Vladimir adjusted his heavy winter jacket as he trudged up the icy metal staircase outside the observation tower. He’d always aimed the Agency’s electro-telescope outwards, beyond the known solar system. Tonight is different. The observatory’s entire structure creaks as its viewing dome rotates one hundred and eighty degrees. Vladimir refocuses on a glimmering blue orb thirty-four million miles away, his home planet’s closest neighbour.
It had been almost two thousand years since the exodus from the third planet. Earth’s ten thousand survivors escaped the final conflict in whatever rockets were available. The bold migrants travelled for six months in cryogenic sleep-pods before awakening and establishing colonies on the fourth planet. Their new living conditions were challenging, however, the Agency had plans to sustain life. They melted the Martian ice caps with thermonuclear explosions, releasing water into the extensive canal network and oxygen to enrich the thin atmosphere.
A new elite established itself on the fourth planet by exploiting the bountiful supplies of precious minerals and a willing workforce. New industries grew because of the opportunities and they constructed sprawling mining communities across the planet. The powerful new entrepreneurs kept the workers content with talk about profit shares and promises to develop the infrastructure, with future generations in mind.
As time passed by, the investment wasn’t forthcoming and the new world exhibited signs of neglect. There had been talk of an uprising, but without forceful union leaders, it was impossible to make demands. The emboldened elites increased the taxes on both water and air and vowed to improve conditions, but nothing changed over the following centuries. The fourth planet’s society languished in despair and the people whispered about migrating again to other worlds.
Vladimir had spent the latter years of his career gazing into deep space for fresh worlds to plunder. It had been decades since he and his agency colleagues had considered life on the third planet. They’d judged it to be worthless and uninhabitable; its cities destroyed, the seas toxic and entire countries buried under radioactive fallout.
Today’s inter-departmental report suggested there were signs of regeneration on the third planet. This is perplexing news for a government struggling to maintain its grip on the general populace. The president assembled his ministers to discuss the rumours; fearful they could destabilise his power base and cause mayhem or worse; encourage a return to the third planet. The Agency’s executives require their Distant Exploration team to investigate. They commission Vladimir to make a report and order him to maintain secrecy at all costs.
Vladimir takes his seat under the telescope’s enormous barrel and extends his magnification range to plus 5.0 degrees. Using this powerful setting, he’s mapped the outer regions of the universe and made detailed analysis of star clusters beyond the nearest gaseous nebula.
Gazing past Mars’ two moons, he recalculates a new reference and refines coordinates for the third planet. The servo-motors whir and whine as they readjust the lens’ focus. Vladimir squints his left eye and peers at the shining world that greets him. It’s distant even now, but he can detect signs of a dense and healthy atmosphere. The white regions he identifies suggest that cycles of condensation and precipitation have resumed natural patterns. The servo-motors whir again and tighten the angle of reflection. Below the billowing clouds, he notes patches of green amongst the expansive blue regions. It’s quite possible that organic growth has recovered and carbon based life-forms have re-emerged anew. Vladimir concludes his evening’s work in the observatory at maximum magnification, summarises his findings, writes an opinion and prepares an illustrated document for his manager.
It’s past midnight when Vladimir leaves the observation tower and one o’clock, when he enjoys the benefits of his home’s cosy heating system. Anya is asleep on their sofa when he rubs her shoulders and kisses her cheek.
“Hey, Vlad,” she says, frowning. “You didn’t call---”
“I got orders from above,” he says, shrugging. “Anything left to eat?”
“Of course, love,” she says, rolling her neck as he adjusts his finger pressure. “So what’s the emergency? Third moon found? Supernova exploded somewhere?”
“Not quite,” he says, removing his jacket. “Rumours of life---”
“We’d be so lucky.” Anya smiles. “Not round this part of town---”
“Life on the third planet.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Do you want proof?”
A wise person once defined a secret as, ‘a thing you tell everybody to tell nobody’. However, ‘there are no secrets that time does not reveal.’
The next day, Anya spoke to her sister in strictest confidence, of course.
She mentioned it to her husband, who also promised discretion, and so it goes around.
Two days later, Vladimir’s manager, Sergei, convened a meeting at his office.
“Please enter, comrade.” A sweep of Sergei’s hand invites Vladimir to take a seat. “Can I offer you refreshment, some tea perhaps?”
“No thank you, sir.” Vladimir sits down and jabs the tip of his tongue against a stubborn shred of food caught between his lower incisors. “I’m fine, thank you.”
“How’s it going, Vlad?” Sergei says, nudging a box of toothpicks across his desk.
“I’m making progress, sir.” Vladimir takes a stick and teases the offending morsel.
“I’ve read your draft report.” Sergei raps his fingers tips on a file of papers.
“It’s possible that the rumours are correct, sir, and---”
“Rumours abound, alas.” Sergei dilates his nostrils. “They are unwelcome.”
“I don’t know how they---”
“I’m reassigning you to disprove this ridiculous gossip.”
“But there’s evidence that indicates---”
“Your images are inaccurate.” Sergei squints his mouth to one side. “Please resubmit the correct documentation, and we’ll say no more about the matter.”
Anya is lounging on the sofa, watching the official evening news when Vladimir arrives home. He hauls off his heavy coat and slumps down next to his wife. The presenter is discussing the rumours about life on the third planet. Behind him are still images of the third planet that he recognises from his report. Crowds are protesting outside the president’s headquarters, which is guarded by a line of armed police.
Vladimir casts a glance over at Anya and swallows.
“So what’s occurring, Vladi?”
“I’ve had a long day, love.”
“You know what?” she says, “That third planet story’s got great legs---”
“I can see all the excitement.”
“It’s running wild.”
“They’ve told me to kill it dead.”
“But it’s true,” she says, frowning. “Right?”
“Not any more, it’s not.”
As he enters the Agency’s observation tower, Vladimir removes his heavy winter jacket. He drapes it over his office chair and reboots his computer terminal. In the main observatory chamber, he pauses and frowns. The electro-telescope is in its original position. It’s pointing outwards again, beyond the known solar system. Vladimir assumes his seat below the giant reflector’s casing and punches in the coordinates he’d employed to observe the third planet. The servo-motor registers his request, engages the gearing system, and the building creaks as the gantry rotates.
Vladimir busies himself with calculations and fails to notice a uniformed man approaching the telescope’s control panel. There’s a heavy metallic clunk and the servo-motor complains as its mechanism slows down, and all movement ceases. Vladimir lifts his head and frowns when he discovers the stranger staring at him. In silence, the officer raises a gloved forefinger to calm Vladimir, and then rocks it like an inverted pendulum in a gesture that speaks with unmistakable authority.
There is no doubt in Vladimir’s mind. He knows what he needs to do. The officer taps out a code and the servo-motor registers the request. The gearing system engages and groans as it returns the heavy equipment to its first position once more.
Vladimir stares up at the rocket’s gleaming glass and steel interior as he lies next to Anya. There’s more than enough room for them both to stretch out and relax in their double sleep-pod. She nudges him and he passes her a cryogenic tablet. She smiles and places it on her tongue as though she’s travelled to Earth a thousand times before. He leans over and kisses her on her soft pink cheek, closes his eyes, and swallows.
Six months later, Vladimir comes to his senses and initiates the landing sequence. Within hours, the couple will enter the third planet’s atmosphere and land on Earth.
Vladimir opens the rocket’s escape hatch and peers around at their new homeland.
There is a welcoming party of earthlings surrounding the spaceship’s sizzling heat-shield. They are naked, dishevelled and brandish sharpened bamboo canes.