tagSci-Fi & FantasyGalaxy of Terra

Galaxy of Terra

byTamLin01©

"Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever."
-Konstantin Tsiolkovsky


***

Terra stepped out of the ship and took her first breath of the new planet's air.

Her landing site was a rocky red desert underneath a hazy orange sky swirling with vapor. It was hot and uncomfortable here, but she'd get used to it in time. Her surgically modified lungs could breathe the harsh, low-oxygen atmosphere, and her specially treated skin reflected the excess heat of this planet's extreme climate. She'd been adapted to this place in advance.

The ship, a silvery sphere only twice as tall as she was, hummed away on the vacant bluff in standby. This pod had been home for nearly two years (although most of that she spent in deep sleep), and before that she'd spent seven years with Novus training for this mission.

Nine years in total preparing for today, when she'd venture forth as the first Novus representative to this planet and its entire population.

A population of one.

Terra walked naked into the barren landscape. Clothes were an alien concept here, so she didn't bring any. Her skin and hair had a faint sheen from the treatments that protected her from exposure. The only thing she wore was a reflective metal band circling her midsection, a special piece of equipment she couldn't do without.

"Here goes nothing," she said, patting that metallic strip once, as if to assure herself it was still there.

The hike from the landing site took her over hills and ridges and down culverts and valleys for nearly an hour. It wasn't an easy trip, but nothing else had been so far either; why should things change now?

Eventually she crested one particularly steep crest, and from here she could see her destination, a great acidic lake in a crater at the base of the ridge. The climb down was taxing; she was strong and agile and her skin didn't scrape or bruise very easily anymore, but it was a long fall if she missed a step. In spite of all the changes Novus had made to help accommodate her to this place, she was still only human.

When she came to the steaming, sulfurous shore of the lake its surface roiled in agitation. Terra wiggled her bare toes in the wet sand and peered through the film on the water's surface. A yellow cloud hovered over everything here. This was the right spot, but she didn't see anyone. Cupping her hands around her mouth, she called out.

"Hello?" Her own echo was the only reply. "Can you hear me?" She paused. Still nothing.

"If you can hear this, please know that I've come a very long way to see you. I won't be leaving until I do, but take as long as you need. I'll wait until you're ready."

The water bubbled, the sky swirled, and wind pushed red sand around near the waterline, but nothing else happened. That was fine. Terra didn't need to see her contact here to feel confident that he was around, and that he'd heard her.

A flat boulder perched at the water's edge, so she climbed up and sat on it to wait. She collected a handful of some of the largest, flattest stones she could find on the shore and started skipping them across the lake, the way her mother had shown her growing up. She counted the number of skips each time: five, seven, five, three, eight...

When the rocks ran out she collected more. Patience was easy for her now; you'd go insane during a long space flight without patience. Even deep sleep wasn't entirely sleep; when you woke, you were still stuck with the impression of having waited a long time for something. Some people were a nervous wreck after it, but not Terra. After all, she had her mission to think about. Personal complaints were a luxury in the field.

Just as she was squinting to line up a shot for her last stone, the surface of the water began to bubble and boil even more violently. Down there in the depths, something was moving; something huge.

Soon she could see the outline of an enormous, bulky shape rising to the top, creating a wake three feet high that threatened to wash right over Terra's boulder. In a few more seconds the surface broke and water fountained into the air, and Terra covered her eyes and looked away to protect them from the fuming spray, only turning back around when the sound of the conflagration finally died down.

A titanic life form floated in crater now, only half emerged, although even that much was an awesome sight. A spherical brown shell covered most of the beast's body, towering easily ten feet to the top of its dome. It looked like some meteor just fallen out of the heavens.

A jointed appendage the size of a construction crane and ending in something like the claw of a crab rose up and grabbed the lip of the crater, tethering the beast to land. A rumbling noise disturbed the waters, coalescing into a voice after a few seconds.

"You're here," the alien said. "I've come."

Saying nothing, Terra made sure to stand up straight and show no sign of hesitation. The alien seemed to be scrutinizing her, although no visible part of its anatomy indicated anything like a face, so this was more of a general impression.

"Are you afraid of me?" the alien continued. When it spoke the lake rippled. Instead of answering right away Terra closed one eye, squinted again, and threw her last stone. It skipped all the way to the others side.

Then, brushing her hands off, she turned to the creature and said, "No."

It was a risky reply: If the alien took this as a challenge, it might kill her. Of course, if she'd said yes then it might have killed her for that too. Her cultural training had taught her that there was no such thing as a low-risk encounter on this planet.

The alien considered her for a moment. Then it said. "I am A'yl."

"I know," said Terra. "It means--"

"It means nothing," he said, rising up a bit more. "Once it meant something. But now there's no one around for it to mean anything to."

Terra got down off the boulder. "I know what it means," she said. "So there's one person."

A'yl grumbled. "How do we understand each other's words? You're not from here. I saw your ship come yesterday."

"I spent years learning how to talk to the people on this world."

"Then you wasted many years," said A'yl. "There's no one to talk to. I'm the last."

"You're the one I came for," said Terra. "I know what happened; why you're the last one. It..." She took a deep breath. "It happened on my world too. I'm also the last of my kind."

A'yl considered this. "The war came to your planet?"

"The war came everywhere. Every planet in the galaxy where anyone lived."

"So many years ago now, but I still remember it all..." A'yl said. Terra knew if she didn't head him off he'd be telling war stories all day, so she jumped to interrupt.

"Me too," she said. "That's why I joined Novus. We're a group of people from planets that didn't..." She stopped to swallow the hard feeling in her throat before finishing. "From planets whose populations didn't survive the great war."

"A useless confederation" said A'yl.

Terra shrugged. "Maybe," she said. "But we fight on as best we can."

"I fought," A'yl said. "I was a great warrior."

"You all were. This was a world of great warriors. The rest of the galaxy still remembers how brave you all were, and how many of you gave your lives to stop the fighting."

This planet's inhabitants HAD been some of the greatest warriors in history, and survivors told stories about their prowess and tactical brilliance on almost every world.

But this had made them relatively easy to wipe out, because they'd exhausted their population with so many civil wars that in the end they had trouble mounting a defense against off-world invasion. But she didn't bring that part up now.

She dared to get closer to the waterline, where A'yl still bubbled and brooded. "Being brave didn't matter," he continued. "All of my brothers and sisters died, even the bravest."

"You lived."

"Only because I was lucky. Not because I was strong."

"But you WERE strong," she continued. "Lucky or not, you'd never have lived if you hadn't fought long and hard."

A'yl couldn't very well argue with that, so he changed the subject. "Was it the same on your planet?"

"I wasn't on my planet during the war, but I imagine it was the same."

"And the other worlds?" A'yl said. "How many worlds are there? I've never been sure..."

Overhead, the orange sky was deepening into purple as dusk approached, like a beautiful bruise. "Before or after the war?" Terra said.

"Before."

She took another deep breath. "Maybe 100,000 living planets, maybe more."

"And now?"

"...it's hard to say, because there are many worlds left like yours and mine with only a small number of survivors. But of those with large enough populations to continue breeding and rebuild their civilizations?"

"How many?"

"...212."

The waters went very still. And then A'yl moaned, a sound like a foghorn, long and low and terrible. Without another word he sank back into the lake, letting the churning waves rush in and cover him, going so deep that even his silhouette disappeared.

Terra waited to see if he came back. He didn't. So she went back to her ship. She'd come back again tomorrow. As far as a first contact went, this one wasn't so bad. He was eager to talk, at least.

Once the hatch on the silvery sphere closed, Terra laid down on the diagnostic bed and let it run a full suite of tests. Her results showed no negative effects from exposure to the planet's environment. Her body was working as designed.

The last thing she did was remove the metal band from around her midriff, revealing what she'd been protecting this whole time: a metal panel implanted just to the side of her abdomen. It had one small input port and one small indicator light, which glowed red.

She ran a plug from the ship's computer to the port and waited for it to finish its own diagnostic, then breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back: all systems go. No damage to the implant either.

As long as she was alive and it was intact, there was hope for her mission. For Terra, nothing was more important than the glow of that one little light. It might as well have been the whole galaxy itself.

***

When she came back to the acid lake the next day, A'yl was nowhere in sight. She waited on the shore, skipping stones again for an hour, and when he still didn't show she decided to go for a swim.

Dipping a few bare toes in she found the water warm, of course. Wading in up to her thighs she tested her buoyancy in the mineral-heavy liquid. Everything seemed normal enough. Shrugging, she took a deep breath and dived in. Cloudy liquid swirled on all sides. When she turned over to kick on her back this planet's giant sun stared down at her.

Terra never used to swim back on Earth and she'd only ever visited the ocean a few times, but for some reason now it was one of the things she missed the most. Her dreams were full of coral reefs, schools of rainbow-hued fish, gently waving fronds of undersea plants on glittering sandy floors. She dreamed of swimming for days.

Those oceans were still there, she supposed. Nothing lived in them anymore though; the invaders had irradiated everything. But the water and the sand and the beaches remained. She could even visit them again if she wanted to.

But who would ever want to?

After a time she became aware of movement beneath her. It was difficult to see, but she was sure that a large shape swam in tandem with her down in the depths, matching her course through the water. She sped up, and the shape did too.

For a long time they went on like this, she swimming near the surface and he following her down in the depths, so deep that the light barely touched him. Finally Terra burst out on the opposite shore and, after another moment, the surface of the water surged and frothed and A'yl emerged too, though only a little of him showed.

Terra stood with water streaming down her naked body and off her wet hair. She had no towel, so she found a dry, rocky place to lay and let the volcanic heat dry her off. A'yl watched her all the while.

She knew the psychology of the natives here and how long they spent assessing newcomers, how keen and probing their observations could be. They approached every new encounter as a meeting with either a potential ally or an enemy. In fact, the two words in their language were almost identical.

After they'd sat for a while in this stalemate he broke the silence first. "Why did you come here?" A'yl said.

"I volunteered. Novus needed someone to come find you and I was the best candidate."

"Why you?"

"We're alike."

"How?"

"Our species are similar. Or were."

A'yl made a strange noise. He was laughing.

"Yeah, you wouldn't know it to look at us." She flashed him a smile. "But genetically we're fairly close. Or at least, much closer than anyone else they could have sent. And our planets--that is to say our cultures--were similar too."

"You were warriors."

She sighed. "Yes. A lot of us were."

"Have you come to kill me?"

"You're the last of your kind."

"That would make it a great victory."

"Maybe. But I'm done with war. Novus is a mission of peace. The human race is out of the war game from now on." Imagine that, she thought. We finally got peace on Earth...

More of the great spherical bulk of A'yl's body came out of the lake. "I hoped you'd kill me. I'd prefer to die now."

"I felt the same way when the war ended."

"Did you? I wonder," A'yl said, waving a segmented limb. "I wonder if any creature on any planet in history has felt as I do."

"Everyone says that. Ah ah, no, don't interrupt." She stood up. "Everybody who survived thought they had it worse than everyone else. But when I joined Novus and met the others I found out that was wrong. There's always a worse story somewhere, if you take the time to listen."

"You don't know what happened here."

"And don't know what happened anywhere else. So you can't know if you're wrong."

A'yl froze, becoming briefly motionless in the water. It was a gesture of submission; he knew she'd outmaneuvered him. Terra went back to the shoreline and waded in up to her knees. A'yl floated a safe distance away, bobbing like a buoy. "Why are you here?" he said again.

"To tell you about Novus. To invite you to join us. And...to ask you for something."

Waves surged, but Terra stood her ground. Water glittered like diamonds on the side of A'yl's great shell. "You really aren't afraid of me," he said.

Terra shook her head.

"Then you're braver than I am. I'm afraid of you."

"Why?"

"I'm afraid of everything now. Fear is all they left me with."

And then he was gone again.

***

Terra sat in the ship, doing another diagnostic on the implant. That was Novus protocol: If you weren't sleeping, you were doing tests. It was like grad school all over again. Both she and the device had to be checked out twice a day, every day, and the results recorded to be part of her official report, when and if she returned safely.

There was never any problem, but she always got nervous waiting anyway. To calm her nerves, she recorded her log for the day.

"Day ten," she said into the microphone. "The mission is proceeding...adequately well. No problems adjusting to the new planet's climate. No problems with the ship or any of the equipment. As for the natives..."

She paused.

"Well, A'yl wouldn't speak to me for a few days. He spent the whole time moping on the bottom of the lake and feeling sorry for himself. Men, right?

"But he came around eventually, and we've been talking again. I can tell he likes talking to me, and that he'd been hoping for someone to come here. He wants to be rescued, although he won't admit it. I don't think they even have a word for 'rescue' in his language.

"All things considered he's emotionally sound, although not as stoic as he'd like to think he is. I get the feeling..." She paused again. "I'm still not sure that he'll cooperate with the mission when I ask him. But I think he's right for it. I think so."

The pilot's chair squeaked as she leaned back. "On a personal note...no, delete that." The computer chirped. "On a personnel note, I've been thinking more about what everyone suggested for after the mission is over. Assuming it's a success, I mean."

She looked up at the smooth, curved line of her ship's ceiling, thinking.

"I've decided that it's best not to ask that we reconstruct Earth's ecosystem. There are too many other planets that need the resources. The work would mean a lot to me personally, but..."

For a second she pictured A'yl, sitting alone right now on the bottom of the lake, surrounded by the ruins of his old life and old world.

"I've decided that it's just not worthwhile to keep living in the past. For some of us, anyway." She paused. "Besides, I'll have other responsibilities by then. At least, I hope. File that and transmit."

Terra went to the window and looked out at the electric blue auroras in the night sky outside. "I think tomorrow is it," she said. "The day I pop the question."

The computer chirped in an inquisitive way. "No, don't bother adding that to the log," she said. "Let's keep that just between us."

***

They were walking along the shore. It was the first time A'yl had come all the way out of the water, and they'd been talking for an hour.

"A'yl, what makes you saddest of all about everyone else being gone?" Terra said. "I know you must miss them, but...well, I know what it's like, and there's more to it than that, isn't there?"

"There's no future," A'yl said. "My brothers and sisters, ALL of the brothers and sisters everywhere, are gone. They did what fighters should in war; that's natural. If there were more left to carry on after them then everything would be all right. But instead there's only me."

Then he surprised her by asking, "What about you? Do you miss your world? Your brothers and sisters?"

"I didn't have any."

"I was part of a spawning of over 20,000," A'yl said with evident pride.

"You strike me as a middle child."

Terra climbed up on a short ridge. From up here she was about as tall as he was. "I don't think about my own family much anymore," she said. "I used to feel guilty about that, and I blamed it on Novus. I told myself I was putting too much into my work for them and hadn't been given time to grieve. But I was wrong," she added.

"How do you know?"

"Because I quit for a while. I thought it would help me."

"You retreated?"

"I guess that's the word for it, yes. And I found out it didn't make a difference."

"So you've returned to the battle now?"

"Peace mission, not battle. But yes."

"That was brave."

"It was the only thing to do. I realized that the reason I don't think much about home is that I'm a different person now. The old me died in the war. I had to become someone new if I was going to keep living. So here I am."

Terra stopped walking and turned to A'yl. He turned as well. They were face to face--or as close as they were ever going to get.

"You said that you're sad because there's no future now. What if that wasn't true?"

He grumbled. "It's true."

"But still, what if?"

"I won't join your peace mission. I can contribute nothing."

A tingling feeling crept across the nape of Terra's neck. This was it: He'd opened the door for her. Here goes nothing, she thought.

"That's not quite true," she said. "There is something you could give us. Something you and I could give to the galaxy. We could...make a baby."

She paused to see how he'd react. He didn't yet.

"That's why Novus sent me," she continued. "When intelligent species are on the brink of extinction, Novus admits them to its breeding program, to repopulate destroyed planets."

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