A quick orbit of the moon revealed nothing but dust, craters and abandoned ruins of space stations. It appeared as if the war had reached the moon and moved on many years ago. I brought up a scan of the portal map on my screen and tried to pinpoint the the exact location we should be for the solar-system jump we were attempting. The map was surprisingly vague on details and the whole idea suddenly seemed ludicrous.
Without waiting for my directions, Leon checked the time on the watch Dr. Perlman had given him, and turned the nose of the Sparrow Hawk to point at Saturn, with our back to the moon.
“Like this?” he asked as the Sparrow Hawk came around and pointed into deep space.
“I have to overlay the Sumerian map with a Space Alliance star map and make sure we’re directly between the moon and Saturn. . .” I began, clicking and swiping through star maps.
“Lani.” Leon said softly.
In front of us lay a planet three times larger than Earth, veiled in thick clouds of moist atmosphere. Vibrant greens and blues beneath the white jet streams were so reminiscent of Earth my eyes filled with tears and overflowed. One moment I was looking over my shoulder at our moon; trying to gauge whether or not we were in the right location, the next we were flying by a completely different, smaller moon toward another planet shrouded in thick atmosphere. A second moon reflected light from the large, bright orange sun beyond the planet.
The change was so unannounced I had a hard time absorbing it. Had that planet and those moons been here all along?
“Woah,” Leon said softly. “Just, woah. My mind can’t take much more.”
“I think mine quit a few days ago.”
“Maybe moons are like doorways to other solar systems,” Leon commented.
“Yeah. Or just markers,” I added. “Like exit signs. I wonder where that other moon might lead to.”
“Your brain is fine,” Leon laughed.
It took another day to reach the new planet and by then we were both thankful for the simple convenience of urine traps and hydration tablets.
As our ship shuddered and descended through the golden cloud cover, I caught a glimpse of buildings on the continent below. It was densely green, like a jungle, and heavy clouds prevented us from a clear view, but as we came in lower, I saw a wall, and inside of it, white stone buildings.
The Sparrow Hawk was shuddering violently, as though she had fallen into water. Her speed threatened to shake us to pieces.
“Slow down if you can. The atmosphere is too dense for our ship,” I told Leon, “It’ll tear us apart.”
“No it won’t,” Leon disagreed, even as the horrifying sound of tearing metal interrupted him. “But there goes the landing gear panel I worked so hard to straighten.”
“I told you that liquid metal stuff was crap,” I said. “What’s that?”
“It’s a landing pad, or I’ll eat my helmet!” My brother exclaimed. Sweat stood out in beads on his forehead. “Damn, if that doesn’t look like home.”
“Can you put her down without landing gear?” I asked.
“I can set her down, I just won’t be able to take off again, without some modifications.” Leon assured me.
In the midst of dense forest, structures of white stone rose in various levels above the ground. Above them all, like a towering flat table, stood a landing pad of impressive size. It almost appeared as though the civilization below had thrown out a welcome mat to the skies. Already, at 3,000 feet altitude, I could see tiny figures gathering to watch our landing.
“I’m getting readings for breathable air. Good oxygen levels.” I told Leon. “This could be it. Maybe we should start sending the signal.”
“I hope the indigenous are not the aliens I’ve been shooting down for the last year,” Leon rejoined with caution. I saw his point and my hand dropped away from the radio signal switch. We weren’t safe yet.
“Two thousand feet and descending. . .” I said, “and still no landing gear.”
“We’re slowing down. . . the controls are stabilizing.” Leon said.
“1000 feet and descending. . . Four hundred feet and descending. . .Stabilizing. . .” I continued, “The atmosphere is thicker by 15%. . . it might feel heavy, but it should be compatible.”
“Unless the wind blows.” Leon laughed shortly.
Leon and I had a deal. I always used regular vocabulary when I was navigating for him (not the air force lingo), and he always told me what he was feeling through the controls.
“Sixty feet and descending. . . they look human,” I commented, as the beings on the platform came into view again. “Maybe they’re from Earth too, like, other survivors.”
“Probably not. They’re wearing odd clothing and seem pretty excited and amazed to see us.” Leon slowly and carefully lowered our ship. “I hope they’ll have what I need to make repairs.”
“Forty feet and descending. . . Contact in 10, 9, 8 -”
We hit the landing pad like a stone, dropping the last twenty feet suddenly. The jolt made me bite my bottom lip. A drop of blood dropped onto the navigation screen and I wiped it off.
“Dang,” Leon groaned. “I hope I didn’t break off the other stabilizer. Lani?”
“Some dents maybe. . . but I’m not seeing any new damage. Here they come.”
“What the heck—they’re all kids,” Leon exclaimed.
I hit the button that released us from our seats and double checked the oxygen readings again.
“Good to go?” Leon asked. “Stay close to me, Lani. We don’t know what we’re walking into here.”
“I’ll be right behind you,” I assured him, and popped the lid. Leon slipped the safety off of his sidearm. As he stood up, he tossed me my survival backpack and put on his own.
We climbed out of the cockpit and descended the ladder on the side of the ship. Leon went first and I walked slightly behind his right shoulder. It felt great to stretch out.
The children approaching us were as human as any we’d seen on Earth. Most of them were dressed in simple, undyed tunics and trousers with an occasional leather belt or vest and sandals.
The crowd of thirty or so around us was primarily made of teenage boys who looked around twelve to sixteen years of age. One was taller than the others and appeared oldest. He alone wore a fur-trimmed robe that swept the ground and he carried an ornate silver scepter in one hand.
Leon took his helmet off and ran his fingers through his wavy brown hair. A ripple of curious commentary went through the small crowd. I thought I heard English words, but the accent was too strong for me to discern meaning. I took off my helmet as well and smiled at another surprised ripple of commentary.
The air was warm and heavy, but it was a relief to breathe naturally. As I exhaled that first breath, I noticed the oldest girl in the crowd looked about fifteen years old. She smiled timidly back at me and I felt my own smile freeze on my face. I blinked, looked harder, and realized that her hair was gray, and her skin was wrinkled.
I looked at the others and saw that most of them showed signs of extreme aging, even though they also appeared quite young. Involuntarily I took a step backward. Something was badly wrong here.
Leon glanced at me over his shoulder and his expression was a mixture of comical horror and real worry. Was this a disease or a result of circumstances?
The tallest boy, the one wearing the robe, stepped forward and tapped his three-pronged scepter on the ground to silence the excited whispers of the crowd. He appeared to be about seventeen and eighty years old at the same time.
“Velcum Estarangers du ze habeetahshion av Solanti.”
He greeted Leon first, by touching his hand to his forehead and then holding it out toward my brother, palm upward. But his eyes were on me. I felt a sense of intense dread, just like I had the morning of global destruction. That sense of dread was why we were still alive and everyone else was dead. I took a step backward.
“We need to leave,” I said to Leon’s back.
“Solanti?” The leader asked. “You speak Solanti?”
“English,” Leon answered. “We speak English. We’re from Earth.”
“We are from earth as well,” the boy answered, “and to earth we will return. How old are you?”
Not ‘hello’ or ‘what’s your name?’ I thought, just, ‘how old are you.’
“Old enough to know something is wrong here,” Leon said frankly. “What’s with the old-folk orphanage?”
“I do not know this word, orphanage,” the boy replied.
My ears were beginning to decode his accent and understand his use of English.
“I am Bartroles,” he said, “the Marchempor of Alomine. You are welcome here.”
I tugged at Leon’s jacket. He reached back and took my hand in his, quieting me. Bartroles watched us curiously, his dark eyes flickering back and forth.
“She bears for you?” He asked Leon. Leon opened his mouth to explain our relationship but I pre-empted him, driven by instinct.
“Yes. Thank you for your welcome, but we need to leave soon.”
“We can assist you in repairs.” Bartroles offered this with a wide sweep of one arm as though to showcase a league of mechanics. As far as I could see there was nothing on the landing pad but one small building in the distance. Leon hesitated and his caution calmed my own fears.
“We insist,” the Marchempor added in response to Leon’s silence. “Please, let us show you our hospice.”
“Hospitality.” Leon corrected absently. Then he turned toward me and whispered, “I can’t take off again without repairs. We’ve got to make the best of this.”
I nodded sickly, knowing Leon was right. The Sparrow Hawk was in no condition to take off again. But what were we dealing with here? Disease? Toxicity? Mentally I was going through my first aid pack, looking for something that might protect us.
The girl in the background came forward to smile at me in greeting. As the crowd parted for her, I saw that she was heavy with child. Her time would come soon.￼
“I am Chalice,” she said, standing beside Bartroles. “I will bring you to a place you can rest and take sustenance. It’s almost even, and after the bell we will eat.”
“Eleanor,” I offered at last, resigned to our circumstances. “But everyone calls me Lani.”
“Lani,” Bartroles echoed, again looking me up and down, as though I were a product he might want to buy.
“And I’m Leon,” my brother said, putting his arm around my shoulders protectively. The entire crowd was silent and Chalice glanced uneasily at Bartroles.
“Where are we?” I asked to ease the tension.
“My kingdom,” the young-old ruler replied with a lift of his chin. “You are in Solanti, the greatest city in all of Nedan. Tomorrow I will give you a grand tour of my magnificence. But now - the day wanes. Follow me.”
He turned with a flourish of his fur robe. Leon gave one hesitant glance at the Sparrow Hawk, and then we joined the procession. I knew it would not be right to send a signal back to the Space Alliance until we had a better understanding about the lives and health of these people. If the verdant planet Nedan was overrun with disease, there was no point in leading Earth’s survivors to their deaths.
As we walked with Bartroles and Chalice toward the edge of the landing pad, the rest of the crowd followed quietly, straining to hear our conversation.
“Where are your offspring?” Bartroles asked. “This is mine.” He glanced proudly at Chalice’s belly. She also smiled, holding her protruding stomach protectively as she walked. “I have eleven others,” Batroles continued.
“Eleven,” Leon echoed in surprise. “We - er - don’t have any children yet.”
“Not one?” Chalice looked sad for me. “Perhaps Bartroles could help you.”
“No, thank you.” I answered with too much haste. Bartroles frowned at me and lifted his chin in anger.
“I am seventeen. No Marchempor has had a longer lifespan in seven generations, nor fathered so many offspring.” He said this proudly and looked challengingly at Leon. “How old are you?”
“Nineteen,” Leon answered. A wave of surprise went through the crowd.
“And you?” Bartroles demanded, covering his own awe with haute.
“Nineteen,” I replied.
“Nineteen!” Bartroles echoed wonderingly.
“That is very, very old.” Chalice explained.
“How old do people live where you come from?” The boy next to Bartroles asked Leon.
“Around ninety or a hundred,” Leon answered and the crowd laughed in disbelief.
“A hundred years!” Bartroles scoffed. “You sound like Ryonel.”
“Ryonel?” I asked.
“He’s the keeper of the Starport. He is insane, but I allow him to dwell here.”
“Ryonel is my half-brother,” Chalice added sadly. “Our father was Marchempor in his time. Ryonel’s mother lost her mind after he was born. She moved up here away from everyone. After she died, Ryonel stayed on the Starport. The insanity sickness makes him live much longer than anyone else. He’s. . . over there, in that dwelling. . .”
Chalice pointed into the distance and I saw on the nearest edge of the platform, nearly a kilometer away, the tiny dwelling I had noticed earlier.
“Longevity is not a sickness or insanity,” Leon asserted. “Maybe Ryonel is onto something.”
“Maybe you have the sickness too,” Bartroles guessed with squinted eyes in our direction. “You’re not as old as Ryonel, but you don’t show any signs of age either.”
“You’d like to be infected, would you?” Leon teased.
Bartroles looked angry again, and Chalice gasped in shock at Leon’s words.
“The bell carries our prayers, and protects us from the dangers of the Dark Wood.” Bartroles reproved Leon. “Each of us does our duty to insure our race continues. This is why I have fathered eleven children and will father more before I die. I will be remembered as a great Marchempor of the people.”
Most of the children around us murmured their agreement and Chalice nodded with a devout expression.
I looked toward the dwelling in the distance and saw a figure walking toward our ship. I was glad to know the damaged craft could not take off without repairs. What if we had to stay here? Bartroles saw me looking back and followed my gaze.
“Ryonel will not worship the bell,” he said bitterly. “He is favored we no longer execute the irreligious. Stand here and hold onto me. The Vaer drops quickly.”
I turned away and held onto my brother instead. I saw him meet Bartroles’ glance and saw the warning in Leon’s blue eyes. Leon was the only person I knew who could manage to look both affable and dangerous at the same time. The Marchempor’s gaze faltered and he looked away. We were not on safe ground though. This was not our home. By protecting me, Leon might be putting himself into danger.
We stood on a platform within the landing pad. Our ship looked tiny on the enormous Starport. The whole Space Alliance Station could easily land on it. From where we stood, I could not see the furthest edge. The Vaer began to drop below the level of the airport. I looked up at my brother.
Leon met my glance somberly. “We’ll leave soon,” he whispered. I nodded and glanced past him to meet Bartroles’ gaze.
“When can we get parts to repair our spacecraft?” I asked the Marchempor.
“Soon,” he answered evasively. “But not tonight. Tonight we rest and feast.”