Ensign Nathaniel Hopewell is the only survivor when his ship crash-lands on an uninhabited planet. Now he must keep himself alive long enough to be rescued, a task that seems insurmountable in a desolate, unfriendly place, on his own. Or is he?
A/N: Thanks for checking out my story. Please let me know what you think. This is an aside to "Of Wolves and Foxes," and while they share the same setting they are independent of each other. Enjoy!
"To any ships in range of this message: My name is Ensign Nathanial Hopewell. I'm the executive officer of the ILS freighter Nuara. My ship was damaged during a jump-core overload and crashed on this planet on the 3rd of December, 2357. I am the crew's only survivor. If you are hearing this message please follow the beacon's transmission to my location. My supplies are limited, and I fear that time is running out."
12 December 2357
It was well into the evening when I finally got back to my camp below a rocky outcrop in a scraggly forest of stunted trees and scrub bushes. While my immediate area was becoming an all-too familiar view of my new 'home,' this alien planet was proving harsher than I had originally thought when I first came here nine days before. The midday heat was proving to be debilitating for a thick-coated wolf; so much so that I've had to limit my activity during the day to little more than panting and pondering why my life had to take such a terrific turn. It had gotten to the point that I gave up entirely on day-time work, preferring to sleep from late morning to early evening; something that was easier in theory than in practice.
My eyes caught the faint glint of metal in the moonlight. My night vision was better than some wolves I knew, but I still had to rely strongly on the cool pale shine of the two moons overhead to trudge heavy-hearted across my camp and unclasp what had been a titanium plate to the Nuara's hull from where I had hung it the night before. I could just make out the lettering I had etched onto the smooth metal: "Have gone to search for water and life. 160 degrees magnetic. Will return in one day. EN. Hopewell. 11 Dec."
I snorted. "Tomorrow then," I said, tossing the sign in the dirt.
I had made a kind of lean-two with what wooden beams and suitable fragments of my ship I could drag up a gently-sloping hill and lift into place. I couldn't quite stand up in it, but it served its purpose: It gave me enough shade during the day and would—hopefully—provide shelter if ever it rained (gods willing). From where I was I could look across a rolling landscape of draws, ridges, spurs, and hills. The Nuara lay beaten and broken below me. If anybody came to investigate the wreckage, I would see it before they saw me, be they friend or foe. Piracy was not uncommon in this quadrant and a distress signal would prove most tantalizing to those damned scavengers. Or worse. Ursine space was not far off and our two people had not left a recent war on the best of terms.
I swung my supply pack from tired shoulders with a hiss that escaped between gritted teeth. The crash had left my right should bruised and numb for days. I was afraid it had been dislocated, but severe pain had quickly replaced the numbness after a day. It still made it difficult to carry much. Next I let down an empty rubber bladder I had hoped to fill with water. I had spent the previous night hiking to the peak of a nearby mound to get a good lay of the land. I was sorely disappointed. There was neither sign nor smell of water or life, civilized or other, for as far as I could see. I did see a deep gorge about twenty five kilometers from my camp, and gorges typically meant there would be water at the bottom. That would have to wait. I figured I had between one and two weeks of fresh drinkable water in supply, though I certainly couldn't say I would be rescued before it ran out.
From the beginning I was sure I'd be found the next day. But that had been nine days ago. I had even started to collect my urine, planning on filtering it somehow…just in case. The Nuara wasn't due at its destination on the edge of the beta frontier for at least another week, and it would probably take another week for a search party to happen upon my distress signal.
I sat down and tore off my boots to rub my tired footpaws and wipe sweat from my nose. Gods, it was hot. Even at night. The sky was crystal clear; at that time in the twilight when one horizon is a perfect black, the other a quickly fading blue so dark it might as well have been pitch black, had my planet's twin moons not been so bright. I could recognize none of the star formations whatever. Had the Nuara's navigation computer not fried in the decent I could have made heads or tails of where in the beta quadrant I was.
I shook my head.
I wouldn't permit myself to think about it. Worrying about the uncontrollable and calculating variables and odds of survival would make me insane before too long. I had to focus on staying alive and staying healthy. Rescue would only be possible so long as I were alive to witness it.
And that meant finding water and eventually food. I could eat the ship's rations for a month or so, but water would not last and neither would I without it. If there were plants on this gods-forsaken rock, then it was only logical that—
I stiffened, my breath seizing in my chest. I had seen a flash. Not from above, but from below me, somewhere down in the draw, near the Nuara. I squinted painfully against the dim light. It had been so quick, so small…like a glint of metal shining in the moonlight, much like my sign. But that couldn't be possible without movement.
I reached blinding for my rifle, fumbling with excited paws, not able to take my eyes from the metal skeleton below. I found my footing in the loose dirt and shale, cursing under my breath every time I sent a few rocky tumbling down the hill and causing a general uproar in an otherwise calm night. I don't think I could have helped it. For the first time since after the crash I felt a gripping fear.
By the time I reached the bottom I had fallen so many times on my ass I couldn't feel my tail anymore. I reached the aft hull first. It was still warm from the sun. The main cargo ramp wasn't down, but it was fractured and ajar. I hadn't succeeded in getting it open. The hydraulics were shot and the manual controls were jammed. There was another opening on the starboard side and after scanning up and down the smooth hull I decided to move the long way around her forward section. That way I could clear the outside before making my way inside.
She wasn't a huge ship by any stretch, but at a little more than 100 meters in length and fifty meters wide, there was still a lot of ground to cover. The Nuara was a mid-range cargo transport: A porter-class freighter that was designed to carry small-end items like medical supplies, rations, and munitions.
I gripped my short carbine to my shoulder like a lifeline, ignoring the throb there. I crept slowly, making each step deliberate. My ears moved this way and that. It was eerily quiet. There wasn't anything out of the ordinary. There weren't any unidentifiable scents on the air and I wondered if I wasn't just being paranoid.
Then I reached a gaping hole in the ship's starboard fuselage, the wound that ultimately damned her crew, and the fear of the uncertain returned. I was staring into a jagged fracture that was about three meters wide and spanned three decks. Her alloy ribs were folded out like someone had punched the hole out from inside the ship. It was charred a carbon-black and an acrid smell still lingered. It was pitch black inside.
I flipped on the little light that hung under my rifle and took a deep breath and swung around and into the ship, making a broad three-hundred and sixty degree sweep. This had been the engine compartment before the overload occurred. I listened carefully, sampling the air for unusual scents, but the odor of recent chemical fires and plasma discharges had a way of burning my nostrils and overwhelming any more subtle traces. Still, I could sense something out of place. Something I couldn't quite put my paw on.
And it terrified me.
My hackles were up and my tail twitched. I moved further into the cargo hold, passing a hapless pile of crates marked "Urgent: Do not delay." The ship had come to rest at a slight angle making for an awkward situation, but I managed to stay oriented well enough. This was only the first deck. There was one more cargo deck above and extending to the rear of the ship. The crew compartments were above that.
Slowly I moved forward, making little stops here and there to look, listen, and sniff, just as they'd trained us to do at the academy. I never thought I'd actually use it. It seemed quiet, untouched. I crept forward, carefully navigating the disorder, when I felt something sticky under my footpaw. I hadn't bothered to put my boots back on before stumbling down the hill, but as I stared down at the deck I suddenly wished I had. Whatever I was stepping in was now all over the bottom of my paw. It looked greenish blue in the intense light of my weapon. Sniffing a little tentatively at the goop I found that it was the mystery smell I had sensed upon entering. Following the slow stream I found an upturned crate of medical supplies labeled "Endoplasmic suspension, sterile, 25 units. Store at room temperature."
I let a long sigh escape my muzzle as I relaxed, rubbing the back of my paw across my forehead to wipe way the moisture. "You've been here too long, Nat. That's all. Just too long."
It wasn't difficult convincing myself, as I stood there in the dark and bitter hold, that once again I had let my loneliness, paranoia, and desperation get the best of me. I suppose it was wolven nature to be suspicious and protective of my territory. I should have known I wouldn't find anything and perhaps, deep within me, there was a voice that longed to find one more living thing in this desolate place. I had wondered if some kind of animal life existed here; a bird, a rodent, a grazing beast, anything…
As I turned to leave, I dragged my paw across the deck to get most of the goop off. I found my way into the forward storage compartments where we keep what equipment we need; rations, water, personal belongings, replacement parts, etc. The first had been demolished by the overload. The second and third were left in-tact. I opened the second manually (the hydraulics had no power) and bent to lift one of the 20 liter cans of fresh water when the long narrow bags in the corner caught my attention. There were four of them, lined-up lengthwise, just as I had left them a week ago.
My crew-mates. Captain Howard, the commander. Warrant Officer Campbell, our communications and navigation specialist. Tech Sergeant Hendrix, the engineer.
Petty Officer Boarden, the load-master and resident medic.
I didn't want to think of her. Not now. Not while I had other problems. But it was impossible not to, especially during those long mornings when it wait for the sun to rise with nothing specific to do except allow my mind to wonder. I felt ashamed of myself at those times for being alone. For being alive. Survivor's guilt, they call it. Why was I the only one that survived? Why was I so special? Why not her, my Laura?
I saw her sweet face flash across my mind's eye, however briefly, and I shivered, closing my eyes. I had awoken alone in the cockpit after impact. I thank my harness for saving my life. Below the bridge the decks were filled with a thick grey smoke that burned my lungs and eyes. My ears were ringing. My right arm wouldn't move. I howled for help, for anybody that could hear my choking voice. Dread had overtaken me suddenly, and I crawled on my paws and knees, finding Captain Howard first, then Chief Campbell, their bodies twisted and burned by plasma discharge. I will never forget the smell of plasma-seared flesh and fur for as long as I live. I panicked, somehow finding my way out of the Nuara and into the sun where I passed out and didn't wake up until it was dark. I gathered the nerve to go back into the ship. I never did find Tech Sergeant Hendrix, and haven't since. I decided he must have been vaporized or sucked from the ship during entry through the atmosphere. I found the remains of three fox slaves as well. We were transporting five in total, though I never found the other two, assuming they met the same fate as Hendrix. I came across Laura by accident while digging through loads of ammunition in the upper cargo deck where she'd been crushed. I often wonder if there was anything I could have done for her; if she had been alive and in pain while I fled the ship in terror after waking.
I looked away, remembering what I came here to do. I gripped the water can's handles with both paws and tugged, almost falling over when it weighed a lot less than what I expected.
It was only half full.
'That's strange,' I thought. I could have swore they were all full.