The ship is cold. The heating has been running at the bare minimum for the past ten months, just enough to not cause any damage to it’s sleeping cargo, all nestled in their own compartments, neatly organised. The pods had reminded Sykkuno of capsule hotels, just enough space in each to roll over from one side to the other. The bedding is Skeld Standard, crisp grey cotton, the pillow dense and flat. He’s grateful his frame isn’t any bigger, or that he doesn’t suffer from claustrophobia. The pods are a one-size-fits-all.
He wasn’t the first to be woken up, the top of his pod hissing as it lifted, stirring him from his artificial hibernation. He hears a buzzing in his ears before he opens his eyes. Too fast, he lifts himself up and swings his legs over the side of the pod, one arm going straight to his stomach as it churned. Hearing a retch from across from him, he sees another crew member who must have made the same mistake that he did, a foil lined bag clutched in his hands.
They make eye contact, and Sykunno pretends to not notice the beige-coloured bits of vomit stuck in the top of his moustache as he smiles across to him, one arm extending out to offer him the half full spew bag. He waves his hand silently, refusing the offer, throat still too dry to speak and even if he could, he couldn’t remember the other man's name quite yet.
Other crew members had already started the coffee by the time he had stumbled out into the cafeteria. It takes a while to get used to being awake again, rubbing blood and warmth into his fingertips as Sykkuno sat down at the table. The coffee jug is passed around, steam rising up from the mugs. Biscuits, porridge, mashed potato, rice, different containers of food all landing somewhere on the spectrum between white and brown. Everyone else seemed lively enough, the chatter all overlapping into white noise. Slowly names started coming back to him as he watched and listened to them, wrapping his hands around the warm mug.
“Give me another ten months, then maybe.”
“Pass the milk over-”
“-you know, it wasn’t as bad as I thought, did you-”
“Oi, has anyone seen-”
“Shit, it’s cold. Nobody’s turned on the heating yet?” Sykkuno’s coffee splashes as he jumps, the hot liquid scalding his fingers. The brunet man from earlier suddenly appears at his side and takes the empty seat next to him. With a quick glance at his face, Sykkuno can see that he’s cleaned off his mustache. He’s wearing his uniform like the rest of them now, a small patch on the left side of his chest reading that he’s the Navigator.
Ludwig, his memory finally supplies his name. That would have been so embarrassing if he couldn’t remember, he couldn’t start their mission by being so rude. Sykkuno had planned for this, reading through the crew list and looking up everyone's profile, reading up on what they studied, what their role was going to be on the ship, laying in bed memorising everyone's names and matching them to their faces.
Ludwig is mid-sentence when Sykkuno zones back in, realising that he was having a one sided conversation with himself while he was too busy worrying over names.
“-gonna eat anything? I’m craving oranges, something other than this bland shit. Scurvy's a real thing, right? Isn't that why they put lemons on old ships? Hey, you’re the science officer, d’you know if we get to plant any crops while we’re down there? Please tell me we don’t have to eat this shit for the next five years.”
Sykkuno sips at his coffee, stalling before he answers. “Well...we can’t really introduce any foreign species to, to their environment, especially plants. Besides, the food’s not so bad...” he replied as he snapped a biscuit in half and dunked it into his coffee.
Ludwig seemed to deflate a little at his answer, sighing as he serves himself a medley of potato, rice, and dry cereal. It probably hadn’t been the answer he’d been waiting to hear but it was the truthful one.
He chews on his biscuit slowly, still getting over the nausea of waking up from hibernation. Maybe throwing up would have been a good idea after all, seeing the way that Ludwig was digging into his meal, his attention turned to another one of the crew as he chatted.
They had gone through the easy part. If something had happened to them while the ship was travelling and everyone was asleep, it would have been a quiet death. The idea of being completely helpless for months on end had been one that had kept him up at night in the days leading up to boarding the ship. He hadn’t heard anyone else talking about the same fears that he had, so maybe he was the only one. Of course, he shouldn’t doubt the other crew, they were all brilliant in their respected fields, all experienced, all prepared for the mission they’d been assigned. Why would they waste their time worrying over something as useless as a crash during hibernation? Nobody smart worried about things that they couldn't control, and everyone here was smart.
It was unlikely that it would happen anyways, he reassured himself. They weren’t travelling through any known hotspots for debris, and the systems were all the highest technology made available. It had to be. They were travelling for millions on millions of miles out into the depths of space, searching for somewhere safe, somewhere they could live. Their government wouldn’t risk sending them out here in anything but the best.
That’s what he told himself at least, to keep himself from spiralling down into what if’s. What if a stray piece of rock hit them at just the right spot to send them off course, and by the time they awoke they were across the other side of the universe without enough fuel to get back home. What if the heating failed entirely, and they were frozen, doomed to drift endlessly into darkness. What if the wake up system failed, and they stayed in their artificial hibernation for years, until their bodies withered away into nothingness? What if-
A firm hand drops onto his shoulder and for the second time, Sykkuno nearly spills his coffee.
"Hey, science guy. Captain wants you out the front before we start to descend," a brunette with two long braids running over both her shoulders lets him know. He nods quickly, leaving his half finished coffee behind on the table as he leaves the cafeteria.
The woman, Rachel, he's fairly certain, doesn't wait up for him to follow, walking with a confidence that he would be right there behind her. He catches up, following in rhythm half a step back. The sound of their footsteps isn’t as loud as he expected it should be against the titanium alloy, making the silence between them more noticeable.
“So, how’d you get roped into this?” she asks, looking back over her shoulder. Sykkuno figures she’s just trying to be polite. He should have said something first, properly introduced himself.
“I, ah, was recommended by a colleague. Friend,” he quickly corrected, unsure which sounded better. “Lily and I worked together on a terraforming project in the Daintree.”
“You were the one who led that? Bet you’re freezing up here now, after getting used to that desert, right? Well, I guess it’s not all desert anymore.”
Sykkuno shrugged his shoulders. “I didn’t mind it. You do get used to the heat after a while.” Once the project really started working and the rainforest rehabilitation phases began, he’d been wishing for the hot, dry heat of the scorched desert again. At least that was more bearable than the stick humidity that clung to his skin.
Rachel just hummed, and they were back to silence as they crossed through the ship. He’s not sure why the Captain would request to see him before landing, surely someone like the navigator, or maybe even one of the engineers would be more helpful for them. He was only here to study, he didn’t know anything on how to fly a ship, not compared to these people.
He wasn’t left wondering for long, the Captain raising a hand to wave him over as the door slid open. Rachel let him go in ahead, hanging around to the back of the room.
“You look like shit,” he greets, a smile contrasting his words. Sykkuno stumbles mentally, unsure what to say in response. He couldn’t talk to his captain in the same way, he needed to be professional. Maybe he should have stopped by the med bay and tidied himself up instead of getting dressed and rushing straight to the cafeteria like everyone else. He ducks his head in a shallow nod, not meeting his eyes.
“Yeah. I’m about ten months overdue for a shower,” he replies quietly, which earned him a laugh.
“I feel like I’ve got the worst fucking hangover, and the coffee doesn’t do much to help,” he complained, shaking his head before offering out his hand to shake. “This mission was kinda rushed so I didn’t get time to meet everyone before we were tucked into bed. Jeremy,” he introduced.
Sykkuno took his hand as he introduced himself back, the others grasp firm and sure while he felt about as limp as a dead fish. God, bad first impression. He couldn’t even shake his captains hand right. If it bothered Jeremy, he didn’t make any comment on it, motioning the other to follow him over to one of the monitors.
Sykkuno scanned over the screen, seeing atmosphere readings. He assumed that they were for the planet below them, visible on another projection across the room. Leaning closer, he frowns as he concentrates.
What he’s looking at makes sense, it’s almost worryingly perfect, matching up exactly with all the reports he had studied on the planet. Nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide… Some of the smaller percentages are a bit off, but nothing that would make him worry. The air is cleaner than it had ever been back home.
“Is it safe?” the captain asked, shaking him from his thoughts. Sykkuno paused, double checking.
“Yes. Yeah, textbook. A little dense, but nothing the air filters will struggle with,” he replied.
“Too good to be true, you mean?” Rachel spoke up, and Jeremy huffed a half-smile.
“That’s what I wanted to hear. I’ll send the data to the engineers, they can fiddle with the suits air filters if they decide they need it. You’ve got three hours before we separate and touch down.”
Sykkuno nods, figuring that he’s being dismissed now that his job is done, thanking them both before leaving. Three hours gave him enough time to clean himself up, scrubbing his scalp under the cold run of the shower, the lingering comment from the captain in the back of his mind.
He’s first to make it to the transport vehicle, strapped in and ready as everyone he saw earlier from the cafeteria starts filtering in. He adjusts his seat straps again, suddenly feeling too tight over his chest as their descent starts, pulling away from the main ship. Taking off and landing were statistically the most dangerous parts of the journey, with most accidents occuring while entering a planet's atmosphere. Too many variables, wildlife, a GPS error, weather, anything could equal disaster.
“We’re in orbit, people. Get ready for a pressure change,” Jeremy announces. Sykkuno wishes he had some gum to chew on for his ears.
Ludwig sat up the front, flicking open the shutters and revealing the planet below them as they began breaking the atmosphere. Sykkuno gets a glimpse of grey clouds, a dark blue-grey of an ocean, before he’s closing his eyes and quietly counting down in his head.
“Turbulence,” Ludwig warns a second before the entire ship rocks to the side. His neighbour sitting beside him swears under her breath. Sykkuno keeps his eyes tightly closed. Overhead shakes as they rock through the clouds.
“We’re dropping too fast, Lud…” the captain warns, earning a grunt from the other as he reaches over and flicks some switches up.
“Fuckin’- clouds are screwing with us,” he replies.Sykkuno holds onto his seat with a white-knuckled grip. This is his fault, he should have checked the air density, not just the makeup, he could have seen the storm coming, could have prepared better-
“We’re twenty away. Fifteen. Twelve. Ten, Lud-” Rachel flicks off an alarm on the dashboard in front of her.
“I’m locking it in,” he snaps back, the compressor groaning under the pressure. The turbulence breaks as quickly as it had begun, air brakes hissing outside the ship as they lowered down.
“Eight. Six. Five, we’re slowing. Easy…”
The engines change direction and the ship stops completely, hovering in place before lowering itself down meter by meter. Sykkuno opens his eyes and sees the rocky surface extending out from underneath them. The landing gear opens, cushioning the final jostle as the ship lands safely. Ludwig twists in his seat to look back at everyone with a grin, Rachel shoving his shoulder as she unbuckles herself from her seat. Sykkuno drops his head back and exhales in relief.
Everyone is silent as the doors decompress, sliding open with a hiss of vapour. Sykkuno is at the back of the pack, but the shine of the sunlight still pierces through over the top of everyone's heads, and he squints through his helmet. He doesn’t think he has ever seen so much green in real life. Photos, maybe, in old textbooks and studies from before the Earth dried out, all it’s rainforests depleted and scorched into nothing but endless waves of sand.
He steps out, disbelieving. He can actually look out and see the horizon, where the land meets the sky, without a haze of grey pollution clouding it over, or the shimmer of heat. He squints, the sunlight glinting off something that doesn’t match the natural jagged edges of the cliff sides surrounding them. The other crew see it too, and Sykkuno fishes his binoculars out from his cargo bag.
His mouth is dry. He doesn’t understand what he’s seeing, it doesn’t make any sense. Passing the binoculars over to Jeremy, he lets him look through and confirm that he’s just crazy and seeing things, a trick of the light against rock. The silence lasts a beat too long for him to keep feeling so hopeful.
“It’s a ship,” he confirms.
Sykkuno feels weak in the knees as the bikes are geared up. There shouldn’t be any one here. They were the first mission to be sent out to this planet, the first to even be in this direction of the galaxy. Ludwig swears their coordinates are right, that they haven’t fucked it up somehow and landed on the wrong rock. Sykkuno wishes they did.
He takes a breath. What kind of scientist is afraid of the unknown? He tells himself that as they ride over. The closer they get, the more defined the ship becomes. There is a logo printed in purple on the back, but he can’t make it out, faded by the sun. It’s been here for a while. Not long enough for nature to reclaim it, but enough for rust lines to fall down the sides. He doubted it could fly.
Sykkuno dismounts his bike last, a weapon strapped to his back that he doesn’t reach for. Jeremy, Rachel, an engineer named Leslie, all flank his sides as they approach the front. Ludwig chimes into their ear through the comms that there’s no signals coming from the ship.
They don’t need to get to the entrance before there’s sound coming from the cargo bay, footsteps against metal. It sounds human. That doesn’t make him feel any better yet. Leslie raises her weapon and holds.
“Wait,” he breathes, frozen in place. The footsteps continue. From the darkness inside of the ship, a figure approaches, dressed in a black suit that looks too familiar to his own. Leslie lowers her weapon in shock. The figure’s helmet is cracked all up the left side, splitting and branching out over where Sykkuno assumes his eye to be if he were human. He can’t see through the tint at the face behind it.
Sykkuno doesn’t breathe. The black stranger raise their free hand up slowly in a wave, and speaks.