Zinovia tied her thick curly hair back into a hasty braid then pressed her slender body into the rock seam. Her horse snorted steamy breath a few feet away as if admonishing her.
"I'll be fine," she said to the mare, but more to herself. She was otherwise alone.
She searched with her fingers for a suitable handhold. There was a roughness a foot above her head, just enough to get a grip on. She pulled herself up and repositioned her bare toes. If she was back home she would have ropes and proper shoes and chalk for her hands. And a helmet. She added it to the mental list she was making about what items to bring next time.
She found better purchase further up, and made quick progress. It helped to have such a narrow crevice against which she could leverage her back with her legs, but the crevice expanded further up. She was also a bit rusty. The preparation for the trip included some physical training, but it was less than what she went through in her normal everyday life. Most of her time had been occupied with a physics refresher so she could properly navigate.
Zinovia's left toes slipped and her knee wedged against the rock. The pain shot both ways through her leg and she let out a faint yelp. Thirty feet up, she continued, reassuring herself that this was a safe and feasible idea. She looked down at the ground, strewn with rock. The horse sniffed at some of the vegetation but was obviously put off by its unfamiliarity.
The seam started to expand. Zinovia had to rely on the texture of the rockface itself. She worked quickly so she could reach the top before her muscles gave out. She pressed her body close so that her weight was supported by the rock and not her whitened and shaking fingers. She found a grip with her knee and pushed up. She put her right hand over the top. There were plants there, or what passed for them on this planet, but life rooted securely into the rock. She used it to pull herself up and onto the top of the rock.
It was a small mesa that rose fifty feet in the air. The top was perhaps three meters wide. She made a note to herself to try to estimate length in just one unit of measurement, but couldn't decide which was better. From this vantage she could see the entire labyrinthine valley; her hypothesis was that it was formed by lava tubes a few million years ago and eroded into a maze by the action of wind and water. Now it was overgrown with life, small purple polyps that looked like a cross between coral and moss, milky strands that inched and shuddered their way around, in a sort of vegetative helminthambulation. There were beadlike creatures that rolled about, with two legs jutting out of either side of their tiny bodies, and no obvious sign of an alimentary tract. Zinovia thought perhaps they just directly absorbed nutrients from whatever they rolled over. There were pinkish, stationary cuplike creatures that were filled with pools of green-tinged rainwater. Even here, chlorophyll evolved. Each pool teamed with little wriggling bodies that fed on the microscopic green lives that in turn fed on the light from the red dwarf that hung large in the sky. Zinovia sat down cross-legged, and briefly wondered what small alien lives she was crushing. She caught her breath and took in the warm light of the star. It was midday, but it looked like an epic sunset--the kind that mythic cowboys would ride off into after their name-making adventures.
Her horse whinnied below. Zinovia looked down from the mesa, and saw that the horse remained unmolested. The initial survey of the planet did not show any significant life forms, nothing fast or predatory. It made sense. The star was in a quiet neighborhood. There would have been few asteroid or comet impacts, and little fluctuation in solar energy levels over time. Life here was stable, with nothing to give it an evolutionary kick. She reflected on how ripe for the picking this planet was, how it would not resist colonization by humans and their kin, and it saddened her slightly, but then she thought of the beauty of the land, and that it should be seen by eyes this planet was too tame to produce.
She looked too back at the ship, looming tall. They would be wondering where she had wandered off to. If she told them she had indulged in a little rock climbing they would never let her be alone again. She wanted to take a picture, but all the media was property of the agency and would be scanned. She would not be able to explain it without again, not being allowed on solo expeditions. The mesa and the view would have to remain her secret. She turned her face once more to the star, closed her eyes, and felt it's heat. What a welcoming world, she thought, so free of constraint and bureaucracy. For now. Zinovia got up and began her descent back down.