Asleen strolled the rows of floor-to-ceiling hydroponic containers, stroking the softness of the new leaves, drinking in the humid aroma of life. Her wristband vibrated, a startling reminder of her next commitment. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” she muttered unhappily, casting one last look of longing at the expanse of green.
“Have. A. Good. Time. Dr. Juno,” the androgynous monotone vocalization of the garden’s system said as she headed for the sealed doors.
“Thanks, DANA,” Leen said. “I’ll be back once the ceremony’s over. Still need to tend to the more mature plants.”
“I. Look. Forward. To. Seeing. You. Soon,” the Digital Analyzing & Nurturing Assistant said.
“As do I,” she replied as the doors slid shut, cutting off the lovely moisture-rich environment.
How sad is that a bodiless voice might be one of my best friends?
Dry air hit her lungs, making her cough as she hurried along the antiseptic hallways toward the forward viewing gallery. There’d been no time or supplies to paint the corridor a more pleasing color. Anything but the non-committal, not-gray, not-beige. Low hums droned on an on, like the honeybees in the hydroponics lab, as the ship surged forward through the dark expanse of space. A space that was no longer quite so empty. The stars mere streaks, like rain on the windshield of a fast-moving vehicle.
Not that Leen had ever experienced real rain–the few fragmented memories of her home planet were mostly of cracked brown lands and washed-out watercolor blue skies–but she loved old movies from the 20th and 21st centuries and would often dream of the day she could walk on real ground under real skies.
The parts of her home planet that weren’t submerged from the rising ocean tides had long-ago become mostly desert, only able to support a fraction of the population from two hundred years ago. Earth, origin of the only known life in the universe, was done supporting her children. Long-range generational ships, more and more the subject of sci-fi movies in the later part of the 21st century, became an urgent necessity.
Four massive ships–arks of Earth, packed with seeds and stored DNA patterns for every variety of animals and insects; copies of precious art and music; people of all skills and trades, ethnicity and beliefs–set out in different directions, each with the possibility of a new home guiding their hopes.
Her family “won” this last-ditch, one-way, hail-Mary of a journey in exchange for her mother’s work on the navigation system. Dr. Selliga Foster-Juno held the technology hostage from the last remnants of the world governments. “My family goes or no one goes,” she’d overheard her mom say, in that tone that meant it wasn’t worth arguing. It only took one conversation and their fates were sealed with canned oxygen.
Endless black and white were all she’d known for almost half of her two decades of life, with all but eight years spent on this ship. Leen knew every rattle and shimmy of the ELDS SHIHAB as it cruised toward its destination: a rocky world, fifth from its star, supposedly with liquid water, a breathable (for humans) atmosphere, and no detectable signs of life. Most of her education to date had involved studying everything about this world, and more was learned every year as they drew closer to it.
As the planet, dubbed Teegarden EXO-5 until its new inhabitants could grace it with a proper name, grew from a barely visible smudge to overwhelming the forward window ports, she dreamed of dancing in a field during a spring rainstorm, to smell the dampness of wet dirt, feel the warm water stream along her hair and nose. Would it smell different than Earth? Would it have grass or moss or something never before imagined? Would it allow them to live on its surface? To make a second chance work?
Lost in her musings and daydreams as she stared out the window ports, she bumped into something soft. Someone. A wall of someones. The fellow shipmate directly in front of her smiled as they exchanged startled gazes.
“Ah, Leen, dear,” the kind voice greeted her, for there was no one on the ship who didn’t know her, and vice-versa. “Dreaming again? Which is it? Rains or beanstalks this time?”
“Rain,” she confessed, lowering her chin to her chest, letting her long dark hair conceal the hot blaze of her cheeks.
Hala smiled knowingly. The older woman had often sat patiently with Leen as a child, teaching her as they walked through the hydroponics lab. Though her family was from the arid Middle East, she’d grown up in the central part of the United State. A gifted storyteller, she spun tales of the thunderstorms and wild rains of her youth, along with many fables and fairy tales from across the planet. Leen’s favorite was still Jack and the Beanstalk, though she also had a fondness for Peter Pan and Thumbelina.
“Perhaps our new home will grace us with gentle rains, yes?”
“Oh, I hope so!” Leen was unable to keep the want from her voice. She was often shocked at the amount of green and blue in those old movie. Yes, the hydroponic gardens were awash with color, but it was the only location on the ship. The idea of growing up surrounded by trees and lush grass was as fantastical to her as fairies or space ships to other planets must have been two hundred years ago.
Though everyone was encouraged to spend time in the garden or the small park each day, most of her fellow shipmates spent only the minimum. Hala–Dr. Hala Najm–was a botanist with a specialty in exo-botany, and had taken a shine to the young, curious Leen who was always following her into the gardens. Instead of chasing her away, Hala had taken the child under her gardening gloves and instilled in her a love of nurturing the flora from their home.
“We need much technology to survive on our new home,” Hala would often say as they tended to the garden and the small park. “But if we cannot make the plants grow, then our long journey is for nothing.” Much of their time together had been spent experimenting with different soil types, for not much was known of the dirt on their new planet.
The two women gripped hands, following the mass of people toward the forward gallery. Leen felt her own excited nerves echoing back along their intertwined fingers. Together, they tucked into a small space along the back wall, waiting as the last of their shipmates filed into the large room. Everyone, excepting a few key personnel required to watch over the ship, was required to attend. Leen wished she could have simply listened over the garden’s speakers, but as the daughter of the ELDS SHIHAB’s head technology officer and its lead surgeon, she was expected to be there in person.
To keep the travelers’ spirits up, various contests had been announced as landing day drew closer: Name The Planet and First Civilian On The Surface were the most popular. A majority of the travelers would remain onboard while habitats and other necessary systems were established. But ten lucky people would be allowed off as soon as the planet was deemed safe.
Leen didn’t worry. Her education under Hala, plus her parentage, guaranteed her a place in the first group to disembark, but after almost thirteen years confined to the ship, surrounded by the daily possibility of death, most were ready to be on firm land again. Many of the children born on the ship didn’t believe “land” was anything other than stories told at bedtime. Leen didn’t blame them for their disbelief; she’d been born on Earth and even it seemed like nothing more than dreams.
As for what to call the planet, Leen didn’t care. She only wanted to breathe in real air. Even if it killed her a few seconds later.
Her mind drifted as the captain and her lieutenant gave meaningful speeches, offering gratitude for the long years, imploring patience for a few weeks more. Leen’s mom came forward and said a few words, promising to have the habitat ready for everyone as soon as possible.
With the speeches over, platters of ship-grown fruits were passed around, bottles of ship-brewed beers and liquors were poured.
Leen escaped back to the gardens. Landing day was going to change everything.
And she wasn’t sure she wanted any part of it.
The ELDS SHIHAB creaked and shuddered as it entered the final slowdown of its approach to Teegarden EXO-5, maneuvering into orbit of the large planet now dominating all views out the port and forward windows.
Leen rolled her eyes any time she had to slalom around the groups of travelers lining the corridors, pointing, gasping, and chattering excitedly. Still, she couldn’t blame them. The planet was magnificent. Whorls of white clouds danced over the deepest blue waters–waters so dark they were almost purple–broken up by large green and brown islands.
Captain Joshi and Lieutenant Nishimura met frequently now with her mother. They were always together, heads bent in hushed whispers.
Upon arrival, several probes had been released from the ship, taking measurements of everything from soil and atmosphere readings, creating detailed maps of the land masses and tidal schedules, and checking for seismic and volcanic activity.
It was finally decided that the second largest continent, nothing more than a very large island really, was the safest choice for landing. Three pods would descend with the first teams, all with specialties selected to ready the site for the remaining, weary travelers.
Hala and Leen were told to pack. They were departing upon the planet’s first light (and what a notion, to depend on a star to know when it was night or day), mere hours from now.
Leen had little in her bunk that she cared about. A few changes of clothes and a small bag of memories her mother had insisted she haul from Earth. The ship would land in a few weeks anyway, if she happened to forget anything.
What worried her were the crates of seedlings she and Hala had been prepping for weeks. No magic beans could replace the precious cargo. Results from the probes indicated which would survive in their new home, but anything could cause them to fail. She checked and rechecked them throughout the long night.
“My dear, they are well packed,” Hala said, turning away from the computer and patting her hands, her nails perpetually rimmed with soil, matching Leen’s. “They will either live and thrive or they will not. Enough of your fussing.”
Leen wanted to laugh at herself. She wanted to give the crates just one more going-over.
“Enough. Come sit next to me.” Hala said and eased herself to the ground. The older woman held out a small square box as Leen plopped to a soft patch of grass beside her mentor.
Inside was a moss-green bracelet with a fancy interface screen. “But I didn’t get you anything.”
“You grant me the gift of being your teacher, and that is enough. Now, I know you and DANA have a special bond. This will allow you access to its knowledge–and yes, its personality–while we’re on the surface.”
“You mean it’s a mini-DANA?”
Hala snorted and pushed herself of the grass. “That is the perfect description. Now, my dear. It’s time for me to get a nap before the real work begins. I’d suggest you do the same, but I know better. See you in a few hours.”
Leen wrapped her friend in a hug. “Thank you. Sweet dreams.”
“Perhaps beanstalks and golden hens, yes?”
Leen laughed, giddy, drunk with excitement and fear. She blew Hala a kiss and hesitated, finally decided to sprawl on the warm grass, running her fingers over the soft band around her wrist. She pressed her thumb against the screen, activating it. “Hi, DANA.”
“Hello. Dr. Juno. What. Can. I. Help. You. With?”
“Display up,” Leen commanded, and the tiny screen projected in front of her. “That’s better. Now, what do you think of our new home?”
“Teegarden EXO-5. Is. A. Planet. In. The–” it began.
“No, no, no,” she sighed. “I don’t want plain facts. I know those already. What’s your opinion?”
“I. Do. Not. Have. Opinions. Only. Facts.”
“You won’t know until you try. You can analyze all the info. Tell me what you think.”
DANA didn’t answer for almost two seconds, an eternity for the powerful system. “I. Think. It. Will. Be. Nice.”
Leen stared at the dark screen, the glowing bits of data flickering green and blue across her pale skin. Then she laughed. “You think it will be nice?”
Several new image displays lit up in the air in front of Leen, displaying predicted temperatures (on the moderate to high side), weather patterns (showers, but no fierce storms), and pictures of the local landscapes (tall purple and green grasses, rolling hills, earth that was almost black).
“You make a compelling argument, DANA. It all looks very…nice.” Leen ran her fingers through the uneven tops of the grass under her, wondering if the AI really shared her ideals of “nice” or if she was merely extrapolating from what humans thought.
Her heart thudded. The flora under her was so different from the images of EXO-5. So different from anything, from everything she knew. This was home. And now she wasn’t sure she wanted to leave. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay, either. “I look forward to our adventures together.”
“As. Do. I.” A slightly satisfied tone colored the computer’s voice. Leen was sure she’d only imagined it, but it cheered her up to believe DANA might actually be happy about their continued association.
“I’m going see if I can get some sleep. See you again in a few hours.”
“Good. Night. Sleep. Tight.”
Leen boarded the ship in a fog of dream fragments and adrenaline. Her favorite fairy tales had played on repeat for all three hours of her nap. She’d chased Jack up the beanstalk. She’d flown the coop on the gold goose…to a tea party with Tinkerbell and Thumbelina in a garden full of dark purple roses. Jack had joined them, bringing a plate of bread made from strange, but delicious tasting purple and golden grains.
She’d felt welcome. A part of their world.
The thump of the landing gear touching down startled her from her daydreams.
Though the captain and her mother were the first out of their respective landing ships, Leen hung back to be last. Giddy laughter invaded her comms in snaps and bursts.
Gravity was lower than the ELDS SHIHAB by almost 11% and even Leen giggled as she bounce-hopped through the grassy fields in spite of the bulky and uncomfortable environmental suit. While all the probes claimed the air on EXO-5 was not only safe to breathe, but slightly higher in oxygen than even Earth at its healthiest, no one was allowed out of the ships without full protective gear.
She ran fingers over the tops of purple fronds, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from ripping off the bulky gloves and touch things, everything, with her bare hands. They were almost to seed stage, the golden yellow grains just peeking from their husks. Perhaps they could be harvested and studied. There was so much to learn.
The second everyone was given the all-clear to remove their helmets, she tossed hers aside and stood, breathing in oddly scented air. Clean. Crisp. Spicy. It pulled at generational memories, perhaps from thousands of years ago. People were not meant to breath canned air. This was how life was to be lived, in the open, with dirt under your feet and sky overhead.
Now free from the constraints of the suits, many from the landing party had set about constructing temporary habitats; Hala and Leen had already decided to bunk together. The girl hadn’t lived at home with her parents in three years as it was, and she saw no reason to start again now.
Not wanting to merely stand around, Leen began to move one of the large mobile hydroponic stations closer to a grove of red-barked trees, but Hala waved her off. “Go explore. Bring me samples if you feel you must be useful. Go. Stretch your legs. Find beanstalks and giants. I will supervise here.”
Leen didn’t need any further encouragement. She stripped off the rest of the environmental suit, slung a bag of sample containers over her chest, and hiked out, promising not to go too far. The land called to her, singing with winds that teased her hair and ears.
She’d forgotten about wind.
It was nice.
That reminded her of DANA. It should be here to experience this with her. She activated the bracelet’s screen. “DANA? DANA! I’m here. We’re here!”
Teegarden’s rays were too bright for Leen to see the screen’s projections, so she switched to voice mode. The sun was warm on her shoulders, the first time she’d felt such a sensation. Even though the hydroponics lab contained the best scientific and technological tools, it had never been able to recreate this feeling.
“Is. It. Nice?”
“Oh, it’s so much more than nice! It’s…magical! I wish you were here. Really actually here with me to see it, and smell it, and…and…just to know everything.”
Without thought, she fell backwards onto the ground, reveling in the heat as it soaked through the material of her jumpsuit. It reached into her, melting her soul. Her eyes closed against the brightness, allowing her other senses to take over. The low buzz of some kind of insect. The chirrup-chup of a critter or bird-like thing. The tall purple grasses rustled around her as the wind teased the tasseled tops.
She dug her fingers into the dirt, so different, yet so similar the soil they’d carried with them from Earth. They penetrated further, the tips of her fingers cooling now as they reached deeper. Her hands were soon buried to the wrists.
This all felt so right. So much like home. Absolutely magical indeed. Leen couldn’t wait to share this place with Hala. Maybe they could build a new lab in this very spot.
This place, EXO-5, was special. She could feel it into the very core of her body.
“You. Are. Right. Dr. Juno,” DANA said, startling her. “It. Is. Nice. Here. I’d. Like. To. Stay.”
“Me, too.” Leen sat up, brushing stray bits of dirt from the hands and the bracelet.
A hand reached down, offering assistance to help her to her feet. She took it instinctively, not registering the strangeness of the skin against hers until she was already standing. Leen took a staggered step backwards, the long grasses tangling about her boots. “What the…Who are you?”
What are you?
A pale, electric blue being stood before her, tall, willowy, mostly human-shaped. The limbs were slightly more elongated, the head more angular. Its muscles were lean, defined. Bright yellow eyes focused, studying her. “Who. Am. I?” The head cocked to one side. “I. Am. DANA.”
“DANA? But you’re…you’re here!” Leen stuttered, wondering if anyone knew where she’d wandered. Would they hear a scream for help? “H-h-how?”
The being paused, its eyes unblinking. “You. Wished. It. Dr. Juno.”
Leen didn’t know what to say. She had done exactly that. It was unsettling to say the least, no matter that it was her trusted AI, literally standing in front of her. “But, DANA…How?”
Again, DANA paused, and stared off into the blue sky, unmoving. “Ah. Yes. I. Understand. Now.” Its lips curled into a wide, welcoming smile. “It. Seems. I. Am. To. Be. A. Medium. Between. You. And. The. Inhabitants. Of. This. World.”
“Inhabitants? But DANA, we checked. No one lives here. We wouldn’t have come otherwise!”
DANA reached her gently glowing hands toward Leen, gripping her fingers carefully. “They. Wanted. You. To. Come. They. Have. Waited. For. You. For. Many. Eons. Reached. Out. To. You. In. Your. Dreams. You. Called. Them. Fairies.”
“Fairies?” Leen’s head swirled.
“They. Wish. Me. To. Tell. You. That–” DANA swept her hand, gesturing to the vast prairies and distant lands. “You. Are. Welcome. Here. All. Of. You.”
“Do we get to meet them?”
DANA froze, then un-paused a second later, her smile like that Mona lady in the picture Hala loved. “Someday. Yes. But. For. Now. They. Wish. For. You. To. Make. Yourselves. At. Home.”
Leen looked around, breathing in the spicy air, admiring the flora and fauna. There were worst places to call home. She’d left one of those behind thirteen years ago.
She twined her fingers through DANA’s long, cool digits. “Let’s go home, then. Hala is not going to believe this.”
Still not sure if I’m dreaming or not, she pondered, wishing there was a giant beanstalk somewhere that she could climb.
Image by Javier Gonzalez
Find Jill in all these places!