“Houston, we’re making a short detour.”
Those words are seared into me.
We were a crew of six, sent barrelling into the unknown to be the first upon a red planet. The first beyond the orbit of mother earth, finally fleeing the nest to see if the sand’s redder on the other side of the fence. Mars waited patiently for our arrival, and the crew knew there was a real risk we wouldn’t even make it there.
In fact, we all knew every risk, that we might get stuck or the ship might malfunction on the way. But we went - some for glory, some for science. I went ‘cause nothing tied me to the blue dot, so I figured: why not take a chance on the red one instead? So we knew every risk. Every risk but this one.
A year and seven months into our long expedition into the black, we took a short detour. We’d picked up something, a signal radiating into the cosmos, only a day off our path. No one argued - the six crewmembers, an equal split of men and women, Earth’s finest, all agreed we’d need to investigate.
Our ship sailed cautiously as the mystery signal’s source came into view. Roots. Warped and wrapped into a circle, organic material showing no sign of damage from the cold, harsh vacuum it inhabited. Shocks and shivers raced down my spine like a bullet train trying to derail, the recycled air was heavier than usual, and there simply wasn’t enough room to breathe. I stared, slackjawed and mystified, at the miracle of life defying everything we knew about it.
The awe flowed into the ship and drenched the crew in its existential paralysis. Zuwena was the first to shake it off like a wet dog, physically shaking herself free from the shackles of understanding. The frightened primates gathered around their instruments to study the wooden wonder shattering our expectations. I thought it was a wayward probe or something, for reference.
It whispered in parallel, through each instrument in ways that we would respond. Our nervous systems were just another series of roots to talk to. We all heard it, but none of us mentioned it. When you run into alien life, you don’t want to be the first to say you’re feeling words dance on your skin, colors and images bubbling through your spine. We studied, but said little.
I didn’t have much to lose. So, screw it. Why not. Confidently, I told the people I’d practically lived on top of for the past year and a half my plan. I’d put on a suit, and I’d greet the thing. Maybe even retrieve it. Zuwena argued. Honestly, everyone argued. There was no way, we couldn’t take risks like that. What if I brought contaminants onboard the ship? What if we contaminated it? We don’t know enough.
But I’d heard the ringing of the rooted circle reverb inside me.
“I’m gonna go,” I said, eyes blistering tears of determination. Leaking confidence and zeal. There were threats of holding me back physically. We were to wait for further instructions from Houston, Zuwena said. The others agreed, but... When I made my way to the airlock, nobody stopped me. The monkeys were all curious to see how First Contact would play out.
I broke protocol and probably earned myself the ass chewing of ten lifetimes. I didn’t care. I welcomed the black, adorned in orange armor, and I maneuvered. Floating closer, I expected my heart to protest, to try and beat its way out of my ribcage and flee back through the airlock. Abandon ship, this dude’s cooked. But instead, it slowed, the beating waves in my chest cavity softly pulsing in my ears. I’d shut off all comms, but I looked back. My crew, a found family like any other, had finally come to their senses.
They gave chase.
I mean, they had to. What kind of crew would they be if they didn’t at least make an effort? But we all knew there wasn’t any way they could catch up. We all know how this story ends. The root ring flickered, and a portal formed inside it. Proudly raised by touching hot stoves, I reached out my hand. I put it through. Would it transport me somewhere? Disintegrate me? Was this my ascension moment, where the aliens would uplift my species?
Roots came out the other end, flowers growing. It was still me, but a different me. It was as if the flesh had been stripped, and the nerves had been watered, nourished. Bone ground to fertilizer, but no pain. I felt connected. There was more of me out there, in corners of the galaxy I knew I’d never see. That humanity would never see. I was still me, and I was still here... but I was there, too.
I don’t know what I am now, except woven into the flora floating past the edge of our solar system. I’m still me, but on the other side of the fence. I’m still here, even if the crew I left behind can’t hear me, because I know they can feel me when the trees on the red world they visited sway in the solar winds.
A short detour to the other side of the fence. Here I am, and here I will remain in bloom.