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The Blue Planet
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1999 by
Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved
On December 3, 1999, the Mars Polar Lander disappeared as
it descended toward the red planet. Five days later, an editor
with a wonderfully appropriate surname Catherine Bradbury
at The Globe and Mail: Canada's National Newspaper
called to ask me if I could write a science-fiction story explaining the
probe's disappearance. The only catch: they needed the finished story
in just twenty-four hours. I said I couldn't contemplate such a
tight deadline for less than a dollar a word, the editor said
fine (much to my surprise), and voilà!
a story was born.
Newspapers are notorious for changing writers' words, but the
only thing The Globe changed was my title,
from "The Blue Planet" to the rather histrionic
"Mars Reacts!" The story appeared on the front page of
section "R" of the Saturday, December 11, 1999, edition.
David G. Hartwell took this story for his fifth-annual
Year's Best SF anthology, but he preferred my original
title, and so the story was republished there and now here
as "The Blue Planet."
The Blue Planet
by Robert J. Sawyer
The round door to the office in the underground city irised
open. "Teltor! Teltor!"
The director of the space-sciences hive swung her eyestalks
to look wearily at Dostan, her excitable assistant. "What is
"Another space probe has been detected coming from the third
"Again?" said Teltor, agitated. She spread her four
exoskeletal arms. "But it's only been a hundred days or so since
their last probe."
"Exactly. Which means this one must have been launched
before we dealt with that one."
Teltor's eyestalks drooped as she relaxed. The presence of
this new probe didn't mean the people on the blue planet had
ignored the message. Still ...
"Is this one a lander, or just another orbiter?"
"It has a streamlined component," said Dostan. "Presumably
it plans to pass through the atmosphere and come to the surface."
"The south pole, it looks like."
"And you're sure there's no life on board?"
Teltor flexed her triple-fingered hands in resignation.
"All right," she said. "Power up the neutralization projector;
we'll shut this probe off, too."
That night, Teltor took her young daughter, Delp, up to the
surface. The sky overhead was black almost as black as
the interior of the tunnels leading up from the buried city.
Both tiny moons were out, but their wan glow did little to
obscure the countless stars.
Teltor held one of her daughter's four hands. No one could
come to the surface during the day; the ultraviolet radiation
from the sun was deadly. But Teltor was an astronomer and
that was a hard job to do if you always stayed underground.
Young Delp's eyestalks swung left and right, trying to take
in all the magnificence overhead. But, after a few moments, both
stalks converged on the bright blue star near the horizon.
"What's that, Mama?" she asked.
"A lot of people call it the evening star," said Teltor,
"but it's really another planet. We're the fourth planet from
the sun, and that one's the third."
"A whole other planet?" said Delp, her mandibles clicking in
"That's right, dear."
"Are there any people there?"
"How do you know?"
"They've been sending space probes here for years."
"But they haven't come here in person?"
Teltor moved her lower arms in negation. "No," she said
sadly, "they haven't."
"Well, then, why don't we go see them?"
"We can't, dear. The third planet has a surface gravity
almost three times as strong as ours. Our exoskeletons would
crack open there." Teltor looked at the blue beacon. "No, I'm
afraid the only way we'll ever meet is if they come to us."
"Dr. Goldin! Dr. Goldin!"
The NASA administrator stopped on the way to his car.
Another journalist, no doubt. "Yes?" he said guardedly.
"Dr. Goldin, this is the latest in a series of failed
missions to Mars. Doesn't that prove that your so-called
`faster, better, cheaper' approach to space exploration isn't
Goldin bristled. "I wouldn't say that."
"But surely if we had human beings on the scene, they could
deal with the unexpected, no?"
Teltor still thought of Delp as her baby, but she was
growing up fast; indeed, she'd already shed her carapace twice.
Fortunately, though, Delp still shared her mother's
fascination with the glories of the night sky. And so, as often
as she could, Teltor would take Delp up to the surface. Delp
could name many of the constellations now the zigzag, the
giant scoop, the square and was good at picking out
planets, including the glaringly bright fifth one.
But her favorite, always, was planet three.
"Mom," said Delp she no longer called her "Mama"
"there's intelligent life here, and there's also
intelligent life on our nearest neighbor, the blue planet,
Teltor moved her eyestalks in affirmation.
Delp spread her four arms, as if trying to encompass all of
the heavens. "Well, if there's life on two planets so close
together, doesn't that mean the universe must be teeming with
Teltor dilated her spiracles in gentle laughter. "There's
no native life on the third planet."
"But you said they'd been sending probes here "
"Yes, they have. But the life there couldn't have
originated on that world."
"Do you know why the third planet is blue?"
"It's mostly covered with liquid water, isn't it?"
"That's right," said Teltor. "And it's probably been that
way since shortly after the solar system formed."
"So? Our world used to have water on its surface, too."
"Yes, but the bodies of water here never had any great
depth. Studies suggest, though, that the water on the third
planet is, and always has been, many biltads deep."
Teltor loved her daughter's curiosity. "So early in our
solar system's history, both the blue planet and our world would
have been constantly pelted by large meteors and comets
the debris left over from the solar system's formation. And if a
meteor hits land or a shallow body of water, heat from the impact
might raise temperatures for a short time. But if it hits deep
water, the heat would be retained, raising the planet's
temperature for dozens or even grosses of years. A stable
environment suitable for the origin of life would have existed
here eons before it would have on the third planet. I'm sure
life only arose once in this solar system and that it
"But but how would life get from here to the blue
"That world has prodigious gravity, remember? Calculations
show that a respectable fraction of all the material that has
ever been knocked off our world by impacts would eventually get
swept up by the blue planet, falling as meteors there. And, of
course, many forms of microbes can survive the long periods of
freezing that would occur during a voyage through space."
Delp regarded the blue point of light, her eyestalks
quavering with wonder. "So the third planet is really a colony
of this world?"
"That's right. All those who live there now are the
children of this planet."
Rosalind Lee was giving her first press conference since
being named the new administrator of NASA. "It's been five years
since we lost the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar
Lander," she said. "And, even more significantly, it's been
thirty-five years over a third of a century! since
Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. We should follow that giant
leap with an even higher jump. For whatever reason, many of the
unmanned probes we've sent to Mars have failed. It's time some
people went there to find out why."
The door to Teltor's office irised open. "Teltor!"
"Another ship has been detected coming from the blue planet
and it's huge!"
Teltor's eyestalks flexed in surprise. It had been years
since the last one. Still, if the inhabitants of planet three
had understood the message had understood that we didn't
want them dumping mechanical junk on our world, didn't want them
sending robot probes, but rather would only welcome them in
person it would indeed have taken years to prepare for the
journey. "Are there signs of life aboard?"
"Yes! Yes, indeed!"
"Track its approach carefully," said Teltor. "I want to be
there when it lands."
The Bradbury had touched down beside Olympus Mons during
the middle of the Martian day. The seven members of the
international crew planted flags in the red sand and explored on
foot until the sun set.
The astronauts were about to go to sleep; Earth had set,
too, so no messages could be sent to Mission Control until it
rose again. But, incredibly, one of the crew spotted something
moving out on the planet's surface.
No. No, it couldn't be. It couldn't.
But it was. A spindly, insectoid figure, perhaps a meter
high, coming toward the lander.
The figure stood by one of the Bradbury's articulated
metal legs, next to the access ladder. It gestured repeatedly
with four segmented arms, seemingly asking for someone to come
And, at last, the Bradbury's captain did.
It would be months before the humans learned to understand
the Martian language, but everything the exoskeletal being said
into the thin air was recorded, of course. "Gitanda
hatabk," were the first words spoken to the travelers from
At the time, no human knew what Teltor meant, but
nonetheless the words were absolutely appropriate. "Welcome
home," the Martian had said.
• The End •
If you enjoyed this short story by Hugo and Nebula Award-winning
science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, how about giving one of his
bestselling novels a try? The opening chapters of each of them are
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