Account of Life on Athena


Editor’s Note: The following is an account of the first Human exploratory party on Athena, written by ship’s captain and mission commander James Colligan, 57. Colligan, a graduate of the International Space Academy, started at the position of Junior Astrogator and has worked most of his adult life aboard GAILE’s starships. He served aboard the GSS Kara when it made the historic discovery of the Twin Worlds, Romulus and Remus, in 2342. In 2365, he was acting as executive officer of the exploratory starship Lewis and Clarke, then being overhauled at Earth’s Bergland shipworks, when GAILE announced the discovery of Athena. Colligan assumed command of the GSS Jennifer Freeman, a cargo vessel, and supervised its crash conversion into an exploration vessel for the mission. His promotion at age 42 made him one of the youngest starship captains in GAILE history, but the urgency of the mission, the lack of qualified officers on Earth at that time, and his experience as an officer of an earlier exploratory party made him the most logical choice for the job. Colligan wrote this account shortly after his return from Athena. He currently commands the GSS Juan Cabrillo on an exploratory mission into unknown space.

You have to enjoy chess or reading to like space exploration. It’s a job that consists of endless hours of boredom punctuated by brief interludes of fascinating, stimulating discovery. During the months in space, when there is little for anyone save the ship’s astronomer to do, most of the crew passes the time by monitoring the instruments and tinkering with the inevitable bugs that occur in the hundreds of systems, from life support to sensor arrays that fill a starship. When the ship arrives at its destination star, the chances number less than one in twenty that it will hold any planets with life remotely resembling life on Earth. Yet no matter what the find, the ship must make a routine examination of each star system’s geological and biological characteristics before abandoning it to continue the search.

Despite the slim odds, excitement always builds when approaching an unknown star system. The day the Kara discovered Romulus and Remus, I was standing first shift at the long-range scanner panel. We had spent five years in space and had discovered seven barren systems. Upsilon Lupus was our last try before the long trip home. The ship tingled with excitement. The entire crew, on duty and off, crowded around the main screen monitors throughout the ship as we dropped into a midecosphere orbit. One hundred pairs of eyes probed the field of a billion lights, searching and hoping. Captain Lomela paced the bridge, licking his dry lips, occasionally walking to my panel to peer over my shoulder. For three hours I scanned the emptiness when suddenly the mass point indicator came alive. A planet? I focused the sensor and confirmed that it was a planet, but the reading showed nearly twice the mass of Earth. Another Wyzdom? Or just a barren sphere blanketed in poison gas.

“I’ve got a mass point, sir!” I cried, “Bearing 354 mark 7!”

“Helm, bring her to bear!” the captain ordered, and a murmur of excitement passed through the bridge. “How big is it, Jimmy?” the captain asked.

“Two times Earth, sir,” I replied, “but I can’t get a firm focus. It’s as if it were a d . . . d . . . double planet!”

A double planet? This would make news even if uninhabitable! The ship accelerated toward the invisible point in black space. The captain briefly announced the facts to the crew while the main screen focused on the point at maximum magnification. All eyes strained.

Then out of the black background studded with a billion points of light, two blue dots began to emerge. Could they be terrestrial? The color looked right. It didn’t have the greenish cast of an ammonia giant. All the ship’s sensors came to bear, and the science officer began reading over the intercom so all the ship could hear.

“Spectrographic analysis indicates extensive liquid water present; atmospheric nitrogen, 73 percent; oxygen 26 percent; mean surface temperature 26 degrees; mass, point 75 Earth; indications of carbon/nitrogen life. They’re terrestrial! They’re two Earths!”

Tears welled in my eyes; my hands shook so hard I had to clasp them together. Throughout my body I felt the orgasmic release of tensions that had been building throughout our five-year journey. We had made it! We had found not one world with life, but two!

A roar went up from the entire ship that shook her from citadel to drive beam. Suddenly I felt a slap on my back and a hug around my neck. Everyone was laughing and yelling, stomping their feet and kissing one another like New Year’s Eve and Unification Day all rolled into one. We had done it! We had accomplished our mission to find new life in the galaxy.

The discovery of Athena didn’t happen like that. I had been on Earth, or more precisely, orbiting Earth for 18 months during the overhaul of my ship, the Lewis and Clarke. The overhaul was the routine denouement of an eight-year exploratory mission. Technicians were giving all the ship’s systems a thorough check and replacing obsolescent equipment with the latest advances. I lived at Space Station Seven, a quiet little world, contained in a giant cylinder. Each day, at the end of my shift, I returned to my tiny house to eat, watch the Earth’s news and sometimes do a little work in my garden. On one such evening, reports flooded all news stations that the Chlorzi had discovered a planet suitable for Humans. Of course, the news interested me, but I thought little of its consequences. I am a space officer, not a colonist.

Within a week of the announcement I was called to GAILE Command Headquarters on Earth’s surface, a rare occurrence for a ship’s officer. When I arrived, a staff aide ushered me into the office of the Chief of Starship Operations who informed me that I had been given a command of my own. The transport vessel Jennifer Freeman, then in the latter stages of construction, would be outfitted as an exploratory ship to make the first Human survey of the as yet unnamed planet. The Freeman would carry a crew of 470, much larger than is typical for exploratory missions. We were charged with determining as quickly as possible if Athena would be suitable for Human colonization. If the answer was yes, we were to remain on the planet for up to four years, taking enough data to let colonial preparations begin. The mission dictated a very tight schedule. The Chlorzi pressed for a quick decision from Earth because they wanted valuable mineral rights on Mammon. Yet Earth could not begin negotiations until Human scientists had verified Athena’s habitability. Chlorzi data on such matters is always questionable. They live in a chlorine world at 150 degrees. To them, Earth appears as a frozen wasteland, and it is easy for them to miss little details like a maximum noon temperature of 130 degrees or two percent ammonia content in the atmosphere.

Working around the clock, the builders equipped the Freeman for its special mission in less than three months, and we put out to space as soon as she was ready. The mood of the crew seemed upbeat, for this time we knew we would discover something! Chessboards gathered dust, for we had much to do to prepare for our arrival. Unlike other exploratory parties, we operated under time pressure. Also unlike other explorers, we knew about what to expect when we arrived. We studied and analyzed the Chlorzi data to plan our observations in great detail, drafting logistics plans for support of the surface party from the ship.

As Captain, I held responsibility for the entire mission, but Science Director Gayle Edmunsen actually directed the staff of more than 300 scientists and technicians. My executive officer, Fred Shetterly, a meticulous and dedicated spacer, ran the day-to-day operations of the ship. Despite their able help, I still had plenty to worry about, including supplies, surface support logistics, accidents, bacteriological contamination, communications with Earth, and how to maintain a semblance of order among 470 people who, until three months ago, had never seen each other, let alone worked together.

After eleven weeks in space and two separate warp maneuvers, we found ourselves in orbit over Athena. Before setting foot on the planet, however, we had to answer the two critical questions that every exploratory party must ask: First, we had to be sure Athena wasn’t inhabited by a civilized species. To this end we scanned all conceivable communications frequencies and adjusted our sensors to detect abnormal energy sources or large masses of refined metals that would indicate the presence of power plants or artificial structures.

Secondly, we had to determine that we wouldn’t encounter any extremely lethal diseases on the planet’s surface. The greatest fear of space explorers is that some microorganism to which the Human body has no immunity will be carried from the planet’s surface to kill the entire crew within hours, or worse, will be carried back to Earth and there destroy millions of people. To answer this question, we sent dozens of small, unmanned probes to the surface containing a variety of life analyzers and a few tiny creatures called “Armonk’s mice.” These mice have been specially bred so that physiological reaction to all known diseases is identical with Humans. We could monitor the life functions of the mice in the probes as they breathed the air and drank the water of the planet.

While we awaited the results of our biological tests, we selected the regions we would explore. Four hundred seventy people are a very small number to explore a world the size of Earth. To fulfill our mission expeditiously, we couldn’t afford to waste their energies combing frozen wastes, deserts, and other areas that would never serve as living sites. We had to concentrate our efforts in the not too mountainous, temperate zones of the planet. If Humans couldn’t survive in these regions, they couldn’t survive at all.

After three weeks in orbit, all the Armonk’s mice remained alive, and we began preparing to go to the surface. For several more weeks we would wear bio-barrier suits to prevent biological contamination. We chose a site at 28° 37 ‘ south latitude and 92° 22′ east longitude for our first landing. I made the trip with the Research Director, two biologists, a geologist, and the shuttle pilot. As the shuttlecraft dropped silently toward the surface, the details of the landscape came slowly into focus.

We hovered about 100 meters above the ground, searching for a clear spot to land. The Chlorzi had told us about the atmospheric composition, the size and shape of the land masses, and the planet’s magnetic field. They neglected to mention the flowers. Below us lay the most beautiful spring forest I have ever seen, filled with big, bushy broad-leafed trees, bedecked with flowers so gorgeous they put to shame the dogwood, wisteria, and cherry blossoms of Earth. Each of these great flowers rivaled the Earthly rose and orchid in its color and iridescence, and there were millions of them!

We put down in a clearing on a low hilltop. As I stepped from the craft, I felt the soft spring of natural earth beneath my boots. At first, the forest seemed quiet, yet as we stood in silence our ears opened to the rustle of a light breeze in the trees and the buzzing and chirping of tiny, unseen creatures. No one spoke for perhaps fifteen minutes as we stood transfixed by the beauty of the scene. At last the biologists switched on their life analyzers and began to take data. In those first hours on Athena, Human knowledge of the planet more than doubled. In that tiny clearing one found thousands of species of plants and animals, all alien in type and origin, yet strangely familiar. We found no toxic substances, and the Armonk’s mice seemed unperturbed after eating a few seeds of the native grass. The pilot and I set up a small titanalum monument commemorating our landing and a data station that would monitor weather, seismic shocks, and life forms in the clearing after we departed.

At last the time came for us to return to the ship.
I turned to the biologists and asked, “Have you
detected any questionable microorganisms or toxic
substances in the air?”

“No sir,” they replied, “nothing that seems the least bit harmful.”

“Well then,” I replied, “I’ve got to know … even if it breaks every regulation in the book,” and I removed my helmet. At once my nostrils filled with the soft fragrance of a million blossoms; the sweetness of lotus, the pungent tang of orange, and the richness of roses flooded my senses. The warm sunlight caressed my face like gentle fingers, and the soft breeze sifted through my hair. At that moment, I knew in my heart as well as my mind that God made this world for us. For the next three months, ten shuttlecraft made daily visits to the surface. Disease-control procedures remained in effect, yet during that time, biologists identified more than 100 species of edible plants and dissected hundreds of warm- and cold-blooded animals in search of potentially harmful diseases. As had been the case on other colonial worlds, no virus or bacteria that seemed harmful to Humans emerged.

At last, I held a meeting with Gayle and the other key members of the biological and medical staffs. We agreed that disease-control procedures could be dropped, at least until some problem developed, and that the scientific staff could move to the surface and set up a base. The base would allow the staff to make their observations at any time of day and on any day they needed. They would no longer be tied to the ship’s shuttlecraft, which could carry only one-third of them to the surface at any given time. Living on the planet would provide important insight into the ways of nocturnal animals, night-time weather and other, possibly unknown, phenomena. From the surface base we would extend smaller temporary bases to observe, in detail, the areas of the planet that might serve as sites for future settlements. All these reasons seemed very good, but as far as I was concerned, the main reason for establishing the surface base was to get the scientific staff off the ship and hopefully improve morale. By this time, many of them were suffering from “spitchiness,” the irritation that confinement in space brings to the inexperienced and undrugged space traveler.

Once we made our decision, it took another month to get the surface camp fully operational. Two spires of equipment, including shelters, laboratories, communications equipment, and a large laser fusion reactor had to be unpacked and set up. When this was done, the entire crew came down to the surface for a gigantic beach party. The cooks spent three days preparing the feast which included roasting a whole bush buffalo weighing some 650 kilograms and distilling 350 liters of rum for punch. The crew cast aside their inhibitions along with their uniforms as they spontaneously organized games and contests amidst the most picturesque setting I have ever seen. For the first time I truly appreciated the real significance of the pioneers’ first Thanksgiving in New England. They gave thanks not only to God but to themselves for having worked hard and done a good job. After eight months of intense effort, the crew of the Jennifer Freeman had this coming.

The establishment of the base camp dramatically accelerated our studies. Before three more months passed, we had conclusively proven Athena’s suitability for Humankind. I called a large meeting of all scientific group leaders to discuss our recommendations to GAILE and the data we would present to support them. When agreement was reached, we adjourned to prepare the data for loading aboard pilotless space probes that would carry it back to Earth. Because of the mission’s importance, we launched duplicate probes and made the unprecedented request for a responding probe to confirm its safe arrival.

The Jennifer Freeman remained on Athena for three more years, gathering scientific data that would enable the future pioneers to plan their first colony. Work consumed every waking hour of the scientific staff, but they pursued it informally, without pressure. It seemed more like play. After a while they began to resemble wise old children, knowledgeable, logical, and cautious, yet filled with a child’s curiosity about all the new, exciting things their world revealed to them. As work proceeded on the ground, the Jenny orbited overhead, weaving a complex pattern over the surface like string on a ball, surveying the land below with the viewpoint only a space ship can have.

My role changed too, during this phase of the mission. As before, the XO ran the ship and my Research Director managed the scientific program on the ground. As Captain, I alternated between the ship and the surface trying to monitor all aspects of the mission. I consulted periodically with all my subordinates from the commissary officer and the ship’s engineer to the field team leaders roaming the six continents. As the ultimate authority, I was often called upon to arbitrate disputes, and every other month I had to review and summarize the field data for a progress report to GAILE. During the course of all this, I saw much of the new planet’s surface and developed great appreciation for its richness and beauty.

One day in the second year, I received a curious message from the ship’s science officer. Ship’s sensors had detected a substantial mass of pure metal on the surface, yet pure metals do not occur in nature. It couldn’t have been one of our exploratory vehicles for they reported their locations to the ship, and the sensors were programmed not to recognize them. Furthermore, the metal exhibited none of the power radiation a living society would. I ordered an investigatory party at once, and we set off for the site near the northern coast of continent A2369.2. What we found made still more space history.



Editor’s Note: For clarity, the paragraph below is a copy of the gamma scan log notes as shown in the illustration above:

“A full spectrum gamma scan of this alien structure of unknown origin taken by the crew of the Jennifer Freeman in 2368 ADTC reveals its true extent, the gamma beam passes through all known material objects, revealing their molecular structure as well as their gross physical shape. This visual readout, enhanced by computer, illustrates the extent to which native vegetation has surrounded the dome. Some vegetation and forest debris has been deleted for clarity.

The vertical tunnel beneath the dome serves no obvious purpose and ends abruptly at a depth of 600 meters.”

Arriving at the mysterious spot, we found ourselves hovering over dense jungle, lush, humid, and tropical. From the air we could see nothing, yet our instruments told us that below lay twenty to thirty metric tons of very pure titanalum beryllium alloy whose metallurgy could not be traced to any GAIL member. The thick forest prevented our landing, so we receded half a kilometer from the site and burned a small landing patch in the forest. We advanced to the site on foot under the green canopy of foliage. The ground was almost clear and carpeted with a layer of composting leaves and flowers. When we reached the site, we came upon a geodesic dome approximately twenty-five meters in diameter. The dome appeared to have no doors or windows but was unmistakably hollow and the source of our metal readings. We detected no other signs of civilized life, and the vegetation grown up around the structure bespoke a long period of neglect. As we couldn’t probe the dome with our sensors, I ordered a larger gamma scanner sent up from the base camp.

When it arrived, we set it up about 100 meters from the dome and took our first scan. Figure 3.25 shows a graphic readout of what we found. The dome was actually larger than it appeared, extending some five meters below grade to a foundation of fused and densely compacted ground. A long shaft, lined with alloy, reached down below the foundation. Scans at closer range revealed shuttered doors and windows so perfectly fitted that only a thin line masked by centuries of oxidation could be discerned from the outside.

We carefully drilled through the door with our powerful laser and found an empty house. It contained no furniture, save some oddly-shaped, built-in forms. Few pieces of equipment or implements gave any clue to who left them behind.

Some tiny bits of apparatus lay tossed about, as if dropped carelessly by those departing: a section of fiberoptic, some circuit terminations, and fasteners of alien design and configuration. It looked much like our own base camp would look a year from then after we hauled up our gear, leaving only the shells of our buildings behind. The tunnel extending beneath the dome seemed to serve no purpose. It dead-ended abruptly at a depth of about 600 meters, as if it were part of some unfinished project.

The origin of the strange dome remains one of the great mysteries of Athena. Some leaves found inside indicate they were trapped more than 25,000 years ago! Explorers perhaps? And if so, what did they think of their find and when will they return?

I am sure the research staff and crew would have been content to remain on Athena forever, but supplies of irreplaceable consumables were running low, and an eager Earth awaited with thousands of questions for the scientists who had seen the new planet with their own eyes. Gayle summarized it best by saying, “We could stay here and screw around forever, Jimmy, but I think we’ve got what we came for.”

Getting the crew to leave a new planet is the hardest job any exploratory commander has. As a crew member on an earlier mission, I remembered the thousands of justifications I had to remain on Romulus. The howls of protest from the researchers on Athena fell on sympathetic ears, yet outwardly I remained intransigent. The slightest sign of weakness would have lost all. Many begged to stay, saying that they would wait for the next ship. A few actually deserted and had to forcibly be rounded up. At last everyone was accounted for and the equipment brought up and stowed. As the photon drives drove us from the Garden of Eden, we began to lose our childlike innocence again and fit ourselves into those well-worn molds that contained us on Earth.

I am not much of prognosticator or visionary, but if I had to predict one thing, I would predict that the future colony on Athena will be the most prosperous, creative, and beautiful Human society that has ever existed. Athena has all the beauty and diversity of Earth when it was new, yet the pioneers who settle her will bring with them the wisdom and experience of sixty centuries of civilization. Athenians need not grope and struggle and make the mistakes that Humanity has made on Earth. She will burst full-blown from the head of God, a mature, intelligent, compassionate world and so we named her, Athena.