By Jason Lairamore
Blake Stavely, the mechanic, stood at the plastic window in the communal room curling a twenty five pound bar of lead stock with his left hand. With the gravity on this planet at least twice Earth norm, the weight he lifted was substantial. After fifteen reps he switched the weight to his right.
Outside, on the planet they had named Hercules, the view was filled with vegetation. Great trees and large shrubs fought against their neighbors to pull nutrients from the dense, loamy soil. When it wasn’t raining, they soaked up the rays from Hercules’ giant, yellow sun, which sat larger and more dominating in the sky than ol’ Sol back on Earth.
He shifted the weight overhead and began doing tricep extensions.
Humans were too weak for this world. The creatures out there made the strongest animals on Earth look sickly in comparison. It was a wonder none of the larger ones hadn’t accidentally crushed their fragile research buildings on accident. Of course, the high voltage fencing he had built around the compound had kept them safe, so far.
But, he had not come to the window to ponder such things. The life out there was for the scientists to study. Their research on this planet’s rich life was the whole purpose of their four year stay here. No, he had come to this window because it reflected the three scientists sitting around the table behind him. Allison Yonders, the team’s biologists, sat facing his broad back. From his position he could admire her without anyone being the wiser.
She was a petite woman standing at 5’5″. The top of her curly, brown head reached about the level of his chin. The one and only time he had had the opportunity to hug her, which was at the time of their televised departure five years ago, he had momentarily rested his head atop hers. He could still remember how perfectly they fit together in that brief embrace. How he wished he could go over there right now and relive that moment. But, he could not. She was with Michael Barnes, the group’s DNA sequencing specialist.
“We’re out of time,” said Fran Tiller, their botanist. “They’ve pushed our retrieval too far. The last of the animals have already fled south.”
As if to prove her point, the jungle outside Blake’s window began to steam. The raining had stopped. The sun was returning.
Blake shifted the weight in his hand and began working his front delts. Hercules’s axial tilt, though slower, was twice that of home. Summer was coming.
Michael sighed. He and Allison sat side by side at the table with Fran opposite them. Michael had his arm around Allison and she was leaning against him. Blake pumped out a few more burning reps to try to ease the hollow that filled his heart.
Michael nodded to his tablet on the table. As the computer expert, he was responsible for communicating with the orbiting satellite and thus, was their link to humankind beyond this dense hunk of rock.
“Stop worrying, Fran,” Michael said. “The ship is on its way. They’ve plotted their path through the field. In a matter of hours we will be away.” He gave Fran his toothy grin. Blake hated that condescending smile.
Instead of a proper Moon, Hercules had around it a cluster of small, mostly stationary, asteroids. The rocks were tightly knit, astronautically speaking, with varying orbital speeds. To get a ship through required precise computer programming.
“Besides,” Michael added, “They’d not leave Earth’s heroes here to burn. It’d be bad PR.”
Blake ground his teeth together and started exercising his lateral delts. He rolled his wrist with each repetition so that his rotator cuff could feel part of the strain as well.
Michael was only partially correct about his mention of heroes. The three scientists were, indeed, the most famous people alive at the moment. The data they had streamed back home on all Hercules’ flora and fauna had yielded miraculous dividends. The scientific world was in an uproar about all the findings.
But that did not include Blake. He was nothing but the grunt, a glorified manual laborer, to all those back home. When the mission was done and they had arrived safely home, the scientists would be hoisted up on the shoulders of the populous and carried through the streets. He wouldn’t be a part of that. He would go his separate way.
And never see Allison Yonders again.
He grunted as he ground out an extra rep with his weaker left arm.
“All those muscles won’t mean much when we’re in zero G,” Fran said to him. Fran was the only one that really talked to him anymore. Michael and Allison left him to his own devices as much as possible. They all knew of his feelings toward Allison. It wasn’t as if he could hide his desires among such a small group. Wherever he went the unfulfilled ache inside him seemed to leak out and fill the area with tension.
It had been a long four years.
Michael’s tablet crackled with static. Here it came, the beginning of the end of his time in Allison’s presence.
“MAYDAY MAYDAY,” the little speaker in Michael’s tablet screeched. Blake dropped the lead stock and turned around.
“UNDETECTED DEBRIS HAS DAMAGED OUR ENGINES. CONTROL MINIMUM. TRAJECTORY ALTERED. LOCATION BUOY ACTIVATED.”
All eyes turned to him as if he could somehow fix the far away ship.
“They will burn on entry without proper atmosphere insertion,” he said.
Michael and Allison went rigid and wide-eyed. The color of Fran’s wrinkled face drained away.
“A fire?” Fran asked in a shaky voice.
“The moisture level out there has dropped rapidly over the past few months, despite the rains,” she continued.
She didn’t have to say more. They all knew what she meant. With the drying jungle aided by Hercules’ fierce sunlight, the entire area might burst into flames.
Blake eyed them each in turn. He paused on Allison, enjoying the eye contact despite the situation. She averted her gaze and buried her face in Michael’s waiting chest.
“Gather what you need to survive and meet me at the copter,” he said and left.
Outside was a cooking inferno of sunlight. It was as if the rains from moments ago had not even happened. The broad-leafed trees surrounding their little enclosure were slowly deflating from the relentless onslaught of the sun. Everything about withered, but he did not mind. The planet’s hardships matched his dark mood.
They had one helicopter, especially made for the Herculean gravity. It was a sturdy little bird made mostly of very strong, light-weight plastic. It had been built to run off solar fuel rods. Energy wasn’t a problem, not with Hercules’s sun beating down upon them.
The copter sat where he’d landed it after their last outing. He opened the small cargo hold on its underbelly and unloaded everything inside. He was going to need every ounce of space he could find.
He went to his garage and pulled out every fuel rod they had. After he had stowed them, he grabbed one of the solar panels and a converter kit and loaded that as well. It was a tight fit, but it worked.
He was checking the copter’s systems when the scientists joined him. They each had a single backpack.
“No room in cargo,” he called as Michael bent to open the hold. “Gotta hold your bag on your lap.”
Nobody objected, which just proved their anxiety. Usually they told him what to do. His job, up to this point, had been to take orders and make them all happy. How fast things had changed.
“Have you found the beacon?” Allison asked.
“The ship is three miles west,” Michael answered. His eyes were on his tablet. “They aren’t answering my hails.”
Blake started the copter blades spinning. That Michael hadn’t heard anything was most definitely a bad sign. He didn’t tell the others that, though. There was no sense in speculating, no matter the odds.
The copter lifted above the surrounding trees and he saw what he had hoped not to see. A great ball of smoke was growing in the direction of the downed ship.
The three scientists gasped.
“Nothing can stop that fire,” Fran whispered harshly.
Blake started the copter toward the crash. Nobody challenged Fran’s statement. Everyone sat in silence as they headed toward the spreading, dark-gray, smoke.
He climbed higher than he had ever pushed the copter before to lessen the amount of smoke they would have to travel trough.
“Here we go,” Fran said from the seat beside him. He nodded and plunged into the dense rolling mass.
They flew blind for long seconds.
“I can’t stand this,” Allison said from the back.
“Don’t worry,” Blake said. “We can be blind for a little while. There’s nothing up here to hit.”
Nobody laughed at his weak joke. He fiddled with the controls and silenced the panel in case any alarms sounded. He didn’t want hysteria breaking out in the little copter. They had problems enough without anybody cracking under the pressure.
A red light came on. One of the air intake filters was clogged. There was too much dust and ash in the smoke. Fran frowned at him, but had the sense of mind to keep her mouth shut, for which he was thankful. It wasn’t like they could do anything about it anyway. He prayed the other intakes lasted through the smoke.
The smoke cleared as fast as it arrived as they crossed the fire-line. There was still smoke, but it was thin. What had once been the lush, jungle vegetation was gone. Black and red smears covered the ground.
He saw the ship.
It looked like a cracked egg lying at the end of the furrow it had dug in the rich, dark earth. They stared at it in silence as Blake lowered the copter. He settled the craft in the furrow about a hundred yards away from the wrecked ship.
“No radiation detected,” Michael said from the back. “The ship’s engine must still be intact.”
“The interstellar engine is fine,” Blake added. The containment forces needed for an interstellar engine to function were more than any mere crash might produce. “Can’t crack those things.”
He shut the copter blades down, but kept the cooling system running.
“Michael, come with me,” he said.
Michael handed his backpack to Allison. “Ladies stay here while we look around.”
“Why, of all the chauvinistic notions,” Fran said.
Blake opened his door and a wave of hot, dry air filled the cabin. He glanced at Allison then looked at Fran. Fran caught his glance. She pursed her lips and let the issue drop. She knew he wanted to protect Allison in whatever way he could. Fran might not like it, but she at least empathized with his pain concerning her.
“Be safe,” she said.
He stepped from the craft. “Will do.” He closed the door.
He had one of the air-intake casings off as Michael came to join him.
“Gotta clean these first,” he said, not looking at the man.
“Listen, Blake, about Allison -,” Michael began.
“Not now,” Blake interrupted.
“It is way past time we talk about this,” he said. “And considering the situation -,”
Blake wanted nothing more than to turn and punch the man in the face. Talk? There was nothing to talk about. Talk couldn’t solve the continuous ache that filled his soul.
He turned to Michael and the man stepped back. Blake’s hands were clenched at his side. His whole body was rigid as he waited for Michael to say something else.
Michael held up his hands. “Okay. Okay.”
Blake returned to cleaning the intake system. He might have been a little rougher with the poor filters than he should have been.
Sweat poured from him by the time he was satisfied with the airflow system.
“Alright, let’s go see what’s what with the ship,” he said.
Michael didn’t respond as they made their way to the downed retrieval boat.
A great crack made entering the ruined ship easy enough, but once inside maneuvering from compartment to compartment became problematic. The ship lay at a forty five degree angle from parallel.
“Got the map of the ship on my tablet,” Michael said. “Living quarters, commissary, engineering, where would the crew be?”
“We’re splitting up,” Blake said. “The crew would most likely have been collected on the bridge. Go and check it out.”
“Where are you going?” Michael asked.
“Food and water,” he answered and left the man to his own devices.
The interstellar ships had the best in terms of water recyclers and high calorie food supplements. Their supplies were lighter and smaller than the stuff they had back at the compound.
The ship creaked with his every step and debris, some of it quite large, occasionally dropped down to crash around him. He had to drop to all fours to climb up the floor. More than once he had to clear collapsed sections in order to fit through. Finally though, he made it to the commissary.
He found what he sought in the emergency life-supplies cabinet. He got a backpack and put a couple of water collectors / recyclers inside then grabbed another bag and stuffed it full of food. They could now pull water from the ground when the need arose and had food enough to last over a month.
It would have to do.
There was an additional item he had forgotten about. They would need a few of the cold suits located in the living quarters next to the bridge.
The ship shook violently. He fell to his backside as a screech of tearing metal rocked the already broken craft. He held his breath and eyed the walls around him as he waited for the room to collapse and kill him. But the walls held. He let out his breath and made his way to the living quarters.
It took time. The living quarters and bridge were near the top of the ship. When he was almost there, he began hearing a soft moan. Perhaps Michael had actually found survivors. Blake shook his head. They had no room in the copter for the injured and staying here was a sure death sentence. They had to be on their way soon or summer would eventually bake them like an oven.
He stepped into the living quarters and found the source of the moaning.
Michael sat in the middle of the room. A metal support beam from the ceiling lay across his lap.
Michael didn’t say anything when he saw Blake looking at him. Blake didn’t say anything either. He walked over to the storage locker and grabbed a couple of the cold suits.
“The crew is dead,” Michael said when Blake turned back to him.
Blake nodded and set the backpacks down. He walked over to Michael and straddled the heavy beam.
“This is going to hurt,” he said. “Try to pull yourself clear as I lift.”
Michael nodded as Blake got his hands in place. He pulled with all the strength he’d gained over the past four years of training.
The piece of metal didn’t budge.
Michael sighed as Blake stood from his efforts.
“Go,” Michael said. “Go before the rest of the ship breaks apart. Save the others. Take care of … Allison for me.” Tears ran down his cheeks. “Tell her … Tell her I love.”
Blake stared at Michael and Michael stared back. It would be easy to turn around and leave Michael behind. The man wasn’t going anywhere. But, he envisioned the look on Allison’s face if he were to tell her Michael was dead. She would be devastated. He had never really admitted it to himself before, but, seeing Michael trapped and helpless in the crumbling ship, the fact of her love for Michael became clear.
He bent once more over the bar crushing Michael’s legs.
“Get ready,” he said.
This time, when he pulled, he kept Allison’s face firmly in mind. He would do this for her. It was what she wanted.
“I’m clear,” Michael said. Still, Blake pulled. He pulled and pulled.
She wanted Michael.
“I said I’m free!” Michael yelled. Blake dropped the beam and took deep, wracking breaths. His body was an aching mass of exhaustion.
“It’s time to go,” he said when his breath allowed.
“My legs are broken,” Michael said.
Blake stumbled into the small medical room off of the living quarters and came back carrying some instant casting material. After binding Michael’s legs, he stood to inspect his work.
“You’ll heal with time,” he said.
“Things usually do,” Michael replied.
The trip back to the copter was one difficult ordeal after another, what with Blake dragging Michael and the two packs through the crumbling ship. But they finally made it back. He hoisted Michael into the copter’s back seat next to Allison while the two ladies exclaimed like a couple of mad hens.
He let Michael do the explaining as he got the copter blades spinning.
“Thank you,” Allison said. He turned and smiled at her happy, tear-streaked face.
“You’re welcome,” he said.
They lifted off and returned to the site of the compound. It was a smoking mass of melted plastic.
“What’s the plan?” Fran asked from beside him.
He turned the copter south. The fire was up ahead. They would have to cross it again.
“We follow the other animals,” he said. “We’ll cross the equatorial desert and join the other life for another spring season until a second retrieval ship arrives.”
“Can we survive without the protection of the compound?” Fran asked.
He looked at the line of fire consuming everything in its path.
“We are going to be okay.”
Jason Lairamore is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who lives in Oklahoma with his beautiful wife and their three monstrously marvelous children. His work is both featured and forthcoming in over 50 publications to include Sci Phi Journal, Perihelion Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories and Third Flatiron publications to name a few.