Her ship toppled through the atmosphere in a frenzy of sound. For the first time since she blasted off Nova, Gaila couldn’t help but wonder: Why did I leave?
She heard the audible click of landing gear coming together, and the vessel flattened onto its underbelly. Turbulence flung Gaila forward. The seat harness dug into her left shoulder; she felt her joint pop out of its socket. Another bump, and this time she hit her head, hard, on the flight controls. She suddenly felt short of breath, and struggled to lift her head back up. She could see the the surface of the planet approaching rapidly outside her window before the world went to black.
The sun was setting when Gaila awoke. A sharp pain shot up her left shoulder as she moved to get up, and her surroundings spun around her. Gaila reached with her right arm to activate the exit latch above her. Struggling to climb out of her ship, she slowly made her way to the roof.
Here, on top of her plane, on top of the world, all Gaila could see were swirls of brown blurring the landscape. She could barely make out the relatively flat terrain, dotted sparsely with vegetation, and large, strangely square hills in the background. As the strong, temperate gusts settled, she gained a clearer view of the vast plains that stretched out in all directions around her. She was surrounded, swallowed in a sea of barren soil.
Somehow she had made it here, even though the people closest to her whom she had left behind, her family and colleagues and friends, had repeatedly told her that she couldn’t. That she wouldn’t. That she didn’t. And yet –
She was always better when she worked alone.
Above her, the sky was a bright pink that was quickly deepening into shades of blue and violet. A blazing orange sun was descending behind the faraway hills, and as it sunk lower into the horizon, the sharp contours of the landscape became ever more defined. This sunset was stunning, radically different from the predominantly green-blue palette of a Nova sunset.
With the onset of nightfall, stars broke through the dark. Gaila had wanted to become a space explorer exactly because of these remote and mysterious astronomical wonders, and was relieved to see that their beauty did not fade with distance from Nova. As she shifted her gaze from the skies down to the ground, she noticed a flickering light in the distance that was gradually coming closer. Gaila froze.
Fire? Why was there fire?
Gaila crouched down behind one of the wings of her ship for cover. The pain in her shoulder came blasting back into her consciousness, and she cursed herself for forgetting to treat her injuries first. As the light approached, Gaila peeked from behind the wing and saw that the light originated from a torch, held by a human-shaped creature. How could that be possible? It had been almost 500 years since The Founding; there should be no more advanced life on this planet.
“Hey!” A voice suddenly rang out, “No use hidin’; I’d already seen you standin’ on top of tha’ thing. Come out now.”
The voice was male, and the words were intelligible. He spoke with an accent not identifiable to Gaila: the consonants were cut short, but the vowels stretched on, and truncated syllables cut his sentences into parts. The dialect sounded rough and uneven, but was still unmistakably her language. Gaila did not answer.
“So, you comin’ out, or am I comin’ to get you?”
Gaila stepped out from behind her improvised shield, holding her left arm in for support. Once fully upright, she found herself staring down into a pair of dark eyes, brown to the point of black, barely illuminated by the shining torch.
He was definitely human, not much older than she. The cast of his light outlined a figure that was tall and broad. Strong. His eyes, however, were the focus of her attention - Gaila had never seen such an eye color before. Novian eyes all exhibited the same uniform paleness as an adaptation to their dusky environment; his dark brown was striking in comparison.
What in The Founding’s name…?
He was dressed in hides and simple woven fabrics, and his cautious stance – legs spread apart, right hand on the weapon attached to his belt – implied apprehension at her presence. The safest option would be to try to negate his suspicions. In following the Novian way of being logical and not creating unnecessary conflict, Gaila strived to avoid trouble if possible. And although he could speak her language, Gaila was not able to ascertain just how well he would be able to understand her. Her first words to him would be clear, simple, and diplomatic.
“There is no need to be afraid. I will not harm you,” she started, “I am only an explorer.”
He waited a moment before countering, his eyes sweeping from her empty holster to her injured shoulder.
“Trust me, I’m not ‘fraid of you, Novie.”
“My home planet is known to you, then?”
“Oh yeah, we know Nova ver’ well here. Have learned ‘bout it e’er since grade school. We know e’erythin’ ‘bout your planet, jus’ never got to see it in person,” he replied, a hint of antagonism coloring his voice. His r’s buzzed strangely in the back of his mouth.
“Well then, it is a larger shock for me to meet you. On Nova your planet, Prototype One, has long been believed to be dead. I suppose we were wrong...”
Maybe her leaders had known all along. Did they know and lie? Or were they simply wrong in assuming that life on Earth would die out after the mass migrations? Gaila had broken into highly secured electronic files before she left, but there were no indications in those files that the early humans left behind nearly 500 years ago would still be alive.
The stranger looked up at her and smiled.
“Well, welcome back t’ Earth, Novie.”
The two spent the night in Gaila’s ship, waiting out the long hours in an enclosed space. His insistence on taking shelter in her ship made Gaila shudder to think what could possibly come out of this strange land at night.
She passed the darkest stretches in silence, cautious and guarded. There was only the light of the torch illuminating a small sphere around her unexpected guest’s sitting form, his legs spread out and his back to the wall. He seemed surprisingly relaxed, intermittently gazing around the ship, or asking various questions that Gaila did not answer. Not knowing his intentions, she spent the first hours crouched and defensive, observing him and planning out her next move while trying not to think about the pain in her shoulder. When he reached to set down his torch, though, Gaila raised her voice in alarm.
“What are you trying to do to my ship?”
“Relax, Novie. ‘ts a bioluminescent light source,” he explained, “made i' the form o' a torch.” He started caressing the harmless flames. “See, won’t burn an'thing.”
His idle chatter droned on. Gaila, still cradling her arm against her chest, gently lowered her body down to sit across from him. She learned that his name was Aden, that he lived with his father and sister, and that he had hiked for several hours in the desert terrain to find her today. Gaila did not realize she had been unconscious for such an extended period.
It didn’t take long for her to become used to his voice. Somehow, in this completely foreign land, having a stranger talk her through the night was oddly comforting. His rambling turned into background noise, and Gaila’s mind drifted away.
“We shoul' get goin'. It’s lightenin' up, and we got a long trek 'head of us.” It wasn’t until he got up and stretched that Gaila registered what he had said. She blinked several times to clear away the drowsiness, and slowly followed suit, taking care to not disturb her shoulder. She would be needing sustenance and healing very soon.
They spent the better part of the next hour walking across flat and deserted terrain, nearing the peaks she had observed the day before. They strode shoulder to shoulder the entire journey, even though Gaila was forced to take long, brisk steps to keep up with Aden. The ache from her injury increased with each stride, but she had never lagged behind anyone before, and she would not do so now.
As they drew closer to the mountains, Gaila realized that these structures were in fact the outlines of astonishingly tall, man made…Buildings?
Actual mountains did in fact sit behind the artificial range, their long shadows cast westward by the rising sun. Even with the looming ridges in the background, however, it was human architecture that dominated the landscape. Gaiela marveled at the height of these buildings; she had never seen such tall structures before. They would be much too ostentatious for Nova. Instead, back home low and solid shelters were the housing of choice for the extremely efficient and emotionally reserved Novians, people who never got angry or shouted or laughed too loudly. Underground tunnels that spread out like webs connected these evenly distributed communities.
Here on Earth, Gaila tilted her head back as far as she could to stare at the sheer audacity of such high buildings - back on Nova, they could never. And yet, the awe she felt when staring up at these complexes stirred something within her, a desire to achieve accomplishments that could equal these buildings in grandeur. She chastised herself for these vain thoughts, but still she could not look away.
On the horizon, a rolling cloud of smoke and dust came toward them. It neared at an admirable speed, bringing with it wafts of rusted steel and a pungent odor that Gaila could not place. When the vehicle stopped in front of them, Gaila took in the dust-covered contraption, along with the two people sitting in the front row. They were both gaping at her in surprise, no doubt taking in her strange space suit and pale eyes, so different from the people here on Earth.
Their questions and casual interactions with Aden implied familiarity and friendship. A few greetings and jokes were exchanged, but Aden strategically avoided giving them information on Gaila. She appreciated his discretion. Gaila did not interact with either of the newcomers herself, unwilling to give anything away. In this situation, the less she spoke, the better. She glanced pointedly at Aden.
“Can we go now?”
He cocked an eyebrow at her, moving to open the door and help her up into the back of the vehicle. She immediately sank into the warm, worn leather of the seat, which was marked by tears and gashes. Breathing in the familiar smell of animal hide, Gaila was reminded of the countless hours she had spent back in navigation practice rooms on Nova. Those too were furnished with animal leather and plastic, although this hide was much smoother to the touch, despite being marred by scars. The smell of life clung to it: spilled drinks still stuck to the car mats, dust trapped in the crevices. These were smells that Gaila never had the chance to experience. Instead, she’d been studying for the next examination or preparing for the SASA application in sterile practice rooms while other minors went out on their weekend excursions.
The car started up again, rolling down the road, winds forcing dust in through the open windows. As the group drove steadily on, buildings grew larger and taller, and people began to appear outside of houses and on the roads. Gaila’s hair had completely fallen apart by now, her shoulder worsened with each jostle of the car, and she was completely dehydrated. Eventually, as much as the pain and her own judgment told her to stay cognizant, the toll of the past few days and the rhythmic bouncing of the car rocked her to sleep. For the first time, she did not dream. Exhaustion created a black hole that sucked her in completely.
When Gaila awoke she found herself in a healing ward attached to feeding tubes and monitors. Before she was even fully aware, a healer had already quickly - and painfully - repaired her shoulder. Another came to secure her arm in a sling, and Aden stepped into the room.
“Ya feelin’ all right? Good to head out soon?”
Gaila considered him, so ready to take her away in her current situation. What did he want?
“Do I have any other options?” she asked.
“Not particu’arly,” he admitted with an almost smile. “I won’t ‘arm ya.” His derisive tone mocked her earlier declaration to him, but now he was smiling down at her.
Gaila somehow believed him. His help had to be better than none at all.
After leaving the hospital, Aden guided her down a street to the right, turning into a smaller road that ended in a circular configuration of residential buildings. He started towards the house on the leftmost edge. It was stately, sturdy and square, dotted with large windows.
At their approach the door of that house flew open, and a jumble of dark hair and lanky limbs threw itself onto Aden. He smiled into the little girl’s shoulder, holding her up gently.
“Hey, Kiddo. I missed ya too.”
As he let her back down onto the ground, the little girl turned around to observe Gaila instead. The child was young, maybe seven years old. Her messy hair blew in the wind as she stared up at Gaila with a gap-toothed smile. The arresting dark eyes were by then familiar to Gaila, and just as penetrating as the first pair that she had encountered.
Gaila responded to her curiosity by politely bending down to the girl’s level to introduce herself. With her left arm in a sling, she had to maneuver her weight just so as to not fall over.
“Hello. My name is Gaila.” The little girl giggled at her, half hiding behind Aden but still unable to resist peeking her head out.
“An' my name’s Yvea!” she exclaimed giddily, before taking off in the opposite direction. Gaila watched her run back into the house before straightening and turning back to Aden.
“My little sister,” he explained, still smiling. Behind the house, the sun was beginning to lower again, marking the second sunset since Gaila’s landing.
“I need to know what your motives are.”
He scoffed. “Motives?” He answered with a hint of disdain in his voice, “Why can’t I jus’ help a stranger stranded in the middle of no’here?”
“Everyone has motives, Aden. I will not hold it against you, but I need you to be honest.”
Yvea bounced back toward them. Aden turned to face his sister instead.
“Daddy said it’s time fo’ dinner! Come inside!”
With that, Yvea abruptly took Gaila’s hand and started leading her towards the house. Aden bypassed the two of them, disappearing quickly inside the shadows.
A delicious scent hit Gaila as she crossed the threshold of the house, and she thought about how long it had been since she’d last eaten. The dining room was at the end of the long hallway that stretched out in front of her. She could hear muted voices coming from that direction: Aden was discussing with another man, and he sounded concerned. Their conversation was hushed and rushed. As Gaila entered the dining room, Aden looked up and stopped talking. The person he was speaking to - presumably his father - was facing away from her, but he turned around then, as if sensing Gaila’s eyes on him.
Light brown eyes came to rest on her face, friendly but nothing like the striking darkness that Aden and Yvea possessed. The high nose and cheekbones, though, mimicked those of Aden’s, and Gaila was struck by how similar the two men looked. The older man's face crinkled into a smile of welcome, and the etched lines that emerged around his eyes and mouth revealed his true age.
“Gaila,” he greeted, “Welcome. Aden’s told me ‘bout your situation, and I hope you’ll find comfort in our home for now. Dinner’s ‘most ready. Please sit.”
His voice rang out in a deep rumble. The accent, although still rough, was becoming pleasant to Gaila’s ear. Aden shifted slightly across from her, moving to sit down on the opposite side of the table. Their seemingly sincere welcome worried her. She was sure they were discussing her before she walked into the room, but what they were saying? Could she trust these people?
Just then, her stomach grumbled, and her hunger outweighed her suspicions. She took a seat facing Aden, staring at a golden bird on the table.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Gaila inserted quietly.
Aden’s father smiled again.
“Well, you see, e’er since he ‘as a kid, Aden’s loved bringin’ home trouble for me. Hurt an’mals, other people’s belongin’s, ya name it. I figured ‘nother ‘uman being couldn’t be bad as the neighbor's dog!”
“Dad…” Aden sounded bashful, a younger, childish tone betraying his usual maturity. His father answered with a laugh.
“But in all seriousness, Gaila, it’s our pleasure to ‘elp you. And call me Will.”
“Thank you, Will.”
“Thank ya Will!” Yvea repeated, giggly uncontrollably at being able to call her father by his first name.
Will reached out to ruffle her hair. “Haha, ver’ funny. I’m still ‘Daddy’ to you, Kiddo.” Yvea smiled back with stuffed cheeks.
Dinner passed quickly with good-natured jibes and teasing from one family member to another. Gaila recalled her own parents and how their silent and efficient family dinners carried on with limited exchanges and expressionless conversations. They would never have the same laugh lines that wrinkled people here on Earth, never show the same warmth.
Afterwards, Yvea helped Will clear the table. Gaila could not stop watching the smiles that passed between father and daughter, even during such a mundane task as cleaning up after a meal.
Aden approached her then. “Do you wanna take a walk? I could show ya ‘round the area.”
Gaila hesitated, surprised by how much she wanted to say yes.
Charlene You is a graduating senior at the University of Pennsylvania, double majoring in Communications and French. Her first ever piece of creative fiction, Nova, is about a young woman coming into her own and gaining her independence - much like Charlene is trying to do with her own life right now.