Past Light

After securing the vessel, he stepped away from the ship to set the homing beacon. The surveyor kept the legs of the small tripod clipped together because they formed a neat spike which he pushed easily into the soft ground. He activated the beacon and checked the signal on his receiver. They were working perfectly.

He walked up the trail in the direction of the field. The spacecraft itself had no homing beacon, and there were no GPS satellites in orbit. In fact, no one ever thought about landing a surveying ship on an alien world. It certainly wasn’t authorized, and what would be the point? It took too much time and effort to do, and surveyors made their money by flitting from system to system as quickly as possible. But then no one had ever found a planet with a breathable atmosphere before.

Soon the large trees closed in around the path and completely concealed the sky from view. The months in space made the dimmer light more comfortable, but it took a moment for his eyes to adapt back to it. The track continued through the brush, fading in spots but quickly reemerging. It was taking much longer to get to the meadow than expected. The trees were so giant they caused him to misconstrue the scale of sizes and distances. The mighty branches arched far overhead, and he felt like a mouse in some enormous cathedral. He had been in tall buildings with indoor courtyards from where he could look up past countless balconies to the distant ceiling. This forest gave him that same dizzying awe. Finally, the trail brought him to a bright green wall of foliage illuminated by the light from the other side. It marked the edge of the field. The surveyor pushed cautiously through some bushes to find himself in a large meadow.

Crouching to make sure he could remain hidden, he moved further into the open land for a better view. This felt like a dream, almost real, familiar and yet odd. A giant tree, enthroned on a slight hump, dominated the middle of the field; its gnarled roots, like a massive knot, fastened it to the ground. As far from the tree as he was now positioned, he still had to crane his neck to see the top.  The bole itself rose as solidly as a city building. Though it stood as high as the others, this tree looked larger because of its solitary nature. Unlike its more crowded neighbors in the forest, it grew very wide at the top, like an umbrella. Evidently it had room to spread out here. The other trees were not shaped like this.

All around the base of this enormous tree grazed a menagerie of creatures. His head involuntarily shook in disbelief. He had found alien life. This was more than he had hoped; finding oxygen and plants was astonishing enough, but complex life forms defied all expectations. Nonetheless, here they were, living and breathing right in front of his eyes. The surveyor had never believed in miracles, and certainly nothing in his disappointing life ever came close to meriting that label. Not until now. But how was such a miracle possible? Did the conditions for life, the more probable plants and oxygen, make complex life inevitable?

The longer he looked, the more the scene resembled some bizarre version of a nature show. The animals were nearly familiar. A large group of them looked like horses and populated the center of the field beneath the tree. The surveyor didn’t know what was stranger: horse-like creatures here on an alien planet, or their heads which resembled those of wild boars with tusks. Another smaller type of animal, reminding him of a large dog, munched lazily on grass and had a distinctly contented bovine look. These smaller animals mixed in among the larger ones and appeared quite as ease with them. At the forest edge, a long skinny bear-like creature reached into the nearby branches for leaves. A little further away, something that could almost get mistaken for a giraffe, but with a sturdier neck and bulkier legs, foraged on the lower leaves of the trees at the perimeter of the field. It seemed so peaceful, these different species inhabiting the same area.

He scanned the scene and then remembered the binoculars. He took them out and reexamined the creatures, panning back and forth and not believing his eyes. That’s when it came into focus, a shockingly familiar sight frozen in the frame of his magnified view. It stunned him, causing him to gasp out loud. The surveyor lowered the binoculars to make sure he had seen correctly and stood upright for a clearer look. A face. A human face? The animals suddenly turned toward him; a silent, electric tension instantly pressed down so hard nothing could move. All of those glowering eyes and menacing tusks were aimed directly at him. He forced himself to take a single step back, but his desire to confirm what he just saw overcame his instinct to run. A second later, the field exploded in dust. The ground shook, and the air concussed with thunder. The animals stampeded away from him. Everything was in confusion.

“No!” he commanded the commotion to stop. “Oh, no.”

The sound cleared before the dust settled, but he didn’t wait any longer to run out into the field and to begin searching passionately for tell-tale signs of a human presence. The surveyor knew exactly what to look for, but he didn’t find it. The field floor was a confusion of trampled grasses and unfamiliar prints. Nothing could be made of it. The air cleared of dust, and he turned his gaze toward the forest, hoping to somehow see proof of what he just witnessed.

He circled the edges of the field searching for any indication, but he found nothing.

“Did I really see that?” he asked himself incredulously.

It should not have been possible. Perhaps he just got a brief glimpse of one of the unusual animals at an odd angle. This seemed unlikely to him. What had appeared in his binoculars was different, and he knew he would never forget those human eyes staring back at him.