The Poison Planet

I decided to pick up some writing prompts off /r/writingprompts on Reddit and get back into things. Here's the prompt:

The Solar System has become the main theatre of a galactic war. Every planet and moon has been colonized. The Earth alone has been spared; it’s inhospitable environment makes it too dangerous to even land on. Humanity is left with a front-row seat to a war they will never understand. source

"Teacher? How come the aliens never come down here?" Jan asked. He sat at the front of the class wearing a green alien t-shirt that said, "We Welcome You" on the back.

Miss Rybar sighed and stood up from behind her desk. Everyone else had been doing their homework diligently. Well, almost everyone. Miro was doodling on his paper and Michaela played with the hairbands around her wrist while Ani braided her hair from the desk right behind.

Ms. Rybar looked forward to the quiet time in her classroom but knew that Jan would have questions about the assignment -- filling out a worksheet about the Danubes.

"Jan, we've discussed this and it's on your worksheet."

"I know, but I want to know more."

"And you will," Ms Rybar cut him off. Unfortunately, Jan's comments spurred Svata from his half-dream state where he looked out the window at the school running track. They'd have physical education next and Svata loved it.

"It's stupid anyways, I'm glad they're not here. They took over everything else."

"Not everything else, right Ms Rybar? They've stayed off Earth and they avoided Europa, too. Isn't that right?" Jan asked and Miss Rybar nodded. Since she was already standing, she started to draw the diagram of the Solar System on the blackboard. By the time she turned around, she noticed that no one was working on their assignment anymore. She sighed.

"Alright class," she announced and got everyone's attention, "We're going to do this the old-fashioned way. Put your worksheets away and we're going to discuss the Danubes out loud. First, I'd like to know which one of you know a good deal about the Danubes already?"

Jan raised his hand. Svata was going to but put it back down. Ani raised her hand and Michaela starred blankly at Ms. Rybar.

"Alright. Ani, do you know why they are called Danubes?"

Ani cleared her throat, sat up straight and answered, "Because the first ever attempted contact happened when one of their capsules landed in the Danube river."

"That's right, close by Vienna. Jan, what happened when they landed?"

Jan smiled, he loved talking about the Danubes, "The capsule burst open and disintegrated soon after. And while early research suggested that it landed empty, new research discusses the possibility of a diplomatic envoy having been killed upon arrival."

Ms. Rybar frowned, "Alright, yes, that's being discussed. The capsule could not withstand the Earth atmosphere and the closer the Danubes get to the surface, the harsher the effects. Do any of you know what makes our planet inhospitable to the Danubes?"

"It's the oxygen," Svata chimed in, "It kills them."

"Not just the oxygen, but the nitrogen concentration and the water-vapor in the air. It destroyes the Danubes and their technology. In fact," Ms. Rybar circled every planet in the Solar System other than Earth, "the Danube factions have colonized every bit of the Solar System other than Earth and Europa without any trouble but they could not colonize Earth."

The bell rang and the kids filed out.

Later that night, Jan sat at his telescope and watched the stars. He set his eyes on Jupiter which was prominent in the sky at this time of the year. From his books, he saw that it used to look like a very bright star but turning his eyes to it now, he could see the massive thick ring that the Danubes have built around it. Turning his telescope toward Saturn showed a different scene. Small light bursts lit up the sky and he knew that a skirmish was going on there.

His mom got back from work, she was part of the Danube Institute of Alien Research and always told Jan the latest developments, the ones she could at least. Her specialty was communication but from her own words, they've yet to figure out a way to communicate with the Danubes so that they would respond.

"They can hear us, we can be sure of that. They just don't care to respond. They see us as poison. Human bodies are predominantly made of water, you know that, right Jan?" she asked him as they sat down to eat dinner.

"Yes, mom. I know that."

"They're afraid of water. Water to them is like cyanide to us but worse. Well, that's not exactly right. When they come into contact with water, or with oxygen, they dissolve. Look," she told Jan. She took her coffee cup and put a sugar cube in, "Imagine the sugar cube is a Danube and the coffee is water. Once you put it in," she paused and swirled her spoon in the cup, "they break apart and disappear."

"Like what happened during the first encounter."

She nodded, "I don't think they meant to land in water."

"But why don't they communicate with us?"

"Oh, there are theories about that. Many theories. First, why do you think?" Jan's mom took a sip of her coffee now that she was done with her dinner. The television in the background was muted but she would occasionally glance over at the news headlines. Saturn battle was raging and the news stations covered it as well as they could.

She could not help but feel slightly at peace that for once, the sensationalized warfare on the broadcast did not involve terrible human casualties. She wasn't apathetic toward the Danubes but their presence had brought peace upon humanity -- through a mixture of awe and fear. What would happen once one Danube faction won? When would they turn toward Earth? But none did.

"I think, I think they're too busy fighting," Jan said finally after thinking for a minute.

"That's one theory. They're too busy to waste resources on getting to know us. Some say they simply don't care. Others believe that we must be repulsive to them."

"Why repulsive? I think we're all quite nice," Jan said and ate some of his pudding desert. He saw his mother glance back at the television again so he turned around. That's when he saw the announcement.

"Mom --" Jan started but she shushed him and turned on the audio.

"It looks like a ship broke off from Saturn. It's part of the Green faction of Danubes -- the same faction that has tried to land near Vienna nearly a decade ago. From our latest reports, the Yellow faction has taken over all of the territory surrounding Saturn. The ship has been caught broadcast the word 'Help' in several dozen recognized languages and hundreds more that our scientists currently cannot translate.

"The world leaders have been called to meet and make a decision on how to proceed but it's safe to say that this could be a turning point for relations between the Humans and the Danubes."

The anchor passed the story to a correspondent expert on the subject, Karla Novak.

"Mom! Mom! She's from your work!" Jan exclaimed when he saw the tall woman on the television.

"Yes, she's my boss," Jan's mom nodded without taking her eyes off the screen.

"We're, of course, thrilled to meet the Danubes; however, one problem arises. Since there are at least two factions, will connecting with one cause issues with the others? The other problem is, what kind of help can we provide? The ISS does have a built-in containment unit but it can hold a dozen Danubes at best, and definitely not the entire ship."

"Can they dock with the ISS? Perhaps, we can provide them supplies rather than a home," the anchor asked off screen.

"We cannot. The ISS, to be reductive, is made of an aluminum alloy which violently interacts with their ship's base element. Unlike our ships which are made of separate individual parts that were assembled together to form a space station, the Danubes use a technology unknown to us. Their ships are made of a thin film which holds a thick gaseous mix that we've been able to replicate in our containment unit."

The picture went to the anchor who nodded. The phone rang and Jan's mom turned off the television.

"They want me at work," she told Jan after a minute of back and forth on the phone.

"I'll be fine."

Jan's mom nodded and left. Jan went back to his telescope and found the coordinates of the incoming ship quickly. It took him another hour before he found the exact spot where the ship was approaching from but he could see nothing, even at the highest magnification.

The news went on covering the event but not much changed. The Special Council was still deliberating as to what to do. The ISS had prepared its containment unit. World Danubelogists discussed the different sides of the issue at hand.

Jan absorbed it all until he fell asleep on the couch while still watching.

The boy awoke several hours later to a warning signal coming from the television. There wan announcement. The council made its decision. They would try to dock with the ship. And even later, the television announced that the docking had failed.

Earth and its population braced itself over the next months. Would the opposing faction pursue Earth? Would Earth be pulled into the war despite not having been part of it? But neither faction approached the planet and the incoming ship had dissolved upon contact, leaving no trace behind.

Fifteen years later, Jan joined the DIAR alongside his mother who had become a director of the facilities highest priority projects. No new ships had approached and the Danubes continued waging war at the same intensity. Neither faction seemed to be gaining any significant ground and neither faction was able to establish a more permanent base.

Jan's mother, Renata, had been working on an initiative to launch into space again, and to explore whatever parts of the solar system were not occupied. The council had been against it for ages which is where Jan's work came in. His team explored the various ideas about what Earth can and cannot do.

Existing satellites were destroyed as collateral damage when the Danubes entered the system, an EMP wave had knocked everything outside of Earth out. The ISS took months to repair but since then, the Danubes did not care on humanity's slow expansion beyond its planet. Jan's bet was on launching new satellites.

The day had come for the first interplanetary surveyor to be launched. It had been an international effort to create a tri-telescope satellite that could drift and slowly orbit each planet in the system from far away -- far enough not to pose any threat to the Danubes.

Jan sat down in front of his screen along with his team. They watched anxiously as the last few checks were done halfway around the world and the final launch sequence started. The massive engine lifted the satellite in the sky, then slowly in the orbit. The team cheered when it cross the Moon's orbit and headed toward Mars.

Jan left to a bar with his mother to discuss the project and to celebrate their success.

"I could not have done this without you," Renata told him. The screen in the background had been set to news covering the launch. They were repeating the launch coverage for the tenth time, each time they added just a bit of whatever new information they received.

The days went by as they had before but Jan could not hide his elation. His life's dream had been to make contact with Danube but since that was not possible, observing the Danubes up close would have to do and it did so very well. He came into work smiling. He would check his phone every few minutes to see the Meili, the satellite, and its progress.

He celebrated milestones with his team and alone. He celebrated the images they got back, the whole world celebrated. Humanity had not left to explore the Solar system in decades. The old claustrophobia of the entire species slowly waned as the youth, the old, and everyone in between speculated about what they would find.

"The Meili's success is not just in its sciences," a reporter covered the satellite's final approach to Mars's moon Phobos, "It is a beacon of hope for humanity and it ushers in a renaissance in exploration, in understanding, and in intellectualism.

"We have lived in fear of the Danubes. But now, we are starting a --. -- the satellite -- Meili -- Danubes had --"

The feed suddenly cut off. Jan was frustrated and went to restart the router in his apartment. Despite voice control, touch screens, and whatever else, the damned routers would still randomly stop working. The night sky lit up and Jan went to open the curtain to see the outside sky littered with bright white lights falling down toward the planet.

He stood there in shock as the first light fell and caused an explosion. The shock wave broke windows from the city all the way to Jan's apartment. Then the rest of the lights fell and the world disappeared.