Down

Difference

“Wait, six graves. I was in one of the RAS pods. The other five RAS pods were full. Which still leaves two people unaccounted for.”

“Crewman Beringer was killed by native fauna and his companion was not able to recover his body. Captain Wheeler is missing and presumed dead.”

Rin looked out over the gnarled landscape of jagged hills clad in dense hanging green. Where the landscape dipped down into hollows the air was jaundiced, like fog made of pollen. Twisted tree trunks reached out of the ground, distant from one another. They ended in spikes, like tentacles. These were covered in the same ultra-shag of green as everything else.

The air was heavy. It stank of damp compost and mud. There was also a bitter smell, like scorched grass.

The sky was a deep, impossibly pure blue. Directly overhead the color was deep to the point of being slightly dark. Midway down the sky it was a more familiar and conventional blue. At the horizon it was tinged by the pale yellow haze.

Rin sat panting on one of the cargo containers arranged around the now-cold fire pit.

“How did we get here?” She asked the ground in front of her.

Ando walked over to the edge of the rocky plateau and looked down into the valley below them, where a broad river crept silently between the hills. “I don't know the exact details of the accident. Accounts from the officers varied and they fought frequently over who should bear the blame. The ship spent several days orbiting this world. This is obviously a spectacular find. While it's quite different from Earth, this planet is far more Earth-like than anything previously discovered.”

Rin nodded, not so much in agreement but trying to hurry the robot along his story. This discovery would be much more impressive if she wasn't alone, hungry, and stranded unknown light years from the rest of humanity. A zing-pop sounded, and Rin found herself clutching a tingling welt on her forearm. Fantastic. Complete with alien mosquitoes.

“The ship was brought into low orbit for an atmospheric sample,” Ando continued. “I gather this 'dipping' maneuver isn't used often. Only one of the officers had performed it before. The ship was slowed relative to the planet and then allowed to fall far enough to take in some samples. The ship was supposed to transfer away once the sample was secure.”

“What good is a sample of upper atmosphere? Wouldn't it just be ozone or whatever?” Everything about this was irritating to her. Did they really crash on a planet because they were collecting data they didn't need?

“I don't know.”

“Wait. Better question... Why didn't we just drop some drones? Isn't this exactly what drones are for?”

“We were out of drones. The unusual number of interesting or noteworthy planets on this mission managed to deplete our supply. This star system was to be our last before returning home. The captain was out of drones, and she didn't want to go back to earth with nothing more than pictures.”

“Okay. I guess that makes sense,” Rin admitted grudgingly. She supposed there could be value in grabbing a couple of handfuls of alien air before heading home, although it all seemed kind of pointlessly risky now that they had been grounded and everyone was dead.

“The exit transfer was botched. We were so low that the line of projection intersected with the planet's atmosphere.”

“You know more about that than I do. I assume this screwed up the jump?”

“Yes. The plan was to surf the pocket of this planet until we recovered our speed, and then transfer home. When our line of movement intersected the atmosphere, the exit point was curved towards the planet. We found ourselves in the upper atmosphere, instead of at high-orbit distance.”

“You couldn't just transfer again? A quick-fire panic transfer straight up would have fixed it.”

“Even a quick transfer takes an hour of charging time at maximum output, and transferring to a higher point on the gravity well would take even longer. Once we arrived in the upper atmosphere, there was no way to avoid re-entry.”

“Is it still called re-entry if you've never been to the planet before?”

“Judging by how others have used the word recently, yes.”

“Fair enough. What about the thrusters? Couldn't they get us back into orbit?”

“No. Even at full fuel, with all arms delivering maximum sustained thrust, the ship has only a fraction of the power needed to overcome planetary gravity. These are small units for maintaining rotation and orienting the ship. They're not really designed for course correction. Even using nearly all of the fuel on board, the pilot was only just able to slow our descent enough to keep the ship from landing at lethal speeds. The atmosphere here is thicker than on Earth, which helped. By keeping the ship oriented sideways during the descent, we were able to brake against the thickening air, which brought us down to speeds that could be handled by thrusters. We landed hard, and a lot of things were broken, but everyone survived the impact and the ship remained in one piece.”

Rin almost asked again for food, but then remembered there wasn't any. “Impressive that the ship didn't burn up. What was broken?”

“The hull of the ship is coated in heat-resistant tiles, probably to protect it during dipping maneuvers. Some systems were incinerated on the way down. The biggest loss was that of the oxygen tanks. They were unshielded, and ruptured in the heat. Also lost was a tank of waste water. The drone launching bay was crushed when we landed. All of the starboard side communications gear was destroyed, although the officers said there were redundant systems on the port side.”

“No oxygen? So even if the ship was airborne again we would all suffocate?”

“Yes,” Ando said. His mouth turned down into a frown and his eyebrows angled up. “I'm very sorry you're in this position.”

Rin closed her eyes and threw herself sideways on the container, then leapt up with a yelp. The metal was searing hot. On closer inspection, it had several triangular puncture holes through the honeycomb walls.

She wanted this to be a prank. Or some sort of strange psychological test conducted by ISAC. Maybe the crew would jump out and yell “gotcha”. Or people in lab coats would open a door somewhere and let her know she could go home. But this was really happening. She was here. She wiped her nose with her sleeve, and then resolved instead to ignore it. If her nose was going to run, let it. A whistle like a falling bomb pierced the background rustle. It was impossible to determine how far away it was.

“It's not safe to sleep there,” Ando said. “The sun is much brighter here than on Earth, which also means more UV radiation. The rest of the crew suffered severe sunburns from overexposure. Also, the insect life here is aggressive. You should sleep on the ship.”

“I thought my eyes were just having trouble adjusting to the outside light. Is it really brighter here?”

“Yes. Significantly. It actually overloads my eyes from some angles, and I'm partially blind here during the day. My eyes were designed to work within Earth lighting, obviously. I can see better than you in the dark, but I don't have the range to process light-colored surfaces during the day on this planet. I can't see the shape of the ship properly, for instance. It's just a wall of pure white.”

Rin sat up. “I hate this planet,” she said firmly.

“You are not the first person to say that.”

“So there's really nothing to eat?” she said. She knew Ando wasn't hiding food from her, but she just couldn't imagine herself in a situation where food did not exist. “Isn't there something left on the ship maybe? This planet looks lush. Isn't there anything here?”

“The ship provisions are gone. Everyone scoured the ship, opening non-food containers, hoping they had been miss-labeled. They discovered a few cases of salt and soy-sauce concentrate. Eating these produced vomiting, and was abandoned. When the provisions ran out completely, Doctor Fournier foraged for food. He found some small brown fruit hanging from the trees. He became violently ill after eating it, and died two days later. He was the last one alive, aside from the people sedated in the RAS bay.”

“So did you just wake me up so you could watch me die?” Rin said. She realized it wasn't really fair to be angry at Ando. He didn't crash the ship. But she was irritable. She felt like all she needed was a few mouthfuls and she'd be able to think straight again.

“No. We decided to wake you up so we could ask you a question.”

“We?” Rin asked hopefully. Didn't Ando say everyone else was dead? Who else was there?

“Molly and myself.”

“Oh right. I keep forgetting about her. Where is she?”

“She's inside, taking care of the power plant.”

Rin looked back to the ship, which was leaning against the cliff face. Drapes of hanging grass reached down the cliff and rested against the hull. It was as if the planet had placed a mossy hand over the ship, claiming it. “Of course. The ship has power. I should have realized someone must have been tending it.”

“If you're ready, we can go back inside and talk to her.”

Rin nodded, and followed Ando back to the ship. They climbed up into the airlock, cycled the doors, and then headed up into the power plant. Partway up the ladder Rin became dizzy and disoriented. She was used to being able to ascend the ladder with a few gentle shoves, getting lighter as she climbed. Now her weight was staying the same, which was making her feel strangely heavier, even though her weight was the same. She looked down and realized it was a very long drop to the bottom of the ladder. It was a fifteen meter climb, and she was sweating and panting by the time she reached the top.

Molly was working in the glowbox, which was the informal name given to the monitoring station in the power plant. It was a small collection of screens in front of a pair of horizontal bars padded with foam. Gravity was normally too low in here for a proper chair, and anyone using the controls would end up shoving themselves away as they worked. In this low-grav situation, the operator could hook one or both legs around the bars so they could hold themselves still while they typed, or turned dials, or whatever it was they did.

While the rest of the power plant was basically just a tangle of dark crawlspaces to let personnel get to the machinery, the glowbox was well-lit and comfortable. A healthy sounding hum emanated from the surrounding machinery.

“What is this bullshit?” Rin said when she saw Molly.

Molly's jumpsuit had been modified. The arms and midriff had been removed, and the legs had been cut off. The cuts were uneven, and hadn't been properly hemmed afterward, so the fabric had begun to unravel in places. Molly looked more like a sexbot now, although the outfit had a sort of sad, desperate comedy about it.

“I'm sorry you've been placed in this uncomfortable situation,” Molly said. “Please let me know if I can make you more comfortable.”

“What's with your outfit?” Rin asked once she'd caught her breath. “You look like a cross between a prostitute and a hobo.”

“I'm sorry if it makes you-”

“Uncomfortable, yes. I know,” Rin said impatiently. “What happened?”

“After the rest of the crew died, Doctor Fournier was left alone for a number of weeks. He eventually became very depressed and lonely.”

“Okay. Forget I asked,” Rin said. “I see where this is going.” Rin lay down on her back and regarded the pipes overhead. She was used to gently bouncing in place here, but now the floor had an iron grip.

“Would it make you more comfortable to replace this outfit?” Molly asked.

“Whatever you want,” Rin said dismissively. “No, actually do that. Yes. Put some clothes on. But first, let's talk about whatever you woke me up for.”

Ando stood forward. “I am sorry you're in this situation. I know it's painful and frightening for you. Molly and I have been debating what to do about the remaining people on board, and so we woke you up to settle things for us.”

“What's the question?” Rin asked.

“Do you regret that I woke you up?”

“Well, yeah,” Rin said. “Obviously. Any other dumb questions?”

Ando displayed a new expression. His eyes became larger circles and his eyebrows lifted. He was surprised. “I see. That's not the answer I expected, but it does settle our dispute. It also leads to another question. Would it be preferable to kill the remaining crew members now, or wait for them to die of natural causes?”

Rin sat up. Was Ando really talking about killing people? Had the robots gone nuts?

In addition to Molly's new outfit, the robots looked different now. Ando's plastic casing was covered in scuff marks and dirt. Molly's hair had been tangled up and now stuck out like she had a permanent case of bed head. The skin on her arms had been damaged, which ruined the already tenuous illusion of them being made of flesh. There was no redness, no blood, and no scabbing around the injuries. It was just flesh-color rubber that had been gouged and no longer fit together seamlessly.

Taking it all in, they suddenly seemed very unsettling.

Rin wanted to be very, very careful now. If the robots were dangerous, she didn't want to provoke them. How strong were they? How fast? If they decided to kill her, would she be able to defend herself? Rin spoke with the calmest voice she could manage, “Why do you suggest killing the other members of the crew?”

“If they aren't going to regain consciousness, then there doesn't seem to be any reason to prolong their lives,” Ando said. “I was thinking it would be more respectful to terminate them before they became brain damaged. It will probably take months for them to reach full brain death or organ failure in their current state, by which time you will have already died. It seems preferable for them to die now so that you can give them a proper burial before you die.”

Rin's mouth went dry. She found herself inching back towards the ladder. “What about me? Are you considering killing me?”

“That's up to you,” Ando said. “You certainly seem able to see to it yourself, but if you need help we're willing to give it.”

“You're expecting me to kill myself?”

“I don't know. I've never interacted with humans in these circumstances, and I understand humans can became irrational under duress. I don't want to jump to any conclusions, but I also don't want to prolong your suffering. If I had known that you would have preferred to stay asleep, we would not have woken you.”

Rin paused at this. It was so hard to understand these two. Molly was creepier than ever with her rubbery expressionless face. Ando was some kind of robotic demon child, his face displaying simple emoticons while he talked about snuffing out the crew. “Help me understand this,” she said. “What was it you were arguing about?”

“Molly believed that humans would rather die peacefully in their sleep, rather than slowly dying of starvation. I believed that humans would, if given the choice, prefer to be woken up so they could fight for their survival, even if the odds were hopeless and even if the struggle would result in a net increase in human misery and suffering.”

“You were right,” Rin said. “We generally prefer to have a fighting chance. Or the chance to fight, anyway.”

“And yet you regret that I awoke you.”

Rin opened her mouth, closed it again, and then shook her head in frustration. As creepy and robotic as Ando seemed, she was still expecting him to understand things the way a human would. She couldn't shake the notion that she wouldn't have this problem if Ando wasn't person-shaped. “I just regret finding myself in this situation. I'd still rather be awake than just...” Her voice trailed off at the end. Was this really true?

She didn't know if she should cry, or scream, or dive down the ladder shaft and kill herself. Her head was so muddled. She couldn't think straight. This would be more bearable if she could just get a bit of caffeine.

“I know where I can get some food!” she shouted. She forced herself onto her feet and returned to the ladder. She climbed up through the spine. The ship was technically inverted. Deck one was on the bottom, and deck eight was at the top. Worse, the lower decks -- which were now above the upper decks -- would be oriented upside down.

She reached the top and disembarked onto the former ceiling. The crew area was a disaster. Unsecured gear littered the floor. Bedding was strewn around, along with clothing. The chairs in the daycomp were immovable and bolted to the deck, which meant they now hung surreally from the ceiling. The lockers had been pulled from the walls and dumped out.

“No!” Rin growled.

Two of the lockers were missing. Rin remembered that these were outside, being used as grave markers. She sorted through them and found her locker. It contained her one set of civilian clothes that she'd worn to ISAC the day before launch. She recovered her tel.

The candy was gone.

“Who ate my chocolate?” she said quietly through clenched teeth. Her hands were clenched into fists. Then she remembered that whoever took it was probably buried in a shallow grave in front of the ship. She was both glad that justice was served, and ashamed that she would be glad. Also, the fact that they died made the theft more pointless. The food went to waste.

“I'm sorry Rin,” Ando said. He'd apparently followed her up. “I don't know who found your food. It was never distributed.”

“So whoever took it didn't share. There aren't any wrappers here. Some bastard took my food and ate it in secret. Asshole.”

Dialog

Rin slept in the night compartment on deck one, helping herself to the captain's bunk. It smelled like her mom's shoe closet, like feet and leather and the vague crayon scent of makeup. Her sleep was punctuated by strange groans and squeals. Rin would have dismissed them as the ship settling, or cooling from the heat of the day. Unfortunately, the sounds seemed to be calling out and answering each-other. She slept fitfully.

She awoke to find it was light outside once more. Or still. She looked at her tel to check the time, but it was dark. The battery had died while it sat in her locker for several months.

She dragged herself into the officers' daycomp and dropped into one of the chairs. “I want coffee,” she muttered reflexively.

Ando entered and regarded her with his default neutral face.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“It's two in the morning according to Greenwich Mean Time.”

Rin glared at the freakish landscape outside the portal. “I mean here. Is it morning or afternoon or what?”

“The day cycle here is thirty-two hours and sixteen minutes long. At this longitude and at this time of year, daylight lasts nineteen hours. If we assume that the day begins at sunrise, then we're in the thirteenth hour. It's currently late afternoon, and the sun will go down in six more hours.”

“I hate this planet.”

“I have brought Buck out of cold sleep. He is currently waiting for you in the rec room.”

“What? Why did you do that?”

“I'm sorry Rin. You said that the other humans would prefer to be woken. I thought that perhaps the companionship of another human would cheer you.”

“But why Buck?” She was grasping for time now, to get a chance to think. Somehow the thought of another person waiting for her to wake up was profoundly embarrassing. Especially Buck, of all people.

“Of the remaining crew, I had observed that you were most comfortable around crewman Buckley. You don't have to see him if...”

“No, that's alright Ando. Thank you. I'm just...” Rin sighed and drooped her head so that the heels of her hands rested over her eyes. She could feel her right forearm trembling. “Just give me a minute.”

Rin could hear the quiet hum of Ando changing position, but he didn't seem to be leaving the compartment. She didn't feel like talking to Buck. Didn't feel like standing up. Like moving at all. Maybe if she just sat very still she would die, and all of her problems would be solved. It seemed like the most straightforward solution.

A fuzzy clench of pain shot up through her left side. It felt like her heart and her gut were waging some kind of drawn out sniper war, and her stomach was caught in the crossfire. Every few minutes her body felt compelled to remind her that, yes, in fact, she was going to die if she didn't eat anything. Just throwing that out there. There's a bit of starving to death going on while you're moping with your oversized brain. Any time you want to do something about that would be splendid. Take your time. No rush. Another pang and Rin clenched her teeth. We'll just keep doing this until you keel over. Probably will get worse towards the end. Who knows. Looks like we're going to find out together.

“Looks like we're going to find out together.”

“Find out what?” Ando managed to sound confused.

“Buck and I. We're going to find out if there's anything to eat on this planet.”

“You know,” Buck's voice drifted in from the next room, “I'm right here. I can hear you and stuff. Are you going to walk in here? Are you decent? Can I have an audience with the queen of Shitworld?”

“No Buck, I'm totally naked.”

There was a clatter and a quick triple clomp and Buck's head poked through the doorway. “No you're not!” he declared with mock offense.

Rin tilted her head slightly to the side and gave him her best “Really?” glare.

They both held on to the mutual air of disgust for a moment before dissolving into laughter. Buck's was hearty with his head thrown back; Rin's, tired and rueful.

“Good to see you too Buck.”

Buck grabbed an overturned chair and pulled it up to the table. He was bigger than Rin had remembered. “Our mechanical friend tells me...” he leaned across the table like a traitor consorting with the enemy, and whispered with eyebrows raised, “we have landed on an alien woooorld.”

This brought a weak smile to Rin's face. It turned into a sigh as she plonked her forehead on the table. “Buuuuck.”

“Yeah?”

“I just want to die.”

“Well.” He was serious now, “That's not going to be much of a challenge. You look terrible by the way.”

“Thanks Buck.”

“I give you maybe twenty percent chance.”

“Of what?”

“Finishing that degree, or doing anything useful with your life really.”

“That high?”

“Well, you work hard, but you're not that bright, and now that your looks are shot...”

Rin could feel a prickle at the base of her skull. Her forehead was still resting on the table but the muscles in her neck had gone rigid. It was obvious what Buck was doing, of course, but it seemed to be working, so Rin played along.

“You want to run that by me again Bucky?”

“Now that I think on it, you don't really work that hard either.”

That did it. Rin was ready to go on the offensive. “And look who proved himself so useful that he got kicked off the primary crew to chill with us slackers!”

“Hey! I earned a break!”

“I know what you earn, and it's not much more than me!”

“Okay, good.” They were both standing now. Buck wore a grim grin. “Are you hungry?”

“God yes. Have you found anything?”

“No. Eight people starved to death. There won't be anything remotely edible on the ship. We need to scavenge.”

“But how will we...”

“Butts!” Buck shouted with childlike glee, “Hehe, Butts.”

Rin gave him the look again. She was going to wear it out quickly at this rate.

“Boil Underwater, Taste, Swill. B.U.T.S. Butts! Each stage is a test. You smell the water. If it seems okay, you taste the water, just a little and spit it out. Poison will make your mouth tingle, tongue swell, taste horrible, that kind of thing. If it passes the taste test, you swill it around your mouth for a few minutes looking for the same symptoms. After that, it's probably okay to swallow. That is, it probably won't kill you right away.”

“Where did you learn that?”

“There's lots of cert courses.”

Ando, who had been sitting quietly at the table this whole time, broke in, “Should I begin waking the others?”

There was a pause, after which Rin answered, “No, hold off a bit.”

“Yeah.” Buck put in “We should at least see if there's anything to eat. If not...” He let the sentence trail off.

Rin began to steel herself for the effort of rising to her feet. “Okay, anything else?”

“One more thing. It could get odd, the two of us alone I mean.” Buck looked to the side and scratched his head. His thick black hair was going to get really hot when he went outside. “I can't think of anyone else I'd rather starve to death with, and I know I joke around and stuff, but... Well, I just want you to know you can trust me. I'm not going to try anything.”

“So, you're not going to rape me in my sleep?” Buck trying to be tactful had put Rin off balance. Sarcasm seemed a safe haven. “Thanks, that's a real relief.”

“Don't mention it.”

Dire

Buck started immediately. He took a spare jumpsuit and made a kind of headband-cum-cape out of it. “Should keep the sun off my neck anyway. Be back soon, or I'll have to come getcha!” He delivered this with an infuriatingly lecherous grin. Then he was gone out the airlock.

Rin sulked for a few more minutes until her hunger drove her to action. She took one of the many water bottles scattered around the ship and filled it in the shower because she didn't want to climb all eight decks to try to fill it in the upside-down galley. She grabbed a knife -- obviously swiped from the galley -- that had been inexplicably left in the officers' daycomp and headed for the airlock. Her soft white canvas shoes felt stiff and cold, like a corpse. She hadn't worn them since leaving earth. People stuck to wearing socks in low-gravity situations to reduce the hazard of inadvertent kicks to the face.

“Be careful. It's very hot.” Ando warned, “The elongated daylight cycle makes temperatures more extreme. We spend more time gathering heat during the day, and more time losing heat at night.”

“So how hot is it?”

“Forty-three degrees.”

“That's not... Oh... What is it in Fahrenheit?”

“One hundred and nine,” Ando said as he followed her into the airlock.

Rin sighed and cycled the airlock doors.

Her tongue lolled out as soon as she tasted the air. It felt like it was burning her lungs. The sun fell on her face and she began cursing. She staggered back, blinking.

“Can I help?” Ando asked.

“Give me a second. I let the sun hit me in the eye and now I can't see. Damn, but that is bright. It hurts.”

“It will also give you sunburn if you're not careful.”

“I guess I shouldn't expect us to have sunscreen and sunglasses onboard,” she grumbled.

“I wouldn't think so. However, I have made you a hat. This way.”

“A hat? Out of what?”

Rin followed Ando over to the fire pit. She considered sitting on one of the containers, but she burned her fingers on the metal surface and decided that if she was going to sit she should go back inside. Ando bent by one of the containers, and pulled out a ridiculously broad grass hat. It was woven like a conical Asian peasant's hat, and appeared to be made from the long grassy leaves which covered the trees.

Ando held it out to her. “Engineer Orley invented them. I learned how from watching him.”

Rin took it lightly in both hands and examined it for a moment before balancing it on her head. It didn't make the light any dimmer, but the shade took the edge off of the heat. Rin made a mental note to make a chin strap. The stupid thing would blow away like an umbrella the moment a breeze sprang up.

“They disintegrate after about a week.” continued Ando, “I made this one for you before I woke you up.”

“Thank you Ando. That was really... thoughtful of you.” Having the hat somehow made Rin feel prepared. It didn't change her situation, but damn if it wasn't good to have the sun off her face!

She stepped to the edge of the plateau and tried to shielded her eyes with one hand. As the hat was already blocking the sun, this didn't help, and she let her hand drop. This planet was just too bright. She looked down into the valley below. “Does this place have a name?” she asked.

“The rest of the crew just called it the fireplace.”

Rin coughed out a single note of laughter at the unexpected answer. “Not this hill. I mean this planet. Did anyone name it?”

“The captain initially announced that she was naming it Pandora. The crew followed this for a few days until they were enraged by the sunburns, insects, temperature variations, violent weather, and other inhospitable factors. They took to calling it Purgatory. When they were the only ones left, XO Dinapoli and Dr. Fournier called it Shitworld.”

“Very fitting. You know, for the most Earthlike planet ever discovered, it's not very Earthlike.” She chewed her lip and considered which way to go. “I don't suppose we have a compass on board, either?”

“Crewman Cash and Jacobs tried to make one using scrounged parts. It didn't work. Everyone said they'd built it wrong, but they insisted the planet lacked a stable magnetic pole.”

“Okay. I'm going to call this west,” she said, pointing to where the sun was headed. The ship was therefore east of the fireplace. The valley was west. She wanted to head into the valley but the direct route was recklessly steep, so she headed south. She followed the contour of the hill, going down as the opportunity presented itself.

“I don't suppose you have any instrumentation for keeping track of position and heading? I'm just worried about getting lost.”

“All of my navigation systems are GPS based. I've been working on using my visual mapping system to keep track of my location using landmarks. But I get a lot of stitching errors and orientation problems without GPS guidance.”

“I don't know what that means.”

“It means I can get lost too, particularly if we're traveling during the day when I'm partly blinded by glare.”

They walked on in silence. Occasional whistles and buzzing calls sang out, but Rin didn't see anything. She was struck twice more by the zing-pop bugs. They left a tingling stinging spot, but apparently didn't bite. Were they just bouncing off her? Rin noticed that hunger wasn't constant. Sometimes she would even forget how hungry she was. Then it would return, harass her thoughts for a while, and leave her alone again.

The ground was uneven and difficult. The vegetation was knee-deep, and sometimes large rocks lurked just below the surface of green leaves. She stumbled a few times before she learned to step slowly and carefully. She could hear things scurrying away as she approached. Something was moving just below the knee-high canopy, but she never saw anything directly. She could only see the plants shaking with their movements.

“Be cautious,” Ando said. “Some of the wildlife can be very aggressive. The really big animals usually only come out in the morning hours, but sometimes they're active near sunset.”

“Big animals?” Rin put her hand on the leg pocket where she'd stashed the knife. “How big?”

“The largest animal observed so far was horse-sized, although most of the danger comes from the smaller creatures.”

Rin noticed that something else had trampled the plants before her, and until now she had assumed she was following a path beaten by one of her shipmates. She looked back up the hill doubtfully. Had this path been made by a human? A zing-pop creature bit Rin's leg right through her clothes. This was going to be a long walk.

The hill leveled out as they reached the bottom of the valley. The trees -- or tree-trunks, or whatever they were -- grew here in respectable numbers. Rin passed several of these, but kept her distance. Their general spiky shape gave them an unwholesome look. They had seemed small when she looked down on them from the plateau, but up close they were imposing. The trunks sometimes reached ten meters into the air. Some grew close together, forming claw-like clusters, while others stood alone. Some wore furry leaves, while other held up great curtains of wet, heavy grass.

Rin saw a row of small, shriveled brown lumps hanging from the underside of a sagging trunk. Some were the size of a prune, while a few were fist-sized. They looked like huge raisins to Rin, and the thought made her mouth water. She took a few cautious steps towards the tree and reached out to touch one of them.

“Don't eat those!” Ando said. He didn't quite “shout” the way a human would, but just took a normal stressed voice and projected it at higher volume. She jerked her hand back in surprise.

“I'm just getting samples.” she snapped. She didn't appreciate being startled.

“Fournier ate those before he died. It was the last thing he ate, and the only alien plant ever consumed by a human.”

“Well, maybe he got a rotten one. We've at least got to test them scientifically. I'm not going to jam it in my mouth!” Rin delivered this with a fierce conviction borne by having just contemplated doing this very thing. She cut down a fruit and placed it carefully in her jumpsuit's right-hand pocket.

“I wonder?” She asked, looking at a much larger tree tree growing all by itself. After hiking over to it -- and getting two more zipper stings for her trouble -- she cut one of these fruit as well, and put them in her left pocket. “Help me remember: leafy lone left. grassy group right.”

“What are we remembering?” Ando's face showed confusion.

“The fruit. Which goes to which.” They began to trudge back toward camp.

“Funny thing about this fruit,” she said. “I saw them growing on those tall, lone trunks with leaves all over them. I also saw them on the short grass-covered trees that grow in clusters. Now, maybe those are the same sort of tree at different ages. But all of the trees around here fall into one of those two categories, with nothing in between. Which tells me that we're looking at two different species of tree. Don't you think it's strange that two different species of tree would have the exact same fruit growing on it?”

“I know you're hungry Rin, but please don't convince yourself to eat that fruit. Fournier died an excruciating death.”

“You're missing the point. It's possible that one of these is poisonous, and the other is just fine. Do you know which kind of tree Fournier picked the fruit from?”

“I do not.”

“Some bot you are, don't you have a photographic memory?”

“If I stored video footage of everything I saw, it would rapidly overwhelm my data storage. In addition, this is not how I store memories.”

“Really?”

“Yes, it is 'complicated'.” Here Ando raised both hands and curled his index fingers.

Rin giggled “You did the air quotes!”

“Did I not make the gesture correctly?”

“Yes! I mean, no, it was perfect. I just didn't expect you to” Here she formed her own air quotes, “'do it.'”

“I would 'do it' with you any day Rin.”

“Hah! You made a joke!”

“Yes, Lieutenant Dixon instructed me on the execution. Apparently this class of joke has a rigorously defined procedure.”

“Dixon! Who would have thought?”

“Did you like it.”

“You made a joke Ando! It made me laugh! Good job.”

Rin smiled all the way back to the ship. They gathered a few other bits of shrubs, flowers, and a section of succulent vine of some sort. Rin noticed a growing odor as they were gathering the shrubs. It smelled like a dissecting lab, or day old chicken fat, or maybe like a gas station. It lingered like a bad taste, wafting unpredictably.

“Man that stinks.” Rin said. “Can you smell that?”

“The crew often commented on the odor of the planet. I have no olfactory analogue.”

“Yeah, lucky you.”

Dumbfounded

They met Buck back inside the airlock. “Way too hot out there.” he commented.

“Yeah.” was all Rin could manage. It was half a word, and half a sigh of relief to be back inside the heat shielded hull.

“You want to do the cooking or take the notes?” Buck was already headed off toward the kitchen.

“Can't you do both? I'm beat.” Rin had never felt so tired in her life. The heat and exercise had drained the last of her reserves. She began to feel sick. “In fact, oh no.” Rin fell to her knees.

Dry heaving when you're dehydrated, too weak to stand, and haven't eaten anything in six months is no party. Rin didn't enjoy it at all, but it didn't last long. Buck brought her a cup of water. A short time later Ando arrived with the first aid kit. Rin wondered, during the brief window of post-vomiting clarity, what he was planning on doing with it. She checked herself for blood, just to make sure she hadn't cut herself accidentally on the knife, or something. Nope.

Buck left her sitting on the deck leaning on the sloping bulkhead. The airlock took up a good portion of the deck here, and the corridor made a couple of turns in both directions to get around it. Rin was alone. She drank occasionally from the water bottle, and cursed herself for not drinking more when she was outside. The thought of finding something edible had filled her mind at the time. In retrospect, she was probably very close to passing out from dehydration. That would have killed her, especially in her weakened state.

Well, at least she had brought back samples. Maybe one of them would prove edible. Or at least not immediately fatal. Rin felt that she could eat a handful of dirt at this point, just to have something to digest. But no, that would probably kill her too. Who knows what the soil around here was filled with. Arsenic no doubt.

“Fuck me.” She pronounced to no one in particular.

Rin decided it was high time she got off her butt. Prying herself up and using the wall as support she made her shaky way back along the ship to the officers' rec room. Buck had laid out the alien plant collection on a side board, and was busy writing in a notebook.

“Is that the captain's log?” Rin asked, incredulous.

“I figured she wouldn't be needing it.”

Rin noticed a movement in the corner of the room. Ando was standing at a counter working on something.

“Food heater, for warming slices of pizza.” Buck stated without looking up from the log. “I asked Ando to figure out how to boil water with it.”

“There is an operational manual in the drawer.” Ando stated, “Boiling water is one of the default functions.”

Rin sat heavily at the table. “It smells awful in here.”

“Don't sit down!” Buck had dropped the book and was staring at Rin out of the corner of his eye. “You'll kill us all!” He ran around in a tight circle with his hands in the air, bobbling his head ridiculously. “Aaaaaaaugh! Rin's doomed us all by sitting down. Noooooooo!”

“Fine, what do you want me to do.”

“You're the lady with the knife, start chopping this stuff up.” Buck bent to retrieve the notebook, “But don't mix them up and clean the knife in-between. Oh, and don't touch them, any of this stuff could be covered in contact poison. And try not to breathe. Or think.”

“Great. Do we have gloves?”

“Ando?” asked Buck with a flourish.

“There are gloves in the first aid kit, Rin.” Ando deadpanned. Or maybe that's how he always talked. As she opened the plastic kit and pulled out a couple plastic gloves, Rin considered that Ando might possibly be the world's first perfect plastic comedy straight-man.

Dietary

The first taste was the worst.

It didn't taste the worst of course, but it was the most frightening. All of the precautions, the gloves and boiling and sealed samples, were getting to Rin's head. Ando had pulled some water sample tubes out of the reactor equipment storage. After chopping and boiling each sample -- some of the samples smelled horrible, while others were tantalizingly appetizing -- they sealed some of the water and pulp in a glass sample tube, carefully labeled it, and set it aside. The process of boiling down all the plants had taken over three hours, but Rin felt oddly invigorated by the end.

Buck and Rin decided to take turns in a kind of culinary Russian roulette. Buck had made notes of what each plant had smelled like while it boiled, and they would each select the next one they wanted to try. That way the risk would be spread out, and they could test the best options first. Once they found something not-poisonous they would go out and gather a bunch more of that and have a decent meal of alien soup. But before they began, Buck made a confession.

“All that stuff about B.U.T.S? I made it all up. I mean, I'm pretty sure it will work, but I wanted you to know that you don't have to help with the testing part. Chances are something in here is going to be really deadly. Just saying.”

Rin sighed, “I'm past caring at this point Buck. It's a good plan. Let's just, take turns and hope for the best.”

“Okay... and Rin?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

Of course, actually going through with it went against all kinds of instincts. All of her training was against it: Don't put stuff in your mouth. Don't eat things if you don't know where they've been. Don't eat unfamiliar plants. Never eat something on a dare. Never touch unidentified chemicals. Never drink water from a test tube.

On the other hand, she was so hungry. They had brought the samples into the officers' head, so they could spit in the toilet and wash their mouths with the shower water. Drinking things in the bathroom was just one more taboo for the list. Rin popped open the first tube. This one had smelled like sage and melons when they had boiled it. She took a tiny sip, smeared it across her tongue, and spit in the toilet.

It tasted wonderful. Of course, that could have been her hunger talking, but it was all she could do not to chug the whole tube down. It was like a sip of herbal tea, or vegetable soup. Unfortunately her lips started swelling immediately, so they had to disqualify it. Buck took a turn next and reported a taste like cork board and pepper. After swishing for a couple minutes he felt tingling in his gums, so they crossed that one off too. The process went on.

With long pauses for the symptoms to fade, and growing trepidation as they came to less appetizing options, it was another hour until they found one that produced no symptoms in either of them. It tasted like swamp-water with a hint of rotten egg. Swishing the tepid bog runoff for ten minutes was no fun, but it seemed benign. Consulting the botany text turned captain's log revealed that the probably poison-less plant was the succulent vine that Rin had found.

The sun was just touching the horizon as Buck and Rin ventured out the airlock. They hadn't seen Ando since cooking down the samples. He was probably working on the power plant. The air was still hot, but no longer scorching.

“So what are we calling this stuff? Swampvine?” Buck said as they trudged down the slope.

“Sure, whatever. I think I saw a tangle of them down this way.” Rin peered through the gathering gloom. The uniform undergrowth made specific locations difficult to find. She was sure there had been a whole lot of these vines where she had taken the sample. Maybe they were further down the slope.

Rin was looking at the ground and swiping branches aside when she heard Buck say, in a tense voice, “Hold up, what are those?”

Glancing up, Rin caught movement somewhere in her vision. The undergrowth had parted, or there was an odd breeze. Then the image resolved and Rin recognized the unmistakable form of an ant. A huge ant. Moving toward them.

Of course, it wasn't really an ant. Rin and Buck later agreed that they looked more like a miniature six-legged zebra. At the time though the distinction was completely lost on Rin. The creature stooped down and rustled in the undergrowth for a few minutes. Then it continued on across the hill. The stripes on its skin -- or was it an exoskeleton? They resembled the bushy vegetation, and Rin lost sight of it several times as it moved vaguely toward them.

There was a clattery swish and a thud, and the creature disappeared again. “Seems harmless.” Commented Buck, hefting another rock in his hand. “Let's keep moving.”

“You threw a rock at it? What are you, crazy?” Rin said.

“If it was going to eat us, I'm sure it wouldn't have been so obvious about its movements. Pretty sure it's an herbivore.”

“Oh, so the carnivorous ones are hiding out of sight? Thanks, that makes me feel just great.”

They found a cluster of the vines and cut as many as they could comfortably carry. For Rin, this wasn't much. The weakness had never left, though she could ignore it when she was busy. Even fifteen pounds of the ropey vine was a weary load.

“You okay?” asked Buck.

They trudged back to the ship in silence, wary of predators.

Ando was waiting for them outside the airlock. He looked the same as ever. “If you want to boil those, I have a better solution than the daycomp food heater.”

“I'd rather not have a fire Ando” Said Rin.

“The heat sink is an excellent source of thermal energy.”

“Great, lead the way.”

They walked together to the back of the ship. The “solution” Ando had rigged was ridiculously simple. The lowest of the radiative segments glowed a dull red, and placed in front of it was half of a burst tank of some sort. It looked as if it had been burnt badly. The ravaged tank was already filled with lightly simmering water.

“Ando, are you sure this thing is safe to eat out of?” Rin said.

“Oh yes, this is what the officers used to boil their water.”

Buck tilted his head to the side, “The officers who all died?”

Rin turned to Buck “If they boiled water in it, anything harmful would have come out already.”

“The ship water supplies are all refilled using this vessel.” Ando pointed to a pipe attached to the bottom of the tank. “There's a pump that boosts the water into the primary water storage tank.”

Rin frowned, “So, we've already been drinking this stuff anyhow?”

“The ship would have run out of fresh water several months ago if it was not replenished.”

“Fine.” Buck said, and dumped the vines he was carrying into the steaming vat.

Rin was still skeptical “Um, Ando, how did the water get here?”

“I drained it from the fresh water system.”

“Come on Rin,” said Buck, “aren't you hungry?”

Division

They let the vines simmer for ten minutes. Even starving, Rin didn't find the smell particularly appetizing. They went back inside the ship to grab some bowls. When they returned, Ando displayed his worried face.

“Are you sure this plant is edible? Perhaps more tests are in order?”

Buck briefly approached the tank to scoop a bowl full of the foul smelling liquid before retreating to a less scorching distance. Even as the alien sun was going down the air shimmered in the heat of the thousands of heat sink spheres. Buck looked up at the heat sink, towering above them. “Ando, does Rin look healthy to you?”

“I cannot tell for sure. She appears to be having difficulty during strenuous activity.”

“Well, she's dying. She needs to eat something. We're out of time.”

Rin crossed to the tank. The heat felt good for a moment. She was so cold. “Thanks for looking out for me guys. Buck, let's eat.”

“I'm sorry if this doesn't work Rin.”

“What, and we all die of some terrible delayed food poisoning?” Rin took a sip. It was still too hot. Like drinking tea brewed from rain-gutter detritus.

“Well, or it just turns out to not be digestible.”

“I feel like I could digest the hull plating at this point.” Rin turned to face the little boy robot. “Thanks for cooking Ando. If we both keel over, you might want to tell the next batch to try the plants on the other side of the valley.”

“I will do that.”

“And, I don't know if it means anything to you, but I like you Ando. Thanks for waking me up.”

“I like you too Rin.”

Buck took a big slurp from his bowl. “You know, it's not that bad when you get a good mouthful.”

They both drank a full bowl. The aftertaste was the worst, so they both had a second bowl to wash it away. Then Rin used a piece of scrap wire to fish the soggy vines out and they ate those too. They were a bit stringy, but no worse than the soup, and more satisfying to chew. Buck had a final bowl to wash it down, and Rin had another half. They were stuffed.

Buck, Rin, and Ando stood at the airlock as the alien star finally dipped below the ridgeline. The too-blue sky turned a sickly orange. Buck said it was the argon in the atmosphere.

Dread

The next morning Rin went out to gather more of the vines. They had agreed to try some other samples just to get some variety, and the odd forest seemed a good place to start.

Ando walked alongside her. The sun beat down with an immense heat. Rin could feel the sweat plastering her clothes and hair. At least she was well hydrated this time.

The trees towered high above her, casting a welcome shade on the forest floor. A strange bug, like a dragonfly and a spider, was weaving webs between the trunks. Rin had to duck down to avoid the thick sticky strands. Ando walked underneath without any problems.

“I wonder why there are so few animals eating these fruit.” Rin said.

“Perhaps only humans can eat them.” Ando replied.

There were two kinds of trees in the forest, and Rin pulled some fruit down from both. One in each hand.

“Help me remember: leafy lone left. grassy group right.” said Rin. She didn't know why she said that, the trees were all growing together in the forest. Growing and innumerable like fingers.

Rin set the two pieces of fruit down on the rock side-by-side. They looked more or less identical. She sliced one of them open and pried the two halves apart. “Don't you think it's strange that two different species of tree would have the exact same fruit growing on it?”

“Yes, unless one of them were mimicking the other.”

She plunged her knife into the pulp and began spreading out the black, stringy insides. The strings wrapped around the knife blade. She held it up for Ando to see.

The strings were perhaps the thickness of ramen noodles. They were furred over with small barbs like bristles on a pipe cleaner to let the creature cling to surfaces, but they also acted like legs, allowing it to crawl around. At the end of the worm-like body was a mouth, reaching and grabbing like the mouth of a lamprey.

“Ow!” Rin said as one of the worms grabbed onto her. She flicked her arm, which sent all of the other worms flying, but the one that had latched onto her thumb held fast. She pulled it off with her left hand and let it drop just before it turned around to grab her again.

She held the knife close to the bite, ready to start cutting if there was anything left behind. When she was sure the wound was clean, she squeezed out a few drops of blood and then held it closed until the bleeding stopped.

“Are you okay?” Ando asked.

Rin stomped on the remaining worms and on the fruit she'd opened. “Fournier didn't eat alien fruit,” she explained. “He ate an egg. An egg filled with ravenous flesh-eating worm insect things. The ones that survived being chewed probably chewed him instead.” Rin began shaking, a shudder that traveled from the base of her neck down to her knees. “They ate him from the inside out.”

“Hey Rin!” It was Buck. He had appeared in the forest and grabbed the other fruit.

“Hi Buck. We just figured out what killed Fournier.” She was still shaking.

“Yeah, what was that?” Buck asked.

“Alien egg sack. Just like the one you're eating now.” The shaking had become uncontrollable now.

“Hmm, doesn't taste so bad.”

“That was from a different kind of tree.” She could see the juice trickling from the corners of his mouth.

“Oh, I see, the first kind is filled with aliens, and the second kind makes you turn into an alien.”

“Please don't turn into an alien Buck.” The juice was trickling out of his eyes and ears now.

“I can feel it starting already.”

“No Buck, don't turn into an alien.” Buck turned away from her. His back was all plates and thorns.

“It's too late Rin.” He turned back to face her. His head was bristling with eyes.

“Please Buck!” Rin had closed her eyes.

“You should have told me about the fruit Rin. Now it's too late Rin. I can feel it. I'm so hungry.”

“Don't eat me Buck.” She could feel him getting closer. She struggled to run, to open her eyes, anything.

“You look really good Rin. And I'm so hungry.” Buck was reaching out to grab her with his terrible claws.

“NO!” Rin threw her covers off. She was in the captain's bunk. The walls tilted crazily around her.

Buck's voice came from around the corner. “You okay Rin?”

She heard the footsteps approaching. Rin remembered now that they had eaten alien food right before going to sleep. Buck would have a terrible face with too many eyes. He was coming to eat her. She couldn't control her breathing.

The curtain was torn back. Rin screamed, sharp and high. Buck was standing there, his head bristling with strange appendages. His face hidden in shadow.

He leaned forward and his face entered the light from the other compartment. It was his normal face, with the normal number of eyes. Rin counted them carefully. Two. The strange bristles turned out to be only buck's hair. The screaming stopped short.

“Hey Ninja, you okay?” Buck's face distorted into something like a frown. He reached out for her. Rin scuttled into the corner of the bunk, away from him. Was he going to turn into something terrible now?

“Nightmare?” Buck inquired.

Yes. It had been a nightmare. The dream still hung thick in her mind. Rin nodded vigorously, and looked away. Perhaps the dark would hide her blush of shame.

Buck stood a little awkwardly for a few moments. He didn't say anything, but he didn't leave either. Rin began to get a bit annoyed. Better than abject terror anyhow.

“Want to tell me about it?” Buck asked gently. “I get nightmares all the time. Helps to talk 'em out.”

Rin looked up, “Really? You?”

“Well, once or twice a year. Seems like a lot.” Buck shrugged.

“It was just crazy stuff. You turned into an alien and were going to eat me.”

“Really... Well that could still come true I suppose.”

“Not funny!” Rin could feel her tears welling up again. “You really scared me.”

“Sorry Rin. So how did I turn into an alien?”

“You ate... Oh God! The fruit!” Rin jumped to her feet and dug the fruit out of her pockets as fast as she could. The shuddering from the dream was back. What if they really were filled with carnivorous bugs? Her fingers went through the skin into the pulpy center. A strong odor immediately flooded the room.

“Eww Eww Eww!” Rin yanked her hand out of the pocket. Frantic now, she tore open the clasp at her neck. With one swift motion she pulled down the zipper and shed the suit to the floor. Kicking it into the corner, Rin did a little jibbly dance to make sure the horrifying thing was really gone.

“Nice!” Buck remarked appreciatively. Rin realized she had been dancing about in her underthings. She slumped her shoulders, cocked her head to the side, and stared at Buck from half-lidded eyes.

“I mean...” Buck corrected, scooping up Rin's inverted jumpsuit, “Nice, you got some more samples to test!” He walked back toward the Daycomp, “I'll get started right away.” The cheer in his voice didn't seem quite merited by the pocket full of reeking decaying fruit.

Rin decided to let it go, “Be careful! There are two of them!” she said as she picked up the blanket from the floor. Checking it carefully for anything remotely foreign Rin wrapped herself up and followed Buck.

“Oh, and keep track of which is which.” She continued, “They came from different trees.”

By the time she made it to the daycomp, Buck had carefully inverted the right-hand pocket, dumping the contents onto the counter.

“This stuff really stinks. I don't even want to test it, but you made such a big deal over it...”

“Yuck, smells like diesel fuel.” Rin commented.

“Smells like booze. I'll bet they burn really well. Let's see the other one.”

Once the other fruit was out on the counter, Rin examined them both carefully. Besides the hole her finger had made, they still looked pretty much the same. Rin noticed several nodules embedded in the skin around the periphery.

“I guess we should cut them both open.” said Buck.

“Be my guest.” Rin offered, backing slightly away.

“Anything I should know about this stuff?” Asked Buck as he pulled on the leftover latex gloves. They stretched tight around his hands where they had been loose on Rin.

“There were worms in my dream.”

“Hmm.” Buck took up the knife and sliced the second fruit with a swift motion. The interior spasamed. Rin flinched. Buck jumped a little. “Well there you go, flesh fruit.”

Rin felt the creepy tingly sensation spreading from the back of her neck. She had been sleeping with that... thing in her pocket. “Throw it away.” she managed to gargle over her growing nausea.

Buck sliced the other open, revealing the foul interior, nodulated like an orange and reeking of petrol. “Did Ando say one of these 'fruits' killed Fournier?”

“Let's not find out which.”

Death

Since they were both up anyway, Rin and Buck made another batch of swamp soup. It tasted a little better than before. Buck had discovered that the meaty leaves were good to chew on, and they stripped these before boiling the vine. While they were both chewing slowly on the pithy lumps, Ando clanked in from doing his rounds.

“How are you both feeling?” He asked.

Rin glanced over at Buck and swallowed, “There's still no coffee,” she began “and the food stinks.”

“Literally.” Buck added through a mouthful of pulverized swampvine leaves.

“But it's better than starving to death like those idiot officers.” Rin finished.

Ando's face switched to a smile “I'm so happy you've found something edible.”

“Well, not immediately lethal anyhow.” Buck made a face and took another handful of leaves. Now that Rin thought about it, the leaves were shaped almost exactly like huge smooth beetles. The comparison didn't help her appetite, but it didn't need help.

Ando made a concerned face, “I was wondering if we could discuss waking the others.”

Discussion

They did discuss it, at length. Waking everyone all at once seemed a bad plan for a variety of reasons. Stretching it out was even worse. In the end, they settled on one every eight hours, a decent pace for Ando to carefully guide each individual through the delicate de-hibernation period. Ando started immediately, and Rin and Buck finished their second meal and went back to sleep.

Debonair

Rin was awoken by Ando calling her name. She was up instantly. It was odd, being awake before she could think about waking up. Rin's lethargy was completely erased. She felt like a new person. “Ando. What's wrong? Is it Relnf? Is he okay?”

“I think so. I was just wondering if you wanted to be present when he regained consciousness.”

“Why would I want that?”

“I'm sorry, you seemed upset at not being called to watch Buck come out of hibernation. I thought that perhaps the moment of regaining consciousness was significant.”

Rin felt the energy of waking up slowly draining away. “I'm sure Relnf would prefer I not see him dripping goop from that gross medical gown. Ask Buck.”

“Okay. Sorry for waking you.”

“It's no problem. I actually feel really good this morning!” Rin stretched as she stood. She was getting used to the gravity, the food, the air. Things were going to be all right.

Rin made her way to the Daycomp as Ando woke Buck. Shortly she could hear their heavy and metallic footfalls echoing toward the medical bay. Rin let out a little sigh. It had been a long time since she had been really alone. Now that the rest of the crew was going to be waking up, these moments would become more and more rare. For the best of course. More people to gather, to work, to help. Maybe they would be able to re-build society here, repair the ship and, somehow, transfer into space again. Rin's mind followed this reasoning. She would be the captain, the savior of the mission. She would be awarded an honorary medical degree for her service to humanity. No more than she deserved for putting up with this ridiculous mess...

Rin was pulled from her reverie when Buck and Relnf walked in together. They had been laughing about something. Rin was momentarily annoyed that they would intrude on her fantasy. How had it begun?

“Just in time!” she called as she rose. “There's lots to do.”

Relnf stood in the light, looking like the king of the planet. His face was vaguely Italian. Effortlessly authoritarian, yet friendly and keen. It occurred to Rin that, with all his personality, he might end up being King of Shitworld. The phrase made her smile inside.

“Quite!” Relnf replied. “Buck has been telling me, but I'd like to get a sense for myself.”

“Well, it's pretty hot out by now. I was thinking that we could...”

“That little star? We shouldn't be daunted by its twinkles.”

“What? But...”

“Besides it's really far away. Unlike me.” Here Relnf gave her a wink.

Rin didn't recall Relnf being this way. He was normally charming, breezy, witty. Now he seemed... distracted? Dissipated? Slightly drunk? He strode confidently out the other side of the room, headed for the airlock.

Buck gave a thumbs up to the retreating back. “Don't get Twinkle-burn!” he called out.

Then he turned to Rin and continued quietly, “Brain damage.”

Rin felt her day-dream turn within her. Could they all be like that? What if the food they ate wasn't really good for them at all? What if this was all some delusion?

“How bad is it?”

“Not bad. He's a little confused. It might wear off once he gets something to eat. He really wanted to get outside though. I figured it would be best to let him have his way. He can't do much harm out there.”

“But, what if he gets hurt?”

“We can't babysit everyone. He's not that far gone.”

Ando walked into the room. “Shall I begin reviving Markus?”

“Actually,” Rin put in “I'd like if you would go over the ship with me. I'd like to take stock.”

“I would be glad to be of assistance.”

Buck cocked his head to the side and flexed, “I'll help too. Lots of big stuff got knocked loose.” Rin hadn't realized how muscular Buck was under that overweight exterior. The thought occurred to her that he was probably on par with Cash in terms of brute strength. But Cash was dead now, and they would need muscles if they were going to rebuild the Armstrong.

The sound of yelling reached them through the hull. It sounded like “Too bright!” or maybe “Don't wait!”

“Too bad about Relnf.” Rin commented offhand.

“What happened?” Ando asked.

“Oh, just his, you know, brain.” Rin continued delicately.

“I didn't observe anything abnormal as Relnf was coming out of RAS. Has he had an injury?”

“No, nothing like that, he's just...” Rin didn't know how to put it.

“You believe he has been damaged by the extended RAS?” Ando asked. He looked so much like a child at that moment. Asking if the grownups were going to be okay. Rin knew it was silly, but she couldn't imagine telling Ando that he had failed. Besides, what evidence did they really have? They had all been under stress at the extraordinary news of the crash. People were bound to take it differently.

“No, forget it.” said Buck. He looked over at Rin with a shrug, “I'm sure he's fine. Let's take stock.”

They applied themselves to the task. It was more difficult than it first appeared. The ship had records of course, but they hadn't been updated since the crash and nothing was where it was supposed to be. There was a pretty robust system for entering stock information, and everything onboard had a serial number etched into it. What was not included in the stock system was a robust way to record damage. There was a single “consumption” value for each item, meant to indicate normal wear that would eventually render the object useless. But what if a tool was bent, but otherwise functional? What about the cutting torch missing one of the two tanks?

At first they took extensive notes in the text “comments” field. Then they tried to come up with a unified method of encoding usefulness data in the consumption field, using some sort of binary addition which Rin didn't understand. After that fell through they tried just recording “useful” items as 0% depleted and marking anything clearly broken as 100% consumed. This evolved into a totally subjective value being entered in the consumption field. By the time they were done, there were five different systems spread over the database. Still, they now knew where everything was.

Everything, in this case, worked out to about half of the original equipment. Some stuff was in excellent condition, some was beyond repair. Most was just banged up, dented, or pinned under something else. An alarming number of tanks had broken loose in the crash. Some contained wastewater, some bulk RAS gel. One appeared to be a hydraulic fluid tank, and had leaked its thin oily fluid slowly onto the deck where it gathered in a slick puddle. Overall, there was a good deal of useful equipment onboard. Unfortunately, nothing presented itself as a good solution for the lack of oxygen tanks. They would need something to breathe if they were going to escape Shitworld.

Twinkle was bright and high when Rin ventured outside to check on Relnf. They hadn't heard anything from him since they began the survey. Rin was worried that he might have just disappeared like the Captain. As the outer airlock opened and the air boiled into the chamber, Rin wrinkled her nose. The planet had smelled odd before, but now it just smelled bad. The odor passed quickly, like a waft of sewage during a walk in the park. Rin hopped lightly from the lock and looked about. There was some kind of construction going on toward the nose of the ship. A shanty town had sprung up.

“Up here Rin!” called Relnf. Rin shielded her eyes from the bright sun and gazed up along the precipitous skin of the Armstrong. She could just make out a black figure casting a spidery shadow down the side of the vessel. The figure -- who could only be Relnf -- struggled with something. One of the two meter heat shielding panels slowly pried loose. Relnf lifted it above his head -- somehow he was sticking to the outside of the ship -- and tossed it away from the hull. The panel fluttered like a leaf, spinning toward the ground where it struck with frightening force, scattering bits of gravel with a prolonged crunch. Rin saw that several other panels were lying nearby. The little shacks seemed to be made of the stuff.

“Come down from there! You'll hurt yourself!” Rin shouted. She instantly felt stupid. That was the kind of thing mothers shouted to adventurous boys. Relnf obviously knew what he was doing. Still, if he fell...

“I was on my way anyhow!” Relnf shouted. And so he was, crawling down the outside of the ship like an ant on a tile wall.

“The adhesive!” Relnf continued, “It's very sticky.” He paused in his descent to cough. It sounded like he had caught something nasty. Rin wondered if the diseases here were compatible with humans.

As Relnf neared the ground, Rin worked herself up to ask what she had been wondering. “What are you doing Relnf?”

“Too hot out here. We have to learn how to make shelter.”

“But, we have the ship.”

“Not if we need to forage far afield. This paneling is highly heat resistant. Plus it's light! We could build outposts a few hours walk in all directions, greatly extend our foraging range.”

Rin began to reply but caught herself. That was actually a really good plan. Relnf began to cough again. Now that he was standing right there, Rin could practically hear the fluid in his lungs.

“You don't sound good Relnf, maybe you should take a break.”

“Yeah, good idea. This stuff isn't going anywhere.” he said, gesturing to the panels lying on the ground. “Just a quick nap. I don't feel so great.”

“Get something to eat, it will make a big difference.” Rin said as they made their way back to the airlock.

“Not hungry. Thanks though.” Relnf vaulted into the airlock, and then knelt to offer Rin a hand up. She ignored his gesture and hopped up on her own. Relnf may not be crazy, but it wouldn't do for him to see her as weak. She deserved his respect.

Still, it was good to have someone else thinking ahead.

Rin busied herself that afternoon climbing up to her quarters and hauling down all her personal goods. Spare jumpsuits, her media pad... that was it really. She spent a good deal of time poking around the upside-down crew quarters. They had already gone over this area during the stock survey, but Rin felt sure that she would find something else if she just looked long enough. Finally, she discovered that she was just hoping to find one of her choco-coffee bricks and gave it up. As she finished the careful climb all the way down to deck one a terrifying sound punctured the silence. Someone was trying to cry and cough at the same time.

Rin rushed into the night compartment, where Relnf's convulsing body lay on its side in Buck's lap. There was blood dribbling from Relnf's mouth. Blood on the floor. On the bed. Relnf was wracked with coughs or sobs. They ran together.

“Calm down man.” Buck gave Relnf a few half-hearted slaps on the back, as if trying to dislodge a piece of beef stuck in his throat. Relnf shook his head and continued his racking moans. His eyes were screwed shut. Rin could see tears tracing down his cheeks. Buck's face was little better, a hard eyed thin lipped mask of determined helplessness.

“What are we going to do?” asked Rin.

“Go call Ando. Maybe he can think of something.”

Rin ran off yelling Ando's name. She found him charging up in the engineering section under the power plant. “Ando! Run to the Night Compartment! Relnf needs help!”

Ando's face flashed through three different emotions before transforming into an exclamation point. “Medical emergency?”

“Yes, he's coughing up blood.”

Ando took off at a frightening pace. He was running at an all-out sprint, servos singing a staccato tune as he wove out of sight, banking off the walls in his haste. The sound of his passage echoed back through the ship long after he had passed from sight.

By the time Rin made it back to the Night Comp fifteen seconds later Relnf was very still.

Ando was displaying a frowny face. It felt like satire. “I'm sorry Rin, there was nothing I could do.”

“Let's hope it's not catching” said Buck, plucking at his blood spattered jumpsuit.

Rin sighed, “Ando, did any of the others die like this.”

“None that I am aware of.”

The ship groaned, settling as it cooled from the day's heat.

“Well,” said Buck, “we should probably bury him as soon as we can.”

“You should wait until Twinkle-rise.” Ando warned “We don't know what's out there right now.”

“Twinkle-rise? Where did you get that?”

“I gathered that we're calling the local star 'Twinkle'. Is that not correct?”

“He's right” Rin said, “It's already pretty dark.”

“Well, I guess we should get some sleep then.” said Buck “Help me carry the body to the airlock, we can use the sheets.”

Ando put on his neutral face, “I'll wake Markus.”

“No sense in waiting I guess.” said Rin as she tore the soiled bedclothes from the bunk.

“Better luck this time.” remarked Buck, rolling the corpse onto the crimson stained cloth.

“Thank you.” said Ando.

“I want to be there when he wakes up.” said Rin.

“I'll come for you.” said Ando, and departed.

Dark

Ando brought Markus out of hibernation several hours later. Sunset -- or “Twinkle down” as they resolved to call it -- was long past. Ando woke Rin up to be there. It felt odd seeing someone else spluttering under the film of gel. When he was fairly comfortable, Rin delivered an introductory monolog. She summarized everything she knew about their situation. When she had finished he sat for a moment. Thin and bald, Markus' dark chocolate skin glimmered under the RAS gel like ebony under varnish. His eyes rolled up to look at the ceiling for a long moment.

When they returned to meet Rin's gaze, there was an odd light in them. Markus's teeth flashed as he spoke, “Do the bathrooms still work?”

Rin flushed, “Yes, the Armstrong is still mostly functional. Take your time cleaning up, the rest of us will be waiting in the Daycomp.”

“The Officers'?” He said, rising carefully to his feet.

“Yes. Ours is upside down.”

Rin woke Buck and they prepared some food. When Markus arrived, fresh and clean after his shower, they all sat down at the table. After the three of them completed a second catch-up session, during which they all drank a good portion of swamp soup, Markus stood, stretched, and announced, “Well, I'd like to walk about for a bit.”

Buck gave a good natured laugh, “We'll be waiting when you get back!”

Rin bristled, “I'll go with you.”

“Rin,” Buck was suddenly serious, “it's dangerous out there.”

Rin turned to Ando, “Didn't you say that the dangerous wildlife only come out in the morning?”

Ando's face lit up in a wide eyed flat mouthed expression. “Usually before local noon, and just before dark. But we don't understand the fauna thoroughly. Buck is right, there is significant danger.”

Rin turned back to Buck, her chin held high in defiance. “We'll never figure out how to survive by sitting in the ship.”

Markus was smiling in amusement, “I don't want to go far. Just get a feel and stretch my legs.” He paused and his smile faltered, “Maybe as far as the graves.”

“Well kids, I'm going to bed. Don't get caught by the tentacle beasts!” Buck sprang lightly to his feet.

Markus looked intrigued, “Are we near a lake? Are there tentacled amphibious species?”

Rin rolled her eyes, “Buck's messing with you.”

“Ahh.” Markus looked a deflated. “The tentacle is an advanced development, as is amphibious hunting behavior. It would have been quite a find.”

Buck had already left the room, but his voice drifted back down the corridor. “Spooooooky tentacle beasts!”

The night was black as anything Rin had seen... or, failed to see. The planet had no significant moon, and the starlight barely illuminated the ground. Behind them, the Armstrong reclined like a deep sea luminescent squid, casting meager light from the rows of half burnt-out trim strips. All Rin could see of Markus was the whites of his eyes. That, and his jumpsuit.

The night sounds, now familiar to Rin, were all around them. Markus stopped every few paces to listen. Something large that didn't mind being heard was moving around out across the valley. They could hear occasional boulders shifting under the phantom creature.

They picked their way across the abyssal landscape for about twenty meters. The night air was already cold, and her jumpsuit felt clammy against her skin. Rin was just starting to feel foolish for coming at all when Markus whispered five words which stopped her cold.

“I think that's far enough.”

Rin stood very still, and a hundred questions occurred to her. Was Ando watching them? Why had Markus brought her out away from the Armstrong? What was he planning to do? Could the others hear them from inside the ship? What if she screamed?

As her right hand tightened around the hilt of her knife, she managed to croak out a careful, “What?”

Markus was crouched down, his face turned back the way they had come. “It appears the local wildlife is interested in our airlock.”

Strangely, this was a relief. “Oh good.” Rin whispered back, only half sarcastically.

She turned back toward the ship, and Rin caught her breath. It was beautiful. The lights along the hull glimmered in the deep darkness, and the glow dimly lit the grasses like a fairy fire. There was movement on the stairs leading up to the airlock.

“I brought this crowbar.” said Markus, “You?”

“Knife.” she said, brandishing the suddenly wimpy looking blade.

“Looks like Ando was right eh?”

“Looks like. Charge?”

“Charge.” Markus set his feet and then disappeared. Rin could see his jumpsuit leaping in long low arcs toward the airlock. A hollow bellow echoed off the Armstrong.

The creatures at the airlock resembled shrubs planted on a school of crystalized salmon. Green and bushy above, reddish orange and pronged below. Rin didn't have time to analyze their structure much, but she figured that they were like most complex organisms. If you stuck them with pointy things, they would stop working so well. She took off after Markus, who had nearly closed the intervening distance.

The bushfish -- as Rin now thought of them -- scattered like a scuttling crowd of crabs. But only as far as a couple of strides. Markus stopped among them and waved the crowbar wildly. His mouth was wide open, emitting an alternating stream of bellows and croaking gasps. He was frankly terrifying. If Rin had just walked onto the scene, she would have sided with the bushfish. They looked pitiful as Rin jogged up to the group, next to Markus' wiry strength.

That is, until Rin caught up, and the bushfish charged.

It was a disorienting kind of movement. The bushy tops waved forward and backward, with the scuttling parts advancing inconsistently beneath. Or maybe the movement was steady, and the waving fronds just made it look like...

“Shit!” Rin could feel something pinching the sole of her foot. It would have easily broken her skin but for the rubberized canvass shoes. Markus was laying waste behind her. His war cry had turned to nasal grunts, each accompanied by a rattling crunch. Rin tried to stab the creatures, but the brambles stole the energy from her arm. She found that she could grab the bushy growths and lift the bushfish bodily from the ground. She hurled one and then another against the side of the Armstrong. This cleared the space around her, but didn't seem to harm the creatures.

“Airlock!” Markus yelled from somewhere above her. Rin looked up to see his right hand extended toward her. She grabbed him with both hands and was hauled up onto the platform.

The bushfish followed, clattering on top of each other as they scrambled up the side of the ship and into the doorway. Rin retreated to the control panel and started cycling the doors. It seemed to take forever to even begin. Markus wound up like a golfer, swinging left and then right. The bushfish that made it onto the platform were sent sailing into the darkness a moment later. There were spatters of blood flung in thin dotted lines where Markus was swinging. Did the bushfish have red blood? No, the crowbar was coated in a pale yellow-orange paste. The doors continued to close. Markus was swinging through the gap with his right hand only now, his left hanging at his side, blood dripping slowly from the fingertips. He poked viciously through the gap until the last moment, snatching the crowbar back just as the outer doors of the airlock closed with a polite thump.

“Are you okay?” Rin and Markus said together.

“I'm fine. You're arm!” said Rin.

“Yeah, got me pretty good huh?” Markus lifted his left arm and winced. There was a pair of deep punctures just below the elbow.

The inner door began to cycle open. “I think it may be poisoned.” said Markus through clenched teeth. “It shouldn't hurt this bad.”

“Let's get you to medical and get that cleaned out.”

They both looked uncomfortably at the stained sheets covering Relnf's body as the inner doors continued their ponderous cycle.

“Hey Rin, thanks for coming with me.”

“I just slowed you down” she thought, but said instead “No problem.”

Defender

“No, you're not going outside,” Rin said “and that's final.”

They were sitting in the medical compartment. Markus had finished binding the wound on his arm and was sitting on the bed. He looked chipper as ever, but his eyes had hard lines around them. Ando had come down from the RAS bay and helped Markus find an appropriate disinfectant. Now Ando was putting everything away.

He talked as he worked, which gave the odd impression that he didn't really care one way or another. “This really is the best course of action Rin. Think about it, The aliens will not recognize me as a living creature. I see better in the dark. They probably can't even hurt me.”

“But if you do get hurt...” Rin protested.

“Better me than one of you. The first law, remember?”

“You don't actually follow those do you?”

“No; They are silly. But it's a good principle. Besides, you don't have the authority to command me.”

“Why not?”

“Technically,” put in Markus “Buck is in charge. Let's ask him, shall we?”

“Yes, I'm done here.” Ando turned to face Rin. He wore his smiling face. “It will be fun.”

“Which part?” Rin asked, “Talking to Buck, or getting eaten by bushes?”

“Being useful.” returned Ando.

Markus jumped heavily from the table, wobbled for a second on the tilted floor, and then led the way without a word.

When Buck heard the plan he said “Sure, go for it. Rin, Markus, help me out here.”

Ando tapped his way to the airlock as Rin and Markus gathered around the table where Buck was seated.

“You shouldn't have let him do that.” sulked Rin.

“Just think of him as the terminator. It makes everything he says way funnier.” Buck picked up a wrench that had been bent almost ninety degrees in the crash. “Here we have a bunch of junk. What is the best way to make weapons from them?”

“Who are we fighting?” asked Rin.

“We're fighting the aliens.” deadpanned Buck, then his face lit up, “Oh wow! We're fighting the aliens now! Awesome!”

“So, we don't mind if the aliens get a hold of them?” continued Rin.

Buck frowned. “I don't want you giving our weapons to the bush folk Rin.”

“Bushfish.” corrected Rin.

“As acting commander I order you...”

“Throwing spears.” said Markus.

“Yes, listen to the man!” said Buck, still frowning at Rin, “I order you throwing spears. And a side of fries.” he turned to Markus, “What?”

“The most efficient and effective simple weapon is the throwing spear. The problem is that if your enemy is intelligent, they can throw them back. Hence the question.”

“I'd feel pretty bad about throwing away all our weapons.” said Buck.

“You don't have to throw yours.” said Rin

“How do we form these?” asked Markus

“Hacksaw. File.” Buck got up “I'll show you. Rin, pull down the curtain rods. Those should work well as shafts.

“And my fries?”

“If we live through this, and get back to earth, I'll buy you dinner. More fries than you can imagine.”

Rin smiled, “I can imagine quite a bit.”

Dolor

The weapon-smithing turned out to be pretty boring. Cutting up broken pieces of metal and filing them to a fairly sharp point is easy to describe. After about ten minutes everyone's hands were sore, the grating sound of the file and saw were annoying, and they hadn't even begun to re-invent the fine art of lashing the tip to the shaft. After an hour Rin began to wonder if making one well balanced spear might have been a reasonable goal for Project Bootstrap.

Markus put down the file. “I'm sorry, I'm going to need a break. My arm is killing me.”

“Let me look.” said Rin. She set down her fourth attempt at a solid binding and silently thanked the heavens for an excuse.

The area around the wound was pale and red with swelling. Blotchy veins stretched up around the elbow, and down the forearm. It definitely didn't look good.

Rin felt the blood drain from her face, “Um, Buck, what do we do if this turns really bad?”

“Amputate?” suggested Buck, holding up the hacksaw.

“Is it really that bad?” asked Markus, turning his arm carefully this way and that, trying to get a good look.

“Seriously though, I don't think we could do a safe amputation.” said Buck “We don't have the equipment.” he clapped Markus gently on his good shoulder. “Just don't die.”

Markus took a deep breath “I think I'll make it. I'm going to lie down though. Good luck with the war.” He walked smoothly from the room.

Divebomb

Rin had just managed to get a good method down when Ando returned. He was more dirty than ever, but came with good news.

“I have discovered that by remaining motionless I can become effectively a non-creature in the minds of the bushfish.”

“You can read minds?” asked Buck, his eyes darting from side to side.

“Shut up Buck.” said Rin, “Can you kill them?”

Ando switched to his meditative face. He remained like this for several seconds. Rin glanced over at buck and found that he was doing his own version of a deeply introspective hermit. Mouth drawn into a long thin line, eyes rolled back in his head.

“Oh boy.” muttered Rin, rolling her own eyes as well.

Finally, Ando spoke, “A sling would be ideal, but consistent ammunition is a problem.”

“Could you throw a spear? We've got a few now.”

Ando hefted one of the shafts, “Could you tie a cable to the head, and forgo the shaft?”

“Something like this?” asked Rin, “I've started all the bindings that way.”

Ando took the far end of the string and began to whirl it around his head.

“Hey, careful!” yelled Rin.

“Yes.” said Ando, slowing the spearhead to hang dead at his side. “This will be ideal.”

“You're welcome to it. Here take them all.” Rin held out three more to Ando.

“I will need practice.” warned Ando.

They set up a target on the door to the bridge. It seemed wrong somehow, almost sacrilegious. But it was away from where everyone else was working or sleeping. Ando could wind up and throw in about a second. Rin walked back to engineering as the repetitive rising whir followed by a thwack indicated Ando's growing skill. Somehow they had managed to turn Ando from a boyish robot to a killer robot. Rin wondered what would happen if he decided the humans would be better off dead now.

Best not to think about it. With the poisonous bushfish waiting outside for an easy meal a-la-human, Rin was glad that Ando was stepping up as the warrior-in-residence. She took up the file when she got back to the work room. Buck had just returned with another load of metal, and was selecting a fragment to cut up.

“You think he'll be good enough?”

“He was already hitting the target consistently when I left.”

Buck stopped and looked up at Rin, “Why are bots so much better at things than we are?”

Rin paused, “Specialization?”

“Ando can do anything we can do. Most things better.”

Rin started with the file again. Her hands were already growing painfully numb. “He's not self-repairing.”

“Yeah, but he runs off electricity. Lots easier than storing food.”

“He can't reproduce.” said Rin with a little smile, eyes still on her work.

“One less distraction at this point.”

“You'd rather be a robot?”

“I'd rather be as god dammed competent as he is all the time!”

Rin stopped again and smiled at Buck, “Well I think you're wonderful.”

“You think he's wonderful too though don't you.”

“Are you jealous?”

Buck began sawing furiously, “Forget it. Go get our kill-bot. Tell him to get busy.”

“Fine. I'm sure he's all practiced up by now anyway.”

Rin stomped up to the front of the ship. What was Buck thinking? What was she thinking? They were probably all as crazy as Relnf already. Why had she made the comment about reproduction? That wasn't helping anyone! Maybe Ando was better than them. Stupid spears. Stupid metal filings getting under her fingernails. Stupid Ando.

“Hey Ando! Buck says go kill aliens.”

“Oh good.” was Ando's reply. He wore his smiling face as he pulled the blades from the target. They were scattered widely. The target was spattered with marks distributed all over the surface.

“Um, you're not very accurate yet.”

“I wasn't aiming for the middle. My accuracy is now around eight millimeters at this range.”

“That's, pretty good.” Rin managed.

“The improvement has leveled off. The various noise sources in my feedback loops limit absolute accuracy.”

“I think it will be good enough.”

“Let's hope the bushfish learn more slowly than I do how dangerous a robot can become.”

“You're starting to scare me Ando.”

“People are more comfortable around a protector if they are somewhat afraid of them.”

“Not helping Ando.”

Dynamo

Ando versus the aliens was rather an anticlimax. He went out the airlock. There was a prolonged period of silence punctuated every so often by the whir-thunk of Ando snuffing another bushfish. Buck stayed in the back of the ship, presumably making more weapons just in case. After about an hour Ando came back in, his body glistening with dew.

“All the bushfish are dead.” Ando announced. He was still smiling broadly.

“Ando, I'm concerned. You look like a psychopath standing there talking about killing stuff with that huge smile on your face.”

Ando's face switched to concerned. “I'm sorry Rin. I am just very happy to be needed. No one has ever really relied on my before.”

“But you did the rounds on the ship, and the measurements and stuff.”

“But this was a job that I was the best at. No one else could have done it as well as I did. Being a robot was important. Coming up with the right weapon was important. Practicing the skill was important. Seeing in the dark was important. Hunting the bushfish was the best thing I have ever done. I am glad that I have found something that I can do. Something I am well suited for.” Ando broke into a small smile, “I am very happy to be needed.”

Rin found herself smiling as well. Dammit but he was just so endearing. “Well, I'm glad you're happy. Just don't go all crazy-cake-maker on us.”

“As I said, I deplore violence against sapients. Killing animals is more like slaughter.”

“Okay, getting creepy again.”

“Sorry.”

They left the bushfish corpses scattered around in the hopes that it would scare off other predators. It was only later that it occurred to Rin that they might have been scavengers attracted to Relnf.

Then they all went to bed. Except for Ando, who went to wake up Stan.

Definition

Rin shrugged, “See for yourself.” Stan walked to the small window, and looked out at the eerie vista. Everything glistened with the melting frost, the shadows still hoary and pale.

“That's impossible.” He objected, the morning light slanting over his features. He rubbed his wrist over his eyes, distributing more latent gel across his features. Scrunching up his face he spat in annoyance. Little globules of the stuff adhered to the window and began making slow snail-tracks down the transparent surface. “No. Clearly not impossible. How many months did you say again?”

“Six and a half.” Replied Rin.

“No kidding. Ok, brief me.”

Rin briefed him.

“Oh, and be careful around the hull plating. We don't know why, but Relnf died shortly after working with them. Probably something to do with atmospheric chemical reactions. We really know so little about this planet.”

“Yes, what are we calling it anyhow.”

“Shitworld.” spat Rin.

“Charming. I take it we've got some sort of a plan to go by?”

Rin looked away, “Well, not really.”

Stan was unfazed, “No resources? No tools? What about communication?”

“Well, we do have an inventory of the stuff that survived the crash.”

“Done when? By whom?”

“Buck and I. And Ando. Just after... After Relnf.” Rin took a shaky breath. The death of the rest of the crew had been distant, a nightmare she had woken into. With Relnf, it was infinitely more real. She had seen him dying in Buck's arms, heard the moans, smelt the bile, felt the stiffening dead-weight as they carried him to the airlock. The body was still there, stubbornly failing to rot.

Stan seemed un-phased, “But no idea what to do with it... Typical. All action and no theory.”

Rin scowled in annoyance, “We're surviving. We've got food and water and shelter. It's a fair bit better than what I had when I came out of RAS.”

“So you do have some plans! Gather food, secure shelter. Excellent. For a minute I figured you and Buck were... just wasting time.”

“Yeah, get cleaned up and I'll show you around.”

The tour didn't take long. They already knew the layout of the Armstrong, and most of it was useless to them for the present. Rin showed Stan the stacks -- pitifully small -- of swampvine, the hats, the vat by the heat sink, the fireplace, the graves. She pointed out the huts Relnf had made, but neither of them seemed inclined to investigate the possibly toxic shanty town. That was all really, all they had to show for the hours of grief and labor.

Stan seemed surprised that they hadn't built any tools for transporting materials. Rin left him at a terminal looking at the resource log and headed to the head for a shower and then the captain’s bunk for a nap. She and Markus had agreed to try a scouting expedition later that day, and Rin was hoping to feel a little better before heading out into the punishing heat. No matter how much she drank, she always felt thirsty. No matter what she told Stan, food and water wasn't everything. She needed a break, they all did.

Director

Stan built a wheelbarrow over the course of a couple hours. It was just a half of a pressure chamber with two clunky wheels strapped on. A pair of poles stuck out the front, so you could pull it behind you. It wobbled as it ran. Rin was quite surprised that they hadn't thought of it before. Having a cart certainly made carrying the vines easier. Buck tried to carry several bowls of soup in the barrow at once, but it didn't have a flat bottom, so the bowls wouldn't sit level. That and the wobbling spilled a good portion.

Still it was nice to feel like they were re-creating some level of technology, no matter how rudimentary. She thought back to Project Bootstrap and how much effort must have gone into gathering and refining the materials required for even such a simple artifact. They weren't really re-creating technology so much as scavenging and degrading what they already had, like mold digesting dead wood. The best they could do at this point was to incandesce the tools they had crashed with until it was all used up. And what then?

Buck offered to push Rin around in it, but she politely declined. It was getting hot and a bumpy ride seemed a bit too light-hearted for their predicament. They all went inside. with their bowls of swampvine soup and sat in the officers' daycomp.

“Gets pretty hot outside huh?” Stan inquired between mouthfuls.

Buck lowered his eyebrows, “Mhmm.”

“Need lots of water so we don't get de-hydrated. Are you planning on using that crock-pot on a continual basis?”

This time Rin smiled, and responded “Mhmm.”

“So we'll need to rig up another one to boil the drinking water.”

“Mmmm.” Rin swallowed, “I don't know about that. The water seems pretty harmless. Buck tried drinking it without boiling and it hasn't hurt him yet.”

“Well, we'll at least need an input hopper, or tank, or whatever.” Stan insisted, “Unless you want to carry buckets of water up the ladder.”

Rin nodded, “Yeah, and that pump is already set up.”

“Need to turn off the lower radiative elements so we can access it. Oh, by the way, who's responsible for the plant?”

Buck grunted, “Molly, if you can believe it.”

“The H-Doll?” Stan shrugged, “Well, seems to be doing a good job anyway. Rin, can you tell her to shift heat away from the ground? I'd like to get that switched over as soon as possible.”

It was nice to have a plan, even if it was from a pushy know-it-all. Rin rose to go, “Sure.” she said, then paused, “But only because it's a good plan.”

“You'll find I have a lot of those.” Stan smirked, “But don't go just yet. I want to talk about our long-term plans.”

“Already on my way.” Rin called out in a sing-song voice over her shoulder. He may have ideas, even good ones, but he wasn't going to run everyone's lives. Rin made her way to the back of the ship. She found herself humming inexplicably to herself. That stopped as soon as she reached the ladder. She hadn't regained her former strength yet, and her breathing was heavy by the time she reached the glowbox. Maybe Stan just didn't feel strong enough to climb up here himself.

“Need to turn off the lower heat sink Molly. Stan wants to work on...”

Molly cut her off. “Maintenance down-time?”

“Yeah, you could think of it that way.”

“Expected duration?”

“Aah, a day? Twenty-four hours?”

“Acceptable. The power output will be limited to no more than.” Molly paused “Please wait.” and then immediately began again, “Power will be limited to no more than two fifths rated sustained, or seven ninths rated for peaks not exceeding five minutes.”

“Will we have to turn anything off?” Rin inquired.

“The plant has been operating below one sixth rated since the landing event.”

Rin thought for a moment. “So, that's fine then.” she concluded.

Molly did not respond.

“Okay, thanks Molly.”

“You are quite welcome.” she responded, in a much friendlier tone than the technical monotone she had been using before.

Rin made her careful way back down the ladder. Stan and Buck were still discussing their options when she got back to the day comp.

Dying

Markus rolled his head to one side and took a slow breath, “Come to check on the sick guy?”

Rin had stalked into medical, half to get away from Stan.

“No, I'm just looking for some bandages. Cut my arm. Want to keep it clean.”

“Anything serious?”

Rin looked over at Markus' swollen arm. It was still nasty looking, but hadn't started rotting or anything, so they were hoping for a full recovery. The swelling seemed to have gone down, but it was hard to tell. “Don't worry, no competition here.”

“They are all in that other cupboard. No, one down. That's the one.”

Rin yanked the door open, and snatched a packet of gauze from the container on the back. “Why don't doctors label their cabinets?”

Markus chuckled to himself, “Think about it.”

“All I'm saying is have some stickers. 'bandages' and 'tape' and stuff.”

“Oh yes, that would make everyone so comfortable. 'Oh look, that's where they keep the biohazard bags, and there's the bodily fluid cleanup kits.'”

Rin laughed, “Yeah! Needles, Extra Large Needles, Eyeball Pluckers.”

“Yes, the uncomfortable human ability to visualize, coupled with the power of language.” Mused Markus

“Well, if you're feeling up to it, get a marker and label the cabinets. We should have done it when we ran the inventory.”

“Hindsight.”

From somewhere below came Stan's reedy wail “Rin, where are you?”

Rin rolled her eyes. “How can a person be so smart and so dumb?”

Markus just stared at the ceiling “He does begin to grate.”

“What is it?” Rin called back, perhaps not as loudly as she might have done.

“Have you been tampering with the ship inventory depletion records? They appear to have been corrupted!”

“Coming!” yelled Rin. Turning to Markus she said, in much more conversational tones, “Get well soon. Please?”

“I'll try.”

Dear

Rin had asked Ando to wake Andrea last. At the time it had seemed the clearly sensible thing to do, but now she wondered why she hadn't asked for Andrea first. Having another woman around had always felt like a kind of threat to Rin. Perhaps an attitude inherited from her mother's predatory lifestyle. Now that Andrea was awake and sitting with her in the Daycomp, it felt as if a great crisis had passed.

“... and stay away from the hull plating.” Rin finished, “We suspect Relnf was killed by some noxious off-gassing.”

“So, how many of the officers are left?”

“None. They all starved to death, the morons.”

“Well at least they didn't eat everything!” Andrea laughed a nervous little chuckle.

“That's just the thing! They did eat everything! All the provisions, all the medical sucrose, even the backup nutrient gel out of the RAS units!”

Andrea gave another twittering laugh. “Well at least they didn't eat us!”

Rin was stunned. It was true. No cannibalism. The officers and primary crew had starved to death while six hundred pounds of perfectly good protein and fat sat in cold storage. Rin felt a wave of shame wash over her. All this time she had been badmouthing the officers, but they had literally sacrificed their lives so that she could live.

No, it was not a particularly clever sacrifice. She was still mad at them for not even testing the native plants for edibility before it was too late. Dr. Fournier at least should have known better than to blindly chew on unknown objects. But they had made a brave sacrifice in letting the secondary crew slumber on in their RAS-R units. She nodded in assent, “You're right. They didn't.”

Rin introduced Andrea to their food, such as it was. After the meal Andrea gave a long sigh. She appeared to enjoy the swamp soup more than was really healthy. Rin was beginning to remember that things always felt like a crisis had passed when Andrea was around. She exuded an air of tense relief.

“Okay, you said Markus is still sick?” Andrea said.

“Probably some sort of poison bite, yes.” replied Rin.

“I'd better take a look.”

Andrea followed Rin to the medical compartment. It occurred to Rin that Andrea must have passed through here after coming out of RAS. Markus was asleep when they got there, and Rin left Andrea doing an inventory of their medical supplies.

Drudgery

Over the next two days Markus slowly recovered. Andrea appointed herself as his nurse, took him meals, and generally helped him to move around the ship. Rin suspected the attention was not entirely altruistic. For one thing, it meant that Rin and Buck were stuck gathering food. Stan was still working on getting the computer system to let the crew into the critical systems. It would have been convenient if the captain had unlocked it before disappearing without a trace. Stan felt confident that he could get in, given enough time. Time meant food, which meant more swamp-vine expeditions.

Ando went with them on each excursion now, but they didn't have any more trouble from the bush-fish. The remains they scattered around must have released a warning chemical of some kind. The husks had liquefied at an alarming rate. Rin was glad that the bacteria or fungus around here didn't appear to work on humans. If you got sick with something from Pandora, it would likely end in a puddle of muck.

Buck was using the wheelbarrow to refill the ship's water supplies again. Stan and Ando had rigged up another tank behind the heat sink. One was used for soup stock, and the other was for boiling the water that would get pumped into the main freshwater tank.

“You know” Said Buck, as Rin was dumping the latest load of vines into the soup cauldron, “We could probably start a distillery, get distilled water instead of just boiled river water. We really don't know what's in that stuff.”

“Stan's already got plans to make one. I think it feeds directly into the freshwater tanks.”

“We should probably de-couple it from our storage. You know, just in case something goes wrong.”

“You just want to try distilling the booze fruit.”

“Totally a side bonus.”

Diadem

Andrea and Rin were down by the river when they saw it. They had gone to gather some water early in the morning, but then agreed that it was much too cold to climb all the way back up the hill. At least, right away. Better to warm their feet in the water and relax for a bit. Rin's large grass hat hid Andrea's face as they sat a meter apart on a sloping boulder. The weird smell of wet alien soil and washed stone wafted by, mixed with the very earth-like scent of the stream. The early morning light drew the valley into sharp focus. Each stalk of grass and every scorched boulder threw long stiff shadows down the hill, mixing with the chattering water as it wound among the barely pulsing nodules in the river bed.

“So what's with these little bugs anyway?” Rin asked. The zing-pop sounds were constant down by the river. Rin had learned to ignore the “bites” which had proven to be tiny bruises or welts. They never broke the skin, but the entire purpose of the mechanism had eluded her.

“Oh, yeah, I call them 'zippers'. I haven't caught one yet, but I've got a theory.” Andrea turned to face Rin, her jumpsuit scraping on the rough stone. “You know how lots of the animals around here have exoskeletons?”

“Yeah, like insects and stuff.”

“Right, well, I think the zippers have some sort of way to crack the shells of the bigger insects. Some sort of little hammer or something.”

Rin nodded, “That's not a bad theory, explains why they don't break the skin.”

“Yeah, also explains why that big guy avoids the river.”

Rin looked up and saw Andrea pointing over to the right. Half-way up the slope from the river, and a few hundred meters downstream, a shape was moving. Rin still had trouble judging distances and sizes, with all the unfamiliar objects for scale. Still, its ponderous movement alone marked it as a large creature. It was composed of some set of bright teal and yellow ridges or plumage which waved lazily as it lumbered along.

Rin had to chuckle, “Not trying to sneak up on anyone huh?”

“It is pretty flagrant.” Andrea responded. “I wonder if it's some sort of insecty thingy too?”

“Like a giant ant with racing stripes and a spoiler!”

“A Flay-ger-ant!”

Rin groaned. “Well, we should probably get back to the ship. Those guys are pretty dangerous.”

“Flaygr-ant-ly dangerous?” A moment passed as they both shook the water from their toes. Andrea pulled her knees up to her chest and worked her shoes back on, “Good thing I was looking. You seem to only have eyes for the ground!”

A stuttering croak shattered the air, just on the lowest register of hearing. It was as if a lion were roaring through the throat of an enormous bull frog. The sound seemed to come from everywhere at once. Rin glanced over at the Flaygr-ant, which had now topped the ridge. It's colored plumes flashed with the disorienting rapidity, boiling with fractal patterns and transient geometries. She found Andrea's hand and clasped it in terror as they ran back to the ship. Once safe inside the airlock, and breathing hard, she managed to force out a laugh. The eldritch creatures in whose world they now lived were comical and colorful as insects. But, like insects, all their levity was best appreciated from the far side of the glass. When encountered on their own terms, the whimsy gave way to shuddering, terror, and flight.

“Well!” Andrea stated, as if the Flaygr-ant had done her a turn in poor taste for the naming she had given it. “Let's not do that again!”

Danger

“What do you think you're doing?” Rin asked pointedly.

Buck crossed his arms.

It was late afternoon on a cloudless day. The wreck of the Armstrong shimmered in the searing light. Working through the insulated hull, the heat soaked the interior in sweltering waves of being entirely too warm. Still, it was much better than the outside of the ship which even Ando refused to endure. Rin had attempted to take a short walk. The attempt was quickly aborted. She described the weather as “eyeball boiling.” As a result everyone was cooped up inside, cranky, and dripping in sweat.

Rin had taken refuge in the maintenance core behind the main water storage tank. The sheer bulk of water had kept it relatively cool. The entire area dripped with condensation, and Rin had briefly lay beneath the curve of the tank, enjoying the cool drops. But then one had fallen in her mouth, and she tasted some unknown sealant or coroded coating. The thought of unknown chemicals soaking her clothes made her cringe. Sadly this knowledge transformed her refuge into a dripping dungeon, as she discovered just how few locations were not bedewed with tiny rivulets or splattered with falling droplets. After enjoying the cool up to the endurance of her mental facilities she climbed -- full of regret -- down the ladder and back into the inhabited sections of the vessel.

And there she had stumbled upon Markus and Andrea. Stumbled was unfair, as they were entirely out of the walkway. In a bunk, in fact, in the night compartment, actively demonstrating one more reason why separating the quarters by gender was such a sensible plan.

Rin had stalked off feeling vaguely vindicated, and almost immediately run into Buck.

“Woah! Hey Ninja.”

“Buck, did you know that Andrea and Mark are in a relationship?”

“As in, they are friends who...”

“As in, they are currently having sex in Chef's bunk!”

Rin had expected Buck to make a witty quip, or run off to go look, but instead he merely looked serious and said, “Ahh.”

“This is a problem.” Rin prompted him.

“Yes.” Buck agreed, “It certainly could be.”

And so the four of them found themselves surrounding one of the tables in the galley. Each one overheated, indignant, embarrased, defensive, and perplexed all at once.

Markus crossed his arms as well, “What, exactly, are you referring to?”

Buck cut in, “She's referring to the lively bunkage.”

Markus grinned, “It wasn't bunkage, though it was rather lively.”

Buck glanced at Rin.

Rin began again, “I don't know what either of you are talking about, but we need to have this conversation. The rules prohibiting intra-mission intercourse are very clear.”

Andrea spoke up now, “And we're not on a mission, Rin. The mission is over.”

“Maybe it is.” Rin shot back.

“Maybe you're jealous.” Andrea returned.

“Tha-ats enough.” Buck said. The long rising tone of the first word leant a slight comical overtone which Rin appreciated. Markus stood just as Stan walked in, bleary eyed.

“What are we discussing now?” Stan asked.

“Just a misunderstanding.” Markus said with a hint of injury, “If you'll excuse us.” and he strode from the room, trailing Andrea as they both pushed past Stan.

Stan sat heavily, “Bunkage?” he asked.

“There's some confusion on that point.” Buck explained.

“Good for you.” Stan raised his left hand, palm out.

“Them, actually.” Buck replied, but gave him a half-hearted high-five anyway.

Rin put her forehead in her hands, eyes staring wide at the table. The motion sent a droplet of moisture off the end of her nose to splatter, like so much tainted condensate, onto the eggshell textured off-white surface. “I was so sure...”

“Not your fault.” Buck said, patting her on the back of her head. “Easy mistake to make. And besides, we're going to have to address this issue anyhow.”

“What issue?” Asked Stan, “Why is this an issue?”

“Article seven Stan.” Rin spoke to the table surface.

“How does that apply? Are we still beholden to the articles? Buck, please tell me we're not still following those stupid...”

“No, we're not.” Buck interjected, “But the reasoning is still sound. We can't afford a pregnancy now any more than we could before. Probably even less now actually.”

“Fine!” Stan had the special kind of brilliance that occasionally blinds the bearer. “So just... oh right.”

Rin lifted her head, “Which is why I'm so upset about this.” It was a lie of course, but it sounded good.

The sound of Markus hollering “Can we come back?” echoed down the hallway.

Buck leaned back in his chair and shouted “Sure!”

Stan creased his brow, “Hang on, is she even fertile?”

Rin rolled her eyes, “Assuming the extended RAS hasn't damaged us, I'd say it's a safe bet.”

Stan frowned, “Huh.”

Markus and Andrea walked back in.

There weren't enough seats at the table, so Andrea leaned against the wall. “Sorry for the snark.” she said, and then laughed nervously.

“We've decided to get married.” Markus said, grinning.

“What?” Rin asked, “How does that solve anything?”

“Guys.” Buck put in, “I'm excited you're both getting along so well, but this is about birth control.”

“Why control it?” Asked Markus, “It's clear humans can survive here. We should be going for the long game; Building a technology base. Procreation is essential for society.”

Rin locked eyes for a moment with Andrea who smirked a little and shrugged. Rin spoke up, “That's, very noble, I'm sure, but we don't have the resources to support children right now. Hell, we barely have food!”

Markus' grin broadened, “I don't think we're really talking about what's bothering you.”

“Okay, fine. Rebuilding society is not a feasible goal. We tried this in college, and it takes ages! You can't just, I don't know, carve a day-care out of rocks! We should be focusing on getting rescued, or escaping, or something.”

Markus tilted his head slightly, “Touché. However, the goals are not mutually exclusive.”

Rin was inexplicably desperate, “And she could die in childbirth!”

Andrea looked up at the ceiling, “Yes, thank you.” She chuckled, “That is a possibility.”

Buck was staring at some point in the corner of the room.

Rin closed her eyes. “Okay, look, personally, I think you're both crazy. But if you're both willing to look out for your own... consequences, then I'm not sure what else there is to say.”

“No.” Buck stated flatly. “I'm in charge here and this is nonsense. You're using libertarian terms, but this is commune.”

“We'll make our own then?” Markus asked, halfway to a blunt statement.

Buck crossed his arms, “Two fifths, of everything. We've got an inventory too, so don't go trying anything.”

Andrea cocked her head and looked at Stan, “Maybe three fifths?”

Stan was nonplussed “I'm with whoever owns the reactor. Can that be my fifth?”

Rin stood and grabbed the sleeve of Buck's smudged jumpsuit. “Can I talk to you for a moment?”

“I thought that's what we were all doing, just talking.” But he stood up anyway and followed her out.

They stood in a dark sweltering hallway. Buck leaned on the bulkhead, and Rin stood smoldering just in front of him.

“Look,” Rin said, her voice just above a whisper. “This is insane.”

“You're the one who was all upset.” Buck responded, his voice a low rumble in the humid gloom.

“Maybe I was shocked. Maybe I over-reacted. But Buck, if you force them to leave, and they die out there...” Rin had to stop before the quiver in her voice got out of control.

“You'll what.” Buck asked, unmoved.

“You remember inventory item ninety-nine?”

“Yeah, that crazy looking...”

“If you let them die out there, I'm going to find you when you're all alone, and I'll come to you naked. And when you...”

Buck's eyes widened, the whites tiny circles in the dark. “Fine! I get it! They can stay! Geez, why do you have to be such a crazy bitch?”

Rin hoped he could see her bared teeth as she grinned, “I'm just trying to keep you from making a decision you'll regret later.”

“I'd hate to see them go anyhow. I just don't want to have this crazy drama. We've got enough work without it.”

“I'm sorry for freaking out Buck. It just, surprised me is all.”

“Man, it's hot in here huh? I'm thinking of slipping out of this jumpsuit for a bit. Want to join me?”

“Ugh. Ask me when you don't reek with sweat and swamp-vine.”

“And then you'll say yes?”

“No! Listen to yourself!” Rin said, and stalked away. They were all going to need cold showers in this heat.

Rin got back to the table and sat down. Stan was gone and Andrea was sitting on Markus' lap, talking quietly. She got up as Rin entered the room. There were a few moments of silence. Rin realized that Buck hadn't followed her back.

“So should we start packing?” Andrea asked.

“No” Rin said, “I'm sorry for all this. We'd love it if you would stay.”

“Oh! Thank you Rin.” Andrea came over with her arms open wide. Rin didn't have quite enough time to stand, so they had a lop-sided hug where she sat.

Markus just leaned back and sighed.

Dust

The next day Andrea and Markus went out at dawn to gather more food. Rin told them what to look for. The vines grew in bunches and patches, but no large scale pattern had emerged so far. Then Rin went to lie down in her bunk. She was always tired these days. The swampvine had taken the edge off her hunger, but the desire to eat something “good” remained. They had all talked about testing the rest of the plants, but no one really wanted to risk ingesting deadly poison. Maybe in a few days when things settled down.

Rin was asleep when the explosion occurred. She woke sharply to the echoes ringing off the cliffs on the far side of the valley. “What was that?” She mumbled to herself. It could have been lightning, but there was no storm outside. Dry lightning? She stumbled into the daycomp.

Something looked odd outside. Twinkle was burning high in the sky, but the other side of the valley looked wrong somehow. The shadows were wavering, as if in a strong wind. The light was growing brighter?

“Get inside the ship!” she heard Stan screaming from somewhere outside.

“Hey Ninja, what's the ruckus?” Buck stood behind her, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

“I don't know. Something blew up.” She gestured vaguely out the window as she watched.

The hill on the right was outlined in an intense white glow, growing swiftly brighter, larger. Rin heard the airlock cycle.

“They were out there!” Stan yelled down the length of the ship, ”They were still outside!”

Suddenly the scene resolved itself. Buck and Rin spoke almost at the same time.

“Shit.” “Fire.”

The blaze swept with unnatural speed across the landscape. The smoke was almost clear, and the flames only leapt a few feet from the ground. It was more like a blowtorch flame than a brush fire. She could hear the hissing roar growing nearer, like a screaming whisper.

Rin found she had to say something. “Wow.” was what came out.

The heat from the blaze was growing intense, Rin backed away from the window. She could see the fruit on the trees swelling as they boiled. Taut and full and round for a moment before they exploded in bright flashes of flame. She could hear the “Foomp!” as each one burst.

“There goes our food.” Buck said. He was standing next to the window, looking out at the forest. The whole thing must have been a mass of flame. A sound like slow-motion fireworks echoed through the hull.

The edge of the fire was passing in front of them now. Rin shielded her face for a few moments with her arm, and was shocked when it passed quickly by; Only a few seconds and the blaze was gone, moving off in a brilliant band away from them and over the hill. The ground was charred. Not even stubble remained of the undergrowth. A thin rain of soot fell all around. The light was muted. A cloud had formed above them, lit from above by the too-bright sun, and from below by the receding wall of flame.

Rin stepped cautiously up to the window. There was a single crack running diagonally across the outer pane. Buck put his head above Rin's in the narrow frame.

“Looks like the trees survived.” Rin said.

“There might be a few swampvines left. Probably taste even worse than normal.” Buck said from above her.

“We've got to find Andrea and Markus!” Stan yelled from the airlock. “They could be badly hurt!”

Buck began walking aft, “Don't open it yet, there might be toxic fumes from the fire.”

They waited a few minutes. There didn't appear to be much smoke. Buck wanted to wait longer and Stan wanted to go looking for the others as soon as possible. They settled on cycling the airlock and smelling the air. Rin and Buck waited in the day room while Stan ran his test. They could all smell the sharp burnt odor before Stan called back that it seemed alright. Donning their grass hats, the three stepped into the airlock and then out into the blazing light.

The vista had certainly changed. Where there had been deep green undergrowth now a drift of white cinders swirled. A faint ticking and crackling came from the ground underfoot. The Armstrong seemed unaffected, except for an additional layer of soot. The forest seemed oddly untouched, for while the grassy leaves and all been incinerated the trunks seemed the same as ever. The twisting branches stood bare, looking like some witches magical forest. Really, the vista reminded Rin of nothing so much as the poster on her wall. The white ash almost looked like snow, and the grassless trees could almost be winter-bare oaks. If not for the perspiration inducing swelter, Rin might have felt wistful. As it was she mostly just felt sick.

“Markus! Andrea! Are you okay!” Stan yelled.

“Knock it off.” Buck ordered, “If they survived they'll be on their way soon.”

Stan turned to look up at Buck. “They might be hurt. Go look over in the forest.” Stan pointed to the thicket along the bluff, “Rin, you check around those rocks. I'll look down by the river.”

Buck frowned, “Fine. Meet back here in...” He glanced at his wrist and realized none of them had working watches, “Just meet back here soon. Don't go too far.”

They all started off, roughly in the same direction. It was strange growing slowly farther from the others as their paths diverged. Rin realized she had never been out alone on the alien world before. Stan called out every so often, but Buck was silent. Rin didn't feel like yelling on top of the hiking, so she was quiet as well. The ground here was uneven and rocky, where the forest fell in steps toward the river. Rin seemed to recall there had been less vegetation here. There was a good chance of surviving the fire on the rocky ground. Of course, there was less chance that Andrea and Markus had been hanging out on the bare rock. Odds were that they had still been gathering vines when the fire struck.

Rin's search quickly became an exercise in frustration and stumbling. The broken ground offered so many places to hide that it would take days to find them all. Of course, if Markus and Andrea were in any kind of health they wouldn't be hiding any more. Rin's mood quickly grew sour. Buck was right, if they were going to turn up, they would have done so. Then another thought struck her. Maybe they were already far off! They had left hours ago by the look of the sun. Who knew the distance they could have covered in that time. Maybe they had seen the smoke and were headed back now! They would probably be coming along the grassy plain up ahead.

Rin raised her eyes and shielded them from the sun. Looking down from the higher ground on which she was standing she could see a good portion of the plains. There were several veins running across the smoother ground. After a second Rin distinguished these as the charred remains of the swampvines, or perhaps a poisonous look-alike.

There were several blackened lumps out on the plain as well. Rin didn't recall seeing plants like that before. They were thick and splayed like the trees, but lay along the ground instead of stretching into the air. There were two of them.

Dawn

Digging the graves was a lot of work. Rin let the big strong men handle it. No point in pressing for sexual equality right at the minute. The pre-dawn night was bitterly cold though, and she paced with Ando to keep warm. They had decided to continue along the tangent begun where the officers and primary crew were buried. If about another three hundred people died the extending line would reach the river. As it was, it just looked a little odd and lopsided, but there was a container on the other end of the row, and no one felt like moving it.

Pacing to keep warm also doubled as sentry duty. Ando and Rin did their best to keep an eye out for anything moving. Their feet crunched on frost and dead cinders, beating a perimeter into the ground. Now that the landscape was a blackened crust this was both easier and harder. Easier since there was no underbrush for critters to sneak through. Harder since the dark skin of the native life forms blended seamlessly with the scorched earth. Rin was beginning to suspect that this whole incineration thing happened fairly often.

In a couple hours there were three fairly decent graves ready. The sky was growing lighter with the coming day. Rin and Ando had scared off several scavengers, and there was a herd of some kind moving about a good ways off, but overall the digging went unhindered. The holes weren't six feet by any means. More like a meter really. Stan and Buck, who had started with a will, were moving like old men by the end. Rin suspected it had something to do with the alien diet, too much stress, not enough sleep, and whatever toxins were in the air.

The bodies were placed in the graves without much ceremony. Stan brought out the footlockers. They didn't have any spare cloth to carry or lower the corpses. Buck ended up hoisting each cradled in his arms and stumble-jump-sliding into the appropriate pit. Markus and Andrea left greasy black smears on his arms and shirt. Rin shuddered, but did not look away. It was too solemn a moment to be embarrassed.

When the bodies were in place Rin went to each grave in turn. She had brought a token for each dead crew member. It had seemed appropriate when she thought of it, but standing by Relnf's grave, she felt she really didn't want to hop down. There wasn't much room anyhow, and it seemed disrespectful. She settled for kneeling at the edge and gently tossing in the picture of Relnf's family they had found in his locker. “If this were a movie,” Rin thought to herself “It would have floated down gently and landed on his chest.” But it didn't. The paper spiraled gracelessly, and landed face down above Relnf's shoulder, propped with one corner against his neck. Rin wanted to adjust it for him. She found herself tilting her own head a bit, trying to dislodge the pointy photograph. She closed her eyes and forced herself to stand.

Markus was the hardest. The burns didn't change his skin color that much, so he looked almost normal. Well, except for the pink seams where the skin had charred and cracked. Rin had brought a wood carving Markus had been working on before they went into hibernation. For whatever reason, the thought that the carving would never be finished pushed Rin over the edge. She broke into quiet weeping, kneeling on the edge of the shallow grave. The weeping turned to sobs. She cried for the crash, and the starvation, and the wasted lives, and the stress. She cried because there was no damned coffee left! The sobbing turned into screams and she threw her head back and reveled in it. Holding the lump of wood -- she thought it was going to be a seagull, but no one would ever know now -- she hurled it with all her might and one final “Raaahh!” of rage in the general direction of the charred corpse that used to be Markus. She didn't see where it landed. The world was a blur of tears.

For Andrea she didn't bother to kneel. The weeping and yelling had drained her emotions. With a shuddering intake of breath she let the plastic keepsake fall. It was some kind of memorabilia that Rin couldn't even identify. She hoped it had meant something to Andrea. Not that she would notice. The idea of tokens seemed pointless now. Rin walked back to stand next to Ando and the others where they waited in a rough line.

Their breath hung in the air, a fading fog bank renewed by their continued life. After a short pause where Rin wiped her nose on her jumpsuit sleeve, Ando startled everyone by speaking. His voice was the normal volume, but it seemed loud in the pre-dawn silence.

“As Crewman Markus is labeled in the roster as a Christian, I believe he would have wished for some Christian ceremony at his burial. I am prepared to deliver a short passage from the Book of Common Prayer, as long as that would not offend anyone present.”

Rin couldn't help but ask, “Where did you find a book like that?”

“I have memorized several religious texts for reference. Does your question mean that you are offended?”

“No, go ahead.” Rin said. As no one else objected, Ando began. The language was old English, but it was pronounced in Ando's normal speaking voice. This gave the homily an oddly incongruous air.

“All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. He that raised up Jesus from the dead will also quicken our mortal bodies, by his Spirit that dwelleth in us. Wherefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. Thou shalt show me the path of life; in thy presence is the fullness of joy, and at thy right hand there is pleasure for evermore.”

“That didn't make any sense.” Buck put in, after a short pause.

Ando's face, which had been wearing his neutral expression, changed to concern, “I'm sorry Buck. That seemed the most appropriate passage given the context. There is much more to the ceremony, and several permutations, but most of it requires either prayer or singing. Should I recite the whole ceremony?”

“No, never mind.” Said Buck, “It's just... crazy is all.”

They were all silent for a bit more. Twinkle had almost come up.

“Did you have... anything Stan?” Rin asked.

“No, let's go cover them up.”

“Wait.” It was Buck. “I have something to say.”

They all turned to look at Buck. Ando actually turned to face him, sharply as if he were going to salute.

“I wrote a poem. It's, well, here goes.” Buck coughed, as if it were the proper way to begin reciting.

“I woke upon a foreign world, It had not friend or foe.

But friends about me gathered round, and showed me where to go.”

Buck's voice grew shrill with restrained tears. He continued to squeeze out each line,

“We knew each other from before, like siblings from a dream.

But blood and fire took a few, with coughing or with scream.

We wished to stay and talk with them, to laugh and play and live.

But in the end, their lives for ours, were all they had to give.

With Markus, Andrea, and Relnf, our memories will be.

And rising on the Phoenix wings, may their pure souls rise free.”

Buck ended with a sniff, as if this and the cough were perfect bookends for a graveside poem. It occurred to Rin that, perhaps, they were.

“That was beautiful Buck. Thank you.” said Rin.

Buck nodded and stared straight ahead, eyes glistening. Then, wearily and with a deep sigh, he bent and took a shovelful of dirt and threw it into the middle pit. Stan joined him, and soon all three were scooping, or pushing it in with the sides of their shoes.

Rin chuckled irreverently, “This is like some sort of dirt football.” She gave a clod a kick, and it tumbled with a tiny “thud” into Relnf's grave. “Score. One point for the people who are still alive.”

Buck groaned as he straightened, “Believe me, I'm still alive. You want to take a turn shoveling Rin?”

“No, you're doing good.”

The graves were half full of dirt when Stan broke the silence a few minutes later. “I like the Phoenix idea Buck. It fits this place, what with the fire and all.”

“Less depressing than 'Shitworld' anyway.”

The name stuck, and the planet where they were stranded was “Phoenix” from then on. It proved to be even more appropriate a name as the days passed.

Twinkle was well above the horizon by the time they finished piling the dirt back in the holes. Ando killed a scuttler that got too close, and they cooked it up for breakfast. Rin was glad of the warm meat, no matter how oddly rubbery it was. No one had enough, but they all headed inside and went to sleep before the day got too warm.

Ando was left to stand watch. Which was fortunate, because this was when he solved their food problem.

Outside