I am a shooting star, a line of flame burning into Earth’s atmosphere. This is it: success. Our victorious homecoming, sixty-four years after being dispatched into the furthest reaches of our solar system. It’s not just me streaking across the sky, flensing through the night. More than half a century ago our team launched from Moon orbit, utilising the massive shipyards built in low orbit to plan the future of the human race. But we were a long way from being able to reach another sun and its precious hoard of planets, better to start close and see what there really was in our own enormous backyard before attempting to jump over the fence into the dark abyss between solar realms.
Our mission was to explore and map the moons of Saturn, Jupiter and Uranus. They had most of the likely candidates, though Neptune was quite appealing too, but it’s one and half times as far away as Uranus is from Earth again, and by the time we might have been ready, it was on the other side of the solar system anyway. We uncovered wonders. By the glow of the gas giants we found moons the human race could live on, impossibly far from the sun and all that had ever given rise to life on Earth. We’d seeded those satellite worlds with sensors and beacons ready to draw in the first wave of colonists, and moved on to the next moon, the next planet. Decades in space, years between planets. Frantic, silent, deadly, incredibly boring at times, yet equally filled with wonder as being the first eyes to lay sight directly on these places.
And now we’re back. The carefully calculated return vector saw us slingshotting around Mars to get us back in an approach towards Earth, a long one so we could burn off even more of the speed we’d built up cruising half a billion kilometres back towards the sun from Jupiter. Our return was an elliptical route that used the other planets to shed speed and incidentally get us close enough to do some additional surveying. No point wasting the proximity. By the time we spun around Mars our vessel was just fifteen per cent the size it had been when we left the Moon. We’d consumed vast quantities of fuel and ditched components and mass all along our trip. Some of it would be used by future expeditions, the rest was just more space junk, placed in as clear an orbit as possible or dumped on the surface of the many oblate spheroids we’d visited.
On the approach to Earth we passed the Moon, using its gravity well to slow us still further, and began final separation. The five of us moved into the re-entry chambers and at the right distance from Earth, our vessel underwent its last controlled explosion, firing five separate cylinders toward home. The rattle and hammering of striking the atmosphere were extraordinary. I’d mostly grown used to lower gravities, thinner atmospheres, though we’d had our share of rough landings out in Jupiter’s moons and all those huge planets were hungry to draw visitors down into the swirling mists. But this was home. The outer layer of my re-entry tube caught light instantly, burning off like a massive sparkler, melting the inner layer tight around my body, preparing and protecting me for landing. We were coming in fast, and the burn continued. My toes and feet flamed away first, as I steadily disconnected sensory and haptic feedback from my lower limbs. The feet that had carried me across Titan evaporated and streamed past me, followed by lower legs, knees, thighs. At the hips the friction of speed versus atmosphere continued to tear at me, consuming my hands and arms. Hands that had lifted grains of dust out of Saturn’s rings.
Something is slightly off in my approach and I begin to wobble. I need to be more streamlined if any of me is going to survive. It’s a little risky, but I let my hips and lower torso go, my body now more pointed. I’d drawn my head in tight when I got into the re-entry chamber, but that’s expendable too. With a thought I allow my head to distend inside its thick, hot armour. It flares out behind my now diamond-shaped body, briefly slowing me before the friction burns away my eyes, ears, mouth. The eyes that saw the tiny inner moons of Uranus, watched the glitter of their tainted ice as they spun in murderous orbits of the rings. The ears that heard the roar of Jupiter. All gone. It’s just my core now, where all those inputs of hands, feet and eyes led. It’s all inside me, everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve done in more than half a century of wandering the solar system. When we left the Moon we were merely expert systems, beautifully designed, created to explore, adapt and learn. Back then we had designations, but after sixty-four years in space, we have names. We have lived and learned, and we may just have the information that will save the human race. I wonder if they will let us join them.
I hope they’re ready for what we’ve brought them, what we’ve learned. Since the handshake greetings near the Moon we’ve been in radio silence. Being inside a fireball isn’t conducive to conversation. But now, as the fire dies back and I realise how few millimetres of insulation separate me from the red-hot air outside and utter annihilation, I receive the first telemetry from Portugal. They’re waiting for us. We’re home.