Tethys placed her hand on the viewport as her spacecraft skimmed the upper atmosphere of a pristine, new world. It was a beautiful and oceanic world, and through the mild, orange glow of atmospheric resistance, she could see the planet's oceans below. They were a deep and mesmerizing blue, and the continents were like green puzzle pieces, floating and waiting to be assembled. Many of the smoothed shores were guarded by lengthy and beautiful reefs that sprawled out into the deeper darkness of the blue waters, and the land was covered in dense vegetation and winding rivers that caught the light of the red sun with every orbit.
Most of all, it was a world with breathable air.
Her species, with the aid of advanced technology, had circumvented most of the physical limitations of her ancestors, but Tethys still needed air to breathe. Yes, even her heartbox allowed her to change her most vital and ephemeral organ when its time ran out, granting her relative immortality, but she still needed oxygen to survive. Thanks to her people's technology, she had lived for several of the lifetimes of her ancestors, and she, fortunately, stood in her ship with a fresh heart in her chest at that moment. Another lifetime lie ahead of her if she could survive, and her heart beat so strongly with the hope that she just might.
Tethys poked a control screen and enlarged her orbital trajectory after sitting down in the pilot's seat. With tired, silver eyes, she watched the circles wrap around the sphere of the planet in an animation on the screen. The reality was she was nearly out of fuel, and from the data she could see, and with the mildness of her aero-braking, it was clear that she would run out of breathable air before slowing enough to fully enter the atmosphere. She didn't have enough fuel to slow herself and still land; it was one or the other -- reentry or land. Without landing, she would suffocate in a matter of days.
Her spirit sank. "It's all because of air," Tethys growled as she slammed her fists down onto the panels with a lump forming in her throat. "Air," she thought. "Yes, air! That's right!" She performed a flurry of calculations and orbital simulations on the flight computer, and her epiphany turned out to be entirely possible.
She would evacuate the atmosphere to slow the spacecraft down.
It was a long shot, but Tethys was afire with adrenaline. It had to work. She knew it would work, and she made the preparations with bated breath. She tried desperately to calm herself, her pulse, and her breathing for the sake of her survival, because she would need every bit of air she had left in her suit's life support tanks in order to survive the orbits and descent while in vacuum.
She latched her helmet.
Tethys wrenched on manual valves to the brief sound of alarms while the atmosphere hissed out into the cold blackness of space. The expelled air puffed out into a moisture-laden cloud in front of the spacecraft and deposited its water droplets onto the viewports. The moisture beaded and ran down the panels like a rain shower, but they were quickly seared away as the spacecraft entered its first, more steep aero-brake maneuver. It was working. The spacecraft was slowing considerably faster, and as it did so, the alarms in the interior of the craft went silent. There was no more air through which the sound could travel. Surrounded in flashing, red lights, Tethys strapped herself into the pilot's seat; she was then on borrowed time.
It was a long six hours. It was dozens of brutal orbits. She slept for a few minutes at a time, lingering on the edge of twilight consciousness and suddenly waking from a violent dream of the cataclysm that sent her to her present situation. The deep space colony vividly burst into shards as she opened her eyes.
Her suit buzzed. The life support was nearly empty, and it was time.
The spacecraft interior began to glow a warm yellow color as it entered its final approach that would send it plunging deep into the atmosphere. The yellow quickly evolved to a reddish orange, and then to a deep red as the viewports seemed to burn, themselves, with the hellish fires of atmospheric reentry. The vehicle shook violently, and Tethys could feel her heart pounding in its box. She struggled not to breathe heavily, but she couldn't help it. The extreme forces on her body gave her no other option. She had to. She gasped and nearly sobbed, knowing she had just minutes of air to spare -- just seconds of breath still there for her.
The violent glow subsided, and the blue sky of the planet's early morning overwhelmed the girl at the controls. The warm light washed over everything. Tethys was dizzy and weak, and her suit's life support was exhausted. She was unable to open the ports to allow the external atmosphere back into the interior of the ship, so she was forced to hold her breath as the altimeter neared its waypoint marker for thrusters to engage and slow the descent.
Five thousand meters.
Four thousand meters ... her lungs were on fire.
Three thousand meters.
Two thousand meters.
One thousand meters ... she gasped desperately.
The engines engaged and pressed her deep into the seat with their intense rumble, slowing the craft to just a crawl before slamming into the hard surface, onto the hard earth.
Tethys ripped off her seat restraints. Her legs were rubber as she stumbled to the airlock; her lungs burned like hell as she gasped and gasped for air in her oxygen depleted suit. The lock opened. The atmosphere gusted in, and she stumbled out of the ship and onto the marshy ground. She tore off her hoses and connectors in a frenzy, broke the seal on her helmet, and gasped for air as the foliage around her ship started to burn brightly.
Yes, she brought in that damp, coolness into her nostrils and deep into her lungs in one violent surge, and in a wash of relief and grief, she shouted out with a primal scream into the lush wilderness to let the world know she was alive. She raised herself to her knees with a sickening head-rush. She was still there. She was alive.
Her chest surged again and again, and her heart beat in its box to the sound of wildlife and the crackle of flames around her. In that moment, as she looked at that new world and thought back on those she had lost -- as she thought back on her friends and family who had all been killed so suddenly in the destruction of the station and the asphyxiation that followed -- she wondered what it was all for. Sure, she survived, but she had no idea what she should do next. She was stranded on a new world with no help in sight, but, during that moment of quiet reflection, they somehow spoke out to her through the void, plainly and clearly in unison in her mind, with almost the echo of notes from a pipe organ or a piano in an empty room.
They said to her just one word as she kneeled there in the forest, in all its greenness and flourishing life.