“Mirra awoke with a kiss. As she regained consciousness after the longest, deepest sleep of her life, it felt like flowers on her lips and falling in love. Her vision and other senses had yet to return, but in her heart she could smell the perfume of the soft petals, heavy and intoxicating like an amorous potion. The kiss and the deep, gentle darkness that enveloped it lingered between memory and dream, the idealized experience of some far more romantic person’s first kiss, recalled in whispers years later.”
Far From Home: The City Under the Sea is my first novel, a classic science-fiction tale.
Far From Home tells the story of Mirra, a young archeologist in the distant future who flees a war-torn Earth to explore a strange new world untouched by humanity for over 25,000 years. Joined by a diverse team of scientists and other colonists, her mission is to discover the secrets of an ancient city hidden under a storm-tossed ocean, the only surviving metropolis after a massive nuclear war drove the prior inhabitants to extinction eons before.
The following scene opens the novel after a brief prologue.
Mirra awoke with a kiss. As she regained consciousness after the longest, deepest sleep of her life, it felt like flowers on her lips and falling in love. Her vision and other senses had yet to return, but in her heart she could smell the perfume of the soft petals, heavy and intoxicating like an amorous potion. The kiss and the deep, gentle darkness that enveloped it lingered between memory and dream, the idealized experience of some far more romantic person’s first kiss, recalled in whispers years later.
Their first kiss, and their second.
“Wake up sleeping beauty.”
Mirra opened her eyes for the first time in fifty years. Daylight, or what passed for it on the stellar frontier, was anything but gentle. Instead of flowers on her lips, she could feel each individual photon smashing through her eyes, millions of mini-wrecking balls battering her at the speed of light. Although she was officially and painfully awake, she continued to feel the moist pressure of a kiss on her lips for some strange reason. But now, the dry, scratchy reality of a half-century of cotton-mouth suffocated any sense of pleasure.
Mirra wasn’t a morning person back home, and coming out of hibernation was much worse than waking up for work on Monday. She was dead tired—a feeling more like she hadn’t slept in fifty years—she didn’t want to move—neither now nor ever again—and it appeared she really was being kissed!
Sure enough, if she narrowed her eyes to hold back as much of the awful, overpowering light as possible, she could make out Donner’s long grin pressed well into her personal space. Unbelievable! She couldn’t see more than a few centimeters in any given direction, but the sparkle of the man’s teeth and the occasional glint in his dark eyes was unmistakable, rendered in her mind’s eye with uncanny detail given the circumstances.
Did he ever stop smiling?
Shouldn’t he be nursing the same 50-year hangover she was?
And why is he always in so much better shape in the morning?
Was it even morning?
“What time is it?”
Although there was absolutely no reason why an awareness of the hour might be important, she still wanted to know, somewhat desperately all of a sudden. Perhaps knowledge of her precise temporal coordinates would provide some much needed order for her thoughts.
“Whatever time you like, boss.”
The way he managed to look equally sad and happy had always eluded her, but now was not the time to ponder such contradictions in human emotion. He was coming in for another kiss!
“I’m serious. What time is it?”
She would have pushed him away if her arms were capable of the motion or possessed the strength to move his larger body. Not that she necessarily wanted to push him away.
Donner’s smile seemed to slip. At least, he paused briefly, and let the word hang between them. They would never see home again.
“On Earth,” Donner resorted to the less emotionally charged noun, “it is 3:49 in the morning. Here, I don’t know. I just woke up myself and I haven’t seen a clock.”
“Why were you kissing me?”
Not that the kiss hadn’t been nice, especially while still half-asleep. Maybe it was just the once in a lifetime moment—waking up in a starship after decades under the spell of a computer-controlled coma—but it seemed better (for lack of a better word) than the times they had kissed way back on Earth. Well, better before she actually woke up to the cold, hard world.
How long had she known him now?
They had enjoyed a geeky little fling in graduate school, but that was years ago in both time and space. It didn’t work out then, but it didn’t end badly either. Mirra’s goals had been different at the time. Now, despite traveling about as far as any human has ever traveled, she wasn’t entirely sure what her goals were. For reasons that seemed as distant as her home, she was part of a deep space colonization project; hence her recent arrival in orbit around the strange new world of Theta-3.
“I haven’t seen you in fifty years. Besides, you looked just like the fairy tale. I wanted to kiss sleeping beauty.”
He had a point. Neither of them had kissed anyone in the time it would have taken to rear children and have grandchildren, but it didn’t feel that way. There was no perception of time in cold storage; memories come and go, drifting before a non-existent mind’s eye at a glacial pace, but most fail to leave their mark.
For Mirra, only the lingering sense of dread from a prolonged nightmare—now thankfully over on this new planet—and the simple pleasure of a kiss she thought was a dream remained. At least, that’s what she wanted to believe. A part of her remained painfully aware that the nightmare was more than a dream. After all, why else was she really here, at the ass end of nowhere, in a star system nobody had ever heard of, suspended above a planet without a real name?
But the thought was too dark, too malignant and threatening, for a mind just starting to feel familiar with consciousness again. She pushed it aside, carrion to be consumed later. And it was a good kiss, whether wakening or dreaming or both. And Donner leaning over her, gently pushing back the hair from her face, looking at her with those ageless eyes was equally good…
On the other side of the equation, he was correct. She was officially his boss, and this was an official corporate mission—complete with its own duly authorized Managing Director, a man who’s presence was made no less pervasive by being seen so far only in video feeds. Plus, she was practically naked in the sleeping tube. Only a couple of strips of predictably drab medical fabric and the requisite electrodes provided any modesty at all. Meanwhile, Donner was already dressed!
“Thank you, but I think we’ve had enough of that for now. More than enough. We have work to do.”
That much was certainly true. There was a massive amount of mental and physical labor ahead for all of the colonists, both those assigned to science teams like hers or those just here for the fun of it, whatever that may be. Life on a colony world would be almost completely different from Earth. This was the stellar frontier. In addition to their research, there was the daunting task of building a new world from an alien wild untouched by humanity for 25,000 years.
Humans were here once though, and the previous denizens left behind some unmistakable signs of a civilization that had achieved at least some level of technological advancement. Chief among them was the pervasive signature of the massive nuclear war that effectively ended human life on the planet, but the when-and-why-and-where-did-they-go belonged to the history of another age, if their sad fate was remembered at all.
Whatever the case, someone had called this place home, and perhaps—or maybe hopefully would be more accurate—Mirra would too one day. In the meantime, there was very serious work to be done—a mystery to be solved, an emotional catharsis to achieve, all of which would require her complete attention. A relationship right now was entirely, completely, inconceivably inappropriate.
Besides, she generally expected a relationship to begin with her clothes on!
“Work before play, as you wish.”
Donner extended his hand to help her out of the sleeping tube. Mirra waved him away at first, but, when she felt how weak her muscles were, she held on tight. Her stomach felt like it hadn’t been flexed in a thousand years, and the light—as it continued to stab her eyeballs with an infinite number of needles—was still painful. Maybe it was worse than she thought. Mirra had never been much of an athlete, but not being able to do a sit-up was ridiculous.
And why did Donner seem perfectly fine? It was just like the man. Halfway across the galaxy and he looked no worse than if he had hopped an air shuttle across town.
Mirra tried to stand on her own two feet. Even in the reduced gravity generated by the rotating ship, it didn’t work out very well, and she had to lean on Donner for support almost immediately.
“I just need to get my legs under me.”
“See? I’m fine.”
To his everlasting credit, Donner immediately handed Mirra her standard-issue frontier jumpsuit and utility belt complete with a small, but versatile microbook. The standard-issue jumpsuit fit about as well as one-size-fits-all, dynamically adjustable clothing normally did, which is to say marginally passable. It certainly wasn’t made to accentuate your curves or bring out the color in your eyes, but more fashionable attire wouldn’t be available for some time. Clothing factories weren’t incredibly high on the list of things to do when colonizing a new world.
As soon as she regained some sense of balance, Mirra carefully (and quite deliberately) stepped away from Donner. Not too quickly, but enough to cut off any further advances, at least for the time being. She remained more than a little worn around the edges, but some clothes to cover her private parts and the scientist’s comfort of a computer at her hip both made her feel a little better.
“I need a cup of coffee.”
Coffee could make any world better.
Donner pointed to the far end of the spaceship bay, which curved slowly upward as the floor and ceiling followed the quarter kilometer arc allotted to this section. Past the lines of sleeping tubes, so many simple off-white coffins with crystal cut outs to show eyes dead with sleep, there was a functional dining area. More importantly, there was a sufficiently large and long serving table filled with all manner of mostly synthetic, but not entirely unappealing foods. The table was stocked and restocked by discreet, sleek little robots that whisked about silently, weaving around the few people who had already made their way to the buffet.
Like Mirra, most of the other settlers were moving a little slowly. She could see men and women—even a few children, though they were uncommon this early in a planet’s settlement—testing their legs, stretching, and talking for the first time in half a century. There were five hundred of the waking dead in this bay alone. With one hundred such bays on the Light Ship, about 50,000 people were getting out of bed at once. Although she didn’t personally know more than a handful of them, Mirra was certain most weren’t morning people either. Not this morning anyway.
Yet there they were, rubbing their eyes, stretching their legs, and gathering their thoughts at the long end of a one-way flight. Every one of them must’ve had a reason for taking this permanent vacation. Some of those reasons were probably better or worse than hers. Many were probably the same: Skyfell.
Why was Donner here anyway? After Skyfell, there was nothing on Earth to keep her, but why Donner? He was her equal in the rather highly specialized field of archeological cultural reconstruction, and certainly could have commanded a commission of his own if he’d really wanted to travel this far from home. Besides, his parent’s were Senior Management, wealthy and powerful beyond most people’s dreams.
Mirra wasn’t particularly close to him at this point in their lives. They’d been stationed at different laboratories throughout their careers, exchanging only a few infrequent words a year and perhaps bumping into one another at the occasional conference. Perhaps it was all an act, but the man had always seemed too…contented…with himself—the lone listener to his own private joke—to just wake up one day and leave a whole world behind.
It wasn’t strictly a one-way ticket, of course. They hadn’t plunged through a black hole or found themselves on the wrong side of a wormhole. The Light Ships traveled back and forth between the stars and, in theory, you could take one home. In practice, however, there was no turning back. The anti-matter drives propelled them very close to the speed of light. They didn’t cross that absolute—nothing solid ever did—but they came near enough that the time dilation effects were fairly significant. Mirra knew the mythical Einstein’s famous formula by heart, they all did: One over v squared minus c squared was pounded into each of their heads as surely as the photons were currently pounding her eyes.
The actual number that applied to this particular high-speed deep-space expedition—fifty years ship time, 140 years Earth time—didn’t matter. To her, a thousand years or ten thousand years could’ve passed and it wouldn’t make a difference. There would still be nothing left.
Of course, it was more or less the same for everyone. A lot can happen in close to three hundred years—just ask the former residents of Theta-3. If their initial readings were accurate, this world had been wiped out in less than a decade. At least by joining a colony expedition, you had a chance to make a new home on a planet you chose, but try to return and you’d find yourself trapped between two worlds. That was worse than Mirra’s current situation. She just didn’t have a world at all.
Slowly, somewhat gingerly, like an ankle could break or an artery could rupture with every step, Mirra walked toward the serving table with Donner, who was almost bouncing far too buoyantly and maybe too closely at her side. Still, the reduced gravity helped somewhat as she waved hello or issued a soft greeting to the few people she recognized. Although the rest of her team was in this bay, she hadn’t spotted anyone else so far.
In all, five people had volunteered to join Mirra’s little science project. Five people who left their homes behind to come with her. She knew she wasn’t responsible for their decision, but that didn’t stop her from feeling responsible for their presence. The psychological trauma inherent in waking up—with or without a kiss—light years from any common reference point made it essential that they start working as soon as possible; anything to keep their minds off the distance from home. Once they were gathered together, she’d begin discussing their next steps over dinner, lunch, whatever. Of course, breakfast seemed most appropriate except Mirra wasn’t big on breakfast.
“You’d think they could heat the floor for us.”
Between the rumbling tone of the voice, like a bear bellowing in the back of a cave, and the gently bickering sentiment of the statement, Mirra recognized Alba, their hardware expert, in an instant. In addition to being perhaps the only bald man on the planet—at least for now, treatments for receding hair were about as high on the colony world list as clothing factories—Alba was a stocky, barrel-chested man, physically powerful from a life spent moving heavy machinery. Regardless, he managed to appear both harmless and comical hopping from foot to foot, a hairless bear with a broken paw wrangling into a standard issue jumpsuit that didn’t seem ready to accommodate his frame.
“I don’t think the engineers thought you’d have this much trouble getting dressed,” Mirra laughed. “Come join us for breakfast, we can get started right away.”
“No work until I’ve had my coffee.”
She took the older man by the arm and walked in step with him. Before they’d left Earth, Alba told her that he was going for the work. It had never seemed like a solid reason to her, but he’d had a point. There wasn’t much work for an expert at massive archeological excavations on a planet increasingly covered with metal and machines. He probably could’ve performed a similar job in construction—certainly, the Cooperative government was always building and then promptly re-building—but there was no magic in that, no thrill of discovery. In truth, there wasn’t much work for a talented, young archeologist like herself either.
There was little interest in the old for a society obsessed with the new—not that Earth wasn’t beautiful in its own way. The engineers and architects had worked wonders integrating flora and fauna with the bustling city life of a population in the tens of billions. There was a certain symbiotic beauty when nature and machine intertwined, as in the great Tower of Free Trade. Literally, a man made tree that stretched far into the upper atmosphere to commemorate the founding of the Cooperative of Democratic Corporate Consortiums twenty five hundred years ago. Both the Tower and its giant limbs, much larger than the ruins of any actual buildings they’d find here on Theta-3, were too majestic for nature alone.
Like many of Earth’s massive structures, the Tower of Free Trade combined miles of microscopic nanotubes with genetically engineered living, photosynthesizing plants to create a new class of super-organism that possessed properties that seemed to defy the natural laws of physics. Most of the time, nanotechnology was strictly prohibited by thousands of years of law and custom. Authorized construction projects, however, were a necessary—or perhaps a merely convenient—exception. The result was architectural marvels that were living sculptures and buildings rolled into one. But—whether suspended in a viewing pod, hanging from a far-too-thin limb thousands of meters above the ground, or gazing at the kilometer wide trunk from a distance—the Tower of Free Trade seemed far different and much greater than its component parts.
As they approached the dining area, a large window beyond the serving table offered Mirra her first view of Theta-3. By a lucky accident in the timing of their rotation around the Light Ship’s central axis, the little planet floating in the space-dark sky was perfectly framed, yet featured nothing so grand as a Tower of Free Trade. It bore no such spectacular marks of human achievement, except, of course, the still lingering evidence of a nuclear holocaust tens of thousands of years ago. She watched closely as they turned slowly by, the round ball of dust and ice blissfully unaware that humans had arrived to offer a second chance at intelligent life.
Her Light Ship was not the first to reach Theta-3. The initial expedition of planetary engineers, terraforming experts and the assorted crews arrived first and laid the basic foundation of a new society. Mirra and her team, along with numerous other science crews and assorted colonists, followed shortly after the basic infrastructure was in place, none of which was yet visible from space. Instead, Theta-3 was icy and blue, bright and beautiful in its own barren way, complete with a few wisps of lonely white clouds drifting in the atmosphere. Despite her desire to remain scientifically objective and clinically detached, her heart skipped a beat.
This world would need a real name.
This world had a real name once upon a time.