Day 1.

After the dust had settled it took Wesley Smith some time to get his bearings. About one minute after igniting the engines, the entire ship was knocked around like a leaf caught in a storm.

The condensed atmosphere of Ericsson had functioned like a catalyst for the hot exhaust.

Several systems were knocked out immediately.

Crawling away from the cockpit, Wesley ignored the piercing pain in his chest. If his estimate was correct, he had a cracked rib at the very least. “Jenkins?!” A muffled moan alerted him to her position, when they crashed and landed on the side she had been thrown into the corridor he was sitting above of. Thankfully the people who had constructed the pods, had anticipated zero gravity use for them, so every hallway was outfitted with a ladder.

“Can you move Jenkins?”

“I can, you?” Came the relieving reply after what seemed an eternity.

“Cracked rib. What about Xiaofeng?” He had no hope for Amir and Giuseppe, the compartent they were located in, was the one now doubling as the pod’s base.

Anna looked around the hallway she was lying in. Dead almond eyes stared at her from underneath a wall panel. “Dead.” to her own astonishment she felt nothing at those news. Must be shock. She concluded. “Helga and André?” She yelled up, rising out of debris and dusting off. “Suspended animation, can’t reach right now.” The entrance to their chambers was across the hallway, but could’ve been lightyears from him. Slowly he rose to his feet. He fidgeted with his pocket.

What he drew from it was not encouraging. Twisted and broken his data goggles dangled on a few hair thin threads of wiring. “See whether your glasses still work, if so, wake them, if possible.”

Carefully he looked around. Air reclamation was gone for sure, they’d have to shovel the snow over a fire to get something breathable.

“Hey there.” Anna appeared at the edge of his hallway. “Glasses are broken beyond repair.” She opened the doors on the other side, coughing, but otherwise seemingly unharmed the two stumbled towards the open door. When the ship had tumbled around and landed on its side the chambers had protected them, but then opened and released them.

“Communication?” André coughed. Wordless Wesley pointed at the wrecked cockpit behind him.

Slowly they all felt the cold creep into their wrecked craft. “We need to find shelter, from both this cold and the thinning air.” Distracted from his hurting rib by the new development, Wesley looked around the hallways. The pod was rather small, but tumbled to the side he had to get his bearings a new. “Airlock is up, to the rear. The suits as well.” Clumsily he got on to the ladder, started to climb just as clumsily.

A nobler man might have sent the others to leave him, but he liked living.

Upon reaching the other level he wandered down the hallway, the others directly behind him.

Breathing heavily he crouched down next to the door below which was the room with their suits. “Okay guys,” he caught his breath. “one of you will need to get me one, I can’t get down there and then up there,” he pointed at the airlock above them, “with my cracked rib.” Worried he looked at Anna. Ever since the incident involving Marcia she had not stepped outside the pod.

Now in a situation that would’ve made Marcia panic again, she had no other choice. Washed clean of any emotion by the traumatic circumstances Anna looked back at him. “I’ll get you a suit.” She heard herself say, climbing down through the open door.

 

Panting, because the heavy suit pressed down on him, and his ribs, Wesley felt the crunch of the snow beneath his feet, in some spots it was more a squish as the snow had paetially melted. While heading to the entrance to the mines, he and the others looked back.

On the underbelly of their craft was a scorch mark spanning the entire size of the vessel. The deflection tiles had been blown off, smashed bits of it were strewn around the site. Other parts that had come undone were lying around too.

It will be hell repairing this. Wesley thought silently to himself. But at least we have plenty of time for it.

Once inside the mines he just wanted to get out of his crushingly heavy suit, the air inside the rock was stale and cold, but at least that would take his mind off his pain. “We should’ve brought a first aid kit with us for your rib.” Anna sounded calm, her accent was there, but when she spoke calm and in a low voice it was negligible.

“There should be one in the relay station.” He raised his eyebrows, wrinkling his forehead.

“Screw that shit!” André bursted out, jumping from the rock he had sat down on, nearly hitting his head on the rock above. “How are we supposed to survive this?!”

Reaching for a gun he didn’t have with him Wesley sighed. “Lindstroem. Rations?”

“Check sir.” Linda replied. “So, we have rations for a few days, we can get more from the pod. We can melt that snow out there for water and air until we die of old age. We merely have to get the algae plant from the pod so we can eat until that day.” If it hasn’t been damaged too severely. “We have five years to repair the pod, or prepare another means of escaping this rock.”

 

Day 29.

Fidgeting with the communication device of the pod, Wesley was lying on his back. Still there had been no atmosphere in the pod, but to his relief they had successfully turned it back on its belly.

As he had feared that revealed the gruesome fate of Amir Mustafa and Giuseppe D’Aggio. Squished in their seats, they had wanted to return to the stasis chambers upon leaving orbit, because they feared to die in their sleep.

Twenty nine days after the crash it seemed as if the pod would never fly again. He had been able to establish two way communication with the Explorer and the Horizon. They had to compensate for time dilation manually, as the computer was too damaged for that task. What data they could retrieve, he and Linda had transfered onto tablet computers, so they at least wouldn’t lack the information needed.

Sulking in a quiet corner of the mines, André kept working on a translation of the newspapers. “Wes?” Anna climbed over a pile of torn out electronics at the entrance to the cockpit. “Yes?”

“We have received disturbing news from Horizon.” Although he was working on the array, mostly to increase signal strength and stability, Anna and Linda were working shifts at the relay station to listen to the received calls, and compensate for time dilation.

“What news?” Awkwardly sitting up in his suit, the rib still caused pain, but by far not as much as a month ago.

“They encountered aliens. Hostile ones.”

The urge to take his helmet off and stare at her intensely was tempting. “You’re shitting me.” He laid back down to inspect the array, whether it showed some defunct that would explain this. If she wasn’t joking, surely either the array was acting up, or the crew of the Horizon was yanking their chain. “According to preliminary data they might have evolved on earth and left it some 65 million years ago.” Wesley almost cracked his helmet as he sat up suddenly.

“Dinosaurs? They must be trying to be funny.” Without saying another word Anna handed him a tablet.

“Jesus.” He gasped. If it was a joke, they must’ve employed every man and woman working in the science departments to work on it. “Scroll to the end of the report. They request some very specific things to be mined.”

Going over the list he raised his eyebrows, unseen by Anna due to the helmet, but she figured that he was doing that. “Well then,” he handed her the tablet back. “input that in the relay station.” Before laying down again he hesitated a moment. “Ring Lindstroem,  have her put it in. I want you to keep a close eye on the algae plant.”

While continuing his tweaking on the communication systems he pondered over the list. Did the Horizon want the Uranium for bombs to fire at the aliens, or to speed up the ship? Iron, and if possible refined steel in order to reinforce the structure was clear as glass to him, but he was puzzled over charcoal, sulfur and salpeter. “Boss?” Helga’s voice came through the intercom. “Yes, what’s up?”

“Are we seriously mining for gunpowder?” Ah! That’s what that was. “We’re going to bring everything with us that we can get our hands on.” He replied.

 

Tired Wesley laid down the tools he had beenn using to tweak the communication systems. With a certain pride he looked at the work he just had finished. With a small computer that had survived the crash relatively unscathed, tied into the array the time dilation compensation was no longer a manual task. “This is Wes Smith calling the Explorer or Horizon, I have installed a system that should compensate time dilation,  please verify.” He ended the transmission and turned away to look after Anna. Even though the dilatation was presumably a thing of the past, the time it took for the call to be received and replied could not be changed.

 

Haunched over the device that held multiple tanks and layers of fast growing, non toxic algae for their consumption, Anna studied the slow waves with which they waved in the flowing water of the tanks. “What’s so interesting with that stuff?” Eagerly sucking in the air of the room, the only airtight space left on the pod, Wesley stepped up to the tank too.

“The waves move so peacefully. Calms me down.” With a wicked smile she turned to him. “But other than that, that slow, pounding rythm has entranced me.”

 

Day 348.

A maniacal laugh woke Wesley, it had been almost a year since they stranded on Ericsson, sleeping in the mines with the others, without any doors for some privacy, he knew every sound the others made.

That hysterical laugh of a maniac was new however. Sleep drunk he rose from his bed, Anna next to him did too, just as Helga across the room.

“It’s André.” She concluded.

“I did it!” He burst into the dead end tunnel they used for their sleeping accommodation. Originally they wanted to bring the algae plant in there too, but the crash had obstructed the hallways, and damaged the wheels of the plant.

“Deciphering the newspaper?” Andrew grew a little more awake. “Yes! The language of this country is now an open book to me!” No wonder I hadn’t seen much of him lately. “So, what is the big secret?”

“No big secret,” he held up his tablet computer. “the article features the image, and how this thing will pass through the solar system. Apparently they had no idea how devastating the effects would turn out to be.” Relieved Wesley noticed that the french scholar had returned to his former, happy, self. “I’ve got a translation matrix ready by the morning, if you want.”

“Do you ever sleep?” Helga turned away lying down. “Most of the work here is done by drones, so this is more a five year vacation to me until we are thrown into the middle of a war. So, no. I don’t sleep. I have no time to waste, the cultures and entire history of this planet await!” You could help with the pod you nerd! “Fine, just keep healthy.” Yawning Wesley checked the time.

A few minutes after he had left again to do, what ever it was that André did, Wesley heard snores from Helga’s bed. Just one heartbeat later did he feel Anna’s hand reaching for his pants. Gently her lips pressed against his.

 

Day 548.

Distraught Anna wandered through the mine. Around the other dead ends the drones had stacked the processed ore, a steel mill was further down in the rock, only the uranium was stored outdoors.

Together with Helga, Wesley had managed to get more airtight space in the pod. She wanted to live there. But for now she had to wait.

Restlessly she paced around the relay station.

Fed up with her own anxiety she grabbed her tablet from it and pressed a few buttons. Equipped with a few sensors the tablet was able to get her the answers she desired. Altough the news wasn’t what she had hoped for.

 

“I’m certain that we can rebuild the pod to be a flyer again, tye drones can put all the goods into the delivery modules and we shoot them toward horizon.” Wesley sat triumphant over their dinner.

“That’s nice.” Hearing those news had excited even André, so much so that he was willing to participate in the refit, rather than sulk over the other languages and collected data of planet Ericsson.

“Is something wrong?” Anna seemed preoccupied.

Not replying Anna kept munching on her food. “Darling?” Putting his food back on the plate he got up and walked over to her, massaging her shoulders. “Did something happen?”

Still without saying another word she produced her tablet, handed it to him. After one and a half years she still conveyed odd or bad news to him via the tablet. At first his heart skipped a beat, he assumed the Horizon had been damaged beyond repair, or worse got destroyed. Reading the simple analysis of her scan made him gulp.

Suddenly he felt like in space again. Everything around him was twirling, his knees felt weak, and the air suddenly seemed too thick to breathe.

“The implants don’t work anymore?” Slowly he sank to the ground, leaning against the wall. “No, they don’t.” She turned around switching to another scan of herself. “At least mine isn’t.”

Relieved he regained some of his strength, sat up straight. “I’m not pregnant, but my period was late, which is why I did the scan.” Interpreting the concern in her eyes correctly he turned the device to his implant. “Mine is working,” his voice however told Anna all she needed to know. “for now. Power levels are low, says here that due to unknown reasons the recharge isn’t working.”

Exchanging a long glance they sat in their little alcove, pondering. Helga and André had taken up residence in another part of the mines.

“As long as your implant is functional we can resume like we did the last year and a half, but then we’ll need alternatives.” She reached for his hands, gently stroking his fingers with hers.

Shortly after the crash they had been soft like silk, now they were rough like his. Hard work had taken its toll on them. Still her mere touch sent shivers through his body as if she sent small arousing electrical shocks through his hands.

 

Day 792.

“This is Wesley Smith contacting the Horizon. We’re sending the first batches of deliveries up, they will be, by the time of your arrival, a bit ahead of Ericsson, but we figured that your so called Harpys might try to apprehend the cargo from reaching you. Besides, our storage space is limited. Over and acknowledge.”

Staring blankly at the dark display over the controls to the pod he envisioned the Horizon. Identical to the Explorer, save for the name, how it swooped up to the pod, hooking it up and dragging it with them. He and the others would not see any of it, since the inertia would kill them, so they’d be in the stasis chambers.

“Is your implant working?” Anna entered the cockpit. The four had taken up residence in the pod a month earlier after successfully sealing it and repressurising the craft. Looking at his right hand he extended it to her, so she could check.

Relieved she lowered the tablet. “Good.” Smiling she turned away, eager to get back to her work. Most of the work concerning the pod and the delivery systems was done either by the drones or by Helga and Wesley. Going through geological surveys she directed other drones to new mining sites.

“André calling for Wes.”

“Aye?” He replied with a bored undertone in his voice. “Do you remember the shelter we discovered two months into our stay?” Vividly Wesley recalled the shelter.

Still somewhat warm from the planets warm interior the shelter could’ve been one for eternity, but the Ericssons had lacked plantations, UV light for plantations, power generators, water refinement and so on. The pod would’ve provided all necessary technology to take up shelter there. “Yes?”

“I only had time to return to their journals now. According to those the able bodied had left about a year after their imprisonment began, located in the nation’s capital was supposed to be a shelter capable of sustaining thousands.”

Pondering how the Ericssons would react to be dug up by aliens stripping their home planet of any raw material they could find, Wesley got up. “Are you suggesting we visit them?”

“It was just a thought. At least send a drone to investigate.” The place that had given them yet another library, was already mapped out with a drone, and found out to be the capital, the recon device was still there further investigating. “See if you can find any more details for the shelter location in the capital, I will consider it.” The recon drones were already spread thin across the planet. Sending one on a potentially dangerous mission was not what Wesley wanted to do.

 

Day 794.

Awoken by the annoying beeping of the intercom Wesley rose. “Yes?” He mumbled, ignoring Anna’s attempt to pull him back into the sheets. “Got a precise location, I could navigate the probe there.”

Rubbing his temple Wesley was not thrilled. “Fine.” Giving in to his curiosity he got out of bed. “I’ll join you when the probe is there.”

 

Thick snow blanketed the square, from all the signs still visible the shelter had been built underneath an old building. “The sign there translates loosely as Subway.” André explained as the probe moved across the square.

It made sense to Wesley that the Ericssons would expand on their subway system instead of digging new tunnels and chambers. “Nothing on sensors.” Anna was in charge of taking the sensor readings on her tablet, while André drove with the visual feed on his, cross checked by Helga. Wesley watched too.

“No thermal signature, nothing in visible, EM, or electrostatic.” He confirmed.

Next to the entrance André halted the probe. A few long dead and ice mummified bodies were there. One had a sign around his neck. “It says thief,” he paused, “I think. Maybe rapist.”

“Makes sense. Why sustain undesirable members?” Helga sounded calm, but distant and unusually cold. Did they straighten up, or die out? Pondering Wesley watched the probe descend upon the door. It placed a transponder just outside so it could continue transmitting to André and the others.

“Something on Audio.” Anna pressed a displayed button and let the others hear too. “The creaking doorway.” For a moment all had had hopes of finding survivors, or at least recordings of their language. After a series of doorways and two more transponders a large tunnel opened up before them.

Platform and tracks.

Dozens of bunks on the platform, none occupied. Judging by the layers of dust on them and the ground, no one had been in the shelter for a long time.

“How far do you want to go?” getting up, Wesley stared down at André. “I’ll set it up for lone exploration and tell It to return in a few hours.”

Agreeing with him Wesley left the room, he returned to the cockpit, linking his tablet in with the other remote controlled drones and probes. Another batch of goods requested by the Horizon was due to be sent away in a week’s time. “I think you are rude.” Helga entered.

“Is that so?” Not even turning around to face her, Wesley continued his checks on the other drones and their progress. “Well, I think it is a waste of time and resources to find the tombs of the original inhabitants of Ericsson, and even if we find some living ones, what then? Offer them a ride on our space ship?” Slowly turning around with an overly exaggerated surprised expression he went on. “Oh, I forgot, it barely fits us aliens! My bad.” Shaking his head he gazed at the tablet again.

All data checked out. Was it not for Helga standing there he would’ve turned his attention to other things that didn’t require the tablet. Still the pod was not in flying condition. “So you’re telling me you disapprove of this undertaking because of our limited resources? We still have a few years to go until the Horizon is in range, why not explore a little?”

“Suppose you and your kin have lived underground in a cramped, damp shelter for two thousand years. All of a sudden an alien shows up! Whether or not it is a robot doesn’t concern you. It is from out of the world you know, yet you know that the topside world is hazardous, so it must be an alien from another world, would you want to go with it?” Helga nodded. “You would want to feel sunlight on your skin, even if we can convey to them that we can’t give them real sunshine on the Horizon, their descendants might get some, once we have arrived at our destination. And for the off chance of that ever happening, I would try to get with the aliens.”

Hoping the conversation to be over, Wesley got up from his seat, he had to do some work on the propulsion.

Before the pod had been put back on the ground as it was supposed to, a new sealed floor had been built, in the off chance of them ever departing with the pod. “I see, and if they’re all dead?”

Stopping in the door Wesley sighed. “Then they’re dead. Leave the dead alone.” Pinching his eyes he wished himself back to bed. “Look,” he breathed in stretching his back, “I went through with it. I’m disapproving, but not preventing it. Let me be a critic. Alright?” With these words he turned on his heels and went away.

 

Not exactly making progress, but listing all the materials he needed to make the engines work once more, including shielding and buffers, as he and Helga figured their best bet was to detonate small nukes behind the pod to get it to an acceptable speed for pickup by the Horizon, Wesley received Andrés call of the probe’s return to the site he last had witnessed.

“No bodies, but a few scribblings. Life underground was harsh, no doubt, the evolution of their language was touched by it. It got simpler.” They themselves have evolved too I guess. Lyching minerals from the bloody rocks now. Or they have died out. “What do these scribblings say?” Still a little curious Wesley put down his tools. “Mostly religious texts, letters to loved ones, a few bits and pieces read like excerpts of a dairy. Nothing younger than about fifteen hundred years though. They either died out then, although we miss the bones, or moved further down, following the heat of the planet’s interior.”

“Wrap it up for now,” staring at his engines he sighed, silently cursing Helga, “have it deploy another transmitter as far from the first one as possible and send it out on auto exploration.”

 

Day 1132.

Shudders went through the pod, the entire structure was shrieking, creaking and moaning. After thirty seconds the rumble subsided and it got quiet again.

Four people cried out in joy and three of them patted Wesleys shoulder. “So we have engines back!” His face displayed a smug smile, “But we have still work ahead of us, there is still the shielding, a few small scale nukes for our purposes already stand by.” He looked at his wife Anna, using their communication with Horizon they had managed to get wed, the ceremony took hours due to response times.

“We have located enough of the raw materials need for the deflector, but rerouting enough probes there takes time.” Although information in this little group was always shared immediately, they repeated this. Mostly for the camera that transmitted to Horizon. “We are confident to make the rendezvous on time.” Helga added.

“Also, I must add, that the original Ericssons, of this nation at least, have all perished. The probe exploring the vast underground network in the capital has found several burial sites, later on pathways to deeper lying locations, closer to the heat of the planets hot interior, but discovered only dead bodies there too.” André felt relieved to have unravelled the mystery of the large sheter. After a year working on it, that felt bitter sweet. At least he had some scribbled pages to work with.

“We close our report after this, the first successful engine test, this is day 1132 on Ericsson.” Wesley saluted. “Hope that time flies. Over.”

 

Day 1452.

Rumbles woke Wesley from his slumber. In the months after the first engine test there had been several more, once the pod even left the surface for a few seconds, to see if it would hold together.

But there was no test scheduled for that day, especially not while he was in bed. The shrieking, creaking and moaning walls were a lot different than in any test before. Next to him Anna also woke. “What?”

Wesley stormed out the room in his underwear, reaching the cockpit I, he found it empty, moments later his comrades appeared in the scene too. Meanwhile the shaking had subsided. “Sitrep!” He called his crew into action. Immediately Helga went to check the ship. Displays and interactive panels in the cockpit were functional again. “Structural integrity is at 100%. No damage to the ship, nor to the platform.”

“It was an earthquake, or Ericssonquake. The epicentre was close.” Anna stared at her screen, pressing a few buttons her expression changed. “I’m afraid it is our fault. The epicentre was in the mines below us, a shaft had collapsed, tore several others down too, due to the change in weight.”

Originally they all were under the impression that the probes and drones were intelligent enough to avoid such failure. “If my data is correct, it was a shaft dug by the Ericssons that had given out under the stress first.”

“Relay station is unharmed, most drones were on the upper parts of the mines anyway for the nightly recharge.” André was not a specialist, but had learned where to find productive things to do when there wasn’t exploration or translation on his to do list.

“Alright,” Wesley studied his own readings, “some of our stashes were obstructed. We need to get those free, or put a lot of work into making up for them.” He pointed at one specific portion of the map showing the damage to the mine shafts. “Aren’t those our nukes?” Immediately Helga had identified the spot.

“They are.” Sounding a lot grimmer than intended Wesley got up from his seat. “As soon as the nearest probes are done recharging, send them there. All other stashes are of lesser priority.” Anna followed him to the airlock, where he got into his suit. One of his gazes followed. Telling her why he couldn’t stay, why she wanted him to and how much, him insisting that he had to, the entire conversation was over without one word uttered.

Supressing her tears, at least until he had left the airlock, she helped him int his suit. “Bring ’em back.”

 

Rocks of all sizes had tumbled down from the ceiling and the walls, the upper shafts had been relatively debris free. Even before their arrival on Ericsson, the probes that had been advanced, had worked on enforcing the structure there. Several different shafts converged on the main entrance, even without additional digging the area was deemed unstable.

Now Wesley felt unsafe, all the time he had lived there he hadn’t, but wandering through the mine now after the quake, sent shock waves through his belly.

A tall pile of rubble was closing off access to the dead end in which the nukes were stored for use in the pod.

“How is my backup doing?”

“Still on recharge,” Andrés voice was distorted, but he could be identified, “however, I think we should build new nukes.”

Shying away from the rubble in front of him Wesley took a breath, he hoped he miss heard. “Hey boss, your wife’s readings show that the chamber is unstable, it might tumble down, taking you and and the nukes with it.”

Staring at the rubble Wesley heard only interference, his breath and hisnhi own heartbeat. “Lindstroem! Run a simulation on the situation, if that room falls down, and the nukes become unstable. What happens then?”

“We’d see a quake of proportions severe enough to get us all killed. Or at least so severe that the pod is too damaged to fly out. And I’m not even mentioning radiation here.”

Surprised, although not thoroughly pleased, Wesley turned around to Anna. It was the non verbal discussion all over again. She just couldn’t have stayed behind.

“We’ll instruct the drones to fill the levels below to support the chamber.” She finally spoke again, into the radio as well.

 

Day 1820.

Without any noise the screen went blank again, showing only the reflection of the person in front of it. Only dim lights illuminated the room, most systems were in preflight standby. In only twelve hours the pod would shake once again, immense thrust would heave the tons of metal, people, ore and research into space, where the bombs woul be detonated to push them even faster on a course and trajectory parallel to Horizon.

And Anna? Slowly she turned from the display. “There ought to be no difficulty. Just use the stasis chamber as you always would.” Horizon’s chief doctor Johannes Schaeffer had smiled into the camera of his display. Finally close enough for two way communication that didn’t take ages, she was relieved she had not to wait hours for a reply, hours that would’ve felt like days and weeks without sleep or any rest.

 

After the tremors had subsided gravity was clearly amiss, Anna felt immediately as if the inside of her stomach wanted to visit the outside world. Concentrating hard she took a few deep breaths, while floating away from her seat. “Sensors are already detecting the Horizon.” Calm as a morning breeze, Wesley’s voice had a soothing effect on her, and her upset stomach. “In case they can’t retrieve us, I have set an auto wakeup in ten days, we then can return to Ericsson, until Destiny comes by.” He too left his seat, behind him his display turned dark, the console powered down into standby. As most other systems did too. “But that won’t happen.” He smiled, hoping to sound optimistic.

 

Helga and André climbed into their respective stasis chambers, both in relative silence, just wishing good night and good luck to everyone.

“When you’re putting me in, don’t mind the readings on the panel.” She wiped away tears from her eyes. “Doc Schaeffer said it’ll be alright.” Leaving him puzzled she kissed him gently on the lips before closing the chamber door. Fading color, light and sound drove Anna’s eyes to close, but she clearly caught the surprise on Wesley’s face outside the chamber, staring at the screen. “Attention: Pregnancy detected.”

 

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