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Alone

 


This is the final version of my third short story. Let me know what you think. I have been revising it for a while, but I finally decided to just be done with it. I have so many other ideas that I want to get to.


"What's that sound?"


It's a cabin pressure alarm. The ship is leaking atmosphere.


"Something is happening to the ship. My course brought me too close to a star. Where am I? I must have gotten off course. I'm going to have to land and make repairs. There is a planet here that should work. I'll have to work in the suit if the air isn't breathable. I can do it. I've done it before."


"There it is. It looks red and green from up here, like the swirling colors of a giant marble. I hope that is solid ground. Why am I talking to myself? There's no one else here."


After some maneuvers, the ship slides into a relatively stable orbit around the planet. The scans show I should be able to survive down there if the repairs take some time. No more waiting. I have to land now or I'll risk hull failure. The descent will be rough with the damage.


Before starting the landing, I release an emergency beacon into orbit. The beacon will broadcast a repeating message. It will be at least a day or two before anyone gets it though, if I'm lucky. Then it would take them a week to get here if they have a ship available.


As I begin the descent, I have a moment of doubt. If I'm wrong, this might be the last decision I ever make. It better be the right one. I could always set down on something smaller, an asteroid. I'd have a much better chance of getting back off the surface. The suit makes fixing some things almost impossible. It'd be risky. Better to land here and hope I can fix everything.


I continue down through the atmosphere. The ship was designed for landing, but it is old and damaged. As I get down into the lower layers, I'm encountering weather. The ship feels like it could shake apart, but I need to keep descending and slowing down. If all goes well, I can set down on the landing struts without damaging the ship any further.


Just then an alarm sounds and I hear the sounds of something hitting the hull. I'm still 2000 ft. above the surface. What could it be? It's dark outside the windows. The noise gets louder and louder. I keep descending.


1800 ft.  

1600 ft.  

1500 ft.  


Then at about 1400 ft. the noise stops. The view clears. I think I can see the ground. I'm coming straight down now and slowing my speed. The thrusters are working.


1300 ft.  

1200 ft.  

800 ft.  

400 ft. Looking good.  

200 ft.  


Bang! Something hit the ship. It looked like a tree limb. The thrusters are failing one after another now. I'm dropping faster.


100 ft.  

90 ft.  

80 ft.  


I'm going too fast. Only limited thrusters left.


50 ft.  

20 ft.


This is going to be bad.


10 ft.


"I'm awake. Where am I?"


It's dark. I see a few flashing lights, and the reality of my situation rushes back into my conscious mind. The ship doesn't seem to have sustained any further damage that I can see from here. I'll have to get outside to know for sure. I seem to be in one piece. How long have I been asleep? It looks like maybe 30 minutes. Not too long. A quick check shows the ship is mostly offline. Some emergency life support is operating, keeping the temperature livable. I need to sleep before I can do anything. I don't feel any head injuries, so I should be okay. I'm just going to lie down for a bit.


"What is that sound?"


I hear tapping on the side of the ship. How long was I out this time? It looks like 5 hrs. That will have to be enough. I need to make my repairs and get back on course. Any further delay now is disastrous. The weather shows wind outside. Conditions seem fine, but I think I'll use the suit and the airlock to get out for now.


I've got the suit on. It isn't too large, not like the suits from the early days of space flight. I step to the back of the ship and close the inner door. The back portion by the door acts as an airlock. I open the outer door. I can see outside, but it seems dark. The sky looks red and there is fog, so I can't see too far from the ship. The wind is blowing. It looks like I broke through a tree when I landed. There is a branch hitting the side of the ship. I'll have to clear all this away so I can see the damage.


I get the cutting tools and get to work. After several hours, I have the ship partly freed from the branches. The work isn't bad. Less monotonous than space travel. The ship seems to sit on a pile of broken branches. One of the landing struts sunk into the pile, causing the ship to tip to one side. The ship has three struts. Two in the back and one in the front center. The back left side is the problem. I'll have to straighten up the ship before I can repair the thrusters.


I need to stop for some food. I'm going to take the helmet off and sit outside. I'm sure the air will be fine. As I remove the helmet, the air rushes in. It's hot out. Close to 105 F. At first I can't breathe. The air is so humid compared to the dry air in my suit. After a minute or two, I catch my breath. It seems okay now. It smells nice, sweet even.


Even though the outside air seems fine, I decide to keep using the airlock to maintain my ship air for sleeping. I bring some rations outside and sit near the ship to eat. It is brighter outside now. I can see something nearby that looks like cliffs stretching up. They stretch up into the fog further than I can see. I won't have time to explore, but maybe I will see them as I'm flying out.


After some more hard work, I have the debris removed from around the ship and I'm ready to make an attempt at setting the ship upright. I have rigged up a hydraulic lift using a spare landing strut.


I lift the ship. As I get the corner of the ship about two feet off the ground, the strut on the other side of the back breaks through the branch pile. The lift goes flying out and the back of the ship comes down. The back of the ship has pinned my arm down.


"Ah! I can't believe this is happening, and here I am talking to myself again."


My arm doesn't hurt, but I can't get it loose. What am I going to do? I put the cutting tools back inside the ship before I started using the lift. If I could get the door open, I might be able to reach one and cut some branches to free my arm.


The door is opened using a lever about halfway up out in the middle of the ship. I could try to reach it with a stick. There are plenty of those, but I need to find the right one. I pick one up and try pulling the lever. The lever needs to be pulled down, but I can't get the stick to grab the handle. I'll have to break it a little so it makes a hook to pull the lever.


After some wiggling, I get the stick between my foot and another large branch. Then I pull on it with my free arm. It won't crack. This wood, or whatever it is, seems harder than anything I'm used to. Maybe if I just hit it against the edge of the ship. I try it. The impact formed a small groove across the stick near the end. I try a few more whacks. The groove is getting deeper. One more time. I hit the edge of the ship hard and the stick end of the stick breaks off.


I hit it too hard. I'll have to start with a new one, but I think this will work. I find another stick in the pile under me. After several minutes of pulling in different directions, it comes free from the pile. I begin the hit it carefully against the edge of the ship to form the groove. This time only hitting lightly each time.


"That looks good enough."


I swing the stick up against the lever. It feels like the groove is working. I pull down on the stick. It is almost moving. I hear the door mechanism engaging. The door loosens slightly, and just then the stick slips off the lever.


"Damn!"


I collect myself and try again.


"It will work."


I hook the groove on the lever and begin gently pulling it again. This time not pulling too hard. The lever doesn't take much force. I pull it down just enough to engage. The door is slowly opening. I don't need it to move fast. It just needs to open enough to get my arm in to reach the tools.


After a very long 30 seconds, the door is open far enough. I can see the tool bag. It has shifted to the other side of the airlock, likely when the ship collapsed into the stick pile. Luckily for me, I spent all this time fashioning a stick with a hook.


I reach the stick into the ship and push it under the strap of the tool bag. All this with one hand, remember. I rotate the stick around so the groove is facing up to catch the strap. I pull the stick and it catches the strap. I pull the bag towards me, then re-grip the stick and pull it again. Finally, I can reach it.


I set the stick down outside where I can reach it and grab the bag. Inside is a tool with a reciprocating saw blade that should work. That's what I used to clear the debris around the ship. This won't exactly be the safest thing, but I think it will work. I push the blade in on top of the branch next to my arm. My left arm is the one that is pinned. I have to put my right forearm on top of the saw to give some pressure down and then reach the trigger to activate the blade.


As I hit the trigger, the saw jumps a bit and my finger slips off the trigger. The cut I started is in the right place. I put the saw back in position and hold it down with as much weight as I can get on it. I hit the trigger again. The saw cuts about halfway through and gets stuck. I stop cutting. I hear the branch cracking. I can't get the saw out. The back of the ship sinks a bit.


Just then the branch cracks almost in half where I was cutting. My arm is free. I jump back just as the ship sinks a couple more feet into the pile. Then everything stops. Everything is silent. I can't believe I did it. On one hand, that was amazing. On the other, the ship might be stuck for good and I may have lost the saw.


I'm going to have to find some large pieces to put under the landing struts and the lift if this is going to work. I haven't worked this hard in years. I've spent too much time at the controls of a ship flying back and forth to the colonies. I think I need to rest awhile. I can't rest too long though, or it will be too late.


I pull the lever to raise the outer door enough to get in. Once I'm inside, I attempt to close the outer door. It won't go all the way down with the back of the ship sunk so far in. This isn't good, but I need to rest and get some food. I'll have to just quickly open and shut the inner door to keep in the cool conditioned air in the ship. The inner door is divided in the middle and swings into the ship in two halves. It is operated manually. I quickly open one side and slip through, and close the door behind me.


The inside of the ship is still cool and dry. It is a welcome relief after being outside for so long. The conditions are being maintained at 75 F. It looks like power is holding for now, but I'm a little worried about the outer door staying open. With the outer door closed, I should be able to maintain these conditions for several days without the main engines running. The main engines charge the batteries that power everything else on the ship, but a solar flare damaged them in space. They will be easy to fix once I get the ship back up on the landing struts. Then I can fix the thrusters and check everything else over.


I need to get off the surface soon or my cargo will be late. I'll just have something to eat and lie down for a couple hours.


Once again, I wake up suddenly and look around. My situation hasn't changed. Still stuck here with a broken ship. Three hours since I lay down. It looks lighter outside now.


I step out and look around. I can see several of the cliffs I saw before. They stretch up into the sky as far as I can see still. The sky looks red, but brighter than before. There is a large tree nearby. That must be what I hit on the way down. It has the same grayish color as the pile of sticks that the ship is on. The tree and the larger pieces of wood are covered with cracks that show a purple interior.


I need to find some pieces that can hold up the ship. It looks like there are some towards the bottom of the pile. Using the lift I made and some cable, I could probably drag some pieces up here. I could cut them into smaller pieces first to make things easier. It is looking hopeless, though. I have to use the ship's power to run the lift. I just can't imagine there is enough left to get all this done. I'm running out of time, anyway.


I'm getting used to the conditions outside. I decide to shut down the climate control in the ship to further conserve the power. I'm going to pack some food and explore the area. Maybe I will find something, or think of a better way to get the ship out. The ship has a beacon I can turn on, so I can always find my way back. I pack my tracker.


I pack up some food and make my way to the bottom of the stick pile. The pile is large. Probably three times as tall as the ship. The ship looks small on top of it. I decide to walk towards those cliffs I can see in the distance. They seem very interesting. I still can't see the top.

  

------



"We are receiving an automated distress beacon, sir." says a young man at monitoring station fourteen.


"Where is it coming from?"


"The coordinates show this system here. We don't have much data on it, sir." says the young man.


"Dispatch the next available ship. What ship is the distress call coming from."


"'The Albatros', a small cargo ship. Sir, it looks like they were delivering medical supplies to Armeran. They need those supplies or people are going to start dying," says the young man.


"Do we have any ships closer?" says the Major.


"The rescue ship 'Bernard' is only a few hours from there, returning from another mission." says the young man.


"Contact them now and get them to change course," says the Major.



------



"Captain, we are receiving an emergency call. There is a cargo ship down near here." says Hank.


"Looks like we don't get a break after all." says Captain Adams.


"Can't they find anyone else? We've been out for over two months. This last mission wasn't much more than changing a flat tire for somebody who shouldn't have been out here alone in the first place." says Hank.


"Look at the mission details, Hank. This one looks important. Medical supplies that needed to be there yesterday. Even now, those supplies won't make it before people start dying. The entire planet will be infected in a couple of days of days," says Captain Adams.


"I know, mam. I just wish it didn't always have to be us." says Hank.


"Change course and I'll wake up the rest of the crew." says Captain Adams.


The Bernard is a small rescue ship with a crew of five. Two of those you already met. The others we will become acquainted with shortly. The ship and crew are equipped for rescue and repair operations in space and on the surface of most planets and other bodies.


"Everybody wake up. We've got a mission. We'll be there is less than six hours. Meet me on the bridge in ten minutes for a briefing," says Captain Adams.


The bridge is a large room with a window and controls in front. Hank sits there and pilots the ship. Off to one side is a large screen. There are chairs for each of the crew, plus a couple of extra. They can swivel to see the screen. Everyone takes a seat.


"Hank, put it on auto and join us." says the captain.


"What do we have this time?" says Greta.


"The distress beacon is in orbit around this planet. We don't know much about it. The beacon says the pilot was preparing to make a landing to do repairs. Based on what we know about the system, the planet is probably habitable without a suit. We'll have to test the air when we get there," says the captain.


"Why do we have to take this one? Can't they send a fresh crew?" says Greta.


"The medical supplies on board need to be delivered." says Hank.


"The orders say we have to take the supplies ourselves if the ship can't be fixed," says Captain Adams.


"If he managed to set it down, I can get it going again. That model cargo ship is pretty simple compared to what they build nowadays," says Johnny.


"Don't be so sure, Johnny. That ship is older than you. It could be modified in ways you've never seen." says Hank.


"We have to find it first. Hank, take what we have about the planet and get the scanners ready and plot out a search grid. If we're lucky, the ship has a locator beacon active." says the captain.


Back in the pilot's seat, Hank goes over the info on the planet. The scanners need to be calibrated for the conditions of the planet. Hank will have them ready when they arrive.


Greta and Johnny walk off the bridge together, talking about the mission.


"If he landed, I think we can get him flying again." says Johnny.


"I hope so. I was really looking forward to getting some time off. If we can fix the ship and send him on his way, we can get home in a couple of days. If we have to take the supplies ourselves, it could take weeks." says Greta.


"You and Hank get me to that ship and I'll fix it." says Johnny.


"It might be up to Hank on this one. My equipment is ready to go if we need it." says Greta.


They part ways. Greta goes to the lower deck to inspect the rescue equipment. Johnny goes into a room on the upper deck to pack his tools. Back on the bridge, Hank is preparing the scanners as they get closer to the planet.


"Captain, I'm not getting any signals from the surface. I'll be starting with an orbital scan to see if we can pinpoint anything. If nothing turns up, we'll drop into the atmosphere and begin our search pattern," says Hank.


"I'll be in my quarters. Let me know before we enter the atmosphere. Doc, you can wait in the med bay. Hopefully, we won't need your services on this one," says Captain Adams.


"Here's hoping," says the doc as he leaves the bridge.


Alone on the bridge, Hank scans the planet and listens for any signal from a locator beacon. After a short time, he enters orbit around the planet. He won't know for sure if there are any signals coming from the surface until the ship has orbited the planet a couple of times. No signals detected yet.


As Hank waits for the ship to orbit, he is also scanning the surface. There seems to be high cloud cover over most of the planet, preventing any visual inspection of the surface. Most scans seem to bounce off the cloud cover. This is unusual, Hank thinks to himself. 


Hank activates the ship wide comm.


"Captain, can you come to the bridge? I need you to see something." says Hank.


A few minutes later, Captain Adams walks onto the bridge.


"Did you find something?" she asks.


"Scans won't penetrate the atmosphere. I haven't detected any signals. We're going to have to do a low altitude search. I'm preparing now to enter the atmosphere and take some samples to see why the scans won't penetrate."


"Proceed." says Captain Adams.


Hank begins the decent process. The ship plunges into the atmosphere and shakes as they drop lower. Hank fires thrusters to slow the decent. Captain Adams grabs onto a strap connected to the ceiling and continues to stand next to Hank. After a few minutes, the shaking calms down.


"The samples we have so far don't seem to show anything out of the ordinary. I'm going to drop just above that cloud layer. The clouds are very low, possibly only about 2000 ft. above the surface." says Hank.


Everywhere they look, there is a gray cloud layer below them. As they get closer, they can see some darker grays and purple in the clouds.


"What is that?" says Captain Adams.


"The scanners show them as solid objects. I'll drop down and hover just above so we can get a look at them," says Hank.


As the ship gets closer to the cloud layer, the objects become more clear. They look like purple leaves. Long, thin, with smaller leaves branching out from the main shaft. Like the leaves of a fern, but much bigger. They still can't see them clearly.


"Hank, have you brought us down on the top of a mountain?" says the captain.


"I can't say for certain, mam. I'll back a way a little and try to drop through the clouds."


Hand moves back from the leaves they can see in front of them and descends into the clouds. As they drop through, they can see more leaves. A proximity alarm sounds. Just then, they hear scraping against the sides of the ship, like fingernails on a chalkboard. With the branches and cloud cover, they can't see anything.


"Keep dropping. We have to break through this if we hope to find the ship." says the captain.


They continue down for several more seconds, with the branches scraping on the sides. Then it stops. The gray and purple outside fade almost to black.


"Are we still dropping?" says the captain.


"Yes" says Hank.


"Stop. Get some lights on out there."


Hank stops descending and turns on the external lights. In front of them, they can see what looks like a purple and gray tree trunk with several of the leaves sticking out the top like a palm tree. As they angle the lights downward, they can see the tree trunk descending several hundred feet and disappearing into a fog.


"Captain. I'm getting reading now. We are still almost 2000 ft. from the surface. These have to be the tallest trees I've ever seen. How can they exist on a planet with this much gravity?" says Hank.


"I don't know says the captain. I'm sure they'll send a science team after they get our report on this mission."


"Captain. I'm also receiving a locator beacon now. In this direction. Judging by signal strength probably close to 1000 miles from here."


"Good. Start moving in that direction. Watch out for giant tree trunks," says Captain Adams.


The rest of the crew arrive on the bridge to see what all the scratching on the hull was about.


"What are you flying us into, Hank?" says Greta.


"Just following the captain's orders. We found a locator beacon, so get ready to do your job, Greta." says Hank.


They all stand watching out the front window. Through the fog, they can see enormous tree trunks appearing in front of them as Hank pilots the ship slowly forward. The progress is slow. After several minutes of this, Hank is getting frustrated.


"Captain, I suggest we move back above the trees and fly closer to the beacon location," says Hank.


"Take it easy going through the canopy this time. We don't want to be fixing two ships," says the captain.


"Right, mam."


The ship is moved as far away from any nearby tree trunks as they can manage in the fog. Then the ship ascends up towards the canopy. The crew, all except the captain, wince as the branches scratch against the hull. Hank slows down the ascent. This seems to make the sound even worse, a slow scraping like claws on metal. Outside the window, they can see it getting lighter. Just as Johnny is about to say something, the scraping stops.


"I didn't know if I could take it anymore. I'll have to inspect our ship before we leave the atmosphere. We might need a new paint job when we get home," says Johnny.


"We are clear, captain. I've lost the locator beacon, but I know about where it was, so I'm headed that way. It will only take a few minutes up here," says Hank.


"Very good," says the captain.


They are flying fast now across an ocean of thick cloud cover. Every so often, they see a large branch sticking out of the clouds like a whale breaching the surface. All the crew has taken a seat now on the bridge except the captain, who remains standing next to Hank. As they get closer to the locator beacon position, the ship slows down.


"This location is my best guess for the beacon. We'll just have to descend slowly and hope don't come down right on top of one of those trees," says Hank.


The captain nods, and Hank descends into the clouds again. They drop into the clouds silently at first, then some scraping on the hull. It only lasts a few seconds this time, and they begin to see light again. In the distance, they can see a few of the tree trunks.


"We must have found a clear spot this time. Make a note of that location for when we leave," says the captain.


"I'm seeing the beacon again. Only a short distance away. The trees are more sparse here. It should only take a couple minutes to get there," says Hank.


He descends further and moves towards the beacon. They can't see the ground yet. The fog seems to extend all the way down below the trees.


"Greta, get on the radio and see if you can make contact," says the captain.


"Yes, mam", she says.


Greta moves to a console at the side of the bridge and starts broadcasting.


"Cargo vessel, do you read? This is the rescue ship Bernard. We are closing in on your position. We should arrive within minutes. Please respond if you are able," Greta says slowly into the radio.


Greta waits about 30 seconds and repeats the message. At this point they are nearly over the locator beacon. The ship descends towards the ground. The ship continues to drop until finally the ground comes into view. The ship's lights are illuminating a small area on the ground. There are sticks of all sizes littering the ground. In front of them, they see a large pile of sticks. The delivery ship sits perched on top of the pile.


"Bring us down a small distance away from the base of that pile," says the captain.


Hank backs off a little and descends all the way down. The landing struts are extended with a buzzing and a loud bang just before they settle down on the forest floor. They hear some sticks cracking and breaking as the full weight of the ship rests on the landing struts.


"I think we're down, captain. The ground is covered with those sticks, so the ship may settle down some more as we sit here. Everyone be prepared for that," says Hank.


"Greta, you get out there first and see what we are dealing with. Once she gives the okay, get out there and get a look at that ship, Johnny." says the captain.


"Yes, mam," says Greta and Johnny together.


Greta and Johnny rush off to the cargo area on the bottom deck and put on their environment suits. Greta grabs her rifle and heads for the airlock. Johnny waits in his suit with his tools ready. Greta steps into the airlock and closes the inner door and opens the outer door. 


She steps out and looks around. Looking up, she can see tree trunks extending up into the fog as far as she can see. The fog up there looks a little brighter than looking straight ahead, but there isn't much light down here. In front of her is a large pile of gray sticks, many the size of tree trunks from back home.


She tests the conditions with a device on her suit. The air seems fine for breathing. It is warm, but perfectly within human limits.


"I'm going to take my helmet off," she radios the ship.


"If you are sure," says the captain.


Greta removes her helmet. The first breath is difficult. So hot and humid. After a few labored breaths, she radios again.


"It seems okay, captain. I wouldn't want to live here, though. Way too humid for me. Let me check out the ship and then you can get started, Johnny," says Greta.


She makes her way up the pile of sticks. It is steep and hard to find good footing. As she approaches the ship, she notices the outer door is open. There is other obvious damage, but she can't see the ship well enough to get a full picture of the damage. She pulls down the lever and opens the outer door.


"I'm going inside," she says.


She proceeds inside and opens the inner door. There is no one there.


"I don't see anyone. He must have gotten out, but where would he have gone? Everything looks clear out here. Johnny, you can get to work." says Greta.


Back in The Bernard, Johnny steps into the airlock and closes the inner door. He has his suit on still. He opens the outer door and steps out. Johnny tests the air with his suit.


"You weren't lying, Greta, it is humid here, and hot." says Johnny.


"You didn't believe me? It is hot, but you don't need your suit." she says.


"I think I'll keep it on for now. It is nice and cool in here." says Johnny.


He climbs up to the delivery ship. He isn't in as good of shape as Greta, so he takes a couple minutes. Meanwhile, he is looking the ship over.


"I can see from down here the thrusters have taken damage. Hank, we may need to lift this ship off this pile of sticks before I can do anything. Does this ship have a name?" says Johnny.


"It is called 'The Albatros'," says Greta.


"You want me to get in the air so we can move it?" says Hank.


"Let me get inside and see if it's worth the trouble first. I see a lot of damage," says Johnny.


"The medical supplies are here. Where is the pilot, though? Why would he leave the ship? If we don't find him, we'll have to take the supplies ourselves whether or not we can fix the ship." says Greta.


"We'll start looking," says the captain.


"I don't show anything on scans. We could try flying a search pattern. He can't have walked too far with all this downfall," says Hank.


"Get us in the air and see what you can find. Stay in contact with the ground team in case they run into trouble," says Captain Adams.


Hank flies around the area using all the scanners the ship has. Meanwhile, Johnny has reached the ship and gone inside. Everything is shut off. He checks the batteries; they have 39% left. He starts up the computer and does a diagnostic check. The thrusters seem to be the only major damage.


"Captain, can you hear me?" Johnny says into the radio.


"Yes, go ahead," says Captain Adams.


"The ship seems in pretty good shape. The thrusters are offline, so we'll have to lift it with our ship so I can make the repairs. The main engines seem to have taken damage as well. That must have happened in space. The struts seem to be intact, so if we can move it off this pile to some solid ground, I should be able to make the repairs," says Johnny.


"We found some clear ground a little way from the stick pile. We have about ten hours until we need to take the cargo and leave. Do you think that's enough time to get the ship moved and repaired?" says the captain.


"I can have it moved in about 20 minutes," says Hank.


"That should leave me plenty of time," says Johnny.


"Get us in position to lift the ship then, Hank. We'll move the ship and then continue our search. Something must have happened to the pilot or he would have seen our lights and returned by now." says the captain.


Hank flies back above 'The Albatros' and lowers some lifting cable down around the sides of the ship. Greta, having done this many times before, begins to connect the cables to lifting brackets on the sides of the cargo ship. There are four cables. Three of them are easy to hook up. There is a problem with the last one.


"Hank, the lifting bracket on the front right of this ship is gone," says Greta.


"Three should be enough. What do you think, captain?" says Hank.


"We better get the magnetic connector. Greta, I'll lower it down to you out of the airlock door. Keep us in position, Hank." says the captain.


Captain Adams runs down to the cargo bay and finds an electromagnetic lifting bracket. He ties it to a rope and begins lowering it down to Greta. She takes the bracket from the end of the rope and unties it. After making her way back across the stick pile to the front of the ship, she grabs the lifting cable and attaches it to the bracket. Then she positions the bracket on the side of the cargo ship and activates it. It magnetizes to the side of the ship.


"All four are ready," says Greta.


"Johnny, you getting out of there?" says Hank.


"I'll ride down in the ship so I don't have to waist time getting off this pile," says Johnny.


"I'm walking," says Greta.


The Bernard moves upward until the cables tighten. There is some creaking and sounds of sticks breaking as the landing struts are pulled free from the stick pile. Johnny is thrown into the wall as the ship levels out and begins swinging on the cables. Hank moves The Bernard away from the pile, pulling The Albatros along below. Once he has maneuvered into position and everything has stopped swinging, he starts descending. Johnny turns on the proximity detectors on The Albatros and begins calling out.


"20 feet"  

"15 feet"  

"10 feet"  

"9"  

"8"  

"7"  

"6"  

"5"  

"4"  

"3"  


BANG! The landing struts hit the ground.


"The proximity detectors must need calibrating," says Johnny, as he picks himself up off the floor.


In the meantime, Greta has made her way off the pile and over to the clearing. She unhooks the cables, starting with the three standard cables. Then she comes around to the electromagnetic bracket. The cable hook has wedged itself into the bracket and won't come loose. She deactivates the magnetic bracket, and it comes off the ship.


"The magnetic bracket won't come off the cable," says Greta.


"I'll have to land and get it loose. I can't retract the cable with that on there," says Hank.


Hank retracts the other three cables and moves off to find a place to land. The swinging cable almost hits Johnny as he is coming out of the cargo ship.


"Watch it," he yells into the radio.


"Sorry about that. Watch your head," says Hank.


"Hurry, we need to get back to our search," says the captain to Hank.


Johnny gets to work on the thrusters. Hank lands the ship nearby. He jumps out of his seat and hurries off to get the bracket loose.


"Captain, when I radio, can you retract the cable?" says Hank.


"Yeah, I'll stay here and run some scans to see if I can pickup anything from the pilot," says Captain Adams


Hank grabs a pry bar and climbs outside. In the meantime, Greta has climbed down off the pile and arrived at the ship. With the pry bar and Greta's help, they are able to get the magnetic clamp off the cable. Greta takes the clamp and the pry bar back inside the ship. Hank holds on to the end of the cable so it doesn't tangle when they retract it.


"Go ahead," he radios to the captain.


The cable retracts slowly, pulling Hank along with it a little faster than he can walk. At the last second, he lets go of the cable and it retracts inside the ship. Hank heads back inside.


"I'll stay here in case Johnny needs help," says Greta.


"See you soon, I hope," says Hank as he walks back inside and closes the door.


He makes his way back up to the bridge. When he arrives, Captain Adams stands up out of his chair and lets him take a seat.


"I'm not seeing anything on the scanners, Hank. It is strange. He should have a scanner with him to find his way back, not to mention any other electronics we should be able to detect." says the captain.


"Yeah, strange," says Hank.


"Let's get back in the air. Maybe we'll see something," says the captain.


Back outside, Greta and Johnny see the ship rise and head back out to resume the search pattern. Johnny has the thrusters on the cargo ship nearly disassembled already. He has also looked over the damage to the main engines.


"Can you setup my manufacturing station? It's that blue box next to my tool bag. I'll need to make a few replacement parts for these thrusters, and it takes some time to warm up," Johnny says to Greta.


"I know what it looks like. I've been doing this work for long enough to get some idea of what you guys do," says Greta.


She lifts the blue back and extends some legs so it sits up at waist height. Then she opens the top and flips the switch on the side to warm up the station. The station emits a low hum and some sizzling sounds as it warms up. It is basically an advanced 3D printer that can print with several materials, and do some assembly of more complex parts. Some materials need to be warmed up before they can be used.


"It does look like you know what you are doing," says Johnny.


Johnny finishes taking apart the thrusters and brings one of the broken parts over to the station. It is part of the thruster's directional control. Three of the four thrusters will need this part. The last one can be fixed with no replacement parts. The station has a screen that folds out on the front. Johnny searches through a parts catalog on the screen.


"This ship is too old to be in the catalog, it looks like. I'll have to find something close and make some modifications," says Johnny.


After some time, he finds a newer model that looks like it will work. He is able to alter some specifications before the print, but it won't be perfect. He'll have to modify the parts after they are done. He starts printing three of them. They will take some time, so he gets to work on the main engines. They were melted in space, but none of the major components were damaged.


"It looks like the main engines just need these panels pulled back into position and extended a bit," says Johnny.


Greta doesn't seem to be listening, anyway. She is watching the lights of the ship in the distance, circling around them through the fog.


"Why haven't they found him yet," she says.


Johnny has begun heating and reshaping the damaged engine panels now. He hadn't thought about it much until just then. Why hadn't they found him? Something must have happened to him. He couldn't be that far away. Why would he even leave the ship? Maybe he went crazy. Some people do when they're alone too long in space.


"We're going to end up taking this cargo, aren't we? Why am I even fixing this ship?" says Johnny.


"Because the captain told you to. Just get it done," says Greta.


They stay silent for a long time after that. The ship fades into the fog and they can't see it anymore. Greta keeps watch and Johnny works on the ship. After about 2 hours, he finally finishes straightening up the panels on the main engines. The printer has finished with the thruster parts, but they need to cool off before anyone can be handle them. Johnny is now using his metal extruder to extend the main engine exhaust panels back to their correct dimensions.


Finally breaking the silence, Johnny says, "There, finished. It should fly again once I get the thrusters back together."


"Let me know when you finish with that and I'll radio the captain," says Greta.


"Will do, mam," says Johnny with just enough sarcasm so Greta couldn't tell if he was being serious or not.


Johnny has been working on the thrusters for several minutes when they see the lights from the ship heading back towards them. Within a minute, it is above them and coming down for a landing. After the ship lands, the captain and Hank step out.


"I don't think we are going to find him," says the captain.


"We found a site where it looks like he tried to have a campfire. The 'wood' from these trees doesn't seem to burn too well," says Hank.


"We found his tracker, a radio, and a few other things at the campsite. They had all been turned off, and the batteries were taken out. I don't think he wants to be found. Why you would want to stay on a planet like this is beyond me." says the captain.


"So what are we going to do?" says Johnny as he throws down his tools.


"Your going to finish fixing that ship, and I'm going to haul the supplies. The rest of you can fly home and take a much needed break," says the captain.


"You don't need to do that, captain, we can all go," says Greta.


"I don't want to go, but I don't want to make you do it alone," says Johnny.


"That's a nice thing for you all to say, but I'll do it. Can you get that ship fixed in time, Johnny?" says the captain.


"I'll have these back together in about 20 minutes, then we can test everything out." says Johnny.


"Good. Hank, you get our ship ready to go. I want you to stay with me until we get out of this system, just in case I have trouble," says the captain.


"Yes, mam," says Hank.


Hank goes back inside the ship and Johnny gets back to work.


"Are you finished with all this," says Greta, gesturing towards Johnny's tools and the manufacturing station.


"Leave the bag until I'm finished, but you can pack up the manufacturing station and the rest," says Johnny.


Greta packs everything back into the ship. The captain goes into the ship and returns a short time later with a bag from her quarters. She takes the bag on board the cargo ship and comes back outside.


"You can start firing everything up. Just don't activate the thrusters yet. I need a few more minutes," says Johnny.


Captain Adams goes back in, seals the door, and powers up and tests the critical systems. First, she activates the environmental systems. The ship pressurizes the internal cabin and begins regulating the temperature. Everything seems to work, but it will need to be tested one more time once they are in space. With the main engines repaired, the reactor can be powered on. Everything seems to work there. The batteries are charging and the main engines warming up in preparation for ignition. Captain Adams calls Johnny on the radio.


"How's it coming, Johnny," she says.


"I think I've got it, captain. Let me get everyone back and you can try out the thrusters," says Johnny.


Johnny and Greta move back from the cargo ship, and Johnny radios the captain.


"Give it a try, mam," says Johnny.


Captain Adams powers up the thrusters and lifts off. The ship is very shaky, but moves up about 30 feet in the air and hovers in place.


"She is a bit hard to control, but I think it will do," says the captain.


"Bring her back down and I can adjust the thrusters and smooth that out, mam," says Johnny.


"No time for that, Johnny. Once I'm in space, that won't matter, anyway. The ship only has to make one more landing. Once I've dropped off the supplies, I'll book a ride home on a transport ship." says the captain.


Hank overhears this on the radio. "Mam, we can't let you fly that thing alone all that way," says Hank.


"You can and you will, since it is an order from your captain. The rest of you get on board The Bernard. We're leaving," says the captain as The Albatross climbs higher.


Johnny and Greta quickly gather the remaining tools, throw them in the bag, and run to board the ship as quickly as possible. As soon as they are on board, Hank ascends following The Albatross. They quickly overtake the old cargo ship.


"Hank, I want to fly directly below The Bernard as we go through the tree canopy so I don't have to push through those branches. I want the ships in direct contact as we push through," says the captain.


"Understood," says Hank.


Hank flies ahead of The Albatross until they can see the canopy above them. He selects a spot that seems to be far from any of the tree trunks, so the canopy will hopefully be thin. He flies in just below the canopy and waits for the captain. She comes in below The Bernard. The Albatross is small enough it should be able to fly up to the bottom of The Bernard in between the lower thrusters. This should allow her to fly up and make contact with The Bernard without being blown back by the thrusters.


"I'm directly below you and ascending," says the captain.


"I see you on the scanners," says Hank.


Captain Adams flies upward. The shakiness of the controls makes maneuvering difficult. Any deviations from a direct path to the bottom of the rescue ship cause The Albatross to shake violently as it gets caught up in the turbulence from the rescue ship's thrusters. She gets closer and has to back off and recenter several times.


"Here I come again," says the captain.


"Mam, we could try something different," says Hank.


"No time now. I'll get it this time. As soon as you feel contact, start moving up. Not too fast or I won't be able to keep up," says the captain.


She flies towards The Bernard much more quickly this time. This seems to be the only way to steady the old cargo ship. She gets closer and closer, the eddies from The Bernard's thrusters nearly spin the Albatross over, but she rights the ship just in time to slow down just enough to keep from crashing into the bottom. The ships crash together with a loud bang and begin moving up together.


The Bernard makes contact with the canopy and pushes the branches out of the way. The Albatross remains safely below, avoiding contact with the branches as they push through. They are moving much faster than would be ideal in this situation. Branches are crashing against the sides of the rescue ship, but luckily none are too large. They seem to have selected a good place to push through the canopy. After a few seconds of this, they break free. They can see a bright blue sky and this system's star shining off on the horizon.


"I'm going to break free now," says Captain Adams.


She reduces power to the thrusters and the ships separate. The thrusters from the rescue ship push the cargo ship away and it tumbles back towards the tree canopy. Just as it seems like she is going to crash back through the trees, the captain is able to bring the cargo ship under control and ascend away from the canopy.


"Let's get this thing into space and make sure everything checks out," says the captain.


She puts on a breathing mask and starts up the main engine. Just a few seconds later and the cargo ship shoots off and an upward angle. Hank and The Albatross follow closely behind. A few minutes later and they have settled into orbit around the planet.


"I'm showing a small leak. It seems to be around the outer door. I'm going to check it out and see if I can repair it," says Captain Adams on the radio.


"I can suit up and come over if you need, mam," says Johnny.


The entire crew is on the bridge of The Bernard, wishing they could help the captain somehow. They have to wait as she attempts to fix the leak on the cargo ship. They sit or pace back and forth, not saying anything. She hasn't said anything since she started.


"Why didn't we just take the cargo on our ship?" says Greta, finally breaking the silence.


"The captain wants us to have our time off. She knows we need it," says Hank.


"What about her? Doesn't she need time off?" says Greta.


"We all do. Captains are just like that. It's part of what makes a good captain," says Doc.


They all sit quietly again for a few minutes. Then the captain radios again.


"I think I've got it. I'm going to set a course and fire up the main engines. Hank, you follow for a few minutes. If everything looks good, then set a course for home." says the captain.


The Albatross breaks orbit and begins accelerating out of the system. Hank follows for a few minutes until they have both reached cruising speed. Everything is looking good with the cargo ship.


"Everything looks good, captain," says Hank.


"Good. I'll see you guys in about four weeks, I would guess. Take some time off, get rested. We'll be back on duty soon after I return," says the captain.


The crew all say goodbye and good luck to the captain. Then they alter course for home and The Albatross flies out of view.


"What do you think happened to the captain of that ship?" says Johnny.


"Must have gone crazy. It happens to captains of those cargo ships when they spend that much time alone in space. Most of them don't go out alone like that anymore," says Hank.



------



I walk away from the ship for several hours. It seems to be getting darker, so I decide to make camp and get some sleep. I try for a while to start a fire, but the wood won't burn. I decide to give up on that for now and I lay down. As I lay there trying to sleep, a thought occurs to me. I could just give up. Wouldn't that be easier? They need those medical supplies; I have to deliver them. I could be selfish, just this once. I'm tired of flying cargo. I could just wander off and live here. They can get more medical supplies. I drift off to sleep.


I'm woken suddenly by a voice on my radio.


"Cargo vessel, do you read? This is the rescue ship Bernard. We are closing in on your position. We should arrive within minutes. Please respond if you are able."


I need to respond and get back to the ship. I pack up my things. As I'm packing, the thought comes into my head again. I could stay here. It makes even more sense now. They will deliver the supplies. I don't need to feel guilty. I'm going to do it.


If I'm going to do this, then they can't find me. I need to destroy anything that would allow them to track me. Quickly, I take out my radio and tracker and remove the batteries. I'll just leave them here. They probably won't find them, anyway. Then if I need them, I can come back.


I decide to move back towards the ship so that I can see them and be sure when they leave. After they take the medical supplies, I can use the ship as a shelter if I need it. After walking for a while, I see lights up in the sky, flying slowly. They are probably searching for me. I'll need to keep out of sight. I continue back towards the ship for a couple more hours, staying out of sight when the search vessel flies over.


As I get close to where I left the ship, I can see that they moved it off the stick pile. There is a small man in blue overalls and a large, muscular looking woman in a combat uniform near the ship. They seem to be trying to fix the ship. I guess they still think they will find me and send me on my way. They need to just take the supplies and go. People are already dying. I wish I could just tell them, but they wouldn't let me stay here alone. They won't wait much longer. They must know that delivering the supplies is critical.


I sit and watch them. The woman seems to stand guard, mostly. The man is fixing the ship. I watch him fabricate parts for the thrusters and work on the main engines. It seems to take forever. All the while, their ship keeps searching for me.


Just as he finishes up the main engines, their ship arrives. They land and another man and woman step out. I can't hear what they are saying, but the woman seems to be giving orders and pointing at the 2 ships. Maybe now they will finally give up and get those supplies moved.


I watch for a bit longer. The woman who just arrived goes back into their ship and then reappears with a bag. What is she doing? She goes in and out of my ship a couple of times and then goes in and closes the door. Meanwhile, the small guy keeps working on my ship. I'm not coming back, you guys. What are you planning?


I watch as the small guy finishes up the ship and they power everything up. Suddenly it takes off. Just as shaky as ever, but she is flying. Are they taking the ship? Why didn't they just transfer the supplies? I wasn't planning on staying here with nothing. I've only got enough food for a couple of days.


As I was thinking all this, I see my ship flying away. Then a few seconds later, the other one follows. I run out into the open yelling, but there is no point. They can't hear me and I don't have my radio.


"Please, come back!"


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