“Take care of Wookie. And dad. He likes ear scratches. Uh— the cat, not dad,” Rebecca handed the carrier to her sister. Angie laughed.
“I know, Beck. Don’t worry, we’ll all be here and happy when you get back.”
“I’ll miss you,” she said, hugging her sister.
“We’ll miss you too. And I’m so proud of you. Dad too. Now go, before they leave you behind!” Angie gave her a gentle push toward the flight ramp and waved. Spixworth blushed as his father crushed him in a long hug. Al Jahi cried as she kissed her little girl and stroked her boy’s hair. The observation balcony was packed and Rebecca could see Peter and Celia Titov waving frantically to Andrei who was grinning, happier than she’d ever seen him. The Admiral was shaking Captain Stratton’s hand, his speeches already over and the Wolfinger stood fueled and ready, its hatch standing open and waiting for them.
But Rebecca was not looking at the Wolfinger. She was looking back, at the Keseburg. At all the people she’d ever known. At the only home they had. Dented and scratched, the interior a maze of changing decks and apartments, the ship evolved around them generation after generation. She wondered if there was anything left that the original Earthlings would have recognized. After sixteen hundred years, it was doubtful. She marveled at the kind of courage it had taken to leave their world, to launch themselves away knowing they’d never see it again. Did she have the same courage? Could she bear to let it drift out of sight?
The Keseburg’s band played an upbeat rendition of the ship’s anthem and Captain Stratton climbed the ladder to the hatch. It was time to go. The sound of cheering was overwhelming until Rebecca stepped into the Wolfinger and the door latched behind Leroux. She strapped herself into her chair as Liu finished his preflight routine and Al Jahi asked formal permission to depart. The Wolfinger growled and hummed beneath Rebecca’s feet. The doors of the Keseburg slid gradually open and the planet swirled gray and blue against the dark blank of space. She resisted the urge to flip the filament on and watch the observation balcony feed. No looking back, she told herself. The Wolfinger slipped out of the flight deck, free and floating and alone.
Dorothy Hackford began to hyperventilate beside her. Rebecca reached out and clasped the geologist’s hand. “It’s okay,” she said, “this is the hard part. When we get there, you’ll be so busy, you’ll forget to miss it. Liu knows what he’s doing, he’s flown the Wolfinger dozens of time. It’s okay, Dorothy. Take a deep breath.” She rubbed a soothing circle on the back of Hackford’s hand with her thumb. Hackford squeezed back and managed to slow her breath into shuddering gasps.
“Thanks, Emery,” she managed. “It’s just— when I was little, I wandered into Engineering once. My mom was talking to someone in Central and I followed a draybot to the next deck. I got distracted by the light from the hydrogen injectors. And when I realized I was alone, I was terrified. I couldn’t find my way back. It was only ten minutes before someone found me and returned me to my mother, but I’ll never forget that feeling. Until today, I never had to worry about being lost again. I know every inch of the Keseburg. We all do. Like the decks are the bones of our own bodies. But now— I’ve got that panicky feeling again. And I know if I lose my way this time, nobody’s going to come find me and bring me back.”
“Aw, Dorothy, that’s not true. If you got lost, we’d find you. Might take us a little longer than ten minutes, but our landing zone is only a few miles, barely bigger than the Keseburg.”
“I— hadn’t thought of it that way. You’re right. We don’t have to cover the whole planet, just our little zone. That’s not so bad, is it?”
Rebecca smiled and shook her head. “No, it’s not so bad. You can do this.”
“We’re clear,” said Liu. “Forty-eight hours to landing.”
The others began unbuckling. Spixworth laughed as he floated between the seats, doing a somersault midair. Leroux shook her head with a smile.
“Oh come on, Leroux, even you can’t be bored by this. I don’t think you’re half as flight hardened as you seem.” Spixworth flapped, trying to pull himself higher and Hackford laughed. Rebecca smiled, releasing her hand. She unstrapped from the seat, watching the way her body moved without the Keseburg’s gravity.
“Six hours to loss of communication with the Keseburg,” called Al Jahi. “If you want to send messages, get them back to me before then.”
They’d known it was coming, it was why they had to send a manned mission in the first place. Still, the idea of the coming silence put a damper even on Spixworth. In six hours, they’d be on their own. And the Keseburg would have to wait two months to know if they’d found a new home or not.
Captain Stratton patted Liu on the shoulder before gliding toward the labs. “Emery, can you give me a hand with the gear check?”
Rebecca nodded and followed him through the Wolfinger, pulling herself along by the handrails. The others were already headed to their labs to begin their experiment setups and obsessively inspect their equipment and specimens for the tenth time. Rebecca waved at Alice and Leroux as they passed her on the way to the infirmary. The equipment lock was large, but with twelve crew members, it was still crowded with equipment. Stratton wove through the clamped bins and hanging suits.
“Just checking the landing suits over,” he called as she twisted past the shrunken counter-pressure suits, knocking an elbow on one of the large helmets. She tried to stop herself from crashing into him, but only succeeded in yanking herself partially back toward the wall.
“Sorry, Captain,” she muttered, trying to right herself after bumping into his side. He caught her and pointed to the anchor rung on the floor. She slid her foot in and settled.
“It’s fine Emery. I forget that most of you haven’t had micro-grav practice.”
“How many times have you been out?”
The Captain looked up from the suit he was holding. “On the Wolfinger? Dozens of trips. I was a pilot on the Tamsen for a few years before that. This is the first planetary mission though. We’re mostly sent out to scout mining trips. So we’ll be on even footing when we land.” He handed her a suit.
“Do you think this will be the one?”
Stratton stared at her. “You know the odds as well as I.”
“Yes. But you’ve been out here. You’ve seen the data the Hardcoop grabbed, you know what it means. What do you think?”
He hesitated and then bent back to one of the seals on the suit. “No. I don’t think it will be. Sure, the size is right, the orbital distance is right, the little bit of atmospheric data the Hardcoop was able to bring back is promising. But, we’ve been here before. Well, not you and me, but our grandparents and theirs all the way back. Every time we were disappointed. Why should this trip be any different?”
Stratton jabbed her gently in the shoulder. “Hey Emery, it’s okay. We’ll get water and resources at least— things the Keseburg desperately needs.”
“I know. It’s more— I used to be glad I wasn’t part of the original crew. That I didn’t have to make the decision that they did. That our situation was out of our hands. I was— at peace with the idea that I’d never see a life outside the Keseburg, that I would live and die as part of this journey, an anonymous middle life. There have been no rebellions in several gens, the resources aren’t abundant, but they are adequate. I like the people I live with. I’m not Spindling. I really do have a good life. But now, the possibility of more has become very attractive. I find that I want to be part of the end, I want to live to see a new home, somewhere to stretch out and explore.”
“You know,I could approve a transfer when we get back, if you want. The Wolfinger could use another element surveyor, and between the training you’ve already had and the experience you’ll get on the ground in a few weeks, you’d be up to speed with the others. If this doesn’t turn out to be the place, I mean.”
Rebecca laughed. “And give up the fast paced life of space anthropology? Thanks, Captain, I’ll think about it. Really, I will. And thank you for including me in this mission. I know the other researchers don’t think I’ll add anything—”
“Then it’s a good thing it wasn’t their decision to make. You earned your spot, Emery. Consider it— consider it my act of faith, bringing you along. Not faith in you, you’ve proven yourself capable. Faith in this mission. My little bet that there truly is a chance we’ll find a living planet, and that we’ll need people like you. That we’re not completely alone out here.” He bent over the suit again.
It was too bright, too raw. Rebecca lifted a hand to shield her eyes from the massiveness of the plain. She turned to negotiate the first step. Titov was crouched near the base of the ladder. She could hear him retching. Dr. Cardiff patted his back.
“It’s okay, you trained for this. Nothing bad is happening.”
Titov pushed the doctor away. “I’m fine,” he growled. “I know what’s at stake, I don’t need to be reminded.”
Rebecca took a hesitant step onto the ground. Something crunched underneath her boot and she jerked back. Dr. Cardiff looked up at her.
“Dirt, remember? We practiced on the agri deck.”
Rebecca nodded and gave the doctor a weak smile. She put her boot back down, teeth grinding slightly at the crunch. And then the other boot.
“Good job, Emery,” said the doctor, glancing over at her as she helped Titov back into the ship, despite his protests.
“Well?” asked Alice, her helmet poking out of the open airlock.
“Well,” said Rebecca, “I haven’t been eaten by a wild animal yet.”
“Ha, ha. Okay, I’m coming down.”
“Go slow Alice, there’s extra gravity. Everything is slower, heavy.”
Rebecca turned to help her friend down the ladder. She bit her lip at the sound of Alice’s boots hitting the dirt. “Everything is so— far,” gasped Oxwell, looking around them.
“I don’t like it. Air’s too thin. Nothing to hold it in,” Rebecca sucked a quick breath, her lungs felt sticky and flat. She sucked in another.
Her heart was pounding and the distance of the purplish mountains made her dizzy.
“Whoa,” said Dr. Cardiff, scrambling back down to them. She grabbed Rebecca’s arm. “Calm down, Emery. You aren’t breathing the air outside, remember? You are breathing your suit air, it’s the same as always. Slow down. Deep breaths.”
Rebecca tried to take a deeper breath and coughed. The cough seemed to snap her free. “I’m okay,” she said.
“Go slow. Until a few days ago you never even left the Keseburg and now you are exploring an entire planet. It’s going to take some time to get used to just being out in the open like this. You too, Oxwell.”
Alice nodded. “Why are you okay with all this?” she asked.
Dr. Cardiff shrugged and a shrill, nervous laugh leaked out of her. “I think I’m too busy right now to be scared by this yet. Give me a minute and you’ll have to remind me not to hyperventilate too.” There was a groan from Titov above and the doctor left them with a good-luck pat to Rebecca’s arm. Spixworth was next down the ladder, carrying cases of lab equipment.
“Let’s find some bugs. I swear I saw something fluttering out a side window—” He looked up. “Oh, wow.” Spixworth silently spun around, taking in the space. “I didn’t expect the sky to be so big.” His voice had dropped into a low, awed mumble.
Rebecca nodded in agreement. “Ironic, isn’t it? We spend our whole lives surrounded by sky, but being out, underneath it, it’s overwhelming.”
“Yeah but this is a great deal larger than the porthole I usually see it through in my apartment,” said Spixworth.
“Should we wait for the others?” asked Alice.
Spixworth glanced back at the airlock. “Well— Titov’s thrown up in his helmet and Hackford has locked herself in the cargo hold and refuses to come out. The flight crew won’t leave the ship until the final checks are completed. Captain says it’ll be another hour and to go ahead without them. Martham says she’ll monitor our results from here unless we come across any serious biological life forms. That just leaves Blick.”
“You coming, Lionel?” called Rebecca.
There was a shuffling in the airlock and Blick’s helmet appeared. He looked ashen and she could see his hand shaking on the frame of the doorway. “It’s going to take me a little. I’m an old guy, Emery. Got sixty years of ship life to overcome. You got half that. You go on. I’ll catch up. Tomorrow maybe.”
Rebecca nodded and grabbed a case from Spixworth. The three of them were the youngest of the crew. They had been expected to take the transition easier than the others. If they couldn’t do it, nobody would. It left a sour note of doubt in Rebecca’s mind. She was quiet as Oxwell and Spixworth chattered about the new sensations.
“You okay, Beck? I don’t like being this far from the ship either, but it’ll be okay,” said Alice.
Rebecca glanced back at the dwindling sparkle of the ship. “It’s— it’s nothing, I guess. Just thinking of Dad and Angie. How they’d do, getting out of the Keseburg at first. Guess it’s silly to worry about that now, we haven’t even done any preliminary tests yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look, I know it’s a long shot, but what if this turns out to be the one? What if we find out this planet is inhabitable?”
Spixworth shook his head. “I don’t understand. That’s what we want, isn’t it? It’s what we’ve been looking for. What our parents and grandparents and all the ones before were looking for. It’ll be a mad party if this one is inhabitable.”
“Sure, there’ll be a big celebration, but then what? Has anyone really thought about what happens next?”
“There must be a plan, I’m certain there is. The Earthlings must have had a protocol for how we settle a planet once we find it— the Keseburg was built with that in mind,” said Spixworth.
“We’ve changed since then. The Earthlings expected to find a planet in two or three generations. We aren’t what they expected. Look how the others have reacted just to stepping out of the Wolfinger. At how nervous even we are. We’ve had almost an Earth year’s training. Most of the Keseburg has had no preparation at all. How are they going to survive here? Titov barely made it down the ladder. How’s your dad going to react when he has to step out of that loading deck? When he has to build a house or till a garden? Do you honestly expect them just to walk out of the only home they and their families have known for generations? Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”
“You think we should just wander space forever? The Keseburg is a marvel, but it wasn’t meant to last even this long—” started Spixworth.
“But we’ve made stops to fix it, Nicholas,” said Alice, “Rebecca is right, we’ve adapted to space. Not just psychologically, but biologically. Our systems haven’t encountered any sort of life except what’s in our own ship. Even if this planet turns out to be relatively easy to colonize we’re still going to face massive die-outs the first few years due to new microbes. And assuming the medical team can keep up treating the ones we encounter with new antibiotics and vaccines, our very presence will alter them, create mutated strains. A plague is almost inevitable. Along with more fundamental problems, like the gravity. Look how hard we’re working to move around and we’re in shape for this.”
“We’re also wearing several dozen pounds of protective gear,” pointed out Spixworth. “And maybe the admiral has a plan for building up our immune systems. The uppers always have a plan for stuff like that.”
Rebecca clicked off the filament feed, pointing to it so the other two would do the same. When they were out of contact with the ship, she shouted loudly through the helmet. “It’s been sixteen hundred years since we left earth. You don’t think the contingency plans have run out?”
Spixworth raised a thick eyebrow. “Since you put it that way,” he shouted back, “Don’t you think it’s a bit odd that in sixteen hundred years we haven’t found a single planet or moon we were capable of living on, at least for a while?”
A panicked Captain Stratton was barking into their ears.
“Emery, Oxwell, Spixworth, come in. Your data streams have stopped. Come in.”
Rebecca switched her filament back on, followed by the others. “Sorry Captain, seemed to have walked through a band of interference.”
There was a sigh at the other end. “If you run into any more interference, come back to the ship. We don’t need anyone lost out there or out of contact.”
“Roger that,” said Spixworth.
“I’m sure every habitation mission has had similar worries,” said Alice softly as they reached a low hill. “Let’s not borrow trouble. We have to figure out if the planet can even support us first.”
Rebecca nodded, but the depressed panic stayed with her.
“C’mon Dorothy, I need you to check out these radargrams. I have what might be an underground structure on the far side of the river but I need confirmation.” Rebecca waited for a response from beyond the smooth, white door. “You don’t even have to leave the ship. I can bring the reports to you—”
“Yes she does,” said Captain Stratton. “We all have our jobs to do. And it’s time for Hackford to start doing hers.” He raised his voice to be heard through the door. “Twenty-four slots, Dorothy, that’s all there were, and you got one. This doesn’t even happen once a lifetime. Don’t waste it.”
He was met with silence. “I fought for you, Dorothy. Bruheim said your evals were borderline, but I said you were the best geologist on the Keseburg and I wanted you on my crew.”
There was no response and Stratton began to lose patience. He pounded on the door with his fist. “Now, Hackford. Or you’ll be facing court-martial when we return. ”
“I think she’s really frightened, Captain,” murmured Emery. “I don’t think she means to disrespect—”
The door slid open. Dorothy Hackford was a drooping, weeping mess. The red puff of her eyes sagged into heavy wrinkles of exhaustion. Rebecca thought she’d aged ten years in the past day.
“It’s not so bad out there, I promise,” she offered.
Dorothy didn’t seem to hear her, just stumbled out of the cargo hold, halfway into her suit, empty arms trailing behind her. “Let me see the reports,” she mumbled.
Rebecca handed the printout to her and Dorothy flipped through it, rubbing her eyes with one palm. Captain Stratton watched her grimly, arms crossed over his chest.
“Emery, go get Dr. Cardiff,” he said. “Tell her that Hackford is getting ready to begin her field duties and we will need her assistance.”
Dorothy exchanged a panicked glance with her, but Rebecca just confirmed the order. “Yes, sir.”
She hoped the odd curves on the radargram would distract Dorothy enough for her to overcome her panic, but in the end, it took both Dr. Cardiff and herself to finish dressing the woman and all but pushing her down the airlock’s exterior ladder.
Dorothy stood at the bottom of the ladder on the dirt, sobbing and motionless.
“You have to calm down, Dorothy,” pleaded Rebecca. “Concentrate on the pages. Tell me what we’re seeing.” The radargram fluttered in a passing breeze and Dorothy dropped it as if it had scalded her. Rebecca sprinted clumsily to catch the pages.
“Look at me Hackford,” the doctor was saying behind her, “focus on what’s actually happening, not what you are afraid will happen. You’re safe. We’re just at the bottom of the ladder. Here, touch it—”
Rebecca returned just as Dr. Cardiff was placing Dorothy’s arm on the metal ladder. “There, now take a deep breath—”
Rebecca could hear Hackford gasping in her helmet. “Can’t— breathe—”
“You can, slow down. It’s the same air—” started the doctor but then Dorothy grabbed at her helmet, reaching for the clasps.
“Have to get out.”
“No!” cried Dr. Cardiff reaching to stop her. “Don’t take it off!”
The two grappled with a clasp for a moment, before the doctor yelled for Rebecca to help. “Have to get out!” Dorothy screamed, flailing at the two women holding her.
“Get her up the ladder, inside,” said the doctor, trying to yank her up the metal rungs.
Rebecca wrapped her arms around Dorothy, the slick plastic of their suits making her slide loose. She tried to push her up the ladder, but it was too late. Dorothy unclasped her helmet and twisted it off. It tumbled over Rebecca’s own helmet and down her back onto the alien soil.
“Soil and Rain,” swore Dr. Cardiff.
Dorothy just gasped.
“Get her in the airlock.”
Rebecca shook her head and let go of Dorothy. She bent and picked up the helmet. “We can’t. You know the procedure.” She pulled a bottle of disinfectant from her pocket and sprayed the ring and interior of the helmet.
“We don’t even know if it’s breathable air!” shouted the doctor.
Rebecca calmly swiped the helmet with a soft cloth and then twisted back over Dorothy’s head, quietly turning the clasps. “Oxwell and Titov finished their tests this morning. It’s breathable, but we don’t know if there are harmful microbes—”
“So what, you want to just leave her out here to have a panic attack?”
Hackford sunk slowly onto her knees, still gasping, making herself as small as possible, pressing herself against the familiar metal rungs of the ladder.
“We have to report it as an exposure,” said Rebecca. “We can’t let her back into the ship until she’s been cleared.”
Dorothy had recovered her breath enough to begin screaming.
“We can’t leave her like this— the stress, if she has any abnormality in her heart or her brain—” Dr. Cardiff was shouting over Dorothy.
Captain Stratton’s voice broke through on their filaments. “Everyone back to the ship. We’ve had an exposure. I need everyone back with their samples. Now.”
“Captain, what about Hackford?” Dr. Cardiff was asking.
“You know the procedure.”
“She won’t last seventy-two hours like this. Not alone, certainly.”
“We can take shifts and stay with her,” said Rebecca.
Dr. Cardiff shook her head. Dorothy continued to scream.
“Can’t you give her something?” Rebecca asked.
“No,” barked Stratton, “Not until the tests are finished. We don’t know how a sedative might react with whatever she’s been exposed to.”
“This is cruel and unnec—” Cardiff said, starting up the ladder.
“Don’t tell me what’s unnecessary on my ship!” shouted Stratton. “It’s my job to keep the crew safe. And that’s what I’m doing. If you have a problem with it, take it up with the Admiral when we get home.”
Cardiff climbed back into the ship, her face twisted with anger, ready to fight. Rebecca knelt next to Dorothy, one arm around the screaming woman’s shoulder. The radargram flapped lightly under Rebecca’s knee. She watched the small buggy appear at the end of the plain and rattle toward the ship. The four scientists were unreadable in their clean plastic suits, the strange orange sun reflecting off their helmets so that their faces were invisible. Rebecca waited until they climbed past her and into the airlock before curling around Dorothy. She covered the sides of Dorothy’s helmet with her arms, making a dark, close shell. The woman finally stopped screaming and Rebecca pressed her own helmet against the other looking in. All she could hear was Dorothy’s ragged breath. At least she was still alive.
“Better?” she asked.
“A— little. Don’t move your arms. The sky— it’s so pale and terrible, so far away—”
“We should never have come here,” said Rebecca softly. “We don’t belong here. We’re meant to be out there. Safe.”
Dorothy sobbed. “Don’t say that. I just got scared. I just needed a little more time to get used to the idea. But don’t say that we shouldn’t be here.” Her glove scraped against the gravel and she picked up a small stone. “I don’t know what’s going to happen Emery, but I didn’t expect this. This is the first non-mined rock I’ve held in my entire life. I don’t even know if I’d recognize a natural stratification from an artificial one anyway. Somebody meant for us to find a planet. Our parents, their parents, somebody way back on Earth meant for us to land here. Otherwise, why keep training us like this? Why bother with geologists and entomologists? Why did you study anthropology? Because we thought we’d find somewhere. Because we thought we could learn to adapt to another place, another society. We’re dying up there, Emery. Can’t you see? This planet’s going to kill me because I couldn’t keep my head. Because I’ll go nuts if I lift up my head and see all the room around me without people, without ship walls. We’ve forgotten what makes us human. We’ve forgotten how to overcome. Whatever happens— the Keseburg needs this place, or one like it. And we need it soon.” Dorothy curled the stone in her hand and brought it to her chest, still hiding her face from the outside.
Leroux finally emerged from the ship with the medical supplies, followed by Titov and Alice carrying the portable lab. “Oxwell,” she said, “Help me get the isolation chamber up.”
Alice and Titov unpacked the kit. A flap of loose plastic went up and began closing them in. Dorothy lifted her head and her breathing slowed as the translucent material made the world around them a jumble of bright colors without shape or meaning. “Thanks for staying Emery,” she said. She held out a hand. “I’ll take a look at that radargram now.”
Rebecca nodded and handed it to her. Leroux and Oxwell rolled a metal cot into the small plastic room, unfolding a plastic floor covering and beginning to seal it. Rebecca left to give them more room. She slowly climbed the ladder into the ship and went through decontamination. It was early in the day, but nobody seemed in the mood to continue working. She flipped through the photos of the lake site on her filament feed half-heartedly. She traced the rough lines with her eye and then shook her head. It wasn’t going to be structures. They never were. Not in all those hundreds of years. Titov would tell her the metal piece was just a fluke, just some natural formation that her mind insisted was special and significant. They were just so desperate not to be totally alone. One solitary ship of life limping through space. She closed her eyes.
“We’re dying up there, Emery. Can’t you see?” Dorothy’s voice echoed in her head.
Maybe that was okay. Maybe it was right that they dwindle, peter out. Maybe sentient life was the anomaly, not the rule. In all these years, in all these generations they’d never found a hospitable planet. Spixworth had been incredulous, but Rebecca was starting to wonder. If life like ours is so normal, we ought to have found it somewhere. We ought to have colonies from here to Earth, she thought. Instead, Dorothy was sitting in a claustrophobic plastic bag, waiting to see if she’d die. Just for thirty seconds of unfiltered air.