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Denizens: 23 - Marooned

...They watched solemnly as the Hermes continued to settle lower in the water; slowly at first, then faster, it sank, lower and lower.

Then, with a great roil and bubbling of water, it slipped beneath the surface and was gone. Only a few boiling eddies and swirls marked the spot where it went down, and soon they were gone also, leaving just the flat calm of the sea.

Cal started the engine of his boat, as did Karen, and Bill followed with Jonathan as they headed for the shore. After a moment, the alien figure retreated into its craft and followed at a discreet distance.

Fighting down a collective feeling of rising panic, the four travelers turned their attention towards the city. Looking back would accomplish nothing now; ahead was where their destiny lay. For better or worse, they were marooned on an alien world, totally at the mercy or otherwise of the inhabitants. Whatever they might be...

The first human crew to travel faster than the speed of light have crash-landed on the sea of an alien planet. And now... Wow! Master story teller Brian William Neal grabs your attention and holds it in an unyielding grip. You really must read on!

The sky was blue. For some reason, that struck them as odd, as if the earth should have a monopoly on azure firmaments. But that was where any similarity to their home world ended. Being much further from the sun meant that the light on this world was dim, like twilight, and visibility was only fair. Small waves lapped at the side of the ship, but they had no force behind them. The overcast had partially cleared, and puffy white clouds drifted lazily above them. They could have been in almost any sub-tropical region on earth, an hour or so before sunset.

Silently, the four travelers gazed out at the sight before them. They were about six miles from shore, and in the distance they could make out the spires of the city. Looking at the alien skyline, they noticed one major difference between this world and their own: the clarity of the air. They could see the city clearly, despite the shadowy light, and there was no smog, or any kind of pollution. The air smelled clean and fresh, and invigorating to the senses. Suddenly, Karen pointed and exclaimed, “Look, there’s something coming this way!”

The others followed her outstretched arm, and they all saw the craft that was heading towards them. Without taking his eyes off it, Cal said to Bill, “How long before we sink?”

The engineer, also watching the craft approach, replied, “Plenty of time. At least two hours.”

Cal nodded, and looked again at the approaching craft, too far away to make out clearly. “And how long before he gets here?”

Bill picked up a pair of high-powered binoculars and watched for a moment. “He’s moving pretty slowly. Hopefully, it’s because he doesn’t want to alarm us. Whatever the reason, he’s at least an hour away, at that rate.”

Cal rubbed the stubble on his chin. “In that case, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I could use a shower and shave. If we’re going to be greeted by these aliens, we should try to make a good impression as representatives of the human race. Besides, we don’t know when we’re going to see hot water again.” He turned to the engineer. “Have we got time for that?”

Bill nodded. “Sure, so long as no one takes more than about half an hour or so.”

Cal stood up. “Right,” he said, “You heard the man. Everyone back here in thirty minutes, tops.” He turned away from the doorway and headed for the amenity block, one level up. After a moment, the others followed, with Bill pushing Jonathan’s chair.

“Come on, professor,” he said. “I’ll scrub your back for you.” Karen came last, hurrying after the others, having pushed the control to close the hatch first.

Twenty-eight minutes later they were back in the doorway, washed, scrubbed, shaved and ready to face whatever was coming towards them. The alien vessel had slowed its progress even more, and was still at least a mile distant. The craft approached cautiously, and Cal could see no sign of life about it. As it drew closer, he was intrigued to see that it threw up no bow wave, and he remarked on this to Bill, who was also watching through binoculars.

“Yeah, I noticed,” said the engineer. “I’ve been trying to figure out what its propulsion system is, and what’s holding it up. It’s a couple of feet above the surface of the water, with no visible means of support.”

Cal lifted his own binoculars again and studied the craft. “Well, obviously it’s some kind of hovercraft. That’s how come there’s no bow wave; it’s riding on a cushion of air.”

“Yeah, well if that’s so,” replied the engineer, “then it’s the first hovercraft I’ve ever seen that doesn’t disturb the water underneath or around it.”

They watched the strange craft for a moment, then Jonathan said, “I believe what we are seeing is an anti-gravity system actually working. It’s the only answer.” The British physicist ignored the heavy silence that followed his words, and went back to his own observations.

Cal stared at the vessel as it drew closer. Anti-gravity! If they had that, what else might they have? Time travel? He was about to voice this thought when the craft stopped its approach and stood off, about two hundred meters away from the Hermes.

It was, to say the least, unadorned and functional, being only (so far as they could see) a rectangular box, perhaps fifteen meters by seven or so, and about three meters high. There were no markings on its exterior, no windows, no features at all. For a full five minutes, nothing happened; there might have been no one else on the planet. Except for the water lapping at the side of the ship below the hatch, the silence was complete. There were no sea birds, and no sound could be heard coming from the land. Two cultures, separated by a gulf infinitely wider than the stretch of water between them, faced each other across a frozen moment in time. Then a hatch on top of the alien craft opened, and a figure appeared.

“What do you make of that?” asked Cal, and Bill spoke without lowering his glasses.

“Looks like a robot of some kind,” he said.

Jonathan nodded, and Cal said, “You sure?”

Bill grunted. “Yeah, definitely a mechanical. Very sophisticated, though.”

The four continued to watch the craft for several minutes but there was no further movement, either from the craft or the figure perched on top of it. Suddenly the Hermes gave a lurch, and Cal said, “We’d better get those zodiacs in the water. Looks like we may not have as much time as we thought.”

He and Karen helped Bill drag the boats to the doorway, then activated their self-inflaters and pushed them out and down to the surface. Then they tethered them to the ship and began carrying the supplies down the ladders on either side of the hatch.

Throughout this operation, the alien figure in the hovering craft made no attempt at contact, but merely appeared to observe. Finally, Cal and Bill lowered Jonathan by a hastily rigged harness while Karen waited below to get him settled. When they were all in the boats, the two men having made a last-minute check of the ship to make sure nothing of importance had been left behind, they cast off the lines and started the zodiac’s motors. Then they moved a hundred meters away, careful not to get any closer to the alien craft.

When they had reached a safe distance, they cut the motors and turned to watch the last moments of the ship that had been their home for almost two years. It had been their only link to Earth, and now it was forever lost to them. They watched solemnly as the Hermes continued to settle lower in the water; slowly at first, then faster, it sank, lower and lower.

Then, with a great roil and bubbling of water, it slipped beneath the surface and was gone. Only a few boiling eddies and swirls marked the spot where it went down, and soon they were gone also, leaving just the flat calm of the sea.

Cal started the engine of his boat, as did Karen, and Bill followed with Jonathan as they headed for the shore. After a moment, the alien figure retreated into its craft and followed at a discreet distance.
Fighting down a collective feeling of rising panic, the four travelers turned their attention towards the city. Looking back would accomplish nothing now; ahead was where their destiny lay. For better or worse, they were marooned on an alien world, totally at the mercy or otherwise of the inhabitants. Whatever they might be.


*


Cal guided his zodiac towards a strip of sandy beach, well away from the cluster of buildings that dotted the shoreline. There was still no one in sight; the inhabitants of the city were, for now, keeping themselves well hidden.

Cautiously, and with a wary eye on their surroundings, they drove the three boats up on to the sandy beach, and Cal stepped out on to the alien shore. Carefully, watching all sides at once, they made their way to the shelter afforded by the line of trees and the thick growth that began where the thin strip of sand ended. Bill carried Jonathan through the sand and set him down on a patch of grass like ground cover, then went back for the professor’s wheelchair. Cal and Karen, meanwhile, dragged the three zodiacs as far up the beach as they could, and tethered them to a tree.

When they were satisfied that the boats would not float away by themselves, they set up one of the four-berth tents on the grass and began collecting their supplies from the boats. Then they entered the tent and tried to make themselves as comfortable as possible on the tent’s built-in cots.

“Well, this is cozy,” said Bill. “Anyone know Camptown Races?” When the others were silent, he went on, uncharacteristically angry. “So, what do we do now? Light a fire? Toast weenies? Maybe we’ll get lucky, and get moved along by the local cops.” He dug into one of the boxes and broke the seal on a bottle of brandy, then poured himself a sizable tot into a plastic cup. “Snort, anyone?” he said, downing a large portion of the drink.

The others demurred, and Karen said, “Maybe we ought to save that for…”

“For what, for Christ’s sake?” Bill interrupted. “An emergency?” He laughed harshly. “Jesus, lady, if you don’t call our present situation an emergency, then I for one don’t want to be around when something that fits your criteria crops up!”

Karen looked at him for a moment, then said, “I was going to say, the brandy is for medical purposes. I think we should save it for that.”

Bill slumped into a folding chair, cradling the bottle against his chest. He took another pull at his drink, and laughed. “Sure, right, medicinal purposes. O.K. I’m sick, doctor. I’ve lost my home, my friends. I’m millions of miles and thousands of years from my world, and I’m never going to see it again. And, no offense, Cal,” he said, turning to the American, “but that barely controlled crash you laughingly referred to as a landing has left me more than a little shook up. Now, doesn’t that sound like a good excuse to get shit faced?”

Cal grinned ruefully. “Don’t knock it, pal,” he said. “Any landing you can walk away from is a good one.” Bill ignored them again, and Karen glared at him, then turned to Cal.

“Aren’t you going to do something? You’re the mission commander. Why don’t you…”

“What?” asked Cal. “Take it from him by force? Maybe you’d like me to clap him in irons, would that suit you?” He held her by her shoulders and went on, more quietly. “It doesn’t matter, Karen. There’s plenty of booze in the stores; when it’s gone, it’s gone, and we either find something here, or we do without. In fact, I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to have a few, and something to eat as well.”

He lifted the door flap, then paused. “How about you, Jonathan? Can I get you anything?”

Jonathan Edge looked up from his reading as he sat in his chair at the far end of the fifty square meter tent and shook his head. “No thank you, Cal. I believe I’ll pass.” He lowered his head and began to read again the well-thumbed Bible, his glasses perched on the end of his nose as he turned the tissue thin pages.

After a short time, Jonathan wheeled his chair outside on to the grass and began to take star sightings and samples of the atmosphere with equipment salvaged from the Hermes. Although the sun had set, there had been little drop in temperature. The air was warm, as was the ground, which seemed to confirm Jonathan’s original hypothesis that this world’s life-sustaining warmth came from the planet itself. The dense atmosphere obviously kept the heat from escaping into space too quickly, and made it possible for life to exist this far from the sun. This realization presented several other possibilities to the Englishman and for the next hour or so he sat in the warm night, deep in thought.

He was still contemplating their environment when the others joined him, breaking out the rations and making a meal over a small portable fusion cooker. As Cal said, there was no point in trying to conceal their presence; the alien craft had seen them, as had probably the entire city. Although there had been no further sign of the strange craft or its even stranger occupant, it was sure to have reported their arrival and position to someone.

Bill had recovered from his bout of depression and was again his cheerful self, apologizing for his earlier attack of “maudlin self-pity”. They ate their meal in the open air under the stars, and Jonathan pointed out those he had been able to recognize, including Earth. They had a few more drinks; this time, Karen and even Jonathan were persuaded to take a glass. Bill brought out his guitar that he had salvaged, and sang a few songs, the others joining in where they knew the words, humming along when they did not. There was no other sound except for the leaves in the trees, lightly stirred by the warm breeze.

After erecting a smaller tent for Karen, they all bedded down for the night. All four took their turn at watch; Karen and even Jonathan were required to take charge of one of the weapons from the ship, and Cal was amused at the sight that greeted him when he rose to relieve Jonathan. The professor was seated in his chair, bolt upright, a high-powered rifle clutched in his hands, looking like a fish with a guitar. Nothing, however, disturbed their first night on the alien world, and the small, weak sun rose on a new morning.

After a breakfast of cereal and dried milk powder mixed with water from their stores, Karen announced that she was going to explore their surroundings. The three men were opposed to the idea, and tried to talk her out of it.

“You don’t know what you might run into,” Cal argued, exasperated. “We have no idea what life-forms inhabit this place. There could be anything out there.”

But Karen was adamant. She cited the mission specifications that listed her as the ship’s biologist as well as doctor, although she did listen to Cal’s admonishments regarding safety. But she refused point-blank to take any kind of weapon.

“For God’s sake!” she exclaimed when they tried to dissuade her from going unarmed. “We travel millions of miles and thousands of years across space and time, and you want me to shoot the first alien I encounter!” Without another word, she turned and walked inland, following a narrow trail leading into the forest.

When she was out of sight, Cal turned to Bill, but the engineer anticipated him before he spoke.
“Way ahead of you, buddy,” he said, picking up a laser sighted rifle and a clip of ammunition. “I’ll stay out of sight unless she gets into trouble.”

Bill set off down the track, jogging easily, and was soon lost from sight, swallowed up by the dense vegetation. Cal watched the spot where they had both gone for a moment, then began clearing away the remains of their meal. Jonathan said nothing, but went back to his reading.

***


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