“What will my heart allow when loneliness holds me down.”
Andrea Norton was a survivor, the only survivor. Five years ago their interstellar ship Astraea came out of jumpspace during a class seven solar storm which blew out the ship’s electronics, or most of them. The heavily protected emergency systems held up for the most part, at least long enough for the computer to jettison the crew module toward Kepler 452b’s only habitable planet. The EM shield around the mod protected the twelve astronauts in hibernation long enough to enter the planet’s atmosphere.
Unfortunately the landing was a little rough.
Andrea was the only one to wake up. The surge protectors on the other eleven hibernation pods had been fried upon impact which meant their systems bypassed the required five-hour revival process and immediately exposed the suspended occupants to ship normal temperatures and atmosphere. They died within minutes.
Andrea woke up to the slow realization that she was the only one left alive. The module was mostly intact but the emergency batteries would only last a few weeks. It was long enough for her to partially restore the backup computer which let her assess the outside environment. It was livable, as the big wigs at NASA predicted, which was good because life support was going to fail along with the batteries.
The radio was shot but that didn’t matter because only the transmitter on the drive section of Astraea was powerful enough to direct a signal toward Earth. Their ship had a sophisticated FTL drive, but Earth was 1,400 light years distant and unlike the science fiction videos, their communications couldn’t travel past One C. It had taken the ship over ten years to make the trip here so when they didn’t return home after twenty-five years (ten years each way plus an extended five-year exploration mission), NASA would assume the ship was lost. There would be no rescue mission.
The air was breathable if you weren’t running in competition and the gravity was .3 greater than Earth, but in addition to being an electrical engineer and medic, Andrea had spent the ten years before this journey as an amateur powerlifter, so she managed to adjust. She also managed to adjust to digging the first eleven graves on Morrigan which she felt was a better name for her new home than Kepler 452b IV.
But that was five years ago. Andrea rigged a collection of solar panels which provided the mod with marginal power. There was a natural fresh water well just half a kilometer to the south. The terrain was what you’d consider high desert, but it supported a sort of grass that produced editable seed pods. She had also discovered numerous forms of insect life, but the chem analysis on them showed they were all toxic, although the good news was they avoided her because they didn’t like her body chemistry either.
She had long since settled into a pattern that made her continued survival mostly a matter of daily routine, so she spent most days when the weather was warm enough (it never got much above 10 to 15 degrees C or 50 to 59 degrees F during the day and nights could get well below freezing) hiking and exploring her home.
In five years she didn’t find anything except flatlands, low hills, and a few arroyos. Then just before dawn on what she figured was day one thousand eight hundred and fifty-seven of her sojourn on Morrigan, an earthquake woke her up.
Except it wasn’t an earthquake.
Andrea put on her skin suit and coveralls and cycled the airlock. She continued to use it not because of a problem with the atmosphere but to keep the mod’s interior a consistent and comfortable temperature.
“What’s the glow? Meteor impact?” It had been so long since she’s spoken aloud that the sound of her own voice seemed strange. There was a light shining just over the western hills. Maybe a fire but the light seemed too consistent.
“Only one way to find out, Andrea.”
She secured her backpack which contained rations, water, and her tools and started hiking. Kepler rose in the east before she got there. Andrea crested the last rise and received the first shock she’d experienced in years.
“A space ship.”
She froze, taking in the scene. It was a ship or part of one, maybe a life unit of an interstellar craft, similar to her’s only much larger. It still had power. The lights she saw from home were emergency or navigation lights. The alien craft skidded as it came in leaving an ugly scar in the land along with a trail of debris.
Andrea didn’t move until she saw what looked like a hatch opening. Then she almost ran back the way she came. Instead, she walked downhill toward the wrecked vessel. The lights were beginning to flicker irregularly so maybe its power was dying. Nothing came out of the open hatch, so it could have been an automatic response.
“Steady, Andy. You don’t even know it was manned.”
NASA had sent interstellar vessels to nineteen exoplanets in the past century. Only three were habitable by humans besides this one, and they were now nascent colony worlds. Nowhere they had explored yielded any form of animal life more complicated than a rodent, nothing intelligent, and certainly nothing sentient.
But someone or something had built this ship. It was too alien, too bizarre in design to have come from Earth.
Kepler was behind her as she stood in front of the open hatch, her long shadow extended across the dull blue-grey hull. The lights had extinguished either because the ship’s power was gone or they were programmed to turn off during daylight. She could see inside a few meters but only plain deck plating made of the same metal.
“Is anyone there?”
It was a voice, a human voice.
“I’m trapped. Is anyone there?”
A man’s voice.
“Please, help me.”
How could it be alien if it spoke in her language?
“If you’re out there, please help.”
Andrea put one foot inside. Nothing happened. She stepped inside. “Hello?”
“There is someone.” His voice expressed obvious relief. “Please help. The control panel collapsed on my legs.”
“Where are you?” There was interior lights but they were dim. Probably emergency backups.
“Follow the sound of my voice. Hurry. I don’t know how much longer I can stand the pain.”
She started walking straight looking for doorways and connecting corridors. “Keep talking.”
“I’m here. Turn right at the first junction.”
Andrea saw an opening to her right she would have sworn didn’t exist a moment ago. Then a light began to shine from inside. She turned walked a few more meters, took a short flight of steps down and kept going.
Another doorway. The light was brighter.
It looked like an auxiliary control room. Only one occupant. Some sort of equipment pinned his legs down. He was beautiful.
“Hold on. I’ll get you out.” Andrea kneeled next to him and took off her pack. Inside among her other bits of junk was a small hydraulic jack. “I think I can get this to lift up. Can you use her arms to pull yourself out?”
“Yes, I think so. Thank God you came along. I had no idea anyone inhabited this system. It’s a miracle.”
“It will be if I can get this jack to work.” Andrea was a practical person and part of her still thought this was all a dream. She’d celebrate when she managed to free him.
It took her ten minutes to get the jack in the right position and to get the wrecked console to lift high enough so he could move his legs.
“Almost…” Andrea was pulling him by his arms. “…there.” His feet cleared the debris just as the jack gave way. The console fell back down making a loud metallic clank.
After a few seconds, he looked up at her. “Thank you. You saved my life.”
“Can you move your legs?”
“I…I think so.” They both looked down and she could see his legs move slightly.
“Argh! I think they’re broken.”
“Let me check.” For the past five years, she had been her only patient. Six months after the crash, she’d fallen into a dry riverbed and broke her arm, which was the most serious injury she’d received thus far. Numerous scratches and scrapes, a nasty cut on her thigh from a sharp rock when she thought it was warm enough to go out without her insulated skin suit, that was seven stitches, but nothing else.
“No. I can’t feel any breaks.” He winced as she felt various portions of both legs. “Maybe sprained. Give it a few minutes and try again.”
“Marcus Webber.” He held out his right hand.
She looked at it for a minute and then remembered what it meant. She grasped his hand. “Andrea Norton.”
Andrea had forgotten how to talk to anyone so she just stared at him while holding onto his hand. His palm was smooth and warm. Her first human touch in half a decade…longer really since she’d been in hibernation for ten years prior to the crash.
“You must be from the Astraea. Andrea Norton. You’re the electrical engineer. I remember reading the crew roster when we were assigned to test the new drive and told our destination.”
“Yes. Experimental FTL drive. We made the transit from Earth to Kepler in just under a year.”
“Wait! We? Where’s your crew?”
He looked down and then back at her. “They didn’t make it. A power conduit in the drive section exploded when we re-entered normal space. I had just enough time to get to my rescue pod and launch. I only survived because my station was closest to them. Captain Williams and the others never had a chance.”
“Kyle Williams? He was your Captain? He was my trainer back at the Academy.” She smiled at the memories of him. Mom and Dad had divorced when she was five and then Dad was killed in a shuttle accident the following year. It sounded so cliché to say Kyle was the Father she never had but that’s exactly how she felt about him, a Father-figure she was also a little bit in love with.
“Kyle is dead?” Andrea was surprised when she started crying. She couldn’t remember the last time she had.
“It’s going to be okay, Andrea. The experimental drive was worth a lot. When we don’t return on schedule. They’ll use the other prototype to come looking for us. If you’ve made it here for five years, then we only need to survive a couple more before we get to go home.”
“Home? Wait. Your ship.”
It was like she had come out of a deep sleep. Andrea looked at Marcus again. He was wearing a standard issue NASA jumpsuit. Had he always been wearing it? He looked about thirty-five years old, dark hair, medium complexion, clean-shaven, almost a younger version of Kyle.
“Your ship. It’s too big to be an escape pod…too alien.”
Andrea leapt up and turned back to the open doorway.
“Wait! Where are you going? Don’t leave me.”
She walked through expecting to see the corridor but instead she was blinded by sunlight. Andrea almost stepped out into open air. Then she saw the short ladder on the side of the pod. She climbed down as Kyle…that is, Marcus kept calling for her. Running several meters away, she turned back.
It wasn’t the same ship. She was looking at a regulation ship’s escape pod. Astraea didn’t have them since there were only twelve people on board. The crew module was designed to be used as a lander and in an emergency, it would double as an escape vessel (and that’s exactly what had happened). His ship must have been a lot bigger. Why did she think this was an alien craft before?
“Andrea! What are you doing? I still can’t walk. Don’t leave me.”
She ran back inside to Marcus. The interior seemed smaller now, too. There was a window she hadn’t noticed before.
“I must be going crazy.”
“Don’t leave me, Andrea. Please don’t leave me.”
She looked back at Marcus but then, it wasn’t Marcus anymore.
“Kyle! Oh my God you’re alive.”
“Ashamed to say that I am, Andy. The Captain shouldn’t abandon his ship. I really thought they’d make it off too.”
“Don’t say that. It’s not your fault.” She knelt down next to him. He was sitting up against a bulkhead.
“Come closer, Andy.”
“Of course, Kyle. I need you, too.” They put their arms around each other. It had been so long since she had been held and comforted. She wasn’t alone anymore. The man she loved, the man of her dreams was finally with her. She forgot about the alien ship, about the strange lights, about Marcus Webber. She’d nurse Kyle back to health and then they’d take care of each other. It didn’t matter if they were never rescued. She had everything she needed. Andrea totally lost herself in his dark brown eyes.
She didn’t notice the sounds outside, the scouts indicating the Yhabox migration had begun to cross this area on their way to their mating grounds far to the south. The herd only made the trip once every decade. Yhabox vaguely resembled the ostrich if the ostrich had large, fleshy lips instead of a beak and arm-like appendages in place of wings, but they were about as intelligent as a chimpanzee.
The scouts noticed a strange scent but it didn’t trigger a flight response so they ignored it. There was a depression in the terrain but it was easily avoided so they started leading the bulk of the herd through the valley.
Their only natural enemy was the Sekkan, a large burrowing creature with an unusual lure. It was telepathic and drew in its prey, usually stragglers that brought up the rear of the migratory herds, by projecting fantasies, typically the vision of the mating grounds and particularly images of idealized mates. The telepathic lure also served to prevent its scent from being detected if it sensed the presence of the scouts in time. That was almost all of the time since the Sekkan could locate prey and project its lure over great distances, at least several kilometers, which was how it first detected Andrea.
It lived deep underground and only came near the surface to feed during migration season, taking a dozen or so and then returning to its den and slowly digesting its meal before re-entering hibernation.
This time it found a most unusual prey with an odd smell and flavor, but it would still nourish the Sekkan, the first of many courses of its meal who lived in a fantasy world while being devoured. Andrea Norton would die happily in the embrace of her lover.
Addendum: 7-13-2018: You can read about the original prompt for this story below, but for today, I’ve submitted it to Music Challenge #31: “Killing Me Softly” – The Fugees #amwriting #musicchallenge #MLMM hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to take the music and lyrics of the song “Killing Me Softly” and use them as a prompt for crafting a poem, short story, or some other creative work. When I read this, I immediately thought of this tale which I wrote last January. Given what happens to poor Andrea, I think it fits.
Original Prompt: I wrote this for the Song Lyric Sunday Theme for 1/21/18 hosted by Helen Vahdati. Every week she posts a theme word and invites anyone to post a set of lyrics based on that word. The theme word this week is comfort
I selected the Alanis Morissette song Comfort.
The story was somewhat inspired by the 1993 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Liaisons in which Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is trapped on a desolate planet with a woman who isn’t what she appears to be. I also thought of the 1999 episode of Star Trek: Voyager Gravity.
…is the first potentially Earth-like planet orbiting in the habitable zone of a star similar to our Sun. The planet’s radius is 1.6 times that of the Earth and it takes 385 days to orbit its star, which is 1400 light years away. Because the star is too faint to measure its movement due to the gravitational tug by Kepler 452b, the planet’s mass is unknown. However it has been predicted to be at least five times that of the Earth and the planet’s surface temperature is estimated between -20°C and +10°C.
I changed the planet’s estimated mass since its gravity would probably be too severe for a human being to survive for very long, but I kept the temperature just because.
Oh, I named Andrea after the late science fiction writer Andre Norton (Alice Mary Norton) who provided me with many hours of reading enjoyment in my youth.
Here are the full lyrics:
We spent our days in contemplation
Too much too soon
and though it hurts to let it linger on and on
You’re all I need
What will my heart allow
When loneliness holds me down
So move closer and comfort me now
Move over if you care for me
But I guess you can’t come out for a while
We spent our nights in conversation
Too much to prove
And I’ve been a fool to let it linger on and on
You’re all I see
Shaping our love we found
impossible higher ground
So move closer and comfort me now
Move over if you care for me
Well I guess you can’t come out for a while
Won’t you move closer and comfort me now
Move over if you care for me
Well I’ve come to learn how love can cage you
tear you up then try to replace you
I guess I won’t come out for a while
With no warning, no pause, no pity
Why-y — why-why-y-y
Don’t wake awake my soul anymore
Just stay away from me a little while
Where will you go when we walk away
oooo-oooh — ooo-ohh
My only comfort is gone
With no warning, no pause, no pity
Writers, Alanis Nadine Morissette and Terrence Lee