A rough landing
It has been strange.
Nina was standing on the empty command bridge, sticking her face on the front window and contemplating probably the most beautiful sight ever. A verdant green planet with dark blue oceans and white clouds, bathed in rising sun and surrounded by the hostile void of space.
She thought she'll never see this. That she'll never be there to greet the new safe haven of humanity, that she'll never contemplate the green forests and blue lakes. And there she was – living the dream she had when she fell asleep in the stasis tank. It was an unique, inexpressible feeling of joy and delight that the plight of exodus is over. They finally had a place to live, farm and rebuild society, a second chance to correct everything they've done wrong over the centuries, with a head start of space-age technology. It was all she could wish for.
She couldn't get enough of the sight. There was just so much to it. So simple... yet amazing.
“Time to check it out in person”, said a voice behind her.
It belonged to Simon Prescott, a tall, fair-haired young man who was wearing sunglasses all the time, even in the dark. He also had an annoying habit of sneaking up on her, all the time. Once he even sneaked up on her when she was performing a medical check-up on one of her female patients, who just so happened to be the SC chief Ames' girl, Laura Walker. She then had a hard time explaining to the captain how that could happen. But all in all, Simon was a nice guy, slightly self-obsessed, but gentle and thoughtful of her, and he understood flying spaceships like no one else.
“What?”, she replied, unable to hide the pleasant surprise in her voice.
“You can go with us down to the surface as our 'medical support'. I've persuaded the captain and Ames.”
“Really? On the first flight?”
She jumped into Simon's arms. He embraced her, lifted her off the ground and spun around several times.
“Let's go, then. Shouldn't keep the planet and Ames waiting. You know, he can be a dick about this.”
Ten minutes later, Nina was already sitting in the cockpit of a shuttle with Simon, Ames and Walker, wearing a white space suit with a helmet and a headset, still mesmerised by everything around her.
“Atmospheric entry imminent. T minus twenty seconds.”, said Simon.
Four clicks then followed, as everyone was fastening their seatbelt. Even now, with all the modern yaw and pitch dampeners, the reentry was quite a bumpy ride.
“Correct your trajectory. You're thirty four point two kilometres off course.”, said Ames from the backseat. His voice was deep and cold, but without signs of hostility towards Simon.
“Like hell I am.”
“My calculations are accurate.”
“I know how to fly a shuttle.”
“If you insist...”
First tiny flames started to appear on the front window, as the air in front of the shuttle was getting compressed and heated. As the shuttle progressed deeper into the atmosphere, they spread even to the side windows and were getting larger and larger and more numerous, until nothing could be seen over the blazing inferno outside. When Nina realized that there was nothing but a thin layer of glass separating her from the fireball outside, she was slightly unsettled. But at the same time it was fascinating: The blazes were separating and rejoining again, forming new, unique and interesting shapes, fueling her imagination like gasoline.
The shuttle also started to wobble slightly and push backward from deceleration. It also bounced up and down few times quite violently.
And then, ten minutes later, the flames rapidly vanished, revealing yet another truly marvelous sight: the top of the cloud layer, stretching as far as the eye could see, like a herd of fluffy sheep with spaces in between them, leisurely traveling across the sky.
“Oh my god...”, gasped Nina when she saw it.
“Amazing, isn't it?”, said Walker. “So much beauty...”
Even Simon leaned forward to see better.
“Careful now, lieutenant. The cloud ceiling is very low today.”, said Ames, completely ignoring the window.
“I have my altimeter. It reads three hundred meters above terrain. Besides... are you a pilot? I don't think so.”, retorted Simon, who was getting visibly annoyed by Ames' remarks on his piloting.
The shuttle then dived into the clouds, and for a second the view was obscured. The cockpit was also getting darker and darker. Then, the clouds cut off...
“Bloody hell!”, exclaimed Simon. He nudged the shuttle up violently to avoid a huge tree that appeared out of nowhere. It must have been over sixty meters tall. Fortunately, there weren't many trees this tall around.
“I see a meadow, ten o'clock. Land there”, said Walker once the shuttle was stable.
“Nice eyes, lass”, said Simon and banked the shuttle about fifteen degrees to the left. He then guided it straight for a few seconds. When they reached the meadow, he engaged the vertical thrusters and brought the shuttle to slow vertical descent, until the main gear touched the ground.
“HQ, this is Pioneer one. We have landed”, said Simon to the microphone of his headset.
“Pioneer one, roger. Congratulations”, sounded the reply in Nina's headphones.
“Transmitting atmospheric readings. It's breathable, exactly 21% oxygen!”, said Walker.
“Roger that. At last we got lucky.”
Simon turned off the engines and rose from his seat. He walked towards the exit hatch and placed his hand onto its controls, but didn't press the open button yet. Instead he turned towards Nina and said:
“Time to say something epic, 'eh? Too bad I don't know what to say.”
“What about “It's so nice down here”?”
“Nah. I don't like the sound of that. Guess I'll say...”
He opened the hatch and offered his hand to Nina. She grabbed it. They then exchanged a swift gaze and stepped down from the shuttle.
“... HQ, We're home”
Nina grabbed her helmed and took it off. She took a deep breath. It smelled like blooming trees and mountain streams – a refreshing change from the recycled air of spaceships she was breathing for about eight years now.
It was nice to be outside again. To feel the sun shining in her face and to hear the birds singing. Nina was about to take a break to contemplate the surroundings, but Ames had a different idea. As soon as he got out of the shuttle he said:
“Let's move out. We'll split up, two people will go for samples and two people will guard the shuttle. We'll rendezvous here in three hours”
“Who gave you the command?”, said Simon, visibly annoyed.
“The law. I'm the highest-ranked officer around here. You can pass your complaints to your superior.”, put Ames Simon down. “You stay with miss Palmer here and guard the ship. I and Laura will go to collect surface samples and do some reconnaissance.”
He and Walker then each picked up a bag for samples, a rifle and a toolbox and left the meadow.
Simon and Nina sat on the edge of the shuttle's hatch.
“Finally he's gone. I hate that guy. Did you know that the other day his people have arrested a woman just for saying that the president is doing it wrong?”, said Simon after a while.
“Yeah, I've heard about that. What is he doing on the shuttle anyway? I thought he was an SC.”
“Guess he just has the right to go wherever the hell he pleases.”
“Pioneer one, status report.”, sounded in Nina's headphones.
“All clear.”, replied Simon.
“I hate guys like Walter Ames. They're useless and just benefit from kissing the right asses. I bet there's a load of competent people who were shaking just to get on this shuttle, just to find out that the big cheese has reserved the seat for himself.”
“Exactly. Well, I hope he won't screw anything up.”
Nina took a quick look around the meadow. It was beautifully blooming, with birds flying in the sky. It looked exactly like back on Earth, except that there was no smokestack or aircraft contrail to spoil it. So she watched the birds fly in circles, absolutely ignoring the intruders on their planet.
“It's so nice here. So peaceful. Is this what Earth looked like before humanity?”
“I don't know.”
She turned to Simon and gazed into his eyes.
“I can't believe this is real. I think I'm dreaming.”
“You're not. We found us a new home.”
The two kissed, long and passionately, and even when they stopped kissing, they didn't stop gazing into each other's eyes, saying nothing.
Something moved in the forest to the left.. Nina immediately turned her head in that direction, but whatever it was, it was gone. There were only trees.
“Nina? What's up?”, asked Simon.
“Probably nothing. Just a squirrel or something.”
Simon nodded and smiled, but the magic moment was over.
“Should I go and make some coffee?” asked Nina to break the awkward silence that ensued.
“That'd be nice.”
Nina stood up and got to the kitchenette in passenger bay, grabbed two paper cups, put them under the coffee machine and pressed the “Cappuccino” button.
Despite the last mishap, life was good for her. Really good. If there was one thing she could ask for, it would be a bowl of tiramisu. Nina adored tiramisu. It was the goodness of the world refined into the form of a sponge cake with cocoa, mascarpone and brandy. Maybe she could make some when they return...
Then she saw a box of brown sugar cubes.
She didn't even try to resist the urge. She grabbed one and put it on her tongue. It was so satisfyingly sweet that narrowed her eyes from pleasure.
Even if tiramisu wasn't available at the moment, brown sugar was a good consolation prize.
The coffee machine beeped. The coffee was ready.
Instead of taking the cups back to Simon, Nina took another cube of sugar and ate it. And another. And one more. And a last one for the road. OK, maybe that wasn't the last one. There went her diet.
It was Simon.
She quickly put the box of sugar on the counter and hid her hands full of sugar behind her back, just like a child caught eating brown sugar from the kitchenette.
Simon visibly had a hard time not laughing.
“I thought you were on a diet...,” he said with a smile.
“Well... um... I need some sugar, too,” she replied, fully realising how stupid that sounded.
Simon kept smiling at her.
“You don't have to hide the sugar from me. I love you as you are. Now, where's the coffee?”
“Right there, in the machine.”
He grabbed one of the cups and started sipping from it. Nina did the same, put in two sugar cubes and walked through the curtain separating the kitchenette from the passenger bay.
And there it was.
She spilled the coffee and screamed.
There was a small, olive green furry creature with two big black eyes right under her legs. It could be about a meter and quarter tall, with two thin legs and four arms. It was wearing something that strangely resembled a shirt and trousers, and had a small spear in its hands.
As soon as it noticed Nina, it dropped its weapon and started running towards the back of the passenger bay.
“Nina! Are you okay?” said Simon who dashed through the curtain as fast as he could.
Nina was still a bit scared, and so it took her a second to answer.
“Ye... yeah. I saw... whatever it was. It ran this way.”
She pointed towards the back of the ship.
Simon drew his own weapon and ran towards the back of the ship, wildly looking everywhere he could. Then he pointed his gun in one row of passenger seat, and a second later he lowered his aim.
“Nina. Look at this,” he said.
She carefully walked towards him, still a bit shaken from the encounter.
The creature was lying on the ground between the seats with its face in all four of its hands, shaking and... sobbing? It looked so weak and frail, just like a scared human child.
“What are you doing here, little thing?” asked Nina the creature.
It didn't react.
“Are you lost? Or were you just curious about this big metal thing that came from the sky?”, she continued, knowing that she's mostly speaking to herself.
It turned towards her and uncovered one of its eyes. Nina could see so much terror in it. Almost as if the creature thought it was going to die.
“I'm sorry if we scare you.”
She reached out and caressed it. It jerked itself at first, but slowly calmed down, as it has seen that Nina wasn't going to hurt it. What's more, it seemed very pleased about being caressed.
Suddenly, she heard two sets of loud footsteps and three seconds later Ames and Walker stormed in.
“Prescott! Palmer! Are you okay?” said Walker once they got close. “We heard screaming.”
Nina turned towards her.
“Yeah, we're alright. I just got scared by...”
“HQ, we have sentient extraterrestrial life.”, said suddenly Ames' voice in the headphones.
He gently, but firmly pushed Nina aside and stood right over the being.
“Pioneer one, say again.”, said a female voice in the headphones. It sounded as if the woman on the other side has just seen a ghost.
“Sentient extraterrestrials. Forwarding pictures now.”
“Pioneer one, stand by. I'm informing the president.”
The radio went silent, and so did the passenger bay.
Approximately thirty seconds later another transmission came in. This time the voice was male and way more menacing.
“Pioneer one, president speaking. Kill the contact and bring it back for examination.”
Ames lifted his weapon and aimed it on the creature.
“NO!” shouted Nina and put her hand on the weapon. “You can’t do this.”
“Miss Palmer, clear the line of fire. An order has been issued and needs to be carried out.”
“To hell with orders. I am not letting you shoot it for nothing.”
“Final warning. Clear the line.”
“Are you a bloody robot? You’re killing an innocent being!”
“Then I am forced to use force.”
“Like hell,” said Simon and raised his own weapon so that it was aiming at Ames’ chest.
“Mister Prescott. You are threatening a SC officer. Put your weapon down.”
“No. You put your weapon down. I am not letting you shoot that thing.”
Ames made a step forward, towards the scared alien, his weapon drawn and his expression unchanged. He pointed it at the creature and his finger on the trigger moved…
Ames suddenly dropped his weapon and moved slightly backwards. Then he looked at his right arm. Nina noticed that a large part of his wrist was missing, and his thumb and index finger were moving erratically. Three sewered wires were visible in the hole, with static sparks between them. Even so, he didn’t seem to be in pain, just surprised.
And then he suddenly pounced upon Simon at breakneck speed. The two struggled for a bit, and then Simon fell to the ground, unconscious.
The creature swiftly got up and started running back towards the exit.
“Stop it!” shouted Ames, but Nina didn’t move.
She only looked at him with all the disgust and despise she could cram into her gaze. Ames tried to chase it, but he apparently didn’t succeed, because he returned empty-handed.
“Nina Palmer, you are under arrest for refusing to carry out an order on a military mission.”
Their eyes met each other’s for a moment.
It was terrific. The most chilling exchange of gazes ever, something that was going to haunt Nina for a long time.
There was nothing in Walter Ames.