Empire of the Setting Suns

8 02 2012

Like spray whipped from a wave, grains of regolith blew from the crest of the dune that stretched away to either side of Sze Leng and Ruslan. These shifting, shimmering sheets of dust were held aloft by the thick atmosphere and carried away by the wind, a force patiently shaping and rearranging the surface of Fram.

They sat in the lee of the dune, slightly beneath the crest. Sze Leng sat in front of Ruslan and her slender body was huddled up against him. Stretching away before them was a rippled surface, a sea of regolith wrinkled into dunes and gathered in parallel curves by katabatic winds. This was Fram’s softer landscape: kilometres of deep regolith uninterrupted by outcroppings of fractured bedrock or by the spalling of craters, although both underlay this basin, Ruslan knew, tens of meters below the surface.

Ruslan adjusted his faceplate by rubbing his chin against the top of Sze Leng’s head.

“Well worth the hike,” Sze Leng said.

Her voice was quiet, and Ruslan tapped the volume on his mike.

“We first noticed it in an areomagnetic survey,” Ruslan explained. “You can’t tell from the regolith, but this entire basin is pockmarked with craters that show up on the magnetometer. We think they’re quite ancient, based on the layering of regolith. The deeper layers have lithified into eolianite .”

“Oh.”

Alpha Centauri B was almost below the horizon. Its orange-yellow light illuminated the sky above its disc in a stunning stratum of incandescent orange through a fiery spectrum to vermillion. The ocean of dunes stretched off to the horizon. The setting suns lit the crests as darkness gathered in the troughs between dunes, creating alternating bands of gold and deep purple. Fram’s ring bisected the sunset, and cast an almost translucent shadow across the sky and landscape – offset from Alpha B by Fram’s marginal axial tilt.

Separated from Alpha B by an apparent distance of perhaps half the diameter of its disc was Alpha Centauri A, an intensely bright point a thousand times brighter than the full moon from Earth, but which could be entirely blocked out by a thumb held outstretched. Although higher in the sky than Alpha B, Alpha A was following B below the horizon.

“Tell me there’s nothing to mine out here,” Sze Leng said. “It would be such a shame.”

She turned her head over her right shoulder to face him and Ruslan sensed that she was grinning, but the gesture was lost in the glaring reflection of the sunsets in her faceplate.

“The underlying bedrock showed concentrations of magnetite and iron oxide. That’s how we detected the craters. But they’re not rich concentrations.”

Sze Leng’s head rolled lazily back into that comfortable space where Ruslan’s neck met his shoulder at the collarbone, and she stared upwards. The stars had begun to populate the darkening sky with glimmers of white, red and blue, flickering in the shifting atmosphere. Her eyes immediately sought familiarity: the trinity of stars that composed Orion’s Belt, and the brightening sparks of Rigel and Betelgeuse, a formation of lights unchanged by the distance from Home.

“Sometimes, when I’m out surveying,” Ruslan whispered, “I try to think of what will be here in a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years. We’re just starting out. Imagine a city that stretches from the Colonies out here to the Periphery, a great city, like those we left behind on Earth. Maybe someone will live here, eat here, sleep here, right where we are sitting, and will watch the suns set like us.”

Sze Leng smiled.

“Maybe.” she replied, dreamily. “Maybe, when we’ve warmed Fram and thinned the atmosphere, this plain will be a forest, filled with tall, spindly trees, creating soil and turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. And lovers will walk through the gardens, maybe even without suits, dreaming of some place called Earth.”

Sze Leng turned around so that she was facing Ruslan, and, without the tall reflection of the sunsets in her faceplate, Ruslan could see the look of wonder on her face.

Alpha B slipped beneath the dusty horizon, and the twilight deepened. Ruslan imagined Fram spinning, and the terminator line between light and dark crawling over its face. The sky above him grew blue-black, chasing the plum, vermillion and deep red toward the horizon. Amundsen was behind them, close to setting in the east; lit by both stars, it glowed brighter as the day dwindled away, turning the blackness around it into the colour of faded rubber.

The intoxicating majesty of the sunsets diminished, and Ruslan’s thoughts became darker.

“Maybe nations will rise and fall and fight over these dusty plains.”

Caught between day and night, framed by the light of both moon and star, Sze Leng stirred and asked,

“Should we head back?”

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