by Monim Wains
‘Altitude, 200 metres … 100 metres … 50 … 20 … brace for landing.’ The constant hum of the jets got louder, fiercer as we got closer to the ground. Four beams of flame bore down on the land as the starship slowed to almost a hover before dropping for the last little distance. The whole machine jolted with the contact–
‘Touchdown, at 0.25 solar days past apex. Prepare to dismount.’
The loudspeakers clicked off. And silence fell. No one moved. We all held our breaths, frozen by the moment. With silent eyes, I looked at the benches across me, meeting another face with a startled gaze. For the last age, all that we had known was this metal box, rattling and rumbling through the infinite numbness of space. We had prepared for this mission for half of our lives. We were ready for it. But now that we had landed, we felt completely unprepared. What lay outside those doors?
I thought over that time again: 0.25 solar days past apex. That would be … 24 … 6 … six! Six in the ‘afternoon’ for them. That’s what they would’ve called it.
That’s what we would’ve called it, a hundred generations ago.
Eventually the captain turned, looking at each of us in turn, letting us see that the weight was on her shoulders too. With her characteristic calmness, she reached out towards the console and pressed the button marked ‘EXIT’. There were no words, but she spoke with her actions. She walked to the end of the ship with measured steps. Her eyes stayed level, facing the door, being the example that she wanted us to follow.
As she reached the end, the ship felt like it came to life again. There was a loud hiss, the metallic clunk of metal on metal, and the groaning of motors which hadn’t moved since first being installed. The door slowly started to lower, giving the most dramatic reveal. I had expected a shaft of light to cut in once the door opened, but it wasn’t too bright. There was dim light from the local star, hidden behind clouds. Of course, six in the afternoon had been called ‘evening’.
Expeditions were then set up, looking to explore, to complete the mission. We would head out on foot, unfortunately across difficult terrain. Surrounding the ship was a thick wall of brown and green. We weren’t sure what it was, but we hacked away at it little by little.
Over six solar days, we were able to make headway in all directions, mapping out everything that we came across. The planet still had life, thankfully – that was the brown and green. ‘Trees’, they had been called.
That was a good sign, but the mission was more specific. We were looking for the ‘tree’. The legends we had heard as kids had different names for it, relating it to knowledge, or wisdom, or evil; whatever they really meant had been lost to time. But we knew that there was something of that kind to be found, hopefully alive.
The search went on for ten more solar days, our area expanding to make for an ever-wider web of paths cut through the trees. On the eleventh solar day, it seemed like the same was going to happen. We had gone out once the light was bright enough for us to see. We were thorough, scanning every corner we turned with prying eyes. Then, I saw something glint from the corner of my eye. It was the tiniest of wisps, slowly floating up and away. I traced it back down, trying to see where it came from. My eyes rested, on a little opening which seemed almost to glow. I looked around at the unit, and we decided to get closer. It was still a long way away, so the ‘evening’ passed by.
As we got closer, there was certainly a glow. It grew brighter as the sky got darker, and we reached it by 0.5 past apex. ‘Midnight’, I think. I stepped inside from the dark, adjusting to the light. The entrance had opened up to a huge chamber, and right in the middle was a faint flicker of light.
I couldn’t see much at first, waiting for my eyes to adjust. Once they did, I realised what I was looking at. Golden leaves just like in the pictures, hanging from thin black branches. On the ground, I saw the web of roots radiating outwards, the twist of wiry limbs which dove into the mud from the ‘tree’. One of those, I saw, led all the way from the base to my feet. Just out of curiosity – I couldn’t help it – I took the glove off my right hand and knelt down next to the root. A few tentative fingertips reached out.
As soon as I touched it, a spark flew out. My eyes rolled back into my head, and I entered a dream. A storm of memories burst into my mind. In quick succession, I saw the lives that had led to me. I saw the first huts that they made, with just the mud around them. I saw the villages, cities, and empires as they grew. They were my ancestors, each one of them, and the entirety of their lives, playing out before me. We had heard of these in legend, but didn’t know whether they were true. The tree remembered.
I saw my ancestors look up, the first time they turned their gaze to the sky. I saw them looking with wonder at the stars. I saw their dreams, of walking on them one day. A hundred generations ago.
And here I was, I thought. It had been some thousand solar rotations since we had left. And now we had returned.
To our family home.