By the time he was 46 years old, he had orbited eight planets, and then, finally, they selected him to go live on one for a time.
The blue surface felt like moss. Even through zinc boots and socks insulated with an aluminum alloy that left a rash on the soles of his feet, the planet felt luscious. Stepping onto the surface was exhilarating, as if he were the first to ever touch another planet. And yet, the weight of 300 pounds of gear – those zinc boots, four oxygen tanks, a big helmet they called the pumpkin, a tent made of carbon fiber, a stove, a camera and tripod, a solar battery pack, a weapon slung over his shoulder that frankly he had not learned how to discharge – left no trace. After three steps, he stopped to turn around – a maneuver more cumbersome than his instructors on Earth had warned. He stumbled, started to tip over like a dead oak tree, caught his balance, took a deep breath, smiled at his good luck, and pulled the camera from the pouch on his chest. He was giddy about snapping a photograph to beam back to his home planet, but looking through the lens all he saw were the faintest z-shaped tread marks in the powder blue surface. Before he could turn on the flash and focus again, any hint of his presence was gone.
“It is as if I were no more than a twilight breeze across a frog pond, or a galactic mist wafting by, with no interest at all in this beautiful planet,” he wrote in his journal later. The possibility of not leaving even the slightest mark on a planet had never occurred to him.
And it was beautiful, this planet, by any measure. Turquoise in all directions; gentle rolling hills that he thought at first were sand dunes. The atmosphere, what little there was of it, created an illusion that the horizon curved up. As if he were in a robin’s egg and he would never want to escape. The second day, he stepped onto the surface determined to leave no mark. If that were how this planet behaved, he would accept it. The physical laws vary from one planet to another, and this was his first lesson – to embrace those laws. He was sure he would go to other planets where his breath alone would unleash hurricanes, the camera’s click might topple sandstone cliffs. Anything was possible, and there were more planets than any human could ever know.
He decided to not wear the socks the second day. His feet were on fire, the skin peeling. As he spooned his oatmeal, they soaked in a bath of water and ammonia with a drop of rocket fuel. In the noisy cafeteria back home they had all talked about illnesses and injuries that could strike when traveling alone. Namski, the blond nuclear engineer, told him to ignore the official manual when it came to taking care of himself.
“That thing was written by engineers, not doctors. Rocket juice is what you need. You look like you don’t believe me,” she said, challenging him with her blue eyes. Early in training he had wanted to invite Namski on a date, but when she stared at him like that it reminded him what a mistake it would have been to even ask. There was a long silence around the table as he fidgeted in his chair and tried to show his I-believe-you-and-more face. The others nodded in agreement, then went back to their Fiesta Friday plates and margaritas. Nitrogen was the secret, and Namski had shared it with him. Nobody could explain it, but those who returned swore that a drop or two cured anything in outer space.
As he studied his feet, he still wasn’t sure if they had been teasing him or not. But if those who wrote The Space Traveller’s Official Guide to Health & Hygienics also designed the aluminum socks, then he was better off trying the nitrogen.
His bare feet felt infinitely better. The burning was gone, and now he swore he could feel the surface of the planet.
“My skin – perhaps due to its raw sensitivity – can now feel the skin (i.e. surface) of this place,” he would write for his second journal entry as he lay snug in his bed. “It is as though I am walking on the plush living room carpet of my childhood. And I found myself fighting an urge today to lie down on the surface. (I feel eleven years old, again. If only I had brought a comic book! Haha.)”
His second-day task was to inspect the space ship’s landing gear. As he trundled down the ladder, he looked briefly at the craft’s three legs, which were shaped like upside down mushrooms. He clipped the monitoring equipment to the bottom rung, and on a whim took off to explore. Just a little. The planet’s atmosphere made the sun look like a purple mole just above the horizon. He called that direction Marilyn Monroe, and headed that way. He could stare right at it and never go blind. He hiked for what felt like an hour – but, of course, a space traveler’s sense of time is warped by every planet, especially in the first days of an encounter. When he returned and established contact with Mission Control, it was Namski. She was furious.
“You cannot just vanish, I don’t care what the reason,” she shouted on the screen as if they were not 700 million miles apart. During his flight she had been promoted and was now his superior. Her hair had turned gray.
He had walked over one low hill after another without tiring, without wanting to stop. The surface cushioned his steps without being springy. There was nothing to compare this to. He could not stop. The thought of turning around, or even just pausing, had never entered his mind. It was infinitely pleasant. He couldn’t recall how he ended up back at his space ship. All he knew was that he had been immersed in a soft blue haze for a time, during which his heart rate and respiration had come to a comfortable near stop, and then he heard the click of a carabiner and he had one boot on the ladder. He was staring at a screen of data on the condition of the landing gear.
Of course, he could not tell any of this to Namski. Mission Control would activate the ship’s auto pilot and whisk him back to Earth.
“What have you been doing,” she said. She took off her thick black-rimmed glasses and glared. “Where were you? I mean, come on, three fucking days!”
“Time is different here,” he said. He could not explain. He assured her it would never happen again, though secretly he hoped it would. In return for this promise, Namski logged the incident as a communications breakdown. Traveler #17 was, after all, almost a billion miles from where he began.
A few days afterwards, it happened — the accident. Years later, they would still debate that designation. Though no one went so far as to call it “intentional”, the official record left room for conversation – Category 6 Accident, Humanly Avoidable.
Like all days with mishaps, this one began like any other – he sat up in bed and looked out the porthole, found the purple sun and then stayed still to admire the turquoise hew of the surface and the atmosphere. The scene made him shutter with excitement.
He noted this, once again, in his journal: “I feel young, like a child. I would hike into the landscape for three days, again, if I could. Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll run!! Or lay down and take in all of this luscious planet. I might stay here forever. I cannot explain the source of my glee. But, I will continue to analyze it here for the record.”
This was the final entry in the official journal of Traveler #17.
He scrubbed the rubber smell of the bedding off his body until he had scraped his skin raw – upset by his outpouring of candor in the official journal. He lectured himself as he stood in the craft’s sanitizing mister, which in a moment of embarrassing loneliness he had nicknamed Misty. Then he sprinkled talcum powder on his skin – on his chest, under his arms, between his legs, on his feet. Flight regulations allowed four personal effects, and this powder was his fifth item. He had smuggled the canister off his home planet just to see if he could. What difference could it make? That, and a sixth item – a lucky silver dollar. And now here he was. No harm done. Each morning he was glad to apply the refreshing fragrance before encasing himself in the hermetically sealed space suit and helmet. So much gear. It must have been designed just to prevent him from truly knowing this planet.
He hiked singing a song:
There is no noise,
We are turquoise.
He was five kilometers from his ship, maybe more, when he stopped to make sure there were still no footprints in his wake. He had turned around many times by then and had the hang of it, but this time he felt his body tilt, begin to tip too far, falling unstoppable, and he relaxed his toes to surrender. All he could do in that clumsy suit was spread out his arms and let the laws of physics and carelessness have their way with him.
When he finally rolled onto his back, it took a long time to make sense of what he had done. Floating overhead was a small white curl. It appeared far off, the first imperfection in this perfect sky. But it was not a cirrus cloud. It was something else above his mask, just beyond his reach.
As it swirled slowly, he heard a noise – a faint buzz an octave higher than the usual ringing in his ears.
His eyes recalibrated and focused on a white line that ran diagonally across his mask. A crack. The space suit was decompressing. The talcum powder was being sucked out through the fissure. He felt his heart accelerate. He felt his throat constrict. He clinched his fingers and toes; they felt cold and tingly. He laid motionless imagining he could hide from the panic that was beginning to careen through his body. He closed his eyes and pretended he wasn’t there.
In his head, he ran through the stand-up procedure, the Nautilus Maneuver: Raise arms, raise legs, curl into the nautilus position, kick legs straight up, relax, swing boots back over head, tumble backward, come to a standing position. He had practiced hundreds of times in the pool back on Earth. But the pool bottom was hard concrete not soft carpet, and in training he had been relaxed with time and oxygen. Now both were running out.
For just an instant, he let his mind drift, wondered how the mask cracked on the soft surface. Then he kicked, rolled, and was standing. He spread out his arms, a pose that was not an official part of the maneuver.
“Ta-da!” He whispered.
He had strained to get upright and yet now his pulse was slowing down. With his oven-mitt hands he waved away the talcum cloud. He took a deep breath. He could not remember which direction he had come from. Hoping to find some smallish hint in the planet’s blue skin, he looked down and turned slowly. There was nothing to reveal the way back. He looked at the horizon and turned until he found the mole that was the sun. Still, he could not recall if he had been walking toward it or away from it or at some precise angle.
His oxygen could last six days in Earth time. Here he had no idea how long he had been walking. And with a cracked pumpkin, who knew how long a man could survive? Reluctantly, he looked at the gauge on his sleeve. Zero.
The pumpkin’s safety feature made it impossible to remove with the oven mitts on his hands. Every ceremony back on Earth was attended by at least one space traveler with fingers burned to the bone or fused together or blackened by absolute zero — victims seduced by beautiful landscapes or indescribable urges or overwhelmed by panic. In order to unclamp the helmet, Traveler #17 knew he had to first expose his fingers and hands to the atmosphere. But he felt at peace, as though no harm could come to him on this planet. Where he had been did not matter. The way back did not matter — he would be all right. Everything they had told him on Earth made no sense. Earthlings! How could they know what he would experience? He was welcome here. He wiggled his toes and felt the velvety surface. If he could touch the soft blue atmosphere, and if the blue molecules could float in his veins, he would be absolutely whole. He told himself he would write about this complete experience in his journal. Because he had vowed to not scar this planet, it would not injure him. They would leave no outward marks on one another.
He twisted the helmet and raised it over his head. He felt a tingling sensation on his cheeks and neck, like a fine rain. His third winter in college he had stood with a girl from his thermodynamics class on the Cliffs of Moher where the gusts off the Atlantic slung sea spray against their skin. This is what he felt, an evanescent sting that reminded him what it meant to live. The atmosphere was not freezing as the engineers had warned him to expect. It was cool, comfortable. He closed his eyes for what might have been a minute or a year, and when he could not hold his breath another second, he exhaled. All that he had read and been taught warned him that this planet’s irradiated atmosphere would turn his lungs and then his blood, veins, muscles and flesh to brittle autumn leaves, and so his human body would dissolve in this instant of his most luscious happiness.
He took an enormous gulp. The atmosphere had a slight metallic fragrance. It smelled like his sweaty hands after a workout on the chin-up bar, he thought. He took another breath, and then another, and, no, he did not vanish.
No, Traveler #17 did not vanish. Instead, Traveler #17 lived happily on that planet for many many years. His craft was summoned and returned on auto-pilot. Namski had grown very old and died and so wasn’t there when they opened the capsule and found it empty. The records showed no known relatives for Traveler #17, and so his four official personal effects — including a half-empty can of talcum powder — were listed in the manifest, then tossed in the incinerator. By this time, he was an old man in Earth years, and had grown so comfortable with the planet that he forgot sometimes what the atmosphere smelled like. Those evenings, he would rummage around the camera pouch until he found that lucky silver dollar, worn down by then to a perfectly smooth metal slug, and he would rub the coin in his palms until it was warm. And he cupped his hands over his face and breathed as deep as his old lungs allowed so he could remember that time when, whether they knew it or not on Earth, he became the first man to know a planet.
photo courtesy NASA