by Nola Stam
part 1 of 2
Kaelyn screamed curses into the raft’s microphone even though she knew the intended recipient could not hear her. Her tirade was cut off mid-word by another wave of nauseating dizziness. She tightened her grip on the arms of the chair she was strapped to and tried again to counter the effects of the spiral her shuttlecraft was locked into. Retching at zero gravity was not a pleasant thought.
This time she calmed down enough to settle her stomach and think rationally. Waking up with a hangover was bad enough. Waking up in the smallest piece of space junk ever made, not in her luxurious cabin, was worse. But waking up to a death sentence issued by her former First Mate and lover had to be the worst.
The sentence had been issued, communications severed, and Kaelyn Cull, the femme fatale of the High Stars had been sent spinning full throttle toward a very barren planet.
“If I can get free,” she hissed, “I might be able to stop. And then, Brosh Tark, we will see whose death sentence this is.”
She pushed against her forearm restraints and felt them slowly tighten. Spring clamps. Made of an elastic bio-metal, the more you fight, the tighter they become. Her own invention — theft, really — but no one would know the difference since the rightful inventor died in a “tragic accident” while rock climbing.
She smiled as she thought of that, her first perfect set-up. No one understood the crazy old man’s genius. No one but his sweet, doting niece and heir.
Oh no, Uncle, don’t go climbing today, I have such a premonition. At least that’s what the brainless authorities of our “quaint little village” believed I said. Well, trying to slide out is useless, but maybe I can dig my way out. Brosh, you fool, you should have never left my hands free.
Slowly, carefully, she sent her fingers into spasms. Using her claws would cause the clamps to tighten, but not by much if she was careful and slow. The claws were her genius. With an implanted adaptation of the same bio-metal, she could grow and absorb at will up to 15 lovely centimeters of flesh-slicing ability.
She bent her head, shut her eyes and concentrated upon her hands. Rhythmically, she dug out the chair padding under her arms. All she needed was a little space to slide her arms backwards and out of the clamps.
With the last wad removed, she opened her eyes and threw up her head in triumph. “Yes,” she shouted and then stopped in surprise. Filling the front screen was a lush green forest, into which she was slowly floating.
“Where did that come from?” she whispered. “It wasn’t there before. Nothing but rock was there. I’ve stopped spinning, and” — she spit in front of her for a test — “I have gravity.”
She slid her arms out of her bonds and set about freeing the rest of herself. That done, she took a good look at the control console. Navigational controls were off line, braking thrusters were non-existent, and the engine had died. She tried to bring the engine back up. Nothing. And again. Nothing. Then, with a loud burst of a laugh, she started punching buttons at random.
“I’m not supposed to be stopping,” she sang to the rhythm of her punches. “I am supposed to be crashing, but something set me stopping and I’m going to find out what.” With a flourish she banged both fists down and stared again at the screen.
The raft had come to a soft landing in a small and colorful meadow. Sensors, actually working, showed a livable environment: clean air and water, sunny and warm. Dotting the meadow were berry bushes of several kinds. Around that was a forest of fruit and nut trees; some were Earth varieties, some weren’t.
“So where’s the White Rabbit?” Kaelyn mumbled as she studied the sensor data. “Where are any rabbits, or any beasties? This crap shows no animals. There aren’t even any itty bitty flies, but there is fruit. Curiouser and curiouser.
“Well, at least I’ll stay alive until I can fix this floating disaster. So there, Brosh, there isn’t a ship that I can’t duct-tape and baling-wire back into service. Especially with the stuff I have stashed in this thing. “
Smiling smugly, she thought about the tools and supplies she had locked away. On her last holiday, she stole the raft from a wrecking yard to rebuild it. It was a smugglers’ vessel with hidden compartments, an oversized engine, life-support capacity, gun mounts for an impressive arsenal, and the strongest shielding system made. At least that’s what the system’s handbook claimed. Judging by the sizeable hole in the tail section and the burnt hull, Kaelyn figured the handbook lied.
By the time her ship had come to pick her up, she had stolen — why pay retail? — and hidden parts for an engine upgrade, body repair, and a “pierce-proof” shield of her own design. She had then changed those compartment latches to respond only to her DNA. Between then and now she was only able to patch the hole. All she had to do was turn around, get the supplies, and be halfway to home free.
She turned and again screamed curses. Except for the console, herself and her chair, the raft was empty. She walked to the middle of the dark hull and turned slowly around.
“I admire you, Brosh Tark. I’d still like to send your maggot-ridden carcass to the Midibrean Dung Worms, but I admire you.”
She took a deep breath and realized that the air was beginning to feel stuffy. The console light was dimming as well. Hurrying, she returned to the console and found the door controls. The door opened upward, but there was only power enough left to raise it for a rug of light to cover the floor and a breeze to slowly creep in.
Kaelyn felt on the side of the door for the manual latch and slumped to the floor when she remembered it was a molten mess, a product of whatever had burnt the hull. A sweet floral fragrance floated into her brain and induced the one thing she truly dreaded: claustrophobia.
I’m trapped like the Devon Razorbacks I used to smuggle. They hated confinement so much if they weren’t sedated they would kill themselves by bashing into the door. Hey, maybe I can unbolt the chair and use it as a ram.
“Unbolt with what, you dolt?” she said aloud and punched the door. “Aaagh! Maybe I could just bite the bolts off. I’d only break my jaw. I’m going to starve anyway.”
The rumble was felt before heard. Vibrations were so strong that she bounced from door to chair and back as the raft rocked. Then the shaking stopped and the door slowly opened. The steel-nerved scourge of solar systems bolted into the sun, sank on the grass and cried with relief.
A scraping sound behind her brought her to her feet. Several massive vines were unhooking themselves from the ship’s door and sliding back across its top.
“What in the stars? Vines? Opening doors? No, no, no. There’s someone behind this.”
Cautiously, she walked around the ship and saw nothing but grass and small bushes. The ship had landed on a large, flat rock set near the edge of the meadow. Everything looked well tended. Clumps of flowers of varying types and colors uniformly dotted the short, deep green grass. The berry bushes grew in groups of three and were spaced evenly throughout the area.
Where did the vines go? There was no trace of any vines big or small. She decided she would have plenty of time to find out since she was stuck on this mystery planet. A more important use of her time was to secure food, shelter and water. Food was plentiful; the ship would work for a shelter until she could build something else, so she began her search for water.
As she walked across the meadow, she became more and more curious about the place. In her line of work, missing the slightest sensation could mean death. She had heightened her awareness so well that she could sense minute air-temperature changes and the tiniest motions in objects that could mean a living being close by. She prided herself on being able to know if there were other beings around that she could not hear, see or smell.
What fascinated her about this place was not the presence of living beings, but the absence of them. The only sounds were the swishing of grass against her ankles and her soft breathing, no birdsong, no squirrel chatter, no insect buzz. The air was uniformly warm and still. She couldn’t see or sense any movement in the meadow or forest that looked like animal life, nor any other signs such as broken or chewed plants or droppings. The only smell was of fruit and flowers.
However, the thing that intrigued her most was the feeling of being watched. It was a vague feeling, like the nagging thought that you’ve forgotten something but can’t place what, but it was certainly there.
The other thing there was the raft. Brosh would be back for it. The metal could be sold for salvage or used for ship’s repairs. He’d be back, she decided, even if it was to take a brag picture of her corpse. Whether someone was truly watching her or not, when Brosh returned, she’d be ready.
Over the next few days, while she waited for his return, Kaelyn made herself at home. On the south side of the meadow, the forest grew up a hill with a rocky top. There she found flint and other stones suitable for making simple tools. The first thing she made was a sharply pointed calendar stick, to notch off the days so Brosh would know how long he had failed before she ran him through.
Then, using supplies from forest and ship she made a small hut containing a bed, table and chair. The crowning touch was a latrine dug a few yards away. To keep herself busy, fed and clothed once her present attire wore out, she came up with kitchen implements, sewing tools, and grass and leaf clothes. She also hunted for animals. She found only the growing sense that something was still watching her.
By the end of the first two weeks, she had found the extent of the forest. It went from the south end hilltop to one day’s journey north. The width was one half day’s journey east to west. It was surrounded by the rocky wasteland her sensors first recorded.
“I am on an island,” she said when she had circumnavigated the trees, “an island in an ocean of rock. No, it’s the Deadly Desert and I am in the Land of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West has enchanted all the inhabitants. They are invisible and I have to find the Wizard to break the spell. Aagh! By the eternities,” she yelled, “I’m stark raving mad. I’m the only living creature I have seen or heard for two weeks, and I’ve gone crazy as a loon.”
She sat on a large rock, looked around her and addressed the soft breeze that had started to ruffle her hair. “And then there’s you. You, where are you, who are you? I can feel you. The longer I am here, the more I can feel you. What kind of warped alien being are you? You save my life just to watch me slowly die of insane loneliness. I admit it” — she slumped down off the rock and leaned back against it — “I, who have purposefully shut everyone out of my life, am lonely.”
She closed her eyes and tilted her head west letting the last heat from the setting sun sink into her face. Without moving, she continued to address her unseen companion. “You didn’t even make a mosquito. Not even one stinkin’ good-for-nuthin’ mosquito. I hate mosquitoes, but right now seeing even one of those eternally wretched bloodsuckers would be nice. You don’t care. I don’t even know if you are real. I wish my raft had crashed. Maybe it did and this is Hell.”
Kaelyn sat as still as the rock she leaned against for a long time. When she opened her eyes, the sun was sitting on the horizon and the breeze had turned cool. She heard a noise near her right ear and thought, I’d better get to my shelter. Sleeping in the cold air for the last two nights has given me a ringing in my ear. Wait a minute, that’s not ringing, that’s...
“Ow! My hand,” she raised it in front of her face. Even in the orange glow of sunset she could see six slender legs, delicate wings and a long mouthpart piercing her skin.
“That’s a mosquito,” she whispered in shock. The insect flew up, hovered in front of her nose and darted off into the trees.
“Wait,” she yelled, and took off after it. Her foot snagged a tree root as she entered the forest and she went down. Laughing hysterically, she raised herself to hands and knees. “I’m following a hallucination.” she stated. “There are no mosquitoes here. And that is not a very large beetle crawling over my hand. And that is not a squirrel. Hey, you that just went up that tree, are you a squirrel?”
“Hooooo?” The question flew overhead and landed in another tree. She stood and listened in stunned silence. The owl queried once again and was answered by angry chattering. She continued on trying to absorb a multitude of new sounds, more chattering, nightbird calls, another owl, small rapid footfalls in the underbrush, and then hoofbeats behind her.
She started as a dark shape ran past her through the trees to her left. Then it stopped and just for a second two spots glowed in the moonlight. A sensation colder than the night air engulfed her. The shape bounded down to the meadow and she nearly tripped again, running after it.
When she reached her hut, she had warmed but felt as numb as if she hadn’t. Walking lazily toward the other side of the meadow was a family of deer, a buck, a doe and twin fawns. Just before he disappeared into the trees after the others, the buck turned and stared at her. Again the moonlight lit his eyes. This time she felt warmth and acceptance, as if the buck was extending friendship.
“I am hallucinating,” she murmured. “I will go to sleep and when I wake up I will be hurtling to a rocky death. This whole thing is one big hallucination. Induced by the drug Brosh used to knock me out, no doubt.” Laughing softly, she went to bed.
Copyright © 2011 by Nola Stam