Besides taking turns working at the pit, Rin and Stan had not much to do but sit in the comms room and listen to the radio noise thrown off by Twinkle. The comms set was one of the few pieces of equipment that ran off battery backup, and consumed barely any juice unless it was transmitting. The antenna picked up a variety of frequencies, and Stan had figured out how to set it to “scan” mode. This mostly just picked up on the loudest radio signal, which on this uninhabited planet happened to be the sound of the stellar wind buffeting Phoenix's finicky magnetosphere.
The noise was strangely comforting. Not the radio static you'd hear if tuned to the wrong frequency on an FM radio. Nor the “dit dit” of the “no signal found” on a digital radio. This was an odd whistling, tuneless and alien. It felt perfect for two castaways. Hurled down from the sky, they huddled in the deteriorating hull of their once proud vessel and listened to the whale song of the stars. Sometimes, it reminded Rin of a tea kettle, which reminded her of her mom making coffee in their ridiculously Spartan home. Other times it was a howling wind, or a chirruping bird.
During the odd moments when they were both in the comms room together, Rin and Stan would play the cloud gazing game, only with the shape of the sound. One would walk in, smelling faintly of scorched soil, and stand in the doorway for a moment listening to the faint dip and hum before declaring “Sounds like a bad tube.” This was the signal that the game was to begin. Then the other would listen for a moment before responding with “Sounds like it.” From here they took turns at “Sounds like ...” for a few minutes.
“Sounds like a steam engine”
“Sounds like the clothesline in a storm.”
Another pause, longer this time
“Sounds like a baby crying.”
A very short pause here
“Sound like Twinkle is going down”
This was the “game over” phrase. The things they called out tended to repeat, but that was okay. It was mostly to have something to say. To have a reason to exercise their vocal chords. After the game ended, there would be a few more minutes silence during which the sound from the com unit -- unfettered by the civilizing power of familiar names -- would grow into something utterly alien once again. Then the person in the chair would sigh, get up, and go about their duties. The new person would have a seat, and begin their shift. Sometimes the shift included dozing off, but they tried to keep awake.
Of course, they weren't really listening for the sound of a train whistle or a an engine downshifting.
They were listening for the rescue ship. The ship that never came.
“Hey Rin, come check this out!” Stan called from the airlock.
Rin cambered out of the tater-mine with a small haul of the roots. Dusting herself off, she reflected grimly that it was enough for one person. Stan could get his own if he wanted to interrupt her. It was early morning; The best time to work outside, when there were no predators and the air was still fairly cool. They had beaten a decent path from the ship to the pit over the weeks since the fire. Walking it in the dark was merely dangerous now, instead of suicidal, but in the morning light Rin had no problems. Of course, it was still a ways up the slope, and the roots weren't light by any means. By the time Rin made it to the ship Stan had already gone.
Operating the airlock without power was troublesome, but not particularly difficult. They left the outer door open all the time now, and just cycled the inner door using the manual release lever.
“Hurry up! There's a signal coming in!” Stan called from the comms room.
Rin paused a moment just inside the airlock. The interior was much darker than outdoors. No battery backup for the lights, and the emergency lighting had died a few days after the plant went down. When her eyes adjusted she was able to make her way carefully into the daycomp and drop her haul of roots. Then she headed to comms.
The comms room was dimly illuminated by the multiple indicator lights. No windows here. Rin could see the vague shape of Stan huddled over the panel, fiddling with knobs. There were several operational manuals strewn about.
“Sounds like a bad tube Stan.” Rin said dryly.
Stan continued to adjust switches. A burst of quiet static came from the speakers and Stan turned it off again.
“I just can't figure out how to get the recording back.”
“What did you hear Stan?”
“It was definitely a signal. Artificial. Pretty strong too. Only a few seconds long.” Stan leaned back in the chair.
“Is the com set still scanning? Maybe it will come back.”
“Yeah, here.” Stan flipped a couple of switches and the Twinkle song returned. “Nothing.”
“Well, if it's from the ISAC it should show up again.”
“Yeah, it should. If the plant was running I could load the signal logs into the computer and analyze it to pieces. As it is,” He waved his hand helplessly at the arcane radio equipment, “I can't even figure out how to get it to play back.”
“I'm sure you'll get it eventually Stan.” Rin looked out into the hallway for a moment. She debated going back to the pit, but it was a long walk. “Call me if it comes up again. I'm going to eat.”
“Sure thing.” Stan turned back to the console.
Rin paused in the doorway. It was a long walk back to the Daycomp too. And a long effort to cook the roots up into the mostly edible paste. A bit of variety would be nice. Maybe some of that herbal tea plant. It had tasted so good. If she drank enough at once maybe the poison would kill her quickly. It would be better than feeling exhausted all the time, stuck here with Stan the...
A different sound came on the speakers. “That's it.” Stan said quietly. If Rin had been much older she would have thought it sounded like a dial-up modem. But she had no such reference, and it just reminded her of some particularly bad auto-synth music she had been obsessed with in high school. The sound went on for ten or twenty seconds, modulating and repeating itself. Then it cut off sharply.
Rin found she had been holding her breath. They both breathed out at the same time. “So that was the recording huh?” Rin said.
“No, it must have transmitted again.” Stan looked at a few notes, “Ten minute interval. Exactly ten minutes actually.”
“Who knows. I'll see what I can do. Sure could use the computers.”
“I'd fix the reactor if I could Stan.”
“Well, stop bothering me then.”
Rin gathered up the roots she had collected and went to get the fire going. With any luck she would have enough to fill her stomach. After that, she should probably gather more for Stan before the day got too warm. As she made her way to the fireplace she cursed Buck for leaving. Things had been just fine. Where had he gone?
The signal continued to repeat every ten minutes. After the first few times Stan had stopped recording them. Each transmission sounded identical.
“What does it mean though?” Rin probably asked this once a day. Or more. Really, who was counting? It occupied her mind while she was out gathering roots. While she was lying in her bunk waiting for sleep to take her. While she was sitting in the com room hearing the metronome as the hours flew by, ten minutes at a time. It must mean something, but what?
They discussed it, of course. Aliens was the easiest answer. You could explain anything with “aliens.” In this case though, it seemed to raise a lot more questions than it answered. Why now instead of earlier? Do they know where we are? If so, why haven't they visited? Are they incorporeal? Have we already met them? Too many questions, and no answers forthcoming.
The most convincing evidence for aliens was that the signal seemed to be totally artificial, and totally foreign. Stan fiddled with the equipment for hours on end, trying to get it to verify whether the signal was in a known format, but with no success. It remained a steady cypher in their universe of known dead ends.
One haunting possibility was that of another wreck. All of their sensors were inoperable. What if another exploration vessel, of unknown origin, had also crashed on this forbidding planet? Even now, the alien crew could be struggling to survive, just as the crew of the Armstrong had done. Coming to their rescue would be the ultimate in interstellar diplomacy and good will. Rin and Stan would be heroes.
Of course, it could just as well be a malfunctioning piece of equipment that had fallen from the Armstrong. Who knows what twisted logic lay buried inside each of these gadgets? That a random fire extinguisher or black-box had decided to turn itself on after all these months wouldn't surprise Rin in the least. That it would transmit an unintelligible code was even less surprising. In that case, the whole thing was just an exercise in futile speculation, but still a welcome distraction.
The main problem was that they couldn't figure out where it was. Stan said that it was impossible to pinpoint the location from just one station. Rin was fairly sure this just meant that he wasn't interested in doing the calculations.
Her ongoing ignorance was shaken a few days later when Stan shouted “I've got it!” from the comms room. As she made her way from the Rec room where she had been day-dreaming, Rin wondered how Stan still had the energy to shout.
“It's nearby!” were his first words.
Rin sighed, “How close Stan?”
“Not more than a thousand miles.”
“Oh. So, only relatively nearby.”
“Are you kidding me? This is practically next-door! We could walk there if...” Stan paused uncertainly.
“If we weren't waiting for Buck to get back.”
“Yeah. I guess we could leave him a note.”
“And if we knew what direction it is.”
“Oh, I've had a direction fix for a few days.”
Rin felt her face flush, “And you didn't think to tell me?”
“Hey, like you said, we can't go anywhere until Buck gets back.”
There was a pause for a few minutes.
“How did you find out the range?”
“Oh, I had to make some assumptions about the original wave-forms. After that...” and Stan was off on one of his technical rabbit trails.
This gave Rin some time to think. Buck might really be dead. She had to face that possibility. With Buck out of the picture, and Stan growing increasingly impractical... What options did that leave her? As long as she stayed here, she was safe. But they were running out of nutrients. She could feel it in her bones, like her vigor was drying up.
Maybe, somewhere out there, there was something good to eat? Something satisfying that would stop her gums from hurting? But exploring came with the risk of... the unknown. Something unspeakable slavering for her flesh. If something out there was good to eat, then she probably was as well. Was it worth the risk? She was beginning to accept that death would meet her on any path she took.
Stan sighed, “Of course, if we were in orbit, this would be easy.”
Rin shot back, without thinking, “Just measure the time delay from two different positions in orbit, and then...”
“No, that would require three different transmissions, plus we'd need extremely precise knowledge of the exact time the transmission started.”
Stan had been holed up in the comms room, this time working on “triangulating” the origin of the transmissions. Rin's had been gathering food for two, but it was quickly growing old.
“Instead” said Stan, “you keep track of the angle to the target. At first it's just a cone, but as you gather more data that cone narrows to a line. But, since the target is moving as well, or since we're moving relative to it, we can start narrowing down the line to a point. Of course, it would take several measurements to get really accurate data, but we could certainly locate it within a few hundred meters on the first transmission.”
“Ok, I see that, but how do you 'triangulate' when you're sitting still? I mean, one point doesn't make a triangle, no matter how long you stare at it.”
“Well, two points, but yeah. The problem is establishing a baseline. I've been trying to use the reflection off of the cliffs across the river, but then I have to make some pretty precise assumptions about the nature of the rock and the distance from here to there.” Stan sighed again, “I don't know Rin, this is all very sketchy. With the computers and some decent software I could probably do it, but by hand?” He let the sentence trail off.
Rin gathered herself. She had come here to get Stan off his butt, not encourage him. “Yeah, that's what I'm thinking too. Why don't you take a turn at digging.”
Stan was indignant, “Hey, I'm doing my best with what I have!”
“Well, I'm done digging up food for you. Run your experiments on your own time.”
“Rin, this transmission could mean everything. If we find it...”
“I know Stan.”
“So, we're all doing our part to help.”
“No, you're wasting your time, and I'm doing all the work.”
“You want to do some real work? How about thinking!” Rin was stunned. She had never seen Stan angry like this before. His face grew blotchy as he went on, “This whole time I've been slaving over the numbers, over the theories. I've practically re-invented HKM theory from the ground up! And this whole time you've been doting over that slab head! Don't think I don't know you're banging him while I'm not looking. And then you have the gall to insinuate I'm not pulling my own weight? What, is he hiding somewhere now so he won't have to work?”
“Buck and I, we're not... I don't know where he is Stan. He never told me anything about leaving.”
“Yeah, well, I'm through with your charity Rin. Go ahead and stop bringing me food. See what I care.”
Rin looked away, “I want to help Stan. Just, this isn't working.”
She could see Stan's eyes sweeping over her. She turned to glare at him, but he didn't seem to care. His gaze raked her filthy jumpsuit. Rin suddenly felt very small.
Stan met her eyes, “You really want to help?” he said.
“No. Not like that.”
“You're not making this easy Rin.”
She was shaking now, “I'll run.” It came out above a whisper, but just barely.
“You would too; That's the sad part.” Stan turned back to his papers, “You're wasting that fine body Rin. Don't let me see you around.” He shook his head sadly, “Distractions.”
Rin left without responding. Despite her words, she forced herself to walk. She hoped that it was slow enough that she did not show her fear.
The morning was dark and frigid. There had been a run of cool weather for several days, and the growing light revealed a carpet of snow on the ground. Rin shivered as she trudged up to the ship. Was winter coming? What would the long days mean for cold instead of heat? If the ground froze, how would they dig up their food? Questions without answers hung with Rin's breath.
The quick moving clouds above let through brief glances of brilliant light. Rin glanced around herself momentarily to take in the surroundings. The major predators preferred this hour, but it was also the best time to gather food. Rin had decided to take the risk. So far it had paid off, but the shifting shadows were making her nervous.
“May as well get eaten at this point.” Rin muttered. Her flesh would probably prove as poisonous to the bugs as most of the plants were to her. Spite was just about all she had to live for anymore. But her physical aversion to fangs and their operations fueled her paranoia. Half terrified, and half longing for the terror to increase, Rin scanned the horizon.
And froze. Something was, indeed, moving over the hill. It was large, and lurched as if in pain. It must not have been doing too badly though. It appeared to be dragging some sort of carcass behind it. The whole thing struck Rin oddly though, as if she had seen it before in a dream. The shape, the gait... was that a hat?
“Buck!” Rin yelled. The creature looked up, and the hat fluttered to the ground. Then it continued the lurching gait. Rin thought of running to meet him, but she just didn't have the strength. Instead she dropped the “potatoes” and walked deliberately up the slope. Buck stopped without a word as Rin trudged up to him. His face and hands were caked with blood. Behind him, the wagon was piled with a lumpy discolored mass.
They stared for a long minute. The life was gone out of his eyes, and he looked like he had hardly slept since he had left five days ago. Rin suspected that she hardly looked better.
“You want some help with that?” Rin finally managed.
Buck simply dropped the handle, which tipped the wagon to the ground with a clunk. The contents shifted unevenly, like a stack of water balloons full of jam. Rin silently hoped that Buck would merely stay upright. She might be able to manage the wagon, but she was sure that she couldn't lift Buck, let alone carry him to safety.
He seemed to sense the helplessness of his rescuer, and took another painful step. Rin bent to lift the handle of the wagon. She stood slowly, carefully. The black spots, familiar by now, darted around the edges of her vision. The wagon was heavier than it looked. Buck was half-way down the hill before she got it moving. The handle lurched with every revolution of the misshapen wheels. Rin considered coming back for it later, but Buck had brought it this far. Rin wasn't going to be out-done by the brute.
In the end, Rin got the contents loaded safely into the airlock, and Buck made it all the way to the comms room before passing out.
“Fantastic.” thought Rin, “One more moron to take care of.” But she sniffed, blinked hard, and went to get some water.
She washed his cuts. It was fairly certain by this point that they couldn't get infections from the bacterial fauna of Phoenix. Otherwise they probably would have died horribly. Either their immune system could easily dispatch the critters, or the human biology was different enough that the germs weren't compatible. Either way, washing Buck's wounds had more of a symbolic than practical purpose. Plus, it gave her a solid excuse to send Stan out to gather food for once.
She was resting slumped against the wall of the comms room in that half dazed state of exhaustion and torpor which so often ambushed her waking hours when Buck awoke. It was more of a stirring, than an awaking. A deep sigh and a groan.
“Aah thmug usuf.” he mumbled.
Rin looked up, mustered her energy, and said “What?”
Buck coughed wetly, then pronounced carefully “Sssoooop.”
Rin nodded glumly, got to her knees, and handed him the bowl of tepid opalescent gruel. Buck took it and slowly, shakily drained the contents. Rin leaned heavily back against the wall.
When the soup was gone, Buck groaned again, then said, “The maggots, are they safe?”
“Yeah, in the airlock.”
Rin's head rested on her knees. “Why Buck?” she asked.
Buck sighed again. “I just really wanted some meat. Figured it was either stay here and die... or die out there.” The chair squeaked as he made some gesture.
“So you dug up a bunch of maggots? What will they turn into?”
“They're good to eat.” Rin could hear the strength coming back into his voice. “Some kind of landslide had uncovered the nest; All I've eaten the whole way back.”
“Explains your whole,” Rin jerked her chin in his direction, “You know, passing out thing.”
“Dehydrated probably. Didn't like to drink un-boiled water.”
“But you'd eat raw alien maggots?”
“Ooh so good. You've got to have some before I eat them all. Stan too. Filling.”
Rin couldn't remember the last time she had felt full. Her memory was a haze of hunger. Her mouth welled up with saliva. A month ago she would have been disgusted at the thought. She felt the faintest twinge of horror, though its target was impossible to discern. What was she becoming? “Thanks for bringing them back. Probably full of protein.”
“Least I could do.”
They sat for a few minutes, breathing the same air. The mysterious signal warbled into the silence, chattering and gibbering incomprehensible static. Buck leaned forward, searched the arcane controls, then adjusted a few selectors. The sound cut off in mid-transmission.
“Don't lose that signal!” Rin protested, “Stan's been working on back-tracking it. We think it's artificial.”
“Yeah, the beacon is a good half-day's walk from here.”
Rin groaned, “One of ours?”
“What did you think it was, aliens?” When Rin didn't respond Buck began to chuckle. “Hehe, you did! You figured you'd discovered an alien civilization. Classic.”
Rin frowned, “Well, no...” she began.
“I can just imagine Stan doing his figures. Is that what all these papers are?” he waved at the room lightly dusted with sheets of scribbled notes.
“We also theorized it could be an ISAC transmission.” Rin amended lamely.
“Yeah, look” Buck pointed to an eleven segment display reading out a scrolling series of digits, “Bearing, range, and velocity, plus a thirty-two character label.” as he said this, the words 'LANDING ZONE 01' marched slowly across the glowing red display.
“Who are you trying to fool?” Rin asked.
“If ISAC does come to our rescue, we don't want them dropping the landing boat on our heads.”
Rin completed the thought, “And we really don't want them debating the best place to land. Best to offer a clear target.”
Buck just nodded, and leaned back in the chair. “Wake me when they show up.”
They ate the rest of the maggots over the next couple days. Rin felt rejuvenated, whether by renewed hope or the filling food it was hard to tell.
Buck lived in the comms room for over a week. Rin brought him watery soup whenever she passed by.
She found herself passing by the comms room with unusual frequency.
Rin almost died when the transfer alarm went off.
She was sitting on Buck's lap drowsing, leaning on his chest. It was early morning and they had stayed up late talking and listening to Twinkle. She was just reaching the point where it was worth getting up to start the day when the three tone minor chord sounded.
If a claxon and a fire engine siren had gotten married, built a nice little house, and had a front door, this would have been their doorbell.
She must have jumped clear over the chair because she found herself on the floor on all fours. Her hair stood on end. Everything about her was cat-like at that moment. Having been startled from her rest the most important thing was to appear to have not been startled at all. She realized she was doing this a moment later, and was just about to rectify it with a string of curses. Before she did, the chord ended and an authoritative voice declared, at an ear-splitting volume.
“Transfer proximity alert. Check course and heading.”
And that was all. The reverberations died away in the walls. The eerie tune of the Twinkle song continued as if nothing had happened.
“What was that?” Buck mumbled, stirring in his chair.
The chair spun slowly around, Buck saw Rin out of the corner of his eye just as she let out a long low sigh.
“Don't sneak up on me like that!”
“I didn't... you were... Look, what was that alarm all about?”
“Yeah, sounds like...” Buck rose from his chair and checked a panel to one side of the room. “Yep, someone turned the volume all the way up. Must have wanted to hear it if they were outside or something. Yikes, that was loud.”
“I mean, 'transfer alert'? Did Stan send another probe just now?”
“No, must be another ship entering the system.” He gave her his biggest goofiest grin, “Here to rescue us all!”
Rin's breath caught in her throat, but then her heart fell. “I hate you so much!” She could feel tears prickling the edges of her eyes.
“No no! Look!” Buck pointed at some random looking numbers, “Could be a long orbit. They must have beaten the signature coming in.”
“There's really another ship?”
Stan's voice came from the doorway, “What ship? What's happening?”
“Buddy,” Buck said with a mock seriousness “I'm calling in that hug!”
“No WAY!” Stan and Buck embraced awkwardly. It was crowded now in the tiny coms room. “We did it!”
Rin discovered that she couldn't see quite clearly.
“The transmitter!” Stan sniffed “Is it on?”
“Can't transmit without the reactor.” Rin warned.
“There's got to be something. A handheld? Anything!” Stan started ransacking the drawers. They were filled with carefully labeled procedure books. Rin doubted “How to Signal for Help from an Alien World” was among them.
“We can transmit using the emergency battery.” Buck put in, “But it won't last long. Especially since we've been using it to play Twinkle Tunes.”
“Guys, listen.” Rin said. They all grew quiet.
Twinkle's haunting melody was gone. Replacing it was something utterly out of place, and utterly artificial. A harsh staccato growing rapidly quicker until it blended into a rising hissing whistle. The sound repeated twice before cutting off. They all looked at each other.
“Weird.” said Buck.
“Sounds digital.” said Stan.
“I need to pee.” said Rin. With short quick steps she left the room.
When she returned Stan and Buck were arguing over whether to use the battery power to transmit now, or wait until they heard something from their would-be rescuers.
“Maybe we've attracted some alien race.” Buck reasoned, “They just sent us their first-contact message. They have no idea where we've come from. When they arrive, we will tell them we are all that is left of a mighty race. Broken by war with the Terror from the Beyond, we have fled across the galaxy to hide here on this planet. They must defeat the Terror and free the galaxy. To do so, they will need our miraculous technology, buried on our home world Earth. Spirited home aboard their mighty vessel, we will...”
“Or they think we are aliens.” Stan interrupted. Everyone was quiet for a second.
“Guys...” Rin began. Getting interrupted by the radio, Rin noted that this was becoming quite her thing.
“Greetings to any survivors of the ISV Armstrong. This message will repeat. This is the IEV Alouise...”
The rest was lost. Rin had no idea why she was screaming, but there it was. Buck's mouth and eyes were open wide in something between a laugh and a roar. Stan was squealing with glee, jumping in a tight circle, fists close to his face, elbows tucked in. Buck threw his arms out and swept everything in the room into his embrace. Rin, Stan, the chair, and two dangling audio cables found themselves wrapped together in celebration. Rin took a short breath and let out a strangled sob. They were all crying now. Crying and laughing and weeping and staring into each other's eyes and reminding each other of the good news.
“We're saved!” “We made it!” “It worked!”
They all recovered after about ten thousand years of frenzied bliss. Their faces were moist with tears and sweat and Rin could feel a lump forming on the back of her head. The radio continued steadily.
“...teen hours. Stay well clear of the landing site. If there are no survivors, any robotic personnel are ordered to stand by and conserve power until further notice. Hang in there. We'll see you soon.” There was a pause and a pop and then “Greeting to any survivors...” began once again.
“Okay, turn on the radio. I'll talk to them.” Rin's voice felt husky from all the yelling.
Stan started flipping switches “Sure thing Ninja.” Rin was sure it was the first time he had called her that.
Buck handed her the audio headset. “There will be a delay of...”
Rin waved him off as she slid the headset on, “Yeah, I know.”
Buck just nodded.
Stan was fiddling with some settings, “... check... levels... Say something Rin.”
“Uh, something Rin said just now... Are you transmitting?”
“Looks good, okay.” Stan cut the looping audio as he got up and moved to one side. “Just flip this switch to transmit.” He indicated a single black switch in a row of about a million identical switches. It was helpfully labeled 'BKP BATER TRNSMT EMG OVRD' in microscopic font. “Say 'transmission over' or something when you're done.”
Rin took the seat. She nodded slowly for a few seconds, glancing purposelessly across the inscrutable controls. Then she took a deep breath, let it out in a rush, and flipped the switch.
The room was filled with the piercing screech of feedback. Rin flipped the switch back off and glared at Stan.
“Sorry about that.” Stan said. He quickly adjusted something. “Try it now.”
With decidedly less deliberation, Rin flipped the transmission switch again. Nothing happened. That was probably what was supposed to happen. Stan gave her the thumbs up.
“Hello.” That seemed like a good place to start. What was the name of that ship again?
“Greetings Alvin-wheeze,” That couldn't be right, nothing to do but go on, “This is Rin of the Armstrong. The ISV Armstrong.” She was getting lost. This shouldn't be so difficult. The taste of blood brought her back on track.
“The Armstrong has crashed on Phoenix and is mostly broken. We are without provisions. There are three surviving crew and two robots. Crewman Buck, Crewman Stan, Bot Ando, Bot Molly, and myself, Rin. Please bring food and nutrient supplements. And Coffee.”
She felt like there was something she was forgetting. A movement caught the corner of her eye. It was Buck. He was champing his teeth and waggling his index fingers on his forehead.
“Oh, and watch out for the native fauna. They are dangerous. Bring some weapons I guess, or whatever you've got.” Rin let out a little sigh.
“The officers are all dead,” she went on, “but we're doing okay. The atmosphere is breathable, obviously.” She was rambling again.
“Thanks for coming. Thanks so much for coming to get us. We're looking forward to seeing you. Um, Transmission Ended.”
After a pause Stan reached over and flipped the switch back off.
“Be sure to stay at least a kilometer clear of the landing site, probably more.” The radio insisted.
“Yes, we're all inside the hull of the Armstrong, and several kilometers away.” Stan responded.
Stan had been engaged in a protracted conversation with the Alouise since they had transferred into orbit. They wanted to know the exact atmospheric composition, local weather, soil density, and on and on. Stan seemed to have a good handle on the situation, so Buck and Rin had stepped into the next room to hold a low conversation.
The landing boat wouldn't arrive for a few hours still. The Alouise was dropping it off in a “terminus trajectory” which would allow the boat to transfer to the surface. But before that the Alouise had to trans away. Apparently it was the most tricky maneuver in the book. Rin still doubted that coasting a crash-landing with an interstellar vessel was in the book at all.
Buck had put the beacon down as near to dead-ahead as he could manage, so he and Rin sat in the cockpit waiting the transfer. It wouldn't be visible from where they were, but, as they had discovered, atmospheric transfer made a mess. The repeated warnings to stay clear made Rin wonder just how often this kind of landing was done. Had they even tested the landing boat? They must have at some point.
Rin wasn't sure what she was expecting, but the landing boat managed to startle and disappoint her at the same time. There was a faint flash behind the row of hills ahead, followed swiftly by a rapidly expanding dome of white. The white dome flashed out of existence almost as quickly as it formed, and seconds later a sharp clap of thunder rattled the hull. After that all they could see was a small plume of dust rising in the bright mid-day glare.
“That's it?” Asked Rin.
“You were expecting a nuke?” Buck responded.
“Well, I mean, there was just so much talk about standing clear. I expected something... bigger.”
“Want to go see the landing site?”
Rin tried to lean back in the captain's chair. The bridge chairs were not reclining, for reasons that were obvious in hindsight, “I'm fine being rescued right here.”
“Well, I'm not about to go on a hike in the middle of the day.”
“Why do we have to go at all? They know where we are don't they?”
“Well, it wouldn't be very polite of us to just sit here. We should at least send a welcoming party.”
Stan's voice echoed faintly up through the ship “I'll go!”
“See!” said Buck, “Our most diplomatic and welcoming crewman, off to bring our rescuers.”
“Buck,” Rin said in a lower voice, “You really should go too. You're the acting captain.”
“Screw that. It's hot out.”
“I'm leaving the com volume up.” Stan declared. His voice was already coming from farther away.
Rin could hear Stan cycling the airlock. A few minutes later a broad hat came into view, hovering slightly from side to side. He trudged heavily along the hillside and into the copse of the spine tree grove. Rin felt rather sorry for him, making the long walk all alone. Still though, he would probably get to eat first as well. Why hadn't she thought of that?
The com burst to life. Some sort of inquiry or announcement.
“You gonna get that?” Rin asked.
“Aaagnh” Buck waved his hand, and then rolled to his feet and began shuffling toward the com room. “We don't want any!”
“They're bringing food Buck.”
“Oh no, wait!” Buck began shuffling faster and held out his hands beseechingly. “Come back food! I didn't mean what I said!”
“So we're, what, an hour from rescue now?” said Buck.
Rin was lying on the floor. It was tiring to sit up. “Depends what you mean by 'rescue' doesn't it.”
“Okay, how about some decent food.”
“God yes. A real salad and some chocolate.”
“Maybe a steak.”
“Ugh no, it hurts too much to chew.”
Buck Grinned weakly, “Steak smoothie then.”
“Oh yeah! So good.”
“Maybe some pepper.”
Rin rolled her head to the side “Um, pepper smoothie? Yuck.”
“Maybe some chives...”
“Buck, what are you going to do when you get back to Earth?”
“... garlic and barbecue sauce...”
“I'm going to call my brother. I haven't talked to him in, like, forever.”
“I don't know Rin. I'll probably eat Cheetos and watch the news.”
“You don't have anyone you want to see?”
“Wanna know a secret?”
“Yeah. You better be quick though, the rescue team will be here any minute.”
“Nah, Stan just cleared the far hill.”
“So, what's the secret? No wait, let me guess, you're actually a woman.”
“I never knew my father very well. He walked out on my Mom when I was a kid.”
Buck let it hang in the air for a moment, then went on. “When I joined the space program, Cash took me under his wing. He was like my Dad.” Buck's voice was slipping into falsetto.
“I never got ...to say... goodbye... to... him.” Buck choked the words out. He was still sitting in the co-pilot's chair; His head leaned back, turned to the metal plates of the ceiling. Lips pulled back from his gritted teeth as if he was laughing, as his body shook.
Rin scooted along the floor until she could reach his leg. She gave his calf a pat, slow and comforting she hoped. Buck barked out a laugh like a coughing shout. His hand dangled in a fist, then fell open as his shoulders slumped. Rin took it with her other hand, and rolled onto her back, looking up at the poor broken enigma.
Buck stared out the cockpit window, and gripped tightly. Painfully really, but Rin didn't want to say anything.
“I could have, I don't know, said something.” Buck's voice was still unnaturally high, tight with feeling. “Sometimes I say things I regret,” Rin wisely chose to forgo agreeing with this “but it's the things you don't say that hurt the most.”
“Um, speaking of regretting not saying things, you're hurting my hand.”
“Sorry.” Buck loosened his grip, but did not let go. “Thanks Rin.”
“No, for living. If you had died too... Well, I would only have Stan to keep me company!” Buck tried to chuckle, but it was husky and turned into a fit of coughing.
“We're all in pretty sad shape.” said Rin from the floor.
“Thank God rescue is coming. Looks like they brought an ATV too. Fan-freakin-tastic.”
“Help me up.”
Buck pulled on Rin's hand, but her shoes slipped on the deck and her head hit the metal plates with a thud, and the world went black.
But only because Rin had closed her eyes. “Damn.” she muttered through gritted teeth. “What did you do that for?”
“Not my fault you can't stand up. What happened to the ninja attitude?” Buck said as he grabbed her arm and began hauling her bodily to her feet.
“I'm only a ninja in half gee. Man that smarts!” Rin rubbed the back of her skull and looked out through the cockpit window. A six wheeled box the size of a van was rumbling slowly toward them, through the grass. Buck finished running the grimy sleeve of his jumpsuit across his eyes.
Suddenly a line of fire erupted from the back of the ATV, lighting the landscape in crimson. The entire vehicle jumped into the air, nose down, but landed upright and skidded to a halt. Around and behind it, a front of flame was rapidly expanding, engulfing their rescuers in the all-too-familiar tongues of Phoenix fire.
Rin and Buck stood stunned as the gout of flame washed toward them. A front of white, with the faintest hint of impossible color. Almost a shockwave, so fast it spread.
“Are they okay?” Rin thought, but it was Buck who said it.
Rin took a deep breath. “We'll know in a minute.”
From her vantage point in the cockpit Rin noticed a blur of movement ahead of the flames. The fronds of grass were being sucked toward the blaze, quivering under some unseen force. The flames passed over quickly, leaving the familiar scorched terrain behind.
Plus one unfamiliar scorched vehicle. It sat slightly askance at the end of a faint trail. It sat very still, paint blistered and blackened. The steel rib wheels rocked slightly forward and backward as something shifted within. Then a figure stepped out. She saw the legs before anything else, landing behind the vehicle. Then the rest of the orange EVA suit came into view.
It was not a standard issue EVA suit. Somehow it seemed heavier than normal. Of course, Rin thought, it would look heavier. Normally the suits were worn in zero gee. Now on the planet and under the pressure of atmosphere the whole thing sagged over the body of the wearer. Rin felt tired just watching them as they wobbled around the rover, checking for damage no doubt. The figure placed one hand against the scorched side of the ATV chassis and paused for a minute.
The figure turned and waved at them from across the short distance. Rin realized they were only a few hundred meters away from the team. There was no reason to wait any longer.
Rin realized they were still holding hands from when Buck had pulled her up off the floor. It would have been an awkward way to return to herself, but instead she smiled, gave a squeeze, and let go. They both walked back to the ladder with haste. Grab the hats, out the airlock, start across the smoldering plain. The ATV was a locus of activity, orange segments mixed with pale grey crates. Stan came out from among them, looking brown and withered by comparison.
“Let's go back inside.” was all he said.
They all turned around and made their way instinctively to the day-comp, where they sat at the table. A year ago they would have all had duties to the mission. A month ago they would have had work gathering food and attempting to communicate. A day ago they would have been listening for anything at all on the radio. But now there was nothing left to do. Everything was already done. Now they could rest. Rin could rest.
She began to think of how very connected they were to the team that was on their way. They were all members of the same organization, had gone through the same training, traveled to the same planet, the same species, same language. And yet she had no idea what to expect. They had been working toward rescue for so long, but now that it had arrived, what was going to happen? Would they come in with scanners and probes? Would they seal off the ship and gas them? What were their orders? Their assumptions?
The situation looked rather suspect, Rin had to admit. She had told them that the captain was dead, but they had no reason to believe their story, and “she just disappeared” still sounded lame. Were they to be treated as mutineers? Would they even be given a fair hearing? Stan seemed okay, but what if he had been sent back to betray them? Why were they sitting here instead of helping the crew?
Rin began to feel dizzy again. Usually it struck when she had just stood up, but they were all just sitting down right now. Rin put her head down on her folded arms.
There was a drumming sound, three short beats. It repeated. Someone was knocking at the door.
Rin took a deep breath. “I'll get it.” she said, head still down. Just a little more rest. Just a second or two more. The airlock ground open, and strange sounds came with it. Booted feet and muffled voices.
“... are good. Looks clear!”
“Leave ... helmets on!”
Rin's head was up now, as two suited figures holding tools of some sort walked in. They waved at the three seated there, but continued on through. Their voices were low, inaudible through the helmets.
Then two more came in, carrying some of the big boxes Rin had seen earlier. With five people the room was packed, and the crates didn't help. They set them awkwardly down, one on the table and one on the floor.
“Help yourself” one said through the helmet. Rin looked up to see that he was smiling. “This stuff is all for you guys.” he said as his gloved hands undid the oversized clasps. The top came off, and they all stood. Rin couldn't make sense of it for a moment, ridges of heat sealed plastic and silver labels printed in black. But they all grabbed a fist-full out of instinct, and Rin found herself holding three bulging packets of sterile saline and glucose in solution with assorted vitamins. There was a rubber straw molded right into the pack, crimped with a plastic clip.
The nectar went down easily. A little hum of enjoyment escaped her lips as she sucked it down. So easily, in fact, that Rin found she had drunk all three before looking up. Buck was ridiculous, of course, lounging back in his seat with a straw in the corner of his mouth, a ruin of discarded packets flung about him. Stan had drunk just one, and was nursing a second. Rin raised her eyebrows at this.
“Had a few on the ride over.” Stan responded.
“Thanks for eating with us.” Rin deadpanned.
Stan raised his silvered packet, “To my drinking buddies.” a dribble of the pale fluid escaped the straw in response to the sharp gesture, and spattered on the floor. It didn't matter. There were hundreds in the crate.
But by now, Rin was beginning to feel a bit odd. A kind of weight in her guts. An ache, almost like hunger, yet subtly different. Ahh, right, she was full.
One of the suited rescue team had been standing in the room the whole time. Now he stepped forward and spoke again, “There are medical supplies in the other crate. Do any of you have injuries?”
Rin's head had begun to hurt, like it was packed full of too many people. “No, I'm fine. Are you guys fine?”
“I'm feeling good.” said Buck “Drank too much of this stuff though.”
“The sugar water passes quickly.” Stan remarked, “Give it a few minutes.”
“Well, can I look at you?” The man asked.
“Nobody's stopping you.” Buck responded.
The orange bulk moved to the crate on the floor, opened it, and rummaged around for a minute, emerging with a couple of instruments.
“Oh, right.” said Buck.
“I will be brief.” the figure bellowed through the helmet, “The normal signs; Eyes, nose, mouth, ears.” He laid the instruments out on the magnetic strips inside the crate top, an assortment of lights and probes. “Volunteers?”
“Ladies first.” muttered Stan.
Rin wondered how well the suited figure could hear. The EVA suits weren't exactly designed for atmospheric operations. She raised her hand. “Me. Where do I sit?”
“I was thinking the counter over here.”
“You know,” remarked Buck in his best casual loud voice, “We DO still have a medical bay. It's got chairs and everything.”
“Perfect! Lead the way.” The figure stood, carefully lifting the lid in front of him. The four of them did a little dance to get in order, and Rin found herself leading the procession to her first examination. Why was she always getting examined? Of course, of all the times, this was probably the most warranted, but still. The plethora of investigations into her health seemed excessive.
Behind her came the orange suit, close company in the narrow rooms. It really was a procession of sorts. The small but ferocious vanguard, the priest in garish garb with the sacred tray, the accessories bringing up the rear. They stopped at the ladder. This was going to be a problem.
Rin felt a little bad for what she did next. Turning, she took the tray under one arm, which the figure relinquished with muttered thanks. She examined it for a moment, before sweeping the tools up in her hand and tossing the lid to the side. She stuffed the handful of medical equipment in a pocket of her torn and filthy jumpsuit, and began to ascend the ladder with a “Let's go.”
They came up into the medical bay, and Rin lay back on the chair. As she waited for the “Open your mouth” or whatever indignities would be called for, her mind wandered. She had been so concerned with her own survival. She had tried to make it on her own. At home, at school, in Project Bootstrap, in training, on the Armstrong, with Ando, with Buck and Stan. She had always been so very focused on her own needs, and yet it never did any good. Outside forces were always at work, helping her along and providing for her. It was as if the universe had told her that it didn't need her help. And, in fact, the very times she was most in control were the times when disasters had occurred. Maybe it was okay to let go, to trust someone else for a change. Maybe she didn't have to do anything.
“Excuse me, Ms. Shimazaki?” the muffled voice inquired, “The tools?”
Rin blushed -- how long had it been since she had possessed the energy to blush? She extracted the tools, the bulky plastic cases creaking as they rubbed together.
“If you will just open your mouth, I'll try to be careful.” said the looming orange suit.
“Of course,” Rin thought, as she spread her jaws, “what else.”
Stan balked, “So, wait. The probes never transmitted?”
After the examinations the rescuers had gathered in the airlock for a conference. One of the crew had shown the others how to activate the external intercom on their suits, which had much aided in communication. After hearing a jumbled synopsis of what they knew of the mission, the crash, and the variously successful -- or otherwise -- attempts at survival, the rescue crew had started on their side of things.
The rescue mission had been organized on the books for years, a contingency plan in case a vessel ever got stranded due to equipment malfunction. When the Armstrong failed to return, the ISAC had dusted off the drafts double-time. The landing boat was a first article, rushed through testing and intended for manned exploration of “significant” worlds. The rescue team had been training with it, hoping to be the first to set foot on an extra-solar planet. Now they were simply hoping against hope to not need it.
After the Alouise returned from its own survey stint it was quickly refit for the mission. Quickly, in this case, being months instead of years. By the time they had reached the deep space survey station it was already abuzz with the news of spatial anomalies.
“They couldn't even tell what you had sent through. By the time the over-extended wormhole was done all they saw was a stream of elementary particles.”
“But, then how did you know where to look for us?”
“These guys are astrophysicists! It's all they do! They measured the doped spaghettification or whatever and gave us a list of all the places it could have come from. We just had to compare it to your mission plan. Only had to try two other systems before we found you.”
Just then the background metallic rumble grew too loud to ignore. They all looked over at once as the ATV trundled up, still scorched, but apparently in working order.
“Get your gear together,” a smiling voice announced over the intercom, “This is the last bus home.”
The rescue team wanted to bring everything, of course. They would have torn the ship apart piece by piece and sent them all back to earth in plastic bags... if they had the time. But time was air, and food, and water, and time was always running out. Rin and the rest of the survivors scoured the ship for all the little things they knew would be valuable. The computers were the obvious priority, along with the bots. Rin sent Stan to get the former while she headed to the drone bay.
It was dark. The nearest windows were in the med bay behind her, and the scant light trickled in over her shoulders as she stood in the doorway and let her eyes adjust to the gloom. The bots were both there, right where she had set them, leaning against the wall. They were propped against eachother, like over-tired children who had fallen asleep sitting up.
She had to tilt Molly to the floor so she wouldn't fall over when she picked up Ando. His joints were stiff without power, and took some effort to move. There was also no easy way to carry the dead-weight... maybe she should have sent someone else. But no, these were Rin's friends, and Rin would see them safely on board. She shuffled under the weight as Ando's feet banged into her thighs with each step. His butt scraped against the examination table as she hauled him through medical.
“Sorry.” she mumbled, and didn't even feel silly for it. How long ago was it that he had waked her?
There didn't seem to be any respectful or efficient way to strap Ando down, so she ended up clearing off a seat and buckling him in. His body was even more comically small in the chair designed for EVA suited astronauts.
Then the long trip carrying Molly. She didn't remember much of it except the effort. When she got back to the ATV Ando was already partially submerged in odds and ends. She strapped Molly in with a sigh and went to find Buck.
She and Buck debated bringing pieces of the ship, but that raised the question of where to stop. The rescue team gathered a couple of the discarded pressure vessels, riddled with HKM cavities, and loaded them into the ATV. Rin climbed in as well, and buckled herself in. She had everything she wanted, and now merely desired to be under way.
The team kept bringing out some random tool or twisted rivet and discussing it on their intercom before either placing it in one of the sample bins -- meticulously documented -- or dropping it carelessly to the ground. It seemed to take forever. Rin must have dozed off, because the next thing she knew they were bouncing crazily on their way. The charred trees and grass stubble and river-bed passed outside the tiny windows as the crunch of the tires sped them along.
She knew at that moment that she would never again see the Armstrong with her waking eyes. But in the moment, she didn't care.
“Well, we had really planned on there being more of you.” said Captain McPhearson.
Rin stood with the other two survivors in the landing boat's tertiary cargo bay. When they had arrived late in the evening everyone had been ready to collapse, the survivors from the good food, and the rescuers from local time “jet lag”. The Alouise's doctor had instrumented Rin and the others with monitors and they were given the tertiary cargo bay to sleep in. This, coupled with the crewman who stood watch over them did little to ease Rin's feeling of alienation.
The next morning Rin had awoken late. She just lay on her cot, listening to the medical equipment beeping steadily, and the hull of the landing boat creaking as it adjusted to the growing heat. The smell of the cargo bay was different than the Armstrong, more metallic. That, and everything was coated in a thin layer of dust. Once Stan was awake the captain had come down to see them.
“Now that we know the final numbers, well, we've got some extra lifting space in the landing boat.” His accent was understandably Gaelic, and they could see a fierce red beard behind the glare of his EVA suit's clear face shield.
“We'll take some rocks and plants, of course,” the Captain went on, “But we were hoping you three could offer some informative advice about what kind of species might survive our RAS system. We've got, well...” he waved his hand vaguely about the chamber, “quite a few extras.”
Rin nodded sadly. Without information, the rescue team had to assume that there would be fourteen survivors. Now they had eleven emergency RAS units that were going to go to waste... unless something else could be found to fill them.
“Well, the plants won't be hurt too badly.” said Rin, “For them RAS is basically like a refrigerator right?”
The Captain nodded, “We can only assume, but yes. Well said.”
“And if the aliens breathe air, well, shouldn't the RAS be able to keep their blood oxygenated?”
“So the doctors tell me. Then again, I've never met an expert who had more than one idea to wrap around himself and keep him warm, if you catch my drift. Your guess is as good as anybody's and likely better than most... which is why I'm askin' you.”
Rin was rocked back on her mental heels for a moment. She knew, of course, that not every captain was like Wheeler, but the contrast was astonishing. How could the same system that had put a stuck up blowhard like Wheeler in command also let through this guy? While Rin was assimilating, Buck spoke up.
“We haven't exactly been looking for them. Mostly we were just trying to not get eaten.” Buck shrugged, “But the bushfish seem pretty slow. After that,” He looked over at Rin, “Maybe the zeebrants?”
“The place just burned down, there should be a herd of trowelface soon.”
“Yeah, trowelface would be perfect. Easy to catch too!”
“Just stay away from the Flayger-ants” Rin put in.
The Captain's head nodded once inside his EVA suit. “We'll need one of you to come along of course. Those names don't mean a thing to us.”
Buck and Stan ended up setting out with half the crew on foot to try and capture some fauna. Rin and the other half of the crew took the ATV to get some flora.
Assembling the expedition seemed, to Rin, to take forever. For her gathering plants was as simple as walking outside. But for the expeditionary crew of the Alouise the task was both grave and involved. These were to be Official ISAC Samples! One couldn't just grab any old thing and stuff it up the sleeve of your jumpsuit! Out came the sample spades, designed to be highly inert, so as to prevent contamination. The Sample Transport Units followed close behind, with their packages of Sample Suspension Pellets to keep the objects well supported. Of course all these materials were handled clumsily through the EVA suits. After the parts had been fumbled, jumbled, and dropped a half dozen times they lost their official luster. The truth was that they were just so many pieces of expensive foam core packing, the likes of which were smashed and scattered around the Armstrong over the course of their isolated desperation.
Rin offered to help of course, but there were concerns that her unprotected skin and breath would contaminate the pristine samples. Of course, there was no procedure for this, Rin laughed at the thought. “In the event that a mixed team of both isolated (properly wearing EVA or equivalent environmental segregation garb) and non-isolated (those without such garb) sample gathering agents arrives, the isolated agents shall handle all sample gathering duties, and the non-isolated agents shall promptly die of exposure.” In the end they concluded that Rin would stand three or four meters away and help identify probable sample candidates, and the rest of the team would struggle in their suits with the fiddly tools, containers, and packing material and try to get something done.
Predictably, the process took all day. The team all piled into the ATV and drove out of the fire scorched region and proceeded to repeat the laborious process of stuffing anything that looked interesting into their containers. Rin had the dubious pleasure of standing nearby and shouting directions like someone trying to back-seat drive a surgeon simulator. The results varied, but in the end they got one of every kind of plant that Rin could remember seeing, and a few that she could not. Rin again recalled that they had seen so very little of this mysterious place. Anything might lie, undiscovered, just over the next ridge.
A few times what lay over the next ridge discovered them, first a couple Brutes and later a herd of Zeebrants. The Brutes charged straight in, but Percival the gunner was paying attention. A broken popping stuttered through the air and the beasts wheeled and ran. Captain McPhearson had used his executive weight allotment to pack a pair of GrayPhearson R-12 Coil Cannons, custom made and modified for use with the clumsy gloves of an EVA suit. The guns looked comically small when held by the orange suited crewman, but they did the job. Turns out aliens disliked being shot with hypersonic S7 rods. Who knew? The Zeebrants merely topped the ridge and milled about before being driven off by the suppressing fire.
When the “attack” was over Rin had a few minutes to reflect while everyone congratulated Percival on his marksmanship. If there was any sort of intelligent life on this world, they were going to have some explaining to do. “Why did you land on our world?” they might ask. “Why have you attacked our people?” they would question. “Why are you abducting our young?” they could demand. For, really, none of them knew what the “plants” they were gathering really were. None of them really knew for sure that there was no intelligent life here. They had speculations, and hunches, but nothing solid. The rescue mission with opportunistic sample gathering on the side might look very much like a casing followed by a smash-and-grab from an outsiders perspective. Hopefully anyone watching had the decency to suspend judgment.
By the time they made it back to the landing boat, Buck and the others had already returned. They had managed to capture three Bushfish and a few Zippers, but the larger species were averse to being herded into boxes.
The next day Rin and Buck went out in the ATV with the trapping crew and both the guns. The intention was to see if they could chase some specimens to exhaustion and trap them when they were too tired to run.
Rin stayed in the vehicle for most of the hunting safari. She had hoped it would be a free-romping chase over the blackened plains. As it turned out, trapping live specimens was a lot less exciting than gunning them down. The groups of Trowelface broke up quickly, and proved much more maneuverable than the ATV. It was like trying to chase rabbits to exhaustion. They would juke and dodge and then sit infuriatingly still as the ATV blundered past and tried to come about. Eventually they gave up on them and went after the biggest specimen they could find, the Flaygr-ant.
It was only after an hour of chasing the huge beast around in circles at a leisurely loping pace that they realized that they had no way of containing the huge creature in stasis. All the RAS pods were much too small. There was some discussion about herding it into the cargo bay of the landing vessel, but no one felt comfortable with a horse sized alien loose on the ship for months at a time.
Rin finally suggested putting the creature down. She felt a little bad about it, but it was only one among who knows how many. They had invested so much time in this already that it felt wrong to just let it get away. The shots rang out. They kept going, and for a moment it seemed that the creature was un-harmed by the tiny weapons. It made no sounds, did not cry out with the croaking roar she had heard before, when Andrea gave it a name. The creature lay very still, crumpled inside its plated skin. They cut off a few trophies, head and feet and a pair of the wondrous scintillating plumage, now quite blank. The bits sat at Rin's feet, rocking and jostling as the ATV traversed the untamed landscape back to the landing boat.
“We're going in order of health. Robust to fragile, if you'll pardon the implication my dear.”
Dr. Forth had commandeered the Landing Vessel's cargo bay for the RAS sedation. He had everything laid out, and a non-officer assistant standing at his elbow. They were both cheerful but serious. Three mobile RAS-R pods were arranged on the deck behind them. Rin had seen many others sitting discarded in the dirt outside. Apparently alien specimens were more valuable per pound even than medical equipment.
“We don't have any idea what these alien plants you've been eating all this while have done to your metabolism, so we're taking careful notes of any deviations from normal progression. By the time we get to you, Miss Rin, we'll have any oddities ironed out.”
The five of them stood there a little awkwardly. The three patients had lined up in order of operation, but this happened to be order of height. They were wearing medical gowns, so the order was also that of undress. Rin giggled a little when she saw the boys, and was again thankful for her diminutive girth. In stark contrast Dr. Forth and his assistant were wearing their bright orange EVA suits. It made Rin feel more like a plague victim than ever.
“The process here is quite irregular” Dr. Forth went on, “Normally everything is sterilized as you know, but we've had to make exceptions to maintain the integrity of the planetary quarantine. We've done everything we can to make this a safe operation, but I am obliged to warn you that you are undergoing an elevated risk, however slight, by entering RAS in this... unconventional environment.” He gestured around at the containers lining the walls around them, many of which contained various alien species.
“It would be possible to give you quarters aboard the ship. This would involve exposing the crew any existent alien contaminants. However, captain McPhearson has instructed that you be given this option.”
No one spoke for a few seconds. Rin wondered which of the difference between Dr. Forth and Dr. Fournier was due to the different circumstances, and which to personality. Dr. Forth's suit gave a slight hiss as he took a deep breath.
“Very well. I am pleased to see you all have the health of our entire mission in mind. Before we proceed, are there any questions?”
Again, silence. Rin considered asking if they would be packed next to the alien specimens, or in a separate bay. But Dr. Forth was being so pleasant, it seemed a shame to interrupt him.
“Very good. Not to be morbid, but RAS is not a sure thing. You've all had your fond 'farewell for now' time I take it?”
Rin couldn't stop herself, “Yes, Dr. Forth. Thank you. But, isn't this all a bit much? I mean, we do have a schedule don't we? Why all the fuss?”
“My dear young lady,” Began Forth, his sincerity somewhat dampened by the suit's acoustically insulative properties, “We are all so glad to have found you alive. It really is an honor.”
Rin thought he would say more, but he didn't. She nodded understandingly. “We're just all looking forward to...”
To what? Rin had intended to say “getting off this damn planet” but now that it came to the point, maybe she would miss it after all. What was waiting for her at home anyhow? Labs and tests? Going back to school? David and ISAC and inscrutable political maneuvering? She didn't really want any of that. But she didn't really want to be here anymore either. It was an adventure at times, but mostly...
Buck finished her sentence, “A good hamburger. Put me down Doc, we're done here.”
Dr. Forth nodded, an exaggerated motion in his EVA suit. It came out as more of a small bow. “Right this way Crewman Buckley. Please bare your right arm. This will sting a bit...”
Dr. Forth must have been exceptionally efficient, even encumbered by his protective gear. Rin couldn't recall anything after Buck's injection. She always wondered if she had watched Buck's tubes go in. Were they asked to wait in a different part of the cargo bay until it was their turn?
No amount of wondering would bring the memories back. She eventually made up her own.