“I think we’re going to make it, Peter. Both our pods are headed toward Sanctuary.”
“It seems that way, Elsa, but it’s a big planet, and we have no manual guidance control. Each of our onboard computers will handle the descent, but for all we know, we’ll land thousands of kilometers apart.”
The Colony Ship Frazier had done its job admirably. 3,268 colonists made it 99.9999 percent of the way from Earth to the new planet code-named Sanctuary. Then, on orbital approach, the Langstrom-Edwards fusion drive experienced a catastrophic malfunction, resulting in the destruction of the majority of the crew and passenger sections. Only 512 people made it into their one-person lifepods and safely evacuated the Frazier, but as far as Peter and Elsa knew, they were the only two headed for the new planet. The rest of the ship’s complement were most likely lost in space.
“Keep talking, Peter. I feel so alone in this metal bubble.”
“I’m right here with you. Our pods are just a thousand or so kilometers apart.”
“That sounded like a lot when you were talking about where we might land on the planet.”
“But in the vastness of space, it’s not that far at all.”
“What if we’re the only survivors?”
“Then I guess we get the honor of being the first to colonize Sanctuary.”
“It isn’t funny, Peter. All those people are dead and we’re the only ones who aren’t.”
“Look, I know, but first things first. We’ve got to survive re-entry and landing. The pods are designed to do that without any human intervention.”
“Why can’t we pilot them so we can land together?”
“The programming assumes that the passenger is either injured or otherwise incapable of flying the pod.”
“Or in our case, we don’t know how.”
“Who knew a botanist and a structural engineer would have to fly in space, huh?”
“It’s getting hard to hear you. Where’s the static coming from?”
“When we enter the upper atmosphere, the friction from re-entry interferes with communications. Once we drop to about fifty kilometers from the surface, it should come back.”
“Maybe fifteen minutes. Don’t you remember your emergency procedures?”
“I’m a botanist, not a spaceship pilot. Who remembers junk like that?”
“Peter, where are you?”
“Okay, fifteen minutes. I can handle fifteen minutes. Get it together, Elsa. This is just a walk in the…”
The pod lurched as it hit turbulence, and out the view port, she could see the yellow and orange glow of the hull as it heated up due to atmospheric friction.
“Chronometer says four minutes have passed. Common, pod. Hold together. You’re supposed to know how to do this.”
In spite of the state-of-the-art life support and shielding systems, the interior temperature passed 31 degrees C and she was dripping with sweat.
“Only five minutes to go. Come on, Baby. You can do it.”
At the thirteen minute and thirty-second mark, the exterior glow began to dim and Elsa started to feel marginally cooler. Gripping her acceleration couch with both hands, she gritted her teeth until she saw blue skies and thin, white clouds emerge in front of her pod. Below looked like a green peninsula. She was going to make it.
“Peter, are you there?”
There was a faint hum and some static. Was that a voice in the background?
She tried to raise Peter for several more minutes with no luck. His pod could be over another hemisphere of the planet, so line-of-sight would prevent them from communicating by radio (she remembered that much from her emergency training).
Then the forward thrusters fired, throwing her against the seat’s restraints violently enough to cause her to pass out. When she woke up, she didn’t feel any motion. She’d landed.
She could have been in a pleasant springtime meadow back on Earth, except the varieties of trees and shrubbery weren’t familiar to her. It was a botanist’s dream come true, but then she remembered she didn’t have anyone to share that dream with.
“Elsa to Peter, come in. Do you read me?”
The speakers only answered with soft static.
“Elsa Bryant to anyone from the Frazier, do you read me? Please respond?”
For over half an hour, she sent out messages into the void and got nothing back on the standard frequencies. While doing this, she checked the outside environmental sensors and found no surprises. Gravity was within five percent of Earth norm, atmospheric composition was ideal for human life, and both the atmosphere and magnetic field kept the surface free of harmful radiation. Sanctuary was the paradise the Malcolm Corporation said it was.
She opened the hatch and stepped outside, then stumbled to the ground. Her legs were cramping. She’d been in free fall for the hours between emergency launch from the ship to landing.
The air smelled slightly sweet. There must be pollinating plant life nearby. Where the hell was Peter?
She checked the pod’s support equipment. It held a three-week supply of concentrated food and water, which she could stretch to four if she rationed. There was the shelter kit, basically a high-tech pup tent, but she could also sleep in the pod if necessary. Unmanned probes detected no dangerous life forms, but they could have missed something.
Elsa could use the portable chem analysis lab to figure out what she could eat, so she should be able to survive, but she was alone. Even if Peter made it through re-entry, they each had no idea where the other landed, and the pods were now useless for transportation.
“I miss you, Peter.”
The sound behind her was startling, but not threatening. She felt like she’d jumped a mile in the air anyway.
Looking around, she didn’t see anything. If it were an insect, it had a heck of a voice. Then something started to take shape from the grassy ground cover. She noticed the big eyes first. They were perfectly round with a deep brown center. They blinked at her and made another squeaking noise.
It was ridiculous to suppose whatever it was could understand her, or that it was intelligent, but it was certainly alive and she was in its territory.
“My name is Elsa. I’m not going to hurt you.” She hoped that sentiment went both ways.
Whatever it was grew taller and assumed a bipedal shape. Head, torso, legs, arms, then the face began to become more distinct, until it became a rough copy of a humanoid, except it was green and lacked obvious genitalia.
“Hello?” It’s voice was like that of the antique toy baby she had as a child. Was it mimicking her or did it understand?
Then a second one took shape, then a third, five, ten, and in a few minutes, she was surrounded by twenty or thirty of these emerald replicants.
They roughed out a basic vocabulary in a few hours, enough so that they understood (she hoped) that she was lost and needed food, water, and shelter.
It turned out Elsa being a botanist was a very good thing, because they were plants. Well, more like they were branches of a single plant that formed a global intelligence. By the time she found out that Peter was alive, healthy, and living on a large island almost halfway around the world, they had built her an elaborate, symbiotic home that formed and reformed to adapt to her needs.
She wasn’t alone and she never would be again. There were plans for the Hegemone to form a sea craft for Peter, so he could join her. Fifty-two other survivors were scattered across Sanctuary. A year passed since the destruction of the Frazier before she saw her husband again. By then, the Human/Hegemone collective was well on its way to becoming a new civilization.
The image was too bizarre for me to do anything very literal with it, but it did suggest communication between two people who were otherwise isolated from each other, and that said-communication was about to be severed. I decided not to cut the cord permanently.
Oh. I named the planet’s collective race of plants Hegemone after the Greek goddess of plant life.