Legacy, Chapter 2
He was suddenly aware of a raw, metallic taste in his mouth. It was so strong he tasted it before the blood. He tried to swallow, but his throat was dry and swollen, like it was coated in dust.
Peter Conroy tried to open his eyes, but only one would open. His vision was blurred. He could see a jagged crack down the faceplate of his helmet. It was outlined in streaks of blood.
Where was the blood coming from? The other eye, he thought.
Over the static and the distant voices of the com-link he could hear his own breathing. It was a struggle. His breaths were short and shallow. Peter tried to lift his head, but a sharp pain shot down his spine. He moved more carefully the second time.
The parachute from his ejection seat billowed gently in the thermals, its chameleon-like skin continuously changing and blending with the color of the earth around it. He stared and marveled in its beauty for a moment as his eye adjusted.
He was aware he was sitting upright, but slightly tilted to his left. He was slumped, as much as his chair restraints would allow. The restraints were tight and they felt painfully constricted against his chest. He lifted a hand to his chest and fumbled for the buckles. He clumsily hit the release and the belts loosened. He pushed them away and allowed his body to fall with the angle of the ejection seat.
He screamed and caught himself with an extended arm before he slid to the ground. The sudden movement shot pain throughout his body. It was excruciating, but the pain meant his extremities were still with him.
Leaning on his left arm, he took a moment to recover, trying to gather his strength. He stared at the orange, powdery surface of the Earth around him. Such an ugly color, he thought, but he had never been so happy to see it in his young life.
He grasped a fistful of it in his hand. He lifted it to his face and opened his fingers. The dry, dusty substance scattered in the wind. He spread his fingers and the sand slid between them. It was dry, lifeless, completely unwelcoming, but it was still home.
He let the rest of the substance slowly drain from his palm. ‘It’s alright now,’ he thought. ‘We’re going to fix it. You’ll see. Just don’t be too hard on me right now.’
He could hear frantic voices and static in his ears. He could hear someone calling his name, but the ringing in his ears was much louder. The voices seemed distant and surreal. It didn’t occur to him to answer. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew they were coming for him, so he wanted to be on his feet when they arrived.
Adrenaline took over, numbing the pain. Peter straightened himself and got to his knees, then brought a leg forward. Each movement was slow and grueling. He pressed his hand against his knee and pushed himself up, gritting his teeth as the movement washed him in pain. His eyes blurred and a spinning sensation overtook him. He caught himself before he tipped over. He straightened his body and with an ingrained professionalism, he brushed the dust from the arms of his uniform.
He touched his holstered firearm at his right side, confirming it was still with him. He paused and shook his head, attempting to clear his fading vision, but the sudden movement upset his fragile equilibrium. He caught himself once more.
‘That was a mistake,’ he thought. ‘Don’t fall. You might not make it back up.’
His first step forward was hesitant and unsteady. They were expecting him, waiting for him, he thought. This gave him a sense of urgency and it drove him forward.
Strangely, he had no particular destination in mind, no direction. Something told him to get up and move. Something he remembered about head injuries.
‘The brain flops to one side of the skull and starts to turn purple,’ he thought. ‘Was that a joke or was it for real?’ He couldn’t remember. He knew he was exhausted. His body wanted to shut down, to slip peacefully into unconsciousness. He knew he couldn’t let it happen. Sleeping was bad. ‘Don’t fall asleep,’ he thought and he laughed softly, ‘you might wake up dead.’
There was more confidence, more determination, in his next step. The step after that one was automatic. Soon, it was one steady step after another.
He had to stay conscious. He had to move. He had to keep breathing. One unsteady step at a time. One hard-fought breath after another.
He stood in the shadows of the high, rocky outcrops surrounding him. A chill went through him and his body shuddered. He longed to be in the sunlight. The sun was in the distance, slowly descending toward a flat and lifeless horizon. A long stretch of desolation lay before him. He moved into it, seeking the familiar warmth of a sun he had not seen in nearly a year.
“Doc?” The shuttle pilot stood on the ramp of the shuttle. He looked at Jessica in surprise as she approached. “They paged you? I thought you were………”
She didn’t meet his eyes and she offered no explanation as she jogged up the ramp, “Afternoon, Jason!”
The confused pilot watched after her as she entered the shuttle. 'She's not on duty,' he thought. 'What is she doing here? Her brother is landing with the...' It took a moment for things to register, for the pieces to fall into place. “Oh…” Jason said out loud, but before he could raise the obvious objection to an unauthorized civilian on a military transport, he found himself nose-to-nose with a tall, intimidating, and angry figure in uniform.
“Do you have led feet, Soldier?” The young man yelled.
“Sir! No, Sir!” Jason jumped and snapped to attention.
“Are you waiting for an invitation, or are you going to do your job?”
“Yes, Sir! Do my job, Sir!” He hesitated as he watched the soldier grab two helmets from the general supply closet. “I’m sorry, Sir… You are…?”
The officer tossed a helmet to Jessica then looked back at him. “Your worst nightmare if you don’t get this boat in the air!”
Jason stared at him, wide-eyed. He lifted a hand to the ramp control without breaking his shocked gaze and pressed the button. The ramp began to close.
“Hey!” A medic made a running leap for the closing ramp, a bag pressed firmly to his chest. He stumbled into the shuttle, nudged forward by the increasing angle of the ramp. “What’s the deal?”
Jason transferred his wide-eyed stare to the new passenger and whispered, “Run, Joe! Baaaaad ju ju! Run for your life!”
“We need saline!” Jessica said as she inspected one of the supply trunks.
“Here, Doc,” the medic tossed her the bag, “there are some syringe guns and endotracheal tubes in there too.”
She caught the bag and dropped it at her feet; she knelt to unload the plastic bags of clear liquid.
“Epinephrine?” She asked.
“Top compartment on your left,” Joe replied. “We have an audience?” He glanced back at Jason with a perplexed look.
“You have a crew!” The officer snapped as he planted himself in one of the shuttle's passenger seats and donned his helmet. It was obvious to Jason that the officer was in no mood for explanations and he suspected Jessica felt the same.
“Yes, Sir.” The medic threw their passenger a quick salute.
“Told you!” Jason mouthed and the ramp whined and hissed as the shuttle sealed and began to pressurize.
“What’s the word, Jason?” Jessica asked, still stocking the supply trunk.
The pilot moved briskly to the front of the shuttle, touching her shoulder as he passed. “A fighter broke up on reentry. We have the coordinates and visual confirmation of the crash site. The ejection seat beacon is intermittent.”
“There was an ejection?” Jessica paused.
Wildstar watched her as she briefly closed her eyes, and released a trembling breath. ‘At least there was separation from the fighter before it crashed,’ he thought. Wildstar knew an intermittent beacon meant a damaged ejection seat, possibly a damaged pilot. Certainly, Jessica knew it too.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said as he climbed into the shuttle’s left seat. “His wingman and most of the squadron are still circling. They think they have the location.”
“Has there been any communication from the pilot?” Joe asked as he sat down in the right seat of the shuttle’s cockpit.
Wildstar saw the pilot glance at Jessica. She was distracted with pulling on her helmet. He answered his copilot with a brief shake of his head then went back to his work, setting his instruments for launch.
Jessica dropped into a chair across from Wildstar. She donned her shoulder harness and seat belt as she slid the empty bag under her seat with the heel of her boot.
Jason glanced back to make sure his passengers were seated and buckled. The familiar spooling sound of the auxiliary power unit filled the interior of the shuttle. Jason radioed their intent to Control and he was given immediate clearance. The vessel vibrated then shuddered with the roar of the engines.
They ascended quickly from the underground launch site. When they were free from the launch tube, the rays of the sun flooded through the windows, bathing Jessica in its golden light. She closed her eyes, briefly squinting against it. Wildstar took the opportunity to study her.
Strands of her hair had fallen loose from her braid and were caught in the soft stream of her breath. They floated near her face, illuminated in the sunlight. Wildstar recalled her likeness from Conroy’s photographs. The young woman before him now was thinner and more weathered than what he remembered. Her delicate frailty was lovely nonetheless, but she looked very tired. Fear and heavy responsibility placed on the shoulders of one so young had taken their toll.
It occurred to Wildstar at that moment, although it had always been in the back of his mind, life had been difficult in their absence. The people they left behind were not just waiting for their return, they were trying desperately to survive! He was suddenly struck by the frightening reality. ‘This is just the beginning,’ he thought. ‘Returning to Earth was just the beginning for all of them.’
The radio crackled to life in their helmets, and Jessica suddenly opened her eyes. She caught Wildstar’s eyes on her before he could avert them. He felt the heat rise in his face as he blushed. He was grateful when Jason’s voice broke through the hiss of the static and diverted Jessica’s attention.
“Message from Doctor Randal,” Jason said, “his trauma team is ready. Contact them when you have an update. You owe him a drink.”
To Be Continued
Chapter 3 - Requiem
They call her Doc. Can Jessica live up to her nickname when it comes to her own brother? Surviving a crash landing on the radioactive surface of Earth is one thing, surviving the injuries is another. Jessica races against the golden hour, desperately trying to find her brother before it’s too late….