Posted on r/WritingPrompts: [PI] Explorers - FirstChapter - 2105 Words
“Hurry up Michael,” the woman urged as she led the way forward through the brush.
“Ease up Raine, you know I’m an academic right, not a field researcher?” Michael said between short breaths. It was true, he wasn’t used to this much climbing. They were almost at the hill’s peak, but the vegetation didn’t seem to taper off. The trek from base camp had taken them the better part of four hours, most of it only under the light of the second moon.
“Look!” He heard Raine’s voice call out from up ahead. “Hurry up and see!”
“Alright, alright,” he said. He finally broke out of the brush and found that the hill’s surface levelled off a bit. As he caught up with Raine he put a hand on her shoulder. “Ok now, what’s so– Oh.”
His words trailed off as he finally saw what Raine was pointing at. A vast field of bioluminescent blue greeted him. The sea of bright blue lay in stark contrast to the dark of night. It covered most of the hill top and even some of the slopes that trailed off to the adjacent mountain ranges.
Raine was already running forward and unstrapping her gear bag. “Hey, wait up!” Michael called as he ran after her.
Raine stopped at the edge of the field and lay down her bag. She knelt down and ran her hand through the flower petals glowing with a vivid blue hue. “Look at them Michael! It’s like they’re pulsating!” She looked up and across the clearing. “There must be more than tens of thousands of them here.”
“Yeah, we’ll never be able to harvest that many samples,” Michael said with a wry voice. Raine glared at him in return. She began digging through her bag.
“We’ll only need less than a dozen samples. Don’t you dare touch the rest of them!” Raine said.
Michael pulled out his handheld and tapped the screen a few times. He raised his eyebrow at the display.
“It was a good call not taking a shuttle here. Not that I enjoyed the hike I mean. The energy field they’re putting out is subtle, but there’s a good chance it would have wreaked havoc with the shuttle’s instrumentation.”
“Give me that,” Raine said. She didn’t even wait for an acknowledgement and just snatched the handheld out of his hands. She scrolled through the displays. “I think it’s the same signature we saw from the scout telemetry! Similar to the radiation fields on Al Ghedo Prime!”
“Give me that!” Michael grinned as he grabbed back his own handheld. Raine could be like an excitable child when it came to her research. Maybe that was the reason he had found it so easy to join her on this first landing expedition.
It was very rare for an academic to join the preliminary colony establishment missions, much more someone who had spent the past decade in a remote lab. Michael understood the spirit of exploration that drove humanity to colonize as many worlds as they could, but he was no explorer. He rarely travelled, and even when he preferred travelling to well-established colonies, the ones with full populations and their own rich culture. And preferably not trips that take almost four months in hyperspace.
But Raine was a completely different creature, he mused. She followed her research wherever it took her, whether it was to the heart of a hollow moon or here to the farthest world humanity had ever attempted to colonize.
She was completely engrossed now. She had laid out her portable instrumentation platform at the edge of the field and was taking a variety of measurements. Michael sighed. There was no talking to her when she was like this.
Instead, he swiped on his handheld and scanned the display. “The signal here is really great, even though we’re not too high up.” He stared upwards at the second moon and the stars beyond. “In fact, I think the sky tonight is clear enough to see the orbital platform.”
“Hmm?” Raine said, looking up at him. She had a stylus in her mouth, an odd habit of hers. “Whachusaid?”
Trying not to laugh at her, he looked at his display again. “Ark Thirty-Seven should be dropping out of hyperspace in a few hours.”
“Oh, you have a clear signal from here?” She obviously hadn’t been listening.
“Yeap. It’s even clear enough for me to see Christine’s telemetry,” Michael said.
“Ah, you must be excited. You haven’t seen each other in almost a year right?” Raine got up to stand beside him and look at his display.
“Yeah. It’s the longest we’ve been apart in a decade actually,” he confessed.
“Yeah well, you guys don’t really travel that much right?” she grinned at him.
“Thanks for this Raine.” He said after a short pause.
“Thanks for what?” She gave him a puzzled look.
“All of this.” He waved his free hand in the direction of the field. “And all of that,” he waved again at the multitude of stars in the sky. “I never had it in me to be an explorer, but damn if I don’t see the appeal of it right now.”
“I know right? For a lot of people, they don’t really think about this stuff,” Raine said. “Like people in the core systems or the factory worlds. They don’t care that humanity is still exploring, they don’t care that we’re still finding new worlds to live on.” She pulled out her own handheld from her pocket. She swiped to the GalWeb app and scrolled through a few dozen posts. “I mean, look at all these people. They’re just happy to have their weekends or their expensive off-world coffees. Thirty-seven different worlds to visit and all they want is to upvote vids of their space cats. They don’t think about what a wondrous age we’re lucky enough to live in.”
“I didn’t take you to be the philosophical kind,” Michael said.
“Hah, I’m not, usually. But come on!” It was like a light had come on in her eyes, and she couldn’t hide the spark in her voice. ‘Ark Thirty-Seven! Isn’t that hard to believe? Who would have thought? I mean, two centuries ago before the core systems first developed hyperdrives, did they ever imagine we’d have thirty-seven colonies up and running in such a short time span? Back then, travelling to strange far-off worlds just to study alien flowers might have seemed like pure science fiction!”
As she was giving her spiel she was continuously browsing her friends’ posts across the GalWeb. Michael smiled and didn’t bother pointing out the other technology she was taking for granted. The technology she was using to see what was going on with her friends on a dozen other planets light-years away, the very same technology that let him monitor Christine’s trip remotely. The ansible. Two hundred years ago, they still had to deal with significant lag between planets in the core system. Faster than light communications would have been unimaginable back then.
He looked up again at the shining green light in the night sky, larger than the other stars. He knew it was the orbital platform. Tens of thousands of tons of heavy machinery, all designed to power and the two machines that drove human exploration - the hyperdrive beacon and the ansible. It had been humanity’s sheer luck that both breakthroughs were made within the same decade, enabling the human colonization of remote worlds.
“Don’t get too excited, young lady. This colony isn’t officially ‘up and running’ you know,” he smiled at her. “At least not until Christine and the ten million other colonists on the Ark get settled in.”
“Hey listen, about that,” Raine said with some hesitation. “You’re not mad are you?”
“Mad? About what?”
“That I made you join the advance mission with me? I mean, you’d be with her right now if it wasn’t for me right?”
“Heh,” he said. “You know, Christine and I actually had a short fight about it back when I first told her about the trip.”
“Really?!? I’m so sooorrrry,” Raine drawled in that weird tone her generation had a habit of using.
“Don’t be. It wasn’t much of a fight,” he reassured her. “More of a debate. We’re scientists, we don’t really fight. But she didn’t understand why we had to go on the advance mission. She said the planet wouldn’t be going anywhere. I had to walk her through your telemetry data slides so she understood why we couldn’t miss the window.”
Raine nodded. “Christine’s a scientist too, I knew she’d understand.”
“Well, she also wasn’t happy that I’d be spending my time with a hot young thing like you,” he grinned.
“‘Hot young thing!’” she slapped him on the back. “What the hell Michael, sexism went out of vogue back in the twenty-first you know!”
“I’m joking!” he laughed at her. Then he turned serious again. “Christine knows why our research is important. The scoutships really need this sort of data.”
Michael thought about the scoutships. Small, autonomous ships travelling at sublight speeds to unexplored star systems. Literally thousands of them spread across the nearby regions, searching for new habitable worlds - or even the remote possibility of alien intelligence. The scoutships relied on surface survey data from scientists like Raine, allowing their machine intelligence to profile similar planets. The more surface data they could feed to the scouts, the more likely they were to be able to identify possible habitables.
He walked up to the edge of the hilltop. It gave him a clear view of the valley below and the forward bases not too far away. The gigantic steel constructs were at rest now, their job mostly done. They had created a clearing, around one hundred and twenty square kilometers in total, he had been told. In just under a week, the ark’s landing module would come to rest in that clearing.
The modern arks were marvels of decades of engineering. Self-sustaining systems, filled with robotics, communications, supply lines, replicators, and anything else needed to quickly establish a modern city. They were a far cry from the early ark models, which were mostly just life support systems that could barely keep ten thousand colonists alive during the first hyperdrive colonization missions. Back then the first wave of colonists had to rough it, setting up their own hydroponic farms and comm systems, and dealing with the local wildlife themselves.
These days, everything was set up to be ready for the ark as soon as it arrived. Forward missions like the one he and Raine had joined went ahead, bringing the heavy machinery needed to prepare the landing zone and to boost the orbital platform’s capabilities. Explorer teams would have already scouted out the entire continent, making sure there weren’t any threats to the colony.
An instant city, with ten million brave souls ready to become the colony’s first official citizens. Many of them would be people like him and Christine and Raine - scientists, engineers, explorers, pioneers, volunteers. But many more would simple be people from the other colonies, hoping to start over with new lives for whatever reasons they had.
“Michael?” he heard Raine’s voice snap him out of his musings. She was pointing up at the sky. “What is that?”
“That’s the orbital platform, didn’t I tell you?” he said.
“The platform is the bright green one, right?” she shook her head. “I was pointing at that other one.”
“What other one?” Michael squinted, but then he saw it. Another pinprick of light, bluish-gray. Difficult to see against the night sky. Raine’s vision was much better than his. “What is that… is it moving?”
“Yeah, I think so. It looks like it’s headed for the platform,” she pointed at Michael’s handheld. “Is the ark here early?”
“No, it shouldn’t be due for a few days yet,” Michael shook his head. He frowned and began swiping through the displays on his handheld. “I’m not registering any other ship out there, I– hey!” He slapped the handheld against his palm. “What the heck, I just lost the connection!”
“Wait, just let me see what’s up with this,” Michael said as he tapped a few buttons on the display.
He finally looked up at where the orbital platform was. The second light was gone, apparently having already arrived at the platform. And for some reason, the green light from the platform was pulsating wildly. And then moments later, the green light died.
“What in blazes–?”
And then the endless night sky was set afire.