It was inexplicable. The planet they had been approaching for so many months, and whose dark contours had been growing so slowly against the brilliant stars, was bursting with light.
Frank stared at the screen, scratched his head, and zoomed in on the image to the limits of its resolution.
‘I still can’t make out what’s going on here,’ he said. ‘Are you picking anything up on radio?’
‘Nothing. This world doesn’t transmit. All I’m getting is the usual inter-stellar background.’
‘What about other frequencies, George?’
‘Not even thermal?’
‘Not even thermal. No vulcanism. No explosions. No fires.’
‘Well,’ said Frank, ‘We’ll just have to wait till we get there. Another week and we’ll know.’
Exo-planets had already been explored for twelve years. Refinements in radio and optical telescopy had brought a rash of discoveries; star after star revealed itself as a complex system of orbiting planets and cosmic debris, and many were now within range of the new beamed propulsion vehicles launched from a growing network of space stations around Earth and Mars. Access to these had been made blessedly easy through the rapid development of graphene elevators - so familiar by now that the Tsiolkovsky Lifts were known affectionately to Press and public as ‘Beanstalks’. Frank Bloxham and George Gold were the latest NASA graduates to get their Starship Commission, head out with a small crew to the Red Planet, and join the search for extra-terrestrial life.
‘That light is so bright! I can hardly see the surface. George, we may have to go down on auto-pilot. Are you in touch with Houston?’
‘Intermittently. Reception comes and goes. Sometimes I can hear Mary but then she can’t hear me. ... Houston? This is Explorer Taurus 75. Are you receiving me? Over.’
‘Taurus 75, this is Houston. Can just about hear you. What is your status? Over.’
‘Houston, Taurus 75 reporting status: attempting descent now. Vision compromised; too much light emission from surface. Switching to autopilot now. Request guidance if available. Over.’
‘Taurus 75, this is Houston. Cannot monitor your descent; reception poor. Continue on autopilot and report landing. Good luck, all of you! Over and out.’
Everything in the Taurus vehicle was secure; Frank, George, Ken Mayr and Ravi Dutta strapped into their flight seats in the G-suits, stomachs empty, braced for the battering, searing atmosphere. The crazy shapes on the monitors might be the last thing they would ever see. Each privately surrendered to whatever fate might now deal them, and thought of the people left so far behind on the point of being bereaved - or cheering a hero.
* * *
When it came to what should have been the crunch, they hardly knew they had landed. How long had the descent taken? The self-imposed silence had almost been dream-like. It was Frank who first spoke.
‘Big Bird has landed, gentlemen! Are you all okay?’
‘Okay but feeling a bit weird,’ Ken answered. Ravi and George nodded agreement as they freed themselves from the flight restraints and stretched carefully.
‘Right. Not rushing this. We must take twenty-four hours to adjust, get some rest, eat, rehydrate and check all the systems. But first we need to get that comms desk lit up and tell Houston we’re safely down.’
The best part of an hour later George gave up his efforts to resume radio contact. The transmitter would flicker into life momentarily and then die. He longed to hear Mary’s voice, sweet and warm through the interstellar noise. Cut off from her his heart felt cold. Her face in his mind was all he had left of home. He buried his pain in the routines that now preoccupied the weary crew.
* * *
The four men slept till the sound of birdsong started a new day. Ravi cooked up the biggest breakfast they had had for weeks. Apart from the comms unit, all the vehicle’s systems still checked out; should danger threaten, they were good for an emergency take-off. The video screen that dominated the flight deck showed the men little of their new environment; the light everywhere was unlike any sunlight or starlight they had ever seen. It was so pervasive, so non-directional that it seemed almost material. Within the light there were forms - maybe rocks, maybe trees. There were movements; wind currents? Creatures? The outside temperature registered a mere 19º Celsius. No heat sources. No apparent threats. The crew suited up for their EVA.
Very, very cautiously Frank opened the hatch.
And walked into the light.
‘Very strange out here, but no reason to believe it’s unsafe. Come out, George.’
‘Ken and Ravi are right behind me.’
Silver-suited amid the silvery light the four men could hardly see each other. Ravi called to Frank, ‘We could easily get lost in this. We need to check intercoms away from the ship.’
Warily they stepped twelve paces over the unfamiliar soft ground and re-tested their wireless transmission. There was no interference. They were cut off from Mission Control, but, thank heaven, not from each other.
‘OK. Attach your Theseus lines to the hull clips, and we’ll move outward.’
Safely connected to Big Bird by fine, strong threads of graphene they tested the ground at each footstep, listening intently through the suit mics for any sound in this dreamlike environment.
‘I can hear something ... surely not voices?’ George turned to his friends. They could see the surprise, and the beginning of fear, in his eyes.
All four stopped. There were movements in the light; were they figures? Ravi stepped closer to a tall, still shadow amid the brilliance and reached out to touch it.
‘I am sure this is plant life,’ he said,’ I think we are amid trees ... of a kind.’ The dark eyes of the exobiologist shone with excitement. ‘Do you think this light is some form of bioluminescence?’
The moving figures were coalescing into a blurred crowd that remained ahead of them. Fascinated, the men followed, every nerve tuned to shifts in the light, the sense of voices that sometimes became bells, the muted sounds of their own footfall. The light was becoming brighter, more intense. The soft ground was now hard and smooth and around them were not only the shadowy trees but the indistinct geometry of buildings.
‘What kind of civilisation is this?’ whispered Ken to Ravi at his side. ‘Why has nobody noticed us? Where are we all going?’
The level ground dipped; they were now walking downhill, each man beginning to tremble as the voices and bells resolved into waves of an indescribable music, and he saw the forms ahead disappearing into a blaze, a cauldron of brilliance. They were about to be swallowed up into - what?
‘We should turn back,’ said George. ‘We don’t know if the lines will last. Can we check what’s left on the spools?’ He looked round at the spool pack on his hip - and stared at his friends in shock.
‘It’s gone! They’re all gone! The graphene has disintegrated! It was supposed to be indestructible! How on earth has this happened? We are utterly lost!’
‘We’re not on Earth,’ said Frank, trying to steady his voice. ‘ This is what we signed up for. These are the risks we take. The only thing we can do now is keep going, and find out what is happening at the source of this extraordinary radiance. If the beings of this strange world believe it is safe, then there may be nothing to fear and everything to gain.’
The four travellers from an alien world walked resolutely into the blinding light. People they could hardly see moved aside as they drew closer to its heart. Around and above them were other lights that shimmered and sang. Before them at last they could see ... a doorway ... and within, a sublime glory. Each man sank involuntarily to his knees at the silver feet of a slender being who held a child.
Now they knew. Frank knew. George knew. Ken knew. Ravi knew. They had arrived at the birth of a world’s redemption, a moment which - just as on Earth millennia before - would inexorably resolve in tragedy and salvation. They had nothing to give but themselves. They were destined to stay, and learn, and try to survive in an environment that might be totally hostile.
‘Help us,’ whispered Ravi. ’And we shall help you. There is nothing else we can do.’
There were sounds that none of them could understand, but a feeling of immense joy overwhelmed the men. They opened their visors, smiling as a soft silver hand touched each cheek, exploring the strangeness of a tear.
This was the last moment they remembered before walking through the doors at Mission Control into the astonished embrace of Mary and the cheering Houston team. How they had come home was never understood; some said they had never been away at all; but a small silver mark remained on each man’s face for the rest of his life - a life spent in endless, intimate conversations with strangers.