Evolva: Landing (work in progress sci-fi story)

The planet revolved slowly beneath me, its colors filling the enormous bay window of the residents deck. Blues, greens, and browns swam together under the white strokes of clouds in the atmosphere of EV0982. My new home looked extremely beautiful from where I watched it. Then, again, all planets looked beautiful and peaceful from this far above them. Once you got down to the surface and dealt with the people who lived there was when you began to doubt your first opinion.

But there are no people on EV0982. I reminded myself. That was the whole reason I had signed the colony agreement. There were less than 10,000 people between both colony ships and, if I chose to, I didn’t have to settle anywhere near them for the rest of my life. I smiled, an unfamiliar sensation to me, as I watched my new home pass slowly beneath me.

The Mayflower class colony ships had come into orbit around EV0982 six of that planets months ago. Only essential personnel had been awakened by the computer systems automatic programming. That had consisted of the ship crew, designated colony leaders, and first landing teams who would be sent down to the planet surface to prepare adequate landing centers when the rest of the colony and supplies were dropped from the colony ships. Four months ago, the first of three science teams were woken up and dropped to the surface to begin setting up the greenhouse and food production systems that would serve to maintain our colony over the next five years while indigenous sources of food and other resources were discovered. I was part of the second science team whose purpose was solely to explore and collect specimens from the planet surface.

Other groups who were woken with me included the complete medical staff, first phase government personnel, and a second group of engineers. The first third of the actual colonists, refugees from war torn areas in the Earth system, were woken up as well to be dropped in larger groups over the next two months. They would settle in the first protected community and begin to build a central location from which all of the other colonists (no longer refugees) would spread out.

We would all be dropped in the next few days as the drop ships were loaded with not only human beings, but the supplies and belongings of all of the colonists that they were allowed to bring. Each person had been given a crate of a uniform size into which a specific list of belongings were stored. This included not only personal items like pictures and keepsakes, but a regulated list of furniture and supplies each colonist was required to bring. The crates were built not only to carry the supplies and resources necessary to colonize a virgin planet, but they could also be modified easily into permanent structures for living, storage, or other uses. They were practically indestructible and could withstand nearly anything a wild planet could throw at them.

When the time came to pack my crate I was daunted by the amount of space still left over after I had obtained the required list of belongings for a single colonist with no family. I had no personal belongings outside of my clothes and basic necessities. Anything sentimental that would have belonged to me I got rid of a long time ago. I wanted no memory of the things that had happened in my past, things I was determined to leave behind me in the Earth system the moment I stepped onto the colony ship.

“Jennae McMullin?” I looked toward the door of the common room where a deckhand, signified by the light blue-gray uniform he wore, stood waiting.

“Jen.” I stood up and picked my carry on bag which was resting on the floor beside me, slinging it over my shoulder as I crossed the room. I could feel the eyes of the few people sitting in the residential common room follow me, some of them envious, others just curious, but none of them angry. They knew as well as I did why I was being summoned. It was my turn to be dropped. The whole room was eager to be planet side, just as I was, and the waiting was nearly unbearable.

“If you could come with me, please, we will get you seated for the drop to the planet surface.” The deckhand smiled at me as we left the room, the doors sliding shut behind us.

The halls and passageways of the Mayflower class colony ship which I had been in cryo on were much more full now than three days ago when I had been woken up. The regulation light blue-gray uniforms of the crew were slowly replaced by the more varied colors of apparel worn by the colonists as they were woken up from cryo. We had to wind our way through the now crowded corridors instead of taking a straight path from the residential  wing to the lifts down to the docking bays. I hated crowds and large numbers of people, but had learned to deal with it over years of living on space stations and research ships. I had gotten used to finding my own little spaces where I could be alone, even when space like that was a luxury

Each lift was packed to nearly maximum capacity as we descended to the docking bay level of the ship. I drummed my fingers on the strap of my bag and focused on a spot in mid-air, trying to send my mind elsewhere while we were packed in that small area. I hated being in small spaces almost as much as I hated being in crowds of people. I could feel the little knot of panic in my chest start to move to my skin, a sheen of sweat breaking out on my forearms. The crowded lift was beginning to get to me.

“Nervous?” the deckhand misread my body language, but I went with it.

“A little. Can’t wait to get down there. Out in the open.” I forced a smile at him and realized that most of the people on the lift had turned and smiled back.

“Understandable.” The deckhand returned to watching the numbers change on the consol above the door. “Two more levels, then we’re off.”

“Good.” Was all I said. I knew that the smiles on the faces around me were genuine, everyone on the colony ship was eager and excited to get down to the planet surface. It took a lot of energy for me to convince my mind about that, which steered my thoughts away from the knot of panic that fought to control my mind.

I breathed in with relief when we stepped off of the still crowded lift and onto the loading deck for the drop transports to the planet surface. My escort lead me to a port entry door and ushered me in, handing me the plastic boarding pass with my seat assignment as I passed. He smiled calmly at me, but I could see the envy in his eyes as I passed through the port door. He would be making his trip soon enough, so I forced myself not to worry about it.

“Jen!” a familiar voice called to me as I stepped through the doorway into the passenger deck. I looked down the long rows of seats where others were strapped in and waiting to see a middle aged man with wiry dark hair and a full beard beckoning to me. It was Tom Holt, one of the biologists woken up to begin exploring our new home. He was standing next to a row of three women who I recognized. Natalia, his wife, was a fellow biologist whose specialty was xenobotany. Beside her were Meghan and Kaitlyn, the Holt’s two teenage daughters.

I shouldered my carry on bag further up and slid down the aisle to meet them. The number on the boarding pass matched the seat just across the aisle from Tom. No surprise there, though. The Holts, Tom especially, were the reason I had made the final decision to join the colony. Not that I had needed much convincing, with how things on Jupiter station were beginning to progress, but they had given me that final push to sign my name and get on board. The Holts had semi-adopted me when I came to Jupiter station at the age of fifteen for schooling. Tom had mentored me throughout my education and, now that it was complete, had encouraged me to sign up with him and his wife to be colonists on EV0982. I would be working on their team to explore our new home and help collect and study organisms for use as resources. Tom had most likely pulled a few strings to make sure we were all seated together on the drop transport.

“Excited, Jen?” Natalia looked over at me as I stowed my bag under my seat in the bin and strapped myself into the seat.

“Very.” It was easy to smile at her. Natalia had become a mother to me when I had none. I glanced over at Kaitlyn and Meghan, who were engrossed in the electronic games loaded into the seat computers. This might be the last time in their lives they would be able to play with them. “Are you guys excited?”

Kaitlyn immediately looked up at me and grinned, showing off where teeth were growing in to gaps that had existed the day we went into cryo. “I can’t wait! It’s like an adventure! Right, Meg?”

“It IS an adventure, dummy.” Meghan was thirteen and considered anything her younger sister said as completely inane. She rolled her eyes in my direction, looking for commiseration, but found none. Of the two of them, I liked Kaitlyn’s company more. She was more open and less judgmental than her older sister, but Natalia assured me that was entirely due to her age.

Tom sat down in the seat beside Natalia and smiled over at me, “Nothing like a fresh start, Jen?”

“Yeah, nothing like it.” I smiled back, feeling the warmth from Tom’s smile spread through me. He reached across the aisle and gave me a pat on the knee.

Tom knew more about my reasons for joining the colony than most people. It was Tom who had vouched for me when the colony administration questioned why someone so young would choose to join a colony alone. He had told the colony leader, a gruff ex-military man named Dean McGowen, that I was practically a daughter to Tom and Natalia and they considered me more family than anything else. Mr. McGowen had given me a very long look before signing the contract that granted me permission to join the colony. I still didn’t understand what that look had meant, but decided not to let it bother me too much. I was part of the colony and I was leaving everything behind except the few people I couldn’t live without.

I leaned back in the seat and watched the other passengers as they boarded the drop ship. We had been seated halfway down the passenger deck, so it took a while for the ship to fill up. Eagerness to reach the planet surface made everyone move quickly and help each other out so that the seats were filled and everyone prepared for drop in a short amount of time.

The drop trip went smoothly, which surprised me. Not once did I feel the turbulence I expected as we entered the atmosphere. Only by watching through the large windows that were opened upon reaching the lower part of the cloud level could I guess where we were on our trip. Screens above each seat showed the landscape beneath us as we traveled swiftly over it. The blobs of green, brown, and blue I had watched from above became distinguishable land features, like forests, grasslands, and bodies of water.

We entered the atmosphere from an eastern direction and flew west to our designated drop location. Per the colony regulations, all colonists would be dropped to that central location and then, over the next five years, the drop ships would be used to help establish other communities outside of the central colony as land was deemed safe to inhabit. These rules had been established over the last four hundred years of colony experiences, both failed and successful. I sincerely hoped our colony would be listed under ‘successful’ in the future.

The spot for the central colony, named Plymouth by the colony administration, was located on a raised grassland that rose out of a densely forested lowland. The land continued to slowly raise into a range of mountains within an easy transport distance from the spot where the colony was located. As we neared I could see both lakes and a large ocean within an equal distance from the central colony. A prime spot to start exploring the organisms that inhabited this new world.

“Almost there, Jen, and then we can get started.” Tom leaned over into the aisle as far as the restraint harness would allow and gave me a grin. I grinned back, realizing that I had been drumming my fingers impatiently on the armrest of my seat. “First time on terra firma for you, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” I had been born and raised entirely in space, never once in my whole life leaving the artificial gravity of a ship or space station. I had fears that I would set foot off of the ship and find that I had to relearn how to walk. Tom had assured me, when I brought it up just before going into cryo, that I would be just fine.

I could barely speak as I watched the buildings which constituted the last six months worth of work came into view on the screens. The excitement in the cabin was infectious as the hushed silence that had accompanied the break into the atmosphere was broken by a rising murmur of voices. Everyone was impatient for the drop ship to land and for their first step onto virgin soil.

“Remember, don’t take a full breath of air the moment you step off the ship. It’s not going to be as pure as what you’re used to. Give it a few hours before you really exert yourself.” Tom gave me a serious look.

I had forgotten that part of our conversation. Being entirely used to artificial air systems made my lungs a little more sensitive to planetary air. I would not be used to the particulates like dust and pollen that were common in planetary air. Tom wasn’t too worried, though, as I had spent enough time in station green houses helping Natalia with her experiments that my lungs had been exposed to at least some of the things I would be breathing in when we landed.

The ship circled the colony buildings in a wide arc and all of the passengers could see the buildings more clearly. All of them were surrounded by a shielding force wall, a necessity until the hidden dangers of EV0982 were discovered and studied. The nice thing about electric plasma technology is that the pillars of the force wall could be moved in any shape that was necessary, allowing the size of the community to expand, and still provide the same amount of protection required.

“That doesn’t look like the building plan the governor outlined before we left. Look at that formation, not what we were told would be there.” A woman sounded worried from somewhere behind us.

A calmer, male, voice answered her, “There was probably a topographical feature, like boulders or something, that made them change the plan. They had to go with what they found. Don’t worry. Governor McGowen would not be bringing us down here if he thought it wasn’t safe.”

More conversations began to rise from the other passengers as the ship positioned itself for a vertical landing, and began to lower. The captain’s voice came on over the intercom, reminding us all that, even in our excitement, we should remain seated and strapped in until the ship was safely landed and the crew gave us the go ahead to unbuckle. I drummed my fingers on the armrest again, impatient for the last few minutes of landing to pass by faster. It seemed longer than our cryo trip until we all felt the gentle jolt as the landing gear of the ship made contact with the ground and came to a rest on the firm earth. The crew barely appeared before everyone was out of their seats and retrieving their carry-on bags, one bag per person, queuing in the aisle for their chance to step out of the ship and onto the alien planet. I stood patiently behind Tom, his family ahead of us, as we slowly made our way to the large bay doors that opened on either side of the passenger cabin.

Even before I could look outside, a breeze of air entered the cabin, ruffling Tom’s wild mane of dark hair, and caressing my skin. I fought the urge to fill my lungs, clamping my mouth shut and breathing slowly in through my nose. It felt different, this air, it had a crispness to it that I had never felt in my lungs. There was a sweet, almost fermenty smell to it, barely tangible until the air hit my tongue in the back of my throat. I felt it hit my lungs, and I started to cough, just a little, then I couldn’t stop. Fortunately, Tom took me aside into an aisle, and made me sit down until I could control it.

“I told you not to take a deep breath, Jen.” His admonishment was gentle, not angry.

“I couldn’t help it.” I croaked out, sipping the water a kind crew member brought me. Fortunately, I was not the only one who was having problems. I could hear other people cough as they drew in the unadulterated fresh air.

“I know.” His brown eyes twinkled at me, “Ready to get off this ship?”

“Yes.” I tried not to stand up too fast, but the sight of bright sunlight coming through the door of the ship was making me antsy.

“Go slow, now, Jen.” Tom purposely got in front of me, as if I were a toddler he was afraid would go running ahead of him and disappear. He turned, before we reached the steps, and pulled something out of his bag and handed it to me. It was a pair of dark glasses, the lenses tinted nearly black. “You’ll want to wear these, at least on the days that the sun is this bright, until your eyes get used to the light.”

I slipped them on, and stepped out onto the top step of the docking stairs. I tried to focus on each step as I went down, not wanting to stop the flow of people I knew were behind me. I made sure I was a few steps out of the way of the general stream of people before I stopped and looked around.

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