If life was anything like the alternate reality projections Colton described from his home planet, Sid would have been seeing stars when she woke up in the escape pod. Then again, she also would have been a two-dimensional creature with a fuzzy exterior and a ridiculous name like Bugs or Mickey. Regardless, her head felt like she had spent an hour hammering in gutter rivets using only her forehead.
She glanced up, quickly realizing that up was down and that she was hanging in the pod suspended at the hips by her seatbelt.
“Muck,” she hissed through gritted teeth and reached for the eject button.
Her left shoulder hit the ground with a thud and she rolled over, yelping in pain. Sid’s eyes scanned the pod’s interior as she tried to determine the extent of the damage. The rough landing had dented one of the convex walls but aside from that and several torn wires, it was surprisingly in decent shape. Sid headed straight for the bay doors but the first step she took left her winded. She leaned against a wall, trying to stop the nausea inducing vertigo from taking hold. That was her first mistake. Her second was to land an angry fist on the metal wall.
Before she could make a run for the seatbelt, the pod shifted its weight and rolled. No, not rolled. It plummeted.
Sid’s body crashed from side to side with occasional breaks of being pushed down into the walls as the pod leapt into the air in between landings.
“Aaaahh–” her scream cut short as her back slammed into the control panel.
The seatbelt swung teasingly in front of her and she made no hesitation in tearing her hand toward it. She grabbed hold of the rope, using her own weight to stabilize herself. As the pod rolled, Sid matched its momentum until she was bouncing off the walls with each turn, her hand gripping the seatbelt for support. Dents formed in the pods interior each time it hit a sturdy object outside. She felt like she would be rolling forever.
As quickly as it had started rolling, the pod slowed to a halt. When she was sure the ground below was flat and stable, Sid let go of the belt. “Well, at least we’re upright.”
Taking carefully calculated, light steps, she made her way toward the doors again. Without thinking, she reached for the keypad. “Ugh, right,” She sighed, remembering that her last interaction with the lock had rendered it useless. Her head was still pounding, a random beat beneath her temples that sent a shiver down her legs with each hit. Pushing the dull ache aside, Sid rubbed her hands together and took a deep breath in. She closed her eyes in concentration, breathing in air and breathing out electricity through her cells. The skin on her palms tingled as her magic made its way to the surface. It was minimal at best, her body still recovering from the crash, but she managed to create a large enough jolt to jump start the lock. The wires flickered franticly and moments later, the pod doors screeched and slid open.
“Stars be damned,” she whispered.
Sid stretched the sleeve of her suit and used the worn fabric to wipe the grime off her goggles. Even through the caked film of dirt, the brightness of Neostar was nearly blinding. Unsteadily, her hand gripped the doorframe as she stepped through to the other side. Her heart raced and she tried to contain her attention, focusing on the view ahead.
Sid had never seen anything more beautiful.
Sure, she’d spent endless hours memorizing every detail of Neostar in her lessons but nothing could have prepared her for the sight that unfolded in front of her now. She wasn’t certain where the pod crashed initially, but after the endless rolling it had come to a stop in what seemed to be a clearing. Or at least an area laden with rocks and bushy, purple shrubs that fought their way through the gaps in the surface. Star flowers coated the clearing in a rainbow of colors, each one shining brighter than the next. There was a small peep of friggers ahead, their small beaks poking at the ground for lost seeds, feathers ruffling in the light breeze. Sid looked beyond the vast emptiness of her landing pad to the jungle before her. She had no words. For the first time in her life, Sid was speechless. The densely packed jungle of Red Leaf trees with vines as thick as the corridors on her spaceship stretched well beyond her view. Over their bushy tops, she could see protruding rock formations that were so overgrown with shrubbery, they looked like purple puffs of smoke. And beyond them… Sid’s pale eyes watered as she saw the light of Jericho reflect off the tips of the towers. The glass construction peered over the jungle’s heart like crystal. The bright white of daylight danced over the panes, glistening as though it were dancing to some secret beat of music she wasn’t privy to. Three perfectly pointed tips, one for each tower. It was magnificent.
And the sound! Sid felt like she had spent her entire life in a silo when she finally let her heart calm down and listened. The star sounded like her greenroom but amplified, the rustle of the plants drumming its repetitive beat, mixed with screeches and whistles she’d never heard before. It was as if the entire star was breathing. As if it had been sleeping and her less than docile descent had woken it up. Sid crouched, listening to the stirring of the world around her more attentively. Trying to isolate each sound; a task that would have otherwise been easier to accomplish if she knew what she was hearing in the first place.
Sid had no idea what any of it was.
She knew the sounds the plants made, knew most of them by heart in fact. It was everything else she couldn’t put her finger on. The shrilling, high pitched yodels that echoed in the distance were nothing like what she was used to on her ship. Those aren’t plants, she thought and tightened her suit around her. Whatever was beyond the rows of trees at the edge of the clearing was alive. Something whistled in the distance — closer than the previous sounds she heard — and Sid jumped to attention.
“Hello?” She beckoned but received no response.
Instinctively, her hands balled into fists and she took a small step back, fingers so tight they left small imprints in her skin. The whistle sounded again and Sid could have sworn she heard a rustle in the trees in the distance. Something was out there. Something big.
Without hesitation, she turned on her heels and sprinted back into the pod, locking the door briskly behind her. She didn’t know what lurked outside but there was one thing she knew without a doubt; she wasn’t alone in the jungle.
Sid peered through the dusty, oval viewing pane. The trees were silent, peaceful almost. Maybe she was just imagining things, her fear tugging at her still clouded mind and drawing on nightmares instead of staying rational in the situation at hand. There was no time to waste. It was getting close to Starset and if she waited any longer, she could be trapped in the maze of the jungle in the dark. She definitely did not want that.
Her gaze landed on the navigation pane window. The ring’s yellow light was nowhere in sight. The Circulum System had not yet started its Starset rotation. She still had time. How much of it was the real mystery though. Sid had lost track of time and with the pod’s system down, she could only guess at when the next rotation would take place. But guessing wasn’t good enough right now, she needed to get the pod back online. Maybe being on the star would prove to be useful, she might have a chance of reaching Colton from down here.
Aside from the obvious dents to the pods hull, there didn’t seem to be any damage to the mechanism. At least none that she could see. Sid patted the pockets of her suit, eagerly pulling out the first thing she could grab. “Aha!” She yelled out excitedly, twirling a small screwdriver in her fingers.
It only took a few minutes for her to unscrew the latch under the navigation pane.
“Let’s see where you’re hurting,” she whispered and reached in to inspect the wiring.
Her hand pulled out a few wires that looked like someone had chopped them into bits. The mess in Sid’s palm resembled one of her dinner preps, a roughly cut mash of random pieces ready for boiling. Except in this case, the outcome wouldn’t be quite as delicious. The pod’s motherboard was useless. “Well, that can’t be good.”
She reached into another pocket, pulling out only a loose screw and a rolled-up piece of lint.
“Great, just great,” Sid huffed, crawling out from under the platform. “Now what?”
Her eyes scanned the pod’s interior in hopes of finding something that could help. Nothing. The pod was as empty as her gurgling stomach. For an escape pod, this thing was incredibly poorly equipped for survival. There was nothing in sight that could aid someone in an actual escape. Sid wondered who’d designed such a useless piece of junk, quickly remembering that she had been picking it apart for scraps to fix the Arcturus for years. She cursed herself under her breath. Stupid, foolish girl! How in the star’s name was she going to get out of this now? Unless…
Sid slid back down and rested her hands over the pods wiring. The current within her spread in tremors, crackling with electrical waves. She closed her eyes, barely visible beneath the shield of her goggles, and let her magic loose. Not here, not where someone can see. The thought barely grazed her mind before she pushed it away, letting her magic flow into the pod’s core. Sid could hear the pod rustle as though it was struggling to awake. She closed her eyes, beads of sweat rolling down the back of her exposed, un-chipped neck. Just a few more…
Sid jerked away from the pane and jumped to her feet. Something cracked outside. A twig? A rock? Was someone here? Had they found her?
With wild eyes, she inspected the landscape, jolting her gaze from the windows to the doors. The trees swayed lightly but there was nothing in the vicinity that screamed danger. At least nothing outside of being trapped in a dead pod on strange lands she was distinctly instructed to stay away from. Then she saw it. The yellow beam of light slowly rising over the horizon. The ring’s Starset rotation had commenced which could only mean one thing; she had a few hours at most before the star completed its rotation around Jericho and she would be covered in night.
Sid kicked the seat behind her in frustration, “This is pointless!”
Tucking the screwdriver back into her pocket, she wiped the sweat from under her goggles and snapped them back on. There was no way she could fix the pod right now and there’d be even less she could do once it gets dark. She needed help. She needed Colton’s help.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before opening the pod’s doors again. The light had already started to fade, painting the jungle in front of her a million different shades. Sid settled her gaze on the glint of the towers which seemed even brighter now. So far, she had only seen the towers rendered on telescreen recordings and televised drone footage. But even the drones never made it out this deep into the jungle. She wondered what they were afraid of and quickly realized that it was probably the same thing she should be afraid of too. If only she knew what it was.
“Stop it!” Sid hissed at herself, “You need to find him. It’s the only way out of this now.”
With renewed hope, she gripped the screwdriver in her pocket and stepped through the clearing into the jungle’s mess of trees, letting the light of the rising ring behind her guide the way.