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Onaris's Tale: Makarla

This story takes place during the Great Northern Expedition in late 6769CE.

Ship’s Second Engineer Onaris Aukhan led his equipment cases down the curved corridor.  They followed obediently as he squeezed past the narrow bulkhead marking the lander cargo lock, sidestepping stacks of battered standard shipping containers.  Kurt Blitz was already in the lander’s cramped hold, wedged between rows of lozenge-shaped canisters, checking the cargo webbing and using his feet to cram one last case firmly in place.  The tall white-haired man, gangly in his stained shipsuit, eyed the newcomer suspiciously.

“I hope you only have that one case,” he said.

“Two,” Onaris answered.  “Nice to see you again, Kurt.  I guess you pulled pilot duty for this particular outing.”

The taller man ducked out of the hatch, eyed the two cases floating patiently behind Onaris with suspicion, and offered, “Well if your tool case can ride up front with us, I think I can squeeze the generator case in here.”  Then he smiled, “And yes, looks like half the crew from the Vodaran incident pulled duty on Makarla – not like the Fleet Captain is punishing us or anything, of course.”

Onaris silently directed his two cases to change position, then eased the case carrying the generator forward towards the hold as both men guided it into its narrow place.

“Well, that explains your presence, but I don’t remember personally fouling anything up,” Onaris complained.  “The Chief Engineer even likes me.”

The case floated snuggly into the last available hold space and Kurt started strapping it down with webbing. “Yeah, I hear he thinks highly of you.  Plus he knows that you worked on a lot of old fusion drive interfaces in your last Incarnation.  Besides, I understand you’ll get preference for mike drive duty for pulling this assignment.”

“More like I won’t be on his list if I didn’t volunteer,” Onaris replied.  He sighed.  “I haven’t been off the ship in over a year.  Not since that incident with the nuclear war – wasn’t I dirtside with you for that, come to think of it?”

“Trouble finds me,” Kurt replied.  He tugged on generator case to check his work.  “There – seems secure.  Let’s get up to the cockpit and run the preflight.”

The lander was a standard reconfigurable model, fitting snuggly in a six meter diameter ship bay.  The blunt-nosed forward compartment had two control stations and four permanent passenger seats, plus two more seats extruded along the rear bulkhead.  After securing the cargo hatch, Onaris and Kurt led the tool case up one ship deck to the cockpit hatch and commanded the rear chairs to meld back into the lander’s flooring.

“Got enough in there?” Kurt asked as the canister settled against the bulkhead.

Onaris rubbed his bald tattooed head, running his palms from the soulbox on his spine to his dark brows.  “Well, it’s not like we have all the specs for an eighty year-old Khalifate fighter handy.  I’ve got enough power and data couplers and diagnostic equipment to cover what I can reasonably expect to find.  But I’d rather have hauled the whole thing up here for analysis.”

Kurt grinned, “You haven’t seen the forests down there.  And besides, we don’t know if it still has working munitions.  Speaking of – do you have a full survival kit in that case?”

“Yes.  As ordered.  But I still don’t see why I can’t take a kit from the lander.”

“Strap yourself in,” Kurt said, starting the shuttle prelaunch sequence.  “You can’t take a kit from the lander because you won’t be with the lander.  I’ll probably have to make one more trip back and forth before you’re done, and boat kits stay with the boat.  It’s regulation.  Seventeen hundred years of codified rules, most of them crap, but this one I can agree with.  It’s too easy to screw up the inventory and end up short of kits when you actually need one.  Ready?”

Onaris sighed.  “Yes, I suppose.  I wish it was easier to pull out the data core, so I wouldn’t have to do this in situ.”

“That’s Khalifate regulations – even more stringent.  Once you pop the core, if it doesn’t melt down, it goes into full paranoid encryption mode.  Still attached, it’s more tolerant.  Partial paranoia only; trusted root and all that.”

“I know.  But I’d rather not spend anymore time dirtside than I need to.”

Kurt nodded, “It’s actually a pretty cool place, for a dead colony world.  I’m sure you’ll like it. OK, the hatch is open and we’re cleared for space.  Let’s get moving.”

The lander fell silently away from its berth on the starship Fortune Favors the Rich, a fifty meter sphere in orbit five hundred kilometers above Makarla.  After a few seconds of weightlessness the internal gravity kicked in and the reactionless acceleration toward the blue-green-white globe below was completely unnoticeable.  Kurt sat back, monitoring the few visual displays and watching the curved horizon stabilize and begin to grow.

“Did you check the needler in your kit?” Kurt asked, after a minute of silence.

“It didn’t report a problem,” Onaris answered.  “I thought the bio summary said there weren’t any dangerous lifeforms down there.”

“Not that we’ve found.  Just some piss-ant ankle-biting tree nymphs; they pretty much scurry away, but you can’t be too careful on a wild world.”

“You know, it’s been twenty years since I even fired a gun,” Onaris admitted.  “Not since orientation training went I first joined the Guild.”

“That’s OK,” Kurt replied, grinning. “It’s been about twenty years since I actually piloted a lander.  It was part of my Security Journeyman qualification exam.  I mean, doing this: telling it where to go, isn’t really piloting it.  But I’ve still got the landing boat cert in my vitae.”

Onaris laughed, not nervously, he hoped. “Well it’s not like you could fly this thing manually in hypersonic flight,” he conceded.  “Even subsonic, it’s all hydraulics, electronics and control logic.”

“Right, and this tub’s a pretty poor lifting body if the pseudograv kicks it.  But here I sit.  Guild regs say a lander needs certified pilot aboard.  Never mind that in the one in a million chance that we’re having a really bad day, there’s probably a little less than a one in twenty chance that I could do anything other than yank futily at these anarchistic controls and scream myself straight into the ground.”

“Thanks.  Not feeling any better about this trip,” Onaris griped.  The horizon seemed less curved now, and the first tinges of plasma began to flicker past the wrap-around view screen.

They reentered over the night side, engulfed in an orange flicker of flame, rapidly dissipating orbital energy.  When they crossed the terminator into day, they were still fifty thousand meters up and traveling at half orbital velocity.  Clouds, low mountains, then water and more clouds along a ragged shore greeted them as they curved northward, finally settling into a supersonic cruise some ten kilometers above the surface.

The failed Markala colony site sat on a broad squarish plateau, a sixty kilometer-wide flat region of mixed brush, forests and small lakes surrounded on three sides by dense temperate forest of pinkish local treeforms and on the fourth side by low eroded mountains.  Kurt commanded the shuttle to circle the plateau, spiraling down towards the cleared landing zone at the outskirts of the colony’s overgrown ruins.

The base camp was a series of insta-tents and a pile of empty canister cases scattered across a clearing of gray-blue sponge-like underbrush.  The lander hovered, settling gently on the ground just a few meters away from the nearest tent and three people came out to wave at them before the pseudo gravity was even shut off.

The hatch morphed open and Onaris inhaled the smell of dirtside.  A warm moldy odor, a faint whiff of decay and sweat, nearly overwhelmed him, his senses so used to the conditioned recycled air of the artificial habitats where he’d lived and worked his entire life.  He hated nature.  So primitive, unpredictable, unregulated.  Dirty.

The team leader, Aki Yorski, short, bronze-skinned with dark hair slicked back, greeted them at the hatch.  “Hey Onaris, welcome to the edge of the old Empire, five hundred ninety-nine and a half light-years North-Core from Sol.  Glad you’re here.  Just let us get our supplies off and Kurt can pop you over to the crash site.  Meanwhile, Metalli and I can give you the quick tour of this fabulous graveyard.”

Onaris didn’t blink in the bright light; his artificial eyes compensated much faster than a natural iris would.  Stepping through the hatch, a world of pinks, blues and grays greeted him.  Very little remained of the two thousand year dead colony.  A broken, overgrown stone wall, some jagged metallic protrusions and a huge lumpy mound, covered in pink and blue foliage, were the only obvious signs.  A series of drone-dug trenches scarred the mound, signs of this expedition’s excavations.

Yusagraen Metalli, the anthropologist, was a Metamorph, a Human genetic variant that could control its anatomy, adapt to varying environments, flexible in form and even gender.  Currently androgynous, a “one” not a “he” or “she”, the pale waif waved from a tent and hurried towards them.  Working up on the hill were three more Guild scientists – two biologists and an anthropologist, nobody Onaris had ever formally met.  He noted their name and title tags on his internal guide, scrolling the names across the bottom of his visual field and committing them to his natural memory for politeness sake.  He stepped onto the soft ground, then jerked involuntarily as something large round and spiky glided past the edge of his visual field, just a meter away.

“Just a macrospore,” Aki dismissed. “Harmless.”

Onaris didn’t look convinced.  “Kurt assures me all the local critters are harmless.”

“So far,” Aki stated.

“To us,” Metalli clarified, meeting them at the base of the ramp.

“Well, something killed the colony,” Onaris said, waving an arm toward the mound of ruins.

“Mostly bad timing and an over-reliance on tech,” Metalli explained.  “Makarla was colonized less than thirty years before the War of Disintegration began and it probably got its first Mech Plague infections by 4762.  Single settlement colony, maybe twenty thousand people and no local industry.  Didn’t stand much of a chance.”

As they strolled away from the lander, Aki indicated the crumbling stone wall.  “They didn’t die off all at once, though.”

“That rarely happens,” Metalli concurred, cheerful discussing the settlement’s demise.  “Well, barring physical or ecological catastrophe, colonies usually fail in steps.  Maybe a couple of thousand survived the Plague collapse, and they built up these stone-fenced fields we’re crossing.  Lasted a few decades that way before they collapsed completely.”

“From what, we don’t know,” Aki added. “I’m sure it will be in Metalli’s report.  We’ve got another week or two to figure it out.”

“Looks like they lived in the Mech-ruins.  In mud and straw hovels, reinforced with molecular plating,” Metalli explained, ones melodious voice slipping into lecture mode. “The world itself is pretty hospitable, a low Class C rating and local life that’s mostly compatible, just short a few amino acids.  Worse-off worlds have survived and even thrived.  It could have been disease, drought, discontent or despair.  And even then, with Nobilis or Eternal Variants able to live on for centuries or millennia without nanomeds, a few hardened, stubborn, crazed individuals could have held out long after the colony was effectively ‘dead’.  Even you normal Humans, properly treated in youth could last a couple of hundred years as scattered survivors.”

Onaris nodded.  Around them flying creatures with multiple wings and a few grayish macrospores rode the wind.  Pink wide-leafed trees or bushes and blue-gray spongy-like masses, pocked with deep cavities, dotted the landscape, along with scattered green stalks.  He was having trouble filtering out the odors.

“Yeah, well it’s a crappy place,” Aki admitted.  “And a crappy assignment for us all.  I just hope you can get something off the wrecked Khaly fighter.  We know they met the Hrushin on their last Great Demon Hunt.  If any log data tells us where they are, then maybe we can make contact and get a decent trade mission going and save this Expedition from financial ruin.”

“It’s in deeper woods than this, right?” Onaris asked.

“Woods is a funny word for it but, yeah,” Aki said.  “I’ll get Naida to give you a quick biology briefing.  Looks like Kurt’s getting a good start on the cargo dump.”

Naida Recorza had gotten her hands, arms and face dirty.  Her black hair was buzzed short, but still marred by the world’s sticky detritus.  The petite Guild biologist wiped her hands before offering one to Onaris.  “Pretty down here isn’t it?” she offered in greeting.

Onaris made a slightly positive sound and provided a weak grin.

She went on to recount a brief overview of Makarlan life with the all chipper enthusiasm of a scientist with a new toy.  Onaris would have preferred to file away an electric report, but he listened politely.

Imported Terran life was not entirely extinct on Makarla.  Modified bamboo and meatbunnies had carved out minor niches, at least on the plateau, but they were in no danger of overwhelming the local ecology.  The spiky tan-trunked pink-leafed treeforms that dotted the local landscape and dominated the lowlands were actually the adult stage of Makarla’s dominant macroscopic kingdom of life.  The fist-sized gourds that hung low from sticky vines on the treeforms were the embryonic homes of tree nymphs, the pinkish creatures that flew, bounded and crawled though forests and fields, fighting, eating, protecting and grooming their parents until they matured, hardened and metamorphed themselves into adult sessile organisms, drawing energy from the sun and soil.

Makarla’s second macroscopic life kingdom was typified by the gray-blue spongiforms, ranging from tiny clumps to house-sized masses.  Reproducing by airborne macrospores spit from large cavities that sometimes also housed itinerant tree nymphs, the spongiforms provided the soft ground cover and colonized the underforest and various less hospitable realms.  And beneath their feet, crawling through the spongiform and burrowing through the ground were the pinkworms, teeming trillions of tiny tubular organisms, none more than a few millimeters long.

Onaris filed it all under trivia.  Most importantly, even the more aggressive carnivorous tree nymphs rarely exceeded ten kilograms mass and unless he foolishly tried to cut down a treeform, they were unlikely to harass him.

It was local afternoon before Kurt had the cargo unpacked and the generator canister reloaded.  Onaris was glad to be back in the lander, if even for a brief respite.  Aki Yorski and Yusagraen Metalli both sent him off with the encouragement of those eager to find a reason to abandon their mission, and Onaris was only too keen to try to help.

“We’re going to keep this subsonic,” Kurt announced as they lifted off.  “It’s only about two hundred klicks away; we won’t save much time with a ballistic bounce.”

The landing site rapidly vanished in the plateau’s expanse and they soon coasted over rolling pink forests.  Towering thunderheads obscured the south-western horizon, rising tens of kilometers into the sky.

“Oh, and you might get some rain tonight,” Kurt added.  “It’s monsoon season here.”

Onaris looked up ‘monsoon’ and his guide helpfully provided both text and visuals. “Great.  Are you going to help me set up the tent and equipment, then?”

“Sorry.  Have to help at base camp.  Orders.  But we’re just a comm call away, and I can be there in half an hour if you need me.”

The lander descended onto the sandbar of a narrow meandering river.  A dense pink forest stretched in all directions.  Nearly two hundred meters away the downed Khalifate fighter, an old Fahzi 4e, was just visible though the trees.  With its active camouflage long disabled, it was an obvious shiny crimson lump of metal.

“Um, with the chance of rain, don’t set up camp on the riverside,” Kurt suggested.  They had just offloaded Onaris’s two canisters, and Kurt was already climbing back in the lander.

Something arm-length and darkly striped wiggled in the clear river water.  Onaris stepped back, well aware that he had no pertinent data on aquatic life.

“I’ll come visit tomorrow afternoon, but keep in touch,” Kurt called as the hatch morphed shut behind him and the lander’s legs vanished back into the blunt cylindrical craft.

“Yeah, thanks for the ride,” Onaris muttered, ordering his two cases to hover behind him and then he stepped into the forest beyond, carefully avoiding even the smallest rivulet of water.

The ground was fairly clear beneath the dense treeform canopy, though the spiky trunks could snag a careless wanderer.  Onaris took his time to find his footing over the carpet of lumpy spongiforms, so different from the firm smooth flooring of his native metal habitat.  Sunlight filtered dimly onto the gray-blue ground and he couldn’t help but notice the clumps, lines and swarms of pinkworms.  He felt bile rise in his throat as the tiny creatures occasionally crawled onto his booted feet.

It’s all worth it if I get a slot on a microjump ship after this whole Expedition is over, he reminded himself and moved on.

Halfway to his destination he came upon a dead mass of spongiform, swarming with pinkworm – and yellow worms, for that matter.  He marked his visual feed for permanent recall and focused on the mass, with its teaming wormpile.  A menagerie of six-limbed funnel-mouthed tree nymphs ignored his presence, feeding on the worms, reacting only in response to tiny worm bites – food fighting back.  Onaris stored the scene, wondering if it might earn him a footnote in some obscure article in an equally obscure journal.  Nearby was a metamorphing tree nymph.  Its stiffened form was losing definition as its limbs tapered into a trunk.  It stood erect towards the sky, growths of pink branches and leaves sprouting from its four eye sockets.  Onaris shuddered and moved on.

The arrowhead shaped fighter lay tilted with one wing firmly embedded in the ground.  Its canopy was gone, along with its single seat, exposing a darkened display panel suite.  The wounds of its passage through the forest were long healed, obscured by eighty years of regrowth.  A scattering of macrospores, some just a few centimeters wide, one nearly half a meter across, clung to the hull with sticky tendrils.

Onaris found a flat spot next to a chewed patch of invasive bamboo and let his kit unfold itself, setting up a small insta-tent.  Onaris activated a small disk that morphed into a three-legged stool, and sat down, sipping clean water from the kit’s water tank.  He was just getting ready to set up his generator when Kurt radioed back.

“Hey Onaris, looks like you’re definitely going to get some storms around local sunset, two and a half hours from now.  Better make sure you’ve got your shelter set up sturdy.”

“Already done,” he radioed back.  “Are you sure you can’t come get me for the night?”

“You’ll get just as wet back up here.  Besides, the sooner you get done, the sooner we can all get off this gravesite.”

“Thanks,” Onaris muttered off-line, and got back to work.

He had just finished with the generator and data terminal interfaces when wind picked up, rustling the treeform canopy.  He tied down his cables.  Hungry, he sat down inside the tent, adjusting the opaquacy to near transparent and fixed himself a miserly meal of heated rations.

Makarla had a significant orbital tilt and sunset came slowly at mid latitudes.  After eating, Onaris went back out into the fading light and crawled into the fighter canopy.  On his second try, he got the power back on to the main panel and then he brought up a system check screen, complete with Khalifate Order of Valor logo, on his virtual terminal.  The eighty year old Khalifate military codes were obsolete, but getting into the fighter’s encrypted nav data was still going to take time.  He set up the non-invasive hack and his terminal reported back a six to ten hour estimated run time. 

The tree nymphs began chattering in the wind.  The crawlers, fliers and leapers that had milled around his worksite were retreating to be replaced by the scavengers, pouncers and skittish gatherers of the evening.  Dry lightning lit the darkening sky and the treeforms rustled in the rising wind.  Onaris retreated back to his tent, letting his machines work into the night.  Soon the comm checks to the base camp and the orbiting ships faded to a crackling static.

The rain came at true darkness, fat raindrops crashing though the canopy after a sudden lull in the wind.  Onaris sat nervously in his sleeping roll, setting his tent’s opaquacy to full.  He dialed up a virtual interface – a nice atrium view from his childhood on Faztulu Drift blended and overlayed onto his visual field – and he settled back to try to sleep.

He had almost nodded off when something brushed up against the tent.  He flinched, cursed, killed the visual overlay and dialed the tent back to transparency in time to see a little tree nymph with four wide eyes peering back at him before it scurried off into the murk.

Annoyed, at himself, the situation, the rain, the whole planet, he kept the tent fabric on clear, wishing he could secrete some calming agent like that Metamorph Metalli, and then he adjusted his eyes to broad infrared, adding filters to moderate the lightning flashes.  Somewhere between the booming thunder, the whistling wind and the splattering rain, he finally managed to fall asleep.

 He woke with tent in his face.  A squirming weight pressed down on him.  Lightning flashed.  His eyes were functioning but his brain fought to wake up.

Had a tree hit him?

Adrenaline spiked. There was a large moving mass on him, pushing, slashing.  A knife?  Yes. 

Brain working now. Form, bipedal, Human? And a knife, gashing, but not penetrating the tent.   A dull thwack struck his forehead.  He tried to reach back up at his assailant, but he couldn’t push though the thick tent material.  The weight was on him, pinning him on his back, his eyes and brain finally coordinating.

A scraggly man, thin wild-eyed, dressed in some filthy shipsuit, had him pinned under the collapsed insta-tent.  The rain splattered down, lightning flickered behind, thunder a dull uncoordinated roar.  Native?  No, it had to be the fighter pilot, a disassociated part of Onaris’s brain theorized – trapped here eighty years, cursed by nanomeds to a long life of isolation, probably completely insane.

Murderously insane.  The pilot emitted a hoarse roar, dropped the knife and reached through the thick clear fabric, one hand on Onaris’s neck, the other forcing the tent over his mouth, half strangling-half suffocating his victim.

Onaris squirmed, pushed, tried to roll, but the pilot was on top of him, still pinning him to the ground.  The comm link to the base camp was still all static and pops.  Onaris’s arms were uselessly pinned by the tent, and his panic started to set in. 

He couldn’t breathe.  He could barely move.  Fatalism and annoyance crept into his struggling consciousness.  Here he was, barely seventy years old, just minutes away from the end of his second Incarnation.  It was just embarrassing to think he’d have to start his third Incarnation, his Tithe Life, before he reached a hundred.  That was enough common for soldiers and explorers, but not engineers.  It didn’t seem fair.

His struggles grew feebler.  The hoarse yell of the crazed pilot remained strong.  And faced with death, Onaris’s mind relaxed, perhaps secure that his soulbox would allow him another life, and he started thinking think like an engineer, not like a poorly trained soldier.  He linked to the generator canister, sitting on wet spongiform, just out of his visual field.  He brought up its camera view, turned on its pseudograv lift.  Five seconds to power up.  If he’d had real eyes, they’d be tunneling by now; he could feel the oxygen deprivation overcoming him.

The canister lifted, titling and straining against the power cables, sparks lost in the lightning as the power couplings to the fighter cockpit snapped off.  The pilot never turned.  The canister, three hundred kilos of mass, plowed slowly, firmly into him, knocking him off his victim, forcing a shrill screech.

Onaris gasped for air, squirming under the tent with the weight now lifted.  He twisted and wormed his way under the wet collapsed fabric, pushing toward the opening.  Almost there, he remembered the needle gun in the survival kit.  The pilot was getting up.  Onaris split-screened his vision, controlling the canister with half sight, but this time, the pilot groggily dodged the slow-moving generator canister.  The second canister was split open, equipment and supplies scattered and blocking its clamshell – no chance of powering it up.

The pilot staggered back towards him, Onaris was almost out of the tent, but halted, one hand groping for the survival kit case that held the needler.  He reached it.  The pilot wailed and pounced on his half-kneeling victim, still covered by transparent tent.  Onaris rolled and collapsed under the weight of the pilot, his face now at the open tent flap, foul natural water and soft spongiform running over his face.  Blindly, he groped at the gun case, found the safety lock and popped it open.

His fingers clawed at the gun grip nestled in formfitting foam, trying to get a hold as the pilot reached around his neck in a frenzied amateurish attempt to snap it.  The crazed man was screeching, babbling, clawing at the soulbox on the back of Onaris’s bald head, then trying to push his victim’s face into the ground.  Onaris gave up on the gun, guided the generator canister around again, but this time it just struck a glancing blow.  The pilot lost his grip for just a second but was still on top of his back.  Onaris clawed at the gun again, wiggling it out of the case, dropping it on the wet tent flooring.

Now the insane pilot was bashing fists into Onaris’s head, jarring even his artificial vision.  Onaris lunged for the gun again, grasping its stock with two fingers, blindly finding the power setting.  It booted up, linking to his comm for authorization.  A solid blow knocked Onaris onto his side, but he kept his grip on the gun.  Authorization flashed green; the gun’s site came on line, superimposing itself on his vision.

He twisted the gun, half dodged another blow from the his attacker, and fired as soon as the gun site crossed the infrared profile of its target.

A loud bang.  The gun spun from his loose grip.  The pilot fell back on his ass.  Onaris felt pain in his hand.  So much for a nice safe gyrostabilized low caliber gauss weapon, he griped, silently.  His ears roared.

The pilot moaned and got up.  Onaris had fired through the tent wall.  The bullet didn’t penetrate.  He hadn’t considered how sturdy his shelter actually was.  Well, not sturdy, obviously, but strong – resilient.  Like the pilot now getting back on his feet.

Onaris lunged for the gun again, then spun in the collapsed tenting, feeling the lunging pilot slide over him into the sponge beyond.  With a squeal, Onaris wiggled through the tent, finally extracting his head and one arm.  Gun held firmly, he fired again, and the pilot fell back, flung two meters rearward into a spiky treeform.

Onaris struggled to crawl fully out of his tent, into the downpour and driving wind.  He stood on shaking legs.  His arm was starting to shake now too, but the pilot was still moving, and moaning; his ancient filthy shipsuit was obviously at least as strong as the tent material.

Onaris called up the gun control interface.  He overrode the center-of-mass firing default, switching it to headshot mode, dismissing the warning messages.  Both arms still shaking, he faced the staggering pilot.

“DO YOU SURRENDER?” he yelled into the wind and thunder.

The pilot yelped, screeched like an animal and lunged.  Onaris fired. The pilot spun, arms flailing, and landed sidewise on the soft ground, unmoving.

Onaris approached cautiously, a shaky two-handed hold on his weapon.  No movement.  There was a small hole in the cheekbone under one eye where the three millimeter smart sliver had penetrated.  His infrared vision revealed the cooling pool of blood and brains from the massive exit wound in the back of the skull.  Just then, Onaris finally noticed the stench of the dead man, and he bent over retching with a force and sound that drowned out the storm.

He sat on his little stool, head between his still shaking legs.  Water ran over his bald geometrically tattooed head, around his black rounded soulbox and slipped in tiny rivulets under his shipsuit, warming streams flowing down his back and chest.

That detached autonomous part of his mind pitied the pilot, abandoned alone on this world for so many decades, too healthy and proud to die, voice and mind ravaged by loneliness.

Many minutes, maybe an hour, passed before his comm crackled to life and Kurt Blitz’s static-broken voice broke through, “Hey Onaris, wake up! We’ve got a change of plans.”

He blinked.  It was still dark and raining.  Hours until dawn, but the thunderstorm had subsided.  “Um, what?  I had… a problem… have to restart the decrypt.”  In the morning, he thought.

“Never mind that,” Kurt signaled back.  “We’re pulling out know.  Just leave all your stuff in case we come back.”

Onaris looked down at the gun, dropped on wet sponge.

“Leaving?  What about the nav data?”

“Irrelevant.  Hey, we’re taking off now.  Be there in half an hour.”

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN IRRELEVANT?” he shouted, almost hoarse, hands and legs shaking again.

“Oh, yeah, the Beyond All Rhyme and Reason found a Hrushin colony on its scout run, we’re head to it full speed.”

Onaris blinked again.  “Where?”

“I don’t know.  They were three jumps ahead, so – what, sixty to ninety light-years?  Just leave your stuff and head back to the riverbank.  We’ll do a touch-and-go and you’ll be back on the nice dry ship in no time.”

Onaris scanned the crumpled tent, the scattered remains of his little camp, the dead pilot sprawled just meters away, the ruined fighter, broken cables hanging from its cockpit.  He got to his feet, suddenly steady, and began to walk.  He left the gun on the ground.


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