“All hands. This is the new captain. Report in.”
Anna Polanskey wiped a hand over her left eye and then quickly released her five-point seatbelt system. When she looked down, the back of her hand glistened, smeared with blood.
Anna began to pull herself up out of her co-pilot’s seat and repeated her order. As she stooped over in the cramped cockpit, her earpiece dangled against her throat. She replaced it and repeated the order a third time, this time with instant results. The team, her team now, reported in.
“Flight engineer. We crashed.”
“No kidding, sparky,” Anna retorted.
“Flight med. Are we dead?”
“Obviously not, doc.” Anna pursed her lips and took a deep breath. Hold it together, captain.
“Flight ops. And doc, you’re not but did you hear the flight cop? The captain’s dead.”
That bit of revelation sobered any further sarcasm from the team and Anna was grateful.
Anna waited a few seconds. No further reports. There should be three more. She prayed there were three more.
“Flight specialist, report. Combat?” Nothing.
“Alright team, assess and report. Somebody check on flight specialist and flight combat one and two. As soon as…”
A loud crack reverberated through the shuttle’s hull and the deck suddenly shifted underfoot, dropping a few inches. Anna lurched and grabbed the back of the pilot seats for support. Her gut clenched. She had a bad feeling about this.
Anna turned to look out the cockpit windshield. The light was dim but the frozen landscape beyond was unmistakable. A bad feeling indeed. She didn’t know where they were but clearly the shuttle came to a halt on unstable ground and there was no time for assessment.
“Forget the assessment, team. Listen up. Gather supplies—food and water—and all the survival gear you can offload. Recon, ready the sleds and balloons. Everybody prepare to evac the shuttle. Anybody found our specialist and combat yet?” Noise from other compartments indicated her team was moving into action.
While Anna waited for that report, she turned to a peripheral console and queried it for local atmospheric conditions. Thankfully it still had power even though the A.I. appeared to be offline. The monochrome screen came to life, limited data scrolling across. Anna read down the brief list and breathed a short sigh of relief. Earth normal air only cleaner and zero degrees Celsius. Wonderful. Breathable but damn cold.
Anna touched her earpiece. “Dress up, team. It’s a lovely artic day outside.” She input a few more instructions into the computer and headed aft to help with the evac.
“Flight comm. As soon as you offload your gear, try to get a message out. An S.O.S or something and check the beacon is transmitting.” Anna past through the head and the galley and into the crew deck. She noticed panels hanging open and empty shelves. Good. Her team was efficient. She liked efficiency.
“Flight comm, roger that, cop. Sorry. Cap.” New captain Anna Polanskey didn’t bother to correct the error in rank. Earth Force Explore Team 101 (EFET101) was the oldest and most successful human explorations teams in the Earth Force. They were a close-nit family and their captain would be sorely missed. Anna hated to leave Captain Grands strapped to the pilot’s seat but there simply wasn’t time for any other course of action other than getting her team evacuated. The shuttle moaned and shifted again, reaffirming her decision. She hastened her efforts.
Anna came to the ready deck, an area of the shuttle between the crew deck and the cargo deck. It was an organized mess of team members and gear. Like the rest of the shuttle, the deck slanted a few degrees nose down and to left, which made for extra effort to move their gear out through the airlock into the cargo deck and outside.
A cold blast of artic air swooped in as the cargo deck ramp was lowered. Anna shivered but reasserted her determination and opened her locker. Inside were three custom fitted suits for different types of missions. She chose the seldom used ATAA suit. The All-Terrain All-Atmosphere suit was designed for light duty in a wide range of climates. Pretty much everything not including underwater or the vacuum of space. Anna was born and raised in the doldrums region off the east coast of equatorial South America on Earth and she absolutely detested cold climates. This unplanned excursion was not to be pleasant in her book. By the time she was suited up and helmet in place, Anna raised the face shield and was happy to see most of her team had relocated their gear and were already assembling outside the shuttle. She stomped through the cargo deck airlock and passed flight comm on his way to attempt to send a distress signal. They had operational and emergency communications gear but the shuttle had more power to boost a signal, especially if it was directed off-planet.
“Make it snappy, flight comm. Launch the orbital comm buoy, set off the beacon, and get off the shuttle.”
“Yes, ma’am,” flight comm replied with a crisp salute and kept on walking.
The team member standing over a sled was flight recon1, the large recon symbol and number “1” embroidered down his left upper arm and left upper leg a convenient give-away. “Recon, hurry it up,” Anna urged her youngest team member. She crested the cargo deck and took a few steps down the ramp when her next step hit a thin layer of snow. Down she went landing hard on her backside and cursing over the open comm line. All background chatter stopped and the team gathered outside looked over. The shuttle shifted again but only a little. Anna scrambled up looking back inside the cargo hold toward flight recon1.
“Stay back,” she yelled to her team. She motioned emphatically for recon1 to double her efforts at getting the sled started and off the shuttle.
Anna checked her footing on the ramp and exited the shuttle without further incident. As she stepped off the ramp, the ground shook and a deafening crack made her jump and stumble back.
“Recon1, get that sled off now.” The shuttle was shaking like it was flying through turbulence. The ground was splitting and splintering all around the shuttle looking dangerously unstable as the nose of the shuttle dropped into a slow-motion dive, slipping toward whatever depths lay beneath what she now saw was ice.
Flight recon1 gunned the sled… and it went nowhere. The girl pounded the steering yoke in frustration. Anna watched as recon1 throttled back and hopped off the sled. Anna could see that the security lanyard, a thick alloy cable, was still attached at the anchor point on the back of the sled.
Recon1 yanked the pin from the old-style pintle-hook and threw the cable aside. The young officer leapt for the sled, hitting the throttle at the same time. The sled exploded forward out of the cargo hold but since recon1 was not fully seated, it shot out from under her. It had to have lightened the load on the shuttle by a couple of hundred kilos because the shuttle began to slide down faster. Recon1 landed hard. The ensign grunted but rolled to her feet and ran down the ramp, leaping for safety. The sled had sped away, riderless and at full speed.
Anna stood there, helpless. The mishaps just kept piling up. Flight comm. He was still on board trying to send a distress message.
Captain Anna Polanskey tapper her earpiece. “Comm, get out. Now!” she yelled. From the shadows of the shuttle’s interior, flight comm was running toward them, running for his life. It all happened in slow motion. Flight comm looked to be running on a giant treadmill. He was running but getting no closer as the shuttle gained momentum, sliding beneath every footstep as he struggled to make it out.
Anna lunged toward the ramp just as the orbital buoy launched from the dorsal spine of the shuttle but that was the last straw. The reactive force of the buoy launch sent the shuttle sliding non-stop beneath the ice, plunging into cold dark water and was swallowed in seconds to a great gulping sound. A pair of hands grabbed her ATAA from behind and kept her from toppling into the icy abyss. The two of them scrambled back from the crumbling edge, Anna gasping in disbelief.
The shuttle was gone. Their second home on so many memorable missions. Her team now down another player. She turned around to look at the stunned faces of her team, putting an arm around the flight engineer who had kept her from falling in after the shuttle. Not for physical support, but for the increasing need for solace on the heels of such sudden tragedy. She was sure her shock mirrored theirs. EFET101 was now a ten member team with no immediate way off this ice cube.
Nobody moved. It was stunned silence for a few moments. The shock deep and poignant. Mustering her courage and new role as captain, Anna took stock of their situation. She looked over their pile of equipment and then counted heads, pointing each one out as she went. She counted nine and did the math.
“Where the hell is flight recon2?” she demanded tapping her earpiece. The team looked around them and then collectively toward the hole in the ice where their shuttle had sank.
Flight recon2 answered, “Here, ma’am.” His voice was muffled and sounded stressed.
“Define ‘here’, Dogg,” flight recon1 interrupted. She was already looking into the distance following a single sled track and footsteps in the snow that led nowhere.
“…ing drag… hind … sled…” came his reply.
“Oh for Pete’s sake. Katt, take the other sled and go after him,” Flight cap told flight recon1. Then added, “Combat, one of you with Katt. Go!” Yes, ma’am they responded in unison.
Flight combat1 turned to flight combat2 and simply pointed. Combat2 joined recon1 on the remaining sled and they sped off after the runaway sled and recon2.
Captain Polanskey wanted to throw a major fit. She wanted to rant and rave, stomp and kick, and curse her luck. But now that she was in command, she didn’t have the luxury of blowing off steam in such an unprofessional manner. Too bad, she really wanted to let loose.
Instead, Anna, or Skey as she preferred, buried her fear and anger and put on a happy face, which reminded her of a resting frown face.
“Flight engineer, Miguel? You have no engines to tinker with so you’re now the exec. I want an inventory of this pile of junk. Link up with the orbital buoy and make sure it has our coordinates. See if you can find out where we are. I’m going to walk that way,” Anna pointed along the trail the two sleds left behind, “and where I stop is where we’ll set up camp. Get this stuff moved and start on a shelter.”
Nobody moved. Skey dropped her command voice. “Look, I don’t know what happened. Obviously something went wrong with the jump gate or the coordinates or I don’t know what else. Captain Grands is dead. From a heart attack or something else, we may never know. He was like a grandfather to us. When we’re settled, we’ll gather and perform what ritual we can, for him and for flight comm, for Vanse. We’ll take time to grieve, but not yet. That orbital buoy is sky high by now and it’s not getting any warmer. Alright, enough standing around with our lips turning blue. Let’s move, team.”
The team broke into action. Miguel issuing orders as Skey followed the sled trail.
“Okay, Eefet one-oh-one. You heard the captain. Flight ops, Liam, see if you can get a fix on our position. Flight systems, Derek, establish a link with the buoy. Make sure it has our ground coordinates or some other location identifier. Flight support Betcha, get started on the inventory. Combat1, you’re with me, Hemi. Let’s start hauling this equipment away from that grave site.”
The team got to work and within a couple of hours a campsite was set up but only one sled had returned. The captain called a meeting and they crammed into one of two soft-shell shelters. A small solar-powered heater struggled to displace the freezing temps from the middle of their gathering.
“Flight exec, what have we learned?” Skey asked. She took a moment to look each of her team in the eye. They were down to nine. Flight recon1 and combat2, Katt and Feather respectively, had raced after flight recon2 Dogg and the runaway sled. Dogg had apparently jumped on the sled as it sped away, grabbing onto the anchor point. There were signs he was dragged along until the sled reached a cliff in the ice sheet and disappeared over its edge. Katt sat quiet hugging her knees tightly. A few tears escaped bleary eyes.
“Flight cap, shelters are up and secure. We have some power, solar generated, but limited. With each power supply, we can perform one task at a time. Heat the shelter, heat food and water, or operate the comm device. Obviously, we have two power supplies, one for each shelter.”
Skey nodded. “Good, at least we won’t freeze to death right away. What else?”
“Liam, being the top-notch flight ops that he is, managed to salvage star reading instruments, including a sextant. But we’ll need to wait until it gets dark, if it gets dark here, before any reading can be taken. You may have noticed that shadows move but don’t change much in length.” Miguel went silent for a moment to let that sink in.
“I’m tired, flight exec. What does that mean?”
“Sorry, cap. It means that either it’s a really long day or the sun has yet to go down, or come up for that matter. Or, we’re near the pole of this planet and it may be light out for weeks or months. So, we don’t yet know where we might be.”
Flight ops spoke up. “We do know where we’re not, though. We are not where we were aiming for through the jump gate. We know also that the JG has a limited range, or rather a finite number of possible destinations coded in. That helps narrow down the possibilities.” Liam looked less grim than his explanation should have dictated.
Lindsay, flight doc, perked up a little. Skey noticed and nodded for her to continue. “Flight ops is correct. Jump gate Charlie leads to thirty-seven systems. And of those, I believe only seven have any sort of habitable planets in them. When we don’t show up, earth force should initiate a search. Right?” Lindsay looked to Miguel and Skey for confirmation.
“They will,” Skey assured them. “It may take a while, though. All they will know is that we didn’t arrive to Earth Force Base C26 and that something must have gone wrong with the shuttle or the jump gate. They will investigate but it’ll take time to go through the motions.
Skey let that sink in before continuing. “Miguel, any luck with the orbital buoy?”
Flight exec looked to flight systems for his report. The man just sat there staring straight ahead. The exec snapped his fingers at the man, getting his attention. Derek was startled back to the here and now. “Your report, flight sys. Any luck with the buoy?”
“Um, yes, sorry, sir. Ma’am. The buoy launched to low orbit as advertised. I was able to establish a link with it. We have no reference point or landmarks to exploit so I set it to maintain as regular an orbit as it’s able to and to make contact with our sat-comm on each pass overhead. It is also sending out a periodic signal once a minute to extend its power for as long as possible. It does have solar regen capabilities for power which should last well beyond our food and water supplies so even if we, um, don’t make it, whomever eventually shows up could likely find us.”
Skey nodded her understanding. “With food and water rationing, how long will our supplies last us?”
Flight exec creased his brow. “One month earth standard for a regular shuttle crew compliment under normal operational conditions. We had time to recover most of the standard kit but not all of it. With maximum rationing and three less souls, perhaps 60 days. If we can manage an efficient way to melt this snow, that may help a little. And the slim chance we come across some wild game out here, a little bit longer.” Miguel shrugged with nothing more positive to add.
“Better than I thought,” Skey admitted. “Okay, so it’s now a waiting game. Let’s try to keep busy, even if it’s basic housekeeping. Miguel, set up a duty rotation and a few chores. Include scouting the area. I want to work on shoring up the shelters with a layer or wall of snow. Leave the tops exposed so some light filters through. I reckon it doesn’t matter who does what. I’m sure we’ll all get turns.”
Flight exec Miguel nodded but asked, “Any particular sleeping assignment, cap?” Skey thought a moment and shook her head.
“Okay, team. Two shelters, nine bodies. Four male, five female. Let’s behave like adults. Pick a spot and respect the other spots. This isn’t our first rodeo kids, so let’s live it out with dignity and integrity.”
“Well said, flight exec. Now, anybody have any words they’d like to say for Captain Grands, flight comm Vanse or flight recon Dogg?” Skey made the rounds with her gaze.
Flight recon1 raised a tentative hand. “Question flight exec. What’s a rodeo?” There was silence for half a moment and then the team burst into laughter.
On the sinking shuttle, flight comm Vanse touched the command that launched the orbital buoy and then ran through the shuttle. He ran toward the cargo deck, ran for his life. Fear drove him but he was not fast enough. The deck tilted violently under his feet. The white world outside the shuttle cargo hold turned blue and for a second he was weightless. And for a second he was hopeless. Flight comm Vanse realized in the next second that he was not helpless.
He flung himself to the deck and grabbed tight a pair of flush-mounted tie-down rings. The shuttle dove nose first but slowly. A strange sensation, hanging from the floor. That weird thought washed away with the first wave of artic cold water that poured over the threshold of the ramp. It poured over his bare hands and splashed down the open face of his helmet. And it was cold. So cold it spurred Vanse into action.
He braced his feet against the deck and lunged for the ramp control, slapping it hard with one hand but landing hard on his shoulder against the bulkhead. Spears of pain shot through his shoulder, arm, and upper back.
Artic water continued to flood the cargo deck as the shuttle sank. Vanse was in pain but the ice-cold water began to numb the pain. He remembered to close his face shield but not before half his suit filled with water. So much for staying warm.
Seconds seemed forever but finally the ramp closed and sealed tight just as the shuttle slammed to a halt and then fell flat. Down was down again and Vanse shivered with relief. The cargo hold was hip deep in water. Flight comm was no engineer but he knew enough to query the shuttle’s computer via a nearby interface and initiated the purge system. Soon, the water level dropped to a wet deck and the airlock doors between the cargo deck and the ready deck opened.
Vanse quickly stripped out of the soaked ATAA suit and into a dry suit. It took him longer than usual because he was all thumbs and shivering from the cold bath. The suit’s sensors reacted and turned the heat up.
“Okay, Vanse. Get to work.” Flight comm hurried toward the front of the shuttle, and once settled in the co-pilot’s seat, he made a quick assessment of his situation. The shuttle’s computer was still online. One screen showed the shuttle configured for space flight, meaning vents, intakes, and air pressure sensors had been closed and retracted. The shuttle was sealed against any further water damage. Good. He didn’t care why or how, just that it was. He also noted that outside the shuttle was an ocean but enough light filtered down to allow him to see a ways.
Vanse tapped a few buttons and waited for results. The screen showed the shuttle was only six meters below the surface. Maybe, if he could get the shuttle running again, they could get off this ice cube. Except, flight comm Vanse wasn’t a pilot. He looked over to Captain Grands still strapped into the pilot’s seat. “Well cap, I should have taken a few flying lessons.”
Captain Grands’ eyes snapped open and flight comm Vanse jumped in surprise. Then the power, lights, air, and computer screens, all went off-line.
The wind swept across the evening tundra with a biting indifference. Flight ops Liam and flight support Betcha stood out from the camp in the twilight trying to record an accurate star reading. Betcha operated a comms-enabled device trying to connect with the orbital buoy but it was not in range. After a few failed attempts, she stowed the device and allowed Liam to brace against her shoulder as he expertly used the ancient device to try to determine their location.
Flight ops Liam took several readings toward different directions in the evening sky but each time came away more puzzled. Betcha entered the data he called out and they hurried back to the shelter to analyze it.
Flight cap Skey watched as Liam shook his head and ran the numbers again. She went to their double-stack of equipment crates serving as a table top and poured a cup of coffee for flight ops and took it to him. “Problems Liam?”
“Hey Cap. I’m not sure.” Liam stretched and accepted the cup of coffee, wrapping both hands around it.
“I took several readings and have crunched the numbers three times. And each time I come to an impossible conclusion. I don’t understand.” He took a sip and paused to savor it.
Flight cap sat opposite him. “I noticed some odd analyses when I used the shuttle’s sensors to take air sample readings before we evacuated. Identical to earth but much cleaner. At that moment, I didn’t have time to worry about it. Is your computer working correctly?”
Flight ops nodded. “Betcha and I each ran a diagnostic. Working normally.” He shrugged.
“Okay, what do the readings tell you?”
“Nothing definitive, but the closest match to the star constellations is earth.” This got everyone’s attention and the background chatter went quiet.
“We left earth space when we went through the jump gate so that can’t be right,” Skey stated the obvious.
Flight exec joined them. “Maybe you can’t read a sextant as well as you thought you could.”
“Or maybe the cold froze a few too many brain cells,” flight doc Lindsay tugged on Liam’s ear and pretended to look inside his head. “Yep, as I feared. They’re gone.”
Of the nine gather around, a few burst out laughing and Liam swatted Lindsay’s hand away.
When the laughter died down, “Alright. If you clowns think you’re so smart, go outside and tell me the constellations don’t look a little too familiar.” He sipped his coffee and dared them again with an emphatic gesture toward the domed shelter door.
When they saw he was serious, seven of them pulled on suits and boots and filed outside to look up at the stars. Betcha and Liam stayed in and ran the numbers yet again.
Outside, seven of EFET101 huddled together staring up at the evening sky. Luck was with them as there was no moon or moons to dim the view.
The wind from earlier had died down and the cold frozen tundra was quiet. The chatter stopped as each flight member studied the constellations but then picked up again as they recognized star patterns too similar to those from earth.
“This shouldn’t be,” Flight cap spoke over the chatter.
Flight exec added, “Any travel through a jump gate takes a shuttle to a far distant system. Other systems simply do not have constellations that look like those viewed from earth.”
“What’s going on, cap,” flight doc Lindsay asked. Worry had crept into her voice.
“Everyone. Look.” Flight combat1 shouted and pointed. The group followed his lead. In the distance, back toward the shuttle’s grave site, Skey noted, a light appeared and slowly ascended. It rose to a few hundred meters and made a slow, three hundred and sixty degree sweep. It then held steady pointing right at their camp.
“That’s our shuttle,” flight cap stated. “How can that be?”
“When did flight comm Vanse take flying lessons?” flight exec Miguel asked.
No one had an answer so they watched as the light approached. As it got closer, they could see indeed it was their shuttle, risen from its watery grave. It circled once and then settled to a landing and powered down.
Nobody made a move. The forward crew door on the left side, the side facing them, opened and a suited figure jumped out and walked toward them. Cap Skey was the first to break away from her astonishment and started toward Vanse. “Well, come on, guys.”
The rest followed and soon they met up with the suited figure who had the helmet visor down. The sun had just risen again on its long journey around the circumference of the horizon.
Flight cap Skey tapped her earpiece. “Vanse, is that you? I can’t believe it. How’d…”
The suited team member stopped a few paces away and removed his helmet. He smiled broadly and said, “Hello, flight cop.”
Skey stopped in her tracks. “No. It can’t be.” Skey backed away and then screamed before fainting on the spot.
When the others caught up, they were stunned to see Captain Grands but nobody else screamed and fainted.
“Well, better get her up and into the shelter,” Flight cap Grands shook Miguel’s hand and together they picked up their co-pilot and carried her to the shelter. The rest of the team talking excitedly.
An hour later, Skey was recovered and everyone gathered in one shelter, eager to exchange stories. Flight cap Grands was listening intently to the past day’s adventures.
“So, let me get this straight. We crash land on some unknown planet. You, flight cop, think I’m dead so you order abandon shuttle and kick it off into a frozen sea. Then y’all set up camp only two hundred meters from the crime scene after sending flight recon Dogg chasing a runaway sled. Is that about what happened?”
The team grew quiet. They never quite knew when the cap was serious or just joking with them.
“Well, ya see, cap.” Flight cop Skey tried to explain. “That’s not quite how I’d put it, captain. I mean it all happened so fast.”
Flight cap Grands smiled big and roared with laughter. The team joined in and all was forgiven. If there was anything to forgive.
Grands held his hand up for quiet and tapped his earpiece. “Vanse, is the shuttle and A.I. stable?” He listened for a moment and then nodded. “Good. Please join us. And bring that something special with you.”
There were gasps and stunned looks all around minutes later when for the second time that very early morning, they faced another utter surprise. Flight comm Vanse entered the shelter but then so did flight recon2, Dogg.
Everyone looked to flight recon1. Katt was speechless. She was certain Dogg had disappeared and died when the sled tracks ended at the cliff. She jumped up and ran to Dogg, jumping into the big man’s embrace. Very unmilitary-like, but nobody seemed to care this time.
When all had settled down, Vanse passed around a selection of beer and wine in miniature bottles. Flight cap Grands raised a hand to get the team’s attention.
“Have we been able to figure out just where in space we are?”
Flight comm Vanse answered first. “With the shuttle A.I. rebooted and linked with the orbital buoy, we have identified the planet we’re on. And you won’t believe it.” Vanse paused for effect.
“Well, spill it, for crying out loud,” flight cop Skey said.
This time every team member was speechless.
“Well, just how on… earth… is that possible. We did go through the jump gate,” flight cop insisted.
Everyone started talking at once. Some saying that’s impossible some saying the A.I. is malfunctioning. Nobody agreeing.
“I think I have the answer, though I doubt you’ll like it any better than Vanse’s answer.” All eyes locked on flight ops Liam.
“Vanse is correct. We’re on earth. I just correlated my readings with that of the orbital buoy. The question is not where are we, but when. Cleaner air. Altered constellation positions. Ice sheets extending to lower latitudes. Team, we’re on earth of the last ice age. At least ten thousand B.C.”
Thanks for reading my short story, SABR-1. I hope you enjoyed it. This story was inspired by vivid dreams after watching the Black Panther movie. I have an upcoming sci-fi-adventure series plus a fun short story series based on major holidays.
To learn more, please visit my site www.toryelement.com and sign up to receive all of my short stories for free and get advanced notification when the first novel, CRASH COURSE, is published. Or, contact me at email@example.com