“It’s not enough,” Elle said, as we finished counting the amount of shots we could fire. I could tell she was fighting the urge to start counting all over again.
“We didn’t come down here planning to depopulate the entire landing zone,” I said with a laugh. “But it will be enough.”
“And if it isn’t?” she asked, and this time when she touched her hand to her belly it was unconscious.
“If it’s not, then there isn’t a head of security anywhere man’s set foot I would trust at my side more. We got each other through Dalaxia. Fought off an entire metropolis’ worth of space bears. Beat back a military crew that dwarfed ours. And if push comes to absolute shove, the two of you are getting the hell off of this world.”
“Don’t start thinking like a martyr again.”
“Not on Bill’s life.”
“I heard that,” he grumbled, still fighting the controls as the entire ship shuttered.
“If there’s any way I can watch our daughter grow up, I’m going to be there. And if there’s not, there isn’t a species that could keep me from ensuring at least that you will.”
“What about the Romaleon?”
“They took their shot,” I said.
I could hear the chortle Bill was badly fighting back as he said, “Isn’t it more like you took their-”
“Don’t,” I said, flicking the safety off on my rifle, which hummed to life, “after all, I’m armed.”
“Party pooper.” But then he took his eyes off the instruments to fix us both. “I’m putting us down as close as I can. Risk to the shuttle, either from gunfire or particles, at least my back of the envelope says that the difference is likely to be small. Whereas, the odds we get overrun, captured, killed, or just separated from the shuttle… we’re going to be on top of the wreckage. There’s a lot of fires still raging- the crash released a lot of energy, including heat. Whatever time you can buy will have to be enough. But the more you can buy, the better the chances we get off this rock with some answers that will save lives. But it’s her call. When she says we need to leave, we leave.”
Elle and I armed ourselves to the teeth. We packed on as many bags of ammunition as we could carry, and two pistols each, and a rifle. “So what’s the best-case scenario?” I asked Elle.
“That their society isn’t much more evolved from bears, hibernating in caves, that mostly they’re just stumbling out to see what woke them up.”
“And the odds?”
“I think there are essentially four technological epochs we regularly see. Stone tools and weapons. Metal tools and weapons. Physical projectile weapons. And energy projecting weapons. The nipple of the bell curve of species usually hovers around the breakpoint between stone and metal, with a slower taper towards energy projection. If I remember the figures, it’s roughly 25% of species contacted thusfar that had developed projectile weapons, and around 10% that had energy projecting weapons.”
“And of the latter two, projectiles are actually worse,” I said, “because there’s really no one solution that will handle all projectiles.”
“Right. You can use a densely woven fabric like Kevlar to stop a bullet. But any reasonably sharp arrow-head or bolt will slice through it like butter- for those you need interwoven ring mail.”
“And I remember sitting in on those meetings. You specifically argued that multiple layers of protection were worth whatever extra cost in manufacturing and launching, and whatever extra resources were required to get them down on the shuttles. Company scientists thought we’d have to slow either the speed or frequency of stopping at new planets- that the hit we took in efficiency wouldn’t compensate for the marginal security benefit. Kicking yourself for not fighting harder for my proposal?”
“Just aware that not doing so makes it more likely this will be the way that I die- it was always going to be ironic.” The shuttle lurched as we touched down, and the rear doors started opening.
It was a hell of a lot worse than I thought. The species might have hibernated underground, but there were definitely buildings topside, as well. Seemed like they were formed mostly of a rocky, red clay, with thatched roofs; it was the roofs that had caught and spread the most fire. I didn’t see bodies; maybe that meant that they all retreated for their equivalent of winter, and we got exceedingly lucky. Maybe they were there, if you only took the time to dig- but we didn’t have that time. The pod, or what was left of it, was sitting in the middle of one of these structures, and we were parked outside. Elle and I swept the structure; there had been a window and a door in the rear, but the impact had collapsed them both to make them impassible. That left the one door to watch, to protect Bill.
“I’m taking the structure,” I said.
“Like fun you are,” Elle replied.
“Three quick points: one, I’m Captain; two, you’re protecting for two, and three, we might not have time for you to do that little pregnant waddle if we have to leave in a hurry, so you’re posting up in the back of the ship.”
“I hate you when you’re right nearly as much as I hate you when you’re wrong.”
“Maybe you just hate me, full stop,” I offered.
“No, I love you when you’re quiet.” I didn’t point out her Freudian slip, and she walked back to the shuttle.
Bill was already carting the cutting tools to the wreckage, which looked like a barbecue turned inside out, so I wasn’t sure what all he hoped to get from it; hopefully the instruments inside fared better, but he ignored us as he walked, aside from passive-aggressively mumbling, “No, no, it’s fine, it doesn’t matter if it takes me an extra several minutes to carry all of this crap out here…”
I don’t know if Bill instinctively knew what he was doing, since it was essentially an engineering problem, but the way he angled the ship enabled Elle to cover the streets to the North and East from the rear of the shuttle, while I could mostly cover South and West- and we could both cover each other. It wasn’t a perfect position, since we would have needed at least one but likely two more to truly watch all of the angles, but under the circumstances it was likely as good as it was getting.
“If you need, you can mute me,” Bill said, “but I’m going to record what I’m seeing. Even if something prevents us from making it back, this recording might still be recoverable. And it wouldn’t hurt for the two of you to know what we’re up against, either. Outside of the pod is charred. Either it was never designed to enter atmo or it was truly dead stick and just smashed through, heat be damned. I think some of these were heat panels, but with this kind of damage it’s hard to know. If they’re based on the same designs as our pods they’re a generation or two beyond them. Access panels aren’t in the same place, and even now that I’ve found it the damned thing seems to have been fused shut- as in the heat was enough to melt screws, which have since cooled and hardened in place. But that’s why I brought the torch.”
I don’t know if he was aware of it, but he started to hum, something classical, but that inexplicably kept including measures of Dueling Banjos, and I think at one point segued into Old McDonald. “Fuck,” he finally said. “So, Good news/bad news.”
“Bad first,” Elle and I said in unison.
“We can’t leave yet. Because the good news, it’s brain is intact. They shielded the shit out of the black box, which would seem, if I’m understanding all of the linkages, here, to include both the processor and memory systems. This is going to tell us… everything. Who fired it, where from, how long it was trailing us, when it went dead stick and likely, if there are any blindspots we can exploit. Provided we can survive this, and get back to the Nexus with it and us intact, this is probably the best case scenario.” “Well that’s just great,” Elle said. “And you might want to hurry up on cutting it out. Because I have contact, and they are armed for bear.”