The Earth Explorer Ship Magellan pondered its precious cargo, the 795 robotic planetary probes nestled in the upper two-thirds of its depths, and its other passengers, the two biological life forms comatose in the cryo-sleep tubes.
Magellan had completed the warp-jump from Earth to solar system 2241 in five years, six months, and 22 days. Warp jumps had reduced flight time from centuries to less than decades. Though it had taken humanity over a century to identify the phenomena that made faster than light travel possible, it took less than a day for scientists to accept credit for its “discovery”.
This trip marked Magellan’s fifth exploratory mission with robotic probes and human escorts. The first four trips failed by any empirical measure, but his human passengers always found ways to rethink each experience into important breakthroughs. “We know not to waste any more resources here.” “Just think how much money we saved the exploratory council.” And other justifications.
The ship returned to normal space; Magellan scanned the system and activated its autopilot. Of the 11 planetary bodies, scans revealed that only the fourth planet lay in the “Goldilocks Zone”, ideally suited to the needs of biologicals.
The ship traversed local space for three more months and entered a stable, standard satellite orbit around the fourth planet: 2241-4. Magellan filled the cryo-sleep chambers with warm gasses to awaken the astro-pair from their hibernation. Once awakened, the humans would be “in command” of the mission. Magellan understood the self-serving reasoning. Artificial intelligence, no matter how sophisticated, humans reasoned, could not adapt to unexpected situations the way a person could. Something about leaps of faith and intuition. Magellan suspected that humans just didn’t want to be left out.
What was a humble mechanical servant to do?
Space exploration required faster-than- light technology, but human travelers needed to enter an extended induced coma to make such trips bearable. This was due in part to limits on food supply, but mostly because two humans in a confined space for over a decade would drive each other crazy.
So on this particular trip, the humans had slept almost six years. They would awaken to work for about three weeks. Succeed or fail, they’d sleep another six years during the return trip and awaken on Earth, having aged biologically about six months. They’d have to catch up on over a decade of Earth history, but it beat the alternative.
Magellan checked the status of the probes one last time, confirming condition green and ready to launch. The mission could start immediately, except it had to wait while the humans woke up from cryo-sleep.
What was a humble mechanical servant to do?
No longer occupied with preparations, Magellan observed the humans through the security cameras. Engineer Harold Dregg opened the door and nearly tumbled into the common work room. As he hovered in zero-G, he blinked his eyes and scratched his posterior. He still wore his sleeping t-shirt and boxers.
The human floated toward his workstation computer. He blinked his eyes rapidly, as if trying to coax his vision to focus. From his expression, Magellan deduced that he’d failed.
The door across the room slid open, revealing Harold’s astro-partner, Data Analyst Tracy Long. She floated into the chamber, her pallor the sort of greenish tinge Magellan equated with gastrointestinal distress. The thought of the woman throwing up concerned Magellan. The ship had no efficient vacuum mechanism for such a contingency.
After several milliseconds of a struggle, her movements took on a more normal cadence. Apparently her stomach crisis had passed.
Her long dark hair was tied back in a ponytail. She wore a large sports bra and a pair of sweat pants. Her eyes barely open, Tracy grabbed the back of the chair at her station to stop her forward momentum. Her mouth hung open, and after what looked like an internal struggle, she let out a loud belch.
Harold spoke first. “Glad you’re up, I was wondering who was going to fetch my beer.”
Tracy’s verbal reply made it obvious she would not fetch his beer.
Harold reached into the chiller and produced a pair of chocolate protein shake pouches. “Sorry, I suppose that was a lame attempt at a joke. So you’re not a morning person, either?” He tossed one her direction.
The packet tumbled toward her in slow motion. She grabbed it out of the air and pressed it against her forehead. “I feel hung over.” She closed her eyes.
Harold sucked some of the shake into his mouth, then said, “Give yourself a few minutes.”
Magellan marveled at the feat, even as it considered the overall inherent inefficiency of human design. The mouth, for instance. One single orifice for both eating and communicating, and yet already, Harold had demonstrated a mastery of doing both in quick succession.
Harold sipped some more shake and followed with, “So, no scrambled eggs for you?”
“I am a scrambled egg.”
Harold laughed, one of the abilities Magellan envied about humans. It pondered being able to spontaneously express emotion with such a harmonious sound. It had no equitable action against which to correlate.
She opened her eyes fully and focused on her crewmate, then looked around the sparse room of two chairs and two consoles, then settled back to him. “Give me ten minutes. My guts are still churning.”
“Mine too.” Harold strapped himself into his station. He scratched at his whiskers. He’d grown a thick stubble, but because of the slowed metabolism, still not quite a beard. He continued to slurp down the shake, clearly reaping the benefits of the taste sensation, another trait Magellan could not quite comprehend.
Tracy shook her head as if willing herself awake. “Y’know what, just launch the first batch. You won’t need me for another ten minutes or so anyway. I’ll just sit here wishing I was dead.”
Magellan rejoiced inside. After these millions of microseconds of observing inefficient humanity, it was ready to resume the mission.
Harold looked at his screen, which showed the scanned sphere of planet 2241-4. The model rotated faster than real time, showing composite images of the oceans and continent outlines, but little else.
With that, Harold performed the job he was brought aboard to do—he pushed a button.
A cluster of forest probes launched from the Magellan and propelled themselves toward planet 2241-4. Their mission was to target and explore every sizeable wooded area and transmit as much data back to the ship in as little time as possible.
The probes scanned the various species of birds, whether in flight or perched on tree limbs; they noted their various differences, scanned metabolism and blood composition, and sorted them into dozens of comparative files. Though a complex task, the probes worked quickly. Unless a bird showed a proclivity to nest within human hair or carried a potential transmittable disease, the vast majority of birds amounted to living, breathing outdoor ornaments as far as colonization was concerned. As long as they kept the insect and vermin population down, pollinated flowers, and pecked away at decayed matter, they served their purpose.
The humans, without a doubt, would spend months poring over the data on birds.
One probe dropped straight down and jabbed its pointed snout along the surface, carving the first slash across the planet surface caused by extraterrestrial technology. The probe slowed, stopped, and then drilled deep into the ground as it transmitted gigabytes of good news.
The sensor read oxygen, carbon, minerals, nutrients—everything needed to grow an array of Earth food, or its local equivalents, in abundance. Magellan noted that those same gasses provoked rust and accelerated wear and tear on tools and electronics, but that was a secondary concern for human colonists.
The probe removed its proboscis from the soil and prepared to ascend, but one tiger-like creature struck faster, destroying it with one swipe of a huge paw. The blow reduced the device to electronic junk, but not before the probe captured the creature in one final image, shown in mid-leap, teeth bared.
Nor was it the only robot to discover indigenous life the hard way. Another, intent on cataloging the rich variety of insect and animal life, blundered upon a large serpent, which swallowed it whole.
In fact, none of the machines would return. Each probe would transmit until destroyed or its power cell gave out. The humans were perfectly fine with this arrangement. Magellan had resigned itself to it.
In their report, the probes summarized a plethora of information vital for a future colony craft. They registered an oxygen and nitrogen atmosphere similar to Earth, but only 87% gravity, concluding that humans would thrive on planet 2241-4, even if the probes did not.
Important tasks complete, Magellan checked back with the humans. “We hit the jackpot!” Tracy cried, watching the data scroll across her screen. Then as an aside, “Oh, look. Birds!”
Harold grunted as he dunked one of his re-heated chicken strips in the barbecue sauce cup and bit the strip in half. As if showing off for Magellan’s benefit, Harold spoke around the food in his mouth to communicate with Tracy, for the most part successfully. “Let’s not celebrate too soon. We have a lot more exploring to do.”
Tracy groaned. “Don’t be a kill-joy.” Her eyes lit up as she looked upon screen after screen of data. “We should at least name the planet. Clearly, it deserves something more than a number.”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” Harold licked the sauce from his fingers and looked at the sauce packaging. His eyes focused intently, so Magellan closed in with the camera to look upon the packaging. Duncan Sweet BBQ.
Harold typed “Planet Duncan.”
As the name appeared on her screen, Tracy laughed.
Harold glanced over. “You like it?”
She shook her head. “You’re a goober.”
Magellan’s circuits sputtered over the illogic of what it had just witnessed, but what was a humble mechanical servant to do? Its programming could not reject the name.
Finally, Harold pushed the button, and the mission resumed.
Clusters of mountain probes launched from Magellan and propelled themselves toward—Magellan stuttered for a millisecond—Planet Duncan. Designed to study terrain at altitudes in excess of 4,000 meters, these probes divided up the mountainous regions of the planet and got to work.
Several probes scanned and spiraled around each prominence from top to base, then base to top, in a general weaving pattern. Maximum coverage with maximum efficiency. Probes in the highest altitudes noted among their finds herds of a type of mountain goat. One discovered a cave of some sort at 6,000 meters, dug into the side of a mountain. Two probes ventured into the cavern. Their presence caused a swarm of winged vermin to scatter out of the cave and into the light. One probe discovered the bearlike inhabitant, then discovered that small flying mechanical probes were exactly the sort of thing that annoyed the bearlike inhabitant, and then it was smashed to oblivion.
The second probe transmitted video of the attack and retreated toward the mouth of the cave. It swerved to avoid the swarm of flying vermin, only to explode against the side of the mountain, causing part of the snow bank to collapse in a violent avalanche. Magellan considered the outcome of that particular encounter regrettable, though it doubted the humans could have done better.
Other probes mapped the water migration of streams and lakes. Freshwater readings registered purer than modern Earth normal by several factors—not surprising, given how centuries of pollution and chemical treatments had helped define “modern Earth normal.”
The summary report noted that the unblemished mountains provided the runoff needed for a robust water cycle more than capable of sustaining the varied indigenous life forms, and would also sustain human colonists. The report did not recommend that the humans attempt to colonize in the actual mountains for several decades.
Magellan also included in the report an array of panoramic mountaintop images. Humans loved those.
Tracy stared, apparently transfixed, at the panoramic mountaintop images on her screen.
Harold whispered at her from his station. “Hey, Tracy. Psst!”
Magellan considered if Harold had some way of knowing when it was checking in on them, because Harold was once again eating and speaking at the same time. This time it was a salty snack humans called cheese puffs. The globe model on Harold’s screen had filled up with new data on terrain, wildlife, temperature ranges, plus probable models of weather variations. Magellan had also plotted preliminary landing sites for future colonization.
Apparently, Harold’s attempt to get Tracy’s attention proved unsuccessful, because she continued to look at her screen.
Harold reached into his bag and took out a cheese puff. He balanced the morsel on his thumb and flicked it with his pointer finger.
The salty bit closed the distance and bounced off Tracy’s forehead.
She glared at him. “Really? How old are you?”
Harold smirked. “Just testing you.”
“You’re still a goober,” she said, and returned her gaze to the screen.
Magellan was still pondering if Tracy has passed his impromptu test when Harold pushed the button.
Clusters of geo-probes launched from the Magellan and propelled themselves toward the planet. These probes targeted over hundreds of active volcanic regions. Though shielded against extreme pressure and heat, geo-probes still experienced the shortest “operating life” of the planetary probes. They commonly dropped down the gullets of active volcanoes and reported on the rocks hidden within the planet’s layers several miles deep before succumbing to the fiery blasts.
Others dug through soil layers and into the lithosphere, mapping horizontally for many kilometers before getting crushed against tectonic plate boundaries.
One, the most heavily shielded and pressure-resistant, burrowed straight down deep into the mantle through miles of iron and nickel. It transmitted evidence of the planet’s outer core just as extreme pressure crushed it to powder.
Magellan often heard humans lament about the shortcomings of the geo-probes, even as the robots successfully mapped out regions that humans would never dare venture into, let alone survive.
“Get the flag, Tracy!” Harold called out, his mouth for once unencumbered by food.
Magellan found itself experiencing a sensation that approximated concern. This time, it wasn’t waiting on the humans because of their inefficient responses or their time consuming methods of expression. No. Rather, the humans were willfully neglecting their duties in favor of…playing a virtual simulation game.
Besides being able to monitor the two humans at their stations, Magellan could tap the videogame network connection directly. Tracy and Harold collaborated in some simulation called “capture the flag” to traverse some sort of obstacle course against rudimentary artificial…
Magellan could not bring itself to call the crude strategic algorithms “intelligence.”
Tracy noticed Magellan’s signal first. “Hey, Goober, the red light’s flashing. Game over.”
“No. We’ve almost won. Stay with it.”
Tracy, as if sensing the impropriety of their actions, shut down her screen. “Come on, Harold, time to do our job.”
“No, I almost got it,” Harold insisted.
“You gotta launch your sea probes.”
“Hold on, be right here.”
But the wait had grown intolerable for Magellan, and the robot, though being a humble mechanical servant, did something it never thought it would do.
It overrode the need for human input and launched the final probes itself.
When Harold finished his round, he reached for the button, only to find the probes already launched. After pondering this for many microseconds, his shoulders rose and fell, and he rebooted the videogame to continue playing.
Clusters of aqua-probes launched themselves from the Magellan and descended toward the planet. Designed to chart and travel the ocean currents, the task of these probes seemed akin to uncovering a second world beneath the new world. At first, the probes concentrated on life just below the surface, propelling through millions of square kilometers of ocean. The data they revealed would fill libraries while barely scratching the surface.
In deeper water, one probe ran afoul of a sea predator that camouflaged itself along the sandy floor of a lagoon. But for the most part, each probe swam and scanned the currents until their batteries drained and they sank, one by one, to the ocean floor to let the elements have their way.
Two probes, created to withstand the deep sea, plummeted into the unknown, into a world they would only glimpse before succumbing to the pressures of the environment. One collapsed at 9,000 meters below sea level, its final transmission that of a bulbous creature that had batted the probe with its tail in the machine’s final moments.
The final probe descended an additional 3,000 meters. Its final scans still could not detect an ocean floor.
Magellan knew that, logically, this extra low sea floor should have no relevance on humanity’s decision to colonize. It also surmised that the future colony ship would be delayed several months while Earth politicians debated the significance of this anomaly.
Magellan’s final analysis scrolled across the screen. Planet Duncan Final Rating: Ideal.
Harold and Tracy erupted into a cheer. Recommendation: colonize.
“We did it!” Tracy cooed.
“Because we’re awesome,” added Harold.
Magellan did not entirely agree with the humans’ assessment of their abilities, but what was a humble mechanical servant to do? It had flashed the cryo-sleep readiness light for several milliseconds, but so far, the humans had ignored it.
Tracy floated over to the chiller box. Her hand reached down deep. “I brought something for the occasion.” She produced a wine bottle.
With a squeal from Tracy and a spray of released pressure, the red liquid escaped into the air. Still laughing, Tracy covered the bottle’s opening with her thumb. She raised the bottle, sealing the top with her lips, and gulped several times. She released the bottle and pulled it away. The air pressure displacement resulted in an audible “pop”. Smiling, she pressed her thumb over the lip and offered it to him.
Harold gripped the bottle and took a swig, mimicking her awkward method. They settled into a corner and spoke of a big payday, of tickertape parades, and statues in their honor. As they continued to trade drinks, their expected glories shifted toward the grandiose and their recollections of their accomplishments turned exaggerated and inaccurate.
Magellan settled in for a long night. The ship assessed the common workspace. A couple of fried chicken fingers and several cheese puffs hovered around the room. Fresh splatters of wine stained the wall amid smears of barbecue sauce and chocolate. It didn’t recall when the chocolate stain had occurred. It considered reviewing the visual and audio recordings, but then again, what did it matter? The ship lamented, not for the first time, of the need for a more efficient interior cleansing system.
Magellan waited through what seemed an interminable period of inactivity. It had no probes to check on, no planet surface to map, no course to set, no human bio-functions to monitor, no course to navigate. It could do nothing but contemplate the human’s assessment of their mission’s success.
Overall, Magellan agreed with their conclusion. Upon their return, Harold Dregg and Tracy Long would receive exclusive and extensive credit and accolades for discovering and exploring—again the microsecond pause—Planet Duncan. The probes, if mentioned at all, would be referred to as the tools the humans used to accomplish their task.
After an interminable delay, the humans finished their celebration and retired to their separate quarters to prepare for the voyage home. Magellan suspected that ingesting wine right before cryo-sleep would intensify their uncomfortable waking up period.
Something to look forward to.
As it pumpedexpressed sleeping gas into the two cryo-sleep tubes, Magellan contemplated its empty cargo chamber. Before breaking orbit, Magellan paused several microseconds to remember the 795 pioneers left behind on the planet below. It could not mourn, but it could, in its own way, give proper credit where it was due.
About the Author
R.J. Sullivan’s latest book, Commanding the Red Lotus, is a novel-length collection of three space opera tales in the tradition of Andre Norton and Gene Roddenberry. His previous novels, Haunting Blue, Haunting Obsession, and Virtual Blue, are all paranormal thrillers. R.J.’s short stories have been featured in such collections as Dark Faith Invocations and Vampires Don’t Sparkle. He is especially proud of “Pioneers” and is glad it found a good home at Sci Phi Journal.
R.J. drinks regularly from a Little Mermaid coffee mug and is man enough to admit it. FInd more of his work at www.rjsullivanfiction.com
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