Posted June 23, 2010

The Binary Planet

A Science Fiction Adventure by Altimexis

Earth and Moon from Mars
The binary planetary system of Earth and its moon as seen from Mars

Part 2 - The Anomaly

We were still too far away to get a detailed visual of the planet but we were now close enough to get a more extensive analysis of its makeup. It was as I was conducting an electromagnetic survey that I noticed an unusual pattern of radio waves - an anomaly. Until then, it had been difficult to differentiate radio emissions emanating from the planet from the background radiation of space, particularly when its star generated significant amounts of electromagnetic radiation. Now I could definitely tell that there were significant quantities of radio waves coming from Arkenza 3a itself, and that there were patterns that were not random.

“Sankar, I think you’d better look at this,” I said once I’d compiled a full analysis. There was no doubt about it - a spectral analysis demonstrated unique patterns associated with narrow frequency bands. In other words, someone or something was making use of the radio spectrum to transmit large amounts of data.

Peering over my shoulder, Sankar said, “Fuck! No doubt about it. There must be intelligent life of some sort on Arkenza 3a… either that, or someone was there and left a hell of a lot of technology behind.” I’d never heard Sankar swear like that before - at least not in front of me.

“Judging from the shear volume of data,” I added, “I’d say its an active civilization… not the remnants of a past one.”

Sighing, Sankar said, “I’m afraid I tend to agree.” Hesitating for only a moment, he said, “Why don’t you see if you can isolate a pattern in the data? Maybe we can decrypt a language, or even images.”

Smiling at Sankar for giving me so much responsibility, I replied, “Will do, Sank. It’ll be my honor to complete this task.”

It took days of analysis using our ship’s computers, but I was ultimately able to separate the radio communications into a series of different types of signal - some of them carrying what sounded like several spoken languages, others carrying what sounded like music, but it was unlike any music I’d ever heard, yet others carrying moving images, and the vast majority carrying pure data. Developing a series of digital filters, I eventually made it possible to listen to or watch any one of the individual channels of data. Some of the channels were obviously intended for two-way communications, while others appeared to be solely for entertainment purposes.

“They sure are funny-looking creatures,” I commented as Sankar watched one of the video channels with me.

“What amazes me is how similar they are to us much more than how they are different,” he replied. “It almost looks like there are two species, however,” he added. “They all have the same basic features, but half of them are dressed completely differently, are slightly smaller than the others, and seem to wear facial paint of some sort. That stuff on top of their heads is sculpted differently, too… it’s longer and fancier than it is on most of the others. I don’t think they’re a different species, but I wonder why their outward appearance is so different. They speak with a higher pitch, too. Do they choose to be that way, or is there some real, physical difference between one half of the population and the other?”

“Well, since we have a lot of time yet before we get there, perhaps in the meantime we can figure it all out,” I suggested.

“Oh, we can’t go there now,” Sankar countered. “There are so many reasons they must never know we exist. For one thing, they might be hostile, or they might misunderstand our intentions. It could be very dangerous for us to go there. For another thing, we don’t want to contaminate their natural development with our own technology and that of the Cereneans. Most importantly, however, we don’t want to take a chance on leading the Cereneans to them. Doing that would be a disaster for everyone concerned.”

“So what are we going to do?” I asked.

“We need to find another place where we can live for a while, out of view of the life on Arkenza 3a. Once we find such a place, we can work on mining minerals and fabricating new components with which to repair this ship, and then we can look for a better home… one that can sustain us but that isn’t inhabited by intelligent life.”

“Where are we going to look for such a place?” I asked. “Will we need to set course for another star?”

Shaking his head, he replied, “It’s too late for that. We’re already in the deceleration phase and changing course would require us to accelerate in a completely new direction. Besides which, our life support systems could fail at any time. We can’t take a chance on extending our journey any more than we have already.”

“Then where will we go?” I asked again.

“Arkenza 3b is a possibility, but life there would be very difficult. There’s no atmosphere, gravity is a quarter of what it is on Loran, the planet rotates only once every 28 days, making for extremes of day and night, and the mineral resources are very limited, which would make it difficult to ever get off that world. If we set up camp on the far side… the side facing away from Arkenza 3a, we could probably avoid detection for some time, but I think the risk of eventual discovery is too great.”

Pulling up data on our computers, he continued. “Arkenza 1 is similar to Arkenza 3b but, being much closer to their sun, the temperatures would be hot enough to melt metal. It would be a challenge to survive there.

“Arkenza 2 has a very thick, toxic atmosphere and a runaway greenhouse effect. On one hand, we could certainly remain hidden there for a long time, but just as we’d be hidden, we couldn’t communicate with the resistance back home. And if our environmental systems failed, we’d die a very quick, painful death.

“Arkenza 4 is promising. Gravity is 57% of that on Loran, which although challenging, would be survivable. The atmosphere is only about three percent that of Loran, however, and it’s mostly carbon dioxide, which means there might as well not be an atmosphere. On the other hand, we can make use of that atmosphere, concentrating it and using it to generate oxygen and food in our hydroponics bay. There’s also enough water in the atmosphere and below the surface to sustain us indefinitely. Temperatures, although very cold, are survivable there as well, so it won’t take a lot of energy to keep warm. Of course there’s no guarantee the inhabitants of Arkenza 3a won’t be able to find us there, so we’ll have to live underground to escape detection.

“Beyond that is an asteroid belt, and then four proto-stars… gas giants that are too small to have undergone nuclear ignition. The first two have planetary systems of their own that might be worth looking at. Unfortunately, without any source of light besides Arkenza, they’re mostly frozen wastelands of little use to us. I do see that some are geologically active, so they have internal sources of heat, but none of them has a viable atmosphere.

“Taking all of this into account, I’d say it looks like Arkenza 4 is our best bet,” he stated in conclusion.

That was five Loran years ago - five very difficult years. During the time it took us to finish our deceleration from near-light velocity and to reach our destination of Arkenza 4. We spent nearly all of our time learning everything we could about life on Arkenza 3a. After all, if we were going to be neighbors, we needed to understand them as best we could.

It took us some time, but we eventually deciphered and taught ourselves the dominant language, something called English. Perhaps the biggest surprise about the people of Earth, as they called their planet, was that they exhibited sexual dimorphism! There weren’t two species, but they had separate male and female forms. We did not have anything like this on Loran, nor did the Cereneans exhibit any sexual differentiation that we were aware of. Some of the plants on Loran had different male and female gametocytes, which is how we knew that such a thing was possible, but all sexual reproduction in animal life on Loran involved the fusion of two identical eggs. It had never occurred to us that there could be any evolutionary advantage for it to be otherwise.

We learned much about the people of Earth during the remaining years of our voyage. They were not nearly as advanced as we were and were still at war with each other. Sankar and I both agreed that it would be wise to stay away from them. Instead we would build our home on Arkenza 4, the planet they called Mars.

Building a settlement on Mars was no small task. We had to excavate tons of rock in which to build. We quickly discovered that the Earthlings had established satellites around Mars from which they undoubtedly observed and mapped the surface, perhaps for future mineral exploration. We had to be very careful to hide the material we excavated, making it appear to be debris from a meteor impact, and we had to make sure neither we ourselves nor any of our equipment was visible when a satellite was overhead.

There was also the matter of power. The reactors on our spaceship would only provide enough power to keep us alive and to maintain an underground hydroponics bay for at most a few Loran years. We had a facility on board for manufacturing photovoltaic cells, but the raw materials would need to be mined and refined from Martian minerals, and we would have to devise a strategy for camouflaging the cells so that they would not be visible to the orbiting satellites.

I never worked so hard in my life, but we built our habitat on Mars, mined and refined the raw materials we needed to manufacture photovoltaic cells and learned how to make them sufficiently thin and transparent that they would not be apparent from orbit. The amount of power generated by our photovoltaic array was barely adequate, but once the last of our fuel for the reactors was exhausted, it was all we had.

Sankar and I got by surprisingly well on Mars, passing the time by continuing my studies and by watching videos from Earth. We would have liked to have begun work on repairs to our spaceship so that we could eventually leave Mars, but there was barely enough power to keep us alive let alone to build anything. Our dreams of finding a more suitable home would have to wait until we eventually expanded the photovoltaic array to four times its current size - a painstakingly slow process.

We were making steady progress until just over a Martian year ago, when our home was hit by a sand storm. Being underground, we survived the storm very well. However, without any sunlight to power our photovoltaic array, our batteries would have been quickly depleted, so we were forced to scale back our power usage to survive. Of necessity, we cut power to the hydroponics bay by half, even knowing we might ultimately starve and be unable to fully process our exhaled carbon dioxide should the power not be restored before the plants died.

Once the storm had passed, it became apparent that the photovoltaic array had been severely damaged. It would take months or even years to fully restore power. There simply wasn’t enough power to sustain the both of us.

I’ll never forget that day, one Martian year ago, when Sankar approached me and said, “Lans, there’s no way we can both survive. It’s just not possible. You’re the younger of the two of us and you have the best long-term chance of surviving and completing the objectives of our mission. I know you didn’t sign up for this, but it would literally kill me if anything happened to you.

“Before you get any half-brained ideas, I’ve already taken a lethal dose of actenolol and will likely die within a few hours. It’s too late for you to stop me. Lans, I had to do this or I know you might have tried to end your own life to save mine, and I could have never had that. All I ask is that you do everything you can to stay alive and do your best to try to complete the mission.

“Do everything you can, however, to avoid contact with Earth, even if it does mean you have to die to prevent it. The one circumstance in which you may contact Earth is to warn them if you find the Cereneans are going to attack. In that case and that case alone, you should do all you can to help them. No one should have to live under Cerenean rule.”

We both cried our eyes out that afternoon, right up until Sankar took his last breath. That night I buried him in the Martian soil.

It was a lonely year after that. I restored the photovoltaic array to its former capacity and even increased it somewhat. I was also well on the way in making repairs to the spaceship, although it would still take several years - Martian years - before I would have enough fuel to leave this planet, and even then I had no idea where I would go.

With little else to do, I spent my time watching videos from Earth - what they call television - and downloaded and read as much as I could from Earth. I immersed myself in learning about Earth culture, just so I could have something to do more than anything else. Were it not for my time spent studying the inhabitants of Earth, I’d have been bored out of my mind.

Even after the one year anniversary of Sankar’s death had come and passed, I continued repairing the ship, continued generating fuel with which to ultimately leave Mars, continued my studies of Earth, and continued to scan the heavens for any sign of a Cerenean attack.

About this Story: Great care has been taken to portray only that which is theoretically possible. Loran is a fictitious planet with a year that is 161.6 Earth days in length, or 44% as long as an Earth Year. A Martian year is 687 Earth days long, or 88% longer than an Earth year, and 4.25 times longer than a Loran year. A day on Loran is 23 hours, 47 minutes and thirteen seconds long, and on Mars it is 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds in length. Gravity on Loran is 67% of that on Earth and on Mars it is 38% that on Earth, which is 57% of that on Loran. Atmospheric pressure on Loran is 36% that of Earth, but the oxygen concentration is nearly three times greater, yielding a nearly identical partial pressure of oxygen. On Mars the atmospheric pressure is just 1% that on Earth, which is 2.8% of that on Loran, and the Martian atmosphere is virtually devoid of oxygen.

Disclaimer: This story is purely fictional and any resemblance of characters to real individuals is purely coincidental and unintentional. Some characters may be gay and underage, and at times engage in homosexual acts. Obviously anyone uncomfortable with this should not be reading the story, and the reader assumes responsibility for the legality of reading this type of story where they live. The implication that Malaysia may execute homosexuals at some time in the future is based on recent events in Uganda and is not meant in any way to be a slight against the current citizens of Malaysia. The author retains full copyright and permission must be obtained prior to duplication of the story in any form.

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of David of Hope in editing this story and Low Flyer in proofreading it, as well as the support of Gay Authors, Awesome Dude and Nifty for hosting it. This story was written as part of the 2010 Gay Authors Summer Anthology.