Helena had been expecting the explosion, but the situation was so chaotic that she had no way of predicting when it would hit. She was hurled forward into the cockpit control panel and it was all she could do to brace herself against the instruments, heedless of what she might be activating and try to stay in one piece as her world shook itself to pieces around her. Eric, squashed in beside her, looked terrified. And well he might – they were in free fall now, hurtling towards the planet, and this was the heaviest he had ever been. Who knew what was happening to his insides?
On the days of their desperate thrust into the heart of the star system, Helena had done everything she could to prepare herself for every possibility, but there was simply no predicting what was happening now. No computer model could accommodate all the complexities of this collision of rapidly moving objects. And the big problem, of course, was that the only part of The Spear that was able to enter an atmosphere was this lander. The hab modules, the engine, all their instrumentation, it had been built in orbit of Luna, in the weightlessness of space. It was tough enough to withstand cosmic rays and micro-meteors – except the one that had scuttled them, she thought ruefully – but much of that protection came from the layer of scummy water that surrounded the habitable sections. One thing it was not built to withstand was punching through an atmosphere. The friction was tearing them to pieces, and that explosion was the whole section decoupling. She craned her neck to peer through the windows that were now beneath her. Burning fragments rained down alongside them. It must be a spectacular show from the surface.
They had been spinning wildly for long minutes, but now the lander was separate – albeit not on her terms – their attitude started to correct itself. It was a conical shell, designed to be aerodynamic, and as they fell towards the dark landscape far below, they headed straight down. Eric screamed. His psyche was not robust enough for a nosedive like this. A foul smell filled the narrow chamber and Helena grimaced to herself, but was kind enough not to say anything. It wasn’t his fault. His destiny should have been a quiet retirement in orbit, watching the colony spread beneath him, content that his life’s work was complete. Only her kind had the constitution for this most desperate of descents. But here they were.
“I need to get to the thrusters,” she told Eric through gritted teeth as she shifted her position. The free fall was oddly similar to the usual zero-g of the cockpit, and she moved easily around using the handles as they plummeted. She had enough self-control to avert her gaze from the rapidly approaching surface. Eric was transfixed by it. “Eric! Move! I need the thruster control!”
The sound of her voice startled him and he pulled himself clear, moving gingerly, hand over hand, eyes now screwed shut. She supressed a sigh and started to work the controls. The landing module was intact, as it should be, and she still had thrusters. She would need to slow their descent or they’d be dashed to pieces. They also had parachutes if it came to it. The plan had been for her to sail gently down to Centauri V long after the colony was established, a queen arriving in the bosom of her waiting realm. Well, it wasn’t going to be like that. No realm, no dignified approach, and no queen – not in a cockpit reeking of human shit. Some beginning to their glorious adventure to settle the worlds of another star.
The thrusters ignited. Bright white light filled her vision and she turned away instinctively. It wasn’t harmful to her, but five-hundred-year habits were hard to shake. As their descent slowed, the weightlessness ceased and they both drifted back towards the nose of the cockpit. It became possible for them to find a comfortable position. She should have been strapped into the seat, but if she had been, there’d have been no room for both of them. Why was Eric here with her anyway? He should have been back in the hab module with the others. But, of course, if he had been, he’d have died with them. She didn’t know if he understood that all the humans besides him had perished; that it was inevitable in that fiery apocalypse of atmospheric entry. Helena felt nothing at all about that. She’d been watching humans die off her whole life – she knew not to get too attached. And yet, she hadn’t objected when Eric had insinuated himself into her preparations for their arrival, and she’d allowed him to stay without even realising it. Perhaps, on some level, she saw the truth his mind was doubtless shying away from: he was the only one of his kind within more than three light years, the most remote human in the universe. Without humans, there was no colony. There was something symbolic about his survival. It was important, at least for their race. Maybe Helena had been around them for too long and was absorbing some of their illogical ways.
“We’ll land in a less than half an hour,” she said as she checked the instruments. Most of them were still functioning: that tough Russian engineering again.
“What happens then?”
She had no answer for him. How could she? The only thing they knew about this world was based on distant flybys by remote probes, signals beamed back to Earth over six centuries ago, at least by their reckoning. They were supposed to know what they were going into before making any landings. They should have had months of orbits to establish a proper landing site, ensure she had the protection she required to survive down there. And seed the colony, of course. Now, they tumbled into the unknown. “It’ll be okay,” she said calmly. It was important for him to think she was in control. Humans had to be protected from difficult truths sometimes. They were not like her.
It wasn’t okay. The explosion had damaged the chutes. There was no way to check them, not while they were descending. The thrusters could only counteract so much of their momentum – again, the explosion of the hab modules was the problem – and when Helena tried to activate the chutes, there was another detonation as debris was hurled behind them. Already going dangerously fast, they were given another burst of acceleration. She tried to guide them down, angling the thrusters so that they swooped in like a terrestrial aircraft, but it was still a bad landing. A great plume of dirt was hurled into the air as the lander smashed into the planet at a steep angle and then continued to plough through the earth. Helena could see nothing in the darkness but flying debris, careening into the glass. She kept hold of the controls like it would make any difference. The instruments were smashed into inoperability. There was an ear-splitting screech of tearing metal and the hull ruptured, and then they began to tumble wildly, spinning end over end. The windows finally gave way, and gleaming shards of glass filled the air. She covered her head. The seat tore free and crashed into her back, pinning her against one of the curved walls, and now there were clods of earth all around her, dust spilling into the once hermetically sealed interior of her cockpit, her home for almost all of the last strange century, and still they continued to hurtle forward. There was a lurch as they hit something and flew into the air and then they crashed to the ground a second time and finally, mercifully, rolled to a halt.
Everything was still. There was a creaking metallic groan, then nothing. Helena felt cold. The lander was wrecked, open to the night air. The air of an alien world. She should have exulted, but she just felt numb. She braced her legs against the wall and pulled herself free, pushing the ruin of the chair away and tumbling downwards. Gravity. That was an odd feeling. It was almost identical to Earth’s. She hadn’t been in gravity like this in centuries. Even before this mission, she had spent most of her life in orbit, just like the rest of her people. She picked herself up, still moving unsteadily. She was shaken up, nothing more. Her body was essentially immune to physical trauma, just another advantage she had over humans. Still, she was disconcerted, and not just because she had been hurled onto this world almost without warning. No, it was more because out there, somewhere, was something that could kill her.
Helena suddenly realised Eric was gone. She’d almost forgotten him in the chaos of the crash. She looked around, as if he’d be somewhere in the tiny lander, but of course he wasn’t. He’d probably been thrown clear at some point, in which case he was almost certainly dead. That actually made her sad, suddenly. He’d come so close. She scrambled free of the wrecked module and took in her surroundings. The crash landing had left a furrow several kilometres long across the desolate plain that stretched into the distance around her. Although she saw perfectly in the dark, she could make out nothing of interest anywhere in view. It was a cratered, dead landscape. Somehow, she was disappointed.
She found Eric lying near a large irregular outcropping of stratified stone. A chunk had been broken off, and she surmised that that was what the lander had hit. She crouched over the human, and was stunned to find he was still alive, albeit unconscious. He looked a mess. His wispy hair was in disarray, like a cloud of dandelion seeds clinging to his overlarge head. He was crusted with blood and, by the look of the angle of his elbow, he’d broken his right arm in several places. One of his ankles looked twisted as well. She had no first aid kit, and not enough knowledge of human anatomy to help him. He wasn’t going to survive long here anyway. She looked at the dried blood and considered granting him the mercy of a quick death. But that was a bad idea – once he was gone, she’d be alone here, just her and the hunger. That was not something she was yet prepared to contemplate, though of course it was inevitable, ultimately.
She sat beside him, waiting for him to wake up. When he did, it was abruptly, with a cry of pain and fear. He wailed uncontrollably for a while and she began to regret her decision to keep him alive, but he did finally become sensible and she was able to help him into a sitting position. He cradled his useless right arm in his lap. “What happened?” he asked her stupidly.
“We crashed. See for yourself.” She pointed at the remains of the lander.
“What about the others?”
Ah, now came the difficult part. She pointed up towards the sky and he followed her gaze. Above them, fragments were still raining down through the atmosphere. It was as arresting as she’d imagined, like fireworks as the debris burned up high in the atmosphere. He was inconsolable after that, and she left him to his grief, returning to the lander to recover what she could. She didn’t have much time to prepare. She returned to the rock with a scant armful of supplies. None of the blood packs had survived, but there were a few tools that would be useful and one of the portable lab modules, little larger than a suitcase, had its casing only slightly dented and charred. “This is a strange place,” she said conversationally as she put the stuff down next to him.
He stared at her with wide, watery eyes. “What?”
“This planet.” She pointed. “Look at the craters. It’s like Luna. No volcanism. On Earth, plate tectonics have worn the surface smooth through aeons of subduction, but here there are craters within craters. They’re old though: probably the remnants of the bombardment phase of the system, the same as on Luna. They predate the atmosphere.”
“What does it matter?” Eric asked bleakly.
She tried to supress her irritation with him. He was obviously traumatised by what had just happened. It was hardly his fault he was bad company. “It matters, because this is an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, but on a world with no volcanism the free oxygen should have been locked up in the rocks by now. This place should be as sterile as Mars, swimming in a thin layer of carbon dioxide. That means there’s some sort of organic process going on somewhere.”
“I thought we knew there was life here?”
“We suspected it, but life shouldn’t be able to live in a place like this. This is just a ball of rock. I want to find out what form it takes. I don’t expect anything more complex than pond scum, most likely subterranean.”
“Why subterranean?” He was blinking at her in confusion, trying to follow her lightning bolt mind.
“Look up – no clouds. Hardly any water vapour in the air.” The stars above their heads were brilliant in their intensity and number, and of course the constellations were unfamiliar.
“You’re smart,” he said quietly.
“I know. I was chosen to lead this mission for a reason. Such a shame it ended like this.” She stepped around the rock. “There must have been surface water once though, to leave strata like this.” She ran a hand over the rough surface. It crumbled beneath her touch, like moondust. Dry. Dead. She feared this world might be little more than a tomb – they could be a million years too late to find any life.
She turned back to Eric. “What?”
“You said the mission was ended.”
“It is. We crashed. The ship’s destroyed.”
“So why bring us down to the surface at all?” There was a hint of accusation in his voice now.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen, Eric. I tried to keep us in one piece, that’s all.”
“What about the hab modules? You didn’t look after them.”
“What was I supposed to do?”
“You could have brought us into the lander.”
“There wasn’t room.”
“You could have…”
“This is irrelevant,” she snapped. “We have work to do.”
“We need to find a cave system, some form of shelter.” She pointed towards the horizon. Here, even more so than on Earth, bearings were arbitrary, but that was the direction of the planet’s rotation on its axis, what she thought of as east. That was where the suns would rise, the direction of the terminator, the line that separated the comfort of night from the holocaust of day. “I don’t know how long this world’s day is, and I don’t particularly want to find out. I need to find a place to wait out the light.”
Eric frowned, looking up at the sky where the remnants of The Spear still fell brightly. “The debris is coming down over there too. Towards the dawn.”
“They could be alive…”
“My family. My mate and my children.”
She wanted to laugh, but sensed that would be cruel. “Eric, the chances of that are…infinitesimal.”
“I have to do something though.” He was pulling himself up shakily with the help of the rock.
“Yes, you do. You have to help me find shelter.”
“No. I have to try to find them. Even if there’s just a small chance…”
“That’s ridiculous, Eric,” she said bluntly.
“But I still have to do it.” He was determined, she could see it in his thin face. He moved unsteadily in the unfamiliar gravity, but with purpose.
“No.” She took hold of his broken arm and he cried out in pain. “You’re helping me. That’s what you’re for.”
He yanked himself free and nearly toppled over, but managed to steady himself against the rock again. “This was supposed to be our colony.”
“The embryos are destroyed.”
“But my family might be alive. We can still make a life here.”
“This gravity will kill you in months.”
“So what should I do instead, Helena?!” He was furious. She hadn’t realised quite how strongly he felt about this. Humans were strange creatures, prone to odd whims and irrational beliefs.
“I told you…”
“If you survive the day, what then? What happens to us?”
She ran her tongue over her lips, trying to think of the most tactful way to explain their situation to him. “There was always a backup plan. I think you know that, Eric. If the embryos failed for some reason.”
“You were going to use us as a food supply, just like on the journey, right?”
She nodded. “Ultimately, if we were stranded, I would sustain myself on you and your…family…for as long as possible, in hope that I would remain here long enough to establish communication with the Solar System. Then, at least, we might gain some knowledge from this mission. I would have had time to explore and report back.”
“But that hasn’t happened.”
“No,” she admitted. “But still, we are stranded. The human colony we dreamed of is dead. It is your duty to lay down your life for mine. I know this isn’t easy to hear, Eric, but it was always a possibility.”
“I don’t see why I should.”
She stared at him. “I just explained that…”
“What are you for, Helena? Why are you here?”
She bristled. “I guided our ship across interstellar space. I brought us to an alien world. No human could have done that. Even with a generation ship, the only way to carry your species across these distances, there was never a guarantee that the descendants of the original crew would retain the knowledge required to bring their vessel safely into orbit. Compare yourself to your own ancestors. Could you have done what I did? All the long-term voyages within the Solar System – the Jovian colonisation missions, the Pluto sojourn, required one of my kind to command the mission. We provide continuity. We make space travel possible.”
“And yet, you still couldn’t predict the accident…”
“You’d be dead by now if it wasn’t for me!”
“You’re planning to kill me anyway!” He advanced on her. It was pitiful, this frail, willowy thing squaring up to her with his high, narrow chest and gossamer hair, but for some reason she didn’t feel like laughing. “This was to be a human colony. We would have spread across this planet. And you would have been alone and aloof, wouldn’t you? They only sent one of you. You weren’t supposed to breed. You were just sent to rule, to leech from us, to farm us like animals. But now everything’s changed. The only hope we have of settling this planet is finding my family, and I don’t see why we need you.”
“What do you think they’ll do,” she growled, “if they come here in another six centuries and find only humans? Your species would be extinct if not for us. We saved you, just as we brought you to this rock. You won’t be allowed to keep it for yourselves.”
“I won’t be alive to see that, will I? And who knows, maybe we’ll have a way to protect ourselves form you by then.”
She stared at him. How long had this resentment been bubbling in the humans she had lived so close to for the last hundred years? That was supposed to be a thing of the past, a remnant of a childish superstition. “This is ridiculous. I could kill you in less than a second, Eric. Dawn is coming: you have to help me find somewhere to hide.”
“No,” he replied firmly. “I’m going that way. I’m going to find my family, or what’s left of them.” He pointed east.
“I won’t let you.”
“Then you really will have to kill me. And then you’ll gorge yourself on my blood and what then? Your hunger will return eventually and you’ll be alone, here on this planet, clawing yourself to pieces in your desperation. Isn’t that how it works?”
Only sunlight could kill her. The only other fate she’d know was to waste away to paper skin and brittle bones for want of human blood and then…no one knew. But not death. Nothing so kind. In the end, she hoped she’d still have the intellect to walk into the sun and let herself be consumed. But before that, the agony would be unbearable.
“You need me alive,” Eric said, “but I don’t need you for anything. So I’m going east. That’s where the rest of the ship came down.”
“They’re all dead,” she told him.
“Certainly. This is madness. Human madness. You’re throwing my life away for your impossible, selfish fantasies.”
“It’s my life or yours, Helena.” He turned his back on her and stumbled away. His twisted ankle must have been causing him indescribable pain, never mind the gravity that was probably destroying his body a millimetre at a time, compressing his fragile bones, collapsing his weak heart and lungs. But he walked, without complaint, scrambling across the furrow left in the wake of the crashed lander, and then off onto the dark, endless plain. Towards the terminator, where she could not go. She watched him, hardly able to believe what had just happened and then, furious, she gathered the salvaged equipment and stalked off in the opposite direction, leaving him to his ridiculous fate.