Barren Archipelago I
by Christopher W Gamsby
“So, that's an ocean.”
I walked toward a still blue expanse that covered the entire ground, except for rugged peaks that popped up to form islands. The mountains rose in a captivating luminescent gray. The late afternoon sun reflected from the mountain tops, creating a panorama of daytime lights that danced around the horizon as pockets of hot air drifted about in the distance. I reached the island's edge and slid my hand into the water. Up until then, I've only directly experienced water by touching slimy pink rocks in the caves of Perfection.
This water wasn't slick and didn't leave a grimy residue. I remember mom and dad once telling me that people bathed in water for hygiene before exo-suits were self-cleaning. It's difficult to imagine for someone whose never seen that happen. Just like how they once said that people would kill animals to eat their flesh. Despite being a waste of animals, what stopped the sentinels from attacking once you killed one? While sitting on the edge of the ocean, cleaning just felt like a waste of water.
Around then I noticed that X hadn't joined me at the water's edge and I removed my hand and looked back at the ship. X cowered inside the cockpit, staring out at the water's edge. I stood back up, walked back to the ship and met him.
"Don't tell me you're afraid of this water?"
“Of course! That's deadly! And, they say if you fall in no one will ever be able to recover your data...”
X's visor flashed orange, pink, and then blue. I laughed at his absurdity, but he didn't appreciate my callous attitude.
“Ok, X, how about we only explore the land right now, and then we'll go back to the ship?”
I ended up arguing with X for hours. He just wouldn't come out of the ship until long after dark, when he could no longer see the ocean and the water. He climbed down the starboard side of the pilot compartment's hull. He misjudged the ground's location and fell the last meter and hit the packed ash dirt with a thud. I helped X to his feet, and we walked for the nearby mountain. In retrospect, falling off the mountain in the darkness was probably a much more realistic threat than X falling in the ocean on the beach, but fear isn't always rational.
We arrived at the mountain's most shallow incline and began hiking up the winding trail. Sheer cliffs dropped off both sides, but thankfully the cliffs fell into a beach and not water. Otherwise, X would likely still be atop those cliffs to this day. The mountain was unusual compared to the packed sand and limestone mountains of Perfection. The trail was made of a light gray volcanic rock. The coarse stone helped with our footing, but it felt fragile at the same time. According to my exo- suit's sensors, each step grinding the bottom of my feet which expedited the drain on the system's power core.
After a few uncertain minutes trudging up the cliff, we arrived at the mountain's summit. I may be taking a few liberties calling that small hill a mountain, but memory is funny, and we tend to make memories a little more stressful than they were. X laid out flat when we reached the summit, and I activated my visor's scanning mode. A radio wave pulse shot from my exo-suit, and a few moments later small icons appeared on my HUD. I turned to face a nearby island and zoomed in.
The island was little more than a pumice arch cresting from the water and then dipping below the surface again. A pillar of nickel-rich stone rose in front of the island, glowing a dark blue. I placed a waypoint on my visor, so I could collect the stone at my convenience and continued to survey the skyline. A strange industrial compound sat on another nearby island.
A single story building sat in the middle of the compound. Tubes exited the building and snaked into the nearby mountain. Two-meter spherical drums dotted the complex to collect whatever they were harvesting. Honey bee shaped sentinels about the size of a sports ball flew around the compound. They were possibly guarding the place against theft, or monitoring the machines, or transporting the collected material somewhere else. Back then I had no idea what the sentinels did, but it also didn't seem important.
White flakes began to drift by as I monitored the facility. X and I were confused since we were even closer to the system's sun and it shouldn't have been able to snow. The snow didn't fall. It hung in the air and floated by our roost on the cliff. The snow continued for several minutes, and we searched the sky to find the source, but we failed even to see a cloud. The sky's color changed.
The sky above the factory changed from pitch black to a glowing red hue streaked with yellow. The snow grew larger, and the number of flakes multiplied as it fell to the ground. Smoke billowed from the mountain's top. X and I realized the 'snow' was ash falling from the mountain, which was a volcano. The pipes attaching the plant's building to the volcano seared red. The nearby sentinels frenzied and we ran down the mountain. X forgot his fear of water, and I forgot the fear of falling, and we rushed toward the ship.
The ground shook by the time we entered the cockpit. I shot off the boosters and propelled us into the lower atmosphere. We hovered in place examining the glowing crater; wondering if we should leave the planet or wait. The volcano fell silent without erupting, and the sky returned to night, but we decided to exit the area and find a safer location to explore.