by John Barnie
Initially I was reluctant to enter solar system S-23-44. Long-range scans indicated gas giants and rocky planets with either no atmosphere or a poisonous one. There was one exception, however, S-23-44-3, which our bio-scientists thought worth investigation.
This planet, third from the star, has a breathable atmosphere. Broadly speaking, there are three zones, the poles, a northern and a southern temperate zone, and an equatorial zone. At the north pole there is an extensive ocean; at the south a barren rocky landmass. The temperate zone is arid, vegetation being limited to grass and low scrub. The equatorial zone, however, is covered by the most profuse forest vegetation with abundant fauna. This luxuriant growth is partly a result of the high concentration of carbon dioxide we have measured in the atmosphere.
Interestingly, the body plans of the fauna are familiar to us from Alpha Centauri 3. This has led our bio-scientists to hypothesise that the ‘design space’ available to carbon-based life may be limited, resulting in evolutionary ‘convergence’ on planets thousands of light years apart. If true, this would have profound scientific, not to say philosophical, implications.
What can be said with a high degree of certainty is that there is no intelligent life on S-23-44-3. Given the profusion of species in the equatorial zone which must have taken millions of years to evolve, this prompts a further speculation, that intelligence is a rare commodity in our galaxy, far rarer than the optimists would have us believe.
There are, however, two anomalies which puzzle me. One is an elusive forest creature, a specimen of which was captured only with great difficulty. It is of medium height and covered in sparse, coarse, dark hair. I cannot say it walks, but it travels along the ground propelling itself with its hind legs while supporting its weight on the knuckles of its hands. The hands have opposable thumbs. For some of the time it lives in the forest canopy where it appears to be equally at home.
The specimen we captured is a young male. When I look into its brown eyes I seem to see a glimmer of intelligence, as if it is considering me. It does not have the faculty of speech, however, and we are unable to communicate with it. Opposable thumbs mean it can grasp objects easily and in theory ought to be able to use tools. This has not yet been observed in the wild or in captivity, but I would not rule it out.
Could this be the dawn of intelligent life on S-23-44-3? If so, what might we find if we returned in 5 million years? It is an intriguing question. On leaving we will kill it and preserve the cadaver for further analysis.
I mentioned two anomalies. The second is in many ways the more interesting but also the more resistant to analysis.
In the northern temperate zone our geo-scientists examined a sea cliff 120m high, composed of red sandstone overlain with 30m of mudstone. Nothing unusual in this, of course. The sandstone is estimated to be 130 million years old plus or minus, while the overlying mudstone accumulated between 10 and 5 million years ago. What attracted the geo-scientists’ attention was a narrow band 2m thick and 50m wide half way up the cliff at the intersection of the two formations. Analysis revealed that it is composed of a coarse granite gravel mixed with sand, calcium silicates, and traces of aluminium and iron. It was light grey in colour and stood out clearly against the reds and browns of the surrounding strata.
The geo-scientists assure me that this combination of rocks, minerals and metals is unique in their experience, so much so that they are convinced it is not a natural formation. What then is it? How far does it extend inland beneath the mudstone? And the biggest question of all: if it is not natural then it must be artificial, which implies a maker of considerable intelligence. Yet we have found no other evidence to suggest there has ever been intelligent life on the planet. Granted that this structure (if that is what it is) is circa 10 million years old, and granted that most traces of a civilisation, even an advanced one, would have disappeared between then and now, surely some clues would remain as to who had built it and why?
I look into the eyes of the forest creature in his cage, and he looks into mine. Almost, I feel, he is telling me something, then he turns away. Large butterflies glide through the clearing we have made in the forest, invisible animals and birds scream and call from the forest canopy. I have decided not to kill the creature. When we depart tomorrow I shall let it go, shambling off on its knuckles like some half-completed being.
The creature turns from the fruit it has been eating, its hands grasping the bars. We gaze into each other’s eyes, and for a moment I see… but I cannot say… like the creature, it seems, I suddenly have no words. I put out a hand and gently touch one of his. Then the moment is gone. Once again there is only the silence between us.
I will be glad to leave this planet. It is a world of shadows, a world — though I know this sounds strange, even as I write it down — of ghosts. Something happened here a long time ago, I am certain; something glorious, and something terrible. I can feel it; I can see it in the forest creature’s eyes. Yes, I will be glad to be leaving. This planet disturbs me with its silences. It is not recommended for colonisation. We will not be coming back.
About the author:
Poet and essayist. John was born in Abergavenny, Gwent and lived in Denmark from 1969-1982. He was editor of Planet, The Welsh Internationalist from 1990-2006. John has published several collections of poems, mixed poems and fiction, and collections of essays, one of which, The King of Ashes, won a Welsh Arts Council Prize for Literature in 1990.
John also plays guitar in the bilingual blues and poetry group Llaeth Mwnci Madoc/Madoc’s Moonshine, with Nigel Jenkins (harmonica) and Iwan Llwyd (guitar). They perform an integrated programme of blues and poetry. In 1999-2000 the trio toured extensively in Wales and are available for bookings across the country.
Trouble in Heaven (Gomer, 2007) was on the Wales Book of the Year 2008 Long List. John was on the English language panel of judges for the 2009 Wales Book of the Year award. He is a Fellow of the Welsh Academy.