Orphan

By Joseph DeRepentigny

Space travel, some say is years of tedium, interrupted by minutes of sheer terror. It is not for those adrenaline-enhanced moments of that humanity ventures into the unknown. It is instead, the desire for immortality by being the first to see something or go somewhere no one has ever been that drives mankind out there. In short, they suffer through the agony of boredom in hopes of becoming a part of history.
As an example, the exploration ship SV-2305 has traveled through the uncharted area of space between Sol and Alpha Proxima for over a year. Their mission is to map out a safe route between the two star systems. Their ultimate goal is to be the first to reach Alpha Proxima and survey the star system and return. This feat would put them in the same class as Columbus, Gagarin, and Armstrong.
Flight Officer Chan Lee sits in the pilot’s seat scanning the instruments before him. The eyes and ears of the ship they neither flicker nor change. As a reassurance, he looks at the star field through the ship’s viewing port. As the instruments indicate, there is nothing but empty blackness out there. Yet a deep instinct in him requires him to see it with his eyes.
The door behind him slides open and his relief Flight Officer Dahlia Winters walks in with a smile. She is a slim brunette at about 5’8” with a boyish figure. “See anything interesting Chan?”
“Yeah, a little green man showed up asking for Earth women.” He replied swiveling around in his chair.
“So what did you do?”
“I gave him exact directions to your cabin.”
“I don’t remember any green men in my cabin.”
“Yeah, he came back disappointed. He said he preferred blonds.” Chan said with a shrug turning back to his workstation nonchalantly.
The whole thing was so absurd that Dahlia burst out laughing. “So you spent the last eight hours coming up with that?”
“Yeah, that and a crossword puzzle.” He replied. “You have to do something to pass the time away or go insane. What are you going to do?”
“I’m still catching up on my ancient literature.” She said proudly holding up a silver tablet about the size of a checkbook.
“Really, what are you reading this time,” Chan asked “another one of those comic book things?”
“No this one is a novel.” She read from the screen. “It is called “Peyton Place.””
“I never heard of it.” Chan said getting up from the station.
“Neither have I but it was supposed to be controversial in its day.” She said taking the seat Chan vacated. “Besides it is long and should last me several shifts.”
“Well good night and good reading.” Chan said with a smile. As he turned to leave, an alarm suddenly sounded from the console. This was so unexpected that both Chan and Dahlia froze for a split second. Throughout the entire mission, the alarm had sounded only twice. Once as part of the launch initialization and the other time due to a sensor malfunction.
Spinning around he asked. “Is it another malfunction?”
Dahlia looked down at the console. Punching in a few commands, she ran the diagnostic. It came back with a clear systems check. “I don’t think so.” Then the initial sensor report came up on her display. “No the system says something big is out there.” Pressing a button on the console, she sent an automated call to the Captain. A second later, a voice asked. “What’s going on?”
“Sir, a large object just came into sensor range.” Dahlia said quickly.
“Do you have a visual?”
They both scanned the view port slowly. Then a curve in the distance caught Chan’s eye. It was a slight darkness against the stars just a shadow that an untrained eye would miss. Nodding he said. “Yes sir I have visual. It is still too far to tell for sure but it looks like a small planet or moon.”
“I’m on my way!”
Smiling Dahlia asked. “You think maybe your little green man came from there?”
Smiling at her, he said. “If so I wonder if he has a sister.”
The Captain Sanchez arrived a few minutes later. Haggard looking he pulled on the last of his uniform as he came through the sliding door. A big man with a mustache he looked more like a conquistador than a space captain.
“What do we have?” He asked moving over to the console.
“I don’t know sir; it is big whatever it is.” Dahlia replied.
Looking at the screen the captain read out the data. ”It is 3978 km in diameter, roughly spherical in shape, moving at about 3200 km per hour.” He smiled. “It is an Orphan.”
“What is an Orphan?” Chan asked.
“In theory it is a planet or moon thrown out of orbit that has made its way into deep space.” Captain Sanchez replied.
“Couldn’t it be a comet?” Chan asked.
“It is moving to slow and shows no sign of a debris field.”
“So what do we do about Annie?” Dahlia asked.
“Annie?” Chan asked.
“What better name for an Orphan?” She said proudly. Dahlia then explained about the character from the 20th century.
Captain Sanchez stood up straight and said. “Enter Annie into the logs. Give yourself credit for naming her. Mister Lee, time for you to shine as a pilot and plot a course to put us in orbit of Annie and begin surveying her. Miss Winters you are in charge of probing Annie. By the end of the week I want us to know more about her than we know about ourselves.”
After a few hundred hours of intense work, Annie was thoroughly mapped and surveyed. During this time, the crew seldom saw each other. Chan was in charge of photographing every square meter of the planet. Dahlia launched probes of various design to sample the planet’s atmosphere and soil. Captain Sanchez tracked the path of the planet to determine where it came from and where it was going. After all the work, the three of them met in the ship’s galley.
“What have you found Mr. Lee?” Captain Sanchez asked.
“Annie is heavily pock marked from numerous meteor strikes.” Chan said looking at a display of the planet’s surface. “Fortunately much of her original surface is protected by a layer of ice up to two kilometer thick in some places. Other than that, Annie is unremarkable in her geography.”
“Thank you,” the Captain said with a smile, “now what have you found Miss Winters.”
Everyone’s eyes turned to Flight Officer Winters. She began her report. “Annie is made up of two layers. The first is a layer of frozen gases and water that was once her atmosphere. This is mostly nitrogen and hydrogen with traces of oxygen as well. Below the frozen layer is a core layer made up of granite and basalt. Below that, I suspect we would find a cooled mantle layer of iron nickel.”
“No signs of life?” The Captain asked hopefully.
“No, Annie is lifeless.” Dahlia replied. “Still I believe that Annie might have had a biosphere at one time.”
“What makes you believe that?” The Captain asked.
“There are traces of carbon everywhere in the frozen layer.” She replied. “It is my theory that if we took a few core samples we may find bacteria. Perhaps even a few flatworms.”
“More than likely it is just the residue from the cataclysm that knocked her out of her orbit.” The Captain replied with a grimace.
“So what did you find Captain?” Chan asked.
“From her path of travel I can tell Annie is not from our solar system.” He replied. “She probably isn’t from Alpha Proxima either. Her present course will take her within a half light year of our solar system in three hundred years. After that, she will move on toward deeper space.”
“Is there anything else?” Chan asked.
“No,” he said. It was then he noticed the expectant looks on their faces. Smiling he said. “Good work everyone. Now set a course for us to return home Mr. Lee.”
“Why home?” Chan asked.
“Policy 31, after a major find we are required to go home and deliver all data for detailed analysis.” The Captain replied.
“What about Alpha Proxima?” Dahlia asked.
“It will have to wait for the next expedition.” He replied.
“So we are leaving without even landing?” Dahlia asked.
“Land?” the Captain asked.
“We’re not letting someone else be the first to walk on our planet.” Dahlia said in a shocked tone. “Besides I want a sample of her ice and soil to bring back to Earth.”
“I wasn’t planning on a landing.” The Captain said in an innocent tone.
“So you were going to let some else get all the glory?” Chan asked in shock.
“Glory?” the Captain asked. “You mean like planting a flag and plaque commemorating the event?”
“Yeah,” Chan said leaning forward in his chair.
“You mean like this.” He said pulling a small flag and plaque from under the table.
“I don’t believe you.” Dahlia said standing up. “Next time I’m picking a ship with sane people on it.”
“You’d never fit in.” Chan said laughing.
The landing was uneventful. The location was relatively level so they did not expect to see much. With a constant night sky, they needed to use the ship’s illumination to see the terrain. Getting off the ship, Captain Sanchez planted a flag in the ice along with a plastic plaque. The three of them saluted wordlessly and looked around.
“Why did you pick this spot Chan?” The Captain asked over his suit’s radio.
“It seemed like a safe enough spot. There aren’t too many craters here.” He replied.
“I’m going to take some samples.” Dahlia announced. “Maybe I’ll find life on this desolate place.”
“Still looking for the little green man?” Chan asked.
“Yeah, I need a date when we get back.” Dahlia said with a smile.
“I told you he prefers blonds.”
“I’ll dye my hair.”
“Will you two behave?” The Captain asked.
Chan and Dahlia apologized to the Captain. With Annie’s gravity being about that of the Earth’s moon, she gathered her samples in no time. The three of them knew that finding even a single bacteria specimen would be highly unlikely. To date nothing organic had shown up on any other planets in Earth’s solar system. Environments were harsh and key ingredients lacking. In all the tales of Martians and the like came to naught. Once done they loaded up onto the ship and took off leaving behind a flag, a plaque and a smattering of footprints and a few holes in the ice.
“I was hoping to make it into the history books.” Dahlia said with a pout.
“We will.” Captain Sanchez replied. “We were the first humans on an Orphan.”
“I’d rather we were the first humans to enter the Alpha Proxima system.” She said with a frown watching Annie fade in the distance. “Now we are just footnotes.”
“But we are still in the books.” Chan chipped in.
“It is not the same.” She lamented. “I should have named the planet after me!”

… … …

Many years later, a group wearing spacesuits is standing nearby looking at the flag and plaque. “This is the place were they landed.” The guide announced.
“It doesn’t look like much.” A young voice said in a scornful tone.
“No but it is the place where extraterrestrial life was found.” The guide replied.
“Big deal” the young voice retorted, “they found toads!”
“It is called the Winter’s Nematode.” The guide corrected. “That was when we realized we’re really aren’t alone in the universe.”