We are canned humanity, floating far and unhinged from Earth. I look down at the planet beneath us, a beautiful forgery of home we call La Fuente. Maybe this will be the one.
Our crew steps out on a mossy shore, the view is so perfect. The captain says, “Let’s go.” Then to me, “Raul, stay behind and watch the shuttle.” I’m disappointed, but my scientist’s eyes are already drawn to the flowers nearby. Little purple stars in a universe of green, just like us in our purple containment suits, milling in the ivy. I start working and humming.
The hum becomes a buzz, an alarm, from deep in my suit. A breach. Somehow my suit has become compromised. My heart spikes in panic. Yes, the atmosphere is breathable … but the microbe study has barely started. I sit and try to breathe regularly, as I hear the captain in my earphones, her voice anxious, “Don’t move. Don’t worry, Raul. We are coming back.”
I’m in the shuttle’s airlock for three days, as the scanning goes on and on, pinging my body for some deep, microbial stowaway, or something even worse. But the higher minds find nothing at all. The airlock opens like a flower, and I join the others as we return to the mother ship. My relief is tempered — this planet will not do, too biologically volatile. We leave it behind, like so many others.
Three more years of searching, and our hope of home is spent like our exhausted shields. Our last, final target left us trapped around a dying star. We didn’t realize the radiation was unraveling our ship’s electrostatic defenses, its metal structure. Time is short.
The captain faces all of us, “Someone has to go.” It is obvious enough. We look at one another. Who will give their life and walk outside, facing the pounding rays of a deadly star? Who will be a glorified martyr to ten thousand colonists and repair the beleaguered force fields protecting the metal walls of our spinning sanctuary?
I raise my hand. I am ready.
The work is simple. The stars are wheeling overhead, unconcerned at the energy they pour out. The machines and tools do their jobs as I direct. I do not think about the ion wind penetrating my containment suit and then my body with each second. I do not imagine what is happening to me. I know I have time to finish … and then a few hours more, perhaps. It will be enough.
As I return the engines flare into life, and I hear the cheering of thousands. My feet are directed to the medical ward. It is antiseptic and useless to me. I find a cot, wave away the circle of doctors, and take a final rest.
Then wake up.
The doctors are baffled. They cluck, poke, stab, test, scan, ping, and cluck again. The small needle punctures heal instantly. They cannot scar my organic frame. I return to my place at the bridge. The captain’s elation is mixed with questions. Worry. Fear. Clear on every face. My first glimpse of the place called ‘alone.’
I see them set another offering at my door, then hurry away. I am the Sad God. They conduct their rites, and chant their vespers now five thousand years old.
I tread the ancient corridors. My people are awed, hushed, as always. They bow; never speak. Not anymore. I tried. I tried to keep it alive — the understanding of the ways of electricity and metal — but they have lost their voice for technology. Only androids keep our ship thrumming now. Our engines are long dead. The containment suits have fallen to pieces. The robots maintain our ship as it circles, unguided, over and over, an orbit of worlds we can never touch.
It is vague in me, that time before. I remember peers, friends, even lovers. But there is no counting them now. There is no remembering their eyes, only in the deep dreams where my solitude does not shadow. It is a time long past. The word ‘alone’ has become a closed fist around my heart.
My people have never seen a planet; my vision is all there is. My vision of a green universe, of petals opened, wide and fragrant, a sweet aroma of unnumbered worlds — it follows my feet down the corridors. It fills the dreams, waking or asleep. Dreams of home. I stare out the portals into space, and wonder at the limits of my godhood.
I am ready.
Outside the ship I am open to the tides of space. I dare the universe to destroy me once again. No shields. No suit. It is a thousand years of torture, but even this cannot stop me now. Caustic fuel drips, but my skin knits instantly. Radiation tears at me, but I do not stop working. The ship’s hungry belly is sated, and the antiquated engines ignite like a star. We are going home.
My people are afraid, but gather around. They listen to the tales I weave, about the land of gods — the lacy green, the mist, the blue-bowl sky. I see their hope catch.
There beneath us is the tiny, teal ball, hanging like an iris in the great galactic eye. I am humming as we lumber into orbit and our engines fail. I lead them onto the naked shores of home. Our gorgeous home. Beautiful La Fuente.
The waters gush forth from the rocks. The cool silver is in my hands and I am drinking. They join me, the new little gods. They are peers and friends and lovers, drinking and laughing with me at last. We are open and breathing, like purple flowers in the green.
J. A. Grier is a planetary scientist, fiction writer, poet, and wine lover. Dr. Grier’s stories and poems have appeared in venues such as Mad Scientist Journal, Eternal Haunted Summer, Eye to the Telescope, Liquid Imagination, and Mirror Dance. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. Dr. Grier spends her time penning strange stories, comparing vintages, and researching impact craters on other worlds. Look for posts and tweets of astronomical facts and unusual fictions online and on Twitter @grierja.