Return Landing

An expedition to a distant planet is due for Today.

“What is justice?”

The young woman’s voice is filled with fiery passion. She’s looking up at a stadium-seating lecture hall filled with co-eds in their early twenties, earning their right of passage into the adult world by pretending to care about things like this class while going on weekend long “meditation” trips to the desert, where they get in touch with their spirit through the use of alcohol and hallucinogenic drugs. […]

[…] They come back with a massive sunburn and an immense love for the world as a whole. They come back with an understanding of the universe as being cosmically interconnected. They also come back with connections that will help them land high-paying jobs, the kind that will enable them to keep going to these festivals a few times a year, while they spend the rest of their time exploiting some part of the world they’re clearly less connected to after all.

“Somebody explain ‘justice’ to me.”

They all stare at her blankly.

“Nobody? What about fairness? Who can tell me what fairness is?”

She doesn’t blame them for living the way they do. Indeed, she has her own fond memories of doing pretty much the same. Sometimes she wishes she could go back to that careless lifestyle, and sometimes she wishes she had done more with her time in those years. Right now, she wishes they didn’t act like a brick wall.

“Really? Nobody here knows?”

Couple students squirm in their seats with defensive looks on their faces, but nobody speaks up.

“Somebody tell me what fairness is.”

“Well I know what it is, it’s just hard to describe,” a young man speaks up. “Like, if someone does something to you that’s not right, that’s not fair, it hurts. ”

A few other students laugh awkwardly. The professor smiles—-or is it a smirk?

“Well, that’s not a very good definition, but it’s a place to start. Philosophers have actually struggled with this for millennia. Let’s take a step back. Is there anyone who feels like you don’t know what justice is? Anyone who doesn’t get a powerful burning in your chest when you see injustice committed?”

The students look up, a few nod. Now she’s getting somewhere.

“Have you ever been accused of doing something you haven’t done? Maybe of stealing your brother’s toy, or eating the last chocolate in the box your mom had hidden in the top shelf—-think of how that felt. You probably didn’t even know the word ‘justice,’ then. I want you to think about that. Think about how complicated the definition you were going to give me is, and how easy it is to remember what it feels like.”

All eyes are on her.

“And then think about how you came to have this concept so deeply ingrained when fairness can’t be found anywhere in nature. From an evolutionary perspective, a belief in fairness is basically suicidal. It is society that promises us fairness and justice; life without society is nasty, brutish, and short, but we understand and accept–and in fact expect–justice as a concept and a right a lot more easily and earlier than we do society, which in fact many of us struggle with throughout our lives. Think about that for next time. I’d like each one of you—“

Zap. With a wave of her finger, Karen paused the holographic video floating in front of her as she was done with the fruit salad she had been making. Her timing was perfect: there was a knock on the door. She walked over and opened it.

“A knock on the door; how old fashioned.”

The person stepped in and removed the oxygen mask off their face.

“Talk about old fashioned–you answered in person!”

“Well I had to respond in kind. Welcome!” She opened her arms and they embraced.

“Thank you sister!”

“How’s the new model?” she gestured toward the mask Taylor had just taken off their face.

The response was a shrug. “It’s alright, it works.”

“Do you need to refill it?”

“No, it should last. I need to test how long it takes to run out completely, anyway. Don’t worry I won’t go far from a supply when it’s running low,” they added when Karen’s face showed concern.

Taylor and Karen were part of the first medium-term settlement on A-3685-XN. The atmosphere was still being generated, so humans had to wear oxygen masks when going outside of their floating house-pods. They were not certain how long they’d be staying as missions were constantly being sent out to look for other, more suitable colonies. Taylor designed equipment that helped everyone ease the transition. That meant modifying designs with every new planet humanity landed on to catch all the kinks of that particular atmosphere–or lack thereof. Taylor’s been on planets where the air was so hot that it burned the standard filter in the mask. In fact, during the pilot testing on that planet, one of the masks leaked oxygen back out and the mask’s surface caught on fire. Taylor stood right next to the man who removed the mask in panic. His mustache immediately ignited. Somehow, he was able to make it back to their explora-pod. He still suffered severe burns on the inside of his throat and nose, leading him to lose all sense of smell. None of that stopped Taylor’s co-workers from making fun of his burnt eyebrows.

All things considered, Taylor thought A-3685-XN was a perfectly nice place to stay. The worst incident to date was a couple of people getting lightheaded and passing out. There were rumors that the people had been drinking all afternoon before this happened, but the official report blamed the oxygen supply tube. With unprecedented media coverage, they replaced the company that supplies the tubes, appointed a committee to monitor the work of Taylor’s team, and introduced a new approval system for prototype manufacturing that effectively slowed their progress to a crawl. The people who passed out were teenage offspring of the corporate executives whose companies held government contracts crucial to the on-going space exploration. Taylor was told not to question it, to be thankful for the overtime they’d get to bill by dealing with all the red tape the new regulations brought. As a researcher, Taylor had a difficult time “not questioning things” but they have learned to pick their battles.

Despite this setback, Taylor thought A-3685-XN was worth pursuing for long term settlement, but the powers to be had decided to abandon it and push forth to a new target. No cost was too high in this quest to find a new home, a perfect fit for humanity.

In fact, just that morning the news had arrived that the first expedition to the latest prospect, A-3487-XO, was due to return later that day. Taylor had come to watch the landing with Karen since her husband was the mission’s captain and their apartment had an excellent view of the landing dock.

A-3685-XN and A-3487-XO were names given based on a system of the Space Object Naming Convention of 2385. Earth-bound people had gazed up to the sky for millennia and told themselves stories about what they saw. When humans first started colonizing other planets, the planets had mythical names that gave people ideas about what they were like. Besides, now that people were discovering planets at a much faster pace, this had become impractical. Human creativity simply stood no chance of keeping pace with the exploratory hunger intragalactic planetary colonization. Due to the rapid search of an ideal new home for all humanity, humans were now scattered across the galaxy. Whenever a mission left a habitable planet for the greener grasses of a new prospect, some people always stayed–-or got left behind.

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The alpha-numeric Space Object Naming Convention also helped manage expectations. As it turned out, the cool-sounding mythical names given by stargazers thousands of years ago were often misleading. At first, people were hoping to find a home that was “warm and welcoming,” or at least “a place to live,” but rarely found places that were anything but “cold and cruel.” The first colony was Mars. Mars was “the red planet” and it had been said that Men came from Mars. It then followed that Men and Women could never really get along as Women were from Venus. Humans never colonized Venus.

Taylor was agender. There were no legends about planets that Agender people were from, or what that meant for their interactions with the rest of humanity. This bothered Taylor little. They got top education and this research and exploration job, which they enjoyed very much, thanks to being raised by highly educated and respected people. Taylor watched Karen as she patiently helped her oldest child into the child seat in the living room. Karen had four children with Lucas, the captain of the mission currently returning from A-3487-XO. Karen and Lucas met at the opening gala at the New Ballet House on A-1421-XA, the last planet where humans stayed long enough to actually establish a ballet theater, although they had fast-track all the dancers from a few space missions behind. Taylor had thought it had been an ill-advised priority, but the powers to be had all agreed they’d been without ballet for too long and had allocated the resources. Despite all that, Taylor enjoyed the show very much. It was “Don Quixote.”

“What were you watching?” they asked, noticing the lingering holograph that floated in thin air.

“That’s our Great-Great-Grandmother giving a lecture about justice.”

“Justice? Really? What made you interested in it?”

“I’m actually doing a project on our family’s history. I want to be able to tell the kids where we come from.”

“I see.”

“Don’t tell me you’re interested in justice, little Tay-Tay,” she said, teasing. Taylor was not amused. They frowned at her, unsure if this discussion was worth pursuing.

“It’s such an antiquated concept! I’m glad we got rid of it. Great-Great-Granny Greta was actually ahead of her time for pointing out how unnatural it is. Humans never did figure out where it came from, but we were able to weed it out of our society.”

Taylor started to respond, but Karen jumped up and pointed out the window.

“Look! It’s them!”

Indeed, the spaceship had appeared as a small dot in the uniform grayish sky.

Karen and Taylor stood close to the window and watched. Even though Taylor had been on countless space shuttles, they still thought there was something transfixing about it.

“Look, Lucy, there’s Daddy!” Karen took her daughter out of the child seat and held her in her arms.

“I swear, the landing approach gets faster every time!” Karen observed.

“Oh my god,” Taylor let out.

“What’s going on?” Karen asked. Taylor was pale and unable to speak.

“Daddy, Daddy!” Lucy exclaimed.

Taylor turned away from the window.

“Are they supposed to be spinning like that?”

Taylor looked out at the spaceship that was barreling towards the ground, out of control.

“Let’s go in your bedroom. Quickly!”

Taylor grabbed their mask from the sofa as they rushed to the bedroom

“Close the door. Are all the kids here?”

She nodded.

“What’s going on?”

“I’m worried the impact will take out the windows.”

“The impact?”

Taylor nodded.

“Here, put this on,” they handed her the oxygen mask.

Ema Solarova moved to California from the Czech Republic looking for fame and fortune. Instead, they discovered Mexican food and vowed to stay.