Scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have discovered yet another dead and lifeless planet drifting around a silent, pulsing sun-like star over 100 light-years away.
Members of the research team were able to muster enough false excitement and strained smiles to call a press conference. A representative from the team described the new planet as “startlingly similar to Earth in appearance, with a “deep blue” color and similar orbital pattern. “But,” he added, “the daytime temperatures on RS-47 generally reach 2500 degrees Fahrenheit, and every night it rains glass, sideways, in vast, shrieking storms that tear up the surface of the planet.”
“These winds,” he continued, looking visibly shaken, “often reach speeds up to 4000 miles per hour.”
There was silence as everyone in the room struggled with the same mental image.
“It’s not even blue because of the oceans,” another member of the team announced. “It’s from massive cloud systems that are laced with silicate particles. It’s — it’s tiny shards of glass suspended in the atmosphere that reflect blue light, in an obscene parody of our own Earth.”
One of the scientists who had not yet spoken began to sing quietly, almost to himself:
Ground control to Major Tom
Commencing countdown, engines on
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you…
“It will probably give us some insight into how other dead and barren planets have been created,” lead scientist Kim Travers said with an audible quaver in her voice, “so that’s something, at least.”
“Yes,” a colleague to her right said. “That’s something, that is. That isn’t nothing. We’re not–what we’re doing isn’t nothing.” He closed his hands into fists, then opened them again.
“There may be some dust on the surface of the planet that we can study,” Travers continued. “It might be–it might be red dust, or pinkish-red, or brown. We can study the dust. The dead dust. We can study it. We can study the dead dust.”
“We can study the dead dust,” the team chanted dully in unison.
“In some ways,” Travers said, trying to light a cigarette with stained and trembling fingers, “it’s more of a punch in the gut than ever, finding a sun so much like our own, and a planet that exists well within the conditions to produce life but doesn’t. Like it’s a blind and gleeful mockery of our own existence. Like looking at your own empty grave and seeing your name erased from the headstone.”
She lit a new cigarette from the dying embers of the old one.
“There might be ice, though,” she added hopefully, seeming to perk up for a minute. “Or rather, there might have been ice there at one point. So maybe there was a time in this planet’s history when life almost clawed and stumbled its way out of non-being. Maybe a few proto-bacteria pooled themselves into a scrabbling, twitching pile of almost-sentience before collapsing back into darkness. Maybe the outlines of their remains are etched in the ice. If they are, we could study them.”
“We could study the outlines of their remains,” the team whispered as one.
A reporter raised his hand tentatively. Travers stabbed her cigarette in his direction. “Wouldn’t you say,” he asked, “or rather couldn’t you say the fact that the universe is so massive and so unique and we’re learning so many new things every day is as fascinating and thrilling and scientifically significant as discovering life on planets other than our own?”
“Every day, I look at graves through a telescope,” Travers said. “Every day I study the stillbirths of the universe. We are a tiny pinprick of life in a sea of death, and it will swallow us all.”
“It will swallow us all,” the team chanted together.
At this point, Anthony Spirino, one of the team’s visiting astronomers, burst into tears. “I found four new planets last year,” he wept. “One of them was on fire. I watched it burn. It’s still on fire, even now. It’s been on fire for ten thousand thousand years, and it will burn for ten thousand thousand more. Then it will stop burning, and go out.”
“The rest of the planets were the same,” he continued. “Rocks and dust, dust and rocks. Nothing moves across the surface, nothing swims under the surface of the seas, nothing takes to the skies and feels the sun on its skin. Nothing wakes. Nothing opens its eyes. Nothing feels pain or knows contentment or stretches its legs. Do you know how many goddamn times I’ve had to tell some asshole from the Huffington Post that a new planet ‘may very well have once been in a position to have supported life’ because some other asshole thought she saw riverbeds on the planet’s surface? Too fucking many times. Too many goddamned fucking times.”
“‘Theoretically, this planet could support life,’ one of the scientists behind him recited tonelessly. ‘Theoretically, the oceans we believe may exist on this planet could potentially support aquatic life.’”
“Theoretically,” the group said.
“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered,” Travers said quietly.
When asked to clarify her comment, she did not look up, but waved her hand out in front of her face. “Nothing. No, it’s nothing. It’s nothing. I have nothing more to say. Leave. This press conference is over. Please.”
After the door was shut, no sounds came from the room.
, ground control to major tom
, the memory of a river