Chapter 7

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The shuttle creaked and rattled through the thick atmosphere of the planet. It cut its way through the air, flaming toward the hazy surface.

Inside, there was a group of humans. Many were trying to remain calm as their vessel shrieked and twisted. Others made no such effort and were openly terrified. Some clutched pictures of loved ones, or each other, or the armrests. There were one or two who had fainted, and a few that remained unfazed by the re-entry. One, by the name of James Masozi sat huddled in his seat, staring out the porthole to his left. Flames lapped at it, bathing the interior of the shuttle in a dazzling yellow light. James found the light show simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, and saw some beauty in that duality.

The shuttle, bereft of any opinion on the matter, continued to blaze its way through the upper atmosphere of Gaea. Eventually it had slowed sufficiently to stop heating the air in front of it, and coasted through the dense air on stubby wings.

James looked out the window at the hazy landscape rolling below. It was blood red under the afternoon sun, a flat plain interrupted by a boulder here and there. In the distance, a sizable lake was visible, surrounded by multiple satellite ponds. A huge mass on the horizon indicated a mountain range.

The flight was much smoother now, and the shuttle glided slowly downward. The people inside began to settle, and wait for the spacecraft to land.

Twenty minutes passed uneventfully. Many of the colonists had fallen asleep, attempting to recover those hours of rest they had lost while in transit. James listened to some music while observing the grand vista below him, bobbing his head to the sound of Tsiolkovsky. Costanza sat beside him, content to watch the faces of those around her. Some were afraid, others alight with excitement. A few, uninteresting faces were slack-jawed in slumber. Her own father had the empty, almost bored look that she herself had. Interesting.

Slowly, the shuttle drifted toward the ground below, like a feather on the wind. The descent was maddeningly dull, and James soon found himself slipping away on the waves of music. He closed his eyes.

James woke to Costanza's insistent poking. He smiled and looked to her momentarily before turning to the window.

To his great surprise, the ground was just a few meters away and flying up to meet him.

He reflexively curled up into a protective ball as the shuttle fired its retrorockets, then struck the ground at a jarring speed. Those who were sleeping were unceremoniously flung from their seats, while the rest held on against the impact. The keel of the spacecraft plowed through the dry soil, gouging the first of humanity's marks on this pristine world. Eventually, the shuttle shrieked to a halt.

For some time, the shuttle sat silent and dead on the surface of the alien world. It gleamed white in the afternoon sun, grossly out of place in the barren dust and stone, the pale dot in a desert of orange. The wind howled against the shuttle, making the metal sing.

At this point, many of the passengers had composed themselves and were now helping others and clearing the cabin of debris. In a few minutes, the hatch to the outside would open, and they would make their way onto the surface of the alien planet. James was picking up the remains of someone's old memories, depositing each shattered plastic shard into the trash container at the aft of the small vessel. He momentarily glanced at the window to his right.

The landscape was significantly drier than many had been led to believe. Orange dirt, turned crimson under the perpetual morning sun, continued forever, interrupted only by the occasional rock or sculpted hill. Far in the distance, a mountain range blocked part of the sun, faint wisps of evaporated water rising from its far side. There was a tiny depression, perhaps a dry riverbed, winding near the shuttle. The sky was a pristine turquoise, smudged delicately with airborne dust.

This was far from what they were prepared for. Most of the colonists had expected a lush environment, with flowing water and perhaps even native foliage. James could not say he was entirely disappointed. A desert was the perfect blank slate, a canvas on which a civilization could be built.

The rest of the passengers had noticed the pointed lack of vegetation, but continued to busy themselves. It seemed no one else agreed with James, and looks of concern were exchanged. Silence filled the cabin.

Without warning, the hatch blew open, startling everyone. The explosive charges lining the door sent it soaring into the parched soil. After the initial boom and the thud of the hatch smashing into the ground, the silence reasserted itself. Everyone looked in wonderment at the square opening, and the dry, red surface beyond.

Being directly exposed to the desert made James rethink his initial opinion. Yes, the wide, empty horizon was just as beautiful, but the blast of hot, dry air was withering. James had to squint into the wind.

The men and women of Shuttle 001 began to egress the ship. Knowing there would soon be more shuttles incoming, they took some basic supplies and hid behind an unusually shaped hill nearby. It would be tragic if It was stony, and largely vertical, with straight edges and very little erosion. It looked remotely like an ancient temple.

James began to sweat quickly after leaving the confines of the shuttle. The sun beat down from near the horizon, and it hardly helped that he was carrying a heavy tank of water. Of course, the concept of a desert was much more attractive than the reality, but even as he sweltered in the heat of the dawning sun, James was happy. He turned off the cello playing in his mind and listened to the wind as it shivered through the rocks and over the hill. The sound was unstructured, empty, but calming. Panting in the heat, James decided he would be happy here. Costanza seemed to agree.

The water and food was quickly transported to the lee of the crag. James and a crowd of other colonists were sitting in the long shadow of the hill, sipping lukewarm water and savoring every drop. The food, as it turned out, was mostly protein bars, nothing worth eating. The wind was still blowing, kicking up streamers of brown dust. As the last of the supplies thumped into place, a sonic boom ripped through the air, heralding the second shuttle. Soon, a dozen streaks of light peppered the sky, illuminating the land in a soft white light it had never before known.

Mankind had arrived.

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