Expedition to the Surface of GJ 3470b

Expedition to the Surface of GJ 3470b
(an episode in four parts)
Stuart Greenhouse

“In 2015, the super-earth exoplanet GJ 3470b’s atmosphere was seen, using direct transit spectroscopy, to be strikingly similar in color to Earth’s.”
(Brian Koberlein, as posted on “One Universe at a Time”)

(part 1)

Sky of blue like Earth’s; it may be helium,
hydrogen only, Rayleigh scattering
a lucky, harmonic match; it may be that
your suit puffs thick around your joints with

three inches of padding like a bathyspherist’s;
that the hungry corrosive algae-like proto-life
slime already threading up your left ankle

will, over the next three hours,
dissolve the buffering layer of your suit
designed exactly for that
reason — to feed its hunger, to buy you time

to be here, intrepid explorer, looking upward
from this planet so massive and dense you need
a suit whose innermost layer is a complex knit of

pulsing microfascial bioresponsive
expert-system-driven compensators to breathe
against the crushing gravity: Still, inside
this fortress of human technology

which isolates you from the alien environment
100 light years from Earth, enfolding you,
you feel at home, comfortable, sprightly,

and through your transparent visor the sky,
a welcoming blue, spreads all around
as if today were a Sunday, spring on the Cape,
homework done, nothing important

to do, nothing for all the world
to do but get lost staring
up into the blank heavens, dreaming . . .

(part 2)

At first you didn’t notice
(so lost in the sky you were)
the shiver through the air

approaching like heat rising up from the ground in a desert does,
a squiggly warp

like a rattlesnake makes
moving over dry
timberline ground — there

but not, more like
a queasy twisting in your belly

up from your knees
than something out there
and then you’re remembering

the stories the dock AI told you
at deep interstellar

way station PSO J318.5-22
about ghostly baffling hunting
‘jellyfish clouds’ which roam

the mantling sea’s limit, up top
near the ice shell; which,

when unmonitored,1 make vacuum-bubbles
in the shape of the elevator-shuttle, or remote
under-crawler, which had been there a moment before.

But this thing stays
a stride’s length — a stride

you would’ve made Earthside, that is,
not what this brick-pillowy suit
allows — aside, and moves

reflection-like as you do — a purple twist
against the purple landscape. Is it a shadow

you’re casting, evidence
of some spectral source

you can’t see but
for your bulk blocking its shining?2
Is it hypoxia? An instrumental

failure, casting a holograph
outward, distorted

white noise through your ocular implants?
The shipboard monitors say nothing’s true
about what you see, and your suit

detects no toxicity, no imbalance in your blood.
Hallucination? You were selected for being stable,

down-to-earth; cheerful, sure-witted, calm.
It moves like eyes sliding, and you find yourself following it,
this will-o-the-wisp which has picked out the rough shape of you

from the flat green terrain; which, if it had a second
alone, just you and it, no suit in between,

no technology, no ideas of safety made mechanism,
would dissolve you, break you down
to it, only landscape. You have three hours until then

to see what’s drawing you
three hundred meters out of the mission perimeter

you’ve traveled a lifetime and 80 trillion kilometers for;
to see what’s beyond
the bullseye your landing has made

of this flat patch of ground;
to see what wants you to, this outer manifestation.


1 (what sort of reflexive quantum mechanism lets the things know
when they aren’t observed? Little Schrodinger
Cats in some little cat-carrier-sized bladder maintaining their

uncollapsed waveform? If so, what are they, these jellyfish,
what sort of animal absence of thought, to embody the notice

of such a thing as perception and not
collapse it themselves? It’s as if they’re not living,
instead the expression

of some subquantum-foam-turbulence principle
magnified by the sharp edges of a planet-sized density

cutting quick through deep vacuum;
just a terrifying aspect of weather, froth on the prow,
however much volition we see there, calling them map-
border monsters.)

2 (Something, that is, like what the first
expedition to Alpha Centauri discovered:
invisible z-matter atmospheric clouds emitting

pulses which, harmonically self-interfering

at the equatorial, magnetized, latitudes, burnt
precessive spiral figures (reminiscent of crop circles)
into the tholin-rich hydrolyzed landscape?)

(part 3)

“A sort of psychic moss” is how you’ll describe
it later, but for now it’s a feeling you’ve followed

to a cave in a hillside, flat and low, a snake-
hole, if the snake were thick around as a steer.

You can’t fit inside — well, you could, but
you here means suited-up you, so you settle back, gaze into

the blackness like a jv linebacker waiting
for the hut-hike — shoulders lowered, knees locked,

too much dead weight in your bulk,
everything forgotten

but readiness for some shock
it will be the moment’s focus to be adequate of.

The moment stalls. Two hours of air. You bend,
tap the boot release at just your shinbone.

The other. The inner suit will keep you breathing
whatever happens in that narrow cave,

the exosuit transcribe your biometrics
to your heart’s last tick. No time

to think, just feel your way in — follow
the nerve-pure glowing blur

receding down the pupil-narrow black;
a purple you feel slipping down the passage

more than see. Hands and feet,
just like ten years old in your backyard,

playing monkey run tag . . .
one hundred yards.
You stop, stretch, sit, feel a growing itch

at your greening left shin; your suit compresses
sharp ridgelike there, abrades it for you. Pop. An explosion

behind your eyes, round back your skull; as if
the walls which your whole life

had made of self a separate watchful thing
were breached — that energy which had been “I”

flooding your body; a release —
not of pleasure as you’ve known it —

but a sudden absence of pain, a sudden absence
of pleasure, an exceeding of these categories;

the machinery of parts you’d called a body

as a chaos of dust self-slowing
through nebular cold space

will, after eons of drifting, pull
itself inward into a uniform sphere;

to a critical density, to a star self-igniting
from its center outward; to one new, whole thing.

(part 4)

As it was with my first relativistic tour,
the whole month moving normally through time
only to come home dumbfounded by
how fast those I’d left had aged; to my toddler daughter

lifting her horrified, horrifyingly wrinkled hand
to my smooth cheek —to see her seeing only
the monstrous return of an eighty-year-lost memory
made flesh; she turned from me
and never turned back; so now, just minutes past
leaving the moss hole, I’m feeling barely

changed — it is rather
they who look different — reddish, maybe,
or yellow in the middle, where their souls should be —

like an unkindled wick— muddled inside, sort of

the opposite of blue, whatever
the word for that is — their eyes empty and hard

at the alien flame taking root inside me.

Racing down to the surface the moment I left

the mission zone, in that snakey hole they found me
slumped over and becoming only landscape,
the greenish moss at work transforming me
into more of it, disappearing
me from the outside in: by the time
they’d scraped it off, I had
no feet, genitals, face, ears; my skin lay flayed
out from the inside, eruptive; they didn’t see

the full of it even until they unsuited me
inside the quarantine pup-tent, my belly
sagging inward like a rotting gourd;
Katlin was the first to vomit, from pity
I think she thought,
but I could see, in how she looked at me,

her sickness was horror to see my soul eclipse hers
as completely as, to paraphrase Dante, fire seen
the memory of fire.
She stared, her machine stomach empty, a machine
uncomprehending, caught in a loop, waiting for

me to move machinelike, in the way her ticktock brain
expected movement to be — ticktock, ticktock.
I heard Kimball Jr. I behind her whisper it was
as if all the human feeling in my body

had been replaced by a mineral
calm — consumed by it —
I seemed I might, Kimball Jr. III replied, turn and rip
out their throats while smiling
(that is, if I had lips
where the moss had rooted in, bloomed out my face)
the way a breeze might shift from cool to damp

one second passing, back home, late March on the Cape.
Later they’ll tell me the moss anesthetized me

as a mosquito begins by numbing the flesh it feeds from,
scrambling my hypothalamus to a delirium
in a pharmaceutical-limbic hormonal harmonic match
no easy chance could explain.
No, I’ll say. You misunderstand — You are machines,

things with parts which add up to a whole.
Not me, anymore. I’ve changed — become a gathering
like the moss is, each cell the same, each cell aware.

As the newly-formed core

of a star transcends its birth-matter’s frictional heating
with the transcendant and primal release of nuclear fusion
achieved, so do I exceed you now —

You couldn’t understand. It’s not even
a choice you could make. As if a match
could split, however sure
its strike, even one atom! That’s ok.

Soon enough
one of you will come near, try to prove
you’re not the machine you know
yourself to be. I’ll take your comforting
hand in my hand, let the words I am forming to

I once was a wick like you, a river of ash.

Look at me now, kindling out of that dream.

Stuart Greenhouse lives in New Jersey with his family, writing poems about space, space travel, and chronic illness as the mood hits him. Poems have most recently appeared in Cimarron Review, Oversound, Poetry Daily, and Rhino.