Authors: Ilsa J. Bick
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages), #Literature & Fiction, #TV; Movie; Video Game Adaptations, #Star Trek
here was this big joke about S.C.E. Those engineer guys show up, and everything goes terribly wrong. Some kind of cosmic curse thing going. Lense figured she had the S.C.E. curse but good because everything that could go wrong had, and in a really big way. Like now, for instance: stranded God-knew-where with nothing but the clothes on her back, and a bulky EVA suit whose only useful item included an emergency locator beacon. Otherwise, no emergency rations, no tools, no water. No Julian. No nothing.
Tacky with sweat, Lense battled through a thicket of prickles, her arms full of spiky boughs sticky with sap and stinking of resin. She’d stripped to her black tee, and her arms were crisscrossed with scratches. The branches were from some sort of stunted, indigenous conifer with a gnarly black trunk. Only thing growing besides these damn prickles and a heck of a lot of scrub grass and chaparral. She was headed downhill toward a natural depression she’d discovered near a slow creek slicked with scum northwest of the inland sea.
She was huffing like she was making an ascent. Her dark curls were plastered to her scalp, and sweat trickled down the back of her neck. Maybe it would get cooler when that weird orange sun went down. Then she eyed that sky and figured no way. Maybe four degrees C cooler, and that’d be it. Too many clouds trapping way too much heat, leaving the air hot and turgid as sludge. Her chest was tight, as if a metal band were twisted around it. Her head roared with a headache so bad, she thought her brain was going to dribble right out of her ears. Her gut was doing flips, pushing bile into the back of her throat.
The air was death by slow poison. She had symptoms like making altitude too fast the way pikers did with Everest on Earth, or Vulcan’s Mount Seleya, not acclimating first to make up for the lower partial pressure of oxygen at altitude. Probably she’d get better in a couple of days. But she didn’t want to be anywhere on this rock in a couple of days and so hoped she wasn’t going to find out.
And she was thirsty. Grit crunched between her teeth and her tongue felt glued to the roof of her mouth. Dying of thirst was really unpleasant, but she didn’t dare drink water she hadn’t boiled. For one thing, the water didn’t look that inviting and there was nothing living in it so far as she could tell, except for some scummy kind of sea grass. But she wasn’t ready to die
of desperation either. Not that she thought boiling would do a whole hell of a lot. That water was loaded with contaminants. Residual radioactive ash, polychlorinated phenols, industrial waste. Probably she could boil away the more volatile phenols and other organic carcinogens. Still no guarantee, though, and there was nothing to do about the ash. Maybe filter it through her uniform top? No, that’d take a long time and the uniform was a tight weave, not very porous. Probably more would evaporate away than drip through. So that was a nonstarter.
She’d thought about scrounging for water from some of the native plants, but she hadn’t spotted any water-trapping plants like bamboo, or
cacti like they had on Vulcan. Maybe she could rig a solar still, but she didn’t have anything clear to drape over the pit upon which water could condense. But she had to get water. More than food, water’s what would keep her alive and…
Whoa, slow down; panic over one thing at a time
The tricky thing had been what to do with her suit. That old Prime Directive thing cropping up—and wouldn’t Gold have a field day with that one. But the real issue was her suit had an emergency transponder-locator beacon, sort of important if she wanted off this rock. Once she’d beached, there was no way she could lug it along. So she’d stayed in the suit, hiking northwest and away from the inland sea.
Eventually, she’d found the stream and a good place to construct a shelter. There were tumbles of boulders humped and jumbled here and there, and she found a wide ridge with a sixty degree incline and a cave of sorts that led back for about fifty meters. Thumbing on her emergency transponder, she wedged her helmet and suit into a fissure but pocketed her combadge. The opening to the cave was wide enough for her to squirm into, if needed. Of course, this might also mean that an animal could do the same thing, but she hadn’t seen any animals so far. There were birds here and there, black specks silhouetted like cinders against smoke-yellow clouds. A heck of a lot of bugs, though, especially those nearly-invisible no-see-ums swarming in an undulating ball around her head.
The bugs made sense. In the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe, insects would likely adapt and survive. That was bad because she wasn’t exactly sure what there was for food, and she wasn’t eager to go grubbing for, well,
. If she had a chance to spy out a few of the local inhabitants, that would help because if they were similar physiologically (and she’d just have to take a guess since she was pretty near blind without a tricorder), she’d likely be able to tolerate the food.
Thinking about getting food and water, she wasn’t watching where she was going. Her toe hooked on an exposed root, and she stumbled, went down, wood spilling out of her arms. Her right ankle complained. She cursed. Starfleet regulation uniform boots were made for civilized life on a civilized ship, not hiking.
She picked herself up, dusted off, retrieved her wood. Food and water, they were just two problems out of a gazillion. She hadn’t exactly aced survival training but remembered that Starfleet’s version was predicated upon a few givens. For example, Starfleet pretty much figured you had access to tools or some kind of gear: phaser, a tricorder. Something. Another was that if you ditched, well, you had the shuttle for shelter and you could stay pretty cozy, break into your survival stores and wait to get rescued.
Rescue. That was the key. Starfleet kind of drummed that into you. Your people were going to be looking for you even if you were just a plasma smear or a slew of subatomic particles. You were important; your absence was felt, and someone somewhere would worry. So she figured they were worrying: Gold, Gomez, even Tev. Not to mention the folks on DS9 who probably missed Bashir. She counted on that much.
But the problem was surviving until they found her. If they found her. She didn’t have tools. She didn’t have the runabout. She’d debated about trying to find what was left of the
, maybe scavenging bits and pieces but mostly sticking close because that’s where her people would look first. But the shuttle had gone far south toward that city and was too far away for her to get there in anything like a reasonable amount of time. From what she’d seen, there wasn’t much left of the
anyway—and, to be honest, she wasn’t really sure she was ready to face what might be left. Of the runabout. Of Julian, mainly, if he was still in there. Maybe she should be stronger. Right now, she wasn’t.
Worse than having nothing (if there was such a thing as something worse in a situation verging on the totally catastrophic), she didn’t really think they’d ended up anywhere close to where they’d been going. In the few seconds she’d had at the sensors, she’d drawn a blank: no Starfleet buoys to ping, no recognizable stars. No nothing. Of course, the sensors could’ve been damaged. On the other hand, they’d been good enough to read this planet. So a whole lot of nothing meant they’d ended up far, far away. That was pretty bad.
So make a plan, you idiot. You’ll feel better if you’re doing something, if you’ve got a plan
It was a psychological game. She knew that. Helplessness made people panic. You panicked, you were as good as dead. So, okay, in the morning, she’d head toward that city; keep the sea on her right and the mountains behind her and go south until she found someone.
“And what you got to think about now is what you’re going to eat and drink.” Her voice sounded weird and a little small because everything was so still. But talking to herself made her feel better. She dodged a tumble of boulders and angled in left toward the hollow she’d opted on for the night. “Because face it, sweetheart. You are going to be here for a nice, long time. You’re on your own and…” She looked up and froze.
There were three of them: a woman and two men. They each had a rifle and their rifles were pointed straight at Lense.
No one spoke for a very long moment. Then the woman—with dusky, plum-colored skin, no nose, only the right half of her jaw that made her face look dented, and a zigzag scar slicing along her collarbone from left to right—said, “You were saying? About being on your own.”
“That’s your story?” Their leader, a lanky and well-muscled man with a square chin and brown hair that spilled in ringlets around massive shoulders, eyed her skeptically. He wore a coarse, beige linen shirt that was open to his throat, a pair of olive-drab trousers, and cracked black leather combat boots streaked with deep seams of red-ocher grit. A pistol was holstered high on his right hip. But, unlike the woman and the other man,
man was unmarked. No scars, no missing limbs. His only similarity to the other two was the color of his skin: a dusky purple like an underripe Damson plum but with more blue.
Not Bolian, and Andorians are more sky-blue. This is something old; on the tip of my tongue, something about hemoglobin…
“Why don’t I believe you?” he said.
Lense gave a halfhearted shrug. “That’s not my problem.”
“Oh, but I’m afraid it is.”
“I told you,” said Lense. “I was with friends. We were on a hike. We got separated.”
The man’s brown-black eyes slitted. Lense forced herself not to look away. Her stomach was turning somersaults, though. If she couldn’t convince these people that she was just some stupid hiker, there was no way out of this, and there sure as heck wasn’t going to be any cavalry charging over the hill to come to her rescue.
She was in some sort of rebel camp: a warren of caves several hours north of where she’d been. The caves were a good ten degrees C cooler than outside, a welcome relief. The air smelled wet and there must be some sort of underground river or stream because Lense heard a faint but steady drip, like moisture pattering on rock. The place was well ventilated, too. Every now and again, a finger of cool air brushed along the nape of her neck and gave her goose bumps. Torches flared along the walls, releasing curling tendrils of sooty smoke that streaked the rocky walls charcoal black. Couldn’t keep the torches going if there was no way to replenish air.
“So why didn’t they go looking for you?” the man asked.
“I’m sure they did. If your people hadn’t interfered, they’d probably have found me by now.”
The man grunted. “My people wouldn’t have come anywhere near if there’d been the slightest hint of a search party. But there wasn’t one, and I have to wonder about that. They’re your friends, so why didn’t they raise an alarm? Those woods ought to have been crawling with Kornaks. But you were alone. So these…
of yours, they can’t be that fond of you now, can they? After all, what type of friend leaves someone with no supplies to wander around on her own? In fact, Mara here,” he nodded at the blonde with the scarred jaw and no nose who stood on his left, “she says you were foraging for wood and very noisy about it. So, with friends like that—”
“With friends like that, I don’t need enemies. Right, right.” Lense feigned impatience. “That just goes to prove my point. If I were some sort of spy, I’d be, well, kind of stealthy, wouldn’t I? Spies usually sneak around.”
He arched an eyebrow, the left. “Maybe you’re a very poor spy.”
“Or maybe I’m not a spy. That’s what I’m telling you. Look, I don’t know what it is about
that you don’t understand, but for the record: My name is Elizabeth Lense. I’m not a spy. I was out with friends. We were separated. I was trying to make myself comfortable before it got dark. I am confident my friends will be looking for me,
looking right now. They’ll be worried sick. Period, end of story.”
“Then why are you dressed like that, hmm? That looks like a uniform. And what’s this?” He flipped her combadge like a coin, caught it one-handed, thrust it under her nose. “What is this, some sort of insignia?”
Her fingers itched, and it was all she could do not to snatch the combadge from his hand. “It’s jewelry. I told you.”
“I don’t believe you. How stupid do you think the Jabari are, eh? Hiking; that’s absurd. You don’t have a pack. You don’t even have a canteen.”
Lense was silent. Mara, the blonde, had asked the same things. They’d shepherded her along a corkscrew trail that doglegged and cut along switch-backs through the mountains north of the sea. The terrain had turned progressively worse, the vegetation sparser, and Lense’s boots were not up to the task of hoofing it up trails filmed with crumbly scree. She’d fallen a lot, ripped her uniform pants at the knees and gotten banged up pretty good. But it was when she started coughing that they stopped to rest. Mara and the men swigged water from canteens while Lense leaned back against a boulder, dripped sweat and wheezed. Her chest was killing her and when she could work up a mouthful of spit, it came out rust-colored, and her mouth tasted like metal. That scared her.