Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six, Five, Four, Three, Two, One. Go.
You were outside, walking your cat, when the Ringed Planet first appeared in the sky above Flatwood Grove.
Well, it appeared in the sky above everyone, I suppose.
It’s funny, as you remember it. It was totally overcast that day, but the weather was warm and dry; as you and Mr. Beemz were nearly home from the walk, she laid down in the road started writhing on her back— doing that weird stiff-spine thing that cats do, but upside down— and when she stopped, frozen in the street, you felt it. A low rumbling sound that you could feel in the very bottom of your core, then your stomach, your chest, and finally up through your jaw and into your forehead.
The overcast skies cleared; the dry warm air turned cool and damp in a matter of seconds; and there it was— the impossible Ringed Planet.
You ran inside, panicked, trying to wake your roommates from their afternoon slumbers, trying to get anyone to come outside, to see what you had seen. A new planet in the sky, in broad daylight! It’s completely impossible! You shouted through the house, terrified that this would mean the end of life on the Homeworld; terrified that the Ringed Planet would vanish as quickly as it appeared, and you, alone, would be left with the memory. — “Come, on! Wake up! Wake up! You have to come outside! You have to come now! The sky! You have to see the sky!”
A static charge was building in the air as you led your companions out onto the lawn, as everyone in the neighborhood did the same, as cars down the street slowed to a stop and everyone in them did the same, all of humanity stumbling forward, necks craned to heaven as a new god appeared.
You scrolled the news feeds every available moment for the next two weeks—
— What was it? (a planet, core-solid like Mars, but enormous in size and with debris rings like one of the gas giants)
— Where did it come from? How did it get into our solar system without anyone noticing before now? (Unknown, but the chatter on the feeds above Station 99 were suggesting that the Corporation either knew about it the Ringed Planet for years, or were the ones who somehow created it, with massive deployments from the Outward Side of Luna Colony.)
— Why isn’t it wreaking havoc with tides, or gravity, or anything else here on the Homeworld? (Again, unknown, though that cool, damp air has been floating through Flatwood Grove since the planet’s … appearance. (A group of infowarriors on Station 113 were making the claim that Homeworld had been covered in an anxiolytic vapour that was preventing any more than the usual riots and unrest; you didn’t care for most of the infotainment conspiracy theories, but there was something about this one that struck true for you.))
As with anything, the news surrounding the Ringed Planet began to quiet down, slowing to a trickle, as the days became weeks, the weeks became months, and eventually the months became years. It’s not that people stopped caring about it, but most people aren’t scientists and there’s only so much a laycitizen can read about chromatic displacement and transit photometry before getting bored. The Ringed Planet was beautiful, yes, and people will always care at least a little bit about a beautiful thing in the night sky, but as far as the Corporation would admit, that’s all there was to it.
It was a weekend afternoon, a full two dozenals later, when you got the call.
“Please hold for a call from Vice President and Corporation CXO Charles,” said the voice on the other end of the screen. The moment jarred you to attention— it wasn’t completely unheard of for a Commander in the Xenoba Flight Corps to get a call from a Corporation C-level, but it hadn’t happened to you since… It hadn’t happened to you in a while.
“Commander, I hope you’ll forgive me for disturbing you at home.” The VPCXO said as she came on the line; her voice snapped you back to the present, away from your partner, away from the life you shared before they went MWM (missing while on mission).
“VPCXO Charles, hello, ma’am.” you said, “No, ma’am, no disturbance at all. I mean, you’re not disturbing me. I mean… ” the potential weight of the call caught up to you while you were talking, flustering you. VPCXO Charles, thankfully, was not known to be a woman of polite conversation, and cut you off before you could stumble into saying anything truly embarrassing.
“Commander,” she said, “We have a job for you you. I can’t give you the details over the call for security reasons, but I wanted to be the one who made the request, hopefully giving you an idea of the gravity of the scenario.”
“Ma’am, yes ma’am.” you confirmed.
“All I can tell you now is that the mission concerns Gabriel. Do you accept the mission?”
“An non-compete NDA prevents me from saying more. You either accept the mission DTF or reject the mission and we say our goodbyes.”
A mission concerning Gabriel. Your mind pulled you back to the day Gabriel— Zroya, as the Eastern Conglomerate called it— the Ringed Planet, first appeared. You glanced to Mr. Beemz ashes on the mantel. Was it a mission to Gabriel? You could be one of the first people to ever set foot on the Ringed Planet. You could command the first rocket launch to the Ringed Planet!
“Ma’am, yes. I understand and I accept.” you said, before you had time to really think about it.
“Homeworld— and the Corporation, specifically— thank you, Commander.” VPCXO Charles said before signing off.
Another voice came on, giving you a secure time and place to receive mission details, and then the call ended, the screen fading to a single point of light and a slight electrical hum decaying into the evening, filling your empty living quarters even as it retreated from them, leaving you in the same silence the call found you in.
It was as you sat in that decayed silence, looking out your window at it— at the Ringed Planet— that it dawned on you— just as quickly and magically as Gabriel’s annunciation— you had just accepted a non-disclosure mission, details to follow, that only vaguely concerned Gabriel. Even if you were the first to land on his distant shores, you wouldn’t be allowed to tell anyone. In all likelihood, you had just signed a contract on your own death.
[Keep reading: Chapter Nine]