I pushed as hard as I could for what felt like hours, but Sera didn’t tell me to speed up and I knew I couldn’t have missed the deadline. Deadline. I’d never thought about what that word meant before. It seemed like a funny joke that I should realize it now, and I laughed out loud.
Michao stirred a little on my back, then settled back down. The mist seemed to be thickening as I walked, and with the fog in my visor I could hardly see my own feet, but Sera kept me pointed the right way.
She had just flashed up a notice that Michao’s cell was down to fifteen percent when I spotted the shadow looming out of the fog, just a few meters ahead. I stumped up to the back of the lander, and dumped Michao on the ground. I disconnected my cable from his and jammed both of them into one of the lander’s auxiliary ports. “What’s our time, Sera?” I asked while I waited for a quick charge.
Nine minutes, Ribekka. Long enough to get us strapped in and the gear stowed. Michao stirred. “Soliera? Did… make it?” It sounded like he was waking up. The biofoam was secreting anaesthetic locally by now, so he wouldn’t need as much in his bloodstream.
“Yeah, we made it.” I leaned my visor against the lander. My suit was blowing cool air again, and the sweat running down my neck turned frigid. I watched the indicator tick up to twelve percent, thirteen…
“Made it, Captain,” he corrected me dreamily. Even looped out on drugs he could be a pain in the coula.
As soon as I hit twenty percent, I yanked my cord and stowed it. I scooped up Michao and set him down by the ramp, to go gather up the equipment. “Captain, I need you to order the grav punch to cycle, okay? We only have a few minutes to make our hop.”
“Mmkay. Do it, Canter, do it, do it!” I heard the punch wind up inside the lander and relaxed a hair. We were going to get off this rock after all.
Michao laughed, a little boy’s giggle. “Do it, do it… I feel funny.” His face blanched and he retched into his helmet. The cleaning system sucked it out and swept his visor, but left little flecks on his face. He looked miserable.
I popped the hatch and started packing up. But when I looked for the weather pole, it wasn’t there. All I could see was a drag mark in the dirt, leading away from the lander. I cursed and started jogging down the trail. Five minutes, Sera warned.
I hadn’t made thirty meters when I came on a trio of little creatures dragging away the tripod and pole. Each one was the size of a rabbit or a cat, but strangely proportioned. They walked on two thick, stumpy legs in front and one long one in the back, hinged up high above the body like the knee of a grasshopper; it made one bouncing stride for every two or three steps of the front feet. Their hides were rubbery leather, crossed with gray stripes. Their bodies were puffed up with saclike protrusions, and their heads were tubular, dotted with dark pits that could have been eyes or nostrils. At the tip of each snout, three tendrils ringed a beaky mouth. The biggest one was using them to pull my weather pole backwards through the sand.
The other two were bouncing around it, making a clattering noise like rocks banging together in a sack. When I got close they grew still. Their mouth tendrils waved high in the air and they pointed their snouts straight toward me. The third one kept pulling away at the pole. Its companions stalked toward me, slow and cautious, tendrils wagging. I pulled out my baton and waved it low in front. They backed off a pace, but then one lunged forward with a flick of its long hind leg, and grabbed the end of the baton in its mouth. It yanked, nearly hard enough to pull it out of my hand, and I hit the switch for the crackler. A shock pulsed through the creature’s head and it let go, making a whistling screech of pain. The other one backed off further, suddenly fearful, and I took the opportunity to cross the few steps to where the third one was still dragging at the equipment.
I grabbed the end of the pole and pulled, but it wouldn’t let go. I poked it with the baton, jabbing at its face, and hit it with the crackler. I’d gotten the last one inside the mouth, but the outer skin was much tougher and the arcing electricity didn’t have much effect. Its clattering, clicking noise increased in intensity, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the other two start creeping toward me again. I was out of time, and getting desperate. I dropped the baton back in its mag holster and pulled my sidearm. Without thinking I aimed the barrel at the thing’s body mass, slipped the safety and pulled the trigger, shooting it point-blank.
The flash and report of the pistol were followed almost instantly by a rattling screech and a bright gout of flame. My bullet tore through one of the fleshy sacs on the thing’s back, and the contents were flammable. The creature whistled and fell on its side, scrabbling at the ground and burning. The other two took off like shots at the sound of its death scream. They bounded away on their long back legs and disappeared into the mist.
After an interminable moment the creature curled up and stopped moving, partially blackened. It still hadn’t let go of the weather pole. In a hurry, I grabbed them both and ran back to the lander.
“Ha ha, Ribekka brought me a present, a present!” Michao called when he spotted me carting the gruesome thing back. Three minutes, Ribekka, Sera said. The grav punch was ready to go. We just had to get inside. I put my boot on the dead thing and yanked hard. It was strong, but with a wrench and a twist I managed to pull the pole out of its grip. I kicked its body away and started jamming the pole back in its case.
“Don’t throw away my present!” Michao shouted at me, “want it wrapped, wrapped, nice and tight, nice tight nice!” He was raving, face screwed up in an angry mask. This was more than painkillers talking. I wondered what alien compounds were floating in his bloodstream, and what they might be doing to his brain.
“Captain, we don’t have time for this. We have to close up the lander and get inside. You need to have your P-cog check the jump coordinates so we can get out of here!” While I talked, I worked, closing up the last of the equipment crates and tossing them inside.
“No. no no no, won’t go until you wrap my present!” He was pounding his fists on the ramp like a toddler. Ribekka, Sera warned me, Captain Michao has scrambled the heading. If we launch now we will miss the Haestion and fall back to the surface. Two minutes.
There wasn’t going to be any reasoning with him. “Mother sun, Michao, you’re going to get us killed!” I shouted, and bolted back with a specimen bag to where I’d kicked the little corpse. I shoved the odious thing in, zipped it up and thrust it into Michao’s arms. He clutched and cooed at it like a baby holding onto his blanket. I pulled him up the loading ramp by his collar handle and shut the hatch.
“Fix the heading, Captain. Do it now, or we’re both going to die!” He stared at me blankly, then went back to running his fingers over the shiny foil bag. “Nice present, nice for me, me, me…” He wasn’t going to do it. I didn’t have authorization to reset the codes. The computer wouldn’t take orders from me…
Not as long as Michao was conscious, it wouldn’t. I snatched the emergency kit off the wall. “Meziolam, meziolam…” There. The little red tube with white stripes.
One minute, Ribekka. I pulled out the syringe, opened it to put the tube inside, fumbled it, cursed, picked it up off the floor. I got it pieced together and reached down to open Michao’s access panel. He was babbling and petting the little monster inside the bag.
Forty seconds, Ribekka. I flipped open the panel, plunged the needle into his suit catheter, and squeezed the plunger. It took forever to empty the tube. His eyes flicked up to me in surprise. Then they went glassy and his face fell slack.
Thirty seconds, Ribekka. I picked Michao up, slammed him into his harness and buckled him in.
Twenty seconds, Ribekka. I ran to the opposite wall and strapped myself in too. Captain Michao has lost consciousness, Sera said, and his cognitive assistant is streaming me his authorization codes. Ten seconds. Shall I correct the jump heading?
“Yes, yes, do it!” Five seconds, said Sera. Heading successfully reset. Three seconds. “Launch, launch, launch,” I shouted. I heard the whine of firing turbines, and the kick of acceleration pressed me into a slack puddle against the bulkhead. Then the punch fired and the wind howled past us through the hole we’d opened into hard vacuum. We popped through the little window like a cork, the turbine roar died to nothing, and the pull was gone. I floated in my restraints, savoring the first dizzying instant of freefall.
A long moment later I heard a clanking impact on the outside panel. Contact successful, Ribekka. The Haestion is pulling us in now. At that news I felt my legs go to jelly, and my eyes rolled up to the ceiling, and for a little while I felt nothing more at all.
I looked down at Michao’s bare chest under an inch of nutrigel, watching his shallow breathing. I’d gotten him into the med tank as soon as I regained consciousness in the Haestion’s cargo bay. The automedic couldn’t do much for him. It was counteracting his symptoms, slowing the damage, but he’d been getting worse for two days. The skin sagged off his bones, gray and loose, and brown spots stained the whites of his eyes. His breath stank like rot and vinegar. In brief lucid periods he’d begged me not to do what I was considering right now. But if I didn’t mothball him, I knew he’d be dead before we got back to Hebridea.
Michao took a long gasp of breath, and his eyes fluttered open. He looked around, taking in the situation. “I told you no, Soliera. That was an order.” His voice was almost inaudible.
“Save your breath, Captain. You don’t have many left, the way you’re going. And I’m in command as long as you’re incapacitated. So this is the way it’s going to be. And that’s an order.”
He watched me with hard eyes as I punched commands into the tank. I didn’t look at him. “You don’t take merda from anybody, Ribekka. Not even your superiors. I always liked that about you.”
“Sure fooled me, Captain,” I said, and shut the lid on his ruined, handsome face.