By Scott Westerman (Audio)
In our seven am writing group this this week, our teacher began with Elton John’s Rocket Man. It took me back to senior year in high school, when I had an amazing English teacher who inspired me to believe I might someday be a storyteller. He played Elton while reading Bradbury. When Diane said “go,” I closed my eyes and let the words flow. Suddenly, I was the captain of a starship, listening to my psychiatrist, lightyears from home, on the day when the crew and I might meet a new breed of lifeforms in the hope we might discover their wisdom and perhaps share some of our own.
“When I said put some physical distance between you and the source of your pain, I didn’t expect that you would take me so literally.”
The distance between The Marco Polo and my home planet was so great that it took an hour for the video signals from Dr. Sebastian’s office to render on the screen in my quarters. She liked that. I always interrupted her on earth.
“If there are sentient beings on Alpha Centauri, it’s a good bet that they will suffer from the same imperfections that make humans the thoughtful souls we are.”
Yeah right. I imagined how a world that could so easily practice genocide would react if an alien spacecraft suddenly landed in a city park in Texas. The gun toting reactionaries would likely blow the thing up or trigger the visitors’ self-preservation instinct to react with some weapon that would vaporize both the good and the bad in the same instant.
“Being the captain of a starship with a crew of one hundred, is a lot like wrangling your inner demons. Understand their origins, know that they may never go away, learn to live with them and focus on continuing to grow as a human, anyway.”
“Easy for you to say, Doc,” I muttered at the image I knew couldn’t hear or see me. “You’re not living my life.”
“I’m not living your life,” she repeated, as ever inside my head. “But no amount of distance, physically or mentally, will keep the skeletons in your closet from dancing in your dreams. You know their names. Put them in their own spaceships. Watch them orbit the sun that is the essence of your own energy. Study them at apogee. And then let them go. With each revolution, they become less interesting and finally are just a constellation of dim stars you can use for navigation.”
A corner of her mouth inched upwards. She was pleased with that metaphor.
“I’ll await your next transmission and see you next week. Same time, same station.”
Some cliches continue to live on, long past the time when they have faded into anachronism.
“Bridge to Captain.”
It was Russo. An able first officer who only bothered me when it was important.
“Approaching Alpha Centauri. Scanners confirm carbon-based life forms. And we found Bayer’s beacon.” She said it little emotion. But everyone knew Bayer held the key to the success or failure of our mission. She had gone alone to this planet a generation ago, vanishing without a trace soon after entering orbit. We hoped she had time to program her beacon before fate intervened.
“On my way.”
I buttoned my uniform jacket and took a quick look in the mirror. The hibernation pods that preserved our provisions during the journey had aged me. How I wished they had given me the wisdom that should have come with the years.
“Beacon received and loaded into the computer,” Russo said as I stepped onto the bridge, exuding a confidence I didn’t feel.
I tapped the communicator pinned to my chest. “This is the captain. We are about to enter orbit around Alpha Centauri. We’ll soon know what treasures or trials our ten-year journey will yield. We’ve found Captain Bayer’s beacon. It’s programmed into the ship’s video systems. None of us have seen it. In the interest of transparency, we’ll all see it now.”
I disconnected the comm link and nodded to my first officer who turned a palm to the communications officer. Seconds later, every screen on the ship displayed Bayer’s familiar face. The rock-solid countenance that was a world-famous image in every history class on Earth belied exhaustion and terror. The voice remained ice cold. A true pilot, totally composed in the face of disaster.
“Captain E. Bayer recording on Star Date forty-seven zero-seven twenty-seven. I’m trying to achieve escape velocity with planetary starships in pursuit. Their technology far surpasses our own and I have only moments until I am overtaken and destroyed unless I can engage the hyperdrive before they come into firing range.”
Bayer looked away from the camera. “No time to enter navigation coordinates. I’ll have to punch it with no idea where I may end up on the other side of space and time.”
She leaned in toward the camera. We could see the beads of sweat on her forehead.
“They are just like us, with one notable exception. They have evolved to where their demons no longer affect them. Their world is binary. Black and white. Without emotional connections. Stimulus generates response. Patterns are so ingrained that they cannot process any new ideas. Every change is dangerous and must be neutralized.”
Bayer’s eyes flickered toward another screen. “Less than sixty seconds until they are within range. I’ll have to engage the hyperdrive soon, or the uncertainty of flinging myself into the unknown will be supplanted by the certainty of death.”
The focus returned. The important part of the message was coming. “It turns out that the things that haunt our human dreams give us the ability to adapt and overcome. The whispers of failures, past heartbreaks and pain are what can show us the path to survival. These beings have systematically removed what they saw as genetic weaknesses. All that remains are un-feeling machines, focused on a single belief system. They welcome no new life forms, avoid any new insights and live in a sort of stasis, locked forever in an uncomfortable comfort zone.”
We could see Bayer’s finger moving toward the hyperdrive button. “If you find this beacon, take heed. Turn around. Go back to your uncertainties, embrace your demons. They are the keys to humanity’s destiny.”
The screen flashed a brilliant yellow and went dark. Was Bayer dead? Or was she somewhere beyond the boundaries of the known universe. Either way, she was gone. But not before giving us the keys our own destiny.
The scanner sirens began to sing. The helmsman was too young to disguise his fear. “Sensors show multiple launches from the planet’s surface. Locked on to our position.”
“Plot a return course to earth” I barked. “Do it now.”
Russo gave the command. Whatever we left behind, with all its ambiguities and flaws, was our least objectionable option. Here annihilation seemed certain.
“Ready Captain,” she said, as evenly as if she were describing daffodils.
I pointed toward the expanse of stars that populated the broad screen encompassing the bridge.
Helen Bayer stood next to the Oracle atop a sand dune on the planet’s surface. A transparent image of The Marco Polo’s entry into hyperspace projected as a three-dimensional holograph at eye level. Behind it, the vastness of a blue ocean undulated, its cadence influenced by a moon not much different from Earth’s.
The Oracle’s tranquil baritone issued what felt more like a poem than an order. “Recall the fleet. All defenses may stand down.”
Bayer sensed the Oracle’s inspection. She wore identical gossamer robes to his own. Her graying hair drifted in the warmth of the afternoon breeze.
“Shepherd must have interpreted the beacon correctly.” She was still surprised at how quickly she had learned the Centaurian language and adapted to their serene speech patterns.
“May he spread the message far and wide,” the Oracle murmured. “Your race will require a thousand generations to evolve. The path is fraught with danger.”
“How did you do it?” Bayer asked, feeling a child’s sense of awe in her heart.
“The same way. Sadly, pain and suffering are the only conduits to wisdom. The future is never guaranteed. Remnants of civilization exist on thousands of planets. Only Earth and Alpha Centauri have thus far endured.”
Bayer studied the electrically charged particles that painted an orange contrail across the cloudless sky. “The few influence the many,” she said. “May Captain Shepherd’s legacy be one of enlightenment.”
The Oracle smiled. His aura enveloped Bayer. “You could easily have returned to Earth with a similar message.”
Bayer could sense a telepathic connection. “One-hundred souls were witnesses to my words. Shepherd may not be the only influence when they return. Had I appeared alone, powerful interests would likely have proffered the point of view that I was insane. Every movement requires disciples who have witnessed the miracle with their own eyes.”
The Oracle understood. “The story of the Christ.”
Bayer nodded. “We are all fishers of men. May their vessel bring wisdom and a peaceful perpetuation.”
Bayer sensed the slight rumble that was the Oracle’s precursor to mirth. “You have done well, Helen. More proof that our veneration of women is also wise.”
Bayer pressed her palms together in the Anjali Mudra. “Your sutras command that the servants shall lead, and the leaders shall serve. There is no mention of gender, color or ability.”
The Oracle turned, placing one foot in front of the other, slowly retracing his steps down the sand dune. Helen Bayer followed. His voice modulated into a mirage as they both transformed from flesh and blood into pure, eternal energy. “May your Earth’s progeny one day evolve to where that truth is a given. For that is the trailhead of the path to illumination.”
Rod Serling’s genius lay in how he hid powerful messages inside of science fiction. The message in my little tale is this: We stand at a crossroads today because, our belief systems have become inflexible. When a catastrophe like the Coronavirus Pandemic emerges, it shakes the foundation of every paradigm we’ve lived with for a lifetime. How we help one another adapt and overcome will determine whether or not we survive.