Past Light

His next action surprised him. He didn’t chart his surveying orbit or initiate the imaging arrays. He didn’t scan the surface for lucrative resources. That could get done later. The surveyor prepared his ship to head down to the planet surface. He just wanted a closer look.

He turned his seat to absorb the force his body would experience while the ship decelerated. After dropping the braking anchor, he waited for the effects of it dragging through the atmosphere. The first slight tuggings jostled the ship like a memory toying with his mind. When the anchor bit solidly into the air, the surveyor’s body pressed back against the seat. He monitored the ballast adjustments just to make sure the intellitor was doing its job. After months of silence, the vibrating tether filled the cabin with a disturbing hum.

When the ship had slowed sufficiently, it began its descent. The first whiffs of atmosphere rocked it with surprising blasts of sound. Soon, the constant wail against the shielding indicated the craft had fully submerged. The anchor slowly retracted as it cooled in the upper atmosphere. After the sonic blast caught up with the ship, the shielding ruffled to allow the flowing air to whisk away the heat of entry. As soon as he could, the surveyor turned to look out at the planet.

He flew just above a layer of cloud cover and could see nothing of the ground. Immediately the whiteness obscured even the sky. His eyes widened in the haze, as if that would help him peer through it. When the ship broke into the clear, he saw an expanse of forest. His heart thumped in his chest. Never had anyone discovered anything remotely like this. Tree-like plants grew everywhere, and a grassy cover filled the clearings. It looked so much like Earth should look that it prodded at a tender ache he didn’t know he had. His home planet had not looked anything like this for hundreds of years. He knew what it used to look like, of course, from archived images and various reproductions, but these had never elicited more than a disinterested shrug from him. This vision of an ancestral home from a collective past moved him; tears welled into his eyes. He could not understand why.

“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it,” he kept repeating to himself.

Guiding his ship lower, he looked in the open fields for signs of life. Grazing cattle, herds of buffalo or elk, scenes once common on Earth, would fit quite naturally here in this alien setting. Finding higher forms of extraterrestrial life was undreamed of. Animals weren’t the only source of methane, but with so much Earth-like vegetation, the possibility of Earth-like creatures seemed promising. He was still too high to see anything useful through the windows. Touching the instrument pane, the surveyor brought up a magnified infrared view of the terrain on the display. Breathlessly, he continually switched views, scanning a new section of landscape every few seconds.

Something was down there. In fact, numerous forms showed up on the display pane. A jittery thrill percolated through his body. The infrared view distorted their figures, and he couldn’t quite make them out. They occupied a large open meadow. Gazing out of the window pane again, he still could not see anything. The surveyor needed a better view but, not wanting to frighten anything, didn’t dare fly over. A smaller clearing nearby seemed to have what he would call a well-used deer track running through it toward the larger open field, but he doubted deer had made it. There would be no deer here, would there? Something else must be running through this forest. The surveyor set out the landing gear and settled the ship next to a line of tall trees.

When he stood, he suddenly became dizzy and fell back into his seat. There had been no up or down to look out at for nearly half a year. With the ship listing slightly on the uneven ground, he had to adjust. His balance no longer correlated with the level of the floor he had been walking on for the last five and a half months; the normal visual cues weren’t helping anymore. The surveyor waited a moment, closed his eyes and tried again, using his hands as he worked his way toward the storage lockers.

He was shaking: nervous and happy and eager; each emotion tumbling over the other. Riffling through a field box he had never expected to use, he pulled out some binoculars, a water bottle and a small pack. His hands flashed with adrenaline as he ripped open the packaging seals; he hardly wanted to take the time to prepare properly for his exit. He wouldn’t need much for such a short excursion.

A field beacon appeared at the bottom of the box. His first impulse was to ignore it. He didn’t think he’d be going too far, and he didn’t want to take the extra time to set it up, but he forced himself to slow down. It would be silly to chance getting lost. He slung the small pack onto his back and reached in for the device. The power units on the homing beacon and the receiver were both fully charged.

The surveyor removed his deck shoes and put on his boots. These he kept for when he returned to Earth’s gravity. It took a few twisted ankles before stumbling across this little trick. His clothing should be fine. It was tight fitting but stretchable—meant for comfort—and well insulated for the cold of space. The pilot had no pockets, but if he found anything worthwhile, it could go into the pack. The belt he always wore had a variety of clips and snap loops, so he secured the beacon’s receiver to one of them.

While waiting for the air pressure in the ship to balance, he double checked the readings at the rear display: an acceptable level of oxygen and no traces of toxins. The air was breathable; he knew it would be. The surveyor looked at his reflection on the shiny surface of the instrument pane and smiled. His longish brown hair swirled and pointed in all directions—a result of the low gravity of the ship—and his face was covered in a few days’ worth of stubble.

“Ah, what the hell.”

This momentous occasion would get no special pageantry. His dark eyes beamed back at him.

“This is exactly what we’ve been looking for.”

He released the lock. The door lowered, and fresh sweet air rushed in. The surveyor had forgotten how stale ship air smelled, how heavy it felt, and he breathed deeply, cleaning out his lungs. The strong sunlight forced him to shade his eyes as he clanked his way down the door. Blinking the bright pain away, he examined the landing area. His ship was small and nestled easily in the path. Some of the trees he settled next to towered well above it. He briefly considered leaving the door open to air out the interior, but he didn’t want any critters coming in and chewing on anything.