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“We’ll clear the launch sites for the deliveries first, there is less to do here, thrusters already cleared enough of it on our way down.” Wesley had organized the crew into two teams to clear off the snow. Apparently the drones that had crafted their landing site had compacted the snow, but put plating over it, some kicked up snow would have to be removed from these platings.

“Work begins in an hour, alpha team assembles at the airlock then. Questions?” Anna sat silently in the second row, staring blankly straight ahead. She was supposed to be in the beta team comprised of herself, Helga and Amir. “Alright. Dismissed!” Although the mission was supposed to be civilian, he held authority in vital aspects.

Their safe departure was a vital aspect.

 

Shoveling and sweeping the snow from the launch pads was easier than originally anticipated. According to computer estimates they cleared a safe zone around the pads. Satisfied Wesley looked around the Pod. Beta team would only have to clear a little bit around it, the launch pads were clear.

“Alpha team is back aboard. Are you coming Sir?” Giuseppe’s voice was like a wake up call, alerting him to his supply of air. “Yes. On my way.”

A mere meter from the airlock he stopped. Something about the floor plating was wrong. “Hold the beta team, patch me through to Xiaofeng.” After a moment or two the Chinese scientist had his glasses on an watched Wesley’s transmission.

Another moment or two later Wesley’s concern was confirmed: the plating had cracked or shifted when the pod had set down on it.

 

Wesley watched the firat rocket go up in the air. The view in the unlit clear sky was spectacular. Against a myriad of stars, the band of the milkyway clearly distinguishable, the space craft plowed through the thin atmosphere.

Once in space the chemical burst would stop, a series of small charges would bring the transport to nominal speeds, high enough so it wouldn’t get torn asunder by inertia when docked with the Explorer. That was our plan too. I hope we can pull it off. Returning his attention to the plating underneath the pod Wesley tried to forget that they were all alone on a frozen planet in interstellar space.

“How is your progress?” Better if you wouldn’t disturb me ever now and then. “Not that good Xiaofeng, any suggestions for displaced or broken plates underneath the pod?”

An uncomfortable, and demoralising silence filled his radio. “Can we thrust off with the side thrusters and fire the bottom engines once elevated?” Stopping his efforts for a moment Wesley pondered Xiaofeng’s idea. “Maybe.” Looking down to the plating he cussed silently. “If the plating is indeed damaged or displaced down there, we even could use any catalyst reaction for propulsion.” What the Explorer can do, our sturdy little pod can do too. Deflectors are down there after all.

Feeling little confidence in his plan though Wesley decided to improvise.

 

“It’s not a boy.” Jokingly Wesley giggled, utilizing the way an ultrasound worked, he had managed to get a picture from underneath the pod.

“No. It is a quintuple of trouble.” In his state of mind, Wesley couldn’t tell who had said that. Amir, Giuseppe, Andre or Xiaofeng. All he knew was that is was a man. Anna and Helga were present as well, but relatively quiet.

Five major displacements showed up on the monitor. “Xiaofeng, what’s your estimate?” the Chinese scientist stared at the screen. “Thrusters on the circumference of the pod, full blast off at ten meters.” Nodding in agreement Wesley turned around to the rest of the crew. “Alright. We have two days, then our window of opportunity is closed. Explorer can’t slam on the breaks, they can’t halt to pick us up. They’re gone forever. We only have two more shots, but they require a long time waiting. I would blast off asap, but I’m not willing to make that decision alone. I’m putting it up for a majority vote.” Sighing he ran his hand through his hair. “All in favour of lift off asap, raise your hands.”

Except for Andre all had raised their hands. “It is decided then.”

Disappointed Andre nodded, bowing to the wish of the majority.

 

Drunk on sleep Admiral Steve Anderson walked into the conference room near the command centre aboard the Explorer. “What news about the Ericsson mission is so important it couldn’t wait for the morning?” Brenda O’learey pushed a button at the head of the table. On the video wall an image sprang to life. Depicted was the bay in which the minig drones had been loaded. “One of them gave off a signal. We’ve opened it. Ten minutes before calling you out of bed.”

Instead of ore, bars and other packages Steve saw a stasis chamber emerge from the drone. Without saying another word Brenda pressed another button on the table. “Do not resuscitate immediately! Doctor Maria Garcia needs medical attention after suffering exposure to the atmosphere on Ericsson. I am Wesley Smith, and I have advanced her in a drone, as we have discovered difficulties concerning our launch. Enclosed find a full report of the mission. If the pod isn’t at the rendezvous coordinates, pray, or at least cross your fingers, that we have survived.”

The audio message turned over into silence.

Steve and Brenda stared at each other for minutes that seemed like an eternity. After the pod had not been detected at rendezvous they had sent out hails to Ericsson. “No reply to our hails?”

“None so far. We must presume them MIA.” Steve nodded. “Continue to send hails, and notify Horizon. They need access codes for the relays, so the drones can deliver them some goods too.” Over the course of the expedition Steve hadn’t lost a single life. It felt like a devastating hole in his heart.

Missing in Action.

 

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