"Again," said the marine. His name, he had told her, was Lieutenant Banks. At his command she pulled the gun from its holster and cocked it, her left hand rising to support the weapon. "Good. Now you."
The boy beside her mimicked her movement, aiming at the boulder two dozen paces away in the sand. The other marines watched on around them while Colonel West gave instructions to the other people... the civilians, her father would have called them. He was advising the ones who were capable of moving to get into the shade of the escape pod. When he saw her watching him he made his way over, gesturing at the pod.
"Do you see a problem with that?" he asked.
"It's on its side," she replied promptly.
"Yes, but that's not a problem. We can extract the colony pod without too much difficulty. Take a look at what you see."
She looked more closely. The pod was banked in a sand dune. It had burn damage along its side. Debris was littered around it. Her mother and the other doctors were working in its shade, whilst survivors gathered around it.
"It's still morning," said the boy suddenly. "After midday there won't be any shade, because of the suns."
"That's right," said West. Alexandra felt her cheeks heat; she should have seen it herself. It was such an obvious thing, but she had been too focused on the smaller things. The ability to notice little things was something she had picked up from watching and listening to her mother work.
"Sir, what are we supposed to do now?" Banks asked.
"Now we survive, Lieutenant. I want you to continue with the salvage work. I don't know when the Provost wants us to leave, but I suspect it will be as soon as the injured can move, and probably by night. Show our new recruits what needs doing and keep an eye on them while they do it."
Banks led them to the escape pod where one of the hatches had been forced and wedged open. He dodged around scientists who sounded as if they were speaking a foreign language, though Alex knew they were simply using scientific technical jargon that was far beyond her own understanding. As she moved deeper into the pod, following Banks, she was plunged into darkness. She understood that some sort of pulse had knocked out the power in the escape pod, so the internal lighting system was not functional. Thankfully, Banks pulled out a torch, its solar battery replenished by several hours of exposure to the twin suns.
By the light of the torch she could make out shapes, cold and angular, but did not recognise any of the equipment. The beam of light only illuminated a small area, not enough for her to distinguish her surroundings by. Banks stopped beside a wall and pulled part of the panelling aside. Hidden behind it was a lever or handle, which he pulled. There was a groaning sound somewhere above, like an invisible monster growling in warning.
"What was that?" she asked.
"Hatch," he said, pointing the torch up. A door was outlined high above; a door that had not been there previously. "I'll give you both a leg up."
"What are we supposed to do up there?" the boy asked.
"We need to gut this place before we leave. Strip the cabling from the walls." He handed the boy a switch-knife. "One of you cut, the other pull. Coil it up and toss it down, then we'll take it outside and pile it up so the scientists can decide what we're taking. Then we'll move on to the next wall section."
"Do we really need to take wires and cables with us?" asked Alex.
"You're damn right. The industrial robots can make some, but they need raw components. Until we have some, anything and everything can be of use to us. Survival tip number one; use everything at your disposal. Nothing is to be wasted. Now, give me your foot, I'll push you up."
The lieutenant made a cradle with his hands, his fingers interlocking, and she stepped into it, steadying herself on his shoulders. He straightened his legs and his back and she found herself rising until she could reach the hatch. With all of her strength she pulled it open wide enough to squeeze through, then reached inside the shaft, hoisting herself up as Banks pushed her from below. Once she was safely inside the dark tunnel she turned around and pulled the hatch open further as the marine lifted the boy up too. She gripped his arm and pulled him in beside her.
"Here, take this too," said Banks, throwing up the torch. She caught it and hugged it to her chest, afraid she might drop it and break it, plunging them into darkness. "The cabling should run overhead. One of you cut the ties and the trunking -- but watch you don't cut through the wire casing -- and the other reel the cabling into a loop."
"Do you want to cut?" Alex asked the boy.
"Sure," he shrugged.
"Start at the far end of the shaft," said Banks. "Work your way towards me. When you're done with the cabling above you'll need to lift some of the floor panelling out and take the cables from there too. Be careful, though... they'll have coolant sealed inside them. Don't cut into them. And mind your heads... I swear, midgets built the Unity."
Alex quickly realised what he meant. As she crawled along the shaft, following the boy, she began to feel mild claustrophobia. She only had to bend her elbows to feel the walls on either side of her, and she couldn't fully lift her head without banging it on the ceiling above. How adults had managed to fit inside these shafts she did not know.
When they came to a bulkhead which separated one section of tunnelling from the next, they stopped, and began taking out the panels of the ceiling. Sure enough, removing them uncovered cabling that was held firmly up with plastic ties. As the boy began cutting through the ties, and the cables and wires began to fall, Alex picked them up and began coiling them around her arm. When she was eight her father had shown her how to throw a life-rope to somebody who was drowning. He had shown her how to coil it around her arm before throwing it, to make sure it did not tangle or fall short, and she used the same methods on the cables. When she had a small pile she pushed them along the shaft to the hatch, dropping them down to Banks. Then she returned to the far end of the shaft, back to the comforting torchlight.
"What's your name?" she asked the boy as they worked.
"Scott. Scott Ford. What's yours?"
"Alex is a boy's name."
"It's short for Alexandria," she said.
"That's a weird name."
"It's a city in Egypt. It's where my parents got married."
At the mention of her parents the boy's face turned sad, and she felt like kicking herself. Of course, his parents had been dead only a few hours. How could she be so insensitive?"
"Are you from America?" she asked to change the subject.
"Yeah. From Tennessee."
"I'm from England, I've never been to America before. What's it like?"
"Big and dangerous. And lots of fields. Your mom's Doctor Mason, isn't she?"
"Yes. My dad's Colonel Mason... he died when the Unity exploded," she said, holding back the tears that threatened to spill.
"You're lucky you have such important parents. We only got on the Unity 'cos we were rich."
"Your parents bought their tickets?"
"They weren't my parents."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I thought I heard you call the... the lady who died... your mum."
"Well, they weren't my real parents," he elaborated. "My real parents died when I was young. I was adopted when I was six because their own son died and they wanted someone to replace him."
"Do you think we're ready to start on the floor now?"
"Yes, I think so. I'll just take this cabling to Lieutenant Banks, then I'll help you take the floor up."
o - o - o - o - o
-- Begin recording --
"This is the personal record of Provost Zakharov, Academician and Chief Science Officer of the Unity.
The death count has just risen to twenty five. One of the people in serious condition died only hours ago, despite Dr Mason's best efforts to save her. Dr Federov remains unconscious and unresponsive. Dr Mason informs me that his condition is 'serious but stable'. It is a small blessing to be counted.
The day proved to be as harsh as I had expected, with temperatures reaching above fifty degrees celsius. I have estimated that the daily cycle of Chiron lasts for thirty six hours, as opposed to the twenty four of earth. As such, I shall, from the morning, began time-stamping my recordings accordingly. As I record this entry, night is almost upon us. After almost eight hours of blistering heat, the air is finally beginning to cool. I fear that this place is typical of Earth deserts, and that the temperature will plummet to near or below freezing at night.
Naturally, everybody is struggling to cope with these extremes, as well as the stress that accompanies a tragedy of this magnitude. I myself am almost overwhelmed by it at times. When the temperatures were at their highest, and the suns were directly overhead, we had no shade. Temperary structures, rough lean-tos, were erected utilising the clothes of the dead, and these did provide some measure of shelters from the suns. Dr Mason fears that people will begin suffering from sunstroke, heatstroke and sunburn if more permanent shelter cannot be found soon.
The marines have been tearing out of the escape pod anything that they think may be of use, and the scientists are sorting through the materials, deciding what is most important to bring along. We have managed to fully repair the Scout Rover, and two of the marines have taken it to explore our immediate surroundings. It is my hope that they will find caves, carved by wind and sand, in which we can seek shelter. At the very least I would settle for a source of water. In this heat we cannot last for long without water.
Professors Rutworth and Korolev have been working on restoring the pod's memory, but I fear their task is futile. Too much damage was done by the EMP when the Unity's core exploded. Though the colony pod computer has some functionality, most of its long-term memory has been wiped. Whilst I grieve for the loss of so much valuable knowledge, I wonder if perhaps this is a chance for us to start anew. Many wonderful ideas and discoveries were recorded in the banks of the memory... but so were mankind's greatest failings. Perhaps, in a hundred years, nobody will recall that there had ever been a holocaust on earth. Perhaps the effects of radiation poisoning will no longer be known, and nobody will have the desire, or knowledge, to create weapons of mass destruction.
Can we turn this tragedy into an opportunity? Can we build a new society and base it off our morals and ideals, rather than off the flaws which led our fore-fathers to unleash hell on Earth? Perhaps it is something worth considering further, once our immediate task of simply surviving is complete."
--End recording --
o - o - o - o - o
Working inside the escape pod was tiring. By the time Alex crawled out of the last hatch and was helped to the floor by Banks, she was hot, sweaty, hungry and exhausted. The torch battery had died almost an hour ago, and they had continued working by touch alone.
"Good work, you two," said Banks, helping Scott out of the shaft. "Let's get some food and drink in you."
She nodded wearily and trudged after him. The scientists were still working, still chattering their strange words at each other, but she was too tired to care. And when he reached the pod's open hatch, and a blast of hot air hit her face, she cared even less. All she wanted to do was lie down and sleep.
"Are you regretting volunteering now?" Banks asked.
"No," she said, hiding a yawn behind her hand. "It's better than sitting around doing nothing, watching other people do all the work."
"What about you, Ford? You regretting it?"
"No. When do we get to practise shooting for real?" Scott asked.
"You don't. We don't have enough rounds to waste on target practise."
"Then why don't you give us laser pistols like yours?" asked Alex, pointing to his side-arm.
"'Cos the Provost said 'one round only' and you can't get single round cells for lasers. Besides, they're too complicated. Too many settings. Guns are easier... point and shoot. You won't have time to be messing around with settings, if you need to use it."
One of the marines brought the three of them a cup of water each, and handed out foil-wrapped rations. Alex gulped her water down then broke open the foil, biting hungrily into the bar of food. She knew what was inside it; cereals, dried fruit, seeds and dried meat, held together by a fat-rich substance. It was designed to provide all of the nutrients, oils, vitamins and fats that a person needed in day, all condensed down into a single bar. It didn't taste very nice, but her body craved the energy, so she ate it as fast as possible, trying not to think about what it tasted like.
"Alex." Looking around, she saw her mother gesturing for her.
"I think my mum wants me," she said to Banks.
"Better not keep the doctor waiting," he said. She gave him a salute, as she had seen men do to her father, and hurried to her mother's side. She was laying clothes out on the floor... making an impromptu bed, Alex realised.
"How was your day, honey?" her mother asked.
"It was fine," she shrugged, sitting cross-legged on the warm sand. "Lieutenant Banks said I'm a good worker."
"I see. Well, how would you like to help me tomorrow? I could use an extra pair of hands in treating some of my patients."
"I don't know... I'll have to ask Colonel West. He might want me and Scott to do more work in small places where the marines can't go."
"He's the boy whose parents died. They were rich Americans. He said his name's Scott Ford."
"Yes, his father owned the company that designs engines for industrial robots and terraformers. He was one of the richest men in the world."
"Mummy, Scott said his parents bought their tickets, but I thought only important people were allowed to come with us on the Unity, like scientists and doctors and soldiers."
"Well... at first, that's how it was supposed to be," said her mother hesitantly. "But the leaders of the expedition couldn't agree on how to decide who to bring. In the end they decided that a third of the colonists should be experts in their fields, a third should be allowed to buy places, and a third would be picked from a lottery."
"What's a lottery?"
"It means that names are put into a pot and picked out at random. Only, this lottery was done electronically, picked by computers."
"But that means just anybody could be travelling with us!" she said, alarmed. "Like... thieves and killers and stuff!"
"No, the people entered into the lottery were only people who had a clean criminal record. That was one of the points that the group leaders could agree on."
"So... some of the people here can't actually do anything except make money?"
"That's a very simplistic way of looking at it, Alex. Every person here, every life, is precious. Nobody can decide who is more important than others."
"Not even Provost Zakharov?"
"That's... different," her mother sighed.
"Provost Zakharov is our leader. And he's a very intelligent man."
"So it's okay for the leader to decide who's more important."
"Come and lie down, Alex," said her mother, brushing off her question. "It's going to get very cold tonight, and I want to make sure you're warm enough."
"Can't I sleep with the marines?"
"Because your father is dead and you're all I have left."
She relented, feeling guilty for upsetting her mother. She was right, of course. Now that her father was gone, it was just the two of them. But what about Scott? Both of his parents had died, and now he had nobody. She looked for him as she lay down on the bed of clothes that her mother had made, but she couldn't see him anywhere. Must be with the marines, she thought, closing her eyes as her mother cuddled up to her.
This was a horrible planet. It was always too hot or too cold. Her lips were dry, her mouth was dry, and she had sand in her shoes. She hoped that they wouldn't be staying here very long.
NB: At the beginning of the recordings done by Provost Zakharov, there is supposed to be a timestamp. It seems fanfiction dot net doesn't like the timestamp, so it just takes it out completely. Apologies for any confusion this brings.