The next morning, she shot up out of a deep sleep, convinced something was banging on the shuttle door. She looked to Josh, but he was still unconscious on the floor. It was hot. The burners had run all night, and her body was matted with sweat.
Still unsure whether or not she had a dream, she sat still for another ten minutes and listened for the sound. Just silence. She put her boots on, grabbed the machine gun, and decided she had to take a look for herself. She cracked the door only a little, and saw just a hint of metal sticking out of the blanket of snow on the ground. The early morning sun was out and the sky had cleared entirely, leaving a clean serenity where no wind was present.
She felt it’d be best to eat something now and then try and wake Josh. After she finished eating, she tended to him. Sweat dripped off his face, so she pulled some of the blankets back and took a moment to examine his bandages. They were spotted with blood but not soaked, so the bleeding definitely had stopped. The wraps would need to be changed either way.
The food looked unappealing as she fixed a combination of packages together into a meal, but Leah did what she could with it to make it look palatable. The smell of heated faux eggs, hash, pancakes, and sweet syrup that had an after smell of chemicals filled the shuttle, and she hoped it would help rouse him. She put the plate down next to him and pulled a strand of loose hair behind her ear as she knelt. “Josh. It’s me, wake up.”
She gently touched his clammy face, cupping his chin in her palm and brushing his oily hair back. For such a tortured soul he appeared very calm and peaceful, but for all of the wrong reasons. Still, she felt sorry for him. They were both too young to have such a burden placed on them.
His eyes flared open, and he viciously grabbed her arm as if to break it. She pushed away and pleaded, “Stop, it’s me! You’re hurting me!”
The pain in his body shot through him like an electrical charge and he loosed his grip. “Where is it?” he gasped as he search for his gun.
“It- it’s gone. Outside. You killed it.”
He looked around with blood shot and alarmed eyes, still wincing with pain. “Gone? Where … the gun, give it to me.”
She held her hand up to try and calm him. “Josh, you’re okay! You’re okay, he’s gone. I checked. He’s still in the snow where you left him.”
Josh wiped the sweat stinging his eyes and looked to the closed door.
“It was real,” he whispered aloud as if to convince himself it wasn’t a dream. “Where is it?” he asked again, still in a fog.
“I told you outside, I checked. It’s dead.”
He glanced her over. “You-you okay?”
“I’m fine. I need to change your bandage.”
Josh looked down at his bloody wrappings. “Jesus. I feel like I’m on fire.”
She picked up one of the needle-like projectiles on the ground and showed him. “You were hit with these. Dozens of them, and they were hot. You’re lucky they weren’t longer or they would have killed you.”
Josh eyed the bandages on her fingers, and she said, “Don’t worry, I’m fine.”
“Is it bad?”
“It could be worse, hey, here. Eat some food,” she slid the plate closer. “When you’re done I’ll get you cleaned up. Okay?”
He picked at his plate but didn’t have an appetite as the pain coursing through his body made him nauseous. “This isn’t good.”
Her countenance turned to disbelief that he would be so picky over his food at time like this. “You got to be kidding me …”
“No,” he gestured towards the door. “The machine. Out there. The intelligence required to create such a thing is … it’s incredibly advanced. It was humanoid. Fingers, toes, everything except the head. But still, the design is human. I don’t get it.”
“I told you, we’re back on earth. It’s the only explanation. You said we were out there a long time, so, maybe the earth recovered and the survivors … survived, you know, rebuilt.”
“And how would you know that?”
“Because the distance we traveled was …” He was going to stop there, but Leah had her arms crossed in frustration. She was clearly getting tired of being kept in the dark, and Josh, in his wounded and humbled state, felt she at least earned his confidence. He decided to continue, “It’s impossible because we were out there for over nine hundred years. The Westbound had only been away from earth for twenty.”
“But,” she stammered. “The shuttle is smaller, the engine …”
“Even if they had sent us on a direct course for earth we would have reached it a long time ago. Nine hundred years Leah. We’re somewhere else.”
The words sank in but as they did she thought out loud, “So why does everything look so similar? The trees, grass, even the air is perfect! What you’re suggesting, that we’re on a planet exactly like earth is even more impossible to believe.”
Josh shrugged, “I don’t know. It’s not quite the same. Little things are different. Imperceptible if you weren’t paying attention. Insects, foliage … they all have,” he winced, holding his stomach, “minor differences that didn’t exist on earth.”
A nauseating feeling came over him and his face turned ghostly. Leah moved to help him, “Ok, just relax. Sit back. Take it easy. Here,” she grabbed a metal injector labeled with Paxeline on it and jammed it into his thigh.
He winced and rolled to his side and said, “You seem pretty good with this medical stuff.”
She smiled weakly to herself, keeping her head down so he wouldn’t notice.
“Okay,” she finally said, motioning him to sit straight. “I need you upright to do this. It’ll just take a minute. Raise your arms a bit, perfect.” He did as she suggested and she took one end of the bandages and had to lean close to his chest to grab it from behind his back as she pulled it around the front. She felt embarrassed having to get so close to him like that as her head nearly pressed into the nape of his neck.
As the bandage unraveled, it pulled at the skin as the blood had dried in some parts, causing some tender pain for Josh. “Ah! Careful.”
“Sorry,” she murmured. Once the bandage was off she piled them aside and took a look at his wounds. “Oh no,” she sighed. “Look at this, there’s already signs of infection.” She picked through the kit and examined some small containers, holding them up to read the labeling. “Here. Take these antibiotics.”
“Really, are you sure?”
“Positive. Take ‘em.” She ordered, shoving the pills at him. He did and neither said another word as she cleaned his wounds with alcoholic swabs and wrapped him up in fresh bandages. She caught him looking at her in that curious, dopey-eyed boy stare and she blushed, “Ok. You’re all done, and you’re welcome.”
“I didn’t say thank you.”
“You still haven’t said it. Properly.”
“Thank you,” he said with a curt smile.
“I don’t know,” she said, pulling her hair back and sitting on her haunches. “The infection came too fast. Whatever you were shot with must have been tainted with something.”
“Guess we’ll find out if it kills me or not …”
She shook her head at him, and after she was finished she stood and started to put on her white snow pants and the rest of her gear.
“Where are you going?” he asked, propping himself up further.
“I’m going to go chop that thing up and move it. Can’t stand sitting in here thinking that it’s right outside the door.”
“No, don’t do that. Not yet. I need to study it.”
“Are you crazy? What if it comes back to life?”
“It won’t. It’s a machine. Has a million moving parts on it, it’s a lot more fragile than you think.”
She pulled her gloves on tight as she spoke to him. “You went to the academy, right? Maybe, maybe you can reprogram it, you know, make it our personal bodyguard or something.”
“You got the academy all wrong. We weren’t supposed to be geniuses. Besides, working with alien technology wasn’t exactly on the curriculum.”
“So,” she shrugged. “What do we do now?”
“We can’t stay here much longer, it’s too risky. We’ll pack everything we can and relocate.”
“What about in the meantime?”
“There is no meantime. We start packing now,” he said holding his stomach as he stood.
She jumped forward as if he were about to fall, holding him steady and exclaimed, “You aren’t going out like that, you’re shot! No, sit down. Are you nuts?”
“We don’t have time,” he said, pushing her arm away. “We have no idea what those machines are capable of. Who are they? How do they communicate? If even a single one is on its way here …”
“Listen to me!” he yelled. Leah stepped back, recalling the moment he stood inches away from her with the blacktape stretched tight. “Listen,” he repeated calmly after sensing her fear. “We have to leave one way or another. The supplies won’t last long anyway, and I’m not waiting around for his buddies to come looking for their dead friend out there.”
“You said we had what, two or three months of supplies here? We can’t just leave all that, what are we going to do, live off grass and bugs? It’s not exactly springtime outside either!”
“We have about one month’s worth of supplies.”
“A month?” She asked incredulously. “They didn’t exactly think this whole thing through very well, did they? How did they expect us-”
“-to survive like-”
“Stop! Leah,” he tried to hold in his frustration. “I’m telling you how it is. I’m not hiding anything. I’m not lying or making up stories or whatever else you think I’m doing.”
“I never said you were.”
“Then just listen to me, please, and stop talking,” he said sternly. Leah collected herself and tried to do as he said, brimming with further questions about the ineptitude of those who planned this historic, and potentially last, mission for humankind. Her mind raced with the myriad of other, logical ways they could have helped those destined for the shuttles to survive. A bigger ship, for one, more supplies, better weapons, more people. God forbid they put all of the survivors into a single, larger craft!
When Josh had her silence he continued. “I don’t want to continue repeating myself so let me make this clear so you understand. Two highly trained students of the Academy, had they been in this very scenario as we are now, would need to have worked together nearly twenty hours a day for that entire month in order to have a remote chance of surviving under our conditions. The winter here is brutal, our shuttle is nearly destroyed, I’m injured and we’ve been attacked by an enemy we know nothing about on a planet we know nothing about. Without locating a local food source we’ll die here, if we aren’t hunted down and killed first.”
She bit her lip and tapped her foot as she listened, his words coming across but not registering because she was anxiously waiting her turn to speak. She jumped on him as soon as he was done, being convinced her logic was sound and deserved consideration.
“So you want me to haul a pack full of supplies with you through knee-deep snow in the middle of winter, while you nurse a hundred gun shot wounds? How is that any safer than staying here?”
“It’s not!” He snapped. “I was forced to live my entire goddamn life preparing for something like this. Do you think I want to go out in the snow right now? Do you think I want to leave most of our supplies behind? I don’t even want to be here!”
“Well neither do I!”
“Oh, God, just forget it. You have no idea what I’m talking about …”
“Maybe I don’t, but I know when something sounds insane.”
“This,” he waved his arm around, “all of this is insane! We have only one chance at this Leah.” He held his index finger in the air. “One mistake, one stupid move and that’s it. It’s over. Just trust me when I tell you I’m making the best-”
He buckled over and vomited on the ground. His legs gave out from underneath him and he slumped against the wall while vomit bubbled down his chin. Leah tried grabbing him as he crumpled and knelt beside him. He wiped his face and flung to the floor the bilious slime than ran from his mouth, “You happy?”
“Why would I be happy?” She retorted with a warm sincerity. “I’m just trying to help you.” She grabbed some of the old bandages and wiped up the vomit on the ground before tossing them away. She retrieved a water bottle and gave it to him. “Drink slowly.”
He took a few sips but it was difficult and he spit it back up. Leah took the bottle away and then helped wrap a blanket around him.
He shuddered and looked up to her with half-slit eyes as cold enveloped him. “Why are you so nice to me?”
She grinned, “Beginning to wonder that myself. If you just, you know, talked a little more instead of treating me like a soldier you might be surprised.”
“I’m just trying to help you. That religious book of yours isn’t going to help you survive …”
She walked away and turned around, her arms folded, “You’re right. We survive. Nothing else matters. From now on, you tell me what to do, I’ll do it. No questions asked. All I ask for is a little respect.”
“I think, uh, I think I need to get some rest …” Josh turned pale again and pulled his blankets tight around his shivering body. The pain medication was making him drowsy. All Leah could do at this point was watch him as his eyelids sank and he fell asleep. His condition worried her. Leah opened a blood kit and took a sample from his finger and waited for the readings. The numbers flashed on the pencil-length meter and she looked at them in disbelief. “Oh my God.”
Josh was already in early stages of sepsis. She checked the antibiotics and realized they may be ineffective due to their age, despite having been specifically sealed for extended space travel. The food was still viable, she knew that much, hopefully the antibiotics were, too. She put his rough, cold hands in hers and said a little prayer for him with hushed whispers.
There was little left that she could do for Josh now except let him rest and keep getting antibiotics into his system. Leah finished putting her snow gear on and then dug through the supply room until she retrieved a small axe. She slid out of the compression door and let it shut behind her, careful not to open it too wide and allow the cold in.
The air outside kissed her with the fresh scent of pine. The sun was brilliant in the morning sky and the fresh snow stretched in every direction like smoothed icing on a cake. She groped in the snow until she felt metal and proceeded to clear the rest of the fluffy powder away until the entire machine was exposed.
“Alright. Can’t take any chances,” she stood at a wide stance for balance. “No mistakes. He can study your pieces later,” Leah raised the axe up behind her head and then stopped as something caught her eye. She stooped down and brushed some leftover snow off its chest and looked closer.
The flag was shaped in an oval with a black border, white background and sixteen small red stars spaced evenly apart within the interior. Just below the flag, or insignia, was some type of lettering that was foreign to her. She removed her glove and reached to touch the embossed insignia when the head jerked towards her and the eyes flashed.
She screamed and stumbled backward against the shuttle as the axe dropped into the snow. She scrambled madly to her feet and desperately looked for the axe but it had disappeared into two feet of snow. Then she realized the machine wasn’t moving and the color in the eyes had disappeared. Her heart banged against her chest and she felt faint from the adrenaline, unsure if she should get near it again or even move to try and find the axe.
A few moments passed and she had watched the thing the entire time, barely moving a muscle as she waited. Once she felt brave enough she took a step, then another, and then knelt in the snow to retrieve the axe and only stealing quick glances away from the machine in order to better dig through the snow. Finally she grabbed the hilt of the axe and lifted it, brushing her hair back as she stepped lightly towards the machine until she was standing over it again.
Her heart raced again and her blood warmed and she felt hot and sweaty and she wasn’t sure if she’d even have the power in her arms to do any damage to it, and if she couldn’t, would awaken it and spell her untimely death. Josh’s words ran through her mind and she determined to make her first shot count.
Without further hesitation she yelled a sound she herself didn’t recognize and brought the blade down hard onto the machine. The blade gouged a deep hole into its neck that bent the head back awkwardly. A few sparks fluttered and sizzled and that was it. The blade became lodged into it good and she had trouble pulling it out, trying to yank on the handle from different angles but it remained obstinate.
Finally she put both her feet onto the machine, bent down and pulled with all her strength. Her foot slipped and she fell backwards into the snow with an air-filled thud, finding herself staring up at the sky through strands of disheveled hair.
Not giving up, she went back and angrily kicked at it until it broke loose. She picked the axe back up and resumed hacking at it like a piece of cordwood until the head severed completely. Satisfied with her handiwork, and pleasantly surprised by how good dismembering a head felt, she bent over and vigorously strained to pick up the metal cranium. She held it close to her chest, straining to keep it from falling through her arms, and she stumbled forward until it slipped out and fell through the snow like a hot coal.
“Ok! Seemed like a good idea at the time,” she said breathlessly. Satisfied there was no way it would come back to life again, and resolutely defeated in any attempt to move it, she sat against the shuttle and took time to listen and submerge her soul in the beauty of the natural world around her. It was so peaceful, so sublime and magnificent. Having entirely grown up aboard the Westbound, she was part of a generation that had never seen earth first hand. It was a world that had been taken for granted by so many, and yet all her life all she wanted was to lay her own eyes on it, to feel its touch and breathe its air. Whatever planet they were on now didn’t matter, her soul connected with what she witnessed before her like nothing else.
The idea of staying at the shuttle was quickly losing its appeal to her. Josh was right, they were targets here. They couldn’t stay forever anyway and she longed to explore and see more. Her thoughts ran away with her with visions of great cities and natural wonders whose beauty could tame the most savage of souls. An excitement built in her of the possibilities ahead for her and Josh. Someone had to have built this machine and despite its murderous intentions, there must be someone out there capable of peaceful coexistence. Just as there was war and bloodshed on earth, they should expect nothing different here, and Leah dismissed this as an anomaly of an otherwise peaceful people. Whoever or wherever they were.
By nature of their situation they were in danger no matter if they stayed here or moved on. Josh would need to recover first, but she would bring up the idea to leave as soon as he was capable of understanding. His sepsis worried her, and she didn’t want to think about what would happen if it progressively worsened and the antibiotics failed in stemming the infection. It was a terrifyingly acidic thought that immediately dissolved her optimism.
A hawk flew overhead and she shielded her eyes to watch it gracefully carry itself through the air without flapping its wings.
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