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by Nina M. Osier
Category: Science Fiction
Description: It's been 20 years since Maisie Thurlow last saw her big sister. First a team of government "minders" tore their family from the pastoral religious colony that was the only home small Maisie had known. Then a mutiny aboard the star liner carrying the displaced colonists separated the sisters, with Eve boarding a lifeboat aimed toward a vacant but inhabitable planet. Now Maisie is Captain Thurlow of Star Guard, and she can't resist trying to find her sister when her patrol ship's course takes it temptingly near that remote world. That's when Murphy's Law kicks in with a vengeance, bringing Maisie's ship down in flames on the mountain where Eve's lifeboat landed. Throwing Maisie and her surviving crew members into a survival scenario none of their training anticipated, because this planet's atmosphere does strange things to Humans ... and they're just as trapped on it, now, as Eve is.
eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net/ebooksonthe.net, 2008 ebook
eBookwise Release Date: February 2009
16 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [291 KB]
Reading time: 175-245 min.
"Jack, I'm sorry." Star Guard Captain Maisie Thurlow whispered the words into a commlink that she thought had gone silent. So First Officer Jacques Qiero's answer, reaching her helmet speakers in an equally hushed tone despite the racket all around them, made her start against her command chair's restraint harness.
"For what, Maisie? You didn't know this was gonna happen." The familiar voice did what it always did. It centered her, and gave her back her focus.
No, she hadn't known. Couldn't have. Yet the captain must be held responsible, nevertheless, for all that happened aboard her ship. Authority she could delegate, but accountability clung to her no matter what.
So be it. Thurlow squared her shoulders and braced her feet against the ship's bucking. Closed her ears to the screaming alarms, and spoke into the commlink on purpose this time. "All hands, this is the captain. Check in with your mates as soon as you can after we're down. I'm assuming we won't have a working intercom, but we will have a breathable outside atmosphere and gravity pretty close to T-normal. So get yourself out of the ship, and then get your helmet off so you can hear. If you need to shuck your suit so you can run better, do it! Stay alive, people. That's your only priority right now. I'll see you dirtside. Thurlow out."
Dirtside on a dirt ball that didn't even have a name on the star charts. Coming down through its atmosphere trailing fire, and hoping the shields would hold and their power source wouldn't fail until the ship's outer skin was no longer endangered by heat-generated friction. Trusting to restraint harnesses and envirosuits to protect their fragile Human bodies from the forces of such a ride, and then from whatever fires and fumes a crash landing would set loose inside the breached hull.
At least they had military-issue gear to guard them against all that, and at least they had years of training in how to get through this. Did she dare to hope that a band of untrained civilians, the oldest among them not long out of childhood, had survived a similar landing some 20 years earlier? Not all of them could have, common sense told her. But maybe some had. Survived not only landing, but everything that must have come afterward ... Thurlow stopped listening to her ship, now that nothing she did in response to it could make a difference, and fixed a face from the past firmly in her mind.
I'm coming, Big Sister. Not quite like I promised I would, because I sure didn't plan on crashing my ship beside yours! But I'm coming after you anyway, at last. And no matter what things look like right now, I'm making you another promise. I'll get us both off this dirt ball somehow. Sometime. One way or another, I'll get you home.
With those words and Eve Thurlow's image filling her thoughts, she bid instinct be damned and forced her muscles to relax. Shut everything outside her body away from consciousness, and waited for the next few minutes to be over. * * * *
Waking up hurt. Thurlow expected that, but she hadn't expected it to hurt this much. The air inside her helmet still smelled and tasted as it should (although no one could ever call suit atmosphere "fresh"), but smoke outside it surrounded her when she opened her eyes. She couldn't feel the heat, but she knew the command deck must be hotter than hell because the only light penetrating the smoke came from flames. Greedy flames, through which she must walk if she wanted to get out of her crashed ship's remains.
The release on her harness had worked as it should. In training she'd always taken that for granted, but in this reality she recognized it as a huge blessing and claimed that blessing for an omen. The worst was over now. They'd set down, and she'd regained consciousness uninjured (never mind her screaming bruises!) inside an unbreached envirosuit. All the rest that survival required would follow, surely. She only had to take it one step at a time.
"Maisie! Come on, I got the hatch open!" She hadn't realized until now that silence surrounded her, in the midst of flames that must be roaring as everything flammable on the command deck went up. Her XO's helmet was pressed against hers, so his voice could reach her despite her dead commlink.
"Jack?" He wasn't hearing her, because he'd already moved away. Except for a gloved hand that gripped one of her arms, and hauled at her unmercifully. Thurlow heaved her body out of the command chair, and discovered that its tough fabric had begun smoldering beneath her. It caught as she moved clear, flaring sullenly instead of with the bright enthusiasm of so many other fires raging nearby. The heat was just beginning to make itself felt inside her suit.
That got her attention. The last of the detachment to which she'd awakened disappeared, and the physical discomfort from being pounded around inside her suit and against her harness got pushed down into a part of her awareness that could be spared no attention whatsoever right now. Heat shouldn't be able to get inside an envirosuit, built as it was to protect its wearer from the deep cold of space. So even though she couldn't smell the smoke surrounding it, her suit had been breached somehow, to some degree; and that meant she had a finite timeline for getting out of here. It wasn't going to take the ship's drive exploding (a thankfully unlikely event unless they took a direct hit in combat, or got too near a star) to cook her alive inside the self-contained little universe she wore.
Everything worked. Her legs moved awkwardly at first, but full control returned as she moved across the deck. The soles of her suit's self-boots sank into its softened surface and left tracks behind, as if she'd been hurrying along a waterside pathway that Quiero had already walked ahead of her. All of the bridge's work stations except Quiero's were still occupied. She needn't worry about saving those crew members, because each of the bodies lay at an angle no living human could assume.
There went any chance Thurlow had of pretending she could pull this off without Evie's life costing that of somebody else. Fleet hardware was bad enough, but lives ... lives were different. Thurlow swallowed hard, but kept going. She had lost crew members before, although never under circumstances remotely like today's. Those circumstances might or might not control how she would feel about losing her bridge crew, later when she had time to reflect; but for the moment duty, training, and instinct all demanded that she do the same thing. Get through the hatch that Jacques Quiero was now holding shut with his body, to keep the outside atmosphere from blasting into the command deck and feeding the fires there another dose of oxygen. The first time he'd opened it had probably set things well enough alight. Yet the longer he held it shut, the more time it had to melt itself that way permanently ... Thurlow thanked the God she didn't believe in for letting her regain consciousness, since one man working alone might or might not have been able to carry her through that hatch to safety. Or to whatever lay on its other side, which surely had to be safer than staying here.
Quiero heaved the hatch outward. As she dove through the opening, Thurlow felt rather than heard the roar rising behind her. Her XO followed, and rolled clear without trying to close the aperture from which flames now streaked out in greedy pursuit. The belching fire briefly enveloped his envirosuit, but had no power to scorch the fragile flesh within.
It was dark outside. Or it would have been, but for the torch the ruined starship offered. Thurlow fumbled for her helmet's fastenings until a grip around one of her wrists arrested the movement. Quiero's helmet pressed against hers again, and his voice rasped: "Look around, Maisie! Forest fire!"
Even breached as it must be, her suit still offered considerable protection against the fire rising from gnarled tree-like vegetation not far beyond the starship's wreckage. The ground between that flaming tree line and the ship's hull was already burned bare and black, and for a moment Thurlow hesitated as her eyes searched for a break in the flames. When she realized she wasn't going to find one, she simply plunged into the fire. * * * *
The ground sloped upward, and the herbage let her through. How far the conflagration would travel, she couldn't guess; but this blaze was sure to spread farther than any nature-caused planetary fire, because its intensity would be drying out the wood and leaves and other fuel ahead. In the silence of her damaged suit, Thurlow ignored the growing certainty that her air system was no longer doing its job. She couldn't take her helmet off to breathe better here, in air so superheated that its touch could set her hair ablaze and char her skin--never mind what it would do if drawn inside her lungs. Her only chance lay in making do with what remained inside her suit, and the usual strategy of minimizing physical exertion to conserve oxygen had no application here. She must move as fast as she could, virtually blinded by the brightness all around her and clueless as to how far she had yet to travel before reaching safety, and not let herself think about failing to survive. Her crew, however many of its members managed to emerge from this hell still living, needed her. And even if they didn't, her sister most certainly did. She wouldn't consider, now, the possibility that Eve Thurlow might no longer be alive somewhere on this planet. Or might never have made it here in the first place, all those lost years ago.
The climbing got harder, but the heat inside her suit stopped building at last. Her hair clung wetly to her scalp, and the rest of her felt just as soaked. Her eyes smarted as she blinked perspiration out of them, damning her inability to get at the stuff and wipe it away--damning that inability out loud, with those curses the first sounds she'd heard since landing except the brief exchange with Quiero followed by her own increasingly labored breathing. She emerged from the flames only when they could follow her no longer because she'd ascended beyond everything that fueled them, coming out onto bare ledge. Ledge that might, for all she could tell from inside this damnable suit, be dangerously hot from the fires below--as might the air around her. So she kept on climbing despite the growing pain in her chest, and the throbbing in her head that warned of both exhaustion and oxygen deprivation, until she crunched snow beneath her boots. In near darkness now, the flames glowing far below her, she sat down at last and raised her hands to her helmet. Disengaging its fastenings and lifting it over her head took the last of her strength.
The air that struck her sodden head threatened to flash freeze her sweat into a new kind of helmet, but for the moment it felt good anyway. She sat there in the cold night, and forced herself to breathe through her nose after a few desperate gulps that hurt her chest worse than the past few minutes of oxygen-starved exertion. She wondered when she'd be able to use her voice again, because the next thing she must do was find the others. Who might actually be able to hear her, as soon as she got enough breath back to call out, thanks to the distance between her perch and the still raging fires below ... the still spreading fires, that were traveling down slope now and finding plenty of fuel.
Dear God, help anyone who got off the ship and then ran down this mountain instead of up it!
Had she uttered that plea out loud, instead of thinking it as she'd intended? Perhaps not; but she'd heard someone's voice, and the fire's now muted roar hadn't drowned it out. Below, where her helmet had kept her from hearing anything except her own rasping breaths and pounding heartbeat, those flames must be deafening. She tried to speak deliberately when the voice didn't sound again, but all that came out of her mouth was a croak. How had she managed to get this thirsty without feeling it?
"Maisie! Maisie, where are you?" It wasn't Jack's voice, and it wasn't calling her "captain" as everyone else from her ship would have.