Curly steered the Excelsior’s transport down toward Halcyon. They neared the surface, flying along at a height of half a kilometer up, over blue water.
A light went off on the holopanel. Behind him someone said, “What’s that mean?”
“It means we’ve lost contact with StarCen,” Curly said. “The Excelsior has likely been destroyed.”
“Look at that!”
Everyone followed the red fireball streaking past in the opposite direction on the holoscreen. It disappeared in the distance behind them.
“It’s gonna hit the water,” Curly said.
“Any way the XO could have survived that?”
Curly shook his head. He said, “He’s probably already dead.”
Everyone sat in silence as the transport continued on its course.
Several minutes later, Curly pointed at the horizon. He said, “Land ahead. I’ll find a good place to set us down.”
He angled the nose of the craft and began slowing down. At long last, they flew over solid ground.
The beach below quickly gave way to foliage, spreading out like a green carpet to mountains in the distance. Curly circled for a bit and found a small river feeding into the ocean. From there, he flew inland a ways until at last they came to an open area that looked big enough for landing.
“We should be safe from the river overflowing or the tide coming in if we park it here. Also, if it’s out in the open maybe the rescue party can see it easier from space.”
He settled the craft down in the middle of the clearing. The rails bumped lightly on the ground, and the door opened. Everyone filed out the door.
Curly stopped to unbuckle the Captain and lifted her gently out of the seat. The crew milled about, looking at the grass and shrubbery, the blue sky and white clouds and distant birds floating on wind currents.
“This place is completely untouched by humans, isn’t it?” Curly said, gently laying the Captain on the ground.
Benson groaned, regaining consciousness as he put her down. Her hand reached up for the back of her head.
The ensign she had been strapped next to knelt down beside her with a look of concern as she sat up.
Benson said, “What happened, Kilmeade?”
“Ma’am, the XO clocked you on the back of the head. He stayed behind and ordered us to evacuate you.”
Benson’s eyes grew wide as she processed the news.
“He struck his commanding officer?”
Kilmeade nodded. “Yes, ma’am. He did.”
Benson glanced at the sky. She said, “Is the ship still up there?”
“No ma’am. We saw it go down. And contact with StarCen is lost.”
Something died in the Captain’s eyes at these words. She stared ahead, unfocused and lost in thought.
“He did say to tell you one thing, ma’am.”
Her eyes refocused on the ensign.
“He said to tell you . . . he still would. Do you know what that means, Captain?”
Benson burst into tears. She cried for two solid minutes. Her surviving crewmembers turned away, awkwardly. Ensign Kilmeade felt awkward, too, but she stayed near her Captain.
At last, Benson wiped away the tears and sniffled.
She said, “Yes. I know what it means.”
She stood up, tears gone. She was still Captain, and they were marooned. Emotions came second to taking care of her crew.
Benson said, “Right. We need to find a source of fresh water. And the transport’s food supplies are not going to last very long. Curly, organize a party to scout the area. Identify plants and animals we can harvest. See if there are trees or shrubs we can use for fire. Try to get a feel for the land, we might be here for a while.”
Curly nodded and moved toward the others as a flash of light flickered from the distant mountains.
The gunshot echoed throughout the area, reaching them after the light.
Curly grunted and fell, blood splattering on his shoulder.
Benson yelled, “Take cover!”
Everyone fell flat to the ground.
Another flash sparked in the distance.
Somebody shouted, “Incoming!”
Benson felt the air above her head twist with the humming of a lead ball as it spun above her head.
The slug bounced off the transport.
“Everybody back inside! Move it!”
The crew scrambled up and ran for the door.
Another flash of light
Dust blew up in a small cloud as the bullet hit the ground, but the crew was back inside.
Curly held his shoulder tight, stemming the blood loss, with a grimace of pain on his face.
“Can you still fly this thing, Curly?”
He flicked some switches and the door closed. The holoscreen lit up and everybody saw another flash in the distance.
Kilmeade said, “Is this thing bulletproof?”
“Let’s not hang around to find out. Get us airborne, Curly. Now!”
Curly pulled back on the throttle with his free hand and the transport shot up in the air. He angled it back toward the water and sped away.
A final bullet bounced off its side as a parting shot hit the craft.
Kilmeade looked over at the Captain, fear and worry in her eyes. She said, “Why were they shooting at us, ma’am?”
Benson took a deep breath and sighed. She said, “My guess is the natives are hostile. It’s been years since the League sent a ship to this planet. Maybe they think we’re invading or something.”
Several kilometers out over water, Benson ordered Curly to stop. The transport hovered in place while Kilmeade broke out a medpack. One of the engineers, a man by the name of Nguyen, quickly administered anesthetic. He cut into Curly’s shoulder and efficiently extracted the bullet.
“What is that?” Kilmeade said. “A musket ball?”
“It looks like a Minnie ball,” Nguyen said. “See how it’s shaped? It’s a step above a simple round ball. This kind is more accurate. If I had to guess, it came from a flintlock or something. They were using muzzleloaders. Really old technology.”
“Effective, though,” Curly said, his mind still working despite the pain. “A few inches over and it would have caught me in the neck.”
Nguyen said, “Stay still, Curly. Let’s get the nanobots in your system so they can repair you.”
Curly nodded and watched as Kilmeade pulled a pneumatic syringe out.
Benson said, “Let’s open the armory doors. Everyone retrieve a weapon. We’ll wait until nightfall to land again and establish a perimeter. I don’t want to be taken by surprise from snipers again, no matter how primitive their weapons.”
Kilmeade said, “Why were they shooting at us, ma’am?”
Benson shook her head and said, “I don’t know.”
She reached out and took a gun someone handed her, nodding her thanks.
She said, “But it was a foolish decision.”