When someone started knocking on my door today I thought I was imagining it. I continued working on my computer simulation of polypoid gene expression dismissing the sounds as just part of the normal rumblings of a spaceship’s innards. Alas, because I detest distractions when I am working, I heard the knocking again. Yes, someone was definitely knocking on my door. I started to wonder why they didn’t just use the intercom then I remembered that I had turned the volume down to almost zero a few days ago just to escape these interruptions.
Days ago? Yes… I suppose it must have been three or four days since I last left my cabin. I had become so engrossed with my botany research I hadn’t bothered to even venture out into the ships mess to eat with the rest of the crew. Why bother anyway? It’s not like we have much in common to talk about. I would be a lot happier if I didn’t have to interact with people at all. My computer and my plants are all the company I need.
I opened my cabin door and found second officer Stott grinning at me mischievously with a large rusty wrench in her hands.
“I was knocking on your door,” she said indicating that she had been using the large metal tool.
I inquired as to why she wanted to speak to me, but she simply said that the captain wanted me on the bridge to ask me for my expertise.
I saved my files and stumbled out of my cabin into the main corridor that stretched from stem to stern of the Gemstar. I felt that even though I wasn’t technically a member of the crew, I should at least co-operate with the captain since he’s my land lord. If you had asked me as a teenager how I expected my life to turn out, renting space on a grey market space freighter was not anywhere near the top of my list.
Once on the bridge I discovered Captain Urgana focussing all his attention on the screens at the operations workstation. He was looking concerned as far as I could tell.
Glancing up to see me he immediately started speaking to me, “Oh good Agnethea, we’re in the Gliese 623 System, above Planet IV. I believe you have dropped off payloads here before?”
I nodded my confirmation. I made my living growing semi-illegal drugs. I say semi-illegal because of the five hundred or so independent planets in the galaxy any particular drug is illegal on half of them and perfectly legal on the others. This means that on half the planets in the known galaxy I would be allowed to live freely, but in poverty because my products are cheap, while on the other planets I am a dangerous outlaw who allegedly makes a fortune due to the ridiculously expensive prices of my whares where it’s illegal.
Planet IV of the Gliese 623 System is where I a few of my highest paying customers live. They pay me to make a delivery twice a year. This connection of mine with the planet below no doubt is the reason why the captain wants to talk to me now.
The captain cleared his throat, “I have a new contract. To pick up a VIP from this system, but my instructions weren’t very clear. I was told to pick him up from a town called Thermia but I can’t find any settlements at all on this planet much less one called Thermia. I was hoping you might know the local geography better?”
“You’re travelling all this way just to pick up a single passenger?”
“The contract was worth twenty million credits so I didn’t care to ask too many questions in case they didn’t think I was up to the task.”
My jaw dropped wide open. Twenty million credits? That’s enough money to buy one’s own spaceship. A nice star hopper with a 80c rated star drive. Who can afford to pay that kind of money for a hitchhiker? The amount of money was so absurdly large that I immediately started to wonder if Captain Urgana had been taken in by a space scoundrel’s prank.
“Captain, there aren’t any settlements at all on this planet. It’s completely uninhabitable at the moment. The atmosphere is highly acidic and the radiation levels far too high. I don’t think your VIP is here.”
“No settlements? But just two months ago when we last passed through this sector you dropped several orbital payloads. If the planet is uninhabited where were the payloads going?”
“The planet has been claimed by the Celestrian Confederacy and they currently have a terraforming effort underway. On the surface are approximately three hundred terraformers; giant vehicles the size of a city building. They’re scrubbing the atmosphere of poisonous chemicals and processing the rock into top soil. As well as creating valleys, rivers, lakes for future settlers. These terraformer vehicles are mostly run by robots but each vehicle has a skeleton crew of dozen or so people to oversee the process.
“I have customers on three of these terraformers and all I do is drop the drugs they want into the orbital dispatch pods and they drop down close enough to the respective vehicle for them to pick up.”
Urgana looked at me thoughtfully, “and there are no domes, no bunkers, no star ports, no refuelling depots, or any permanent settlements of any kind?”
I nodded, “nothing at all like that. Every terraformer is self-sufficient.”
Urgana swore under his breath, “It looks like I am going to lose the four million deposit for this contract.”
I couldn’t believe it, he was serious. Someone was willing to pay him twenty million credits for this job. Four million was just waiting in his account to clear the instant they picked up the VIP and the rest of the money once he was delivered to his handlers.
I must confess, I wanted to help him find his VIP now. Just because if I made myself useful Urgana was more than likely to share some of the spoils with me because that’s what he was like: generous. There was a reason why I chose to live on this ship. The crew really liked their captain because he wasn’t stingy with the spoils.
A botanist like me needed cash badly. As I said, my life wasn’t going to plan and a nice bit of cash could help turn that around.
“What about the other planets in this system? Any others in the goldilocks zone?”
The goldilocks zone was a narrow band of space around each star where the conditions were neither two hot, nor too cold, but just right to support humanoid life. Nearly all destinations in space are to places inside this narrow zone. It’s rare to encounter any other ships outside this range from a star.
The captain shook his head, “No, planet IV is the only one that’s in the zone. Planet III is a giant ocean of molten steel and planet V has an atmosphere of concentrated hydrochloric acid. This planet is the only place that’s remotely habitable. Yet from what you’re telling me even with those terraformers down there it’ll be decades before people can settle there permanently.”
I went to the nearest computer console and started pouring over the star charts for this system.
“What about planet VIII?” I suggested.
The captain and his second officer exchanged glances at each other and laughed. Planet VIII was so far away from the star the surface temperature never climbed above -100° C. However, Urgana obviously felt desperate enough to entertain my suggestion and less than an hour later Stott had piloted the Gemstar into orbit around planet VIII for a closer look. It was indeed a giant pearly white ball of ice sitting in space. All that water, but too cold for anything remotely human to survive.
The captain slumped in his chair feeling defeated by now. Then I noticed something. I pointed to the image of the planet on the main view screen.
“What’s that green dot down there?”
A few moments of frantic activity and the screen was zoomed in on a tiny sliver of green nestled in a mountainous valley on the surface of the planet.
When the thermal map was displayed everyone gasped. In that tiny little valley, and nowhere else on the entire planet, the surface temperature was 25° C.
It would turn out that a geo thermal vent ran unusually close to the surface of the planet at that point and was heating up the entire valley. As our shuttle craft piloted by Stott coasted down into the valley we found it densely wooded with trees and fields of crops growing. I speculated that that name Thermia might refer to a town build on a thermal vent. The light levels must have been high enough for photosynthesis even though there wasn’t enough light to melt the snow elsewhere on the planet. The heat venting from the planet’s molten core provided heat sufficient to melt all the ice inside the valley creating a pocket of paradise in a frozen Hell.
I stepped out of the shuttle and breathe the crisp alpine air and smelt the pleasant fragrance of the trees wafting up from the valley below. This was the kind of planet I would like to retire on. Located outside the goldilocks zone it no one would know it was here. Yet there were people living here. I wonder when they arrived? They all ran away from us as we approached the settlements. I would too. We did look like a bunch of space pirates. They probably just wanted to be left alone.
We travelled down from the shuttle pad high on the crest of the valley. There was a reasonably good quality road snaking down the mountain. It passed through a forest and then that opened up to a clearing with what looked like a medieval village setting anachronistically in deep space.
There we found the VIP, a short peculiar looking man called Eugen. He was the only person there sitting underneath an oak tree waiting for us. He said he wouldn’t tell us anything until he met his patron who was expecting him. Since he just kept repeating himself almost robotically. Urgana ushered him onto our little carrier and we headed straight back to the shuttle pad and back up to the Gemstar. The whole episode took us no more than two hours. Once back aboard the Gemstar immediately set off for the Rendezvous co-ordinates. Although it would take us days to get there at maximum speed.
That was probably my last vivid memory before the universe started its dramatic new spiral into a new era. There I was, at the middle of history and totally naïve to the coming storm.