Hughes looked out of the cockpit as they exited hyperspace, the planet popping into view ahead of them. Planet 52ABX-32QJ was a desert planet. He slumped in his chair. On joining up as a deckhand on the deep-space courier he had a very different idea of his future; one of finding new planets that would bear the future of the human race, discovering beautiful all-female alien species and fighting off vicious, savage bugs against impossible odds.
So far he had seen nothing but sand, ice and rock. Rocks in particular, he had now seen in every shade and texture imaginable. It turned out that although breathable atmospheres were relatively common in the galaxy, complex life was definitely not.
He glanced over at Captain Russman. Ever vigilant, the Captain kept his eyes forward on the heads-up-display. Hughes thought he might say something, but he did not. Hughes sighed loudly, deliberately. Either Russman did not notice, or more likely, chose to ignore it by now.
“Sand.” Hughes said, eventually. “I hate sand.”
Russman smiled, keeping his eyes forward. “You wanted to see the galaxy boy. You’re seeing it. Now do something useful and set our landing vector. I need the loo.”
“It’s a lot less exciting than I thought.” Hughes grumbled to himself as the Captain wandered off. A small geological survey, located on a barren, rocky ridge of this pile of sand had ordered new equipment. He checked the calculations on the landing computer, and then locked in the approach.
“Adventure isn’t always good. How many war stories do I have to tell you to convince you of that?” Russman said, returning. “It’s all fun and games until someone might die...”
Hughes said nothing.
“Chin up boy. You never know what will happen. This planet does have a breathable atmosphere, and the survey must have found something interesting enough to need such specialised equipment. Maybe it’s alien ruins? You could be the one to deliver the equipment that unearths a lost civilisation!” Russman grinned at him.
Hughes smiled at that. It was close to the stories he read, and for an 18 year old with no further education it was as close to the action as he could get without joining a war. And the Captain had definitely put him off that option.
He was about to shoot back a reply when the lights flickered. He frowned and looked at Russman. The Captain returned the look and pulled up the power schematics.
“Hughes, run an EM scan of the planet, double check our landing –” he cut off as the lights flickered again, but this time the ship shook violently. “Dammit, we’re already hitting the atmosphere. Manual override! Strap in tight.”
Hughes eyes went wide. The Captain barked the order again and he quickly did as instructed, then strapped himself in to the 5-point harness. The ship stabilised, but they were still ramming through the atmosphere. A shock layer of ionised gas enveloped the ship, only visible to them as a red-orange flicker through the windows. Russman held the controls with a death grip, veins bursting out of his arms as he wrestled to hold the shuttle stable through the turbulent re-entry.
Again the power went out, but this time it took longer to return. The shaking became violent, the nose of the ship pitching up sharply. He glanced at the Captain, who remained unblinking at the controls. The power came back on, and the displays lit up with their position and vector, and Russman managed to regain control again.
“What’s going on?” Hughes cried, but Russman shook his head, keeping his eyes fixed ahead. Hughes forced himself to look out of the window. They were coming down fast, far below the approach vector he set.
“I’m putting her down as soon as possible so we can work out what–“ The lights blinked out, and the ship immediately started slipping against the airflow, rolling to starboard. “Brace!” the Captain shouted, but Hughes barely heard it. The sudden roll forced all the blood in his body downwards, away from his brain, and he blacked out from the g-force.
He woke with a start. The movement had stopped. Sunlight streamed through the window, bouncing off dust particles floating in the air. Dust was everywhere inside the cockpit. He squinted. None of the lights were on.
“Captain? Captain Russman?” he shouted. There was no response. He unbuckled himself and tested his legs. He could stand, and aside from a spinning head he was uninjured. He heard a cough, and the Captain stirred in the pilot seat. It had buckled, badly. Dust stuck to the Captain’s right leg, now wet and dark. Hughes was fairly certain it was blood.
“Captain, are you ok?” He stumbled over to him, and gently turned the chair away from the light.
The Captain coughed, and groaned. “I think my leg might not be in the best shape.”
“Let’s get you somewhere more comfortable.”
Hughes helped the Captain to a bench away from the bright sunlight and towards the rear of the ship, sitting in front of him with the automated first aid system. He picked up the device, expecting it to scan, disinfect and bandage the wound, but nothing happened. He turned it over in his hand, and shook it. He pressed the buttons frantically. Nothing.
“I guess we’re doing this ourselves,” the Captain said, softly. “Grab the scissors. Cut away the fabric.”
Hughes balked at him, but the Captain repeated it. With shaking hands he did as instructed. It was a deep cut, but thankfully it had missed the major blood vessels. Russman talked him through the steps, calm even through the pain that must certainly be plaguing him. They washed the wound and bandaged it up.
Russman grinned. “You did good.”
Hughes wasn’t so sure. Without power to the first-aid system there was no way to administer antiseptics and the bandages alone surely wouldn’t be enough.
They sat for a few minutes before the Captain spoke again. “If the first aid device is out, I wonder if anything else works?”
Hughes frowned, and, following Russman’s careful instruction went off to check their situation. The navigation system was off, the lighting was out, the fabricator and water reclaimer were out. They tried cycling the emergency power system, but nothing would respond.
The Captain was quiet for a few minutes. “If all the power is off then there is no distress beacon either. We never made the landing vector so the survey team wouldn’t know we arrived in the system. They won’t ask headquarters until we are late by at least a week, and without the water reclaimer we’ll dehydrate long before that.
“Power is completely shot, I don’t know how but it is. So, we need to inform the survey in person.”
Hughes collapsed, letting his head fall into his hands. He had never been the brightest person but he knew what was coming. He would have to go alone. It didn’t need to be said out loud. He forced himself to breathe.
“From what I was able to work out before the crash, we should be about 100 clicks South South-West of the Survey.”
There was no way the Captain was making it that far on one leg. Hughes sucked in a breath, he doubted he could make it himself. 100km through a desert, under blazing sun was no easy task. There had to be another way.
“Maybe we can make a signal fire or something? Or reflect some light towards the survey, get their attention?
The Captain shook his head. “Not from this distance. Someone has to walk it.”
Hughes nodded, barely more than a twitch. That someone was him. “Is this what you meant before, about fun and games?”
The Captain laughed, but it was pained. “Something like that.”
He looked at his handiwork on Russman’s leg. How long did infection take to set in? How long would the bandages stop the bleeding before giving out?
He groaned and nodded again, more vigorously this time and began to gather up what little emergency supplies they had. All they had were a couple of litres of water, a few energy bars and a compass. An oversight if there ever was one. Hughes left half of the supplies with the Captain, refusing to leave him with nothing.
Far into the horizon the shifting yellow dunes stretched, the skyline broken up only by occasional jagged brown spires. There was no ridge in the distance, no signal to aim for, nothing to reassure him that eventually he would reach the end of it.
He waited until the sun had started to fall over the horizon and set-off through the evening light, praying the compass needle pointed true. It was slow going. They had crashed into soft sand, and with each step Hughes sank several centimetres into the ground, sand overlapping his boots and grinding against his feet. He tried to keep his mind positive – such soft sand had probably saved their lives in the crash.
After a few hours the ground became firmer, and he was able to make better progress, settling into a fast stride. At first he felt he could maintain the pace indefinitely, but within a couple of hours he realised that was far too optimistic. He slowed and took a moment to catch his breath. In the dead of night the desert looked even more hostile, each rocky spire a thousand times taller, each boulder ready to fall on him. He took a sip of water, walking further into the unending desert ahead.
He had no idea how long he had been walking when a faint glimmer rose over the horizon. Sunlight would soon be upon him. He took a gulp of his meagre water supply and rested a moment. The dry air was affecting his lips already, and he could feel small flakes forming.
Straining his eyes in the twilight, the rocky outcrops seemed closer, and the ground ever firmer. Maybe there was somewhere to take shelter from the sun ahead? It would be impossible to continue for long during the day.
He nodded to himself, muttering encouragement under his breath and set off again. The hard ground was easier to walk on but the soles of his feet soon ached, and he saw no sign of the ridge, or of human habitation.
Luckily he was right about the rocky terrain. He reached it just as the sun burst over the horizon, the temperature rocketing upwards almost immediately. A quick survey of the rocky area found him in what might have once been a riverbed, and Hughes found a clump of rock that hid him from the sun.
His thoughts wandered, thinking of Russman. Was the wound deep enough that it would start bleeding again? How long would his bandage-job hold? He shook his head. Focus. The Captain would be fine. He had to be fine. Hughes just needed to make it to the Geological Survey.
He let his head fall back and closed his eyes, trying to catch some sleep.
When the sun fell he checked his compass, and set off again, ignoring blisters on his feet. He made steady but painful progress throughout the night. His legs burned in the morning, threatening to give out but he forced himself forward until the sun became too much to bear. Another rocky outcrop provided shade, and he near enough collapsed trying to sit down.
The water ran out, and he turned to the energy bar. Supposedly it would give him another 8 hours of energy. He considered the distance and wondered if he was making good progress. He knew that he had been slowing throughout the walk, but had no way of gauging by how much. Had he been walking for 20 hours? Longer? Less? His lips were truly cracked now, and they stung when he licked them.
He squinted into the distance, trying to make out anything, any sign that he was making progress or nearing the end. For a moment he thought he saw a lake, but when he shook his head there was nothing but haze. Either the desert was playing tricks or he was hallucinating.
He put the energy bar beside him, ready to eat before setting off and closed his eyes.
Hughes woke with a start. The sky was dark. Too dark. He stood up in a panic, looking to the horizon. How long had he slept? He must be at least a couple hours past dusk. Dammit! He shoved the energy bar into his mouth, the bland non-perishable food mixing with the metallic taste of blood from his dry mouth, and set off. He walked as fast as he could, stumbling again and again on the rocky ground, nearly falling over but not allowing himself to slow.
The sun rose, and the temperature with it, but he continued. He couldn’t stop, he needed to make up the time he had slept.
Despite his determination, the heat quickly beat him and with a gasp he collapsed on the floor, hiding in what little shade he could find. His legs refused to move any more. Sweat stains covered his clothes, and any exposed skin was bright red. It was all he could do to sit up against the rock. Were he not dehydrated so badly he would have cried tears from the pain.
He sobbed to himself. Russman had been so confident in him, but he could not go any further. He would not make it to the survey.
“It’s ok boy.”
He looked up. The Captain walked over and sat next to him, crossing his legs casually. Hughes looked at the ground. “I’m sorry, Captain. I failed.”
“You gave it all you could. No one can give more than that.”
Hughes frowned. Had he? He wasn’t so sure. If he had given it his all then they might not be in this mess. If he had paid more attention during safety briefs he might know more about survival. He might know how long a day or night lasted on this planet. He might be in better physical shape for long walks. He might have known how to get the power working again...so many things he might have done. The Captain said nothing though, he just sat beside him, occasionally shifting, stretching his legs.
“I’m sorry.” Hughes repeated, his voice breaking.
Russman shrugged and hopped up onto his feet. “You gave it all you could...” He nodded his head out into the distance. “And you did pretty well all things considered.”
Hughes shifted, forcing his aching muscles to move, until he was out of the sun again. He looked where the Captain had been looking. Was that buildings?
It must be his imagination. He blinked hard and looked again. The Captain was gone, but within sight was a ridge, dust rising from the top. He frowned, there was no breeze to stir things up...something must be moving around up there. He cocked his head, a reflection from the ridge forcing him to squint. It was the geological survey!
He forced himself onto his knees, crying from the pain, and took a deep breath. Another movement, and joints cracked as he brought a knee up to his chest, one foot flat on the floor. He took a deep breath. He knew, whether by instinct or divination that he would not make it to nightfall.
He thought back to the heroes he had read so much about. They never gave up. Even when all hope had faded they fought on until death claimed them. He thought about Russman, who had held on to the controls even as it was clear the ship would crash. Russman who believed he could make it.
Had he given it everything?
If he was going to die, it would be burned to a crisp in the sun, desperately scrambling up to the survey, a stone’s throw from victory. Not hiding, lying down, resigned to fail in the shade. As long as he breathed, he would keep going.
Hughes stood, a hand against the rock to stabilize himself. It was now or never. One step, then another. He would give it everything.
There was nothing in his mind now, just the need to keep moving his legs. Gasping, panting and absolutely, critically overheating he made his way up the ridge. Somehow, through sheer determination he kept going.
With one final step he collapsed into the compound, crying out loud. Machinery whirred around him. He had made it! As the survey team gathered around him in shock, he shouted about Captain Russman. He had to tell them, make sure they knew where he was and that he needed help. He babbled everything he could, the direction, the terrain, the distance, anything that could be important before blackness overtook him.
The last thing he heard was a voice of authority, stern, shouting at someone, “100 kilometres South South-West. Send a pick-up right now!”