Settlers of the Void


Outside

Either Oversight’s random number generator is broken or I’m just plain unlucky, because my name came up on the terminal again. I’m the fifth person to set foot on Haven.

The others picked for my away team were Harris (despite Martinez’s initial objections Robertson’s interns said he had fully recovered from his injury), Sophie from geological support, and Hiroshi. Four humans in four suits with six hours of air each.

At 0500 we stood together in Docking Bay 2, silent and still apart from the rhythmic in-out in-out of our breathing. Then the door to the outside started to retract up into its metal slot.

My suit felt too loose around my chest and the boots were a little tight around my calves. As the door raised above our heads, the plastic helmets auto-tinted and within a few seconds I could see alright in the glare.

“Just thirty minutes,” Captain Martinez said over the radio. “Thirty minutes and you’re back.”

The door finished opening. A plastic flap attached to the console on the inside of the bay started to whip back and forth in the breeze.

We waited for a while, each of us staring at the outside. Nobody wanted to move and then Harris stepped forward, walking slowly down the ramp to where the metal of the ship met the black sand of the planet’s surface. Sophie and Hiroshi followed behind him carrying the box for the soil samples and I followed a few footsteps behind them.

Harris stumbled. I thought he was going to fall flat onto the ground, but he caught hold of the side of the ship and righted himself before taking the next step.

“You OK?” Sophie asked.

“Yeah,” Harris said.

No words, no ceremony. Just a series of cautious footsteps in a row. The dull clanging sound of our boots on the ramp changed into the soft crunch of gravel as we followed Harris’s lead south away from the ship.

From inside the Hierophant our landing zone had seemed perfectly flat, but once I got outside at ground level I saw that wasn’t so. The soil grinders had cut little ridges and valleys into the terrain – some quite shallow, others taller than me.

A drophole lay a few feet to my left and when I looked down into it I couldn’t see the bottom.

“OK,” Harris said. “This should work.”

Sophie opened up the box of equipment and started to scoop up the soil and drop it into labeled tubes.

“It doesn’t look much like Iowa,” Hiroshi said.

“No,” I said. “It sure doesn’t.”

And then Harris started fiddling with the latch on his helmet. Before any of us could do anything he unclasped it, slid it off, and tossed it beside him.

He took a long, deep breath.

“Mission aborted,” Captain Martinez said over the comm. “Get back to the ship.”

A blue translucent arrow appeared as an overlay across my helmet’s screen, pointing the way back back to the north towards the Hierophant.

“It’s OK,” Harris said. “It’s fine.”

Sophie took her helmet off too. I watched her nostrils flare as she took in the atmosphere of the planet deep and clear into her lungs. Then, almost without thinking, I moved my right hand to my helmet’s latch just above the shoulder and popped mine off too.

“It’s fine,” Harris said. “We’re all fine.”

Hiroshi kept his helmet on. He backed away from us and then turned around and headed back for the ship.

Without the monochromatic filter of the helmets, the light of the planet took on a softer, subtler grace. The black sand was not a single color after all, but a spectrum ranging from the ashen gray of the dust to the deep space-like black where the base volcanic rock had been exposed to the air.

“Back to the ship,” Martinez said. “Now.”

Harris stripped off the rest of his outer suit, left it behind him in a pile, and started to walk away with only his flight suit to protect him from the elements.

For a moment I think we almost went with him, but I guess Martinez somehow convinced us to come back. I thought about Dawn and the rest of the crew and so I picked my helmet up off the ground and headed to the ship where Sophie and I rejoined Hiroshi in the hangar.

Haven may be quiet, but our ship isn’t. Without the helmet on I could hear it gurgling and cranking away as the door started to lower. When I turned one last time to look at the outside before the door shut completely I saw Harris’s shadow retreat out into the distance.

#

Sophie and I are on 48 hours quarantine.

Hiroshi has been asking me over IM why I did it. I keep telling him I’m not sure. It just seemed like the right thing to do. The natural thing.

They sent a drone to trail Harris, but he threw a rock at it and so for now the officers have given up trying to convince him to return. He’s out there somewhere, sleeping under the stars.