When I came home to my apartment today a paper letter was the last thing I expected to find. Almost everything was digital now, or at least had a digital copy sent in an e-mail. Only the most formal invitations or government notices were considered important enough to waste paper on. Since 2215, all trees were protected by law and hundreds of environmental regulations were passed. Almost 70 years later, and the air quality is much better, and clean energy spurred an economic boom. And yet, I still couldn't get a full time job. I pushed the thought aside as I opened the letter, curious and somewhat apprehensive. I scanned the first few lines, then stopped to pick up the note, and my jaw, from the floor. I sat down and focused all my attention on the paper:
Mr. G. Fulmen,
You have been selected as one of many colonists to embark on an incredibly significant journey to one of the first of mankind's colonies outside of our solar system. If you choose to accept this position, you will receive four-hundred thousand (400,000) US Dollars, or foreign equivalent, to use on your new home, or on Earth as you see fit. In addition, your name will be inscribed on a monument dedicated to you, and your fellow pioneers.
Please report to your local UNASA outpost at:
216 Williams Road
San Francisco, California
for full debriefing. Thank you for considering and best of luck!
Dr. Serana Halsey
UNASA Section 4
The remainder of the letter contained more legal pages and a form to write my information for the monument.
The choice was obvious. There was nothing keeping me here. Not much of a family, no steady job. I haven't had a date in months. Just last week I was mugged while people stood and watched! The only thing that might have kept me on Earth was the effort I put into buying this apartment. I took a look around the room, found a pen, and filled out the form as quickly as I could.
The next day, I woke up ecstatic. I called my various employers, took a quick shower, and put on a nice shirt. I stopped by a coffee shop to grab breakfast on my way to the UNASA building. I left the barista a large tip. With $400,000 coming my way, money wasn't an issue. A few minutes later, as I was walking down the street, karma decided to reward me. A black dog darted across the road, tripped a man, and bit my ankle. I grunted in pain, and barely managed to dodge my coffee. The dog was scared by the splash and took off again. It was a small setback to an otherwise great day, and it didn't bother me much. I was more confounded as to where it came from, but ignored the thought as I approached the UNASA outpost. There was a woman sitting behind a desk in the reception area. She looked up from her computer as I approached her.
"Can I help you, sir?" she asked.
"Yes. My name is Gary Fulmen, I'm here for the colonist debriefing."
"I'll take those forms. There will be a helicopter to take you to the launch site in a few minutes. You can wait in the staff lounge with the others. There should be a pot of coffee and some snacks." she said, pointing to a door. I thanked her and walked down the hall. I opened the door, and was surprised to see only two people. One looked like he was another colonist; the other appeared to be a soldier. I nodded to them in acknowledgement, and took a seat.
Three hours later, we met the other colonists. It occurred to me during the flight that people from every country in the UN would be considered. The soldier turned out to be a military police escort, and there were more soldiers guarding the launch site. We were gathered into a large auditorium. There were about 70 of us. I sat next to the man I met earlier. We had only shared our names, but that was more then what I knew about anyone else. Samuel Hannaway. He was a muscular young man, about my age, black hair and bright blue eyes. I was looking forward to saying he was the only person I knew on the planet. Suddenly, every soldier in the room snapped to attention, and saluted. I looked toward the stage, and saw an older, stern-faced man approach a podium. When he arrived, he returned the salute, and began to speak.
"Good afternoon. My name is Captain Reese. You are all here because you have been chosen to spread humanity's presence thorough the galaxy. Our destination and the location of our newest off-world, and first out-of-system colony has been dubbed Epsilon-109 as a placeholder name. This is subject to change, so don't get too comfortable. We leave in three days, which will be spent teaching you basic survival skills and getting you adjusted to space travel. My ship simulates gravity, so it shouldn't be too different. This is also your last chance to drop out. This will be difficult, and we would rather you not impede our progress."
After a few seconds, two people got up and left. That seemed to encourage a few more, about ten, removing themselves from the group. When it seemed that everyone remaining was going to stay, Reese resumed his speech.
"Congratulations. In under a week, you men and women will be among the first people to travel across the galaxy at speeds previously thought impossible. Please follow the men to the training grounds."
I turned around to see a pair of soldiers holding the doors open. We walked through them, and began our new lives.
The days leading up to launch were filled with a plethora of exercises to prepare us for life on a new planet. We learned how to purify water, start fires, basic first aid, and how to hunt. Scouts have reported signs of animal life on Epsilon, but it would be up to us to determine which ones were edible, if any. The taught us how to make basic shelters for the first few days on the planet. They wouldn't be able to land the ship without a proper shipyard, and the dropships had no living space. It would take some time, but they would bring construction equipment form the ship in order to build more permanent housing. During the training, I also learned more about the others. Most of us were either like me, unable to find a steady job, or had service jobs or something similar. Construction workers, police officers, mechanics and such. A few, like Samuel, had higher education. They were doctors, engineers, and researchers. He didn't say exactly what he did; only that he spent several years at college. He said he didn't want to talk about it.
"You ready for this?" I asked nervously, as a bar came over me, locking me into my seat.
"Yep. It will be like an airplane at first, then we lose gravity for a few minutes, before the ship's interior begins to rotate. The centrifugal force simulates gravity, and then it's just a month before we arrive."
The way Samuel explained it was much simpler than the ships crew.
"All passengers secured, Captain," a crewman said into an intercom. About a minute later my stomach lurched as the ship fell a few feet while the rockets positioned along the sides of the ship fired, lifting us off the dock, and away from the shipyard. I tensed and felt the ship rise higher into the air. I heard something like thunder, and the whole ship vibrated for a few seconds. Samuel leaned over to me and said, "That would be the main engine. You might want to hang on."
Before I could respond, I was forced back into my seat as the ship accelerated to escape the Earth's gravity. Samuel looked unfazed.
"Have you done this before?"
"Nah. I just paid attention during training."
It took less than a minute for us to leave the atmosphere. Everyone went silent as we became weightless. It was strangely peaceful. I was snapped out of my stupor when a great sound of metal grinding against itself filled the air. I turned to Samuel and asked, "That's the rotation-thing, right?" he nodded and responded,
"It will feel like hitting the ground after a long fall. Hold yourself down in your seat."
"Why?" I asked while following his advice. He just smiled as gravity returned. Someone a few seats down from us grunted in pain and clutched between his legs. From Samuels smirk, I assumed he landed on one of the tender areas of his body. I tried not to laugh, hiding it behind a cough, and got out of my seat as we were led to our living quarters.
For the next three-and-a-half weeks, training resumes as on Earth. We were taught to use some of the more advanced equipment and we were encouraged to teach each other things based on what we did back home. They said it would help form strong community bonds. Most of the other colonists offered tips and personal techniques as opposed to the textbook methods presented by the crew.
Two days before our scheduled arrival date, Captain Reese took the ship out of hyper-drive or warp speed or whatever it was called. I had no idea how it worked, just that it did, and that it was far faster than light. When the announcement was made, he said it was to prevent us from overshooting Epsilon-109. According to Samuel, the early faster-than-light tests were inaccurate, often leaving ship light years off course, and in one case, drilled a hole in a large asteroid with the ship. Samuel said it was like trying to exit a freeway without slowing down; it would be far safer to coast the rest of the way to our destination. There was a whistle, and the Captain's voice came on over the intercom.
"Congratulations men and women. In two days time, we will be establishing our first extra-system colony. I'd like to ask you all now-" he was cut off by a panicked voice, "Captain! Massive radiation spike, and…something approaching us on the starboard-" someone must have hung up the intercom. Before anyone could voice their concern, the ship was rocked to the side. The air heated, and then cooled quickly as I heard an explosion somewhere below us.
"What the hell was that?" someone asked. As if to answer, the Captain came back on the intercom.
"Attention all passengers and crew: remain calm, whatever that was has stopped. It had similar readings to a solar flare, and the area of impact has been damaged. Avoid traveling on Section 7 of the C deck, unless absolutely necessary. Our engineers believe it had something to do with prolonged FTL travel. The ship is otherwise stable and we will continue to Epsilon-109. I'd like you all to familiarize yourselves with the nearest escape pods, should we need to evacuate."
"That can't be right." Samuel said as I helped him up, "There's no way they didn't see that coming. They couldn't be that careless."
"What are you saying?" I asked.
"I'm saying that wasn't an FTL anomaly, certainly not a solar flare. A malfunction with the engines maybe, but highly unlikely. This was intentional."
"No, this is a United Nations project." I said skeptically, "Anyone that possibly could have shot us is part of this."
"I never said we were hit by humans." He mumbled. Speaking up he added, "And I never said we were shot at, it could have been an asteroid for all we know!" he finished and returned to his bunk.
Earlier the next morning, in wake of the recent confusion, we were gathered on the Observation Deck. Samuel looked distrusting of all the crew. I decided to leave him alone for a while. One area of the deck was made of thick, blast-resistant, glass. We all got a look at the planet as we approached. It reminded me of Earth: Mostly water, with big, green and brown chunks of land. The oceans were paler, and there were patches of dark green and silver on the continents. I assumed the green ones were forests, but I had no idea what the silver areas could be. Both of the ice caps were much larger than Earth's. There was one large continent and a smaller island on the side facing us, and I could see the edges of land masses peeking around the planet on either side. As I watched, a moon appeared over the horizon. It seemed to…sparkle as the light hit it. I looked for the source and found the Epsilon orbited two stars. One was large and dark orange, the other was smaller, and shone a brilliant blue. It was beautiful. And I wanted nothing more than to be down there.
About an hour later I got my wish.
Alarms blared as I raced through the hall, following Samuel, as he led me and a few others through the ship. I stumbled and caught myself as the ship rocked again. There was no denying it now: we were under attack. Samuel stopped us and punched a control panel on the wall, opening a door.
"Everyone take as much as you can. Look for food, water, matches and lighters, tents or blankets, anything we used during training." He said as he strapped a hatchet to his belt. I threw some MRE's and bottles of water into a bag, along with a few reflective blankets and a serrated knife. I slung the bag over my back and picked up two small tents. I managed to stay steady as the ship shook yet again, groaning with the impact.
"We need to leave now." I said as soon as everyone had recovered.
Samuel took the lead again, guiding us towards the escape pods. As we ran, I felt the air become warmer, and I could feel the hallway gradually sloping as the ship sunk, nose-first, towards Epsilon. We were sweating, half from exertion and half from the heat by the time we reached the escape pods. Our group piled into one as other colonists and crew members got into their own. It was much cooler inside. The pods were designed to withstand the heat of reentering an atmosphere. Since we were already pointing towards the surface of Epsilon, our pilot ejected us with as little velocity as possible. As we fell away from the ship I looked back at the damage and gasped at the severity of it. Bright reddish-purple balls were flying into the ship from all directions. There were glowing red splotches where the hull had been hit and partially melted. The whole bottom side and most of the front was starting to glow from the heat of reentry. Panels of the outer hull were starting to break off, and as the remaining crew tried to land with relative safety, the ship began to bend around the middle, right on a bright white spot, where most of the hits were concentrated.
It only took a few minutes for us to hit the ground. Our pod had landed in a grassy clearing a few miles from the forest. Once we were out, Samuel directed everyone in setting up a temporary camp. It looked to be about midday; both suns were above us. I heard another explosion and looked back up at the ship. The whole thing was falling apart, deck by deck. I was terrified as a massive chunk broke off as the ship flew over us. Thankfully it retained momentum and landed somewhere in the forest, a few miles away by the sound of the impact. As the rest of the ship disappeared from view, I saw the last few escape pods launch as the remaining crew abandoned the ship. There was another explosion as the rear half of the ship finally separated from the rest. We stood in silence and waited for the inevitable. After what seemed like an hour, there was an almighty crash and the world trembled. I was dumfounded. I still had no idea what caused it. After the second hit, all we got was an order to evacuate, no explanation whatsoever. I couldn't even see what was shooting; it looked like the projectiles appeared out of the air.
"Back to work. We need this camp up by nightfall," Samuel broke the silence, "There's fifteen of us, it shouldn't take long. You, pilot, what's your name? What are your orders in case of evacuation?"
"Sergeant Michael Ramsey and our orders are to help you survive, and regroup if possible. I suggest we head to the forest and collect firewood."
"Good call. Gary. John. Come with me and Michael. The rest of you, get camp set up and keep an eye out for the others. Beth, you're in charge until we return."
Unsure how much daylight we had left, we jogged towards the forest. It felt easier running than back on Earth. Michael said it was because the air had a higher oxygen concentration. Almost 40%, compared to around 20% on Earth. It took us almost an hour to get there. When we did, the first thing I noticed was how similar some of the trees were to trees on Earth, yet others were vastly different. We moved into the forest, gathering small twigs and sticks to use as kindling.
"Keep an eye out for fallen logs or dead-looking trees. They'll burn much easier than anything living."
We pushed further into the forest in search of decent firewood. After a quick test, we discovered that John was right: a fresh-cut branch wouldn't even catch, while the dry twigs burnt easily. Suddenly, there was a rustling in some nearby bushes. We drew our weapons: Samuel, his hatchet, Michael's handgun, and John and I had knives. Something about the size of a fox darted out of the bushes and away from us, before we could react. There was a growl, and I turned my attention back to the bushes. The creature that emerged was like a cross between a wolf, a bear, and some sort of bird. It was muscular, but thin, and covered in feathers instead of fur. It reared on its hind legs, bones shifting as it did so, and roared. Michael fired two shots into its chest. It stepped forward and swung an arm at him. The Sergeant dodged as John buried his knife in its back. After that, the creature got back down on all fours, its limbs popping out and back in as it changed stance. The feathers on its back seemed to stick up a little, like an angry cat. The animal then pounced at me. I managed to roll out of the way. From the back, I saw it had a forked tail. At this point I fully grasped the bizarreness of the creature and it wasn't until John picked me up and shook me that I snapped out of it.
"Run!" I heard him say. The other two had already started. Michael turned around and fired again at the thing's leg, giving us time to catch up and escape. Despite its wounds, the creature continued to chase us through the forest. As we weaved through the trees, I began to notice bits of metal littering the ground.
"Guys!" I shouted between breaths, "I think we're close to the wreckage!"
"There might be supplies," Michael returned, "but we need to lose this thing first!"
The damage seemed to be slowing the animal down. It was still chasing us, but we were far enough away that Michael was able to stop and shoot a few times. I don't think he hit it, but it flinched at the sound, giving us a bit more distance. We were close to the crash site. I could smell the smoke from the wreckage.
"We lucked out boys," Michael said with a smile, "This looks like a chunk of the armory." Among piles of twisted metal lay thousands of spilled bullets, and enough weapons to arm a small army. Helmets, chest plates, and other pieces of combat armor were scattered with everything else. The Sergeant picked up as assault rifle, checked it, then handed it to John. He did the same to a few more before handing one each to Samuel and me, before swapped one for his handgun.
"What, were you expecting a war or something?" I asked.
"If you knew we were up against that, what would you have brought? And we don't even know if this is the top predator." Michael replied.
We took cover behind an ammo crate and watched as the feathered bear-wolf came into view. Michael motioned for us to hold fire until it got closer. When it did, we emptied our magazines into it. The damn thing was tough. It didn't go down until all of us were empty. Once it did, Michael approached cautiously and fired twice into its skull with his sidearm. When we were sure it was dead, we started salvaging. John found a working jeep. Samuel managed to hack a charred tree into smaller logs, the insides drier than usual from the intense fire after the crash. We loaded the jeep with weapons, ammo, and armor for everyone back at camp. We also took some first aid kits, more food and water, and anything else that looked useful. There were a few spare tanks of petrol on the vehicle.
The orange sun was beginning to set as we exited the forest. It was getting cooler, and I was glad we had wood and fuel to burn. It only took a few minutes to drive back to the slightly elevated area where the others set up camp. By then, only the blue star remained. I got out of the car, and looked around. As the second sun set, the world was bathed in blue light. From the camp, I could see the ocean in the distance. To the right of it was a patch of silver like I saw from the ship. This one was much smaller, but I could tell it was the same thing. I pulled out a pair of binoculars, and saw that it was actually a forest, but of trees with leaves of silver. It grew quiet. Everyone stopped what they were doing, lost in awe of the world. The moon appeared over the horizon. It was massive and was close enough to see it slowly cross the sky. Nothing like back on Earth. As it rose, it caught the blue light, and reflected it across the world. The silver trees looked like a blue inferno and the ocean appeared to be covered with ice. The moon itself sparkled like a diamond in the twilight, as the second sun fell behind the horizon. For four minutes, the planet stayed like this. I was stunned by the beauty of it all. And then it was gone. Nobody spoke or moved for a while. With the suns gone, the stars began to appear. I'm sure they were brilliant, but nothing could compare to what just happened.
As the night moved on, we resumed speaking. John told the story of us running into the wolf-bear thing, and how we found the wreckage. We all ate and laughed around the fire; the logs burned easier with the help of some gasoline. We were having a good time, despite recent events. Then, Beth spoke.
"So…are we still getting paid?"
We broke into laughter, a few of us slightly bitter with the prospect.
"More importantly, what happened to the ship? What was that shooting at us?" another girl asked.
"I think it's time I told you all the truth." Samuel spoke up. He had been almost silent during the meal. "I haven't been completely honest with you, but seeing as I have the highest authority on this planet, I think I can share. My full title is Special Officer, Dr. Samuel Hannaway, UNASA Section 5. I was sent here with you, to report in the event of a 'first contact' scenario. Unfortunately for us, I actually had to do my job. We were attacked by technologically superior intelligent beings. Before this trip, we had theories, but no proof of their existence. As we are still alive, we can assume that they think us all dead, or just wanted to break our toys. I think it's safe to say that we don't need to worry about them. Frankly, there isn't much we can do if they decide to attack us. So until such time as it is deemed unnecessary, we continue the mission: Regroup with the others Start a colony. Survive. We'll scavenge the crash sites for equipment and building materials, but let's save that for tomorrow."
As we established a watch cycle and got into our tents, I thought about what Samuel said. I was…confused. I felt great really, but I thought I shouldn't. We were attacked by aliens; I nearly died several times in the space of a few hours. But I didn't. Arguably, we were doing pretty well for the contents of an escape pod. Who's to say the other pods didn't produce similar results. We have come so far already, what's a little more? We came here to build a colony. We are humans. We survived on Earth; moreover we survived the only known thing capable of wiping us out: Ourselves. Us being here is proof that we can survive being attacked by other intelligent species. If we can do that, we can survive on Epsilon.
And we will.