We are about to splash down. We are lying in our bunks in the landing craft. I keep tightening and un-tightening the straps on my safety harness, because I can’t think of anything else to do. If we make it through the landing, if we manage to eke out any sort of living on Achird-gamma, I know that this moment is my greatest trial. The waiting, the hope, the uncertainty are killing me.
When we start our descent, we have about a fifty per cent estimated chance of survival.
I know where we are. A while before we were loaded into the landing craft, I downloaded the access codes for all the satellites in the network. We have started our descent. Soon we will find out whether Kelvin has killed us all. He is a few bunks away from mine. He is lying down, but he keeps thrashing around and trying to turn over, even though he is supposed to be strapped in. I wish he would settle down.
All my simulacra are in boxes in the cargo bay.
Oh, no – here is some-one with a mask on and a needle. She is opening the cage. What are you doing to me? What is it? Don’t pinch like that. Stop it. Ouch! Ow. That really hurt. Oh, I do feel sleepy.
I have thought of a name for the new planet. When we reach there, I will name it White Earth. I must think of names for my capital city and my main residence.
The moment when we opened the hatch is possibly the most memorable in my life. By ship time, it was 14:32 in the afternoon of 6 October. I did not know then what the astronomical time and date was on Achird-gamma.
A member of the ship’s crew called us out of our bunks. We undid our harnesses and scrambled down the passage to the main hatch. We ran, like schoolchildren who believe that the teacher is not looking. I glanced around for Pamela, but I could not see her.
Some-one unlocked the hatch. It was round. It was above us. It opened outwards.
It was the first time for four years that any of us had seen sunlight. It was the first time any of us had seen sunlight that was not from the Sun – the Old Sun. Now we had the New Sun.
I was standing at the front of the crowd, just behind the man who had opened the hatch. I pushed him out of the way, climbed a few steps up the ladder, and stuck my head out.
I inhaled deeply, and held my breath. Nothing happened. I inhaled deeply again. Nothing happened. The air was breathable.
From my trouser pocket, I took an instrument that I had carried from Earth. I switched it on, and held it aloft for a few seconds. I looked at the screen. The display showed a decimal point and ten zeroes. This was a reading of the ultraviolet light intensity, and the zero reading showed that Achird-gamma had an effective ozone layer. I climbed further up the ladder and climbed onto the deck. I looked around for the first time on the new world. We were surrounded by sea. There was a stiff breeze. I shivered.
People were clambering up the ladder to join me. We looked at each other in silence. The relief of our survival exhausted us. The ship sailed on. We looked up at the bridge, from which two members of the crew grinned at us, which seemed irreverent and unfitted to the moment. One of them, in a moment of appalling vulgarity, sounded the ship’s hooter. We did not cheer; we did not dance; we did not rejoice. We just breathed in and out, and shivered with relief.
I stayed on deck until I was chilled to the bone. I went back inside the ship, and went up to the bridge (for which I needed permission which I had obtained in advance). I watched the sea for four hours, until we sighted land.
We moved along the coastline until an observer with binoculars spotted a bay. We sailed into it. By the time we were within easy rowing distance of the shore, the depth under the keel was still 4 metres. We dropped anchor. We opened the loading bay and raised the boats out. We got into the boats and rowed ashore.
The boats beached, we spilled out of them in desperation and the iciness of the water made us gasp. We staggered up the shingly beach and most of us fell over. Soon we were flopping around at the water’s edge like fish on the deck of a trawler. The water was salty. The sun came out from behind a mass of grey clouds. The wind blew stronger, and sent undulations through the vegetation at the top of the beach.
The vegetation was alien. None of us had ever seen anything like it. We walked towards it, and passed a number of objects scattered on the shingle. They were made of a woody material and weighed about two or three pounds each. Each one was about two feet long, pointed and sharp at both ends, and bulbous in the middle. They looked like they might be the seeds of some huge, alien plant.
Pamela and I had travelled to the shore in the same boat, and we now kept close to each other as we attempted to negotiate a way into and through the undergrowth. Chlorophyll seemed not to be the only pigment on this world: the leaves of the plants were purple and orange and dark red as well as green. Suddenly, there was a noise. It was a loud thud, followed by a hissing sound overhead. Something flew over. I heard a strangled cry from behind me. Pamela and I turned round and struggled back the way we had come.
Something had fired some more of the long, spiked seeds. As it had come down, one of them had penetrated the sternum of a fellow passenger, an Italian soil scientist called Lorenzo Treccani. The tip of the seed (if that is what it was) had entered his heart and killed him.
We called everybody back and held a discussion about how to explore. We took Doctor Treccani’s body back to the ship. The mission had suffered its first casualty.