Somewhere in the darkness the wind stirs against shattered metal, causing the material to clap together in a muted sound. This comes in waves with the ebb and flow of the wind that courses through the long night and illuminates the presence of the intruders.
Some distance away a dim light can be seen emanating from the door of a battered structure, spilling out from the slightly opened doors in a yellow cone. Deep shadows draw stark lines behind the rocks that litter the surface in front of the building, some of the light lost in the sand that has already begun to collect around their bases. The wind mounts again, shaking the building into a moment of vibration that seems a reply of sorts to the clapping of the metal from the broken shape.
Inside the building sits a single solitary figure, staring into a tiny screen made nearly opaque by the constant abrasion of windblown sand. Sitting on an overturned food container the figure pushes a strand of hair away from a once youthful face and begins furiously typing on a small keypad at the base of the screen. This is one of the few activities that she has to mark the passage of time.
When she had first come to this place it had taken her nearly twenty minutes to peck out the contents of the message and the access codes to the orbiting repeater that was still, in theory, passing her words beyond the night sky over her head. Many nights passed where she would not even be able to hammer out the text once before the satellite would pass out of range of the tiny antenna attached to the top of the structure. Now, she could send the same pre-scripted dialogue three and sometimes four times without once referring to the grease streaked manual that the terminal sat atop.
"Hula 607 requesting release authority." Sarah Chimera mumbles over the radio in the monotone voice she had been trained to use years earlier. For some reason, all pilots are trained to subvert their own voices by habit when sitting in the machines. Outside of the cockpit they sound as anyone else, emotion modulating the syllables and lending a quality of humanity completely lacking in the voice that has just come from her mouth.
"Hula 607, release authority approved. Standby for drop."
The voice of the controller sings through the slight wash of static, marking the person on the other end as someone similar to the pilot and copilot of Hula 607.
607 is a S/RC-19E Super Osprey, a sub-orbital dropship built by Fuji-Northrop. Once one of the better in dropships, it is now something of a relic and an oddity. This particular vehicle should have no business in this area, but the bulbous antennae jutting at every angle from the vehicle mark it as something of an odd duck. This particular model is an electronic warfare variant of the Osprey, one capable of blanking out the communication networks of half a planet. Armed with four electromagnetic pulse devices, the ship will silence a hemisphere's worth of unshielded electronics over the course of this four-hour mission.
Mottled blue-gray camouflage covers the craft with the exception of the iridescent windows of the cockpit. Inside sit two figures, one behind and slightly above the other to present the pilot with a commanding view of the ship's course.
Reaching down into a circular well recessed beneath the cockpit displays, Sarah grasps the release handle and waits for the illuminating light turn from a dull orange to teal green. After several seconds the color shift comes abruptly and in response Sarah twists the handle ninety degrees. Straps in the seat pull her back to the proper position and her hands float out of habit to the throttle at her left and the control column jutting from the floor of the cockpit. The ship offers a slight shudder and a half dozen sharp jolts are transmitted through the airframe and into the pressurized cockpit. Taking what she knows to be her last few breaths outside of the confines of her helmet for the coming hours, Sarah gently moves the angular teardrop shape of the ship away from the docking port. Looking up and out through the glass, implants in her eyes shift and react to the new perspective, offering up a stream of telemetry that fades into Sarah's vision as force of habit. Distance, velocity, the traditional ladders marked with degree angles showing both the pitch of the ship and that of her own head. All of it brought to her in replication of the information presented on the heads-up-display.
"We're clear of mother," the copilot intrudes on the moments of silence created by the departure from the ship. Freed from the docking gear, the steady hum of the carrier disappears, the atmosphere generators smothering the cockpit in a flat hiss. Keying his own radio, the copilot calls out to the carrier "control, 607. 8 souls, six plus five-five."
"Copy 8 souls, six plus five-five. Have a good flight 607."
"Chamler, helmet up." Sarah speaks, switching from the external radios to the internal communication system of the ship. The checklist-based exchange of calls began all of their flights.
"Yeah, I gotcha. Just, you know." The microphones mounted in the rings of their pressure suits transmit to the implants in their ears, conveying the sigh now whistling from between the copilot's teeth in perfect stereo. "Enjoying the air."
"I know Eric, helmet up. Let's get this shit done and go home. I don't like it any more than you do."
The ship slowly drifts away from the carrier, propelled gently by jets of gas shot out to push the two vessels apart. As they silently slide toward the planet at an ever-increasing velocity the pilots don and then latch helmets in preparation for entering the atmosphere.
Running through the engine start checklists, the two fusion reactors installed in the ship come to life and begin to drive them toward the other side of the planet. Checks are made of their course; telemetry from local satellites is fed into the computers and then verified to ensure that their presence has not yet been detected. There is nothing indicating that the local population below has any clue as to their presence. Not yet, at least.
"Okay, that's it. We're at apogee and on the way down."
"Copy apogee. Chimera, are you sure about this?"
"Sure about what?" Sarah inquires, half distracted by a reaction chamber pressure that is above normal and does not want to seem to vent properly. "About this goddamned number two motor or the mission?"
"Two acting up again?" They have been a crew for the past two years and have been occupying this particular aircraft for just short of nine months. They were not supposed to be in this jet today, engine and maintenance problems supposedly keeping it in a 'down' status.
Their assigned bird had gone down in the hanger for a computer system that would not load properly, the mission important enough that the commanders had decided to swap the crew out of one slightly crippled aircraft and into another.
Therefore, Hula 619 will stay onboard their mother for this ride and Hula 607 will take the last mission of this six-month cruise. The profile that they are on now was something of a last minute detour, the carrier having suddenly been tasked with one more stop on the way home.
"Yeah, pissing me off. I told ops I'd rather have dicked up computers than the engine gripe. I mean, they said they fixed it." The voice that Sarah speaks in now is far different from the impartial voice she uses to talk to the controllers. "So what were you saying?"
"I don't know about this one."
"Look, we're just going to nuke these boners and we're home." The pressure regulation problem has now spread to another part of the fuel system. Delicate hairs on the back of Sarah's neck begin to stand on end. "I mean it isn't really for us to argue with here, just to deal with."
"Rog, nuke the boners," Eric replies sarcastically.
The binary suns have risen into the morning sky, starting to bake the building in early humidity. Stunted trees grow at the edge of the ruined airfield, providing little shade at the height of the day. Already the temperature has begun to climb, telling Sarah that the time to move will soon pass. Sighing, she climbs out of the sleeping bag and looks hesitantly toward the terminal. Nothing, as usual.
Sarah examines the area around the small cot before sitting up. Cones made from scrap metal jut downward from the legs of the cot to prevent some small insect that had bitten her before from climbing into bed in the middle of the night. There were enough problems with the bugs during the day, being assaulted when she was sleeping as well was going too far. The ground clear, Sarah sits up and brushes sun bleached hair from in front of her face. Yawning, she stretches her arms above her head and then sits up only to notice something amiss in the process.
Reaching down between her legs, she manages to send her fingers to the point of the unfamiliar dampness beneath where she is sitting. Removing the hand from the sleeping bag and exposing it to the light of day only serves to confirm the sinking sensation.
"Oh fuck no." Sarah mutters, "Fucking fuck."
Nominally, there would be drugs to suppress this and many other biological 'problems' that merely served to stand in the way of any pilot headed beyond the confines of gravity. The UNSS Thatcher had (as mandated by protocol and medical department regulation,) a well-monitored program of mandatory birth control for both sexes and those electing to hover in-between. The fact that she is menstruating means that she has been down long enough for the drugs to wear off.
It was not as though it was unexpected. Walking in gravity had become much easier recently, and last week? Yes, last week she had even managed a steady jog for a period of nearly two miles.
The problem is not that Sarah is annoyed by the fact that the process has started again, simply that it means she will now be forced to wash her clothes more often. After all, tampons haven't been included in survival equipment for fifty years.
After a few moments of rooting around, Sarah manages to find one of her less foul smelling pressure suit liners and changes into this from the one in which she had been sleeping. After lacing the dust-stained boots, she pulls the tinted goggles over her eyes, yanks the brim of her hat down and sets off across the hanger floor after throwing a nylon carrying bag over one shoulder. Whistling randomly simply to make noise, she begins the trip to another building shimmering in the morning light some distance away.
The walk to the other structure takes her past the wreck of the ship. Staring at it now, it seems impossible that the device actually served a useful purpose at one point. Currently, it is a mangled pile of broken metal and slowly venting gasses.
The damage done by the explosion of the number two engine can still be clearly seen. Dark streaks and pits in the surface of the ship where molten metal had ran backward along the skin bring to Sarah a sudden flashback of violence and a nearly uncontrollable ship. The explosion had vented the atmosphere inside the cargo bay and electronics warfare compartment, setting off an unholy cacophony of alarms. The fact that they had just detonated an electromagnetic pulse weapon moments before had destabilized the already malfunctioning engine.
The reactor containment field vented the fury of the formerly restrained fusion reaction into space, crippling the craft and sending it spiraling toward the surface. A planet surface now completely darkened by the same weapon that had killed the ship.
Taking a deep breath, Sarah tries to shake off the memory and instead focuses on the shortening distance to her destination. Having measured it before, she tries to remember how long she has been walking, how many steps, at what velocity she is traveling and how soon she will arrive.
The mental gymnastics fail and Sarah is again consigned to watching a replay in one corner of her mind.
"Goddamnit." Screaming over the howl of the good engine and the now audible banging of the reaction jets at all corners of the vessel, Sarah tries furiously to keep the ship level and at somewhat of an acceptable pitch angle for reentry. "This is all fucked up."
"Coming up on penetration, we're going to need to pitch up more." Eric reminds her as they bounce through a pocket of turbulence in the thickening atmosphere. More hammer blows arrive, each one grows in intensity and seems to be individually threatening to tear the ship apart. "I don't mean to be the bearer of bad news here, but."
"Yeah." She manages between poundings. Caution and warning lights have begun to light the inside of the cockpit as more and more systems fail. The ship is dying, this Sarah knows, but whether or not it will die completely before they can make it through reentry is something that she does not know. Despite the knowledge that they are both in a situation from which they probably will not get out of alive, the two pilots manage to maintain some semblance of collected professionalism in the cockpit. This is the training taking over again, supplanting the human instinct to scream for Mom in the middle of the burning bedroom.
"Sarah. We're losing attitude jet pressure."
"I can't.” Sarah is cut short by another heave from the ship that sends a jolting shudder through the entire airframe. More alert cues snap on in the corner of Sarah’s vision announcing that the loads being placed on the ship are exceeding design tolerances. “Fuck.”
“I see them, we’ve got about thirty seconds for you to stabilize us. What is it that you can’t do?”
“I can’t fucking get evened out.” There is a part of Sarah that wants to give up here. There is another that wants to continue to fight. There is a third and final part that is scared witless by the warring factions.
“Can I do anything?” Eric says, earnestly trying to figure out something he might accomplish other than prevent his bowels from flooding the inside of his pressure suit.
“Yeah, shut the fuck up and let me concentrate. C’mon you bitch, one last fucking time." Speaking mainly to the ship, the now panicky voice of the pilot is interrupted by a series of sharp movements that finally bring the ship into acceptable pitch and roll angles for reentry. This does not last long and the ship begins lean to the right anew. “Goddamn it what the fucking hell.”
"Sarah you need to chill, we’re overdriving the number one cooling pump."
"Can't do that Eric. We'll lose the reaction system." The ship heels wildly to one side, something of a grunt that eventually turns into a guttural scream comes from Sarah as she slams her right foot into the rudder pedal to keep the ship straight. After seconds pass the attitude settles out and they continue down, on course this time. "Stay together, dammit. You owe me this much. Eric, you got any ideas on where we're going or are am I going to have to wing it the whole way?"
"If you're still getting nav feeds, there's an airfield in range."
“Got it, you watch the number one and I’ll fly the jet. Do me a favor run the descent and landing checklists, got my hands full here. And Eric?”
"Some coffee would be nice." This as thermal alarms begin to sound about the external temperature of the ship.
“Copy fuck your coffee, over.”
"Hey Chimera." The man greets her with a dusty voice as she enters the front door of the building. Here, as everywhere else, there is no electricity. "Sleep okay?"
"Okay." Sighing, she strips off the hat, goggles and bag and then drops them onto the counter between her and the man. Smiling, she looks at him and says, "you got any today there, Chamler?"
"Brewed a batch yesterday, cooling in the basement since. Be right back." Eric smiles in return and takes a cup from beneath the counter, which he places in front of Sarah. Knocking twice on the counter's grimy surface, he turns and walks toward an open staircase behind the counter. Heavy boots knock against the plastic planks of the stairs as he descends toward the basement. Several minutes later the boots climb the stairs, the man gently cradling a large jar of brown liquid as he moves.
"Good. Better than the last batch." Sarah says after sampling a small sip of the glass of tea in front of her. There is no ice, but the coolness of the basement lingers in the liquid. Pausing for a few minutes, Sarah looks up at familiar face of the man standing in front of her.
“Anything?” This in a hesitant, yet expectant, voice.
“Nope.” Three days before Sarah had managed to force a manual login with the satellite's diagnostic computer, hoping to find something that they would recognize as being grossly abnormal. Both of them were pilots and had absolutely no training whatsoever in the internal workings of satellites. So they had stared dumbfounded at the screen until Eric had finally recognized aloud the profound absurdity of the activity. “I just hope that the messages are going out.”
“You’d have thought they could have sent down a boat.” Eric says in bitter recognition of the fact that after they had crashed, Thatcher had merely shat out a small pod of survival supplies and then broke orbit. "Or something bigger than a survival pod. Assholes. You know, I bet it was that jackoff Senior Miller. You know, the Senior Chief from Ops not the one in the paraloft? That jizzbag always had some smart fucking remark for you during your NATOPS checkrides, and he was always on the Ops O's tip about every goddamned thing. I bet he fucking told Lieutenant Commander Zenigame that we bought it, and you know how anal Zeni is, he probably told them to drop the pod just in case. Motherfuckers."
Eric's familiar ranting fades into the background and Sarah turns her head to watch the occasional piece of grass float by on the constant wind. The cluster of prefabricated buildings that the two pilots live in now was once a settlement, one that had been occupied by some corporate mining collective.
The planet had been a source of ore for some vaguely valuable mineral that had been discovered in great quantities elsewhere. When the end had come and the profits were gone, the mining interest simply swooped in and removed the inhabitants. The great disarray in which they had left was still evident in most places.
Tables still set, meals long rotten on stoves, toys, vehicles, paperwork left half filled with the pen still uncapped and left to sit on the desk.
Shortly after the crash, Eric and Sarah had spent a period of days that stretched eventually into weeks and months wandering through the deserted settlements. Eric had described to Sarah pictures that he had seen in college before coming in of nuclear test facilities that reminded him of the mining collective. There was something bizarre about the tableaux of domestic life laid out before them, if not for the sand and dust in most places the families could almost be heard still feeding, frolicking, fighting and fornicating. That was until the cigar-shaped transport abruptly appeared over their heads.
There was no denying the company when it told you that it was time to leave. Claims could be filed, property replaced. The memories could be kept, those were not yet part of the exclusivity contract signed when employment began.
Following the departure of the corporate miners, some faceless militant faction moved in and began using the place as a training facility. Both Sarah and Eric had heard of them before, they were low on the totem pole of terror but moving up quickly. Their politics had been a mixture of anti-human expansionism and the typical pro-eugenics religious drivel that had become fashionable in those circles as of late.
Outwardly, terrorists bored Sarah to an extreme degree. Privately, they annoyed her because it meant that someone was going to have their ability to do anything other than starve to death on a blackened world taken away. This is where UNSS Thatcher, Eric and Sarah all came into the picture. The 'Snatch' (as she was referred to by her crew,) would show up in orbit, send electronic warfare missions to set off several high-yield nuclear weapons in the upper atmosphere, drop conventional bombs on anything that looked vaguely shielded and then bug out.
This time the militants had exhausted their funding six months before Thatcher had arrived in orbit. The signals that had brought Eric and Sarah to the planet were from a repeater that the militant group had left behind, mainly to irritate the United Nations by broadcasting vitriolic drivel to anyone that would care to listen.
“Fifteen hundred meters and three-fifty.” Eric reads out the altitude and airspeed as the ship begins a shallow descent toward the airfield. Things have not improved significantly since they have entered the atmosphere.
“I have the field in sight.” Sarah says as she deploys the airbrakes. This causes the auxiliary hydraulics to fail, something that she was expecting as the airbrakes were driven by this particular system. Not like they were going to need the landing gear for anything anyway. “Shit, aux hyd’s gone.”
“Figures. Can you flare?” In response to his inquiry, the ship pitches up slightly and trades altitude and distance for airspeed. Settling down into an acceptable profile for a single engine emergency landing, Eric finishes what he can before they touch down. This includes a litany of memorized items including locking their seat harnesses, equalizing the cockpit to prevent a blowout or implosion and arming the ejection seats. He continues to feed information to Sarah during these processes, right up until the point at which she pitches the nose down again for the landing. “Don’t kill me, my parents will be pissed.”
The landing is incredibly violent. Unbalanced from the missing engine, the ship begins to skid to the right almost as soon as the bottom of the airframe touches the ground. Antennas snap off from various sections of the ship, rocks and other debris are picked up and thrown at the cockpit. For what seems like an immeasurably long period the ship begins to rotate almost to the point where it will begin tumbling down the runway. Screaming and cursing to no one in particular, Sarah manages to keep them at an oblique angle to their direction of travel until they have finally come to a stop in the grass to one side of the runway.
Automatic emergency systems, some of the few things still functioning in the ship, activate and finish off what the groggy pilots are failing to do. Electrical power and the remaining engine are shut down, ordnance is safed, and finally the cockpit windows explode outward in a glittering display that makes both pilots violently flinch. The pressure wave from the explosion cracks Sarah’s helmet visor in two places, allowing a jet of air to issue out from the fissure. For a long period they do nothing but breath raggedly, dazed and baffled by this new reality.
More than anything else, Eric is fascinated by one of the airbrake flaps. Torn from the bottom of the ship it has somehow flown far in front of them and has become lodged vertically in the runway. A thin tendril of smoke rises into the still air, marking the part as a gravestone in this bezerk aeronautical funeral.
“Oh, hey.” Eric says, interrupting his seemingly endless morning rant. Sarah had actually been paying attention at the time as he had managed to really get fired up this morning about the quality of the food onboard Thatcher. This particular topic secretly amused her as they were not ever fed so much as injected with whatever they needed to function. The quote food unquote that they had been served was merely pressed and flavored soy with coloring mixed in for grins. As pilots, their diets had been so strictly controlled that even the act of eating was directly supervised. “While you were over at the hanger last night, I almost got the car fixed.”
“Did you?” There is something in his tone that reminds her of a puppy. The two of them had come very close to sleeping together the night before the flight that had brought them here. Since then they had been dancing around the topic every now and again, denying the instances where they have had sex since The Crash as not meaning anything and just a reaction to the situation. “How’d that happen, I thought you'd said it was garbage?”
“Found a spare module in the storage building, next to the Giant Donut. Problem is, it only runs in reverse right now.” The Giant Donut is actually a magnetic ore processor nearly a half-mile in diameter. Distracted, Eric squints across the counter at Sarah. "Do you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Straining to make out the sound, Sarah glances around until she settles on the nylon bag she had toted across the tarmac from the hanger. Without warning, the wind suddenly subsides and a low beeping can clearly be heard coming from somewhere inside the rucksack.
“Holy, holy shit.” Eric pants, weakly struggling with his helmet with the sudden onset of gravity. Still dizzy and grappling with the concept of having weight again, he fusses with the helmet lock ring until it finally unlatches. The heat and smells of the planet’s native atmosphere are almost overwhelming in comparison to the carefully controlled environment of the Thatcher and their own suits.
Squinting in the bright sunlight, Eric manages to remove his helmet and places it gently over the shattered heads-up display in front of him. This sends him into a small fit of laughter, as the maneuver was something designed to protect the destroyed instrument during aircraft moves inside Snatch’s hanger bays.
His seat harness pops open with a slight twist of the fitting and Eric realizes that the weight he had felt was mainly the straps pushing him down and into place. Despite this, it takes a considerable effort to push out of the seat after having been in space for six months. “Sarah?”
“Hmm?” The pilot is staring blankly at him from her own seat, helmet also stowed where it would normally go. She notices him smiling at her helmet, and returns the gesture. “Seemed like the right thing to do. You okay?”
“Don’t think anything’s busted.” In response to the statement, he tries to move everything attached to his body. Satisfied that there is nothing immediately wrong, Eric maneuvers into the narrow steps at the left of his seat so that he is facing the rear of the cockpit. “Feel heavy though.”
“I know, it’s the.” Sarah stops to stretch her neck, popping vertebrae in the process. There is a slight grating noise from behind her that strikes her as a little odd. Resolving to turn around and figure out what produced the sound, she finishes the thought. “It’s the gravity.”
“Sar. Sar. Uh, marymotherofgod...puh...” Eric, now motionless except for the fact that he is visibly shaking and staring wide-eyed at something behind her.
“Chamler? What the hell is wrong with you?” Several thoughts occur to Sarah in rapid succession:
There is a door to the electronic warfare compartment at the back of the cockpit.
The door is manually operated.
The latch on the door is sticky, and makes a grating noise when opened.
The grating noise is only produced when someone inside the electronic warfare compartment opens the door.
Sarah does not want to turn her head, but she does anyway. The shape in the door isn’t so much a man as a piece of man-shaped piece of burnt meat. There is no recognizable face; the remnants of a pressure suit have been seared to his hide in places so that the figure appears to have a layer of metal poking out from beneath the ruined flesh.
The man-meat-thing staggers forward a step, rasping breath hangs wetly in the burnt throat that has been neatly torn away and then cauterized closed. Shaking, it collapses onto the frame of the compartment door and breathes one last time before dying. Crimson liquid begins to coalesce and then fall from the body laying half through the door. Pooling on the olive drab floor beneath the body, it looks almost black in the blasting sunlight.
"Eric, it says here that the comsat sent a confirmation back." Sarah mutters, confused. The two of them are staring at the tiny screen of the datapad produced from the rucksack and trying to fathom what they are seeing there.
"What?" Bewildered, the copilot scratches his head and tries in vain to make sense of the words he has just heard. "What do you mean, 'confirmation?'"
"I mean I got up this morning and it was the usual log of what I sent out last night, it sent something back." Smacking the device face down on the countertop, she looks at the screen and is annoyed to see that nothing has changed. "You're sure that we set this thing up right? It is supposed to do this when the satellite talks to the transponder?"
"Pretty sure." Squinting at the tiny screen, Eric takes it from Sarah's hands and shakes it several times. Despite the abuse, it continues to broadcast the same message. "I mean. I mean. Shit. We read the manual, right?"
"Maybe we've been transmitting into dead air this whole time. Maybe last week when we were fiddling with it that it finally started working."
"You know, we bombed a dead world." Eric whispers hoarsely after nearly a minute of silence passes between the two. "There was no one here, they were all gone. Maybe the pulse kept the signal from getting out this whole time?"
"I don't know. I didn't go to college, you're the smart one here." Sipping on the tea, Sarah quietly ruminates on what to do next. "We probably ought to go over to the hanger and see."
"You think?" Nearly leaping over the counter, Eric wipes his hands expectantly on his suit liner. His eyes have taken on a focus that she has not seen in some time. "Whaddya say we take a walk over there."
It has taken half the usual time to make the trek back to the hanger. Past the wrecked hulk of the ship now starkly illuminated by the glaring mid-day sunlight. By the time that the two of them reach the hanger, they are covered in sweat and slightly winded from the effort of moving so quickly through the heat.
It takes several seconds for the transponder terminal to come alive from the hibernation that it had gone into while not in use. Cables strung to a solar panel at the edge of the empty hanger charge the batteries during the day. Sunlight of couse being the one resources of which this world had a serious surplus.
They waited expectantly and watched carefully for any sign of defect as the unit powered up, went through built in status checks and then faithfully showed a split screen of the last message activity and the current position of the satellite.
"That's new, isn't it?" Eric asks, pointing at the position display.
"I think that's what this is right here." Stabbing a page in the transponder's manual, Sarah attempts to correlate the plastic laminated pages with the genuine article in front of her. "I think it's s'posed to do that."
The terminal pauses and then produces the following line of text:
COMSAT TELEMETRY LINK RESTORED
DATA LINK RESTORED
NEW TRAFFIC LOGGED. DISPLAY? (A/N)
Feverishly, Sarah pitches the maunal onto the floor, jams the Affirmative key, and presses enter. The terminal sits implacably idle, almost mocking them with inaction. Without warning another display is presented that begins to show the progress of information downloaded from the satellite. When complete, the terminal beeps faithfully and immediately begins to produce characters that cascade across the screen.
RESCUE COMSAT 1105-A
S/W VER. 3.5c
TRAFFIC DOWNLOAD COMPLETE
ENTER EMERGENCY IFF CODE:
This sends the two scrabbling across the hanger floor for a battered green box. Still sealed with metal foil tape, it bears the words "For Emergency Use Only" and several stern warnings about unauthorized use. Sarah reaches the container first and rips the lid open, inverting it and dumping the contents on the floor. Yelling at Eric, Sarah begins sifting through the contents "get back to the terminal, I'll read."
He practically jumps the distance to the terminal and sits heavily on the container, hands held hovering over the keys. It takes Sarah no lesser an amount of time to find the sealed plastic envelope on which their mission number had been imprinted.
Cracking open the package, Sarah pulls the two halves apart and then unceremoniously throws them to either side of where she is standing. In a breathless voice, Sarah begins to read the code that Eric repeats faithfully before entering the character into the terminal.
"Should I do it?" He asks her. Without speaking she nods, his finger stabbing into the Affirmative and Enter keys at the same time.
VALID EMERGENCY IFF
DISPLAYING MESSAGE TRAFFIC
SUBJ: DENIAL OF EXTRACTION REQUEST FM SURVIVING CREWMEMBERS HULA 607\\
REF A> MSG DATED 1223Z/2074/0713 SUBJ: TELEMETRY INDICATES CREW SURVIVAL OF FLIGHT REGIME EXHIBITED BY S/RC-19E BUNO 886771 CALL SIGN HULA SIDE NUMBER 607 PROBABLE\\
MISSION NUMBER: 0405-A\\
PIC: DSP1(FMF/AW/SBW) S. CHIMERA\\
CP/CC: DSP1(FMF/SBW) E. CHAMLER\\
ADDITIONAL CREW: 6 EWOP\\
A/C LOSS: YES/CLASS A\\
TYPE: B-133E TYPE 2 EMP DEVICES\\
MISSION STATUS: TRAINING/CLOSED\\
EXTRACTION REQUEST: DENIED\\
COMORBRON EIGHTEEN ACKNOWLEDGES EXTRACTION REQUEST RECEPTION\\
EXTRACTION NOT CURRENTLY FEASIBLE\\
UNUSED TRAINING AREA SITE OF REQUESTED OPERATION\\
UNDUE FLEET RESOURCES WOULD BE EXPENDED IN EXTRACTION MISSION\\
SURVIVING PERSONNEL ADVISED TO EXAHUST NATURAL RESOURCES\\
SURVIVING PERSONNEL ADVISED NOT TO DAMAGE CIVILIAN MINING FACILITY AS THEY MAY BE FISCALLY LIABLE FOR SAID\\
CONTACT COMORBRON EIGHTEEN IF ADDITIONAL PERSONNEL CASUALTIES EXPERIENCED SUCH THAT NEXT OF KIN MAY BE NOTIFIED\\
FAILURE TO NOTIFY WILL ASSUME ALL PERSONNEL LOST\\
"What. The. Shit. So this was a training mission? Six guys down the drain and for fucking what to fucking happen? What is this bullshit?" Eric mutters, breaking the stunned silence. "We're supposed to fucking notify them if we fucking die? No goddamned pickup? Don't damage the mining facility? What fresh fucking hell is this?"
"I don't know." Unable to grasp the words that she is reading, Sarah slumps to the floor and lays spread eagle. Gaping up at the ceiling of the building, she can hear Eric rise and begin walking away while unleashing a stream of profanity in the general direction of the sky. "Eric, calm down, we just need to send them another message that we need to get picked up."
"Sarah?" There is a desperate and ragged edge to his voice, bringing her to a sitting position. The other pilot has produced a sidearm from somewhere and is standing slackly at the hanger doors. "I need. I need to know something."
"Eric? You okay?" Suddenly cold in the midday heat, Sarah considers disarming the man and realizes that it is not possible. "Hey man, let's just calm down here."
"Do you love me?"
"What?" Now terrified, Sarah begins to wonder what it would have been like if they had never been sent on the mission. If they had been given three more hours to fix the other aircraft, they probably would have gone back to the Thatcher with nothing more than a slight case of fatigue. The number of alternate realities possible is staggering. "Whatcha mean, like love you as in we had sex a few times or love you as in I'd like to get married and have little Sarah's and Eric's or what?"
"Don't fuck with me, I mean do you love me?" The impact of the words is louder than anything that Sarah has heard since they came to this planet.
"I don't know." Shaking her head, Sarah realizes that he is still stuck onboard Thatcher, that he is still waiting for the mission to start. The concept of an infinite number of realities branching off from this stream fills her mind. To block it out Sarah squeezes her eyes shut and prays that when she opens them again that things will be different, that Deus Ex Machina will have come and saved them all at the last minute. "Eric, after all this, I don't know if I can love you the way you want me to."
"The last night, the last night we were onboard Thatcher."
"I remember." This with a sigh as punctuation.
”That,” the words won’t come to him anymore, they just won’t. “That didn’t mean anything to you?”
”Eric, we’ve been down here for over a year. I barely even remember who I was when we came here.” Sarah whispers, trying to reach the disintegrating figure before her. “I don’t know what I feel for you. I don’t know if I can feel anything anymore. If they ever do come rescue...us, I don’t even know if I’ll ever really leave here.”
"I can leave any time I want. So can you." The sound of the pistol report fills the hanger. The sound caroms off of the metal walls, reverberating into an echo that fades off far too quickly for the significance of the event.
"CHAMLER?" Nearly leaping to her feet Sarah manages to see the figure crumple and fall, twitching spasmodically. The shot has sprayed blood, brain, skull and the implanted electronics nestled in Eric's head in a fine patina over a good portion of the hanger floor. Here there is an eyeball. Over there is a module of some kind dripping a graying tendril of brain. The scene is almost too stark in the blinding light spilling into the open hanger doors. Sarah is suddenly struck by the sensation of being physically crushed by reality, as if there is some enormous pounding force driving her out of this world and somewhere else.
In some part of her brain still thinking practically, Sarah realizes that the mess is going to attract bugs and make sleeping in here impossible.
Darkness follows, only the words coming from her own voice can be heard through it all.
"They'll come, I promise."
"Just wait a little while longer, they'll come."
"We’ll go home, I promise.”
"We all go home.”
Somewhere in the darkness the wind stirs against shattered metal, causing the material to clap together in a muted sound. Inside the hanger sits a single figure, the body of another lying still nearby. Occasionally, the sitting figure will reach down to a small pile of rocks at her feet and hurl a stone at the body in an effort to keep the insects at bay.
Periodically mingled with shudder of the night wind comes the sound of her weeping, sorrow crashing through the solitude and yielding nothing in return. Turning now to the screen in front of her, the figure places her hands on the keys as if she was about to begin typing. As she makes the first stroke, she recoils from the terminal as if shocked.
The terminal has chirped dutifully, attempting to notify the figure of some important action that has occurred while it has been away. Shuddering, the figure raises a bloodstained pistol to her head with one hand, and presses a key. Lines of text begin to cascade across the screen, and no mistake in their meaning can be made.
DISPLAYING MESSAGE TRAFFIC MESSAGE TWO OF TWO
SUBJ: EXTRACTION REQUEST FM SURVIVING CREWMEMBERS HULA 607\\
REF A> MSG DATED 1223Z/2074/0713 SUBJ: TELEMETRY INDICATES CREW SURVIVAL OF FLIGHT REGIME EXHIBITED BY S/RC-19E BUNO 886771 CALL SIGN HULA A/C NUMBER 607 PROBABLE\\
REF B> MSG DATED 1645Z/2075/0829 SUBJ: DENIAL OF EXTRACTION REQUEST FM SURVIVING CREWMEMBERS HULA 607\\
MISSION NUMBER: 0405-A\\
PIC: DSP1(FMF/AW/SBW) S. CHIMERA\\
CP/CC: DSP1(FMF/SBW) E. CHAMLER\\
ADDITIONAL CREW: 6 EWOP\\
A/C LOSS: YES/CLASS A\\
TYPE: B-133E TYPE 2 EMP DEVICES\\
MISSION STATUS: TRAINING/CLOSED\\
EXTRACTION REQUEST: OPEN\\
PREVIOUS DENIAL OF EXTRACTION REQUEST RESCINDED\\
RESOURCES NOW AVAILABLE TO COMORBRON EIGHTEEN TO EFFECT EXTRACTION\\
EOMV MURAKAMI ENROUTE SYSTEM TO EFFECT RECLAMATION OF MINING FACILITY AND ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT\\
VESSEL CAPTAIN CONCURS RESCUE OF SURVIVING HULA 607 CREWMEN POSSIBLE\\
EXTRACTION AND RECLAMATION OPERATIONS TO COMMENCE WITHIN TWENTY-FOUR HOURS TRANSMISSION THIS MESSAGE\\
COMORBRON EIGHTEEN SENDS\\
For the second time that day, the sound of a pistol report punctuates the darkness.