A week after my first awakening, a crane removed me from my nest and set my hibernacle on the bare floor of the immense hibernatory. I don’t know how I got out of it. How long did it take? Just imagine a 10,000-year-old man getting out of his ice back and you’ll have a fairly faithful image of what I did. I’ve never learned how many pioneers had gotten out before me. Like my own hibernacle, theirs was put away in its nest, empty. I was the only one teetering on two ridiculously weak legs – alone with Aphelia’s rigid voice talking to me by bone conduction.
“The threshold necessary for human colonization of the planet has been exceeded. The arkship’s vertical landing process is initiated. Sohan, I strongly recommend you strap yourself into one of the alcoves provided for this purpose.”
I saw shapes exiting airlocks and running toward the alcoves, just before the light wavers and the artificial gravity starts to go horribly haywire.
There’s a furious roar of propelled gas; the ship starts to vibrate to the depths of its cabin; hibernacles come unhooked and smash to the ground like marble tombs five meters from me. The gravity is suddenly colossal. My blood turns to lead, my vertebrae are compacted and crush my disks; I’m pinned to the ground and am clumsily trying to strap my hips when a second thrust, subtler, completely reverses the gravity and launches me out of the alcove, floating toward the top of the hangar, twenty meters up. Time stops for ten seconds or so; I hear voices calling to each other, “hang on,” “the handgrips,” “watch that impact,” “it’s going to punch right through.”
There’s still strictly no visibility, and we concentrate absolutely on the sensations of gravity – and on sound. The impact is hardly more violent than a bus slamming on the breaks to avoid a stroller. I remember Aphelia’s words:
“The Novark was designed in kyrium, a very high-resistance material, graviton-absorbent; that is, able to handle any type of brutal deceleration for the vessel and its passengers.”
No kidding. Three times, I bounce between the roof and the wall as an ultra-shrill metallic noise rips through space. The impression of a gigantic, kilometer-long nail being driven into a lintel of pure stone by an even more colossal hammer.
That’s more or less what it is, actually. The arkship was programmed to punch vertically through the planet’s surface and deeply embed itself, so as to become a giant tower that would overlook the landscape and act as a permanent landmark for us, the pioneers. By planting itself so deeply into the ground, the arkship can collect the geothermic energy that will power it. By reaching so high into the sky, it is destined to become the absolute beacon of our new civilization.
“If you wish to explore your new environment, I recommend you ascend to the top of the vessel to admire the view” whispered Aphelia, a good bit less neutral than her voice ought to be.
There’s something schizophrenic, even bipolar about this AI. Depending on whether she’s addressing you or the phantom crew, whether she’s handling the ship or coaching you, she adopts a different tone and a different vocabulary. It’s not just that she’s adapting, that she manipulates you to push you to your optimum mental and physical health – which I accept quite willingly – she seems to be pursuing a greater, more secret goal, which is not just a matter of a successful colonization or our survival. Something else is at work in her that I can’t seem to understand or articulate.
Ascending the ship is in itself a journey of initiation. The natural logic of a horizontal architecture constantly needs to be tipped on its side, vertically. The ordinary hallways present themselves to me as vertical shafts. The airlocks are trapdoors. Passing over them without paying attention sets off a sensor that opens the ground under your feet. It’s like a platform game. Treacherous, incoherent at times. By scaling ladders, climbing carefully, exploring the spaces; with the help of anti-gravity elevators, I at last come right up close to the final promontory that tokens the ship’s summit. The last vertical stretch is barely thirty meters, except that it has to be crossed hand-over-hand, by hauling yourself up on a cable. Flightsuit zipped up, helmet oxygenated, I climb meter by meter, at the extreme limit of my so very fragile present capacities. With the bizarre, unpleasant intuition that I’m being watched. That this unspoken test is like the final assessment, provoked by Aphelia to measure my aptitude to leave the ship and become the pioneer I’m supposed to be. So I hang on and I don’t look down.
At the end of my struggle, I push open a heavy mechanical airlock and hoist myself onto the terrace. A gust of wind nearly sweeps me away; I reel and find my footing. The terrace is the size of a basketball court. Flat and without a guardrail, the vertigo, at this height, which I evaluate as several hundreds of meters, is prodigious. The air swirls as though carrying a transparent soot. Facing me, the peaks of a mountain chain, orange and cream-colored, cast two shadows. At their feet, fluid blue forests and these sorts of bright lakes sparkle under the light of double suns, one of which has very nearly set.
Trembling, I advance on a footbridge with railings that extends well beyond the edge of the terrace and, if you turn around, makes visible the sides of the ship and the enormous crater the impact of landing caused.
So this is kyrium? Its substance seems to flow, a form of moving glass, supple and solid, which with the walls’ thickness, after the fashion of a body of water, takes on deep blue tones. I’d like to touch it. Maybe I’ll be able to when I’ll be on the ground?
Checking each of the footbridges extending star-like into the air all around the terrace, I can admire the ship’s staggering architecture, designed in flight to function horizontally and, when it lands on a planet, to change into a blend of control tower, defense tower, and scientific observatory, and semaphore, maybe? The upending of spaces, whose function changes according to whether they are lying flat or standing up, borders on genius. I am at the top of a technological totem pole.
That’s not what’s important, however, for me. What’s important is for the arkship, under the supervision of the AI, to have the technological means to protect our area of exploration within a radius of several kilometers around the ship, preventing raids and attacks, internal or external, so that we, the pioneers, can quickly establish a self-protected community. Beyond that, we shall enter the risky territory in which we’ll have to be able to build and set up our own defense system, collective or individual, secure our energy sources, and form bonds of alliance and diplomacy so as to be able to call for reinforcements if hell, too human or extraterrestrial, comes knocking at the door. Hard to predict the degree of paranoia that will develop among us. For my part, I want to take a gamble on the sunny face of mankind, bet on trust, acceptance, and consideration. During the simulation, Aphelia nonetheless explained to me how to duplicate the Novark’s force field defense shields on a small scale. Always good to know.
On the horizon, the first sun sets while lighting up lenticular clouds that could be funnel clouds. Summits covered in blue snow catch its last rays. It’s not exactly like on Earth; the geometry and the colors are inhuman; it’s nevertheless familiar and suitable enough. Certain planets, Aphelia told me, would be very unsettling for us. This one offers points of reference. I’m able to take off my helmet and breathe an over-oxygenated air that makes me a little drunk. The temperature is warm, the gravity a bit lighter than on Earth; that’ll make my movements easier – when I will have really recovered my muscles, hidden beneath my now well-hydrated skin.
… to be continued
Written by Alain Damasio
Translated by Alexander Dickow