Exopolis One: Planetfall

My first sensation on waking was the breathing tubes being pulled from my nose as they scraped along my nasal cavity. It wasn't done gently. I gasped and immediately started coughing up the nutrient gelatin that had seeped through my mouth and into the back of my throat.

I didn't want to move. But it was cold. Why is it so cold?

"Carmen."

We were running from something. Dad held my hand when we went through the clouds of smoke. Hurry. Hurry! I could hear the shouting behind us. The screaming started. Don't look back. Keep running. The ship is just ahead.

I coughed again and whimpered.

"Carmen," a female voice called out, "Can you hear me?"

The ship was dirty, like it had been on fire. The ramp was extended, but I could hear the whine of the engines ready to take off. I stumbled and went flying onto the concrete, scraping my hands and knees. Dad picked me up and ran into the ship. Close the ramp! someone yelled. Dad slumped against the bulkhead and slid to the floor, still holding me tightly. Carmen, my little Carmen. He began rocking me back and forth. It's going to be okay. I didn't realize he was crying until I felt him shaking. Then I started to sob too.

I felt a warm, wet cloth wiping my eyes. My whole body was shivering from the chill.

"I'm wiping the nu-gel off from your face. It tends to cake around the eyes, especially after being in suspension for a few years."

"Dad, it's going to be okay. Daddy! Don't cry."

"Carmen, honey, your dad isn't here. He wasn't assigned to our colony."

I opened my eyes only to be almost blinded by the bright light in the room. Blinking rapidly, I tried to make sense of the room and the woman bending over me.

"You're going to be weak and disoriented for a little while," she said. "so just stay still for now. You've been in suspension for over three years. My name is Alicia. I'm slowly bringing your core temperature back up. The tube in your right arm is a stem-cell rich blood mixture to repair your cellular tissue from the suspension. The tube in your left arm is removing the cryoprotectant solution from your veins."

"What colony? Where is he?" My voice was hoarse.

"Here, drink this." She put a straw to my lips. "What's the last thing you remember?"

I sipped the water and then coughed again. What was happening?

"We…we escaped Earth and made it to Mars, but had to leave again when it started getting bad. My mom didn't make it, I don't think. Then we were on the Esperanza back to Earth orbit and then…oh…"

She waited, nodding at me to continue.

"Then Dad told me I had to go into suspension because we were leaving the solar system to make a new colony. But where is he? Is he still in suspension?"

"No, honey, at least, I'm not sure. Maybe. But he isn't here. After you were put into suspension, the adults had a lot of meetings to try to figure out what to do in order for humanity to survive. The ship captains and the commanders of the orbitals decided to split everyone up according to their skills, so each colony had a chance at survival. Your dad was assigned to a different colony."

"But…but when will I get to see him?"

She took my hand gently. "Carmen, I don't think we'll ever get to see the people from the other colonies again."

"No! No, where is he?" I shoved her hand away and tried not to cry. Why? Why would he leave me?

---

I spent the next 12 hours hooked up to the IVs, slowly getting used to being awake again. Alicia came to see me multiple times, first to wash away the rest of the nu-gel from my body, then to give me more liquids and to help me practice walking and moving again. I slept a little between her visits, but each time I woke up feeling even more hollow and alone.

My muscles were weak and so I had to have electrotherapy sessions to help strengthen them. The electricity didn't hurt, but my whole body felt sore and bruised as if I had been in a fight. I had just finished with a round of therapy when my door opened and a tall man with a dark curly beard and glasses walked in.

"Carmen Warwick?" he asked. "I'm Lieutenant Levi, in charge of coordinating personnel and supplies from the Anchorage to the colony down on the planet. Are you feeling well enough for a little walk?"

I nodded and gingerly followed him out the door, the first time I had left my room.

"I'm not sure how much Alicia has told you yet," he said as we walked down a corridor, "but you're aboard a ship called the Anchorage. After you were put in suspension, we spent about two years orbiting Earth, preparing all of the ships for wave travel and colonization. During that time, we also took inventory of the skills, ages, genders, and health of everyone left and did our best to distribute them equally among all of the ships."

"But why couldn't I be with my Dad?" I asked.

The Lieutenant stopped next to a panel on the wall. "We did our best to keep families together, but we needed to balance a lot of factors. The tension was already extremely high among the survivors and so we felt that the fairest way to split everyone up was to have a computer make the choices based on all of the information.

"I know it's hard, Carmen," he sighed. "The computer assigned my wife to a different colony as well. It's been over a year since I last saw her and I still miss her. You're always going to miss your dad. But for right now, we're going to need everyone's help to survive."

He pressed a button and the panel began to lower into the wall.

"We arrived here about six months ago. We've named it the Thagaste System. If you look out the window here, you'll see our new home, Augustine."

The curve of the planet filled three-quarters of the window. It wasn't like Earth or Mars. A band of white circled the planet, which was otherwise a gradient of browns, getting progressively darker closer to the band. There were no blues or greens to be seen anywhere. Beyond the band was the night side of the planet.

"As best we can tell, Augustine is mostly tidally-locked to Thagaste, meaning that the same side almost always faces the sun. I say almost because there is an offset between Augustine's orbit and its rotation, but it's a small one, just 2%. The white you see down there at the day/night terminator is ice. Because Augustine's year is 312 days but it rotates in about 306 days, we think that over a long period of time, almost 50 years, that ice will gradually thaw and refreeze, eventually traveling around the planet."

"Can we even live there?" I asked. "Aren't there any planets with water or grass?"

"We're going to try to live there," he answered, "but it won't be easy. There are other planets in the system and Augustine was the best candidate. It's the closest to earth gravity at 1.1 gee; you'll feel a little heavier down there, but you'll get used to it. The other planets are either a lot hotter or a lot colder. We can't breathe the air on Augustine, but it does have a strong magnetosphere, which will keep us safe from radiation."

I tried to take it all in, but the thought of living on a new world without my family was almost overwhelming. I couldn't think of any more questions. Instead, I just stared out the window.

"If you look at that dark patch in the snow near the polar region," Lieutenant Levi continued, pointing, "that's where we're building our colony. We'll have some years of complete sunlight and some years of complete dark, but we won't have the same temperature extremes as we would near the equator.

"Our colony is named Exopolis One because it's the first human colony on an exoplanet. It's mostly underground for protection, but you'll see that when you go down."

My stomach tightened and I looked at my feet, not wanting to look at him or out the window anymore. "When will I go down? What will I do there? Who will I live with?"

"Don't worry," he said gently, "you won't be alone. We're still waking up the other children your age and you'll all be going down together in a few days with a group of adults. We didn't wake you up right when we got here because we wanted to get the colony started and make sure we could sustain everyone there.

"When you get down there, you'll each be assigned to a family. You'll have some schooling, but we're also going to need your help because there is still a lot to do down there. I know you're young, but we are going to need you to be as much like an adult as you can be. Right now we need help with food preparation, maintenance, and horticulture. Do you think you can be brave and help out like that, Carmen?"

I tried to study my feet for a while longer, but he didn't say anything else. He was waiting for my reply. Finally, I looked back up at him.

"I think so."

---

Five days later, we were all called together in the cafeteria. There were sixteen of us, seven adults and nine teenagers. I didn't see any younger children, but maybe they were still in suspension.

Over the past few days, I had met several of the other teens as we continued our physical therapy and learned more about Augustine. Tyler seemed excited about going down to the surface; he kept looking out the windows and couldn't seem to stay still, constantly fidgeting. Jolene was quiet and had dark circles under her eyes from crying. Her twin, Hannah, had been assigned to a different colony, for "purposes of genetic diversity", she said, and she wasn't handling it well. Rockford was quiet as well, but he was pale and clammy. It looked like he was going to be sick. I didn't know any of the others.

I was nervous and exhausted. The physical therapy sessions in the gravity centrifuge were draining as we worked our way up to Augustine's gravity, but more than that, I was just lonely. It had only been a few days ago that I had last seen my dad, at least from my perspective, and I was never going to see him again. The others on the ship were nice, but constantly busy, and so I had a lot of time to myself…

Lieutenant Levi entered the cafeteria, causing everyone to break out of their own private thoughts.

"All right," he said crisply, "I'll keep this short. As you might have guessed, you'll be going planetside today. In fact, directly after this meeting. You'll have a few minutes to collect any personal effects you might have in your rooms and then you'll need to make your way to the airlock to board the lander.

"Augustine is a tough planet. You won't be able to make any mistakes. If you do, you could end up killing yourself and those around you. Follow the regulations at all times, both in the colony and outside. Always be aware of your surroundings. Always check in, always make sure you have full supplies, and always plan for the worst-case scenario. No messing around.

"Exopolis One, or E1 for short, is the very definition of a frontier colony. It's rough, there's no luxury, and there's a lot of hard work down there. We're going to rotate everyone in shifts, but you're going to get tired out quickly, and not just from the higher gravity. Things will get better over time, but right now we're in survival mode, trying just to get to a point of self-sustainability. Once we get there, we'll be resupplying and outfitting the other three ships in our little flotilla so that they can establish new colonies in nearby systems. We'll be supporting those colonies until they're also self-sufficient.

"On the ground, Captain Akari Hyro is in charge. She's smart, capable, organized and she won't hesitate to toss you in the brig if you get out of line. And trust me, there is one. She's also a kind and fair woman and we couldn't have a better person leading the colony. You'll get a full briefing on the rules of the colony and your assignments once you land. Any questions?"

Everyone looked around at each other, but no one spoke. "Okay then," said the lieutenant, "you have ten minutes to report to the airlock. Grab whatever you need and don't be late."

The room emptied out quickly as everyone rushed to grab their belongings. I didn't have anything to bring, so I lingered, looking out the window again at Augustine's surface, wondering how looked on the ground and what my life would be like there.

Finally, I made my way to the airlock, where a man was handing out pressurized suits and showing people how to put them on before allowing them to pass through the airlock.

When my turn came, he handed me a red and gray one-piece suit, gloves, boots, and a helmet. My name was stitched on a patch on the breast. The airtight zipper ran down the neck and the right side and was covered by another flap. The back of the suit was covered with solar fabric to charge the electronics and other embedded systems.

When I had the suit on, he made some adjustments and showed me how to change out air tanks, use the comm system, the emergency flares, and the waste reclamation unit.

"The lander is pressurized, but you'll be wearing this suit all the time on the surface," he told me as he straightened my helmet with a click. "It's yours to take care of and to make sure it stays in working order. Every time, you make sure you run all of the diagnostics and are fully charged before going outside. If you have any problems, see the logistics officer right away."

After he was satisfied with my understanding of the suit, he motioned me through the airlock.

The inside of the lander was cramped, with crates and heavy equipment stacked everywhere, strapped to the exposed gunmetal gray bulkheads with thick bands of fabric or steel cords. There were no windows or even seats. The others were tying themselves to the walls with loose cable, so I found an empty spot and did so as well.

It took over an hour to get everyone in place, but finally the airlock door was closed and sealed. The sudden voice of the pilot in my ear made me jump.

"We're just about to detach from the Anchorage. It'll take about twenty minutes for us to reach the edge of the atmosphere. Reentry will be bumpy and loud for about ten minutes, but don't worry, that's normal. After that we'll be under powered thrust as we make our way down to the E1 landing pad. Keep your suits and helmets on the whole time, because we'll be walking on the surface once we land. Make you're strapped in securely now because reentry will toss you around a lot if you're not. Enjoy the flight and see you on the surface!"

A clunking sound came from the airlock as the lander disengaged. My arms and legs floated out from my body as the gravity suddenly disappeared. Across from me, someone's unsecured duffel bag drifted lazily toward the ceiling.

It seemed like only seconds had passed before the pilot again came on the comm. "Okay everyone, hang tight. We're about to enter the atmosphere."

The lander began to shudder back and forth, at first just a little but then violently. The cargo was straining against the straps. All around me, the other passengers were gripping tightly to whatever they could find. I could hear the atmosphere outside rushing past the lander like a hurricane made of blowtorches.

I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes, hoping it would be over soon.

The minutes seemed like they stretched into hours, but abruptly the shaking stopped. There was a brief sensation of falling (the duffel bag went tumbling to the floor), but then the landing thrusters kicked in, slowly smoothing our descent.

I was sweating and I realized every muscle was tensed. Trying to calm myself, I started doing a breathing exercise my dad showed me for when I got scared. In through the nose, out through the mouth.

The landing thrusters got louder and the lander shifted back and forth slightly until it finally came to a rest with a gentle bump. There was a whine as the thrusters powered down and then an unsettling silence after all the noise.

"Welcome to Augustine," the pilot's voice crackled. "We're going to open the airlock door shortly, so please make sure your suits are secure."

I untangled myself from the wall and stood up fully, only to want to sit down almost immediately. The gravity was heavy! Even with the physical therapy, I felt like the floor was trying to pull me down.

The pilot came into the cargo area and double-checked everyone's suit before going to the airlock control panel and pressing a button. The air was drawn through the vents to the life support reserves with a hiss before the outside air was pumped in. Finally, the pilot opened the airlock door and walked down the extended ramp.

I was in the middle of the lander, so I had to wait as the others exited one by one. Outside, I could see glimpses of dark rock and patches of white snow. The wind whistled in through the airlock and I shivered, even though I couldn't actually feel the cold.

Then it was my turn.

With a deep breath, I exited the lander through the airlock and took my first steps on the planet that was going to be my new home.

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