by Pascal Inard
Captain Geoffrey Bondel hadn’t expected the wattle trees on Planet Goopach to smell exactly like the ones back home in Australia. When the Earthlike planet had been found in the ZX54 galaxy, a dark-energy powered ship had been dispatched with a crew of scientists. The scout probe had beamed photos of the vegetation, but the smell still came as a surprise.
The exploration party walked towards a forest of what looked from a distance like mountain ash trees, just like the ones in the Dandenong ranges where Geoffrey loved to walk. In the forest, songs of what sounded like bell birds, thornbills and honeyeaters filled the air.
When they reached a stream, Geoffrey ordered a halt and sat down on a rock. Julie, the biologist, and Ralph, the geologist, collected samples, while Libby, the psychologist, watched the rest of the team and took notes.
After the debrief meeting at the ship, Geoffrey walked towards a hill where animals were grazing. He stopped when he recognised them.
Light-years away from Earth, evolution had come up with the same animals.
“Cute, aren’t they?” said a voice behind him.
“Libby, I didn’t see you coming!”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It wasn’t just you. I don’t know what to make of this. When I signed up for this expedition, I didn’t expect I’d find bloody roos and wattles.”
Libby laughed. “None of us did.”
“But that’s not all. I have this weird feeling that my mother is on this planet.”
“That’s normal, you’re disoriented. You’ve just landed on an alien planet, and you’re confused because it’s so Earthlike. The similarity has made you feel homesick. You see familiar features that you’ve associated with your mother, and now you’re almost expecting to see her walking towards you.”
“Thanks for the express therapy session, Libby, but it’s more complicated than you think. When I was sixteen, my mother suddenly disappeared without leaving a trace. My father was at a conference in Vladivostok at the time. I woke up one morning, and she was gone.
“All her stuff was still in the house though: smart phone, keys, handbags, clothes, makeup, everything. It seemed unlikely she’d run away, and she had no reason to, anyway. She had an interesting job, and she loved my father and me.
“The only other explanation was a kidnapping. Although there were no signs of breaking and entering that supported that idea, we waited for a ransom note that never came. My dad spent two years looking for her: he broadcast messages on TV and on the net asking her to come back, and asking people to contact him if they spotted her.”
Libby put her hand on his shoulder. “To suffer a loss without being able to grieve is traumatic. How did you and your dad cope?”
“Life went on. My father continued his research and finally found a way to harness dark energy for interstellar travel. It’s thanks to him we’re here today. As you can imagine, I was a prime candidate to lead this expedition.”
* * *
“Geoffrey, it’s you. I never thought I’d see you again,” said a voice that sounded like his mum.
What a strange dream, thought Geoffrey. It felt so real.
“You and your dad must have been so worried when I disappeared.”
Geoffrey rubbed his eyes and got up. He was definitely awake, but his mum sounded like she was in the room. This planet is getting on my nerves, he thought. I need some fresh air.
His bunkmates were still sleeping. He tiptoed to the ship’s exit door, opened it and climbed down the ladder.
The two full moons cast an eerie light. At least that was different to Earth.
“Geoffrey, why don’t you say something?”
If I just ignore the voice, it will probably leave me alone.
“Stop ignoring me, Geoffrey, it’s really me.”
Geoffrey kept walking in the direction of a lake he’d seen before the ship landed.
Lightning struck a bush in front of him, setting it on fire.
“Now will you listen to me?” the voice said, much louder this time.
Geoffrey stopped and looked up. The sky had been clear just a minute ago, and now he could hardly see the stars.
“Whoever you are, leave me alone!”
“The next lightning bolt will be for you, if you don’t listen to me.”
Geoffrey turned around.
“I can hit the ship too, you know.”
“All right, you win.”
“Let me prove to you I’m your mother. I know all about you, Geoffrey. You weighed three and a half kilos when you were born, such a beautiful baby. You were a gifted child, reading at four, speaking three languages at six. We enrolled you in a special school and you thrived there.
“You were all set to realise your dream of being a spaceship captain, and then you turned into a bad boy. I don’t know what happened, but when you were in high school, you started skipping classes, taking drugs, fighting, even shoplifting. Your father and I were at a loss, we—”
“Mum wasn’t the only one to know about my life.”
“What about Sarah?”
“I never told her about Sarah.”
“You forget that she was my friend Anne’s daughter.”
“She never told her mum either.”
“Still, she found out. She didn’t mind, but her husband did. He said Sarah was too young, and he forbade her to see you again.”
Now Geoffrey understood why Sarah had suddenly stopped speaking to him. She could have told him what had happened, instead of leaving him brokenhearted with no explanation. There was a bigger question to be answered though. “You’ve convinced me, but how the hell did you get here?”
“I woke up in a flat, grey and empty place. I had no idea where I was, or how I got there. I thought I was in a sort of movie set, or in a virtual reality. It was truly frightening.
“Then I found my actions modelled the landscape. When I cried, my tears formed a river. When I pounded the ground, cavities and mountains appeared. When I thought of your childhood and remembered how you used to love the smell of wattle flowers, wattle trees appeared.
“But everything was tiny. It reminded me of the model train diorama your dad helped you to build in the garage. Remember how he got upset when the insurance premium went up because the car had to sleep outside?”
Geoffrey nodded. “Did you create the animals as well, just by thinking about them?”
His mum paused before saying, “Well, it involved a bit more than that.”
“If you really want to know, I met a man here, the only one I might add. His name was Ian, and he was in the same predicament as I was. So we stayed together, and one thing led to another. Just after we had, you know, a cuddle, animals appeared. Different ones every time.”
“I see,” Geoffrey said with a barely disguised tone of reproach.
“You’ve got to understand I’d lost all hope of seeing your dad again.”
“It’s all right, Mum. I guess I would’ve done the same thing. But why can’t I see you and this man of yours?”
“One day I woke up without a body. I could see every detail of the land and the sky at the same time as if I was in the air, and I could move around at the speed of thought. In fact I wasn’t just in the air, I was the air. When I looked for Ian, I heard his voice whispering that he was in the earth.
“It was then that I understood what had happened to Ian and me. Some sort of divine power brought us on this barren planet to shape its landscape and populate it. After our job was done, we became spirits of the air and the earth.”
“It sounds like an Aboriginal dreamtime story where an ancestor spirit comes to Earth and creates rivers and mountains by moving through the land.”
“Except in those stories, the spirits come to Earth voluntarily.”
“So do you think God brought you here?”
“I hate to say it, because I’ve never believed in Him, but yes. Only it looks like He needs help to do His work and He just snatches people when He needs them. He didn’t show himself though, so I didn’t have the chance to tell Him what I really thought.”
As unbelievable as his mum’s story was, it did explain why she’d disappeared and why wattle trees, kangaroos and Australian birds were on this planet hundreds of light years away from Earth. Only thirty years had passed between the time she’d arrived here and he’d left Earth, but how much time had passed here while he was travelling faster than light-speed?
“Now tell me about your life,” his mum said. “I’m so excited you managed to become a spaceship captain. I really thought you’d thrown away your dream.”
“Your disappearance was a real shock. Both Dad and I blamed ourselves: him, for not being present enough and me, for being a bad boy. So I went back to school and studied as hard as I could, and gave up all the stupid things I was doing. I haven’t touched a single substance since the day I woke up in an empty house.
“When I graduated at the International Space University, I thought you would be so proud of me. I kept hoping for your return, but when I was assigned to this mission, I never thought I would find you here. Oh Mum, I wish I could at least touch you, or see you.”
“Enough chatting, you have to go back to Earth now.”
“We’ve only just been reunited, and you want me to leave?”
“Your place isn’t here. In fact this isn’t a place for any Terran.”
“What do you mean? It’s a perfect place. It’s the closest thing to Earth in the universe.”
“Just go back to Earth and don’t tell anyone this planet is fit for human life.”
“You don’t understand, Mum! Mankind has damaged Earth beyond repair, and we need to find another plan to live.”
“So you can ruin this one?”
“This time it’ll be different.”
“Do you really think men have learnt from their mistakes?”
Geoffrey humoured his Mum and said he would order his crew to report that the conditions on Planet Goopach made it uninhabitable.
* * *
“We’ve got enough evidence to send the good news to Earth,” said Geoffrey to his crew. I’ll give you until the end of the day to finish your reports, but if you need to collect more samples or go outside for any reason, make sure you wear a lightning-proof suit, even if the weather is clear. One of the strange properties of this planet is that lightning can strike at any time. I experienced it myself last night.”
A clanking noise interrupted Geoffrey’s speech, and the spaceship shook.
Richard, the ship’s engineer, said, “I’ve activated the force shield. It’s raining stones the size of basketballs, but only on the ship. They look like hailstones.”
As the earth cracked and a chasm engulfed the spaceship, the last words Geoffrey heard were his mother’s: “You’ve become a bad boy again, haven’t you, Geoffrey?”
Copyright © 2016 by Pascal Inard