Evolva: Croatoan

“When were you going to tell us about the other colony, Dean?” Tom might have been speaking low, but I could hear him loud and clear through the night air.

“I wasn’t, Tom, and they aren’t going to know.” Dean’s voice had an edge to it that scared me. I hated when leading figures got that tone of voice. It never meant anything good.

“Why not? Why didn’t you tell us the moment we were woken? Why didn’t you wake the people who could make a decision when you first found the buildings?” Tom’s voice was angry. “Most of us already know. It’s not like you’re dealing with a bunch of idiots, Dean. We are educated people who are trained to observe things. Above all else, we’re curious. We already know there was another colony here. Now why the hell did you give the go ahead to bring the rest of the colony down?”

“Because it was my choice, Tom. And I only had two options, one of which I was not prepared to do unless absolutely necessary.”

“What choices? I don’t remember being told of any choices.” Tom practically snarled at Dean. They must have been arguing a while for him to get that way. Tom was usually a very calm man, choosing to reason rather than argue.

“Cut the shit, Tom, you knew damn well who thought they were running the show when we left. Who knows if they’re still in charge, the way things were, the Creationists were all but in charge when we left. Ours was the last colony to leave Jupiter station and the Earth systems. There is no going back. Mitch Umbenauer was clear about that before I ever began planning this colony. I only had two choices when we reached EV0982.” I heard Tom take a step back, probably leaning against the side of the building with his arms crossed, listening. He might get angry, but he is a rational man. He would listen to Dean, now that he was being truthful.

“What choices did you think you had, Dean?” Tom’s voice was calm as he prompted the governor on.

“I could either assess the situation, which I had ample time to do over six months, and bring the colonists down. Or I could start the self destruct sequence on the colony ships. With everyone in still in cryo, no one would be aware of what happened.” I heard Tom suck in a breath as someone, probably Dean, shifted their feet in the grass.  “I resolved I would only do that if there was a reasonable cause for it. If I really thought the whole colony was in danger. It was a last resort I refused to use. I had no evidence, even after six months, of what could have wiped out the previous colony. For all we knew it was the indigenous wildlife, which we are much better prepared to protect ourselves from. I wasn’t about to let something like that make me press that button, Tom, not after what all these people had been through to get here. You know as well as I do they can’t go back. There’s nothing to go back to.”

“You should still tell them, Dean. The rumor mill is working overtime already. People are afraid and fear makes them do stupid things. They will do better to hear from you everything you know.” I heard Tom take a step away from Dean in my direction, “We’re all tired of government hiding things from us under the guise of being ‘for our own good’. Don’t start that here, not when we have a chance to start over.”

I slipped around the corner of the building, hiding against the wall as Tom walked away from me. Dean McGowen followed at a slower pace, clearly thinking things over. I had a gut feeling we would be getting a little information session from governor McGowen the next day. He wasn’t any less a rational man than Tom.

I leaned against the building as I waited for Dean to plod slowly away and closed my eyes. It was true, there really was a colony that existed on EV0982 before us. I wondered how long ago it was that Dean seemed to think we were better prepared than that colony. It must have been one of the first wave of colonies, back when they used to just drop people on a planet with little more than what a planetary soldier was given. I let that thought over rule any other doubts before I opened my eyes. I would know more about it tomorrow, I was sure.

The clouds had moved away from the moon, the nocturnal rainfall that Mairead predicted over the forest having moved onward. The light of the low hanging moon was startlingly bright, illuminating the foliage just outside of the force wall with nearly complete clarity. At first I just marveled at it. After a lifetime of artificial illumination, natural light from the sun and moon was still a novelty. Then, I saw him, a figure, rising up out of the foliage not eight feet from the edge of the force wall, only about twenty feet from me. He was not one of us, I was sure, not with a body that lanky or tall. I couldn’t see much more of the man despite the brightness of the moonlight but I knew he could see me and, somehow, I knew he could see me much clearer than I could see him. I froze against the side of the building and watched the man as he watched me for a very long moment. Then, like an apparition, he slid back through the foliage and disappeared into the shadows of the forest.

I moved and I moved fast. I ran past where my domicile was and straight to the main building where I could see Dean just entering. I practically knocked him over when I caught up to him.

“Jennae, what’s wrong?” Dean studied my face and it took me a little while to respond. My lungs were killing me, I still wasn’t totally used to the planetary air, but the shock of what I knew I had seen stopped my voice more.

“A man, I saw a man, in the forest.” I finally croaked as Dean led me into the main building, sitting me down on a chair. “Outside the force wall, there was a man, watching me.”

“Slow down, start at the beginning.” Others who had been in the main building came over, slowly, curious about what had shaken me. Dean looked up at the closest person, “Markus, go get Tom and Natalia Holt. Please?”

I could tell that last part was not something Dean was used to, turning a command into a request. Military training dies hard, especially in the ones who have been in longer. I took a moment to catch my breath, closing my eyes and trying to collect my thoughts into something coherent. Markus returned quickly with Tom, he must have been close, and then left to find Natalia.

“Jen, what happened?” Tom gave Dean a hard look before kneeling in front of me. I looked into Tom’s eyes and drew a breath.

“I was walking back from the lab and heard the two of you talking, so I went around the outside of the west storage building so I wouldn’t disturb you, when the clouds moved and I saw a man standing in the woods.” I hoped I fudged that enough to sound believable.

“A man standing in the woods?” Dean looked up and I realized there were even more people around me. I started feel uncomfortable. Dean located someone and spoke, “Andrew, are all the colonists within the force wall?”

“It wasn’t one of us,” I answered before the head of security could open his mouth.

“How do you know?” I could tell from Andrew’s voice he was trying to sound like he didn’t doubt me, but he was failing miserably.

“He didn’t look human. He was too tall, and he didn’t move like us.” I could feel my lungs relaxing and leaned back, looking up at Dean. “It wasn’t one of us, I know it. And he was there, watching me, then he went back into the woods.”

“Where, Jen? Where did you see him?” Tom, I knew from his face, believed me.

“I was standing at this end of the west storage building and looked straight out at the woods. He couldn’t have been more than twenty or thirty feet from me.” Dean stood up and nodded at Andrew, a silent military command.

“Andrew will take a team out and investigate, see if they can find anything. If they can’t tonight, they’ll look in the morning when there’s more light.” Dean smiled down at me and lay a comforting hand on my shoulder. “It just rained, the ground is soft enough that anything out there should have left a footprint or something. Don’t worry, Jennae, you’re safe in here.”

Andrew had a team of men and women already armed and walking out the door. He nodded at me before leaving. Despite the fact that I thought he was an asshole, I hoped nothing happened to him.

“Tom, why don’t you take Jennae back to her quarters? I think she needs a little time to calm down.” Dean gave Tom a cursory nod and smiled down at me again, “Jennae, I’m sure you saw something, you aren’t the kind of girl to go making up stories like that. Andrew and the team will figure out what it was you saw.”

Although his words sounded reassuring, I wasn’t completely convinced. Tom could see that, but he gathered me up and lead me out of the main building. I could see his face in the security lights along the path to my quarters and didn’t try to talk to him. He looked angry and pensive at the same time, a combination that, in light of what I had just seen, frightened me.

Tom dismissed Natalia’s questioning look with a nod to Meghan and Kaitlyn when we entered their house. He would fill her in on the events of the evening, the conversation with Dean included, after the girls were safely in their beds. For now, she just set about brewing a pot of tea and setting out leftovers from dinner, a vegetable stew of some kind, to calm my nerves. I ate dutifully and helped her clean up afterwards, avoiding the curious looks that Meghan and Kaitlyn shot my direction. They didn’t need to know what had scared me, especially if Tom did not want to discuss it with Natalia in front of them.

Fortunately it was late enough that I could safely bid the Holts goodnight and slip across the well lit courtyard to my own little house without it appearing too strange. Once I was safely inside, I made sure all possible points of entry into my house were safely locked tight and nothing was hiding in any of the corners before climbing into the shower to clean the grime from the green houses off of my skin.

I had barely gotten dressed when there was a sharp knock on my door. I peeked out through the small window beside the door before opening it, recognizing the sharply erect form of Andrew McGowen standing before it. He had his hands folded behind his back and his feet were shoulder width apart, at ease position. Once a soldier, always a soldier.

“I wanted to tell you we didn’t find anything, but the light isn’t good and we’ll look again in the morning.” Andrew’s blue eyes glittered in the white security light above my door. He smiled what he assumed was a comforting smile. “I’ve posted extra sentries tonight. If you would like, I could stay here, on a cot, with you. If that would make you feel safer?”

“Um, no thanks. We’re central enough, I think I will be alright. Thanks, anyway, Andrew.” As if that request wasn’t blatant enough. He was getting to be a problem. However, there was no need to be rude. “I think  I would rather be alone right now, you know, to get some sleep. It’s been a really long day and that just really took all the energy out of me. I appreciate your offer, though.”

“Any time, Jennae. Let me know if you need anything. Have a good night’s rest.” He smiled winningly at me before snapping his feet together and walking away.

I shouldn’t have been so nice to him. I thought as I shut and locked the door. Exhausted, I plodded gracelessly to my bedroom and climbed into bed, asleep before my head hit the pillow.

 

The next morning Governor McGowen called a meeting just after breakfast that all members of the colony were required to attend. When we reached the main building he had a screen erected at the far end of it with chairs lined up down the hall facing the screen for everyone to sit in. I joined the Holts as they took a seat near the front. Dean McGowen looked nervous as everyone filed into the room. I thought he might have been expecting a mutiny.

“Sit down, everyone, there should be room for all. There are still seats at the back. If I could have everyone’s attention, please.” Again, he appeared discomforted by the request, rather than the command. The room, however, quieted down immediately and he began, “I know that over the past few weeks since you first set down on EV0982 there have been rumors floating around about the discovery of a possible colony that was here before us. I wanted to let you all know, just to set the record straight, that there was a colony sent to this planet seventy years ago.”

Governor McGowen waited for the explosion of murmurs to die down again before he continued, “The colony leader was a man named Enoch Stauffer. He established the colony on August 8, 2412 as a peaceful research community on a relatively new world for the purpose of studying the evolution of the organisms over time. The colony consisted of 1500 scientists of various disciplines and their families. They were dropped onto the planet surface by a military class research ship named the Demeter. The Demeter was assigned to drop four colonies of around the same size on planets of a known age and then monitor those communities on three month cycles to report data back to the Earth system, and retrieve any colony shown to be in danger. Three months after the first drop the Demeter returned to EV0982 to discover that the community had vanished. Upon investigation it was found that the entire community seemed to have packed their belongings, including all research equipment, and disappeared. Only the buildings were left behind in a manner indicating careful planning, as if the colony had simply picked up and left. The crew of the Demeter maintained orbit around EV0982 for thirty days performing numerous aerial, geospatial, and direct contact searches of the area. Considering that no belongings were found and the buildings were left clean and empty, the captain of the Demeter assumed that perhaps some problem had been encountered by the community and they were able to summon help from a passing ship which retrieved the colony.

However, later investigations showed no human ships, military or otherwise, passed close enough to this system during the intervening time between initial drop and the first check point to have picked up a distress beacon, let alone came close enough to retrieve anything from the planet surface. At that time in colonization history and due to the nature of the colony, satellites had been  placed at strategic points in the system just prior to dropping the colonists for the purpose of both collecting planetary data as well as to serve as beacons for communication with the Demeter. During the resulting investigation, these satellites were retrieved and the information they contained analyzed. Key members of the colony, both scientific and administrative, were required to keep video logs of daily occurrences that were uploaded to the memory banks on the satellites so that in the event of an unknown situation occurring that would result in the death or disappearance of a colony, a safe method of recording information regarding the event could be stored out of reach of the danger. Review of those logs showed that after thirty days, fifteen younger members of the colony seemed to have suffered from an outbreak of an influenza-like disease that quickly abated. No members of the team succumbed to the disease and all of those members who had become ill recovered within five to seven days of the onset of symptoms with no obvious side effects. It was recorded that further investigation into the disease revealed it might have been brought to the planet surface by one, or a few, of the colonists and was not endemic to the planet. All other recordings indicate that research and daily life were proceeding normally with no problems outside of the ordinary issues such as adequate protection against indigenous predators and navigating the unfamiliar terrain. Three weeks after the recovery of the last influenza victim, the recordings stop. Nothing more was recorded from the surface of the planet to indicate what happened to the colonists. Whatever it was that occurred, it is assumed it was sudden and completely unexpected.

The Earth system government at the time ordered the planet to be put under strict satellite observation for one whole year after the disappearance of the colonists with regular direct contact search parties being deployed to search the surrounding areas in the hopes that something would emerge to indicate what happened to the colony. No party stayed more than seven days at a time on the planet surface. Nothing was ever found to indicate what happened or where the colonists went.”

“So why are we here?” I heard Mary Isenberg’s nasal voice float up from the back. She was a nervous woman at the best of times and I dreaded to think how she was now.

“We were given assurances regarding the relative safety of the planet prior to drawing up the colony agreement. The year spent observing the planet revealed no indication of an indigenous people or civilization that could have abducted or attacked the previous colony. Since the time of the disappearance there have been eight expeditions to this planet that have provided information that all of you are familiar with regarding the ecosystems and organisms on the planet surface. This is probably the best studied planet of all the ones we were given to choose from, which is why the choice was made.” Dean smiled calmly at all of us, “Honestly, we are also significantly better prepared to handle whatever this planet chooses to throw at us than the first colony.”

“But we don’t have the option of going back, like they did.” Someone, I think it was Archie Giuntini, grumbled loudly from the front row.

“Now, look, I am going to be straight with all of you. You all knew when you signed your names to the colony contract that there was no going back, even if that were an option. Not only is this a one way trip due to fuel and economy, but you all knew how things were changing back home. The extremists on both sides were rising again, like they did fifteen years ago, and things were getting worse by the minute. We don’t have anything to go back to. Hell…” Dean leaned forward on the podium and ran his hand over his face with anxiety, “President Marshall gave me the order that if I found any reason what so ever that we could not establish a colony on this planet, I was to terminate the lives of every single individual, including myself, rather than think about returning to the Earth system. He was expecting to be deposed within days of our departure. For all I know, he’s been dead since that time.”

There were murmurs through the room, but Dean continued, “I did not and still do not consider that a viable option. Especially since our security and building crews have survived six months solid on the planet surface without anything more than the usual issues with indigenous wildlife.  There has yet to be an indication of anything that we did not expect, especially since we have so much information from the preceding investigations regarding this planet. We are better prepared, better trained, and better organized than that colony and we will survive here. We have no other choice.”

“Now, if you have any questions, I am happy to answer them now.” Dean slid from behind the podium and sat down on a chair placed beside it.

Not surprisingly, many people had questions regarding everything from wanting to see the actual data and records from the first colony to inquiries about the security situation and how it was being handled. Dean informed everyone that all of the records, including the first person record logs of the actual colonists themselves were available on the library database for each and every one of us to view, no restrictions. He then launched into an explanation of the current security measures in place and asked if anyone had suggestions, to please bring them to light for consideration. He listened patiently as a few people made their remarks, discussing with them how to implement them into the current protocol.

To my great relief, no one mentioned the episode from the previous night. I had not had a chance to ask Andrew what he might have found this morning in the daylight. He was clearly back from investigating the area for the second time, he stood behind his father patiently. The mud on his boots and the lower part of his pants indicated he had, indeed, followed through. Unfortunately, he caught me looking at him and moved to sit by me.

“I thought you might want to know what we found this morning.” He sat on the chair beside me, leaning in closer than I thought was necessary and keeping his voice hushed.

“What was it?” Tom leaned around me, placing a subtle hand on my shoulder which caused Andrew to lean back a fraction.

“We found animal tracks through the forest floor, and around that area. It’s possible you saw a new species that can rise up on two legs. We already know that there are a few nocturnal herbivorous species that spend most of their time in the trees, but will occasionally take to the forest floor. It’s been observed rising on two legs to reach foliage when it’s in the tree. We’re thinking that, in combination with the tracks we found in the mud, this herbivore is what you saw last night.” Andrew smiled warmly at me and patted my knee. I tried not to flinch. “ Most likely it was just as startled as you were, but there’s nothing to worry about.”

“That’s good to hear.” Tom gave my shoulder a squeeze and I nodded, trying to look relieved.

“Glad I could settle your fears, Jennae. Maybe we can get that smile back on your face now.” Andrew gave me another pat on the knee before rising to join his father, who had indicated he needed Andrew to answer some of the questions being fired out by the other colonists.

I wasn’t relieved by Andrews explanation. I knew I saw a man, not an animal, watching me in the moonlight. I couldn’t stop going over it repeatedly in my head, trying to make the image fit. The herbivores Andrew mentioned were numerous, one of the most obvious species in the surrounding forest. We had captured and dissected quite a few of them, even tried them for food when their flesh was found to contain nutrition we required. None of the specimens brought back, nor any of the animals observed in the wild could stand higher than my waist. They also couldn’t walk on two legs, their body physiology requiring them to drop to all fours and trundle along with an ungainly motion until they reached a tree. The man, and I was convinced it was a man, had been standing and walked smoothly, backwards, into the foliage.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” Andrew’s voice startled me.

I had gone back to the corner of the west storage building and was staring through the force fence at the spot where I had seen him. I didn’t realize I had been so lost in thought until Andrew’s voice sounded barely two feet from me.

“I don’t think it was one of the herbivores.” I turned and looked at him as he stood beside me, a scowl etching his features.

“We didn’t find anything else, Jennae.” His scowl deepened

“I’m not saying you did. I’m just saying that what I saw last night was not an herbivore.” I shrugged and looked at him, “Maybe the reason you didn’t find anything else is because the tracks of the herbivores covered the tracks of whatever was there. Maybe it wasn’t touching the ground when it moved. It was in the tree line, it could have been hanging from a tree and I couldn’t see that clearly. I just know it was too big to be one of the herbivores, and it didn’t move like them either.”

“Do you think it could have been something that feeds on them? Some kind of predator?” he stopped scowling, now that I had let him know I didn’t think he was lying to me.

“Maybe. I don’t know.” I shrugged, and turned in his direction, deciding to head back to the greenhouses. “I just know it wasn’t one of the  herbivores.”

“But you don’t think it was a man, either.” His statement caught me off guard.

“What?” I turned and looked up at him, surprised to find myself so close to him. I forced myself to grin a little, “you mean like the ghost of one of the first colonists? Andrew, are you crazy?”

“I sincerely hope not. But that’s just the sort of rumor that shouldn’t get started around here.” The scowl returned.

“Then perhaps I should change my description.” I stepped back, scowled up at him, and put my hands on my hips in the best ‘I mean business’ pose I could muster, “the thing I saw appeared humanoid, but was definitely taller than me. IT moved too smoothly to be one of the herbivores we have observed around the settlement since arriving. I think that perhaps it might have been a new species of ANIMAL that we have not yet fully observed. I also think that we should instate measures to try and observe this animal with the thought that we have settled in its natural territory. Is that a better statement?”

“Jennae, I didn’t mean it like that.” Andrew stepped back, clearly un-nerved by my irritation.

“Andrew, I was scared last night. I did not expect to turn around and see something staring back at me through the force field. It took all my will power not to scream bloody murder when I saw it. Please try to understand that.” I sighed, looking back at the spot where I had seen the man.“Now I am trying to rethink what I saw so that perhaps our more animal oriented scientists might be able to discover what this creature is.”

“I understand.” He took a step back toward me and I looked up at him.

“I really need to get back to the greenhouses. Please let me know if you find anything else that might be useful.” I spun on my heel and walked away, trying to look irritated.

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.