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Rumbling as if it would tear apart at any moment, the walls of the tiny capsule filled with the warm oily liquid seemed to draw closer. Didn’t they claim I’d be in some sort of hibernation? Wesley Smith ground his teeth.

Hours turned to days, constantly drifting in and out of consciousness. Every time he was awake, he felt the shaking of the capsule, accompanied by the same question.

 

Moving his limbs as if he had been freed from heavy shackles and weights Wesley drifted through the spacecraft.

It was one of the detachable pods the Explorer and her sister ships were comprised of. A fleet of ships conjoined to form the majority of the majestic vessels.

They had been sent off to planet Ericsson. Months before their departure a series of unmanned probes had been sent to mine for ores and minerals the Explorer could use.

Although the probes could build a delivery system they were sent to ensure everything was going smoothly. And fur curiosity reasons, after all theynwould be the first humans in recorded history to ever land on an alien world.

For a short time they had been the fastest humans in existence.

Now they were the hardest breaking ones.

Wesley floated to the other capsules.

“Jenkins!” A woman with flowing red hair turned to see him. “Smithy!” She replied, wiping residual fluid from her face. “We there yet?”

“Nope.” Cold sensation from the air helped him not to get aroused. Her irish accent and long red hair usually had that effect on him.

“We will be there in a few hours.” Immediately Wesley knew the owner of that Chinese accent. Xiaofeng Chi.

The best geologist aboard the Explorer also holding a degree in chemistry and biology. And Anna Jenkins’ ex boyfriend. Immediately her face turned cold. “Good.”

 

Preparations took their time, after they all had been dried. Strapped into chairs they began their landing sequence. Aside from Chi, Smith and Jenkins, there was a linguist, two more geologists and three privates under Wesley’s command. The later six were to remain in the capsules until a successful landing.

All felt reminded of the final acceleration of the Explorer five years earlier. Meanwhile the Horizon had left earth, was in its final acceleration out of the solar system. Somehow Wesley envied the crew of Destiny. They wouldn’t need two years until firing the bombs. They would high tail out of earths orbit right away.

It gave him solace to know that if they missed rendezvous with the Explorer that after five years Horizon would be there. Another three years until Destiny showed up.

Ruttling went through the ship.

“Report of our final descent sent.” Anna stated, sounding rather bored.

“I can’t believe I volunteered for this.” Wesley’s reply sounded a lot more excited than he had intended.

“Land, grab shit, load it into the ship and some return probes, go home. Nothing exciting.” Snorting in disagreement Wesley held on to the controls in the tiny cockpit.

Gazing at them for a moment he thought about the individual pods for a moment. They all had no capacity for power generation, other than solar panels on their upside. Most of the well stocked seed vault had therefore been replaced by a tiny liquid fluoride thorium reactor. If anything went awry that meant of course that they had to ration food until they had grown new food. An algae processor was also aboard.

What space was left had been devoted to storage of ore, or already processed minerals.

“The atmosphere is thin, and icy.” Firing thrusters as he feared the thin atmosphere couldn’t slow them down enough Wesley thought he ought to let the others know.

“Of course,” Xjaofeng replied, “water vapour and other gasses condensed to the ground after the planet was flung out of its solar system. The one thing that interests us more than the obvious minerals, is how this had happened! In theory a planet only gets ejected during the formation of a solar system.”

Wesley had stopped paying attention after the first sentence. His interest was to return the people in the ship safely back to the Explorer, with or without the payload.

Preferably with.

Advance drones had not only begun mining operations, but also laid out a landing site, upon their approach automated lights switched on.

“Lady and Gentleman, we have landed, please remain seated until we have reached the gate, please observe the no-smoking sign until well into the terminal.” Smirking he turned the thrusters off, hoping that they had a heater built in, as the frozen atmosphere would surely make trouble in that respect.

 

An orbiter above their heads had mapped out most of the planet, chose a small town as landing site, a mining town as the ground probes confirmed.

By the looks of the buildings the climate in that region once had been lush. Walls were thin, windows simple.

“Reminds me of home.” Marcia Garcia sighed looking at the first images.

“Reminds me of how much I miss snow. The crunching noise beneath your shoes when you walk in it.” Wesley replied, all that he had seen from the planet was ice and snow.

“Entrance levels here are half a meter beneath the surface of the snow. But through your suit the sound of crunching snow wouldn’t be the same.”

Wesley pointed at a few pictures where the entrances of the buildings were clearly not snowed in. “Are the Ericssons still alive, or why are most of these free of snow?”

“I’m a geologist, not an alien survival expert.” She smiled at him over her shoulder.

 

The crunching wasn’t the same, Wesley observed, as they made their way to the mines the drones had reopened. Airlocks had been installed by them so they could take off their helmets. “Air smells stale.”

“It is somewhat dead air, lieutenant.” Anna replied. “Outside it would be breathable, barely. But you could survive a minute or two. Long enough to hear snow crunch.” Maria continued. Both of them checked the monitors of the drone relay station. “We’ve got iron, trace amounts of gold and silver.” Pausing Maria stared at her display. “And coal.”

“Let’s analyse the later, but first start deployment, and wait for the other team’s report on the delivery system.”

Uneasy with the thought of standing in a tunnel that an alien civilisation had carved Wesley wandered around.

“I’d need a biologist here.”

Only a moment later the two women stood behind him. They stared at the skeletal remains of tripedal being with two arms. It had decayed clothing on it, and some sort of weapon. “A guard, I’d wager.” He bent down to the remains of the alien. “At least I would guard the mine if I had the feeling that someone or something might want to raid it.”

“There is nothing in the logs that would indicate dwellings. Or bodies.” Maria turned away pacing back. “The drones weren’t programmed for that.” The simple statement from Anna was reason enough for Maria to stop. Chills ran down her spine.

Wesley reached for his sidearm. A gun that shot highly charged needles using pressurized air. It had been designed for use aboard the Explorer, if a situation arose in which it became a necessity to shoot fellow human beings, they’d be paralysed, and any stray shots wouldn’t puncture the exterior of the ship.

They also had a powerful UV laser, designed to cut through any sealed bulkheads. Or as a lethal shot. It was a huge power drain on the battery however.

“Let’s be cautious. They, or their descendants might still be around.” In that moment Wesley cursed the decision that had been made, only to arm him and his subordinates, but not the scientists.

“Why cautious? They are presumably primitive by now, struggling to survive. They pose no,” Wesley had gotten up staring at Anna with an intensity she had never seen in his eyes. “Supposedly primitive species, or cultures have given the advanced ones a run for their money in our history. In the end the advanced ones prevailed, but mostly only because they had more people coming. We don’t have any backup. We’re only a handful of people, they have, l if they’re still alive, the upper hand, both in numbers and this is their home terrain.” He sighed after explaining to Anna, and Maria, whom he knew was listening too. “So, let’s be cautious. I want one of you to figure out how long that guard has been lying there. If you can’t find out here, but on our pod, we’ll take it there.”

The two scientists spread up, Maria continued to check the monitors on the mining drones’ relay station, while Anna bowed down to the alien. “Data we received suggested life on this planet was very similar to life on earth. Carbon dating might do the trick.” She mumbled, more to herself than for Wesley. Glad not to having taken off the gloves she took a small finger like piece from the skeleton.

It made her shudder in disgust. I’m a geologist, not a biologist. Picking carcasses, alien or not, isn’t my thing. Holding the finger like it might jump at her she turned to the exit. “The relay station has a spectrometer, I should be able to use that.”

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