Two years. Two years many billions of miles away from his home planet. For this solitary space traveler, what had started as a bold expedition to new horizons for his people had become a disorienting journey through a galaxy that was hardly the unexplored frontier he had been taught to expect. Now, with his ship damaged, his crewmate lost, his mission long abandoned, he was closing in on a distant blue planet, with the idle hope of finding somewhere to rest for a while. On final approach, he discovered that it was home to a people who had built a proper landing site for craft such as his. A spacefaring people.
The roar of the engines faded as the craft came to rest on the landing pad. He opened the door to a blinding blue sky. Three figures approached him — an older woman with long brown hair, with a man on either side. She asked him his name — no one had addressed him by name in a long time — and he told her. Lief. The woman had only just finished telling him her name, Leila, before Lief stumbled and fell, being caught by one of the men. He hadn’t realized how weak he had become after months in microgravity conditions. They carried him away to a medical center, where he passed out on a soft white bed.
For the next week, a curious Leila kept watch over this extraterrestrial visitor while he regained his strength. She then offered to take him to what she called the Celestial Sphere. It was at the heart of the facility, past rows of hangars and research centers. In the distance there was a massive spire stretching towards the sky, anchored to the ground with what looked like a massive gun barrel. They called it the Lance, a machine which could launch ships into space at incredible speeds, allowing unprecedented distances to be covered across the galaxy. It loomed like a giant, its apex just piercing the clouds on this gray and windy day.
They stepped inside the Celestial Sphere, and Lief was met with what looked exactly like a sky filled with stars. There were catwalks spanning across the room, and two people in uniform stood near one corner of the dome, taking notes. A ring-shaped platform stretched around its equator.
“This room contains all our observations of the universe as we know it,” Leila explained. “We have records of all the expeditions which have left from Earth, which go back as far as 30,000 years. Some have produced settlements that we still hear back from sometimes. There’s also the occasional reading of a ship that has gone from a planet settled through a Lance jump to another world. That only happens once or twice a century, as far as we know.” She glanced at Lief pointedly.
“Most unusual of all is when a ship actually returns back to Earth from another star system. Not only is getting back immensely difficult, but there isn’t much reason to do so. We created the Lance for those who wish to explore the universe, and we’ve already explored our planet many times over.”
She seemed to be opening a door for Lief to tell his story.
“I didn’t know about any of this until I arrived — I always thought that my planet was the origin point of humanity in our galaxy. I’m just confused why I didn’t know anyone else existed.”
“How about this: you can find your home planet in the Sphere, and we’ll see when it was first settled. There have been instances where we made contact with ancient settlements who had forgotten their origins, and made it part of their religion or folklore instead.”
“Oh, well we don’t have any origin stories like that, as far as I know. We never studied our history that much, honestly.”
Leila had Lief stand on a circular platform at the center of the Sphere and point to the region of the sky where he resided. As he gestured, the entire virtual sky shifted with dizzying speed, as if their point of observation suddenly had moved hundreds of light years away. It took only a few more adjustments to find his star system, and finally his home planet.
Leila looked on in disbelief. “Are you sure this is the right place?”
“Of course! I’ve been looking back on my home planet in the sky every day for the past two years.”
“No, I believe you, it’s just — no one’s ever been there before. Yet, here you are.” Leila asked Lief to guide her, using the Celestial Sphere, to each of the planets he had visited on his way to Earth. He told her stories from each one, and the data lined up with what Lief described. Leila listened with fascination.
“Could it be possible that there were explorers that preceded your people?” Lief asked.
“I just don’t know. It doesn’t make sense .… Before the Lance, we didn’t have anything that could have gotten anywhere close to this system. It took us a very long time to be able to explore the galaxy. That has been our dream, ever since we survived the Great Burning.”
“The Great Burning?”
“It was a time where our planet was a much less hospitable place than it is today. Our geologists say that there may have been another very accomplished civilization before the great burning, one that might have actually been responsible for it. But we have no written records of what happened. We can only speculate.”
“You don’t think that my people might have left Earth before everything collapsed?”
“That very well could be.” Leila looked at Lief, now with a greater stillness out of an inner reverence for the mystery Lief represented. Lief looked back onto the sphere, towards his home planet, that one dark, hooded figure among this dazzling constellation of human history, now impossibly far away.
“There’s gotta be somebody back home who knows.”