We have to set down over seven kilometers away from what turned out to be a wreck hidden amongst the dark, dense perennial forest. Getting Windsong down is a tight parking job: she’s seventy-two meters long with a wingspan of forty-four meters. There’s just enough of a natural clearing paved over with large gray boulders, spotted forest grasses, shrubs, and scattered wildflowers. Her VTOL arcjets blast away much of it in a voluminous plume of mixed cool and superheated air, and I, for a moment, feel deeply saddened that this job is requiring us to land deep in the protected Folklands. These are some of the woods I and so many others cherish; that sustained our early society. I wish them no harm.
Tea is chuffed that she once again proved her mettle as our FIO, beaming in her role as the linchpin crew member netting us our pay. It’s why I put up with her. She has a natural inquisitiveness that gets her into all sorts of trouble. But trouble is what we need to find to make money, so it makes her well-suited to the role.
It’s also not like she’s completely insufferable. She has been a good friend, actually. She is just grating at times… most all the time.
The hydraulic landing suspension in Windsong’s legs find their way steady after a thump aft and a thump forward, and it jolts me ever so slightly in my seat. I wind down the engines and begin an abbreviated post-flight with Fletcher.
“Hydraulics green, her grip is good. Throttle to zero.”
“Ignition capacitors charged, reactor off. She’s cold, skip.”
I sigh so hard it blows out my microphone.
“Okay, let’s do this. Standard procedure for a small craft search and rescue operation, guys. We save the hide of whatever fools are stranded out there, write them up for nearly killing us,”—I put clear emphasis on that part—“and then we have a gyre’s rest to ourselves.”
Tea is ecstatic about that. I can see it in her body language, the way a hyperactive flurry of single-minded sapphic energy in alabaster clad practically leaped off the bridge and into the supply alcove the moment she unbuckled. Fletcher seems much more mindful, taking off his helmet first. He mobilizes and makes his way behind the bulkhead to gather his engineer’s grab bag and rifle from its wall case.
I take my helmet off and idle for the moment to gather myself. I’m somewhat disappointed. I was hoping to have some time floating among the stars while Tea scanned the scopes for suspicious activity. Particularly after hearing from Lydia about what she’s going through, I’ve considered how much of a privilege it is to make runs up and down the turbid velvet skies for a living. How privileged am I to even allow myself moments of insignificance? And to protect my home the only way anyone will let me, while frustrating, is an honor.
It's the only privilege I have left. I worked hard to make this life worth living. My life. A life so many people have either wanted to deny, or allow to whither under misinterpreted mores.
But a stroll in the hallowed forests won’t be all too bad. It has been all too long since I hiked or camped out here. Maybe with the extra time we’ll have when we’re done, and after I chauffeur my crew home, I’ll do just that.
I won’t be needing the rebreather mounted to my back, so I unclamp and remove it. It goes up on the supply wall with the other two. Coming up behind Fletcher, I whisper a terse “ersekta” and reach past him. I unlock a secure compartment down below his legs.
Digging out the heavy canvas with a heave, I crouch to sling a pre-prepared terrestrial search and rescue duffel over my shoulder. Much like our environment suits, they are loud and colorful, Sibylean amber-gold in this case. They contain all the standard things you might need for a rescue operation on solid ground: harnesses, climb kits, pulleys, rope, backup electric equipment, a laser cutter, a stretcher, field medicine supplies, and thermal blankets should we need them for our charge. It’s heavy, well over sixty kilograms. I work out regularly, but sometimes I miss testosterone.
“Oof,” I vocalize when I stand, resetting the duffel’s straps over both my shoulders.
“You alright, skip?” Fletcher turns around.
“Of course,” I reply. “I could use the hike.”
“I mean the duffel.”
“Just been a long time since we used one of these.”
We follow up behind Tea, past the living quarters and into Windsong’s amidships, which is basically just a ton of empty, modularized cargo space we don’t generally use, lest we’re picking up an odd cargo running job during dry spells. It’s a taller, squarer, and dimmer deck than most Sibylean vessels would allow for, simply out of utilitarian consideration for all the machinery and cargo that would be lying around. One neat feature of the Starling-class is that it has front and rear loading ramps, on account of the engines being mounted in articulating nacelles. That’s something the marketing people would never shut up about.
Tea opens the personnel airlock in a flamboyant manner, performing what almost looks like a curtsy. She’s very proud she found us this one. But we’re a team. She’s got to stop being so pretentious.
“Sorry that we couldn’t get closer, boss. That’s just our luck, I guess. The minimal return goes a little further toward explaining why I didn’t see the bogey on the scopes. The thing is tiny, and it may be no more than a re-entry shuttle. I still got plenty of questions, and I’ll have to repress my desire to punch them in the face for their abhorrent flying,”—she clenches her fist and briefly allows her voice to flare to anger—“but whoever is out there probably needs our help.”
I respond wryly, “there will be no punching detainees, Tea. Didn’t they make you take an oath of non-maleficence?”
There’s a second of thought whirling through her addled mind. “Hah! Nope, that’s just for doctors!” she says, stirred in gleeful recollection, like I gave her a terrible idea.
“Let’s reserve judgment until we see what they have to say. They are clearly in distress and not going anywhere. They were lucky to buzz us,” Fletcher comments.
I nod in the affirmative, “we’re over two hundred kilometers from the nearest settlement. We’re not leaving anyone out here to die.”
I step into the airlock with my team. It cycles quickly and needlessly, considering there’s plenty of atmosphere around us. The pneumatic hiss it makes, however abbreviated, is almost humorous. But it’s the only way to ground short of lowering the cargo ramps.
“Let’s go be heroes before someone else does,” I say.
The outer door opens. Despite the mostly cloudy skies of Sibyl, Astrild’s starlight flares off Fletcher’s rifle and floods my eyes in a flash, causing me to shrink. But I give in as my pupils adjust. The heat from her rays feels nice on my face.
We step down the gangway and I secure the ship with my biometrics. I’ve parked her on top of sturdy exposed bedrock that seems to be gouged with ancient glacial striations. I’m glad we found a suitable enough landing site. First, fuck this expedition gear. Second, Windsong can amass over three hundred tons depending on her fuel and cargo load. Right now, with much of her propellant spent from an aborted orbital injection burn, she’s probably sitting just over her dry mass of two hundred. That is still an awful lot of load for the forest floor to bear.
We don’t have a rover right now because we don’t often need one. I went for the new re-entry system instead. The vast majority of our interdictions end with us forcing a suspect to land in the tundra, a much more open and accessible middle of nowhere, with plenty of desolate wilderness to find a suitable landing site for the both of us.
Search and rescue among the trees is less common. I’m not sure we could even get a rover through the thick evergreen and allgold growth of the Folklands. This is the middle of the equatorial forest belt, the approximate location of so much middle period and transitional Sibylean history. It’s remote, but it is very much somewhere. Not quite the sacred Aveline Zone around the Raina Mare, but close enough.
Tea takes point because she’s carrying the least weight and because she’s all too excited to get moving. She brings up the mapping data from Windsong on a dataslate.
“Seven-point-one klicks due east, following the river half the way,” Tea communicates.
She moves forward, then Fletcher, and then myself in tow. I dig my boots into the loose gravel and soil as we hike, and I linger behind, trudging along but always in visual range. My mind wanders out here, and for the moment, far from our destination, I allow it to.
A cacophony of indelible memories surrounds me. I smell the faint mint scent of pine and taste the almost blemishless cool air on my tongue. The distant deluge of rushing rapids and the squawk of an unseen raptor overhead calms my unsettled soul. This is my world. This is what I’m protecting.
No family scorn or high society to besmirch me out here. In this very rare moment on the job, I’m an unladen teenage runaway once again.
“So I did what you suggested, by the way. I went to that Aki’s with a dear friend I made at my last job,” Tea starts as she pulls up the slate to update our location. We’re hiking through a dense flurry of greens and yellows, interspersed with wispy fog. She can’t shut up, but for once, I’m glad. It’s taking my mind off the load I’m carrying on my back.
“Uh-huh? And what did you think?”
“Well, it was a good suggestion. You made your point,” she replies, tapping the map closed. “Another five hundred meters east-northeast. Almost there.”
“Whoa… wait…” I huff. I vocalize in jest, but both my crewmates look back from the hip to make sure I’m not stumbling. “Teresa ‘Maybe I’m Naturally Right’ Shaaban”—that’s something she actually said once—“is conceding that she hasn’t experienced all her adopted home has to offer.”
“Uh…,” she starts.
“And moreover…” I interject as I make a wide stride up and over a huge tree root permeating the rich volcanic soil, “she is accepting the advice of her peers.”
“Is there something wrong with changing your mind after experiencing new things?” she asks.
“Not at all. I’m just delighting in the melody of this rare concession.”
Tea and Fletcher make their way around a sharp dip in the ground. I hear a call to watch my step. The forest terrain is particularly rugged on account of the number of boulders and lava molds of ancient native trees long since extinct. Life we displaced with our own. We continue angling down an incline created by erosion.
“Well, don’t stop,” I say. “Tell me what all you two ate.”
“Something called mork— myrksus. I’ve never heard of it, nor did I think I would enjoy curried sausage. But it seems they were trying out the whole culinary fusion thing. They had even brought in some curry leaves from my homeworld to garnish, which was a nice little fragrant touch. Good mixture of earthy, salty, and spicy seasoning throughout the meat. And the curry… stew… sauce, whatever, was absolutely delectable.”
I hear Fletcher suppress a snicker.
“They were serving myrksus as the ‘hottest thing on the menu’?” I ask inquisitively while stepping over a fallen mossy log.
“Yeah. Hey, it was middle of the road as far as my palate is concerned, but better than the tasteless drudge we’d been discussing,” she says.
“Do you want to tell her, or should I?” Fletcher asks over his shoulder. I’m actually surprised that Fletcher caught on, but he did have a whole two years to study our language and culture while he drifted through the expanse with his trade flotilla. Or maybe he’s just picked up on it somewhere. He probably gets out to fancy establishments with his rich husband all the time.
“Tea…” I start.
She turns around, allowing me a chance to catch up. I briefly stop in front of her and look down upon her sweet, tawny face with regretful admonishment. I look apologetically into those radiant hazel eyes. I hate to upset her, as much as she upsets me.
“I didn’t realize they would do this to you, but… myrksus—dark sauce—is mostly sheep’s blood.”
I continue with Fletcher now taking point while Tea soaks that knowledge in.
“I think I see it, Ash,” Fletcher notes. “There’s smoke at three-thirty.” The Sibylean day is thirty-six hours, and there are three hundred sixty degrees in a circle, so just like communicating azimuth in the air or vacuum, it’s a handy way to coordinate direction on foot.
I look up, newly hopeful I can discard this burden on my shoulders. The lactic acid buildup in my body is getting too strong.
“I think I see it, too. There was a sharp precipice up ahead. Think you can run up and scout it out for us?”
“You got it, skip,” Fletcher acknowledges, dropping his grab bag, drawing his rifle, and dashing away.
“Tea, get the fuck up here,” I command.
She jogs up to my side and picks up the bag of tools Fletcher left behind. At that moment, I realize again that we will have to make our return trip with at least the same load to carry, or more. Fuck.
I wait for Fletcher’s recon over the radio.
“Scanning,” I hear from him in my earpiece.
As Tea and I trudge forward, I hear the same unseen raptor squawk overhead. Or maybe a different one. But it’s particularly loud and obnoxious, like it’s crowing an alarm. And it’s right to be alarmed. Tea and I stop about fifty meters behind Fletcher, not out of protocol, but because we can now see clearly that a line of several thick, venerable evergreens, centuries-old, have been sliced in half.
“My goddess,” Tea says, “did the ship really just plow through those trees on its way down like they were nothing?”
“Hell of a sight,” I concur with tired ventilation. “I don’t think we’ll be saving any lives today.”
“Uh, gals? We’re clear. You’re going to want to come up here and tell me what I’m looking at, because as your engineer I have zero fucking idea,” Fletcher reports over encrypted broadwave.
We hike the remaining distance and meet up with Fletcher, who rounds the thick mature allgold tree he had been using for cover. He lowers his rifle, looking as confused as he sounds. As I climb to the crest of the embankment, I smell something unusual and rancid in the air that makes my nose itch and eyes water. At the top, I step beside Fletcher and peer down at the hole gouged into Sibyl’s flesh before us. I feel my jaw go slack.
Half-buried into soil, rock, burnt tree roots, and undergrowth lies a small, angular vessel lilting sideways, somehow largely intact after crashing through the atmosphere and the forest canopy. Its most obvious sign of distress: far more wild electrical arcing between its various extended parts than I’ve ever seen, or ever thought physically possible.