Black Petals Issue #79 Spring, 2017

Surviving Montezuma, Chapters 7 & 8

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Surviving Montezuma, Ch. 7 & 8-Continuing Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
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hiveship.jpg

SURVIVING MONTEZUMA, Chapters 7 & 8

 

By Kenneth J. Crist, BP Editor

 

About those aliens

 

 

Chapter 7.

 

Billy and Marla started exploring the sub-world of the Glassies, enduring the smell of rotting vegetation and animals, including the Glassies themselves and human remains. They wandered, often feeling their way through darkened areas and checking every chamber they came to. Billy marked their trail by scraping arrows in the dirt floors of the tunnels, using the sword he had liberated from the dead Glassie.

They found brood chambers, food chambers, weapons caches, and workshops where the Glassies repaired equipment. In one workshop, Billy found several devices similar to flashlights and their search became easier. The Glassies were everywhere. Every time they looked into a different chamber or turned a curve in a tunnel they found themselves steeling their nerves for another horror. They were seldom disappointed. After a time, the sight of a dead warrior or drone, collapsed or curled up, body fluids oozing from the joints of its carapace and exoskeleton, became almost routine. Several hours of walking and searching found them tired and discouraged. The vastness of the ship, coupled with the fact that they seemed to be the only life forms not dead or dying, was wearing them down, both physically and emotionally.

After what seemed like hours, they found themselves back at the same room they had been kept in. Although it had been their prison, it was a familiar place and they decided to rest there. Marla checked several chambers up and down the same tunnel, and found food packets and water from the Montezuma. They shared a meal and settled down to rest, before setting off to continue their exploration.

As they lay side by side, thinking about their situation, Marla quietly asked, “Billy, are you scared?”

“Damn right I’m scared,” Billy answered, “I’ve been scared for so long now that I’m almost used to it.”

“Could you...hold me?”

Billy put his arm around her and they kissed, almost shyly, and then the spark was rekindled. After a time they spread their clothing on the dirt floor and made love, then slept.

 

In a chamber deep within the second level of the Glassie hiveship, a queen slept. Not yet infected with whatever had been brought aboard, she had no knowledge of the infection that had run rampant through the ship. Her only concern was to lay eggs and to create warriors; even though she had not been fed in several days, she would continue to perform her duties, until she starved or the infection reached her. Her abdomen was so huge and her muscles so atrophied from disuse, that she would be unable to escape whatever fate awaited her. As her heart continued its slow, measured beat and her reproductive system moved eggs from her ovaries down through her birthing channel, the queen dreamed of a double red sun above a deep, dripping forest.

 

Billy woke up to find his only arm numb from the weight of his lieutenant lying on it. He gently woke her and, after she sat up and began to dress, set about working circulation back into it.

“I think the smell’s worse,” Marla said.

“Not any better, that’s for sure.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Hell no, you?”

“Nope. Not really.”

“Thanks for last night.”

“You’re most welcome, Gunny. Is your arm gonna be okay?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Billy struggled into his clothes, and again they set off on their search. In less than an hour they had found their suits, spread out on some workbenches in yet another shop. It appeared that the Glassies had been examining them but had done no real damage. The air tanks had shut down and the batteries were still holding a good charge.

“Do you want to suit up and get out of here, or do we need to explore some more?” Billy asked.

“I think we’ve seen enough. I don’t think there’s anything left alive. I’m ready to get back to Montezuma and take my chances there.”

Billy agreed and they set about gathering up all the food packets they could find to take back with them, in case the Glassies had trashed whatever was left on the Monty.

At the airlock, they suited up and started trying to figure out how to work the door mechanism. After fifteen minutes they opened their visors again and stopped wasting air and battery power. They could find no control panel or other obvious means of opening the door. Billy proposed just blasting it open, but Marla was opposed. She felt they should exhaust all other possibilities, as blasting the airlock open would leave the Glassie ship open to space, freezing and desiccating the remains of everything inside. Billy didn’t see any problem with that, but Marla wanted it to remain as near undisturbed as they could manage.

At last, they set about the grim task of searching dead Glassie warriors, looking for any unusual device that might work the airlock.

After a fruitless hour, Marla suggested they spend their time more productively and explore some more. They had yet to see the engine rooms, power plants or launch bays. They knew there were shuttle craft aboard somewhere. Perhaps, if they could find them, they could use one to escape.

Billy suggested they keep working their way lower into the ship, as the reaction engines had to be at the rear or bottom. They kept their suits on, with their visors open and soon were deep in the tunnels, bathed in sweat and surrounded by the stench of rotting. As they moved deeper, they noticed an increase in the number of brood chambers, until it seemed there was nothing else. The bodies of drones littered the tunnels thickly, in some places making passage all but impossible. Billy and Marla then had to climb over corpses of drones who, with single-minded dedication to their race, had worked until they collapsed and died.

At last Billy and Marla came to a three-way branching of the tunnel they were in. The tunnels to left and right appeared to be the same as all the others, but the one dead ahead was different. It was polished and smooth, very clean, and contained no roots. They chose this tunnel and moved on. They had gone less than a hundred feet when they came to a chamber that was unlike any they had seen before. This room was taller and the hub for a number of other tunnels. Billy flashed his light around until they both saw the huge, shapeless mass in the center of the chamber, with the head and legs of a Glassie on one end.

“My God.” Marla breathed.

“It’s their queen.”

“It’s disgusting.”

“Yeah, no shit. And it’s still laying eggs.” Billy whispered.

“Shall we kill it?”

“It’ll probably die soon enough.”

“Yeah, let’s just get out of here.” They turned, with every intention of leaving.

Later, Billy would describe the feeling that came over him as a “gray heaviness.” Suddenly unable to move, he found himself rooted to the spot. He opened his mouth to speak to Marla and found he could form no words.

From the queen came a chittering sound, and Billy realized she was trying to sing, much as the other Glassies did. Then, a thought came unbidden into Billy’s mind, not in words but in a pure concept. The concept was, “dying.”

Billy desperately tried to close his mind, instinctively wanting to protect himself from the invasion that he knew was coming, but had no more power to stop the flood than the river bed has to stop the river. His mind was suddenly filled with sights, sounds, and smells. He saw the double red suns and the red-tinted landscape of the Glassie home planet. He smelled the deep, dripping rain forest and heard the songs of the creatures that lived there. Then he felt homesickness and sorrow, bereavement and fear. He saw a flash of thousands of images of himself and Marla, standing in the chamber, and dimly realized he was seeing himself and Marla through the compound eyes of the queen. At that moment he experienced a deep abiding hatred of himself and all things human. At last, he felt the queen’s hold on his mind slipping, and then the thought came clearly, “GO!”

Billy found himself stumbling blindly down the polished tunnel, his eyes weeping copious tears from the pain of the mental blast he had taken. Vaguely, he knew Marla was right behind him, but didn’t stop until they reached the other two tunnel branches. Even then, he only slowed enough to take her arm and urge her wordlessly up the left-hand tunnel. He had not consciously chosen the left tunnel. It seemed the right way to go and, even as they hurried along, Billy was somehow aware that it had been chosen for them.

Another hundred feet brought them up to another iris-door but, at their approach, this one opened, revealing a launch bay with an attack craft sitting on a set of rails, aimed at the exact center of another door.

The craft was the standard Glassie fighter, a two-position, wingless, oval pod, with a clear canopy and no markings on its black hull. Laser cannon protruded from its front surfaces and cone-shaped reaction motor nozzles showed at the stern. There were various handholds and steps molded into the sides; Billy and Marla wasted no time getting into the craft. The seats were obviously not designed for humans, but they didn’t care. They wouldn’t be inside long enough to be concerned about comfort.

The controls were completely unmarked and definitely different from anything Billy had ever seen, let alone flown. There was a basic panel in front of the pilot’s position or front seat. On it were incomprehensible dials and meters and one screen, very similar to a computer display. Billy looked around and said, “Better seal up your suit. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

The canopy was still open, being hinged at the rear and held open by two struts. Billy looked around the cockpit and saw switches and levers in profusion. He was afraid to touch anything, for fear he might eject them or worse. If he fired the engines before the outer door was open, they would die in a messy way; that much was obvious.

“Okay,” Marla’s voice came through his suit radio, sounding dazed but still game to go, “all sealed up. Let’s hit it.”

“Easier said than done, babe. I’m completely lost here.” And he was, not only because of the strangeness of the craft and its controls, but also from the aftereffects of their experiences.

“Hey, you’re a pilot. Do some of that pilot shit. It can’t be that different.”

“Well, okay. Let’s see. This is probably the throttle...and this is the stick for sure. Here’s the master switch, I think.” Billy took a deep breath and lifted the square green handle. He was rewarded with lighted dials and the display screen lit up.

He looked the controls over more closely. He found that everything was color coded and noticed that there was one panel where everything was red. He assumed that this was the weapons panel and decided to stay away from it.

He got brave and flipped a second green switch. With a hissing noise, the canopy started to close. He waited while it completed its cycle and, as it locked closed, watched a small green light come on, above the switch. He flipped a third switch and nothing seemed to happen for a while. Then two red lights in the ceiling of the launch bay started flashing on and off and the iris door ahead of their craft began winding itself open.

Soon, the launch bay was completely open to space, and Billy flipped another green switch. Immediately, there was a whine from the rear of the craft and four green lights came on across the panel. The engines spooled quickly up to a scream, and Billy nervously gripped the throttle, giving it a slight nudge forward. The engine sounds increased but nothing happened.

He pushed the throttle forward some more and the craft began to creep down its launching rails. “Hang on, Ell-Tee,” he said, and gave the throttle a firm shove. The result was definite and immediate, as they shot down the rails and out into space. Billy rolled back on the throttle and cranked the stick around against his left knee and saw small steering rockets fire. The nose of their craft came left and the stars wheeled by.

“Damn, this is cool!” Billy said, “It’s great to be flying again, even in this weird sucker.”

“Glad you’re havin’ fun there, Gunny.” Marla’s voice was noncommittal.

Billy continued to play with the controls, being careful to keep within sight of the hiveship and the wreck of Montezuma, which was still alongside.

“Well,” he soon ventured, “it’s nice to know we have another option, if we get close to Earth.”

“You really want to try flying into Earth’s military space with a Glassie invasion craft?”

“Yeah...well, that might be a little risky.”

“A little! Gunny, sometimes you are such a goober.”

Billy was laughing at her choice of words as he at last brought the Glassie craft around and slowly approached the Montezuma. He docked the craft neatly in the shuttle bay where his own drop-ship used to live, bumping it up next to the maintenance catwalk, so they could get out. Within thirty minutes, they were back in their old quarters and out of their suits, but sleep did not come to either of them for many hours.

Chapter 8.

 

Billy awoke to clean air and the confines of their familiar quarters. There was still a slight stench of decay clinging to their suits, but it was nothing compared to being aboard the Glassie starship. His appetite seemed to be back, so he ate some concentrates and drank some water while waiting for Marla to wake up. It gave him some time to think about all that had happened and what might come next.

The most disturbing thing about their entire experience aboard the hiveship was not the episode with the queen. That had been weird and Billy wouldn’t care to do it again, but there was something that was disturbing him more. After their examinations he and Marla had almost seemed to be fitting into the Glassie society. They had become much more relaxed and the singing no longer bothered them. And when he had felt the queen’s projected feelings of homesickness and her hatred of humans, Billy had momentarily empathized with her. This brought to his mind the question: What if the Glassies hadn’t died? Would he and Marla have become some kind of spies or sympathizers? And how did the Glassies cause this change in feelings? Was it some kind of hypnosis? Billy pondered these questions but found no immediate answers, and soon turned his thoughts to more pressing problems.

He would need to get Marla to check their position and see if they were still on course. They had no way of knowing if they were still following the same plan they had established or if the Glassies might have altered their course. If it had been changed, they would have a whole new set of problems, being out of fuel for their main engines.

They needed to inventory again and see if the Glassies had disturbed their food and water supply. If so, their options would become very limited, indeed. They might even be faced with going back aboard the hiveship, just to survive. Billy tried not to think about that possibility.

Within two hours of the time Marla finally woke up, they had established that they were still on the same course and making something over forty thousand miles per hour. The Glassies hadn’t messed with their food or water, except to take some over to their ship. Billy and Marla were back to where they were before the Glassies came along, except for being a few days closer to a possible rescue.

 

Aboard numerous other hiveships, the plants told the Glassies of disaster. They told of a sickness of unknown origin and the death of the hiveship. They told of humans within the hive and the compromising of the ship and of the humans’ meeting with the queen. Then the information began to fade as the plant system of the hiveship died. Before all communication was lost, orders were given to the last vestiges of the plant life aboard the doomed hive and those orders were acknowledged. Soon, all would be well.

 

On the second day after their release, Billy and Marla were on the bridge. She was taking her daily readings and Billy was standing around trying to look necessary. If she had a problem, he was there, but the navigation chores were strictly hers. He idly moved around the shattered remains of the bridge of what had once been a proud fighting ship and marveled at the amount of damage the Glassies had caused. He once again looked down through the huge hole that pierced the entire ship and gazed at the hard brilliant points of light that were the stars.

With a start he realized he shouldn’t be seeing stars. The Glassie hiveship had moved!

“Hey, Ell-Tee!”

“What, Gunny?” Her voice was a little exasperated. He had interrupted her train of thought.

“The hive ship’s gone.”

Wordlessly, she joined him at the hole and peered downward. “Shit.”

“Yeah, where’d it go?”

“I dunno, but we’d better find out.”

Together, they again pulled themselves down through the damaged troop carrier, being careful of wires and snags. When they at last came out on the far side of the ship, they still could see no Glassie ship. Billy began carefully searching the vastness of space, looking for blackness against the stars.

“There!” Marla was pointing and, soon, Billy saw a black speck, almost blending in with the space between stars.

“How did it drift so far away?” Billy asked. Something was tugging at his mind, itching, disturbing him.

“If everything was dead...it couldn’t,” Marla said. She had stepped up onto a twisted outer hull plate, as if to get a better view and was loosely hanging onto a chunk of cable.

Just then, the thought that had been disturbing Billy took shape in his mind and he said, “Better get back down here, Ell-Tee...”

Then, it seemed that the entire universe turned a blinding, pure white and their visors were the only thing that saved their vision, as the nuclear power devices in the Glassie hiveship went to critical mass. Billy instinctively ducked, knowing the shock wave would be right behind the visible light. Then he was knocked around by the silent blast as it hit the Montezuma. His shoulder was painfully wrenched by striking a piece of metal, yet his suit was not holed. Soon, he stood back up to see how Marla had fared—she was gone.

“Marla!” No answer.

Billy checked his suit radio, adjusting volume. “Ell-tee? Where are ya?” Still nothing. The blast wave had blown her off the wreck and out into space. If it compromised the integrity of her suit, she was already dead, but Billy would not let himself think about that possibility.

 

In spite of the fact that Billy busted his ass to get through the wreck, it was still almost fifteen minutes before he was in the Glassie fighter and moving out to find her. He had taken time in his rush to stop at the spacesuit lockers and activate several rescue beacons. It would do neither of them any good if he found her, then was unable to get back. With each passing second, he knew her chances of being found got slimmer. He would not allow himself to even think about how slim her chances were after fifteen minutes. He knew her air supply and batteries were good. She probably had four hours. That was not the problem. The problem was that he had no detection equipment.

If he had been in any human-built craft, there would have been receivers built expressly for search and rescue that would have been able to home in on any suit beacon or other distress alarm. Radar would have allowed him to detect objects in space invisible against the starfield. Inertial guidance systems would have gotten them back.

The Glassie fighter might have the same thing, but Billy had no clue where it might be or how to use it. The other problem was that Marla hadn’t activated her beacon. If her vital signs failed and the suit maintained integrity, the beacon would come on by itself. If the suit was open to space, it would merely shut down its air and power. He was blindly heading out in the direction he thought she might have been thrown, with no idea as to her velocity or distance from the Monty. He was fishing, blindfolded and without bait, in the ocean of space.

“C’mon, c’mon, Marla, Goddamn it, turn on your beacon! Jesus, girl, how am I supposed to find ya, if ya don’t turn on your beacon. C’mon...”

Billy was flying and muttering to himself as he looked for Marla. Everything he was saying was going out over his suit radio, being broadcast into infinity, even though it was at low power.

In Marla’s helmet, Billy’s voice was coming through with a slight crackle, even though she was not hearing him. The shock wave had hit her squarely and sent her tumbling unconscious through space. She was already many miles from the Montezuma and completely unaware of her dangerous plight. Her course, if followed, would eventually take her just outside the orbit of Mercury, after which she would orbit the sun on a decreasing spiral until her long-dead remains at last fell into that seething cauldron, to become energy and perhaps fall upon the face of a child as sunlight.

By blind luck, Billy’s actual course varied only slightly from Marla’s. When he first heard her emergency beacon it was fading in as the beacons on the suits aboard Montezuma faded out. All of the suit beacons broadcast on the same carrier frequency, with varying tones, so that more than one could be distinguished and locked on at the same time. Somehow, Marla had activated her beacon; Billy was frantically scanning the blackness in all directions. Along with her radio beacon, there would be a strobe. At a long distance it would blend in with the starfield, but at nearer distances, it should stand out quite well.

 

Marla had come awake to tumbling, nausea, and disorientation, as the stars whirled past. There was blood in the inside of her helmet and her neck was throbbing. She had clapped a hand to her chestplate controls almost instinctively, feeling for the switch cover that protected the distress system from accidental activation. She fumbled with the cover, then got it open and clicked the simple toggle switch. She barely heard the first few beeps before she passed out again.

 

Twenty minutes later, Marla’s signal was fading and Billy was having to make some hard decisions. Either she had been going much faster than he reckoned and was steadily pulling away from him, or he had already overshot her position and passed her by. Was she ahead of him or behind? Or was she at right angles to him and he had screwed up his reckoning right from the start? He had no way of knowing. If he turned around and she was still traveling away, he would lose that much more time. He had no watch. It seemed like he’d been out here looking for hours—anxiety effecting his time sense, he hoped. Her signal at last disappeared altogether and, cursing, he wrenched the alien fighter around and started back.

 

 

Marla came awake a second time, and her head and neck hurt worse. This time she spoke into her suit radio.

“Gunny, can you hear me?”

Silence.

“Gunny! Hey, Billy, you there?”

She listened to static and the muted beeping of her distress beacon. The strobe on top of her helmet was pulsing brightly and not helping her throbbing head.

“Billy! Can you copy?” She still was not allowing panic to have its way with her. Carefully, she spread her arms and legs out as far as she could reach, knowing that eventually this would help slow her spinning. As she spun and beeped and fought to keep from puking, she thought about her situation. She dimly remembered the detonation of the hiveship and thinking how beautiful it was just before everything went black. She must have hit her head or jammed her neck real good during the sudden takeoff.

“Billy! You’d better answer me. You’d better not be playing games, fucker!” She was starting to feel the edge of panic and it worsened as she heard it creep into her voice. She asked her suit for air and battery status. It cheerfully told her she had three hours and thirty minutes to live but that the extra drain of her strobe and distress beacon would mean she would live her last hour in dark silence.

 

“...laying...ames....ucker!”

There! Billy heard Marla’s voice but broken.

“Marla! I’m here. Stay calm! I’m lookin’ for ya!”

Her beacon was coming through now, also static-filled but readable. Billy fired some braking rockets to slow down a little. It wouldn’t do to keep overshooting her.

“Billy!” Along with the voice, much clearer now, there was panting and panic. She was hurt or losing her grip or both.

“Marla! I hear ya, girl. Calm down. I’m on my way.” Billy tried to project calm and reassurance, though he was close to panic himself. He still could see no sign of her beacon.

“Billy?”

“Yeah, Marla, can you copy?”

“Oh, God, Billy...I thought...”

“Yeah, I know. You thought you were rid of me for good. No such luck, lady. Hey, is your strobe workin’?”

Now he could tell she was crying—maybe from relief, he couldn’t tell.

“Yeah. Unh...yeah, it’s workin’, Billy. Come get me, huh?”

“I’m on the way, doll, but just not close enough to see ya yet. Keep talkin’ to me, okay?”

“Unh...unh...okay. Okay, Billy? What happened?”

“Goddamn Glassie ship blew up, that’s what. I was down in the hole but you were up where you got the shock wave.”

“Good thing it wasn’t real close to us, huh?”

“Yeah, if it had been, I wouldn’t be lookin’ for my best girl right now.”

“Do ya see me yet?”

“Not yet, but your signal’s gettin’ stronger all the time. I missed ya on my first pass. Guess I panicked and rammed the throttle too hard.”

“Damn! My neck hurts.”

“Okay, listen, don’t move around, Marla. If you’ve sprained something, you’ll just make it worse.”

“I feel sick.”

“Hang on, I think I’m gettin’ close to ya.”

“Yeah...?”

“Yeah. Should be real close now. Marla?”

A quiet hiss behind the beeping.

“Marla? Hey! I got your strobe! I see ya!”

“S’good, Billy.”

“Oh, good. You’re back. I’m comin’ up on ya. You’ve got a helluva roll rate there. I’m gonna bump ya just a little to get ya stable....there!”

“Ouch! Christ, Gunny. Why did ya ram me?”

“I didn’t ram ya. Calm down. There! Got rid of that spin. I’m gonna pop the canopy.”

As Billy released the canopy and it slowly hinged open, Marla’s suited form tumbled along the upper surface of the craft and Billy was able to stand in his seat and grab her. He helped her into the back and secured the strangely-made harness as best he could.

“Watch your hands, babe. Canopy’s comin’ closed.”

“Clear,” she said, listlessly.

Billy nudged his throttle up as soon as the canopy light showed green and started looking for the Montezuma. He had no idea how far away it was and he wasn’t sure what direction. They had a little over three hours of air left, and in that time he must find their vessel.

“Marla?”

“Yeah.”

“Turn off your beacon, babe.”

“Oh, yeah. I’m not thinkin’ real clear.”

Her beacon cut off and the strobe also shut down. Billy intently listened for the suit beacons aboard the Monty and heard only the open receiver picking up the background hiss of space.

 

“Shit!” Billy said it for the fourth time.

“What?” From the back seat, Marla’s voice was even more disinterested. She sounded drunk.

“Can’t find the damn ship. You’d think something a quarter mile long would kind of stand right out...”

“It’s moved, Billy.”

“Of course it’s moved, I know that. I just don’t know how far.”

“A long ways, by now.”

“Well, gimmee some idea, babe.”

“How long since...hiveship blew up?”

Billy checked his only reference to time, his suit systems. “About two hours. Maybe two and a half.”

“Eighty thousand miles. Maybe a hundred thousand.”

“A hundred...Jesus! How can that be?”

“It was going over...forty thousand miles per hour. I was blown...outward at an angle to its course. While we were out there...while you were saving my ass, it left without us.” From the rear seat, she began to giggle.

“Glad you think it’s funny, Ell-Tee. What now?”

“How much...fuel ya got?”

“I’ve no idea. I don’t read Glassie. Sorry.”

More giggling. Concussion, Billy thought.

“I’d say go for broke. Figure out...which way the ship went and hammer this sucker.”

“Which way...Goddamn it, Ell-Tee, you’re the navigator.”

No answer.

“Ell-Tee? Marla, answer me!”

“Star K-4015.”

“What?”

“Star K-4015. That’s what ya aim for.”

“How do you know that?”

“It’s what I’ve been sighting on from the Monty. It’ll get ya...close enough.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s on the same plane as the orbits of our solar system, okay? Trust me.”

“Okay, how do I find K-4015?”

“Gunny....didn’t you ever...ever read a star chart?”

“Yeah, but it’s been a long time, okay? I’m an orbital kinda guy. Humor me, huh?”

“K-4015 is an emitter. It’s spewing radiation...of all kinds at a...fantastic rate. It’s very bright and it...twinkles, even when seen from space. It’ll be within about nine degrees of the sun. Lock on that sucker and open ‘er up.”

Billy looked around, first seeking their own sun, then looking for the bright star that twinkled. It was almost directly above his canopy. He bumped the stick, turning the craft until the star was right on the nose, then he gradually pushed the throttles up, until they reached the stops.

“I hope this is right, Ell-Tee. If it’s not, you know we’re dead.”

From the back seat, there was no response.

 

In the vast emptiness of space, there was no reference for Billy to gain even a hint as to how fast they were going. He had left the throttles shoved to their maximum position for many minutes—a “long burn” most pilots would have called it. Then, he had started seeing needles on unfamiliar gauges nearing their bottom stops and he had started getting warning lights. He had to make the logical assumption that they were warning him of low fuel. He pulled the throttles back to their bottom or idle positions and cut the engines off.

He knew if his speed was much greater than that of the Montezuma, he would need fuel for braking and maneuvering; if it wasn’t, they wouldn’t reach the ship in time and they were dead…if they were even going in the right direction. There was nothing to do but sweat it out and worry about Marla. She had been unresponsive for some time now.

Billy checked his suit readings for about the nineteenth time. One hour to go. Marla might have less time than he. She had spent some time spinning in space and had been very close to panic. She must have used more air.

 

Thirty minutes. Billy sat back and tried to relax and slow his breathing. Marla was out cold, so breathing at a steady rate. He was the one getting close to panic. He should have heard something by now, he figured. But then, they might be going slower than the Monty and be fighting a losing battle, merely chasing after it like a dog chasing cars. Billy looked at the throttles and thought about firing the engines again and adding some speed, but then how would they slow when they needed to? He decided he’d wait another ten minutes and started counting to himself.

 

Billy had counted nine of his ten minutes when the squelch broke open on his radio and he heard a beeper. His heart gave a leap, but then the signal faded and he began wondering if they had missed the Monty, just catching the edge of the signal range. If so, which way was the signal coming from? He had no way to tell without any direction finding equipment. But then the signal came in louder and he began to relax somewhat. Soon, it was louder still, beeping away, and there was another, more muted, along with it. He checked his air. Fifteen minutes.

 

Billy had four minutes of air left when the Montezuma hove into sight. It was big and ugly and a miserable wreck, but it was home. He had begun braking maneuvers when he was still a few hundred miles out, and it was a good thing. He had to do a lot more to match their speed with the big troop carrier, then ease the Glassie fighter into the launch bay.

His low air warning was bonging by the time he cracked open the canopy and started wrestling the inert form of his Lieutenant out of the rear seat. In this case weightlessness helped.

By the time they reached the nearest suit lockers, Billy was gasping and starting to see black specks at the edges of his vision. He plugged himself in first, refilling his tanks and stopping the low air alarm. As his tanks filled, he looked Marla over. Peering through her visor, he could see some blood and a good-sized lump on her forehead, high up on the right side near her hairline. When his tanks were full, he changed batteries and filled her tanks and changed her batteries also. Then he set off for their quarters, with Marla in tow.

 

“Are we doin’ any good, Gunny?” It was the first time she’d spoken since she passed out on the way back to the Monty, and Billy Hatcher was greatly relieved.

“Hey, Ell-Tee. How’re ya feelin’?”

“Like shit. Are we gonna make it?”

“We’ve already made it, Marla. We’re back…been back, actually, for a couple hours.”

She slowly opened her eyes and looked around their quarters. “Thank God. I knew we were dead.”

“Hey c’mon, you had the best damn pilot in the Corps handlin’ the controls.”

She smiled slightly and said, “Yeah, the guy that can’t find stars.”

“Well, that’s what I’ve got you for.”

“We make a hell of a team, Gunny.”

“Yeah, we do.”

“Am I gonna live?”

“I think so. You’ve got a mild concussion, I think, but then I’m no doctor.”

“I think you’re right. I’ve got a pretty good whiplash, too.”

“Anything I can get ya, right now?”

“Yeah, some water.”

Billy filled a suction container from their water stores and helped her drink, then he helped her to the toilet and back to her bed, where he fastened her in with Velcro straps, so she wouldn’t drift off her bunk. Then he crawled into his own bed and collapsed from exhaustion.

 

To Be Continued

 

Kenneth Crist, blkptls@cox.net, www.blackpetals.net, of Wichita, Kansas, wrote the SF serial (starting in BP #76 with chapters 1 & 2)  SURVIVING MONTEZUMA (+ BP #78’s “Those Other Guys,” “The Big Well” & “Virtuality” for BP #75, “Gift of the Anasazi” for BP #73, “The Weeping Man” for BP #72, “Pebbles” for BP #71, “The Diner” for BP #67, “New Glasses” for BP #61, “Ones and Zeros” for BP #50, & the novelette Joshua) and has edited BP for many years, continuing as Editor Emeritus, then Coeditor/Webmaster. Widely published, esp. in Hardboiled and on Yellow Mama, he also has four chapbooks currently for sale in Kindle format on Amazon.com, Dreaming of Mirages, The Gazing Ball, Joshua, and Groaning for Burial, his latest zombie fiction.

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