It took nearly a year (he thinks) to get used to the twenty-eight-hour day, but now Adam wakes up with the sun.
He sits at the steel and aluminum table he looted out of his own starship in silence as he eats his breakfast. It’s bread. Sort of. He never was much of a baker, and the wheat he grows here has a funny taste. Probably from the soil.
Adam has finally learned to think of it as ‘soil.’ Not ‘earth.’
This planet had no name when he first learned of it. Only a designation. PLX-342. Still in the Milky Way Galaxy. Imagine that. Really imagine it. The same neighborhood. And it took them so long to get here. So long.
The silence becomes oppressive and he goes to the stereo. Like everything else, it runs on star power. He puts on one of the albums from when he was a boy. The music that kept him alive then. It’s keeping him alive now.
Kendrick Lamar is dead, but he tries not to think about that.
The climate here hasn’t been good for the coffee beans so he has to go without. He gets dressed slowly. He does everything slowly, actually. There’s no reason to rush, not anymore. Four extra hours every day and he’s still a creature of Earth. A human. He only needs to sleep seven hours. That leaves nineteen hours to get stuff done.
There’s so much to do. But so much time to do it.
This is where Adam lives. It’s essentially a hut on big wheels. Awkward wheels. Before he left Earth, they had done three years of training. The training to fly the ship, to go to sleep, to wake up, to land, all of that only took six months. Then there was three years of everything else. Hunting. Farming. Making. Six months to learn how to live in the space age. Three years to learn how to live in the stone age. He’d mastered the space age. The stone age? Eh, maybe a B- student.
There were supposed to be others.
He’s an explorer. He’s a nomad. He’s Johnny Appleseed. His home is a hut he built with his own two hands. Pieces of his ship glittering in a wood and thatch hut, all on big wheels. He used the robots to pull it in the beginning. A stroke of luck – by the time they broke down after eleven years, he had found big animals. Animals without predators. Animals that liked him and worked for him, as long as he kept them fed and watered.
Yes, there is water on PLX-342. It was one of the requirements of all nine planets that they sent people to. The effort to send them anywhere was hard enough. They wanted to land, and to do as little work as possible to get the planet ready. Not have to work through the basics, just the surprises.
There is water. There is air. Gravity is practically earth normal. Days are only longer by four hours and years by twenty-seven days. The star he is orbiting, designated YDMS-342, named Bajean by Adam, was calculated to be slightly older than the sun he had been raised under. Destined to expand and explode perhaps a couple billion years earlier. That was a problem for future generations. If there were any.
His two animals he has classified as Noxen, short for near-oxen. When the biologists get here they can give them a better one. And he has named them Billy and Squid. They are the biggest animals he has found, about the size of Clydesdale horses. There were others, before. He didn’t know their stomachs wouldn’t be able to handle wheat. Now he does, and Billy and Squid mostly eat leaves off the trees.
The trees. They look so much like trees on earth. Chlorophyll, it seems, is green everywhere you go. Sometimes, staring up at those trees, he can forget everything. Forget the last fifteen/seventy-five years, forget the dirt beneath him and the air around him isn’t his, forget the smell, forget take off, forget waking up, forget the broken instruments and broken blood and broken bones. He can forget it all, and remember the stuff that came before.
Florida. Palm trees and beaches and rising waters and hurricanes that threatened to blow the house down but never did, not completely. Dad’s cooking, chicken and grits, and eggplant lasagna, and mofongo. Mom taking him and Rashad and Imani to the cape to watch the launches. At first, they went to every launch. Then they came too quickly, they were launching every month, then every week, and by the time Adam was in high school the sonic booms and white smudges in the sky were happening every Tuesday and Friday. He could remember a time when the moon didn’t have lights. Barely.
It wasn’t the first time Mom – Barbara Jean, look, Ma, you’ve got a sun named after you, now – took him to a launch that he decided he must go. Wasn’t the tenth time. In fact, he couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment he decided. He could only think of the moment he realized he’d already decided: that meeting with his school’s guidance counselor (couldn’t remember her name, only that she always wore blouses with loud prints and chewed on her pens until the ends were deformed) his freshman year, when she asked him if he had a goal in life and he’d said yes without hesitation.
Adam was going to space.
Such a statement would have been met with surprise, reluctance, and derision for his parents. Time moves fast, though, and by the time Adam declared himself NASA and the Space Force were letting any able-bodied person into their training. Not that getting into space was easy. Getting into the training program was easy, but it only had a 12% pass rate. Adam hadn’t been the best, but he hadn’t been the worst, either. Middle of the pack, exactly the sort of man the program had been looking for.
Sometimes, rarely, Adam gets homesick for his days on The Moon. There was no family there. No beaches, no good food. But he could go to the View Deck and see it all. Technically speaking, he still can.
Well, everyone on the planet knows technically anything is the worst kind.
The wind shifts and Adam can smell the flowers growing on a vine nearby and he is pulled from his memory back to reality. The flowers here smell nice, but there is something distinctly alien about them, too. It is a sweet smell, but not sweet in the right way. The manufactured sweet of syrup in a plastic bottle, mixed with some smell he has no name for yet. He thinks it is given off by the bugs the flowers eat, but he is not sure.
He feeds Billy and Squid and then begins the walk out to where he is working today. There is nothing to fear in these alien woods besides his own stupidity, so he does not let himself daydream as he walks. Science-fiction, when he was a kid on Earth, always seemed to dream of two kinds of planets: the barren sort with no life that humans had to terraform from scratch, or the lush sort filled with dangerous plants and animals that would try to kill any human who dared step foot. Maybe writers never dreamt of a planet in the middle, but more likely that sort of scenario didn’t sell in Hollywood.
This planet is lush with forests and valleys and lakes, but there is nothing that will instantly kill Adam. The Noxens are the biggest animals and they have no predators, so they weren’t scared of Adam when they met. There are plenty of smaller animals, sure, but they’re not aggressive. In fact, they’re all afraid of Adam. The second biggest animal he has seen, the bigrax, are predators. They’re also only half his size and easy to defend against with basic weapons. They’re not poisonous. Nothing here is poisonous. Well, there are some plants that are ‘food poisoning’ poisonous. But Adam hasn’t studied anything yet that could kill him.
It is exactly the sort of planet they were looking for. Moderate effort could make this planet livable for a population, and it would take not generations, but only decades.
He hopes they come.
Today, his main job is weeding out this forest. It didn’t take long with the functioning equipment to determine which plants will be beneficial to humanity and which ones won’t be. So he’s propagating the good plants and minimizing the useless ones. It is careful work. He doesn’t want to throw the planet off balance. Just shift it a little bit.
It wasn’t supposed to be only him doing this work, obviously. They were sent to the nine planets in teams of nine. Microbiologist, zoologist, botanist, geologist, meteorologist, agriculturist, physicist, physician, and engineer. Three of them would also act as pilot, co-pilot, and navigator. All of them spent those three years doing some cross-training, but you can’t fully teach someone eight separate specialties.
Adam was only supposed to be the botanist. Plants talked to him. In a way he could understand better than humans. He was supposed to work with the agriculturist, Leticia Norman, to learn how to grow their own crops on this soil, and to determine which native plants could be fed to humans. He wasn’t supposed to do the job all by himself. He wasn’t supposed to do the work of the others, either. Track weather patterns. Determine rock types. Build structures. He wasn’t supposed to have to do it all.
He’s reached his destination and has begun the work labeling the plants, so he can let his mind wander again. He’s thinking about when he woke up to everything broken. It’s not a happy memory, but he’s reached a sort of peace with it. It comes so often. Micrometeors. A risk they were all warned about. When the ship hit them, they should have been woken up. But they’d punched through the ship in such a way that the odds were incalculable. Eight of them had been killed. The warning system that should have woken Adam up had been destroyed. The holes they had punched through ships hull had been sealed over. The navigation system hadn’t been touched. By the time the ship had been on approach to PLX-342 and Adam had been woken up, the others had been dead for decades.
The drugs they give you to put you in hypersleep are like anesthesia. That sensation of passing time when waking up in your own bed isn’t there. To Adam, sixty years had passed in an instant, and then he was sitting up in his pod, trying to shake the meds from his system, stretching and coughing and resisting the urge to vomit. It had only taken a few minutes for the silence to reach him. The others were not going through the same motions to either side of him. Half the pods hadn’t even opened.
He does not let himself remember the despair that came after. Always, he is terrified he will sink into that again. Adam wouldn’t even know how long he had huddled in the ship if the computer hadn’t kept careful time. All a blur, a darkness filled with nothing and surrounded by panic. He will not think of the fear at the sounds outside. He will not think about useless tears and aching muscles. He will not think of how fast he went through the stores of alcohol. There is none left.
That’s all over now. He won’t allow himself to go there again, so he doesn’t let himself think about it. The work is what keeps him going. The work must be done.
When he was very little, in kindergarten and maybe first grade, they taught him in school about Columbus. He sailed the ocean blue and found a new world and that world was paradise and he brought that paradise back to the old world. Those old world people came, and they marveled over how perfect and gentle everything was. Nature had tamed itself, probably on God’s account, and given them a new Eden.
When he was older, in middle school, they taught him the truth. That new world had new people in it, and Columbus had not been kind. That new world was only new to them, those angry, demanding white folk. And it wasn’t a paradise because God had created it that way – it was a paradise because the people who already lived there had made it that way. Centuries of careful cultivation dismissed as a miracle.
Adam doesn’t have centuries. He has, at best, forty or fifty years.
He works carefully, at his own speed. When he’s tired, he rests. When he’s thirsty, he drinks. At sixteen hundred, when Bajean above is at her strongest, he finds a new plant. A vine twisting across the soil and sending shoots of leaves and flowers above the rest of the tangle. Adam shifts gears easily, pulling out the identification kit he takes with him everywhere. He may wear all hats now, but he was the botanist first. He hums to himself without knowing he’s doing it as he sends the vine through all of his tests. Carefully selects samples of leaf, flower, and vine so as not to hurt it, snipping with his garden sheers with the sort of grace he’d expect if he were in otherworldly hands. Packs the samples in their boxes for further study. Takes a sample of nearby soil. Pictures. Lots of pictures. Still humming the dead man’s song, Adam puts it all together and closes up the identification kit. He will continue when he gets home tonight. The vine complete, he goes back to his gardening tools.
Everyone he knew when he left is dead. He was asleep for sixty years, and he was not a young man when he left. Most of the people back on Earth, alive right this second, will be dead by the time his message reaches them. The communication array had been damaged in the same disaster that had killed or broken everything else. The shortbeam was broken. Longbeam worked. Instead of getting the message in ten years, the message would flow back to earth at the same speed the ship had flowed away from it. Sixty years. Forty-five now.
And what would it find? This is a thing Adam lets himself think about all the time, because he has no answers and he can think about the possibilities for hours. They had been working on ways to fix the planet, yes, but they also didn’t send out almost a hundred people in billion dollar ships to nine different points in the galaxy because it sounded like a good time. As the day grows late and Adam begins the walk back to his home, he let’s himself think of it. They could have fixed the planet and everyone is fine. They could have fixed the planet and then the Yellowstone Caldera blew and now they’re all dead. One of the other ships could have found a new home, sent back word, and now they’re already preparing for the exodus.
He’s distracted as he walks back to his home, but he doesn’t trip and break something. That isn’t what this story is. This is just the story of a man, once called Isaiah but now he thinks of himself as Adam, having a day on planet PLX-342. This will be all of his days. He was sent to this planet with a job to do, and though things have gone wrong, he is determined to do it. Forty-five years until the message reaches the planet means he’ll probably be dead before NASA or whatever is left knows there’s a new world out there waiting for humanity. How long will it take them to respond? Will they even come? All questions Adam doesn’t need the answer to.
Adam will continue on, cultivating this world to the best of his ability. Cataloguing everything he finds. Mapping land and water. Because he will not be rescued. Because he has the training, and the skills, to do it. Because his parents taught him to live with love in his heart. Because he has a stereo with good speakers to remind him of the things he left behind. The things that might come to him, someday.
He hopes they come.