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by Lance J. Mushung

I watched the view screen, horrified. Navigator and Pilot to my side looked as frightened as I felt. Our emergency capsule was bathed in orange flames and plummeting to the surface of the planet like a meteor.

When our ship first approached the planet, it was a beautiful white and blue globe hanging in the darkness. Later, from the orbit of its single mottled light and dark grey satellite, we saw it was in reality a bleak frigid world covered in large part by glaciers. With the ground approaching I could see green vegetation in places along with the ice and snow. To my regret the green didn’t make it appear any less forbidding.

Our capsule hit hard and tumbled, and we were whipped around in our seats and heard shrill crunching sounds. When we came to rest, Navigator’s head was wet with blood. I opened the hatch and with Pilot’s help pulled Navigator out. We were on a long sheet of ice and snow that was gouged by our landing. Woods lined its sides and the ice twisted out of sight in both directions. It was a frozen river.

“Commander,” Pilot called out, pointing to the horizon over the trees. “Look at that. Is it the ship?”

My eyes followed his arm and saw a column of black smoke boiling into the sky. “Very likely,” I said.

Pilot went back into the capsule and I did what I could for Navigator. She was conscious, but acted confused. I joined Pilot when he yelled out that the computer still worked. It confirmed that the smoke was the aft part of our ship, which had crashed about two days’ march away. A few of the ship’s systems remained functional, so it was clear where we should go. We gathered the survival supplies of rations, weapons, and various gear. I was thankful we had good cold-weather garments. It was freezing.

“We have plenty of nutrition wafers,” Pilot said. “They taste awful, but we will not starve.” He sounded quite cheerful, considering the circumstances.

“And there is no worry about thirst, considering all the snow. We need to find something in the woods to turn into a litter.”

The only disturbance to the quiet was the slight crackling of snow under our boots as we walked among the trees. That silence was broken by sudden high-pitched screams from Navigator. They ended in seconds, as if turned off by a switch. We ran back to her and found at least nine light-brown and white four-legged animals shredding her. We fired and they fled into the trees, leaving behind the charred bodies of three of their comrades. But we were far too late; Navigator was settled. We stood in silence over her for a short time, then placed her body back in the capsule. It would be her tomb.

We walked all day, stopping only for short breaks. Night-vision glasses allowed us to move through the following very dark night, too. We didn’t speak, giving me plenty of time to think as we trudged forward. What had happened to the ship? Was it an engine problem, a collision, sabotage? I might never find out, and this mission, to search for our long-lost first planet, could very well be my last. In a less dire situation I might have laughed when it occurred to me that Pilot and I were lost, too.

I was very tired when we came across a forlorn low and short stone wall. It had once been part of a structure; a dwelling perhaps. Broken shelves and a table preserved by ice leaned against the wall. We stopped to rest.

A beam of sunlight peeking through gray clouds woke me up. Pilot was looking at something.

“You should see this,” Pilot said, when he noticed I was awake. “I found a collection of images that I chipped out of the ice.”

Most of the images were faded, but there were still many I could make out. Two natives appeared in some of them. I was certain it was always the same two, although their colorful coverings varied. The taller one’s short black hair, the shorter one’s long brown hair, and their tan skins were always the same. A graceful and handsome suspension bridge was the focus of one set of images. It had a pleasing orange-red color and two towers that soared into the sky over a body of water. Other images showed a group of tall structures in hills not far from the bridge. It was a city. Most of the structures were rectangular, but one distinctive one resembled a pyramidal spire and another looked like a cylindrical column. Still other images showed the two natives along with others, in front of and on some sort of cart that ran up and down the steep hills on shiny rails.

“We saw none of this from space,” Pilot said. “What happened?”

“A catastrophic climate change, a war; who knows? It is also possible that they were not even natives. A properly equipped expedition may come some day and find out.”

In fact, I did believe the images showed natives of the planet. I felt a fleeting sense of sorrow. What had happened here?

“At least this cannot be our first planet,” Pilot said. “Thank the Divine for that.”

“Please put this back where you found it.” It just felt like the right thing to do, to leave the specters from the past in peace.

We choked down our wretched-tasting rations while a white powdery snow began drifting down, and afterwards set off again. I looked back once. The tracks made by my six boots, and those of Pilot’s six, would soon disappear.

That was good. It was fitting and proper to leave this place as undisturbed as possible.



Lance J. Mushung graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with an aerospace engineering degree. He worked for over 30 years with NASA contractors in Houston performing engineering work on the Space Shuttle and its payloads. Now retired, he writes science fiction.

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