The Pulsar and the Planet
by Ahmed A. Khan ©2007
Once upon a time there was a planet called Ruby, and we were going to die on it. Or so it seemed to me.A lot has already been written about our almost disastrous expedition but the media seems to think that I can provide a unique perspective on the events as the only woman abroad the spaceship. There were four people on the spaceship. the silent, shy, cute, cuddly, whiskered teddy bear called Jon Ammar (Captain of the ship), the pint-sized, energetic Krishna Arokiaswamy (in charge of the telemetric instruments on board), the big, genial, red-haired Cornwallis Anderson (hyperdrive technician extraordinary), and myself, the ship's medical officer. At that time, my name was Ruby Calebi. I didn't know Krisha and Cornwallis very well but Jon Ammar and I knew each other from way back when we were in our pre-teen years and oh how many times in the past few years did I give him subtle hints that, though I was too good for him, I wouldn't say "no" if he asked me to marry him. But either I was too subtle or he was too dense. The only reaction I could discern was that his cheeks would turn slightly red whenever I was close to him. Our mission was supposed to be short, simple and exciting. It would last for two weeks. We were to take our spaceship in the vicinity of a pulsar and go into orbit around it and remain in orbit for two weeks during which time, the telemetric instruments on board the ship would record as much data as possible about the pulsar. Then we would turn back home. This pulsar held special attraction for the scientists back home for two reasons: one, it was astonishingly close to Earth, a mere five light days away, and two, in spite of being so close, it had not been discovered till a few months back. Where was it hiding all this time? The scientists were curious to know. Theories and hypotheses flew about like nobody's business. (A particular favorite of mine was the one that said it had recently popped out of a white hole in that region of space). This mystery still remains unsolved. Anyway, ours was going to be a preliminary survey mission. Once we returned back home with our data, the scientists would take off. It took two minutes for us to leave the atmosphere of Earth. Then began the preparations for the hyper jump which took another eight or nine minutes. Then there was the jump itself, which took practically no real time at all. We emerged nearly twelve million miles from the pulsar and started taking our bearings. Suddenly there was a shout from the whereabouts of the telemetric instruments panel. Krishna's highly excited voice was heard: "Captain, there is a planet orbiting the pulsar". And what a planet it turned out to be! The data started pouring in. The planet was a quarter of the size of our moon but at least fifty times denser. It had no atmosphere and no seas. The planet was an almost perfect sphere devoid of any and all kinds of high structures. The surface of the planet seemed to be curiously smooth and glassy. Spectroscopic analysis revealed a startling fact. "Gentlemen," announced Krishna, "most of the planet is nothing but solid diamond." We looked at Krishna as if he had gone mad, but once we realized that he had spoken the truth, all of a sudden we found ourselves more interested in the planet than in the pulsar itself. What would this discovery do to the world economy? Jon moved the ship closer to the planet and set it in orbit. At this distance, the planet became clearly visible on our telescope, and it was a breathtakingly lovely sight. Against the black backdrop of deep space, it seemed to shimmer a deep red. "Captain," said Krishna in his usual, excited way, "what do you think of making a planetfall?" "It would provide an ideal base for the study of the pulsar too," I added. I was as excited as Krishna at the prospect of landing on that hunk of diamond. Captain Jon Ammar orbited the planet twice, chose a landing site and brought in the ship. It was a good landing. The huge ship drifted to the ground like a feather and amid the sibilant hiss of the plasma jets, settled down softly on the hard, ruby-red diamond that was a planet. The ultra-strange landscape of barren red magnificence lay spread all around us. "Walking on the surface of a new planet for the first time is always exciting," Jon was heard to say. I knew Jon well enough to know just how excited he must be feeling. In spite of his serious, world-weary air, the cute feller was a child at heart. We started setting up a base. The standard pressurized dome, quite a big one, was soon erected a few hundred meters away from the ship. Most of the food, water and air supplies and other necessary movables were shifted from the ship to the dome. After all this hectic activity, we were tired and went to sleep. A day, measuring time by Earth standards, passed. The second day, there was a discussion about the naming of the planet. "There is a perfect name for this planet," said Jon, with a slight smile playing around the corners of his mouth. "Just consider the fact that it is diamondine, then consider its color, and finally consider our lovely medical officer, and now tell me what should this planet be called?" "Ruby," shouted Krishna and Cornwallis together while I stared open mouthed at Jon. Then came the hours of collecting, analyzing and manipulating data about the pulsar and the planet. In our free time, we either played games on the ship's computer or gossiped, and, in case of Corny and Krishna, this gossiping extended to colorful discussions of each other's love affairs. At these times, Jon smiled amusedly at their talks, and I resisted impish impulses to pull his ears and tickle him and cuddle him to me. Meanwhile, we discovered various facts about the diamondine material of Ruby. The material was carbon but a form of carbon totally unknown till now. It was at least ten times as hard as the hardest diamond known on Earth, and it had an enormously high melting point. We tried to collect samples of the material, but we did not succeed. We had no tools which could chip off the material and we had no source of heat sufficient to melt out a part of it. We felt a sense of wonder and awe when we tried to speculate about the incredible forces, stresses and strains under which a material such as this must have formed. Under the dark skies and amid the red landscape, work proceeded. We explored the surface of the planet but did not move very far from the landing site because it was not necessary. Our telemetric instruments had charted out the planet quite thoroughly while we had orbited it. On the fourth day, disaster struck. Our dome sprung a leak and we lost more than half of our air supply before the leak could be closed. Jon decided that because of the loss of air, we would wind up our mission a week earlier than our schedule and would take off for Earth. Came the next day, the day of our take off. Cornwallis was performing the routine check of the ship's hyperdrive systems when his face paled. "What's the matter?" asked Jon, alarmed at the expression on his face. "The hyperdrive is down," said Cornwallis. "What?" roared Jon. "Seems beyond repairs," whispered Cornwallis. Jon held his head in his hands. It was an unprecedented event. That night, (figuratively speaking of course, since night on the planet was the time when everyone went to bed), none of us could sleep. We simply huddled close together, either fidgeting or simply staring out into space. Next day, Jon called a formal meeting of the crew. The item on the agenda was: What should we do now? Jon was perfectly calm and collected as he summarized our predicament. The standard procedure in a distress situation is to beam SOS messages and hope for some nearby ship to pick up the signals and come to the rescue. The problem was that we had only about seven days of air left, and the chances of a ship being in the vicinity to pick up our distress signal within this time were infinitesimal. Our mission was supposed to last two weeks, of which nine days were still left, and so no one on Earth would be bothered about us until it was too late for us. So what do we do now? That was the question of the day. "There is only one thing to do," Cornwallis said. "We have to find a signal source much stronger than the distress beacons we have, strong enough to reach the earth." "Yeah, like what?" said Krishna sarcastically. It was then that something clicked in my mind. "Wait, I have an idea," I said. "What?" Everybody fixed their eyes on me and suddenly I was extremely self-conscious. Slowly, haltingly, I tried to convey my idea to them. "We do have a force-shield on our ship, don't we?" "Of course," said Cornwallis. "And how much can the field be expanded?" "It could have an effective radius of about twenty kilometres," Cornwallis replied. "Enough to blanket the radiation from the pulsar if the ship was close to it?" "Yes, but ___ " "The pulsar must be under constant observation from Earth, right?" "Yes, but what are you getting at?" asked Krishna impatiently. And I told them. "You are crazy," declared Corny. "Absolutely rockers," agreed Krishna. Jon suddenly got up from where he was sitting, pulled me off my feet, swung me in a long arc and shouted "You are wonderful." Was this my shy, silent, teddy bear? I wondered dazedly as I dug my fingers into his forearms and hung on for dear life. "You mean there is something in her idea?" asked Krishna. "There is a lot in her idea," he said, and gave me another jubilant swing. It looked like it was hard to stop him once he got going at anything. Not that I complained. I saw hope dawning on the faces of Cornwallis and Krishna. Then the three of them joined their heads and went into discussions over the technical aspects of my suggestion, and for three hours I couldn't get any of them even to acknowledge my existence, the beasts. The imminence of death seems to do strange things to people. Just before the next sleep period, I watched the faces of Krishna and Cornwallis and saw there a seesaw of hope and despair. But still they talked, they joked. Jon was more silent, more brooding than I had ever seen him before. His chin resting on the palm of his right hand, he would stare at the ground for a long while. Then he would raise his head and look at me. Then he would once again stare at the ground. This went on for quite some time. Then suddenly he got up from where he was sitting, took me in his arms, and crushed me to him. "Ruby," he whispered. "Yes?" "Ruby." "Yes?" "Will you marry me?" The intensity of his voice startled me more than the question. I tried to speak but I found I had lost my voice. "Will you marry me?" he asked again. "Yes," I said in a small voice and buried my face in his chest. "Now." "Now?" Once again he had managed to startle me. "Yes, now." "How?" "We will say our own marriage vows." My head still buried in his chest, I started sobbing. "What... what..." he tried to speak, and his voice was panicky. I went on sobbing with total, joyful abandon. Then, on a strange planet under strange skies, in the cabin of a spaceship, Cornwallis and Krishna witnessed a strange marriage and, after throwing numerous ribald comments after us, left the ship and made their way to the dome. I watched their faces as they were leaving and wondered at the unpredictability of the human nature. Our marriage seemed to have done something good to them. The seesaw of hope and despair was gone from their faces and they were once again the same old Corny and Krishna, full of life and zest. Once Corny and Krishna had left, Jon got up and closed the door of the cabin.... .... And the threat of death made the pleasure just that much more intense. The next figurative morning, when I opened the ship's door and looked out at the red splendour of the planet called Ruby, I felt that this planet had been created for the express purpose of acting as the venue for my marriage to Jon. Soon, the day's work started in earnest and proceeded with swiftness. The force shield was connected to the ship's computer which was then programmed to switch the device on and off at appropriate times. The course of the ship was plotted and fed into the computer. Then the ship was switched to autopilot. All of us disembarked from the ship. All the necessary things that could be transferred from the ship to the dome were transferred. Jon then, with what was analogous to a pat on the rump of a horse after the removal of its saddle and reins, started the ship's engines by remote control and sent it hurtling through space toward the neutron star. It would take some time for the ship to reach the pulsar and then to come close enough to the pulsar to be destroyed by the stress of its gravitational pull. Hopefully, that time would be enough for what we had planned to accomplish. Now all we had to do was to wait and pray. And it was a long, very long waiting period though it lasted only five days.
****On Earth, in an observatory where the pulsar was being monitored, a man jerked upright in his seat, rubbed his eyes twice and looked at the latest readings from the neutron star. The radio pulses from the neutron star were no longer regular. Astounded, he noted the pattern of the pulses as they came in now. The other people at the observatory momentarily thought that he had lost his marbles when he shouted on the communication channels: "The pulsar is sending SOS signals."
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A story by Ahmed is always a treat. This oneís a bit longer than his usual, and something of a departure from his other stories on anotherealm. Still, its characters and pacing enthralled me. How about you? No, donít tell me. Tell our BBS. Right now! -GM
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