Happy Memorial Day to those in the US.
Nell leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. The soft purr of the Icarus’s engines swirled around her. “I’m out of ideas.”
No movie she remembered covered being trapped in a very tiny room with a six-limbed alien wolf and an autopilot steering them straight into enemy hands. She’d even removed the isolation wire in her cerebral interface to interact with the computer directly. Yet, even Mom couldn’t help.
Obviously, her husband had not watched all the movies she’d given him. Otherwise, he would have known that the autopilot should have an override, so she could set the spaceship down on an asteroid or moon. Just as she drew her last molecule of oxygen, Bei would rescue her.
She dragged her forefinger and thumb over her eyes, causing white spots to dance on her eyelids and sighed. Why hadn’t Hollywood written a movie about this very situation? Why couldn’t she think of a way out after two days?
Elvis’s nose twitched. When he climbed off his chair, his nails clicked against the metal deck. He curled up next to Nell. “Does this mean you’re giving up?”
“Never give up or surrender.”
The Amarook’s ear flicked. “That is from a movie.”
Nell hugged her shins and set her chin on her knees. “Don’t mock my use of movie cliches. It comforts me. Besides, not all of us can lick our cares away.”
Elvis’s tail thumped and his lips curled into a smile. “It is most handy.”
“Do you think the Skaperians will stand behind me when I register humanity?” Registration had been her only option, only way to get help to find Bei, Rome and Keyes. Dipping her hand into Elvis’s downy feathers, she scratched him behind his ears.
He stretched his neck a little and his eyelids drooped. “If there are any left alive.”
His purring vibrated along her fingers. “I thought there was a Skaperian base on Erwar.”
That was where their damaged spaceship had laid course. Too bad, the ion trail left by her husband’s kidnappers aimed for the same planet. She didn’t want to meet the lime-green elf and his Scorpion side-kick without an army at her back.
“Before your Skaperian allies went into hibernation on Terra Dos, the embassy on Erwar reported deaths from the Surlat Strain.” Elvis shifted. “They could all be dead.
She scratched behind his other ear. “Or some could have survived, and now their numbers are growing. It has been a hundred years since the two planets lost contact.”
I am picking up a Skaperian energy signal from the embassy’s location, Mom’s reassurance flooded Nell’s head.
“See.” Skaperians must be alive or in stasis. They just had to be. The Amarooks could sponsor humanity’s registration, but Nell needed the Skaperians’ political and military might to retrieve Bei, Rome and Keyes. She swallowed despite her dry mouth and her fingers gripped his feathered scruff. “How much longer until we land?”
Elvis shook off her grip before rising on his hindlegs and tapping the keyboard. “We’re beginning our final approach now.”
Now. She scrubbed her hands down her face. After two days stuck in this room, now seemed too soon. She stared at the clock readout on the screen. “I wish we could see Erwar.”
See if people gathered outside, noticed the shuttle’s arrival. Aliens were people too. Well, all but the elves and bugs. They were the bad guys.
“Perhaps you should check your link to the computer. It has pictures of the planet and a map of the Skaperian embassy.” The Amarook stretched out along the deck and flipped onto his back. He flashed images of Nell rubbing his stomach.
She ran her hand along the bumps of Elvis’s ribs, down his sternum and found the sweet spot that made his leg twitch. As much as she hated the vulnerability, having access to the Skaperians’ library would come in handy. Closing her eyes, she focused on entering the ship’s Combat Information Center. Mom?
A digital representation of her mother appeared in Nell’s mind. Like the last time she’d seen her, Mom had her hair tucked up in a bun and wore a floral print dress. She sat at a computer, ready to find answers to every question. Yes, dear?
Are we ready?
Of course. I said I wouldn’t leave you, and I haven’t despite the change in hardware. Mom smiled and tucked a loose strand of gray hair behind her ear.
I appreciate it. The information Mom provided had saved Nell’s life more than once. She hoped the streak continued.
Mom’s hands hovered over the keyboard. It is the least I can do for my daughter.
Except alien engineering, Syn-En technology and Nell’s cobbled memories constructed this mom. Like all mother-daughter relationships, it was complicated. An ache pulsed at the front of Nell’s skull when she thought about it.
Would you like me to provide more information on the Founding Five?
No! Elfie boy and Scorpion were both members of the Founding Five——the aliens who set the rules of sentience and controlled the planet. They were also the stuff of her nightmares for the last two days.
Mom frowned. I can stimulate more serotonin to calm you.
I’ll be fine. Right, because that’s all Nell needed, someone messing with her brain. Show me our proposed landing site and the pathway to the embassy.
With pleasure. Mom tapped a few keys then disappeared.
A black grid materialized around Nell. Slowly, layers of green crept over the lattice. Large trees with drooping branches swept the grass. Fragrant blossoms in day-glow colors hung in star-shapes from verdant bushes. Beyond a brown stone path, a creek burbled. Golden fish swam in the clear water, arced through the air to catch a fly.
Elvis shimmered to life next to her legs. “Is this where we’ll land?”
“No.” Pushing aside the needle-like leaves, Mom ducked under a low branch. “You’ll set down here.”
Nell’s stomach lurched as the image spun and coalesced. The clearing widened to nearly the size of a baseball field. The brooke edged the right field and a stone pathway trimmed the left outfield. Nell’s lunch of cardboard rations revisited her mouth before she swallowed the bitterness. “Do we follow the brown stone road to see the wizard of Skaperia?”
Mom chuckled softly. “Yes, it will take you to the Skaperian embassy. Do not forget to take the introductory crystal given to you by the Witan. The information should convince the new ambassador that humanity is their ally.”
Nell stroked the two-inch hexagonal crystal under her shirt. She hoped the data encoded on the chip convinced the Skaperians to look for Bei, too.
The low hum under her feet altered. A whine of gears meant the landing struts had been deployed.
Fisting her shaking hands, she stuffed them in her pants pockets. “How many aliens are outside?”
Mom shrugged. “Unknown. Sensors were damaged in the attack. But records indicate fourteen alien races were used as servants at the embassy.”
Servants her Aunt Fanny. The aliens would be slaves, non sentient slaves. How many of them had been human? And could she use them to free Bei if the Skaperian ambassador refused to help?
The deck bucked under Nell’s bottom.
Touchdown. Taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes. The four walls of the safe room replaced the image of the park. A wave of claustrophobia swamped her senses. Nell waited for it to recede. It’s okay, she would be leaving this room soon.
I’m opening cargo bay doors. Please, remain inside this room until I verify atmospheric conditions. Mom’s cheery voice swirled inside Nell’s head.
Nell pushed to her feet and stared at the closed door. The air better be breathable. All the scuba gear was on the upper deck in the crew quarters.
Elvis stretched. His pink tongue lolled out as his rump stuck up in the air. “Most of Erwar’s residents require an atmosphere between fifteen and twenty-percent oxygen.”
Oxygen at eighteen percent. Mom’s voice shook.
The Amarook arched one feathered eyebrow.
Nell’s heart tumbled over a few beats. Uh-oh. Tell me, you’re not experiencing a glitch, Mom. They couldn’t afford another setback. Not now.
Not a glitch, dear. Recalibrating our position based on current satellite imagery.
We landed in the wrong spot? So much for autopilot. Nell slid aside a metal panel by the door and tugged on the lever. The seal around the door released with a hiss. A dry breeze carried the scent of ozone on a cloud of dust.
Elvis sniffed the area around the jam. “I detect no toxins.”
Erwar appears to have suffered an environmental calamity, dear. Most vegetative life has been wiped from the planet. The Skaperian gardens are now desert.
Desert. That didn’t sound too bad. Nell had been born in Phoenix. She could handle desert. Shifting to the side, she curled her fingers around the handle and pulled the door open.
Emptiness yawned in the former engine room. Open pipes dead-ended where the fusion reactor once stood. Scorch marks licked black flames along a three-inch wide gap on the hull. The opening was smooth as if done by a laser scalpel. “Did Scorpio’s weapon do that?”
Scorpio, as you call him, is a Scraptor. They provide security and military might for the Founding Five, so it is logical to assume it was his weapon.
Nell knew what happened when assumptions were made and it wasn’t pretty. Is there any defense against the evil laser?
Mom sighed. Technology is not evil. It is——
Spare me the lecture, right now, Mom. We’re going to need a defense against it.
If you place a sensor against it, perhaps the CIC can devise a countermeasure.
Right. A sensor. The ship listed to the right. Ponytails of wires broke loose from a severed conduit and unspooled into individual cables.
It will have to be a wireless one, given the damage.
Elvis trotted to the gash. He snuffled the opening before licking it. His nose crinkled then he spat onto the floor. “Nasty stuff.”
O-kay. Nell stepped down into the curved belly of the engine room and crossed to the door. “And where would I find a wireless sensor again?”
I would recommend you use a spare arm. The CIC can maneuver it around to take more readings.
Nell shivered. The meat market it was. She opened the engine room door and mounted the short flight of stairs to the cargo bay. Hot wind bussed her cheeks and tossed grit into her eyes. She tugged the neckline of her shirt over her nose and mouth.
I think the emergency packs should contain everything you need for the journey to the embassy, dear. But I can make a list of recommended items if you’d like.
That’s okay. Knowing Mom, it would probably include a change of underwear. Nell had already packed a pair, not that her Syn-En uniform needed it. The outfit was a long way from the astronaut diapers of the twentieth century. She just hoped she didn’t have to find out how her body’s wastes were repackaged.
Reaching the top of the stairs, she blinked in the bright light. Orange dust coated the two padded benches running the length of the cargo hold and more twirled inside through the open bay doors. Opening the elongated cabinet over the right bench, she bypassed a feminine arm hanging on a metal peg and selected one of the thicker male ones.
The skin was cold and rubbery to the touch.
Nell shuddered. Gross, gross, gross.
“I can attach that while you assemble our packs.” Elvis held his fur-covered hands out for the limb.
“Gladly.” Nell dropped the arm then scrubbed the feel of it from her palms.
Holding it against his chest, Elvis trotted from the room.
I would recommend you wear the modified boots. The sand seems quite loose. At Mom’s suggestion, the overhead bin holding the boots flashed a green light.
Blinking, Nell lifted the seat off the bench and freed Elvis’s helmet then set hers on her head. When she lowered the visor, gray tinged the world. She dropped the cushion and the bench compartment sealed with a thunk. Rising on her toes, she opened the overhead compartment and pulled out the survival packs.
A map overlaid her vision and a compass rose materialized in the upper right hand corner of her visor. The landmarks are no longer visible, so I will guide you to the embassy this way.
Thanks, Mom. But do you know if the embassy is still there?
Satellite imagining indicates that two square miles of it are protected by shielding and is still standing.
That was something at least. Nell shrugged on the pack’s shoulder straps and buckled it across her chest.
“I’ve attached the arm to the wardens. Repairs are beginning on the hull.” Elvis’s muscles twitched as she secured the saddlebags on his back. He toyed with his helmet until it fit his muzzle properly. “I hope we reach the embassy before dinner. I do not relish a side of sand in my food.”
His voice whispered softly through the speakers inside her helmet.
“Me either.” Nell grabbed the first aid kit off the wall on her way to the ramp. Using its clips, she attached it to her chest, then grabbed her all terrain shoes. “Mom, once we’re clear of the ship, seal it up.”
Will do, dear.
Her footsteps faded to a rasp when she stepped onto the ramp. Rivulets snaked down sand dunes, and an orange haze clung to the soft peaks. Sheesh, the Sahara Desert had more noticeable features.
Wind molded her uniform against her frame. The temperature sensor on her visor flashed forty-nine degrees Celsius. Ooh, a balmy one-hundred twenty degrees. Thanks to her suit, she wouldn’t desiccate after twenty steps.
Sitting on the edge of the ramp, she slipped on the shoes and secured them with Velcro straps. She rose and stared across the ocean of dust. Hollywood may not have thought of her trapped on the spaceship, but they had thought of a sand world. Mom, giant worms don’t live under the sand, do they?
Elvis quickly donned his sandshoes then stepped into the sand. Waffle marks followed behind as he walked. He glanced over his furry shoulder. “Coming?”
“Yeah.” Bei needed her. Which way? Dunes to the left, dunes to the right. And a big flashing green arrow on her visor, pointing the way. Mom knew her well. Walking like she wet her pants, Nell managed to avoid tripping and stepped onto the sand. Then another step, and another.
Muscle tensed as she lifted her sand-shoes and cups of sand. Crap. Walking in thigh-high water would be easier. Puffs of dust marked her progress.
“You can shut the doors now, Mom.” Nell turned to watch. Thanks to the cloaking, it appeared as if the benches in the cargo bay floated in the air. Seconds later, nothing but barren desert surrounded her. Her breathing echoed loudly in her helmet. She could find the ship again, couldn’t she?
I am with you, dear. I won’t lose you.
Right. Mom was in her head. Mom could lead Nell back to the ship. Provided the link didn’t break.
“At least, we know the shielding works.” Elvis circled Nell.
“Cloaking.” The showoff couldn’t even get the terminology right. Turning to the side, she tracked up a dune. “You should walk at a moderate pace to conserve your strength.”
Elvis raced up the hill and waited. His wagging tail stirred up almost as much sand as the wind. “I am excited. This is my first time on an alien world. Don’t you remember your first touchdown on a foreign world?”
“Yeah.” Her freewill had been highjacked by Mom, then soon after she’d been held hostage and sentenced to death, then there’d been the near war she’d started between two species. Good times. Her vision swam. But at least, she’d had Bei by her side.
Bei had better be alright.
Squaring her shoulders, she reached the apex of the hill. An ocean of sand dunes surrounded her. “Are you sure the embassy’s around here?”
Just follow the arrow, dear. You can’t miss it.
Mom sounded a little too happy about it. Nell hoped that didn’t mean psycho Mom had returned. Psycho Mom had been happy and helpful, too.
Trust me, dear.
Yeah, that would work. Still, what choice did she have really? Besides, the Syn-En computer was in charge, not the Skaperian. Nell set one foot in front of the other and slid down the hill.
Elvis loped at her side. “I wonder if there are other Amarooks alive. I had relations that served in the embassy.”
Images of pink and gray mottled wolf-faces filled Nell’s head. “The Amarooks would have survived with the Skaperian. You have a symbiotic relationship, right?”
“We did.” Beneath the orange dusting, he glowed red. “Until they betrayed us, experimented on us.”
“These folks weren’t part of that power play.” Nell ran her hand down his back. Grit infused his soft fur. “So don’t rip anyone’s throat out to payback the wrong.”
Elvis’s eyes crinkled behind his clear visor. “I—”
He yelped and his front paws disappeared in a wave of sand. His arm splayed out to his side as if to catch himself, but they too were swallowed.
Fear and panic swelled inside her head. Elvis’s emotions rippled through her, kicking her heart rate up, drying her mouth and warming her body with a spurt of adrenalin.
His face disappeared.
“Quicksand!” Nell lunged forward. Her hand closed around his furry hind leg, just as the ground gave out underneath her.
Quicksand? Mom’s voice rose a notch. I have no reports of any such thing. In fact—
Obviously, no one had told the quicksand that. Mom’s voice fritzed out. Sand closed over Nell’s head and swallowed her.