The last electric crack of my lash seemed to fall out of the air as we all shuddered into stillness. Even my horse, Falter, who had been in the middle of rearing against the nearest foe, dropped to the ground and trembled. Was it even our bodies that shook, or was it the atmosphere? Every neck was suddenly arching upwards and following the descent of the object falling from the sky. Even from afar and through the blue-tinted glass of our city dome, there was no mistaking it: the flash of its gleaming outer shell, the sputtering licks of flame generating a thin line of black smoke. This was a vessel. A vessel!
Years later, when I would think back to all those humbled, skyward gazes, I would vividly remember the quiet, the sudden peace in the midst of what had been a battle moments before. I would think of you and feel a warm sphere gratitude rotate within me. But in the moment, my heart was leaping painfully out of my chest, my skin prickling unpleasantly with the instinctive terror of a person confronted with the impossible. I glanced around me as several humans fell to their knees, some wailing and tearing at their clothes in jubilation, some weeping silently, prayerfully. Falter, a braver creature than I, had regained her composure underneath me and shifted restlessly.
The cult that had become known as the Stargazers had been attempting, for as long as our history could remember, to prove that Old Earthers had not really left us behind. They had transformed, over the centuries, from a tiny society of desperate fools to a full-blown religious organization across multiple cities of the Waste. They excavated precious farm grounds, destroyed some of the oldest buildings, even occasionally penetrated the protective jewel shield–killing thousands with a flood of radiation. All this in search of ships that didn’t exist, technology that had long left the planet, evidence that Old Earthers would come back for us, free us from our confined lives, and invite us–finally–to join them in the Galactic Society.
On the day you arrived, I and the other rangers were subduing their attack on our quadrant’s library of Ancients. Their latest fantasy–derived from mystic interpretations of old data fragments–was that deep under the library, the Old Earthers had hidden a starship. These zealots devoted little thought to how such an ancient ship could possibly still be functional. Even the most advanced alloys of our forebears could not withstand over two millennia. One need only look out through the jewel shield at the hundred-mile expanse of dust stretching in every direction to understand that. But now, in an instant, everything had radically changed.
The Stargazers were wild, ecstatic, joyful. They were vindicated, after so long! The six of them danced and sang, dropping their weapons and disabling their explosive device. They all ran with abandon in the direction of the glinting light as it fell, all completely unable to articulate the sudden rush of hope and wonder that filled our bellies. We all ran, automatically drawn to this distant beacon, the way all warm creatures are drawn to light, until the booming crash reverberated through the shield glass, the windows of every building in our city, the very ground beneath us, and stopped us dead in our tracks.
The council of elders moved quickly after that. I hardly remember the hours that followed, only that all the rangers were mobilized in a city-wide effort to contain and calm the population. The question rang from every corner, from balconies above, storefronts, schools, farmlands, it spiraled in my heart, circling and circling until I could scarcely breathe: Have they come for us?
Eventually, after word had reached every single member of our community, the consensus was reached. Someone, the lead city ranger, would be suited up and sent out. Can I say? I somehow knew I would be the one sent to you as soon as I saw you fall from the sky. A strictly reconnaissance mission, they reminded me as my legs and arms were locked into the reflective plates of the radiation suit, one of only three available in our city. I was only to investigate the nature of the object from a safe distance, record as much data as I could, and return back immediately. Surrounding me were two members of the elder council and two rangers from my team. The suit was heavy but had good articulation, fitted to my shape as closely as was comfortable. All the eyes around me were wide and dilated. The hands that were not locking me into my suit were wringing ceaselessly. All anyone could manage to say were the call-and-response procedures of my preparation. Torso secure? Confirmed. Bracers secure? Confirmed. Airflow initiated. Confirmed.
I could not tell what I felt in that moment. Something burned in my chest, every breath, every shift felt like a shock. My eyes fixed on Falter as she stood perfectly still, muscles rippling and eyes ahead while her armor was fitted. She was a born hero, ready at any moment to protect, explore, defend. As my helmet was fitted over my head and pressurized, I closed my eyes and tried to clear it of any thought but her. Instead, behind my eyes burned the image of that vessel, falling from the sky. Falling from space–and in my lifetime!
“Ranger 19-18?” My teammate, Ranger 07-20–Tee for fun– repeated. “Nyne, are you ready?” He couldn’t seem to get his breath above a whisper, such was the strain of his emotion. I opened my eyes, slowly raising them to his to regard this face, this familiarity one last time. For the first time since spotting the vessel, I smiled.