“What’s more majestic than majestic?” asked Kline as he stepped off of the ship, gazing up at the jagged mountain peaks that surrounded them and gouged the violet sky.
“The readings are all good,” said Smeltzer, following Kline down the steps and onto the spongy surface of the planet. “We should be able to breathe with no difficulty.”
Captain Dean, at the top of the steps, popped his helmet off and pretended to choke to death, falling down in a heap. “No,” he said, sitting upright. “No, not really, the air actually smells amazing.”
The other two men removed their helmets as well and inhaled deeply.
“This is better than that planet with the beaches,” said Smeltzer. “Way better.” The fragrant wind rustled the delicate, filmy leaves on the nearby trees.
“I hear rushing water,” said Kline, scampering into the underbrush. “I knew it!” he shouted. “There’s a brook over here, just babbling right along!”
Captain Dean took a soil sample for no good reason. None of the men had any idea how to use the soil analysis apparatus. “Look for scat,” said Captain Dean. “Where there’s scat, there’s wildlife. Something deer-like, for example, or something hog-like.”
Kline emerged from the bushes. “Are you guys going to come look at this brook or what?”
Smeltzer said, “Let’s hurry up and secure the ship and then go exploring. I want to get some pictures.”
Thirty minutes later, the men were tramping happily along through a dense woods, their packs feeling light on their shoulders. “The variety of this flora is staggering,” said Kline. “This plant’s almost as tall as me!” The plant he pointed at was clearly several inches taller than he was.
After an hour of hiking, the men sat down to rest on the edge of a cliff that looked out over a vast, lush valley that sparkled with streams and ponds and rippled with color as the wind rushed through the green, gold, and blue leaves on hundreds of thousands of trees.
“I know,” said Smeltzer, “that we’re the first people to be on all the planets we’ve been on. But to be the first people on this planet? Now that’s an honor.”
“You said it,” said Captain Dean as he took a swig of water from his canteen. “The first human eyes to see this view.” He gestured at the view with his canteen, water sloshing over the lip.
“It’s humbling,” said Kline. “It makes me feel small, but not in a bad way. I actually love it.” He was eating a granola bar and a raisin fell out of his mouth as he spoke.
“We’re the first to see it,” said Smeltzer, “and we may be the last. Who knows what the future holds for space exploration?”
“True,” said Captain Dean. “But whatever it holds, we’re here now, and we’re seeing it, and we’re the very first ones. For as long as this planet has been here, it has existed outside of human...human...what do you see, Kline?”
Kline was standing on the edge of the cliff and looking down at something, frozen in the middle of his last bite of granola. “There’s something on that ledge down there,” he finally said.
“Where?” said Smeltzer as he and Captain Dean joined Kline at the edge.
“There,” said Kline, pointing at a rocky outcropping about 12 feet down the face of the cliff. “See it? It’s pink. Bright pink. Unnaturally pink. It looks – plastic.” There was a prolonged silence. “Come on, I know you see it. Tell me you see it.”
“I see it,” said Captain Dean.
“Either this,” said Smeltzer, “is one of the finest acting performances I have ever witnessed, or else you really didn’t just throw that down there a few minutes ago while we weren’t looking and then pretend to spot it in order to freak us out.”
“Bite your tongue,” said Kline. “I’m no actor.”
“Be civil, Smeltzer,” said Captain Dean. “A strange planet is no place to lose your head.”
The three men stood and looked at the pink object for another long minute in uneasy silence.
“Well,” Captain Dean said, “we have to know what it is. I’m going down there.”
“Why do we have to know?” asked Smeltzer. “We don’t know what’s ‘unnatural’ here. We’ve only been here for a few hours. That might be the most natural color on this whole world. There might be millions of trees that grow billions of those pink things right on the other side of that mountain range.”
“Yeah,” said Kline. “Maybe. But it also looks a lot like a toothbrush.”
“Shut up, Kline,” said Smeltzer, but there was no heat in his words.
“It’s an easy climb,” said Captain Dean. “Here I go.” He lowered himself over the edge of the cliff, finding footholds without trouble and working his way down to the ledge, his face grim. When he got to the ledge, he stooped down and picked up the pink object, holding it between his thumb and forefinger. Kline and Smeltzer watched him in anxious silence. Captain Dean looked up at them and shrugged, his eyes stricken with sadness. “It’s a toothbrush,” he said. “I’m coming up.” He put the toothbrush in his pants pocket, found his handholds, and climbed back up to the edge of the cliff where Kline and Smeltzer stood waiting and defeated
“Let me see it,” said Smeltzer, holding out his hand. Captain Dean handed the toothbrush to Smeltzer, who held it up to his face and examined it with narrowed eyes. “Hmm,” he said. “No brand name.”
“So it’s a generic toothbrush,” said Kline.
“It could still be alien,” said Smeltzer. “The fact that it’s so similar to an Earth toothbrush could be a total coincidence. Or maybe the alien race has an anatomy very similar to ours and they independently came up with the concept of the toothbrush. Is that so impossible?”
“Oh, give it up, Smeltzer,” said Captain Dean, spitting and hoisting his pack over his shoulder.
Kline sat down on the ground and then, sighing, laid back on the beautiful soil and looked up at the almost-too-puffy clouds.
“A wormhole,” said Smeltzer. “The toothbrush could have come through a wormhole. From Earth to here.”
“Maybe Santa brought it,” said Captain Dean. “Maybe the toothbrush came here all by himself. We should look around for his little landing craft.”
No one said anything. The planet’s swollen, orange sun was setting fast.
“What should I do with it?” asked Smeltzer.
“I’ll take it,” said Kline. “My electric one is on the fritz.”
“Let’s go,” said Captain Dean, kicking a rock over the cliff. “Kline, don’t use the toothbrush, for Heaven’s sake. You have no idea where it’s been.”
Smeltzer sealed the toothbrush in a plastic samples bag and stuffed it into his pack. Night slipped over the woods very quickly. The explorers’ flashlights barely seemed to cut the darkness.
“What’s that smell?” said Kline. “I think I stepped in some scat.”
“Who cares?” said Captain Dean. He discarded his gum wrapper on the ground and the alien breeze blew it into a wild, distant ocean.