Every breath tastes wet. The scent of soil is so rich that the tang of it gets caught in my throat. It’s beautifully humid in a way the air never is back home. No, this is my home. I can feel it. This is where my roots are, where my great-grandparents were born. Not some space station floating through the darkness. Here. On Earth. This beautiful, green, muddy planet.
The trees bear down on every side, but I don’t feel claustrophobic. Quite the opposite, I’ve never felt so free. Especially after an over twenty-four-hour journey crammed into a sardine tin rocketing through space. Of course, I was knocked out for most of it, but man was I stiff after. Now I can run, jump, stretch. I can act like I’m a kid again, back when I used to race around the ship’s corridors and hide in service shafts.
I reach up and touch the overhanging branches of a tree, just because I can. Its leaves are cool and waxy and the bark is calloused like my own hands. This is where I should have grown up. Climbing trees and swimming in rivers and gardening in mud. Throughout my childhood, I dreamed of coming to Earth. While other children dreamt of being film stars or cowboys or racing spaceship drivers, I dreamt of being an explorer. I devoured books about the travels of explorers like Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, Lewis and Clark, hoping that someday I could be one of them. When we got older, other people my age were considering teaching, inter-planetary politics, medicine. I was mad on botany, Earth studies, anything that would foster my dream to visit the planet my family once called home. My botany dreams fell through – I lack green fingers and the ability to memorise plant types and their properties. I became an engineer like my parents, but I never abandoned my dream of that blue planet. People always need engineers, why would Earth be any different? Still, coming to Earth always seemed like a pipedream, but here I am at last. I’ve finally discovered where I belong.
My great-grandparents were born here in a little hamlet called Thrupp, tucked away in the English countryside. They were childhood sweethearts who grew up together, fell in love, got married, and left for the stars at nineteen. All very romantic. I’ve been told that story ever since I was old enough to ask questions and beg for details about their life on Earth. To them, Earth was boring, a place they were desperate to get away from, but for me there couldn’t be anywhere more exciting or exotic.
It’s difficult to say whether Earth has lived up to my expectations so far. The shuttle docked in Dover and from there I got a plane to Luton, then a bus to Oxford which was as far as the driver was willing to take me. I could see why. The roads, which were bumpy to begin with, practically disintegrated under the tyres as we got into Oxford. The driver exhaled a non-stop litany of profanities as he swerved potholes, fallen branches, and creeping plants that stretched halfway across the road.
Turfed out in Oxford, I grabbed my bags and started the walk to Thrupp. Oxford was similar to what I had expected of Earth: elegant buildings, looming streetlamps, beautiful brickwork everywhere. But it was also a lot greener than I had anticipated. I knew that there were parks on Earth, I’d seen plenty of photos of them, and sometimes even the busiest cities had parks right in the centre. This was something else entirely. It looked like someone had set off several leafy green explosions throughout the city. Moss and ivy and weeds grew on nearly every available surface. As I walked out of the city, I noticed that some of the older buildings had succumb entirely to the plants and had crumbled under the weight.
The whole scene made me feel uneasy, like I’d stumbled upon a slow takeover. This feeling passed as I left Oxford and the buildings became fewer and far between. This allowed me to imagine that I was trekking through the unknown like one of my childhood heroes. About an hour and a half into my journey, I arrived at a town called Kidlington. Someone had removed the foliage from the sign that read ‘Welcome to Kidlington.’ This was the only indication that I had entered some kind of township, as there seemed to be barely anyone around. When I finally stumbled on another person, I asked after Thrupp, wanting to make sure I was on the right track.
“There hasn’t been anywhere called Thrupp around here for nearly forty years,” the woman in Kidlington said.
“What?” I was baffled. How could I have come all this way only for it to not exist? “What happened to it?”
“It’s the reforestation programme,” the woman said. She was incredibly short, except for her teeth which were abnormally long. It looked like I’d caught her in the middle of a (losing) battle with her garden. She put down her sheers and tucked a bothersome lock of hair behind her ear, simultaneously caking it in mud. “A lot of the smaller towns and villages have been given over to wildlife. Most of them have been abandoned for years so it’s not an issue.”
“Yeah, until they come for us. We’re next, you know,” a woman said from her deckchair on the porch.
She had a face like a bulldog with a wasting disease, and seemed uninclined to help her wife with her struggle against the greenery invading her house. In fact, I thought she was asleep until she spoke. Even when talking, she kept her eyes closed, as if neither the world before her or the conversation held anything of interest.
“All this fucking greenspace, restoration, reforestation bullshit. They want to make the whole bloody planet into a glorified allotment.” She had become increasingly irate and suddenly snapped her eyes open. She sat up in her chair, finger raised accusingly, like a woman on the brink of uncovering a conspiracy.
“No, worse than that, an oxygen factory for the spacers. Tryna squeeze human beings off their own goddamn planet, well I ain’t going nowhere. Not gonna catch me on one of those metal tombs flying around space. This is where I’m from. I was born on this planet, I’ll die on this planet.”
“I’m from here too,” I chipped in, when the woman had finished her tirade. The anger in her face was replaced by intrigue. “Well, my great-grandparents grew up here.”
“Pfft! You’re not from here.” She waved me off, her bad mood fixed back in place. “You’re just another tourist on Earth to do some soul-searching.”
“No, Mary, look at her! The girl has no idea what she’s doing, she’s going to get herself killed.” She rounded on me. “Do yourself a favour, love. Take your gap year somewhere else.” With that, Alice leant back in her chair and closed her eyes, uncaring about the conversation now her contribution was over.
“I’m so sorry about my wife,” Mary said, keeping her voice below the hearing range of Alice. “But she’s right, this area can be a bit tricky if you don’t know it. Have you thought of getting yourself a guide?”
“I don’t need a guide,” I snarled through gritted teeth. Mary looked taken aback, but I didn’t care. I was done being insulted. Without another word, I turned and continued on my journey.
“Ruddy spacer,” Alice muttered after my retreating back.
Thinking back over this conversation, my heart begins to sink. Maybe they’re right. The thought pops into my head without warning and I stop in my tracks. As doubts rise in me, the forest around me becomes less and less appealing. It really is quite dark under this canopy of trees. The mud under my feet feels like it’s trying to drag me down. My water supply is dwindling, and I have no idea if I’m near running water. Odd rustles and cracks of unseen animals echo around me. If I look closer at the bark on the trees, I can see insects swarming all over it. Bug bites are already appearing along my arms. What was my genius plan? Find Thrupp, and then what? Make camp? Live off the land? I’m alone here, miles from another living soul. If I died here, who would know? How long would my family wait before assuming the worst? Maybe this was all a terrible mistake.
I breathe in a deep gulp of air and suddenly relief floods my body, oozing over my skin like golden syrup. Of course this isn’t a mistake. What do they know? Us spacers are far more resilient than people give us credit for. I’ve lived in an artificial atmosphere with no natural sunlight for nineteen years without going batty. I’ve been working in engineering ever since I was old enough to hold a weld, problem solving is my speciality. I got the highest marks in my class in Earth studies; if there’s anyone who can survive down here, it’s me. I take another breath of that sweet air and it pushes the memories of that frosty encounter out of my mind, replacing it with a beckoning forward. I’m close, I can taste it.
There’s this sense of something leading me on, pulling me forwards. An undeniable primal urge. This is what salmon must feel when they travel back to their birth stream to spawn, or when migrating birds return home. I’ve read about it in books on Earth’s nature, and now I’m a part of it. This proves I’m meant to be here.
The urge becomes uncontrollable, like it’s in the very air, flooding my every sense. I break out into a run. My heart is ricocheting around my chest, my mouth hanging open as more of that delicious air is shovelled into my lungs. The wilderness around me is thick but I tear through it like a cannonball, the sound of ripping clothes muted beneath the pounding of blood in my ears.
Finally, I break through into a clearing. I can’t remember what I was searching for, my brain feels fuzzy when I try and think of it, but when I see what’s in front of me, I think this must be it. This is why I’m here. This is what I’ve been looking for my whole life. It’s beautiful. I’ve never seen anything so perfect.
One side of the heart-shaped plant rests on the ground, the other towards the sky, like an open clam. Its insides are a deep red, fading to a pale green – a sunset over an algae strewn lake. A faint alarm bell rings in the back of my mind. Something about the plant is familiar from my old botany book. But I never could remember all those plants and their features. For a moment I falter, until a deep breath smothers all those anxieties.
A gorgeous smell emanates from it. I walk helplessly towards its welcoming opening, its mesh of protrusions on the edge of the leaf making it look like a smiling face.
I crawl through the meshwork and curl up on the squishy red centre. My body sticks to the floor, but I don’t panic. I have no desire to move. Why would I when I can lie here and breathe in the sugary tang of the air? It reminds me of being an infant, held tight in my mother’s arms. Safe. Cosy. Protected. My eyelids begin to droop as the opening where I entered slowly closes over me, giving way to a warmth like I have never encountered. Comforting darkness drapes over me like a blanket. I close my eyes and embrace it.
I was prepared to feel alone, expected the government-mandated 2-metre gap to yawn between us, cold and hostile. I expected these new spaces to be