As the door of the travelpod clicks into place and seals tight, I give a slight, involuntary shudder. It’s ok, I tell myself. Slow down. Breathe.
Concentrating on my breath, I slip each clammy hand out of its protective glove, then lift my visor and blow gently on them to dry them off. I reach up to unclip my helmet, breathing a sigh of relief to no longer feel its restriction around my temples. But my hair is slick with nervous sweat, and it sticks to my forehead as I remove my helmet.
As I wriggle to get comfortable, the blue velvety upholstery of the pilot’s seat moulds itself to fit my shape, a sensation that still really creeps me out. I wonder if I will ever get used to podtravel. My helmet rattles a little as I slot it into the rack, then I settle back as best I can.
Spartacus, the name I’ve given to the ship’s silky, somehow comforting voice, greets me.
“Welcome aboard, 397. When you are ready to leave, please pull the green lever on the panel above your head.”
397. Jesus, is there anything more dehumanising than being identified as a number? I have a name, people here know it. Why the hell can’t they use it?
With a soft sigh I set the map controls to my destination and pull the green lever. The ship’s hatch opens with a gentle whooshing sound, and I’m jettisoned out of the holding bay.
Not for the first time, the shock of what I see takes my breath away. For a barren planet, this sure is pretty. Once we’re outside the holding bay the thrumming noise of the engine is silenced, and as we speed across the metallic sands I gaze in wonder at the pink-tinged golden light, much like the early dawns we used to get on Earth, back when I was a little girl. Before the destruction, of course, before the beauty of our world was smeared with the almighty shit-scape of the final war. In stark contrast to the mess that was now Earth, clouds of dust particles float around the pod, their metallic elements catching the rosy light, glittering and glinting around me like fairy dust as we head towards the beach.
At least that’s what everyone calls it. Of course, with no natural water sources on this planet it’s not really a beach, just more sand and rocks. But there is a cliff, of sorts, and a few of the colonists like to go there when the homesickness gets too bad. It’s strange when you see them there, sitting on the sand in their spacesuits, miles from anywhere, in the middle of a hard, golden desert. But I know what they see on their visor screens, and I understand why they do it.
Sometimes you just need to touch base with home.
This time round though it’s not a day at the seaside for me. There’s work to be done. I hit the intercom that connects the pod to the office back at the colony.
“Davies – go through this with me again one more time, will you? I want to get things straight before I get to the beach.”
“Hey, come on, you know you’re meant to call me 274. It’s how this place works. As the Manual says, we’re here to do a job, to make this place ready for mass evacuations from Earth, not to make friends.”
“And Davies, you know how I feel about that. What’s wrong with making friends anyway?”
“Don’t ask me, I didn’t write the Manual. Anyhow, the dead guy, 417, he was a cleaner over at E block. He hadn’t been here long, and was having trouble settling in. His supervisor said he’d been taking too much time off, and then yesterday he was found at the beach, dead, his helmet disconnected from his breathing tube. Nothing indicating foul play, but as it sure as hell wasn’t natural causes we had to call you in.”
For what it’s worth, this is my life now. Most of the time I sit around the colony wondering why they even need a coroner out here in space, waiting and hoping against hope that one day soon they’ll find a way to clean up Earth and we can all go home. Then every now and again there’s a suspicious death, and I get to do my job. It’s not exactly fun, but then again, hand on heart I can’t really say I’ve had any fun since I was ten years old and the world - as we knew it – ended so abruptly.
“Send me the coordinates of where the body was found, will you? I’ve already checked out his suit and couldn’t find any sign of tampering with the breathing tube or the helmet. I’m heading to the beach now, going to check out where he died, try to get a feel for what was going on for him, and see if there’s anything the investigating crew missed. And be a sweetheart will you Davies - send me any background you’ve got on this guy. I asked around, but nobody seems to know much about who he was.”
“Sheesh. Yeah, ok, I’m on it.”
The pod starts to slow down, and I look ahead to where the landing pad sits shimmering in a kind of metallic golden glow. The ‘beach’ is empty, everyone’s been told to stay away, at least until my investigation is over. As we glide to a halt, little whirlwinds of glittery dust eddy around the travelpod, reminding me of the snowdome that used to sit on my mum’s mantelpiece, the one with the little fox and deer in it. I used to shake it and make it snow on the cute little animal figurines, wondering - even as a little kid - why it was snowing in a forest in the summer.
“397? It’s 274 here again. Seemed easier to talk than to message. You there yet?”
“Just landing now. What have you found?”
“It seems 417 was one of the new recruits; you know, the last lot, the ones who didn’t choose to come here. The poor buggers whose cities had been bombed out.”
“Yeah, I know the ones” I say quietly. “The refugees.”
“Hey, don’t let other people hear you say that. You know how they feel, most of them anyway. You know that guy who lives in the dome next to mine? He calls them ‘grunts’, thinks they’re just here to do our dirty work. Next time he says it I’m going to knock his block off.”
I can’t help chuckling - the thought of Davies, all 70kg of him, taking on his neighbour who’s the size of a small tank.
“Seriously, people have no idea what some of them have been through,” Davies continues. “Looks like 417 lost his whole family in the last round of bombings. Apparently one of his kids was killed in a bomb blast right in front of him. He was lucky to survive, if ‘lucky’ is the right word. He turned up in the city, completely lost, with nowhere to go and no-one to go to, so when they gave him the option to come here he took it. A new start, I guess.”
There’s a slight click, then Spartacus announces: “397 we’ve landed, and the door is clear for exit.”
“Ok Davies, thanks. Gotta go, I’ll buzz you when I’m on the way back.”
I check my receiver and plug in the coordinates Davies has sent me, then prepare to leave the pod. I go through the usual safety procedures, check my breathing apparatus is firmly connected, then put on my helmet and gloves.
My hands are shaking even more than usual after hearing 417’s story.
At least it would have been a quick death.
I pull the exit lever and the door glides open to reveal a pastel-coloured landscape of gritty, sparkly sand, with a startling backdrop of rugged, silvery cliffs. I look away and back down at my feet as I step gingerly through the portal and onto the hard, shiny surface of the landing pad.
Our space suits have been designed for easy maneuverability outside the pods, and I bounce slightly as I make my way across the ‘beach’ to the site of 417’s last moments. The glare from the surface of the planet, now that I’m at ground level, is fierce enough to sting. I squint while I use voice activation to set my visor to ‘shade’, then get on my hands and knees and start searching the ground for anything that might give me a clue as to what happened here.
I scratch through the rocks and grit, using the magnifier lens on my visor for better vision. The sweep done by the cops earlier should have picked up anything that shouldn’t be here, but it’s always good to double check. As my gloved fingers trawl through the dust I feel something, and lift my hand to my visor to investigate. A chain loops between my fingers, sparkling dust motes dancing in the air around my hand. A locket, small and heart-shaped, nestles into my palm. I manage to prise it open, and am not surprised to see the faces of two adorable, laughing children inside it.
I rock back onto my heels in the exact same spot where 417 had last sat. I feel unnerved, unsettled, and I lower myself down to sit on the sand.
I’m guessing these were your babies, 417. Was it all too much? But why here, why now? We know from your helmet settings that you were having a day at the beach. Let’s see what you were seeing.
“Visor setting to ‘Beach 41205’”.
My visor briefly dims, then the harshly glittering sands around me are replaced by the softest of white sands leading down to impossibly turquoise-coloured waters. I feel my whole body respond, cellular memories flooding back. I look down at my bare legs and wriggle my toes, feeling the powdery sand slip over my skin. I know from the Manual that this is Cable Beach, on what used to be the north-west coast of Australia, back when Australia was still habitable. I marvel at how real it all seems, and how incredibly beautiful it is. The tension in my body dissipates, my shoulders relax, and I take a deep, sweet breath. I swear I can feel the warm tropical breeze on my face, taste the mangoes and coconuts, smell the salt in the air, and hear the children splashing in the waves somewhere off to my right.
I turn to look behind me. White contoured sand dunes slope up towards red, sandy cliffs, fringed with coconut palms, and everywhere smothered in a thick-leaved vine with bright purple flowers. Small lizards dart amongst the foliage, and brightly-coloured parrots perch in the fronds of the trees, some of them hanging upside down from the leaves like drunken acrobats. The sky is so very blue, cloudless, and the sunlight, so strong, so … so orange; as I look around I feel it caressing my arms, seeping through the layers of my skin to warm my bones.
I have an urge to run into the water, to feel its coolness on my thighs before I dive under the surface, the ocean soft on my bare skin. I imagine swimming underwater for a few strokes then coming up again for air, breaking the surface with a grin, my hair and face dripping great fat drops of salty water as I lay back and float, arms and legs outstretched, rocking to and fro on the gentle waves.
It’s too beautiful for words. And it’s gone. It’s all gone.
The tension in my shoulders returns, this time accompanied by a sharp pain in my heart. I cut the vision and return to normal view.
“Oh 417” I murmur.