Lonely Starman | A Short Story.

Mandatory Exposition I

In 1972, Mankind launched the Pioneer 10 space probe into outer space with a message, should any intelligent extraterrestrials come into contact with it. Pioneer 11 followed the next year. More sophisticated records with audio and visual data were sent later in 1977 aboard the Voyager probes. We had already been broadcasting radio signals into the abyss starting from 1962 with a Morse code message to Venus and countless more sophisticated messages into deep space towards probable planetary systems. The signals range from rudimentary ‘Hello’s to intricate data about our DNA and location, a craigslist listing for apartments, a deep space communication FAQ list, sounds of vaginal contractions and a Doritos advert.

Mandatory Exposition II

February 6th, 2018 – Private American aerospace company SpaceX launched its ‘Falcon Heavy vehicle’ into space with founder Elon Musk’s own Tesla Roadster as dummy payload with a full-scale human mannequin dressed in SpaceX’s ‘pressure spacesuit’ in its driver seat. As of November 1st, the car is found have crossed beyond the orbit of Mars.

Lonely Starman

I | Message Received

“But mother said we shouldn’t come here alone,” reminded Ory for the third time. A stern look was all he got in response from his elder brother Will who swiftly returned to fiddling with the driving console. “Since when do you even drive? Dad’s going to kill you when he finds out.” Ory hoped that fear would get his brother to change his mind. He was wrong. When has fear ever stood a chance in front of curiosity?

“I should’ve left you at home. Quit whining and help me out here. The map they sent clearly pointed to this spot,” Will stated never taking his eyes off the windshield. What he could even see, Ory did not know. It looked pitch black for light years ahead of them except for a few stars in the distance.

“What ‘map’, Willie? It’s all just a myth anyway. No one has ever seen them. The plates were probably just junk from a drone or maybe a prank. Let’s just go home” -Ory was getting nervous now. Their father didn’t like it when they wandered off. Especially not to these parts. For some reason, everyone they knew always avoided this particular region. Some called it empty and pointless, but many believed it to be haunted for people who came here often didn’t make it back or perished as soon as they did from mysterious illnesses. Haunted by what though, no one spoke of.

“A prank?” This particular argument always angered Will. It was one thing to hide the truth but to do so with such an obvious cover-up was an insult to his intelligence. “What could someone possibly get out of such an elaborate hoax? Not to mention, a very expensive hoax. It was plated in both metals seventy-nine and thirteen. Who could even get their hands on M72 in our colony?” Will fumed, any remaining semblance of patience that he had was no more.

Ory vividly remembered the night they had found the plate. They had almost fallen asleep when they heard a rumbling crash too close to be safe and had rushed out in the thick of the night towards the splattered fireball. The heat had scorched much of the pieces but a sliver of shining metal, covered in etchings, caught their eyes. It was their father who had quickly pulled it out of the fire, almost sending their mom into a frenzy. Their father, being a man of science, was forever curious and never one to mind his own safety should something catch his fancy. The quality had clearly rubbed off onto Will.

“Why do I even bother, you’re just a kid. I thought an extra pair of eyes would help but you’re only being a pain,” said Will still frustrated, but that struck a chord with his younger brother.

“I’m no kid. You guys have to stop treating me like one. Nobody ever tells me anything,” sulked Ory and moved to the back of the mobile. It was his turn to get mad. The plates had been a big enough deal to get the police involved. Their dad was over the moons. They were even interviewed on TV! Ory had never understood what the fuss was about, but it had been important enough to draw the Council’s attention. Then suddenly, it was like nothing had ever happened. Their dad disappeared for days and now refuses to ever mention the plates. All the chatter on TV died down. It never made sense to him, but then again, nine-year-olds aren’t known for their capability to dwell on details.

Will caught himself tapping his foot furiously and stopped. He was starting to wonder if maybe Ory had a point but managed to snap himself out of it. “The tech was too sophisticated. The math worked out perfectly,” he repeated to himself. He could hear his brother trying to hold his angst down, his breathing forcefully audible. In a way, he was able to empathise with him. Being the son of one of the greatest, if not only, scientist in their side of town meant Will grew up with more books than toys. The more he read, the more questions he seemed to have. His dad would point him towards more books for the answers and the cycle ensued. But it also meant lots of secrets. Their dad consulted for the Council a lot and that required him not to talk about most of what he did at work. It meant some questions that Will had, had to be left unanswered – like “Whatever happened to that engraved plate that came flying down behind their house that one time?” He never liked being left in the dark and could understand where Ory’s anger came from.

“Come here, let me show you,” called Will pointing to the array of displays on the console of the deck. Ory wasted no time in rushing to the front and glanced at the several screens lit up in front of them. Some were completely new while others he knew to read – like the attitude indicator, the dial that showed how far from home they were, one for how fast they were going and the dual time meters. He noticed that their shiptime was lagging dangerously far behind hometime. “The faster you go, the longer you lose” – their mom’s voice echoed in his head. He looked up at his brother who seemed to be looking at the meters too, just as worried.

“You see those markings there?” – Will pointed at a screen which held multiple images of the golden plate – “You see all these lines shooting out of this one point on the plate? Now, look at the map.” Ory looked at the navigation panel and noticed 14 dots lit up centred around one large dot just like on the bottom of the drawing on the plate.

“And these circles match too…” Ory’s words lingered on as he took it in. They had passed a star and two of its planets on the way here and sure enough, there was a drawing on the plate with a large circle followed by a series of smaller circles, their distances aligning precisely with their navigation system. Will pointed at the third circle on the image, “See there’s a curve marked around this one? I think it’s a sort of symbol showing us where to go. These are not random etchings but a very deliberate map. Someone sent this to us so that we know where to find them.”

Ory could not believe it right away but so far everything made sense. Clearly, not all of these could be coincidences.”Does dad know?” he asked.

“Dad solved most of it. I just helped him take pictures. This was going to be it, Ory – The discovery of the millennium. We were going to be so famous. Up until the council intervened and ruined it all. Dad doesn’t even let me mention it anymore,” sighed Will pressing his fist to the deck.

Ory was still struggling to process it, “So- so all the stories, the legends, they were talking about this? They were all true?”

Will shrugged, “They…weren’t all false. Some of them were truer than others. None of them specified a location but we have that now. We couldn’t make sense of all that was on the plate, it was written in a sort of code and it had taken a lot of damage but we think we have an idea of what they looked like as well – nothing fancy like the stories, they were much like any other carbon lifeform sprinkled across the galaxy but much shorter and very short-lived. Maybe they weren’t as evolved, you see this was a rather young star system. Explains why they had gone unnoticed for so long, they weren’t making much noise. They didn’t know how to.”

Ory was intently listening on and trying to fit the pieces together in his head. “Why did the Council take it away then? They sound harmless to me. They were much scarier in the stories. We could’ve made friends with them, taught them to play with us.”

The stories indeed painted a gorier picture. Some talked of cannibals that fed on and devoured themselves by the thousands while others called them barbaric creatures of doom that loved fire. They spit fire. It rained fire. They even set their home ablaze and dwelt in fire. Ory found it odd that the ‘map’ led to here because this particular spot was a rather empty patch on all their maps. There were no black holes nearby, no imminent star death and no rogue comets. It was an arid, but sane system humming by a quiet, young star, definitely not the type to strike one as the home system for fire creatures. Except for the allegations of being haunted, of course.

Will couldn’t help but smile at his innocence and shook his head, “That’s what we’re here to find out. Only we know what was on the plate other than dad. Only we can prove fact from fiction now. All I need is a couple of videos, perhaps a specimen and we can be on our way back. Dad would be so proud.” A blinking white light pulled their attention to the time meters. They were in grave danger of losing a large chunk of time if they didn’t return home very soon.

“We’ve come this far, we can start the search from here next time. Let’s just go for now, Willie.”

This time Will knew they had no choice. A good portion of their weekend would have already elapsed if they didn’t make it back right away. “You’re right”, the dejection in Will’s voice hung thick in the air, “drop a marker right here on the map. We’ll head back.” Will tapped on the map to head home and the auto-drive suggested a short gravity turn to course correct before they jumped to max speed. “That’s odd”, Will thought to himself, “Gravity from where? The next planet is too far away.” Their maps stared blankly as well, but then again, there was a clear dip in spacetime a little ahead of them. Seemingly from empty space. Was it a black hole? Is that why people avoided this area? Clearly, that should have been marked on the maps!

II | Ruins.

“Sit down and strap in, Ory. I’m shifting to manual. Something’s off.”

Ory heard the urgency in his brother’s voice and diligently followed. He trusted Will, he knew he was curious but he was never foolish. There was nothing to worry about. Beads of sweat lined his scalp nevertheless. “Reduce, Halt, Reverse, Jump,” Will muttered under his breath reminding himself of the sequence to revert course. He had seen their father do it a hundred times. He never liked to follow maps and often ran into numerous dead ends that they then had to back out of. He brought up the manual controls and set to work, carefully picking out four switches from an array of hundreds. He flipped the first switch – Reduce, the ship slowed down. Halt, it came to a standstill. Rever-“Willie!” Ory shouted, his face pressed to the rear window. Will rushed back and sure enough, the gravity readings now made perfect sense. It was no black hole, just an uncharted planet. A broken planet. It was still in one piece but barely. Chunks of rock and ice were breaking away from random corners of it, only to fall into orbit or fall back into it. It seemed to have an enormous protrusion on one of its sides with what Will could only fathom as the largest and whitest asteroid he’d ever seen, embedded onto its surface. A dying, forgotten piece of nothing in the middle of nowhere.

“Woah! It swallowed its own moon,” Ory whispered, his mouth never closing fully. Of course! It was no asteroid, it must have been its moon. Will couldn’t believe he had missed that, or that Ory had caught it first. Even after impact, it was rather perfectly shaped. Asteroids were never such perfect spheres. With that thought, Will gestured his palms at the window and a new display lit up in front of them with the same image of the plates and there it was – The third circle. Of course, this planet was way off its supposed trajectory and there was no mention of a moon on the plate but then again, none of the planets had their moons marked and that was nearly impossible for any star-system. Their own home had three. Ory noticed him staring at the images and made the connection as well – they were staring at Earth or rather the ruins of it. “The stories definitely got the look wrong. There is barely any blue or greens. How can anyone survive on that?” Ory asked, wiping away more sweat off his brows.

“They don’t. The plate was probably very old. Their star is still quite young though, I wonder what must have happened”-a high pitched beep interrupted Will.

“We are missing school tomorrow already!” shouted Ory noticing the time alert now turned red from white, “Dad is definitely going to come looking now.” Will gestured at the window some more and a series of newer displays propped up, each showing pictures of the planet under different lights. They had to leave, but they weren’t leaving without proof. Their suspicions were confirmed, there was nothing alive on the planet in any of the scans. The images cycled through in increasing order of frequency. He quickly shuffled through the lower ranges as he obviously expected no communication signals from this rock. The thermal image was almost purely dual-toned, with much of the planet extremely hot or extremely frozen. The higher-penetrating-frequency showed that there were countless fractures throughout its crust and what wasn’t molten or frozen was definitely broken. Will swiped for the final screen, with the highest frequencies and it gloriously lit up in multitudes of reds and yellows. The planet was teeming with extreme bouts of nuclear radiation. The mysterious illness!

“Perhaps that’s why they’re all gone!” Will said, thinking out loud. But he couldn’t come up with a theory as to what could cause such high levels of radiation, planet-wide nonetheless. “Maybe an asteroid full of unstable metal crashed into them?” Perhaps. If at all such an abomination existed. In all the books he’d read, he had never come across asteroids holding heavy metals, definitely not in large enough amounts to cause this. With a flick of his finger, the image grew to pan across the entire window and now revealed a much finer image, the bands of colour widening to reveal small, dark spots of concentrated red strewn all over in a sea of yellow and brown hues. “The radiation seems to originate from these spots and flow out,” Will explained, “and these are dotted across the planet.” Clearly, one big rock couldn’t have done this. “It looks as if it had rained nuclear hail or something.”

Ory traced the spots on the screen with his finger, “Maybe they made nuclear snowballs and threw them at each other”- his finger bounced from one dot to the other until he had tapped on every one of them.

“Literally no one in the entire universe is foolish enough to ‘throw nuclear balls at each other’, Ory,” sighed Will, shaking his head at dismissal at his brother and noticed that sweat had fully drenched his collars and was seeping further down his T-shirt. Ory had been sweating ever since they got here but he thought that was just because he was scared. Exactly how far did these radiation belts extend to?

Will dragged his brother away and wasted no time in running to the ship’s controls and flipped the Jump switch. They had enough evidence for now and just had to make it back without dying from exposure. But in haste of the moment, he had completely missed that instead of four, only three switches were glowing in the panel. He had been interrupted before he could flip ‘Reverse’ earlier. The ship began to surge, gathering speed as the world around them twisted and froze and the shiptime dial gradually slowed down but Will realised his mistake soon enough and immediately brought the ship to a halt. “Are we home yet?” Ory asked from behind, oblivious to what had just happened.

“Small hiccup, nothing to worry,” reassured Will, “I’ll take us back right away.” He had caught the mistake early before the ship could barely reach maximum speed. Looking ahead, they could just make out an asteroid field on the edge of their horizon. The plate spoke nothing of this either but the situation wasn’t so bad. Will carefully flipped the ‘Reverse’ switch now and the ship began to turn around where it stood, a tiny spin-toy hanging in the middle of absolute emptiness. Except, once the ship turned around, both the brothers noticed that their view wasn’t so empty anymore. There was a tiny object gleaming not too far ahead.

III | Haunted.

Was it another ship? Maybe dad and mom decided to come searching for us,” Will thought to himself as he gently nudged the ship to move forward. The object looked like an extremely small jewel box and was definitely moving towards them but the way it did felt odd. It wasn’t propelled, it was barely manoeuvred. It just hung in space tumbling aimlessly, possibly on the remnants of an old flight trajectory. Their time alert was still blinking but both the brothers were too caught up in awe of discovery to notice anything else. They could see more and more of the object clearly as its path moved into the direct rays of the star. Its perfectly streamlined and smooth body confirmed that it was indeed an artificial ship. The starlight bounced off its surface revealing an unmistakable red underneath a layer of ice. “It’s so red…” Ory could not believe his eyes. “…and small,” added Will. This was nothing like anything they had seen back home. It was almost too small, and vaguely resembled one of their old land pods. It even appeared to have some sort of wheels in place, only this was somehow miraculously capable of space flight. Will pulled up the scans again and they revealed no heat or radioactive signatures. They pressed further forward as the light moved over its hull and reflected off of what could only be a thin pane of glass. “Let’s see if we can take it home,” Ory suggested with a big grin. “I don’t know if it’ll fit but maybe we can chip off a souvenir,” Will agreed as he directed the ship closer to it.

Taking a piece of it would mean they had to use the ship’s outer arm. It was a two-person job. “How about I hold the ship steady and you try out the arm, Ory?” Will made it sound like he was doing him a favour but he actually had no other choice. He would be in big trouble if their mom ever found out that he let his baby brother hold the wheel on his own. Ory was more than willing and Will began to explain the controls to him. The ship announced that they were within reach of the red ship and the brothers turned to the window. And froze in fear. Ory leapt behind his brother with his mouth agape but he couldn’t make any noise at all. Will’s tongue grew completely dry while his mind frantically searched for an explanation as they stared at the man dangling precariously from the other side of the red ship. Had someone from Earth followed them?

The man’s entire skin was a uniform, pale white, like a ghoul, but that wasn’t even the frightening part. What chilled their bones was that where his face should’ve been, there was just a black veil. It looked like his entire face was one giant, black eyeball. And the eyeball was looking straight at them. The man appeared to be grasping the side of the red ship with one arm but was otherwise dangling in free space. His other arm rose up and fell down in a tardy rhythm as though he was waving at them. Will stood frozen unable to move, his heart pounding against his chest. Nobody could’ve survived THAT much radiation. Maybe his skin and face are so disfigured because of all the radiation. Maybe he was seeking help. “This place is haunted!” rang his mind. Maybe he was a ghost. Mayb- his train of thought was cut abruptly as a sudden darkness engulfed the deck.

He could no longer feel his brother behind him and began to panic as his eyes took their time adjusting to the dim roof lights. He immediately shouted for Ory whom he could now see standing with his hand on the controls, panting. He had turned on the dust shields effectively closing all the windows. The brothers looked at each other for a long time in silence. “We should go home,” Ory said his voice quivering. Will extended a shaky finger and flipped ‘Jump’. A white curve lit up on their navigation panel from their current position to their home planet.

In an instant, they were gone.

Author's Notes

This one took a lot of time.

I was all out of ideas and was browsing through r/WritingPrompts looking for inspiration when this post caught my attention.

Writing prompts from reddit

While I clearly didn’t follow it to the word, the idea of Earth lying in ruins and other alien races being interested in it interested me. The instant I saw the words ‘ruins’, images of legendary ruins like Atlantis or the library of Alexandria came to mind. So I framed a universe where the entire planet Earth was one such legend. Imagine if you got a text on your phone one day saying Atlantis is in the shady part of town that nobody goes to after dark but don’t really take very seriously during the day either, that’s pretty much the premise. Legends are almost always just the truth blown out of proportion. So I threw in mankind’s most horrible traits like us killing each other, or killing the planet and weaved stories from a possible alien onlooker’s perspective. It’s almost as if the alien race knew about Earth once upon a time, decided they wanted nothing to do with us for whatever reasons and built up scary stories for their kids to prevent them from coming out here in the future. Generations later, it was just those scary stories that remained.

I love sci-fi and I devour space movies by the dozen. I’ve always found it unsatisfactory that even high profile franchises like Star wars often took extreme liberties when it came to the underlying physics. Literally, every space-faring movie has vehicles with ‘warp drives’ that push them at the speed of light or close. That in itself is not possible, but I’m willing to let that slide but then again, relativity can’t disappear. With people zipping about at insane speeds, time should go insane as well. But no, everyone’s always the right age everywhere. It was important to me that my story, in spite of being fiction set years into the future, was firmly grounded in reality and actual science. So I used elements from actual human histories like the pioneer plaque and the Tesla roadster floating in space.

Pioneer plaque
The Gold-anodized Aluminium Plaque aboard Pioneer 10 and 11.
Tesla Roadster in Space
Tesla Roadster and ‘Starman’ in space.

It was important to me that relativistic effects were acknowledged. These are aliens that are so used to interstellar travel that their kids could ‘wander off’ to other planets. So time dilation would be second nature to them and hence I added dual clocks for different times and sprinkled it into casual dialogue as well. It’s just something that happens to them, like being late for a meeting happens to us. I’d say the most artistic liberty I took in the story is when I decided to have the roadster and Starman still intact. Physicists believe most parts of the car wouldn’t last another year in space under all the radiation and micrometeorite impacts. It is unlikely that it would be the sole souvenir humans leave behind.

I don’t like it when these stories have too much jargon, but at the same time, they need to be different enough to feel like they didn’t belong to Earth. I wasn’t going to create my own Klingon but I did let my creativity run wild a bit. For instance, things like the speed of light, the electromagnetic spectrum or the chemical makeup of elements would be the same everywhere, so I didn’t bother changing ‘light years’, made X-rays to ‘piercing frequency’ and stuck to calling metals by their atomic numbers instead of coming up with weird names for elements, which are often named after their discoverers here. ‘Solar’ systems became generic ‘star’ systems. I gave them similar idioms and expressions of speech as ours but made minor tweaks like ‘over the moons‘ because their planet has three moons. That must be the norm for them. Say what you want but it was fun for me to write.

I felt it would be best if it took time for you to realise that you were seeing things from an alien’s perspective, to have that in itself to be a suspense reveal of sorts. So I had to make them as human as possible but just evolved long enough to invent high-speed interstellar travel. What’s more human than a pair of young rebellious brothers who love to wander off where they aren’t supposed to? And they needed to have a worried set of parents back home as well. But of course, I had to make them much taller and live longer because that mimics our own evolutionary path the best. Average heights and lifetime of humans have steadily gone up over the years. They probably will continue to do so.

I personally believe that Earth will die of nuclear annihilation much before global warming ruins the planet. I never really considered any other possibilities for why Earth should lie in ruins. But then if an alien race should’ve outlived us long enough to be capable of such advancements, either they never knew war (absurd) or the idea of war had existed, but been phased away long enough for the current generation to have no clue that it had ever existed. That’s why I made sure that it never occurred to the kids that the destruction came from war.

I had initially wanted the kids to meet a small group of humans who had escaped and settled on Mars, but that further prolonged the story and well, it was boring for me to write so it would’ve been boring for you to read. So I switched it out for the Tesla Roadster. I thought it would be fun for the kids to freak out looking at Musk’s Starman. I’m an Elon fanboy, can’t help it. On top of it, imagine seeing a ghost in outer fricking space. You move into a new house where the skies are always grey and obviously you’re going to run into ghosts. Like, duh. It’s been done so many times. But imagine going scuba diving and a skeleton swims up next to you in full gear. Or, you try skydiving and in mid-air, you hear laughter and are joined by five other parachutes but no one seems to be wearing them. Or, you’re an astronaut and you land on the moon. But on the surface, there’s already an astronaut waiting for you. You walk up and touch him and his helmet falls off to reveal your own face! Finding ghosts in absurd places is something of a personal reading-itch of mine that doesn’t get scratched enough. Enough of monsters under the bed. Monsters in space are the future.

I’ve also tried to replicate the Pioneer plaque as much as I could on paper. Mankind has sent many physical plaques and records beyond the solar system, and are constantly beaming radio signals literally screaming our location into outer space. So I had a wide variety of options to pick from. I did start out with them intercepting a radio signal. It made sense as well since they are light years away, they would receive the signal decades after we had sent them and they would come to find us all to be dead. But then, haven’t too many movies already done that? Plus I couldn’t justify how two kids would intercept it or work around the language barriers. The pioneer plaque was the simplest artefact left as the message is purely pictorial. So I went ahead with that.

As with all my stories, the names of the characters needed to have some relevance in this too. I was initially searching for famous alien names from fiction classics but I wanted you to figure out that they were aliens on your own eventually. So I instead chose to go with Ory and Will for Orville and Wilbur. The Wright brothers.


Fight me.