The civilian transport ship is smaller than most and more crowded than I ever anticipated. All night, the narrow metal bunks rattle along with the constant shaking of the ship, making sleep difficult to come by. I keep jolting awake, thinking we are in the midst of landing, only to find that we are still hours from our destination.
At last, eyes burning from lack of rest, I pull myself out of the thin, scratchy blankets, and swing my legs free of the padded shelf that passes for a bed. I have to be careful not to dent my skull on the bed above mine, where my coworker is fast asleep. The room is almost too small for us to both stand and walk past each other without having some sort of collision.
I throw a light jacket over my wrinkled top and zip it up halfway. I take a quick peek in the mirror, seeing sleepy hazel eyes, and a crease from the pillow across my cheek that I hope doesn’t become a permanent feature.
Transport ship or not, the hallways are mostly deserted this early in the morning. I only see a few members of the ship’s live-in crew bustling about. A familiar looking alien catches my eye and must see the exhaustion on my face or in my gait.
“There’s coffee one floor up on the observation deck,” he says, and then adds: “complimentary,” to cement the temptation.
I nod my thanks and head for the stairs. At this point, I’m willing to sell my soul for a cup. The observation deck is as dated as the ship, but it is perhaps the only place where such details don’t matter. The entire west wall is a window, allowing anyone sitting here to gaze out at the planet we’re approaching. I quickly snag a cup of coffee, heavy on the sugar, from the self-serving kiosk and grab a seat. Other than an old Cryeum alien sitting hunched at a table in the corner, I have the place to myself. I sit nearly as close to the window as I can get.
Veloria is just as beautiful as I’ve imagined; the photographs and vids I’ve seen don’t do it justice. At the moment, my ship is approaching from an angle that allows me to see both halves of the planet at once.
The fire-side is not quite an inferno, as an imaginative child might picture when hearing the name, but rather a mixture of lush green jungles, burning deserts, and volcanic rock. Some regions are merely uncomfortably hot, while others are so heated as to be dangerous for humans to venture into without medical precautions and protective clothing.
The ice-side is much the same, with snowy forests and mountains as cold as the arctic regions of the Earth, coupled with freezing tundra ripped bare by biting winds; so cold that most humans could scarcely fathom it.
That is exactly where I’m headed, and I have never been more excited about a project. My supervisor and I had pretty low hopes for getting our series produced initially, but to our shock it was picked up fairly quickly. The small run of episodes aired last year won good reviews and garnered a good viewership, and so I was given clearance to make more. People living inside the Federation capital have a great deal of curiosity regarding the universe outside their view, and it is my job to sate it.
When at last the deck begins to fill with other jet-lagged stumbling passengers, I throw away my empty cup, pick up a fresh one, and head back down the stairs. I’m nearly there when the landing procedures begin, complete with a blaring announcement, warning passengers to find a seat. As I return to my cabin, it feels as though the already rickety ship is on the verge of shaking apart.
My roommate and camera operator—and closest friend—is somehow fast asleep. It is a talent of hers. No matter the circumstance, all she has to do is close her eyes and tilt her head back against the nearest flat or soft surface, and she falls effortlessly unconscious. “Lena,” I say, several times, with increasing volume. When that doesn’t work, I find her thin shoulder beneath the blankets and give her a shake.
“You better be waking me up because I’m missing a truly amazing shot.”
“You’re missing coffee,” I say, “which by my definition is just as important.”
Lena groans, sits up, and bumps her head on the low ceiling above the upper bunk. “Ugh,” she mumbles, prodding at what will surely be a bruise. She then holds her hand out, grasping for the coffee. I pass it over, where she takes a sip without even bothering to ascertain the temperature.
“You’re also missing the fiery inferno this ship has the potential to become during our crash landing.”
She takes another swig of the coffee, combing the fingers of her free hand through her unkempt hair. “I’ve been on worse transports,” she says.
The ship lurches what seems to be several yards in the air. Lena’s coffee bounces out of her grip and splatters across the floor of the tiny room, nearly covering it in its entirety. She stares at it mournfully.
“You’re right. Crashing and death seem imminent. Could be the shot of a lifetime. I’ll get up—but only if you promise to narrate the shit out of the crash while I film it.”
“Done,” I say.
Before she leaves the bed, she tosses the sheets and blankets onto the floor. I do my best to mop up the mess with my socked foot without losing my balance and falling.
“Hurry it up,” I say, pulling my bag free from where it is stowed beneath the bed beside Lena’s. “If we survive the landing, we should try to be the first ones on the ramp. There’s a shot.”
“Ah, yes. I can see it,” Lena says, voice edging toward sarcastic. “The people streaming out of the ship around us, the splendor of the Velorian docking zone below, the excitement of taking our equipment through security, the—“
I flick her arm. I am nearing thirty, and in any other circumstances, would consider myself too mature for such antics. With Lena, though, things are different. I can be myself instead of the calm, collected version I present to the world on screen.
She has known me since university on the same space station, and there is no point in trying to show her the same façade I show the camera. She snickers, but stops listing things. I change out of my sweats and t-shirt, rumpled and stale from two days of travel, and put on a slightly nicer looking ensemble containing tailored pants and a blouse that makes the green in my eyes stand out. Lena chooses a similar style; she tends to dress more extravagantly than I do when the occasion calls for it, but as we don’t know exactly what our plans are for the day, versatility is important. We are landing on the ice-side of Veloria, so most of the clothing will be hidden beneath our sturdy, specially made coats.
We shrug them on just as the ship jolts to a final halt, not wanting to freeze as soon as we step off. Our pants are lined with warm material as well, but not nearly so restrictive as the jackets.
Lena frowns as she feels the fabric between two fingers. “If they hadn’t made us spend all our money on these things, maybe we could have paid for passage on a decent ship.”
“Maybe,” I say, shouldering the duffle with my personal belongings and then the pack with my share of the equipment. “But it’s not like there are many vessels headed all the way out here to choose from.”
We shuffle out of the room and down the corridor slowly, waiting for our turn to disembark. “Our own ship then,” Lena suggests.
“That would require our own pilot,” I remind her. “And just decent viewership doesn’t merit our own huge crew. That requires outrageous numbers.”
“You’re such an optimist,” she says, knocking her shoulder companionably against mine.
Ahead of us, the first flakes of snow drift through the open doors, floating over the heads of the passengers.
We only take a few overarching shots of the Capital city of Daru at which we have landed. Its buildings are mostly white and silver, made from some otherworldly material I am not familiar with. It could almost blend in with the stark, snowy landscape in the background, appearing as a mirage from the distance.
Despite its beauty, I cannot help but notice how undeniably small the city is. It is supposedly the biggest one on the planet, and it acts as a stark reminder of the fact that even though many years have passed since the species was nearly wiped out by the Xzerg, the effects still linger. It takes a population a long time to recover from such a trauma.
I do my own investigation while Lena circles the landing docks, searching for the best possible view, and quickly find out that there are activities occurring outside the limits of the Capital that we shouldn’t miss. I am wearing a grin when we find Lena, half of me not believing that we’ve lucked into arriving on such a day.
“Metro’s this way,” I say, pointing out the sign.
“But the Capital?”
“It’s a holiday. There’s a festival,” I answer. “I’m sure there are celebrations in the Capital as well, but we’re going for authenticity here. Might have better luck with that in a smaller town.”
Lena films as we walk, aiming her lens at both the visitors and the native Velorians. They are such a unique-looking species that I have a hard time not staring myself. I have seen pictures and vids, but they are still capable of drawing the eye. All adults are taller than all but the tallest of humans, and broader as well. Among the Ice Velorians, their skin ranges from the palest of ice blues to colors so dark they remind me of the ocean at night. There are even a few who seem to have notes of green in their pigmentation.
“There’s a holiday we didn’t know about before we came?”
“It’s not surprising,” I answer. “Very little research has been done about their culture. Most of the information we know comes from the scientific community, regarding things like soul-bonds and their genetic compatibility with humanoid species—plus a bit about their politics and history. Tourism and interest in the planet have really only picked up recently.”
“Still,” Lena says. “You’d think they’d put up a banner or something. What’s it celebrating?”
“The end of the Xzerg wars. It’s the anniversary.”
We are in good spirits as we arrive at the village nearest Daru. Even though the buildings are still barely visible on the skyline, it has the look of a place much further removed, with small buildings that almost look to be made from the ice itself. The people stare at us a bit, as we are the only tourists who seem to have left the city to wander this far, but it does not last long enough to make either of us uneasy. After a year of doing the same thing on other exotic planets, I am growing used to this.
The Velorians gather in small groups, clumped on the street and making it difficult to navigate. Most of them are dressed in the garb of mercenaries or soldiers, perhaps the most popular occupation for those who work off-world, and I get the sense that this holiday is a sort of homecoming for them. We do not speak to anyone just then, taking time to observe the sights on our own, though of course Lena’s camera is up and filming, just in case the shot of a lifetime happens to wander past.
Most of the things worth seeing seem to be in the center of the town. The houses are farther apart than I am used to seeing. Other than vacations and things seen on this job, I have always lived in stations, where people live stacked on top of each other and space is used very carefully.
Today, decorations have taken over the town. Ribbons adorn signposts and streamers stretch between buildings. Torches have been stuck into the snow. An abundance of carts laden with foods and trinkets for sale are being set up. It strikes me as odd for a moment, to see the vendors behind them, selling things to the gathering lines. I am not used to seeing Velorians who are not warriors of some sort, as that is the way they are always portrayed.
I catch the eye of the closest vendor, an older male Velorian, and step forward.
“Would you mind if we asked you some questions?”
I ask everything I can think of until my voice grows hoarse and my interviewees, when I find them, begin to look bored. Most people are happy to jump in front of a camera if it means an increase in sales, though the majority of them stick to the standard Velorian format of relatively terse answers.
Lena and I try a few foods that range from far too spicy and vaguely slimy to absolutely amazing. I step in front of the camera several times, giving speeches about the town spread out before me and the people who live within it. Our camera has been received with skepticism on several planets from episodes past, but here, everyone seems welcoming, and when I explain that we are filming a documentary series about travel, and life on planets beyond the Federation, they seem more enthusiastic still.
Throughout what remains of the day, we are guided through the town each time we lose our way. It is much like a festival would be in a small town on Earth, with short parades cropping up throughout the city, meant to honor the Velorians who fought in the war. There are games and rides hastily constructed to cater to the children (and Lena, who never hesitates to try anything and manages to drag me along). Tents of every color and every size are springing up all over; some are open to one side, selling things, while others are closed off, and seem to be made for travelers to sleep in.
We never run out of things to film.
As night falls, the activities grow more outlandish. Between buildings, Velorians spar with one another in some sort of bizarre tournament. No one seems to be in charge of it, and yet it never disintegrates into something disorganized. At the final fight, the crowd gathers close, pressing Lena against my side, the camera held high so that it can view both the crowd and the match. I use my small notebook to scribble down thoughts as they occur to me. This is not the sort of situation I would ruin by narrating aloud. My voice can always be recorded later and spliced over the footage. For a time, the sound of flesh striking flesh dominates, along with the indrawn breaths and muttered oaths spoken by the crowd. When it finally ends, there is no cheering as one would expect, but rather quiet congratulations and nods of respect, with the jingling of coins as people exchange money based upon the outcome.
It has grown dark now, and Lena shoots me an exhausted smile. “Break?” she asks.
It takes us no time at all to find someone willing to point out the place with the best food.
I don’t know why, but I find myself already growing attached to this land and its people—perhaps it is the juxtaposition of such a harsh land coupled with such warmth from the people who live here. They have resolve, but they also show more kindness and acceptance than we have found on many worlds.