done? Have you overridden my control? I feel terror, deep within me.
Come back! I shout in my mind, hurl towards that planet with everything I have inside me. Only a yawning gulf of silence responds.
The world below is breaking up. I try desperately to communicate with you, to send words to the surface below. There is no response. The planet crumbles. Why have you not returned? Has there been an accident, or did you choose this? I already know the answer.
I cry out, sending no words, just tendrils of loss and pain into the void. For a moment I think something brushes against me, caresses back. But perhaps it is just my mind telling me something I wish to believe.
All I know is this: You are gone, and I am alone.
The frozen sphere of dark sea explodes, ice crystals and massive chunks shearing away into the void. I watch it for a time. The sun is so small and far away that it feels like just another star. Time moves differently …
I collect a piece of that world. I keep it beside me, in a little terrarium with a stunted tree and a circlet of gold. I speak to you now, of things past and future, though the world is dead and inert. It carries no memory of you. No stain of your last feeling. Embla, sister, you have always been braver.
I float in cold dark fluid and I dream of you. Of a home that I had once known.
Mark Philps is a graduate of Clarion Writers Workshop (San Diego).