Fiction: The Frontier

I wanted to get back into using my site and figured I would start by uploading a piece of old fiction I wrote. This piece was written for a competition with the theme of “isolation”. I’ve left the piece as it was submitted at the time.

The hull door of the rudimentary solo-craft lowered, letting light fill the interior, the only distinguishable sights were the still descending ramp and the blinding white of the new world’s light. With a dull thud the ramp hit the ground below. Blinking, Helena stepped forward onto the ramp, her eyes just beginning to adjust. As she continued down the ramp her vision filled with her first true glimpse of the new world. Beneath her feat was a dusty, ashen grey rock ridged like a furrowed brow. The rock stretched from the edge of the lake to the tree line of the forest to her north. The water of the lake was an inky purple and its lapping against the shore was the only sound save the gentle whine of her solo-craft’s engines cooling.  The peaceful near-silence should have been tranquil but served as a reminder of the emptiness. She forced these thoughts from her head and sought distraction. The most noticeable trees that made up the band of forest secluding her landing spot were perhaps the only truly otherworldly thing in her immediate surroundings. Their trunks spiralled up from a nexus of roots like a stretched out cork screw. The tip of each coil diverged into wiry branches each ending with a cluster of feathery leaves subtly fanning the sky above. The sky itself was a sunset violet like the whole palette of summer twilight spread across the midday sky in great swathes.  She’d seen these trees before, of course, in holo-simulations of the mission and her own research about this but it was incomparable to being faced with them now.  There was now a tangible aspect to her exploration, a brand new sight to associate with that first step on this new world and, if nothing else came from this mission, something to take back and show to her superiors on the Ark.

Placing her left foot next to her right, Helena no longer touched the craft at all. Her arrival was a lot more tentative than she had hoped. They were small footsteps unaccompanied by words that might be taught to future generations. Not that she hadn’t had any aspirations to a giant leap, it was simply pragmatic: no one could have heard anyway. It would have been nice to have said something memorable, perhaps now and let the suite record it, but then all the spontaneity would be gone and it would sound kitschy. Instead, she continued to think, she could tell them what she had said, or at least thought, but it was hard to capture awe in words. One thing she could tell them was about how cut-off from her surroundings she felt. The filters in her suite meant that this planet had no odour, the air was a comfortable temperature but had a sterile taste, she could tell them how disembodied she felt in her first few steps.  Considering her colleagues reminded her how vital it was that she set up the communications relay on her solo-craft, to let the Ark know that she was alive and give them a human report from the surface. There were some things that the remote drones were inferior to humans in reporting. It was this lucidity to her mission that also made her realise she was almost at the treeline, it was difficult not to be captivated by the trees and their lethargic coiling motion.

Nearly running, she made her way back to the solo-craft, making sure not to trip on the ridges in the rock in her haste. The relay to the Ark had a long delay; her message would first go through a deep orbit ship and would then be sent to the Ark, which could be a system away by now. The knowledge that it could be weeks until she heard from her closest friends and her partner was disheartening. There would be the faces and voices of her colleagues on the orbit ship but they seemed a poor substitution to the people she’d grown up with on Earth, the people who’d been with her through the Solar Foundry Academy, the people who’d gotten her in trouble at the Academy and gone to laugh about it over a beer when the sanctions were over. The sanctions had never harmed her career. She had made the rank of captain in the Foundry’s navy before she was noticed for her initiative and propensity for learning. She was quickly transferred to the navy’s exploration wing and after two other landings and assisting with the overseeing  of the establishment of a colony on Cassius III she had seen herself promoted to her first solo mission.

Back inside the ship, she removed her helmet and faced the holo-coder. ‘I’ve arrived,’ she said,  ‘as you’re probably aware. I’m safe and have yet to attract any native attention. Tell Achebe he was right, the spot by the lake provided perfect landing conditions and has given me a great spot to start cataloguing local flora and fauna. Based on my current success, I’m going to stick to the plan and spend the night here, tomorrow I’ll see if I can make my way to the large settlement we discovered North East of here. Ortiz, make sure this gets back to the Ark. I want them to know we’ve made it and if all goes well they can send a module here.’ She cut the recording off and hit send, ‘and I can see them again—’ she trailed off.

From the deck she saw the sun hanging lower in the sky. She’d tracked its descent and felt her apprehension for her first night here grow in proportion. There was nothing logical about this apprehension, she told herself, she’d made sure to land in an area without predators and the ship provided her with not just shelter, but a great deal of comfort. Comfortable living space was no replacement for companionship, but perhaps a reply to her message would come back to make the night bearable.

There were still some hours until nightfall, Helena believed the best way to spend that time would be outside continuing to acclimatise to the planet and her situation. She paused exiting the ship and tried to look over the tree line, there were silhouettes from the settlement she was going to tomorrow. Settlement was report language; from drone scans it looked much more like a city. She pulled out her binoculars and focused on the distant outline. Upon closer inspection, what she had seen was a group of seven magnificent spires, their heights rising like the crests of waves and cascading back down the other side like a waterfall. She had never seen such craftsmanship achieved in stone on such a large scale, it appeared to be stone but even zoomed in it was impossible to be certain. Suddenly she felt free of worry. Maybe tomorrow, when she made it to the city, one of the ambassadors would show her these marvels and many more besides. What other wonders might this unmet species be capable of? That was providing she was able to communicate with them. The idea that she would, ghost-like, have to observe without being able to interact was somehow more horrifying than the possibility that she would be treated as a hostile intruder or a new novelty. And another fear that preoccupied her; it was not as if Earth was without abandoned cities. Pompeii – a shadow from the past frozen in time by natural disaster; what if that was what she found? The abandoned debris of a culture that once was.

Not letting these thoughts rest, she sat down at the base of one of the trees and tried to make herself as comfortable as was possible against the alien plants. She began to type out her initial thoughts on the city and her plans for tomorrow, the bare bones of an official report. She stared out at her ship and the lake beyond, enjoying how the sky started to blend with it as the light faded. The first of the planet’s moons began to rise over the horizon, its pale light akin to the silver bark of the tree she was sat at and the birch in her garden as a girl growing up. She turned her report to describing the night. She then named the moon, her first discovery and first naming, ‘Silver Birch, the Companion’.