We do not see the Sun as it is right now, only the light emitted from it. Because the light takes 8 minutes to reach the earth, the sun we see is 8 minutes in the past. The light from the nearest exoplanet is 4.2 years old. So imagine if you warped instantly to that exoplanet and looked at the Earth. You would then see the planet Earth 4.2 years from the past.
If we could take a massive telescope 10,000 light years away and point it back on Earth, what would we see? How would a young Earth look compared to the one we know? Could we travel far enough in space to study the dinosaurs from a distance? If we are able to study past extinction events, maybe we can stop new ones.
My ship whisked around the Earth in low orbit. I was tending to my special microgravity plants and listening to fractal music when I got a call.
“Carmen, I’ve got some news for you. We’ve reviewed all the top-ranking pilots we could find. We still think you are the best candidate for this mission. I know you’d prefer to watch this from Earth, since you engineered this whole project, but think of the opportunity being presented to you. You’ll be discovering a whole new region of space on your own.”
Vincent had his reasons for wanting me off the planet. “So what disqualified all of these pilots? Are they incompetent, or do they think this is a suicide mission?” I asked.
“Why would anyone think that?” He laughed uncomfortably and began sticking his foot into his mouth.
“Answer carefully, Vincent. I know those men personally.”
He sighed. “Yeah, they think it’s a suicide mission. But not just for the obvious reason of warping into a potentially hostile solar system. That damn telescope of yours is impossible to fly. Not even artificial intelligence can figure it out. You are the only one that can steer it comfortably, since you made it.”
“Have you ever tried flying it, Vincent?”
“Yeah, and I was terrified. Why is the weight so unevenly distributed? It’s like flying a jet with one wing. It’s incredibly heavy too.”
“Yeah, it’s that massive telescope lens. There’s also a pretty broad defense system. Hostile solar systems, you know.”
“Listen Carmen, we’re afraid we may lose investors over this uncertainty. I’ve got to get an answer from you soon. The bureaucrats have really got my back against the wall here. What do you say?”
“If I become the pilot, that leaves you to take on the role of lead engineer. You know how I feel about that. You’re still too young and inexperienced. If you agree to let me hire a lead engineer from outside our team, I’ll pilot the telescope. How does that sound?”
“I’m fine with that. So is that a yes? Are you ready to don the grey suit?”
“Yes… I’m ready. Go tell that to our investors. Goodbye.” I hung up.
Our original plan was to transport a telescope to several key locations leading back to the Permian-Triassic Extinction event, which wiped out over 90% of all life on Earth at the time. Unfortunately our sponsors would only pay for 6 images of young Earth, so we had to decide carefully where to send the telescope.
We decided to take six pictures of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event – before, during, and after. The first five would be taken over the course of a year, which allowed no room for error in our calculations. We had to determine exactly when the extinction event occurred – over 66 million years ago – and then find an ideal location to send the telescope.
Then after a year, the telescope would begin a journey across several hundred lightyears to see how the planet recovered, taking its final picture before finally returning home.
David had the kind of British accent many believed had gone extinct. Perhaps he spent his free time watching old movies. He was Vincent’s father. I didn’t hold it against him. It was his job to find a location to send the telescope, and we conversed often over the matter.
In the constellation Virgo, we found a cluster of exoplanets that were in a perfect position for us to watch the fateful collision in Chicluxub, Mexico. The nearby exoplanets would provide a rich amount of resources, namely water, to the crew on board the telescope. Though the telescope would be maintained by fully automated machines, they still required human supervision to avoid catastrophic error.
By sending unmanned drones through warp drive, engineers were able to determine the exoplanets had extremely low levels of cosmic radiation, abundant nutrients, and a relatively high chance for habitability. Two planets lied within the Goldilocks zone, and both showed signs of having liquid water. Farther from the star were five Jupiter-sized gas giants. According to our data, they were essentially frozen oceans.
“I say, these planets might be a bit too habitable for you to approach.” He said half jokingly.
Mankind had never encountered a hostile alien life-form sophisticated enough to become a threat, but it was still a real concern among the space community. Was war with an alien life-form a possibility, or an inevitability? No one knew for certain.
Early explorers of space found a wide variety of alien life, from massive fish in the oceanic planets to fluorescent insects that perform photosynthesis. Some could be very dangerous, but none of them had evolved far enough to form civilizations. They harvested the resources of their worlds, but didn’t know what they are and how to use them.
Since the demand for space colonization had risen, many alien life forms had been killed off entirely to make room for humans. The ethics of this were very controversial – many politicians campaigned on the promise to protect alien wildlife from human expansionism, but few ever followed through. With each nation competing to colonize as many planets as possible, genocide was often the most expedient option to conquering new territory.
In the eyes of the leading nations, whoever controlled the best trade routes in space essentially had control over the universe.
The largest war in history was fought between the United States and Russia over a key group of planets that exist between the Milky Way and Andromeda. The war resulted in a pyrrhic victory for the United States – the Russians abandoned the planets but unleashed several nuclear warheads as they left, rendering the planets unapproachable.
This resulted in two separate trade routes being established between the Milky Way and Andromeda. I would be piloting the telescope through the US controlled solar systems on a month long journey to reach our experimental lab in Andromeda, where the new warp system had just recently been finished. A system in the Milky Way was under construction, but it wasn’t expected to be active for another year at least.
Scientists, engineers and pilots all hoped that with the arrival of intergalactic warp systems, the traditional trade routes would be abandoned along with the impetus to wage war over them. The new war would be fought in the field of technology.
Our mission was set to begin on August 21st, 3037. That left me with four days to wrap up any unfinished business on Earth. I needed to visit my home in France, visit my parents in Japan, then arrive at the launch site in Morocco. Two continents and an island in four days, and I hadn’t even left low Earth orbit yet. Welcome to the future.
Thankfully Japan had an international warp system, and I was on good terms with their government. In Europe however, the only active warp systems were in England, Germany and Russia – all places who either wanted me or had a bounty on my head. My best option would be to land in the English Channel and drift down the Seine River to Paris, where home awaited. I began to redirect the ship’s course.
When I arrived in Morocco four days later, I was surprised to see Vincent preparing to join me in space. Despite David’s objections, Vincent was determined to follow me to the ends of the universe – literally. I finally relented and let him take the position of co-pilot, at the suggestion of our new lead engineer. I knew I wouldn’t be seeing much of Vincent anyway. Most of our month-long journey to Andromeda would be spent in cryogenic sleep.
After going over the mission one last time, the telescope lifted off and broke out of Earth’s atmosphere without problems. Vincent and I took to our cryogenic chambers. Whenever I happened to wake up, I looked out my window and into space. I watched light bending into strange colors by the ship’s low-level warp speed, as we traveled several times faster than light.
By the year 3000 AD, humans had colonized over an estimated 16,000 planets. The caveat was only a thousand or so lied outside the Milky Way. Many of these distant explorers either lived in Andromeda, or on trade stars that lied between the two galaxies. Now with the increasing availability of warp drive, those trade stars were being abandoned as humanity’s desire to conquer the universe was being reignited.
As explorers of the American West once left behind ghost towns, now we were leaving behind ghost planets. With every planet that was inhabited, a new civilization was born. And each time a planet was abandoned, that civilization died. Someone born in a trade solar system often suffered strange ailments and abnormalities, since the standards for atmosphere, gravity, and radiation were less strict than those of planets found in the galaxies.
Trade stars did not enjoy the “galactic pride” of being part of the Milky Way or Andromeda. The Olympics had never been hosted around a trade star. Politicians did not even visit to pander to such a small minority.
No one in my crew knew that I was a “trade star child”. My home planet was abandoned after the war with Russia. When I managed to arrive on Earth, my life’s goal became to prevent any similar catastrophes.
A month passed by quickly, and we were in the Andromeda Galaxy before I knew it. As we prepared to ride the warp system to distant space, I got a call from David. According to him, we needed to halt the mission immediately and find a new exoplanet to land on. He then sent a few very disturbing pictures taken by the exoplanet drones, just before a hostile group of alien life forms found them and destroyed them.
“I can find you another group of exoplanets.” He pleaded. “There’s a night sky full of them. How could I possibly let you enter such a dangerous environment like that?”
“I know people who would pay a great sum of money for the capture of highly advanced, hostile life-forms.” I calmly replied.
He sounded stunned. “Is that what this is all about? Money?”
“Yes David, money. No one really cares about what the Earth looks like 66 million years ago. I shook down everyone I could find, and I can only afford to take six pictures of our ancient past. Can you imagine how frustrating that is to me?” I sighed. “I designed this telescope myself and I don’t even own it. If I captured these life-forms, I could afford to take more pictures of young Earth. Maybe I could even afford to buy my own telescope.”
“What is this really about, girl? Chasing money or chasing your passion?”
“I don’t think it can be.” He was now angry.
“Listen, David. You want to see this mission go through, right?”
“Then delete the pictures you just sent me, and forget you saw anything. If you’re worried, look at the schematics for the defense system I’ve armed the telescope with. It’s under ADMIN_WEAPONS in the database.”
I could hear him typing on the keyboard of a computer terminal. “My God, it’s a Swiss Army knife.” He remained silent as he looked through the schematics.
Finally he spoke. “If you don’t bring my son back, I’m calling the US Military. They’ll put a bounty on your head for deep-space kidnapping, and you’ll be killed by space pirates before you know it.”
“David, you’re a fool. Who do you think paid to send me here? Who else in the universe would pay for the capture of hostile alien life forms?”
After a pause of silence, David became frantic. “You’re a monster. Geneticists can only do so much with dead tissue. Bring my son back before you get him killed.”
“It’s too late for that, David. We’re already heading through the wormhole.”
“No! I never got a chance to clone him!” The signal began breaking up. “Bring my son back! Geneticists can only do so much with dead tissue!” He repeated those words until his voice became white noise.
The signal was lost. The telescope had crossed the outer threshold of the wormhole. I looked carefully at the pictures that David sent me.
My contractor only had one rule. “The deadlier they are, the higher we’ll pay.”
I looked at Vincent, who was still in cryogenic sleep. We would be on the other side of the wormhole soon.
I saved the pictures for reference.
Written: August 2016
Released: August 24th, 2016
Note: I finished this story the day Proxima Centauri b was discovered. 4.2 lightyears really puts things into perspective.