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Chapter 18: Sand Dune

Rufus was the first to recover. He dimly remembered Nike's announcement. They had been hit and were going to crash. Hit by what, he wondered, and why? Beside him, Percy was out cold and hanging in his emergency harness. Rufus stared at the floor tilting away at an odd angle. He then realized he was lying on his back in his own harness. He struggled to free himself from the flight seat. His weight and position made it difficult to do so. He fought against his restraints but made no progress. Soon his fur was soaked in perspiration and he began to panic. Would he ever escape? He tried to relax, but he was having difficulty breathing and he noticed a sharp pain in his chest. He felt light-headed, so he decided to rest for a bit before making another escape attempt.

Rufus's strong physique prevented him from realizing that something was terribly wrong with him. He drifted into a blissful sleep from which he never awoke.

Chelydra had been thrown into the ship's dining area. The window there should have provided a view of space, but instead sand partially covered the view of a wind-blown dune. A swirling mist of tiny particles sparkled in the noontime sun. "Sun? Sand?" Chelydra shook his head in puzzlement. "Where are we?" He wished for a moment that his genes had been scrambled with rattlesnake or something else more accustomed to desert living.

A small maintenance bot whizzed down the hallway into the galley. Suddenly, something dark and large seemed to move in front of the galley window. Chelydra turned rapidly, but saw nothing. "Maybe I hit my head harder than I thought," Chelydra muttered aloud, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something had been there.

He stood up and looked around. The floor of the ship was no longer level. It angled downwards into the ship's galley. Alarms rang through the ship's corridors. Amanda was still unconscious. She was strapped into her emergency seat inside the hallway. "Nike, Rufus, Percy, Arkady," Chelydra called out. "I'm with Amanda in the galley. She's out cold. I'm looking to see how badly hurt she is. What's the rest of our status look like?"

Chelydra heard no response over the din. "No point in yelling over the alarms," he thought. He cautiously examined Amanda. She had a large bump on the back of her head which seemed to have been caused by blunt force trauma. She was breathing normally but her pulse seemed slow. "I need to find out what sort of gear we have on this ship in case whatever that is out there isn't friendly."

He moved down the hallway to his right. As he neared the main intersection, he heard a voice to his left. He brought his shotgun to bear and carefully followed the voice.

Arkady's head felt as if it were going to explode. He wondered if it had and by some cruel twist of fate he could still feel the pieces screeching their disapproval. He saw stars without having to open his eyes. "Nike," he said, wondering if he were the only one injured. He took a deep breath to clear his head and instantly regretted it. Tiny shards of pain emanated from his sternum where the harness had forcibly maintained his position.

After what seemed like an eternity, Arkady opened his eyes. Sand filled the view through the cockpit windows. Beside him, Nike slumped forward; blood dribbled from her upper lip onto the console in front of her. "What the hell happened," Arkady wondered aloud. He remembered leaving the Warden: he had seen the outside of the ship and had been momentarily lost in reverie as he recalled seeing the Warden still under construction at Pluto. The Warden had seemed alien to him because he had never been aboard her before! Arkady remembered transporting men and materials between Earth and the settlements. He remembered selling his DNA to the UWSC for a few thousand domars. He had been wondering what his former self had done with that money when alarm bells rang. Nike started shouting and then he had blacked out...

Hull breech, antigrav and deflector shield alarms were presently screaming at him. "Hull breach?" Arkady wondered. "The hull's ruptured!" His voice rang in his ears and amplified his headache. Arkady groaned. He reached to release his gravharness and was reacquainted with pain. His chest ached from the motion. "Wake people up and apply oxygen. There might not be enough on this planet!" He ignored the pain behind his ears. He sniffed the air. There were no obvious signs of contamination, but he sealed his envirosuit's faceplate just in case. Acutely aware of the pain in his torso, he arthritically removed his restraints.

Free at last, he turned his attention to Nike. "Can you hear me?" Carefully, as if handling a delicate flower, he caressed her forehead. "Please don't die..." His compulsive need for action and self-control waned as he felt increasingly vulnerable and frightened.

Nike remained unconscious, but her breath fogged Arkady's faceplate. Her breathing was smooth and steady. Arkady put his fingers to her neck. Her pulse, though slightly low, was normal. "Oh, thank God," Arkady whispered to himself. He wiped his faceplate clean and moved from the cockpit into the central corridor. At the opposite end of the ship he saw the environmental control room where the airlock, pressurization tank and ship's central computers were. "Hello? Anyone conscious around here?" He moved up the sloping corridor. Arkady visualized the dropship's nose pointing downward into the sand. There were two doors immediately to his right. The first door had a passcard lock. The second door also had a lock and the word DANGER on it in large red letters.

Arkady headed past the doors to the control room where he had last seen Percy and Chelydra. Through his helmet, the din of alarms caused Arkady's head to ache. Painfully he moved away from Nike and the cockpit. As he passed the intersection at the center of the ship, he heard a noise above the alarms. He turned his head to the left, but saw nothing. He hadn't yet been down that passage. His memory was dark concerning where it might lead to. "Were we alone when we entered this ship?" The thought horrified him: it was bad enough that they might be marooned. Arkady also looked down the corridor to his right but saw nothing in the dim emergency lighting.

He hurried into the control room. It was lit by flashing lights: green, blue, yellow and red. They made him feel light-headed. No one else was in the room, but a computer caught his eye. Arkady hit a query button. The computer's voice read portions of the printout that appeared on the monitor:

"Primary atmospheric contents:
nitrogen (78.6%), oxygen (20.5%), argon (0.8%)
Atmosphere safe for humans and most human hybrids
External humidity: 4.96 percent
Afrimus clouds forming in the southeast
External hull temperature: 66 degrees Celsius
Ambient air temperature: 42 degrees Celsius
Localtime: system clock unset"
Arkady breathed a stale sigh of relief and removed the helmet from his envirosuit. Behind him, he heard footsteps. Arkady turned and was relieved by the surprisingly familiar sight of a nearly two meter tall turtle walking on two legs. "Chel," he said as he cautiously sat against the bulkhead to remove the rest of his suit. It was difficult enough to remove without being so sore.

"Glad to see you made it down in one piece Arkady."

"And you. Nike's badly injured down in the cockpit. Her breathing is shallow. How is everyone else?"

"Amanda is near the galley, out cold with a big lump on her head. We're gonna need some medkits." Chelydra considered telling Arkady about the shadow he had glimpsed outside but decided there was no reason for paranoia. After all, it had just been a shadow.

"The hull's been breached, but the computer indicates we can breathe on this planet. Have a look," Arkady indicated the blinking computer interface. "I can't recall what an 'afrimus' cloud is, but I'm sure it's not gonna be good."

"Well, at least we can breathe the air. That's something." Chelydra worried about leaking fuel (and who knew what else), but he'd let the engineering types deal with that. His knowledge of spacecraft stopped at the fact that landings were supposed to be a lot smoother than the one they had just been through. "Don't suppose you know anything about local food or water? I didn't see much of anything on the way down."

Arkady shrugged his shoulders. He placed the suit and helmet in the storage compartment and sealed it shut. He'd always been a neat-freak. Arkady suddenly recalled that he'd spent most of his life alone. He put his boots back on and headed as fast as his throbbing head would allow back down the ship's sloping corridor. Outside the control room on his left was a door marked 'Supplies'. "We might find some medkits in here." He opened the door and they went inside.

"zzzzzzzzzzzz ... <snort>" Percy drooled on himself and tried to shift his position in his injury-induced unconsciousness. "Mmmm, no, not the pink bunnies! ... ZZzzzzzzzz ..."

Percy groaned at the banging cymbals of the marching band in his brain, but the band paid him no heed. His eyes slowly opened: fireworks shot from them as if to spite him. "Whoa!" Percy decided he'd better stay put for a moment until the pain and blindness subsided. Eyes closed, he called out, "Hey! Anybody? What happened? What's our status?" He wasn't panicking (yet) but he had a nagging feeling that things had not gotten better off-ship like they had hoped. "Well at least those crazed robots aren't blasting at us anymore," he consoled himself.

He listened to the silence for a moment. He heard distant voices and footsteps behind him and to his right. "Hey! I'm over here!" Realizing that 'here' wasn't very descriptive, he elaborated, "in the entry, uh, exit... hatch bay... area... foyer room!" He wondered if anyone had heard him. He attempted to get Rufus's attention but was unsuccessful. Not only did the dog-man not answer him, he also didn't seem to be moving. "Well, that can't be good," Percy said aloud to no one in particular.

Chelydra and Arkady entered the supply room. Thankfully, six clearly marked field medkits were secured in the inertial dampening shelves. Arkady opened one and they looked inside. It contained nanodocs and various injections, most likely pain killers. The rest of the shelves contained bottled water and several large unmarked boxes. Arkady also noticed his bag and pod launcher with the rest of their supplies where Amanda had stowed them. He hadn't thought about his bag since he had carelessly left it at the main entrance. At best, the pod launcher would have been useless after the crash, at worst? ... Arkady shuddered. He held the medkit under his arm and put two bottles of water in the pockets of his coveralls. Chelydra grabbed a bottle and guzzled the contents. He tossed the empty bottle into the recycler then stuck another bottle into his belt.

There was another door at the rear of the supply room. It was marked 'Munitions' and there was a passcard lock on the door. "Well, whaddya think," Chelydra asked.

Arkady stared at the door. "I sure could use a weapon," he thought to himself. "Preferably non-lethal." He had never killed anyone before, but he had never been in so much danger before, either. "I'm certain my ID won't open it, but I'll bet yours or Nike's will. Let's get our comrades up and about first, then come back here to stock up."

Chelydra opened his mouth to answer, but then he heard someone calling for help. "Did you hear that?"

"Yeah. I heard a voice." They listened in silence. This time, there was no doubt. Percy was alive and calling for help. "You want to go get Percy while I go to check Nike," Arkady asked.

"My training says that we should stay together, at least until we add another to our number."

Arkady was torn between his preconceived plan and Percy's immediate need. Percy was closer, but if he was capable of shouting then he was in less danger. On the other hand, if Percy was conscious he was probably just immobile and freeing him would take less time than revival so he decided to trust Chelydra's advice. "Let's free Percy first. Come on, let's hurry! Maybe Percy can shed some light on our situation." Arkady headed down the sloping ship's floor to the fore supply room door. He prayed for Nike's well-being as he followed Percy's voice.

"Right behind you, Arkady," the turtleman replied. He grabbed a medkit for Amanda and followed Arkady out of the supply room. "Munitions," Chelydra mused to himself. "That's what we'll need if I wasn't just seeing shadows outside. I'll have to come back and see about getting that door open as soon as we get everyone patched up."

In the corridor, Arkady called, "Where are you?"

From his left, Percy responded, "oh my gosh, I'm so glad you found me! I was beginning to think that I was the only one here, or *gulp* the only one left alive. Everyone else is alive, aren't they? Or are they busy doing other things? Did they go off ship? Where are we anyway?" Percy paused for breath. Chelydra looked at Arkady with a straight face and said, "at least we know his vocal chords weren't damaged." Arkady chuckled. Percy knew he talked too much when he was nervous. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders but the effort shot pain through his shoulders and head.

Arkady put his medkit on the floor and prepared a dose of nanobots while Chelydra briefly examined the corridor. He stood and gave Percy the injection. "These nanodocs will set you right."

Chelydra examined Rufus. He was hanging in the harness beside Percy. His body was still and lifeless. Chelydra checked his pulse: there was none. The turtleman gave Rufus a long look. He had hoped to ask the man-animal fusion about their common state, but perhaps some things would forever remain a mystery. He silently promised Rufus a decent burial as soon as circumstances permitted. "Rufus is dead," he said.

Percy and Arkady looked at Rufus and frowned. Arkady was sad to have lost another companion. Percy remembered the dogoid affectionately. He suddenly remembered a rural house's air conditioner and burying a dog underneath it.

Just then, an animal-like screech shook the walls. It sent shivers up Arkady's spine and added to the pressure between his temples. He winced from the pain. "I don't think we're alone in here," Chelydra said, looking grim.

Arkady released the emergency harness and Chelydra helped Percy to his feet. Percy almost tumbled from the slant of the ship and the pain of his wounds. He hoped the nanodocs would soon take effect. "Thanks," he said calmly.

Arkady nodded. "I'm really worried about Nike. I think we should go for her next."

"Nike needs a medic? Well, I say we get to it. I figure we need all the military types we can muster!"

"Agreed, let's get Nike back on her feet," Chelydra replied. "Not to alarm you, or anything, but I think I saw something moving around outside the ship. Didn't get much of a look at it though. We might want to give some serious thought about finding that hole."

"Hole?" Percy asked.

"The hull's been ruptured," Arkady replied. "We don't know where the rupture is, but I didn't notice anything fore, aft or in the supply room."

"No obvious ruptures in this corridor either," Chelydra added.

"What weapons do we have between us," Arkady asked. Chelydra presented his shotgun.

"I think I still have my laser pistol," said Percy. The pistol Nike had given him back on the Warden was still in the holster attached to his light duralloy armor. He pulled out the pistol and looked at it. It felt cold, but he had a feeling it would warm up soon enough. Only then did he take notice of his toolkit belt pouch. He would not have noticed it if not for his intentional inventory check. It felt to him like a wedding ring might feel to a married man... Lost in thought, he cocked his head and paused for a moment. He couldn't remember being married. He looked at his hands. No ring. "Hmmmmmm," he said softly and raised his eyebrows. He looked around as if seeing the corridor for the first time. "Where's Amanda?"

"She's unconscious near the galley," Chelydra replied. "We'll go for her next."

Percy shuddered. Had only four or five of them escaped the Warden? To where had they escaped, or rather crashed? He steeled himself for the hours ahead: they'd most likely be filled with discovery and danger. The Warden's mission of colonization was not going well, he decided. Percy laughed aloud at his understatement as the three of them made their way down to the cockpit.

Amanda stirred. "Uggggh," she murmured. She felt a bone level pain throughout her body. Her head felt the size of a message bot. In the fog of her mind, she somehow decided it would be a good idea to get up and look around, not thinking of further injuring herself. As she tried to stand, her leg collapsed and all was once again black.

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