The 40 year voyage from Earth to the Naulrigi system was fraught with risk. Aside from interstellar radiation, the looming threat of the USS Trailblazer losing pressure from a malfunction or space debris collision, and the ever-present risk of cabin fever, the crew were the first humans to live in a weightless environment for more than a decade. And they were expected to do so for four times that duration. Despite the potential dangers, the mission was necessary; 12 billion people were crammed onto the surface of the bluish-brown sphere the Trailblazer left behind. Uninhabited land suitable for farming was hard to come by and soil in the areas that could be farmed had been depleted of nutrients. Outbreaks of disease and war were common in such harsh conditions. Macabre though it was, world leaders hoped each new disease would ease the strain of Earth’s overpopulation but they were never virulent enough.
Commander Ponellis awoke from her aided sleep to the chime of a proximity alarm. Naulrigi III was visible on the forward monitor. After checking for small asteroids and other space junk caught in the planet’s orbit that might be hazardous during landing and finding it immaculately clear, Ponellis enhanced the zoom and marveled over the wispy white clouds that hung in the atmosphere above the planet’s sizable ocean. If she tilted her head, she could almost believe the land she saw peaking out from under the cloud was the southern edge of Africa. She smiled sadly, missing her home.
As the Trailblazer broke the planetary atmosphere, Communications Officer Chen gasped.
“Commander, this must be traces of Earth that are purging from the RAM, but I’m picking up radio transmissions.”
Ponellis didn’t respond; she was hooked to the viewscreen, unsure what had caught her eye, but sure it was something vastly more important than a geologic anomaly. It grew clearer as the Trailblazer descended. Some sort of long, winding, megalithic structure toward the eastern edge of a large continent. A road? Or a wall? And damned if she didn’t think the peninsular formation to the south didn’t look like India.
“Unidentified vessel, this is the Asiatic Space Defense Force. Transmit your identity codes or we will fire.”
Commander Ponellis talked her way out of transmitting the ID codes she didn’t have, all the while wracking her brain to figure out how the Trailblazer had ended up back in the Sol system. Especially when the navigational system indicated home was light years away.
The crew of the Trailblazer was met on the ground by a smiling general who shook hands with each member and recited their full names and ranks as he did so. Ponellis had only transmitted the list of last names and first initials; no rank, no given names. Certainly no middle names.
The general explained that the NASA on his world – which Ponellis and the Trailblazer crew knew as Naulrigi III, but the general called Earth – had sent their own Trailblazer into deep space, crewed by the same astronauts, a century prior to find another home for the suffering masses that crowded the planet. They never returned. They did, however, send a message indicating that they had reached their destination and found an advanced – though identical – civilization. Soon after, a large war coincided with a pandemic on par with the Spanish Flu if the early 1900s and drastically reduced the population of Naulrigi III. The message from their Trailblazer was forgotten in the years of rebuilding.
A few technological leaps brought the civilization of Naulrigi III to a new peak. The message from the Trailblazer was rediscovered. Though his contemporaries thought it a hoax, the general felt the freeing terror of not being unique every morning. He woke with a tight chest at the prospect of having no free will, but also took solace in the thought that his poor choices – of which there were many – were not his own doing. Accidents and deaths seemed less terrible, less heartbreaking. But his own ambitions seemed dull and uninteresting. The range of emotion he could feel had been truncated, normalized, like a machine equipped with a new regulator.
As the general prepared Ponellis and her crew to ascend to a low orbit and transmit the message back to their Earth that had reached Naulrigi III so many years ago, he wondered how many other Earths existed. And what their purpose was.