Reef Passage

… continued from Outfitting

First light saw the makeshift trimaran glide smoothly across the calm lagoon. The orange and white checkered sail easily caught the morning breeze blowing across the low-lying atolls sheltering the inner waters, and the boat picked up speed as Anna steered toward the southern tip of the island.

She took one final look back toward the ruined shuttle and the beach camp which had been their home for the past few weeks. The shuttle seemed sad and forlorn, battered and canted at an unnatural angle in the shallow water. Hull panels Anna had opened in her attempts to repair the scramjet engines were missing, ripped away in the fierce storm, while others displayed obvious damage where wind-tossed tree limbs had smashed into the side of the craft. What sections were not dented and ripped were sandblasted to a dull grey and uneven finish.

Anna could not help but wonder if leaving the shuttle was a big mistake, despite the obvious fact it would never fly again. Even wrecked, it remained a haven of resources they could not hope to bring on a small boat crossing the open ocean. Yet they could not abandon Jaci to his fate. She turned her gaze forward.

The southern end of the lagoon did not have the ring of islets that formed the atoll to protect it as did the more northerly section, yet that did not mean it remained unprotected. The lagoon remained almost entirely ringed by a fringing reef, the outer edge of the shallow bank of coral, rock, and sand that encircled the island, of which the small, low-lying atoll islets were but small sections extending above the water’s surface. Beyond the reef, the windswept ocean rolled with long swells generated by thousands of kilometers of fetch, unrestrained by any shore. Where the swell ran up against the outer bank, great breaking waves roiled and tossed themselves across the rocky reef, their spray misting the air above and obscuring the horizon from the deck of the small boat. The white noise of crashing breakers, regularly swelling and diminishing in volume, formed the backdrop of all sound to which Anna had become accustomed during her time in the lagoon.

The reef almost, but not entirely, encircled the island. There were gaps, narrow passages through the reef where the swell rolled in but did not break nor crash. Anna had observed the Keplerians’ vessel exiting the reef to the south the previous day, so she knew such a pass must exist there, though it would be difficult to see until they came closer. Meanwhile, she kept the boat in the deeper, darker blue waters of the inner lagoon, closer to the central island and its high, green mountain.

They were not entirely without resources, despite leaving the shuttle behind. Laxmi convinced Anna they did not need the desalinator, nor the larger solar panels to power it, either of which would have required significant work to remove from the shuttle, and more significant work to make operable again. However, Anna insisted they bring along more portable elements. Bulkiest of these, taking up valuable space under the boat’s canvas deck cover, were three environmental suits. Anna would have preferred to pack full EVA gear, but she had to admit they did not have the space for the bulky spacesuits, and reluctantly she left those behind. The e-suits would have to suffice for short-term exposure to vacuum, and if they were ever to find a way back into orbit, and to Aniara, such protection would likely be critical.

Less bulky than the e-suits, and of more immediate use, was the inertial compass. Kepler 62f had a magnetic field, much like Earth, which meant it probably had a molten iron core, much like Earth, but Anna had no way to calibrate for, nor even detect, local variations. Given time to observe the stars at night, she could and indeed had determined the local magnetic variation from true north in the vicinity of their island camp, but she expected that magnetic variation to deviate as they left the rocky bulk of the mountain and headed across open ocean.

She also had a rough but not at all precise idea of their latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates on the planet’s surface. While it seemed likely the ancient Keplerians, in their technological heyday, had put positional navigation satellites into orbit, much as humans had established the GPS system around Earth, most of those satellites were likely long-since inoperable now, even if Anna had known the frequencies with which to receive their signals or the timings with which to make use of them. There would be no GPS here.

Instead, the shuttle’s standard equipment included an inertial compass. Compass was perhaps too limiting a term for the usefulness of this device, as it would help to establish position as well as direction. The compass worked through the mechanism of three small gyroscopes, spinning at right angles from each other, as well as three accelerometers. The gyroscopes detected any precession from their “at rest” orientation, thus determining how the compass turned and moved through a three-dimensional space, while the accelerometers determined the velocity of any movement. The compass could not tell Anna where they were on the planet’s surface, but it could tell her where they were in relation to where they had been. Given the island camp as a reference point, Anna would be able to maintain a consistent course in any weather, day or night, and she would be able to know how far they had traveled.

The gyroscopes required a constant source of power, however, or they would stop spinning and lose their reference calibration. While Anna could not dismantle and bring the shuttle’s main solar arrays, she did have smaller, more portable and self-contained, solar chargers. These she unfolded and lashed to the canvas decking to soak up what sunlight they could, and this way she and Laxmi would keep the compass and their handheld tablets topped up with full charges as much as possible.

“I see the passage,” Anna remarked.

Laxmi moved back from the bow, where she had been keeping an eye out for coral heads, and sat beside Anna in the stern of the boat. They could now both clearly see the gap in the white line of the breakers, through which the ocean swell gently intruded into the lagoon. Anna steered the boat toward the blue opening.

“Do you know what’s been missing this whole time on this island?” Laxmi asked.

“You mean besides a way to get off of it?”

Laxmi smiled. “We’ve been in space for three years. We’ve become used to their absence. That’s the only excuse I have for not noticing earlier.”

“Noticing what?”


Anna thought about that. They had seen no animals at all, not counting the Keplerians on their boat, and they hadn’t actually seen them, either, beyond evidence they existed. No birds in the air, no rodents in the bush. And no insects, neither flying nor crawling.

“I suppose that explains the vegetation,” Laxmi continued. “No flowers, no bright colors, nothing that would attract pollinators. Only leafy green trees and shrubs. They fruit, obviously, as we’ve been eating them well enough, and things clearly do grow here, so they would seem to rely primarily on abiotic vectors. We know there are microbial processes in the soil, we could smell it when we went inland, so maybe that also contributes to species propagation. I’m curious, though, about the effects of the atmospheric argon on the microbes. I wish I’d had time to study the samples I took off the mountain to compare with those from the lowland jungle.”

Laxmi turned around to look back at the high, vertiginous mountain, shrouded in its layer of jungle.

“I would have expected there to be insects, though. The high carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere should have been beneficial for insects. We should have seen large insects, in fact. On the other hand, the carbon dioxide would make photosynthesis more efficient, so that might explain how the plants do so well in the star’s dimmer light. Very curious.”

“Laxmi, you are the consummate scientist.”

“How so?”

“We’re struggling to survive, our fate is far from certain, we’re most likely going to die here, and you’re talking about insects, pollination, and photosynthesis.”

Laxmi laughed. “Science doesn’t stop just because your subject tries to kill you.”

“No. And nor do we stop trying to prevent that from happening. Ok, hold on, this might get rough.”

They could feel the swell now, rolling in through the pass and lifting the boat on large, gentle waves. Ahead and to either side waves crashed against the reef, sending spray high into the air, while in between the pass appeared very narrow. One wrong gust now could send them onto the rocks, but Anna hoped the Kepler trade wind would remain as constant as its Earthly cousin for which she had named it.

“Pull in the sheet a bit.” Anna pushed the tiller over to starboard, steering the boat to port and angling them directly through the pass. The angle was a little tight on the northeast wind, not as efficient as Anna would have liked, but workable as Laxmi pulled the big sail in tighter as well. The port outrigger lifted out of the water while the starboard outrigger dug in as the boat heeled away from the pressure of the wind, but the outrigger did its job and the daggerboard prevented them from gaining too much leeway toward the downwind reef. Anna’s grip on the tiller relaxed when she realized they were going to make it.

They crested a large swell, and a moment later they were through, the reef and it’s breaking waves behind them. Anna eased off the wind angle, steering them southeast, and Laxmi let the sail out again. The hybrid wooden and inflatable boat settled into a more comfortable motion and picked up speed from the unimpeded northeast wind. Light in the water, she easily rode the swells.

Anna took one final look back at the island, already receding behind them, then turned her gaze to the wide open horizon, unbroken in all other directions. Despite everything, she could not help the grin that overtook her features, and the sense of happiness that filled her. It had been years since she last sailed on ocean waters, but who else had ever sailed these seas, from these alien shores? No one, of that she was quite certain. She was definitely the first.

No one human, at any rate.

… continued with Red Sky at Morning

header image credit: user:dr.scott.mills / under CC-BY-SA 2.0

© Matt Fraser and, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matt Fraser and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

One thought on “Reef Passage

  1. Pingback: Reef Passage (WIP) – Matt Fraser

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