Carefully, Francis Carter stepped off the edge of the gangplank and onto the alien soil. With practiced precision, he said: “With this step, mankind takes its place among the stars.”
There was a pneumatic hiss as the air seal was broken, and the metal plates of the hatch began to lower outward, extending into a gangplank. A faintly acrid scent that Lamont associated with an electrical fire singed his nostrils, and he momentarily thought that something had gone wrong with the hatch’s motor, before the composition of the planet’s atmosphere was recalled to his mind.
“Ozone,” he said, receiving acknowledging nods from the other members of the expedition party. The air that came through the hatchway was cool and crisp. For long moments, the expedition party stood together on the threshold, inhaling and exhaling. Lamont assumed that they were, like himself, lost in the surreal—what was the word he should use?—providence of the moment. Carter’s old words about the interior of Mars returned to him. Mankind had visited other worlds in the last few decades, and on each one, a visitor exposed unprotected to its atmosphere would be dead within seconds. Here, they breathed, and they exchanged glances with expressions of wonder. Lamont could not be sure whether the expression of giddiness he felt was more from the rarity of the air, or the exhilaration of the moment.
Behind them, Ed Spratt emerged from the inner portion of the space lift and leaned against the wall. The two technicians who followed him gaped at the view, but if Spratt was moved by it, he gave no indication. “Are you planning to step outside, or should I prep for ascent?”
“A little patience,” Captain Carter said in an absent tone. “There’s a lot to take in.”
“Right now, we’re taking in a hell of a draft,” Ed countered, coughing into his sleeve.
With another deep breath, Carter began to slowly descend the gangplank. The rest of the expedition party followed him, keeping at least two paces behind. As they left the confines of the space lift, the landscape opened around them. It occurred suddenly to Lamont that for the better part of a year, their view had been confined to objects no more than twenty feet away, or the infinite vastness of space—nothing in-between. Now, to see a horizon again, to be able to focus his eyes at any distance and find some new object occupying that space, was almost overwhelming.
The light had a violet tint to it that cast a pinkish hue to their expedition suits. Objects at a distance had an unexpected clarity to them, and the jagged outlines of the high, slender mountains that surrounded them were sharply set against a deep purple sky. The sun, rising behind them, cast a deep blue shadow in the shape of the space lift. They seemed to be directly in the center of a strangely circular patch of rocky white earth that curved upward like a shallow bowl to meet a ring of low foliage. Lamont remembered then that they were standing in the debris of the crater created by Westward’s anchor when it slammed into the planet’s surface.
Carefully, Francis Carter stepped off the edge of the gangplank and onto the alien soil. His white boot crunched loudly; the sound reminded Lamont of a beach he had visited off the English coast that was covered in the vacant shells of tiny sea creatures.
With practiced precision, Captain Carter said: “With this step, mankind takes its place among the stars.”