I should be studying. Or sorting through my equipment. Or making something to eat. My stomach kept gurgling, and the sound grew increasingly angry.
My hands both sat limp in my lap instead of hovering over the strap released like they’d been. All plans to heat a protein packet had been forgotten. The skimmer’s transition into in-system flight had been slight, but it been enough to catch my attention.
Then 6888 Ardra consumed it. I was too far to see more than colors and major landmarks. The dual suns brightly lit the northern hemisphere which was tilted more toward the twin stars. The lands there were dark, appearing sere. The southern hemisphere was far greener, interspersed with ribbons and rounds of blue.
Like most of the planets the Institute issued exploration orders, this was a near twin for old Earth. Or the way the planet had been before it had been consumed by humanity before and after the explosion of space exploration. Too many soil-siders refused to leave.
Not that I’d grown up on an ideal world. No colonized planet was perfect. But it’d been pretty good. A blend of society and isolation where I could disappear into the wilds. My parents had chipped me as soon as I could toddle, because apparently I had a habit of disappearing.
They really wouldn’t be surprised by this self-assigned mission. Not that the Institute wouldn’t have approved me. If I was willing to risk checking my com files, I’d bet the approval to take lead on Ardra would be there.
But… not happening. Not until I landed. And put at least two days between me and skimmer. With the difference in rotation on the planet and the ship’s sync to Fleet time, I’d be several shifts away.
No one could get lost like I could.
I smiled, leaning forward and resting my chin on my fist. The ship’s course was going to put me down in the greener zone, thank goodness. I was so ready to move.
“Oof.” I tried to jump up, but my straps held me to my seat. Whoops. I unlatched the buckles, then shuffled through my tiny walkway to the heater. I threw in a protein pack, then waited impatiently. Gazing at my packed kits, I considered what I absolutely needed and what I could afford to leave behind, in case I was tracked.
I’d establish a base camp a few days away, then if there were no signs of pursuit entering atmo, I’d go back for more.
Nodding, I grinned. “Yes, yes, that’ll work.” The heater chimed, and I reached in for the protein, juggling it between my hands until it cooled enough to hold.
Ardra inevitably drew my gaze back to it, the thick clouds on the southern hemisphere contrasting to the thinner ones on the northern, the color contrast, and the size.
Maybe I should do an orbit, check out the dark side before I landed.
The thought of taking the extra time made my muscles twitch. No, no, it’d be fine. I’m sure if there was something to worry about, the scanner would have made some sort of sound or alert or something. Plus… I had no idea how to change the course.
I snorted. Getting off this piece of space junk couldn’t happen too soon. Shouldn’t skimmers be universal so anyone could pilot them?
That question was rocketing through my brain was I was buffeted around in my straps as my skimmer tried to penetrate the thick clouds over my landing coordinates. This was rougher than any landing I’d ever had.
I wanted to close my eyes, but I was desperately trying to get some sort of control over the skimmer. “No, no, no.” My heart raced in my chest, and I was going to have a heart attack before I even hit the surface.
Hit the surface. “Oh, please land without crashing.” Would the extra gravity affect the skimmer’s landing? It certainly seemed to be affecting its flying. I couldn’t throw up in my exosuit, but I wanted to. My stomach churned.
Finally, I braced both hands on the arms of my chair and just stared out the viewer at the roiling clouds, trying to hold on. The exosuit kept the pressure from crushing me, but I could still feel the impact on my ability to move. Going from space to a planet was jarring; this was like being flattened.
“Just hold on, Essell.” The clouds broke apart closer to the ground than I expected, and I gasped. Green, brown, and blue rushed up at me in a blur.
The skimmer jolted sideways, hitting a large tree and bouncing off. Then a hill. It spun sickeningly before coming to a stop at an angle near a river.
For the longest time I just sat. I’d survived. I was on Ardra.
I was wasting time!
Opening that door to expose myself to the world for the first time was momentous. I paused, took a deep breath, then hit the airlock release. A hiss, shudder, and thud rocked the skimmer.
Sunlight, weak as it was, streamed into the skimmer and touched my legs. I watched the readouts in my left eye viewer, but everything came back the same as the analysis.
Lush. Wow, and humid. If I wasn’t in an all-metal exosuit, I’d be sweating. The planet was hot and wet. Wow. Steam was actually rising from the ground.
I stepped out, taking another moment to just absorb what I was doing. Large, feathery fronds were resting around the skimmer, nearly hiding it. The ground sank beneath me, the mud thick.
No sounds filtered in; it was deathly silent around me. I’d probably scared off everything in thirty klick radius.
I reached inside the skimmer. My pack fastened onto my exosuit, slotting into exposed supports after I pressed two buttons on my shoulders. Time to get started. I walked away from the skimmer, the ground sucking at my feet with every step.
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