Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Friendly Planet

by Dave Weaver



The starship New Hope held itself in orbit like a bright jewel upon the velveteen cushion of swirling crimson that was the stratosphere of planet X1920. Only three men had ever seen the glare of its gas giant sun, now reflecting off the ship's space-scarred hull; Miller, Crawshaw and Jamerson. And as the world below swung into its eighteen hour day they were about to wake.

Miller thrust out a hand at the alarm sensor. He was in a cold sweat, his body shaking in the claustrophobic sleep pod so that his feet kicked out spasmodically at the shell. What just happened?

Then the dream came back.

They were descending in the Lander, Jamerson and him, eighty-seven clicks out from the orbiter vessel with another fourteen to go. It was getting way too hot though; something was wrong.

The boys in the white coats had run tests on each of the seven planets in the system and all had the agreed X1920 was the baby – the motherlode they'd been searching for. Migration from a toxic and rotting Earth would begin as soon as they had the landing party's final report. The initial probes had sent back acceptable levels of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Below the thick crimson soup of an atmosphere that filtered out that sun's more harmful rays the surface temperatures mirrored Earth's almost exactly. It was too good to be true.

The media had given it a name, of course: The Friendly Planet.

And yet it was still getting hotter. Miller felt the craft start to judder and shake. He saw the outside hull glow red then white as he felt his blood begin to boil. Screens sputtered and cracked, instrumentation burned out, his nose bled and he felt his eyes about to pop. He reached for the ‘com, "Abort mission, for Christ's sake abort!" Then a silent flash of light and Miller watched in terrible fascination as his legs began to melt...

Some dream.

"You up for this, Miller?" That was what Jamerson always asked him when they sat down together in the refectory. Miller would say ‘I was born up for it, Jamerson.' and they'd slap each on the back and do a little mock fist fight. Then Crawshaw would call them a couple of overgrown kids sent to do a man's job and they'd tell him to go screw himself. Behind his back.

But not the morning of the landing party. Neither man looked at the other.

Crawshaw spoke first. "What's up guys? Finally, it's your big day." He failed to keep the bitterness from his voice. Crawshaw was old guard, nominally in charge, but he'd never made planet fall before and now never would.

"Rough night." Miller told him in a quiet voice.

"Bad dreams?"

"You could say that."

"And you?" Crawshaw turned to Jamerson but he said nothing. Just stared at Miller.

They were descending through the beautiful opal clouds that clung to the horizon's gentle curvature. Below, a lush panorama of grassland and forest speckled with sunlit lakes and rivers was laid before them like a banquet. The descent had been faultless, all readings checked out correct.

They put the Lander carefully down on top of a small hill and stepped outside. First Miller then Jamerson pulled off their helmets. The air was as cool and breathable as their readings had shown. The two men gave each other the thumbs up and grinned.

At first it was no more than a breeze. They'd been collecting samples in a valley, the Lander a few hundred yards away. Miller looked up in surprise as dark clouds rolled over and the first drops of rain began to fall. Something hissed on his spacesuit and a little wisp of smoke rose up from the spot. Then a tiny sharp object hit him on the head as if he'd been stabbed and he cried out, hearing Jamerson do the same. He smelt burning fibre and realised it was the suit. Suddenly needles of pain erupted across his entire body.

"It's acid Miller, its fucking sulphuric acid..."

Jamerson's shout ended in a scream, his figure lost in a mist of fumes as Miller covered his head and staggered blindly back up the valley slope. He stumbled over the other's body half way to the Lander and lay staring up at the beautiful opal clouds above as their rain began to lacerate his body...

Miller thrust out a hand at the alarm sensor.

He was in a cold sweat, some kind of nightmare but the details were vague. His body itched from head to toe. In the shower he found small red wheals on the skin, like he'd been burned. Then the dream came back, and he finally understood.

At breakfast Jamerson's haunted face told Miller he did too. He met the other man's reluctant eyes then nodded over towards Crawshaw getting food from the galley. Jamerson indicated his agreement.

Crawshaw joined them. "What's up guys? Finally, it's your big day."

"Rough night." Miller told him in a quiet voice.

"Bad dreams?"

"You could say that."

"I saw a warning light flickering in the Lander's bay door when we were checking her out yesterday." Jamerson's voice was quiet but steady. "Could be just a short, I guess."

"You guess? What do they teach you guys at Cadet College these days? Suppose I'll have to check it out myself before you go."

"Thanks, Crawshaw," they told him.

After they'd locked the bay's door behind him and finished the compartment's decompression the two men loaded Crawshaw's body into the Lander and programmed the craft to crash somewhere on the planet's nightside so they wouldn't have to see the glare of the explosion. Fatally depressed and unwilling to be passed by any longer he would finally make planet fall after all, the first and last Earthman on X1920. With him, at least in theory, would be the samples they'd discovered on the planet's surface showing the place to be a poisonous deathtrap unfit for human life.

It was a sad but necessary thing. Miller and Jamerson both knew it as they began the long journey home to terra firma.

After all, even a friendly planet probably doesn't give a third warning.

THE END


A slightly different version of this story appeared in ‘The Sixty’, The Arts of Andy Bigwood (illustrator).

© 2010 Dave Weaver

Bio: Dave Weaver is a graphic designer living in St Albans. He is a member of the Verulam Writer's Circle. Dave's 'Finding Uncle' short story was published in Hert's University's 'Visions' anthology. His most recent Aphelion appearance was Sunshine City, September / October 2010.

E-mail: Dave Weaver

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