World of FlamesXavier Xanthum, Space Explorer, lay back in his com chair, Kitty Comet a pool of warm fur on his lap. Xavier’s finders absently twined in the cat’s soft pelt while he contemplated a catalog of possible destinations.
“Larry, what about ZE742?”
“Inhabited, and currently at war with the Zarathustrians, Captain. I wouldn’t recommend it.” The computer, Xavier thought, was getting all too human. His voice was as dryly sarcastic as Xavier himself could make it. With reason: the Zarathustrians were among the galaxy’s nastiest inhabitants. Landing on a planet with which they were at war would be a painful sort of suicide.
“Right.” Xavier gave an equally dry response. “What about ZE803?”
“It’s a big war.”
“A different system, then.”
“I would recommend that, yes.”
Xavier went back to petting the cat and staring at readouts. Comet purred and closed her eyes. “Here’s one, Larry,” Xavier said after an hour or so, during which he had nodded off three times. His feet were cold, despite the climate control on the ship and the warm cat on his lap. It might be nice to go someplace hot. “ZG003214. I don’t see any info on it. Is it unexplored?” Xavier might have nodded off earlier, but the prospect of an unexplored planet woke him up thoroughly. As a Space Explorer, he made his living finding places no one had mapped, sussing out the riches and risks, and selling the info to the relevant agencies or merchants.
“It appears to be unmapped.” Larry sounded excited too. Even an AI could get bored on a long voyage with no new discoveries, and this had been a very long voyage. They all needed a change, and Xavier was too broke to afford any ground time even at one of the low-end resort planets that could be found in this part of the galaxy.
“Let’s go check it out,” Xavier decided. “Run the usual searches and diagnostics as we approach, Larry.”
“Of course.” Now Larry sounded offended at the idea that he would do anything less. Xavier grinned.
If the planet wouldn’t support human life, they could still do a recon in the landing pod, and maybe find out something worth selling to someone. He hoped so. They needed some credits. Course set and Larry in control of systems, Xavier followed the example of the cat in his lap. He fell asleep.
It took two days to reach the unknown planet, during which time Xavier prepared the pod, studied everything Larry could find about the place—which took less than five minutes, as the place was truly unexplored—and played with Kitty Comet. They both enjoyed low-G yarn chases, which resulted in something like slow-motion feline ballet. Xavier even heard Larry chuckle at some of Comet’s antics, and wondered when the computer had learned to laugh. He’d long known Larry had a sense of humor, since it was often enacted at Xavier’s expense, but a laugh was a different matter.
About the time they were all ready to go nuts, the planet began to be visible on the vid screens as more than a dot.
“Funny color,” Xavier grunted, gazing at the as-yet-featureless orb.
“Red. Like the stories say about Mars.” Larry had been studying human history and literature, and knew a lot about where humans had come from. Since he was a computer, he could read at the speed of light, though he did claim to need a bit of time to process what he read.
“So what made Barsoom red?” Xavier had read a lot of old stories too and didn’t mind reminding Larry of the fact. Space exploration left a lot of time for reading.
Xavier nodded. Iron wasn’t as valuable as orichalcum, but it was an essential product. A planet rich in iron would be worth something.
A while later, as the image grew on the screen and more scanners came into range, Larry said, “Spectrum isn’t right for iron.”
Larry gave a laundry list of elements and effects. “I regret that I cannot at this time say which it is.”
Xavier rolled his eyes. When Larry started sounded extra-formal, he was hiding something. “Let’s take a closer look.”
Later, Xavier would wonder how many times he’d said that over the years, and how many times he’d regretted saying it.
Xavier watched as the world grew larger and larger, filling the vid screen. It made him uneasy, though he still could not see clearly what it was. It seemed to shift and flicker.
“Larry, is there something wrong with the vid screen? The planet jumps.”
“Running diagnostic,” Larry responded, then almost immediately, “Vid screen is functioning properly. Shall we enter orbit?”
Xavier nodded, picking up the cat as he stared, mesmerized, at the shifting image. “I’ll head for the pod in five minutes.”
Larry was silent for just long enough to make Xavier tear his eyes from the image and ask, sharply, “What?”
“I believe a landing would be ill advised. Sensors tell me that the temperature of the outer atmosphere is well over 200 degrees. Ground temperatures are estimated over 400 degrees. The planet is on fire.”
“It’s not just a heavy planet with a thick atmosphere?” That was common. An entire world in flames was not.
“No, Captain. The planet is on fire. There has possibly been some catastrophic event. I think it would be unhealthy to descend into the atmosphere and seek the source of the flames.”
Comet, who had also been staring at the flames, yowled agreement.
“I have removed us from orbit,” Larry reported before Xavier could answer. “Exterior sensors report unacceptable atmospheric conditions.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The planet is attempting to ignite our craft, Captain.”
Xavier, who only a short time before had entertained visions of a rest on the surface and a hefty deposit in his banking account, found he had lost interest ZG003214. “Take us out, Larry.”
It would be nice to go someplace cool.