The Messenger (1991)


Sliding into the solar system, its mission was almost at an end. The ship had been designed for speed. It was fusion powered. Ten miniature hydrogen bombs exploded every second, pushing it faster and faster. It had achieved 15% of the speed of light. Unfortunately, it had no way to slow down. It would pass through this target system in less than thirty-six hours.

The target star began to brighten quickly. The light activated a photometric relay and the dormant computers awoke. Out from behind their protective shield, the telescopic lenses scanned 360°. After the initial look, four gas giants were discovered. Their orbits were quickly ascertained and at closest approach to each, a small probe was launched to investigate. The data they received was stored away then shot back to the mother ship for the final transmission.

The planets of the inner system were harder to detect, but as the distance diminished, the telescopes resolved four smaller, rocky spheres from the solar glare. Four more probes were launched and the data was analyzed.

The first encountered an old world. Its surface told tales millions of years old. There were dried river beds and extinct volcanoes. It was too cold for life to exist and its atmosphere too tenuous.

The second found a larger, more mysterious world permanently enshrouded in a wreath of clouds. It was lured in closer and closer until it was crushed by the tremendous pressure and intense heat.

On the other side of the star, the third probe sent back an incomplete picture of a planet baked to a cinder. It had no atmosphere to speak of and its temperature sterilized the surface completely, leaving a dead rock hanging in space. Though the mother ship tried, the probe’s signals were lost in the solar static. Such losses were typical yet it mourned in a sense.

The fourth probe found something of interest, a planet not too cold, not too hot, with a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere. Most important of all, it seemed to be inhabited. The planet was surrounded by artificial satellites. This new finding triggered a component within the mother ship. It radioed, closer my child. The probe fired its engines, small chemical thrusters. The tiny craft was on its way, but it would take time to reach the planet and that was the one thing the main ship didn’t have.

The mission continued. One of the outer probes radioed back that the largest of the gas giants was practically a star itself, giving off more heat than it received. Another sent back pictures of an incredibly huge and complex ring system. A more distant probe told about a moon with an atmosphere and the last detected a ninth planet nearly four billion miles out. The ship passed perihelion and began climbing out of the gravity well. The signals began to grow fainter. The outer probes were the first to go silent and the others began to show resolution losses. Still the main ship waited and at last, the dying probe reached its destination. Large dishes hung over the same area all the time must have been used to draw the world together. Whole city/complexes hung in orbit, but everything seemed deserted. There was no reaction to the probe’s entrance of local space. Then it turned its attention to the planet itself and the explanation was clear. Vast amounts of artificial radioactivity spewed into space. The world has died a nuclear death.

Eventually, the probe’s dismal message became a whisper too faint to understand. The main probe waited for a time then broadcast its final transmission: a system-wide view, then a detailed sketch of each planet. Finally, it relayed the information from the last probe. The laser messenger began its long journey home carrying that had destroyed one race, but could perhaps save another. The folly of one world could save a similar one by drawing its fate. Realizing their mistakes, they could dismember their instruments of destruction and work together for a better future. The on-board computers reasoned this plan of action as the only logical conclusion. If it had emotions, it would’ve been pleased. The sun faded to just another speck behind the main ship and it slept once again.

The message arrived ten years too late. It was ignored by a dead planet sending out its own messages in the form of helium nuclei and high energy radiation. Leaving the system behind, the messenger began its infinite quest through innumerable barren systems, waiting in futility for someone to listen to the sad tale of Earth.

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