After three months at maximum speed our ship maneuvered into polar orbit forty thousand kilometers from the surface of Cyprus 152, a potentially uninhabited planet. It was the maximum reach of our sensors, which would give us the widest coverage. At that distance it would take 180 orbits to get full coverage of the planet, with every orbit taking fourteen hours. We had been stretching the length of our day out on the journey here to twenty-eight hours, so each team could swap out and handle one orbit per day. 90 days. 90 orbits for me to observe. I should have hoped for boring sensor readings, but I knew after a few days I’d be dying to find some anomaly that would make my days more interesting. On day 39 I got my wish.
Near the end of the 77th orbit it was night on this section of planet. As I watched the feedback of the IR camera, it captured a cloud of particles swirling around in the atmosphere a few feet above the planet surface. It looked like dust being blown around in a vortex, but eventually the cloud parted and moved out of the range of the sensors. “Beautiful,” I whispered.
I couldn’t pull the sensor data up now; I had to focus on what was happening in the present. I’d take another look when my shift was over, before I settled down for the night. I made note of the time on the log as well as the geospatial coordinates of the scan. If further study proved necessary, we could always look in that area again after the initial survey. 51 more days. I hoped I would find another example of the cloud. I thought about coming to watch the end of the next orbit, to see if the particles would be in a similar area on the next pass. They had moved out of range swiftly though, so I doubted they would be there again. I lamented the fact that I didn’t have free reign to adjust our pointing vector and follow the cloud myself. How would I ever find it again?
My shift ended without further event, and I moved to an auxiliary terminal to take a closer look at the data. First I watched the IR video. The dust swirled and danced around for just a few moments before parting and disappearing off to the sides. If I had not been paying close attention, I might have missed it completely.
Next I pulled up the spectrometer readings and ran plots of elemental composition from just a few seconds before the dust appeared to a few seconds after it was gone. Though a large number of elements increased during that time span, the largest increases by far were in silver and bromine. I smiled, fascinated. I rather liked the idea of a cloud of silver dust, and thought it must make for a beautiful display in the sunlight. I imagined all those particles swirling about and twinkling in the light, and hoped we would come across another cloud during a daytime pass.
I wrote a script that would activate every time the amounts of silver and bromine rose above residual levels. The script would copy all telemetry for as long as the levels were elevated and store the data in a separate directory for me to look through on my own time. Then I went to bed.
Over the next eight orbits a pattern began to emerge. The particles always appeared at night. Any grouping always broke and swirled away from our sensor path. I longed for the chance to chase after one of the tendrils. To launch a probe to further study the movement of the atmosphere and see what caused this consistent movement pattern. I knew that could not happen until our initial sweep of the planet was done, so I logged my formal request for additional research and continued to watch as the log files grew in my directory. Always the same pattern. Always the same. I became obsessed with watching the particles.
I barely contained my excitement as we moved closer to the planet and launched a probe. The mission commander had given me full control over this investigation, so I fed the IR video to the pilot’s terminal and ordered her to follow the cloud as closely as possible. We moved directly in on one of the clouds and as it started to break the pilot had a rough time trying to keep the mass of particles in our sensor’s boresight. Closer in the movements of the particles seemed even more violent. She chased a patch until it disappeared, then chased another.
Had the winds picked up, I wondered? Was there a storm brewing on the surface? The probe had nearly landed and we continued to swirl around with the particles. As I watched the pattern of our track superimposed on the surface, I realized we were very gradually shifting with the rotation of the planet. The particles were staying within the darkness of the night side of the planet. I thought the winds must work opposite of how they did on Earth. Instead of dying down at night, they increased.
The probe finally landed, but the landing site had shifted with the rotation of the planet and was now in sunlight. The air was still. I ordered another probe to be launched so that it would land right in the middle of the particle cloud if it continued on this same gradual track. The pilot started to struggle as the particle movements became more and more erratic, almost as though they were trying to evade our scans. They were also decreasing in volume. I looked at the spectrometer readings again and noticed that some of the particles were changing composition and had stopped moving with the winds.
I still only had IR video. I desperately wanted to see my mental image of the shimmering dust, and flipped on a high power spotlight. I watched, but everywhere the light went there was nothing but empty darkness. Only on the edges of the light were there ever glimpses of my glittering dust.
The probe landed and I looked at the readings. The air was still. The dust was not being blown around, it moved on its own. Moving away from our sensors. I watched the swirling pattern again and realized it was running away. Each cluster parted and fled as our sensors tore through the center of it. I looked at the readings left behind from where we had been. We were killing it and leaving a trail of death in our path. “Stop!” I screamed at the pilot and watched, helpless, as the last tendril we followed turned dark and fell to the surface.
We couldn’t investigate any further without doing more damage. Had I just committed xenocide on an entire planet? I would never know. As we departed the agony of what I had done overwhelmed my conscience. I knew I would not make it back to Earth alive.