Steam rolls around our ship. The capsule’s vibrations are deafening. Metal clangs, aluminum overheats and crackles like popcorn. My own breathing distorts my colleagues’ headsets. And then there’s that commanding voice from millions of miles away. “Five. Four. Three.” The shaking seems endless. We are thoroughly trained astronauts, but something about the combination of waking up from cryostasis and the un-simulated possibility of death has our practice fluttering away. “Two. One.” The landing gears nestle on the ground but our three-man crew bobbles violently in our seatbelts. “Touchdown, ladies and gentlemen. We have a successful landing. Star base time: oh-500 hours, local time, unknown.” I finally let my breath out and glance between my colleagues with wide eyes. Hanna laughs nervously. Jason keeps his usual composure.
“Atmospheric readings?” Jason commands.
“Numbers rolling in now,” the voice answers through our helmets. “72 points Nitrogen. 16 points oxygen. Trace components of CO2, hydrogen. Atmosphere appears breathable. Slightly more oxygen than our own. Star base advises crew still proceeds with caution.”
“Roger,” Jason grumbles. There’s nothing Jason hates more than wearing that helmet.
“Remember folks,” the voice crackles one last time, “mission critical. Mission critical. We’re on a limited schedule. Collect samples and return ASAP.”
“We read, Star base,” Hanna replied.
My exasperated sighs hiss over Jason’s and Hanna’s headsets, but they ignore it. They’re used to it now. No matter how hard I try to push it away, I can’t help but carrying out the mission with an ire of reluctance.
For nearly a century our best and brightest had raised the alarm bells: catastrophe on the horizon. But their alarms were as loud as a spaceship landing on an uninhabited planet. There was a point, back then, when our home was salvageable. A time when it wasn’t too late. And now in a feat of unmitigated irony, in the hour our planet needs us most, we leave it behind. When I sigh I mourn the loss of our home, but also all those I know will be left behind to burn and starve in the closing curtains we call an atmosphere. And the worst part? They have no idea.
We exit the capsule, single file. Hanna goes first, ducking slightly to make sure her suit doesn’t get caught in the doorframe, then watches her feet as she steps down the ramp. Jason follows her motions almost exactly. And just as I place a hand on the doorframe, ready to follow down the ramp, Hanna stops dead in her tracks, boots molded to the dirt. The dust kicked up from our landing has partially dispersed. I still can’t see much through the haze, but whatever she sees has the jaw of even her brilliant mind fallen agape. “Holy…”
Then, to my nervous disbelief, Jason stops as well. He says nothing, but nothing needs to be said. The dust clears just a little more and now I can see it too: leaves reach from every direction, looping and winding in a race for starlight. Animals hoot and holler, avian creatures of all sorts whiz past our heads, diving around the remaining dust that hangs in the air. It’s a planet of sheer wonder. A planet to which all I can muster is a breathy whisper. “Wow. What is this place?” I say.
“What’s wrong with you two?” Jason bites back. “There’s nothing special about it. This place is just a primitive dump.”
“A dump?” Hanna sounds offended. “This is it, Jason. This could be where we raise our children. And it’s gorgeous. How could you say it’s a dump?”
Jason scoffs. “It’s a rock with some leaves on it – just like we expected. Or did you dimwits miss that part of training?”
Hanna and I didn’t say anything. His contempt is palpable – he is usually this way, but now it’s coupled with his groggy cryostasis hangover.
To avoid any further conflict, I do what I always do – I remove myself from the situation and put my head into my work. As I push away thoughts of Jason’s malice, I recall the mission objective. We all have a job to do here, and a short timeframe to do so: Hanna is our resident botanist, in charge of collecting plant samples to study the edibility of local vegetation. Jason is our sociologist, tasked with determining hierarchical setups of the local fauna – in other words, see who eats who. That’ll be important information when the first colonists arrive. And I’m the archaeologist. My instructions are clear. I am to behave like a child in a glass vase store: get as much information as I can without touching anything – photographs only. Who knows? Maybe my findings will be part of a tourist attraction one day.
Fallen branches snap beneath my boots as I weave through the tall grass. I’ve heard of planets like this one – ones ripe with life and untouched by our destructive ways. As I walk further, getting lost in the extraterrestrial wonders, any sign of Hanna and Jason steadily disappear, replaced by singing and hooting fauna I cannot identify. Within another 100 meters I come across a mound of concrete rubble and a rounded metal pike sticking out of the ground, both covered in foliage so much that the untrained eye might have mistaken these for natural formations. I raise my camera and snap a few photos. These are structures alright, despite how primitive they look. They’ve largely been reclaimed by the planet, broken and weathered by the passage of time. But I see faint signs that they were clearly made by at least a somewhat advanced civilization – a civilization now long gone.
A little further down my journey, I see another one of these cylindrical metal pikes enveloped in vines. I’m starting to wonder if there’s a pattern here – perhaps these were some kind of trail markers. They don’t look far different from…
And then I see it – a rectangular piece of aluminum, colored green like a street sign. If I weren’t looking so closely, I would have never distinguished its coloring from a vibrant patch of leaves. I push the bushes aside and reach in to grab it. I know my instructions, but something instinctual tells me this hunk of metal bears the answers to my questions about this planet – about its notable ambiguity. The aluminum slab is bent and distorted, but beyond the dew on its face I see the faded markings of a civilization past. I rub my free fist against the flat green rectangle and my eyes bulge at the sight. “32nd Street,” it reads. It’s in English. I lose my breath and realize what planet this is. I should have recognized it on entry. This is it: the planet lost to time, the rock with no history, the rock from which man originated. This is the one they called “Earth”.