Distance (Chapter 1)

The breath of a quiet wind blew through the branches, slipping past green sleeves wrapped around the cold bark of the wooded forest. A voice, lit with fury and beauty sang across the gust of air. Revenge was what the voice spoke of, its gentle notes speaking softly to soothe an aching heart, its rushed words moving the spirit, calling it to action. The tongue of an angelic creature spoke of this demise, this eternal prophecy. She prayed to the sky to release her from this agony, and a lock of blond hair fell from her hands, onto the pillow of moss she kneeled upon. Another followed. Soon the dark earth was covered in pools of reflected starlight, pools of tears and sadness, and also blood and change. The woman stood, her hair cut short, above her shoulders, and sliced once again across her hand, her voice growing stronger even when her body waned in health. The ceremonial dagger in her hand was slowly dulling, its gilded blade becoming thick with the clotted blood of its holder. The song ended abruptly, its spell no longer lingering in the air. The tears ceased their flow from blank eyes.

Leif cursed to himself. A small dot of blood appeared on his cheek, just above his jawline. He continued to run the razor across his face, but with a new sense of caution this time. He had let his beard grow too long, this was the first time he had shaved in several months. He swore again when he remembered his next destination, he would definitely need to wear a scarf. He heard a light tapping at the door, and he reached backward without looking to pull it open. Sauda strolled in, happy to see her master. Sauda was a seadog, a native creature of the last planet he had visited. She had thick crimson fur around her entire body, with a white splotch on the crown of her head, oddly shaped and asymmetric. As Leif finished shaving and washing his face, he leaned on the counter and stared into the reflective surface. Soon his eyes focused out, before realigning their vision on nothing. How times had changed. A small red light blinked next to his mirror, and he spoke aloud to respond.

“Report.” Leif waited for his system to compile the data in silence. The computer spoke up.

“Approaching Planet Delta-T. Atmospheric makeup is not suitable for Light Travel Mark Two. Please use Alien Exploration Mark Six while first stepping down. Tethers will be attached in approximately twenty minutes.” Leif nodded, turning to Sauda and rubbing the white patch of fur on her forehead. Her eyes closed, she purred softly. Even though she looked like a large Labrador Retriever from Earth, she made noises much like any Earth feline would. Leif had caught her mewling at times, but Sauda was generally a very quiet and passive animal. Sauda pressed up against him, and rubbed the spines on her back against his leg. He knew it was a sign of affection, but he tried to avoid the tips, as he knew the rounded tops held retractable needles full of venom. He had seen the seadogs fight with one another, the poison was a last resort for their power struggles, and could finish a fight quickly and quite painfully. He moved past her, reaching for the door to the closet across the hall. All of his gear was in this closet. He spoke aloud again to his ship’s computer system.

“Request companion.”

“No companions available at this time. Would you like me to alert you when one becomes available?”

“No thank you. Current conditions of Delta-T near landing site?”

“No precipitation of any kind. Winds are an estimated 60 miles per hour.”

“Any life forms detected?”

“Several flora species have been detected. No mammalian life above ground, but there are plenty of fish in the surrounding water.”

“There’s water on this planet?” Leif replied, incredulous. A planet was most often too hot or too cold to keep water in a liquid state.

“Only during select hours and seasons. It appears that the planet’s ice floes have been recently frozen.”

“Do you know anything more about the fish? What about their lifespan?”

“Negative. More data will help me answer that.”

“I’ll get that for you. I’m going to get dressed now, are you ready?” Leif stood now just in a pair of thick boxers made of synthetic material, tightly clinging to his waist and upper thighs. He lifted his arms and spread his legs, giving the closet enough space to slide the spacesuit on him. The Alien Exploration suit was always much more uncomfortable than the Light Travel model, and he dreaded using it. He felt the walls of his closet mold themselves around his form, as they had done hundreds of times before. As they retracted, he flexed his back and rolled his shoulders forward and backward, trying to stretch the fabric around his joints, even though it never did. Leif, now ready to slide down to the planet’s surface, stepped out of the closet and into the hallway, which was now tight to navigate in his bulky terranaut suit. Sauda nervously shifted, knowing who it was inside the uniform, but still feeling uncomfortable with the barrier between them. Leif found a grin making its way across his face, as he pulled a clip away from his belt. He peered out the window at the tethers gently falling away from the solar zeppelin, through the clouds, piercing nothing along the way until reaching the ground. With a small vibration, the ship shook. Leif knew the tethers had stuck into something, and felt the floor of the zeppelin pulled toward them. The hatch near the window opened, and as Leif clipped himself into the zipline toward the tethers, the balloon fell beneath the clouds, and a whole world of discovery and wonder opened up to him.

He felt the adrenaline begin to push itself through his chest, wriggling up into his mind and down into his arms and legs. The land beneath him was sculpted cleanly, a vast island stretching out beneath his feet, one that would have been tropical in the Pacific Ocean. A mountain topped with snow was holding itself in place with majesty, as if it had the power to destroy the world, but it chose not to for the sake of principle. Leif felt giddy, as he leaped out of the ship and began his rapid descent toward the ground, sliding on those thin metal cords connecting his balloon to this new planet. Delta-T had only been seen by humans, but nobody had touched it yet. What an experience! To know that Leif had been the only one to set his feet down here. And this was even his seventy-first time doing it.