Forgot the Keys

Zarbin swore for the thousandth time that day as he contemplated his situation. He doubted that anyone in the Scout Corps had ever been faced with a dilemma quite like his.

A week ago, he had been surveying the Balvenna system, scanning its seven planets for minerals, flora, fauna, and other basic data. It was during his low orbit sensor sweep of the second planet that his problems had begun. A shorted control panel had sent him spiraling down into the desert planet's atmosphere, with an added bonus of filling the cockpit with enough smoke to choke a Xenenium firehawk. Despite all this, he had managed to land within walking distance of a twelve-kilometer square cluster of trees, then stagger out the hatch clutching a medical kit. He had made it to the treeline before passing out.

He had only been unconscious for half a day, but it had been enough. When he had regained his senses, he had walked back to the ship, only to plow headfirst into the scout's defensive screens. To his dismay, he had quickly ascertained three very important facts. First, the ship's defensive grid had been set on automatic. Second, the ship's solar panels would constantly recharge the defensive grid, keeping the shields raised indefinitely. Third, his remote control (and only way of communicating with the ship's computer from outside) was sitting next to his coffee mug in his cabin.

Zarbin cursed again as he took a swig of water from his canteen. The oasis had been an extremely good choice for a landing sight. Water was abundant, and his medkit's patch test had confirmed the compatibility of the local fruit with his biology. If worse came to worse, he could live out the rest of his days quite comfortably.

Until I hang myself out of sheer boredom.

Zarbin stood, brushing sand off his flightsuit, then stepped out of the shadow of his ship and strolled back to his camp in the oasis. He had initially tried to construct an elevated lean-to several meters above the ground, but after nearly breaking his neck twice, he had decided to risk a night on the ground. A week's reconnaissance had turned up nothing more dangerous than a pale yellow version of an Earth mule deer, and he now slept under the dense canopy, spotting an occasional star when it peeped through. His camp wasn't much more than a small clearing about fifteen meters from the spring that fed the entire oasis.

He ducked under the foliage at the edge of the oasis, following the path he had cleared once he had set up camp. It wasn't much. All he had was a survival knife and a medkit with which to decorate his new home, and there was only so much he could do with sterile gauze and field dressings. Initially, Zarbin had hoped to find a portable med scanner in the kit. He knew enough about electronics to jury-rig a simple remote out of one, but unfortunately, the Scout Corps had been unusually tight-pursed when it had come to the on-board survival equipment of its survey vessels. The kit he had snatched during his evacuation had been the basic no-frills model. Not even headache medicine, which would have come in handy immediately after he had discovered the active screens. He still had a fair-sized knot on his forehead from that revelation.

Sitting down, he snagged one of the pale green fruit he had harvested the night before and bit into it while he reviewed the log of the week's activities on the back of an old letter he had found in one of his many pockets.

Monday - crash-landed on a desert planet, then passed out long enough to be locked out of the ship. Nearly bashed brains in trying to walk through a class two defensive screen.

Tuesday - shouted self horse trying to verbally shut the grid down.

Wednesday - spent better part of the day throwing rocks and insults at the ship, with equivalent results.

Thursday - climbed to top of tallest tree, hoping to discover a spaceport overlooked during orbital scan. Discovered several kilometers of sand, instead.

Friday - went swimming.

Saturday - started to dig a tunnel under the ship in the hopes that the screens don't extend into the ground.

Sunday - verified that the screens do indeed extend into the ground.

Which brought him back to Monday. Despite himself, he smiled as he thought about how ludicrous his situation was. Through the trees, he could see his ship sitting there, as accessible as could be. The boarding platform was still there, an open door that he couldn't get within five meters of. He could almost see the cockpit if he stood in the right spot. The ship was all but laughing at him.

Zarbin wondered how long it would take for the Scout Corps to notice he was missing. His survey mission had been scheduled for three years, of which thirteen months had already passed. But the pilots of the Scout Corps rarely followed their flight plans to the letter, and a delay of upwards of a year wouldn't raise any eyebrows at Central Command. Of course, even after he was missed, it was even odds they would simply report him as missing in action. Until another ship was dispatched to complete the survey he had been assigned, he doubted he'd see another ship. That was probably at least a decade away.

Scratch that.

Zarbin had no intention of waiting patiently for a rescue. Somehow he intended to get back on his ship. But how?

He had considered trying to stack fallen trees on the shields, hoping to overload the system with a constant pressure on the defensive grid. Unfortunately, two problems presented themselves. The first was the daunting task of felling trees with nothing but a survival knife, then dragging them to the ship and somehow lifting them up against the shield. The second was the fact that if it actually succeeded in bringing the defense grid down, the trees would probably then cause severe damage to the ship itself. Not exactly what Zarbin thought was a good idea.

He had also contemplated trying to simply push through the screen. An old Scout pilot had told him about an assault he had repelled on one of the myriad worlds he had surveyed. An alien warlord had laid siege to his ship when he had been forced to land for repairs. The battering ram concept was slightly different on that world, and rather than repetitive strikes against a gate (or a shield, as the case was), the aliens were content to prop a log against the shield, then add weights to a pulley system that constantly increased the pressure behind the ram. The old spacer had been amused by the attempt initially, but as the days had passed, the log had inched its way through the screen, until it was less than a meter away from the hull of his ship. When he finished his repairs and lifted off, he actually had to take the log with him into orbit. If he had dropped his screens to release the log, it would have slammed into his port engine with the force of several metric tons.

Zarbin's experiments in this area were altogether unsuccessful. He lacked the means to bring anything more substantial than a stout branch to the ship, and then he had only his own body weight with which to push it. He surprised himself by having enough patience to lean against it for almost a half hour before giving up in disgust. As far as he could tell, the shield had given not one millimeter.

An apple (that's what the local fruit reminded him of) thumped into the sand next to him, startling him. Zarbin glanced at it unconcerned until he realized it had several bites taken out of it. He looked up, astonished to see a dark shape leaping from treetop to treetop. He tried to get a better look at the retreating form, but it dove into an area where the foliage was thick enough to block out the sunlight.

What the heck was that?

Zarbin drew his knife, hoping like mad that he wasn't going to need it, and began cautiously tracking the creature. As he advanced deeper into the oasis, he shouted up at the trees.

"Hey! Hello?"

The only answer was the slight rustle of the breeze as it whispered through the trees. With each step, Zarbin seemed to step further and further into a dark, foreboding gloom. As he proceeded, he sensed that he was being watched, but couldn't see any eyes peering at him from the shadows.

The trees around him gave him no clue as to his visitor's whereabouts. After several minutes of poking about in the undergrowth, Zarbin decided to return to the less dense section of the oasis where he had set up camp. After all, the creature had been eating an apple. Perhaps it was a vegetarian.

When he studied the apple, he felt a little better. Whatever had been eating the fruit had done so with a small mouth lined with what were probably tiny, rounded teeth. It certainly didn't look like the bite of a ravenous carnivore. He realized that the creature could still be dangerous, but it seemed unlikely that it was planning on devouring him.

Still, the fact that a creature of that size was roaming freely through the treetops made him uneasy. If it suddenly dropped onto him, he didn't know if he would be able to fight it off. It had looked to be only slightly smaller than a man. If it were a simian, it would be powerfully built. To have the speed and agility it displayed supported that. But if it were avian in nature, it would be relatively fragile. Zarbin didn't know enough xenobiology to even guess beyond what he had seen, but he was fairly certain he hadn't seen any wings.

The encounter did bring Zarbin to the conclusion that he needed to know a little more about his surroundings, so the next morning he broke down his camp (a simple matter of tossing a few apples in the medkit case) and, after refilling his canteen, started following the stream that led away from the spring.

The terrain was relatively easy to navigate, as the wet sand had been packed tightly over time until it was practically a narrow sidewalk along the stream's bank. The clear water flowed swiftly, bubbling cheerfully over the occasional rock in the streambed. Zarbin kept checking every few meters, but no fish were evident among the mossy patches that littered the stream.

The trees were much closer together along the stream, obviously tapping into the water supply. Zarbin kept an eye on these as well, half expecting the creature from yesterday's visit to leap out at him from behind one of the trunks.

As the creek wound deeper into the forest, Zarbin marveled at the beauty surrounding him. Occasional wildflowers splashed the otherwise dark colors of the undergrowth with bursts of scarlet and orange. Small insects flitted about, apparently gathering nectar from the flowers. Zarbin studied one as it toiled inside a nearby blossom. He smiled as it dawned on him that he hadn't seen any predatory insects yet.

No mosquitoes. No flies. No stingers on the bees. I'm in paradise. Too bad I've forgotten my keys.

Something caught Zarbin's eye in a nearby tree, and he angled away from the stream in order to get a better look at it. At first he thought it was some sort of growth in the fork of the tree, but as he approached, he saw that it was a roughly woven mass of leaves and vines. It looked like a huge nest.

Anybody home?

Zarbin crept closer, but it soon became apparent that the nest was unoccupied, though not deserted. Several apple cores were strewn around the base of the trunk, where ant-like insects worked diligently to salvage them. Tufts of shiny black fur were scattered amid clumps of sand and refuse. The breeze's direction changed slightly, and Zarbin got a whiff of the nest. It was painfully obvious that the occupant of the nest rarely if ever changed its bedding.

Zarbin turned to head back to the stream when motion caught the corner of his eye. He froze, then turned slowly toward the motion.

Two bright eyes peered out at him from a dark shadow under a leafy bush. As he watched, the creature that he had seen yesterday (or another of the same species) crept out into the clearing. It resembled a small gorilla with an extra set of arms and a snout that tapered down to the small mouth Zarbin had expected to see. Glossy black fur covered its entire body, and Zarbin couldn't tell if it was a male, female, or something else entirely. Beneath the fur, powerful muscles rippled with every movement.

So much for the big bird theory.

Zarbin spread his arms, palms outwards, hoping he was signaling a peaceful intent, and not a combat stance or (heaven forbid) an invitation to mate.

The creature cocked its head at him and snorted. If it was unhappy with his presence, it was being polite about it. Zarbin smiled, then stopped, wondering if the creature would find the facial expression threatening.

The creature scratched itself, apparently unconcerned. Zarbin decided that it was the ape's turn to do something, so he stood motionless and waited for the creature's response.

"C'mon, fella. Offer me a beer or something."

The ape continued to scrutinize him, but made no other gestures, either hostile or friendly. Zarbin's arms were getting tired, and he was about to drop them to his sides when the ape straightened its back and lifted all four of its arms in an imitation of Zarbin's pose. It held the stance in a most ungainly fashion, appearing precariously balanced, and continued to stare at him.

Okay, I guess the ball is back in my court.

Zarbin eased his arms to his sides, then pointed slowly at his chest. "I'm Zarbin."

The ape cocked its head and snorted again. Its hands dropped back onto the ground with a thump that indicated the creature had more mass than Zarbin had expected. He definitely did not want to get into a brawl with this little powerhouse. He opened his medkit and took out two apples. One he rolled toward the ape. The other he bit. As he chewed on the apple, a name popped into his head unbidden.

"Hey Abe. You hungry?"

Abe the ape looked down at the apple, then picked it up with and sniffed it. Apparently satisfied, he began munching away. Zarbin smiled, this time feeling secure that he and Abe were on semi-speaking terms. The two of them sat eating apples and studying one another.

Zarbin broke out of the trees and glared at his ship. A hurled rock confirmed that the screens were as energized as ever. With a frustrated grumble, he turned and stomped back to the trees. Ape grunted at him from a nearby branch. Zarbin had spent the better part of two days trying to communicate with Abe, only to come to the grudging realization that Abe wasn't inclined to learn English anytime soon. Abe's appetite for apples was bordering on voracious, and Zarbin's medkit had been quickly emptied. After that, Zarbin and Abe had gone foraging together, with Abe shaking apples loose from the treetops, then hooting at him until he put them in his medkit. Once the case was full, they had headed back to the nest, where Abe had happily gobbled every apple Zarbin had rolled to him.

Zarbin had decided to return to his ship, not willing to abandon it for more than a couple days at a time. It was a constant reminder of his stupidity, but it was still his only way home.

Now that he could see it again, the impotent fury he felt for himself was tripled. How in the Horsehead Nebula had he been so foolish? He had programmed the automatic defenses himself!

Then something caught his eye. He noticed that the wind had piled up a fair amount of sand on the starboard side of the ship. Enough to cast a shadow on the aft landing gear.

Shadows . . .

Zarbin smiled back at Abe, who was hanging upside-down from his branch.

"Hey, buddy! You feel like making a sandcastle?"

It was almost two months later when they finished. Zarbin looked down at his sand-encrusted nails, then back up at the huge mound of sand that he and Abe had made. Without a shovel, they had been forced to use the medkit case as a makeshift bucket. At first, Abe had been hesitant to leave the safety of the trees, but after Zarbin coaxed him out with a dozen apples, the playful ape had been willing to sit and watch Zarbin load the case with sand and drag it over to the ship. After a few days, Abe had begun helping. After a few more days, Abe was helping so enthusiastically that Zarbin wondered whether the ape was trying to bury the ship or the two of them.

But now the ship's shield was completely covered in sand. By doing so, Zarbin hoped to regain access to the ship. Without a daily recharge from Balvenna's sun, he estimated that the shields would fail in about a month. Once that happened, he'd be able to enter the ship and deactivate the defense grid. Then it would be a simple matter to clean the sand off the solar panels and wait for the cells to recharge.

Abe stood next to him, grunting softly. He held an apple in each of his four hands, and he offered one to Zarbin while munching on two others. Zarbin accepted the apple gratefully, knowing from experience that the fourth apple Abe held went to whoever finished what they had first.

Zarbin was reasonably certain that Abe's species was fairly intelligent, although he had yet to see another ape to judge by. Abe could be an exceptional specimen or a moron. Sometimes Zarbin suspected that Abe was a little of both. Nevertheless, the ape had been good company. Zarbin doubted he could have spent the time it took burying his ship without hovering on the brink of insanity. During his initial physical, the Scout Corps psychologist had nearly disqualified him for service, citing his need for social interaction. He had responded by installing the latest in VR station technology in his ship to help him while away the days between destinations. Being isolated from his equipment had been an unpleasant experience, but Abe had helped pass the time. Zarbin looked down at the ape, trying to guess what bizarre thoughts wandered through that furry cranium.

Probably wondering if my ship has apples in it.

Abe had been surprisingly unafraid of the ship. Zarbin had expected the ape to scurry for the trees the first time it had touched the shield. But Abe had simply run all four hands across the invisible surface for a few moments as if inspecting it for some flaw, then returned to the task of piling sand against it. Zarbin didn't know very many people that were that indifferent to an active defense grid. But then, Abe might simply be too baffled by the unseen wall to worry about it.

"So what do you think, Abe? Biggest darn sandcastle I ever made."

Abe grunted, and Zarbin imagined that the ape was in agreement. Then Abe hooted and pointed past the ship. Zarbin squinted in the sunlight, trying to see what had captured the ape's attention. All he saw was a yellow haze that stretched across nearly a quarter of the horizon.

Yellow haze? What the heck is that?

The haze seemed to grow even as he watched. Then Abe was pulling him forcefully back towards the treeline, hooting frantically. Zarbin stumbled after the ape, barely maintaining his balance.

"Whoa! Abe! What's wrong?"

Then it dawned on him. The growing haze wasn't just yellow. It was sand-colored.

Oh, great.

Zarbin and Abe sprinted into the forest, Abe taking to the trees immediately. The ape leapt from branch to branch with a speed that amazed Zarbin, only to stop and hoot for the Scout to hurry up.

"I'm right behind you, Abe! But where ya goin'?"

Abe hooted twice more, then turned and charged deeper into the forest. Zarbin puffed as he followed the panicky ape, already winded from the exertion. Spacer training rarely included jogging as part of the curriculum.

Behind him, Zarbin heard a dull roar that increased in volume as he listened. That he could hear it over the thudding of his protesting heart worried him greatly, but he knew that if he turned to look, he'd trip on a vine or tree root and plow into the ground headfirst. Twenty meters ahead of him, Abe was bouncing on one of the lower branches of the biggest tree in sight and hooting at him to hurry up. Then the ape dropped to the ground and dove into a hollow tree trunk. Zarbin raced to join him, the roar sounding downright loud by now. Zarbin also noticed that the wind was beginning to pick up quite a bit as well.

When he stuck his head in the hollow, he could just barely see Abe perched on a ledge about two meters above him. He scrambled up to the ledge, using whatever hand and toeholds he could find. When he squeezed onto the ledge, Abe scooted over to make more room for him, then offered him an apple.

Crazy ape has apples coming out of his ears!

Zarbin took the apple and bit into it, making a face as he did. Obviously Abe had stored these apples a couple weeks ago. The apple felt very soft, and the taste was that of a fruit that was on the verge of going bad. Abe didn't seem to mind, so Zarbin figured it probably wouldn't kill him either. Besides, they might be in here a while, and he knew Abe wasn't likely to save him any for later if he rejected this one.

Heck, Abe'll probably repossess this one if I don't hurry up.

Together they sat listening to the sandstorm and chewing on old apples.

The storm lasted for two days, making Zarbin extremely glad that he knew Abe. Without the ape, Zarbin knew he'd be little more than a sand-blasted skeleton by now. The entrance to the tree was completely blocked with sand, but fortunately the hollow had a higher hole that allowed air to get in to them. It took them several hours to dig themselves out, partly because Abe decided that the best way to get rid of the sand was to throw it up toward the ledge they had been on. Zarbin guessed that about ninety five percent of it just fell back down on their heads instead.

When he finally crawled out of the hollow, the world that greeted his eyes was like an altogether different landscape. Sand was heaped against the trunks of all the trees, and most of the undergrowth was completely buried. Very few of the trees had any leaves left on them, and those were so sandblasted that Zarbin expected them to disintegrate at any moment.

Beside him, Abe let out a low warbling moan. The ape was obviously distressed by what he saw. Zarbin patted him on the shoulder. "I know, buddy. Looks like we're fresh out of apples."

A thought suddenly occurred to him. He looked out past the scarred treetrunks toward his ship. Just as he feared, the storm had uncovered most of it. A massive sand dune was piled up nearly to the top of the aft section, but from the guidance thrusters forward the ship was very much in the sun. Zarbin could almost hear the power cells recharging.

He started swearing with such fury that Abe crawled back into the treetrunk.

Another two months passed before they were able to completely cover the ship again. Zarbin's medkit had either been buried or blown away, so they had nothing but their bare hands to work with. Fortunately, the freshly deposited dune acted as a natural ramp, and they were able to work from the top down.

Ape had disappeared during Zarbin's temper tantrum, and the Scout was worried that the ape might have deserted him, evoking a completely new round of swearing that rivaled the first session. But by the time he had managed to find the spring (little more than a damp area in the sand), Abe had returned with more apples clasped in his furry fists. Zarbin actually hugged the surprised ape, then gratefully took the customary apple while Abe gobbled his two. Zarbin actually managed to earn the fourth apple, something he had only done twice before.

The damage to the oasis was far less catastrophic than it had initially appeared. Already foliage was pushing up through the fresh layer of sand, and the leaves reappeared on the trees in a matter of days. The two sand-movers did have to rely on Abe's hidden apple stashes, but within two weeks new apples were sprouting all over the forest, and the man and the ape glutted themselves. The spring had reasserted itself, and was even now forming a new stream bed roughly along the path of the original.

Zarbin realized now that sandstorms were probably not unusual to the oasis. Abe certainly knew what they were and how to survive them. And it appeared that the oasis was quite handy at recovering from them. As far as Zarbin could tell, no evidence remained to testify that there had even been a sandstorm.

Well, once again his ship was buried. Hopefully this time his plan would work.

Three more months passed, and Zarbin was ready to scream. The mound was as big as ever, and he and Abe checked every morning for spots where the wind might have blown a hole in the sand that would allow sunlight to reach the solar panels. Not so much as a single watt should have made it to the ship, yet her screens were as impervious as ever. What was wrong?

Disgusted, he stomped on the shield, feeling the vibration under his feet as the screen distributed the force of the blow. A trickle of sand tumbled down the sides, dislodged by the minor tremor. Zarbin was caught up short. It wouldn't do for him to uncover the ship in a fit of rage.

Like it matters.

Abe hooted at him, querulously. Zarbin was starting to understand the ape a little more each day. He knew Abe was wondering why he was angry.

"Why am I angry? I'll tell you exactly why, Abe. It's because I can't get into my blasted ship!!" He gave the ship another furious stomp.

It was at this precise minute that the screens finally collapsed, dropping the unlikely pair two meters onto their tailbones.

The computer rattled off the results of the various self-tests Zarbin had demanded once power was restored. "All systems are green. Power levels nominal. Maintenance diagnostics report no failing components."

Tell me about it. Especially the defense grid. That sucker's in outstanding condition!

Zarbin acknowledged the report, then spun in his command chair. Free at last! He turned to grin at Abe. "Looks like it's time for me to go, old buddy!"

A sudden twinge of sadness suddenly seized him. He realized that this meant good-bye.

Abe stared intently at Zarbin, then pointed at his comm panel. Zarbin looked at Abe, wondering why the ape was interested in that particular station. Did Abe want to play with the controls?

Why not.

Zarbin rose out of the command chair, making room for Abe to sit down. "Sure, fella. Have a seat. What do you want to do - call an old girlfriend?"

Abe hopped into the chair and started operating the controls so quickly that Zarbin was barely able to begin protesting before he realized that the ape wasn't cycling switches randomly, but was sending out a very specific signal on a short-range frequency. Then Abe was done, and Zarbin barely avoided being plowed over by the ape as it dashed out of the cockpit and down the boarding platform.

Zarbin ran after him. "Hey Abe! What did you just . . ." He stopped dead in his tracks, his jaw hanging down in mid-shout. Another ship had suddenly shimmered into existence not two hundred meters from his own, and Abe was galloping headlong toward it, hooting exuberantly. As Zarbin watched, Abe popped open a hatch and disappeared into the vessel. Moments later, Zarbin's comm station chirped with an incoming message. He activated the receivers and opened the channel. Abe peered up at him from the monitor, chattering at him. Zarbin heard the hoots and grunts, but simultaneously he heard a voice translating the ape's gibberish into broken English.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" The voice was brimming with excitement.

Zarbin's voice climbed a full octave. "Abe!?"

"Yes! Abe! Yes!"

Zarbin slumped into his seat, no longer trusting his legs to support him. "But . . . how? Where did that ship come from? Why are you on it?"

Abe hooted ecstatically. "My ship! Always been here!"

Zarbin frowned. "The heck it has! I just watched it appear out of thin air!"

Abe's hoots took on a meek tone. "Ship phased."

Phased?

Abe continued, sounding acutely embarrassed. "Was exploring system. Landed on planet eighteen zurgs ago. Left ship without deactivating automatic defenses. Ship phased while I was in forest. Been here ever since."

Zarbin sat there, stunned. Then he started to giggle. At first he tried to suppress it, but it just came out as a horrid snicker that almost gagged him. Finally he could contain it no longer, and he laughed so hard tears streamed down his cheeks. Abe was initially indignant, but soon he was snorting with pleasure as Zarbin explained why they had buried his ship.

The sounds of human and alien laughter echoed out of the two cockpits and across the desert.

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