Human Enough, Chapter 1

My headset crackles, blasting my ears above the scream of the plunging spaceship.  It’s Mitsue, keying his mic.  “This is it, amigos.  Check your harness—tight as you can get it.  Arms on the armrests, knees together.  We’re gonna crash.  Good health to us all.”

The ship heaves right to left, up, down—mostly down.  Flames and blurred chunks of something zip by my window.  The dust of disintegrating plastic hangs gray in the air, lit by the rhythm of emergency lights.  A half-dozen alarms blare at once.  I take my clenched gloves off my calves, yank hard on my straps, and plant my arms on the armrests.  Crash panels rotate onto my forearms and legs, locking them in place.  The seat closes in around me.  It swallows me like a mouth.  Or a vise.  My visor pivots shut and seals with a hiss of gas, muffling the racket.  I smell fear.  It’s coming from me.  Please God, don’t let me burn.

But we’re still airborne.  I’m outside myself, looking back at me, narrating the panicked scene in my mind: This was the moment just before Straker splattered like a bug.  You can tell by his clenched teeth he was terrified.  Will Alia find out how I died?  Will she be sad?  Will they find…

BAM!  The seat jerks upwards as if hit by a truck and I gasp.  My stomach rips from its moorings.  Then another bump and a pummeling vibration.  My fingers ache from gripping the armrest.  The ship yaws violently.  We hit something on the left, ricochet right, tumble; a deafening screech as the hull scrapes the ground.

We slam into something big and solid.  It’s a straight-on impact, stopping our slide instantly, jamming me into the straps of my harness, forcing the air from my lungs.  The front of the cabin pitches down.  The rear rises, up and up, slowing, metal groaning.  For a fraction of a second we perch there.  Then we fall.  Hard.  A panel collapses from the ceiling.  It bounces off my helmet, falls to my right, and brings with it an undulating, burned spaghetti of wires.  Sparks from above shower down on me.

But, we are still.  My lungs work again and I take a desperate gasp of acrid air.  The cabin sits at a crazy angle, 20 degrees to starboard.  I pant in terror, fogging my visor, heart throbbing in my ears and pushing my bruised ribcage.  I wait for the next thing.  A second, 5 seconds, 10 seconds.  But nothing.  Just darkness interrupted by flashing emergency lamps, buzzing sounds of an electrical arc somewhere, nagging, persistent alarms, muffled voices.

Somebody’s alive at least.  I reckon I lived too.  Don’t think I broke any ribs.  I know what that’s like, and this ain’t it.  Strained a ligament or something.  But now what?

My headset is dead.  I stretch out my right wrist and feel with my gloves under the armrest.  My fingertips find the cover for the release; I flip it up and toggle the switch.  The crash panels that held me lift and my seat contracts.  My heads-up display says there’s still atmo in the ship.  I pull off my gloves, raise my helmet’s visor and wipe the stinging sweat from my eyes with shaking hands.  Silhouettes of other spacesuits move in the smoke, flashed in sweeps of red beacon, groaning, freeing themselves from wreckage.

“Hey everybody,” I hear.  “O’Neil is OK!  Everybody sound off!”  That’s Louis’s voice, although I can’t see him past the smoke and the ceiling panel in my face.  He’s somewhere up forward.  I wrangle the plastic and wiring aside and lean over to get out from under the stream of sparks.  It’s good to hear his voice.

“Yuuta’s OK,” I shout.  “Not wounded.”

“Good Straker,” replies Louis’s voice.  “Help find the others.”

Another voice booms from front and starboard.  A loud, deep monotone.  “Teplov here.  OK, but have arm wound.”  That’s Vasily Teplov, the weapons specialist; his voice is easy to recognize.  I don’t know him too good; the team was put together in a hurry.  But he’s the oldest man on the team.  He’s here because he knows the planet.

I smack the release on my harness and crouch-stand, stepping up and around what’s left of my seat, my boots crunching hard on bits of insulation and plastic and who-knows-what.  I gotta be careful to keep my footing on the sloped floor.  It’s so heavy here—hard to even move.  I’m coughing from the foul air and groping my way.  The audible alarms are still blaring—loud even through my thick helmet.

“Ah, damn…”  That’s Quianna Cunningham’s voice, coming from behind me.  She sounds hurt.  Feeling my way past the broken seats, lifting my boots high to keep from tripping on junk, I watch for dangling wiring.  I don’t like electric shocks.

Quianna is still in her seat.  It’s wrapped around her like the bun of a hotdog; the active fabric hasn’t shut itself off.  It’s supposed to go flaccid after a crash but it’s broke.  There’s a burned spot blackening the electrical panel beside her armrest.

“Ah, Straker,” she says as she sees me, her voice muffled by her helmet.  “I need a bit of help, Love.”

“Glad you’re alive,” I say.  “It’s a short or something.”

“Oh bollocks.  Can you slice me out of this bloody thing?” she says.

“All the combat stuff is stowed in the rear,” I say.  “Don’t got my big knife.  Hmm.”  I don’t think I can open the compartment doors without a crowbar or something—they’re pretty bent up.  But the med kit is right above Quianna’s seat.  She’s the team medic and drone wrangler.  I reach up and take the rectangular bag from its special depression in the bulkhead.  I open it in the aisleway and pull out the biggest scalpel it has.

“Maybe this will do,” I say.

“See if you can free me right arm,” she says, “after that, I can help.  But be careful.”

“I will be, I promise.”  I push the black blade with its molecule-thick edge into the stiff fabric of the chair.  The fabric spurts a small electrical spark that briefly lights the darkness; startling, but it helps me see what I’m doing.  I cut around where her arm should be, every centimeter causing a new spark.  The blade would slice her flesh with no warning at all.  But soon, the outline of her arm is complete and she hasn’t screamed in pain.  I yank on the chunk I’ve cut.  It comes free.

The orange suit fabric of Quianna’s arm peaks out from the swollen chair.  She reaches out and grabs a hunk of my suit.  “I could kiss you if my face were free.”

“Um…”  I don’t know what to say to that.  Quianna has a thing for me.  She has a thing for anybody she lays her eyes on for more than five seconds.  Saw the way she treated the guys during basic.  She don’t care two beans about the fraternization regs neither.  She’s cute in her way but I ain’t looking anyways.

Louis pipes up, yelling over the alarms.  “Quianna, we need the med kit stat!”

I call back.  “Quianna is gonna be a few minutes.  I’ll come with the kit.”

“Are you going to leave me here?” Quianna asks.

“You can get yourself out now.  I’ll go see what’s up and get back to you ASAP if you haven’t gotten yourself free yet.  Here’s the knife.”  I put the scalpel in her free hand and close the kit.

“All right then,” she says with a sigh and a girlish pout.

I carry the bag towards the front.  “I’m coming,” I yell out.  When I get to the front, I see what’s going on.  Louis, with gray dust covering his shoulders and the top of his helmet, leans over Vasily.  The Russian is squatting beside his seat, cradling his left arm.  His big, puffy body takes up most of the aisle.  Even in the darkness, I can see the blood spilling from the heavy fabric of his suit, mixing with the dust and dribbling across the slanted floor.

“Pierced by conduit,” grunts Vasily through his half-open visor and gritted teeth.  “Eto piz `dets.”  I recognize the expletive, and I can’t blame him.  Looks bad.

“The conduit punctured the skin and meat of his arm, through the bicep,” says Louis.  “Pulled it out himself before I got here.  Macho man; but doing that may have caused more tissue damage.”

“Hmm…OK,” I say, laying the kit in the only clear spot I could find.  We’ve all had to learn this kit inside and out during basic training.  We don’t train on everything a corpsman does, but every member of the fireteam knows two things: first aid and how to fight.  Vasily trusts me even though I’m the rookie.  I wouldn’t even be on this mission if I hadn’t been the one who pushed for it.

I grab scissors from the kit and hand the flashlight to Louis.  He holds the light steady as I cut the orange fabric of Vasily’s launch and entry suit.  It’s the same suit we’re all wearing.  I fold back the fabric to expose the gash.  And yup, now that I see it, it’s deep.  Must hurt like hell.  He’s losing blood.  I gotta stop that right away.

I grab a hypo of benethocane and give him a few careful jabs.  Once he’s a numb on the surface, I jab deeper into the laceration.  I spray on a good bit of antibacterial solution, pulling on the skin of his arm to make sure the penetrating fluid gets into the wound.  I don’t stop until the whole area shines from the liquid.  Vasily holds his big arm steady.  I grab the clotting foam.  I bite off its protective cover with my teeth.

“This is gonna sting,” I say, and I ain’t kidding.  I used this stuff once on myself and the anesthetic only helps a little.  It works like a miracle but burns like a sumbitch.  Vasily knows; he nods gravely.  I give the gash a good blast from the can—Vasily’s breath catches as the foam penetrates and he makes a face.  But that’s all.

I put the cans back in the kit and throw the hypo under the seat to get rid of it.  Louis is ready with the skin glue.  While I push the flesh together across Vasily’s wound, Louis glues across the cut.  No words need spoken.  We’re all functioning from the training.  The glue sets in seconds, sealing the laceration.  Each of us got a complicated cocktail of vaccinations before we came, so he should be protected.   Last, I apply a field dressing of biotape.  Vasily sits up and nods, flexing his arm to test the dressing.  “Is good,” he says.

The alarms go silent, thankfully—Quianna has found the emergency panel.  She comes stumbling up from the rear of the ship and leans over Vasily, inspecting my work.  “Nice job, Straker.  I would have put the last clasp on the tape just here,” she says, pointing to the spot on Vasily’s arm.  “But it’s quite good, really.”

Louis hands me back the flashlight as he helps Vasily get to his feet.  Quianna puts the med kit back together without the flashlight.  Right now, it’s the only light we got in the big cabin.  Quianna and Vasily start to work patching up Vasily’s pressure suit, although at this point I ain’t sure what good these suits will do for any of us.  Like I said, it’s all training.

That’s when it occurs to me: we ain’t heard nothing from Mitsue.  I look up at the flight deck hatch above us, then at Louis.  “What about Major Yamasaki?” I whisper to Louis.  But he’s already looking up at the hatch himself.

He steps over a pile of broken junk and yells up the ladder.  “Major!  Hey, Mitsue Yamasaki!  You OK?”

No answer.  He calls again, this time with his foot on the first rung of the ladder.  Still nothing.  I hand him the flashlight.  Louis grips the light in his mouth and climbs up the ladder towards the darkened ceiling, calling to Mitsue.  He stops at the top, opens the hatch, and shines his light onto the flight deck.  I hear his quiet groan.  He looks back at me.  “The roof in here has collapsed,” he says.

I find another light in one of the few wall compartments that ain’t broke and climb up behind him.  Staying low, Louis crawls through the hatchway and out onto the darkened deck.  I’m up on the top rung of the ladder following his movements, shedding what light I can for him.  The flight deck is only 5 meters long or so.  It looks even smaller now with the roof deformed and squashed in to less than a meter from the floor.  The deck is a chaotic clutter of sheered metal, shattered glass, and plastic.  Louis gets to the pilot’s seat within seconds.  He pushes a sparking plastic panel to the side and exposes Mitsue’s motionless figure.  Mitsue is still bundled up in his seat, a long, jagged triangle of aluminum beam jutting from the ceiling, embedded deep in his chest.  My flashlight catches a moving red river of blood.  It’s still gushing from the wound.

Louis looks back at me.  He shakes his head.  “No,” he says.  That’s all.

*       *       *       *       *

“Well, here’s where we’re at,” says Louis, standing before us in the gritty, dark remains of the passenger cabin.  “Mitsue, our officer in charge, and our pilot, is dead.”

Vasily, Quianna and I are in a loose semicircle surrounding Louis, while I train my flashlight on his face.  My chest hurts, my eyes sting, my nose is running and I’m coughing from dust and smoke, making it hard to hold the beam steady.  But that ain’t what I’m thinking about.

A man is dead.  Mitsue would be alive if it weren’t for me.  Vasily wouldn’t be hurt if it weren’t for me.  Even Quianna’s being pinned in her seat is my fault.  An earthship wrecked.  Who knows what else.  But I sigh and push it all back for now.  My feelings don’t matter—only Alia does.  She’s what this is all about.

Louis is still talking.  “The ship is trashed: no comm, no life support, no power, so even if we had a pilot, extraction has now gotten real complicated.  Most our gear is scattered over the last few hundred klicks of planetary surface.  Plus, the Alliance will be looking to finish the job they started.  They’ll show up sooner or later.  On the bright side, this planet has good atmo.”

“We can just stroll outside without our helmets, pretty as you please,” says Quianna, in her cheery, upper-crust cadence, between bites of food bar.  “A new experience for me: I’m quite looking forward to that.”  Quianna has a dark, African face and distinctive accent, having grown up in Aristoteles colony.  That colony was founded by the British.  You can tell she’s from Aristoteles the second she opens her mouth.  She opens it often.  She’s kinda the opposite of Vasily.  When he speaks, it’s like he’s sacrificing an internal organ with every word.

The thought of going out there makes me groan.  Walking outside is one thing—always figured we would have to do that.  But still, taking the helmet right off my head gives me a mighty panic.  It’s OK to do in theory, but where my lungs are concerned I ain’t much about theory.  Growing up like I did made me that way.  Walk outside without a helmet up home and you’re dead in, I don’t know—seconds, anyways.  So, yea, I’m spooked.  But we’ll be here for days at least.  We ain’t got gear or consumables to sustain us that long.  I groan again, this time with a few choice curses, but quietly.

“We’re going to abandon ship,” continues Louis.  “We’re sitting ducks in this wreck.  So, Vasily and Straker, you two gather what gear and consumables you can locate and stick them in duffel bags or whatever you can find that will help us carry.  Quianna, are you injured?  Can you walk OK?”

“Yes Sir, I can walk.  I was caught in my seat so tight I had trouble breathing.  The designers should be brought up on charges.  I’m bruised under my knees for some reason.  But I can walk.  I was rescued by my love Straker.”

She smiles, I grimace, Louis grunts.  “You prep the airlock,” says Louis.  “The pressure on this planet is higher than cislunar standard so we’ll need to equalize.  I’ll go to the upper deck and retrieve Mitsue’s body.  We’ll bury him if we can.  Then we’ll see about contacting Ops.  Questions?”  No questions.  “All right, let’s execute.  Meet at the airlock in 15.”

With Mitsue gone, Louis is in charge.  Louis was always the most capable member of the team.  He’s been my best buddy since the Hrothgar asteroid mission, although we didn’t start out that way.

Anyways, Vasily and I split up—him checking the stowage on the port side, me checking starboard.  I get into a rhythm of sweeping through the gloom with the flashlight, pushing broken things aside, avoiding dangling electrical cables, and powering through the aisles to the bulkhead compartments.  I yank the hatches open one by one.  The crazy slope of the floor makes everything harder.  Plus, the gravity here is unbelievable.  Simple movements leave me winded.

I manage to find two survival kits, rations, and a 10-liter bladder of potable water.  When our 15 minutes is up, I meet back with Vasily and Quianna up front by the airlock.  Vasily has found the computer hacking gear and rappelling stuff as well as the bags that originally held our pressure suits.  We stuff the bags.  We’ll have to find more food and water somewhere on the planet.

Louis’s expression is grim as he shows up with Mitsue on his shoulder.  Mitsue’s blood oozes a river down Louis’s chest, red blood over orange fabric, mixed with chunks of insulation and gray dust.  I smell the death.  But even in this oppressive gravity, Louis has no trouble with the load.  He’s carrying Mitsue’s body as if the major was a rag doll.  Mitsue seemed so much bigger when he was alive.

It’s a grim moment, but I can’t help thinking how heavy and how fatigued I am, already.  I’ve trained for this, and I’m in much better shape than I was when I started with the Good Health Club.  But no amount of prep gets you completely ready.  You come down the well and adapt best you can.  It’s getting old fast.

“The chamber is a bit untidy but it should work,” announces Quianna.  “I’ve pulled the superfluous rubbish out so we can all fit.  Pressure outside is about twice the pressure in here.  We have to gas up a few dozen kilopascals.  I’ll set the chamber for 5 minutes to be on the safe side.  You gents trained for this.  Work your ears.”

I pull hard on the chamber’s heavy hatch, and we each step in over the threshold, Louis maneuvering Mitsue into the little room last.  We stand there, waiting.  It’s shoulder-to-shoulder so there’s no place to sit anyways.  Quianna pulls the hatch shut behind us with a heavy thud and rotates the dogs to make the seal.  She stands next to me in the gloom, her body pressing against mine.  The only light is the single dim yellow emergency lamp shining from above, obscuring everybody’s face in the shadows of helmets.

It smells of sweat and oil and electricity in here.  I hear the shushing of gas entering the chamber.  My hand reflexively moves to seal my visor, but Quianna catches me and shakes her head no.  It’s so unnatural to be doing this.  There ain’t much point to even wearing the helmet.  At least the air seeping in through the ventilation ducts is cleaner than the air in the cabin.  I’m breathing a tad easier, although more rapidly than a calm soldier should.  I wiggle my jaw to keep myself distracted as much as to clear my ears.

The chime goes off and the hissing stops.  Crap.  Time’s up.  Who’s gonna open the outer door?  I can’t even see the handle, and I’m not sure who’s next to it.  Nobody is talking.  “So…” I volunteer to the silence.

But as I say that, the outer door latch releases.  A brilliant white line of daylight penetrates the gloom.  Vasily shoves the heavy, warped door with his shoulder.  With a screech of complaint, it opens wide and we’re all instantly bathed in the intense sunlight of the planet’s mid-day.  Relief washes over me as I realize that theory and reality have come together.  I can breathe.

The unfamiliar, herby odors of the planet hit me, reminding me how alien this place is.  Vasily looks over the precipice of the outer door.  “One and half meter to ground,” he announces.  “Ship is rotated in our favor, and ground is sandy.  But ground is rocky too.   I’ll jump and roll, like jumping great distance.  I am fat old man.  Too soft from space.”  He sits on the edge and jumps, landing with a thud.  “Is OK,” he yells back.  “Sergeant, you hand Major to me.”

Louis kneels with Mitsue’s body, gently lowering the limp mass to Vasily.  Then Louis jumps.  Quianna goes next, her slender body hardly making a sound.  I’m last.  By now my eyes have started to adjust to the glare, and I focus on the hard, rocky ground below.  Not very far down, true.  But I weigh at least a metric ton.  OK, not that much, but I’m heavy as hell.  Stop thinking, just jump.

The three of them are standing outside, waiting.  I sit on the edge, take a deep breath, and push off.  The ground hits my boots and I fall like a squid and then I roll, my helmet bouncing off a rock.  Could be worse.  Nothing broke.  I push up with my arms and with a pathetic grunt, manage to get to my feet.  I pull off my helmet.

Wow.  For a moment, I just stand there, marveling at the sensation of breathing without a helmet, looking at the vast sky above.  There’s a warm breeze brushing my face, drying my sweat-drenched hair.  Nice.  I giggle like a little girl, but then I remember where I am, what has happened, and I shut up.

I glance back at the ship and gasp.  Now I realize how lucky we are.  She is utterly demolished.  Her blunt nose towers above us, bent upwards at a crazy angle.  The skin of her side is wrinkled, cracked, and torn.  The fuselage is all jagged edges and sheared beams and shattered carbon-carbon heat tiles scattered over the sand and rocks and scrubby bushes.  A cryogenic plume of liquid hydrogen spurts in fits from the broken thermal piping.  It rises high into the air like smoke, hissing loudly, while hydraulic fluid drips to a pond-sized puddle, staining the dirt purple.  Superheated metal clicks and snaps as it cools.  High-speed gyros accompany with a whining dirge, spinning down for the last time.

To my left, there’s a straight, kilometers-long trench scraped out by the ship during its final slide.  To my right, I see the rocky bluff that stopped us.  Somehow the pressure vessel that held us stayed intact.  God bless the ship’s designers, wherever they are.

“Good God, it’s bloody hot here,” says Quianna.  “Blasted and busted, now this heat.  It’s like a sauna but hotter.  Why can’t they send us someplace proper?  Oh hell.”  As she complains, she strips off her gloves and helmet.  She lets them fall to the dirt.

Good idea.  I take off my chest piece, causing the active fabric of the pressure suit to loosen, letting welcome air in between me and the normally tight-fitting garment.

“First thing,” says Louis, looking up at the sky, his eyes in slits against the bright light, “is to get Mitsue situated.  Next, we’ll need to find shelter from the sun and use the longphone to contact the Operations Center.  We’ll get Ops up to speed and see what they want us to do.  We may have to abort.”  He looks over at me through the corner of his eye.  “Don’t say it, Straker.  I know she’s important, but we were shot down.  We’ve already lost a man.”

I don’t say nothing.  He thinks he knows what’s at stake, but he don’t.  There’s a bigger picture.  But that’s OK, I haven’t been clear about all that.  Only a few people have all the facts.  That’s on purpose.  We’re here, we’re alive, and that’s a start.

Ops is far away.  It’s sequestered in an obscure corner of New America.  New A is the commercial center of the Consortium, a massive spinning megastructure.  It hovers in a Lagrangian point hundreds of thousands of klicks from here.  It takes a special radio to reach that far, but that’s what the longphone does.  So, we can at least talk to them.  Meanwhile we don’t have much to work with down here.

“We got no shovels,” I say.  “Don’t see how we can bury him.”

Mitsue’s dog tags clank mournfully on a long chain Louis holds in his big hands.  “Yea,” says Louis, “we’ll put him in a low spot and cover him with rocks.  Best we can do for now.  Straker, you and Quianna find a good spot for Mitsue and cover his body with the local gravel.”

Quianna’s nose crinkles and she makes a sigh of complaint.  I just nod and respond “Aye.”

“Vasily, go back and prep the ship to blow up the comm panels.  You know the procedure.  Make sure you get the sensitive stuff.”

“Aye, secure the ship,” responds Vasily, and he treks off towards the wreckage.

“Oh, and Straker, make sure you record the coordinates.  Maybe the Club can retrieve Mitsue’s body later.”

I acknowledge the command and wake up my wristy with a tap.  Squinting to see it in the bright October sunshine, I make a record of the latitude and longitude.  We’re in a small valley, so I can’t see much beyond our immediate surroundings.  I trek to the nearest high spot and use my wristy to make a panoramic photograph.  I get ten good shots of our wrecked earthship while I’m at it.  Ops will want us to say where we’re at, but the last bearings we transmitted are useless.  We were getting shot at while tumbling at a couple thousand klicks per hour.  We covered a bunch of territory since then.  I copy the location data to Louis’s wristy.

That done, I walk carefully down the slope to where Quianna is already working to cover Mitsue’s body.  My knees strain with every step.  I help her gather and place rocks until we completely cover the body.  I add an extra pile of rocks to mark the spot.  But everything is so heavy.  The simple act of moving rocks causes my arms to shake and I’m out of breath.

“OK,” says Louis, “let’s get this done.”  Vasily is back from placing the explosives.  The four of us gather around the pile of stones and bow our heads.  Louis clears his throat and puts his hands together in a respectful pose.  “Major Yamasaki was a good fighter, a good leader, a good friend.  He helped guide me into the Club, and I’m grateful for that.  Mitsue brought us all safely here, guiding his ship to the surface despite it being so badly broke, and lost his own life in the process.  The major volunteered for this mission, knowing the dangers.”  Louis looks over towards me.

“Mitsue was a good friend to me,” I say.  “He helped me get through basic.  He encouraged me, even when I was so sore from treatments I wanted to quit.  I’m powerful sorry he got killed.  He goes to a better place.  I’ll miss him.”  And I mean it.  Mitsue was a good man.  He didn’t deserve to die.  My heart weighs heavy as I stare at the lonely pile of rocks.  I look towards Quianna.

“I thought Yamasaki was a decent fellow.  He was the best cook I ever met.  Last month he made a group of us a plate of sashimi, and it was the best, by far, that I had ever had, really.  And I have had my share of excellent sashimi.  I have no idea where he learned to cook, but I really liked it.  I think he perhaps liked me but I never gave him much to go on.  But I respected him.  I shall miss his company, truly.”

It’s Vasily’s turn.  “Major was good man,” he grunts.  “Always with jokes.  Worked hard.  Never complained.  I am sad he died.  I will look after his kids.”  Vasily stays silent for a few seconds, his head bowed, and looks at the rest of us.  It’s the most emotion I’ve ever seen on his gruff face.  “Good health,” Vasily declares.

“Good health to us all,” we repeat in somber unison.  Louis tosses another rock onto the pile.  One by one the rest of us contribute our own rocks.

Louis pauses for a moment in silence, then nods to Vasily.  We climb as a group out of the low spot to view our broken earthship.  “Fire in hole,” announces Vasily.  He presses a soft button on his wristy.  A flash of light erupts through the ship’s broken windscreen, making a sharp report.  Flames and smoke spew from the ship.  We watch in silence.  That bird will never fly again.  We’re stranded.

“All right,” says Louis.  “Let’s get to high ground.  We’ll see what our situation is.”  He starts to hike up the incline, carefully picking his path in the loose, rocky soil.  I follow and the rest come up behind me.  It’s hot.  These suits are not made for hiking.  They’re bulky and sweaty inside.  The boots don’t have the right kind of tread or flex for this climb.  But we manage to make progress.

We get to the top of the rise and gaze out over the strange horizon.  More of the same.  The sun beats down, making my hair hot, but hangs behind a haze.  The sky has turned a weird yellowish-brown color.  Wherever I look, the ground is rocky and bare, dotted with low, misshapen plant life, interspersed with a random collection of larger rocks.  A flat, featureless horizon stretches out across the emptiness.  There’s a low rocky line of mountains to the west.  I take more photographs and add them to the album as I contemplate the sight.  This planet is big.

“We’ve got to be over a thousand klicks to the target,” says Louis, looking over the vast vista, shaking his head, his hand shading his eyes.  “Jeez, there’s just nothing here.  And it looks like the weather is turning sour.  Dust storm, by the looks of it.  We’ll have to shelter best we can under this vegetation until the sun falls a bit and the storm passes.  Hopefully, the Alliance won’t find us too quick.  The storm should slow them down and help cover our tracks.”

“Got any idea what this place is?”  I ask.  I really got no clue.

Louis cocks his head.  He sniffs the air.  He looks off into the distance, arms crossed over his chest.  “Yea,” he says.  “I think they call it Texas.”