Damn! Sorry, forgot to doublecheck spacing before pasting. Here it is again:
“Shuttle Kerguelen, this is shuttle Saint-Hilaire” Sheridan called.
“Kerguelen here. Standby for landing coordinates,” came the terse reply.
From above, if there had been any light to see by on the rogue planet, an interrupted canyon cut like a gash from nearly north to almost south, broken by a mass of hard rock that hadn’t yielded to erosion when the planet had circled a star, however long ago that was. The canyon floor was dry north and south of the rocky mass, and a series of charred ellipses showed the Klingon’s bombardment, bracketing the northern canyon and slowing trailing off to the southeast. Six shuttles were parked in the round on that final blast pattern, facing out, the circled wagons of a new age.
Lights winked on as spacesuit clad figures exited the craft and rearranged, the crew of Kerguelen temporarily vacating to make room for the senior officers and non-coms to gather inside Kerguelen. Sergeant Gerensky, Second Lieutenant Bartelli, Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Driscoll, Ensign Sheridan, and Bosun Caswell filled the cramped interior.
Bosun briskly started the session “Now that we’re all here, we can scan the area for the Klingons”
“Sir, could you hold off on that? The Lieutenant here had an idea on the way over” Gerensky interrupted, to Bartelli’s astonishment. “I - ?” he bit off.
“Sir, remember when you asked about the ice?”
“uh, yes, yes I did” Bartelli played along.
“and I told you we parked here because it’s the blast point furthest from the downed shuttle?”
“yeeeesss” Bartelli still wasn’t quite sure what ‘his’ idea had been.
“Spit it out, Lieutenant” interrupted Bosun.
“Well, sir, it’s like this, um”
“Sir” cut in Gerensky “there’s only two places without ice here, except
for the blast points”
“Yes, yes, it’s the condensed atmosphere of the planet. What of it?”
“Well, sir, the lieutenant
thought the shuttle might’ve melted the ice it landed on. But in that case, …”
“In that case, what melted the other dry patch!” Bartelli finally caught on.
And that’s maneuvering a senior officer for you
, thought Sheridan.
Bosun gave Gerensky a flat stare that told the NCO he hadn’t been fooled, but if the sergeant wanted his officer to get the credit, he wouldn’t call him out over it publicly.
“Alright, sergeant, lieutenant, why shouldn’t I scan?”
“Because, sir, it’ll tip them off that we know where they are” Gerensky began
“And if we go in on foot through the other patch, we can be at their door before they know it!” Bartelli finished.
“look, here, at the map – that’s a river canyon where the shuttle went down, and it dead ends here” he pointed at the first dry spot “and starts up again here” pointing at the second dry spot “and that means…”
“that means the river had to go underground through that rock between them and cut a cave!” Sheridan realized “that’s got to be where they are!”
Bosun smiled indulgently, “Ok, sergeant. I see what you’re saying. I should send you in, then take off and start scanning a search circle from low orbit, as if I had no idea where to look. Alright. We’ll do that. Ensign, you and your pilots go aloft in the other shuttles, leaving your ratings with Boats here” pointing at Driscoll “to block the cave entrance by the other shuttle.”
“Bosun, I’m just a warm body on the shuttles. Another person dirtside might make more of a difference.” Sheridan put in.
“BM2 doesn’t need to babysit a greenhorn if he might be fighting Klingon warriors, ensign”
“I’ve fought pirates, Bosun, and I grew up in the mountains. I’ve been spelunking often.”
“This is your first ship, ensign, you haven’t had the opportunity to fight yet, “ Bosun clearly disbelieved.
“When we moved back to Terra, our ship was boarded. I was 13, but I got one of the bastards!” Sheridan flushed at the memory of hate bubbling inside.
Caswell looked again, reevaluating the boy. No, not a boy. “Look, son, I know that your friend is in there. I don’t want you to take the wrong chance and get killed or get him killed.”
“I won’t. I already lost my - well I lost someone because I was too stupid and hotheaded”
“Boats, if, in your opinion
, ensign Sheridan is endangering the mission, you have my direct
order to stun him and take command. Now, everybody clear out, we’ve got work to!” Bosun stared Sheridan down, daring him to object. Sheridan did his best to stare back without smiling or jumping.
On the walk back to the shuttles, Bartelli bumped into Sheridan and touched helmets to talk without communicators “Damn, that was ballsy!”
“You really think so?” Sheridan was startled at the idea.
“If either of us mess this first outing up, we’re not gonna be trusted with another shot, we might get busted to enlisted, and you had to ask for a bigger chance to foul up. Yeah, that was ballsy!” Bartelli replied fervently.
“Just trying to do the most good I can. Rory’s in there with the Klingons. And Roberts, too” Sheridan didn’t wish ill on the j.g, but none of the probationary ensigns had warmed up to him yet, largely because Roberts hadn’t warmed up to them yet. “I’d kinda wondered if you were probationary, too, or if that was just captain Sawyer’s treatment of fleet ensigns”
“Where d’you think he got the idea? Sam Fed’s Misguided Children have done it that way for decades! We gotta jet, see you when we get back!”
Did I just make a friend?
, he wondered.
The Marines formed up and moved out, marching in the blackness, crampons on their boots. Sheridan’s crew crowded in Saint-Hilaire and landed by the stranded shuttle Haeckel. As soon as the fleeties had exited, the hatch closed and Saint-Hilaire rose to orbit, abandoning her erstwhile passengers to the whims of fate.
Entering the hulk of Haeckel, Sheridan whistled slowly. Roberts must be a better pilot than I thought to set this thing down without spilling all over the mountainside! It’ll never fly again. Life support’s still functional, though. Looks like they had to cut it to suit support only, but that’ll help.
Tapping helmets, he told Driscoll “Boats, the shuttle’s wrecked, but life support’s still good for topping off the suits. Rotate everybody through while we wait. You first, me last.”
Leaving his NCO to organize things, Sheridan tapped Lansing on the shoulder and led her on a walk around the shuttle, looking for tracks.
Surprisingly, the tracks led to and from the arbitrary planetary northwest. Four sets approaching, six departing. Hmmm.
He looked longingly off that direction, but resisted the urge to follow.
A while later, Driscoll and Jansen approached. Driscoll tapped helmets and reported “Your turn, sir. Got any new orders?”
“Yes, Boats,” Sheridan replied. “See these tracks? Anybody else a decent tracker?”
“Don’t look too hard t follow, but wasn’t the plan based on them being south of us?” the Boatswain’s Mate asked.
“That’s what worries me. Were they being clever, or are we wrong? As soon as we get back out, we’re gonna form a chain heading that way. If they circled wide to throw us off, then we’re just running behind. If they really came from a cave that way instead, I’m gonna have to call it in. It might throw everything off.” Sheridan was almost quaking with the fear that he might be about to blow everything to hell.
“That’ll throw a spanner into the works, for sure. But I can’t see it any different” Driscoll said, thinking maybe he ain’t too stupid after all,
before continuing “Well, sir, I don’t think anybody here’s a tracker, but we should be able to see the tracks well enough. 2-man rule?”
“Not while we’re spreading out to follow, but the rest of the time yes. Seriously, none of you ever hunted?” Sheridan asked.
“Not that I’ve ever heard any of ‘em say so, anyway.”
“Well, then I guess I’m point, where do you want to be?” Sheridan asked.
“If you’re in the front, I oughtta be number Two. If we had anyone senior enough to really be 3rd, I’da taken Six.”
Satisfied, Sheridan said “Give us a few to top off and we’ll start.”
“Alright, sir,” Driscoll walked off to spread the word while Lansing and Sheridan went inside Haeckel.
Some time later, spread out in a line with 5 meter intervals, due to the short visible range without ambient light, the six set out northwest, Sheridan sweating the possibility that he’d just fouled it all up. The crunchy soil, loose beneath a thin, hard layer, showed tracks fairly well where footsteps broke through, and there few rocky patches. Not long after starting, maybe two hundred meters, the tracks began curving west, and Sheridan calmed, thinking It looks like maybe they
were just being clever
. I hope so, anyway