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.”

 

Andre la Pierre sat at one of the remaining tables aboard the pod. The drones working below ground to mine for materials were the vast majority of drones on Ericsson, but a few others had been sent out to scout and explore. Through the orbiter the expedition received data from the ones on the far side of the planet. “This one has found a library of sorts.” He explained to a woman sitting in the room with him. She was a private, Helga Lindstroem, and there to assess threat levels from any potentially hidden remnants of the civilisation once native to Ericsson.

“And?” Although it was her duty, she was bored. The dealings of libraries were never up her alley.

“This is significant!” Excited he waved his arms, “Already the drone has sampled a lot of their literature, uploaded it to our computer. Now we need to run algorithms to crack the language they had.”

A puzzled look appeared on Helgas face. “My native language is Swedish, yours is French, we communicate in English. Their language is perhaps, if not most probably,  one of many languages once spoken and written in, on this planet.” Baffled by her reasoning Andre paused for a moment.

“True. But we could crack the language in that library.” He nodded finally.

Pages of writing unlike anything they had ever seen before flashed across the screen. Simultaneously the two sighed.

Xiaofeng entered the room clearly studying mappings on his glasses, his remaining colleague studied those as well, somewhere on the pod, while the other two privates scouted the settlement around their landing site.

“We dropped gold.” The incoming transmission woke Andre from his gaze at the alien writing from the far side of the planet.

A new image appeared, a video transmission.

Filmed with the head camera of one of the privates, it showed the other. He held something. Nervously fidgeting with his glasses, which doubled as communication device, he gasped for air. “Are those what I think they are?”

“If you think of newspapers, we think so too.” Said the man filming, his colleague meanwhile began taking pictures of the papers. “Listen, we would’ve surprised you with our findings upon return, but we thought you might want to see the cover of one of these right away.” A third window popped up, an incoming file transfer. As soon as it was finished, the window displayed the image.

“Look familiar?” The man asked. On the cover, surrounded by the strange writings was a huge black and white photo, obviously taken through a telescope.

“The neutron starstar.” Helga blurted out.

“Or a different one.” Andre mumbled, close to whispering. He aborted the running programme in the background. Although the alien might have had a different name for the phenomenon than “neutron star” they surely had a name for it containing the word star. Even though their technological development suggest a stage comparable to late nineteenth century Europe and America, they must’ve had a certain understanding of the universe.

“There weren’t many issues after this. As far as we can tell they stacked the newspapers putting the newest on top. Several other piles like the one we have stumbled upon are here.” Andre was a little upset, there had been an intelligence drone in the mining town, but somehow it had overlooked the newspapers.

 

“It is pretty narrow in there, the drone might have deemed it too narrow for it to investigate.” Private Amir Mustafa ran his fingers through his black curly hair. In front of him stood Andre, he was disappointed that the two privates had not taken the newspapers, or the one most significant issue with them. But quarantine procedures demanded for them to leave all materials outside if they were handled by the natives, so any potential contagion would be stopped.

Medical doctors had raised the point that alien viruses and bacteria are unfamiliar with the human body, and thus no threat, but the Admiral and Dr. Nye Charles had been strict.

“Any luck with the translation so far?” Private Giuseppe D’Aggio also wussed black curls. “Only their word for star so far.” Was Andre’s reply.

Utter disappointment spread in his mind. And disdain for the Italian. Age old rivalries couldn’t be undone, not even by a neutron star. It surprised everyone involved with the project that the Chinese had not tried to pull off a stunt rescuing only their people. Instead they had pooled their resources, workers and knowledge with the rest of the world.

“We will get behind this mystery eventually.” Achim worked hard not to sound like a turk, making his roots the more obvious. Speechless by his disappointment Andre turned on his heels, walked away to the room in which his console stood.

Soon Wesley Smith would return, the delivery system would be finalised, and they would start taking on loads of minerals, metals and ore, his timetime with the alien writings was endless, but the chance to see them in person, to discover more, would soon be gone.

“Doctor la Pierre?” In the hours since the discovery of the newspapers Helga and Andre had worked together so intensely that he saw the private now more as his assistant than a soldier. “Smith is calling. We’re to gather in the cockpit.”

More annoyed than anything else he gazed at his display. No other words had been deciphered.

 

“We found an alien skeleton. If there are any pathogens, we were subjected to them. So for now we are under quarantine down here. The relay station determined that the body has been lying there for at least two millenia.” Andre’s mind went into overdrive. Had the cataclysm not destroyed the aliens, they would be far more advanced than humanity. Instead he and his colleagues stood on an alien world, looking down on the deceased as technological backwards. When humanity still crucified people who preached peace and kindness, the aliens had electricity, guns and a planet spanning economic network.

“We have made some discoveries too.” He heard himself say. “Made by privates D’Aggio and Mustafa. Apparently the natives had a run in, or at least sighting of, a netron star, maybe the same that is threatening earth.”

Wesley raised an eyebrow, he didn’t care that much for the news, so much was obvious. With his own safe being on the line everyone understood.

“The relay station is capable of detecting any pathogen, so no possibly contagious material is prepared for shipping. We just have to wait for the results.” putting a light touch on the situation Wesley smiled.

 

Still sitting in front of the relay station, staring at the display, Maria had activated the cameras in the mining drones. Mostly to look around so she would see any more bodies, or signs of survivors. After two thousand years, give or take a little, the chances for that were pretty slim, but she hoped that they had made it.

“In a few hours the shipment of silicates and rare earths should arrive.” Sighing in boredom Wesley sat down on the ground next to her. Anna joined him, tired after hours upon hours of working inside the heavy clothes. It wasn’t a full spacesuit, but close.

“I need to take a dump.” She announced as if they had lived in that cavern for a month and were used to one another saying these things. “Go ahead, the suit is equipped to handle that.” Sounding just as glum as he felt Wesley buried his face in his hands.

“I can’t.” She stammered. “I just can’t do that.”

Annoyance in his eyes Wesley looked to her. “Fine.” He grunted. The two got up and retreated from Maria’s presence.

 

After two hours they returned. They found that Maria hadn’t changed position all the time. Carefully Anna approached her fellow geologist. “You all right?”

“Had to think of my kids on the Explorer. What if we end up like that guard?” In her eyes utter panic. Getting no reply from the irish woman Maria started to sob.

“Results should be up an a few minutes. I’m pretty sure that we’re clear.” Anna finally found her words. With a hopeful glance she turned back to the relay station.

With some surprise she noticed that the analysis had completed as they spoke. “He had cancer.” She stated dryly, “Or she. Otherwise the alien was healthy as a horse.” Feeling relieved she suddenly realised how much she too had dreaded a possible contamination.

“Great!” Maria sprang so sudden to life that neither Anna nor Wesley were able to stop her. Neglecting her helmet, Maria ran to the exit. The airlock door fell in aplace just as the two reached it, a moment later Maria rushed outside.

“How long can she survive these temperatures?”

“A few breaths.” Still sounding dry Anna couldn’t help but stare at the door with a blank expression.

 

Beeping the pod’s airlock closed behind Wesley and Anna. In his arms he carried Maria, they hoped that she was merely unconscious. As the airlock in the mine had allowed them to leave, Wesley had woken Anna from her shock with a slap, then they followed Maria with her helmet in hand, in the hopes not to be too late.

“She has kids. I didn’t know she had kids.” Communicating over the wireless allowed Wesley to think through any reply to Anna. He didn’t finish with that as they arrived in the pod.

Once the thin icy air in the airlock had been replaced by warm thick air from the ship, they removed their helmets, and Maria’s.

A pale almost blue face greeted them, her lips were dark violet. “Is she,” Anna didn’t finish her question, already tears were welding up in her eyes.

Clumsily Wesley freed his hand from the glove. “She’s ice cold, but breathing!” Inner doors of the airlock made a pneumatic hiss as the opened. “Medic! Lindstroem, Mustafa, get your asses in here!” Especially trained for cold related injuries and emergencies for this mission, the two rushed into the airlock.

A moment later they carried Maria away.

“What happened sir?” D’aggio saluted him lazily, months ago the strictness in the military part of the Explorer’s crew had been loosened.

“She panicked, although we’re clean. The dead alien guard frightened her.” Finally peeling himself out of the suit, with D’Aggio’s assistance, he sighed in relief. “Afraid that she might end up like him, half skeleton, half ice mummy, she heard that there were no pathogens, and ran.”

D’Aggio nodded, he had heard of such things happening. And worse things. “The delivery system is close to completion.” Over the air he didn’t want to report that, as it might have brought the frenchman to thinking they could scavenge through the archives of the newspapers more. “I’m starting inspections tomorrow, or the day after if anything else arises.”

“Fine, I,” Wesley paused, he turned around. Anna stood still in the airlock, crying silently. With a nod he dismissed the private. Slowly he strode back to her.

“Jenkins? Anna?” Not even a flinch.

Calm handed he opened the clasps and strips of her suit. Peeled her shoulders and arms free. “Now,” he cleared his throat, “I’m just wearing this ridiculous hempen underwear for the suit, and sadly you can see more than just my beer belly right now.” He tried smiling at her, still she didn’t flinch. “I’m not making a move on you, nor should you feel I’m somehow sexually harassing you. Just ignore that thing.” He opened more straps, clasps and the ring that sealed her boots to her trousers.

“Why?”

Surprised he looked up as he wrenched one of her feet free. “Why what?”

“Ignore it.” Her voice was thin, but still carrying the spice and fire of her irish accent he loved so much.

“Because,” he started working on the other foot, “even if you don’t feel harassed, and my dreams should come true of us hooking up, it wouldn’t be the right time. If this wouldn’t have happened, maybe. But you are in emotional turmoil right now.” Why did I say that? If she’s interested I’m still going to say no? Am I retarded?

“Thanks.” Anna sighed, more tears welded up, broke free. Sinking down to the ground, to where he kneeled before her, she started sobbing uncontrollably.

“Hush.” He took her into his arms, repeating himself several times. “We’ll all get back. Garcia will see her kids again, you and I will see our respective friends again. Maybe you and I will go on a date or two, until you realize what horrible decision that was, and we’ll go our separate ways.” Between sobs he distinctly heard a chuckle, making himself smile a little.

“So, come on now. For all that to happen we need to get going, and to get going we need sleep.”

 

Sleep had not come easy.

Not the night after their return, not the nights there after.

It seemed to Wesley that sleep eluded them even more after more words had been translated. The newspapers revealed that indeed the Ericssons had a run in with a netron star. Had the star passed their solar system half a year earlier or later the planet would’ve been destroyed, just as it would happen to earth.

Instead the star passed by, and through its immense gravitational pull it flung Ericsson out of orbit, out of its home system.

Wesley stared outside the door, he wore again the pseudo spacesuit, a long shift at the launch site for the payload delivery just had ended.

The tragedy of the Ericssons had occurred long before mankind even knew what space was. Would some species one day find the remnants of earths civilisation just to discover that earth was wiped out?

“Concentrate on the tasks at hand, Wes!” Gnarling at himself he waited for the airlock doors to close and pressurize the, small room. “Welcome back skipper.” Lindstroem awaited him. “I have grim news.” She bowed her head.

“Garcia?”

The blonde womanwoman nodded. “We had to put her in stasis. But unless a real doctor sees her, that won’t save her for long.”

At least the first batch of mined material can be sent on its way in two days. “Crap.” Unscrewing and opening straps he breathed in the air. “Are the air filters working? This stuff smells rather stale.”

Helga looked at her glasses. “Running low, but within parameters.”

Pondering for a moment Wesley enjoyed being free of the suit. “Run a diagnosis, sift through the data package that Misses Nye Charles has left for us to increase that. Just in case something goes awry, I don’t want to heat up heaps of the snow outside for air.” Seeing her confused expression he quickly explained to her that the stuff outside was not snow kike they knew it, but condensed air, at least that’s what he had learned before their departure.

 

Anna stayed close to the computers, didn’t go on any of the EVAs since the initial one, so it was not hard for Wesley to find her there. Xiaofeng spent the day at the processing and relay station at the mine, analysing the rare-earths brought in by a duo of drones.

Since the initial EVA Anna had hardly done anything other than work. Watching her analyse samples remotely Wesley leaned in the door. “Got dinner plans?” Somehow his courage had increased. For four days in a row he had asked her to dinner. A fifth now.

For a fifth time she declined, with a few words only.

“Maria is in suspended animation.” He checked his glasses. “I was thinking about sending her ahead in one of the payload transports.”

Like struck by lightning Anna turned around. “Why? Is there something wrong with the ship?” Clearly she was close to panic. “Nothing. Just want to make sure she gets to the Explorer in time for treatment by real doctors.”

The panic in Anna’s eyes did not vanish. In a calm way Wesley strode over to her, embracing her. “We will make it too. I’m certain of it.” He said in a tone as to lull her to sleep.

He received no reply. Worried he glanced down to her face, only to find her asleep. Worked through the night again, haven’t you? Gently he managed to pick her up and carried her to her bed.

As he shuffled away from her bunk, trying not to make a sound that could wake her, his glasses started alerting him to a desperate call from Xiaofeng. Slowly the door closed. “Yes?”

“We might have a problem.” A greeting like that usually meant that there was definitely a problem. Wesley rolled his eyes.

“What knind of problem?” He was well down the corridor, out of hearing range for Anna. “The condensed air snow, it might react violently with the propulsion of our payload delivery.”, an uncomfortable pause followed those words. “And our propulsion.” There we have it, problems. “As some sort of catalyst?” An agreeing noise from Xiaofeng’s end of the line confirmed his suspicion.

On descent the engines of their pod had not used as much power as they’d use for lift off, so they would have to clear off the launch sites.

 

“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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