By Charlotte H. Lee
“Merdena is dead.”
Not words you want to hear when you find yourself in the dark, stranded on an alien planet. All four of us stared at Mina, the great gouts of smoke billowing from the pathetic fire Tulin had built the only movement in the miserable damp. None of us was doing well with the survival tasks, though, least of all me. My job had been to find edible vegetation, and all I had to show for two nerweens of hard work, scrounging through spiny bracken, were purple scratches on my face and hands.
Characteristically, Wis was the first to find speech. “That’s dismal. How long before we won’t be able to recover Mer?” She scrubbed at her brow, black eyes darting to each of us below black eyebrows braided back into violet tresses just above her pointed ears.
“The battery backup gives us enough power to keep Dena’s body cold for a little less than four nerweens, thanks in part to the local weather. I’ve already initiated compatibility testing from our crew files. It should complete by morning, about twelve newrots. Until then, we’ll keep busy, expand our foraging, and sleep in shifts.” Mina turned to me, azure eyes hiding any concern she must be feeling. Pale blue brows that twisted up into the center of her forehead accented the diamond shape of her face perfectly, and I stifled a sigh of adoration. “Lin, we need edibles. The converter is off limits until Mer has a new Companion.”
I swallowed and nodded. My first mission out of the academy, and I end up stranded on a heavy, cold, wet planet; our pod ship’s Companion an unanticipated victim to old age in a high gravity environment. And to make matters worse, we were on a landmass clearly past its growing season. If I didn’t find edible vegetation to supplement our food stores, we’d be forced to hunt for meat. I had to swallow against the gorge that boiled up my throat at the thought. A shiver ran down my spine, though whether it was because of the thought of eating meat or because of the general damp I didn’t want to examine too closely. I sighed and got to my feet, Tulin and Brima shooting sympathetic glances in my direction. I pulled my gloves on to cover my scratches, thumbs clumsy from the chilly night air. Wis turned back to stripping bark from the branches she’d collected, avoiding eye contact. I left them by the dubious warmth of the fire and struck out into the gathering dark.
Looking back on it now, I’m grateful it worked out that I was put on foraging detail rather than repairs or camp maintenance. The others were more adept with our pod ship’s older systems; my training had been focussed on the cutting-edge technology of the latest battlecruisers. How was I to know when I chose electronics weapons as my specialty that three nerthets before I was to graduate we’d sign a truce with the Orcasions. Lousy timing on my part. The resulting stand-down flooded the navy’s personnel resources, and I was shunted into Search & Exploration as a survey tech after graduation. My assignment to Merdena — a survey pod ship — had become a lesson in patience and persistence. Eight long, lonely nerthets serving aboard a survey carrier — with dozens of pod crews who’d been working together long enough that their casual verbal shorthand was incomprehensible jargon — had taught me just how much we use our bodies to communicate. I like to think I’ve gotten rather good at learning new languages because of that early career experience.
Considering how my luck had rolled out since entering the academy, I probably should’ve anticipated that this would be the first and only alien planet I ever set foot on. I wish now I had paid more attention to the natural beauty of this big island off the planet’s largest land mass — green even in the depths of winter. I was surrounded by trees, giant trees with alien, thick pale brown trunks that branched off into ever-smaller limbs thrusting their bony fingers into the night sky, waving at stars floating in a sky littered with galactic dust. There were also trees mixed among them that grew in tight clusters, smaller, with more normally sized trunks, whip thin and pliable. Everywhere in between the trees were low, winter-sleeping shrubs. Dead vines wove in and around it all, covering the ground and making walking difficult. Those vines also sported spikes that searched out my blood and hid the fungi that my porti-scan said was edible.
Just as I was straightening up from a great find of a mess of fungi growing at the base of one of the massive trees, I heard something moving through the brush. I froze and held my breath, trying to hear over the sudden hammering of my heart. My thighs burned, the higher than normal gravity making it hard to maintain my semi-crouch. The rustling continued, and I let my breath out slowly. I leaned forward to rest my shoulder against the tree trunk but misjudged the distance. With a startled cry, I toppled into a patch of dead vines, bending my left inner thumb in a direction it wasn’t supposed to go. I choked back a sob at the sudden fire lancing up across my palm, through my wrist, and into my arm.
It wasn’t until the buzzing in my ears faded that I realized the other rustling had stopped. I lay still, working up the courage to get back to my feet. A soft swish from close by disabused me of the notion that my fall had frightened away some small animal. With gargantuan effort I sat up, the calisthenics I’d had to do every day at the academy a distant memory my abdominal muscles shamed me into recalling. To make matters worse, my hair had tangled into the vine’s spikes, and several silver strands remained behind when I finally got loose. When at last the world stopped spinning, I stiffened in surprise, fear dancing up and down my spine. Not more than six steps away, a clutch of squat figures stood watching me. I counted seven of them of varying heights, though the tallest might only come to my shoulder. Pale beige faces peered out of heavy robes, three of them holding staffs taller than the tallest of the figures. Dwarves. How they’d come to be on this out of the way planet a mystery.
Raising my left hand palm out, I clambered to my feet, relying on only my right hand to aid my rump up off the ground. As a group, they all took a step back, the smallest one ducking behind another in the group. I kept my right hand arm tight to my side while I straightened up to tower over them, hoping they wouldn’t see me undo the catches on the holster strapped to my thigh. I only had a stun gun, but with luck I’d only need to drop one of them and be able to run away in the resulting confusion. I took a step back, dead leaves crackling underfoot, and glanced behind me, searching for an escape route.
When I looked back at them, five of them had pulled out long, wicked-looking white knives, and the sixth was barking orders. The seventh — the smallest one — had dropped to the ground, huddling in on itself until it appeared to be nothing more than a large rock. I blinked, gave my head a shake, and looked again. It really did look like a rock. I took another step back and then stopped when all six of them started moving toward me, their shorter legs covering only half of one of my strides in a step. As smoothly as I could, I raised my gun and fired into the crowd. To my dismay it didn’t cause any confusion at all. The five still upright came on and, as luck would have it, it was the five who’d already had their knives out.
I turned to start running but tripped on a vine and crashed face-first back into the patch I’d just pulled myself out of, the pain surging from my left hand forcing a scream. I barely noticed the vine spikes gouging at my face, the sound of other bodies moving through the underbrush far more frightening. It wasn’t fair! To be killed by dwarves, of all things, in pain and alone on a backwater planet during my very first planetfall. I tried to push myself up off the ground to get my knees under me, but pain exploded up from my broken thumb again, through my arm and carrying on into my head. I saw the first kick coming but passed out before it connected with my ribs.
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