She gazed out the window, watched at the planet rotated slowly beneath her. It was once beautiful, in its own way. She had seen pictures of what it had looked like before the Final War, the bright blue and spotty brown and green. White clouds had flitted across the top of the atmosphere, shielding its surface from the rest of space.
But that was years ago. There wasn’t anything left down there anymore, and even if there was, she wouldn’t be able to see it from here. The planet was shrouded in a thick veil of smog and ash, completely obscuring the land masses and oceans below. Not to mention the layer of space trash between that and the stations. They actually harvested the detritus sometimes, used it to make repairs, or sometimes just to mess about with and try and get it to work again. There were all sorts of clubs and hobbyists who were obsessed with prewar tech. Ankhora understood the appeal, to an extent. She loved to read about the Groundlings, but she wasn’t going to waste her whole life fiddling with dead tech.
But even though she was happy at Station 009, where she had been born and raised and now worked as a nurse, something always drew her back to the window. Something always seemed to be at the corner of her vision, a tug that turned her head to peer down through the layers of grime and trash to imagine what life would be like on the planet Earth.
Can you miss someplace you’ve never been? Can something be in your DNA so deeply, so thoroughly, that even though you’ve never set foot on real earth, never breathed fresh air, never seen plants grow outside a greenhouse, you long for those things as though experiencing nostalgia? Can you be homesick for a home you’ve never known?
Palamane called from the break room table, and Ankhora sighed and turned her back to the window.
“What is it?” she asked, sliding back into her chair.
“Did you hear? About the recovery?”
Ankhora shook her head as she bit into her sandwich. Many of the recordings from the Groundlings included detailed accounts of food, rich, delicious, spicy, savory, or sweet. She couldn’t imagine what that must be like, to have food you actually ate for enjoyment.
“They’re sending an expedition down. To the planet.”
Ankhora almost choked and grabbed Palamane’s arm.
“What?” Ankhora sputtered, swallowing with difficulty. “When? Where did you hear about this?”
“It was in the Bulletin. Don’t you listen?”
Ankhora shook her head while she drank some water to help the last few crumbs dislodge from her throat. No one really listened to the Bulletin. If something was that important it would show up on the Viz.
“They’re looking for volunteers,” Palamane said casually, and anything else she might have said was lost as Ankhora’s attention turned inward.
An expedition? To Earth? Palamane had called it a recovery. A recovery of what? What was left down there to recover?
She had heard rumors, from people who could be called disreputable at best, that traders sometimes sent down parties to bring back Earth objects from the surface to sell on the black market. The first stations had been built before the war, so not every artifact had intrinsic value. It was more the cultural stuff, the artwork, the non-practical items that were worth finding. But it was insanely difficult to get authorization for that kind of run (it was mostly limited to historical and government entities) and if you didn’t get authorization, it was insanely illegal.
Not to mention suicidal. If there was one thing Ankhora learned from reading about the Groundlings, it was that the structure of power up here was not so different from what it was down there. And no one would really miss the black marketeers who were too stupid to try an unauthorized run through the satellite belt. Many had tried and were promptly blown up, adding to the ring of space trash that was still caught in Earth’s orbit. She only knew of a handful that had gotten through, and for the most part only the artifacts came back, not the traders.
But if this was a sanctioned expedition, that probably meant they were interested in more than what would sell on the black market. That could mean any number of things...including a lengthy trip. Which would probably mean they needed medical staff.
Ankhora hastily wrapped the rest of her sandwich, mumbled a hasty goodbye to the startled and somewhat disappointed Palamane, and rushed to the nearest Vizor.
It only took her a moment to find what she was looking for, although it was buried more deeply in the Bulletin than she would have expected. She was surprised it wasn’t being blasted all over the Viz. But perhaps they only wanted very serious candidates, people who were more interested in the importance of the recovery mission (whatever it was) than those who wanted the thrill of an on-world adventure.
She scrolled quickly through the post, only skimming the information about “opportunities for research” and “completely controlled environments with highly skilled managers utilizing the highest safety standards.”
And then there it was, shining through the Vizor, pulsing slightly, as if expectant. The word: Recruitment.
Without a moment of hesitation, Ankhora soared forward.
Ankhora had fallen asleep, her head resting uncomfortably against the shuttle wall. For the first half of the journey, she had her face pressed against the glass of the too-small window, desperate for a glimpse of Earth. Of course, they were still in the middle of the junk field, and the planet below was still shrouded in ash and smoke, so she wouldn’t have seen anything anyway. But she was moving toward the planet, toward something she had always longed for, so even though her vision was clouded, it felt momentous nonetheless.
The recruitment process was easier than she had dared hope. Expeditions to the planet’s surface were rare, and oftentimes fatal. Short journeys fared better, ones that had a singular purpose, that landed, got what they wanted, and came back before anyone could incur serious injuries or succumb to radiation poisoning. But Ankhora could count on one hand the number of successful recovery missions in her lifetime. She was determined to be on the next.
The recruitment officer looked bored. Likely she wasn’t coming on the mission, and only in charge of weeding out the less suitable candidates for the more vigorous interviews.
“Riz Ankhora,” Ankhora replied, her voice quivering.
The officer didn’t even look at her as she asked questions about Ankhora’s work, her personality, her sex life. Ankhora was a nurse, a position vital to any long-term mission off-station. She was calm in emergencies, underwent regular psychological screenings, which she always passed. She was single, only seeking companionship when she felt like it. No children. In short, the perfect candidate.
The final interviews were more difficult, only in that they were more vague. The panel of interviewers included the medical officer and several members of the leadership team, although the captain was absent. Ankhora answered all their questions with a calm indifference, despite the excitement and nervousness buzzing inside her. Here, her skill was more important than her passion.
The two weeks before she received her acceptance letter were insufferable, particularly to Palamane and the other medical staff, who couldn’t understand Ankhora’s desire to leave. Her boss was reluctant to let her go, but she gave Ankhora a small smile of encouragement on her last day.
Ankhora smiled, feeling none of the sadness and regret the acceptance letter warned her about.
She shifted in her sleep, her arm slipping between the wall and the chair.
She jerked awake, shaking out the needles in her arm as a tall woman plopped down into the seat next to her. She lifted her hand to her mouth and, embarrassed, wiped away a remnant of drool. The woman didn’t seem to notice, only beamed at her.
“First time off-station?”
The woman’s voice was big, like her, deep and jolly, as though she was about to laugh. Ankhora nodded.
“Me too. I was raised on station twenty-six. You?”
“Station nine,” Ankhora replied, sitting up and blinking away the sleepiness that lingered in her eyes.
“Oh cool. I’ve been to some of the older ones. Real vintage.” The woman grinned, but Ankhora didn’t get the joke. Sure, some of the older stations’ layouts were outdated, but they all had the same tech. It was just a little harder to integrate into some of the original equipment.
“I’m Telissa Greene. You can call me Tee.”
She reached out her hand and Ankhora shook it.
“I’m in engineering. Mechanist,” she continued. “But I looked at the roster. Trying to get to know everyone before we land, right? Before we all go crazy.”
She laughed as Ankhora gave her a horrified look.
“I’m just kidding,” she said, standing abruptly. “Only some of us will go crazy.”
She winked down at Ankhora, who still stared silently up at her.
“Anyway, I just came to tell you grub’s on. I heard the cook’s pretty good. You’d have to be, with the rations they’ve sent us with. Come on.”
Ankhora stood and stretched, following Tee toward the galley, for the first time feeling a twinge of uncertainty.
I write for fun and to make sure my sister doesn't beat me in our blog challenge.