Fallen angels were cast down to Earth and became demons. When Babel casts us out, it’s in fire and blood and steel. As the descent begins, I hold on to one truth: I am more than what they would make of me.
It takes thirty seconds for the silence of space to give way as I break through Eden’s atmosphere. It sounds like giant fists hammering the sides of the pod. Metal screams, and I start shouting every cuss word I know. The porthole windows dazzle: bright purple slashes and golden hooks against black backdrops. The patterns start to turn my stomach, so I close my eyes.
A snarl and a snap, then I get a nice gut shot as the drags deploy. Flame-resistant chutes explode overhead. My velocity cuts to nothing, but my heart rate’s still spiking when the entire console flashes red. I lean forward and catch a glimpse of dark nothing before the pod drives, hammer-struck, into Eden’s surface.
“Landing sequence complete.”
I groan at the android voice. Grid lights flash from the console. They trace the contours of my body before winking out. My holographic avatar appears in the air. Burns on my lower back. The cut on my shoulder from Roathy’s blade is a thin red slash. There are a few speckled internal stresses, but nothing with exclamation points.
“You require medical attention.”
“You think? Let me out of the pod.”
“Exodus Sequence confirmed.”
The porthole windows are covered in mud, but that doesn’t stop the walls from peeling back like the wings of a great metallic insect. Sweat-soaked, I stagger out beneath the hatches and take my first steps on a foreign planet. Turn and search, turn and search. I’m alone.
My launch pod flashes red beacon lights, but I see no answer on the dark horizon. Behind me are vague, mountain-like rises. Ahead, a strangled valley thick with trees and creeks.
I look up, blink, and look again. Two moons loom in the starless night. Their combined light creates the illusion of a bright, snowy evening. Every branch is pale-painted, every creek a whitewashed echo. I look back up. One moon is bigger and brighter, its surface marred by a series of bloody scars. The other moon is dime-to-quarter of the first. Hanging in the sky, they look like a pair of mismatched eyes set in a dark, endless face.
The moons watch me stumble to the nearest creek and plunge my hands in elbow-deep. A rippling shiver runs up my spine and sharpens the senses. My hands shake as I wash Roathy’s blood away. I scrub dark streaks from my suit, rinse my face, and try to forget the broken boys Babel wanted to bury in the stars.
I left Roathy alive, but what about Bilal? The others?
Shivering, I stumble back to the pod and hoist my knapsack over a shoulder. There’s nothing else to do but walk, find the others. Did something go wrong with my landing? Or did Babel lie about this too? The need to see another human face dominates every thought. I can’t fathom the idea of sleeping alone on an alien planet. So I climb the nearest hill. And after that, another. My strides are light and long in Eden’s lower gravity.
At the top of the next hill, I look back. My pod’s beacon glows red, but there’s still no sign of the others. I stare down at the strangled valley, brightened by both moons, and realize it’s empty. The creek shuffles through the hills. A breeze clacks branches together like spears, but I don’t see any animals. No birds fluttering between branches or fish leaping out of creeks.
Anxious, I press on to the next hill, and the next, and the next.
Finally I reach an overlook that connects to the other valleys. They honeycomb darkly out, each of them beaconless. I have no idea where the rest of the crew might have landed, or if they landed at all.
In the gloom, I look for a sign. A hole dug into a hillside or a tree snapped by a falling spacecraft. Anything. The landscape stares back, and a fear takes shape, nestling in the darkest corner of my mind: I’m alone.
Then a flicker. Bright orange against the pale moonlight. Not a pod beacon, but a fire. It’s no more than a speck, but I strain my eyes, scared to lose the sight. It flickers again, a bright flash, and then someone brandishes the torch like a flag. The movement’s so human, so hopeful, that a ragged breath escapes my lungs.
I’m not alone. The others are here.
The way isn’t easy, but I cut across the face of the valley, trying not to lose sight of the fire. I’m forced down a pair of steep hills and into the forest. I splash my way through ankle-deep creeks and finally plunge through the low branches.
They’re waiting. Four faces washed in flame.
Morning stands apart. She’s holding a crude and crooked branch tipped with fire. I don’t know who she expected, but the sight of me dismisses some dark fear. There’s something fierce about the way she tosses the branch back onto the pile and crosses the distance. I can barely get my hands out as she wraps me in a hug, head pressed to my chest like it belongs there.
Over her shoulder, though, I get my first good look at the others.
They look like the survivors of an apocalypse, not explorers knocking on the door of a new world. Azima’s eyes are dark. She’s wearing her ceremonial bracelet for the first time in months, and I understand why. Out here, anything that feels like home is a good thing. Jaime rests his head in her lap. I almost confuse it for something romantic until I see the wound. An angry red marks him from rib to gut. It’s already stitched up, but that doesn’t make it look any less nightmarish. His pale knuckles are painted with dried blood.
My heart breaks. For him, for whoever they made him fight. The sight puts an end to my theory that Jaime was ever special or different. Babel’s broken him just like the rest of us. My mind jumps to Bilal. Is my friend alive or dead? Was he put in Jaime’s launch room? Anton sits nearby too. The little Russian’s eyes look completely lost. What did Babel do to us?