Fiction Page 27
A revisal: based on my very first published story back in May 1996. Enjoy.
THE EMPTY PLANET
Lawrence R. Dagstine
Reggie Davis saw it first: radial lava flows circling a ridge, while large shards of stone deposits were shooting out of a gigantic hole surrounded by a dried-up channel, somewhere on the surface of the planet. The computer was finally right this time. Jackpot! It was the center of everything, but no core…on this hollow planet being researched for over three years now, nicknamed Judah Major.
Yes…three years now, and by three Earth scientists. It was a sight for sore eyes, something new and wonderful to brag about, aboard the space research station, Macedonia. The abundance of power shining down on the spot where the hole was illuminated a slight spectacle; and that spectacle even caused a few power generators to blow.
But it was worth it. Well worth it.
"Amazing Hopper," said Davis, his eyes still glued to the computer. "I have to say, I've never seen anything like it. Come here and have a look."
"Hold your beeswax¾I'm comin', I'm comin'," said Hopper, catching part of his hand in the zipper of his pants as he rushed up the metal stairs. "So what is it?"
"Look at this section of the lava outlet, on the surface." Davis pointed at a strange circular speck on screen, with lava flowing out of it. It definitely wasn't a volcano, but when he magnified the image twenty times it seemed more like a chasm. "It proves much of our little theory for the last 18 months of our trip. Lava which can boil an egg from over a thousand miles away, yet no internal source of heating. A greenhouse effect three times greater than Venus, yet no landmass to absorb some of that pressure from the atmosphere, unless of course you discard the channels. But they don't look solidified either. And no water."
"Your point being?" Hopper was crunching his legs together. He just wanted to get back to the bathroom and finish his morning reading and a little something else.
"My point being that Judah Major is a world with an exterior but no interior." There was excitement in his cheeks as he said this. "Hollow as a foxwood log. This is far better than that little fireworks display on Io; even surpasses the crater bombing on Ganymede."
"You're right," Hopper observed, "but can I go now?" There was a moment of silence, then he felt obligated to stay and add his own scientific expertise. "The rocks that were mined by earlier astronauts are being lashed about, where that hole is. It looks like a long way down, naturally uncharted and unexplored by our predecessors, but anyway, our research finally paid off. Good work, Davis."
Davis smiled. "No problem, that's what I'm here for. Do you think we should wake Krenshaw?"
"No. Let him sleep. He's not as irritable in the afternoons."
"I'm recording the event and location anyhow, so he can review my discovery later." Davis slipped a small purple disk into the drive slot of the computer he was sitting at. "And presto!"
Hopper shook his head. "Poor Krenshaw."
Oh yes, he was the third scientist…. The head honcho. He was dreaming.
The tornado was born full-blown; no ordinary little funnel with a whiplashing tail but a strange storm nearly a mile wide, with two other twisters to the rear, on either side, like outriders. It moved nearly a hundred miles an hour, and winds whirled with it a hundred miles in every direction. The great tunnel arched far forward, and a man in the center of the vortex was lost twenty thousand feet high in the clouds.
With a flick of its tail it flattened five houses and lifted four wagons, stacking them side by side in a marsh near the edge of an old sewage outlet. Picking up a cow, it set her down in a strange pasture, where she went on grazing as though nothing had happened. Then, with a whirling roar heard for thousands of miles, it dipped over the northern part of the marsh, and Krenshaw saw a waterspout as the tornado sucked up the sloughs and all their denizens. Populated with frogs and fish and mallards, the funnel headed for the far end of the marsh.
As the fury of the winds hit him, Krenshaw saw a boat crash down on end in a mudbank. Fish rained around him. Water rained around him. He tried to swim across the funnel, but in seconds he was caught up in the vortex, helplessly lifted higher and higher. Below, the marsh whirled. Lightning slashed and edge winds shunted him closer and closer to the center of the funnel. He couldn't adjust his weight. He dropped like a stone into the eye of the tornado, but a hundred feet from the ground, the winds wrapped around him again.
Would this tornado ride never end?
Higher and higher the tornado lifted, and Krenshaw went with it up to fifteen thousand feet, then thirty thousand feet, where the temperature was practically subzero… Forty thousand feet and the air grew thinner… Then finally the tornado had come so high there was not enough atmosphere to sustain it, and the force was shattered like glass, with winds going off in every direction. Now he felt himself falling (for real this time). He tried using his imagination to push himself back up, but having been so long without sufficient oxygen, he lost consciousness and turned slowly end over end. However, he hadn't stopped breathing, and at a little less than ten thousand feet his lungs were giving oxygen back into his blood. At five thousand feet he opened his eyes. At a thousand feet the wind died down and he landed safely, but with a lurch, his left and right arm bruised. It was almost as if he was some kind of angel descending from the heavens above.
The wild ride had so dissociated him that it was dark before he became more oriented. Or was it dawn? Then he discovered that he was among reeds in a bay of cold, crystal-clear water hemmed in by a rocky shore. Definitely a lake.
He stretched his arms and looked in the distance. There was an old man standing at the edge of the shore, holding a wooden stick in his hand attached to a string; a feeble excuse for a fishing pole. At the tip of Krenshaw's feet was an old sign, which read:
WELCOME TO LINCOLN, NEBRASKA
POPULATION: 14, 283 - 1915
"Good to be home," Krenshaw muttered to himself, "but about 300 years too early." Then he waved his least-injured arm and called out to the old man. "Hey you there. Are you a farmer?" He looked more like a beggar, fishing for his next meal. But, he still took notice of him right away. "I could use some help, maybe some directions."
The beggar or farmer¾or whoever he was¾left his pole resting on a rock beside the lake and came over to see what Krenshaw wanted. "And who might you be?" he asked in a deep Midwestern accent.
"Do you live around here? Assuming this is Lincoln, do you know where the nearest general store is? Do you have a place near here where I can wash up?" Krenshaw had loads of questions to ask him. And the beggar, who was clad in nothing but overalls and bare feet, had plenty of his own.
"Where did you come from?"
Krenshaw pointed up. "There." He could see the beggar was confused. "The wind carried me here¾both my airship and myself." He knew the man wouldn't know what a spacecraft was. "It was those tornadoes. I sort of just fell out of the sky like Mary Poppins or The Wicked Witch of the West." He smiled at him.
The beggar threw him a freakish glance. "You're not from around these parts¾I can tell. You dress funny."
"What are you talking about? I was born just twenty minutes out of Omaha."
"You know, we don't take too well to strangers around here."
"What do you mean?" Now it was Krenshaw who was confused.
"Maybe you should go and find that tornado of yours and go back the way you came." He gave him a dirty look, eyeing his clothes distastefully. "And those things you're wearing¾those gadgets! All from the devil's workshop if you want my opinion."
"Don't be ridiculous, I'm Nebraskan' just as much as you¾"
Before Krenshaw had time to finish, the beggar had stuck a stun-carbine up to his chest and fired.
Krenshaw felt himself falling again, just like those few moments in the funnel of the main tornado.
And then he awoke, sweat pouring off of him.
Hopper was standing beside his bed. Not a sight for sore eyes, but the room was dark. "Another bad dream, huh?" he asked him.
"Yes," Krenshaw said, wiping the perspiration from his face. "Had to do with home like always, but a little before my time." He got up and put on his jumpsuit.
"You should stop sleeping late like this?" It was just a recommendation.
"What else is there to do?" Krenshaw had a point. He checked himself out in the mirror. He was in desperate need of a shave.
"So what did you dream about this time?" asked Hopper. "Anything new?"
"I dreamt I was a bird and I could fly with the wind."
"What kind of bird?"
"A space ostrich," Krenshaw chuckled with humor. "So why are you here?"
"Davis made a discovery, like nothing we've ever seen." Hopper took a seat at the far end of the room.
Krenshaw glanced quickly out the window of his quarters. "What happened to the two left power generators?"
"Davis needed the extra electrical power. I think they blew after he made the discovery¾too much friction from our gravitational position. Don't worry, they can repair themselves in 48 hours."
"How long ago did it blow?" There was a look of concern on Krenshaw's face, but not that bad.
"About 45 minutes ago," said Hopper, attempting a guess. "I was actually on my way to the John when this occurred. I guess we can now call the mission a success. After all, we've finally proved that Judah Major isn't solid."
Krenshaw faced him for a moment in silence. "No evidence of a gas giant?"
Hopper shook his head. "Nope. A lot of radial lava flows though. More like a methane donut with an equilateral greenhouse effect. Davis and I have dubbed any further research "Poltergeist". Catchy name, isn't it?"
"Yeah, can't wait till bonus time," said Krenshaw unenthusiastically.
Poltergeist, just like the name of a supernatural visitant. Perfect for a planet that in some ways resembled something that had already been dead.
Poltergeist was a name agreed upon by Davis and Hopper for a sort of invisible chasm with lava and rocks coming out of it. Funny. Sections of the land where the hole was somehow resembled the portrait of a long-forgotten ghost. The Macedonia's computers had already proved that it had no metallic or gaseous core, but while still maintaining an existence, the plutonian-sized sphere was evidently hollow from top to bottom. There was something odd about the planet. This struck the scientists mentally. Not only did Judah Major stick out like a sore thumb, but also it was fifty-six light years from Earth. Totally unmarked territory.
An empty planet. Very empty. No way of sustaining life, but no reason why someone couldn't at least observe it, or explore it, or even say they owned it. It was a free world, just waiting to be conquered.
Maybe it couldn't be.
The next morning, Krenshaw was up and about early. Not his usual time, but there wasn't anything wrong with change, and he'd gone straight back to bed the day before. It was a new day; it was a fresh start. He sat in the lounge with his usual cup of black coffee balancing on his lap, and viewed the tapes that were recorded the day before. Only one of them broadened his eyes. It was a spur-of-the-moment sort of thing; five seconds to be exact, and that was enough time for him. Not to mention that the footage taken was of excellent quality. "Superior job, Davis," he muttered to himself. "I admire your handiwork."
"I see you're up bright and early," a familiar voice behind him said. Hopper went and poured himself a cup. "Like what you see?"
Krenshaw was startled. "Don't scare me like that!" Who knows how long the scientist had been in the lounge area.
"Sorry, didn't mean to make you jump. This is the whole footage. Amazing, isn't it?"
"Was it a quake?" asked Krenshaw, facing the big monitor again. He was referring to the lava flows and the stone shards shooting thousands of miles upward.
"How if there's no under layer? If anything, it was more like a methane-filled tremor."
Krenshaw started thinking to himself. "You should have woke me up as soon as this happened. This may alter the research now."
"And what, disturb your beauty sleep?" laughed Hopper. "So I let you rest. I know you suffer from that chronic fatigue problem. Besides, what's 24 hours?"
"I have to find a way to break this routine," said Krenshaw, clenching a fist. "I was lucky today. I've had this damn thing eight years now."
"What about the antibiotics they issued you at the base, before we left? They should be helping a bit."
"They're worse! If you ask me, they make me sleep more and work less. And if there's no core to this planet then what's holding it up? It isn't some marionette on a pair of twill strings!" He faced the monitor again. Not only did the lava flows and stone shards confuse him, but there were other things as well.
"What's really the matter?" asked Hopper, leaning forward.
Krenshaw almost dropped his coffee. There were things which reminded him of his dream, the one from the day before. No lava, no big boulders flying about ¾familiar things. Like the tornadoes…. A brazen sky, cloudless and muggy for a good portion of the recording. Then over the first horizon¾must have been the camera's angle¾were the first jagged edges of a storm, until the distant ranges were a cluster of polluted cloud peaks, with sun rays putting an edge of brilliance on the big mysterious hole below. Sharp pains shot through Krenshaw's skull. His memory totally lapsed. He could see mothers herding their children into the hole. Farmers taking their animals and retreating to the hole. Was this all a hallucination? The massed winds, marshaling hot rain and brimstone, moved swiftly to the beat of thunder…strange, interplanetary thunder.
Then he realized he was daydreaming, making Davis's recording out to be something it was not.
Hopper and Davis were planning to go down to the surface for a closer look in and around the chasm. Krenshaw wasn't too fond of this idea. The surface temperature was six hundred degrees above normal. First, they'd have to cool their bodies down with carbonated ice. Then equip two-ply MS-27s', which were also called "cool suits". Their transport would be the standard-issued probe or lander, fully oxygenated. Of course, Krenshaw would stay behind and establish communications.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Krenshaw was holding his rosary beads tightly as he asked Hopper this. Religion came second to science for him.
"It's empty and hollow, remember?" Hopper reassured him. "It's just a hole. A matter of fact, we shouldn't be more than five or six hours, allowing extra time to pick up a few rocks and study samples."
Krenshaw hoped so. But the whole idea was stupid. They were still going no matter what. No way of changing their minds.
LATER THAT DAY
Krenshaw always had something witty or philosophical to say when it came to human error: things such as how every modern technology--architecture, interstellar space travel, interplanetary security, computers--holds within it the capacity to force us two steps back.
In a sense he was right, but today there would be no such philosophies.
"Macedonia to transport module," he said, "do you read me?"
"Loud and clear," Hopper replied from the oxygenated lander probe. Davis was right beside him, all suited up. They were circling the planet. "Our altitude is steady, and temperature is normal. Roger that."
"It's magnificent at this altitude," said Davis affably, like a small boy going to the circus. "This is the first time I've ever experienced such beauty. It sort of puts our own solar system to shame. There was nothing like this on Venus that's for sure. I wasted two years on that mission alone."
"Seems as though recognition has nipped someone in the butt," said Hopper. "You're still young, Davis. Imagine being an astronaut and a research scientist for as long as Krenshaw and myself have."
"Perhaps that's why Krenshaw has adopted that dull persona over the last couple of months." Davis started flicking red and yellow switches above him.
"No, it has something to do with his home planet. And those dreams of his." Hopper cut short for a second. "That's strange, the probe's vibrating awfully in- tense. What's our drop so far?" They were already on what seemed like a one-ticket ride into the depths of the chasm, successful at avoiding the surrounding lava and stone shards shooting upwards every thirty seconds. Thank goodness for that.
"About 13,000," said Davis nervously. "Temperature is still four-fifty." He was about to reach for the communicator, when Hopper grabbed his hand.
Hopper looked at him and shook his head. "Don't tell him, he'll have a fit."
"Can he even contact us at this depth? We're reaching 20,000."
"Probably not, but he can still see us." It seemed as though Hopper was just trying to make young Davis feel better. But then, "Something's wrong here. The relay monitor is showing no traces of liquid or rock. Very, very strange¾but let's not jump the gun. I refuse to abort Poltergeist, not yet." Hopper remained patient for as long as he could, but his cohort next to him was fidgety as a grasshopper.
Suddenly, it seemed as if Davis jumped out of his seat. "Stop the probe!"
"You mean land? Why? What is it, Davis?"
"Over there." Davis pointed to the center of the core. Nothing, just like all along…but being held up by a wall of strange, otherworldly crystal. Extremely powerful crystal. Oddly enough, the crystal formations resembled jellyfish, with jagged edges sharp enough to rip through the underbelly of an elephant.
Could this have been the core, or what its contents were formed of?
Most planets, like the gas giants, had cores composed of hydrogenous and nitrogenous interiors…while most solidified, rocky worlds were total nickel, iron, and copper; planets with ice or cold worlds often meant internally heated oceans for interiors.
"It seems like a cluster of illustrious crystalline formations, fossilized over the ages," commented Hopper, as he checked the scanner for contaminant readings. "The minerals are rare. Definitely not a distant cousin of zinc or quartz. Sulfuric ponds from the lava beds above could have caused it to meld together like that."
"It gives me the creeps," said Davis. "I don't why, it just does. Let's return to the Macedonia."
"I agree, we've come far enough. I'll use the probe's claw to collect a sample or two, then we'll be on our way. Hopefully, this crystalline formation will show us all we need to know about the planet."
Back aboard the Macedonia, Davis and Hopper were hard at work in the lab trying to reveal some hidden answers, some revelation about the empty planet.
Neither of them could come up with a logical explanation, and the time limit and finances for "Poltergeist" was running out, discovery or no discovery. Maybe the solution lied in the history's past, billions of years ago during its creation. The Big Bang Theory, but in this part of the Milky Way. It seemed as though Judah Major would remain a mystery…perhaps forever.
Krenshaw had given up a long time ago; he had the right idea. Once again he was in his favorite mode¾sleep mode. He was in I guess what you would call a dreamy state, and he was in the lab slumped over his seat, right cheek flat on the table. The crystalline sample was just a few feet away, housed in some sort of glass containment unit. It was glowing…glowing blue and yellow and green, unlike ordinary crystals when put under certain lamps. "Wha¾what's that light," he awoke, utterly confused. The flare was so bright he had to actually put safety goggles on. It also looked like the crystalline formation was multiplying itself from within the interior of the containment unit. Or was this just another dream, like the tornadoes and memories of Nebraska?
Krenshaw thought to himself, dream or no dream. "I could use a cutting laser to shrink its size." He scratched his chin in thought for a second. "But that would mean opening the unit and what if it's dangerous?" He had also come up with an idea for absorbing all its energy and heat resources¾and using those resources to hasten the repair of the Macedonia's blown power generators¾but there still wouldn't be enough power, even to hitch up from the crystal samples. "In the long run it still wouldn't be enough. If worse came to worse I'd have to drain the heating system, and I'm not about to do that." So he left the sample alone and went back to the place he knew best. Sleep. Where Hopper and Davis had run off to he had no idea. At least they were back aboard the station, safe and sound.
Yes, Krenshaw was asleep, same cheek smack dab on the table where the containment unit was. Fast asleep from his chronic fatigue problem as always. Only a miracle would wake him, not for 10 or 12 hours anyway.
Davis and Hopper now stood in the doorway to the lab, shaking their heads. "I can't believe it," Davis said with a chuckle, "our head scientist inside the lab."
"Looks like he was more curious than we thought," said Hopper, "just didn't want to show it." He looked over at Davis. "You know, it would be silly to dub any further research or the name of this mission "Poltergeist".
"Why do you say that?"
"Because there is really no more mission, and our research is in a giant glass jar in front of us. I think we should call this new exciting crystal our Poltergeist. It is transparent like a ghost."
"Yes, but how is that possible?" Davis asked him.
"Judah's core isn't a gaseous or metallic one, like most planets¾but a rather translucent compound of the two. Together, they form a glassy, ever-multiplying crystallized sort of mineral, and that's what keeps the planet bonded. The yellow and blue and green hue the crystal gives off under intense light is the result of millions of years of volcanic activity on the surface, and the ever-growing greenhouse effect."
Davis finally understood. "That's why the chasm looks glassy, invisible from a great distance. The only thing it's empty of is life. I hope it remains void. I don't think I ever want to see a human try and colonize it." His face was serious when he said this. "And what about Krenshaw?" They both glimpsed over at the slump of a man snoring away.
"Don't tell him. If he's so curious he'll find out on his own. Besides, I don't feel like hearing any of his `I told you sos'."
In the days to follow, Krenshaw couldn't help but tell his colleagues about this strange dream he had. It was about an ever-multiplying piece of crystal, and it was spawning so fast that the three of them had to evacuate. It seemed to have had to do with the planet below. What? No tornadoes? Hopper and Davis didn't have the heart to tell him, but part of his story was no dream.