Arrival: The Pilot, part 1

Here’s the next bit – turns out that there was way more than I had time to write before heading off, so it’ll be a two-parter. Not entirely happy with how much this is an inner monologue rather than a scene, but that’s a problem for the future.

When Umbra finally came to rest, the impact was so subtle that I had difficulty discerning it; the last few minutes of our descent had been so slow as to be almost imperceptible. The captain wasn’t taking any chances with this final phase of our approach: he was determined to avoid drawing any attention to the trench we were hunkered down in.

As far as I was concerned, this level of paranoia wasn’t warranted. Our atmospheric entry had been dramatic, yes: any object of Umbra‘s mass hitting the ocean surface at supersonic speed would have been noticed. The fact that we had eluded detection by Earth’s guardian sensor network – created specifically to detect and intercept wandering asteroids before they collided with the planet’s surface – would rouse worry if not outright suspicion. It was entirely possible that this region of the sea floor would be searched, if the planet’s authorities were suspicious of the impact.

The prospect of being hunted clearly terrified the captain, but I knew better. He was used to space, where heat couldn’t easily be hidden and the medium was clear enough for a hunter to pick up its prey from tens of thousands of kilometres. If there was anything I had learned before getting on his ship, it was that the ocean didn’t work that way. The abyss was a place that drank in light and returned nothing – radio and lasers were worse than useless, and this deep even sound was unreliable for anything beyond navigation thanks to the planet’s muted microquakes. In the time it took any searchers from the surface to get this deep, Umbra would be virtually underground, sitting in a tunnel dug into the wall of the chasm. A searcher could pass within five metres of our concealed entrance and be none the wiser.

No, I wasn’t worried at all about the next few days. The prospect of a week or so to lie low and wait was welcome: piloting Umbra through entry had worn my nerves so thin that even the least objectionable human company was grating. Exhaustion was all that had prevented me from lashing out at everyone who had complained about the rough landing – as if they could have even gotten the ship through the atmosphere without burning up. Six hours of rest had brought my body’s strength back, but my mind was still on edge, and everybody knew it. The crushing pressure all around us didn’t worry me at all, but as I stared into the black I felt trapped nevertheless.

Returning home at all was a defeat; to do so seeking help was intolerable. Common sense told me that there would be nobody left to care about it, that two centuries of absence would have milled out every face and name I had ever known – but I knew common sense was wrong in this matter. My mother would have found a way to cheat death, I was certain: for all her high-minded talk of people integrating seamlessly with the planet, she would never have found the humility to simply decompose and return to nature. The only niche she would ever occupy would be that of an absolute ruler.

I stopped pacing my cabin and sat down. Alex was elsewhere, probably supervising the excavation: he knew that even he was unwelcome in my current mood. Or maybe especially Alex; he was the one who had talked me into this stupid enterprise, after all. Damn him for getting involved. I didn’t owe the cripple a thing, and Sarah could harp on about altruism and obligation until her sanctimonious little jaw came loose for all I cared – she had nothing at stake here, and the principles she held so dear would offer me no protection. No amount of guilt could have persuaded me to face what I feared was waiting for me in the southern ocean – and yet Alex got me to agree to it anyway.

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