Robert Appleton

Adventures in Science Fiction

The Eleven Hour Fall Excerpt

 
 

Chapter One


Falling for Remington

 

Spindrift from a nearby cornice curled out over the edge of the mountain and streamed into the violet unknown. A bottomless unknown. For Kate, performing her umpteenth scheduled check on her wrist gauges—O2, suit pressure, biometrics, comms signal strength, all fine—it wasn’t the most perilous scouting expedition she’d taken part in, but it was the most dangerous she’d ever volunteered for. The punchy, unpredictable winds up here forbade anyone from venturing near the edge.


As the most experienced scout in the team she’d demanded point position, but some clever dick back on board the Fair Monique, probably never planted a boot on alien soil in his life, had given that responsibility to a rookie pair not yet a month out of basic, hoping it would give them much-needed experience. Um, yeah, they’d get experience all right—of the plummeting kind, if they weren’t careful.


Hmm, just as she’d thought, the tracks ahead veered way too far from the bisecting course she’d plotted. If they kept this up, she’d have to—


Kate lost her footing in the snow and toppled straight onto Remington, knocking him flat. She helped him up and wiped his visor clean, but soon recoiled. After all, it wasn't exactly what she’d had in mind for sweeping him off his feet. 


Katie girl, you've just done the dumbest thing since volunteering for this hike. Stay calm. Say something, quick.


"Wow, you okay?" Remington’s grim, no-nonsense tone still managed to cut through the crackling reception.


"Ask me again when we're some place warm."


What she really wanted to do was warm things up then and there. To hell with the mission plan. Everyone knew Kate Borrowdale was the most qualified, the fittest, the most competitive terrain scout of the group, but only she knew the one thing that outmatched them all—her feelings for Jason Remington.


Way to drop a hint. Dusting herself off, Kate cursed her footing for blowing her chances.


Remington, though, stepped closer and, to her amazement, grinned through his helmet.


She beamed a smile back, bowed to say thank you for helping her up, and fought the urge to tear off both their suits. The insanely low temperature, off-the-charts altitude and lack of oxygen might have dissuaded her, yet it was still a close call.

At the very least, it would be one way to get warm in a hurry.


The wind speed picked up, buffeting her sideways as Kate fell back in line. All she could think about was the tall, stern man a few steps behind whom she’d watched from afar for over a year now, in her own bottled-up, intense way. But...but had that genie just been unleashed? He’d certainly never grinned at her this way before, at least not since their maybe-flirty pursuit race in the low-g velodrome, which she’d let him win on the last stretch. The whirling indigo sky grew deeper; her head felt lighter than the atmosphere at any peak.


"All right, the weather's turned. We're putting up the shelters," blurted a voice over the com-link. Sounded like one of the rookies. A smart call, one she’d commend in her report.


Remington immediately broke back to join his expedition partner while Kate ploughed ahead through the knee-deep snow. Her designated partner was Jill Qualen, another scout with limited experience in the grind. In fact, Kate trusted Jill about as much as she would a loose crampon on a wall of wedding cake icing. It was therefore imperative to take charge of the shelter before the weather hit, as she knew full well the dangers of a blizzard at high altitude.


Soon, clouds hurtling overhead blanketed the last hint of sunlight. Violet and violent. Kate gritted her teeth against a flurry of wind blasts. Resistance to her every movement increased exponentially. Their destination, the west ridge itself, faded in moments under a swathing swirl of ice.


She shot her tent clamps into the rock and, hustling Jill inside the shelter, fastened it shut behind them.


The two women checked their equipment in silence. Kate had done this a million times before, but knew it was the most crucial part of any expedition. Oxygen...fifteen hours' worth. Suit integrity...fine. Suit temperature...fine. Altitude...still no reading. I wonder how high we really are? The ship’s probes had only managed to explore the highest peaks of the planet. Electromagnetic interference in the thick layers of cloud had scrambled any data retrieved from the few probes able to penetrate the lower strata.


For all she knew, they might be setting a record for the highest ever climb. I'll bet we are. The largest planet ever explored...near the top of a high mountain...eat your hearts out Geary and Musampa! Olympus Mons was kitten play.


Jill gave the thumbs up, and Kate responded in kind. The only sound they heard was the muffled howl of the wind.


"How long will it last?" asked Jill, a few loose strands of blonde hair sticking to her forehead with perspiration.


"There's no telling," said Kate. "I was in a blizzard that lasted nearly two weeks on Dakota Prime."


"What was it like there?"


"Not unlike Earth. Deadly terrain, though; we lost a girl on the way back."


"No kidding. I guess you just can't imagine yourself being beaten by a bit of wind. Or snow."


“So why did you choose terrain scouting?”


“I needed a change. It sounded more exciting than shining an office seat with my derriere.”


Kate had never thought of Jill as the thrill-seeking type, but she couldn’t imagine her behind a desk either. "So, you like scouting?"


Jill quirked an eyebrow. "Don't you?"


“It’s a living, I guess.” And right now, worth no more than the shrug she gave. “Climbing, surveying, searching for minerals in the ass-cracks of beyond? Like you say, it’s better than the alternatives. We go where they send us, but the rest is up to us. And we do get to be Neil Armstrong a hundred times over.”


“How’s that?”


“Well, we’re usually the first to set foot on any new rock they find. ‘Toeing-in’, we used to call it—on alien ground, in the history books. That lottery they hold before each primary landing, to see who gets to be first; that’s more than a game, it decides whose name is logged in the record books. After a while it adds up to quite the resume. Novelty soon wears off, though.”


An awkward pause took root between them, and neither spoke another word on the subject. The shelter's taut fabric thwumped, bulged inward. Kate kept an eye on the tent cords behind Jill. As the wind assaulted from that side, those would be the first to snap. Maybe she should've double-pegged.


"Everyone sit tight; the pick-up's on its way," said the voice over the com-link. "Until I give the word, stay inside the shelters. Command says the entire hemisphere's about to white out. Wait for my signal."


Jill closed her eyes and, clasping Kate's hands, began mouthing a prayer.


Recalling the direst moments she herself had endured on Dakota Prime, Kate sighed. A couple of minutes and already Hailing Mary. Save some for when it really gets rough, sweetheart.


Another ten minutes passed. The tent cords held, but Kate didn't like the ferocious strain. Though she'd seen them hold a sky-limo suspended in mid-air, she was less sure of the shelter's fabric. The slightest rip and the canopy might open up like a crepe wrapper. And the thought of Remington trying to hold his together only made her more anxious.


But wouldn’t he be the calm one?


The team leader finally broke silence: "Twenty seconds. I want everyone out and re—"


A double thump of dead air curtailed his order, quickly followed by a deafening overlap of crackling and staggered screams over the com-link. Kate didn't panic. Instead, she sprung to her feet, wrenching Jill up with her. As she unzipped the door, the entire tent caved in behind them. A hurtful force propelled Jill into her, knocking her flat. Shit. No sooner had Kate spun to see what had struck them than a boulder the size of a sky-cab crashed on top of Jill, crushing her completely, before spinning out into a blizzard of rock and ice. Another struck somewhere close behind. It shattered on impact, its huge jagged pieces careening by a few metres to her right. Kate scrabbled to stand upright, and glued her gaze ahead skyward, following the trajectory of the next falling boulders. As if swiped by the hand of some unseen alien god, two rocks the size of houses hit the mountain side by side. They smashed square into the rock face and shook the entire ledge.


That's no avalanche!


Another torrent of massive rocks battered the ridge sideways on her left hand side—an angle from which there were no peaks, no slopes, just thin air. What wind could be so powerful? In Hailing Mary, had Jill instead hailed this unimaginable force from the heavens? Kate knew there was only one chance for survival. To jump!


She wiped the specks of bloodied snow from her visor, blanking Jill from her mind. She leaned into the wind and inched toward the ledge. It wasn’t until a torn orange tent flapped about her helmet that she noticed a body lying nearby on rock scraped clear by the force of the storm.


Another missile shook the ground, followed by another. One passed between her and the body, almost rolling in from the sky like the blades of an aerial harvester, not quite touching the ledge. Kate knelt over the body. Remington. He wasn't moving, but the instrumentation on his suit gauges showed he was still alive. Thank God. But how badly injured was he?

No time to think. With a tremendous effort she dragged him to the very edge of the cliff and pushed him over. A sheer drop. Without even gathering breath, she flung herself after him. It all occurred so quickly and matter-of-factly in her mind that the transition from climber to free-faller didn't register at first.


Jolts of wind torqued her this way and that. A few huge rocks flew by, missing her by inches. Kate sensed her chances of survival had just increased, but from zero to what? Her gaze remained fixed on Remington’s spinning starfish form as he drew closer through the barrage of icy pellets. Her suit shielded her from the impact of this onslaught. But something wasn’t right. She’d skydived before, but here it felt…different somehow. Directionless. As though she could hold out her arm and feel the same gravity pulling her every which way.


She struggled to remain streamlined in her dive posture. The chaotic air currents veered her off course again and again. She flung an outstretched arm toward Remington, almost reaching him. Two more attempts fell short. On the fourth lunge she grasped his ankle and pulled herself close.


Kate wanted to feel relieved. He was already married, but so what? She'd thrown the man of her dreams from a cliff and caught him on the way down. Yet, hope remained in her parachute, fastened to the back of her survival suit. All she could do now was hold him tight and wait...


Face to face, helmets chattering together, they fell through whirl after whirl of violet cloud. She’d clipped them both together by the waist, but also kept her arms and legs wrapped tightly around him. She could open his chute for him, but might never see him again; the winds would rip the canopy to shreds. Same for hers. If only she knew how high they’d been back on the mountain. If only she could spy the ground—a second was all it would take. If only she knew when it was time to open. If only...


It was the least romantic clinch of her life. Imperative to think of him only as an unconscious patient in her care. Nothing more. At a time when they'd never been closer, they were never farther apart. Twenty minutes lapsed. Ice no longer pelted them.


We've passed through the blizzard, at least. Kate checked her instrumentation again. Still no altitude reading. They must be getting close now, though. Still too much goddamn cloud to discern anything below. Something definitely wasn’t right—she should’ve seen the ground by now. Soon she would just have to chance it, however high they really were. If the chute failed, it failed. Hell, they always had another.


She decided to set the next cloud layer as her parachute deployment point. After that, the wind speed would make or break their survival. If it was too harsh, the rig wouldn't hold. Even though they had a second chute, she knew this first would be the crucial one; the fate of number one would likely spell that of number two as well.


It remained tough to keep any kind of bearing. At times they seemed to plummet at an alarming rate, positive g’s almost crucifying her elastically, then she’d flip upside down and her stomach would knot anew, yanked in some other direction. At least Remington’s extra weight gave her a sense of being anchored, kept her view steady over his shoulder. A quick glance here, a fleeting glimpse during a barrel roll there, her knowledge of the world below snatched from a dizzying descent.



The violet sky streamed as colors in a fresco, running while still damp. Tremendous gas jets washed up from below—a sight she likened to lilac ink injected into a tank of bloody water. Elsewhere, the lilac gas plumed to giant mushrooms from tornado slivers.


“We're in for a rough ride down there,” she said to Jason. “Whichever sadist chose Kratos for us to scout should be here instead, if you ask me. What goddamn mineral's worth all this? Pyrofluvium? A freaking energy catalyst? Like we need another one of those. Sheer profiteering; sheer waste. But who am I trying to blame—no one ordered me on this frozen rock. I've got what I came for. Ha! He's just in a coma, that's all. Next time, next time, next time...


Her clock read 15:34. The fall had lasted how long? An hour and five minutes? That couldn’t be right. They seemed no nearer to the swirling cloud below, her parachute deployment point. Another wicked thrust kicked them into a dizzying spin.

Kratos was a fairly large planet in terms of circumference, yet physicists knew very little of its topography. The range of corborilium mountains in the northern hemisphere, the peaks of which Kate's party had partially surveyed, suggested mind-boggling geography. Scans, however, had failed to penetrate successive cloud layers. Experts cited an electromagnetic anomaly in the atmosphere as the reason for this. As a result, estimates of the height of those peaks varied by many miles. The surface of Kratos was, as yet, an unexplored world.


After all their bullshit, I'm the one left praying to a parachute.


Kate tried to relax through a long, slow exhale. Her shoulders ached, so she tried to roll them loose. The fall now seemed smooth, consistent, almost gentle as they stopped spinning. Her throat, though, was dry and ready for cracking. A terrible hunger began to swell inside as she tasted inviting flavors in her saliva—apricot biscuit, Magmalava grill steak, Arinto liqueur—or at least thought she did. Remington never so much as twitched in her clutches.


18:51. Four and a half hours had brought them no nearer to her parachute deployment point. Kate's mind wandered back to her quarters on the ship, where a family photograph she stuffed in a drawer whenever anyone came in, now stood proudly on her bedside table; she always left it on display while she was away in the grind, while she wasn’t there in person to have to explain it, to reminisce about things no one else had any right to know. Her mother and two sisters boasted sunflower grins on her graduation day, but Kate managed only half a smile. For some reason, that had always bothered her. Was she really that defensive, that morose? Is that why she’d never had a real boyfriend to speak of, when everyone else seemed to boast a directory of conquests?


"You're not one for shallow romance," her mother once told her. "You're a one-man girl, like me, and you'll win him over when you least expect to, just like I did."


Mum, I hope this isn't what you meant by that.


The air seemed to cushion them as Kate's mind drifted further away. Shades of purple and red in the sky blended as though brushed by a master dreamscape painter. In all her scouting experience as mineralogist, mountaineer and loner, Kate had never felt so ineffectual. Her reputation for an iron resolve now seemed almost coy, so utterly was she at the mercy of invisible forces. Her mindset, together with all notions of practicality, began to slip. Staring lovingly into Remington's face, she struggled to stay alert.


She remembered their first meeting well, well enough to cringe all over again. The Fair Monique had picked him up from one of the Saskatchewan moons en route to the Kratosian system, along with thirty-one geologists and mineral ore specialists, and one state-of-the-art Pyro refining platform designed to be transferred from planet to planet by the largest Pioneer vessels. Remington had been a career tool-push, a mining engineer without the schooling for the more lucrative administrative positions, until a few months before embarkation, when he’d qualified for ISPA’s new All Environment Survival (On Planet) program, or AESOP, for deep space terrain scouts. Not a great training course to be honest—it required minimal actual field experience, and put too much emphasis on simulated virtual scenarios where the conditions were controlled, predictable. Scouting was not like that. Theory gave you the tools, but experience and improvisation kept you alive.


The first time they’d spoken had almost been the last. He was sitting on his own in the gymnasium cafe, unwashed, unshaven, and wolfing down high-carb food with shocking abandon—shocking to her because he’d been assigned to her scouting corps, and she, like all good scouts, watched her diet by the calorie. Not an auspicious start to his new career. On the other hand, he was a loner like her, and hot in a primal, natural way most of the preening men she’d met in deep space exploration—interstellar business heirs and university golden boys—could never be. He’d earned his cot on a starship the hard way, from the gutter.


Hi there Number 317. You’ve received an invitation to the Baccarat Commemoration dinner tomorrow evening in the Observation Restaurant on A deck. 1730 hrs. This message was sent by WITHHELD.


Kate sent the message via wrist text, having spotted the number on his unique ID tag and the absence of a wedding ring on his finger. A gutless invitation perhaps, withholding her name like that, but he was so cute and he didn’t know her antisocial reputation and she didn’t have a date for the dinner and anyway she couldn’t—not in a million years—ask someone out face to face before they’d even been introduced.


To her astonishment he looked in her direction straightaway, even held up his beaker of lager. OhmyGod. She shivered, couldn’t breathe, was on the verge of walking away when he typed a reply on his wrist text:

Thanks for the invite, WITHHELD. Unfortunately, my wife and I already have a reservation. Sorry. Join us for a drink afterward. Jason Remington.


No sooner had she squeezed the circulation from her wrist, her gaze boring a shameful hole in the floor than Mrs. Remington marched into the cafe and hit Kate with a full-on stink-eye. If she were in wifey’s place she’d probably be fuming too; Kate was wearing her Lyrca cycling shorts and sports bra that left precious little to the imagination. But Mrs. Remington, the leech, had to have been on a joint text account with her husband, and had seen fit to nip this liaison in the bud before it even started. Blonde, willowy, not the most attractive woman on the ship, but she had a fierce, dynamite protective instinct that both impressed Kate and rubbed her the wrong way. More specifically, she had what Kate wanted, and promptly trundled him out of the cafe before he’d finished his meal, poor bloke.


As it turned out, their marriage had been an extraordinary one from the outset, and soon became the object of gossip and admiration for everyone on the Fair Monique, much to Kate’s dismay. In his teens, Jason had been a political prisoner on Fourmyle Beta after the planet was invaded by the blockaded neighbouring colonists on Fourmyle Sigma. To help ensure the amnesty mediated by ISPA, hundreds of orphan girls from the Sigma Christian missions had volunteered to marry Beta political prisoners by lottery, and were given a dowry of sorts by ISPA to set up a new, cooperative colony on Fourmyle Epsilon. Thus, these couples became famous throughout occupied space as the peacemakers of one of the most volatile systems ever settled.


Humble celebrities, then, but Jason and Daniella Remington were admired wherever they went, not to mention inseparable.

Kate didn’t attend the Baccarat Commemoration dinner that year, nor any other holiday function after that. But she watched for him at every fitness session, every Virtual Co-op (VCO) movie evening, every pre-drop briefing, pretty much any time she ventured out of her quarters.


“For chrissakes, how many times did I almost tell you how I felt? How many different futures have I mapped out for us? If I'd asked you outright, would you have turned me down flat? Not that I’m a home wrecker or anything, but it was an arranged marriage, a lottery marriage. Do you really love her, or is it just duty keeping you together? Hmm...one way or another, I'm going to get us through this. Just look how drop-dead han...I mean how handsome you are...do you even know I'm unattached? Unattached...ha! That's funny. Katie girl, you'll laugh at this whole thing one day. Mr. and Mrs. Freefall—engaged for a matter of hours, inseparable, fell for each other on cloud nine, landed on their feet and lived happily ever after. Mum would be proud.”


Kate traced her finger over his visor, following the contours of his face. Boyish but stern, Remington preferred the unkempt look. She found his heavy stubble and longish black hair incredibly enticing. Even unconscious, he exuded her ideal image of masculinity, and had in fact reinvented it for her in their past year on the Fair Monique.


Yes, we're going to get through this.


At around 20:05 a number of conspicuous dark streaks appeared in the sky. They'd climbed from below and now appeared to keep pace with Kate and Remington. Swirling in elegant patterns some distance away, they drew closer. Soon, the disparate streaks merged into a snake-like procession. She held onto her man tighter than ever. Some kind of flying creatures? They'd better keep their distance. We can't exactly fend them off.


Spinning to look once more at the aim of their descent, she felt again the pangs of despair as the lower cloud cover appeared not an inch nearer. They might as well have not been falling at all.


That notion woke Kate like a swill of ice water. “How can one tell if one is actually falling? Sky-diving training includes jet cushions a few feet off the ground; it sure feels like falling, only you're not. The force of air keeps you suspended. What if that same principle is at work here? Are those incredible updrafts keeping us aloft? All right, so what now? Do we have to tango up here forever?” She studied the flying creatures.They flew up here. How do they get back down?”


She watched intently as the dark procession approached with funereal precision. Soon, their enormous wing spans were visible. Dark brown beaks came into view next, not long and slender but wide and half-conical. Tendrils flapped beneath them in the manner of braided beards. As they drew closer, she saw that their bodies were covered with fur instead of feathers. Their tails, the length of city blocks, were thin, streamlined. Kate made as little movement as possible. Were she to categorize the creatures at all, it would be as a cross between a stingray and a bat. Unearthly creations…heading straight for her!


The leader came to within ten feet. It eyed them for a moment before opening its massive beak. Kate embraced Remington one last time, and closed her eyes. "At least I tried,” she whispered to him.


She felt her legs being gripped, and waited for the crunch. And waited. Why's there no pain? Opening her eyes, she was shocked to see the creature’s great beak simply holding the two of them as it flew. It had no teeth. Its hold was firm, but hadn't pierced either of their suits. Where the hell is it taking us? Kate's head began to spin. It must know a way down to the surface. Where there's life, there's a chance. Just get us down in one piece.


She checked her oxygen gauge. Just over seven hours left. The monstrous bird flapped its wings once every few seconds; this hypnotic rhythm lulled Kate into a kind of querulous fascination just the right side of insomnia. The creatures moved so gracefully through the sky, it was hard to imagine them living up to their horrific aspect. “Likely they’re the eagles of Kratos, Jason, or the condors. But if we're not food, then what does it want with us? Unless we're a meal for the nest. Right, well either way we'll be out of the sky—let's take it from there, shall we? One step at a time.”


Despite not knowing for certain where the creature was taking them, Kate began to focus on ways of fending off an attack from the ground. She itemized, from memory, all the resources in her supply belt. Food for three days; plenty of rope and cams for climbing; mini-incendiaries for lighting fires; two flares; and best of all, a tasker, the multi-tasking climbing apparatus designed specifically for scaling difficult terrain. But no real weapon, damn it. Time to play dead, Katie girl; surprise is all we've got.


Her mind pin-wheeled out of faux nightmare scenarios for what seemed days on end. She struggled to stay limber in the beak of the giant bird. Her thighs, sandwiched between Remington's lifeless body and the tough, sinewy lining of the creature's jaw, grew very sore. A girl in a shell within her shell, she’d never felt as restricted or restless. Remington now seemed more distant than ever. Every so often she'd feel his arm pat against hers, nudging her from tenterhook thoughts, and each time her hopes rose. But he didn’t wake.


00:30 came and went. Almost ten hours since the jump. Kate could think of nothing except how thirsty she'd become. Swallowing saliva now caused her physical pain; her throat was acrid dry. The sky did lighten, though. The winds eased. There remained only a slack updraft from beneath.


The creature suddenly veered to one side and began a dive that scythed through the air. Kate held her breath. The purple hues quickly converged into a jiving spiral, an enormous chimney into which the birds now flew. Downward, the whole flock spun and twisted into the spine of a tornado. The force sucking them in was quite unlike anything Kate had experienced. If she hadn't closed her eyes, she would've blacked out for sure.


We're in a gas jet. The wake of a huge gas jet. It's vanished and left a vacuum. So this is what happens in a vacuum...Christ!


Like a g-force simulation gone haywire, the descent inside the funnel racked her against the creature's beak with sickening pressure. Only a cycle of stubborn thoughts staved her panic. You've trained for this. No one else could even survive it. You're the only one. Think of the story you'll be able to tell.


The creature held them firm in its bite. Kate's stomach flexed and retracted as though it were a slinky on a never-ending spiral staircase. From the time they eventually left the vortex, her mind wheeled on for another fifteen minutes. She was one revolution away from throwing up when her legs lifted free. Without warning, the creature let go. They plummeted once more. Kate had to embrace her man all over again in freefall. Glancing up, she discerned two separate clusters of dark streaks, one chasing the other. Was her escort now embroiled in its own flight for survival? What titanic avian combat was underway above them in the skies of Kratos?


She regained her composure. The pins-and-needles in her lower legs hardly registered as she hurtled through a layer of settled clouds. Then, as if it had been there all along, waiting just beneath, the ground filled Kate’s vision with the heart-stopping shine of an instantaneous sunrise. Pale yellow desert stretched as far as the eye could see. The roving shadows of clouds spilled faint blues and purples onto the landscape. Far away to the right, a long, dark ridge snaked across the desert. Kate deafened herself with a cry of joy inside her helmet. “We've made it!”


Though she hadn't parachuted for some time—with the abundance of landing craft, there simply wasn't any need—her training clicked into gear in an instant. Flipping the protective casing, she pressed the function on her wrist and assumed a taut position. In seconds, the canopy spread itself open and snapped them into a gentle float. Kate checked the time. 01:26. An eleven-hour fall! That's definitely one for the history books.


As the sherbet contours below drew nearer, she thought for a moment of the vast continents she'd encountered on a dozen different worlds, and of the crippled man in her arms. Right, this is it now, Katie girl; playtime's over. Your life's back in your own hands. You've a home to make and a man to see to, married or not. You didn't hang on to him all this time for nothing.


Maneuvering them toward a flat basin between two large, wrinkled yellow sand dunes, she braced herself for a painful touchdown. Despite trying for a skid landing, her knees buckled as a marionette's on impact. Crumpled and weary, she unclipped herself from Remington for the first time in eleven hours. She rested his lifeless body onto the sand, but could taste no affection for him. He seemed to blend easily with the pale dust and rocks of this alien valley. Kate wanted to cry, but couldn't.


Had he been her patient for too long? Was he ever going to wake up from his coma? And if he does, would he not be better off asleep? I wish I could sleep. You've got a million things to do, Katie girl, and only a few hours to do them in. Get up, get up right now.


Spindrift from a nearby dune curled high above the gold horizon. Kate struggled to her feet and took the first human steps on this hidden world. First thing first, she thought. Their mission briefing had identified oxygen around the mountain peaks, but not enough for them to breathe. Kate hoped the oxygen down here would be adequate, otherwise, in a few hours time, they'd suffocate. Their chances of being rescued were close to nil. What risk, then, was there in gambling with the air right now? She unfastened her helmet to taste the new atmosphere. Without the tint of her visor, her eyes squinted at the bright yellow sand and purple sky. Kate took in a massive breath...then exhaled...breathed in again...then out. She opened her eyes and managed a wry smile. There's always a chance.


The air was extremely humid, yet clear and held a slight hint of salt. Kate wasted no time in stripping down to her shorts and green vest. She thought for a moment Remington might be watching, or perhaps she wanted him to watch. Her long chestnut hair clung to her face and shoulders as perspiration glazed her pale, lightly freckled skin. She helped herself to a few bites of an apple-flavored biscuit from her supply belt. Forcing her dry throat to swallow even those few morsels of food proved painful. But it was worth the effort. Delicious.


Many miles to the right, there appeared to be a dark region of the desert. Kate made up her mind to reach it post haste. And 

Remington? She’d have to carry him, or drag him, until they found shelter.


If it occurred to her how hopeless her situation was, she didn't register the thought. Couldn’t. Proactive thinking was the staple of every survival lesson she'd ever received. After half a day in a cocoon, she now stretched her limbs and felt surprisingly 

loose—ready to begin a survival cycle for two.