The blueness that greeted me when I opened my eyes made me believe that I was still on Earth. That was, until I tasted gritty sand in my mouth and realized I was lying facedown on the ground and not looking up at the sky. I sat up quickly, everything coming back to me in a rush that caused my head to spin. I layed back down before I could pass out. The onslaught of thoughts had given me a headache, and now I closed my eyes as I tried to work through what had happened.
There was a procedure for what to do if something like this happened. Now I took myself through the steps. Start with something easy, I recalled from the routine; Who are you?
My name is Zhang Wei, but my friends call me Zach. I am a General for the American Guard of Space Protection, or AGSP.
Another easy one: How old are you?
I am twenty-six years old.
The next question was a little harder. Where are you?
I had to pause to think for a minute. I thought back to where I had been before I had blacked out, and where I was going, and calculated how long it would have taken to reach the surface; to this information I added the rocky blue terrain, and I had an answer.
I am on the planet Kabo.
I did not need the splintered, crushed spaceship that I knew I would see when I opened my eyes to tell me the answer to that. Yet I forced my head to turn and my eyes to open. Sure enough, to my left was my spaceship. The landing had left its titanium walls as battered as a boulder. Water spurted out of a broken, exposed pipe and the smell of different gases was in the air. The windshield had been shattered, too. I had not had my seatbelt on, and this was probably how I had ended up outside of the ship.
I had gotten my spaceship when I first joined the AGSP four years ago in 2106, and seeing it now, on top of everything else, brought tears to my eyes. Suddenly, I was drowning in a sea of despair. A helpless sob built in my throat, but I swallowed it back. I could not cry.
I took another moment to recollect myself, and then went back to assessing the damage. My ship was in ruins, but how was I? There was no immediate pain except for the pounding in my head. I sat up; still no pain. My legs looked and felt fine. I owed this to the protective suit I was wearing. It was meant to do everything from cushion a landing to block bullets.
With a grunt of effort I pushed myself to my feet. When I didn't immediately crumple to the ground, I decided I really was okay. I began to walk toward my ship. My legs were a little wobbly, but that was from lying down for so long. As I approached the wreckage, I spotted my reflection in the ship's titanium side. My long black hair had come out of its ponytail and now hung in limp, stringy strands across my shoulders. My face was smudged with the same blue dust that clung to my hair and clothes. There was a large cut just above my right eyebrow; a chipped rock was wedged in between the skin there, and blood oozed around the wound. I grimaced; maybe I had not been so lucky.
Turning away from my beat-up reflection, I began to more closely examine my ship. Within minutes of inspecting it, I deemed it salvageable. It would be difficult. I would have to fix the burst pipe and any other important broken parts, as well as use some of the ship's own exterior plating to repair the windshield. However, it could be done. At AGSP we were taught to not stop fighting until we were already dead, and I was no exception.
I set my jaw, determining that by sunset tomorrow I would be on my way back to Earth. The first thing I had to do was take care of myself. I dug through the ship until I came up with a medical kit and some food. I found a small lake a little ways off from the wrecksite. Kabo’s earthlike atmosphere allows for both oxygen and water, making it the most similar planet to Earth to be discovered. They even shared a nickname—the Blue Planet.
I washed myself off in the lake and proceeded to clean and bandage the wound on my forehead. Then I ate a meal of various freeze-dried snacks and drank my weight in lake water. I pinned my hair back before returning to my ship.
Back at the crash site, I began to work on the busted water pipe. I found spare piping in the ship’s storage compartment, along with other helpful tools. The cutting, polishing, and soldering took all but an hour. However, when I went to turn the water back on, it began to spew out of a different section of the pipe, and I realized that by fixing the one area I had broken another. I had to turn off the water again and wait while it drained. Once the pipe was empty of water, I could begin cutting, polishing, and soldering all over again.
By sunset, I had completed almost everything. All I would have to do tomorrow is replace the windshield and restart the controls. Tired and sore from the nonstop repairs, I sat on my spaceship to watch the sun set. The sun was the only thing on Kabo that was not blue. Kabo’s odd coloring was due to a special pigment that was found only on this planet. During the day, the bright blue often overpowered the sun’s soft yellow, blocking out its light. At night, however, Kabo’s surface was bathed in shadow, and the sun made its final appearance in a dazzling light show of deep maroons and purples, magnificent yellows, and cotton-candy pinks.
Then came the best part. As the sun dipped lower and lower below the horizon, stars began to appear in the jet-black sky. At first it was just a few, dotting the sky here and there; then, as if being sprinkled on a cupcake, more and more appeared, layering on one another, clustering in heaps, winking and blinking and shining out at you.
I sighed contentedly, feeling happy and relaxed for the first time today. Wrapped in a recovered blanket and leaning against my spaceship’s sturdy structure, I closed my eyes and fell asleep with the knowledge that the stars would be watching over me during the night.
I woke up from a dream of being burned alive as the screams and chants of onlookers filled the air. The sun had already risen halfway through the sky, bringing the temperature with it, and I was stifling hot still wrapped in the blanket. I began to shrug off the blanket when I realized that the yelling voices had not faded with my dream. I froze and very slowly tilted my head down.
My spaceship was surrounded by tiny creatures. They were no taller than the length from the ground to my kneecap, and I was short. Abnormally skinny, with their joints sticking out in strange ways and a bluish tint to their skin, they would have appeared sickly had they been any other creature, but on them the look was almost comical. Small, fluorescent, furry wings stuck out of their stick-thin backs. Their wide eyes were all the same bright neon orange color and competed with their equally large noses for room on their faces. The creatures were everywhere. Most of them were digging among the wreckage. Some were playing in the lake. Others hung from the spaceship’s structure. I quickly counted them. There were twenty.
I am not sure what prompted my next reaction. I screamed. Twenty pairs of orange eyes turned to stare at me. I gulped. One of the creatures, distinguished from the others only by the tuft of green fur that capped head, dropped from its perch. It landed on the ground in a cloud of blue dust. For a moment it was obscured from my view; when I saw it again, it stood at my feet. The creature studied me. Around us, all of its comrades remained dead silent, watching what I suspected was their leader. The only sound that could be heard was the eerie whistle of wind on this desolate blue planet. Every part of me screamed to pull my legs away from the thing in front of me, but I kept still.
After a long period during which the creature examined me, it moved its head so that it was looking into my eyes. Then it opened its large mouth and began to speak in a rough voice. “Lotadilo lockney churvip…” Shaking its head, the creature broke off. For a moment, its face was twisted in concentration. Then it grunted and tried again. “Nǐ shì shuí?” The words registered immediately in my mind—Who are you?—though it took me a second to realize why I could understand what it had said; the creature had spoken in Chinese.
“Wǒ jiào zhāng wěi. Wǒ de yìsi shì méiyǒu shānghài,” I quickly responded, switching to my native tongue. My name is Zhang Wei. I mean no harm.
The creature nodded. It relayed what I had said to its companions, who also nodded. Turning back to me, it said, “Wǒmen bù xīwàng zàochéng nǐ de shānghài.” We do not wish to cause you harm, either.
“Nǐ huì shuō yīngyǔ ma?” Do you speak English?
“We,” the creature corrected me, “speak any and all languages.” At this remark, the surrounding creatures broke out in all different languages. I could catch traces of French, Spanish, and German, as well as languages I had never heard before. The voices rose into the air, swirling with the force and sound of a great hurricane. I could not form words to express my amazement, so instead I dipped my head in an appreciative gesture.
The leader, seeing my recognition of their ability, bellowed, “SILENCE!” The creatures’ mouths stilled in an instant, and once again the atmosphere was silent.
“I mean no harm,” I repeated. “I want to get off of this planet as much as you wish me gone. My ship crashed here yesterday. I have been working to get it repaired.”
“Yes, we have been watching you,” the leader said. A shiver ran through me at the thought of these things watching me unnoticed. “I know your name, Zhang Wei, but you do not know mine. That is not a proper meeting.”
“I agree. What is your name?”
“Your puny mouth could not say my true name. You may call me Gax.”
“Thank you,” I said, because that seemed like the only thing to say.
Gax peered up at me. “We do not like strangers on our planet, Zhang Wei. We are prepared to help you. We have the sufficient materials you need to fix your ship, and my comrades will assist you in repairing it. I only ask that, in return, you do something for us. I do not think you will find our request unreasonable. All that we require is that, once you are safely back on Earth, you convince your friends to leave Kabo alone.”
I considered the offer for a minute. Their request was far from impossible to carry out; Kabo held no interest to Earth, so they already ignored it for the most part. Besides, despite my best efforts, the repairs I had made were pathetic because of the missing resources and would no doubt break again in the takeoff. Also, with a full team of working hands, I could be on my way back to Earth in half the time.
“I accept your offer,” I said finally. “If you help me now, your kindness will not be forgotten. I will speak to the Earthen leaders on your behalf and persuade them to leave Kabo out of their space dealings.”
Gax, who had been waiting patiently as I thought, held out its thin, bony hand and we shook on it. “I appreciate your consideration,” it said. “My comrades will begin to help you immediately. You should be able to leave in no more than a couple of hours.”
Gax was right. The rest of the creatures began moving as soon as I was done explaining what still had to be done. A group of ten more arrived shortly after, bringing with them a load of supplies. They first helped me redo the repairs from the previous day, and then they fixed the shattered windshield while I rebooted the controls. Everything was soon completed.
I approached Gax. It had been standing off to the side, not doing much physical labor but shouting commands and encouragements whenever it got the chance. “Thank you for helping me. I will fulfill my half of the deal as soon as I get back to Earth.”
“It was our pleasure,” Gax replied, looking at me. “I have never interacted with a human before, Zhang Wei, and I must say, you are not that bad. Very odd, yes, but not bad. We wish you a safe trip back to Earth.”
I nodded one last time and boarded the ramp that led to the inside of my ship. At the top I turned back. Every single one of the creatures was watching me. “Thank you!” I called to them. The ramp rose and the door slid shut as I entered the ship. I shuffled around the stacked boxes of extra supplies that lined the walls and into my seat. I buckled my seatbelt as I waited for the ship to turn on. Through the glass windshield I could see the creatures, still with their eyes on me. Something told me that they would not look away until I was safely out of sight, and this, of all things, gave me a sense of peace.
My ship rumbled to life and I turned back to the controls. Suddenly my chest was constricting and my breaths coming in short little bursts. It was now or never; either my ship made it off of Kabo, or it didn’t. I told myself to breath. I had done this more than a hundred times before.
The ship began to move. It gathered speed and then it was off! I was not safe yet, though. As I continued to go higher and higher, flames licked at the exterior and the ride became bumpy. The pressure and heat inside of the ship continued to grow. Just when I was sure I could no longer stand it, my ship broke through Kabo’s atmosphere and into cool, clear space. Stars winked at me through the windshield. I was on my way home.