New Frontier

We landed on GML-973b to look for life. All the sensors were chaotically responding, but after four expeditions onto that bleak, copper-tinted, featureless surface, we hadn’t found a trace.

I can say that those expeditions grew increasingly dreadful. The sensation is hard to describe. It wasn’t fear, really—nothing felt immediately threatening. Nothing felt immediately anything. It was more like what I have often, in dreams, foretasted the afterlife to be: sequestration in a cold dim cell without access to any emotion, and nothing beyond. Dead. Moldering. You might say, a feeling possible only in dream, haunted by a permanent sense of that anemic half-reality.

GML-973b was 10 AU’s from its star, and maybe it was only that. Maybe hope is inversely proportional to distance from energy source.

I know I wasn’t the only one who felt it, nor was I the only one who found myself slipping into dark pools of distraction. When I looked across the vast distance to the other crew members I could see it in their hollow eyes. As though something had engaged us. Our own communication shriveled almost to silence.

We found nothing, and knew we were running out of time, and the Captain proposed another expedition—to drill: we could go down about fifty feet. I say “proposed” because he was only half committed himself, and none of us wanted to contend with even the prospect of venturing back into that suffocating gloom.

But duty prevailed, and I joined a party of four with the equipment and we selected a spot about sixty or seventy yards from the lander. We set up and engaged the drill. The tailings spiraled out like worms and I didn’t look at anyone for corroboration of the sound I heard. I only wanted to believe I was imagining it, collect the sample, and go.

Admittedly our lab capabilities on the lander were limited—but none of the information, if you can call it that, made any sense at all. Beginning about a foot down there was something in that sample we had no way of assessing, let alone comprehending. Nothing that was or had the potential to become even the simplest organic molecule. Instead, all the instruments were—I don’t know how to put it—excited. But they weren’t functioning normally so we had no way to understand it.

I was feeling increasingly desolate and detached. I’m sure this was true of all of us. Our interaction was reduced to only the minimal gestures needed to survive.

When at last we lifted from the surface and I watched GML-973b sinking below us and gradually resolving into the ponderous mercurochrome-colored globe it was, I felt the loneliest feeling I have ever felt in my life.

As we neared rendezvous with the ship, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was there only because I expected it to be, and I knew I would carry that loneliness until the end of my days.

The universe was not the same universe.

And the question no longer would be where, but what, is life?

February 4, 2019

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