Naomi beamed as the countdown began. A quick glance at her peers served as a reminder that she was the only one excited to go. Couples held hands, best friends made jokes that weren't funny, and several prayed for their lives. Once the robotic voice reached five, a blast shook the ship. The soldiers sent to protect them were spiraling through space and they were next.
Then Naomi saw her. A tiny girl, no more than two years old, sitting next to her two older siblings. The straps attached to the seat did nothing to restrain her. One jolt tossed the little girl into the air as their ship sailed through space. Excited laughter filled their ears, but they all knew what would happen if the landing got rough.
"Lucy!" shouted a boy who shared the same caramel skintone. He reached desperately for her, but she was just out of arm's length. A wave of hands rose to seize Lucy, but none were successful. She tumbled through the air, giggling all the way. The boy began unbuckling, but Naomi appeared in his line of sight drifting toward his youngest sister. Gentle arms engulfed the toddler and a sea of onyx locks fanned around Lucy as Naomi's boots met the wall. In an instant, they had landed back in the safety of a seat. Only a firm embrace kept the youngster against Naomi's chest. There was no time for any resistance.
A crash tore through the ship, but their descent continued. Terror spread through the teens like a virus. The temperature began to rise. Sparks flew and screams erupted. Lucy wailed uncontrollably. Over all other noise a feminine voice prayed in Latin for their safety. Lucy's older sister was hyperventilating with her eyes clamped shut and her hand crushing her brother's. Machine parts shattered under pressure and sent metal shards in every direction. With a deafening boom, the impact threatened to rip their restraints apart. It took every ounce of Naomi's strength to cling to Lucy.
Silence occupied the ship as realization set in that they made it. They were alive. Naomi held the small girl in a hug until her vision was drawn to vivid crimson splatters on her arms and across her chest. The raven-haired young lady fearfully lifted Lucy up to survey her wounds. Yet the little one babbled instead of cried. Naomi breathed a sigh of relief before her eyes found a boy only a foot or two in front of her with a metal pole from the other side of the ship impaling his abdomen. His blood coated the floor and everyone around him. Naomi recalled the many times she settled beside him in biology to watch his hands recreate the animals they studied into his sketchbook without a word. Her hand was closing his eyes that would never see the real thing before she remembered anything else.
"Can I have my little sister back?" rumbled a baritone voice. Naomi scanned a pair of muscular outstretched arms on the way to meet a pair of stern coffee-colored orbs with her own serious countenance. "You only get one family, Jupiter. Hang onto her better next time," warned the solemn girl. Although, Naomi knew he might have been the only one who could preach those same words. Aboard the Aurora, he skipped mandatory classes to spend time with his family and arrived with more knowledge on the subject than anyone had gotten from studying. His words were often short and sharp, leaving most of his background to the imagination of the girls. Naomi had once participated in the speculation, but she handed off the child and gathered her backpack from beneath her seat. Then she fished the dead boy's sketchbook out of his belongings and she was on her way to the growing crowd at the door.
"Thank you." Naomi could hear the struggle in Jupiter's voice, but she was preoccupied with escaping the metal box that brought some to their deaths. Her slim body was perfect for weaving through people with bowed heads. A familiar feminine voice led them in prayer that few could understand. With a sigh, Naomi found herself at the front of the gathering watching a girl sporting manicured short curls and one of few remaining necklaces holding a metal cross around her neck. A lever on the wall behind Hope's waving arms caught Naomi's attention. Before anyone could stop her, the raven-haired girl had her palm resting on the last barrier that would either bring death or freedom. A neat hand fell upon her own.
"At least let me finish the prayer," pleaded Hope with both her voice and her tender emerald eyes. Naomi's piercing arctic stare held Hope's as she yanked the lever down.
"Ad terra per aspera," Hope murmured.
"We're on Earth now. Don't waste anymore of my time," Naomi reminded her venomously while the door began to swing open. After reclaiming her hand as if she'd been electrocuted, the fierce girl turned to the outside world.
The crowd's eyes adjusted to the light of a sunny day for the first time. For a moment, all they could see were bright splotches of color. Blue above, brown below, and green filling in the middle. Their vision began to make sense again as tall tawny grasses waved in greeting beneath the guidance of the wind. It was like a giant had switched on a fan of his size to cool off. Yet, for the first time, there was no engine whining in the background, no radio static, no people chattering all at once. A faint sound in the distance mimicked a young woman singing in an unknown language. Among the trees, another joined in and another until a chorus was serenading the children's virgin ears. Every shade of jade in existence was reflected in the trees who watched the newcomers like protective parents from afar. The sons and daughters of agriculturists on the Aurora had never laid eyes upon so many plants, much less trees. They reached toward the horizon in every direction. Suddenly what would have been a sizable crowd on the Aurora felt like a speck in an endless world. After a deep breath of fresh air, Naomi was the first to step foot on the ground. She took a step away from the pod, then another and another, spinning to take in everything there was to see before flopping on her back into the grass, laughing and almost in tears. "We made it! We're home!" As if everyone had been holding their breath, the crowd flooded out of the shuttle and into their new environment.
Shouts and giggles and screams and laughter mixed with the bird calls on the wind. It was a happy chaos. Teens scattered all around the pod. Jupiter emerged carrying Lucy after the wildest of them were out of the way. A set of fingers was intertwined with his other hand, but released their grip as he passed through the door. The boy turned his deep chocolatey orbs back into the shuttle, but Lucy declared she already had her mind made up with a squeal of delight. With his youngest sister in his arms, Jupiter's boots met the grass. His gaze left the toddler only for a moment to survey the surroundings for danger and quickly returned to her wandering eyes. She began to squirm, clearly wanting down. Jupiter only held her tighter. Naomi sat up where she had been staring at the clouds and watched the siblings.
"If the land is still toxic enough to do damage, the five and a half feet between her and the ground won't make much difference." Jupiter's gaze hardened as he acknowledged Naomi's comment with a stare made of stone. She held it without a flinch or a grin until the passing clouds reclaimed her interest and a figure in the pod took his.
Scarlett played with her sweaty fingers as she waited cross-legged on the floor of the shuttle. Soft static filled her heart and the air in front of the radio. Her delicate fingers reached for a headset packed into what little gear they had been given, hesitating for a moment before pulling it over her ears.
"C-can anybody hear me? We landed on Earth… we're alive. Is anyone listening out there?"
The static returned for a while, but Scarlett didn't move. Jupiter took a seat on the floor at her side and put an arm around her shoulders. Choppy sounds interrupted the quiet briefly, then stopped. The older boy turned several dials in an attempt to help, but he didn't know what he was doing with radios any more than Scarlett did. Static was the only noise aside from Lucy's occasional gurgles and giggles.
"Alexander can you give me a hand?" Scarlett questioned shyly. An Asian boy with dirty blond hair appeared at their side like a rabbit from a hat. Kneeling next to the younger girl, he flicked several dials and gave her a short nod.
"Aurora can you hear me? We've landed on Earth," Scarlett repeated through the static.
"Loud and clear, Scar. Is everyone okay?" replied a familiar masculine voice from the other end of the radio. Scarlett winced at the thought of him before answering," We lost a couple in the landing, but most of us are fine."
"What about the soldiers? Have you met up with them?" inquired the man with a hint of urgency in his voice. "We haven't had any contact with the other ship since we landed," Alexander reported as Scarlett looked to him for answers.
"You need to send several people to go find them, they should be less than a mile south. We don't know if there are any wild animals left on Earth; you're in bear territory if any survived. The soldiers are your only protection for whatever is out there," the man warned.
"Roger that," Alexander responded. Jupiter rose to his feet and offered his unoccupied hand up to Scarlett. Instead Alexander took it to pull himself up, smiling in thanks. The young woman showed no intention of leaving the radio. With a slight sigh, Jupiter plopped Lucy in Scarlett's lap," You know it's dangerous here without them."
"The whole world is a danger to us now," Scarlett retorted, meeting his gaze as she wrapped her arms around their youngest sibling," I'll be fine. Be careful out there." Jupiter nodded and knelt to hug his family again. "Ad terra per aspera," the boy uttered before departing. Scarlett repeated it quietly to herself.
A crowd had already gathered around Alexander. Jupiter joined him at the center of the curious onlookers who were only half listening.
"We need a group to travel South and bring the soldiers back here. In the meantime, the rest of you should get the supplies out of the dropship and set up camp. Any volunteers to go on a little adventure in the woods?" Alexander inquired. Several hands began to rise until Hope stepped forward.
"We should be grateful we made it to the ground. Who knows what's out there? It's dangerous to leave; the soldiers will be fine on their own. I say we should let them come to us," Hope announced.
"What if something out there gets here first?" Jupiter questioned, nodding his head to the forest," We have no way to defend ourselves."
"All the more reason we should stay here and pray instead of finding danger first," Hope countered as she spoke to the apprehensive crowd than Jupiter.
"If that's how you feel, you're welcome to stay and set up camp, but we need to know if there are any volunteers who want to go," Jupiter retorted. A hand shot up from the back of the crowd as a girl with onyx hair made her way to the front. "I'll go," Naomi offered. Hope opened her mouth to speak, but had no time to make her words heard. "Perfect. Get your things. We leave in five minutes," Jupiter interjected as he turned to retrieve his bag from the ship.
Within the next few minutes, Naomi, Alexander, and Jupiter began their walk through unknown territory, leaving behind a group praying for their safe return around Hope. The trees welcomed them with long shadows and songs of the birds. Flowers that had yet to open their blooms distracted them every so often from the path they were carving to the South. Each new development in the scenery left the trio in awe: a small stream bubbling through the brush, a toad croaking, beautiful new flowers that had no use on the Aurora grew here or there with all the purpose in the world.
The sun began to reach the treeline just as the three reached a cliff overlooking a valley. There were no streams or boulders for miles around and the ground was more than flat enough for a bumpy landing. It was the perfect place to crash.
"What if they were supposed to be here?" Alexander questioned apprehensively, looking toward a billow of smoke rising to the heavens in the distance.
"Not everything could go as planned," Naomi replied, taking the lead down the cliff," It's a miracle that nearly all of us survived that landing. Especially Lucy, she's so little..."
"Scar has made it through worse than the crash, I knew Lucy would too," Jupiter replied dismissively, eyes keeping track of the smoke as if it would disappear at any moment.
"Well it's good to know we'll have a strong medical student among us even though she's not a first born and she's not really at the age where she needs to be faced with blood and guts and saving lives," Naomi answered sarcastically.
"She won't have that burden to bare alone. I brought her down here to look out for her and that's what I plan on doing," Jupiter countered.
"Nothing like bringing your younger sibling from one dangerous Hell to a completely new and unknown dangerous Hell. But I think it's safe to say the radiation levels are tolerable or we'd be symptomatic by now. I overheard one of the medics saying we'd probably be dead in the first few hours, so here's to making it past that checkpoint," Alexander jested, raising a glass made of air and imagination.
Naomi clinked her own glass to his before beginning the climb uphill to the opposite side of the valley. Even the most talented athletes among the Aurora hadn't participated in as much exercise as the three were experiencing going up a steep hill. Sweat dripped freely in streams along their faces and down their backs. Stains developed in parts of their clothes while a cotton feeling assaulted their mouths. At the top of the hill, they leaned against trees in a circle to take a break and dip into their water from the Aurora. It wouldn't be long and they would have to snack on their nearly tasteless supplements that had served as their only source of food since birth. But they had a task ahead of them and very little food for the journey, which was going to be apparently much longer than they initially thought.
The sun began to set as they walked for a longer distance than they thought their legs could carry them. Pain was already prevalent in their calf muscles and none of them wanted to think about the soreness that would creep into their limbs the next morning. Then there was an animalistic howl carried to them by the wind. Another responded, closer than the last. And another and another. Fear hung like a heavy scent among the trio. Each glance was a darting check for glowing eyes and each shuffle among the underbrush was a reason to flinch. Knowing how far they were from the camp, there was no other option but to continue toward the soldiers and hope that the creatures wouldn't find them first. The last rays of light provided little visibility in the forest. Suddenly, there was a thudding sound off in the distance coming in their direction. Thud thud. Thud thud. Thud thud. It was getting closer. Naomi froze and the boys bumped into her.
"Someone is coming," Naomi whispered, afraid that she would be heard.
Then the howls came again, closer this time and all in a group. The footsteps got louder and a figure emerged from the shadows, running straight toward them. Four colossal creature silhouettes were following it at full speed. Deciding there was no time for questions, the three ran back in the direction they came as fast as their weak legs could carry them. The figure was among them within a few minutes and strands of long white hair fell from a hood covering the person's head. It seemed like they had been going for hours when Alexander's legs began to fail him. Caught on a tree root, his foot yanked him to the ground and the others stumbled over him in passing, except the hooded figure.
Now the three were faced with a set of monstrous teeth lunging at Alexander's throat. He covered his jugulars with his arms just as the fangs would have sunk into them. At that vital moment, the end of a walking stick connected with the creature's head with such force that a whimper escaped its lips as it crashed to the ground. The hooded figure stepped between the trio and the snarling creatures. Another lunge was clearly patterned in their footing before a whistle forced them to stand down.
"Tell us where they went Bellona and we'll take you alive," threatened two different deep voices intertwined as one. The hooded figure snickered confidently and raised her walking stick," Tu ne sais rien." Silhouettes of people with weapons began to appear among the shadows of the trees. She didn't waver at the sight of them. One of the many sprung forward with a yell, but it quickly became a series of grunts as she countered his attack with several of her own, leaving him unconscious and bloody on the ground. Two more attacked in sync, but they were still no match for the girl with the stick. The fourth got a knick in her arm with his blade before his neck was broken and the fifth got a slice of her thigh. Finally, the one who had spoken stepped forward, blocking her attack first instead of taking a swing with a sword that shined in the dying light.
A pair of solid wax colored eyes searched her face for her next move and dodged a jab of her stick toward his abdomen well before it would have hit. The butt of the sword smacked her spine with a crunch at the first opening and a slash to her stomach quickly followed. She fell to the ground holding her stomach. Her assailant got too close and too curious. One sturdy swing at his head in the fading daylight was all it took to put her in the position to continue jabbing his his temple with her walking stick again and again until there was more blood seeping from his facial orifices than not.
There was silence for a long minute when the trio wasn't sure if they were supposed to run or express their gratitude. Their savior heaved a sigh as she rose with one hand keeping her intestines inside her body and the other holding her steady on the walking stick. The silhouettes of the creatures lurked in the background until a heavy growl from the woman warned them to stalk back into the shadows. With that, she limped over to the tree aside the three teenagers. As she came closer, they could see that she was young although her eyes were a fair shade of white with no irises that stared off into the distance. A frail hand reached away from her stomach as crimson spilled onto her dark clothing and rested on the tree at Naomi's side. The great, healthy tree began to tilt and wither beneath her grasp and as it crashed to the ground off behind them, she too fell face-first across their lap, unconscious.