The sun was a little higher now, and its light, though blinding a short time before, now filtered through the green, leafy canopy above them. It was softened further by the dissipating early morning mist which surrounded them and filled the valley in which they had landed. Cool air crept into the cabin and hugged their ankles as the warmer air of their ship escaped through the open door. The chirps and whistles of birds, angry at the disturbance of the ship landing, began to once again fill the air.
Malachi and gave Ellie a gentle push toward the door. ‘Well, are you going outside?’
‘Is it safe?’
Tila smiled at her caution. ‘It’s safe.’
Ellie stopped at the threshold and held out one hand. Dappled sunlight danced over her fingers, and she felt a warmth she had never experienced before. She could almost feel the light seeping into her fingers. It was a strange thing to feel the cool air around them yet be warmed by shaft of light. There was a rich quality to the light, and the warmth had a depth and realness to it that was utterly new. In space, the sun was cold and hard. If you wanted to be warm you turned on a heater, and hoped it worked. But here sunlight was gentle, soft and welcoming. It was like touching heaven.
Ellie walked timidly down the short ramp and took her first step on a planet. Beneath her feet, grass and firm packed earth cushioned her step. Earth, not metal tiles.
The sunlight beamed around her and over her skin. She lifted her eyes to find its source.
All her life there had been something above her. If she looked up on the Juggernaut, there would be some metal barrier she could not see beyond. Here, there was no limit to what she could see. There were leaves, and branches, and then nothing else but the open sky.
Still inside the ship Malachi elbowed Tila and pointed at Ellie as she absorbed the scene.
‘What do you think?’ Tila said to Ellie.
‘Do you want to say something profound?’ said Malachi, grinning.
Ellie struggled for the right words.
‘I don’t know. There’s so much… up,’ she said.
Malachi looked at Tila, who looked up at the same sky and shrugged.
‘She’s right, though,’ said Tila.
Malachi cleared the ramp in two quick, heavy footsteps which shook Ellie from her rapture, breaking the spell.
‘Honestly, you are the least romantic people I know. Come on, El, there’s plenty more to see on the way.’
He hefted a pack to his shoulder, ignoring Tila’s offer to carry it instead of her own, smaller backpack. Tila strode down the ramp and onto the damp grass and tapped Ellie, who was still mesmerised by the abundance of green all around, on the shoulder. Malachi was last to leave. The ramp folded up behind them and the door closed.
‘You ready?’ Malachi asked Tila. She adjusted her pack on her shoulders and nodded.
They started walking. Malachi flipped open a computer and entered their destination. Local map data danced around the display.
‘Okay, so we go south about four more kilometres and then we can join one of the main roads heading into the city. That will take us another two K. It looks like the financial district is in the north of town.’
‘Four kilometres before we even reach the road?’ said Ellie. ‘That’s forever.’
‘It’s only two and a half miles.’
Ellie looked up at him through narrowed eyes. ‘What’s a mile? Is that better? Is it the same? It’s the same, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, it’s the same, but it sounds less.’
‘So, let’s go,’ urged Tila. ‘We don’t have all day.’
‘Actually we do,’ Malachi whispered to Ellie as they followed. ‘People in the city are probably only just waking up now.
Tila set the pace, driving them forward as fast as she could make them. If it was up to her she would have them run all the way. They could be there in less than an hour. She suggested this to Malachi after the first half hour of walking but he rejected the idea.
‘Tila, I can’t run six kilometres! Neither can Ellie. Anyway, what’s the point in rushing? We’ll still be there early, before everyone starts work, and we’re not in so great a rush that we can’t enjoy some time under an open sky, are we?’
Both girls grumbled at this. Ellie because she felt slighted at the claim that she could not run all the way, and Tila because she knew Malachi was right. She was just being impatient.
Another half-hour later they were walking through a wild meadow. Their immediate destination, the road heading south into the city, was half a mile ahead, but Ellie wanted a break.
‘We’re nearly there,’ Tila said.
‘But we’ve been walking for ages,’ said Ellie. ‘I want a rest.’
‘A few minutes won’t hurt,’ Malachi said to Tila. ‘It’s still early.’
Outvoted, Tila sat, crossed her legs and tore up the grass in violent protest. Malachi lay back, closed his eyes to enjoy the morning sun, and ignored the damp seeping into his clothes from the ground. Ellie picked a handful of wild flowers and examined them as if they were jewels under an eyeglass.
Tila watched as her friend absorbed the hundred new sensations around them. For her and Malachi they were old friends, both having spent some of their younger years planetside with their respective families. But for Ellie it was all so new.
Tila tried to see the world through Ellie’s eyes. The contrast with the Juggernaut could not be more striking. Here they had bright sunlight instead of low-UV light panels. Here they had fresh air, scented with morning dew and flowers and damp grass. At home, they had filtered air, scented and dried by the process which had led it through a dozen CO2 scrubbers, and who knew how many people, before they breathed it.
On the Juggernaut, they could see only as far as the next bulkhead. Here, it felt like they could see forever.
She smiled to herself as Ellie sorted through her treasure. Ellie had pulled a petal from each one and was stroking them against the underside of her chin to feel how soft they were. Tila remembered doing the same thing as a child. Ellie noticed Tila watching her.
‘Don’t they smell amazing?’ said Ellie.
In truth, Tila had never had much time for flowers, but she didn’t want to take anything away from the moment Ellie was enjoying.
Instead Tila nodded and said, ‘I’m surprised you haven’t eaten one yet.’
‘You can eat them?’ said Ellie in surprise.
‘Oh! No, I just meant-‘ Tila began, but it was too late and Ellie bit off the flower’s head. For a short, happy moment the scent of it filled her nostrils. Then the taste introduced itself to her tongue.
Without passing through any intermediate stage, her expression changed from one of rapture to one of disgust at nature’s harsh betrayal.
Ellie spat out the half-chewed remains and licked her sleeve to rid her tongue of the taste. ‘Oh, that is disgusting!’ She retched.
Malachi, who had been listening behind closed eyes, began laughing so hard he couldn’t sit up. Tila took his bag and fished out a water bottle for her unfortunate friend.
‘But it looked so beautiful, and it smelled so wonderful,’ Ellie complained to nature in general.
‘Sorry, Ellie. I guess not everything that looks so sweet is harmless,’ said Tila.
‘Now you tell me!’ She threw the water bottle at Malachi. ‘Stop laughing!’
Malachi regained his composure long enough to wipe a tear from his cheek, and then made eye contact with Tila, who looked at the flowers, and then back at Malachi. He grinned and set the two of them to laughing again.
Ellie scrambled to her feet, indignant, disappointed and angry with the world for not being the way she thought it ought to be.
‘Come on. I thought you had somewhere to be,’ she said, and marched past them heading for the city.