The ship juddered and shook as he fingered the controls. The man beside him didn’t speak but simply tried to keep the long sleek vehicle from tipping to one side. It veered madly just missing one of the silver mountains and then righted itself for a moment before descending rapidly and insanely heading towards an equally dangerous peak.
‘Captain,’ a voice yelled. ‘The whole instrument panel has given out – it’s dead as a doornail – I can’t do anything.’
The captain was reminded in a passing moment of the old shows from over a hundred years ago still shown on Vistavision – Star something and the engineer shouting – ‘The engines are gonna blow captain they canna take any more.’
But this was no Vistavision show but a deadly reality. The ship was on a routine surveillance of the outer planets when the fault had happened – all of a sudden the controls had not responded and the ship suddenly descended in a spiral towards the nearest spherical object that was a planet. It was like a magnet of gigantic proportions had the ship in a stranglehold and was willing it to crash. What could he do? He was the captain and as such had to make instant decisions but this time he could only yell to everybody to hang on.
The spiral went on and the land below was now dangerously close – twenty men and women were on board and he had to try to save them – decisions – decisions.
‘Keep the ship on an even keel and try to head for that valley’ – they could see a stretch of land with gleaming red sand beyond the silver mountains – it was their only hope. That and pray to the Supreme Being. Didn’t he regularly attend the citadel and hear how the Supreme Being would help them if only they asked him?
The man sitting beside him at the controls was called Collins – a good man and a fine pilot but his face was bathed in sweat now – rivulets of it running down his cheeks. He knew how the man felt.
They narrowly missed another of the silver mountains and were heading for the red sand – yes – maybe they could make it after all. They were going to make it – keep telling yourself that man!
But a silver peak had loomed up in their field of vision. One that couldn’t be avoided. The Supreme Being had not been available that day – at least not for them was his last thought as the ship ploughed into the peak and a ball of flame headed for them.
The captain shook his head and groaned – he was lying on his back in the red sand. How had he survived? How the hell had they got out of that and then as he painfully sat up he saw that not all of them had got out of it. Collins was lying a short distance from him – he had been cut in half – dead. Why the captain said to himself? He was supposed to go down with his ship – how had he survived and Collins, who he knew had a wife and two small children, died like that.
A sudden thought came to him – he didn’t have on his helmet – what – but he breathed in air – thin granted but breathable. With aches and pains he scrambled to his feet and swayed looking around him.
There were several bodies scattered around – there was Hildren and Mackay and – oh God, Gileen – he had had a soft spot for her and now she lay with her blonde hair scattered around her face as dead as Collins. So many bodies. Was he the only survivor of this mess?
But he became aware of movement and turned slowly – one of the engineers Killern nicknamed Monkey was there and beside him the tall rangy figure of Willis. At least they didn’t look too bad.
The question came from his lips to the other two but Monkey shook his head. ‘I counted at least ten dead, Ince, Morgan, Jean, Linford .’
‘And Jackson and Brett and Farrer,’ Willis finished. ‘But Pigpen and Mags are OK with only a few bruises.’
‘Only the five of us then,’ the Captain said with a shake of his head, ‘at least we can breathe the air here. Not the best but still breathable. Can we salvage anything from the wreck?’
‘I got some bits and pieces,’ Willis replied. ‘Some food but it isn’t going to last that long.’
‘What the hell happened?’
It was the question that they all were thinking. Why had the ship reacted like that and the engines and then the instruments failing? There were supposed to be backups if something went wrong but no backup had kicked in at the first sign of failure.
‘Let’s see what else we can salvage,’ the captain said with a sigh, ‘we don’t know how long we are going to be here – any chance that we could have sent out a distress signal?’
Monkey shook his head and looked at Willis who had been in charge of communications. ‘Nothing we could do Captain,’ Willis grunted. ‘As soon as things started to go wrong the communications failed too. Sooner or later they might realise that we are missing our schedule and send someone out to find us but they won’t know where to look.’
The three men walked towards the wreck of the ship which was still burning in places. They saw the figures of Pigpen and Mags picking their way through some of the items of wreckage. Pigpen with his bulk and Mags – the only surviving female looking dwarfed beside him.
They nodded to each other and without another word went about trying to salvage what they could. The captain warned them to be quick in case part of the burning wreckage blew up on them so time was of the essence.
In their search a moan was heard and Willis quickly moved some pieces of the fuselage out of the way – a man lay on his back. His leg was hurt but otherwise he seemed to be OK.
Despite the situation Pigpen laughed, ‘Last Man – I might have known you’d survive.’
Last Man, was in fact, named Stewart but he always appeared to be behind everyone else in things to be done – this was not because of laziness or ignorance but the fact that he was methodical and examined each task from various standpoints before actually taking steps to carry it out so he had been given the nickname which stuck.
They set up a makeshift camp – the most they had managed to salvage was with them. Despite searches it did appear that they were the only survivors – the six of them. Twelve bodies had been found and they carried out silentlburials of their friends and crewmates.
Having seen to matters that needed to be done the captain looked at them all. ‘The first thing we need to do is try to find food and shelter. Do we actually know where we are?’
Willis leaned forward and said quietly, ‘I believe we are in the outer Victory galaxy – these planets here are unexplored. So I suppose we are like that Columbus fellow – he discovered Spaniland I seem to remember from my Learning days.’
‘So we are in an unexplored planet with no means of getting off it unless someone finds us – and that could be a long time. I reckon we need to get moving and exploring to find shelter – before it becomes dark here – I presume it does get dark?’
‘Who knows?’ Monkey shrugged.
They put packs on their backs and moved off giving a last look at the dying embers of the ship they had called home for the last year or so. Now this was their home for as long as they existed.
Pigpen gave a grimace, ‘I’m all for the food finding – it must be an age since we had the last food capsule. Are there any more?’
Willis turned to him, ‘I managed to save some of them but they will only last us a couple of days or so – we must be frugal on food until we can find something to eat on this planet.’
The sky was still bright and greenish – no bright sun of any kind but bright enough for them to see. The red sand looked rich and it sparkled in the light of the green – it looked quite beautiful when you stood and stared at it but that was not the thing that concerned them a the moment.
The small group set off with the captain in the lead followed by Pigpen and Mags, then Monkey and Willis and finally limping behind – Last Man.
They trudged for what seemed an age and when the Captain looked back the space ship was out of sight. He thought of the plans that he and Gileen had made – when they got back to Earth they would be joined as one in the Citadel of the Supreme Being – that would never happen now. He had buried her and although he felt empty inside he was still the captain so had to show outer strength.
On they went but the sky never darkened and soon they felt tired and weary. Willis handed out some of the food pills and they rested. This red sand seemed to go on forever – on and on a sea of red.
After a short rest they kept on still walking - Last Man seemed to get further behind because of his damaged leg and the captain was worried about it. If he didn’t get help and attention on that leg it could turn infected.
Feeling too tired to walk further they decided to camp where they were. There was no shelter but they could leave someone on guard. As far as they knew this place was uninhabited but it paid to be diligent.
As they settled down the Captain noticed that Monkey was missing. He had gone off on his own to scout – not feeling as tired as the rest of them. Soon he was back and he was excited.
‘Captain,’ he panted. ‘Just a short way – there are some trees and shrubs – I tried one and they seem edible.’
‘Yeah – just over there.’
Wearily the party shouldered their packs and started off again. Monkey had been right – after a walk of about ten or fifteen minutes they saw some trees and shrubs like an oasis in a desert and they were laden with berries of some sort and fruits.
The captain gingerly took one of the fruits from a tree and bit into it expecting a bitter taste but was pleasantly surprised by a juicy substance like the old earth pear that had almost become obsolete on earth.
He waited expecting some kind of reaction to the food but it seemed all right.
Nodding to the rest they ate from the tree – all except Last Man who suspicious as ever said he would see what reaction the other had first before he would partake of the fruit and berries.
It seemed to be the best place to camp so they had tier rest there. Still no sign of evening and the sky was as bright green as ever. But they were all tired after the long trek.
Last Man woke with a start – how long had they been sleeping. He didn’t know. Like the others he had been exhausted and they had probably slept oh hoursecs. He looked around him. Where were the others? Had they moved off and left him her all alone? He knew of course that he was slow due to his gammy leg but surely they wouldn’t all move off like that?
He struggled to his feet and swayed looking about him. Nothing. He staggered off and walked across the rim of the hill that was in front of him. Still nothing as far as the eye could see. Where the hell had they all gone?
Something was at his feet and he looked down. It was a little lizard – well, a kind of lizard which licked his foot and then scampered off –green with bright red markings he had never seen anything like them before but it seemed harmless enough, it wasn’t the only one there were at least four more scampering around and eating some of the lower berries. He moved his foot but they still came around him. These must be the inhabitants of this planet. He ignored them and decided to see if he could find the others. Surely they couldn’t have left him. It was not like them – and then he saw the captain’s hat lying below the tree on his right.
He wouldn’t leave that behind – something must have happened to them. As he thought one of the creatures jumped up on to his arm and clung there – it seemed to be looking at him with a sad glance.
He wondered – could it be? He sat down and the others came up to him and chattered around – they made a chirruping noise and he allowed one of them on his hand – this one was a bit fatter than the others – like Pigpen.
The realisation came to him – this had to be the captain and the others – had it been because of the fruit and the berries that they had been changed – after all he was not changed and he was the only one who had not eaten the stuff. Could it be that the planet could not find food to sustain them as they were but could, in fact, feed its own? So it was possible, no matter how bizarre it sounded, that the food had changed them so it could feed them and keep them alive with what it had?
As the other creatures chattered around him he shrugged. Maybe the fruit was delicious after all.
He reached for a large bright juicy pear-like object off the tree and bit into it while the creatures chattered excitedly around him. He didn’t want to die out here alone, so if you cannot beat them – join them.
You know he thought as he ate and looked up at the sky with its sparkling shades of green – this really could be a paradise.