“Michao!” I ran as fast as I could move in this godsdamned gravity. “Piet!”
He was alive. I could hear him moaning over the comm, breath coming in gasps. The sharp stalk was sticking thirty centimeters out of his belly to the right of his navel, just below the ribs. Its purple skin was slicked with orange goo and bright red blood, which was already turning to a muddy brown. His legs were kicking and his arms flailed crazily. “Michao—Captain—hold still! You’ll make it worse!” I reached him after what seemed like minutes, and scrambled around in a panic, not sure how to help. “Damn me for a Bessurean!” I swore, “this is bad…”
“Ribekka?” He’d never once called me by my first name. His eyes rolled, and he panted in shallow, panicked breaths. He found my face and it seemed to focus him a little. “Powersaw—in pack. Cut me down. Hurry, Sergeant. That’s—order—move”—he coughed, and pink mist fogged the inside of his visor—”your coula.”
I scrambled for his pack, which had fallen clear. I couldn’t feel well enough through my gloves, so I dumped the whole thing out on the ground and pawed through the pile. Michao’s breaths rasped in my ears, long moments dragged by, and I screamed in frustration before I finally spotted the saw sticking out of a side pocket. I whipped the cover off the blade and flipped the switch. It buzzed to life and I attacked the stalk, cutting into it a handspan below where it disappeared into the back of his suit. The center was fibrous and tough, and the little saw took forever to eat its way through. Michao cried out with each jolting vibration.
“Hold on,” I said, and he threw his arms around me just as it gave way. His weight sagged onto my shoulders and I staggered backward, dragging him to the ground.
“Pull it—out.” He spoke through gritted teeth. His face was contorted in a tight knot, and bloody snot ran down his chin.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea, Captain?” The stalk was five centimeters across where it stuck out his front, and a little thicker below. It might kill him if I removed it.
“Xe—xenorganics. Probably toxic—dead if you don’t. Only, only, maybe dead, if you do. Gods—burns like Hedaeis. Get. It. Out!”
“Okay, okay. I have to turn you. Hold still.” I got my hands under his back and heaved him onto his left side. I tried to be gentle, but he groaned and spasmed when I moved him, and dug his fingers into the sand—unconsciously looking for something to hold on to, or maybe trying to crawl into a hole to hide from the pain.
“Okay,” I said, wrapping a glove around the thick base of the stalk. Its flesh was rubbery, and I got a good grip even through the slippery mess. “Here goes. One—” I yanked hard before I got to ‘two’ so he wouldn’t tense up. The nasty thing slid out so easily I almost fell over backwards. “Gaaaagh,” said Michao. He coughed up a clot of blood, pawed at the ground and curled up on his side. I dropped the piece of cactus in the sand.
He lay panting, face down. As I watched, the gel layer in his suit fizzed out to fill the gaping hole. The biofoam would expand and plug his internal injuries. If he was lucky and hadn’t severed a major artery, he’d live out the day. I’d seen grunts recover from worse wounds with surgery and clone tissue replacements. But we were two weeks away from reuniting with Hebridea. I didn’t know what the odds were for him to make it that long without real medical attention, but they couldn’t be high.
Sera flashed up a time warning. Two hours Standard until meetup with Haestion. Two hundred minutes to get us both back to the lander, load the equipment and cycle up the grav punch. “Do you think you can walk?” I asked Michao.
He laughed, a choked cough of a sound, and shook his head. “Can’t even move my feet. Exo’s saying poss… possible spinal damage. I’m locked up, be… below the ribs. Have to haul my coula home.” His voice was stronger, but slurred. His suit was probably pumping him with painkillers.
“I’ll try. Your arms are working, right? Hang on.” I got down on one knee and started to lift.
“Wait! Wait. Get… samples.” He waved an arm vaguely at the pile of equipment I’d dumped out. “Can’t leave… without.”
“I’m going to be straining my joints just towing you in this g, Captain. Suggest we leave them behind. We’ve got our recordings, and your notes.”
“No!” he barked at me, coming more awake. “Need my samples. All for… nothing if I don’t bring them back. All… for… nothing, nothing, nothing.” He drifted off, eyes distant.
The Academy again. We were going to die out here over his damn paper. I gathered up the specimen tubes and bags he’d filled, and stuffed them back in his pack. I left the rest of the tools behind. The Coalition could afford to replace them if we got out of this.
Michao was lying on his side, watching me dully. I showed him the pack, and he nodded slowly. I strapped it to his back and heaved him over my shoulders. He clung to my neck, legs dangling awkwardly, and I started walking.
We were a klick and a half from the lander, just over halfway, when I heard a shrill beep in my right ear and my suit slowed down. Exoskeleton power cells at five percent, Sera warned, entering emergency conservation state. With all the extra weight, I’d be bogged in another hundred meters. Even if I dropped Michao here I wouldn’t have enough charge left to run for it.
With my servos throttling back, Michao suddenly got a lot heavier. I shortened my steps to keep from tripping. Sweat popped out on my forehead as my own muscles took over some of the load. It was hot as Hedaeis on this blasted planet and my homeostatic controls had dialed down along with the motors. After a few dozen paces there was nothing for it. I had to stop.
I sank to the sand, set Michao down as gently as I could, crossed my legs and rested my visor in my hands. I glanced at the time. Seventy-five minutes to get in the air. We weren’t going to make it, not with my cells this low. I looked at Michao, lying still with his eyes closed. The only way I could tell he was alive was from the quiet sound of his breathing over the comm.
Then it hit me. His suit was in lockdown, hardly burning any power at all. “Captain. Michao!” I shook his shoulder, and he grunted and spluttered. “Mmm… huh… Soliera?”
“Captain, I need you to wake up and help me. We’ve got to rig your power cell to mine, or we’re going to get stuck here and die. How much charge do you have left?”
“Wha…?” I had to repeat the question three times and bang on his visor before he understood. “Oh… sixt… sixty-three.” He still had more than half! It should be enough.
“Michao, stay with me. I need you to open your maintenance panel, and tell Canter to override the backflow preventer. Do you understand?” I knew his P-cog could understand me, but it wouldn’t take my orders unless Michao told it to.
“Mmhmm… You heard the lady, Canter,” he said. The port under his left arm popped open, and I snaked out a few decimeters of charge cable. With a quick twist, I reversed the adapter jack on my own cable. Thank the fate stars for the Coalition’s obsession with modular parts. I plugged them together and felt a wash of relief as my cooling system cycled back up to full. As good as that was, though, I couldn’t afford to waste any juice. “Sera, I want you to do what you can to save power. Throttle everything but my servos. I don’t need to be comfortable, just keep us both alive until we get to the lander.”
Understood, Ribekka. I have isolated your depleted cell to prevent equalization currents, reduced the feed to the homeostasis unit, and raised the intervention threshold on the equilibrium compensators. You will be at increased risk of falling, so please move carefully. Almost as soon as she said it, I felt the airflow over my skin slow down, and begin to warm from my body heat. This was not going to be a pleasant hike, but I couldn’t afford to dawdle. “Here we go, Captain,” I said, and slung him over my back again.
As Sera had warned, I felt myself swaying and had to step quickly to catch myself. I hadn’t realized how much I’d been relying on the compensators. Every little wobble in the high gravity threatened to yank me straight to the ground. I shifted Michao’s weight a little closer to center and set off at the best pace I could manage.
It was a crawl. Sweat poured down my face, and my visor fogged up in the sluggish, humid air. I kept checking the distance. 1400 meters. 1375 meters. 1320 meters…
“Sera, turn off the metrics and just show me the heading.” It was easier not to know. “Warn me if I’m too slow to make it in time.” Of course, Ribekka, she said. I kept trudging.