229 by Celia York

Ranger 229 stepped out of his aircraft and onto the squishy, purple surface of the unknown planet. He stood motionless for a few moments, surveying the lifeless landscape. Softly moving in quiet waves, undulating ground stretched as far as he could see. Red, spiky plants, gently bobbing with the movement of the ground, reached up towards an orange sky. Weird, he thought, as his body lightly went up and down, up and down.

He turned and yelled back into the aircraft. “410, you coming?”

“Yeah, sorry, I just got tangled up in a wire back there. It’s really hard to maneuver in these suits.”

229 rolled his eyes and resumed his surveillance of the alien landscape. Of course, they had to stick me with a newbie, he thought. 

“I tested the oxygen levels. You can lose the helmet. Just bring the backpack with the testing equipment,” he called to 410.

229 heard 410 clank down the landing stairs behind him. 

“What the …” 410’s voice died away.

“Yeah, definitely one of the stranger places I’ve been to. Does kinda remind me of that one planet with the purple toads though.” 229 rubbed his grizzled chin.

410 crossed his arms and stared at the strange landscape in silence.

“Well,” 229 said, abruptly remembering that he was not being attacked by purple toads, “we should get a move on.” This could be the one, he thought. But he had thought that about every planet he explored in his twenty years with the SWO.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” 410 asked, staying put on the landing stairs.

“Yeah. The preliminary scans showed no signs of hostiles.”

410 gingerly put one foot on the waving ground.

“I don’t like this,” he said between gritted teeth as his body began to gently bob.

“You’ll be fine,” 229 said, shaking his head. “Anyways, I ran some last-minute calculations as we were landing, and if there is any usable water on this planet, it’s somewhere over in that direction.” He gestured to the right.

“Whatever you say,” 410 replied.

They set off, 410 walking slightly behind 229. The unfamiliar movement under their feet made progress slow; also, the purple ground waves were coming towards them, further hindering their advance.

“I’ve been wanting to ask you, why this planet?” 410 asked. “Like why did they send us here? They hurried us off so quickly that I never had a chance to ask questions.” 

“Well, all the preliminary checks came back pretty positive: like I said earlier, the scans showed no signs of hostiles. This planet also has a vast area, so if there is water, there’s a chance there’ll be a lot of it.”

“That’s all we’re going on?” 410 said.

“I’ve made exploratory trips on a lot less before,” 229 replied gruffly. 

“So, uh, how many of these missions have SWO sent you on?”

229 thought for a moment. “Twenty-three, or somewhere around there.”

“Wow. And no water on any of them?”

“No,” 229 said with a hint of bitterness in his voice.No, no water. And we only have a month to find it before things get ugly. After a minute, he said, “Well, of course there was Tarmus, which has enough to tide over things back home for the next decade or so, but none of them had enough to solve the water shortage long-term.” 

“Wait, you were on the team that went to Tarmus?” 410’s eyes widened.

“Yeah, I led it.” 

“Whoosh,” 410 replied. 

After spending three cramped days with 410 on the aircraft, 229 understood that “whoosh” was his equivalent to “wow.” 229 thought back to that trip to Tarmus, the anticipation of exploring a new planet, the dangerous trek through the poison trees, the excitement of finding water, immediately followed by the disappointment of realizing there wasn’t nearly as much as they hoped there would be.

As they continued on, 229 noticed that the waves under their feet were getting softer, wetter almost. Their color was changing, too: the original vibrant purple was fading into a dark indigo. 

“Do you think there’s one out there?” 410’s voice broke through his thoughts.

“One what?” 229 asked.

“A planet with vast reserves of good water?” 410 said.

“I gave my whole life to this job. You better believe I think there’s one out there,” 229 said. “The way I see it, with the millions of planets out there, the chances of at least one having usable water may be low but definitely not zero.

“Well, if there is, I’m going to be the one to find it,” 410 said with smug naivety. 

“Sure you are,” 229 replied sarcastically. He failed to notice the determined tightening of 410’s jaw. I’ve spent 20 years looking, and the kid thinks he’s going to do what I can’t. 229 thought back to his first years with the Search for Water Organization. He had started out a lot like 410: incompetent, but full of assurance that he would win fame for his imminent discoveries.

“Are we still going in the right direction?” 410 asked.

“Yeah,” 229 replied shortly, looking down at the tracker in his hand.

“What’s that?” 410 said suddenly, his voice slightly higher than usual. He pointed out towards the horizon.

229 put his hand to his forehead and peered out from under it. A grayish, unmoving wall loomed in the distance. 

“I don’t know, but I’m guessing we’ll find out soon enough,” 229 replied.

***

  “You ready for a climb?” 229 asked his companion, glancing down at the tracker in his hand.

 “Are you sure this is where we’re supposed to go?”

 “According to the tracker.” 

 He stood at the foot of the wall, 410 by his side. Now, at close proximity, they could see that it was formed of hard, gray rock which gently sloped up from the undulating ground towards the sky. They began the ascent, 229 slightly in the lead. He tried to keep hope from rising in his heart: after so many disappointing missions, he had learned it was better to remain pessimistic. Looking up, 229 calculated that they were about halfway to the top. As he grew nearer and nearer to the summit, a faint lapping sound began to reach his ears. Could it be? Finally clambering up the last stretch of the slope, 229 stood on the top of the wall, and his heart leapt into his throat.

Water. A vast blue lake of water stretched to the horizon, edged all around by the gray wall. The slope abruptly ended a foot away from where he stood, dropping straight down a shore of jagged, red rocks.

 “Whoosh,” 410 said breathlessly, coming up beside 229.

“We’ll have to test it to be sure,” 229 said, trying to keep his voice level. “Turn around.”

 He reached into 410’s backpack and pulled out a little device and a thin line of rope. Tightly knotting the rope around a ring on the side of the device, he carefully lowered the device into the lake. He waited for two minutes, his heart racing. Finally, he pulled the dripping device back up to where they stood. With breathless anticipation, he eagerly turned it over in his hands. In green letters on the device screen, he read “H2O.” A shaky grin broke out over his face.

He handed the device to 410. 410 looked up with a gleam in his eye.

 “Is there enough?” 410 asked.

“Let’s find out.” 229 grabbed another gadget from the backpack and lowered it into the lake with the rope. After a few minutes of waiting, he drew the gadget back up. As he read the results, his mouth opened wide, and his eyebrows raised.

“What? What does it say?” 410 yelled.

229 slowly turned the gadget around so that 410 could see.

“But, but how is that possible?” 410 sputtered. “How could there be that much water in this one lake?”

“Don’t you see?” 229 said. “Earlier, you said, ‘this must be what walking on water feels like.’ That’s literally what we were doing. The whole surface of this planet sits on water. This lake is merely a spring of it, merely the tip of the iceberg. 410, there’s enough water here to save humanity for centuries.” 

229 turned and gazed out over the lake. Suddenly, he twisted around. 

“We need to radio in our discovery.” He took a step towards 410. “Let me see your backpack.”

410 took a step back. “Not a chance.”

“What did you just say?” 229 rapidly twisted around. 

“You just told me we made the discovery of a lifetime, and you think I’m going to share that with anyone?”

410 dropped the gadget and charged him. He grabbed 229’s wrists and attempted to shove him off of the wall.

“Stop!” 229 shouted, digging his feet into the gray shale and trying to wrest himself out of 410’s strong grip. He broke his right hand free and slammed his fist into 410’s face. 410 violently lowered his shoulder into 229’s stomach. 229 grunted and fell to the ground. Rapidly dropped to his knees on 229’s chest, 410 wrapped his hands around the older man’s throat. 229 desperately threw his fist up, connecting solidly with 410’s nose. Releasing 229’s throat, 410 clutched at his nose. 229 scrambled to his feet, gasping for air. Tears blurring his eyes, he blindly ran at 410, colliding with the other man.

He heard a horrible scream as he fell forward onto the ground. As he lifted his head up, he heard a crunch. He dragged his body to the edge of the wall and looked down. 410’s mangled body lay on the rough, rocky shore. 229 rolled over on his back and closed his eyes, trying to catch his breath and expel the horrid sight from his mind.

He lay there for a long time. Eventually, he sat up and wearily crawled to where 410 had dropped the backpack. He rifled through the bag until he found the radio. 

“229 checking in. Any one there?”

“This is Commander 5,” the voice said through the radio. “Anything to report?”

229 took a deep breath. “We found it.”

The radio was silent for a few moments. 

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I’m forwarding the numbers to you right now.” 229 pressed a button on the second gadget.

He heard the voice on the other side of the radio take in a sharp breath.

“We’re gonna make you famous, 229.”

229 stood up and walked to the edge of the cliff. He looked down at the remnants of 410.

“Great,” he said, shuddering.

“What’s wrong with you, man? You should be shouting with joy.”

Switching off the radio, 229 buried his face in his hands and sighed.